Attacked!

by Rona

“LA, this is Squad 51. I have a still alarm at the 1500 block of Anderson,” Johnny Gage reported, as he saw the young man frantically waving at him as he drew closer. “Please respond another squad and ask Engine 51 to respond to this location.”

“Squad 51, LA,” came the response as Johnny dropped the mic back in its socket.

Pulling over to the curb, Johnny jumped out, wishing that his partner was with him, but Roy DeSoto was in the ambulance with the elderly man who had had a close encounter with a moving car. Although not injured, the old man was shocky and Rampart ordered an IV and an IV required a paramedic to ride along. Johnny and the rest of Station 51 had cleared up and Johnny had headed off after the ambulance and Engine 51 would follow shortly, then peel off to head back to the station.

“What’s the trouble?” Johnny asked. One young man was sprawled face down on the grass and his companion looked worried.

“We were jogging,” explained the youth who had flagged Johnny down. “And Billy tripped.” He pointed to the large tree roots. “He hasn’t moved!”

Moving quickly, Johnny knelt by the youth. There was little he could do, apart from take vitals; Roy had the drug box and biophone. He reached to feel for a pulse and was stunned to suddenly find himself facing a gun as the ‘victim’ rolled over. “Hey…” Johnny began but he got no further. A hand grabbed a large amount of his hair.

“Just shut up,” the ‘victim’ advised. “Do what you’re told and we won’t hurt you.”

Slowly, Johnny raised his hands. “What do you want?” he asked.

“You guys carry drugs,” the youth replied. “We want them.”

Swallowing dryly, Johnny wondered what on earth he was going to do now. Honesty won out. “I don’t have the drug box,” he told them. “My partner has it.”

“What?” The hand in his hair tightened unpleasantly and Johnny winced at the pull on his scalp. “You’d better not be lying to us, fireboy!”

“I’m not!” Johnny protested, as he was yanked to his feet and smashed against the side of the squad. His arm was twisted up behind his back as the compartment doors were opened. Cries of frustration told Johnny that the youths believed him.

“Now what’re we going to do?” demanded the youth who still held Johnny against the squad. “You said we’d get a fix from him!”

“I don’t know!” snarled the other in reply. He was clearly furious and when he swung Johnny around, the paramedic could see that the young man needed another fix.

“Just let me go and you’re off the hook,” Johnny told them, calmly. “No damage has been done.”

It was the wrong tack to take. As a siren wailed in the near distance, the youth took out his anger and frustration on Johnny. He smashed the gun a glancing blow across the paramedic’s face. Johnny’s hands flew up to cover the injured cheek. The next moment, he found himself face down on the ground and the hand was back in his hair, smashing his head off the rock-hard grass.

As the pain rocketed through his head, Johnny kicked out in desperation and by chance, caught his attacker in the groin. With a strangled cry, the youth let go of Johnny and the paramedic scrambled to his feet, pushing away from the ground and running. He couldn’t see for the blood running into his eyes, but he kept going, feeling the asphalt of the road beneath his feet.

Brakes screeched as the noise of a diesel engine grew louder in Johnny’s ears. He swerved away blindly, but too late. The side of Engine 51 caught him on the hip and sent him spinning to the ground. Everything went black.

**********

“Cap, that’s Johnny!” Mike Stoker exclaimed in horror as his crew mate bounced off the front of the engine. Fortunately, Mike had already been slowing the heavy vehicle.

Not replying directly, Captain Hank Stanley snatched up the microphone and barked, “LA, Engine 51. Dispatch an ambulance and sheriff’s unit to our location immediately. We have a Code I.” He was already opening his door and jumping out, aware that from behind him, Chet Kelly was already on the ground and moving towards his fallen friend.

Still standing on the grass, the youth with the gun fired at the approaching firemen. The bullet starred the window above Cap’s head, and both he and Kelly ducked instinctively. Hank grabbed Chet’s arm to stop him going any further until the gun-wielding youth was out of range. The youth with the gun grabbed his friend and dragged him away.

“Cap, Johnny’s hurt!” Chet protested.

“I know that, Chet!” Hank growled. “Do you think I want to wait? What good is it going to do John if you get shot?”

“Oh,” Chet subsided and looked a little shame-faced.

By now, there were sirens coming from all around. The youths ducked into the trees in the park and vanished from sight. Stanley and Chet rose from their crouched position and moved towards Gage as Marco Lopez came cautiously around from the other side of the engine. They converged upon Johnny as Squad 16 pulled up to the curb.

“Johnny?” Chet was reaching for his friend when an authoritative voice stopped him.

“Don’t move him!” Brice knelt beside Johnny and felt for a carotid pulse. “He could have back injuries.”

“I know that!” Chet blustered. He twisted to try and look into Johnny’s face and then wished he hadn’t. Johnny’s eyes were closed and the right one was swelling. There was blood trickling down the paramedic’s face and he was pale. Frightened, Chet backed away and left Brice and Bellingham to get on with it.

It didn’t take long for 16’s paramedics to ready their colleague for transport. The ambulance had arrived promptly and Johnny was packaged onto a backboard, placed on the gurney and loaded into the back of the ambulance. Bellingham climbed in, which comforted Chet slightly. He knew that Johnny preferred the ‘Animal’ to Brice.

But the fact that Johnny had yet to show any sign of regaining consciousness was worrying.

**********

“Roy!” Dixie hailed the paramedic as he exited the treatment room.

Smiling, Roy obligingly headed towards Dixie’s desk, although that was where he most likely would have ended up anyway. “Hi, Dix,” he greeted the head nurse. “What’s wrong?” he asked, seeing that she was down.

“Roy, Johnny’s on his way in,” she began. Roy nodded quizzically. He knew Johnny was on his way in – he had to pick Roy up. But Dixie didn’t stop there. “He called in a still alarm,” she went on. “When he stopped, it seems he was attacked.”

“Attacked?” Roy echoed. “How bad is he hurt?”

“He’s got a head injury and he was hit by the engine,” Dixie replied .She sketched in the few details she knew about the incident.

“How long till he gets here?” Roy asked. He was unaware of how pale he had become.

“Any minute,” Dixie answered. She studied Roy carefully through her lashes until she decided he wasn’t going to check out on her.

The words were barely out of her mouth before a bustle at the emergency entrance told them Gage had arrived. Dixie hurried over to meet them, sweeping open the door of a treatment room. Roy caught a glimpse of his partner’s dark hair on the gurney and then Dixie was barring his way. “Wait in the lounge, Roy,” she instructed. “I’ll let you know how he is.”

“But…” Roy protested, but Dixie stood firm. A hand fastened gently but firmly around Roy’s arm and Captain Stanley led his senior paramedic away from the door, although his own impulse was to follow Johnny into the room.

“Come on, Roy,” he urged gently. With Stoker’s help, he got Roy moving and the crew of Station 51 moved en-masse to the doctor’s lounge.

***********

“I want a portable x-ray, stat!” Dr Kelly Brackett ordered. “Full skull, chest series, pelvis and leg.” He felt around Johnny’s limbs, but, like the paramedics, could find no obvious breaks. “Dix, I want bloods done…” He rattled off the list of tests he wanted completed before bending over his patient once more and peering in his eyes. “His pupils are sluggish,” he reported worriedly. “Someone find Joe Early for me.”

“I’m here,” Joe replied, coming into the room.

“I’m fine,” Johnny murmured, although he felt dreadful. His head was pounding and his hip ached and his hands were stinging and he thought there was a pretty fair chance that he was going to barf.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Gage,” ‘Animal’ retorted. “You just had a close encounter with the engine. You’re a skinny runt – what makes you think you won?”

His patient fixed the paramedic with a dark glare. “I might be skinny but I’m tough,” he countered, but his heart wasn’t really in the banter.

Leaning in past Bellingham, Brackett took charge again. “Do you remember what happened?” he asked.

“I was flagged down by a couple of guys. One of them said the other had fallen over, but when I went to check him, he pulled a gun on me.” Johnny took a couple of deep breaths to try and quell the nausea. “They wanted drugs, but I couldn’t give them anything because Roy had the drug box. They pistol whipped me and I fell and next thing, he was hitting my head off the ground. I managed to kick him off, but I couldn’t see anything because of the blood in my eyes. I ran away and then I guess I hit the engine. I don’t really remember that bit.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Brackett soothed, glancing over at Joe Early. “I don’t think I’d want to remember hitting the engine either.” The gash on Johnny’s cheekbone was ragged and would need stitching, as would the one on his forehead. His palms were lacerated and through the tear in his pants leg, they could see his hip had been bleeding, too. “Dixie’s going to get your clothes off, Johnny,” Brackett told him. “Then we’ll get some pictures.”

Much as he wanted to keep his eyes open, Johnny found that they refused to obey his will. He felt hands touching him gently, then heard the scissors cutting through his uniform pants. The air felt cool on his flesh. He shivered and wished he hadn’t, as his hurts all sprang to new life. He swallowed convulsively against the rising nausea, but knew he would be losing the battle very soon. He forced his eyes open. “Dixie...”

She knew at once what he needed and dropped the shears to grab an emesis basin and held it while he lost his lunch. She gently wiped his mouth as he lay back, his eyes watering involuntarily. “Ugh,” he moaned.

“I know,” Dixie sympathized. “Feel a bit better?”

“Too soon to tell,” he muttered. He still felt ghastly and thought he probably would for some time. He’d had concussions before and they were never pleasant. He knew he would be in hospital for a day or two at the least, maybe more depending on what they found on the x-rays. He put his head down and closed his eyes again while Dixie made short work of disposing of his clothes. He was glad when she covered him with a warm blanket. Too many people had already seen too much of him.

A clunk at the door announced the arrival of the x-ray machine and Dixie and the others left the room while Malcolm did his work. “Do you want me to talk to Roy and the others?” Dixie asked.

“We don’t have anything to tell them,” Brackett said. “Except he’s conscious and oriented.”

“Even that’s good news,” she reminded him.

“True,” Brackett agreed. “All right, tell them that and we’ll let them know what’s happening once we know.”

Nodding, Dixie made her way to the lounge, where she found the firefighters slumped over cups of coffee. There was also a police officer in the room and Dixie realized that this attack on Johnny would need to be investigated. She would need to tell Brackett, so he could decide if Johnny was up to making a statement.

“How is he?” Roy was on his feet in an instant, his cup rocking precariously as he bumped the table.

“Conscious and oriented,” Dixie reported. “In a lot of pain, of course. X-ray is there now. We’ll update you as soon as we know what’s going on.”

“When can I talk to Gage?” asked the cop.

“When Dr Brackett says you can,” Dixie replied, annoyed at him referring to Johnny simply as ‘Gage’. Would it really cost him anything to say ‘Mr.’ Gage?

“When will that be?”

“I don’t know,” Dixie replied, hanging onto her civility with both hands. She could see from the glances that were being thrown at the cop by the other men that they didn’t appreciate his attitude any more than she did. While she knew he had a job to do, politeness didn’t cost money, but lack of it cost in goodwill. “He’ll let you know.”

“The longer it takes to talk to Gage, the longer it’ll take to catch these guys,” the cop objected.

“Be that as it may,” Dixie replied frostily, “John Gage is not going to be talking to you until the doctor gives him the all clear. His health and well-being are the most important factors for us.”

With an exasperated sigh, as though Dixie was being deliberately obstructive for no good reason, the cop resumed his seat. With concealed amusement, Dixie realized that he was being isolated by the firefighters. As ever, they closed ranks to protect one of their own. “I’ll let you know how he is,” she assured the anxious men and departed.

**********

The x-ray machine was gone and Brackett was preparing his suture kits when Dixie went back in. She went over to smile down at the injured man, touching his shoulder to let him know she was there and he smiled at her without opening his eyes. His right eye, above the gashed cheek, was slowly turning black and swelling. She went to get what she needed to clean up his face and hands.

It was clear that Johnny had had something for pain, for he lay quiescent under her hands as she cleaned the cuts and gashes that he had. Only the flicker of his eyelashes and the occasional sharp intake of breath told her that he was still awake.

Brackett had just finished suturing his cheek when the x-rays arrived. He clipped them onto the light box and Joe Early, who had been minding the base station, came in to look at the skull series. While undeniably curious, Dixie stayed with Johnny, who had tensed when the door had opened, despite not opening his eyes. He was, at times, extraordinarily sensitive to atmosphere, but at other times could be completely clueless. She thought that this dichotomy in his nature was part of what made him such good company.

“Are you still awake, Johnny?” Brackett asked, leaning over him.

“Yeah,” he replied drowsily, showing that he was heading towards sleep.

“Can you open your eyes?” he asked and Johnny obliged, although the right eye was barely more than a slit. Johnny winced as the light struck him. “Pretty sensitive, huh?” Brackett sympathized.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, wishing the doctor would get on with it.

“You’ve been lucky, Johnny,” Brackett told him. “There’s no skull fracture, your cheekbone is intact and so is your hip. There’s been quite a bit of trauma to your hip and it’s very swollen, but after I suture the gash there, you’ll get some hot and cold packs to help with the discomfort and we should be able to get you onto your feet tomorrow or the next day, depending on your head.”

“You just said my head was all right,” Johnny objected.

“No,” Brackett corrected him. “I just said there were no fractures. However, you do have a severe concussion and you’re going to be here for a couple of days.” That proclamation was met by a groan of epic proportions. “What are you trying to say here?” Brackett joked, crossing his arms. “Is there something the matter with the accommodations?”

“I just wanna go home,” Johnny complained. He knew that one wasn’t going to fly, but he felt he had to try nonetheless.

“I know, but not for a couple of days,” Brackett said, with finality in his tone. “I’ll get the rest of these sutures done and then we’ll get you up to a room so you can rest.”

“There’s a policeman who wants to talk to Johnny,” Dixie mentioned, her tone neutral.

For a moment, Brackett looked at her, then glanced at his patient. Johnny had his eyes closed again. “Johnny? Are you up to talking to the cops?”

Heaving a sigh, for all he really wanted to do was sleep, Johnny pried his eyes open again. “I guess so,” he agreed reluctantly.

“Bring him in now, then we can get this over and done with,” Brackett suggested. “I’m just going to numb your forehead, Johnny. Then I’ll get on with stitching it.”

“All right,” Johnny agreed. He tensed, preparing for the first needle stick.

**********

“Nothing’s broken,” Dixie reported. “He’s got a concussion, but he’ll be fine.” There was a collective sigh of relief.

“We need to get back to the station,” Captain Stanley announced, rising. “Roy, you get back to the barn once you’ve seen Johnny and by then, we should know who’s coming in to replace him.”

“Right, Cap,” Roy nodded.

“You can come and talk to Johnny now,” Dixie told the cop, who got to his feet with alacrity. She gave him a look of distaste. He was only doing his job, but there was something about him that put her teeth on edge. “You can come, too, Roy,” she added and when the cop shot her a dirty look, she met his gaze without flinching.

“I’m Officer Morrison,” the cop announced. “Gage, I’ve come to get your statement about what happened.”

“You won’t get a word if you talk to him like that,” Roy interrupted. “He is Mr. Gage to you.”

The cop looked genuinely confused. “What happened?” he asked, ignoring Roy.

Wearily, speaking with his eyes closed, Johnny told the cop what had happened. He didn’t want to relive it again, but knew once it was done, he would be left alone to sleep.

“So what did they look like?” Morrison asked, busily making notes.

“The one who flagged me down was about 6ft tall, with longish brown hair,” Johnny replied. “The other guy looked like a typical Californian surfer; blond, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”

“Which one pulled the gun?”

That made Johnny open his eyes and he glared at the cop. “I just told you that,” he growled. “The guy on the ground; the blond one.”

“Did you know them?” Morrison went on. “How did they know you would have drugs? Do you supply them regularly?”

“That’s enough!” Brackett declared firmly, stopping what he was doing.

“Hold it!” Roy cried at the same time. He was furious. “It may have escaped your notice, but Johnny is the victim here, not the perpetrator!” He waved his hand at his supine partner. “He’s lucky to be alive, after what he went through.”

“He’s only got minor injuries,” the cop objected. He pointed at Dixie. “The nurse said so herself.”

“I said he had no broken bones,” Dixie corrected him. “A concussion is hardly a minor injury.”

Ignoring that, the cop turned to a fresh page in his notebook. “Now, Gage, about the engine running into you. Do you have a problem with the engineer who was driving, that would cause him to hit you?”

“That’s enough,” Roy hissed. He crossed over to help Dixie hold Johnny onto the table. Brackett fought to keep his needle safe.

Pushing them both away, Johnny sat up, Brackett making incoherent noises as the needle was almost snatched from his hand. “Listen to me, Morrison,” Johnny spat. “Mike Stoker is one of the best guys I know. I ran out into the street when I couldn’t see where I was going. It was sheer bad luck that the engine hit me, but it would’ve been bad luck if any vehicle hit me. You aren’t going to make this into something it’s not.”

“You’re going to leave,” Brackett said sternly. “You are not to ask any more questions and if I find you anywhere near my patient again, I am going to press charges of harassment. As it is, I’m going to be having words with your superior about this. Now get out!” Brackett could be downright scary when he was annoyed, as legions of student nurses and doctors – and some qualified nurses and doctors – could testify. The cop looked completely cowed and hastily exited, feeling the accusing weight of several pairs of eyes on his back.

“Jackass!” Johnny growled as he allowed his partner to push him back onto the table. He wished he hadn’t sat up so precipitously because he felt quite sick again and had hoped that one episode of barfing would be enough.

“Johnny? Do you feel sick?” Brackett asked. He really didn’t want Johnny to barf in the middle of him trying to stitch.

“Mmmm,” Johnny agreed, afraid to open his mouth – just in case...

“Dixie, give him 10mgs Compazine,” Brackett ordered. “Breathe deeply, Johnny.” He quickly knotted the thread and cut it off, just in case...

And not a moment too soon. Before Dixie could come back with the prescribed drug, Johnny was leaning over the edge, barfing into a basin that Roy held for him. When he was through, Dixie wiped his mouth and gave him his shot. Brackett started stitching once more.

“I guess I’d better go,” Roy finally announced, as Brackett placed a dressing over the stitches.

“Thanks for staying,” Johnny slurred. The combination of the painkillers and anti-emetic were making him very drowsy and Brackett doubted he would be awake for long. “Be careful,” Johnny added.

“I will be,” Roy promised.

**********

The police had dusted the squad for fingerprints, but there were too many smudged prints on the compartment doors to identify just one set. Morrison had brought the squad to the hospital and had been told to stay to question Johnny. He was the one, based on the little he knew, who decided that Johnny was clearly in on the so-called heist. His superiors didn’t agree and were more than a little chagrined to find that Dr Brackett and Roy DeSoto were complaining about his treatment of the victim.

He was even more chagrined when his bosses stopped chewing on his ass and he discovered that there had been another attempted hold-up of a squad while he was cooling his heels at the hospital waiting to get Johnny’s statement. The paramedics, alerted because of Johnny’s misfortune, had been very wary at approaching the young man flagging them down at the roadside and had managed to get away unscathed. The descriptions of the perps matched exactly with what Johnny had said.

The fire department immediately put all its squads on high alert. Where possible, police vehicles were sent to follow the squads as they went on runs, but it was impossible to cover every run along with their own workload.

Reluctantly wakening the next morning, his face stiff and sore, his right eye completely closed and his left hip seemingly frozen in place, Johnny Gage was not pleased to find that his assault was the lead story on the local TV news stations, along with the other attempted heist. Not only had the department provided his official photo, which Johnny hated with a passion, but they had had one of the top brass interviewed and he had proclaimed to the world that when he had seen Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage the previous evening, he had been resting comfortably. To Johnny’s certain knowledge, he had not seen this particular member of the brass before and definitely not in his hospital room! Between that and his broken night of being woken every two hours for a neuro check, Johnny was not in the best of moods.

To further sour his mood, his breakfast turned his stomach and his headache pounded on, and the drugs he was given to help seemed useless. The nurses who helped him as he retched helplessly into a basin were, of course, of the young, single and pretty type that Johnny generally chased. Somehow, that was insult added on top of injury. What chance did he have to play the hero when they had helped him when he was throwing up?

Sometime later, Johnny wasn’t exactly sure of the time, Dr Brackett showed up. He looked at his friend sympathetically. “I hear you aren’t doing too well,” he commented, looking at Johnny’s chart.

“Guess you could say that.” Johnny’s voice was hoarse from throwing up so much. “It was breakfast that did it; that and that twit on the TV.”

“How do you know he wasn’t here?” Brackett enquired, reaching to take Johnny’s pulse.

“Doc, I saw every half hour on the clock,” Johnny complained. For once, he wasn’t exaggerating. “I got wakened for neuro checks, but I couldn’t stay asleep in between them. Every time I tried to turn over, I woke up.”

“Your hip?”

“Or I’d lay onto this cheek,” Johnny mumbled.

“Let’s have a look,” Brackett proposed. He pulled the blankets aside and pushed the gown out of the way and gently drew the bandage off the wound. The swelling was pronounced and the bruising was horrific, but there was no sign of infection, which was good. “There’s nothing there to worry about,” Brackett reassured him. “But your hip suffered a lot of trauma and the bruising is going to be painful for some time. Do the hot and cold packs help?”

“A bit, but the effect doesn’t last after they’ve gone,” Johnny replied. He looked at the bruised flesh on his hip and glanced away, feeling rather queasy again. He was quite glad when Brackett covered it up and put the blankets back in place.

“Let’s take a look at your cheek.” Brackett looked closely at his eye. “Is your eye sore?”

“Fairly,” Johnny agreed. He winced as Brackett gently pulled back the eyelid and peered at the bloodshot surface beneath.

“It’s still quite bloodshot,” Brackett told him, “but less so than yesterday.” He carefully pulled back the bandage and examined his handiwork on Johnny’s cheekbone. Like the wound on his hip, it was clean with no signs of infection. “That looks good, too,” he commented.

“I guess it’s bound to hurt,” Johnny mumbled. He hadn’t thought anything was wrong, it just all hurt if he lay on it wrongly. While he always went to sleep on his back, like everyone else, he turned over during the night and that was where the trouble arose.

“Johnny, I’m going to give you something a little bit stronger for the pain and hopefully you’ll be able to get a few hours sleep just now. With any luck, your stomach will be more settled, too and perhaps we can think about you eating something if you are up to it.” Brackett scribbled his orders onto the chart. He would tell the nurse verbally on his way out. “If you feel up to it, we’ll get you up this afternoon. The sooner you’re mobile, the better it’ll be for your hip.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Johnny agreed, with a show of enthusiasm. Brackett smiled, for he knew it had more to do with getting up, a precursor to getting home, than getting more sleep. Johnny was young and could and did manage on only a few hours sleep when working. However, Brackett knew the combination of the two things would make his patient feel much better mentally, if not physically. Walking was going to be painful for a couple of weeks and Johnny would need to rest and not overdo it, but he needed to get moving as soon as possible. The hip was going to be stiff anyway to begin with.

It didn’t take long to put the plan into action and Johnny had a straight four hours sleep and felt much better for it. He was coaxed into eating a light lunch, which stayed down quite comfortably, which was a huge relief. A short while after that, the physical therapist arrived to help him get onto his feet.

While it was painful, it certainly wasn’t as bad as Johnny had anticipated and that cheered him up. He was soon limping carefully around the room and the therapist had to remind him that he had to rest the hip, too. Johnny agreed he would, but he was free to get up as he pleased, which delighted him and he indulged himself in a trip to the bathroom. He had to chuckle at the fact that this was pretty much the highlight of his day so far.

He was back in bed when Roy arrived, conscientiously doing what he was told – for the moment at least. However, he knew at once from the look on Roy’s face that there was something seriously wrong. “What is it?” he asked. “What’s happened?”

Sitting down with a sigh, Roy told Johnny the news. “Squad 15 was attacked this morning. Two guys held them up at gunpoint and the drug box was ransacked. They got away with everything in there.”

Paling, Johnny sat a bit straighter. “Are they all right?” he asked, his heart pounding uncomfortably hard in his chest.

“Yes,” Roy replied. “They were a bit roughed up, but no serious injuries. Some bruises. The guys who robbed them shot out their radio and all four tires. It was a good thing their handi-talkies weren’t in sight.”

“Was it the same guys?” Johnny asked. He hated to think of his colleagues in danger like that, but was relieved that they hadn’t been badly hurt.

“It sounds like it,” Roy agreed. They exchanged sober glances. Having successfully robbed one squad, there was no telling where this was going to end.

**********

Two days later, the swelling down in both his hip and eye and his nausea resolved, Johnny was released from hospital. There had been no further attacks on squads, but nobody thought that this situation was over and done with. The addicts would have had enough drugs from their haul to last them a few days and they had vanished. The most unfortunate problem was that their general description fitted about half of everyone living in Los Angeles. Being the fashion, a lot of guys had long hair and huge numbers looked like surfers. A police vehicle was dispatched with every ‘man down’ call and while that kept the firefighters safe, it didn’t solve the problem of catching the perpetrators. A police car simply gave them enough warning to scarper.

The situation was still unresolved when Johnny returned to work a couple of weeks later. When he had initially got home, he had followed the news reports avidly, worrying about Roy when he was on duty, but there had been no further incidents and the news channels quickly dropped the story. The whole thing drifted from the public’s mind, which was understandable, but no less infuriating for that.

The public might have forgotten about it, but the firefighters hadn’t. There was an aura of tension in the air when Johnny went into the station. Everyone greeted him cheerfully, glad to see him back, but he could feel that the usual relaxed atmosphere was not there. Generally, the men relaxed around the station house, as tension quickly built up during rescues and fires and living on adrenaline was not good for a person, day in and day out, all the time. It was something that young firefighters quickly learned in their first few days, or they simply didn’t last the pace. And it was beginning to take its toll on the various crews in the area.

As he changed into his uniform, Roy told him the new regulations that were in force until these guys were caught. “Any man or woman down call, we have to roll so far and wait for a cop car,” Roy explained. “Any run that seems suspicious, we’ve to wait for the cops to respond to our call. We’re carrying less of all the drugs, so we have to restock regularly.”

“How do we decide if a run is suspicious or not?” Johnny asked.

“If there isn’t anyone there waiting for us,” Roy replied. “That’s what the cops deem suspicious, especially if the caller hasn’t specified what the injury is.”

“How’s that going to work?” Johnny demanded. “That covers about half the calls we get!”

“I know,” Roy agreed his frustration as apparent as Johnny’s. He shrugged. “But that’s how it’s got to be,” he went on. “So far, no patient has suffered, but...” He let his voice trail off. Johnny knew what he was thinking. People in extremis didn’t always give all the details they should. It was perfectly natural, but if they had to wait outside whenever they got a call for somebody down and there was no one there to meet them, then there might be a time when that delay could cost a life and neither of the men wanted to think of that happening.

“There’s got to be another way to do this,” Johnny declared. The problem was, he couldn’t think of one.

**********

The day started off like any other with roll call and chores being given out. Roy and Johnny started their morning calibration check on the biophone and checked the drug box. It was virtually empty, carrying no more than two or three doses of any of the drugs. “How is this gonna work?” Johnny asked in disgust. “We get a bad heart attack and we might not have enough drugs to save someone’s life.”

“If it looks that bad, another squad will be sent,” Roy replied and Johnny’s frustration grew.

“That isn’t a solution,” he snarled, as though Roy had set this all up just to vex him. “That way we end up tying up two squads for one run. How does that help? Then we both need to restock at the same time and we’re both out of use, which cuts down on the number of squads available and we’re putting patient’s lives at risk!”

“You’re preaching to the choir!” Roy snapped back and that gave Johnny his first clue as to how stressful this whole situation had been for his crew mates while he had been off.

“Sorry,” he replied, chastened.

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Roy apologized. “I shouldn’t be snapping at you for telling me what I should have told you before this.” He closed the drug box and put it away. “Guess we’d better get started on our chores...” The tones interrupted him.

“Squad 51, possible heart attack...”

They raced to put the boxes away as Cap acknowledged the call and wrote down the address for them. His face was somber as he handed the slip through the window to Roy, who handed it off to Johnny. “Be careful,” he reminded them.

“We will,” Roy promised and they headed out for the first call of the day.

**********

As they replenished their meager supplies at the base station, Johnny paced restlessly. “Isn’t there some way we could have a secret stash of some of the more important drugs?” he asked. “The heart drugs, for example.”

“Where do you have in mind?” Dixie asked wearily. She was as sick of the situation as the paramedics were.

“I don’t know right now,” Johnny admitted. “But surely there’s a place on the squad where we could hide stuff?”

“They ransacked the whole squad,” Roy reminded him. “Even threw the air bottles around.”

“We need to have a secret compartment,” Johnny declared. “Perhaps we ought to speak to Charlie about it?” Charlie was the department’s prickly chief mechanic and speaking to him about doing something that he would undoubtedly consider mutilation was probably suicidal.

“Good luck with that,” Roy replied. Having lived with the situation that bit longer, he had gone through all these ideas with various other paramedics and crew members and nobody had come up with a workable solution. However, Johnny, with his dogged ranting, just might.

Sighing, Johnny continued his pacing as Roy signed for the few drugs they had taken. The HT beeped and they were off on another run – the now-ominous sounding ‘man down.’

***********

“Are you guys all right?” Cap asked as Roy brought the squad to a stop in the bay. They both looked okay but it never hurt to ask.

“Fine, Cap,” Roy replied. “It was a man collapsed in a supermarket.”

“Not too serious, I hope?” Cap queried as they got out of the vehicle.

“Well, yes and no,” Johnny replied. He sniggered. “The man was trying to steal a frozen chicken.” He chortled some more. Roy was grinning broadly. Cap couldn’t help but smile, although he had no idea what the joke was. “He might have got away with it, too, but he decided to buy some other stuff to put the store detectives off the scent.” By now, both the paramedics were sniggering helplessly.

“Well go on, you twits,” Cap scolded. “Why did he collapse?”

“He fainted,” Roy took up the story, after calming himself slightly. Johnny was helpless with laughter.

“I guessed that,” Cap grated.

“He hid the chicken under his hat,” Johnny guffawed. “Froze his brain!”

“Really?” Cap asked having learned the hard way that sometimes his men pulled his leg.

“Oh yeah,” Roy sniggered, leaning against the squad. “That’s why he fainted; he froze his brain!”

By now, all the rest of the crew were listening in, drawn by the sound of voices and laughter. They all started making markedly unsympathetic quips about the man and his stupidity. “When he gets out of Rampart, he’s going to be arrested for shoplifting,” Johnny concluded.

It was amazing how much better a good laugh made everyone feel. They went about their chores in a much happier mood, but it only lasted until the tones went again.

“Station 51, possible heart attack, Brentwood Park, cross street Elm.”

“KMG 365,” Cap acknowledged, and passed Roy the slip. Both he and Johnny were looking grim again.

Cap knew just how they felt.

**********

“I don’t know if my nerves can take it,” Johnny commented as they drove back from the hospital. The call had been perfectly legitimate and they had reached the heart attack victim in good time. He was currently recovering in Cardiac Care in Rampart. They had restocked the drugs they had used and were now on the way back to the station. The engine had been called out to a small shop fire and would probably be gone for some time.

“It gets worse,” Roy told him, concentrating on his driving.

“We’ve got to do something, Roy,” Johnny declared earnestly. “We can’t go on like this.”

“I’m open to suggestions.” Roy wasn’t deliberately baiting Johnny about it, but he had been living with this situation longer than his partner and really didn’t want it hashed over and over, as Johnny seemed prepared to do.

Sensing Roy’s mood, Johnny subsided. His eyes roved over the inside of the cab of the squad for ideas of where to place a stash of drugs, but the only places that seemed even vaguely reasonable were under the seat or in the steering column. The seat was a solid bench and the steering column no doubt housed valuable steering equipment. They could hardly alter either of those without the alterations being blindingly obvious. Still, Johnny thought it would be worth going over the whole squad slowly to see what ideas he could come up with.

That was exactly what he did while Roy worked on preparing lunch for them all. The appetizing smell of soup was filling the station when the engine returned. By this time, Johnny was on his back on the wheeled board they used to check things under the squad.

“Found another noise Roy can’t hear, Gage?” Chet asked, bending over to address the lower part of his friend’s body.

“Shut up, Chet,” came the rather muffled uninspired rejoinder from under the vehicle.

“What are you doing, John?” Cap asked.

Sliding out, for he had finished his visual inspection, Johnny brushed the dust from his pants as he rose. “I was looking for a place that we could hide some drugs,” he explained.

“Have you found one?” Cap asked. The suggestion had been mooted that the engine should carry some drugs, but that would then require the engine to go on every run with the squad and that wasn’t practicable.

“Yeah, I think I have,” Johnny replied proudly.

“Show me!” Cap ordered, as though he needed to. Johnny was clearly bursting to tell them, despite the casual air he tried to effect.

“It’s not that easy to reach,” Johnny explained as he led them round to the passenger side of the squad, “but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” He patted the corner of the squad just behind the cab, then squatted and reached under the side of the vehicle. “There’s some empty space here where the two parts of the sides meet,” Johnny went on. Cap crouched and reached under, too. Johnny was right. There was some redundant space there. “If we could get a magnetic sealed case of some kind, we could stash some of the more vital drugs there and wouldn’t run the risk of being short of any of them.” He looked at Cap for his reaction.

“That’s a really good idea, John,” Cap praised. “I’ll phone Headquarters right away and suggest it to them.” He clapped his man on the shoulder. “Well done!”

“What?” Chet asked, looking bewildered. “Gage has actually come up with a good idea?!”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Johnny shot back. “I’ve been known to do it a few times.”

“Oh yeah, when?” Chet challenged him.

With a smile, Cap left them to it, going into his office and closing the door on the childish bickering. It was good to hear the two of them getting at it again. For a while. Too much of that would try the patience of a saint and while Hank Stanley was a patient man, he was not a saint.

**********

Johnny’s idea was met initially with doubt, which soon turned to enthusiasm when Charlie realized that the changes could be made without ‘mutilating’ his beloved squads. It took a couple of days to find something that would work, but once they got going, it didn’t take all that long before the squads were supplied with a secret stash of the most necessary drugs for their work.

There hadn’t been any more attempted robberies and the police were growing disenchanted with their babysitting duties. The firefighters weren’t sure if they could relax or not. Some stayed vigilant and some stopped surveying their surroundings endlessly. Nothing bad happened to either group. After a further week when nothing happened, the police surveillance was cut right back, although the fire department made the decision to keep limiting the number of drugs openly carried for the time being at least. It proved to be a fortuitous decision.

The squad that was attacked was on a call to a woman who collapsed in a supermarket. She had fainted and was embarrassed and declined to go to Rampart. When the paramedics exited the building, they were jumped by two young men and the drug box snatched from the hand of one with such force that two of his fingers were broken. Those were the only injuries, luckily. The drug box was later found, totally empty, a couple of miles away. The police patrols started again instantly. The paramedics went back to being ultra-cautious.

“Your drug box has made all the difference,” Roy commented to Johnny as they completed the morning calibration.

“Aw, I just came up with the location,” Johnny answered with strained modesty. “Charlie figured out how to make it work.” He was never happy being the center of attention, much as he seemed to crave the limelight. Too much praise made him uncomfortable. He would have been quite happy if nobody had mentioned it seriously again after Cap’s initial burst of praise, but everyone had praised him; the staff at Rampart, his crew mates, the other shifts at 51 and every single paramedic in the whole program, not to mention the brass. Johnny had even finally met the man who had supposedly visited him in hospital. Neither of them had mentioned that.

“Still…” Roy pushed on, determined to let his partner know that he was proud of him.

It was a beautiful sunny morning. The doors were open at both the front and back to let in the cool, fresh air. The engine had gone to do an inspection and the paramedics were alone in the station.

“Aw, Roy!” Johnny protested. He put the last box into the compartment and shut the door, turning to look at Roy, who was leaning on the back of the squad, watching him. Beyond Roy, a dark figure moved against the brightness of the back lot. Johnny frowned, but by then it was already too late. Roy half-turned to see what Johnny was looking at and the figure raced across the concrete floor and tackled Roy heavily about the waist. They tumbled to the ground, knocking Johnny over, too.

Johnny knew at once who they were. He recognized them, and hated that he found himself in a position where he was unable to defend himself. He was gasping for breath, squashed under the combined weight of Roy and his assailant, the dark-haired one.

Mercifully, the weight didn’t lie on him for long. It was suddenly gone and when he recovered his breath, he looked up to see Roy standing with his back to the squad, his hands up as the blond youth pointed a gun at him with a very shaky hand.

“Get up,” Blondie ordered Johnny.

Feeling somewhat shaky himself, Johnny did as he was told. He saw the blond youth’s eyes narrow as they took in his features. “I’ve seen you before,” he remarked.

“Yeah, I remember,” Johnny mumbled. He resisted the urge to rub the almost invisible scars on his cheek and forehead. They had healed beautifully, but they still sometimes itched. He suspected it was a psychosomatic reaction this time.

“He’s the first guy we got!” Brownie crowed. “The one who didn’t have any drugs! Remember?”

“Oh, I remember all right,” replied the other, menace in his voice. He leered at Johnny. “I thought maybe you’d died after hitting that engine. Seems not. Pity.”

There was no point in responding. Johnny kept his mouth shut and his head high. Roy took his cue from his partner. He was angry and shaken and terrified and he hated that these two were denigrating his partner but there was nothing he could do about it.

“At least you’ve got drugs this time,” Blondie went on. He flicked the tiniest of glances at his friend. “Shut the big doors,” he ordered. “We don’t want anyone coming in here before we’re finished.”

“We’ll give you what you want if you just go,” Johnny offered.

“That’s big of you,” the other replied sarcastically. “I just don’t see how you’re in a position to stop me taking what I want.” He waved the gun in Johnny’s face. The paramedic wisely kept silent. “Now open up that door and give me the drugs!” His voice took on a hard edge of desperation.

Impassively, Johnny did as he was told as the rear bay doors started to come down. With the gun now pointed at Roy, there was no way he could take any kind of risk. He pulled out the drug box and held it, waiting for further instructions. With the guy so strung out, doing anything without an order could backfire.

“Put it on the floor,” Blondie ordered. “Now get some rope and tie your friend’s hands and feet.”

Angry color stained Johnny’s face as he slowly moved to do what he was told. With Roy standing against the squad, Johnny realized that he would have to step between Roy and the gun. This would be their chance. He glanced at his partner and saw the same awareness. Johnny blessed their connection that allowed them to know what the other was thinking. It was a risky move and could cost them everything, but Johnny could see that Roy knew that they had to take the chance. Johnny’s eyes slid to Cap’s office where Roy could barricade himself and phone for help. He met Roy’s eyes again in the instant before he stepped between him and the gun and saw that his friend understood.

It was amazing how quickly he could become frightened, he reflected, trying to steady his trembling limbs and slow his racing heart. It didn’t work. He was so frightened that he could have vomited on the spot. But there was no time for that, no time for anything but action. He took that final fateful step and whirled, throwing himself at the gunman, reaching for his gun arm to try and control it. He was vaguely aware that behind him, Roy had reacted just as quickly and was running for Cap’s office. The other addict was running towards him, trying to intercept, but he wasn’t quick enough. Roy gained his sanctuary and Johnny heard the door bang shut. He concentrated on his opponent, but he had relaxed momentarily and that gave Blondie the edge. In a move that had worked for him before, he swung the gun at Johnny’s face. This time, the paramedic ducked, but it still caught him a glancing blow behind the ear and he staggered and went down. A foot pounded him in the stomach several times and his vision grayed down as he gasped helplessly for breath.

Although he didn’t pass out, Johnny was completely helpless as his diaphragm went into spasm and when he was once more in control of his breathing and senses, he found that his hands were tightly bound behind his back. The two addicts were looking at him victoriously and he felt a renewed jolt of fear. Roy! Was he still safe in the office?

“You’re really dumb,” Blondie told him, seeing that Johnny was with it once more. “We don’t need you or your friend; we just need the drugs. We were going to get them one way or the other.” He aimed the gun directly at Johnny’s face. The paramedic sought to keep the fear he felt from showing and was almost unmanned by the relief that swept over him when the addict tucked the gun into the front of his belt.

From his position sprawled on his stomach on the floor, Johnny could turn his head and look under the squad at the office door. To his intense relief, it was closed and as he could not see Roy on the floor anywhere else, he had to assume his friend was safe. By some miracle, the gun had not gone off. Now, the cops could come to the rescue, like the Seventh Cavalry in the old movies he watched as a kid.

But it wasn’t the cops who arrived; it was Engine 51 and the front bay doors were still open. The big red vehicle slowed in the street and Johnny saw Chet hop out to stop the traffic to allow the engine to back into the station. They didn’t know what was going on, and by the time they realized, it would be too late.

He would have sworn it wasn’t possible for him to get to his feet with his hands tied behind his back and lying the way he was, but somehow he did it and ran towards the front of the station. “Chet!” he bellowed. “Don’t come in! Chet!”

He felt, rather than saw, Blondie pulling the gun and pointing it at him. Instinctively he ducked and the bullet caught him in the back, knocking him off his feet. Pain stole his breath away and he lay face down on the concrete floor, whimpering in agony.

His sacrifice was not entirely in vain. Not only Chet but the others heard the shot and saw Johnny fall and realized that there was something seriously wrong. Cap instantly made the only decision he could make under those circumstances, although he hated to do it.

“Chet, get back in the engine!” he ordered. “Mike, get us out of here, now!”

Obediently, but not without a backward glance, Mike gunned the engine down the road. Cap lifted the mic. “LA this is Engine 51,” he said, his voice strained with anxiety. “We had a still alarm at Station 51. There appear to be two armed men in the station and Squad 51 is in quarters. One paramedic has been injured. Please respond a police unit and a squad to this location.”

“10-4, 51,” the dispatcher responded more calmly. “Police are already en-route. Paramedic DeSoto already called in a still alarm.”

“10-4,” Hank replied. “Is he all right?”

“Affirmative, 51,” was the response. “He reported no injuries at the time.” There was the hint of a question in that sentence.

Bleakly, Hank reported, “We just saw John Gage get shot.”

There was a long pause. Cap and Mike exchanged glances. Mike pulled the engine over to the side of the road now that they were out of range. They could see that the bay doors had gone down. Their paramedics, their friends, were trapped in the station with a gunman.

“10-4, 51,” dispatch finally responded, his tone grim.

**********

In Cap’s office, Roy stared in horror at the door. He was feeling bad enough that he had been the one to escape and make the phone call for help, but knowing that Johnny was on the other side of that door and that there had been a shot fired was too much for him. If his friend was injured, he would never forgive himself. He found the phone in his hand and realized that he had dialed headquarters again. It was answered at once. “There’s been a shot fired!” Roy cried, not identifying himself.

“Yes, we know,” replied the calm voice on the other end. “Captain Stanley reported it.”

“Cap?” Roy interrupted. “Are they all right? None of the engine crew was hurt were they?”

“No,” replied the unknown person. “They are all fine.”

“What about Johnny?” Roy didn’t realize that he had said that aloud until the voice replied.

“Firefighter/Paramedic Gage has been hit.” The voice was emotionless, but the shock hit Roy like a brick wall.

“No,” he whispered, his eyes drawn inexorably to the door that he had so carefully barricaded. “I’ve got to help him.”

“DeSoto!” The voice was stern. “Stay exactly where you are. Do you hear me? DeSoto!” But the voice was speaking to itself, for Roy had dropped the receiver and was tearing down the barricade he had made such a short time before. He hoped that Joanne would forgive him for what he was about to do, but he couldn’t leave Johnny out there when he had been shot.

He emerged slowly from the office, his hands up and his heart pounding as though it would burst out of his chest. Blondie looked less strung out, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. He looked at Roy. “What do you want?” he asked, brandishing the gun.

“I want to help my partner,” Roy replied. At that moment, he couldn’t see Johnny and his heart was in his throat.

“Please yourself,” the guy slurred and Roy could see that the drugs he had taken were working quickly. “He’s probably dead, but knock yourself out. Just don’t do anything stupid.” He waved the gun again.

Moving slowly, for the man was just about far enough along to do something stupid himself, Roy rounded the squad, careful to remain in sight and keep his hands up. Johnny was lying face down on the cold floor, but he was groaning, which was the most wonderful sound Roy could imagine. He wanted nothing more than to run across the floor and fling himself down at Johnny’s side, but he kept his movements slow and steady and worked to push down the anger that filled him as he saw his partner’s bound hands. Carefully, he got down on his knees. “Johnny?”

Dark brown pain-filled eyes met his in mute misery. Johnny couldn’t find his voice to speak; the pain was so all-encompassing that just breathing took his entire concentration. A look of gratitude crossed his face before the pain took over again. His mouth moved, but nothing came out. Roy knew what he wanted to say. He wanted Roy to do something to take the pain away, to free his hands, to make things right. “Take it easy,” Roy whispered. He didn’t want to draw attention to them.

‘Take it easy’ wasn’t what Johnny wanted to hear. Why didn’t Roy understand how painful it was, especially with his hands still tied behind his back? Why wasn’t he doing something to help? Johnny shivered convulsively and a groan broke from behind his teeth. He could feel the blood on his back and right arm and it made him feel sick. His head was light and he guessed he was going into shock. He needed Roy to help him, not just sit there doing nothing.

But Roy was not paralyzed by fear, as Johnny dimly suspected through the haze in his head. He was in fact waiting for the addicts to start tripping out – as they looked like they were going to do any moment now. Judging by the empty ampules lying on the floor, they had shot themselves up with a mixture of drugs and were likely to go into a severe overdose at any second. Keeping half an eye on Johnny, Roy was watching the addicts with the rest of his attention.

Roy’s patience and foresight was rewarded within about 30 seconds as the men both slumped over. Blondie was visibly twitching and Brownie started drooling. Roy leapt to his feet, dashed across the small distance that separated them and confiscated the gun. He then ran to the front bay door and pushed the opening control and glanced out. He was met with a barrage of guns bristling in his direction.

It took only moments for the SWAT team to take in the situation. One man relieved Roy of the gun and others went in to take control of the addicts. Roy left them to it. He raced over to Johnny and used his bandage scissors to snip through the rope holding him prisoner. Johnny let out a fearsome groan.

“Easy, easy,” Roy soothed. “I can get help now. Just hang in there.” He glanced up as footsteps came towards him. It was a cop. “Get me that orange case out of the squad,” he ordered.

“This is a crime scene…”

“I don’t care if the President has arrived!” Roy snapped. “My partner needs medical attention right now and I need that orange box so I can give it to him! Now get it!” He bent over his task of cutting away Johnny’s uniform shirt and the white t-shirt underneath.

Slightly stunned, the cop wasn’t sure what to do. However, anything he might have done was overtaken by events as the rest of the crew of 51 came running into the bay. They saw and sized up the situation with experience borne of long practice and they went into immediate action. This was what they had been trained for, not sitting waiting. Chet went for the biophone, Marco went for the trauma box and Cap went to call for an ambulance. Mike grabbed the oxygen.

The bullet had gone into the right side of Johnny’s back. Although it wasn’t in his spine, it was still far too near for Roy’s liking. Who knew where it had ended up? It was not unknown for bullets to move around inside people and Roy was taking no chances.

“Rampart, this is squad 51.” Roy smiled down at Johnny as the younger man opened his eyes for a moment as Mike fitted the oxygen mask over his face.

“Go ahead, 51.” It was Brackett’s deep, reassuring voice.

“Rampart, we have a male aged 25. He has been shot in the back. The bullet is still in there. I have him on 10 liters of oxygen. Stand by for vitals.” Roy dropped the receiver into his lap as he reached for the BP cuff and stethoscope. The cop still stood there watching them. Roy ignored him. “Rampart, vitals are as follows; BP 100/60, pulse 120 and bounding, respirations are 20. The skin is cool and clammy. The victim is awake and aware and in extreme pain. Be advised, the victim is John Gage.” Roy’s professional voice cracked on those last two words.

“10-4, 51,” Brackett replied. Roy could hear his shock in his voice. “51, start an IV with Ringers, apply pressure dressings to control any bleeding, immobilize on a backboard and continue with the oxygen. Give 5mgs MS and repeated vitals in five minutes. Transport immediately.”

“The ambulance isn’t on scene yet,” Roy told him, after repeating the orders back. He glanced at Cap who held up three fingers. “We estimate it should be here in approximately three minutes.”

“Transport as soon as possible,” Brackett ordered.

It took Roy less than a minute to get the IV going and Johnny sighed in relief as the MS – from his secret hiding place under the squad’s body – took the edge off the pain. The second squad arrived moments before the ambulance, and between them, the three paramedics got Johnny onto the board on his stomach. The board was transferred to a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Roy hopped in beside him, studiously ignoring the cop who tried to prevent him leaving. As the ambulance pulled away, Roy started taking new vitals.

**********

“His blood pressure has come up slightly to 110/80,” Roy reported as the stretcher rolled into the ER. “His pulse is still 120. The bleeding is controlled, but the bullet is still in there and he’s in considerable pain,” he concluded.

“Thanks, Roy,” Brackett said. “What happened?”

“The addicts broke into the station,” Roy replied. “The ones who started all this with the attack on Johnny.”

“What?” Brackett glanced at Roy. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Roy assured him and suddenly had never been less like fine in his life as the shock caught up with him now that his partner was in safe hands. There was a roaring sound in his ears and darkness swept over his vision. Brackett caught him on the way to the floor.

“I need some help here!” he bellowed and the nurse who had been coming in to assist him ran to get orderlies and another gurney. In short order, Roy was stretched out on it, with Mike Morton bending over him.

When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see that he was in the corridor and he glanced around in confusion, color rising in his pale face as he realized that he’d fainted. “What…?”

“X-ray is in with your partner,” Brackett told him.

“How’re you feeling?” Morton asked. “You fainted,” he added unnecessarily.

“You don’t say,” Roy murmured. Morton was a good doctor, but there were times when his bedside manner could use a lot of work. This was one of them.

“Your blood pressure was a bit low and you were a bit shocky,” Morton went on, seeming to forget he was talking to a paramedic who had worked that one out for himself. “But the IV should sort that out.” Roy blinked and looked down at himself, because he hadn’t noticed the IV. “Are you hurt anywhere that we haven’t noticed?”

“No, I’m fine,” Roy replied. “I might be a bit bruised from when one of them tackled me, but we landed on top of Johnny.” He glanced at Brackett. “He was pretty winded.”

“I think that’s probably the least of his worries right now,” Brackett commented. He glanced at the treatment room door, anxious to get back to his patient.

“Gage wouldn’t soften the fall that much,” Morton commented wryly. He was trying to be humorous, but failed dismally.

“I dare say it wasn’t too comfortable for him,” Roy snapped. “Do you know what we’ve just been through?”

“Take it easy, Roy,” Brackett soothed. He indicated to Morton that he would take over and the embarrassed black doctor headed off back to the base station. “Don’t mind him,” Brackett told Roy. “He was as worried as the rest of us, but he hasn’t quite got the hang of this kind of situation yet. Give him a bit of leeway.”

“Sure,” Roy agreed, resting his head against the back of the gurney.

The x-ray machine came out of the treatment room and Brackett pushed Roy back into it. Johnny was still strapped face-down to the backboard and would be until Brackett had seen the x-ray results and knew exactly what he was dealing with. The doctor crossed over to him immediately he had parked Roy within easy talking distance. “How are you doing, Johnny?” he asked.

“It hurts,” Johnny replied.

“I’ll…” Brackett stopped abruptly. His hands went to Johnny’s head and moved aside his hair gently. “Johnny, what did you hit your head on?”

“I didn’t,” the paramedic replied in a puzzled voice. “I don’t think.” He didn’t sound too sure. His head was aching, but so was most of the rest of his body and he hadn’t thought anything much about it. “It is aching,” he admitted.

“I’m just going to clean that up,” Brackett informed him and gathered what he would need before seating himself at a good height to work. He was as careful as he knew how to be, because until he could judge the seriousness of the injury, he wouldn’t risk giving Johnny anything more for pain. Fortunately, he had taken the precaution of asking for a full skull series.

“How does it look?” Roy asked anxiously.

“Pretty superficial, all things considered,” Brackett replied in a slightly preoccupied voice. “It’s more of a deep graze than a cut. It won’t need stitches and I’m just going to leave it open to the air to heal.”

“Roy? You all right?” Johnny asked. He squinted across the space that separated them.

“I’m fine,” Roy lied. He still felt like hell, but knew that he felt a whole lot better than Johnny did and it wasn’t worth mentioning.

Even in the state he was in, Johnny was nothing if not persistent. “You’re on a gurney,” he noted.

“He decided to check to see if the floor was clean,” Brackett joked, but it went right over Johnny’s head. He wasn’t processing that fast. Brackett leaned in close and said, in a loud whisper, “He fainted.”

“Oh.” Johnny wondered why the doctor hadn’t said that in the first place, but a huge stab of pain swept up from his back and his thoughts scattered to the four winds as he tried to deal with it.

His gasp of pain didn’t go unnoticed by either his partner or his doctor. Brackett was instantly all business again and he sent Roy a ‘stay where you are’ look to stop the senior paramedic getting off his gurney. “Johnny, I’m going to go ahead and give you something else for pain.” He couldn’t make Johnny wait for the x-rays; he needed something else now. Brackett drew up another 5mls of MS and shot it into the IV port. After a few moments, Johnny’s body began to relax slightly.

The x-rays came back and Brackett clipped them up onto the light box. The bullet was clearly visible on the right side of Johnny’s back. It wasn’t near his spine, which was good news, but it looked ominously close to his right kidney, which also meant that it was ominously close to his liver. As Johnny was lying on his stomach, there was no way for Brackett to check his abdomen for rigidity, but he could be bleeding into his belly and not really be aware of it because of the pain in his back. He could be all right, but either way, Brackett could not afford to take any chances. Johnny had to go to surgery right away.

The OR was already on stand-by. Brackett lifted the phone. “Page Dr Crawford to OR3 stat,” he ordered. “I want those four units of cross matched blood sent there stat and I need two orderlies in treatment three right now.” Hanging up the receiver, Brackett went back to Johnny, even as the door opened to admit the orderlies. “Johnny, we’re taking you up to surgery to get that bullet out.”

“Surgery?” Johnny repeated. He had been floating on the drugs, not listening to what Brackett was saying, since the doctor had clearly not been talking to him, and for some reason, he was surprised that he was headed for surgery. He had known that he would have to get the bullet removed; perhaps it was the sudden urgency that caught him by surprise. “Now?”

“Right now,” Brackett confirmed. He nodded to the orderlies, who stepped in to guide the gurney. Brackett glanced at the senior paramedic. “Someone will be in to see to you shortly, Roy. I’ll come and speak to you as soon as I can. You won’t be going back on duty today.”

“I’m fine,” Roy protested automatically, his eyes following Johnny as his partner was wheeled out of the door.

“I know, but you’re still not going back on duty today and that’s final.” Brackett essayed a brief smile and departed out of the door at high speed to accompany Johnny upstairs, where he would scrub in with Dr Crawford to assist in the surgery.

Roy was left alone.

**********

“All right, he’s out,” the anesthetist declared.

“Get him off that board and let’s turn him, but carefully. We don’t want that bullet moving.” Dr Crawford strategically placed his nurses around the unconscious man and they smoothly lifted and turned him onto his back. Crawford probed Johnny’s belly. “Rigid,” he said in a resigned tone. “Well, no surprise.” He gestured to the nurse with the iodine. “Let’s get going.”

Within a few moments, Crawford was making the first cut.

**********

“No, I haven’t heard anything yet,” Roy said into the phone. He had finished the IV he was given and was sitting in the nurses’ lounge nursing a cup of coffee. Dixie had phoned the station to say that Roy was not coming back that shift and discovered that the station was sealed off as it was a crime scene and engine 51 was parked on the driveway, the men wandering around uselessly, as they were not allowed to leave.

By the time Roy’s IV had run through, he was feeling much better and able to talk to the cop who was waiting to take his statement. He learned from the cop that the station had gone back into service and phoned to talk to Cap. Cap immediately asked if Roy was okay and once he was assured that he was, he asked about Johnny. “He’s been in surgery for more than an hour now,” Roy went on. “I don’t know how much longer it’ll be, but hopefully not too long.”

“What did Dr Brackett say?” Cap asked.

“Not a whole lot, but as soon as he saw the x-rays, he had Johnny out of the door and in the OR,” Roy answered. “I didn’t see the pictures, so I don’t know what he saw.”

“It could be really serious, couldn’t it?” Cap asked soberly.

“Yeah,” Roy agreed, reluctantly. He didn’t want to think of the damage the bullet could do. While Johnny’s spine didn’t seem to be involved, that didn’t mean the bullet hadn’t ricocheted inside his body and severed his spinal cord. Johnny could be a paraplegic. The bullet might have nicked an artery, allowing a slow, deadly bleed. It could have penetrated his kidney, his liver, his stomach, his spleen, his bowel… the list was endless and Roy didn’t want to dwell on the possible ghastly outcomes. He certainly wasn’t going to enumerate them for Cap to worry about. No, he’d try and be optimistic and keep his concerns to himself.

“Roy, this isn’t your fault,” Cap reminded him. “You do know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah I know,” Roy agreed, but his tone wouldn’t have convinced a three year old.

“Roy!” Cap scolded.

“I know, I know,” Roy capitulated. “But I can’t help it. Johnny is lying up there and I’m all right because he decided to tackle that guy.”

“Johnny is lying up there because he is a brave man,” Cap responded. “He got shot saving us from walking into the mess and you already said that he couldn’t have made the break for the office. So stop feeling guilty! That’s an order!”

“Yes, sir,” Roy responded smartly. “Cap, what about the addicts? What’s happened to them?”

“The one with the brown hair died on the way to Rampart,” Cap reported. There was nothing of compassion in his tone; rather he spoke with satisfaction. “The other one is serious but stable and it looks like he will live to be tried.”

“But will he receive more than a slap on the wrist?” Roy enquired cynically.

“That remains to be seen,” Cap determined. The tones went off in the background. “Gotta run, Roy. I’ll phone when we get back.”

Replacing the receiver, Roy sat back down and looked morosely into his coffee. He couldn’t face another single sip; he was awash with the stuff. Waiting was always the hardest thing to do. Roy thought he ought to be good at it by now as he spent so much time waiting to hear about Johnny. He would change only one thing about his partner, he thought; his habit of getting injured. It was no wonder he was starting to go bald. It was a minor miracle he wasn’t going grey as well!

Glancing at the clock, he thought about phoning Joanne, but he had nothing to tell her and he knew she would be busy making an evening meal for the kids before she started the bath/bedtime routine. Chris would be chattering about his day at school and Jennifer would be telling her big brother about all her small adventures at home. Roy longed with all his heart to be there, but he couldn’t relinquish his vigil; someone had to be here to get the news, good or bad, when Johnny came out of surgery. Only when Roy had seen his partner would he be willing to yield to the doctor’s urgings and go home.

He sat there for almost another hour, idly flicking through a discarded newspaper, before the door opened to reveal Dr Brackett. Roy was on his feet at once. “Well?” he asked.

“It was tricky,” Brackett reported, sinking wearily into a chair. “His belly was full of blood. The bullet nicked the right kidney and was lodged in his liver. They were both bleeding. A little longer and we would have been in real trouble.”

“How is he doing now?” Roy asked, all his worst fears having been realized.

“So far so good,” Brackett replied. “We’ll be watching his kidney closely to make sure it’s working. I don’t want to have to remove it; that would finish his career for good. The liver should heal without a problem. We simply removed the little bit with the bullet in it. Doing that was easier than trying to take the bullet alone.” Brackett sighed. “There is always the danger of infection with extensive abdominal surgery, but obviously we’ll watch that too. Johnny’s in ICU. He lost a lot of blood and some more on the table,” he admitted. “We’re transfusing now and will give him another unit at least tonight. I’m keeping him sedated and on the ventilator tonight to let his body rest.”

“Will he be all right?” Roy asked. “Will he be able to return to work?”

“Barring some dreadful unforeseen circumstance, I don’t see why not,” Brackett reassured him. “Johnny’s young and strong and although his injuries are serious and were life-threatening, you got him here in time for us to do what we had to and save his life. It might take a bit longer, but he’ll be back to bother you.” Brackett rolled his shoulders. “Come on, I’ll take you up to see him, then you go home and get some rest.” He frowned. “How are you getting home?”

“I’ll hitch a ride with a squad back to the station and pick up my car there,” Roy replied, rising.

“I’m just going off duty, so I could run you back,” Brackett offered. “It’s on my way.”

“I don’t want to put you out,” Roy demurred.

“You’re not,” Brackett assured him. “I’ll run you back to the station as soon as I’m changed. Meantime, let’s go see that partner of yours.”

**********

“He looked okay,” Roy assured his shift mates. “Pale, of course, and on the ventilator for the night, but other than that, he looked okay.” Reaction had set in hard and Roy was exhausted. He just wanted to go home and go to sleep for a week. Johnny had, to his critical eye, looked awful, but there was no point in saying that to their friends; by tomorrow, the blood transfusions would have had time to work and color would be returning to Johnny’s face. He would be off the vent, out of ICU, and on the road to recovery. There was no need to burden them with the worries that still ate at Roy’s peace; the possibility of an infection, the fear that his kidney wouldn’t start working normally, and the worst one – that he would no longer want to be a paramedic after all that had happened.

“How about you?” Hank asked. Roy looked almost as bad as he felt. There were dark circles under his eyes and he was still too pale. “That cop didn’t give you any grief about leaving the scene did he?” Hank had still not forgotten the treatment meted out to Johnny when this all began. “You were the attending paramedic after all.”

“No, he didn’t say a word about it,” Roy replied. It wouldn’t have made any difference to Roy even if he had said something. Roy didn’t regret his actions at all. Saving a life took precedence in his book over preserving evidence of a crime.

“Good.” Cap clapped his hands together. “Roy, do you want to eat with us before you go home?”

“No, thanks all the same, Cap. Joanne is making something for me.” It was true, but Roy would still have passed on the meal. He didn’t want to dissect the day over and over again. The replacement paramedics would be in shortly and Roy didn’t want to speak to them, either. “And speaking of which, I’d better get going. I don’t want to be late.” He essayed a smile and took his leave.

“Boy, Roy’s taking it hard,” Chet commented, watching the senior paramedic’s departing back.

“Do you blame him?” Marco asked. “It must have been horrible being in the office and hearing the gun go off.”

“And we all know what Roy is like for feeling guilty,” Mike added.

“We’ll need to give Roy and Johnny all the support we can,” Cap added. “Meantime, let’s eat.” It hadn’t been the easiest of days for them, either, and they were all tired. Cap knew they needed to eat and they would feel a bit better afterwards.

As they sat down to Mike’s fried chicken, he wondered why captains’ school wasn’t renamed ‘surrogate fatherhood’, as he sometimes didn’t see much difference between the two roles.

**********

There was something in his throat choking him. He started to fight against it, but a searing pain shot through his belly into his back and he subsided immediately. He was vaguely aware of someone talking to him, but right now, the words were meaningless.

Real awareness seeped back and Johnny was able to open his eyes and squint against the lights to see Dr Brackett and Roy standing beside him. Roy’s mouth was moving and gradually, Johnny was able to connect sound and vision and realized that Roy was explaining that he was intubated and not to fight the vent, he was breathing over it now and in a few minutes, when he was properly awake, Dr Brackett would take it out. Damn being properly awake, Johnny thought. He could just pull the tube now as far as Johnny was concerned.

It seemed Dr Brackett had become a mind reader, for he leaned over Johnny and asked if he was ready to lose the tube. Why did doctors suddenly try and become comedians at times like these Johnny wondered? He nodded as much as he could and shortly thereafter the tube was out and he was trying to suppress the coughing that always followed.

Sadly, he wasn’t able to do so and the pain galloped through his body once more, stealing away his rather erratic breath. He clutched at the blanket that covered him, his knuckles white.

“Easy,” Roy soothed.

“Are you in pain?” Brackett asked.

Nodding, Johnny was able to subdue the cough and drew a cautious breath. It still hurt, but was more manageable. “What happened… to me?” he whispered, his voice hoarse from the tube.

“What do you remember?” Brackett asked. Johnny hated it when doctors did that. Why did they have to answer a question with a question? He rolled his eyes. Brackett chuckled. “Come on, Johnny,” he coaxed. “I need to know what you remember.”

Sighing, Johnny closed his eyes for a moment and thought. It was difficult, because his head seemed to be stuffed full of cotton wool and his thoughts were sliding around all over the place. What did he remember? There was something about the squad and…

“I was shot!” he cried, and winced at the pain in both his throat and his body. He looked down at himself, but the blankets were pulled up and he couldn’t see anything. “What…?”

“You’ve had surgery,” Brackett told him, beckoning to the nurse to bring Johnny’s pain medication. “You’re going to be fine.”

As the drug spread throughout his blood stream, Johnny could feel the pain slowly ebbing away. His eyelids suddenly weighed ten tons each. He wanted to ask about his surgery, and why he was feeling so much pain in so many places, but his tongue was heavy and uncooperative and his brain was slowing down. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all and he gave in to it willingly. There would be enough time later to find out what exactly had happened to make him feel so bad.

**********

When he next woke up, Johnny was feeling a bit better. The pain was still there, but more manageable and his head felt a bit clearer. He opened his eyes and glanced around. He was in ICU, he noticed, and while still connected to a heart monitor, the ventilator had been removed. The curtain separating him from the next patient had been pulled back and he glanced at the man lying in the bed.

The shock Johnny got sent the heart monitor screeching loudly. He gasped and panted as he tried to control the fear that was shooting through his body. The man in the next bed had his eyes heavily closed and was clearly sleeping, but Johnny didn’t care about that. All he knew was that he was lying next to the man who had shot him!

The nurses came on the run, one of them silencing the alarm, the other leaning over Johnny. “Mr. Gage? What is it?”

Still panic stricken, Johnny could barely speak coherently. “What’s… what’s he … doing here?” he gasped.

Perturbed, not understanding the cause of her patient’s distress, the nurse frowned. “Mr. Sanders is here for the same reason you are,” she explained. “He’s waiting to be transferred to a room on another floor. Please be quiet, Mr. Gage; you might waken him.”

“No, I’ve got to get out of here,” Johnny panted. He fought to rise, trying to ignore the growing pain in his back and belly. The nurse restrained him.

“Calm down, Mr. Gage,” she ordered sternly, but he still fought on. “Janice, get the restraints and page Dr Brackett,” she added. The other nurse hastily found the leather wrist restraints and they managed to subdue Johnny enough to secure his hands. Janice then ran to page Dr Brackett and the first nurse, Judy, fought Johnny into a pair of ankle cuffs. She was panting by the time she succeeded and Johnny was drenched in sweat and completely distraught. He continued to fight the restraints and Judy winced. He would be covered in bruises if he carried on like that. “Mr. Gage,” she pleaded. “Calm down.”

The ruckus had wakened the addict in the next bed. While he was still too weak to rise unaided, he was able to turn his head. He recognized Johnny instantly, and lay there watching him, enjoying seeing the other man strapped down and clearly panicking. A grin crossed his face and when Johnny looked at him briefly, he lifted his hand and waved slightly.

Immediately, Johnny’s struggles increased and Judy began worry that despite everything she had done, he might tear his stitches. Her attempts at soothing him were going nowhere and the jerk in the next bed was not helping things. He was laughing quite audibly now. He had been obnoxious ever since he got off the ventilator and she was glad to see the back of him and the cop who had been cluttering up ICU since his admittance, but was, of course, nowhere to be seen now when he might have been of some use. If Judy had had a free hand, she would have pulled the curtain between them, but right now, her hands were both fully occupied.

Thankfully from her point of view, before everything got out of hand, Dr Brackett burst into the room with Roy, who had been having a coffee break, on his heels. In an instant, they both took in the scene. “Pull that curtain!” Brackett snapped. “Get the cop in here and get him out! Don’t you know he’s the guy who shot Johnny?”

“How was I supposed to know that?” Judy snapped back. She didn’t usually snap at doctors – it wasn’t very politic – but there were times when doctors had to be reminded that just because they knew everything, it didn’t mean the nurses did. Brackett blinked in astonishment and then realized that it was probable that nobody had told any of the nursing staff. Why would they? The chances of them being together like this were so remote… But it had happened and now Brackett had to deal with this.

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” he agreed. “We’ll deal with Johnny. You get the cop and get him down to his room. Then can you make sure that nobody has put them in the same room downstairs?”

As Judy headed off, Brackett joined Roy beside the distraught paramedic. Roy was speaking to him calmly and soothingly and appeared to be making some progress. Johnny had, at least, stopped pulling at the cuffs. Brackett busied himself in removing them, content to let Roy minister to Johnny for the moment. When the younger man had calmed down, then he would make sure that no damage had been done to the surgical incision.

A wrathful Judy reappeared with the errant cop in tow and Sanders’ gurney was moved. Johnny was gradually relaxing now that he wasn’t pinned down and the adrenalin that had surged through his body dissipated, leaving him weak and exhausted. Cold sweat beaded his brow and he shivered, wincing as the movement upset his wound. “Roy,” he gasped, feeling like a complete idiot.

“It’s all right, he’s gone,” Roy assured him. “And you won’t be seeing him again.”

“He was…” Johnny couldn’t complete any of his sentences. He had no idea what to say that would convey the depths of his distress.

“I know,” Roy agreed. “It was one hell of a shock and you really didn’t need that right now. But you’re fine. You’re going to be fine and once he’s had his day in court, he’ll be put away. Don’t worry about him. He can’t touch you.”

It took another few minutes for Johnny to relax completely. “I feel like an idiot,” he confessed as Brackett pulled down his hospital gown and carefully peeled back the dressing to look at his wound. “I didn’t think; I just reacted.” He rubbed his aching wrists.

“Of course you didn’t think,” Brackett replied. “You’ve been sedated and are on fairly heavy-duty painkillers. Your reaction was perfectly normal. If I saw someone beside me who had shot me, I doubt I’d have been as calm as you were.”

“I wasn’t calm,” Johnny argued tiredly. He pointed to the cuffs that were still lying on the bed. “I wouldn’t have needed those if I had been calm.” It was rather disconcerting the way the memory of the snug leather lingered on his skin.

“Stop beating yourself up about it,” Brackett replied, smiling slightly. “You’re getting to be as bad as your partner here with the guilt.”

A smile played around Johnny’s lips as Roy dramatically over reacted to Brackett’s comment. “There’s no need to exaggerate, doc,” he scolded, seeing Johnny’s smile broaden. “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re worse,” Johnny sniggered. He was fighting off waves of warm sleep now, his body feeling pleasantly heavy. There was just the uncomfortable niggle of pain reminding him of why he was in the hospital.

“Everything looks fine,” Brackett declared, smiling both at the by-play and the fact Johnny hadn’t damaged the stitches. “We’ll get you down to a room and settled in. Don’t worry about Sanders. You won’t be seeing him again.”

“Well, not until the trial,” Johnny yawned. He blinked, trying to keep focused. “I suppose there will be a trial?”

“I suppose so,” Roy agreed. “The police are waiting to talk to you about it, once Dr Brackett gives the all-clear.”

“You get some sleep,” Brackett suggested, seeing Johnny glance questioningly at him. “Then you can talk to the cops. They’ve waited this long; another couple of hours isn’t going to matter.”

There was one last thing Johnny needed to know. “What about the other guy?” he asked. “Am I going to be meeting him around the hospital?”

“No,” Roy replied. “He didn’t make it. That’s one less worry for you.”

“Oh,” Johnny murmured. He allowed his eyes to close this time. The loss of a life was always something to regret, but as Roy had said, it meant one less thing for him to worry about. He fell asleep as his thoughts dissolved and slept peacefully throughout the move to a room on a different floor.

**********

When he next woke, Roy was still there, deeply engrossed in a book he had been trying to read at work for weeks. He looked up sympathetically as Johnny groaned as he tried to roll over. “Time for your meds, huh?” he asked.

“Guess so,” Johnny mumbled. “I know I had surgery, but what did they do to me?” He abandoned his attempt to sit up.

Finding the bed controls, Roy helped him with that little problem and handed him a glass with some water and a straw. He rang for the nurse, too. “You got shot in the back,” he reminded his partner and Johnny nodded as he slowly sipped. “The bullet nicked your right kidney and lodged in your liver. Dr Crawford removed that part of your liver and they think that your kidney should be all right.”

That was a serious operation. Johnny handed the glass back to Roy and tentatively felt his tummy. It was very tender and he recalled the size of the wound from when Brackett had looked at it earlier. No wonder sitting up was difficult. “How long has it been?” he asked.

“Since the shooting? This is the second day,” Roy replied. “Dr Brackett put you on the vent for 24 hours to give your body the chance to rest. You’d lost a lot of blood.”

“My kidney?” Johnny ventured. If he lost a kidney… He squelched down the thought. He knew his liver would grow again, but although he could live with only one kidney, he couldn’t be a firefighter. “Is it…?” He didn’t know how to word the question.

Roy understood. It had been his chief concern, too. “So far so good,” he reported. “But everyone is keeping an eye on it.”

Moving his legs restlessly, Johnny became aware of the catheter between his legs. There was a residual ache in his back, too. He assumed that this was where the bullet had entered. “Am I going to be able to come back to work?” he finally asked.

“It looks like it,” Roy replied. “Dr Brackett started you on antibiotics this morning because your temperature had gone up.” He pointed to one of the IV bags hanging above Johnny’s head. The younger man looked slightly confused, because he hadn’t been aware of them before. The tubes fed down to the cannula in his right arm. There were faint outlines on his wrists and he knew they were embryonic bruises from his fight against the restraining cuffs earlier. He felt so washed out that he wondered that he had had the energy to fight so hard.

The nurse came in, young and pretty and smiling and gave Johnny his medication. “Dr Brackett wants you to eat something later on,” she told her patient. “And there’s a policeman waiting to talk to you. Do you feel up to it?”

“Yeah, let’s get it over with,” Johnny sighed. He didn’t want to talk about the ordeal again, but he supposed it was better to get it over and done with, then he could forget about it until it went to court, assuming it ever did. Many things could happen between now and then, he knew. “Will you stay, Roy?”

“If you want me to,” Roy nodded. Johnny relaxed, knowing that Roy wouldn’t let the cop push him beyond his strength.

As it happened, he needn’t have worried on that score. Brackett came in with the cop, who was Lt Crockett. He smiled at Johnny, thinking that the paramedic looked pale and wan and somehow thinner than when Crockett had last seen him only a few days ago.

The re-telling of the tale took very little time. Crockett asked a few questions to clarify things in his own mind, but he didn’t prolong the ordeal, since Johnny looked so very tired. He smiled at Johnny as he put his notebook away.

“What happens now?” Johnny asked. “Will it go to trial?”

“I expect so,” Crockett replied. “Sanders is denying everything, despite being caught red-handed in the station with all the drug paraphernalia scattered all around him.”

“He’s denying it?” Roy sounded incredulous. “How can he do that?”

“Quite easily, it seems,” Crockett replied cynically. “He claims that Johnny forced him to OD.”

It was, quite possibly, the most ridiculous thing any of them had ever heard. “How did I do that?” Johnny asked curiously. “My hands were tied behind my back.”

With a straight face, Crockett replied, “You held the gun on him.”

“So, I had my hands tied behind my back and held the gun on him to make him shoot up and then shot myself in the back? Is that how it goes?”

“Got it in one,” Crockett smiled. “So we have to go to court to have a jury decide who is telling the truth; a drug addict who previously tried to rob a squad and in the process assaulted the paramedic who stopped to help, or the said paramedic who was tied up and shot in the back.” Crockett rolled his eyes. “Unless we get a jury composed of complete idiots, or Sanders’ friends, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”

“I can’t believe that,” Brackett scowled. “How can they take that seriously?”

“This is the USA,” Crockett replied. “We’re all entitled to our day in court.” His cynicism was quite breath-taking. He rose. “Don’t worry, John. It’s unlikely that Sanders’ idiot friends will compose the jury. And perhaps he might be able to negotiate a plea bargain. Who can tell?” He shook hands with all three men and took his leave.

“I can’t believe that little scum bag is claiming that Johnny shot himself in the back!” Roy exclaimed, outraged.

“Why not?” Johnny sighed. “It just goes with everything else he does.” He hated going to court. It was bad enough on those awkward occasions when he was an ‘expert witness’ in a fire case, but going in as the victim was something else entirely and he wasn’t sure he was ready to do it. On the other hand, Sanders couldn’t be allowed to get away with what he had done. Johnny almost certainly wouldn’t be the only witness, but he would be the main one. Johnny was normally a forgiving man, but even he had his limits and this was way over them.

Dragging his thoughts away from the potential court case, Johnny forced himself to concentrate on the doctor. “How am I doing, doc?” he asked. “When can I get out of here?”

“It’ll be a few days yet,” Brackett replied, smiling slightly. It was typical of Johnny to want to know when he was getting to leave. One day he would ask before he had even made it into the building. “You’re running a slight temperature and there could be an infection brewing. We want to knock that on the head. Plus, you’ve just been shot in the back and had major abdominal surgery. You aren’t going to be feeling up to par for a while, especially given the blood you lost. So don’t count on being out of here before next week at the earliest.”

“Next week!” Johnny was genuinely dismayed. He hated being in hospital. He woke at every noise; a hangover from his years in the fire service. But part of it was habit; Brackett would think he was really ill if he didn’t protest.

“At the earliest,” Brackett reiterated. “Johnny, you were very lucky. You were bleeding into your belly and a little longer and you would have died. As it is, you lost a lot of blood and had major surgery to boot. You’re not going to get over this in just a week or so. You will get home when you are able to walk about, but you will have to have people come in regularly to help you cook and do chores until you regain your full strength. As it is, you haven’t started eating yet and it’ll be another day or two at best before we think about getting you out of bed and onto your feet. And that is only if you aren’t overwhelmed by an infection.” Brackett’s mouth twitched in sympathy. “If we got you up now, you’d never be able to stand,” he went on. “Your blood pressure is still a bit low, and you’re as weak as a kitten. Once you start eating, you’ll feel better.”

“I guess,” Johnny mumbled. He didn’t feel hungry, but perhaps he would when he was actually faced with food. “Doc, my kidney?”

“So far so good,” Brackett reassured him. “But we need to keep an eye on it. The bullet nicked it and it is quite bruised. We’re going to keep you on IV fluids to flush your kidneys out, because at the moment you have some hematuria and we need to get that sorted out quickly.” He could see the next question in Johnny’s face. “I don’t think there’s any danger of you losing it,” he added, “but you need to follow our instructions exactly. No sulking and not eating or any of that nonsense.”

“Geez, doc, you don’t need to scare me into submission,” Johnny protested. He realized a moment later that he had just admitted to already being scared. After a moment’s reflection, he decided that admitting it wasn’t a bad thing. So what if it wasn’t macho? He was scared. Major abdominal surgery was a big deal, but the loss of a kidney would end his career and he wasn’t ready for that. He doubted if he would ever be ready for that.

“You aren’t always the most cooperative patient,” Brackett commented lightly, in a sweeping understatement.

Roy laughed. Johnny tried to look indignant, but didn’t quite manage. “What?” he joked. “Are you trying to say I’m a troublemaker?”

“I think he already said that,” Roy sniggered.

They laughed together. “Seriously though,” Brackett finally said. “Do what we tell you and you’ll be back to bugging Roy in the squad in no time.”

“All right,” Johnny agreed. He knew he would still end up doing some bitching and complaining – it wasn’t in his nature to accept restructure easily, but he would try to keep the complaints to a minimum.

Well, he would try.

***********

On Friday, Roy came to collect Johnny. The extra bed rest had proven to be a good thing and Johnny had actually felt much better afterwards. He was more careful about how he did things and the knowledge that he was going home bucked him up tremendously.

To make his life easier, and so that they didn’t hover over him, but allowed him to do things for himself, Joanne and Roy had stocked his freezer with homemade meals that were ready to just pop into the oven. Joanne had also made sure that he had enough of the ordinary staples of life – like coffee – to last him for several days. She had gone through his apartment like a tornado, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning, airing and washing everything. Johnny had more clean clothes than he had ever had in his life before and the whole place was sparkling and welcoming when he went in.

“Aw, man, you guys didn’t need to do this,” Johnny protested, flushing with pleasure. “It looks great,” he added. “Thanks.”

“Well, the less there is for you to do, the less you’re going to do,” Roy reasoned, although he didn’t entirely believe it. Keeping Johnny still after an injury was very difficult, if not downright impossible. “Now you rest and get better,” he ordered. “If you need anything, phone!” He grinned. “I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.”

“You don’t need to…” Johnny began but Roy spoke over him.

“I know I don’t need to, I know you’ll be fine, but indulge me here. You got shot in the back a couple of weeks ago. I need to make sure that you’re all right. Okay? Indulge me.”

“All right,” Johnny smiled. “Thanks, Roy, for everything.”

“What are partners for?” Roy asked.

**********

“Roy…” The voice on the other end of the phone was strained and Roy was instantly worried.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “I’m coming right over. Don’t move!”

“Roy, don’t come over, I’m fine,” Johnny replied, although he patently was anything but fine.

“Then what is it?” Roy was aware of the other members of the crew straining to overhear his end of the conversation. As soon as Roy had greeted his partner, everyone had been listening while trying to pretend they weren’t listening. Johnny had been home from the hospital for a week and was doing well.

“I got a court date, Roy,” Johnny told him. “Its next week.”

“That soon?” Roy knew that there would be a letter waiting for him, too and for all the members of the 51 crew. They had all witnessed parts of the attack.

“I’m not ready to face him,” Johnny whispered miserably.

“But you will be,” Roy soothed, aware that Chet was making faces at him, trying to ask what was wrong. “And remember that you won’t be alone. We’ll all be there, too.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny agreed. He didn’t sound any happier and Roy couldn’t blame him. The wounds that Sanders had caused were still tender and although Johnny was doing much better, he wouldn’t be back to work for another six weeks or so.

“Johnny, it’ll be fine. The worst thing you can do is worry about it all week. Then you’d be letting that little… toe-rag win.” Roy wanted to throttle Sanders with his bare hands. He suspected the other members of the crew would feel the same way.

Before either of them could say more, the tones sounded and Roy and the rest of the crew were called out to a house fire. In a way, Roy was glad, because then he had something else to think about. In another way, he was sorry, because Johnny had no such distractions and could easily worry himself into an early grave. And while the waiting seemed interminable, the week would fly past and they would find themselves in court before they were ready.

**********

Roy’s prophet thoughts proved correct. The week sped past and they found themselves outside the court building in their dress uniforms before any of them were completely ready. Johnny was pale and wan and found himself surrounded by his friends as the TV cameras surged forward at their arrival. The reporters got a harsh “no comment” from Cap and that was it. It didn’t stop them shooting lots of footage of the firefighters as they entered the building.

They were greeted by the DA, who had met with them all during the week to discuss what was going to happen and go over their testimonies. “It’s a farce and I wouldn’t worry about the outcome,” the DA assured them. “He’s going down and the judge is likely to increase his sentence because he was stupid enough to plead not guilty and force a trial.”

His words reassured most of them, but not Johnny. He had a horrible sense of foreboding and his body was aching. As a general rule, he was off the painkillers, but his anxiety was such that his muscles were all tense and the still-healing ones ached. He had taken a mild painkiller that morning before leaving the house, but he wished he had taken something stronger. A hand touched his arm and he startled.

“I think you should sit down,” Roy told him. “Do you want a cup of coffee?”

The thought of a warm drink was tempting, but Johnny knew the caffeine would make him even more wound up and he was afraid he would spill it over himself, so he shook his head. “I’m fine,” he lied. However, he didn’t resist when Roy steered him into a chair.

It seemed an interminable wait until their case was called. Johnny kept glancing round anxiously, although he knew Sanders was appearing from custody and so he wouldn’t see him in the public area of the court. Roy sat beside him and Cap was leaning on the wall on his other side. Chet had a fit of the nerves as well and was pacing restlessly, talking incessantly to Marco, who bore it patiently. Mike Stoker stood by Cap and watched them all.

Finally, their case was called and they walked into the court room. Johnny wished he had had something to drink after all, for his throat was suddenly dry. The DA met them and ushered Johnny to a chair in the body of the court, behind a wooden table. Roy, Cap and the others took seats in the front row directly behind him. Johnny had barely sat down when Sanders was brought in through a door at the back of the court. He sneered when he saw Johnny and it took everything he had for the paramedic to meet that gaze impassively.

Everyone rose obediently for the judge, then the tedious job of jury selection began. It was a bit like a game of chess, Johnny thought, each side making a move that they hoped would checkmate the other. Eventually it was done and they got down to the business of the trial.

The bailiff read out the charges. Sanders rose and pleaded not guilty and then sat down again. The DA rose and addressed the jury, explaining that he would prove beyond reasonable doubt that Sanders had committed all the crimes that he was accused of and thanked them for their attention. Johnny squirmed uncomfortably throughout, as the DA kept pointing to him and the jury were – to a man – looking at him.

Then it was the turn of the opposing lawyer, who announced that all the charges against his client were fabricated and that Johnny was not only a liar, but he was a bully, too. The jury was looking at Johnny even more after that. Sanders, declared the defense lawyer, was a confused youth from a good family who had been led astray by his friend, who had died at the scene of the alleged crime. A woman seated behind Sanders, expensively dressed, sobbed loudly into a tissue throughout.

To Johnny’s surprise, the court was then adjourned for an hour for lunch. He didn’t know whether he should be relieved or not that they were not to testify straight away. He was first on the DA’s list. Rising with everyone else, Johnny thought that he could at least get something to drink. At that moment, his stomach was churning with nerves and eating was out of the question.

They went to the cafeteria in the building, there not being much else in the way of places to eat that were nearby. Roy persuaded Johnny into taking the soup, which was homemade and smelt good. Johnny agreed and drank a couple of glasses of milk along with it. While he was still as tense as a bowstring, the others were mostly more relaxed, having been bored to tears with the jury selection and the opening speeches. It seemed unlikely that they would be called to testify that day.

Walking back to the court room, Johnny was a mass of nerves. He didn’t like talking in front of a lot of people; he was inclined to stutter and stumble over his words. This was a time when he had to concentrate on speaking slowly and clearly and only answering the questions he was asked. The DA had given them all strict instructions on that matter. Johnny knew it would be easier said than done. As they walked back into the court room, Johnny drew a couple of deep breaths and tried to calm down.

This time, as Sanders was brought in, Johnny kept his gaze averted. He could feel the other’s eyes on him, but resolved not to look. His stomach was churning again and the soup which had been so tasty and calming was not sitting so well any more. He hoped he wouldn’t be sick on the stand. He would never live that down.

“Ready?” the DA whispered and Johnny nodded, even though he wasn’t. The DA rose. “I call Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage to the stand.”

It seemed miles to the witness stand, but conversely, he covered the short distance quickly. He placed his hand on the bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help him God. He clutched the arms of the chair to stop his hands shaking and concentrated on the questions the DA asked.

By keeping his eyes on the DA, Johnny was able to block out a lot of the audience and answered the questions coherently, without stumbling too often. The DA was gentle and kept the questions factual, enabling Johnny to recite the happenings of the day in question without too much emotion coming into play. When at length he sat down, Johnny thought that this wasn’t too bad.

He was wrong. The defense attorney approached him with a slimy smile. “Are you quite recovered from these horrific injuries, Mr. Gage?” he asked.

“Not quite,” Johnny replied.

“Really? You look perfectly well to me. My sympathies.” The false tone of his voice set Johnny’s teeth on edge. “As a firefighter, Mr. Gage, you must stay in peak condition, am I right?”

“Yes,” Johnny agreed.

“So how is it that a man in peak condition was overpowered by someone that you allege need a fix so badly that his hands were shaking?” The sneer was more obvious this time.

“He had a gun,” Johnny replied.

“But you claim his hands were shaking,” the lawyer returned. “Why were you afraid if his hands were shaking?”

“I’m always afraid of someone pointing a gun at me,” Johnny replied. He could feel the anger building at the implied slur to his courage. He drew another deep breath and balled his hands into fists.

“Did you know the gun was loaded?” the man asked.

“I didn’t stop to ask,” Johnny retorted sarcastically. He cursed himself silently. Getting annoyed wouldn’t help. He clamped his lips together before he added that he had assumed the gun was loaded. “But I got the proof that it was loaded,” he said.

“Mr. Gage, I put it to you that you and your partner over-reacted to the two drug addicts coming into the fire station. You jumped my client when you could have talked him into putting the gun down and no harm would have been done. Don’t you agree?”

“No, I don’t,” Johnny denied.

“Go on,” the attorney encouraged.

“Your client was strung out and desperate for a fix. When people are in that state, you can’t reason with them. And the fact he was waving a gun around while so desperate just showed even more that he would do anything he had to, to get a fix. I jumped him so that my partner would have the chance to phone for help. Your client was about to force me to tie my partner up and then his friend was going to do the same to me. In fact, they did tie my hands, then they shot me in the back when I ran to warn the rest of the crew not to come into the building.”

“It’s a good story, Mr. Gage,” the lawyer smarmed. “But didn’t you receive a head injury? Are you sure that is really what happened?”

It really burned Johnny that this man had had the right to read the medical report about that night. “If you had read the report correctly,” he replied scathingly, “you would have seen that it was a minor graze behind my ear. There was no concussion or memory loss incurred.”

“But you say in the report that you don’t know how you got the injury to your head.”

“Have you ever been in a fight?” Johnny asked. The other man said nothing. “Let me tell you, when there’s a lot going on, you don’t remember every single blow that you take.” He swallowed the offer to show the attorney exactly what he meant. That wouldn’t be helpful to the case, however good it might feel.

“So you admit you don’t remember every single detail?” the man persisted.

“Not of the fight,” Johnny agreed. “But of everything else – oh yes.”

“No more questions,” the man declared, walking away. “But I reserve the right to recall this witness.”

Shaken, Johnny looked at him. He thought his ordeal would be over, and yet he might have to retake the stand at some point. He barely heard the judge allowing him to resume his seat. He walked back to the table with his head up, but he could hardly feel his feet. How naive he had been.

**********

“Are you all right?” Roy asked, when the day’s proceedings came to an end. Johnny looked even paler than before. A recess had been called until the next day, when they would start to question the rest of 51’s crew.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, unconvincingly.

“You don’t sound too sure there, pal,” Cap noted with concern in his tone.

“I’m fine, Cap,” Johnny assured him with slightly more success. “I’m just tired and achy.” It was true. He was so exhausted that he could have laid his head on the table in the court and gone to sleep. “I’m just gonna go home and get some sleep.”

“And something to eat, too,” Cap reminded him. “Eating’s good.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed again, just as unconvincingly as the first time.

“He’s coming home with me for a meal,” Roy told Cap. He had collected the younger man, anticipating that he would be really tired by the end of the day. “I’ll look after him.”

“Roy, you don’t need to do that,” Johnny protested as Roy started shepherding him towards his car.

“Oh yes I do,” Roy replied, much to the amusement of the others. “How do I explain to Joanne that you didn’t come home with me when she’s expecting you?” He opened the car door and shoved Johnny inside. “It’s non-negotiable, pal.” He climbed into the driver’s seat.

“That lawyer was pretty rough on Gage,” Chet commented.

“That’s his job, I guess,” Marco replied doubtfully. “I wonder why he wants to recall Johnny.”

“Perhaps they’ve cooked up something for that scumbag to say that Johnny will have to refute,” Mike suggested. “And it’s bound to be connected to that head injury line he was taking.”

“I think you’re right, Mike,” Cap agreed. “It makes you wonder how people can sleep at night, when they hound people like that.” He sighed. “See you here tomorrow, guys.”

**********

The next day came far too soon for Johnny. Although he had slept, his dreams were amorphous and disturbing. He shrugged into his dress uniform and looked at himself with distaste in the mirror. He really didn’t think it did anything for him, although a former girlfriend used to drool over it. It didn’t seem that long since he had taken it off the previous evening after being at Roy’s for a meal. Roy had been right; it had done him good to be with the family. He had been pleasantly tired when he got home and his aches had died down.

They were back with a vengeance this morning, but again he stuck with the mild painkiller, not wanting to risk feeling sleepy because of a stronger one. He needed his wits about him in case he was called back to the stand. Like Mike and the others, he sensed that the defense lawyer had something nasty up his sleeve and he wasn’t anxious to find out what it was. However, there was no way to defer going. He just had to hope that his imagination was worse than reality.

It wasn’t. The DA led the 51 crew through their testimony quickly and easily. Only Roy was cross examined by the defense, and it was basically implied that Roy was only saying what he had been told to say to back up his partner and discredit the defendant. The lawyer also managed to impugn Roy’s courage at the same time. If they hadn’t been so personally involved in the case, the crew of 51 might have found a moment to admire the man’s misguided skills. As it was, they were simply furious.

They broke for lunch after Roy’s testimony. Johnny didn’t feel like eating, but because he knew the others would worry if he didn’t he choked down another bowl of the homemade soup, feeling everyone’s eyes on him. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation. What could they say? That this was a farce? Everyone knew that.

After lunch, the DA quickly dealt with the police who had attended the scene and the dispatchers from both the fire and police departments who had fielded Roy’s phone calls. It was noted by everyone in 51 that the defense lawyer did not try to mess with them, simply replying that he had no questions when asked if he wanted to cross examine. The DA announced that the prosecution rested and the judge decided that the defense could begin in the morning.

Slumping back in his seat after the judge had gone, Johnny closed his eyes. Another day. Tomorrow, A shift was due back on duty, so he wouldn’t have the comfort of his friends just a few feet behind him. He would have to listen to Sanders lies and might well end up on the stand again. He didn’t want to do it. He wanted to tell the DA to drop the case, but he knew that wouldn’t happen. He would somehow have to find the fortitude to return alone the next day.

“Johnny?” Roy was crouching by his chair, his face mirroring his concern. It seemed he had already said Johnny’s name more than once. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, just tired,” he replied. That was true; he was tired. However, he didn’t want to tell Roy that he was having a pity party to himself. He pushed himself to his feet. Today he wasn’t going to go back to Roy’s command performance for Joanne or not. He needed to get some rest and planned on taking one of the stronger painkillers when he got home in the hopes it would give him a good night’s rest.

“Where’s Cap?” Johnny asked, as they joined the others in the hallway. The TV cameras were waiting just outside the main door and Johnny dreaded the thought of walking through them again.

“He’s phoning headquarters,” Mike replied. “Why don’t we get some coffee and wait for him?”

“Why is he phoning headquarters?” Johnny asked as they went back to the cafeteria. It was almost deserted at this hour of the afternoon. “Has something happened?”

“He’s arranging for us to have tomorrow off,” Chet piped up, although he had been expressly told by Cap not to mention it. He suddenly remembered that as soon as the words left his mouth and looked totally abashed. The others threw him disapproving looks.

Johnny almost smiled. Almost. “You don’t need to do that,” he protested.

“Yes we do,” Marco insisted. “We’re all in this together.” The others nodded.

Touched, Johnny could hardly choke out any words. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

Embarrassed in that way men have when emotion raises its ugly head, they mumbled in return. Chet changed the subject. “I thought the court would be like it is on Perry Mason,” he commented and everyone laughed. “What?” he asked defensively. “Perry Mason is a lawyer.”

“Chet, it’s a TV show,” Marco chided him. “It’s very loosely based on court room procedure, but its entertainment. Besides, everyone knows Perry Mason always wins.”

Miffed, Chet retorted, “I don’t suppose I’m the only person who thinks that. After all, how many times do any of us come to court?”

“Not often,” Mike agreed. “And I imagine the ordinary person is probably never in court unless they are called for jury duty.”

That triggered a whole new discussion about jury duty and which of them had been called for it. Mike said he had been called but not selected. None of the others had even been called. Apart from Mike, none of them knew anyone who had ever been called for it. In the middle of the discussion, Cap came back and took a seat. His face was unreadable. Johnny sighed deeply. The brass had said no and he would be attending court alone tomorrow. It was quite understandable and not the guys’ fault, but he still felt it deeply.

“We’re off until such time as this case runs,” Cap announced. “The brass had already decided that before I called.” He made a face. “It’s a pity they didn’t think to share the information with us.”

That sparked murmurs of agreement, for everyone thought that the brass were so divorced from reality as to be practically dinosaurs. It was typical of them to make a decision and then not tell the people who had to implement it until the last possible second. If Cap had not phoned, would they have been informed of this decision that evening or in the morning when they turned up for their scheduled shift?

The only person who didn’t contribute to the conversation was Johnny. He was overwhelmed with relief that he wouldn’t be turning up alone the next day to deal with the media and face Sanders’ sneering looks from the other side of the court room. He hadn’t realized quite how much the prospect had been weighing him down.

As ever, Roy was watching him and decided that Johnny had had enough for one day. “We’re heading off now,” he announced, nudging Johnny to his feet. “See you in the morning.”

It was the cue for everyone to leave, for they were spending more time in the court than they really wanted to and there were still a few nice hours of the day left to enjoy.

**********

“Don’t you think the judge looks a bit like one of those old guys from The Muppets?” Chet asked as they waited to enter the court room the next morning.

There was a round of sniggering, for they had all, apart from Johnny, thought the same thing in the last couple of days. Johnny had been too preoccupied to notice.

“Just don’t say it too loud,” Cap reminded him. “Or he’ll have you for contempt of court.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Mike wondered, with a straight face.

The others laughed while Chet spluttered indignantly. Johnny smiled slightly. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach, as though something bad was going to happen. Relax, he told himself. You’re just nervous. Somehow, his gut just didn’t believe him.

All too soon, they were summoned into the court room and Johnny took his accustomed seat next to the DA. Sanders was led in, as usual with his trademark smirk firmly in place, and took his seat, looking like he had just come off the pages of some magazine. His clothes were impeccable, and Johnny wondered if his mother brought him in fresh clothes every day. He assumed so, as his parents were present every day, glaring at Johnny if his gaze happened to touch them. He could often feel their eyes on the back of his neck. It was a very creepy sensation.

As expected, Sanders was called to the stand. He swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and if anyone in that court room believed that, they were probably one of his parents. Even the judge looked cynical, but that could have been indigestion.

“In your own words, tell us what happened on the day in question,” the defense lawyer invited.

For a moment, Sanders paused, then ducked his head in totally unconvincing embarrassment. “I’d got into bad company,” he began. “My friend Tom had introduced me to heroin and I got hooked. I’m so embarrassed that I did and I wish I’d had the courage to refuse, but I didn’t want to seem uncool in front of my friends, so I started using it and before long I was hooked. It was difficult to get hold of the stuff, so Tom decided that the best way to do it was to rob some rescue squads. Everyone knows they carry drugs and he said we’d be able to get some that way. Regrettably, I went along with it.”

“But on the day we’re referring to,” the lawyer prompted.

“We really needed a fix. The fire station seemed to be empty, so we thought we could just go in and help ourselves. They wouldn’t know we’d been there. But the paramedics were standing right by the squad and Tom drew a gun on them. I’m not too sure what happened next, but one paramedic ran away and the other jumped me. When I recovered, the paramedic’s hands were tied behind his back. Tom got the drugs out and we shot up. But then the paramedic got the gun and accidentally shot himself in the back as he ran away with it. Tom must have got some bad drugs because he died.” Sanders stopped and looked down, his face a portrait of sorrow. “Then the cops came,” he added tremulously. “And I don’t remember anything until I woke in the hospital.”

“And are you still an addict?” the lawyer asked, his voice oozing with sympathy for this poor, misguided young man.

“No, I’ve managed to stay clean since then,” Sanders replied. He artfully managed to squeeze a couple of tears out.

“No more questions,” the lawyer said and sat down smartly.

The DA rose. “Mr. Sanders, you say that your friend had the gun, is that right?” he asked, his tone almost as sympathetic as the defense lawyer.

“That’s right,” Sanders nodded.

“Then why were the only prints found on it yours?”

That the question caught the witness by surprise was evident. Blinking, Sanders clearly didn’t know what to say. “I … I don’t know,” he stuttered.

“If Mr. Gage accidentally shot himself in the back, why wasn’t there any gunpowder residue on him? Why was it only on you?” The DA was good.

“I don’t know,” Sanders replied. He shot an anxious look at his lawyer, but the DA smoothly moved so that he was standing between them. Unable to get any kind of signal from his lawyer, no matter how he jinked around, Sanders panicked. “The cops are lying!” he declared. “Just because he’s some rotten fireman, they’re trying to protect him and put the blame on me! I bet he’s a junkie! I wish you’d died!” he screamed at Johnny. “I wish I’d killed you when I shot you!”

“No more questions,” the DA said into the stunned silence that followed. The defense lawyer had his head in his hands and Sanders’ parents looked horrified. The DA sat down.

The judge banged with his gavel, although there was no need to demand silence; everyone was still stunned by Sanders’ outburst. “Bailiff, take the defendant into custody. I will sentence him later today. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I commend and thank you for your service, but you are now discharged, as the defendant has convicted himself. I …”

He got no further. As the bailiff approached Sanders, pulling out handcuffs as he did so, Sanders leapt to his feet, exited the witness box and threw himself across the prosecution table at Johnny. Belatedly, everyone started to react, but Sanders had Johnny in a choke hold and was brandishing a knife.

“Keep away!” Sanders cried and placed the knife against Johnny’s throat.

Everyone froze where they were, not backing off, but not coming any nearer. A bailiff started ushering the jury out a side door. Another one began evacuating the spectators out of the main door. They were reluctant to leave, but the bailiff was insistent and they gradually began to file out.

The judge rose, and came down from behind the podium. “Son, you don’t want to do this,” he stated calmly.

“Back off, old man!” Sanders sneered.

“Billy,” pleaded his mother, tears pouring down her face.

“Stay out of it, mom,” Sanders warned. “It’s a bit late now to pretend you care. You were never there, were you? No, you were out playing bridge or at the salon and I was at boarding school or summer camp; anywhere but where you were!” His arm tightened around Johnny’s neck and the paramedic choked slightly. He clutched at the arm constricting his airway and hoped that his end would come quickly.

“Sanders, you’re being an idiot,” the defense attorney declared, but that wasn’t the tone to take either.

“Don’t tell me what to do. Look where it got me! I’m going to be going down. You said I’d get off.” Sanders glared at the lawyer.

“I said you might, if the jury believed you were led astray.” The man shook his head. “I wish I’d listened to my gut and not taken you on as a client. No amount of money is worth this amount of grief.”

The only people who had not spoken so far were the firefighters. Johnny risked a look at Roy’s face and wished he hadn’t. His friend looked stricken; all his friends did. Johnny wished he could spare them this, but he didn’t know how. The old ‘elbow in the stomach’ routine worked well enough on TV and in the movies, but those weren’t real blades cutting into the actors’ necks and Johnny was working hard enough to get adequate air into his lungs without attempting something that not only needed air but someone who was fully fit, too. He could feel the edges of his vision graying out and hoped that someone would do something soon to help him.

Sanders took a step back, dragging Johnny’s dead weight with him. He suddenly realized that he had literally gotten himself into a corner and everybody else was between him and the doors. His grip on Johnny’s neck relaxed long enough for Johnny to drag in a huge draught of air, then tightened up again. The point of the knife pricked harder into Johnny’s neck. He felt a warm trickle on his skin. He was bleeding.

The other players in this tense drama were ranged out in a semi-circle in front of Johnny and Sanders. The rest of the court room was empty. Johnny realized that it might be up to him. He tugged slightly on the arm around his throat and it did loosen a little. He breathed in. the knife remained where it was, digging in somewhere under his right ear.

“You’d be better to let me go,” Johnny said when he caught his breath and hoped his voice would be steady. “You’re going to do time,” he went on, feeling the man behind him stiffen at his words. “The decision is yours. Is killing me worth spending the rest of your life behind bars? I’m sure right now you think the answer is yes, but think about it. You’re a young guy, 19, 20? You could live for another 60 years. Think of spending 60 years in jail. You’d never have sex with a woman again, never drink another beer or go to the beach. You’d never drive another car, or have children. Your life would be inside the prison walls until you are so old you’ve forgotten why you’re there. You’ll die there.” Johnny’s voice was harsh by the time he had said that.

“Shut up!” Sanders ordered, but everyone could hear the fear in his voice.

“If you let me go now,” Johnny went on, his voice softer and quieter and sounding strained, “you’ll still do some time, but you’ll still be relatively young when you get out. Young enough to start over and make a success of your life. Is 60 years in prison worth one second of gratification?”

“Shut up!” Sanders yelled. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

“Mr. Gage is right,” the judge added. “If he dies, you will spend the rest of your natural life in prison.”

“What do you care?” Sanders yelled. “What do any of you care, except about him? I don’t matter to any of you, do I?”

“You matter to us, Billy,” Mrs. Sanders sobbed.

“No I don’t!” he yelled. “I don’t!” He backed up another step, and stopped, panting wildly. “You don’t care; any of you!”

With a movement so sudden and abrupt that nobody had time to react, Sanders yanked the knife backwards across Johnny’s neck, slicing into the skin, and dropped the stunned, bleeding paramedic to the floor. In the same movement, he reversed the knife and plunged it into the base of his throat. Blood fountained out and he toppled to the floor to fall on top of Johnny.

The firefighters were first off the mark. While they were deeply affected by the scene they had just witnessed, they were trained to deal with fraught, tragic situations. Roy and Cap leapt for Johnny and Sanders. Mike Stoker darted sideways and caught Mrs. Sanders as she fainted in an ungraceful heap. Chet grabbed Mr. Sanders, in case he decided to emulate his wife, and pushed the man into the nearest seat and put his head down between his knees. Marco turned and ordered a bailiff to get a squad and ambulance on the double and bring any first aid supplies they had. Seeing the man doing as he was told, Marco hurried over to Roy and Cap. “What can I do?” he asked.

Cap had lifted Sanders off Johnny. He was still alive, but it was clear from the amount of blood that he had lost that he had, at best, only minutes to live. His eyes were open but unseeing and his breath gurgled wetly in his throat. “Sit with him, Marco,” Cap requested. “I don’t want him to be alone.”

It was the last thing Marco wanted to do, but with Sanders’ parents being pretty much incapacitated by his ghastly actions, Marco agreed. It wasn’t right for anyone to die the kind of death this young man had chosen and to be alone in those last few moments wasn’t right. Marco had no idea if Sanders could hear him, but he quickly crossed himself and began to say a Hail Mary. He could only hope that it would comfort Sanders if he could hear.

Freed, Cap turned to Roy. Johnny was covered in blood; the metallic smell made Cap want to vomit. “What do you need, Roy?”

“Help me turn him, Cap,” Roy urged. His hands were already red with blood. Cap reached for Johnny’s arm and together they turned him face up. Cap’s hands were also red with blood. There was blood everywhere. Roy yanked an unused white handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the blood away from the injury on Johnny’s neck. It wasn’t that long and not too deep, but neck injuries could be serious. Blood was oozing out over the lip of the wound. “Have we got any first aid supplies?” Roy asked. He folded the handkerchief and pressed it down over the wound. Johnny groaned.

“Someone is getting them,” Cap replied, after glancing around for inspiration and receiving a nod from Marco. “What else?”

“Can we find something to raise his feet and we need something to cover him with and keep him warm.” Roy was concentrating on holding pressure on Johnny’s neck. He wasn’t sure if the jugular was directly involved, but even if it wasn’t, the cut was too close to it for comfort and either way, Johnny was losing blood and going into shock.

“Roy.” The word was barely a whisper.

Bending over his stricken partner, Roy found a smile. “Don’t talk,” he urged Johnny. “Help is on the way.”

Telling Johnny not to talk was rather like telling the rain not to fall, or the sun not to shine. Canute probably felt the same sense of helplessness when the waves refused to do his bidding. “Is he… dead?” Johnny whispered. Roy, not knowing the answer, glanced at Cap, who looked to Marco. Marco nodded solemnly and made the sign of the cross.

“Yes, he is,” Roy replied.

“I didn’t … want that,” Johnny persisted, although talking clearly cost him. He winced as Roy changed the pressure against his neck.

“Nobody thought that for a single minute,” Roy assured him. “Now you rest while we’re waiting for the ambulance.” Cap spread his and Marco’s uniform jackets over Johnny’s torso and the judge brought the cushion from his own chair to put under Johnny’s feet. The bailiff brought the minimal first aid supplies they had and Roy quickly wound a bandage over the blood-soaked handkerchief, again adding his hand for extra pressure. The bleeding was slowing.

With a sigh, Johnny closed his eyes. He was shivering slightly, despite the jackets and Chet and Mike were quick to add theirs to the pile. The judge added his robes. Outside, they could hear sirens approaching.

The room was soon thronging with paramedics and cops. One set of paramedics treated the Sanders for shock before they could be questioned by police. The other set took Johnny’s vitals, hooked him up to an IV, placed him on oxygen and gave him pain relief. More pressure bandages were added to the wound, but they weren’t really necessary, just precautionary. The blood stained dress uniform jackets were left in a crumpled heap on the court room floor. This time, Roy did not go with him.

One of the department’s yellow plastic blankets covered Sanders’ body. The firefighters stood together, trying not to look at the remnants of Johnny’s fight for life. Crockett came over. “You guys all right?” he asked.

“We will be,” Cap replied, “once we know that John is all right.”

“I won’t keep you one second longer than is necessary,” he promised. “Just tell me what you saw. There’s no doubt about what happened and who is going to doubt a judge’s word, but I’m afraid its protocol.”

“Let’s do it,” Cap agreed and started.

Their stories were essentially the same. Sanders had cracked under the DA’s questions and admitted shooting Johnny and had then attacked him and taken him hostage. When it became apparent that he was going to go to jail one way or another, he had taken his own life, wounding Johnny seriously as he did so. Sanders had been too seriously injured to survive. The sorry little tale took only a few moments to tell.

“Thanks, fellas,” Crockett said, putting away his notebook. “Everyone says the same thing and as I said, who’s gonna doubt a judge? Give Gage my best and I’ll be over to see him later.” He glanced at the now-packed court room. “Much later by the looks of things,” he added and walked away.

“Let’s go,” Cap suggested. He glanced at the jackets on the floor and left them there. He’d had nothing personal in the pockets. The department could just provide them with new ones. He was sure they would once they heard why the jackets had been destroyed. They hurried out to the car, trying unsuccessfully to dodge the television cameras that were in the lobby pointing at the court room door. Quite how they had got in there was anyone’s guess, but Cap was not stopping for anyone and he blazed a trail through them without saying a single word. It was a very impressive performance, as everyone who saw the evening news remarked.

**********

The ER was pretty quiet, by its standards, when they arrived. There were a few people waiting, looking worried and tired and a woman was sobbing quietly in the corner. Roy wondered if Brackett would ever be able to persuade the administration that a separate waiting room was not just wanted but needed.

The nurses’ station was deserted and there was a queue at the desk. Roy made a frustrated gesture. “I’m going to wash up,” he told Cap. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He knew that Johnny’s injury wasn’t life threatening, but he was still anxious to see his partner. Johnny was not the only one to have been left pretty shaken by what had just happened. They all had been.

The others stood around, feeling rather awkward. They were used to waiting to hear news of Johnny, but generally they were in the doctor’s lounge or were met by Dixie or one of the other nurses. It was kind of disconcerting not to have the usual procedures in place. However, Roy was gone only a few minutes and when he came back, his hands were clean.

“What do we do now?” Chet asked loudly. Cap rolled his eyes. He knew Chet was worried; they all were, but they weren’t all asking daft questions loudly in a room full of worried people.

“Someone will come soon,” Roy replied. He looked around, as though that would bring someone instantly. Sadly, real life wasn’t like fiction and things like that seldom happened and nobody came at once. They hung around for another five minutes until Dixie came out of a treatment room. She smiled at them as she drew closer.

“Hi, guys,” she greeted them. “Don’t you all look smart?” Her eye fell on Chet’s tie, which hung around his neck, no longer tied, but she didn’t say anything.

“How’s Johnny?” Roy asked.

“Fine,” Dixie replied breezily. “He’s getting a couple of stitches in that cut, then he should be good to go.”

“Go?” Chet echoed. “Just like that? No lifesaving surgery? Dr Brackett doesn’t get to pull him back from death’s door? He’s not going to be permanently disabled? Or off for months?”

Laughing, Dixie shook her head. “This isn’t a badly written novel, Chet,” she chided him. “You’re supposed to be glad that Johnny isn’t badly hurt.”

“I am glad,” Chet assured her. “I’m just a bit stunned, that’s all. Are you sure you’ve got the right Johnny?”

“Chet, you twit,” Cap growled.

“Anyway, it’s not Dr Brackett who is treating him,” Dixie replied, still smiling. “It’s Dr Morton, so he’ll be in a really good mood.”

“I think I’ll go now,” Chet mumbled. Gage and Morton were a bit like oil and water; they didn’t really mix.

“You don’t like walking,” Marco jibed, reminding Chet that they had come in Cap’s car that day.

“I do now,” Chet assured them. He glanced up the corridor as a movement caught his eye. “Too late,” he intoned gloomily. The others turned to see Johnny coming out of the treatment room under his own power, albeit a trifle shakily. He was wearing a set of scrubs and there was a bandage on his neck that was about half the size the crew had expected.

“Hi,” Johnny said, sounding surprised. “What are you guys doing here?”

“I’m your ride home,” Roy pointed out dryly. “I sorta had to come.”

“We just came to make sure he didn’t get lost,” Chet added helpfully. Marco elbowed him in the ribs while beaming at Johnny.

“Go home, Gage,” Morton ordered. “Get some rest.”

“Doc?” Cap stepped forward. “Will this slow his return to work?”

Morton shook his head. “I doubt it,” he replied. “It’s a fairly superficial wound. It looked a whole lot worse than it actually was. I took four stitches, but he should be fine. Most of the blood on his wasn’t his.” The last statement wasn’t quite a question. With Johnny so shaken, Morton had been loath to ask exactly what had happened.

“Thank God for that,” Cap intoned fervently. He gently clapped his hand onto Johnny’s shoulder. “Let’s get you home, John.”

Smiling, Johnny looked at Cap. “It is over this time, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, John. It’s really over this time.” Cap turned Johnny and steered him towards the exit. Morton handed Roy Johnny’s personal effects, which he had in an envelope. Roy smiled his thanks and departed and Morton knew he would have to look elsewhere to satisfy his curiosity about what had happened – exactly – to Johnny this time.

“Say, Johnny.” Chet’s voice floated back down the corridor. “Don’t worry about it being over. The media’s bound to come looking for you, although why they would want a picture of your ugly mug is beyond me.”

There was a chorus of outrage.

“CHET!!!”

*****End*****

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