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A Beautiful Funeral (The Maddox Brothers #5)(7)
Author: Jamie McGuire

“Hold off, Ladder Two,” Tyler said into his radio. “Let’s clear the building before we start throwin’ steam.”

Jew’s voice came through the speaker, “Copy that.”

“We’re going to need ventilation,” Jubal called over the frequency.

I gestured for Taylor to oblige Jubal’s request. “Copy, Jubal.” I lowered my radio. “Give me vertical ventilation, Taylor. With all that furniture in there as fuel …” I trailed off, troubled.

“We’re at a high risk for a flashover,” Taylor said, finishing my sentence.

“Then let’s make sure we ventilate her right,” I said. Fire fuel, whether it was hydrocarbons or natural vegetation like wood, released gasses at a certain temperature. Once those gasses ignited from super-heated air from the fire, an area could spontaneously combust, a phenomenon that would mean death for any firefighters in the vicinity. Other than a warehouse full of explosives or tires, thousands of pieces of furniture were a formidable rival for any fire department, and I knew my last fire was going to be my biggest challenge as commander.

I watched my brother walk away and felt my stomach sink. “Taylor!” He stopped. “Hold up. Keep an eye out down here. I’ll do it.”

“But,” Taylor began.

“I said I’ll do it!” I growled. I grabbed an ax off Engine Nine before heading for the aerial ladder to cut a hole in the roof. I signaled to Porter to follow me to the ladder truck. “Grab a saw!” I yelled to him.

He frowned, confused that a shift commander was running toward a ladder instead of remaining on the ground to keep watch.

We climbed onto the platform, and I waved at the operator, letting him know we were ready. Gears whined as the aerial ladder surged upward nearly fifty feet. As the wind whipped, heat pelted my face and glowing embers floated all around us. A nostalgic pang in my chest urged me to remember this moment because I was going to miss it. I had loved fire trucks since I was a boy, and I wasn’t sure how life would be without feeling the rush of running into a burning building when everyone else was running out.

Porter closed his eyes and swallowed. Even under his bulky bunker gear, I could see that he was breathing hard.

“You ain’t afraid of heights, are ya, Porter?”

He shook his head, his cheeks still fattened by youth. Straight out of school, he’d just joined Estes Park’s Station four months ago. We hadn’t even thought of a nickname for him yet.

“No, sir,” he said. “I mean, yes, sir, but I’m going to do the job.”

I slammed my hand down on the top of his helmet. “I just thought of a nickname for you, Porter.”

His face brightened. “Yeah?”

“Honey badger.”

Porter looked confused.

“You know what a honey badger is, Porter? They eat cobras. They don’t give a fuck.”

A wide grin spread across his face, but he quickly sobered when the ladder came to an abrupt stop.

“This is us,” I said, hopping onto the edge of the rooftop. I tapped the butt of my ax down before putting all of my weight in one spot, making sure the roof wasn’t spongey.

“How does it feel?” Porter asked.

“Stable,” I said, carefully stepping down. After a few more tests with my ax, I waved Porter over, drawing an imaginary circle in the air above the spot I wanted him to cut. “Here!”

Porter nodded and then yanked on the chain of his saw. The flames were already licking the edges of the roof, and the heat was nearly unbearable.

“We don’t have much time,” I barked. “Get it done.”

Porter carved through the thin top layer of the composite and the next layer of insulation. Just minutes after Porter began, smoke billowed from the hole he’d cut, and he took a step away from the intense heat.

I called Taylor over the radio. “She’s opened up. We’re headed down.”

“Good work,” Taylor said.

Porter and I returned to the platform, and I radioed for the operator to lower us down. Just as we reached the halfway point, the roof popped with a crack so loud it was like the building was snapping in two. A puff of thick, black smoke and some embers exploded from the opening we’d just created.

Taylor came over the radio again. “Back off, everyone. We’ve got … yep, it’s spalling! Get the hell out of there!”

With more than six feet left to go, I jumped from the platform, running away from the crumbling warehouse toward my brother. I yelled into the radio. “Move! It’s coming down!”

Jubal and Sugar burst from the main entry just before the brick’s mortar joints began to give way. A large part of the front wall collapsed, pushing out a plume of dust, smoke, and debris.

I grabbed Taylor by the jacket. “You don’t have time for this. Take my truck.”

“You sure?” he asked.

I patted the side of his helmet. “Get outta here. We got this.”

I scanned his face, watching Taylor war between staying to protect his little brother or save his family.

After several seconds, he ran to my truck, peeling off his gear and throwing it in the back before sliding behind the steering wheel. I’d left the keys in the ignition, knowing he’d be bailing early.

My focus alternated between Taylor leaving and the burning rubble. I pointed at different areas, barking orders to my men and talking into the radio. The fire was burning hotter, the smoke getting darker. We weren’t anywhere close to having it under control. I could see Taylor sitting conflicted in the driver’s seat. I knew he felt it was wrong to leave me alone, but just before he grabbed the door handle to rejoin us, I pointed at him, and he paused. “Get the fuck outta here! Now!”

TAYLOR

SWEAT DRIPPED FROM MY FOREHEAD, and I wiped it away with my wrist. I could still feel the heat from the fire on my face and the heaviness in my lungs from the smoke. I made a fist and coughed into my hand once before reaching down to twist the keys in the ignition. It took everything I had to pull the gear into reverse and back away from my brother, but he was right. Falyn and the kids came first.

Driving the commander’s truck proved advantageous as I passed two police cruisers exceeding the speed limit by at least fifteen miles per hour. When I finally reached the station, I ran in long enough to drop Tyler’s keys on his desk and to grab my truck keys, wallet, and phone before getting back on the road for Colorado Springs. The plume of smoke from the warehouse loomed in my rearview mirror as I left Estes Park. I dialed Tyler’s number, but it rang four times before the voice mail picked up. I couldn’t shake the same ominous feeling I’d had while watching my brother leave for the warehouse fire without me. We’d fought fires separately before, but this felt different. That feeling had made me jump in the truck with Tyler before, and the farther away I drove, the more wrong it felt.

I concentrated on Falyn and the kids. The thought of Hollis and Hadley’s excited reaction was an easy distraction. The combination of thinking about having my family back together and my gut feeling about the fire put the night Falyn left in the forefront of my mind.

We almost didn’t go. Fuck, I wish we hadn’t gone. The babysitter had backed out, and if Ellie hadn’t called Falyn last minute, we would have just stayed home. What we thought was a stroke of good luck ended up being the worst night of my life. It had been over a year since we’d even gone on a date; it had been even longer since I’d seen Falyn interact with any other men besides my shift partners. My jealousy had never really been under control, so when a younger man approached my wife, swaying from a day of drinking and smiling at her like he knew he was taking her home, there was no thought process. Falyn tried to talk some sense into me, which only made me angrier. By the time he stumbled over and grabbed her ass, I was already beyond reason. I attacked. I beat the hell out of him. He went to the ER, and I went to jail.

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