A Friend in the Fire (Auden & O’Callaghan #2) by Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe

a friend in the fire

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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.

Rating: B+

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.

A Friend in the Dark (Auden & O’Callaghan Mysteries #1) by Gregory Ashe & C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Garrett Kiesel

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Rufus O’Callaghan has eked out a living on the streets of New York City by helping the police put away criminals as a confidential informant. But when Rufus shows up for an arranged meeting and finds his handler dead, his already-uncertain life is thrown into a tailspin. Now someone is trying to kill Rufus too, and he’s determined to find out why.

After leaving the Army under less than desirable circumstances, Sam Auden has drifted from town to town, hitching rides and catching Greyhounds, until he learns that a former Army buddy, now a police detective in New York City, has died by suicide. Sam knows that’s not right, and he immediately sets out to get answers.

As Rufus and Sam work together to learn the truth of their friend’s death, they find themselves entangled in a web of lies, cover-ups, and accelerating danger. And when they witness a suspect killed in cold blood, they realize they’re running out of time.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B+

A Friend in the Dark is book one (of four) in a new series of m/m romantic suspense novels co-authored by Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe, and it’s a strong start, boasting a well-paced and interesting mystery and two quirky, engaging central characters I’m eager to spend more time with. Narrator Garret Kiesel is new-to-me and, it seems, quite new to audiobook narration in general; so far he has narrated a few non-fiction books with this as his sole venture into fiction. I’m always apprehensive when listening to a new narrator, especially one who is narrating a book I’ve enjoyed; thankfully however, Mr. Kiesel acquits himself reasonably well , but there’s a serious production issue that irritated me, especially during the latter half of the audiobook.

Rufus O’Callaghan has, for a number of years, acted as a CI (confidential informant) for Detective Jake Brower of the NYPD, and over that time, they’ve become friends of a sort. Jake looks out for Rufus – the only person in Rufus’ life ever to have done so – and Rufus feels safe with him, which means a lot to someone whose meagre means keep him barely off the streets. Rufus runs errands for Jake at times, and when the book opens, is on his way to meet with him to pick up a package. When Rufus arrives at the specified location though, there’s no sign of Jake, so he carefully makes his way through the abandoned offices – finding Jake’s body slumped in a shower room, a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead. Rufus barely has time to process this before he’s being shot at, too; he manages to escape and quickly makes his way to Jake’s apartment, to see if he can find any clue as to what was in the package he was supposed to pick up. Horrified, filled with grief and sadness at the loss of the only friend he’s ever really had, Rufus decides he owes it to Jake to find out what he can and take it to the NYPD to help find his murderer.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe

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1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: A-

In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City.  As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences –  such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.

At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve.  Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show.  Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?

It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates.  Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed.  Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen.  Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.

Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner.  He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all.  But he has.  Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months.  And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.

Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city.  And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.

Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for.  In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding.  It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life.  He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile.  But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.

Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life.  He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys.  He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past.  But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.

The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns.  The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye.  And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them.  Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming  “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!

So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off.  The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor.  I hope it’s not too long a wait!

The Engineer (Magic & Steam #1) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton is a magic caster with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam. He’s sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona, to arrest a madman engineer known as Tinkerer, who’s responsible for blowing up half of Baltimore. Gillian has handled some of the worst criminals in the Bureau’s history, so this assignment shouldn’t be a problem. But even he’s taken aback by a run-in with the country’s most infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly.

Gunner is also stalking Shallow Grave in search of Tinkerer, who will stop at nothing to take control of the town’s silver mines. Neither Gillian nor Gunner are willing to let Tinkerer hurt more innocent people, so they agree to a very temporary partnership.

If facing illegal magic, Gatling gun contraptions, and a wild engineer in America’s frontier wasn’t enough trouble for a city boy, Gillian must also come to terms with the reality that he’s rather fond of his partner. But even if they live through this adventure, Gillian fears there’s no chance for love between a special agent and outlaw.

Rating – B

The Engineer is the novella-length first instalment in C.S. Poe’s Steampunk AU Magic & Steam series, and it’s an entertaining mash up of magic, steampunk and Wild West historical. Magic caster and Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam Gillian Hamilton is sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona to apprehend a dangerous ‘mad-scientist’ engineer by the name of Milo Ferguson aka The Tinkerer, who is wanted for a number of illegal uses of steam energy and magic.  We’re plunged straight into the action as Gillian arrives in Shallow Grave and finds himself being shot at before he’s so much as identified himself. He’s surprised to find he has an ally in his skirmish with Ferguson, a handsome cowboy clad in all in black he later recognises as the mysterious vigilante gunslinger known only as Gunner the Deadly – who is also a wanted criminal.

Gunner and Gillian call a temporary truce and decide to work together to capture the Tinkerer, facing his deadly, gloriously bonkers inventions (steam-powered spider-legged Gatling guns! Massive armoured locomotives! Lightning bullets!) in some high-stakes action scenes that are cinematic in scope.  The world-building is solid with clear explanations of how magic works in this world, and of the hierarchical structure – although I suspect, given something Gillian discovers near the end, there is more to come on that score.

The author packs a lot of story and character development into this fast-paced novella.  Gillian is the PoV character, so Gunner is rather enigmatic, but he nonetheless has a considerable impact on Gillian’s outlook and the way he views his government job, making him see that perhaps there isn’t such a great gulf between them after all, and that they’re both operating in grey areas rather than in the starkness of black and white.

The characters are quirky and engaging, and the author creates a strong connection between them despite the short page count. Gillian is an extremely powerful magician, but is otherwise insecure and struggles with his sexuality, keeping himself apart and denying himself the solace of human touch so as not to engender rumours among his colleagues.  Gunner is a gorgeous and enigmatic bad-boy who turns out to be quite different to what Gillian expected, a kind of latter day Robin Hood who makes no bones about the fact that – “Sometimes bad men die when I do good. I don’t regret that.”  Meeting Gunner kicks Gillian’s libido into gear and once he realises his interest is returned he decides to go for it; they have great chemistry, and even though we don’t get into Gunner’s head, it’s clear that he’s rather smitten with Gillian as well, and that he sees beyond the reserved exterior to something of who he really is inside.

There are hints that there’s more to Gillian than meets the eye, and I’m intrigued to find out more about him and his considerable magical abilities. As this is an ongoing series, there’s no HEA in this book, but it ends on a firm HFN for Gillian and Gunner and the promise of more adventures to come.  The Engineer was a quick and absorbing read, and I’m looking forward to reading The Gangster, the next instalment in the series.

A Friend in the Dark (Auden & O’ Callaghan #1) by Gregory Ashe & C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rufus O’Callaghan has eked out a living on the streets of New York City by helping the police put away criminals as a confidential informant. But when Rufus shows up for an arranged meeting and finds his handler dead, his already-uncertain life is thrown into a tailspin. Now someone is trying to kill Rufus too, and he’s determined to find out why.

After leaving the Army under less than desirable circumstances, Sam Auden has drifted from town to town, hitching rides and catching Greyhounds, until he learns that a former Army buddy, now a police detective in New York City, has died by suicide. Sam knows that’s not right, and he immediately sets out to get answers.

As Rufus and Sam work together to learn the truth of their friend’s death, they find themselves entangled in a web of lies, cover-ups, and accelerating danger. And when they witness a suspect killed in cold blood, they realize they’re running out of time.

Rating: A-

The first book in a projected series of four in the Arden & O’Callaghan MysteriesA Friend in the Dark is an enjoyable introduction to our two quirky protagonists as well as an entertaining – if not especially complex – murder mystery.  Gregory Ashe and C.S Poe kind of snuck up on us with this one – they announced their collaboration only a few weeks ago, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain; I’m a massive fan of Gregory Ashe’s work (which is a secret to exactly NO-ONE around here) and I’ve enjoyed books by Ms. Poe, so I was eager to see what they’d come up with together.  The verdict?  A thoroughly engrossing read.

The story opens as Rufus O’Callaghan discovers the dead body of Jake Brower – the detective for whom Rufus has acted as a confidential informant for a number of years – in the shower room in a set of abandoned offices.  It’s clearly murder – Jake was shot in the middle of the forehead – but before Rufus can process much, he’s being shot at, too, and gets out as quickly as he can. He makes his way to Jake’s apartment to see if he can find what Jake wanted him to pick up in the first place and, filled with sadness at the memories of the only friend he’s really ever had, Rufus decides he owes it to Jake to at least find a scrap of information he can take to the NYPD to help find the murderer.

Sam Auden – a former army (and fuck) buddy of Jake’s – arrives in New York looking for answers.  The email Jake sent him just two days before he died set all sorts of alarm bells ringing, and even though Jake’s death has, so far, been ruled a suicide, Sam knows there’s absolutely no way in hell Jake took his own life.  His visit to Jake’s precinct yields little apart from a sneaking suspicion that something’s not right there,  so he makes his way to Jake’s apartment – and is suspicious when he discovers the door is unlocked.  He bursts into the room, gun at the ready – to find a skinny kid with a mop of red hair sitting in an armchair, calmly munching his way through a bag of chips.

The story follows Rufus and Sam over the next few days as they try to find out why Jake was killed, and land in a fair amount of hot water themselves.  The mystery plot isn’t especially complicated, although it’s suspenseful and provides enough intrigue to propel the story forward;  the real delight in this book is in getting to know the main characters, watching their interactions and their relationship grow as they start to work out what makes the other tick and start to trust one another.  These guys are complex and damaged (even by normal Gregory Ashe standards!) – opposites in some ways, alike in others, and I adored both of them.

Rufus isn’t a kid at all; he’s in his early thirties and has clearly had a tough life, which he doesn’t talk about it much – if at all – and he’s prone to panic attacks. There’s clearly a lot going on beneath that snarky, street-smart surface, and we barely scratch it in this book.   He’s tough, sharp, and resourceful; he clearly cared about Jake and Jake looked out for him, the only person in Rufus’ life ever to have shown him any affection or thought he was worth a damn.

Sam is a big, tough ex-army guy who had a relationship – of sorts – with Jake years earlier that he was clearly more invested in than Jake was.  Sam is a complex mixture of traits; he’s brutally honest and says whatever he’s thinking, which can give the impression he’s a blunt instrument who lacks subtlety, but he’s also perceptive and observant, and quickly learns when to push Rufus and when to leave him alone. He’s got a very dry sense of humour – which is a good foil for Rufus’ brand of snark – and although displays a rather laid back attitude at times, he’s also prone to anxiety, albeit for different reasons; he doesn’t like crowds and lots of noise, so being in New York is akin to torture for him.

Their investigation takes them through various NYC locations – including the subway (which is more torture for Sam!) – and the settings are described vividly and in such a way as to put the reader right there with the characters. The story moves at a fast pace which aptly reflects the hustle and bustle of the city, but the authors don’t stint on the character and relationship development; this is a steamy-slow burn, but – a word of caution – don’t expect an HEA in this book. The case is wrapped up and the murder solved, but in terms of where Rufus and Sam go from here… be prepared for that to be continued.

I was really interested in what the authors had to say about their writing process, as I think it differs to the way many authors collaborate.  I suspect the most common practice is for the authors to write alternating PoV chapters, but in this book, while the PoV does alternate,  Mr. Ashe and Ms. Poe wrote via Google Doc and were, I gather, each pitching in at various times so it’s a pretty cohesive effort.  They did say which of them wrote which character, but I’m not going to tell – if you don’t already know, I’ll let you work it out for yourselves!  My one quibble really is that the secondary characters seem more peripheral and less well-developed than in other books by Gregory Ashe (specifically – I’ve read his work most recently so the comparison is easier to make), but I did appreciate the firm focus on the two leads.

Funny, sexy and intensely readable, with a pair of captivating protagonists and enough banter to satisfy my snark-loving heart, A Friend in the Dark is a terrific introduction to the Auden & O’Callaghan Mysteries and I’m eagerly looking forward to book two.