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Stay Off the Roof

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Coffee. He needed coffee. Johnny Gage dragged himself from the dorm to the bathroom and, after a brief pit stop with his eyes still half-closed, followed the smell of strong, freshly brewed, caffeine-laden coffee. Three runs since midnight, almost no sleep at all, no wonder he felt like a zombie. As he crossed the bay he noticed the doors open to the gray December morning and his partner, Roy DeSoto, standing outside. If he'd been more awake, Johnny might have stopped to wonder what Roy was doing. But his mind and focus had fixated on the coffee, and he shuffled his way into the day room.

Barely registering his fellow firefighters, Johnny went straight to the stove. Marco Lopez had the coffeepot in hand and was carefully, slowly pouring himself a steaming cupful.

"Hurry up," Johnny grumbled. "I can't be held responsible for my actions unless I get some coffee."

Chet Kelly, already wide awake and ready for mischief, suggested, "How about we just inject it directly into your veins? A coffee IV. Roy, would you do the honors?"

"Roy's outside, dummy," Johnny said as Marco handed him the pot.

"I'm right here," Roy said, sounding amused.

Johnny turned around to see the older paramedic sitting on the sofa, the logbook balanced precariously as he absently stroked Henry. The station basset hound lay sprawled in Roy's lap like a blanket. The decorations tacked to the wall behind Roy had started to slide free of their Scotch tape, and the Christmas tree in the corner sparkled with multi-colored lights.

"Wha - " Johnny started before realizing he was about to drop the coffeepot. He put it on the stove. He demanded, "How long have you been sitting there?"

Roy shrugged slightly. "Ten minutes or so."

"Then who - " Bewildered, Johnny went back out into the bay. He found only Mike Stoker and Captain Hank Stanley, both of them sitting in the captain's office preparing for shift change.

"You look confused, Gage," Hank observed.

"Did you see anybody else around here?" Johnny asked.

Mike shook his head. "Nope."

Johnny stepped outside into the light drizzle. Nothing. No one. Just the morning traffic, the work whistle from the refinery across the street, the constant dull roar of cars whizzing by on the freeway behind the station house. Mike had already hung the flags, which flapped noisily in the chill breeze.

He went back into the day room, steadfastly ignoring the curious looks of his coworkers.

"I definitely need some coffee," Johnny mumbled.

***

Three a.m., Tuesday night, Rampart General Hospital. Johnny leaned against the wall outside treatment room three, afraid of falling asleep if he actually sat down for more than two minutes. The inside of his mouth tasted bitter and the acrid smell of smoke hung around him like a gray cloud. His back ached from carrying an overweight victim down two flights of stairs and out of a burning apartment building. On nights like these - mornings like these - he often wondered what it would be like to have a nice office job. A desk and filing cabinet. His own swivel chair. No one to vomit or urinate on him, no burdens of saving lives or property, just a nice job with a steady paycheck and three weeks vacation.

Nah. It would never happen. Not for him, at least, not if he could help it. Even on nights like these, when the hours blurred into one long endurance test, he liked the variety and surprise of his job. Even if it did mean standing in an empty hospital corridor at an absurdly early hour of the day, wondering how he was going to last five more hours.

The door swung open behind him and Dixie McCall and Joe Early walked out. Johnny didn't often see Early on the unglamorous overnight shift, but he knew Dixie was pulling a double due to a handful of sick nurses. She looked as tired as Johnny felt.

"How's he doing?" Johnny asked.

Early said, "I think he'll be fine. You guys did good work intubating him like that."

"Thanks." Past Early's shoulder, Johnny saw Roy exit the men's room and head for the bay where the squad was parked. Irritation flashed through him - what, his own partner couldn't wait up for him? It wasn't as if they were fighting or anything - as usual, their partnership felt solid and right, an even balance of strengths and occasional weaknesses.

"Coffee?" Dixie asked around a mouth-splitting yawn.

"None for me. See you later." Johnny headed outside. The night was cool and brisk, with no trace of stars overhead. A police car siren cut through the air, and cigarette smoke hovered over the ashtray outside the sliding doors. Roy stood in the shadows by the squad, looking up at Rampart as if he'd never seen it before.

"What are you doing, Roy?"

"Stay off the roof," Roy said.

The warning caught Johnny off-guard. "Okay. I wasn't really planning on going up on it, you know."

Silence from his partner. Unnatural stillness in his arms and legs and face. An expression that mixed both wistfulness and sorrow. The oddness of it all made Johnny wonder if Roy had accidentally hit his head sometime during one of their runs and had forgotten to mention it.

"Stay off the roof," Roy repeated, locking gazes with him, and a sudden coldness swept through Johnny's body. They'd both stripped off their turnout coats before arriving at Rampart, but Roy had donned his again. His hair was shorter than it had been earlier in the evening. His blue eyes looked abnormally dark, even given the absence of direct light, and that expression - not wistful, not sorrowful, but haunted.

Johnny took a step backward. He couldn't have said why, exactly, he suddenly feared the man in front of him - if it was a man, in fact. The handie-talkie broke into static in his hand. No dispatcher call, no toned alarm, just noisy static. Johnny glanced down at it. When he looked up, he was all alone. The doors whooshed open behind him, and Roy came out wearing a perplexed look. He didn't have his turnout coat on.

"What are you doing out here?" Roy asked.

"Wow," was all Johnny could say. He reached out to the squad to for support as his knees wobbled.

"You okay? What's the matter?"

Johnny opened his mouth, but no reasonable explanation poured out. Forcing his legs to hold steady, he circled around to the passenger seat and slid inside. His hands shook in his lap. He sat on them. Cold sweat trickled down his neck and between his shoulder blades, creating an itch he didn't even try to satisfy.

Roy got in behind the steering wheel. "What's wrong? You're scaring me."

"I'm scaring you?" Johnny asked, with a strangled laugh. "Just give me a minute, okay?"

Roy didn't start the ignition. He didn't pester Johnny with questions. He sat in place, looking both concerned and puzzled, that steadfast DeSoto patience at work. Johnny didn't know many people who had as high a tolerance for waiting as his partner did. He would wait all night if necessary, if Johnny asked him to.

"I'm just trying to think of a way to say it that doesn't sound absolutely crazy," Johnny finally offered.

The worry lines on Roy's forehead eased a little. The corners of his mouth quirked up. "Don't worry about that. I've heard you say absolutely crazy things before."

"I'm serious," Johnny said. "You'll think I'm nuts."

"Try me."

"You were out here when I came out. You told me to stay off the roof."

"That's nuts."

A joke, a jest, one of the stock comments they threw back and forth at each other every shift. Johnny couldn't take it, though. He stared out the windshield at the empty parking lot, the rows and rows of spaces that would fill up in just a few hours. Beyond the wire fence, the skyline glowed a faint orange.

"Johnny," Roy said, the humor fading, "I was inside all the time."

"No. You were here. I saw you. We had a conversation."

"And I told you to stay off the roof?"

"Yes." Johnny risked a glance in his partner's direction. "You sure you were inside?"

"Positive. You sure you talked to me? Not someone who just looked like me?"

"Do you have a twin someplace you haven't mentioned?"

"No."

Johnny took a deep breath. "Then it was you. Or your . . . ghost."

Roy started the squad. "You've just been working too hard. Or watching too many episodes of The Twilight Zone."

"I saw what I saw," Johnny insisted. "The same thing happened last week, when I saw you standing outside in the rain."

"Johnny . . . " Roy began, and Johnny knew that tone of voice. Roy used it whenever he wanted to dissuade Johnny from some new business venture or other. When he didn't put faith in his partner's ideas, but didn't want to come right out and say so. When he thought Johnny was overreacting. But Roy didn't finish whatever he was going to say, and for that Johnny was grateful.

For three miles they were silent. Johnny cranked the heater and tried not to be too obvious about enjoying the flood of warmth. The only good thing about driving around Los Angeles at three in the morning was the dearth of traffic, gridlock and honking horns. Beneath the thin yellow light of street lamps, the city projected an illusion of beauty, safety and order. But if he looked hard enough, Johnny could discern war veterans and runaway teens slumped in shadows or under freeway ramps. Roy drove with both hands on the wheel and his attention focused forward, with occasional sideways glances.

Johnny folded his arms across his chest. "I'm not hallucinating."

"I didn't say you were." Roy braked for a red light in an empty intersection. "Just don't worry about it. And whatever you do, don't tell the guys."

Johnny snickered. As if he'd give Chet that kind of ammunition to use against him. He sobered quickly, though, and said, "That part about the roof was a warning. What if some part of you - maybe a future you - was trying to tell us something?"

"Too much Twilight Zone. And too much Star Trek, too."

"I'm serious."

"We can't very well stay off roofs," Roy pointed out. "Part of the job."

"Risk of the job." Johnny tried not to think of all the dangers roofs presented to firefighters. One wrong step, and a man could fall right through one. Or have the bad luck to be under one when tons of weight came crashing down. Burning tar and chemicals could singe lungs -

"If it makes you happy, we'll be very careful. Even more careful than usual."

"Promise?" Johnny asked.

"Sure."

"Okay," Johnny said, but he didn't sleep a wink for the rest of the night.

***

Their schedule that winter was twenty-four hours on, forty-eight hours off. But the forty-eight hours never seemed to amount to much in Roy's experience. His days off usually included fixing broken toys, taking care of minor household repairs, upkeeping the lawn or the family's two cars, running errands to the grocery or hardware store and chauffeuring the kids to their music lessons or sports practices. He enjoyed being a family man, and didn't envy Johnny's single life too much, but there were some days he thought being at work was marginally more restful than being at home.

In anticipation of going to work the next morning, he made sure to set out his uniform on Wednesday evening. He did the dishes after Joanne cooked pot roast, helped the kids tidy their rooms, read "The Cat in the Hat" to Michelle and "The Hardy Boys" to Chris, wrote out the electric and gas bills, put the garbage cans out on the curb and went to bed at precisely ten-thirty.

Joanne had climbed under the covers a half-hour earlier with a dog-eared romance she'd picked up at the library. She'd dressed in her dark blue pajamas, a sure sign there would be no lovemaking in the DeSoto household that night. He felt vaguely unhappy about that, but not unhappy enough to make a fuss.

"Did you put out the garbage?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Feed Skippy?"

"Skippy needs to go on a diet. We have the fattest dog in the neighborhood."

"Chris tell you about his English teacher?"

"He thinks it's yucky that she's going to have a baby."

Little bits of normal conversation, nothing unusual, all of it comforting in its banality. Roy couldn't have said when, exactly, he fell asleep, but he knew the lamp continued to burn for some time on Joanne's side of the bed and, even dozing, he heard the occasional rustle of turning pages. He woke abruptly some time later, jolted awake as surely as if an alarm had ripped through the quiet house. Heart pounding, senses straining, he looked around the darkened bedroom. He could hear Joanne's soft snores, but no sounds of distress from either of the kid's bedrooms. The dog was quiet. The neighborhood slept on under the gentle pitter-patter of rain.

He tried to go back to sleep, but his nerves remained taut and humming like an electrical wire. Familiar furniture and decorations took on ominous aspects in the weak light spilling from the hallway. His uniform looked like a man suspended by the neck. One of Joanne's scarves, bunched and forgotten on the dresser, resembled a raised fist. Her bottles of perfume gave off a faint but sinister gleam. Surprised at his own skittishness, Roy gave himself a mental shake and rolled away from the sights. He bunched the pillow under his head, counted to one hundred, counted to two hundred, breathing slow and even now, grim thoughts fading, eyelids fluttering closed -

A fireman appeared in the doorway, his features cloaked in darkness, his turnout gear reeking of smoke and ash.

Roy bolted upright. But the doorway was empty.

"Mmm?" Joanne murmured, still half-asleep.

His tight throat prevented any words. Roy patted her hip with a sweat-slick hand. She turned on her side and started snoring again.

Roy slid to his feet. He considered calling the police, but for what? He couldn't have seen what he had just seen. Still, he looked around for something to wield as a weapon. The umbrellas were in the hall closet, the knives in the kitchen, the letter-opener in the den. He crept to the door and, holding his breath, stuck his head out to peer down the long hall that ran from the bathroom and kids' rooms at one end to the kitchen and living room at the other. He saw only beige walls hung with framed pictures and scuffed with the shoeprints of his children.

Cold air wafted up his boxer shorts. His heart pounded wildly in his chest. He willed himself to calm down, but his glands continued to push out wave after wave of adrenaline. Telling himself he had no other choice, Roy inched down the hallway. The brown shag rug tickled his bare toes. He really hated that rug, but Joanne insisted they keep it for economic reasons. The living room was empty, of course, the sofa and love seat solid bulks in the darkness. Through the blinds he could see the rain-streaked windows and street lamp. A car drove by, tires whooshing softly.

Roy wiped his forehead. He felt foolish. But he went to check on the kids just in case, and found Skippy sound asleep at the foot of Chris's bed. Some watch dog. He made sure the garage door and front door were locked. He even checked that no one had opened the high window in the bathroom. Reassured as to the safety of his family and home, he returned to the kitchen, switched on the range light over the stove, snagged a glass from the cabinet and turned to the refrigerator. The Station 51 A-Shift schedule and half a dozen school drawings fluttered as he swung open the door. The cool light of the interior reassured him. The fireman in the doorway had been a dream, something dredged up by his subconscious before he was even fully asleep. Roy poured himself a tall glass of milk, returned the carton to its proper place on the top shelf and elbowed the door shut.

He turned and found Johnny standing no more than five feet away from him, his hair and face coated with grime.

"Stay off the roof, Roy," he said.

The glass slipped from Roy's hand. He heard it shatter on the linoleum floor but the sound came from a million miles away. Cold milk splashed around his ankles, another distant sensation. "Jesus, Johnny! What the hell are you doing here?"

Brown eyes regarded him mournfully. The SCBA tank on his partner's back hung heavily in its straps and he was hunched over slightly to accommodate its weight. Johnny looked pale and when he spoke again, every word seemed an effort.

"Stay off the roof."

Without a further word, Roy's partner turned and walked into the living room.

"Wait a minute - " Roy's attempt to follow came to an abrupt halt as sharp pain shot through his right foot. Unpersuaded, Johnny continued to the front door.

And walked right through it.

Roy's knees went weak. He looked down and saw bright red blood spreading in the pool of white milk. Abandoning all hope of making it to the nearest stool, he instead lowered himself as carefully as he could to the floor and leaned back against the cabinets. The phone rang. Rang again. Three times. Weariness flooded through him, followed by regret. He should have paid more attention to Johnny's farfetched story the previous week. Stay off the roof. His vision began to gray a little, but he forced himself to sit upright as Joanne came padding down the hall.

"Roy? Where are you? Johnny's on the phone."

Her surprised gasp in the kitchen doorway made Roy close his eyes. He didn't want to see the concern on her face. He didn't want to explain what he'd just seen, or try and interpret exactly what it meant. He was just glad for whatever stroke of good timing had made Johnny call at one o'clock in the morning.

"Ask him if he wants to come over and drive me to Rampart," Roy said.

Johnny arrived fifteen minutes later, wide-awake but disheveled. By that time Joanne had helped Roy to the bathroom, where he'd sat on the closed lid of the toilet and done his best to bandage his foot with strips of an old towel. He'd resisted the urge to yank the glass out, afraid of causing further damage. Both kids had woken up. Michelle cried at the sight of Daddy's blood. Chris just looked scared.

"It's okay," Roy tried to reassure them. "It's just a big cut."

Johnny took one look at the reddened towel strips and whistled. "You really did a number on yourself, huh?"

"Thanks," Roy said sourly.

"I should go with you to Rampart," Joanne offered, but her voice lacked conviction.

Roy didn't blame her. Saddling Johnny with the kids - or the kids with Johnny - was not an option to be considered lightly. Besides, he needed time alone to talk to his partner. They had business to discuss. Ghostly business. "I'll be fine," Roy told her. "Johnny's a trained professional, you know."

Johnny offered a crooked grin, although his eyes showed no amusement. "It's true. Or so they say."

With Johnny's help, Roy hopped to the back seat of his partner's Land Rover. He stretched out in the back with his right leg elevated. Johnny tossed him a blanket to ward off the cold, damp air. They went three blocks without speaking.

"Why did you call?" Roy asked.

Johnny's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "Just a hunch. I woke up from a bad dream and had to call you."

"Sorry to get you out of bed."

"It's okay," Johnny said. "Wasn't my bed. How you doing back there?"

Roy shifted his foot and grimaced. "I'll live." He looked out the window at the passing lights. "I saw you."

"What?"

"You were in my kitchen. You said 'Stay off the roof, Roy.'"

His voice cracked as he said it. Embarrassed, Roy pulled at the frayed edges of his blanket. "You were standing right there in the kitchen, Johnny, and then you walked through the front door."

Johnny pulled over to the curb and left the Rover idling as he turned around. His voice came out half an octave higher than usual. "I was in your kitchen?"

Roy nodded, suddenly miserable. Even the fiercest fires or close calls had failed to scare him so thoroughly. He was sure his cowardice showed in his face, and that he was being nothing more than an overgrown baby.

"Hey," Johnny said, sounding faintly alarmed. He patted Roy's knee. "Don't worry. We're going to figure this out."

"Yeah." Roy pretended to rub grit from his eyes. "Just drive, okay? My foot is killing me."

Johnny turned around and did as requested. He'd never seen his partner so rattled. He didn't want to scare Roy off the topic, though, so he restrained himself from bursting out with a litany of questions. When they arrived at the emergency room, they learned Kelly Brackett himself was pulling night duty. Squad 18 had brought in a sick child and an elderly man complaining of chest pain had walked in under his own power. Gracie Whitney, the acting head nurse, let Roy and Johnny wait in treatment room three. She took Roy's vitals and then left them in peace. Johnny sat on a stool reading an old issue of Time while Roy dozed fitfully on the examination table.

Forty-five minutes after they arrived, Brackett strode in with a cross look on his face.

"Four tacos with hot sauce and chili pepper. Of course someone's going to get indigestion," he grumbled. He peered at his patient. "What happened to you?"

Roy blinked sleepily as Johnny offered, "He stepped on a big hunk of glass."

"It was an accident," the older paramedic added.

With Johnny's help, Brackett removed the offending shard and made sure there were no others. Cleaning the wound and putting in seven stitches took only a short amount of time. Roy remained stoic and quiet throughout it all, prompting Brackett to try and cheer him up.

"At least it wasn't a nail," the head of the E.R. pointed out. "I stepped on a nail once."

Johnny said, "Big one or little one?"

"Very big," Brackett said. "Went right through my foot and poked out the top."

Roy didn't appear to be listening, so Johnny carried on the conversation. "And that's what made you decide to become a doctor."

"No, I already knew I wanted to be a doctor. But that's what made me decide I didn't want to be a podiatrist."

Not even a smile from Roy's direction. Brackett quirked an eyebrow. Johnny merely shrugged. "Long night."

Roy would not be going to work that morning. Johnny called the station house so the C-shift captain could track down a replacement. Bracket rounded up some painkillers and antibiotics, and clean bandages and crutches saw Roy back to the Rover. He slept all the way home, waking only when Johnny pulled in to the drive.

"You shouldn't go to work either," Roy said somberly. "It's a warning, right? Whatever's happening to us, it's like someone's sending a warning."

"Yeah," Johnny agreed, "but I've been thinking about it. It's a warning for both of us. If something bad's supposed to happen, it's going to happen to both of us, probably at once. So if you stay home tomorrow, I should be okay."

Roy looked doubtful, but didn't argue about it. He persuaded Johnny to stay the rest of the night instead of driving back to his girlfriend's apartment. Johnny curled up on the sofa with a spare pillow and blanket but didn't get much rest. Every tick of the clock in the kitchen sounded like a warning. Occasional passing cars threw eerie shadows on the walls. Joanne had the kids up at six-thirty to get them ready for school. Johnny declined the offer of a hot shower and instead drove to the station, stopping for some donuts and coffee on the way.

"What happened to Roy?" Hank asked when he arrived and learned that Carlson, from C-Shift, had agreed to pull a double.

"Nothing too serious." Johnny didn't glance up from the sports section. "Bare feet, broken glass, you know how it goes."

He gave the same abbreviated excuse to Mike, Marco and Chet. He didn't mention ghosts. He didn't see any, either - not that night, nor the next night, nor the night after that. He and Roy agreed to call each other the moment anything supernatural happened, but nothing did.

"Maybe it was all in our heads," Roy suggested on the phone one night.

Johnny pinched the bridge of his nose. "You don't believe that."

A pause on the other end. "No. I don't." After a moment Roy asked, "You think maybe we should do some research or something?"

"I'll race down to the library right now," Johnny said.

"I'm serious. Doesn't your tribe have superstitions or rituals or something?"

"Sure it does. And my Grandma Donovan liked to tell stories about screaming banshees. Marco's mom thinks you can tell the future by looking at an unfertilized egg. I'm telling you, Roy, we're on our own here."

No, Johnny didn't have any faith in dusty books in the L.A. library system. He didn't put much stock into his grandparents' folklore, either, although he was tempted to bring up the topic when he spoke with his mother Sunday morning. He decided the only thing to do was wait and watch, and debated endlessly with himself on how to handle the situation when Roy came back to work. He reached no conclusions. Roy missed the next rotation for A-shift to have his stitches removed, then pulled extra duty over at 18's to make up for lost pay. When Johnny saw him next, almost a week had passed since the glass incident.

The rain that had drizzled down for the first two weeks of December had cleared away to sunny skies and crisp weather. Johnny drove to work with a lump in his throat. The sight of his partner in the locker room made him stop short.

Roy shut his locker door. "What's wrong?"

"You got your hair cut."

"Joanne said it was getting too long."

The vision of Roy that Johnny had seen outside Rampart had had short hair. Johnny opened his mouth to say so, but Chet Kelly's arrival stole away their privacy.

"Man oh man," he said, rubbing his hands together with glee. "Let me tell you about this chick I met last night - "

"Not now, Chet," Johnny said.

"I listen to all your stories, Gage!"

The tones went off. Johnny followed Roy into the bay as the dispatcher's voice said, "Station 51, man trapped on roof, 3132 Alameda - "

Roy stopped short. Johnny ran up against him and they nearly toppled to the floor. Man trapped on roof. The butterflies in Johnny's stomach exploded into flight. But Hank was already handing Roy the address on a slip of paper almost as white as Roy's face.

Hank asked, "Is there a problem?"

"No problem," Roy squeaked out.

Johnny climbed into the cab. "What do we do?" he demanded.

Roy gripped the steering while so tightly his knuckles turned white. "We do our jobs, that's what we do."

The house on Alameda Street was a white ranch with lush landscaping and an attached carport. Neighbors had clustered on the curb, and Vince Howard was standing talking to a young lady in a blue print dress. Roy parked and got out to see a man's torso sticking out of the roof near the chimney.

"I'm going to sue!" the man was shouting to the woman in the driveway. "Call Fred!"

"Oh, stop complaining," the woman replied.

"This is Mrs. Forrestor," Vince said. He jerked his head toward the roof. "Mr. Forrestor decided to install a TV antenna on his own."

Hank tipped back his helmet and took off his gloves. "Chet and Marco, go inside and see if you can support him from below. Roy, John, up you go."

Johnny's throat tightened. "Cap, how about Marco and Chet go up, and Roy and I will try from below?"

Hank looked surprised. "Don't you want to check him out? Take his pulse or something?"

"Well, you know, he looks fine." Johnny cast around for more arguments. "And we can take his pulse from his ankle."

Chet snickered. "What's the matter, Johnny? Suddenly afraid of heights?"

Johnny threw Roy a look. Help me out, partner.

"Chet and I will go up," Roy said. "Johnny and Marco can go below. That way Johnny can check for injuries to his legs."

Hank frowned. "I don't care who goes where. Just go."

Johnny's face burned as he went inside with Marco. He didn't mind Roy's plan so much except that it still left everyone with the impression that he, Johnny Gage, had developed acute acrophobia. Which couldn't be further from the truth. He'd been climbing towers and telephone poles since he was a little kid, often on dares, more often just for the thrill of it. Smarting, he stomped through the tastefully decorated living room and followed Marco to the master bedroom. Plaster and debris covered the blue bedspread, and a pair of dangling legs protruded from the ceiling.

"Let's get this out of the way," Marco proposed, and they shoved the bed against the wall.

Johnny found two sturdy chairs in the kitchen and brought them back. He and Marco both climbed up. Their victim, Johnny quickly discovered, had no injuries more serious than a few scratches. But he sure was wedged in securely.

"Roy, you up there?" Johnny yelled.

No answer for a moment. Johnny thought about loose shingles, one wrong step, a drop of twelve or so feet to the driveway. He began sweating in earnest. "Roy?"

"Right here," his partner called down, his voice muffled by insulation and wood. "Hold on."

It took a sturdy rope, a portable fulcrum and Mike's incremental reversing of the engine to get Frank Forrestor out of the hole he'd made for himself. Johnny and Marco helped from below. Their victim was far more embarrassed than he was grateful, and continued to threaten to sue the house's former owner, the real estate agent who'd handled the sale and the manufacturer of the roof. Roy and Chet came down off the roof with no problem, although Roy looked a little paler than he normally did.

"You didn't see anything, did you?" Johnny quizzed as they climbed back into the squad.

"No." Roy lifted his chin. "I just kept thinking about Joanne and the kids. What they're going to do after . . . well, whatever."

Johnny couldn't think of anything reassuring to say, and so stayed silent.

Their next run was a heart attack victim who coded in the ambulance and never made it back. Johnny, who rode in with the middle-aged man, went to the men's room and stayed there for fifteen minutes. He was a terrible paramedic. Nothing he did mattered. The best thing he could do to benefit the citizens of Los Angeles would be to resign immediately and go get some office job pushing paper. At least screwing up paperwork wasn't the same as letting people die.

"Quit it," Roy said when he found him. "You did the best you could."

It just didn't seem fair - and it never had - that they could do the best they could, with modern drugs and finely honed skills, and still lose someone. But hiding in the men's room wouldn't solve much of anything. Johnny trudged after Roy back to the squad. Lunch at a hot dog stand near Rampart was proposed and accepted. The sun had disappeared into a uniformly gray sky, and a strong wind kicked up stray bits of garbage. They ate at a picnic table set on a cement patch.

Roy shivered unexpectedly.

"It's not that cold," Johnny said.

"I just got a bad feeling." Roy shook his head. "I hate this."

That afternoon they went on two more runs, the most difficult of which was assisting Engine 18 with extricating an elderly woman from a car wreck on the Ventura Freeway. She was critical but alive when they delivered her to Rampart. Back at the station house, Johnny and Roy showered clean of blood, engine oil and antifreeze and climbed into fresh uniforms. Although it was only four-thirty, the sun was going down. Sporadic rain beat against the bay door windows. The smell of garlic and tomato sauce filled the day room, where Roy cleaned his boots and Johnny flipped through a torn copy of Sports Illustrated.

"Is that ready yet?" Chet asked Mike. "I'm starving."

"Good spaghetti takes careful timing," Mike replied. "Don't rush me."

Hank wandered in with a handwritten list. "Gage, DeSoto, you two haven't paid up yet for the Christmas party. Are you coming?"

Johnny shrugged. "Sure."

"If we live that long," Roy added.

It was such an uncharacteristic thing for Roy to say that stunned silence filled the room. The tips of Roy's ears turned red as everyone looked at him. Johnny, who felt the same dread as a weight sitting on his chest, empathized but let his partner pull his own foot out of his mouth.

"Joke," Roy offered weakly. "Just a joke."

"Not funny," Hank said.

"Definitely not funny," Chet said. "Did you see that guy who fell through the floor in Ohio, fifty percent burns on his back and neck?"

Johnny tossed his magazine aside. "Quit it, Chet."

"Yeah, you know the rules," Marco said. "No morbid talk during dinner."

"We haven't started eating yet!" Chet protested.

Mike dumped pasta into the strainer. "I told you, stop rushing me!"

Chet rolled his eyes. "Why's everyone yelling at me? Roy's the one who brought up the subject."

"Sorry." Roy looked down at newly shined boots. "I think I'd better go check the squad."

Johnny followed him out into the bay. In silence they pulled out the drug box and spread out the contents. Sitting on the drafty floor, listening to the increased rain outside, they sorted and re-sorted through epinephrine, lidocaine, sodium bicarb, atropine and aspirin.

"Five years ago and I wouldn't have known what any of this stuff does," Johnny commented.

"Me neither."

"You could go home," Johnny said. "Tell Cap you're sick and go home."

Roy shook his head. "I don't think it's that easy."

They heard Hank's footsteps a few seconds before he rounded the squad. The captain's face was drawn with worry in the harsh light. "Everything okay out here?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Roy said, a little too quickly.

"You're sure there's nothing on your minds?"

Johnny looked at Roy. Roy started putting the drugs back in the box.

"It's just - " Johnny started, then stopped. He spread his hands wide. "You ever just have a bad feeling?"

"Lots of times."

Johnny asked, "Like when?"

"Whenever I have to send someone into a burning building. Whenever one of my men disappears in the middle of a fire." Hank crouched down low, to their level. "Whenever my normally optimistic paramedics get fatalistic on me."

"I don't know if we're normally optimistic," Roy said, an attempt at diversion that even Johnny recognized.

"We should tell him," Johnny said impulsively. Then, before Roy could stop him, he asked, "Cap, you ever see a ghost?"

"A ghost?"

"Yeah. Maybe even more than one."

"No," Hank admitted. "Never saw one. Did you?"

"No," Roy said. He stood up and shoved the drug box back into its proper space. "I think dinner's ready."

The older paramedic tried to dart toward the kitchen, but Hank blocked the way. Sternly the captain said, "Hold it. Both of you. Tell me what's going on."

Roy threw up his hands. "It's nothing!"

Johnny improvised. "He's right, Cap. It's nothing. It's just that - well - Joanne thought she saw a ghost, and it told her - "

"Joanne!" Roy exclaimed.

Hank's eyebrows drew together. "Are you guys trying to set up some joke? Some prank on Chet?"

"Do I hear my name being called?" Chet asked, poking his head out of the day room. "Come on, you guys. Let's eat before it gets cold."

"Nevermind," Johnny said. "We're fine, Cap."

Dinner was a strained affair. Roy sat next to Johnny but didn't talk to him. Hank stayed quiet and Mike, never a big talker, had nothing to say. Chet and Marco argued over whether it was the Irish or the Spanish who first celebrated Christmas, and then argued over what they'd be watching on TV that night.

"Will you two take a break?" Hank finally complained. "You're giving the rest of us indigestion."

Roy already had indigestion. His stomach churned and twisted at even the smallest bites of Mike's admittedly great spaghetti. He pushed and prodded his food around on the plate, a trick he'd learned from watching his son Chris. After dinner Johnny apologized for bringing Joanne's name into it. Roy said it was okay. Hank asked Roy if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Roy said no. Chet asked whether they should watch "The Rookies" or "Police Story," and Roy said he didn't care.

"I'm going to go read a book," he said.

He couldn't concentrate on his novel, though. Every shadow in the dorm made him look twice, and every faint sound snagged his attention. The engine got called out at 9:30 to extinguish a Dumpster fire, leaving him and Johnny alone in the big, empty, cold station house. At 10:15 the guys were back, smelling of burnt plastic and rubber. After a series of running showers, flushing toilets, late snacks, complaints, farts and more flushing toilets, all six men settled into their beds. Rain drummed against the roof.

"You awake?" Johnny whispered at eleven o'clock.

"Yeah," Roy said.

Roy was still awake a half-hour later, when Johnny began snoring. He was still awake at midnight, when something scratched along the baseboard near his bed. A mouse, he hoped. He was still awake at one a.m., when water gurgled in the pipes. Still awake at one forty-five, when a long series of klaxons went off. He felt a surge in his heartbeat and, curiously enough, an accompanying wave of relief. The long wait was over. The anxious present and dreaded future had finally caught up to one another.

He almost let Johnny drive, seeing as it was going to be their very last firefight. But in the end he kept the keys for himself and led the way through L.A.'s darkened streets. The rain had stopped but strong winds made palm trees sway back and forth. The three-story warehouse at Third and Houston was set back a ways and surrounded on all sides by parking lots. The flames shooting out of the second floor windows glowed a cheerful cherry red. Dark smoke billowed toward the sky. The air in the neighborhood was already acrid, and Roy gave a slight cough even before he climbed out of the squad.

Engine 32 had hooked a two and half inch to the fire department connection and was running an attack line to the northeast corner of the building. Mike parked alongside and started laying to them. Engine 24, close on their heels, drove past to hook directly into the next hydrant. The captain of 32's, a tall Vietnam vet named Bill Clement, told Hank the battalion was sending over building plans. But a back door in the southwest corner had been ajar when they arrived, and there was a single car in the otherwise empty parking lot.

"Do we know what kind of business it is?" Hank asked.

"They pack produce."

"Night watchman?"

"Probably. You know how much grapes cost these days?"

Hank ordered Johnny and Roy to do a search using lifelines. The sense of calm that had carried Roy so far began to evaporate. His hands shook as he donned his SCBA gear. The plastic and rubber mask felt heavy and suffocating. His oxygen gauge looked fine, but what if there was some fault in the equipment? He saw water jet from hoses toward the flames and heard a great roaring hiss. Beside him, Johnny dropped the ropes on the ground.

Chet scooped them up. "Come on, Gage. No time to get clumsy now."

"Listen up, guys," Hank said as he rejoined them. "This building's about forty years old, so who knows what you're going to find for insulation or sprinklers. The wind's whipping out of the east and I bet she's going to go fast. Get in and get out of there as soon as you can."

"Always, Cap!" Johnny flashed a humorless smile.

Marco and Chet looped line around Johnny and Roy's waists and followed them to the back door, through which light smoke billowed. The building loomed impossibly large in front of them. For a moment Roy was convinced he couldn't take the first step inside. He might as well have been some first-day probie in danger of wetting his own pants. For the first time in a long time he felt like a fraud in his uniform, an impostor who had no right to carry a fireman's badge.

Johnny pressed his mask close to Roy's. "You ready?"

Roy swallowed hard and nodded.

They had flashlights, but the beams didn't penetrate into the smoky blackness. The sounds of sirens, engines and hissing steam were all deadened, replaced by the dull, pervasive whoosh that was the fire itself. The building's structure funneled hot air at them from every direction. Roy wondered how long the fire had been raging, unnoticed, waiting to kill. He and Johnny groped their way down a long corridor and through a doorway. Large tables stacked with wooden crates and wrapping paper appeared nearby - combustibles just waiting to go up in flames.

Roy's radio crackled to life. "Engine 51 to HT 51 - report."

"We're about seventy feet in," Roy told Hank. "No sign of anyone."

Johnny found a row of offices lining the wall. Roy stayed at the door while Johnny checked under the desk and in the corners of the first one. Empty. In the next office, Johnny stayed at the door while Roy searched. His flashlight caught a woman's smiling face but he quickly saw that it was Miss Playboy of July 1974 pinned to a bulletin board in all her glory. He rejoined Johnny, noting that the darkness had started to take on a reddish cast. Glass windows exploded like popping corn kernels. From traffic on the HT, they knew that a ladder company had started ventilating the roof.

After a fruitless search of the third office, Johnny shouted, "I don't think we're going to find anyone!"

Roy privately agreed, but they pressed on. Beyond the offices, a short hall led to stairs and a large packing area. With half their search line left, they opted to ascend. Roy noticed the doors to the stairwell had been removed at some point in the building's long history. A serious code violation, that. On the second floor, Roy searched a small office that had a pizza box and a six pack of beer on the desk. Keys and clipboards hung on the wall, and two darkened camera monitors sat on a high shelf. They had found the watchman's office, but not the employee. When Roy stepped out, he saw water running down the walls and pooling on the floor.

"Engine 51 to HT 51!" Hank said over the radio. "We've got the watchman. Get out of there!"

Johnny immediately turned toward the stairs, and Roy was glad to follow him. A shower of burning embers rained down on them before they reached it. Roy pushed Johnny against the nearest wall as part of the ceiling gave way. Chunks of burning insulation landed just inches away, followed by an a/c duct and several fluorescent lights. The stairwell lay on the other side of the burning obstacle course, effectively blocked from their use.

"We've got to find another way out!" Roy yelled.

Johnny cut their lifelines with his knife and then roped the two of them together so they wouldn't lose one another in the increasingly thick smoke. Visibility dropped fast, and Roy tried to keep from panicking as he radioed in that they needed another way out.

The building plans had apparently arrived on scene. Hank directed them to do a right hand search until they found the outside wall and to follow that to a freight elevator. They crouched low and did as ordered. They crawled along the wall for fifty feet and found the freight elevator. The doors were searing hot to the touch, but the stairwell beside it looked passable. Behind them, flames jumped along rows of packing crates and started devouring a row of wooden file cabinets. Red and orange red light filled the room, accompanied by waves of heat that made Roy feel like he was crawling around the inside of an oven.

He heard a beeping, and with dismay saw only five minutes left on his air tank. Johnny would have just about the same. Roy began counting seconds. In sixty seconds they'd be out in the parking lot, surrounded by friends and fresh air. Just sixty seconds. He promised himself that. But as they hurried down, Johnny let out a particularly vile curse. In blatant violation of all fire regulations, the bottom of the stairwell had been completely obstructed by pallets and crates.

"We can't get out this way!" Roy radioed to Hank. "It's blocked!"

They reversed direction, going up this time, barely managing to squeeze by flames fully engulfing the second floor. The third floor looked just as involved. "Go up to the roof!" Hank ordered. "Ladder 12 will pick you up there!"

Using the handrails and each other, they blindly groped their way upward. Johnny found a door and a large pushbar, but abruptly stopped in his tracks.

"What's wrong?" Roy shouted.

"We can't go out there!" Johnny shouted back. "Remember? Stay off the roof!"

Roy's guts coiled and cramped. Stay off the roof. No, no, it couldn't be. Freedom, fresh air and relative safety were just a few steps away. The absolutely logical thing to do, the option that years of training had ingrained into him, was to push the door open. No one in his right mind would argue with it.

Johnny bent so close that their facemasks pressed together. "We can't go out there!"

Desperation gripped Roy. "We have to!" he shouted. They would certainly die if they didn't. The fire was reaching up from below now, fed by the stack of fuel at the bottom. Even if the flames never reached them, the heat would broil them alive. He checked his SCBA and saw, to his horror, that his air would run out in three minutes.

They had to go out on the roof.

But two ghosts had told them not to.

Johnny grabbed the HT from Roy's hand. He had no idea if he was saving them or killing them as he said, "Engine 51, HT 51, we can't get to the roof - it's locked! We're at the top of the stairwell. Send help!"

In the feeble light of his flashlight, he could just barely see Roy's anguished expression. Johnny turned his back on their escape route and slid down to the wall. He tugged his partner down with him. They sat side-by-side, shoulders and legs pressed close together, and Johnny gripped Roy's forearm. He couldn't have said whether it was for comfort or to keep his partner from bolting out the door.

"We're going to be okay," he promised, although it was a reassurance far beyond his control to keep. Sweating profusely under his gear, he shivered from fear. "They're coming for us."

Hank's voice was shouting something over the radio, but a sudden roar like a crashing airplane cut the captain off mid-sentence. The floor shook and rumbled beneath Johnny's butt. For several seconds he and Roy clutched each other. For some reason, Johnny was convinced it was an earthquake, but Roy got close to his ear and shouted, "The roof!"

Johnny felt a momentary thrill of vindication. They surely would have gone down with whatever section had collapsed. Then he stopped to fear for those firemen who might have been on it when it went down. But a quick look down the stairwell jump-started his heart, and terror surged through him.

He was only twenty-six years old. Barely ten years out of high school. Barely enough time to start living. But he'd guessed this day would come the moment he signed up with the fire department. Would have been nice to have a little more time. Time to maybe find the one girl he was always looking for. Time to marry her, and make little John Gages, so when he got home from work every day there'd be someone happy to see him. He secretly envied Roy on a couple of counts, not the least of which was having Joanne and the kids.

But Joanne DeSoto was about to become a widow, and her kids were about to lose their dad.

"Roy - " Johnny said, bending close to his partner. He could barely see him in the choking blackness. He wanted to tell Roy how glad he was they'd become partners. How he really had enjoyed being a paramedic and firefighter, even though he was about to become nothing more than a victim.

"Save your air!" Roy said, and patted his leg.

No words, then. Nothing that had to be said. Johnny understood, but couldn't stop the wetness that blurred his vision. Darkness came for him, sucking away his air, pulling him into a darkness more painful than any he had ever known before.

The end had come.

Finally.

***

He dreamed, and in his dream he died.

He and his partner went out onto the roof. The orange sky was unnaturally bright. Swinging ladders, shouting men, the sound of chopping axes. Melting tar clung to the bottom of his boots. Had to get out, had to get out. Halfway to the parapet, he felt the building give way beneath his feet. The world exploded into an agony of crushing weight and horrible flames. His neck snapped as he fell, and several hundred pounds of debris took care of the rest.

He saw his own memorial service. The church was crammed wall-to-wall with firemen, families and other mourners. Four coffins, each draped with an American flag, lined the pulpit. Constant crying filled the air. The fire chief spoke. A parade saw them to the cemetery, where flags were folded and presented, and the mournful sound of taps cut through the cold December air.

He turned his back on the scene, too sorrowful to continue watching. He felt himself drawing back into the clouds, becoming part of the high and endless sky. But at the last moment he saw his partner alive and well down below, in a time before tragedy, and understood that a chance had been given. He didn't know why, but he didn't stop to ask questions.

"Stay off the roof," he told his partner, and eventually the warning was understood.

He woke then, and saw a soot-covered Hank Stanley standing over him. His partner was right beside him, stretched on a gurney, coughing violently. Brice and Bellingham worked frantically on another fireman, while someone from the coroner's office zipped a body bag over a blackened mess. For a moment the dream of his death and afterlife was crystal-clear. A chance had been given, a warning understood. Then the memory dissipated like so much smoke, and he was left only with the pain of his injuries and a beginning surge of grief.

He retched up smoke and bile.

"Thank God you're alive," his captain said.

***

"Merry Christmas, Roy," Dixie said when she came by at seven a.m. She was careful not to wake Johnny, who had spent most of the night tossing restlessly. The sun hadn't come up yet but Dixie, who'd spent the Christmas Eve shift in the emergency room, had stopped to drop off gifts for her favorite paramedics before she headed home.

"Merry Christmas, Dix," Roy croaked out. He pulled himself up in the bed. He tried to straighten the tangled sheets, but succeeded only in irritating the second-degree burns that ran up both his legs. A hiss and a wince sufficed for Dixie to come over and help.

"Let me do that," she said. She nodded toward the shopping bag on the visitor's chair. "I brought you and Johnny some presents. And there's something in there for each of you from Kel, though he'll deny it. He doesn't want to play favorites, you know."

"You didn't have to," Roy protested.

"I know. But we wanted to. You both gave us quite a scare, so let us indulge you, okay? Here, do you want some water?"

Roy drank gratefully. His throat still ached abominably, and his chest felt like it had been crushed by trucks and reinflated with a bicycle pump. Bruised ribs, some burns, a bad case of smoke inhalation. At the scene he'd been able to breathe, but shortly afterward his lungs had started to shut down from bronchospasm. He'd spent two sedated, hazy days on a ventilator. Johnny had fared slightly better in the pulmonary department, slightly worse when it came to burns and bumps. They both had at least another day of hospitalization ahead of them, and had started sending flowers down to the children's ward to keep an open path from their beds to the bathroom.

"What time are Joanne and the kids coming by?" Dixie asked.

"Noon." Roy didn't like Chris and Michelle seeing him in the hospital, but hoped the visit from Santa Claus during the night would offset their anxiety. Marco had promised to help Joanne pull the presents out of the garden shed. Everyone from the station had been great about helping out, although they too were suffering in their own way from the deaths of Johnson and O'Rielly from Ladder 12.

Roy had seen pictures of the burning warehouse in the newspaper. He'd watched clips from the memorial service on the news. But the fire itself was a vague and indistinct sequence of impressions and memories. He remembered being scared. He remembered the floor shaking, flames and water raining down, hands reaching for him. He even remembered a momentary glimpse of O'Rielly's hideously burned body. The ambulance ride was similarly disjointed, although he knew Johnny had kept saying, "I knew twenty-six was too young! I knew it!"

"Roy?" Dixie asked gently, and he realized he'd gone on a mental trip without bothering to excuse himself.

"Sorry," he said, and the word triggered more coughing. Dixie handed him his inhaler. The medicine brought a little relief.

"I'll leave you alone," she said. "I just wanted to stop by and see how you were doing. Call if you need anything, okay?"

"Wait," he said. "Do you believe in . . . messages from beyond the grave?"

Dixie's face went utterly still. Roy forgot, sometimes, how beautiful she really was. She could have been a model, or an actress, or a beauty queen. Instead she worked sixty or seventy grueling hours every week, ricocheting between suffering patients, egotistical doctors and endless mountains of paperwork.

"Yes, I do," she said. "Six months after my grandfather died, he came to visit me in my bedroom. He told me not to marry Harry Brown but instead follow my dream of being a nurse. So here I am. Never saw Harry again."

Roy had never heard of Dixie being engaged. He scrutinized her closely, trying to discern if she was teasing, but she looked utterly serious.

"Did you get a message from beyond the grave?" she asked.

"I think so."

"A good one?"

Johnny piped up from his bed. "Maybe not a good one, but a helpful one."

"Faker," Dixie said, turning to him. "I thought you were asleep."

"Too much noise around here." Johnny yawned and tugged at his cervical collar. "Hey, Dix, I need a sponge bath. Think Lucy's working today?"

"No, but I can send up Tony," Dixie offered. "The ladies in the geriatric ward swear by him."

After Dixie left, they opened their gifts. Her present to Roy was a book that had just topped the bestseller list. Johnny's was a new leather key ring and matching wallet. Brackett had sent up twin Swiss Army knives, the most expensive models, with anonymous notes in his notoriously bad handwriting. "For emergency use only," the instructions read.

"I almost got you one of these," Johnny said.

"What did you get me?"

"Can't say. You'll have to open it later. What'd you get me?"

Roy hadn't gotten him anything yet. He'd anticipated having a few more shopping days instead of being injured and hospitalized. "You'll see," he promised, and thought of O'Rielly's kids waking up to a fatherless Christmas. Johnson had been divorced, no kids, but Roy had met his parents at a department picnic once.

"What are you thinking about?" Johnny asked.

Roy clutched his inhaler more tightly. "Why them and not us."

Johnny carefully put the gifts back in the shopping bag. "I don't know."

Neither of them knew. Roy didn't think they'd ever know. For a long time afterward he would remember the cold thrill of seeing Johnny's ghost in the kitchen, but as the years passed he put less and less importance on it and finally concluded it had been a particularly vivid dream. He'd simply been walking in his sleep. Johnny never forgot the ghostly Roy DeSoto who'd spoken to him outside of Rampart, but he never again saw or heard anything supernatural.

"And you know what?" Johnny asked, leaning forward to pin Roy with a gaze. "It doesn't matter. I'm just glad."

Glad. Roy glanced at the window, where the December sun had just risen. He could be glad and still grieve his fallen comrades. He could be grateful for Johnny, Joanne and the kids, could still be a good firefighter, and still hesitate the next time he had to charge into a burning building.

"I'm glad, too," he admitted.

"Good. Merry Christmas, Roy."

"Merry Christmas, Johnny."