Dancing With The Devil

By: Kenda

Dancing With The Devil is a sequel to He Who Dances With Rattlesnakes. It contains some violence and strong language, and is rated R. Some of the events in this story were also inspired by No Easy Choice, another piece of Emergency Fan Fiction that can be found in Kenda’s Emergency Library.

Though the city of Eagle Harbor, Alaska, is fictional, the facts surrounding it including population, and how the fire department is set up and run, is based on research of the actual sixth largest city in the state of Alaska. The depiction of where current paramedic training within the Los Angeles County Fire Department takes place is fictionalized for story purposes, as is the rank of the paramedic instructor. Also for story purposes, neither Johnny nor Roy had attained the rank of captain within the LAFD during the year depicted by the TV series.

Big thank you's go out to Doctor MaryBeth Lamb and Patricia Embury for answering a large variety of medically related questions. Any errors are solely the author's. Thanks to my proofreader in every sense that word encompasses, Debbie Giljum. And thanks to you, the readers of He Who Dances With Rattlesnakes, who filled my mailbox with messages. It's because of your requests for a sequel that a further tribute to John Gage and Roy DeSoto was written.


Early June, 2000

        The map was old and held deep creases from the many times it had been folded, unfolded, and then refolded again. Evan Crammer smiled as he eyed the yellowed piece of paper taped the length of the dashboard in his van. Gold stars glittered from every state in the union but one. Alaska. And soon enough, he'd put his gold star on the state nicknamed, The Last Frontier.

        Evan crossed the border between the United States and Canada just north of Fairbanks. He had a lot of miles to drive yet as he headed south to Eagle Harbor. Before he got there Evan, and his van, would have to travel by ferry since the hamlet, like most Southeastern Alaskan communities, was only accessible by air or sea. That made little difference to the man. The effort would be worth it in order to obtain that last gold star. And this star would be the most unusual and finest yet, because it had nothing to do with Evan's penchant for little girls. This star would result from revenge. Sweet and glorious revenge. When the fiftieth star was placed on Evan's map it would mean one thing, and one thing only.

        That John Gage was dead.


Chapter 1

        Roy DeSoto slipped the test papers in his backpack and zipped it shut. He watched as his class gathered around the coffee pot talking, in the same way the men of Station 51's A-shift used to gather in that exact spot.

        Roy had risen to the rank of captain within the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 1983. He'd been assigned to Station 26, where he'd served for ten years before being promoted to Battalion Chief. Roy's soft-spoken demeanor, solid work ethic, and strong sense of fair play, made him a respected leader. He'd had a good working relationship with all the men who had served under him during those years, in the same way Hank Stanley had forged a positive working relationship with his men on the A-shift.

        Roy's years as Captain DeSoto, and then Chief DeSoto, had allowed him to put his children through college without major financial strain. Yes, his kids had to take part time jobs as teenagers in order to help with their educational goals, and once the youngest DeSoto, John, was a freshman in high school, Joanne entered the work force, but primarily it was the salary Roy earned that saw his dreams for his children come true. Nonetheless, though Roy never admitted it out loud to anyone, he had missed being a paramedic during those years. In 1996 the rumor reached Roy's ears that a new station was being built to replace the aging Station 51, and would be christened Station 53. Station 51 would then be converted to a paramedic-training center, and would be in need of a good instructor. Roy talked it over with Joanne first, as had long been his practice whenever he contemplated altering his career in some manner, then submitted his application for the paramedic teaching position to headquarters. Three weeks later Roy got word the job was his. Eight months later, when Station 53 was open for business, Roy was reassigned to his old stomping grounds. His rank of chief remained intact. No longer were paramedics, and those who taught them, underpaid or under appreciated for the knowledge and skills they had. Roy was grateful to finally be living out what had long been a dream. To teach young men and women the things he could do in his sleep in order to save a life, while still being able to retain the rank he'd worked so many years to achieve.

        Roy accepted a cup of coffee one of his students brought him as he half listened to their chatter. It was hard to believe that he had, at one time, been so young himself. They all looked like kids to him now, most of them not any older than Roy's youngest son, who had turned twenty-one in January.

        The kitchen and day room hadn't changed much since Roy's time at Station 51. The appliances, furniture and TV had all been replaced with updated versions, and there was now a microwave oven, but other than that the layout of the rooms was the same. The engine bay was now a classroom that housed desks, a large pull down white screen, an overhead projector, a stage that held a lectern and desk for Roy, and a VCR along with a thirty-six inch television on a stand in one corner. Hank Stanley's old office was now Roy's. It hadn't changed much other than pictures of Roy's wife, children, and grandchildren now hung in the places that used to be reserved for Hank's family.

        The dorms and locker room went unused for the most part, and seemed lonely whenever Roy walked into them. He supposed attaching such sentiment to those two areas was foolish, but he could never walk into the dorm without seeing a dark headed man, his unruly hair often longer than regulations stipulated, lying on the last bunk on the right with his left arm thrown over his eyes. Nor could Roy enter the locker room without the sound of playful bickering reaching his ears. Sometimes when he pushed the door open he swore he was going to find Chet and Johnny inside, squared off in their familiar battle stances as they adamantly argued over something that really didn't matter to either one of them. But these were just ghosts of what once had been and was now long buried. Ghosts Roy knew he was better off to leave in the past.

        Roy shook himself out of his reverie. He glanced at his watch, seeing it was almost two-thirty. One advantage to his teaching position was the hours. His day started at eight a.m. and was over by three. He was just one part of the instruction process now given to incoming paramedics. His classes ran for nine weeks, then he had eight weeks off before another session started. In many ways Roy DeSoto, at the age of fifty-six, was semi-retired. He couldn't say he wasn't enjoying every minute of his free time. It sure beat being called out to a fire at three o'clock in the morning.

        “I'll see you tomorrow,” Roy said to his class as he walked his coffee cup to the dishwasher. An automatic dishwasher. Chet Kelly would have loved that.

        “See you tomorrow, Chief.”

        “Bye, Chief.”

        The good-byes continued from Roy's class of thirty as he headed back through what had been the engine bay. He straightened desks as he passed by on his way to his office to pick up a text book he'd left on his desk.

        Just like he always did when Roy was in this room, he refused to allow his eyes to wander to the north wall. That wall that had once held a map of the territory Station 51 covered, now contained pictures of the paramedics who had graduated from the program in 1971. In large gold letters above those pictures were the words: We Honor The Men Who Started It All.

        Roy was amongst those young men who started it all, as was John Gage. But Roy hadn't spoken to, nor seen Johnny in fifteen years. He'd vowed on that fateful night in 1985 he'd never have contact with the man again. And though Roy now harbored a multitude of regrets over that vow, he'd never broken it.


Chapter 2

        Chris DeSoto grabbed his canes, slipping his arms through the wrist supports and resting his hands on the sturdy metal bars that jutted out from the steel objects. He struggled to his feet, then moved across the room with the awkward side-to-side gait he'd possessed ever since his injury fifteen years earlier.

        Chris released his right arm from a cane and opened a file cabinet. He scanned the names on the computer generated labels until he came to the client he was looking for. He pulled the manila folder out, then started the journey back to his work station, his aluminum leg braces making a slight creaking sound as he walked.

        Chris's dream of being a paramedic had died the night he was shot by the gunman intent on killing the first men responding to his phony 911 call. But, as the expression went, when God closes a door he opens a window. Thanks to a gunshot wound to his spinal cord, Chris's legs were no longer of much use to him, meaning the type of physical work required to be a member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department was out of the question. But Chris had never been one to complain about his misfortunes. Yes, he went through a long period of depression after his injury, followed closely by other emotions that ranged from anger, to sadness, to an almost mourning-like grief. But through it all his family, and his girl friend, had been supportive. That girlfriend, Wendy Adams, whom he'd met his freshman year in college, was now his wife. They were married in June of 1988 with Jennifer serving as maid of honor, and John, at nine years old, serving as the junior groomsman. That fall Chris returned to college to earn degrees in computer science and business administration. His father had insisted on helping Chris pay his tuition, though Chris kept telling Roy that wasn't necessary.

        “I'm a married man now, Dad. I'm out on my own. I don't want you doing this. You've got enough bills to pay with Jen in college. She plans to go to medical school, you know. If she doesn't change her mind that's going to cost a bundle.”

        “I'm well aware of what it costs. Regardless, it's always been my hope that all my children will graduate from college. That's why I worked so much overtime the last twenty years. You got. . .sidetracked, the first time you went to school, and now you're back on the right path. I want to help you out, Chris. It would mean a lot if you'd let me.”

        To this day his father always referred to Chris's brief time in paramedic training as getting 'sidetracked.' Speaking of it in any other way would mean indirectly speaking of Uncle Johnny. Chris hadn't heard his father utter Johnny's name in fifteen years, and for that he felt terrible. It had been Johnny whom Chris had coerced into talking to his dad about the fact Chris was dropping out of college after his freshman year. It had been Johnny whom Chris had coerced into telling Roy that his oldest son had signed on with the fire department to go through paramedic training. Not that Roy wasn't proud of having been a paramedic himself, and wouldn't be proud of Chris if he attained that goal, too. But above all else Roy DeSoto wanted his three children to earn college degrees. Chris had been told the importance of a college education ever since he could remember. So during his senior year of high school, Chris did what was expected of him. He applied at USC and was accepted. He entered in the fall of 1984 without having a clue as to what he wanted to study, or what he wanted to be when he 'grew up,' other than what he'd always wanted to be. A paramedic. And when the day came Chris couldn't stand to be in college any longer wasting his parents' money on an education he didn't want in the first place, he talked Johnny into breaking the news to his father. That event, however indirectly, eventually came to destroy the friendship Chris's father and John Gage had shared for so many years.

        Chris shook those old thoughts, and old feelings of guilt, from his head. He glanced at the wall clock, seeing it was almost three. He had to leave soon to pick up the girls. Brittany Joanne was four years old, and Madison Christine, whom Wendy had been sure would be a Micah Christopher until the moment she was born, was two. They attended preschool three days a week so Chris could work without interruption from his home office. His wife was the marketing director for a sporting goods company downtown, while Chris designed and maintained websites for clients who ranged from the LA County Fire Department, to Rampart General Hospital, to the firm that employed Wendy, to small businesses, and multi-million dollar companies. Chris was good at what he did and loved it in a way he'd never imagined he would. He made a comfortable living for his family that, combined with Wendy's income, meant they had no financial worries. Wendy worked primarily at this point to provide them with health insurance. Maybe in the future Chris's income would even make that unnecessary if she wanted to stay home with the girls. That thought made Chris smile. In truth he couldn't picture the vivacious redhead he'd married ever wanting to stay home on a full time basis. Wendy had too much energy to be confined to one space for very long. Chris still marveled at their enormous love for one another. They were total opposites in so many ways. Wendy was boisterous, while Chris was soft spoken like his father. Wendy was impulsive, while Chris, again like his father, was a deep thinker. Wendy possessed an outrageous sense of fun, while Chris's sense of humor was dry and often unexpected. Again, like his father's. Though both of their daughters favored Wendy more in looks than they did Chris, it was Brittany who favored her father in personality, while Madison favored her mother.

        The room Chris worked from was vast in width, length, and height, with windows that rose from the floor to the ceiling. He and Wendy had purchased the house just one year earlier, and it was this 'California' room that had been the selling point. The minute Chris saw it he knew it would make the perfect office. It had a separate entrance from the rear of the house, had access down a short hallway to a bathroom, was well lit due to the windows, high ceilings, and sky lights, and had an oak hard wood floor which meant he could maneuver around it easily using his canes, or the wheelchair he often relied on.

        Roy had helped Chris transform the room into an office shortly after he and Wendy moved in. The only wall without windows now held one long length of Formica countertop at a height just right for Chris's wheelchair to fit under. Above the countertop was a low row of cabinets, again at a height that Chris could easily reach without having to stand. This was Chris's main work area. The countertop held his computer and printer, while the cabinets contained technical manuals and all necessary supplies from ink cartridges, to discs, to paper. Another nook in the room contained a section of countertop and three cabinets, plus a small refrigerator, that allowed Chris access to coffee and soda so he could offer refreshments to his visiting clients. The middle of the room was dominated by a grouping of four overstuffed blue easy chairs gathered around a circular oak coffee table.

    Chris recalled the two weekends he and his father had spent installing the cabinets and countertops, and the amount of good-natured cussing that had gone along with those jobs. At one point both men were on their backs trying to secure the countertop to the wall. Recalling how skilled John Gage was when it came to carpentry work, Chris had said without thinking, “This sure would be a lot easier if Uncle Johnny was here.” As usual whenever Chris, or one of his siblings, slipped up and made mention of Johnny's name, they were met with nothing but stone cold silence. Chris had learned a long time ago there was no use pushing the issue, and wasn't surprised when his father went on working as though he hadn't heard a word Chris said.

        Chris set the file he was carrying now on the countertop, then eased out of his canes and into the plush blue chair that sat in front of his computer. His wheelchair was nearby, always waiting for him when he grew weary from the exertion of using the canes.

        The man opened the file in front of him and began updating a client's bill. Chris's fingers flew over the keyboard as he entered data in a row of columns. He kept one eye on the clock, knowing he'd have to leave at three-thirty to pick up the girls. By then they would have had their afternoon naps and be ready for fun with Daddy before their mother arrived home at six.

        It was a knock on the door that turned Chris's attention from his computer screen. He swiveled in his chair, giving a puzzled smile when he recognized his visitor through the large glass pane. He beckoned with one hand calling, “Come in, Detective! It's open!”

        Troy Anders had never paid Chris DeSoto a house call before. He'd been a young man of twenty-nine when his then partner, the now retired Mark Bellmen, worked on the case involving the man who had attempted to abduct Jennifer DeSoto while on a camping trip with her brother and John Gage. As fate would have it, it was Troy who had been assigned to track down the man who had shot Chris fifteen years earlier. Because the Los Angeles Police Department was a client of Chris's, Troy would occasionally run into him at headquarters where they'd exchange quick, “Hello's,” as they passed one another in the hall.

        Chris pushed himself to his feet using the counter for support. He hung onto its lip with his left hand while extending his right. “How are you?”

        “I'm fine, Chris. Just fine. And yourself?”

        “No complaints.”

        Troy smiled and looked around the room while Chris grappled for his canes. Once he was secure within their grasp, he led the way to the chairs.

        “Can I get you something? A cup of coffee? Or a soda?”

        “No. Nothing,” Troy shook his head, while thinking how much Chris looked and sounded like his father. He had the same sandy blond hair that was just beginning to thin at the crown, and the same quiet, somewhat gravelly voice. “Thank you.”

        “Have a seat.”

        “All right.” Troy grabbed the material on the thighs of his black dress slacks and hitched them up a bit as he sat. He was fifty-one years old now, but still as boyishly handsome as he had been back in 1978. Or so his wife often told him. His white-blond hair had touches of silver in it, but his eyes were just as steely blue as ever, and only a few crows' feet had taken up residence around his mouth. “Nice place you have here, Chris.”

        “Thanks. Wendy. . .my wife, Wendy and I just purchased it last year. It's everything we'd been looking for. Quiet neighborhood. Big yard. Spacious house. And then, of course, this room for my office.”

        “I hear you're doing well. Or at least the department is happy with the work you do for them.”

        “Thanks for telling me.” Chris eased himself to a chair, but didn't bother to take his hands out of his canes as he allowed them to rest loosely in front of him. “I enjoy what I do very much. I've got the best of both worlds.”

        “How so?”

        “I have a job that allows me to support my family, while at the same time I can play stay-at-home-dad to my girls.”

        “I heard you had a couple little ones now. How old are they?”

        “Brittany is four, Madison is two. They go to preschool on Monday's, Wednesday's and Friday's, and are home with me on Tueday's and Thursday's.”

        “Your wife works then, I take it?”

        “Yes. For Lotman's Sporting Goods.”

        Troy nodded his familiarity with the name. “Big company.”

        “Yes, it is. She's the marketing director.”

        “Busy woman then.”

        “Very. But she wouldn't have it any other way. She's a high energy kind of gal.”

        Troy chuckled at Chris's words, and at the devotion that lit his blue eyes at the mention of his wife's name. Troy was glad the man was happy. Chris was a good guy. He deserved whatever happiness life brought him.

        Troy straightened the maroon tie he was wearing within his black suit jacket. When he didn't pick the conversation up again Chris said, “So, Detective--”

        “Call me Troy. Please.”

        “Okay. If you insist. So, Troy, what brings you by here today? Last I knew you were the head of the detective division, not the head of public relations.”

        Troy smiled. It was the head of public relations that Chris worked with in regards to maintaining the department's website.

        “I'm still head of the detective division.”

        “Which means you're here on official business,” the perceptive Chris guessed.

        “Yes. That's what it means.”

        “And it has something to do with Scott Monroe.”

        “It does.”

        “He's out, isn't he?”

        “As of yesterday.”

        Chris took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. It was the only visible sign of emotion he allowed himself to show as the hazy memories swam in his mind. The squad rolling up to the dark house with Johnny driving. Both of them getting out at the same time. The 'pop!' 'pop!' 'pop!' of gunfire shattering the two o'clock in the morning stillness. The burning pain in his back, Johnny shouting his name, then his legs crumpling beneath him because he could no longer feel them. There were other memories, too, these even more vague. Johnny grabbing the shoulders of his turnout jacket and dragging him to the other side of the squad while bullets continued to rain upon them. Johnny putting the oxygen mask on him, ripping open a blanket pack and covering him, then contacting Rampart. Other treatment followed that Chris was barely aware of. He'd later been told Johnny had stayed hunkered down with him, protecting Chris with his own body, for more than two hours. The arsenal in that house would have put the United States Army to shame. A high-powered rifle shot out the squad's tires and windows, penetrated its radiator and tore the compartment doors from their hinges. The gunman kept even the SWAT team at bay until he finally fled out a back door. He was at large for two weeks before Troy Anders tracked him down.

        Chris recalled parts of the ride to Rampart in the ambulance, and how Johnny kept assuring him he'd be all right. It was funny, but he could still remember how calm Johnny had been. How ready he was with that reassuring smile every time he caught Chris looking at him. What Johnny didn't realize was that Chris was cognizant enough to see the fine tremor of his hands, and to notice how pale his face was. He'd wanted to say, “I'm okay, Uncle Johnny. I'll be okay. It's not your fault,” but by then he'd been too weak to do more than look up at his father's best friend through half closed eye lids.

        The motives of the gunman still weren't clear. There had been vague ramblings about a brother unnamed paramedics had let die, but then there had also been vague ramblings about Jesus Christ, Adolph Hitler, and Abraham Lincoln trying to conquer the world together. He'd been high on several drugs at the time of the shooting, though he was so mentally unbalanced it was hard to say which played a greater role in his attack on Johnny and Chris, the drugs or dementia. Scott Monroe had pleaded guilty before a judge, found criminally insane, and sentenced to incarceration at a state mental health institution. Though Chris had hoped Monroe would be locked up for life, he knew, under the current laws combined with government money constraints, that was probably a long shot. He now focused on the man seated across from him.

        “So Monroe's out. What's that mean?”

        “I hope nothing.”


        “He's been ordered to have no contact with you or John Gage.”

        “Is he in the area?”

        “He's staying at a halfway house in the city until he gets back on his feet. They'll help him find a job, and eventually a place to live. A room to rent, or an apartment maybe, depending on his monthly income.”

        “Is he mentally capable of holding down a job and living on his own?”

        Troy shrugged. “I don't know, Chris.”

        “A judge ruled him insane, and now they let him out. Just like that. He ambushed me and Unc. . .” Chris paused to correct himself. Old habits died hard, and even at close to thirty-four years of age he could rarely speak Johnny's name without putting the title of uncle before it. “Me and Johnny. He ambushed us. He could have killed us. God knows he tried.”

        “He did,” Troy nodded. “I realize that. Believe me, Chris, I don't make the rules, or the laws. If it was up to me ninety-nine percent of these guys would never again see the light of day.”

        “I know. And I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insinuate any of this is your doing.”

        A brief silence fell over the room before Troy broke the rest of the news to Chris.

        “I hate to have to tell you this, Chris, but while Monroe was locked up he made some threats.”

        “What kind of threats?”

        “Threats against you and Mr. Gage.”

        “I see,” Chris said. He didn't bother to ask for details. He could easily guess what those threats entailed. “He wants to finish what he started that night.”

        “So he says. But then again, he also says Captain Kirk is the president of the United States and that Kruschev is going to nuke us at any moment.”

        A small smile danced at the corners of Chris's mouth. “He's a little behind the times, isn't he?”

        “A couple decades or so, yes.”

        “What can I do?”

        “About the threats?”

        “No. About keeping my family safe.”

        “Do you have a home security system?”


        “That's a good start. Does your wife carry a cell phone with her when she drives anywhere?”


        “That's a good start, too. You should do the same.”
        “I do.”

        “Good. Other than that, just be observant of your surroundings. I noticed your back yard is fenced in. I'd keep the gate secured, especially when your children are out there playing.”

        “We do.”

        Again, Troy said, “Good.”

        “Anything else?”

        “Not really. Monroe has to report to a psychiatrist twice a week. He's on medication as well. I've talked to his doctor. My understanding is that Monroe's delusions, and the threats that accompany them, are generally non-existent provided he takes his medication.”
        “Let's just hope he does then.”

        “My thoughts exactly, Chris.”

        “Would he be a threat to the rest of my family? My sister and brother? Or my parents?”

        “I suppose it's possible, though as far as I know he's never made threats against any of them. Nonetheless; it might be a good idea to let them know what's going on. Does Jennifer have children?”

        Chris started to say, “Two,” but a slight prick of pain in his heart reminded him to say, “One,” at the last second. “A daughter. Olivia. We call her Libby. Her birthday was last week. She turned ten.”

        “Then I think Jennifer needs to be aware of this for the sake of her child. I don't want any of you to let fear rule your lives, but I'd rather see you err on the side of caution for a while.”

        “I'd prefer that to the alternative,” Chris agreed, as he thought of his precious daughters and his beloved niece. Libby was so similar to Jennifer in looks and personality that it was like watching his little sister grow up all over again.

        “What about your brother? John? Is that his name?”

        “Yes. John,” the man acknowledged in reference to his younger brother. John Gage had always been referred to as Johnny by the DeSoto family, therefore his namesake had always been called John as a way of distinguishing between the two of them.

        “John's what. . .about twenty now?”

        “Twenty-one. He lives in Wyoming. He's a ranger at Yellowstone Park.”

        “A ranger?” Troy cocked an eyebrow as he recalled the energetic six year old who had bounced around Chris's hospital room making everyone, especially the patient, laugh at his antics. Troy knew that in this modern area a ranger at a national park was trained to be everything from paramedic, to police officer, to search and rescue man, to firefighter, to tour guide, to wildlife expert. “That's great.”

        “Yeah, he loves it. He's good at what he does, too. And so damn smart.” Chris's words spoke every bit of proud big brother. “He graduated from college in December, six months ahead of his class. He already had the job secured. The day after Christmas Mom and Dad helped him move out there.”

        “Is he married?”

        “No. As a matter of fact he was quite the ladies man in high school and college. Dad used to tease him and say he couldn't keep track of whom John was seeing from one week to the next. But in the last three months every e-mail he's sent any of us, and with every phone call he's made, he's mentioned a fellow ranger by the name of Shawna. Mom's so certain an engagement announcement is about to come she's got Dad on a diet so he'll look good in a tux.”

        Troy chuckled. “That sounds like a mother who's convinced her baby will only be well taken care of if he finds himself a good woman.”

        “Yeah. That's my mom all right. Especially where John is concerned.”

        The detective sobered. “I don't foresee Monroe being a threat to your brother, but it might not hurt to give him a call and fill him in on what's happening. And your parents as well. They should be informed, too.”

        “I'll talk to my brother and my folks,” Chris assured.

        The detective pushed himself to his feet.

        “Well then, Chris, I've taken up enough of your time. I apologize for not having better news to bring you, but considering the long acquaintance I've had with your family, I wanted to talk to you personally.”

        Chris planted his canes firmly on the floor, then stood as well. He walked with his visitor to the door.

        “I appreciate that. I know this isn't a job a man of your position usually performs.”

        As the detective opened the door to let himself out Chris stopped his movement by beckoning, “Troy?”


        “Have you been in contact with Johnny about this?”

        Troy gave a slow nod, anticipating the question to come. “I have.”

        “Did he. . .can you. . .could I. . .” Chris felt like a fool. Here he was stammering like an eight year old excited about receiving news on a favorite uncle. “Can you tell me where he is? How I can get in touch with him, I mean?”

        “I'm sorry, Chris, but no. No, I can't.”


        Troy felt bad about the pain his answer would cause the younger man. “Because, quite frankly, he asked me not to.”

        “Oh. Oh, I see.”

        “I'm sorry.”

        “That's okay. I understand.” Chris offered the man a small smile. “It's all water under the bridge, I guess. The friendship he and my father once shared. The. . .what he meant to me, Jen, and John. It's. . .it's been a long time now. I suppose it's best to put some things in the past and leave them there.”

        “I suppose,” Troy agreed, while pulling three business cards out of the pocket of his suit coat. He had only a vague idea as to what the man was talking about, but knew that Chris's injury had, for some reason, caused a major rift between Roy DeSoto and John Gage. “Here. You keep one of these, and give one to your sister and parents. If any of you need to contact me, day or night, feel free to call me. My office number is on there, as is my home number and pager number.”

        “Thank you.” Chris accepted the cards when Troy held them down to the level of the right cane's hand support. “I appreciate it.”

        “You're welcome.”

        With a final goodbye Troy stepped out the door. Chris made sure he threw the deadbolt lock in place, then set the business cards on the coffee table as he passed it. He made his way through the house until he came to the laundry room. He took his car keys off a row of small hooks hanging by the washer. He set an alarm panel by the wooden door that led into the garage. He locked the door and shut it behind him as he headed for the big Ford van that was equipped with special hand controls that allowed him to drive. He climbed in the vehicle, freed himself of his canes, hit the remote control that would open the wide garage door, then backed the van into the street. As Chris headed for the preschool just three miles away, his thoughts strayed to everything Troy Anders had told him. Chris wondered how he was going to break this news to his family, while at the same time wondering something else he'd wondered since September of 1985. Where was John Gage?

        As a teacher's aid walked Chris's little girls to his vehicle, the man decided to concentrate his energies on how to break the news to his family of Monroe's threats because, after all, contemplating the whereabouts of Johnny Gage was an effort in futility. Or so Chris had learned over the past fifteen years.

Chapter 3

        Eagle Harbor, Alaska was heaven on earth. Or so John Gage often thought.
This hamlet of ten thousand people was the sixth largest city in Alaska. After living in Los Angeles for seventeen years, and then Denver for close to eight, it was laughable to Johnny that a quaint town of ten thousand, that was nothing more than a peninsula that jutted into the Pacific Ocean, could be the sixth largest city in a state. But then, that was Alaska for you, full of nothing but pleasant surprises. Or such was Johnny's opinion since the day he'd arrived here in May of 1993 to start his new job as chief of fire and rescue services.

        Though he'd never admitted it to anyone, Johnny had been a bundle of nerves his first six months on the job. He'd been a firefighter for twenty-six years at that time, and a paramedic for twenty-two. From January of 1983 to September of 1985 he'd been the head paramedic instructor for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. From September of 1985 until early May of 1993, he'd had the title of Senior Paramedic with the Denver Fire Department. His responsibilities included everything from responding to fire and rescue calls, to instructing trainees, to teaching CPR and first aid classes to the general public. When his friend and partner within the Denver department showed Johnny the ad in a firefighter's trade journal for the position in Eagle Harbor, and told Johnny he'd be perfect for it, Johnny had scoffed at the idea.

        “Come on, John,” Greg Kulmeyer had urged, as they sat around the kitchen table at the station they were assigned to. “You've got the experience they're looking for. And you've been saying for the last six months you'd like to get out of the city and move into 'wide open spaces,' as I think you refer to it.”
        “Yeah. And I've also been saying that I don't want to take a cut in salary, which is the draw back to doing this job in a small town or remote community.”

        “Maybe you won't have to take a cut in pay. They list a lot of responsibilities here. Maybe they're willing to pay a guy with your years of experience the money you're worth.”

        Johnny had taken the journal Greg handed him and read the ad. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don't know. I don't think I'm who they're looking for.”

        “You never give yourself enough credit.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “You're not stupid, John. Far from it. But you. . .well, if you want the opinion of a good friend, sometimes you don't have enough confidence in yourself.
I don't know what happened to knock you so hard on your ass that you're still struggling to find a way to stand up again, but if you want my advice, get over it.”

        If Johnny could have voiced all his hidden hurts that day he would have said, “Well, Greg, old buddy, try growing up a half breed in Montana in an era where prejudice toward mixed marriages, and the offspring they produced, ran high. Or try having your wife and daughter murdered right in front of your eyes when you're twenty years old. Or how about feeling responsible because your best friend's child, a young man you watched grow up and thought of as a son, is now physically disabled. And then, after all that, start over in a new city where you meet a woman you consider the love of your life, only to have her walk out on you. If you had experienced everything I have in the past twenty-five years, maybe you wouldn't have to ask why I'm still struggling to get to my feet.”

        But Johnny never said any of those things that day, because the only part of his life Greg knew about was the life that had existed for Johnny since arriving in Denver. Which meant Greg knew Ashton, and knew she had recently left him, which was also what likely prompted Greg to think Johnny was looking for a fresh start.

        It's amazing how well a friend does know you when you're at a loss to figure yourself out. Yes, Johnny was looking for a fresh start, but hadn't even realized it yet. On a whim he took that journal home with him when he went off duty. It took him two days to decide to call the phone number listed for the Eagle Harbor Police and Fire Commission. A week later he was on a plane bound for Alaska where he underwent a long, grueling series of interviews with more people than he could count. He returned to Denver four days after he'd left, not hopeful that he'd get the job, but proud of how well he'd held up under the questioning and scrutiny. He'd fallen in love with Eagle Harbor on his first day there. It was a sea-side community flanked on the east by snow-capped mountains and the Eagle Harbor National Forest, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The fire department and all its entities covered five thousand square miles of township, water, and wilderness, including Barner and Yusik Islands, the islands having combined populations of roughly three thousand people. Taking over such an operation would be daunting, but also rewarding. Five days after Johnny's return to his condominium in Denver the phone call came from Alaska. The job was his, along with a salary twenty thousand dollars higher than what he was presently earning, and a rent-free house that was a pleasant addition to his benefits package. A month later John Gage arrived for work in the one place he would come to consider home in the warm way he hadn't thought of that word since leaving Los Angeles. White Rock, Montana had been where he'd grown up. Denver had simply been an eight-year stopping point. But Los Angeles, and the friends he'd made there, had been home. Now, seven years into his tenure as fire chief in Eagle Harbor, Johnny could say that same thing once again. He was home. This was where he planned to stay until he retired, and probably well beyond. He was done searching for happiness and inner peace. Despite Alaska's rugged exterior, Johnny had found contentment and his rightful place in the huge state they called The Last Frontier, just like many men before him had.
        Johnny's office was in a modern brick building in the middle of town that had been erected just ten years earlier. The police department was housed on one side of the building, the fire department on the other. The building was one story, but sprawled for two blocks in each direction. Twelve men and two women made up Johnny's full time employees, while one hundred and twenty volunteers made up the rest. Eagle Harbor was proud of the men and women who volunteered their time and efforts. These people were specially trained in areas that included firefighting, emergency medical care, land search and rescue, water search and rescue, and dive rescue. The fire department covered a massive amount of territory, but didn't have the number of calls that would warrant paying a full time force of over one hundred people, so the volunteers were especially valuable. It was one of Johnny's jobs to keep these people current on their training, hold periodic seminars, and work beside them on rescues under every imaginable circumstance.

        When Johnny had arrived seven years earlier the department was in dire need of a dedicated leader. The volunteer force was down to just thirty members, and they were struggling to keep veteran full time employees on staff. Johnny found out later that a series of fire chiefs had come and gone in the 1980's and early 1990's, who either didn't have the work ethic necessary to wear so many hats at one time, or who didn't have the personality to deal with such a large group of employees from such varying backgrounds. Johnny hadn't realized the members of the Police and Fire Commission were holding their breaths his first few months on the job, just praying he was finally the man they needed to get their fire department back on the right track. It wasn't until several years later that the police chief, and now his close friend, Carl Mjtko, told Johnny of the less than ideal circumstances within the fire department prior to his arrival.

        It was Carl who stood in the doorway of John Gage's office now and watched his friend work. John was turned sideways facing his computer. He wore his silver wire-rimmed reading glasses as he input data for an upcoming Police and Fire Commission meeting.

        Carl was a native to Eagle Harbor, having been born and raised here. His father, now deceased, had been a fisherman. His mother, who was quite healthy and spry at age sixty-seven, had done a variety of jobs throughout her life to help make ends meet when the fishing wasn't good. Carl's father had been a full-blooded Tlingit Indian, or Tlingit 'Eskimo' as those native to arctic North America were referred to. His mother was the daughter of a French fur trader and his wife. Carl's Grandpa DuBois had brought his young bride from France to Eagle Harbor back in 1929. Two days later he went off trapping and didn't return for six months. This was the pattern the man followed until the day he died when Carl was fourteen. Despite the fact he was away from his family more than he was with them, Gaston DuBois fathered ten children. Carl's mother, Clarice, was born in 1933 and was offspring number two.

        Like John, Carl knew the prejudices a child could face growing up racially mixed in the 1950's and 60's; though in Alaska being racially mixed was more the norm than anything else. Especially when it came to those of Indian, French, and Russian heritage.

        At six feet four inches tall, and weighing two hundred and eighty pounds, Carl Mjtko was a big man with broad shoulders and a thick chest. He was forty-seven years old, had never been married, and lived with his mother in the house the town of Eagle Harbor provided its police chief. Carl's once dark hair was now interspersed with gray, as was the bushy mustache he sported. He was a handsome man in a rugged sort of way, and never short for a date come Saturday night. If asked, Carl couldn't really pinpoint why he'd never married other than to say his job was his wife, lover, and mistress all rolled into one. He imagined the same held true for the single John Gage.

        God, what a find that man had been, Carl thought now as he silently watched his best friend peck away at the keyboard. Their fire department had been in a sorry state before Gage had shown up. Some of the members of the commission had been leery of hiring a man whose leadership experience didn't extend beyond training paramedics, but there was something in John Gage, some spark Carl sensed, that made him convince the commission Gage was just the person they were looking for. Carl remembered going home one night after a lengthy meeting that had run late and saying, “Mom, I've finally convinced them to hire John Gage. You know, the one we interviewed last week that you said was so good looking every single woman in Eagle Harbor would be after him, along with half the married ones? I sure hope I'm not wrong about him. I really went out on a limb tonight in order to convince everyone he's the man who's going to make this fire department what it used to be. God help me if I misjudged him. They'll probably hold the first public lynching Eagle Harbor has ever seen, with me hanging from the end of the rope, if Gage isn't the guy I think he is.”

But John Gage had proven to be the guy Carl thought, and so much more. Today Eagle Harbor had one hundred and twenty well trained, enthusiast volunteers who would drop what they were doing the moment they were called into service just because Chief Gage asked them to. Gage's fourteen full-time employees would follow him to hell and back, that's how deep their loyalty to the man ran. But then, John brought the knowledge, people skills, physical stamina, charm, boundless energy, creativity, and sense of humor necessary to run an operation this vast and diverse. Carl often marveled at Gage's patience and the calm way he handled everyone, which made John laugh.

        “That's something I've acquired in my old age,” John would joke. “You should have known me about twenty-five years ago. No one would have described me as patient, or calm, back then.”

        “Well, I guess that just goes to prove we do gain something besides wisdom with maturity,” Carl had responded.

        “It would seem so,” John agreed with that crooked grin Carl suspected had charmed a fair number of women over the years.

        Amongst the children who had been born to fire department employees or volunteers since Johnny's arrival, there were now three little boys named John, twins named John Roderick and Roderick John, and one little girl named Gage. Carl loved to tease his friend about this last phenomenon, which would invariably make John roll his eyes and say, “Someday when that little girl's about sixteen she's going to come gunning for me because her parents didn't give her a normal name like Samantha, or Haley, or whatever's popular for baby girls these days.”

        Carl rapped on the frame of the open door now, making his presence known. Johnny looked up, then grinned as he turned in his chair and took off his glasses.

        “Hey, Carl. Come on in.”

        “Sorry for interrupting.”

        Johnny massaged the bridge of his nose as he set his reading glasses on the desk. “If it's an interruption then it's a welcome one.”

        “You're getting faster on that keyboard every day. Pretty soon they'll have you taking notes at the meetings.”

        “Ha, ha. Don't even suggest it. It's taken me seven years to even half way master this thing, and I still 'hunt and peck' more often than not.”

        “You and me both, buddy.”

        Carl sat his large frame down in a chair across from Johnny's desk. Their uniforms were almost identical. They both wore the khaki trousers issued by the fire and police departments, though Carl's uniform shirt was chocolate brown while Johnny's was fire engine red. The full time men and women under Johnny's command wore navy blue shirts with their khaki trousers, while the men and women on the police force wore light brown shirts with theirs.

        The police chief settled back in his chair. One wall of Johnny's office was decorated with civic awards and citations he'd earned since arriving in Eagle Harbor, while another wall contained two rows of shelves that held training manuals, fire and medical journals, and pictures. Carl had learned that amongst John's hobbies was photography. A fair number of the photos were shots of Alaskan wildlife and wilderness, but a smattering contained people as well. Carl's eyes wandered, settling on some old photographs that always rested on one end of the upper bookshelf, recessed within the books as though Gage didn't want anyone to notice the photographs but himself. Carl had no idea who the children were in those pictures, but by the age of the photos and the way the kids were dressed, he had long ago identified them as being children John knew when he'd lived in Los Angeles. Children he knew, but never spoke of.

        Carl didn't waste time beating around the bush, but came right to the heart of his visit.

        “How did your talk with Detective Anders go?”

        Johnny allowed a lengthy silence to fill the room. It was Carl who had told him three hour earlier that Troy Anders was on the phone. Johnny was well aware that Anders would have talked to Carl first. As the head of local law enforcement, Carl would be notified in regards to threats being made against a member of his community. Especially against the town's fire chief.

        When Johnny finally spoke his sentence was brief and noncommittal. “It went fine.”

        “You don't seem worried.”

        “I don't see much reason to be.”

        “So I guessed.”

        “You guessed?”

        “I heard you whistling after you were done talking to Anders. When you walked to the kitchen to get coffee.”



        “I went to get a glass of milk. My doctor advised me to quit drinking coffee when I had my last physical, remember?”

        “And I imagine this is the first time you've ever taken a doctor's advice in your entire life.”

        Johnny grinned, thinking of all the times he'd caused Kelly Brackett or Mike Morton to lose their tempers with him because he was doing more than they wanted him to while recovering from an injury or illness.

        “You've got that right.”

        “But now that you've refreshed my memory, yes, I do seem to recall that no one could stand to be around you for about two weeks last November while you went through caffeine withdrawal. None of your people wanted to step in this office unless they were wearing a string of garlic around their necks and carrying a wooden stake.”

        Johnny laughed at Carl's teasing reference to the way a person supposedly wards off a moody vampire. “I can understand why. Those headaches that go along with caffeine withdrawal are a bitch.”

        “So, despite the whistling, what's the scoop on this Monroe guy?”

        Johnny's smile faded as he gave a barely perceptible shrug. “Exactly what Detective Anders told you.”

        “I wanna hear it from you.”

        “Look, Carl. . . it was a long time ago, okay? What Anders told you. . .well, that's what happened.”

        “I'd still like to hear it from you,” the stubborn Carl insisted.


        “To give me a better idea of what to expect if Monroe does show up here.”

        “He's not gonna show up.”

        “How can you be so certain?”

        Johnny gave a frustrated sigh at the way his friend had backed him into a corner.

        “Okay. I can't be certain. But I'm not gonna lose any sleep over the possibility either.”

        “That's good. Now, just so I don't lose any sleep, tell me what happened.”

        Johnny stared at the man a long moment, hoping his silence would make Carl leave. He knew better than that. Carl wouldn't walk out of here until he got the information he came for. That's what made him such a good cop. Nonetheless Johnny had no desire to revisit that part of his life. When he finally spoke, he summed up that night fifteen years in the past with no inflection to his tone, and with no visible signs of emotion. Those things alone told Carl how upset his friend still was over the incident.

        “I was a paramedic instructor in L.A. at that time. I had a trainee with me that night. We got called out shortly before two in the morning. The only information the dispatcher gave us was 'unknown type rescue.' We pulled up to a dark house and were just getting our equipment out when Monroe started shooting. Chr. . .the young man who was with me was shot. I pulled him around to the other side of the squad, treated him as best I could considering the circumstances, and just waited there until Monroe finally quit blasting away at us.”

        “And how long was that?”

        “A couple hours.”

        “And the trainee who was with you?”

        Carl caught the fleeting glance Johnny gave to the pictures on the bookshelf.

        “He was hurt pretty bad. Ended up having an incomplete T-10 spinal injury.”

        “And that means?”

        “It means that he's disabled. . .partially paralyzed below the waist. Probably uses a wheelchair to get around. If he's lucky--” Johnny stopped there and had to gather his emotions so he could keep speaking as though he had no personal ties to the nameless trainee. “If he's lucky, he might be able to use canes on a limited basis. Maybe even still retain the ability to have a family the natural way. I. . .I really don't know.”

        “You haven't kept in touch with him?”

        “No reason to.” Johnny's eyes flicked to the pictures again, then back to Carl's face. “He was a student. Just a kid I. . .just someone I taught who I hope has found a way to move on with his life.”

        “That doesn't sound like you, John.”

        “What doesn't sound like me?”

        “You usually get pretty close to anyone you work with. Look at how you are here. You've gotten very close to most of the one hundred and thirty-four people under you. You know their kids' names, their spouse's names. . .hell, half the time you even know the names of their dogs.”

        Johnny smiled briefly, then sobered.

        “It was a bad night, Carl. Not the kind of thing someone wants to be reminded of. I'm sure Chr. . .I'm sure he doesn't want to remember it, and me contacting him would only be a reminder of something that never should have happened in the first place.”

        “It wasn't your fault. Anders told me about Monroe's mental state. He also told me what you did for your trainee while under fire. He said at one point the police beckoned you to run to the cover of a squad car, but you refused to leave the kid.”

        “I never said it was my fault. And don't let Anders make me out to be a hero. I wasn't.”

        “Your words might not say it was your fault, but your face does. I can see it written all over you, my friend.” Carl stood, shoving his hands deep in the pockets of his trousers. He walked over to the pictures, studying them in what appeared to be a casual way to pass time. “I've been meaning to ask you something for years now.”


        “Who are these kids?”

        At first, Carl didn't think he was going to get an answer. When Johnny finally did reply his voice was quiet and filled with a hidden longing.

        “My partner's children.”

        Carl turned. “Your partner?”

        Johnny gave a small smile. Old habits died hard.

        “From when I was a paramedic in L.A. A guy by the name of Roy DeSoto convinced me to join the program before we were even licensed by the state to treat people. He and I were partners out of Station 51 for eleven years. Then he moved up to captain his own station, and I become the head paramedic instructor for the trainees.”

        “So these are his kids?”

        “Yeah. Only they're not kids anymore. As hard as it is for me to believe, the oldest two, Chris and Jennifer, are now older than I was when I first started working with their dad.”

        Carl looked at the pictures again. A blond headed girl and boy who appeared to be about eight and ten, sat on the top railing of a fence, horses prancing in the background behind them.

        “What are their ages now?”

        Johnny didn't even have to think about that question. “Chris is thirty-three. He'll be thirty-four on October twenty-second. Jenny was thirty-one in April.”

        “And this little boy?” Carl pointed to a picture of an auburn headed child he guessed to be five. The boy was sitting in someone's backyard with his arms around the neck of a massive Alaskan Malamute.

        “That's John. Roy's youngest.”

        “Oh.” Carl grinned as he turned around once more. “So another kid named for you, huh?”

        Johnny shrugged and acknowledged, “Yeah,” while wondering how many times in the past fifteen years Roy had come to regret that choice of names for his youngest son.

        “How old is he?” Carl asked.



        “You must be very close to them.”

        Johnny's guard immediately went up when he realized Carl was now fishing for information.

        “At one time I was. But they're grown now. Living their own lives. Not much interested in Uncle Johnny anymore I'm sure.”

        “Johnny?” Carl questioned with amusement. He'd always known John Gage as John. He'd never heard the man referred to as Johnny before.

        “That's what the kids called me. As a matter fact that's pretty much what everyone in L.A. called me.”

        Looking at the fifty-three year old fire chief in his starched uniform shirt, and his neatly trimmed hair that was just now beginning to show streaks of gray at the temples, Carl couldn't quite picture the man as a 'Johnny.'

        “Sorry,” Carl grinned. “But I just don't see it.”

        Johnny chuckled. “You'd probably be able to if you knew me back then. I was still fairly immature in some ways. Or at least Roy would be happy to tell you that. . .and provide you with a multitude of stories to back up his words. But actually, the nickname came from the fact that the first station I worked out of had three guys named John assigned to it before I arrived. One went by John, one went by Jack, and one was J.T. On the day I showed up they decided they had to have a way of distinguishing me, too. So, I was christened Johnny, and it just kind of stuck. Or at least until I moved to Denver.”

        “You left Johnny Gage behind in L.A., huh?” Carl teased.

        Johnny's smile faded as a look of both pain and sorrow crossed his face.
“Yeah,” he acknowledged softly. “Yeah, you might say that.”

        Carl let the subject drop there. He'd gotten the information he came for, and then some. John had slipped up twice when telling his story regarding Monroe and had almost said the name Chris. The police chief now had a fairly good idea as to the identity of the trainee who had been injured that night, and had a fairly good idea as to why John Gage had left Los Angeles.

        Carl was just about to promise his friend that if, on the off chance Monroe did show up in Eagle Harbor, the man would immediately be under twenty-four surveillance, when the sounds of running footsteps came from the hall just like they did every day at this time during the school year.

        “Hi, Papa! I'm here!”

        The sorrow John Gage's memories brought him immediately left at the sound of that young voice. He stood and circled around his desk, a grin of pure delight spreading across his face. Despite the backpack the boy was wearing, he jumped into Johnny's arms as had long been their habit when the child stopped by the fire station on his way home from school.

        Carl couldn't help but smile as he watched John hug the eight-year-old whirlwind of energy. John Gage was a loyal friend and an excellent fire chief, but above all else, he was a wonderful father to his young son, Trevor Roy.

Chapter 4

        Evan watched John Gage and his son exit the Eagle Harbor Police and Fire Station. The boy was holding his father's hand, swinging it back and forth as he alternated between hopping, trotting, and skipping to a waiting sport utility vehicle. Evan sipped at his coffee while observing the activity through a large, plate glass window. The location of Donna's Diner couldn't have been more perfect. The small restaurant was located directly across the street from the station, and was often a gathering spot for police and fire personnel when in need of a hot meal. Evan had even been sitting right at this very table yesterday at noon when John Gage walked in with the police chief for lunch. Gage had barely taken notice of Evan, and even if he had given Evan more than a passing glance, the man knew Gage wouldn't recognize him.

        Though Evan couldn't do anything to change his six and half foot height, he'd lost one hundred pounds since his last encounter with Gage, had grown his thinning, gray-brown hair to his shoulder blades, and sported a goatee that was also peppered with gray. Evan looked every bit the part of the free-lance photographer he was passing himself off to be. Between the goatee, the pewter colored hair he kept pulled back in a pony tail, and the round, wire rimmed spectacles he sported when the mood struck, he appeared just artsy enough to make people believe him when he said he was a photojournalist whose work had appeared in Life Magazine and National Geographic among other publications, while appearing rugged enough to blend into the Alaska countryside. Besides, it was hardly as though a free-lance photographer was an unusual phenomenon to Eagle Harbor. Alaska's beauty drew many visitors each year, all coming for a wide variety of reasons, and all from a wide variety of backgrounds.

        Evan had traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico since that night in April of 1978 when he'd attempted to abduct Jennifer DeSoto. His father had been a well-heeled psychologist who had given Evan access to a multi-million dollar trust fund when he turned twenty-one. His father had passed away in 1974 and his mother had died in 1986, meaning Evan had since inherited the rest of his parents' sizable estate. Thanks to all that money, Evan had never worked a day in his life. The man's IQ put him in the genius range. He used his abilities to invest wisely in the stock market in order to make his money grow further. Evan had no intention of ever enslaving himself to any man or corporate entity simply to bring in a paycheck. He was fifty years old now, and the thought of working for a living was laughable. He came and went as he pleased. Moved from town to town, indulging in his love of travel and sightseeing, and in his love of little girls when the mood struck. Lately though, the yearning for little girls had taken a back seat to the yearning for revenge. Evan had a score to settle with John Gage. The fire chief had prevented Evan from having what he wanted twenty-two years ago, - Jennifer DeSoto. He'd wanted that little angel so bad. It was Gage who pulled the girl from his arms. It was Gage whom Evan had attacked repeatedly with a knife. And it was Gage who had somehow lived through that attack, only to again protect the child when Evan returned the next day for a second abduction attempt that was ultimately thwarted by the police and Jennifer's father.
        Those actions on John Gage's part had festered inside Evan all these years like an open wound that just wouldn't heal. Evan was used to being the victor, as opposed to the loser. Despite the passage of time, he was far from ready to concede defeat to a stupid fireman.

        Evan smiled at the young waitress who refilled his coffee cup. If she'd been eight, instead of eighteen, he might be interested in her. But she wasn't eight, so he simply said, “Thanks,” and allowed her to move on to the only other customer in the diner. He returned to staring out the window. Evan had always been a meticulous planner, even as a child. He knew everything he needed to about John Gage, from his daily habits, to the existence of his little boy. The boy's name was Trevor, he'd turned eight years old on May 14th, and in two days would successfully complete his second grade year at Eagle Harbor Grade School. At this time each day during the school year Gage walked the child to the waiting vehicle driven by the police chief's mother, Clarice Mjtko. The sixty-seven year old woman was Gage's housekeeper, cook, and served as nanny for the boy when Gage was on duty. Evan watched as Gage bent to give his son a hug, then kiss him on the mouth before opening the door to Clarice's hunter green Ford Explorer. Evan couldn't hear what Gage was saying to the child, but based on the research he'd done on the man, and the things he'd been told by various people in this town while engaged in seemingly innocent conversation, he could easily imagine the words were, “Be good for Clarice. I'll see you later this evening. I love you.”

        A sad smile tugged at Evan's lips. His own father had never hugged him, kissed him, nor ever told Evan he was loved. It must be nice for a kid to have a dad like John Gage. By the way Trevor was smiling and waving as the Explorer left the parking lot, there was no doubt the feelings between father and son were warm and strong.

        For just a brief moment Evan regretted what he ultimately had to do. Not for Gage's sake, but for the child's. But then that brief moment passed, and with renewed vigor Evan returned to plotting his revenge.

Chapter 5

        Jennifer DeSoto Sheridan, who went by Doctor Jennifer Desoto in her professional life, swung her midnight blue Toyota Camry into her brother's driveway. She glanced at her watch to see it was already twenty-five minutes after seven. Chris had called her at Rampart's Emergency Room at four-thirty that afternoon to see if she could make it for dinner. All he gave in way of explanation was to say, “Mom and Dad will be here, too. I'd like to talk to all of you at the same time if that's possible.”

        Chris knew enough about his sister's busy schedule as a Rampart ER physician, and enough about her busy schedule as a single mother, to know getting his family together on the spur of the moment was rarely possible. If Jennifer hadn't heard the odd little catch in her brother's voice that she couldn't quite identify, she would have told him this get-together would have to wait until Sunday when she had the day off. But instead she said, “I'll try to be there by seven, Chris. If I'm running late, go ahead and eat without me. Oh, and would you please call Dad and tell him to bring Libby along? There's no point in them sitting around and waiting for me to pick her up, only to have all of us meet at your place twenty minutes later.”

        “Will do,” Chris had promised.

        Jennifer parked her car next to her parents' silver Plymouth mini-van. Her mother drove a white Chrysler Sebring, and her father still had the beloved sports car he maintained in mint condition. The mini-van had been purchased several years ago so outings with the grandchildren were easier.

        Thank God for Mom and Dad, Jennifer thought as she exited her vehicle. If it wasn't for her parents, especially her father, she didn't know how she would have survived the demands and long hours of her career. Jen loved her chosen field of emergency medicine, but even more so she loved her daughter, Olivia Kate. It wasn't easy being both a doctor and a single mother. Roy's flexible schedule meant Libby resided at her grandparents' home just about as many hours a week as she resided in her own home. That was one reason Jennifer bought a house in her parents' neighborhood after her divorce a year and a half earlier. Regardless of where she was spending the night, her own home or at her grandparents' house, Libby could walk to Spring Meadows Elementary, the school her mother and uncles had attended as children. Her neighborhood playmates were also the same children regardless of which home she was staying at. If nothing else, Jennifer had peace of mind knowing she'd finally been able to give Libby stability after several years of a life that was far from it.

        As Jennifer walked to the front door she heard the distant shrieks of children at play somewhere in Chris's neighborhood. In three more days school would be over for the summer. Fortunately, not even that event would adversely affect Jennifer's routine, or that of her daughter. Spring Meadows Elementary had a summer day camp Libby would attend during the morning hours. Four days after school drew to a close, Roy's teaching session would also end until a new class of trainees started in mid-August. Libby would still attend day camp in the morning, but rather than go to a friend's house in the afternoon she would go to her grandpa's. Libby and her grandfather had a deep bond that warmed Jennifer's heart. Her former husband, Daniel Sheridan, was an orthopedic surgeon who had moved to Ohio two months before their divorce was final. Dan's contact with Libby was now infrequent at best, especially since his remarriage and the recent birth of a son. Libby tried to hide the pain her father's absence caused her, but Jennifer sensed it each time Libby checked the mailbox only to find no letters from her dad, or each time she checked their e-mail, only to find no messages despite the many she'd sent him.

        Jennifer couldn't help but smile as she walked through the front door. Her father was on the living room floor, playfully wrestling with his “three little princesses,” as he referred to his granddaughters. The blue headband in Brittany's strawberry blond ringlets was askew, and little Madison's flaming red curls bounced on her shoulders as she ran in circles around her grandfather giggling, “No, Ampa! No!” each time Roy reached out to grab her. Libby was almost too old for this game now, and Jennifer could tell she was just joining in to be part of the group. When Libby looked up and saw her mother she ran to her with open arms.

        “Hi, Mom! I thought you'd never get here.”

        “Sorry, sweetie.” Jennifer bent to place a kiss on her daughter's forehead, then ran a hand over the straight, honey gold hair that fell to Libby's waist. Jennifer's hair used to be that long, and that color, too. Now her hair was cut in a full bob at her jaw line, and the only 'honey gold' left in it came from the highlights her hair stylist added every three months. “I got tied up--”

        “At the hospital. I know. Uncle Chris said we'd wait to eat until you showed up. But Grandma and Aunt Wendy gave me and the girls a snack 'cause we were hungry.”

        “I bet you were.”

        Roy pushed himself to his feet, scooping a giggling little red head under each arm. He walked over to his daughter and kissed her cheek.

        “Hi, sweetheart.”

        “Hi, Daddy. You look a bit winded there.”

        “Is that an indirect reference to these extra twenty-five pounds you and your mother keep telling me I need to get off?”

        Jennifer chuckled. “No. Not at all.” The doctor bent to kiss each of her nieces on the nose. “That's an indirect reference to these three beautiful girls you have fawning all over you.”

        “Yes, these three beautiful girls do wear me out.” Roy winked at Libby while gently depositing Brittany and Madison on their feet. “Come on, ladies, let's go see what awaits us in the kitchen. Something good I hope.”

        “Yeah, something good!” Brittany cheered as she ran ahead of her family.

        “Yeah, somfing ood!” Madison echoed, toddling after her sister.

        Roy and Jennifer laughed at the girls while Jennifer took Libby's hand. They entered the spacious kitchen with its dark cherry cabinets, snack bar, and breakfast nook, only to immediately be ushered into an even larger formal dining room that had a table big enough to seat the entire family.

        Because of the amount of time he spent working from home Chris had become an accomplished cook in recent years. Though his meals tended to lean toward 'country cooking' more than gourmet dining, he always got rave reviews from his family. Tonight's barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and dinner rolls received nothing but high praise. Jennifer teased her big brother.

        “I need to hire you to come to my house and cook about three times a week just so Libby and I eat something that doesn't come out of a box.”

        Around a drumstick Libby muttered, “No kidding.”

        Jennifer feigned mock indignation while Roy cocked an eyebrow at his daughter.

        “You only have yourself to blame, Jennifer Lynn. Libby is as honest and willing to speak her mind as you were at the same age.”

        Jennifer knew any attempts to argue with her father would be met by immediate protests given by her mother and brother. Libby shot Jennifer a barbecue rimmed smile.
        “See, Mom. I'm like you. Right?”

        Jennifer picked up her napkin and wiped her daughter's mouth before playfully running the napkin over Libby's nose. “That you are, my little girl. Or so I have it on good authority.”

        Whatever news Chris had for his family he kept to himself until after strawberry shortcake, ice cream, and coffee had been served. When the girls were done eating they were sent to the family room on the other end of the house to watch a movie from Brittany and Madison's extensive Disney library. As soon as Chris heard the muted sounds of the television set he began talking in a voice that was so like his father's.
        “Let me start off by saying that I really hate to have to tell all of you this, but at the same time I don't think we have anything to worry about.”

        “What don't we have to worry about, honey?” Joanne asked from her seat on Chris's left.

        Chris's eyes traveled from his mother, to his wife, to his sister, and then finally to his father. He looked at Roy a long moment before finally pulling his gaze away. His father had been through so much on his behalf. Chris hated to put the man through more by bringing up old and painful memories, but right now he had no choice. If Chris was going to keep his family safe, then he had to tell them about Troy Anders visit.

        Ten minutes later Chris finished revealing everything Troy had told him, as well as passing on the precautions the man advised all of them take.

        “I'll call John tomorrow,” Chris said in reference to his younger brother. “Detective Anders doesn't think he's in danger, but regardless, John needs to be told.”

        “Yes, he does,” Roy agreed.

        “You don't really think Monroe will go after John, do you?” Joanne asked her husband. “Or Chris? Or any of us for that matter?”

        “I don't know, Jo. Obviously there must be some concern in that area or Troy wouldn't have stopped by to see Chris today. On the other hand, it is routine procedure to let a crime victim know when his assailant has made threats against him. I don't believe it's necessary for any of us to lose sleep over this, but we do need to make certain we take the precautions the detective mentioned to Chris.”

Jennifer put on a brave face for her mother's and Wendy's sakes. “I agree with Dad. Let's not worry ourselves sick over it, but at the same time let's use our common sense and do the things Detective Anders advises. If Monroe is taking his medication like the detective mentioned, then at least he's on the right track to keeping his mental health in balance.”

        Wendy reached for her husband's hand. “That sounds like a big 'if' to me.”

        Everyone present could vividly recall the many hours they spent at Rampart General fifteen years earlier, first waiting for news on whether or not Chris had survived surgery, then waiting to be told just how much mobility he might someday regain. God knows they didn't want to go through something like that again.

        Joanne was as practical now as she had been the first day Roy met her. She did her best to smile at her family.

        “There's no use in worrying about what might come to pass. From my long experience, most of what we worry about never happens, so let's simply be cautious as we go about our daily lives these next few weeks. If anything else surfaces with Monroe I'm sure Detective Anders will let us know. Otherwise, like your dad says, there's no point in losing any sleep over this.”

        Chris and Jennifer exchanged glances. They knew fully well their parents would, in fact, lose sleep over the possibility of Scott Monroe harming one of them, John, or the grandchildren. But, it would do little good to try to get either Roy or Joanne to confess that, so for the time being Chris and his sister simply nodded their heads in agreement.

        The women stood, ushering the men from the dining room.

        “It's a beautiful summer night,” Wendy told her husband and father-in-law. “You two go sit on the front porch while we women gossip in peace.”

        Neither Chris nor Roy argued with that offer. Chris grappled into his canes, then led the way through the wide-open dining room, living room, and then out the front door. He took a seat in a wicker rocking chair while his father sat down on the porch swing.

        Roy was so proud of his son and all he'd accomplished since his injury. Chris had a loving, hard-working wife and two beautiful daughters, all of whom were a joy to be around. The elegant home Chris and Wendy now owned was in an upper middle-class neighborhood near excellent schools, and certainly held more room than their little family could ever grow into. Especially since they had no plans to have more children.

        It was dark now, and the neighborhood quiet. Dim lights shined through windows from houses across the street, but other than an occasional passing car father and son sat undisturbed. It was Chris who finally broke the silence the pair had fallen into.

        “I don't want you and Mom worrying about this.”

        Roy gave his son a soft smile. “It's a parent's prerogative to worry. I would think you'd know that by now.”

        “I do. But my girls are little.”

        “Chris, don't fool yourself into thinking that when the day comes Brittany and Madison are grown women you'll quit worrying about them.”

        “I won't. I mean, I know that's always part of being a parent. But still--”

        “Still nothing. It's simply a fact of life. Grandma DeSoto is seventy-eight years old, and she still worries about me and your aunts.”

        “I realize that. It's just that you and Mom have been through so much because of me. And Jenny, too. You've been through a lot in recent years because of her. . .hard times. I just. . .I hate to see either of you hurting because of us.”

        Roy shrugged. “When your children hurt, you hurt. Parenting Prerogative Number Two.”

        Chris grinned at his dad. “I'm just not going to win this argument, am I?”

        “If by not winning you mean you're not going to be able to stop me from worrying about you, then you're correct. You're not going to win.”

        Chris stared straight ahead, watching bugs do their summer dance beneath the streetlights for a few minutes before speaking again.

        “Detective Anders said that Monroe made threats against Uncle Johnny, too.”

        Like Chris expected, his father didn't respond.

        “I asked Troy if he'd been in contact with Johnny and he said yes.”

        Again, Chris paused for a response he didn't get. His father simply went on pushing lightly against the wood of the front porch so the swing would glide back and forth.

        “I asked Troy if he could tell me where Uncle Johnny is, but he said no. He said Johnny specifically requested that he not give me that information.”

        Roy finally made eye contact with his son. “If nothing else it sounds like Gage has gotten smarter in his old age.”

        Chris watched as his father pushed himself to his feet.
        “I'd better say goodnight to my granddaughters, then see if your mother's ready to go home. She and I both have to work in the morning.”

        Roy brushed by Jennifer on his way into the house. Chris looked up at his sister as she stepped onto the porch. “You heard, huh?”

        “Yes. I heard.”

        “I wish he would have told me, Jen. I wish Troy would have told me how we can get in touch with Uncle Johnny.”

        Jennifer leaned back against the porch railing, a sad smile flitting across her mouth. “After all these years he's still Uncle Johnny to us, isn't he?”

        “He always will be. That's how I think of him anyway.”

        “Me, too. And I'd venture to say our little brother does as well.”

        “I just hope that wherever Uncle Johnny is, he's okay. Happy, you know? Happy and healthy.”

        “I know what you mean, Chris.” Jennifer bridged the space between herself and Chris to lean down and hug her brother. “You can't imagine how many times I've thought of Uncle Johnny in the past fifteen years. And each time I do, I say a little prayer for both his happiness, and his well-being.”

        Chris wrapped his arms around his sister's back. He could easily guess that right at this moment Jennifer was praying for John Gage.


        Roy tried to keep his tossing and turning to a minimum as the digital numbers on the clock radio turned to midnight. His efforts not to awaken Joanne proved futile when her voice broke the stillness in their bedroom. She didn't waste time rehashing all they'd discussed about Scott Monroe, and their concern for Chris's safety, while driving home and then while getting ready for bed. Instead, the woman went right to the heart of another matter she knew was preventing her husband from sleeping.

        “Why don't you call Troy Anders tomorrow.”

        “Call him for what reason?”

“To see if he'll give you Johnny's phone number.”

        Roy gritted his teeth. “I don't want his phone number.”

        “Maybe you don't, but Chris and Jennifer do.”

        “They don't need it anymore than me.”

        Joanne hiked herself up on one elbow. “Roy, Chris's injury wasn't Johnny's fault fifteen years ago, and it's not his fault today. You know that as well as I do.”
        “I never said Christopher's injury was Johnny's fault.”

        “I seem to remember you saying that to Johnny the morning we got word of Chris's condition.”

        “I. . .it was a long time ago, Joanne. Just. . .just drop it, okay?”

        If Joanne had a dollar for every time she'd tried to broach this subject with her husband since July of 1985, she'd be a rich woman today. And each time she tried to speak to Roy about it, tried to get him to admit that he'd lost the best friend he'd ever had the day John Gage left Los Angeles, his standard reply was, “Just drop it, okay?”

        “All right. I'll drop it. But if you want my opinion, you shouldn't.”

        “I shouldn't what?”

        “Drop it. Roy, call Detective Anders and get Johnny's phone number.”
        “I just told you--”

        “I know what you told me. And I also know that, at times like this, you still miss Johnny terribly.”

        “And just what times would that be?”

        “Times when you need to talk to your best friend.”

        Roy tossed back the covers and shot from the bed. He didn't bother to shove his feet in his slippers as he grabbed his bathrobe and stomped toward the door.

        “Where are you going?”

        “I've got test papers to grade. As long as you're not going to let me sleep I might as well do something useful.”

        Joanne shook her head in a cross between amusement and aggravation as her husband left the room.

        Oh, so now I'm the one who's preventing us from getting any sleep. Roy, give up this game of charades you've been playing where Johnny's concerned. You'd be so much happier if you found out where he's living and got in touch with him. Why can't you see that? Why, oh why, can't you see that?


        The fourth and smallest bedroom in the DeSoto home had at one time been Chris and Jennifer's playroom. After John's birth it had become his bedroom. When John left for college the room had been turned into an office for Roy and Joanne.

        Roy didn't bother to flick the overhead light on when he entered. The screen saver on the computer, that was a picture of his granddaughters sitting in a pumpkin patch, was all the light Roy needed to see by. Which again, Joanne would find amusing since Roy said he was going to grade papers.

        The man bypassed the computer desk and it's L-shaped work area to instead flop down on the white metal day bed Joanne now kept in here. He picked up one of the decorative oblong throw pillows and idly flipped it end over end. Though Roy tried to will his mind away from the night Chris was injured, it insisted on traveling there anyway.

        Roy supposed there was nothing that sent a parent's heart racing faster than the ringing telephone during the wee hours of the morning. The call came into the DeSoto house at four thirty-five. Right away Roy knew something was wrong when it was Dixie's voice on the other end of the line.

        “Roy, it's Dixie. Chris and Johnny have been involved in a shooting. You need to get down here as soon as you can.”

        Roy wasn't even sure where he found the voice to question, “Dix?” At that moment he had no idea if it was his son who was injured, or his best friend, or maybe even both of them. All he knew was that, no matter the scenario, he was terrified at what the woman might say next.

        “It's Chris, Roy. It's. . .it's serious. You and Joanne need to be here.”

        Roy remembered babbling an explanation to Joanne as he hung up the phone, but how much of what he said to her made sense he still wasn't certain. If nothing else his own urgency caused her to hop out of bed and throw some clothes on. They were met in the hall by a tousled sixteen year old Jennifer who had been awakened by the commotion. Roy said nothing more than, “Chris has been hurt. Your mother and I have to go to Rampart. You stay here with John.”

        Jennifer trailed her parents down the hall asking questions that she received no answers to. Joanne had given the girl's hand a squeeze right before she climbed in the car.

        “Just do as Daddy asked and stay with John. We'll call you as soon as we know anything.”

        Under normal circumstances Roy would have grounded his daughter for disobeying him. But these weren't normal circumstances, so when she showed up in the waiting area of Rampart's surgical floor an hour later with John and Wendy, who was Chris's girlfriend at that time, Roy let the transgression pass.

        The DeSotos hadn't seen Johnny since their arrival. Dixie said he was in a Rampart conference room giving a statement to the police. Roy alternated between sitting next to Joanne on the sofa and pacing the waiting area's floor. His eyes continuously flicked to the elevator as though willing Johnny to walk out the doors so Roy could get his many questions answered.

        As the minutes turned into hours Roy muttered to his wife, “Where is he? Where's Johnny?”

        “Probably still talking to the police.”

        Roy looked up at the wall clock to see it was now ten a.m. Over five hours had passed since Johnny had arrived at Rampart with Chris.

        “No. Not this long. It wouldn't take this long. He should be here by now. Why isn't he here? Why won't he come talk to me?”

        Joanne had no answers for her husband. As his lips tightened to a grim line and he ran his hands through his thinning hair, Joanne knew what he thinking. That Johnny was avoiding them for some reason. It would be several months later that Joanne would find out from Dixie McCall that after the police had finished questioning Johnny he'd retreated to Rampart's chapel where he sat alone in the dark quietly crying for his best friend's son. By then giving that news to Roy did little to change the situation. Johnny had long since left Los Angeles.

        Roy could still recall his thoughts from that day. Johnny's avoidance spoke of nothing but guilt to him. Johnny knew he was to blame for Chris quitting college and joining the paramedic program in the first place, something Roy had been vehemently opposed to. Johnny knew it was his fault Chris had been injured. And above all else, Johnny knew it was his fault Chris would never walk again.

        It was this last bit of news that Doctor Brackett brought the DeSoto family at eleven o'clock that morning. Roy had raced to meet the doctor as soon as Brackett stepped from the elevator. The man refused to answer any of Roy's questions other than to say, “He made it through surgery, Roy. Now come on, let's go to the waiting area where I can talk to everyone at once. It looks like Chris has a number of people here who are worried about him.”

        On that fact, Kelly Brackett spoke the truth. By now Wendy's parents had arrived, as had Chris's best friend since first grade, Dean Cheveron, as well as three of Roy's B-shift crew from Station 26 where he was captain at that time. Only after Roy reseated himself next to Joanne would Kelly Brackett begin.

        “Because of the length of time it took the police to get Chris and Johnny out of that situation, Chris lost a lot of blood before he got here. Johnny did an outstanding job of keeping him alive, but nonetheless, Chris was in deep shock by the time they arrived. We gave Chris five units of blood before we took him into surgery, and four more while he was on the operating table. The precarious location of the bullet meant the surgery was an extremely delicate and time consuming procedure.”

        “But he'll live?” Wendy asked, while clinging to Jennifer's hand. “He'll pull through?”

        “I can't make any promises at this time,” Brackett stated with his usual caution. “However; he's young and he's strong. I believe, barring unforeseen complications, that yes, Chris will pull through.”

        “But there's something you're not telling us,” Joanne stated while studying the doctor's face. “There's something else, isn't there?”

        Roy knew there was something else, too. He'd known Kelly Brackett too long not to detect the sorrow around the man's eyes. At that moment Roy was barely aware of Johnny walking quietly around the corner, still dressed in his blood splattered turnouts. The man remained behind Roy and held himself back from joining the group despite six year old John's wave to him and sunny invitation of, “Come sit by me, Uncle Johnny.”

        “What else, Doc?” Roy remembered asking in a voice that was barely above a whisper. “What else is wrong with my son?”

        Brackett's eyes took in the upset parents, before traveling briefly to the pale face of John Gage. He took a deep breath as he spoke to these three people who loved Chris so much.

        “I'm sorry, Roy. Joanne. If I could have done more I would have. I promise you that.”

        “Done more about what?” Roy asked.

        “The bullet damaged Chris's spine. We already know he's suffered some degree of paralysis to his lower extremities.”

        Roy swallowed hard as he tried to find his voice. “Permanent?”

        “Yes, Roy. It's permanent.”

        Fifteen years later Roy could no longer summon the raging emotions that made him attack Johnny in the waiting room that morning. All he knew was that one minute he was seated next to his wife, and the next minute he was pounding out his pain and grief on Johnny's face and chest. It was with a sense of deep shame now that Roy recalled his hate-filled words.

        “You bastard! You did this to him! It's your fault my son will never live a normal life. He's nineteen years old, Johnny! He's just a kid! If you hadn't interfered, if you hadn't encouraged him to drop out of school, this would have never happened! You knew how much I wanted him to finish college! You, of all people, knew how important that was to me! He should have been in class today! He should have walking around campus instead of answering a call in the middle of the night! It shouldn't be Chris who's laying there paralyzed, it should be you!”

        Roy was certain he'd shouted other equally hurtful things before hands pulled him off Johnny, but whatever else he said he no longer remembered. The realization that Johnny had never tried to defend himself wouldn't come to Roy until years later, after he'd reviewed this scene many times in his mind. He did recall the moment Johnny's eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the floor. Ironically enough, it was Roy who caught the man before he could hit the ground. Brackett yelled for a gurney, and amidst shocked mumbles, and young John's startled cries at the violence he'd just witnessed on the part of his father, Johnny was whisked to the emergency room. Two hours later Joanne and Jennifer returned from the ER to say Brackett was treating Johnny for exhaustion, shock, and mild dehydration, and would be keeping him at Rampart for the next twenty-four hours. Joanne pulled her husband away from those people still gathered in the waiting area so she could speak to him privately.

        “Johnny hasn't had anything to eat or drink since five o'clock last night when he and Chris had supper at the station. They were out on several runs before their final one this morning at two. Doctor Brackett says between those things, the stress Johnny was under while he was taking care of Chris at the scene, and your. . .attack on him, all of it has been more than Johnny's body could take.”

        “I didn't attack him.”

        “Just what do you call it then?”

        “I don't call it anything.”

        “Well, it certainly looked like an attack to me. A physical and verbal one if you want the honest truth. How could you, Roy? Chris made his own decision about dropping out of school and joining the paramedic program, Johnny didn't make it for him.”

        “Maybe so. But Christopher confided in Johnny long before he confided in me. As far back as when he was sixteen years old. You heard Chris say that yourself. Johnny should have told me then. And he should have discouraged Chris. He knows I want our kids to finish college. He knows I don't want Chris or John hauling hose like I did while trying to make ends meet for a growing family. We struggled, Joanne. When the kids were small we struggled a lot of times to make it from payday to payday. It's only been since I made captain that things have gotten better. I don't want that for my children. I don't want them to struggle to make a buck and Gage knows that. He knows I wanted more for my kids. He knows I wanted the kids to have a future. A bright future. But now, thanks to him, Chris's future is over before it's even begun.”


        Roy had turned away from his wife then. “No. Just drop it. I don't want to talk about it anymore.”

        “But Johnny--”

        “I don't care about Johnny. I don't want to talk to Johnny, and I don't want to hear his name spoken again in my home. All I care about right now is Chris. All I care about is giving Chris every possible chance to get well. Maybe even to walk again.”

        “But Doctor Brackett said--”

        “Doctors have been wrong before. Even Brackett.”

        And with that Roy had walked away from his wife. The months that followed were difficult at best, and heartbreaking at worst. Roy continued to cling to the hope that Chris would one day walk again without the use of braces and canes, and when he finally had to accept that hope would never come to pass, he grieved almost as heavily as he would have had Chris died that night. He watched his son struggle through months of painful rehabilitation, and was always there to help Chris in whatever way he could. The worst part came when Chris, too, finally had to accept he'd never walk again. He sunk into a depression that lasted for two months. A depression so devastating for Roy to see that he cursed John Gage's name all the more.

        Five months after he'd been shot Chris was released from the rehab center. He didn't return to the apartment he'd been sharing with two other young paramedics, but instead, returned to his parents' house. He took a job offered him by fire department headquarters at the 911 Dispatch center, but only saw it as a way to pass the time, and as a means of financial independence. What he ultimately wanted to do with his life, Chris wasn't certain. If nothing else, his job at the dispatch center is what first sparked the young man's interest in computers.

        Chris proposed to Wendy on Christmas Day, 1987. She was to graduate from college in May of the next year. She and Chris agreed that they'd be married after that milestone was reached. Many times throughout the years Roy had thanked God for his daughter-in-law. A lot of young women in her position would have walked away from the prospect of being married to a paraplegic. But Wendy Adams possessed an amazing amount of fortitude, and the high spirits necessary to go along with it. She laughed as often as she lost the temper she blamed on her flaming red hair, and both those aspects of her personality seemed to bring Chris nothing but joy.
        The fall after Wendy and Chris were married Chris returned to college. When he graduated four years later Roy sat proudly in the front row and watched his oldest son shuffle across the stage using his canes in order to receive his degree. How Roy wished it all could have been easier for his boy. He wished so much that Chris had simply stayed in school the first time he'd entered. If that had been the case, Chris wouldn't be hampered by canes and a wheelchair. Once again, Roy found himself blaming Johnny for Chris's condition, though he hadn't seen his former friend in six years by that time.

        Roy looked over at his computer now, seeing the cherubic faces of his three granddaughters popping up from amongst the pumpkins. He smiled slightly, remembering the day last October when he and Joanne had taken the girls to a pumpkin farm. It was after the three girls had been tucked into bed at Grandma and Grandpa's house that the phone rang. It was John, calling from college in Casper, Wyoming where he was studying forestry and environmental science. Roy picked up the extension in the master bedroom while Joanne talked from the phone in the kitchen.

        “I've got enough credits to graduate in December so I'm going for it.”

        “Good for you,” Joanne had said.

        “That's great, John,” Roy echoed. “We're very proud of you, son.”

        “And, huh. . .listen, Dad, just so you know. . .”

        “If. . .if I get that job at Yellowstone like I hope to, I have to. . .well, I have to. .”
        “You have to what?”

        “I, huh. . .I have to take paramedic training.”

        There was a long silence before Roy said, “I see. Well, that makes sense considering what's expected of a forest ranger these days. I'm sure you'll do fine, John.”

        “Yeah,” John agreed. “I'm sure I will. I mean, I'm not worried about it or anything. After all, if I have questions, or need help with my studies, I can always ask the best, right?”

        “The best?”

        “You, Dad.”

        Roy smiled a little that night in spite of himself. “Sure, John. You can always ask me. I'll be more than glad to help you in any way I can.”

        After good-byes had been said Joanne appeared in the bedroom. She studied her husband a moment, before saying quietly, “He was nervous about telling you.”

        Roy looked up from where he sat on the edge of the bed. “Telling me what?”

        “That he had to take paramedic training.”

        “I don't know why he'd be nervous. The only thing I ever asked of our kids is that they finish college. What they do after that is their business.”

        “He was nervous, Roy, because he remembers that day at Rampart. Granted, he was only six years old, but it made a big impression on him.”

        “What made a big impression on him?”

        “Your attack on Johnny.”

        “I wish you'd quit calling it that. For one thing, it wasn't an attack. And for another, let it go, Joanne. It happened over fourteen years ago.”

        “I know. But John remembers it as though it was yesterday. It scared him, you know. It scared him very badly. He'd never seen you act like that.”


        “If you think about it, it's rather funny.”

        “What's funny?”

        “The fact that all these years you've blamed Johnny for Chris's interest in the paramedic program, when you should have been blaming yourself.”

        “Blaming myself?”

        “Yes, Roy. Yourself. Chris's interest in the program, John's interest in the program, and Jennifer's interest in medicine. Are you so blind that you can't see who really influenced our children when it came to their choices of careers?”

        As usual when this subject was broached, Roy refused to discuss it with his wife. He especially hated to discuss it when she was right.

        So now, on this night in early June of 2000, Roy sat alone in his office with nothing but his memories, and the surprisingly strong desire to get in touch with an old friend just to make certain he was all right.

        I hope you didn't laugh it off when Troy Anders called you, Johnny. If I still know you as well as I did at one time, you just shrugged your shoulders at the news about Monroe and walked away from the phone whistling some annoying off-key tune. Johnny. . .please. Please take Anders seriously. Do what you have to in order to keep yourself safe. It matters to my kids, Johnny. Even after all these years, your well-being really matters to them.

Roy tossed the throw pillow back on the bed. As he pushed himself to his feet he tried, and failed, to block out his final thought.

        And it matters to me, too, Johnny. It matters to me, too.

Chapter 6

        John Gage pulled in the long driveway that led to his home. He lived three miles outside the town of Eagle Harbor in a luxurious house surrounded by Sitka spruce trees that had been built with fire department money in 1986. Carl had told Johnny it was the hope of the members of the Fire and Police Commission that a new home would attract a fire chief who would stay around longer than a year or two. Well, that new home had attracted several fire chiefs, but none of them had worked out until Johnny came along, and he couldn't really imagine why. Yes, the responsibilities were far reaching and demanded a man give a lot of himself to this town, its people, and the surrounding areas. He supposed the isolation of this waterfront Alaskan hamlet made it difficult on some of the wives of past fire chiefs, or so Carl had hinted at one time when he'd said, “And if a wife is unhappy, then her husband is unhappy. She makes certain of that, let me tell you.”

        To Johnny, the isolation and small town atmosphere of Eagle Harbor was one of its most valuable assets. He liked being able to walk down the street and greet people by name, only to in turn be greeted with just as much familiarity and warmth. He liked the fact that his son went to a public elementary school that only held one classroom per grade, with approximately fifteen children per class. He liked the fact that he could walk in that school at any time during the day and be welcomed by the staff, as opposed to having to go through security checkpoints and be frisked for a weapon. He liked the fact that the Eagle Harbor National Forest was just beyond his backyard, meaning he and Trevor could camp and hike to their hearts' content. He liked the fact that he and Trevor could ride their bikes into town on a summer afternoon for lunch at Donna's Diner, then bike along the Pacific coastline before returning home again. He liked the fact that he and Trevor could kayak in the Pacific during the summer months, and snowmobile over miles of pristine wilderness in the dead of winter. If there was anything Johnny didn't like about his job, or Eagle Harbor, Alaska, he had yet to discover what it was.

        Johnny used the remote control clipped to his sun visor to raise the garage door. He pulled the red Dodge Durango he was driving into the garage and parked it next to a black Land Rover. The Land Rover Johnny owned. The Durango belonged to the fire department and was fully equipped with a radio, flashing lights, a siren, a wide variety of tools and medical equipment, and a logo on both sides of the vehicle that identified him as Eagle Harbor Fire, Rescue, and Paramedic Chief.
        As Johnny got out of his vehicle he could hear horses pawing in their stalls on the other side of this structure that was both garage and barn. He opened a door, flicked on the overhead lights, and poked his head in. The two horses that resided here, Champ and Omaha, had been fed and bedded for the night. Trevor's rabbits, Happy and Hoppy, were content in their cage, both with fresh water, a dish of rabbit food, plus a carrot, and plenty of leaf lettuce. Johnny looked in the other direction to see the cats' dishes also contained food and fresh water. How many cats his son now owned Johnny wasn't sure, though the count generally stayed around fifteen by the time one considered new litters born each summer, and the fact the mature males generally wandered away in search of more alluring females. Cats of every color and size gazed down at Johnny from their perches on top of hay bales and in the rafters. Johnny had long ago given up on being able to identify them all by name, but Trevor could certainly do so if asked. Johnny was proud of his son. At eight years old Trevor already knew the responsibilities that came with owning animals, and willingly carried out those responsibilities even when his father wasn't present to remind him of his chores.
        Johnny walked through the barn and shut the windows Trevor had left open. The temperature had reached seventy degrees that afternoon, but now it was down to fifty. The summer time temperatures in Eagle Harbor rarely climbed higher than seventy-five. Winter temperatures averaged between zero and fifteen degrees. Of course, it sometimes got colder, but it was rare for the temperature in Eagle Harbor to drop very far below zero and stay there for extended periods of time like happened farther north in Alaska.

        Johnny hit the light switch as he passed it, stepped back into the garage, and shut the door. That this home possessed three acres of land and the small barn had been a plus. Johnny hadn't owned any horses, or any other animals for that matter, while living in Denver. A condominium complex was hardly accommodating to animals that belonged on a ranch. Before leaving Los Angeles Johnny had sold his four horses; Cody, Cheyenne, Niabi, and Yuma, to his neighbor, Bob Emery. Johnny's collection of barn cats and Joe, his beloved Alaskan Malamute who had been a gift from the DeSoto family, went to live with Bob and his wife as well. Leaving Joe behind had been even harder than leaving the horses, but Johnny knew all his animals would have a good home with Bob. They were familiar with the man because Bob took care of them when Johnny was on duty. Johnny hadn't had any contact with Bob since the day he left L.A. for Denver, but he knew Joe must have passed away some years ago now since the average life span of a Malamute was roughly twelve years. As far as the horses went, they could easily live twenty-five years or longer. Johnny supposed it was possible Bob might still have some of his horses, but then again, Bob had been sixty-four years old in 1985, so for all Johnny knew he could be dead now, too.

        Johnny smiled when the pair of Malamutes he now owned ran to greet him. The female had been spayed so she and her male friend couldn't bear any puppies. Trevor had christened the male Nicolai and the female Tasha. Both were Russian names familiar to the boy. In this area of Alaska some degree of Russian words still seeped into every day language. The dogs had been sleeping on the back deck, where they slept each night except in the middle of winter when the barn was their home. They were Trevor's loyal companions and ardent protectors. Johnny always knew where his son was at simply by discovering the location of the dogs.

        The fire chief took the time to pet each dog. He crouched down so they could nuzzle his face while he stroked his hands over their coats. It was almost eleven o'clock at night, and the sun had just set. Alaska's long days had begun with the coming of June. Eagle Harbor was too far south to get twenty-four hours of sunlight throughout the summer months as happened in the northern quarter of the state; nonetheless, the sky stayed light this time of year far longer than it did anywhere else Johnny had ever lived.

        Johnny walked past his son's wooden play set that included four swings, a slide, a teeter-totter, and a fifteen-foot length of crossover bars. There was a tire swing hanging from a nearby tree, and then the wooden fire tower/fort Johnny had built for Trevor two years earlier that rose eight feet off the ground and included a rope, a ladder, and a gleaming fire pole that went right up the center of the wooden building.

        The fire chief rubbed a hand over his tired eyes as he inserted his key in the door lock, then stepped from the deck into the laundry room. He bent to untie his boots, pulling them off one by one and placing them on the mat next to Trevor's tennis shoes. He opened the door that allowed him to enter from the laundry room into the vast kitchen/dining area. A wood beamed ceiling rose twelve feet above Johnny's head. He didn't bother to flick on the light. He knew Clarice would have left his mail on the countertop by the toaster, but other than that the big room would be spotlessly clean, as was the rest of the house.

        Thank God for Clarice, Johnny thought not for the first time since arriving in Eagle Harbor. He still remembered the conversation he had with Carl the day in early April of 1993 when the man called him in Denver to say the job was his, and to ask Johnny if he could start in mid-May.

        “I can start then, but as I told you I'm a single father with an eleven month old son. The Denver Fire Department is large enough that it has a twenty-four day-care service I make use of for Trevor when I'm on duty. I'll need to make some type of similar arrangements for my boy in Eagle Harbor. Can you give me names of any women, or day-care facilities, I can contact?”

        “I can do you one better than that. I'll let you talk to my mother.”

        “Your mother?”

        “Yep. To begin with, she's employed by the fire and police departments as the housekeeper for their chiefs. Now in my case that makes things pretty simple considering she lives with me. In your case that means she'll come by twice a week to clean the house the department provides for you. If you'd like to speak to Mom about hiring her to take care of your son, and maybe do some cooking for you, or laundry, or run errands when necessary, I'm sure she'd be interested.”

        Johnny didn't know what to say. It sounded like the ideal situation, yet he didn't put Trevor in just anyone's care. Carl must have sensed this because he said, “Mom's baby-sat for about every kid on Eagle Harbor. She comes with excellent references. I'll let you talk to her. She can give you some names and phone numbers so you can check her out.”

        “Uh. . .thanks. And I. . .well, I don't mean to sound like I don't trust your mother, but--”

        “But a parent can never be too careful. Hey, I'm the police chief. Believe me, I know. And so does my mother. She won't be insulted by your inquiries. In fact, she'll tell you to ask around about her.”
        And that's just what Clarice did. Johnny got nothing but glowing reports about the woman and had never regretted hiring her. She was, in fact, his housekeeper, cook, nanny, and errand runner. He didn't know what he'd do without her, or what Trevor would do without her. She was a cross between mother, grandmother, and trusted confidant to the boy whose own mother lived such a busy life in New York City that she could only clear her schedule for her son two weeks out of each year.
        Johnny padded lightly from the kitchen into the sunken great room. A massive stone fireplace resided on one wall, a home entertainment center complete with big screen TV on another. Thick beige carpeting lined the floor and felt good under bare feet on a cold winter night. This ceiling, as well, rose twelve feet in the air and was beamed. The outside of the house was sided with rugged cedar and trimmed with red shutters and red doors. Though the rooms were large and open; oak trim, oak cabinets and oak flooring, along with plush carpeting, two fireplaces, and polished pine planking on the walls, gave the home a feeling of warmth that Johnny dearly cherished.

        Johnny smiled at the sight of Clarice asleep in a recliner with the open newspaper in her lap. Clarice's short legs barely reached the middle of the recliner's footrest. She stood five-feet one inch in height and weighed one hundred and thirty-five pounds, thirty pounds more than she had when she'd married Carl's father at the age of nineteen. Or so she often told Johnny when she was bemoaning the fact that she'd like to lose weight. At those times Johnny would always tell the active woman she looked great, and he meant every word of it. He could hardly imagine his petite housekeeper being the mother of the hulking Carl. She wore her light brown hair in a wedge cut that came to the middle of her cheekbones, and was only now allowing the gray streaks to slip through after years of keeping it colored. When Carl's hair had started turning gray, his mother decided she might as well let hers do the same.

        “After all, who am I kidding?” She'd told Johnny with her usual humor. “It's not like anyone on Eagle Harbor doesn't know my age, or that I'm the police chief's mother.”

         Quietly, Johnny now beckoned, “Clarice.”

        The woman startled awake, then chuckled at the fright Johnny had unintentionally given her. She reached for the lever that would drop the footrest.

        “I didn't hear you pull in. Nicolai and Tasha must not have barked.”

        “They didn't. But then they don't usually once they recognize it's me.”

        The woman folded the paper and set it in the wooden magazine rack. She looked up at the man she'd come to think of as another son.

        “You look tired, John.”

        “I am.”

        “Long night?”

        A sad frown tugged at the corners of Johnny's mouth. “Yeah.”

        “Bad call?”

        Johnny nodded. “Car accident involving two teenagers. One was dead when we arrived, the other. . .I thought he might have a chance, but he died while they were trying to extract him.”

        “You were in the car with him?” Clarice guessed just by looking at Johnny's face.

        “Yeah. I got two IV's going, had oxygen on him, and had pressure bandages on his abdomen where he was bleeding out, but. . .well, it just wasn't enough.”

        “Who were the boys?”

        “Justin Tindell and Alexi Neeshem. I went to tell Alexi's father. That's why I'm so late. He's the one. . .Alexi's the one I couldn't save. Carl was going to talk to Justin's parents.”

        Tears filled Clarice's eyes. There were many good points to living in a small community, but one of the bad points was when tragedy struck you knew the families involved, meaning it felt like tragedy had lighted upon your own family. Carl had grown up with Justin Tindell's dad and mom, while Alexi's father was a member of John Gage's volunteer fire force.

        “I'm sorry. I know how hard tonight must have been for you.”

        “You'd think after almost thirty years of doing this kind of work it would get easier.”

        “Death never gets easier, John. As much as we all think the more death we experience the easier it will be to accept it that never quite seems to come about. Especially where children are concerned. I suppose the boys were doing something foolish.”

        “They were,” Johnny acknowledged. “Drag racing a couple other kids. What sixteen year old boys have been doing at the beginning of summer vacation ever since Henry Ford invented the Model T. Nonetheless; that doesn't mean they deserved to die.”

        “No, it doesn't. But only God decides these things. Even you, with all your medical knowledge and skills, can't change the timetable God has set for each one of His children.”

        “I guess not.”

        Clarice patted the man's arm. “You eat the supper I left covered on a microwave dish in the refrigerator for you. Roast beef, potatoes, and corn. Three of your favorites. There's fresh peaches in the refrigerator, too, and ice cream in the freezer if you want dessert. Then you get some sleep. That's what you need right now. Food and rest.”

        Johnny gave the woman a small smile. “You take good care of me, Clarice.”

        “Someone has to.”

        “So I've been told more than a few times in my life.”

        “And I'd guess usually by older women such as myself who have declared it their jobs to mother you, am I correct?”

        Johnny smiled again as he thought of Dixie McCall and Joanne DeSoto. Not that Joanne was that much older than him, only three years, but nonetheless the feeling was the same.

        “You're correct.”

        “I thought so. Therefore, do what I say. Eat and get some sleep. Trevor's been in bed since eight-thirty. He was a little upset when he found out you weren't going to make it home in time to read a chapter of Harry Potter with him, but he understood you had a job to do.”

        “He always does. It's been a way of life for him since the day we moved here.”

        “What has?”

        “Never knowing for certain what time I'll be home, or if I'll get called in on my day off. Sometimes I wish I could change that for him, but all in all I wouldn't trade the life we have here for anything.”

        “And neither would he. He understands, John, and Trevor's very proud of his papa. You're a good father to him. Some men can be home with their children twenty-four hours a day and still be lousy fathers. Don't you think for one minute that what you do each day for this town, and the people who live here, isn't making a big impression on your son. He loves you very much and wouldn't have you doing anything else for a living but what you are. He knows how happy helping people makes you.” The woman patted Johnny's arm one last time. “Now I need to get home to my own son. I imagine he'll be in need of a little pep talk as well. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon when I pick Trevor up from the station. Oh, and by the way, he's counting down the minutes until school's out. I could hardly get him calmed down enough to go to sleep tonight.”

        Johnny chuckled, well remembering his own excitement at the close of each school year. With only two days of school left he was certain Trevor was counting down the minutes.

        Johnny said good-bye to Clarice as she headed for the back door. She had her own key so she could come and go as needed. And sometimes that need came in the middle of the night when Johnny was called out to the scene of a fire, or accident, or to search for a missing hiker. He could always count on Clarice hurrying into his house as he was hurrying out of it. She and Carl lived three blocks from the police station along the waterfront. A scanner in their home kept Clarice informed of the goings on in both the fire and police departments. Johnny had long ago converted a ten-foot by twelve-foot butler's pantry this house originally contained into a bedroom for Clarice. The short hallway off the rear of the formal dining room, which was on the opposite side of the kitchen from the great room and contained the home's second fireplace, held the converted bedroom and a half bathroom. Since Clarice spent so much time in his home, Johnny wanted her to feel comfortable here and have an area to call her own.

        The fire chief entered his kitchen and turned on the lights. The center work island served as a snack bar as well, and was where Johnny took his meals whenever he ate alone late at night. On this night though, the man had no appetite, so rather than eating flipped through his mail. Two bills, and a postcard from his father. No longer did Chad Gage ranch in Montana on a full-time basis. In what came as a surprise to both Johnny and his older sister Reah, in 1990 their father had married their deceased mother's best friend, Marietta Scovel Parker. Marietta had always thought of Johnny and Reah as the children she'd never had, and Johnny and Reah loved her like a favorite aunt, so her adjustment as stepmother to Chad's adult children was an easy one for all concerned. Marietta had continued to run the White Rock Cafe, and Chad had continued to ranch, until the death of Chad's father, Roderick, two years ago at the age of ninety-seven. The old man's passing had saddened Johnny greatly. They'd always been very close. Yet Johnny knew his grandfather had lived a long and productive life, and he was happy that Trevor had gotten to know the man and would have memories of him.

        Shortly after the passing of Johnny's grandfather Marietta sold the White Rock Cafe, Chad leased out his land, and the couple bought a motor home. Johnny had never pictured his father as a gray-headed RV'r, but that's exactly how Chad and Marietta spent six months of the year. Marietta's goal was to visit every state and all of Canada, too, and Chad seemed content to partake in that goal as long as he got to spend the other six months of the year on his beloved homestead. From Johnny's vantage point when they came to see him and Trevor for two weeks each December, the couple appeared happy with one other and their lifestyle. Johnny certainly couldn't ask for anything but that for his father, and he knew Reah felt the same way.

        Johnny read the short message on the back of the card written in his father's small, cramped script.

        Just left Pennsylvania. Headed for the northeast and Niagara Falls. Tell Trevor Grandpa Chad and Grandma Marietta say hello and that we miss him. Take care of yourself. Love, Dad.

        Johnny laid the postcard back by the toaster so Trevor could add it to the collection he was making of Grandpa Chad's travels in a scrapbook. The fire chief left his kitchen, walked through the great room, and headed toward his office at the rear of his home. The office had been a master bedroom that housed a master bath. Johnny preferred to sleep in the bedroom upstairs that was down the hall from Trevor's, so had used this spacious room as his home office since moving in seven years earlier. He walked over to his massive oak desk, and turned on the lamp that rested there. He sat down and hit the space bar on his computer. His screen saver of racing fire trucks and frolicking Dalmatian puppies gave way to icons. He clicked on Outlook Express and waited while the modem dialed. When he got into his e-mail he saw he had two new messages. The first one was from his sister. Reah had taken her obstetrical nursing skills beyond White Rock, Montana, and was now using them in northern Newfoundland. Like she had in Montana, Reah provided medical care to pregnant women for whom such things as prenatal and infant care were a luxury. As the closest person to a doctor many of her patients ever saw, she traveled on a frequent basis from one isolated community to another. Though Reah had been involved in two serious relationships during her adult years, she had never married, and as far as Johnny knew had no regrets about that fact. Like his father and Marietta, Reah visited Johnny and Trevor each December over the Christmas/New Year holidays.

        Johnny read his sister's message, which was simply a light, carefree note meant to say hello, and then moved down to the next message.

        Hi, John,

        I hope all is well with you. I'm sending Trevor's plane ticket in tomorrow's mail. Franklin and I will pick him up at the airport on the 29th of July. We'll spend a few days at our apartment in New York so we can take him to a Broadway show, the Central Park Zoo, and the museum, then we'll head for our home in the Hampton's. My mom and dad are going to meet us there so they can spend a few days with Trevor, too. He'll be arriving back in Anchorage on August 12th as we previously agreed upon. As always, you're more than welcome to come with him.

        Please let me know if the above plans meet your approval. Franklin and I are leaving for Paris on Sunday, so I'd appreciate it if you'd get in touch with me before then.
        Take care,

Take care. The way she signed all correspondence she sent to him. At one time, prior to Trevor's birth, it had always been, All My Love, Ashton. But Johnny hadn't been the recipient of all Ashton Riley's love in a good number of years now. Eight years after their breakup he could look back upon their relationship and see so clearly the many reasons why they weren't meant to be together in the first place. Nonetheless, at one time they had loved each other very much.

        Ashton had been a first year resident at Denver's Central Hospital when Johnny met her. He tripped over her in a crowded trauma room, and was immediately taken with her stunning beauty. Her shoulder length hair was the color of cherry Coke, her eyes wide and a combination of gray and green. She was thirty years old, tall and leggy with a model's build and the kind of sculptured face usually reserved for the cover of Vogue. Johnny somehow worked up the courage to ask this elegant woman, who was nine years younger than himself, out for dinner when the patient, and the blood, had been cleared away. Johnny had been living in Colorado for just three months at that time. The pain of his departure from Los Angeles, and the events surrounding that departure, were still fresh. Ashton herself had just broken her engagement with her former fiancé who was a doctor at Denver's St. Mary's Hospital. She'd caught the man cheating on her when she walked into their apartment one night to find him in their bed with another woman. Ashton's pain at this betrayal on the part of the man she loved was, as well, still fresh. Johnny supposed they were simply two people in need of healing, and were able to find that healing with one another. Four months after they met, Ashton moved into Johnny's condo. The last time he'd loved a woman like he loved Ashton was when he was married to his long deceased wife, Kim.

        Johnny thought what he and Ashton had as a couple their first few years together was meant to last a life time. But then he began to see signs that should have told him the two of them didn't have enough compatible goals in order to make a life together work. He wanted to get married, she didn't. She wanted to move to New York City to pursue her training in cardiovascular medicine, while Johnny longed to own a ranch again. She wanted to travel all over Europe and Asia, while Johnny just laughed at the notion that they could ever afford to do such things on a paramedic's salary. Johnny wanted children, she didn't. Then she got pregnant with Trevor.

        It took every bit of Johnny's persuasive skills to convince Ashton not to abort the baby. He asked her over and over again to marry him, and over and over again she refused.
        “This isn't what I wanted for my life, John, and you know it! I don't have time for children! My career means I'm gone more than I'm home. That will only get worse when I'm on staff somewhere as a surgeon.”

        “But we can make this work. I know we can,” Johnny pleaded night after night as Ashton's belly grew bigger, and her depression and anger over the situation grew worse. “Please, Ashton. Let's give it a try. Once we're married you'll feel differently. Once we're married--”

        “No, I won't feel differently because once we're married you still won't want to live in New York, and I still won't want to live on a ranch in Podunk, Colorado, or wherever the hell you want to drag me that probably won't even have a telephone! Let's face it, John, this isn't going to work. You'll never be happy being married to a woman who's gone more than she's home, and who's the main breadwinner in the family. It already ticks you off that I spend so many hours at the hospital and make more money than you do.”

        “It does not!” Johnny had denied, though deep down he knew Ashton was right. His male ego might eventually be able to resolve itself to the fact that his wife earned a higher income than he did, but the hours she would be putting in on her job when the day came she was a heart surgeon were always going to cause constant conflict between the two of them.

        The pair had these same arguments week after week, and Johnny realized now it was miracle that they'd stayed together until Trevor was born. Johnny had thought that event, the birth of their child, might change Ashton's mind where motherhood was concerned, but it didn't. Just hours after Trevor was born Ashton handed him to Johnny as though he meant nothing more to her than a sack of flour.

        “Here. He's yours. You wanted him, you raise him.”


        “No buts.” The woman was sitting up in her hospital bed. She turned her face away from Johnny, but not before he saw the tears in her eyes. “This. . .this isn't easy for me, but I know. . .hell, John, I'll be a crappy mother. I never even played with dolls when I was a kid. I never even played with other kids when I was a kid. My mother says I was born a grown-up, and in a lot of ways I guess she's right. You'll. . .you'll give him everything he needs. The love. . .the love and attention a little boy needs to grow up to be a good man.”

        “So this means what?” Johnny had asked while holding the sleeping infant in his arms.

        “It means I'm not coming back to the condo. I'll be moving in with a friend for the time being. In two months I head to New York to take a position with Metropolitan Hospital. Before I leave I'll see a lawyer. I'll grant you full custody of the baby.”
        And that's exactly what happened. It wasn't until Trevor was three that Ashton expressed an interest in getting to know her son. She had gotten married that year to an esteemed cardiovascular surgeon, and medical college professor, twenty-five years her senior. She didn't have to worry about hooking up with another man who wanted children. Franklin Barnes was divorced and his own children long grown. Now a grandfather of nine, he had no desire to hear the pitter patter of little feet unless those little feet were just visiting for a short period of time.

        At first Johnny was hesitant to allow Ashton contact with Trevor. He'd read of too many cases where suddenly a non-custodial parent starts fighting for custody and eventually wins the right to rip the child from the only home he's known. It was Clarice who talked Johnny into a mother and son meeting.

        “John, he needs to know who his mother is. For Trevor's sake, allow him to have a relationship with her, even if that relationship never goes much beyond what an aunt would have with a favored nephew. From what you've told me about Ashton, I really believe you have nothing to worry about.”

        Clarice's intuition regarding the situation proved accurate. Ashton had no desire to be a full-time mother and, in fact, the relationship she now had with her son today was more like that of a favorite aunt who spoiled Trevor with an abundance of gifts and money on his birthday, at Christmas, on Valentine's Day, on Easter, and during the two weeks he spent with her and Franklin each summer. She sent Trevor e-mail messages at least once a week, and called him once a month, so if nothing else Trevor felt secure in her love, but at the same time never questioned her absence from his life. For as far back as Trevor could remember his mother had lived in New York City, while he and his father lived in Eagle Harbor, Alaska. He knew his father and mother had never been married because Johnny had been honest with him about that fact, but Trevor had also been told many times by Johnny that he was loved very much by both his parents. The boy had no reason to doubt his father's words, and was happy with his life as it was. Trevor couldn't imagine not living with his papa. He loved his mother, but his world revolved around his cherished father.

        Johnny was too tired tonight to respond to either his sister's message, or Ashton's. He'd e-mail both of them in the morning. He sat back in his chair, allowing his mind to wander to the accident scene he'd been at three hours earlier. He hated it when he lost a patient, and even more so when that patient was a kid. As he'd told Clarice, he thought he'd be more accepting of the loss of a victim by now, but he wasn't. He wasn't, and Johnny doubted he ever would be as he recalled the vacant look to Alexi's father's eyes when Johnny told him his only son was dead, and then remembered the way the man crumpled against him and sobbed when his brain finally absorbed the tragic news.

        Without thinking about it, Johnny tugged on a deep bottom drawer and pulled out a photo album. He laid the thick binder on his desk and opened it, turning each page slowly one by one. Johnny's smile held a hint of nostalgia as he looked at the old pictures. His long, unruly hair had been cut short ten years ago now simply because he'd grown tired of wearing it to his shoulders. Hank Stanley would probably be thrilled to see the neat, trim cut he currently sported. If the man had said, “Gage, get a haircut,” once, he'd said it a thousand times while Johnny worked for him. And Kelly Brackett would be happy to see that Johnny had put on ten pounds since his days at Station 51. At every annual physical Johnny endured while with the L.A. Fire Department Brackett would always say, “Johnny, you're too thin. You need to put on a few pounds, but don't do it by eating junk food.” Well, Johnny had put on those few pounds the old-fashioned way he supposed, by getting older. He was a little thicker in the waist than he had been twenty-five years ago, but also broader in the shoulders and chest thanks to the weight room at Eagle Harbor's police and fire department headquarters. Nonetheless; Johnny still weighed eight pounds less than was considered normal for a man his height, and probably always would based on the fact that his build was identical to his father's and late grandfather's.

        Johnny looked up when he sensed a presence in the doorway of the room.

        “Hey, what are you doing out of bed?” The man asked, while at the same time wheeling his chair back so his son could climb in his lap. Like Johnny had been at the age of eight, Trevor was all 'knees and elbows' as the expression went, and also a few pounds underweight for his height despite the fact that he had the infamous Gage appetite.

        “I woke up and came down to see if you were home, Poppy.”

        Johnny smiled at the nickname his son often used for him. Because of the French influence, most of the children on Eagle Harbor called their fathers 'Papa.' Trevor was just learning to talk when they moved here, and Clarice always referred to Johnny as, “Your papa,” when she was speaking to Trevor about his father, or would say, “Papa's home,” when Johnny's vehicle pulled in the driveway. By the time the boy was two Johnny was always “Papa.” By age four it was sometimes, “Poppy.” Now, at eight, it could be either of those names, along with, “Pops,” which had been added to the repertoire in recent months.

        “Well, I'm home. Now you should go back to bed. It's after eleven and you've got school tomorrow.”

        Trevor rolled his eyes. “Don't remind me.”

        The boy turned in his father's lap so he could take charge of the photo album. He flipped the pages for Johnny as they talked.

        “Did you have any homework?”

        “Yep. Spelling words to memorize and a math paper.”

        “Is everything done?”

        “Pops, you know Clarice works me like an indentured servant. Of course everything is done.”

        Johnny smiled at the back of his son's dark head. If there was any of Ashton in the boy it was hard to see. Everyone, including Chad and Reah, told Johnny that Trevor was his spitting image. Trevor inherited a large portion of his personality from his papa as well, though Johnny didn't know if that was genetics, or simply because Trevor was only party to his mother's influence two weeks out of each year.

        “Where'd you hear the term 'indentured servant'? ”
        “Read it in a book. It was a hard word at first, but Clarice helped me sound it out. Then she made me look it up in the dictionary so I'd know what it means.”

        Trevor loved to read and was an excellent student for whom school came easy. For those things Johnny was grateful. The boy was not without his shortcomings, however. Like his father, Trevor had a hard time sitting still for very long, and his teachers often complained to Johnny that Trevor tended to talk out of turn and often forgot to raise his hand in his eagerness to supply an answer. Johnny was working with his son to improve those skills, but he doubted he'd ever be able to completely cure Trevor's 'motor mouth' as Carl affectionately referred to the boy's ability to talk, and talk, and talk, and then talk some more.

        “So if everything is done then you're going to get a one-hundred on that math paper tomorrow and on your spelling test?”

        “Naturally. I'm very smart, you know.”

        “Oh, you are, huh?”

        “Sure. Miss Hillman tells me that all the time. Right before she tells me she's gonna tape my mouth shut if I don't be quiet. But that's not a bad thing, Poppy, so don't scold me.”

        “Why is it not a bad thing?”

        “Because Miss Hillman will pass me to the third grade for sure.”

        “How do you know that?”

        “There's no way she's gonna want a talkative kid like me in her class again next year. She likes quiet kids. I'm just too much for the poor woman.”

        Johnny had to choke back his laughter in order not to give the impression to the precocious Trevor that he approved of his behavior.

        “Well, maybe I'll need to tape your mouth shut some this summer so that
by the time you start the third grade this problem will be cured.”

        Trevor simply shook his head as he studied a picture of the Station 51 A-Shift as assembled in the engine bay in 1973. “Oh, Poppy, you're such a kidder.”

        The boy pointed to the men in the picture and correctly identified each one. “That's Mike Stoker. He was the engineer. A quiet guy who didn't say much, but boy, could he drive a fire truck. And Hank Stanley. He was your captain. A great boss who really cared about his men. And that's Marco. He was nice guy and a real good cook. And Chester B. Kelly. The Phantom. A pain in the rear, but a decent man overall. And Uncle Roy. That's Uncle Roy standing next to you, right, Poppy?”


        “And my middle name is the same as his first name 'cause he's your best friend in the whole wide world and you named me for him, right?”

        Johnny gave a slight nod. “Right.” Ashton hadn't even cared about partaking in choosing a name for their son. It took Johnny two days to finally settle on Trevor. He thought it sounded strong and independent. He figured it was a good name to give a little boy who was starting out life with an absentee mother. Why Johnny chose Roy for Trevor's middle name he still didn't know for certain other than to say he often thought of Roy when he wanted to confide his troubles in a trusted friend, or bounce his thoughts off of someone who knew him almost as well as he knew himself. For so many years that someone had been Roy, and at the time Trevor was born Johnny longed for Roy's rock-solid guidance and advice. When a nurse came to Johnny requesting the baby's name for the birth certificate, Johnny said without even having to think about it, “Trevor Roy.”

        “Poppy, Uncle Roy isn't my real uncle, right?”

        “Right. To be your real uncle he'd have to be my brother.”
        “So why do we call him Uncle Roy?”

        “I don't know. I guess because his kids always called me Uncle--”

        “Chris, and Jennifer, and John?”

        “Yes. Chris, Jennifer, and John. Anyway, they always called me Uncle Johnny, so if you ever meet Roy, I'd want you to call him uncle out of respect for all he and his family meant to me.”

        “Then how about I meet him this summer?”

        “This summer?”

        “Sure. We always take a vacation in August after I get home from Mom and Franklin's. Instead of going camping up on Watson Lake like we usually do, let's go to California and see Uncle Roy and Aunt Joanne.”

        “It's not that easy, Trev.”

        Trevor heard the sadness in his father's voice. The same sadness he always heard whenever the subject of Roy DeSoto was brought up.

        “How come it's not easy? We'll just get on a plane and fly down there.”
        “Maybe some other time.”

        Trevor was perceptive enough to realize Johnny was putting an end to this particular line of conversation. He turned another page of the photo album. He'd long ago learned that when his father pulled this book out he was upset about something.

        “Did something bad happen tonight, Poppy?”

        “Yes,” Johnny acknowledged quietly as he hugged his little boy against his chest and placed a kiss in his hair. “Something bad happened.”

        Trevor sighed. Whenever something bad happened his father always looked at pictures of Uncle Roy. He just wished Papa would pick up the phone and call the man. Trevor was sure that would make his father feel better.

        Before Trevor had the opportunity to suggest that, he was picked up and carried to bed. His father snuggled with him on the mattress, waiting for him to fall asleep again. In the quiet darkness of his bedroom Trevor said, “Poppy, you know what I think?”

        “No, Trev, I don't. What do you think?”

        “I think you should call Uncle Roy. You'll feel lots better if you do.”

        Johnny refused to answer his son, or admit that Trevor was right. He would feel better if he talked to Roy. The only problem was, Roy would have no desire to talk to him.

        When Johnny was certain Trevor was asleep he rose from the boy's bed and headed back downstairs. He walked into his office, closed the photo album, and put it away. Not for the first time, John Gage discovered memories were better kept in a drawer than brought out in the open.


Part 2