Chapter 1: The Hoarder
"Evergreen or deciduous?" Chet asked.
"Deciduous," Roy said, just as Johnny replied "Evergreen."
"All right, how about this one? And this time, so I don't think you're cheating, we'll do like rock-paper-scissors, only you stick out one finger for the first answer, and two for the second. Because I think you're puttin' one over on me," Chet said.
"All right," said Roy, "but honest—we're not cheating. Try the next one."
"Green beans, or broccoli? One, two, three, go!"
Johnny held out two fingers, and Roy showed one.
"Geez, guys! Okay, here's the last one. Time to paint the bedroom. Do you go for blue tones, or earth tones? And this time close your eyes when you show your answers. One, two, three, go!"
Roy again showed one finger, and Johnny two.
Chet shook his head. "You scored zero out of fifteen. The chart says: 'Zero through two: unless your negotiation and compromise skills are way above average, or you don't really mind if you only get what you want half the time, think twice before marriage.' So that clinches it. No wedding bells for the two of you," he said, tossing the Woman's Day magazine onto the coffee table.
Johnny sighed, and stretched mightily. "How bored are we," he said, "if we're resorting to doing quizzes from women's magazines?"
"On a scale of one to ten, where zero is the least bored I've ever been, and ten is—"
BWAM, BWOOM BWEEEP!
"Squad 51, unknown type rescue. 3806 Camden Street. 3-8-0-6 Camden Street, cross street Reno. Time out: 1542."
Johnny and Roy leapt to their feet for their first run of the day.
"Man, Roy, I'll tell ya—I usually really hate the unknown type rescue, but today? I'll take what we get, and leave smiling, 'cause I can't remember the last time we didn't get toned out till the afternoon, for cryin' out loud."
"Here's the cross street," Roy said.
"Take a left. Should be the second block, on the right hand side."
The squad pulled past the small two-story dwelling, and Johnny checked the place out from inside the squad. The tiny, fenced-in yard was filled with objects, from bikes to kitchen appliances to—and Johnny had to look twice at this one—a snowblower.
"Uh oh," Roy said.
"I take it back," Johnny said under his breath, "about leaving happy."
"Yeah, Junior—the view from the windshield doesn't really make me want to go in there."
They each took a deep breath, and exited the squad. They picked their way through the yard to the front door, and banged loudly.
"Fire department!" Johnny shouted, as Roy pounded.
There was no response. Roy tried the door—it was locked.
"I'm gonna do a walkaround," Johnny said, "if I can," he finished in a mutter.
Johnny worked his way around piles and heaps, until he could get a look at the back of the house. The back yard was, if anything, more congested than the front. There was a boat, two doghouses—empty—no fewer than three refrigerators, two ancient, rusty swingsets—not set into the ground, just in a heap with other things, and an ancient Buick, whose wheels were sunk several inches into the ground. He looked up at the windows—every window in the house was closed and covered with shades or curtains.
He stepped as close as he could to the house, and listened carefully. Then he heard it: "bahmp, bahmp, bahmp, bahmp …" The sound of a phone off the hook, repeating endlessly.
Johnny tried the windows he could reach, but they were all locked. He returned to the front of the house. Roy was just putting the handset of the mobile radio back on its bracket. "I called for more information—they said all they heard was someone breathing, but they didn't get any verbal responses."
"Everything I tried was locked," said Johnny. "But I can hear a phone off the hook. It's really faint, but that's definitely what it is."
Roy sighed. "Let's get some law enforcement here, because we're gonna have to break in." He reached for the radio again. "Dispatch, Squad 51. Request law enforcement at our location."
"10-4, Squad 51."
Roy grabbed a set of irons, and Johnny picked up the bolt cutters and the tool for popping the front off a deadbolt. They trooped up to the front door.
Johnny wrinkled his nose. "I can smell it already."
Johnny set the bolt cutters down. He popped the face off the deadbolt lock, and worked it open with his tools. He slid a shove knife behind the latch of the doorknob lock, and pulled the door open. Three separate chains prevented the door from opening fully. But it opened enough for a powerful stench to assault them.
Johnny stepped back. "All yours, Roy."
Roy snipped through the chains with the bolt cutter, and the two men reluctantly pulled the door completely open. Several cats shot out the door.
"Fire department!" Johnny hollered again. He took a deep breath to shout again, but gagged. "Holy shit," he said under his breath. He shouted again. "Hello? Anyone home?"
There was no response.
Roy sighed. "You want upstairs, and I'll take down here?"
"Not really, but okay."
Roy searched through the downstairs rooms. There were piles of newspapers, books, and magazines nearly up to the ceiling in what looked like it must be the living room. There was a door behind several piles; Roy decided not to try to get to that door, since it seemed unlikely that it had been opened in years. Decades.
Several piles in the next room had toppled. The victim could be under there, but that wouldn't account for the phone-off-the-hook sound, which Roy could now tell was coming from upstairs. He got as far as he could into the kitchen. Nothing. Well, nothing except piles of plastic bags filled with who-knew-what.
There was another sound coming from upstairs, but Roy couldn't tell what it was.
"Hey Roy?" Johnny called. "I got 'im! First room at the top. Watch yourself on the landing."
"Sir? Sir? Can you hear me?" Roy heard Johnny saying from the room upstairs.
Roy picked his way through the objects on the stairs. The landing was indeed extra hazardous—an ancient lamp stood in the corner, its broken glass globe jutting sharply into the airspace at face level. Roy made it to the top of the stairs, and peered into the room that Johnny was in. He was on the floor, with a male patient of about sixty, who was on his belly on the floor next to the bed—the one surface in the house not completely inundated by objects. Johnny had put the phone back on the hook, and Roy could now hear the other sound more clearly. It sounded a bit like the buzzing of a beehive, but higher pitched, and more insistent.
"Responsive to pain stimulus only. Let's roll him," Johnny said.
They carefully rolled the man onto his back, keeping his spine straight.
"Looks like maybe a hip fracture," Roy said.
"Yep. We'll need a backboard, biophone, drug box, IV box. And, uh, manpower. I don't think we can get him out down the stairs," Johnny said. "Not without moving a lot of stuff."
"You thinking the window?"
"Yeah. There's a roof over the back porch. Send him out this window here in a Stokes, and then down to the ground. Probably better than getting down the stairs."
Roy nodded. "I agree. I'm gonna check that other room real quick, just to make sure there's nobody in there, because I'm hearing something weird. Then I'll get the supplies and call dispatch for the Engine."
"They're gonna love this," Johnny said, shaking his head.
Roy exited the room, and opened the door to the adjacent room. As the door opened, Roy was nearly felled by a stench even more noxious than the now mild-seeming underlying odor of the home. He looked into the room, and wished he hadn't.
The entire room, every wall, floor to ceiling, was lined with animal carriers. Each one contained at least one cat; some had two. The carriers each had a food and water dish—and that was all. It didn't appear that the carriers—or the room—had ever been cleaned.
At the top of one of the stacks of carriers, there was a badly-decomposed carcass that Roy could only assume was feline.
Roy left the room, and shut the door as quickly as possible. He was glad for an excuse to leave the house, though he knew re-entry would be, if that was even possible, more sick-making than the initial entry, since he already knew how bad it was. It was of minor consolation that he wouldn't have to go back into the cat room—that would be someone else's problem.
Roy carefully made his way back out the front door, and stood on the porch, breathing the fresher air in deeply. He went to the mobile radio in the squad and picked up the hand microphone.
"Dispatch, from Squad 51; we need an ambulance at our location. Also, we're requesting Engine 51 for additional extrication manpower at our location."
"Squad 51, dispatching ambulance and Engine 51 to your location."
Roy waited until he heard the tones, and heard Captain Stanley acknowledge the call. "Dispatch, we're also going to need animal control, for approximately … forty cats on the premises."
A pause. "Squad 51, say again?"
"Squad 51 requests animal control at our location, for approximately forty, four zero, cats."
"10-4, Squad 51. Will dispatch animal control."
As he replaced the hand mic, a black-and-white pulled up in front of the house, and a deputy stepped out.
"What you got?"
"Hoarder," Roy said, as he got the needed supplies out of the squad. "He's upstairs, probably has a broken hip. We had to break in, so I guess you oughta check it out. Don't know how he'd know if we took anything, though. Not that we'd want to."
"Yeah. I can smell it from here," said the deputy. "Damn. All right; lead the way. Lemme take some of that stuff."
Roy sighed, and returned to the stuffy, smelly house with the deputy. "Our engine's on its way; we're gonna have to take the guy out a window. Oh, and animal control is coming. The second upstairs room is full—and I do mean full—of cats. You're gonna hafta take a look, I'm afraid. It's pretty grim."
"Great. Man, what a mess … is that a—"
"Yeah, 'fraid so. The real action's upstairs, though. Watch out for that broken lamp."
Roy could hear Johnny on the biophone.
"10-4 Rampart. IV, normal saline, monitor vitals and transport."
Roy went into the room with Johnny, and assisted in setting up the IV. The man moaned and pushed back slightly from the needle stick, but otherwise didn't respond. The engine's siren, wailing in the distance, got louder, and then moaned to a halt.
"I got out once already; you can go meet them," Roy said.
Johnny practically leapt to his feet. He left the room as fast as he could, and inched down the stairs just in time to hear voices at the front door.
"Holy Moses!" said Chet.
"He'd be handy, right about now—this sea could use some parting if you ask me," said Mike.
Johnny raised his eyebrows at the uncharacteristically lengthy sentence from Mike. "Yeah, well wait'll you see the upstairs. Which, actually, maybe you won't have to. Here's the deal—we gotta backboard this guy, and take him out the window. No way he's comin' down those stairs, there," Johnny said, pointing into the house.
"What stairs?" Marco asked, muscling forwards to get his first good look at the place. "Geez."
Cap had his turn. "Yikes. I've seen places like this before, but I think this one gets first prize."
"Yep," Johnny said. "The smell upstairs is kinda heart-stopping. Puts the 'code' in 'fire code,' if you know what I mean."
The others looked at him blankly.
"Uh, you know—like when someone's heart stops, and they call a code at the hospital?"
Chet took pity on him. "I get it. You tried, I know you did."
"All right, boys—let's get a move on, here," Cap said. "Gage, what've we got in the back?"
"Piles and piles and piles of—oh, you mean in terms of getting the guy out. Uh, pretty flat porch roof, easy to get to with a roof ladder. We pass the guy out the window, and send him down in the Stokes. We probably oughta send the backboard and the Stokes up that way, come to think of it," Johnny said.
"Good plan—I don't want anyone in that house any more than is necessary," said Cap. "Cause he just lost his certificate of occupancy."
It took ten minutes or so to extricate the man from his home. Johnny rode in with him, and Roy brought the squad in. They left the windows open in the squad while they both cleaned up at Rampart, showering and changing into the spare uniforms they kept there, bagging their other sets in plastic for the trip back to the station.
Despite being aired out for a quarter of an hour, the squad still stank. Johnny made a small noise of disgust as he sat back down in his seat and buckled up.
"I hafta say, Roy, that was … disturbing. I didn't understand that one at all."
"Me neither. I guess we've all got a little pack-rat in us, but most of us know when to stop."
"I guess it kinda got away from him, didn't it."
"Sure looked that way."
They drove back to the station in silence. Roy backed the squad into the apparatus bay, frowned, and pulled back out onto the concrete apron in front of the station.
"Still needs to air out some," he said in answer to Johnny's quizzical look.
"Oh. Yeah. I hope we don't stink too bad," Johnny said, rolling down his window.
"Well, I'm sure Kelly will be the first to tell us if we do."
They entered the station, and found the rest of the men in the day room, each with a grocery bag.
"Oh, man!" said Marco. "This newspaper is from last week!"
"And I found some magazines from three months ago," Mike said, adding more items to his bag.
"How's the fridge looking, Kelly?" Cap asked.
"Better," Chet said, pulling his head out of the appliance in question. "Found a lot of expired stuff, though."
"I'll go through the freezer," Johnny said.
"I'll check out the storeroom," said Roy, desperate for an opportunity to throw something out.
By supper time, the station had been cleared of nearly everything that was expired, out of date, out of style, broken, or otherwise questionable. The men devoured Mike's dinner of meatloaf, green beans, and rolls.
"Who's got interesting plans for tomorrow?" Cap asked, noticing that everyone was quieter than usual. He imagined he could see tiny wheels turning in each of their heads, and was a little concerned about the direction he assumed those wheels were heading.
"I think I've got some cleaning up to do at home," Chet said.
"Me too," echoed Roy, Johnny and Marco.
"I've got a lot of stuff in my garage," said Mike. "Time for it to go."
Cap sighed, and drummed the table with his fingers. "Do me a favor, boys. Wait on it. Wait till after our next shift to do any serious purging at home, all right?"
The men of Station 51 looked back at their Captain, not understanding.
"It's a spectrum, right? Just like anything else. Stuff's not bad—but we all got a sour taste in our mouths today. I think we all needed to clean up a bit when we got back from that one, but try not to take it home with you, all right? Just like any of the other things we see. Try to leave it here."
Five men slowly nodded, mumbling their agreement. Just like everything else they saw that was disturbing, upsetting, terrifying—they'd have to try to let this one go.
"I guess my garage can wait," said Mike.
"Yeah, and I think maybe I won't try to give my cat a bath after all," Marco announced.
Roy and Chet pledged not to go crazy with cleaning. Everyone looked at Johnny, who hadn't yet responded to Cap's suggestion.
"Fine," said Johnny. "I won't do a dump run. But I'm still cleaning my fridge."