An alarm shattered the predawn silence. Not a squeaky beeper. Not Macho Man in the Morning on the radio. And, thank all the gods there ever were, not the bloodcurdling incoming enemy fire siren that Robin Harrow had heard a lifetime’s worth of during her six years of Arizona Army National Guard service—both in practice and during a pair of six-month deployments the AANG had rocked in Afghanistan.
But it was definitely as strident.
She lay in her bunk a moment longer, as grunts rolled out of their own racks up and down the barracks hall, feet thudding to the floor, moans and groans sounding through the thin plywood walls. With no drill sergeant to move them along, there was more shuffle than hustle, but they were moving.
Robin had been awake and glaring at the blank darkness of the barrack’s low plywood ceiling for hours, only now coming visible in the first light through the thin curtains. Awake and ready to go. Day One on the job, also Day One of the fire season. She’d lain there wondering exactly what she’d signed up for and how long it would take for the action to start. Part two had now been answered—not long.
Bring it, people.
In the interview for Mount Hood Aviation, they’d promised her that when it hit, she’d be scrambling. She was absolutely down with that, no matter how little she actually believed them.
After the worst of the clatter in the neighboring dormitory rooms had settled, Robin dropped out of her bunk. She’d used her dad’s firefighter trick—at least her mom was pretty sure her dad had been a firefighter, so she’d watched a lot of firefighter movies and learned what she could. Her flight suit was pre-slipped with panties, fire-retardant cotton long johns, and the legs of her flight suit in turn were already in her unlaced boots. She dragged on socks then shoved into her gear up to her waist and tied it off by the sleeves.
In thirty seconds flat, she went from lying bare on top of the covers to laced into her boots.
She’d spotted the job opening for a temp one-season piloting job and, needing to get out of her post-service life in the worst way, answered the ad. Her time in the Guard had included certifying for heli-bucket brigade on out-of-control wildfires.
It was a damn sight better than her gig in her mother’s truck stop restaurant playing the Hi! I’m Robin! perky waitress. Robin, huh? Do we get to see your red breasts? Grunt! Grunt! Har! Har!
She’d had way more than enough of that as a kid and teen.
Phoebe’s Tucson Truck Stop—founded by and named for Grandma Phoebe Harrow—was one of the last big independents on the routes. A massive complex that sat on the I-10 just south of Tucson. They could fuel over twenty rigs at a time and park hundreds. Truck wash and basic service, certified CAT scales, motel if a driver wanted a night out of their rig, barbershop, and—the bane of her existence—Mom’s Grill.
Peddling herself as a waitress was part of the gig, or at least pretending to: tight—and too goddamn short—outfit to reveal her soldier-fit body, her white-blonde hair kept short with that chopped look that men thought was so cute. She liked it for its low maintenance. She’d done it herself with a pair of kitchen shears.
Robin double-checked her Nomex pants and her leather Army boots. This was what a girl should wear, not a damned hot-pink mini-skort. She pulled on a white cotton tee—screw the bra, she’d never liked the damn things anyway, and on a Harrow woman, they weren’t mandatory. Nomex jacket in one hand, personal gear bag over her shoulder, and she was good to go. Nobody was going to mess with Robin the firefighter pilot.
She headed out into the hall of the now-silent dormitory. Not a soul in sight. She put on some hustle down the dark and narrow hallway. But she hit a dead end. Turning back, she went looking for a way out of this place. The corridors weren’t long, but it was a maze worse than dodging the truckers with straying hands.
Despite Robin’s constant battles at the truck stop, the tips had been great; Grandma Phoebe’s pointers on how to work money out of the late-night guys’ soused brains—and their deeply overinflated illusions of what was never going to happen—paid well, but…GAG!
Much to her surprise, when she told Mama and Grandma about the ad for a seasonal firefighting job, they’d shuffled her ass out the door and over to the airport so fast it had left her head spinning. Robin had always assumed she’d eventually settle into the traces to become the third Harrow woman to run Phoebe’s Tucson Truck Stop, but maybe not. At least not this season.
Robin zagged the other direction through the MHA camp’s labyrinthine barracks, avoiding a second dead end corridor. The building was far bigger than it looked from the outside, and she really should have scoped it out instead of just crashing in her rack after the long trip across half the country. But in reality, it had more crammed into it than should be possible. She spotted a few guys coming out of a door, holding their toothbrushes.
Robin gave up on finding the women’s bathroom, if there even was one, and walked into the men’s. While she leaned over the cracked porcelain and brushed her teeth, the guys who were rushing by half-dressed gave her odd looks reflected in the sheet of scratched steel screwed to the battered wood wall as a mirror. In moments, she was the only one there, staring idly at the Jimmy + Theresa inside a heart and a thousand more inscriptions carved into the fir-plank wall with a penknife over the years.
Robin slipped the toothbrush back into her personal gear bag and rinsed her face. If this were the AANG, grunts would all be formed up on the line by now, but in the civilian world…the men would still be moving slow and the women were probably back in their rooms doing their hair. She stroked a damp hand through her short hair and she was done with that too.
She headed for the field.
Down the hall, bang out through the doors, ready to leap at the fire…except she was staring at the gravel parking lot. Not a soul here. The lot was crowded with dusty pickups that had seen better lives a long, long time ago, an impressive array of muscle cars—enough to make a good drag race—and several motorbikes—a few hot and several not. But no people.
Damn it! She’d come out the wrong side of the building.
“How was the wedding?”
Mickey Hamilton was moving too slow to avoid Gordon’s cheery punch on the arm. He’d pulled in late last night and he’d been more stumbling than functioning since the fire alarm had rousted him. He’d had enough hours of sleep, but he desperately needed coffee.
“Morning, Gordon.” Mickey rubbed at his eyes, but it didn’t help. The first day of MHA’s fire season, he should have been allowed to sleep in. But no-o. Sunrise hadn’t hit the horizon yet, though it was only minutes away, and the first call had slammed in.
Most of the team were already at the base of the airfield’s two-story control tower though it was less than five minutes since the alarm. MHA tried to hit fifteen minutes from alarm to airborne and no one wanted to screw it up on the first day.
The rising sun was dazzling off the glaciered peak of Mount Hood that loomed to the west. The air smelled ice fresh and pine sharp on the June breeze—especially after spending four days back home in Eastern Oregon, where the grass was already going dry and dusty. It was going to be a hell of a fire season.
He breathed in deep. Here the Doug fir and spruce that surrounded the camp rolled for fifty or so miles in every direction, except up the face of the mountain that spilled glacier-cooled air down through the warm morning.
The grass strip runway split the ramshackle camp buildings behind them from the line of beautiful firefighting craft parked down the far side. Straight across stood Firehawk Oh-One. He could imagine a frown on its blunt nose because Emily wouldn’t be aboard. But his own Bell 212 was three down the row and was as eager to get going as he was.
“Smells like a good morning to go fight a fire.”
“Avoiding the question, Mickey. Tell me, was the bride hot?”
“My sister, Gordon. Get a grip.”
Vern, one of the Firehawk pilots, moseyed up looking about as awake as Mickey felt.
“Hey, Mickey. So, was the bride hot?”
Mickey sighed. “Yeah, she was…” And he left the guys hanging for several long seconds. “But not as hot as the Number Two bridesmaid.”
“Yes!” Gordon pumped a fist. “Details, Mickey. We want details.”
Mickey scanned the crowd gathering. MHA’s pilots, smokejumpers, and support personal were all hustling up. The team’s leaders, Mark, a spectacularly pregnant Emily, and Carly their genius fire behavior analyst, were all conferring on the platform landing one story up the control tower stairs. But they didn’t look ready to announce anything, so he turned back to his audience that now also included Steve the drone pilot, and Cal the photographer.
“Suzanna Rose. Went to high school together, but we never hooked up. Saw her at rehearsal dinner and let’s say I saw a whole lot of her after that.”
“It’s those blue eyes of yours.”
“Nah, it’s because he looks like an ex-Marine.”
“Which I’m not.” Mickey had started flying helicopters before he started driving cars. Actually, he’d flown his first helicopter on his tenth birthday and never looked back. It had been a ten-inch-long, radio-controlled wonder with red-white-and-blue racing stripes that he’d crashed and rebuilt a hundred times. It still ruled a place of honor on his dresser at his parents’ house in Bend, Oregon. He’d been fifteen before his first real bird. Had been with MHA for eight years since graduation, all of it flying to fight wildfires.
“Women don’t care.”
“It’s because you’re so purty.” Gordon tried to pat his cheeks until Mickey fisted him lightly in the gut.
“Let’s say it was an awesome wedding.”
“Seeing her again?” Vern must have been listening in. He was from Washington State but almost as cowboy-tall as Gordon who hailed from Wyoming. Mickey really needed to recruit shorter friends in the future.
“Nah.” Mickey tried to sound casual about it. A part of him—a past part—should have been pleased by how neatly it all worked out, but another part of him—one he didn’t know well—was disappointed. “She’s leaving for a job in Europe next week. Be gone at least a year.”
“Perfect!” was Gordon’s response, but Vern looked marginally sad for him, only reinforcing the feeling of disappointment that Mickey didn’t understand. Like…what? Had he wanted more?
Vern wasn’t to be trusted. He’d gone and fallen in love with the gorgeous MHA chief mechanic over the winter. She was most of a foot shorter, which made them an odd-looking couple, but it was working for them which was…good? There’d been a whole lot of weddings lately among the MHA top staff and it was worse than odd. He sighed but kept it to himself. Mickey missed when he and the rest of the pilots used to hit a bar together and pick up the hot chicks with the standard, I fly helicopters to fight wildfires.
“Hey. You gotta see the new pilot. Emily’s replacement. She’s amazing!” Gordon, however, Mickey could still count on.
He glanced up at the pregnant Emily on the landing. It was completely wrong that she was grounded—like a crime against the world’s proper order.
So she’d finally found a replacement? Flying without Emily Beale in the lead this season was going to be like having one of his arms amputated and no one telling him. He’d keep on reaching out and getting nothing but air. Of course, one look at her huge belly as she stood there next to Mark up on the first-story landing of the tower, and he wondered how she’d fit in the pilot’s seat for the candidate-interview flights.