Light and Shadows
By Cindy T
Terri stepped out of the shower and slipped into her favorite soft, comfortable sweats for a quiet evening at home. She turned on the TV as she began to towel-dry her long brown hair. She froze momentarily as she listened to the breaking news story, her eyes glued to the footage of the fireman carrying a small child through the smoke of the burning apartment complex. The flashing lights of the engines and the spotlights from the media eerily illuminated his soot-covered face. Something about the power of fire was enticing, alluring, seductive.
But, it was the image of the fireman on the screen that caught her eye. He looked familiar. The camera zoomed in on him briefly, confirming his identity, and then panned back to the reporter. The man had flirted with her several times after they had been introduced, but she had brushed him off. He was certainly attractive enough, though it seemed that he poured on the charm with all the nurses, and she hadn’t found him particularly stimulating. This dangerous excitement cast the man in a very different light, and something about him now demanded her attention. She studied him in the shadowy background as he gently placed the child on the yellow blanket laid out by the other man. She felt a flash of deja vu as she watched him speak soothing words to the scared little girl, even as he swayed slightly and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. Terri’s attention lingered on the tall, dark-haired man. Her heart beat faster. Something was wrong; he wasn’t moving right.
She let her towel drop to the floor as she moved closer to the television, focusing her world on the scene before her. She watched him stand up and stumble. Her heart lurched as he crumpled to the ground and struggled to get up. The image on the screen shook as the camera crew rushed to cover the dramatic new development. Strange and intensely familiar feelings she had been trying to repress began to surface, slowly at first, then flooding her senses. She switched off the sound, savoring the adrenaline rush that coursed through her body. She wished she were there. She waited to see more, and hoped they would replay the scene of the man’s fall to the ground, or at least show a close-up of his face. She smiled to herself as the almost palpable energy washed over her. He was exactly what she needed now, and she would see him tomorrow.
Two hundred fifty four…two hundred fifty five…
Johnny lay in the hospital bed, attempting to force the minutes to pass more quickly by counting the small dots on the white ceiling tiles. He felt totally saturated with television, having seen his picture on every local news show all morning. Normally he enjoyed publicity, but they hadn’t even gotten his name right, much less his job title. He could recite the most recent reports verbatim now: “Fireman John Sage is now in satisfactory condition at Rampart General Hospital after succumbing to heat exhaustion in the heroic rescue of five-year old Emily Parks...." He frowned. He felt good about saving Emily, of course, and had been very relieved when he'd heard she had already been released from the hospital. But, somehow, passing out on TV didn’t seem all that heroic to him, and now that he felt better, he was hopelessly bored. He wanted company. He wanted a good cup of coffee. He wanted out.
Aw man… lost count.
As Johnny started over, a glorious distraction breezed into the room and changed his entire disposition. She was beauty personified. The prettiest nurse Rampart had seen in two years approached his bed. Terri. Even in the stark white nurse’s uniform, she looked stunning. She flipped his chart open and prepared to check his vitals. He expected the same cool reception he had been getting from her for the past several weeks, but was pleasantly surprised when an almost playful grin appeared on her face. She made eye contact, and then looked back at the name on the chart. She raised one eyebrow. “And here all this time I thought your name was John Sage.”
Johnny sat up higher in the bed and flashed his most disarming smile. This could be fun. “That would be John Gage. With a G. Uh, two G’s, actually.”
“Ah, yes. Two G’s. Good thing there’s an ‘e’ at the end, or your name would be ‘Gag,’” she flirted. She sighed dramatically, teasing him. “It’s a shame you’re not John Sage. I’ve been watching him on TV, and he is very attractive. He’s quite a hero, too. You wouldn’t know him, would you?”
Johnny’s morning was looking up. He responded in kind. “It just so happens I do know him. He’s a heck of a great guy. Intelligent, charming--”
She placed the thermometer in his mouth as Roy walked in.
Talk about lousy timing.
“Hey, Johnny, they letting you out soon?” Roy tossed a bag with two doughnuts over to his recuperating partner.
Johnny shot him a very determined “Not now, Roy” look and gestured surreptitiously toward the nurse with his head. Roy looked perplexed for a moment, and then he nodded knowingly when he saw her. He had certainly seen this scenario played out before. Roy didn’t envy Johnny’s track record with the opposite sex by any means, but he secretly admired the man’s ability to confidently strike up conversations with pretty women. Johnny seemed to thoroughly enjoy the art of the chase, even if he usually didn’t win.
Roy smiled. “You look like you feel better. Uh, well, maybe I’ll go find Dr. Brackett and see when you’re going to get out of here, okay?”
“Great idea. Thanks, Roy,” Johnny mumbled around the thermometer.
Terri began taking his blood pressure and pulse. Johnny hoped his heart rate hadn’t shot up too much due to her presence. “Well, Mr. Gage-with-two-G’s, do you happen to know if John Sage is seeing anyone?”
Of all the times to have a thermometer stuck in his mouth. “Hm-mm.”
“Hmm. Now, would that be ‘huh-uh’ you don’t know, or ‘huh-uh,’ he isn’t?”
Johnny quickly took the thermometer out. “Huh-uh. No, he isn’t. But I’m sure he’d like to. I can almost guarantee it.” He put the thermometer back in his mouth.
She removed the thermometer slowly, leaning closer to him than was necessary, and her sparkling blue eyes met his before she recorded the number. Johnny thought there ought to be an age limit on whatever perfume she was wearing; it was intoxicating. Her closeness unnerved him slightly and he swallowed hard, uncharacteristically speechless.
Dr. Brackett entered the room and was a little surprised to see Terri, since she usually worked the E.R. She handed him the chart, and he nodded his head approvingly before doing a quick exam. “Looks good, Johnny. Let’s see about getting you some discharge papers. When is your next shift?”
Johnny found his voice. “Huh? Oh, tomorrow.”
“Well, I want you to take it easy one additional day. You can return to work the following shift.”
From behind the doctor, the young nurse met Johnny’s eyes again and mouthed the words, “See you later.” She winked as she left the room, walking very slowly, for Johnny’s benefit.
Johnny continued to stare in the direction of the door long after it had shut, his mouth hanging open. He sighed heavily and sank back into his pillow. “Doc, I’m feelin’ a little warm -- I think I’m having a relapse. Maybe I better stay here another day or so....”
Dr. Brackett was neither stupid nor blind. He closed Johnny’s chart and looked toward the door, chuckling. “So, I see you’ve met Terri.” He shook his head slowly. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny....”
“Well?” asked Roy expectantly as he opened his locker to change. “How does it feel to be back after a relaxing four days off? You know you really lucked out.”
Johnny placed his hand on his chest, feigning hurt. “Lucked out? You think I was lucky? Hey, I was the one injured, remember?”
Roy laughed at Johnny’s flare for the dramatic. “I thought that was your good twin, ‘John Sage, Heroic Fireman.’”
“No, Roy, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m the good twin. He just gets all the publicity.”
“From what I saw, you weren’t doing so bad…laying around flirting with nurses.”
Johnny stopped buttoning his shirt and grinned broadly, staring off into space. “Ah… Rampart’s heavenly new nurse: Terri Miller. She’s something, isn’t she?” He sighed deeply, and resumed getting dressed.
“Don’t keep me in suspense. Did you call her?”
“Nope.” Johnny finished buttoning his shirt. He stood up and smoothed the front of his clothes for effect. “She called me. We’re goin’ out Wednesday.” He strutted out of the locker room, ten full minutes before roll call.
Oh boy, thought Roy, as he anticipated the insufferable ego he would be saddled with for the next long 24 hours… and ten minutes. He mentally kicked himself, and then followed Johnny to the kitchen. I had to ask…
Terri removed the small swatch of fabric from the strongbox, and gently rubbed it against her cheek. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, still able to smell traces of the acrid smoke that had permeated the cloth so many years ago. She remembered waking up coughing as the smoke assaulted her senses. She could almost hear her mother’s screaming voice and her father’s frantic yells even now. Her father had found her and wrapped her in the small blanket and rushed her past the flames, to the safety of the front yard. He had kissed her forehead and reassured her with soothing words before he had handed her to a neighbor and run back into the smoke-filled house to help Terri’s mother. Terri hadn’t noticed her mother’s jealousy that night, but the effects of the resentment that had been building since Terri’s birth would be felt for years.
She returned the fabric to the box and placed it back under her bed. She picked up the framed black and white picture of her father and her, taken two years after the fire, when she was six. Her father still looked quite handsome in the picture, with his dark hair and strong jaw, despite his illness. And his eyes. She needed only to stare at those adoring eyes to remember the love he had held for her. Such a contrast to her mother, she thought bitterly. She returned the picture to her nightstand with a wistful look at the man in the photo, and she continued to get ready for her date.
Johnny had tried for nearly a week to maintain a certain degree of composure about his upcoming date with Terri. But, now, standing at her door, he had to convince himself that he wasn’t nervous. He had dated plenty of attractive women before, and Terri wasn’t really that different. But, maybe he should have worn a different shirt. Maybe bowling wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe she really hated bowling and just agreed to go to be nice. Just knock, he coached himself, everything will be fine. She asked me out. He took a deep breath and knocked, trying his best to make the knock sound confident, yet “casual.”
When Terri opened the door, Johnny was immediately captivated. He quickly came to the conclusion that her jeans couldn’t possibly fit anyone else quite like that. She certainly did the sweater justice as well. He imagined that she would even make rented bowling shoes look feminine. He blushed slightly as he realized he was standing in her doorway staring at her, and he hadn’t said a word.
Unable to think of something witty or clever, the words, “Wow, Terri - you look great,” spilled out of his mouth. Slick, Gage… real slick. However, true to his character, he made up for any occasional deficits in his verbal skills with his most charming smile, which had been known to melt the hearts of many female onlookers.
Terri smiled back pleasantly, enjoying the effect she knew she was having on the man. First dates were so important, especially for Terri, and Johnny looked awfully good. She knew the night would only get better. She had arranged for that.
After Johnny’s brief awkwardness at the door, the evening progressed fairly well. They chatted over dinner about their jobs and how they each had ended up in Los Angeles. Johnny didn’t notice that Terri asked most of the questions; he was too caught up in the fact that she was so interested in him. Bowling went well, too, and Johnny was just enough better at the game that he felt justified in giving her some “hands on” lessons for improving her bowling technique.
As Johnny leaned forward to kiss Terri good night at her door, the two were jarred from their romantic reverie by yelling that erupted from the alley below. Johnny hesitated, and then chided himself for the temptation to ignore the disruption and lose himself in Terri’s embrace.
“Nice neighbors,” he muttered sarcastically with a backward glance toward the stairwell.
“Johnny, it sounds like someone’s in trouble. Maybe you should--no, never mind, that would be too dangerous. We better call the police.” Terri began to unlock her door.
“Let me check it out. You go ahead and call it in.” He started back down the hall, and hit the stairs running when he heard a woman scream. He shouted back over his shoulder, “Lock your door!”
Terri observed the determination on Johnny’s face as he vanished down the stairs. “Be careful,” she called after him. She entered her apartment and closed her eyes, wondering what exactly was happening out in the alley. She felt a small shiver flutter across her skin. After several minutes, she called the police, very aware of the slight tremors in her voice.
Outside, Johnny followed the shouting around the corner of the apartment building. He was a little disgusted that no one else was coming out to investigate, but not very surprised. He tried to ignore the sudden pounding in his chest as he saw the big man in the shadows of the alley. The man loomed over a woman, holding her by the shoulders, shaking her, as he yelled just inches from her face. She turned her face to the side to avoid the repulsive spray of saliva that punctuated every syllable. When he saw Johnny, his pudgy features distorted further.
He looked at Johnny with disdain, and then turned back to the woman, delivering the lines he had been given. “Is that your new boyfriend? Is that it? He’s here to rescue you?” He turned back to Johnny. “You want her, hotshot? Come get her!” He locked eyes with Johnny, daring him to approach.
Johnny held his hands up in a conciliatory gesture, and called up his most mollifying tone, to de-escalate the bulky man. “Sir, I want you to try to calm down. Somebody’s going to get hurt. Please, just let her go. Just try to settle down, I’m sure this can all be worked out.”
“Somebody’s gonna get hurt, all right!” growled the man as he viciously slapped the woman aside. Johnny rushed to the woman and quickly helped her to her feet. He stepped in front of her protectively as the raging man lunged. Johnny dodged the attack, and he pushed the woman down the alley toward the relative safety of the street. He heard the sound of her retreating footsteps, and felt a small measure of relief. His attention was diverted from the man for a split second when he started to trip on a discarded bottle. As he turned back toward the enraged man, he felt the man’s huge right fist smash into the side of his face, followed immediately by an equally aggressive punch to his other eye. Johnny’s arms instinctively flew up to his face, which felt like it had been hit with a 2 by 4. A soggy cardboard box softened his fall to the ground. He scrambled to his feet in a daze and backed away from the man, blood dripping from his nose and face.
“Want some more, Loverboy?” the man snarled menacingly as he picked up the empty bottle. His laugh sounded hideous, and he waved the bottle towards Johnny. “You’re such a sucker!” the man spit through his tobacco-stained teeth. He lobbed the beer bottle at Johnny’s head. Missing his target, he cursed, and disappeared around the back of the neighboring building.
Johnny made his way out of the alley and up to Terri’s apartment. Blood flowed freely from his nose and under his left eye, and both eyes were beginning to swell shut. He knocked on the door, leaning a shoulder against it to steady himself.
Terri peered through the peephole. Her breath caught at the sight of blood on Johnny’s face, and she yanked the door open.
Johnny toppled into her apartment in a heap, landing hard. He hissed as he rolled to a sitting position, holding his nose with both hands. “Damn, that hurts.”
Terri gasped dramatically and dropped to her knees to help him. “I’m so sorry, Johnny. I didn’t know you were… Your face - oh God, what happened? Your eyes. You’re bleeding! Here, let’s get you to the couch. What happened?” She helped him up and guided him across the room. “Lean your head back. I’ll get some ice. You poor thing.”
Johnny tried to make light of his injuries. “Boy, I sure taught that guy a lesson, huh?”
Terri opened the first aid kit she kept in her bathroom, and tore open a gauze pad with well-practiced ease. She folded it into quarters and pressed it against the wound under Johnny’s eye. He flinched and pulled away involuntarily.
“I know… sorry,” she said with a grimace. She studied his face, watching his every move and reaction, finding him more intriguing by the moment. The blood on his face mesmerized her.
While Johnny held the pad in place, Terri wrapped a white washcloth around an ice bag and carefully placed it on the pad. “See if you can hold pressure on the pad with this. You’re going to need to alternate which eye you put that on, unless you want a second ice bag.”
“One will be fine, thanks.” He adjusted the ice and tried to make himself to relax a little. “Ah, that’s better. Man, I hope his hand hurts as much as my face does. I hope the woman got away. He slapped her pretty hard. What a jerk.”
“The police should be here soon. Let’s worry about you right now.”
“Maybe I should go outside and--”
“No,” she cut him off. “You should sit here and let me play nurse.” She liked the sly grin that appeared on what she could still see of Johnny’s face, and added, “I didn’t say, ‘play doctor,’ Mister Gage, I said, ‘nurse.’ Now, be a good little patient.” She stood behind the couch and started massaging his tense neck and shoulder muscles.
Johnny felt himself unwind a little under her gentle care. “You’re hired. That feels really good. You said you called the police?”
“Yes. They should be here any time. I wonder what’s taking them so long.”
Much as he would have loved to continue with the massage, Johnny stood up slowly when he saw the flashing lights outside the window. He recognized the two officers who got out of the patrol car, but he couldn’t remember their names. Johnny held the ice bag against his face and stepped out into the hall as the two men reached the top of the stairs.
The older, slightly heavy cop thought Johnny looked familiar. He introduced himself as Officer Bill Devlin, and his partner as Officer Jeff Grant. “Aren’t you a firefighter out of 51s? Jeez, kid, what happened to your face?”
“Yeah, Gage. John Gage. Sorry, uh, I’m a little messy here,” Johnny explained, ignoring the cop's out-stretched hand.
Devlin nodded with recognition. “Gage? That’s right, I saw you on the news last week. Thought your name was Sage.”
“Gage. It’s Gage.” He lowered the ice for a minute to see if the bleeding had stopped.
Terri guided Johnny’s hand back up with the ice. “Put it on your other eye now, Johnny, Hon.”
Devlin and Grant both winced at the sight of Johnny’s swollen face and the bloody cloth. “Man, he got you good. Go sit down, will ya? You’re makin’ me nervous. What’d he hit you with, a brick?”
“Feels like it. Guess I’m lucky he only hit me twice. The guy was huge. He was about 30, and probably six-foot three, 250 pounds. Reddish-brownish hair and a scraggly-looking beard. I just hope that gal got away. I’d hate to think I got beat up for nothing,” he added with a wry smile.
Devlin got out a small spiral notepad and began to jot down notes as Johnny filled them in on what had transpired. They weren’t too hopeful that they would find the assailant, despite the reasonably good description Johnny gave them, unless the guy got picked up for something else. They asked him to swing by the station in the morning to look at mug shots.
Devlin watched Terri fuss over Johnny, gently wiping the blood from his face and hands with a clean damp cloth, bringing him a glass of water, holding the ice pack for him. The cop felt a twinge of jealousy. Some guys have all the luck. “You gonna be okay?”
Terri answered for him. “His laceration needs to be cleaned and may need stitches, and a doctor needs to check his eyes and nose, and--”
“Can you tell she’s a nurse?” Johnny attempted a laugh.
Devlin closed his notepad and headed toward the door. “Well, then you’re in good hands, huh?”
Johnny sat on the exam table in the treatment room. He moaned inwardly when Dr. Morton walked in. Why did it have to be Morton?
“Don’t see us enough on the job, hm?” the doctor stated as much as asked.
“Not my fault, Doc. I was just trying to have a nice date with one of the new nurses. You probably know her. Terri Miller?”
Dr. Morton nodded. “Yes, I know Miss Miller. She seems to be a very competent nurse. Let’s have a look.”
Johnny gingerly lowered the bloodied washcloth containing the now mostly-melted ice, and he spoke quietly. “Listen, you’re not gonna tell everybody about me gettin’ punched out, are ya? I mean, I’m still gettin’ harassed about passing out on TV last week.”
Dr. Morton gave his patient an appraising look and snorted. “Well, I’ll tell you what. You tell me how you plan on keeping two black eyes a secret, and I won’t tell a soul.”
Johnny winced as the doctor probed the injuries. “Ooh, ouch, take it easy, Doc.” He had never liked Dr. Morton’s bedside manner.
“Well, nothing seems broken, but you will need two or three stitches beneath that eye. What was it? The ol’ one-two punch?”
“Yeah, something like that. Hey, take it easy, will ya?” Johnny flinched again.
Johnny spotted Terri entering the treatment room, and he smiled. Doctor Morton noticed the change in Johnny’s demeanor--especially that he had quit complaining. That would be a plus while he stitched the cut under Johnny’s left eye. It occurred to the doctor that with all the injuries Johnny racked up, dating nurses was probably one of his wiser moves.
After Doctor Morton finished, he started to head out the door and at the last minute he turned around. “One more thing, Johnny.”
“What’s that, Doc?”
“Next time, duck.”
“Wise guy,” Johnny muttered as the doctor left the room.
Terri approached the exam table and laced her fingers behind the back of Johnny’s neck. “I’m really sorry you got hurt, especially outside my apartment. I almost feel like it’s my fault.”
“Your fault? How could you think that? I’ve never been good at minding my own business. I’m just sorry it wrecked our date.”
Terri stared at him, admiring the intimately close view of the handsome man in his battered condition. She leaned in closer and kissed him, slowly at first, and then more passionately. “I wouldn’t say it wrecked our date entirely. Maybe I should drive you home.”
Johnny didn’t notice when Terri deftly slipped the bloodied washcloth into her purse.
When Johnny returned to work, he entered the locker room sporting two very impressive black eyes. He hoped to get a little sympathy and encouragement from Roy before facing the rest of the crew.
“What happened to you?” Roy examined the damage and let out a low whistle. “Don’t tell me she hit you with a bowling ball.”
“Ha, ha.” Johnny gave Roy a quick rendition of his run-in with the man he had now named Goliath. He slumped down on the bench in front of his locker, dreading what he knew was to come. “Man, I am NOT looking forward to seeing the guys.” With a heavy sigh, Johnny stood up and opened his locker to change. The well-placed water bomb burst in Johnny’s face, truly adding insult to injury. “Damn it, Chet!”
Chet heard the long-anticipated “splash” and perfunctory shout that followed. He entered the locker room with a broad grin, but stopped in his tracks as he took in Johnny’s appearance. “Whoa-Ho! Nice mask there, Ricky Raccoon! A very wet Ricky Raccoon. I guess I won’t ask about your big date.”
“Looks like she can throw a pretty good punch. Who cares what she looks like, I like her already.”
“Shut up, Chet!” Johnny quickly unbuttoned his drenched shirt and threw it at Chet.
“And, dry your hair off, will ya? You’re drippin’ all over!”
It was too early in the day for Roy to play referee between these two. He gave Johnny a supportive pat on the back and then headed to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee, leaving Johnny to fend for himself. It was just as well to let them get their sparring over with now.
As Roy sat down with his coffee, Chet bounded into the kitchen, quite pleased with himself for rattling Johnny’s cage so early in the morning.
Marco looked up from the morning paper. “What’s got you in such a good mood so early?”
Chet chuckled, rubbing his hands together. “Have you seen Gage yet? Easy pickin's, my boys. Easy pickin’s.”
Mike looked up from his coffee and showed some interest.
“Two black eyes; not one - two,” Chet said, holding up two fingers for added emphasis. “And the Phantom got him, too. Splat! Right in the face. You should’ve seen him! I’m gonna have fun with this all day.”
Roy took a long sip of his coffee and sighed. “Not that it will make any difference, but you remember his big date a couple days ago, right?”
“Yeah, Terri.” Chet rolled his eyes. “We only heard her name a thousand times or so all week.”
“I guess some guy was roughing up a woman right outside Terri’s apartment, so Johnny went to check it out. You know, see if he could help.”
Disappointment, mixed with concern, played across Chet’s face, “So, he slammed his face into the guy’s fist? Twice? Clever. Jeez… only Johnny.” He headed to the coffee pot and emptied it into his cup.
Johnny entered the kitchen, hoping to down his morning caffeine before roll call. He stared at the empty pot with disgust, and noticed the talking had stopped. Their efforts to avoid staring at his face were not lost on him. “Okay,” he started, with his arms outstretched, “get a good look. Get all your comments out now. I believe Chet has already claimed ‘Ricky Raccoon.’ Who wants Zorro… or maybe the ‘Lone Ranger’, or how about…”
The tones sounded. “Squad 51, Man down. 2265 Edgewater. 2-2-6-5 Edgewater. Time out 7:57.”
The “Man Down” turned out to be a 52-year old man who had just started wearing bifocals the previous day. He had missed the bottom porch step and had twisted his ankle. He had assured his wife that his ankle was only “sprang,” but she had insisted on calling the paramedics. The man had continued to insist to Johnny and Roy many times while they completed their examination that it was only “sprang.” The two paramedics were quite happy to turn the trying man back over to his wife, who promised to drive him to his general practitioner.
As Johnny and Roy packed up their gear and prepared to leave, the man began to snicker. “Nice shiners you got there.” When Johnny didn’t respond, he added, “Hey, kid! Next time, keep your left up!”
Johnny glared at the man, and although he couldn’t swear to it, he thought he might have heard a quiet chuckle from the other side of the squad.
Roy backed into the station and eased the squad to a stop. As they entered the dayroom, Johnny broke his gloomy silence. “Roy, if I hear the word ‘sprang’ one more time, I’m gonna go crazy.”
Chet looked up from scratching Henry’s ears, “Short trip, Gage.”
Johnny was not deterred. “He must have said it twenty times. Don’t people know the word is ‘sprained?’ ‘Sprang’ isn’t even a word. And, if so much as one more person gives me any ‘advice’ on fist fighting, I’ll really lose it.”
“Short trip, Gage,” Chet repeated.
Johnny looked at him with annoyance. “What have we got, an echo in here? Don’t you have a latrine to clean or something, Chet?”
“Don’t get grumpy. Just tryin’ to lighten things up around here. Never mind.” He leaned close to Henry’s ear, “No one appreciates us, do they, Henry?”
Roy knew it was time to redirect Johnny’s energy to something more positive. He poured two cups of fresh coffee and placed one in Johnny’s hand. “So, are you going to see Terri again?”
Johnny immediately brightened. “She’s incredible, Roy. She can’t wait to go out again. Our days off don’t match up again until Tuesday. She feels so bad about what happened last week that she wants to cook me dinner. Then we’re going to a movie. And, if any fights break out, I’m just gonna stay out of the way.”
Mike looked up from his newspaper. “Do the police have any leads on the guy who decked you?” he asked.
Johnny corrected him. “You mean the guy who blindsided me, Mike. Blindsided. It wasn’t like I just stood there and let him punch me, you know.”
Mike’s expression didn’t waver. “Any leads?”
Johnny shook his head and frowned. “I haven’t heard anything yet.”
Marco joined in the exchange. “Roy says she’s really pretty. Like a model or something.”
“You got that right. She’s a knockout, isn’t she, Roy?”
Roy echoed, “She’s a knockout.”
“And, she’s cookin’ me dinner.” Johnny reminded them.
“She’s cookin’ him dinner,” Roy echoed again, in jest. His work here was done. Johnny had completed the transformation from grumpy to gloating, and the remainder of the shift was a relative breeze.
Johnny knew the days would drag until Tuesday unless he kept busy. To make the time go faster, he started a big project he had been thinking about for months: building a deck. He spent all of Sunday taking measurements, preparing the site, drawing up the plans, buying the lumber, and supplies, and borrowing a few key tools from Roy. He would be ready to begin construction after the next shift.
Monday was a quiet day at the station, which made Tuesday night feel as though it would never come. By the time the shift finally ended, Johnny dashed home to begin actual work. Roy helped him for the first half of the day, and then headed home to tackle some of his own projects.
Terri reached under her bed and pulled out the strongbox. She sat on the floor to unlock it, and then she slowly opened the lid. She carefully removed the stained white washcloth that now held her mother’s engagement and wedding rings, pausing briefly to stare at the dark blotches on the cloth. She sighed and returned the cloth to her special box, then she removed the two bottles she had come to get. She checked the labels: Chloral Hydrate. Ipecac.
Johnny picked up some flowers on the way to Terri’s to set a romantic tone for the evening, and he was not disappointed. He thoroughly enjoyed the lengthy “thank you” kiss that followed.
The candlelight dinner Terri presented was flawless, from the perfectly grilled medium-rare steaks to the chocolate mousse. Johnny wasn’t prepared for the heavy blanket of drowsiness that began to envelope him, though. He tried to shake off the feeling with energetic talk. “Terri, you are a fantastic cook! That has to be the best meal I’ve had in a long time. Let me help you with the dishes. I need to get up or I’m gonna fall asleep here.”
“I’m not boring you, am I?” Terri teased.
Embarrassed, Johnny stammered, “No, no… not at all --”
“Don’t worry, I’m kidding. But, I don’t believe in ruining a nice evening by doing dishes. They can wait. Maybe I can wake you up with some coffee before we go to the movie.”
Johnny tried to perk up, surprised at his growing fatigue. It was the last thing he ever expected to feel in Terri’s presence. “Sounds great. Thanks. I can get it.” He really felt like he needed to move or he would fall asleep.
“No, no. You sit down and relax a minute. I’ll bring the coffee.” She smiled and gave him another lingering kiss.
“I could get used to this,” he called after her in jest, stifling another yawn. He chuckled to himself when he heard her laugh. He felt extremely relaxed, but he attributed his drowsiness to the big meal. Coffee would help. He certainly didn’t want to yawn through the movie or, God forbid, fall asleep.
“Black?” she called.
“Yeah, thanks. Sure you don’t want any help?”
“I’ve got it right here. Just a second.” Terri knew they wouldn’t be going to the movie. She looked forward to something a bit more…interactive. She much preferred creating and directing a drama herself, and she had done her research, much as she was now sure her mother had done hers. But, medicine was anything but an exact science, and she recognized the possibility of error. That was part of the excitement. She dumped some of the syrupy liquid into the coffee cup and stirred. She handed Johnny his cup and sat down next to him, acutely aware of his struggle to stay conscious.
He took a sip. “Wow, that’s some strong coffee. But, it’s good. Guess we won’t be falling asleep during that movie, huh?” Smooth, Gage, insult her coffee…
He picked up one of the photography magazines off her coffee table. “You into photography?” he asked, as much to keep himself awake as to make conversation.
“It’s a hobby. Want to see some of my pictures?”
“Absolutely. I take a few pictures myself. Nature shots, mostly. And, Roy’s kids. And, my horses, of course.”
“It may take me a minute to find my best ones. I haven’t gotten all my boxes of stuff like that unpacked yet. Wait here, okay? I don’t want you to see my mess back there.” She disappeared into the back of her apartment.
Johnny drank his coffee quickly, hoping the caffeine would kick into gear soon. He stood up and paced to keep himself from dozing off. For the first time, he noticed that Terri really didn’t have a lot in her apartment. No pictures on the walls, despite her interest in photography, no knick-knacks, just the basics. She must not have gotten those unpacked yet, either, he reasoned, though he knew she’d lived there a couple months.
After a few minutes, she reappeared with a large album. “Found ‘em!”
Johnny pored over her pictures; he admired her skills as a photographer, but found the content of some of them a little disturbing. All of the pictures were black and white, and very artistic, but the subject matter seemed dark, and the lighting odd, harsh. He turned more pages. Most of the pictures were of crash sites or natural disasters, but there was always a person somewhere in the picture. Some of the photos felt almost haunting in tone. She certainly had a gift for capturing the raw emotions of tragedy. Every time Johnny looked up at her, he found her staring at him. He assumed she was studying his reaction to her pictures and hoped she couldn’t tell how hard he was working to keep his heavy eyelids open. But, of course, she did know.
“These are really powerful, Terri.” He did respect her talent, but they weren’t pictures you’d hang on a wall in your house. Not his house, at any rate.
After about 15 minutes of looking at photographs and chatting about hobbies, Johnny stood up on his unsteady legs, suddenly feeling very queasy. “Mind if I get a glass of water?” God, don’t let this be the flu. Not tonight…
“Sure. Are you okay? You don’t look like you feel very good. Sit down. Let me get it.”
“I probably just ate too much of your good cooking,” he said self-consciously. He was rapidly feeling worse, like he had been trolling on a fishing boat for hours. “Are you feeling okay? Maybe I’m coming down with the flu.”
She brought him a tall glass of water. “Here, maybe this will help. Hope it wasn’t my cooking.”
“If you aren’t sick, too, then it isn’t food poisoning. Man… Terri…” Johnny made a hasty retreat to her bathroom, where things progressed from bad to worse. He retched violently several times, shocking himself with the volume of his donations to the toilet bowl. He felt absolutely and undeniably miserable. He wanted to just lie down on the floor and sleep. Eventually he rinsed his mouth out, splashed cool water on his face, and ventured slowly out to the living room, looking very pale.
“I guess I’ve got the flu. My feet feel like lead. I’m really sorry, Terri. I’m going to need to call this evening short,” Johnny said with exasperation.
She gave him a very understanding look and felt his forehead. “You do feel a bit warm,” she lied. “Want me to take your temperature?”
“Nah, I already know I’m sick.”
“Hey, everybody gets sick. I’m just sorry I won’t get to spend more time with you. Maybe I should drive you home.”
Johnny managed a weak smile. The thought of driving home seemed as daunting as running a marathon. “I’ll be fine, but thanks. I’m really sorry about the movie.” He appreciated her undertanding attitude. His knees started to buckle as he headed toward the door.
Terri took the keys from his hand and eased him back down to the couch. “Why don’t you sit another minute until you’re sure you’re okay to drive?”
Instead of relaxing on the couch, Johnny quickly returned to the back of Terri’s apartment, where he endured two more bouts of abject misery in the bathroom. He had never been so violently ill in his life. Terri stood outside the bathroom door, listening with perverse satisfaction, feeling empowered with her ability to toy with his life.
Johnny rested his head briefly on the cool edge of the bathtub and dozed off. He woke up moments later, slightly disoriented, as Terri entered the bathroom to check on him.
“God, I don’t want you to see me like this,” he moaned as he stood up, shaking from head to foot.
“I’m a nurse, Johnny, I’ve seen it before. Let me help you. Come on. I made a bed for you on the couch. You’re not driving anywhere tonight.”
He practically collapsed onto her couch, closing his eyes as she covered him with a thick quilt and kissed his cheek. “Here. Lay back. Just rest.” Her soothing words were comforting. He had no idea that she sat and watched him sleep for an hour. He was totally oblivious to the click and flash of the camera.
Terri brought her camera to her bedroom and placed it on her dresser. Before she retired for the night, she needed to see the washcloth one more time. She again opened the strongbox and let her eyes settle on the rings and the cloth. She touched her lip, remembering a rare, almost tender, moment with her mother. She had just turned nine, and it was the first time her mother had hit her hard enough to draw blood. Terri’s father had died the previous year, so there was nobody left to protect her from her mother’s more frequent rages. When her mother saw the blood, she had fallen to her knees and tried to comfort her daughter and wipe away the blood. Terri had never seen her mother show affection to anyone except her father as he became increasingly ill. That was when she had begun to suspect.
Johnny woke up feeling shaky and dehydrated. His head pounded and his eyes burned. He drank a little water at the bathroom sink, and kept it down, which helped. The long shower felt even better. He heard Terri in the kitchen, and went to join her.
She smiled warmly at him. “You’re looking better.”
“I almost feel human again,” he said, although he knew he was exaggerating. “I feel like I’ve got the worst hangover in history, without the fun of the party.”
“Here, I made you some tea and toast. Feel up to it?”
“Don’t suppose you have any Gatorade, do you?”
“No, but this tea might help you feel better. You need some fluids.” She placed the cup of tea and the slice of dry toast in front of him.
“Yeah, thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
“Well, I need to look out for my favorite paramedic, you know?” She sat down next to him and sipped her coffee, gazing at him affectionately.
Terri’s thoughtfulness amazed him. It had been many years since Johnny had had the luxury of someone to take care of him when he was sick. There was always his aunt, but, as a grown man, he wasn’t about to call her every time he felt a little under the weather. Besides, she was getting older, and he never wanted to expose her to whatever bug he might have picked up. He could always count on Roy and Joanne if things got really out of hand, but he usually found himself treading the fine line between toughing it out and feeling a little sorry for himself. He found himself enjoying the attention and pampering that Terri tenderly bestowed. He added it to the growing bank of endearing qualities in the woman who was quickly working her way into his heart.
Roy watched Johnny fling his locker open to change into his uniform. “Well, how were your days off? Your date with Terri go better than the last one?”
“You are not going to believe this, Roy; you are not going to believe this. Terri invited me over to make me dinner, right? Then, we were going to go out to a movie. Dinner went great - she’s a really good cook. Then, what did I do? I ended up in her bathroom, sick as a dog. The flu! The flu hit me right in the middle of our date. We never even made it to the movie. Can you believe it? I get punched on our first date, then I puke on our second date. Unbelievable. She’s gonna start to think there’s something really wrong with me.”
Chet shook his head as he entered the locker room with his typical uncanny timing. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny… you are making this too easy for me.”
“Chet--” Johnny clenched his teeth.
This time, Roy tried to mediate. “Johnny’s days off weren’t too good. He got sick.”
“Didn’t you have another date with that Terri chick? I would have thought she would be the one getting sick.”
Johnny slammed his locker, and headed to the day room. “You can just forget it, Chet. I’m not bitin’!”
Chet shouted after him, “Well, whatever you had, just don’t give it to me!”
Roy joined Johnny at the coffee pot. “Sure you’re up to drinking Chet’s coffee?”
“I’m over it now, Roy. Just a 24-hour bug, I guess. Man, it was bad, though; I’ve never had stomach flu like that. I couldn’t even keep water down.”
“Almost sounds more like food poisoning, coming on that fast.”
“I know. I wondered the same thing. But, Terri and I ate the same thing and she’s fine. Man, I hope she doesn’t get this thing.”
Chet entered the dayroom and looked at the dregs in the coffee pot with distaste and started to make more. “She probably just poisoned you to get you out of her hair.”
“If she wanted to poison me she could have just put eggshells in the coffee.”
“Hey - that’s an old family trick. It makes the grounds--”
“It’s disgusting, Chet! Anyway, if she wanted me out of her hair, she wouldn’t have insisted that I spend the night at her apartment, and then hung around my place, taking care of me.” Johnny leaned back in the chair and sipped his coffee with a smug grin.
“No, I’m serious. She felt so bad, she brought me home-made chicken soup and some tender-loving care.”
Roy rolled his eyes. “Bet you loved that… your own private nurse, making a house call.”
Johnny smiled and nodded. “You could say I did.” They don’t need to know I felt like crap all day…
Johnny counted the days until he could see Terri again, and he did what he could to speed them along. He talked with her on the phone at least once a day, and he spent much of his off time working on his deck. By Monday night it was finished. Johnny got out of the shower, dressed, and grabbed some chips and a well-earned beer. He flipped on the TV and got comfortable on the couch, waiting for Terri to arrive. They wouldn’t be able to actually stand on the deck until the sealer dried, but at least he could show her before they tried one more time to go to a movie.
The phone rang. Terri sounded very upset.
“Johnny, I just got home from work to change, and someone has been in my apartment. My stuff’s thrown all over. I’m really nervous. What if someone is still watching the place and--”
She knew she wouldn’t have to ask him to come over. It was a given.
Johnny sat up straight, instantly very alert. “Go to a neighbor’s and call the police. I’ll be right there.”
“Johnny, I really don’t think--”
“Terri, listen to me. Hang up the phone and go to a neighbor’s and call the police. I need to know you’ll do that.”
“Okay, Johnny. Just hurry, okay? I feel like someone’s watching me or something.”
“I’m on my way.” He could feel his heart rate increase as he scooped up his keys and raced out the door. If anyone lays a hand on her, so help me….
Johnny looked up at the darkened windows of Terri’s apartment on the second floor as he screeched into a parking place. He didn’t see any police cars out front, which fueled his growing concern: he’d been driving twenty minutes. They should be here by now. He practically flew to the upper hall, taking the stairs two at a time, his adrenaline surging. He didn’t know which neighbor she might have gone to. Damn, why didn’t I ask her which apartment she’d go to? Why isn’t she coming out? Something’s wrong. Desperate to find her, he knocked urgently on her door.
All he could hear was the muffled noise of a TV in another unit, and the sound of his own rapid breathing. He reminded himself to be cautious, but he had to know if she was okay. He tried the door, and the knob turned freely in his hand. Something definitely didn’t feel right, and it sent up alarms in his mind, but he needed to check on her. He pushed the door open and peered inside warily. The light from the hallway partially illuminated the living room, revealing couch cushions and newspapers strewn across the floor. He stepped inside and quietly called her name. “Terri, you here?” As he turned to search for the light switch, something blunt slammed into the back of his head, and his body hit the wall and then fell to the floor with a heavy thud.
Terri closed the front door silently, and then carefully placed the metal bar back into her coat closet. She turned on a small lamp and observed her handiwork. She kept her eyes glued on Johnny while she dialed the police and waited impatiently for the faceless person at the other end to answer.
She whispered urgently to add validity to her deception. “There’s somebody breaking in to my apartment. Hurry! I can hear him. My boyfriend is on the way over here, but please hurry!” She made sure her voice carried an edge of panic as she gave them her address, then she hung up the phone. She knew she’d been quite convincing; but, then again, she had had lots of practice.
She stared at Johnny’s still form, face down, on the carpet. She gently rolled him over onto his back so she could see his face. One arm rested across his chest. She liked the visual effects from the floor lamp, the play of light and shadows across his slack features as his chest rose and fell. She thought his dark hair created a pleasantly severe contrast against his unnaturally pale skin.
Chilling. He looked so defenseless. So vulnerable. Breath-taking.
Terri picked up her camera and shot pictures from three angles, taking care that Johnny’s face showed in each one. She would be able to relive the experience later, when she developed the pictures. The images would slowly materialize in the chemicals, beneath the surreal darkroom light. These would go into the strongbox with the other most meaningful pieces of her life. She returned the camera to the kitchen table and sat down to watch Johnny slowly regain consciousness. The tingling sensation washed over her as she watched him breathe. She wanted to savor every single private, silent moment.
Johnny began to stir. First he was aware of a cool cloth on his forehead, and then he felt a soft hand caress his cheek. Someone held his hand. His head throbbed, and he bit his lip as he suppressed a moan. His eyes flickered open, and even the light from the single lamp seemed to drive daggers into his skull. Terri’s face came into focus gradually as he squinted against the harsh light, but he was still disoriented. “Is Roy okay?” Johnny ventured automatically.
“Roy? Johnny, I was so worried. He could have killed you!”
“Huh? Terri? What happened?” Johnny took in his surroundings, propping himself up on one elbow and cautiously touching the back of his head. “What am I doing here?”
“The man in my apartment. Didn’t you see him? God, this is all my fault!” Terri stared at him, her wide-eyed face wet from tears.
“What man, Terri? Did he hurt you?” Johnny struggled to sit up, but the flash of pain brought him back down to the floor. “Aw, man…” He held his head in his hands, and fought the nausea. He didn’t want to throw up in her apartment again. He concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths and then moved the cooler side of the damp cloth to the back of his head. “Man, what is it with your apartment building?” He forced a weak smile and squeezed her hand. He thought he could feel her trembling slightly, and he tried again to sit up to reassure her. “I don’t even remember coming here. The phone rang… What man? Did he--”
“No, no. Johnny, but you don’t know how scared I was. I heard him rummaging around in the living room after I called you, so I locked myself in the bathroom. I was such a coward.” More tears streamed down her face.
He reached up and gently wiped a tear from her face. “No, Terri, you did the right thing. Are you sure you’re okay?” She found his concern for her very alluring. It was almost as intoxicating as seeing him injured, and almost as powerful. She could tell he was still in pain, but now she was the center of his attention. The feeling was such a rush; it was addictive.
She had to play this right. She used a hushed voice. “Somebody broke in! I saw him, Johnny. I’ve never seen him before,” she lied. “He was taller than you, and a lot heavier. Reddish, wavy hair, scruffy beard--”
Johnny recognized the description: Goliath. “Terri, that sounds like the guy from the alley! God, if he’d found you…” He shuddered, and pulled her closer. She liked the feel of his sheltering arms around her, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Johnny, you must have spooked him. When I think about what would have happened if you hadn’t come…and what could have happened because you did...I...”
“Shh, shh, it’s okay now,” he said as he rubbed her back.
“It’s not okay. He hurt you!”
Johnny jumped slightly when he heard the knock at the door. Head pounding, he rose unsteadily. Terri grabbed his arm, but he protectively waved her back.
“Johnny, it’s probably the police. I called them after I called you, just like you told me to.”
“Let me get it. You stay back,” he cautioned, wanting to be sure. Then, he heard the police officers identify themselves. He recognized the voices. Devlin and Grant again. He opened the door. “We’ve gotta quit meeting like this,” Johnny said, trying to manage a smile. “You pull up back? I didn’t see your lights this time.”
Devlin nodded, taking in Johnny’s bedraggled appearance. “Gage, you gotta be kiddin’ me. What is it with you? You carry bad luck in your back pocket or something? We got a call that there was an intruder here. That wouldn’t be you, would it?”
“Not hardly. But I guess I surprised him. I never saw him. He knocked me out cold, this time.”
“This time?” The cop’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, ‘This time’?”
“The guy from the alley.”
Devlin shook his head. “You really got a way with people.”
Johnny nodded. “It’s that target I wear on my back,” he countered, as he sank down slowly onto the couch and returned the cloth to the back of his head.
“If I remember right, kid, you wore the last target on your face. How many stitches did you end up with--four, five?”
Johnny half-smiled at the comeback. “Good one. Three.”
The heavy-set cop patted Johnny on the shoulder and shook his head in sympathy. “You okay?”
“Peachy,” Johnny grumbled back.
Johnny and Terri gave their statements to the two police officers. Johnny didn’t have much to offer, except that the last thing he remembered was sitting on the couch at home relaxing, the phone ringing, and then waking up on the floor of Terri’s apartment with a pounding headache. The fact that Terri’s description of the man matched the man Johnny had described from the alley incident made it less likely that this was a random break-in. Dusting for prints would be pointless; Terri told them the man had been wearing gloves. Devlin asked Terri to go to the station the next day to look at pictures. Nothing obvious had been stolen, although some drawers were open and some pillows and papers had been tossed around. Johnny marveled at Terri’s efforts to maintain her composure, under the circumstances. He knew she had to be scared. She sat very close to him on the couch, and clung to his arm.
Despite half-hearted protests from Johnny, Terri assured the officers that she would take him to the hospital to get checked out by a doctor. Johnny agreed, grudgingly, knowing that he probably did have a concussion. He found the gap in his memory very disconcerting. Part of him wanted to storm off into the night and find the guy responsible, but more of him just wanted to go home and lie down. Neither would happen any time soon. Terri gathered up her keys and purse as the two police officers departed.
Outside Terri’s apartment, Devlin looked at his partner critically. “Did that seem a little strange to you in there?”
“Yeah, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Did you notice the fancy camera right on her kitchen table? You’d think the guy would have lifted it. What did he come here for, anyway? He went through some drawers, right? Didn’t open any of her boxes, though. What was he looking for? Some guy supposedly breaks into her apartment, while she’s gone. Then she calls Gage, right? Where is the guy when she makes the phone call? Why doesn’t he attack her? She sees him, sees him right down to his brown leather gloves, but he doesn’t see or hear her? Then, he whacks Gage and leaves. Is it just me, or does something not quite ring true about that little scenario?”
“It’s not just you,” Grant confirmed, shaking his head. “She called Gage, saying there was an intruder, right? And, Gage opened the door and stepped inside. Wouldn’t you think she’d have locked the door right when she walked in, seeing her stuff thrown around?”
“You’d think so, yeah. Maybe she was too rattled to think straight, maybe he has a key, who knows?”
Grant looked at his partner as they began to descend the stairs. “You think maybe he’s in on it?”
“Gage? I don’t think he gave himself two black eyes and whacked himself on the back of the head, no.”
Grant nodded. “Think we should say something to him?”
“What do we say? ‘Gage, watch your back?’” Devlin shrugged. “We really have nothing to go on. The captain would laugh us right out of his office and say it’s probably just some lover’s quarrel or some stupid thing.”
Grant nodded. “Yeah, and I’m sure he’d take the opportunity to remind us we’re not really detectives.”
Devlin rolled his eyes at the thought of another lecture from his captain. He knew they probably were reading more in to the situation than was really there. Regardless, somehow, he wasn’t feeling jealous any more.
Rampart was a zoo. When Dr. Brackett finally had a chance to see Johnny, the exam confirmed that he had sustained a mild concussion. Although the doctor would have preferred for Johnny to stay the night at Rampart for observation, the hospital was so packed from a gang fight and multiple-vehicle accident that he had no idea when they would actually have a bed for him. Since Terri was a nurse and she promised to keep a close eye on Johnny all night, Dr. Brackett reluctantly allowed Johnny to leave after several hours. “I want neuro checks every two hours, and absolutely no pain medication. If you have even the slightest concern, you bring him right back here.”
“I’ll take good care of him, Dr. Brackett,” Terri assured.
“Please see that you do,” he said, gruffly. Then, with a gentler tone and a very tired smile, he added, “He can be a very demanding patient. Believe me.”
Terri told Johnny she was afraid to return to her apartment, so she drove the two of them to his house. Every two hours, all night long, she woke him up and checked his mental status. “Do you know what day it is? Do you know where you are? What’s your name?” She dutifully checked the evenness of the strength in both his hands, and checked his pupils for reactivity and equality. Johnny admired and respected her dedication, but the wake-up calls lost their charm at about 4 a.m.
In the morning, Terri agreed to go to work only after Johnny promised to call Roy and spend the day with him until she returned.
“Roy? Yeah, it’s Johnny. Um…you have any plans for today?”
“Just working around the house, why?”
“Well, I kinda had a little problem last night, and I had to promise Dr. Brackett and Terri that I wouldn’t be alone today. Terri has tomorrow off, but she had to work today, and I--”
“Dr. Brackett? What happened? Are you okay?”
“It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you more later, but basically, Terri had a break-in, and I guess I kinda surprised the guy. I’ve got a mild concussion -- it’s no big deal.”
“Johnny, why aren’t you at the hospital?”
“They didn’t have any beds and Terri told Brackett she’d watch me all night. And, she did, too, believe me. The whole nine yards, every two hours. Listen, I’ll tell you more later. Any chance you could take me over to Terri’s some time today to get my truck? She lives over at the Edgewater, close to Rampart. I wasn’t up to driving last night.”
“I’ll bet. Johnny, you shouldn’t be driving any today at all. Let me bring you here. If you’re feeling okay this evening, we’ll go get your truck. Okay?”
“Good deal. Hey, thanks, Roy. I feel pretty stupid needing to ask you to baby-sit me. But, I do appreciate it.”
Roy laughed understandingly. “Well, don’t thank me yet. Jenny’s on a Barbie doll kick, and I’m sure she’ll want you to be Ken.”
Johnny moaned good-naturedly. “As long as I don’t have to be Midge, like last time. Her legs don’t even bend. See ya soon.”
As Johnny got out of Roy’s car, Roy adeptly intercepted his daughter just as she started to greet Johnny with her customary flying tackle. “Uncle Johnny’s got a bad headache, sweetheart,” Roy told her, “so you know what that means?”
“What, Daddy?” She squealed as Roy threw her up over his shoulder.
“It means I get to carry you into the house like a sack of potatoes today, not him!”
“Uncle Johnny! Save me!” Jenny waved her hands and feet wildly.
Johnny grabbed at Jenny’s hands, pretending to “save” her from Roy while they walked into the house.
Jenny sat next to Johnny and finished her cereal while Joanne poured coffee. Johnny promised to play Barbies when he finished talking with her daddy, so she ran to her room to get everything set up. “You’re Ken!” she shouted from the back of the house.
“Okay, Jen,” he yelled back. The two men moved to the front porch to ensure that Jenny wouldn’t overhear them, and Johnny finished giving Roy the details of the night before. Neither one of them wanted Jenny to hear of the assault on “Uncle Johnny,” whom she adored.
“Terri’s trying to act tough, Roy, but I can tell she’s really scared this guy might come back. It’s a pretty big coincidence that the same guy from the alley all the sudden shows up in her apartment. Sounds almost like he’s been watching her for a while. Man, I’d like to get my hands on that guy…” He laughed sardonically, remembering the guy’s size. “Make that a baseball bat. I better give Terri a call soon to let her know I’m at your place, or she’ll panic when I don’t answer the phone. She’s really something, Roy. I’ll see if she can swing by your place and pick me up when she gets off work. She’s going to need to get some of her stuff from her apartment, anyway, and I don’t want her going there alone until that jerk’s behind bars.” Johnny’s face took on a more solemn expression. “I don’t get it, Roy. What makes a person single somebody out like that?”
Roy considered the question. “Control, I guess. Power? I don’t know. Some sort of mental problem, maybe.”
“Yeah… Listen, I don’t want Joanne thinking Terri’s ‘moving in’ with me. She’s just too scared to go back to her own apartment, and I can’t blame her. Her parents have both passed away, and she doesn’t have any family in the area. She’s only been in town for a couple months and doesn’t really feel she can ask anyone else. It’s just until she can find a different apartment. That place just isn’t safe.”
“Yeah, I see your point. Don’t worry about Joanne. This is the 70's, you know. What do the cops say about all this?”
“Devlin and Grant? They couldn’t tell us anything. They’re going to put out a description of him and all that, but they basically told us not to hold our breath. Oh, yeah, Terri needs to go look at pictures and see if she can recognize him. Maybe she’ll have better luck than I did. I told her I’d go with her so I could have another crack at it. We’re going to do that after she gets off work.” Johnny sat quietly a minute, then added, “ I’ll tell you who we need. We need Reed and Malloy. They’d have this solved in one hour,” Johnny joked.
“Nah, this one would be a two-parter,” Roy chuckled.
“You know, they’re the me and you of the police force.”
“Let me guess: You’re Reed and I’m Malloy.”
“You got that right, Pally.”
Roy snorted. “I’m not as old as Malloy!”
“And I’m better lookin’ than Reed, but you don’t see them makin’ a TV show about us.”
“No, I guess not,” Roy conceded.
“Smarter, too,” Johnny added.
“Don’t push it, Junior.”
Despite their joking around, something still didn’t sit quite right with Roy, but he couldn’t put words to the vague thoughts. He almost felt guilty for feeling a little uneasy about Terri. She seemed nice enough, and he really had no reason to feel the way he did. Maybe he was just worried. He wanted Joanne to see Johnny with Terri. She could be very intuitive.
“Say, Officer Gage, why don’t you and Terri come back here for dinner tonight after you go to the police station? Then, you two can just relax later?”
“You sure Joanne won’t mind?”
“Nah, she already mentioned it, actually.”
“Sounds good, Roy. Thanks. I’ll go call Terri.”
Johnny played right in to Terri’s hand. She told him that she had to work an hour longer than she had thought, but that dinner at Roy’s would be great. That gave her time to return to her own apartment to plan the next phase of her dangerously escalating game. Johnny really was perfect for his role: handsome, heroic, adored, trusting; and, now, Terri had access to his house.
She looked longingly at her camera sitting on the kitchen table. She glanced at her watch and knew she didn’t have time to develop the film that waited for her. She reluctantly turned her back on the camera, and walked to her bedroom for her strongbox.
Terri lightly fingered the choices in her deadly arsenal. The drugs gave her power over life and death. She needed something slow, and able to produce a variety of symptoms. The beauty of poison was that normally innocuous chemicals could be parceled out in customized doses or combinations. Drugs could either accumulate over time, or be given in larger doses to accentuate the symptoms she wanted to produce. But, there had to be an antidote. Comforting him while he recovered, nursing him back to health -- that was half the thrill. The other source of gratification came from the medical staff. Their compassion for the distraught and dedicated girlfriend would be so ironic.
She wanted something with a little elegance, to show her superiority over the so-called experts. Something subtle at first, that Johnny and his “medical” friends might even confuse with after-effects of his concussion. Something to dull his senses a little. Cloud his mind. Confuse him. She smiled at her choice: secobarbitol. She wanted to watch his symptoms unfold slowly before her eyes. She imagined that he would want her near as he gradually became more incapacitated, succumbing to her carefully orchestrated manipulation. And, not only would the drug have sedating effects, but it would also cause dizziness, headache, clumsiness and confusion. Given in small doses over time, it could also increase his sensation of pain. This would lay the physiological groundwork for the next stages, making him less likely to suspect a thing.
After Johnny and Terri left for the night, and the kids went to bed, Roy was eager to talk to Joanne about her impression of Terri. They had had a fun evening, but he could tell Joanne had definitely been sizing up Terri, and he had sensed that Joanne’s guard was up slightly. As well as he knew her, he wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret her signals when it came to Johnny’s girlfriends.
“Well?” he ventured.
“Well,” Joanne began, “she certainly is… tactile.”
“Tactile? What do you mean, tactile?”
“She couldn’t keep her hands off him. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice!”
Roy shrugged, trying to keep the smirk off his face. “Johnny didn’t seem to mind.”
“No, he didn’t,” she agreed, not sure whether to be amused or irritated with her husband’s response. “It just seems a little soon for her to be so… I don’t know…so…” Joanne blushed.
“So tactile,” Roy offered.
“Well, they’ve been through a lot together. They’ve had more happen to them than most people after only dating a month.”
“Not a month. Three weeks. Doesn’t that seem a little strange, too?”
“What’s that?” Roy didn’t want to ask any leading questions. He wanted Joanne’s’ own “take” on the situation.
“All they’ve been through. I mean, they meet when Johnny’s in the hospital, then he gets punched in the face on the first date, then… let’s see, the flu when it isn’t flu season, then he gets attacked in her apartment. It just seems a little odd, that’s all.”
“You don’t like her?” There. He'd asked.
“I didn’t say that. What’s not to like? She practically perfect, right?”
“Yeah. Right.” So Joanne sensed something, too. Something was out of place.
Terri heard Johnny upstairs in the shower, so she poured his coffee into a white mug, to camouflage any residue that might remain in the cup. She carefully emptied the contents of the small capsule into the hot drink and stirred it slowly. The tiny granules swirled in the cup and disappeared, the taste virtually undetectable.
Together, they checked the classified ads over a light breakfast, then they headed out to search for a new apartment for Terri. During lunch at a small diner, Terri surprised Johnny with a milkshake when he returned from the men’s room. By late afternoon, Terri had not found an apartment she liked, despite two that Johnny had said might be ideal. Terri commented that Johnny looked worn out, and she suggested that they call it a day.
Johnny lay on the couch and dozed while Terri made dinner. This had been such a familiar scene during her childhood, after her father had become ill. Mother would spend hours in the kitchen while Daddy rested in the living room. She served up the food in the kitchen, confident that the spiciness off the spaghetti sauce would hide the presence of the special additive. By evening, Johnny was thoroughly exhausted, and he fell asleep slumped against Terri’s shoulder while they were watching TV. She eased herself out from under him and covered him with a blanket. She kissed him lightly and fantasized about the days to come.
The secobarbitol had been building up in his system for 24 hours now, but she wanted it to build up further before adding the other drugs. She wanted his symptoms waved in front of Rampart’s staff, and then dismissed as nothing serious. Unless she guessed wrong, a couple of shifts with Roy observing his growing fatigue and headache would land him in the Emergency Department for an exam. That would be her cue to begin the next phase. She knew that the build-up of barbiturates might decrease the effect of the blood thinners she would soon start. She thought two doses of the coumarin ought to work, if combined with a large dose of aspirin on the day she wished to literally bring him to his knees. Then, she would have him where she wanted him. It would send him to the hospital, where she could save his life in front of all of them. She brushed the hair off his face, tucked the blanket neatly under him, and turned off the light. She stared at the moonlight streaming across his face, then headed for bed.
Johnny had always prided himself on rising early without an alarm clock, but he was sound asleep long after the time he normally woke up. Terri went in and woke him as she prepared to leave for work. His grogginess confirmed to her that the drug was building up in his system as planned. Johnny thanked Terri profusely, and he headed to the shower, hoping it would help him wake up more.
“I’m going to grab coffee at the hospital, but I put on a pot of coffee for you,” she told him, sounding considerate.
“Thanks, Terri,” he shouted from the shower. “I really owe you one. If you hadn’t been here, I might still be sleeping. I really need that coffee.”
“No problem. Hey, want me to put this in a thermos and put on another pot before I leave? You can take it with you.”
“Sounds great. I won’t need to fight Chet for the last cup again. Thanks.”
“See you later, Johnny.” She filled the thermos and looked into the small bottle she held. Only a few more capsules left. Feeling invigorated, she headed off to work with a smile.
At the station, Roy noticed his partner’s tired appearance as he straggled in with just minutes to get changed. Roy kidded him gently. “Looks like you had a late night.”
“No… I wish. I was so beat I didn’t even make it upstairs. Who’d have thought apartment hunting would be so tiring? I slept like a log, and I’m still tired.” He rubbed his eyes and finally resorted to splashing some cold water on his face to wake up. “Man, I feel like a slug. I just can’t seem to get going this morning. I got smart, though. I brought in my own thermos of coffee so I’ll be sure to get my share. It’s in the truck, if you get desperate; just don’t tell Chet. I’m sure gonna need it today.” He changed into his uniform as quickly as he could and went in to line up.
After roll call, Johnny and Roy got their assignments for the day and started their usual chores in the dayroom. Chet headed for the supply closet to begin Day 11 of cleaning the latrine. He couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the two paramedics.
“Roy, Terri's putting up a brave front, but this break-in has really shaken
her up. Even staying at my place, I’m sure she doesn’t feel totally safe. We
looked for an apartment for her all day, and she didn’t like any of them. I
think she’s just afraid to get her own place again, after what happened.” Johnny
slammed his hand down on the counter in frustration. "I feel so bad for her. I
hate knowing she’ll be there alone some nights, like tonight. At least after
tomorrow we’ll get to have a day together. I tell you, Roy, if I catch that
creep.... I need to find this guy." Johnny rubbed his temples to ease his
"Just be careful, will you?"
With exaggerated innocence, Johnny placed his hand on his chest. "Hey, it's me."
"Yeah. I know." Roy shook his head. His feeling of uneasiness was developing into something more.
Chet had been listening to the exchange and couldn't stay out of it any longer. “What are you guys talking about?” He set his bucket down.
Chet listened in wonder as Johnny quickly filled him in. Captain Stanley stopped at the coffeepot and listened, too.
Chet began to share Johnny’s anger. "I'll tell you what we need to do. We
need to stake out her apartment is what we need to do. He’s gone there twice
Johnny nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah. Yeah, that's a great idea Chet."
As Chet and Johnny continued their plan of attack, the voice of reason spoke from near the stove.
"Maybe you should give the police a few more days,” the captain suggested.
“Why, Cap?” Johnny asked, his frustration evident. “The police haven’t found a thing. And I don’t really think they expect to. I can recognize the guy, not the cops.”
“Why? Two black eyes, uh, three stitches, a concussion, and two trips to Rampart, for starters! What are you gonna do if you do find him?”
Roy nodded toward Hank. "He's right, guys, this is a little out of our league."
“I’ll give it a couple more days, I guess,” Johnny conceded as he resumed wiping down the counters.
The shift was fairly routine, but Johnny found himself having to really concentrate on things that usually came almost automatically. During rescues, he moved a little slower and more deliberately, and during their down time, he was less animated. By mid-afternoon he was really dragging. As he and Roy entered the kitchen, Johnny headed straight for the coffeepot again, hoping for a little caffeine boost to get him through the evening.
He shrugged at the empty pot. “Figures,” he muttered. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Ha!” He walked out to his truck and brought in his thermos. “My own private stash. Compliments of Terri, I might add. That woman is amazing. She thinks of everything.” As he opened the lid, a small folded piece of flowered paper fell to the floor. As Johnny bent down to pick it up, Chet swooped in and grabbed the note, dodging Johnny’s attempts to recover it.
Keeping his back to the agitated paramedic, Chet raised his voice to a falsetto pitch and began to read aloud. “Just a little reminder that I’ll be thinking about you all day. Thank you so much for--”
“Give me that!” Johnny jerked the note out of Chet’s hand.
“Oh, Johnny! I never knew you cared!” Chet mocked him.
“Damn you, Kelly. You’re just jealous.” Johnny said as he placed the note in his pocket until he could read it in private. He poured himself a big cup of the moderately hot coffee and sat down to drink it while they had some down time, inwardly quite pleased with the sweet note Terri had left him.
“I don’t know, Johnny,” Chet continued, “it’s usually pretty serious when they start leavin’ love notes in your thermos. You’re startin’ to worry me.”
After dinner, Johnny stood up to take his plate to the sink, and he felt light-headed and started to sway. Roy watched from across the table, his fork poised in mid air, as Mike grabbed Johnny’s elbow and eased him back onto his chair.
“You okay, Johnny?”
“Fine, Mike… guess I got up too fast.”
“Have you been back to see Brackett since your concussion?" Roy asked casually, trying to mask his concern. He had been watching Johnny carefully. "You’ve been pretty tired lately. Any nausea? Blurred vision?”
“No, I’m just bushed,” Johnny replied sharply. He rubbed his temples again, trying to rid himself of the headache that had been plaguing him all shift. “Will you guys just back off a little? I’m not dying or anything here. I just got up too fast.” His annoyed tone of voice caught his crewmates off guard.
Captain Stanley had observed Johnny’s lack of energy throughout the shift. “Why don’t you hit the sack early tonight, John?”
“Fine.” Johnny gestured to the rest of the men at the table, adding, “If it’ll get these guys to off my back, I’ll be happy to.” He stood up slowly and shoved his chair back. “A guy can’t even have an off day around here without somebody makin’ a big deal out of it.” He headed to the dorm without another word.
Chet snorted. “Who was that guy? You guys have a rough run I didn’t hear about?”
The rest of the crew looked to Roy for an explanation. Roy just stared toward the dorm. Maybe it was just the stress over worrying about Terri. He knew Johnny wouldn’t sleep well until that guy who had broken into Terri’s apartment had been arrested, despite what he said. Maybe he was getting sick again. Maybe he just plain had a bad day. A couple days off would probably do him good. Roy hoped this didn’t have anything to do with the concussion, but he would be sure to keep his eye on his friend, just in case.
The klaxons sounded during the night, and all of the men automatically started pulling on their turnouts. “Engine 51, dumpster fire…” Roy breathed a sigh of relief that the squad hadn’t been called out, too. He lay back down to resume his sleep. He saw Johnny pull his suspender straps up, steady himself, then take a deep breath and head toward the door.
“Hold on, Johnny. What are you doing?”
Johnny stopped and looked at Roy as if he were speaking another language. He opened and closed his eyes slowly and deliberately, trying to rid himself of the slight dizziness. He took a step and looked around, confused. “Where’s the damn pole?”
“The what? What are you doing? The call was just for the engine. You can go back to bed.”
“Huh? I’m a rescue man,” he said in a daze.
“A rescue man? Johnny, go back to sleep. We weren’t called out.”
“We weren’t?” He sat down on his bunk, rubbing his forehead.
Roy propped himself up on one elbow and watched his friend. “You okay, Johnny?”
“Just a headache. Man, am I looking forward to two days at home.”
After work, Terri returned to her own apartment and eagerly began to set up her darkroom to transform her precious film into negatives. She methodically laid out the trays and tongs and poured the chemicals. Under the unnatural lighting and fumes of the darkroom, she watched the almost ghost-like images of Johnny’s antithesis surface on the negatives. While they dried, she packed her other belongings into boxes and stacked them near the front door. She gazed fondly again at the picture beside her bed, and reluctantly placed it into her strongbox. Before heading to Johnny’s house for the remainder of the night, Terri checked her negatives one last time, a quick “fix” to get her through the night.
By morning, Johnny wasn’t quite as groggy as he had been during the night, but he still felt like he had been up all night. He had never been so glad to see B-shift arrive.
Captain Stanley patted him on the back as he left for home. “Get some rest, okay, pal?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Cap.”
As Johnny headed out slowly to his truck, Roy called after him. “I’ll see you in about an hour.”
Johnny waved to acknowledge him.
Roy saw the concerned look on his captain’s face as Johnny pulled out of the parking lot. “I’m going over to his place to help him dig a few post holes for his fence. If he doesn’t liven up this morning, I’ll drive him to Rampart myself.”
Hank smiled and nodded. “You mind coming to my office for a minute?”
Roy followed him to the office and sat down as Hank shut the door.
"Something the matter, Cap?"
"I’m just Hank right now, not your captain.”
“Okay.” He had a feeling he knew what was coming.
“What's going on with Johnny?"
"What do you mean, Cap?"
"I’ve just got a funny feeling, that’s all. He has had one mishap after another since he met that gal. He’s just not himself."
"You mean Terri? I have a funny feeling about all this too, Cap, but as far as anyone can tell, she’s the perfect nurse, the perfect girlfriend, and if you've seen her, well..."
"Yeah, so I’ve heard. Gage usually has good taste in that arena. But, he’s been a mess since the day he met her. Just keep an eye on him, will ya? Don't let him do anything stupid, okay? And, get him away from Chet for Pete's sake! Seeing those two plotting together gives me the willies."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
Roy was surprised that Johnny wasn’t already outside working when he pulled into his driveway. He knocked on the door and waited, peering in through the kitchen window to the dark house. Johnny eventually answered the door, blinking hard and squinting at the bright light outside. “Man, I’m really sorry, Roy. I sat down for just a minute, and I fell asleep. I was really out of it.” Johnny sank back down onto his couch and gestured toward the kitchen. “I’d offer you coffee, but I already drank what Terri left. Want me to make some more? I know I’m gonna need it.”
“Johnny, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you look like hell. Are you still dizzy?”
“A little when I just got up, but--”
“Come on. Get in my car,” Roy said sternly. Enough was enough. Johnny was going to the hospital.
“Roy, I really don’t think--”
“I know you don’t think,” Roy interrupted, “but lucky for you, I do. Now, you come with me, or I’m calling it in and you can go by ambulance. You had a concussion a few days ago, and you’re experiencing dizziness, headache, irritability, and drowsiness. Not to mention your little time warp last night. You’ve been dancing around this for two days, and you need a recheck. I should have dragged you there last night.”
Johnny knew Roy’s “firm” voice by now. He seldom used it, but when he did, there was little room for argument. “Yeah, I know. Okay. Let’s get it over with. I hope Terri doesn’t flip out when she sees me there, though. She worries about me, you know.”
“Yeah, well, she has good reason to, with the way things have been going lately.”
Dr. Brackett saw Johnny as quickly as he could. He entered the treatment room with a curious look on his face, wondering what on earth Johnny had done this time. “What brings you in today, Johnny?” he asked, taking in the man’s tired appearance and the apprehension so evident on Roy’s face.
Johnny fidgeted slightly. “I don’t know. Mostly just tired, I guess, dizzy a few times, headache. No nausea, no blurred vision.” Dr. Brackett checked Johnny’s pupils while Roy added to the list of symptoms.
“Roy… I have not--”
“Irritable,” Roy interrupted, taking a step closer to the examination table.
“Roy--” Johnny protested half-heartedly.
“Take my word for it, Doc. Irritable,” Roy asserted. “You can ask anyone from our shift.”
Johnny shot him a piercing look.
Dr. Brackett looked at Roy, and saw the man wasn’t joking. “Well, Johnny, just lay back and relax for a while. We need a little more information.” He ordered a skull series, electrolytes and CBC. “We’ll know more in a while.”
When the tests all came back negative, Johnny offered his own opinion. “See? I’m just a little run down. Nothing that a couple days off won’t take care of, right?”
Dr. Brackett advised, “I suppose it depends on what you do on your days off. I suggest you follow your own advice, and take it easy and let your body rest up. You’ve been through a lot in the last few weeks.”
“And, you don’t even know about his flu,” Roy added.
“Flu?” Dr. Brackett repeated, sounding surprised.
“A 24-hour bug. No big deal.” Johnny began to sound more defensive. “Listen, can I go now?”
Dr. Brackett smirked and looked at Roy. “I see what you mean about irritable.”
Roy shook his head in exasperation. “Johnny, if I remember right, your words were something like, ‘I’ve never had such a bad case of flu in my life.’”
“Yeah, well…sometimes I exaggerate.” Johnny stood up and straightened his clothes.
In an uncharacteristic, almost fatherly, gesture, Dr. Brackett took Johnny by the shoulders. “Ever hear of exhaustion? You are in a high-stress, physically demanding job, in the best of circumstances. Now, I know it’ll be hard, but I want you to place yourself on ‘light duty’ at home today and tomorrow, and let your body finish its repairs. Clear?”
“Guess those post holes will have to wait, Johnny,” Roy said with relief.
“Yeah, and I can tell you’re really broken up about it.”
Roy dropped Johnny off at his house, and then headed home, feeling somewhat reassured by the test results. Johnny had promised to hold off on any hard labor for a few more days, and Roy looked forward to spending a rare weekend at home with his family.