What’s Not in the Manual
By K Hanna Korossy
It didn’t happen.
Saying it didn’t make it so, and Roy DeSoto wasn’t usually one to deny the evidence of his own eyes, but this time his heart refused to believe what he’d seen. There was some other explanation. Johnny hadn’t really been in the squad. Or he’d somehow survived the…
His mind refused to take that leap. There was no way anyone could have survived that plunge from the cliff, let alone the fiery explosion of the squad at the bottom. Wishful thinking just couldn’t stretch that far.
But he can’t be dead.
You faced the risk of losing one of your team at a fire, or a gas leak, or a chemical explosion. Those were the dangerous jobs where they went in knowing common sense dictated they go the other direction. There had been a few times when Roy had almost lost his partner, but Johnny with that insane luck and even more insane smile of his always made it through. Sometimes with a smoldering turn-out coat and the stink of soot and smoke, but alive. And that, ultimately, was all Roy ever really asked for.
He was asking, pleading now, and knowing there was no way this time.
A routine call. Well, fairly routine. A suspect had escaped from a police car, knocking unconscious the officer who’d been driving. The policeman had a concussion, but that was fairly routine, too, and they’d fixed him up quickly, Johnny going to put the equipment away while Roy rode in with the patient. Nothing they hadn’t done a thousand times before, and Roy had always assumed they’d do it a thousand more. Nothing that had given him warning of what would happen next. Of Johnny suddenly flailing at the wheel, trying to stop the squad as it rolled steadily toward the edge of the cliff the police car had been parked by. All of them running after the ersatz vehicle, Chet almost reaching the back bumper before it tumbled, seemingly in slow motion, off the cliff. The fireball that had thrown heat into Roy’s face as he reached the edge of the cliff just as the squad reached the ground below. No one could have survived that. And yet…
Maybe he jumped out in time.
But there had been no Johnny on the cliff, no sign of anyone jumping clear, and if he had made it out on the way down, it only meant they’d find his body outside instead of inside the wreckage. Roy had too much experience, too much sense not to know how impossible every hopeless scenario his mind offered was. Still, he just couldn’t accept it.
Just another routine run. Johnny hadn’t even been all that keen on going, tired from a date that had run late the night before, grousing good-naturedly as he so often did about a call right at the start of their shift.
“Wanna bet it’s gonna be a guy who ran off the road on his bicycle or something?”
“Well, if he did, it’s our job to make sure he’s okay.”
“Huh. Last time we went riding together and I ran over that boulder—”
“It was a pebble, Johnny.”
“—you just said something about getting back up on the horse again and kept on going. Hey, you never did say what a horse had to do with anything.”
“Just get in the squad.”
One of a thousand little conversations they’d shared over the years, forgotten almost as quickly except for the easy warmth they left behind. Roy didn’t think he’d ever forget this one, though. It might have been the last.
Johnny, you can’t be gone.
The injured officer on the stretcher in front of him muttered fretfully. But even as he bent over his patient, fiddling with the IV with eyes that weren’t completely clear, Roy knew even deeper down he’d been the hopeless dreamer of the two of them, not Johnny.
But no more. Reality was setting in, cold and stiff. Johnny was dead, and no amount of wishing or optimism or dreaming would get him back.
And for the first time in his life, Roy DeSoto truly hated his job.
The world was green and cold.
That took a moment to penetrate his awareness, and then John Gage woke up with a start of realization that something was really, really off.
Like the fact there were sharp, pointy things under his back. And fat, scratchy bushes all around him, with midday-blue sky above.
This was weird.
Instinct had him moving to sit up before he really thought through the wisdom of that action, which quickly became apparent at the hard jolt of pain that ran from his arm, through his body, into his gut.
Oh, Lord, he’d been hurt bad on a call and was hallucinating. But why a place he’d never been to before?
Cautiously opening one eye again, Johnny studied the scene around him from his supine position. Bushes, some kind he couldn’t identify, but then Marco was the only one of them who really knew stuff like that. They crowded around him on three sides, reaching over his head, nearly surrounding him like some sort of living cave. Only patches of sky showed through their branches. And on the fourth side rose what seemed to be rock and tightly packed dirt, stretching vertically as high as Johnny could see. It reminded him a little bit of one of his boyhood hideaways back on the reservation, one of the places he and his friends would gather in to plan war against the enemy girls.
Except he was in California, last he remembered, an adult paramedic-firefighter…out on an early morning call? That seemed right. A call he’d apparently been injured on.
So where was Roy?
“Roy?” he tried calling out. It came out as softly as a newborn squeak. Johnny grimaced, cleared his throat, tried again. “Roy!”
The nearby chatter of birds temporarily stopped, then started up again after a few moments of silence. That and the wind were the only sounds he could hear, certainly no voices, no sounds of engines or sirens.
Maybe he was hallucinating? Just how badly was he hurt?
“Time for work, Gage,” he muttered to himself, and then, ever-so-cautiously, began a self-check.
The right arm at least was fine, though it ached mildly to lift. Glancing at it, Johnny absently noticed he wasn’t wearing his turnout coat, but considering he couldn’t even remember how he’d gotten there, that wasn’t all that noteworthy.
Left arm…that was a bad idea. Johnny groaned as he started to lift it and quickly gave up the attempt. That was the hard swipe of pain he’d felt when he’d initially tried to move. Broken, no question, and a further exam with gritted teeth revealed probably both the radius and ulna were at least cracked. Maybe he’d fallen, onto his arm? Or been hit there?
Giving up the guessing for the moment, Johnny explored on. Legs also aching, some places already swelling with knots, but in one piece and mobile. That was a relief, at least. Some of the left ribs were very sore, pulling with every movement, but at least no broken bones seemed to be grating. And there were no signs of internal injury, no distension, rebound pain, blood coming up, or particularly painful spots. Just a general soreness that told him his body would be spectacular colors the next day.
And don’t forget the head. It took time to realize his slowness of thought was due to the background pressure and thudding of his brain against his skull. He suspected another attempt at movement would bring his head’s real complaints to the foreground, and that was an experience Johnny wasn’t anxious to have. Still, just because there was no blood dripping in his eyes didn’t mean there wasn’t an open wound, and he had to know if there was. Johnny explored the back of his skull with careful fingers, searching no further when he found the matted, sticky patch of hair behind his left ear. Well, that explained a few things. It also meant there would be possible blood-loss issues, but at least the hemorrhaging had stopped.
So, a broken arm, bruised ribs, and a probable head injury, albeit a mild one. It wasn’t a great diagnosis, but it didn’t mean lying helpless and waiting for possible rescue, either…rescue which didn’t seem to be coming. Johnny was purposely not thinking about Roy or wondering why his partner wasn’t there or at least searching for him nearby. There was probably a good reason, though none of the ones Johnny could think of could be called good by any stretch. Fine, he’d just have to rescue himself. And Roy, too, if he’d gotten into a similar predicament.
The details of how he’d gotten there were still a little fuzzy—something about the squad, a struggle, and then falling—but it seemed fairly obvious at this point he’d fallen down some small incline. Maybe he wasn’t visible from all the bushes so no one had located him yet. Time to fix that, and then find a soft bed and get some of Doc Brackett’s wonderful painkillers, because his arm was starting to complain in earnest as his head cleared, and Johnny had no desire to nurse an untreated broken bone any longer than necessary.
Unfortunately, sitting up was the first, necessary part of this brilliant plan.
Okay, he could do this. Johnny took a breath, then turned slowly onto his good right side, his left arm tucked against his chest.
Oh, God. It forced a moan, then a curse from his clenched jaw. His head and his arm were vying for which one throbbed more mercilessly, both of them dragging his heaving stomach into the act. No way was he going to give in to that. Johnny gritted his teeth and tried again, this time pushing himself up with his right arm to a more or less sitting position.
It was a good thing there was a rock face behind him, because the next minute found him slumped against it, panting and trying to keep his head from rolling away. Sure, just a broken arm and a concussion—piece of cake. He’d have to remember that the next time he was cheerfully treating someone who was asking him in no uncertain terms for a mercy killing.
Okay, treatment before rescue. Wouldn’t hurt to take a moment to tend to his injuries a little and make life bearable again.
The head injury was best left as it was. The arm, however…while the cold was starting to permeate his two layers of clothing already, occasionally sending him into a painful, involuntary shiver, there really was nothing else to use for a sling but his jacket. True, there was his belt, but he was on the skinny side, as his mom was always telling him, and the belt would be a little short. Besides, he might still need it for climbing. So, the jacket then? Johnny weighed the pros and cons of exposure versus jarring and possibly injuring his arm worse, and came up with a compromise. Unfortunately, it involved taking his jacket off his bad arm.
The best way he knew how involved pulling his right arm out first, a measure which already wasn’t all that much fun, and then inching it off the left one, moving the limb as little as possible.
It worked better in theory than in practice. A sudden, undeniable urge to vomit and a heavy sweat later, possibly even a brief black-out, Johnny leaned back, gasping, against the rock wall, jacket in hand. At least the next part was fractionally easier, and he took his time putting the jacket on his right arm again, then easing it around his shoulders and zipping it up with his bad arm cradled inside.
It was weak, but it would do. Roy would be proud of him, even if he didn’t say, just would have that look in his eyes…
Where the heck was Roy, anyway? Just how many places could they be looking for Johnny not to have found him by now? Unless…his earlier concern was valid and his partner was injured, too.
“Aw, Roy,” Johnny muttered. The background gnaw of worry crept up on him, overcoming even the pain.
Oddly enough, that motivation was stronger than the early survival instinct. Yeah, he had no interest or intention of dying at the bottom of that precipice, but if he did, it was just him, a life already full, lived without reservations or regrets. Well, not many, anyway. He never had gotten Gina to go out with him… But Roy had a family, kids and a wife who were dependent on him, not to mention being the best paramedic Johnny had ever met. No matter how much Johnny teased or bragged, Roy was really the one he looked up to, the one without whom the world would be so much poorer.
And he was Johnny’s best friend.
Resolution momentarily overcoming the aches and pains, Johnny braced himself, then slowly pushed himself upright.
His head was going to explode. Brackett would have argued the diagnosis, but Johnny knew what he felt. And his arm had sharp objects tearing at it inside. That was probably true—broken bones could saw at tender nerves like a serrated knife. Johnny had just never felt the diagnosis quite as strongly before. He could feel the sweat trickling down his suddenly sensitive skin, see the world take a lazy swing around him, and concentrated for the moment on not screaming.
Gulping air to recover his equilibrium and stolen breath, finally his vision cleared, pain fading to merely bad instead of unbearable. Johnny wiped an unsteady hand across his eyes, and leaning hard against the rock face, looked around.
More branches. The bushes were higher than they looked, blocking most of his line of vision. But probably also his fall, too, for the little Johnny could see around him revealed he wasn’t at the bottom of a cliff at all. It was merely a ledge, formed by an outcropping of rock and some stubborn vegetation that had woven itself around it. He couldn’t see all the way down to the bottom of the crag, the bushes were too thick, but it was at least more than the twenty or so feet he could see, which meant jumping wouldn’t be an option even if he could fight a way through the dense greenery. And thus the only direction to go was up. Johnny craned back to see the top of the precipice, trying not to get dizzy again, and he could just make out the top…about 30 feet up. Along an almost sheer rock face. It would have been extremely difficult to climb without equipment, but utterly impossible with a broken arm.
Being rescued was sounding like a better and better idea.
“Hello!” Johnny called out once more, but his voice was raw and didn’t travel far, half-choked by the vegetation. “Hello?” That was a little more half-hearted. Nope, even if someone had been leaning over the cliff they probably wouldn’t be hearing him, between the sound-absorbing vegetation, the distance, and his weakened voice. Great. Well, if audio wasn’t an option, he’d just have to go for the visual.
His small ledge wouldn’t easily be seen from above, not the way it was overgrown. Even standing, a position Johnny didn’t have much hope of maintaining for long, his head just barely protruded beyond the tops of the bushes, and with his dark hair, wasn’t much of a marker, anyway. Johnny thought for a moment, then dug into his pocket to see what it held.
He got lucky. The handkerchief was only white, not the red or hot pink he’d have preferred, but it was a lot better than nothing. One-handedly, Johnny tied a loose loop into one corner of the piece of cloth. Then, chewing on his tongue, he reached up to ring it around an upper branch. It took a few tries and another bout of dizziness, but the handkerchief flag was finally in place.
And his energy was gone. It was more or less a controlled slide that brought him back to the floor of his small outcropping, and Johnny sagged to one side, dazed and sick to his stomach. Weren’t they always telling patients to take it easy, not to overdo it or they’d make themselves worse?
Also, to stay warm. Already the sun had moved on from overhead, the air cooling in the indirect light and the shade of the bushes. Johnny curled up on his good side, protecting his arm and trying to conserve body heat. There was still the possibility Roy was out there hurt somewhere, or worse, and there would be no one looking for Johnny, but he refused to believe that. And not just because it meant no one was coming. Roy was the sensible one, the one who didn’t end up halfway down a cliff with a broken arm and no memory how he’d gotten there. He had to be all right.
Johnny needed him, badly, and not just for the doctoring.
They’d gotten the news at the hospital. The Cap had come by and told Roy personally: they’d finally put out the flaming squad and found a badly burned body in the front seat. It was scorched beyond recognition and the autopsy would be held the next day for final identification, but they’d all seen Johnny in the squad as it had gone over. Even Roy’s hope couldn’t stretch that far. The emptiness wouldn’t hurt that much if Johnny weren’t truly gone.
Roy had gone back to the station with the rest of them on the engine, no one saying a word, each one dealing in their own way with the loss they all felt. Captain Stanley relieved him of duty and sent him home when they returned, and the older man’s eyes shone as he shook Roy’s hand. Chet was chewing on his mustache, face wobbly, and Roy had managed a smile for him and a pat on the back before he left. They’d all be missing Johnny.
Then again, if it were just a matter of missing him, why did it feel like the sun didn’t shine as brightly, or as if work suddenly stretched out in front of Roy in long, lonely, dull years?
Joanne wasn’t home when he arrived, nor had she been when he’d called from the hospital, no doubt out running errands. The kids were at school, of course, and the empty house felt too…empty. Roy found himself wandering from room to room, idly picking up things, putting them down again. The paint set Johnny had given Jennifer. The drums he’d given Chris one Christmas, much to Roy and Joanne’s dismay. The picture on the mantel of the two of them standing together in their turnout coats, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. The hideous vase Johnny had picked out for him on one of his trips down to Mexico, that had still somehow become a family treasure.
Maybe Roy would have been too distracted to do his work properly—well, there was no maybe about it—but he was beginning to figure coming home hadn’t been the best idea, either. Johnny was all over his life, not just at the station and in the squad.
The squad. Roy hadn’t even really thought about it, but that was gone, too, wasn’t it? Along with the picture of Joanne and the kids he tucked into the dash the start of each shift, and the extra sandwich Johnny had hidden in the glove compartment that morning, certain an early call meant they’d be busy all day and wouldn’t have time to eat. Funny he should remember that now, Roy rubbed at his eyes. Maybe it was fitting Johnny and the squad had gone together. The younger man had loved that truck, had worked on it countless hours, polished it with care every week. They’d spent some of their worst and best moments in that truck, and saved a lot of lives with it. Johnny would have appreciated going down with his ship.
Well, he was being maudlin. Roy wiped at his eyes again. He should have been thinking about how glad he was to have known the man, not about how sad he was that he was gone. Johnny had changed his life irrevocably for the better, lightened him, cheered him, made him stronger. Those were things to celebrate, not mourn.
If only the darn house didn’t seem so empty.
Roy had shrugged into his jacket before he’d made the conscious decision to do so, and writing Joanne a vague note, took off for an aimless drive. Distraction, escape, need, whatever.
Perhaps it wasn’t so aimless. A half-hour later, Roy was drawing up to the cliff face where they’d run the early morning rescue hours—eons—before. The tracks were still there as he drove up, of the engine and the police car, and over to the left, the squad’s, disappearing over the edge of the cliff. After a minute, it occurred to Roy to wonder that no other rescue vehicles had been there since to deal with the fire and what it left behind, but of course, there were roads that led into the cavern and that was the way the investigators would have gone. Resolutely, Roy parked along the edge of the ravine and got out of his car to look.
He found himself walking along the tracks of the squad. Johnny’s last run. They swerved a little as he’d struggled to control the vehicle, and Roy let himself drift into wondering what had gone wrong with the truck to make it lose control like that. He and Johnny had just tuned it the other week and there hadn’t been anything that had looked frayed or worn, ready to give. It would have to be a major malfunction to affect both brake and steering like that. A loss of power of some sort?
Did it matter, his mind countered dully. The investigators would figure out the whys, but no explanation would fix what was done. Roy plodded on toward the edge of the cliff.
Standing a foot from its edge gave him a good view into the cavern beneath. It was close to where he’d stood about six hours before, watching the inferno over a hundred feet below. Now the fire was gone, even the black hulking wreckage he’d expected to see already removed. All that remained was a scorched area of black grass and shrubbery to mark the final resting place of squad and paramedic, lost in the line of duty. No matter how efficient they’d all been to clear the scene so fast, that scar would remain there for months before nature reclaimed it, and then no one would even know what had happened there. Except for those who wouldn’t forget.
Feeling unutterably tired, Roy slowly sat down, his legs crossed before him like Johnny used to like to sit, far enough from the edge that there was no danger but close enough that he could still see down. And remember.
At length, Roy tore his eyes away from the canyon’s floor and idly glanced around instead. It was actually one of the nicer spots he’d been to in the hills. The spring had been an unusually wet one so far, and the shrubs and grasses had thrived on the soaking, growing into a lush green coating along the bottom of the ravine, even in large patches along its wall. Clusters of wild bushes sprouted from the seemingly barren cliff face and grew in defiance of gravity. Some of them were even budding already, and Roy smiled faintly, thinking how Johnny would have enjoyed the rest of spring and summer to come. He’d always loved being outdoors, and while he was no botanist, he enjoyed the flora at least as much as the fauna. It was one of the many sides of Johnny Gage a lot of people didn’t know. And now never would.
Roy sighed deeply, the heaviness of his heart dragging his gaze down with it to the nearest clump of bushes below him.
It took a long minute before what he was seeing registered.
The bushes were a mix of bluish-green and brown, unremarkable except perhaps in their density and the way they blossomed a good seven or eight feet out from the cliff wall. It was a miracle they hadn’t been mangled by the squad on its way down. But that wasn’t what made Roy frown. It was the odd bit of white that fluttered in the heart of the bushes. On first glance, it seemed to be a flapping bird, maybe a dove, perhaps caught in the branches. Looking harder, though, Roy could see it wasn’t. It looked instead to be cloth.
Something that had fallen out of the squad on its way down? Or lodged there even before that day? Except it was a bright white, not stained from exposure. Surely it couldn’t have been there the night before when it had rained.
Still frowning, Roy climbed to his feet and went back to his car.
Any good paramedic knew the job wasn’t over with end of shift. You kept a good first aid kit in the trunk as well as emergency rescue supplies, supplies he’d already needed more than once in the past. Supplies that included a good length of strong rope.
Roy returned with rope in hand to the edge of the cliff and looked down again, weighing options. It didn’t seem likely he could snag the white cloth with any sort of loop, especially not if it was caught, and he didn’t have any sort of hook with him. Which left going down himself for it. Not really recommended when you were alone, but the bushes weren’t that far down the cliff face, and this was something he’d been trained to do solo and had done plenty of times in the past…and an unusually aggressive curiosity had taken hold of Roy. If the cloth was some artifact from the crash, it was possibly the last thing he would have from both the squad and Johnny, and Roy wanted it. Maybe it would even help them figure out what had happened, as unlikely as that was. In any case, it was something useful to do, and Roy grabbed at the chance.
The Porsche was too light to use as an anchor for his descent, but luckily a thick tree stood nearby, tall and obviously deeply rooted. It took only a minute to secure the rope around its trunk, then to put on a pair of gloves and, with a last glance down, began his climb down.
Making your way down the side of a building could be hard, with its smooth surfaces, but rock faces were always fairly easy. There were plenty of nooks for footholds and it took less than a minute for Roy to rappel his way down to where the tops of the bushes brushed against his boots. He lifted his legs clear and lowered himself a little further, craning down to see where the white cloth was. It was just to his left, within arm’s length, and Roy reached easily for it. It was obvious now it was a handkerchief, and his eyes narrowed as he worked to free it from the branch it was caught in.
No, looped around. With a tied knot.
Surprised, Roy drew back, and his focus shifted. And something beyond that bit of white caught his eye, something he had to strain to see through the tops of the bushes. Something that almost looked like…
A chill actually shook him, rattling his teeth and the rope he was holding on to. It couldn’t be. But a bleak hopefulness moved his legs and hands, lowering himself further, pushing past the broken crown of the bushes below him—broken as they cushioned a fall?—to the small sheltered space just below them. The space that held a body, dressed in the dark blue of a paramedic, a flop of dark hair on its head, lying on its side.
He knew it was Johnny just as surely as he’d known minutes before that Johnny was dead, and Roy tried desperately to curb the welling joy. Two losses in one day he couldn’t take. But…
Nothing stirred except for the rustling branches and the slide of the rope through his gloved fingers. The tips of his boots finally brushed the ground, then planted themselves firmly on it. It was a ledge, entirely hidden by shrubbery, just big enough for a man. Big enough to somehow catch a man as he fell out of his vehicle while going over a cliff?
Roy fastened the rope on a sturdy branch with trembling hands, and then stepped over and knelt almost gingerly in front of the prone man. And gently brushed hair out of the half-hidden face he already knew he’d recognize.
“Johnny?” he said again, softer but more urgent and leaning close now. There were signs of life to be seen that near: eyes rolling beneath closed lids, the lips pursing as they took in air, a wince of the face as some twinge registered in the unconscious. But still Roy’s fingers slid down to his partner’s neck, automatically counting the steady beat there even as his own heart calmed and slowed at the strength of the thu-thump against his fingers.
It was Johnny, and he was alive.
“Thank you, God,” Roy murmured when he could breathe again. He couldn’t even imagine how—there would be time to explain the miracle later, to find out what happened and what would happen next. But for now, there was just the dizzying rush of joy—no, something deeper. Not even relief. More like…the world had become familiar again.
Roy inhaled deeply as he settled on his knees next to his best friend, almost smiling for a moment.
And then frowning as another reality sunk in, that Johnny hadn’t responded to him yet.
Still, that strong heartbeat, and the simple fact that Johnny had beat seemingly impossible odds, was more than encouraging. It was with gentle concern instead of the panic of that morning that Roy started to check his injured partner out.
The head injury didn’t take long to find, but it was no longer bleeding and Johnny’s pupils were equal and reactive. The next discovery of the clearly broken arm actually cheered him further as it was obvious Johnny had already immobilized it as best he could. That meant he’d been awake and aware earlier. And even now, he stirred restlessly at Roy’s touch, obviously not deeply unconscious.
Roy skimmed swollen ribs, and watched as Johnny’s face twitched, and finally, finally, the brown eyes opened, blinking in bleary confusion.
“Hey, there,” Roy greeted him in cheerful relief.
They reacted to him in an acceptably quick enough time…and immediately relaxed, warming at the sight of him. “There y’are. Thought you’d gotten lost or something.”
It was a scratchy whisper, but it gained volume as it went on and had some strength behind it.
Roy’s smile softened. “I did for a while,” he answered truthfully. He glanced up at the bushes surrounding them. “You didn’t exactly make it easy to find you.”
“Sorry.” Johnny’s eyes looked heavy. “Next time I’ll try t’ fall some place open and easy t’ find, okay?”
“You do that.” As a shiver ran through Johnny’s body, Roy shrugged out of his coat and laid it over the injured man. “Looks like you hit your head and some of your ribs, and broke your left arm.”
“’S what I came up with, too,” Johnny said tiredly, eyes sagging shut. “Think I’m…gonna need some…” He trailed off.
“Johnny.” Roy almost laid a hand on his bad shoulder, rethought the move and instead lightly chafed Johnny’s cheek. The brown eyes opened almost at once—good, not loss of mental faculties, just fatigue. “Try to stay awake for me. Do you remember what happened?”
Johnny’s eyes closed again, this time in concentration. “Think I…got into the squad. There was…” His eyes flew open, his good hand grasping Roy’s arm. “A gun! Roy, there was a guy with a gun. Wanted me to…drive.” His brow wrinkled. The memory only just seemed to be returning. “Tried to…grab the steering wheel. We were at the edge of the cliff…I tried to stop him, but…”
But, Roy could guess the rest. It had never even occurred to him to ask if the arrested felon that had escaped from the police car had been caught. He had a pretty good feeling dental records would show he had been, in the burning wreckage of the squad at the base of the cliff. And Johnny had somehow gotten out, probably on the far side of the squad so they hadn’t seen him, and had fallen onto the hidden ledge, where they’d nearly left him…
Sternly swallowing that what-if, Roy offered the injured man a wan smile instead. “Take it easy. They got the guy.”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Johnny’s eyes were clearer than they had any business being as they stared hard at Roy. “He died in the squad.”
“Yeah,” Roy said quietly.
Johnny laid his arm across his eyes and was silent. Roy had to wonder what was going through his head. Johnny forgave with almost frightening ease, ready to think the best of people who’d hurt him badly even while flaring hotly at the stupid pranks Chet pulled on him or Roy’s occasional mild teases. Roy had an idea now Johnny was feeling sorry for the man who’d died in his place—and almost caused his own death. It wasn’t a path Roy was ready to walk yet, not for the man who’d nearly taken his best friend’s life.
Neither did he want a brooding patient. “Hey,” he said kindly.
The arm slid up to reveal one bloodshot brown eye, and guilt again at the circumstances, the hours of Johnny being abandoned, untreated, chewed at Roy. He managed to raise the corner of his mouth. “Let’s see about getting you out of here, huh?”
Johnny’s eye wandered once more over the enclosed space. “Oh, I don’t know, place kinda grows on ya,” he said with the slightest hint of humor.
Roy’s smile widened. “Maybe I should just leave you here then.”
“On second thought…” The answer was playful, but the hand that still grasped his arm tightened almost painfully for a moment. Johnny was as ready to get out of there as he was.
Which only left the question then of how.
Johnny, it seemed, was starting to think along those lines, too. This time his visual sweep of the space around them was searching, particularly of the ground next to them. “Hey, where’s the equipment?”
There was really no way to get around it; Johnny was too alert to be placated by any half-truth. Still, Roy grew suddenly very interested in the bushes and cliff wall, absently starting to plan how to get Johnny out of there. “I don’t have any here.”
He could feel the brown eyes narrow at him, taking in the fact he was in civilian clothing. He hadn’t even brought the first aid kit down with him, so sure he was only coming to retrieve a mere handkerchief, never dreaming the real treasure he’d find.
The clearing of a throat next to him was more aggressive than necessary, and he could hear Johnny lever himself up a little.
“Are you telling me you came down here by yourself? Off-duty? The guys aren’t even up there?”
There was more than incredulity in the tone; there was also accusation. It was the same anger Roy would have felt if Johnny had done something potentially risky, Roy knew, but then, their situation wasn’t exactly covered in the manual. He glanced at Johnny, then away again, trying to avoid the conversation, not wanting to think about where it would lead. Okay, they could get out of there if they were careful. His car had no radio, and he wasn’t about to leave Johnny there while he went for help, which meant his getting them both up to the top of the cliff, but he had the rope…
Roy’s sleeve was tugged sharply. “Roy—”
He heaved a mental sigh and finally gave up, reluctantly meeting Johnny’s penetrating gaze. “The squad exploded when it hit the bottom. There was a body in it, too burned to identify. We didn’t know there was anybody left to rescue.”
Those eyes that could see through any lie could also see what he wasn’t saying. They went almost tender as they looked at him. “You thought it was me?”
Roy shrugged one shoulder. “We saw you in the squad when it went over. Nobody saw the man with the gun.”
His arm was finally released as Johnny lay back to the ground, stunned, to contemplate that.
Roy returned to business. “Do you think you can get a rope around yourself without help? I was thinking I’d go up first and then pull you up.” You didn’t usually run your rescue idea by your victim, but he trusted Johnny’s opinion, even an injured Johnny’s, as much as his own.
When there was no answer forthcoming, he dropped his gaze questioningly back to the younger man. Johnny was just looking at him, his mouth twisted as if he were deciding between smiling or frowning. And Roy realized abruptly the only reason Johnny wasn’t asking any more questions was because he knew the rest, why Roy was off-duty, why he’d come back to the cliff even thinking Johnny was dead, why he would have come down there alone even thinking Johnny was dead. Roy felt a self-conscious blush start to creep into his cheeks at being caught acting on feeling instead of logic, but didn’t look away that long minute as Johnny’s hand reached out again, this time to give Roy’s leg a slight squeeze. It was thanks he didn’t really need.
The moment passed, not forgotten. “You think you can do the rope?” Roy asked again finally, but more quietly.
“Sure,” Johnny answered. “Just help me sit up, will ya?”
It wouldn’t have been his first choice for someone with Johnny’s injuries, but Roy saw the logic in that. He wouldn’t be able to manage the rope lying down. Johnny had probably been upright already, anyway, in order to get that handkerchief mounted on the upper branch. In fact, Roy would have to ask him later how he’d done that. But for now, he reached over and ever so delicately threaded an arm under his partner’s shoulder, then slowly eased him upright.
Johnny’s jaw clenched, his muscles rigid under Roy’s hand, but he didn’t make a sound until he was leaning against the cliff face, breathing in painful gasps. Roy waited until the hand Johnny had wound in his shirt for leverage finally loosened its white grasp, then adjusted his slipped jacket back around the younger man.
“You sure you can do this?” he asked gently. “We could go up together.” It would be riskier for him, but they could do it if they needed to.
If there was one thing he’d learned working with John Gage, however, it was not to underestimate his determination, whether to save a victim or to follow through some wild idea. The dark head shook once sharply. “I can do it,” Johnny rasped, “Just gimme a minute.”
He probably didn’t mean for Roy to wait it out with him, but he did, sitting back on his heels, one hand loosely wrapped around his partner’s good arm, support in more ways than one.
That about summed up partnership, for that matter, didn’t it?
Finally, the tightness in Johnny’s face began to ease as the worst of the pain passed, the clenched fist resting on the ground loosening to pat Roy’s arm. Even the pale smile he gave Roy was encouraging.
“What’re you waiting for?”
Roy made a face at him. “Just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to come down here again because you’d passed out by the time I got up there.”
“Ha! I always knew you were the lazy one.”
Roy raised a tolerant eyebrow. “Who was the one who figured we could record our call reports on the way back to the station so we wouldn’t have to do any paperwork?”
“Hey, that would have worked if I hadn’t gotten the wires crossed.”
Roy just shook his head. And was the most glad he could ever remember for having a dumb conversation.
Johnny seemed to collect himself and nodded, the teasing slipping away. “I’m ready.” Roy nodded back, about to stand and start his climb up as Johnny added almost carelessly. “Be careful goin’ up there, huh?”
“I will,” Roy promised, solemn. And with new resolution, fixed the rope around his waist, grasped it, and with a last glance down at the scratched face looking up at him—he still couldn’t believe he was seeing it—began to climb.
Going up didn’t seem any harder than coming down had; if anything, he was far lighter than he had been on his descent. And he had real purpose now. Roy scrambled over the edge of the cliff within minutes, leaning over to look as he untied the length from around his waist. Incredible: even knowing what he was looking for, he could still just barely make out the dark shape of Johnny’s head, nothing more. The fact he’d found him at all was…well, in their line of work, you tended to believe in God and miracles, and Roy was fervently thanking the One for the other.
The rope untied, he called, “Coming down,” and then tossed it down, giving the rope a pull as it fell so its end landed amidst the bushes on the ledge. If there was an answer, it didn’t carry up to him, but Roy soon felt the slight tugs of someone working on the other end of the rope. A long minute passed before a sharp jerk announced Johnny was ready. Roy braced himself and began to pull.
He’d rigged a pulley system around the tree so he wasn’t pulling Johnny’s full weight, but even so Roy moved slowly, trying not to jar the injured man more than necessary or bounce him against the cliff wall. The glances he spared to cast down the cliff face revealed first Johnny’s head, arm raised above it to shove branches aside. The torso came next, rope wrapped around his waist and looped once under his thighs so as to form a seat of sorts. By the time his legs cleared, Johnny was leaning heavily against the rope, his cheek resting against his right hand as it held on to the line.
In all, it was no more than ten minutes since he’d started his ascent that Roy tied off the end of the rope and helped his feebly moving partner up onto the top of the cliff. The sun had started dipping past the horizon, and it was in fading light he assessed the clammy, bloodless face of his heavily swallowing friend. A broken limb hurt, let alone ribs and a head injury that was probably doing unpleasant things to his equilibrium and stomach. Add to that a lot of jostling and bumping, and it was a wonder he wasn’t crying out or unconscious. Roy winced at the sight of his partner’s—his friend’s—obvious hurting.
And paramedic training, stoic professionalism, the knowledge he had to get Johnny to help, abruptly took a back seat to a new priority. Forget the book; listening to deeper instincts, Roy shrugged off embarrassment and sat on the chilled ground, gathering Johnny to him, and, careful of the man’s injuries, wrapped an arm around him. Shielding him from the cold and maybe even a little from the pain, but more importantly, letting him rest body and mind in the knowledge that he was all right. And that he wasn’t just cared for, he was cared about.
Johnny flopped against him with a sigh, then pressed nearer as the hard swallows and shivering continued. Roy leaned his injured friend forward a little in case nausea won out. His free hand, however, cradled the dark head to his chest so Johnny had something to bury himself in. He no longer had Roy’s coat on, the jacket probably left behind on the ledge, and Roy worked to replace the warmth, lightly rubbing his partner’s back and good arm. “It’s gonna be fine, just give it a minute,” he said sympathetically.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. They never really did.
That was what Roy had nearly lost. He held on a little tighter.
They sat that way in the gathering dusk as the trembling and the uneven panting eased, then died away. And Johnny sagged more and more against him, exhausted and probably fading out. Come to think of it, giving himself up to someone he trusted was the only time Roy ever saw him stop fighting. It was a far more potent display of faith than running into a fire without looking to make sure his partner was at his back, and Roy was keenly, humbly aware of it.
It was almost dark when he finally stirred, Johnny remaining motionless against him. “Don’t fall asleep on me,” he chided gently. “Brackett’s gonna want to talk to you, too.”
Johnny groaned, but not in pain. “You just…had to say that…didn’t you?” he said faintly.
Another minute passed, and then he finally took a breath and carefully started moving, lifting them both slowly to their feet. Johnny had recovered enough that he was trying to help, for which Roy was grateful; he hadn’t been looking forward to carrying the man over to his car. For being so scrawny, Johnny was no featherweight.
The Porsche was only a good fifteen feet away, and they managed to stumble the distance with Roy’s arm around Johnny, who somehow clung to him and kept moving. It was that same determination that had saved Roy’s life several times before. And, in a way, had saved it again that day. But they were both more than glad to reach the car, and Johnny eased down into the passenger side seat with a long sigh. A little more fussing until he was propped up in the corner of the seat and door, and then, satisfied, Roy hurried around to the driver’s side door and also got in. He could always come back for the rope and jacket later. The handkerchief, loosened from Johnny’s ascent through the bushes, lay in the bottom of the cavern, its purpose served.
Roy took off for Rampart as fast as he dared, sparing only disbelieving glances at the dozing man next to him, occasionally murmuring something to keep him from going too deeply under, or giving the long, akimbo legs a gentle pat just to convince himself he hadn’t dreamed it.
And fighting back the stinging in his eyes and the lump in his throat the whole way.
It was one of the few times he’d actually seen Dixie or Brackett speechless, when Roy had roared up to the emergency entrance at Rampart and summoned the pair outside. But training had quickly taken over, and it wasn’t long before Johnny was whisked inside and being treated in an examination room. Roy had stayed through the initial exam, in Johnny’s line of sight during the more painful parts, giving his partner an encouraging smile or his hand a squeeze when the younger man’s eyes watered and pinched with pain. When they finally shooed him out to do x-rays, Roy finally called the station and Joanne. Even hours later, he still smiled at the memory of Chet’s whoops in the background.
Their diagnosis had been on target, and Roy waited until drugs could finally be administered and Johnny was insensate before allowing himself to be herded out and looked after by an unusually gentle Dixie while the patient was cleaned up and his arm set.
But he’d insisted on sticking around until Johnny was settled, and Dixie had finally shown him to the room and left him there with an admonition to go home and get some rest when he was done “checking their work.” Roy just gave her a vague smile in response, and silently pushed the door open.
The cast looked ungainly, lifted slightly in a sling so it wouldn’t rest on the bruised ribs. It didn’t seem to bother Johnny at all, though, as he lay in bed, deeply asleep, sometimes snuggling a little farther under his blankets as if remembering his earlier chill. His combed hair just revealed more of the bruises and welts that decorated the left side of his face. Brackett had said it was lucky he hadn’t been hurt worse, in a fall like that, not to mention his struggle with the suspect. It was also incalculable good fortune he’d fallen onto the ledge instead of the full fatal length of the precipice. Roy knew all that, and yet all he seemed to be able to think about at the moment was how close Johnny had come to not being that lucky.
He shook his head impatiently at the thought. There was a wash of joy in him that hadn’t diminished since he’d first realized Johnny was there, safe, on that ledge. It made him warm and kept putting involuntary smiles on his face, and sometimes Roy just let himself soak in it. But he couldn’t be purely grateful for the impossible when it was still so painfully fresh how impossible it had been just a short while before.
Johnny stirred in his sleep, his good hand opening and closing again on top of the covers. And then he slept on, unaware of his company or the turmoil that rocked Roy.
Recovering. Not lying awake thinking of what-ifs. Not worried Roy wouldn’t be there when he awoke. Safe and knowing it, even having faced a stark lesson of his own about the nearness of mortality. Not that, as paramedics, they hadn’t learned that lesson well already. But for all the ways Johnny over-thought the stupid little everyday things, he’d never seemed to worry about his own well-being.
Then again, it wasn’t something Roy dwelt on, either. You couldn’t if you wanted to do the job right. If your time came, it came, no matter where you were or what you were doing.
But if it wasn’t your time, miracles happened. A caring God intervened. Stubbornness won out, a trait Johnny seemed to have in abundance. And maybe a partner who cared helped tilt the balance a little more in your favor.
That wasn’t in the manual, nor was it a guarantee, but then, when had life ever come with either? And…it was something Roy could go home and fall asleep with.
He straightened and headed for the door, turning for a last glance back to also take with him. “Good-night, Johnny,” he said quietly, smiling when his friend’s mouth turned up in sleep at the sound.
And Roy DeSoto went home with a heart unusually full of hope and anticipation of the days to come.
*Click above to send K Hanna Korossy feedback
Guest Dispatchers Stories by K Hanna Korossy