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BAPTISM OF FIRE (Playing With Hellfire Book #1)

CHAPTER ONE

It was often said that in Perdition Falls, you either put out fires or started them.

Nobody could really argue with the old adage. Wherever it had come from, whoever had said it first, it was as true now as it was then. We had a thrill-seeking attraction to the flames that once conquered the city centuries ago embedded in our genetic code. At least that’s what some believed. You could believe a lot about this place if you took a deep enough dive into its myths and legends.

But most of us unfortunate souls ended up like me: slightly jaded, our brief, rebellious teenage flirtation with fire-starting long behind us, dedicated to extinguishing other people’s mistakes and bad decisions.

Sirens pierced the night, a droning crescendo that echoed in the streets as traffic halted to let our truck through. There weren’t many cars on the road to begin with—it was nearing two in the morning on a Sunday—but tires sloshed through the puddles left by a fading storm to clear out of our way. Storefronts and towering, glossy buildings were awash in flickering red until we raced past. One of the truck’s wheels sunk into a massive pothole as we made our way down a main thoroughfare and everyone in the back let out a collective and long-suffering groan. My forehead collided with the window next to me, the impact so jarring that it felt like my insides had scrambled.

“Damn,” our driver, Davis, muttered from behind me. I couldn’t see him, but the grimace was palpable in his tone. “Sorry.”

Again?” Ramos asked while she shoved an arm into her turnout coat. Her helmet had rolled onto the floor between our feet, her curls swept into a tidy bun. Sweat glistened on her dark skin. “You hit that one two days ago. The same one.”

“More like every week.” Next to Ramos, Burke laughed, a deep, booming sound that filled up the sweltering interior of the truck. He dabbled at the perspiration collecting on his top lip with the back of his coat sleeve. “Think I chipped a tooth on that one.”

I groaned. “Learn to swerve next time or I swear my spine’s going to detach itself.” The laughter that trickled in made the warning a friendly one. “Evasive maneuvers, Davis.”

“Yeah, yeah.” It was the kind of hand-wavy response that accompanied an eye roll and maybe a rude gesture. Again, I couldn’t see it, but we’d all been together long enough to just know. “Look, it ain’t my fault the streets are shit. You try driving this rig around a thousand sinkholes every damn day and see where it gets you.”

As if on cue, the truck swayed precariously to one side, a spray of new gravel tossed under the wheels.

Not only were the potholes and sinkholes in this city a universal constant, they had a reputation all their own. On average, they accounted for one to five deaths per year. And that wasn’t an exaggeration—if anything, it probably wasn’t even accurate. If the roads decided not to buckle from the heat, blow a tire, or eat a whole car, then there were always the morons who thought our streets were a bottomless well for viral content.

For every video shaming our city officials for the shitty infrastructure, a bored teenager or drunk resident had to be fished out of the ground. It was a testament to the marvels of human curiosity that those posts circulated around every corner of the internet actually made people flock to here to see the state of our roads. Like some knockoff Grand Canyon carved out of pavement and concrete. Or, as Davis so eloquently put it, “the Land of a Thousand Potholes.” The majestic wonder of the Falls sat twenty minutes away from the city, but no, these people came to gawk at some gigantic sinkholes.

Gateways to Hell, the souvenir shops called them in their cheap little pamphlets as if we could make money off them instead of fixing the problem. If you stand close enough, you might be able to catch a whiff of brimstone…

Moretti nudged me somewhere in the ribs with his elbow. “So much for a quiet night, huh? You okay, Nix? You smacked your head pretty good.” One of his thick, inky eyebrows inched toward his hairline.

I rubbed at my forehead. It stung, and maybe there would be a bruise later, but I couldn’t help the exhausted smirk.

“I’ll live,” I said. “It’s never quiet around here, you know that.”

“Yeah.” Moretti smirked. “When’re we gonna learn?”

It had rained for most of our shift, but now that the storms had quieted down, a suffocating humidity had been left in their wake. Sweat rolled down my back, pooling beneath the navy blue shirt under my turnout gear, soaking the cotton fabric. A passing streetlight revealed the perspiration that beaded down Moretti’s temples. The truck had turned into a sauna, all of us shoved into close quarters under layers of protective clothing.

It was always fucking sweltering in this city. The approaching summer just seemed to exacerbate this place’s abnormal natural heat. The job was rewarding more often than not, but the mugginess that was so heavy it crushed your chest on top of the heat from a fire really felt like a punishment. We had to be extra cautious working in these conditions. None of us were strangers to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Here, it happened fast.

What I wouldn’t give to be back at the house, curled up in front of the television with air conditioning and a crappy late night rom-com. Shift had almost ended without incident, strangely quiet until the call came in. Someone had reported smoke drifting from an abandoned building. Nothing too unusual. We got at least a dozen suspicious calls during any given week, and most of them ended up being left unsolved.

The people of Perdition Falls considered arson a recreational activity. An Olympic sport. Something to pass the time. Not, you know, a criminal offense that could destroy public property or get someone killed. The amount of unsolved arsons were too numerous to count, fire-related crime and accidents so pervasive that our shifts were draining.

The city officials—the mayor, even our own fire commissioner—seemed pretty unconcerned about the whole thing. Then again, they weren’t the ones running into burning buildings every week, so it was easy not to give a fuck when your life wasn’t in immediate danger. Their usual tactic to appease the disgruntled firefighters and concerned residents involved a lot of flashy press conferences and hollow words about “discussions” that definitely weren’t happening. More empty promises to “improve job safety” and some hand-wringing and their favorite phrase, “We have to do better.”

It was an endless, bitter cycle, and we were caught right in the middle.

Moretti leaned into my shoulder, the attractive curves of his cheekbones and soft, raven-black curls illuminated by the bluish glow from his phone screen.

“Ally just sent me new pictures.”

He had a wide, proud grin, the kind that showed off the dimples in either cheek. It was the same adoring smile he’d reserved for the spring afternoon that Ally walked down the aisle to marry him two years prior, and the night that his son had been born three months ago. I’d been there for both occasions, just as the two of us had graduated from high school and the academy standing by each other’s side. Moretti and I had gravitated toward one another at the start of freshman year for whatever reason—most likely Italian food, if I was honest with myself—and bickered like we’d already been old friends.

“He’s sleeping, but—”

“Those are the best, though,” I said. “Send them to me.”

Moretti flicked through his photos, revealing a familiar head of pitch black hair and a cherub face. Baby Aidan Moretti had his mouth open slightly, his small hands curled into fists underneath his chin, nestled in pastel blues and greens. His most prominent features resembled his father, but he definitely had Ally’s adorable round nose. We were currently taking bets on whether he’d have his mom’s green eyes or his dad’s deep brown. I was rooting for Ally’s genes to knock out her husband’s for a change.

“He sleeps when I’m working, then he’s up all night when I’m home.” Moretti shook his head.

The pale glow of the screen also seemed to amplify the shadows under his eyes. He’d been napping before dispatch sent us out into the night. Whenever he was home, he gave Ally a break and rarely complained about the lack of sleep. I wondered if he’d managed to replace his blood supply with coffee yet.

“The joys of parenthood,” I drawled. “Clearly, he wants to spend time with you.”

“I’d like it a bit better if he let me sleep. He sleeps, I sleep. We all win.”

“You knew what you signed up for,” I teased.

“Maybe his Aunt Victoria would like to babysit him so Ally and I can catch up for like…a weekend.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Please, he can call me Nix like the rest of you. Aunt Victoria makes me sound like an old lady who keeps those little strawberry candies and packets of tissues in her purse.”

“So is that a yes?” Moretti asked. The corner of his lips bore a hint of mischief and his eyes were suddenly wide with fatigued desperation.

“I can’t say no to that face.”

“That’s sweet.”

“I meant your son,” I settled back into my seat, hands gripping the helmet on my lap. “My godson, thank you very much.”

The brakes on the truck let out a grating whine when we pulled up to the building in question, the blare of the siren dying out. Moretti hooked his arm around my shoulders for a second and planted a kiss near my temple.

“Knew we picked you for a reason, Vic,” he said. He was only one of about five people on this whole planet I allowed to use that nickname and live after calling me Victoria. “C’mon, let’s get this over with. I’ll buy you breakfast after shift.”

“What about the rest of us, Moretti?” Burke asked. “You gonna share with the class, or are you playing favorites?”

Every time the whole crew went out to eat, we somehow managed to accumulate the most ridiculous bill. It didn’t matter that it was usually breakfast food of the cheap diner variety. We could work up one hell of an appetite.

“You’re really going to make the new dad fork over a hundred and fifty bucks?” Ramos challenged.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Patterson, our captain, chided over the thud of doors as he hopped out of the passenger seat. He’d kept his mouth shut through our antics on the ride over, but we all knew that holding his tongue had killed him slowly on the inside. He had a talent for ruining a good time. “Stop getting distracted by food, people. We’re still on the clock.”

Moretti tucked his phone into his vacated seat and grabbed his helmet as we jumped out of the truck. The oppressive air hit me right in the face, seizing my lungs in its grip as I sucked in a breath. The lights from our truck reflected off the slick asphalt, steam rising like a thin veil of fog. We’d parked on a narrow, cracked and—what else—pothole-ridden road where a cluster of abandoned stores and houses had been left to the ravages of neglect.

Aside from a beat up car parked down the street, we were the only ones around. Red flashed across the remains of broken glass in the windows. Weeds sprung up from the concrete, while the grass had been left to its own devices, an untamed field yellowed and dying from the heat. I was surprised that it had grown at all. Mist still clouded the air, haloing the sparse streetlights and casting an eerie, dim glow.

My boots disrupted a puddle. “You see any smoke?”

“D’you know who called this in?” Burke asked.

The scent of damp earth suffused the night, mingling with faint traces of exhaust from the truck and the flare of humidity. I lifted my head toward the sky, but nothing stood out against the purplish-black obscured by the distant haze of city lights and pollution and heat.

“Anonymous caller,” Captain Patterson said, causing all of our heads to turn in his direction. “Some cell phone.”

He was wider than he was tall, a stray patch of dark gray hair sticking up at the side of his head. He tucked a hand under the open flap of his turnout coat to settle it on his hip and considered the desolate three-story structure in front of us. It might’ve been a house in its former life. Now it was a hollowed out shell, a ghost with weathered paint and front steps on the verge of collapse. Incomprehensible lines of graffiti covered a few boarded up windows.

It looked like a strong wind could take it out.

“I got nothing.” I squinted, studying the upstairs windows, rocking back on my heels. A couple strands of dark hair escaped my tight bun and swept into my line of vision. I pushed them aside and planted on my helmet.

Captain Patterson and Burke set off for the side of the building. Their boots crunched across the dry grass as they trampled through the unkempt growth. The reflective tapes on their gear glinted when they inched out of light’s reach.

Next to me, Moretti huffed a sigh. “It’s hot as shit out here and we’re sweating our asses off over a prank call.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Davis said. He wiped a sleeve over his pale, bald forehead and replaced his helmet.

“Nah,” Ramos stepped forward, her eyes narrowed, her head tilted upward. “I think I see some smoke.”

“Where?” I peered up at the structure again to find Ramos’ sightline. Sure enough, there was a column of light gray smoke coiling toward the sky from somewhere in the back of the building. “Tell me I’m not seeing things. That wasn’t there a minute ago, right? We all saw that?”

A murmur of agreement rippled through our group. Captain Patterson and Burke returned at a jog, exhaling loudly against the stifling air.

“You see it, Captain?” Ramos asked.

Patterson nodded. “Moretti, Phoenix, and Ramos, you’re inside with me. Gotta make sure this place is clear while we get eyes on where the smoke’s coming from. Let’s move.”

Moretti and I locked eyes once Patterson turned his back, neither one of us daring to waste our breath on the string of complaints that would probably spill out over breakfast later when it was safe. A lot could be said in a well-placed scowl if you’d become used to the intent behind it after years of friendship and shared suffering.

We got to work, all traces of the lighthearted atmosphere evaporating once we shouldered our SCBAs and put on our masks. Just the preparation for entering the building had me drenched in sweat again. I hoped we could knock this one down quickly. I already needed a shower and change of clothes.

Patterson was first up the front steps to the porch, the rest of us trailing behind, boots falling heavily on stairs that held all the structural integrity of wet cardboard. One of Ramos’ feet reduced a middle step to splinters. I heard the crackle of rotted wood and her sharp expletive from behind me.

“That’s great,” she muttered, annoyance filtering through her mask. I turned to watch her clear the rest of the staircase without any more incidents. “This place should’ve been condemned.”

“Watch your step,” Moretti laughed, bumping his shoulder into hers. We all filed into the smoky building through a doorway that looked like it’d been broken into long before we’d arrived. The doorframe was scarred and gouged, the dirty white paint weathered, sloughing off in thin flakes just like the exterior siding.

“Go fuck yourself, Moretti.”

“Damn.” He rubbed his shoulder as if the friendly barb had dug in. “That almost stung.”

“Let’s go.” Patterson’s snippy tone muffled in the confines of his mask. “Ramos, you’re with me on the first floor. Phoenix and Moretti can clear upstairs. Looks abandoned, but we’ve gotta be sure.”

Moretti and I traded another long-suffering look. I was convinced that Patterson held a grudge against us. Our troublesome antics hadn’t survived the discipline instilled in us from academy training. Most of them, not all. Patterson could always find something to be salty about.

Silently, we trudged up the stairs to the second floor while Patterson and Ramos disappeared into the dark. It had the sad appearance of most abandoned houses—dust-laden sheets thrown over broken furniture, a layer of old newspapers and garbage covering the floors like makeshift carpet, and the faint traces of some kind of unpleasant, musty odor. Broken glass crunched under my boots when I reached the landing of the second floor behind Moretti.

He was already halfway down the hall, peeking into rooms and calling out to whoever might be squatting in this place. I stood where I was in the haze of gray smoke, something prickling along my skin through layers of gear. It was the weirdest feeling. Like the same static that would catch my fingertips when I’d stick my hands in front of the television screen as a kid. But there was something else there, beneath it. Part of me wanted to reach out to it, search for its source. I couldn’t explain it, but it seemed to want to coil around me.

“Nix?” Moretti’s voice brought me back. The smoke now made visibility more difficult. He was just a dark outline, a shape in the gloom. “Are you all right?” He came down the hallway toward me again. The smoke billowed in thick plumes to surround us both, moving faster than it was just moments ago. But neither of us knew where it was coming from.

“I don’t know,” I answered. My hands shook. “I’m—”

Whatever I planned to tell him was interrupted by the sound of the ceiling creaking above our heads.

“You hear that?”

“Footsteps.” I nodded.

“The attic,” Moretti said. “There’s another staircase at the end of the hallway. The door was open, but…”

It was hard to believe that anyone would still be here with all of this smoke—that anyone would be in this place at all—but it wasn’t altogether unusual. It was easy to lose all common sense and rational thinking when you were panicked. Fear could be a good motivator for your flight response, but more often than not, it ended in terror and smoke inhalation.

The strange feeling from before had vanished, but the leftover anxiety still had my stomach in a vice.

“The fire could be in the attic,” Moretti said, huffing, taking the stairs two steps at a time.

We ascended into darkness. In the upstairs hallway, there had still been a few weak slats of dim light coming through a window facing the street, but here it was nearly pitch black. I fumbled around on my coat and finally switched on my flashlight. A tarnished brass doorknob flashed when the bright beam found it. I knew Moretti had been fully prepared to kick it down, but the knob turned, the door squealing open without so much as a protest.

“Fire department!” I yelled across the cavernous attic. “Let us know where you are!”

I’d been hoping for a response. Hoping that the owner of the footsteps had just been confused in this maze of an attic, not passed out on the floor somewhere.

Nothing.

It was one of those old, spacious attics full of untouched boxes and more things under filthy sheets. That, on top of the dark, the balmy temperature, and the smoke, created plenty of opportunities for someone to get themselves trapped. I thought we’d find the source of the smoke here, too, but there wasn’t a trace of anything. No glimmer of flame. Not even the hiss and crackle of faulty wiring in the walls.

“Probably passed out,” Moretti said. “I’ll take the right side—”

“Wait.” An uneasy feeling blossomed in the pit of my stomach again.

“What? Nix, let’s go…we don’t have a lot of time.”

The floorboards groaned somewhere in a far, dark corner, and both our heads snapped in the same direction to seek it out. A shape, a movement in the murky black caught the edge of my periphery at about the same time. The beam of my flashlight bounced, unsteady, toward it as if the light itself hesitated to reveal whatever was in here with us. My own fear seemed a bit unreasonable—I’d cleared out plenty of rooms and hauled half-conscious victims from smoky, decrepit places just like this.

But this feeling…it was ominous. A threat, maybe. I was getting all kinds of internal warning signals I couldn’t explain. Like my body had just moved way beyond the regular flight or fight response and had picked up on something more. And I’d never felt anything like it before, not even when we’d had dangerously close calls.

The wavering beam from my flashlight finally landed on a person clad in black from the waist up. My heart leapt straight into my throat, the painful rhythm slamming against my temples, blocking out everything else. I only caught a shock of blond hair and the back of their head before they disappeared. Not into the darkness of the attic like a normal person might’ve assumed.

They were just…gone.

Vanished.

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