Burning It Down
C. Koehler © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Late summer, approximately a year and a half after the start of Rocking the Boat.
Four months into his new job as battalion chief for Sacramento City Fire’s second battalion and Owen Douglas still couldn’t sit still. Sure, he knew the job from a theoretical standpoint, and every day he learned more from a practical standpoint, but he couldn’t ignore the niggling discomfort he felt when he saw those bugles on his collar. Like his new uniform didn’t fit quite right, and perhaps from a certain point of view, it didn’t. No matter how he squinted or how many times he turned it this way or that, he couldn’t see all that much light between his investigation into the arson at the Bayard House at the beginning of the year and his promotion to battalion chief. More to the point, neither could the men and women under his command.
Not to mention every time he opened his mouth, unicorns crapping glitter and rainbows popped out. At least, that was what people seemed to be waiting for. He liked to think he was discreet, that nothing at work proclaimed him Big Gay Owen, no snapshots of boyfriends, no photos of him shaking his ass on a Mardi Gras float, no matter how much fun he’d had in Sydney, just a subtle rainbow on his battered 4Runner, a bar no bigger than the head of a toothbrush. He tried not to play the gay card, but he was the first out battalion chief in the fire department’s history, and well he knew it. More to the point, the people under his command knew it. Maybe he was just making too big a deal out of it or felt guilty for being promoted over the heads of more senior firefighters.
His intercom buzzed with his secretary on the other end. “Yes?” Owen said.
“Prissy Morrain to see you.”
“Oh! Send her in, please.” He dashed to his office door. He didn’t expect her until tomorrow.
Owen routinely left his office door open, but he quickly got out from behind his desk to greet his visitor, and not just because she outranked him.
“Chief Morrain! I’m so sorry! I must’ve made a mistake in my calendar. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow—”
Prissy Morrain waved a manicured hand. “Retired Chief, and I’m a day early. We both have better things to do than make small talk over hors d’oeuvres over at some white-tablecloth restaurant. Did you bring your lunch today?”
Owen nodded. Since he was a “first” for the department, he’d sought out the advice of another “first,” the first woman battalion chief, now retired from active firefighting and promoted off to one side to do something less dangerous involving paperwork. “I’ll grab it out of the fridge. There’s a nice park a block away. We can eat there.”
“That’ll do fine.”
Prissy Morrain was a handsome woman, Owen thought; really, she could’ve been one of those older models, the ones with silver hair and flawless skin who pitched vitamins to women of a certain age. Her wrinkles weren’t so much age lines scoring her face with years but delicate lines of character radiating out from her eyes and around her mouth to accentuate a ready smile. How she’d managed that with a career spent fighting fires and sexism, he’d never know.
He spent the short walk to the park rehearsing what he wanted to say, but when Prissy asked, “So what’s the problem?” Owen could only blurt, “I’m just not clicking with the people under me. This station, sure. My office is here, but the other stations in this battalion not so much, and there’s one station that when I walk in everything stops for a few minutes while I walk back to talk to the captain on duty, and that’s just creepy.”
“Have you talked to human resources?”
“Don’t be absurd” slipped out before he could stop it.
Prissy laughed. “Smart man. You don’t want this on your record.”
And that was why he’d contacted her. “Team-building exercises aren’t my thing at this point and are just a waste of time. I’m not in a burning building with these guys. They simply need to function with each other and work in coordinated groups, and they do. But I don’t like getting the stink eye either.”
“Look, hearts of gold, most of these guys, but it’s a conservative profession. The younger ones are yours,” Prissy said, arching one eyebrow, “maybe even literally. There’s more than one gay man among the recruits, and you’re a fine-looking specimen yourself.” She peered over the rims of her mirrored sunglasses, holding up one hand when Owen opened his mouth to interrupt. “Of course, you know better than that, but you know what I mean. It’s the ones who’ve been around a few years, the ones who’re your age and older, you may have to prove yourself to, the ones who might’ve even been up for your job. They’re the ones thinking ‘fag’ behind their smiles.”
“Or not, some of them,” Owen grumbled. “A few of them don’t even bother to smile.”
Prissy chuckled. “They’ll soon learn the stupidity of that. They may be comfortable for A or B shift, but if they’re dumb enough to piss in the battalion chief’s Wheaties, then they’ll have plenty of time to learn the errors of their ways on C shift, or better yet, transfer to someone else’s command. Too bad for them you’ve got just about the best battalion in town.”
It was true. Since he’d captained one of the downtown stations, when he’d been promoted, the fire department put him into an entirely different battalion so he wouldn’t be in immediate charge of his old buddies. The open battalion encompassed Midtown, East Sac, and part of the Pocket, named for the land inscribed within a bend in the Sacramento River. Sometimes he wondered if it was a coincidence that the city’s first out battalion chief also oversaw the gayborhood. He shrugged mentally. Oh well, easier relations during fire inspections, right? “That just seems so petty.”
“And the frat boy antics aren’t?”
Owen sighed. “True enough.”
“It’s not something you want to do often, because you will hear from their union reps about that, and about anything else if they develop an axe to grind,” Prissy said, “but used strategically, it can make your point quite nicely, and the best part is, it’s hard to prove.”
Owen nodded his head slowly. “One hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week, and five stations to staff twenty-four seven in three shifts.”
“Exactly. If you need to, you can always find something miserable for someone to do for a shift or two.” She ate some of her sandwich while she thought. “One more thing, and I hesitate even to mention it, but it was something a few—a very few—of my own firefighters used against me.” At his quizzical look, she said, “Sexual harassment.”
Owen sat back, tossing his own sandwich down. “Oh, that’s just what I need.”
Prissy patted his hand. “Don’t go borrowing trouble. It hasn’t happened yet, but you need to be aware of the possibility. You’re an out gay man, and you supervise a lot of men, some of whom are, by your own admission, not very happy right now. If they can’t pin anything else on you, they may try that.”
“Did that happen to you?” Owen asked, no longer hungry.
“Oh yes. I was a by-the-book chief, and when they couldn’t come up with anything else, some union rep had the bright idea of sexual harassment. Male firefighters, female chief. It was a situation rife with possibilities. Too bad for them and their credibility none of it was true, which quickly emerged when it came to a hearing. The judge laughed them out of court. It may be the same with you. You’ll be a by-the-book battalion chief, but some of them won’t like you just because you’re you, and the only thing they’ll come up with is that you ‘looked at ’em funny’.” She snorted. “Like you’d go for their stringy asses.” She stood up. “You know how to reach me, so do it if you need to. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go sculling. One of the advantages of seniority and a desk job is that you can take off more or less at will and no one will miss you. Of course, that’s one of the disadvantages too.”
Rowing. Brad. “Does everyone in this town row?”
“Only the best people. You should come check it out. The Capital City Rowing Club’s adult learn-to-row camps are about done for the summer, but there are still learn-to-scull lessons available.”
“Thanks for the talk. I really appreciate you taking the time,” Owen said, remembering a time he had been anything but by-the-book. The Bayard House. The second floor. Brad. He shivered at the thought of what they’d done. Unprofessional as it had been, it had also been damn hot.
And just the kind of thing people looking to take him down would eat up with a spoon. Fortunately, Brad didn’t seem like the kind to tell tales out of school. He was just too nice a guy. Brad had spent their one encounter thinking of someone else, someone who’d dumped him, and still the big sweetheart had pined for that other guy, even with Owen’s lips wrapped around his cock, and hadn’t that ever done wonders for his ego.
Owen wanted that, wanted that kind of devotion, he thought, sitting there in the leafy green silence of the park. Instead, like that time in the still-smoldering Bayard House, he was just the hookup. He got Brad off and sent him home and then followed up to make sure Brad called whatshisname. He liked to think he was more honorable than most, always the nice guy, always finishing last.
Then he heard the sirens and that was it, no more lunch. That was fine. He’d parted company with his appetite around the time Prissy had mentioned sexual harassment. The park was barely two blocks from the station, but he jogged back. “What’s going on?” Owen asked the dispatcher when he got back.
“A small grass fire at Cal Expo, sir. It doesn’t sound like anything to get excited over.”
Yet. In Owen’s experience, all fires were worth getting excited over, at least until proven otherwise. But maybe that was why he was a firefighter. He liked suiting up in his turnouts and racing to a fire in an engine running hot. He shook his head to clear the rising tide of adrenaline. He’d given some of that up to become battalion chief.
Then the radio went off. He picked it up. “Douglas.”
“I need four more alarms. This thing’s bigger than we were told. Much bigger, and it’s heading for structures.”
“On our way.” He put the radio down. “You heard Captain Chin. Get those trucks moving and notify Arden-Arcade,” he told the dispatcher.
“Beaufort!” he yelled for his driver as he ran for his office and his turnouts. A huge grass fire at Cal Expo that’s heading for the pavilions, and the state fair in less than a month. Why do I always end up involved in political fires?
He wore his turnout pants over his uniform. Sure, he’d sweat like a thoroughbred in moments in the heat once they arrived at the fire. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. The rest he chucked in the backseat of the command SUV with the communications equipment. Then he checked his watch as he climbed into the passenger seat. Less than five minutes. Not ideal, but at least he beat his driver.
Beaufort came running up seconds later. “Damn, sir. How do you do that?”
“Because I’m a firefighter.”
“Ha ha,” Beaufort replied, climbing behind the wheel and flicking the sirens and lights on. But it was true. After earning his bachelor’s in biological sciences at UC Davis, Owen had gone to the Fire Academy at Sierra College. Beaufort studied communications and joined the department in that capacity, along with driving Owen’s now important executive-level ass to big fires.
Owen glanced out of Beaufort’s side of the SUV. “Look—!”
All he could tell was that it wasn’t one of his, and then the enormous fire truck smashed into them, tossing the SUV aside like a rag doll. He lost consciousness as the airbags deployed with a thunderclap.
The nurse looked down at her patient, her brow creased with concern. She was new to the night shift, and it left her eyes smudged with fatigue. In the background, life-support machines beeped their mindless rhythm into the darkened room.
“How’s he doing?” her replacement asked as he entered for the changing of the guard. He was early, in part to give her a break.
“He’s fighting the sedation.”
“They always do,” he sighed.
“If he doesn’t stop this stupid thrashing, he’s going to reinjure…just about anything.”
He nodded. “It could happen.” He checked the patient’s charts. “It looks like he’s about due for more, so that could be part of it. I’ll take care of it, but it’s actually a good sign, you know.”
“That he’s a fighter?” she asked wearily.
He nodded. “It means he’ll have the strength to get through all of this. Injuries like this, they don’t heal overnight. He’s got a lot of PT ahead of him, and even more rehab after that. Any luck on next of kin?”
She shook her head. “Not according to the fire department. He apparently never filled out that form or whatever. They’ve asked us to let them know if we hear any names.”
“That’s just great. The only name I’ve heard clearly is Brad,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Brad Sunstorm or Sunstrong. Something like that.” He frowned. “I’ve been checking the phone book, but no luck. I figure it’s a friend or a boyfriend.”
“Right. Maybe when the police clear his personal effects there’ll be something in his wallet that’ll make it clearer.” She looked down at her patient, even as her end-of-shift thoughts turned to sleep and seeing her kids before they went off to school, and her colleague left to check the other ICU patients before getting the morning meds from the hospital pharmacy. “You’re not making it easy for us to help you, are you, Mr. Douglas?”
“Renochuck, Brad Sundstrom speaking,” Brad said. He listened for a few moments, a growing frown marring his otherwise jovial face. “This is St. Charles Design and Renovations, yes… I see. I’m not sure what to tell you, to be honest. I worked briefly with Captain Douglas—oh, it’s Chief Douglas now? Huh—when the Bayard House was vandalized while we were renovating and restoring it, but that’s about the extent of my acquaintance with him.”
Across the double desk Drew grunted, a sour expression ruining his otherwise handsome face, but even then, his dimples showed. Despite Drew’s sometimes difficult temperament, Brad was more spellbound by Drew than ever. The feelings Drew had aroused in him more than a year ago, the ones that led the deeply closeted college grad to explore feelings he’d never realized he had? Those were chump change compared to now. Brad met his eyes and smiled. Then he ran his tongue over his lips. Slowly, like the threat and promise it was.
Drew rolled his eyes, but he laughed too. He couldn’t help it. “What was that all about?” he asked when Brad hung up the phone.
“Okay, don’t get upset, but remember that story about the fire trucks colliding a week or so back? That mysterious firefighter who was so gravely injured, the one whose name they wouldn’t release?”
“It was Owen Douglas.”
Drew’s face went flat. He got the mask-like look Brad hated, the one Brad knew perfectly well meant he was in deep shit but was usually accompanied by the word “fine.” “You mean the one you fucked? That Owen Douglas? Suddenly you’re his next of kin?”
The last thing Brad wanted was to rehash this with Drew. Again. Would that make it re-rehashing? Okay, he was stalling and he knew it.
Brad gritted his teeth. Looked like it was going to be one of those discussions. “Okay, first of all, we didn’t fuck. Second of all, I thought of you the entire time and he could tell. He even asked, ‘What’s his name?’ Third, he spent a whole of lot time after pretty much ordering me to keep trying to call you. Fourth, why are you still hung up about this?”
“I don’t know.” Drew crossed his arms over his chest. “Why’re you still hung up on him?”
“I’m not,” Brad said patiently, or as patiently as he could at this point. It was the funniest thing. Drew seemed like the most confident man in the world, master of the local real estate market, a man who saw what he wanted and went for it, whether it was a gutsy bid to remodel the historic Bayard House or a certain deeply closeted former varsity rower, i.e., him. But in this one area, he let his freak flag fly, like he was afraid Brad was going to abandon him and all they’d worked for together for a hookup that had taken place while each thought the other had hated him. “Honestly, hon, of the two of us, I’m not the one who’s hung up on him. I haven’t thought about him in a couple of months, if only,” he said, getting up to squat next to Drew’s chair and laying his head in his partner’s lap, “because a certain tyrant of a partner in Renochuck works me like a slave driver”—he looked up with a wicked gleam in his eyes—“here and at home.”
“Oh, I do, huh?” Drew replied, an answering gleam slowly dawning in his eye.
“Yeah, you do. I barely have the energy to get through the day, let alone do things like this,” Brad said, turning his head so his mouth was right over his partner’s stiffening cock. He allowed himself a smug little grin as he bit the zipper with his teeth and pulled it down. Not a freshman maneuver, but he’d had plenty of practice.
“Brad!” Drew hissed. “Right here in the trailer?”
“You going someplace?” Brad said, working Drew’s pants down.
“At least take your hard hat off.”
Brad reached up and knocked it off with one hand, the other helping itself to the goodies.
“Someone could walk in,” Drew protested, but not very strongly, Brad noted. He was getting better at this. Usually Drew resisted longer.
“No one’s gonna walk in. They know better than to disturb us. Besides, what’re you afraid of?” This time, Brad looked positively feral as he stood up, looming over his lover. “This, maybe?”
Brad swept everything off Drew’s desk, papers, lunch, and all, and then picked his partner up to set him gently on the desk with the chair’s cushion under him. He pushed Drew’s ankles over his head, exposing that succulent, firm ass. Damn, he loved that ass. He loved doing all kinds of things to that ass too. There were just so many options. Brad leaned down and bit one cheek.
“Ow!” Drew yelped.
But then Brad soothed it with his tongue, straying down to flick his hole, just enough to tease. Then he bit the other cheek and repeated the process. At the very least, the pain from the bites would give Drew something to think about all afternoon besides the phone call.
Or maybe, Brad thought as he got to work, this was why Drew wouldn’t let it go…because every time he grumbled about Owen, Brad fucked him silly.