Ambulance Chasers (by Rona)

Synopsis:  Too many close calls, and the number is about to climb higher.

Category:  Emergency!
Genre:  Action/Adventure
Rating:  T
Word Count: 26,275


 

It had been a quiet day as far as runs went. The squad hadn’t been out at all and the engine had only had a small trash fire to deal with. None of them mentioned how quiet it was – they tried not to think about how quiet it was – just in case they jinxed it and they ended up with something big. The men went about their assigned chores, tidying the day room, hanging hose, doing the dorms, latrine duty and organizing food for when lunch and supper time came. Captain Stanley had time to work on the mountains of paperwork that seemed to accumulate out of nowhere. It was the only downside to being a captain that he could think of.

When the chores were done, the men somehow managed to find other things to do. Roy and Johnny polished the squad; Mike polished the engine. Chet swept the bay and Marco began cooking, preparing something out of the ordinary for them. It was highly unusual for them to not have any runs. It was making them all anxious.

It was a cool day, with clouds threatening rain, but after the squad had been polished, Johnny went outside and began shooting hoops. Nobody else felt like joining him; they all took up more sedentary activities like reading or playing cards.

When it did all hit the fan, none of them needed the tones. There was a loud screeching of brakes from the 405, followed by a bang and crash. The sound of splintering glass followed quickly. The men inside looked at each other in horror. Roy leapt to his feet, dashing outside, his heart in his mouth. They were a few hundred yards from the freeway, but if cars were travelling at speed, a few hundred yards gave them no leeway. “Johnny!”

“I’m fine,” panted a voice from his right. Johnny was pressed against the wall, looking wide-eyed but unharmed. He glanced at Roy and the two of them automatically ran towards the wall at the back of the lot. If they climbed it, they could see the freeway.

The sounds had not stopped. Every few seconds, there was another smashing noise and car horns were blowing endlessly. Johnny put his hands on the wall and pulled himself up, gaining his feet in one swift, smooth motion and then standing stock still in horror as he beheld the full extent of the accident scene. “Oh my…” He jumped back down and started running for the squad. “Come on, Roy!” he called.

Inside, Captain Stanley was already on the radio to headquarters reporting the accident. He glanced at his paramedics as they came in and saw from their faces just how bad it was. He nodded to them as they jumped into the squad, hastily finished with dispatch and ran to the engine. The tones went off as they started pulling out.

They had literally no more than a few hundred yards to travel. They swung round the front of the building next door and up the side of it to the back parking lot. The next door building was vacant, so there were no cars parked in the lot, which made it a little easier for them.

About 10 cars had come off the 405 off-ramp and were spilled all over the lot. Smoke rose ominously from several vehicles and the sound of car horns all but deafened the rescuers. More cars were piled up on the freeway itself. It was a daunting, heart breaking sight.

As they jumped from the squad and dragged on their turnouts, Johnny and Roy could hear Cap updating dispatch. They didn’t wait for him to issue orders. They knew what they had to do. While waiting for more squads to arrive, they had to triage the victims, deciding who was most seriously hurt, who could wait, who was walking wounded. The others in the crew would pull battery cables, wash down gasoline and start helping where they could.

The first driver, in the lead car, was obviously dead. There was brain matter visible and the steering wheel was practically embedded in his chest. Swallowing back the bile at the grisly sight, Johnny moved on to the next car.

It was dangerous work. The cars were piled precariously on top of each other and were anything but stable. Despite the need for speed, the paramedics had to move cautiously so that they didn’t endanger themselves or cause further injuries to the people trapped.

As the sound of car horns diminished as Chet and Marco pulled the battery cables, the sounds of screams and cries rose steadily. In some ways, it was reassuring to know there were people still alive in this terrible scenario, but in others it was dreadful to know that there were only two paramedics on scene who could do anything to help. But sirens could be heard in the distance and further help was on the way.

Gingerly opening a car door, Johnny peered inside. There was blood everywhere and as he reached for a pulse on the woman victim who lay sprawled across the front seat, he wasn’t hopeful. But there was a pulse beating there under his fingers and as he leaned in even further, he saw that she had an arterial bleed. It was partially obstructed by her seatbelt, which was why she had not bled out, but Johnny knew there was only one thing he could do. He climbed inside the dangerously unstable car and clamped the artery with his fingers.

With his other hand, he checked her over for injuries as best he could. It looked as though she had broken both legs, but they seemed to be simple tib/fib fractures. The lady had escaped fairly lightly, all things considered. Johnny carefully reached for his knife and cut the seatbelt, giving himself more room for maneuver when the time came to get her out.

The car rocked again and Johnny lifted his head sharply. In the back seat were two children. They had been unrestrained, since the car had no back seatbelts. It was a miracle that neither of them had been catapulted through the windshield, but all the same, they didn’t look too good. The boy had his eyes open, but blood streamed down his face from a head injury and his jaw was hanging slackly. Blood bubbled in his mouth. The girl was either unconscious or dead and was lying mostly on the floor.

Moving was a poor option, but he had to check them out. Gritting his teeth and moving as cautiously as he could, Johnny reached into the back seat. The car rocked.

The boy was alive, awake but in severe shock. Johnny guessed that he had a broken jaw. He simply could not reach him to make sure, as he dared not release his hold on the mother’s jugular. The girl was closer, slumped down between the seats. Johnny stretched as far as he dared and finally was able to grasp her limp wrist. The pulse was uncertain and weak, but there.

Moving carefully back to the position he had been in before, Johnny smiled at the boy. “I’m just going to call for more help,” he told him. There was no response. Johnny hadn’t expected one. He turned his head and yelled, “I need some help over here!”

The banshee yell of pain from behind him surprised the hell out of Johnny, but he had no time to react to it. A foot kicked him heavily on the shoulder and suddenly, the car was rocking wildly as the boy panicked. Johnny frantically grabbed for the vein he was holding as another flailing foot caught him and suddenly, he sensed the car was going over.

*****

If the car had rolled, the woman would have died, so would the children and Johnny would, at best, have been severely injured. But luck was on all their sides that day. Mere moments before gravity won the battle to pull the car over, Chet and Marco arrived in response to Johnny’s shout. Seeing the car was wobbling, the two men instinctively grabbed the doors and hung on for grim life, throwing their weight backwards to stabilize it. While not an ideal solution, it gave them necessary breathing space. “We need ropes and manpower over here!” Chet cried.

There were two more engine companies on scene by then and from the sounds of sirens echoing from all over, more were on the way. Chet saw two other firefighters grab ropes and run in their direction. “Hang on, Johnny,” he gasped.

“I am,” Johnny gasped back, fending off another kick. He failed. This one caught him on the ear. He bit back a curse and removed himself as best he could from the kid’s range. That meant he couldn’t monitor the little girl, but there was nothing he could do for her in the meantime.

It didn’t take the firefighters long to stabilize the car, but it wouldn’t hold for long. “We’ve got to get them out of here,” Johnny told the others. “I need backboards for all of them. Are the ambulances here yet?”

“Yeah,” Chet replied. He frowned at the others he could see near the waiting ambulances. Recently, they had been plagued with what the media were dubbing ‘ambulance chasers’ – not lawyers waiting to persuade victims to sue, but literally people who chased after ambulances, following them through traffic at breakneck speed, risking their lives and the lives of others as they did so. Despite all the police could do, the numbers were increasing and sooner or later they would cause a serious accident. These gruesome ‘adventurers’ as they called themselves, were already gathering. While the police would stop some of them driving off after the ambulances, unless they had definitive proof that the drivers were going to be chasing them, there was nothing they could really do.

Because of the unstable nature of the car, the priority was getting the victims out. Then the vitals could be taken and transmitted to the hospital. Johnny could do nothing but hang on to the woman’s vein. His fingers were cramping, but he gritted his teeth. A change in grip, from his hand to someone else’s, could prove fatal. She had lost a lot of blood already and Johnny was not willing to lose her that way – or any other for that matter.

With men stabilizing the car, other paramedics climbed in and got the children situated on backboards and finally freed from the car. Johnny still crouched uncomfortably in the front seat while others got the woman ready for extraction. At length, he was climbing over the gear stick, squeezing past the steering wheel and being helped down to the ground, all the while still holding the jugular. He knelt there, not speaking, just listening as the woman’s vitals were called in, knowing how bad they were and praying for a miracle. Then he was being assisted to his feet and guided over the parking lot until they reached an ambulance and he was helped inside, sitting beside the paramedic who was leading the treatment. “How are you doing, Johnny?” Gil asked.

“I’m fine,” Johnny replied, all his concentration on holding the vein. “How are the kids?”

“Holding their own,” Gil replied, but his face, when Johnny glanced at it, told another story. But like all emergency workers, they knew not to say anything too explicit just in case the unconscious, unresponsive person they were treating could hear them.

The IV fluids the woman was receiving were helping. Her blood pressure was up slightly when Gil next took it. Johnny risked his concentration to glance out of the window and saw Rampart come into sight. He was more than relieved. His fingers were now agony. He had no idea how long he had been holding the vein, but it was turning out to be too long. He thought, briefly, of Roy holding the jugular of a little boy who had been a victim of a car accident they had come across right out in the middle of nowhere one time. He remembered the look of pain that had crossed his partner’s face when he had finally been able to let go and his cramped fingers were allowed to move. Johnny really knew how he had felt.

Finally, they arrived at Rampart and the ambulance was backing into the receiving bay. The back door opened and more hands were helping Johnny as he climbed carefully down from the vehicle. Gil was updating the vitals as they took the gurney inside to a treatment room. Johnny followed along, his entire focus on the woman’s life that he held in the fingers of one hand.

“It won’t be long now, Johnny,” Brackett promised, putting his hand on the paramedic’s back. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Johnny breathed, even though it wasn’t true. He knew the end of the ordeal was in sight, but if he started thinking about that too much, he might well lose his fragile grip.

“Good,” Brackett commented, although he wasn’t convinced. He could see the toll this was taking on Johnny. He quickly made his examination and by the time he was done, another man had entered the room, dressed in a doctor’s white coat.

“What’ve we got, Kel?” he asked.

“Perforated jugular,” Brackett replied. “A couple of broken legs by the looks of things. Johnny here has been holding the vein for the last 40 minutes. How do you want to do this?”

“Let me have a look.” The man – a vascular surgeon, Johnny guessed – came over and peered around Johnny’s fingers as best he could. “I can do it here. Let me gown up and we’ll get on with it.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder. “You’re doing a great job,” he told the weary paramedic. “You’ve saved this woman’s life.”

“Thanks,” Johnny grated. He was pleased that his efforts had been recognized, but that wasn’t his main focus now. His main focus was to hand over this responsibility to someone else. Then he had to get back to the crash site.

It seemed to take an interminable time for the surgeon to be ready, but finally, there was a clamp applied to the vein and Johnny was able to let go. He staggered backwards, feeling arms around his waist guiding him away from the table and the surgeon moved in closer. “Come on, Johnny,” said Dixie’s warm contralto voice. “Let’s look at you now.”

“I’m all right,” Johnny protested.

“You’re bleeding,” Dixie told him. “Let’s get that seen to.” Instead of taking him into a treatment room, she led him to the desk and pushed him down on her stool. She unbuckled his turnout and pushed it off his shoulders and he felt instantly cooler, although he hadn’t been aware that he was too hot previously. “Betty, could you get me a glass of juice please?” she called to a passing nurse.

Leaving Johnny for a moment, Dixie quickly gathered everything she needed. She returned to find the paramedic had his eyes closed, his head leaning heavily on his hand and his elbow propped on her desk, flexing his right hand continuously. “Come on, champ,” she urged gently. “Let me look at you.” She wiped his face with a wet cloth, rinsed it and then began to clean away the dried blood that ran from his left ear. “This is quite a gash,” she commented. “What did you catch it on?”

“Um…” For a moment, Johnny couldn’t think what could have happened to it, but then he remembered. “The woman’s son kicked me. He was in shock. I thought the car was going to go over and obviously so did he.” He shuddered. “How is he? And his sister?”

“He’s all right, but the girl is in surgery with internal injuries,” Dixie replied.

“I couldn’t help them,” Johnny explained, as though Dixie had made an accusation. “I had to hold the mother’s jugular.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” Dixie soothed. “You saved that woman’s life and Joe seemed pretty sure that the surgeons have a good chance with the girl.” She looked more closely at his ear. It probably needed stitches, but the ear was such a ghastly place to try and stitch. She opted for putting some butterfly strips across it and placing a dressing over the top. “There,” she declared. “All done.”

“Thanks, Dix,” Johnny replied and started to rise, but she prevented him. “You just sit there until someone comes to take you back. And drink the juice that Betty brings you, or I’ll give you what for.” Her tone was light, but Johnny knew that she meant what she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he capitulated. She patted his cheek gently and disappeared off to help someone else. Betty reappeared with a glass of juice, which Johnny sipped gratefully. He continued to flex his hand, occasionally rubbing it, until the circulation was properly restored and his fingers felt as though they belonged to him again. They ached ever so slightly.

He was still sitting there, feeling human again, when Roy appeared with a patient. Johnny bent over to pick up his turnout and was ready and waiting outside the treatment room when his partner came out. “You all right?” Roy asked, giving Johnny a searching look.

“Fine,” Johnny assured him. “How’s it looking back there?”

“Still quite a bit to do, but the most urgent cases have been transported. Come on.”

Together, they hurried out to the waiting ambulance.

*****

When they got back to the crash site, it was mostly just the walking wounded who were left to be treated. A triage area had been set up near the back wall of the station parking lot and it was to there that Johnny and Roy headed when they got out of the ambulance that had brought them back from the hospital.

It was a devastating scene. Johnny noticed that the car he had been in had finally succumbed to gravity and was now lying on its side in the parking lot. He shuddered as he remembered the moment he thought it was going to go over while he was still inside. Chet and Marco could not have arrived at a more fortuitous moment.

There were perhaps 10 people waiting to be assessed. Most of them looked shocky, which was hardly surprising. Johnny went over and knelt down beside a man who was clutching his wrist with his other hand. “Hello there,” he said warmly. “My name’s John and I’m a paramedic. How are you feeling?”

“Lousy,” the man replied. “My car’s a wreck and I’m late for work and I think I’ve broken my wrist.”

Smiling, for the man’s answer told Johnny that he was unlikely to have a head injury, Johnny began to assess his patient.

*****

It took all day for the wreckers to remove the mangled cars. CHP officers had spent several hours examining the scene before they allowed any of the cars to be removed. There had been four fatalities, which was a tragedy, but it could have been much worse. In all, 35 cars had been involved in the pile up.

It was a relief for 51s not to have any distance to travel back to quarters. They ate Marco’s now over-stewed stew and spent some time alone, dealing with their thoughts on what had happened. Eventually, they gathered in front of the television and the news came on.

It was somber watching. News helicopters had circled overhead for a good part of the rescue. “Police and fire department officials complained that once again the ‘ambulance chasers’ were out in full force. One set of these so-called ‘adventurers’ got between two speeding ambulances, almost causing the second vehicle, carrying critically injured passengers, to crash. Police were able to detain them and have warned again of the dangers of this practice.”

“I saw them gathering across the street,” Chet growled. “They’re gonna cause a bad accident.”

“Well, maybe they’ll learn a lesson from the crowd that got caught this time,” Cap suggested with an optimism that he didn’t feel.

“Or maybe getting arrested will become part of the goal,” Johnny countered quietly. “Like a badge of glory.” He had seen similar things on the reservation and fervently hoped he was wrong.

“You’re cheerful,” Chet complained, glaring at Johnny. Johnny just shrugged. Although he was the youngest on the crew, sometimes he felt as though he had seen a lot more than the others.

“You two will have to be extra careful,” Cap reminded his paramedics. “I’m sure this craze will run its course, just like every other one, but in the meantime, I’d hate to see something happen to either of you.”

“We will be careful,” Roy promised.

“Very careful,” Johnny agreed.

*****

They had a few minor call outs during the rest of the day, but mostly they spent it listening to the screech of metal as the tangle of cars was slowly but surely dismantled and towed away. The sounds were an unsettling reminder of what had happened earlier and none of the men was much in the mood for talking.

They had just settled into bed when the tones went off. “Station 51, apartment block fire, 2121 Rose Crescent. Two-one-two-one Rose Crescent, cross street Western Avenue. Time out 22:55.”

“KMG 365,” Cap acknowledged, jotting the address down. He hurried out to the bay and handed a slip to Johnny before climbing into the engine. The squad pulled out, lights flashing, into the rain shower that had started a short time before. The engine followed slowly. Johnny skillfully guided Roy through the streets. The traffic was pretty light at that time of night, so they didn’t need to worry too much about other drivers.

The apartment block was well alight. Cap immediately called for a second alarm and went over to the group of people who huddled together on the opposite side of the road. “Who’s in charge?” he asked and a man identified himself as the super of the building. “Is everyone out?” Cap asked.

“Umm, I don’t know,” the super admitted. He looked over the huddle of people, but didn’t seem any wiser. He shrugged disinterestedly. Nobody else volunteered anything.

Cursing under his breath, Cap headed back to the engine. “Roy, John, do a quick sweep. We don’t know if everyone is out or not.”

“Right, Cap,” Roy agreed and they pulled on their face masks as they trotted across to the burning building. It was three stories and given how quickly the building was burning, there was a pretty fair chance that they wouldn’t be able to search all of it. They quickly split up, Johnny taking the right and Roy taking the left.

Most of the apartment doors stood ajar and it was easy to see that they were empty, for the first floor apartments were so small that they were really studios, clearly aimed at single people. They were all clear. Roy quickly checked in with Cap and got permission to go to the second floor.

It was much hotter and much smokier there. The carpets in the rooms were smoldering and the ceiling was creaking ominously. Several doors on this floor were closed and the paramedics were obliged to waste several seconds breaking their way into them. Fortunately, the doors were flimsy and the locks designed to keep out innocent thieves.

“Johnny, I’ve got someone,” Roy called, finding a man sprawled unconscious on his living room floor.

“Get him out, I’ll keep looking,” Johnny declared and took the HT from Roy. He guessed that Cap would be calling them out at any minute, because the noise from the flames was growing louder by the second. He helped Roy balance the man on his shoulder.

“I don’t like it,” Roy objected, but he didn’t stay to argue. He knew he had to get the man out before he was totally overcome with fumes. However, leaving Johnny alone always worried him; he knew his partner’s propensity for getting into trouble.

“I’ll be fine,” Johnny promised and hurried off down the hall to finish checking the apartments. He was just checking the last apartment on that floor when the HT spluttered to life.

“Engine 51 to HT 51. John, evacuate the building immediately.”

“10-4, Cap,” Johnny confirmed and turned for the exit.

Cap’s call came too late. Johnny’s reaction was too slow. Circumstances overtook them both, although both had acted with dispatch and prudence. With an almighty crash, the ceiling caved in.

*****

The crash was perfectly audible outside. Roy, who was kneeling by his patient behind the squad, sat up straighter on his heels and peered over the hood. Sparks and flames were shooting into the night sky with unbecoming vigor as the firefighters slowly lost the battle to keep the flames contained. It only took a glance at his crew mates to realize what had just happened. Cap had called Johnny out and the paramedic had not made it. Stunned, Roy could not believe that Johnny was gone. He sank back and looked blankly at his patient, not hearing the doctor calling him on the biophone.

Several seconds passed, but it felt like hours to 51’s crew. Roy suddenly realized that he was being hailed and picked up the receiver. “Um, could you repeat that, Rampart?”

“I said,” Dr Morton stressed angrily, “start an IV with D5W TKO, put him on 10 liters of oxygen and transport as soon as possible. Did you get that this time?” The sarcasm travelled clearly down the handset.

Roy was too distraught to care. “10-4, Rampart,” he acknowledged through numb lips. He mechanically selected the IV he needed and got the stick the first time, his hands sure, even if his mind was not. He beckoned to the ambulance attendants and they brought the stretcher over. Roy supervised the loading of his patient and took one single glance back at the inferno before he climbed in and the doors closed behind him.

His partner was dead.

***********

Shaking his head, Johnny sat up. He had been very fortunate that the door of the apartment had partially shielded him from the worst of the collapse. He hadn’t been hit by any of the debris, but the concussion from the collapse had knocked him over and he’d been winded.

He hadn’t got away totally unscathed; he could tell that there would be bruises on his bruises the next day, but right now, he had other things on his mind. Namely – getting out of there! He struggled to his feet, finding a few more places that ached, and looked around.

Exiting the way he had come in was clearly out. The hallway was long gone, buried under chunks of concrete that used to be the third floor. If there had been anyone up there, they had almost certainly not survived. Johnny’s only other option was the window and he headed over to it.

The window in this room was patio doors that opened out onto a tiny balcony barely two feet wide. It had a metal railing that was buckling in the heat and the glass from the door glittered all over the balcony. Johnny pulled the warped doors open and stepped out.

It was slightly cooler outside, but not a lot. The initial burst of flames that had followed the collapse had died back, or else Johnny would have been roasted standing there. Still, he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get down. It was too far and too risky to try and drop down to the balcony on the floor below, even assuming that it was not compromised. The next door balcony was also too far away and dropping down to the ground would be a decidedly dumb move. Nope, he would have to accept the inevitable and ask to be rescued.

That was when Johnny realized that he must have dropped the HT when he fell. He turned and went back into the burning building without hesitation. That Handie-Talkie was the difference between life and death to him. He had to find it.

It was lying pretty much where he thought it ought to be and it was intact. Sending up a prayer of thanks to whichever Higher Power or deity or Spirit was listening, Johnny brought the HT to his lips as he headed back to the balcony. “Engine 51, this is HT 51,” he shouted against the background noise of the flames.

“John?” came the incredulous response. “Are you all right, pal?”

“I’m fine, Cap,” Johnny replied. “But I’m trapped.”

“Where are you?” Cap asked. “Can you see us?”

“I’m on a balcony on the second floor,” Johnny told him. “Yes, I can see you.” He lifted his free hand and started waving. After only a few moments, he saw the others waving back.

“We’ll be right there,” Cap promised. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“I won’t,” Johnny promised, looking anxiously over his shoulder at the encroaching flames. “But now would be a good time. I don’t wanna become a crispy critter.”

“We’re on the way.” Indeed, Johnny could see two figures running over with the ladder from the engine. Johnny just hoped it would be long enough to reach. Trying to drop down onto a ladder would be almost as easy a move as reaching one of those other balconies. He decided at that point to think optimistically. The ladder would reach!

It did! With great relief, Johnny climbed over the balcony and onto the ladder and climbed carefully down, for there was little point in rushing and having a fall when you had had to be rescued in the first place! He was incredibly grateful to feel hands on his legs and back guiding him down the last few rungs until finally he stood on solid earth again. “Thanks,” he said, smiling wearily through his mask at Mike and Marco.

He staggered off in the direction of the engine, his legs feeling more like they belonged to him with every step. His crew mates lowered the ladder, picked it up and followed him. They had just caught up with Johnny when there was an enormous explosion from the building and glass and debris showered down over the three men. Instinctively, they bent over and fell to their knees, protecting their heads and faces. When the pelting stopped, they got to their feet, Mike dragging Johnny up regardless of whether he needed the help, and hurried over to the shelter of the engines.

There a relieved Cap met them, taking Johnny by the arm and leading him over to the running board. He pushed the paramedic down and tugged off his helmet and face mask. Johnny’s sooty features grinned wearily up at him for a moment before he started to unbuckle his SCBA. “I’m fine, Cap, honest,” Johnny grinned.

“And I’ll believe you once you’ve been checked out by a doctor,” Cap responded, but Johnny did look okay to his critical eye. He waved over another paramedic to check Johnny out before he went to the hospital.

*****

Standing numbly by the desk, Roy barely lifted his head as he heard 36’s paramedic call in from the fire he had left shortly before. “Rampart, this is Squad 36. We have a paramedic who has been rescued from a fire. Vitals are as follows; BP 160/110, respirations 20 and falling, pulse 120. There are no apparent injuries, but he was caught in a concussive blast from a roof collapse and reports being knocked over and sore.”

Dr Brackett looked at what he had just jotted down. “36, bring him in to be checked over. Do you have an ID on the victim?”

“Affirmative, Rampart. The victim is John Gage.”

In total disbelief, Roy lifted his head and gazed at Brackett. Brackett returned the look, for Roy had told him that Johnny had died in the collapse. “Repeat that, 36?”

“The victim is John Gage and he is complaining that he is not a victim.” The smile in the paramedic’s voice carried quite clearly over the radio.

Smiling, too, Brackett pushed the send button. “Keep him from moving about too much and get him in here at once.” He grinned at Roy, who probably looked paler than before. “He’s alive, Roy!” he cheered. “He’s alive!”

“Yeah,” Roy agreed and suddenly it hit him. “He’s alive.” He jumped to his feet and fled to the men’s room, where he proceeded to lose everything he’d eaten that day.

***********

By the time he arrived at Rampart, Johnny was feeling a lot less happy with himself. He had been ordered onto the stretcher by Cap, who had heard the directive about ‘not moving about much’ and the recalcitrant paramedic was immediately forbidden to walk even a single step. Johnny had bitched and moaned about being lifted onto the stretcher and being strapped down and had then reclined in sulky silence for the entire journey as his aches and pains began to make themselves really noticed. He had a horrible, creepy, suspicion that Brackett would keep him overnight ‘for observation’ and while he wouldn’t mind sleeping all night, he didn’t want to do it in a hospital bed.

“How’re you feeling, Johnny?” Brackett asked, coming alongside the stretcher as it was rolled into the treatment room.

“I’m fine,” Johnny grumped. “What’s all the fuss about?”

“You know perfectly well,” Brackett replied. He supervised Johnny’s transfer onto the exam table and started an examination. “Did you hit your head?” he asked, looking closely into Johnny’s eyes with his pen light.

“No,” Johnny responded irritably. “I had my helmet on.”

“What did you land on?” Brackett went on, feeling around Johnny’s head for any lumps. There were none.

“My air tank,” Johnny admitted. “I was a bit winded.”

The exam room door opened and Dixie and Roy came in. The latter was looking slightly better than he had been, now that he was over the shock of discovering his partner was alive and well. Dixie smiled at Johnny, who smiled back at her.

“Dixie, I want you and Roy to help me roll him,” Brackett requested. “Johnny, I need to take your shirt off.”

“Don’t you dare cut it!” Johnny warned Dixie. “I can take it off myself!” He glared at Brackett, daring the doctor to dispute the fact.

“Carefully,” Brackett warned and hovered the whole time Dixie was helping Johnny. Then they carefully rolled him, keeping his neck in alignment with his spine. Johnny couldn’t suppress a disgusted sigh. Roy bit back a chuckle that wanted to edge into hysteria. Bracket carefully probed Johnny’s back, eliciting a few hitched breaths. “All right,” Brackett declared and Johnny was rolled onto his back again. “Dixie, I want x-rays of his ribs and a skull series just in case.”

“Oh, Doc!” Johnny objected. “I’m fine!”

“You are not fine,” Brackett replied. He was clearly struggling for patience. “You landed on your air tank and at best are severely bruised. At worst you might have some broken ribs and there is a chance that you have a mild concussion. I’m admitting you overnight for observation.”

“I knew it!” Johnny cried and started to sulk.

That was it for Roy. The strain of the last hour or so had taken its toll on his usually calm temperament. “Shut up and do as you’re told!” he shouted. “We thought you were dead!”

Dumbfounded, Johnny gaped at Roy with his mouth open. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say in response to that. There really wasn’t a response to that. Roy was not through. “You are going to stay here tonight and do exactly as you are told!” he ordered his stunned partner. “Do you have any idea how bad we felt?”

Meekly, Johnny shook his head and lay back obediently. Roy shouted so seldom that Johnny honestly could not remember the last time he had heard his partner raise his voice. Mutely, he allowed Dixie to remove his trousers and cover him with a blanket. The whole time, his gaze was fixed on Roy.

At last, he plucked up the courage to speak. “Are you all right, Roy?” he asked.

Turning away, Roy wasn’t sure what the answer to that question was. He felt much better than he had earlier, but he was still rather shaken at his partner’s close call and Johnny’s childish histrionics had brought him as close to an emotional collapse as he thought he would ever come. He drew in a deep breath to calm himself. “I will be,” he allowed.

The arrival of the x-ray machine gave them all a much-needed breathing space and when they returned to the treatment room, Roy was feeling more like himself. Johnny was still walking on eggshells, so to speak, but that was all for the good, Roy thought. Perhaps he might continue to be cooperative. However, his conscience smote him when he re-entered the room, for Johnny looked pinched and cold and tired.

“Once I’ve seen the x-rays, we’ll get you settled into a room, you can have a hot shower and I’ll give you something to relax those sore muscles,” Brackett promised. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He patted Johnny’s arm and left.

“How’re you feeling?” Roy asked, coming over and sitting on a stool beside his partner.

“Sore,” Johnny admitted. “I don’t think I’m going to take up flying without an airplane any time soon.” He produced a half-watt grin.

“Probably a good move,” Roy agreed. “What happened?”

Briefly, Johnny told Roy the story while Dixie listened in, wondering how on earth they could be so calm about such a close brush with death and how they had the courage to enter a burning building in the first place. The very thought terrified her. She was relieved when Dr Brackett came back in clutching the packet of x-rays, for the paramedics were starting to crack jokes about Johnny’s near miss and his options for escape, all of which seemed to involve Tarzan imitations.

“Well, nothing broken and no concussion that I can see,” Brackett admitted while Johnny made ‘I told you so’ noises under his breath. “We’ll get you into a room, you can shower and then I’ll give you something to relax those muscles. I don’t see any reason why Roy can’t collect you in the morning and you can go home.”

“I could just go home now,” Johnny pleaded, almost whining.

That wasn’t going to win any points with Brackett. “You’re staying,” he said briefly and nobody who heard that tone of voice argued with it.

While Johnny was moved to a room, Roy phoned to find out the situation at the fire. He learned that it was finally under control and someone would come to collect him in the squad shortly. It was now well into the early hours of the morning and Cap was going to stand the squad down for the night. There was little point in calling someone out in the middle of the night. Roy yawned and went upstairs.

He found Johnny in bed, almost asleep. His partner’s hair was still wet from the shower, but Johnny was already spacing out on the muscle relaxant and couldn’t care less. He was clean, he was pretty comfortable and, most importantly, he was pain free for the moment. “I’ll pick you up in the morning,” Roy reminded him, and Johnny nodded, although Roy would have taken good odds that Johnny had no idea what he had just agreed to.

*****

The next morning saw Johnny still pretty stiff and sore, but a lot better than he might have been if circumstances had been different. The bruising on his back was spectacular, but Joe Early, who was in charge of the ER that morning, decreed he could go home and be back on duty at his next shift in two days, provided he felt no worse. Roy was charged with making sure that Johnny was fit to work and to bring him into the ER should anything crop up. Johnny groaned and Roy promised.

“Have you seen the news?” Roy asked as he drove to Johnny’s place. Chet and Marco had already taken Johnny’s Rover there.

“No. What’s happened?” Johnny asked.

“An ambulance on a response carrying a heart patient was almost involved in a crash with some ambulance chasers,” Roy reported somberly.

“How close is ‘almost’?” Johnny asked.

“The ambulance had to swerve to avoid the car, mounted the curb, missed a lamp standard by inches and bounced off a parked car.” It hadn’t taken long for the news to filter through the department. “The paramedics and the patient were pretty thrown around, but unhurt. The lineman driving the squad in had to take evasive action and the chasers themselves scraped their car along a wall escaping.”

“Someone’s gonna get killed,” Johnny observed, his mouth turned down in disgust. “And I just hope it isn’t some innocent person in an ambulance.”

“I hope you’re wrong,” Roy agreed, “but I suspect you’re bang on the money.”

They finished the drive in silence.

*****

As predicted, Johnny was back next shift, still pretty bruised but well on the mend. There had been a lot of coverage of the near miss by the ambulance chasers on the news and in the papers and the number of incidents was increasing. The police and fire departments were in contact and talking about the matter, but it was impossible for police to accompany every ambulance on its runs. There simply was not enough man power to do that and keep on top of the usual policing business. The squads and ambulances were advised to keep a look out for the chasers and call for police back up if necessary. However, the chasers seemed to be wise to this and took more care to hide away from the scene and wait for the ambulances slightly further away.

“They’ve got to have fire department scanners,” Johnny insisted during one of the many discussions about them around the meal table at the fire house.

“I think you’re right there, pal,” Cap agreed with a heavy sigh. “And we can’t have the engine going along on every response.”

There was a pause while everyone thought about it. In truth, it was all everyone had thought about for days and was just about the sole topic of conversation. Despite that, nobody had come up with a solution. “Let’s get our chores done,” Cap suggested and they put down the coffee cups with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The tones went off. “Station 51…”

It was a big one. Three engines were being sent initially, but from the sounds of things, there could well be further alarms sent. There was a fire in a shopping mall. It was every firefighter’s nightmare. Malls were invariably difficult places to search, as there were always rabbit warren-style passages behind the store fronts in which many shop workers could get lost or trapped. It wasn’t unknown for firefighters to get trapped there, too. Plus, the stores were usually stuffed full of flammables, making for a fast moving, hot fire. There could be a very large number of casualties. All in all, it was a potential disaster.

They were the first on the scene. The mall was three stories with few windows to the outside. There was multi-storey car parking at each end as well as an outdoor lot. People were streaming outside and being directed to a vacant lot nearby. The biggest problem was that nobody knew exactly how many people had been in the mall. Stores could provide head counts, but the number of shoppers was unknown. Johnny and Roy immediately began to suit up. They knew they would be on search and rescue.

“The mall manager says the fire started in a restaurant on the top floor,” Cap told them, pointing to the right side of the building as they faced it. “The sprinklers should have dealt with it, but they can’t be sure. Start your sweep at that end on the top floor, but keep clear of the garage. We don’t know if or how far the fire has spread and we don’t want you getting caught up in a gas tank fire if we can avoid it.”

“Right, Cap,” they nodded and headed off into the building, their air masks dangling around their necks.

Inside, the mall was airy and light, with numerous skylights letting the sunlight flood in. There were still people exiting the building as they made their way to the escalators, which had been switched off. They hurried up the two flights of stairs and went along to the far end to begin their sweep.

Despite the mall manager’s optimism, the sprinklers had not put out the fire and it was burning fiercely in the kitchen, although it was still contained by the doors between the kitchen and the body of the restaurant. They did a quick sweep of the restaurant, which had big picture windows looking out onto beautifully landscaped parks. It was clear. They didn’t attempt to enter the kitchen. Roy reported their findings to Cap and they moved on.

It was getting smoky as the air conditioning pumped the recycled air out into the main mall. Splitting up, the paramedics quickly checked each store, including the back rooms. A further search of the warren of corridors behind the stores would have to wait for more man power. The rest rooms were also searched. So far, everywhere had turned up empty.

There was a sudden roar and whoosh as the fire ate through the separating doors and exploded with the addition of all the new oxygen. Roy and Johnny exchanged glances. They were surprised the fire crews were not already on this floor, for the fire would have been fairly easily extinguished. Johnny raised the HT but before he could say anything, a column of flames suddenly shot up through the atrium, mushrooming out.

Instinctively grabbing for each other, Roy and Johnny ducked, although the flames were nowhere near them. Still, they felt the heat and suddenly smelt what was undoubtedly keeping the other firefighters at bay – gas!

Sheer luck had kept Johnny from pressing the button on the HT and providing a spark. Something else had clearly sparked and now the gas was burning fiercely. They had to get out of there. “Let’s go,” Roy ordered and pulled up his face mask. Johnny copied him. They were both coughing as the gas irritated their lungs.

It was very odd to be running through the deserted mall with the Muzak playing away and a fire burning fiercely. Quite how the Muzak was still going was a bit of a mystery, but neither man was concerned with solving it. They pelted down the escalator, cursing the larger step size of it and barreled along the first floor to find the other down escalator. Time was running out.

They charged across the open concourse towards the door, grateful that there were manual doors as well as the electric ones. There was a growing sense of something indefinable in the air that made the paramedics quite sure that there was going to be an explosion of some sort and very soon indeed. They hit the doors in a full run and pelted across the plaza outside the mall.

Dimly, Johnny was aware that there were hoses trained on the mall where the fire had originated, but he was too busy running to pay much attention. They were almost safe; almost. Another 25 feet or so separated them from the engines where they could get shelter.

With a detonation that sounded akin to any bomb, the gas inside the mall exploded and Johnny was hit by an air concussion for the second time in two shifts. Luckily, the paramedics were far enough away that they were not completely blown off their feet and were merely pushed to their knees. As the danger died back, other firefighters began to run towards them, but they were able to stand unaided before help reached them and they staggered back behind the engines and sank thankfully down onto the running board.

*****

It was a bitch of a fire to fight. The service corridors acted like chimneys and the fire spread rapidly. More units were called out. What could have been a simple fire had become very complicated and time consuming. It wasn’t helped by the fire escaping into the parking garage and igniting several gas tanks. The resulting explosions downed several firefighters and the paramedics were kept busy treating the injuries.

It was fully dark before the fire was knocked down. Johnny and Roy were treating some firefighters who were suffering from heat exhaustion when Cap came over. “Can one of you come?” he asked. “A firefighter from 23s fell down the escalator.”

As he had expected, the paramedics exchanged glances and Johnny rose to his feet. “I’ll come,” he agreed and picked up the drug box and biophone. Roy nodded. He didn’t need them; his patients didn’t need a paramedic accompanying them. Cap grabbed the biophone from Johnny’s hand and led the way inside.

The interior of the mall was not nearly as attractive as it had been when Johnny had been inside previously. The electricity was out, so it was lit by portable spotlights brought in by the fire department. Soot marred the smooth walls and the windows in most of the shop fronts were shattered or melted from the heat. There was an acrid smell of burning in the air, compounded of soft fabrics and gasoline. While not thick enough to require an air mask, it was certainly unpleasant to breathe.

The downed firefighter was lying at the bottom of the escalator, clutching his arm protectively across his chest. Johnny knelt by him, reaching for his pulse, soothing the injured man and starting to gather vitals. Captain Stanley set up the biophone. “Rampart, this is Squad 51. We have an injured firefighter who has fallen down a stationary escalator. Stand by for vitals.”

“Standing by,” responded Dixie.

Moments later, Johnny took the receiver. “Rampart, this is Squad 51. Vitals on the injured firefighter as follows: BP 140/110. Respirations 25, pulse 120. He has a broken ulna and radius, compound fracture. Also probable broken ribs with diminished breath sounds on the right.”

“10-4, 51,” replied Brackett’s voice. “Start an IV D5W. Splint the wrist. Start him on 10 liters O2 and transport as soon as possible in a reclining position. Repeat vitals every five minutes, sooner if there’s a change. Is there a head injury, 51?”

“Negative, Rampart,” Johnny replied. “He was wearing his helmet.”

“10-4,” Brackett acknowledged. “Give 5mgs MS IV.”

“IV D5W, splint wrist, 10 liters O2, 5mgs MS IV, and transport as soon as possible in a reclining position. 10-4, Rampart.” Johnny finished scribbling the orders down. Cap was already on the HT requesting the splint, oxygen and stretcher. “Looks like you’re gonna be out for a few weeks,” Johnny told the firefighter, who grimaced as the paramedic deftly got the stick. “You’ll soon be feeling better,” he assured the man as he gave the MS.

The stretcher arrived a few minutes later with the splint and oxygen and Johnny soon had the man resting comfortably. He gathered up the drug box and biophone and headed out. Roy was waiting by the ambulance. “I’ll follow you in,” he said.

“All right,” Johnny agreed absently, his attention focused on the man in his care. He climbed into the ambulance and settled himself on the jump seat. Roy closed the doors and gave them two taps. The ambulance pulled away, lights on, but the siren silent until they reached the street. He went over to the squad and climbed in, waving to Cap as he did so. The first alarm of the fire was being released. Roy would see the others back at the barn later.

*****

Because of the risk of the firefighter having punctured a lung, the ambulance was not travelling as fast as it might have been and if the lung was intact, they didn’t want to hit a pothole or something going at speed, which might make everything worse. Roy was able to keep the ambulance comfortably in sight as they drove along.

Then everything went wrong. A car sped out from a side street, cutting the squad off and causing Roy to swerve violently to avoid a collision. He barely managed to keep control as the car literally turned on two wheels and headed off after the ambulance. Cursing, Roy reached for the mic. “LA, this is Squad 51. I have ambulance chasers on Western Avenue, 200 block.”

“10-4, 51,” the dispatcher acknowledged. Roy could only hope there was a police car nearby because there was nothing he could do to stop these idiots bar causing an accident and that was just what he didn’t want to do. The thought had barely crossed his mind when the car raced right up to the back of the ambulance, all but touching it!

“No!” Roy cried, as though that would make any difference.

Later, he would speculate that the ambulance driver panicked. At the time, he was just aware of the brake lights on the other vehicle flashing on. The car driver, far too close and going far too fast, did not have time to respond. Although he wrenched the wheel around, all he did was hit the back of the ambulance broadside on, not head on. In the long run, it made little difference.

The ambulance jolted forward as the driver tried to control it, but he braked too hard and the wheels locked, skidding across the asphalt and it began to spin. Moments later, the front of the ambulance collided with the spinning car, sending it shooting sideways across the street where it crashed into a wall and rebounded onto the road. It came to a stop against the far curb, the horn blaring loudly as the drive slumped across the steering wheel. The ambulance continued to spin until one rear wheel struck the curb and the whole vehicle tipped over on its side with a loud crash.

*****

The words that came over the radio in the cab of the engine would haunt Cap’s dreams for many a long day. “LA, this is Squad 51. The ambulance has been involved in an accident with a car at the previous location I gave you. I need more ambulances and squads. Estimate eight victims.”

“10-4, 51,” came the calm response.

“Hit it, Mike!” Stanley ordered, pointing to the road. They were already heading in that general direction and were not too far away. As Stoker put his foot to the floor, Cap grabbed up the mic. “LA, this is Engine 51. We are responding to Squad 51’s call.” His tone defied the dispatcher to argue with him.

“10-4, 51,” the dispatcher replied, wisely deciding to accept the inevitable. Moments later, the call started going out to other units to respond to the accident.

*****

The scene was out of a nightmare. Roy had no idea who to go to first. There seemed to be four kids in the car, and the driver at least was moving. The ambulance was on its side and Roy desperately wanted to go and see to his partner and the injured firefighter. They were more likely to be the more seriously injured. He made the decision and dashed towards the car, to give a cursory check of the kids inside. That was when he heard the sirens and the engine came round the corner. That was a huge relief to Roy and he swiftly changed direction, knowing he could leave the car to the others while he went to the ambulance.

The driver of the ambulance was dead. He was a man that Roy did not know very well, for he hadn’t been working with the ambulance service for all that long. Roy thought he was divorced and had a grown up family and regretted that he wasn’t sure of his facts. Resolutely setting his jaw, he set about getting inside the wrecked vehicle.

In the end, it took a pry bar and a good bit of muscle from both Roy and Chet, who was sent over to help him, but they got the doors pried open and Roy looked inside, his heart in his mouth.

The stretcher was tipped over on its side and obscured most of the interior of the vehicle. A pair of legs, clad in navy blue pants, was sticking out from underneath it. Johnny! Roy suddenly had no idea how he was going to get them all out of there. They needed more man power and they needed it now. “Help me,” he commanded Chet and climbed carefully into the ambulance and started to lift the stretcher. Chet grabbed the end and somehow, between them, they managed to pull it free.

Help was finally arriving. Two squads raced into the area, one stopping beside the engine, the other stopping by the ambulance. “What’ve we got?” shouted the first man. Roy thought his name was Dave.

“The ambulance was run off the road. The driver is dead,” Roy reported. “My partner, this firefighter and the other attendant were inside. We’ve just got the stretcher out.”

“We’ve got this one,” Dave assured him. “You get your partner.”

At first glance, Roy thought Johnny was dead. His partner was sprawled limply on his back, his arms flung above his head, his face deathly pale. There was blood on his face and matted in his hair. Fearfully, Roy reached out and felt his partner’s neck. A pulse fluttered there under his fingers. The relief was enough to leave Roy feeling decidedly shaky.

Beyond Johnny lay the other attendant. From the angle of his neck, Roy knew that he had had no chance, but he stretched over to check anyway. After a moment, he closed his eyes. What a waste. Two good men dead – and Roy realized he didn’t even know about the other firefighter. He felt a quick rush of shame, but he had to concentrate on Johnny right now. “Chet, get me a c-collar and a backboard.”

While Chet went to get them, Roy started a more detailed examination. Johnny’s pulse was thready at about 120, he was breathing at about 25 per minute and his BP would be unknown until Roy could find a BP cuff. He gently felt Johnny’s abdomen, which was thankfully soft, but there were definite signs of crepitus in his ribs. His left arm was seriously fractured in several places and Roy could only hope that there was no brachial artery involvement. His pelvis seemed stable, although there was definite tenderness in his left hip, his left knee was grossly swollen and Johnny was now groaning, which was a good sign.

“Here, Roy.” Chet handed over the articles he had been sent for. “What else can I do?”

“Get me a BP cuff,” Roy requested, placing the collar around his partner’s neck. “I need an arm and a leg splint. Can you see the biophone? Or is there one set up out there?”

“There’s one out here,” Chet replied. “Dave’s on it right now.”

“Is the other guy alive?” Roy asked, not knowing whether to hope or not.

“Yeah,” Chet replied. “And all the kids in the car are alive, though hurt pretty badly. How’s Johnny?”

“He’s hurt pretty badly, too,” Roy answered. “See if you can get me some oxygen, too please?”

“Sure thing,” Chet replied and hared off.

Dave had clearly heard the conversation, for a moment or two later, the biophone along with a BP cuff and stethoscope were handed to him. Roy quickly made use of them, listening to Johnny’s breath sounds and taking his BP. While low, it wasn’t low enough to indicate internal bleeding. He picked up the receiver. “Rampart this is Squad 51, how do you read?”

“Loud and clear, 51,” Brackett replied immediately. “I know the circumstances. Just go ahead with your vitals.”

Thankful that someone else had told Brackett the bad news, Roy took a deep breath. “Rampart, I have John Gage here. He is currently unconscious, although now reacting to pain. He has two head injuries, one on his forehead and one on the back of his head. Both have been bleeding profusely. His pupils are equal and reactive but sluggish. His BP is 90/70, respirations 25 and pulse thready at 120. Breath sounds are equal. He has marked crepitus of the ribs on both sides; a multiple fracture of the left arm and tenderness in the left hip and the left knee is very swollen. His belly is soft at this time. I have put splints on the arm and leg and placed a c-collar.”

“Start him on 15 liters oxygen, start a drip with Ringers, place him on a backboard and transport as soon as possible,” Brackett ordered.

“10-4,” Roy acknowledged. He glanced over his shoulder to find Chet there again. He was clutching the oxygen and a drug box. He nodded his thanks. “Let’s get him on the backboard after I do the splints.”

Roy worked quickly to immobilize his partner and before long, Chet was crouched in the overturned ambulance with him, sliding the backboard into place as Roy rolled Johnny. Once he was strapped into place, they slid the board out and placed it on the ground near the squad. Roy quickly knelt and took another set of vitals before establishing the IV. By now, Johnny was groaning steadily and his eyes were opening and closing, but he clearly wasn’t quite conscious. Roy was quite glad he had managed to get everything done before Johnny woke, as with the head injuries, he wouldn’t be getting any pain relief. On the other hand, it was bad news that Johnny had been unconscious as long as he had been.

There were two other squads on the scene, along with four ambulances. The ambulance attendants were standing in a huddle together in the middle of the street and Roy knew without being told that they were aware of the deaths of their colleagues. Police were wandering around and Roy knew they would want to talk to him about the accident. It would have to wait until they got to Rampart. He concentrated on his work, fixing the oxygen mask onto Johnny’s face and winding gauze around his head to staunch the bleeding from the head wounds.

“Let’s go,” he told Chet, who beckoned to the ambulance attendants. They brought a stretcher over, averting their eyes from the crashed vehicle. Roy supervised the lifting of the backboard while he held the IV aloft. He was aware that Dave was just climbing into an ambulance with Johnny’s original patient and spared a thought for the injured man.

Cap arrived just as they were climbing into the ambulance. He looked down at Johnny’s pale, bloody face for a long moment. “How is he?” he asked.

Not wanting to say anything too explicit in case Johnny could hear, Roy made a face before saying, “He’s coming towards consciousness now, Cap.”

Nodding, Stanley drew in a deep breath. “We’ll meet you at Rampart,” he said. “The police want to talk to you.”

“Yeah,” Roy agreed and climbed in. The doors closed the Cap tapped them twice and stood watching as the ambulance pulled away, escorted by a police car. Johnny’s prophetic words had come to pass and Cap could only hope that Johnny would not be added to the list of those who had died because of some college kids’ stupidity.

*****

Pain was the first thing he was aware of. His head was pounding furiously, he felt vaguely nauseous, it hurt to breathe and his arm and leg were screaming in agony. He groaned, unable to keep the sound in and heard a voice saying something that sounded soothing, but he couldn’t quite make out the words.

As his awareness increased, Johnny realized that he had on an oxygen mask. He had less than no idea what had happened to him, but if felt pretty serious. He forced his eyes open and gazed up at the ceiling of an ambulance. For reasons he couldn’t quite fathom, a pang of fear shot through his belly. He tried to move to ease the pain, but he was strapped down and another groan escaped his control.

“Johnny?” This time the words made sense and Johnny looked sideways and saw Roy leaning over him. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” Johnny breathed. “Roy… hurts.”

“I know,” Roy soothed. “But you’ve got a bad head injury and I can’t give you anything.”

Despair swept over the injured man. He didn’t know how to deal with the level of pain he was experiencing. Involuntary tears flooded his eyes and seeped down into his ears. He began to pant. “Please,” he begged, although he knew it wouldn’t be allowed.

“We’re almost there,” Roy replied, wishing he could give Johnny the needed pain relief. “We’ve just turned into the drive now.”

That didn’t matter to Johnny. He closed his eyes, another groan escaping from his lips. The siren cut out, which was a minor relief, but every turn of the wheels seemed to send daggers of agony through his left arm particularly. He just wanted the ride to stop, for the whole world to stop until he was no longer in such hideous, overwhelming pain.

The ambulance came to a stop and the door opened. He let out a banshee shriek as the wheels of the stretcher locked down into place. He heard Roy’s voice giving an update. “He came round fully a couple of minutes ago,” Roy reported. “His BP is better – 100/85. His respirations have increased and are up to 30, pulse 130. He is complaining of pain.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Brackett’s voice said and Johnny felt the gurney start to move. A warm hand slipped into his and he knew that it was Dixie. He wanted to open his eyes and smile at her, but he was so dizzy and nauseous that he didn’t dare.

There seemed to be a tremendous amount of noise and bustle in the treatment room. He could hear Brackett barking orders for bloods and x-rays, but when he opened his eyes, he was dazzled by the bright lights overhead and couldn’t see anyone, although someone was cutting his clothes off and the exam room was cold.

“Johnny?” Brackett was leaning over him and for a moment blocked the lights. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” Johnny breathed, wishing Brackett would forget asking questions and just give him the morphine he so badly needed.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Yeah,” he sighed again. “Rampart.” A spasm shot through his arm and he couldn’t hold back a gasp of pain.

“Do you remember what happened?” Brackett asked.

“Fire,” Johnny replied. “At a … mall.”

“All right,” Brackett soothed. “Dix, give him 2mgs diazepam and 5mgs MS IV. That should make you more comfortable, Johnny. I’m just going to examine you. I’ll try not to hurt you.” He ran his hands over Johnny’s shoulders and lightly down his chest. There was the obvious crepitus in the ribs, but it could have been a lot worse. He palpated Johnny’s abdomen, but as Roy had found, it was soft. That was one less thing to worry about. He pressed firmly on the paramedic’s pelvis, but although Johnny groaned, it appeared to be intact. Nonetheless, he would get films of it.

Now that Johnny’s clothes were removed, he could see the large contusion blossoming on Johnny’s left hip. He didn’t think the hip was broken, but, again, an x-ray would confirm his guess. Either way, it was going to be very painful if the bruise was already that dark.

Further down, Johnny’s knee was grossly swollen. Brackett was pretty sure that this would prove to be a broken patella. “Johnny? Can you lift your left leg for me? Just lift it straight up, don’t try to bend it.”

There was a groan, but Johnny managed to lift his leg a vital few inches before his injured hip protested. It wasn’t much but it was enough for Brackett. That meant the prognosis for the injury was good. Again, there would need to be x-rays to confirm it, but any fracture appeared to be stable and with luck would not need surgery. A long leg cast would do the job.

Brackett’s two chief concerns were Johnny’s arm and his head injuries. He left the arm for the moment and carefully cut away the gauze encircling the paramedic’s head. It was stiff with blood, but the wounds had stopped bleeding. Johnny’s forehead was gashed, swollen and starting to bruise. A skull x-ray was a given. Very carefully, Brackett insinuated his fingers under Johnny’s head and felt for the bump and cut at the back. It was deep and would require stitching, but that could wait until they were sure there was no spinal involvement.

The MS had taken some of the edge off the pain, but not nearly enough. The diazepam had just been enough to make him relax a bit, but he now felt even more nauseous. All of a sudden, he knew he was going to puke. “Doc…”

His voice was lost in the sounds around him, muffled by the oxygen mask. The hospital staff didn’t hear him. But Roy did. His partner was standing close by, trying not to get in the way, his attention focused on Johnny. He heard and moved closer. “What is it, Johnny?” he asked.

“Sick…” Johnny gasped and swallowed hard, trying to keep his stomach in place. He knew it was a losing battle.

“Turn him!” Roy shouted, grasping one end of the board. Someone down by Johnny’s feet got the message and followed Roy’s moves.

They were none too soon. Dixie moved in to support Johnny’s head, and tenderly wiped his mouth when he was done. She sent someone to get housekeeping to clean up the mess and smiled down at the injured man. “You just take it easy,” she coaxed. “We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”

From somewhere, he found a ragged smile for her. Dixie’s unfailing kindness and support when he was ill or injured always touched him. “It hurts,” he whispered.

“I know,” she sympathized. “We’ll get some pictures done soon and then you’ll get something more for the pain.”

“I’m … hurt bad…aren’t I?” he panted.

There was no point in lying to him. Dixie seldom found any use for lying to her patients. “Pretty bad,” she agreed. “But not beyond repair.” He winced as another nurse drew blood from the artery in his wrist. “Here’s x-ray now,” Dixie told him. “We’ll be back in a minute.” She brushed a feather-light hand over his cheek and he drew comfort from the touch.

*****

It was a somber group that gathered outside in the corridor. Roy looked at Dr Brackett. “How is he?”

“Considering what happened, remarkably good,” Brackett responded. “Obviously, with the two wounds on his head, we will have to be super vigilant, but he’s fairly coherent. I’m beginning to think the injury on his forehead is not as serious as I first thought. It bled a lot, but we all know that head injuries do that. However, be that as it may, we’ll keep a good eye on it. I want to see his x-rays before we go any further. His arm is almost certainly going to require surgery, but I want to make sure there are no other surprises like spinal injuries.”

“What about his knee?” Roy asked.

“Probably a broken patella, but since he can lift his leg, it’s probably not that serious. Again, I need to see the x-rays to be sure. I don’t think there’s damage to his pelvis, but we need to check. His hip is not broken or dislocated – I think that’s just a very deep bruise that’s going to be very painful. It may be the bone itself is bruised. Again, we just have to watch it. His rib fractures are stable and there are no signs of either a hemothorax or a pneumothorax. Given that two people died outright in that accident, Johnny has been extremely fortunate.”

“Has anyone heard about the other firefighter?” Roy asked.

“He’s going to be fine,” Dixie assured him. “He was very lucky. Landing on top of Johnny and being on the stretcher saved his life.”

“What about the kids in the car?” Roy asked. “The ones who caused this carnage?”

Thrusting her hands into her pockets, Dixie looked down. “From what I heard, the driver, if he survives, will be a quadriplegic. The girl in the front seat has broken both arms and both legs and her face is badly cut up. The two in the back received only minor injuries.”

Turning, Roy took a step or two away. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt. Angry yes, but also horror at the thought of a young man’s life cut short because of stupidity. Another death would be a tragedy, but perhaps the young man might welcome it, since he would be totally reliant on others for the rest of his life. And then his anger surfaced and he thought of the two men who had died and hoped that the police would throw the book at the kids in the car.

His musings were interrupted by the x-ray machine coming out and he turned and went back in to be with Johnny, wiping the anger and bitterness from his face as much as he could. He leaned over his partner and found a smile. Johnny looked ghastly, pale, sweating, clearly in immense pain. Just for that, Roy could heap curses on the driver of the car and wish him the worst that the world could offer.

*****

There was the usual agonizing wait for the x-rays to arrive. Johnny was groaning steadily again as his pain levels grew and Roy did his best to keep him calm. Finally, the eagerly anticipated packet arrived and Brackett was soon poring over them at the light box. By now, the orthopedic surgeons had arrived and were waiting as well. They would be doing the necessary surgery on Johnny’s arm and were keen to start.

At length, Brackett came over and leaned over Johnny. “Johnny, are you awake?”

“Yeah,” he breathed.

“All right. You’re going up to surgery to have your arm set. The surgeons will wire your knee and put it in a brace until the swelling goes down. You don’t have a skull fracture, but you do have a severe concussion. You have a couple of broken ribs on both sides, but they are stable fractures. Your hip is not broken, but severely bruised. I’m going to give you something more for pain now, then you’ll be going straight upstairs.”

“All right,” Johnny sighed. At that point, he would have agreed to anything just to get the pain relief. He felt it enter the IV port.

“I’ll see you later,” Roy told him, finding another smile.

“Later,” Johnny agreed. He was fading fast and was out before they moved him. Roy watched as the gurney entered the elevator and the doors closed. Once again, he was relegated to waiting.

***********

The surgery on Johnny’s arm was anything but straightforward. The bones needed to be plated and screwed together on both the humerus and ulna and radius. While this was not good, it could have been worse. They didn’t find any further breaks that had not shown up on the initial x-ray. The bones, while broken in several places, were not threatening any nerves or arteries. However, Johnny’s blood pressure kept dipping on them, and they had to stop several times to push fluids through. It did hold them up each time and in consequence, the surgery lasted almost an hour and half longer than expected.

Because of the sudden drops in blood pressure, it was decided not to waken Johnny from the anesthesia until he had had a CT scan. He was rolled up there at once and Brackett stood watching as the images appeared. What he saw did not please him at all. He reached for the phone and paged Joe Early, who arrived a few minutes later.

“It’s a bleed,” Joe confirmed. “Small, but still…”

“Are we going to have to do surgery?” Brackett asked.

Early sighed and looked more closely. “I’d rather hold off,” he said. “It’s a small bleed. Johnny was conscious and coherent. I suggest that we give him 24 hours on medication to see how he does and put him back into the CT this time tomorrow.”

“Will we wake him up?” Brackett asked, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his lab coat.

“To be honest, at this point I’d be happier keeping him asleep,” Early replied. “It just lets his body rest completely and that can be enough, with the meds, to settle everything back to normal. And after a shock like he’s just had, it won’t do him any harm to be kept under.”

This was one area where Brackett was quite content to let someone else take the lead. “All right, Joe,” he agreed. “I’ll get him a bed in ICU. Do you want me to tell Roy?” He knew the other paramedic would be pacing the floor by now, as it was now a couple of hours past the time they had expected Johnny to come out of surgery.

“No, I’ll do it,” Early volunteered. “I’ll just write up the dosage for Johnny before I go.” He scribbled his instructions down and handed them to Kel before leaving to find the other paramedic.

Turning back to the screen, Brackett watched as Johnny was transferred back to a gurney. It was an awkward maneuver given the bandages on his arm and the unwieldy cast on his leg. Johnny’s face was pale apart from the bruising on his forehead and the gash that still required stitching. Brackett knew that was his next task and lifted the phone to call ICU.

*****

“When can I see him?” Roy asked. His face was pale, but he seemed in command of himself.

“In a few minutes,” Early replied. “We have to get him settled into ICU first. Are you expected back on duty?”

“Not for a while,” Roy replied. “Cap has got a replacement, but they can’t come in till eight. The guys got a shout, but they should be back soon.” He glanced towards the entrance as though his words would conjure them out of fresh air. It didn’t work.

“I’ll come and get you in a few minutes,” Early promised. “And if the others are not back then, I’ll make sure someone sends them upstairs when they do come.” He patted Roy’s arm and rose.

Alone, Roy was unsure what to do or think. Finally, he headed for the pay phone to update Joanne. He had been in the doctor’s lounge, but some nurses came in on a break and put on the news and the last thing Roy wanted to see again was a picture of that wrecked ambulance. He knew it would haunt him for a very long time.

The rest of the crew arrived just as Roy finished his phone call and only a few moments before Joe Early came back him. They were just as anxious as Roy to hear the news and just as distressed to learn that Johnny had taken a turn for the worse.

It wasn’t the first time any of them had seen him in ICU and not even the first time they had seen him on a ventilator, but that didn’t make it any easier. Roy was not alone in hoping that the police threw the book at the young driver who had caused such mayhem with his thoughtless actions.

A livid bruise stood out on Johnny’s forehead, dissected by a neat line of tiny stitches that would put any ladies’ needlepoint to shame. Johnny’s broken arm was elevated on pillows until the swelling went down and then the bandages would be replaced with a cast. His left leg was also raised on pillows. An IV dripped blood, antibiotics, fluids and other medication into his right hand. A bag partly full of amber liquid hung on the side of the bed. Johnny’s eyes were heavily closed and the tube ran into his mouth. He was connected to a heart monitor which beeped away monotonously. While it was a reassuring sound, meaning Johnny was still alive, it got on your nerves really easily. All in all, ICU was not a restful place.

“He’s settled in well,” Early reported, “and his blood pressure is holding steady. It is possibly a bit on the low side, but I’d rather that than it being high. As you can see, we’re giving him blood at the moment as he needs a bit of a boost in that respect. We’re going to pop him into the CT scanner again this time tomorrow and see how he’s doing. If things are going as we hope, then we should be able to wake him up in a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Chet echoed sharply. “Why that long? Why not right away if he’s okay?”

“Chet!” Cap scolded, but Early shook his head.

“It’s all right, Captain,” he replied. “We’re going to give Johnny’s body a chance to rest and recover a bit before we waken him,” he explained to the concerned firefighter. “This way, his body doesn’t feel the pain because he’s unconscious, so he’s not going to start fretting as the pain relief wears off. Trust me; it is better for him at the moment.”

“I see,” Chet muttered, although he would have preferred Gage to be wakened up at once, to talk to him, to prove that he was going to be all right, that he would come back from this injury. Chet knew of firefighters, as they all did, who had broken their arms and knees and not made it back to work. And Johnny had such a physical job. Not for all the tea in China would Chet admit to Johnny that he could not have brought himself to be a rescue man, that he admired Johnny’s courage; that would be tantamount to admitting he really liked Gage! That would never do! But it was the truth. Chet knew that he could not do Johnny’s job in a million years. It wasn’t that he lacked the courage, it was that he lacked the physical agility the job required, but he could barely admit that to himself, never mind his favorite pigeon. It didn’t seem fair that Johnny might lose the necessary ability to do the job that he so loved because of stupidity on the part of another person.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to go,” the nurse said. “We’re rather over the limit for ICU visiting.” It was kindly said, but the point was made and the crew filed back out into the waiting room.

“When you get off shift tomorrow, I don’t want to see any of you here,” Early directed once he joined them. “Johnny will just be sleeping the whole day. The earliest anyone can come is late afternoon. You guys need to get some rest, too.” He looked round at them, seeing the toll the day had taken. “If any of you have trouble sleeping, please come in to see us.” He managed to elicit grudging promises from them all, even Roy. He knew he wouldn’t see any of them the next day, but the day after was a distinct possibility when the exhaustion from today had worn off.

“We’d better get back to the barn,” Cap sighed, looking at his watch. It didn’t seem possible that there was still so much of the shift left to go. It already seemed to have run on interminably.

“Eat something,” Early suggested. “It will make you feel better, even if it’s only a few mouthfuls.”

“We will, thanks, doc,” Cap agreed and draped an arm around Roy’s shoulders. “Let’s go,” he suggested and tugged the reluctant Roy out of the door with them. He glanced back at Early and nodded. They would make sure that Roy ate something and was all right.

Smiling, Joe Early thought what an asset Hank Stanley was to the whole fire department, not just station 51.

*****

Although no one said anything or even thought it very hard, they did hope that fate would be kind enough to allow them a quiet evening and night to get over the horrors of the day. It didn’t. They did manage to eat something before the tones went off, but it was only the first of many nuisance runs that saw them finally getting back to the barn about an hour after shift change.

“Cap, you’re limping,” Roy observed as he walked towards the locker room and Hank started towards the office.

Looking down at his feet, Cap wondered how he would get out of this one. “Am I?” he asked, too innocently.

Also on the way into the locker room, Mike Stoker paused. “You said you’d get it checked out if the sting hadn’t gone out of it when we got back,” he reminded the captain.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” Cap lied. He saw at once that neither of them believed him. Mike crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall and Roy rolled his eyes.

“Does he remind you of someone?” Roy asked the engineer.

“Sure does,” Mike agreed. They both looked back at Cap, who tried to stare them down and failed.

“All right, so my ankle does still hurt a bit,” he admitted. “But I just twisted it. It’ll be fine in a while.”

“I’m taking a look at it,” Roy stated. “So find somewhere to sit.” He followed Cap into the office and Mike followed him. Cap sat down and reluctantly began to remove his boot. His ankle immediately blew up like a balloon. “Cap, you need to get this x-rayed,” Roy declared, gently running his fingers over the swollen joint. “It might be a hairline fracture.”

“I’ll drive myself over to Rampart,” Cap sighed.

“No, I’ll drive you,” Roy told him.

“I’ll phone Mrs. Stanley,” Mike offered. He departed immediately, and Stanley wondered what on earth Mike was going to say to his wife that couldn’t be said in front of him. He was back before Roy had finished wrapping Cap’s ankle in an ace bandage. “She’ll meet you at the hospital,” he informed his boss.

“Thanks, Mike,” Cap replied and leaned heavily on both men as he hopped out to Roy’s car.

*****

“What’s the news on Johnny?” Roy asked as he pushed Cap’s wheelchair into a treatment room.

“He’s stable,” Mike Morton replied. He knelt by Hank’s side and looked at the ankle. “Take him to x-ray, Roy. You don’t mind?” he added, realizing that they must be off duty by now. “I can get an orderly.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” Roy replied, because he didn’t. “Joanne knows I’m here.” He pushed Hank out of the room and up to x-ray. There was a bit of a queue, so Roy sat down to wait with him.

“I never got the chance to ask,” Cap said, “but how did you get on with the police yesterday?” Cap knew Roy had been dreading it.

“All right, I guess,” Roy replied. “I was able to give them a pretty good account of what happened. They were worried I might forget,” he added bitterly. “As if I could ever forget that!”

Seeing the aftermath had been bad enough. Cap would have hated to have witnessed the whole thing. “Have you heard any more about the boy who was driving?” he enquired as neutrally as he could.

“No,” Roy snapped. He winced. “Sorry, Cap, I didn’t mean it like that.” He sighed. “I’m not angry at you.”

“But you are angry at him,” Cap pointed out. “As you have every right to be.” He sighed as well. “I’m angry at him, too, Roy. Did the cops say what they are planning to do?”

“If he lives, they’re going to charge him with murder,” Roy told him. “I don’t know how that works, but that’s what they said.”

“What a waste,” Cap spat. “If he lives, he’s going to be dependent on another person for the rest of his life and he’ll probably go to jail. And for what? A cheap thrill? Getting his kicks?” He sighed, the anger draining out of him. He was too tired to remain angry for long. “I still can’t believe it, you know.”

“Neither can I,” Roy agreed. At that moment, Cap’s name was called and a short time later, he was being wheeled back down to the emergency room clutching the envelope of x-rays. Mrs. Stanley was there by then and she didn’t have long to wait before she was taking her crutch-wielding husband home to nurse his sprained ankle.

Despite what he had been told, Roy slipped upstairs as soon as he had bid farewell to the Stanleys. The ICU waiting room was empty and Roy didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes to be admitted.

There was no visible change from the night before, apart from the bruise across Johnny’s forehead being even more brightly colored. Looking at it, Roy suddenly remembered the way the other firefighter had been lying over Johnny and wondered if his partner had literally been head-butted by his patient.

Experimentally, Roy touched Johnny’s fingers where they peeked out from the bandages on his arm. They were warm and the capillary refill was good. “You’re looking good, Junior,” he said aloud. “You just need to get some more rest and let your brain heal. Then you can come back to us as good as new.”

Of course, there was no response from the bed. There was, however, a response from the door. “I thought I told you not to come back till later?” Joe Early asked.

“I had to bring Cap in,” Roy explained. “And I had to come up.”

“He’s been stable all night,” Early told Roy, not realizing that he had already been told that. “That’s a good sign. His surgical incisions are looking very nice, too.”

“How’s the firefighter we were bringing in?”

“He’s going home later today if everything still looks okay,” Early replied. “He’s been pretty traumatized by the accident.”

“I know how he feels,” Roy murmured. “And those kids?”

There was a pause as Joe decided what to tell Roy. He was not the volatile half of the duo, but in these circumstances, Joe wouldn’t blame him for wanting to go off and beat the living daylights out of those kids, but as a doctor, he couldn’t allow it. Finally, he gambled. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but the boy isn’t going to make it,” Joe replied. Roy simply looked at him. He wanted to say ‘Good’ but couldn’t quite do it.

“And the others?” he enquired.

“The two in the back already went home,” Early told him. “The girl in the front is getting plastic surgery to her face, but she is very badly disfigured and has lost the sight in one eye. She is engaged to the boy who was driving.”

“It’s a tragedy all round, isn’t it?” Roy mentioned, his bitterness coming to the fore. While his head told him he shouldn’t feel that the driver got his just deserts, his heart was nodding and savagely saying he reaped what he sowed and deserved the whole thing. “Two good men dead, one stupid boy dying and an equally stupid girl scarred for life. Well – I hope she thinks it was worth it.”

There really wasn’t anything to say to that. Joe Early put his hands in his pockets and looked at Roy from under his brows. The other man looked exhausted and little wonder. It was over 24 hours since he had seen any sleep. “Go home, Roy,” Early advised. “Get some sleep. You need it. Do you want me to give you something?”

Suddenly weary beyond belief, Roy shook his head, shaking off his black mood as much as refusing the drugs. “No, thanks all the same, doc. The way I feel, I could sleep for a week.”

“Then drive carefully and do just that when you get home,” Early smiled. “We’ll take good care of Johnny and if anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

Glancing back at the man on the bed, Roy nodded. “Thanks, doc,” he repeated and went home.

*****

That afternoon, Johnny went back to the CT scanner. The pictures showed that the bleeding was slowed dramatically, and it hadn’t been a bad bleed to begin with, comparatively. It was decided to keep Johnny on the same regime and bring him back again the next day. If there were still signs of active bleeding then, then further intervention, in the form of an operation, would be required.

It wasn’t the news that the crew of Station 51 wanted to hear, but it wasn’t the worst news, either. They gathered in the ICU waiting room and were allowed in to see Johnny two at a time for a couple of minutes each. Mike had brought Captain Stanley, since the latter wasn’t allowed to drive. They were all still together, discussing how Johnny had looked (pretty good was the general consensus) when Dr Brackett came into the room.

Something about his demeanor made them all feel anxious all of a sudden and Roy took a step towards him. “What is it, doc?” he asked. “Johnny…”

“John is fine,” Brackett replied. “You’ve all just seen him?” They nodded but still looked fearful. “It’s the driver of the car. He died a few minutes ago.”

Whatever reaction Brackett was expecting, it was not this one. Marco crossed himself and muttered something under his breath. Chet, Mike and Cap all glanced at Roy. Roy’s face did not change. After a moment, realizing that Brackett seemed to want an answer or comment, Roy roused himself to say, “Yeah?” indifferently.

A fleeting frown crossed Brackett’s face, but Roy caught it all the same. “What?” he asked belligerently. “You want me to grieve for that kid who killed two men, mutilated his fiancée and could have killed another four other people? You want me to feel sorry for the boy who might have ended my partner’s career? Well I don’t. Not at all.”

“I can understand your feelings,” Brackett sighed. “His parents want to see Johnny.”

“Oh no!” Roy declared flatly. As Johnny’s next of kin, he could veto any visits until his partner was conscious and with it again. “They aren’t to come anywhere near him!” He was furious. Why did they want to see Johnny? To apologize? What could they possibly say to make this right? ‘Sorry’ just didn’t cut it in this kind of situation. Roy was not going to let them near Johnny while he had the say so and not afterwards either, if he could manage it. “Tell them no.”

“All right,” Brackett replied quietly. “I thought I would also tell you that the media interest in this has been revived with his death, so we have placed security guards around to stop anyone trying to get access to Johnny.”

“Thank you,” Roy nodded. “I appreciate that.”

“It would probably be better if you guys left separately or in twos,” Brackett suggested. “We don’t want the media to guess who you are.”

“Good thinking,” Cap agreed. “How about Mike and I go first?”

“I’m staying for a while,” Roy added. He walked away and looked out of the window. Down below, he could see the media setting up their cameras and wondered how they always knew. Was there someone at the hospital whose job it was to alert them to things like this? Or did they bribe people? He didn’t suppose it mattered in the long run. They were there and he would have to cope with the added stress of trying to be anonymous.

“Roy?” Brackett’s voice and the touch on his elbow drew him out of his reverie. “Roy, are you all right?” Brackett asked.

“I don’t know,” Roy replied. “I probably won’t know for sure until I know my partner doesn’t have brain damage and is going to be able to return to work. He and I have weeks of not knowing in front of us and however much we might like to hope and look at Johnny’s previous miraculous recoveries from serious injuries, one day, he might not recover and this might be that day.” He gestured to the cameras below. “And I bet they are all going on about the poor young man, cut down in the flower of his youth by something they will undoubtedly call an unfortunate accident or youthful high spirits and it was nothing of the kind. It was deliberate badness, doc! He set out to chase that ambulance and get as close to it as he could. He must have been aware of the risks, yet he still did it. And he’s not alone. Did you know there was another near miss last night?” Brackett nodded, wisely letting Roy talk. “That guy is going to become a martyr for those idiots. I wish I knew how to stop them.”

A germ of an idea trickled into Brackett’s mind, but he would have to think about how to tackle it, but he wondered if perhaps he knew how to stop it. He put the thought aside for the moment. “You’re right, Roy,” he agreed. “Johnny has a long few weeks in front of him before he can get back to work. He’s going to need all the encouragement he can get to keep him going through the physical therapy.”

“He’ll get it,” Roy promised. “He’ll get it.”

*****

Brackett’s first stop after leaving Roy was Dixie, whom he used as a sounding board for his idea. She was cautiously in favor, so he took it to the next level and went to speak to the dead boy’s parents. They were still in the hospital, secluded in the chapel while arrangements were made to smuggle them out.

It was difficult to think of a tactful way to begin this, so Brackett, who often lacked tact, jumped right in with both feet. “Mr. and Mrs. Fraser, I wondered if you would consider an idea I had about how to stop this craze of ambulance chasing.”

For a moment, he thought they would flare up the way Roy had, but after a second, they both nodded. “If it can stop it happening to anyone else…” Mrs. Fraser ventured hesitantly.

“I can’t promise that, but it might,” Brackett replied honestly.

“Go on,” Mr. Fraser urged.

“I’d like you to give an interview. I’d like to include photos of Brad’s injuries and the injuries to his fiancée. I haven’t spoken to her yet, but I thought I should approach you first. I might even be able to persuade the injured paramedic’s family to talk, too. If we got the right interviewer — someone the young people admire — it might have the desired effect.” He also planned to ask someone from the police department to speak, as he knew that all the young people in the car were going to be charged with various offences. Brackett also planned to have graphic photos of the equipment necessary to keep a quadriplegic alive. In fact, as far as he was concerned, the more graphic the better. “It won’t be easy, but it might work.”

For a few minutes, the couple thought it over. Finally, they nodded. “All right,” Mr. Fraser agreed.

“It might still all come to nothing if no one else agrees,” Brackett warned them, “but I’d like to try.” He rose to his feet and hurried off. His first stop was the injured girl.

He was a man on a mission and, within a couple of hours, he had received permission from everyone except Roy and John. He hadn’t yet asked Roy, because he knew that the paramedic was not ready to think about this yet. However, he did get in contact with an interviewer from one of the stations much favored by young people. The interviewer agreed to do it.

Ron Scott, the interviewer, was a former surfing champion. A bad spill had ended his chances of making a long-term career out of surfing and he had turned to TV work, presenting a sports segment initially, then turning his hand to things that interested the percentage of the population who were in their late teens and early twenties as well. Tall, blond and handsome, he was the epitome of a California surfer.

“I’m flattered that you think I have that much influence, Dr Brackett,” he commented when Brackett had finished outlining his idea.

“I may be old,” Brackett laughed, “but I’m not completely out of touch. I hear about you and a lot of the young people really do look up to you.”

“Thank you,” Ron said. “It won’t be easy, but something needs to be done.” They set to discussing the pictures they would need and decided to start the recording the next day. Brackett hoped that would give him the time he needed to persuade Roy to take part.

*****

“No!” Roy was furious and his voice snapped through the room like a whip. “I’m not giving that bastard any more publicity!”

“It’s not like that,” Brackett retorted, just about as angry as Roy. “This won’t be a celebration of his life, I can promise you that.”

“No,” Roy repeated with real finality.

“I want you to think about it,” Brackett repeated. “Everyone else involved has agreed. Brad’s parents, Lucy his fiancée, the widows of the ambulance attendants, Doug Patterson, the other firefighter in the ambulance. They all think it’s a good idea.”

“I don’t,” Roy replied. “And you’re not to go near Johnny!” He was furious that Brackett could approach him about this now, when Johnny was heading back to CT to see if the bleed on his brain had resolved or if he would need surgery.

“Calm down, Roy,” Joanne ordered. “There’s no need to shout. Stop reacting and think for a minute. What would Johnny want in these circumstances?”

“At the moment, what Johnny would want is irrelevant,” Roy snapped, although he knew he was being unfair. He knew that Johnny was the obliging sort and would see what Brackett was trying to do and would be willing to help. But right now, Roy was unable to expose his injured, vulnerable partner to the TV cameras for people to stare at avidly. “I can’t think about it now,” he admitted, the anger leaving his voice and his body. He sat down abruptly in the nearest seat. “I can’t think about anything.”

“Johnny is going to be fine,” Joanne told him, sitting down beside him and wrapping her arms around him.

“I’m sorry, Roy,” Brackett apologized. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you just now. All I ask is that you think about it later, once we know about Johnny.”

“I’m sorry for shouting,” Roy apologized in his turn. It wasn’t in his nature to be angry for long – but when he was angry, the world had better look out!

The gurney bearing Johnny to CT went past. Roy’s eyes followed and he wished he could be there to see firsthand instead of having to wait – again. He closed his eyes, praying that everything would be all right. He was vaguely aware of Brackett leaving the room, but he couldn’t muster the energy to open his eyes or say anything. He just hoped his friend understood. His sole focus was on the fate of his best friend and partner.

*****

It wasn’t a surprise to see Kel Brackett coming into the control room. Joe Early smiled at his friend and turned his attention to the images that were just beginning to appear on the screen. “What are you expecting?” Brackett asked, his voice weary.

“I’m expecting that the bleed has resolved and we can waken our young friend over there,” Early replied. “His intra-cranial pressure has been steady, his vitals are good and I don’t expect any surprises. Why?”

“I’ve just had a run-in with Roy,” Brackett admitted.

“I bet you’re stinging,” Early commented. “Roy’s very protective.”

“Sure is,” Brackett agreed ruefully.

“Did you really expect him to agree right now?” Early asked, knowing what Kel had been doing.

“No, but I didn’t want to do it over the phone and this was the first chance I’ve had,” Brackett replied. “I need to get this moving now. There was another near miss last night.”

“I heard.” Early leaned closer to peer at the computer screen.

For a couple of minutes, there was silence as both doctors concentrated on the images appearing before them. Finally, Early straightened up and gave a satisfied grunt. “Good! It’s gone. We can start to wake Johnny up.”

“Do you think there’ll be neurological damage?” Brackett asked.

“Probably some, but I doubt if it will be serious,” Early assured him. “Of course, we won’t know until he’s fully awake and we’ve run some tests. But this is John Gage. If there are any problems, I fully expect him to fight to overcome them.” He gave Brackett a searching look. “What’s wrong, Kel? You know John as well as I do. You know he’ll fight any problems. Why are you borrowing trouble?”

Twitching a slight smile, Kel shrugged. “I’m not sure. Perhaps because of what I want him to do for me with this interview; perhaps because Roy is so annoyed with me.”

“Well, given how Roy feels about what happened, are you surprised?” Early asked, as the technician pulled Johnny’s gurney from the scanner. “Not that I blame him for being angry,” he added. “I feel the same way.”

“Yes, me, too,” Brackett agreed. “But I want to try and stop this happening again.”

“I know this is not what you want to hear, but give Roy some time,” Early advised. “It probably won’t take as long as you fear, since we’ll be letting this young man waken up today.” He smiled.

“Joe, you’re a miracle worker,” Brackett smiled.

“Glad to be of service,” Early laughed. “Perhaps I can earn a reputation as prophet, too?”

“Who knows, my friend?” Brackett replied. “Who knows?”

*****

Awareness came slowly, creeping into his consciousness bit by bit; first the noises and finally the presence of pain. It was muted but there. He wondered vaguely what had happened to him this time. He finally was able to push past the overwhelming fatigue and open his eyes.

It was no surprise to find Roy seated by his bed watching him. It was almost unheard of for Roy not to be by his bedside when he had been sick or injured and about the only time he was not there when Johnny woke was if he had been injured too. Johnny was pleased to realize that whatever had happened to him, Roy had escaped unscathed. Roy smiled at him. “Hey. How’re you doing?”

To be honest, Johnny wasn’t all that sure of the answer. “Uh,” he croaked and came to the realization that his throat was bone dry and felt rather raw. He grimaced as he swallowed. Roy guessed the problem and angled a straw towards him. Johnny sipped gingerly and the cool water soothed the irritation as it went down. “Thanks,” he said, as he finished drinking. “I don’t know how I feel.” He thought about it some more and looked down at himself.

He was clad in a hospital gown, and his left arm was elevated and swathed in bandages. He appeared to be connected to a heart monitor and he definitely had oxygen coming through a nasal cannula. His left leg was in a brace and also elevated. His ribs ached enough to tell him he had likely broken one or more and his head was rather sore. “Did I have an accident?” he asked, slightly confused.

“Yes,” replied Roy.

That single word was enough to bring the whole horrific memory back in one overwhelming burst of remembered sounds and sensations. The ambulance driver saying “Look at that idiot!” The sudden braking, the violent jolt as the car stuck the ambulance and the dizzying sensation of the vehicle spinning out of control. His own helplessness was reinforced as there was a second jolt and the ambulance seemed to become airborne. The stretcher flew up into the air, the other attendant screamed loudly and then there was darkness. Johnny gasped and panted, scared witless, even though he knew he was safe.

“Easy,” Roy soothed. “Easy, Johnny. Just breathe.” His finger hovered by the call button, but the nurses had been alerted by the increase in heart beat and were already coming in. Roy glanced at them. “I think he might just have had a flashback,” he told them. “Johnny? Can you speak?”

Drawing in the deep breaths that Roy was urging, Johnny finally was able to calm down enough to have some more water and then talk. “I remember,” he whispered. “Oh Spirits, I remember.” He closed his eyes to shut out the images, but they were ingrained upon his retinas. He was aware of the nurses taking his vitals and knew if he didn’t calm down they would get a doctor and sedate him and he didn’t want that. He wanted – needed – to remember. He forced his eyes open again and saw his friend’s anxious face. “Roy… the people… in the ambulance. Did they… did…?” He couldn’t force the words out.

This was not the way Roy had wanted to tell Johnny but he couldn’t lie about it. Johnny had to know the truth sometime and since he could remember and was asking, now had to be the time. “The ambulance attendants died,” he reported. “The firefighter went home a couple of days ago.”

Blinking, Johnny focused on the one thing he could grasp. “A couple of days ago?” he echoed. “How long have I been here?”

“It’s been three days,” Roy replied. “You had a bleed on your brain and it was decided to keep you sedated to see if it resolved by itself.”

There was too much information coming too fast for his foggy brain to comprehend. He was still heavily medicated, even if the sedation was pretty much worn off. He tried to concentrate, but his head was aching badly. Then he realized what Roy had said initially. “They died?” he asked hoarsely. “Bert and John?”

“Yes,” Roy nodded. He wished he had been able to fob Johnny off until he was more alert. He wished he had kept the details to a bare minimum. He cursed himself.

“No,” Johnny groaned. He wasn’t even aware that one of the nurses had headed off to page Dr Brackett and Dr Early. “No! That’s not right! Why did they die and I lived? Why, Roy? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Roy soothed. “Johnny, we can never know why these things happen. Listen to me! Johnny! Listen!” He waited until the dark eyes fixed on his face. “None of this was any fault of yours,” he stated slowly and clearly. “Those men did not die because of something you did or did not do.” He saw Johnny was listening. “I am sorry Bert and John died, but I am not sorry that you are alive. Do you hear me? I’m grateful to whatever Higher Power saved you.”

After a moment, Johnny nodded. He didn’t know what had caused the ambulance to crash, but he knew there was nothing he could have done to prevent that. He still felt incredibly guilty that he had survived and the others had died. He was starting to calm down as his small reserve of strength was used up. His eyelids dipped involuntarily.

“Well, I hear someone is awake,” said a familiar deep voice and Johnny forced his eyes open to see Drs Brackett and Early at his bedside. He frowned slightly.

“Why are you both here?” he asked wearily. “Am I that badly hurt?”

“You aren’t pleased to see me?” Early joked, smiling gently. “John, I thought we were friends.”

Confused, for he was really getting tired now, Johnny tried to apologize. “I didn’t mean… I meant… I just… I don’t know,” he concluded.

“Joe and I are both looking after you,” Brackett explained. “You had a bad head injury and you know that’s more Joe’s department that mine.”

“What else is wrong with me?” Johnny wondered aloud.

“You’ve had surgery on a broken arm,” Brackett explained, keeping it simple. “You had a bad head injury that caused a small bleed on your brain, but Tracey here,” he indicated the nurse, “tells me that you can remember the accident, so that is really positive.”

“Glad you think so,” Johnny mumbled, not quite under his breath. The doctors shared a smile. With every word that Johnny uttered, he demonstrated that any damage the bleed had done was very small indeed.

“Since you’re awake, I’m going to take a quick look at you, John and then I’ll let you go back to sleep,” Early proposed and the weary paramedic nodded, wincing as he did so. “Headache?” Early asked.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. He blinked sleepily and forced himself to pay attention to the questions he was asked (date, where was he, who was the President) and then Brackett took his vitals and he was given some more meds for the pain. “Roy?” he called softly, as he started to drift off.

“I’m right here,” Roy replied, taking his friend’s hand. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” he promised and with that, Johnny let his grip on the world slip away and he fell headlong into welcoming slumber.

*****

The next time Johnny woke, he was no longer in ICU, no longer hooked up to a heart monitor and no longer on oxygen. He didn’t even notice. He was simply aware that he was hurting and found the call button and pressed it. The nurse came with his meds and before long, he was slumbering again. He hadn’t even noticed it was the middle of the night and Roy was not there. He simply hadn’t been awake enough to register any of these things.

When he was wakened by the bustle of breakfast arriving, he felt a lot less groggy. Roy wasn’t there, but that was hardly a surprise, given that it was early morning. The nurse helped Johnny sit up and made sure he could reach everything on his tray. His breakfast was uninspiring, but he was hungry and ate it all.

He found it difficult to find a comfortable position. Moving was something of a trial and he had to do it slowly and carefully to avoid jarring his ribs, his arm or his leg. He gazed for a while at the brace on his knee and the wire he could see poking out of one side of the bandages. He had been a paramedic long enough to diagnose a broken patella from that. Not great news, but not the worst.

The worst, he thought, was the arm injury. He recalled Brackett saying he’d had surgery on a broken arm and he moved his fingers experimentally. It hurt like hell, all the way down. His arm was enveloped in bandages from his shoulder to his fingertips and Johnny was beginning to have the sneaking suspicion that this was not a straightforward break. His fingers moved well, allowing for the limitations of the bandages, but would they move well enough when unencumbered to allow him to return to his job? He needed both hands in working order. He couldn’t be a paramedic otherwise and he couldn’t be a firefighter with only one good arm.

Trying fruitlessly to shove aside the worry over his arm, he lifted his good right hand and gingerly ran it over his still-aching head. He found the stitches on his forehead at once, ran his hand through his thick dark hair and surmised that he had not needed surgery to stop the bleed Early had mentioned. He did find the stitched gash on the back of his head. Small wonder it still ached. He likely had a doozy of a concussion to add to everything else.

He leaned back against the pillow. While he remembered the accident with a vivid clarity, he wasn’t sure what had caused it. Was it the ‘idiot’ driver that Bert had complained about? It seemed a distinct possibility and Johnny was suddenly cold as a thought hit him. Was it ambulance chasers? Had they caused the accident?

“Johnny?” Brackett had come into the room to check on him and was taken aback by the paramedic’s pallor. “Johnny, what’s wrong?”

“Was it ambulance chasers?” Johnny asked. “Did they cause the accident?”

There was no point in lying. Not only would Johnny find out easily enough, Brackett wanted to ask Johnny’s help a bit later on, when he had had time to digest the news. “Yes,” he replied.

“Idiots!” Johnny ground out bitterly. “What idiots! What did they think they were doing? I bet they got off scot-free!”

“No, no they didn’t,” Brackett corrected him.

As he hoped, that made Johnny pause. “How badly are they hurt?” he asked, frowning.

“The boy who was driving was paralyzed from the neck down,” Brackett replied. “The girl in the front seat has been very badly scarred on her face. The ones in the back had minor injuries.” He paused and his mouth twitched. Johnny knew there was more to come. “The driver died from his injuries.”

At once, Johnny’s lashes swept down, hiding his eyes. Three people dead and for what? It was such a waste. He was angry at the boy who had caused the crash, but he couldn’t quite get hold of it to spew out bitter recriminations. What good would bad-mouthing the boy do now? He was dead, it was done. In time, perhaps Johnny would be able to forgive the boy and put this behind him. He was not foolish enough to think he would ever forget. “Maybe they’ll learn from this,” he voiced at last.

That was the opening Brackett was looking for. “It doesn’t seem so,” he mentioned. “We’ve had another couple of near misses.”

“What is going to take make them stop?” Johnny asked, but as far as he was concerned, it was a rhetorical question.

“I’m not sure,” Brackett replied, “but I’ve had an idea.”

Always someone who preferred action, Johnny looked interested. “What do you have in mind?” he asked curiously and Brackett told him.

*****

“Don’t answer me right now,” Brackett concluded. “Think it over.”

“That girl has agreed?” Johnny asked, just for clarification. “Despite how badly her face is torn up?”

“Yes,” nodded Brackett. “And Brad’s parents are letting his body be seen.” He rose. “Like I said, think it over. Ron is interviewing Lucy this afternoon.” He hoped that Johnny would agree to be interviewed after that. “I did mention it to Roy, but he forbade it and as your next of kin, he had the right to do that. You might want to talk it over with him before you decide.”

“All right,” Johnny agreed. “I’ll think about it.”

He was still deep in thought when Roy arrived a couple of hours later. He was glad to see Johnny awake, but when Johnny confessed what he was thinking about, Roy erupted. “That boy got enough publicity without Brackett encouraging more!” he declared hotly. “I can’t believe you are even thinking about this!”

“Calm down, Roy,” Johnny pleaded.

“Calm down?!” Roy all but screamed. “Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! I’ve been looking at you for the last three days, worrying about you, and you tell me to calm down?”

“Roy, I understand…”

“No, you don’t understand, Johnny,” Roy interrupted. “I thought you were dead when that ambulance went over. I was the only witness and the only paramedic on scene. I knew my duty was to the public and I had to make myself go over to that car. It was only the engine arriving that allowed me to come and check on you. Bert and John were already dead and I had to get Ken Liddle off you before I even knew if you were alive! So don’t talk to me about putting that boy on TV! I don’t think you should have anything to do with it.”

Silence fell between them. Johnny looked at Roy properly for the first time since he wakened. The signs of strain were obvious now that he was looking beyond his own self-absorption. Roy was more than just Johnny’s friend; he was his brother in all but blood. He could imagine only too well how horrific that scene must have been for Roy, but he thought Brackett’s idea had some merit. Graphic images might be just what were needed to stop the young people from indulging in this dangerous craze.

“I’m sorry, Roy,” he apologized. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“I thought you were dead,” Roy admitted, sitting down heavily.

“You know, I don’t think it is me Brackett really needs that guy to interview,” Johnny ventured after some more silence.

“You don’t?” Roy took that as good news; that Johnny was going to heed his wishes on the matter.

“No.” Johnny looked at Roy, trying to gauge what his possible reaction might be. He couldn’t even guess. Okay, that wasn’t true, he admitted. Roy was going to explode. “No, I think it should be you.”

“ME?!” Roy leapt to his feet again and Johnny cowered away from him, although he knew Roy wouldn’t hurt him. But it was so unusual to see Roy angry that Johnny was intimidated despite himself. “Do you know what you’re saying?”

“Yes.” Johnny kept his voice quiet so Roy had to calm down slightly to hear him. “I’m not the only one of this partnership that was hurt by the crash. You were hurt as well, Roy. If you told the world what you just told me about the accident, you would have far more impact than anything I could say. In a lot of ways, I got off lightly. I was unconscious, so I didn’t feel the pain and I couldn’t be scared. You were stuck with a situation that you couldn’t possibly handle alone – that would have been bad enough. But when you add into the mix that I was trapped in that ambulance and was probably dead… you really had it tough, Roy.”

The funny thing was, Roy reflected as he sat down once more, emotionally drained, that Johnny was probably right. In fact, the scary thing was that Johnny was often right, in his cock-eyed, round-about, out-of-the-ordinary thinking. And right now, he could see exactly what his partner meant and what was worse, and what he didn’t want to admit, was that he thought that Brackett’s idea might just work, especially if both he and Johnny spoke.

“I don’t want to,” he muttered.

“You think I want to?” Johnny enquired. “You really think I want the world to see me like this?” He gestured to his arm and leg and the unattractive hospital gown that was already slipping down his slender body and exposing the bruising on his broken ribs. “I don’t know what my face looks like, since they won’t give me a mirror, but I doubt if I’m gonna win any beauty competitions. I can hardly wait to hear what Chet has to say about it all.”

“Probably less than you think,” Roy replied absently. His mind was thinking furiously, turning the idea over, looking for holes and finding a lot fewer than he expected.

“Well, thanks for that vote of confidence,” Johnny muttered, feeling slightly let down.

Suddenly realizing what Johnny had been asking, Roy looked up at his friend. “You’ve got a big bruise on your forehead and some stitches, but it could be a lot worse,” he assured the patient. “I guess it’ll look pretty impressive on TV though.”

“You’re gonna do it,” Johnny breathed. “I’m sure you won’t regret it, Pally.”

“I hope not,” Roy replied uncomfortably. “Let’s get hold of Brackett and tell him we agree before I change my mind.” He lifted the phone and dialed downstairs, all the while wondering that his anger had drained away, almost without him noticing.

He felt a whole lot better.

*****

Roy’s 100% about-face caught Brackett by surprise, but delighted him. It hadn’t occurred to him to ask Roy to speak and he quickly briefed Ron Scott who immediately saw the same possibilities that Johnny had. “Perfect!” he told Brackett. “I’ll interview them separately, and then I’ll get a few minutes of footage of them together. I probably won’t use more than a still, but I want to have as much footage of everyone as I can. You never know when an idea will strike when you’re editing and still pictures can have much more impact than you might expect.”

Accordingly, later on that afternoon, Ron Scott and his crew interviewed Roy in Brackett’s office where he had just finished interviewing Brad’s parents. For the first few minutes, Roy was stiff, but he soon warmed to his topic under Ron’s questioning, freely admitting his anger towards the dead boy and re-telling the story about the accident. His quiet, strong words painted a picture of terror and helplessness that could not fail to move anyone who saw it. His anguish at the injuries his friend had suffered was clear.

After that, the whole crew moved up to Johnny’s room. The injured paramedic was clearly uncomfortable about the whole thing and Ron surreptitiously signaled his cameraman to start filming as Roy leaned over the bed to calm and soothe Johnny. Those were exactly the kind of pictures that he needed.

The interview was straight forward. Ron decided to do the closing piece to camera in Johnny’s room with Johnny and Roy in the background, rather than back at the studio. “We all do dumb things when we’re kids,” he stated to the camera. “And we quite often get away unscathed. That didn’t happen in this case. All these lives were disrupted when Brad, Lucy and the others decided to chase that ambulance. It was a cheap thrill – and look what happened. Brad died; Lucy is scarred for life and she and the others in the car are facing criminal charges and will probably spend time in prison. Lucy was studying to become a teacher, but that won’t’ happen, as you can’t go into teaching with a conviction like this on your record. It’s very difficult to get a job if you have a criminal record. Please, for your own sake and the sake of the emergency services, stop this craze now, before someone else dies.” He looked steadily into the camera for several long seconds, until he got the signal that filming was stopped.

Rising, Ron crossed over to the bed and thrust out his hand. “I want to thank you, gentlemen,” he smiled, shaking hands with Johnny first, then Roy. “Without you, this piece would not be half as powerful.”

“I just hope it helps,” Roy replied.

*****

The whole piece was played on Ron’s segment of the evening news that night. Roy had stayed at the hospital so that he and Johnny could watch it together. Of course, the other members of the media had heard that Ron was doing the interviews and the number parked outside Rampart had doubled that day, hoping to catch one or more of the participants for an interview of their own. So far, they had been thwarted.

The interview started out with Ron reminding the viewers about the dreadful crash and some footage was shown of the overturned ambulance and the crashed car. It was the first time Johnny had seen it and looking at it with the detached eye of an experienced rescue man, he knew how lucky he was to have come out of there alive. As a participant in the crash, he was stunned that he had survived.

The interview with Brad’s parents was heartbreaking. As a parent himself, Roy could empathize with them and he was sorry for their loss, but he could find no sorrow within himself for Brad’s death. Brad had deliberately set out to chase that ambulance, had misjudged the whole thing and destroyed several lives. Roy could not find any sympathy for him at all.

It was a little harder to maintain his anger at Lucy. Roy had not seen her before the accident and he was taken aback by her beauty when they flashed up a photo of her at the start of her part. But then the photo faded and morphed into the girl as she now was and it came like a shock like a punch to the solar plexus. No trace of that radiant young beauty remained. Her face was criss-crossed with angry red scars, one of which cut right across her eye, distorting the lid and leaving the eye only semi-open. Her mouth now skewed to one side due to the scar that ran up her cheek. Her speech was halting and she wept openly as she talked about how scared she had been during the accident and the immense pain she had suffered, both during and afterwards. She had not been fortunate enough to lose consciousness. The camera lingered for several uncomfortable seconds on her weeping face.

The next shots came as a surprise, because they had been taken by the department during a training exercise a few months back. Roy and Johnny were seen climbing, rappelling, carrying victims and treating them. That was completely unexpected and, as Johnny wryly commented to Roy, made them look like first cousins to Superman. Ron did a voice-over, introducing them and explaining who they were.

Roy’s words brought tears to Johnny’s eyes. He blinked them away, moved beyond words by the love that his friend had unwittingly revealed to the world. He hoped Roy would not regret anything he’d said; that Chet would not tease him; that his ‘macho’ image would remain untarnished forever in the eyes of his children, but there was no denying the strength of those words and anyone who was unmoved by them had to have a heart of stone.

They were both rather surprised by the shots of them together in the hospital room, but again the caring they showed seemed to punctuate Roy’s words of a few moments before. Johnny thought he looked particularly ghastly on the TV, but he wasn’t really that vain so it didn’t really bother him. He was smart enough to know that just being on TV would do wonders for his dating chances in the immediate future.

All in all, the piece lasted about 20 minutes or so and its impact was enormous, even on the two men who had been so intimately involved in it all. Ron signed off soberly and the anchor he was handing back to looked rather pink around the eyes. Her voice sounded quite nasal, too, and it hadn’t before that segment. Roy turned off the TV as she started to recap the headlines.

There was silence for several minutes before either of them could think of anything to say. “Wow!” Johnny breathed. He was slumped back against his pillows, feeling as though every bone in his body had melted away.

“Yeah.” Roy had yet to tear his eyes away from the blank TV screen. He finally blinked and broke the spell. “I’ve never seen that guy Ron broadcast before. He’s pretty good, isn’t he?”

“Very.” Johnny glanced at Roy. “If that doesn’t do the job…”

“…nothing will,” Roy agreed. “He hit it just right, didn’t he? I’m glad you talked me into it now.”

“So am I,” Johnny smiled. “You were the best part of that.”

“Don’t give me that!” Roy joked. “The single nurses will be beating a path to your door.”

“Oh yeah,” Johnny shot back. “I’m pretty good at being the poor, strong, injured firefighter. Pity you’re married, ain’t it, Roy?” They laughed together.

*****

The first visitor Johnny got because of that story was Dixie. She arrived before Roy left, hugged and kissed them both and told them how great they had looked. She looked as though she had been crying. Brackett was in next and he shook both their hands. He had not seen the pieces they had recorded before the broadcast.

After an uninterrupted night’s sleep, Johnny began to get phone calls and flowers were delivered. Cards began to pour into the hospital for him and a great many were unsigned, but apologized for chasing the ambulances and promising never to do it again. The segment was picked up by some of the big networks and broadcast several days in a row while the news anchors analyzed the sudden cessation of the ambulance chasing craze. There had not been a single incidence since the segment had been broadcast.

Money poured in, too, as people offered to pay for plastic surgery for Lucy, to go into trust funds for the ambulance attendants’ families, for Johnny’s hospital bills and for contributions to the hospital funds in Brad’s name.

The papers, belatedly realizing the impact this broadcast had had, now took up the hue and cry and printed the interviews, word for word, in case anyone in the greater Los Angeles area had recently been on Mars and missed the whole furor. The crowds of media camping outside the hospital seemed to increase every day, clamoring for a further interview with Johnny. Ken Liddle, the firefighter who had also survived the crash, seemed to pop up on every news bulletin, reveling in his new-found fame.

That wasn’t what Johnny wanted. He wanted his injuries to heal enough that he could leave to go home, but it seemed he was still some way from that. While his ribs were healing well, they still caused him some pain when he moved. His knee was coming along nicely and the physical therapists were working with him to keep his muscles supple.

However, his arm was doing less well. With the multiple breaks, the bones were taking longer than he cared for to really knit together, despite the help they got from the plates and screws. Because of that, the therapists hadn’t really got going on his arm and Johnny was beginning to actively worry that he would not regain the full use of the limb. That would be a disaster and his career would be over in that case. While Johnny didn’t want to believe that could really happen, he couldn’t deny his worst fears in the dead of night.

The one bit of good news was that because his knee was in a brace rather than a plaster cast, Johnny was actually able to get up and around after a couple of weeks and just being mobile again was a huge mood booster. He was even able to get a look out of the window at the serried ranks of cameras below and was chagrined to see his face caught on those very cameras on the evening news, in close up, no less.

For Ron Scott, the piece was the making of his career. He had offers from every news station across the USA and considered his choices carefully before choosing one of the big networks. He popped in to thank Johnny about two weeks after the piece had been first aired.

The dark haired paramedic was sitting in a chair, clad in yet another hospital gown that was not properly fastened. A robe was draped around his shoulders and he was ostensibly reading, but in actual fact had been having a nap. Ron had a proposition for Johnny.

“I want to do a series of follow-ups,” he explained. “Right now, the craze is dead, but I’m worried that someone out there is just waiting for the heat to die down. But if we are constantly telling the world how you’re getting on, the reminders will be there.”

“I don’t know,” Johnny murmured doubtfully. “I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to get back to work.”

“I know,” Ron admitted. “And in a way, that gives a lot more impact to each subsequent interview. A reminder that life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to; that happy endings aren’t guaranteed. John, I know you aren’t in this for the publicity. I’m pretty sure everyone knows that about you now, since you’ve been refusing all offers. But I think this could be the clincher, the thing that kills the craze off forever.”

“You’re very persuasive,” Johnny sighed.

“That’s my job,” Ron smiled, “but that’s not why I’m doing this. John, listen. The cops have told me that car accidents involving young people have dropped dramatically since this was shown. It’s not just the ambulance chasers who have learned a lesson. Dr Brackett’s idea has proven more successful than anyone could have guessed. The State of California Education Board want to make the interviews into a video that they can show in schools and colleges in the hopes of making young drivers more aware of the dangers. If we can do anything to cut the death and accident rates in young drivers, I feel I ought to do it.”

Unwittingly, Ron had chosen exactly the right sentiments to win Johnny over. Ron meant every word, and it just so happened that Johnny was in full accord with those sentiments. “All right,” he agreed.

*****

There were times he regretted agreeing, when the cameras caught him sweating and grimacing in pain as he went through the agonies of physical therapy. As his leg healed, he graduated to a walking stick from a crutch and finally to walking unaided. While he probably wouldn’t be tripping the light fantastic for a few more weeks, he was at least walking soundly.

The media circus had moved on by then, for it had been over a month since the accident and first airing of the interview. Johnny had managed to go home without any of the camera crews finding out and following him and had made rapid progress outside the hospital confines. His arm was finally healing as it ought to and the range of exercises he was being put through was increasingly more intense. It was still too soon to know if he was going to regain full use of his arm and Johnny vacillated between hope and despair on a daily basis.

After five weeks, the arm was x-rayed again and the bandages changed so that he could start to use his hand. Quite naturally, it was very stiff and Johnny really despaired of being able to get back to work. His crewmates made a real point of coming to see him that day to try and cheer him up, for Roy had warned them that Johnny was despondent about how his hand would be, and even if he would be allowed to start using it again.

“It’s going to take so long, Cap,” Johnny complained when Cap remarked that it was the first step on the road to coming back. “I can barely move my fingers.” He knew he was whining and was trying not to, but he was afraid. The small amount of movement he had hurt a lot, too.

“You’re getting therapy on them, aren’t you?” Cap asked.

“Well, yeah, but the exercises are stupid. Look what they have me doing.” He carefully moved so that his hand lay palm down on the table top and slowly and carefully lifted each finger, one at a time, wincing loudly as he did so. He glanced up at Cap when he had lifted each one.

“So what’s the problem?” Cap asked. “You can do it! That’s great, Johnny.”

“No its not,” Johnny sighed. “They want me to be able to do this.” He put his right hand down and did a quick tattoo with each finger in turn. “Can you see that happening?”

“Not today, maybe,” Cap agreed. “But next week – who knows?”

The urge to mouth-off and take his frustrations out on his senior officer was almost overwhelming for an instant, but he curbed his tongue. It wasn’t Cap’s fault he couldn’t see the problem. Johnny sighed again. “Cap, it takes me all my time to just lift each finger.”

“And when you first got out of bed, you could barely walk,” Cap reminded him. “Now you can walk without a stick and the therapist told you that when your arm is healed, you can start running again. Since you were willing to take that therapy in phases, why are you expecting this therapy to cure you in one session?”

“I… it just… I dunno,” Johnny admitted, defeated by the logic. “It’s my hand,” he explained, as if by emphasizing the word he could get across a meaning that he could feel but couldn’t articulate even to himself.

“I know that, John,” Cap agreed. “But just because your hand is slightly more important than your leg does not mean that you can skip steps in your recovery. It must be very frustrating, but it will come. You just have to be patient. What does Dr Brackett say?”

“That my arm is doing very well, that I’ve got good control considering the damage done, all that sort of stuff,” Johnny replied. He didn’t sound as if he believed it.

“So why don’t you believe him?” Cap asked.

“I don’t know,” Johnny lied. He glanced at Cap and saw the older man looking at him skeptically.

“Yes you do,” Cap replied. “You do know, John.” He waited expectantly.

It took a bit longer than Cap thought it would, but Johnny finally gave in. “I’m scared,” he whispered.

Leaning forward, Cap put a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I know you’re scared,” he declared quietly. “And we’re all scared, too, John. We’re scared that you won’t keep fighting to get your dexterity back and come back to 51s where you belong. That scares the hell out of us. We miss you, pal.”

It had never occurred to Johnny that his shift-mates were worrying about his hand, too. He knew Roy was, but that was understandable. They were very close friends and worked together very closely indeed. He was good friends with the rest of his crew, but hadn’t realized that his injuries impacted quite so much on them. “Really?” he gasped, sounding unbearably young at that moment.

“Really,” Cap declared, keeping eye contact, hand contact, letting his paramedic know that they were rooting for him. “We need you to keep taking these baby steps, so that next week, you can take toddler steps and the week after that, you’re starting to stride out and before long, you’re coming back to work.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Johnny commented, although his eyes were soft, gazing at the path Cap had laid out in front of him.

“I don’t know if it’ll be easy or not,” Cap responded. “Most things worth having are not easy. But I know you have the perseverance to do whatever it takes, however long it takes, to make it back to full fitness.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder. “And you have us right alongside you every step of the way.”

“Thanks, Cap,” Johnny replied, gratefully.

*****

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were times when it hurt so much that Johnny felt he was taking backwards steps, not going forward. When Brackett finally declared himself satisfied and stated Johnny’s arm was completely healed, Johnny was horrified to find it was so stiff. He had to start another bout of therapy to build back up the muscles he had lost while immobilized. And throughout all his trials, the TV cameras followed him, showing his progress each week to the watching nation.

There were times Johnny really regretted agreeing. He was out on a date one night and they were snapped by photographers and the picture appeared in the papers the next day under the title ‘Death-crash Paramedic Tries to Rebuild Life’. That was the last time he saw that particular girl. People stopped him in the street to wish him well and to gush over how brave he was and to look at the still-raw scars on his arm. Complete strangers felt they had the right to ask intimate questions and got miffed when he refused to answer.

“It’s like living under a microscope,” he complained to Luke Smith, the psychologist he had met after he and the rest of the crew had been held hostage at the station. “I didn’t know this was going to happen.”

“It’s the down side of fame,” Luke agreed. “That’s why so many celebs are in therapy. It’s hard to live in a fishbowl.” He grinned. “But at least there’s an end in sight for you.”

“Is there?” Johnny sighed. He was feeling down that day after a particularly strenuous session. He still couldn’t lift weight equivalent to the weight of his air tank.

“Of course there is,” Luke chided him. “Another month or so should see you back at work.”

“It sounds good when you say it, but it’s still weeks away,” Johnny moaned.

“Boy, you sure are a ray of sunshine this afternoon,” Luke commented, knowing that would rile his friend.

“I’m allowed to be down sometimes,” Johnny shot back, and Luke grinned. He preferred anger to depression. “Oh!” Johnny couldn’t help but grin back, knowing that once again Luke had got under his defenses. “Did you know they are teaching me to play the piano in therapy?” he asked.

“Oh?” This was a development Johnny hadn’t shared with him before. “How’s that going?”

“It’s interesting,” Johnny commented wryly. “I’m not really that musical,” he admitted, “but I can feel my fingers getting stronger. You need really strong hands to play the piano – and I haven’t reached the stage where I can play with both hands at the same time.” He looked perplexed. “I have no idea how people manage to do that.”

“You probably felt the same way when you started driving and learning to coordinate the clutch with changing gear,” Luke reminded him, knowing that Johnny drove a manual car.

“Yeah, I suppose,” Johnny admitted. “I don’t think I’ll take up piano playing for real, though. I don’t have room for one in the apartment.” He laughed and Luke laughed along with him.

“Never say never,” he quipped.

“You haven’t heard me,” Johnny grinned. “The neighbors would get up a petition to get me out!”

“Are you still getting letters?” Luke asked.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, still amazed that all these strangers wanted to write to him. They were received by the TV studio and passed along to him. “I get letters telling me that I stopped them doing something stupid, or they are glad I lived because they lost someone in a car crash or I remind them of their high school crush.” He shook his head. “Thank goodness they don’t know where I live, because Ron says that some girls call at the studio every week after the update is aired, just in case I came in that one time. And I don’t mean young women, I mean little girls – teenagers!”

“I have to say, I didn’t expect Kel’s idea to take off like it did,” Luke admitted. “I’m very glad you managed to persuade Roy to take part. I was worried about him.”

“So was I,” Johnny agreed. “He was so angry and, you know, I can’t blame him for that. It must have been horrific for him to see, never mind then have to deal with alone. I would have hated to have been in that situation.”

“It was very traumatic for everyone who was involved with it,” Luke confirmed. “But this series of interviews seems to have helped a lot of people and it has stopped the chasers cold.”

“That is the best part,” Johnny agreed. “I was worried that perhaps it might encourage other kids to try it, but it really does seem to have worked. I guess that’s why I agreed to do the follow-ups and let them see that it isn’t as simple as it seems on TV where the hero gets hurt and is basically okay in the next scene.”

“How much simpler life would be if it could be like that,” Luke mused. “Especially for you, Johnny. Think of all the money you could have saved if you hadn’t had to be admitted after you inhaled the sulfuric acid that time on a rescue.”

Laughing, Johnny joined in. “Or that long stay I had after the monkey virus, the few days I was doped up when I got bitten by the rattlesnake, after my radiation exposure or when I got hit by that ceiling collapse when Roy was thinking of taking a promotion. Gee – I’d be a millionaire by now,” he joked.

“You’ve certainly had your share, my friend,” Luke agreed. “That’s why I know you’ll make it back this time, too. You’ve got what it takes. You’ve already proven that.” He met Johnny’s gaze steadily. “You’ve got strength of character that I know a lot of people would envy and it will stand you in good stead to see your way through to the end of this.”

“You know,” Johnny commented as they rose, “you should be a psychologist. You’re quite good at it.”

“Good heavens!” the other exclaimed, only semi-joking. “Praise from the customers. Quick, someone mark down this day. It doesn’t happen often.” He grew serious. “Thank you, John. Your words of praise mean a lot to me.” They shook hands solemnly, then Luke threw an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Thanks, really.”

“Really, it’s me that should be thanking you,” Johnny replied, hugging back. “But you’re very welcome.” He gave his familiar crooked grin that the women found so irresistible and took his leave, feeling 100% better.

*****

In the end, it was 16 weeks from the date of the accident before Johnny was declared fit to go back to work. Ron Scott had wisely started to space out the updates as Johnny grew fitter and Johnny was highly relieved. The level of mail he was getting via the TV station started dropping and he hoped that it would cease altogether when his segments finished. The last thing he wanted was to be a celebrity.

He pushed himself hard over the final weeks, even persevering at his piano playing (which Luke had kindly told him was execrable) to boost his dexterity even further. Still, when the day came that he was going to be tested for his manual dexterity, he was as nervous as a hen on a griddle.

“It’ll be fine,” Roy assured him placidly. He had worked with Johnny, going over the procedures and even allowing Johnny to practice starting IVs on him.

“What if it’s not?” Johnny replied, his voice tight with nerves.

“Johnny, if I thought for a single minute that you couldn’t start an IV with your left hand if required, I sure wouldn’t have let you practice on me!” he responded, exasperated. While he could easily understand Johnny’s nervousness, the tension emanating from his partner was starting to get on his own nerves.

Somewhat predictably, Johnny retreated into a sulky silence, but Roy didn’t say anything to try and cajole him out of it. There were some days when trying to get Johnny into a good mood and keep him there was a thankless task and when he was as wound up as this, it was impossible. Roy was content to let him sulk for now. Once he passed his test, he would be flying high. Being more even tempered, Roy quickly felt exhausted by his friend’s swings of emotion.

“Johnny? Come on in.” Dr Brackett held open the door and stepped aside to allow Johnny through.

“Good luck, even though I know you don’t need it,” Roy stated, as his friend rose.

Pausing, Johnny looked down at Roy, uncharacteristic nervousness on his face. “Thanks, Pally,” he muttered and a moment later his professional mask dropped into place and he walked confidently into the room where he was going to be tested. Brackett gave Roy a sympathetic smile as he closed the door.

Years of experience of waiting for Johnny, be it outside a treatment room while he helped the doctor, or while Johnny was checked out, or waiting for him to get out of surgery or wake up, had taught Roy what to do. He opened a book he’d brought along and started to read.

He didn’t get far, but then he didn’t expect to. He knew all too well that the book was simply a shield, allowing him to hide his thoughts from casual passers-by and people who wanted to know if he was being ‘seen to’ (a phrase he had always found very sinister). He only pretended to be reading. Sometimes he would even turn a page. Joanne laughingly called that book his ‘waiting room book’ for that was the only place he ever opened it. If he had been asked, Roy would have been hard put to remember the title and the author was a complete mystery. Quite where the book had come from was anyone’s guess. Roy conjectured that he’d picked it up in a waiting room one time and been desperate for something to keep his mind occupied.

While he was sure that Johnny would pass, Roy couldn’t help but worry a bit. He had been with his friend every step along the way. It hadn’t been easy for either of them and Roy knew that if he hadn’t finally admitted his problems and gone to Luke to talk about the accident, he and Johnny might easily have had a fight that would have broken up not just their friendship but their partnership as well. Thankfully, that had not happened.

He was actually starting to get really anxious when the door finally opened and a beaming Johnny came out. While the outcome had never truly been in doubt in Roy’s mind, his heart still leapt with gladness that his friend’s worries had been laid to rest.

“I passed!” Johnny cried, as though Roy hadn’t realized.

“Congratulations, Junior!” Roy responded and slapped his pal on the back. “I never had a single doubt.”

For an instant, Johnny’s face sobered. “You might not, but I did,” he admitted, as though this was news. Then his grin broke through again. “Thanks for putting up with me.”

“I’ve had years of practice,” Roy laughed. “It would be a shame to let them go to waste.”

Jubilantly, they headed off to tell the others the good news.

*****

His first shift back, Johnny was early. He put his uniforms in his locker, thankful he had beaten the Phantom in, and then slowly got changed, relishing the familiar smell of the station, compounded of diesel and smoke and coffee.

Hank Stanley was next in. He went straight to the locker room and smiled at Johnny. “Welcome back, John,” he said warmly. “Didn’t I tell you this day would come?”

“Yes, you did,” Johnny agreed, rising to meet the man. “And thanks for that, Cap. Your pep talk kept me going on a few dark days.”

Shrugging the praise aside, Cap smiled. “We all need someone like that,” he agreed. “Good thing we’ve all got each other.” He glanced around then leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?” he whispered.

Intrigued, Johnny nodded and also leaned in close. “Sure,” he agreed.

“Just watch the supply closet after roll call,” Cap confided. He winked and patted Johnny on the shoulder before heading over to his office.

Perplexed, Johnny shrugged and finished changing. He was in the kitchen drinking coffee when the others arrived pretty much all at once a few moments later, Chet looking rather disappointed that Johnny had gotten there first, because that meant any water balloon would have to wait for later.

As soon as they were all changed, C shift headed off and Stanley called roll call. The notices were brief, Johnny was welcomed back and given the dorms as his chore and they all went for coffee. However, Cap seemed keen for them to get on with their chores quickly and they hurried off to start. Chet had drawn mopping the bay. Roy and Johnny were crouching by the squad doing their morning checks and calibrations before heading off to do their other chores.

When Chet opened the cupboard, there was a loud sproing and a huge water balloon burst over him, soaking him thoroughly. Johnny and Roy gazed at the indignant fireman for several long seconds in disbelief and then burst out laughing. Drawn by the noise, the others appeared and also began to laugh.

“Gage!” Chet spluttered, water dripping from his moustache.

“It wasn’t me,” Johnny spluttered. He was quite helpless with laughter, for he knew who had done it. Had Cap been at the back of the other times that Chet had seemingly been caught by his own traps?

“Kelly, get that mess cleaned up,” Cap barked and hastily left the scene before he lost it. Behind him, he could hear Chet still muttering away.

The tones sounded. “Station 51, traffic accident…”

*****End*****

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