This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
The belch began as a low growl, slowly grew in depth and pitch, and finally exploded in a bass exclamation that seemed to reverberate all around the dining area. Craig Brice winced and hung his head down as Bob Bellingham sighed in satisfaction and patted his stomach. "Oh yeah," he nodded happily. "That hit the spot."
"Do you have to act like that?" Brice hissed. "We are paramedics. We’re on duty. People are watching us. Can’t you set a better example?"
Bellingham glanced around; the eight or nine people who were also dining at Taco Bueno suddenly found other things to stare at. "Hey, don’t sweat it, everyone," he called out cheerfully. "Any of you keel over, we’re on duty. We can handle it!"
"Oh God," Brice moaned softly. "Why me?" He watched as Bellingham reached out and grasped his ‘Tacissimo’—the one with the works—and attacked with gusto, sending taco innards flying in all directions with each bite. Brice carefully wrapped up the remains of his burrito in the wrapper and placed it back in his sack. Lately, his appetite had diminished for some odd reason.
"Man, I love these things," Bellingham exclaimed as he sucked sauce off his fingers. "Pity they don’t love me." He scooped up the remains of his lunch and pushed everything that fit into his sack.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Bellingham looked up and grinned. "These things give me the fa…"
Squad 51, are you available? came the placid voice of Sam Lanier. Brice lunged for the radio like a drowning man spotting a life preserver.
"This is 51. We are available," he answered.
Squad 51, we have a heart attack victim at 328 North Sierra Bonita Avenue, cross street Melrose Avenue. Time out 12:47 p.m.
"Squad 51, 10-4." Brice was already on his feet and heading for the squad. To his surprise, Bellingham was already in the driver’s seat and firing the engine up. "How did you get here so quickly?" Brice demanded.
"Soon as I heard Sam, I figured we were getting a call, so I ran over."
"But…" As they pulled out of Taco Bueno, Brice glanced over at the table they’d been sitting at. A crumpled, greasy bag and empty soda cup were sitting there forlornly. "You couldn’t even pick your trash up?" he demanded hotly.
"A call’s a call," Bellingham shrugged. "Besides, that’s what they hire those kids for. Make ‘em earn their salary, I say."
"You’re disgusting," Brice snapped.
As the squad rolled up to the scene, Brice noted with distaste that a small crowd had gathered, effectively boxing in their patient. The onlookers’ faces had that all-too-familiar mixture of fear, curiosity, and morbid excitement, and of course, not a one of them was doing anything to assist. Well, at least no one was rifling the poor guy’s pockets for cash. Brice had seen some pretty astonishing things in his time.
Bellingham was instantly out of the squad, retrieving the drug box and biophone with a furious slamming open of doors. Brice winced, thinking of the dents and scratches his erstwhile partner was putting on the squad, then sighed and headed over to where the victim lay. "Excuse me, pardon me," he said brusquely as he slowly oozed through the onlookers. Given his slight tendency toward claustrophobia, it was with a slight sensation of relief when Brice broke through to the center and the main attraction.
Male, Hispanic, mid-fifties, about forty pounds overweight, flushed, in obvious pain. "Habla Ingles?" Brice asked, kneeling over the man and pulling his shirt open. "Senor, habla Ingles?"
"Better…than you speak…Espanola," the man said through gritted teeth.
"Okay," Brice nodded, slipping his stethoscope into place. "I’m going to listen to your heart. My partner and I are going to take good care of you. Just lie back and relax as best you can, and we’ll have you off to Rampart in no time." He pressed the bell down upon the man’s bare chest and concentrated. Nearby, Bellingham had activated the biophone and was connecting to Rampart; at the same time, he’d set the blood pressure cuff right by Brice’s free hand.
"Rampart, this is 51," Bellingham was saying into the phone. "Do you read?"
"Pulse is 98," Brice called. "BP is 140 over 90." Bellingham relayed the numbers to Brackett, who asked for a strip. The paramedics quickly slapped the leads in place and started the EKG.
"Damn it," the victim growled. "I am in pain here!"
"Rampart, patient is complaining of discomfort," Brice reported. Brackett ordered the paramedics to start an IV—D5W with a lidocaine drip.
"On it," Bellingham said, and within moments he’d established the line in the man’s left arm. Brice had to admit to some professional envy; it was the fastest stab he’d ever seen, and right on target, despite the less than ideal veins.
The ambulance pulled up; Brice glanced up at Bellingham. "You or me?"
"You go. I’ll drive the squad in."
Brice fought down a momentary fury. "I do have a driver’s license, you know."
"Okay. I’ll go in. You clean up here and take the squad in."
"Fine." It wasn’t until the ambulance had left and Brice had turned around to view the carnage Bellingham had left him to pick up that he realized he’d been had.
"I hate that guy," he mumbled as he bent over and started picking up the trash.
51 was deserted when Brice and Bellingham pulled up a few hours later. "Wonder where they went off to?" Bellingham wondered as he hopped out of the squad. "Guess that means it’s up to us to fix dinner, huh, Craig?" When no response was forthcoming, Bellingham turned around. "Craig?"
Brice had gotten as far away from the squad as possible and was taking huge gulps of air. "It’s Brice, if you don’t mind." He was glaring pointedly at the other paramedic. "Did you have to do that all the way back?"
Bellingham shrugged. "Sorry. I did warn you."
"You were the one who picked that taco stand!" Brice stabbed a finger in Bellingham’s direction. "You picked it knowing full well what would happen!"
"I gave you a chance to pick." Bellingham headed for the day room, but a harsh throat clearing made him stop. "What?"
"Aren’t you forgetting something?"
Bellingham bit his lip and thought hard. "Am I?" he said at last.
"You didn’t pick up all the wrappers and trash you dropped on the floor of the squad."
"Oh. Yeah. Guess I didn’t." Bellingham shrugged and resumed his trek to the day room.
"WAIT A MINUTE!" Brice almost screamed.
Bellingham turned around. "Hmm?"
"AREN’T YOU GOING TO PICK THIS GARBAGE UP?"
"Eventually." Bellingham smiled and headed inside.
One could almost hear Brice’s teeth gnashing furiously as he bent over to pick up the trash. "I HATE that guy…"
A very weary band of firefighters rolled into 51 about an hour later. Chet Kelly was the first to notice the aroma coming from the kitchen. "Hey, guys. Something smells good," he commented as he shrugged out of his turnout pants.
"Yeah, you’re right," Steve Bates nodded. A temporary replacement for the injured Marco Lopez, Bates was an amiable sort with an easy grin and rapidly retreating hairline. "Question is, who’s cooking?"
"Can’t be Brice or Bellingham, can it?" Kelly asked. "I mean, Brice’s turn isn’t for a few days yet, and I can’t see him breaking the schedule. And I didn’t think Animal could cook. Hey, Stoker," he called to the engineer, who was halfway to the day room. "Is Bellingham cooking?"
Stoker peered around the corner and hesitated for just an instant. "Yup," he finally replied. A minute later, the firemen discovered the reason for his hesitation.
The kitchen counters were disaster areas. The remains of vegetables lay strewn about in random piles. Grains of seasonings lay scattered across the Formica. Utensils scattered in the wake of the one-man hurricane standing beside the stove. "Hey, guys!" Bellingham called cheerfully. "Irish stew! Should be ready in a few minutes! Someone set the table?"
"Uh…sure thing," Bates nodded. He reached into a cupboard and pulled out bowls and plates. Kelly took a few and started spreading them across the table, avoiding the neat pile of books sitting beside a scowling Brice. "You mind moving your stuff?" he asked.
"Of course, Kelly." He carefully book marked his place and shut the book gently, then placed it atop the small pile and scooped them up without dislodging a single one. Brice started toward the couch, but paused at the sight of Henry lying stretched out across it. "Does that dog have to lie there all the time?"
"Problem, Brice?" Cap asked in a voice that was just a bit too friendly to be comfortable.
"That dog. He never seems to leave the couch. He smells. He sheds." Brice looked at the 51 firemen. "Why on Earth do you put up with him?"
"Because he’s friendly, easy to get along with, and he keeps his mouth shut," Kelly answered.
"Careful, Brice," Stoker added. "Henry was here first. Don’t make us choose."
The paramedic glared at the dog, which gazed up at him soulfully for a moment or two before belching. Brice sniffed disdainfully at the animal before choosing another site for his books.
"Well, I have to hand it to you, Bellingham," Captain Stanley said after dinner. He patted his belly contentedly. "That was magnificent."
"Thanks, Cap," Bellingham said. "My mother’s recipe."
Kelly mopped up the last drops of stew with a piece of bread. "Your mother taught you to cook?"
"She sure did."
"Pity she didn’t teach you about cleaning up after yourself." Kelly nodded toward the counter. "Or is being a slob a family tradition?"
Bellingham’s expression clouded. "Are you talking nasty about my mother, Kelly?" he said in a low voice. His jaw clenched tightly, and his lips drew back to reveal his teeth. And to the horror of the Station 51 firemen (and the sheer mortification of his partner), Bob Bellingham began to growl under his breath.
"Bellingham," Cap said quietly; the growling subsided, but the expression on the paramedic’s face was enough to make the stoutest heart faint. "Apologize, Kelly," Cap continued.
"Hey, sorry," Kelly said quickly. He scooted back from his chair, palms facing out in apology and surrender. To everyone’s relief, the tones suddenly blared from the speakers, sending Bellingham and Brice running for the squad.
"Man," Bates said under his breath. "No wonder he’s called ‘The Animal’."
"Ought to be ‘The Psycho’," Chet replied.
"Almost makes you feel sorry for Brice."
Chet considered this. "Nah."
"Did you have to behave like that?"
Bellingham kept his eyes on the road. "Behave like how?"
"The growling, the stare, the teeth…" Brice rolled his eyes. "They’re all going to think you’re nuts."
"Maybe I am." Bellingham guided the squad past a row of stopped cars.
"Well, even if you are, can’t you even make some attempt at maintaining a professional attitude?" Brice demanded. "When you act like a…a…an animal, it reflects poorly on all the paramedics. Did you ever think of that?"
"I think you’re exaggerating," Bellingham replied as he hit a sharp left.
"Yup. After all, DeSoto is dull as cardboard, Gage is Captain Intensity, and you’re….you. If anything, I add some spice to our reputation." Sirens wailing, Bellingham shot through a red light, neatly avoiding a few cars that had neglected to give them the right of way. It was close enough to give Brice a few moments of panic.
"Do you have to drive like a maniac?" he almost screamed. "For God’s sake…from now on, let me drive!"
"Nope," Bellingham said; up ahead they could see a police car and a small crowd in front of a tiny white-frame house.
"Because you drive like an old lady."
"What?" Brice bounced against his seat belt as Bellingham slammed on the brakes. "Are you saying that I drive like your mother?"
"Nope. If you drove like my mother, I’d let you drive."
Their patient was an elderly woman who’d fallen down a flight of stairs in her home. Brice set up the biophone while Bellingham took the vitals. "Why, Mrs. McHenry," he said in surprise. "I haven’t seen you in ages!"
The woman squinted up at him, then patted her front until she found her glasses. "Bobby Bellingham!" she declared happily. "My goodness, you have grown up, haven’t you?"
"Afraid so, ma’am." He rolled up her sleeve and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
"Have you got the vitals yet, Bellingham?" asked Brice.
"Working on it. This is Mrs. McHenry, my sixth grade science teacher."
Brice nodded politely. "Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Bellingham, Rampart’s waiting for those vitals."
"You have to excuse him," Bellingham said as he squeezed the cuff pump. "My partner here was raised by wild accountants." He was rewarded with a smile from the teacher and a glare from Brice. "BP is 140 over 90. Pulse is 92. Respiration is 24. Say, Mrs. McHenry," he continued. "Think you can tell me how a nice lady like you could go and take a spill like that?"
"Oh, I’m just a silly old woman who was hurrying downstairs to answer the phone."
"Mrs. McHenry, no one who ever had you as a teacher would ever call you silly. Not ever. But perhaps you should consider getting an upstairs phone installed. Unless you like running into your former students like this, of course."
"You’re still the charmer, I see." She shook her head happily. "I am so proud of you, Bobby. I always knew you’d finally apply yourself and make something of your life."
"Rampart wants us to start an IV," Brice said. He opened the drug box and peered inside. "Ma’am, are you in any discomfort…" His voice drifted off momentarily as he stared into the chaotic mess inside the box. One snort of disgust later, he was rummaging for the various pieces they’d need for the setup.
Bellingham winced slightly, knowing he was in for it later. "Mrs. McHenry, are you in any discomfort? We can contact Rampart Hospital and get authorization to give you something if you’re hurting."
She shook her head. "I’m a tough old bird, Bobby, as you well know."
"Oh, don’t I," he agreed with a chuckle. "Right now, though, I need to start an IV line on you. May I…?" he asked, nodding toward her right blouse sleeve.
"Oh, certainly," Mrs. McHenry said, unbuttoning it for him. She watched as he searched for a suitable vein. "I’m the despair of the nurses at my doctor’s office, I’m afraid. My veins are terrible."
"I’ve seen worse, believe me." Bellingham continued searching; in the meantime, Brice shut the drug box with a sharp click and glanced over at his partner. "Problem?"
"Just looking for a few good veins." Something in his voice indicated that he wasn’t having any luck.
"May I try?" Brice asked.
Bellingham withdrew. "If Mrs. McHenry doesn’t object, I cede to the master."
The retired teacher looked impressed. "A master? Oh, my."
Brice smiled slightly. "The other paramedics think I’ve got a talent for this."
"Think nothing, Brice. We know." And sure enough, by the time the ambulance arrived, Brice had managed to stick a line in the one marginally suitable vein he could find.
Bellingham looked over at his partner. "Brice, you wouldn’t mind if I…"
"No problem. I’ll clean up here and meet you at Rampart." He set the IV bag on Mrs. McHenry’s stretcher. "You’re in good hands, ma’am."
"Young man, if I might ask a favor…" The old woman looked a bit worried, but hesitated.
Brice tilted his head slightly. "Yes, ma’am?"
"Before you leave, would you mind feeding my cats? It’s almost their dinner time, and I just couldn’t rest easy knowing they might go without."
"We’d be happy to, Mrs. McHenry," Bellingham jumped in before Brice could protest. He was still standing there a minute later after the ambulance had left, his mouth slightly open as if about to speak.
On cue, about eight cats came downstairs, mewing loudly and circling the paramedic, who just happened to be allergic to feline hair. He shook his head, sighed loudly and headed for the kitchen, followed by his brand-new entourage.
"I hate that guy," he said through an increasingly stuffed nose.
The rest of the shift seemed to take forever, at least from Brice’s point of view. Calls trickled in the rest of the evening: a child who had fallen out of his bunk bed (IV and transport to Rampart), a middle-aged man who was having chest pains (refused treatment and transport—wife had called it in), a pregnant woman who was in hard delivery (Bellingham delivered a seven-pound, six ounce baby girl and rode in with patients), and a drunk driver that had smashed into a storefront (immobilized due to possible neck trauma, IV and transport—Brice’s turn).
That night, Brice and the rest of 51 had discovered another annoying fact about Bellingham—he talked in his sleep. Incessantly. From what Brice could gather, his temporary partner believed himself to be on Merv Griffin’s TV show and was having a fine old time with the host.
Out of desperation, Brice had called Rampart the next morning "to see how Gage and DeSoto were doing". Dixie informed him that they were doing well but wouldn’t be released for another week at the earliest. The paramedic’s heart sank; his most fervent prayer was that DeSoto would return shortly, thus hastening the exit of one Robert "Animal" Bellingham.
As if on cue, Bellingham strolled up, buttoning up his shirt as he walked. "Hey, Craig. You doing anything?"
"Why?" Brice replied, suspicious.
"Just wondered if you wanted to come over to my place for breakfast. Mom always makes enough for an army."
Caught completely off-guard by the offer, Brice managed to stammer out a declination on grounds of personal business before hurrying to his car and taking off. Bellingham watched him retreat, then shrugged and headed for his banged-up Chevy.
Brice felt he had no other alternative than to bring this intolerable situation up with Captain Stanley. It was the first thing written down on his shift schedule as he walked into Station 51 two days later.
Stanley, whose reputation was as golden as they came, listened patiently to Brice’s litany of complaints concerning Bellingham. "So you see, sir," he finished five minutes later, "I think it would be best if you contacted Central and arranged for someone other than Bellingham to be my partner—at least until DeSoto comes back to active duty. I believe it’d be the best option for all parties."
Captain Stanley nodded thoughtfully. "I appreciate your coming in, Brice," he said after a moment. "But I can’t do that."
"Excuse me?" Brice said, blinking in surprise.
"I can’t replace Bellingham."
"I’m not sure I understand."
Stanley stood up and leaned against his desk. "Brice, you’re a top-notch paramedic, one of the best in the County. Your knowledge and skills are second to none. But…no paramedic other than Bellingham was willing to work with you for an extended period of time."
Brice took a step backwards. "Sir?"
"Craig… I don’t mean to be critical, but…" Stanley searched for the right words. "Well, you’re kind of…well, inflexible, I guess. You’re very dedicated to staying within the guidelines, and you’re very much ‘by the book’ about your job. And that’s not a bad thing. But…some of the other firemen and paramedics feel that you expect them to be as dedicated as you are. And that makes them uncomfortable around you sometimes."
Brice was reeling; while he knew he would never win any popularity contests, he had no idea his peers held him in such low esteem. "If I might say so, sir, no one has ever complained to me about being ‘too dedicated’."
"No, probably not," Stanley agreed. "But even Roy DeSoto said to me that he found it difficult to work with you at times. And Roy is about the most even-keel guy I know, next to Stoker."
Indeed, Brice thought to himself. Anyone who could tolerate being partnered with a loose cannon like John Gage for this long had to be ‘even-keeled’. Yet even DeSoto couldn’t stand working with him…and Brice had initially thought that DeSoto would welcome working with someone like himself. "I…see, sir," he finally said quietly.
Stanley put a fatherly hand on the paramedic’s shoulder. "Brice, like I said, you’re a great paramedic. You just need to learn how to loosen up, that’s all. You’ll do fine with Bellingham. I’m sure of it. Okay?"
Brice nodded, still shell-shocked. He stumbled out of Stanley’s office and headed for his locker. Bellingham was nearby, already changed. "So, Craig, what did you do on your time off?" he asked cheerfully.
"I worked my regular shift at 16," he replied distantly, his thoughts still on Stanley’s comments.
"So what about the other day?"
Brice blinked, snapping his brain back to real time. "I…cleaned the apartment." He frowned, trying to remember how yesterday had actually gone. "I ran some errands. Read a few journals. The usual." He glanced over at Bellingham. "What did you do?"
His partner grinned. "Replaced the transmission in my mom’s ’66 Chevy. Took forever to find one in decent condition, let me tell you. I wish she’d be more careful—I mean, a few bangs here and there are one thing, but when you chew up the innards…"
Brice frowned. "If your mother’s causing accidents, should she be even driving?"
The tones suddenly rang through the station. "All right!" Bellingham bellowed, slamming his locker door shut and racing out the room. "Here we come to save the day…!" he sang off-key as he vanished from view.
Brice stared at the doorway and shook his head. "Too dedicated," he said to himself. "Loosen up. Sure."
Captain Stanley stared at the group of men before him, none of whom could meet his gaze. "I gotta admit, gentlemen, I’m at a loss here," he lectured them, leaning back against the single remaining picnic table in the immediate vicinity. "I mean, of all the people I have to lecture about respecting fire and responsibility…"
One of the men, a fellow with a round face, receding hairline and a belly that was starting to droop over a pair of plaid shorts, glanced up sheepishly. Brice was treating him for minor burns along his forearms while Bellingham consulted with Rampart. "It was an accident," he pleaded.
"We were just performing a little experiment," said another, his arms wrapped defensively across his long, wiry chest. "It got a bit out of hand, I concede, but…"
"’A bit out of hand’?" Stanley echoed. "You came close to burning the entire park down—and need I remind you that we’re too close to brush fire season for comfort?"
"We were hungry!" a third defendant chimed in. "And the coals were taking so long to heat up…well, it was just natural to start discussing possible ways of speeding things along…"
"…and then Pertwee and Troughton got into the argument about applying some liquid oxygen to the equation, and things escalated…"
"So you went back to the Berkeley campus and got some LOX." Stanley shook his head. "I swear, for a bunch of nationally-accredited scientific advisors…"
Not too far away, Kelly and Bates were gathering up the hose and watching The Captain Stanley Show. "Sure was some fire, huh?" Bates commented.
"Yeah," Chet agreed. "Kind of reminded me of the firefighter picnic last month."
"So how’s the partnership going?" Dixie asked Bellingham. They’d brought in a seven-year-old girl who had tried to emulate Evel Knieval by jumping five garbage cans on her three-speed bike and broken her leg as a result. Brice was in the ER exam room with Morton at the moment.
Bellingham shrugged. "About what you’d expect." He slurped from his coffee cup.
"When is Roy due back?"
"Originally, next week," the paramedic grinned. "He’s not too eager to resume working with Craig as his partner, though. Beats me why. Personally, I don’t know how he stands working with Gage."
"Oh, John’s all right," Dixie smiled. "He grows on you."
"I’d expect you to say that," Bellingham snorted. "Gage never met a nurse he didn’t date."
He was rewarded with a sharply arched eyebrow. "Not this nurse."
"First time for everything." Brice emerged from the exam room just then and came over to Dixie’s station. "How is she?" Bellingham asked.
"Doctor Morton is ordering some x-rays, but he doesn’t think it’s a bad break." Brice fished out a piece of paper from his front pocket. "Dixie, I need some materials for the drug box."
"I’ll get them." As the nurse walked away, Bellingham reached over to the hospital phone and punched in a number.
"What are you doing?" Brice half-asked, half-demanded.
"I’m checking on Mrs. McHenry."
"We’re not supposed to use the phone for personal business," Brice reminded him.
"It’s not personal. It’s professional. I’m checking up on a patient we treated, remember?"
"That’s a very liberal interpretation, Bellingham. I don’t think Doctor Brackett would agree."
Bellingham turned around and glared at the other paramedic, adding a low growl for good measure. Abruptly his expression changed into a more pleasant demeanor. "Tish? Bob Bellingham. How you doing? Hey, you’ve got a patient named Martha McHenry. How is she doing?"
"Bellingham," Brice warned under his breath, "if you get caught, we could both get in trouble…"
His partner wasn’t listening. "That so? Okay. Can you let me know if there’s any change? She’s an old friend of the family. I’m with 51 today—yeah, filling in for Gage. How’s he doing?"
"Bellingham!" Brice hissed. He’d just spotted Dixie returning with the items he’d requisitioned.
"Well, tell him a wheelchair is supposed to have all four wheels on the floor at all times. Okay, thanks again. Bye." He hung up the phone and grinned at Dixie, who was eyeing him carefully. "Hey, Dix."
She nodded coolly. "One of those had better be pepperoni and sausage, no onions."
Bellingham chuckled. "Just checking on a patient. Didn’t think you’d mind."
"So long as you’re not calling your bookie or anything." Dixie handed Brice the container holding his materials. "You’d better get going, guys. Stay out of trouble."
"That’s no fun," Bellingham retorted as he motioned Brice to the door. The bespectacled paramedic snorted softly and followed his comrade to the squad, his thoughts focused on one dark notion:
I really hate this guy.
It was Bates’ turn to cook; as he worked on his culinary masterpiece (which to the untrained eye vaguely resembled spaghetti), the other firefighters were kicking back and enjoying some rare free time. Kelly was sitting on the sofa with Henry, scratching the dog’s ears while watching TV. Stoker was sitting at one end of the dining table, updating the logbook. Brice was at the opposite end, engrossed in a cardiology manual that Doctor Morton had loaned him. Cap was in his office catching up on some paperwork. And Bellingham was slouched across the easy chair, his attention completely focused on…
Brice glanced over at his erstwhile partner. "What on earth are you reading?"
Bellingham looked up. "Superman." He unrolled the comic so everyone could see the cover. "Latest issue."
Brice snorted and shook his head in derision. Kelly, never one to miss an opening, took his shot. "So what happens in it?"
"Lois is close to figuring out that Clark is Superman, so he has to concoct a scheme to throw her off the scent."
"I think I read that one," Kelly nodded. "About eighteen times in the past five years."
A puff of exasperation escaped Brice’s lips. "How can you fill your mind with that…that garbage?" he demanded, walking over to Bellingham and snatching the comic from him. "This is trash, Bellingham! Why aren’t you trying to improve your mind, or your skills? How is this going to help you in your job?"
Bellingham pondered for a moment. "Well," he finally said, "if I ever decide to become a super hero, I’m sure not going to be getting near any pretty female reporters."
"You know," Kelly noted as Brice walked away, throwing his arms up in an act of frustration, "I always wondered about Superman. I mean, this guy can do practically anything, right? He’s got Lois chasing him, and Lana…you stop to think about it, he could probably bag any woman he wanted if he put his mind to it."
"Hey, don’t tell Gage," Bates called from the stove. "He might start wearing a cape and blue tights."
"No, no, I’m serious," Kelly declared. "You’ve got this super-powered guy, everyone loves him, but he doesn’t get any action."
"Now he sounds like Gage," Bellingham interjected.
Chet was leaning forward, clearly warming up to his topic. The notion of annoying Brice was still there, but taking secondary importance. "You know what I think? I think Superman is light in his tights, if you know what I mean."
"WHAT?" Brice almost screamed.
Chet’s face was the picture of innocence. "Well, he gives that fancy watch to his ‘pal’, Jimmy Olson, right? Jimmy can just buzz him any time he likes. You don’t see him giving Lois one of those watches, do you? Well?"
Brice looked at Kelly, at Bellingham, at Bates, and finally at Henry. "I’m going to check the drug box," he finally declared and stormed out. The firefighters watched him leave, clearly amused.
"Superman and Jimmy, huh?" Bellingham mused.
"Well, it’s just a theory."
"Wonder if they double-date with Batman and Robin…"
"Thank you for coming," the timid old man said as he let Brice and Bellingham in. "I hate to be such a bother, but Mildred is doing poorly, and I just didn’t know what else to do…" He shut the door and shuffled after the paramedics, who were sniffing the air suspiciously.
There were two distinct smells that immediately signal trouble to policemen, firemen and paramedics. The first was that smell, the unmistakable odor of a body decaying. It was a stink that hit you in the back of the head and triggered a primal instinct in your brain, urging you to flee the scene. The second was the overwhelming stench of mothballs, which was often used to mask the first smell. The latter scent was strong and growing stronger as they climbed the stairs to the bedroom. Brice and Bellingham glanced uneasily at one another, and for once their unspoken thoughts were the same: uh-oh.
"So…how long as Mildred been ill?" Bellingham asked the old man conversationally. Brice absently ran his fingers along the handrail, observing the thick wall of dust building up in front. From the look of things, no one had cleaned house in some time. He imagined what the state of the kitchen and repressed a shudder.
"Oh, some time now," he replied, wringing his hands. "She’s been very weak—I’ve had to feed her, bathe her and dress her. She can’t get out of bed, you see. But lately she’s been so listless, I finally decided I ought to call you. I hate to be such a bother…I mean, I’m sure you have far more important things to do than check on Mildred…"
"It’s not a problem," Bellingham quickly assured him. He glanced over at Brice, who was standing by the bedroom door. He’d slipped a gauze mask over his nose and mouth, though it probably wasn’t going to do much good, judging by the incredible stink here in the hallway. Brice nodded curtly, opened the door, and slipped inside.
He was back out seconds later, his eyes shut tightly. Slipping the mask off his face, the shaken paramedic came over to the old man. "Mr. Harris," Brice said in a surprisingly soft voice. "Your wife is dead."
The old man trembled. "Oh dear," he said quietly.
"We’re very sorry, sir," Brice continued.
"These things happen so quickly, don’t they?" Mr. Harris continued, talking more to himself than anything. "I mean, she seemed fine when I left her to call you. She was sleeping very soundly…but I suppose when it’s one’s time, that’s it, isn’t it?"
Brice blinked several times. "Sir…she’s been dead for some time now."
The little man glanced wearily up at Brice. "Are you sure?"
"I’m…afraid so. I think we ought to call an ambulance in…Bob?" When Bellingham didn’t immediately respond, Brice looked around and found his partner peeking into the bedroom. "You really don’t want to do that, Bellingham."
"No kidding." Bellingham shut the door behind him. "Wow."
"Get on the biophone and notify Rampart," Brice suggested. "I’ll take Mr. Harris downstairs—we’ll wait for the ambulance in the living room."
Squad 51 rolled silently through the dark streets of Los Angeles on its way back home. The silence inside the vehicle seemed to grow thicker with every block passed; Bellingham kept glancing over at Brice, who was staring intently out the passenger window. He’d thought about turning on the radio, but some inner instinct stayed his hand. The quiet was driving Bellingham, normally a most bombastic sort, to the edge of insanity. Something had to be done, even if it meant baiting Brice into an argument.
"You’re awfully quiet." Bellingham finally said. "I mean, more than usual."
Brice kept staring out the window. "I was thinking of that old man."
"Hmmm?" Bellingham said, making conversation.
Brice shook his head. "That poor old man, spending day after day with his dead wife, obviously confused, and…" He exhaled sharply. "He had neighbors. Vince said he had a son in San Bernardino. Yet no one bothered to check on him. The windows were open, and no one thought twice about the smell. It had to be bad, you know, especially early on. But no one checked."
"People get busy," Bellingham said. "They don’t think."
"It isn’t right," Brice said, a hint of anger in his voice. He turned to stare at Bellingham, who almost flinched under the intensity of that gaze. "To be so alone that you make yourself believe your only companion is ill, not dead…it’s a terrible thing to be that lonely. It has to be. It’s wrong."
Bellingham said nothing for a while, but at the next light he turned toward Brice. "You want to get some ice cream? My treat."
Brice shook his head. "I’m not really hungry." His gaze returned to the view from the passenger window.
The phone rang about 2:30 that morning; Cap picked it up and listened, then went over to wake Bellingham. A few minutes later, the sleepy paramedic headed for the day room, only to discover someone already there.
Brice was sitting at the table, seemingly engrossed in some medical journal. A cassette recorder was sitting nearby, and Bellingham could just make out Elvis singing "Love Me Tender". For politeness' sake Bellingham cleared his throat as he walked into the room, warning his temporary partner that he was no longer alone.
"Everything all right?" Brice asked, glancing up from his journal.
Bellingham nodded as he headed for the refrigerator. "Just got a call from Rampart," he said softly, retrieving a carton of milk. He opened it up and started to raise it to his lips, then paused for a moment before going over to the cabinets for a glass. "Remember Mrs. McHenry from the shift before?"
Bellingham nodded. "One of the nurses called to let me know that she just died. Had a stroke yesterday right there in bed and never came out of it."
Brice opened his mouth, but it took a moment for the words to come. "I'm sorry."
"So am I." The scruffy paramedic took a swig from his glass. "She was special. When my father died and my mom was working two jobs to keep us going, she kind of looked after me." He looked over at Brice. "Why are you up?"
"I…don't need much sleep," Brice replied. "I wanted to finish this article before I had to give the magazine back to Doctor Brackett." He paused for a moment, then looked up again. "Bellingham?"
"Why’d you join the paramedics?"
Bellingham blinked. "That’s an odd question for three in the morning, you know."
"I…was curious. That’s all. I didn’t mean to get personal."
"Heaven forbid." Bellingham sat down at the table and leaned back in the chair. "I was a medic in Vietnam."
"You served over there? Was it very bad?"
"Bad enough." Bellingham smiled tightly. "When I came back here, there weren’t too many jobs open, so I joined the department, and when they started the paramedic program, I figured what the hell." He regarded the other man carefully. "What about you?"
Brice snorted softly. "You’ll laugh."
"Can’t be that bad. Can it?"
Brice leaned forward. "John F. Kennedy. Remember his Inauguration? ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’."
"Actually, I always got those lines mixed up," Bellingham confessed.
"I didn’t. I was fifteen at the time, and I…it just set me on fire." Brice almost smiled at the memory. "I went to college, but it seemed like all anyone wanted to do was get high and burn down the ROTC buildings, so I quit and joined the Peace Corps for a few years. When I came back, I wanted to do something that would help people in need, so I joined the department. And when this came up, it just seemed right." He glanced up almost sheepishly. "Pretty hokey, I guess."
"I’ve heard worse reasons. I always figured Gage joined so that he could treat himself when he fell and hurt himself." Bellingham rose to his feet. "Well, if you’re not going to bed, I’d better. If we get a call tonight, one of us had better be alert enough to drive. Good night, Craig."
Brice nodded. "Good night, Bellingham." He started to say something, paused, then took a deep breath. "Bellingham?"
"I was wondering…if you wanted to go somewhere for breakfast tomorrow."
Bellingham nodded. "Sounds good. Good night."
Brice watched Bellingham attack his breakfast--an incredibly noxious amalgamation of eggs, cheese and chili--and shook his head. "No wonder you never stayed married."
"That wasn't the problem," Bellingham replied. "According to the counselor, I kept trying to make them live up to an impossible standard--my mother's, to be exact. You'll have to meet her sometime." His face brightened as he sipped at his coffee. "She's got a match tonight at the track. You want to come?"
"The track? Your mother bets on horses?" Brice asked, neatly spearing a sausage link onto his fork.
"Nope. She used to race stockcars, up until her reflexes went on her."
"Stockcars," Brice echoed.
"Now she does demolition derby. Twice a month, three if we can fix the car up fast enough." Bellingham scooped up a spoonful of chili. "They call her 'Bang-Bang' Bellingham."
Brice signaled the waitress for the check. "Well, I'm pretty much free tonight. Maybe I'll come for a bit. No," he added, warning Bellingham to keep his wallet shut. "This time it's on me. I owed you a breakfast…and I wanted to discuss something with you."
"Your buck, your forum," Bellingham nodded.
"My regular partner at 16…well, he's been talking about getting a transfer," Brice said slowly. "I thought that, since we've managed to survive this long without killing each other…"
Bellingham considered the proposition. "Might be interesting. Okay. We'll run it up the chain and see what happens. One condition, though--I leave the tip."
Brice nodded. "All right. It comes to two dollars and eighteen cents."
Bellingham put three singles on the table. "Definitely going to be interesting…"