The second book in the Philip Dryden series begins with a fire. In the early summer of 1976, Britain is in the grip of a severe drought. Maggie Beck is at home at Black Bank Farm with her parents and her infant son. They are having lunch when a plane from the nearby US airbase crashes into the house, turning the world into a white hot mass. When help arrives, Maggie is walking from the house, carrying an infant in her arms, but the baby is not her baby. Her baby died in the house with her parents. She is carrying an infant wrapped in a blanket marked with USAF: Air Convoy. Maggie Beck was carrying Lyndon Koskinski, the two week old son of a US Airforce captain and his wife, flying to Texas to introduce him to the family. Lyndon was thrown clear and rescued by Maggie who sent him on to the grandparents who were waiting for him.
Twenty-seven years later, in an old army pillbox not far from Black Bank Farm, a man is chained. In front of him, on a shelf, is a glass of water. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot reach the water. It is desperately hot in the pillbox and the man watches the water evaporate. His jailor comes each day and refills the glass. He never speaks and the prisoner never sees his face. The chained man thinks there is something familiar about the man but he can’t pin it down. He knows he is dying for lack of water, for the water that is just out of reach. “He’d speak before the end came. He felt sure of that. But he wanted to know now. Know now for which of his crimes he was being punished.”
At the Tower Hospital, Philip Dryden visits his wife, Laura, as he does everyday. Now he spends some of the time talking with the woman in the other bed. Maggie Beck is dying. She has cancer and her time is running out. Philip has known Maggie for a long time. When Philip was eleven, his father had died, swept away, his body never found. Maggie has just lost her family and she moved in with the Drydens to help his mother deal with her loss. Maggie tells Philip that she has a story to tell; she has to put things right. Philip brings her a tape recorder and, as Laura listens, Maggie tells her terrible story of secrets and lies.
Away from the hospital, Philip is drawn into other stories horrifyingly common in the twenty-first century. Someone is smuggling illegal immigrants into Cambridgeshire, transporting them in container trucks. As the police close in, the immigrants are being left to die in the containers, locked in without food or water as the temperatures inside soar.
A new supply of pornographic pictures is circulating in the Fens. Young women are being drugged in bars and led away be men who are not known in the area. The women are returned to the town center but they have no memory of the men or the place they were taken. Then one of the women is found dead.
And now, twenty-seven years later, Lyndon Koskinski has returned to Black Bank Farm to meet the woman who rescued him. He is now in the US Air Force, assigned to the same air base as his father had been. Lyndon and Maggie’s daughter, Estelle, have become very close, a romance brewing. When Maggie’s health suddenly deteriorates, the couple are on holiday. Maggie begs Philip to find them; she must see them before she dies.
Philip, Laura, and Humph (Philip’s personal cabbie) are the core of the stories but Jim Kelly creates other characters in each book who carry some of the storytelling duties. The characters in FIRE BABY are formed by secrets and lies, carrying the burdens left by other people’s choices. The Dryden series on one of the best.