By Audrey W.
Johnny stood in front of his locker, as he changed out of his uniform. B-shift had just taken over on duty and the men of A-shift were free to go home. The others left still in uniform, but Gage had gotten exceptionally dirty during an early morning tunnel rescue so he’d decided to change at work and take his soiled uniform to the dry-cleaners on the way home.
As Johnny buttoned his brown plaid shirt, Dwyer came into the room.
“Hey, Charlie . . . I thought you’d already left.”
“I got to my car and realized I’d forgotten my sunglasses in my locker.”
“You doing anything for the two days we’re off?”
Dwyer gave Johnny a disgusted look. “I’m working one of the days. Remember, I’m still working my own shift even though I’m filling in for Roy while he’s on vacation.”
“Oh, that’s right.” The dark-haired paramedic shrugged. “Sorry, I forgot you have to work tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait for DeSoto to be back so the overtime will end. Four more days. . .they went to the Grand Canyon, right?”
Johnny nodded. “Yep. Took his mother-in-law, too, since she was visiting.”
“Ah . . .I’ll bet he’s about ready to come back to work then,” Dwyer said grinning.
Johnny closed his locker as Dwyer slipped on his sunglasses. The two temporary partners walked out to their vehicles in the lot.
“Have a good two-days off, John. . .think of me here while you kick back.”
“You know it could be worse.”
Johnny grinned. “You could be at the Grand Canyon, going down to the bottom on a mule with your mother-in-law beside you.”
Dwyer winced. “Glad I’m still single.”
The two men laughed at the vision they each got of Roy and his mother-in-law on mules. Johnny climbed into his Land Rover and waved to Dwyer, who was just closing the door to his sports car. Gage waited for Charlie to back up and pull away, before doing the same and driving out of the parking lot.
An old man rummaged through the Lost and Found box in the corner of the Laundromat, looking for any kind of men’s shirt he could take for his own use. Though he wasn’t in need, it was always a shame to see clothing sit in the box unclaimed and soon tossed in the trash by the owner of the business.
A lady nearby tended to her laundry. It was early in the morning, and although the Laundromat had been open for an hour, only the two people had come in. The woman had separated her clothes into three different washing machines, and inserted coins in one after the other. Finally, with all three machines running, she sat down to read a magazine. Spotting the man in the corner glancing at her, the woman became uncomfortable. She quickly put the magazine down and went outside to her Ford Pinto. She backed out, then looked at the clock on her dashboard to guess when she should return to put her clothes in the dryers.
In a dry-cleaners shop that was attached to the Laundromat, a young woman tended to customers’ orders that had come in late the day before. She eyed the clock to see how she was doing for time.
Eight-thirty already? The woman frowned. Where did the past hour and a half go?
She was by herself today, working in a family owned business, until the girl who worked the counter with her would be in at two-thirty in the afternoon. The seamstress, who was normally there and could help out, had called in sick.
Her attention was diverted to a white Land Rover as it pulled into a parking space just outside the door. The woman’s frown quickly changed to a smile when she saw the dark-haired paramedic climb out of his truck.
John Gage. I love the mornings he comes in.
Johnny stepped through the open doorway and up to the counter.
“Hi, Sally!” Johnny grinned. “How’re you this morning?”
“Fine,” Sally answered. She could feel her heart beat faster and her hands trembled slightly.
If he only knew what he does to me.
“And what can I do for you today, Mr. Gage?” she asked, eyeing the uniform in Johnny’s arms.
“Oh. . .here,” Johnny laid the soiled uniform on the counter. “I’m off duty for a couple of days, so Thursday will be fine for pick-up.”
“Okay. Let me just write up the ticket.” Sally took a deep breath, waiting a few seconds to steady her hands.
Johnny watched the woman pull out the ticket pad. He had known Sally since she started working at the dry-cleaners several months ago. But other than casual conversation when he dropped off clothing, he hadn’t gone any farther in the friendship. The tablet reminded him about his favorite past time and Johnny figured this was as good of time as any to see if Sally was interested in going out with him.
“Hey, you ever go bowling?”
Oh my God . . .is he asking me out?
“Uh . . .yeah . . .kind of,” Sally shyly answered. Kind of? How could I say that?
“Well, you wan--”
Johnny was interrupted as three young men hurried into the dry-cleaners.
One dark-haired youth stood just inside the door, watching out towards the parking lot. Another who was blonde and looked to be nineteen years old, pulled out a handgun and pointed it in Johnny and Sally’s direction.
“Put your hands on the counter. . .both of ya!”
Johnny eyed the gun with caution. He slowly complied. He saw that Sally was doing the same.
“Okay. Good,” the man nodded.
The third young man, who appeared to be the same age but had a larger build, stepped behind Johnny and around to the other side of the counter. Getting behind Sally, he demanded, “Now open the drawer under the counter and pull out the money.”
“There isn’t much money in there,” Sally explained. “No one’s been in so--”
“Shut up!” the man shouted. “Open it! No one turned in the deposit from yesterday, so there’s plenty in there!”
Frightened, Sally jumped. She nodded, as tears began to pool in her eyes. She glanced nervously up at Johnny.
Johnny had a feeling he knew what she was thinking. These guys obviously had been casing the dry-cleaners. He gave a slight nod at the woman, hoping she would just do as the men asked.
“Open it now!” the man behind Sally yelled.
“Okay. . .okay,” Sally said, her voice quivering. “My hands are shaking.”
Sally slowly turned the key to open the drawer where the money was kept. She gathered up the loose money and put it in the canvas bank bag it had been in when she opened. Next, she picked up the deposit envelope from the day before and placed it in the same bag.
The one man watched Sally intently while the other kept his attention and the gun on Johnny.
“Here,” Sally said, handing the bag of money to the man behind her. Her hands shook as he took it from her.
“Okay, now step around the counter, honey, ‘cause you’re goin’ for a ride.”
Sally’s shocked expression met with Johnny’s.
“Look, leave her here and take me,” Johnny suggested, glancing over his left shoulder at the man with the gun.
“What, you want to play hero?” the man asked.
“ I don’t want the girl to get hurt. Take me. I promise I’ll do what you ask.”
The man standing by Sally laughed. “Yeah right. We can see the cop uniform on the counter.”
Johnny sighed. “Look, I’m not a cop. I’m a firefighter-paramedic.”
“Well, Mr. ‘firefighter-paramedic’, you’re gonna wish you’d kept your mouth shut.”
“So I’m going with you?” Johnny asked, hoping his suggestion worked.
The man laughed again. He looked at his partner. “Shoot ‘im, Derek.”
“No!” Sally cried out.
Johnny tried to hide the fear he felt. He wasn’t sure what to say or do.
“Look,” Johnny began, “you don’t want a murder rap, do you? Just take us both. We won’t give you any trouble.”
Johnny had hopes this would at least make it so he could keep an eye out for Sally’s safety.
“Oh . . .hey . . .you know that’s not such a bad idea,” the man by Sally said.
Johnny relaxed somewhat, as did the man holding the gun.
“Now step around the counter, babe, so we can get a move on.”
Sally complied, a false sense of security coming over her, knowing Johnny would be along with her.
The old man in the Laundromat had finished his search through the Lost and Found. Not finding much useful stuff for a man his size, he kicked at the box.
The room was filled with the sounds of the three washing machines as the spin cycles began. The man wandered out of the noise-filled building, and into the parking lot. He could see that two cars had pulled up to the dry-cleaners since he had been inside. He gave a curious glance at a young man standing in the doorway of the cleaners, as he wandered over across the street and sat on a bench. He always enjoyed people watching. It kept life interesting in his retirement years. Since not much was going on at the moment, he leaned his head back, and closed his eyes.
The youth at the door was startled to see someone walk out of the building. They had watched the place closely, but hadn’t noticed the old man had even gone in.
There’s no extra cars. Did he walk here from somewhere?
The young man turned to step in and alert the other two, when he noticed the old man continue on across the street and sit down.
He doesn’t have a clue what’s going on here. Old fool. The youth chuckled. This is gonna be easier than I thought.
The man who had been giving the commands stepped over to the front door of the cleaners and closed it after the youth stepped outside. He flipped the open sign around to read closed and pushed the bolt lock into place. The man then walked back over and grabbed Sally’s arm. He led her out towards the Laundromat doorway. Derek walked behind Johnny, the gun pointed at Johnny’s back.
Just as they entered into the Laundromat, the first man turned around.
“Take the fireman to the back of the dry-cleaners, between some of those clothes hangin’ up in rows and shoot ‘im,” he said quietly.
Sally’s eyes widened in shock.
“He’s going with us,” Derek protested.
“Just do it. With the clothes muffling the sound, the dry cleaning machines running, the noise in the other room, and not a soul around, anyway . . .no one will even hear it.”
Johnny swallowed hard as he was paraded back against a wall between two rows of hanging clothes.
“Okay, now turn around,” the young man ordered.
“Man, you don’t wanta’ do this,” Johnny tried to convince his attacker as he faced him.
“I’m gonna enjoy making you suffer.” Derek grinned and pulled the trigger of the .22 caliber handgun, hitting Johnny in the upper right abdomen, just below the ribcage.
Johnny stood in shocked surprise, looking at the assailant. He then glanced down at his mid section, where a red stain was beginning to grow on his brown plaid shirt.
Derek shot Johnny again, hitting him in the upper right thigh. Johnny felt the sting and a burning sensation in his leg.
Sally panicked and started to run back into the cleaners. She had only seen one gun and that was the one that was now going to be used on Johnny. She came in just as Johnny was shot the first time.
“No!” the girl yelled as she saw Derek take a second shot.
The next thing, Sally felt a stinging hot pain in her right shoulder and again in her neck, and she fell to the floor. The gunman, who had taken care of Johnny, turned around to look down at the girl. He glanced up at his partner.
“I thought we were gonna take her with us, Troy!”
“The bitch was too much trouble,” the partner said, stuffing his gun back in the waistline of his jeans. “Now, take care of the fireman and let’s get out of here!” He ran towards the doorway to the Laundromat.
Johnny stood stunned at the bloody sight before him. Sally was obviously hurt bad and he hoped the jerk that stood in front of him would let him live to help her. Derek turned to face Johnny again. He aimed his gun at Johnny’s head and pulled the trigger. A click was all that was heard. His partner, Troy, already out of the building, Derek had no way to shoot the paramedic again.
But if no one finds him or the girl for a while…they’ll be dead before any help arrives.
“Bleed to death, fireman.” Derek turned to leave, yanking the phone line out of the counter as he walked by it. He then grabbed the phone. In one quick motion, the young man stepped towards Johnny as he caught sight of the paramedic making a move to lunge at him. He swung the phone in a wide arch, hitting Johnny on the right temple. Dazed, Johnny fell to the floor.
“That should keep you from getting very far.” Derek dragged Johnny back against a wall behind the racks, close to where the pressing machines were. He reached in Johnny’s jean pocket and pulled out the keys to his Land Rover. Next he took Johnny’s wallet out of his back pocket. “Now you can suffer, hero.”
Derek then pulled Sally over in a corner behind the counter. Her body was hidden by the first row of clothing that was hung for customers to pick up.
This way the fireman can’t even get to you.
Johnny lay on the floor and squinted at the bright lights above him. The images swayed in his stunned mind. Suddenly the lights went out and Johnny could hear the door by the Laundromat close.
The only sounds left in the room were his own heavy breathing and the sound of the dry cleaning machines that were still going. The heat from the pressing machines being used earlier had built up back in the area, and Johnny could feel sweat bead up on his forehead and on his mid section. Although the pressing machines were not in use at the moment, he could tell they were still on and some amount of heat was being forced through them.
Despite the situation he was in, Johnny wanted to make it over to Sally. In his mind he knew she was dead…the brief moment he had looked at her face…saw the blank look behind her eyes and the wound in her neck…he knew it was over for her. But he couldn’t get himself to accept the fact. He felt like he had to make sure there was not any chance at all before giving up on the girl.
Not aware of the few specks of blood on the back of his clothing from when Sally was shot, Derek forced himself to casually walk out of the Laundromat, tossing the keys to the Land Rover in his hand. He waved to his partner, who had already moved Sally’s car across the street.
Derek climbed in the Land Rover and started the engine. He backed out, just as a woman pulled up in front of the Laundromat in a Pinto. The woman parked her car and hurried into the building, sighing with relief that her clothes were still in the three washing machines she had left them in.
The old man on the bench slowly opened his eyes, as he began to wake up. Squinting in the morning sunshine, he saw the two men get in their vehicles and pull away. He noticed that the dry-cleaners was now closed.
Kind of odd. I wonder if there was a family emergency or something?
The old man shrugged, as he saw the woman’s Pinto was back at the Laundromat. He watched as she rushed in.
Don’t worry, lady. No one is gonna steal wet clothes. The man shook his head at the lady worrying over nothing.
Two cars pulled up in front of the dry-cleaners, one right after another.
A heavy-set woman with short red hair got out of one of the cars. She frowned at the door with the closed sign hanging on it.
How can they be closed now?
The other car’s driver side door opened and a man got out, carrying two white dress shirts wadded up in his hands.
“It’s closed,” the woman remarked.
“Did you try the door?”
The heavy-set woman shook her head. She tried pushing the door open. It wouldn’t budge.
“It’s locked.” The woman cupped her hands on the glass and peered in.
“Anyone in there?” the man asked.
“No,” the woman said, pulling back from the glass. “Well, I’m going to call the owner when I get home later. I was supposed to pick up a dress this morning.”
The man shrugged. “I guess I’ll just go somewhere else.” He turned and walked back to his car, tossing the shirts in the back seat.
The woman peered in the window again as the man backed his car out.
It looks like the machines are running.
She shook her head in disgust. “Well, this is ridiculous. They’ll surely hear from me!” She got in her car and pulled away.
Johnny weakly struggled to sit up. Slipping back down on his right side, he laid on the floor, panting. His head was throbbing and the pain in his abdomen was almost unbearable. The heat in the dimly lit room was draining him of any energy he may have had left.
Johnny could see and feel the blood on the front of his shirt, as his clothing clung to his mid section. He wasn’t sure how much dampness of the shirt was caused by blood or by sweat, but he did know both were a factor.
His right pant leg was wet where the bullet had gone in on the front and exited out the back of his thigh. His leg burned.
A gasp escaped Johnny’s lips as he managed to ease himself halfway to a sitting position, leaning against the wall. He reached a bloody hand up to his head and gingerly touched where the man had hit him with the telephone. It was extremely tender, and sticky to the touch.
The paramedic continued to pant in the corner of the room, as sweat began to run down his face, a drip forming on his chin. He weakly reached up with his right arm and wiped his face with his forearm.
Oh man . . .
Johnny closed his eyes. With much effort he swallowed. His mouth was so dry.
I have to try to make it over to Sally . . .gotta check on her.
Another woman pulled her Mazda into a parking spot in front of the cleaners. The man on the bench watched with curiosity as she got out of her car, tugged at her short skirt to get it positioned right after sitting in it, and walked over to the front door.
He saw her look to the other end of the building where the entrance to the Laundromat was. The woman walked down and peeked inside. She disappeared through the doorway.
The mini skirt lady quickly went over to the dark-haired woman who was taking a small load of clothes out of a dryer. Two other dryers still had clothes flopping inside them, their cycles not complete yet.
“Did you see anyone in the dry-cleaners earlier this morning?”
“No. But I just threw my clothes in the washers and left. There was an old man hanging around earlier and he made me nervous,” the dark-haired woman explained. “I just got back here about thirty minutes ago.”
“And was everything closed up then?”
“Well, I have clothes to pick up and now I can’t. I’m going to call the manager and complain. This is just not right.”
The woman at the dryers nodded in agreement.
As the gal in the mini skirt walked up the sidewalk to her car, she could see that two more cars had pulled up. Hearing a car behind her, she turned to see a mother with two young children and a laundry basket full of dirty clothes getting out of a jeep and going into the Laundromat.
Once the robbers had driven a distance away from Carson, they stopped in an area several miles North East. Troy, who had been driving his own car, walked back to the Land Rover behind him.
“So, how did that fireman look when he died?”
“I didn’t kill ‘im. I--”
“What?” The man yelled.
“Look, I ran outta bullets. But don’t worry . . . I left him bleedin’ to death,” Derek explained. “He’ll die, but not without sufferin’ first.”
“You idiot! There’s no guarantee he’s dead!” Troy hit the Rover with his hand. “Damn it! Why didn’t you say something there?”
“I didn’t have time . . .I didn’t know if someone would show up! And I was right, too. Because that broad pulled up just as we were leaving.” Derek paused a moment before continuing. “Hey, I got ‘im good! He’ll die! ”
“I don’t believe this,” Troy spat, his jaw clenched. “We left a witness . . .some damn fireman . . .alive!”
“Oh forget it! It’s too late now. We’ll have to ditch his truck somewhere. We can head farther east and get rid of it somewhere. At least the lady’s dead. No way she could survive where I shot her.”
“Yeah, she was dead all right.” Derek grinned. “The hero can’t do nuthin’ for her now.”
“Well, let’s get movin’. We gotta get out of this state.”
Johnny slumped down, as he grew weary. He could hear an occasional noise at the entrance doors of the business. He made an attempt to crawl towards the sounds, slowly pulling himself forward.
Gotta get help . . .
The pain in his gut and leg was incredible and images he could see in the dark room were unclear, as his vision blurred somewhat. Before he could get very far out of the corner, Johnny collapsed on the floor, panting.
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut, in an attempt to clear his head and block out the pain he was feeling. Opening his eyes again, the paramedic tried to crawl closer to the door. As the pain and weariness quickly came back with a vengeance, Johnny passed out on the floor on his left side. The counter still concealed his body from view through the front glass door.
The old man sat on the bench, watching the cars come and go at the laundry/dry-cleaners. He furrowed his brow. Being a regular around the place, he knew the employees and routine well. Something seemed off kilter.
Sally was in this morning. And I’ve never seen this place left unattended before. It must be nearly forty-five minutes now since she closed up.
He watched as yet another person tried to open the locked door to the cleaners. Despite being somewhat concerned, the man had to grin. It was amazing how many people tried to open the door even though there was a closed sign hanging in it.
We humans are a strange bunch, indeed.
He stood up and slowly walked over to towards the building.
The old man peeked in through the glass of the dry cleaner’s door, his hands cupped around his face. He had stopped in on several occasions just to talk to Sally. She was always pleasant with him, even called him by name when she would see him come in. Not many people paid Howard Dugan that much respect, as they often dismissed him as an old man with nothing important to say. But Sally would engage in conversation with him easily, so he had felt welcome to come in anytime. Since he had been in so often, he knew exactly how the counter was arranged. As he peered in now, he could see the two pieces of light and dark blue clothes still on the counter in a careless heap.
Sally is never one to leave things undone.
Also the telephone that normally sat on the end of the counter was missing.
Howard pulled his face away from the glass and looked around. It was then that he noticed the familiar car parked farther down and across the street.
That’s Sally’s car! Of course! That’s what was missing earlier. Two cars were leaving when I woke up, but hers was already gone. And there it is now.
Howard knew there was something terribly wrong now. There was no way Sally would drive down the street and just leave the business. He hurried down the street towards her car, pausing for traffic before he crossed. As Howard approached the car, he could see no one was sitting in it. The old man’s gut tightened, as he feared what he would find. He peered in the passenger side window. No one was inside, but the driver’s side door was unlocked and the keys were still in the ignition.
Was someone hoping the car would get stolen? The trunk! What if she’s in the trunk?
The old man grabbed a corner of his shirt hem and held it in his hand, using it to open the car door. Howard carefully pulled the trunk release with the same hand and cloth. It popped open, the lid lifting to a full-up position. He quickly ran to the back of the car and looked in.
Howard glanced back at the building.
What if she’s in there right now . . .what if she needs help?
The old man had taken a taxi to the place since he no longer trusted himself to drive. He would have to find someone that could help him get to a phone to call the police. Howard thought of the woman that had belonged to the Pinto. No, he couldn’t ask her. He could tell by her reaction to him earlier, she wouldn’t help him anyway.
Howard noticed that the Jeep was still where it had been parked. This woman had had kids with her, but maybe she would be willing to help him. He knew there had to be foul play here. And Sally could very well be in the cleaners right now, dying. He
Johnny slowly opened his eyes as he regained consciousness. His energy was too spent for him to do much. Johnny moaned as he felt the pain in his abdomen and leg. His head was still throbbing, his vision still blurred. He moved his right hand in an attempt to feel the injury to his abdomen. It was wet and sticky, and the stain on his shirt had grown considerably.
Johnny could tell his face was wet with perspiration. Before he could make a clear thought to move his hand up to wipe the sweat away, he was unconscious again.
The woman with the two children had been more than willing to help the old man. The two adults had not discussed the situation in earshot of the children so as not to frighten them. As soon as Howard had explained his theory to her, he and the mother whisked the children out of the Laundromat and out to the Jeep. Leaving her clothes in the washing machines, the woman drove to a nearby gas station so that they could call the police.
Howard and the mother waited impatiently at the edge of the parking lot of the Laundromat during the few minutes it took for the police unit to arrive. Finally one patrol car with two officers in it pulled up, stopping in front of the Laundromat. The two officers got out and walked over to the two waiting.
“You called about a possible missing person?” Officer Trent asked.
“Yes,” the old man stepped forward. “Yes, I did.”
Howard went on to explain about the car being parked down the street, unlocked and with the keys still in it. He also mentioned about the two vehicles that were there earlier in the morning.
“Did you get any license plate numbers?” the other officer asked.
“No, I didn’t think about it at the time. But I can tell you what one of the hoodlums involved may have looked like. There was a young man standing just outside the door of the dry-cleaners earlier.”
“Okay,” Officer Duffy began. “A descript--”
“What’s going on?” The owner of the business interrupted as he got out of his car and walked over to the group. He had just arrived at the building and was only aware his employee had locked up his dry-cleaners.
“Sir?” Duffy asked.
“I’m the owner of this place, Henry Dixon,” the man explained, irritated. “I got some phone calls from customers telling me my employee had left the dry-cleaners and locked the place up. Why are you guys here?”
“We have a man here that suspects foul play, Mr. Dixon,” Trent explained.
“Do you have keys to the cleaners with you?”
“Well, sure,” Dixon answered.
As he pulled out the keys and started towards the building, Officer Trent stopped him.
“Sir, we don’t know what we’ll find inside. You’ll have to wait here.”
“But it’s my business!”
“Sir, there’s no guarantee it’s safe in there yet. We have no idea what we have here.”
Henry Dixon gave the policeman’s point some thought. Reluctantly, he handed over the keys.
After carefully opening the front door, the officers stood with their guns drawn and looked around the silent room. The temperature in the room had built up with the pressers still putting off some amount of heat and the doors being shut.
I wonder how hot it is in here? Officer Trent thought, as he felt himself already starting to sweat.
A low moan could be heard from behind the end of the counter. The police officers stepped around where they saw a man laying on the floor, the front of his shirt and pant leg soaked in sweat and blood. His face had a sheen to it, where the perspiration had built up and his hair was wet. Blood trickled down his forehead to the left side of his face and was dripping on the floor underneath his head.
The owner of the building now followed in behind the officers to see what was going on.
“I’ll radio for another unit, paramedics and an ambulance,” Duffy said, as he turned and hurried out the door.
Trent knelt down by Johnny. “This man work for you, Mr. Dixon?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at the owner of the cleaners.
“No, I’ve never seen him before.”
Dixon nodded his head. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Well, this could even be one of our suspects,” the officer glanced at Johnny’s pant pockets. “I don’t see any evidence of a wallet for ID.”
“He’s a paramedic with the County . . .his name’s John Gage.”
Both men looked at the other officer who had just come back in the doorway. “I’ve run into him a few times,” Officer Duffy continued. “Mostly at accident scenes over the past few years. He was one of the first ones in the program. The fire department and an ambulance are on the way.”
The other officer nodded in acknowledgement. He turned back to look at Johnny when the injured man groaned. Johnny’s eyes were partially open and glassy.
“Well, where’s Sally?” Dixon questioned, looking around the cleaners.
“He probably can tell us later,” Officer Trent indicated Johnny. “But I’d guess whoever did this took the lady with them.”
Duffy knelt down by Johnny. “John, can you hear me?”
Johnny didn’t respond. His eyes slowly closed.
“You’re gonna be okay, bud. I’ve got help on the way,” Duffy tried to reassure, even if his words did go unheard. He took a glance around the room. The phone was sprawled out on the floor and there was a bloodstain on the lower part of the wall between two clothing racks. Blood was spattered on some of the clothes that were hanging on those racks, as well as on the end of the counter. A trail of smeared blood was on the floor leading to the back of the room. He then saw some blood leading to the front of the cleaners towards a corner, where a puddle of the crimson fluid ran out from under the hung clothes. As he peered closer, he could see part of a body showing from under the long dresses that were hanging on the rack.
“I think the lady may be here!” Duffy yelled out as he got up and ran over towards the dresses. Pulling them back, he saw the bloodied body of a woman. He could feel the disappointment in him build as he looked at the woman. Regardless of how often they saw the detrimental results of a hold up, they always hoped for a positive ending.
Officer Trent hurried over to see what his partner had found. When he saw Duffy shaking his head, Trent knew what the outcome was.
“Mr. Dixon, can you tell us if this is your employee?”
The owner of the cleaners stepped over, taking a staggering step backwards in shock as soon as he saw who the officers had found. He nodded slowly. A barely audible “Yes,” was all he could get out.
“Better get homicide here,” Duffy said to Trent.
Duffy went back over to check on Johnny. He shook his head when he felt the weak pulse on the man.
The paramedics better get here soon . . .John’s not doing good.
Mike Stoker had taken a brief nap when he first got home after getting off duty. But now he was awake, showered, feeling refreshed and ready to run some errands. One of those errands included dropping off his dirty uniforms at a dry cleaner.
As Mike looked over at the cleaners where he normally went, he could see two police units. Although he normally would avoid a place under the circumstances, gut feeling told him to pull into the lot. As Mike parked his car down near the Laundromat entrance, he could hear the sirens of other emergency vehicles. Soon Engine and Squad 36 pulled into the lot, stopping up near the cleaners. An ambulance was right behind them.
Stoker got out of his car and walked up towards the other end of the building. A lady and her two children were mid-way, talking to one officer, while an older man stood nearby.
The officer reached out to stop Mike.
“Excuse me, sir, but this is a crime scene now. We can’t let anyone go down there.”
“Um, I’m a fireman with Los Angeles County,” Mike explained, pulling out his identification. “I thought I might be able to help somewhere.”
Both Mike Stoker and the officer looked at the doorway of the cleaners to see the source of the voice. One of the firemen from Station 36 was waving his right arm to get Mike’s attention.
“Get in here! It’s Johnny!”
Mike took one quick look at the officer and ran towards the entrance of the cleaners before the young officer had a chance to stop him.
Mike stopped at the sight before him inside the cleaners. Johnny was lying on the floor, his bloodstained shirt open. A large amount of blood still covered the right side of his abdomen. His right pant leg was soaked with the red substance on the upper thigh. The right side of Johnny’s face was bruised and bloody, a crimson streak trailed across his forehead.
The scene was surreal to Mike as he watched the paramedics in the process of accessing Johnny’s injuries. Bob Clayton was the senior paramedic on the scene. He hurriedly wiped off some of the blood on Johnny’s abdomen, and taped dressing in place, while his partner, Ron Fritter, contacted Rampart on the biophone.
“Rampart, this is Squad 36.”
“Go ahead, 36,” came Brackett’s reply.
Mike listened, still in shock, as Fritter gave a run-down on Johnny’s condition to the hospital.
“Rampart we have a male, 24 years of age, with a gunshot wound to the abdomen, just below the right rib cage. No exit wound apparent on examination and his stomach is firm. There’s a gunshot wound to the anterior right thigh, with an exit wound posteriorly. Also, Rampart, the victim has a head injury and is overheated. Stand by for vitals.”
Fritter glanced at his partner as Clayton was applying a pressure bandage to Gage’s head. He then quickly worked at getting the vitals read to give to Rampart.
“Could you go get the backboard?” Clayton asked one of the firemen, as he pulled a C-collar out of the trauma box. “With the bullet still in him, he could have a spinal injury.”
Mike watched Clayton make a long slit up Johnny’s right pant leg to get a better look at the bullet hole.
Mike turned to a fireman standing next to him. “How’d this happen? Anyone know?” he asked.
“He was shot when he apparently walked in on a holdup or something. The woman over there wasn’t as lucky as he was.”
Mike looked over to the bloodied sheet covering a body. The realization that a woman had just lost her life in a senseless crime sickened him. He wiped at the sweat that was building up on his brow, as he quickly returned his attention back to Johnny. Clayton and a fireman were sliding a backboard under Johnny’s limp form.
The other paramedic had the information ready to transmit. “Rampart,” Fritter began, “vital signs on the victim are BP 80/50, pulse 130, respirations 36 and shallow. Pupils are equal and reactive and he’s unconscious, however, he does react to a sternal rub. Victim’s skin is flushed and he’s diaphoretic.”
Dixie jotted down the information as Brackett carefully listened to the transmission.
“36, you said earlier the victim is overheated. Is he in an enclosed space?”
“10-4, Rampart. The victim has been shut up in a hot room for an extended period of time. Doctor Brackett, it’s John Gage.”
Brackett and Dixie exchanged a worried glance at the latest information.
“He’s in bad shape,” Kel mumbled to the nurse. “We’ll need to get him cooled down as soon as they get him in here.” The doctor continued on his transmission with the paramedics.
“36, do you have the patient on a backboard?”
“10-4, Rampart. We’ve also got the victim on 10 liters of O2 by mask.”
“Good. Start him on two large-bore IV’s of Ringers.”
“10-4,” Fritter replied. “Two large-bore IV’s Ringers.”
Fritter watched as his partner finished setting up the monitor after attaching the leads to Gage’s chest..
Mike stared intently as the paramedics continued.
I can’t believe this . . .but if Johnny’s here . . .
“Where’s the Land Rover?” Mike voiced out loud.
Officer Trent glanced at Stoker. “What?”
“Johnny drives a white Land Rover . . .where is it?”
The policeman stepped closer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen, and began writing down the information. “Do you know the license plate number?”
Mike shook his head. “No. . .no I don’t. I’ve never paid that much attention. It’s got a spare tire on the front hood and sometimes Johnny has a rack strapped on the roof. I’m pretty sure it was on there while it was parked at the station.” Mike gave it more thought. “Yeah, as a matter of fact it was. He made a comment he forgot to take it off after he used it last.”
Trent continued to write the information down. When Mike was done, the policeman stuck the pen back in his pocket and headed for the door. “I’m calling for an APB on the victim’s vehicle,” he called out to Duffy.
His partner waved in acknowledgment.
When the paramedics had Johnny ready to transport and on a stretcher, Mike went over to him. He could see the glazed over look in Johnny’s eyes that were now partially open.
“Johnny? Can you hear me? It’s Mike Stoker.”
Getting no response, Mike followed the paramedics out as they took the stretcher towards the ambulance.
“I’ll follow you in to the hospital,” the engineer said.
One of the paramedics nodded as he helped lift the stretcher into the ambulance. His partner inside, he closed the doors, giving them the customary two slaps.
“See you at Rampart, Mike.”
Mike lost sight of the ambulance soon after they left the Laundromat. He couldn’t drive the speed limit they were using, nor could he run through intersections as freely. The added travel time gave the engineer more opportunity to pull his thoughts together on what had happened. He was well aware of the fact Johnny might not survive. The image of the covered body came to mind. He wasn’t sure who it was, but gut feeling told him it was probably Sally, the counter girl. Mike found himself shuddering at the thought that it could have just as easily been Johnny under a sheet as well. The fact that even the young woman had been killed saddened Mike, making his eyes tear. He rubbed at them with one hand, as he continued the journey to the hospital.
Stoker felt like a robot as he drove. He couldn’t remember making the stops at traffic signals or making turns. When Rampart came into view, the engineer was both relieved and apprehensive. He had no idea what news awaited him at the hospital.
Mike hurried through the double doors and towards the treatment rooms. He could see Dixie McCall coming out of one of the rooms.
“Miss McCall!” Mike said loudly, in hopes of getting her attention.
Dixie stopped in the middle of the corridor and saw Mike coming towards her. She hadn’t had much opportunity to get to know the fireman, but she had seen him on a few occasions. The most recent time had been after the rattlesnake had bitten Johnny a few months ago and the crew came into Rampart with him.
“Is Johnny in there?” Mike asked, indicating treatment room two.
Dixie nodded. “Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early are working on him now.”
“Is he gonna make it?”
Dixie studied Mike’s face. He looked older than Johnny, but not by that much. He had a bit of that boyishness to him that she often saw in Johnny; only Mike’s was more of a shy boyishness.
“They’re doing as much as they can for him. Johnny’s lost a lot of blood and he had pretty severe heat exhaustion. But if no major organs are damaged, he stands a good chance. They’ll x-ray to see where the bullet is, but most likely he’s going to need surgery at the very least to remove it.”
“I can’t believe this happened,” Stoker said, still feeling the effects of being in shock.
“Look . . .Mike . . .do you want to go sit down in the staff lounge? It may be a long wait.”
“No,” Mike shook his head. “I need to make a couple of phone calls. As far as I know, Cap doesn’t know about this. And Roy’s on vacation, but he might be home now.”
“Well, you can use the phone in the lounge if you want to. It’s not totally private, but pretty darn close.”
“Thank you, Miss McCall. I’ll do that.”
“You can call me Dixie. All the paramedics do. And you’re welcome.” She gave a warm smile.
Mike turned and walked past a police officer waiting in the corridor. He glanced over as he walked by. He hoped Johnny would be able to tell the police who had done the crime.
Johnny groaned as he slowly began to come to a level of awareness. His vision not yet cleared, the bright lighting of the room was one blinding blur. He could feel something being wrapped on his left arm, the sounds of. . .
A BP cuff?
Suddenly someone was talking to him.
“Johnny, are you with us now?”
Brackett. . .
The paramedic tried to answer, the only reward for his efforts being another groan. Then he felt the oxygen mask whipped off his face as he was tipped slightly. His stomach had retched and he vomited. The lights faded to black and Johnny was once again oblivious to what was going on around him.
After making an attempt to get in touch with Roy and Captain Stanley, Mike wandered back out into the corridor and looked around for Dixie. He wanted to get an update on Johnny.
He was disappointed he hadn’t been able to get a hold of anyone. Mike was sure Roy would be at the hospital in a heartbeat if he were aware of the circumstances. Unfortunately, Roy was either still out of town or busy doing something else.
The paramedics who had brought Johnny in had stopped to tell Mike to call them at the station with updates on their patient. Mike hoped to be able to give them good news soon.
As Mike came out of his thoughts, he saw the door to treatment room two open. Johnny was whisked out on a gurney, a sheet covering his lower half. A pressure bandage was on his abdomen where blood still could be seen. Mike hurried over and followed behind the gurney and the doctors. As they reached the elevator, Mike grabbed Joe Early’s arm, getting his attention.
“Is Johnny gonna be okay?”
“You’re one of the guys from his crew, aren’t you?”
Letting go of the doctor’s arm, Mike nodded. “Mike Stoker.”
“We’re taking him up to surgery now. We’ll know better once
he’s in recovery.”
Mike felt a wave of dizziness hit. The whole thing still didn’t seem real. “Okay.”
He chewed his lower lip as he watched the elevator doors close. Suddenly he felt a light tap on his right shoulder. Looking to the side, he saw Dixie.
“Now, I’m going to make you go sit down. C’mon,” she motioned with her head. “There’s fresh coffee in the lounge.”
Mike followed numbly. He wasn’t used to being in this role and it was harder than he had ever thought it would be.
Derek, Troy and the youth who was their lookout were in the desert, heading east. With no traffic in sight and no towns nearby, they decided it was time to ditch the Land Rover. They drove it a good distance off the road and parked it in a wide ditch. Desert shrubbery that surrounded the ditch helped to conceal that the vehicle was even there. The three young men were together in their own car again and headed farther east. They had decided that they would take up residence in Nevada for awhile before considering going back to California.
Mike looked as the door to the lounge opened. Dixie stepped in, a concerned expression on her face.
“I was just wondering if you had gotten in touch with Roy. I forgot to ask earlier.”
“No ma’am. He may still be out of town on vacation. Any word on Johnny yet?”
Dixie shook her head. “They won’t update anyone on him until he’s out of surgery.”
“You mentioned earlier he lost a lot of blood . . .”
“Yes, that’s right, Mike. The paramedics said it was hot in the dry-cleaners. The heat would've caused his blood vessels to dilate to dissipate the heat more efficiently. That's why his skin was so flushed. Plus it thinned out his blood somewhat, causing him to bleed quicker.”
“Can I give some blood to help out?”
“Sure. Johnny’s going to need it. Do you know for certain you’re the same blood type?”
“I’ll bet Johnny will be grateful when he finds out you did this.”
The engineer shrugged. “I just want to help get him stronger if I can. I know he’s got a long road ahead of him.” If he makes it, Mike thought glumly.
Dixie smiled. These firemen were something else. If only everyone knew just how unselfish they could be.
“Lead the way,” Mike said, forcing a grin.
Once he was done donating blood, Mike sat in the cafeteria drinking orange juice. He’d decided that once he was done with his drink, he would try calling Captain Stanley and Roy again. If neither answered, he would call Chet. Someone else needed to know their shift mate was fighting for his life.
Mike glanced at the entrance of the cafeteria. He saw Doctor Brackett walk in and scan the area. A look of recognition came over the doctor’s face when he spotted the engineer. Mike braced himself for the news, as he watched Brackett come towards him.
“Any news on Johnny?” Mike asked when Kel got to the table.
Brackett gave a reassuring smile. “He made it through the surgery okay. Right now we’ve got him in recovery, then we’ll move him to SICU to keep a close watch on him for a few days, just to be sure.” He pulled out a chair and sat down. “The bullet in his leg went through clean. The one in his abdomen had nicked his liver, but we were able to repair the small laceration and we got the bullet out of him okay. He should heal fine, barring any complications.” Kel put his hands on the table, his fingers intertwined. “The main thing was the amount of blood loss. Dixie said she had explained this to you earlier.”
Mike nodded, so Brackett continued.
“Johnny’s also got a moderate concussion from where he was hit on the right temple, but there wasn’t a skull fracture. He’s very fortunate there.”
“He’s lucky someone found him when they did,” Mike stated matter-of-fact.
“In talking to the police, I understand an older man near the building realized something was up and got help. I’d say if it weren’t for him, Johnny would be dead now.”
“Like the girl,” Mike responded sadly.
Brackett furrowed his brow. “Did you know her?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t get her name. But I know a young lady who works the counter there.”
“Yeah. . .yeah, that’s the name. It was her, wasn’t it?”
The doctor nodded. “A police officer just told me about her. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t know her that well. But it’s still hard to believe.”
“Did Johnny know her?”
“We both take our uniforms there, so he may have . . .he never has said,” Mike shrugged.
“It’s okay. I was just wondering.”
“Well, I guess I’d better try to get a hold of the guys again,” Mike said, as he pushed back his chair and stood up. “They need to know what’s happened.”
Brackett was already on his feet again. “If you want to see Johnny afterwards, it’s okay to. He won’t be awake, but you can still spend a few minutes with him once we get him set up in SICU.”
Mike stared at the doctor a few seconds, remembering how Johnny had said at one time Brackett wasn’t too fond of hose jockeys, as the doctor referred to them. It was hard to imagine . . .Brackett seemed to be going the extra mile to do whatever he could for Johnny. Stoker reached out with his right hand. “Thanks.”
The doctor returned the gesture and the men shook hands.
Mike slowly walked into the room where Johnny had been situated. Another wave a surrealness came over him as he took in the appearance of his friend.
An IV line was inserted into Johnny’s chest, a peripheral line in each arm. He was still on the ventilator; the steady sound of the machine could be heard. Mike watched the paramedic’s chest rise and fall with each breath. A heart monitor nearby showed a solid rhythm. There was a tube going in to Johnny’s nose, which Mike guessed lead to his stomach. Johnny and Roy had explained to him at one time they were used to drain the stomach contents. Looking at the other drainage tubes coming out of Johnny’s abdomen sent a shudder through Mike.
God, Johnny, you’re a mess . . .but you’re alive.
The engineer noticed the blood still being replenished into Johnny’s system. He wondered if it was his.
No matter. As long as he gets what he needs.
Mike stepped closer to the bed and spoke quietly to the unconscious man.
“Roy’s gonna flip when he finds out what happened, you know. I still can’t believe it did happen. I hope they find your Land Rover and get whoever who did this.” He sighed. “This is so senseless.” Mike paused again, not sure what else to say. “Chet was the only one I could get a hold of, so he’ll probably try to see you soon. Now I know how Roy felt when he was hanging around when you had that virus. It’s hard . . .the waiting, not knowing the outcome. But you know what? I’d do it again, tough or not.” He looked at his watch. If he hadn’t run into traffic, Chet should be there soon. “I’ll be back, Johnny. Take it easy, pal.”
Mike walked out of the room and headed for the lounge downstairs to wait for Chet.
When Chet arrived at Rampart, Mike filled him in on what had happened and Johnny’s current condition. As expected, Chet was in disbelief himself.
“No one should have to be cautious taking their clothes in to a stupid dry-cleaners,” Chet spat out. “Man, I could see it happening in a bank. But a place that handles dirty clothes? No way.”
“Dry-cleaners make money, too, you know,” Mike reminded. “Maybe they were just punks or something.”
“I hope they get ‘em and put ‘em away for life, punks or not.”
Mike nodded in agreement. “You want to see Johnny?”
“Yeah. Can’t hurt for the guy to know he’s got friends here.”
“Even the Phantom, huh?” Mike said, grinning.
Chet gave a disgusted look, then softened his expression. “Yeah, Stoker, even the Phantom.”
Later in the evening, Mike and Chet were finally able to get a hold of Captain Stanley by telephone. After getting all the details of what had happened and how Gage was doing so far, the captain hung up and sighed.
No sense putting off the inevitable.
He picked up the telephone receiver again and dialed headquarters. Stanley requested a replacement be set up for John Gage, indefinitely.
The following day the men from A-Shift took turns sitting with Johnny. The paramedic was off of the ventilator, although he remained on oxygen. A nasal canula was now in place. Johnny was still heavily medicated, but occasionally managed to wake up enough to know someone was with him.
When things had finally slowed down for the shift, Dwyer made his way up to SICU to check on Gage. Marco was sitting in a chair near the bed when Charlie walked in. He stopped talking to Johnny and glanced over at the visitor.
“How’s he doin’, Marco?”
“Hanging in there. He’s still out of it, though.”
Dwyer walked closer to the bed and looked down at Johnny. The dark-haired paramedic’s eyes were partially open, but appeared unfocussed.
“Hey, John, you had to find a way not to pull one last duty with me tomorrow, huh?”
Johnny seemed to comprehend what had just been said as a slight grin appeared on his face.
Dwyer looked over at Marco.
“Does Roy know about this yet?”
Marco shook his head. “He’s not back from the Grand Canyon.”
“Man, he’s in for a shock, huh?”
“Yes. I can guarantee you he would’ve been here by now if we’d gotten a hold of him. He was kicking himself for not being on the scene when the rattlesnake bit Johnny a few months ago. Imagine how he’s going to feel now.”
“Like he shouldn’t have been enjoying himself on a vacation.”
“Exactly,” Marco said, frowning.
“Well, once he’s feeling up to it, Johnny’ll set him straight on that if no one else can.” Dwyer caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and saw that Johnny had lifted his left hand off the bed slightly, trying to get their attention.
“Just rest, Johnny.”
Gage tried to gather some thoughts together, hoping his foggy mind would allow him to make some sense.
“S . . .sorry,” he rasped, his voice barely audible.
Dwyer’s expression was one of surprise.
“Sorry? For what?”
“Be. . .bein’ . . . here.”
“Hey, you have no reason to be sorry. I’m just jealous you’ll get to spend more time with the cute nurses here.” Charlie forced a smile. “And get their sympathy on top of that.” Turning serious, he patted Johnny’s left arm. “Really, Gage, just take it easy and get healed. Don’t worry about the rest of us. We’re here for ya, man, whatever it takes to get you back on your feet.”
Johnny lifted his hand off of the bed again, in a weak attempt at a wave of thanks.
“Listen,” Dwyer began, “I have to get back down to the squad, but I’ll try to get back later. Hang in there, Johnny.”
No response came, but Charlie knew Gage would. He saw Johnny’s eyes close as he turned to leave. “You gonna be here awhile, Marco?” Dwyer asked quietly.
The fireman stood up and stretched. “He needs to get more rest, so I think I’ll go get something to eat. Mike should be here in about 30 minutes.”
The two men quietly left the room, leaving Johnny alone to sleep.
The next evening, Roy and Joanne finally made it home. Joanne’s mother had taken a flight out of Flagstaff Arizona so she could be back to her own home in time to go to Disney World with her other daughter and son-in-law. Now with the kids in bed after a long road trip back, the DeSotos plopped down on the couch in exhaustion. Roy glanced over at the telephone nearby.
“I should call Johnny at the station and see how things have been.”
Joanne looked at her husband incredulously and gave him a light punch in the left shoulder.
“Don’t you dare, Roy DeSoto. You’re still on vacation and this is the first time we’ve had a break from the kids since we left for the Grand Canyon.”
“You’re right. I won’t.” He put his arm around Joanne’s shoulders and studied her face. “Well, what should we do?”
“You have to ask?” She teased back, smiling.
They held hands as they stood up and started for the staircase. The telephone ringing stopped them in mid-stride. Roy walked back over and picked up the receiver. Joanne watched as his expression went from one of casual interest to alarm. From the words ‘oh my God’ Roy used, she knew it was extremely serious. When he hung up, Joanne was over to her husband in an instant.
“What is it, Roy?”
Still feeling the shock of the news, he answered. “Johnny’s been shot. He’s in SICU at Rampart.”
Joanne brought her right hand near her mouth as she gasped in disbelief. “Oh, Roy. When did it happen?”
“Two days ago. No one could get a hold of us.” Roy ran a hand across his chin and grabbed for the car keys on the coffee table. “I’m gonna go see if they’ll let me in to visit him.”
“Sure. Do what you need to.”
Roy gave his wife a kiss. “Thanks. I owe you a night on the town to make up for this, okay?”
Joanne nodded. “It’s okay. I’ll take the raincheck. Just go see Johnny and give him my best wishes, too.”
She watched out the window as her husband backed the car out of the driveway and drove down the street.
When Roy arrived at Rampart, visiting hours were over. Determined to see his partner, he sought out one of the doctors he knew would get him cleared to see Johnny. Joe Early made the necessary call to SICU, and Roy soon found himself looking at his injured friend.
“Johnny, how in the hell did this happen?” Roy whispered. “They said you were in a hold up. How did you get yourself in a situation like that?”
DeSoto knew he wasn’t going to get any answers. Johnny was clearly asleep. But the questions seemed to need to get out. Roy couldn’t believe this had really happened. Johnny could’ve died and there he was off on a vacation oblivious to the whole thing, carrying on like there wasn’t a care in the world.
In his mind, Roy knew he shouldn’t feel guilty for not being around when his partner needed someone most. Common sense was, no one could’ve predicted this would happen. But the little voice that tugged at him when Johnny had his close call with the rattlesnake bite came back in loud volume. Once again, he hadn’t been where he could’ve to help his friend in a life-threatening situation.
Roy heard the door open behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Doctor Early had come in.
“Does anyone know exactly how this happened?” Roy wondered.
“He was in a dry-cleaners when some young punks walked in and held up the place. Apparently he had gone there directly after work.”
“Did they catch who did it?”
Early shook his head. “Not yet. But don’t worry. The police are definitely looking for them. An officer was in to see Johnny this afternoon and said Johnny was able to give him some important information. Gage said there were three young men involved and gave the first names of two of them. Once he’s more coherent, the police are hoping he can give them good descriptions. The men are now wanted for robbery, grand theft auto and homicide.”
“They shot and killed a young woman who worked at the cleaners.”
A chill ran down Roy’s spine. Whoever did this to Johnny meant business. It was even more apparent now just how close his partner had probably come to dying. It was selfish for Roy to worry about his own guilt on not being there. The important thing now was to be around for Johnny in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.
Four days after the robbery occurred, the police finally located Johnny’s Land Rover on a tip from a motorist. The person had noticed the white top of a vehicle sticking up from behind the shrubbery off of the road. Fearing someone may have driven out that far and gotten stuck, the motorist opted to call the police once he got to a pay phone without even checking the vehicle over first. If the person had been stranded for awhile with the desert heat, he knew the sight inside the car would be unpleasant. And if there was foul play going on, he didn’t want to get caught in it.
Fingerprints on the interior and exterior of the Land Rover confirmed who the police suspected were involved after Johnny had pointed two of them out in a mug-shot book that was brought to him to look through. Derek and Troy already had a record of numerous misdemeanor charges in Los Angeles.
The vehicle was in good shape, aside from being dusty. However, Johnny’s wallet and keys were still missing. Once the truck had been brushed for fingerprints, it was towed back to Carson and left at Roy’s house by request of the older paramedic.
Six days after the shooting, Johnny was doing much better. He had been moved to a regular room and was allowed more visitors at a time.
Much to the dark-haired paramedic’s surprise, he was told there was an elderly man, and a younger woman who was with him, who wanted to see him. He didn’t recognize them when they came in. Seeing a puzzled expression on Johnny’s face, the man spoke out.
“I know you don’t know me . . .us.” The man sighed. “I was a friend of Sally’s . . .kind of. I used to visit her in the cleaners.”
Johnny swallowed hard. Once he was told that the girl had indeed died, he’d tried to avoid talking about it. He had even gone to the extreme of pretending he couldn’t recall everything that had happened.
Johnny sighed. “I’m sor- -”
“This man . . .Howard Dugan . . . saved your life,” the woman cut in. “He was worried about Sally, but if not for him, they wouldn’t have found you in time. It was because of Mr. Dugan's insistence that I help him get to a pay phone so we could call the police that things then got moving so you could be found.”
The old man rolled his eyes. “She keeps insisting that’s true. But I think you would’ve made it . . .it just wasn’t your time. Anyway, we just wanted to see how you were doing now.”
Johnny forced a grin. “I’m doing better, thanks. For saving my life and for taking the time to come see me.”
“Did you know Sally?” the man asked.
Johnny shook his head, lying. “I’d only been in there a couple of times. So, I didn’t know her very well.” Maybe if he denied the truth long enough, the pain and guilt would go away.
“She was a nice girl.”
“I’m sorry she didn’t make it,” Johnny empathized. “She seemed to be very nice.”
“When will you be out of here?” the woman asked.
“I’m not sure. Maybe in a week or so.”
“I’m told you’re a fireman-paramedic,” Mr. Dugan said.
“I’m glad you’re still with us. Good folk who put themselves in danger to help others are a rare find.”
Gage was uncomfortable with the praise. Right now he just wanted to go through the next few weeks unnoticed.
When his guests were gone, Johnny found himself uncharacteristically wanting to cry. He forced the need away and put on a strong appearance when Mike and Marco came in to see him a short time later.
Every time he came in to check on Johnny’s progress, Brackett questioned the paramedic on what he could recall about that day in the dry-cleaners. Each time Johnny would lead the doctor to believe he couldn’t remember beyond being shot.
Puzzled, Kel Brackett sat behind the desk in his office to have a talk with Roy.
“The blow to his head was fierce, and he had a moderate concussion, but I didn’t expect it to cause such a long-term memory loss.”
“Could there be something else involved?” Roy wondered.
“I’ve considered that,” the doctor answered thoughtfully. “It could be he’s blocking it out subconsciously or he’s lying to me for whatever reason.”
“You want me to talk to him?”
Brackett sat forward and leaned on his desk.
“Don’t go in with the sole purpose of trying to break through. But you might kind of slip in a question now and then to see if you can either jar something loose, or get him to trip up. Whichever is the case.”
Roy nodded. “Sure, Doc. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great. In the meantime, I’m going to keep working on your stubborn partner, myself. I can’t see him getting through this completely without coming to terms with what went down that day.”
“I agree. But you know Johnny. He’s not one to let on how he’s feeling most of the time, when it’s really something serious.”
Brackett smiled. “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”
Johnny sat up in bed while a police officer was nearby in a chair. The officer had come in with news that the young men who had committed the robbery and murder had been caught. Since they had the fingerprints from when the punks had stolen and ditched the Land Rover, it was easy to match them up as being the same young men who had recently committed a similar crime in Nevada.
The fact that the men were now in a jail in the other state, and would soon be extradited to California to face the felony charges, was a relief to Johnny. Having his wallet with all his personal information in it and apartment key in someone else’s hand was more than unsettling. Although Captain Stanley had made sure the landlord changed the locks soon after the crime had happened, Johnny had expressed uneasiness at the thought of possible retaliation from the young men later. With that thought out of his mind, getting back to normal once he was released from the hospital was going to be a much smoother transition. Or so Johnny hoped.
Roy came into the room to see Johnny. After 12 days in the hospital, his partner was finally a day away from getting released. Roy pulled a chair over and sat down.
“You hanging in there or are you about ready to climb the walls?”
“I’m ready to get out of here, that’s for sure,” Johnny answered, grinning. “Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.”
Roy smiled, then his expression turned to one of concern. “I understand you still can’t recall anything that happened in the dry-cleaners after you got shot.”
“Yeah. I remember being held at gunpoint against a wall. Then it all goes blank.”
“Well, maybe it’ll come to you after you get back to work and things feel normal again.”
The older paramedic had hoped for more of a response to the subject than just a ‘maybe’, but he knew he’d have to take that for now.
Roy stayed for nearly an hour talking to Gage. During part of that time Dwyer had stopped in and the three men shared a few laughs about some crazy rescues Charlie and Roy had been on lately. When the two visitors left, Johnny watched the door close behind them. He closed his eyes and a vision of Sally being shot in the neck from behind played out in his mind. Johnny felt his eyes sting as they teared. He’d fooled everyone this long about not remembering that awful moment. If he could just keep up the charade, maybe he could get through it without anyone ever having to know how much he felt like he had failed the young woman.
It had been 3 weeks since Johnny was back to work. Although things seemed to be normal, the paramedic was low key and tight-lipped. He would still joke around when the others did, but Roy noticed it was almost like he was forcing himself to laugh. Anytime that DeSoto tried to talk to Johnny about it, Gage would laugh it off and blame his actions on awkwardness after being gone for a few weeks.
“After all,” John had pointed out, “people tend to need time to ease back into their old routine before they feel comfortable again.”
Roy couldn’t argue with him. Gage was right. At least he was still the same kind of paramedic on calls. Johnny had always been a good one for reassuring victims that things were going to be okay and putting them at ease. He still shined in that aspect of the job, as well as his medical skills. He just needed time to get back in the swing of living with the guys on 24-hour shifts again.
A few days after Roy had tried to talk to Johnny again, Hank called four members of his crew to come in thirty minutes before their next shift was to begin. He told them not to let John know, as the meeting was concerning a surprise that was being set up for the younger paramedic. As the men filed in at 7:30, Captain Stanley had them join him in his office. Chet and Marco sat in chairs, while the other two stood beside them.
“I appreciate you guys coming in like this.”
“No problem, Cap,” Mike answered.
“What’s up?” Roy wondered.
“Well, you all know how quiet John’s been since he’s been back to work.”
“Yeah, it’s unnatural, Cap,” Chet remarked. “Almost scary.”
Roy and Marco each shot the Irishman glares. Noticing the looks, Chet slinked down in his chair.
“Well, it is,” he said in a small voice.
Captain Stanley shook his head. “Anyway, I’ve been talking to the chief. And we think we know of a way to help John deal with what happened.”
The men waited to hear the idea. Seeing he had everyone’s attention, Hank continued.
“We’ve decided to give John a citation in recognition of all he tried to do for Sally Teal in that dry-cleaners that day.”
“But he doesn’t even remember everything that went down that day,” Chet spoke out.
“He remembered trying to talk the guys into taking himself instead of the girl. When that failed, he asked them to take both so he could keep an eye out for her.” Hank paused and looked directly at Chet. “I’d say he did what ever he could to keep the lady out of harms way. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be reasoned with.”
“I think it’s a good idea, Cap,” Mike offered. “Johnny nearly died for whatever he did. He deserves recognition.”
The captain clapped his hands together. “Good. Now don’t anyone say anything to Gage. We want this to be a surprise.” He looked at his watch. “You guys better go get ready for work, so John isn’t suspicious when he comes in.”
Late that night the exhausted crew of A-shift sat around the table in the dayroom, traces of smoke and grime still apparent on their faces. They had just gotten back from a late-evening department store fire that had escalated into a three-alarm blaze. Since the store had been closed at the time the fire broke out, no victims had been inside. A quick sweep of what interior could be entered into safely was done as a precaution, but the men sent in were called back out after a brief time as the fire swept through the structure at remarkable speed.
Johnny leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Man, I’ll be glad not to see another fire like that one for awhile.”
“Yeah, if you ask me, we all deserve awards for this one,” Chet remarked. He turned his attention to Gage. “Speaking of, I hear you’re getting a citation of recognition for that robbery you got caught in.”
Roy looked in disbelief at the stocky fireman. How could he have blabbed that?
“I’m what?” Johnny asked, puzzled.
“You’re getting recognized for bravery in the hold-up. For trying to stop those punks from hurting the woman who worked there.”
Johnny’s mouth was open in shock. He looked around at the others and could tell by their expressions, he was the only one who didn’t already know.
“She died. I didn’t save her,” he said matter-of-fact.
Roy tried to get Chet’s attention to shut him up, but it was to no avail.
“Gage, c’mon. You even said you tried to talk those guys into taking you as a hostage instead if her.”
Johnny sat forward, an angry expression on his face.
“I don’t want an award. Why can’t this whole thing just be dropped? I got shot, but it’s over. I’m healed. Life goes on!” He stood up and walked out of the dayroom, leaving four bewildered men behind.
“You shouldn’t have told him about the citation,” Roy chastised. “But I’m not gonna get into that. I have a feeling this whole thing is harder on Johnny than he led us to believe.”
Roy followed behind his partner in hopes he could get answers.
Chet shook his head as he looked at the other two men still at the table. “I don’t think Johnny got the blood you donated, Mike. He sure hasn’t calmed down any.”
Mike glared at Chet. “You’d better come up with a more humorous line than that when you explain this to Cap, because that’s not going to do the trick.”
Chet slouched in his chair. He’d forgotten what the captain had said about keeping it secret.
Oooops. . .No wonder Roy was mad. I guess I’d better apologize to him. Right after I apologize to Gage. Which is right after I apologize to Cap. Hoo boy. . . I hope Cap’s too tired to care.
As he walked into the dorm, Roy could see Gage sitting on his bed, looking down at the floor. DeSoto went over and sat across from his friend, hoping Johnny would be willing to explain his recent behavior.
“What do you want?” Johnny asked, his eyes still focused on the floor.
“I thought you might need to talk to someone.”
“Well, you thought wrong. I don’t.”
“What is your problem?” Roy wondered, becoming frustrated with his partner. “They're giving you a citation for bravery for putting your life in jeopardy in an effort to save that young woman. You should be proud.”
Johnny looked up at Roy, an angry expression on his face. His eyes were red rimmed, as he fought to hold his emotions in check.
“What’s my problem? My ‘problem’ is that everyone is making me out to be some kind of hero . . . who fell short of saving a victim, might I remind you. But they insist on making me a hero anyway,” Gage said as he waved his right arm in emphasis. “But I don’t even deserve that! Roy, I didn’t do anything. Yeah, I tried to talk the guy out of shooting me. I tried to tell them to take me instead of Sally. But truth is, she died trying to save me.” Johnny pointed at himself. “Without thinking about her own safety, she ran into the room to stop one of the punks from shooting me! And all I could do was stand and watch the side of her neck blow apart and she fell to the floor.” Johnny’s voice wavered with emotion. “I didn’t do a damn thing for her, Roy.”
Roy sat in surprise at the outburst. This was the first time Johnny had even talked to anyone about what had happened.
“Your memory about that day came back, huh? When were you gonna let anyone know?”
“I lied about not remembering it so everyone would leave me alone. Big deal.”
“It is a big deal, Johnny. You kept this bottled up inside and it’s obviously been hard on you. You could’ve told me. . .or told Brackett. He would’ve gotten you a psychiatrist to help if you needed one.”
“That’s one thing I didn’t want. I don’t need to be told I’m feeling survivor’s guilt. I already know that.”
“You need to think about something here.” Roy paused to make sure he had Johnny’s full attention. Seeing he did, he continued. “You’re trained to know the dangers of guns. . .of hot situations that can grow worse in an instant if someone makes the wrong move.” Roy watched as Johnny turned his face away, his jaw clenched. “Johnny, you acted because of your training. Sally reacted because she didn’t have training. She was probably driven by her emotions. You were trying to think your way through. That’s the only reason you’re here and she’s not. You both did what you thought was the right thing. No one was less a hero than the other.”
Johnny wiped at one of his eyes as he looked across at Roy. “Well, it doesn’t make it any easier. Roy, I was just about to ask her out when the guys came in. And minutes later she was dead. Hell, I couldn’t even get myself over to help her if she did have a chance once they were gone.”
“If her neck injury was that bad, you know she didn’t have a chance. She probably would’ve died instantly.”
“I know. . .but I--”
“Stop finding reasons to blame yourself for Sally’s death,” Roy interrupted. “You’re only gonna mess yourself up until you can’t think straight. It’s not gonna bring her back. . .it’s not gonna change the outcome of anything. It’s a waste of energy.”
“I can’t get past the fact I didn’t do more in the beginning to stop those punks.”
“When did you first know they had a gun?”
Johnny nodded knowing what Roy was getting at. “When they first came in, the one pointed it at us both, then after that it was on my back and it was never off of me. Not once.”
“So what would you have done differently?”
“Nothing. If I’da’ fought ‘em, I would’ve gotten us both killed sooner.”
Roy studied the younger paramedic. He knew he had gotten through enough to give Johnny something to think about. As DeSoto stood up to leave, he was stopped by Johnny’s words.
“What do I do about the citation? I don’t want it.”
“Why don’t you go talk to Cap. Tell him what you just told me. And if you think it would help, how about giving the citation to Sally’s family for her sacrifice?”
Johnny’s face lit up for the first time in weeks. “Roy, that’s a great idea! That’s who really deserves it. I’m gonna go talk to Cap now.” Johnny got to his feet and walked past Roy. He turned around and grinned at the senior paramedic. “C’mon. We can both go talk to him. After all, it was your idea.”
Roy knew this was the first step in a long road for Johnny to get through the emotional scars of the traumatic experience. But it was definitely a step in a positive direction.
After the citation was given to Sally’s family at the station a few days later, Johnny could see they found comfort in knowing their daughter hadn’t been forgotten. The fire department and the police department both recognized her selflessness and bravery in the face of danger. Once he talked to the family about how much he had appreciated what Sally had tried to do and gave them his condolences for their loss, Johnny felt a sense of closure to the ordeal. As he walked out to the parking lot with Roy, the younger man stopped before they reached their vehicles.
“Did you see the way her mom was hugging that folder with the citations? Like she had a hold of her daughter again.”
Roy grinned. “Yeah, it meant a lot to Sally’s parents. I think you did the right thing.”
“We did the right thing, Roy. We.” He paused a minute before continuing on. “Thanks to you, I think we’re all gonna make it through this.”
“I knew you would.”
Johnny waved as he started towards his Land Rover. “See ya tomorrow, partner.”
Johnny drove out of the lot and waved to Sally’s parents as he went past the front of the station. He had enough sense to know there were times he and her family were going to feel down, if not devastated, about what had happened. It was going to take a long time to put it behind them. But for this day, they all had something to smile about.
Thanks to Donna for an idea in what direction to take the second half of the story, and to Tracy and Kenda for the encouragement. Thanks also to Kenda for the beta read and a special thanks to Becca for her enormous help on the medical portions and a few other things I missed. :o) Any errors are mine.