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Soot and Sweat on Flesh

Copyright 2004 by Julie MacShane

Prologue
Bringing out the Dead

Beyond the dark spiraling smoke above her, the grayish-white clouds stretched to the horizon. Even though Bette Maguire was concentrating on the body she was helping to carry, she could feel the clouds' oppressive presence as soon as she stepped out of the building's dark and smothering smoke into the gray brightness of the cold April day. A sharp wind flustered the U.S. and New Hampshire flags at attention over the complex, and the heavy feeling of the air added to the weight of her gear and slowed her heavy booted tread.

But there seemed to be another heaviness in the air coming from the silent, unmoving body that Bette and her partner Michael LeDoux laid on the ground between them.

Already kneeling, they swiped off their oxygen masks and helmets, which clunked onto the frozen grass behind them. Bette tucked her short blond hair, slick with sweat, behind her ears and Mike wiped off his sweaty face so that they could get a good look at the body.

There was no doubt about it: the body was dead.

"God damn it." Mike's pale face turned as red as his hair as he looked across into Bette's flashing green eyes. The lieutenant was watching them, so he lowered his voice. "Another dead one, Bette. Whenever I'm with you, we get the dead ones. Jesus."

Bette's pretty, even now when she's covered with soot, and I like her, but working with her on these training simulations can be a pain in the ass, Mike thought.

A solitary snowflake wafted down between them. Mike's frustration increased the heaviness in the air and irked Bette. After all the cooperation they'd shown in the building, after all the hardships of the past six weeks they'd endured together, after a slow friendship had developed, it came down to the last week of training and another dead body between them. Why is he so upset?

"I didn't kill him, Mike." Bette whispered harshly to her fellow firefighter-in-training. "He was already dead."

In their search simulation, which they had been practicing the past week, they could "resuscitate" the live dummies, but the dead ones with a huge "D" on them were beyond hope. If they got a D, they had to suck it up and report on what had gone wrong, instead of right, with the rescue. It didn't necessarily reflect on their abilities; the smoke and the darkness - the situation that had been set up for them - was just as often to blame.

In the cold air, their panting breaths soon became puffs of fog that rose between them and blurred their faces from each other.

"I know, I know, but still, the guys have begun calling you the Queen of the Ds." His voice had risen as if to compensate for their lack of visual connection. "Did you know that?"

"Yeah, I know. So?"

Mike struggled to his feet and helped Bette up until they were both standing and even in height at 5 feet 9.

"So, doesn't that bug you? Don't you wonder why you keep getting all the Ds?"

Bette looked into his concerned blue eyes and shook her head. "No. I just do what I'm told to do. If they send me in, I go in. I bring them out, dead or alive. Why would it bother me?"

Many of the students at the fire academy, like Mike, had lost a close relative to an early fire-related death. They took losing any kind of a victim, be it real or fake, as a serious and personal insult to their abilities, Bette knew. She could understand why they had those feelings, but she couldn't feel the same sorrow in her own case. She wouldn't let herself feel it.

Mike shook his head. "After all this time, you still don't get it."

"Get what? We didn't screw up. We did as we were told."

"That's not the point." Mike sighed and rubbed his face. He turned, grabbed his gear, and took a step away. I'm just too tired to discuss it with her. I don't want to say something I'll really regret. "Bette, the day's over. Time to go."

"What about the follow-up?" Bette didn't want him to go. She felt bad they'd soon be going to different towns to begin their new careers, and would probably see each other rarely, if at all. He was one of the good guys and she'd miss him. "Part of the procedure is the follow-up."

Mike gave her a last, long look with sad, tired eyes. "Not today, Bette," he replied. "I'm beat. We can do it tomorrow."

As Mike strode away, random snowflakes put a misty curtain between them. Bette sighed. She was happy her academy class, after finishing a few more tests, was graduating next week. She'd soon be doing actual firefighter work as a probationary firefighter, a "probie." She wouldn't have any more problems.

Bette heard someone crunching through the ice-grass toward her and turned just in time to face the lieutenant in charge, Lt. Richard Sanders. Dressed in turnouts and boots with a bright orange stripe on them, he was 6 feet tall with grizzled gray hair.

"That was a fast time, Maguire. You've improved a lot." He smiled at her, adding another crease to his lined face. "Where's LeDoux going? Everything okay?"

Snowflakes fell on them, dusting their faces and gear with fine white fuzz. It melted quickly on their heated skin and slipped in droplets down their coats.

"Well, I'm okay." Bette paused. "But Mike said something... Lieutenant, why have you been giving me more dead dummies than the others?"

Sanders swiped away an annoying snowflake, then stared at her, his wrinkled lines settling still upon his face. "I like you, Bette, so I'm going to be honest." He paused, digging one boot into the hard earth, as if searching for the right words. "We have a problem with your attitude. Dead body after dead body doesn't seem to upset you, yet you're constantly upset with the other probies."

"They give me a hard time!"

He put a gloved hand on her shoulder. "Here's a piece of advice. Get over the fact you were born with double-X chromosomes. Fast."

Sometimes she wasn't sure what sex she was. She had female curves and the right bodily equipment, but she also had bulging muscles and a ferocious drive to become a firefighter. She pushed herself to drag dummies and hose as well as the strongest men at the fire academy. She'd matched them point for point on test scores. The men had still treated her differently and she couldn't understand why - unless it was her sex. They had certainly been eager to date her in the beginning - even Mike - until she had turned them all down. She wanted to train with them, not date them.

"Lieutenant, they won't let me forget it, not in training and not in class!"

Sanders dropped his hand from her shoulder and sighed.

Bette felt a cold tingle of anxiety run down her spine. "I am going to pass, right?"

"Oh, you'll pass, Bette," he said. "But your good grades won't mean shit when you do this for real, when you pull out your first real dead guy, or god forbid, a kid."

Sanders didn't know it, but Bette had already pulled a kid from a fire. It was a long time ago, and she had gotten over it. It hadn't affected her then, and the memory did not affect her now.

Bette took a deep breath of the cold, wet air. She would handle it all - the harsh training, the doubtful men, the dangers of injury and death. She was going to be the best firefighter she could be. Nothing would stop her, not the snow that was now steadily falling, not her double-X chromosomes, and certainly not any weakness in herself.

--END--


Want to read more? Go to Chapter 1.

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.