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Stirring the Ashes of Memory

An Emergency Story By

Xavionite
 

Chapter 1

 

Captain John Gage walked slowly through Station 51 in the still of the morning. C-shift was out on a last run, and the rest of A-shift wouldn’t arrive for an hour or more, so he was alone to take it all in. He had been captain over at 36’s for a couple of years now, but this was his first day as captain at the station where he and his best friends had made so many good memories together. 51’s wasn’t like 10’s,* where he’d gotten his start—it didn’t have a fire pole (something Johnny would always regret), but even so, it was home.

 

He stepped into the office, wondering if he would ever think of it as his instead of Stanley’s (who now occupied a battalion chief’s office over at HQ), and sat down at the desk. After arranging a couple of framed photographs—one of the DeSoto family and another of himself with his godson, D.J. DeSoto—he opened up the file cabinet and pulled out the files on his new crew: Marco Lopez, Mitch Dwyer, Trace Morgan, Sam Goldstein, and Billy Folsom. Most of these names were familiar. Lopez had been engineer for 51’s A-shift ever since Mike Stoker took over as captain of C-shift after Hookraider retired (for real this time). Dwyer (Charlie’s little brother) and Morgan would serve as his paramedics, and his linemen were Goldstein and Folsom. Johnny had worked with both Mitch and Trace before and knew they made an excellent team— even if Trace did talk a little too much like Craig Brice—and he’d met Sam a few times. Billy was the one unknown, so Johnny opened his file to take a closer look. His eyes widened as he absorbed what he read there.

 

Billy Folsom, born November 17, 1962 in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi. Johnny shook his head and blinked, then read it again. What were the chances?! Bogue Chitto… now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. And Billy Folsom… could that be…

 

As his thoughts drifted to a past he had left behind years before, he reached long slender fingers under his blue button down uniform shirt to grasp the small bear pendant he always wore on a leather strap around his neck. He kept it hidden, but Chet had caught a glimpse of it once and teased him relentlessly for days about his “Smokey the Bear necklace.” Johnny had never confirmed the Phantom’s interpretation, but he hadn’t denied it either. Let the guys think what they will, he’d decided. No one needed to know the truth. He closed his eyes now, a soft smile turning up his lips as he remembered.

 

Nita’s tear-streaked face just about broke Johnny’s heart, and for the very first time the 12-year-old boy was struck by how beautiful she was, her lips soft and inviting, her hair shining in the moonlight. He tried to banish the thought, but once it gripped him, it held him hostage. He reached a finger to her cheek to brush away the dampness, then dared a chaste kiss to her forehead. “We’ll see each other again,” he promised. “You’ll see. I’m only going away to school—I’ll be back this summer.”

 

She pressed something into his hand, then stood on tiptoe to brush her lips against his. The brief touch made him stagger backwards, speechless. She pulled back, hurt widening her eyes, and was about to turn and run away, but he reached for her arm and pulled her close again. He leaned down to return her gentle kiss with a slightly firmer one, letting her know without words that he was not upset about her first innocent offer of intimacy.

 

When he let her go, her eyes were shining, this time with pleasure. “You promise, Nashoba [Wolf]? You’ll be back this summer?”

 

“I promise,” he assured her. She smiled then and wiped her tears on her sleeve, then turned to hurry home. Johnny opened his hand now and looked at what she had given him—a small carved bear on a leather cord. He chuckled. Nita was Choctaw for bear. Before she was too far away, he bent to pick up a pebble from the ground. Taking careful aim, he zinged it at her bare feet. Startled, she jumped, then stopped and turned to give him a broad smile. She retrieved the pebble from the grass and zinged it back at him. “Next summer, Nashoba!” she called, then darted away. As Johnny watched her move through the stand of trees toward her house, he could not imagine that his world would come crashing down around him before the end of the school year and that he would never be able to keep his promise to come back to her.

 

Squeezing the bear, then letting it slip back into hiding as he blinked the memories away, Johnny perused the rest of Billy’s file, his eyes seeking out in particular the “next of kin” line: Anita Folsom... her English name. He shook his head. No way. Can’t be. It just isn’t possible. Her address was the same as Billy’s—a run-down trailer park not far from the station. Johnny felt a shiver go up his back. He slipped the paper back into the file folder and pushed it away, shaking his head. No. Even if she really is my Nita, it’s been too long. By now, she’s either forgotten me or hates me. She’s the one who stopped writing me, after all. Those memories are nothing but ashes, better left undisturbed. Suddenly he dreaded the arrival of Billy Folsom. With a sigh of resignation, he slipped the files back into the drawer and then moved to the kitchen to get a pot of coffee brewing. The guys would appreciate it, along with the box of donuts their new captain had picked up on the way in that morning.

*******

 

Lopez arrived about half an hour early, a grin lighting his face at the sight of his new captain sitting on the couch, nursing a dark, aromatic brew and munching on a chocolate donut. Dwyer and Morgan were about five steps behind 51’s engineer. Morgan took a seat at the table while Dwyer fetched them each a cup of coffee. Lopez sat next to Gage. “Well, guess we get to call you Cap now.”

 

Johnny drew his mouth into a scowl and growled out a response. “That’s a bit too casual for the first day, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Lopez?” He bit the inside of his cheek to try to hold back a laugh at the sight of Marco’s shocked expression, but he couldn’t keep it in for long. “I’m just kidding you, Lopez,” he said. He shook his head and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “I sure am glad to have a good friend on the crew.”

 

“You heard Chet got assigned to Roy… er… Captain DeSoto, didn’t you?” Marco asked, his eyes glinting with humor.

 

Johnny laughed. “Oh yeah… I don’t envy Roy. I wonder whether he’ll manage to keep the Phantom under wraps.” He looked up and nodded to his two paramedics, who were now sitting at the table. “Hi, Dwyer… Morgan.”

 

Dwyer raised his coffee mug. “Great brew, Cap,” he said with a grin. “Welcome back to 51’s.”

 

Morgan nodded as he swallowed the last bite of his éclair. “Good morning, Captain Gage. Thank you for the donuts.”

*******

 

Billy Folsom arose early, determined to make a good impression his first day at 51’s. He was done with probation at last, a full-fledged firefighter. Of course, the guys would probably still call him Boot for a while, but he could live with that. Before he got up, he reached the short distance from his bed to the top drawer of his rickety old dresser and pulled out a wrinkled article clipped a few years ago from the Bishinik.** His big sister Nita had received the clipping along with a card from an Oklahoma cousin, but their father had intercepted it and thrown it in the trash before she could see it. Billy had watched, unnoticed, from the corner of the kitchen and rescued it after the man had gone outside to feed the horses.

 

Billy frowned as thoughts of his father filled his head. All his life, he had watched from the sidelines as Matthew Folsom exerted all his energy in controlling Nita, as determined to keep his daughter in line as he was to ignore his son. The moment their mother had passed from this life to the next at Billy’s birth, Nita’s childhood had ended. Sometimes Billy wondered that his older sister didn’t resent him as much as their father did. Instead she had invested her whole heart in making sure he felt loved in spite of their father. Barely 13 when her brother was born, Nita had taken charge both of raising him and caring for their father, completely pushing her own needs to the background. She made sure Billy learned to speak both Choctaw and English, and when he was old enough to attend school, she got him up each morning and sent him on his way, while she stayed home to cook and clean for their father.

 

Dad had never raised a hand against Billy. Sometimes Billy actually wished he would have. Any attention from the man would have been better than the cold blank stare whenever Matthew’s eyes landed on the boy, passing over him as if he were nothing. Once Nita said Billy had Mama’s eyes and maybe that was why Dad couldn’t bring himself to look at him. The next day, the six-year-old had pleaded with her to take out his eyes so that they wouldn’t make Dad sad anymore, but Nita had held him close and rocked him and assured him that Dad was the one who needed to change, not Billy.

 

Sometimes when Nita slept in the small room they shared, Billy would hear her call out for Nashoba—Wolf—but the one time he asked her about it, she drew her lips together in a firm line and grew pale and told him to get busy with his chores. He never asked again.

 

Over the years, Billy watched his father grow ever more dependent on Nita. At his insistence, she had dropped out of high school when Billy was only three, even though she had managed to maintain perfect grades and had hopes of helping their people by becoming a nurse. It was just as well that she ignored the advances of the young men who hoped to court her, because Dad had no intention of allowing anyone to win his daughter’s heart and take her away from him. Billy took no notice at first of the way Dad always insisted on being the one to fetch the mail, never allowing the children to touch it until he had first sorted through it. Occasionally, Billy saw him throw things into the fire or the trash, but he never thought twice about it until he saw the envelope with Nita’s name on it, the one that held the clipping.

 

The card from an Oklahoma cousin wished Nita, just turned 26, a happy birthday, and had the message, “Isn’t this story about the boy you used to call Nashoba? Do you still keep in touch with him?” The article included a photograph of a lanky fellow wearing a crooked grin and a firefighter’s uniform, his longish dark hair peeking out from under his helmet, and told the story of how John Gage, a boy born among the poverty-stricken Mississippi Choctaw, had been sent to Jones Academy*** in Oklahoma on a scholarship just a few months before his father died of leukemia. His mother had died years before, so John was left an orphan. He never returned to Mississippi, and his guardianship passed to his Aunt Taloa, his mother’s sister, who had married an Oklahoma Choctaw after graduating from Wheelock Academy.*** John stayed at the school, but each summer he went to work alongside his uncle on a ranch near Battiest, Oklahoma. Just before he was to begin high school, the ranch shut down. His aunt and uncle moved to California and took their nephew with them. After he finished high school there, John Gage began his training as a firefighter and rescue man, eventually becoming one of the first and best paramedics. “The life John Gage has chosen,” the article concluded, “truly embodies the Choctaw tradition of Iyyi Kowa,**** service to the community.”

 

Billy never shared the card or the clipping with his sister. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because of her reaction that time he had asked about Nashoba, or maybe he wasn’t so different from his father after all—maybe he was afraid he would lose his sister to this fellow with the big smile. And perhaps he simply wanted to keep it to himself because the article had awakened in him a hope he feared would be crushed if he spoke it aloud. Each morning, he would pull out the article, reread it, then whisper, “This is my dream. This is what I want to do with my life.” At 16, he joined the volunteers who battled blazes on the res, and at 17, after their father died, he insisted to his sister that they needed to break free of the cycle of poverty that reservation life represented. He convinced Nita to move to California with him. She took on work cleaning houses, and the day he turned 18, he registered for the Los Angeles County Fire Department training program. He never imagined he would actually meet John Gage, let alone be assigned to the same station where the man now served as a LACoFD captain.

 

He slipped the article back into the drawer, and then got out of bed and hurried to get ready for the day. He could not afford to be late his first day working under Captain Gage! Thankfully, the station was barely a mile away, an easy walk for a young man who had little chance of owning a car. “Shanks’ pony,” as old Olin Mackey from the res always called walking, was good enough for the likes of Billy Folsom and his sister.

 

By the time Billy was scrubbed and dressed, the aroma of bacon and cornmeal griddle cakes wafted through the small trailer. “Smells awful good, Nita,” he said as he stepped into the kitchen.

 

She turned and smiled at her brother, tilting her chin up to look him in the eyes. “Sit and eat, anakfi [my brother],” she directed. “You have plenty of time.”

 

“Hoke, hoke, [OK] Sis!” Billy obediently took a seat at the small table and watched as Nita placed a plate of bacon and griddle cakes in front of him. She set butter and syrup on the table, then fixed herself a plate and sat across from him. He picked up his fork to dig in but put it down again when she frowned.

 

“Say grace, Billy,” she ordered. “In Choctaw.”

 

He sighed. The language of his school had been English, but just as their mother had taught Nita to speak Choctaw, so Nita had taught him. At home, they spoke a mixture of Choctaw and English most of the time, but prayers were always lifted up in Choctaw. “You will pass it on to your children and they will pass it on to theirs. Too many have forgotten the old ways, but we will not.” So his sister had admonished him years ago when he’d complained—she had repeated these words often, hoping they would take root in her brother’s heart, and in a way, he supposed they had. He spoke the blessing, waited for his sister’s nod of approval, and then set to cleaning his plate. When he was done, he kissed Nita on the forehead and hurried out the door.

 

Before he got to the street, he heard the door open. “Billy!” Nita called. He turned and saw her holding out a basket for him to take. “I made banaha bread for you to share with your new crew. The men at 110’s liked it… surely the men at 51’s will too.”

 

Billy took the basket and peeked inside. Nita must have been up late last night preparing this feast of cornmeal dough wrapped in husks and boiled. “Yakoke, atek. [Thank you, my sister].” He smiled, thinking how lucky he was that she loved him so much. He would have liked to know his mother, but Nita had done a good job making sure her little brother never felt motherless. “Onnakma chi pisa la chike! [I will see you tomorrow.]” He waved, then turned away and headed to work.

                                                                                                            

At a quarter to eight, Billy Folsom walked through the door of Station 51, his basket of shuck bread swinging at his side. He stepped in and found the crew sitting around the table, eating donuts and drinking coffee. He easily recognized Johnny Gage from the picture in the article—the years had done little to change the man. “Captain Gage,” he said, setting the basket on the table. “Billy Folsom, reporting for duty.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Captain Gage latched eyes with his young lineman for a long moment, though the scent of freshly made banaha bread rising from the basket proved a powerful distraction. He fought the urge to close his eyes and breathe in deeply the scent of his childhood. Aunt Taloa made a good banaha bread, but nothing like Nita’s, which he remembered came second only to her mother’s. “Folsom, it’s good to meet you,” he said evenly. His eyes drifted to the basket. “Brought something for us?”

 

“Banaha bread.” Billy beamed. “My mother’s recipe, sir.” He opened the basket and held it out for Gage to take one. “Try it.”

 

“Thank you.” Johnny reached in and took a husk-wrapped packet. “Yakoke,” he repeated in Choctaw this time, his voice growing husky. He didn’t say so, but I bet Nita’s hands wrapped this, he thought. Does she know about me? Suddenly unable to speak, he shot up and moved toward his office. “Roll call in ten,” he barked before disappearing through the door, leaving a befuddled crew behind.

 

Five minutes later, C-shift returned from their call. Johnny was sitting at the desk, staring at the unwrapped banaha when Captain Stoker pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Johnny?” he asked, his voice laced with concern.

 

Johnny shook his head and looked up. “Hi, Mike.”

 

“Everything ok?” Mike asked. He was covered in soot and his eyes were bloodshot.

 

“Yeah… yeah, everything’s fine.” Johnny pushed the banaha away from him and vacated the desk chair. “You look wiped out. Busy night?”

 

“Rough call. An apartment fire. Glad to hand things over to you. Welcome back to 51’s.” Even now as a captain, Mike tended to be sparse with his words.

 

“Thanks,” Johnny said. “I’d better get roll call going or I’ll have to give myself latrine duty. See you later, Mike.” After his friend had left for the locker room, he unwrapped the corn shucks and lifted out the morsel of cornbread that was nestled inside. Closing his eyes, he broke off a piece and popped it in his mouth, savoring the flavors. Wild onions, he thought. That’s what always made Nita’s banaha taste so good. He tossed the discarded husks in the trash, then hurried out to the bay where the men were assembled for roll call.

*******

 

Nita pulled the slip of paper from her pocket and reread it. Housekeeper needed immediately. Excellent pay. No references necessary. Call 555-8334 to schedule interview. She had torn the slip from a handwritten ‘Help Wanted’ notice posted on the front wall at Davey’s Market. She hadn’t told Billy yet, but yesterday had marked the end of her housecleaning job for the Taylor family. After three weeks of feeling Mr. Taylor’s eyes leering at her wherever she went in the house, she had collected her pay and informed Mrs. Taylor that she would not be back. When Nita refused to give a reason for leaving, Mrs. Taylor refused to give her a reference in spite of her excellent work. The want ad at Davey’s had seemed like a blessing. Now, though, as Nita read over it again, she felt a nervous flutter in her gut. She dismissed it with a shake of her head, then picked up the telephone receiver and dialed the number. Ring… ring… She played with the phone cord, untwisting the coils and then letting them curl back up. Ring… ring… ring… She had just pulled the phone away from her ear to hang it up when she heard a voice on the other end.

 

“Hello?”

 

Nita hurriedly brought the receiver back to her ear. “Hello. My name is Nita Folsom. I saw your ad for a housekeeper at Davey’s Market. Could I please schedule an interview?”

 

“Of course, of course,” the voice said. It was a man’s voice. Smooth as silk, Nita thought with a slight smile. Sounds a little like Amafo [Grandfather]. The voice, which introduced itself as belonging to Edgar Lansing, gave her an address and directions, then asked, “Can you be here by 9:30?”

 

“Yes, I will be there!” she said, smiling brightly. The house would be an easy walk, and she would even pass by Billy’s station on the way—perhaps she would leave early and stop to say hello and meet his new crew. The men at 110’s had always welcomed her warmly. In fact, she thought a couple of them had even been sweet on her, much to her protective brother’s dismay. She had accepted their friendly attention with a grateful smile, but nothing more—her heart had been broken once, and she would not let it happen again.

 

By 8:15, the dishes had been washed and stacked in the small cabinet and the kitchen was neat as a pin. Nita took ten minutes to make her bed and Billy’s, then regarded the pile of clean laundry ready to be folded and put away. That could wait until evening, she decided, taking the time instead to slip into a serviceable but attractive blue dress and a comfortable pair of shoes. She inspected her hair in the bathroom mirror, wetting her fingers and slicking a few errant strands into place. By ten minutes to 9, she was satisfied that her appearance passed muster. She settled her purse on her shoulder, stepped through the front door and locked it, then hurried on her way.

 

Both the squad and the engine were gone when Nita passed by Station 51, so she didn’t bother stopping, instead continuing her brisk walk along 223rd. It would be good to arrive a few minutes early, after all. By 9:20, she gazed from the sidewalk at a small stucco house on E. 222nd, fighting her nerves again. All her instincts told her to turn around and go home. But she needed the money. She was determined to earn her GED and then find a way to get into nursing school, just as she’d dreamed of doing before Mama passed on. This job would help her get there. Finally, five minutes early for her interview, she steeled herself, marched to the front door, and rang the bell.

 

Edgar Lansing set Nita at ease almost instantly. He brought her into his living room and pointed her to a comfortable armchair, then brought her a cup of peppermint tea and a plate of store-bought chocolate chip cookies. Nita’s attention was captured almost immediately by a framed black and white photograph sitting on a side table next to the sofa. In it, Mr. Lansing had his arm wrapped around a lovely grey-haired woman. They were holding hands and smiling broadly.

 

Mr. Lansing noticed her gaze was directed at the photo and gave a melancholy sigh. “My wife and I. She died three months ago.” He gestured around him. “I can’t keep this house the way she did. I’m getting old and slow and my son’s not much for housework, so I decided to hire someone to take care of it for me.” A layer of dust coating the television set and bookshelves and window blinds attested to his lack of skills. “Tell you what—I like you, Nita. You seem like a nice girl, real respectful and personable. Like I said, I’m not requiring references. How about you work for me for one week and we’ll see how it goes. You can start right away. I’ll pay you $55 for the week, and on Friday I’ll let you know my decision. If I decide to make it long term, we’ll negotiate your pay then.”

 

“That’s more than fair, Mr. Lansing, sir,” Nita agreed. “Thank you. Point me to the kitchen and I’ll get started right now.” Smiling, she stood and took up the empty tea cups and the platter. Washing up the breakfast dishes seemed like a logical place to start. She planned to follow dishes with dusting, and then she would vacuum the thick blue shag carpet that covered the living room floor.

*******

 

The klaxons sounded before they ever finished with roll call, and they had hardly stopped all day. Most of the time, the entire crew was together, but on a few occasions Johnny’s two paramedics drove away without the engine crew. Even after four years as a captain, Johnny still felt a pang of longing as Mitch and Trace climbed into the squad and all he did was acknowledge the call and pass the address slip through the window. He had, of course, kept up his paramedic certification, and occasionally it came in handy, but it was no longer his job.

 

About 9:00 in the evening, having knocked down a refinery fire and three garbage fires, rescued a 16-year-old boy who had wrapped his car around a light pole, assisted- at two births (the first on the shoulder of the 405), and stoically swallowed their emotions when a multi-vehicle accident resulted in the deaths of four young children and their mother, the weary engine crew finally gathered around the table at the station for dinner; Mitch and Trace were still at Rampart with the single survivor of the MVA—a drunk driver who insisted she wasn’t to blame—but Johnny didn’t want to delay any longer. Instead of cooking an elaborate meal, they made do with sandwich fixings and the leftover banaha.

 

Pretending to focus on his food, Johnny surreptitiously observed his young lineman. Throughout the day, Billy had proven himself a valuable member of the crew. He was a likable fellow, and the guys seemed to have taken to him well. 51’s new captain had been especially interested to overhear Billy confiding in Mitch during a brief moment of downtime that his real interest lay in rescue and paramedic work. The kid planned to put some savings by and enroll in the necessary training once he got a bit more experience under his belt, and he hoped Mitch and Trace might give him some pointers. So far, Billy’s only real fault seemed to be his naiveté. Johnny knew the kid had been in L.A. for at least a year and a half, but he seemed like he had stepped straight off the res into the station house. Johnny was curious about what brought him and Nita to California, but he would not allow himself to ask. All day, the captain had worked at maintaining distance between himself and his junior lineman, even though it felt awkward and unnatural. He had always been proud of treating each member of his crew like family, but Billy reminded him too strongly of Nita. Johnny just wasn’t sure the kid’s placement at 51’s was going to work

*******

 

If he hadn’t missed lunch, Billy would have passed up dinner when they finally got back to the station. He didn’t have much appetite, but he knew he needed to eat. The entire day had been a disappointment. Oh, the guys were great… that is, all of them except the one he had most looked forward to getting to know—Captain Gage. He could feel the Cap’s eyes on him now, cold and disapproving. The man he had idolized for years, whose approval he craved more than anyone’s, hated him. Pretending he was unaware of the scrutiny, he hunched over his ham and Swiss and downed it as quickly as he could, all the while examining the events of the day and trying to figure out where he went wrong. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of anything. As soon as it seemed reasonable, he excused himself from the table and made his way to the washroom, hoping the klaxons would remain quiet long enough for him to shower. He didn’t dare let himself formulate the hope for a night free of calls—everyone knew that as soon as you expressed such thoughts, the tones would sound and you’d be off on a long and arduous response. Fully aware that his older sister would scold him for such superstition, the most he would allow himself was a vague whispered plea to Chihowa [God] for a little bit of rest.

 

He finished his quick hot shower in peace and made ready for bed. Thankfully, the klaxons remained silent, and soon the discouraged lineman was tucked under the covers, sound asleep.

 

Chapter 3

 

Johnny arose before the morning tones to set a pot of coffee brewing. Mitch and Trace were still out on a call that had come about five a.m., but the rest of the crew had gotten a rare night of uninterrupted sleep. Their captain, however, had not slept well. Quiet nights had that effect on him. He’d dozed a bit early in the evening, but woke up after about an hour had passed with no runs. Instead of sleeping, he’d lain in bed, wrestling with guilt as he reflected on the day and his attitude toward Billy. The young man had done nothing to deserve Johnny’s cold shoulder. He was bright, eager to serve, and had no way of knowing that he stirred up difficult memories for his captain. Johnny sighed as he rummaged through the fridge. Might as well start breakfast, he thought. Let’s see… we’ve got the makings for French toast and bacon. In the freezer, he found a bag of hashed brown potatoes that would be a tasty addition. Marco would probably make them from scratch, but I’m not too proud for frozen. By the time the morning tones sounded, the aroma of maple bacon on the griddle drifted through the bay and into the dormitory, where the crew was rubbing sleep from their eyes.

*******

 

Even though the heady aromas made his stomach growl, Billy took his time getting ready. He wasn’t sure he wanted to spend any more time around Cap this morning than he had to. Better just to stay in here, he thought. Keep out of his way. Still, the bacon did smell mighty good.

 

“Folsom?” Cap stuck his head in the locker room. “Join us for breakfast?” Unlike any time yesterday, his tone sounded reasonably friendly, catching Billy off-guard.

 

“Uh… yessir,” he answered. “Be right there, sir.” He hurriedly finished shaving and headed for the living area.

 

“Good morning, good morning, good morning!” Captain Gage said as he approached the table with a platter of French toast in one hand and a steaming bowl of cheesy hashed browns in the other. Lopez brought the plate of bacon and a pitcher of orange juice and set them on the table before taking a seat. Mitch and Trace came in from their run and sank into their chairs, their weary faces brightening somewhat at the sight of the hearty breakfast. Sam avoided the bacon, but happily piled his plate high with hashed browns. Billy wasn’t sure what to think as he filled his own plate. Cap’s face was pale, his eyes blood-shot—the young lineman guessed he’d barely slept—and yet, his mood seemed to have made a 180 degree turn. Still, something in the tone of his voice made it seem forced. Billy shrugged and dug in.

 

About 7:00, the phone rang and Cap answered. “Folsom,” he called after a moment. “It’s for you. Captain Thomas over to 110’s.”

 

“Thank you,” Billy said, pushing away his empty plate and getting up to take the phone. “Hello, Cap.”

 

“Folsom, I know you put in for as much OT as you could get. Can you fill in for Lewis this shift? His kid is pretty sick and was rushed to the hospital early this morning. I realize you’re just coming off your first shift at 51’s, so I’ll understand if you can’t, but you work well with this crew, so you’re my first choice.”

 

Billy’s grin stretched from ear to ear, but then his expression fell as he considered the distance between here and 110’s. “I’d like to, Cap… really, I would, but….”

 

Captain Thomas chuckled. “But you don’t have a car and now you’re living close to 51’s. Haven’t I told you, you need to get a driver’s license and a vehicle? Anyway, I already thought of that, Son. I asked Grady to pick you up—he drives right past 51’s on his way here, after all. Don’t worry if you get a last-minute run… the guys from A-shift said they’d stay till you get here.”

 

“Well, all right then… I’ll see you soon, sir.”

 

“See you soon… and… say hello to your sister for me.”

 

Billy raised an eyebrow. His former captain’s fondness for Nita was no secret among the crew of 110’s. “Yessir,” he promised. He hung up, then pulled the phone off the hook again and called home. It was Wednesday morning, so Nita would have left for the Taylors’ by now, but thankfully he had splurged on an answering machine a few months ago. He left a hurried message, hanging up as the klaxons sounded, calling the crew to a garbage fire.

 

When they returned to the station an hour later the next shift was there and ready to take over. Don Grady sat waiting in his ‘69 Dodge Dart, his windows rolled down and strains of Willy Nelson’s ‘Always on My Mind’ drifting through the small parking lot. Billy grabbed his bag from the locker room and hurried to the car, eager to be someplace that felt more like home.

*******

 

Thankfully, the morning’s single run had been an easy one. Johnny greeted B shift’s captain before heading to the office to do paperwork. He loathed the task, but it had to be done at the end of every shift. He lowered himself into the desk chair, breathing out a sigh of relief that his first shift back at 51’s had ended with all of his crew alive and uninjured. Now he could relax for a couple of days. He glanced over at the picture of himself with D.J. DeSoto and grinned. The six-year-old had proved a bright light in the life of everyone who knew him, and Johnny was certain a little ‘D.J. Time’ was just what he needed to get Nita out of his head. Tomorrow he and Roy were taking the kids camping, one of their favorite activities. Johnny chuckled at the memory of D.J.’s eyes opening wide when he found out he would get to go along with the big kids for the first time. He hadn’t stopped chattering about it since, insisting that he would sleep next to Uncle Johnny in the tent. He had glared stubbornly when his big brother protested, pointing a finger at the older boy’s chest and declaring, “Unca Johnny is MY boy, Kiss.”

 

When he told Johnny the story, Roy said Chris suddenly started coughing hard in hopes of covering the laugh that threatened to bust out. The 12-year-old knew that his younger brother with Down Syndrome was completely serious and would take it badly if anyone laughed at him, and even when Chris was mad at D.J., he cared about the little guy’s feelings. Still, it was a funny scene, especially with the mispronounced name—D.J. just could not manage the R sound yet, both to Chris’s great amusement and his total embarrassment should word ever get around the seventh grade. Even the most patient and caring of brothers would not want to be saddled with a nickname like “Kiss” in junior high school.

 

Johnny filed the reports in the out tray, then went to grab his bag. In the lot, he was surprised to find Chet Kelly parked next to the Rover, sitting on the hood of his beat up old VW station wagon. “Good morning, good morning, good morning, Chet!” he exclaimed. He could tell even from a distance that the curly headed Irishman had something up his sleeve. What Johnny really wanted was to go home and try to get some rest after his sleepless night, but if Chet had driven over here after shift and waited for him, it must be important… at least in Chet’s opinion.

 

Chet jumped down from the car. “Hey, Babe,” he said with a grin, slapping Johnny on the shoulder. “Hard night? You look wiped out.”

 

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Not a hard night at all. We had a really busy day, and then nothing between about 9 last night till a little after 7 this morning.”

 

“Ahhh,” Chet said, nodding. “Need me to string up a stokes cradle for you again?”

 

Johnny dismissed the suggestion with a roll of his eyes. “So… what brings you here this morning?”

 

“Babe! I’m hurt! You don’t think I might just want to come say hello to an old friend?”

 

“No,” Johnny responded flatly. “Last time you came by just to say hello, I ended up digging post holes to help you build a fence so you could get a dog.”

 

“Well, this is different,” Chet insisted. “You’ll like this.” He fished in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a photograph of a beautiful young woman, her long brunette hair cascading in a shower of curls around her face. “This is Marcy,” he said. “I’ve been trying for a month to get her to go on a date with me.”

 

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “She’s out of your league, Chet. I suggest you move on.”

 

Chet ignored the jibe. “She told me if I could get a date for her sister… her identical twin sister… she would do it. So… will you go? I’m thinking tonight… The Thing is showing at the Landmark—”

 

The Thing?!” Johnny snorted. “What kind of date movie is that?! No wonder you’re still single.”

 

“Ha… and what’s your excuse?”

 

“Shut up, Chet. Do you want me to go or don’t you?”

 

Chet sighed and nodded. “Go on... give me your plan for the perfect date.”

 

Johnny thought for a moment, then leaned towards Chet, eyes glowing. He’d thought briefly about refusing to go on this double date, but now he thought it would be good for him, a sure fire way to take his mind off Nita. “Girls like this… they’ll want to do something simple but classy. Say… a picnic on the beach followed by a sunset cruise. A friend of mine runs cruises and he’ll give us a great price.” He looked at the photo again and raised an eyebrow. “Identical twins, you say?”

 

“So Marcy tells me. I’ve never met Penelope. So… you’ll come?”

 

Johnny pulled a frown and pretended to mull the question over for a minute while he studied the photograph. Finally, he handed it back to Chet. “Fine… I’ll go. But no movie. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you can’t get to know a girl properly at a movie.”

 

Chet agreed with a shrug. “Fine. Have it your way. Picnic on the beach and a sunset cruise it is. You make arrangements for the cruise and I’ll take care of the picnic.”

 

“Agreed. I’ll give Toby a call as soon as I get home.” The two men planned out the logistics for the evening, slapped one another on the back, and finally each got into his respective vehicle and headed home.

*******

 

At 7:15 a.m., Nita stepped out of the mobile home, turned the key in the lock, and set out on her walk to Mr. Lansing’s house. About the time she reached the intersection where Wardlow Rd. merged with 223rd, she heard the sirens. A moment later, she saw Engine 51 come speeding past. She stood watching, straining without success for a

glimpse of her brother inside. He would not notice her, she knew—he would be fully intent on the run, whatever it was. She didn’t mind. She was proud of the man he was becoming, doing his best work at the job he had chosen. As the engine disappeared, the siren song growing fainter in the distance, Nita continued her walk to Mr. Lansing’s. She had promised to arrive early today. His son, Jerome, was coming to visit.

 

“He’s talking about putting me in one of those homes,” Mr. Lansing had confided to Nita the previous day. “Well, I won’t have it! I may be old, but I’m not infirm yet… I’m just not any good at housework. You come tomorrow at 8:00 and with your help, I’ll show him I can manage to stay here where I belong! The way you work, you’ll be done by noon and on your way home to that brother of yours.”

 

“Hoke,” Nita had said, a gentle smile tugging at her lips. “OK,” she corrected herself, hoping he hadn’t noticed her slip into Choctaw. “I’ll be there by 8:00 and together we’ll show that son of yours.”

 

Now it was 7:30, and she enjoyed the walk before the heat of the day settled in. As she walked, she sang quietly to herself. Though the words she sang were in her own language, a passer-by might have recognized the tune of Amazing Grace: “Shilombish holitopa ma! Ish-mitih pulla-cha, hattak ilbvsha pi-aha ish-pi-yukpalashke….”*

 

At one minute to eight, Nita rang the bell at the Lansing house and Edgar quickly opened the door to let her in. He smiled at his new housekeeper, but his eyes darted from side to side, avoiding her face. Today he seemed less like Amafo and more like nervous old Skully Jones, who was always afraid his wife would discover where he hid his supply of corn liquor.

 

Far be it from me to judge the man who is paying me so generously. With that thought, Nita smiled and greeted Mr. Lansing and stepped across the threshold. “Have you eaten a proper breakfast, Mr. Lansing?” she asked.

 

“Oh, I had some toast and a few of those left over cookies. I’m fine,” he said, waving away her concern.

 

“Now that is not a good breakfast. If you want to show your son anything, you must show him you are taking good care of yourself, and that means eating right. You sit down and I’ll fix you something before I get busy cleaning.”

 

He opened his mouth, prepared to argue, then closed it suddenly and sat down at the kitchen table. “My Sarah always made sure I had a good breakfast to start the day,” he said quietly.

 

When Nita glanced his way, she could see the tears sparkling in his eyes. “Well, then. It’s a good thing I’m here.” There was not much in the pantry or the refrigerator, but a look in the freezer revealed a bag of strawberries and some frozen waffles. They would not take long to prepare. “Tomorrow I’ll make you a breakfast fit for a king,” she promised, “but this will have to do for now. I’ll pick up groceries for your lunch after I’ve finished with the kitchen.” Soon, she set the plate in front of her employer along with a glass of milk. “I already ate my breakfast, so I am going to get busy. You dig in.”

 

She felt his eyes on her back as she filled the kitchen sink with hot water and Joy dish soap. Unlike with Mr. Taylor, Mr. Lansing’s close observation did not make her uncomfortable. She was convinced he simply craved a bit of caring attention, nothing more. He was lonely, lost without his wife, and apparently things were not so good between him and his son, or the man would not be trying to put his father in a home against his will. Nita could never imagine such a thing happening among her people.

 

When the dishes were clean and on the drying rack, Nita stepped into the large pantry to do a quick inventory. While she stood looking up at the shelves of baking supplies, suddenly the door slammed closed, plunging her into darkness. Then she heard a loud click. Swallowing hard, she fought her fear of the dark and refused to panic. She felt her way to the door and rattled the knob. Locked. She’d noticed the day before that the door was unusually heavy for a pantry door, but she hadn’t dwelt upon it, and she certainly hadn’t noticed any lock. She pushed against the door, thinking perhaps it was just stuck, but it would not budge. “Mr. Lansing?” she called, still fighting to keep calm. “Please, Mr. Lansing! Open the door!” Only silence greeted her pleas.

 

Pounding and calling for help accomplished nothing more than to exhaust Nita. Finally, she lowered herself to the floor, sobbing, with no idea what she should do. Softly, her voice trembling, she sang to herself in the darkness the hymn her mother had long ago sung to comfort her in the night, the same hymn she had sung under her breath on the walk to her job that morning. “Shilombish Holitopa ma! Pimanukfila-hvt oklhilit kania-hoka, ish-pi-o-tomashke. Pichokvsh nukhaklo-yoka ant pi-hopohlachi…”* In the middle of the final verse, her voice trailed off as she drifted into a troubled sleep.

 

Chapter 4

 

When Billy and Grady arrived at Station 110, they found the crew already gone on a call. Billy decided to try phoning Nita at the Taylors. Roberta Taylor answered, and when Billy asked for his sister, she launched into a tirade about how she couldn’t believe that ‘squaw’ had left her in the lurch, quitting without notice. The woman wouldn’t slow down to let Billy ask any questions, and finally he hung up the phone and turned to Grady, a bewildered frown darkening his face. “She quit her job… and didn’t say anything to me about it.” After trying again to reach her at home, he sighed and hung up the phone, then stood there with his hand still on the receiver, staring at it as if he could will it to ring.

 

Grady slapped him on the shoulder. “C’mon—let’s get started on the dorm. Ten to one, Nita’ll call you within the hour with an apology and an explanation.”

 

Billy nodded and followed his friend to the dormitory. They changed the bed linens, then Grady swept and mopped the floor while Billy started on the latrine. An hour later, the crew returned. Billy easily slipped back into life at 110’s, scrambling for the engine as soon as the klaxons sounded and taking his seat beside Andy Wheeler.

*******

 

Chet arrived at Johnny’s apartment promptly at 4:30 that afternoon. The curly-headed Irishman had wanted to drive his old station wagon to pick up the ladies, but Johnny firmly nixed that idea. “No way!” the fire captain told his one-time nemesis. “Remember when we had to push it to the gym for that basketball game? I’m not doing that again. We’ll take the Rover. It’s a classier ride than your boat any day.”

 

At 5:30, after a short stop at the florist to buy two bouquets of pink roses, Johnny turned the key in the ignition, his efforts rewarded by nothing more than a click. He tried again to start the vehicle, growling at Chet as he did so. “Not one word! Don’t you dare say a word!”

 

After a third unsuccessful attempt to start the Rover, Johnny sighed, got out, and opened the hood. About the same time that he diagnosed the problem, he heard Chet guffaw from inside the vehicle—the Phantom had disconnected the battery. “I shoulda guessed when he said he trusted me to pick out the flowers,” he muttered. He reconnected the wires and slammed the hood shut.

 

“Better be careful, Chester B.,” Johnny warned as he climbed back in the driver’s side door. The engine started up smoothly this time and he pulled out of the parking lot, heading towards the 110. “I’ve got all sorts of stories to tell your girl about you.”

 

“Ha… and I’ve got at least as many to tell about you,” Chet countered, “like the time you got all frozen up in front of the t.v. cameras, or the time you were so bashful about the girl whose toe was stuck in the bathtub faucet that you had to run out of the room. I brought pictures, too… how about this one of you and Roy in those ridiculous old-fashioned get ups, the day you tried to drive that restored engine in the parade but you never managed to get there?” He pulled out the photo and gave a scoffing grunt as he displayed it.

 

“Gimme that!” Johnny took advantage of a red light to snatch the photo out of Chet’s hand. He crumpled it and stuck it in a pocket. “You go right ahead and tell any stories you like, because I don’t care. You’re the one who wants to make time with this girl. I’m just going along to help you out. As it so happens, I’m not the least bit interested in the sister.” The light changed to green and he turned onto the on-ramp.

 

“Yeah, right… like I believe that.” Chet rolled his eyes. “When are you not interested in a pretty girl?”

 

The thought, I am interested in a pretty girl… Nita, flashed through Johnny’s mind, but he fought it back with a groan of frustration. He might discuss the past with Roy, sitting by the campfire tomorrow night after the kids were tucked in their sleeping bags, but no way would he ever mention Nita to Chet. He sure hoped he could get through the evening without his parting sight of her invading his thoughts.

 

Chet laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, you can’t fool me, Gage. You’re as interested as I am in getting some action tonight!”

 

Johnny said nothing, turning his head to check for traffic before merging into the left lane. As much as he liked girls, he had never actually been able to bring himself to go all the way with one. Of course, he was content to let Chet think he had—he wasn’t about to provide the Irishman with another reason to torment him! He was not a prude by any means. Several times in the past, he had been sorely tempted, and a few times he probably would have gone all the way, if Nita’s deep chocolate eyes and shy smile hadn’t risen up in his mind’s eye whenever he started getting close to another girl. Then D.J. was born and Johnny became a godfather. The weight of responsibility he felt made him look at everything differently. Sometimes he wondered if Joanne had an ulterior motive when she suggested to Roy that his partner should play such an important role in their youngest son’s life. Ever since he stood up with the DeSoto family as a witness to the boy’s baptism, he frequently attended church with them, and eventually discovered that the faith that had taken root in him during his childhood had not withered and died after all. With the revival of that faith, the decision to wait for intimacy until marriage, drummed into him first by his father and then his aunt and uncle, became his own, a gift of love to the woman he would one day marry.

 

“Ya missed the exit, ya dummy!” Chet’s insult jerked Johnny unceremoniously from his musing.

 

“I’ll take the next one. We’re running early anyway,” Johnny retorted. He changed lanes, preparing to get off at Lomita. He didn’t mind the extra time it would add to the drive—he was dreading this date anyway. About fifteen minutes later, they pulled up in front of a small white split-level on Marigold Ave. Together the two firemen, each carrying a bouquet, walked to the front door. Johnny rang the bell and they waited for a response.

 

“Marcy! Good to see you!” Chet grinned widely as the door opened and the young lady peered out at him.

 

“I’m Penelope. Marcy will be down in a minute.”

 

Her response was so soft Johnny could barely hear it. He suppressed a laugh at Chet’s expense. Through the mesh of the screen door, the young lady did look just like the one in the picture Chet had shown him. He stepped forward, nudging a red-faced Chet out of the way. “Penelope, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Johnny Gage.”

 

She did not open the door, and her gaze settled not on Johnny’s face, but on the bouquet he held in his hands. “Oh no… n… not roses,” she stammered. “Marcy must have—ahchoo!—forgotten to tell you… I am dreadfully aller—ahchoo!” Though she could not finish her sentence, a series of sneezes made her point for her.

 

Now it was Johnny’s turn to blush. He grabbed the flowers Chet held and quickly tossed the offending bouquets into the yard. “I’m so sorry, Penelope. Next time we’ll bring chocolates instead of flowers.”

 

She frowned through the door. “I’m allergic to chocolate as well.”

 

Johnny shrugged, tossing her a crooked smile that would melt a glacier. “Well, we’ll figure something out. I apologize for the flowers… and for the chocolate cake in the picnic basket. Since you can’t eat it, we can do something else for dessert… your choice.” Despite his lack of interest, the famous Gage charm was kicking in, but it seemed to have no effect on Penelope, who still had not opened the door.

 

An awkward silence descended upon the three, interrupted only when Marcy came bustling down the stairs. “Penny, what are you doing just standing there?!” she scolded gently. “Let them in, for goodness’ sake!” At last the door was opened and Penelope stood back, allowing Chet and Johnny to enter. Marcy stood on tiptoe to brush her lips against Chet’s. “Chet, I’d like you to meet my sister Penny. I suppose this is your friend Johnny?”

 

While Chet greeted Marcy and made formal introductions, Johnny took a moment to observe the two sisters side by side. To the casual onlooker, they would be difficult to distinguish, but his eye was well-trained to see details others might miss, a skill that had served him well in his long years with the fire department. He could easily see why Chet was so eager to date the bubbly Marcy, and he also understood why Marcy had gone to such lengths to secure a date for her sister. They were both beautiful young ladies, of that there was no doubt. Marcy’s hair was a slightly darker shade of brown than Penelope’s, but their eyes were the same shade of emerald green and each sported an endearing splatter of freckles across nose and cheeks. Johnny could have sworn, though, that Marcy’s eyes possessed a liveliness Penelope’s lacked. When he looked at Penelope—he thought the formal name suited her better than Penny, in spite of Marcy’s use of the nickname—he saw a young woman who lived her life in her sister’s shadow, afraid to step into the light and be seen for herself, while Marcy was ready to meet the world with her head held high and her arms open wide. He wondered whether Penelope had always been this way, or if something had happened to cause the distant look in her eyes. Johnny’s words to Chet had been true—he had no interest in wooing Marcy’s sister and had only come on the date as a favor to his friend—but even so, he felt a surge of protectiveness for Penelope come over him, along with the hope that by the end of the evening he might find a way to bring a smile to the young woman’s face and perhaps lift the shadow that hung over her. He offered her his arm. “My ladies, your chariot awaits,” he said, tossing them both a jaunty grin. At a nudge from her sister, Penelope gingerly gripped his elbow and the two couples made their way out to the Rover.

*******

 

Before they ever reached their destination, the guys had determined that the lemon-garlic shrimp in Chet’s picnic basket would be pretty much inedible for Penelope, who claimed allergies to shellfish in addition to chocolate and roses. Instead of crossing the Los Angeles River on Ocean Boulevard, Johnny turned south towards the Queen Mary, a retired British ocean liner that had been a popular destination in Long Beach for over a decade now. “Why don’t we eat at the Promenade Café?” he asked, swallowing back his hesitation at the cost he knew he was about to incur. “Sunset won’t be till just before 8:00—we’ll be done in plenty of time to drive over to the marina.” His wallet could ill-afford a restaurant dinner, not to mention the cost simply to board the giant tourist-trap, but at least the Promenade Café wasn’t as expensive as the swanky Sir Winston’s. Johnny had come a long way in the years since he got away with spending $8.42 to feed himself and Evelyn Collins, but the poverty of his childhood had instilled in him an enduring sense of frugality.

 

Chet was willing and the sisters quickly agreed to the change in plans. A glance over at his date convinced Johnny he had made the right decision. He could see the relief wash over and soften Penelope’s features. As he parked, she began talking with Marcy about the sunset yacht cruise they had planned for later in the evening. He thought he could actually see a trace of excitement sparking in her eyes when he opened the door and offered to help her down from the Rover. He eyed the Queen Mary suspiciously. Perhaps I should take that Dramamine now, he thought, considering his tendency towards seasickness. His free hand snaked into his inside jacket pocket and he froze suddenly. The pocket was empty. He had left the Dramamine, which he carried with him all the time at work in case a call took them out on the water, in the pocket of his uniform shirt.

 

“Is everything all right, Johnny?” Penelope’s soft voice asked.

 

“It’s fine… I just forgot something at home is all. Nothing to worry about.” Nothing indeed… It’s a good thing I’m not interested in a lasting relationship because after tonight’s cruise, she’s never going to want to see me again. At least I shouldn’t feel the motion much on the Queen Mary, but on Toby’s yacht I’m going to be miserable! Well, there was nothing to do about it now, unless they passed by a pharmacy and he could duck in and buy some. He wasn’t about to beg out of the cruise when it was the one thing about their plans that really seemed to please Penelope, who had turned back to Marcy and was inquiring whether she thought they would see dolphins while out on the water.

*******

 

Dinner at the Promenade Café had passed pleasantly, if unremarkably. Johnny intentionally ate very little, in hopes of diminishing the effects of sea-sickness later in the evening. He had tried several times during the meal to draw Penelope further out of her shell, but she proved resistant. Finally, he had given up, accepting her desire simply to listen and observe, and Marcy and Chet ended up dominating the conversation. After a short walk along the deck of the Queen Mary, admiring the ocean view, Johnny found himself driving Chet and the ladies across the Queensway Bay Bridge, headed for the Belmont Pier. He was more than ready now for the date to end, not because he disliked Penelope—she was sweet in her quiet, bashful way—but because he was already getting queasy just thinking about the cruise without his Dramamine. He kept an eye out on the short drive for a pharmacy, but never saw one.

 

When they arrived at the marina, they found Toby standing in the bow of a small yacht, stowing drinks in a cooler. At the sight of his passengers, he stood up. “Johnny!” he called in greeting, and jumped over the side of the yacht to land on the dock. “I hope you don’t mind taking the small yacht tonight. I figure since it’s just the four of you, it doesn’t make sense going out on Phoebe.”

 

“Phoebe?” Marcy asked, her brow wrinkling slightly.

 

“Toby’s 75-foot yacht, his best girl,” Johnny explained. “Or at least, she used to be. I didn’t know you got another one, Tob.”

 

The sailor gave the side of the small yacht a gentle pat. “Meet Juliette. She’s a Beneteau First 42. Brand new, all the way from France. Phoebe’s jealous, that’s for sure. Juliette here has stolen my heart.”

 

Johnny grinned. “Well, now, let me introduce you to Penelope and Marcy… and this here is Chet Kelly.”

 

“So, I finally get to meet the infamous Phantom?!” Toby quipped, his eyes twinkling with good humor. Bending forward in a slight bow, he extended a hand to Penelope and Marcy in turn. “Ladies, Chet—I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Toby Meyer, at your service.” He fixed the boarding ramp in place and then offered a hand to assist the ladies as they stepped into the yacht. Chet followed, and then a reluctant Johnny. Finally, Toby joined them, stowed the ramp, and distributed life vests. After he had given the brief but required safety instructions, he pointed the two couples to the benches on either side of the cockpit. They settled in, leaving the seat closest to the wheel for their host. Toby cast off the mooring hawser and started the engine. “Anchors aweigh!” he announced with a wide grin, and they were underway.

*******

 

Johnny sat next to Penelope, her body pressed close against his side as she watched everything around her with an expression the fire captain interpreted as a mixture of awe and excitement. The glow in her eyes worked wonders for her appearance. Suddenly the mousy, frightened girl who lived in the shadows had sprung to life. Like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from sepia to technicolor, he thought. Maybe I should get to know her bet— He never finished the thought. A light swell rocked the small boat and Johnny felt his stomach churn. Swallowing hard, he fought the nausea.

 

“Looking a little green there, Johnny,” Toby commented. “Dramamine not doing the trick?”

 

Johnny shook his head. “Forgot it at home,” he admitted. “Didn’t get a chance—” Another swell cut him off. After a deep breath, he continued. “Didn’t get a chance to buy any.”

 

“You get seasick?” Marcy asked.

 

“Oh yeah,” Johnny confirmed. Juliette rocked again and at last it was too much for him. He pulled away from Penelope and lurched the upper half of his body over the rail of the ship. Vaguely, he heard Chet’s disdainful snort from behind him.

 

“Vintage Gage… I’m tellin’ ya, once a disaster magnet, always a disaster magnet. Who schedules a cruise when he gets seasick?!”

 

Johnny straightened up now. Droplets of sea spray clung to his dark hair and dripped down his cheeks, which had taken on an unnatural pallor. Shut up, Chet, he thought, glaring in his friend’s direction. If it weren’t for the two ladies, watching him with concern, he would have said it aloud and added the instruction to “Go play on the freeway,” but the Phantom would have to do a lot worse to get him to talk that way in front of Marcy and Penelope. “I’m all right,” he muttered. “Sorry about that.”

 

“Should we go back?” Penelope asked. Johnny could hear the disappointment in her voice.

 

“No, no,” he assured her. “We can’t go back without watching for dolphins, and you can’t miss the sunset. My stomach will settle in a bit.” At least, I hope it will, he thought.

 

Toby chuckled. As one hand turned the wheel slightly to the left, the other pointed to the cooler. “Penelope, open that up and grab one of the green bottles you’ll see. My sister brewed up a fresh batch of her homemade ginger ale last week, and it should be just what Johnny needs. There’s a bottle opener built into the lid. It’s good stuff—you can all help yourselves.”

 

Penelope abstained, but she did open a bottle and pass it to Johnny, who accepted it gratefully. He sipped at it and, thankfully, his nausea gradually abated. Ignoring Chet and Marcy, who were fully engrossed with one another, the pair settled in to watch for dolphins as they waited for the sun to set.

 

About 7:15, as tendrils of pink and yellow clouds stretched across a carnelian sky, Penelope sat suddenly straight up. “Look!” she said, and a bright smile graced her face. Johnny thought for a moment that maybe she was the prettier sister after all. Out on the water, two dolphins chased after the boat, playing in its wake. They skimmed along, barely visible under the surface of the water, and then one burst into the air in a graceful arc, followed by its cohort. Twisting in mid-air, the dolphins bared their silver bellies to the sinking sun and then dove back under the waves. Penelope shivered under Johnny’s arm. “So lovely!” she breathed out in an awestruck whisper.

 

As beautiful as the California sunset was, the dolphins provided the most enjoyment for Johnny and his date that evening. They followed the boat for at least thirty minutes, and then, just as the sun sank fully beneath the horizon, they disappeared as quickly as they had come.

 

Johnny was glad Toby waited until it was fully dark to turn back to the marina, allowing the two couples to enjoy the lights of Long Beach. The Queen Mary, lit up from stem to stern, was a spectacular sight. Feeling the slight niggle of returning nausea in his gut, he opened the cooler for another bottle of ginger ale and was disappointed to find it empty. He sighed, resigning himself to another bout with misery.

 

“What the h—” Toby exclaimed suddenly, jerking the wheel. Penelope screeched in surprise, and Chet lurched to grab for Marcy, who was thrown off balance by the sharp movement. Johnny, meanwhile, stumbled from the cooler to the rail, doubling over it and losing what little he had left in his stomach. When he looked up again, he saw what had prompted Toby’s action. A motorboat about twice the size of Juliette, was heading out to sea, but the captain had neglected to turn on the required lights. Toby couldn’t have seen the vessel until it was almost right on top of them, but with some skillful maneuvering, he had avoided a collision.

 

“The idiot wasn’t even paying attention!” Toby complained. “And there’s no name visible on that craft!”

 

“Is everyone all right?” Johnny asked.

 

“Marcy banged her head pretty hard,” Chet answered. “You should take a look, Johnny.”

 

Paramedic mode kicked in and Johnny took charge, fighting back the nausea as best he could. “Toby, where’s your first aid kit? Hand it over here and then get us back to shore as quick as you can. Can you radio ahead for a squad to meet us?” He knelt next to Marcy and helped her lie down on the bench so he could examine her as best he could without the usual equipment. Thankfully, she was alert and oriented. “You’re going to be just fine, Marcy,” he reassured her. “You might have a concussion, but this cut is pretty clean. A butterfly bandage should do the trick.” He searched through the first aid kit that Toby had passed to him and found what he needed. A glance up at Penelope sent a chill through him. She sat staring into the distance, her eyes wide and her face ashen. A sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead in spite of the cool ocean breeze.

 

“Stay with Marcy, Chet,” he barked, and hurried back to Penelope’s side. Lightly grasping her wrist, he determined that her pulse was racing. Working quickly, he got her lying down with her feet elevated, all the while crooning to her as he’d often done to help the younger DeSoto kids fall asleep. “Marcy’s ok, Penelope,” he said softly. “You don’t need to worry. She got a knock to the head, but the docs over at Rampart will patch her up good as new.” He looked her over carefully, but didn’t find any physical injury in need of tending.

 

“Penny?” Marcy asked weakly. She was trying to sit up, but Chet wouldn’t let her.

 

“Stay calm, Marcy,” Johnny instructed. “Penny’ll be just fine, and you need to stay where you are till we get back to shore.” He pulled off his jacket and placed it over Penelope, who had begun shivering. She gulped in air in shallow breaths. “Come on now, Penny. Breathe slow and deep for me, all right? In through the nose and out through the mouth. Like this…” He held her hands and took a deep breath in through his nose. His slow, quiet encouragement had the hoped-for effect and soon she was breathing normally again and her color began to improve.

 

“I… I’m sorry,” she said softly. “It’s just… I… I didn’t mean—”

 

“Now, Penelope, you have nothing to be sorry about,” Johnny reassured her. “What happened kind of scared me, too, but we’re all ok. Marcy might have to spend a night at the hospital, but they’ll take good care of her, and I’ll make sure they check you over too. We’ll be back to the dock soon, right Toby?”

 

Penelope clutched Johnny’s hand, holding it tightly all the way back to the marina.

*******

 

In between knocking down a fire in a packing factory and accompanying the Coast Guard to rescue party-goers and extinguish a yacht fire, Billy tried a few more times to call his sister, but she never answered. A quick phone call to the trailer park manager, who lived just one trailer over from the Folsom siblings, confirmed for him that Nita had left early that morning and never returned. By early evening, worry had settled like a rock in the young man’s gut. He and Captain Thomas began calling around to local hospitals to see if perhaps Nita had been admitted, but with no success. About 9:00, the klaxons sounded, forcing them away from their efforts once again. “Station 110, respond in place of Station 51. House fire, fully involved, 722 E. 222nd Street. 7-2-2 E. 222nd Street. Cross street, Avalon. Time out, 21:13.” Fighting to keep a professional frame of mind, Billy ran for the engine and climbed in.

 

“Folsom! Wheeler! Take an inch and a half and get the wet stuff on the red stuff!” Captain Matthew Thomas surveyed the scene, making a quick decision to contact Dispatch and request another engine to assist. All the stations in the vicinity had been otherwise occupied when the fire was first reported, which was why 110’s had gotten the call, but thankfully Station 105 had just finished with a nearby MVA. Hopeful that backup would arrive in good time, Captain Thomas approached the two men who stood staring at the house as smoke and flames burst through the front bay window. He could hear the smaller man—an elderly white-haired fellow—repeating over and over, “She’s in there. Please, God… get her out!” As Matt drew close, he could see that the man had blood trickling from a gash on his head. The captain frowned and called for his senior paramedic. “Kody, we have a victim here!” He turned his attention back to the two men. “They’ll help you, sir, and I’ll let my other men know to look for—”

 

“Don’t risk anyone’s lives, Captain.” The taller man, younger than the first and so like him in appearance that Thomas guessed they must be father and son, shook his head as he interrupted. “There’s no one else in the house. I’m Jerome Lansing and this is my father Edgar. Mom died several months ago and Dad’s memory is going. Sometimes he insists she’s just in bed sleeping or in the kitchen, cooking. I had to leave him alone briefly today because of work. It’s lucky I came home when I did—I’m not sure how it happened, but when I came inside, I found him in the doorway to the kitchen, watching the cabinets burn. When I tried getting him out, he fought me at first—that’s how he fell and hit his head. It’s settled—he doesn’t want to move into a nursing home, but he has to now.”

 

Matt listened and nodded, his heart welling up in sympathy. His own father had suffered dementia in the last few years of his life, so he knew well what Jerome was dealing with. He patted the elderly man on the back. “Why don’t you let my paramedics take a look at you, Mr. Lansing?” he asked, his voice gentle and kind as Kody James stepped closer.

 

“No... please… help her. She… she was in the pantry…”

 

The fire captain shot Jerome a look of understanding, his eyes actually meeting the younger man’s for the first time. What he saw there froze his blood. Jerome Lansing’s eyes were like ice, and Captain Thomas began to wonder whether he should give more credence to the senior Lansing instead. He gave Edgar Lansing’s arm a comforting squeeze. “Don’t you worry,” he soothed. “My men are some of the best in the rescue business. Two of them are in there right now, and they’ll make sure anyone inside gets out safe. Meanwhile, Kody here is going to check you out.” He pulled his junior paramedic, Jake Benson, aside and spoke quietly to him. “There may be another victim in the house. Check the kitchen area first… look in the pantry. And hurry—it’s bad in there.” Jake pulled on his mask and headed inside, and Captain Thomas moved to where he could communicate with his linemen by handy talkie without being overheard by the younger Lansing. “Engine 110 to HT 110. Fellows, we may have a victim trapped inside the house. Jake is on his way in and needs you to back him up.”

 

Officer Vince Howard arrived just as Jake entered the burning house. Captain Thomas waved the veteran sheriff’s deputy over and quietly shared his concerns, carefully resisting the temptation to attract Jerome Lansing’s attention by casting a glance in his direction.

*******

 

Inside the house, Billy and Andy cleared the way to the kitchen for Jake. In the haze of smoke, it was difficult to see, but soon Jake managed to find his way to the walk-in pantry, which had once been a small porch on the back of the house until it was enclosed and repurposed. The door stood wide open. Jake felt around, then stepped out into the kitchen. “Nothing,” he said, frustrated. “I’ll check the other rooms. Keep that water—”

 

“Watch out!” Billy shouted, dropping the hose and lunging forward suddenly to push Jake out of the way just as the first bits of debris began to rain down from the ceiling. Before Billy could get himself to safety, the heavy lintel beam fell, knocking him off his feet and pinning him to the ground at the pantry door. His helmet flew off and the side of his head impacted a metal shelf in the pantry as he went down. Blinking hard, Billy fought to remain conscious. He could hear the guys scrambling to help him, could feel them pulling at the beam. Though grey spots danced on the edges of his vision, he also had the strangest sensation of being hyper-aware of everything around him. Just before he blacked out completely, he glimpsed something familiar, nestled against the base of the metal shelving. When was Nita here? was his last conscious thought as his gloved hand closed firmly around a small pendant in the shape of a wolf.

*******

 

Station 105 arrived just in time to assist Jake and Andy in getting an unconscious Billy Folsom on a backboard and outside for treatment, his neck immobilized with a c-collar. By then, Kody was already on the way to Rampart ER with the first victim, and Jerome was with Vince, answering questions about the incident. Captain Thomas had briefed Vince about his concerns before introducing him to Jerome, but since Jake hadn’t found a second victim trapped in the house, there was no evidence to corroborate his suspicions. As soon as Jerome had given the policeman the necessary information, he was free to take his car and join his father at the hospital.

 

“Hey, Billy,” Jake encouraged, patting his friend’s face. “You gotta wake up for me. C’mon, Billy.” His eyes frantically scanned the young lineman’s body, making an initial assessment of his injuries. He had never had to take care of a patient all alone—always in the past his senior partner had been beside him, but Kody was gone and he felt the weight of responsibility pressing on him, all the more because he figured Billy had very likely saved his life. “Possible C-spine injury,” he murmured. “Airway clear… breathing shallow. Pulse… rapid and thready. Unconscious… non… nonresponsive to… to verbal stimuli…” A wave of dizziness passed over him and he squeezed his eyes shut briefly in hopes that the sensation would pass.

 

A hand on his shoulder pulled him away and he recognized the voice of his captain. “Jake… you’re bleeding. Let 105’s men take over.”

 

“Bleeding?” Jake hadn’t felt any pain.

 

Cap knelt next to him and took hold of his left hand, gently lifting the arm and directing the paramedic’s attention to just above the elbow. Blood stained the ragged edges of a long gash in the sleeve of his turnout coat. “You’ve got a pretty deep cut on your cheek, too. Come on now. Make room for Crosby. Davis is ready for you over here.”

 

“I shoulda known that ceiling was about to go, Cap,” Jake said softly as he let Captain Thomas move him back from Billy’s side so Crosby could take over. “He heard it first and pushed me clear.”

 

“He’s got good instincts,” Captain Thomas agreed. “He’ll make a hell of a rescue man someday. He’s going to be all right, Jake. I’m sure of it.”

Jake only nodded. He submitted in silence to Davis’ ministrations. Soon, both injured men were loaded on the ambulance, Billy on a gurney while Jake was settled on the bench seat. Captain Thomas patted Davis on the back as he climbed in and sat next to Jake. “I’ve handed command of the scene over to your captain,” he said. “We’ll head over to the hospital after you.”

 

“Yessir,” Davis agreed. “See you there.”

 

Captain Thomas closed the door of the ambulance and gave it two sharp raps. As it pulled away, he stepped back and watched, crossing himself as he whispered a prayer for Billy Folsom.

 

Chapter 5

 

Nita awoke to find herself in pitch darkness, unable to move. Though she could not see, she could feel that she was in a tight space, much smaller than the pantry. The heat in her prison was stifling, and the strong smell of gasoline made it hard for her to breathe. She tried to open her mouth and call out, but then realized that she had been gagged. Her hands were bound behind her back, and she thought perhaps her ankles were bound too. She blinked a few times, as if somehow she might manage to clear her vision, but all remained dark. As far as she could make out, she was inside a car trunk and the car was moving, but she wasn’t sure how she got here. The rhythm throbbing behind her temples felt like someone was using her head for the tribal drums, making it difficult to distinguish which images in her mind were nightmares and which were actual memories. Even now, she could hear the echo of the pantry door slamming shut over and over again. She thought she remembered falling asleep, then awakening to one voice pleading and another shouting angrily.

 

“She’s a nice girl,” the voice had begged. Now that she thought back on it, she was sure that was Mr. Lansing. “A good girl… please, let her go home to her brother.”

 

The other voice was hard like the rocks she remembered clearing from her family’s fields as a child. Merciless, Aki [Father] had called them, enemies to the plow and harrow. “Have you forgotten who pays for this house, for your food, for everything you need?” A loud thud… then silence. She wasn’t sure if it was minutes or hours later that the pantry door opened. The sudden burst of light had blinded Nita momentarily, and when she tried to escape through the door, she ran right into the man’s arms. He held her tight and shook her hard.

 

“Keep still, Girl,” he ordered. “Let me look at you.”

 

Her vision cleared, and she peered around her captor to see Mr. Lansing lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious and bleeding from a wound on his head. “No!” she screamed. For that, her captor had slapped her hard across her face, ordering her to learn her place. Defiantly, she had lifted her chin, trembling, and gotten her first good look at him. In appearance, he was enough like Mr. Lansing that she knew he must be the son who was coming to visit.

 

He held her shoulders tight as he stepped back a little to look her over, always staying between her and the pantry door. “You’re older than I wanted, but I can deal with that. A little make up will work wonders. I’ve got a buyer in Paris who will be thrilled to have an Indian girl like you, in spite of your age.”

 

“B… buyer?” she had stammered.

 

“Nothing for you to worry about.” He had tempered his tone, but his eyes were like granite. “Be a good girl and do what you’re told and things will go easy. Most girls would be happy for a free trip to Paris, you know.” When she continued trying to wriggle out of his grasp, he pulled her suddenly against his chest, his arm applying pressure across her neck. She struggled at first, but he was stronger and, deprived of oxygen, she quickly felt her strength flagging. Chihowa, si apela! she prayed urgently. God… help me! A warmth flooded her soul and even as darkness claimed her, she knew she was not alone.

 

She had no memories after that until this moment of awakening to find it was not simply a bad dream. Chihowa, she prayed silently, kvtomma ish ho, God, where are you? But no answer came. Finally, she gave up trying to remember or make sense of it all. Instead, she closed her eyes and sank into a dream of the distant past.

 

Nita felt the pebble zing against her foot and almost protested at first, but then she remembered the story old Sappokni [Grandma] Tubbee had been telling just a few days before. Sappokni was the children’s favorite anoli [story teller]. Born just over a decade after the War between the States ended, Sappokni had hair as white as snow and skin that was wrinkled like a crumpled sheet of paper; her voice wobbled with age and her milky white eyes saw little. But when the children gathered round to hear her stories, a light came across her face that made her seem young again. She loved sharing her tales with them, teaching them to walk the hina chito, the noble path, and live according to the Choctaw way. A few days ago, she had told them about her own parents’ courtship and engagement. One day, Swift Arrow had dressed in his finest clothes and visited the home of Redbird Laughing. He sat with her family and ate a meal with them. When the meal was done and they had moved away from the table, at an opportune moment, he had caught Redbird’s gaze with his own and then he had thrown a pebble at her bare foot. She had smiled broadly, for the young man pleased her greatly and throwing the pebble was his way of saying he wanted to marry her. She picked up the pebble and tossed it back at his foot to let him know she agreed.

 

This story in her mind, Nita looked back at Nashoba and smiled, then picked up the pebble and sent it hurtling back at him. The next day, Nashoba left for boarding school, and then his father had died and he had never returned. He had written her faithfully for a while—his very first letter contained the wolf pendant she always wore under her dress—but after her mother died giving birth to Billy, she never received another letter from him. It would not have mattered. She had no time for a courtship once she took on the care of her small brother and her grieving father.

*******

 

“Will ya sit down, Chet? You’re gonna wear a path in the linoleum.” Johnny sat in Rampart’s waiting room while Chet paced along the row of chairs. Marcy and Penelope had been taken back for treatment, but Dr. Morton had not allowed either man to go with them.

 

“I shoulda known,” Chet grumbled. “A double date with a disaster magnet is just askin’ for trouble.”

 

“I only went to help you out,” Johnny spluttered indignantly, his slender fingers splayed across his chest. “You practically begged me!”

 

Chet shook his shaggy head, then sighed and sank into the seat next to Johnny, wearily rubbing at his neck. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m… sorry. I’m just worried about Marcy. She’s hurt… and she’s never going to want to see me again.”

 

“It was a minor injury, Chet,” Johnny reassured him. “She’ll be fine, Penelope will be fine… and we aren’t even to blame—it was that crazy guy who was out sailing at night without lights.

 

“Yeah,” Chet sighed. “But you’re the one who came up with the idea for a cruise. And… well… I shoulda caught her before she got hurt.”

 

Johnny slapped his friend on the back. “C’mon, Chet. They loved the cruise up until the end. And I doubt Marcy blames you—if she does, she’s not as smart as she seems.” The two firemen slipped into a companionable silence and waited for word from the doctor.

 

Both Johnny and Chet were drowsing when, about half an hour later, Dixie came into the waiting room. “Johnny?” the veteran ER nurse said softly as she touched the former paramedic on the shoulder to waken him.

 

“Oh… uh… hi, Dix.” Johnny blinked and stretched and then caught the worry in her eyes. “Are Marcy and Penelope all right? I was sure it was only minor…”

 

“They’re fine,” Dixie said. “I’m sorry it’s taking so long, but we had another emergency take priority. Jake Benson from 110’s asked me to call you, then Dr. Morton told me you were already here. Come on back. He’s in Treatment 4 with Dr. Fletcher.”

 

Johnny frowned. “Billy… something must have happened to Billy,” he said. There was no other reason he could imagine why 110’s paramedic would want Dixie to call him.

 

“Come on, Johnny,” Dixie urged. “Jake will fill you in.”

 

Johnny shook Chet’s shoulder and told him where he’d be, then followed Dixie to Treatment 4. Dr. Kay Fletcher flashed him a smile as he entered, then returned her attention to stitching up her patient’s arm. She had come to Rampart as an intern about two years ago. Within six months, she had married Mike Morton, but to avoid confusion she used her maiden name professionally. Johnny genuinely liked the pretty doctor with skin like milk chocolate and eyes to match, but he was too worried about his lineman to do more than nod in her direction. “Benson,” he said, “What happened? Are you all right?”

 

Benson shuddered and blinked at the sound of Johnny’s voice. Dr. Fletcher hissed in frustration. “C’mon, Hotshot. Keep still,” she scolded, but her tone was softened by a hint of fondness. Jake had rented a room from the Mortons for a year before he was able to get his own place, and they had become like surrogate parents to him.

 

“Sorry, Kay,” Jake mumbled.

 

Johnny carefully appraised the young paramedic while waiting patiently for a response. His face was almost as pale as the bandage that covered his right cheek, and a sheen of sweat shone on his forehead. His gaze wandered the room, not fastening on anything, avoiding Johnny’s eyes. “Jake?” Johnny asked gently, and that gaze riveted to 51’s captain.

 

“Sorry, Captain Gage,” Jake said dully. “It’s Billy. Ceiling came down on us.… He… he pushed me out of the way of a beam and it hit him instead, pinned him. Andy helped me get it off and get him out. I tried treating him, Captain Gage. But… I just froze. Couldn’t think clearly. Crosby had to take over.”

 

Kay answered the question Jake had ignored. “He just needed some stitches, otherwise he checks out fine.” She tied off and snipped the suture thread, then bandaged Jake’s upper arm. “Jake, you did what you had to do,” she reassured him. “With Andy’s help, you got Billy out of there in spite of being injured yourself. He’s got a good chance, thanks in no small part to you.”

 

Jake nodded, but Johnny could tell from the way his eyes wouldn’t meet the doctor’s that he wasn’t convinced. “Benson, focus,” he barked. Kay glared at him and he instantly regretted his gruff tone, but he still hoped it would have the needed effect. He softened his voice as he asked, “What were his injuries?”

 

The injured paramedic straightened up immediately in response to Johnny’s display of authority. “Possible c-spine, sir, and Crosby suspected a skull fracture. Unconscious, pupils non-reactive to light, non-responsive to verbal or pain stimuli. He stopped breathing in the ambulance, but Crosby got him going again.” He looked up at Johnny. “I should have known the ceiling was about to go. He saved my life.”

 

“And it sounds like you saved his,” Johnny replied. “You got him out of there. Listen, Jake. You can’t know for sure that if Billy hadn’t pushed you out of the way, he wouldn’t have been hurt. That beam might have pinned all three of you, and then what would you have done? Don’t waste time feeling guilty—it won’t do you or Billy a bit of good.”

 

Jake nodded slowly. “Yessir. You’re right, sir.” Johnny was glad to see some light return to the young man’s eyes, though his face remained solemn.

 

“Now, Hotshot,” Kay informed the young paramedic as she handed him a tube of bacitracin ointment. “You know the drill, but I’ve got to tell it to you anyway.” She proceeded to instruct him on the care of his sutured wounds. Finishing with a warm smile, she added, “You don’t have to stay here overnight, but you’re off for the rest of this shift. I’m off duty in a few minutes and I’m taking you home with me. The guest room is all made up and I can already hear Roscoe’s tail thumping at the thought of seeing you—he’ll be curled up at the foot of your bed all night.” She turned her eyes to Johnny. “Captain Gage, Dr. Early is with your man in Treatment 2. He said to send you in after you talked with Jake.”

 

“Thank you, Dr. Fletcher.” Johnny squeezed Jake’s shoulder. “Better do as she says,” he suggested, his eyes glinting with humor, “or she’s liable to take a stick to you.” He was rewarded by a slight smile from Jake.

 

“And risk opening up those nice stitches I spent so much time on?” Kay asked with a laugh. “I think not. I’ll take that stick to you instead, John Gage! Now get out of here—I’m sure Joe is ready for you.”

*******

 

As it happened, Dr. Early stood outside the door of Treatment 2, talking with Captain Thomas, who was still dressed in his sooty turnouts. “We’ve been trying all day to get hold of his sister, Doc,” the captain was saying, “but no one can find her. I know I’m not next of kin, but at the moment, I’m all the kid’s got.”

 

Johnny cleared his throat, and the two men turned toward him. “Thomas… Dr. Early,” he said. “Benson was just telling me what happened. What do you mean no one can find N… er… Miss Folsom?”

 

“Billy’s been trying to reach her all day, in between calls,” Thomas explained. “All he could find out was, she quit her job and she left their trailer early this morning and never came back. He was worried sick about her. We even tried calling hospitals, but turned up nothing. This just isn’t like Nita.”

 

Johnny tried to fight back the rising tide of worry in his gut, determined not to let anyone see what this news did to his heart. “Have you been to the trailer?” he asked. “Maybe she left a note?”

 

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know the address—you’ve got Billy’s file now. My next step was going to be to call HQ and find out.”

 

“I’ll take care of it. But first, how’s he doin’, Doc?”

 

Dr. Early sighed. “Normally I couldn’t give even you any information without his next-of-kin’s approval, Johnny, but since you are his captain and his sister seems to be unreachable, I can make an exception. Until I see x-rays, I can’t say much, but here’s what I suspect. Billy has what looks like a broken clavicle, and there is no doubt in my mind that he has a depressed skull fracture. He could also have a c-spine injury. I’ve got Malcolm running a full skull and spinal series now. We’ll need a CT scan to determine the extent of the damage to the brain—the skull fracture may heal well enough on its own, or it may require surgery.”

 

Johnny nodded. His gut felt far sicker now than it had at any point on the cruise, just at the thought of having to tell Nita about this. But Billy was part of 51’s now, and that made it his responsibility, even if he was injured on another captain’s watch. “I know where the trailer park is,” he told Captain Thomas. “Did Billy leave a key in his locker at 110’s?” Thomas nodded, his face drooping in a clear show of disappointment, and a rush of jealousy swept over Johnny. His colleague knew Nita, had spent time with her, was apparently sweet on her! Why do I feel this way? I haven’t seen her since before Billy was born! He wrestled his emotions into submission, and turned to Dr. Early. “Can I see him first?”

 

“Just for a few minutes while I look at the x-rays,” Dr. Early agreed. “Oh, one more thing,” he said, drawing a small item from his pocket. “The paramedics had a hard time getting Billy’s right glove off. He was clutching this and wouldn’t let go. It took muscle relaxants for us to be able to uncurl his fist.” He handed Johnny a wolf pendant on a leather cord. “Take care of it for him, would you? It must be—Johnny, are you all right? Suddenly you went pale as a ghost!” The doctor put a hand on Johnny’s arm to steady him.

 

Johnny stared at the pendant. “I… I’m fine, Doc. It’s just… this… belonged to Nita. Why would Billy have it in his hand during the fire?”

 

Captain Thomas frowned. “That’s Nita’s? How would you know? She was by the station all the time when he worked out of 110’s and I never saw her wearing it.”

 

“I know, Matt,” Johnny retorted, “because I’m the one who made it for her.” He pocketed the carved wolf and then pulled the bear pendant from under his shirt. “You never saw me wearing this either, did you? Well, Nita gave it to me… almost 20 years ago. Now Doc, can I see Billy, please?” He felt an acute need to get away from Matthew Thomas before he decked the man.

 

Thomas backed off a couple of steps. “I… um… I’d better get back to the station anyway and write up my report. Come by and get that key when you’re ready.”

 

Johnny sucked in a deep breath and followed Dr. Early into the treatment room. Guilt assailed him as he took in Billy’s still form on the exam table. Gently, he touched the young man’s hand as he bent down to speak near his ear. ”Nusit ho-hlakofi,” he said softly. He wanted to apologize, but he would do that when he could look Billy in the eyes.

 

“What was that?” Dr. Early asked, turning from the light box where the x-rays were displayed.

 

Johnny blushed. Thanks to his years at boarding school, where the punishment for speaking Choctaw involved a bar of soap in the mouth or a switch to bare legs, he rarely used his native tongue around Nahullo [whites], other than to teach a few words to the DeSoto kids. But he held a deep respect for Dr. Early and knew the feeling was mutual. He was proud of his heritage and had no reason to feel embarrassed, in spite of what was drilled into him at school. “Just telling him to rest and get well.” He joined the doctor at the light box and studied the x-rays.

 

Dr. Early pointed at a spot on an image of Billy’s skull. “There it is… a depressed fracture. It doesn’t appear to have fragmented, which is good news, but it is still compressing the brain tissue. I’m going to have Malcolm take him up to the CT machine now so we can get a good view of the brain. It will take a while—why don’t you work on contacting his sister and getting her here?”

 

Johnny patted his pocket. “I’m on my way, Doc.”

*******

 

“Hi, Joanne. Could I talk with Roy please?” Johnny had used the phone in the nurse’s lounge to call his best friend.

 

“Roy!” Her voice was muffled, so Johnny knew she must have covered the transmitter with a hand before shouting for her husband. A second later, it was clear again. “He’s coming, Johnny. I’m so glad you called—we’ve been trying to get hold of you all evening, and we’ve stayed up hoping to hear from you. D.J. came down with chicken pox today—it’s been going around the neighborhood. I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid the camping trip just won’t work. Roy considered just taking Chris and Megan, but they talked it out between them and decided that D.J. would be heartbroken and they didn’t want to do that to their little brother.”

 

Johnny couldn’t help a chuckle. “They’re good kids. Tell them we’ll reschedule as soon as D.J. is better.”

 

“I will. Here’s Roy. Bye, Johnny.”

 

“Hey, Junior. I guess Joanne told you our news.”

 

Johnny rolled his eyes at the old nickname Roy still insisted on using. “Yeah, she did. Listen, Roy… I need your help. Could you pick me up at Rampart?”

 

“At Rampart? Are you all right?” Roy sounded worried.

 

“I’m fine,” Johnny assured him. The door opened and a pair of nurses stepped into the room. “I just need your help, and I need to leave the Rover for Chet—don’t worry, he’s fine too. I’ll explain when you get here. Pick me up outside the ER.”

 

“I’m on my way, Johnny. See you soon.” Click.

 

Johnny hung up the phone and took a deep breath. His hand went to the shirt pocket where he had put Nita’s pendant. He patted it, then pulled his keys out of his pants pocket. He couldn’t just leave Chet, Marcy, and Penelope without transportation, but that wasn’t the main reason he’d called Roy. He felt a keen need to have his best friend at his side right now. As he walked back to the waiting room, he worked the Rover key off the ring.

 

Chet was back to pacing now, waiting for his return. “There you are… they’re admitting both Marcy and Penelope for the night. I guess Penny had another bad panic attack when they suggested she go home without her sister, and Dr. Morton decided it would be best for her to stay too. They’re getting settled now, but we can go up and see them in a few minutes.”

 

Johnny shook his head. “I can’t, Chet.” He held out the key to his friend. “Roy’s on the way to pick me up. One of my men was badly injured pulling overtime today and no one can reach his sister by phone. I need to find her. When you’re done here, take the Rover back to my place. I’ll get the key from you later—I’ve got the spare at home. Tell Marcy and Penelope I’m really sorry and I’ll try to make it up to them.”

 

Chet stared at the Rover key, then flipped it in the air and put it in his pocket. “I’ll take good care of it. Go on… the ladies will understand.”

 

Without another word, Johnny headed for the door.

*******

 

Dr. Brackett checked in on patient Edgar Lansing, who was now sleeping peacefully. The elderly gentleman had lost consciousness in the ambulance, and when he had awakened at the hospital, he seemed to have lost his memory of what had happened. He had been extremely agitated, trying over and over to get up. “But I have to go home!” he’d insisted. “Sarah is waiting for me!” Kody, the paramedic who had brought the man in, had said his son was following the ambulance to Rampart, but he had never arrived. Brackett hoped he would get here soon—he needed a medical history that the patient was unable to provide.

 

He stepped into the hall and beckoned Dixie. “We need to admit Mr. Lansing for the night. He has a moderate concussion and is suffering memory loss. I’ve had to sedate him because he keeps trying to get up… says he needs to go home to Sarah. I’ve been waiting two hours to talk with his son and get a medical history, and he still hasn’t arrived. I’d like to find out who Sarah is, and where the son is. Is anyone who worked the fire still here?”

 

Dixie frowned. “Well, Kody James had to go out on another call as soon as his partner’s replacement got here, and Jake Benson just left with Kay. Captain Thomas and his engine crew left about twenty minutes ago to go back to 110’s, but they’re out of service until they get a replacement for Billy Folsom. If you’d like I can call over there.”

 

Kel sighed, his eyes narrowing in frustration. “Yes, that would be good. Thanks, Dix. Get Mr. Lansing admitted first, and then make that call.”

 

“You don’t know what you’d do without me, do you, Kell?” Dixie teased, her eyes sparkling.

 

“I hope I never have to find out!” Kel admitted with a begrudging grin. Long ago, there had been sparks of romance between them, but after that faded out, they had settled into a comfortable friendship. Sometimes, like now, when she looked up at him with those expressive eyes, Kel wondered what would have happened if the romance had continued, but he would never admit that to her. “Go on, now,” he barked, but his smile told her he was teasing too. “Get out of here!” He picked up the file on his next patient and headed for Treatment 3.

 

Chapter 6

 

As consciousness returned once again, Nita lay still, afraid to open her eyes. She could feel that she was no longer in a moving vehicle, and a breath of air against her face was evidence that she was no longer in a small enclosed space. Her arms, still bound behind her, ached fiercely. The soft sound of someone sniffling alerted her that she was not alone. At last, she blinked open her eyes.

 

Moonlight filtering in through a row of large windows near the ceiling illuminated an otherwise unlit warehouse. Surrounding Nita were about twenty more women and girls. Nita thought herself the oldest among them, and she guessed the youngest was no more than fourteen or fifteen. Each was bound and gagged, and they all lay on the floor, protected from the cold concrete by a thick layer of old carpet. The girl closest to Nita lay with eyes wide open, tears trickling down her cheeks, and Nita wished she could comfort her somehow. Chihowa, she begged silently, pi yimmintvchi! [encourage us].

 

Her eyes traveled beyond the cluster of captives to take in the rest of their prison. About three quarters of the area was filled with rows of luxury vehicles. Rarely one to travel by car, the only one she knew by name was a flashy red Fiat Spider—Billy had studied pictures of such a car in a magazine only a month or two ago. “Look at it, Nita… if I ever learn to drive, the Fiat Spider’s the sort of car I’d want. The guys at work are all drooling over the Chevy Corvette, but the Spider is 10 times nicer.” She had looked at the picture and murmured her agreement at how beautiful the car was, wishing that somehow he could have what he wanted.

 

Tears flooded Nita’s eyes as she thought about her brother. She knew he would be worried, as desperate to find her as she was to be found. Chihowa, sv hopohla chia [You are my solace], she prayed. Comfort us… but most of all, please… get us out of here!

*******

 

Johnny slid into the passenger seat of Roy’s old blue Chevy pickup. “Thanks, Roy,” he said. “I’ve gotta go by 110’s first.” He clammed up after that and sat staring into the night as Roy pulled out of the parking lot and turned left onto Vermont Avenue.

 

“Spill it, Junior,” Roy said. As he shifted gears, he gave a sidewise glance at his best friend.

 

Johnny sat slumped in his seat, his head turned toward the passenger side window. “Spill what?”

 

The hint of irritation in Johnny’s voice might have warned someone who didn’t know him well away from pushing for more, but Roy would not be deterred. “You called me after 11:00 at night to come pick you up from Rampart. I know you had to leave the Rover for Chet, but I can see there’s something more, just from the way you’re hunched over there.”

 

“I’m tired.”

 

“A few more answers like that and I’m gonna have to start callin’ you Stoker instead of Junior,” Roy joked. “Come on, Johnny. Stop being so stubborn. You know I’ll ferret it out of you sooner or later.”

 

Johnny heaved a long sigh before just giving up. “Fine… but it’s a long story.”

 

“Well, it’s not like 110’s is all that close,” Roy said. “Go on… I’m listening.”

 

“My new man, Billy Folsom…”

 

Roy nodded. “I’ve met him. He subbed at my station a couple months ago. Good kid.”

 

Johnny gave a wry laugh. “Yeah, us boys from Bogue Chitto tend to be good kids.”

 

“You mean… he’s from your home town?” In spite of a friendship that spanned a decade, Roy knew little about Johnny’s life before he joined the LA County Fire Department. Sure, he had taught the kids some Choctaw words and traditions, and he was a favorite visitor at Chris’s Indian Guides group, but Roy could count on one hand the number of times Johnny had willingly shared something personal from his past.

 

“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed. “He was injured tonight… critically. Almost died on the way to Rampart, the way Jake Benson described it. Anyway… he’s from the same res I grew up on, back in Mississippi. Do you know how hard I’ve worked to put that part of my life behind me? And yesterday it all came rushing back when Billy Folsom stepped into my station with a basket of banaha bread made by my first girlfriend. I wasn’t ready for that.”

 

Roy’s right eyebrow quirked upward. “Your first girlfriend… and Billy? Isn’t she… a bit old for him?”

 

“She’s his sister,” Johnny clarified. “Nita. As far as we were concerned last time we saw one another, we were engaged.” He laughed. “We were all of twelve years old. I was just leaving for boarding school… Nita kissed me and I kissed her back. I threw a pebble at her and she threw it back...” He shrugged and shook his head. “We had been learning about the old ways. A couple of centuries ago, that exchange of pebbles was all it took for a couple to start planning a wedding… well, that and approval from their aunts, but we didn’t have a chance to take it that far.”

 

Roy merged onto the 405. “So, what happened?”

 

Johnny continued staring out the window, but he also kept talking. “I went to boarding school… we wrote letters for a few months… then she stopped writing me. I had to learn from a friend that her mom died giving birth to Billy. Then my dad died and I never went back to Bogue Chitto. I pushed Nita to the back of my mind.”

 

“But not really?” Out of the corner of his eye, Roy saw that Johnny flinched, and he hoped that his probing questions weren’t too painful.

 

“No… not really.” He took in a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. “You know I’ve always had one excuse after another for why none of my relationships worked out… the girl was always too bossy or too heavy or too skinny or too demanding. Damn, I must’ve seemed so shallow to the rest of you guys. But in the end, it always came down to one thing—none of the girls I dated could ever push Nita’s image out of my mind.” He shook his head. “I’m such an idiot, Roy. I mean, I was 12 years old, for cryin’ out loud! Just a kid… I didn’t know a thing about love. But there was something about Nita…. She ‘got’ me like no one else did. I remember the day we became best friends. I was eight years old, still mourning Svshki’s death—”

 

“Svshki?” Roy asked. He glanced again and saw that Johnny had now closed his eyes and was leaning his head back.

 

“Sorry… my mother’s death. Remember, I told you she died of grief over losing my little sister?”

 

“Yeah, I remember.” Roy shifted gears again, then signaled a lane change to get around a slower vehicle.

 

“Well, that’s all my dad told me. Charlie Turtle told me the rest. He was nine that year, about the size of a small ox and twice as dumb, and the biggest bully among all the kids in Bogue Chitto. One afternoon in the school yard, he told me that Svshki had taken her own life because she was ohoyo tasimbo… a crazy woman. He went on to inform me that because she was crazy, I would be too, as it was in the blood. I clenched my fists and charged at him, even though he was twice my size… punched him as hard as I could in the gut. All he did was laugh. Then he punched me and sent me sprawling. The other kids laughed with him, but I think it was just because they were too scared not to. Truth was, I gained some respect among them that day because I went up against Charlie Turtle. I wasn’t about to tell them I was just too hurt and angry to heed good sense and walk away. The only one who didn’t laugh was Nita. She knew better than to stand up to Charlie in my defense—the last thing I needed was for the other kids to say a girl had to fight my battles for me—but she knelt down beside me and told me loud enough for everyone to hear that Charlie Turtle was imanukfila iksho tasimbo… a crazy fool… and so was anyone who listened to him, and she was proud of me for standing up to him. With her encouragement, I got myself up on my feet and walked away, my head held high and my new best friend at my side. Charlie never bothered me again. I guess it helped that Nita’s grandfather was one of the most respected elders in the community.”

 

“Friends in high places, huh?” Roy quipped.

 

“You got that right. The Folsoms have been an important family among the Choctaw for generations. Nita’s grandpa came from a long line of minko—chiefs—and preachers. Some were both, but he was content with just the preaching side of it. Charlie Turtle wasn’t about to risk the wrath of old Preacher Folsom.”

 

“Folsom doesn’t exactly sound native,” Roy commented as he changed lanes.

 

“And you think Gage does? My dad’s dad was English and my mom’s dad was German by heritage, but both sappokni—my grandmothers—were full-blood Choctaw. Nita and her brother are both almost completely Choctaw; about all that’s left of their English ancestry is the name.”

 

Roy nodded thoughtfully. “So… what it comes down to is, you haven’t seen Nita since you left for boarding school and now you have to go tell her about her brother?”

 

“Exactly,” Johnny said. “If I can find her. According to Matt Thomas, Billy was trying to get hold of her all day and never could. And then there’s this…” He pulled the carved wolf out of his shirt pocket. “I sent Nita this pendant with my first letter after I went to boarding school. Carved it myself on the journey to Oklahoma. She had given me a carved bear pendant before I left. Nita means bear; my Choctaw name was Nashoba Tushpa… Swift Wolf. Dr. Early says Billy was clutching this in his hand when they pulled him out of that house. I don’t know why he would have it, and I can’t ask him because he’s unconscious. I also can’t ask him whether Nita ever told him about me or whether he told Nita I was his captain, or how she might react when she sees me again for the first time in almost 20 years. Dang… I feel like that 12-year-old kid all over again.”

 

Roy shot a quick glance over at the wolf pendant before fastening his gaze back on the highway. “Well then, however you need me, Junior, I’ll back you up.”

 

“Thanks, Pally. I appreciate it. You can start by going in 110’s to get the key to Nita and Billy’s trailer. I… don’t think I can handle seeing Matt again just now. I nearly punched him in the nose back at Rampart.”

 

Roy stifled an incredulous laugh. “You what?!”

 

“Nearly punched him. He started talking like he knew Nita and I could see in his eyes that he was sweet on her. The thought of Nita and… well… anyone else…” Johnny’s voice trailed off and he was quiet for a moment before continuing. “I haven’t considered the possibility for years, but when it was right there in front of me, it drove me nuts.”

 

“You are that 12-year-old kid all over again, aren’t you?” Roy asked with a wry laugh. “Good thing you didn’t go after him like you did Charlie Turtle. Matt’s got at least 30 pounds on you and I happen to know he trained as a boxer. He’s also a pretty good guy, actually.”

 

Johnny rolled his eyes. “I’m not an idiot, Roy. I know he’s a good guy. It’s just, all these emotions I thought were long buried were suddenly and without warning dragged out of the grave yesterday morning when I looked through Billy’s file and realized who he was. I’m a little… touchy… and I can’t face Matt again just now.”

 

“OK, OK, I got it,” Roy said as he pulled into the parking lot at 110’s. A light burned in the captain’s office. “Stay here. I’ll go in and get the key.”

*******

 

Forty-five minutes later, after a brief stop at 51’s to confirm the address, Roy pulled the pickup to a stop in front of a trailer at the Windward Village Mobile Home Park. Johnny stared through the window at the simple trailer, and Roy thought he seemed more intimidated by the peaceful setting than by a fully involved apartment fire. He stepped out of the driver’s seat and moved around to Johnny’s side, where he pulled the door handle and opened the door, then stepped back. “You ready for this?”

 

“No, but here goes nothin’,” Johnny said, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. As he trotted up the steps to the door of the trailer, leaving Roy waiting by the truck, the distant yowl of a cat broke through the night.

 

“Nita?!” Johnny called, pounding on the door. “Nita! Are you in there?” No one answered, but a light went on in the next trailer and a moment later a woman in curlers and a dark bathrobe and wielding a baseball bat came out the door and stalked across the path. She was at least a foot shorter than Johnny and just as wiry.

 

“What’s the matter with you?” she hissed. “You’re making enough noise to wake the dead.” In other circumstances, the sight of the small woman with the bat might have elicited a snicker from Roy, except she was waving it in his face, even though it was Johnny making the noise.

 

“So sorry, ma’am,” Roy said, pulling out his wallet and flashing his department ID. “Captain Roy DeSoto, LA County Fire Department. That man is my colleague, Captain John Gage. We’re looking for Miss Nita Folsom, who lives in this trailer. Her brother, who works out of John’s station, is injured and in the hospital, and no one has been able to reach her by phone to inform her. We have a key, but thought it best to knock first instead of just busting in.”

 

She still glared at him, but lowered the bat. “Well, I can tell you she’s not there. I’ve been over there several times today myself because she didn’t put the rent money in my box this afternoon the way she was supposed to. I should’ve known better than to rent to a couple of redsk…”

 

“I suggest you not finish that sentence, ma’am,” Johnny growled. He had stepped down from the porch without Roy or the woman noticing. His glare was stone cold. “You’ll get your rent money. Roy, give me the key… we need to go in and check it out. Maybe she left Billy a note saying where she went.”

 

The manager bristled and hefted the bat again. “Oh no… You aren’t setting foot in one of my trailers, key or no key! How’m I to know that ID is for real? Now, get off this property, or I’m calling the police!”

 

Roy could see Johnny’s shoulders tense and his fists curl. Though he knew without a doubt that Johnny would never strike a woman, he was pretty sure she didn’t know that, and he was also reasonably sure she could do some damage with the bat in spite of her small stature. He stepped in between his distraught friend and the trailer park manager. “Tell you what, ma’am,” he suggested, hoping a steady, gentle tone would appease her. “We can wait for the police. Why don’t you make that call? We’ll explain the situation to them when they get here and they can accompany us inside, make sure everything is on the up and up. We may need them to help look for Miss Folsom, anyway.” His eyes shot Johnny a silent message to back off and relax. “Ask for Officer Vince Howard.”

 

She looked back and forth from Johnny to Roy as she considered the suggestion. Finally, she lowered the bat again. “All right. But don’t go in the trailer while I’m inside or I will have you arrested.”

 

“We won’t, ma’am,” Roy assured her. “We’ll just go wait in my truck until the police arrive.”

 

She backed away from them several steps, then turned and scurried back into her trailer.

 

“The key, Roy,” Johnny insisted as soon as she was out of sight.

 

“Get in the truck, Junior. We’re waiting, just like I promised her.” Roy walked around to the driver’s side door and climbed in.

 

“You said you’d back me up,” Johnny grumbled, but he opened his door and got in.

 

“That’s what I’m doing,” Roy said. “You won’t do Nita any good from a jail cell. Besides, if she really is missing, we could use Vince’s help, don’t you think?”

 

Johnny sighed. “You’re right. Man… can you believe that woman?”

 

“Look at it through her eyes, Johnny,” Roy suggested. “She was awakened in the middle of the night by a stranger pounding on her neighbor’s door… a neighbor who didn’t make the rent payment on time. I think if you were in her shoes, you might be a bit cross too.”

 

“Cross, maybe… but not racist. I mean, my first thought would be concern about whether something happened to the tenant.”

 

“Well, maybe she’s been burned before. I’m not excusing what she said—that was plain ignorant. But if you go in that trailer right now, in her mind, you’ll confirm those negative stereotypes. If you wait here with me, you have a chance of showing her that she’s wrong. Maybe she’ll learn something.”

 

Johnny sighed. “Fine. I suppose you’re right. But I sure hope Nita isn’t in there unconscious or something. We could be waiting a while.”

 

Thankfully, the squad car arrived not five minutes later and Vince Howard climbed out. As Johnny and Roy stepped out of the truck, the manager came out of her trailer once again. This time, she was dressed in slacks and a t-shirt and had left the baseball bat behind.

 

“Johnny… Roy…” Vince greeted them with a nod, then turned to the woman who’d called for him. “Ma’am. What seems to be the problem?”

 

She stood with her arms crossed over her chest, appraising Vince with a critical eye. “These two men… they claim to be fire department employees looking for one of my tenants, but they aren’t in uniform, and they came making all sorts of noise, and that one flashed his ID too fast for me to get a good look.”

 

Vince nodded, then turned to the two fire captains. “Guys?” he asked.

 

“We came to notify the woman who lives in this trailer—Nita Folsom—that her brother Billy was badly injured at a house fire a few hours ago,” Roy explained. “But there’s some concern as to her whereabouts—her brother was trying to contact her all day and she never answered the phone. We have his key and thought we’d go inside and see if she’s in there and hurt, or if maybe she left Billy a note about where she was going.”

 

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Vince agreed, then turned his gaze back to the trailer park manager. “Ma’am, I can guarantee you these men are who they say they are. I’ll go in with them, but they are going in.”

 

She frowned, but this time she didn’t argue. “Well, while you’re in there, see if you can find my rent check. I told ‘em when they moved in, I don’t tolerate late payments, and as of 5:00 p.m., they are late.” She turned on her heel and strutted back to her own trailer.

 

Inside, they found the small home was immaculately clean. They divided up and did a quick sweep of the premises. Roy soon discovered a note he assumed was in Choctaw on the kitchen counter. “I found something, but I can’t read it!” he called, just as Johnny emerged from a bedroom. He handed the note to his friend, then he and Vince began sorting through a neat stack of papers on the small desk near the phone.

 

“It says she’s working a new job and will be home a little after noon,” Johnny translated. “Not very helpful… but it does tell us she intended to come back.”

 

“I think I’ve got it,” Roy announced. “There’s a want ad for a housecleaning job here, and an address written on it,” he called, just as Johnny emerged from a bedroom. “722 E. 222nd St.”

 

Vince looked up from his half of the stack. “What was that address again?” he asked.

 

“722 E. 222nd… not far from here.”

 

“Son of a gun,” Vince murmured. “Maybe the old man was right all along!”

 

“Old man?” Johnny asked. “What are you talking about, Vince?”

 

“That’s the address of the house fire where Billy Folsom was injured. I was there. Captain Thomas told me the old man who lived there—a Mr. Lansing—was convinced someone was in the pantry, but his son insisted he was senile and was talking about his dead wife. Thomas didn’t believe the son, said he looked pretty shifty. I talked to him and something did seem off, but there was no evidence that anyone else was inside that house. I had to let him go. He was going to follow the ambulance that took his father to Rampart. I think we should start there.”

 

“You think this guy might have Nita?” Johnny asked, fury burning in his eyes.

 

Vince shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. And it could all just be a coincidence—she may have been there earlier in the day and then left before the fire. We need to talk with the old man and with Billy.”

 

“Well, Billy won’t be talkin’ to anyone for a while yet,” Johnny said. “But perhaps the old man could help. Roy, if you’ve gotta get home, maybe Vince could take me back to Rampart.”

 

Roy gave a thoughtful smile as his mind flashed back to six years before, when he waited in the hospital chapel just before D.J. was born. It had been a harrowing morning, but Johnny had brought him through it. Now he echoed his best friend’s words from that day, “I’m here for the duration, Pally.”*

*******

 

*This quote refers to my story Ups and Downs.

 

Chapter 7

 

“Well, guys,” Vince said as they left Billy and Nita’s trailer and Roy locked the door, “I’ll meet you over at Rampart. I’m heading back to the station first to learn what I can about the Lansings. I’ll also work on getting Detective Crockett on the case.”

 

“Hang on, Vince,” Johnny asked, stifling a yawn. After running on pure adrenaline all evening, exhaustion had suddenly slammed into him. He’d only dozed for a couple of hours that morning, and his sleep had been restless, troubled by bad dreams that fled his memory the instant he awoke, leaving only a lingering sense that it was better to stay awake. It didn’t help that he’d missed lunch and left his dinner in the Pacific Ocean. Even so, he was determined to see the evening through. He and Roy had two days before they both went back on shift, and he would spend every minute necessary looking for Nita, even if it meant going without sleep. Part of him still hoped there had been a misunderstanding, that Nita had received the message about her brother and was even now at the hospital at his side, but deep down, Johnny knew this would not be the case. Even though he had two old friends backing him up at the moment, he felt helpless. For the moment, there was only one concrete thing he could do for Nita and her brother. He pulled his checkbook and a pen out of his shirt pocket, glad he’d thought to grab them out of the Rover’s glove compartment before heading into Rampart earlier. “Will y’all come next door with me for a moment?” he asked his friends.

 

“Sure,” Vince and Roy agreed, almost in unison. Together, the three men crossed the path between the trailers. Johnny stepped up to the door and curled his fist to knock. As he suspected, the manager must have been watching them out the window—she opened the door before he even touched it.

 

“Did you find my rent check?” she asked, glaring at him.

 

Johnny couldn’t help thinking that if her eyes could shoot daggers, he would be dead by now. He kept his tone stiff but cordial. “No, ma’am, we did not. But I have no doubt Nita would have put it in your box as promised if she had been able. You see, ma’am, our people are no different from most people. We believe in working hard and paying our debts and doing the right thing. We’re not perfect, but most of us go through each day just doing the best we can. Now, how much do the Folsoms owe you?” He opened his checkbook and held the pen poised above it, ready to write.

 

She didn’t hesitate. “$200, plus a $15 late fee and $35 for utilities.”

 

He did the math and started filling out the check. “And to whom should I make it out?”

 

“Windward Village Mobile Home Estates,” she said.

 

A moment later, Johnny signed, then tore the check along the perforated line and passed it over to her. “Here’s a check for $485. Now, I want you to write up a receipt showing that the Folsoms are paid up for two months and give it to Officer Howard here. He’ll pass it on to either Nita or her brother. And I want your word you won’t tell them who made this payment.”

 

She nodded as she accepted the check. “I… I promise. I’ll be right back.” She went away from the door for a moment, then returned with the requested receipt, which she handed to Vince.

 

Johnny noted with satisfaction that something in her eyes seemed to have softened. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I’m sorry we troubled you tonight.”

 

Vince folded the receipt and placed it in his wallet for safekeeping. “Good night, ma’am,” he said with a nod.

 

“Good night,” she said softly. She remained standing in the doorway to watch them go.

 

On the way back to their respective vehicles, Johnny extracted a promise from both Vince and Roy to keep the rent payment secret. “I don’t want them to feel obligated to repay me,” he explained. “Their father didn’t believe in accepting help from anyone, and I’m guessing he passed that on to them.”

 

Vince clapped him on the back. “John Gage, you are a class act.”

 

Johnny just shrugged away the attention. “They have enough to deal with. They don’t need an angry landlord on top of everything else.”

 

Vince patted him on the shoulder, then climbed into his squad car and headed for the station.

 

Johnny climbed in the passenger seat of Roy’s truck, slammed the door shut, and sat back. He yawned again, this time unable to hide it.

 

“Rough date with Chet and the twins?” Roy asked as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb.

 

Johnny chuckled. His eyes were heavy and he needed sleep, but he was determined to fight it. “He told you about it, huh?”

 

“Well, he told me he hoped you’d agree to go. I was pretty sure you would.”

 

“I’ll let Chet give you the details,” Johnny said. “For now, let’s just put it this way—the twins were nice gals, but the date was a disaster… starting from the part where I got seasick and ralphed up my dinner and several bottles of ginger ale, and ending with both of the ladies admitted to Rampart. With that, on top of a sleepless night on shift, only a couple of hours dozing at home this morning, missing lunch, and everything else that happened tonight… well, a few yawns are no surprise.”

 

“Wow.” Roy’s fingers drummed lightly on the steering wheel. “Look—you might as well close your eyes and get some rest.”

 

Johnny shook his head adamantly. “No, I’m fi—” The need to yawn again cut him off.

 

Roy suddenly flicked on the right turn signal and turned into the parking lot of an old gas station. He stopped, then pivoted in the seat to give his full attention to his friend. “Listen to me, Junior,” he said. “I know how it is when you go into rescue mode—you have a tendency to neglect your own needs, so I figure part of backing you up means making sure you take care of yourself. You clearly need some sleep and something to eat and drink. So here’s the deal. You’re going to close your eyes now and get that sleep. When we get to Rampart, I’ll go inside and find out how Billy and Mr. Lansing are doing. If there’s any reason to wake you up, I’ll come back out and get you, but the most likely scenario is, we won’t be able to talk to them till morning anyway.”

 

Johnny bristled, even though he knew what Roy was saying was true. “Fine, Dad” he surrendered, unable to swallow the sarcastic tone.

 

Roy shifted out of park and pulled back onto Santa Fe, and Johnny leaned his head against the door frame and closed his eyes. Within seconds, Johnny was asleep. His sleep wasn’t peaceful, though. Roy kept his eyes on the road, but he could hear his friend fidgeting next to him. Just as Roy turned into Rampart’s parking lot about 10 minutes later, Johnny suddenly sat straight up, shouting, “Kiyo! Kania!”

 

“Johnny?” Roy quickly pulled into a parking spot and turned to his best friend, whose eyes were now wide open, though he did not seem fully awake. He was shivering, his face pale and sweaty, and gasping for breath. Roy instinctively grabbed his wrist to check his pulse, then gave his shoulder a firm shake. “Johnny,” he barked, “wake up.”

 

“Ishkitini yvt chilika ka haklo li tuk,” Johnny said, then shook his head hard as if to clear it. He blinked and looked around. “I… I’m sorry, Roy… it was… a bad dream.”

 

“I’d say so!” Roy agreed. “You were shoutin’ somethin’ like ‘kee-yo’ and ‘kanya.’ I’m not sure about the rest.”

 

“Kiyo. Kania,” Johnny repeated, and then translated. “No. Go away. Ishkitini yvt chilika ka haklo li tuk. I heard the horned owl screech.” He shivered.

 

“The horned owl?” Roy was curious.

 

“Among the Choctaw, owls are considered an omen of a coming death. The screech of a horned owl foretells a sudden death, like… like a murder or an accident.” Johnny looked to his friend, anguish filling his eyes. “I can’t lose her, Roy. Not before I even get to see her again. I have to find her.”

 

Roy wasn’t sure how to respond, but he gave Johnny’s arm a comforting squeeze and fished for the right words. “We will find her. It was a dream, that’s all. Most likely it’s just the worry gettin’ to ya.”

 

Johnny swallowed hard. “I sure hope you’re right, Roy.” He stifled another yawn, then reached for the door handle. “Come on. Forget sleep. I’m goin’ in with you.”

*******

 

Dixie looked up from her work at the nurses’ station to see Johnny and Roy approaching side by side. “Now,” she said with a tired smile, “there’s a sight for sore eyes. It isn’t often the two of you come in together these days. I miss it.”

 

“Hi, Dix.” Johnny grinned, but Dixie’s practiced eye could see that his color was off and the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I thought you would’ve headed home by now. Weren’t you on day-shift? You were already well into overtime before I left.”

 

“Well, yes,” she conceded, innocently blinking her green eyes at him, “but maybe I stayed for the sake of a friend. Joe said you were pretty shaken up about Billy Folsom, and I wanted to give you the news myself. Billy’s up in ICU. Joe determined that no surgery was necessary, just careful monitoring. The fracture should heal on its own. Did you find his sister? Joe didn’t want to leave without talking to her. He said I should get him when you come back.”

 

Johnny shook his head. “Sorry, Dix. She’s missing. We found evidence that she was at the same house where Billy was injured, but she wasn’t found in the house and no one knows where she went from there. I wish we could talk to Billy, though it’s a fair guess he won’t remember much of anything from the fire. What about Mr. Lansing? Vince Howard said he was talkin’ about someone trapped inside.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Dixie watched his face fall and wished she didn’t have to tell him no. “Kel left strict orders that Mr. Lansing was to be kept sedated through the night. You won’t be able to talk with him until morning.”

 

“Did his son ever show up?” Roy asked.

 

Dixie sighed heavily, glancing at Johnny again as she answered Roy’s question. “No, he didn’t.” She could see that something about this case had hit Johnny hard, and sensed that it went beyond one of his men being injured.

 

When Johnny slammed a fist on the counter in frustration, Dixie stepped back, startled. “Now, Johnny,” she scolded gently as she stepped around the counter and placed a hand on his back. “Come on. I’d offer you a cup of coffee, but you look like you need sleep more than caffeine. I’m going to get Joe.”

 

“Thanks, Dix, but I don’t need sleep, and I’m not goin’ home. Coffee’ll do just fine,” Johnny said stubbornly.

 

For the moment, she chose not to argue. Johnny had been one of her favorite paramedics before his promotion to captain—Roy was her other favorite—and she still felt a strong sense of responsibility for him. She also knew him better than he realized. Unless she missed her guess, Johnny felt something special for his linesman’s missing sister. “I’m going to get Joe. Roy, see if you can convince him to sit down,” she ordered.

 

“Yes’m, Dix,” Roy agreed. Taking Johnny by the elbow, he guided him to the lobby.

*******

 

As soon as Dixie disappeared down the hall, Johnny pulled his arm out of Roy’s grip and began pacing the same circuit Chet had walked just hours before. “Forget it, Roy,” he growled. “I’m not sittin’ down and I’m not goin’ to sleep. If I do, that damned owl will just show up again. If I keep movin’, I can stay awake.”

 

A moment later, Dr. Early came toward them, Dixie at his side. “What’s up, Johnny?” he asked. “Looks like you’ve had a rough few hours since I saw you last.”

 

“Ask Roy,” Johnny said sharply. He instantly regretted it. His father’s admonition from decades before floated through his mind. A true man masters his emotions instead of being mastered by them. Over the last couple of days, he had in several instances allowed his feelings to get the better of him, and because of it, he had just spoken crossly to two people he greatly admired. He took a deep breath and brought his emotions under control. When he spoke again, his tone was contrite. “I’m sorry, Doc… Dixie. It’s not your fault. Just… let Roy explain, please. He can tell you whatever he thinks you need to know. I’m all wrung out. I’m goin’ to the lounge for some coffee. Come get me when you’re done.”

*******

 

Roy hoped that, by the time he finished explaining the situation and how it related to Johnny’s past, exhaustion might take the upper hand and they would find Johnny asleep on the sofa in the lounge. “This is really gettin’ to him, Doc,” he said after he finished the story. “He needs sleep, but now he’s havin’ nightmares. He had one in my truck, and when he woke up, it looked like he was havin’ a panic attack.”

 

Joe’s eyes caught Dixie’s. “He needs a good talking to, I think,” he said, a smile quirking up the corners of his mouth. “And that’s your area, Dix.”

 

“You have been known to dish out a good lecture when it was needed, Joe. Remember Nurse Graves?” Dixie raised an eyebrow, and Joe winced at the reminder of the hostile nurse who had worked at Rampart years before.

 

“I’d rather not,” he said with a wry grin. “What Johnny needs is a good dose of Dixie-style mothering. While you’re at it, get some fluids in him. After all that throwing up, he’s bound to need them.”

 

“He does tend to listen to you, Dix, when he won’t listen to anyone else,” Roy agreed.

 

“That’s because I outmatch him in sheer stubbornness,” Dixie quipped. “You fellows stay here. I’ll be in the lounge.”

*******

 

When Dixie entered the lounge, she found Johnny pacing, a cup of coffee steaming in his hands. She took hold of his arm, led him to the sofa, and made him sit, then plucked the cup of coffee away before he could resist. Then she took a glass from the cabinet, filled it with water, and gave it to him. “Like I said earlier, Johnny Gage, you need sleep more than you need caffeine. Now drink that—doctor’s orders.”

 

“I’m not tired, Dix.” Johnny yawned in spite of himself, and Dixie rolled her eyes. “All right, all right… I’m wiped out,” he admitted, “but I can’t sleep, and if Roy told you everything, you know why.” He drained the glass and handed it back to Dixie, who refilled it and handed it right back.

 

“He did tell me everything,” she confirmed. Placing a hand on his arm, she fastened her caring eyes on his. “I know you’re worried, Johnny. All these years, you’ve carried this girl in your heart and you’re afraid of what might happen to her. But you can’t help her if you push yourself to the point of collapse.

 

“I’ll just have more nightmares,” Johnny protested.

 

“Maybe,” Dixie said. “But Johnny, think of this—you were seasick and throwing up, so possibly a bit dehydrated, and you haven’t eaten properly since breakfast so your blood sugar is probably low. Combine that your anxiety over Nita and her brother, and it’s no wonder you’re having nightmares. We need to get some more fluids and some nutrients into you. Then you should be able to sleep better.”

 

Johnny breathed out heavily. “I suppose you’re right,” he agreed. “But I’m not leavin’ till I talk with Vince.”

 

“Fair enough.” Dixie refilled his water glass once more, then moved to the refrigerator. In a drawer at the bottom were several apples. She took one, then pulled out a Tupperware container with her name on it and a jug of milk. In short order, with the help of the microwave Kel and Joe had bought for the lounge the previous Christmas, she had prepared a bowl of oatmeal topped with apple slices and cinnamon. She set it on the table, along with a mug of warm milk. “Your color looks better already,” she commented. “Now come over here and eat. I’ll go see if Vince is here yet. Then I’m going home—it’s long past my bedtime. I’m counting on you to keep your promise.”

 

“Thanks, Dix,” Johnny said, and he dug in. “I will.”

*******

 

Just as Johnny finished his bowl of oatmeal, the door creaked open and Roy and Vince stepped into the lounge. Roy sat down next to his best friend and reached for his wrist. With an exasperated sigh, Johnny pulled his hand away. “Stop mother-hennin’ me. I’m all right.” He turned toward Vince and leaned forward in his chair. “What have you found out?”

 

Vince had been watching Roy with a bemused grin. “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, can you, Roy?” At Johnny’s look of disgust, he pulled out a small notepad and riffled through it till he found the page he wanted. “This is an active investigation,” he began, “so there’s a lot I can’t tell you. But here’s what I can share. Jerome Lansing owns a luxury car lot over in Long Beach. He started out in Denver about a decade ago, but moved his operation to the West Coast in 1978. His record is clean—not even a parking ticket—but I’d like to do a bit more digging into his time in Colorado. His mother, Sarah Lansing, died about five months ago. According to the coroner’s report, she fell from a stepstool and hit her head while home alone. By the time Jerome and his father returned and called for help, it was too late.” He stopped to draw in a deep breath, then dropped his voice to a lower tone even though no one else was around to overhear. “I shouldn’t be telling you this yet, but by morning it will hit the news, and I’d rather you hear it from me. We suspect that the fire at the Lansing house was arson. Based on the reports from 110’s and 105’s crews, it seems that the fire started at the stove—as Jerome Lansing indicated—but an accelerant was used to quicken the spread of the flames.”

 

Johnny just stared, speechless for a long moment. He and Roy had both lost friends due to firebugs. A wave of anger surged through him at the thought that Billy’s and Jake’s injuries were caused by an arsonist. “Do you think it was the son?” he finally asked.

 

“I’m not prepared to make that guess. The arson investigator is still working through the scene. Whoever did it was no expert, that’s for sure. The job was real sloppy—evidence left all over the scene.” Vince stood and gave Johnny a hard look. “All right, John. I’ve given you all the information I can. You need to go home, get some sleep, and let me do my job,” he insisted. “You have my promise, this will not get pushed to the back burner. We will find Nita Folsom.”

 

“Junior, you promised Dixie,” Roy reminded him when his only response to Vince was a groan and an exaggerated eye roll. “I’ll take you home and sack out in your guest room—I talked to Joanne while you were talkin’ with Dixie. She finally got DJ to fall asleep on our bed and would rather I not come in and wake him up, anyway. We’ll come back here first thing in the morning and see if Billy is awake.”

 

Johnny knew when he was beaten. “Fine,” he said, throwing up his hands in surrender. “But Vince, if you learn anything more, I want you to—”

 

“To call you. Don’t worry. I will. Now go.” Vince shooed them both out of the lounge.

*******

 

Less than 20 minutes later, the two fire captains were climbing the stairs to Johnny’s second floor apartment. Roy ventured for a moment into the bathroom, while Johnny turned on the TV at low volume, slid a VHS tape into the VCR, and stretched out on the sofa. He’d splurged on the device shortly after he first saw them in a store display, thinking back to the time when a response had made him miss the crucial part of an Adam-12 show, and then he missed the rerun months later for the same reason. This tape held a week’s worth of Star Trek reruns.

 

“Space, the final frontier,” intoned Captain Kirk’s voice. Johnny watched as the Starship Enterprise zipped across the screen, but his eyes were too heavy now to stay open much longer. Against his will, they drooped to half-mast, and then closed. Before Kirk’s brief monologue ended with, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” John Gage was sound asleep at last.

 

Roy watched him for a moment from the guest room door, then pulled the door closed and put himself to bed as well.

*******

 

Nita woke with a start. Light had just barely begun to filter in through the warehouse windows, and the haunting call of sea birds drifted in. She listened with longing, vaguely wishing that she had wings to carry her up and out of this prison and back home where she could embrace her brother and rest securely. A door somewhere out of her line of sight creaked open, and she snapped her eyes shut, willing herself to breathe slowly, evenly, hopeful that whoever was coming might think her asleep.

 

At least two sets of clomping footsteps made their way to where the captives lay silently dreading whatever was coming next. “Those five go out today, with the shipment to Mexico,” a gravelly male voice said, enunciating each word carefully, as if English were not his first language, though the only accent Nita could discern was a pronounced southern drawl. “The rest are marked for Paris. The boss will take them out on the skiff tonight and rendezvous with Zeke. He’s got to lay low for a while.”

 

“Way I hear it,” said another voice—this one nasal and higher pitched, “his old man wouldn’t shut up last night, got the pigs askin’ questions.”

 

“Shaddap, you idiots!” Nita recognized this voice, and it sent chills through her. It used the same sharp edge it had when telling her to learn her place. “Can the chatter and get the girls ready to go.”

 

Nita could feel the air move as the men’s legs strode amongst the captives. Her whole body tensed as a pair of those legs stopped next to her. The man knelt and his hand caressed her cheek. In one fluid motion, he put the hand under her back and pulled her upward. She wanted to retch as she felt his unshaven cheek brush against hers.

 

“Maybe I’ll keep you for myself, my savage beauty,” he breathed in her ear. The hard edge to his voice was gone, replaced by smooth silk. “Come on, girl… I know you’re awake. Let me see those doe eyes.”

 

She squeezed her eyes tight, the one act of rebellion she could accomplish, trussed up as she was. It earned her a vicious shake. Then he ripped a strip of duct tape off her mouth, and her eyes popped open at the burning sensation as the adhesive pulled away from her skin. Jerome Lansing’s face filled her vision and he forced his lips hard against hers. As his tongue pushed its way into her mouth, she reacted instinctively, biting down as hard as she could. The coppery taste of blood made her want to gag, but, coupled with his strangled scream as he struggled to push her away, it also filled her with a deep satisfaction. She barely felt the stinging blow that forced her to unclamp her teeth, and the first thing she did when she found herself staring into his eyes was to spit his blood right in his face.

 

“‘Amn… ‘quaw…” he slurred, staring at her in shock as blood dripped from his gaping mouth.

 

Nita vaguely wondered where his cohorts were now. She could not see anyone else, and they weren’t saying a word. Were they standing off to the side, gawking like spectators at a stickball match? “Hattak okpulo! [wicked man],” she spat out.

 

With an angry gesture, he beckoned to his assistants. “Hel’ me, you i’io’sh!” he ordered, but his bark had lost its bite.

 

Nita watched as two men moved into view. She studied them carefully, committing each detail to memory. If she could manage to get free at some point, she wanted to

know how to describe each of them. Both were shorter than their employer, one by only a few inches and the other by a full head. The taller one, whom she judged to be about 25, wore a blue Dodgers ball cap, and wisps of red hair stuck out from under it. What she could see of his pale face was covered with freckles. His dark grey jacket was emblazoned with the words “Lansing’s Luxury Automobiles” on the right breast pocket. The shorter man, clearly older than either Jerome or the Dodgers fan, was a thickset fellow with a head of salt and pepper hair that he wore tied back. It hung to the middle of his back. His face—as dark as her own—was marred by a scar that stretched down his right cheek from temple to chin. His jacket matched the other man’s, but he wore a broad-brimmed black cowboy hat with a turquoise-studded hat band. His right hand gripped the handle of an ornately carved cane. When he glanced her way for just an instant, Nita thought she saw a spark of approval in his hazel eyes. Was she imagining it? Or had she found a potential ally?

 

“Looks pretty bad, Boss,” the Dodgers fan whined as he peered into Jerome’s mouth, then offered a grimy handkerchief from his pocket. “Prolly needs stitches.”

 

The cowboy yanked the handkerchief away before it could actually end up in Jerome’s mouth. “That will only make things worse,” he drawled. “It’s filthy!” He produced a clean handkerchief from his own pocket. “Use this. You are lucky the little spitfire did not bite all the way through.” This observation earned him a glare from the boss. “She got you good! Jake, take him over to Rampart hospital and I’ll—”

 

“No!” That was the clearest word Jerome had spoken since his injury. “Nah Rampar’… S’ Francis…”

 

“St. Francis?” Jake scoffed. “It’s near twice as far!”

 

“S’ Francis!” Jerome insisted, but his bark now was anything but intimidating.

 

“Fine, St. Francis,” Jake agreed. “You’ll get the girls ready, Tex?”

 

“Of course. You go now.” Tex nodded towards the door, then stood silently watching as Jake led Jerome out of the warehouse. As soon as the door had closed, he turned to Nita.

 

“You are brave, like an ancient warrior woman,” he praised. He knelt beside her and gently inspected her bonds, then offered her some water from a canteen he carried at his belt. “Here… rinse and spit, then drink deep. I am sorry for what is happening to you. When the boss offered me bonus pay for extra work, I did not expect this. There is no honor in this.” His gaze swept across the group of hostages, and he raised his voice so they all could hear him. “I will do everything I can to help you,” he promised. “You have my word.”

 

“Thank you,” Nita whispered. “Please… my brother, Billy Folsom… he’s a fireman… Station 51 in Carson. My name… is Nita.”

 

He nodded. “As soon as I can, I will get word to his station. I am sorry, but I have to give you this now. If I do not, the boss will know.” He pulled up her sleeve and she felt the sharp sting of a needle poking into her arm. A sensation of warmth flowed into her veins. Her last conscious memory was of Tex gently tracing a cross on her forehead as he whispered, “Que Dios te bendiga.” [May God bless you.]

*******

Chapter 8

 

Billy stood under the beating sun at the old well out back of Anki’s ramshackle house. His throat and mouth were parched and he longed for a drink of cold water, so he grasped the pump handle. In spite of the hot sun, the iron felt cool under his hand. He lifted the handle and pushed it down, then repeated the action several times, expecting water to flow, first in fits and starts, then a steady stream that would create a puddle of mud at his feet. As a small child, he would shriek with laughter and stamp his bare feet in the mud, ignoring his sister’s scolding. He tried to laugh at the memory, but his mouth was too dry. He looked down at the spigot and pumped the handle again, but nothing happened. His bare toes and the dust that covered them remained dry. A hard voice spoke behind him. “Why have you come, Ishkivbi?” It was a voice he had heard many times in his life, but never before had it been directed at him. Never in his memory had it called him by such a shameful name, though he had seen the accusation in those cold, distant eyes, and he knew the name had been spoken over him at his birth: Ishkivbi—He Kills His Mother. He pivoted in place and looked up to see Anki looming over him, larger than life. “I asked you a question, Boy. Why are you here?” In Anki’s shadow was a gravestone with Svshki’s name engraved upon it.

 

He opened his mouth to answer, but found he could not force words past his lips. He wasn’t even sure what he would say if he could speak. Why was he here? The last thing he remembered, he… well… he wasn’t sure, but he knew he hadn’t been here and he knew that Anki couldn’t really be here either. Anki was dead. I am dreaming, he thought suddenly. The evidence for it was strong—the cool pump handle, his childhood home, Svshki’s grave close to the house instead of in the churchyard, his dead father’s presence… My shilombish has brought me here, but why? he thought. He did not want to be here, under the hard glare of the father who seemed to hate him as much in death as he had in life. He could feel the icy grip of anger tightening around his heart as he looked up at the man who had sired him but had never been a father to him. He wanted to yell and scream, to proclaim his innocence in his mother’s death and at the same time beg forgiveness. All his life, he had wanted nothing more than for his father to love him. His sister’s love had been good and true and had helped him grow into the man he was proud to be, but always he had felt the lack of what he wanted most—a father who would look on him with pride and say, “This is my son.”

 

Johnny slipped into Billy’s hospital room about 9:30 in the morning. He had hoped to find his lineman conscious and breathing on his own, but the young man was sleeping, the ventilator still in place. His right arm and shoulder had been immobilized, “Hi, Billy,” Johnny said as he settled into the hard plastic chair next to the bed. “About time you started wakin’ up, ya know.” He grasped Billy’s hand and squeezed it, but got no response.

 

Billy could not speak. He could only stare into Anki’s eyes. “Silence has power,” Amafo had once told him, when Billy had been a chatterbox little boy whose many questions threatened to scare away the rabbits they hunted for the stew pot. He felt that power working in him now. After a long moment, his anger melted into compassion like winter snow giving way to the warmth of spring, and a new sensation began to blossom within him. Sappokni had told him once that when Anki pushed away all those who would help him heal from his grief over Svshki’s death, the Impa Shilup had crept inside him and devoured his soul, leaving him nothing more than an empty husk, still walking and breathing but not truly alive. The harsh words that assailed Billy now came from that withered husk, not from the real Matthew Folsom, who had died long before his body succumbed to a bout with pneumonia. Now Billy recognized the being that towered menacingly over him as his father’s shilup and he knew it had not really been devoured, but was lost and broken, wandering without rest.

 

He felt his lips and tongue freed from their silence and he knew the words he needed to speak—he understood why he was here. Fearless, he took a step closer to the shilup. “Chi hullo li, Anki,” he said softly. The shilup seemed to shrink before him. “Chi hullo li,” he repeated, and it shrank even more. He continued saying the words, moving a step closer with each repetition. By the time he stood directly in front of the shilup, it reached his father’s proper height, a head shorter than the son. Billy put a hand on the shilup’s shoulder, only mildly surprised when his palm met with substance instead of passing through a ghostly being. “Chi hullo li,” he said one last time. “Is-san kashoffachin ho?” He knew he had done no wrong, and yet his entrance into the world had brought upon his father a terrible loss, and something in him sensed that the shilup needed to forgive him to bring an end to its miserable wandering. The shilup stared at him, and Billy’s heart ached at the sorrow in the dark eyes. Then the father’s arms opened wide and pulled the son into a firm embrace. Tears flooded Billy’s eyes and streamed down his cheeks as he returned the embrace, and it took a moment for the shilup’s whispered words to make sense to him. “Svso, chi hullo li. Is-san kashoffachin ho?”

 

Johnny had been sitting by Billy’s bed for about half an hour. He had rattled on for the first fifteen minutes, trying to keep things positive in spite of his worry over Nita, but then had trailed into silence as he ran out of things to say. Beeping from the heart monitor alerted him that Billy’s heart rate was suddenly elevated, and he looked up to see tears seeping from under the young man’s closed eyelids, tracing the line of his cheekbones and leaving a shine of moisture in his thick black hair. “Billy?” he asked, standing up and leaning over the bed. “Come on, Billy. Open those eyes. Wake up now.” He gently wiped at the tears with his thumb, then pressed the call button.

 

“Ome, Anki,” Billy answered through his tears. “Chi kashoffi li.” He gripped his father tighter for a long moment, and then stepped back and rubbed his arm across his eyes to dry them with his sleeve.

 

When he looked again, he saw the figure of a woman rising up from the grave at Anki’s feet. She looked very much like Nita, but she appeared both ancient and youthful at the same time. She gazed at Billy and smiled warmly at him, then stepped close and cupped his chin in her hand. “Yakoke, Svso,” she said softly, her eyes glowing with love. She kissed him on the forehead, then stepped back and took Anki by the arm. “Chi hohchifo-yvt Nanaiyachi,” she said, her voice tugging at him like the gentle strains of his grandfather’s flute. “Chi hullo li.” Then she guided Anki away. Together the two shilup walked towards the woods, fading from sight before they ever stepped within the line of trees.

 

Suddenly Billy felt a pleasantly cool sensation on his feet and he looked down to find himself by the pump again, water flowing freely from the spigot. His heart light, he squished his toes in the mud and leaned down to cup his hands under the stream and catch himself a refreshing drink. When he had quenched his thirst, he walked to his favorite elm tree and sat down on the grass in its shade, his back leaned up against the trunk. Just as he was about to close his eyes, he noticed a grey wolf sitting on its haunches across the clearing, watching him intently. He could not explain why, but the wolf’s presence gave him a sense of security. He let his eyes droop shut and drifted off to sleep to the song of a redbird hidden somewhere among the branches.

 

By the time Dr. Early, summoned by the nurse who answered Johnny’s page, arrived, the heart monitor’s steady beeping had slowed once again. The doctor squeezed Billy’s left hand and received a light squeeze in return. “Come on, Billy,” he said near the young man’s ear. “Time to wake up. Open your eyes.” Billy did not obey, but he pulled his left hand free and snaked it toward the breathing tube.

 

Dr. Early intercepted the hand before it could attempt to dislodge the apparatus. “Leave it alone, Billy. You’re at Rampart. You’re going to be all right.”

*******

 

As the hum of voices and the beeping and buzz of some sort of machinery grew louder, the scene of Billy’s childhood home began to fade. He tried to make out what the voices were saying, but the pain throbbing at the base of his skull and wrapping like a tight band around his head made it difficult for him to work out the meaning. Where was he? What had happened? He could not remember and it hurt too much to try and he wished the voices would just be quiet and go away. Why couldn’t he move his head, and why was his mouth so dry again suddenly? He could not move his right arm—something had it strapped down—but he felt the warmth of fingers wrapping around his left hand and squeezing. He wanted to ask what was happening, but whatever was stuck in his mouth prevented him from speaking. He had to get it out. His hand pulled free of the fingers and wandered toward his mouth, but was stopped before it got there. Finally, he blinked open his eyes and squinted at the faces above him—a concerned white-haired Nahullo clad in a lab coat and a dark-haired man whose face Billy knew well—he had looked at that face, staring out at him from a newspaper photograph, hundreds of times over the last decade. Nashoba, he thought, and an image of the grey wolf guarding him in his dream flashed through his mind. Another name hovered at the edge of his memory, but Nashoba would do.

 

The Nahullo alikchi spoke again, and Billy fastened his gaze on that man’s face, as if watching intently would help the words convey meaning. The voice was soothing, patient, and kind, but the words made no sense to him. He shifted his eyes to Nashoba, silently pleading for help.

*******

 

“Johnny,” Dr. Early said, after observing Billy for a moment, “I think he’s having some trouble with comprehension. I’d like you to try something.”

“Sure, Doc,” Johnny agreed, curious.

 

“Speak to him in Choctaw. Ask him to squeeze your hand.”

 

These days, Johnny understood Choctaw better than he spoke it. He hadn’t used the language regularly since moving out of Aunt Taloa’s home over a decade ago, but he trusted Dr. Early’s instincts. “If you say so, Doc.” He wrapped his long fingers around Billy’s hand. “Halito, Billy,” he said, then translated Dr. Early’s instructions. Billy responded with a light squeeze, and Johnny grinned and nodded at the doctor. “He understood. I don’t get it, though—Billy speaks English just fine.”

 

“He’s suffered a severe concussion and a skull fracture,” Dr. Early said. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for him to struggle with an acquired language temporarily. As the swelling goes down, most likely his command of English will return. Now, I’ll talk to him and you translate. Billy, I’m Dr. Joe Early. I know you’re uncomfortable, but you’re going to be just fine. I’m about to remove your breathing tube.” He outlined the procedure briefly, pausing every so often to allow Johnny to render his words into Choctaw. It took some doing, as Johnny wasn’t sure how to translate most of the medical terms, but he did his best. When they were sure Billy understood, Dr. Early removed the tape that held the tube in place, instructed his patient to take a deep breath and cough, and then pulled out the tube.

 

“Achukma,” Johnny soothed. “Achukma.” He brought a glass of water, placed the straw in Billy’s mouth, and encouraged him to drink.

 

“Sv nushkobo yvt hotupa,” Billy rasped out after Johnny had moved the glass away.

 

“I’m not surprised,” Dr. Early said, when Johnny had explained that Billy said his head hurt. “The nurse will be here in just a few minutes to give you some pain medication. But first, I need you to answer some questions for me. Can you tell me your name?”

 

“Chihohchifo-yvt nanta?” Johnny asked.

 

“Nanaiyachi,” Billy responded.

 

Johnny looked up at Dr. Early. “It means Peacemaker. The name isn’t in his records, but my Choctaw name isn’t either.”

 

Dr. Early nodded. “Nanaiyachi, do you know where you are?”

 

Billy frowned at this question. “Abeka aiashachi?” he asked after a long moment of thought. His answer elicited a smile of encouragement from both Johnny and the doctor.

 

“Yes, you’re in the hospital. Do you know why you’re here?” Dr. Early continued prodding gently.

 

Billy offered a faint smile in reply. “Sv hotupa,” he answered, stating the obvious, then gestured for another sip of water. “Nashoba, katimi-ho ilvppa ish antta?” he asked when he had finished drinking.

 

“Why am I here?” As much as the question surprised Johnny, Billy’s use of his Choctaw name was what startled him most, and he struggled to respond. “Billy, what do you remem—” He caught himself and repeated the question in Choctaw.

 

Billy closed his eyes, and Johnny wasn’t sure if he was just thinking or drifting off to sleep again until he opened them a minute later and gave a slight shake of his head, followed by a wince of pain.

 

Over the next ten minutes, they established that Billy had lost several weeks’ worth of memories. In his mind, he was still Station 110’s Boot, looking forward to the end of his probation and assignment to a new station. He had asked about Johnny’s presence because he expected to find Captain Thomas or one of 110’s paramedics there instead. At last he asked the question Johnny dreaded. “Nita yvt katimma antta?”

 

“He wants to know where Nita is.” Johnny looked to Dr. Early for guidance before answering.

 

“She’ll come as soon as she can,” Dr. Early said calmly. 

 

Johnny fingered the wolf pendant in his pocket, carefully considering whether giving it to Billy now would cause him anxiety or comfort him. He decided to wait. He wished he could ask Billy all the questions he had in mind, but Dr. Early had warned him before allowing him in the room that he should not overwhelm Billy right now. But hope sparked within him that since Billy knew his Choctaw name, Nita must have spoken about him, and it could not have been anything negative or Billy would never have seemed so friendly when he first came to 51’s.

 

Further conversation was cut short by Dr. Early’s order that Billy needed his rest and by the arrival of the nurse with Billy’s pain medication. Johnny was allowed to stay until his young lineman’s eyes drifted closed in sleep again. He gave Billy’s hand one last gentle squeeze. “Chi pisa la chike, Billy,” he said softly, then left the room.

*******

 

While Johnny sat with Billy, Roy and Vince visited Edgar Lansing. When they entered the hospital room, the elderly gentleman was semi-conscious at best and gave no indication that he noticed his visitors. His head bandaged, he lay in his bed, mumbling incoherently, his eyes at half-mast. Roy sat down next to the bed and wrapped his hand around the old man’s. Suddenly, Lansing’s eyes flew wide open and his hand gripped Roy’s with surprising strength. “He killed my Sarah,” he said, his voice wavering slightly, but perfectly clear.

 

“Who, Mr. Lansing?” Roy asked. Vince leaned in, listening intently.

 

Mr. Lansing did not seem to hear the question. “Sarah knew... the girls… found his papers, confronted him. He was angry… took the papers… pushed her hard.” He made no effort to blink back the tears that filled his eyes. “Dear God, she lay so still. His own mother… he didn’t even care.” He looked up at his visitors now, his eyes latching with Roy’s. “Please… help Nita. Don’t let him hurt Nita. Find… Sarah’s lockbox… it’s all… th—” His eyes widened suddenly and he clutched at his chest.

 

Roy sprang instantly into action. “Get a doctor!” he shouted at Vince, about the same time that his thumb pressed the call button to summon the floor nurse.

 

By the time Dr. Brackett and Dixie arrived, Roy was performing chest compressions while the floor nurse charged the defibrillator. Vince stood back out of the way, watching and whispering the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Everyone worked quickly and efficiently, following Dr. Brackett’s clipped orders in hopes of saving this patient, but in the end, none of their efforts made any difference. After 30 minutes and three defibrillations, Brackett reluctantly conceded defeat. “Time of death, 9:43.” He busied himself switching off and disconnecting the various monitors. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath.

 

Her green eyes brimming with tears, Dixie stepped up next to him and put an arm around his waist. “Still a sore loser, aren’t you, Kel?” she asked softly. “Come on. Carol can handle this. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

 

Roy and Vince watched silently as Rampart Emergency’s senior doctor and nurse stepped out of the room. Vince clapped Roy on the back. “Come on,” he said solemnly. “Let’s go find Johnny.”

*******

 

Captain Mike Stoker eased into his desk chair. C-Shift’s squad had been called out twice already since roll call, but the engine crew had enjoyed a quiet morning. He was not about to tempt fate by commenting on it or consciously wishing the lull would continue. Instead he busied himself with paperwork while his men went about their chores. As soon as the squad returned, he would run some hose drills. His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. “Station 51,” he answered, “Captain Mike Stoker speaking.”

 

“Captain Stoker,” a voice said. Mike couldn’t quite place the accent. “I have an urgent message for fireman Billy Folsom. Is he there?”

 

Mike frowned. He recognized the name of Johnny’s newest man, and had heard something about him being injured in a fire while working overtime, but of course he could not give that information to a stranger. “I’m sorry. Billy doesn’t work my shift. I can relay a message to his captain, though, who will pass it on to him.”

 

He could hear the frustration in the caller’s voice. “This is very important. His sister Nita’s life is at stake—many lives are at stake. I promised her I would help. Please, listen carefully.”

 

Mike listened, and as the voice spelled out the situation, he felt as if a pile of rocks had settled in his gut. He wished he could believe it was nothing more than a hoax, someone’s idea of a sick joke, but his gift of discernment, honed by long years of careful listening and observation, told him that this man, whoever he was, spoke the absolute truth. By the time the caller grew silent, Mike was sitting on the edge of his seat, the handset pressed to his ear in a white-knuckled grip.

 

“Do you understand, Captain Mike Stoker?” the voice asked. “Will you help?”

 

“Absolutely,” Mike promised. “I’ll contact Billy’s cap—”

 

An angry shout and then a sharp crack sounded over the phone line, cutting Mike off. Then he heard a click and the connection was lost. He stared at the handset, desperate to know what had happened, but only for a few seconds. As soon as he could get a dial tone, he dialed Johnny’s number. Next he called Roy’s number, thinking maybe Johnny was having breakfast with the DeSoto family. Finally, with Joanne’s direction, he dialed Rampart Emergency. “Hello, Dixie?” he said when he heard the familiar voice on the other end of the line. “Mike Stoker here. I’m told John Gage is there visiting an injured crewman. Could I speak with him please? It’s an emergency.”

 

Chapter 9

 

“Tex! What the hell have you done?!” The angry shout took Tex by surprise, drawing his eyes to the office doorway where Eddie Fry stood, his right hand stretched out, finger on the trigger of his Smith & Wesson .38. Eddie, who had been keeping an eye on the girls, was just a pimple-faced kid, no more than 18, and Tex was pretty sure he had never actually shot anyone. He practically worshipped the ground Jerome walked on because the man paid him well in alcohol and drugs. His face was pale, his eyes wild, and a trickle of sweat rolled down his cheek and dripped off his chin. Tex dropped the handset just as Eddie fired his first shot; thankfully, his aim was off—instead of hitting its intended target, the bullet shattered the phone, effectively ending the call. The nervous kid got off a second shot almost immediately, and this one snagged Tex on the right side as he rushed his assailant.

 

Ignoring the burning pain, Tex slapped the flat of his left hand against Eddie’s shooting arm, sending the third shot into the ceiling. He swung his elbow into the kid’s face, breaking his nose, then wrapped his right hand around the cylinder of the gun and gave it a hard twist, taking possession of the weapon and snapping Eddie’s trigger finger in one swift movement. Then he raised the butt end of the revolver and slammed it hard into his temple. Eddie gasped in pain and sank to the floor, unconscious. “Que Dios me perdone,” Tex whispered as he tied the kid up with a coil of rope from the supply Jerome kept in the office. His newly-acquired .38 at the ready, he quietly closed and locked the office door, turned off the lights, and slipped into hiding behind Jerome’s Indian rosewood desk. Any minute now, he knew one (or more) of Jerome’s guards would come to investigate the gunfire, but for this moment he was alone and could work out a plan of escape.  

 

Of all the guards he knew patrolled outside the warehouse, Tex figured it would be Alfie or Pug who came looking for action—or more likely the two together, as they were practically joined at the hip. Neither was a good shot, and both lacked the fighting experience Tex had gained from his father’s training and several hard knock years in a Mexican prison. While he waited, he gingerly removed his jacket and shirt and assessed the wound in his side. At first he’d thought the bullet had barely grazed him. Now he could see he was hurt worse than he had realized, though he was fairly certain the bullet hadn’t struck anything vital. He pulled open the desk drawers, sighing in relief at the sight of an old first aid kit. Inside were gauze pads, medical tape, and iodine. Gritting his teeth, he liberally doused the entry and exit wounds with the iodine, then securely bandaged himself. He shrugged back into his jacket just as someone began pounding on the heavy oak door.

 

“Open up!” a voice ordered—Pug’s, Tex thought. “I know you’re in there!” The muscular thug with the squashed and wrinkled face was a despicable sycophant, desperate for Jerome’s approval and willing to do anything to get it. Eddie had hesitated to kill, but Pug would not. Still, Tex was sure that Pug’s over eager nature would eventually work against him—and he hoped it would be now. Of course, he was not about to open the door. He would bide his time here in the safety of his hiding place until Pug found his own way in, and then he would be ready to defend himself. The small office was dimly lit, but sunlight filtered through a window set high on the western wall. Tex positioned himself so that his body cast a shadow on the wall opposite the window.

 

He flinched at the sound of a gunshot—his adversary must be shooting at the lock. The boss would not be happy when he returned to find such destruction, but Tex didn’t care about that. Right now, all he cared about was getting out alive and bringing back help for the women who lay sleeping in the big storeroom. If only Eddie had not interrupted him before he had been able to give Captain Stoker all the necessary information… but he could not let himself think that way. Father had long ago told him that it was useless to dwell on the if-onlies, rather than focusing on what was and what could be.

 

A second shot rang out, and Tex heard a muffled curse and then a third shot before the door creaked open. Amateur, he scoffed silently. Three shots to open the door, means he only has three left. He hefted the .38. He also had three shots. He would have to use them wisely. Peering out from the safety of his hiding place, he watched Pug step through the door, his finger already on the trigger of his .44 Magnum, and stumble over Eddie’s unconscious form. Barely managing to keep his balance, Pug accidentally fired his fourth shot into the wall.

 

I almost feel bad about fighting this guy, Tex thought. He waved the .38 slightly, and as he expected, the movement of his shadow on the wall caught Pug’s attention. Pug lifted his gun and fired without thinking. Shooting at shadows, Pug. Brilliant. One shot left. Tex shook his head, but took no further time to reflect on his opponent’s shoddy technique. Pug quickly used up his ammunition, shooting at the desk, having belatedly figured out where the body casting the shadow must be. The bullet sank into the rosewood, releasing a sweet-smelling dust, and emerged mere centimeters from Tex’s head. The time had come now for Tex to leave his hiding place. He assessed his target with a well-practiced eye, burying his first slug in the man’s upper right arm. Pug dropped the gun with a curse and clapped his left hand to the wound. As Tex lined up his second shot, he no longer felt bad about this fight. He had sworn never again to kill a man, and he would not break that vow now, but he would feel no guilt at all about disabling Pug. A mere three seconds after his first shot, he fired the second, this bullet shattered Pug’s right kneecap, a debilitating but not fatal shot that would ensure he was out of the fight.

 

Alfie stood in the doorway behind Pug and gaped as his comrade fell moaning to the ground. When he saw Tex, he shook his head in disbelief. “You?!” he exclaimed, raising his gun in his left hand and training it on his target. Like Eddie, he hesitated, giving Tex the upper hand.

 

Tex didn’t take time to answer or explain. He simply aimed and shot, his target once again his opponent’s shooting arm. When Alfie had dropped his gun, Tex hurled his empty .38 through the air as hard as he could, catching the startled Italian right in the face. A powerful kick to the groin lifted Alfie off the ground. He hung suspended in the air for just an instant, his expression registering shock and extreme pain, and then slumped to the floor. Tex tied up Alfie and Pug and ensured that both were unconscious, then picked up Alfie’s discarded gun and tucked it in the waistband of his pants. He hoped to avoid using it, but he knew there was a good chance he would have to get past several more guards before he could reach the docks outside. He took his cane from where it stood in the corner by the door and limped silently out of the office.

 

Crafted almost a decade ago from white cedar, the cane was more for show than a necessity for him these days, helpful primarily when the weather turned damp and his stiffened left knee reminded him of his years in prison and the riot that almost crippled him. He had worked hard to recover his strength in that leg. The occasional ache and slight limp served as a reminder of what he had once been, and the cane assured that others would underestimate him, giving him an advantage should he find himself in a difficult situation. More than one hoodlum had learned the hard way that this unassuming gimpy old Injun was no easy mark. A close inspection of the ornately carved surface would reveal the instrument’s many battle scars. Over the years, Tex’s cane had served him well.

 

*******

 

With Chief Stanley’s permission, Captain Stoker stood down Engine 51 so that he could meet with Johnny, Roy, and Vince, who were on their way to the station from Rampart. Mike did not expect to see the Chief’s car turn into the lot just behind Vince’s squad car. When an unmarked police car also pulled in, Mike frowned. He knew and trusted Vince, but the information the caller had given made him leery of bringing in any other police. When Detective Ron Crockett stepped out of the vehicle, Mike relaxed slightly. He recognized the other detective and the lieutenant that had been driving, but he had never been formally introduced to them. Jim Reed and Pete Malloy were legendary in the police department, much like Roy and Johnny were among the paramedics even now. The two had begun riding together when Reed was a rookie, but promotions over the years had taken them their separate ways.

 

The captain’s office was too small to accommodate the meeting, so Mike got his crew busy on chores in the engine bay, dorm, and locker room, and the eight men settled in at the table in the living area. Mike couldn’t help but note the tension in Johnny’s body—his worried friend sat ramrod straight, dark shadows under his eyes and his long fingers anxiously drumming the tabletop.

 

Vince opened the discussion with a quick introduction of his colleagues, though the firemen had all met Crockett years ago. Ron leaned forward as he explained his interest in the case. “Vince asked Jim and me to come because we’ve been investigating a human trafficking ring. Lieutenant Malloy here has been working with us. Obviously, I’m limited in what I can reveal, but several young women recently hired for domestic work around the city have been reported missing after a few days on the job. In addition, we believe that a number of teenage girls reported as runaways may actually have been lured away by the promise of drugs or money.” He looked at Stoker. “Before I say more, I’d like you to explain the call Vince says you received.”

 

Mike took in a deep breath as he carefully considered his words. In spite of his usual reticence, he knew more than a few sentences were called for now. “About 10:00 this morning, I received a call from a man who had an urgent message for Billy Folsom, a new man on Gage’s shift. He said Billy’s sister, Nita, and several other women and girls are being held under heavy guard in a warehouse. Five are scheduled to be shipped out by truck to Mexico this afternoon, and tonight Nita and the others will be transported to a ship waiting in international waters—they’ll be sold to European buyers. A Jerome Lansing is in charge of the operation. Early this morning, he accosted Nita, but she fought back and managed to injure him.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ghost of a smile cross Johnny’s lips at this last news. “He was taken to the ER at St. Francis for stitches and has not returned to the warehouse since. The caller asked if I would help and I said absolutely. I think he was about to tell me the location of the warehouse, but then I heard shouting and a loud crack that sounded like a gunshot and the call disconnected.”

 

Crockett frowned. “Why did you call Johnny instead of contacting the police immediately?”

 

“The caller warned me about the police,” Mike explained. “Apparently, Lansing has several officers in his pay. They look the other way and sometimes turn over prostitutes they’ve picked up to him. I didn’t know whom to trust—except Vince here, because I know him, and Joanne DeSoto told me he was meeting Johnny and Roy at Rampart.”

 

Reed’s eyes flashed with anger. “This fits what we’ve suspected, Ron. I’ll bet I could name at least three of the officers involved.”

 

“We need to get a BOLO out on Lansing immediately,” Vince suggested.

 

Crockett shook his head. “No. With police officers in his pay, we run the risk that they’ll warn him or help him get away before we can get to him. Lieutenant, you know the doctors over at St. Francis—is there someone you trust implicitly on ER duty today?”

 

Malloy nodded. “Charley Fiske,” he said. “I’ll give him a call and ask him to check on whether Lansing is there, and if so, to delay him till I get there. With any luck, thanks to that pile up on the 105 this morning, he hasn’t even been seen yet. If he’s left already, I’ll check out the address he gave on his paperwork. Want to ride with me, Jim? It’ll be like old times.”

 

Reed glanced over at Crockett, who nodded his approval. “Go with Pete, Jim. We don’t want to miss a chance to get the bastard. If I learn anything more, I’ll fill you in back at the precinct.”

 

Jim nodded as he got to his feet and pushed his chair in under the table. “See you later, fellas,” he said. “Hopefully with good news.”

 

Through all of this discussion, Johnny had listened silently. As Reed and Malloy left, he pushed his chair out from the table and began pacing the room while Vince shared what had happened in Edgar Lansing’s hospital room.

 

“We need to find that lockbox,” Ron mused. “The documents inside might tell us where the women are. Vince, when we’re done here, I’d like you to drive me back to the precinct. Then you should head to the Lansing house and see what survived the fire. I’m going to see if the phone company can give us a location that the call came from.”

 

“Yessir,” Vince agreed.

 

Mike glanced at Johnny, who was still pacing, his hands tightly fisted and his mouth set in a grim line. “You all right, Gage?” Stoker asked. Johnny didn’t respond.

 

“Gage!” Crockett barked, and Johnny stopped where he was and turned toward the other five men, who were now staring at him in concern.

 

“I’m fine,” he said, but Stoker could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He’d watched Johnny go into plenty of dire situations to rescue a victim, but never had he seen it affect him like this. Billy’s sister must mean something to him. Stoker glanced at Roy and raised an eyebrow.

 

“Old girlfriend,” Roy mouthed in explanation and Mike nodded his understanding.

 

“I just…” Johnny started, then stopped. Finally, he sank onto the sofa and buried his head in his hands. He rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes, then looked up at his friends. “I feel useless,” he said. “Nita’s in trouble, and there’s nothing I can do to help her. I only just found out she was here and haven’t even gotten to see her yet and already I’ve—”

 

“Hold it right there, Pal,” Stanley ordered. “We are going to find her and the other women who are with her. We’re not going to let Lansing get away with doing anything more to them.”

 

The others all nodded their agreement.

 

“Johnny, you look wiped out,” Stoker said. “Why don’t you get some sleep in the dorm? As soon as we know anything, I’ll wake you up.”

 

“Thanks, Mike,” Johnny said, “but I need to keep busy.”

 

“Then go with Vince,” Crockett suggested. “Find that lockbox. Roy, I’d like you stay here and man the phone in case our informant is able to call back.”

 

“Sure,” Roy agreed.

 

On the way out, Stanley clapped Johnny on the back. “Hang in there, Pal.”

 

“Thanks, Chief.” Johnny sucked in a deep breath, glanced down at his shoes, then looked back up and faced his friends. “Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate it.”

 

*******

 

Every sense on high alert, Tex slipped behind a large crate just outside the office. Peeking around the corner, he could see the women at one end of the warehouse—unguarded now that Eddie had left his post—and at the other end, several rows of illegally imported luxury cars. Beyond those cars was the door closest to the docks. Tex closed his eyes and imagined the placement of the guards outside. If he remembered correctly, the north and south walls of the building were each covered by three guards, while the shorter east and west walls had two guards each. Pug and Alfie had been stationed along the west wall, facing the dock. At least that was in his favor... there were no other guards between the door and the dock, where at least three water craft were tied up. But Alfie or Pug would have alerted the others by radio that they were checking on a disturbance inside. When they didn’t sound the all-clear in a minute or two, Tex knew someone else would come inside to investigate. He had his own walkie-talkie, but without the proper codes, he would only draw more suspicion if he tried sounding the all-clear.

 

He had to get to that door and get out as quickly as possible. He hated the thought of leaving the captive women here, though no one would dare damage the boss’s “merchandise,” but he was certain his best chance of helping them lay in getting out of here and making his way to Station 51. And he had to do it quickly—a glance at his watch told him the time was now 10:30. At precisely 4:00 this afternoon, the women bound for Mexico would be sealed in the very crate that now concealed Tex from view. At 4:30, they would be loaded onto a truck and begin their journey into slavery.

 

“Dios, por favor me hace invisible,” he whispered as he stepped from his hiding place. His wounded side burned, and he found he needed the support of his cane more than usual. Moving as quickly as he could, he ducked between a pair of identical black Porsches just as the north door creaked open. North wall, he thought. That’s Quinn, Hoss, and El Grillo. Moving silently, he began making his way through the rows of cars, trying to keep himself low and out of sight, stopping every so often to listen carefully. Quinn, an expert hunter, could move quietly, but Hoss breathed in noisy snorts and El Grillo’s shoes always announced his presence with their loud squeaking. The silence told him Quinn was the one who’d entered the warehouse when the door opened. Quinn was good—he would not make a sound, even when he discovered the wounded guards—and he would sink his knife between Tex’s shoulder blades without remorse.

 

Just as the door opened again, Tex sucked in his gut and slid under a red Alfa Romeo Spider, taking care not to let his cane clatter on the ground. Now he heard El Grillo’s squeak and the low murmur of voices coming from over by the office. Hoss must have remained outside at his post, and the other two had found the injured guards. Most likely, Eddie, Pug, and Alfie were all still unconscious and would not be able to identify the culprit, but Quinn hated Tex and would be quick to suspect him.

 

The squeaky shoes headed back toward the door, which opened and closed again. A few seconds later, Quinn’s boots stepped into view next to Tex’s hiding place, stopped for a moment, then moved on to the black Rolls in the next row. Tex watched the feet until he judged himself safe to slither out again. He would have to act quickly. Crouching next to the Rolls, he crept towards the front bumper and peered around. Quinn was facing the opposite direction, bent down and gazing into the window of a sleek Mercedes Benz. Tex took five silent steps forward, then, in one quick movement, slid his cane across Quinn’s neck and caught him in a choke hold. He kept his grip tight until Quinn’s body went slack, then carefully lowered him to the floor. After he had appropriated the Ka-Bar knife Quinn had brought home from Vietnam, Tex opened the driver’s door of the Benz and pulled the lever to open the trunk. It was a struggle, hefting Quinn inside, but Tex managed it. He stood panting for breath for a moment once the trunk lid was closed, one hand pressed to the wound in his side. I have to keep going, he told himself. I have to get out of here before anyone else comes. Taking his cane, he limped toward the east door, no longer bothering to keep low and hidden. All that mattered now was speed.

 

Just as he cleared the last row of cars, the door swung open again and Hoss shouted. “Stop there!” Hoss didn’t carry a gun, but he was moving fast through the rows of cars with a tire iron in his right hand. There was nothing Tex could do but keep on going toward the door. His injury slowed him, though. He reached for the door handle, but Hoss caught up to him, grabbed his arm, and swung him around, aiming the tire iron for the side of his head. Instinctively, Tex raised his cane to block the strike. The cane shattered, but at least it had deflected the blow.

 

The tire iron came back, aimed at his neck this time, but Tex managed to shrug his left shoulder upward to block it. On impact, he heard a loud crack and a white hot pain seared through him as he fell. He watched from the ground as Hoss prepared to swing the tire iron one more time. “Dios, ayúdame!” Tex cried out and, gritting his teeth against the pain, he gathered all his strength into one powerful kick to Hoss’s left knee. Next thing Tex knew, Hoss was tumbling backwards as the tire iron clattered to the ground. The hefty guard struck his head hard on the running board of the boss’s prize 1935 Aston Martin, then slumped to the floor and lay still.

 

Once he managed to catch his breath, Tex used his uninjured right arm to pull himself into a sitting position. He fought waves of dizziness, but after a moment of deep breathing, his stomach finally settled and he was able to stand. His eyes settled briefly on the broken shards of white cedar at his feet. The cane had served him well, but he was not sorry to see it go—it represented a past he hoped someday to be free of forever. Whispering a prayer that he would make it to the boats without any further altercations, he slipped through the door into the bright sunlight. As he had hoped, the east side of the building was completely unguarded.

 

In spite of his pain, he had the presence of mind to disable two of the three speed boats tied up at the dock. Then he climbed into the third, primed the motor, flipped the kill switch to on, and turned the key. To his relief, the boat started up easily. All he had to do was make it the short distance from Terminal Island to the docks of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, which should be busy on a hot summer morning. Plenty of people would be available to help him—surely someone would be kind enough to call Captain Stoker at Station 51.

Chapter 10

 

WARNING: This chapter contains violence and a murder.

 

Nita blinked open gritty eyes to find herself lying in the grassy meadow behind her childhood home, a vague sense of unease twisting her stomach. A slight breeze stirred the windchimes that hung over the porch of the small clapboard chukka, filling the air with a pleasant melody.

She remembered clearly the day her sixth-grade teacher had taught the whole class to make them. Ishki had loved them, said they brought a little piece of Heaven to the old house with its peeling paint and creaky floorboards. But why were they here now? Inki had torn them down and thrown them away after Ishki’s death.

Nita sat up and twisted her body to look at the house, which loomed over her like a hungry shampe. She shivered. The house had never been a haven to her after Ishki had passed. In that house, she had borne the brunt of Inki’s explosive moods, shielding her younger brother the best she could. She was determined that despite Inki’s anger and the blame he placed on Billy for Ishki’s death, the child would grow up feeling loved and wanted.

She never hated Inki for his harsh words. To do so would have been to let the Impa Shilup devour her soul as it had done his, and that would have left no one to love her little brother in Ishki’s place. She turned away from the house to gaze into the woods at the edge of the meadow. Once upon a time, she had known those woods well, often cutting through them to visit the Gage household. They had been a pleasant place to roam with her best friend, Nashoba, before he was sent away to school—hunting, fishing, or just sitting by the creek and letting their feet dangle in the running water while they talked for hours. Now, though, the woods were as dark and threatening as the little house. She half expected the shampe to come stomping out to grab her, and her ears were keen to the warning sound of his whistling breath, her nose wrinkling at the mere thought of the foul beast’s odor.

She wanted to run, to hide, but she could not make her body cooperate. Then she spotted the wolf, a silver-grey creature, stepping close to stand between her and the woods. He turned to gaze at her, and she found herself gazing into his eyes. Somehow, they looked familiar. He padded close and sat beside her, clearly on guard. She stroked his back and tangled her fingers in his soft fur. Feeling utterly safe under the wolf’s watchful eye, she lay down once again and drifted back into an untroubled sleep.

 

Jerome Lansing pulled off his glasses and, frowning, rubbed out a smudge with his t-shirt, then slid them back on and squinted into the sunlight. He wasn’t imagining things—where he had left three watercraft about six hours before, there were now only two. As Jake steered to the dock and tied up the motor boat, Jerome noticed another troubling detail—no guards stood watch on this end of the building. Pushing away Jake’s offered hand, he stepped out of the small speedboat outside the old warehouse on Terminal Island certain of only one thing—something had gone very wrong.

 

He walked around the building to find only El Grillo at his post. Jerome wanted to cuss the guard out; instead, speech hindered by the wad of cotton stuffing that helped protect his newly-stitched tongue, he stared daggers, then shoved past and through the door, gesturing for El Grillo and Jake to follow. Inside, the first sight that greeted Jerome’s eyes was Alfie, lying halfway inside the office, tightly bound with rope at his ankles and wrists. Jerome stepped carefully into the office, his mind briefly registering the damaged door, and found both Eddie and Pug, likewise tied up. All three were barely coming around.

Then he saw where a bullet had torn through his beautiful rosewood desk, the one he’d received from a sheik in exchange for seven young women a few years before. He didn’t care which of the men was responsible—after checking the other side of the desk for a potential corpse and finding only discarded bandage wrappers and a blood-soaked shirt, he aimed a vicious kick at Eddie’s stomach, then stepped over the injured bodies and stalked out of the office, leaving Jake and El Grillo to deal with the mess. He didn’t care how. A quick glance to the end of the warehouse assured him that at least the merchandise was in good condition and sound asleep. If Tex had done that job right, they would sleep for several hours more.

 

The sound of pounding and muffled shouts led Jerome to the Benz within minutes. He threw open the trunk lid to find a sputtering Quinn.

 

“It was Tex, Boss!” the disgraced guard accused. “Last thing I remember was that cane at my throat… then I woke up in here!”

 

Tex. Jerome scowled. He wasn’t terribly surprised—he had seen the looks of disapproval the old Injun had shot him when he first saw the girls early that morning. Until today, he’d employed Tex as a guard at Lansing Motors, a legitimate operation—well, mostly legitimate. Then Dolph had turned up with appendicitis, and Jerome had chosen Tex as his replacement—he thought the threat of deportation was enough to keep the fellow in line. Apparently, he was wrong. I’m too soft, he thought. I should have just turned him over to INS when I found him back in Dallas, instead of offering him a job. He stormed off, leaving Quinn to tend to himself. His next discovery was the still-unconscious form of Hoss over by the Aston Martin. Blood from a head wound dripped from the running board.

Infuriated by the incompetence of the men he had hired, Jerome screamed a muffled curse around the cotton packing, simultaneously aiming a kick at Hoss’s stomach. Utterly frustrated, he slid a hand under the back of his jacket and withdrew his .44. Aiming dead center at Hoss’ chest, he pulled the trigger.

 

At the sight of Hoss bleeding out before his eyes, a sense of satisfaction and calm began to push out the rage and frustration Jerome had felt only an instant before. He could handle this situation. A good businessman had to be flexible, and he was a good businessman. All he had to do was change his schedule.

He glanced at the door but didn’t go outside. Tex had already made his getaway. Most likely, he was on shore ratting out the whole operation, but it would take time for anyone to respond, and Jerome had greased the right wheels in the police department to guarantee he’d get a tip well before anything went down. He would simply have to arrange to get the girls out of here earlier than the original plan.

 

The truck would arrive any minute now to take his shipment to Mexico. Originally, the skiff was supposed to arrive at dusk for the Europe-bound merchandise. Running without lights, Sal Bennett would ferry them out to the ship waiting just outside American waters and they would offload the girls. It was a trip they’d made dozens of times without incident. If Bennett couldn’t come earlier, Jerome would load all the girls up in the truck and his driver could make a detour to Jimmy Morgan’s Laguna Beach house. Tex didn’t know Jimmy and couldn’t possibly point anyone in that direction. The house overlooked a small private beach with its own dock, and Bennett could easily meet him there with the skiff instead of here at the warehouse.

 

Unloading the girls without attracting the attention of a neighbor might prove difficult, but Jerome was confident he could overcome that challenge. He glanced around as he planned. The cars… they’ll be confiscated if I leave them behind. Might as well kill two birds with one stone. No need for the truck. Use the cars to drive the girls down to Laguna Beach and get them into the house. Dress them up nice and neighbors will think Jimmy is hosting a party. Give him a few days with the girl of his pick and he’ll consider it a fair trade. Satisfied with the plan and ready to set it in action, he ripped the gauze out of his mouth. He had no time for such nonsense.

“Quinn… ‘Ake… “E’ Grillo!” he slurred around his numb, swollen tongue. “Ge’ over here!” The men came running, ready for action. Jerome tried desperately to articulate his orders, but could not make himself understood. Finally, he gestured for something to write on. Jake soon produced a pad of paper and a pen from the office, and Jerome wrote out his instructions.

 

51’s was called out to a MVA at about 12:30, leaving Roy alone to await the hoped-for call. He busied himself cleaning up the lunch dishes, then sat down to relax in the captain’s office. About 14:00, the phone finally rang. Roy grabbed the receiver off the hook. “Station 51,” he said, “Captain Roy DeSoto speaking.”

 

“Roy? It’s Marco. I’m subbing with 36’s. We were called out on a water rescue. Gunshot wound and a broken shoulder. Vic is mostly unconscious, but he’s muttering ‘51’ in Spanish and then ‘Stoker.’ Cap’n Greenlee said I should call over there. You subbin’ for Mike?”

 

“No… I’ll explain later. This could be the call we were waiting on. Where you takin’ him?”

 

“Rampart. He’s already on his way.”

 

“So’m I. And Marco, thanks.” Roy hastily replaced the handset, scrawled a note to Mike, grabbed his jacket, and hurried out to his truck. He could contact Vince and Johnny from Rampart once he knew more.

 

“Vince!” Johnny called, “over here!” He stood up straight and wiped a grimy sleeve across his sweat-streaked brow. The acrid odor of a house reduced to ash and rubble permeated the air around him and leeched into his hair and clothing. He knew from experience that it would take days to be rid of it.  At least his last hour’s work had paid off. At his feet in the rubble was a battered metal lockbox. Johnny hoped it held the information they needed.

 

“Good work,” Vince said as he picked up the lockbox and waved over the arson investigator in one fluid motion. “I need to take possession of this evidence,” he explained to the official. “It may figure in a trafficking case I’m working on.” He turned to Johnny. “And then you and I need to get over to Rampart. Roy got a message to me—seems our informant is there with a gunshot wound and is refusing sedation until he talks with Stoker. I hope he’ll talk to us instead, because Stoker’s busy cleaning up an accident on the 405.”

 

Within a matter of minutes, Vince had signed the requisite paperwork giving him possession of the evidence and he and Johnny were on the way to Rampart.

 

Jim Reed swore under his breath as he and Pete strode out the doors of St. Francis Emergency. According to Dr. Fiske, a man matching Jerome Lansing’s description had indeed been admitted under the alias Fred Harper, received 15 stitches in his tongue, and was released a couple of hours ago with the brother of his girlfriend. All Jim and Pete could do was visit the hospital with a picture of Lansing to get a confirmation on the identity and take a report.

A bizarre accident, the brother had claimed—Fred and his girl had been making out when the family dog jumped up on Fred from behind. Fred stumbled forward, the girl accidentally bit down, and the rest was history. Apparently, it was a wonder Fred hadn’t lost a good part of his tongue altogether. To top it all off, the men had provided a bogus address on the registration form. Reed shook his head in disgust and allowed a slightly louder curse to slip out.

 

“Now Jim,” Malloy chided. “Jean wouldn’t approve of such language.”

 

“Yeah, yeah… I know. But who would believe such a cockamamie story?!” Of course, it was more than the dumb cover story that had him riled. Ever since his rookie days riding shotgun with Pete, only one thing made him as angry as crimes against children, and that was crimes against women.

 

“Well, they didn’t have any reason not to believe him,” Pete reasoned. “At least we know we’re on the right track. We’re going to bring Jerome Lansing down, along with the crooked cops he’s got in his pocket. Focus on that—let’s plan forward instead of looking back. Who were the three officers you suspected?”

 

Jim’s brow wrinkled in thought. “Gary Mitchell, Oscar Hudson, and Rudy Delano are the names that immediately jumped to mind.”

 

“All officers in Rampart Division, right?” Pete asked. He opened his car door and slid in behind the wheel. “Tell me something,” he asked as Jim got in on the passenger side. “Do those three have anything… or anyone… in common?”

 

“They all had the same training officer,” Jim answered. “Lieutenant Denny Janssen, of Vice. He was up for promotion to Captain, but Lawson got it instead. Rumor has it, he didn’t take being passed over very well.”

 

“I remember that,” Malloy said as he turned into the lot at the station. “There were serious questions about Janssen—suspicion of tampering with evidence. The allegations couldn’t be proven, and there wasn’t enough to fire him, but they weren’t comfortable promoting him over Lawson, who was squeaky clean.” He pulled into a parking spot and ruminated for a moment before getting out. “I don’t know Mitchell and Hudson,” he said as he lay a hand on the door handle, “but I do know Delano, and if he’s involved, I’m pretty sure I can get him to spill everything. Bring him in for questioning, but be discreet—if it gets back to Janssen, ten to one he’ll be in the wind.”

 

“Just so happens, I know right where to find him. He had a training exercise this afternoon. I’ll go pull him aside and meet you in the interrogation room in a few minutes.”

 

“Good… and I’ll bring Crockett. He’ll want to be a part of this. See you there in five.”

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Author’s Note: The characters are talking to me again! Thank you to my loyal readers who are still reading and waiting patiently for updates. Thanks are also due to: my awesome beta readers; my son, who has patiently listened to me read every word of this story and proven himself to be a valuable research consultant; and last but definitely not least, my amazing husband, who also listens to me read my stories out loud and is a constant source of encouragement, while also providing much welcomed constructive criticism to help me improve my work.

 

Hopefully there will not be as much time between updates now. I’ve got four more chapters planned after this one, and they are all outlined and ready to be written.

 

*******

 

Johnny and Vince arrived at Rampart just in time to see Roy hurrying towards the Emergency Room entrance. Before parking his car, Vince let an anxious Johnny out at the door, where the two former partners joined forces without a word. Inside, they bypassed the ER reception desk and all the standard formalities expected of them now that they were no longer practicing paramedics.

 

“Gentlemen, you can’t just go back th—” The young nurse’s protest died on her lips as Dr. Brackett stepped out of an exam room and beckoned the two fire captains to come talk with him.

 

“Roy, Johnny—I’m glad to see you. My patient insists on seeing Stoker before he’ll agree to surgery or even pain relief. Hopefully he’ll talk with you two.” He opened the door and gestured for the men to step into the room ahead of him.

 

On the exam table lay an older man, perhaps in his mid-50s, with long salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes were clear and his stoic expression betrayed no hint of pain, but from what Vince had said of his injuries, Johnny knew he had to be hurting.

 

“Are you Captain Mike Stoker?” the man asked quietly as he locked eyes with Johnny.

 

“No. I’m John Gage, Billy Folsom’s captain,” Johnny. “This is my friend and colleague, Roy. I grew up with Billy’s sister, Nita—I’ve been looking for her. Stoker gave us your message.”

 

“Nita is a strong woman, a warrior.”

 

Johnny could see the glow of pride in the man’s eyes that accompanied his words.

 

“Where is she, Tex?” Roy asked, taking a step closer.

 

“The old Yellow Fin cannery… on Terminal Island.” He fell silent for a few seconds, closing his eyes and sucking in a deep breath, then looked at Johnny again. “Where Terminal Way curves into Seaside Avenue.” With his good hand, Tex grabbed at Johnny’s sleeve. “Hurry. Lansing will be back soon—he will try to move the women out when he sees I am gone.” His dark eyes moved to the door, and Johnny looked back to see Vince standing there, listening. “You trust that officer?” Tex asked, eyes narrowing.

 

“With my life,” Johnny assured him. “He’s one of the good ones. Thank you, Tex. We’ll be back. You let the doc take care of you now.”

 

Tex nodded. Johnny could see his body relaxing into the bed now, as if he had marshalled all his strength to keep him awake and able to give over his vital information, and now that he had accomplished his task, all that strength was drained out of him. “Just… help her,” he ordered.

 

Outside in the hallway, Kel Brackett waited for the trio to emerge.

 

“Go on in, Doc.” Johnny gestured toward the door without ever breaking his stride. “He’s ready for you.”

 

*******

 

Pete leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest as he watched Jim question Rudy Delano. The pair had agreed that Reed would get first crack at the interrogation, and Malloy would take over if needed. Delano’s hulking figure overflowed his chair, but Jim did not seem intimidated. So far, Delano had denied all knowledge of illegal activity perpetrated by Denny Janssen. In fact, he claimed it was impossible for Janssen to be involved with human trafficking. “I’m telling you, Detective—Denny isn’t like that! He’s a good guy and a solid cop.”

 

“Internal Affairs thought otherwise,” Jim commented drily.

 

“Thought,” Delano growled. “Couldn’t prove. He was framed.”

 

“Perhaps your friendship with him is clouding your judgement?” Jim suggested.

 

To Malloy’s practiced eye, it seemed Delano fully believed what he was saying. Jim probably saw it too. Over the years, they’d both developed the ability to get an accurate read on a suspect. Delano wasn’t involved, and sincerely believed Janssen was innocent. They were going to have to cut him loose, but then they ran the risk that Janssen—or whoever the dirty cop was—would hear about it and get word to Lansing.

 

“Detective Reed,” Pete said, taking advantage of the break in the interrogation. “Can we talk outside?” He nodded toward the door.

 

“Sure, Lieutenant.” Reed turned back to Delano. “You stay here. I’ll be right back.”

 

They stepped out, into the observation room, just as Crockett was on his way in to find them. “How’s it going?” the older detective asked.

 

Jim threw up his hands in frustration. “It’s going nowhere at the moment. Delano’s not involved.”

 

“I agree,” Pete said. “But if we let him go, we risk word of our investigation getting to Janssen. Delano really thinks we’re railroading the guy, and he may just feel the need to warn him.”

 

“Think there’s any truth to what he says,” Jim asked, “that Janssen was framed?”

 

“Well, it may or may not be true. But whatever the case, Delano sure as hell believes.” Malloy paced the length of the small room, anxious for a break in the case.

 

“Well, we may have another lead soon.” Crockett broke in with his news. “Vince called in to say he and Gage found the lockbox. They’re at Rampart now—the witness turned up there and they went to meet him. I think we should call them in so we can open the lockbox to see what we find. I’ve already put in a priority request for a warrant.”

 

Pete nodded. “Sounds good, Ron. Jim, you warn Delano that if any word of your little talk with him gets to Lansing, we’ll know where it came from, and then send him on his way.”

 

“Will do.” Jim returned to the interrogation room and a few minutes later, Delano came through the door and hurried past Crockett and Malloy, out of the observation room, and down the long corridor toward the stairs.

 

*******

 

“Back to the precinct?!” When Johnny’s hand went to his chest and his voice rose almost an octave with his complaint, Roy knew they were in for a rant. “What do you mean, back to the precinct?! We need to go to Terminal Island before Lansing has a chance to get away!”

 

“Just me and the two of you and no backup?” Vince asked with a roll of his eyes. He opened his door, but stayed standing beside his patrol car. “I don’t think so, Johnny. It only works that way in the movies. We can’t go in guns blazing without a warrant, because even if that building is abandoned, someone—probably Yellow Fin—still owns it. We also need to talk with Malloy, Reed, and Crockett to put together a plan. Then we’ll go to Terminal Island. Now, are you riding with me or Roy?”

 

Roy swallowed a grin. He knew he shouldn’t be amused at a time like this, but it wasn’t often that the seasoned and mature Captain Gage reminded him of the lanky junior member of 51’s who would fume and fuss about everything. This time, though, Johnny had a good reason to fume. Vince was right about going back to the precinct, but they would still be losing valuable time.

 

“I’m parked just a couple rows over, Junior,” he said. “Why don’t you ride with me?”

 

With a long-suffering sigh, Johnny assented. Roy expected another rant as they settled into his pickup, but they made the ride to the precinct in a tense silence.

 

*******

 

About thirty minutes later, the trio stood with Malloy and Reed around a desk in a small, private office, poring over the papers they’d found inside the lockbox. Malloy had broken the lock as soon as they’d arrived. Meanwhile, Crockett was talking with the Captain about arranging a raid on the Terminal Island warehouse.

 

“Enough here to tie Lansing to trafficking crimes in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and California,” Jim mumbled as he skimmed an account ledger detailing sales going back almost a decade. No attempt had been made to disguise the nature of the transactions. Indeed, the ‘merchandise’ was listed by race and age. Jim swallowed his revulsion when he saw that the youngest victim was only eight years old. He thought of his niece, just that age, and the idea of anyone harming that precious child turned his stomach. His eyes hardened.

 

“Nothing current though,” Johnny said, throwing down the page he had just read. “This is the mother’s lockbox—papers she found, and he killed her after she confronted him five months ago. Vince, we need to follow up on what Tex told us. That’s our best lead so far.”

 

Vince didn’t respond. Instead, his attention was fixed on a sheet of paper labeled “Shipping.”

 

“Vince? Have you found something?” Roy asked.

 

Vince held out the paper so they could all see it. “Confirmation. Tex was telling the truth. Look here—the addresses of two different warehouses from which Lansing transported women to his buyers. One is for the Yellow Fin cannery on Terminal Island; the other is a warehouse he owns in Carson, on Avalon.”

 

“That’s enough for me,” Pete said. “Let’s join Ron in Captain Groff’s office. Bring the sales ledger and the shipping records. We’ll have no problem getting a warrant with this.”

 

*******

 

Captain Gordon Groff frowned as he watched the men leave his office. In theory, he agreed with them. Human trafficking was a reprehensible crime and should not be tolerated. But the reality was, alimony payments and child support for two ex-wives and five kids—not to mention his oldest son’s upcoming college tuition and wife number three’s penchant for designer clothing—were way beyond his salary with the LAPD, at least if he wanted to live comfortably. He’d had to find ways to supplement his income, and taking payments from Jerome Lansing for discreetly releasing the occasional prostitute into his custody and promising him a head’s up if any unwanted attention were directed his way had proven to be quite lucrative.

As far as Groff was concerned, Lansing was doing Los Angeles a public service anyway, sending women like that away where they could ply their trade without sullying his streets. Sometimes an innocent woman got caught in Lansing’s web, but Groff hadn’t been a part of that. Yes, he was guilty of looking the other way. But sometimes you had to make sacrifices to be a good father. He ignored the pang of conscience that niggled at the edges of thought. His mother, God rest her soul, would not have approved of his choices. Neither would his superiors, if they ever found out. And that was why he had no choice but to do what he could to help Lansing now.

 

Oh, he’d gotten Malloy and the detectives the warrant they’d requested, and he’d approved the raid. If it had just been the word of that fellow Tex… a vagrant, he imagined… he could have refused it on the grounds that they needed solid evidence. But then they’d brought that solid evidence and shoved it under his nose. After he saw that, any refusal would have looked suspicious.

 

He waited a few minutes after the door had closed, then lifted the handset of his phone and dialed. “Janssen,” he barked. “My office. Ten minutes. Take the back staircase.” That route and timing assured the greatest privacy for the meeting. Then he pushed the intercom button on his phone to reach his secretary in the next room. “Tina, I have some papers I need you to hand-deliver to Officer Hudson. Come in and get them please.”

 

He stuffed a handful of case reports into a manila envelope. When Tina stepped in, she crossed the room and stood on the other side of his desk, leaning in to take the envelope rather than stepping close to him as she knew he preferred. “Come closer, Tina,” he said. “Right around here.” He gestured to the empty spot next to him and she took a step in that direction, but stopped just out of reach. “Come on, darling. Pull that chair over and sit down next to me. I need to write Hudson a note to include with these reports.”

 

She moved a little closer and did as he instructed, but he noticed she perched on the edge of her chair as if she were terrified. The girl was a looker, but she didn’t hold a candle to his previous secretary, Annette, who had recently moved to San Diego. Annette had seemed to welcome his attention. Groff supposed Tina just needed time to get used to him.

He reached across the distance between them and placed his left hand on her knee. She was trembling! He rolled his eyes as he gently moved the hand upward, barely sneaking his fingers under the hem of her dress. “Don’t you worry, honey! I don’t bite.” He lingered for a second, wishing he had time to go further, then pulled his hand away, scrawled a quick note, and tucked it into the envelope. Once it was sealed, he handed it to her with instructions that after she had delivered it, she should fetch him a cup of coffee from the downstairs lounge—everyone knew the best coffee in the precinct could be found there. Finally, he patted her knee again before she could scurry away like the nervous little mouse that she was. She would not be back until after Janssen had come and gone.

 

Precisely five minutes later—Groff was known throughout the precinct for prizing punctuality—the door opened, admitting Denny Janssen. “You needed me, Sir?”

 

Groff got right down to business. “Janssen, Malloy and his crew are about to carry out a raid on our friend Jerome Lansing.” Groff braced himself for the expected terse reply.

 

Janssen did not disappoint. “He’s not my friend, sir.”

 

Groff picked a piece of lint off his spotless uniform, then looked up and met Janssen’s hostile gaze with his own. “Well, be that as it may, we wouldn’t want IA to get its hands on the evidence they couldn’t find when they were investigating you last year, now would we?”

 

Janssen practically deflated in front of him, and all the spark went out of his hazel eyes. “No, Sir,” he said meekly. “What do you want me to do, Sir?”

 

Gordon Groff truly enjoyed the power he wielded from his swivel chair. Janssen hadn’t actually done anything wrong, but when Groff needed to recruit a patsy the previous year, he’d decided Denny would be the easiest to manipulate. He’d fabricated the evidence, used Gary Mitchell and Oscar Hudson to get the rumors in IA’s ear. Once the investigators were breathing down Janssen’s neck, he’d called the man into his office, produced the “evidence,” and promised to keep it hidden as long as Janssen did exactly as he was instructed. If he didn’t, Denny Janssen would not just lose his job—he would go to prison.

 

“In precisely forty-five minutes, you will call Lansing on his private line. You will tell him to evacuate immediately. Then you will hang up and go on with your day as if nothing ever happened. And you will not mention this to anyone. Mitchell and Hudson will be watching you. Dismissed.” The forty-five-minute lag would leave plenty of time for Lansing to make his getaway, while minimizing the chances that Groff would be connected with the leak in any way.

 

Janssen offered a limp salute and trudged out the door. Feeling beneficent in his triumph, Captain Groff overlooked the show of disrespect and leaned back in his chair wearing a self-satisfied grin.

 

*******

 

Jerome hung up the phone, fighting to control the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. “Evacuate immediately,” the caller had said. That meant a raid was forthcoming. No time to get the merchandise out. He paced the floor of his office, considering his options. Thankfully, El Grillo had managed to clean the room almost spotlessly—there was still a bloodstain on the damaged desk that would not come out; even so, it was amazing what a man could accomplish when he believed his life was at stake. But Jerome could not afford to waste time thinking about such matters now.

He pressed a button on his radio and spoke into it—his speech had finally cleared as the numbness wore off, and he could make himself understood. “Pigs coming. Move to the east side of the building.” His men could deal with the police while their boss made his escape. Jerome regretted leaving the girls and all his beautiful cars behind, but at this point he had no choice. There would be plenty of other girls wherever he landed—certainly somewhere with no extradition treaty with the US. He just had to make it to the ship and Tristan would take care of him.

 

He smiled suddenly and his eyes gleamed. He wouldn’t leave all the girls behind. He still had to teach that squaw a lesson. He had already half-decided to keep her for himself anyway. He liked to see a bit of fire in a new girl’s eyes, and he especially liked snuffing that fire out. Soon enough she would be putty in his hands. Once he had broken her, he would sell her as a domestic worker—really, she was too old for anything else. What had his father been thinking, hiring her?

He hurried out of the office to the floor where the drugged girls still slept and nudged at the Indian with the tip of his boot. “Wake up!” he growled. She stirred slightly, but did not open her eyes. He leaned down and grabbed her by the shoulder, rolling her to the side, and then pulling her up by the zip-tie that bound her wrists behind her back. Her legs were likewise bound, allowing her just enough give to stumble awkwardly next to him as he dragged her drowsy body through the rows of cars toward the exit.

 

Her initial resistance surprised him a little. The drugs usually made the girls compliant. Oh well, that just meant it was time for her first lesson. Even if she had the strength to resist him, the drugs in her system would certainly make her confused and easy to manipulate. “If you fight me, I will find your brother and I will kill him,” he whispered into her ear as he walked her to the door.

He felt the fight drain out of her at that. He spoke a little louder now, forcing his voice into a soothing tone. “Yes, my father told me all about your brother the firefighter. Billy, is it? I don’t want to hurt him, because I care about you and I want to make you happy. But if you don’t do as I say, I can’t make you happy. When you prove that I can trust you, I’ll take off the restraints, but we don’t have time for that at the moment. Now, I know that old injun probably promised to help you, but he was a terrible liar. He wanted to hurt you. Let me tell you what happened to him, what will happen to anyone who crosses me by threatening you. He’s dead. He can’t do anything to you now. No one can do anything to you, because you are under my protection. I’m the only one who really cares about you.”

 

He pushed the door open and shoved her through it in front of him. She winced as the bright sun hit her face. “Move fast,” he ordered. “We need to get out of here. It’s not safe for you.” Quickly but carefully, he guided her to the motor boat that Jake had tied at the dock. Wailing sirens assailed his ears—he thought they were probably on Terminal Avenue already. Why did you wait so long to warn me, Gordon? he wondered as he untied the boat, then lifted the girl in and boarded after her. As the gunshots rumbled through the air from the other side of the warehouse, he got her situated on the seat, revved the motor, and pulled away from the dock just as a police officer ran around the warehouse to the dock, followed by several men in plain clothes.

 

“Police! Halt!” shouted the officer, and he aimed his gun in Jerome’s direction. Jerome ignored him. He didn’t think the man would risk the girl’s life. He moved her slightly so that she became his shield. It would be far too easy at this distance for the bullet to hit her instead of its intended target. Far too risky a shot. He zoomed into the channel and toward the open sea, chuckling to himself as he continued a stream of soothing nonsense in his captive’s ear.

 

Chapter 12

 

 

 

“Police! Halt!” Vince shouted, and he aimed his gun at the man Johnny assumed was Jerome Lansing.

 

Johnny watched in horror as Lansing shoved a raven-haired woman between him and the gun, and then sped away in the motor boat. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled at Vince as he ran for one of the small speed boats still tied at the dock. Roy was only a few steps behind him. Malloy, Reed and the ten officers who had joined them on the raid had subdued Lansing’s men and secured the warehouse. Johnny wasn’t sure what had lured Vince around the side of the warehouse instead of going in to see what they would find, but he and Roy had followed anyway.

 

“Wait for me!” Vince shouted, and ran after them. “Was that Nita with him?”

 

“I think so,” Johnny said. Not that it mattered—whoever the woman was, they had to help her. He hoped it wasn’t Nita, hoped that she was inside the warehouse, where she would now be in good and trustworthy hands, and he wished he could be there with her. But he was a rescue man, and the woman on the boat, Nita or not, was the one who needed him right now.

 

He jumped into the speed boat, his brain vaguely registering the name Sea Queen painted on the stern. Thankfully, he found the key had been left in the ignition. He turned it; the boat sputtered, but would not start. In the distance, Johnny saw Lansing’s boat moving further and further away. “Damn it!” he cursed as he tried again, once more unsuccessfully.

 

“Move aside,” Vince said, pushing past Roy and Johnny to take over.

 

Johnny, who had minimal experience operating boats, didn’t argue. He watched anxiously as Vince looked over the system until he could identify the problem.

 

“You just have to know the trick of it,” Vince said. “Looks like someone tried to disable it—lucky for us, he only slowed us down.” After making a few adjustments, he flipped a switch and turned the key, and at last the craft roared to life. “Have a seat,” he ordered, and soon the small speed boat was scudding over the waves to follow Lansing down the channel.

 

The nausea hit almost immediately, and Johnny was only vaguely aware of Vince pulling out his ROVER* to inform Malloy and Reed of their pursuit. As they moved out of range, he heard Reed’s voice, punctuated by bursts of static. “Yo… br… …p… pl—” And then just the crackle of static to let them know that they had moved entirely out of range. Any messages would have to be routed through dispatch.

 

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he watched Lansing’s boat, his gaze pinned on the hostage. Though he had only seen her from a distance, he was almost convinced that she was indeed Nita. She did not appear to be moving, and his worry for her made his stomach churn as much as the movement of the boat did. He could feel the bile rising in his throat, but he forced it back down and tried to psych himself up for a possible water rescue. He had always hated water rescues.

 

Roy’s hand touched his sun-warmed back, reminding him that he wasn’t in this alone.

 

“You all right?” Roy asked.

 

“Ask me later.” Johnny couldn’t manage more than those few words in a clipped tone just now. Usually, he could keep his cool during a rescue, but this time, nausea and anxiety threatened to overwhelm him as he watched the distance between their boat and Lansing’s increase rather than diminish. How would they manage to catch him before it was too late? By international law, American waters ended about three and a half miles out from shore,* and there Vince’s jurisdiction would end as well. “Can’t you make this thing go any faster, Vince?” he asked.

 

“I’m doing the best I can, Johnny,” Vince answered. “You’re so focused on Lansing, you probably haven’t noticed there are a lot of other boats on the water today. I can’t accelerate until it’s safe. Unfortunately, we don’t have a siren.”

 

Johnny had to admit Vince was right. On a beautiful day like this, it was no surprise people were out enjoying the water. He took his eyes off Lansing for just a moment to gauge the situation around them. Several private boats and a couple of harbor cruise ships made the channel seem awfully narrow.

 

At last, they managed to get to a wide-open area, and now Johnny felt his stomach lurch as Vince put the engine in forward gear and throttled up to accelerate. “Finally,” Johnny mumbled, relieved to see that now they were gaining rapidly on Lansing.

 

The relief was short-lived. When as little as 30 yards separated the criminal and his pursuers, Lansing looked back and locked eyes with Johnny. With that movement, his hand must have accidentally turned the wheel, because the boat began to veer, and was suddenly racing headlong toward a third boat that Johnny hadn’t even noticed till this moment.

 

Johnny stood up. “Watch out!” he shouted, but his words were lost under the roar of the surf and the rumble of boat engines and the scream of the teenaged boy in the third boat as he realized what was about to happen. Johnny watched helplessly as the two boats slammed into each other. A few seconds later, an explosion sent debris flying.

 

Johnny wanted to dive in after Nita right away, but he knew Vince could get them there faster than swimming the full distance would. While the officer carefully maneuvered their craft closer, the two former paramedics assessed the scene. The teen had managed to jump clear of his boat just before the collision, and he seemed to be uninjured. He was wearing a life jacket and was swimming away from the wreckage when the explosion hit. They couldn’t see Lansing. The woman was alive, but struggling to stay afloat.   “Chihowa! Si apela!” she cried out, and the plea in Choctaw told Johnny that she was indeed Nita.

 

He couldn’t wait any longer. At this point, Vince’s progress with the boat had slowed considerably because he had to be careful of the teen swimming toward them. Johnny kicked off his shoes, jumped overboard, and swam directly for Nita.

 

By the time he reached her, she was floating face down in the water. Muttering a quick prayer, he turned her over and was relieved when she coughed and spluttered and her eyelashes fluttered. Treading water, he pulled her into his arms. She stiffened at his touch and her eyes flew open. Even on this bright day, her pupils were tiny, a sign to her rescuer that she had been drugged. “Nita,” he said soothingly, “Nashoba sia. Is svkhanah o? Chi apela li.”

 

He couldn’t be sure if it was because of his name or his use of Choctaw, but she relaxed and allowed him to hold her. As best he could, treading water there in the open sea, he evaluated her condition. Minor abrasions… bruising… a probable fractured arm. Remarkably, she seemed in pretty good shape considering what she had been through. He looked around for Vince and Roy, and soon spotted the Sea Queen not far away. The teenager had managed to get himself in. Roy was checking him over, and the small boat was already on its way to Johnny and Nita. In the distance, he could see other boats and what was probably a Coast Guard response boat heading in their direction as well—looky loos, of course, and some who just wanted to help.

 

While he waited, Johnny spied a sandy brown head of hair bobbing in the waves amid the burning wreckage—Lansing no doubt. As much as he despised the man, he couldn’t just let him drown, so when the boat was close enough, he handed Nita to Roy, with gentle assurances to her that Roy was his friend and only wanted to help her. “I’m pretty sure she was drugged, and watch her right arm. I think it’s broken,” he cautioned, and then he pointed to Lansing. “I’ve gotta go back for him.”

 

“Want me to do it?” Roy asked.

 

Johnny shook his head. He would have loved to get out of the water and focus on Nita, but it would waste time. “I’m fine. Toss me the kid’s life jacket, though.” He would have taken a flotation device with him when he went after Nita, but they hadn’t found any stashed on the boat. Apparently, Lansing wasn’t much for safety precautions.

 

Roy tossed the jacket overboard to Johnny, who grabbed it and then swam for his next victim. Of course, he’s not really a victim, he thought. He’s the one who orchestrated this whole mess. But my job is to rescue, not to dispense justice. That will come, soon enough.

 

From a distance, Johnny could see that Lansing’s head was thrown back and he seemed to be putting all his effort just into keeping his mouth and nose above water. The man was actively drowning and therefore very likely to panic during a rescue attempt. Best not to get too close, he thought.

 

He pushed the jacket in front of him in the water. “Grab hold! I’ll tow you to the boat,” he called, but Lansing wouldn’t—or couldn’t—manage it. Johnny would have to try a contact rescue.

 

Never approach an active drowning victim from the front. This rule had been drilled into Johnny during rescue training. He didn’t have much choice, though. There was no way to get behind Lansing without tangling himself in the burning debris, and if he waited for Lansing to tire so he’d be less likely to struggle, they ran the risk of getting caught in a secondary explosion. The fire hadn’t reached the fuel tank on the kids’ boat yet, but that could happen any time now.

                                                                                                

Johnny finally made his move. He was pretty sure Lansing didn’t have the strength to fight him at this point. Anyway, he had to take the risk.

 

When Lansing’s arms came around him, he knew he had misjudged. He tried to keep hold of the jacket, but Lansing knocked it out of his hands—Johnny couldn’t tell if this was intentional or out of sheer panic. Thankfully, he managed to suck in a deep breath and hold it before he was pulled underwater. He fought like crazy to get free, but Lansing was still surprisingly strong and held him down. Had Roy even noticed? Johnny wasn’t sure. His lungs were burning, in need of letting out the held breath and drawing a fresh one. He struggled against Lansing’s grip and finally managed to burst above the surface of the water and get another lungful of air.

 

In the seconds that followed, several things happened too quickly for him really to register them. He felt a sharp pain in his right side… he felt himself pushed under the water again… he felt the burning of salt water in his throat and lungs… and then the roar of a second explosion rumbled in his ears. Lansing’s grip suddenly loosened, then Johnny felt a hand latch on to his arm and pull him toward the sunlight.

 

When he surfaced, coughing and spluttering, Roy was there with the life jacket to help him to the boat. A cheer went up from the spectators on the various water craft gathered around. “Lansing is gone,” Roy informed him. “Hit by debris from that second explosion just before I got to you. Never had a chance. Coast Guard’s here… they were about to get Nita and the kid aboard when I had to jump in to help you.”

 

Johnny didn’t have the strength to respond. He held tight to the life jacket and let Roy tow him back to safety, immensely grateful for every breath of fresh air as he sucked it in, even though he couldn’t seem to get enough.

 

Instead of bringing him back to the Sea Queen, Roy took him to the rescue boat. First Johnny was hoisted aboard, and Roy followed. Johnny sank to the floor of the boat, where he promptly began coughing up water. When his stomach rebelled, Roy helped him get to the side just in time to empty its meager contents into the Pacific. “Déjà vu all over again,” he grumbled.

 

Roy gently guided Johnny over to sprawl his lanky form next to Nita, who lay covered with a blanket and seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Johnny couldn’t keep his eyes off her. After all these years, she was real and she was next to him and even with her sopping hair and a splint on her arm and all her scrapes and bruises, she was more beautiful than he remembered. “She’s ok?” he asked Roy in a hoarse whisper. He wanted to check her pulse, but he was afraid he would wake her.

 

“Physically, yeah, she’s stable.” Roy smiled down at him, but Johnny saw concern in his eyes. “Pulse a bit slow, but strong; blood pressure a little low, but not dangerously so. Respirations are good. Her arm is broken, but it will heal. She’s still drowsy from whatever drug she was given, but she was able to talk with me before she fell back asleep, and she was coherent.”

 

Roy knelt by Johnny’s side and took his wrist for a moment, then checked his respirations. “I’m going to get your vitals,” he said, “and then I’m going to call back to Rampart.” He fastened a blood pressure cuff around Johnny’s arm, set the stethoscope bell in place, and began inflating the cuff. When Johnny opened his mouth to complain that it wasn’t necessary, Roy held up a finger to silence him. “Let me listen, why don’t you!” he said, and then he allowed the cuff to deflate. Finally, he pressed a button on a handy-talkie. “Dispatch,” he said into the microphone, “this is off-duty Fire Captain Roy DeSoto on Coast Guard unit 3862. Can you patch me through to Rampart Emergency?”

 

“Roy. I’m fine,” Johnny rasped out. “I Just took in a little water. I’m wiped out, but I’ll sur—”

 

“Indulge me,” Roy insisted. “You almost drowned, you’re pale, and…” He frowned and looked closer. “And you’re bleeding. Let me take a look.”

 

“Bleeding?! That’s—” Johnny had been going to say, “That’s impossible,” but a glance toward his abdomen showed him Roy was right. Blood had soaked through his shirt on the right side. He started to remove the shirt, but had to stop when a sharp pain pulsed through his back on that side. Stubborn to the last, he said nothing about the pain, but his sharp intake of breath and then his low moan when the breath led to another coughing bout said it all.

 

Roy took a pair of scissors from the medical kit and began cutting the shirt away, then examined the source of the blood. “Looks like a stab wound. Did you see if Lansing had a knife?”

 

Johnny shook his head. Everything had happened so fast, he hadn’t had time to take notice of any details. “I… sort of remember… I—” Another coughing fit robbed him of his words. “Sorry, Roy. It’s all… a blur. My back, Roy… it’s startin’ to hurt.”

 

The HT crackled and then they heard Dr. Brackett’s voice. “This is Rampart Emergency.”

 

“Rampart,” Roy said, “I have a third victim. Male, age 32. Pulse 120, respirations 22 and somewhat shallow. He is pale and diaphoretic. Blood pressure is 90 over 60. Victim was forced underwater twice during an attempted rescue, and has what appears to be a stab wound in the right upper quadrant. It’s only about an inch long; I can’t tell how deep. It’s bleeding, but not profusely. Victim has vomited up water, has been coughing, and is complaining of back pain. Be advised, Rampart. Victim is John Gage.”

 

“Start him on 2 liters of oxygen, Roy,” Brackett ordered. “D5W TKO, morphine IV, 5 mg. Get him in here STAT!” Roy got the medications on board, then cleaned and dressed his friend’s wound before covering him with a blanket. By the time he finished, the Coast Guard helmsmen was pulling the boat up to the dock.

 

A sudden wave of exhaustion had overtaken Johnny. He fought it, but was losing the battle until a drowsy voice broke through the haze. “Nashoba, chishno ash chia anhli ho?”

 

Suddenly the injured fire captain’s eyes flew open. “Nita!” He tried to sit up, but Roy held him down. “Nita, a, Nashoba sia.” He struggled against Roy’s hand, but finally submitted, his hand seeking out Nita’s instead. “Ever’thin’s… gonna be… ok, Nita,” he slurred. And then the fatigue won out. His eyelids slid shut and sleep claimed him.

 

More fully awake now, Nita forced herself to a sitting position. As soon as Nashoba’s hand had gripped hers, she had realized that her wrists and ankles were free of the zip-ties that had kept her constrained. She had only vague memories of anything that had happened after she had been injected with the drug that had kept her sedated, but one thing was crystal clear—she had been close to death when the silver-grey wolf that had guarded her in her dreams was suddenly there, lifting her out of the water and speaking reassurance to her. And then that wolf had worn a human face, the face of her old friend and the love of her childhood, Nashoba Tushpa, Swift Wolf of Bogue Chitto. He wasn’t just a dream, but was living and breathing and right here next to her. But she could see that something was wrong. His face was too pale and his breathing ragged. “Nashoba?” she said softly, then turned her dark eyes to the Nahullo who sat beside him. “Will he live?” she asked, switching to English, and she dreaded his answer.

 

“We’ll do everything we can for him,” the Nahullo said. “Right now, he’s exhausted and injured, and his body has been through a lot of stress. But he’s experienced worse in the past and come through just fine.”

 

Nita smiled and brushed a hand through Nashoba’s hair. Chahta kvllo,” she murmured, “chiki holba.” She watched Roy take Nashoba’s wrist and wrap his fingers around it, and she knew he was counting the pulse rate. Billy, determined to become a paramedic someday, had practiced it on her often enough. But there was more than just a clinical interest in the Nahullo’s face. She saw in Roy’s eyes the love and concern of a brother.

 

Gently, Nita stroked Nashoba’s wet hair away from his face. “Chihowa, Alikchi Chito, Nashoba masalichi. Amen.”

 

“Amen,” the Nahullo said, and Nita looked up to see his face redden slightly. “I figure you’re prayin’ for him,” he explained, “and thought I’d best join in. You’re Nita Folsom, right? Johnny’s—I mean, Nashoba’s—been tellin’ me about you. I’m Roy DeSoto. Johnny and I are best friends.”

 

She wrinkled her forehead, curious about what Roy was saying. “He spoke of me? But I have not seen him since we were children. I thought… I thought he forgot me.”

 

“No ma’am,” Roy said. “He never—” He was interrupted by the fire crew coming aboard with two stretchers. “Now, we’re going to get you to Rampart,” he said. “After the doc has checked you out, we can talk more about Johnny.”

 

Nita nodded. “Yakoke, Roy DeSoto,” she said softly. “I mean… thank you.”

 

Though he would have preferred to oversee Johnny’s care himself, Roy stepped back and let 51’s C-shift paramedics take charge. Jim Scroggins and Danny Sipe were a good team, and they would take excellent care of both patients. In short order, both Johnny and Nita were expertly bundled onto the stretchers and transported down the gangplank. The teenager walked off on his own two feet to meet his parents, who were waiting with Pete Malloy and Ron Crockett on the dock.

 

Mike Stoker was waiting as well, along with Chet Kelly and Chief Stanley. Marco’s still subbing with 36’s, Roy reminded himself, or he’d be here too. It was good to have most of his 51’s family here to support him and Johnny now. The men fell in step with Roy after the stretchers were rolled past them. Chief Stanley clapped Roy on the back, and the men watched as first one stretcher and then the other were loaded into the back of the ambulance.

 

“C’mon, pal,” Chief Stanley said. “I’ll drive you to the hospital. Crockett already said you can make your statement later. Johnny’s tough as nails—he’ll be just fine.”

 

Roy nodded, but his eyes were on the ambulance as it pulled away. As far as he could see, the stab wound had been minor. Johnny had been coughing, but that wasn’t unusual given the dunking he’d received. So why did Roy feel cold dread settling in his gut? His mind flashed back to the dream Johnny’d had the night before when Roy was driving him around. “I heard the horned owl screech,” he’d said, and then explained the portent of the owl to the Choctaw—an impending death. Johnny had been afraid the dream was about Nita’s death… but what if… No, Roy wasn’t going to let himself think that way. He slid into the chief’s car and fastened his seatbelt. “Yeah, Chief… I’m… sure he’ll be fine. let’s get to Rampart.”

 

Chapter 13

 

*******

Roy paced the floor in the Rampart Emergency waiting room. Chief Stanley sat nearby, thumbing through a magazine, but Roy could tell he wasn't really looking at the pages.

Nita had been admitted for observation, but Dixie had taken her upstairs in a wheelchair to visit her brother in the ICU. In the old days when they had been paramedics together, Roy would have stayed with Johnny in a situation like this, but today he had been instructed to remain in the waiting room.

He was pretty sure that Johnny would be just fine once his wound was cleaned and stitched, and maybe he'd had a course of antibiotics, but anxiety still niggled in the back of his mind. It's crazy, he thought to himself, worrying about his dream and all. That's just superstition! It's not real! An owl is just… an owl.

"Roy?"

Roy stopped pacing and turned toward the voice that had startled him. Chief Stanley had put the magazine down and was looking up at him, his brow furrowed in concern. "Yeah, Chief?"

"You all right, Pal? I said your name three times before you heard me. You look a bit peaked."

"Yeah, I'm fine, Chief. Just… preoccupied, that's all." Roy took a seat next to Hank and picked up a battered copy of National Geographic, then tossed it back down on the table with a wry grin. "Read that one already… back when D.J. was born. We started out here in Emergency before moving up to obstetrics."

Hank nodded. "Haven't seen young Daniel Jessie for a while," he said. "He must be getting big."

"Just turned six," Roy said, "and growing like a weed. He's home with chicken pox now."

"That was a rough day for you, when he was born, wasn't it?" the chief asked.

"Yeah." Roy rubbed the back of his neck and leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. "I was pretty scared. Johnny helped me get through it."

"He's a good friend," Hank observed.

"The best," Roy agreed. He stood up and stretched. "I think I'll take a walk over to the chapel. Tell the doc he can find me there, all right?"

He felt drawn to the chapel, just as he had when waiting for news of JoAnne after rushing her to the hospital the day D.J. was born. The minutes he'd spent waiting there, talking to a God he wasn't even sure was real, had felt like an eternity. But then Johnny had joined him—listening, encouraging, praying with him. Now Roy would kneel in that chapel again, this time to pray for his friend.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he opened the door and found himself alone in the room. Somehow it was easier that way. Even though he was on better terms with God nowadays, he felt awkward praying in public.

He slid into a pew near the back and went straight to his knees. "God, I don't know why I'm feelin' this way," he said. "I think it's that dream he had that's got me jumpy, but I can't make this fear go—"

The door creaked open and Dr. Morton spoke his name. Roy jumped to his feet and pivoted on his heel. "Uh… hi, Doc," he said. He felt his cheeks warm at being caught on his knees. To his credit, Dr. Morton took it in stride.

"Johnny is awake and doing well. He has a minor kidney laceration. It is a serious injury as you know, but it could have been much worse, and I foresee a full recovery with no complications. We've got him on IV antibiotics, and we've admitted him for at least a few days. You may go up and see him now—room 363."

"Thanks, Doc!" A smile lit up Roy's face as he pushed anxiety to the back of his mind. Mike Morton might not be Johnny's favorite person, but he was an excellent doctor and Roy trusted his judgment. He stepped past the doctor and through the door to head up to the third floor.

Upstairs, he waited a moment before entering the room. He could hear Johnny complaining loudly to someone. Roy chuckled softly, imagining his friend in full-rant mode, fingers splayed across his chest and high indignation blazing in his dark eyes. Johnny's rants had become fewer and further between over the years since they began working together, but when they did happen now, they were more explosive than they used to be.

"I don't care what Morton says!" Johnny insisted. "That dose of morphine will just knock me out! I'm not hurtin' that bad, and Nita and Billy need me! Now, I want to go see Nita. If you won't take me to her, I'll rip out this IV and take myself!"

"But Mr. Gage, Dr. Mo—"

Roy shook his head. Johnny didn't even give the poor nurse a chance to finish her sentence. From his angle outside the slightly-opened door, Roy could see her but not Johnny. Her eyes were wide with horror, and she was so flustered, she dropped the syringe of medicine that she must have been about to push into her patient's IV line.

About that time, Roy saw Mike Morton come around the corner. Even with his wife's mellowing influence, Morton had little patience for a recalcitrant John Gage. Roy decided it was best to intervene now. He pushed the door wide open and stepped into the room just as the nervous young nurse skittered across the floor to pick up the fallen syringe. As she stood, he caught a glimpse of her name tag. "Hello, Melissa. I'm Fire Captain Roy DeSoto. Why don't you go inform Dr. Morton that the patient has refused morphine? Perhaps he could prescribe something that won't have a sedative effect."

"The patient has a name!" Johnny countered with a roll of his eyes. "And she doesn't need to inform Dr. Morton of anything! He'll just—"

"Just throw the book at you?" Dr. Morton interrupted from the doorway, where he was leaning against the doorframe. "Maybe report to your superiors that you are refusing sound medical advice? Captain Gage, I know you are a stubborn man, but I thought you had learned to respect my judgment." He strode across the room to stand by Johnny's bed, arms crossed over his chest. With a nod of his head, he dismissed Melissa. "Now suppose you tell me what this is all about?" he demanded.

"I need to see Nita, Doc," Johnny said, and Roy noted with satisfaction that his friend's tone was calmer, his voice quieter, though the set of his jaw and the glint in his eyes indicated that this effort to appear reasonable did not involve any reduction in stubbornness. "I just don't want any meds that will knock me out before I get to talk with her, see for myself that she's OK. Once I've done that, I'll take whatever you recommend."

After a long silence, Dr. Morton sighed and nodded. Roy observed a visible release of tension from his back and shoulders. "You really love her, don't you?" he asked quietly.

"I don't know, Doc." Johnny shifted his eyes to the ceiling. "Maybe I do. I used to… but it's been 20 years since I've seen her. I guess… I don't really know her any more, but I can't stop thinking about her and I need to talk with her and… I just want to know she's all right."

"Perhaps," Morton said tersely. "If Dr. Fletcher allows it and if Miss Folsom feels up to it, I'll ask Dixie to bring her to you before settling her in her own room. I will give you no more than 20 minutes to talk. After that you will cooperate fully with your nurse and accept the medication as prescribed for you. Agreed?"

"Agreed… and… thanks, Doc," Johnny said. He flashed Morton an impish grin, his rant seemingly forgotten. "Dr. Fletcher sure has been good for you."'

Morton grinned and nodded. "Don't I know it! Now you sit tight. I'll talk with Kay."

Roy wanted to bust out laughing at that final exchange, but he kept his composure while Dr. Morton moved through the door and down the hall. When they were alone together, he chuckled in relief. "I sure am glad to see you're feeling better, Junior."

*******

When Dixie pushed Nita into Nashoba's room, he was in the midst of a hard bout of coughing. "Are you all right, Tiger?" the nurse asked. Nita saw her forehead wrinkle in concern, which worried her.

Dixie parked the wheelchair next to the bed and fetched a cup of water for the paramedic. She handed it to him and he took a sip through the straw, then handed it back. "I'm fine, Dixie. Just a little cough is all. Thanks for bringing Nita here."

The nurse crossed her arms over her chest and glared sternly at him, but Nita saw the warmth in her eyes. This nurse cared deeply for Nashoba, and that endeared her to Nita. "20 minutes," Dixie said. "Not a second more." The steel in her voice told Nita she meant it and she was used to getting her way. Then she stepped out and closed the door to allow them privacy.

For the first minute or so, Nashoba and Nita just stared at one another. Nita noticed his eyes resting on her splinted arm. She lowered her gaze and then looked up, a rueful smile playing at her lips. "It's broken. In a few days, when the swelling goes down, I will get a cast."

Then Nashoba reached to touch her hand. Nita didn't mean to stiffen and pull away—she knew she had nothing to fear from her old childhood friend—but the reaction was there and she couldn't help it. "I… I'm sorry," she said softly. She willed her trembling hand to be still as she curled her fingers around Nashoba's. "I… didn't mean… that is… I am thankful, Nashoba. I asked Chihowa to help me and all the other women who were with me, and… He sent you."

"Nita… you don't have to apologize for anything. What you went through… well… I'm surprised you're holding it together as well as you are. Tex called you a warrior, and I agree. I see your mother's strength in your eyes."

Nita smiled shyly. "I thought you had forgotten me…"

His strong fingers squeezed hers tightly now. "Nita, I never…. I thought you forgot me. I wrote, but you stopped writing back."

She wrinkled her brow, confused by his words. "But Nashoba… I wrote to you many times. The last letter I had from you was the day before Billy was born… the day before… before Svshki died." She wiped hard at the tears that threatened to spill when she thought of losing her mother. "And then when your father passed… I wrote to you again, but never heard back. And we did not see you at the funeral."

She saw him struggle to sit up and she frowned. "No! Lie still, please…. Your Dr. Morton will be angry if you tear your stitches. I heard him talking to Nurse Dixie. He says you never listen to reason and he was letting me visit you against his better judgment." She expected an argument, but he sank back against the pillows and just gazed at her instead.

"I never forgot you, Nita," he finally said, and she could see the truth of it glowing in his deep brown eyes. "I wrote you again and again, but your letters stopped coming. Then Anki died and I never went back to Mississippi. When Aunt Taloa and Uncle Tahlako brought me here, I tried sending you our new address, but I never heard from you, so I… I thought you must have found someone, moved on. I tried to do the same, but… I never could. Then Billy walked into my station the other day and… well, you've been on my mind ever since."

In that moment, understanding dawned. She knew he spoke the truth. He had written her, but his letters had never reached her. Father must have seen to that—when her mother died, he had become controlling, possessive. He never allowed any boy to come courting his daughter. He even forbade her to touch the mail until he had gone through it. "Oh, Anki," she moaned, "what did you do?"

She leaned over Nashoba and kissed his forehead. "My dear friend, I never forgot you and I never found someone else. I think Anki must have kept your letters from me, and kept mine from getting to you. When Svshki passed, he allowed the Shilup Impa to destroy him. He always said he wanted to protect me… but I think… I think he was afraid to lose me."

He caught her hand in his, and this time she did not pull away. With Nashoba, she was completely safe. She would not allow Jerome Lansing to steal that security from her.

"Nita," Nashoba asked, "do you think… there's still a chance… for us?"

She laughed, her heart light for the first time since her ordeal had begun. "I look forward to finding out!" she told him. She sat back in her wheelchair and simply enjoyed looking at him. He had aged well, she thought. She could still see something of the boy he had been in his eyes and his expressive face, but the years had filled him out.

Her memories of the rescue were patchy, but she knew his arms were strong, his hands gentle. His face seemed very pale, though, and it struck her that his breaths came too fast, too shallow. His eyes—clear when she came in—were now glazed.

"Nashoba?" She squeezed his hand again. "What's wrong?"

"Jus'… need sleep," he slurred. He attempted to adjust his position, but then groaned in pain. "And… th' meds." He fumbled for the call button and pressed it with his thumb. "Sorry. You… need rest… too."

A moment later, Melissa came in. After the nurse had administered the dose of morphine Morton had ordered, Nita bent to kiss Nashoba on the forehead and trailed a thumb down his cheek. "I am glad we found each other again. We will talk later, when you feel better."

He nodded as his eyelids drooped and then closed. Nita looked back and smiled softly at him before Melissa wheeled her out the door. "Chi hullo li, Nashoba," she whispered.

 

Chapter 14

 

When Melissa brought her to the small private room a few doors down from Nashoba, Nita had initially protested. “I cannot afford such a room! I do not even have insurance!” But Melissa reassured her she had nothing to worry about—the private room was by Dixie’s orders, because Nita needed some space after everything she’d been through.

 

The friendly nurse had shown her how to press a button to make the bed lie flat and then to raise it up again. Then Melissa had also thrust a little box she called a “TV clicker” into Nita’s hands, prattling all the while. “It’s almost time for General Hospital, you know. I’m sure you won’t want to miss that—I bought a VCR with my pay last month just so I won’t miss any episodes when I’m on shift. My brother laughs at me for watching General Hospital because he thinks I’d get enough of hospitals here at Rampart, but I just love all the characters and their stories. There are other good soap operas, but that one’s my favorite.” She giggled. “Sometimes the show makes me wonder whether the doctors here have exciting secret lives.” Here she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “Why, just last week, Dr. Brackett…”

 

By this time, Nita had stopped hearing distinct words. “TV clickers” and “soap operas” meant little to her, as she had never owned a television, and wouldn’t dare watch in any house where she worked. And so she just let herself float along on the cheerful stream of Melissa’s chatter. Her eyes were slipping shut and soon she felt cool fingers move the clicker from her hand. She blinked open her eyes again to see a chagrined Melissa, her lips quirked into a rueful smile.

 

“Will you listen to me?” The nurse set the clicker aside, pulled a blanket over Nita, and then fetched a pitcher of water and set that on the bedside table, along with a tall plastic cup. “Here I am going on and on about my show and you’re barely keeping your eyes open. I’ll just put this aside, take your vitals, and then leave you to rest.” She made quick work of getting Nita’s blood pressure, heart rate, and respirations, noted the information on the chart, and then flashed a smile at her charge. “I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours. If you need anything before then, just press the call button.”

 

And then she was gone, and Nita was all alone. She almost wanted to hit the call button and get Melissa back to chatter at her some more, just to keep the silence at bay. Exhaustion tugged at her, and she resisted with all her strength. Though she had slept through most of her time in Lansing’s keeping, this had been an unnatural sleep wrought by drugs, neither restful nor restorative. Now that the chemical fog had cleared, she felt bone weary and longed for a real sleep; but at the same time, she feared sleep. To sleep meant to surrender control, and she’d had enough of that in her life. Most recently, Lansing had taken it from her; but now Nita couldn’t help thinking about how Inki had done it first, beginning the day Ishki had died. Of course, Inki was a far cry from the sinister Jerome Lansing! He had never laid a hand on his daughter, and woe betide any man who tried! But he had feared losing her, feared being left alone with a son he resented, and so he isolated her from her friends, from any would-be suitors, and even from her education. Since his passing, Nita had relished her new-found freedom. She could work where she wished and rest when she wished; she could have friends beyond Inki and Billy; she could even smile at Captain Matt Thomas and his crew and make fry bread for them, and no one would pull her away or threaten the firemen to keep their distance. And now she understood that Inki, in his need for control, had taken far more from her than she ever imagined—he had stolen her hopes for a life with Nashoba.

 

As of today, that life was possible again—but was it what she wanted? Or did she want Captain Thomas with his smiles and his jokes and his compliments? Just now she felt her heart tugged toward her first love, but maybe this was simply gratitude because he rescued her. She smiled as she thought of the day he first slid his hand into hers while they walked together in the woods. That day, she believed their hearts were meant for one another, that their lives were somehow woven together like one of Ishki’s intricately designed baskets. All these years, Nita had hoped that somehow, she and her first love would find their way back to one another. With Nashoba’s image foremost in her mind she let her eyes drift shut as she surrendered at last to sleep.

 

The dream carried her to the woods near home once again, and the silver-grey wolf padded beside her. She let her fingers drift across his warm back, and she felt his strength as he leant against her. She recognized that her shilombish had brought her to this place. She remembered the last time she had walked here in the dream world, when the wood had seemed dark and threatening. But now, light filtered through the leaves and the wolf was by her side, and she felt secure, even joyful. Then she felt a hand slipping into hers and she realized the wolf had transformed into the man Nashoba Tushpa, or Swift Wolf, who also bore the name John Roderick Gage, after his father and his grandfather before him. Together they strolled along the well-worn path to the creek, and there they sat, soaking their feet and talking together. He splashed her with the icy water, and she laughed, then leant to scoop up a handful of water and throw it in his face. Suddenly, the scene changed. The wolf-pendant she always wore slipped from her neck into the swift waters. Nashoba reached to grab it for her, but he was not fast enough. And then, before her eyes, his face paled. His lips turned blue and he began gasping for breath. He slumped back against the tree behind him. His eyes closed and his breath stilled. “Nashoba?” Nita called, and she shook him, but he did not respond.

 

Desperate, Nita clawed her way out of the dream. Her good hand flew to her chest and for the first time, she realized that her pendant was missing—she could not feel its comforting lump under the thin fabric of the hospital gown. Her thumb pressed the call button, but she did not wait for a nurse to respond. Heedless of her broken arm, she scrambled out of bed and pulled the gown around her, intent on getting to Nashoba’s room.

 

Nita reached her door just as Dixie was pushing it open. She managed to avoid a collision and grabbed hold of Dixie’s arm. “Miti!” The words tumbled out on each other’s heels, and she didn’t even notice she was speaking Choctaw. “Nashoba vt illa husi!”

 

Dixie gently squeezed her shoulder and brushed tears from her cheek. “English, Nita. I can’t understand you.” But even her soft voice and touch could not still the frantic pounding of Nita’s heart.

 

“Nashoba! He is dying! Please come!” she repeated, this time in English. She pushed her way past Dixie, and the nurse followed without another word. When they turned in at the door of 363, the two women were confronted with the sight of an ashen Nashoba, lying very still on his bed.

 

*******

 

Back at the precinct, Detectives Reed and Crockett sat across a table from Denny Janssen in the interrogation room. Because of the sensitive nature of their discussion, Crockett had closed the blinds and turned off the intercom. An attorney sat beside Janssen, scribbling notes on his yellow legal pad. On the table near Crockett was a small tape deck. As Crockett punched the “record” button, Reed leaned back in his chair, content to let Crockett do the questioning—as far as Jim was concerned, they should lock Janssen and anyone else involved in a cell and throw away the key. But they needed information Janssen could give them, and for now Jim would keep his mouth shut and listen.

 

“Before I say anything else, Janssen,” Crockett began, “I want to thank you for your tip today.” Jim resisted the urge to smirk. They had agreed to keep the details of the successful raid under their hats for the moment, so Janssen would not learn just now that Lansing was dead. “Now… first thing we need to know is, how did you get mixed up with Jerome Lansing?”

 

The attorney stiffened, and Jim couldn’t help likening him to a guard dog with its hackles raised. “My client does not need to ans—”

 

Janssen silenced the man with a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Ed. I told you already, I’m going to answer all their questions. As my wife said last night, it’s about time I grew a spine.” He sucked in a deep breath and met Crockett’s eyes. “I’ll take what’s coming to me, Detective, even if it means doing time.”

 

His guard dog eased back a little, but remained tense. “Let the record reflect, my client intends full cooperation. In exchange, I would like to suggest immunity from prosecution.”

 

“Duly noted,” Crockett barked, and then his voice softened. “Go on, Janssen. If your information pans out, I’ll talk with the DA about immunity, and I promise, Jim and I will do all we can to make sure you get a fair shake.”

 

The guard dog was still on high alert. “We want the DA’s promise in writing before we agree.”

 

Janssen shook his head. “Shut up, Ed. I’m done worrying about myself. I’m ready to talk.” He leaned forward and locked eyes with Ron. “I trust you, Crockett. You and Reed have a good reputation. That’s why I’m talking to you.” He shifted in his chair, took a long drink of water from the glass in front of him, and then continued.

 

“It all started last year… around March. I can’t get more specific than that. I was up for promotion, but then Delano came to me and asked me about some rumors he heard… apparently, it was going around that I tampered with evidence from a drug bust. It was real bad—some said I was a drug addict… others said I was stealing heroin from the evidence locker and getting it back to the dealers in exchange for a cut. None of it was true, Crockett, and IA couldn’t find any evidence to confirm it. The cloud didn’t go away, though, because there also wasn’t any proof I was innocent. I kept my job, but I didn’t get the promotion. Then Captain Groff called me in to his office. He presented me with the so-called evidence—trumped up, every bit of it! He said it was incontrovertible and that if he let it get to IA, I would lose everything and my family would be humiliated. He promised to hold back the evidence if I did as he said. At first, I was just a messenger. But eventually, he pushed all the dirty work on me so he could keep his hands clean.” He stopped here to take another drink.

 

Jim leaned forward in his seat, his decision to keep quiet forgotten. “What dirty work?”

 

“He knew you were investigating the trafficking ring. Whenever it seemed you were getting close, he instructed me to warn Lansing.” Janssen hesitated, looking down at his hands. He cleared his throat, then reached once more for his water. Jim watched as he

closed his eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and squared his shoulders. The worry creases around his eyes were smoothing out. Over the last twenty minutes of confession, he seemed to have shed ten years. “Several times, he made me release prostitutes into Lansing’s custody, and when Sarah Lansing was killed five months ago, he made me cover up evidence that she was murdered. That poor old man—he tried to tell me—and I went along with Lansing’s explanation that he was suffering from dementia. He did seem pretty confused, but I thought it was his medication.”

 

Crockett glanced at Jim. Both detectives had been informed of the senior Lansing’s death. According to the autopsy, the man’s cardiac arrest was triggered by a powerful cocktail of drugs, which the detectives suspected the son of giving him.

 

“Why did you go along with Groff?” Jim glanced at the attorney, almost certain he would find a reason to object to the question. But apparently, the guard dog had been brought to heel. He remained silent.

 

Janssen shrugged. “He threatened to ruin me if I didn’t.” He looked down at his hands again and began rubbing at a scar on his wrist. His next words came out almost in a whisper. “He said… he said he would make sure Lansing knew where to find my daughter if I didn’t cooperate fully, and he had Mitchell and Hudson watching me and reporting to him. If they find out I’m here…” He glanced nervously toward the door.

 

“Relax, Janssen. They’re out on patrol, and Groff went home early.” Crockett leaned back in his chair and looked over his notes, clearly thinking about their next step.

 

Meanwhile, Jim had one more question. “Why now, Janssen. Why did you decide to come to us?”

 

Janssen scratched his neck and rubbed at his scar again. “I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. My wife—she knew something was going on. I never told her about any of it but last night she confronted me, asked me why I had grown so distant and secretive over the last year. She said she’d been thinking of walking away, taking the kids with her.” He sighed. “I hated myself for it, but I told her she should go. I wanted to know that she and the kids were safe. Then I told her everything. I was sure she would leave then, after learning what I had become, but I couldn’t let her walk away without the truth. Can you believe it, that woman looked me in the eyes and told me she loved me and that she would stand by me, whatever happened, but I had to ‘grow a spine and do the right thing.’ So, when Groff summoned me today and told me to call Lansing and warn him to get out, I knew it was time. That’s when I contacted you.”

 

Jim nodded as Crockett set his notes back on the table and leaned forward again. “All right, Janssen… this is all valuable information, but we need hard evidence. So, here is what we’re going to do.”

 

*******

 

Cup of coffee in hand, Roy sauntered down the hallway toward Johnny’s room. Assured that Johnny was going to be all right, he had spent part of the last hour updating Joanne by telephone, and the rest dozing on the sofa in the lounge. He just wanted to check in on his friend one last time, and then he would go home to spend the afternoon with his family. According to Jo, DJ was out of sorts and asking for his daddy.

 

As he neared the nurse’s station, an orderly darted past him with a crash cart. Then he saw Dr. Brackett and Dr. Morton running from the opposite direction. When all three converged on room 363, a chill went through Roy. He set his coffee on the counter and ran the rest of the way to Johnny’s room, stopping only briefly at the door to steel himself for what he might find.

 

He slipped in unnoticed and stood to the side, where he slipped an arm around a sobbing Nita. Together, they watched wordlessly as Dr. Brackett intubated Johnny while Dr. Morton took his vital signs and Dixie readied the equipment necessary to hook him up to a heart monitor. Dr. Brackett looked up, his lips set in a grim line, and instructed Dixie to call for a ventilator, then returned his attention to his patient.

 

Once Johnny seemed to be stabilized, Brackett stepped back from the bed and studied his chart. “Mike, the chart mentions only a stab wound and a minor kidney laceration, but when Roy called it in, he said Johnny was forced under water twice. I’d like to hear exactly what happened.”

 

Roy stepped forward. “I can tell you, Doc. Johnny was trying to rescue a drowning vic, and the fellow managed to push him under twice and stab him in the side.”

 

Brackett frowned. “How long was he under? Did he lose consciousness?”

 

Roy shook his head. “No… at least, not from being held under. He fought pretty hard to get free, and he wasn’t under more than 10, 15 seconds at a time. I think it was blood loss, shock, and exhaustion that made him pass out later.”

 

“But he definitely took in water?” A shadow of concern darkened Brackett’s eyes.

 

“Yes. He vomited up quite a bit of water right after we got him in the boat.” Roy’s brow wrinkled as his expression mirrored Brackett’s concern. “Why, Doc? What’s the matter with him?”

 

Brackett sighed. “I have my suspicions, but I want to confirm it first. Dixie, he’ll need a bronchoscopy, and I want a chest x-ray.”

 

“Right away, Kell.” Dixie hurried off to make the arrangements.

 

Roy attempted to guide Nita, still weeping, from the room, but before they reached the door she realized what he was doing and pulled away. She sniffled a bit and then dried her tears on the sleeve of her hospital gown. “No,” she said firmly. “I will stay with Nashoba. He needs me.” Roy cast a glance at Dr. Brackett, who seemed at first ready to object, but finally assented with a nod of his head.

 

And so Nita took her place in a chair at Johnny’s bedside, pulling his hand into her own. When she began murmuring in a gentle stream of Choctaw, Roy was pretty sure she was praying. He glanced upwards and added his own request to the Almighty for his friend. Then he looked back at Nita, sitting tall and straight like an ancient warrior queen.

 

He stepped to her side and reached into his pocket. The wolf pendant—it had been zipped in Johnny’s pocket when they brought him in and he’d retrieved it in hopes of returning it to Nita. Now seemed like the right time. He touched her shoulder, and when she looked up at him, he held it out. “He would want you to have this back.”

 

The relief that glowed in her eyes and almost brought a smile to her lips at the sight of her pendant bolstered Roy’s hopes in the midst of all their shared worry, and he was glad he’d thought of the keepsake. “Your brother found it in the fire,” he explained. “Johnny kept it close while we looked for you.”

 

“I thought it was gone forever,” she said. “I thought losing it meant… losing him. Yakoke, Roy DeSoto. Thank you.” He helped her put the pendant around her neck where it belonged, then settled into the chair next to her. Together, they would keep vigil over their friend.

 

 


 

To be Continued.

*******

 

*******

*I had a dilemma in writing about Johnny's previous stations. In the pilot episode, his gear shows him working at Station 10, but in the version of this episode presented (I think) in the fifth season, Johnny reminisces with Roy about how he was working at Station 8—that's when he mentions the fire pole. Additionally, the episode Smoke Eater (season 4) presents Station 10 as a two-man station. I decided to stick with Station 8, but figured it was worth a note here.

**The Bishinik was originally called Hello Choctaw when it started up in 1975, but was renamed Bishinik in 1978 for the little 'news-bird,' a woodpecker Choctaw legends say survived the Returning Waters (their name for the Great Flood) and later became a great friend to the Choctaw, bringing news of game to hunting parties and news of enemy movements to war parties; in 2010 the name was corrected to Biskinik. For simplicity's sake, I have taken the liberty of using the title Bishinik here, even though I imagine the article would date back to 1975 or 1976.

***Jones and Wheelock Academies were both Choctaw boarding schools in Oklahoma (though they were open to children from other tribes as well). Wheelock was a girls' school and Jones was a boys' school. When Wheelock closed in 1955, Jones Academy became co-educational.

****Iyyi Kowa literally means "broken foot," and refers to the traditional Choctaw concept of community service, which involves the community coming together to meet the needs of those who are injured, sick, or otherwise unable to care for themselves.

*******

*The Choctaw words to verse one of Amazing Grace translate literally as follows: “O Holy Spirit! Come and bring gladness to us wretched people.” Later, Nita sings verse 3 and part of verse 4, which translate, “O Holy Spirit! Our thoughts wander in darkness, let your light so shine upon us. Come and comfort us for our hearts are in sorrow.” I have heard this hymn sung at every Choctaw gathering I have attended. If anyone is interested in seeing the full text of the hymn in Choctaw, send me a message and I’ll be happy to share it with you. I found the words and their translation in the book Choctaw Language and Culture, by Marcia Haag and Henry Willis.

 

Part 4 A.N.: As this chapter began to take shape in my mind, wildfires across the US made the news. On August 19, three firefighters—Andrew Zajac, Tom Zbyszewski, and Richard Wheeler—died in Washington when the wind shifted and their vehicle went down a 40-foot embankment. I decided to name my next minor character in their honor. So, I give you Andrew Thomas Wheeler, otherwise known as Andy. I ask that my readers who are of a mind to pray please join me in praying for the families and friends of these (and all other) fallen heroes.

 

Any errors regarding firefighting, paramedic work, or boating are my own. I have attempted to research what I write, but I recognize that I am hampered by a lack of experience. Those who would point out my errors in a kind but constructive way are much appreciated. Finally, I suppose I should make the standard disclaimer that the characters from the series Emergency do not belong to me. However, they do spend a lot of time talking in my head, leaving me no choice but to take dictation. My fellow writers will understand exactly what I mean. On that note, I hope you all enjoy the story!

PART 5: A/N: In written Choctaw, the letter v, often written as a Greek υ (upsilon), is a vowel. It does not represent the English sound V, but the short U in "but." I thought I should mention this to clear up any confusion on pronunciation. The consonant combination HL is pronounced like a very soft "th" sound followed by the "l" sound. The Welsh have a similar sound in the name Llewellyn. An underlined vowel, as in Aki (father), has a slightly nasal sound to it. As always, any mistakes in this chapter are my own, and I welcome kindly worded corrections—I am always happy to go back and edit to make something more accurate. Thank you again to my wonderful beta readers!

PART 6: A/N: Well, I wasn't able to put everything I wanted to into Choctaw. I considered waiting till my "Learning Choctaw" buddies on Facebook could answer my plea for help, but decided I'd rather just get this posted. So… you can assume that if Nita is praying, it's in Choctaw, even though I had to use English. When I do use Choctaw, if I don't put a translation in brackets right next to it, you can be sure I'll translate within the next line or two of text. :) I will try to get another chapter written within the next week, but if I don't, Na Hvlbina Aiokpachi Na Yukpa (Happy Thanksgiving)!

 

Part 8

A/N: My primary sources for all things Choctaw are the websites of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (of which I am a member) and their Choctaw Language School (Chahta Anumpa Aikhvnna). I translate most Choctaw that I use within the text, but thought I'd make a note about one word before I get started. 'Hoke' (pronounced Ho-kay) is an exclamatory that translates roughly as "It is so." Many believe that this is the origin of the English term O.K., and I have read work from Choctaw writers that uses hoke interchangeably with O.K. Any language errors are my own—I am learning a bit of Choctaw, but am by no means fluent. If by chance one of my readers knows Choctaw and spots a mistake, I would welcome a kindly worded correction. Thank you!

A/N: In response to a review that affirmed my own thinking, I am trying a different way of providing the translations for Choctaw words and phrases. This time, I am providing an alphabetized glossary at the beginning of the chapter; to avoid spoilers, some terms are left out of the glossary, but I found a way to translate these naturally within the story text. Remember that v is a vowel in Choctaw, pronounced like the u in English cup. An underlined vowel is nasalized, as are vowels followed by n or m. Finally, Choctaw does not have silent letters. If anyone wants more pronunciation tips, feel free to message me. Thank you to my Choctaw-speaking Facebook buddies who have been a great help to me—any mistakes are my fault, not theirs!

 

Glossary:

Abeka aiashachi: Hospital

Achukma: Good

Alikchi: Doctor

Amafo: My Grandfather.

Anki: Literally, “My father,” though here it can just be translated “Father”—it’s in the context of a dream, so I wanted to use the terms the dreamer would use for the people encountered.

Chi hullo li: I love you.

Chi kashoffi li: I forgive you.

Chi pisa la chike: I’ll see you later. [There is no word or phrase in Choctaw that means the same as the English ‘goodbye.’]

Chihohchifo-yvt…: Your name is…

Halito: Hello

Ikhana li kiyo: I don’t know

Is-san kashoffachin ho?: Will you forgive me?

Katimi ho ilvppa ish antta?: Why are you here?

Nahullo: White person

Nanaiyachi: Peacemaker

Nashoba: Wolf

Ome: Yes; all right

Sappokni: My grandmother

Shilombish: One source tells me it means soul, the other tells me it means spirit. Some will not see a distinction between the two words and others will.

Shilup: Can also be translated soul or spirit; also ghost.

Sv hotupa: I’m hurt

Svshki: My mother

Svso: My son (used when a parent is directly addressing the son)

Yakoke: Thank you

Chukka – house

Ishki – her motherInki – her fatherShampe (pr: shahm-pē): According to Choctaw legend, the Shampe is a giant, hideous monster who cannot stand the touch of the sun or fresh air. He has bad eyesight, but a keen sense of smell, and he is an excellent tracker—in particular, the scent of blood attracts him, so he will follow hunters with freshly killed game. He hides himself deep in the forest and makes a whistling sound when he walks. His overpowering stench alone can be deadly. He is said to abduct women and eat men, and because of his smell he is hard to fight. Impa Shilup – The Soul Eater. According to Choctaw legend, this beast takes up residence within people who allow evil or depressing thoughts to overwhelm them and devours their souls.

Nashoba – Wolf

 

Part 9 :A/N: At last, my writer’s block is conquered and I have a new chapter for you, my wonderful readers! Special thanks go to my son, who served as my martial arts and weapons consultant, and to my beta readers, who are a constant source of encouragement to me. I never could have written this chapter without them!

In chapter 7, I alluded to the episode in which the guys at 51 were watching an Adam-12 episode. Now I have repeated the show’s inconsistency by making Reed and Malloy a part of the story. Eventually I’ll probably go back and edit out that allusion in chapter 7, because Jim and Pete are insistent on helping take down Jerome Lansing.

 

I’m headed back to Ukraine in June, so it may be a while before Chapter 10, but I promise I’ll be working on it while I travel! I appreciate any and all prayers for a safe journey there and back again.

 

*******

 

Glossary (just Spanish this time)

 

Que Dios me perdone – May God forgive me.

Dios, por favor me hace invisible – God, please make me invisible.

Dios, ayúdame! – God, help me!

Glossary: Choctaw/English

Glossary (Choctaw/English)

Chi hullo li – I love you

 

Chihowa! Si apela! – Lord God! help me!

 

Nashoba sia. – I am Nashoba [Wolf].

 

Is svkhanah o? – Do you remember me?

 

Chi apela li. – I’ll help you.

 

Nashoba, chishno ash chia anhli ho? – Nashoba, is it really you?!

 

AYes

 

Nahullo – White (man)

 

Chahta kvllo – Stubborn Choctaw

 

Chiki holba – Just like your father

 

Chihowa, Alikchi Chito –    Lord God, Great Physician

 

Nashoba masalichi. – Heal Nashoba.

 

Yakoke – Thank you

 

*ROVER stands for Remote Out of Vehicle Emergency Radio, and is a device much like the handy-talkies used in Emergency. ROVER units were used by the LAPD beginning in March of ‘81 by the Central Bureau, and then expanding to other bureaus through July of ‘82 (when this story takes place). I’m not sure whether Vince would actually have had one at this point, but it seemed reasonable. ROVERs could be used to communicate with Dispatch, or they could be set to simplex mode, allowing only those officers on the same frequency and in close proximity to hear.

 

Glossary: Choctaw/English

 

Inki – His/her father

 

Ishki – His/her mother

 

Shilombish – Spirit


 

Part 1 - Posted to Site 5/7/15

Part 2 - Posted to Site 7/23/15

Part 3 - Posted to Site 8/22/15

Part 4 - Posted to Site  10/24/15

Part 5 - Posted to Site 11/15/15

Part 6 & 7 Posted to Site 12/19/15

Part 8 Posted to Site 1/8/16

Part 9 Posted to Site 5/23/16

Part 10 Poste to Site 6/15/17

Part 11 and 12 Posted to Site 8/20/17

Part 13 nd 14 to Site 10/19/17

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