January Surprise: Chapter 10

Back at the station, the mood was somewhat improved, with Chet's assurance of an invitation to what sounded like it would be a party where he was a, if not the, main attraction. Captain Stanley, who wasn't in a position to go to such an event, listened in on the discussion about the upcoming party with amusement.

"Don't get too wound up about this, guys," Chet said. "Because they still have to find a place to have the party. Who knows if it's actually even gonna happen?"

"Oh, it'll happen all right," Marco assured him. "You shoulda seen the way that one chick was looking at you when she didn't think anyone was watching! And Stoker, you better watch out for the other one, because I think she's got her eye on you."

Mike blushed. "Me?"

Chet nodded. "Seriously. Her eyes were aaaallll over you, pal. And don't worry. I've forgiven you for this morning. Because after all, I wouldn't have gotten my fan club if it hadn't been for your tricks. And Cap's timely request for some PR. So don't go worrying that I'll 'forget' to pass along the invitation when Tracy gets back to me."

"Oh," Mike said, still blushing. "What was the other girl's name, again?"

"Sharon," Chet said.

"She was kind of cute," Mike said.

"Remember that before you do anything else to me, pal," Chet said. "Just because I've forgiven you for this morning's capers doesn't mean you have carte blanche."

"'Carte blanche?'" Cap said from the couch. "I think I need a nap."

Everyone's head turned automatically towards the apparatus bay as the overhead door rumbled to life and the squad backed in.

"That was a pretty long run," Marco said.

"Sounded like a heart case, from what dispatch said," Cap said.

"What'd we miss?" Johnny asked, heading straight for the refrigerator. "'Cause you guys all have that kind of look. Like you're dying to tell us something, but you wanna make sure nobody just died on us before you do, which they didn't, so go right ahead."

Cap closed his eyes and laid his head back on the couch.

"I'll sum it up," Cap said, eyes still closed. "Because otherwise I just know it's gonna get out of hand."

Johnny poured himself a glass of milk, and sat down at the table, where Roy was already sitting with a cup of coffee.

Cap opened his eyes. "You ready?"

"Lay it on us, Cap," Johnny said.

"The ladies from the fire had the calendar. One of them now has a crush on Kelly, and it seems the other one has her eye on Stoker. Everyone's invited to a party, which may or may not actually happen, since it was supposed to be at the house where the fire was. I'm certainly not going, but you kids have fun."

Cap looked over at Chet.

"How'd I do, Kelly?"

Chet blinked a few times. "Uh, accurate, but … uninspired?" he said, choosing his words carefully so as not to end up on latrine duty until he was old and gray.

"Perfect," Cap said. "Exactly what I was shooting for. Now—everyone find something to do, for the love of Pete."

The men sensed that their Captain's nerves were frayed, so Mike, Johnny, Chet and Marco left the day room for the bay, with no clear plan of what they were going to do other than vacate the premises.

"And you, DeSoto—you had something to do with all of this, didn't you," Cap said.

"Well, only kind of in an … auxiliary way," Roy said, and explained about Joanne's discovery of the calendar, and their invitation to Mike to give him fodder to get back at Chet.

"But it's starting to seem," Roy complained, "that Chet may be coming out ahead in all this."

"I'm just hoping that Stoker knows what he's gotten himself into," Cap said.

"What, with the girl?" Roy asked.

"No, I have no doubt he can handle himself with pretty much any woman that might come along. It's Chet that has me worried for him," Cap said. "You missed it before—Chet told Stoker he was forgiven for everything that happened this morning, but I don't believe it for a second. Not a single second."

~!~!~!~

The afternoon portion of the shift was quiet, with only one run apiece for the engine and the squad. They made it through dinner, and then had one call for the entire station just before lights out. After that call, Cap called everyone to the kitchen.

"Now I've stayed out of this as much as possible so far," Cap said, "and I'm not pointing any fingers, and I really don't want to know anything about any of this. But before anyone leaves in the morning, I will inspect the slide carousel, which is waiting conveniently on my desk, to ensure that everything is back in order, and if it's not, the whole class stays after school. Are we clear?"

Everyone mumbled their assent, while looking at Stoker, who pretended he didn't know a thing. Each of the men went through his bedtime routine, and lights were out just after 2230.

At 2300, there was a rustling in the dorm room, and someone got out of bed, returning quietly to his bunk only a minute later.

At 2330, when everyone else was asleep, one man got quietly out of bed. He went to his locker to retrieve two small items, and then went into the office. He turned the lights on, since they wouldn't be visible from the dorm, and looked over at Cap's desk.

There wasn't a slide carousel on the desk.

There wasn't a box that looked like it would contain such a thing.

Stoker looked under the desk, on the other desks, and in every cabinet that wasn't locked—nothing.

"Shit," he swore quietly, as he realized what the first man had done on his stealthy but speedy mission.

He went to the kitchen, where he searched every cabinet as quietly as he could, and still didn't find the carousel. He was about to go to the apparatus bay and begin opening compartments on the vehicles when he came to his senses.

"This is ridiculous," he said to himself. He returned to the office, and dropped the two slides he'd removed that morning from the PR slide show onto Cap's desk, and went back to bed.

At 0630, the wake-up tones sounded, and six men realized that they'd miraculously slept through an entire night without being woken for a single call. They cycled through the bathroom again, and once they were back in uniform, they gathered in the day room for coffee.

Cap went to his office quickly, and returned holding the carousel.

"All right—this has gone far enough. I specifically said I wanted to see those slides replaced by morning, and they're not here," he said, frowning lightly at Mike.

Stoker looked up sharply. "But I—"

He stopped short, and looked around the room, realizing he'd just revealed himself as yesterday's prankster.

"Relax, Stoker;" Johnny said. "Everyone figured out it was you. Even Cap, I'm sure. He's just pretending, so he doesn't look like he's taking sides."

Mike sighed. "But I put the slides on your desk, Cap," he said. "The carousel wasn't there, and I knew someone else got up before me, so I figured they hid it where I couldn't find it, so I just left you the slides! I swear!"

"Well," Cap said, frowning, "they weren't on my desk, and they're not in the carousel, which is on my desk."

Nobody said anything, but everyone looked at Chet.

"Who, me?" Chet said. "Why does everyone always think I did it?"

"Because ninety percent of the time, you did," Roy said.

Everyone sat in silence for a minute, which seemed a very long time under the circumstances. Mike glared at Chet, and Chet sat impassively.

Cap sighed. "Look. Union rules say I can't actually keep you after the shift if we've been duly relieved. But this is ridiculous. Just … get the slides back where they need to go. Hookrader's on next shift, and I don't need to tell you he won't be happy if there are still missing slides when his crew have to watch that abysmal show. So detention is canceled, but just … fix this."

Nobody moved.

"Dismissed," Cap said, waving his hand irritably at them.

Mike stood up quickly, and went out to the apparatus bay to stew. He was damned if he was going to ask Chet where the slides were, but he also knew how unfortunate his situation could become if Captain Stanley had to tell Captain Hookrader about the missing slides. He sat on the front bumper of the engine, trying to figure out a way out of his predicament, when he heard footsteps.

"Kelly," Mike said. "I thought you said we were even."

"I said no such thing," Chet said. "All I said was that you were forgiven. And you are. Because that Tracy is one hot chick. But 'forgiven' isn't the same as 'even.'"

Mike sighed.

"All right. What do you want? Because that's obviously what this is about."

"You never waste time, do you, Stoker?" Chet said. "Straight to the heart of the matter."

"What. Do. You. Want."

"Well, next shift, I'm gonna make a suggestion. You're gonna back me up. And you're gonna make a good case for it, too—not just pretending."

Mike sighed again. "What's your suggestion going to be?" he asked.

"Well, if I told you, that'd take half the fun out of it. Nothing terrible, though—I just need a backer, because nobody'll go for something that's my idea," Chet said. "Even if it's a good idea. Which this is."

"If I've learned one thing over the last six years, Kelly, it's that your idea of a good idea, and other people's idea of a good idea, are not always the same thing."

"Trust me," Chet said. "This is actually a good idea."

"Well, I don't have much of a choice, now, do I?" Mike said. He shook his head, marveling at the idea that he'd ever thought it would be satisfying to try to get back at Chet for the previous shift's water bombs.

"Not really," Chet said. "So, do we have a deal?"

"We have a deal," Mike said. "But I swear, if this idea of yours is some hare-brained scheme, you won't get a very convincing backup from me, because I honestly don't know if I'll be able to come up with something that's any good, on the fly, if I don't even have any idea what you're going to suggest!"

"Well, now you have something to think about for the next couple of days," Chet said, smirking, "while you're waiting by the phone for me to call with the details of the party."

"I doubt I'll even go," Mike said glumly.

"Yes, you will," Chet said. "Come on—that chick totally digs you."

"All right, okay. You're right. I'll go," Mike sighed. "Now put everything back where it's supposed to be, so Cap doesn't have kittens."

"Already done," Chet said.

Mike looked at Chet through narrowed eyes. "Cap said the slides weren't in the carousel."

"They're not. But there's no chance they'll still be missing when Hookrader's crew has to watch the show."

Mike scowled at Chet.

"Fine," he said, and stalked back to the day room.

At 0730, Captain Hookrader arrived, joining Cap and Mike in the day room.

"Ah, coffee's on," Hookrader said. "Is it fresh?"

"It's fresh," Mike said, staring into his coffee. "It just finished brewing five minutes ago. We know you like fresh coffee when you get here."

"Excellent," Hookrader said. He reached into the cabinet for his personal coffee mug, the one that everyone who valued his life knew not to use. He set the mug down on the counter, and picked up the coffee pot.

"What in the blue blazes is in my mug?" Hookrader blared, plucking two small squares from his cup.

Mike knew instantly what they were.

"Sorry, Captain Hookrader; I have no idea how those could've gotten there," Mike said, looking pointedly at Captain Stanley. "Let me take care of that for you."

Mike stuck the slides in his shirt pocket, and carefully washed Captain Hookrader's mug. He filled it with coffee, and set it down on the table in front of Hookrader.

"Thank you, Stoker," Hookrader said.

"You're welcome," Stoker said. As he left the room to replace the slides, he could just hear what the two captains were saying to each other.

"Hank, have your boys been up to things again?"

Cap sighed. "You have no idea, Gene. No idea."

TBC