Hank Stanley had never aspired to be famous, but midway through his first shift as captain at 51s he had a feeling he was going to be.
Or maybe not famous. Maybe the word he was searching for was "notorious." In years to come, LA County firemen would whisper about Henry Stanley, who lasted two days in his first command before he went berserk and murdered a lineman and two paramedics.
"It was horrible," the firemen of the future would tell each other after lights-out. "Strangled Kelly with an inch-and-a-half, and then beat Gage and DeSoto to death with a handi-talkie. They had to take the whole station out of service for the rest of the shift."
"What happened to Stanley?"
"He's been in a secure facility for deranged firemen ever since."
"It's a shame."
"It is. But what could you expect after the incident with McConnike's hat? It's not like he was the most stable canoe in the river to start with."
"No, I mean, it's a shame a captain wouldn't have more respect for Fire Department equipment. Those handi-talkies aren't cheap!"
"I can understand Gage and Kelly, those two would drive anyone to mayhem. But what on earth did DeSoto do?"
"Nothing. That was the problem. He was the only person in the world who could settle Gage down, and he didn't. So apparently he had to go, too."
Hank shifted uneasily in his bunk, unable to sleep. He was a little afraid of a recurrence of the nightmare he'd had years ago, the one that set off The Hat Incident. (He always thought of The Hat Incident in capital letters, with a dramatic voiceover.) He'd only had the dream that one time, but that was enough. He never wanted to have it again.
He never wanted to make someone else have it, either. And that was part of the problem.
This was a good crew, one who'd been together for nearly a year. In some ways it was easier to be dropped into an existing crew who knew each other well. In other ways... well, it was always hard to be the new guy. It helped that Captain Hammer had been transferred out of 51s to a bigger station several weeks before, and they'd worked a few shifts with replacements, but it didn't help enough. Hammer was experienced and commanded respect. Hank felt like a fraud. He was nearly as scared about his new position as he was excited about it. And he was pretty excited.
There were five guys on the shift--aside, obviously, from the captain: three on the engine and two paramedics in the squad. Paramedics were new to Hank, the program was less than a year old, and he was looking forward to seeing these two in action.
Assuming, of course, that he didn't end up killing them first.
It wasn't that he'd never dealt with jerks in the workplace before--like any other large organization, the LA County Fire Department had its share. But the damned thing about this crew was, he liked them. All of them. As individuals, anyway.
It was just that, as a group, Hank wasn't at all sure he was going to be able to lead them.
Mike Stoker, the engineer, was no trouble. Guy would be a captain himself in five or six years, no question. He was quiet, smart, and committed. Lineman Marco Lopez was the other guy Hank knew he wasn't going to murder--Lopez was quiet and reliable, the kind of guy who looked out for his crewmates and didn't ever panic.
Yeah, definitely not going to kill Lopez or Stoker. The other three, on the other hand...
No one would ever imagine Roy DeSoto as the kind of guy who would provoke a superior officer to homicidal mania. Even after half a shift, Hank knew that. The senior paramedic was another solid, reliable, professional fireman and as far as Hank could tell a heck of a nice guy.
Chet Kelly, the other lineman, and paramedic John Gage were nice guys, too. They'd greeted their new captain with what seemed to be genuine warmth. And then they had started arguing about something--Hank couldn't even remember what--and hadn't let up for a second except when the squad or the engine was toned out on a run.
It wasn't the captain 's job to referee squabbles among his crew. The problem was, Hank hadn't yet figured out whether the arguing was purely recreational, or whether there was real animosity behind it. He was worried that if the two guys really were enemies, and he let them go at it too long, he might not be able to get the genie back into the bottle. Of course, if they were kidding and he overreacted, he'd end up undermining himself with the whole crew.
He didn't bother asking himself how Dick Hammer had kept these guys under control: Hank knew Dick, and he figured the older captain had Gage and Kelly convinced if they got too far out of line Dick would just eat them. Literally eat them. Hell, Hank wouldn't push his own luck with Dick, and they were technically the same rank.
Kelly wasn't too hard to figure out: the guy was obviously a confirmed stationhouse prankster, one of those guys who dealt with the stresses of the job by goofing around all the time. That didn't always end well, but on the two runs they'd had today--nothing stuff, a trash fire and then support at a minor MVA where they'd pretty much just hung around on the off-chance one of the cars suddenly exploded--Kelly hadn't shown any signs of inappropriate behaviour. He hadn't even joked around in the engine on the way to the incidents, which was good. As long as it didn't go too far or interfere with the job, Hank had always kind of liked stationhouse jokers. When he was an engineer he'd worked with a guy like that over at 68s and after they'd established that the engine was completely, entirely, and totally off-limits for pranks, he'd gotten along fine with the guy.
His captain, on the other hand...
Hank rolled onto his back, clasped his hands behind his head, and tried not to think about that. Instead, he concentrated on his immediate problem. On his own, Kelly wouldn't really be any trouble. It was the combination of Kelly and Gage that had Hank worried.
Actually, Hank wondered a little whether Gage wouldn't be a handful on his own, at that. Asking around about his men beforehand, Hank had been told the younger paramedic was "high-strung." Hank knew a little bit about that, which was why he was lying here at three in the morning worrying instead of asleep like a sane person, but Gage was a bit more than just normally high-strung.
Hank had no medical experience, but one of his kids had a classmate who was "hyperactive," and as far as Hank could tell the paramedic displayed a lot of the same characteristics. Hank understood that some hyperactive kids were treated with stimulants, which apparently woke up the parts of the brain that helped them concentrate, and now he wondered a little whether the adrenaline of a rescue might affect Gage's brain the same way. There was no questioning the paramedic's professional abilities, either as a medical provider or a firefighter, his record was excellent. It was just that when things got slow between runs it was obvious Gage had a lot of trouble passing the time quietly.
And he was so reactive that he was an obvious, perfect target for a guy who liked to play jokes or rile people up. Which meant Gage and Kelly were either a perfect match or a disaster waiting to happen. Hank just wished he could be sure which.
And lacking an experienced hand to keep a lid on, Hank worried that his nice functional crew was going to go all to hell and it really would be his fault. Obviously he'd given thought to how he might handle a variety of possible disciplinary problems, but real situations weren't the same as imaginary ones and besides, he'd never imagined something like this. And as a result, when Kelly and Gage's squabbling had reached what he thought might be a critical point this evening, he'd snapped at them to knock it off.
Which they had, for a minute anyway, it was just that as soon as he'd raised his voice Gage had looked momentarily terrified and Hank didn't know what to make of that, either. He supposed it might just be another sign of how Gage over-reacted to everything, but he didn't like it. Oversensitive guys in a job like this had a way of bringing out the bully in some people, and...
...And really, Hank, that was the problem, wasn't it?
It wasn't that Hank had ever been a bully himself. At least not up to this point. It was just that he hadn't ever been in command before, either, and there was a natural tendency for a new commander to emulate his own previous captains. And that was, of course, why he was lying here worrying.
When he'd first been promoted to engineer, Hank had been assigned to 68s and had spent three years there under Captain McConnike. McConnike had a bluff, friendly manner when you first encountered him, and he was really likable in a casual social setting.
Working with him over the long term, however, was a nightmare. As a captain, McConnike was a petty tyrant who enforced discipline capriciously and mostly by trying to intimidate his men. He was verbally abusive--everyone was an idiot, or worse--and inconsistent, so you never knew where you stood with him or how he'd react to the same situation on different days. As an incident commander he was perfectly competent, Hank would give him that, but a lot of guys transferred out of 68s as fast as they could and a couple, including the joker Hank had gotten along with, had eventually just left the department entirely.
Hank would have applied for a transfer himself if he hadn't been stubborn. But stubborn he was, and he'd stuck it out for three miserable years, swallowing his frustration and resentment at the way the captain treated him and all the other professional firefighters under his command.
And one night he'd had a dream in which McConnike kept screaming at him, and in the dream Hank had snapped and strangled the captain with his bare hands. He'd awakened in the stationhouse dormitory with both hands wrapped around his pillow, and he still shivered a little with relief that he hadn't had that dream at home with his wife right there. He hadn't been able to get back to sleep and finally, just before the wakeup tones sounded, his exhausted brain had somehow decided what he needed to do was to perform a cleansing ritual.
One that involved lighter fluid, a book of matches, and the captain's dress hat.
He'd expected to be suspended over The Hat Incident, but McConnike had taken one look at his engineer's face and apparently decided it would be wiser to say nothing. Hank had attributed that to the well known Pick On Someone Your Own Size theory, and it finished any lingering respect he might have had for McConnike as a commander. Six extremely uncomfortable weeks later, Hank had put in for a transfer. He'd gone to 85s and a much less toxic atmosphere.
The Hat Incident had not affected him professionally, at least not up until this point, but now that he was in command himself and it was the middle of a sleepless night, Hank found himself genuinely afraid of turning into McConnike. If Gage and Kelly kept up their verbal warfare, there was no telling how he'd handle it. Hank remembered that panicky look Gage got when Hank barked at him. Suppose Hank ended up trying to make him look like that? And he'd noticed that DeSoto had some influence on Gage--it bothered Hank that he was actively annoyed when the senior paramedic didn't intervene in the argument. Which was stupid and unreasonable of him, and Hank didn't like being stupid and unreasonable. What if--
Hank's train of thought was broken by the tones. With relief, he sat up and reached for his bunker pants and boots. This stuff, he could do.
"Station 51, truck 127, structure fire..."
The structure turned out to be a little bungalow in a working-class neighbourhood, where the houses were small and set close together. By the time they arrived the house was fully involved and obviously beyond saving. Noting the proximity of shingled roofs, Hank set his crew to wetting down the nearest houses and called for a second alarm. Then he looked for the homeowner, a middle-aged man in a bathrobe, his hair standing on end.
"Is everyone out?" Hank deliberately pitched his voice as calmly as possible, because just the idea of someone left behind could spook a civilian into trying something very stupid.
"I--I think so--" The man's eyes were huge and Hank clapped him reassuringly on the shoulder.
"Make sure," he ordered, and in between directing his men and truck 127's response he kept an eye out for the man. A few seconds later the homeowner returned: wife, two kids, grandmother, and Labrador retriever, all accounted for.
"It was Gypsy who woke us," the man babbled, staring at his blazing home. "If she hadn't started barking--"
Hank was well aware that a dog barking in the presence of smoke was more a physical reaction than an act of heroism, but that didn't make it any less fortunate for the family. He patted the retriever and then went back to directing operations.
Two hours later, hot spots extinguished and the burned-out shell as safe as it could be made until demolition, the engine crew dragged themselves back to the station. There were a couple of hours left before shift change but there was certainly no point in trying to get any more sleep. In fact the squad didn't even make it back to the station before being called out again. Hank found himself mildly curious about how the people at the next scene would react to the two sweaty, sooty rescuers. There would certainly be no question they were active firefighters as well as paramedics.
Stoker made coffee and Hank took a mug into the office with the excuse of reviewing paperwork. He left the door open, because captains who stayed behind closed doors missed a lot, and set the mug on the desk. His desk, in his office, he supposed.
The mug reminded him of another issue he felt like he had to deal with, and again, it had to do with Gage. If he wasn't careful Hank was going to find himself fixating on Gage and the next thing he knew he was either going to be playing favourites or picking on him. But he genuinely thought he needed to do something about the dishes.
At 51s, as with most stations Hank had worked at, the men played cards to see who was going to get dish duty. It was traditional. It was generally fair, because it evened out.
But it turned out Gage had the worst card sense of pretty well any man in the history of the LA County Fire Department, and as a result he'd apparently been stuck with dish duty on a nearly permanent basis ever since he transferred here. Gage hadn't mentioned that, it was Kelly, last night, when Gage lost at cards again. Hank didn't know whether Kelly was gloating or pointing out the need for a change to the system, but he'd teased Gage about being the only man in the department with dishpan hands and Hank had decided something would have to be done. No offense to Hammer, who was an old-school captain and unsentimental, but Hank figured if the same guy got stuck every time, the card-playing tradition wasn't working. In fact, it was getting awfully close to picking on someone.
Mind you, it did say something about Gage that he didn't seem to hold his fate against his old captain--some guys might have, oh, set a hat on fire by now. It was the discussion about the dishes, however, that turned into the argument (which Hank now recalled was about Gage's card-playing abilities) that had led Hank to yell in the first place. Which brought him right back to his original worry.
He was going to have to think of something.
The shift had one day off and then another 24 on. Hank managed to get some sleep in the meantime, some of it on the couch while his wife watched British comedies on PBS, so at least he was thinking clearly again. And he had decided what to do about at least one of his problems.
Gage was the last man in to roll call--he came skidding around the corner from the locker room as if something was chasing him--and that actually suited Hank fine, because assigning Gage latrine duty might make the others see his next announcement a little less as favouritism. Hank read a couple of announcements and then assigned chores. Gage hadn't actually been late but he got latrine duty anyway. Stoker was assigned the day room. Hank added casually,
"From now on, whoever's assigned the day room also gets the dishes."
"Sure, Cap," Stoker replied, equally casually. Gage looked startled and maybe a little guilty, while DeSoto and Lopez both appeared ever so slightly relieved. Hank was relieved himself at their reaction--he'd been a little worried that the guys who'd been escaping dish duty so far wouldn't like the change.
Kelly, predictably, whined, "Caaaap--"
"Kelly, you're not questioning your captain's judgment, are you?" Hank asked mildly. He had no idea how he would respond to an affirmative response but fortunately Kelly backed down, muttering, "No, Cap." "Good," Hank replied, in the same mild tone, hoping his relief wasn't obvious.
Hank had expected some peace, but he'd reckoned without Gage and Kelly--the two of them got into an argument about professional wrestling, of all things, right after roll call. Wrestling. And Kelly was the one insisting it was for real. Obviously Kelly was doing it on purpose--maybe Gage was spacey enough or naive enough to believe the matches weren't scripted but it was very hard to believe Kelly was. It wasn't at all hard to believe Kelly would loudly take this stance just to drive Gage nuts, though. It was equally easy to believe Gage would fall for Kelly's attempts to lure him into an argument.
In the apparatus bay.
Right outside the captain's office.
Strangulation with hoses and battery with handi-talkies was looking more likely every minute.
Hank set his pen down very carefully and walked out of the office. One look at the captain's face and Gage not only shut up, but shut down: he cast one scared look at Hank and seemed to get smaller. Kelly, not surprisingly, was brazen. He gave Hank an innocent look and chirped,
"I don't want to hear another word out of either of you until at least lunch time," Hank said evenly. "Is that clear to both of you--" McConnike's word, "idiots," came unbidden to his tongue and in a jolt of horror Hank uttered the first substitute that came to mind--"twits?"
"Twits?" He hadn't seriously called them--where the heck had that come from, British comedies in his sleep? And was it any less offensive than "idiots"?
Apparently it was: Kelly's mustache quivered and seemed to hide a smirk, while Gage blinked and looked marginally less alarmed. Both of them got the message, though: they went about their business like a couple of mice for the next fifteen minutes or so, and then the tones sounded.
"Station 86, station 51, truck 10, structure fire..."
This was one was a small apartment building, three storeys and maybe six units. There was smoke billowing out of the front windows of the second- and third-floor units, some seeping out the open front door. A guy in a grubby undershirt and baggy khaki pants was standing on the lawn holding a garden hose, looking stunned. Hank groaned internally as he filled in the blanks: when the fire broke out--probably something to do with the old wiring, which meant fire in the walls, too--this guy had wasted valuable time trying to douse it himself rather than calling for help, with the result the building was now fully involved.
Captain Ford of 86s was the incident commander and directed the squad toward the hydrant on the corner. Hank followed Ford's directions and got Lopez and Kelly manning lines on the eastern exposure while Gage and DeSoto started a sweep of the building.
The paramedics came back out a few minutes later, supporting a smoke inhalation victim. Hank joined them at the squad and held oxygen on the patient, who seemed to have no other injuries and recovered quickly. Gage and DeSoto were retrieving fresh air bottles when the handi-talkie crackled a call of "fireman down" in the building.
Hank instinctively glanced around to count his own crewmen: Kelly and Lopez still manning the inch-and-a-half near the entrance, Stoker at the pump controls, Gage and DeSoto getting ready to head back into the building.
No, they weren't. In the few seconds he'd spent counting heads, it appeared Hank's paramedics were arguing with the incident commander. Handing the smoke inhalation victim off to an arriving ambulance crew, Hank jogged over to where Captain Ford was shouting at Gage and DeSoto to re-enter the building through the nearest access point: the front door. Gage was shaking his head, braced up and ready to bolt, DeSoto pulling on his air mask behind him and looking grim.
Nothing about Gage or DeSoto had indicated a tendency toward insubordination or cowardice. Hank dropped a hand on the rigid shoulder of the nearest paramedic--Gage--and interjected, "What is it, pal?"
He didn't know where "pal" came from, but it seemed important to make sure Gage knew Hank was on his side. There was no time for long explanations or arguments. Whatever was wrong, they had just wasted about five seconds the guy inside didn't have and anything he could do to make this go faster was good.
"That ceiling's about to come down, Cap," Gage explained in a grateful rush, and DeSoto jumped in as if two voices could talk faster than one, "Side entry's all right, we can get in there."
"Kelly, Lopez, cover Gage and DeSoto at the side entrance," Hank called to his two linemen. The rescue men were already on the move as Kelly shouted, "Cap," in acknowledgment. The linemen followed the paramedics, and Hank followed his guys. He didn't look at Ford. Everyone made mistakes. The injured man was one of Ford's and the captain had lost focus for a second, forgot to listen to a guy he didn't know--forgot they were all professionals, and all on the same side. It didn't happen often but it could have been disastrous.
Hank hadn't even made it around the corner of the building when he heard the ceiling come down in the front entryway. If Gage and DeSoto had gone ahead and followed Ford's order right away...
Whatever the apartment building was insulated with--given its age, it could have been sawdust--it was pretty obvious the fire department was going to lose this one. With nobody inside now except department personnel, Hank went about his business with most of his attention on that side entrance, which he now thought of as an exit, willing his men to emerge.
It probably wasn't more than three minutes that felt much longer before they did: DeSoto and Lopez carrying the injured man, and Gage supporting Kelly. Hank's heart gave an uncaptainly jerk as he registered the configuration, settling back a little in relief as he registered Kelly's vociferous complaints from behind his air mask.
"Geez, Gage, I'm fine. You're worse than my mother and you can't even cook."
"Shut up, Chet," Gage ordered, with unmistakable affection, as he unslung Kelly's arm from around his shoulders and helped him sit on the back bumper of the squad. "Roy, you need any help there?"
"I'm fine," DeSoto called back. His patient was conscious and seemed alert.
"'Kay." Before Hank could ask what had happened, Gage glanced at him and explained, "Beam came down, Chet here caught it with his head and shoulder. Okay, Chet, I need to take off your coat so I can have a look. You tell me if it hurts."
"What hurts is having to listen to you," Kelly grumbled. Gage grinned at him, a reassuring expression that answered pretty well all of Hank's questions about their relationship.
"Give me a hand, Cap?"
Gage unfastened Kelly's turnout coat and eased it off the sore shoulder, Hank supporting the injured lineman. Kelly kept up a steady grumble about how he was fine and Gage was crazy, which was only interrupted when he tried to pull his arm out of his sleeve. Kelly let out a squeak and went pale.
"Hurts?" Gage asked instantly. Kelly didn't answer, but he didn't have to: his colour spoke for him. He looked pretty dizzy, too. "Okay, Chet, you relax, let me and Cap do all the work. Cap, could you--" Gage gestured, and Hank supported Kelly while Gage finished taking the turnout coat off, then examined the shoulder. Kelly recovered enough to complain some more, although he didn't sound very convincing. Gage was obviously being careful but he was very thorough. After a minute he said consideringly,
"It's not dislocated and I don't think it's broken. Looks like a really bad bruise. How's your head?"
"Better than yours. Come on, Gage, I got my bell rung and my shoulder hurts a little. Big deal." Kelly tried to stand up, went pale again, and this time Hank and Gage made him lie down, Gage spreading the turnout coat quickly on the ground under his head and shoulders.
"Okay, lemme check your pupils," Gage murmured, taking out his penlight and shining it into Kelly''s eyes. "Did you lose consciousness at all?"
"That's good. You're still going to have to go to Rampart. You need your head examined." Kelly opened his mouth and Gage patted him reassuringly on the chest and smiled again. "Come on, Chet, listen to me. I'm very highly trained."
"Cap," Chet whined, like it would do him any good.
"Cap," Gage appealed.
"Listen to Johnny, you twit, he's very highly trained," Hank told Kelly, in a tone that even he could tell sounded like, "I am your captain and I have your best interests at heart." Hank couldn't have said where the tone came from--it couldn't possibly have sounded less like McConnike--but for some reason either the tone, or the stupid word, seemed to get the message across that he meant business. Hank was momentarily aware of a glance passing between Gage, DeSoto, and the slightly bleary Kelly, and realized this was the first time he'd called anyone on the crew by his first name. Which he guessed was all right at that--this seemed to be a first-names kind of a crew. Hank pretended not to see the glance and addressed Kelly--Chet--again. "You're going to Rampart, pal. Don't even try to argue about it."
Chet closed his eyes in defeat, and possibly relief. "Yeah, okay, Cap."
By the time Chet and the injured man from 86s were ready for transport, the fire was contained, and Captain Ford came around to check on his injured man.
"He's going to be fine," DeSoto--Roy--reassured the captain. Johnny, packing up the trauma box and the BioPhone, determinedly kept his head down. Ford nodded, started to turn away, and then hesitated.
"I owe you both an apology," Ford said abruptly. "I made a bad decision. Should have listened to you." Roy shrugged uncomfortably and muttered something conciliatory. Johnny looked up at the captain's face and something he saw there made him give Ford almost the same reassuring smile he'd directed at Kelly.
"It's okay, Cap. Really."
Ford actually did look reassured. He nodded awkwardly and went back to cleanup. Hank turned a searching look on his paramedic, but Johnny had returned to his task and all that was visible was the back of a shaggy black head.
"That's great. Thanks a lot for letting us know," Hank said into the receiver. "Uh-huh, I'll tell the crew. Thanks." He hung up the phone and glanced out the open office door. The rest of the crew was out in the apparatus bay, trying to pretend they weren't eavesdropping. Hank ambled to the open door and stuck his head out. "Guys, that was Rampart. Chet's going to be fine. No concussion, nothing broken, he'll probably have to miss a shift because of that bruise but he should be back in a couple of days."
"Great," Johnny exclaimed.
"The peace and quiet was driving John nuts," Marco commented.
"Why would anyone drive him, he's close enough to walk," Mike murmured, and walked around the engine. Hank suppressed a smirk at the expression on John's face: he looked like he knew he was being made fun of, but confused about how to respond. And then his face cleared.
"I'll drop by and see Chet after the shift's over," he announced. "He should be ready for some company by then."
"He should be climbing the walls by then," Roy commented.
"Or have everyone else climbing them," Marco said.
"Roy, can I talk to you a minute?" Hank asked. The senior paramedic looked startled and Hank added, "Nothing serious," as he retreated into the office. Roy followed, looking puzzled.
"What is it, Cap?" Roy asked.
"Just... I wanted to let you know the door's always open. If you need to talk about anything. Thought I'd bring that up right now."
"Sure, Cap," Roy said carefully. He was obviously waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hank sighed and said,
"Okay, I maybe do have a question. About your partner. He seems a little--"
"High-strung?" Roy asked mildly.
"Right. Is he--scared of me or something?" Hank asked. Roy looked startled, then comprehending.
"Oh, you mean the deer-in-the-headlights thing? Don't take it personally, Cap. He does that."
"Why? He didn't with Ford." Hank had no idea why he brought that up.
"Well, he was right that time. Makes a difference. Also, he probably isn't worried about whether Captain Ford likes him."
Hank blinked. "What?"
Roy looked embarrassed. "He… worries. About whether he's annoyed someone he… would rather not annoy. It upsets him."
Hank couldn't think of a better way to say it, so he just asked, "Wouldn't it be easier for him to just not annoy the person he would rather not annoy?"
"Well, yes, but Johnny never knows he's going to annoy someone until after he's done it. That's the big difference between Chet and Johnny. Most of the time, Chet's annoying on purpose. With Johnny, it just sort of happens. If he knew he was going annoy you, he wouldn’t."
Hank gave up. "Oh."
Roy tried again. "He… kind of grows on you, Cap."
"Yeah. I noticed that already." Hank didn't bother to add that Johnny wasn't the only member of this crew who grew on you. Or that apparently he wasn't going to end up despoiling the hoses or mangling the handi-talkies after all.
Hank Stanley had never aspired to be famous, and midway through his second shift as captain at 51s, he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be, after all--either famous or notorious.
And that was fine, too.