The Great Christmas Earthquake
This is entirely a work of fiction. I don’t know of such a happening in LA in any time period.
The first tremor hit in the late afternoon. John and Roy were waxing the squad and they both looked up, waiting to see what would happen as the station floor shuddered slightly beneath them.
“Was that an earthquake or something big going by on the 405?” Johnny asked after a few minutes.
“I don’t know,” Roy replied, slightly puzzled. They continued to stand there, knowing from experience that there would probably be another tremor if it was a quake. They were alone in the station, as the engine was out on a call. It was a cool day but the rain that had plagued the first half of the shift had stopped a while ago. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve.
After several minutes, Johnny shrugged. “Must have been a truck,” he guessed, for there hadn’t been a repeat of the tremor. They had had the odd time when a really big truck had made the building rumble. He resumed waxing the squad with a vigor that had little to do with enjoyment but a lot to do with getting the hated chore over and done with.
“Sure are some big ones on the road these days,” Roy agreed and he resumed polishing, too.
It didn’t take them long to complete and Roy headed into the day room to see what was on the menu for supper. Feeling restless, Johnny wandered outside and picked up the basketball, but it was too cool to play for long and he came back inside to find Roy sitting on the couch reading.
While Johnny did have a book with him at the station, he just didn’t feel like reading. He slumped down at the table and flicked through the paper, but there wasn’t anything that caught his attention. He had read it already that morning. Restlessly, he got up, thought of turning on the TV, then decided against it. He wasn’t in the mood for soaps – he reserved those for when he was off work sick.
“Have you got ants in your pants?” Roy asked. He was accustomed to Johnny’s restless nature, but for some reason his partner seemed worse than usual.
“Funny,” Johnny retorted. “I’m just… I don’t know. I can’t settle. It’s like I’m waiting for something to happen.” He frowned. “Do you think that was a tremor?”
“Maybe,” Roy replied indifferently. “It wasn’t much of one, was it?”
“Guess not.” Johnny slumped down on the couch, his legs sprawled out. “Hey, Roy, is there anything else I need to bring when I come on Christmas Day?” It had become a tradition for Johnny to go to Roy’s house on Christmas Day and it gave the young paramedic a taste of the family life he missed so much now that his own family was gone.
“Just yourself,” Roy smiled. Johnny had already talked Joanne into allowing him to contribute towards the feast she always conjured up, insisting that he buy the ingredients for the wonderful desserts she was going to make. Johnny always did his best to help in return for being included and he had a mountain of gifts to lavish on his adopted family.
The familiar rumble of the diesel engine heralded the engine’s return. Johnny bounded to his feet and went to meet them. “You weren’t gone very long,” he commented as Chet Kelly came into the day room.
“Some of us know how to fight fires, Gage,” Chet retorted. He crossed to the kitchen sink and washed his hands and with a sinking feeling, Johnny remembered that Chet was cooking that night. He wasn’t too sure how he had come to forget that, unless it was in the hopes that they would be toned out and managed to avoid it. Johnny was no great shakes as a cook, but there was precious little that could go wrong when cooking hotdogs. Chet was more adventurous and sometimes Johnny feared they would all need their stomachs pumped. He was relieved to see Chet had decided on hamburgers. Now, just so long as they weren’t raw in the middle…
“Did you guys feel the tremor?” Johnny asked as the others came into the room.
“What tremor?” Cap asked, which effectively answered that question. He sat down at the table. “Hurry up with supper, Chet,” he ordered. “I’m starving.”
“I’m on it, I’m on it,” Chet answered in a harried tone.
“What tremor?” Cap repeated. Mike and Marco took seats at the table, too.
Sitting down with them, Johnny launched into a highly excitable account of the few seconds that the building shook. Roy abandoned his book to join them. “It wasn’t much of a tremor if it was one,” Roy concluded when Johnny ran out of words. “It might just have been a big truck on the freeway.”
“I didn’t notice anything,” Cap admitted. He looked at the others. Chet was standing at the stove, frowning at the frying pan he was wielding. Cap decided against saying anything to him. “I was too busy trying not to shout at the imbecile who had pulled the fire alarm.”
“You were very restrained,” Marco praised him. “I wanted to deck him for being so dim.”
“What happened?” Johnny asked and as the others told the story, he forgot all about the tremor.
It was a cool, clear morning as they came off shift. After a quiet afternoon, they had been jumping all evening and half the night. Johnny yawned as he reached the Rover. “See you tomorrow,” he told Roy. “And if Joanne needs me to bring anything else…”
“I’ll call,” Roy interrupted. He didn’t know how many times he’d heard that speech in the last 24 hours. Johnny was almost as excited about Christmas as the kids were. “See you tomorrow.”
Although he would have to have a nap, Johnny decided to get his chores done before he lay down. He wanted to pick up some beer and wine for the following day and then load his presents into the Rover so that he was ready for an early start in the morning. It was really nice to have two days off at Christmas and he didn’t mind working Boxing Day and this year neither did Roy, because his mother-in-law was coming then and he didn’t mind a ready-made excuse to avoid her. To say they didn’t get on was something of an understatement.
The radio was playing Christmas songs and Johnny smiled. It had taken him some time to get used to having blue skies and sunshine at Christmas, instead of the snow he had grown up with. There were still times he missed the snow, but generally, he liked the milder climate of Los Angeles. Winters back home could be brutal.
He pulled in to the nearest market and went inside. As well as the wine and beer, he picked up a box of chocolates for Joanne, too. Whistling, he went out and carefully stowed the things in the Rover and drove home. It took him a couple of trips to get everything he had bought into the car, and then he climbed the stairs one more time and shucked off his clothes and crawled into bed. Sleep claimed him in moments.
It was a day for relaxing. Johnny loafed around, listening to some Christmas songs and finally settling down to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, which was his favorite Christmas film of all time. There were a few cards scattered around his apartment and a tiny tree rested on a side table in the window. Johnny didn’t care that it was crass to have his tree displayed like that; he liked it and that was all that counted.
For many years, Christmas had not been a happy time for Johnny. After his parents died, it seemed that all the magic had simply disappeared and it didn’t regain its luster until he was living with his aunt. She had always done her best to make sure that he got gifts that showed him how loved he was and he missed her after he left home and she went abroad. Since he didn’t have immediate family, Johnny volunteered to swap shifts with the men who had, so they could have the day at home. It earned him a reputation for generosity that wasn’t unwarranted. Johnny also had the companionship of whichever crew he was working with that day and the families of those men generally sent some goodies for them to eat. It was better than spending the day alone.
Since coming to Station 51, Johnny had not had to worry about being alone at Christmas. Roy and Joanne had invited him to spend the day with them that first year and ever since then, if they weren’t on duty, Johnny was a guest at the table. It warmed his heart to know that they wanted him there.
His film finished, Johnny threw a frozen dinner into the oven and turned on a carol service. Although he would not describe himself as a Christian, he wasn’t a non-believer either. The traditional carols, with the beautiful tunes and sung by choristers, moved him deeply and touched his spirituality. He hummed quietly as he put the food on the plate and sat down to watch. He closed his eyes as a boy soprano sang ‘Silent Night’ in high, clear, pure voice. It had been his mother’s favorite. The service ended with ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, which was Johnny’s favorite. After that, he turned the TV off and washed up his few dishes, then headed towards bed.
Checking the alarm, Johnny sighed happily and lay down, putting the bedside light off. He was looking forward to the morning and hoped that Roy’s children would like the gifts he was bringing them. He always got scolded that he spoiled the kids, but Johnny loved doing it. They were growing up so fast, and it seemed that he might never have kids of his own. He wasn’t having much luck finding a lady to settle down with, that was for sure.
Shaking his head, for that wasn’t the kind of thought he wanted to have on Christmas Eve, Johnny closed his eyes and instead pictured the kids’ faces as he hoped they would look in the morning when they opened their gifts. He could almost hear Jenny’s squeal of delight as she ripped open the paper on her…
His eyes snapped open and his body was tense. What was that noise? What had jarred him from his pleasant daydream? Johnny sat up, the hair on the back of his neck standing up on end. Had he heard something? He reached for the lamp and as he touched it, he heard the noise again and this time, he knew exactly what it was.
It had become a tradition that if Roy was home on Christmas Eve, he read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to the children. Chris sat on one side and Jenny sat on the other and Roy held the book so they could turn the pages. He didn’t need the book after so many years of reading it; he knew it by heart. But the kids loved looking at the drawings and it was something he loved to do. Before the children were born, he and Joanne would go to Midnight Mass, and sometimes Joanne still did, going with a neighbor. This year, they had elected to stay at home. Once Roy had finished his reading, they would put out the mince pie and milk for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and the children would go to bed and ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads’ as the poem put it. When finally they were safely asleep, Roy and Joanne would put out the presents from Santa and enjoy a glass of wine before they went to bed. Morning came early when it was Christmas Day when young children were in the house.
As always, when the recitation finished, the children pleaded to be allowed to stay up a while longer. Joanne, anticipating this, had made hot chocolate for them and they sat companionably sipping the hot drink while Jenny speculated about where Santa Claus might be just now and how he managed to deliver toys to every child on earth in one night. Chris, a few years older and a non-believer, only smirked but kept his mouth closed so as not to spoil the magic for his little sister.
It seemed that the bedtime ritual was dragged out even more than normal that night. The kids seemed unsettled and one of the neighborhood cats was yowling piteously outside. Roy was sorely tempted to go out and present his boot to its backside, but restrained himself.
At last, the kids were in bed and asleep. Roy brought through a glass of wine and sat down beside Joanne, who leaned in against him. “Happy Christmas, Mrs. DeSoto,” Roy toasted.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. DeSoto,” she echoed and they exchanged a wine-flavored kiss.
At that moment, the whole house began to shake.
The Kelly household was a riot on Christmas Eve. Chet always did his best to arrive at the last possible minute for the command performance dinner his mother laid on before insisting her brood go with her to Midnight Mass. Then they would all return home to sleep wherever there was space before being woken at the crack of dawn by a hoard of excited children. Chet loved it and dreaded it. He wished that his mother would stop chivvying him about getting married. Seeing his brothers and sisters and all their kids was enough to give him the willies. He wasn’t ready to get married; not by a long chalk! He loved his nieces and nephews in small doses, but by the time Christmas Day was over, he was more than glad to get back to his quiet apartment where the only distraction was the neighbor through the wall having a noisy time in bed with his girlfriend.
Although he wouldn’t admit it, Chet really missed coming home on those years when it was his turn to work on Christmas. He had sometimes swapped shifts with others when he was asked, but his mother was always disappointed when he couldn’t come, so he didn’t do it too often. Fire fighting ran in the Kelly blood and his mother had had to watch her husband working on Christmas Day for more years than she cared to remember and Chet was careful that he didn’t burden her more than he had to.
The worst thing about working Christmas Day as a firefighter was the number of tragedies that you saw. Carelessness with a candle, or faulty lights on the tree, or a fire laid in a chimney that hadn’t been used for a year was commonplace and heart breaking. It was a relief not to have to deal with it year in and year out.
The meal was consumed and Chet and his brothers sat down to shoot the breeze and drink a beer or two before they gathered everyone together and headed for the church, which was conveniently located just up the road. There was no need to drive and the men could relax. The women, shooting them the odd glare, had to calm the children down and decide who was going to stay behind this year.
Chet was in the middle of regaling his brothers with the story of the idiot who pulled the fire alarm when they felt it. For a moment, everyone froze before the shaking really began.
Spending Christmas with his parents sometimes seemed like a real chore. Mike Stoker packed an overnight bag and turned back one last time to check that his apartment was tidy enough to leave. Anything to put off the dreaded moment when he would drive out into the country. He loved his parents, but they disapproved of his job and never hesitated to tell him that. Mike was a big disappointment to them and he knew it.
Oh, he had tried to be a dutiful son, but college bored him rigid. Then, when he was 20, he met a girl and they had a splendid fling and when it was over, he realized that he didn’t want to live a lie. He applied to the fire academy, was accepted and dropped out of college. His father had refused to speak to him for over a year, but Mike was determined to stick to his guns. He liked being a fire fighter and he was now living his own life, not filling the shoes of his dead brother.
Mike had been a surprise to his parents when he came along. They already had one son, a handsome bright boy of 12, the only child they needed. Mike’s arrival just before his mother’s 45th birthday had not been welcomed, for they had had to start again with everything. As a result, Mike was a very good, obedient child who mostly kept quiet so as not to draw any more disapproval than he already had bear. He did well in school and had some friends, but mostly kept himself to himself. Having friends round to the house was not possible. His older brother had friends round, but that was different. Thomas was the golden boy who could do no wrong.
Until he was drafted to go to Vietnam. Mike’s parents vacillated between pride and terror, especially when he was promoted quite quickly after arriving in ‘Nam. Mike had found it exciting when his big brother came home for his leave in his army uniform and overseas tan. But Tom was different, more brittle and less warm. He went out a lot and came back drunk in the early hours of the morning. His parents raged futilely against this behavior. Tom carried on behaving that way for his whole leave. Less than 48 hours after he returned to duty, he was killed in action.
That was when life changed. Mike didn’t realize it at the time, but after a few months, he grew to understand that he was going to be living the life his parents had planned out for Tom, whether he liked it or not. His grades were never quite good enough, his friends were not of the same social class that Tom’s friends had been and generally, Mike didn’t measure up. And then came his fling and he realized he couldn’t go on pretending. He didn’t want to be a lawyer. He wanted to be a firefighter.
Eventually, he mended the breech with his father and they now tolerated each other. His parents had grown elderly before their time and were crotchety and disagreeable, but they were his family and he still felt duty bound to spend Christmas with them if he wasn’t working.
Sighing, Mike looked at the clock and knew he had to get going. He picked up his bag and went down to the car. He turned on the radio, looking for something cheerful to keep him company as he drove the hour or so to his childhood home. He was going to be late; he knew it. Well, that was just too bad.
He had gone less than half a mile when the quake hit.
An early night seemed just what the doctor had ordered to Hank Stanley, but he knew it wasn’t going to be. His teen-aged daughters had been out at a party and he was waiting up for them to come in. It was just across the street, but still… The father in him couldn’t rest until he knew they were safely in the door.
They had arrived back, chattering like a pair of magpies, laughing and nudging each other. Hank had never quite got his head round teenage girls, even when he was a teenager himself. He left them to it, and went round to make sure the windows were closed and the door locked for the night.
“Come on, you two, bed,” he ordered, returning to the kitchen. “I’m old and tired and want to go to sleep.”
“Dad, you are not!” the youngest girl protested and gave her father a smacking kiss on the cheek.
“There are some days I feel it,” Hank smiled. He had been helping his wife with some last minute things that day and the nap he had fancied hadn’t quite come off. “Come on, because if I know you two, you’ll be up with the lark.” That wasn’t usually the case when they were off school -- they seemed to be able to sleep the clock round -- but he knew that different rules applied at Christmas.
Laughing, the girls had just got to their feet when they all felt it. At once, Hank knew that Gage had been right the previous day. It had been an earth tremor and it had been a warning that everyone had ignored. He grabbed his daughters and shoved them under the kitchen table, screaming his wife’s name.
The church was quiet and shadowy. Some of the lights were on, but not many. Mass was still a short time away, but Marco had felt the need to come ahead of his family to commune with his God alone. It was something he did at various points in the year, just to give thanks that he and his shift mates had made it through alive and mostly unscathed. Despite the scrapes that Johnny seemed to get into all the time, he had not suffered a career-ending injury and the others had been remarkably injury free. Marco knew that there were fire stations where they never had injuries, but they were generally the stations away out in the middle of nowhere, who didn’t have the MVAs or the huge fires that the urban stations did. Those stations were the exception, not the rule. It was made clear to fire fighters that they could suffer a severe injury or even die on duty and nobody took that lightly after their first serious call.
So Marco came periodically – when it felt right to him – to kneel and give thanks to the benevolent God who kept all firefighters safe. Marco also gave thanks for the men who worked with him. He had been a firefighter for quite a while and hadn’t always had a joyful time of it. He had faced prejudice many times, but nobody at 51 said anything derogatory about his heritage and his deep Christian faith was not an endless source of teasing as it had been in some of the stations he had worked in. He was good friends with his colleagues and he knew they were lucky to have such a great team.
There were more people starting to go about the church, lighting the candles and laying out hymn books for the altar servers. Marco rose and genuflected before sitting down in the pew. His family would be joining him in a little while and in the meantime, he sat and looked around, listening to the voices of the people preparing for the service and just enjoying the calm atmosphere inside the building.
And then it began.
It wasn’t ‘The Big One’. Or so the reports said. Nobody in the Greater Los Angeles area cared about that. It was more than big enough. Power was out throughout the city. Water and gas mains ruptured, fires burned fiercely and it seemed that nobody was doing anything at all. There were disaster plans in place, but nobody had anticipated how severely the city would be crippled. There were no phones, the emergency services had mobile radios, but it took time – time they couldn’t spare – to get to emergency generators and get them going so that they could communicate with each other. Roads were damaged, traffic was at a standstill and the only thing that could be said as a positive was that most people were at home. The roads were comparatively quiet, shopping malls and cinemas were empty and the streets had only a few people in them. Restaurants were closed by that time on Christmas Eve and the only gatherings of people were in the churches.
The Governor of California immediately requested the National Guard to go and help out and the President declared Los Angeles a disaster area. However, getting the help that was needed into the area was proving difficult. LAX was closed and the runway had to be inspected to make sure it was safe for planes to land. Roads and rail lines were buckled and broken. Troops would have to be helicoptered in.
It had been hell on earth. Every Californian had had lessons about what to do in an earthquake, but when push came to shove and the earth was moving without any warning, it was difficult to remember your training. Many people were asleep when it hit and a good number died in their beds as substandard homes collapsed around and on top of them. Scores were trapped in the rubble of their homes, listening as fires raged all around, waiting and hoping for rescue.
Lifting his head, Marco Lopez looked around him, wondering where he was and why his head hurt so much. It was dark, the only light coming from a fire that raged…. on the altar? Blinking, Marco peered again, hearing a few noises that indicated he wasn’t the only person trapped in the ruins of the church. As awareness sank in, Marco remembered where he was and knew he had to try and help the people trapped. This was what he was trained for. He prayed that his family were all right.
Moving was going to be difficult. Marco was lying on the floor, his head in the aisle and his body trapped beneath the pew that he had been sitting on. Most of the roof had tumbled to the floor, leaving only some beams still intact. As he looked up, Marco realized he could see the stars and that, even more than the state the church was in, told him how bad things had been. You almost never saw stars in Los Angeles.
Moving carefully, Marco tried to determine how badly he was hurt. While everything ached, after a few minutes he decided that his most serious injury was to his head. He guessed that the chunk of masonry from the roof that was lying next to him had given him a glancing blow at best. If it had been a direct hit, Marco knew he would have died.
It took some time for him to get free, but he did eventually. Nothing appeared to be broken, for which he was enormously thankful. It was difficult to be sure if there was anything else wrong because of the lack of light. He didn’t really know how to check for internal injuries and decided that he would have to risk it. If he didn’t do something soon, the whole church would be on fire and the trapped people wouldn’t stand a chance.
As a fire fighter, Marco was probably more aware than most people of the locations of fire extinguishers. He picked his way carefully over the rubble, ignoring the pleas for help. If he didn’t get the fire under control, it wouldn’t matter that he was ambulatory; one man couldn’t rescue everyone in the building in just a few minutes. Once the fire was out, he could concentrate on rescuing people.
For several horrible moments, he thought the sacristy was also in flames, but the stout door was still closed. Marco knew that there was a chance that he wouldn’t be able to get the door open, since the building could be warped, but it opened easily and there was no fire inside. The elderly priest was unconscious on the floor.
Moving quickly, Marco checked his airway, then snatched up the extinguisher. The altar was well ablaze, the cloth covering it already consumed and the wood burning fiercely. The font was untouched and Marco knew that there would be some Holy Water in it. He wouldn’t hesitate to use it should the need arise. He opened the extinguisher and turned it onto the fire.
It was a surprisingly good extinguisher and it did the job pretty quickly. Marco was coughing by the time it was out and the church was much darker when he was done. Still, at least they were in no danger from the fire. Marco dropped the extinguisher, aware that his headache was growing worse. He couldn’t rest yet. He had to start rescuing the trapped people and getting them outside was a priority. He squared his shoulders and started the search.
It took him a while to figure things out. “Cap’s gonna kill me,” he mumbled, his voice sounding odd in the silence. He hadn’t meant to wrap the engine around a tree, but that was exactly what he seemed to have done. Mike reached for the siren, although why he thought turning it on was a good idea when his head seemed about to burst… But the siren wasn’t there. Neither was the air horn. Confused, Mike tried to force his eyes to focus. It was an impossible task, but he gradually realized that the dim shape he could see was his truck, not the engine.
That made no sense. Mike knew he was a careful driver. He wasn’t in the habit of crashing either the truck or the engine, but there was always the possibility of some idiot forcing the engine off the road. It had happened to engineers that Mike knew, although he couldn’t remember their names at the moment.
Truth to tell, he wasn’t too sure of his own name.
He thought that ought to worry him, but it didn’t. Even the fact that he’d crashed into a tree didn’t worry him now that he’d realized it wasn’t the engine. He couldn’t be sacked for crashing his own car. He wasn’t entirely sure if he could be sacked for crashing the engine, but he doubted if that would be an action that would be ignored. Fire engines were expensive bits of equipment. Mike loved his engine and if he had his way, each engineer would have his own personal engine and nobody but him would ever drive it. He supposed that was a pipe dream.
After a while, he thought that perhaps he ought to be doing something about getting out of the car. Something told him that it wouldn’t be a good idea to try and restart it. His hand went automatically to the door handle, but it resisted his efforts to get it to open. Suddenly agitated by that, Mike threw himself against the door, trying to use his body weight to crack it open, but it stubbornly refused to budge.
Slumping back against his seat, Mike swallowed and gulped down some air. He knew, quite suddenly, that he was going to be sick. He groped frantically for the window winder, but it eluded his fingers. At the last possible second, he leaned sideways and vomited into the passenger foot well.
It wasn’t pleasant and the smell of the vomitus threatened to set him off again. Mike knew he had to get out of there. Some small part of his mind was telling him that being trapped in a crashed car was not a good thing. He reached down and pressed the seat belt release. It his intense relief, it opened immediately. Mike scooted his butt over to try and reach the passenger door, but an agonizing pain shot up his right leg and he let out an eldritch screech.
It seemed the pain had snapped him back to reality. Mike caught his breath and knew who he was and was fairly sure that his leg was broken. His foot was trapped behind the gas pedal. Getting out of the car was going to be much more difficult now to put it mildly. But getting out was imperative. Mike knew that there was still a danger that the gas tank might go up. It was unlikely after the amount of time he had probably been sitting there, spaced out, but it could still happen. One stray spark… He shuddered.
Gritting his teeth against the pain his actions brought, he leaned down and started to try and free his foot.
It was as though the world was coming to an end. Hank Stanley had lived through a fair few earthquakes, but never one as big as that. The shaking had been endless and impossible to describe. The sound that the earth made was deafening and now that it was over, the only thing he could hear were his daughters crying as they huddled together under the kitchen table. The lights were out, so it was impossible to see the damage. Hank took a cautious sniff; he couldn’t smell gas, which was a huge relief. In a residential area like this, the danger from ruptured gas pipes was huge. A single spark could create an enormous fireball.
“Are you all right?” he asked his daughters, and they calmed enough to assure him that they were, just scared out of their wits. “All right, stay right there. I’m going to get your mother, then we’ll get out of here.” He yanked open a drawer and pulled out a flashlight.
As he crawled through the debris, Hank reflected that there were two sides to being a firefighter. You knew how to function in a disaster, because you were trained to do it, but you also knew all the potential pitfalls – like gas leaks and structural defects and the dangers of moving injured people. He was terrified for his wife, but knew that, all in all, his home had got off lightly. Sure, there was some damage, but a lot of it seemed superficial. There were no giant cracks running up the walls and the roof was intact for the moment at least. But there would be aftershocks. There were always aftershocks.
“Maggie?” His voice was strained, pushed out from behind the lump in his throat. “Maggie!”
“Here! Hank, I’m here!”
There was no doubt his wife had been crying, but hearing her voice was probably the best thing that had happened to Hank Stanley in his whole life. He pushed past the door, which hung askew in its frame, and into the bedroom. All the furniture was jumbled and moved and there was no immediate sign of his wife in the gloom. “Where are you?” he cried.
“Under the bed,” Maggie replied.
“I’m coming,” he assured her. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I just can’t get out.” Under the bed was a large trunk where Maggie kept keepsakes and warm clothes. It would be blocking one side of the bed and it was a devil of a job to get out at the best of times. Hank would have to lift the bed frame while Maggie pulled. He moved around the bed and found that the bureau had been jolted out of place and was now jammed against the other side of the bed.
“It’ll just be a minute now,” Hank soothed, as he shoved some stuff out of the way. The bureau was large and solid, but Hank was determined and soon had it moved back out of the way. He crouched down and extended his hand, but Maggie was crawling out under her own steam. She looked slightly disheveled, but not hurt and she threw herself into his arms as soon as she was free.
“Oh, Hank!” she exclaimed and burst into floods of tears. He held her tightly, blinking back his own tears and made soothing noises until the tears were under control. She drew in a shuddery deep breath and raised her head. “Are the girls all right?” she asked anxiously, sniffling.
“They’re fine,” he assured her. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Grab your coat and we’ll get the girls.” He paused to pull the blankets from the bed before following his wife to the kitchen. There, he made the girls put on warm coats and pulled some large tablecloths from a drawer before ushering them outside. He knew that the night would be cold and they were all shocked and help could be a long time coming. Leading them to the bottom of the garden, he made sure they were far enough away from the house and as sheltered as possible. Once they were bundled up, he kissed each of them.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, “but I have to go and help others.”
It was the last thing Maggie Stanley wanted her husband to do, but she knew that she couldn’t be selfish enough to demand he stay. They were unhurt apart from bumps and bruises, but there would be other people who hadn’t been so lucky and who knew when help would arrive? She smiled bravely. “Be careful,” she urged. “I love you.”
Smiling back, he replied, “I love you too.” He gave her the spare flashlight he had picked up and kissed them all again before turning and picking his way across his shattered garden.
The house had come down around them like a pack of cards, but the injuries were minor. Chet dragged himself out from under the wall that leaned crazily against what had once been a nice kitchen unit and coughed at the dust he stirred up. “Mom?” he called.
As if his voice was the catalyst that freed them, his family started to shout and cry and scream. It was oddly reassuring that at a time of extreme crisis, they were still acting in character. Chet gradually got to his knees and began to work his way through the debris, freeing his family from the places where they were stuck and trapped, checking them out as best he could for injuries. His brothers, getting over the shock, helped him and soon they were all gathered together, the women and children still crying.
Knowing there would be aftershocks, Chet urged them to get outside, and went with his oldest brother to collect as many coats and blankets as they could find. He also tried the phone, but it was as dead as he expected. He shrugged into his own warm coat as he gathered the blankets and quilts that his mother had put out for the children to sleep under. It was a good thing they were so organized, he reflected. Many other families wouldn’t have these things to hand.
It was as he was leaving the house, the last one out as befit a fire fighter, that he smelt it. Gas! Chet hurried his steps and dashed outside, already shouting to warn his brother – who smoked – not to light a match. The gas would be leaking not only in the house but outside as well.
It wasn’t Chet’s brother who started the conflagration. Somewhere else, a few houses away, there was a tiny spark. It was enough. With a deafening boom, the whole street seemed to explode. Chet was lofted through the air and for a small moment, he enjoyed the sensation of flying.
Then he knew no more.
The only thing that Roy was aware of was the terrified screams of his children. Joanne was clutching him fiercely and his shirt seemed to be wet. After a moment, he recalled that they had been drinking wine when the earthquake struck. He seemed to be wearing a good proportion of it now.
“Are you hurt?” he asked Joanne urgently.
“No,” she replied, although her heart was still racing. She didn’t remember ever experiencing as big an earthquake as that. It had been terrifying and she never wanted to go through another one.
“Let’s get the kids and some stuff together and get outside,” Roy said. “Be careful, because everything will have moved around.” He knew their Christmas tree had fallen over, for he had heard the glass baubles shattering. Some of them were from not only his childhood but his late father’s childhood and were irreplaceable. While he felt a momentary pang of sorrow, it wasn’t important right now. The important thing was to get the children and get out.
The first priority was light. Roy fumbled in a drawer in the kitchen until he found the flashlight. That made their journey easier as they could see the things tumbled on the floor. Using one flashlight, they quickly found the other in the hall cupboard and then Joanne went to get the children while Roy swiftly gathered the supplies they would need. Blankets and coats, shoes for all of them, some food and the first aid kit. The house seemed to be remarkably intact, but he had no way of knowing how much damage the quake had done. It was entirely possible that an aftershock could bring the whole place tumbling to the ground.
It was with relief that Roy saw Joanne returning with the children. Both of them were moving well with no apparent signs of injury, but Roy would check them out once they were outside and safe. Joanne was carrying Jenny, so Roy scooped Chris up and led the way to the back door. It opened easily enough and they made their way carefully down the steps into the garden. Roy led them over to a sheltered spot, laid blankets on the ground and they settled in to wait and see what would happen. Roy checked his family over for injuries and was relieved to find that they were unhurt. A couple of bruises, maybe, but as the children had been asleep in their beds, they had been protected by both being relaxed and being on something soft.
There was little more that could be done until dawn. The children were too scared for Roy to even think about going to help anyone else. They could hear people shouting, but the voices didn’t sound too panicked and he was able to soothe his conscience with the simple truth that his family needed him right now.
The first thing he was aware of was pain. His head was throbbing mercilessly and his body was screaming at him to do something to stop the hurt. The problem was, he couldn’t actually move. At all. Terror gripped his heart and he drew in some deep breaths as he tried to force himself to be calm. It was impossible. All around, there were creaking and groaning noises as the building settled itself into new contours.
Forcing his eyes open, Johnny gazed into absolute darkness. He didn’t know if he had been struck blind, or if there was simply no light. He could see nothing and yet he knew, without knowing exactly how, that his entire world had changed.
There was pressure across his legs and he reached down with a shaking hand to determine what it was. His arm hurt, but it moved. A sprained wrist perhaps? His questing fingers touched something rough and he recognized it as a sheet of drywall. His mouth was suddenly as dry as a desert and his heart picked up speed at an alarming rate.
His apartment had collapsed.
It took him a while, but in the end, Johnny managed to move enough that he could pull himself out from under the drywall. He still couldn’t see anything. The darkness was all encompassing and he was trapped in a tiny area. He had tried pushing the drywall back, but there seemed to be something behind it that stopped it moving and Johnny’s ribs ached too much to exert more force. From what he could tell from feel alone, it appeared to him that the whole apartment complex had collapsed.
For a while, Johnny called out, hoping that he would hear some other voices, but there was silence. Shivering from both cold and shock, Johnny wondered if he was the only person alive in the rubble. He was fortunate, as his apartment was on the top floor. The one next door was empty at the moment and the young couple who lived across the landing had gone to one or other set of parents for the holidays. He didn’t know about the other people. He could only hope that they were all right, for there was nothing he could do for them.
There was precious little he could do for himself. By touch, Johnny set out to find out how badly hurt he was. There was a gash on his head that appeared to still be bleeding a bit. It felt deep and he pushed down a spasm of fear as his paramedic training told him that there was the potential for a skull fracture there. He was definitely concussed and hoped that he would continue to be able to control the nausea that plagued him. His wrist seemed to be sprained, his ribs ached enough that they might be broken, but maybe it was just bruising. His legs weren’t broken, but both his ankles were swelling. Johnny guessed – hoped – they were just sprained.
Shivering once again as the cold air hit him, Johnny tugged the blankets from his bed. He was about to wrap them around himself when he remembered that he had just dropped his clothes at the side of the bed the previous night. Usually, he made the effort to throw them into the hamper, but last night, he just couldn’t be bothered. They might still be there. The floor was clearly partially intact, or his bed wouldn’t be sitting there as it was. He leaned over carefully, feeling around the floor for his clothes.
The effort made his headache much worse and he barely retrieved the pile of clothing before his stomach rebelled and he vomited helplessly onto the floor. Over and over again his stomach heaved until he thought he would never stop. But finally, he was able to swallow, spit and sit up again.
He felt horrendous and the pounding in his head had multiplied. His skin was cold and clammy and he shrugged into his clothes as quickly as he could, then lay down on the small bit of bed that was clear and dragged the covers over himself.
Sleep was far from his mind. He was trapped in a wrecked building. Johnny knew how dangerous his situation was. The earthquake had brought the building down. Aftershocks could be stronger than the original quake and although he was comparatively safe for the moment, he couldn’t rely on being safe. Fire could ignite anywhere and threaten the building. Aftershocks were a given. Somehow, he would have to try and get out.
But how could he do that when he couldn’t see?
Time crawled. To those trapped, it barely seemed to move at all. It had taken Marco quite some time to gather together the people in the church and find out who was hurt and who wasn’t. Most of the people were women, who were preparing the altar for the forthcoming service, but there were a few men and the injuries weren’t too severe, apart from the priest, who was showing no signs of waking up. Marco continued to look for people who were trapped as a couple of the men made their way up to the door and tried to find a way out.
There were two fatalities. Swallowing hard, Marco covered them over as best as he could, now knowing exactly how Roy and Johnny felt when they encountered bodies during their work. For a moment he paused, wondering how his friends were faring in the aftermath. He closed his eyes for a moment and prayed that they were all safe. He wondered how long it would be before he would find out their fates.
His head was pounding ferociously by the time he had finished checking the building. The two other men he was working with had managed to force one of the main doors open and it now hung rather drunkenly on its hinges. They were helping the injured people outside. Marco nodded approval and then wished fervently that he hadn’t. He leaned over and vomited into the debris.
That was conclusive, he thought. A concussion. He knew he ought to be resting, not climbing around this crumbled building, but rest wasn’t an option right now. He staggered back to the sacristy and saw that the priest was still unmoving. That wasn’t a good sign, but Marco knew he had to move the elderly man.
There was a sound behind him and he looked round to see one of the men who’d been helping had followed him in. “Can you look and see if you find anything useful in the cupboards?” Marco asked. His throat was dry. “There should be some albs and maybe altar cloths – anything we can use to wrap up in.”
“Sure,” the other man agreed and yanked open the armoire door and began to grab the woolen albs from their hangers. Most of them would be too small for the adults, but split up the seams would be quite good blankets. There were several richly embossed robes for the priest and the man took those, too, before hunting through drawers to find the altar cloths.
Meanwhile, Marco gently picked up the priest and began to make his way outside the building. It was difficult, as the aisles were choked with rubble and walking would have been difficult enough without the added burden of another man and a concussion. Marco reckoned he was about half way to his goal when he felt a hand under his elbow and found it was the other man. “I’m Robert,” he introduced himself.
“Marco,” replied the same. “Pleased to meet you.” They exchanged pallid grins, both of them filthy beyond belief and Marco’s face was also streaked with blood. Together, they made their way outside and over to the people huddled together in the middle of the road.
They were none too soon. As Marco gently draped a robe over the priest, the first aftershock hit.
He had never been tested. That was the only thought Mike had as he fought to free himself. In all the years he had been a firefighter, he had never really faced a true test of life and death. Now that he was, he was scared shitless. Terrified. Petrified. His attempts to distract himself with testing his vocabulary failed. His hands were shaking and the pain was agonizing. The last thing on earth he wanted to do was touch that foot. He wanted to just sit there and wait for rescue to happen, but that wasn’t on the cards. The dim lights on his truck had shown him a large crack on the ground that ran beneath him. Mike might not remember what had caused him to crash, but he knew what that meant. An earthquake. And when the first aftershock hit, that crack would get bigger and there was a fair chance that his truck would topple into it and he doubted that he would be able to get out of it if that did happen.
He knew adrenaline provided extra strength or speed when someone needed it, but it didn’t seem to be providing enough speed to suit Mike. He panted and swore and fumbled, cursing the steering wheel which hampered his movements and pressed into his belly. His chest was sore from the seat belt and constantly leaning on the wheel didn’t help that. The stench of his vomit was nauseating and he feared that any moment he would let go again.
With a suddenness that shocked him, his fumbling fingers managed to free his foot from the pedal and he screamed aloud in both pain and triumph. He wasn’t out of the woods – or the truck – yet, but that was a major step forward. He leaned across to try and open the passenger door, but it refused to open.
That left only one alternative. He fumbled once more for the window winder and rolled down the window. Cold fresh air flooded into the cab and he took a deep breath, regretting it when the stench of vomit once more predominated. Climbing out of the window was not going to be easy and it was going to hurt like hell, but there was no choice. Mike grabbed his jacket, which was lying on the seat beside him, and shrugged into it. He took a couple of deep, steadying breaths.
He was terrified; there was no getting away from it. Moving carefully, he got his injured leg onto the seat and angled his upper body out of the window. He grasped the frame and pulled, screaming in agony as his injured leg dragged across the seat. He had never felt such pain and his grip started to slip. Mike frantically adjusted his fingers, but he was already past the point of no return. He slithered out of the window and crashed to the hard earth below.
The first aftershock knocked Cap clean off his feet. One minute he was hurrying to a neighbor's house, the next he was lying on the ground. The shaking seemed to go on for a long time, but he knew that it was probably no more than about 30 seconds or so. Still, it seemed like a life time and he knew that for anyone trapped, it would be terrifying.
It was eerily silent, with no sirens to be heard, no car engines and no voices. Given that his own home had withstood the earthquake so well, Cap assumed that most of the houses in this development would be the same. They had been built by the same company after all. He wasn’t overly friendly with any of his neighbors but they were all nice enough people. With his erratic shift patterns, it was difficult to get into the routine of doing a ‘whatever’ night get together, since his pattern was different every week. Cap knew that his wife was friendly with many of the other women and they met at each other’s houses for coffee on a regular basis. He hoped they were all right.
It took him over two hours, but by the end of that time, Cap knew that none of his neighbors had died and only one was seriously hurt. Cap and another man had gently carried the injured woman to Cap’s garden, where they had all decided to gather and wait for some sort of help to arrive. Cap wouldn’t let anyone search the houses at which they couldn’t raise any response. It was too dark and too dangerous without proper equipment. However, at all of those houses, the people were known as staunch church-goers and at least one of the family cars was not present. Under those circumstances, Cap surmised that they had headed off for a midnight service somewhere and there was nothing more he could do.
It was cold sitting out in the open like that. Everyone huddled together to try and maximize the amount of body heat they were sharing. Cuddled up with Maggie and his daughters, Hank looked up at the sky and marveled at the multitude of stars that shone down out of a clear, moonless sky. He had never seen so many stars while still in LA. The only times he had seen them as clearly as that had been on the occasional camping trips he had made with the rest of the crew.
It was impossible to pretend that they didn’t see the distant flames on the horizon, but there were no sounds to be heard. No traffic noises, no loud music, no dogs barking. It was just as still as could be. There wasn’t even much wind. He glanced at the luminous dial of his watch and saw that it was now past 1am. He wasn’t sure exactly what time it had been when the quake struck, but his gut suggested that it was about 11pm. It was now Christmas Day.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to his wife, overcome with relief that they and their daughters had survived. Come daylight, they would be able to make plans when they could see what was going on and by then, the emergency services would be functioning, however basically. It probably wouldn’t be much longer before they started hearing sirens somewhere in the distance.
From further over in their group, a woman’s voice suddenly rose in song, her tones clear, pure and beautiful.
The flight had been short and the pilot had a bumpy landing. Miraculously, he hadn’t hurt himself while flying 10 or so feet across the garden. He had also been lucky to land in a large azalea bush that his mother loved dearly. Its springy foliage and branches cushioned his fall somewhat and Chet rolled onto the ground, still feeling slightly stunned, but relieved to be in one piece, even if his entire extended family seemed to be having hysterics.
Scrambling to his feet, Chet knew that he would have to take control of things again. Just because their house was not burning didn’t mean it would remain that way. Flames were consuming the house two doors along and Chet knew that a spark could fly at any moment and contact the leaking gas. Under other circumstances, he might have used a garden hose to wet down their house and try and hold the flames at bay for a brief time while they awaited the arrival of the fire department. That was not feasible this time. The fire department wouldn’t be arriving any time soon. Phones were out, so there was no way to contact them, short of walking to the nearest fire station. While that might be doable, it wasn’t a sensible option. The garden hose was out, because the water pipes were almost certainly ruptured as well. The fire department priorities would be hospitals and government buildings, for if the infrastructure of the city went down, it was doomed.
“We need to get back from the house and out from under these trees,” Chet ordered, and had to repeat himself about a dozen times before anyone began to take any notice of him. Finally, however, he got his mother to understand the danger they were in without panicking her too much.
In dribs and drabs, they moved to the middle of the street, while Chet chivvied the slowpokes who were watching the houses burn in fascination. It wasn’t ideal, but Chet was satisfied that they were out of the danger zone as much as they could be. Debris falling from houses in the aftershocks might still reach them, but as they were out in the open, the chances dropped.
He had no sooner thought that than the first aftershock hit.
It was probably the longest, coldest night Roy could remember spending anywhere. The first aftershock hit within an hour and the children cried and screamed and clung on to him and Joanne. Roy watched their house anxiously, but it was still standing when the shock finished and seemed none the worse for wear. A loose shutter had plummeted to the ground, but that seemed to be the extent of the damage. Of course, he had no way to check for what had happened inside, but a few broken dishes and tree ornaments seemed a small price to pay for being alive and unharmed.
Gradually over the course of the night, his neighbors began to arrive at his place. Some of them were inspired by altruistic motives, checking up that everyone was all right. Roy appreciated their concern. Others came because they knew he was a paramedic and wanted him to treat an injury. Roy didn’t object to that. There wasn’t all that much he could do, but even just making sure someone was comfortable gave them a sense of calm.
Having more people huddling together kept everybody warmer and people fell asleep one by one. Roy remained awake, watching over the ones who had injuries and worrying about his shift mates, Johnny in particular. When would he learn how they were all doing? It seemed a long time to wait for daylight so he could send his neighbors off to Rampart and then go looking for Johnny in particular. He would also have to go to Station 51 and volunteer for search and rescue, but first he had to make sure his own family would be safe, and that included Johnny. Some sixth sense was making Roy uneasy and he longed to jump in the car and drive the half hour to Johnny’s apartment block and bring his friend back home with him.
But he couldn’t do that, so he just sat there, Jennifer sleeping in his lap and worried about his best friend.
When daylight came, things started to move. By then, the emergency services were out and about, emergency generators in place and working. The power and services companies were also on the move, cutting off the gas supplies to ruptured pipes, cutting water off, or diverting it to other channels. Fire companies were out fighting large fires and shelters were being set up for those who had been made homeless by the quake.
The ground still moved. There had been several aftershocks, although none of them had been as big as either the initial quake or the first aftershock. Most of Los Angeles had faired pretty well, but the roads and airport were still closed and there had been some damage to ships at the docks. Structural engineers were now going around to assess damaged buildings and decide if they were salvageable or had to be demolished.
But help had not reached every area. The more rural parts of LA were still more or less cut off. Fires still raged there as the authorities concentrated their efforts on the more populous parts of the city. The fire departments were doing what they could, but a lack of man power and water hampered their efforts. The promised troops had arrived, but were in the city center trying to prevent looting.
When daylight came, Roy left Joanne and the children and went inside the house to assess the damage. The structure of the house appeared sound and Roy could see no cracks indicating that the foundations had shifted. It was a huge relief and he was happy to have the family come back inside.
While they were getting something to eat – Roy would not let Joanne use the gas stove, just in case – Roy supervised sending the injured neighbors to hospital with some of the others. He had another destination in mind – Johnny’s apartment.
It seemed odd to think that this was Christmas Day. The tree was beyond redemption, but they propped it upright and handed out the presents that were underneath it. By some miracle, they were all intact. Roy even made a show of ‘finding’ Santa’s presents, for he and Joanne had not had time to put them out the night before. The children were thrilled. After all the unsettling events of the night before, it was nice to have something normal to do.
As soon as he decently could, Roy took his leave of his family and headed off towards Johnny’s place. The roads weren’t in great condition and he had to walk the last half mile. The area where Johnny was currently living seemed to have been much more badly hit by the quake than Roy’s neighborhood. Roy’s concern was growing ever deeper as he trudged over the broken, warped sidewalks.
His first glimpse of the crushed remains of the apartment building would be one that would remain with him for the rest of his life, popping up in dreams to remind him of how fragile life really was. Although his feet kept walking automatically, his mind was standing stock still, gazing in horror at the pile of rubble where his friend used to live.
Where was he supposed to start looking? It was a mammoth task, like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The familiar outline of the building was gone and no doorways or entrances were visible. They would need to get in specialist equipment with Kennedy probes to try and locate people. Roy was completely at a loss.
Well, his mind was. His heart knew what it was doing and it was directing his body. He began to climb onto the structure, calling out the age old shout of rescuers everywhere; “Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
There was a deadly silence in response. Roy did not know if the concrete and drywall tumbled around inside were creating soundproofing. They never had before; Johnny often complained about how thin the walls were, but all jumbled together, who knew? “Johnny!” he shouted.
All of a sudden he froze. His heart was going like a sledgehammer, both from fear and exertion. He hadn’t heard anything, and as he crouched on the rubble like some large spider, he still couldn’t hear anything, but his instincts were shouting at him and he had learned to pay heed to them.
After a long moment to calm his heart rate, Roy moved sideways across the building and soon reached what was now the top of the pile. Johnny’s apartment was on the back of the top floor and the building had crumpled towards the front. There was a chance that his partner was alive; just a chance, but Roy was more than willing to gamble on it.
Bracing himself as best he could on the unstable surface, Roy began moving the pieces of shattered concrete. As he dug, he thought that whoever had signed off on the building specs for this complex had been on the take and heads would roll if Roy had anything to do with it. A building only two years old should not have gone down like this. Earthquake building regulations had been in force for… well, Roy didn’t know how long they’d been in force, but he was positive they should apply to this building.
He’d been lifting and moving the concrete without conscious thought, but he paused suddenly as he realized that he could now see inside the building. Below him, the corridor was in comparatively good condition and it was the corridor outside Johnny’s apartment.
There was no way Roy was going to risk going down into the corridor alone. He moved across the building slightly and once more started moving blocks. He was sweating from the exertion and his hands were bleeding from numerous little cuts and nicks. He didn’t even notice. His whole being was focused on getting into that apartment building.
He never knew how long it took him to clear enough rubble away to allow him to see down into the room below. At first it made no sense, until he realized he was looking at a sheet of drywall that was leaning over at a crazy angle. Bracing himself, Roy leaned down and heaved on it with all his might. It gave fractionally, but Roy was determined and pulled and yanked until the top part of the thin wall gave way. He threw it away from him, his gaze locked down in the crushed bedroom beneath him.
Curled on the blood stained bed, his eyes closed and utterly unmoving, was his partner, Johnny Gage.
One of the men had a CB radio in his truck and after a few minutes of trying was able to raise the fire department. They promised to send a squad, but couldn’t promise an ambulance. Marco was simply thankful that a squad was coming, for he suspected the priest was in a bad way and he would have hated for the old man to die under his care. Basic first aid wasn’t a problem for Marco, but anything more than that scared him. That wasn’t the kind of responsibility he wanted. He took his hats off to paramedics, nurses and doctors, but he didn’t want to do their jobs!
For Marco’s taste, it took far too long for the paramedics to arrive. He didn’t know them by sight, but identified himself as an off duty firefighter, knowing that he would be asked to go along with them to the fire station. Every off duty firefighter would get called in over the next 24 hours and they would be working with only short breaks for the foreseeable future. Had he been alone, Marco would already have reported for duty somewhere, but since he seemed to be the only person there with any kind of disaster training, it would have been unforgivable for him to leave the others alone.
Once the paramedics were there, things started moving along more quickly. There was a shelter set up not that far away and the people who had been in the church set off to walk there. Marco headed off for the nearest fire station. It would be more than good to have someone else be in charge. Marco didn’t think he was quite ready to rule the world – yet.
It took him about an hour to walk to the fire station and there he was issued with a turnout coat and helmet and put to work. It kept his mind from dwelling on his friends, but he was still worried about them.
Mike had never broken a limb before and he wished he hadn’t done so now. He had seen many people with broken limbs over the course of his life and they all seemed to get on with things quite cheerfully – after they had been treated. Now, Mike could really sympathize with Johnny’s pain after the gas explosion in the apartment building when he had been blown down a flight of stairs and broken his leg. He had been in traction for a while afterwards, Mike remembered. He had no clear idea as to why Johnny had needed traction; too much medical detail began to make him feel queasy after a while, but he wondered now if he would need traction. The pain was excruciating.
He had read plenty of books where the hero had ignored a broken leg and wandered off and saved themselves from some disaster or another. They seemed even more unlikely to him now than they ever had. He was going nowhere until he had had a shot of morphine and had his leg splinted and even then, the only way he was contemplating moving was on a stretcher into the back of an ambulance that was going to a hospital somewhere. No, sir, Mike Stoker was not going to do something heroically stupid. If he had to lie there all night and most of the next day before rescue came, then that was exactly what he would do.
The biggest problem with that resolve was the cold. The longer he lay on the cold ground, the colder he became. There really wasn’t anything he could do about it. He didn’t have a blanket in the truck, even if he had had the resolve to crawl back to the wrecked vehicle. It had taken him long enough to pull himself a safe distance away from it, and that was after he had lain there and cried from the agony of falling from the window. Mike was not proud of that recollection, but given the intense pain it had caused, he didn’t altogether blame himself. He would defy anyone to remain stoical in that situation.
The other bad thing about just lying there was that he now had time to worry about his friends. Mike could only hope they were all right. Everyone would be expected to turn up to help out. Surely somewhere along the line, someone would realize he was missing and alert the cavalry, so to speak? The road he had been driving was not a busy one at the best of times and now it had a jagged split in it, where one part of the road bed lay below the other. It was a terrifying reminder of the power of the earthquake.
Then, suddenly, Mike heard a sound. He sat up quickly and his head swam sickeningly. It was a vehicle of some description. He could hear the engine. He prayed that they would come his way and spot him. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to lie there all night and freeze to death.
“Hey!” he yelled, even knowing that the people in the vehicle wouldn’t hear him. “Hey! I’m over here!”
Unexpected help arrived before Roy had time to do anything. He glanced up as he heard the diesel engine below and realized that it was a rescue truck. “Up here!” he called. “Bring some ropes.”
It was only a matter of moments before the two rescue guys were climbing over the shattered concrete. Roy looked at them and grinned briefly. He knew them by sight, if not by name. “I’m an off-duty paramedic and my partner is trapped in his apartment below us. He’s been hurt. I don’t know if anyone else is alive in the complex – I couldn’t raise anyone by shouting.”
“I’ll get us some more help out here,” one of the guys promised. He off-loaded the rope from his shoulder and carefully made his way down the pile to the truck.
“How bad is it out there?” Roy asked, nodding towards the city.
“Bad enough,” the other returned. “Say, you’re Roy DeSoto, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Roy agreed. “And you are?”
“Oh, Bob Hughes,” the man grinned. “Pleased to meet you, but I wish it had been under better circumstances.” He peered down into the small space where Johnny was trapped. “You want me to go down to him?”
“No, that’s fine, I’ll go,” Roy replied. He was already fashioning a harness from the rope. “You guys will have been busy.”
“Run off our feet,” Hughes agreed. “Several of the stations in this area suffered pretty bad hits. A number of appliances have been damaged too badly to use. Headquarters are trying to get replacements out, but there are only so many replacement vehicles to be had.”
Roy winced. “Are you okay to anchor me?” he asked.
“Yeah, no problem.” Hughes wound the rope around his middle and braced himself. “Ready when you are.”
For a second, Roy paused, looking down to be sure where he wanted to place his feet, then he dropped over the edge into the small space.
It hadn’t taken long for Hank Stanley to walk to the nearest station. He joined several other off duty guys there and they waited patiently until they were sent to other places where they would be needed the most. Cap was quite glad to be sent to his own station. Not only would it allow him to see how the building had fared, but it would hopefully give him the chance to find out how the others were. Having an overall picture of the disaster, and which areas were worst hit, would help a lot.
His own station was in good condition, as he had expected. It was pretty new, so had been built to the earthquake regulations. There were several firefighters there, but none of them were from his own crew. Realistically, Cap knew that it was unlikely they would be there, but he had hoped nonetheless. Each man was given the gear he needed and they hurried off to follow the orders that came down from headquarters. Cap pushed his worries aside. He needed to be on top of his game now, for lives depended on him more than ever.
A semblance of order was returning to the world. Search and rescue efforts were now well under way and the injured were being transferred to hospitals. The airport runway was declared safe and flights were soon landing with extra search and rescue personnel from other parts of the country. Relatives were waiting anxiously for word from those in the disaster zone and the nation scanned the TV news for what snippets they could get. The first pictures were reaching the outside world by then and people could only watch in horror and be grateful that things hadn’t been worse.
They were bad enough. Roy climbed down into what had once been Johnny’s bedroom. All that was visible was a tiny section of floor and the bit of the bed that Johnny was lying on. He stirred slightly as Roy’s weight landed beside him and Roy froze, hoping that his friend didn’t move too much, as Roy had no idea what his injuries might be. However, Johnny simply sighed and snuggled the blankets closer.
It took a little maneuvering to kneel down on the bed, but Roy managed it. He sincerely hoped that Johnny didn’t have any spinal injuries, because getting a backboard and stokes down here would be impossible. He supposed it could be done eventually, but ‘eventually’ really wasn’t good enough, given that Johnny’s golden hour was long, long gone.
“Johnny? Johnny, can you hear me?” He shook his partner’s shoulder gently. Heaven knew the last thing he wanted to do was make any injury worse. He ran his hand gently down the limb and felt no breaks. That was a plus. Still, there was all that blood… “Johnny?”
“Huh?” Blinking, Johnny opened his eyes. “Roy? Zat you?”
“It’s me,” Roy confirmed. “Johnny, do you remember what happened? Where does it hurt?” He was watching Johnny as his partner cautiously turned his head and winced. There was something not right here.
“Earthquake!” Johnny gasped. He flailed his hand out and grabbed Roy’s wrist, but Roy had the feeling it was more by luck than judgment. But there again, he did have a head injury. “Roy… A quake. I was going to try and climb out of here, but… another one came and I couldn’t move the drywall.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “Oh… I think I’m gonna…”
Puke. And he did, right there on the bed. Roy never knew how he got out of the way in time, but somehow he did. Gently, he supported his partner through the dry heaves that followed, taking the chance to look at the gash on Johnny’s head. It was deep enough to cause all sorts of problems and Roy was seriously worried.
Finally, Johnny slumped back. “Where hurts besides your head?” Roy asked.
“Left wrist,” Johnny mumbled. He was chalk-white. “My ankles. Kind a’ all over.” He shivered. “Uh, Roy?”
“What is it?” Roy replied, knowing that tone of voice, the one that suggested Johnny was going to say something his partner wasn’t going to like, but whatever it was had to be said and wasn’t really Johnny’s fault.
“I … I – uh – I can’t…” Johnny stopped, clearly distressed.
“Can’t what?” Roy prompted gently.
“Can’t see,” his partner finally admitted. His hand tightened painfully around Roy’s wrist. Now that it was out, he couldn’t seem to stop saying it. “I can’t see. Roy, I can’t see!”
Yelling and waving for all he was worth, Mike saw, to his astonished disbelief, that it was a fire engine and what was more, they had seen him! He slumped back to the ground, overwhelmed with relief that his ordeal would soon be at an end.
When the first aftershock had hit, Mike had been huddled on the ground, trying to ride out the wave of pain that had swept over his body when he fell from the truck window. He knew he had screamed like a girl from the pain in his leg when he fell, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. When he felt the ground moving underneath him, he had instinctively tried to get to his feet, to run away from the chasm that was marching across the roadway towards him. The pain had brought him to a halt before he had done more than tense his muscles and he froze in place like a deer in the headlights as the crack in the ground came inexorably towards him.
And then it had stopped, just like that. It had taken him several minutes to believe that it had stopped, that the earth wouldn’t resume its sickening shaking and he wouldn’t be swallowed up like something out of a science fiction novel. After a time, he realized that the only thing shaking was himself. For now, the earth was still.
It had been a long, cold, terror filled night for Mike Stoker. Now that rescue was on the horizon, he allowed himself a moment of weakness and blinked back tears that he didn’t want his fellow firefighters to see, although he felt perfectly entitled to have a bit of a breakdown if he wanted to. But still, something in his nature made him try and hide the worst of the fear he’d felt and he managed to produce a shaky grin for the men who descended from the familiar red beast to help him.
“What kept you guys?” he asked. “Mike Stoker, engineer, Station 51.”
“Looks like you have a bit of a problem here, Stoker,” answered the captain. He knelt by the injured man’s side and looked him over. Mike had a huge goose-egg on his forehead and it was several ugly colors. He could see by the way Mike was lying that he had broken his leg – no leg was supposed to bend where that one did – and the paleness of the other man’s face told everyone of the pain he had to endure. “Dan Phillips, captain of station 36. I believe we’ve met before.”
“A couple of times,” Mike agreed.
“We’ll get a squad out here, Stoker, and they’ll get you fixed up in no time,” Phillips comforted him. His engineer was back at the engine, calling it in.
Now that help had arrived, Mike could relax. He was grateful when one of the men brought over a turnout coat and draped it over Mike to help him keep warm. He was suddenly shivering more than he had all night. Shock, he thought. Wasn’t that what Johnny and Roy always said when there was a reaction like this? He swallowed and forced himself to speak.
“How bad is it?” he asked, gesturing to the world around him.
Phillips glanced at him. “Bad,” he answered succinctly. “Very bad.”
In the end, they took him in on the back of the engine. The squad arrived, but ambulances were in short supply and it was quicker to transport on the engine. Mike’s leg was splinted and the men lifted him carefully onto the back of the engine in the stokes. Mike was desperate for pain relief, but with a head injury, he would have to wait until he arrived at Rampart. It had been good hearing Dr Brackett’s familiar voice on the other end of the radio. If he could only find out about the rest of his shift mates, but Phillips hadn’t heard anything about them and there was no reason why he should have. Mike believed the old adage that no news was good news.
The paramedic who rode in with Mike chatted away to him as they trundled carefully over the shattered roads. Rampart hadn’t suffered any damage and top priority had been given to restoring power there and at the other hospitals across the city. There had been large numbers of casualties, but the death toll was surprisingly low, all things considered. That was very good news for such a bad situation.
Fighting off waves of sleep induced by being really warm for the first time in hours, Mike asked more questions, trying to find out if the paramedics had heard anything about any of the others. This time, he was to receive a positive response.
“I ran into one of your guys a few hours ago,” the man confirmed. “Lopez? Marco Lopez? He had been in St Mary’s when the quake hit. He organized evacuating everyone. I hear he did a real good job. Sadly, the priest died.”
“Was Marco hurt?” Mike asked.
“He was at Rampart when I last saw him,” the paramedic evaded. He saw the look on Mike’s face and decided to share the rest of the news. “It seems like he has a concussion.”
“Snap,” Mike mumbled. It would be good to catch up with at least one of his friends. He couldn’t help worrying about the others, though.
The first aftershock had reduced several of Chet’s female relatives to hysteria for a few minutes. In a way, he could understand it; it was bad enough to endure a big earthquake without then having to suffer what seemed like an equally big earthquake only a short time later. The earth ought to be stable, not shaking and quivering like a jelly on a plate.
However, he was also a touch impatient with them. For crying out loud, everyone knew that there were aftershocks and some of them could be bigger than the original quake! Why weren’t they prepared for it to happen? Chet had to admit he was not the most sensitive of men and he had to work really hard to help calm down his mother, sisters and sisters-in-law. From watching his brothers, he surmised that the tactic he most favored – a slap on the cheek – was not going to be acceptable.
Everyone had regained control of their emotions now, and Chet was trying to regain his own calmness. This was why he wasn’t a paramedic, he thought. He didn’t have the patience for it. Nor, if he was to be honest, did he have the stomach for seeing blood and puke. But those were the only reasons, he assured himself. Being a great lineman wasn’t something every firefighter could do either. He thrust away worried thoughts about the other regular lineman on his crew, his best friend Marco. He hoped the other man was all right. He hoped all the other men were all right.
There was nothing for them to do but to sit down and watch the houses burning. Luckily, there wasn’t much wind that night and the fires were slow to spread. Chet was pretty sure that, in the end, most of the houses in the street would be burning. He wavered, wondering if he should go to the nearest fire station to report this. He knew that the minute he turned up, he would be pressed into duty and that was fine by him. It beat the hell out of sitting here doing nothing, but he knew his mother would get all cut up about it.
Still, duty was duty. He caught the eye of his oldest brother and quickly explained what he was going to do. His brother, who had once been a firefighter, but had given it all up when he got married and was now bored out of his gourd with a 9-5 job, could appreciate what Chet was saying but also knew their mother wouldn’t like it. However, he agreed to help Chet out and the pair of them approached Mrs. Kelly.
She was a formidable woman, even now with dirt on her face and sitting in the middle of the street. Chet loved her and sometimes feared her. She ran the Kelly household with an iron glove and her daughters-in-law almost genuflected when they saw her. She also had a heart of gold and a tremendous sense of humor and could drink and swear with the best of them when the mood took her.
In silence, she listened while Chet stuttered his way through a complicated explanation of why he had to report to the nearest fire station. He was amazingly creative at adding more reasons for going, not just that the department required him to. She knew he was waiting for her to explode at him.
Instead, she smiled sweetly. “Of course, my boy, off you go,” she urged. “Just be careful, Chester, all right?”
Caught completely off guard, Chet simply nodded. How did she do that? he wondered. She had always been able to catch him out by reacting differently than he expected her to. “Um, you be careful, too, Ma,” he smiled and with a nod to his oldest brother, he trotted off in the direction of the nearest fire station, still wondering why women were such mysteries to men.
All in all, he thought it was easier fighting fires than trying to fathom the depths of a woman’s mind.
“It’s all right, Johnny,” Roy soothed, although he had no basis for saying that. He didn’t know if it would be all right or not, but he had to keep Johnny calm. “Just take it easy, I’m here.” It wasn’t unusual for a head injury to affect sight temporarily, but Roy was not an expert on it and didn’t know how long this phenomenon could last. He wrapped his hand around Johnny’s and held on tight. It wasn’t what he wanted to do; he wanted to wave a magic wand and make Johnny all right, but he couldn’t do that. So he did the next best thing he could and held his hand for dear life, assuring his friend that he was there. It didn’t feel like enough.
It was enough for Johnny at the moment. It had been utterly terrifying, being alone in the tiny space that was all that was left of his apartment, unable to see. The aftershock had been especially terrifying. Johnny had waited for the walls to topple down, crushing him slowly to death. He had never been so frightened in his whole life before. He’d been in some tight places during rescues and even had things come down on top of him, but he had always known then that the rest of the crew was right there and would get him out as fast as they could. This time, he had been alone and he thought that he might die, entombed in his bedroom.
“Get me outta here?” he pleaded softly, his grip relaxing now that he really believed that Roy was there.
“Right away,” Roy promised. He kept his contact as he looked upwards. “I need a c-collar, an arm splint and two leg splints,” he called. “I don’t think anything’s broken, but just to be safe. Advise Rampart that there’s a bad head injury and he can’t see. Send down another safety belt and I’ll bring him up in tandem with me.”
“Gotcha, Roy,” the other replied.
While he waited for the items he had requested, Roy checked Johnny’s pupillary response. His pupils were equal but sluggish. Johnny didn’t react to the light at all and Roy made no comment. He would deal with BP and the rest when they were out of this hole. He glanced anxiously at the walls and guessed that his BP wouldn’t be too good at the moment, either.
It took a couple of minutes to fit the collar and splints and Johnny complained the whole time they were going on. Roy took that as a good sign. His friend appeared to be regaining his emotional equilibrium. Of course, things could go rapidly downhill as he was moved, but Roy tried not to think of that. Finally, he buckled the safety belt around Johnny’s slender waist and clipped it directly to his own.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Just get me out of here,” Johnny mumbled. He wanted nothing more than to just get out of there and go to sleep. His head was thumping and he hurt all over and he had had enough – more than enough – for now. Perhaps, after a good sleep, he would be able to see again. He prepared himself for the jolt as they were pulled up, but it was worse than he expected and he winced miserably. Even with Roy supporting him, the belt cut into his back and ribs.
The journey up to ‘safety’ was quick and smooth. More manpower had arrived and there were plenty of people to pull the two paramedics out of the shattered remains of the complex. More men were searching the debris field, looking for more survivors. Johnny’s belt was quickly removed and he was placed into a stokes and carried carefully over the rubble to the ground. Hands then started doing things to him; wrapping a BP cuff around his upper arm, putting bandages on his head… Johnny panicked, struggling to bat them away. “Roy?” he called. “Roy!”
“Right here.” The calm, familiar voice settled Johnny as much as the hands stopping what they were doing. “I’m just gonna get your vitals and Brett here is going to put a bandage on your head, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, all right,” Johnny agreed, feeling a fool for panicking like that. The fact that he couldn’t see them starting all the usual checks and that there were so many pairs of hands had made it seem quite a frightening experience. “I didn’t know… what was going on,” he whispered.
“It’s all right,” Roy soothed. “They should have said something, I know.” He sent a sizzling glare at the paramedics, who had only been doing what they were trained to, but should have known better, especially when Roy had already told them that Johnny couldn’t see. Both men looked away and nodded.
While Roy collected the vitals, Brett got back on the radio with Rampart and dutifully repeated the numbers. All things considered, they were fairly near the norm. Still, Johnny’s BP, heart rate and respirations were all raised. He would need x-rays of his limbs and head and monitored closely.
“Start an IV, D5W and update vitals every 10 minutes, sooner if LOC changes,” Brackett ordered. “Bandage his eyes until we can look at them more closely.”
“10-4, Rampart,” Brett acknowledged. “We’re bringing him in on the back of the squad. ETA approximately 15-30 minutes.” They didn’t know how the roads would be. They might arrive in less time; it might take longer.
“10-4.” Such things were common place that day. The ambulance depot had been badly damaged in the earthquake and the undamaged vehicles were as scarce as hen’s teeth. As long as the patients got to them, Brackett didn’t really care how it was managed. He did hope that they wouldn’t run into difficulties. Johnny had a bad head injury and he really needed to have been seen several hours ago. Brackett squared his shoulders and took a deep breath before going back out to the mad house that was his ER.
It was almost 40 minutes before the squad bearing Johnny arrived at Rampart. They had had to take a most circuitous route because of the state of the roads. Johnny had remained stable and pretty calm, all things considered. Brackett met them with a gurney and Johnny was carefully transferred from the stokes to the gurney and Brett and his partner bid Johnny good luck, loaded the stokes back into the squad and headed off.
“Hi, Johnny,” Brackett said, placing his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“Hi, doc,” Johnny replied. He was unbearably sleepy, but Roy seemed to have a sixth sense that told him when Johnny was starting to drift off. “Not such a merry Christmas, huh?”
“I guess not,” Brackett agreed. He had mostly forgotten that it was Christmas Day. There certainly hadn’t been any festive greetings exchanged in the ER that he had noticed. He raised his eyebrows at Roy. The other man mouthed the word ‘stable’. He didn’t want to discuss Johnny’s condition right there.
But his partner was frequently too perceptive by half. This was one of those times. “Roy, just tell him about me,” Johnny interjected wearily. “The sooner you do that, the sooner he gives me something for pain and I can sleep.”
Seeing Roy’s startled face, Brackett laughed. “Come on then,” he smiled, grasping the edge of the gurney. “Let’s see what we can do about that list, shall we?”
It really was complete pandemonium inside. People occupied all the seats, there were gurneys lining the corridors and it seemed as though every treatment room had at least three people in it. They sat on the floors and leaned against the walls and it was eerily quiet; hardly anyone spoke. Roy threw Brackett a startled look, but Brackett had grown used to the quiet and it no longer bothered him. “Shock,” he advised succinctly and kept moving. He pushed open the door to a treatment room and Roy shoved the gurney inside and stopped to look at the other occupants of the room. “Surprise!” Brackett added dryly.
“What is it?” Johnny asked. There was no answer and the injured man could feel panic starting to creep in. “Roy?”
“It’s Marco and Mike,” Roy answered, sounding dazed. He absently patted his friend’s arm while look at his other friends more closely.
It could have been a lot worse, Roy acknowledged after his first inspection of them both. True, Mike’s leg was in a splint and he had a colorful goose-egg bump dead centre on his forehead, but he was awake and aware. Marco had a bruised gash on his head that had several stitches in it. His hands were lightly bandaged. From the positioning of the emesis trays, Roy guessed they had both suffered from concussions. It was a relief to know how they both were, even if he was still anxious about Cap and Chet.
“You guys okay?” Johnny asked, wishing he could see them for himself.
“We’re gonna be,” Mike replied.
“How are you, Johnny?” Marco asked. He honestly thought he was all right to leave. He hadn’t been sick in – oh about five minutes. Surely that was okay for him to go back to work? Well, now that he’d thought about it of course, the urge came over him again and he heaved miserably into the basin.
Listening to the tortured sounds, Johnny winced miserably. He’d only had two bouts of nausea, but they had been more than enough. He swallowed hard, for he didn’t want to copy Marco.
Sensing what Johnny was feeling, Brackett took charge. “All right, Mr. Gage,” he declared, “let’s get you seen to here.” He parked the gurney. “I’m going to un-wrap you to listen to your chest, Johnny.”
“’K,” Johnny agreed wearily. He flinched as the cold stethoscope touched his flesh. He heard the door to the room open and brisk footsteps approached him. He caught the hint of a familiar scent and smiled. “Dixie?”
“Hello, tiger,” she replied and took his hand before leaning down to kiss his cheek. “You look like you’ve been in the wars.”
“I guess,” he agreed, suddenly reluctant to go into all the details. She squeezed his hand in understanding.
“X-ray is on the way, Kel,” she informed Brackett. “Orthopedics is ready for Mr. Stoker.”
“All right,” Brackett agreed. “Have we found a room for anyone yet?” he asked diffidently. Last time he had enquired about rooms, Dixie had almost torn his head off, since apparently the admitting system was in total chaos.
“Gradually, we’re getting there,” Dixie assured him. A good number of the casualties would be heading back to their own homes or a designated shelter. Some others were being transferred to other hospitals further away for more specialist treatment. ICU was full, but Dixie was determined not to worry about that for the time being. They were seeing fewer people for the moment and she fervently hoped and prayed that that situation would continue. “Come on, Mike,” she added. “It’s time for you to get plastered.” Everyone laughed at the old joke.
The treatment room was busy for the next few minutes as Mike left, x-ray arrived, Marco, Roy and Brackett exited the room and then x-ray left and the other three returned. Johnny had had some time to think while his x-rays were taken and when Roy returned, he clutched the other man’s arm.
“Roy, what about Cap and Chet? Are they all right? Are Joanne and the kids okay?”
“Easy, Johnny, calm down,” Roy soothed. “Joanne and the kids are fine. We haven’t heard about Cap and Chet yet, but they aren’t here at the hospital and the phones are out.” He knew that for someone with Johnny’s overactive imagination, that was not necessarily a good thing that they had heard nothing; there could be all sorts of nasty reasons that they hadn’t heard from the others. “Right now there’s nothing we can do for them except hope and pray, but they both know how to look after themselves and I suspect they’re already hard at work somewhere.” He knew that Johnny would just worry, so he carried on talking to distract him. “Our house was okay, so we opened the presents that Santa had miraculously managed to drop off during the earthquake.”
“Really?” Johnny asked. “You opened presents this morning? Wow!”
Brackett was impressed by this too and rather stunned. “You opened presents?” he echoed and there must have been some tone in his voice that he was unaware of, because Roy flushed.
“You have to try and make things as normal as possible for kids,” Roy retorted defensively. “My family is my priority. I had to make sure they were safe and the kids felt as secure as possible, since I knew I would have to leave them to go looking for this other member of my family.” He gestured to Johnny.
Since his eyes were covered, Johnny couldn’t see it. “Which other member of your family? Did your mom decide to come for Christmas after all?”
The others laughed and Johnny felt offended. He was tired and sore and had been utterly terrified. He was trying not to think about why he couldn’t see and suddenly everyone was laughing and he had no idea what was going on or what was so funny. He shrugged off the hand that lay on his shoulder and reached up with his good hand to fumble with the hated c-collar that prevented him moving his head.
“Ah-ah!” Brackett scolded. “Leave that alone.”
“Let me out of here!” Johnny demanded.
“What?” Baffled, Brackett looked at Roy, who looked equally uncomprehending. “Johnny…”
“I don’t need you laughing at something I don’t know!” Johnny was really working himself up. “I don’t need this. I’m going…” He stopped because he didn’t know where he could go or how he could get there. His home was destroyed and he couldn’t see.
“Hey, easy,” Roy soothed. He grasped Johnny’s wrist and held on gently, despite the other’s attempts to pull free. “Listen to me, Johnny. We laughed because the other member of my family that I had to look for is you! Are you listening? I gestured to you and then you asked those questions. Johnny, when will you ever learn that family doesn’t mean that you have to be related by blood? That might be the criteria that most people use, but it doesn’t apply to us. You are as much a member of my family as Joanne, Jenny or Chris.” He gave his friend’s arm a shake. It suddenly hit him how close he had come to losing Johnny. Tears sprang into his eyes, but he blinked them back determinedly. “How many times do I have to tell you?” he asked huskily. And because there was a time and place for everything, and a huge need, he said the most difficult words. “Damn it, I love you, Junior.”
He leaned over and pulled the injured man into a hug. They were both shaking, but Johnny’s arms crept up around Roy’s body and he hugged right back.
It was probably the medicine that Johnny needed most at that moment.
It had been a busy day for Hank Stanley. They had been called out to several rescues, digging people out of rubble and extinguishing fires that broke out when people forgot that the gas was off, or a new leak was discovered. He was exhausted when he was finally relieved by someone else, but he was too tired to walk home and opted to bunk down in the dorm.
Cap wasn’t alone in doing that. All six bunks were soon filled with exhausted firefighters and nobody cared if the sheets hadn’t been changed since the previous shift slept in them. They knew it was unlikely that the tones would go off and waken them, as electricity still hadn’t been reconnected to the station. If they were needed someone who was awake would come and waken them.
It wasn’t a man who came to shake them awake.
It was another enormous earthquake.
When the quake hit, Chet was half way up a ladder. Or half way down, seeing as how he was actually on the way down the ladder with an unconscious woman draped over his shoulder. And worse yet, it was a pretty tall ladder and he was a good seven or eight feet above the ground when the ground started shaking. Despite everything he could do, Chet knew he was heading for the ground a darned sight quicker than he had intended to.
It was a wicked fall. The ladder danced around under his feet before finally succumbing to gravity. It tilted to Chet’s right; he fell off to the left. Chet had fallen off ladders before. It wasn’t one of his preferred activities, but it did happen once in a blue moon. You tended to learn to fall, but that was impossible when you had another human being draped over your shoulder. Chet tried to grab the woman and change her position, but time was against him. Instead of heroically cradling her against his body and cushioning her fall with his own, he crashed inelegantly to the ground and knew that his poor victim had just suffered another severe injury.
Normally, an accident like that would have had firefighters converging from all around to take over the victim and get the downed firefighter to safety. That didn’t happen in this case, which, Chet reflected, was something of a pity. It was also completely understandable, since walking on the shaking ground would have been impossible. Even standing was proving a challenge. It was a pity, because Chet hurt like the devil and he was unable to move to help the woman victim he was sure he had just killed.
It didn’t last long – 20 seconds perhaps. But those were 20 of the longest seconds Chet had ever lived through and he guessed that it would be the same for many of the people who were trapped in the consequences of the first earthquake about 24 hours previously. There was nothing he could do to hold himself still, and each jolt sent rivers of pain through his body. Chet hoped the cries he could hear were not coming from him, but he feared that they were.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. There was a peculiar kind of hush left behind, although with the number of people in the vicinity, there shouldn’t have been any kind of quiet at all. Then the bubble burst and someone shouted an order and the whole scene burst into life again. Now the firefighters ran to their downed colleague and gently took the woman from him. One set of paramedics rushed her away while another set hurried to Chet’s side.
It was impossible to make head nor tail of what was being said, but a c-collar was wrapped around his neck and his helmet was eased off and someone divested him of his turnout coat and all the while, Chet’s teeth chattered together and he moaned and groaned and was thoroughly ashamed of himself, even though he had every right to make those noises. It was all agony. Dimly he heard a paramedic say, “Broken humorous, elbow, ulna and radius,” and wondered where those bones were. He knew he ought to know; he’d heard Roy and Johnny say the names so many times. He wished his arm would stop hurting.
Had someone said ‘pelvic fracture’? Chet tried to concentrate, but suddenly he was being turned onto his back and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all! He tried to protest, but his chattering teeth threatened to bite off his tongue when he tried to form words, so he gave it up as a bad job. Straps were fastened across his body, stopping him moving and then he felt a sharp scratch in his arm as an IV went in. Something cold went into his vein and after that, he stopped caring what anyone did.
Clutching the side of his bunk, Cap rode out the quake in relative comfort. It didn’t make it any less scary and now he was anxious about his family. Were they all right? He wanted to return home in the worst possible way, but knew that wasn’t going to happen. As the earth stopped moving, he scrambled out of his bunk into his turnouts, ready to face whatever new catastrophe faced him.
He wasn’t expecting to get called out to Rampart Hospital.
Neither Johnny’s ankles nor wrist were broken, which was pretty miraculous. That was the plus side of his diagnosis. The downside was that he had a skull fracture. It was only a hairline crack, but still counted as a skull fracture and the ophthalmologist had said that Johnny’s optic nerve was swollen, hence his problem with his sight. The only cure for that was time, but they all knew that if the optic nerve was damaged, Johnny’s sight might not be restored. None of them said that, but it was in the back of all their minds.
In the meantime, Dixie helped Johnny out of the only clothes he now owned and into a hospital gown and cleaned the dirt from his face and hands. He had been given something for the pain and Brackett numbed the gash on his head before they cleaned it out and stitched it. Then they bandaged his eyes to prevent him straining them while trying to see and eventually he was settled into a room. Both Marco and Mike were in with him, as every spare space in the hospital was being used and patients were being squeezed in wherever they could go.
Roy was at something of a loss then. He knew he should report for duty somewhere, but he wanted nothing more than to go home and see his family. They needed to know that Johnny was all right, but Roy knew that he could face disciplinary action at work if he didn’t show his face. Conflicted, he made his way back down to the ER and was greeted by Brackett. “Roy! Could you stay and give us a hand?”
“Sure, doc, what do you need?”
“Doing some vitals, checking and starting IVs, that kind of thing.” Brackett looked at him. “Or are you meant to be somewhere else?”
“I don’t know, but possibly,” Roy admitted. “Could you let HQ know that I’m here doing that at your request? Then I’m probably covered.”
“Not a problem,” Brackett assured him. “I’ll get on to them right now. Dixie will let you know what’s needed. Thanks, Roy.”
“How are you going to let HQ know?” Roy asked. “Are the phones working again?”
“We’ve got a special relay setup,” Brackett explained. “Are you thinking about Joanne? I can ask someone to let her know where you are. I can’t guarantee that they’ll have anyone to spare.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Roy replied after a moment’s thought. “Joanne would freak if she saw one of the cars from HQ pulling up at the curb.” He managed a small smile. “I’m sure I can find another way to let her know I’m okay.”
“Good man,” Brackett replied, patting him on the shoulder. “I’ll tell HQ for you now.”
As Brackett headed off, Roy went to get his assignment from Dixie.
He was catching some down-time when the next quake hit. The couch in the doctors’ lounge was slightly on the short side for comfortable sleeping, and Roy had been curled uncomfortably on the edge, dozing lightly. The shaking toppled him to the floor and he crawled under the table while the ground continued to heave. The moment the heaving stopped, he was on his feet and out of the door to help where required.
The whole place was in an uproar. Terrified patients clung to each other, crying and screaming. There was no visible damage, apart from a few things that had fallen from counter tops to the floor. Still, they would almost certainly have to evacuate the building and that would be a mammoth undertaking.
Disaster drills were rehearsed regularly at Rampart. The staff, although shocked by the latest quake, were well trained and pushed their own fear aside to start an orderly evacuation. Roy helped, guiding a gurney out of the doors into the parking lot. There, he saw that there were flames coming from one of the out-buildings – a lab of some sort, as far as he could remember. His instinct was to run over there, but he could see from the activity that someone had already started dealing with it, and he continued to do his job.
Before too long, he could hear sirens as the fire department responded to the call. By now, the ER was empty and patients were being brought from other departments. The hospital’s own structural engineers had been on-site since the first quake, Roy was told, and were already assessing the building’s stability. Considerable work had been done to Rampart over the years to make it as earthquake proof as they could, since hospitals were so vital in the aftermath of any earthquakes and so far, the building had stood up well.
Standing in the lot, watching over three patients, Roy saw Engine 51 arriving and recognized the lanky figure that jumped down from the cab. It was Cap! Roy grinned. It was so good to know that his captain was all right. The only member of their crew so far unaccounted for was Chet. Roy wanted to shout and wave at Cap, but he restrained himself. The fire was the most important concern for Cap right now. Once the fire was out… well, that would be different. He split his attention between his patients and the fire, watching with pleasure as the firefighters dealt quickly and efficiently with the fire.
As soon as he deemed it safe, Roy asked a nurse to keep an eye on his patients for a few minutes and headed over. “Cap!”
“Roy!” Cap hurried over to peer anxiously at his man in the less than good lighting of the parking lot. “Are you all right? Joanne; the kids?”
“I’m fine,” Roy assured him. “As far as I know, they’re fine, too. They were when I left them…” He paused to try and work out when that had been, but really couldn’t remember. Time had developed a certain elasticity since then. “Well, earlier,” he concluded. “Mike and Marco are both here. They’re concussed and Mike has a broken leg.” He quickly filled Cap in on what had happened to both of them, then proceeded to tell him about Johnny. Cap looked grave.
“I suppose it could have been a lot worse for them,” he sighed. They both knew what he meant. “Chet was working out of one of the other stations,” he reported. “I can’t remember which one off the top of my head.” He rubbed his eyes. “When will we know about John’s eyes?” he asked.
“How long is a piece of string?” Roy countered. “A few days, maybe. We just don’t know. It’ll depend how fast the swelling goes down. He’s going to be here for a while though; that’s standard with a skull fracture.”
“Well.” Cap straightened up, resuming his normal command posture. “I guess worrying won’t help, but I might indulge in it anyhow. Give my best to the others and if you happen to run into Chet…”
“Roy!” The voice shouting his name was urgent and Roy turned immediately, his eyes seeking out the caller, who waved. It was Dixie. “Roy, come quickly. It’s Chet!”
Exchanging a look, both Roy and Cap started running.
The ‘all clear’ was just being given for them to return to the hospital as Roy and Cap arrived at the gurney bearing Chet. The lineman had his eyes closed and his right arm and leg were splinted, he was wearing a c-collar and he appeared to be completely stoned, as he was singing to himself in a monotone. The problem with the singing was that he seemed to only know one line of the song and was repeating it over and over again. From the expression on the accompanying paramedic’s face, he had been singing that one line for quite some time.
“What’ve we got?” Brackett asked, hurrying over.
“He fell about seven or eight feet from a ladder while carrying a victim,” the paramedic reported. “Landed on his right side, still clutching the victim. None of us were able to get to him straight away, because of the tremor. Probable broken humorous, elbow, ulna and radius. Query broken pelvis and right femur.” He quickly updated Chet’s vitals and reported on the drugs he had been given. It was no wonder he was singing, Roy mused, listening.
“I need x-ray, stat,” Brackett snapped as the gurney was wheeled in the door. “Put an OR on standby and draw blood to type and cross match. Hold four units for the moment.”
“What does that mean?” Cap asked. Chet had a scrape on his face, but the scrape was minor.
"The pelvis is blood rich and if he’s broken it, there could be bleeding from the bone,” Roy reported in an undertone.
“All those broken bones,” Cap murmured.
“It’s serious, but he should be all right,” Roy offered. “And we’ll know more about the pelvis once x-ray is finished.” He turned to the paramedic who had come in with Chet. “Was Chet on the ladder when the quake hit?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the guy nodded. He looked exhausted. Roy drew him aside.
“What about the victim?” It was every firefighter’s worst nightmare to fall while carrying a victim.
“Code F,” he replied. “Right now, I couldn’t tell you if she was already dead or if the fall killed her. To be honest, her injuries were such that she wouldn’t have survived even if Chet hadn’t fallen.”
“Thanks,” Roy told him and exchanged another speaking glance with Cap. Chet would certainly need some professional help dealing with all this. They probably all would. For the first time, Roy wondered about the other people in Johnny’s apartment building. Had any of them survived, or was Johnny the only one?
The x-ray machine arrived and they were all ushered out. Cap had to return to duty and now that Roy was awake, he thought he might as well stay awake and help. The paramedic headed off to find his partner and head back out. As he helped push gurneys back into the ER Roy wondered if Mike, Marco and Johnny had been evacuated. He was impressed with the speed at which the building structural engineers had given the all clear. He didn’t know how many of them there were, but it seemed they had worked awfully quickly to get check the whole place.
Freezing in place, Roy went cold. They couldn’t possibly have checked the whole building, he reasoned, oblivious to the people moving around him. They might have been able to check the main floor visually, but they couldn’t have checked the foundations and certainly hadn’t had time to go through the upper floors. His heart suddenly in his mouth, Roy knew that he had to get everyone out of the hospital.
As they drove back to the station, waiting for the tones to go once more and call them out, Cap was also thinking about Rampart, since most of his crew was there for one reason or another. Half asleep, he thought how efficient the building inspectors had been in getting everyone back into the hospital. That had been quick work – very quick work. The thought wouldn’t leave his mind and he looked down at his watch. They had been at Rampart for no more than two hours, including driving over and fighting the fire, plus the few minutes – 15? – that he had spent talking to Roy. There was no way that the building could have been inspected in that time, not unless they had dozens – maybe even hundreds – of inspectors and Cap knew that wasn’t right. His heart was suddenly in his mouth and he knew he had to get back there. The building might be all right; but it might not.
“Turn round!” he ordered his startled engineer. “We’re going back to Rampart.” He ignored the look the man threw him and grabbed for the mic. “LA Engine 51 is returning to Rampart for follow-up on the fire we just attended there.”
“10-4,” the dispatcher acknowledged, sounding confused. The engine shouldn’t have left the place if there was still follow-up to do, but the dispatcher was a rookie and there was no one immediately available for them to consult.
As they drove back to the hospital, Hank just prayed that there was nothing untoward going on with the building. If there was, they might be too late to prevent a tragedy.
The biggest problem was finding someone who would listen to him. The ER staff was busy – run off their feet – and besides, they didn’t have the authority to evacuate the whole building. What Roy needed was an administrator, one of the board or the chairman of the hospital. Roy had to admit he was a bit foggy on the hierarchy, but he knew that he needed someone who would have the authority to move everyone out without having to phone to some superior being. He knew it would be a tough job, but he had no idea just how tough it was going to be.
The administration suite was deserted. There wasn’t a single pen-pusher behind the desks. The door was locked and the lights were off. Roy was stunned. While he could see that maybe not everyone could get in, and some people probably wouldn’t be needed, he was stunned that the director and his assistants weren’t in the building. Who was making the necessary decisions?
With that avenue cut off, Roy had to resort to tackling the people he knew and that meant Brackett and Dixie. They would surely know who was in charge and running the hospital during the crisis. He trudged back down the stairs, and wondered how on earth they would get bedbound patients out, since the elevators were a risky proposition given the seismic activity. It would need man-power and lots of it. Would they be able to get enough firefighters together to complete the task?
He hurried into the ER and by sheer luck, found Dr Brackett at Dixie’s desk, poring over a chart. Roy hurried over. “Doc!”
Glancing up, Brackett smiled. “Roy! Good news. Chet’s pelvis and femur are all right. We won’t have to take him to surgery after all. He’s going to be quite a while in a cast, that’s for sure, but it could have been much worse.”
“Great,” Roy replied. “Doc, who’s in charge of the hospital during emergency situations like this?”
“What?” Thrown by the change of subject, Brackett took a moment to switch gears. “In charge right now? Head of admin, James Dewar. He should be upstairs right now. He’ll have been the one who organized the evacuation and then the all clear.”
“So he should still be here?” Roy asked urgently.
“Of course,” Brackett nodded. “He’s paid to be here during crisis situations; that’s part of his job description. He even has to sleep here in a situation like this. Why? What’s wrong, Roy?”
“He’s not here,” Roy replied tersely. “There’s nobody upstairs at all. Doc, do you know how many structural engineers there are attached to this building?”
“No, I’m not sure,” Brackett replied slowly. “Two maybe? Three? I’m really not sure.” He glanced around, as though they would appear in a puff of smoke. “I haven’t seen them for a while, but I’ve been busy. Roy? What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that there wasn’t nearly enough time for two or three men to check out this whole building and give an all clear,” Roy replied. “I could be completely wrong and I hope to God that I am, but I think we need to evacuate this building. It could be unsafe.”
For what seemed like an interminable moment, Brackett hesitated. Then his eyes were drawn over Roy’s shoulder and the other man glanced around, wondering if by some miracle the missing administrator had appeared. But it wasn’t him; it was Hank Stanley and the engine crew.
Roy had seldom been so pleased to see anyone. Cap didn’t hang around. “We need to evacuate the hospital,” he declared in his ‘no nonsense’ voice. Few people could resist that tone. Brackett was someone who could, but he could see what his friends were saying and what’s more, he trusted them implicitly.
“All right,” Brackett agreed. “I’ll set things in motion, but we’ll need some help.”
“I organized that on the way over,” Cap replied. “There are several more engine companies coming. If you can get everyone out of the ER and then send the orderlies to help us, we’ll get up to the top and work our way down.” He clapped a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”
“Quite a few of the patients must be ambulatory,” Roy told Cap as they headed for the stairs. A couple of orderlies came hurrying after them and Cap dispatched them and the firefighters to other floors to get the people who could move under their own steam out of the building. He and Roy continued up to the top floor.
The top floor held the administration suite. Roy had already been up there and lived with the faint hope that someone had come in and was now assessing the situation. His hopes were dashed. There was still no one there. Cap cursed and shook his head. He was determined that this would not go unreported.
Scurrying slightly to keep up with Cap’s long legs, Roy followed him down to the floor below. Roy didn’t bother to keep track of which departments they went into. They just went through each one, Cap’s uniform lending weight to their message. It wasn’t a popular message, but they had all lived through the last 24 hours and nobody was willing to take any chances. Patients were bundled into clothes and wrapped in blankets. Fortunately, the majority of those patients were ambulatory, and could manage with a little help from the nurses and the patients who were steadier on their feet.
It was slow going. The uncomfortable feeling in his gut which had first alerted Roy to trouble had not gone away. If anything, it was getting stronger. He didn’t know how to communicate his unease to Cap, but it seemed he didn’t need to.
“Damn it, this is taking too long!” Cap cursed. There were now several engine companies in the building and quite a few squads had arrived, too. Still, it was a bit like bailing out a boat with a clam shell as the tide came roaring in over the gunwales. Roy had lost count of how many times he had gone up and down the stairwells. Too many, by his reckoning and they had only been through the top two floors. Maternity and pediatrics had been evacuated from the second floor, which by Roy’s reckoning left only one more floor to clear – and it was the one that Johnny, Marco and Mike were rooming on.
They hurried down another flight of interminable stairs. This floor was going to be trickier, as it had orthopedics on it and many of the patients had casts to worry about and what if there was someone in traction? Roy hadn’t liked to think about evacuating ICU and was grateful that it fell to another of the teams.
Everyone was working with a growing sense of urgency. Cap followed Roy to the room where his men were recovering. They were awake, which was no surprise as the evacuation was anything but quiet, even without the invading intercom in use. Mike’s eyes widened as they entered. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“We’re evacuating the hospital,” Cap explained. “There’s no time to lose. Let’s get you guys moving. Mike, do you have crutches and can you use them?”
“Yeah, they’re over there,” Mike pointed. He took the robe that Roy handed him and struggled into it, then used both hands to swing the heavy cast out of bed. It was really too soon for him to be up and around, but there was no choice. Mike paused for a moment to fight the head rush, then took the crutches and angled them under his arms.
“Marco, can you help him?” Roy asked, assisting the lineman to get up carefully.
Despite being pale, Marco nodded. “No problem,” he croaked. He still had a thumping headache, but that was no-never-mind compared to Mike’s broken leg. He, too, shrugged into a robe and accepted the blanket that Roy draped over his shoulders. They started to make their slow way out of the room.
“Come on, Junior, let’s get you up,” Roy suggested. He slid an arm under Johnny’s shoulders and slowly helped him sit upright bit by bit. Cap came over to help, too.
“How are you doing there, John?” Cap asked when Johnny was finally sitting up.
“Bit woozy,” Johnny admitted. “This not being able to see lark makes the room spin something rotten.” He swallowed hard.
“You need to put a robe on,” Roy told him, threading his arms through the sleeves. “We’ll drape a blanket over your shoulders, then Cap and I are going to take you down stairs. We’ll go as slowly as we need to and if you need to stop, then say so.”
“All right,” Johnny agreed, hating feeling so helpless, but sensing the urgency that lay behind Roy’s words. He knew they would not be taking him from his sick bed if they didn’t have to. Besides, his skin had been crawling all night, his subconscious urging him to get away. He gamely got to his feet, despite the increased pounding in his head. Roy wrapped an arm around his waist and so did Cap and they practically carried him from the room.
There was a queue of people heading down the stairs, so Roy and Cap gently urged Johnny to sit in a chair while the others went ahead of them. Johnny was pale green by this time, and Roy dashed into the sluice room to grab an emesis basin, just in case. Johnny clutched the basin like a lifeline, but some deep breaths enabled him to gain control of his stomach for the time being. Cap stuck the basin in the capacious pocket of his turnout coat and then they got Johnny back onto his feet again. They were going to be the last people out.
Negotiating stairs with someone who could not see and who was dizzy to boot was quite difficult. Both Roy and Cap thought it would be easier to pick him up and carry him and so, without consulting Johnny, they did just that. As much as he hated to admit it, Johnny had to agree that he had been holding them back.
They had reached the bottom of the stairwell, within sight of safety, when the next aftershock hit.
In the total confusion of the aftershock, Johnny never quite worked out what had happened. One minute he was being carried down stairs by Cap and Roy and the next moment he was lying on top of someone and someone else seemed to be on top of him. The whole world was moving, which just exacerbated his nausea and he was retching over and over again, completely unable to catch his breath and stop. It was made worse by the fact he could only dry-heave. Things seemed to be falling and Johnny could feel the person on top of him flinching and then something struck his leg and he choked on a cry of pain.
And then, as abruptly as it had started, it stopped. Things still crashed down around and on them for several seconds longer, then there was silence, broken only by Johnny’ panting and the groans of the two men who were with him. He swallowed hard. “Roy? Cap? Are you all right?”
“I will be, John,” Cap replied. He sounded strained. “I just need to get some of this debris off me and then I’ll get off of you two. Roy? You all right?”
“Just squashed flat,” Roy replied with a trace of humor, but he sounded pretty strained, too. Having two grown men land on top of you was not a good thing. He could feel an ache in his ribs and the arm that was around Johnny felt as though it had been stretched several extra inches. Had the shoulder dislocated? The pain didn’t seem that bad at the moment, but then, he was completely unable to move.
“Let me move first,” Cap ordered. “Are you breathing okay, Roy?”
“Yeah,” Roy agreed. He was; it just hurt. There was no point in saying so, however, so he kept his woes to himself.
It took Cap several minutes to shake off the debris – carefully – so that he could get to his feet. The base of the stairwell was not large to begin with, but it was a whole lot smaller now. He felt in his pocket for the flashlight he had shoved there the previous day and clicked it on. He almost wished he hadn’t. The doors to the outside had collapsed and the stairs were choked with rubble. They would have to sit it out in their small space until such times as someone could dig them out.
Placing the flashlight, he set about helping Johnny and Roy to their feet. He could feel several sore spots where debris had struck him, but he had been lucky; nothing was broken and his helmet had protected his head. It ached, but Cap didn’t think he was concussed.
He got Johnny settled onto a pile of debris and handed him the emesis basin, for his junior paramedic did not look too good at the moment. Roy was already struggling to sit up and he accepted Cap’s help gratefully. It was easier to breathe now that he didn’t have two people on top of him, but he was pretty sure his ribs were either cracked or broken.
“Ribs, huh?” Cap asked sympathetically, as Roy cradled his midriff.
“Yeah,” Roy agreed. “Are you sure you’re all right, Cap?” He eyed his superior in the light provided by the flashlight.
“Some bumps and bruises, Roy, that’s all,” Cap replied and helped his senior paramedic to his feet. They eyed each other, each trying to see if the other was lying about their injuries. Roy had a couple of scrapes on his face and they both had various cuts that could be seen through their pants legs. Both of them nodded, as if to agree that they were fine. Roy immediately turned his attention to his partner.
“Johnny?” Roy crouched by his friend and supported him as he vomited. There wasn’t much to come up, but Roy wasn’t happy that he was vomiting again. “Breathe,” he advised his miserable friend as Johnny gasped helplessly. “Easy, now.”
“Really… dizzy,” Johnny whispered. His throat was raw from the bile coming up. He was grateful for Roy’s arm around his shoulders because he had no real idea which way was up. His head was spinning violently and ached fit to burst.
“Do you want to lie down?” Roy asked. He removed the basin, handing it off to Cap, who looked at it with distaste before setting it down as far away from himself as he could.
“Maybe,” Johnny agreed hesitantly. He wasn’t sure if that would help or not, but at least he couldn’t fall over if he was lying down.
“All right. We’ll clear a bit of space for you to lie down. Are you going to be all right if I let go of you?” Roy glanced at Cap, who took the hint and started to move some rubble. It was going to be a tight fit, but if Johnny needed to lie down, then he would make sure his man could lie in relative comfort.
“Yeah,” was the doubtful reply. Roy placed Johnny’s hand on the nearest pile of rubble and Johnny braced himself the best he could. His limbs were all trembling and he felt dreadful. Roy’s hand left his shoulder and he shivered. He felt so alone, although he knew both Roy and Cap were within a few feet of where he sat, but being blind was very isolating. If something happened to them… Johnny was ashamed of himself for thinking only of what would happen to him if Cap and Roy were injured, but he knew he would be of very little help to them at the moment.
“All right,” Roy said from right beside him and Johnny flinched violently. Although he had heard the movement, he hadn’t associated it with Roy approaching him. He wondered if his hearing would ever be sensitive enough to discern the differences in sounds. It was a depressing thought. “Are you okay?” Roy asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny replied, although he wasn’t. He put his hand out and Roy took it, gently helping Johnny to his feet and ignoring the twinge in his ribs as he did so. Cap didn’t miss it and raised an eyebrow and Roy gave him a sheepish grin.
It took a couple of minutes to get Johnny settled as comfortably as possible. Cap helped where he could, taking most of Johnny’s weight as they eased the paramedic carefully to the floor. It was noticeably chilly in the stairwell and Cap shrugged off his turnout and laid it over Johnny, reinforcing the blankets that they had brought with them.
“Is that better?” Roy asked, crouching by his friend.
“Mm.” It was non-committal; Johnny simply wasn’t sure if it was better or not. He was just as dizzy, his head just as sore, but at least he couldn’t fall flat on his face. It wouldn’t be so good if he had to puke again… Just the thought made his stomach roil, but he swallowed heavily a few times and things settled down again. He could feel Roy’s fingers on his pulse, but he didn’t bother to pull his wrist away – it seemed like too much effort. It was racing; it was bound to be racing. Roy’s pulse was probably racing, too.
After all, they were trapped in a semi-collapsed stairwell and there was no immediate way out.
As the façade of the building crumbled, the people in the parking lot ducked, then clung to each other as the ground swayed beneath them once more. This aftershock didn’t last as long as the previous ones, but it was the final straw for the hospital. Gazing in disbelief at the damage, Brackett thanked his lucky stars that Roy DeSoto and Hank Stanley had been as insistent as they had been about evacuating the place. It had been a mammoth undertaking and the logistics were a nightmare, especially concerning the ICU patients, but things were more or less under control.
The Battalion chief who had turned up to coordinate the firefighters came over to Dr Brackett. “Is everyone out?” he asked.
“I think so,” Brackett responded, glancing around. He saw Mike Stoker crutching towards him, with Marco Lopez close beside him, and frowned. Those two should be resting. Unless… He took quick steps towards them, grateful that the ground was steady once more. The move would have been hard on Johnny, and perhaps he needed a doctor’s attention. “Mike?” he asked, seeing the look on the engineer’s face.
“Cap, Roy and Johnny,” Mike began. He swallowed. “They were still inside when the building collapsed.”
It seemed an impossible thing, but Johnny was asleep. At the moment, his body was relaxed and that was what he needed. Roy knew he would have to waken his friend regularly to make sure he hadn’t slipped into a coma, but for the moment, he was content to let him sleep. Roy himself was as tense as a bowstring. The building was making all sorts of threatening noises, creaking and groaning and it was all too eerily similar to what it had sounded like in Johnny’s crumbled apartment.
“Roy.” Cap kept his voice down, for he didn’t want to waken Johnny. “I’m going to climb over and see if there’s any way we can get out of here. This building is too unstable to just sit here and wait for rescue. Besides, we don’t know if anyone knows we’re missing. I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually, but that might not be soon enough.”
“Be careful,” Roy urged. He would have helped, but someone needed to stay with Johnny and his ribs were really sore. Breathing was not a pleasant occupation.
“Believe me, I will be,” Cap promised grimly. He moved the flashlight so that its light was dispersed over a slightly larger area, then began to climb carefully onto the pile of debris. Roy watched with his heart in his mouth.
Climbing was comparatively easy while he had the light to help him, dim though it was. It was much harder when he got beyond the reach of the flashlight and had to work by feel alone. The lack of light was something that a city-bred man found particularly difficult. He had never really gone without some kind of ambient background lighting, usually streetlights. Now he found himself straining to see when the lack of light was really quite profound.
There were one or two hairy moments as he began to descend the pile and a couple of times he had to shout reassurances to Roy that he was all right. Finally, he was able to put his feet down on the concrete floor of the stairwell and draw a deep breath.
This was what he did and Cap quickly started to feel around, checking the stability of the rubble as best he could and feeling for the shattered doors that should, by his reckoning, be somewhere in his vicinity. He found them – or part of them – when he cut his thumb on a piece of glass and went more carefully from there on.
It was a long slow process. Cap couldn’t even guess how long he spent crawling around the wrecked building looking for a possible way out. A couple of hours at the very least, he thought, but time was really irrelevant. He called to Roy regularly, to reassure them both that they were all right. And finally, he found what he was looking for – a possible way out.
When the doors had gone, they had simply crumpled in upon themselves and the concrete lintel above them had snapped in half and each side had tilted over until the middle part was on the ground. Although there was rubble behind each part, it was comparatively loose and with some serious work, it could be moved and still leave a relatively stable exit for them. All that was, of course, if another aftershock didn’t come along and scupper the best laid plans of mice and men.
Ideally, there would be men working on the other side of this collapse and the job would take half the time. They would have shoring available to them to lessen the risk, plus full protective gear, but Cap had none of those things. He hadn’t even taken back his turnout coat. He was cold, but thought that once he got going, he would warm up nicely. He knew there were other firefighters somewhere on the other side of the barrier and perhaps one of them would spot the same thing he had found and start working from the other side. It was the only hope they had and Cap, after shouting to tell Roy what was going on, set to work.
While the patients were moved to safety, the firefighters set to looking for a way to get into the building. It was proposed to cut through the wall with the K12, but that was quickly nixed because they weren’t sure if cutting into a supporting wall wouldn’t bring the whole building down. That was the last thing they wanted.
Sitting in wheelchairs, swathed in blankets, Mike and Marco refused to leave. Chet had been taken against his will to another hospital, protesting vigorously, but too weak to put up much of a fight. Like his shift mates, he wanted to stay and make sure that the others were all right, but he was too groggy to come up with rational reasons to stay and was shipped off with some others to another hospital to continue his recovery.
Waiting was always hell. Dixie remained with them, keeping a surreptitious eye on them. Drs Bracket, Early and Morton were also staying and had two ambulances standing by, plus the contents of a paramedic squad. They had no idea how badly the trapped men might be injured and nobody even suggested that they hadn’t survived.
Lighting trucks arrived and the scene was soon flooded by the harsh spotlights, showing up the tumbled concrete too clearly for the comfort of some. It was a sign of how things had been progressing after the earthquake that some TV cameras turned up. None of them were from local stations and it was a relief when the police appeared to take charge of the scene and keep the media at bay.
The firefighters moved in to start inspecting the collapse at close range. They were determined that somewhere there would be a place where they could break through and rescue their trapped colleagues.
It was hot, hard work. As Roy had found when digging Johnny out, the rubble left Hank Stanley’s hands covered in cuts and nicks. He had to work slowly and carefully, moving each piece and placing it rather than just throwing it over his shoulder like he really wanted to. There was no telling how stable this area was, and Cap didn’t want to do anything that might risk bringing the whole lot down on their heads. He had a responsibility towards his men, especially as they were both injured.
“Cap?” It was Roy. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine, Roy,” Cap replied. He paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead, reflecting that he wasn’t feeling the air chilly now. “It’s slow going, though.”
“Just be careful,” Roy reminded him. Not being able to see Cap was making Roy anxious. If something happened, it would take precious minutes to reach him and that was only if nothing else came down around them. He glanced down at Johnny, who had been stirring anxiously in his sleep for the last few minutes. Roy guessed that whatever pain relief he had had was wearing off, allowing his headache and other pains to magnify. It was another reason they needed to get out of there. A skull fracture was not something to mess with and Johnny needed more care than Roy was able to provide.
“Roy?” Johnny’s voice was weak and breathless.
“I’m right here,” Roy soothed. He put his hand on Johnny’s arm. Was there an underlying warmth to his partner’s skin? If so, it could just be the trauma, or perhaps he had finally inhaled too much dust and was developing pneumonia or there was something else that Roy had missed that was starting an infection. Whichever it was, there wasn’t anything Roy could do about it. “How’re you feeling?”
“Head hurts,” Johnny mumbled. “Think it’s gonna burst.”
That was rather alarming, Roy thought. Did Johnny mean that literally? He knew that a really bad headache could make you wish your head could explode, but knowing that Johnny had a skull fracture meant Roy was hyper-aware of the problems that went along with it – like intracranial pressure. Did a sufferer actually feel as though their head could burst?
“I wish I had something I could give you,” sighed the older man. It was quite true. Roy would have given Johnny something for pain if he had had anything with him and the consequences be damned.
“Not your fault,” Johnny slurred. He was silent for a moment, but Roy knew he wasn’t asleep. “Roy, I’m … I’m … scared,” Johnny finally confessed in a hushed tone. “Don’t tell the others.”
“What are you scared of?” Roy asked, although he had a pretty good idea. “I won’t tell the others if you don’t want me to, but you know, Johnny, we all get scared.”
“I’m scared I won’t … won’t… see again,” the small voice continued. “What am I going to do if I can’t see? I can’t be a paramedic if I can’t see.”
There were lots of platitudes that Roy could come up with to respond to that, but he knew that Johnny deserved his honesty. “I don’t know what you’d do either,” he admitted. “But this I do know; you’ll cope with whatever comes along, just as you always do. You’re the strongest man I know, Junior, and no matter what the outcome of this, you will find something to do and do it well.”
“You think so?” Astonishment colored Johnny’s voice.
“I know so,” Roy declared firmly. “When you set out to be a firefighter, you became the best firefighter you could. You did the same when you took rescue training and then with the paramedic training. If you decide to sweep chimneys for a living, I expect you’d be the best chimney sweep, or garbage collector or crossing patrol man or … or whatever you choose to do.”
Most of the time, Johnny came across as ultra-confident, absolutely sure of himself and his worth in the world. Sometimes he was arrogant and cocky with it, but underneath it all, he was often unsure of himself and his place in the world. Roy thought it probably had something to do with his mixed heritage, for Johnny was never sure if his Indian or his white side dominated. To Roy, it was just another layer in the gloriously complex person who was not only his partner, but his best friend. He smiled as his partner’s jaw dropped. “Really?”
“Really,” Roy replied firmly. “But Dr Brackett and the ophthalmologist seem to think that your sight will return, so let’s just wait and see, okay? We’ll take things one step at a time and the first step is to get out of this hole.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Roy could hear Cap moving things, the grunts of effort and the sounds of the debris being placed somewhere else. He felt intensely guilty that he wasn’t there helping, although exactly how much help he could be with broken ribs was anyone’s guess.
“What’s that noise?” Johnny asked after a while.
“Cap is trying to dig a way out for us,” explained Roy.
“Shouldn’t we be helping him?” Johnny asked after a short while. He started to make moves to get to his feet.
“Hold it right there,” Roy ordered, putting his hands on Johnny’s chest to restrain him. “No climbing around until we definitely have a way out of here.”
That seemed like a sensible suggestion, Johnny thought as he lay back down obediently. He shivered and pulled the blankets closer around his neck. The hospital gown he was wearing was not exactly warm and the air seemed to be getting colder and colder. The thought of climbing anything wearing the hideously awful hospital slippers was a thought he preferred not to dwell on. That and the flapping back in the gown. He shivered again. He felt comprehensively awful. His head was fit to burst, his stomach was queasy, he was cold and he ached all over. “I don’t think I want to be in an earthquake again,” he mumbled, almost to himself.
Roy hid a laugh in a short cough. “It wouldn’t be my first choice, either,” he agreed. “But unless you move somewhere where they don’t get earthquakes, you’re probably stuck with the odd one.”
“Guess I’m stuck then,” Johnny agreed. He was tired and wanted to go back to sleep, but the agonizing pain in his head was keeping him awake. “I’m cold,” he complained. He hadn’t meant to say that; it had just slipped out before he could catch the thought.
“Yeah, it is,” Roy agreed. He wished he had something he could use to add to Johnny’s covers, but he was only wearing a sweatshirt and was feeling the cold, too. Roy adjusted the blankets and Cap’s turnout coat, hoping that might help, but his partner’s shivering was increasing.
“You … should be at home,” Johnny told him. “Protect your family.” He heard the wince Roy couldn’t hide. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” Johnny couldn’t quite stop himself spouting every thought that crossed his mind. “Sorry. Sorry you got trapped here.”
“Shh,” Roy stopped him. “If I wasn’t here with you, I’d be working somewhere else and I still wouldn’t be with my family. Anyway, I keep telling you; you’re part of my family. Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Funny, Johnny thought. He didn’t feel quite as cold for a moment there. Then he moved slightly and the cool air crept in and he was shivering violently again. “I wonder if Chet’s okay,” he muttered.
“Didn’t we tell you?” Roy was surprised, but he supposed that evacuation had been their top priority, not updating their friend’s condition. “He had a fall from a ladder and broke his arm. It could have been a lot worse, but he’ll be all right.”
“Oh.” Johnny thought about that for a moment. “You’re hurt too, aren’t you, Roy?”
“Might have busted some ribs,” Roy agreed.
“Sorry,” Johnny apologized. He swallowed hard. “Roy, I think…”
Roy already knew what Johnny thought. He grabbed the emesis basin, wincing at the pain in his ribs as he moved too quickly, and helped roll his partner onto his side. He was not a moment too soon. Johnny heaved painfully into the bowl while Roy did what little he could to support him.
As Johnny rolled back, there was a loud crash from where Cap was working. Roy leapt to his feet. “Cap? Are you all right?”
His only answer was silence.
“It’s the best bet,” the battalion chief agreed, surveying the pile of rubble that used to be the exit of the stairwell. “Bring port-a-powers, shoring and the K12 just in case we need it.” He walked back to Mike and Marco. “And you’re sure these are the stairs they were coming down?” He had asked before, and they had already told him so.
“Quite sure,” Mike replied in his economical fashion, but his expression spoke volumes.
“We were just in front of them,” Marco insisted, with a touch more exasperation. Marco regretted not waiting behind with Roy and Cap, but he had been charged with looking after Mike and the engineer had struggled with the steps. They had barely escaped the collapse themselves.
Smiling grimly, for he fully understood how the men felt, the chief nodded. “You know how we like to double and triple check everything, Lopez,” he chided lightly. “We’ll have them out soon.”
“Not soon enough,” Mike sighed after the chief had walked away. It was already after midnight and the others had been trapped for hours. With every moment that passed, the chances of them coming out alive grew slimmer. Mike was aware of miraculous stories of people who were found alive in rubble long after all hope was given up and all the rules said they had to have perished, but he was never sure if he should believe them or not.
The monotonous work of clearing the debris had started. It was a scene that would be familiar all across Los Angeles as rescue crews and volunteers dug into the rubble to find those less fortunate than themselves.
For the first time, Mike thought of his parents; he wasn’t sure why. Did they know he was alive? Had there been any way for anyone to contact them to tell them? Were they far enough away to have been unaffected by the earthquake? Mike didn’t know any of the answers. He wondered if their attitude towards him would be changed by his brush with death. He doubted it. It was a sad reflection of their relationship, but Mike had no more idea how to close the breach between them now that he was an adult than he had had as a child.
As if she sensed Mike’s melancholy mood, Dixie came over. “Are you all right, Mike?” she asked, clasping his wrist to take his pulse. Both he and Marco should be tucked up in a warm hospital bed somewhere, being monitored because of their concussions, not sitting outside in the chill night air, waiting for their colleagues and friends to be rescued from a building collapse.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mike replied. “I’m fine.” He had a lot of respect for Dixie. She was a good friend to Roy and Johnny and took special care of them when they were injured. That her care extended to the other members of the station was very comforting for them.
“Now you’ve got that out of the way, how about telling me the truth?” Dixie persisted kindly. “I would bet you’re cold, your heads ache and your leg is sore. How am I doing so far?”
“Bang on,” Mike admitted.
“Well, we’ve got a few doctors standing about cluttering the place up,” she smiled. “How about I get one of them to give you something for your headache and I’ll get another blanket.” She knew the blanket would just be one of the plastic ones from the squad, but it would be better than nothing. She rose gracefully from the crouch she had been in and went over to speak to Dr Brackett. He nodded and fetched something from the drug box while Dixie got a blanket pack.
It seemed to be a cue. Joe Early went over to speak to Marco and Mike Morton got a blanket for the Hispanic man. Both men were given something for pain and wrapped up against the pervading cold.
Then there was nothing more to do except wait.
“Bugger!” Cap’s voice conveyed a considerable amount of feeling, but it didn’t seem to Roy that there was any pain in it.
“Cap?” Roy was seriously considering climbing over the rubble to find out what was going on.
“I’m fine, Roy,” Cap replied finally. His voice was filled with exasperation. “I just managed to clear a bit and then some more stuff came down into the space I had cleared.” There was a brief moment of silence, then he added, “Damn it all to hell!”
“Are you hurt?” Roy persisted.
“No, Roy, just annoyed,” Cap snorted. “I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and emulate Sisyphus and carry on pushing the boulder up the hill.”
For a moment, Roy wondered what the hell Cap was talking about. Then he remembered his Greek myths and had to contain a laugh. Only Cap would say something like that in this kind of situation. It reassured Roy that he really was unhurt, despite the terrible noises. Relieved, yet still feeling guilty that he wasn’t helping Cap, Roy sat down beside Johnny again. His friend appeared to be sleeping for the moment, and Roy left him to it. Any respite he could get from the pain was more than welcome.
It seemed that Roy had dozed for a moment as well, as he jerked awake as Cap shouted. “Roy!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Roy was on his feet without being aware of rising. Johnny had startled awake, too.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Cap replied and there was jubilation in his voice. “Something’s right for a change. Roy – they’re digging from the other side!”
With both sides digging, Roy thought that things ought to be moving faster, but it seemed they were moving more slowly. Cap, with no equipment at his disposal, had been moving chunks of concrete as he reached them, being as careful as he could be, but having to take the chance that the whole thing might come down on top of him. His aim had been to get out as quickly as possible. However, the fire department had rules to follow and although it was frustrating to the men trapped within, there was nothing they could do about it.
Now that rescue seemed to be more than just a pipe dream, Roy knew they would have to try and clear some of the debris surrounding their small area. He looked at it for a moment, planning his attack, but before he could get started, Johnny spoke. “Roy?”
He sounded small and tired and not like himself at all. “What is it?” Roy asked, sitting down beside him again. He hated to admit how good it was to sit down.
“Roy, I want to go home,” Johnny muttered.
“I know,” Roy soothed, his heart sore. He wished there was something more he could do for his friend. “It won’t be too much longer,” he promised. “They are on their way.”
“I’m … pretty sick, aren’t I?” Johnny asked.
“You’re not well,” evaded Roy. “But you’re not going to die.”
“I’ve got a skull fracture – don’t I?” Johnny sounded unsure. “Could be pressure building on my brain. Might be blind. Feel like crap.” He clutched at the air, seeking Roy’s hand. “Roy, what if there’s another shock?”
“Then you’ll have lived through three building collapses in one day, not just two,” Roy quipped, although the humor was forced. It was a thought that had been running through his head ever since the building came down around them.
The humor by-passed Johnny. “I don’t want to die,” he mumbled.
“We’re not going to die,” Roy asserted.
“How do you know?”
“Look at all we’ve lived through since the first earthquake,” Roy reminded him. He had no idea how long ago it actually was, since time had ceased to have any real meaning. For all he knew, his watch was broken, or running very slowly. “We’re still alive for a reason.”
“Lots of people die when it looks like they are going to be saved,” Johnny commented and Roy knew he was thinking about the victims who had died when their car exploded unexpectedly, or coded in the ambulance or were swept away by floods when the rope that would have saved their lives was almost in their hands. They knew better than most that there was no guarantee in this life. Yet Roy was sure that they would survive and that everything would be all right.
“But that’s not going to be us,” he insisted. “You’ve still got presents to open under our tree.”
With a sigh, Johnny turned his face away. Roy understood that it must be difficult for him to believe there would be a happy ending to this situation. He was injured and blind and trapped in a collapsed building. He’d already had a building collapse on top of him because of the first earthquake. Small wonder Johnny feared dying. Roy didn’t know what else to convey his own certainty that they would survive, so he just sat there, holding Johnny’s hand and listening as the sounds of salvation grew ever closer.
Cap’s jubilation when the first firefighter stepped through into their prison was matched only by his disgruntlement when he was unceremoniously ordered to get out of the building. Okay, he didn’t have on his helmet anymore, although he knew he’d had it somewhere, and he’d loaned John his turnout coat, but for goodness’ sake! He wasn’t hurt and he knew exactly where he’d left Roy and John and… his arguments counted for nothing and he was assisted through the small opening into the fresh air where a blanket was promptly wrapped around his shoulders and he was led over to the waiting medics, even as he protested loudly the whole way that it was unnecessary.
He muted his complaints as he spotted Mike and Marco waiting for him, both sporting large smiles. He spoke briefly to each of them before he submitted to letting the doctor examine him. Cap had a healthy respect for Mike Morton’s lack of patience and a bedside manner, but the intern seemed to be on his best behavior and was actually nice. Cap wondered if he had hit his head after all.
While Morton worked on cleaning the many small wounds on Cap’s hands and wrapping them in gauze, Cap’s attention was on the ruined hospital. Seeing it from the outside, he realized why everyone had been convinced he needed medical attention. He would have thought the same; in fact, he would have assumed that they were all dead and looking at Mike and Marco, he realized that they must have thought that, too. The waiting must have been hell on earth, he realized.
The waiting was hell on earth. There was a long, long gap after Cap had come out before there were any further signs of extraction. A firefighter backed slowly through the small hole, pulling carefully on a backboard. Cap sighed with relief as he realized it was Johnny. He had been more worried than he cared to admit about the injured man, especially since he had ended up in the middle when they all fell. Cap quickly told Morton that, and Morton trotted off to update the other doctors.
After that, Cap’s attention was divided between watching the doctors treating Johnny and watching for the firefighters bringing Roy out. It seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time to extricate Roy, but finally there was movement at the hole and the second backboard was pulled out. Moments later, the last firefighter cleared the building and a cheer went up from the people who had been watching the entire drama.
The firefighters began to pack up their equipment and a couple of the lights went out. There was still more than enough light to see the crumbled remains of Rampart. Cap shuddered and turned away. He was cold now and the sweat drying on his body made him shiver. Exhaustion flooded through him and he was grateful to find himself being guided towards a waiting ambulance. Mike and Marco were already sitting inside it. Cap wondered when they had been put into it, for he hadn’t noticed. He obediently climbed in and Mike Morton got in with them. Cap didn’t know where they were going and found he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was sleep.
“DeSoto reports that he vomited several times,” the paramedic reported quietly to Brackett. “He had been complaining of pain in his head and saying it feels like it’s going to burst. BP is 140/135, pulse bounding at 120 and respirations are 20. He seems rather dehydrated.” The paramedic indicated he’d pinched the skin on Johnny’s hand to test for turgor.
Nodding, Brackett thanked the paramedic. “Dixie, start an IV, D5W and give 2mg MS.” Johnny’s high BP could simply be a sign that he was in pain, but Brackett was concerned that the pressure in his brain could be rising. He was reassured to hear that Johnny had been lucid during his entrapment; that was a good sign. But the young man was less responsive now and that had the doctor worried. He glanced at Joe Early. “What do you think?”
“I think we need to get him to a CT scanner as soon as possible,” Early replied. He looked round at the waiting ambulance. “I’ll go with him. You see to Roy and I’ll see you when you arrive.” They had arranged for all of Station 51’s crew to be taken to the same hospital. It was a fair distance away and ideally, they would have arranged a life-flight for Johnny, but there were few helicopters available and rather than wait, they opted to go by road.
“Joe…” The two doctors’ eyes met for an instant. Brackett wondered if he could say what he really meant in those last few seconds before the grey-haired doctor departed. “Be careful,” he managed at last.
“You, too,” Early responded gravely, then hurried after the gurney bearing his patient and climbed into the ambulance beside him.
Taking a deep breath, Brackett walked over to Roy.
It was a long journey. Johnny seemed more comfortable now he had some pain meds on board, but they wore off as the journey went on and the odd moan and groan escaped when the ambulance hit a rough patch of road. There seemed to be a lot of rough patches of road. Early supposed that was hardly surprising. It certainly made for uncomfortable travel.
It was rather a shock to arrive somewhere where the street lights were burning and the homes weren’t lying in crumpled heaps on the ground. It took remarkably little time for the brain to become accustomed to the darkness and the rubble and the other signs of destruction. Normality now seemed out of place. The hospital they arrived at was brightly lit and there was a team of professionals waiting for them. Johnny had weathered the journey fairly well, but it was time that he got some TLC.
The hubbub surrounding his arrival was upsetting to Johnny, since he couldn’t see. Nobody seemed to be talking to him and there didn’t appear to be anyone around that he knew. He felt hands on his arms and then a BP cuff squeezing his arm and it all seemed so overwhelming. He knew that his heart rate was rising at a great speed and was sure his BP was doing the same and catching his breath was getting harder and harder…
“Johnny.” The voice was familiar and calm; Joe Early. Johnny turned his head to the sound, seeking the reassurance of someone he knew in the midst of the chaos. “Calm down, Johnny, I’m right here.” A large warm hand closed around his arm. “I’m not going anywhere.” Early stayed standing, clasping Johnny’s arm gently as the medical staff went about their business.
The first priority was getting a CT scan of Johnny’s head. He was given a little diazepam to relax him and whisked off to the scanner. That allowed Joe Early to catch a little down time himself. He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down for a minute. Almost at once, he found himself nodding off. It was hardly surprising, for they had had very little rest since the earthquake hit… he paused and looked at the clock, trying to work out the timing. It was perhaps 30 hours or so ago. Did it really matter? All he knew was that he had snatched a couple of hours sleep here and there and he was bone tired now. He shook himself and gulped a slurp of coffee. Once Johnny was settled and the others were here, he would allow himself to sleep, but not until then.
The warmth and quiet of the room were seductive and Early had to force himself to get up and wander around. If Johnny was facing surgery, he wanted to be there to watch. He knew he was in no fit state to participate in the operation, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be there in the OR to watch over his young friend. Johnny had been through enough – they had all been through enough – and Early wouldn’t leave him until he was sure Johnny was going to be okay.
An obliging young nurse came to fetch him and guide him back to the ER. This was a much more modern hospital than Rampart and the ER was laid out differently. As well as treatment rooms, there was an area of curtained cubicles where the more minor injuries were treated. That seemed like a good idea and he made a mental note to mention it to Kel Brackett so they could suggest it to the board for when Rampart was rebuilt.
“Hello, Johnny,” he said as he went in. The dark head turned towards him and from somewhere, Johnny found a smile. He still felt absolutely deathly, but he appreciated Dr Early sticking by him. The staff at this hospital was inclined to talk over him, not to him.
“Hi, doc,” Johnny replied. “What’s the verdict?” he asked, trying to sound upbeat. In reality, he was terrified. What if he needed surgery?
“The verdict, Mr. Gage,” said a new voice, “is that you have a small bleed on your brain, right underneath the fracture.”
“Oh,” Johnny replied. “Um … who are you?”
“Sorry.” The deep voice chuckled slightly. “My name is Norman Stewart and I’m the chief neurosurgeon here.” A hand suddenly grasped Johnny’s and shook it lightly. “It isn’t often we get a paramedic come into the ER with his own attending neurosurgeon, you know.”
While Johnny appreciated the man’s attempts to make him relax, he wished that Dr Stewart would get a move on and tell him what was going to happen. The suspense was killing him. He could feel his breath catching in his throat and his heart was pounding so hard he thought it might burst out of his chest.
“Calm down, Johnny,” Joe Early commanded, once more placing his hand on Johnny’s arm. “What do you propose, doctor?”
“Well, Dr Early told me that a CT scan was not an option when you were admitted to Rampart because the generators don’t support it. Therefore, we have no idea if you had a bleed there for sure or not. It didn’t seem so from your x-rays, but we all know that x-rays don’t show everything. We do know that you have an active bleed at the moment and I would rather not take the chance that it’s getting bigger. I have reports that you said your head felt like it was going to burst and the pain was increasing, is that correct?”
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. His head still felt like it was going to burst. “So you’re gonna… operate?” he guessed.
“That’s what I’m proposing,” Stewart agreed. “We release the pressure on your brain and you should start to feel better almost at once.”
“Will my sight come back after you’ve done that?” Johnny asked. He was shivering, his fear growing now that he knew what was going to happen.
“It’s entirely possible,” Stewart told him kindly. “Obviously, I can’t guarantee that, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. The CT doesn’t show any signs of damage to your optic nerve, just some swelling, so I expect you’ll regain your sight completely within the next few days. My nurses are preparing the OR for you and I’ll give you something more to relax, then we’ll pop you upstairs and get started.”
Surgery was never something to be taken lightly, but brain surgery was particularly scary and Johnny gulped loudly, suddenly feeling intensely nauseated again, despite having been given something for it earlier. The hand on his arm squeezed gently. “I would like to scrub in to watch the operation,” Early said in a voice that told the listener that although it was phrased as a request, it was in actual fact an order. Johnny was relieved. He was sure this new doctor was a nice person, but to have someone he knew actually there made the whole thing easier to bear.
“Of course, Dr Early, that would be my privilege,” Stewart replied graciously. “Mr. Gage, I’ll just inject this into your IV and you should be feeling more comfortable soon.”
“Is Roy here yet?” Johnny asked as he felt someone cleaning the IV port. He hoped he didn’t sound like a child.
“Is that Roy DeSoto?” Stewart asked. “I believe he arrived about 5 minutes ago. Would you like to see him before you go upstairs?”
“Yes please,” Johnny replied, grateful for the man’s understanding and kindness. He could feel the drug he’d been given sweeping through his veins and his body was relaxing almost against his will. The siren call of sleep was hard to resist, but he needed to talk to Roy; needed his friend’s reassurance and to know that his friend was going to be all right too. Although Johnny had been pretty out of it during their entrapment, he knew that Roy was hurting and he wanted to find out about Cap and the other guys. Maybe then he could face the coming ordeal with a bit more fortitude.
He heard the door opening and closing and footsteps coming and going and all the while, warm waves of sleep lapped in his mind. He moved slightly, trying to keep awake and had to make a hasty grab for the blanket that he almost dislodged from on top of him. He had warmed up nicely on the ambulance ride, but shivers still took him every now and then and like every exam room he had ever been in, this one was slightly on the chilly side.
“Roy.” Johnny wasn’t even slightly ashamed of the emotion in his voice. “Are you all right?”
“I’m going to be fine,” Roy assured him, wondering if he was as dirty as Johnny was. The other man was streaked with dust and dirt and the white gauze covering his eyes was now grey. “Just a couple of cracked ribs.”
“Cap? And the guys?”
“Cap’s fine. His hands are a bit cut up from moving all that rubble, but it’s nothing serious. Mike and Marco are both going to be okay. They’re upstairs. Chet’s upstairs, too and he’s going to be just fine once his arm heals up. And you’ll be fine, too. I’ll be right there when you wake up, I promise.” Roy’s ribs were broken, not cracked, but he didn’t want Johnny to worry. There’d be time enough to sort out the lies later.
“You need… to rest,” Johnny mumbled. He was fast losing the battle to stay awake.
“I will,” Roy promised. “Now go to sleep and I’ll see you later.” He kept his voice warm, affectionate and calm, but when the now-sleeping Johnny was wheeled out to go to surgery, Roy couldn’t keep the façade going any longer. Alone in the exam room, he curled into a chair and prayed that his friend would, indeed, be fine.
Exhaustion was a pervasive enemy and it wasn’t only the trapped firefighters who found themselves succumbing to it after their arrival at the other hospital. Both Drs Brackett and Morton and Dixie were treated for exhaustion and found warm beds to sleep in. The remaining members of the Station 51 crew were placed in a ward after being assessed. Chet had been x-rayed once more and settled into bed with suitable painkillers. Mike Stoker was also given pain relief and put to bed, his broken leg cradled gently in a pile of pillows. Marco was given anti-nausea medication and was soon snoring, too. Cap had been taken to a treatment room and his hands were given another thorough clean and a few of the nicks were stitched. His hands were wrapped in gauze to protect them and he, too, was settled into bed.
Upstairs in the OR, Joe Early scrubbed in and joined Dr Stewart at the operating table. Johnny was already anesthetized, the dirty bandages cut away from his eyes and his head shaved. The paramedic looked very young and vulnerable lying there and Early felt a pang of remorse that he was not going to be the one doing the surgery.
From the first moment, Dr Stewart’s skills were obvious. He worked with a sure touch and a subtle respect for the patient that wasn’t always seen in operating rooms. Several times he asked Dr Early to look at something, or asked his opinion, but Joe knew it was done for courtesy’s sake, not because he was unsure of what he was doing. Stewart was aware that Johnny was Joe’s friend and was going out of his way to make things as easy as he could for them both.
It was surgery that couldn’t be rushed; it took as long as it took. Joe supposed that about 2 hours had passed before they were closing the small wound on Johnny’s head. The bleeding had been successfully eradicated and Stewart predicted complete recovery. Joe mentioned Johnny’s predilection towards vomiting after anesthesia, and Stewart took steps to deal with that problem before it took hold. Johnny was then taken to the recovery room and after Joe Early shed his gown, he went to find Roy, who was waiting in the surgical waiting room.
The senior paramedic looked exhausted and pale and Early could sympathize with him. Bad enough what had been going on without adding an emergency surgery to the mixture. It was unlikely that Roy’s family knew where he was, and he wouldn’t know how they were either. A catastrophe like this was enough to make people re-evaluate their lives and make drastic changes they might never have contemplated before. Early just hoped that neither Roy nor Johnny would consider leaving LA because of what they had gone through.
As the doctor came into the room, Roy looked up. Normally, he would have been on his feet pacing, but his ribs were too sore for that. “How is he, doc?” he asked fearfully. Early looked so tired.
“The surgery went well and Dr Stewart thinks there should be a full recovery,” Early smiled. “He was very good and everything was completely straightforward.”
“Are you sure he was operating on the right man?” Roy kidded, only half in jest. Johnny had a decided knack of running into complications upon complications.
“Difficult to be sure without all that hair,” Joe kidded back. “He’s going to be fine, Roy. Would you like to come with me and see him? Then we can find you a bed.”
“I already got my marching orders and yours,” Roy replied, levering himself carefully to his feet. “And I won’t say no to a bit of down time, that’s for sure.”
“Neither will I,” Early agreed feelingly. He led Roy along to the recovery room and they went in. Johnny was currently the only patient there. His head was wrapped in bandages, but his eyes had been left uncovered. He was still sleeping heavily. Roy sat down beside him and looked at the cuts and bruises that littered his partner’s body. It still seemed like a miracle that Johnny had got out of both building collapses with so little injury. His eyes started to burn as he stared at his friend.
Blinking, Roy missed the first small movements. He rubbed his eyes and looked again and this time saw Johnny’s eyelids fluttering. “Johnny? Wake up,” he urged. “Johnny? Come on.”
After a few minutes, Johnny’s eyes opened. His pupils dilated normally, but he clearly still couldn’t see. “My head aches,” Johnny whispered.
“I would think so,” Roy replied, smiling slightly. “You’ve just had brain surgery.”
There was a long pause while Johnny seemed to think about this. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, quite clearly, and went back to sleep.
Dawn was breaking when Roy finally made it into bed. Johnny had been settled into ICU and was sleeping peacefully, the anti-emetic working for the meantime. A nurse took Roy down to the ward where she helped him into a hospital gown and tucked him in. A painkiller a short time before he had arrived down there helped him to slide straight into a much-needed sleep. A different nurse took Joe Early to the rooms set aside for the Rampart personnel and he fell into bed and was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
Back in Los Angeles, the search and rescue continued. It had now been almost 48 hours since the quake hit. There had been no further aftershocks and life was slowly returning to normal. Electricity was being restored to some areas along with gas and water. Phone lines would be next. Crews would start the unenviable job of removing the rubble of collapsed buildings and retrieving the corpses. Construction crews would go to work making buildings safe and there would be another review of the laws about how to build in earthquake prone areas. Volunteers would flood in from other areas to help.
That day was the day that 51’s crew found out about their families and how they had fared over the few days. Chet’s family was the first to arrive. Their home had been slightly damaged by smoke, but it was more or less habitable and they had been given the all-clear to return to it. Mrs. Kelly thought that the building inspectors had no right to tell her whether or not she could return to her own home. After all, it was her house, bought and paid for by her late husband’s industry and no jumped-up little building inspector was going to tell her she couldn’t stay there. Fortunately, Chet’s oldest brother had been there and kept his mother calm while the man did his work. Theirs was one of the few houses that had survived in the street and they knew they were extremely fortunate. They had a joyous reunion.
The next people to arrive were Mike’s parents. He looked at the elderly couple walking into the room and wondered who they were. He was shocked to see how much they had aged lately. He greeted them warmly, but the distance between them was still there. His mother professed her shock at seeing him lying in a hospital bed, and then sighed that if he insisted on doing a dangerous job, what else could he expect? Mike pointed out he’d been injured in a car accident caused by an earthquake, but they had barely been shaken by the quake and had not watched the reports on TV and so had no concept of how devastating it had all been. Chet’s mother had bustled over to introduce herself and sing Mike’s praises, but Mrs. Stoker clearly thought herself too good for the likes of Mrs. Kelly and the Stokers left shortly afterwards. Mrs. Kelly had given Mike a consoling hug and soon had him smiling at her outrageous stories.
There were quite a number of the Lopez family who turned up to see Marco. They had not seen him since before the earthquake, when he had left to go to the church. Mrs. Lopez, Marco’s mother, had brought mountains of food, since she couldn’t be sure that her son had been eating regularly. There was more than enough to share for the rest of the crew, too and before long, Mike was engulfed in the warmth of the Lopez family’s hospitality, too, and didn’t feel the pang of his parents’ rejection quite so badly.
Maggie Stanley was the next to arrive, coming with their daughters. Cap was being discharged that afternoon and would return home with them, but in the meantime, they were all waiting for word on Johnny. Maggie had also brought food and there was soon quite a feast being shared. Joanne and the children were not far behind.
While they were a joyous group, everyone was keenly aware of the missing member of the crew. Roy was the only one who had seen him since they were rescued from Rampart and even he hadn’t been allowed upstairs to see him yet. “You forget how much we are allowed to do because they know us at Rampart,” he commented to Cap before the families had arrived.
The doctors who had been treating them came round in the early afternoon. Chet and Mike were to stay another day for observation. Mike’s leg had been really sore after all the moving around and the doctors wanted him to rest for another day. Chet’s arm would be casted that day, now that the swelling was down. Roy and Cap were advised to take it easy, but would both be allowed to go home. It was at that point that Roy baulked. “I’m not going anywhere until I see Johnny,” he insisted.
There was some muttering amongst the medical staff, but Roy was Johnny’s next of kin, so they couldn’t stop him. A nurse appeared with a wheelchair, much to Roy’s disgust, but he obediently climbed into it and was wheeled off. The others settled in to wait for his return.
The first person Roy saw outside ICU was Joe Early. “Doc!” he cried, delighted to see a familiar face. Early looked much better than he had the night before. He was clean for a start and looked well rested. “Are you all right?” Roy enquired.
“Just fine, Roy,” Early assured him. “I was just waiting for you.”
“Nothing’s wrong, is it?” Roy asked anxiously.
“No,” Early responded thoughtfully. “Johnny made it through the night well. We’re just a bit concerned because he’s really drowsy and hard to wake. It’s probably just the drugs he’s been given for nausea and pain, combined with the anesthetic, but we’d like to get him to wake up properly so we can move him out of ICU.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Roy promised and together they entered the unit.
The doctors weren’t kidding; Johnny was incredibly difficult to wake. Roy was persistent, though and eventually his partner opened sleepy brown eyes. “Go ‘way,” he whined. “It’s still dark.”
“It’s dark because you can’t see,” Roy reminded him as gently as possible. “You’ve got to wake up, Johnny. You need to eat something and the others are waiting to hear how you are. The sooner you eat, the sooner you lose the IV and the Foley.” Roy knew that hearing about the catheter would bring Johnny to full wakefulness.
“Not a Foley!” Johnny groaned. He reluctantly allowed the nurses to help him sit up a bit, breathing through the head rush he experienced and overcoming the dizziness. He rested his aching head against the pillows behind him and wondered why it ached so much. A thought crossed his mind, but he thought it was too bizarre to be really true. “Uh… Roy? Did you say something about… brain surgery?” he queried, but the memories were returning quickly, albeit a bit foggily. He lifted his hand to his head and Roy caught it before he could pull the IV.
“Easy,” he chided. “You don’t want to blow that. Yes, I did say something about brain surgery. You had a bleed and they went in and fixed it.”
“It wasn’t Dr Early, was it?” Johnny asked. He could remember another man talking, but the name eluded him. Still, for someone who had had brain surgery, he was very with it.
“No, a Dr Stewart,” Roy replied. “He says you’re going to be fine.”
“I still can’t see,” Johnny mumbled. He didn’t mean to sound ungrateful and he wasn’t ungrateful. He knew enough about what could happen with an uncontrolled bleed on the brain and he was thankful none of those things had happened to him. But he didn’t feel all that good and he couldn’t see and he was frightened. Small wonder things weren’t coming out quite the way he meant them to sound.
“I know,” Roy sympathized. “But the CT didn’t show any damage to the optic nerve, just swelling. You’ll get your sight back in a few days.”
“But what if I don’t?” Johnny asked. “What’ll I do then?”
“Let’s take one day at a time,” urged Roy. “Try and have something to eat and then you might be able to get out of ICU and downstairs to join the others.”
“The others? Are they all here?”
“We’re all here at the moment,” Roy agreed. “Cap, Marco and I are going home today. Mike and Chet are going to be staying a day or two longer.” He quickly filled Johnny in on their injuries, assuring them they would all be fine, given time. “When you get out of here, you’ll be going to share a room with them.”
A nurse brought Johnny something to eat and he picked at the unappetizing oatmeal until he had eaten enough to satisfy both Roy and the nurses. When it seemed that the food was going to stay down, the nurse told him that the doctor would be round shortly to see him. By then, Johnny was tiring again and could barely stay awake. The pain in his head was increasing and he hoped the doctor would give him something to ease it. As he caught himself nodding off, he hoped he would still be awake when the doctor appeared.
It was only a few minutes after that Dr Stewart came in. He shook hands warmly with both Johnny and Roy and set about examining Johnny. The paramedic shuddered as the cooler air touched his bald head when the gauze came off; it felt very strange indeed.
“The incision looks very good,” Stewart reported, wrapping the gauze up again. “How do you feel?”
“My head aches,” Johnny complained. “And I still can’t see.”
“The swelling around the optic nerve has gone down a good bit,” Stewart told him. “I’m going to cover your eyes again for today, and remove the bandages tomorrow. I hope by then you’ll be starting to see things again.” He was as good as his word, smoothly wrapping Johnny’s eyes. “I see no reason to keep you here in ICU. I’ll get a nurse to pull that IV and the Foley, but I don’t want you getting out of bed today. Tomorrow – well, we’ll see when tomorrow comes. But I mean it, Mr. Gage; don’t get out of bed today. All right?”
“All right,” Johnny agreed.
“Remember you’ve just had brain surgery and a fall right now could be catastrophic,” Stewart reminded him. “I hear from Drs Early and Brackett that you aren’t all that great at obeying doctors’ orders at times, but this is one time that you have to do as you are told.”
“Mike and Chet will watch him,” Roy assured the neurosurgeon.
“Good. All right, Mr. Gage, I’ll let you out of ICU. See you tomorrow.” He took his leave.
It was all hustle and bustle for a few minutes as the nurses prepared Johnny for leaving. Roy was taken back to the ward while Johnny lost his IV and catheter and everyone was waiting impatiently for Johnny to arrive. They were all anxious about him.
There was a chorus of voices to greet him as he was wheeled into the ward. It took several minutes for Johnny to work out who was there, but he submitted to being kissed by Mrs. Kelly (who he had always thought didn’t like him that much) and Mrs. Lopez (who had an insane need to stuff him with food), Mrs. Stanley and Joanne and the children. Only when he was settled with Jenny on his lap did the men add their greetings.
“I don’t think you need to worry about the chief getting on your case about a haircut for a while, John,” Cap joked. Johnny smiled thinly. Somehow, he had been expecting this. “It’s good to see you, pal,” Cap went on more seriously. “I was pretty worried about you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Johnny assured his boss, although there was the hint of doubt in his voice.
“We were pretty worried about you, Johnny,” Mike inserted quietly.
“I wasn’t,” Chet interjected. “Ow!” he added as his mother smacked him on the arm. “I wasn’t, Ma. I was too stoned on pain meds to be worried about anything,” he continued in self-defense.
“It was pretty tough waiting for you guys to be rescued from Rampart,” Marco added, shooting his own glare at Chet, who remained unrepentant.
“It hasn’t been a barrel of laughs for us, either,” Joanne stated. “We didn’t know where any of you were and then a car arrived from headquarters and I don’t know about the others, but I thought the worst.” It was standard practice for headquarters to send a car to break bad news and it was something the wives were never prepared for, despite what they told themselves. There were murmurs of assent from the other wives and mothers. “They told us about Rampart and then told us you were here. It would have been better if it had been the other way around, I think.” Her calm tones belied the terror she had felt when told that Rampart had partially collapsed with her husband, his captain and best friend still inside. The unfortunate messenger had had his ears well blistered and hopefully would learn from the experience and be more thoughtful the next time he had to bear bad news.
“I suspect there’ll be a huge hoo-ha over what happened at Rampart,” Cap suggested. “I don’t know who is to blame, but nobody should have been allowed back inside before the building was thoroughly checked out.”
A conversation broke out, damning whoever had not done their job, but Johnny was finding it harder and harder to stay awake. He had been given pain meds before being moved and all he wanted to do now was sleep. He yawned widely. Roy took the hint.
“We still have to get home,” he reminded the others. “Perhaps we ought to get going and let these three get some beauty sleep.”
“It is taking quite some time to get here,” Joanne agreed. “It’ll be dark by the time we get home.” She leaned over and kissed Johnny’s cheek and scooped an equally sleepy Jenny from his lap. “See you tomorrow, Johnny,” she told him.
“You don’t need to come tomorrow, Jo,” Johnny protested, reluctant to admit how much he would miss them if they didn’t come, but unwilling to ask them to make a difficult journey when they didn’t have to.
“I know we don’t need to, but we want to,” Joanne informed. “You be good and do what the doctors tell you.”
“Why does everyone think I’m such a bad patient?” he asked plaintively and there was a chorus of voices in the answer.
“Because you are!”
The room seemed very quiet when the others had gone. Johnny fell asleep, and Chet joined him soon afterwards. Mike perused a magazine that someone had left behind, but he wasn’t really in the mood for reading and he didn’t want to turn on the TV while the other two were sleeping. Boredom eventually caused him to drop off and none of them stirred until their evening meal was brought in.
There was some talk that evening between the three of them and Mike finally did turn on the TV. The news gave prominent coverage to the Christmas Day earthquake and Mike and Chet were horrified by the damage they saw on the screen. They all listened intently as the anchor told everyone what the current death toll was and what was currently happening to restore power and water to those worst affected. There were miracle rescues reported and Johnny felt his cheeks burning as he heard his own name mentioned.
“Geez!” Chet whistled. The screen showed the crumbled rubble of Rampart. “I don’t know how you guys survived that.” He didn’t really remember seeing the carnage the night before; the drugs had made things rather hazy.
“I don’t really know, either,” Johnny admitted. His memory of the previous evening was reduced to series of impressions; chiefly of being very cold. “I was pretty out of it.”
“In a way, I’m glad I didn’t get to stay and watch,” Chet ventured.
“And in a way, I wish we hadn’t stayed,” Mike agreed. “But I think it would have been pretty harrowing to have been brought here, awake and aware like Marco and I were, and not known what was happening. Waiting’s always tough.” He gave a small laugh. “We seem to wait for news of you a lot, Johnny.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Johnny countered. He knew how tough the waiting was, too and was grateful that his friends had thought enough of them to wait for them to be freed.
“It was hard on our families, too,” Chet added. He’d been rather taken aback by Mike’s parents’ attitude towards him and thought perhaps he now understood a bit better why their engineer was so reticent. In his large family, you had to make some noise, or you got lost in the shuffle.
“A complete nightmare,” Johnny agreed. There were times when he wondered if he really did want a family who would have to worry about his safety the way that Joanne worried about Roy. It would be nice to have someone to go home to, someone that he could lean on sometimes when he’d had a rough shift, but he hesitated to put them through the emotional wringer that he suspected Joanne and the other families had just endured. Maybe being on his own was the answer after all. Johnny pushed the question aside for the moment. It was one more thing he would think about when his world had returned to normal – if it did.
It was fortunate that Johnny was given pain meds that night, or he might not have slept at all. As it was, his mind was squirreling around, worrying about his lack of sight, terrified of what the future might hold for him. As a firefighter, paramedic and rescue man, he knew that his chances of getting injured on the job were higher than, say, an engineer’s. But like most people, Johnny had never thought deeply about being left disabled and although he knew rationally that he could have a good life whilst living with a disability, it would take some time to come to terms with it.
About 3 am, Mike, tired of being woken by Johnny’s anguished but indecipherable mutterings, rang for a nurse, who gave the paramedic something more to help him sleep. Mike accepted something, too, because he had also been worrying about Johnny’s predicament.
Morning came far too soon for all of them. They forced down the breakfast they were given and the compulsion to listen to the news won over their disinclination to be reminded of everything that had happened. While it seemed that great strides were being made in restoring life to something approaching normal, the body count was rising as more buildings were cleared. The reporters all made a point of reminding everyone that it could have been a lot worse, given the magnitude of the earthquake and the shocks that followed after. It seemed, and nobody was saying anything too much about it just yet, but it seemed that the worst was over. There had been no further aftershocks since the one that had buried Roy, Cap and Johnny.
The morning was busy with doctors’ rounds. Mike was whisked off to physical therapy to go over his technique with crutches and to ascertain if he was fit to return home. It occurred to him that he was unaware if his home was even standing. It was something he would have to find out before he could be released.
The swelling in Chet’s arm was down enough that he was taken away to get a cast put on his arm, relieving him of the bulky splints he had had to endure. For all that he had multiple breaks in his arm, they were all clean and didn’t require surgery. Multiple complex breaks could have resulted in him having his arm amputated, as the technician who applied the plaster didn’t hesitate to tell him. Chet really hadn’t needed that reminder!
Dr. Stewart arrived to find Johnny alone on the ward, resting his still-aching head on the pillow behind him. “Good morning, Mr. Gage,” he offered cheerfully.
“Morning,” Johnny replied. “Please, call me John, or Johnny. Mr. Gage always makes me think of my father.” It would have been comforting for Johnny to have his parents around while he endured this nightmare, but as ever, he refused to let himself become maudlin about the fact he was essentially alone in the world.
“All right, John,” Stewart agreed. “We’re going to pop you back into the CT scanner this morning to have another look at your head. From your reports, the bleeding has stopped, but we just want to have another look. Then we’ll see what’s what and decide how long you need to stay here. Is your headache any better?”
“Maybe,” Johnny agreed doubtfully. It was difficult to be sure if it was relief from the pain meds or a lessening of the intensity of the headache itself.
“If everything looks okay, we’re going to get you onto your feet today,” Stewart went on. “You can have a shower and a short walk and I’m sure that will help you feel a bit better.”
“All right.” A shower sounded great. The bed bath the nurse had offered had been fine, but you couldn’t beat a proper shower. Johnny swallowed his terror and asked the question that weighed most heavily on his mind. “What about my eyes?”
“As I said yesterday, we’ll unwrap them later and see how you’re doing. Let’s get the other stuff out of the way first, shall we?”
“Uh … okay,” Johnny agreed, wondering, but not asking, if the other stuff included the shower and the walk, or just the CT scan. The opportunity to clarify that slipped away as the orderly came in and unlocked the brakes on Johnny’s bed. Johnny didn’t know if Stewart was still there or not and he was afraid to ask in case he looked like a complete idiot.
Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself to wait for a while longer.
It seemed an interminable wait before Johnny was slid into the CT scanner. It hummed and whirred and clicked and Johnny was thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic, because he knew how enclosed the machine was and he had heard stories of people freaking out in it. It wasn’t nice, though and he was glad when it was all over and thankful that it wasn’t a full body CT. He seemed to have been in the machine forever, although he was the first to admit that his sense of time was rather skewed at the moment.
He was returned to his room and lunch was served a few minutes later. A nurse came and helped him to eat, then there was an influx of student doctors who were there to review Mike and Chet’s injuries with their teaching doctors. Johnny felt completely invisible as the students talked amongst themselves about his friends.
The students had barely left when Dr Stewart arrived. He pulled the privacy curtain. “Let’s get those eyes unwrapped,” he declared and went straight to work. Johnny sat obediently still, his heart racing. Please let me see, he begged some higher power.
The bandages were off, but Johnny sat with his eyes closed, scared to open them. “John?” Stewart’s voice was soft with understanding, and Johnny knew what he wanted.
“I’m scared,” he admitted.
“I know,” Stewart soothed. “But we’ve got to find out one way or another.” He waited another few seconds. “Open your eyes, John.”
Slowly, Johnny did just that and winced as light flooded in. His eyelids slammed closed again, but just for a moment. He slowly opened them again. His vision was blurry and the world seemed incredibly bright, but he could see! “I can see,” he whispered, almost afraid to say it aloud in case his vision suddenly disappeared again.
“Excellent!” Stewart declared. He was a tall, red haired man with a pleasant face and a nice smile. Or at least, that was how he seemed to Johnny as he still tried to sort out his focus.
“Everything’s blurry,” Johnny complained.
“Your eyes will take a while to settle down,” Stewart reminded him. “They’ve been covered for a couple of days and you have had a head injury remember. Just give it time and your eyes will sort themselves out. We’ll get you up, let you have a shower and then you’ll probably want to sleep for a while. I imagine that your eyes will be a lot better after that.” He smiled and Johnny thought perhaps they were a bit better already. “How’s the headache?”
“Still there,” Johnny replied. “I don’t think it’s quite as bad as it was.”
“It probably won’t go away entirely for a while,” Stewart reminded him. “Several more days at least. Still, if it is beginning to settle already, that’s a good thing. Your CT scan looked great; no problems there at all. We’ll concentrate on getting you back on your feet over the next few days, then we can think about discharging you and letting you go home.”
Dr. Stewart had forgotten – or perhaps he never knew – but the sudden chilling of the atmosphere in the room alerted him to the fact he had just shoved his foot into his mouth. “What?” he asked, glancing at his patient.
“I don’t have a home to go to,” Johnny responded in a hoarse whisper. “I fractured my skull when my apartment building collapsed on top of me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Stewart apologized. “That was a really tactless thing to say.” Still, Johnny couldn’t stay at the hospital indefinitely. His insurance would only cover him for so long. “We’ll work something out.” Stewart couldn’t wait to get out of the room. “I’ll send a nurse in to help you go for a shower.” He pushed the curtain back and left as quickly as he could.
Mike and Chet looked at each other. What should have been a triumphant moment for Johnny had just been soured and neither of them knew what to say. Mike was in a similar situation, not knowing if he would have a home to return to. Chet knew he could stay with his mother if his apartment was trashed. Johnny, though, had lost everything. Before they could decide what to say, a male nurse arrived to help Johnny get up.
It was an adventure. Standing was a dizzying experience and even when he assured the nurse he was okay and was walking cautiously towards the bathroom, Johnny was lying; his head was still spinning. Wisely, the nurse didn’t trust Johnny to stand in the shower and placed him on a stool, staying within ear and eye-shot while the paramedic luxuriated in the warm water. He didn’t feel like he’d been clean for days, despite the bed baths he had had. The wound on his head was still sensitive to the sensation of water pounding on it, so Johnny kept his head mostly out of the stream of water. He had no hair to wash anyway, and that was something else that felt odd.
It was amazing how restorative a shower was, he mused as he shuffled back to bed, clad in a clean hospital gown. Although he was tired and wanted to sleep now, he felt better than he had for a while. Even the problem of having nowhere to go didn’t seem quite as bad as it had when Stewart had inadvertently reminded him of it. He put his head back on the pillows with a sigh and closed his eyes for a moment.
When he opened them, time appeared to have passed. Roy and Joanne were there, as was Cap and Marco and most of Chet’s extended family. “Oh… Hi,” he smiled.
“About time you stopped sawing logs,” Chet jibed. He had decided the best way to deal with what Stewart had said was to ignore it. He would leave it to someone else to sort out; that way, he wouldn’t embarrass himself or Gage.
“Mike told us your good news,” Joanne cried, ignoring Chet’s tactless remark. She leaned forward and kissed Johnny’s cheek. “You can see and you’ve been up! There’ll be no holding you back at this rate!”
“It’s good news, pal,” Cap agreed, while Roy just smiled quietly.
It was Roy who took the bull by the horns. “When you get out of here, you’re coming home to us for a while until you can find somewhere else to live,” he told Johnny. “Housing is going to be at a premium for a while, but there’s no pressure. You can stay as long as you need to. There’ll be lots of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck from others who are homeless, so we’re not letting you move out until you’ve found somewhere nice and aren’t paying through the nose for it. You won’t be putting us out at all.”
“Nope, not at all,” Joanne added. She knew that Johnny would start protesting, so forestalled him. “It’s all arranged and if you say you can’t come, I’m going to be really hurt.” She fixed him with a ‘look’. “So say yes now and save yourself the bother of an argument that you aren’t going to win anyway.”
Wide-eyed, Johnny flashed a look at Roy. That was when he realized that his eyesight had settled down a good bit. Things were still a bit blurry at the edges, but his focus was fast returning to normal. Roy shrugged. “I’d say yes,” he advised his friend in a stage whisper.
“You would?” Johnny asked, in the same tone. Roy nodded solemnly. Johnny made a face, then plastered on a smile before looking at Joanne. “Yes,” he said simply and she laughed.
“I’m glad that’s sorted out,” she smiled.
“Cap and I went past your place this morning,” Roy added.
“Quite a lot of your possessions have been salvaged, John,” Cap explained. “I’ve got them at my place for the moment and the guys who are working on your building are going to call me when they’ve got anything else. Roy’s got your clothes and I’ve got photos and stuff like that. The furniture didn’t survive, though; sorry.”
“I’m glad to have anything,” Johnny thanked him. The photos of his family were the thing he would have saved in a fire.
Now that that had been dealt with, Chet and Mike felt free to tell him that they would be allowed to return to their own homes when they were released the following day. Mike’s house had lost some tiles from the roof and his garden was a mess, but the walls were sound and that was what counted. Chet’s apartment was in one piece, so he was saved from having to stay with his mother for a while.
They were talking in general terms about the damage caused by the earthquake when the door opened to admit Dr Brackett and Dixie. This was the first time Johnny had seen them since before he was trapped and he was delighted that they had come to visit. There was a lot of happy chatter as they exchanged news, and then Johnny asked, “What about Rampart? They are going to rebuild, aren’t they?”
Brackett’s face darkened. Johnny cringed back against his pillows, because the doctor had a fearsome temper when he was roused. Dixie put her hand on Johnny’s arm in reassurance. She could feel her own mouth tightening.
“Is it bad news?” Roy asked, concerned. Rampart was their base hospital. Surely they were going to rebuild it?
Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the doctor and Roy and Johnny were not the only ones who waited with trepidation for what he was going to say.
“I’ve spent the last 24 hours arguing with the directors of the hospital,” Brackett told them. His voice was clipped and cold and Johnny wondered at anyone who could withstand the doctor’s forceful personality. “As head of the ER, I was called in to explain to them why I had allowed patients to go back into the hospital after the earthquake.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Cap said after a moment’s pause. “It wasn’t your responsibility to give that order. Didn’t it lie with the guy from admin? The one who wasn’t at his desk?”
“That’s what I said,” Brackett agreed. “It appears that I was mistaken in that regard. I apparently overruled him and ordered the staff to return everyone to the building. The gentleman in question,” contempt dripped from Brackett’s voice, “was at his desk the whole time, just where he was meant to be.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Cap protested, frowning. “Both Roy and I can vouch for the fact he was nowhere to be found when we were looking for him. I would take oath that he wasn’t in the building. In fact, as far as we could discover, there was nobody there who should have been there. We were the ones who suggested the building was evacuated.”
“And that’s my fault, too,” Brackett sighed, sounding unutterably weary. “I shouldn’t have allowed you to overrule me about the evacuation.” He gave a short laugh that was totally devoid of humor. “Presumably I should have just let the building fall down on top of everyone, not just you three.” He sat down heavily in the nearest chair. “It looks as though I’m going to get sacked and there’s a chance they won’t rebuild.” He sighed again. “I always wondered what a scapegoat looked like; now I know. I just need to look in the mirror to see one.”
There was a tense silence. Dixie was looking away from them, seemingly engrossed in the view out of the window, but Joanne could see tears glimmering in the nurse’s eyes. She placed a hand on Dixie’s shoulder in wordless support and left it there when Dixie raised her own hand to rest on top of Joanne’s.
“I don’t understand,” Johnny complained. “I know I’m a bit foggy, but I don’t see how any of this is your fault, doc.”
Cap and Roy exchanged a glance. “It isn’t Dr Brackett’s fault unless he is suddenly omnipotent and caused the earthquake in the first place,” Cap declared. “I think I need to have a conversation with the board and chat to the structural engineer who has made all these decisions.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to make a few phone calls,” he added. “I’ll be back soon. Roy, are you with me on this?”
“Right beside you, Cap,” Roy agreed, although he had no idea what Cap had in mind.
Washing his hand over his face, Brackett found a strained smile from somewhere. “It’s kind of you to think there’s something you can do,” he insisted. “But honestly, the decision has been made and probably tomorrow, someone will phone me and offer me a severance package that I can accept or reject, but either way, I’ll be out. And who is going to hire an ER doctor who was sacked because of his inability to handle a crisis? I guess I’ll have to go into private practice somewhere obscure where they never heard of the LA earthquake.” He tried to sound wry, but his pain and anger at the unfair treatment colored his tones. “Sorry, guys, I didn’t mean to dump on you.”
“Everyone needs someone to dump on sometimes,” Joanne assured him. Her voice was husky, betraying her own battle with tears. She didn’t know Dr Brackett that well; she suspected that few people did. He was friendly enough when it suited him, but he was formidable and determined and incredibly focused. But she saw behind the façade of control and glimpsed the vulnerable man within; the one who was about to lose the job he loved. Joanne understood that completely; she had a man like that, too. In a way, she had two men like that, for she had Johnny as well. These men were a breed apart in a lot of ways, but they were still men and still vulnerable and needy just like everyone else.
It was rather unnerving for the firefighters to see Dr Brackett behaving like an ordinary human being. They were used to seeing him taking control of the situation, knowing what to do and even when he didn’t know for sure, he usually found a way to take control and win. So they gave him the only thing they could – a moment’s privacy. They looked away for a few seconds. It wasn’t long, but it was enough to allow Brackett to get his unruly emotions under a semblance of control.
When Cap returned about a quarter of an hour later, he looked determined and pleased, which was a combination that his men knew well. It meant that things were moving the way he wanted them to and most likely the conclusion would be something that Cap had had a hand in engineering. As they knew how good Cap was at that sort of thing, they all immediately felt more hopeful. And that was before he had even said a single word.
“Dr Brackett, you, Roy and myself all have a meeting with the board the day after tomorrow at 10am,” he reported. “Miss McCall, it would be my pleasure if you could come along, too and I have a friend who is going to join us.”
“A friend?” Brackett questioned.
“A very good friend,” Cap nodded. “A very respected friend. He’s at Rampart as we speak, doing his job. He was already there when I phoned his office and his report will make for very interesting reading for the board. Roy, you need to come, too.”
“Cap, we’re on duty the day after tomorrow,” Roy reminded him.
“Don’t worry about it,” Cap advised him. “I spoke to HQ and they agree that this comes under the remit of our duty. We’ll have cover until such time as we return. I’ll meet you at the station as usual, and we can go on together from there.”
“All right,” Roy agreed, completely confused, but he trusted Cap and would have followed him into the flames of hell. Come to think of it, he often did.
“Who is this friend?” Brackett asked.
Cap looked smug. “He’s the chief structural engineer for Los Angeles County, with especial responsibility for all buildings utilized by the general public in Carson.”
That was a kicker all right. Cap continued to look unbearably smug while everyone else looked at each other in astonishment. “Did I hear you right?” Brackett asked. “Chief structural engineer for Carson?”
“For LA County with special responsibility for the buildings in Carson,” Cap corrected. “So almost right. Means we’re thinking the same thing, I guess.”
For a moment, hope had flared in Brackett’s heart. It faded under the weight of his dread, though. “It depends on what he finds,” he sighed.
“True,” Cap agreed, but his confidence was still shining through the conciliatory tone he employed.
“Do you know what he’s found, Cap?” Johnny asked.
“Not exactly,” Cap hedged. He still looked unbearably smug.
“You do know something!” Joanne accused.
“I know a lot of things,” Cap agreed. “And I might know something about this, but I’m not going to say any more about it until the meeting. All I ask is that you trust me.”
Once again, Kel Brackett felt the creeping of hope lightening the burden he carried. “All right,” he agreed. “I’ll trust you.”
The next day, Chet and Mike were discharged and Johnny was moved into a smaller room. He had a roommate, but the man rebuffed all Johnny’s attempts at conversation. Johnny was baffled by his attitude and also feeling rather lonely and bored. He still required help to get out of bed until his whirling head settled down, so even going for a walk was out of the question. Reading wasn’t something he could do for long because of the persistent headache and he wasn’t in the mood for TV. He didn’t know the nursing staff and they weren’t inclined to react favorably to his flirting and stay for a chat. Johnny knew that the hospital was especially busy, as they had many casualties shipped to them from LA County, but it didn’t ease his feelings of being alone.
Afternoon visiting hours brought Roy and Joanne, minus the kids this time. Johnny was really glad to see them, although he felt guilty about the amount of time it took them to travel both ways. “Has Cap told you any more about tomorrow?” Johnny asked eagerly.
“No, he’s playing his cards really close to his chest,” Roy complained. “I’m dying to know exactly what he has in mind.”
Knowing from experience that Johnny would be bored, Roy had gained permission from Dr Stewart to take his friend down to the cafeteria for something to eat and a change of scenery. The nurse on the floor thought Johnny ought to go in a wheelchair, so they compromised and Joanne pushed the empty chair and Roy stayed close to Johnny in case he got dizzy. It was a slow walk to the cafeteria, but Johnny made it there. He felt completely wrung out as he slumped down into a seat, but it was a good kind of wrung out.
The food was nothing to write home about, but the miniscule cheeseburger Johnny devoured had more taste than most of what he’d been fed upstairs so far. The change of scenery and losing the glowering presence of his roommate perked Johnny’s spirits up a treat.
Right until they started back upstairs. This time, Johnny consented to ride in the wheelchair; he was tired. “Oh man,” he sighed disconsolately. “I hate to go back to old misery guts up there. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he won’t speak to me at all. I didn’t say anything except hello, I swear, yet he doesn’t want to be friendly.”
“Some people are just like that,” Roy sympathized.
“Or it could be that he’s jealous,” Joanne suggested.
“Jealous?” Johnny echoed. “Jealous of what? My stunning haircut? The operation site on my head?”
“He could be jealous of the fact your face is all over the TV news at the moment,” Joanne replied. She saw the disbelief on Johnny’s face. “The news networks have all picked up on certain people to follow,” she explained. “You, Chet, Marco and Mike were chosen by one of them. Marco was being praised to the skies for rescuing a church full of people even though he had a concussion. When they learned about the rest of you, they followed up on your stories. Roy and Cap were mentioned, too, because they were caught in the collapse of Rampart, but once everyone else was released from hospital, they decided to concentrate on you.” She grinned. “Of course, they don’t actually know anything very much, apart from the fact you were injured in the collapse of your apartment, and then caught up in the Rampart collapse. Everything else they say is speculation, as Roy hasn’t given permission for the hospital to give out any details. But your picture is constantly flashed on the TV news, with word that you are stable and recovering, but still hospitalized. When you do get out of here, you’ll either have to give a statement to the cameras, or we smuggle you out the back door.”
“I don’t want to give a statement!” Johnny declared, horrified. Nor did he want them showing the world his shaven head with the gruesome bandage on it. “We’ll go out the back. Can we?” he begged, looking at them.
“I’m sure we’ll figure it out,” Roy agreed placidly. It hadn’t proved a problem to get Chet and Mike out that way earlier, according to what Roy had heard.
They re-entered Johnny’s room and the TV was on – and there, as Joanne had predicted, was Johnny’s picture in his dress uniform. His roomie gave him a sour look, but Johnny was past noticing that. It was the first time he had seen pictures of the quake damage and he was astounded. He was completely bemused when Roy told him that the particular pile of rubble he was looking at was his former home. How had he managed to get out of that alive?
Shortly after, Roy and Joanne had to leave to collect the children. Johnny was sorry to see them go, but he was tired after his excursion. He hoped that Roy would visit the next day, but with the infamous meeting being scheduled for the morning, he didn’t know if it would be possible. Who knew how long the meeting would last? And there was no guarantee that Roy could phone to tell him what happened, as phone coverage was still a bit spotty, although improving.
Waiting was going to be hell.
Roy was on tenterhooks when he and Cap left the station the next morning. He had no idea where this meeting was going to be held or even exactly why he had to attend, apart from the fact that he had been there immediately prior to the collapse. Cap was still playing his cards close to his chest, because he didn’t want to say or do anything that might alter – even very slightly – what Roy would say.
It wasn’t altogether a surprise when they pulled up at Rampart. The hospital looked pretty much the same as it always did, apart from the crumpled ruins at one end. Roy shuddered and averted his eyes. The memories of being trapped there still bothered him at night.
There was a group of men gathered outside the main entrance. Dr Brackett and Dixie were there, standing slightly apart from the others. Another man stood mostly alone and Cap led the way over to him, beckoning to Brackett and Dixie to join them.
“Dr Brackett, Miss McCall, I’d like to introduce you to David Connelly, who is chief building inspector for LA County. David, this is Roy DeSoto, one of my paramedics.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Connelly seemed a small, grey, man, with no outstanding characteristics. He seemed to be the epitome of the invisible suit-wearing pen-pusher. Roy couldn’t help but wonder to himself how this faceless little grey man was going to be of any help to them.
With a barely concealed smirk, Cap led the small group over to the other small group, who consisted of James Dewar and other board members. Cap introduced himself and the others. Dewar looked down his nose at him, which was some feat for a man almost a whole foot smaller than Cap.
“I really don’t see why you insisted on meeting us here, Captain Stanley,” Dewar told him pompously. “It is not as if you know anything about structural engineering, after all and if you are thinking of suing us because you were caught in the collapse of the building, I would suggest that you not waste your time or money. We have excellent lawyers.”
“I don’t plan on suing you – yet,” Cap replied. “However, I would like to know why, when my company responded to the reports of a fire here at the hospital during the earthquake crisis, there was no member of staff here who had responsibility for making decisions during a major incident. That member of staff would be you, Mr. Dewar.”
Drawing himself up to his full height, Dewar attempted to stare Cap down. That failed. “I was unable to get here because of the earthquake damage,” he pronounced.
That, Roy thought bleakly, made sense. There was a lot of damage and only now were things beginning to really get back to something approaching normal. Roy glanced ruefully at Cap, and was surprised to see his boss looked completely unimpressed.
“Mr. Dewar, that would be a wonderful excuse if you didn’t live within easy walking distance of the hospital,” Cap replied scornfully. He glanced over Dewar’s shoulder. “In fact…” He pointed. “Isn’t that your house there? The white one?” He caught Dewar’s eye. “The one the hospital provides you with, that is actually situated on hospital ground for that very reason?” Satisfied that everyone could see the large house quite clearly, Cap lowered his arm. “Now, perhaps you could enlighten us as to the damage that prevented you walking the 500 or 600 yards from your home to the hospital.”
“I don’t need to explain myself to you,” Dewar blustered. He cast an uneasy glance at the other board members, though.
“Perhaps you would like to explain why you have decided to close Rampart hospital then?” Cap asked.
“I would have thought it was obvious, even to you,” Dewar replied cuttingly. That remark did not go down well with the board members. They moved uneasily. “The building collapsed and is clearly unsafe. It isn’t worth the effort to rebuild, so the land will be sold off.”
“You can’t do that!” Brackett objected. “This is a busy hospital. It pays its way.”
“Dr Brackett, since you are responsible for what happened here, I suggest that it isn’t in your best interests to make a fuss,” Dewar snapped.
“Perhaps I should now properly introduce my friend David Connelly,” Cap intervened. “He’s the chief building inspector for Los Angeles County.”
Dewar paled. “You have no authority here,” he blustered.
“On the contrary,” Connelly disagreed mildly. “My remit allows me to go anywhere I want, but with especial care for buildings frequented by the general public. Rampart comes under that remit.” He took a clipboard from his briefcase. “Two days ago, I and my team surveyed Rampart hospital. While we did indeed find structural damage at the hospital, it was to a part that was added on latterly to facilitate evacuations and clearly had not been built to code. I checked the records for the work that was done and am unable to trace the inspector who signed off on the work. No such person has ever worked for LA County and I can only assume that the signature was fraudulent. That means that somewhere along the line, someone who was involved with commissioning and paying for the extension knew that the work was not up to code and tried to hide their involvement.”
Blinking, Roy exchanged glances with Brackett and Dixie. For a small grey man, Connelly sure could go for the jugular and in the nicest possible way. It made his delivery of the facts all the more chilling. He carried on speaking, ignoring the looks his listeners gave both him and each other. “I did some further checking and found that the only person from the Rampart side who was directly involved with the contractor was yourself, Mr. Dewar. You dealt with someone in my office to gain the necessary permissions and they were approved for the plans that were submitted.” He paused and looked at Dewar. “However, those were not the specs used when that stairwell was built, were they, Mr. Dewar?”
Floundering, pinned in place by the accusing glances from all around, Dewar seemed unable to say anything. Connelly continued. “Furthermore, I looked into the board structure of the hospital and discovered that you had decided to reduce your structural engineers from three men to just one and then to reduce his hours to part time. The man in question resigned several months ago and has not been replaced. When I spoke to other board members yesterday, they were astounded at this news, because it had not been transmitted to them at any board meeting.” He glanced up and met the eyes of the board members present. “I presented my findings to several people yesterday,” he went on, “and they have been submitted to the police, who even now are on their way here with a warrant for your arrest on various charges relating to this case. My survey of Rampart hospital is complete and apart from the new stairwell, the building is safe to be reopened. I would, of course, advise removing the rubble and erecting scaffolding at that end, just while you weather-proof the outer wall, but rest assured, the building is sound. The stairwell would have collapsed at some point anyway, as it wasn’t attached to the rest of the building and was poorly constructed of very cheap materials. I suspect that you will find that you paid hugely over the actual cost of the construction. I couldn’t, of course, speculate as to where that money went.” He didn’t even glance at Dewar. Roy admired his control.
Everyone else was looking at Dewar. The man was as pale as a corpse and seemed unable to believe what was happening. His mouth worked, but no sound came out. Connelly then added the final nail in Dewar’s coffin. “I also surveyed Mr. Dewar’s residence and found that it suffered no damage during the earthquake. It is completely sound. And as for your hypothesis that Dr Brackett was somehow responsible for anything that happened here, I find that completely ridiculous. In fact, Dr Brackett is to be commended on the way he kept the hospital going and then made the difficult decision to evacuate. Thanks to his care, not a single life was lost.”
The most senior of the board members present stepped forward. He looked shell-shocked, as well he might. “Are you sure about your findings?” he demanded.
“Positive,” Connelly assured him. “In fact, I still have someone digging through the paperwork at the moment, in the hopes of tracing down the fraudulent inspector who signed off on your paperwork. This case is far from closed; there is a lot more detective work to do. However, the County feels that the most important thing is to get Rampart up and running again. We need a hospital of this caliber to cover this district. This building is safe to open again and I myself have a contractor who will come and remove the rubble and ensure the outer wall of the building is properly sealed again. He can start the work today and you may open the hospital the day after tomorrow.”
There was a small hiatus. Then the board member nodded briskly. “Thank you, yes, we would appreciate if you would arrange for the contractor to come. We will contact all our staff and get everything up and running the day after tomorrow. Dewar, we will be looking into your work at the hospital much more closely. You can consider yourself suspended as of this moment.”
In the background, Roy could hear the sound of a car engine drawing nearer. He looked round and saw a police car driving up towards the group. Dewar, who now looked as though he might faint, followed Roy’s glance and turned even paler. Roy supposed he ought to feel sorry for the man, because his world had clearly come crashing down around his ears, but he couldn’t find even an ounce of sympathy for someone who had done the things that Dewar was accused of.
The squad car came to a gentle stop and a deputy and a detective got out of the car. The detective walked over and stopped beside the group. “Mr. James Dewar?” It was apparent which man he was seeking, for everyone instinctively took a step back, leaving Dewar alone to face his future. Dewar made some sort of sound and the detective read out the warrant for his arrest and then the Miranda warning. Dewar was escorted to the squad car and placed in the back seat before being driven off.
The board members drew David Connelly aside to ask more questions about the building and Brackett and Dixie joined Roy and Cap.
“Captain Stanley, I want to thank you,” Brackett told him, shaking Cap’s hand. “You have done a wonderful thing here.” He shook his head. “Thank you seems so inadequate.”
“No thanks are necessary,” Cap replied. “Rampart is like our second home. We’ll be glad to see the place up and running again.” He blushingly accepted a kiss on the cheek from Dixie, and then glanced at his watch. “Roy, we need to get back to the station.”
“Sure thing,” Roy agreed. He climbed back into Cap’s car, glad he’d been at the meeting, even if he hadn’t needed to speak.
It was going to be very interesting to watch what happened from here on in.
Despite the fact that Roy was ‘working’ and wouldn’t be able to visit, Johnny was not left totally in the dark about what happened at the meeting. It was reported on the news.
“Breaking news!” declared the TV anchor woman. “A top official at Rampart Hospital was arrested this morning on various charges. Although an official statement about this has not been released, this station is led to believe that Mr. James Dewar has been charged with fraud and embezzlement among other things. It is believed that he was arrested this morning at Rampart hospital, where he was attending a meeting about the possible re-opening of the hospital after the terrible collapse of a stairwell a few days ago.” There was a shot on the screen of the crumpled remains. Johnny thought that he had seen them more than often enough before. “Three firefighters were caught in the collapse, but were miraculously pulled alive from the ruins. Only one of the firefighters, Paramedic John Gage, is still in hospital, recovering from the injuries he sustained. Board members refused to comment on Mr. Dewar’s arrest, saying that investigations are on-going. They did, however, confirm that Rampart is going to be re-opening the day after tomorrow.” There was a shot of the hospital and a crowd of men and machines were swarming over the rubble, removing it and erecting scaffolding, as far as Johnny could tell. “Mr. David Connelly, LA County Building Supervisor, gave this statement.”
A new person appeared on screen, a small man wearing a suit. “Rampart hospital has been thoroughly inspected by both myself and my men and it is completely sound. The stairwell that collapsed was not attached to the main structure of the hospital and had no bearing on the stability of the structure. The outer wall of the hospital is being weather-proofed, but I can assure everyone that the building is both safe and secure.” There was a rush of questions from the reporters, but Mr. Connelly put his hand up. “I can say no more about this. Thank you.”
“Wow!” Johnny commented softly. He was delighted that Rampart would be opening again and so soon, but the other revelations left him stunned. He knew he would be consumed with curiosity about what had happened at that meeting until either Roy or Cap or both could come to visit and give him all the details. He tuned out of the news report, thinking about the implications.
Since Dewar had been charged, Johnny had to assume that he was connected to the embezzlement and fraud claims, although he had less than no idea who Dewar was. He also assumed that Dr Brackett was entirely off the hook, since no mention had been made of the physician. Of course, that didn’t mean anything one way or the other; it just meant that the media didn’t think the sacking of the head of the ER was worth mentioning. Still, Johnny decided to be optimistic and believe that Brackett would be back in charge of the ER the day after tomorrow. He wondered what the fire department would do in the meantime – use other hospitals, he supposed.
A noise impinged on his thoughts and Johnny looked round to discover that his roommate had addressed him for the first time. “Pardon?” he said, not having caught a single word.
“I said, did you know that man what’s been arrested? A mate of yours is he?” There was a definite note of malicious glee in the man’s voice.
“No, I don’t know him at all,” Johnny replied politely. “But Rampart is the hospital we work with.”
“You wouldn’t catch me going there,” his roomie smartly remarked. “Everyone knows these suits say just what they’re paid to, truth be damned.”
“It’s your choice,” Johnny replied. “But the staff at Rampart have saved my life a time or two.”
“Yeah, course they have,” came the skeptical reply. “Them and your fire-fighting ‘brothers’ I suppose.”
“You suppose correctly,” Johnny retorted, biting back the angry reply that rose to his lips. It wouldn’t do either of them any good should he lose his temper, but he desperately wanted to put this jerk in his place in a big way. Johnny wondered when he would be able to leave the hospital, or even if his roommate would be leaving before him. Johnny had no idea what was wrong with him and hoped with desperate fervency that he would be discharged that day.
He wasn’t. Johnny dozed for a while during the afternoon and was allowed to get up for another short walk just before the meal was served. The nurse who brought their trays helpfully put on the news for them to watch while they ate, so Johnny was treated to another ‘update’ about himself, as well as one about the work at Rampart. It seemed to be coming on apace. He also got another bout of his roommate’s spleen, too.
“Johnny ‘no mates’ today, are we?” the man asked, smirking at his own cleverness at using Johnny’s name.
“You’re not exactly over-endowed with visitors either, are you?” Johnny shot back, although he knew he should rise above the other man’s petty jibes. He hadn’t seen the other man with a single visitor, although there could have been some when Johnny was elsewhere or before he was transferred into this room.
The man’s face went purple. “My family has respectable jobs and work for a living,” he snapped. “They respect the fact I need to rest to recover, unlike your so-called friends.”
The gloves were off as far as Johnny was concerned. “They are my family,” he told the man coldly. “And they think enough of me to come a long distance to visit with me.” He gestured to the TV. “After all, I nearly died.” He glared at the man. “If you find me too difficult to be around, feel free to ask for a change of room. I won’t object.” He leaned precariously out of bed and pulled the privacy curtain over so that he could no longer see the man.
He hoped the nurses wouldn’t come to do his blood pressure soon, as he was sure it would be sky high. He wasn’t hungry anymore either, but he knew how hospitals got when you didn’t eat, so made a face at the curtain before sighing heavily and tackling his meal.
Johnny never discovered how his roommate did it, but later that night, the other man was moved to a different room and Johnny was delivered a lecture on the niceties of sharing a room. He could have lived without the lecture, but didn’t mind in the slightest that he now had the room to himself. The lecture was a small price to pay to be away from the snide comments, black looks and unpleasant atmosphere.
With no one there to tell on him, Johnny was getting out of bed more often without calling for the nurses to assist. He knew that when he was released, Joanne would give him all the help he needed, but Johnny wanted to be as independent as possible, because that was his nature. He had the odd dicey moment when his balance was not as good as it could be, but he managed to stay on his feet each time and counted them all as victories. He hadn’t seen his doctor at all that day, just an intern who had peered at his chart, asked a few questions and then left. He hoped Dr Stewart would be round in the morning, as Johnny wanted to go home. Boredom was setting in. Besides, the sooner he got to Roy and Joanne’s the sooner he could start looking for a new apartment. It was going to be tough, as Roy had warned him there was likely to be a shortage of housing for a while, so the sooner he could get going on finding a place the better.
He was on another illicit excursion to the window to look out when the door opened. Johnny whirled around, saw stars and crumpled to the ground. Hands caught him before he cracked his head and supported him while the person shouted for help. By the time his head had stopped whirling, Johnny found himself safely tucked up back in bed and Dr Brackett was frowning down at him. “John Gage, what did you think you were doing?” he asked.
“Looking out of the window,” Johnny replied meekly.
“You’re pushing it,” Brackett warned. “You had a fractured skull and a bleed on your brain just a few short days ago. While I know that you’re bored by now because you’re feeling a bit better, you aren’t ready for solo excursions yet!” He raised one finger as Johnny opened his mouth to protest. “And don’t try those puppy dog eyes on me, mister! I’m immune!”
“I just wanted to look outside,” Johnny muttered.
“And if I hadn’t caught you?” Brackett asked, more gently than was his usual style. “You’d have hit your head and what would have happened then?” He caught Johnny’s eye and watched the knowledge creep over his friend’s face. “You could have died, Johnny.”
“I’m sorry.” He was. Johnny knew perfectly well why they were watching him so closely. But he was feeling better and a bit bored and rather lonely, as his friends had so far to travel to see him and so many of them were on the sick list.
“Promise me you won’t do it again,” Brackett requested.
“I promise,” Johnny swore solemnly. “Doc, tell me what happened at the meeting today. I saw some of it on the news, but what happened?”
Smiling, Brackett told Johnny about the meeting. Johnny was a great audience, indignant on Cap’s behalf when Dewar tried to belittle him and delighted for Brackett that he had been vindicated and that the hospital would be opening again soon. “I spoke to your doctor by phone this afternoon, Johnny, and if all things are equal, we’ll transfer you back to Rampart in two days’ time. That’ll allow us to get everything up and moving again, although things are underway already and then you won’t be so isolated and inclined to get into trouble.”
“Really?” Johnny was delighted. Then his face fell. “But my insurance won’t cover that,” he mumbled.
“Maybe not, but it won’t matter; Rampart is paying for the ambulance and a nurse to travel with you. It’s the least they can do, considering it appears to have been a member of the board who was responsible for the collapse of the building. They will also be covering your medical expenses here.”
“Wow.” Johnny was impressed. Having all his expenses met would save him a good deal of money, especially as he was likely to be off for some time. A fractured skull didn’t heal overnight after all, much as he might wish it would. “I accept.” He would have been mad to have turned a deal like that down. “You can tell them I won’t sue.” He made a wry face. “I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Yeah, that was the proviso I was asked to add to the offer,” Brackett agreed with a sour twist to his mouth.
“You surprise me,” Johnny joked. Still, he was going to be closer to home and that made him feel a whole lot better.
The next day dragged for Johnny and he tried not to feel down that none of his friends had come to visit. He knew it was a long journey and that the roads, although improving, were not back to normal yet. He was glad his obnoxious roommate was not there to gloat about it, even as he determinedly pretended to be cheerful whenever the nurses came in.
He was reading half-heartedly when the door did finally open and Roy came in. “Hi, Roy!” Johnny exclaimed in delight, although he was surprised that his friend had waited until this late to come to visit; the nurses were really strict about visiting hours.
“Hi,” Roy replied and slumped down in the visitors’ chair. He looked … Johnny wasn’t sure exactly how Roy looked, but there was something off in his body language.
“Are you all right?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Roy replied.
He seemed listless, Johnny thought. Something was obviously wrong. “Are Joanne and the kids all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, they’re fine,” Roy nodded.
“Then what’s wrong?” Johnny persisted. “And don’t say nothing, cuz something clearly is.” Johnny regarded his friend with a worried frown. “You’re not sick, are you?”
Sighing, Roy cursed his partner’s perception. There were times when Johnny was about as sensitive as a plank of wood, but there were other times when he was ultra-sensitive and this was one of them. Roy wished it had been the other way around, so he could come to terms with what he had learned that day before he had to share it with Johnny.
“Roy?” Johnny was even more concerned than before. “Roy, you didn’t go to work and get hurt did you? You’re supposed to be off.”
“No, I didn’t go to work and get hurt,” Roy replied. “I did hang out at the station for a while, to catch up on all the news, but Cap wouldn’t let me work.” He was pretty sure that when Cap had originally organized the Rampart meeting, his boss had forgotten that Roy was signed off. He’d remembered pretty quickly after that though. “Okay, I’ll tell you.” Roy paused to gather his thoughts.
“All right, do you know about the meeting at Rampart?” he asked.
“Dr. Brackett told me about it,” Johnny replied.
“Good. Well, I didn’t have to say anything at the meeting because it all went so fast and so smoothly. To be honest, I thought it was rather a waste of my time. However, be that as it may, I was there and met Cap’s friend, David Connelly.”
“He was on the TV,” Johnny remembered. “He made a statement.”
“Yes. Well, he called me at home this morning.” Roy swallowed. “He’d been doing some more digging in Dewar’s business and had come across something else that was out of line and wanted to ask me some questions.” Roy glanced at Johnny. He’d hoped that his friend might guess what Roy was about to say next, but it seemed that Johnny’s intuition had run its course for that day. “Dewar owns quite a number of apartment buildings in LA County.” He glanced at Johnny again, but still the penny hadn’t dropped. “None of those buildings had been built to code and they all collapsed.”
“That’s dreadful,” Johnny breathed. “Those poor people.”
There was nothing else but to say it. “Your building was one of them.”
For a long moment, those words meant nothing to Johnny. He looked at Roy blankly for several long seconds before the words took on meaning. “My apartment building? It wasn’t built to code? How…?” He ran out of words.
Roy knew how he felt. That was why he hadn’t really wanted to say anything to Johnny straight away. He was finding the concept difficult to believe, too. It had been bad enough to learn Dewar had likely bribed someone to first build, then sign off, on the non-code stairwell at Rampart without learning that he was directly responsible for Johnny’s severe head injury and the deaths of several people. Johnny had not asked, and Roy had not told him, that nobody else in his apartment building had survived the earthquake. There would be time enough for that later, when Johnny was back on his feet.
Of course, that was the first thing Johnny thought of now, as his shocked brain started working again. “How many people were hurt in my building?” he asked. He saw the look on Roy’s face. “How many died?”
“Everyone who was in the building,” Roy replied reluctantly. He watched Johnny’s eyes dilate with shock and then his friend blinked hard and looked away while he got his unruly emotions under control. He didn’t know his neighbors all that well, but he knew that this was definitely a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. But for a quirk of fate and his partner’s determination, Johnny would have died in that building, too. He was profoundly shaken and could feel tears prickling in his eyes.
“What’s going to happen now?” Johnny asked, when he was sure his voice wouldn’t betray him.
“Connelly said that the County will be going after him, to charge him with fraud, possibly bribing public officials and with either murder or manslaughter; Connelly wasn’t sure exactly which would apply. Dewar is being pressed for the name of the construction company he used, because they’ll be charged, too.” Roy pursed his lips for a minute. “We’ll probably both be called to give evidence if it goes to trial.”
“Both?” Johnny looked startled. “I can understand them asking you, but why me?”
“Because you are the only survivor and can tell them a bit about what happened.”
“I don’t really remember very much,” Johnny admitted. “I don’t actually remember the building coming down on top of me. I just remember hearing the noise of the earthquake and everything beginning to shake, and then the next thing I remember is waking up and discovering I was trapped.” He frowned and scratched his nose. “It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest.”
“I don’t know what they’ll want to hear from you,” Roy replied. “So don’t worry about it just now. And Connelly said that if Dewar pleads guilty, there won’t be a trial. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Have the police been round to take a statement from you?” Johnny asked bleakly. A murder trial! That was something you read about in the papers; being involved was not something that someone like Johnny expected to happen in their life.
“Not yet,” Roy replied, equally bleakly. “But I expect they’ll be round soon.”
They sat in silence for a while, trying to absorb it all. Finally, Roy sighed. “I hear you’re being transferred back to Rampart tomorrow,” he offered, trying to find a cheerful subject.
For a moment, Johnny brightened. “Yeah. It’ll be good to be nearer home again.” Then the smile dimmed and slid away from his face. “Rampart is paying all my medical expenses on the proviso that I don’t sue. You don’t suppose that testifying against Dewar, should it come to that, will affect Rampart’s offer do you?”
“I don’t see why it should,” Roy answered honestly. “It’s not like you knew who owned your apartment building, or deliberately got caught in the earthquake either time.”
“Bet they still try to wriggle out of it,” Johnny complained.
“I bet they don’t,” Roy countered. “Think of the adverse publicity they’d get. Right now, the board is doing everything it can to distance itself from Dewar and his activities and I don’t doubt we’ll get a statement soon about how Dewar was hiding what he was doing and falsifying reports to the board and whatnot. Mind you, I suppose he must have been lying to them.”
“Or else they’re as guilty as he is,” Johnny commented cynically. “Still, I suppose time will tell.”
The buzzer that signaled the end of visiting hours went off. Roy looked at the door, knowing the nurse would be round any minute to chase him out. “Look, I’ll see you tomorrow at Rampart. Don’t worry about anything. It’ll all work out somehow.”
“Of course it will,” Johnny agreed with equal insincerity. They both knew that life was seldom as neat as that. “Thanks for coming, Roy. Drive carefully.”
“I will.” Roy had no memory of the drive over and he doubted very much that he would remember the drive home, either.
Neither of them slept well that night.
The transfer back to Rampart the following day was done quickly and efficiently and didn’t cause Johnny any unnecessary stress. He’d been offered a mild sedative, but Johnny refused. He wanted to be awake during the journey and when he arrived ‘home’. He did, however, fit in a nap on the way, his mostly sleepless night catching up with him, thanks to the monotonous sound of the wheels on the road. The nurse that travelled with him was one he didn’t know that well and she was married, so he wasn’t going to flirt much with her. A little innocent flirting was fine, but Johnny knew she was well off limits.
There was a welcoming committee of sorts waiting for him at the hospital. Drs Brackett and Early were there, as was Dixie, Roy, Joanne and Cap. By the time he was settled into his room, Marco had arrived and Chet and Mike weren’t far behind. It was good to see them all and after they had found out how everyone was fairing (all on the mend, from the reports) the topic of conversation veered over towards the breaking news, which Johnny had missed during his transfer from the other hospital.
“So, what do you think about the charges?” Chet asked, his eyes gleaming.
“Charges?” Johnny queried. “What charges? Against who?”
“While you were being transferred, we heard that Dewar has been charged with the manslaughter of the residents of the buildings he owned and with fraud, bribing of a public official and bodily harm through negligence,” Cap explained quietly. Like Roy and Johnny, he had found it incredibly disturbing to learn that someone had deliberately set out to cut corners on buildings in an earthquake zone. He shot Chet a dirty look, which immediately subdued the Irishman. For a moment, Chet had forgotten that for his Captain and the paramedics, it wasn’t just a news story; it had happened to them. “The police will be coming to get a statement from you later, Johnny, so we mustn’t talk about it right now.”
The younger paramedic looked pale all of a sudden. It looked as though he would now have to testify in court about what had happened to him during the earthquake and the one thing Johnny wanted above almost anything was to just forget about the whole thing as best he could. Thanks to the medication he had been on, he had slept well since the earthquake – until last night. Last night he had been haunted by nightmares as he remembered lying, trapped in his bed, and hearing the disquieting creaking of the building around him as it threatened to come tumbling down. He didn’t want to have to relive that experience for a jury, who would then look at him with pity. He didn’t want to relive it for anyone; it was bad enough to dream about it.
Under Cap’s guidance, the talk turned to other things, but inevitably earthquake news was top of the agenda. There was just so much to tell. They talked about the firefighters who had been injured, both in the line of duty and off-duty. They talked about how TV stations always seemed to get power back before the ordinary person in the street and how the media could get to places that were supposedly cut off. They talked about the celebrities who were now crawling out of the woodwork to say how dreadful the earthquake had been for them – presumably it hadn’t been that bad for Joe Q. Public. They spoke about getting back utilities and how much everyone took them for granted. Joanne joked that she didn’t fancy being a pioneer anymore, since she had been washing clothes by hand and boiling water on the gas stove to do so. Still, she acknowledged that she was lucky to have had a working gas stove.
The talk ranged far and wide, and although Johnny participated in it, he was unable to recall much of what had been said. His mind was fixed on the horrible fact that he was almost certainly going to have to testify at a trial and relive, yet again, his ordeal in his apartment.
It didn’t take that long for the others to notice that Johnny wasn’t quite himself. After all their talk failed to draw him out fully, they decided he must be tired and gradually took their leave until only Roy and Joanne remained. “A penny for your thoughts,” Joanne offered.
From somewhere, Johnny found a smile for her. “I doubt if they’re worth that much,” he replied quietly. “I was just… brooding,” he finally admitted.
“The police should be here to take a statement soon,” Roy told him. “Once they’ve done that, put it out of your mind. Difficult to do, I know. Believe me I know. But it will most likely be months before any trial gets under way. You can’t live for months worrying about this. It won’t be good for you, just for starters.”
“I know,” Johnny agreed. “But I just can’t get it off my mind at the moment. Maybe when I’ve had time to really absorb it; I don’t know. But right now, I can’t think of anything else. Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” Joanne assured him. “We’ve been much the same since we found out.”
There was a knock at the door and a nurse came in with a man in a suit and Dr Early. Johnny knew at once that the man in the suit was a plain clothes detective and wondered how come he never spoke to a cop that looked like either Starsky or Hutch from the TV show. Were there no casually dressed detectives out there? With an effort, he stopped his thoughts from wandering.
“Mr. Gage? I’m Detective John Hughes. Is this a good time to speak?” He glanced at Roy and Joanne. “Mrs. DeSoto. Mr. DeSoto. Nice to see you again.”
“I’ve told the detective that if it’s all right with you, then he can speak to you with me present,” Joe Early told Johnny. “And stop when I think you’ve had enough.”
“Okay,” Johnny agreed. There was no point in putting it off. “I’ll see you later,” he told Roy and Joanne kissed him goodbye.
It didn’t take long to give his statement. He remembered bits and pieces of what had happened and Dr Early, with a nod of permission from Johnny, explained that Johnny had suffered a fractured skull and had then required surgery for a bleed on the brain. It was impossible to say for sure if the bleed had already been there or if it had been caused by the subsequent building collapse; either was possible.
“Thank you, Mr. Gage,” Hughes said putting away his notebook. “We’ll probably call you as a witness to describe what happened at your apartment and here, just like you did a few moments ago. Mr. DeSoto will be called to say how your apartment looked when he arrived and found you and again what happened here. Captain Stanley will be called, too.”
“Have you found the person who signed off on the buildings?” Johnny asked.
“I’m not at liberty to say anything about the case at the moment,” Hughes replied. “But we are questioning a man at the moment.” He shook Johnny’s hand. “I hope you make a quick recovery.”
“Thank you,” Johnny replied and watched as Early ushered the detective out and then returned to Johnny’s side.
“I think you might need a little help sleeping tonight,” he suggested gently. “I hear from the other hospital that you didn’t have a good night last night and you’ve got circles under your eyes.”
“I know; I need my rest to get better,” Johnny sighed. But it had been a long couple of days and he accepted the offer of something to help him sleep later on, after he had had time to think.
There was a lot to think about.
A few days later, Johnny was released and went off to stay with Roy and Joanne. He knew by now that the public official who had signed off on the building warrants had been found and arrested. The plot seemed to be expanding, and it looked like being more than just months before the whole thing came to trial – if it did. Dewar was on bail and in hiding. The house he had lived in at Rampart was empty, awaiting the arrival of the new buildings manager. It seemed that Dewar had been quietly taking control of things at Rampart that he shouldn’t have been involved in and public opinion was leaning towards Dewar closing the hospital and selling the ground off. Of course, there was no proof of that – or none that the police were admitting to – but that didn’t halt the speculation.
As January moved into February, LA continued to take swift steps into the future, the demolished buildings cleared up and new ones springing up in their places. Roadways were being repaired, the railroad started running again, although the public joked that it still didn’t run to time, and life was returning to normal.
In the due course of time, the men of Station 51’s A shift returned to work, one at a time. Marco was first, followed by Roy, then Mike and Chet. Johnny was a bit behind them.
By April, Johnny had managed to find himself a nice apartment and had checked with David Connelly that the building was up to code and had been signed off by someone that Connelly knew personally. In this particular case, the signee had been Connelly himself. That was reassuring and Johnny soon settled into his new home. His nightmares about the earthquake were fading.
By May, the earthquake wasn’t being mentioned even in passing on the news. It was no longer worthy of notice when a building that had collapsed was rebuilt and opened again. It was commonplace. Most of the people who had been displaced by the quake had found somewhere new to live, albeit that some of them left LA and California and had moved somewhere that didn’t have earthquakes, but had tornados or hurricanes instead.
In June, the LAPD announced that it had concluded its investigation into Dewar’s nefarious activities and that the trial would begin in July. The media loved speculating about it, but had no real facts, the case now being sub judice. Johnny received a letter telling him to attend court on July 1st. It appeared that Dewar was facing the rest of his life in prison, should he be convicted of all the charges against him and from what the detectives had let slip, it was unlikely he would get off.
On June 30th, A shift was on duty. It had been a quiet day so far for the heat seemed to discouraging people from going places or doing stupid things. They had just finished lunch when the call came in.
“Station 51, suspected suicide, Fairmount Bridge.”
It was the kind of call they all hated. The only talk in the cab of the squad was Johnny issuing directions that Roy didn’t need. Everyone knew the Fairmount Bridge. It was very beautiful and notorious for suicides jumping off. This wasn’t the first time they had been called to a suicide there and it seldom came out well.
The victim this time appeared to be deadly serious, for he had climbed down onto the ornamental stone lattice that supported the span of the bridge on either side. It was horribly difficult to get close to anyone there, for they inevitably saw and heard you coming and if they were serious – and they usually were to climb down to that scary position – they had jumped before you could reach them.
The sheriff’s deputies were there ahead of them. “He hasn’t reacted to anything we’ve said,” reported one.
“I don’t envy you guys climbing down there,” the other mused, watching as Roy and Johnny skimmed into their climbing gear.
Cap ignored the comment as he organized anchoring their ropes to the engine and buffering the edge of the stone parapet with blankets to prevent the ropes fraying through. This was the kind of rescue he hated. The chances of something happening to the rescuers always seemed to increase when dealing with a suicide. They were seldom bothered if they accidentally took someone else with them.
Both paramedics were ready, each carrying a second lifebelt. The ropes were checked for the second or third time, then Johnny climbed onto the parapet of the bridge and disappeared over the edge. Roy, exchanging a look with Cap, followed him mere seconds afterwards.
Monitoring the ropes from above, the men from the engine were unable to see what was happening and the acoustic under the bridge meant they couldn’t catch every word that was said. It was an untenable situation, but there was nothing they could do about it. Too many people were liable to cause the jumper to do just that – jump. No, better to metaphorically bite their nails and hope that the paramedics could do their jobs.
For the first several feet, Johnny concentrated on placing his feet and moving down as swiftly and smoothly as he could. He paused as he drew nearer to the potential jumper and frowned. He knew the man’s face from somewhere, he was sure. It wasn’t someone he knew well, just someone he had bumped into a few times, maybe? He couldn’t place the man.
As was often the case, the victim seemed to be oblivious to the paramedic climbing over to him. Johnny kept his movements slow and easy, for the least thing could startle this man into jumping. It was only when he was within feet of the jumper that the man looked at him. “Don’t come any closer.”
“Listen, I’m not going to hurt you,” Johnny soothed, going into paramedic mode automatically. “I just want to talk to you.”
“The last person on earth I want to talk to is you,” the victim retorted.
It wasn’t the first time Johnny had faced that kind of remark and it probably wouldn’t be the last. “If you’d rather, you could talk to my friend,” he offered.
“DeSoto?” The man laughed; there was no mirth in the sound. It was jagged and sharp and frightening. “He’s as bad as you. I should’ve known they’d send you.”
It made no sense to Johnny at all. He shot a glance at Roy, who was still a couple of feet above him, trying to move over to the man’s other side. Roy’s face was white and Johnny wondered why. If his partner wasn’t feeling well, why was he climbing on the bridge? But after a moment, he realized Roy was mouthing something, but Johnny couldn’t make out the word. From the way Roy kept nodding at their jumper, he guessed that Roy knew who he was, but Johnny still couldn’t make the connection. He had found this happening sometimes since the skull fracture, but as that was the only side effect, he endured it quite cheerfully.
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was Johnny getting a belt around the man’s waist before he jumped. Cautiously, Johnny slid closer.
“You can’t stop me,” the man said, not looking at the paramedic. “I’m going over.” He glanced at Johnny. “And I’d be quite happy to take you with me.”
“You don’t mean that,” Johnny replied calmly, although he was shaken by the words. There was a world of venom behind them.
“Oh, I do. Stay away. You, too, DeSoto!” This he flung up at Roy.
Those words carried and Cap leaned over for a quick look, freezing in place as he recognized the man standing on the bridge. Dewar! It was clear that Johnny had no idea who he was and Cap was too afraid to shout in case Dewar followed through on his threat and took Johnny down with him. “Marco, get onto John’s rope, too,” he ordered. Dread was gripping his heart.
“We just want to help,” Johnny went on. He suspected that this man was beyond the help that the world could offer, but Johnny couldn’t walk away and let him jump. “Please, let me help you.”
“All right, help me,” the man agreed and Johnny was taken aback by the sudden about-face.
“Be careful, Johnny,” Roy begged as his partner moved even closer.
This wasn’t the moment to look away from the victim. Johnny nodded in response and moved closer, looping his arm around the nearest bit of stonework as he reached for the second belt at his waist. He glanced down to be sure he wasn’t unfastening his own lifebelt by mistake and that split second was when Dewar made his move.
The man’s weight ripped Johnny from his precarious hold on the bridge and suddenly they were both airborne, the man’s hands hitting Johnny solidly in the chest. In that instant, Dewar shouted, “I’m free!” Then he was gone and Johnny’s lifeline snapped into place and he swung crazily against the bridge, bumping into the stonework, gasping to try and regain the breath that had been so savagely knocked out of him.
It took several minutes and the combined strength of all the firefighters and cops present to get Johnny back onto the bridge. He was helped over the parapet and eased to the ground where a pale Roy knelt beside him and removed the lifebelt.
There were injuries, that was for sure, but how serious was for Rampart to determine. Roy quickly set up an IV and oxygen, for Johnny was still gasping for breath. As he moved to place the mask on Johnny’s face, the younger man asked, “Who was that?”
“Dewar,” Roy replied.
After that, there was nothing to say. Johnny was loaded into the ambulance and driven away, Roy with him. The others packed up the remaining gear and left. None of them knew what to say either.
There was no court case. With Dewar gone, his cohorts promptly laid the blame firmly at his door and sang like canaries for lighter sentences. It was done and over with.
Except in nightmares.
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