The Accused is the second story in a trilogy series. Part 1 of The Accusation series, entitled The Accusation, can be found in Kenda’s Emergency! Library. Part 3 of the series, entitled The Accuser, can also be found in the Emergency! Library.
John Gage sat at the defendant’s table, willing himself to keep his eyes on the girl in the witness stand. Though this was only a preliminary trial, the paramedic could hardly believe the accusation Vanessa Schaffer had made against him had gone this far.
Johnny had been released from the hospital three weeks earlier. He’d suffered a severe concussion as a result of a mine cave-in. He’d been told by Roy that Station 51 had been called to the scene when a couple by the last name of Seavers, who were out walking their dog, thought they heard a girl’s voice coming from inside the abandoned Clariton Mine. Everything Johnny knew about that rescue came from his partner. He had no memory of it, or of any part of that afternoon. When he’d first awakened in a Rampart treatment room six hours after he’d been injured Johnny was a month in the past. The last thing he remembered was helping Roy side his house. During the time since that day at the hospital bits and pieces of Johnny’s memory returned until he could recall being teased by Chet and Marco just before they got toned out to the mine about the invitation he’d received to Jennifer DeSoto’s tea party in celebration of her eighth birthday. The problem was, Johnny didn’t remember anything after that round of teasing. To say this memory lapse was causing him an abundance of troubles was an understatement.
Johnny stared at the teenager so hard that the tension headache he’d woken up with that morning seemed to squeeze his skull even tighter. It was difficult to believe he’d spent over four hours alone with Vanessa Schaffer. Her face meant nothing to him, and the conversation she said they had about her cheerleading skills could have just as easily been had between the teenager and someone else for all Johnny knew. Nothing she said, absolutely nothing, brought back any memories of that afternoon.
Vanessa started to cry softly when the judge made her tell of the assault she’d endured. When she stated John Gage made her perform oral sex on him the paramedic felt his face burn red. Not that everything she hadn’t said up until then wasn’t bad enough, but an intimate act such as that was not one Johnny wanted attached to his name in a packed courtroom full of friends and co-workers. He hadn’t wanted any of those people here to begin with, but it had done little good to tell them that. Not only was the Station 51 A-shift crew in attendance, but so were a good number of other off-duty firefighters who had come to show their support of their colleague, along with Dixie McCall, Joanne DeSoto, and Doctors Early and Brackett.
John Gage would be the first to admit he didn’t live like a monk, but he’d always been too much of a gentleman to ‘kiss and tell.’ Which drove Chet Kelly bananas. Nonetheless; despite all the women he’d dated Johnny didn’t give anyone details about the degree of intimacy he’d shared with some of them. Not even to Roy. From the time he was a young boy Johnny’s father had instilled in him the importance of respecting women whether that meant holding open a door for a lady, or giving your seat up to a woman when she entered a room and there were no chairs left, or by replying “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am” when responding to a woman your senior. By the time John was fifteen his father had taken that lesson in respect one step farther and told him that what went on between a man and woman in the privacy of their bedroom was no one else’s business but theirs, and was not something a man of honor and integrity spoke of to his buddies. Johnny had lived his adult life by that creed, which was why having his sex life probed in public was humiliating beyond words.
Johnny knew this entire situation had been difficult for everyone involved. If he could have spared Roy, Joe Early, and Kelly Brackett from having to testify at this hearing he would have. It had been especially difficult for Brackett who was forced to admit that his examination of Vanessa Schaffer proved she had indeed, had sexual intercourse during the afternoon of February 26th.
Though a number of people testified to Johnny’s character, including Hank Stanley and Chief McConnikee, the paramedic knew it was a long shot that he wasn’t going to be bound over for trial. He had no memory of that afternoon, therefore what could he offer that would prove Vanessa Schaffer wrong? For as many people who spoke on Johnny’s behalf, just as many spoke on Vanessa’s. Her science teacher confirmed his students had been assigned to collect rocks for a project on minerals. Since the high school kids had been released at noon that day due to a teachers’ meeting the man said he’d encouraged his students to work on their project during their free time. Several other teachers spoke about Vanessa’s high morals, as did her minister. Vanessa Schaffer appeared to be the All-American girl. Straight A student. Cheerleader. Member of her church’s teen counsel. Member of her church choir and teen club. And most detrimental to Johnny’s case, no boyfriend or history of one. To all intents and purposes, a young girl who was innocent to the ways of the world until fate brought her and John Gage together. Or so the District Attorney pointed out with a good deal of dramatic flair despite the fact that a preliminary trial contained no jury.
Johnny’s thoughts came back to the present when the judge asked Vanessa to point out to him her alleged attacker. The girl hesitated a brief moment, then raised a shaking finger and aimed it at Johnny. She couldn’t stop crying, nor would she meet Johnny’s eyes, when she whispered, “Him. It was. . .it was him.”
“John Gage?” Judge Markus Clayborne asked.
“Ye. . .yes.”
“Are you certain?”
When Vanessa didn’t answer the man the judge prompted, “Miss Schaffer?”
“Yes,” the girl hung her head as she once again spoke in the faintest of whispers. “Y...yes, I’m. . .I’m certain.”
Everything occurring after that was a blur to Johnny. It was only by the grace of God, and by the fact that he had stellar reputation within the fire department, that he wasn’t sent directly to jail to await trial. Instead a bail amount was set that Johnny knew the fire department would front for him. He was being represented by the department’s lawyers. All possible outcomes of this hearing had already been explained to him.
Johnny waited until Vanessa and her family left the courtroom before pushing himself to his feet. He had to grip the edge of the table in order to stay upright. His legs felt weak and unused to hard ground, as though he’d just stepped off a sailboat that had been out to sea for three days.
When Johnny was finally able to walk he kept a hand on the railing behind him for support. He faced those in attendance for the first time since entering the courtroom. He wished now that he’d remained seated until they, too, had gone. He was embarrassed enough as it was without having to meet the eyes of his friends and co-workers. Eyes that held everything from shock, to disbelief, to tears.
After five years of working together there was little John Gage could hide from his partner and closest friend. Despite Johnny’s stoic expression, Roy knew the man was on the verge of collapse. Roy was the first one from his seat. As unobtrusively as possible Roy slipped a firm hand around Johnny’s left elbow. Johnny didn’t seem aware of Roy’s presence as he placed one foot in front of the other. His glassy-eyed gaze never wavered from the big wooden doors in the back of the courtroom. Nor did he notice the protective circle that was formed around him by his station mates and several other firemen. Chet Kelly took up a position on Johnny’s right. Like Roy, he placed a supportive hand on Johnny’s arm.
If Johnny had been thinking clearly he would have realized a large part of the reason he was surrounded by his friends was because a throng of media people were waiting just outside the courtroom doors. The dark haired paramedic was immediately assaulted by flashbulbs and reporters shouting questions.
“Mr. Gage, how do you feel about Vanessa Schaffer’s accusation?”
“Mr. Gage, do you still claim to have no
memory of that afternoon?”
“Mr. Gage, do you think the fire department will continue to allow you to work given today’s outcome?”
“Damn reporters,” Chet grumbled under his breath as he and Roy hustled Johnny down two flights of stairs and out the door. The group of firemen surrounding Johnny didn’t leave their posts until they’d arrived at Roy’s car. Marco joined them with Joanne in tow. It wasn’t until she, Johnny, and Roy were safely in the Impala, and Roy was pulling it out of the parking lot, that the firemen began to disperse.
Johnny rode in the front passenger seat of the car simply because that’s where Roy and Chet had placed him. Truthfully, he could have been in the trunk and wouldn’t have noticed the difference. Nor cared. He didn’t say a word as Roy drove them toward the DeSoto home, a fact that wasn’t lost on Joanne and her husband.
Joanne sat right behind Johnny, in the spot Chris usually occupied when the DeSoto family traveled together. She moved forward in her seat and placed a hand on the paramedic’s shoulder.
Johnny never took his eyes from the side window where he appeared to be engrossed in the passing scenery.
“Are you all right?”
As soon as she asked that question Joanne realized how stupid it sounded. Of course Johnny wasn’t all right. Who would be given the position he now found himself in?
Neither Joanne nor Roy expected Johnny to give any other answer than he did.
“If you want to talk--”
“I’m okay,” Johnny repeated with a firmness to his tone he’d never before used on Joanne. Generally he teased her with all the enthusiasm of a younger brother who enjoys giving his older sister a hard time.
Joanne caught her husband’s glance in the rearview mirror. Roy shook his head at her, indicating it was best to leave Johnny alone for the time being.
Joanne respected her husband’s wisdom in this matter. Though she considered Johnny to be a good friend, he was Roy’s best friend. A man Roy knew almost as well as he knew himself.
Joanne gave Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze. Before she could sit back in her seat he raised a hand and placed it atop hers. He left it there a moment, then dropped it back to his lap. That gesture alone made the woman want to cry. Joanne knew Johnny was thanking her for her concern. Why did a man as kind and gentle as John Gage have to suffer through something like this?
Jennifer DeSoto ran from the house as soon as she saw her parents’ car pull in the driveway.
“Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny!”
The girl and her brother had been in school when Roy, Joanne, and Johnny had left the house that day. All the DeSoto children knew was that their parents and Uncle Johnny had to run an errand together, and that a teenage neighbor girl would be baby-sitting for them until their mom and dad returned.
Jennifer encircled Johnny’s waist as he climbed out of the car, waiting to be picked up and spun around. But that didn’t happen today. All Uncle Johnny did was pat her on the back and tweak her nose. He didn’t even give her a smile when he said in a quiet voice, “Hi, Jenny Bean.”
The girl looked up at the paramedic, immediately taking note of his black suit, white shirt, and gray and black tie. Her father was in his fireman’s dress uniform which she found confusing as well.
“How come you and Daddy are all dressed up,
“We. . .we had to be someplace kinda formal.”
“Jennifer,” Joanne interrupted, “please go in and set the table for me. Round up your brother from wherever he’s at and tell him I said he’s to help you.”
The girl turned her attention back to Johnny before doing her mother’s
bidding. “I like that suit. It makes you look very handsome. And very serious. You can wear it to my tea party, all right?”
That got a slight smile from the paramedic.
Jennifer looked at her mother. “Am I supposed to set a place for Uncle
“Johnny. . .”
“Thanks, Joanne, but not this time. I need to get home.”
“Please stay, Uncle Johnny. Please.”
“Jennifer, go do what your mother asked,” Roy said in a tone that invited no argument. The girl couldn’t understand why her father seemed so out-of-sorts, but knew when he spoke like this a smart kid obeyed his directions.
Joanne waited until Jennifer ran around the house calling for Chris before speaking again.
“Johnny, I want you to stay. I planned on it. I made that chicken casserole you like so much. All I have to do is warm it in the oven, bake some dinner rolls, and toss a salad. We’ll be able to eat within an hour. You and Roy can sit on the deck and have a beer while the kids and I get the meal together.”
Johnny shook his head.
“No, I just. . .I need to get home. The horses need to be fed and watered, Joe needs to run. . .I’ve just got things to do.”
“Then at least let me put some casserole in a container and send it with you so you can heat it up at home.”
“No thanks. I’ll grab something on the way.”
Joanne raised a skeptical eyebrow. She studied Johnny’s lean frame and guessed he’d already lost five pounds since this ordeal began. Five pounds he certainly didn’t need to lose.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.
Joanne sighed. “All right then.” She got on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. “You take care of yourself. And I mean that in every sense of the word.”
“I will. And thanks for being there today. I. . .I hated it that you had to hear what that girl said, but. . .but I appreciate your support.”
“Even though I know it must not feel like it right now, you’ve got the support of a lot of people, Johnny.”
Before the conversation could go any farther Chris DeSoto appeared to say hi to his Uncle Johnny. John ruffled his hair and asked him about his latest Boy Scout project before Chris, too, was sent in the house by his father to set the table.
The ten-year-old boy glanced over his shoulder twice on his way to the front door. He wondered why his parents looked so somber and his Uncle Johnny looked so sad. Like Jennifer, he also wondered why Uncle Johnny was dressed up in church clothes.
Joanne said a final goodbye to Johnny, then followed Chris into the house so she could pay the baby-sitter and send the girl home. Roy walked with Johnny to the Land Rover that was parked at the curb.
“If you change your mind about supper turn around and come back.”
“I won’t change my mind, but thanks anyway.”
“Okay. But if you need to talk just--”
“I know,” Johnny acknowledged of the offer Roy had extended many times since this nightmare had begun. “Give you a call. Thanks.”
“Johnny. . .”
Johnny paused with one foot in the driver’s side of the Rover.
“Are you going to be okay tonight? You’re more than welcome to stay here. You can come back and sack out on the hide-a-bed in the den after your chores are done. Joanne and I don’t mind. And I’ll make sure the kids leave you alone.”
“Roy, I’m fine. I just. . .I just need some time to think is all. I’ll be okay alone. As a matter of fact, after the day I’ve had I’m looking forward to being away from prying eyes.”
Roy nodded his understanding.
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
Johnny got in the Land Rover, slipped the sunglasses on that had been resting on the dash, then pulled into the street. He gave Roy a small wave as he drove off in the direction of the ranch he’d purchased the previous summer.
Roy stood on the sidewalk a long moment before turning for his house so he could change out of his uniform and into something far more comfortable. He barely acknowledged the neighbor girl coming out the front door who had been watching his children. Nor did he say more than two words at the dinner table that night. By the time the meal was over and the DeSoto children were doing their assigned chores they knew something serious was going on but had yet to figure out what it was. First Uncle Johnny refused to stay for dinner, which never happened, then they had noticed tears in their mother’s eyes while she tossed the salad. Plus their father was distant and remote throughout the meal, which was completely out of character for him. When he wasn’t on a duty at the fire station an evening meal never went by without Roy DeSoto asking his children about their day at school, their friends, their activities, and whatever else might be going on in their lives at that moment.
The kids were sent into the den after their chores were done. At the current time this fourth bedroom in the DeSoto home was their playroom and also housed a second TV. Whenever their parents wanted piece and quiet in the living room Chris and Jennifer were told to retreat to the den.
Chris turned on the TV and began flipping channels while Jennifer dug through the toy box. She glanced up when she heard Chris yell, “Hey, Mom! Hey, Dad! Uncle Johnny’s on TV!”
Jennifer watched the screen with rapt attention. She saw Uncle Johnny being hurried out of a big building with her daddy on one side of him and Chet Kelly on the other. She didn’t understand everything the reporter was saying, but figured out enough to send her running into her mother’s arms.
Mom! That man on TV said Uncle
Johnny hurt someone! Why did he say
those things about Uncle Johnny? Why
would he lie like that?”
Roy DeSoto took a deep breath from where he sat in his recliner. He set the newspaper aside and moved to the couch. Chris appeared from the den looking as confused and upset as his sister. Roy motioned for his children to come to him, then gathered them on either side of him while Joanne perched on the coffee table in front of her family. Roy was grateful for his wife’s presence. He didn’t even know where to begin so was relieved when she began for him.
“Kids, sometimes people say things about other people that aren’t true. That’s what’s happened to Uncle Johnny. Someone, a young girl, has accused Uncle Johnny of. . .of hurting her while he was rescuing her from a mine cave-in. You remember, the cave-in where Uncle Johnny got that bad bump on the head a few weeks ago? But your dad and I know Uncle Johnny didn’t do any of the things this girl says he did.”
“What did she say Uncle Johnny did?” Chris asked.
“What she said isn’t important, Chris,” Roy told his son. “What’s important to remember is that she lied.”
“But why would she lie and say Uncle Johnny hurt her?” Jennifer wanted to know. “Uncle Johnny would never hurt anyone. He put Band-Aids on my knees that time he was baby-sitting for us and I fell off my bike. He didn’t even put any stingy stuff on ‘em like Mom does. He just washed ‘em off with warm water and a little soap and it didn’t hurt a bit. And he got gum out of my hair once without even pulling on it. Mom can never do it that good. And when I had a tummy ache that time you and Mom were away for your anniversary, Daddy, he rocked me in your chair until I fell asleep. When I woke up I felt all better.”
“I know, princess,” Roy said while running a hand through his daughter’s honey blond hair. “And I agree, Uncle Johnny would never hurt anyone. As to why this girl lied, we don’t know.”
“But what’s going to happen to Uncle Johnny? Will he get in trouble?”
“We don’t know that either,” Joanne answered honestly. “Uncle Johnny had to go to court today for what’s called a preliminary hearing.”
“What’s that?” Chris asked.
“It’s where a judge decides if there’s enough evidence to have a trial.”
Joanne swallowed hard as she nodded. “Yes, Chris. Or so the judge thought.”
“But that means Uncle Johnny could go to jail!”
“No!” Jennifer cried as she wiggled from her father’s grasp. “I don’t want Uncle Johnny to go to jail!”
“Kids, calm down,” Joanne instructed in a quiet voice. “We have no way of knowing right now if that will happen, so there’s no use in getting upset over it.”
“But you and Dad are upset,” Chris pointed out. “And Uncle Johnny, he seemed real upset.”
Roy rolled his eyes at his wife. So much for their ability to hide anything from their children.
“Look, guys,” Roy said as he pulled his daughter back against his side. “Right now the best thing you can do for Uncle Johnny is just act like your normal selves when he’s here. That means no questions about any of this. And it also means you don’t bug him if he doesn’t want to stay for dinner, or doesn’t want to play a game with you, or toss a baseball, or read you a story. Just. . .just remember that he’s got a lot on his mind right now and respect that fact.”
“Can I still give him hugs?” Jennifer asked.
Roy smiled. “Yes, you can still give him hugs. I think those are one of the few things that will make him feel better.”
After the children had gone back to the den Joanne moved to sit beside her husband. She leaned her head against his chest and felt his arm come around her shoulders.
“I hope Johnny didn’t see that news broadcast,” the woman said.
“I hope not either, hon,” Roy agree as he kissed the top of his wife’s head. “God knows I hope not either.”
John Gage was more thankful than ever that he had his ranch. Given the current circumstances he would have gone nuts if he’d been confined to a small apartment. At least he had plenty of work to keep him busy during his off-duty time, though he’d be lying if he said that work kept his mind from drifting to the accusation that had turned his world upside down.
After feeding his animals and letting Joe romp, the now eight-month-old Alaskan Malamute Roy’s family had given him for his birthday in August, Johnny reentered his house. He took his boots off in the laundry room as Joe scampered ahead of him into the main part of the house.
Johnny washed up at the laundry room sink, then removed the jeans and shirt that smelled of horses, hay, and feed dust. He tossed his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and crossed to a tall cabinet that sat next to the dryer. He pulled out a pair of clean Wranglers and a light blue T-shirt. Johnny slipped into the clothes then headed for the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and stared at its full contents. Nothing looked appealing, but the paramedic knew he had to eat at least a few bites of something. If Kelly Brackett noticed he was dropping weight then the doctor could pull rank on him, demand he appear at Rampart for a physical, and take him off-duty if Brackett thought Johnny’s physical or mental health warranted such an action.
Johnny finally settled on pouring himself a bowl of Wheaties. He added milk and sugar, then carried the bowl of cereal into the living room. He turned on the television as he passed it. He sat in his Lazy Boy, being careful not to spill any milk as he got himself settled.
The paramedic had only gotten two spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth before he saw himself on the TV screen. A faceless male voice filled the room.
“Los Angles County Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage is shown leaving the courthouse today after a preliminary hearing that will result in his case going to trial. A fifteen year old girl has accused Gage of rape while he was rescuing her from a cave-in at the Clariton Mine three weeks ago. Gage denies all charges, but claims memory loss due to a head injury he incurred while in the mine that day prevents him from saying just exactly what did happen. At this time Gage has not been put on leave by the fire department and is still on active duty at Station 51. Fire Department Headquarters released a brief statement late this afternoon that reads; ‘John Gage is a nine year veteran of the Los County Fire Department with an exemplary record. The fire department and its employees stand in support of Mr. Gage during this difficult time.’ ”
Without giving it conscious thought Johnny set his full cereal bowl on the end table next to his chair. He lost count after his phone rang for the eighth time that night. Regardless of what concerned friends might be calling, he didn’t feel like talking to them.
At ten o’clock Johnny rose from the spot he’d been frozen in for the past three and a half hours. If someone had asked him what television shows he’d viewed during that time period he wouldn’t have been able to give them an answer. Or at least not one that went beyond, “I have no idea.”
Johnny shut the TV off, let Joe out for one last run, and dumped his cereal down the garbage disposal. He put his bowl and spoon in the dishwasher, made a trip to the bathroom, then went to the back door to let the Malamute back in.
The young dog followed his master to the bedroom. Joe started out sleeping at the end of Johnny’s bed like he normally did if there wasn’t a woman occupying it with the paramedic, but soon moved to the floor. His master’s tossing and turning prevented a dog from getting a peaceful night’s sleep. It also prevented a man named John Gage from getting the same thing.
The day after the preliminary hearing found the Station 51 A-shift back on duty. Despite his best efforts, not even Roy was able to draw Johnny out from behind the figurative wall he’d built around himself. Though Roy didn’t think this self-imposed emotional isolation was healthy for his partner, especially considering how open Johnny normally was with his feelings, Roy couldn’t say this new demeanor came as a surprise. From the time Johnny entered the locker room that morning it was apparent the last thing he wanted to discuss was what had happened the previous day in the courtroom. Roy didn’t imagine he, or the rest of his shift mates, would act any differently if it was one of them who had been charged with sexually assaulting a minor. In order to do his job with his usual efficiency Johnny had to put all thoughts of Vanessa Schaffer as far from his mind as possible. For if there was one thing Roy knew without a doubt it was Johnny would do everything possible to prevent being pulled off-duty by Hank Stanley, Kelly Brackett, or the fire department brass. But then Roy didn’t want him pulled off-duty either. As Dixie McCall had said weeks earlier, that action would devastate Johnny. Absolutely devastate him.
A group of teenagers had used the station’s parking lot for a beer party while B-shift was out on a run the previous night, so Cap had assigned Johnny the task of cleaning up the broken glass, empty McDonald’s bags, and cigarette butts. Like Roy, Hank had realized during roll call that Johnny had no desire to be offered words of sympathy from his co-workers. In an effort to give the paramedic the space he needed Hank put a broom in his hands and said, “The parking lot’s all yours, pal.”
After the completion of their assigned tasks the other men drifted into the kitchen. Roy poured himself a cup of coffee, then wandered over to the window that looked out on the back lot. For several long seconds Roy watched his partner sweep broken glass before finally joining his co-workers at the kitchen table. He reached into the white box Marco had carried in that morning and pulled out a doughnut.
“Leave a jelly one for Johnny,” Chet said to no one in particular as he, too, poured himself a cup of coffee. “Those are his favorite, you know.”
Hank Stanley and Roy exchanged amused smiles at the man’s words. Given a choice, Chet Kelly would have denied to his death that John Gage meant anything to him other than being the Phantom’s favorite pigeon. It was comments like the one he’d just made that every so often revealed the friendship that existed between the two adversaries.
“I don’t think Johnny’s much interested in eating right now,” Marco said as Chet joined his shift mates at the table. “If anything, it looks to me like he’s dropped some weight these last few days.”
“Can you blame him?” Mike said as he reached for a doughnut, being careful to avoid the lone jelly filled treat on the off chance Johnny did want it. “I don’t think anyone who’s going through what Johnny is would have much of an appetite right now.”
“That’s true,” Marco agreed, “but it’s not like he can afford to lose much more. If I could get him to come to dinner one night my mother would take care of that problem.”
“If you could get him to?” Roy questioned. Johnny always raved about Mrs. Lopez’s cooking. For that reason Roy had never known his partner to turn down an invitation to dine at Marco’s home.
“I’ve asked him three times in the past week, but he keeps saying no. That he’s busy.”
Roy told Marco the same thing he’d told his kids the evening before.
“He’s got a lot on his mind right now, Marco. I think. . .I think he just wants to be alone when he’s not here.”
“So he wouldn’t eat with you and Joanne last night either, huh?” Chet easily guessed.
Roy shook his head. “No.”
The Irishman shifted to a different topic on this same subject as he turned his attention to their supervisor.
“Hey, Cap, you got this morning’s paper in
“Yeah, and that’s where it’s staying. If you want to read it you’re welcome to go in there, but close the door and whatever you do, don’t say anything about it to John.”
Without asking questions the men knew what their captain meant. Roy and Mike had read the paper before coming into work that morning, and Marco had read it while he cleaned Cap’s office. The story that appeared on the front page didn’t differ much from what had been reported on the news the evening before. A color picture of Johnny taken with a telephoto lens as he got into Roy’s car accompanied the damning article.
“Some reporter called me at home last night,” Chet volunteered.
“What’d you tell him?” Hank asked.
“Exactly what the chief told us to. ‘No comment.’ ”
“But man, if I could have said something I would have given the guy an earful. He wanted to know if it was true that Johnny dated a lot of women, wanted to know if I’d ever thought anything was ‘funny’ about him,. . .which could have been a loaded question if a reporter asked me that at any other time but this one.”
Chet’s audience chuckled.
“But then what really pissed me off was when he started asking me about Johnny’s relationship with Roy’s kids.”
“Yeah. Especially about Jenny.”
“What about Jenny?”
“Somehow the guy knew that Johnny baby-sits for the kids sometimes, Roy. Or at least that’s what he implied. He wanted to know if I thought Johnny would ever. . .you know--”
“If you thought I’d ever rape her?” A voice asked from the back of the room. “Is
that what he wanted to know, Chet? If
you thought I’d ever do to Jennifer what I supposedly did to Vanessa Schaffer?”
Chet’s mother had always told him gossip did nothing but cause a person trouble. Of course, she usually said that right before she picked up the phone and started in on a long session of gossip with one of her seven sisters; nonetheless
Chet was now wishing he’d taken her advice.
“Johnny. . .I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what? For repeating what everyone else is probably wondering? Don’t worry about it, Chet. Guess I’ll have to get used to people assuming their kids aren’t safe around me.”
Chet stood as the paramedic walked past him and through the doorway.
“Johnny! Johnny, wait, I--”
“Chet, leave him be,” Roy commanded as they heard the locker room door open and close.
Chet reluctantly reclaimed his seat. He expected his station mates to jump all over him for his big mouth, but no one did. The only comment that was made came from Captain Stanley.
“I think this subject is best put to rest,
guys. John needs a break from it, and
this is the only place he can get that.
So just. . . just act like your normal selves while cutting him some
slack. Don’t treat him any differently
than you usually do, he’ll notice that right away. But at the same time let’s
not have any shaving cream pies go off in his face, no teasing about his dating
life, and absolutely no discussions about the upcoming trial unless John
initiates them. Understood, Kelly?”
Roy was relieved that Cap had set some ground rules. Not that he thought Chet would be dumb enough at this particular time to do any of the things Cap just mentioned, but with Chet there was always the possibility that he’d left his common sense at home on any given day.
Roy stood and walked over to the sink. He dumped the rest of his coffee down the drain, rinsed the mug that read Number 1 Dad, and hung it on the wooden rack mounted above the counter. He turned toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Chet asked.
“To talk to my partner.”
“I thought you said to leave him be.”
Roy smiled. “I meant you, Chet, not me.”
Oh. . .good idea.”
Whatever further words were exchanged between the men in the kitchen was lost on Roy as he crossed the engine bay. The paramedic pushed the locker room door open just enough to peer inside. Johnny sat on the bench in front of his locker. The wooden door was ajar, but from this angle Roy couldn’t see what his partner was staring at.
“Mind if I come in?” Roy asked.
Johnny didn’t look up. “I. . .I’m not much in the mood to talk.”
Roy smiled as he sat down next to his partner.
“Well now, there’s a first.”
“You shouldn’t make jokes about it. About what that reporter insinuated to Chet about me in regards to Jennifer.”
“I’m not making jokes about it, Johnny. Believe me, I don’t find it the least bit funny.” Roy studied his friend. Johnny’s eyes never left the collection of photos that hung inside his locker door. All of them were of Chris and Jennifer at various stages throughout the time Johnny had known them. “But, that doesn’t mean I find his insinuations to be true, either. Or that I would ever believe they could be true.”
Johnny didn’t answer his partner. His eyes roamed over the photographs. There was one of Jennifer clutching a doll Johnny had given her as a fourth birthday present, and one of her riding her first two wheeled bike at age six. There was a picture of Chris in his Cub Scout uniform at age seven, and one of him in his Little League uniform at age nine. The final photograph was of Johnny, the two kids, and Joe. Roy had taken it the day the DeSoto family had given Johnny the dog.
Johnny finally broke the silence.
“I was just sitting here thinking how damning these pictures look.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What the hell is a single guy doing with pictures of his partner’s kids?”
“No, Roy, think about it. No matter what I do now, no matter how innocent the act, people are going to scrutinize my every move and look for some sort
of. . .of ugliness in it. Look for something in it that’s not really there, but yet find exactly what they want to see.”
“Not the people who know you. Not your friends.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Johnny stood and began taking down the pictures. “By the time this is all over I’ll be lucky to have any friends left.”
“So that’s what this is? A pity party?”
“No. I don’t want anyone’s pity.”
“That’s not how it sounds.”
Johnny whirled around and glared down at his partner.
“What do you know about it? You’re not the one some fifteen year old girl is telling lies about! You’re not the one who can’t defend himself because he doesn’t remember what happened in that damn mine! You’re not the one whose face appeared in this morning’s newspaper beneath the headline ‘Paramedic Charged With Sexual Assault!’ You’re not the one this is happening to, Roy, so don’t tell me how any of it sounds!”
Johnny turned back to his locker, almost hiding his face within. Roy allowed him time to get his emotions in check before saying quietly, “You’re right, Johnny. This isn’t happening to me. But it is happening to my best friend. And if you don’t think that doesn’t affect me, or worry me, or cause me to lose sleep at night, then you’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
It took a moment, but Roy finally saw the small nod Johnny gave in response to his words. The dark headed man emerged from his locker a long silent minute later. He handed the pictures to Roy.
“Here. You keep these for me.”
Johnny was gone before Roy could finish his sentence. He gave a heavy sigh as he stood. He looked down at the pictures in his hand. The picture on top happened to be the one of Johnny, Jennifer, and Chris sitting in the grass at Johnny’s house with an eight-week-old Joe romping around their legs. Both the DeSoto children and Johnny were laughing at the puppy’s antics. As the klaxon sounded and Roy shoved the photographs in his locker he wondered if there’d be more pictures like this in his children’s future, or if this would be the last one of them with their Uncle Johnny.
Vanessa Schaffer sat on a wooden bench outside her guidance counselor’s office. Her counselor, Miss Lindamon, was also her cheerleading advisor. At twenty-eight years old Linda Lindamon was young enough to recall the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. She had a good sense of humor, but then given her name she’d been forced to hone her sense of fun at a young age. She could be sympathetic when the situation warranted, but she could also be tough. Because of those two factors the student body of Mason Canyon High held a lot of respect for the woman. Vanessa’s feeling went beyond respect and bordered adoration. It was because of Miss Lindamon that Vanessa was giving serious consideration to a career choice of guidance counselor.
Vanessa tried not to let her anxiety show
to Miss Lindamon’s secretary as she sat in the outer office waiting. School had let out thirty minutes earlier.
Upon the ringing of the dismissal bell Vanessa called her mother from the pay
phone in the girls’ locker room to say Miss Lindamon had announced a
cheerleading practice so she’d have to stay after school. Considering the Mason Canyon cheerleaders
had won the first level of the state competition two weeks ago, and would soon
be competing at the next level, Vanessa’s mother bought that story. It was all Vanessa could do to convince her
mother not to pick her up from the school at five o’clock. Carolyn Schaffer had barely let Vanessa out
of her sight since the incident in the Clariton Mine. Little freedoms Vanessa had taken for granted, such as walking
home from school, were now a thing of the past. Vanessa hated the fear she heard in her mother’s voice this
afternoon when Carolyn said, “You know
your father and I don’t want you walking home by yourself, Vanessa. Not after.
. .not after everything that’s happened.”
“Mom, I’ll be fine. Besides, I won’t be by myself. I’ll walk with Pam and Becky.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, I promise.”
“Well. . .okay then. But I expect you home by five-thirty on the dot.”
“I’ll be there.”
Her mother’s fear was just one more layer of guilt to add to the many layers that were piling up inside Vanessa these days. She never imagined her accusation against John Gage would lead to what was coming. A trial. A trial that could put the man in prison for as long as twenty years. Or so the District Attorney had told Vanessa and her parents was a possibility if Johnny was found guilty.
Found guilty of something he didn’t do in the first place, Vanessa’s mind taunted as she sat on the bench staring at the wooden clogs on her feet.
At five feet four inches tall and normally one hundred and ten pounds, Vanessa couldn’t afford to lose weight. But like John Gage, she had in recent weeks. She was down to ninety eight pounds now, but trying her best to hide it by wearing bulky sweaters like the white one she had on today with the navy turtleneck underneath. She knew if her mother or Miss Lindamon realized how much weight she’d lost she’d be sent to the Schaffers’ family doctor. That was the last thing she wanted. As far as the teenager knew Doctor Brackett hadn’t determined she was pregnant from the examination he’d done in the emergency room three weeks earlier. She did a mental calculation and knew she couldn’t let the secret of her pregnancy come out for at least another few weeks. Not if she was going to convince her parents that the pregnancy was the result of John Gage’s assault.
But he didn’t assault you. He didn’t hurt you at all. He was nothing but kind, and sweet, and gentle. So different from Tommy. And that’s why you can’t eat, or sleep, or concentrate on your homework. Everyone thinks the changes they see are because of the rape, but the rape never happened, Vanessa, and the changes are a result of a guilty conscience.
Vanessa damned the voice in her head, even though she knew that voice was nothing but her own thoughts, her own internal moral code letting her know that what she’d done was wrong. That she’d accused an innocent man of something that was so far from the truth it was ridiculous.
The girl’s pulse sped up as she envisioned herself coming clean. She pictured herself standing in front of her parents and saying, “Mom. Dad. I lied.
I. . .Johnny didn’t hurt me. He didn’t hurt me at all. He was nothing but a gentleman the entire time we were trapped in that mine. I. . .I lied about what he did because I was afraid to tell you the truth. I was afraid to tell you that I’d been seeing Tom Duncan and am. . .am pregnant with his baby.”
Vanessa actually cringed as her imagination supplied her parents’ reaction. She imagined her father would scream, and holler, and rant and rave for hours on end. Her mother would cry. And in-between her tears she’d just keep clucking out, “Oh, Vanessa, how could you? I’m so disappointed in you. So ashamed of you. How could you? How could you go against everything your father and I have taught you is honorable and decent?”
Then to have to face the other adults in her life, especially Miss Lindamon, well Vanessa couldn’t imagine that either. It was bad enough that her friends and classmates had figured out she was the unnamed girl in the news reports who had been trapped in the Clariton Mine and assaulted by an LA County paramedic. Most of the kids gave Vanessa sympathy she didn’t deserve, while some snickered or giggled when she passed their lockers. Once again Vanessa was realizing her father was right, lying brought the liar nothing but trouble.
Tom Duncan was another factor in all Vanessa’s heartache. He hadn’t so much as looked at her since Doctor Brackett had allowed her to return to school, let alone spoken to her. She wasn’t certain if he believed she’d been assaulted by John Gage, or if it didn’t matter to him if she had been or not. Knowing Tommy, he was simply relieved to have her attention drawn away from him.
It doesn’t matter what I say now. If I tell Mom and Dad I lied about Johnny, and tell them the truth about me and Tommy, Tommy will deny the baby is his. He’ll say if I lied about what Johnny did to me then that’s proof that I’m lying when I say we were a couple. That I’m lying when I say we had sex and now I’m pregnant with his child. And who will believe me? No one. Everyone will agree with Tommy and they’ll all think I’m crazy. That I’m some kind of girl who sleeps around and doesn’t know who the father of her child is. I. . .I thought I could tell Miss Lindamon the truth, but now I’m not so sure I can--
Vanessa heard footsteps moving within Miss Lindamon’s office. She allowed one long moment of indecisiveness to pass before gathering up her schoolbooks and bolting for the door.
Linda Lindamon patted the boy on the back as they stepped from her office.
“Keep up the good work, Charlie. Those grades of yours have really improved. I’m so proud of you.”
The freshman smiled at the woman. “Thanks, Miss Lindamon.”
After the boy walked away the counselor turned to her secretary.
“Is that it for today?”
“Vanessa Schaffer was here waiting to see you, though she didn’t have an appointment.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know. Just as you and Charlie were coming out of your office she took off at a run.”
Linda shook her head. “That poor girl. She’s really going through a terrible time right now.”
“I know it,” the older woman agreed. “It’s so sad. She’s such a sweet little thing. And to have that. . .that man. . .someone who was supposed to be helping her. . .for him to hurt her like that, well it’s inexcusable. Prison is too good for the likes of him if you want my opinion.”
“I can’t say I disagree. But right now my concern isn’t with John Gage, it’s with Vanessa Schaffer. I’m going to look for her. You finish what you’re doing then head on home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, Linda. See you tomorrow.”
The counselor walked the school building three times and the grounds twice without seeing any signs of Vanessa. She finally shrugged her shoulders in defeat.
From her hiding spot beneath the football field’s bleachers Vanessa watched Miss Lindamon reenter the school building. There was a part of the girl that wanted nothing more than to run into her counselor’s arms and blurt out the truth, while another part of her was terrified to do so. That part won out as Vanessa remained rooted to the damp earth.
The teenager stayed where she was until her watch read five o’clock. She made sure no one was around to see her when she crawled out from underneath the bleachers. She walked in the opposite direction of the faculty parking lot to avoid running into Miss Lindamon. Like she promised her mother she would, Vanessa arrived home at five-thirty.
Roy was surprised when Johnny suggested he come to the DeSoto house on their next day off to assist with hanging shutters. Roy and Joanne had chosen a light gray siding for their ranch style home. None of the windows possessed shutters, an amenity Joanne decided they needed once the siding was up. Joanne had spent two weeks priming the new shutters then painting them colonial blue. Now they were ready to hang, a job Johnny had promised Roy he’d help with long before this mess with Vanessa Schaffer had begun.
As they were going off duty the previous morning Roy responded to Johnny’s offer by saying, “You don’t have to help. I can probably do it by myself.”
“Yeah, you probably can, but it’ll be easier if you have an extra set of hands. I don’t have anything going on tomorrow. We might as well get it done.”
Johnny didn’t add what he was thinking.
You’d better take me up on my offer, Pally, ‘cause who knows how much longer I’ll be around to help. My next project might involve making license plates.
“Plan to stay for lunch then,” Roy said. “And supper. The kids will shoot me if you aren’t there when they get home from school.”
Although it had only been three days since Joanne had seen Johnny, she thought he looked like he’d lost more weight. His face had always been lean, but now his cheekbones were threatening to slice through his skin. Because of that she fed the men a hearty lunch of pot roast, potatoes and carrots as opposed to the cold sandwiches she would have normally given them. Johnny didn’t eat as much as he usually did, but at least he cleaned his plate of one helping.
As the men walked by her to return outside she smiled at her husband’s partner.
“I’m making Joanne DeSoto’s Spaghetti this evening, Johnny. . .with a little help from Mike Stoker’s recipe of course,” the woman teased at the long standing joke between the two of them. “Make sure you bring your appetite back in with you.”
It wasn’t lost on Joanne that her remark barely earned her a smile. Johnny gave a quiet, “Sounds good. I will,” as he walked out the side door that led into the garage.
Roy patted his wife on the shoulder as he passed and gave her the smile she didn’t get from Johnny. “Thanks, hon,” he said softly.
What exactly she was being thanked for Joanne wasn’t certain, though she imagined it was for being as much of a friend to Johnny as Roy himself was.
The men had gotten all the shutters in place on the front and sides of the house during the morning hours. After lunch they moved to the back. Because the bulk of their project was done when they returned to work at one o’clock they were just finishing up when Roy’s children arrived home from school at three-thirty. The kids greeted their Uncle Johnny with their usual exuberance. If they noticed his reserved demeanor when greeting them in return they didn’t comment on it.
“Are you staying for supper tonight, Uncle Johnny?” Jennifer asked.
“Goody!” The girl declared before running off to play with a friend who lived down the block.
Thirty minutes later ladders and tools were put away. Roy grabbed two beers from the refrigerator then joined Johnny on the deck. The men relaxed in a couple of well-padded patio chairs while Joanne puttered around the kitchen getting dinner started.
The woman had just finished sliding chopped onions and tomatoes from her cutting board into the pot of simmering spaghetti sauce when Jennifer ran in through the front door with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Though Jennifer still referred to Roy as ‘Daddy’, Joanne had been ‘Mom’ for the past year or better unless their daughter was upset. Therefore; before Jennifer appeared in the kitchen Joanne knew the child was in the midst of some sort of crisis.
Joanne put her cutting board down and turned around as Jennifer arms encircled her waist. The seven year old buried her face in her mother’s hip.
“Jen, what’s wrong? Did you fall down and get hurt?”
“N. . .n. . .no.”
“Then what is it? Why are you crying?”
Joanne gently extracted her daughter so she could hear her words. She saw Roy looking in through the patio’s screens to make certain he wasn’t needed.
“Jennifer?” Joanne questioned again as she got down on her knees so she was eye level with her child. “What’s wrong?”
“Am. . .Amy says she can’t. . .can’t come to my tea party.”
“Well that’s nothing to cry over, you silly goose. The other girls will be here.”
“No. . .no they won’t.” Jennifer swiped an arm across her tears as her words hiccuped in time to her sobs. “Chrissy. . .Chrissy says she can’t come. And. . .and. . .and Rhonda says her mother won’t let her. . .let her come either. Chrissy says. . .she says no one’s mothers are letting them come ‘cause of. . .cause of Uncle Johnny.”
“Because. . .because of what it says in the newspaper that. . .that he did to that girl. They said. . .they said their mothers say they can’t. . .can’t come here to play anymore. . .’cause. . .’cause Uncle Johnny’s Daddy’s friend and he’s. . .he’s over a lot of times. But you said that girl lied. . .lied about Uncle Johnny. I. . .I. . .I told. . .told Amy, and Chrissy, and Rhonda that, but they said it’s Uncle Johnny who lied. And now. . .now they can’t come for my party.”
As Jennifer’s tiny body started to shake from the force of her sobs Joanne gathered the child in her arms. Her heart ached for her little girl, but she had to be honest and admit to herself that she might make the same decision if her position was reversed with those of the neighborhood mothers.
They don’t know Johnny. They don’t know what kind of a man he is. All they know is what those damn reporters say. Despite how much it hurts Jennifer I can’t blame them for feeling the need to protect their children, even though John Gage is the last person on this earth they need to protect their children from.
“Sweetie, we’ll have our own party. You, and me, and Daddy, and Chris, and Uncle Johnny. We’ll go out for pizza, and go roller skating, or maybe to the zoo. Whatever you want.”
“But. . .but it won’t be the same without the girls,” Jennifer sobbed into the collar of her mother’s shirt. “I. . .I wanted a tea party. It’s my birthday and that’s. . .that’s what I picked for this year.”
“We can do it next year,” Joanne attempted to pacify.
“What. . .what will be different about next year? Uncle Johnny. . .Uncle Johnny will still be Daddy’s friend and the girls still won’t come.”
Roy looked from the scene inside his kitchen to see his partner standing up.
Johnny turned away from him, but not before Roy saw the pain in his eyes.
“I’ve gotta get going.”
“Johnny, no. You were supposed to stay for dinner.”
Johnny finally faced his partner.
“Roy, your little girl is in the house crying her heart out because of me. I’m not gonna stick around and make things worse for her. You have Joanne call the parents of the kids that are supposed to be coming to Jenny’s party and tell them I won’t be here anymore. Ever.”
“Johnny, come on.”
“Come on what? You think this will simply all blow over, Roy? You think people are gonna let their little girls come to your house for a birthday party when your best friend has been accused of rape? You think I blame them because they don’t want their kids here? Hell no, I don’t blame them! How can I blame them for wanting to keep their children free from harm?”
“But you aren’t going to hurt them.”
“I know that, and you know that, but their mothers don’t know that. Just. . .” Johnny turned away from his friend as he trotted down the steps. “Just tell Jenny that I’m sorry. I’m. . .tell her I’m so sorry.”
No amount of beckoning on Roy’s part could get Johnny to come back. The dark headed man disappeared around the corner of the house, headed for his Land Rover parked in the DeSoto driveway.
Johnny was just about to climb into the vehicle when the front door burst open. With her tears still flowing Jennifer ran to him. Like she’d done with her mother minutes earlier, the girl flung her arms around Johnny’s waist.
The paramedic crouched down on one knee and took Jennifer in his arms. They didn’t exchange any words as Jenny cried into his chest. Johnny had to wipe a hand across his own eyes when they finally parted. John Gage’s last sight of Jennifer DeSoto that afternoon was of the seven year old standing in the middle of her driveway waving goodbye to him with tears running down her face.
One week had passed since Johnny had been at Roy’s hanging shutters. Despite Roy’s invitations, Johnny refused to return the DeSoto home.
“It’s better for the kids if I don’t,” he kept insisting over Roy’s protests to the contrary.
Everyone who called John Gage ‘friend’ was worried about him. Dixie had stopped by his ranch one evening and taken him to dinner, hoping she could get him to open up to her, but he’d barely spoken throughout their entire meal. When she’d dropped him off at his front door he said, “Thanks for supper, Dix,” then disappeared into the house before she had a chance to reply.
Johnny’s demeanor, and his weight loss, was noticed by Kelly Brackett, too. For now he chose to ignore both. Without realizing it he agreed with Roy and Dixie, pulling Johnny off-duty would be the worse thing Kelly could do to the paramedic right now. The doctor trusted Roy to tell him if Johnny’s performance fell below an acceptable level. As long as Johnny could handle his job then Brackett was willing to look the other way for the time being.
The A-shift was just getting ready to sit down for lunch that Friday when they were toned out.
“Station 51, roller coaster stuck at Wild Ride Amusement Park at Catalina and 5th. Time out; 11:55.”
Roy and Johnny ran for the squad while Hank Stanley responded to the dispatcher. Roy took the slip of paper Hank handed him and passed it to Johnny, though both men knew where the amusement park was located.
The squad led the way through the gates of the local park. It wasn’t as big as many of the newer amusement parks springing up across the country, but still provided a day of fun for local children like the groups that were here today from
six elementary schools.
An attendant gave Roy directions to The Twister, the park’s tallest roller coaster. The engine followed the squad to the metal tracks that rose eighty feet into the air. One man wearing a suit and two dressed in green maintenance uniforms stood by the structure. As Roy got out of the squad he glanced up and could see two more maintenance men standing on the side of the tracks where a row of ten adjoining cars were stuck at the coaster’s highest point. The area surrounding the roller coaster had already been sealed off with yellow tape. The gathering crowd had to make due with standing on the other side of it, out of the way of the rescue personnel.
Hank Stanley conferred with the men on the ground for several minutes, then jogged back to his crew.
“So, Cap, what’s the scoop?”
“Well, Kelly, I’ll get right to the point and state the obvious. It’s stuck.”
The firemen chuckled a moment, then quieted as Hank gave further instructions.
“They’ve got some pretty hysterical kids up there and don’t have any idea when they might get this thing going again. They think it’s best if we bring everyone down.”
Johnny squinted as he looked up at the unmoving cars. At least the cars were stuck on a flat section of track, as opposed to a rolling section.
“How old are the kids?”
“Fourth graders. So I guess that makes them around ten, huh?”
Roy nodded. “About that.”
“There’s a teacher up there as well as two room mothers. They’re doing their best to keep the kids calm, but you know how quickly that can change. They’ve already had a little girl try to climb over the side in an effort to get down. There’s three people to a car, so with ten cars that makes 27 kids and three adults.”
Johnny tilted his head to look again. He studied the steel ladder that traversed the side of the big structure. Halfway up was an eight foot by eight foot maintenance platform with railings around the side of it, then the ladder started again and went all the way to the top.
“I think we can get everyone off of there without too many problems,” Johnny said. “We’ll just have to take one at a time, put a safety harness around them, and start down the ladder. They can take a breather on that platform for a few seconds if they need to before we come down the rest of the way.”
“Spoken like the true mountain goat you are, Gage,” Chet quipped. “But those are ten year old kids. I’m not sure how crazy some of ‘em are gonna be about the steep drop from the top to the bottom. That ladder doesn’t have any angle to it, you know.”
“I know. But they’ll have a harness on and one of us will be right with them the whole way.”
Hank Stanley’s eyes followed the path Johnny’s had taken. He could hear the distant sounds of children screaming and crying.
“Johnny’s right. That’s the only way to get them down. Kelly, Lopez, Gage, and DeSoto, they’re all yours.”
“How come Mike never has to come along on these fun little climbs Gage talks you into letting us take, Cap?” Chet whined.
“Because I’m the engineer.”
“And that automatically excludes you?”
Never a man of many words, Mike replied with a simple, “Yep.”
“Mike’s got a job,” Roy informed Chet before he had a chance to say anything else. “He can contact Rampart, give them the details about the coaster, and let them know we’ll be transporting a large number of children.”
Mike nodded as he went to get the bio-phone. Roy turned to Hank.
“Cap, you’d better call for another squad and several ambulances. Although I don’t think we’ll encounter anything serious, the last thing we’ll want is a bunch of angry parents saying we didn’t provide their kids with the best care possible.”
“No kidding, pal.”
Hank put a call into dispatch while his men got ready for their climb. Safety harnesses went around everyone’s waists, with an extra harness thrown over each man’s shoulder. They didn’t bother with their turnout coats, but helmets were put on. Roy took the lead on the ladder with Marco and Chet in the middle and Johnny bringing up the rear.
Mike notified Rampart like Roy requested. Dixie McCall put the ER on stand-by for a large number of young patients who might be in need of care that ranged from a breathing treatment, to a Band-Aid, to simply a hug and a lollipop.
The engineer came to stand by his captain after he’d put his call through. Station 36’s A-shift paramedics, Brice and Bellingham, arrived just as Roy made it to the top of the ladder. One by one ambulances followed until six had assembled in a row so neat it looked like they were for sale.
Roy did his best to calm crying children as he side-stepped down the narrow metal walkway that ran adjacent to the tracks. The two maintenance men moved ahead of Roy but remained on the walkway, ready to assist the firemen in any way they could.
“Don’t cry,” Roy soothed in his best daddy’s voice, “it’s going to be all right. There’s nothing to be scared of. We’ll have you down in no time. My name is Roy, and I’m from the fire department. Is anyone hurt?”
“Not hurt, but scared,” a young woman in her early twenties responded who Roy guessed was the teacher. “And I’ve got two students with asthma who seem to be having some trouble breathing. Billy, the red headed boy in the front car, and Sarah, the blond girl with the glasses right there in the middle car.”
Roy looked at the children the teacher pointed out, then scanned the other faces. No one appeared to be in great distress, so Roy decided it was best to get the two asthmatics down first. As Marco and Chet joined Roy on the walkway the paramedic reached for the Handie Talkie hanging from his safety belt.
“Engine 51, this is HT 51. How do you read?”
“Go ahead, HT 51.”
“Cap, we’ve got two children with asthma up here that we’ll bring down first. Other than that no one appears to be injured, so aside from some shaky nerves I think they’re all fine.”
“10-4, Roy. I’ll have Brice and Bellingham get ready for your asthmatics.”
Roy returned the Handie Talkie to his belt as Johnny stepped onto the walkway. The blond paramedic addressed the stuck children and adults once again.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. One by one, starting with Billy and Sarah, we’re going to help each of you climb out of the cars and onto this walkway. Together we’ll walk to the ladder. At that point we’ll put what we call a safety harness around your waist. See how it has a hook on it?” Roy saw a smattering of nods as he held up the harness he’d been carrying over his right shoulder. “The hook will be attached to each rung of the ladder as you climb down. One of us,” Roy pointed to the three men behind him, “me, Chet, Marco, or Johnny, will be climbing down with you. You let us do all the work. We’ll be the ones working the hook on your harnesses. All you have to do is look straight ahead and move your hands and feet when we tell you to.”
As Roy expected, the reaction he got was varied. Some of the children started crying harder, while some broke into big grins at the prospect of another adventure. The adults amongst them did a good job of calming them down enough so the rescue could begin.
The firemen knew this rescue would be slow going. It could take as long as an hour to get everyone down. In an effort to keep the kids calm the teacher and room mothers readily agreed to be the last people removed.
Roy pointed to Sarah who was seated right in front of Johnny.
“That girl there. . .Sarah, is first, Johnny.”
Roy turned his attention to Billy. He held out a hand to the red headed boy whose freckles were the only color on his face right at the moment.
“Okay, Billy, grab my hand and climb on out of there.”
While Roy reached for Billy, Johnny spoke to the child he was in charge of.
“Hi, Sarah. My name is Johnny and I’m going to get you down from here. How’s that sound?”
Before Sarah had a chance to answer the paramedic the two girlfriends she was sharing the car with started screaming. One of them shrieked an hysterical warning.
“It’s him! It’s him! Don’t let him touch you, Sarah! He’s the bad fireman who hurts little girls! I saw him on TV! Don’t let him touch you! Don’t let him touch you!”
Roy’s head snapped around as mass hysteria ensued. He wasn’t sure what happened next, but saw two boys lean forward from the car behind Sarah’s. The only conclusion he would come to later is that the boys thought they were protecting the girls from the ‘bad fireman.’ Whether they pushed Johnny intentionally, or were simply caught up in the emotion of the moment, Roy was never certain. All he knew was one second Johnny was standing there, and the next second he was gone.
“Johnny!” Chet screamed as he made a futile attempt to grab the falling man.
John Gage felt himself tumbling head over heels through mid-air. Even if there had been something to grab onto the speed at which he was falling would have prevented him from getting a hold of it. He landed with so much force he wasn’t even able to cry out in pain. He lay curled on his left side, eyes squeezed shut against the agony that ran up his arm and across his shoulder. He had no idea where he’d landed, nor did he have the presence of mind to realize he wasn’t dead until Roy was kneeling next to him on the maintenance platform.
Roy questioned. He carefully
removed his partner’s helmet, amazed and thankful that it had stayed on
Johnny’s head for once. “Johnny? Johnny, can you hear me?”
Johnny groaned as he tried to roll from his side to his back.
“No, no,” Roy cautioned while placing one hand on John’s chest and the other on his back. “Don’t move, Johnny. Don’t move. Tell me where you hurt, partner.”
Johnny knew Roy was talking to him, trying to get him to detail his injuries, but all he could think of was one thing.
“R. . .Roy? Roy?”
“Right here, Johnny,” Roy assured while doing a spinal check. “Come on now, tell me where you hurt.”
“Roy, they. . .those kids--,” Johnny swallowed a moan of pain when Roy carefully rolled him to his back. “They were scared. . .scared of me. They. . .they were
afraid. . .afraid I’d hurt them.”
Roy saw nothing but utter despair in his partner’s eyes right before the man passed out. Seconds later Bob Bellingham joined Roy on the platform with a trauma box, Mike Stoker following with the drug box and bio-phone. Roy was so focused on Johnny that he barely noticed the arrival of additional firemen and paramedics who had been called on the scene by Hank Stanley in order to help with the rescue of the children. By the time they lowered Johnny to the ground on a backboard he had regained consciousness. Brice assisted Bellingham with his care while other paramedics offered aid to the children. Seeing Johnny was in capable hands prompted Hank to lead Roy to the engine where he made the paramedic sit on the running board. Roy’s eyes remained fixed on his injured partner as he spoke.
“They pushed him, Cap,” Roy whispered as he recalled the sight of his best friend tumbling through mid-air. “They’re just kids and they pushed him. They could have. . .if that platform hadn’t been there they would have killed him.”
“I know, Roy,” Hank patted the man’s shoulder. He and Mike had witnessed the horrifying incident from the ground. “Believe me, I know.”
Hank Stanley pulled Roy off-duty that afternoon, a move the paramedic didn’t object to. Roy rode with Bellingham to Rampart in Squad 36 while Marco drove 51’s squad back to the station.
“Call us with an update as soon as you can,” Hank told Roy before he departed. They knew for certain Johnny had a broken shoulder and arm, but what other injuries he might have incurred would have to be decided by the doctors at Rampart.
Roy nodded his promise to Hank’s words. Even the normally talkative Bob Bellingham was quiet throughout the ride to the hospital. But then, Roy supposed that stood to reason.
After all, it wasn’t everyday you watched a colleague plunge forty feet through the air as a result of being pushed by two ten year old boys.
Twenty-four hours after Johnny’s fall he was in a hospital bed with his left arm in a cast from shoulder to knuckles, the plaster molded to bend at his elbow. For now the bulky cast rested on two pillows. Before he was released from Rampart he’d be using a sling for support.
Other than his broken shoulder and arm, and being covered by tender bruises the entire length of his left side, Johnny hadn’t incurred any other serious injuries. Which was nothing short of miracle considering how far he’d fallen. He knew if he’d landed on his back he would have broken some ribs and punctured a lung. He also could have hit the railing, meaning his body might have been deflected from the platform only to end up plunging to the ground. The likelihood that he would have survived an eighty-foot fall to blacktop pavement was remote at best. Though as Johnny sat alone in his room thinking back to how the accident happened in the first place he wasn’t sure he really cared. Maybe he would have been better off if he had fallen straight to the pavement.
Johnny tore his eyes from the wall he was staring at when he heard his door open. He knew something was up, something he wasn’t going to like, when Captain Stanley, Roy, and Doctor Brackett entered the room.
“Hey, pal,” Hank greeted with forced cheer. “How are you doin’?”
Johnny didn’t even attempt a smile when he replied with a quiet, “Okay.”
In truth, he didn’t feel okay. Whatever pain killers he’d been given a steady dose of since his arrival at Rampart were finally wearing off. His arm ached like hell, and his head was working hard to keep up with it though Johnny knew the headache was caused by stress and tension rather than by any injury. Each time he closed his eyes all he saw were the frightened faces of little kids who thought they had to protect themselves from him.
The paramedic focused his attention back on the three men standing next to his bed. Cap looked like he was dreading whatever it was he had to say, Brackett stood with his arms folded as though he was pissed off about whatever was about to be said, and Roy just looked worried.
“John--” Hank started. Before the man could get out more than that his injured paramedic interrupted him.
“You don’t have to say it. I already know.”
“You came to tell me the department is putting me on leave.”
“How’d you know?”
“One look at your faces pretty much tells the story.”
“John, I’m sorry. I really am. I tried to tell them that right now wasn’t the time to do this to you. Doctor Brackett even tried to tell them that. But--”
“Don’t apologize, Cap. I understand. I. . .I mean it’s not like I’m gonna be able to work for a while anyway. And by then. . .well by then I’m sure they’re hoping this whole mess will be over with.”
Hank didn’t know what to say to the man. Especially since Johnny was correct. One way or another, the department hoped the trial had ended by the time Johnny was physically able to return to work. If he ever was able to return to work. For all they knew right now the only place John Gage might be going was prison.
Johnny turned his head on his pillows so he was once again staring at the wallpaper. The three men standing at his bedside exchanged concerned glances.
A hand gave Johnny’s left shin a gentle pat through his blankets.
“Listen, pal, I’d better get going so you can rest. I’ll come back when you’re feeling a little better.”
“Sure, Cap. Thanks.”
Johnny heard the door open and close as Hank left the room, then heard Brackett’s voice.
“Johnny, I’m going to get you something to help you sleep.”
Johnny shrugged his good shoulder. “All right.”
Kelly Brackett gave a small shake of his head at Johnny’s complacency. Right now he’d rather be dealing with the feisty paramedic who tried to escape from his bed when he was injured rather than this shadow of the man.
Johnny tracked Brackett’s steps until the doctor, too, was out of the room. When Roy didn’t say anything, or head for the door, Johnny spoke.
“You can go too.”
“Are you kicking me out?”
“I. . .there’s just no point in you hanging around here. I doubt I’m very good company right now.”
“Friends aren’t always obligated to be good company, you know. Sometimes friends just need to be who they are.”
“And just what would that be in my case?” Johnny asked as he made eye contact with his partner. “A broken up old fireman little kids are afraid of? Or maybe the guy who ruined your daughter’s birthday party? Or maybe. . .maybe the man who goes around raping fifteen year old girls?”
“Johnny, stop it.”
“No, I won’t stop it!” Johnny forgot about the pain in his arm as he shot off his pillows. “I won’t stop it because all of it’s true! Or at least all of it but the last part, and who the hell even knows for certain about that?”
“Well I know for certain! And so does Joanne, and Doctor Brackett, and Dixie, and the guys at the station, and all your other friends. So just knock it off with that kind of talk.”
Johnny sank back to his pillows, his body suddenly too weak to support him. He took a shaky breath, then confessed, “I wish that fall had killed me, Roy, I. . .I don’t know how many times I’ve sat here since I was brought in yesterday just wishing that damn fall had killed me.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do. You can’t begin to imagine how much I do.”
When he reentered the room a few minutes later Kelly Brackett wasn’t sure what Roy looked so upset over. Neither Johnny nor Roy said anything throughout Doctor Brackett’s brief stay. The physician injected a pain killer into Johnny’s IV port. It didn’t take long for Roy to see the drug’s effects on Johnny. The injured man’s eyes started to droop in the same way Roy’s children’s eyes drooped when they fought to stay awake past their bedtime.
Roy wished he knew what to say to his partner that wouldn’t sound trite or full of false hope. Johnny must have been able to read Roy’s mind because he reached out with his right hand and grasped Roy’s forearm.
“I’m sorry for upsetting you. Thanks. . .thanks for everything. You’re more friend than I deserve.”
“I’d argue with you on that, but I doubt you’ll stay awake through my high points.”
Johnny gave a small smile. “I think you might be right there, Pally.”
“I’m always right.”
“You’re sometimes right.”
Roy let the playful bantering end there. He covered his partner’s hand and squeezed. “Johnny, I wish I could promise you everything would turn out okay.”
“I know you do, but you can’t. And that’s just something we both have to live with.”
“We have to live with?”
“The possibility that I’ll be sent to prison.”
“Just promise me one thing.”
“That if that happens you’ll be okay.”
The lump in Roy’s throat prevented him from answering his partner.
“Promise me, Roy, please. For Joanne’s sake, and the kids’, you have to be okay.”
Roy swallowed hard before answering in a voice pitched just above a whisper.
“Good,” Johnny nodded, that assurance from his best friend finally allowing him to sleep.
Roy didn’t know how long he remained standing by Johnny’s bed that afternoon. He had no inclination to leave until Dixie shagged him out. Roy DeSoto wasn’t a demonstrative man, especially in public. But once they stepped into the hallway Dix must have seen something in his face that caused her to hug him. He was barely aware of his words when he whispered, “He’s given up, Dix. Johnny’s given up and I don’t know how to help him find the will to go on.”
Neither Roy nor Dixie saw the girl who was watching them from around the corner. It had cost Vanessa two weeks of allowance money to make the bus trip to Rampart. Her parents thought she was spending the day at a girlfriend’s house studying for upcoming exams. Vanessa had hoped to sneak into Johnny’s room, but the sight of the paramedic’s friends brought her up short. She didn’t know what Roy had said to Dixie, but she could see tears trickle down the nurse’s face as she hugged the man.
Vanessa turned and ran for the bathroom. When the door swung shut she clutched her stomach and started sobbing. She’d made such a mess of things and now she didn’t know how to fix them. Johnny had been hurt again because of her. The morning paper said some children had pushed him as he attempted to rescue them from a stuck roller coaster car. Now he was in the hospital again, and his friends were upset, and it was all her fault. It was all her fault because of her stupid lies.
The teen was glad the bathroom was empty as she stumbled for a stall. Her head was pounding and a fist was squeezing her insides. She felt a familiar dampness between her legs that caused her to pull down her jeans and underpants. Vanessa gasped at the sight that greeted her. Suddenly the headache and cramps she’d been experiencing all day made sense. The girl moaned as she slid down the cold metal wall of the stall.
Her white cotton underwear was stained red. Her period had just started.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~