Soot and Sweat on Flesh

Copyright 2004 by Julie MacShane

Part 1
Messing with Tradition

Chapter 1

"What the hell was that noise?" Lt. Harry Briscoe announced as he opened up the side door of Webster, New Hampshire's Fire Station 10 and looked out into the parking lot.

Briscoe had a very bad feeling. It had sounded like a heavy metal hit, and his car was the heaviest in the lot. Almost immediately he spotted the new woman probie standing near the end of his car, his baby. Right next to her was a brand new red pickup - hers. It had a dent in its fender.

"Oh shit," he said.

Bette Maguire turned at the voice. The first person she was going to meet on her first assignment was a big, old bear of a man, slightly stooped in his lieutenant's white shirt and blue pants. She noticed how his eyes were deep set into his face and were arranged very close to his rather large, hooked nose, giving him the look of some predatory bird.

Briscoe felt hot anger start up his spine from his lower back and radiate out in pulses to his fisted hands. When he felt a restraining hand on his shoulder, though, he stopped himself from running over there and pouncing on her.

Lt. Patrick Keane didn't get to be a 50-year-old fire lieutenant by not being able to assess a scene quickly. When he placed a hand on Harry, Keane had known that Harry was pissed and that the probie was in trouble.

Bette watched as who she thought was Lt. Keane stepped forward and out the door. Keane was supposedly the fair and reasonable commander of the A shift, her shift. He looked a bit younger and leaner than the bird-faced lieutenant, although Keane did have graying hair and a mustache, while Briscoe had a wealth of night-black hair combed back from his forehead and wetted down.

As Keane walked forward, his hand remained steady on the other lieutenant's shoulder, easing him forward.

Following them came a younger firefighter with square shoulders and big biceps. He wore the same dark blue uniform she wore. He looked like he could carry a heavy load and not flinch, jog a mile and not hyperventilate. Together, the three men walked over to her, shading their eyes from the sun, and stopped near her.

"Good morning," she said brightly.

Briscoe groaned. "Not anymore."

Keane ignored Harry. "You must be Bette Maguire...."

"Not Betty, Lieutenant," she interrupted. "It's pronounced Bette. As in Bette Midler, or 'don't bet against me.'"

"I'll keep that in mind. I'm Lt. Keane, this is Lt. Harry Briscoe, and beside me is Joe Griffin. It looks like you just ran into Harry's car?"

"Of course, she fucking did. Jesus, Patrick, let me take a look at her."

Keane nodded and let go of Harry.

Joe wasn't watching Harry; he was studying Bette. She certainly doesn't look like one of us. Too many curves. And she's got attitude, all right. Look at the way she's just standing there, hands on her hips, and facing us. She's not worried at all. Joe could tell she was studying him as well, so he grinned at her and was pleased to see her grin back.

The scowling Lt. Briscoe caressed the golden tail fin of his car, a Buick Riviera. She was a tough model, but she'd still been damaged. The car's rear lamp was broken and there was a large dent near the bullet hole from a recent hunting accident. Briscoe threw his hands in the air.

"Jesus, she's not even in the door and she's fucking up." The truck lieutenant felt his already bad day get worse; his poor mood at Maguire's first day became foul. "If this is any indication of your skill, Maguire, you won't last very long."

"I'm sorry about the damage, Lt. Briscoe, but I'll pay to have it fixed." Bette took a step forward and held out her hand as a peace offering.

Briscoe stared at her hand, but would not shake it. She slowly lowered it.

"Oh, you'll pay, all right. And no going through insurance. This is a classic car, my classic car. I'll get it fixed; you personally pay the bill. Is that clear?" He pointed at her.

Bette nodded. "You can even throw in a paint job on me." The car had originally been gold-brown, but now its main color was rust. "Is that an actual bullet hole by the gas tank?"

Briscoe's face turned bright red. I think I'm going to kill her with my bare hands. "Are you saying I don't take care of my car?"

"No." Bette frowned and turned to look at the other men. Why is Briscoe so pissed? It's only a little dent.

Joe and Keane, their smiles wiped clean, realized this was turning into an ugly situation. Before Keane could respond, though, Joe stepped forward to negotiate.

Joe gestured at Briscoe's old car, unconsciously showing Bette the tattoo of an American bald eagle on his left bicep. The eagle had a hose wrapped around it, with the tip in its mouth. "Lieutenant, it could use a can of paint. You've said that yourself..."

Briscoe turned on the younger firefighter and edged him out of his way to the probie. Joe was always interfering where he didn't belong. "Stay out of this, Griffin. We all know how you feel about women probies and the future of the department. Well, you're wrong."

Bette's eyebrows rose. "What does my sex have to do with it? It was an accident. The sun blinded me for a moment. I wasn't aiming for your car," Bette paused. "But, come to think of it, look at how your rear end sticks out. The car's rear end, I mean, not yours. This was an accident waiting to happen, don't you think, Lieutenant?"

Joe covered his face with one hand and shook his head. She doesn't understand how to keep her mouth shut, that's for sure. It's going to be near impossible to rescue her from the hole she's dug for herself with Briscoe.

Bette, glancing at Joe, wondered why he looked so distraught.

"No, you're the accident waiting to happen, Maguire." Briscoe stepped toward her.

"You don't even know me." Bette stepped forward.

Bette was almost as tall as Briscoe was, and, as she stared pointblank into his eyes, she could smell the old coffee on his breath.

Her arrogance infuriated him. "I don't need to know you. You're a woman, you're a probie, you drive like shit, and we're all fucked."

Bette was surprised at the number of fang-like teeth he revealed. I don't want to fight him, at least not on my first day.

"Harry, Bette, relax." Keane eased himself between them, making both step back and away.

Keane was slightly taller than Briscoe, which gave him a height advantage, but otherwise the lieutenants looked of equal strength. Neither seemed to be a man to mess with, Bette thought.

"Harry's car will be fixed," Keane said. "Bette will pay the bill. That's the end of this conversation."

"It's far from the end, Patrick," Briscoe said and stormed away.

With his threat ringing in the air, the three firefighters watched him go into the station. Keane shook his head and sighed, while Joe turned immediately to Bette.

"Welcome to the 10." Joe smiled as he held out his hand. He liked the way her high pale eyebrows made her look as if she was always curious about the scene around her. "You certainly know how to make a good first impression, don't you?"

"One of my specialties." Bette shook Joe's hand. The hand was rough, with thicker calluses on his palms than she had, indicating he must have been a firefighter for a few years. His face was handsome and just a little exotic, and it had a warm tan color, even in April, while his eyes were a dark brown.

"You picked the wrong car to run into, Bette." Keane wondered if his new firefighter was going to be a pain in his ass. But Briscoe had acted just as stupidly, so Keane reserved judgment and held out his hand. "As you can probably tell, Harry's not too happy you're here. But I am."

"Thanks." Bette noticed the back of Keane's hand was scarred - she guessed from a fire - and his palm was so rough that it seemed like one big callus. She could smell a whiff of after-shave and noted chin and cheeks looked freshly scraped by a hand razor.

"We need you. So don't antagonize Briscoe or you won't make it through your probation," he added.

"What can I do to smooth it over with him?" Bette asked.

Transfer? Joe thought, but instead said, "With 'Dirty Harry' Briscoe? Avoid him for a while till he cools down. Other than that...."

Joe knew that calming Briscoe down would be a long, difficult process. Not for the first time, Joe was glad he didn't have Keane's job. As shift commander, Keane was Briscoe's boss and responsible for keeping him in line. Joe glanced at Keane and was strengthened to see the resolve in his lieutenant's face.

Keane said, "Avoiding him won't solve the problem, just delay it. We're all going to be working together, so we have to learn to get along, become a unit. That means less arguing, more cooperation."

Bette nodded. "No problem, Lieutenant. When do I get started?"

"Eager, huh? I remember being eager." His eyes took on a far-off look for a moment, then focused back on her. "You nervous at all?"

Keane could usually pick out anxiety in his men, but he couldn't tell with her. He had never had a woman serve under him, but he didn't think training her would be that different. What would take time and patience, though, was trying to assess her capacity to be a good firefighter and fit into the squad.

"No," Bette replied. "I'm not nervous."

Joe and Keane exchanged worried looks. Joe felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. A confident probie, while fun to have around, could be a big problem.

Keane said in a softer voice, "In this line of work, it pays to be a little nervous, Bette. Remember that. Too much fear will stop you or kill you, but a little bit, that's good. A little fear will save your life."

Bette frowned -- what the heck do I have to be afraid of -- but nodded to appease him. She was so excited to be starting that it was hard to feel anything else. But she would listen to the lieutenant, especially if he thought it would save her life.

* * *

After Lt. Keane asked Joe to show Bette around, the older man went back inside to prepare for the morning meeting. When Joe went to get some gear from his truck, Bette hopped into her own and backed it into a space far from the door.

As she shut off the engine and rolled up her window, she took a moment to study her new home. Station 10 was a long, low, concrete and redbrick building with three glass bay doors, closed to keep out New Hampshire's morning chill. The rising sun on that spring day seemed so encouraging, but its glaring reflection off the bay doors was what had temporarily blinded her.

Still, the warm feeling she got from looking at the fire station made her forget about the accident. Finally, I can make an important contribution to the community. It begins here.

At 25, she hadn't been fulfilled at the many jobs she'd held both before and during her college years: beach lifeguard, camp counselor, or golf caddie in the summers, and restaurant waitress at the ski resorts and her parents' place in the winter.

After Bette had received a liberal arts degree, she'd even tried working as a stringer for a daily newspaper and a reporter for a local cable TV station. The station manager had praised Bette because she knew "how to talk to people," that is, strangers trusted her enough to spill their guts to her.

Bette enjoyed interviewing and reporting, but it wasn't enough. She wanted to be in the action, not reporting on it.

That revelation coincided with the news from a longtime family friend, who was also a veteran firefighter and Webster's Fire Chief, that the New Hampshire certification courses were coming up and that she should consider taking them. With training, he said, she might have what it took to do the job. He also told her that the Webster FD would be hiring new firefighters during the next few years because of upcoming retirements and an exploding population.

Bette trusted his advice, but would the lifestyle and environment really fit her? She would never know unless she tried it. It was a challenging, worthwhile occupation, so Bette went for it. For eight months, she studied hard, built her body up, joined a volunteer department, and at the end finally gained a Level 2 firefighter certification, a requisite for joining the Webster FD.

Surprised at how much she enjoyed it, Bette figured a higher power was showing her the road to take so she threw all her effort into excelling on Webster's written exam, physical ability test, and oral interview. When positions opened up, she was picked from the list of eligible candidates and sent to Station 10.

The thought that she would always know what to do from now on comforted her. As long as Bette could see the road ahead and stride down it, everything would be all right.

Watch out world. Here I come.

A knock on the window startled her.

It was Joe. He smiled. "Ready to go make some more first impressions?"


Want to read more? Go to Chapter 2. You need Adobe Acrobat to read it.

Copyright 2004-2009 Julie MacShane. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.