After solving the mystery behind the death of his former friend in July, ex-Army Sam Auden has been aimlessly wandering the country. Everything had gone sideways in New York City, so when his phone rings three months later, the caller is the last person Sam expected to be asking for help.
Confidential informant Rufus O’Callaghan has been struggling. His NYPD contact was murdered over the summer, and the man Rufus is head over heels for was driven away by his own undiagnosed trauma. But when he receives an anonymous letter that promises information on his mother, life goes from dark to dangerous in the blink of an eye.
Sam and Rufus must dig into Rufus’s rough and turbulent past in order to solve a series of contemporary murders connected to his mother. And if the two can’t expose who the killer is in time, they will most certainly become his next targets.
There are spoilers for book one, A Friend in the Dark, in this review.
A Friend in the Fire is the second book in Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe’s series of suspense/mystery novels set in NYC featuring Rufus O’Callaghan (a confidential informant) and Sam Auden (formerly of the US Army but otherwise of nowhere in particular), who, in book one, A Friend in the Dark, teamed up to solve the murder of the NYPD detective Rufus had worked for. In doing so, they uncovered a child sex-trafficking ring with a number of dirty cops linked to it – but while the case was solved by the end of the book, the situation between Sam and Rufus didn’t end as successfully. After a heated argument following Rufus’ confession to thoughts of suicide, Rufus told Sam to GTFO – and Sam did.
When A Friend in the Fire opens three months later, Rufus isn’t doing so well. He’s depressed, lonely and too tired to give a fuck; he ordered the only person who gave a damn about him out of his life and hasn’t heard from him since. Which isn’t surprising, given that Rufus never gave Sam his number.
Rufus is on the way out of his crappy apartment building when he sees a piece of paper sticking out from his mailbox. It’s a note in handwriting he doesn’t recognise offering “information on Daisy” – his murdered mother – if Rufus turns up at a specified location on Saturday night. Of course, Rufus can’t stay away; Daisy’s killer was never found, and even though she was far from a good mother, she still deserves justice. But when Rufus turns up, someone goes for him with a knife and he realises it was a trap; he manages to get away with only a ripped jacket, but it’s a close thing.
After that… well, there’s only one person he wants and trusts to help him.
Rufus is the last person Sam expects to hear from, especially considering how things ended between them. But when Rufus asks for help, Sam isn’t going to turn him down, and makes his way back to New York (from some shit hole in Missouri whose name he couldn’t even spell – hah!) as quickly as he can, to find Rufus is a mess… well, more of a mess than before, anyway.
Their reunion is kind of awkward to start with, but it’s not long before the pair have regained the equilibrium they established in the previous book, their snark and teasing underscored by a strong undercurrent of affection and an even stronger one of longing. Rufus tells Sam about the attack and finally opens up about his past; his mother was a prostitute who was killed when he was sixteen, and while she didn’t want or care about him, she was all he had. What happened over the summer made him realise he wasn’t really over her death and needed answers, so he started poking around the NYPD to see if anyone would help him find out the truth – but heard nothing until getting the note which set him up. It’s too much of a coincidence, surely, that someone tried to kill him just weeks after he’s started asking questions – so… who wants him dead? And why?
As Sam and Rufus start digging, they learn that Daisy’s death wasn’t an isolated incident, and that it was the last of a string of murders of sex-workers that happened in the late 90s and early 2000s. But when some of the other working girls in the area are murdered, and some of Daisy’s former ‘colleagues’ are killed, it seems that whoever was responsible for the earlier slayings is back. They’re desperate to cover their tracks completely… and Rufus is in their sights.
As I’d expect from two accomplished mystery writers, the plot is tight and well put-together, but what draws me to these stories are the characters and their evolving relationship, which are just as important a part of the novel as the mystery. I really like both Sam and Rufus, although at this stage Sam, despite his tendency to be brutally honest, is still a little bit of an enigma. Rufus is kind of adorkable, but he’s also damaged and struggles with anxiety and depression. He’s lived a tough and very solitary life; he made money as a petty thief until he turned CI for Detective Jake Brower, who was the first person who ever showed him any sort of kindness or friendship, and the only person who ever believed in him, which is why Rufus took his death so hard. He’s sweet, funny and whip smart but doesn’t think he is, and his longing to be something to someone is incredibly poignant.
Sam is his total opposite in many ways. He’s big, gruff and intimidating with very little by way of a verbal filter, but he’s insightful and can be really tender and affectionate when it comes to Rufus. We don’t know much about Sam’s past yet; he’s ex-army and didn’t leave on good terms, he lives with PTSD and there’s something dark in his past he’s not willing to talk about – which causes friction between him and Rufus. They have terrific chemistry and I love the way they work together – there’s a great kind of reciprocal energy that bounces between them and a real sense of connection and trust, too.
Those things carry over into their personal relationship. I like how honest they are with each other about how they feel; they own up to having missed each other badly after Rufus threw Sam out and to how much it means to them both that Sam came back. They’re complete misfits, but somehow – and both authors are a dab hand at creating misfits-who-fit pairings – they work; two broken men who, in falling for one another are helping each other to want to be better and to heal.
A Friend in the Fire is another entertaining outing for Auden and O’Callaghan, and one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a fast-moving, clever mystery with a well-realised setting and a couple of complex, likeable protagonists. I’ll definitely be back for the next instalment in the series.