PARANOIA STRIKES DEEP
by Jill Hargan
John Gage whistled a happy, non-descript tune as he strolled into the dorm. He tugged at his shirt, pulling the tails free from his jeans, as he stopped in front of his locker. He was in a great mood this morning. The sun was shining, traffic had been light – and he was early.
He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, then reached to open his locker door. He paused mid-way there, the whistle stuck in his throat.
He glanced to either side of him. The benches were empty. Roy should have been sitting to his left, tying his shoes or buckling his belt – those final touches to get ready for work. Normally, one or two of the guys were in here as well, but at the moment the room was empty.
Johnny tossed his shirt on the bench and walked over to the door that led from the bathroom/locker room to their bunk room. The rows of beds were neatly made, but this room, too, was unoccupied. Johnny frowned. Was it possible that the one day he was early, everyone else had arrived before him? He supposed, but it wasn't very likely.
Still frowning, he pushed through the door into the apparatus bay. Both the engine and squad sat there polished and gleaming, ready to go. On most days he would have found Mike at least out here, tending to Big Red like a doting mother.
"Hello?" he called tentatively, not liking the slight echo that came back to him. "Stoker?" Still no one answered him.
This was definitely weird. With only one more place to check, Johnny walked quickly to the other side of the bay, toward the door to the day room. He stopped when he reached it, almost afraid to open it and find it as empty as the rest of the station. He peered cautiously into the window.
His shoulders sagged with relief. All five of his co-workers were sitting around the table, reading the paper or sipping coffee - all those normal, morning things they did before roll call. He breathed out a sigh, shaking his head at his own foolishness and started to push the door open to join them. But he stopped suddenly. One of the men at the table had lifted his head and seen John standing there.
Chet Kelly's face broke into one of the most devious grins Johnny had ever seen. And then it was gone, as he returned his attention to the crossword puzzle he was working on.
Johnny backed away from the door, his eyes scanning the entire frame for any sign of wire, tape, springs, or anything else that would give away whatever booby trap Chet had planned for him. There wasn't anything he could see. It had to be on the day room side. His mind flashed back to all the times he'd been doused with Chet's stupid bucket over the door frame. He took another few steps backward. He wasn't going to be caught this time. He hurried back across the bay and re-entered the dorm. He'd show Kelly. He'd get changed and go around the back, through the parking lot. He chuckled to himself at his own cleverness. It wasn't often he came out on top of one of the Phantom's pranks.
He reached his locker, but stopped again just as he was reaching to open the door.
What if he has a back up? What if he knew I'd figure the one out in the day room? What if there never even was a trap there? What if Chet's whole plan was to send me back here to the one in my locker?
Johnny sat down on the bench, staring at the row of lockers, trying to figure out a way he could get his uniform out without getting soaked.
"Johnny?" Roy's voice called loudly.
"In here," Johnny answered distractedly. He didn't take his eyes off the lockers as Roy came up beside him.
"Cap sent me to see if you were here. Just a few more minutes to roll call."
"Hmmm... what?" John glanced up, then felt a wash of panic. "Roll call? Dang, I'm not ready yet."
"Obviously," Roy commented drolly. "Why aren't you getting dressed?"
Johnny looked at him as if he'd just grown two heads. "Are you crazy? That's just what he wants."
"Who?" Roy looked liked he'd just thought twice about even asking. "Never mind," he corrected. "Just get a move on." He reached out and opened Johnny's locker.
"No, Roy, wait!" Johnny had sprung forward too late to stop his partner, but nothing happened. He stood there for a moment, waiting, but all was quiet. He stood up straight and gave Roy a big grin. "Thanks," he said happily. "I'll be right there."
Roy merely shook his head and wandered back out to rejoin his shift mates.
Johnny hurriedly got dressed, still determined to be on time.
Maybe that was his goal. To just get me worried and make me late for roll call.
He was ready in record time; tying, buttoning, and buckling faster than he'd ever done. He rushed out the door, then paused again. There could still be a trap. He didn't know which way Roy had come in. Though his partner never usually helped out the Phantom, he wasn't completely averse to playing along.
I'll show 'em all. They can't outsmart John Gage. I'm waaaay ahead of 'em.
He even started whistling again as he walked out back and went around to the far side of the kitchen. He giggled to himself as he pushed open the back door and stepped inside the day room...
...only to be drenched with water.
There was a chorus of laughter from the table, the loudest of all was Kelly. Roy finally took pity on him and brought him a towel from one of the cabinets. Johnny glanced at him, but his partner's face was expressionless.
As Johnny tried futilely to dry himself off with the dish towel, Chet got up and came over to stand beside him, his mischievous eyes twinkling with delight.
"You know what you are, Gage?"
"No, Chet, what am I?"
"You're paranoid, man. You're paranoid."
Johnny rolled his eyes. "Ha, ha, very funny." Maybe Chet had him this time, but he knew in his heart that where the Phantom was concerned, paranoia was only good thinking.