Captain Hank Stanley stood in the doorway of his office watching Squad 51 slowly back into the bay. He was surprised to see Roy DeSoto driving. Just an hour earlier, Roy had been riding in an ambulance when it was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. John Gage had telephoned from Rampart to say the two paramedics would be delayed until Roy was checked out by a doctor. The call had put another gray hair on Hank's head. He didn't like it when his men were injured. No sirree, he didn't like it one bit.
"Let's see," he ordered as Roy slid out from behind the steering wheel.
Roy gestured to the white square taped to his forehead. "Not much to see. It's bandaged."
Hank scowled. "That much I can figure out for myself. What's underneath the bandage?"
Roy shrugged. Calm, focused, unflappable Roy DeSoto, Hank thought. Always good in a crisis. When Roy did get upset, it was usually due to his partner driving him to distraction, or because something had gone wrong with a patient and Roy blamed himself.
"It's just a cut," Roy said. "No worse than Johnny's war wound."
Hank turned his gaze to Johnny. "What's wrong with you?"
The younger paramedic pulled up the right leg of his trousers. "All the hair on my leg is gone. Singed right off."
Hank wasn't impressed, but before he could comment, Marco Lopez poked his head out of the day room. "Food's ready, you guys. Hamburgers and cheeseburgers."
Roy asked, "Cap, can I use your phone? Joanne always wants me to call right away if something happens."
"Like she's going to know if you wait a half hour," Johnny scoffed.
"She'll know," Roy said. "Wife ESP. With my luck, she'll stop by here on her way to her mother's house."
Hank studied Roy for a few more seconds. The captain didn't consider himself a worrywart, and he trusted the doctors over at Rampart, but he had a responsibility to his men to make sure all of them were capable of pulling their own weight in the field. If Roy needed the rest of the day off, Hank would find a replacement.
"You sure you're okay?" Hank asked.
"Perfectly fine," Roy smiled. "Save a cheeseburger for me."
In the kitchen, Hank took his head-of-line privilege. He slapped some mustard and ketchup on a bun and loaded up with all the best fixings – tomatoes, onions, Tabasco sauce and some hot peppers. His stomach would probably bother him later, but that was why he kept a steady supply of Alka-Seltzer in his desk.
"Take the burgers on the bottom," Mike Stoker suggested. "Chet didn't burn those."
"I didn't burn any of them!" Chet Kelly protested. "You were the one who had the heat up too high."
Roy's injury lasted as a topic of conversation for approximately ten seconds. Chet asked if he'd needed X-rays. Johnny said no. Marco asked why the other driver had plowed into the ambulance. No one was surprised to learn the guy had been drinking. Without Roy present to provide the interesting details, the rest of the crew settled for agreeing that drunk drivers were a menace and turned their attention to the noon news on TV. An earthquake in Arkansas had shaken up half the state, and an oil field explosion had severely burned a man.
"Ouch," Chet said as they watched the footage of the oil field in flames. "You know that's got to hurt."
Morbid humor, for sure, but Hank knew it was one way of coping with the dangers they each faced every shift. He had finished his first cheeseburger and started on his second when he realized Roy had yet to join them. No one else seemed to notice the paramedic's absence. Hank chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then put his food down and went to his office.
No Roy there. Hank checked the dorm and the bathroom. He found Roy sitting out in the parking lot behind the station, on a bench near the basketball net. The day was sunny and unseasonably warm for February, with a thin layer of smog in the air. Cars roared by on the freeway a few hundred feet away.
"Food's in the kitchen," Hank said, "not out here."
Roy gave him a quick, rueful glance. "All of a sudden I'm not that hungry."
"Everything okay with Joanne?"
"Oh, sure. She's fine. A little worried, after I told her, but fine."
Hank waited patiently for an explanation as to why Roy was sitting alone, in the back, studying Mike Stoker's black Buick as if it were the most interesting car in the world. After a moment, Roy shifted and pulled his right hand from under his thigh. He held it in the air, and Hank saw it shake.
Roy took a deep breath. "Just a little delayed reaction."
"Just a little," Hank agreed. He sat down on the bench and looked at Stoker's car. Dirt coated the exterior, and the rear hubcap didn't match the front one. For someone who took such loving care of his fire engine, Stoker didn't pay much attention to his automobile. "Just getting to you now, huh?"
Roy sat on his hand again. "When you go into a burning building, you expect danger. But when you're riding in an ambulance, you don't think someone's going to plow right into you."
"Did you have any warning at all?"
"Just a second or two. Al yelled something. I don't remember what."
"And then you had to take care of everyone yourself."
"It only took a few minutes for Johnny to catch up," Roy said, a little defensively.
"I'm sure it did," Hank said. Engine 11 had also responded to the accident. The captain there had called Hank to tell him the ambulance itself would probably be totaled, and it was a damn lucky thing that no one in it had been seriously injured. "Still, you had to take charge of the scene. You probably didn't have any time to think about what had happened, and now you do."
Roy said nothing. A truck blasted its horn on the freeway, only to be answered by a shriller honk from a car. Hank listened, half-expecting to hear the squeal of brakes and the crash of metal, but the steady whoosh of traffic remained intact. He saw Roy's shoulders had tensed, and supposed the paramedic had been thinking the same thing.
"L.A. drivers," Hank said.
Roy looked at the ground. "You don't have to sit here if you don't want to."
"You're right," Hank said. "I could go do paperwork. Listen to Kelly and Gage argue over whatever the topic of the day is. Plan a drill. Or just sit out here where it's kind of nice and quiet."
Roy started to say something, then stopped.
"What?" Hank pressed.
The paramedic grimaced. "Just a dumb idea. Maybe ambulances should have seat belts, so people don't get thrown around if there's an accident."
So paramedics don't get thrown around, Hank thought. He pictured a tin can spinning crazily around with tiny paramedics and patients inside it. Most fire engines didn't have seat belts, either. Hank thought of school buses as well, thousands of kids riding around each day unrestrained. Drunk drivers behind steering wheels, accidents waiting to happen. Too many tragedies.
"I said it was dumb," Roy reminded him.
"I don't think it's dumb," Hank said. "Any idea that save a life isn't dumb."
Roy touched his bandage. "No one got killed today."
"But you could have been," Hank said, diving straight to the heart of the matter. "All it takes is one drunk idiot in a car, and all of a sudden Joanne's a widow with two kids to raise."
"Yeah," Roy said hoarsely, looking down at the tips of his shoes. "You know what's stupid? I keep thinking of worse things than being killed. Spinal injuries. Being a paraplegic stuck in a wheelchair the rest of your life. Call me selfish or a coward, but I don't think I could live like that."
Hank didn't think being a paraplegic was worse than being dead. Life was life, and even a terrible day stuck in a wheelchair had to be better than no life at all. Then again, he had full use of his arms and legs, could go to the bathroom when he wanted, didn't need to depend on anyone for simple things like eating or washing his face. He thought Roy had the inner strength and resilience to adapt to anything thrown his way, even being paralyzed, as long as he had the support of family and friends. But Hank prayed things would never come to that.
"Kind of makes you wonder why we come to work every day," Hank offered.
Roy gave him a surprised look. "Oh, no. I know why I come to work every day. I just wish some other people would stay home."
They sat in companionable silence for a few more minutes, until Roy lifted his hands. The trembling had diminished, but not entirely disappeared.
Hank made a prediction. "One day, after you make captain, you're going to look back and remember the best three words of advice that old Hank Stanley ever gave you."
Roy squinted at him. "Don't drive drunk?"
"Go eat lunch."
Roy smiled. "Thanks, Cap. I'll be right in."
A dismissal if Hank had ever heard one. He clapped Roy's shoulder and headed back inside the station. Johnny stood just inside the bay, out of earshot, a worry line creasing his forehead. Hank wondered how long he'd been standing there, watching.
"Everything okay?" Johnny asked.
"It will be." Hank noticed the cheeseburger on a plate in Johnny's hand. Relish and ketchup oozed out from the bun, soaking the potato chips on the side. "Is that the last one?"
"The last one that isn't burned," Johnny said.
Hank went back to his meal. The new weathergirl had come on wearing a pretty blue dress with white cuffs. As she pointed at the map of the United States, her hem rode up a little higher on her thighs.
"She can forecast my weather any day," Chet said with a leer.
"I think we need to do an inspection at that TV station," Marco said. "Right, Cap?"
The sports announcer had started his segment when Roy and Johnny came in. "I hate relish," Roy was saying.
"You love relish," Johnny insisted. "You put it on hot dogs all the time."
"I hate relish on cheeseburgers," Roy corrected. "Hot dogs are different."
"Well, excuse me for trying to be helpful," Johnny said.
"Besides, it's better when you put the condiments underneath the patty, not on top of it."
Johnny shook his head sadly at his partner. "You've got some weird food habits, you know that?"
The alarm went off, cutting off any further bickering. Hank was glad to hear only the engine called out. If they were lucky, the two paramedics would have time to finish their lunch and take a well-deserved break. He hoped they didn't have an entirely idle afternoon, though. Hank firmly believed that staying busy kept his crew from brooding too much about things they couldn't control, such as fires set by accident or for profit and drunk drivers menacing themselves and society.
"Is Roy okay?" Mike asked as Hank climbed up into the cab beside him. "You two were out back for awhile."
Hank wasn't surprised that Mike had noticed. He pulled on his helmet and tightened the chinstrap. "He's fine."
Mike hit the lights and siren and started the mammoth engine down the driveway. Hank felt the old familiar thrill of going off to fight whatever the city of Los Angeles threw at him—flames, explosions, burning chemicals, collapsing buildings.
"In fact," Hank added, "we were talking about washing your car."
"What's wrong with my car?" Mike asked.
Hank only smiled.
Author's notes - Thanks to Susan and Terry for their beta comments. I truly appreciate them. Any remaining mistakes or typos are entirely my own fault. Feedback is wonderful, please send some! For more Johnny and Roy, check out my article "Hey Buddy-Buddy."