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Authors: Colleen Thompson

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Fade the Heat

BOOK: Fade the Heat
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Fade the Heat
Colleen Thompson



At Jack’s first step, his right knee collapsed, and he noticed for the first time his torn and bloody jeans. Gritting his teeth, he pushed past pain to rise again and lumbered off, now nearly as clumsy as the man he pursued.

A wild, clearly female shriek hastened his footsteps and launched his heart into his throat.


He found them struggling on the ground between the boarded house and the near side of a bank of metal storage units. Sergio was on top of her, trying to pin her facedown while Reagan bucked frantically and fought to flip over.

“Get the hell off of her,” Jack roared as he lunged forward.

The next moment splintered into shards that impaled themselves in his heart. Sergio’s hand darting into the inner pocket of his jacket. The fist emerging with something that gleamed coldly beneath the security light. The distant shrilling of a siren, one Jack sensed could never come in time…

To the firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics who are there on our worst days, and especially to the crew of the Houston Fire Department, Station 6 “C.”

Chapter One

“First, you gotta find the perfect bottle,” said the Firebug, his voice a rasping whisper that hurt to listen to. “Too hard, and it won’t bust when it hits the floor. Too thin, and it explodes on impact with the window, splashing you with fuel mix and burning you to hell.”

The visitor leaning over his bed looked down into the noseless face, most of which was mercifully hidden by a thick compression garment. He didn’t have to worry that the poor bastard would see him staring because the Firebug’s eyelids had been seared off, too, and the burn-unit nurses bandaged whatever had been left behind them. Probably something that looked like a couple of freaking chunks of charcoal anyway.

Suppressing a shudder, the visitor asked, “So once you’ve found this perfect bottle, what do you put in there, other than the gas?”

When the Firebug tried to answer, the resulting hiss sounded like sand blown across a windshield.

“Water?” the visitor asked. Without waiting for an
answer, he grabbed a cup from the narrow bedside table and held it, though it made him want to puke to watch the man he’d idolized working the bent straw like a baby at a tit.

When he had finished, the Firebug said, “You want it to flare right up, but it don’t do any good if it just flashes and goes out. Works best if you make it sticky, so it won’t come off of stuff.”

Such as flesh and bone…For the first time, the visitor noticed the way the Firebug’s hands were bandaged, and realized that he must be missing fingers. Maybe all of them.

“And you gotta mix in something else, too,” the injured man said. “Somethin’ to keep things cooking for a while. Man can burn a tank that way. That’s how they did it in the big war.”

“What are you, the goddamn History Channel?” The visitor was itching to get the hell out of this place. It stank, for one thing, smelled like medicine and heavy-duty cleaners overlying an undisguisable whiff of human shit. “I just want the recipe, that’s all.”

“And I gotta have the details. A-all of them.” The voice broke like a wave. “What do—what else do I have to live for? You tell me what you’re gonna do, I’ll help you. Otherwise—”

tell me, I’m gonna—”

“You’re gonna do what? Kill me? Go ahead, I’d welcome it. Just tell me how you’re gonna use the thing, for
sake. Let me hear the flames speak one more time. Let me smell the smoke. You know you can trust me. You know I’ll never say a word, and I’ll tell you how to make the best Molotov cocktail this city’s ever seen. Maybe the whole damned state of Texas.”

The visitor nodded, forgetting the Firebug’s blind
ness for the moment. “All right, then,” he said, moving around to block the closed door with a chair. “I can tell you this much, and I swear I’ll come back once it’s over and give you every detail.”

He heard the Firebug’s breathing quicken, wouldn’t be surprised if the pathetic son of a bitch was getting hard. Presuming his little mishap had left him anything to stiffen.

Swallowing back the thought, the visitor said, “I’m going to burn a man’s apartment. And then I’m going to do the man himself. And he’s a doctor, can you beat that? I guess I’m moving on up in this world.”

Five-year-old Jaime Perez had taken exception to his vaccination shot. So much so that Dr. Jack Montoya’s ears rang and his shin ached as he limped out of the exam room.

Gratefully, Jack closed the door on the boy’s howls and silently blessed the poor mother, who was struggling to console him with the roll of stickers Jack had left her.

On his way to his next patient, Jack peeked past the reception counter and into the waiting room. There, a pack of tiny, dark-haired children shredded outdated magazines while exhausted-looking women pretended not to notice. Old men hawked into folded handkerchiefs, and a hugely pregnant woman was vomiting into a trash can. Adding to the mayhem, the TV hanging near the water-stained ceiling blared a Spanish-language game show no one watched.

Four-thirty and the crowd hadn’t thinned a bit, despite the unseasonably cold October rain rattling against the skylights. Jack cursed the fellow doctor who’d walked out the day before, after he’d been held
up at knifepoint in the parking lot at lunch. Jack knew he ought to be more sympathetic, but between the clinic’s low pay and the neighborhood of derelict old houses, boarded-up
, and rough-and-tumble bars, it could be months before they landed a replacement—if the hospital board didn’t nix the position altogether in the latest round of budget cuts.

Hurrying to the next exam room, he grabbed the patient’s chart. Before he could read it, the new nurse, Carlota Sanchez, flagged him down.

“Dr. Montoya, it’s Mr. Winter—
Darren Winter
—on the line.” Carlota’s brown eyes were huge, and the hand covering the mouthpiece shook a little. Twenty-two and fresh from nursing school, she had been flashing Jack flirtatious smiles for weeks, which proved she hadn’t been in the profession long enough to absorb the male-physicians-are-scum attitude embraced by so many of her fellow nurses.

This afternoon, however, Carlota was obviously flustered by the media frenzy that had focused upon Jack. “Reporters have been calling here all day, and now he’s on the air,
Will you talk to him?”

Jack hesitated, thinking maybe he should take the call—and tell Houston talk radio’s most overinflated ego where to shove his allegations. Or better yet, Jack could describe for the man’s listeners the gut-wrenching horror of watching a child die of a treatable disease. Let them hear the details of the parents’ pain, their suffering—and then ask
for suggestions on how to tell the next kid, “Sorry, it’s against the law for me to help you. Your family came from Mexico illegally.”

Jack would love hearing the man reporters were calling the next Schwarzenegger spin
to his would-be
constituency. It probably wouldn’t slow the momentum of Winter’s listeners’ attempts to help him steal next month’s mayoral election with a highly publicized, if unofficial, write-in campaign—but it would feel so good to make the pompous jerk squirm, if only for a moment.

“I’d better not,” Jack told Carlota, thinking of the hospital board instead. Since Winter had started his public tirades about the falsified medical records someone had leaked to him, Jack knew his job was on the line. Worse yet, it looked as if the board members might see the incident as the excuse they needed to shut down this chronically underfunded satellite clinic. And leave the kids that he’d been helping completely in the lurch.

Since he didn’t have the luxury of venting his frustration, he took the wiser course, the one that led to his next patient. But after closing the exam-room door behind him and taking one look at the fair-skinned blonde who’d been waiting inside, he realized he’d been had. The shrewdness of her gaze all but shouted “Press.”

“If Darren Winter or one of the newspapers sent you, you can get the hell out of my office,” Jack told his unwelcome visitor, even as he breathed a silent prayer that the papers she held wouldn’t prove to be copies of the additional files he’d been praying would stay hidden.

Amusement glinted in her blue eyes, and atop the exam table, she crossed long, jeans-clad legs. “Well, Montoya,” she said, stifling a dry, constricted cough. “I’m surprised you’re not in some fancy private practice, what with that brilliant bedside manner.”

A grin slanted across model-perfect features—not that he could see her prancing down anybody’s run
way showing off the latest styles. Above the jeans, a faded blue T-shirt peeped out from beneath an unzipped and well-worn leather jacket. Her lace-up boots, too, looked as if she’d had them a long time. But no way did she live around here, not with that short, but feminine, precision haircut or the trio of tiny silver rings that ran along each earlobe.

Still, there was something familiar about her, something that reminded him of…

Feeling like an idiot, he glanced down at her chart, something he normally did before entering an exam room. His gaze fastened on the name across the top.

“Reagan Hurley,” he read. Despite his troubles, he smiled at the rush of memory that followed. He hadn’t seen her in twenty years, since she and her mother had left the city. “I was positive that by now you’d have married some bean counter in the burbs, where the two of you would live with three-point-two blond kiddies and a nice big dog to chase around the yard.”

She laughed. “You’ve got the dog part right, but you’re off on everything else, right down to the bit where I’m a reporter or some sort of spy. What’s the deal with that?”

Jack shook his head. “Bad assumption. Sorry. There’s been a little misunderstanding. People have been after me all week, and—”
And I’m going to answer for it Monday morning.
He pushed aside the thought, which had nagged at him since his supervisor’s terse call a few days earlier.

“Forget it,” she said before beginning to cough in earnest.

There was a choked quality to the sound Jack didn’t like. But before he could ask about it, she handed him the paper she’d been holding.

“I really came to get this signed,” she said. “It’s a release for work. Just a formality, you know? Some stupid hoop they make you jump through.”

Something in him unclenched when he saw the paper was what she claimed. Maybe nothing more
surface. Maybe whichever clinic employee had leaked the information had only found the one discrepancy.

Or maybe today’s rash of reporter phone calls meant that someone, somewhere, already had the rest. Though needles of panic jabbed his stomach, he examined Reagan’s form.

In the blank beside “Employer,” he saw
City of Houston.
“Don’t you have a regular doctor? Surely your insurance won’t cover this clin—”

“Don’t sweat it. I’ll be paying cash today.”

Alarm bells went off in his head, and resentment spiked through him at the thought of all the patients—
patients—out there waiting, while he and a single nurse practitioner struggled through an endless afternoon.

“So tell me about your pain,” he prompted, because that was what such visits invariably came to. A wrenched back, pinched nerves, and a request for drugs to soothe them. He’d seen it far too often, but for reasons he could not explain, he felt especially disappointed this time.

She shook her head. “I damned well didn’t drive over here on a day like this to worm some prescription out of you. I’m not in any pain, and I’m sure as hell no junkie.”

Her anger sent a meteor-bright image arcing across his memory: that day near the secluded bayou bend when a girl in pigtails had played David, whacking the meanest Goliath their neighborhood—
neighborhood—had to
offer between the eyes with a smooth stone. With a lump rising on his forehead and a fist-size rock clutched in his hand, Paulo Rodriguez and his bad-ass brothers might have killed her if Jack hadn’t intervened. Still, eight-year-old Reagan hadn’t backed down for a second.

Like him, would she carry that terrifying memory forever? Because whether she’d forgotten it or not, he saw that some of that old spirit lingered, no matter what her current problems.

“Then why were you off work?” he asked as he pulled a stethoscope from the pocket of his white coat. “That cough?”

She shrugged. “It’s nothing but a cold. I get them—or allergies or something, especially on days like this. But I was sent home because I took a little smoke.”

Over the heating system’s noisy, if ineffectual, efforts, Jack heard the rasping sound her breathing made. After scanning the vitals recorded by the nurse—all normal—he glanced down at the questionnaire Reagan had filled out. It was the first one he’d seen written on the English side all day.

“You’re a firefighter,” he noted. “Like your father.”

As she nodded, pride and pleasure warmed her features—and took Jack’s breath away. He doubted she had any idea of the effect she had on men. Even on one doing his damnedest to remain professional.

“I had to pay a lot of dues first,” she said. “Fire science degree, then three years working one of the department’s ambulances as an EMT before I made it to a pumper like my dad rode. Only job I ever wanted.”

He didn’t doubt it one bit, after the way the department had rallied around the Hurleys when Reagan’s father died. Jack wondered for a moment how different his life would have been had his family known such
support when his own father was murdered in the blazing scrublands of South Texas. Pushing aside the uncomfortable thought, he said, “Let me have a listen to those lungs.”

“You don’t really need to—” she began, then stopped once he frowned at her. With a sigh, she peeled off her jacket and lifted her T-shirt to make his task easier.

As a physician, it was his job to notice bodies. Hers was lean and well formed. Beautiful, he thought, then shoved aside the unprofessional assessment. Athletic, he amended. Healthy-looking.

Yet, as he’d suspected, the sounds in her bronchial tubes didn’t measure up. Now he was certain she’d heard about him on the radio and decided he would be an easy mark.

Scowling, he moved his stethoscope aside. “How many doctors did you go to before you heard about me?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

He tried staring her down, but she didn’t flinch. He might have known.

“Like I said, I get colds,” Reagan added, pulling down her shirt’s hem. “And when I came across your name in the phone book, I thought I’d throw some business your way.”

That remark sounded so implausible, he chose to ignore it. “Do you wake up nights with trouble breathing?”

She re-crossed her legs. “You can save the screening questions. I’ll say no to all of them.”

“You’ll need a lung-function test,” Jack told her. “Though I suspect you’ve taken one or two before. At least.”

She slid off the end of the table. “So you’re accusing me of what?”

“Wasting my time, for starters,” Jack shot back.

“I spent two hours cooling my heels in your waiting room, so don’t talk to me about wasting people’s time.”

“You’ve been diagnosed with asthma, right?” he demanded. “And after what you heard about my problems, you figured I’d be sympathetic. Because you need somebody understanding, someone who won’t ask too many questions.”

BOOK: Fade the Heat
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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