Norsebard - WHITE, RED & BLUE (2024)

by Norsebard

Contact: norsebarddk@gmail.com

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DISCLAIMERS:

This hard-drivin' action drama belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.

This story contains a decent amount of genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains plenty of dramatic scenes typical of the genre and the occupation of the lead characters. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

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NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:

Written: July 17th - August 18th, 2018.

Please note that this is fiction, not a documentary. Although I've tried to get as many of the details right as I could, shortcuts have been made here and there in the medical procedures to make the scenes flow better. EMTs reading this should have strong coffee and sweet pastries (and/or spicy meatballs) within easy reach to combat the excessive eye-rolling the story may produce. You're welcome.

- And thank you for your help, Phineas Redux :)

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: When DeeDee White applies for a job as a riding nurse for Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services, the last thing she expects is to be thrust directly into an exhausting ten-hour shift alongside the boss' fiery, foul-mouthed daughter Malin Pettersson. With Malin in firm command behind the wheel, the two women soon patrol the mean night-time streets of the sprawling metropole Carlyle where anything can and will happen…

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sPART 1: THE FIRST SHIFT

The sprawling metropole of Carlyle, located just south of the snaking Satchawahnee River in the upper north-eastern corner of its state, was home to more than one point eight million people. By far the largest city within a three-hundred mile radius, it only had its geographical position to blame for the unfortunate fact that it was not the state capital - that honor went to the far smaller Saint Michel that was located further south and thus closer to the political centers of the neighboring states.

As with all major cities in North America and indeed worldwide, Carlyle was divided into many different zones: to the west, the glass-and-concrete high-rises of the international banking, insurance and pharmaceutical corporations dominated the skyline in the financial district. Just at the city limits to the north, uptown was home to scores of vast mansions resembling palaces worth seven or eight figures, and all of which had been built on real estate larger than the average safari park. The ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods in the east where the African-American blocks shared street corners but little else with Chinatown, New Seoul, North Tijuana and Neo Milano - and to the south Skid Row, the ugly collection of mean streets ruled by crime and subjected to equal measures poverty and despair.

Downtown was smack-bang in the middle of it all. It was the great melting pot: the only place where the citizens of all colors, from all neighborhoods and from all walks of life met to apply their trade or simply to socialize at the many theaters, movie houses, restaurants or music venues.

It was an anthill on the best of days and an impassable Gordian knot on the worst. Tens of thousands of people all wanted to be in the same spot at the same time. It could never work, and it rarely did. Traffic jams always formed the order of the day, a fact that regularly brought the women and men who worked behind a steering wheel to the brink of tearing their hair out. The drivers of the city's countless taxi cabs, delivery trucks, garbage trucks, public buses, limousines, police cruisers and emergency units all needed to possess the patience of saints and angels or else they would suffer mental burnout faster than they could empty their vehicle's fuel tank.

At least the high humidity and the suffocating heatwave that had gripped all of Greater Carlyle for weeks without end had finally moved on; in their stead, a deep-blue sky and crisp air that flowed down from the vast woodlands further north of the metropole greeted the relieved citizens.

The changing of the calendar from August to September had brought about a change of the seasons as well. Within a month, the leaves would lose their green hues and turn into multi-colored works of art - not that many trees had room to live among the endless concrete canyons. Only the city's botanical gardens and a few scattered parks offered any visual respite from the drabness of the glass, chrome, steel, bricks, asphalt and concrete that seemed to occupy every square inch of the world.

At ten to noon, morning rush hour was still in full effect, especially on Avenue F. All four lanes of the one-way street that ran through Carlyle's theater district were congested to the point of being one problem away from standing still. Impatient drivers honked or shouted angry comments out of the windows as they crept along at two miles per hour; sometimes it did not even amount to that.

Though some of the theaters had already opened their doors for the matinee showing of family-friendly fare, most did not open for business until four or five o'clock - thus, the massive congestion was caused by numerous delivery trucks in all shapes and sizes that filled out the lanes nearest to the sidewalks on either side of the one-way street. It was a daily occurrence as the Carlyle city council and the police had long since given up even attempting to control the uncontrollable. In turn, it had prompted the locals to rename it to Avenue FUBAR.

Motorcycles, cars, SUVs, vans, even more delivery trucks and finally large, lumbering buses - Greater Carlyle had a well-developed public transportation system - were stacked up for several hundred yards as the drivers of the metal boxes on wheels tried to squeeze into two lanes rather than the four they had hoped to use. Further drivers shouted further angry comments at the unfairness of it all, but it made very little difference to the overall balance of the world.

Through all that, a lone figure came rushing along Avenue F on a red-and-graphite-gray mountain bike running on asphalt-specification tires. Dressed in track shoes, dark-blue jeans and a khaki sports jacket over a black baseball jersey, the twenty-nine-year-old DeeDee White pedaled hard as she navigated the obstacle course that had formed around the many potholes and the countless patches of asphalt laid down to combat the deteriorating streets. The stylish backpack she wore over her shoulders hardly moved even as her legs pumped the pedals. Her mousy-brown hair was cut to shoulder-length which made it impossible to gather up into a ponytail; instead, she had put on a hair-tie that did not do as good of a job controlling her locks as the advertisem*nt had said it would.

Now and then, she took her left hand off the handlebar to cast a worried glance at her wristwatch. The progress of the merciless hands of time caused her to up her pace even further; she was speeding toward the critical zone on Avenue F where the congestion was rarely less than insane, so she clenched her jaw and focused on clearing the slow-moving obstacles nearest her.

She nearly suffered a face-first introduction to the rear doors of a delivery truck when the driver swung them shut without checking his surroundings first, but she made it past the hazard unscathed with only a brief squeal and a longer curse escaping her lips. The rest of the critical zone went without dramas, and she hoped it would be a good omen for the rest of her day.

The corner of Avenue F and Forty-fourth Street was finally reached. Though the lights at the intersection had turned red by the time she got there, the amount of traffic that jammed everything up meant she could zip around the corner onto the less-congested connecting street without risking her neck.

Only a short time went by before she spotted the two structures that formed her destination: a six-storey, traditionally designed building made of red bricks, and a two-storey, flat-topped and square-edged concrete structure that had been mashed up against the taller, older one seemingly as an afterthought. Unlike the countless intricate details on the facade of the proud brick house, the ungainly low building that sported a sliding door painted in garish colors had clearly been built solely for utilitarian purposes.

Just like nearly all buildings in the oldest neighborhoods of Carlyle, the reddish bricks and the slabs of concrete had gained an unhealthy grayish-black hue from being exposed to decades' worth of exhaust fumes and other forms of pollution.

A four-step staircase led up to the brick building's main entrance. The traditional stoop and double-doors had been converted into a reinforced glass windbreak featuring a security gateway complete with a metal detector. A single six-foot flagpole had been put up on either side of the windbreak, but the company flags they carried hung limply in the quiet conditions.

Above the entrance, the upper floors all had rows of square windows; some were equipped with curtains, others had Venetian blinds. One or two windows on each floor had an old-fashioned air-conditioning unit that protruded from the walls. Several antennas stood tall on the open roof to offer hints of the brick building's current activities.

The six-storey building had initially been built and owned by the city as part of the rapid expansion of Carlyle in the mid to late 1940s following the war; until 1958, it had acted as the local library for the new neighborhood that shot up around it. Following that, it had been converted into serving as first a police precinct house, then a fire station. When the city had briefly gone under state administration during the crisis years of the late 1980s, most of the buildings it owned had been sold off to private investment firms in the hope of filling at least parts of the stark-empty city coffers.

Thus, a consortium created by shrewd businessmen with deep pockets, sharp minds and even sharper lawyers had bought the six-storey building and the adjacent garage. A scant year later, Rickard Pettersson had arrived on the scene and had signed a long-term lease to take over both buildings completely. It would be the perfect location for his then-fledgling company, Pettersson's Ambulance Services, and he and the company had never looked back.

DeeDee glanced over her shoulder before she zipped across Forty-fourth Street and up onto the sidewalk in front of the building made of red bricks. Standing up on the pedals of her mountain bike even before it had come to a complete standstill, she applied the handbrakes to let it come to a halt at the foot of the short flight of stairs. The hands of time mocked her by showing four minutes past the hour, but there was nothing she could do about that now.

"Ohhh, what a poor first impression they'll have of me… not the best introduction, DeeDee," she mumbled to herself as she stared at the glass windbreak atop the stairs. The sidewalk did not offer any spots to safely park her bike so she hurried to her left to check out the garage. The wide, tall sliding door - that, apart from the ubiquitous graffiti tags, had been painted in a garish shade of orange with a horizontal, fat white stripe across the middle part - appeared to be a single section, but a closer inspection presented a silhouette of a door to the right of the center.

Biting her lips, DeeDee checked her wristwatch again before she glanced at her surroundings. Though her beloved, and much-needed, mountain bike was not one of the high-end, ultra-light, ultra-expensive models, there was no way she would leave it unattended for even a second, not even protected by the sturdy chain lock she carried in her backpack. In short, she needed to try her luck somewhere inside.

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As DeeDee pulled her bike through the door and into the garage itself, she discovered the interior of the bunker-like concrete building was larger and far less cramped than she had expected. What appeared to be an unused office - separated from the rest of the floor by a dented metal door and a large window with a circular speaking hole - was located to the left of the entry/exit lanes at the sliding door. The flat wall opposite the office carried several advertising posters and banners from days gone by.

Beyond the first section, the rectangular garage presented itself as a three-hundred foot wide, six-hundred foot deep open area that was home to a wide variety of activity. DeeDee was surprised to find that the concrete building had no inner ceiling. What had appeared from the outside to be an upper floor was in fact only a gallery that ran around the entire inner rim of the large area. A pair of metal staircases located in the nearest and farthest corner offered easy access to the rooms or offices up there.

High above the smooth concrete deck, a cluster of eight skylights allowed plenty of natural light to fall down upon the working space; once day would turn to evening and then night, strip lights and LED panels mounted vertically on the walls would take over and provide the illumination.

DeeDee was still unable to find a spot where she could leave her mountain bike, but she moved on regardless. At the back of the rectangular area, five GMC Savana ambulances with the characteristic boxy rear sections had been parked side by side while they were being serviced by cleaning crews wearing pale-gray boiler suits, and worked on by mechanics wearing similar clothing only held in dark-blue. All the outfits carried the elaborate logo of Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services on the front and back. The ambulances were all painted in the same combination of garish colors as the sliding doors: fluorescent orange and a wide, horizontal stripe of reflective white along the sides underneath the company's logo and the familiar, blue Star Of Life symbol that featured the Rod of Asclepius.

Looking around, she counted twelve further bays around the working area that appeared to be wide and long enough for the bulky ambulances. At present, regular cars or trucks occupied many of them, and she surmised they belonged to the people who were out driving the streets of Carlyle.

Halfway down the right-hand wall, a pair of frosted-glass swinging doors with metal handles led off to a corridor that appeared to form the sole connection to the six-story building next door. A yellow sign on the inside of the nearest door carried some kind of message in big, black letters. It was clearly a warning, but DeeDee did not want to attract attention to herself so she abstained from moving closer to read what it said.

The typical smells of rubber, oil, warm metal and old exhaust fumes permeated the interior of the large garage. DeeDee was not a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination when it came to intense smells - mechanical, chemical, organic or otherwise - but the co*cktail was stronger than she was used to and made her crinkle her nose.

Like in any garage anywhere in the world, a radio was tuned to a station playing the latest hits. A spanner or a wrench would now and then be dropped onto the concrete surface with an echoing cling-clang, and several juicy curses would invariably follow the metallic noises. Somewhere down the back of the boxy ambulances, a droning vacuum or steam cleaner was turned on which drowned out the music generated by the radio.

Another familiar sound suddenly joined the mix - her telephone started ringing. After leaning her mountain bike against one of the concrete walls, she unzipped the right-hand pocket of her sports jacket and retrieved her smartphone. She furrowed her brow in a worried grimace when she realized the call came from the owner of the ambulance company. Accepting it, she put the telephone to her ear. "Ah, hello Mr. Pettersson. This is DeeDee White."

'Hello, Miss White. I could've sworn we'd arranged a job interview in my office at noon sharp today… but maybe I'm looking at the wrong day on my calendar?' Rickard Pettersson said in a gruff voice at the other end of the connection.

"Ah, no… no, you're not, Mr. Pettersson. I'm actually here, only down in the garage," DeeDee said, glancing at the mechanics who had noticed the unusual trespasser in their midst. Some of the guys gave the tall woman an extra-long once-over, and some of the gals rolled their eyes at the juvenile behavior of their colleagues.

'That's not where my office is at.'

"I know, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee said and rubbed her brow as she turned away from the mechanics and cleaning crews who seemed to find her more interesting than the ambulances they were supposed to be working on, "but I couldn't find a place to park my bike… so I decided to try the garage."

A worrisome silence spread over the connection; it made DeeDee pull back her lips in a disappointed grimace. Though she was presently unemployed, she had received a solid exit bonus from her old job so at least she was not locked in a desperate search for a new one.

She had resigned from her position as a registered nurse at the Beech Grove Private Hospital after a period of growing increasingly frustrated with the nature of the tasks she carried out. She had wanted a change of scenery for a while, and she had hoped Pettersson's Ambulance Services could provide that. The application form and her CV she had sent in unprompted had paid off and had given her the job interview, but it seemed fate might trip her up at the last hurdle.

Then Rickard Pettersson grunted and said: 'Hmmm. Well. All right. Don't go anywhere, I'll be down in five minutes.'

"Oh! Thank you, Mr. Pettersson!" DeeDee said, letting out a deep sigh of relief. Once the conversation was over, she put the telephone back into her jacket pocket and swung the backpack off her shoulders. After finding her comb and giving her dark locks a good run-through so she would at least look presentable to the owner of the company, she tried to blend in with the pale-gray concrete wall behind her.

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It took ten rather than five minutes for Rickard Pettersson to appear at the swinging doors at the corridor to the main building, but DeeDee did not think she was in a position to complain about the extra time she'd had to wait - especially not when it was revealed that the man who had sounded like a tough, old drill sergeant over the telephone was in fact a frail-looking, late-sixty-something fellow who needed an arm crutch to assist his walking.

His complexion was on the wrong side of ruddy from the exertion of coming down to the garage, and the unhealthy shade of red made his bright-white hair and unusual, flat-topped buzzcut stand out even more. A pair of cheap, half-rim reading glasses was perched on top of his head ready to be pulled down when needed.

DeeDee decided to spare the older man from some of the strain of crossing the concrete deck, so she grabbed her bike and set off in a hurry to intercept him. "Hello, Mr. Pettersson. I'm so sorry I'm late," she said and extended her hand once she was close enough.

"Good afternoon, Miss White. Ah, you're here now… forget it," Rickard Pettersson said while he shuffled the arm crutch around to have room to give the taller woman's hand a strong shaking. He let out a surprised grunt when he eyed her mountain bike.

Up close, DeeDee noticed that although the older man had a definite frailness about him stemming from the bad leg, there was nothing weak about his eyes: they were razor-sharp and clearly picking up everything around him. She was about to speak when Rickard beat her to it:

"Huh…" he said, looking once more at the bike, "when you said you couldn't find anywhere to park your bike, I thought you meant a motorcycle."

"Oh… no," DeeDee said, not knowing whether to be relaxed or deathly nervous in the presence of the man who could become her boss if her cards fell right.

"Just the same. Motorcycles are death traps anyway. Look at what my damn dirt bike did to my leg the other week! Damn thing high-sided and threw me clean off! And that damn arm crutch… it's driving me insane!"

"Ah… uh, yeah," DeeDee said, realizing she needed to reassess the mature, but apparently by no means old, fellow.

The pause in the conversation had just begun to turn awkward when Rickard Pettersson used his free hand to point at the far end of the garage. "Anyway… now that you're here, we might as well have a little talk. There's a chair with my name on it down there, and I know the boys always have some damn fine coffee ready… so why don't we take advantage of both?"

"Sounds like a good idea, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee said, moving to the other side of her bike with the intent of putting a hand under the injured man's arm to support him. A look at the steely mask of determination etched onto his ruddy face convinced her to take a rain check on assisting him until he asked for her help - and she was sure he would never do so.

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The coffee was indeed 'damn fine,' and DeeDee enjoyed the rich taste as she sipped the dark-brown liquid that was perhaps a bit more intense than she usually had it. She had crossed her legs in a most lady-like fashion while she waited for Rickard Pettersson who sat across from her to pass judgment on the papers he was reading - and the chairs they used did in fact have his name on the back.

The folder the owner of the company was reading from contained a copy of her CV and various statements from senior staffers at her previous places of work. He had also asked her to assemble an honest list of the number of days she had been absent from work due to sickness over the past couple of months. She was unsure if he actually had a right to ask her that, but she had nothing to hide and had compiled the list to be on the safe side.

The radio was still tuned to the music station, but the song playing soon faded down and was replaced by a brief traffic report. It seemed there had been an accident at the intersection of Avenue C and Twenty-sixth Street, and the radio host relayed a message from the city police advising everyone to find an alternate route around the hot spot. The music soon returned.

"So… Miss White," Rickard said as he used the thigh on his good leg as a base to knock the papers into order. "Everything I read here is positive and you're certainly qualified for the position, but I do have a question or two. You've recently been working at a prestigious private hospital but have applied for a job as a riding nurse. Some might perceive that as a step back. May I ask what you hope to get from the change?" As he spoke, he shoved his half-rim reading glasses back up his forehead so he could pin the taller woman to the spot with his razor-sharp eyes.

"Well," DeeDee said and shuffled around on the chair. The mug of coffee suddenly stood out like a sore thumb; she had nowhere to put it which made the scene fairly awkward. Ultimately, she leaned to the side to put it on the floor so she could have her hands free. She used the new-found freedom to clench them in front of her stomach as a fit of nervousness chose that moment to roll over her. "I became a nurse because I wanted to help… oh… regular people, if you will. Like I did during my pre-registration time at the Community Hospital. One of my instructors at the nursing school convinced me to apply for a nursing job at the Beech Grove Private Hospital instead. Well, I got the job as you know. To be frank, Mr. Pettersson… I've grown tired of dealing with those who simply come for a nip here and a tuck there when there's so much… when so many struggle just to get through the hours of the day out there on the streets. And I hope that I would be able to use my skills to help at least some of them."

The owner of the company let out a grunt that could be interpreted in at least five different ways. DeeDee gulped down the nervous lump that had formed in her throat; she wrung her hands while she waited to hear the verdict.

"An idealist… just what the world needs," Rickard Pettersson finally said before chuckling under his breath.

Another lengthy pause seemed to bring about an unsatisfactory conclusion to the conversation. DeeDee was just about to accept the bitter taste of defeat when Rickard Pettersson began to struggle hard to get up from the chair using the cumbersome arm crutch. Once the mature fellow leaned against the crutch to take the strain off his injured leg, he put out his hand. "All right. Here's what we're going to do. To begin with, I'll offer you a two-week engagement as a trainee riding nurse so I can see what you're made of. Starting today. Once the two weeks are up, I'll evaluate the good and the bad and make up my mind on your future here at the company. Welcome aboard, Miss White."

"Oh! Oh, thank you, Mr. Pettersson!" DeeDee cried, giving the offered hand a strong shaking.

"Perhaps you shouldn't thank me yet, because one thing's for damn sure… Beech Grove this ain't. You'll learn that the hard way. And please don't take that as a threat. It's just the harsh reality of the big, bad world out there," Rickard Pettersson said, giving DeeDee's hand a final squeeze before he turned around and began to hobble toward the frosted-glass swinging doors that would lead him back to the brick building next door.

DeeDee nodded grimly; she knew that all too well.

Rickard had only made it a few steps into his long, strenuous journey before he paused and looked over his shoulder at his latest employee. "Oh, and I read in your papers you've already resigned from your position at the private hospital?"

"That's right, Mr. Pettersson. I had my final day there Sunday of last week."

Rickard Pettersson nodded as he offered the younger woman a sideways glance like he was trying to gauge her level of commitment. "Mmmm. I always say there's nothing like jumping straight in… and you're already here… so would you be able and willing to head out on your first patrol this afternoon and evening?"

"Oh! So soon?" DeeDee croaked, staring wide-eyed at the older man for several seconds before she had regained enough brainpower to snap out of her surprise. She performed a slightly jerking nod. "Uh… yes. That's right, Mr. Pettersson… I mean, yes, I would be."

"You don't have a special someone waiting back home? Or a cat that needs to be fed?"

"Neither, Mr. Pettersson."

"Good. You'll need a uniform but we should have everything in your size down in storage," Rickard said and continued on his way toward the swinging doors. "You obviously also need a driving partner as well, but I'll have to look at the open roster up in my office to see who's available. If you'll come with me, I'll show you the locker rooms and the-"

The owner of the company ran out of opportunity to reach the end of the sentence when he was cut off by two brief stabs of an electronic siren that originated from somewhere beyond the closed gate. Letting out an annoyed grunt at being interrupted, he and DeeDee turned around to look at the sliding doors that were in the process of opening.

Once the entry lane was clear, another boxy GMC ambulance painted in the garish company colors coughed, spluttered and rattled into the garage sounding like a cross between a century-old, home-made forage harvester and something even less refined.

The driver's side window had been rolled down, and only a few moments went by before the person behind the wheel stuck out a shock of strawberry-blond hair to make her feelings known to the world: "Marco! Piece of sh*t crapped out on me! Again! It can't even drive around the stinking block three stinking times without breaking down!" the woman cried at the top of her lungs; the loudness of her voice made the coarse statement bounce off the concrete surfaces and roll around for a short while.

Down the far end of the large working area, one of the men responsible for servicing the fleet of ambulances at Pettersson's - the aforementioned Marco Bocamante, the thirty-four-year-old chief mechanic who had been working on cars since he was knee-high to a Pontiac - rolled his eyes and reached for his indispensable metal toolbox.

Though the irate driver had moved her head back inside, a long string of "Goddammit!" - "Can't take any more of this crap!" - "Take it out back and shoot it!" and even "I need this as a Goddamned boil on my ass cheek!" drowned out the metallic squeaks and rattles that emanated from the GMC ambulance.

The wave of profanity caused DeeDee's cheeks to gain a shade of red that matched the ruddy tones present on her temporary boss' face. Glancing at the older man expecting a negative response or at the very least a co*cked eyebrow, she was surprised to see a big grin form on his lips.

"Hmmm. Now that could work," Rickard said while rubbing his chin. He turned to lock eyes with the puzzled DeeDee before he looked back at the ambulance and the fiery woman behind the wheel. "Damn straight it could! Come, Miss White. Let me introduce you to my daughter."

"Your- your daughter?!" DeeDee croaked, staring at the younger Pettersson who had just exited the ambulance that had finally given up the ghost right in the middle of the concrete deck.

The strawberry-blond spitfire - whose youthful features made her appear to be in her mid-to-late twenties - wore a uniform that consisted of a pale-gray, short-sleeved shirt with dark-gray highlights at the breast pockets and the shoulder straps, a pair of pale-gray, high-waisted pants that carried sharp creases all the way up and down the legs, and finally a pair of rugged, black safety boots. The woman stomped around in front of the GMC with her hands firmly ensconced on her hips. Not only did her face look like a thundercloud in August, her lips did not stand still though the profanity had already become more muted.

DeeDee's feet were apprehensive to approach the fiery woman, but since her new boss was already halfway there even walking with the arm crutch, she gathered up all her courage and increased the tempo so she would not appear to be a scaredy-cat within the very first ten minutes of her new job.

When Malin Pettersson noticed her father hobbling toward her, she swallowed the rest of the cussing and set off to intercept him. "Hi, Dad. What are you doing down here among the working class?"

"I'll tell you in a moment."

"Uh… okay," Malin said and glanced at the tall woman at her father's side. "Anyway. How's the leg?" she continued, offering the older man a gentle rub on the arm.

"sh*tty. What's wrong with it this time?" the elder Pettersson said, trying to lean forward so he could look underneath the ambulance. When the injured leg and the clumsy arm crutch joined forces to form an evil alliance that restricted his movements, he stood up straight and let out a hiss of pain - and a dark grunt.

"Oh, the same as before. Tranny broke. Again. It's stuck in first and I can't even get it into neutral. I'll bet it's just a sealed coffin full of ragged bits and metal shavings now. I swear, old oh-four is only fit for the junkyard. It's a worthless piece of crap," Malin said, running a hand through her short, reddish hair.

"Perhaps I should sell it to Skull and Bones?" Rickard said, letting out a brief laugh at his own joke. "It should fit right in with their usual standard. Hell, it would be a step up for those people."

Malin chuckled at her father's words - 'Skull and Bones' was the nickname they had coined for Sklar & Bonney Emergency Services, their worst competitor among the privately-run companies providing emergency medical response units.

While the two Petterssons spoke, DeeDee had time to study the boss' fiery daughter. Now that she had calmed down, she was revealed to be an attractive woman with an elegant face that had somehow been transplanted onto a square, powerfully built body. DeeDee also needed to reassess her initial opinion of the woman's age: instead of mid-to-late-twenties like she had thought at first, early-to-mid-thirties seemed closer to the truth though it was hard to tell. It was undeniable the two Petterssons were related, however, as the family resemblance was strong, especially around the greenish eyes and the determined jaw. Malin appeared to be a shade under five-foot-five, but her width, breadth and personality offset what she lacked in height.

"You're getting to be a pretty expensive employee, young lady!" Rickard said with a grin before he turned to his newest recruit. "Speaking of which, this is your trainee riding nurse for the evening. She's new to the business so you need to be a little more tactful than usual," he continued, putting his hand on DeeDee's elbow to make her come up front.

"Huh… that was unexpected. Okay. So what do I say to C-Note?" Malin said while she ran an eye over the taller woman next to her father.

"Oh, I'm sure Jason will only be too happy to get a break from you tonight. I'll talk to him," Rickard said and waved his free hand. "DeeDee White, meet my daughter."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Pettersson!" DeeDee said, putting out her hand at once.

Malin Pettersson seemed skeptical at first for some reason, but her shoulders soon moved up and down in a shrug like she was used to her father taking major decisions on her behalf. "Hello," she said as she shook hands with the tall woman. "And please, call me Maw-lynn. Dear, old daddy here could not let go of our Swedish roots when I was baptized so he had the priest-guy call me 'Maw-lynn.' It's actually spelled M-a-l-i-n, but nobody can pronounce it right. It always comes out like Mal-inn or Mallet or something… it's Maw-lynn."

"Oh… I see. I'll remember that," DeeDee said, looking from one Pettersson to the other.

"Oh, haw-haw!" Rickard said, reaching over to thump his daughter on the shoulder. "I was about to escort Miss White down to the storage room to find a uniform for her, but now that you're here…?"

Malin bared her lips in a grimace as she glanced over at Marco Bocamante. The chief mechanic was in the process of jacking up the GMC ambulance so he had room to slide under it on a rolling-board. A few grunts proved that getting the heavy vehicle sufficiently up in the air was tough going. "I don't know, Dad… I really ought to help Marco with the damn thing…"

"He can call over one of his guys to help him. He knows what he's doing. I think you should go with Miss White. Yeah?"

A deep furrow briefly appeared between Malin's fair eyebrows before she relented to offer her father a smile. "Okay. Sure," she said, looking at DeeDee.

"Good," Rickard said and turned away from the two women. After a few steps, he stopped to offer DeeDee White a grin. "Like I said before… welcome aboard. I have a feeling you'll fit in just fine. Just fine!"

DeeDee had nothing to add to that save for a nod and a nervous smile.

While the elder Pettersson hobbled away, Malin scratched her brow to try to find a deeper meaning to the unusual situation. It was typical of her father to start something and then dump it into her lap expecting her to finish it - mostly because she always did - but she had never been saddled with a brand new and unproven trainee riding nurse before. "Uh… right," she said, looking back at the broken-down ambulance where Marco Bocamante had just completed his first inspection.

By the gloomy expression on the chief mechanic's face, the status report would appear to confirm Malin's initial thinking - the transmission was finished. Sitting up on the rolling-board, he wiped off his glistening hands on a filthy rag he had in the pocket of his dark-blue boiler suit. "You better come over and take a look, Red," he said as he got to his feet.

"I'll be right there, Marco. Just a sec," Malin said and turned back to her rookie partner. "Uh, Miss… I'm sorry, I forgot your name…?"

"DeeDee White…"

"Miss White, why don't you get some coffee or something while I help the chief mechanic move the old crate over to the grease pit. Yeah?"

"Oh, I've actually just had-"

"Great. That's a deal, then. It shouldn't take much more than fifteen-twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour," Malin said and turned away from the new employee.

"Ah, well-" DeeDee started to say, but her voice trailed off when she found herself speaking to the fiery woman's broad back. A sigh escaped her instead as she shuffled back to the chair she had just vacated; to compound her misery, she still hadn't found anywhere to park her mountain bike.

-*-*-*-

Twenty-five minutes later, the troublesome ambulance had finally been moved across the concrete deck and onto the grease pit. The transmission had locked solid in the process so they had needed to drag it across the floor using a tow-bar that had been hooked up to one of the other GMCs. It had prompted a barrage of juicy profanity from the strawberry-blond spitfire, but DeeDee had managed to zone out most of it.

The crudeness of the makeshift salvage operation had left five dark lines on the pale-gray concrete: four had been created by the dual rear wheels as they had let out their squealing displeasure at being dragged against their will, and the final one was a glistening trail of grease, oil and transmission fluid that had leaked from the damaged housing. One of the junior mechanics was already busy coating the slick spillage in plenty of granulated QuickDry so it would not create a hazard in their workspace.

DeeDee glanced at her wristwatch that read a few minutes to one. Though she'd had no other plans for the day other than the job interview - and perhaps a visit to a cornershop café to drown her sorrows in a latté and a slice of lemon-flavored sponge cake in case of a fiasco - she had not expected to spend so much of it sitting on an uncomfortable chair watching mechanics work on old ambulances. She definitely had not expected to have her ears assaulted by the reams of profanity that continued to spew from the woman she had been partnered with out of nowhere. First impressions were so important, and she had to admit to herself she was not overly impressed with the boss' daughter.

The second mugful of the mechanics' coffee had been as good as the first, but she had stopped after that. Since she had zero knowledge of how the rest of her day would pan out, it would be far too risky to drink too much of the delicious, though highly diuretic, fluid. Needing to pull over for a pit stop every ten minutes definitely would not endear her to the fiery Malin Pettersson if they really were going out on patrol together.

Not that it appeared they were - at least not anytime soon. A brief glance at the strawberry-blonde proved that she and the chief mechanic were still busy down in the grease pit. Marco Bocamante was hard at work trying to get the final bolts of the transmission housing to release so he could get to what was left of the internal workings. His dark-blue boiler suit was glistening from the oil and other fluids that escaped the housing; to prevent a similar fate from falling upon her pristine uniform, Malin stood at a safe distance offering plenty of suggestions that were responded to by nods, grunts, shrugs or shakes of the head.

DeeDee sighed and crossed her legs the other way. She checked her wristwatch again. The hands had crept up to one o'clock, a fact that was confirmed by the radio when it played the familiar jingle introducing the news update at the top of the hour.

---

Seventeen deathly dull minutes later, she needed to get up from the chair that had turned so hard and uncomfortable that her backside had begun to protest. Stretching her legs and her back, she shuffled around the chair and her mountain bike with very little to do.

Malin and Marco were still working on the broken-down ambulance; the other employees were still servicing or cleaning the vehicles that had already been there when DeeDee had first set foot in the garage - those from the previous night's shift that had needed maintenance or a chemical cleaning.

She considered walking over to the grease pit to remind Malin that she was actually still there, but she did not want to highlight herself in a bad way by acting like an impatient prima donna even before she had started working there proper.

Something finally happened when the large sliding doors rolled up to reveal another of the garishly painted GMC ambulances. Unlike the one Malin Pettersson had brought in, the new one seemed to be in tip-top condition - if perhaps a little muddy down the large flanks like it had been through a deep puddle somewhere.

The ambulance had soon reversed into one of the empty slots so the cleaning crew could start working on it. Once the turbo-diesel engine had been switched off after idling for a few moments, the driver stepped out and reached for the sky to stretch his back. In the case of Spencer Bradshaw, 'reaching for the sky' should be taken literally since the dark-skinned African American was just shy of seven foot tall when wearing his safety boots.

On the other side of the ambulance, Maria Navarro - who was Spencer's regular riding nurse - stepped out and did much the same exercise as her driver except that she did it nearly a foot and a half closer to the ground. The mismatched pair said a quick see-ya before the nurse shuffled off across the concrete deck headed for the double-doors.

When Malin Pettersson noticed her friend arriving, she climbed the grease pit's short flight of metal stairs and strode across the floor to greet him. On her way there, she came to a dead stop when she caught a glimpse of the tall DeeDee White whom she had forgotten all about. "Aw sh*t… the old man better not hear about that," she mumbled as she made a ninety-degree left-hand turn to walk over to the rookie instead. "Listen, uh… DeeDee, right?"

"Right," DeeDee said with a strained smile.

"I'm really sorry about that. The damn thing just wouldn't do what we wanted it to. Uh, but… yeah. Okay. Your uniform. If you can wait for two minutes more, I promise I'll take you down to storage. You'll need to dress on your own, though… don't wanna get in trouble on your first day here, ha ha." When the immediate frown on DeeDee's face proved the joke had not come across well, Malin bared her teeth in an embarrassed grimace. "Uh, yeah. Right. That wasn't funny. Sorry."

In the meantime, Spencer Bradshaw had strolled over to the two women to join the conversation. "Pay no attention to Red here, Miss. She talks, then thinks," he said in a silky-smooth baritone.

"Haw, haw…" Malin said, slapping the far taller man across the gut.

Grinning at his friend's regular display of tough love, the big man turned back to DeeDee. "Hello, I'm Spencer Bradshaw. Pleased to see a new face around here," he said as he put out his large hand.

"Hello, Mr. Bradshaw," DeeDee said, getting the odd sensation that she needed to curtsey as a response to the commanding presence exuding from the man. Ultimately, she settled for shaking his hand. A five-o'clock shade could be seen on his chin and cheeks, and the hair on his head was only a fraction longer. His shoulders were not just broad, they were square, and although his biceps were hidden underneath the short sleeves of his uniform shirt, it was obvious by his posture that he was ripped. "I'm DeeDee White. I've just been hired by Mr. Pettersson as a trainee riding nurse. I'm scheduled to go out with Miss Pettersson… at some point today. Hopefully."

As DeeDee spoke her name, Malin co*cked her head like she had just experienced the proverbial light bulb going off somewhere in the air above her. She looked from one of her tall companions to the other before she broke out in a wide grin. "Hell, that's just perfect! I didn't think of it before… no comment, Spencer… but look at what we got here. I'm Red, you're White and this big fella here is Blue. Is that a match made in heaven or what?"

DeeDee scrunched up her face like she had failed to understand a word that had come out of Malin's mouth; Spencer let out a groan that turned into a chuckle after a few seconds upon reaching the same conclusion that his friend had already arrived at.

"Aw," Malin continued with a grin as she caught a glimpse of the blank stare in DeeDee's eyes, "I can see I need to explain. Here at the company, we give each other nicknames to provide some comic relief from the stress. With me so far?"

"Uh… yes…"

"Yeah, so later on, you'll meet the Suicide Jockey, Pig Pen, Lamb Chops, Curly, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, the Ostrich, Cranky Jack, uh… the Ice Princess, the Wolfman and Sister Dynamite… actually, you've already seen her 'cos that's Blue's riding nurse Maria Navarro. I was thinking about calling you Double-D, but I guess that's kinda inappropriate-"

DeeDee's left eyebrow went skyward to prove that such a nickname was not just 'kind of' inappropriate, but completely and utterly inappropriate.

"-but… uh… yeah. It doesn't matter when your real last name is so perfect. White, Red and Blue," Malin continued.

"Oh… I see," DeeDee said, looking at Spencer who was busy chuckling under his breath. "I get Red from your hair… but why Blue?"

Malin butted in at once: " 'Cos melancholy is the natural state of mind for the big fella here tho' you'd never guess it from his buff presence. And he's always quoting various depressing authors. Right?" she said, trying once more to slap Spencer across the gut.

"Red's just jealous because her reading skills doesn't extend beyond the Peanuts," Spencer said, intercepting Malin's hand before she could complete the slap. They entered a good-natured tug of war that ended with Malin pulling her arm back in defeat. "And even then she needs to move her lips to understand all the dif-fi-cult words in the speech bubbles."

While Malin groaned long and hard, DeeDee could not help but smile at the rapid-fire repartee between the two colleagues who were obviously good friends. Feeling bold, she looked back at Malin. "Well, that's nice. My new uniform?" she tried, hoping to keep her driver from forgetting her all over again.

"Yeah, that's right. Are you done for the day, Blue?"

"For now," Spencer Bradshaw said, running a hand over his scratchy stubble. "I just need to hit the showers and get a hot meal if the plate du jour's any good today."

"Lucky so-and-so," Malin said with a grin. This time, she did not even attempt to slap her friend. "I still have a ten-hour shift ahead of me. Or we do once we find a uniform that'll suit White's lengthy frame," she continued, pointing at DeeDee.

Spencer appeared to turn deadly serious as he put out his hand and waited for DeeDee to shake it once more. "My condolences, Miss White. Truly. It'll be a miracle if you can get through that ordeal without inflicting grave bodily harm on my friend Red." - The gloomy statement was accompanied by a series of winks.

While DeeDee let out a strong guffaw, Malin threw her arms in the air and matched her new trainee riding nurse's utterance by groaning long and hard. "Oh, for cryin' out loud! Thanks a whole bunch, friend… no, that's it, we're done here! Let's go somewhere we're appreciated, White," Malin said, pointing at the frosted-glass double-doors that led away from the garage.

Spencer laughed at his friend's antics before he offered the two women a casual wave and a "See ya" on his way over to the very same doors.

"Oh, I… I need a place to put my mountain bike," DeeDee said, shuffling around on the spot like it embarrassed her that she had still not been successful in finding a safe place for her red-and-graphite-gray steed.

Malin grunted as she pointed at a large, charcoal-gray SUV that was parked in one of the bays. "The big-ass Volvo is my car… such a cliche, I know, but Dad won't let me buy anything else. It's the Swedish thing again. Anyway, there's plenty of space for your bike in the back," she said, reaching into her pants pocket to find the key fob with the remote for her car.

"Oh! Thank you, Malin. I'll only be a second," DeeDee said and hurried back to the chairs to get her bike so she could finally stop worrying about it.

-*-*-*-

DeeDee's thumping heart sent her blood coursing through her veins. Malin Pettersson had been detained yet again so she had gone ahead on her own. All dressed up in her brand new uniform that made her chest swell with pride though she had accomplished nothing yet, she walked across the concrete deck on wobbling legs to get to the vehicle among the fleet of ambulances that would be her home and office for the next ten hours - it was the oh-three, one of those that had been there when she had arrived.

That her brand new safety boots sat somewhat strange on her feet because of the reinforced tips and uppers, and that her new uniform carried a faint smell of mothballs after being kept in a cardboard box in the storage room for a while were facts she could happily overlook.

The nervousness caused her to lick her dry lips repeatedly; she wished she had remembered to bring her lip balm, but she had never envisioned that the two-hour round trip to the job interview and back to her apartment would end up being a two-day affair instead.

In addition to the safety boots, the pale-gray uniform pants and the matching shirt with the dark-gray highlights that carried the logo of Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services, she had been given a white undershirt as well as a pair of garments held in fluorescent-orange: a heavy-duty jacket similar to a firefighter's turnout coat, and a vest that also bore two horizontal stripes in a highly reflective white. A round-brimmed baseball cap that carried the company logo rounded off the collection of clothes, but she hoped she was not required to wear the cap on their assignments as she knew from painful experience that they looked stupid on her.

After shifting the jacket and the vest to the other arm to get her right hand free, it crept into the pants pocket to toy with the brand new, shiny key she had been given - it fit the padlock on her locker down in the changing rooms in the basem*nt of the building. All the other things she'd had in the pockets of her street clothes had been transferred to her new uniform, including her telephone though she was not allowed to use it for private calls during the shift.

The boxy, orange-and-white GMC Savana ambulance loomed large ahead of her. Malin had told her the vehicles were never locked while in the garage because they needed to be accessible to the mechanics and the cleaning crews, and the snippet of fact was confirmed when she was able to click open the access door on the right-hand side of the ambulance. Moving it fully to the side, she stepped up onto the integrated rung to get herself acquainted with her new workspace while she had a chance to.

Everything was squeaky clean and smelled of disinfectants like it should. The center part of the ambulance's hold was dominated by a metal gurney attached to a V-shaped locking mechanism on the floor. The gurney was protected by a sheet of plastic and featured an orange mattress and a white headrest in the company's colors. An additional safety feature in the shape of a floor-mounted, lockable metal bar at the foot-end of the portable bed would hold it in place while driving.

Various bulky equipment like a heavy-duty fire extinguisher and two large bags labeled 'Rapid Response Kit' took up most of the remaining floor space, so everything else had been stored in trays or on shelves that were protected by sliding panels.

DeeDee gulped when she realized that many of the integrated drawers and lockers among the off-white interior carried no labels, and those that did only seemed to hold basic items like absorbent cotton cloth, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, orange medical gloves and the like. The biohazard wastebin carrying the familiar, bright-red warning symbol was located just on the inside of the access door which would make it easy to empty out for the cleaning crews.

To familiarize herself fully with the layout, she stepped up into the ambulance and began to open one drawer at a time. She let out a grunt of understanding when she discovered that the unlabeled drawers held various medicine in vials, ampuls or cardboard boxes - theft of drugs had been a problem even at the exclusive Beech Grove Private Hospital. If the drawers were unlabeled, it would take the thief far longer to go through them all, especially considering how many there were. It would not deter everyone, but the least brave among the criminal elements would perhaps give up before they would reach the hard drugs.

A bench seating four on the passenger side of the ambulance doubled as more storage space. Underneath the cushioned lid, it held tools and various medical aids and equipment like neckbraces, large rolls of disposable bags and similar items that were too large or heavy to keep on the wall-mounted shelves. It had room for the two rapid response kits as well, but since they were both on the floor by the rear doors rather than in the storage space, DeeDee guessed that experience had shown that it was much quicker to have them close by at all times.

She was initially surprised to find that a square and somewhat crude accessway had been cut out of the wall between the working area at the back and the two comfortable-looking seats up front, but thinking about it some more offered the logical explanation that it was probably important to have a quick and easy access to the patient. Pulling over might not always be an option, or it might take too long in a time of crisis.

Stepping down onto the concrete deck, DeeDee clicked the access door shut before she moved back to the rear of the GMC. It appeared that Rickard Pettersson's fleet of ambulances weren't all built to the same specifications as some had a single, top-mounted hatch, and some had a pair of side-mounted doors. The oh-three unit, the one she and Malin were about to use, had a pair of doors.

After releasing the handle's click-lock, she swung the right-hand door aside to test its weight and how easy - or difficult - it would be to use in a hot situation. The hinges supporting the door seemed to be well-maintained so it was not too bad. The left-hand door offered a similar experience even if the top hinge seemed to squeak just a little when it was used. The two rapid response kits were on the flat floor just inside the doors, and she could reach them both with no problems whatsoever.

The full-width aluminum running board beneath the open doors offered good support for when the riding nurse and the driver would return with an occupied gurney, but it was still a couple of long steps up into the ambulance itself - DeeDee could well imagine how the not-too-tall Malin Pettersson would consider climbing the steps a pain in the backside during assignments where time and the efficient use of which would be critical factors.

She closed the doors again and literally took a step back from the ambulance to gather her thoughts. Some of her nervousness had eased after she had realized she was already familiar with most of the equipment from her time at Beech Grove and even as far back as her pre-registration time at the Community Hospital. Some of it was of a different standard or manufactured by a different company, but she had used compatible items often enough to be able to adapt to the small changes.

What still caused her some grief was the fact that she needed to spend so many hours cooped up in a single location. Even on the dullest, all-night graveyard shifts at Beech Grove, she had been able to move around between the many private wards, the coffee room and the information desk. Now she was forced to spend the entire afternoon, evening and even part of the night inside the ambulance with infrequent breaks creating the only relief from the monotony.

And of course, she would be in the constant companionship of a woman she could not quite figure out. Malin Pettersson seemed friendly enough as such, but there was no doubt their personalities were vastly different. Being two feet away from her all night could be heaven or it could be hell - and DeeDee was not sure she was looking forward to finding out which of the two destinations she would end up at.

Grunting, she shook her head to get rid of the gloomy thoughts. Instead of focusing on the potentially negative aspects so early in the process, she strolled back up to the right-hand side access door to continue her in-depth exploration of the GMC ambulance.

---

When Malin finally showed up, she did so eating ice cream from a cardboard cup. She scooped up the final spoonful and stuck it into her mouth as she approached the boxy ambulance and the ever-so-slightly impatient DeeDee.

Savoring the rich taste with a long, inarticulate sentence consisting mostly of variations of "Mmmmm-mmm-mmm-mmmm!", she threw the cup and the plastic spoon into a nearby trash can before she wiped her fingers on a handkerchief she'd had in her pocket. "Stracciatella and blackcurrant sorbet… gotta love it," she said once the ice cream had vanished.

"Sounds tasty," DeeDee added in a flat voice that proved she was about to run out of patience with the driver whom she considered to be just on the wrong side of lackadaisical. She had been leaning against the curved hood with her arms crossed over her chest for the past five minutes, but now she pushed herself off the front of the ambulance.

"You betcha. So… are you ready to hit the road?"

"Oh, very much so. Am I supposed to sit in the back or up front?" DeeDee said, moving over to the right-hand side of the ambulance.

Malin pointed at the GMC's windshield as she walked past it to get to the driver's side door. "Up front. You can only sit in the back when we have a patient. And even then the cops don't always approve. The seat belts are kinda rudimentary back there… there's a risk you might get thrown around if I have to swerve through traffic."

"Good point," DeeDee said and let out a low and somewhat annoyed chuckle. Opening the passenger side front door, she climbed into the driver's compartment and got herself comfortable on the wide seat. After clicking the seat belt in place, she moved her feet back; almost at once, her bootheels knocked against something solid that had been hiding under the seat. "Ooops," she said, leaning forward to see what she had hit.

"Don't worry about that," Malin said and climbed behind the wheel. She wrapped her fingers around the ignition key to be ready for departure. "It's a storage box. There isn't much in it… just a flashlight and stuff."

"Oh… I see." Grunting to herself from the bright idea she had just had, DeeDee immediately took off the dumb-looking baseball cap, pulled out the storage box and threw the unwanted accessory into it - then she pushed it shut with the heel of her safety boot.

"Yeah, I did that ten years ago when the old man gave me a cap just like it," Malin continued with a chuckle. She twisted the ignition key which prompted the turbo-diesel V8 engine to come to life with a content purr and a muted rumble from the side-mounted exhaust. She let it idle for a few seconds before she reached for her own seat belt, then she selected drive on the column-mounted shifter and let the ambulance roll out of the parking bay. As they trickled across the concrete deck, she clicked on a remote that had been glued onto the top of the dashboard. The pulse created by the electronic device made the wide sliding doors roll upward until Forty-fourth Street was in full view.

Driving across the sidewalk where DeeDee had stood with her mountain bike when she had first arrived at the garage housing Pettersson's Ambulance Services, Malin had to wait for a gap in traffic before she hit the gas to blend into the inner lane. The top-heavy ambulance swayed left and right as it rolled off the flat curb at the entry to the garage, but it soon righted itself. "Anyway. Like Dad said, welcome aboard, DeeDee. I guess this is the point of no return… there's no going back now, huh?" she said with a grin.

"I guess not," DeeDee said, looking at the drab garage growing ever smaller in the reflection in the door mirror. As the GMC ambulance rumbled down Forty-fourth Street to head into the proverbial uncharted waters, she had to admit to herself that a fair amount of excitement and even tension was mounting inside her.

Would she be good enough to cope with the demands put on her, or would she let herself and the two Petterssons down by being hopelessly out of her depth? She would only know for sure when they were given their first assignment of the shift. Whatever else happened, she hoped she would not make a fool of herself.

-*-*-*-

The first forty minutes of her new career as a trainee riding nurse had gone by without drama, but as the traffic grew more and more congested around them as rush hour began, she could not shake the feeling that she would soon be tested. So far it was just a little knot of worry in the pit of her stomach, but it had the clear potential of growing into a boulder at the drop of a hat - or perhaps more to the point, at the flicking of the switch controlling the sirens and the red, amber and white flashing lights that had been attached all over the boxy ambulance.

One thing that did surprise her was that Malin had kept quiet through most of the run save for the inevitable grunt, groan or comment about the traffic. To offset the unexpected silence, the radio transceiver unit that had been installed on the front of the dashboard by the heating ducts had not stopped squawking since they had left the garage. A constant stream of messages had been sent to the ambulances that were out patrolling the streets of Carlyle, but Malin had not responded to any of them - it did not take a genius to work out it meant they had not been hailed yet.

DeeDee sighed and shuffled around on the seat that was already growing quite warm under her backside. In addition to her missing lip balm, she wished she had a pair of dark sunglasses to combat the brightness of day. Malin wore a pair that she'd had in the breast pocket of her uniform shirt, but DeeDee needed to squint the whole time to see where they were going.

"So… is there anything I need to know with regards to operating the ambulance, Malin?" she said to take her mind off the glaring sun, the congested traffic and the rumbling knot of worry in her gut.

"Nah, not really," Malin said, briefly looking at her passenger. "It's all pretty much your standard gauges, dials and doodads over here. Of course, we got a buncha switches for the lights and sirens and all those things. Anyway, the steering wheel and everything it's attached to are my responsibilities. Your realm is the rear compartment. I'll obviously come back and help you carry the gurney and stuff… or if the sh*t really hits the fan at an incident site. I'm also a qualified nurse, believe it or not."

"Oh, really?" DeeDee said, staring at Malin's profile like she did in fact have a hard time believing it.

"Sure. I went through nursing school like you did tho' I never did pre-reg time at a hospital afterwards. I went straight back to Dad's business. That was the plan from the start. I'm coming up on my tenth anniversary next year."

"Wow, you've worked as an EMS that long?"

"Yeah," Malin said with a grin like she was surprised that it had been a full decade already. "What can I say… I suppose I could go somewhere else, but I figure I owe it to the old fella. He paid my way through school, so… you know. I'm happy here."

"Mmmm… that's important."

"Yep. As it stands, the plan is that in five years' time or so, I'll quit driving the streets to head back to college and take a few classes in accounting and organizational stuff. That sorta thing, you know. Once that's in the bag, Dad'll step aside and I'll take over the company. By then, I'll be forty so my back's probably gonna be pretty much messed up anyway."

"Oh, it's definitely good to have long-term plans."

"Yeah. I know how important it is for Dad to keep it a family-owned company. And I happen to agree."

They drove on in silence for a few minutes until they reached the intersection of Thirty-eighth Street and Avenue C that had already jammed up from the impending rush hour. The four endless lines of vehicles that stretched out ahead of them hardly moved - as a result, some drivers who were late getting home to their hot dinners had already grown impatient and had engaged in the futile exercise of shouting obscenities out of their windows.

Up on the gantries a good distance ahead of the ambulance, the traffic lights ran through their customary patterns but the different colors had very little effect on the traffic below. To reduce the stress on the drivetrain and the turbo intercoolers, Malin put the shifter into neutral. The exhaust note of the large-displacement, four-oh-two cubic inch turbo diesel changed at once and became fairer. It only took her another thirty seconds to realize they were going nowhere fast, so she turned off the engine altogether to save a few drops of fuel.

"Damn! Okay…" she said, tapping her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. After looking around and learning the logjam would not release in a hurry, she shuffled around in the driver's seat so she nearly faced DeeDee. "I guess this is a good time to explain a couple of details. I'm sure you're familiar with the global-positioning concept?"

"GPS? Of course I am," DeeDee said and gave her pants pocket a brief pat. "I use my phone's tracking app all the time when I ride my bike through the city."

"Good… then I don't have to explain that part," DeeDee said as she pointed at the radio transceiver unit on the dashboard. "All ambulances are monitored at all times by a GPS transmitter in the radio. Back home, we're a little dot on a computer screen that the controller and the dispatchers keep a close eye on. They have access to real-time data from the city traffic department and the police as well, so they already know we're stuck in this damn mess. That means our dot has turned red. Dispatch won't give us an assignment while we're blocked in like this. As soon as we're back moving again, the dot will turn green signaling we're available if something comes up close to us."

"Oh, that's a clever system. So there really is an eye in the sky?" DeeDee said, looking at the rows of flashing, multi-colored LEDs on the radio transceiver.

"Yeah, but I prefer it that way. Dispatch always knows where we are in case of trouble. Believe me, it's no fun to need to figure out where you are before you can call for help. No fun at all."

"Sounds like you're talking from experience?"

"Yeah."

"Nothing too major I hope…?" DeeDee said, offering her driver a supportive smile.

"It got kinda hairy there once or twice," Malin said, glancing ahead at the logjammed lines of cars with a distant look upon her face. Grunting, she took a deep breath to return to the real world - DeeDee had noticed the change in her companion, but she did not want to ask about it.

"Anyway," Malin continued, letting out a dark chuckle, "it also means there's no privacy, of course. I remember one of my ex-colleagues a couple of years ago… he took his girlfriend on a ride-along which is a no-no in itself. They had pulled into an alley to have some fun on the gurney, but he had forgotten all about the GPS tracker in the heat of the moment. When the cops showed up on the notion the ambulance could have been stolen or hijacked, he was caught with his pants down and his wick up."

"Ohhhhh," Malin said, laughing at the colorful scene.

"Yeah. Dad fired him for it. Too bad, too, 'cos he was a good driver and a funny fella."

The constant honking and angry shouting around the GMC ambulance finally began to ease off when the knot that had jammed up the entire intersection at Thirty-eighth Street and Avenue C started to unravel. Far, far ahead of the garishly painted vehicle, the lanes slowly began to move.

Malin let out a sigh as she twisted the ignition key and pulled the shifter into drive. Once it was their turn to get back underway, she took her foot off the brake which allowed the ambulance to trickle along at a few miles per hour. They were caught by the traffic lights changing to red just as they reached them, but at least the intersection ahead of them was clear - mostly.

-*-*-*-

The rules and regulations of Pettersson's Ambulance Services said that DeeDee could not wear a wristwatch on the job so she had to look at the small clock on the dashboard instead to read the time: it was twenty past six. More than seven and a half hours remained of her first shift as a trainee riding nurse; the knot of worry in her stomach had been lulled into a strange numbness by the inactivity, but she knew it would only take a radio call from the dispatcher to make it blossom.

Though the traffic was as bad as ever, at least they had avoided getting caught in any logjams since the big one. They had stopped at a news stand to buy one of the evening newspapers, but DeeDee had discovered the perpetual rocking motions of the large, top-heavy ambulance would give her motion sickness if she took her eyes off the street for any length of time, so the newspaper had been put into the storage box under the seat for later.

"-So after my instructor had nudged me into applying for the job," she said, tugging at the left sleeve of her new uniform shirt to get it to line up better. For some reason, the left sleeve was a fraction longer than the right. Either it was the result of poor workmanship or the entire shirt had been pulled crooked somehow down in the cardboard box it had been stored in. Whichever it was, it irked her. "I started as a trainee nurse at the Beech Grove Private Hospital. It was a solid position, actually. I was pretty much satisfied with it for the first several years, but…"

"But then you developed wanderlust," Malin said with a grin.

DeeDee nodded quietly like she was trying to convince herself that it was as simple as that. "I guess you could say that, yes," she said with a half-shrug.

Activating the turning signal, Malin let the ambulance roll up to the intersection at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Avenue C. A good deal of the asphalt in the intersection still carried the brownish hue it had gained when it had been submerged in twenty inches of sewer water after a mains pipe had burst during the suffocating heatwave two weeks earlier. The Big Stink it had caused had already entered local legend.

When the traffic lights turned green, she took her foot off the brake and let the garishly painted ambulance go southbound onto the two-lane bridge that spanned a host of railroad switching tracks. The tracks down below were home to plenty of activity twenty-four-seven, and the present was no different as several diesel locomotives were pulling or pushing box cars, refrigerated wagons and flatbeds to and from the large freight yards. Black plumes of diesel smoke rose from the stacks of the hard-working locomotives, and the brass bells installed on the roofs of the cabs sang their typical loud song to warn others of the heavy, lumbering trains.

"Malin, were you working on that crazy night a couple of weeks ago?" DeeDee said as they crossed over the center of the bridge headed for Twenty-fifth Street. The well-worn, uneven surface of the old bridge made the ambulance sway even more than usual, and DeeDee needed to hold onto the seat belt to stop herself from bouncing left-to-right. "You know, the one where the gang war broke out, or whatever it was?"

"Oh boy, was I ever!" Malin said and let out a dark chuckle. "Actually, it was my day off… I was snuggled up in bed with a gallon of chocolate ice cream and my favorite Xena episodes. Then Dad called and said the streets of Carlyle had just been turned into a damn war zone!"

"Oh!"

"Yeah. There wasn't time to argue so I raced back to headquarters and jumped into the first ambulance I could find. I partnered with the Suicide Jockey on that assignment, and we were first unit on-site at a huge wreck involving one of the city buses and what had been a four-wheel-drive pickup truck of some kind. There wasn't anything left of that thing, though. Somehow, the driver had jumped to safety before it blew sky high, but he still got a busted nose and split lips out of it. Nasty sonovabitch he was. Shoved us both aside and took off right in the middle of the Jockey's careful examination. Jerk."

"Sounds like an unpleasant fellow…"

"You could call him that. You could also call him a dickhe*d. That's what I did at the time," Malin said with a grin. "Later on, my good friend Blue was called out to the even bigger wreck involving the freight train out in the industrial zone. That was a mess too though I don't think anyone was actually injured in that one. I couldn't make it out to it 'cos the Jockey and me needed to gas up our ambulance… it had only been in for five minutes when we showed up to take it, so the ground crew had not had time to get to it yet. Holy sh*t, I don't want another night like that anytime soon, no ma'am!"

"I'll bet," DeeDee said, chuckling as she remembered watching the non-stop breaking news on the various local TV stations. There had been so many stories to cover and so many bystanders to interview that the coverage had run well into the following day.

The endless car chases and wild gunfights that had taken place on the streets of Carlyle over the course of the entire night had been big news, and the journalists had interviewed a slew of politicians who had all delivered their regular meaningless statements. A highlight - or lowlight, depending - had been Mayor Goddard's press conference at City Hall where she had milked the moment to the fullest by delivering a campaign speech where she promised she would focus even harder on keeping the streets safe if she was re-elected for a second term.

After the initial excitement had died down, the journalists and politicians had found other issues to concern themselves with, and Carlyle and the rest of the world had returned to normal - as it always did.

One good thing had come out of it for DeeDee: the garishly painted vehicles from Pettersson's Ambulance Services had appeared in the background in much of the news footage, and it had made her seriously consider a career move to the front lines, so to speak. A job application later, she found herself as a trainee riding nurse in one of the very same orange-and-white ambulances that had been so prominent in the TV coverage.

It had been a whirlwind process so far, and her head had not fully caught up with reality. It was still far too early to say if it was a position she could see herself fill beyond the two-week temporary engagement, but at least she felt more comfortable around the fiery Malin Pettersson - the strawberry-blond was far calmer compared to how she had been in the company of the mechanics or her friend 'Blue' Spencer Bradshaw, and that suited the naturally subdued DeeDee White just fine.

---

The orange ambulance had traveled another few city blocks southbound on Avenue C when the radio squawked once more. DeeDee had already become so used to the constant background noise that she paid no attention to it; at least not until Malin reached for the mic. Sitting up straight, DeeDee looked wide-eyed at her driver with bated breath as the prospect of getting her first assignment did its best to send an army of ants crawling up and down her spine.

'Unit oh-three, unit oh-three, dispatch. You copy?' a female voice said from the radio.

"Dispatch, unit oh-three. We copy. Go ahead," Malin said before she reached down to turn the volume up a bit more. While speaking, she glanced in the mirrors to see if they had anyone near them in case she needed to switch on their lights and sirens.

'We have received a call for a code two-oh-two in progress at Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food, one-one-six-five West Nineteenth Street. Call-back confirmed. Popa is an African-American male, late-thirties. Unresponsive after fainting. No apparent XT,' the dispatch continued, speaking in a calm, clear voice so the important assignment details would be fully understood by the driver and the riding nurse.

DeeDee's brow gained several deep furrows at the confusing lingo, especially at the 'popa' and the 'XT' comments. She could not figure out what they could mean; she guessed they were acronyms for something, but she had never heard them used before. Malin was definitely too busy to answer any of the questions she had, but it was something she needed to get to the bottom of in a hurry.

"Ten-roger on the two-oh-two in progress at one-one-six-five West Nineteenth Street. Unit oh-three responding. ETA three minutes. Engaging now," Malin said and put the mic back on the little hook. After checking her surroundings again, she hit the switches on the dashboard that controlled the roof-mounted sirens and the warning lights that were scattered all over the ambulance. Soon, the familiar electronic wail filled the driver's compartment of the GMC ambulance. "And here we go, White… your first one," Malin said with a grin as she mashed the gas which sent the large ambulance roaring down the street.

DeeDee tried her best to match the grin, but it never went beyond a nervous creasing of her lips. As she had expected, the knot of worry in her stomach went supernova and sent shards of nervous energy ripping through every fiber of her being. Her skin grew clammy and her heart rate picked up so much speed from one moment to the next that she developed a tangy taste in her mouth.

When the cityscape around them turned into a blurry kaleidoscope of colors, she grabbed hold of the seat belt to have something to hang onto. She opened her mouth to enquire about the confusing lingo, but the look of one-hundred percent concentration on Malin's face as she steered the GMC through the dense traffic made her close it again and wait for a better moment later on.

---

West Nineteenth Street was soon reached, and it only took them an additional thirty seconds to find the eating establishment called Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food. Their search was eased by the fact that a large group of agitated people stood on the sidewalk flagging down the ambulance as it approached.

"Ohhhhh, don't let me screw this up!" DeeDee groaned through a clenched jaw. A loud chuckle from Malin's spot behind the steering wheel proved the request had been said louder than the speaker had intended it to.

"All right, listen up," Malin said as she pulled the GMC ambulance to a tire-squealing stop in front of the soul food restaurant. "You're not a kid so I'm not gonna hold your hand through this. We need to follow the regular procedures so we can avoid any foul-ups," she said in a commanding voice.

"Okay-"

"Get some gloves, take one of the double-R kits, go inside, locate the popa-"

"I don't know wh-"

"The potential patient. Then perform an initial examination. I'll prepare the gurney. Once you know what needs to be done, come out and bring me up to speed. If we can treat him here, we will. If we can't, we'll either call in the city paramedics or transfer him to the gurney and drive him to one of the hospitals near here. You with me?"

"Yes! Yes," DeeDee said in a shaky voice. Unbuckling the seat belt, she jumped up and ducked through the square opening between the seats to go into the ambulance's rear compartment. She quickly pulled open the drawer that held the orange medical gloves and grabbed a pair. Then she took one of the bags containing the rapid response kits and flung the long strap over her shoulder.

Opening the access door on the vehicle's right-hand side, she jumped down onto the wide sidewalk and hurried through the throng of people waiting there. They all tried to talk to her at the same time so it turned into a cacophony within a split second. It mattered little since her heart was thumping so hard in her ears that she was unable to hear any of their concerned comments.

Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food was a double-wide unit with a pair of large windows on either side of a central glass door. The front of the establishment was held in brown, burnt orange and other earthy tones, and it appeared the owner wanted to recreate a sense of the late 1960s or early 1970s as various old-fashioned symbols and sayings from the 'hood had been hand-painted onto the windows.

Stepping inside the restaurant to survey the scene, DeeDee needed to force herself to breathe deeply and evenly so she could avoid keeling over and thus create an even bigger mess. An African-American man in his mid to late-thirties was lying on his back in an aisle between two rows of tables. She assessed the aisle would be just wide enough for the gurney if it came to that, but they would need to physically carry the man a short distance to get him onto it since there was insufficient room to wheel it in next to him.

The potential patient, or 'popa' as he had been referred to by Malin Pettersson and the dispatcher, wore an elegant business suit consisting of black shoes, steel-gray, sharply-creased pants, a black-and-gray two-pocket vest and a white shirt. The man's red silk necktie had been pulled to the side, and the top two buttons of his shirt had been opened to ease his breathing. A suit jacket matching the color and quality of the pants was suspended over the backrest of a nearby chair, and a leather briefcase and a pair of expensive spectacles were still resting on the table where he had sat.

An African-American waitress whose already pale-skinned complexion had turned even paler by the shock knelt next to the supine man. Dressed in a spring-green, smock-like outfit meant to resemble those used by waitresses in neighborhood restaurants in the 1970s, she waved a tea towel above the man's face in an attempt to provide some fresh air - so far it had not helped speed up his recovery.

DeeDee gulped hard; she tried to smile at the visibly shaken waitress but it never amounted to much. She knew she needed to get on with it, so she swung the heavy bag containing the rapid response kit off her shoulder and put it down on the floor close to the man's head.

After pulling up in her brand new uniform pants, she knelt next to the unresponsive man and unzipped the bag in a hurry so she would not waste time doing that later. The orange medical gloves were quickly put on; the thumb on the left one decided it did not want to play along at the first attempt. While fixing the thumb, she bared her teeth in a concerned grimace at the sight of a narrow line of a greenish-white foam that trickled from the left corner of the man's mouth.

Reaching for a pack of absorbent cotton cloth, she pulled one out and carefully wiped the foamy substance off the man's skin. The glistening residue on the cotton was a sickly, even bilious green, and that made her suspect he was suffering from an acute gastric condition like food poisoning rather than circulatory or respiratory problems. It had been a while since she had seen one of those, but they had been quite common during her stay at the Community Hospital due to that area's high number of hole-in-the-wall eating establishments that were rarely up to snuff when it came to the expected standards in hygiene.

All of that had taken her less than ten seconds to establish, but she still felt time ticking away from her. It was vital she carried out the initial examination as quickly and yet as thoroughly as she could, but she also needed to learn the exact sequence of events that had led to the man's present condition. After crumpling up the contaminated cotton cloth and throwing it into a plastic bag so she could keep the filthied accessories away from the clean ones, she reached into the rapid response kit to find a stethoscope, a quick-analysis thermometer and a pen light.

"All right. I'm Nurse White from Pettersson's Ambulance Services. I need to know exactly what happened to this gentleman," she said, looking at the waitress. When she realized the young woman was too rattled to speak, she inserted the stethoscope's orange foam plugs into her ears to move ahead with the examination. She put the resonator onto the supine man's chest to get a feel for the heart's rhythm and frequency of his breathing. Both seemed fine, if a little on the slow, lazy side. When she ran her free hand down across the man's stomach to test for unnatural warmth or if he reacted to any internal aches, the heart rate and respiratory frequency both picked up.

The waitress could still only let out shocked squeaks and croaks, but an African-American man in his mid-thirties who also wore early-1970s retro garb - gray gabardine bell-bottoms, a brown pullover and a yellow shirt featuring wide lapels - came out from the kitchen area to greet DeeDee. "I'm Earl Cleveland. The owner of the restaurant," he said as he stepped around one of the other tables to get to the scene. He put out his hand until he realized the nurse was far too busy to shake it. "The gentleman came in, placed his order and we prepared it for him. I handed it over personally and didn't notice anything wrong with him. When I came down with the check, he… he had already fallen ill. He started foaming at the mouth and just fell over! Is he all right?"

"I can't say yet, Sir. Thank you for the details," DeeDee said, readying a few additional instruments from the rapid response kit. She attached a quick-analysis thermometer to the supine man's skin at the base of his neck; after a few seconds, the digital readout showed he was not running a temperature. She took the pen light and gently peeled back the man's eyelids. Though his eyes only offered her a blank stare, the pupils responded as they should which meant there was no sign of a stroke or epilepsy. Measuring the man's blood pressure came next, so she unbuttoned the left shirtsleeve and rolled it up to have room for the inflatable cuff. An expensive gold wristwatch came into view; the golden luster created a stark contrast to the man's dark skin. "Sir, did he seem to have trouble breathing?"

"No… he wasn't wheezing or anything…"

"Did he vomit or complain about stomach aches?"

"No. Neither."

"What did he order?"

"Spare ribs in our homemade barbecue sauce… and sweet potatoes. That's our specialty."

"Did he have anything to drink?"

"Just a club soda," Earl Cleveland said, rubbing his brow. "Dammit, we've served nearly four hundred ribs already… nobody else has had any problems!"

"Did you get a new batch of meat delivered today, or something similar?"

"No, nothing of the kind. Man, this is a disaster…" Earl continued; the rubbing of his brow turned angry. "We've only been open for business for less than a week… the word-of-mouth has been great so far, but if people start hearing we've been serving tainted food, we can kiss the whole thing goodbye!"

DeeDee understood the owner's desperation, but she needed to concentrate on applying the inflatable cuff around the supine man's arm so she had no time to offer any consolatory comments. When the apparatus was turned on, it went through the regular process of inflating and releasing pressure a few times until the readout showed that the man's blood pressure was in the green zone. It made her furrow her brow and let out a grunt. She pulled back slightly while she considered her next move; the decision was made for her when more of the foamy, sickly green substance trickled out of the man's mouth. "I need to examine his mouth cavity. Please hold down his arms so he won't jerk around. Oh, and be careful in case he vomits."

Earl Cleveland and the waitress working for him shared a long glance before she clambered to her feet and moved away in a hurry. Her place at the supine man's side was taken by the owner of the restaurant who put his hands on the white shirt to pin down his customer's shoulders.

Grimacing at the unpleasant nature of her actions, DeeDee gently parted the man's jaw and stuck two fingers into his mouth. Apart from having her glove coated by more of the foamy, greenish-white substance, she did not find any blockages. A chemical scent rose to greet her. She thought she recognized it; in fact, the name for it was right there on the tip of her tongue, but she could not quite grasp it.

"It's clear. You can let go now, Sir. Thank you for your assistance," she said as she withdrew her gloved fingers. Earl Cleveland let out a sigh of relief and took a step back from the supine man.

After giving her gloves a thorough wiping on another piece of absorbent cloth that she proceeded to throw into the waste bag for contaminated material, she leaned back on her thighs and tried to rack her mind to find something else to try. When nothing came to her, she shook her head. "I'm afraid we need to take this man to the hospital, Sir. I'll get my driver so we can get him onto our gurney."

"Damn… damn, damn, damn!" Earl Cleveland said in a groan, smacking a clenched fist against his thigh for each utterance of the expletive. "The insurance company will skin us alive!"

Getting on her feet in a hurry, DeeDee was already out on the sidewalk by the time the owner of the restaurant had finished his sentence; wasting no time, she waved at Malin who pulled out the gurney at once.

---

A scant thirty seconds later, Malin and DeeDee wheeled the clumsy gurney into the soul food restaurant. The owner of Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food had moved outside to clear the way for them, but he and several of the concerned guests followed them back inside. Everyone seemed to talk to everyone else all at the same time, and it turned into a three-ring circus within moments.

Malin carried the bag with the other rapid response kit over her shoulder. As soon as the gurney was in place, she locked the wheels so it could not go anywhere unplanned. While DeeDee knelt to check the patient's present condition, Malin swung the bag off her shoulder and put it on the orange mattress.

Unzipping the bag, she quickly found a carry-blanket designed for all but the most obese; they would need to slip it under the man in order to get him onto the gurney. She stepped around one of the tables to get a visual assessment of the patient's weight to work out if she needed to fold the blanket once, twice or three times.

What she saw made her come to a dead stop and let out a growled "Son. Of. A. Bitch!" that came from somewhere deep in her throat. She had to slam her mouth shut in order to stay silent, but it was clear by the red blotches that appeared on her cheeks that she grew boiling mad about something. Shooting a sideways glance at the pandemonium surrounding them in the soul food restaurant, she came to the annoying realization that they were too far into the process to stop. They were obliged to carry on to the bitter end, and in this particular case, that was more than just a figure of speech.

Although she and DeeDee had not had an opportunity to try out the carry-blanket in the short time they had spent together, they were both experienced enough to make the procedure go smoothly. After gently rolling the man over onto his right-hand side and tucking the blanket underneath his body, they repeated the drill on his left-hand side. It did not take long before he was fully inside the blanket's edges, and with a one-two-three-heave-ho, the two EMTs used the integrated handles to lift him up from the smooth floor and onto the gurney.

"Stand clear! Coming through!" Malin said loudly as she moved around a table to get to the head of the gurney to push it. Once DeeDee had picked up the man's leather briefcase, suit jacket and spectacles and put them into a plastic bag she'd had in her rapid response kit, she moved to the foot-end to be ready to pull. They both wore the zippable bags over their shoulders; combined with the width and breadth of the gurney, it only left a tiny amount of space between the chairs and tables they needed to navigate past to get back to the door.

---

Working together like a pair of seasoned professionals, they were able to get the gurney out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk with little drama save for accidentally shoving aside one table that had been standing a little too close to the action for its own good. No time was wasted cutting through the throng of people waiting outside, and they soon reached the ambulance.

Another one-two-three-heave-ho was necessary to get the gurney up into the rear of the ambulance even employing the leg extensions that were meant to create an easier working posture for the EMT personnel. DeeDee had been right in thinking that the aluminum steps would present a problem for the shorter Malin, but the gurney was soon locked into the strange-looking, V-shaped contraption in the floor.

While Malin shoved the final locking bar in place and tightened the safety belts pinning down the patient, DeeDee reached out to shut the two rear doors. Before she had time to complete the job, Earl Cleveland ran out onto the sidewalk wringing his hands: "Please keep me posted on his condition, Nurse White. I need to know… and the insurance company needs to know."

"We will, Mr. Cleveland. I promise," DeeDee said, closing and locking the rear doors before she hurried past the gurney to close the access door on the right-hand side of the ambulance as well. A peek at Malin Pettersson made her furrow her brow - for some reason, the face of the fiery strawberry-blond was as red as her father's had been back at the garage. The strain of getting the patient onto the gurney and into the ambulance had not been too hard all things considered, so where the ruddiness came from she had no idea.

After ducking through the cutout in the wall separating the ambulance's two compartments, she sat down on the passenger seat and reached for the seat belt. With the belt firmly in place, she waited for Malin to come up front so they could drive to one of Carlyle's countless hospitals.

The seconds ticked by accompanied by the thumping sound of DeeDee's heart beating double-time in her chest. As a reaction to the intense minutes she had just lived through, her mouth was dry, her eyes were wide and the adrenaline continued to blast through her. The supernova in her stomach had receded, but the last remaining shards of worry had tied themselves into a rock-hard knot the size of the average granite boulder - it could not be counted as an improvement. She wished she had something to drink, but there was no time for that.

It had been a while since she had experienced anything quite like it. Not since the last shift of her pre-registration time at the Community Hospital had she needed to be an active participant in administering first-response aid to a sick individual. It had been an eye-opening assignment and she realized she had forgotten more than she thought she had, but a quick evaluation of what she had done and how she had done it made her come to the conclusion that she had acquitted herself fairly well.

Malin soon left the patient by himself and jumped into the driver's seat. Once the engine had started, she turned on the lights and sirens and took off from the curb. A slow and steady U-turn - so the top-heavy ambulance would not sway too much - left them headed for Avenue C. Even as she mashed the gas to get underway, the radio mic was in her hand. "Dispatch, unit oh-three. Dispatch, unit oh-three. Do you copy?" she said before releasing the key.

'Unit oh-three, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead,' the female voice said from the other end of the connection.

"Code two-oh-two at one-one-six-five West Nineteenth Street completed. Patient in hold. Stand by for further transmission in three minutes, over."

'Unit oh-three, confirm completion of assignment. Proceed to St. Mary's-'

"Negatory, dispatch. Stand by for further transmission. Unit oh-three out."

As Malin put the mic back on the little hook to concentrate fully on getting the boxy ambulance to blend into the traffic on Avenue C, she had a lemon-sour look upon her face that said she was still steaming mad; the white knuckles produced by the death grip she had on the steering wheel confirmed it.

When several cars could not be bothered to give way, or even slow down, so the GMC could get onto the bigger street even with the full lights and regular electronic sirens blasting away, Malin rammed her finger onto a switch that activated the special air horns that had been installed on top of the cab's roof. Affectionately dubbed the Trombones of Doom, the two-tone air horns sent out such a deafening wall of sound that even the most inattentive driver would sit up and pay attention. "Goddammit, those assholes must be deaf, dumb and blind!" she growled before the gap was finally large enough for the bulky GMC Savana to blend into.

The furrow on DeeDee's forehead only grew deeper at the unusual behavior. She did not want to disturb Malin while driving, but a little Elf in her ear offered a whispering suggestion that it would all be explained sooner rather than later.

-*-*-*-

'Sooner' did in fact win out over 'later,' and it became even sooner than DeeDee had expected. They had barely made it onto Avenue C before Malin hung a fast right onto East Twentieth Street that made the top-heavy GMC ambulance sway dangerously through the turn - a constant stream of cursing and growling emanated from the driver all through the daring maneuver.

Less than seventy yards up the connecting street, Malin stood on the brakes to make the whole thing come to a nose-dipping, tire-squealing halt. That she had left the ambulance double-parked next to a newspaper stand - whose owner leaned out of his booth to gawk at the unusual sight - seemed to matter little.

Switching off the electronic siren but leaving the warning lights on, Malin jumped up before the slack-jawed DeeDee could even grunt; a split second later, the driver had stormed into the rear and had pulled the seat belts off the gurney. "Nurse White, I need you back here! We must perform emergency surgery right this minute!" she cried, waving DeeDee down to her before she turned her attention to the well-dressed man on the gurney. "I believe the patient is suffering from a seriously overproductive defecatory gland. If we don't open him up and cut it out at once, it may burst and drown us all in his Goddamned bullsh*t!"

"What in the world…?" DeeDee croaked, staring wide-eyed at the irate Malin as she ducked through the cutout to get to the rear compartment. Her eyes only grew wider when the supposedly ill patient sat up on the gurney and growled at the driver.

"Freddie Mack, you sonovabitch!" Malin continued, growling right back at the man in the impeccable business suit. "J-F-C, I can't believe you're still pulling that Goddamned fainting con! And what's with the fancy duds? Where'd'ya steal that outfit?"

"Temper, temper!" Freddie said, swinging his legs over the side of the gurney. He reached into one of the pockets of his vest to get a handkerchief so he could wipe his face clean of the last of the foamy substance - green food coloring and two antacid tablets that had been dissolved in the club soda. "This suit was bought and paid for! And the diamond-studded tie-clip. And the gold cufflinks. And the gold Rolex. You got a gold Rolex?" he continued, holding up his arm so the two women could get a good look at the expensive wristwatch.

"That ain't no Rolex, Freddie… that's a five-dollar Foolex! On second thoughts, with all those free lunches and hot dinners you've conned people out of, I'm sure you're loaded!"

"Gentlemen never discuss their financial affairs."

"Yeah? How the hell would you know? DeeDee, take a good look at Mister Freddie Mack here," Malin said, pointing an accusing index finger at the supposedly ill man who had turned out to be anything but. "Grade A conman. Grade A bullsh*t artist. Grade A pain in the ass of everyone working in the ambulance business!"

"Watch your language, little lady! There's no need to be so profane," Freddie said as he got up from the gurney. After closing the upper two buttons of his shirt and rearranging his red silk necktie, he started looking around for the rest of his belongings.

"The hell there ain't! How often have ya pulled this stunt, Freddie? A hundred times? Two hundred times? And always at new or newly opened restaurants so they won't recognize your lying mug!"

"I plead the fifth."

"Oh, I'm sure you do!"

A hot flash rolled over DeeDee as she suddenly understood that she and Malin had been nothing but pawns in an elaborate con. As her cheeks grew red, she had to clench her fists at the thought of how nervous she had been trying to examine the man while he had been in the middle of his ploy. "Well! You should be ashamed of yourself!" she said in a voice that had a higher pitch than usual. "Pulling such a vile con on us… not to mention that nice Mr. Cleveland! You could jeopardize his entire business!"

"Huh… is she new?" Freddie said in an amused fashion as he looked at Malin whose mood was no better than DeeDee's. "Definitely an idealist. What did you do to my jacket, my briefcase and my Nico Calabrese specs?"

Malin reached into the storage room underneath the bench seat, retrieved the plastic bag she had used to protect the items and threw it onto the gurney without uttering a syllable.

"Why thank you. They better not be creased or I might sue you and your old man," Freddie said as he unpacked the jacket and the expensive-looking pair of glasses that were only fitted with plain glass. He gave the leather briefcase a thorough check to look for scratches; when he failed to find any, he let out a grunt of disappointment.

DeeDee stepped fully back into the rear of the ambulance. To keep her hands occupied, she needed to grab hold of the carry-blanket that was still laid out on top of the gurney. "Sir, it's time for you to vacate the premises, or a creased jacket will be the least of your problems!" she said while her cheeks and forehead changed color from mostly red to an unhealthy grayish-white that still sported red blotches here and there.

Freddie seemed to have all the time in the world as he donned his suit jacket and pulled down in the sleeves to make it sit just right. Once the jacket was in place, he breathed on the plain glass lenses and polished them on a piece of silk cloth he had in his pocket - then he pushed them up his nose with his middle finger.

"Freddie," Malin said with a mischievous grin, "what my eloquent associate here is trying to say is… get your fancy-dressed ass outta my ambulance right this Goddamned minute or we may just accidentally slip you a sedative and drop you off down at the po-leese."

Grabbing the empty leather briefcase, Freddie Mack let out an insulted huff. "I fail to see why your undies are so wadded up. What did I ever do to you? But don't worry. I'll leave. I know when I'm not welcome."

"Thank you!" Malin said and motioned to DeeDee that she should open the access door so they could get rid of their unwanted guest.

DeeDee did so at once and stared daggers at the well-dressed conman as he stepped down onto the sidewalk and began to look around - perhaps for an upscale café or a neighborhood coffee shop where he could get a free dessert. No sooner had he cleared the door before she pulled it shut with a bang. "I've never… what an S.O.B.," she mumbled as she folded up the carry-blanket and stored it under the lid of the bench seat.

"Ain't that the truth," Malin said as she moved up front to sit down behind the wheel. Reaching over to the dashboard, she switched off the many emergency lights before she took the radio mic off the hook. "Dispatch, unit oh-three. Dispatch, unit oh-three. Do you read me?"

With the rear compartment back to its normal, pristine state, DeeDee let out a sigh and ducked through the cutout to get back up to the front seat.

'Unit oh-three, dispatch. We read you. Why have you stopped?'

"The popa at Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food turned out to be none other than dear, old Freddie Mack. We dumped him here on East Twentieth Street. We do not need a clean-up so we're continuing. Do you have anything for us, over?"

'That's a negatory, unit oh-three. Your area is green. Your case report has been logged.'

"Copy that, dispatch. Unit oh-three over and out," Malin said and put the mic back on the hook. Shaking her head, she moved the column-mounted shifter into drive and let the GMC rumble down the one-way East Twentieth Street headed for Avenue D.

---

The next thirty-five minutes went by with nary a word spoken between Malin and DeeDee. The former was still grumbling about what to do to the world's many conmen, and the latter could still not comprehend that she had been used as a willing stooge in such a devious setup.

They continued to patrol the main and smaller streets of Carlyle while they waited for the dispatcher to give them their next assignment. Each time the radio squawked, Malin reached for the mic in the hope they were up for a job to quell the frustrating experience from the last one, but it seemed everyone behaved themselves in their neck of the city jungle.

All around the garishly painted GMC ambulance, bicycle couriers zipped through the traffic pulling various death-defying stunts that enabled them to keep to their tight deadlines. Delivery vans and trucks continued to take up the inner lanes of many of the streets which always caused plenty of honks and angry shouts behind them. The ubiquitous taxi cabs from Carlyle's many different cab companies drove by in flocks searching for their next fares, and the lumbering city buses droned past following their regular routes.

Now and then, emergency sirens cut through the air to warn the other traffic of a fast-moving vehicle. It was mostly white-and-pale-blue cruisers and SUVs from the city police, but one or two ambulances from competing rescue services also ducked and weaved through the crowded lanes with their clusters of warning lights flashing - even a four-axled tow truck came roaring past on Avenue D, no doubt headed for a fender-bender somewhere.

As the GMC ambulance rolled to a stop at the intersection of Sunderland and Sixteenth Street, DeeDee yawned and put her arms in the air to stretch her back. Conflicting emotions continued to roll around inside her. The inactivity had begun to grate on her nerves, and she wished they would get a new assignment to give her mind something to think about other than the fiasco at the soul food restaurant. At the same time, she wished the quiet period would continue for as long as possible so the risk of getting into even more trouble would be minimal. "Malin, do you think we could stop somewhere to buy a soda?" she said, shuffling around in the warm seat to find a spot that would give her rear a respite. "And maybe a sandwich or something? I'm so hungry I could eat my company baseball cap, and I need… uh… I need something to do, to be honest."

Malin nodded as she looked to her right at her passenger. "Sure. I could eat. There's a great hamburger joint over on Avenue C opposite a used-car dealership. Ever been there?"

"Uh… don't think so… I don't often eat at hamburger joints."

"It's a great spot," Malin said as the long line of vehicles ahead of her started moving. When she reached the intersection, she activated the turning signal and hung a right onto Sixteenth Street to get over to Avenue C. "Their burgers are great and tasty… the fries are even better. And they have a deal with Dad so we get a discount. A buck off each burger, and the hot sauce is free if we want it. That's a pretty good deal, right?"

"Well… I guess."

"Trust me, it is," Malin said with a grin. "Okie-dokie, it's dinner time. I'll just call it in so we can have a couple of minutes to ourselves," she continued, reaching for the radio mic.

-*-*-*-

It did not take long for the garishly painted ambulance to reach the fast food restaurant on Avenue C. The hands of time had moved around to just past seven thirty, but the outbreak of early evening meant nothing for the rush hour traffic that was still in full effect resulting in long lines of cars clogging up many of the streets.

What appeared to be a film or commercial shoot at the used-car dealership across from the fast food restaurant only added more vehicles to the mix. Three white vans and a flatbed trailer that carried a camera mounted on a long-necked articulated crane were lined up at the curb. Technicians and other kinds of crewmembers swarmed around dragging cables and rigging up lights.

Malin and DeeDee had approached the restaurant from the north which meant they needed to cross over the center lines to get into the parking lot. Malin did so by briefly turning on the warning lights and making a hard left when a tiny gap in the traffic presented itself to her. It earned her several honks - and it was perhaps not in full accordance with the rules and regulations - but it got them into the lot.

After rumbling over the sidewalk which left the top-heavy GMC swaying left and right, Malin drove past several half-full lanes to get to the oversized parking bays at the back of the lot. Once there, she reversed into a space just large enough for the boxy ambulance. "Okay," she said as she moved the shifter into neutral and let the engine idle for a short while, "we aren't allowed to leave the vehicle unattended unless we're working. I'll go in and order what we want, then we'll eat out here. My treat 'cos its your first day and all."

"Oh! Thank you…"

"You're welcome. There's a picnic table right over there we always use… see it?" Malin said, pointing through the windshield.

DeeDee craned her neck to look in that direction. "Uh-huh…"

"That way, we can still keep an eye on this thing in case anyone takes an unhealthy interest in it," Malin continued, finally switching off the engine.

"Right. Any old burger will do as long as it isn't too greasy," DeeDee said as she unbuckled her seat belt. "Oh, and I'd like a co*ke and some fries too."

"You betcha. Comin' right up!" Opening the driver's side door, Malin soon climbed out of the GMC and strode across the parking lot to get things done.

---

The usual five-to-seven minutes went by before Malin came out of the restaurant carrying a big load consisting of two trays on top of each other: the top one held a pile of napkins, several wrapped burgers, two packs of fries and two cardboard cups of soda pop complete with drinking straws. Whistling at DeeDee who was waiting by the ambulance, the strawberry-blond made a beeline for the picnic table where she put down both trays and distributed the many items evenly among them.

The temperature had dropped as evening had arrived, so DeeDee stuck her arms down her brand new, heavy-duty uniform jacket on her way over to the picnic table that offered a clear view of their rolling office.

Unwrapping the burgers and the fries was soon accomplished, and DeeDee surprised herself by wolfing down the fries and both Double-Cheese Specials that Malin had bought for her. The free hot sauce was too spicy for her tastebuds, but Malin gladly accepted the second pack - then the driver squeezed out the contents all over her burgers and fries.

---

DeeDee pushed aside the tray with the spent wrappers after wiping her lips on a napkin that carried the familiar logo of the fast food restaurant. Sighing, she cast a gloomy look back at the ambulance. "I still can't believe I was tricked like that…" she said, shaking her head. "It really hurt when you exposed his con. I really thought he had fallen ill."

Malin nodded somberly before she licked a few droplets of hot sauce off her thumb; the sauce had run off the final bite of her second burger that she held in a two-finger grip while she spoke. "I know it's tough not to do, but you can't beat yourself up over it. There are plenty of conmen and general assholes like Freddie Mack out there. We're bound to run into them on a regular basis," she said, finally chowing down the last remaining bite. Once she had gulped it down, she offered the trainee riding nurse a supportive smile. "That it happened on your very first shift was really bad luck, though. I guess if there's a silver lining to that particular cloud, it's that you won't fall for his tricks a second time."

"Definitely not. I won't allow myself to be fooled again."

"Now that's a promise you can't keep, DeeDee," Malin said before she scooped up her final two French fries that had been soaking in the hot sauce. She quickly wiped her lips on the napkin before she crumpled it up and threw it onto the tray. "You will be fooled again 'cos there are so many of them out there. The trick is not to let it get you down."

"Mmmm…"

"You must have encountered jerks of all kinds when you worked at the Community?"

"Well, I know they were there, but the senior nurses in charge usually dealt with them."

"Yeah, okay. Now you're face to face with them. That's different." Malin took a long swig from her soda's drinking straw before she leaned in toward the trainee riding nurse. "Listen, I've only known you for a couple of hours. You're a great gal, even a blind accordion player can see that, but I think you're a brooder. Right?"

DeeDee briefly glanced at her driver before she looked down to toy with her own cardboard cup and the drinking straw. "Well… I guess I am. I never considered that to be a bad thing," she said and took a sip of her co*ke.

"It's not, but you need to learn to let some things go. Don't sweat the small stuff. Water off a duck's ass or whatever the term is. When you get to the end of your shift and Freddie Mack was the worst that happened, you've got to count yourself lucky. Freddie and his ilk are really just pimples in the overall scheme of things. Some of the tricksters, conmen and phoneys we run across use a style similar to his, others do something completely different. Some of them just luurrve to be driven around in ambulances like those freaks who set fire to something just to see the big, red trucks responding with their lights and sirens going full blast."

"Heh, yeah…"

"What I'm trying to say is that sh*t happens, and it will happen to you. And then it'll happen to you all over again. Who knows, a big load of it might be waiting for us just around the corner. It's happened to me a hundred times, so I know what I'm talking about."

"I suppose."

"Oh, there's no doubt about it, DeeDee. Being a riding nurse is not a cushy nine-to-five desk job like the one you had where you worked before. It's not even how it was at the Community where you were part of a team on a rotation. Here, the people who desperately need help are right there in your capable hands. You're the only one they have. The only one who stands between them and the great hereafter. Gunshot injuries, stabbings, rape victims… burn victims. They're the worst, in my opinion. Why? Because of their eyes. Their skin and flesh may be gone, but the eyes remain. And they're always wide and frightened. They know they're about to die if they're not treated within minutes. And, of course… sooner or later, you'll experience a fatality tho' you've done all in your power to save that person. Someone will die right there in front of you on the gurney."

"I'm no stranger to the gravely ill or dying, Malin. More than once, I've held a terrified person's hand until it grew limp," DeeDee said, scrunching up her face as she relived some of the dark memories from her younger years at the busy inner-city hospital. The pictures playing across her mind's eye were anything but pretty. She had already dealt with all the things that had been mentioned when she had done her pre-registration time at the Community Hospital, but like Malin had said, in most of the cases, she'd had a certain mental and physical distance there that she would not have inside the cramped confines of the ambulances.

Malin softened her expression as a wistful smile spread over her lips. Reaching out, she patted the back of DeeDee's hand that continued to cling onto the cup of soda. "I didn't mean to be condescending. I'm just trying to convey that it's different here… at the front lines."

DeeDee nodded. "I understand. Oh… I can feel in my gut that I'm not afraid of facing any of those things you talked about. The thing with the S.O.B. conman hurt, yes, but I'm here because I want to offer my help to those who need it," she said before taking the last sip of her co*ke and putting the empty cup on the tray.

"That's a good starting point, DeeDee. A very good one," Malin said as she swung her legs free of the bench at the picnic table. "That was a great talk we had here. Very insightful. So… are you ready to move on?"

"I need to use their restroom before we go anywhere. Is it clean?"

"I didn't check, but I can't recall a time when it wasn't."

"Good. Beyond that, I'm ready," DeeDee said and got up from the table. Though she scooped up both trays, she paused before she left for the trash can. "Well, actually… to get some closure on the Freddie Mack thing… I think we should drive back to the soul food restaurant and explain to Mr. Cleveland what actually took place. I think he has a right to know. He must be really concerned about his business. It's so easy to get a bad reputation, but they're difficult to get rid of. I'd hate to see all his hard work go under because of the actions of a conman."

"Well… huh. I guess we could do that. It's not too far," Malin said and scratched her neck. "Boy, you really are an idealist!"

"I always have been," DeeDee said before she made a beeline for the trash can.

Malin chuckled as she tracked the taller woman walking away - whatever else happened, the rest of their first shift together would definitely be an interesting experience.

-*-*-*-

The clock on the ambulance's dashboard had reached ten past midnight. Less than two hours remained of DeeDee's introduction to the supposedly fast-paced, high-intensity, all-action-all-the-time world of emergency medical response teams. That was the general public's perception of the business, at least - no doubt shaped by what the colorful recruitment posters all said.

Reality told a different tale as it invariably did. Yawning, the trainee riding nurse snuggled down in the passenger seat and pulled her thick, warm jacket closer around her body. Since the unfortunate incident involving Freddie Mack, unit oh-three had only had one additional assignment, and that had been to transport a supermarket employee to the E.R. with a suspected broken ring finger.

The injury had occurred on the late-late shift when the rookie employee had failed to gain a proper grip on a heavy cardboard box full of cans of a no-name brand's medium-grade dog food. The young man was somewhat challenged when it came to hand-eye coordination as witnessed by the fact that he had given his shin a good whack from stumbling over the lower rung going up into the ambulance. DeeDee had saved him from bashing his nose as well, but it was hardly the stuff heroic tales were made of.

The GMC ambulance was quiet though anything but dark. They had driven onto the forecourt of a brightly-lit gas station near the company headquarters on Forty-fourth Street because they needed fuel, but they were forced to wait for their turn. Two of the three diesel pumps were in use by delivery trucks, and the third one - the high-speed pump - had been covered by a canvas bag and carried a message that literally said it was 'Out of order - awaiting maintenance.'

In the meanwhile, Malin Pettersson had switched on all their warning lights now she had the time to perform a visual inspection of the vehicle. Strolling around the ambulance in her shirtsleeves, she checked the wig-wag fog lights installed in the grille as well as the countless LED panels and strobe lights that were distributed all over the boxy rear compartment to verify that each one was still working as it should. When everything looked to be in perfect condition, she strolled back to the passenger side door and stepped up on the narrow aluminum running board. "You cold?" she said into the two-inch-wide space that had been formed when DeeDee had rolled down her window.

"A little," DeeDee said, sitting up a little straighter. She concealed another yawn with the palm of a hand before she leaned forward to look at the clock on the dashboard. "It's two hours past my bedtime. I guess I'm zoning out."

"Huh. Do you really go to bed at ten on weekdays?"

"Yeah. Seven days a week. Up at six, in bed at ten. It's an old habit."

"I'm more of a night owl myself," Malin said and let out a chuckle. "I guess that's why I love working the four-to-two shift. The twelve-to-ten shift is worse 'cos then we have to suffer through morning rush hour traffic during the final few hours of the shift. Not good for my temper."

DeeDee matched the chuckle just made by Malin with one of her own. "I'll bet," she said, offering her driver a broad, cheeky grin.

Malin was about to respond with an even cheekier comment when one of the delivery trucks drove away from the diesel pump it had occupied. "That's our cue," she said, running around the front of the ambulance and jumping in behind the wheel. In quick succession, she switched off the warning lights, turned on the engine and moved the shifter into low to get to the vacant pump before another of the lumbering, smelly, noisy trucks could snatch it from under their noses.

---

After the GMC had been fully refueled and the windows, headlights and taillights had been washed in mostly clean water, Malin drove back onto Forty-fourth Street to follow the same path they had taken when they had first left the garage just after four the previous afternoon.

This time, the intersection at Thirty-eighth Street and Avenue C offered few dramas save for a juvenile speeder who raced across without bothering to stop for his yellow light. An unmarked cruiser from the city police followed him across the intersection going at nearly the same speed, so the young man in the fast set of wheels would soon be told the difference between green and yellow.

The nightlife DeeDee witnessed as she and Malin drove through the streets of Carlyle fascinated her to no end. Save for the infrequent occasions where she hit the town with some of her friends to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary, it had been years since she had ventured outside the safety of her double-locked doors after the sun had crept below the rooftops. During her time at the Beech Grove Private Hospital, whenever she had the graveyard shift, she would arrive in the early hours of the evening and stay there until just after sunrise, so even those periods would not see her exposed to the thrills and frequent terrors of the night.

She had never been mugged, assaulted or even threatened; she just did not feel comfortable among the grayish-brown tones and deep shadows that were created by the street lamps casting their dim light onto the streets below. Even as late as her fifteenth birthday, she could only fall asleep if she had a deep-orange night-light on in her bedroom to take the edge off the darkness. It gradually grew better after that, but she had kept it a secret from her parents out of fear they would send her to a shrink. She was finally forced to give up the night-light habit when she enrolled at the nursing school. There, she had a roommate and thus could not use one without being ridiculed, but she had to suffer through weeks of sleep-deprivation in order to overcome her need for it.

Silence ruled as the ambulance drove on through streets that, while still busy, were far less congested than during the day. DeeDee did not feel like talking, and even Malin had fallen into a fatigued silence as the end of their long shift slowly came into sight. The radio continued to squawk from time to time, but the driver had turned down the volume so it would not be so intrusive. The number of assignments handed out to the ambulances on patrol were far fewer than in the busy daylight hours, so it did not matter a great deal.

Instead of engaging in irrelevant small-talk that would only end up annoying them both, DeeDee gazed at the sidewalks they drove past. They had moved into the area near Beauregard Street where the blue-collar Hispanic neighborhood of North Tijuana met the eastern-most mean streets of skid row, and it showed.

Everywhere she looked, she saw people who were of vastly different types compared to those inhabiting the streets when the sun was out: women who were clearly sex workers strolled around under the street lamps in the hope some desperate soul would swing by and proposition them. A few men and women who needed the entire width of the sidewalk to walk home after spending their weekly wages or welfare checks in one of the many all-night bars in the area. Slick men in slick clothing who stood in front of dark cars or smokey bodegas talking to each other while looking like they could hardly wait to bump off someone so they could move up in the world, and groups of young men sporting crewcuts, Doc Martens boots and political tattoos who hung out at streetcorners clearly looking for someone to beat up.

There also seemed to be far more homeless people out at night: some pushed heavily-laden shopping carts with all their worldly possessions, some dragged huge plastic bags filled to capacity with empty beer and soda cans, and some just stood at burning oil drums warming their hands.

DeeDee could not prevent a sigh from escaping her lips. All those faces of humanity had presented themselves to her over a short distance of three city blocks of the connecting street they were driving down.

At the same time, Malin let out a grunt as she reached over to turn the radio's volume back up; then, she took the mic off the hook.

DeeDee rubbed her tired face when she realized the mounting fatigue had caused her to zone out again. At least the driver had stayed alert as the radio had come to life sending out their call-sign.

'Unit oh-three, unit oh-three, dispatch. You copy?' a female voice said from the radio that was now running at regular volume.

"Dispatch, unit oh-three. We copy. Go ahead," Malin said after keying the mic.

'We have received numerous calls for a code four-oh-three at four-seven-five-nine Belvedere Street near an alley halfway between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Street. Call-back confirmed. Also confirmed by city police. Multiple popas. You'll be joined by unit one-seven with unit oh-nine on immediate stand-by, over.'

A cold trickle fell over DeeDee's body as she listened to the dispatcher calmly reading out the details of the assignment. She still did not understand all the lingo, but it sounded like it could be a big one since there were multiple 'popas,' or potential patients, and that they would be joined by one or possibly two other ambulance crews.

Malin grunted before she keyed the mic again. "Ten-roger on the four-oh-three at four-seven-five-nine Belvedere. Unit oh-three responding. ETA two to four minutes. Engaging now," she said before she put the mic back on the little hook. Her free hand immediately hit the switches that activated the warning lights and the electronic sirens.

As the dark street around them was suddenly lit up by the numerous LED panels and strobe lights installed on the rear compartment, she mashed the gas which made the turbo diesel V8 up front let out a bassy roar; it also made the transmission kick down into a lower gear, and they were soon racing down Eleventh Street to get to Belvedere.

"What's a code four-oh-three?" DeeDee said as she sat up straight. The mounting tension had blown away her fatigue but she still needed to slap her cheeks to get the last sleepies out of her system.

"Road accident. A four-oh-one is a single-car incident and so on and so forth," Malin said without taking her eyes off the colorful scenery that raced past the windshield in a blur.

"Oh… so it's a three-car accident? That sounds nasty… thank you."

The reduced amount of traffic on the night-time streets meant they had an easier path through Carlyle compared to their earlier assignment, but Malin still needed to take the long way around a couple of taxi cabs whose drivers seemed to be half-asleep at the wheel.

They soon reached the corner of Eleventh Street and Belvedere, and Malin hung a hard right through the intersection without slowing down much. As a result, the springs of the top-heavy GMC creaked and whined as it first swayed one way, then the other before it righted itself once they were going straight.

A flashing reflection in the side mirror made DeeDee crane her neck so she could look into it: a short distance behind them, their colleagues in the one-seven unit followed in their tracks roaring north on Belvedere with all its warning lights going at full tilt - the wig-wag fog lights installed in the grille were particularly effective in creating a wall of light. "The other unit's right behind us," she said, turning to her driver.

"Yep," Malin said, briefly taking her eyes off the street ahead to check out the side mirror. "Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One all the way. I think it could be Lamb Chops and Cranky Jack in the one-seven, but I don't know for sure."

Despite the tension mounting rapidly, DeeDee had to chuckle at the silly nicknames the people at Pettersson's Ambulance Services gave each other. At least her real last name had been a good one - Malin's suggestion of 'Double-D' would have bothered her greatly.

The one-two combination of orange-and-white GMCs soon reached the accident site that already saw a plethora of emergency vehicles present. Two cruisers from the city police had apparently arrived first, and the uniformed officers had already put up cones and flashing, bright-red warning beacons to block off the lanes behind the accident.

Malin drove across the center lines and came to a squealing stop alongside the reason they were there: two cars and a delivery van had been involved in a three-way collision at the mouth of an alley. Studying how the three mangled vehicles had ended up, her experienced eye told her that the driver of an old, rust-brown Ford Escort hatchback had reversed out of the alley without bothering to wait for a gap in the traffic. The rear section of the Ford resembled a crushed beer can; it was only attached by the proverbial thread after it had been rammed by the front of a large, black Audi sedan that in turn had been rear-ended by a white Dodge delivery van - perhaps the driver of the latter had been tailgating the Audi or looking at the telephone instead of the street, or both.

When the second unit from Pettersson's arrived, it came to a halt twenty yards further up the street so they would stay out of each other's way. Malin switched off the engine and turned around in the seat. She was about to tell DeeDee what to do when it dawned on her that a third ambulance was already there parked behind the delivery van. Unlike the orange-and-white GMCs from her father's company, it was painted in fluorescent green with yellow chevrons running diagonally down the boxy rear compartment. "What. The. Hell?!" she growled as she stared at the strange ambulance and the two EMTs who were tending to the driver of the van. "Who the hell called those hacks?"

"What…? Who…? Where…?" DeeDee said. She was already halfway up from her seat intent on ducking through the opening into the rear compartment, but she stopped to glance ahead at the scene with a puzzled look upon her face.

"Never mind. Get one of the double-R kits… we got work to do," Malin said, taking the long way around by opening the driver's side door. Stepping back up onto the aluminum running board, she snatched her heavy-duty jacket off the back of the driver's seat and flung her arms down the sleeves - in the semi-darkness, the reflective stripes on the jacket would help her be seen.

DeeDee shook her head in confusion; there was no time for any of that, so she hurried back into the rear working area. After hitting the switches that activated the inner dome lights, she grabbed one of the rapid response kits, swung it over her shoulder and opened the rear doors. Malin was already out there and climbed up to prepare the gurney just as DeeDee jumped down onto the asphalt.

Running around the rear of the GMC, DeeDee tried to take in as much of the accident site as she could to get an overview of where she was needed the most and what she needed to do once she got there. What was left of the old Ford was barely recognizable as an automobile. Had anyone been sitting in the back, they would have been killed upon impact, but the rear seats appeared empty. The driver was still behind the wheel, but he was in the process of being breathalyzed by the police officers which put him further down the urgent to-do list.

It seemed the analysis was positive as the police pulled the mostly uninjured man from the wrecked car and slapped a pair of handcuffs on him. He proved he was well over the legal limit by the swimming, unsteady way he walked when he was led away from the smoking remains of the Ford and over to the first of the two cruisers. DeeDee paused for a moment, unsure whether or not she should see to him first regardless of his present status. When she noticed that the other crew from Pettersson's was ready for the drunk driver, she moved on toward the two people inside the Audi instead.

The light clusters and grille of the black sedan had been crushed, and the hood had been crumpled back into a shape that would not have looked out of place in the metalworks section of the Greater Carlyle Museum of Modern Art. Hissing steam and warm coolant poured from the cracked radiator which created not only a strong scent of hot metal but a growing pool of sickly-green fluid on the ground. Although the windshield had cracked into a thousand fragments, the safety glass had kept everything in place. The numerous airbags hung limply inside the expensive sedan after they had done the job they were designed for.

DeeDee was at the driver's side door in no time flat. Trying the handle first, she was surprised - but definitely pleased - to find that it opened without any snags save for a few squeaks and creaks. Two people sat in the car's front seats: the driver was a distinguished-looking Hispanic man in his late fifties, and the passenger was a Caucasian woman who appeared to be twenty years younger. They were both still wearing their seat belts, and both had bloody cuts and scrapes on their cheeks and foreheads. The woman had a oblong bruise on her chin stretching back along the left side of her jaw; it grew purple even as DeeDee was looking at it.

"Good evening, Sir. Miss. I'm Nurse White from Pettersson's Ambulance Services. I'm here to help you," she said as she swung the bag containing the rapid response kit off her shoulder. Kneeling next to the black car, she reached down to unzip the bag; she dug out a pair of orange medical gloves, several wads of absorbent cotton cloth, a pack of bandages and the penlight.

"Hello. I'm… my… my name is Álvaro González," the driver said, trying to smile at the nurse. "The police officer told us to remain in the car until professional help arrived…"

"Yes, that's to prevent injuries to your backs or necks," DeeDee said as she donned the protective gloves. "Mr. González, are you experiencing any pains in your body or extremities? Have any limbs grown numb? Do you have any mounting headaches or breathing difficulties?"

"My ears are still ringing from the airbags going off, but… but nothing of what you said. Jessica?" the businessman said, looking at the woman next to him who seemed far more affected by the traffic accident than the older man.

The shock of being involved in such a violent, upsetting experience was still visibly etched onto the younger woman's face; her elegantly applied make-up was unable to hide the mounting paleness. Even though she tried to remain still like the police had told her, a constant tremble that rolled through her made her body jitter. It appeared she had not recovered enough to speak yet, so she only shook her head.

"That's good news," DeeDee continued. "Unfortunately, you are both bleeding from small facial cuts, and Miss, you have a large bruise on your chin and jaw that my partner will soon be looking at." She glanced down into the footwell on the driver's side to find the potential culprit or culprits. There were a few shiny fragments of something there, but it was hard to tell which part had caused the abrasions.

"The cuts certainly sting," Álvaro González said before he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jessica had her telephone in her hand before the accident… it may have bounced around to hit her. I seem to have lost my glasses somewhere. I was probably nicked by one of the lenses. Can I unbuckle the seat belt now… please? I would really like to get out…"

"In a very brief moment, Sir," DeeDee said and turned on the penlight. "I need to check your pupils first for any signs of concussion," she continued as she shone the bright light into the businessman's eyes. When she found nothing untoward, she clicked off the light and stuck it into one of her jacket's many pockets. "All right, Mr. González, you can get out now."

"Thank God…" Álvaro croaked, releasing the seat belt. After reaching over to give his passenger's hand a little squeeze, he shuffled around to get his legs and body free of the limp airbags on the steering wheel and the side of the seat. As he climbed from the ticking and steaming wreck, he had to lean against it at once when his legs wobbled too hard for him to stand unassisted.

Even while that was going on, Malin arrived at the passenger side door of the black Audi. She had a little more trouble opening it, but she managed by grabbing the handle in a two-handed grip. "Hello, I'm Malin. Thank you for calling Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services," she said as she put down the rapid response kit and knelt by the car. "I can see that your driver is in good hands so I'll take a closer look at you instead, Miss," she continued, focusing on the deeply terrified Jessica.

Like DeeDee, Malin found a pair of gloves, a pile of absorbent cotton cloth, a fresh pack of bandages and the other penlight. By the complete absence of communication from the female passenger, it soon became clear that she was under a state of shock. Clenching her jaw, Malin donned her orange gloves and carried out the same pupil-test that DeeDee had just finished; like the trainee riding nurse, she did not find anything untoward. "Miss, are you in pain? Miss? What's your name?"

When the passenger failed to respond beyond a whimper, Malin nodded to herself and looked to the older driver instead. "Sir, what's her name?"

"Jessica," Álvaro said, leaning into the open door.

"Thank you, Sir. Jessica, are you in pain?" Malin continued, probing the passenger's neck to gauge if she needed a brace. When she touched the purple bruise on the chin and jaw, she was greeted by a long hiss. "Looks like we need to take care of that bruise. Please, Jessica, are you in pain?"

The young woman continued to whimper, but she was eventually able to release a croaking answer: "No… no pain… only my chin… but… just… just frightened."

"That's understandable, Jessica," Malin said, putting away the penlight. "All right. I'll get to the bruise in a moment. First, I'll clean the abrasion you have on your forehead. It may sting a little."

"O… okay…"

While Malin tended to the shocked passenger, DeeDee observed Álvaro González thoroughly to gauge his physical demeanor after he had stepped out of the car. The distinguished-looking man was dressed in a dark business suit that had been pulled crooked or even torn in the spots where the seat belts had been holding him back - it was certain his upper body would be black and blue come noon.

All in all, he did not seem the worse for wear save for the cuts on his cheeks and forehead, but DeeDee knew from her years at the Community Hospital that a delayed reaction to such a violent incident was a common occurrence. "Sir," she said as she unpacked one of the pieces of absorbent cotton cloth to get to work on the abrasions - then she echoed what Malin had just said: "This may sting a little."

---

A short ten minutes later, DeeDee helped Álvaro González up into their ambulance through the passenger-side access door. The rear compartment offered plenty of space since the gurney had been wheeled over to the remains of the Audi - Jessica had been far too shocked to stand on her own two feet.

Before the businessman could sit down on the bench seat, DeeDee opened the lid and reached into it to retrieve a neckbrace. Álvaro grimaced at the uncomfortable look of the medical equipment, but she offered him a smile to alleviate the worst of his apprehension. "It looks worse than it is, Mr. González. Please stand still while I put it on," she said as she slipped the brace around the businessman's neck. After making sure it was in the right position, she tightened the Velcro straps which made it guaranteed to resist any nudging, even as little as a fraction of an inch. "It's only precautionary. It'll help keep your neck straight until we reach the hospital. There could be nerve damage that will only be exposed during the driving."

"Ugh… that would be worse," Álvaro said, trying to smile at the nurse. The brace kept his head fixed in position to such a degree that it meant he needed to movie his entire body to see where the bench seat was behind him. Inching backward, he sat down gingerly and took the waist-belts. After several failed attempts where he literally struggled to make ends meet because he could not see them, DeeDee helped him click the locks into place; then she tightened the belt so he could not move around. He smiled at her once more before he ran his hands through his hair that had become disheveled in the accident.

Commotion down on the street proved to be Malin who had wheeled the gurney back to the ambulance on her own. She let out a brief whistle to alert DeeDee of her return, and the trainee riding nurse soon joined her in lifting it and its precious cargo back up into the rear of the GMC. A plastic bag containing the woman's high-heeled pumps and the recovered telephone was put on the bench seat next to Álvaro González so he could hold onto it.

Once the gurney had been locked into place in the V-shaped contraption and the secondary locking bar had been closed, Malin ducked through the cutout to get to the driver's seat so she could update the dispatcher and be told which of Carlyle's many hospitals they should go to.

DeeDee remained in the rear compartment at first to make sure the female patient was comfortable on the gurney. The woman - whose burgundy evening dress had been filthied and torn in several places by the forces inflicted upon it by the tightening of the seat belts - continued to look terrified, even after she had been given a dose of sedatives that should make her relax. Malin had treated the oblong bruise on her chin and jaw by applying a huge piece of bandage and several pieces of skin-friendly adhesive tape; that and the smaller bandages on her cheeks and forehead made her look like she had gone a few rounds against the world heavyweight boxing champion.

After checking the gurney's restraining belts to make sure they were locked in place, DeeDee tucked in the white blanket they had put on top of the woman to protect her from the chill that would inevitably follow the shock. She offered the woman a comforting smile before she moved past her intent on going up front.

A split second later, Jessica cried out in a panicky voice. Moving far faster than she had done so far, the frightened woman grabbed hold of DeeDee's jacket and pulled her back to her. Álvaro González tried to get up from the bench seat to comfort the younger woman, but the waist-belts pinned him down so he was unable to do anything.

"No!" Jessica cried in a high-pitched voice, "No, don't go! Please!"

"Miss…" DeeDee tried in a diplomatic tone, but she soon realized that it was to no avail.

"Jessica! Jessica, please calm down," Álvaro said, but he was no more successful in talking the younger woman down than DeeDee had been.

It only took DeeDee a brief moment to realize she would have to ride along in the back on the bench seat next to Álvaro González so the frightened woman could keep her in her line of sight throughout. "Malin, I need to stay back here this time," she said loud enough for the driver to hear it over the constant whimpers and the noises created by the activity that surrounded the ambulance. "Are we done here? Can I shut the doors?"

Malin turned around in the driver's seat and offered everyone in the back a big thumbs-up. "We're done. We're going to St. Mary's."

"All right," DeeDee said, inching around the gurney and down the small rung by the biohazard wastebin to reach the side access door that had been opened fully. Once that had been clicked shut, she moved down to the rear doors and repeated the procedure.

"Are you all ready back there?" Malin said from up front.

DeeDee looked at Álvaro and Jessica who both nodded at her. "Three doors closed. We're ready," she said, sitting down on the bench and clicking the waist-belt in place. Though an inkling of concern pinged in her mind from being in the rear compartment while they were underway, she never allowed the smile she wore to leave her lips, nor did she take her eyes off the frightened woman on the gurney.

The GMC ambulance trembled when the engine came to life; soon after, Malin reversed away from the accident site to have room to maneuver. She left the warning lights on but kept the electronic sirens turned off. Just as she turned the steering wheel all the way around to perform a slow U-turn on Belvedere Street, a tow truck arrived to pick up the pieces of the three vehicles.

She also noticed that the green-and-yellow ambulance belonging to their worst competitors Sklar & Bonney - or 'Skull And Bones' as everyone at Pettersson's called them - seemed to be headed for the same hospital they were. Grunting, she mashed the gas to at least get to St. Mary's ahead of their fierce rivals.

-*-*-*-

DeeDee could feel a touch of motion sickness setting in now that she was stuck in the rear. It would not look good to their patients if the riding nurse turned green around the gills, so she leaned forward to be able to see the street ahead through the cutout - it also gave her a view of Malin who had a firm grip on the steering wheel as they blasted northbound on Belvedere with all the warning lights flashing.

The driver's eyes were focused hard on the middle distance ahead of them so she had time to perform evasive action if it was needed - at least the traffic was sparse on the broad four-lane street that was home to a great deal of cornershop cafés, high-end delis, bookstores and arts and craft-shops where the creative class could buy enough canvases, paint and sculpting clay to satisfy even their boundless needs.

Belvedere Street formed the eastern boundary of the neighborhood inhabited by Carlyle's bohemians - Cassandra Street was its western companion. The artists' colony had been established as the conformist 1950s became the more liberal 1960s. Within eight months of the turn of the decade, the first wave of struggling artists had moved into damp, rank and leaky garrets while trying to create the perfect, imperfect painting or sculpture that would stand the test of time, or write the Great American Novel, or even cram their lifeblood into poetry that could occasionally be visionary but most often was simply narcissistic.

Over the course of the 1960s, like-minded youngsters arrived in droves from all over the state - and even the country - and the entire neighborhood eventually became a hotspot for all bohemians, intellectuals and other perceived outsiders who did not feel welcome in the more conservative, conformative blue-collar districts of Carlyle City. The much-hyped Summer of Love on the Pacific coast had stolen all the headlines; the artists' colony between Belvedere and Cassandra Street had already practiced the same kind of breakthrough social awareness for years. All colors, all creeds and all versions of personal identity were equally welcome.

One of the current residents of the bohemian, rainbow-tinted neighborhood was one DeeDee White, but she was always wary of telling new people who did not know her well. Even in the present day, many had strong pre-conceived notions of the area and the supposedly overly flamboyant - or even flaky - people living there, and she knew it was an argument that would see no winners.

As the ambulance, the driver and the three passengers in the back continued to speed north, Malin needed to turn on the electronic siren at the intersection of Belvedere and Twenty-second Street when all four lanes were blocked by a wide selection of delivery vans. None of them could be bothered to move as much as an inch, so she slammed her finger onto the dashboard-mounted switch that controlled the special siren known as the Trombones of Doom - then she turned the steering wheel to take the long way around the central standard, and the intersection had soon been cleared.

In the back, the sudden, loud noise made all three people jump. Jessica let out a surprised squeak that turned into a few whimpers; DeeDee reached out at once to take the terrified woman's hand and give it a good squeeze to tell her she was still safe.

"Nurse White," Malin said over her shoulder without taking her eyes off the road, "I'm sorry, but I need to speak with you up here before we reach the hospital."

Jessica scrunched up her face at the prospects of losing her guardian angel, but the sedatives she had been given finally seemed to kick in which made her close her eyes; the relaxed state was reflected on her face that softened the terrified expression that had been etched onto it since the accident.

Álvaro had noticed the exchange and reached over to touch DeeDee's arm. "Don't worry about her… I'll look out for her."

"Thank you, Sir," DeeDee said before she gave Jessica's hand a final squeeze. Then she released the waist-belt and clambered to her feet. It was difficult for her to maintain her balance while the ambulance was traveling at speed on streets that were not in the best of shape when it came to being even, but by taking a firm grip on the gurney, she was able to get up to the cutout - and through it - without bumping into too much along the way.

Sitting down, she quickly reached for the regular seat belts. She noticed at once that Malin was tapping her fingers on the steering wheel - a sign that not all was well. "Is something wrong?" she said as she clicked the lock into place.

"Sorta. It's St. Mary's. It seems it's the hospital on duty tonight. I'm guessing the other ERs have all reached the upper limits on their capacity. Even in the incident with Goddamned Freddie Mack, the dispatcher sent us to St. Mary's before we canceled it. It annoys the hell out of me."

"Uh… how so?"

"It's the second-oldest hospital in Greater Carlyle. Only your old downtown stomping grounds, the Community Hospital, is older… and St. Mary's ambulance access road and the ramp leading to it are ass-narrow, ass-steep and ass-difficult to navigate with our modern, boxy, bulky ambulances."

"Oh… okay," DeeDee said, scratching her neck. When several long moments had gone by with no further comments from the driver, DeeDee gave up attempting to figure out the ramifications on her own. "I can see that'll be a pain in the… uh… rear for you, but why did you need to speak with me?"

Malin leaned in toward DeeDee and lowered her voice so it would not carry into the rear compartment: "Because it may end up being a bumpy ride on that damn ramp, and you may have to comfort the female patient even more than you've done already. I just wanted to let you know ahead of time so you could prepare for it," Malin said and offered DeeDee a grin. "And I didn't want to shout it out 'cos it might trigger a fit back there."

"Oh… right. I think she's calmed down now, but, uh… thank you," DeeDee said, leaning as far to her left as she could while being restrained by the seat belt. She was just able to see the top of Jessica's fashionably styled hair above the gurney's headrest. It appeared to be at peace, indicating the sedatives were still working. "I think she'll be fine."

"Good," Malin said at her regular volume before she focused her attention on driving fast through the streets of Carlyle.

All ambulance drivers from all the competing emergency service providers had an intense disliking of the approach to St. Mary's Hospital. When the concrete ramp and the entrance to the underground parking garage had been constructed in the immediate post-war years in connection with the great expansion of Carlyle, the ambulances were simply converted sedans or woodies that had received a new body kit bolted directly onto the frame.

The problems began as early as the 1960s when full-length Cadillacs and similar vehicles from other manufacturers were put into use as hearses and ambulances. The so-called land yachts of that generation could hardly maneuver through the tight confines of the access road. A thousand bumpers had been de-chromed grinding along the concrete where the steep ramp leveled out, and a thousand fenders had been dinged, bashed, scraped or dented in a thousand impacts with the concrete walls in the turn at the foot of the ramp. That the ceiling was low as well was simply icing on the cake for Malin and every other person driving a modern, extra-tall ambulance.

Twenty-fourth, Twenty-fifth, Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Street all came and went. They would need to make a hard left onto West Twenty-eighth Street for the final stretch toward St. Mary's, so Malin took her foot off the gas and hit the switch for the electronic sirens to give an early warning that people needed to look out for the orange-and-white ambulance.

She took the turn far easier than she would have done had they been racing to an accident site, but the springs of the top-heavy GMC still creaked and whined as it went through the corner, and DeeDee still needed to hang onto the panic grip above the door.

West Twenty-eighth Street was a four-lane street - two in each direction - that ran at the southern end of the financial district. For a change, it was well-lit with only fifty yards' distance between the LED lamp posts that cast a greenish hue down onto the asphalt. The traffic was even more sparse there than it had been on Belvedere, and the few cars that had ventured out at the late hour all pulled over to allow the emergency vehicles to go past unhindered.

A quick glance in the side-mirror by Malin proved that the ambulance from Sklar & Bonney had remained right behind them. "They're still there," she said as the speed increased once more.

"Who?" DeeDee said, peeking into her own mirror.

"Skull and Bones. They've been shadowing us since the incident site. Can't even be assed to take the point so they could clear the intersections for us… lazy bozos."

To cut a long grumble short, Malin took the radio mic off the little hook. She knew the dispatch had exact knowledge of their whereabouts and that they had already alerted the ER crew at the hospital, but asking about it could not hurt. "Dispatch, unit oh-three. Dispatch, unit oh-three. Do you copy, over?" she said before releasing the key.

'Unit oh-three, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead.'

"Unit oh-three arriving at St. Mary's now so loss of radio and data contact is imminent. Bringing in two patients. Has a medical team been advised, over?"

'Acknowledged, unit oh-three. ER team standing by upon arrival. Use gate four.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Using gate four. Over and out," Malin said and put the radio mic back onto the hook.

The nineteen-story building housing St. Mary's Hospital loomed large on the left-hand side of the street some three hundred yards further ahead of their present location. Lining up to go into the turning lane, Malin said over her shoulder: "We're almost there. I suggest you go back now in case the female patient freaks out."

"Okay," DeeDee said and released the seat belt. She took advantage of the fact that Malin applied the brakes by getting up from the seat and ducking through the cutout. As the ambulance slowed down to a speed that would be safe for negotiating the turning lane, she sat down on the bench next to Álvaro González, clicked the waist-belt in place and tightened the strap.

"Hello again," Álvaro said, moving the plastic bag with Jessica's shoes and her telephone to his other side so DeeDee had room on the bench. "She's been calm since you left."

"Good. Thank you for keeping an eye on her, Sir," DeeDee said with a smile. Looking ahead through the cutout, she was able to see that Malin went through the turning lane and entered the hospital's plot of land. They drove past a park-like section before the ambulance access road that led to the dreaded ramp came into view. Malin needed to slow down to a walking pace to make the right-hand turn onto the top of the ramp, but at least it gave her the opportunity to shift the transmission into low so the engine-braking would provide much of the retardation of the heavy vehicle.

"We're gonna go down a steep ramp in a couple of seconds," the driver said over her shoulder.

"All right!" DeeDee replied from her position on the bench seat. "Sir, it might rock a little so you better hang onto something," she continued, turning to Álvaro González next to her. The businessman nodded and grabbed hold of the bench to the best of his abilities.

The GMC Savana seemed to stand up on its nose as it crept down the steep ramp at no more than five miles per hour. If the concrete ramp had merely been narrow and steep it would have been bad enough, but some oh-so-clever architect had decided that it should have a tight-radius corner at the foot as well just to throw a curveball at the people who were going to use it. DeeDee noticed that Malin shuffled around on her seat and took a firm grip on the steering wheel to be ready for the turn.

When the promised rocking and rolling came, it was not as bad as DeeDee had imagined it would be based on Malin's warning, but she could easily understand how it would appear to someone who had not expected it - especially if they were unable to look out of a window like she was.

The leaf springs and even the entire rear compartment of the top-heavy ambulance creaked and groaned as it swayed left-to-right; the undesired amusem*nt park ride lasted for just shy of ten seconds before the GMC settled down again after making it through the turn in one piece.

DeeDee glanced at Jessica to be ready to react in a hurry if need be, but the woman seemed to have fallen asleep. Looking through the cutout, she could see that Malin leaned forward and craned her neck to look skyward.

As always when the driver was forced to use St. Mary's, she glanced up at the low ceiling where a multitude of scrapes that ran the entire width of the lane proved that not all had been able to make it into the parking garage without grinding the top of the box against the concrete. They had a few inches to spare this time, so there was no risk of damaging the expensive compartment. Leveling out, Malin moved the shifter back into drive to utilize every last mile of the fifteen-miles-per-hour speed limit that covered the entire area.

---

Gates one, two and three rolled past as they drove through the underground parking garage. Each gate was connected to a specific wing up in the hospital: number one was the maternity ward, number two was the burn injury unit and number three was the geriatric ward. Number four, their destination, was the one used for general admissions. The dim, orange light that shone down from the old-style bulbs in the ceiling created weird reflections in the GMC's windshield forcing Malin to squint to see where they needed to go.

Gate four was ultimately easy to find as a small crew of medical personnel clad in white lab coats had gathered at the metal doors awaiting the arrival of the two ambulances. After switching off the warning lights that were no longer needed, Malin left the lane they had been using and crossed over to one of the parking bays by the gate that were reserved for ambulances or regular patient transport vehicles even though the latter group could not be categorized as emergency units.

She drove a few yards past the entrance and the hospital staff waiting there so they could avoid having to push the gurney too far to get into the gate. "We're here," she said over her shoulder as she moved the shifter into neutral. After allowing the engine to idle for a few seconds to let the turbo intercoolers do their job, she turned it off and opened the driver's side door.

"Okay!" DeeDee said loudly, offering Jessica yet another smile of support while she gave the woman's hand a final squeeze. The sedatives they had given her were still in full effect, and the woman's eyes were swimming and unfocused. "You'll be in good hands from here on in. St. Mary's is a top-class hospital," DeeDee continued before she unclicked her waist-belt and helped Álvaro González do the same.

The rear doors were soon opened and the medical team and Malin stepped up into the rear of the ambulance. After a brief greeting of her hospital counterparts, DeeDee snapped the gurney from the V-shaped contraption while Malin released the locking bar at the foot-end. Working together, they moved the gurney and the sedated Jessica out of the ambulance and down onto the smooth concrete floor.

Since Malin had been the first responder to Jessica at the accident site, she went with the medical team when they wheeled the gurney into gate four and out of sight from the people in the ambulance. Two further hospital porters exited the gate at the same time pushing a pair of wheelchairs in case the other patients needed them.

Moving back up into the GMC ambulance, DeeDee eyed the brace around the distinguished businessman's neck - it was the next item on her to-do list.

It looked highly uncomfortable, but he had not uttered a word of complaint while they had been underway. Now they had arrived, it was clear that he needed to vent a little. "How much longer do I need to wear this thing?" he croaked, scrunching up his face.

"Two seconds more, Sir," DeeDee said as she went over to the drawer that held the fresh sets of orange medical gloves. After donning a pair, she turned back to Álvaro González. "Turn around, please," she said, carefully undoing the straps of Velcro that held the neckbrace tight.

When it came off, Álvaro let out a sigh of relief and immediately reached up to rub his neck all the way around. "Thank you very much…"

"You're welcome, Sir. Are you experiencing any aches or pains that have started since the accident? Problems with your balance?" DeeDee said, taking the opportunity to study the man's appearance and behavior closely. She paid special attention to the whites of his eyes and how he spoke; concussions or other forms of head trauma were sneaky and could appear like a bolt from the blue even hours after the initial impact. The businessman's condition seemed to be unchanged since she had first seen him behind the wheel of the destroyed Audi.

"None of that, thankfully. I can definitely feel in my bones and muscles that I was in an accident, though. I'll need a hot bath and a massage come tomorrow," he said and rolled his left shoulder that had been forced back by his car's automated seat belt pre-tensioners upon impact. "Oh, I didn't catch your name?" he said as he put out his hand.

"DeeDee White, Sir," she said and shook the businessman's hand.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Miss White," Álvaro said with a grin, "but I hope I'll never see you again. All things considered, your assistance has been exemplary. A very good experience. I took your company's business card while I was at my dentist's last week, but I had never figured I'd need it so soon. In any case, I'll be sure to tell my business associates about Pettersson's Ambulance Services."

"Thank you very much, Sir. It's all in a day's work for us. Oh, and best of luck in dealing with the insurance companies," DeeDee said with a smile.

"Ugh… thanks," Álvaro said, rolling his eyes at the thought of the piles of paperwork and lengthy telephone conversations he had in his future.

Smiling, DeeDee led Álvaro González over to the side access door that offered an easier way down onto the concrete floor compared to the big step at the rear. Once they made it around the back end of the ambulance, she eyed the hospital porter who still had one of the wheelchairs ready in case it was needed. "Sir, can you walk on your own, or will you require a transport? It's most likely pretty far."

"Oh, well…" Álvaro said, looking at the wheelchair. He let out a few grunts of indecision before he seemed to come to a conclusion. "You know, I think I'll let myself be driven around a little more tonight."

"All right. Just a moment, Sir," DeeDee said and nodded at the porter who was soon by their side. Once Álvaro González was sitting in the chair and the safety features had been clicked in place, she offered the patient a smile and a brief wave before he was wheeled inside gate four.

---

To adhere to the company rules of never leaving the ambulance unattended, DeeDee sat on the aluminum stepping board at the rear of the GMC while Malin had gone inside with the medical team to explain the details of the situation regarding the female patient.

Not that anyone was around save for her male counterpart who had arrived in the fluorescent-green ambulance from Sklar & Bonney. While his driver had gone inside, the riding nurse had taken the opportunity to clean the headlights, the side mirrors and some of the LED lamps and strobe lights scattered around the vehicle.

Unlike the stylish, pale-gray uniforms worn by the people working for Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services, the man from Sklar & Bonney wore fatigues that were held in the same garish combination of colors as their ambulances: the pants and the shirt were in different shades of pale-green, and yellow chevrons made by a reflective material adorned the front and the back of the shirt as well as the outside of the short sleeves.

Sklar & Bonney used Chevrolet Express ambulances rather than the GMC Savanas employed by Pettersson's, but the only difference between the two models was the badge stuck to the front grille - the vehicles both came off the General Motors assembly lines as stripped, or 'cutaway,' chassis. Even the ambulance conversion kits appeared to have been made and installed by the same coachbuilder.

DeeDee got to her feet and reached high in the sky to stretch her tired back. Her fatigue had been blown away by the intense activity at the accident site, but now that she had time to think about it, the drowsy state of affairs swept back over her like the evening tide.

She considered strolling over to the other ambulance to introduce herself to her counterpart who was still cleaning the vehicle's many lights, but she never got the chance to as Malin and the other driver exited the entrance to gate four and went over to their respective rolling offices.

A puzzled grunt escaped DeeDee's lips at the cold shoulders that were on display: Malin never as much as looked at the driver from Sklar & Bonney though they were almost walking side by side. There was something simmering between the two companies, that was abundantly clear, but she was unsure if she should ask for the undoubtedly juicy details or forget all about it.

"You ready?" Malin said, folding up several pieces of paper and sticking them into some of the pockets of her heavy-duty jacket. One of the papers was a receipt from St. Mary's that informed the representative for Pettersson's Ambulance Services that a sum of money had been transferred to the company's bank account for the successful delivery of two patients for further treatment.

"Yes," DeeDee said, concealing a yawn with the palm of a hand as she strolled up the left side of the GMC. "Pardon me. I must admit I'm pretty tired now."

"No wonder. So… what do you think their story was?" Malin said with a cheeky grin. "Husband and wife? Obviously not father and daughter. Maybe wealthy businessman and high-class escort caught somewhere between a late dinner and a night-cap blowj*b?"

DeeDee stopped dead in her tracks and furrowed her brow at the driver's comments. A dark eyebrow soon crept up her forehead while the corners of her mouth went in the other direction. "Oh, that's… that was really inappropriate of you, Malin."

"You think?"

"Yes. Very much so. I wouldn't want anyone talking about me behind my back like that… especially not about things like my personal life. And they were just in an accident, too…"

"I guess. I'm leaning toward wealthy businessman and high-class, expensive escort myself."

DeeDee furrowed her brow all over again; she had another objection all ready to go, but gave up when she realized she just had to accept that she and the driver were different when it came to things like that. To get away from the touchy subject, she tried another approach: "So. Anyway. What time is it?"

Malin stepped up on the running board at the driver's side door to check out the clock on the dashboard. "Let me see… a quarter past one. Hmmm."

"Thank you. What's on your mind?"

"We don't have time for another assignment unless its a quickie, so how about we called it an early night? We still need to go back to HQ as well, so…" Malin said, taking off her jacket and hanging it over the backrest of the driver's seat. Once she was in her shirtsleeves, she climbed in behind the steering wheel and got herself comfortable.

DeeDee leaned against the door - she did not need to step up on the running board to be at eye-level with the driver. "I definitely wouldn't mind that… but won't a potential assignment overrule the cut-off point of our shift?"

"Only if it's something really serious that requires multiple units. Dad's very strict on our working hours. That's why he has seventeen vehicles… well, I guess oh-four is junk now… but anyway, that many vehicles and nearly as many crews. The guys and gals doing the twelve-to-ten shift are out there right now, and they're fresh."

"Oh… right. I didn't think of that. Well, you won't hear any complaints out of me," DeeDee said with a chuckle; then another yawn made her incapable of doing anything but cracking her face wide open.

"I had a hunch you'd say that. Get in, we're going back to HQ," Malin said as she reached for the ignition key. Twisting it, the GMC came to life with a small tremble and a content purr from the turbo diesel V8 up front.

-*-*-*-

Heading for home, they reached the intersection of Belvedere and Twenty-eighth Street at the same moment as the traffic lights turned red. Malin had just finished calling the dispatcher to report the end of their assignment and the fact they were returning to base. The radio continued to squawk various messages to the other vehicles still out on patrol, but she turned down the volume now they had officially been removed from the roster of active units.

DeeDee rested her eyes and breathed slowly and evenly. She reached up to rub her tired brow or scratch her cheek from time to time, but mostly kept hovering on the brink of falling asleep for real. She could easily have sat like that all the way back to the garage on Forty-fourth Street, but fate - and Skull and Bones - had other plans in store for her.

A resounding, two-tone wall of noise that seemed to be but a single notch below an all-out thunderclap suddenly blasted out from directly behind the GMC ambulance. Jerking wide awake, DeeDee let out a croaking, snorting squeal, threw her arms in the air and jumped up from the seat. The seat belt did its job and held her tight which made the landing a crude one. "What-the-hell-was-that?" she croaked, speaking so fast it all came out as one word.

"Oh, just a couple of cheeky bastards," Malin said calmly, looking in the left-hand side mirror where the fluorescent-green ambulance with the diagonal yellow chevrons came rolling up toward the intersection.

It did not take a professor of theoretical geothermal physics to see that the men from Sklar & Bonney were out to create some mischief - the insolent grins on their faces as their Chevrolet ambulance pulled level with the GMC was all the proof anyone would ever need. Malin rolled down her window; the male riding nurse sitting in the passenger seat rolled down his as a response.

"Whoops! My finger slipped," the other driver said, leaning forward so Malin could see him. "Sorry 'bout that, Red. Hope ya didn't sh*t yourself."

The traffic lights changed from red to green on the gantry above the two ambulances, but the old game known as trading barbs, or talking trash, was just getting started. It soon became clear that neither driver had any intention of going anywhere until they had gone at least a couple of rounds against their opponent.

"Don't you worry your pretty, little head about that, Buck," Malin said, resting her arm on the windowsill while she leaned halfway out of the GMC. "Man, is that a band-aid on your cheek? Don't tell me you've started shaving?"

"Yeah, well… I wouldn't mention shaving if I wuz you, Red. I can see your 'stache from way over here. Must be the growth hormones you're taking so you can stop wearing clothes made for kids."

DeeDee guffawed at the juvenile exchange between the drivers. Clapping a hand over her mouth so she would not draw too much attention to herself and thus be dragged into the ping-pong match of scathing barbs, she stared wide-eyed at Malin who strangely enough seemed to be enjoying herself - in fact, so did the driver of the other ambulance judging by the grin on his face.

The traffic lights changed back to red above them, but Malin was too busy dishing out trash to notice. "Speaking of facial hair," she continued, "I saw your wife the other day. Damn, she gained some weight after her pregnancy, huh? What's she at now? Three-hundred-and-fifty pounds? Three-eighty? More? I'm surprised the sidewalk held up to that kind of torture."

"Whoever that was, it sure wasn't your girlfriend, Red. Talk about butch and butcher. Oh, I'm so sorry… the last one changed her name to Harry and joined the French Foreign Legion, ain't that so? No wonder… I'd call myself Harriet just to get away from you."

"How about callin' yourself the Virgin Mary instead? I'm shocked you even know what a girlfriend is, Buck… I mean, one you don't have to inflate first."

The traffic lights had gone through another sequence in the meantime. A taxi cab and a delivery van drove up in the inner lane to wait behind the GMC, but as the lights changed to green yet again with no activity from either of the ambulances, they both began to honk long and loud to get through.

"Haw, haw," the driver from Sklar & Bonney said as he took his foot off the brake. It made the Chevrolet ambulance trickle forward - Malin followed suit, but it did not ease the honking that came from behind them. As they rolled across the intersection going at a mere three miles per hour, it soon became clear that the exchange of barbs was far from over: "Oh, yeah… I heard some rumors about Big Daddy-O Pettersson. He supposedly cracked his walnuts in that dirt bike wreck he had the other week. If that's true, I guess he won't be able to father another one like you, Red. Man-oh-man, that would be such a tragic loss to the world. I mean, with you being such a saintly figure and all…"

Not until a gap was created around the two ambulances did the taxi cab and the delivery van have room to roar past. The drivers of both vehicles stuck their arms out of the windows to offer the ambulances a couple of one-fingered salutes.

"What can I say, Buck… I wouldn't trust everything I hear if I were you," Malin said, offering her verbal opponent a waving hand gesture that made him grin in return. "But yeah, I guess I am pretty saintly. Some of us just got it in spades, you know. Some might get it over time. Some never get any. And on that note, be cool and stay out of trouble, fellas," she continued, picking up the pace to head across the intersection before the lights would change again - a glance in the side mirror proved that the other ambulance turned north on Belvedere.

While Malin rolled up the driver's side window to keep out the evening chill, DeeDee furrowed her brow at the parting comment. Once they were alone on East Twenty-eighth Street, she turned around in the seat to face her driver. "After all that vulgar trash-talking… all those stupid, Godawful insults… and you say 'be cool and stay out of trouble'? I don't get it…"

"That was just play-fighting, DeeDee. We were just bullsh*tting each other," Malin said and let out a chuckle. "We work for different companies which makes us fierce competitors, but we're still part of a brotherhood out here."

"Sure, but… why not be a little more respectful toward each other, then? I don't understand the need for the crudeness."

Malin shrugged. "It's always been that way. Skull And Bones was the biggest of the rival companies who made a bid for the ambulance service when the Carlyle city council outsourced it, oh, thirty years ago or so. Dad got it in the first round, but they had to wait a year because of some irregularities in their bid. He never wasted an opportunity to rub it in their noses when he was behind the wheel. I guess it started a tradition that's carried on to this day. Now, we all trash-talk the hell outta each other whenever we meet."

"I think it's unnecessary. Unnecessary, vulgar and disrespectful. I hope you'll never expect me to join in because that won't happen," DeeDee said and sat up straight. "The other driver… Buck, right?"

"Yep."

"He might work for your father's company at some point in the future. He might be a colleague you need to be able to trust and depend on, but then you've built up this barrier of trash-talk that might come between you for… for nothing, really."

"Buck did in fact work for Dad a couple of years ago. How do you think I know about his wife's pregnancy? Buck's okay. He's a decent fella."

A wide-open look of not understanding a word of the whole mess flashed across DeeDee's face. She blinked several times while she tried to compose an answer, but ultimately gave up and settled for snuggling down in her heavy-duty jacket instead. "Then I really don't get it," she mumbled before she shook her head and decided to drop the subject.

-*-*-*-

DeeDee could not stop yawning the entire way back to the bunker-like concrete building on Forty-fourth Street. By the time they reached it, she was so bleary-eyed she could do nothing but lean back in the seat and take in the fact that Malin pressed the remote installed on the dashboard. As the garishly-painted rolling door slid upward, yet another yawn nearly dislocated her jaw.

Malin let out a snicker at her passenger's drowsy state, but DeeDee could not be bothered to even acknowledge it.

The garage was almost exactly like it had been when they had left ten hours earlier: the broken-down ambulance, the old oh-four unit, had not been moved from the grease pit, the number of vehicles in for servicing was the same - though they were different vehicles from those that had been there when DeeDee had first arrived - and the radio was still tuned to a station playing the latest hits. The only difference was that strip lights and bright LED panels mounted on the walls had taken over the duties vacated by the missing sunlight.

Malin drove under the sliding door and onto the concrete deck going at a few miles per hour. The parking slots for the ambulances were not in order so she aimed for the first available one - that it happened to be close to her Volvo was a boon. Once she had reversed the large vehicle into the slot, she let the engine idle for a few seconds before she turned it off for good. "That's it, DeeDee… your first shift is over. I've had a blast. Put it there, pardner," she said, holding out her hand so the trainee riding nurse could shake it.

"It's certainly been educational. You're a good driver," DeeDee said, shaking Malin's hand. She barely had time to smile before another yawn beat her into submission. Smacking her lips, she reached up to rub her dead-tired face.

"Thanks. I get that a lot," Malin said with a cheeky grin that earned her a long groan over the blatant self-satisfaction. "But never mind that now. Okay, I just have to tell you one last thing about procedures, then I'll let you go so you can get changed," Malin said and opened the driver's side door. Stepping out onto the running board, she grabbed her jacket off the backrest. "You need to go into the rear 'cos it's much easier to understand if I show you instead of talking about it."

"Uh… okay," DeeDee said, releasing her seat belt and shuffling around in the seat so she could go through the cutout. Ducking her head, she stepped into the working area in the back. Malin had taken the long way around and was presently opening the rear doors - they soon met by the foot-end of the gurney.

"I know you're tired, DeeDee, but you need to pay attention 'cos this is kinda important," Malin said, offering her colleague a smile.

"I'm awake… I'm fully awake. I've never been so awake," DeeDee said before a yawn cut her off mid-stream to undermine her words.

"Yeah, huh? Anyway… at the end of each shift, we need to update the inventory sheet. We need to write down exactly what we've used from the rapid response kits and the drawers so the various items can be restocked before the ambulance goes out again… the sheet's in this locker by the door," Malin said and clicked open a narrow panel just to the left of the rear doors. She pulled out a piece of paper that carried the logo of Pettersson's Ambulance Services in the top-left corner. "Once it's been updated, we need to leave it on the gurney so the cleaning crew will see it right away. I'll fill it out tonight, but perhaps you can try tomorrow?"

"Oh, sure. I've often done something similar. At Beech Grove, we needed to fill out the end-of-shift report sheet on a computer, but I'm guessing the concept is the same."

"Probably. Also, if we've had an assignment that created any kind of filthied equipment from someone bleeding, vomiting, urinating, defecating or any other kind of 'ating all over the place… and it's happened often enough, trust me… we need to put it into a plastic bag and write 'Bio Cleaning' on it."

"Right…" DeeDee said, making a face at the prospects of being in such a situation - she had seen enough of those cases at the Community Hospital to know that it would only be a matter of time before it happened to them.

Malin chuckled at the look upon the riding nurse's face. "Ah, yeah… it's always unwelcome, whenever it happens. Oh, and as the final item on the agenda, we need to plug in the external power so the battery won't be drained when the cleaning crew goes to work with their big-ass, industrial steam cleaners. That's on the left-hand side of the vehicle, right behind the driver's side door," she said before she jumped off the rear of the ambulance. "And that's all for tonight," she continued, grabbing hold of the doors to close them.

"I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that," DeeDee said and let out a tired chuckle. Turning around, she opened the right-hand-side access door before she switched off the interior lights. Down on the concrete deck, she closed the access door and promptly broke out in an impossibly wide yawn.

---

Shuffling along in a zombified state, DeeDee kept her eyes peeled on the floor so she could stop herself from tripping over anything - if she did, she knew she was so tired that she would never be able to get up before she fell asleep, and that would not make the best impression on her new boss or her colleagues.

The first part of the corridor that led away from the garage and into the lower levels of the six-storey brick building was dull and non-descript which did not improve her fatigue. It was equipped with a carpet unlike the smooth concrete in the garage, but it was dark-gray so it only made her drowsiness worse.

After a bend, the corridor gained a few splashes of color in the shape of framed posters and old advertisem*nts for the company that had been put up at regular intervals along the walls. They all had images of ambulances and happy employees, and they all used the garish combination of orange and reflective white to get the points across: Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One, second to none! - Dial Nine-Nine-One and Pettersson's Ambulance Services will be there to help you - Nine-Nine-One, the only emergency number you'll need to learn - Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services: With us, you know you're home safe - What's our number? Nine-Nine-One. What's our name? Pettersson's Ambulance Services. Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services. Always there when you need help.

The corridor ended in a T-intersection that DeeDee hardly even noticed was there - she just made a ninety-degree right-hand turn in the hope it would take her to the locker rooms in the basem*nt though she only had a vague recollection of where they actually were. Footfalls made by a pair of sturdy safety boots behind her made her shoot a tired glance over her shoulder.

Malin came running up to the taller woman with a grin on her face. "Hey, White… where do you think you're going?"

"The locker rooms…"

"Wrong way, buddy. You're headed for the dispatchers' offices."

"sh*t," DeeDee said and spun around on her bootheel. She had to go all the way back to the T-intersection, but she took some consolation in the undeniable fact that even the longest journey could be broken down into a collection of steps. Sighing, she put one boot ahead of the other to begin the trek.

---

Down in the basem*nt, they had almost made it to the fireproof door to the locker rooms when they were caught by a secretary who came hurrying along the corridor that was even gloomier than the one upstairs. "Miss White? Miss White, Mr. Pettersson wishes to see you right away…" the middle-aged secretary said, offering the dead-tired DeeDee a wistful smile upon seeing her pale-gray complexion.

"Now? Can't it wait? I'm one of the walking dead…" DeeDee croaked, rubbing her brow that had almost grown numb from the fatigue.

"I'm afraid it can't… Mr. Pettersson was quite adamant that he needed to see you before you left."

Malin slammed her hands onto her hips and let out an annoyed snort. "Oh, for crap's sake… what can be so important to the old man that it can't be put off for later? I mean, we're just back from a ten-hour shift here… we'd like to shower and get some fresh clothes on our bodies, you know."

"I know, Miss Pettersson… I'm sorry, but Mr. Pettersson was-"

"Yeah, yeah," Malin said, waving her hand at the secretary. She had already put her hand on the handle of the locker room's fireproof door when she turned back to say: "Tell him we'll be up after the shower."

"Wait," DeeDee said in a dead-tired voice just before she needed to conceal yet another yawn. "I can't afford to get on Mr. Pettersson's wrong side on my very first day… I'll see him. Perhaps you can come up after your shower?"

"Well… all right. And I'll wait down here. I don't feel like talking to Dad right now," Malin said before she reached out to slap DeeDee's arm. "Just don't drop dead from fatigue, okay? That would really put a crimp on my evening," she continued with a big grin on her lips.

"I'll try really hard not to… can't give any guarantees, though," DeeDee said and matched the grin - though hers was merely a creasing of her pale lips.

---

Rickard Pettersson's office was located on the top floor of the six-story building on the side nearest to Forty-fourth Street, but at least the building was equipped with an old-fashioned freight elevator so DeeDee did not have to drag herself up a staircase. Using the elevator meant she arrived at the door only a few minutes after being told of the meeting.

The wooden door to the office was an old thing that had seen better days - or even better decades. Completely utilitarian in its appearance, it carried a felt nameplate that saw the owner's name spelled out using little plastic letters that could be bought in any supermarket for a dollar-ninety-eight at the most.

Steeling her backbone, DeeDee reached up to knock on the non-descript door.

'Enter!' the familiar, gruff voice said from the other side.

DeeDee opened the door and stepped into the office that failed to meet her expectations on several levels. First of all, it was not merely a single room, but four rooms en-suite that had been joined by knocking down a handful of walls. As a result, the office stretched out for more than thirty yards and seemed to be made up of a good portion of the building's top floor.

Secondly, it was cluttered beyond belief which left no room for the type of splendor that would be expected of an executive office. There were no leather armchairs, no expensive paintings on the walls, no nine-foot wide mahogany writing desks and no high-end sound systems - in short, there were no frills whatsoever.

Everything was utilitarian from the pale-gray, square-edged metal desk and the no-nonsense swivel-chairs to the army-style bunk bed that had been put up in the only spot of the huge office that did not see a cluster of filing cabinets or shelf-systems loaded with color-coded binders. A muted AM-frequency talk show played in the background; it came from an old-fashioned portable transistor radio that had been placed on the corner of the metal desk. An unplugged, old-style coffee machine stood atop a filing cabinet. The glass jar had a long crack in it which meant it would never make another cup of coffee.

Colorful posters of dirt bike racers and off-road motorcycles had been put up on the walls in places to offset some of the drabness, and there was even a potted plant standing on top of one of the filing cabinets to add a bit of color. It looked like it could have used some water the previous week, but at least it was there.

The large office was equipped with a row of windows overlooking Forty-fourth Street. The pane of the first window inside the door had been replaced by an old, motor-driven air-conditioning unit that was turned off. The rest of the windows were barely visible through the piles of binders that had been stacked up five, eight or even ten-high on the windowsills.

Rickard Pettersson sat on a swivel-chair behind the metal desk with his bad leg up on a low footstool. His arm crutch leaned against a filing cabinet next to the desk so it was within easy reach. A keyboard, a mouse and a monitor stood on the desk connected to a stationary unit on the floor; several green and red LEDs flashed at the rear of the computer indicating it was hooked up to a LAN. Unlike the cluttered theme of the rest of the large office, the cables that ran from the computer to a socket in the wall were well-organized and held together by plastic ties. "Ah, good evening, Miss White," Rickard said, turning off the transistor radio before he waved DeeDee over to him. "Come in. Have a seat."

"Thank you, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee said and closed the door behind her. Yawning into her hand, she shuffled over to a free swivel-chair in front of the desk to sit down.

"Tired after the long shift?"

"Very much so, Mr. Pettersson. It's about four and a half hours after my regular bedtime," DeeDee said, glancing down at her bare arm until she remembered that her wristwatch was in the locker downstairs.

"I can't even offer you any strong coffee as a pick-me-up… the damn thing cracked the other day," Rickard said, pointing his thumb at the coffee machine that stood forlornly atop the filing cabinet.

"Oh, that's all right," DeeDee said, eyeing the army-style bunk bed like it called out to her. "I'm sorry, Mr. Pettersson, but do you sleep up here?"

"I live up here!" Rickard said with a grin as he took in the puzzled expression on his newest employee's face. "Yes, I have a private bathroom further down the hallway… also a kitchenette where I can reheat some meatballs or a sausage or whatever. Or baked beans. It's perhaps unusual but it allows me to keep my finger on the pulse around the clock."

"Oh… I didn't expect that."

Rickard shrugged but regretted it at once when it made a tendril of pain shoot up from his leg. "The company is my baby. I need to be here. Of course, this damned leg has me stuck to the chair for most of the day right now…" he said, reaching down to massage the injured limb. "All right. That's enough chit-chat. Let's get down to business," he continued, lowering his half-rim reading glasses from his forehead to the bridge of his nose.

Sitting up straight on the uncomfortable swivel-chair, DeeDee took a deep breath to be ready for whatever her new boss could throw at her.

"I sent for you to hear an evaluation of your first shift with us. I need to hear your thoughts on the assignments you were sent to, the working conditions and your colleagues," Rickard said, leaning back in his creaking swivel-chair. The motion made a new and even stronger stab of pain shoot up from his injured leg; grimacing, he hurriedly moved down his hand to massage the hip and thigh. "That Goddamned leg!" he mumbled through a clenched jaw.

"All in all, it has been a educational evening, Mr. Pettersson. A few ups and downs, but you would expect that."

"I need you to be more specific, Miss White," Rickard said, putting his elbows on the armrests so he could fold his hands across his chest. Like earlier in the day, his greenish eyes zoomed in on DeeDee's face and pinned her to the spot.

"Uh… all right," DeeDee said and shuffled around on the uncomfortable chair. She had planned not to mention the incident with the conman, but she understood she needed to be honest about everything or she might lose the chance of getting the job. "Well… I'm… I must admit it took me a little while to adjust to your daughter's, uh, idiosyncrasies-"

Rickard Pettersson let out a knowing chuckle. "Oh, she can be trying, I know. Runs in the family. Go on."

"Ah… yes. Uh… but I got in tune with her after a short while, and we worked well together following that. She's a great driver who really knows what she's doing behind the steering wheel. I can definitely learn a lot from her during my two-week temporary engagement. Mr. Bradshaw was the only other employee of yours that I met. I hardly spoke with him, but he seemed to be a solid gentleman."

"Mmmm. Spencer Bradshaw is a trooper."

"The working conditions were just fine. The ambulance itself offered no problems and the equipment was of a high standard and well-stocked. My back muscles are tired after handling the gurney, but that's because I'm not used to it. It's just a triviality. I can't say anything negative about those particular aspects, Mr. Pettersson."

"Good. And the assignments?"

"Well," DeeDee said, shuffling around once more as the emotions from the first assignment came back to her. "We had three tonight. They got off to a bad start when your daughter and I were tricked by a conman in a restaurant over on West Nineteenth Street. I believe his name was Freddie-something. I got-"

"Freddie Mack. I know that S.O.B. well," Rickard said with a hard nod. "We all do. He's been around pulling those damned cons of his for decades."

"But in that case, why isn't he behind bars?" DeeDee said, shaking her head in puzzlement.

"Well, from what I've heard, he's been arrested often enough. I guess doing what he does is only a finable offence or whatever," Rickard said, starting to shrug before he stopped the gesture so his injured leg would not send out another stab of pain. "The restaurants usually won't press charges because of the bad publicity."

"Oh… I see. I must admit I got pretty angry with him… angry and upset. Your daughter and I talked about the experience at length afterwards, and it helped me get over it. But it upset me deeply at the time."

Rickard nodded again, though it was less severe compared to the first time. "That's understandable, Miss White. How did the other two assignments go?"

"Well, the next one was simply a broken finger so that was nothing to write home about. Just a little, low-drama thing that we dealt with accordingly. The third and final one was a traffic accident involving three cars. That was more intense, but I… uh… I never felt I was in over my head. Your daughter and I treated two people who had received various bruises and lacerations. We took the patients to St. Mary's for further processing. Like I said before, it was a educational evening, Mr. Pettersson."

"Mmmm. Tell me," Rickard said, locking eyes with DeeDee once more, "can you see yourself doing that day-in, day-out for years to come? I need a straight-up, honest answer now, Miss White. No sugar-coating, no puss*-footing, no sweet-talking. The truth. Are you ready for the job?"

DeeDee leaned back on the swivel-chair and rubbed her brow. Was she ready for the job? For the heavy responsibility of having people depend on her skills to stay alive beyond the next two minutes? For facing and dealing with the peculiarities of the job, like tricksters and conmen, or even the trash-talking that she found so vulgar and disrespectful? For spending hours on end doing absolutely nothing, and then be thrown into a high-intensity situation where anything less than one-hundred percent commitment would mean the loss of life or limbs?

Her mind said yes, her heart said maybe. It would be a gigantic challenge for her, but one her intellect believed she had the skills and the mindset to overcome. Not all assignments would have happy outcomes - she understood and accepted that. It was the way of life after all.

Though many details and procedures were different, she had already experienced so much of what awaited her during her years at the Community Hospital. There would be good days and bad days, moments of joy and moments of sadness. She would meet and treat people who were good, bad, grieving, angry, aloof, intoxicated and every other attribute known to mankind. She would meet elated patients who had been given a clean bill of health after a long period of illness, and she would meet severely depressed, gravely ill patients who would not be expected to see out the week. She would meet pregnant women who were ready to bring new life into the world, and she would meet women who had suffered an acute miscarriage. Some days she would go home satisfied that she had been at the top of her game, other days she would feel down and discontent with herself; then she knew she would brood for hours on end about what she could have done differently.

She remembered what a veteran nurse had told her when she had first started out in the business: that the trick to preserving a healthy state of mind in the long run would be to feed off the happiness that took place around her while shielding herself from the heartbreak that would inevitably appear. Malin had said much the same when they had been speaking at the picnic table near the fast food restaurant.

The conclusion to all that was that she knew she was ready. It would be a learning process for her - a steep one at that - and she knew full well she would make mistakes along the way, but all in all, she knew it was the right thing to do. "I believe I am, Mr. Pettersson. Yes, I'm ready for the job," she eventually said.

Her new boss nodded; a smile even broke out on his face. "Good. That's what I wanted to hear. I agree with you. I know people, and I had a hunch from the start that you would be a good match with this line of work."

"Thank you…" DeeDee said, letting out a sigh of relief.

"You're welcome. All right," Rickard said and tried to sit up a bit straighter. The injured leg chose that moment to make its presence felt, so he gave up and pulled some papers closer to him instead. "Here's what we're going to do. First of all, I'm ordering you to take a day off so you can get accustomed to the four-to-two shift that I want you to start working. When you get here tomorrow afternoon, we'll sign all the damn legal documents for the two-week temporary engagement so the trade union and the lawyers are satisfied."

"Oh- uh-"

"You'll team up with my daughter for the two-week period. After that, we'll have another evaluation. Then you'll be put on the open-rotation roster like all new riding nurses so you can work your way around the various drivers. Chemistry is very important in our line of work, and I'm sure that some of them won't suit you… or vice versa. If that happens, we'll simply move you onto the next driver. Any comments or questions?"

DeeDee's brain was too tired to have the capacity to form any questions whatsoever - she barely had enough oomph left to store all the information she had just been given. In her present state, the 'day off' part was the sweetest. All she could do was croak: "No, Mr. Pettersson. Nothing. And thank you for your trust in me."

"Don't mention it. You're solid. I could see that from the start," Rickard said and waved his hand at his newest employee.

The gesture signaled the end of the meeting, so DeeDee got up, shook Rickard Pettersson's hand, left the huge, cluttered office and began the long journey back down to the locker rooms so she could finally go home to get some much-needed sleep.

---

After changing back into her street clothes, DeeDee sat on the wooden bench in the non-descript locker room tying her shoelaces. She put the shiny key for the dull-green metal locker into her wallet so it was safe; then she got up and donned her khaki sports jacket.

Malin strolled into the locker room enshrouded in a cloud of deodorant. Her hair was damp after her shower which left it even more strawberry-blond. She had changed into her street clothes as well, but the tan button-down shirt, the gray cotton slacks in a jeans-like design, and the dusty-blue down vest she wore were not too different from her company uniform. Grinning, she toyed with the set of keys to her Volvo by spinning it around her index finger. "So what's up, White? What did the old man say?"

"He agreed that I could continue for the full two-week period of my temporary engagement."

"Awright! High-five!" Malin said and held up her hand. When DeeDee's slap was pitiful due to her fatigue, she let out a snorting chuckle. "Knew it from the start. You got what it takes, girl."

"Your Dad said that as well…"

" 'Cos it's right, obviously. Great! So… whatcha doing now?"

"Are you kidding? It's two-thirty-five in the morning!" DeeDee said as she looked at her wristwatch that she was finally allowed to wear. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm going to take my mountain bike and go home to catch some sleep…"

"Oh hell no… I won't allow you to ride your bike in that state," Malin said, shaking her head vehemently. "How far do you think you'd make it before you'd be face-down chewing on the asphalt? Of course, you could just dial Nine-Nine-One and see the whole thing from the other side…"

"Heh. Thanks for the tip… but no thanks."

"So how about I drove you home instead? Huh? I won't take no for an answer so there's no point even considering it."

DeeDee rubbed her weary face again. The offer was good, but by accepting it, she would need to disclose where she lived. On the other hand, the only positive thing that had come out of the lengthy trash-talking session between Malin and the driver from Sklar & Bonney at the intersection near St. Mary's had been the news that she and her new colleague apparently shared more than she had initially thought. The yawn that suddenly blasted onto her features nearly dislocated her jaw - it also underscored that she needed to accept the offer of a drive home. "Yeah. I'm way too tired to ride my bike… way, way too tired."

"I knew I could persuade you. We Petterssons are good at that," Malin said with a grin.

"Just don't laugh when I tell you where I live."

"Okay…?" Malin said, co*cking her head. When nothing further came, she decided to prod a little. "Why should I? You're not living in the attic of a nutward or something, are ya?"

Smirking, DeeDee let out a brief chuckle. "Not exactly… though it feels like it sometimes. No, I live just at the corner of West Sixteenth Street and Cassandra. On the western outskirts of the oh-so-colorful bohemian district."

"Ohhhh… no sh*t?"

"No sh*t."

"Can you keep a secret?" Malin said in a stage-whisper.

"Sure," DeeDee said, furrowing her brow.

Grinning, Malin leaned in toward the taller woman so she could speak for her ears only though no one else was present. "That's not too far from where I live. Thirteenth Street, by the great, little doggie park halfway between Cassandra and Belvedere."

"I, uh… huh. I didn't see that one coming. You?"

"Yep!"

"Huh… wow."

"So how about we returned home to our colorful neighbors? Can you walk, or do I need to show you my superb skills in the Olympic discipline known as the Fireman's Carry?"

"I can walk! I can walk… I can definitely walk," DeeDee said, activating her phone as the last thing she did. No messages or missed calls had been made during the downtime - not that she had expected any. Turning around, she grabbed her stylish backpack and flung it over her left shoulder before she shuffled off toward the exit. "Oh, yeah… your Dad gave me the day off today."

"What?! You lucky so-and-so," Malin said, slapping the taller woman across the gut. "He must really like you. The old coot hasn't given me a day off since I had the measles when I was twelve years old!"

"But we'll work the four-to-two shift the day after… well… it's after midnight now, so I guess it's actually tomorrow. Oh, I can't figure it out… I'm way too tired," DeeDee said and opened the door that led to the dull corridor. "How about we just called it a night instead?"

"Now that definitely works for me, White," Malin said as she followed DeeDee into the corridor. "Huh. White, Red and Blue. I still can't get over that!"

The two women strolled along the corridor to get back upstairs. One continued to yawn while the other continued to grin. Though different physically and intellectually, they had worked well together over the course of the afternoon and evening - and like it said in all the popular potboilers: it was the start of an interesting friendship.

*

*

THE END of PART 1

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*

*

PART 2: A FRIEND IN HIGH PLACES

DeeDee White's day off flew by at lightning speed as they invariably do - that she slept for twelve hours straight after returning home from her first shift patrolling the streets of Carlyle had plenty to do with it. Waking up a quarter past three in the afternoon was something she had not tried for a while, but she needed to get used it since that was what she would be doing for the foreseeable future.

To acclimatize herself to the strain of working the torturous four-to-two shift, she had forced herself to stay up until three-thirty AM the following night while drinking strong coffee and binge-watching several seasons of a TV show on DVD. The plan had worked: the next time she woke up, she had been far less exhausted than during her first night trying the new working hours.

The weather was dull, overcast and muggy as she rode her mountain bike through the predictable congestion on Avenue F. The low pressure zone seemed to bind the exhaust fumes from the many vehicles which made the busy street even more unpleasant than usual. Despite the inclement conditions around her, she had a good feeling in her gut about getting settled into her new job, and she found herself looking forward to discovering what the evening's various assignments had to offer.

Like two days previously, the busy street that traversed the theater district proved to be so congested that she could hardly fit her bike through some of the gaps between the cars. At one point, she even needed to swerve onto the sidewalk in an almighty hurry to avoid becoming intimately acquainted with a taxi cab's rear door that was flung open less than ten feet in front of her bicycle.

The pedestrians nearest her did not appreciate her escape route and let it be known to her in short, vitriolic statements that contained plenty of profanity and waved fingers; she kept her head down and concentrated on getting back onto the street instead of engaging in an ugly shouting match that would earn no laurels to anyone.

Avenue FUBAR lived up to its name as the congestion seemed to be even worse than normal. The reason was soon revealed in the shapes of a cruiser from the city police and an ambulance from Sklar & Bonney that were both double-parked alongside a delivery van from Bess Lakin's Confectionery Co. Though the grand marquees and billboards outside the various theaters already provided plenty of colorful razzmatazz, the emergency vehicles added quite a bit more with their white-and-pale-blue and fluorescent-green-and-yellow color schemes and the large collection of flashing warning lights on their roofs.

Seeing the company name and logo on the side of the delivery van made DeeDee remember that she wanted to stop somewhere to buy some quality sweets to have a stash of supplies for the long shift ahead. She had already bought a one-liter thermos that she hoped to fill with the top-quality coffee made by the mechanics in the garage. Failing that, she would buy a few mugs of regular coffee in the staff restaurant and pour them into the thermos. Quality sweets and a hot, top-caffeinated beverage would get her through the night - she was sure of that.

She slowed down a little so she could peel back the sleeve of her khaki sports jacket to check what her wristwatch said. Her shift would not start for another fifty minutes so she had plenty of time to stock up - she had set her alarm clock extra-extra early to prevent needing to explain to Rickard Pettersson why she had arrived late on only her second day. Glancing ahead, she soon spotted a candy store on her side of Avenue F that looked both exciting and promising.

---

A happy tune escaped DeeDee's lips as she whistled while she pulled her mountain bike through the garishly-painted sliding door on Forty-fourth Street. Stepping inside the garage belonging to Pettersson's Ambulance Services, she gave everything a quick once-over: she had to chuckle when she failed to find a single thing that had changed since the last time she had been there.

Half a dozen ambulances were parked in a neat and tidy row at the back of the large, open area. Mechanics clad in dark-blue boiler suits worked under the hoods of two of them while a cleaning crew wearing pale-gray outfits had the rear doors open on a third one to give it a thorough rinse-and-scrub. The remaining three GMC Savana ambulances all carried sticky-notes on the windshields indicating they had passed the tech and cleaning inspection with flying colors and were thus ready for the day's countless challenges on the busy streets of Greater Carlyle.

The indispensable radio was still tuned to the same station that was playing the same hits as before, and the strong mix of smells of oil, rubber and warm metal that permeated the atmosphere was still the same as well. Save for the fact that the sun took care of the illumination rather than the strip lights and the LED panels mounted on the walls, the garage seemed to be stuck in a time-bubble.

DeeDee had to chuckle at the odd fact that her new place of work suffered from both a stifling sameness and a startling unpredictability at the exact same time - it all depended on which side of the sliding door she found herself at.

Malin Pettersson's Volvo was nowhere to be seen, but DeeDee pulled her mountain bike over to the parking bay that the bulky, charcoal-gray SUV had occupied on their first night working together. After extending her bicycle's prop stand, she swung her stylish backpack off her shoulders. She soon slid the sturdy chain lock through the front wheel and connected it to a rusty metal eye down on the concrete deck that appeared as if it had not been in use for years.

---

Walking back up from the locker rooms a short while later carrying a small plastic bag containing quality sweets and a thermos full of coffee, DeeDee pulled and tugged at her short-sleeved uniform shirt to at least try to make it sit right across her shoulders. There was still something weird about the respective length of the sleeves, but she had not had time to take a closer look at it.

As she walked through the frosted-glass swinging doors and back into the garage itself, her eyes fell on Malin's gray Volvo SUV that just pulled into the slot where she had left her mountain bike.

Malin was running perhaps a tad late, but the fact that she already wore her uniform would recoup some of the lost time. The two women both offered the other a wave while they were still on opposite sides of the garage.

"Hey, White. Nice to see ya again," Malin said as she put out her hand once they had caught up with each other.

Shaking it, DeeDee offered the driver a polite smile. "And you… Red."

"You know, I still can't get over that!" Malin said with a grin. "So… how did your day off go?"

"Oh, it went well. I slept in, did some shopping for this and that, made dinner, ate it and binged the two first seasons of a TV show."

"Nice. Well, you certainly chose the right day to have a snoozer 'cos that's what we had yesterday," Malin said as she clicked on the little button on her car's remote. Once the hazard lights had flashed twice indicating the doors were locked, she and DeeDee began to stroll over towards the row of ambulances that were ready to be pressed into action. "C-Note was still in a snit over being asked to step aside the other day so I teamed up with the Wolfman. We only had two… count 'em, one-two… assignments over the entire duration of the shift. It was so boring even I was falling asleep by the end of it. Let's hope we'll have a little more action today."

"But not too much."

"Naw, just a little more. A little always goes a long way."

"Mmmm!"

"Have you spoken to Marco about which ambulance we can use?" Malin said, looking around for the chief mechanic. She studied the three garishly painted GMC Savanas that carried the sticky-note on the windshield, but she knew better than to simply take one before conferring with the chief.

"No, I haven't seen him yet."

Right on cue, the frosted swinging doors to the connecting hallway opened to reveal Marco Bocamante. The chief mechanic was dressed in his customary dark-blue boiler suit that carried more grease stains than the average frying pan. The contrast between his grungy clothes and his personal appearance was striking: he was always clean-shaven and well-groomed regardless of the time of day or how hard he had been working on fixing a broken-down ambulance.

His face lit up in a grin when he saw DeeDee and Malin wait by the row of ambulances. As he walked closer to the two women, he stuffed an indescribably filthy piece of cloth into his pocket and put up his hand to wave. "Hi, Red. Good afternoon, Miss White," he said with a smile.

DeeDee matched the smile with one of her own as she waved back at the expert chief mechanic. "Good afternoon, Marco. Oh, and please call me DeeDee."

"Will do."

"Hiya, Marco," Malin said, slapping the mechanic across the gut once he was close enough - it seemed to be the universal way for her to greet her friends and acquaintances. "So… which set of wheels can you offer us today?"

"How about the oh-seven? It's all gassed up, serviced and ready to go," Marco said, pointing his thumb at the middle one of the three GMC Savanas. "Cranky Jack used it last night and he gave it a clean bill of health."

Malin performed a comical dead-stop where she let out a loud guffaw and threw her arms in the air in exaggerated surprise. "Huh! Cranky Jack couldn't find anything to complain about?! Lawrd-almighty, it must be the second coming!"

"Well, I just call it first-class workmanship," Marco said and buffed his fingernails on his filthy boiler suit.

"That too! We'll definitely take the oh-seven."

The conversation was interrupted by the sliding doors rolling up at the other end of the garage. Yet another of the garishly painted GMCs - the oh-nine unit - trickled onto the concrete deck where it soon reversed into one of the available slots in confident style.

The left headlight was out, and Marco Bocamante whipped out a notepad and jotted down the information at once. "Now that I have your ear, Red," he said as he drew a box around the note-to-self he had written. "Mr. Pettersson officially retired the oh-four unit last night. The tranny was too damaged for us to fix it. We could obviously buy a new one from General Motors Fleet Management, but oh-four was so far along in its life cycle that it wouldn't make any economical sense."

"Yeah, okay… it was pretty old and rattly so it's no great loss," Malin said, looking at the vehicle in question that was still sitting forlornly on top of the grease pit where she and Marco had towed it the other evening.

"Mmmm," Marco continued as he stuffed the notepad back into his pocket. "Mr. Pettersson has already sold the shell to a company renting out commercial vehicles for movie productions. It'll be towed out back, and then we'll strip it early next week so it's ready to ship out."

"Okay… the old man always was a wheeler-dealer. Maybe we'll see it in an action movie gettin' blown up or something!" Malin said with a grin as she eyed the unmistakable figure of 'Blue' Spencer Bradshaw strolling over toward them carrying a lunch box and a thermos in his large hands. "I guess we'll get a new one, then. Thanks, Marco."

Once the chief mechanic had walked on to get his portable tool chest so he could get started on servicing the oh-nine unit that had just come in, Malin stood up on tip-toes and reached as high in the sky as she could to be ready for her tall friend. "High-five, pardner!" she cried once Spencer Bradshaw was close enough.

"You call that a high-five, Red? I call it pitiful," the tall African-American said, but he still gave Malin's hand a resounding slap that made it fly back.

DeeDee smiled at the exchange between the friends. Like the first time she had met the seven-foot-tall Spencer, his commanding presence prompted an urge to dip into a curtsey. Instead, she put out her hand for a regular shaking. "Hello, Mr. Bradshaw."

"Hello, Miss… shoot, I forgot your name," Spencer said, offering DeeDee an apologetic smile.

"DeeDee White."

"Miss White. I'm terribly sorry… won't happen again," Spencer said with a look on his face that proved he meant it. "On a lighter note, I'm amazed that you were able to sit next to Red for ten hours without throttling her even once."

"Oh, I didn't even feel tempted!" DeeDee said, smiling at Malin's mock-shocked reaction.

Malin slammed her hands onto her hips and rolled her eyes repeatedly at the direction the conversation had turned to. "Haw-haw! Just to let you know, Blue, I'm the perfect mentor for any new employee. If they don't run away screaming after the first shift, they can work with ev'rybody," she said, poking her own chest with her thumb.

"Mmmm-yes… something of a double-edged sword, that statement," Spencer said before he broke out in a chuckle. "Do you have time for a cup of coffee or something, Red? The lunch my wife had made me didn't last beyond the first half of the shift. Right now, I'm so hungry I could chew on one of the tables up in the staff restaurant and find it nourishing."

"Ah, let me see," Malin said, reaching into her pocket to find her telephone - their shift started in less than fifteen minutes so it would be a close affair. "Mmmm… not really. But what the hell, let's get some coffee and some chow. Can I get you something, White?"

"I've already stocked up, thank you," DeeDee said, holding up the plastic bag that contained the quality sweets and the full thermos. She had not needed to steal all the good coffee from the mechanics after all - employees could get as much of the hot, strong beverage as they wanted for free up in the staff restaurant. "I think I'll stay down here and familiarize myself with the oh-seven instead."

Malin nodded and turned to slap Spencer Bradshaw across the gut - she stopped at the last moment so the embarrassing defeat in the tug-of-war from the other night would not be repeated. "Okie-dokie. Me and ol' Blue here will go up to chew the fat. If I'm not down in twenty, you have my full permission to come up and drag me away from the exquisite company. Okay?"

"Yep. It was nice seeing you again, Mr. Bradshaw," DeeDee said, once more shaking hands with the tall, powerfully built man.

Spencer smiled as he shook DeeDee's hand. "And you, Miss White. Have a safe evening… there's no point in wishing you a quiet evening with Red here as your driver."

"Ohhhhh! Just knock me flat on my ass, whydontcha?" Malin cried, throwing her arms in the air all over again.

-*-*-*-

DeeDee rummaged around in the back of the oh-seven unit going through all the drawers and lockers to verify that they really held all the equipment, medicine and instruments the inventory sheet said they did. Opening the lid on the bench seat, she checked the neckbraces and the highly advanced semi-automated external defibrillator - the SAED unit.

Though she knew she should be able to trust the sheet since it had been filled out by her new colleagues and updated by the cleaning crew, the old saying of 'better be safe than sorry' was one she took very seriously - it was an old habit borne from unfortunate circ*mstances during her years at Beech Grove Private Hospital. There, it was not unheard of that things went missing though the computerized records said they should still be there.

She let out a grunt of contentment when everything checked out: all the items listed on the inventory sheet could be found in the various drawers and lockers.

All the electronic and mechanical gear seemed to work as it should as well, including the switches for light and air-conditioning in the rear compartment. The oh-seven had an additional pair of switches that operated special trauma lighting installed in the ceiling: flicking them one at a time, she glanced up at the blue and then the red lighting that worked wonders on patients with eye trauma or head injuries that made them sensitive to regular, white light.

After putting the inventory sheet into the narrow locker by the rear doors, she shuffled through the rear compartment of the ambulance intending to duck through the cutout. A yellow sticky-note attached to the wall underneath a new electronic module in the top left corner of the rear working area caught her eye. Moving closer to it, she read that the experimental CCTV package had been mounted, but not yet installed or tested - the fact that the cable hung loose from the camera's lens without being connected to anything confirmed the note.

Grunting, she looked up at the electronic equipment. She remembered hearing about CCTV systems being made compulsory in all official vehicles before the end of the year in an attempt to curb the growing trend of violence against EMTs, police officers, firefighters and other people at the front lines. It annoyed her that such a move was even necessary, but it was a sign of the times.

She ducked through the cutout to check out the time on the little dashboard-mounted clock. A cold shiver ran down her back when she discovered the unpleasant fact that not only had she completely misjudged the twenty-minute period Malin had talked about, but that the hands of time had moved well past the beginning of their shift. "Oh, damn," she mumbled, spinning around and hurrying down the two-rung staircase at the access door on the right-hand side.

---

The staff restaurant was located on the first floor of the old brick building next to the concrete, bunker-like garage. A pair of frosted-glass swinging doors led to it, and DeeDee was greeted by the familiar sights, sounds and smells as she stepped inside.

The industrial-sized kitchen was at the back behind a full-width, brushed-aluminum counter that took up a good deal of space. Five glass display cases had been installed in the counter: two refrigerated ones that offered chilled beverages, salads and sandwiches, and two heated ones that held steaming hot rice and pasta casseroles poured into pre-made portions of varying size. Chunky slices of roasts and various types of sausages sizzling in cooking grease were on display as well. The final glass case offered a variety of home-made cakes, cookies and creamy pastries, and also the ubiquitous Scandinavian wheel-bread specialty that was meant to be broken into pieces that were perfect for mopping up broth or gravy.

For those who preferred to order the dish of the day rather than a sandwich or one of the smaller dishes, the central part of the counter was reserved for personal serving. A service attendant from the kitchen staff sat on a chair reading a romance novel while she waited for a customer to come over to her. The fully immersed look she had upon her face reading the book offered a hint that she had not been too busy recently. Feeling someone's eyes on her made her look up from the book and shoot a smile at the newest employee of Pettersson's Ambulance Services.

DeeDee smiled back - it was the same kitchen staffer who had told her of the free supply of coffee.

The air held a pleasant scent of the dish of the day that further staffers were busy preparing in the large, fully-stocked kitchen out the back: boiled potatoes, thick, pale-brown gravy made from one-third wheat flour and two-thirds high-quality cream, and finally genuine Swedish ground-pork meatballs that required Malin Pettersson's late grandmother's top-secret list of herbs and spices to taste just like back home in the old country.

A battery of the indispensable coffee machines took up an entire table all by themselves on the left-hand side of the staff restaurant, and they were all in various states of brewing more of the dark-brown liquid that everyone at Pettersson's seemed to prefer scalding hot and gunpowder-strong. One of the machines sent out a steady stream of pale-gray smoke signals to show that its pot was full and ready to chug down.

Although it was not the biggest staff restaurant DeeDee had ever seen, the fourteen tables that were lined up in three rows of four with an additional two down by the far wall would in theory seat more than a hundred people.

Pettersson's Ambulance Services did not have that many employees - in fact, there were only five people present in addition to DeeDee and the kitchen staffers - but the handful of drivers and riding nurses who shared a single table right in the middle of the staff restaurant were more than enough to create a loud and merry mood that would not have been out of place in a whiskey saloon in the Old West. All that was missing was an out-of-tune upright piano and a singing girl.

Malin and 'Blue' Spencer Bradshaw shared the long table with three other uniformed people whom DeeDee had not met yet, so she took the opportunity to walk over there to introduce herself. Like so many other things at Pettersson's, the chairs and tables were square-edged and utilitarian - no tablecloths, tea lights or potted plants were present anywhere to create even a hint of a homey environment.

The table Malin and the others sat at was littered with empty plates and cutlery that all carried the tell-tale signs of having been used on the thick, pale-brown gravy, the potatoes and the typically huge spoonful of the sweet-and-tart cowberry jam that accompanied the meatballs as per tradition. Several small trays holding salt and pepper shakers, bottles of hot sauce, stacks of napkins and small jars carrying toothpicks had been brought over from the adjacent tables.

'Blue' had a tumbler in his large hand that seemed to hold a co*ke, but the other four all drank the free coffee.

"Hey, White," Malin said as she spotted DeeDee walking up to the table. "sh*t, is it time already? We were just getting started!"

"I'm afraid so. Actually, our shift started five minutes ago. I'm sorry. I didn't pay attention to the clock…"

"Ah, don't worry 'bout it. If something had come up, there's a public announcement system installed in here that the dispatcher can use in case of a multi-unit scramble. If anything major happens, they'll call us… but they haven't so we're in the clear," Malin said with a casual wave. "Now that you're here, c'mon over and say hiya to your new colleagues. Guys, this is DeeDee White."

"Hello," DeeDee said, going around the table shaking hands with the three EMTs she had yet to speak to. The first one was in fact no stranger to her since it was Maria Navarro, Spencer Bradshaw's regular riding nurse who went by the nickname 'Sister Dynamite.' Up close, DeeDee noted that the nickname could come from either the woman's striking looks or her muscular frame that the short sleeves of her uniform shirt did a poor job of hiding. The mid-thirty-something Latina had just put a forkful of meatballs into her mouth, so she could only nod and smile in return.

DeeDee moved onto the next one of her new colleagues: a man whose physical presence made him appear a mere stick-figure compared to the beefy pairing of 'Sister Dynamite' and 'Blue.' Also in his mid-thirties, the man was fair-skinned to the point of being milky-white. His shock of ginger hair - that was matched by an equally ginger, fuzzy mustache - and the impressive collection of freckles on his nose and cheeks proved he needed to wear sun-factor eighty-five whenever he was forced to venture outside in the daytime. "Hello, I'm DeeDee White. Nice to meet you," she said, putting out her hand.

"Ken Hutchins. Hiya. I'm one of the drivers. Everyone calls me Curly," the freckled man said in a voice that used a deeper register than his skinny frame and fair coloring hinted at. "So you're Red's new riding nurse, huh?"

"Yes-"

"Lemme tell you, our good friend Jason C-Note got mighty pissed when he heard he had been replaced by a rookie," Ken continued without letting go of DeeDee's hand - the man on his left let out a grunt like he seconded the notion.

The smile briefly froze on DeeDee's face as she was finally allowed to pull her hand back; she had been wondering when she would encounter a comment like that. It was no surprise that one had been flung at her, but it did irk her that she needed to defend herself over a decision she'd had no part in.

Before DeeDee could come up with an answer, Malin did it for her: "C-Note gets mighty pissed over a buncha things, Curly," she said, pointing an accusing index finger at her colleague. "He also knows who's paying his wages. My old man is, and my old man made the call. Satisfied?"

Shrugging, 'Curly' Ken Hutchins presented the trainee riding nurse with a prime example of a cold shoulder as he turned away from her without worthying her a second glance.

Grinding her jaw at the air of impoliteness that exuded from the man called 'Curly,' DeeDee moved onto the final one of the new people: a man who seemed a few years younger than the others at the table. Buff like most riding nurses tended to be, he was of Eurasian descent with pale-brown skin and Asian eyes set well in a face that otherwise held Caucasian features. His black hair was cropped very short which showed he had begun losing it prematurely. "Hello. I'm DeeDee White. Pleased to meet you," she said, putting out her hand.

"Hi, Miss White. I'm Raymond Vinh. My nickname's Uncle Fester," the young man said with a grin.

"Uncle Fester?!" DeeDee said, staring at Raymond and the others like she had a hard time believing what she had just been told. She turned to offer Malin an even harder stare like she expected the boss' loud-mouthed daughter to have come up with the rude nickname all by herself. When everyone at the table laughed, she turned back to Raymond.

"Yeah, it was either that or The Cue Ball Kid," Raymond said, running a hand across the sparse hair on his round head, "but at least Uncle Fester was a funny character."

"I mean… Uncle Fester…" DeeDee said, looking from Raymond and back at Malin who could only grin in return.

Down the other end of the table, Spencer Bradshaw wiped his lips on a napkin that he proceeded to crumple up and throw onto the empty plate. "And that's pretty much the highest level of intellect that's ever on display here, Miss White. Silly notions and even sillier nicknames. In addition to this fine collection of madness, we have the Wolfman, the Suicide Jockey, Cranky Jack, Lamb Chops, Wild Bill, the Ice Princess and Ostrich Junior working as our colleagues. Did I forget anyone?"

"Pig Pen!" Malin said, pointing at her taller friend while she held onto a mug off coffee.

"Ah. Quite," Spencer said, letting out an amused chuckle at the mention of the permanently disheveled, though always highly professional, driver.

The good mood had returned to the table, but 'Curly' Ken Hutchins soon did his worst to upset the delicate balance of the proverbial apple cart all over again. Following DeeDee with his eyes as she walked around the table, he leaned forward and offered her a look that was just on the wrong side of mischievous. "So, rookie… I have a question for you," he said with a deceptive smile on his face.

"For Chrissakes, Curly. Let it go, will ya?" Malin said in a lower tone of voice than the one she used regularly.

Spencer leaned across the table to put a calming hand on Malin's arm. "He'll only dig a larger hole for himself… so let him speak, Red."

Grinning at the unexpected support from the man who often opposed his views of the world, 'Curly' turned back to DeeDee whose sour expression proved she knew something nasty was coming. "I'd like to… hell, we'd all like to hear how you think you'll react the first time you're up to your elbows in blood and guts? Can you keep a level head or will ya freak out and squeal like a little piggy?"

A collection of groans emanated from the other EMTs at the table; the loudest one came from Malin who looked ready to jump over the table and punch 'Curly' into next week.

"How I'll react? Depends," DeeDee said, weighing her words carefully. She crossed her arms over her chest and shot her detractor a hard stare to show she was no pushover.

A co*cksure grin already played on Ken Hutchins' lips as he leaned back in the chair - it was clear to those around the table who knew him well that he considered the little exchange to be a solid victory for him. "Yeah? On what, exactly?" he said, offering the rookie a condescending look.

"On whether or not the blood and guts are my own or someone else's."

A few seconds went by filled with nothing but stunned silence before Malin and Maria Navarro both let out snorting laughs at the clever answer. "Gotcha!" Malin said, offering 'Curly' a wagging middle finger.

Ken Hutchins looked anything but pleased at having been shot down like that, but DeeDee had already pegged him as someone who deserved every bump and thump he received along the way. "I'm only a rookie in the ambulance services. Before coming here, I worked as a nurse for the better part of a decade. I've already been up to my elbows in blood, guts, placenta, vomit and everything else you can imagine during my pre-registration time at the Community Hospital."

"Damn," 'Sister Dynamite' said, nodding in appreciation at the surprising news. "You were at the Community? That's the worst sh*thole hospital in all of Carlyle! You're definitely qualified to work the mean streets." After tearing off a piece of her napkin and balling it up between her fingers, she turned to her redhead colleague and threw the scrap paper at him. "You got any words of wisdom to add to that, genius?"

"Shut up," 'Curly' mumbled; his cheeks were rapidly gaining a color similar to his hair and mustache. In an attempt to restore some of his injured pride, he pointed at Malin using the same finger she had just wagged at him. "Red, why the hell didn't ya tell us where your nurse had worked? You made me look like an idiot here!" he said as he picked up the ball of scrap paper and threw it across the table once more.

Malin let out an amused grunt as she pushed back her chair. "Aw, that one just cries out for a comment or two, but I'm not even gonna rise to that bait. One, I happen to know for a fact that White here prefers to speak for herself, and two… come on, Curly, did ya really think the old man would hire someone fresh off the banana boat?"

Ken's reply never grew louder than a mumbled string of words - it still earned him a round of laughter from the others at his self-inflicted plight.

"Okay, boys and girls… that wraps up things here," Malin continued. "We're late and I don't wanna be any later. See ya tomorrow."

A chorus of "stay out of trouble" and "be cool" from their colleagues acted as the sendoff for Malin and DeeDee as they left the staff restaurant and headed down to the garage - unit oh-seven beckoned.

-*-*-*-

As always whenever Malin Pettersson was on a tight schedule and she needed to go someplace to do something specific, she was detained. First by one of the secretaries who needed her signature on a requisition form, then by one of her male colleagues who came limping through the corridor while she and DeeDee were going in the other direction. The chat to hear the reason behind the limp - the man had simply stumbled over his own feet when he had failed to take the bulkiness of his new pair of safety boots into account - took another three minutes, and to cap it all off, the multiple cups of coffee she'd had made their presence felt so she needed to use the restroom before they could go anywhere.

DeeDee just sighed and allowed it all to happen without becoming too flustered or losing her patience too badly. Though she recognized a clear pattern, she had already resigned herself to the fact that she and Malin were very different creatures when it came to the concepts of time and how to manage it. She understood she was far too finicky for her own good sometimes, but Malin was too far in the other direction - the trick would be to find a happy medium they could both accept.

Even when Malin returned from the restroom whistling a jaunty tune while wiping her hands on a paper towelette, the taxing of DeeDee's nerves and patience had not yet ended. Instead of carrying on toward the garage as planned, Malin swung right down another corridor. It left DeeDee puzzled and frustrated, and she let out an even deeper sigh than the one from earlier.

"Where'd ya go, White?" Malin said, popping her head around the corner of the corridor she had gone down.

"Weren't we supposed to be out on the street by now? I'm sure we were… like fifteen minutes ago," DeeDee said, pointing at the spot on her arm where her wristwatch sat when she wore her regular clothes.

"I gotta show you something first. It's our gallery of family portraits… sorta. C'mon, it's worth it," Malin said, waving the taller woman over to her before disappearing back down the next corridor.

Sighing for the third time in as many minutes, DeeDee put her hands on her hips but eventually followed Malin around the corner. "Ohhh… we really don't have time for it," she mumbled. Even while she said it, she knew it was a lost cause.

"Sure we do. It's right here. Ta-da!" Malin said, stopping at a notice board five feet tall and twenty feet wide that was divided into three equally large sections. She spread out her arms like she wanted to show the whole thing in one go:

The section on the far left was completely covered in photos of drivers, riding nurses and various models of ambulances ranging from the days when black and white film was cheaper to buy and develop, and up to the present day's super-glossy, super-hi-color print-outs. The center section saw photocopied newspaper clippings of all the large-scale assignments that Pettersson's Ambulance Services had been involved in since the company's inception in the late 1980s, including several from the insane night just a few weeks earlier that was still fresh in everyone's mind.

The final section, on the far right, held a collection of colorful A5-sized posters all bearing the title Employee Of The Month above a mug shot of the person in question. Predictably, handlebar mustaches, top hats, five-day stubble, scars, Band-Aids and nearly every other kind of visual joke had been graffitied onto a good portion of the posters that showed the female employees. The men had been exposed to stereotypical feminine things like long eyelashes, corkscrew curls and bright-red lips, but earrings, hair-beads and even nose rings were also prominent.

DeeDee shook her head at the sight. "Look at that vandalism… why is it fun to ruin the pictures? I'll bet the people who were chosen as the Employee of the Month fail to see the humor."

"Can't say," Malin said, wearing an angelic look upon her face that did a poor job of concealing the fact that she had drawn more than her fair share of caricatures onto the posters in months and years gone past.

"How come you've never been selected, Malin?" DeeDee said, studying the various people on the posters. Spencer Bradshaw had been selected as the Employee of the Month no less than six times over the course of the past two years. It was by far the most among the current staff, but one or two of the people who had worked at Pettersson's back at the beginning had scored more monthly wins. Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro had three months to her credit as did DeeDee's new nemesis 'Curly' Ken Hutchins; Raymond Vinh - also known as 'Uncle Fester' - had been chosen twice. DeeDee noted that the man she had replaced as Malin's riding nurse, Jason 'C-Note' Schmidt, had only been the Employee of the Month once.

Turning back to Malin who had yet to reply, DeeDee realized it presented a great opportunity to get in a little needling: "Was it because of your somewhat lax attitude with regards to keeping time?" she said with a wink and a sly grin gracing her features.

"Oh! Ow!" Malin said, pretending to have been hit by the zinger. "No. I'm not eligible. The old man chooses them based on various parameters. I guess the conflict of interest would be too great."

"That's a good point. I didn't think of that," DeeDee said, turning back to the center section that presented all the newspaper clippings. Reading a few of the headlines, she remembered seeing coverage of some of the bigger assignments on the local news stations. The literal centerpiece of the display was a clipping describing the fiery accident involving a pickup truck and a freight train that had taken place during the wild and crazy night not so long ago.

"Yeah. Okay, once you're done reading, we should probably be thinking about hitting the streets," Malin said as she began strolling back to the connecting corridor that would take them to the garage.

"That would probably be a good idea, yes…" DeeDee said, soon using her longer legs to catch up with the driver.

---

A few minutes later, Malin twisted the ignition key which made the oh-seven unit tremble as the turbo-diesel up front came to life. Once the engine revs had settled in at a good idle, she moved the column-mounted shifter into drive and slipped her foot from the brake.

As the GMC Savana ambulance trickled across the concrete deck headed for the rolling door, DeeDee clicked her seat belt into place to be ready for whatever the shift could throw at them. Her full thermos had been safely stored in the box underneath her seat so it was within easy reach during their first break, but she had already dug into the bag containing the high-quality sweets she had bought at the candy store; thus, her tongue was hard at work sucking on an enormous, purple piece of jawbreaker candy. Leaning forward, she glanced at the little clock mounted on the dashboard - it read four-twenty-five. That they had been able to escape getting busted for being so late away seemed like sheer dumb luck to her.

Malin soon pressed the button on the remote which made the rolling door slide upward. The sight that presented itself to the two women made one - DeeDee - rub her forehead, and the other - Malin - let out a long, tormented groan and slap her free hand against her face. It seemed they had been busted for being late away after all, only not in the fashion DeeDee had worried about.

The part of Forty-fourth Street they had a close view of straight out of the garage was congested to the point of all four lanes standing stock-still. The mugginess created by the heavy cloud cover continued to bind the exhaust fumes down at street-level, and the people driving the cars that had been locked solid in the vehicular logjam only made it worse by not turning off their engines while they waited.

Without speaking a word beyond another tormented groan, Malin rolled up her window and pressed the switch on the dashboard that turned on the air-conditioning unit.

---

Seven minutes later, the garishly painted ambulance was still parked halfway across the sidewalk since Malin had failed to spot even half a gap in the traffic they could squeeze into. It was not until the inner lane began moving - at a staggering two miles per hour - that someone gave them room so they could slip onto Forty-fourth Street and begin the age-long trek down to the first intersection.

DeeDee scrunched up her face at the prospect of spending at least the next ten to fifteen minutes just getting to the intersection so they could get away from the worst of the jam. "Wouldn't have happened had we started the shift on time…" she mumbled around the last of her jawbreaker candy. When Malin seemed to have heard her, she offered up a polite smile to offset the comment.

---

A short thirty minutes after the delayed start to their shift, the radio transceiver squawked as the dispatcher sent out their call sign. Though they had managed to clear the initial traffic jam, rush hour was still in full effect and it seemed that everyone had taken to the streets of Carlyle at the same time just to get on Malin Pettersson's wrong side.

Mumbling about all the brain-dead morons they had to share the streets with, the driver reached down to the radio to turn up the volume; as she moved her hand back up, she took the mic off the little hook.

'Unit oh-seven, unit oh-seven, dispatch. You copy?' a female voice said from the radio.

"Dispatch, this is unit oh-seven. We copy," Malin said before she reached down to adjust the volume up a bit more so it would be louder than the whooshing of the air-conditioning. As she spoke, she glanced in the mirrors to see how many cars they had near them in case she needed to switch on their lights and sirens - far too many was the short answer.

'We have received a request for a code six-oh-oh at the Bornhauser Rehabilitation Center a-f-o. One-six-three-three East Fifty-third Street, use rear entrance. Pick up Mr. Stanley Kirsch and proceed to seven-two Sixty-second Street, close support.'

"Ten-roger on the six-double-oh at one-six-three-three East Fifty-third Street, dispatch. A-f-o confirmed. ETA fifteen to eighteen minutes due to severe traffic. Pick up Mr. Stanley Kirsch. Proceed to seven-two Sixty-second Street, confirmed. Unit oh-seven responding. Engaging now."

When DeeDee noticed that they seemed to be in no hurry to get to the assignment - Malin did not even turn on the warning lights much less the siren - she shuffled around in the seat to look at her driver. "I have a whole line of questions for you now… what's a code six-oh-oh? What's a-f-o? And what's close support?"

"Whoa, it's pop quiz time, huh?" Malin said, letting out a chuckle as she tried to slide into the inner lane so she could hang a right at the next intersection - it was a tight squeeze, but she managed to get between a yellow delivery van and a green taxi cab who promptly honked at her. "We really need to get you a copy of the user guide."

"Or a notepad so I can take notes…"

"Yeah. Well, a six-double-oh is the code used for transporting a seated patient, in other words, someone in a wheelchair. A-f-o means 'at first opportunity,' which is just fine in this crappy mess we're stuck in today… and close support means the patient doesn't have anyone there to help at the home address. Which in turn means we need to provide the help needed to get the patient back inside their home."

"Oh… I see. That's fairly logical once you explain it. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Malin said with a grin. "Now if we can only cross over to Fifty-third Street and get to Mr. Kirsch before dusk falls, I'll be a happy bunny."

"Let's hope we can. You want a jawbreaker?" DeeDee said, once more digging into the bag from the candy store.

"No thanks. I'm not a hard candy kind of girl. You got any gummy bears in there?"

"No. I'm not a gummy bear kind of girl," DeeDee said with a grin.

"Jelly beans?"

"Sorry, no."

Malin let out a mock sigh of desperation at the disappointing news. "Oh, Gosh-darnit! Nobody likes gummy bears or jelly beans but me! It can get real lonely out here sometimes…"

---

They drove on in silence for a few minutes before Malin snapped her fingers like she had just remembered something: "That's right… I wanted to ask if you had been given the package with your sweatsuit yet? All new employees get one. It's nothing special, just a regular set of dark-blue fleece sweat gear with our company logo on the front and the back, but it's great quality and it's real comfy to wear on our days off and stuff."

"Mmmm-mmmm-mmm… mmmm-mmm-mmmmm," DeeDee said while she tried to rearrange the brand new, shocking-pink jawbreaker in her mouth so she could speak. When all attempts failed at getting the large clump of hard candy into her cheek, she just took it out and held it between her fingertips so it would not go to waste. "I actually did… there was a note pinned to my locker when I arrived that I should go and see one of the secretaries regarding my welcoming present."

"That's cool."

"No, because when I checked it out, it was about two sizes too small."

"What? sh*t!"

"Yeah… so I obviously dropped it off again. The secretary said she would look for a better fit, but she couldn't give me any guarantees they had one."

Malin shook her head and let out several grunts that sounded just a little like profanity. "Okay. That's too weird. Last time I looked, we still had two dozen boxes of the damn things down in storage. Maybe someone's been pilfering… I need to investigate it. Keep me posted on the progress, yeah?"

"Will do," DeeDee said with a smile before she popped the shocking-pink piece of hard candy back into her mouth once more.

-*-*-*-

The arduous slog through the overgrown paths of the Carlyle city jungle proved to be just as strenuous as they had feared. It would have required hundreds if not thousands of swings with a machete to clear the way had they been in a real jungle, but Malin managed to get by with a long line of grumbled comments - only once did she need to roll down the window and bellow out her displeasure at a fellow driver.

She had informed the dispatcher their estimated time of arrival would be fifteen to eighteen minutes after they had been given the assignment, but the hands on the dashboard-mounted clock had moved nearly twenty-three minutes ahead by the time the orange-and-white GMC Savana drove through the portal for ambulances at the rear gate of the Bornhauser Rehabilitation Center at one-six-three-three East Fifty-third Street.

Swinging around the main building, they noticed the open parking lot was packed solid with cars and minivans no doubt belonging to relatives visiting the patients being treated at - or in some cases, staying at - the center.

The Bornhauser Rehabilitation Center was renowned throughout the state as having the best doctors and physiotherapists who could mend, or at least ease, most physical aches and pains. Professional athletes from a variety of sports who were eager to get back to form after injuries made up a good portion of the patients at the ward, but the majority was regular, elderly people who had suffered falls or other types of accidents in their homes.

Malin soon reversed into one of the parking slots reserved for official vehicles. With the rear compartment close to the rehabilitation center's glass windbreak, getting the wheelchair-bound patient up into the ambulance would pose less of a problem than if they had to wheel him all the way across the vast lot.

Getting up from her seat, DeeDee ducked through the cutout and went into the rear compartment. Since she was not exactly sure what was needed for the assignment, she opened the side access door as well as both rear doors.

"Wait a sec," Malin said, moving around the rear while DeeDee was still up in the ambulance. "We need to talk to the info desk and find the patient first. That might take ten minutes. Then we can open the doors."

"Oh, okay. That makes sense," DeeDee said and went down the short flight of stairs at the access door. Once she was down on the ground, she closed the door and shuffled around the back of the ambulance where Malin already had the remote in her hand to lock up.

---

The Bornhauser Rehabilitation Center's open lobby was less severe than the ones found in most hospitals since it had been designed with patient comfort in mind. Oasis-like, so-called 'chill out' zones had been built in three spots around the ground floor: the first zone was equipped with a love seat, and the other two saw a couple of comfortable armchairs that worked as satellites to low tables. Real potted plants that reached for the ceiling were used to create a homey feel in all three zones.

A long, sloping ramp intended for wheelchairs went up to the first of the upper floors. Three smaller elevators were available for relatives and patients who could still walk on their own, and a fourth, full-size freight elevator was reserved for patients who needed to be transported in wheelchairs or on beds or gurneys.

The lobby saw a good deal of activity since the evening visiting hours had just begun. Many of the people waiting there were elderly citizens dressed in white bathrobes; most of whom used some kind of walking frame or arm crutch to get around. Although they spoke to each other, they often glanced at the main windbreak or the rear entrance in the hope of seeing their relatives arriving. Two of the three chill-out zones were in use by patients whose friends or family members had already shown up.

Several athletes were present in the lobby as well though they tended to distance themselves from the others: big, brawny, beefy men and women who needed to use a single or even a pair of crutches as they hobbled along with taped ankles or kneejoints, or tight bandages wrapped around torn muscles on their thighs or calves. Many of the professional athletes were accompanied by their managers who could be identified by their stylish shades, expensive suits and the Bluetooth earpieces they all wore so they could remain in constant communication with the rest of the world while the human golden goose they managed was in for a check-up.

Moving through the sliding doors, Malin made a beeline for the information desk that had been put up just to the right of the rear entrance. It was next to the vending machines, and DeeDee followed suit to make a beeline for one of those to buy herself a few snacks so she would not suffer a risk of intestinal collapse like on her first shift.

---

Stuffing no less than three candy bars into the deep, large pockets of her high-waisted uniform pants, DeeDee soon joined Malin at the information desk. "Have you learned where Mr. Kirsch is?" she said, patting her pocket to make sure the candy bars would not rub against each other.

"Not yet… would you be supremely annoyed if I mooched one of those babies off ya, White?"

"Of course not. They're actually quite cheap. You can get three for what two costs in other places," DeeDee said with a grin as she dug into the vast depths of her pocket to retrieve one of the bars.

"Ooooh! I need to exploit that to the fullest," Malin said and hurried over to the vending machine while she still had the chance. Returning a few seconds later, her face was scrunched up into half its regular size. "What the hell… no wonder they're cheap! They're all healthy snacks! No fat, no sugar, no taste… those ain't proper candy bars!"

DeeDee shrugged - she thought they were just fine.

"Whatever," Malin grumbled as she moved back to the information desk. Right on cue, a middle-aged woman clad in a white lab coat stepped out from a small office behind the desk. "Good afternoon, Ma'am. We're here for Mr. Stanley Kirsch. Where can we find him?"

"Good afternoon. Mr. Kirsch… let me see where the gentleman might be," the woman said while she moved down her reading glasses that had been perched in her hair. Looking at a monitor that had been placed on a separate part of the information desk, she was soon hacking away on a keyboard; her fingers flew across the various keys in well-rehearsed gestures. "All right, Mr. Kirsch is at present waiting in the second floor staging area after his physical exercises. That's right upstairs. You can't miss it," she said with a smile as she moved her glasses back up into her hair.

"Thank you, Ma'am," Malin said before she and DeeDee walked over to the foot of the sloping ramp to begin the long ascent.

---

The square staging area adjacent to the elevators on the second floor was awash with elderly patients who chatted to each other at great speed and volume. It was definitely a merry experience for everyone present, but Malin almost needed to stick two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle to be heard over the constant din. "Mr. Stanley Kirsch? Mr. Stanley Kirsch?" she said, moving around the many wheelchair-bound ladies and gentlemen on a quest for the right one - she was not aided by the fact that nine out of ten of the people present wore the standard-issue white bathrobes. "Excuse me, is there a Mr. Stanley Kirsch anywhere around here?"

"That would be me!" a man suddenly said from a bit further into the traffic jam of wheelchairs. Unlike most of the others, Stanley Kirsch did not wear a white bathrobe but regular street clothes: loafers, pale-gray sweat pants, a dark-blue shirt and a brown cardigan that sported large buttons and equally large buttonholes to aid his aged fingers. The clothes were a little too large for his slender frame presenting a hint that he had been bulkier when they had been bought. The white-haired fellow was in his mid-eighties and looking somewhat gaunt, but the broad, genuine smile on his face offset much of his paleness.

"We'll be right over, Sir!" DeeDee said, plotting a course through the maze of wheelchairs. It took some planning, but she and Malin were finally able to get through the merry crowd of chatting patients. "Good afternoon, Sir. We're from Pettersson's Ambulance Services, and we're here to drive you home."

"Hello, ladies," Stanley said, clearly basking in the presence of the esteemed company and the attention it earned him from his fellow patients.

Moving behind the hospital-issue wheelchair, DeeDee released the secondary brakes on the handlebars while Malin made sure the seat belt and the leg restraints were in place. "Are you comfortable, Sir?" she said, leaning forward to speak into the elderly man's ear in case he did not hear too well.

"Not really… but the crook is this loaner chair that doesn't work with my skinny butt," Stanley Kirsch said with a grin. "This is as good as it gets while my own deluxe wheelchair is being repaired. The wheel-brake on the right-hand side wouldn't release so it refused to go anywhere but in a circle!" As he spoke, he drew a picture of a circle in the air to illustrate his words.

"Oh… we can't have that, can we? All right. Are you ready to go?"

"Yes. Bye, everybody! See you next week… you-know-who permitting!" he said, waving at the people he had chatted to while he had waited for the transport.

---

Malin ran ahead to prepare the ambulance, but DeeDee took it easy down the long ramp so the loaner wheelchair would not run off with her and the elderly man. Stanley Kirsch appeared to be a regular visitor to the rehabilitation center as he was greeted by patients and employees alike on their way down to the lobby.

Moving outside onto the busy parking lot, DeeDee let out a grunt when she saw the familiar sight of one of the ambulances from Sklar & Bonney parked next to their own vehicle. The fluorescent-green Chevrolet Express with the bright-yellow chevrons had its rear doors open while the driver waited for his own riding nurse. It came as no surprise to DeeDee that Malin and the EMT from 'Skull and Bones' were engaged in a healthy round of trash-talking, nor that they seemed to be enjoying themselves while doing so.

"Holy cow!" Stanley said when he clapped eyes on the garishly-painted, boxy shape of the full-sized GMC Savana. "That's a real ambulance! Usually, I'm being driven home in a minibus… how come it's different this time?"

"I can't say, Sir. We just got the call and came here," DeeDee said, furrowing her brow as the thought of trying to secure enough room for the wheelchair next to the gurney entered her mind. Squinting, she could see from twenty paces' distance that it would be a tight fit.

The juvenile trash-talking contest was cut short when Malin noticed DeeDee wheeling Stanley Kirsch across the parking lot toward her. Moving away from the ambulance, she met her nurse and their patient at the halfway point to offer a helping hand.

DeeDee continued to calculate the space needed versus what they had at their disposal - the arithmetical problem looked like it would fail to add up. She glanced down at the wheelchair once more and then up into the ambulance where the gurney took up at least eighty percent of the floorspace. "Sir, I've just had an idea," she said, leaning forward so Stanley could hear her better. "The standard-issue wheelchairs can all be folded up into half the width. Would you object to be transferred onto the gurney while we drove you home? You can obviously remain in the wheelchair if you wish, but it will be a really, really tight squeeze and I'm sure it'll be uncomfortable for you."

Stanley reached up to scratch the white stubble on his chin as he pondered the suggestion. A moment later, he shrugged. "The gurney is fine, but… my legs aren't worth much these days. I won't be able to get up there on my own."

"Oh, don't worry about that part, Sir. We'll lift you."

"In that case, the gurney will be just fine for the likes of me."

"Okay. Malin, let's get the gurney down for Mr. Kirsch," DeeDee said and locked the wheelchair's secondary brakes on the handlebars so they could get on with the program.

---

The gurney soon slid into place in the V-shaped contraption on the floor. As DeeDee made sure the old fellow was comfortable and well-tucked-in on the orange mattress, Malin pushed the aluminum locking bar into position down at the foot-end. The wheelchair came next - and like DeeDee had predicted, it would only fit next to the gurney's metal frame after it had been folded up.

Malin soon climbed behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. "Are we all set back there?" she said over her shoulder.

"Almost!" DeeDee said, securing the two restraining belts holding Stanley Kirsch in place on the gurney. Once they were tight enough to do the job they were designed for but not so tight they would hurt the patient, she sat down on the bench seat so the old fellow could keep eye-contact with her during the transport. "All set," she continued after she had closed and tightened her own waist-belt.

As Malin drove away from the parking slots reserved for large vehicles, Stanley looked around the high-tech interior of the ambulance with wide, excited eyes. "Oh boy, this is an impressive ride! Much better than those tiny minibuses they always use. I still don't understand why it was changed, but I'm not complaining!"

"That's good, Sir," DeeDee said with a grin.

"Driving backwards doesn't even bother me," Stanley continued after a short while. "I thought it might because I'm a little weird that way. I can't even sit backwards in that exercise-machine they strap me into at the rehab. Yeah… I got clumsy and fell in my apartment."

DeeDee let out a grunt of sympathy. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

"Thanks, but it was all my own fault. The telephone was ringing in the living room and I tried to hurry in there from the kitchen to pick it up. I wasn't using my crutch and, kaboom, down I went. I didn't hit anything going down, thank God, but I definitely had plenty of rug between my teeth there for a while. That was a bad deal. Dinged a couple of ribs and thumped my shoulder and my right hip. The ringing telephone actually saved my bacon, though, because it was my daughter who got suspicious when I didn't pick it up. So she came over and found her old man nose-down on the floor. I was only down there for maybe twenty minutes, but it was the longest damn twenty minutes I had ever lived through…. and that says a lot. I fought in Korea."

"At least there was a positive outcome to the bad deal."

"Yes… sorta. The physiotherapy is tough. I guess I'm not as agile as I used to be when I was your age," Stanley said, flexing his aged, crooked fingers to underline the point.

"What did you do for a living, Sir?"

"I was a cab driver! Yessir, I drove taxi cabs for many a year right here in Carlyle. I started in 'fifty-three after I got back from the war. My first cab was a 'forty-seven Hudson that I bought from a friend who wanted to get out of the business. I used to know every street like the back of my hand… now I don't even know the back of my hand anymore!"

Up front, Malin let out a laugh at the oldtimer's joyous nature. "Let me tell you, Sir," she said over her shoulder, "you ain't missing much. The traffic is backed up like you wouldn't believe. It's gonna take us a little while to get you home."

"Oh, that's just fine," Stanley said loudly to be heard over the rumbling sound of the turbo diesel. "The company's excellent, and I only got a can of Spam and some re-heated spaghetti and tomato sauce to look forward to. And maybe a slice or two of toast. Oh yeah, and the TV, but the less said about that the better. TV's been going downhill ever since McHale's Navy went off the air!"

A loud comment of "Word!" that drifted down from the driver's seat made Stanley and DeeDee chuckle. A furrow suddenly appeared across the old man's brow. "I just thought of something… you aren't the regular team," he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin, "so I sure hope you've been told that I live on the third floor? And that you need to pull the wheelchair and me upstairs by hand because there's no elevator?"

This time, the sound that drifted down from the driver's seat was a prolonged groan. "I guess you weren't told…?" Stanley Kirsch said, looking a little sheepish at the tall nurse on the bench seat.

DeeDee grimaced at the prospects of dragging the elderly man upstairs - at least he did not weigh three-hundred pounds. Even if he had, it was all in a day's work for an ambulance crew. "We were told you needed help getting to your home, but it seems we didn't get all the details. But don't worry, Sir. You'll be in good hands all the way."

-*-*-*-

Since the lobby of the building on Sixty-second Street was dull and non-descript, it was dealt with in a fitting silence. After moving past a pair of closed doors on the first floor, the first fifteen steps up to the two apartments on the second floor had offered no problems for DeeDee who had been awarded the first shift of pulling up the wheelchair on the grounds of losing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors. Malin took over for the next flight of fifteen steps up to the landing, and then they swapped over again to even out the strain on their legs, backs and arms.

"How many… steps to… go?" DeeDee croaked through clenched teeth. Because of the heavy safety boots, it was difficult for her to feel the steps behind her heels, and she had already been close to stumbling half a dozen times. As she moved backward and upward, she tried to look over her shoulder to see for herself, but she was unable to walk safely and scout ahead - or rather, behind her - at the same time.

The clenched teeth, the red blotches on her cheeks and the bulging veins on her forehead all told a tale of needing to spend many, many hours lifting weights in a gym somewhere to gain the strength needed for such an assignment. In a moment of striking clarity, she suddenly understood why Maria Navarro, Spencer Bradshaw and even Malin Pettersson looked the way they did: not only did the job demand plenty of muscle on their bones, it created them as well.

"Nine," Malin said, keeping a steady grip on the lower end of the wheelchair so it would not run off with DeeDee or Stanley Kirsch and create an even bigger drama. "Now eight… seven…"

"This… is… very… very… hard… work," DeeDee groaned; she had such a choke-hold grip on the wheelchair's handlebars to maintain a strong, even pull that all of her hands, and not just her knuckles, had turned white.

"Six… five… four… Oh! Careful! You almost-"

"Please don't… tell me to… be careful… I couldn't be… more careful… if I crawled!" DeeDee croaked between huffing and puffing.

Stanley Kirsch wisely kept quiet and sat stock-still throughout the ordeal, but he kept eye contact with Malin to convey that he was sorry for all the trouble he had caused - she sent him a grin in return to show that it was all right.

"Just two more steps," Malin said, "just two more… okay, now the last one… you're doing great, White. Last one… and you're clear. Now pull the wheelch-"

"I know, dammit!" DeeDee said with a groan. Really putting her back into it, she pulled the wheelchair up across the final step and onto the flat section in front of the two doors to the apartments that shared the staircase. The pulse point on her neck thumped hard and her eyes nearly rolled freely in her head as she locked the secondary brakes on the handlebars; then she dug into her pocket to find a handkerchief to wipe off the sweat that had seeped from her brow, her neck and everywhere else.

While Stanley Kirsch found his keys and unlocked the door, DeeDee had to bend over and put her hands on her knees to regain her breath. When she realized that Malin hardly looked flustered from the hard work, she let out a long groan and shook her head repeatedly.

"I'm really sorry, Miss," Stanley said, offering the worn-out riding nurse a sheepish smile while Malin went inside to make sure the path was clear for the loaner wheelchair. "Back in the day, I often had to work my butt off dragging luggage for all the rich folks so I know what it feels like. How about I made you some instant coffee or something to compensate for the wringer I put you through? You know, from one kind of cabbie to another?"

"I really appreciate the offer, but I'm afraid we don't have time for that, Mr. Kirsch," DeeDee said and stood up straight. A strong twinge in her back made her twist her lips into a pained grimace. She tried to ignore it so she would not look weak in front of a patient: it was a lesson she had learned way back at the Community Hospital. If the patient became aware of the nurse's limitations, he or she would lose confidence in their ability to provide enough assistance when needed. "This is only my second day doing this line of work. I can see that I need to buff up quite badly."

Stanley offered DeeDee a smile just as Malin came back out from the apartment. She had already put her hands on the handlebars to wheel him inside when he stopped her by talking: "I know that pain on your face, Miss… it was the same one I wore when I had to haul suitcases that were too heavy for my back up into the trunk. You need to look out for yourself. You have plenty of years ahead of you, but only one back. If you blow that, the years won't be much fun. Believe me."

"I know, Mr. Kirsch. Thank you for the advice," DeeDee said, stretching her back that had indeed begun to throb. Malin wheeled the elderly patient inside but soon returned to the doorway to check up on her new colleague.

DeeDee offered her a weak, pained smile through a clenched jaw. "Can you wrap it up here? I need to go down and… and get something for my back. I think I pulled a muscle on the last section," she said in a voice strangled by the twinges of pain shooting up from her aching back.

"No problem… hey, are you okay?" Malin said, furrowing her brow. "Dad is gonna come down on me like a ton of sh*ts if I let the newest employee work injured…"

"I'm just fine, but I can definitely feel that muscle," DeeDee said, reaching behind her to massage her lower back near the epicenter of the dull ache. "I'll just nip it in the bud with a painkiller and some strong coffee. And one of the candy bars unless they've melted."

"You sure?" Malin said as she handed DeeDee the keys for the ambulance. "It's perfectly okay to call in sick. We've all done that. That it's only your second day here doesn't matter a damn thing."

"I'm sure… and it's not bad enough for that. Thank you for caring," DeeDee said with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. As soon as the driver had gone back inside to help Stanley Kirsch get settled after his weekly visit to the rehabilitation center, the smile faded from her face and was replaced by a deep frown. Gulping down the pain, she turned back to the stairs and began a descent that was only slightly faster than the speed she had employed going up.

-*-*-*-

By the time DeeDee made it down onto the wide sidewalk on Sixty-second Street, she walked with one hand pressed against her back and the other pinching the bridge of her nose - the dull aches in her back had been joined by a headache stemming from her neck muscles that she had also abused in her choke-hold grip on the loaner wheelchair's handlebars.

The weather had turned even duller and grayer while they had been upstairs helping Stanley Kirsch. The heavy cloud cover meant the humidity was still high, and she could smell precipitation on the edge of the wind. Although the jagged clouds were dark-gray and ominous, she could not see any of the characteristic thunder-cells approaching as she glanced at the sky - of course, she only had a narrow view of it through the concrete canyon of multi-story buildings she found herself in.

She also caught a whiff of herself which made her scrunch up her face in annoyance. Ever since enrolling at the nursing school, she had needed to comply with the standard rule of medical personnel being banned from using perfume or deodorants containing perfume while working. To adhere to the instruction, she had often raided the shelves of the only store in her neighborhood that sold unperfumed bars of soap as well as bottles containing neutral shampoo and shower gel. It had never been a problem at Beech Grove or even during her pre-registration time at the Community Hospital, but the standard rule did not take such tough, literally back-busting work into account.

Reaching into her pocket, she found the remote for the ambulance and clicked on it. The GMC responded by flashing the hazard lights twice to show that it had been unlocked. She wanted to try the universal remedy of sitting down with a lidful of coffee and a candy bar before she went for a real painkiller, so she opened the passenger side door with the intent to dig into the storage box underneath the seat to get her thermos.

Her sixth sense suddenly kicked in. It made her look across the street at the mouth of an alley where a podgy man dressed in basketball boots, torn jeans and a filthy, olive-green jacket looked back at her. The man, whose sickly-pale skin and greasy, unkept hair made him look like he had been sleeping rough for years, moved out of her line of sight in a hurry when they locked eyes. It only made her sixth sense ping even louder which in turn made her furrow her brow in concern.

The unease that ran through her was not strong enough to quell the dull ache that rose from her lower back, so she continued with her original plan of getting some seat-time, a lidful of coffee and one of the health-snack candy bars.

The thermos containing the free coffee from the staff restaurant was soon retrieved from the storage box down on the floor of the driver's compartment - then she lowered herself onto the seat. As she sat down, she let out a groan that was a mix of relief and further aches. Her back kept sending out distress signals, but at least it was somewhat muted and manageable. It grew even better when she released the breath she had been holding; now all she needed to do was to release the tension in her neck and she would almost be back to normal.

She kept a close eye on the mouth of the alley as she unscrewed the lid of her thermos and poured herself a good helping of steaming hot, black coffee. Everything was quiet; nothing further happened at the alley or elsewhere.

Sixty-second street and the surrounding neighborhood was unfamiliar territory to her though she could see at once it seemed to be a typical middle-class district. The one-way street itself was dominated by endless blocks of eight, ten or even twelve-story apartment complexes of varying color and design like they had been built in different decades by different contractors.

None of the blocks near her had stores at ground level, but there were a few hints that some of the apartments near the street had been shops once upon a time: the coloring of the bricks was slightly paler, and some of the windows seemed too large for practical use in an apartment.

It appeared that most, if not all, of the blocks had integrated parking garages in the basem*nts, but there were cars parked at the curb on either side of the one-way street as well - all were family sedans or station wagons save for a single SUV a bit further up the street. The driver had needed to park it at a crooked angle for it to fit between two regular-sized cars.

The mouth of the alley across the street remained empty, so DeeDee drained the last few drops from the lid before she wiped it dry and screwed it back onto the thermos. Reaching down onto the floor to pull out the storage box, she swapped the thermos for one of the candy bars. After pushing the box back in place under the seat with the heel of her safety boot, she began to unwrap the bar - the description of the contents said it was a blueberry-almond trail-snack. She had yet to take the first bite when her ears picked up a familiar sound that made her blood freeze over:

Someone was trying to open the rear doors. Malin had not returned yet - DeeDee was sure of that because she was right next to the entrance to Stanley Kirsch's apartment building, and there was no way she would have missed the driver coming back down. Her heart exploded in her chest when she realized the sounds had to have been made by someone trying to break into the ambulance.

"Dammit!" she croaked, forgetting all about the pains in her back and neck as she moved left-and-right in the seat to cover as many angles in the side mirror as she could. When that yielded nothing, she spun around to look through the cutout. At the exact same moment, the back doors were flung open and the podgy man in the olive-green jacket and the torn jeans climbed up into the rear compartment. A cry of "Oh, hell!" escaped her as she jumped up from the seat. She eyed the radio for a split second, but came to the conclusion that hailing the dispatcher or calling the police would take far too long. Under the circ*mstances, it was more important to get the man out of there before he could do any damage.

Ducking through the cutout as fast as her aching back and her thumping heart would allow, she grabbed hold of the edges of the interior wall and offered the man an icy stare that she hoped would be enough to persuade him to give it up. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You have no right to be in here! Get out before I call the police!"

Only then did she notice that the disheveled man appeared incoherent and that he moved in an erratic, uncoordinated way. His head swayed constantly from side to side like he was being chased by a pack of demons inside his mind, and he kept letting out a stream of mumbled, unintelligible words. She had seen enough people under the influence of drugs of all kinds while she had been at the Community Hospital to recognize that he was either on a bad trip or suffering from an acute mental breakdown that had been triggered by one. Whichever it was, it made her wary of confronting him further.

It turned out to be the right choice a few moments later: the man's only response to her threat was to whip out a seven-inch kitchen knife from the pocket of his jacket. The blade was grungy and filthy, but there was no doubt it could afflict plenty of damage. He soon began swinging it around in wild, unpredictable arcs.

Gulping hard, DeeDee hurriedly moved back into the driver's compartment. She reached for the radio mic to call for help, but there was no time to even take it off the hook as the tripping, intoxicated man tried to squeeze through the cutout with the ugly knife pointed straight ahead of him. Instead of pretending to be some kind of action heroine, DeeDee chose the safe option and hustled across the driver's seat and down onto the street.

She kicked the driver's side door shut in the hope it would hit the man or perhaps just dislodge the knife from his hand, but he had already moved back into the rear compartment.

"Dammit!" she barked, putting her hands behind her head to try to catch her breath. Her heart tried its best to thump out of her rib cage, and she had a tangy taste in her mouth from the sudden burst of fear-induced adrenaline that blasted through her veins. The tension-induced headache that had been there even before the incident blossomed and made her let out a long groan.

Though she had not been told specifically during her brief time at Pettersson's, she knew from her past that it was standard operating procedure for all medical personnel to avoid any direct confrontations with such shady elements, especially if they were armed, intoxicated or both, but it still irked her that the man would no doubt destroy the pristine and carefully-laid out contents of the many drawers and lockers inside the ambulance in his search for drugs.

Rubbing her clammy brow, she considered hurrying up to Stanley Kirsch's apartment to get hold of Malin whom she was sure would know what to do. The aches in her back had overcome the initial shock and made their presence felt once more, so she was in no condition to be sprinting anywhere, much less up the stairs. Another option would be to yell and scream for Malin, but it was by no means certain she would be able to hear her. A third option would be to flag down a taxi cab and get the driver to call the police, but as bad luck would have it, Sixty-second Street was pretty much deserted save for a delivery van that was already several hundred yards past the ambulance.

A fourth option was to swallow her fears and try talking some sense into the tripping man. It was the least attractive one on the list, but the only one she could carry out straight away. Gulping down a bitter surge, she ran around to the back of the GMC ambulance on leaden legs.

She winced as she heard clangs and bangs from inside the ambulance on her way past the closed side access panel and around to the back doors that were still standing wide open. She considered for a split second to use the side access door instead, but the risk of getting too close to the aggressive man was too great.

Once she got around the GMC's tail section and was able to look inside the rear compartment, she winced even harder at the sight of the disheveled thug yanking out one drawer at a time searching for something he could shoot up or chew on. Every single item inside the drawers was thrown onto the floor if he had no use for it; by the looks of the awful mess down by his filthy basketball boots, he had not been too successful in finding anything worthwhile yet. The ugly, grungy kitchen knife he had used to threaten DeeDee with had been put on the gurney so he had both hands free to carry out his destructive business.

"Sir," DeeDee tried in the calmest voice she could muster so she would not risk triggering another attack. Speaking did not come easy to her since her heart's increased tempo and the adrenaline that blasted through her had tied her vocal cords into knots; she had to gulp several times when she needed to raise her voice in order for the man to hear her through the hazy conditions in his mind: "Sir… Sir! Pl- please stop what you're doing. People depend on… on… Sir? Please stop what you are doing!"

The man only noticed DeeDee when she stepped up on the aluminum running board at the back of the ambulance. Growling, he stopped yanking out the drawers to stare at the tall woman entering the rear compartment.

"Sir, please come out of the ambulance with me," DeeDee croaked, taking a probing step closer though her legs would hardly obey her. "W- we can call for an- another ambulance or the c- city's detox team. They can help you get down or per- perhaps provide you with free methadone. Sir…?"

The man's eyes and head never remained still for more than a few seconds at a time, but his frantic gestures appeared to slow down just a fraction while DeeDee spoke. He stared at the tall woman in the pale-gray uniform like she was some kind of purple monster; wailing like a wounded animal, he backed up against the wall to the driver's compartment leaving the knife behind on the gurney and thus out of his reach.

DeeDee misread the man's intentions and took another probing step forward. A split second later, the eyes of the man with the sickly-pale complexion turned wild and unhinged - then he jumped forward and wrapped his filthy hand around the hilt of the knife. His index finger caught the edge of the blade and began to bleed, but it appeared he never felt a thing. Swinging the blade aggressively through the air, it was clear he was trying to defend himself from a perceived foe.

Shrieking, DeeDee jumped back to get out of harms' way, but she failed to move fast enough to avoid the grungy blade slashing through her brand new uniform shirt. The knife caught the pale-gray shirt just under her left breast and sliced apart several inches of the outer fabric with a terrifying rrrrrip - through sheer magic, the white undershirt and her soft skin inside were left untouched.

Deciding that saving her life was more important than saving the medical equipment, she spun around and tore from the ambulance. In her haste to get away, her safety boot slipped on the aluminum running board which sent her tumbling onto the sidewalk a foot below. She had just enough time to bring up her arm to protect her face, but the hard impact rattled her bones from the top of her head to the soles of her feet - it also created a long abrasion on her right arm that reached from her wrist and halfway up to her elbow.

It created a blinding pain within a few seconds of being made, but she knew she needed to ignore it in case the man followed her down. Scrambling to her feet, she ran back over to the main entrance to the apartment building. After moving inside and slamming the door shut in a hurry, she clenched her teeth hard as she stared at the nasty scrape on her arm. Blood had already begun to seep from the inch-long abrasion, and she dug into her pocket to find her handkerchief. It was still damp with her sweat which meant the stinging only grew worse, not better by the contact with the soft fabric.

"Stupid… stupid, stupid, stupid!" she croaked as she dabbed away several droplets of blood and a few stone chips she had picked up from the sidewalk; they were large and jagged enough to look right at home in a rock quarry. "DeeDee White, what the hell were you thinking? Of all the stupid, moronic, idiotic things to do…"

A quick look through the two panes of glass installed in the metal door prompted a long groan to escape her lips: a taxi cab drove past at that exact moment. Had she not gone through with her hare-brained notion of trying to emulate a certain Warrior Princess, she would have been able to flag it down. Looking back at the ambulance proved that the large vehicle was rocking gently from side to side; it meant the man was still conducting his destructive business of wrecking everything he could get his hands on in his quest to find something that would prolong his trip. DeeDee shook her head and let out another groan - this was not the start to her new career she had envisioned for herself.

"Hey, White… wotcha doing in here? Didya find a spider in the cab or something?" Malin said with a grin as she walked down the final flight of stairs. Coming to a dead stop three steps from the ground, her initial friendly comment was quickly followed by a barked "What the flaming f*ck happened to you?!" when she clapped eyes on the taller woman's frazzled appearance and the long, angry-red abrasion on her arm.

"A junkie happened. He broke into the ambulance," DeeDee croaked, turning around to face her driver.

"But your arm… J-F-C, look at your shirt! That mofo cut you?!" Malin barked, grabbing the flapping piece of torn fabric. She flicked it aside to see the condition of the white undershirt. When she realized it and all the vital parts inside were still intact, she ran over to the door to look at the ambulance and the rest of the street.

"Yeah. Well, he cut my shirt. He had a kitchen knife or something. I'm okay," DeeDee said in a shaky voice that undermined her words. "I… I tried to talk him down, but he was tripping too hard to understand. He came at me and I ran. I guess I fell off the back of the ambulance," she continued, rubbing her brow when a sudden rush of embarrassment came over her.

"Sonovabitch! Dammit, my phone's in the cab!" Malin said after patting all her pockets.

"And mine's in my locker back at the base," DeeDee said, still pressing her handkerchief against the long abrasion. Though she continued to dab away droplets of crimson blood, more were made all the time - the fabric had already been soaked through in several spots. "Maybe we could run upstairs and use Stanley's telephone?"

"No… I helped the old boy into bed for a nap before I came down. I'll bet he's fast asleep now. Sonovabitch!" Malin said, looking at the ambulance that kept rocking.

"Oh… dammit."

Malin's face grew darker and darker as she continued to stare at her father's expensive oh-seven unit. She had experienced enough in her years as a driver on the mean streets of Carlyle to know what the interior of the rear compartment would look like by now. Growling, she made a fist and smacked it onto the wall next to the door. She moved away for a second or two before she changed her mind and reached for the door's handle.

"Wait, Malin! It's far too dangerous!" DeeDee cried, but it was too late - Malin Pettersson stormed out of the stairwell and flew across the sidewalk to get to the rear of the ambulance.

DeeDee followed the driver outside but remained at the building at first. She looked to the heavens for guidance but nothing came to her - the wanted divine intervention was also found severely lacking in producing any taxi cabs, delivery vans or even police cruisers driving past on Sixty-second Street.

The long, ugly scrape on her arm had progressed from a state of mere stinging to one of downright throbbing; it soon teamed up with the pulled muscle in her back and her thumping headache created by the abused muscles in her neck to create an unholy trinity that produced nothing but billowing pain. She had to ignore it - she understood full well that she needed to assist Malin in their struggle against the unpredictable man. Sighing, she ran along the sidewalk in the driver's tracks.

At the rear of the GMC, Malin slammed her hands on her hips as she stared at the unfathomable mess inside. Her face contorted into a dark, angry mask at the sight of the podgy, filthy, sickly-white man who was responsible for all the drama. "You miserable piece of sh*t!" she barked at the top of her lungs. "Get the f*ck outta my ambulance, you Goddamned asshole! What the f*ck do you think you're doing?! Get your ass the f*ck outta there or else I'm gonna come up and kick your balls to kingdom come!"

The barrage of profanity seemed to do the trick, at least initially: spooked by the ferocious Fury at the doors, the man shied back until he knocked against the wall to the driver's compartment. He held the knife high and aimed it at Malin, but it was a position of desperate defense, not aggressive offense.

From one moment to the next, he let out a creepy, screeching noise that was a cross between an insane scream and a manic, staccato laugh. Clutching his head, he began to pull his greasy hair like he was trying to escape the hideous demons in his mind. When that proved not to be enough, he started thumping himself over the head with clenched fists.

"Poor man," DeeDee said darkly, sounding like she meant it.

"Poor man?! Poor man, my hairy ass," Malin said, jumping up into the rear of the ambulance. "You f*ckin' piece of psycho trash! You had your chance… now it's my turn! Get outta here! Get the f*ck outta here!" she cried as she grabbed hold of the olive-green jacket and half-dragged, half-shoved the screeching man through the rear part of the ambulance and down toward the wide open doors.

"Look out, Malin! The knife! He's still holding the knife!" DeeDee cried, staring wide-eyed at the blade as it glinted in the sparse sunlight that fell into the rear compartment from the opened rear doors.

Malin roared out her anger as she was forced to evade a series of wild swings and stabs that came at her just before they reached the doors. In a rapid sequence of events, she jerked right to get away from the lethal blade, then jerked left to get clear of the return swing. The fast gestures made her slam her back up against one of the open panels; the hard edge caught her across her spine which made her howl in pain.

Jumping forward, she put her sturdy safety boots to good use and kicked the grungy kitchen knife out of the man's filthy hand. Once he had been disarmed, she moved in deep, grabbed hold of his lapels and manhandled him closer to the opening.

A wrestling match ensued that rolled back and forth for a few seconds. Though the man was far heavier than Malin, the fire that burned inside her was strong enough to compensate for her missing pounds, and she was able to drag him through the indescribable mess on the floor and over to the doors.

In the distance, a police siren cut through the concrete canyon on, or at least near, Sixty-second Street. The familiar sound made the man lose the last ounce of control over himself. Though he no longer had access to the knife, he was still dangerous through his long reach. As he swung his arms in wild, uncontrolled arcs - one of which hit Malin across the face - he let out a primal scream that made DeeDee's skin crawl.

The trainee riding nurse took several steps back to be at a safe distance from the unpredictable man in case he charged her or Malin, but he appeared to be too preoccupied with trying to bash his own head in with his fists to have time for anything else.

She bared her teeth in a concerned grimace as she glanced around the corner of the ambulance to get a view of Sixty-second Street. Though she could still hear the police siren plain as day, she was unable to see the cruiser anywhere. She would need to react fast the moment she spotted it - since they had not yet had the time or opportunity to alert the dispatcher about the incident, chances were that the cruiser was there on other business. If that was the case, it would drive right past them unless she tried all she could to flag it down.

From one moment to the next, the man in the torn jeans and the filthy olive-green jacket fell - or was pushed - out of the ambulance and landed heavily on the unforgiving sidewalk. He tried to get on his feet twice but it never amounted to anything and he soon gave up. Groaning in pain, he curled up into a rocking ball of humanity nursing his right elbow and shoulder.

DeeDee moved back in a hurry while keeping a close eye on the man. She was in two minds on whether or not she should help him. It was deeply ingrained in her that she, as a professional nurse, should help anyone who was injured, but her self-preservation told her that she should stay far, far away from the aggressive man who had already tried to slice her open with his knife. Ultimately, her self-preservation won out, and she ran over to the ambulance to check up on Malin instead.

The driver appeared in the doorway panting heavily. Her uniform shirt had been twisted around and pulled halfway out of her pants. A scarlet line ran down her upper lip from her left nostril; she growled long and hard when she noticed it.

"Are you all right, Malin? You're bleeding…" DeeDee said, stepping up on the running board below the rear doors.

"I know, dammit. That mofo got in a lucky punch that biffed me over the nose… sonovabitch," the driver growled as she moved back into the ambulance and began rummaging through the mess on the floor with the tip of a boot - digging into the scores of items with her hands would be far too dangerous since the thug had also yanked out the drawer containing the spare syringes. "Don't worry 'bout me, White… I'm just fine. How's your arm?"

"Oh, that's just dandy," DeeDee said, expressing more with the pained grimace upon her face than with her words. "My back is even dandier. And my head is the dandiest of the bunch. In short… it hurts pretty much everywhere."

"Yeah," Malin said, turning back to the piles of hugely expensive junk she was wading through. Because of the stringent rules on keeping sterile products separate from potentially contaminated, or at least non-sterile, materials, it would all be shoveled into a trash bag and thrown out as biohazard waste once they got back to their base. "J-F-C, look at this f*ckin' mess! Oh, where the hell's all the absorbent cloth?"

She eventually found an unopened pack that she kicked over to the other side of the ambulance to make sure it would be safe to pick up. Ripping it open, she was soon dabbing the cotton against her nose. She stuffed several more pieces of cloth into her pockets to have spares for later.

"I'm… I'm really sorry…" DeeDee said, rubbing her brow with her injured hand. The handkerchief she used to mop up the blood that continued to seep from the ugly abrasion had turned so red she removed it, crumpled it up and threw it onto the nearest pile in the back of the ambulance.

"Don't be. It's not your fault," Malin said, reaching into her pocket to offer the riding nurse one of the clean pieces of absorbent cloth she had salvaged.

DeeDee took it with a smile and went back to pressing it against the long scrape. "Thank you. Oh, I… I don't know if it wasn't my fault. I should have tried harder to talk him down when he first came into the ambula-"

"Pardon my French, but that's just crap in a tin can, White. I'll bet you know damn well those psycho freaks can't be stopped unless someone beats the living sh*t outta them," Malin said in a voice that was muffled by the cotton cloth she held against her nose.

DeeDee's jaw dropped upon hearing Malin's harsh words. She stared at the driver for a moment or two to see if she had been cracking a nasty joke, but it soon became crystal clear that the statement was to be taken dead-seriously. Though she wanted to counter it, she understood that defending the man would not go down well in the present situation. All in all, she kept quiet.

Malin continued to stare daggers at the man on the ground before she jumped down from the rear of the GMC. Softening her expression, she turned back to DeeDee. "I'm glad you didn't try anything. I kinda like you being in one piece."

"Yeah… thank you, but… thank you," DeeDee said, cutting it short to get away from the touchy subject. Wiping her sweaty face on her sleeve, she was hit by a wave of fatigue that she knew stemmed from the shock she had been through - it was the adrenaline that left her system. After the fatigue, she would experience acute thirst, then a hot flash and finally a chill that would rattle her bones to the marrow. The fatigue could be dealt with by sitting down and trying to breathe deeply and evenly, and she even had a remedy against the acute thirst in her thermos up front if she could only get to it.

"Listen," Malin continued, "we really need to call it in. Can you keep an eye on this piece of sh*t while I get the dispatch on the horn?"

"No. I'm really, really sorry… I need to sit down soon or I'll drop… but I'll get your telephone so you can call the police," DeeDee said, pinching the bridge of her nose to try to quell the numbing headache that had once again assumed control over her being. "Malin… please don't harm him in case he tries to get up. Please."

Malin shot the trainee riding nurse a curious, sideways look that lasted for a few seconds. It was clear she wanted to pose a question or two to the unusual request, but she kept quiet. Eventually, she offered DeeDee a slight nod. "I won't. I promise," she added almost as an afterthought.

"Thank you," DeeDee said, staggering up to the driver's side door to get Malin's telephone that she had noticed had been put in the door pocket. Once the phone had exchanged hands, she staggered back to the passenger side door.

Opening it, she reached into the storage box underneath the seat to grab her thermos. The healthy candy bar she had been in the process of unwrapping when she had been surprised by the man was still in one piece, so she concentrated on that one first. Ripping the cover off completely, she took a huge bite out of the snack to let the sweet taste of the blueberries and the almonds take care of some of the rampant unease that continued to roll around inside her.

Her knees started to wobble so she climbed aboard the GMC and lowered herself carefully onto the seat. Unlike the last time she had done so, the relief was short-lived as a new wave of aches followed on the heels of the one that had fizzled out when she had made contact with the seat cover.

The thermos came next, but she discovered that her hands trembled too much for it to be safe. She did not dare to unscrew the lid in case the hot coffee ended up all over the place, so she put it on the seat next to her for the time being. She cast many a longing glance at it while she continued to munch on the candy bar, but her hands had not improved enough for her to make a move for the dark-brown, highly caffeinated liquid. Sighing, she concentrated on eating the healthy snack instead.

Out of nowhere, the white-and-pale-blue Ford Crown Victoria cruiser from the city police that had promised to show up for the past several minutes finally blasted up alongside the ambulance. Once it was there, it came to a nose-dipping, tire-squealing halt; it had come from the wrong direction along the one-way street like they had been unable to find the right address.

Its electronic siren continued to blare out the familiar disharmonic concert of several different siren calls intermixed with brief, irregular stabs of white noise until one of the officers shut it off. The residents of Sixty-second Street were no doubt relieved to get a respite from the wall of noise that had created a reverberating echo through the concrete canyon.

The surprise appearance of the city police department nearly made DeeDee choke on the next bite of the trail-snack bar as she whipped her head around to see what was going on. She could hardly stop a manic chuckle from escaping her lips as relief flowed over her. Crunching frantically on the large chunks of almonds in the healthy candy bar, she staggered back out of the ambulance and shuffled down the right-hand side to get to the rear.

The cruiser still had all its numerous warning beacons, strobe lights, LED panels and wig-wags flashing even after the officers had found the ambulance they had been looking for. Stepping out of the vehicle, the two men - who both wore the regular Carlyle City Police summer uniform consisting of black shoes, black pants and a pale-blue, short-sleeved shirt - adjusted their caps and body armor before they strode over to the ambulance. The one who had been sitting on the passenger side released the Velcro strap that held his sidearm in place when he eyed the filthy, disheveled man on the ground.

Interested spectators who had been alerted by the siren were leaning out of their windows in several of the apartment buildings lining Sixty-second Street clearly hoping to see some drama and excitement in their quiet neighborhood; a few people out walking their dogs had come to a halt on the sidewalk to gawk.

On the street itself, a few bicycle couriers craned their necks as they zipped past the incident - one of which nearly took flight when the taxi cab that trickled along the street in front of him came to a full stop to see better. Instead of getting his wings early, the courier swerved hard before he let out an impressive string of colorful profanity in a language that sounded like it could be Greek.

The two officers from the city police were nearly clones of each other when it came to their physical appearance: both were tall, wide and burly, both had prominent jaws and coarse features, both wore the classic full-width mustache so beloved by police officers everywhere, and both moved in the exact same way as taught by the instructors at the police academy. The only difference between them was that one was dusty-blond and the other had mousy-brown hair.

"Hey boys. Nice of ya to drop in," Malin said to the police officers when they were close enough. She grinned at DeeDee who had come up to stand next to her - the two women briefly locked eyes before they both let out sighs of relief. Chuckling under her breath even while continuing to dab her nose on a clean piece of absorbent cloth, Malin turned back to the officers: "We got a little early Christmas present for ya. He's tripping and kinda unpredictable so you need to be careful. He's vandalized the ambulance looking for drugs so you won't have trouble getting fingerprints or whatever."

"Was he armed?" the first of the seemingly cloned police officers - the dusty-blond one - said. While his brown-haired colleague drew his sidearm to keep the suspect covered, the first one put a knee on the defeated man's back to pin him down while he slapped a pair of metal handcuffs around the podgy wrists.

Malin threw her head in the vague direction of the garishly painted GMC. "Oh yeah. A knife. A big, ugly, rusty one. It's still on the floor inside the ambulance… somewhere."

"Don't touch it."

"Wasn't planning to," Malin continued before she let out a chuckle. "I can't tell you yet if Pettersson's Ambulance Services wants to press charges against Mister Schtinky there, but I suspect we do."

"Noted. We'll call in the techs so we can start building a case," the dusty-blond clone said while he kept the firm pressure on the arrested man's back. "Has the CCTV package been installed in this unit?"

"Ah… I don't think so," Malin said, furrowing her brow.

DeeDee shook her head though the gesture did nothing to improve her headache. "No it hasn't, Officer. Well, the gizmo itself has, but it hasn't been plugged in yet." When Malin's face turned into a reasonable facsimile of a large, garishly-painted question mark, she leaned in toward the driver and said: "I'll explain later."

"Okay… I'll hold you to it 'cos I have zip idea what you're talking about."

The police officer grunted as he emptied out the pockets of the arrested man's filthy, olive-green jacket and torn jeans. As expected, several items of drugs paraphernalia saw the light of day. "It doesn't matter… we've got plenty here to hold him. It's too bad about the CCTV recordings, though. It would have helped. It'll be compulsory after the New Year," he said, looking back at the two women. "But anyway, I'm afraid you can't leave until the CSI team has dusted for prints, et cetera."

Malin nodded. It seemed they were stuck there for the time being; the length of their involuntary break was less relevant because their shift was already over as demanded by the section of the rules and regulations pertaining to violent assaults - and she should know since she had helped hammer out the updated rulebook as the elected representative for the EMTs working for Pettersson's Ambulance Services.

The only place they would go after being allowed to move on by the police crime scene investigators would be straight back to their headquarters so the cleaning crew could sort through the terrible mess made by the aggressive man. Malin nodded. "Ten-roger on that, Officer. We'll just take an extended coffee break."

"Do either of you require medical attention? You have a nose bleed… and that arm looks nasty," the dusty-blond officer said, eyeing the various cuts and bruises scattered liberally on the two women's skin.

"Naw, we'll take care of it ourselves. No worries," Malin said, looking to DeeDee to confirm that her statement was true - DeeDee agreed to it by offering the driver a tired nod.

"All right. Thank you, Miss. We'll take it from here," the first of the officers said as he yanked the arrested man to his feet. It took a few tries for the podgy fellow to stand up straight - and remain upright - but he eventually regained his balance.

"You betcha," Malin continued before she looked at the absorbent cloth to see if her nose insisted on carrying on bleeding. The scarlet flow seemed to have stopped, so she shoved the stained cloth into her rear pants pocket for later.

Once the suspect had been neutralized, the brown-haired officer holstered his pistol and helped the other clone drag the reluctant man over to the back seat of the cruiser - it was all done with little effort and a lot of professionalism. While the brown-haired officer called for the crime scene investigators on their radio, his dusty-blond colleague bagged-and-tagged the knife and took several pictures of the mess so they would have initial photographic evidence of the vandalism to put in their report.

DeeDee and Malin soon waved goodbye to the police officers as the cruiser made a three-point turn and drove off with the suspect - they carried on going in the proper direction on the one-way street. Moving back to the ambulance, Malin stepped up into the rear compartment and opened one of the few panels that had escaped being trashed. "White, let's take a look at that arm of yours," she said, taking a bottle of demineralized water and a few more pieces of cotton cloth that she happened to find on the floor. "We need to clean it before it turns yellow."

"Ugh… that would be best," DeeDee said and used the tip of her boot to sweep aside some of the mess. Sitting on the edge of the rear floor with her long legs reaching down to the ground, she winced hard as Malin cleaned the wound with the water, used several pieces of absorbent cotton to soak up the last of the droplets of blood, and finally applied a clean bandage that she had taken from one of the intact rapid response kits - either the thug had not been aware of them, or he had run out of time to tear them apart.

"There, that oughtta do it," Malin said as she attached the last piece of super-adhesive tape that held the bandage in place. "Man, just back to work from a day off and now you'll get another one," she said with a grin.

"Oh, it's not quite that bad… I can still work."

"Nope," Malin said as she put away the bottle with the demineralized water and clicked the panel shut. "Any injury sustained on the job automatically earns you a day off. It's always been that way."

"Oh… okay," DeeDee said and shook her head slowly. The headache that rose from her abused neck muscles chose that moment to knock on the inside of her skull like it wanted her to remember that it was still going strong. She sighed. "I have to say, this wasn't the start I had dreamt of…"

After dusting off her hands, Malin jumped off the edge of the floor but soon returned to her trainee riding nurse. "I'll bet it wasn't," she said, letting out a dark chuckle. "Man… look at this mess. The old man's gonna flip his lid," she continued, shaking her head when she took in the indescribable carnage in the back of the once-pristine ambulance.

"I can hear him already," DeeDee said and clambered to her feet.

"Yeah… no sh*t."

Now the adrenaline had fully left DeeDee's system, the dull ache in her back had returned. She would have been perfectly content with that in the face of all the other nonsense that had happened to her in the past twenty-five minutes, but the dull ache had morphed into a throbbing pain that reached up from her lumbar region. Grimacing, she pressed a hand against her lower back. The gesture made her twist her neck which created a second front that kicked her headache into a higher gear as well. A long groan escaped her throat as a result of being ganged-up on by her own body.

"Damn, you got it at both ends today, huh?" Malin said with a smile of sympathy. Looking down, she realized her uniform shirt was still crooked and disorderly so she unbuckled her belt and loosened her pants to get everything tucked in - she was soon adhering to the strict dress code laid out by her father.

"Yeah… at least you were able to call the police," DeeDee said, trying to stretch her back without aggravating any of her lingering aches and pains.

"Naw, that wasn't me. I didn't even have time to punch in the number. Besides, they were already around here by then… just lost, or whatever. But they were definitely in the area."

"Oh. I wonder who did, then?"

"Don't know. It could've been anybody around here," Malin said, gesturing at the multi-storey apartment buildings nearest to them. "Hey, you wouldn't happen to have some coffee left, would ya? I could definitely use some rocket fuel by now."

"My hands were shaking too hard to have some before, so there's plenty left… but only one lid."

"Aw, that's okay," Malin said with a grin as she strolled up to the driver's side door. "We can share the lid 'cos I don't have the cooties or anything!"

DeeDee chuckled as she shuffled around the back of the ambulance to get back to her own seat. The rest of the blueberry-almond trail-snack candy bar beckoned, and she took another big bite out of it while Malin poured herself a lidful of the steaming hot coffee.

Taking the radio mic off the hook with her free hand, Malin soon established contact with their base: "Dispatch, unit oh-seven. Dispatch, unit oh-seven. Do you copy?" she said before releasing the key.

'Unit oh-seven, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead,' the female dispatcher said from the other end of the connection.

"Unit oh-seven reporting a code niner-oh-two, repeat a code niner-oh-two. Stuck at present location until further notice. Awaiting assistance from city police tech team, over."

'Unit oh-seven, confirm code niner-oh-two. Do you require a tow truck or an additional e-m-s unit, over?'

"Negatory, dispatch. Forced to return to base once the tech people are done. Vehicle requires thorough cleaning after code niner-oh-two."

'Unit oh-seven, acknowledged. Stand by.'

"Standing by, dispatch," Malin said and leaned back in the seat while she waited. The unexpected break in the conversation was used to take another sip of the coffee.

DeeDee finished the final bite of her candy bar before she dabbed her lips on a napkin. "You want one of the healthy snacks while you wait? Or a jawbreaker? There's still a couple left."

"None of the above. Thanks," Malin said with a grin. "Me and healthy snacks don't really get along if you know what I mean."

"I thought it was great. You don't know what you're missing."

"Ehhhhh…" Malin said, wagging her hand - it made them both chuckle.

"Anyway, are you done with the coffee?"

"Yup," Malin said, gulping down the last remaining sip before she handed the lid back to her riding nurse.

After DeeDee had poured herself a lidful of the dark-brown liquid, she got out of the ambulance to take several deep breaths of fresh, or at least fresher, air. Though it was still muggy and the exhaust fumes continued to hover near the street, it was free of the aggressive man's overpowering, unwashed scent that continued to pollute the interior of the ambulance even long after his exit.

She had only shuffled around on the sidewalk for a few seconds before someone shouted at her in a friendly voice - it sounded like it came from somewhere above her. Looking up, she spotted Stanley Kirsch waving at her from an open window. "Oh! I think I just found out who called the police," she said into the cab as she offered the old fellow upstairs a wide grin, an enthusiastic wave and a big thumbs-up that were all responded to in kind.

"The old cabbie Stanley?" Malin said, still holding onto the radio mic. She tried to crane her neck to look up at the windows, but she was unable to see that high through the windshield.

"I'm sure of it… I'll give him a proper wave from you."

"Thanks. For once, we had a friend in high places, huh?" Malin said, chuckling at her jokey wordplay before the squawking radio took over once more:

'Unit oh-seven, unit oh-seven, dispatch. You copy?' the familiar female voice said from the other end of the connection.

"Dispatch, this is unit oh-seven. Go ahead," Malin said, keying the mic.

'The chief has conferred with the city police crime scene techs who have agreed to conduct their analyses here at HQ. Return to base immediately for debriefing.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Returning to base immediately. Negatory on the debriefing. Not necessary, over."

Another short pause ensued before the radio squawked to life once more: 'Unit oh-seven, dispatch. The chief insists on debriefing. Dispatch out.'

"Roger that, dispatch. Confirm debriefing. Over and out," Malin said and hung the mic on the little hook before she leaned over toward the passenger side door. "White! Get your butt in the seat! Looks like my old man has been in touch with the cops… they'll do all their CSI-ing back at the garage," she continued loud enough for DeeDee to hear it out on the sidewalk.

"Okay?" DeeDee said, draining the last of the coffee before she opened the door and climbed into the GMC. The thermos was soon down in the storage box which left her hands free to click the seat belt into place.

"Yes. And there'll also be someone there to debrief us. A psychologist who'll go through the incident with us," Malin said as she started the turbo diesel which sent the familiar tremble through the large vehicle. "You might feel different about it 'cos you're a brooder and stuff, but personally, I think all that babying is bullsh*t. If we have a specter looking over our shoulder that we wanna get rid of, we EMTs just talk to each other. Not some headshrink who doesn't know the mean streets like we do."

DeeDee glanced over at the tough driver who was in the process of operating the column-mounted shifter. A moment later, the ambulance moved away from the sidewalk on Sixty-second Street that had seen so much unwanted drama. She had a hunch it would not go down well if she let it be known that she considered professional post-incident counseling to be of utmost importance to her mental health and indeed her well-being, so she settled for letting out a grunt that could mean absolutely anything.

The more she learned about Malin Pettersson, the more she became aware of the vast differences between them. It had been a sharply defined contrast from the outset, but it seemed to turn even more night-and-day for each incident they encountered over the course of their unpredictable shifts. Whether that was a good or a bad thing, she was unsure.

The one-way Sixty-second Street was soon left behind as the boxy ambulance once more set off on an arduous slog through the overgrown paths of the city jungle. Neither of the two women spoke much on their way back to their home base on Forty-fourth Street, but it was for different reasons: Malin knew her father would be angry and confrontational with all and sundry - including her - as a result of the expensive nature of the incident, and DeeDee pondered all that had happened to her. She simply found herself with nothing more to say to the driver.

*

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THE END of PART 2

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PART 3: UNIT ONE-FIVE, CODE TRIPLE NINER

A short week had gone by since the upsetting incident on Sixty-second Street. Like Malin Pettersson had predicted, her father and Pettersson's Ambulance Services had been advised by their lawyers to press charges against the violent man for vandalism as well as assault and battery despite knowing they would never be able to recover the cost of the destruction he had caused. The homeless twenty-six-year-old had a decade-long history of mental problems and issues with various addictions, but it was the first time he had raided an ambulance. He had escaped from several mental institutions around Greater Carlyle and had always returned to the filthy alleys near Sixtieth Street where he had lived with his family as a child. After the arrest, he had been committed to a special ward where he had been confined to physical restrainment following another violent incident.

DeeDee White had spoken at length with the counselor when they had returned to the bunker-like garage on Forty-fourth Street. Her debriefing had in fact lasted nearly three times as long as the dramatic incident in the back of the ambulance had done. Malin had left the joint session after exactly six-and-a-half minutes claiming that if she had to suffer through another minute of the "touchy-feely bullsh*t," she'd throw up.

The two women did not meet again until two days later when they shared one of the GMC Savanas on their regular ten-hour shift. The first several hours had been stiff and awkward with nary a word exchanged between them. After that, they had been too busy to address the central issue though it was obvious that they needed to have an in-depth talk about it. At the end of that first shift back, they had said their goodbyes to one another and had left separately.

---

DeeDee was reminded of all that when she and Malin drove around the streets of Carlyle in the garishly-painted one-five unit a few days later. The hands on the little clock mounted on the dashboard had already moved past midnight so they had less than two hours remaining of their shift.

The driving was conducted in silence. Not a sulking or petulant silence, just a regular, awkward one that proved their working relationship had never really recovered from the violent incident - or perhaps closer to the point, from how they each had dealt with the aftermath.

During the first eight hours of their shift, they had been called out to three assignments: the first had come after only twenty minutes when they had been sent out to assist a little tyke who had twisted his ankle while playing street soccer. Though the young boy was in obvious pain from the injury, he forgot all about his tears when he was given a tour of the large ambulance with his mother after having his ankle taped and wrapped like his heroes from the MLS. The second assignment had been a simple transport of a bedridden patient who needed to be transferred from St. Mary's Hospital to the Methodist due to the fact that St. Mary's had reached their maximum capacity. The third and latest one was to treat an elderly lady who had suffered from an acute case of heart arrhythmia that had been brought about from watching an exciting game show on TV.

All three assignments had been conducted in the top-professional style expected of Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services and the EMTs working for them, but as soon as the particular job had been accomplished, the silence had returned between DeeDee and Malin.

The traffic was sparse as the ambulance headed north on Avenue C. Being late in the month, many of the people who were usually out at that time of the night had less money to burn, and gas for their cars seemed to be the item where they had decided to save the most. The weather had never really returned to the pleasant late-summer high it had been at following the suffocating heatwave; the cloud cover had refused to go anywhere for days without end which meant the stars were once more hidden behind the gray veil high above - of course, even on clear nights, not even the brightest star could defeat the massive light pollution that rose from the concrete jungle known as Greater Carlyle.

Behind the wheel, Malin broke out in a yawn that was soon followed by a thorough rubbing of her tired face. She glanced down at the one-five unit's cluster of instruments to check if the temperature gauge that had been all over the place earlier in the evening had decided to come back to work. The short answer was that it was still troublesome: the needle continued to bounce up and down reading everything between nothing at all and maximum temp like it was simply responding to the various rattles and bumps of the street rather than being connected to a cable behind the dashboard. At least the bright-red temperature warning light did not come on whenever the needle hit the top peg - seeing that on a regular basis would have driven her to the brink of insanity in no time flat.

The other instruments still seemed to be dependable, but every driver knew that once the gremlins had entered the electrical system, anything could - and often would - happen. As they pulled up to a red light, Malin found a pencil and a notepad and jotted down a note-to-self about informing the chief mechanic Marco Bocamante that the oh-five unit needed to have a complete check-up of its wiring loom.

"Is it still on the blink?" DeeDee said, glancing at the instruments after reading the note.

"Yeah. It's a piece of sh*t," Malin said, putting away the notepad as the traffic lights turned green on the gantry above them. Another yawn rolled over her which made her rub her brow all over again. "Hey, White… how about we stopped in our usual spot to grab something to eat? I need a break. And I'm hungry."

"Sure. I could eat," DeeDee said with a polite smile.

Malin nodded as she steered into the inner lane to be ready to hang a right into the parking lot at the fast food restaurant they often used. Only a short time went by before the bulky ambulance let out the customary creaks and groans as it crossed over the sidewalk. Going no faster than at a walking pace though the lot was mostly empty, Malin drove over to the parking bays reserved for large vehicles. "Oh… look, a couple of our guys are already there. That's neat," she said as she caught a glimpse of two people eating at the picnic table next to an orange-and-white GMC Savana.

"With my luck, it's Curly and Uncle Fester," DeeDee mumbled, thinking back to the needling she had been exposed to in the staff restaurant by Ken 'Curly' Hutchins. Though Raymond 'Uncle Fester' Vinh had been in a friendlier mood toward her, it was clear he shared at least some of the standpoints held by his driver.

"Nope! It's Blue and Sister Dynamite," Malin said with a grin once they were close enough to recognize their colleagues. To salute them, she switched on the numerous warning lights for a second or two - the entire lot was illuminated by the LED panels, the strobe lights and the wig-wags that had been installed all over the ambulance.

That was much better news for DeeDee, and she craned her neck to look at the tall, powerfully built African-American and the Latina who was no less buff though nearly a foot shorter. The uniformed people at the picnic table offered Malin and DeeDee a salute with their cans of soda.

No sooner had Malin reversed the ambulance in next to the other unit from Pettersson's before DeeDee was out of the cab - she did not even wait for the turbo diesel to be turned off nor did she grab her thick jacket that hung over the backrest of the passenger seat. A strong urge to connect with the deeper and more insightful Spencer Bradshaw rolled over her, and she made a beeline for the picnic table hoping she would be able to have a quiet, personal conversation with him without having it interrupted by their two shallower companions or by the radio calling out assignments for them.

"Good evening, Miss White," Spencer said in his trademark silky-smooth baritone. An opened can of co*ke stood on the tray in front of him. A half-eaten hamburger almost disappeared in his large hands; he put it down on the tray next to the can of soda when he noticed his newest colleague striding over to their table like she was a woman on a mission. "You seem to be in an awful hurry tonight…?"

Once DeeDee reached the picnic table and faced her two colleagues, a bad sense of butting in - or even being an intruder - replaced the urge she'd had to speak to Spencer. He and Maria Navarro both looked back at her like they had trouble figuring out what was going on - no wonder since DeeDee had problems explaining it to herself. "Hello, Mr. Bradshaw. Hi, Maria," she said, smiling at the two people who both offered her puzzled smiles in return. "Ummm… Mr. Bradshaw, I was wondering if we could perhaps-"

"Hiya, Blue! Whassup, Sista!" Malin cried as she reached the picnic table. After slapping resounding high-fives with her old friend and his riding nurse, she hooked her thumbs into her belt-loops and broke out in a wide grin. "So, wotcha been up to recently, guys? Saved anyone important and got a selfie with 'em? How's the grub tonight? Damn, I'm so hungry I could eat the ass straight offa dead horse."

Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro let out a long chuckle at Malin's inimitable style. "The burgers are just like they always are, Red. We haven't done much tonight. Man, this four-to-two shift blows chunks, doesn't it? I can't believe Blue talked me into changing shifts. My brain has gone numb!"

DeeDee tried to get a word in edgewise, but found herself thoroughly, and constantly, overruled by the chatting women.

"I can attest to the blowing chunks part, Sister D," Malin continued. "We haven't done a damn thing yet… okay, three little jobs, but pah. Two minutes in and out and we were done."

"That's what she said!" Maria cried, breaking down in a long, snorting laugh that soon claimed Malin as well.

Blushing hard, DeeDee let out a dramatic sigh at the juvenile level of the conversation. She stared at the snort-laughing women with a wide-eyed, exasperated look upon her face that was only eased when she realized that Spencer was trying to break in to hear what she had wanted to say before Malin had arrived.

"Aw," Malin continued once she had recovered from the laughing. She appeared to be oblivious to the silent exchange between her riding nurse and her old friend. "I think I'm gonna buy me a real big, super-greasy burger tonight. Hell yeah, I want a triple with plenty of fries and a bucket of hot sauce. Can I get you guys anything?"

"Not for me, thanks. I'm done," Maria said, still chuckling over her own bawdy joke. She stuffed the final bite of her hamburger into her mouth to show what she meant. Once it was all down, she wiped her lips on her napkin and crumpled it into a ball.

"And I still have plenty left of my first one, Red," Spencer said, holding up his half-eaten hamburger.

"Okie-dokie. White?"

"I'll order in a moment, Malin," DeeDee said, wearing the same polite smile that had been there whenever she had spoken to her driver since the incident with the violent addict.

" 'kay. See you guys in a few," Malin said before she strode across the parking lot to get to the main entrance of the fast food restaurant.

DeeDee spent a few seconds looking at her driver walking away before she turned back to Spencer. The interruption - or disruption - had not made it any easier for her to collect her thoughts and compile them into a question that would convey what she wanted to say. Hemming and hawing, she stuffed her hands into her pockets and began to shuffle around on the spot.

"Miss White, you look like you want a word with me in private," Spencer said, taking the final bite of his hamburger before he wiped his fingers and his mouth on a napkin. The intelligence that sparkled in his dark-brown eyes proved he had already sussed it all out, but Maria Navarro let out a puzzled grunt as she turned to look at her newest colleague.

Relief swept over DeeDee as the sense of butting in evaporated. One of the things she had learned during her brief stay at Pettersson's was that the partnership between the driver and the riding nurse was sacred. Since the two people needed to be able to trust each other inherently during the periods of high drama and indescribable tension, nothing or no one could be allowed to come between them, not even for something as trivial as a private conversation. The best example was the man she had replaced at Malin Pettersson's side, Jason 'C-Note' Schmidt - she had still not spoken a single word with him though she had met him no less than four times in the corridors of the base.

"That's right, Mr. Bradshaw. I need your advice on something," she said, smiling at the tall, powerfully-built man. She smiled at Maria as well, but the other riding nurse continued to shoot her a puzzled look in return.

"I thought you might. Let's go over to my ride," Spencer said; he drained his can of co*ke before he swept his long legs away from the picnic table. "Maria, when Red comes back, would you mind telling her that we'd like to have a few moments alone?"

'Sister Dynamite' let out a puzzled grunt. She co*cked her head and gave DeeDee a long once-over that was slightly cooler than the ones she had given her earlier. "I'll tell her, but I can't say if she'll listen. You know Red."

"Mmmm," Spencer said and walked over to the other GMC Savana with DeeDee by his side.

---

DeeDee soon sat down on the passenger seat in the oh-six unit and shut the door to have some privacy. All the ambulances were identical when it came to the driver's compartment, so she felt right at home even if she and Malin had not used that particular one before.

Spencer closed the driver's side door and got comfortable next to her. Though he looked at her with fascination and expectation written upon his face, he remained silent.

She let her eyes roam over a few knick-knacks that belonged to Maria Navarro: a couple of magazines and a paperback crime thriller had been put on top of the dashboard, and a can of Sprite was stuck into a third cup holder that appeared to be home-made - the two permanent holders were both used for full-sized coffee-to-go mugs. A crucifix on a leather strap had been put around the stem of the rear-view mirror to provide the spiritual guidance. She was unsure whether the religious symbol belonged to Maria or Spencer, but she did not want to ask. "Thank you for allowing me to steal your break like this, Mr. Bradshaw," she said, offering the driver a wistful smile.

"You're welcome. And please, call me Spencer or Blue. Whenever you call me 'Mr. Bradshaw,' I feel like an old, stuffy professor."

"All right," DeeDee said with a smile. "Well… I don't know where to start," she continued, running a hand through her hair. She scrunched up her face as she tried to wade through the myriad of thoughts inside her mind.

Sometimes, it was better to get directly to the point, so she swept aside all her dithering so she could begin: "I've come to realize that Malin Pettersson and I are just too incompatible to share an ambulance. I mean, not during the actual assignments… we're both professionals though at different stages of our career. It's not really that. It's all the rest of the time… the endless hours when nothing at all happens. We've pretty much stopped talking to each other because there isn't anything we agree on. She's impulsive and spontaneous. I'm anything but. I'm a brooder and… well, an idealist. And don't get me started on the trash-talking with the other EMTs from Sklar and Bonney. She loves it. I nearly die of shame each time she gets going. And… worse… now and then she lets out weirdly radical views on various topics that shock me, quite frankly. I'm far more liberal. I can't see how we can go on working together. But I'm afraid that if I talk to Mr. Pettersson about it, he might let me go completely. I'm still only temporarily engaged."

"Mmmm. It's a dilemma, I can see that. Good chemistry between the driver and the riding nurse is of utmost importance out here on the streets. Malin is certainly a wild one and I doubt you can get her to change. To be honest, I doubt you can even make her see the need for change," Spencer said in a calm, reflective voice. "How long is your temporary engagement?"

"Two weeks from when I started. I have a week left. Once that period is up, Mr. Pettersson said he would evaluate me, and then put me on the open roster like all new riding nurses so I can experience working with other drivers. I'm worried that it might hurt my chances of going any further here at the company if I get a reputation for being uptight or snooty… or a troublemaker… or for being too liberal for that matter."

"I won't gloss it over and say that it would never happen because it might. We drivers are close, and we do confide in one another. I can definitely see the issue you're facing," Spencer said and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. "Red's a good friend, but when the mood hits her, she can be difficult to work with. Sometimes, she can be difficult just to be around. Although she doesn't like to hear it, she's definitely a chip off the old block. She and her father share so many character traits it's clear they were cut from the same cloth."

"Yes. That's what I'm afraid of," DeeDee said and performed a half-shrug. "I mean, I do like the type of work I've been doing here. The actual assignments where we go out and help people are rewarding, and I feel it has confirmed my initial belief that a job as a riding nurse would be a good direction for me to go in. It would really be a bitter defeat if I had to leave just because I had problems with the boss' daughter."

Spencer glanced out at the picnic table and the two veteran EMTs who shared it. While he and DeeDee had talked, Malin had returned to the table carrying a tray heavily laden with her favorite greasy burger, a large pack of French fries, a can of diet Fanta and a small stack of napkins. She and Maria Navarro had their heads together and were shooting sideways looks at the ambulance occupied by their respective partners. "Well. Is talking to Malin about this whole thing completely out of the question?"

"No, but… not out of the question, but I don't think I'd be able to get through to her. Even Maria said that… so did you just now, and you've both known her far, far longer than I have."

"Very true. All right," Spencer said as he sat up straight behind the wheel. "My advice to you is that I think you should talk to Mr. Pettersson about your concerns. He looks and behaves like a tough, old drill sergeant, but he's a fair man. He listens and he knows his daughter just as well as the rest of us do. Well, he obviously knows her better, but I'm sure you get my point."

"Quite."

"I can't imagine he would annul your temporary engagement if you told him all the facts. Actually, I think he would move you onto the open roster sooner. Our work environment is important to him because he needs us to perform at the highest level at all times."

DeeDee drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. She had arrived at much the same conclusion though with the caveat that she had no way of knowing how Rickard Pettersson would react. With Spencer's comforting statement that the tough, old fellow was a fair man, a shimmer of hope appeared ahead - all she had to do was to reach for it.

"You spent a few years at a private hospital before you got here, right?" Spencer continued.

"Yes, in a general nursing position at Beech Grove. It was an okay job, but I left because I felt it was time for a change of scenery. I definitely got that," she said with a dark chuckle. "Where did you work before you came to Pettersson's?"

"I worked for Uncle Sam for a few years when I was posted as a civilian auxiliary nurse at a veteran's hospital in Virginia. After that, I acted as the number two in a FEMA rapid intervention team. Urban search and rescue. We worked with the National Guard in disaster areas."

"Oh! That must have been challenging?"

"It was. It was even exciting to begin with, but the constant onslaught of death and despair we had to deal with got to me. The turning point for me was four devastating tornadoes down in Oklahoma in one week. My team helped recover fourteen fatalities from the rubble without getting a single one out alive."

"God, that's terrible. I remember seeing the coverage of that on all the networks…"

"Yes, it was big news. I'd had enough. I quit and drove cross country to get home to my wife. It was the best decision I've ever made," Spencer said as he looked back at the two EMTs at the picnic table. Even at thirty paces' distance, he could see that Malin was unhappy with the situation. "She thought so too… until she discovered my homecoming had resulted in her being pregnant with twins," he said with a grin a few moments later.

"Ohhhh!"

"Yeah," Spencer continued, digging into one of the pockets of his uniform pants to find his wallet. Flipping it open, he leaned across the space between the seats to show DeeDee the prized family photo of two six-year-old girls wearing pink dresses and sporting pink ribbons around their pigtails. One of them had been caught laughing out loud while the other seemed to sulk. "This is almost new. Whitney on the left, Melisha on the right. They're identical, but they have different personalities," he said, pointing at the photo. Once DeeDee had checked it out, he flipped back a wing to show her the photo of his wife. "And my wife Vanessa."

"They're very beautiful. All three," DeeDee said with a wide smile that turned into a slight frown when she realized that Malin had never shown her any family photos - and she could not see that changing.

"Yes. A guy couldn't help falling in love. It pains me to spend so much time away from them, but one of the reasons I'm working so many hours is that I'm trying to build a college fund for Whitney and Melisha. It's obviously a few years down the road, but we all know how time flies," Spencer said as he stuffed the wallet back into the pocket.

'Unit oh-six, unit oh-six, dispatch. You copy?' the familiar voice of the female dispatcher suddenly said from the radio.

Grunting, Spencer turned up the volume before he reached for the radio mic. "Dispatch, unit oh-six copy. We're off the roster for a break, over."

'Negatory, unit oh-six. You are nearest available unit.'

Spencer let out a sigh before keying the mic - their break was over whether they wanted it or not. "Ten-roger, dispatch. Go ahead, over."

'We have received a call for a code two-oh-two in progress at Soo Ong's Thai Restaurant, eight-seven-two-four Avenue C. Call-back confirmed. Popa is an African-American male, mid-thirties. Unresponsive after complaining of acute stomach ache. No apparent XT,' the dispatch continued, as always speaking in a calm, clear voice so the important assignment details would be fully understood by the driver and the riding nurse - or in this case, the driver and his guest.

The details made DeeDee furrow her brow - a two-oh-two was the same kind of code she and Malin had been called out to when the conman had exploited them to eat without paying. And with the potential patient being an African-American male in his mid-thirties, there was a big risk that he was up to one of his old tricks.

"Ten-roger on the two-oh-two in progress at Soo Ong's Thai Restaurant, eight-seven-two-four Avenue C. Unit oh-six responding. ETA three to five minutes. Engaging now," Spencer said before he put the radio mic back on the little hook.

"That could be whatshisname… Freddie Mack!" DeeDee said even while she opened the door and hurriedly departed the passenger seat to get out of the way.

"Yes, it very well could. We'll know when we get there," Spencer said, moving his hand in a fast sequence that saw him twist the ignition key, honk the regular horn in the steering wheel twice and hit the switch that activated all their warning lights. Out at the picnic table, 'Sister Dynamite' jumped up and ran over to the ambulance now they had a job to do.

"Thank you for lending me your ear, Spencer… I needed it," DeeDee said through the open door. She quickly stepped aside so the buff Latina had room to jump in.

"You're welcome, Miss White. Talk to you later!" Spencer said before he selected drive on the shifter and moved out of the parking slot.

DeeDee kept standing at the empty bay while she tracked the garishly-painted ambulance with her eyes. Spencer Bradshaw activated the electronic sirens as soon as the bulky GMC had reached the sidewalk; it was soon racing southbound on Avenue C.

With the parking lot quiet once more, DeeDee began to stroll back to the picnic table until she noticed that Malin had moved over to their own ambulance in the meantime. The break was seemingly over, and it appeared it mattered little that she had not had time to eat. Sighing, she turned toward the GMC instead.

The night had turned chilly so she pulled her thick jacket with the reflective stripes off the backrest and put it on before she climbed into the cab. Sitting down next to Malin, she had already pulled out the storage box underneath the seat to get her thermos and one of the chocolate-and-hazelnut chip cookies she had bought for the shift when she saw a new can of Coca-Cola in the cup holder and a wrapped hamburger on top of the dashboard. "Oh…" she said, looking at Malin who offered her a smile in return.

"Hi again, White. Bought you a co*ke and something to eat."

"Thank you very much…"

"You're welcome," Malin said as she started the turbo diesel. As always, she let it idle for a few moments before she moved the shifter into drive. She kept her foot on the brake for the time being. "I don't really know your preferences yet so it's just a regular no-frills hamburger. Oh, and I declined the hot sauce 'cos I remembered it was too spicy for ya. Hope you don't mind."

"Not at all," DeeDee said as she reached for the burger and began to unwrap it. While she did so, Malin took her foot off the brake and began to trickle across the half-empty parking lot.

DeeDee realized it was an olive branch; a peace offering on the part of the tough driver. Though she did not appear any different on the outside, somehow it seemed to have gotten through to her - perhaps helped by the chat she'd had herself with Maria Navarro - that DeeDee had voiced doubts about their working relationship.

"Did you have a good chat with Blue?" Malin said while the bulky ambulance creaked and groaned as it crossed over the sidewalk to get onto Avenue C. Once it had righted itself, she put her boot on the throttle which made the speed climb to a few miles below the limit.

"I did, yes. I'm… I'm sorry if you feel I went behind your back, Malin," DeeDee said and lowered the hamburger that she had yet to sample. "I just had a couple of questions for him about… well, this and that."

"That you couldn't run by me?" Malin said without taking her eyes off the street.

"Yes…"

"Okay. About work?"

"About work and about life in general."

"Okay."

The familiar, awkward and unwanted silence once more fell between the two women as they drove north on Avenue C. DeeDee stared at the driver for a few seconds before she realized the curtains had gone down again. Malin concentrated on their surroundings, so DeeDee concentrated on eating her hamburger.

-*-*-*-

Exactly at twelve-forty-seven in the morning, only an hour and thirteen minutes before the end of their shift, a call came in on the radio transceiver that sent a chill all over DeeDee's body though she was still wearing her thick jacket. She was far from being a believer in premonitions or any other kind of hokey superstition, but the timing was poor and it gave her a bad feeling that she could not shake.

"Say again, dispatch?" Malin said into the mic before she turned up the volume even more. The call had come at the exact same moment that she had been engaged in a friendly - or cringeworthy, depending on the point of view - window-to-window exchange of barbs, slurs and other pleasantries with one of their competitors from Sklar & Bonney. The two ambulances had been going in opposite directions on East Twenty-third Street, but they had pulled to a halt right in the middle of the sparse traffic to go ahead with the childish game.

'Unit one-five, we have received numerous calls for a code four-five-one at the corner of Sunderland and East Seventeenth Street. Call-back confirmed. Also confirmed by city police. Single popa, Caucasian female, late teens. Urgent response necessary, repeat, urgent response necessary.'

Malin let out a muted curse before she keyed the mic again. "Ten-roger on the four-five-one at Sunderland and East Seventeenth. Unit one-five responding urgently. ETA three to five minutes. Engaging now," she said before she put the mic back on the little hook. "White, we'll be going hell for leather so you better buckle down tight. I need you to call out the intersections to me. Let me know what's coming from our right 'cos I'm not gonna stop for anything until we get there," she continued as she mashed the gas with her boot.

While Malin took a hand off the steering wheel to hit the switches that activated the warning lights and the electronic sirens, DeeDee sat up straight, tightened her seat belt across her hip and gave it a strong yank so the lock-stop clicked into place. It was so tight she could hardly breathe, but it offered an additional level of safety in case they had to take evasive action on their way to the emergency. "I know this is a bad time, but I need to know what a code four-five-one is…?"

"An accident involving a vehicle and a pedestrian… and in this case, a hit-and-run."

"Oh… damn. Thank you." An icy chill that was stronger than the first one ran over DeeDee's body. Malin's explanation left an even worse feeling in her gut than the radio call had done - it would be a bad one, she was sure of that.

The speed climbed to sixty miles per hour which made the orange street lamps and the red taillights of the other cars fly past in a blur. They had not been too far from Sunderland when the call had come, so the left-turn onto one of Carlyle's main north-south arteries was soon over and done with.

Only a short time went by before they raced into the district known as the Party Mile. Though the stretch it occupied along the four-lane Sunderland was not quite that long, the eight city blocks that made up the zone were home to numerous dance halls, old-fashioned discotheques, themed night clubs for teens and adults, and countless other forms of nocturnal entertainment including several strip bars and so-called gentlemen's clubs that were in effect meat markets for high-class escorts of all gender identities.

Further along Sunderland as it dipped into downtown, the elegant establishments turned sleazier and grittier. The strip clubs became common titty bars, and the gentlemen's clubs became low-rent brothels frequented by a blue-collar clientele. Eventually, adult movie theaters that offered non-stop triple-X entertainment for a few dollars - a pack of tissues was included in the admission fee - would dominate the wide street.

Malin and DeeDee had no time to marvel at the bright lights and colorful marquees that greeted them along the upper, elegant part of Sunderland. Like Malin had said, they stopped for nothing on their way to the accident site at the corner of East Seventeenth Street - as a result, they ran four red lights in a row. It earned them a few angry honks from the other people using the street, but the GMC was going so fast it was across the intersection and halfway down to the next one before the sound of the honking even registered with the two people in the cab.

DeeDee stared at the woman behind the wheel. Though they had already done more than a few emergency runs in their brief time working together, she had never seen Malin so focused and committed. The strange part was that although she kept her eyes glued to the street ahead to be able to react to even the slightest obstacle, she had not tensed up - in fact, she seemed more relaxed going at sixty-five miles per hour on the busy street than she did going at twenty-five.

"Get ready, White. We're almost there," Malin said without taking her eyes off the many blurry colors that continued to race past the windshield. Unlike the other streets of Carlyle that had seen a slowdown in traffic due to the lateness of the month, the colorful Party Mile was still going as strongly as ever when it came to the number of vehicles present. All four southbound lanes ahead of the ambulance were occupied by cars or SUVs whose drivers had slowed down to gawk at the tragic scenes that played out across the street.

Malin was in no mood to let the vehicular roadblock hinder their progress. Instead of dithering on where to go, she pressed her finger onto the switch that activated the Trombones of Doom. The wall of noise blasted out onto Sunderland for several seconds before she released the switch and swerved into the opposite lanes that were devoid of traffic.

The maneuver made DeeDee draw a quick breath and clench her jaw, but Malin's skills behind the wheel meant it never turned dangerous. Looking ahead, she could see flashing warning lights belonging to two cruisers from the city police. They had blocked off Sunderland in the northbound direction which left plenty of space for the ambulance to stop directly at the accident site.

One of the cruisers had been parked at a crooked angle so its headlights and external spotlights illuminated a dark, shapeless lump lying motionless on the street. For a split second, DeeDee thought they had been called out to a dog being run over until it hit her that the shapeless lump was in fact a human victim of the hit-and-run.

Malin stood on the brakes which forced the large vehicle to slow down so hard the nose dipped. Once the speed had been reduced to a few miles per hour, she spun the steering wheel left in order to maneuver the GMC into the best position for them to tend to the victim. After hitting the switch to kill the electronic sirens, she moved her finger to the right to activate the powerful LED lamps installed on the top of the ambulance. Commonly referred to as 'alley lights,' they would bathe everything below them in a sea of light - then she opened the driver's side door and vacated the vehicle in a hurry.

By now, DeeDee had her moves down pat. Jumping up, she ducked through the cutout, went into the back and hit the appropriate light switches on the separate panel that only covered the rear compartment. As the dome lights flashed to life in the ceiling, she opened the side access door before she continued through the rear of the ambulance. Once at the back, she flung one of the rapid response kits over her shoulder, opened the rear doors and passed by Malin who went up just as she went down.

Several brightly-lit stores - an Asian quick-noodles vendor, a salad bar and even an old-fashioned amusem*nt arcade that promised Hours of Fun for the Entire Family! - ran around the corner of Sunderland and East Seventeenth Street, but the cornershop itself was a liquor store. Although it had closed for the night, it continued to sell non-alcoholic mixers, coolers and so-called alcopops to the underage revelers through a hole-in-the-wall counter.

A large group of party-clad youngsters had gathered at the corner to stare at the motionless body on the street. Many of them had their smartphones out to capture the moment, but at least they maintained a respectful silence save for someone at the back who was too drunk to care, and a few crying girls up front who were being comforted by their friends.

Other pedestrians walked on by like it was no concern of theirs that someone was fighting for her life only a few steps away. Some had failed to notice the drama altogether and were laughing, speaking loudly to their companions or listening to music through earphones as they moved past. A long-haired, wild-bearded man wearing sandals, a coarse tunic and a sandwich sign telling the world that Jesus Saves! Call our toll-free number and listen to His latest teachings! could not even be bothered to look.

While Malin prepared the gurney, DeeDee came from the rear of the ambulance and headed directly for the victim who was lit up by the alley lights atop the GMC as well as the police cruiser's headlights. Pulling the rapid response kit off her shoulder, she got down onto her knees at once and unzipped the bag. She grimaced when she noticed that her uniform pants had dipped into a dark pool of something on the asphalt - it proved to be blood that seeped from the young woman's badly injured body.

The orange medical gloves were put on first, then DeeDee reached into the kit to find the penlight and a pack of absorbent cotton cloth. The victim was in her late teens like the initial report had said. Dressed for a fun night out in dark slacks, a sandy, lacy top and a dark cardigan featuring golden sparklies, the young woman wore gentle makeup on her cheeks and around her eyes. Although there was no obvious trauma to the face or skull, blood continued to pool around her. A quick look at the posture of the pelvic region and both thigh bones told DeeDee a chilling tale of multiple severe fractures. The young woman's breathing came in labored, wheezing bursts. The risk of her suffering from spinal and internal injuries was so high it was a certainty.

Peeling the woman's eyelids back, DeeDee clicked-on the penlight and tried to gauge the pupil and eye ball response. Like she had feared, the pupils were uneven in appearance; worse, they were diluted and unresponsive to the harsh light. "Dammit," she whispered, stuffing the penlight into one of her thick jacket's many pockets before she reached for the inflatable cuff to get the needed information on the blood pressure and pulse.

"Has she been moved?" she said to the nearest police officer - a tall, broad fellow who stood by the cruiser whose lights shone onto the victim.

"Yes and no," the officer in charge of the lighting said while he shook his head. "She hasn't been moved since we got here, but the witnesses say that she tumbled several times after being thrown through the air."

"All right. Thank you." DeeDee scrunched up her face even more. Tumbling across the hard, unrelenting asphalt would cause plenty of bruises, bleeding abrasions or even fractures for a fully fit individual, but for someone who had already suffered an unspeakable trauma from being hit by a vehicle, twisting and tumbling could be the final straw that would literally break the person's already weakened back or neck.

Malin arrived at the same time with the gurney. While the driver prepared the carry-blanket, DeeDee leaned back on her thighs. "It's a bad one. She has multiple severe fractures to her lower extremities and pelvis. I strongly suspect internal injuries as her breathing is labored. Possibly a punctured or collapsed lung from fractured ribs. I can confirm hemorrhaging caused by protruding fractures piercing the skin. There's no visible head trauma but her pupils are diluted and unresponsive. We need to rig up an IV-transfer, we need to put her on a spine board and we need a neckbrace."

"Ten-roger, pardner," Malin said before she ran back to the ambulance. A few moments later, she returned holding two bags of intravenous fluid, a pack of syringes and a metal shaft with a built-in hook for the bags. Zipping back inside, she soon returned carrying a neckbrace and a solid spine board; the latter was put in the center of the carry-blanket.

While Malin attached the first bag of the fluid to the metal shaft, DeeDee reached into the rapid response kit to take a roll of clear tube that was already equipped with connectors at either end. After unpacking the syringes that Malin had brought her, she attached the first one to the tube's lower connector before she clicked the upper connector into the nozzle on the bag. Once the drip-flow had been opened on the bag, she monitored the steady dripping closely for several seconds to make sure it filled the tube without any blockages along the way.

With the drip going well, DeeDee began searching the young woman's left arm to find the best place to insert the syringe. Though the left forearm was not fractured, the upper arm was; that fact and a growing, burgundy discoloration of the skin made DeeDee furrow her brow in concern. If the fracture had pinched a vein, or perhaps even punctured it, there was a risk the IV-transfer would be a waste of time. Chancing it, she reached into the rapid response kit to find a pair of heavy-duty trauma shears that could cut through any fabric in no time flat.

The left sleeve of the stylish cardigan was soon sliced open which left plenty of room for her to insert the syringe into the woman's forearm by the wrist. After putting the trauma shears back into the bag, she took a roll of skin-friendly adhesive tape and tore off a large section that she used to fixate the syringe and the tube so they would not move and cause even more damage.

Leaning back on her thighs, she analyzed what had been accomplished so far and what still needed to be done to stabilize the patient enough for her to be transferred into the ambulance and ultimately onto one of Carlyle's many hospitals. She looked up as Malin joined her once more. "I'm not sure we can get her onto the spine board without exacerbating her injuries," she said, wiping her damp brow with the back of a gloved hand. "She's just barely hanging on now. Moving her might push her over."

"We may need to call in the paras unless we can get her stabilized," Malin said before she looked up at the uniformed men from the nearest cruiser. "Officer? We need to know exactly what happened to her," she continued while DeeDee attached the inflatable cuff and proceeded with the gathering of information.

Another of the officers at the accident site stepped forward while he flipped open a notepad. "According to the eye witnesses that were with her at the time of the accident," - He pointed a ball point pen at the weeping teenagers standing at the corner by the liquor store - "she tried to run across the street to catch up with her friends though the traffic light for the pedestrians had already turned red. She was caught halfway across by a speeding pickup truck. The truck stopped initially, but soon raced from the scene."

"Thank you," Malin said before she moved back to DeeDee who had continued to work on stabilizing the young woman while the conversation had taken place. "Did you catch all that?"

"Some… not all of it. Her blood pressure is low. The pulse is weak… and only growing weaker. Dammit," DeeDee said, tearing open the Velcro cuff and pushing it aside on the blood-soaked ground. "I heard she was hit by a pickup truck…?"

"Sounds like it."

"That would be consistent with her injuries. If she hit the grille, it's a certainty she has multiple severe fractures to her rib cage," DeeDee said and moved her gloved hand across the lacy top to probe the victim's skeletal rigidity. The top's elegant design and faintly sandy color had been ruined by the crimson force that had invaded it, but the oddly lumpy nature of the flesh and bones below the fabric was far more cause for concern. "Yes, her entire midsection has been crushed. Caved in is perhaps a better term. Most likely including her sternum. Frankly… I don't know how she's hung on this long."

"Some just do. All right. It's decision time, White. Do we move her or do we let her be and call in the paras?"

DeeDee rubbed her brow with the back of her gloved hand. "She'll have spinal injuries… on the flipside, she needs oxygen that we have up in the ambulance. It's an awful risk, but one we need to take. Let's move her."

"Ten-roger," Malin said as she reached for the neckbrace, the spine board and the carry-blanket.

'We have pictures! We have pictures of the truck that hit Charly!' a female voice suddenly shouted from the group of young, party-clad people who were waiting by the liquor store at the corner of the two streets. 'Look, we have pictures of the truck!' the teenaged girl shouted even louder as she moved to the head of the group with her smartphone held high.

While several police officers ran over to the teenagers to get further statements and a closer look at the photos, DeeDee and Malin carefully attached the neckbrace before they inched the victim of the hit-and-run onto the spine board by gently lifting one side of her while the hard board was pushed in underneath her supine body.

Once the young woman was fully centered on the spine-protecting board, DeeDee and Malin grabbed hold of it to lift it onto the carry-blanket. After making sure the intravenous drip had enough play, they moved their gloved hands into the blanket's integrated handles and shifted the entire combo up onto the gurney's bright-orange mattress. The victim weighed next to nothing so it was no hard task, even for DeeDee's back that had continued to bother her after the strain that had been put on it when she had dragged Stanley Kirsch's wheelchair up the stairs. The young woman's bloodied purse was put on the gurney as well before the two EMTs wheeled it around the back of the ambulance and up into the rear compartment.

The gurney was soon pulled into the V-shaped contraption on the floor. Moments later, the locking bar down at the foot-end was secured as well; then the rear and side access doors were closed to create a modicum of privacy. DeeDee and Malin moved fast and efficiently to activate the oxygen supply and wrap the appropriate mask around the young woman's face before they carried out further stabilizing efforts. The mask misted up at once proving that she continued to breathe on her own, though it was still labored. The metal shaft carrying the bag of intravenous fluid was in place next to her, and the drip continued to function as it should.

Under the bright lights, the crimson blood that had soaked through her hair and clothes created an eerie contrast to her sickly pale skin that had gained a waxen hue. For the first time, DeeDee noticed the victim's feet were bare - her shoes would most likely have been lost during the impact or as she had tumbled across the hard asphalt.

"If she goes into cardiac arrest," DeeDee said as she pulled off her warm jacket and threw it onto the bench seat; steam almost poured off her uniform after working and concentrating so hard to save the victim, "we'll need to use the defib though it might not work. We can't risk using CPR if her ribs are already bro-" - She stopped speaking from one syllable to the next when she realized the young woman had opened her eyes on her own. "The patient is alert!" she blurted out before she grabbed her jacket once more to get the penlight; then she dove down to check the pupils once more.

"The f*ck?" was Malin's only reply. The driver had been leaning into one of the shelves to get a few more packs of absorbent cloth, but she popped her head out to see for herself.

The restrictive nature of the oxygen mask as well as the critical condition of the young woman on the gurney in general only allowed her to let out pained, frightened moans and whimpers rather than coherent words, but her eyes roamed the interior of the ambulance and the faces of the two EMTs like she could not fathom what was happening to her. Tears soon leaked from her eyes leaving wet streaks as they ran down the sides of her face.

"Miss, please lie still," DeeDee said in the calmest voice she could muster though her heart tried to beat its way out of her chest at the unexpected development; her insides were soon tangled up in a hard knot by the look of raw fear that was etched onto the young woman's drawn features. "You have been involved in a traffic accident. You have multiple injuries that require urgent medical attention. You are wearing a neckbrace which restricts your ability to move. If you struggle against it, you may inflict further damage on yourself. I can only advise you to lie still."

Another few moans and whimpers followed, but DeeDee could not say if the young woman had understood what she had tried to tell her. The eyelids slipped shut once more, but the tears continued to trickle and the eyes continued to move.

While DeeDee had spoken to the victim, Malin had inched around the gurney to get to the driver's seat up front. Once there, she had updated the dispatcher to find out which hospital they would be sent to. "White, what's the status back there? Are we good to go? It's the Community… it's only ten blocks away," she said over her shoulder as she put the radio mic back onto the little hook.

"I don't know, dammit!" DeeDee said, rubbing her forehead with the back of a gloved hand while she stared at the young patient on the gurney. It was a tough decision; it was her decision, and she had to make it now. The patient might die from being transported, but it was a given she would die if she was not brought to a hospital and the kind of medical assistance that could only be provided by a full team of professionals. Ultimately, there was really only one answer to Malin's question: "All right. We're going. Get dispatch to call the Community and have them prepare a selection of blood. Unknown type at this point."

"Will do!"

"We can't secure her on the gurney with all those fractures so you need to be careful!" DeeDee said loudly while she shoved her jacket aside to have room on the bench seat. Once sitting down, she applied and tightened the waist-belt.

"Okay! We're going," Malin said before she hurriedly moved her own seat belt in place and started the turbo diesel up front. Unfortunately, fate conspired against them once more by having another nasty hand to play. Before Malin had time to move the ambulance as much as a foot backward, another police cruiser arrived - it came to a squealing halt right behind the rear doors of the GMC thoroughly ignoring the fluorescent 'Keep back 500 feet' warning sticker on the running board.

"What the f*ck?!" the driver roared, staring into the side mirror while pressing her hand down onto the steering wheel's regular horn. The cruiser behind them did not seem all that interested in moving away, so she unbuckled her seat belt, jumped up and flew out of the cab at lightning speed to deal with the roadblock.

"Now what?" DeeDee said, but nobody was left to answer her. She shook her head and concentrated on observing the victim closely for any change in her condition. It did not take long before she heard Malin's characteristic voice engaged in a one-sided shouting match with someone outside. A barrage of four-letter profanity was released so fast it was almost akin to the manic soundtrack of a cartoon; then the fiery driver climbed back behind the wheel and reversed away from the corner of Sunderland and East Seventeenth Street.

DeeDee wanted to ask what that had been all about, but a single look at Malin's dark-red face and bared teeth convinced her to wait until later. Looking ahead through the cutout, she could see a police cruiser with all its warning lights flashing clearing their path northbound on Sunderland.

The blind rage displayed by the woman behind the wheel was never allowed to interfere with the ambulance's progress: Malin never went faster than twenty miles per hour while employing a smooth, round driving style so her precious cargo in the back could be spared from being exposed to the cornering forces usually found during an emergency run. There was nothing she could do about the potholes and the rest of the uneven surface of the heavily-used street, but she tried to steer away from the worst of them to reduce the swaying motion that might injure the patient further.

They only had the warning lights on for most of the ride, but Malin activated the electronic sirens whenever they came close to an intersection to alert the other traffic of their arrival. The cruiser ahead of them waited at each intersection before it raced off toward the next one; the ping-pong system worked well, but it seemed that Malin was still not too pleased with their initial efforts of stopping right behind the ambulance since she continued to let out a steady stream of muted, muffled profanity all the way up Sunderland.

---

DeeDee kept a close eye on the various tubes that led to and from the ambulance's wall-mounted machinery; on the entry and exit values of the oxygen-carbon dioxide flow for the breathing mask, on the flow rate of the intravenous fluids that continued to drip into the young woman's veins, and finally on how the patient responded to the treatment to catch early indications of a change in her condition.

There was little else she could do for the patient. So far, they had managed to stabilize her to a satisfactory degree, but DeeDee had seen enough such casualties during her time at the Community Hospital's ER to know that even a stable-appearing condition could be deceptive.

She sighed as she leaned back on the bench seat that trembled slightly as the ambulance continued to travel north on Sunderland. Observing the patient's many severe injuries, DeeDee was under no illusion that the young woman could ever return to the life she had once lived. If all the stars aligned right for her, she could perhaps make a partial recovery, but even that would come at a high cost - literally as well as emotionally. With her crushed legs and pelvis, fractured ribs and an injured spine, chances were she would be confined to a hospital bed or at the very least a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The psychological implications for her would be immense, and that was without taking any potential brain damage into account.

The hopes for even a partial recovery for the young woman were dashed three blocks from the Community Hospital when the thin strand of life ran out. On the gurney, the patient suddenly convulsed and let out a pained croak. Almost at once, the inside of the oxygen mask turned crimson; it clogged up within seconds. The blockage made the sensor measuring the oxygen flow trigger an automated alarm that in turn sent out a loud and insistent beep-beep-beep-beep! through the system's speakers mounted in the wall.

"Dammit!" DeeDee cried, releasing her waist-belt and jumping to her feet in an instant though the ambulance was still moving.

"Is that the oh-two alarm?" Malin said over her shoulder.

"Yes!"

"Do you want me to stop?"

"No! Speed up!"

"Okay. Hang on," Malin said and mashed her boot down onto the gas pedal which made the turbo diesel up front let out a loud roar and get down to business. At the same time, she switched on the electronic sirens to make the dragon-like wailing a constant accompaniment to the flashing LED panels, the strobe lights and the wig-wags that were distributed all over the garishly-painted ambulance.

As the GMC rapidly gained speed on its approach to the Community Hospital, DeeDee needed to keep a firm grip on the gurney's metal frame to maintain her balance though the driver employed all her skills behind the wheel to reduce the amount of shaking and bumping. She crouched down ever so slightly to use the muscles in her thighs as shock absorbers like she did when she went off-roading on her mountain bike, but the circ*mstances were so different it was no easy task for her - it took several seconds before she got into the rhythm so she could tend to the patient.

Moving fast and efficiently without ever turning it into error-prone haste, DeeDee reached for several pieces of absorbent cloth, the suction tube and a clean oxygen mask that should replace the contaminated one. As she unstrapped the coated mask, crimson blood flowed freely down the young patient's cheek and onto the gurney. After flicking the switch on the panel that activated the suction pump, she carefully inserted the tube into the patient's mouth and removed as much of the excess blood as she could so the risk of choking could be reduced.

At the exact same moment, the teenager's eyes opened wide. Stark terror was displayed within the shiny orbs that stared straight ahead without seeing anything; then they glazed over and rolled back in her head. Another convulsion rippled through her body. A strong spewing of crimson blood followed that had nowhere to go but onto DeeDee's arm and down the front of her uniform.

Not two seconds later, the pulse monitor sensor registered an upper-threshold violation which triggered the integrated alarm. The penetrating noise it sent out was even louder and more insistent than the oxygen alarm had been.

"Goddammit!" DeeDee barked. The clean oxygen mask she had held ready had been coated as well by the crimson fountain, so she threw it onto the floor before she wiped off all the excess blood from her arm and hand on the young woman's clothes; then she dove down to apply the suction tube once more to try to clear the mouth cavity. "Malin, we got a cardiac arrest! V-Tach! We need the SAED!"

"f*ck!" Malin barked from up front before she stood on the brake pedal to come to a complete standstill no more than two and a half blocks from the sought-after sanctuary of the Community Hospital. She left the warning lights on since they had come to a stop right in the middle of the busy Sunderland Street, but she turned off the sirens so they would be able to hear themselves think without being intruded upon by the shrill electronic sounds.

In the back, DeeDee upped the tempo even further as she flung open the lid of the bench seat to get the semi-automated external defibrillator that she proceeded to tear the top cover off. The heavy-duty pair of trauma shears came next - from the rapid response kit - that she used to cut open the young woman's lacy top and her bra. As the battered, bruised and bloodied skin came into view, it was confirmed in gory detail that she had suffered multiple severe fractures of her rib cage and even her sternum.

A regular CPR procedure - cardiopulmonary resuscitation - would have killed her, so even though her current state of V-Tach - pulseless ventricular tachycardia, meaning that her heart was still electrically active but that it was fluttering so fast it could not produce a pulse - was bad, the defibrillator would be the right tool to use to get her back.

Malin donned a pair of medical gloves before she switched off the alarms so they would not have to listen to all the infernal beeping. Glancing down at the teenager's badly injured, blood-splattered body, she shook her head and let out a mumbled curse at the gross unfairness of the world. Moving just as fast as DeeDee had, she opened a drawer to grab a tube of Vaseline-based lubrication that she proceeded to apply to the exposed chest so the SAED pads would not cause too many burns. "Lube ready!" she said, taking a long step back.

"SAED ready! Stand clear!" DeeDee said, taking the electrode pads off the device.

"Clear!"

The applied globs of lubrication glistened in the harsh light that shone down from the ceiling, and DeeDee moved in and attached the two pads on opposite sides of the young woman's bared chest - one was placed above her right breast, and the other below the left breast.

Clenching her jaw, DeeDee activated the apparatus which sent a low-energy shock of approximately one hundred and fifty joules of electricity between the pads and thus through the supine body. The teenager spasmed hard and jerked up from the gurney. The heart rate monitor alarm kicked in again and sent out its shrill beeping until Malin switched it off.

"We need to go again. More lube," DeeDee said, stripping off the electrode pads while Malin readied more lubrication to go onto the skin.

"Lube ready," Malin said, moving away from the teenager so DeeDee had room to work.

"SAED ready. Stand clear!"

"Clear."

DeeDee moved in for a second attempt at resuscitating the victim of the hit-and-run. Repeating the procedure of attaching the pads, she activated the apparatus which sent another dose of electricity through the supine body; this time, the SAED automatically upped the joules to one hundred and eighty. The additional power seemed to work as the heart was shocked back into restoring a proper rhythm; it started pumping blood which meant the alarm did not go off.

"All right," DeeDee said as she stripped off the SAED pads and put them on the bench seat. "We need further suction and a clean oxy-" Before she could finish the sentence, the heart rate monitor sent out a new alarm indicating the same type of upper-threshold violation reading on the sensor. "Cardiac arrest. V-Tach! More lube!"

"Sonovabitch!" Malin barked as she silenced the alarm before pouring out another large glob of lubrication that she applied to the woman's chest. "Lube ready!"

DeeDee spun around and picked up the two pads all over again. Holding them separate, she waited for Malin to finish up before she moved closer. "SAED ready. Stand clear."

"Clear! Third time's the charm!"

Moving in deep, DeeDee attached the electrode pads on the exposed skin and activated the apparatus for the third time. Again the body spasmed hard and jerked up; again the heart was shocked into life; again it only lasted for less than three seconds before the alarm sounded indicating the attempt had failed.

The shrill noise continued for a few seconds until Malin turned around to switch it off. An eerie silence filled the rear compartment of the ambulance; it was only broken by a deep sigh and the constant din of traffic and night-life in general that came through the walls from their surroundings. DeeDee and Malin looked at each other with similar, grim expressions on their faces. They had both been in the life-saving business long enough to know that sometimes it took a miracle, and that miracles were always in short supply.

"I'll call it in," Malin said before she removed her gloves and threw them into the biohazard wastebin.

DeeDee nodded as she removed the SAED unit's hot electrode pads from the victim and put the whole thing down onto a dry corner of the floor so it could cool off. She scrunched up her face as she glanced at the body on the gurney. Death was always hideous no matter how the poets tried to give it a touch of grace or even a veneer of romance; at the ceasing of the heart and the flow of blood, the decomposition process had already started deep inside. It would not be long before all that remained was a cold, waxen shell.

Sighing, she moved back to the patient and folded up the clothes she had cut apart to gain access. Everything down to the bright-orange mattress was soaked in blood which meant everything had to be replaced; it also meant she was able to press the carry-blanket into use as a makeshift shroud.

Before she could do that, she needed to gather up and index the teenager's personal effects. She put everything she found into a clear plastic bag for the police to deal with, or the family if they had already been notified. While she worked, she heard Malin hail the dispatcher:

"Dispatch, unit one-five. Dispatch, unit one-five. Do you copy?" the driver said before releasing the key on the radio mic.

'Unit one-five, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead,' the female dispatcher said from the other end of the connection.

"Unit one-five reporting a code triple niner, repeat a code triple niner. Cancel medical assistance at Community. Will proceed to same for handover and doctor's inspection of d-o-a, over."

'Unit one-five, confirm code triple niner. Do you require further assistance from city police, over?'

"Negatory, dispatch. Will proceed to base for bio cleaning after handover. Unit one-five, over and out."

'Unit one-five, affirmative on return to base for cleaning. Your status has been updated. Dispatch out.'

The pockets of the young woman's slacks and the cardigan were empty, and the only jewelry she had worn was a stud in her left eyebrow and a silver necklace that carried a locker shaped like a heart. DeeDee left the stud for the staff at the Community to deal with, but she removed the necklace from underneath the neckbrace and put it into the plastic bag. The brace itself was covered in blood and thus needed to be put through a chemical cleaning. She doubted it would fit into the biohazard bin, so she took another plastic bag that she dumped the expensive piece of medical equipment into.

The purse contained a smartphone that had suffered a cracked screen in the accident, a small hand-mirror that had met the same fate, a few crumpled-up dollar bills, a lipstick, a tear-off blister-sheet holding four condoms, a hairbrush and an ID-card issued to Charlene Kincaid.

DeeDee was unable to look at any of it for more than a few seconds, especially not at the color photo on the ID-card that showed Charlene alive and vibrant. The contrast to the blood-splattered body on the gurney was so great that it made her insides blow hot and cold before they settled for growing into a hard knot. She tried to make it better by wrapping the carry-blanket fully around the body, but it did not achieve the level of success she had hoped for.

DeeDee's uniform had turned crimson as well, and it made her let out another deep sigh. She tried to wipe the blood off her arm using several pieces of absorbent cloth, but it had already dried too much for the attempt to do much good. At the end of the failed endeavor, she threw the contaminated oxygen mask, the filthied pieces of cloth and her gloves into the biohazard wastebin to seal the deal. When she switched off the three dome lights in the ceiling, darkness truly claimed the rear of the ambulance.

After Malin had put the radio mic back onto the little hook, she ducked through the cutout and moved into the rear compartment. She never worthied the dead body a second look; instead, she moved over to DeeDee who had sat down on the bench seat in the meantime. "Hey, did we pop a bulb or something?" she said, looking up at the dormant dome lights.

"I turned it off."

"Okay. Anyway, we're off the roster. Jeez, you're a mess… you need an A-B decontamination shower once we get back."

"A what?"

"Anti-bacterial."

"Oh… right. I know," DeeDee said, pulling out in her once-pristine uniform that had now been coated in someone else's blood. The crimson liquid had already begun to coagulate, and the metallic smell made her crinkle her nose in discomfort. "I'll stay here in the back while we go to the Community. There's no point in getting the cab filthy as well."

"I was about to suggest that, so… yeah," Malin said as she put her hands on her hips and shot the trainee riding nurse a look of support. "You did good, White. Real good. Next time we run into Curly, I can tell him that you acted like a real pro. That'll shut him up… at least for the time being."

"Mmmm," DeeDee said, letting out a deep sigh. Unlike the driver, she could not stop glancing at the wrapped body on the gurney. "We almost had her. Almost. She was too far gone to find her way back. Too many internal injuries."

"It happens," Malin said, finally looking over her shoulder to acknowledge the fact that there were three people in the rear compartment of the ambulance, but only two souls.

"I hope they'll at least catch the S.O.B. who mowed her down and then ran away."

"We can only hope. So… are you ready to go on to your old stomping grounds at the Community?"

DeeDee nodded before she reached for the waist-belt and gave it a good yank to tighten it. "I'm ready. How far is it?"

"Oh, just over two blocks plus the short distance up on Ryegaard Street."

DeeDee stopped what she was doing to shoot Malin a stare laced with pure disbelief. "Two blocks? Had she been able to hold onto life for two blocks more, she would have been under full care by now…"

"Yep. That's life and death in a nutshell," Malin said before she turned around to head back to the driver's seat. Behind her, DeeDee let out another sigh that was even darker and gloomier than before.

-*-*-*-

As luck would have it, the traffic lights were green at both intersections on their way to the Community Hospital. The final two city blocks did not take long to cover, even going at regular speed, so it was only a short while before the driver turned right onto Ryegaard Street to enter the last stretch.

With Malin alone up front and DeeDee sharing the rear compartment with the recently deceased, the familiar silence had once more fallen over the two women - that it was for a different reason compared to earlier did not really matter.

To avoid getting carsick, DeeDee leaned forward to look out of the windshield through the cutout. She knew Ryegaard Street well from her days at the Community Hospital so she knew exactly where they were. The major difference was of course that she had been using her mountain bike back then.

The dead body on the gurney had been secured with the regular restraining belts now the young woman was beyond any pain. Even so, it shook and trembled as the ambulance rolled over the uneven surface of the heavily-used Ryegaard Street; the movements offered an illusion of life though the soul had long since parted company with the flesh.

Instead of brooding too much about things far beyond her control, DeeDee let out a deep sigh and propped her head up on her filthy arm. Leaning forward again, she looked back out of the windshield where the familiar shape of the Community Hospital's main building had just come into view as a square, black silhouette against the gray night-time sky. At that hour of the day, only the odd room had the lights on which gave the building a gap-toothed appearance.

Shimmers of pale-blue light could be seen at irregular intervals on the flat roof; DeeDee knew it was the ball bearings on the air vents that created sparks. A popular urban legend said the pale-blue flashes were the ghosts of the people who had died at the hospital over the years, but everyone who had ever worked at the Community knew about the sparks that were created through the fast-moving ventilators atop the air shafts - she could still hear the rhythmical whining of the old and well-worn ball bearings.

The hospital colloquially referred to as the Community was the oldest in all of Greater Carlyle. Built in the early years of the 1930s in the center of a large recreational park - when Ryegaard Street had still been open terrain dominated by an eighteen-hole golf course owned by an exclusive country club that had gone bankrupt after the Wall Street Crash - the Art Deco style that had been at the cutting edge of design now made it look old-fashioned and, worse, outdated.

The main building was a seven-story high-rise; five additional buildings of three or four storeys had been built around it as satellites when the need had arisen in the following decades. The later buildings were built to the style common at the time of their construction which created a confusing, inhom*ogeneous whole.

A red beacon flashed on either end of the main building's flat roof to warn low-flying airplanes of the danger, but since the hospital was now surrounded by high-rises that all dwarfed it by a factor of three or even four, the warning beacons had become somewhat of a poor joke.

They were in no hurry, so instead of driving further on toward the wide primary entrance that would take them directly to the main building, Malin turned left onto the first of the four smaller entryways into the park that still surrounded the hospital. The access road was narrow and winding, but they were the only traffic there so it mattered little.

Halfway down the narrow access road, they had to drive under the wide-reaching crown of an old oak tree whose branches and leaves scraped against the top of the tall, modern ambulance. After making a tight right-hand turn onto a wider access road, they continued at low speed past several of the three-story satellite buildings until they reached one where an unostentatious metal sign stuck into the ground in front of it marked it as the depository for the hospital's mortuary.

"We're here," Malin said over her shoulder as she turned off the wider access road and into a small, empty parking lot reserved for ambulances and hearses there to drop off or pick up the deceased.

"I know," DeeDee said, releasing her waist-belt ahead of time.

They drove past a glass windbreak that had been closed and locked up for the night. Seventy yards further along the deserted parking lot, bright light shone out of a sliding door that was in the process of being rolled up.

Taking a wide turn to get the GMC lined up properly, Malin drove under the open door and into the designated area: an internal gateway that offered direct access to several of the corridors on the building's ground level. Lines painted on the concrete floor told her where to stop, and she came to a halt right on the money. On their left, a heavy-duty freight elevator ran between the ground floor and the basem*nt where the cold storage depository itself was located.

Malin had barely switched off the engine before the rolling door behind them began to slide down toward its lower stop. One of the fireproof access doors to the corridors swung open with a rusty squeak to reveal a three-strong team of nurses wearing pale-green protective outfits that were similar, but not quite identical, to scrubs. The team had brought along a gurney that was equipped with a coffin-like lidded box on top rather than a regular mattress.

As DeeDee got up and turned on the ceiling lights once more, the rear doors were opened and the first of the three nurses from the Community team stepped up into the ambulance. DeeDee greeted her colleague with a tired smile. "Good morning. We're bringing in the DOA from Sunderland and East Seventeenth Street. I believe you have been notified."

"Good morning. We have, yes," the mid-twenty-something nurse said. The woman wielded a hand-held electronic device that she updated with the exact time of arrival. Once the device had responded by letting out a two-tone beep that carried a vague similarity to one of R2-D2's chirps and whistles, she put it in the breast pocket of her regular, white lab coat that she wore under her pale-green protective outfit.

After donning a pair of medical gloves that matched the color of her fatigues, she waved at her colleagues so they could begin the process of transferring the deceased. She was soon joined by the other nurses who wasted little time in releasing the two locking mechanisms for the contaminated gurney. It was quickly lowered onto the concrete deck where it took them even less time to transfer the remains of Charlene Kincaid into the coffin-like box on the other gurney. The lid came down after a scant thirty seconds of work, and that was literally that for the young traffic victim.

DeeDee jumped down onto the deck where she was joined by a subdued Malin. The harsh light that shone onto the concrete floor from old-fashioned strip lights installed in the ceiling created a cold, impersonal atmosphere that was a perfect match with the cold, impersonal business that was conducted there. "I have her various effects here," she said, holding up the plastic bag containing the purse and the necklace. "The DOA is also wearing a silvery stud in the left eyebrow that needs to be removed."

"Noted," the mid-twenty-something nurse said and updated her electronic device once more before she took the plastic bag and put it on top of the coffin.

Behind them, the fireproof door to the corridor was opened once again producing another rusty squeak. A surprised utterance of "DeeDee White? Yes, it is you!" prompted DeeDee to turn around with a tired smile already forming on her lips - she knew who the voice belonged to even before she laid eyes on the unmistakable figure of Teresa Goldstein.

For close to twenty-five years, even the mere sighting of the matronly, broad shape of Senior Nurse T. Goldstein roaming the endless hallways and corridors of the Community Hospital had been enough to make every last one of the trainee nurses redouble her efforts so she would not find herself on the receiving end of a severe talking-to. DeeDee had experienced the sharp tongue on more than one occasion during her pre-registration time there, and the sound of the mature woman's voice brought it all back. The intervening years did not seem to have mellowed out the Senior Nurse any, but the fact she wore a smile on her face was unusual to say the least.

"It's me. Hello, Senior Nurse Goldstein," DeeDee said, putting out her hand until she remembered how filthy and contaminated it actually was. Grunting, she settled for a quick wave instead.

The fifty-eight-year-old Teresa Goldstein wore her graying hair in a tight bun that, in connection with her steel-gray eyes, her steel-gray, square-framed spectacles, her upright posture and the determined set to her jaw, gave her a stern, no-nonsense appearance that was backed up a hundred percent by her personality. "My my, you're working for Pettersson's now? We only have good things to say about that company… unlike some of your competitors."

"Oh… thank you…"

"The last I heard, you had a general nursing position at Beech Grove, didn't you?" Teresa said, taking a long look at the tall shape of her former subordinate.

"That's right. I worked there for a few years. It was time for a change, Senior Nurse Goldstein," DeeDee said in a tired voice. "Oh, and this is my driver, Malin Pettersson," she continued, gesturing at her companion.

"Hiya," Malin said, briefly stepping forward to shake hands with the stern-looking Senior Nurse.

"Hello, I'm Teresa Goldstein. Are you related to the-"

"Yeah. It's my old man," Malin said with a grin.

"Please pass on what I said before. You're doing a fantastic job," the Senior Nurse said as she gave the offered hand a firm shaking.

"Thanks. I'll be sure to let the Chief know."

Taking a step back, Teresa glanced at the blood that caked all over DeeDee's uniform; then she looked over at the closed coffin. "It's obvious you've had a rough night, DeeDee. If you wish, you can use our shower facilities. I'll bet you remember where they are."

"Thank you for the offer, Senior Nurse Goldstein, but all my clean clothes are back at our base. We need to go there to decontaminate the ambulance… and our shift is over anyway, so…" DeeDee said with a shrug.

"I see. All right." Teresa opened her mouth to go on when they were interrupted by the familiar rusty squeak from the fireproof door. It soon opened to reveal the doctor who had been called to conduct the inspection of the deceased. "Oh, I need to assist Doctor Smith to make everything official. It was nice talking to you, DeeDee."

"And you, Senior Nurse Goldstein," DeeDee said with a tired smile. She spent a few moments observing the doctor opening the lid of the coffin. While he carried out the formal inspection using long-winded descriptions featuring plenty of Latin words and terms, Teresa Goldstein updated the death certificate with the various information offered to her - the legal document was still a regular, old-fashioned piece of paper that needed to be kept manually.

DeeDee could not stomach watching it in the long run. Their job there was done, so she turned away from the gloomy scene and shuffled over to the ambulance.

---

On their way back through the narrow access roads headed for the smaller side exit onto Ryegaard Street, DeeDee remained on the bench seat in the rear compartment so she would not cause even more work for the poor cleaning crew back at the base. She had turned off all the ceiling lights and sat in complete darkness save for the tiny, blinking LEDs that showed the oxygen supply was ready for use if need be.

She wanted to, needed to, had to talk to Malin about the night's traumatic events and everything else that had gone on between them for the past couple of shifts, but the awkward silence had once more fallen between them.

DeeDee pinched the bridge of her nose to stop the headache that had started somewhere deep inside her brain from spreading too much. She had a bottle of spring water in the storage box underneath the seat that she knew would help, but she did not want to bother Malin about it now they were on the final run for home.

They had only moved a couple of hundred yards along the access road before the radio transceiver on the dashboard squawked to life using their call sign. DeeDee and Malin both let out identical groans of displeasure - Malin's outburst was longer and somewhat more profane-sounding - at the mere thought of having to do something else after the bad night they had already been through. Growling, Malin reached for the mic and yanked it off the little hook.

'Unit one-five, unit one-five, dispatch. You copy?' the familiar voice of the female dispatcher said at the other end of the connection.

"Dispatch, unit one-five, we copy. Did you forget we are off the roster, over?"

'Negatory, unit one-five. Remain at present location until you have been contacted by city police for an update regarding last assignment, over.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Remaining at present location until contact has been established," Malin said and applied the brakes to make the ambulance come to a halt in the middle of the narrow access road. "Unit one-five over and out," she continued before she put the radio mic back onto the little hook and pulled the shifter into park. There was no reason to waste fuel when they did not know how long they had to wait, so she turned off the engine as well.

Thinking that the news update might be important, DeeDee released her waist-belt and shuffled up to the cutout so she could get a feel for what was going on. "Let's hope it means they've caught the S.O.B.," she said, leaning her clean shoulder against the wall so she could avoid leaving fragments of dried blood everywhere.

"Yeah."

The access road ahead was dark and quiet with no sign of a police cruiser anywhere; in short, they had some time to kill. DeeDee scrunched up her face as she began to compose the opening volley of the long overdue talk she needed to have with Malin. She was perhaps not in the best of moods to go ahead with such a talk considering all that had happened, but it was imperative they had it. Her headache made its presence felt before too long, and she pinched the bridge of her nose all over again. "Malin, would you mind getting my bottle of spring water from the storage box?" she said, pointing down at the seat and the small space under it.

"Of course not… here ya go," Malin said and handed the riding nurse the half-full bottle of water.

DeeDee mumbled a "thank you" as she unscrewed the cap and drained the other half of the bottle in one go. Once it was empty, she opened the biohazard wastebin and threw it into that since it had now been as contaminated by her touch as the bloodied absorbent cotton and all the other items that were already down there.

Just as she returned to the cutout to compile her thoughts for the important chat, the darkness around the ambulance was illuminated by the characteristic flashing of red-and-blue police-style wig-wags typically installed behind the grilles of unmarked squad cars.

She crouched down a little so she could look out of the windshield: a short distance ahead of them, a plain clothes officer flagged them down by waving his hand out of the window of his charcoal-gray Ford Crown Victoria.

"If I were to make a wild guess, I'd say that's our guy," Malin said as she turned the ignition key into the pre-start position to be able to operate the power window. Once the pane of glass had lowered fully, she moved the key back and leaned to her left so she could get a good view of the lower vehicle that had just come to a stop next to the ambulance. "Good evening, officer. Or good morning, depending on when you started your shift."

"Were you the ambulance unit involved in the fatal hit-and-run down on Sunderland?" the plain-clothes officer said. The early-forty-something man behind the Ford's steering wheel spoke in an official-sounding, no-nonsense voice that made it clear he was used to people listening to him and then carrying out his orders. He wore a dark-brown suit jacket over a gray shirt and a black tie, and he carried a gold shield on a metal chain around his neck.

"That's right," Malin said, shuffling aside slightly so DeeDee could hear the exchange without coming fully into the driver's compartment.

"Just to let you know," the officer continued in a friendlier tone, "the truck involved has been found abandoned down by the switching yard. The front was caved in and bloodied so there's no doubt it's the right one. There was no sign of the driver. It was found by a K-nine unit so they were able to deploy fast, but the hounds lost the scent almost at once. Perhaps the driver jumped onto one of the box cars to make his escape. There are certainly enough of them down there."

"sh*t… that tells me it might not be just another drunk-driver. Maybe he's involved in other types of criminal activity, huh? A boozer or a junkie might stagger away, but the doggies would catch 'im in a hurry. A planned escape like that… could be a pro, dontcha think?"

The plain clothes officer shrugged. "Well… perhaps. We obviously can't say before he's found."

"Yeah… I suppose that's true," Malin said and rubbed her chin. "Hey, didn't'cha get anything off the fingerprints… or from the license plate?"

"We're still dusting for prints. The rest is need-to-know, and you don't. But three days ago, a similar truck and similar plates were stolen from the lot of a dealership that sells used commercial vehicles. You do the math," the officer said displaying a rare grin.

"sh*t, that confirms my theory!"

"Ah… yeah. Perhaps. Anyway, I know how busy you EMTs are so I won't keep you here any longer," the plain-clothes officer said as he started the Ford. "We'll keep searching for the wheelman. It'll be all over the news stations come breakfast time."

"All right," Malin said, tapping her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. After glancing over her shoulder at DeeDee who could only scrunch up her face, Malin turned back to the police officer. "Hey, now that we have you… do you know if the family has been notified yet?"

"I believe they have, yes. If not, they will be before the news breaks."

"Okay. Thanks for the update. We appreciate it. Have a safe night, officer," she continued as she started the turbo diesel and pulled the shifter into drive.

The plain-clothes officer grinned at Malin as he moved his hand up to give her a brief thumbs-up. "Thanks. You too."

Malin took her foot off the brake which made the GMC Savana trickle forward. Once she had checked that DeeDee was safely buckled up on the bench seat, she let out a long sigh and looked out onto the access road ahead. "They're not gonna catch him," she said and mashed her boot onto the gas pedal to get home.

-*-*-*-

Half an hour later.

DeeDee practiced her thousand-mile stare while she waited for the old pipes in the enclosed stall in the ladies' shower room to spring to life. The bathing facilities situated in the basem*nt of the red-brick building on Forty-fourth Street had not been renovated since Pettersson's Ambulance Services had moved in nearly thirty years earlier. On top of that, the plumbing and various faucets, showerheads and pipes were decidedly old-school: everything was over-sized to the point of appearing out of scale with the rest.

Tiles that had been white once upon a time but that now sported a vaguely brownish, age-related hue covered the floors, ceilings and most of the walls of all the eleven enclosed stalls. The fourth wall of each stall saw a frosted glass door with a metal handle on which DeeDee had put her towel and a waterproof plastic bag with a clean set of underwear.

The shower facilities had originally been designed as a plenum area with only five showerheads and a single drain in the floor, but when the building had been converted into a police precinct house in the early 1960s, the individual stalls had been put up in the room intended for the female personnel. The frosted glass doors had been added twenty years later when the new prudishness of the mid-to-late 1980s had taken the place of the more free-spirited 1970s.

From sneaking a peek into the men's shower room - organized by Malin on a mission of mischief, of course - DeeDee had seen that the guys still had to use the plenum shower facilities. She was pleased things had moved on in the ladies' shower room, because if there was one thing she flat-out hated, it was to strip down to her bare essentials in front of others.

A brass valve needed to be pressed at regular intervals to let the old plumbing know it should send out another strong burst of water onto the person standing below the main nozzle. After five attempts that had caused plenty of humming, groaning, creaking, rattling and moaning but precious little water to come from the showerhead above, DeeDee eventually struck gold when she was doused by a steaming hot geyser.

Rubbing her skin thoroughly while the hot, cleansing water was at hand, she let it soak her through and wash away the crimson reminder of the traumatic event she had experienced. Once the initial burst had come to an end, she reached for the bottle of anti-bacterial shampoo and lathered herself up from top to toe - literally.

---

After going through the cleansing process no less than three times to be sure of being fully liberated from any potentially harmful germs, she opened the frosted glass door to check if she was alone. She was, so she stepped out of the narrow stall to have room to dry herself.

Standing all alone in the middle of the shower room, she began to rub herself down with her terrycloth bath towel. The sudden chill that rolled over her from being away from the hot water gave her goosebumps all over, so she quickly finished up so she could jump into her underwear and her brand new dark-blue fleece sweatsuit that Malin had presented her with the day before. It carried the Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One logo on the front and back, and unlike the first set she had been presented with, this one was a perfect match.

---

DeeDee entered the staff restaurant a short while later. She briefly checked out what was happening - not much was the short answer; Malin chose that moment to laugh out loud in her typically loud fashion - before she made a beeline for the table that sported the battery of coffee machines. After taking a clean mug from the stack, she grabbed a random coffee pot and poured herself a mugful of the gunpowder-strong, pitch-black liquid.

It was impossible for her to ignore the strong urge whispering in her ear that she should sink her teeth into something sweet and sinful, so she shuffled up to the aluminum counter to find a pastry of some kind. Armed with a tray, the mug of fresh coffee and a plate featuring a pair of canapé-sized raspberry pastries with pink frosting and plenty of the colorful decoration known as Harlequin sprinkles, she shuffled back down to the central table where Malin already sat.

A smile spread over her face when she realized that Spencer Bradshaw and Maria Navarro had joined the fiery Malin. 'Blue' and 'Sister Dynamite' still wore their uniforms, but Malin had changed into her own dark-blue sweatsuit. The old friends were chatting as always, but despite Malin's loud laugh from before, they seemed to be a little more subdued than usual. "Hello again, Spencer. Maria," DeeDee said as she put down the tray and transferred the mug and the plate with the pastries onto the table; then she pulled out the chair and sat down next to Malin.

" 'Morning, White," Maria Navarro said, eyeing the raspberry pastries with a wolf-like, hungry grin forming on her lips. "Man, those things look good. Wotcha pay for 'em?"

"Fifty cents a piece. They were made early yesterday evening so they're probably a little dry."

"Fifty cents a p-?! Naw, I definitely gotta have one of those… make that two. Or three. Don't drink my coffee while I'm away," 'Sister Dynamite' said before she left the table and beat a hasty path to the counter.

"We won't," Spencer said to his riding nurse before he turned to DeeDee. "Hello, Miss White. Red told me of your first class work tonight. Good job."

"Thank you, Spencer… it wasn't enough," DeeDee said and broke out in a shrug. The fact that Malin had praised her came as something of a surprise to her; then she grew embarrassed for even thinking that about her driver. Sipping the coffee, she found it to be so strong that she was sure it could be used to remove nail polish.

"That's how it goes sometimes," Spencer continued as he fiddled with a napkin that carried coffee-brown stains after it had been used to soak up a spillage.

"Unfortunately."

The buff man finally pushed the napkin away in exchange for his mug. Though it was the same size as all the other mugs, it looked like it came from a doll's house next to his large, strong hands. "At least you know you did all you could."

"Yes… but the parents still lost their daughter."

A somber silence spread among the three people at the table; it was not broken until Maria Navarro returned with a pair of raspberry pastries identical to the ones DeeDee had bought. "Did I miss anything good?" she said before she went to work on the first one right away.

"No," Spencer said, taking a sip of his coffee. He eyed his old friend and his newest colleague who sat shoulder by shoulder across the rectangular table. The silence and distance between them was tangible though they were right next to each other. Putting down the mug, he picked up the damp napkin all over again to have something to do with his hands. "We didn't have much luck tonight, either. On a lesser scale, obviously," he said to the two sweatsuit-wearing women across the table.

"Oh yeah?" Malin said, holding up her own mug. "How's that, Blue?"

Maria spoke up before Spencer could: "We had a hurler. All over the Goddamned place. Chunks of this, chunks of that… deep-fried prawns… carrots and pea soup… Peking Duck… noodles… the walls, the floor, the gurney…"

"Uggggh!"

"Yeah, we had to come back for a chemical," Maria continued, shaking her head.

DeeDee took a bite out of her pastry that was just as sugary and sinful as she had hoped it would be despite being a tad on the dry, brittle side; Maria's colorful description of their nightly woes never even rattled her. "Was that the code two-oh-two at the Thai restaurant, or did get you get lucky twice?" she said as she savored the rich taste of the high-quality raspberry jam used for the pastry.

"It was the two-oh-two," Spencer said, nodding at DeeDee before he turned to his own riding nurse and continued: "And like I've said oh, about four times already, it wasn't Peking Duck because that's a Chinese specialty that isn't served in Thai restaurants."

"Whatever," Maria said before she stuffed the rest of the first raspberry pastry into her mouth in one go.

"So it wasn't Freddie Mack?" DeeDee continued.

Spencer was caught sipping his coffee so he could only shake his head.

"Huh," Malin said, butting in out of order. She leaned across the table and pointed a wagging index finger at Spencer and DeeDee like she wanted to make a point. "I could have told you guys that… if anyone had actually bothered to ask. There's no way on God's green earth that Freddie Mack would ever set foot in an Asian restaurant. No way. He's strictly a soul food or a Tex-Mex kinda conman."

DeeDee blushed at Malin's words about 'bothering to ask.' It became clear to her that her private conversation with Spencer Bradshaw at the fast food restaurant had annoyed Malin or maybe even upset her, though the driver's fiery persona would not seem to allow such an emotion to come to the surface. "Okay," she said; the word had barely left her lips before she knew it was a stupid response. It only made her blush harder. She covered most of it by taking a sip of the strong coffee.

Maria glanced at all three of her companions before she broke out in a shrug and concentrated on wolfing down her second raspberry pastry.

"Miss White, on a more serious note," Spencer said, locking his deep-brown eyes onto DeeDee's blue ones. "One of the things that binds us together in this special brotherhood is the intense pain that comes from losing a patient. The emotional response doesn't change whether its the first, or the fifth, or even the tenth time it happens. It's always painful, always tragic, always a terrible burden on our soul. And it always helps to talk about it afterwards."

DeeDee nodded somberly; Malin let out an unamused grunt. The driver began to shuffle around on her chair like her built-in BS-o-meter had already pegged at the top level from her old friend's opening statement. Across the table, Maria Navarro reacted in much the same way though in a less vocal manner.

Spencer noticed the reactions of the two women but had no intention of letting it stop him: "So what did the scene look like? What had happened… and what did you do?"

Sighing, DeeDee scrunched up her face as she revisited the accident site in her mind. She retraced her steps of examining and stabilizing the teenager and found nothing she could have done any differently. She knew in her heart that Charlene Kincaid had been beyond help from the moment she had been hit by the truck; that she had lived for as long as she had was a near-miracle - that she had died two blocks from far better help than what could be administered to her in the back of a moving ambulance was sheer bad luck. "Well… it was a hit-and-run. A teenaged girl had been mowed down by a truck. She had multiple severe fractures, multiple internal injuries. Probably a punctured lung. Shattered legs and pelvis. A fractured sternum so CPR was out of the question."

Before she went on, she eyed Malin and Maria who both wore expressions that spelled out quite clearly that all that touchy-feely stuff they were about to be exposed to was the absolute last thing they wanted at that specific point in time. Though Malin had said she did talk to her colleagues about such tragic events, she had meant cracking jokes so dark they rivaled a black hole, not pouring out her heart and soul for all and sundry. "If you guys don't want to listen to it, you're free to leave," DeeDee said to her female companions; Malin just let out another grunt.

Spencer had noticed the highly skeptical expressions on the faces of two of the three colleagues he shared the table with. "Say, why don't you kids grab another mug of coffee someplace else while we adults have a serious conversation for a change?" he said, shooting Malin a look that said she better not pull any of her usual nonsense.

"Oh haw, haw!" Malin said, squirming in her seat from the dark look that pinned her down. She fell quiet for a few seconds before her shoulders moved in a half-shrug. "We're a team, White and me. We need to be there for each other. Including for something like this."

It was clear that 'Sister Dynamite' did not share that view; however, she remained at the table so it would not look like she was running away from anything. She had already emptied her plate with the raspberry pastries so that would not work as a diversion. Instead, she wrapped a finger around the ear of her mug and took a long swig.

DeeDee was pleased by Malin's support, and she turned to offer her driver a grateful smile. The one that came back at her was supportive, but perhaps not fully convinced - at least it was a start. She drew a deep breath to continue relaying the tragic tale to the man sitting opposite her: "Anyway. The young woman was unconscious when we got to her…"

-*-*-*-

After uttering a string of "stay cool" and "see-ya" to her colleagues, DeeDee walked down to the locker rooms with a new spring in her step. Like she had known all along, talking to someone who wanted to listen - and who understood how to listen - had helped her begin to come to terms with the trauma of losing a patient.

The young woman had not been her first DOA nor would she be her last, but it had been a while since it had happened, and the strong emotional jolt it had given her had made it feel like her first. The long conversation with Spencer Bradshaw had made her understand that sometimes, she needed to focus on what she had done rather than what she had been unable to accomplish. She needed to take solace from the fact that she had done her utmost. The rest was up to the patient.

It surprised her that it mattered little that the debriefing of her soul had been conducted by a colleague rather than a professional counselor. Talking to Spencer, who had been there and done that too often for any one person to cope with, had released much of the stress that had accumulated inside her since the incident had taken place. Perhaps Malin had been right in saying that it needed to be someone who knew the raw unfairness of the mean streets.

"White! Hey, wait up. It didn't take that long, girl!" Malin said from some distance back. Though they had left the staff restaurant together, the fiery driver had - as always - been detained on their way to the locker rooms. DeeDee had left her behind which meant she needed to hustle through the corridors in a fast jog to catch up.

DeeDee slowed down for just long enough for Malin to get alongside her; then she carried on at her regular pace. With the specter of the traumatic incident no longer looking over her shoulder, to echo the term Malin had used earlier, she was free to focus on the other thing that had been burning in her mind for the past few days: the stuttering working relationship she had with her driver.

Though it was so late in the day that it was early morning, technically speaking, she felt it was the right time to have the serious heart-to-heart. She hoped it would not turn into an argument, but only time would tell.

---

The locker rooms down in the basem*nt of the brick building were quickly reached, and DeeDee spent little time changing into her street clothes: white sports socks, stone-washed jeans and a white t-shirt underneath a cotton V-neck tunic that carried a reddish-brown color somewhere between maroon and burgundy. Her favorite khaki sports jacket was soon pulled off the coat hanger and put across the bench. Her Nikes came last, and she sat down on the bench in front of the lockers to tie the laces. Now and then, she performed a sideways glance at Malin who had not yet swapped her dark-blue sweatsuit for her regular clothes. "You're not going to change tonight?"

"Nah. This set needs a good washing. I'll pop it into my own machine later today before I make breakfast at noon and stuff," Malin said, pulling out the upper hem of her sweatshirt to illustrate her point. "I tried to wash it during the night once… but only once. Every neighbor above, below and to the side co-signed a formal letter of complaint about the noise. You'd think it would be different among all the bohemians in our neighborhood, right? But hell no. Those people are just as egocentric as all the rest. Of course, they listen to their dumb-ass pling-plong spiritual music when I try to catch a few winks, but nobody gives a turkey's ass about that no matter how much I bitch and moan about it."

DeeDee winced at Malin's typically frank descriptions and opinions while she finished tying her shoelaces. The time had come. Shuffling around on the bench so she had her long legs on either side of it, she wet her lips several times while she tried to compose her thoughts.

Her heart began to pick up speed and her palms grew clammy. Out of nowhere, she was reminded of how it had been for her day-in, day-out when she had been a devastatingly inhibited and shy young teen who could not even order a book at the school library without jittering so hard she would nearly fall to pieces - much less ask anyone if they wanted to go out with her and grab a soda pop or watch a movie.

Even now at twenty-nine, she had to take several deep breaths just to get her insides under control; it annoyed her so much that she just blurted out what was on her mind: "Malin… we need to talk. I mean talk-talk. And please don't crack wise about it. I hope you can see that we're having problems. We really do need to get things squared between us before I… before it's too late."

Finally getting the important statement out there only made her heart speed up even further and her palms grow clammier. The latter was more easily dealt with than the former - she just wiped them off on her jeans.

Malin let out a sigh and ran a hand through her short, strawberry-blond hair. Her face assumed a serious expression for once. "I know," she said and sat down on the bench. She kept her side to DeeDee at first, but a few moments later, she folded a leg up underneath her and shuffled around so they were face to face. They kept a three-foot distance between them which seemed appropriate for the serious topic. "It hasn't been going all that great, has it? I mean, pulling the shifts. Spending time together."

DeeDee gulped down the bitter lump that had formed in her throat; now the much-needed talk was underway, a certain sense of queasiness rose within her stemming from the fact she had no idea whatsoever where it would all end up. "No. We are very, very different," she said in a quiet voice. "We come from vastly different backgrounds, we have vastly different opinions about… well, pretty much everything. To rephrase an old chestnut, some say that opposites match, but I don't feel that we do. The gap between us is just too great."

"Yeah. You're a brooding idealist. I'm a foul-mouthed, short-tempered, loud cynic," Malin said, stating the bloomin' obvious and doing so with a shrug. "I can't change. I'm not sure I want to change. I am who I am. And so are you, you know… only differently."

"I'm not sure I even want you to change as such, Malin…"

"Okay?" Malin said, narrowing her eyes. A few seconds went by where it was clear she was trying to figure it out on her own - then she gave up. "You're losing me here… I figured the problem would be my abrasive style?"

"Well, it is and it isn't. Oh… I don't know how to phrase it," DeeDee said and rubbed her forehead. She needed a few moments to gather her thoughts before she could continue: "I need to learn to take a step back and not get so invested in what we encounter out there. To care less, if you will. And I would like to see you take a step closer… invest more, and care more about the people we meet. About the things we do. If we both moved, we'd move closer which would improve the working relationship… I hope."

Malin drew a deep breath but let it out as a slow sigh instead of a strongly phrased word or two. "May I be frank?" she said, co*cking her head.

"Of course…"

"You've been here a week. I've been here ten years… well, I've really been here all my life." - Malin shrugged while she spoke - "Dad drove ambulances pretty much around the clock for the first several years when his company was just starting out. That's how I caught the bug. I wasn't always a flaming cynic, but I became one fast once I was old enough to see and understand the harsh realities of the ugly, brutal world beyond the sliding door."

"I see a bright, beautiful world beyond the sliding door. Now and then we may need to look hard to find it, but it's there… even in the grittiest of places."

A dark chuckle escaped Malin as she took in DeeDee's statement. "Somehow, I had a feeling you'd say that. Listen, I don't want to sound like old Master Yogurt now, but the world will lose its shine for you one day. I'm amazed it hasn't already after you spent several years working at the Community. That hospital really is the sh*t-smeared bunghole of all of Greater Carlyle. It acts as a magnet for crackheads, sickos, junkies, street weirdos and assorted other psycho freaks who only go there to get a free methadone fix or to pick the pockets of the other visitors. You must have been up to your eyeballs in other people's runny, stinky sh*t the whole Goddamned day!"

DeeDee blushed hard as she tried to digest the harsh way Malin had dismissed her old hospital - the years she had spent there had been tough, but not for any of the reasons just listed. "I thought it was a great place to work," she said, staring wide-eyed at her driver. "I had so many highly dedicated colleagues there… some patients were troubled, yes, but I met so many others who tried really hard to break their habits. A friendly smile and a few words of encouragement would make their entire week."

An uneasy silence fell between the two women. It lasted for longer than either of them wanted before Malin finally spoke up: "We're not exactly getting anywhere, are we?" She let out a chuckle that was meant to act as a relief from the sudden appearance of gloominess; it ended up confirming it instead.

"No."

"Well, I'm nothing if not a problem solver," Malin said and shuffled around on the bench like her patience with the whole thing was winding down. "So… may I ask what your plans are, DeeDee? Or perhaps your intentions?"

"Oh, I… I don't know," DeeDee said, rubbing her brow once more. "I thought about asking Mr. Pettersson to transfer me to another driver, but… but I'm worried that he wouldn't understand. That he would perhaps cancel my temporary engagement and kick me out completely instead."

"Dad wouldn't do that."

"That's easy for you to say."

"Well… I suppose that's true."

DeeDee nodded in a downcast, somber fashion; she let out a deep sigh before she carried on: "The fact is that I don't want to leave. I do actually enjoy working here. I've been too sheltered these past few years over at Beech Grove, I realize that now. My senses had been dulled. I had forgotten how soul-consuming the mean streets can be… all the good, the bad and the tragic we face out there. What really makes me take flight is when I can provide active help to someone who needs it. When I make a difference for someone. When we make a difference. And that's why I've become so… oh, perhaps disillusioned or disenchanted with the blatant negativity and cynicism that always seems to flow from you."

Malin leaned to the side to prop her head up on her arm. The two women locked eyes for a long while before the driver broke the silence: "I know I'm too negative and cynical at times, but maybe you're a little too idealistic and… well… naive, perhaps? It doesn't change the fact that I've enjoyed working the shifts with you. You're a top-professional riding nurse, DeeDee. Probably better than my regular partner Jason C-Note. If you wish to swap to another driver and the old man asks me why, I'll tell him that. To be honest, though, I think we… sh*t."

DeeDee furrowed her brow at the direction the conversation had taken and even where it seemed to be going. It was clear something major was about to happen between them, but she could not tell if it would be good or bad - if the frank exchange of opinions would make them get closer or split them up for good. Inside her, a surprising sense of wanting to stay with the fiery driver after all suddenly came to the forefront; it left her confused because it muddled the picture even further.

"To be honest," Malin continued, sitting up straight, "I think we should try a second shot at working together. Perhaps call it starting over. Our first shift together was so damn messed up and bizarre with Freddie Mack and all that sh*t… and then the nasty biz with the psycho addict… we got off on the wrong foot. And, uh… remember the thing you said before about both of us moving? And moving closer? I'll try to mellow out just a little from time to time. I can't promise nothin' or give you any guarantees, but… you know. I'll try."

"Oh!" DeeDee said, mirroring the driver's stance on the bench by sitting up straight. "That's all I can ask for, Malin. I promise that I'll try to be far less judgmental of what you say… or perhaps better still, raise the issue at once whenever there's something I disagree with instead of brooding over it. I'll never grow more cynical, but I need to learn that there are countless views and opinions out there in the bright, beautiful world."

"Or whatever. That definitely works for me," Malin said with a lopsided grin. She nodded as she went over the details of the conversation in her mind. "So… are we cool about this? Or closer to the point, are we still a team?"

DeeDee fell silent. She pressed her lips together while she tried to parse all the conflicting emotions that her head and her heart were shouting at her in a disharmonic tag-team wrestling match. Ultimately, the sense of wanting to give the working relationship with the fiery driver a second shot, Malin as put it, was strong enough to win out over her fears and concerns of not being compatible. "We're still a team, Malin. Like two-thirds of Charlie's Angels."

"Or Xena and Gabrielle," Malin said with a broad grin plastered onto her lips. Getting up from the bench, she moved over to the trainee riding nurse and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's body for a brief, but strong hug.

"Oh!" DeeDee said, completely unprepared for such a surprising amount of contact from her driver - Malin's regular method of seeking friendly relations was to slap someone across the gut.

After the hug, Malin did in fact go back to her regular ways of swatting DeeDee across the gut; then she took a hurried step back in case the taller woman would retaliate with her longer reach. When nothing happened, she put her hands on her hips and broke out in a grin. "I'm glad we got things squared between us. Things left unsaid nearly always suck."

"They do indeed. I'm glad, too."

"Huh," Malin, breaking out in a thoughtful chuckle like she had just realized something. "It's weird to consider that the only reason we got partnered up in the first place was because I happened to drive the piece-of-sh*t oh-four unit into the garage just as you and the old man were standing there. If the Wild Thang or Turkey Feathers had taken it out for a test drive, you would have been their trainee riding nurse now."

"The Wild Thang? Turkey Feathers?!" DeeDee said, grimacing at the thought of the people behind those outrageous nicknames.

"Yeah. I don't know Feathers all that well 'cos he only started last month, but Wild Thang's a nice fella. A little out-there from time to time, but… ain't we all? Anyway, he's a nice fella. He's got green hair above his ears. You haven't seen him around?"

"Ah… no. I would definitely have remembered someone with green hair," DeeDee said and scratched the side of her nose.

"Yeah, he's not someone you'll walk past without noticing. Hey, how about I drove you home tonight? I know we've spent all afternoon and evening sitting next to each other… well, mostly… but it's gotta be a helluva lot easier for you to be transported through the manic traffic instead of riding that contraption of yours. I mean, we don't live that far from each other, so…"

"I'd like that, Malin. Thank you," DeeDee said, smiling at her driver as she finally got up from the bench. Grabbing her khaki sports jacket, she stuck her arms down the sleeves and pulled it up over her shoulders. The stylish backpack came next, but since she did not need to ride home on her bike, she carried it in her hand instead of slipping it on.

"Aw, you're welcome. That's what driving partners do. Of course, if my big-ass Volvo is ever in for service, you don't even have to ask if I want to hitch a ride on the rear fender on your mountain bike 'cos my reply will be N-O, no!"

"That's good," DeeDee said with a chuckle, "because my bike only has a leaf rear fender. You'd have to straddle the frame's crossbar all the way from here to Thirteenth Street by the park-"

"In which case, my reply would be oh-hell-no!"

They both laughed at that for a few moments. After DeeDee had checked that her jacket's pockets still held all the items she had put in them, she turned on her smartphone to see if she had missed any calls or text messages - the various in-boxes were as empty as ever. "I guess that draws a line under this sh*tty evening," she said as she put the telephone back into her pocket.

"Yep. Tomorrow might be more of the same, who knows," Malin said, turning toward the door leading away from the locker rooms.

"Or it might be a shift where our skills can make a difference. Turn a negative into a positive for someone."

Malin chuckled as she held the door open for the trainee riding nurse. "You know, DeeDee… I had a hunch you'd say that!"

Once the two EMTs had left, the door slipped shut with a soft click leaving the locker rooms in a stony silence.

*

*

THE END of PART 3

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*

*

PART 4: SKID ROW SORROWS

A short week later - DeeDee's evaluation day.

"Excited? Excited isn't the right word, Mom," DeeDee White said into her smartphone that she had pinned down between her cheek and her uniform-clad shoulder. As often happened when she was already stressed for time, her mother had called to get an update on her only daughter's occasionally lonely life.

A quick glance at the clock on top of the bread box in her kitchen told her that it was five to three in the afternoon. She still had an hour to get to the bunker-like garage on Forty-fourth Street before her shift would commence, but her mother had been known to uphold a one-sided conversation for that long on her own even when there was nothing to talk about - and this particular day offered plenty of juicy themes to discuss. Not only had the elder White accidentally walked in on her neighbor while the woman had been in a lip-and-tongue clinch with a man whose name was nowhere to be found on her marriage certificate, DeeDee's all-important job evaluation loomed large on the horizon as well.

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"No… terrified is closer to the truth."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"Yes… yes, that's right, Mom… terrified."

After grabbing a few items from her refrigerator, she shoved the door shut with her rear before she dumped the armful of contents onto her kitchen table next to the fresh loaf of multi-grain bread she had bought earlier in the day. While her mother continued to speak into her ear, she let her eyes roam over the various things and ingredients she had chosen for the sandwiches she was about to make: a bottle of Crutchlow's Original Mayo Sandwich Helper, a cucumber, a small jar of sun-dried tomatoes and a pack of ready-sliced smoked ham for the first one; a top-quality cheese with caraway seeds and a green bell pepper that she was going to clean out and cut into several thick, crunchy slices for the next one, and a fresh pack of creamy walnut-paté for the third and final sandwich.

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"I know, Mom, I know…" she said, putting the smartphone down onto the kitchen table so she had her hands free to make the sandwiches. After donning an apron so she would not risk getting her clean uniform stained - she had dressed up well in advance on the important day so she could have all the time she needed to fumble and bumble with her clothes out of sheer nervousness - she quickly found her breadboard before she opened a drawer to get a long, razor-sharp knife with a ribbed edge. Once everything was set, she proceeded to take the knife to the delicious-smelling loaf of bread. Six slices were soon lined up on the breadboard before she put the knife in the sink for later.

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Thank you for your confidence in…"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Yes. Thank you… but Mr. Pettersson is a tough fellow. I'm pretty worried about what'll happen during the evaluation. He's-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"I don't know-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble!

"No, I don't want you to come down there and talk to him, Mom!"

DeeDee clapped a hand over her mouth so she could let out a snicker at the thought of her fussy mother clashing with the old drill-sergeant-like Rickard Pettersson - it would definitely be one for the record books, but whether it would be a help or a hindrance to her hopes of gaining steady employment at Pettersson's Ambulance Services was up in the air.

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Mmmm… yeah."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"No, I really can't say, Mom. I hope so. I feel I've done a good job under the circ*mstances."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"Yes, we've had a pretty rough couple of weeks. A lot of things have happened… huh?"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"Mostly bad, that's right… but there have been a few highlights as well."

Moving back to the kitchen table, she applied a two-handed grip on the jar and the lid of the mayo sandwich helper to get it to release the vacuum; once the lid had released with an audible plopp! , she stuck a butter knife into it and spread out a healthy layer onto the first two slices of bread.

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Yes, and the talk I had with Malin Pettersson helped a lot. It really did. It was like night and- huh?"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"It was a little odd to work with the boss' daughter as first, that's right, but-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Mom…"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"Mom, no, she's not my type."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"No. Mom, wait, that's not-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble. Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble? Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble!

DeeDee's eyes went on a long, slow tour of her kitchen's ceiling while her mother continued to wax poetically about the countless positive aspects of a little romance on the job - that was how she and DeeDee's father had met, after all.

"Mom, will you please listen to me? Yes, she's attractive, but she's not my type. Even if she had been… and she isn't… but even if she had been, we're not allowed to get involved with collea-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble?

"No. It actually says so in the rules and regulations."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble!

"Yes, it's right there in black-on-white."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble…

"No, I don't think that's a bad thing, Mom."

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.

"Yessss, I know I need to go out and explore the world more, as you put it…"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble. Mumble-mumble-mumble-mumble. Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble. Mumble-mumble-mumble-mumble. Mumble, mumble-mumble, mumble.

While her mother fell into a lengthy soliloquy of one of her favorite subjects - finding a suitable girlfriend for her only daughter who was about to become a lonely, old spinster if she did not find someone to hug and hold before too long - DeeDee completed the construction of the first sandwich by cutting off a few slices of cucumber and scooping up a spoonful of sun-dried tomatoes. She finished by giving the top slice of bread a good squeeze so the mayo sandwich helper, the slices of smoked ham and the rest would mingle.

"Mom, I'm afraid I need to hang up now," DeeDee said, glancing at the clock on the bread box - the hands of time had already moved past three P.M.

Mumble…

"Yes, I promise I'll call you first thing tomorrow afterno-"

Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble!

"No, I can't call you as soon as I get word from Mr. Pettersson because that'll be in the middle of the night!"

Mumble, mumble…

"Yeah… yeah."

Mumble, mumble, mumble!

"Okay, Mom. Love you too. Give Dad a kiss from me. Bye!" DeeDee said before she pressed on the smartphone's screen to terminate the connection. "I knew I shouldn't have told Mom about Malin playing on my team," she mumbled. Chuckling, she went back to preparing the other two sandwiches so she could get everything sorted before she left for work.

---

The usual, risky adventure of high-speed biking through the congested streets of Carlyle was but a memory as DeeDee pushed her mountain bike through the silhouette opening in the sliding door and moved into the garage. It never ceased to amaze her that everything on the inside was stuck in a time warp. The radio continued to be tuned to the same station that played the same hits; the same row of - admittedly different - prepared ambulances carrying the same yellow sticky-notes on the windshields were lined up in the usual spots on the concrete deck; the same cleaning crews were packing up as she entered, and the same mechanics were doing all the usual things to the collection of garishly-painted vehicles.

The parking slot where Malin Pettersson always put her charcoal-gray Volvo SUV was still empty, so DeeDee strolled over there and used the sturdy chain lock she had in her stylish backpack to tie her mountain bike to the rusty eye in the floor. With that item on the agenda out of the way, she strolled back over to the row of ambulances to see which ones were available.

She carried her indispensable backpack over one shoulder of her khaki sports jacket as she walked around the first of the GMCs - its call sign 'PAS Unit 0-1' had been added to the front doors using a special kind of reflective sticker. Oh-three, oh-eight and one-two were parked next to it, but oh-one was first in line so she figured they might as well take that one unless the chief mechanic Marco Bocamante had any objections. She pushed back the sleeve of her jacket to check the time. It was ten to four, and there was still no sign of her driver.

Sighing, she went on another tour of the large vehicle while she tried not to grow too impatient. The concept of time and how to manage it was one area where she and Malin simply could not find a middle ground. They had opened up toward each other after their frank discussion in the locker room a week before, but the last bastion of frustration for DeeDee continued to be the fact that Malin Pettersson simply could not, would not, did not - and most likely never would - get there in good time for their shift so they could have an easy start instead of the hectic, traffic jam-infested hustle they always ended up stumbling into head-first.

A grunt left DeeDee's lips as she spun around on the heel of her safety boot to head down to the locker rooms - she might as well do something useful while she waited.

---

Two minutes past four, she was back on the concrete deck holding a paper bag containing a freezer pack, her three home-made sandwiches and a full thermos of free coffee that she was sure could be used as an industrial-strength paint stripper. Malin had finally pulled into the garage in her broad-shouldered Volvo SUV, but the driver had inevitably been detained by a secretary on her way over to the ambulances.

Marco Bocamante had showed up as well, and he looked like he needed to have a word or two, or three, with Malin before they could go anywhere. DeeDee decided to pre-empt that by speaking to the chief mechanic herself about the choice of vehicles. "Good afternoon, Marco," she said, putting out her hand in the traditional gesture.

"Good afternoon," Marco said. After wiping his hands on a filthy rag that he proceeded to shove into a pocket of his dark-blue boiler suit - that glistened with grease-stains as it invariably did - he offered the taller woman a good handshake.

"What can you offer us today?"

"The oh-one is ready if you want it. It's fully gassed, serviced, cleaned and ready to go," the mechanic said, pointing over his shoulder at the aforementioned unit. "It suffered a puncture last night on one of the rear wheels, but it was from running over a bent nail and not a failure in the rim or the tire itself. The nail was still embedded in it… we put it in our souvenir box."

"Oh… okay," DeeDee said, looking down at the wheels. She had very little interest in the mechanical aspects of the fleet of ambulances - all she knew about the wheels and tires was that they were black, round and carried shiny hubcaps.

Malin was finally able to tear herself away from the secretary who had wanted her signature on seemingly two dozen requisition sheets or similar paperwork, and she bounded over to DeeDee and Marco with her hair going one way and her arms the other. She wore regular street clothes in the shape of white tennis shoes, black jeans and a steel-gray shirt where the sleeves had been rolled up to her elbows to flaunt her strong arms. "Hiya, Marco! White! This is your big day, huh? You gotta be hella excited, girl!" she said, slapping her riding nurse across the gut.

"Oooof! Ugh… hi, Malin… excited?" DeeDee said, grimacing at not only the slap but at her driver's words as well - she could only repeat what she had told her mother: "I'm not excited. I'm terrified about the whole, darn thing."

"Awwww, there's no need to be. The old man can be a tough son-of-a-mule at times, but he always does what's best for the company," Malin said as she hooked her thumbs into the belt loops of her black jeans.

"Yeah…" DeeDee said, scratching her neck, "that's what I'm afraid of. That he'll say the company is better off without me. Or something like that."

"Naw. Never gonna happen. Never," Malin said before she dug out her telephone to check the time. "sh*t, I'm late! I need to take a whiz first, and… uh… get changed, obviously. Marco, you look like you want a word with me?"

"That's right, Red. There's an electronic issue with the one-six unit that we need to discuss," the chief mechanic said, finding his notepad that he flipped open to a specific page that already had plenty of pencil notes on it.

"Walk with me down to the lockers, okay?" Malin said and took off toward the frosted-glass swinging doors until it seemed to strike her that DeeDee was there as well. She spun around and pointed an index finger at her riding nurse. "White, uh… don't go anywhere. I'll only be two or three minutes. Maybe five. Which one's ours today?"

"This one. The oh-one," DeeDee said, pointing at the ambulance behind them.

"All right. Do you need anything from the staff restaurant?"

DeeDee shook her head as she held up the paper bag with her thermos and her sandwiches. "No, thank you."

"Okie-dokie. Be right back," Malin said as she took off toward the frosted swinging doors to the connecting corridor at a medium-speed jog. Marco went after her at a more regular pace - and it all left DeeDee alone by the GMC Savana.

Chuckling at how her driver had just gone through a list of all her stock traits without even knowing it, she moved over to the passenger door of the oh-one unit and got ready to carry out her personal pre-shift inspection list.

-*-*-*-

DeeDee gave the oh-one unit a world-class inspection from the chrome bumper at the front to the aluminum running board at the rear doors. She checked the grille and the fog lights installed there that doubled as wig-wags when the warning lights were on; she ran her fingers across the odd-looking sticker on the hood where the word 'Ambulance' had been mirrored so other drivers could read it the right way around in their rear-view mirrors. She stepped up onto the running board at the passenger side door to take a good look at the chromed air horns for the Trombones Of Doom that were installed on top of the cab's roof, and she took a good, close look at all the red, white and amber strobe lights and LED panels that had been installed everywhere on the boxy rear compartment.

Continuing her slow exploration of the large vehicle, she went through a strict regime of opening and closing all the external hatches, panels and doors to make sure the click-locks all worked so there would be no time lost fumbling with them during an emergency. As she returned to the access door on the right-hand side, she stepped up into the ambulance and checked the state of the biohazard wastebin - it was empty like she knew it would be.

Everything seemed to be in top condition inside the oh-one unit's rear compartment. She had expected nothing less of the expert cleaning crews, but it was always a comfort to have it confirmed since a patient's life could depend on it. The lid for the bench seat could be operated easily, and the semi-automated external defibrillator, the neckbraces and the other items stored down there were clean and laid out in good order.

The gurney with the familiar bright-orange mattress and the white headrest was secure on the smooth floor, fully locked in place into the V-shaped contraption at the top-end and the aluminum bar down at the foot-end. All the switches that operated the dome lights, the trauma lights and the air-conditioning fans worked, and the two rapid response kits were lined up by the rear doors so they were ready to be flung over a shoulder and put to use at any kind of assignment. The spare oxygen tanks and the fire extinguisher by the rear doors carried labels that said they had recently been inspected and approved by the Greater Carlyle Fire Department.

Moving over to the many shelves, panels and drawers inside the ambulance, DeeDee opened and shut each of them in turn to make sure they all moved easily and that they were all fully stocked. Packs of absorbent cotton cloth, penlights, stethoscopes, medical gloves, various bottles and boxes of medicine and a hundred other things - it was all there, and all in good order.

The soon-to-be compulsory CCTV system had been installed in the oh-one unit as the development phase had moved into a practical stage, and the black lens that gave the advanced electronic system the ability to see what went on in the rear had been put in the upper-left corner of the ambulance. A small, green LED underneath the lens flashed on and off which seemed to indicate that it had already been turned on; DeeDee had no idea if it meant she was being filmed, or even if the recordings were stored somewhere in the ambulance or transmitted electronically to the computers at the base.

She concluded her inspection tour by opening the narrow locker by the rear doors, taking out the inventory sheet and reading it thoroughly. Once all had been gone through and approved, she still found herself without a driver - and her grinding jaw proved that it irked her. After putting the inventory sheet back into the locker, she ducked through the cutout and sat down on the passenger seat. A brief glance at the clock mounted on the dashboard proved that Malin was not just late getting back from using the restroom and changing into her uniform, she was hopelessly late.

---

The minutes continued to tick away. Two minutes became four, then eight, then twelve. By now, DeeDee rubbed her brow repeatedly while she let out a constant stream of grumbles and groans at the inherent tardiness of her driver. She had a strong suspicion that if anyone else among Pettersson's roster of drivers or riding nurses showed the same kind of carelessness toward their shifts, Rickard Pettersson would throw them from the job so fast they would bounce down Forty-fourth Street on their backsides.

Becoming frustrated with Malin and the world at large would not solve anything, so instead of making her blood pressure peak at dangerous readings, she pulled out the storage box from under the seat and found the true crime paperback she had started reading the day before. Though it was a recent release that covered real events, it was written in a style reminiscent of the old pulp novels. The language and style took some getting used to, but the unfolding story of crime, greed and old hatred was so riveting she was willing to accept a fair amount of quirkiness.

She had just opened the paperback to the folded-up napkin she used as a bookmark when she happened to glance up at the silhouette door down at the other end of the rectangular working area. A young man stepped inside dragging a bicycle. While DeeDee observed him, he reached into a pocket of his dark-blue down vest to find a piece of paper that he read several times. Each time he had finished reading it, he looked around the concrete-gray garage. It was like he was supposed to be there, but unsure where 'there' actually was.

DeeDee could not help but get a strong flashback to her own debut among the drab walls of the garage belonging to Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services. Then, she had only gone through the silhouette door because she had been unable to find anywhere to park her mountain bike. Chances were the young man had followed the same course of action for the same reason. Chuckling, she put the paperback away and stepped out of the ambulance.

She strolled down toward the young man who had never moved from the disused office just inside the rolling door - he kept waiting by the round speaking hole in the large pane like he expected someone to show up and tell him where to go. A backpack not unlike DeeDee's had been placed by his feet.

"Hello!" DeeDee said, waving at the man when she was close enough. His response was to dig into the pocket of his down vest to get the piece of paper again. "I'm DeeDee White. You look like you could use some help… but you won't get any there. The office isn't used."

"Oh… that's confusing. Uh… yes. Hello, I'm Edward Nicholson. I'm here for the job interview for the vacant position in the cleaning staff," the young man said, staring down at the paper before he looked up at DeeDee's tall frame. He was in his early-twenties with an athletic physique and a youthful, somewhat angular face that was home to a pair of pale-brown eyes. His hair - that matched the color of his eyes - was heavily gelled and slicked back into a stylish 'do. In addition to the pale-blue down vest, he wore blue Adidas track shoes, dark cotton jeans and a red-and-black sweatshirt that sported the logo of the Redmonton Lumberjacks, the college football team from one of the cities in the vast forest district north-east of Carlyle. "Are you the one who's-"

"No, I'm one of the riding nurses. You need to go next door and talk to a secretary on the administrative floor. They'll know the details."

Edward scratched his ear as he looked down at his bicycle. Unlike DeeDee's sturdy mountain bike that could take a lot of punishment off-roading without being the worse for wear, it was a slender-framed racer with narrow, aerodynamic wheels and drop handlebars that were really only good for high-speed use.

"I know," DeeDee continued with a chuckle, "there's no room to park your bike next door. Don't worry, we have plenty of room in here as you can see. I keep my mountain bike here all night while I'm working, and there's never been any problems. Do you have a chain lock for it?"

"Yes," Edward said, nudging his foot against his backpack that sent out a metallic rattle as its only reply.

"Good. Just come with me… I'll show you a good place to park it while you're here. Do you have an appointment with Mr. Pettersson for the job interview?"

"That's right. Mr. Pettersson and a Mrs… uh, de Santos," Edward said as he once more looked at the piece of paper to get the right name.

"Mrs. de Santos is the head of the cleaning staff," DeeDee said with a smile.

"Oh… okay. I read online that Pettersson's Ambulance Services can always use new people so I sent in a job application. I guess they liked what I had to offer," the young man said as he began to pull his racer across the smooth concrete deck.

"Mmmm. The cleaning crews do an important job in keeping the ambulances up to snuff, so that wouldn't be a bad job if you can get it. Are you still attending college?" DeeDee said, pointing at the sweatshirt.

"No, I graduated from Redmonton U this summer. I moved to Carlyle earlier in the month. It's really expensive to live here compared to, uh… back home. I need a little cash-infusion so I don't have to pester the old folks all the time."

A knowing chuckle escaped DeeDee. "Oh, I know that story too well. Oatmeal or spaghetti and ketchup all through the last week of the month, right?"

"Yeah," Edward said with a smile.

"Okay, here's the spot," DeeDee continued, pointing at the concrete floor and the next rusty eye down the line from where her own mountain bike was waiting.

"Oh… and it's safe to keep my bike here? That thing looks kinda rusty…"

"Well, it is rusty, but I've never had a problem."

Shrugging, Edward swung his backpack off his shoulders before he unzipped it and found a chain lock of the same brand that DeeDee had used for years. "So… where do I go from here?" he said as he crouched down to secure the racing bicycle's spindly front wheel.

"Through those doors over there," DeeDee said, pointing at the frosted-glass swinging doors with the metal handles that led to the corridor. "You'll get to the tall building next door. Follow the signs that say 'administration' and you'll soon find a secretary who can help you get on from there."

"Thank you very much," Edward said and put out his hand.

DeeDee shook it with a grin. "Oh, you're very welcome. And I'm crossing my fingers for you. Pettersson's is a pretty interesting place to work, that's a fact. There's always, and I do mean always, something going on."

They exchanged a few smiles before Edward Nicholson pulled his backpack over his shoulder once more and walked off toward the swinging doors. Once he had gone through them, DeeDee chuckled and strolled back to the oh-one unit and her paperback.

---

Malin was yet to show her face in the garage, so DeeDee had made it seventeen pages further into her true crime 'factual' when the silence was rudely broken by the radio springing to life. She had been so immersed in the story of the high-profile female member of a family crime syndicate and all her clashes with a gang of carjackers in one of the biggest cities on the eastern seaboard that she jumped a foot up from the seat and nearly dropped the paperback.

'All units, all units, dispatch. All units, all units, dispatch. This is a multi-unit call. Repeat, this is a multi-unit call. We have received an urgent request from the Carlyle Major Incident Command Center to engage all available units to assist g-c-f-d on a code niner-five-oh at two-niner East Twelfth Street. Request confirmed by city police. Multiple popas. All available units, please acknowledge scramble request, over.'

"Aw, sh*t! Malin, you picked the wrong damn moment to take a twenty-minute whiz!" DeeDee barked into thin air as an ice cold trickle raced up and down her spine at the thought of what such a call could possibly cover. While all the various units that were already out there patrolling the streets of Carlyle began to call in to acknowledge the multi-unit request, she leaned forward to stare at the swinging doors - but even her expectant, then impatient, then flat-out angry glare could not conjure up Malin Pettersson.

Though DeeDee had not yet learned all the details of the assignment - or indeed the countless, difficult assignment codes - it did not take a professor to work out it had to be something large-scale with the Carlyle Major Incident Command Center involved. Something needed to be done, and quickly, so she grabbed the radio mic off the little hook and pressed the key like she had seen Malin do numerous times: "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Uh… can you hear- I mean, do you copy?'

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead.'

"Uh… ten-roger on the urgent niner-five-uh… one at two-niner Twelfth Stre- make that East Twelfth Street," DeeDee said, wracking her brains to remember all the peculiar radio codes she had heard Malin say over the past two weeks. "ETA unknown at this point. Engaging, uh… very soon.'

A brief pause followed before the radio crackled to life again: 'Unit oh-one, dispatch. You must adhere to strict radio procedures,' the dispatcher said in a somewhat annoyed tone of voice.

Grunting, DeeDee moved the radio mic away from her mouth. "Yeah, right," she grumbled as she cast a dark, sideways glance at the empty driver's seat next to her. Before she could resume talking to the surly dispatcher, the swinging doors to the corridor were flung open and Malin, Ken 'Curly' Hutchins, Raymond 'Uncle Fester' Vinh and two other EMTs came racing through headed for the ambulances.

DeeDee let out a deep sigh of relief at the sight of the fiery driver hustling across the concrete deck; after putting the radio mic back onto the hook, she reached over and twisted the ignition key so the turbo diesel would already be running by the time Malin would jump behind the wheel.

The driver did exactly that, and in world record time. Only a few moments went by before she slammed the column-mounted shifter into drive - she had not even closed the door fully behind her as the ambulance began to roll.

"Oh, hello there!" DeeDee said in an overly saccharine voice as she grabbed her seat belt to buckle up. "So nice of you to finally drop by! Were you trying to set a new world record for the longest possible restroom-break?"

Trickling across the smooth concrete floor, Malin already had her finger on the remote that controlled the sliding door. While she clicked it, she let out a sound that was a cross between a snort and a laugh. "Let me tell you something, White… you've definitely been takin' a few lessons in applied sarcasm 'cos that was a good one. No, I ran into Curly and Fester and we sorta went up to the staff restaurant for a chat and stuff… then the call came on the P.A."

"Uh-huh?"

"Did ya respond to it?"

"I tried, but I couldn't get the codes right so the dispatch sort of got snippy with me and cut me off…"

"Now ain't that rude? We better let 'em know we're rolling," Malin said and snatched the radio mic. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Responding to the code niner-five-oh. Engaging now. Out."

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. Acknowledged. Be advised, multiple units are already en route. Out,' the dry voice said over the radio.

An annoyed grimace briefly flashed across DeeDee's face; she had said pretty much what Malin did and yet she had been shot down in flames - she really had to learn the codes a little better. "So… what's going on, anyway? What's a code niner-five-oh?"

"A fire with subsequent structural damage. And if Major Incidents is in on it, it's gotta be a big-ass one."

"Oh… okay. And so g-c-f-d is…?"

"Greater Carlyle Fire-"

"-Department. I get it now."

"Yeah. East Twelfth Street… Skid Row. That's bad news right there, White. Assignments on Skid Row always end up being a pain in the ass… and that's experience talking," Malin said as she mashed a finger onto the remote's button several times in rapid succession to get the painfully slow door to roll up faster. "There's so much anger and despair down there even on good days… and those people never seem to have good days. Mental cases… drug addicts… gangb*ngers… the cream of the crop, huh?"

DeeDee scrunched up her face. This was one of those instances where she disagreed strongly with Malin's views of the world, and she debated with herself for a second or two if she should let it go or not. She arrived at the conclusion that she needed to make her own opinion known: "I know there are certain problems down there, but I'm pretty sure the majority of people living on those streets are much like the rest of the residents of Carlyle, Malin."

"Mmmm-yes and no. Let's talk about that later," Malin said as she squeezed her index finger down onto the remote again to get it to do the job it was designed for.

The garishly-painted sliding door finally rolled up in front of them to reveal the typical rush-hour view: family cars, SUVs, delivery vans, taxi cabs and pickup trucks were jammed-up in all lanes as far as the eye would see. DeeDee shook her head and let out a long sigh. "Dammit, look at that mess out there!"

"It doesn't matter today," Malin said and turned on the warning lights and the electronic sirens even before they had exited the garage. "When we're working directly under the CARMICC, we're allowed to use the sidewalks or anything else that's straight and empty to get to the assignment."

"Wow… really?"

"Yup. Watch this," Malin continued, not even bothering to swing out into the heavy, congested traffic. Instead, she turned hard right and drove along the wide sidewalk at a speed that kicked up plumes of dark-gray street dust in their wake. Although she never drove faster than twenty-five miles per hour to avoid endangering any pedestrians, she used the Trombones of Doom several times on their way up to the first intersection to literally clear the street.

-*-*-*-

The petrified look upon DeeDee's face said it all. Not only were her lips pulled back in a worried grimace, her wide, nearly unblinking eyes stared straight ahead onto the approaching traffic. On top of that, she had both hands on the locked seat belt that she gripped so hard it had become crumpled-up between her strong fingers. The only things on her that moved were the pulse point on the side of her neck that seemed to thump along at great speed, her hair that shook as the ambulance hit the ubiquitous potholes, and her throat that moved up and down as she repeatedly swallowed the lumps of worry that continued to bubble up inside her.

The reason for DeeDee's frozen state was easy to explain: To her left, Malin had her boot so deeply depressed onto the ambulance's gas pedal that she had the heavy vehicle blasting down Carlyle's congested streets at nearly sixty-five miles per hour. Because of the heavy traffic, she swerved in and out of the various lanes whenever a large-enough gap presented itself to them. One moment, she was in the inner lane; the next, she crossed over the middle lane to hit the one on the outside. Then back to the middle. Another moment later saw her hugging the curb near the sidewalk before she swerved once more to access the middle lane. Then back to the curb to get around a stretch limousine whose driver could not be bothered to adhere to the sirens; then across two lanes in order to clear a delivery van that had double-parked.

DeeDee could deal with all that to a certain degree, but what really made her tense up to one notch below an all-out coronary was when Malin swerved out of the southbound lanes to use the northbound lanes so they could get to East Twelfth Street faster. Though they used every single electronic siren installed on the GMC - which created a disharmonic concert of brain-shattering quality and proportions - and Malin used the Trombones of Doom more than she had in the past two weeks combined, the risk of meeting an oncoming driver who paid closer attention to the radio or the telephone than the street they drove on was huge.

They and two other units from Pettersson's were racing southbound on Sunderland to get to the assignment hot spot on East Twelfth Street; DeeDee could not help but cast a sorrowful glance at the liquor store that occupied the corner of East Seventeenth Street - that was where she had tried so hard to save the life of the young woman involved in the hit-and-run.

Like Malin had predicted, the city police had never been able to catch the driver responsible for the crime though several of the local news stations had run the story for most of two days. The fact that none of the eye witnesses had been able to catch even the tiniest glimpse of the person behind the steering wheel made it impossible to release an artist's rendering of the individual - perhaps it could have persuaded him to come forward on his own.

"Goddammit, this traffic just gets on my last nerve! Look at that bonehead right there in that Goddamned bus!" Malin barked as she had to take evasive action to clear one of the lumbering buses from Carlyle's public transportation system. As they blasted past, the bus driver even honked and shook his fist out of the window like he was the innocent victim in the matter. "Why dontcha eat my brown shorts, ya dumb piece of-" Malin barked before the heavy traffic needed her undivided attention once more.

DeeDee just smirked at the comment that was so typical of the fiery Malin. Craning her neck, she could see in the side mirror that their two colleagues were still keeping up with them. It was impossible to say if the two EMTs known as 'Curly' and 'Uncle Fester' were in the first or the second of the two ambulances behind them, but it was pretty much irrelevant since they all appeared to have fairly equal skills behind the wheel.

"Oh, fer Chrissakes!" Malin suddenly barked, standing on the brake pedal which made the heavy ambulance lean forward so much that DeeDee was pressed up against her seat belt.

The cause for the heavy braking was soon revealed in the shape of a white-and-pale-blue cruiser from the city police blocking off a stretch of Sunderland after a fender-bender involving a taxi cab and one of the ubiquitous white delivery vans. The van was double-parked in the inner lane, and the driver's side door had been ripped clean off by the taxi cab - it offered a hint that the driver of the van had perhaps simply flung it open to jump out instead of actually waiting for a gap.

The dynamics behind the accident were of insignificance compared to the sea of red brake and taillights that filled up every lane of Sunderland ahead of Malin and DeeDee's oh-one unit. Within moments, the street ahead had been fully jammed up across from the accident - everybody rolled down their windows to gawk, point and take pictures of the destruction.

Worse, the speeding ambulance was trapped on the wrong side of the southbound traffic so Malin had no chance of crossing through it to get to the sidewalk. "Damn, damn, damn!" she growled, craning her neck to look at the connecting street they had almost reached. "White, does that thing there say East Fourteenth Street?" she said, pointing at the street sign.

"Yes! But we're supposed to be at-"

"I know a shortcut," Malin said, spinning the GMC's steering wheel left to blast down East Fourteenth Street. That it happened to be a one-way street that ran in the opposite direction was of no great concern to her.

It certainly bothered DeeDee whose voice went into the highest register - and in fact nearly broke - when a man on a motorcycle appeared right in front of them. For a split second, the two people locked equally wide eyes through the windshield and the visor on the helmet. The rider and his off-road KTM had to take urgent evasive action and dive between two parked cars to get out of the way of the speeding ambulances, but they all managed to stay in one piece.

DeeDee only had time to let out a croaked "Oh, Gaaawwwd…" before she had to grip the seat belt again as Malin took an ultra-fast right onto an even narrower alley that ran parallel to Sunderland.

Unlike the alleys in Carlyle's nicer neighborhoods - and even those populated by the hard-working blue-collar folks - everything was filthy, neglected and vandalized as they drove across the northern boundary of Skid Row. Not a single wall had been allowed to escape having graffiti smeared all over it; not a single street lamp had been allowed to keep its dome light; not a single piece of grass or shrubbery had been allowed to remain free of litter. Overturned shopping carts lined the alley next to torn cardboard boxes, stripped wrecks of old cars, and dumpsters that were all filled up beyond capacity since the city's garbage collectors refused to work in that area without police protection. Dozens if not hundreds of week-old waste bags had been piled up on the street next to the dumpsters; it created a brain-numbing stench only found on large-scale garbage dumps.

"J-F-C… wouldya look at this Goddamned cesspool…" Malin growled as she reached over to switch off the electronic sirens. The warning lights were kept on just to be on the safe side in case they ran afoul of someone with a short temper and an itchy trigger finger. Once a modicum of peace had been restored, they were able to hear countless other sirens not too far from their present location. "How the hell can anyone live like this? I mean, look at all this crap…" she continued, tapping her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel as they drove down the alley at twenty miles per hour so she could avoid the worst trash or sharp, pointy objects.

"Well… maybe they don't have a choice."

"Everyone always has a choice. Always," Malin said, speaking with such finality that DeeDee saw no point in even opening her mouth to counter the statement.

---

The hellish view that presented itself to the two women once they got nearer to their destination at East Twelfth Street took their collective breaths away: at the far end of the narrow alley, a vast plume of evil-looking black smoke billowed into the air. Swirling columns of deep-orange and bright-yellow embers filled out the plume from the inside, seemingly locked in mortal combat to be the dominant member of the inferno. Now and then, an orange sheen played across the blackness when a propane cylinder or something similar detonated. Though it was still only late afternoon, the heavy smoke created by the fire blocked out the sun and left everything bathed in an eerie, dusk-like hue.

Many of the streets making up the district colloquially known as Skid Row - and toward the real downtown further south on Sunderland - were lined by old and decrepit multi-storey brownstones that had purposely been ignored for decades when it came to even the most basic of maintenance. The greedy owners had employed equally greedy landlords who made sure that only the bare minimum of work was carried out, and only when the fire prevention inspectors or the case workers of the city's welfare services threatened to report them to the police.

The unemployment rate of the people living on Skid Row usually came in at ninety-five to ninety-seven percent, and even during the best months where the call for unskilled day laborers or shopping-bag fillers at supermarkets was at its peak, it never fell below ninety percent. That meant that the sole income for a vast number of the tenants was their welfare check - and that fact was exploited by the greedy owners who had no qualms about increasing the rent month after month since the city coffers paid for a good portion of it.

All those negative headlines from various newspaper articles and special exposé programs on TV flashed through DeeDee's mind as she stared out of the windshield at the shocking view ahead of them: A large section of one of the old brownstones had collapsed. Nearly a quarter of the building had been reduced to nothing but a gigantic pile of soot-stained rubble.

Bathrooms, bedrooms and living rooms had been ripped in half and were literally teetering on the edge of the abyss in the adjacent section of the apartment complex that was still standing. Wild blazes raged in several spots among the ruins despite the best efforts of the Greater Carlyle Fire Department who had wheeled out their largest ladders and fire engines to combat the inferno. A burst water mains sent a white cascade straight up into the air; it fell down like a hazy fountain that hissed and sizzled as it hit the fires and the hot bricks - but even that was not enough to quell the flames.

Scores of pigeons fluttered around near the halved attic in a state of abject confusion following the loss of their regular nesting spots, and fat rats zipped across the rubble to get away from the heat and the water. Packs of wild cats exploited the free smorgasbord to the fullest by chasing down and killing the escaping rats left, right and center.

Malin continued to drive down the connecting alley at low speed until they reached East Twelfth Street. It proved to be awash in official vehicles from the fire department, the police, several branches of the city administration, the water company, the gas company, the department of electricity, and even the sewer contractors who had brought a pair of huge sewage tankers in case they were needed - at present, the large trucks were just in the way.

To compound the chaos and confusion, many of the privately-run ambulance services in all of Greater Carlyle were present: Beyond half a dozen orange-and-white GMC Savanas belonging to Pettersson's, a handful of Chevrolet Express' from Sklar & Bonney that carried their regular colors of fluorescent-green with yellow chevrons were lined up next to a few large Ford Transit vans from the Harry Barton Fire Rescue Service - the latter was an ambulance company that had specialized in working in the vast industrial zone to the north-west of the sprawling metropole. The high-topped Fords were held in a bright red and carried silver lettering on the flanks; the windows at the rear and on the sides were covered in what appeared to be tin foil.

"Hell, even the burn units are here. The good, old barbecue buses. Betcha they'll be busy today," Malin said somberly as she spun the steering wheel so she could cross over the insanely busy street. Rolling down the window, she stuck out her arm to wave her two colleagues past her so they could find suitable spots to park on their own. The monster-like roar of the blaze that rolled over the two women was a chilling reminder of the destructive forces at work.

Off to the side of the confounding mess of warning lights and brightly-colored ambulances and fire trucks, a converted full-size recreational vehicle with blacked-out windows had claimed an entire section of East Twelfth Street for itself. It carried markings identifying it as the Carlyle Major Incident Command Center, Unit #1 . Dozens of men and women in bright-yellow, reflective vests and matching clothing ran to and fro, connecting the CARMICC base with the roving fire chief and the stationary Police Incident Command Post.

"I have never, ever seen anything like it…" DeeDee croaked as she tried to take in the scenes of anthill-like activity that played out right next to what had to be one of the biggest disasters the city had seen in years.

"Me neither," Malin said, wiping her damp brow on her sleeve. "All right. Let's go talk to the big wigs to find out what's shaking. We better bring the portable radios," she continued as she got up from the seat and ducked through the cutout. A moment later, she returned with a pair of walkie-talkies.

Taking one of them, DeeDee turned it on at once to listen to the constant, squawking babble of messages that flew back and forth between all the units present. "Thanks. How can we get in touch with each other if we get separated?"

"Uh… the call sign," Malin said, whipping her heavy-duty jacket off the backrest and putting it on at once. "Unit oh-one. Perhaps say PAS oh-one. It oughtta do it 'cos I can't imagine anyone else will use that."

"Okay. Sounds logical," DeeDee said and opened the passenger-side door. Stepping onto the running board, she took her jacket as well and stuck her arms down the sleeves.

Just as they moved away from the GMC Savana, they were joined by an additional ambulance from Pettersson's Ambulance Services. While they carried on toward the CARMICC command post to get the latest news updates, DeeDee found time to wave at the late arrival who turned out to be Spencer Bradshaw and his regular riding nurse, Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro.

---

Soon, no less than eleven EMT crews from all the privately-run ambulance service providers were lined up at a cordoned-off area in front of the CARMICC R-V. Everyone wore their heavy-duty protective gear, and everyone shared the same, grim expression - there would be no juvenile trash-talking on this assignment.

In addition to DeeDee and Malin, Pettersson's Ambulance Services was represented by seven other vehicles at the disaster - among them, Spencer and Maria who had arrived in the oh-eight unit, Ken 'Curly' Hutchins' one-two that he shared with Raymond 'Uncle Fester' Vinh, and the third vehicle that had arrived behind Malin's oh-one: the oh-five unit crewed by the poetically named 'Lamb Chops' and 'Cranky Jack' - the latter did indeed look like his favorite pastime was to suck on lemons. Sklar & Bonney had another three units there with more arriving by the minute, the Methodist Hospital had sent a pair of their own patient transport vehicles though they were not equipped with lights or sirens, and the Harry Barton Fire Rescue Service formed the final two with their burn units.

The stench created by the fire was overwhelming and made everyone present grimace. The black smoke that continued to billow into the air sent out reams of foul-smelling soot from the smoldering woodwork inside the collapsed brownstone. Dust that had been kicked up when the floors had tumbled down was only just settling again; it tickled everyone's noses. The burning bricks, discolored from being exposed to airborne pollution for decades, added another layer of unpleasantness to the mix, and the bathroom plumbing and soil stacks that had suddenly become open sewers did not help. Beyond all that, a tell-tale, sickening scent of roasting flesh made the experienced EMTs there assume even grimmer expressions.

The roaring blaze let out a series of crackles and pops each time it found something new and undamaged to devour. Window panes continued to crack from the heat; they fell onto the rubble or the street below and were smashed into a thousand pieces that sent dangerous shards flying everywhere. More emergency vehicles arrived at the scene, and the sound created by their electronic sirens bounced around between the seven-storey brownstones until the drivers realized there was no point in having them turned on.

DeeDee suddenly realized that all that was missing from the hellish environment was the one thing she had expected to be there: desperate cries for help. Crying residents screaming for someone to come and help them free of the rubble, or down from apartments that had suddenly been cut in half. None of that was present; in fact, East Twelfth Street seemed weirdly devoid of life. Although there were a few scattered spectators standing on the sidewalk across the street, nine people out of ten who were there were involved in the rescue operation. Why that was, she had no idea. Just as she was about to ask the more experienced Malin about the peculiar lack of residents, the fire chief and several assistants stepped into the cordoned-off area to begin the briefing.

"All right. Listen up!" the fire chief said as she wiped her sweaty face on a handkerchief. Like all the firefighters present, the late-forty-something Valerie Mackenzie wore the full, faintly-yellowish turnout gear save for the fireproof gloves and the rig with the oxygen tank on her back - instead, she wore a shiny helmet identifying her as a command person. "Captain Buchanan has been detained, so I'll begin this briefing by laying down the details of the evacuation procedures. As you can see, the ground is unsuitable for your gurneys. Therefore, you'll need to line up your equipment at the foot of the rubble and wait for my fire teams to clear the areas. Once a section has been declared safe, the CARMICC USAR teams will enter and bring down any casualties on old-fashioned stretchers. Those casualties will then be transferred onto your gurneys after which your own procedures will apply. Any questions?"

The assembled ambulance crews all shook their heads or let out various grunts that proved they had understood how they should proceed. Moments later, everyone looked up as the familiar sounds of low-flying helicopters added a new level of madness to the already high-strung situation. The news helicopters all had ball-turret cameras mounted on their landing gears and were busy shooting live pictures for the TV coverage that was most likely already wall-to-wall on all the networks and local stations. Now and then, it appeared they were within inches of getting into each other's rotors, but the pilots always managed to stay out of trouble as they shared the vast sky.

'f*ckin' vultures!' one of the EMTs said out loud; many of the others let out grunts of agreement including Malin who added a: "Damn straight, Cranky Jack!" to her non-verbal support.

Before Chief Mackenzie could leave, Police Captain Dwight Buchanan arrived with his own support staff of people dressed in the city police's familiar pale-blue, short-sleeved shirts that looked completely out of place among all the heavy jackets worn by the firefighters and the EMTs. There were so many official people assembled in one place that it all grew into a three-ring circus for a moment or two before the fire chief withdrew to get back to her teams.

"My name is… I'm sorry, may I have the word now? Thank you," the captain said to a couple of the EMTs who continued to talk loudly among themselves. "Like I said, my name is Captain Dwight Buchanan and I have a few important announcements to make that concerns all of you. In short, pay attention!"

The uniformed man put his hands in the air to restore some quiet to the wild goings-on. Once the EMTs had calmed down, he continued: "First of all, the collapse was caused by an explosion that took place in the basem*nt at exactly twelve minutes past four. That has been confirmed by eye witnesses. We have reason to believe the basem*nt was used as a drugs lab as several residents have reported smelling acetone, ether and other chemical solutions typically used for such a purpose."

A long groan rippled through the crowd of EMTs. DeeDee stared wide-eyed at Malin who did not seem at all pleased that at least some of her prejudices surrounding the people living on Skid Row had been confirmed.

"Therefore," the police captain continued, "do not, and I stress do not touch anything without wearing gloves. Do not touch any surface that appears to be coated in fine dust even wearing gloves. You need to wear masks or other kinds of breathing protection at all times while you are in this area. Masks will be issued by the CARMICC team before you enter the hot zone. Also… not everyone you meet will offer you a friendly welcome. Numerous gangs and drug dealers are known to operate in this area. Some may be so mentally disturbed from the collapse or just in general they will attack you physically or take potshots at you. We do not have enough manpower to cover all EMT teams as you move in, so you need to apply extreme caution when encountering anyone who do not seem to be regular residents. In particular, young black and Latino men wearing black jeans, white, sleeveless t-shirts or undershirts, and brightly colored bandannas are to be avoided like the plague. And that's a direct order for your own safety!"

"Uh-huh," Malin mumbled under her breath as she and her colleagues digested the news; around them, the other EMTs also let out similar grumbles. "Didn't I tell ya, White? A Goddamned cesspool of human waste. gangb*ngers and merchants of white death… buncha psycho freaks the f*ckin' lot of 'em."

DeeDee was unsure of what to say to that so she chose to remain quiet. Instead of speaking, she shuffled around on the spot while her cheeks grew red from sheer discomfort. Like Cranky Jack's comments from earlier, Malin's strong utterance was met with a round of supportive grunts from her colleagues - including those whose skin carried the same colors as the people the police captain had just warned them about.

"Any questions?" Captain Buchanan continued. When he was met by nothing but shaking heads by the assembled EMT crews, he and his team left the area by the CARMICC R-V. One set of uniformed people was replaced by another when the men and women of the Major Incidents Command Center began to walk around the various ambulance crews while handing out masks made of a special type of paper that had been coated in a benign chemical agent designed to stop malignant chemical agents - whether one really was that much better than the other remained to be seen.

Stepping away from the briefings, DeeDee donned her mask at once to be accustomed to it in case she and Malin would ever find themselves caught in a cloud of something she really did not want to be caught in. After tying the loose straps behind her head, she found out that the mask was snug - which was the whole point - but it was less uncomfortable to wear than it looked, and it only took a few adjustments to make it sit just right across her mouth and nose without having it interfere with her eyes. "What a mess… what an unbelievable mess," she said in a voice that was muffled by the unusual headgear. She put her hands akimbo as she stared up at the billowing plume of smoke and the jagged edges of the collapsed brownstone.

Spencer Bradshaw came up to stand next to her to gaze out upon the unfathomable destruction - he had also donned the bright-white, coated mask. As the tall African-American crossed his large arms over his broad chest, his dark mood was reflected in his intelligent eyes that had lost some of their regular luster. "I thought I had seen the last of this when I left FEMA. I know exactly what this is going to be like. It won't be pretty."

DeeDee opened her mouth to reply but came to the realization that all she could add would be empty platitudes. The scenario they were facing was far too grave for that, so she kept quiet. Spencer's blue mood impacted her as well, and she let out a sigh that came from the bottom of her soul. Almost regardless of what they would actually end up being involved in, this particular assignment would require lengthy debriefing sessions afterwards - that was given even before the start. A moment later, she was spared a descent into the gloomy abyss when her walkie-talkie squawked to life down in the pocket of her heavy-duty jacket.

'PAS oh-one, PAS oh-one. White, I need you back at the ambulance ASAP,' Malin's disembodied voice said over the ether.

DeeDee retrieved the walkie-talkie from her jacket pocket and soon clicked the large button labeled Transmit. "PAS oh-one. I read you. I'll be right over. Uh, over."

'Ten-roger, PAS oh-one. The other PAS oh-one out.'

"Say, that's a clever idea," Spencer said as he looked at the portable radio in his colleague's hand. "Why didn't we think of that? I'll get our own walkies. I hope we won't get to use them for anything serious. Stay safe, DeeDee. Please," he continued, reaching out to put a strong hand on the shoulder of DeeDee's heavy jacket.

"Thank you. You too. And please pass it on to Maria as well, okay?" DeeDee replied with a worried smile gracing her features.

---

Back at the row of ambulances that were lined up in order of arrival, DeeDee ran around the rear of the oh-one unit to help Malin with whatever she needed her for. The driver was still up in the rear compartment where she had prepared the gurney and the two rapid response kits. She carried both of the heavy bags over her shoulders which looked odd on her shortish, though wide, frame that was already quite bulky due to the heavy-duty jacket she wore. "Oh, that won't work," DeeDee said and stepped up into the ambulance to get one of the kits. "Let me relieve you of one of those. Have you released the gurney up at the top?"

"Yep," Malin said, waiting for DeeDee to slide the locking bar at the foot-end into its 'open' position. Once the gurney had been released, they pushed it out of the restraints and onto the street. After extending the spindly legs and locking them in place, they went ahead into the difficult task of navigating the obstacle course that had once been East Twelfth Street. The paved surface now resembled a rock quarry with hundreds upon hundreds of fragments of the bricks that had made up the brownstone littering every inch of the way over to the makeshift staging area.

Unlike DeeDee and Spencer, Malin did not wear her mask in place over her mouth and nose; she had pushed it down under her chin instead. When she realized that DeeDee was looking at her with a worried expression on her face, she let out a low growl. "I know, I know. The damn mask hinders my breathing. That chemical sh*t it's been coated in… Agent Orange or whatever… gives me a headache within seconds. I need more oxygen than what the damn coating can give me. If I don't have a clear head, I can't do the job I was sent here to do."

"But what if-"

"I'll obviously pull up the rotten thing if we're exposed to smoke or dust or what-the-f*ck-ever," Malin said, yanking the heavy rapid response kit further up her shoulder after it had threatened to slip down.

"That might be too late…"

Malin let out another annoyed grunt as the gurney bounced around from hitting a large fragment of brick that she had failed to spot. She gave the offending item a strong thump with her safety boot as a payback, but the inanimate object seemed completely unaffected by the punishment. "I'm more concerned about being shot at by whacked-out gangb*ngers. Those brain-dead crackheads are insane at the best of times."

"Uh… yeah," DeeDee said, reaching up to scratch her neck - she had a hunch it would be a good idea to let Malin vent a little now so it would not spill over later on when they were helping a survivor.

---

Arriving at the busy staging area that was just as congested as the city's streets always were, DeeDee and Malin added their gurney to the near-endless line of similar gurneys that were already there. EMT crews from all of Carlyle's privately-run ambulance services stood shoulder by shoulder waiting for the CARMICC USAR - urban search-and-rescue - teams to bring down the first casualties.

The fire department had only just allowed the first such team to venture up into the vast piles of rubble carrying their old-fashioned stretchers, strong lights and highly advanced audio equipment that could be entered into the caverns created by the collapse to listen for survivors.

Other CARMICC units using sniffer dogs trained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency patrolled a short distance ahead of the USAR teams to find victims trapped under the rubble. Now and then, they marked a spot where the dogs had picked up a scent.

Malin's reluctance to wear her coated mask had to be pushed aside when the wind changed direction and sent a foul-smelling plume of gray smoke down toward the waiting EMTs. Growling, she yanked up the mask and adjusted it to sit just right across her mouth and nose. The muffled sounds she let out made it quite clear she was far from having the best day ever.

DeeDee noticed that Spencer and Maria were ahead of them in the line. The buff pairing seemed tense but ready to deal with whatever curveballs fate could throw at them; 'Sister Dynamite' could apparently feel DeeDee's eyes on her because she turned around and gave her colleagues a big thumbs-up that was responded to in kind.

When the first CARMICC search-and-rescue teams started appearing from the piles of rubble carrying people on their old-fashioned stretchers, the tension grew exponentially among all the EMT crews. The patients who were brought down to the far safer staging area all suffered from injuries typically found in such scenarios: bleeding puncture wounds and abrasions as well as fractured limbs and other types of crush-inflicted damage. Some patients barely seemed to have been touched by the disaster; others had bleeding head wounds and appeared to be unconscious. One of the CARMICC teams carried down semi-charred human remains on their stretcher - the face and parts of the upper torso had mostly been left untouched by the devastating, all-consuming fire. It had been an Asian woman. The rest of the charred body was unrecognizable as a human being.

DeeDee stared at the gruesome sight for a few seconds before she forced herself to look away. With the first patients already being distributed among the waiting EMT crews, there was no time to freak out. Gulping down a bitter surge that threatened to come closer, she adjusted her gloves, her mask, her gloves once more and finally the rapid response kit she carried over her shoulder to take her mind off the grisly images she had just witnessed.

Even the tiny amount of peace and quiet that had been shared among the EMTs waiting in line was soon swept away. The staging area turned into a beehive of activity involving the urban search-and-rescue teams, patients and ambulance crews that hurriedly wheeled away occupied gurneys while other EMTs entered the area pushing empty ones. An assembly line was formed that made everything quick and efficient. The two burn units from the Harry Barton Fire Rescue Service soon left after receiving no less than four members of the same family who were all suffering from burns of varying severity.

It did not take long before Spencer and Maria were pressed into action. They were handed an elderly African-American man in tattered clothes; the white-haired, white-bearded seventy-something fellow had a visibly fractured left shoulder, abrasions on the left side of his chin and multiple lacerations across his upper chest. He was unconscious, so 'Sister Dynamite' moved fast to tighten all the gurney's restraining belts around the man's limbs so they could race back to the ambulance without worrying about the patient falling off.

Malin sent her friends a solid look of support as the buff pairing ran past; for a change, she abstained from cracking wise or letting out a grumbled barb about the state of the world.

The hectic activity all around the disaster area meant there was no time for thinking about anything other than doing the job they were expected to do: only moments after Spencer and Maria had run past, the next CARMICC USAR team approached DeeDee and Malin's gurney carrying a teenaged girl on their stretcher. The late-teen, who had a bleeding wound on her right knee and several other cuts and abrasions along her body, was joined by another girl of similar age who clutched a plastic bag to her chest like it contained something of utmost value or importance. The other girl was less injured and was able to walk unassisted, but she had a few bleeding scrapes here and there that needed to be taken care of before they could be contaminated by the dust.

When DeeDee saw the girls' physical appearance, she cast a sideways glance at Malin to gauge the somewhat conservative woman's reaction - the way the driver's jaw was grinding away underneath the mask was answer enough.

Both teenagers wore metal-tipped Doc Martens boots, black skinny jeans that were torn by design, and home-painted t-shirts deliberately held in colors that made it appear someone had been sick all over them. Both were heavily pierced all around their faces, and both wore goth-like, garish makeup that had only grown even more so after being exposed to the dust and the soot that continued to permeate the air around them. To round off the ensemble, the teenager on the stretcher had spiky, flaming-red hair, and the one who could walk under her own steam had a completely shaved head. Instead of hair, the skin on her head, down onto her neck and even on parts of her face saw plenty of tattoos promoting various ultra-left-wing symbols or statements.

DeeDee joined Malin in grinding her jaw when the girl on the stretcher suddenly broke out in a long, manic laugh. She had a hard time figuring out what could be so funny about the whole, tragic mess until it struck her that the teenager had to be so high she could not tell up from down. The clean-shaven girl seemed less under the influence from whatever drug they had taken, but even she was hardly fully present, mentally speaking - and it was more than just shock from being caught in such a disaster.

All that aside, the girl on the stretcher required medical attention so DeeDee and Malin worked together with the CARMICC unit to transfer her to the bright-orange mattress on their gurney. The second girl was meant to be handed over to the next EMT crew - one from Sklar & Bonney - but she let out such a screaming, spit-flying barrage of profanity that made it quite clear she wanted to go with her friend that she was allowed to go with DeeDee and Malin.

Since the trek back across the rock quarry that had previously been known as East Twelfth Street required all hands on the gurney, the facially-tattooed teenager was left to find her own way across. She lagged behind almost at once and was clearly in danger of getting lost on the way over to the ambulances. When DeeDee noticed, she shook her head and upped the pace so she would be able to get back to the other one before she would disappear among the myriad of people there.

Once the gurney was locked in place in the rear compartment of the oh-one unit, Malin started working on the first patient's bleeding knee by mopping up the excess blood with a piece of absorbent cloth. DeeDee used the break to zip back onto the street to recover the second teenager who had indeed wandered off - and in anything but a straight line.

"Hello, Miss. Remember me?" DeeDee said, putting her hands on the wandering teenager's elbow. "I'm DeeDee White from Pettersson's Ambulance Services. Our vehicle is right over here… your friend is already being treated so if you come with me, you will meet her in a-"

"Don't you f*ckin' touch me!" the teenager screeched, yanking her arm free with such force she nearly fell on her rear as the pendulum effect took over. "Nobody f*ckin' touch me, bitch! Ever!"

DeeDee chewed on her lips as she tried to come up with a neutral answer to the aggressive statement. Nothing came to her, so she offered the petulant teen directions to get to the ambulance by simply pointing. It took the girl several tries to climb up into the rear of the GMC despite the presence of the aluminum running board and the support-handles on the doors; once she had made it into the rear compartment, she folded her legs up underneath her and sat down right in the middle of the floor.

"Miss," DeeDee tried, "I'm sorry, but you need to sit on the bench seat so you can be-"

"Nobody f*ckin' tell me where to sit, bitch!" the young woman screeched in an even louder tone of voice.

Malin and DeeDee shared a long, telling look before DeeDee let out a muted sigh and took over the cleaning duties from the driver. Malin remained in the rear compartment instead of going up front like she normally would so she could intervene in case the teenagers found something else they did not care about.

DeeDee let her professional eye survey what she had to do in order to perform a proper, thorough cleaning of the knee wound on the patient with the flaming-red hair. She compiled a quick list in her mind: she needed more absorbent cloth to remove the droplets of blood that continued to seep out, demineralized water to wash away the worst of the dust, a pair of tweezers to remove a few foreign objects that had become lodged in the edges of the wound, a clean set of bandages for afterwards, and - first and foremost - the pair of heavy-duty trauma shears to cut a larger hole in the skinny jeans so she had better access to the wound itself.

The trauma shears came first, and for once, they made no difference whatsoever to how the garment looked before and after she had made the cut. The wound itself was not too bad, all things considered, and she was soon able to get it properly cleaned with the tools she had at her disposal.

DeeDee reached the end of her short to-do list when she applied the clean bandages around the knee wound and attached the skin-friendly adhesive tape that would keep it in place. Stepping back from a job well done, she noticed fresh needle-tracks on the supine teenager's arms. A quick glance at the pouting, bald-headed one sitting cross-legged on the floor confirmed that she too was a shootist - her tracks appeared older, and at least one had the tell-tale green-yellow sheen of infection lurking under the skin.

From her days at the Community Hospital, DeeDee knew that hepatitis A and B and many other transferred diseases were as common as books in a library among intravenous drug users, so she scrunched up her face in disgust beneath the mask, tore off her medical gloves and threw them into the biohazard wastebin at once.

Before she moved down to treat the teenager sitting on the floor, she donned a new pair of gloves so she knew they would be clean. "Miss, you have a scrape on the left side of your head above your ear. It needs to be cleaned so I'm going to-"

"Don't you f*ckin' touch me, bitch! Don't you ever f*ckin' touch me!" the teenager screeched, clutching the plastic bag to her chest. She glared at the two EMTs with wild, aggressive eyes like she was daring either of them to make even the slightest move toward her. "I don't want nobody f*ckin' touch me!"

"Miss-" DeeDee tried, but her attempt of mediating acted as a trigger instead.

From one moment to the next, the bald-headed girl jumped to her feet and began to kick everything in sight with her metal-tipped Doc Martens while screaming obscenities and profanity at the world at large and the two EMTs in general. Her ferocious, drug-influenced temper soon snapped and sent her into orbit. Freaking out like a wild animal caught in a snare, she gave DeeDee such a hard shove backwards that the tall nurse nearly ended up on her rear.

The violent action caused Malin to bolt from the bench seat and point up at the black CCTV lens in the upper-left corner of the ambulance. "Smile, you Goddamned numbskull! You're on Candid f*ckin' Camera!" she barked at the top of her lungs, proving to the teenager that she was not the only one there with a hot temper and a short fuse.

The rampaging teenager stopped her freakish behavior from one heartbeat to the next to stare up at the lens. Her companion on the gurney chose that exact moment to break out in a manic laugh; then the violent girl spun around and tore out of the ambulance like it would erase the video of her that had already been recorded.

"That's why I hate workin' on Skid Row!" Malin roared, jumping down from the ambulance to find an officer from the city police who could at least attempt to apprehend the escaping teenager.

"And I'm beginning to agree with you," DeeDee mumbled, turning back to the other teenager who continued to laugh in such a screeching, most unpleasant manner that it made the experienced nurse's skin crawl. The young woman literally felt no pain, but DeeDee still took a step back in case the manic laughing would turn violent. As she did so, her eye caught a flash of white down on the floor - it proved to be a small bag containing a powdery substance that had most likely come from the plastic bag that the short-tempered teenager had been clutching.

Since DeeDee already wore a pair of gloves as well as her coated mask, she picked up the small bag and gave it a closer look in the harsh light that shone down from the dome lamps in the ceiling. She was no expert on drugs, but she presumed she was looking at a bag of heroin or a similar hard narcotic.

Malin returned at the same moment with a young officer from the city police who was clearly stressed-out from having to do something else than what his immediate superior had ordered him to. "She got away… she was too fast," Malin said to DeeDee as she stepped up into the rear of the ambulance. "Are you okay? That was a pretty nasty shove you got there."

"Oh yeah. No problem," DeeDee said, smiling under the mask until she realized nobody would be able to see it.

Malin crouched down at once to check if the teenager's metal-tipped boots had caused any damage to the panels and various other surfaces of her father's expensive ambulance. When they all appeared in good shape despite the hard punishment dished out at them, she turned back to the police officer: "I don't know what she was on, but she freaked out and started kicking everything. Then she shoved Nurse White in the chest which I'm pretty damn sure is considered an act of assault and battery. We have it all on CCTV. And this one on the gurney here is high as a kite."

"I see," the officer said, jotting down the information on a notepad.

"Actually," DeeDee said, holding up the bag containing the white, powdery substance, "we may have a sample of what she was on right here. She dropped it on her way out." She wanted to hand it to the police officer, but he shook his head as if he did not know what to do with it.

"I'm sorry, Miss," he said, closing the notepad. "I'm on traffic detail and I don't have any way to protect fingerprints or the like. You'll need to hand it over to the detox unit of the hospital you'll be going to with your patient."

"Oh… but-" DeeDee started to say.

"I beg your pardon?!" Malin growled, slamming her gloved hands onto her hips.

The police officer shrugged as he put his notepad back into his shirt's breast pocket. "We have all available units tied up here at the disaster zone. We don't have the resources or the manpower to deal with such matters right now. Sorry," he continued before he tipped his cap at the two EMTs and stepped down from the ambulance.

Malin yanked her mask down and spent the next few moments chewing on her cheek while grumbling under her breath. "Nurse White, I present to you… Carlyle's finest," she finally said in an overly cheery voice that carried a two-inch thick layer of raw sarcasm - it soon faded into her regular voice: "I don't be-f*ckin'-lieve it… tell me, have ya ever had a day where your faith in the system took one hell of a knock?"

"Uh… yeah," DeeDee said, looking at the bag of drugs and then up at the empty doorway where the police officer had been.

Shaking her head, Malin stripped off her gloves, threw them out and made her way up front through the cutout. "Close up. I'll update the dispatch so we can get rid of this damn shooting artist. Someone has to know what the hell to do with her and her f*ckin' dope. Maybe we should just throw her down into the Goddamned sewer!" she said before she sat down on the driver's seat and picked up the radio mic.

-*-*-*-

Half an hour later, they had the full warning lights and sirens going as they raced back toward the East Twelfth Street disaster area from dropping off the stoned teenager at the Methodist Hospital on Thirty-sixth Street. The hospital's detox unit had even agreed to take the bag of drugs and alert the proper authorities once they had analyzed it - that part alone had improved Malin's mood by leaps and bounds.

The clock mounted on the dashboard had moved around to twenty past six which meant the evening rush hour had finally been resolved - or as resolved as it would ever be in the perpetually busy streets of Carlyle. They were going at fifty miles per hour in a thirty-five zone, but the decrease in the traffic around them meant that DeeDee could pour herself a lidful of strong coffee while Malin steered the vehicle through the mean streets. Though the seas were choppy in the lid, her steady hands and the experience she had gained of drinking while driving fast meant she saved every drop from sloshing over the edge.

"Save some for me, huh?" Malin said, eyeing the dark-brown liquid with an eager look in her eyes.

"Will do," DeeDee said as she emptied the lid and screwed it back onto the thermos. Pulling out the storage box underneath the seat, she peeked at the paper bag with her three sandwiches that were being kept cool by the freezer pack. Digging into it blindly to surprise herself, she took out the first sandwich she wrapped her fingers around. It proved to be the one with the creamy walnut-paté. "I don't suppose you want a bite of my paté-sandwich? It's got walnuts and a few other little things as well. Like plenty of black pepper," she said with a grin.

"Ah… no. No thanks," Malin said with a grin.

DeeDee dug into the sandwich at the exact moment the radio squawked to life: 'Unit oh-one, unit oh-one, dispatch. You copy?' a female voice said from the little speaker on the radio transceiver. For once, the dispatcher's voice seemed frazzled from dealing with all the frenetic action that had taken place since the brownstone had collapsed.

Malin picked up the mic and depressed the transmit key. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. We copy."

'Unit oh-one, you are to return to East Twelfth Street at once for a further pickup, over.'

"Dispatch, unit oh-one. Ten-roger on returning to East Twelfth Street. We are already inbound l-a-s responding to earlier request," Malin said into the mic while she gripped the steering wheel with her free hand. "ETA approximately five to eight minutes, over."

'Acknowledged, unit oh-one. Contact dispatch once you have acquired new popa. Dispatch out.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Over and out," Malin said before she hung the radio mic back on the little hook.

DeeDee let out a puzzled grunt after she had finished chewing on her first big bite of the creamy walnut-paté sandwich. "What's l-a-s?"

"Lights and sirens."

"Oh… okay. Makes sense. I really, really need to learn all those weird codes and abbreviations we use," DeeDee said as she took another big bite of the sandwich.

Malin grinned. "They're not so tough to work out once you've used them for a decade…"

DeeDee shot her driver a sideways glance as she finished off the sandwich and wiped her lips on a napkin. "Guess not. Huh, dispatch must be unbelievably busy trying to coordinate everything. You had already called it in that we were ready for a new patient."

"Yeah. I'll bet the old man has been on the horn with the CARMICC people ever since the initial call came," Malin said before she pressed her finger down on the switch controlling the Trombones of Doom as they came up to an intersection. With the constant din of sirens that had rolled through the streets of Carlyle following the large-scale turnout of emergency vehicles of all types, the traffic had become so accustomed to them the shrill sounds had lost some of their effect - the two air horns on the roof of the GMC still worked wonders, however, and were able to clear a street or an intersection within seconds.

'Dispatch, unit oh-eight. Dispatch, unit oh-eight. Do you read?' a familiar male voice suddenly said over the radio - Malin had not had an opportunity to turn down the volume yet.

"Hey, that's Blue… I don't like the sound of his voice. Something's happened," Malin said, furrowing her brow.

'Unit oh-eight, dispatch. Go ahead.'

'Unit oh-eight reporting a code triple niner, repeat, a code triple niner. Cancel medical assistance at St. Mary's. Requesting correct handover procedure, over.'

"Oh no," DeeDee said, letting out a long sigh.

Malin did one better - she smacked her hand down onto the steering wheel while uttering an emphatic "Son of a bitch! It just had to be him… Goddammit!"

While the dispatcher ordered Spencer Bradshaw to drive his oh-eight unit onto the Community Hospital to execute the handover of the deceased patient and then return to the disaster area as soon as possible, DeeDee leaned back in the seat and revisited the scenes of her own experience with a code triple niner.

She had worked hard to save the life of the young Charlene Kincaid that night, but her efforts had been in vain. There was no denying that Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro was made of far sturdier stuff than DeeDee - or even Spencer who was infinitely more sensitive than his tall, powerfully-built frame would allude to - but the acute trauma of losing a patient would leave a mark on the soul of even the toughest of riding nurses.

Nodding solemnly, DeeDee made a promise to herself that she would at least offer Maria a heart-to-heart similar to the one she'd had with Spencer - it had helped her, and she was sure it would help the buff nurse as well.

Malin dealt with it in her own inimitable style - she growled, grunted and grumbled all kinds of imaginative profanity while weaving through traffic on their way back to the collapsed brownstone.

---

DeeDee experienced a bad case of deja vu when she and Malin lowered the gurney onto the asphalt of East Twelfth Street a short ten minutes later. Again they had to wheel the gurney through the rock quarry that nobody could be bothered to sweep away; again they lined up as one ambulance team in an orderly group of countless crews from all the different companies, and again they were about to receive a patient with multiple cuts and lacerations.

As fate would have it, Malin and DeeDee found themselves standing next to two of the driver's favorite trash-talk opponents: Buck, the former Pettersson's employee who had changed to Sklar & Bonney - better known as 'Skull and Bones' - and his male riding nurse. DeeDee's ears were already burning pre-emptively, but the experienced ambulance drivers knew when to continue playing their juvenile game and when not to. The situation they were all stuck in was far too grim and tragic to be used as a backdrop for something that was tasteless at best and downright slanderous at worst. In fact, the two drivers exchanged tired smiles instead of trading barbs and zingers.

As a new wave of CARMICC urban search-and-rescue teams crawled across the rubble carrying their ubiquitous stretchers, Buck and his nurse were the first to receive a further patient; moments later it was Malin and DeeDee's turn. They seemed to have better luck compared to the first time of asking when a mature African-American lady with a fractured left forearm and bleeding lacerations on both legs was left in their care. Much of her dark skin was coated in dust; the blood that seeped through created eerie, crimson tracks along her ankles, calves and lower thighs.

The woman - who was in her late-sixties - wore a forest-green dress and a burnt-orange apron. Both garments had been torn and shredded from the waist down; a single slipper made of dark-gray felt graced her left foot. Flimsy though it appeared, it seemed to have done a good job of protecting her skin since that foot had no lacerations unlike her bare right one that saw blood trickling from several scrapes and puncture wounds.

"Good evening, Ma'am," DeeDee said as she and Malin pushed the gurney carrying their new patient back toward the ambulance. "We are DeeDee and Malin from Pettersson's Ambulance Services, and we'll take good care of you. You have-"

"Pl- please… d- do you know if Violet Butterfield has been rescued… or… or even found?" the mature lady said in a croaking voice. Gripping DeeDee's arm with her uninjured hand, she shot the EMT a concerned look as she was being wheeled across East Twelfth Street. "W- we were in h- her kitchen making s- supper… we do that n- nearly every day… I needed to get s- something fr- from my own kitchen… I l- live d- down the s- street… then it happened… when I got back… the entire house was gone… Vio- Violet was gone… I couldn't find her… I tr- tried, but I fell… fell down… Lord, I hurt my legs… my arm…"

"I'm afraid I don't have that information, Ma'am," DeeDee said with a steady smile to keep up their patient's spirits though she was affected by the sheer desperation in the mature woman's voice. "The search-and-rescue teams have been very busy all afternoon. I'm sure they've recovered your friend."

"Lord, I… I hope so," the mature lady croaked. As she spoke, tears began to streak down the sides of her face creating wet lanes on her dust-covered skin. "We… we've cooked tog- together for years now… we- we make supper for th- those on our floors who- who can't cook…"

DeeDee cast a brief glance at Malin who nodded in return - the driver seemingly understood she had to concede the point that not all residents of Skid Row were lost causes. "Oh, that's a great initiative, Ma'am. Very laudable. All right, hold on tight, we're going to lift you up into the ambulance now," DeeDee said as they swung the gurney around so it lined up with the rear of the oh-one unit.

Working together, the two EMTs carried the gurney into the ambulance and pulled it into place in the V-shaped contraption on the floor. While Malin took care of the aluminum locking bar at the foot-end of the gurney, DeeDee found a large bottle of demineralized water to clean the dust off the mature lady's legs, a stack of absorbent cotton cloth to mop up the droplets of blood at the puncture wounds and lacerations, and a temporary splint to fixate the broken forearm.

"I'll update the dispatch," Malin said after she had closed the rear doors. "My gut tells me they're not gonna send us back to the Methodist… it looked pretty full when we dropped off the stoned one."

"St. Mary's, then?" DeeDee said, squirting water onto the elderly lady's legs to get the worst of the dust off so it would not contaminate the wounds.

Malin shrugged as she ducked through the cutout. "Hope not… but with the luck we've had so far…" she said as she sat down and reached for the radio mic.

Turning back to the patient, DeeDee carried on with the cleaning procedure by dabbing a piece of absorbent cloth on the various cuts and scrapes. The blood was quickly dealt with; none of the lacerations ran deep so stitches were not required. In fact, most were already in the process of closing up on their own after being cleaned, and that was never a given on leg wounds suffered by patients older than fifty. The mature lady was not overweight or had varicose veins which also helped her condition. "Ma'am, your legs are clean and fine once more. I'm going to work on your arm now. I'll be as gentle as I can, but it may hurt."

"A- all right… I'll be q- quiet," the mature lady said, glancing down at her broken arm and then up at the nurse.

DeeDee smiled as she held up a piece of hard plastic. "This is a splint that I will apply to your arm. It'll keep the bones fixed in place until we reach the hospital. Tell you what, I think you'll get an old-fashioned plaster cast that will allow some movement of your fingers for your home-cooking."

The mature woman tried to smile back at the nurse, but it never amounted to much. As DeeDee started working on her arm, she stared straight up at the dome lights in the ceiling. "Oh Lord, I hope Violet has been rescued…" she mumbled.

Up front, Malin fiddled with a few of the knobs to get a better connection with their dispatch - all the radio waves that filled the air near the disaster zone caused far more interference than usual. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Do you read me now?" she said before releasing the key.

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. We read you five by five. Go ahead.'

"Confirming patient in hold. Requesting information on further processing, over."

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. You are to proceed to Community Hospital for drop-off. Then return to disaster area for further popa, over.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Confirm Community, then return to East Twelfth. Engaging now. Unit oh-one out," Malin said before she put the mic back on the little hook. "White, we're going to the Community. Are you all set back there?" she said over her shoulder as she twisted the ignition key. As always, the turbo diesel came to life with a tremble before it settled into a steady hum.

"Not yet, Malin. I don't have the belts done up," DeeDee said, reaching out to open one of the many panels in the back of the ambulance. From it, she took out the spare carry-blanket that she unfolded before she turned to the mature patient. "Ma'am, I need to tighten the restraining belts now so you won't be thrown about when we drive. To protect your injuries, I'll put this blanket across your legs so I can still tighten the belts. I promise I'll be careful so your wounds won't be stressed."

"Th- thank you… I've… I've fallen far enough for one day…"

"You're very welcome. Oh, and we'll be going to the Community Hospital where you'll be in good hands."

"Thank you…" the mature woman croaked before she put her good arm across her eyes to shut out the world.

Working fast and efficiently, DeeDee soon had the carry-blanket and the restraining belts in place. As she took a step back, her eyes performed a quick survey of the mature patient's legs. She had only had time to treat the various injuries superficially by cleaning off the dust, mopping up the worst of the blood and applying a makeshift splint to the fractured arm, but it would have to suffice. Although undoubtedly painful, the patient's injuries were not critical enough to warrant a more thorough treatment in the face of the disaster that continued to produce far worse casualties at an alarming rate.

"We're all set to go back here, Malin," she said as she sat down on the bench seat and pulled the waist-belt around her.

"Ten-roger," Malin said as she pulled the shifter into drive and trickled away from the row of garishly-painted ambulances. They were soon moving past the CARMICC R-V command post that continued to resemble a beehive with plenty of uniformed people running to and fro. "Sunderland was a pain in the you-know-what the last time we were there, so we'll use Beauregard Street to get to the Community. It might be better or it might not, but it sure can't be any worse," she said over her shoulder while she turned the wheel to clear the obstacles. Once she had room to mash the gas, she focused on the driving and took off down East Twelfth Street with the warning lights flashing.

-*-*-*-

Returning to East Twelfth Street at a quarter past seven after dropping off the mature lady at the Community Hospital, Malin needed to steer through a maze of heavy construction equipment that had not been there when they had left.

A pair of bright-yellow bulldozers from Dillon Construction & Demolition were in the process of being offloaded from the back of a low-riding truck trailer. A heavy-duty self-propelled excavator running on caterpillar treads had already been delivered and was parked behind two Mack dump trucks whose vertical exhaust stacks sent out reams of diesel smoke as the engines idled.

Three gigantic mobile cranes took up so much space on the street and around the collapsed building that even the CARMICC R-V command post had needed to be moved a further fifty yards away from the epicenter. The cranes had been extended to their full height and were holding up powerful floodlights that shone down onto the disaster area.

In addition to the heavy equipment, several trailers that carried CARMICC and Greater Carlyle City Administration logos had been wheeled into the site to provide sustenance for the many workers by brewing tea and coffee by the gallon and creating enough sandwiches to feed a regiment.

To match the somber mood at the collapsed building, the sky had become overcast after a fine day. Dark clouds that rolled in from the east offered a risk of rain later on in the evening, and the winds had picked up ever so slightly. The latter was illustrated by the many curtains that fluttered from gaping windows in the adjacent buildings as well as the section of the brownstone that had remained standing. The curtains were no longer protected by panes of glass that had all been blown out - or in - by the shockwave of the initial explosion or the subsequent wall of dust and debris that had blasted through the street.

The huge mobile cranes sent out plumes of black diesel smoke that did very little to improve the quality of the air around the disaster area. Each time the arms of the cranes needed to be adjusted to provide the best lighting for the CARMICC urban search-and-rescue teams that were still wading through the rubble, more black smoke was released into the air to foul up the local environment.

Although the fire department had been successful in extinguishing all the major blazes, pockets of fire still remained where gas mains had been ruptured or where the gases from the open sewers would self-combust. Workers from the gas company - who all wore yellow hard hats and pale-blue boiler suits - moved around the piles of rubble trying to make sense of the blueprints and pipe location charts that were suddenly no longer valid since the building they had been made for was gone.

Fatigue had set in for Malin and DeeDee, but the only respite they'd had was to drink the gunpowder-strong coffee and share a trail snack bar on their way back from their latest drop-off at the Community. DeeDee knew her driver had to be desperate for nourishment when she had specifically asked for one of the healthy candy bars. Though it had been one of DeeDee's favorites, chipped hazelnut and dried raisins, she had been only too happy to share. She kept her final two sandwiches back as a strategic reserve in case they had to be there half the night like she expected they would.

Malin soon rolled the well-used gurney out of its locks and down onto the street once more. The disaster zone itself and the staging area for the EMT crews had not changed in appearance since they had been there last, but there were fewer vehicles present from the fire department. She glanced around for Spencer and Maria's oh-eight unit, but either they had yet to return from the handover of the triple-niner, or they had already received the next patient and were somewhere in Carlyle's concrete canyons.

"Oh… Goddammit," she croaked, yanking up her protective mask and pressing it closer to her nose as a cloud of diesel smoke from one of the mobile cranes fell over the two EMTs like an unwanted, smelly blanket. "Just when you thought this hellhole couldn't get any stinkier…" she said in a mumble. Once the mask was in place, she moved both hands down to continue to push at the foot-end of the gurney while DeeDee pulled at the top-end to steer around the many rocks and other pieces of debris that had still not been swept aside.

"Ah, yes… quite," DeeDee said, scrunching up her face underneath her own mask at the smell. When they passed by a group of men and women wearing vests identifying them as being members of one of the CARMICC USAR teams, she came to a halt and turned back to her driver. "Malin, I just need a quick word with one of the rescue people… can you hold on for a sec?"

"Sure," Malin said, pulling the gurney to a halt. "I need a break, anyway. Man, I'm beat. I need a cig… and I don't even smoke."

DeeDee let out a tired chuckle as she shuffled over to the members of the urban search-and-rescue team who were clearly on a coffee break. "Hello. I'm sorry to bother you in your break," she said to get some attention from the rescue workers whose faces were all gray and furrowed from the dust in the air and the exhaustion from having worked so hard, "but would any of you happen to know the status of a Mrs. Violet Butterfield who has been missing since the collapse? I don't have all the details, but I presume she's an elderly African-American and she might have been wearing an apron or something similar…"

None of the exhausted rescue workers present seemed to know anything; they all shook their heads before they returned to their mugs of steaming hot coffee.

"Okay," DeeDee said, grimacing at the stony wall of silence that greeted her. "Let's hope she's been rescued. Thanks for your time," she continued before she shuffled back to Malin and their gurney.

---

Ten minutes later, DeeDee delivered the all-too familiar spiel to a new patient as they wheeled him across the uneven surface and back to the GMC. This time, they had received a mustachioed Latino man in his mid-to-late forties whose light-brown complexion had turned starkly pale after his face and upper body had been pelted by stone chips and shards of glass. He was slightly overweight but the bulk was not bad enough to hinder the gurney's progress toward the ambulance. The man had bare feet in bathing slippers, and he wore maroon sweat pants and a neutral black, short-sleeved t-shirt - the latter was torn and bloodied from being exposed to the flying glass.

Streaks and droplets of the crimson liquid glistened as it ran down from the many puncture wounds he had suffered in his hair, on his forehead, cheeks, nose and jaw. Although his eyes had escaped the storm of glass and stone chips, they were wide and frightened.

"Good evening, Sir. We're DeeDee and Malin from Pettersson's Ambulance Services, and we're to-"

"I have heart trouble," the man croaked in a heavily accented English. He moved his right hand up to press against his chest and left shoulder to illustrate his point. "My heart… bad. Slow. Perdí mis gafas … lost my… my glasses. And… and my medicine… "

DeeDee and Malin shared a brief glance before DeeDee turned back to the patient: "Thank you for letting us know, Sir. We promise you'll be in good hands while we drive you to the hospital for full treatment."

---

The cot and ceiling lights had all been turned on in the rear of the ambulance to provide enough working light for the difficult procedure of cleaning the man's many facial wounds. Armed with a pair of tweezers and a plastic bag, DeeDee leaned down toward the patient and began to pick out fragments of glass and stone chips from his scalp and forehead. Seven fragments had soon been removed and put into the plastic bag, and she had yet to work on the man's nose, cheeks and chin. In the background, she heard Malin hail the dispatch to get the usual info, but she zoned it out to concentrate on working on the patient.

She was concerned about the man's paleness and the beads of sweat that formed on his brow despite the fact that his skin was chilly and clammy to the touch. Although the procedure of removing the shards would most likely be painful for him, none of them had done worse damage than to penetrate the outer skin. Only a single shard of glass had embedded itself deeper into the man's left cheek, but even that was soon taken care of with the tweezers, a squirt of demineralized water and a well-placed band-aid.

Logic would suggest that the fairly benign removal of the glass could not produce the kind of reaction that was etched onto the man's face - something else had to be wrong though he had not uttered a peep since his initial statement. "Sir, are you unwell? You are very pale," she said, leaning further down toward the patient.

"Heart… bad heart. Pain," the man said, staring wide-eyed at the nurse above him. As he spoke, he moved his hand up to press against his chest.

DeeDee narrowed her eyes for a split second before she dropped the plastic bag and the tweezers that both ended up clanging onto the floor. Reaching over to the panel beyond the gurney, she took the cables for the integrated pulse monitor, pulled up the man's torn t-shirt and attached the sensors onto the pale skin.

Flicking the switch to activate the advanced machinery, she bared her teeth in an ugly grimace when it was revealed the man's heartbeat was so irregular no two readings were alike. At times, the sensors provided figures close to the preferred level of sixty to sixty-five beats per minute, but at other times, the read-out did not show much beyond forty-one BPM which was far too low. Though the patient was only slightly overweight, much of it was on his face and chins, and the added bulk had masked the regular tell-tale signs like the movement of the pulse point on the side of his neck.

"Oh, hell…" she croaked, trying to remember some of the quick remedies for getting the important muscle to restore its natural cadence. Chugging down a glass of ice cold water could sometimes trick the nerves around the heart into resetting the dysfunctional electrical field that had caused the irregular beating, but they did not have access to cold drinking water. The traditional solution of putting a nitro tablet under the tongue could perhaps work, but that was mostly used to prevent early stages of angina and not heart arrhythmia of the type and severity that her patient suffered from. She did not have much to work with, so she made a battlefield decision that a nitro tablet was the best option. "Malin, we got trouble!" she said loudly to catch the driver's attention.

"sh*t! What kind of trouble?" Malin said, looking through the cutout.

"The patient is suffering from a severely irregular pulse. A registered low of forty BPM… make that thirty-seven BPM… peak at seventy… now seventy-two BPM. I'm about to administer nitro."

"Goddammit!"

"I couldn't quite hear you call the dispatch before," DeeDee said as she wiped her brow on the back of her orange glove. "Did they direct us to a hospital?"

"No… I didn't think he was that bad so I said it wasn't needed this time. Hold your horses, I'll get 'em on the horn right away," Malin said and reached for the mic at once. A short conversation with the dispatcher later, she turned back to her nurse: "They're sending us to the Methodist."

DeeDee furrowed her brow. She remembered reading in an article in the Medical Journal magazine that the Methodist Hospital often came in near, or at, the bottom of the list when their expertise on cardiac disorders was measured against other hospitals - the main reason being they only had a few top cardiologists on staff. "That won't work… you need to stress it's a severe case of arrhythmia. The Methodist can't handle that too well… I don't think… no. We need to go someplace else."

"Yes, Ma'am," Malin said and reached for the radio mic at once.

While Malin hailed the dispatcher once more to make an urgent request, DeeDee found a blister pack of nitro tablets in one of the many drawers. After popping one out, she turned back to the patient. "Sir, this is a tablet containing nitroglycerine. It will offer some relief. Do you understand me?"

"Y- yes…"

"Please open your mouth. You need to put the tablet under your tongue. Do not swallow it or it will not work. You understand?"

"Yes… not swallow… bad heart."

"I know, Sir," DeeDee said, squinting at the pulse monitor to see if the medicine would deliver the sought-after effect. The nitro offered scant relief; in fact, the pulse readings grew even more irregular as the sensors showed it bouncing around somewhere in the thirty-five to seventy-five BPM-range.

Regardless of the patient's unpredictable heart condition, he still needed to be safe on the gurney, so DeeDee tightened the restraining belts to be ready for whenever Malin got the word where to take him - it happened almost at once.

Up front, Malin started the GMC which sent the familiar tremble through the large vehicle. "We've been redirected to St. Mary's which is too damn typical. Do we need to hustle?" she said over her shoulder.

"Yes," DeeDee replied as she dove onto the bench seat. Once sitting comfortably, she grabbed and tightened the waist-belt so she would be held in place if the ride would prove to be a bumpy one.

Malin let out a single-word reply as she drove away from the row of ambulances: "Damn!"

---

Their previous trip north on Beauregard Street had proved a positive experience when it came to the amounts of traffic they had encountered, so Malin chose that route again on their way to St. Mary's Hospital on West Twenty-eighth Street. Unlike the last run, she could not avoid using the electronic sirens. The familiar dragon-like wailing was only one among a host of similar noises that polluted the street scenes in the wake of the disaster, but since time seemed to be of the essence on that particular run, she could not afford to turn it off.

At twenty to eight, the traffic pattern had changed. The many family sedans, station wagons and soccer-mom-mobiles that were used to drive harassed men and women to and from work in the daytime had mostly given way to souped-up vehicles belonging to a far younger crowd. Beauregard Street in particular - it was the westernmost major artery in the blue-collar Hispanic neighborhood known as North Tijuana - saw plenty of colorful lowriders and other types of custom cars that were driven by youths who often listened to loud music or were otherwise inattentive to what was going on around them.

Malin needed to use the Trombones of Doom from time to time when all four lanes ahead of them were backed up near or at intersections, but they continued to make good progress - until she ran afoul of another of the lumbering buses from the public transportation system.

The bus driver insisted on having the right-of-way when driving away from a stop, and it did not concern him in the least that he went straight out into the lane that was already occupied by a garishly-painted ambulance that came barreling down toward him at nearly fifty-five miles per hour.

"Oh, for f*ck's sake!" Malin barked as she swerved into the next lane in an almighty hurry to clear the large, clumsy bus. As she flew past, she mashed her finger against the switch controlling the air horns on the cab's roof; she had no time to see whether or not the bus driver had learned a lesson.

DeeDee leaned back from staring out of the windshield through the cutout. The hectic run and the unexpected, fast swerve had given her a touch of motion sickness, but she pushed it aside to glance over at the overweight patient on the gurney. He seemed to be holding on for the time being, but his complexion was still far too waxen for her liking.

The man's lips moved but only a scattered few words came out. DeeDee was unable to understand what he said though she strained her hearing, but she did not dare unbuckle the waist-belt to get closer while they were traveling so fast. Another minute of mumbling went by before the man raised his voice and began to speak out loud in Spanish; she was able to recognize a few of the words, but not enough to communicate with him.

"Sir… Sir, please speak English. Do you understand me? I don't speak Spanish… Sir?" DeeDee said, leaning forward to take hold of the man's hand to offer her support.

Either the patient could not understand her or he had too little strength left to speak in a language that was not his mother tongue. The Spanish words grew more mumbled until they were just a long line of similar-sounding phrases.

"He's praying," DeeDee said, rubbing her brow with the back of a gloved hand as cold sweat sprang forth from her pores. The gloomy prospects of perhaps losing another patient suddenly appeared on the proverbial horizon - in fact, it was already looming large judged by his waxen skin and sluggish behavior. "Malin! Where are we?"

"Coming up on Twenty-sixth Street… two blocks to go here on Beauregard. Then we have to use Twenty-eighth 'till we reach and clear the big-ass intersection at Belvedere. Then we have to continue onto the last part of West Twenty-eighth 'till we get to St. Mary's. How is he?" Malin said over her shoulder.

"Bad and not getting any better."

"sh*t…" As a pre-emptive reply to a question that had not been asked - or perhaps a command that had yet to be given - Malin mashed her safety boot down onto the gas to make the GMC ambulance pick up even more speed. They were soon racing north on Beauregard doing in excess of sixty miles per hour. "White, grab hold of something… and keep an eye on the fella! We're coming up on Twenty-eighth and I'm gonna hang a hard left so we won't lose any time!"

"All right!" DeeDee said, reaching out to put both hands on the gurney's metal frame in an attempt to stop the inevitable rocking and swaying from affecting the vulnerable patient too badly. As the hard turn came, it was even more stressful than she had predicted. The G-forces wanted to shove her back onto the bench seat, but she withstood the pressure and kept her hands on the gurney at all times.

The hard turning had come as a surprise to the patient who let out a startled cry. Almost at once, the cry turned hoarse and became one of pain; he opened his eyes wide to stare at the ceiling of the ambulance - then the sensor on the pulse monitor registered a drop from forty-eight beats per minute to a flat zero. The critical reading triggered the integrated alarm which in turn sent out a loud, penetrating noise.

The sudden burst of sound was enough to give DeeDee a strong jolt and an even stronger kick up the backside. "Cardiac arrest!" she barked, releasing the waist-belt and jumping to her feet at once even though they were still travelling at high speed.

"Hell's bells!" came the inevitable reply from the driver's seat.

After DeeDee had mashed her finger onto the alarm button to silence the shrill noise, she flew around the gurney while flexing her fingers. "He's flatlining! The SAED won't work… attempting CPR! Keep going for now!"

"Will do!"

Clenching her jaw, DeeDee began administering the familiar technique of pumping down on the patient's chest to tempt it to return from its asystole state. Unlike the young woman who had been injured in the hit-and-run, the male patient's ribs and sternum were undamaged which allowed DeeDee to carry out the procedure. "One, two, three, four," she said out loud as her hands moved up and down in a fast, steady rhythm that attempted to mirror the heart's natural beating to keep some semblance of blood-flow going past the sensitive brain tissue. "Five, six, seven, eight…"

---

The stretch of Twenty-eighth Street that ran between Beauregard and Belvedere Street had never been a prime example of good workmanship, nor had it ever been described as 'smooth' or 'well-laid' by the locals or even the city council's traffic department.

Viewed from afar, the asphalt undulated in a slow, lazy fashion - like the humps on the back of a camel - due to the fact that it had been built on top of old marshland. The swampy ground had been drained too quickly during the time of Carlyle's great and rapid expansion in the immediate post-World War II years. The weight of the hundreds of trucks, public buses and other heavy vehicles that used it daily only exacerbated the problems and led to deep potholes and long cracks along the edges of nearly all of the cast iron manhole covers.

Viewed from up close, like in the back of a speeding ambulance, the stretch of Twenty-eighth Street between Beauregard and Belvedere Street resembled a washboard that made it utterly impossible for DeeDee to do her job resuscitating the patient. After slamming her knees against the gurney's metal frame for the third time in twenty-five seconds while trying to remain on her feet, she'd had enough. "Malin! We need to stop! I'm getting nowhere… I'm losing my rhythm with all this damn jerking around!" she said loudly to be heard over the electronic siren that continued to wail like a wounded dragon.

"All right… dammit," Malin said, slowing down and eventually coming to a halt in the inner lane of Twenty-eighth Street just by the mouth of an alley that seemed to be the sole accessway to an apartment complex. She switched off the sirens but kept the warning lights on to alert the rest of the traffic of their presence. Jumping up, she quickly ducked through the cutout while donning a pair of orange medical gloves. "How's it going?" she said as she pulled the thumb into place.

"Not good… I've felt a response a couple of times, but I lose him again at once," DeeDee said while she worked hard on keeping the perfect cadence with her hands; the sweat that glistened on her forehead underlined her words and told a tale of working hard with very little to show for it. "No… too much time has gone by already for him to come back on his own. We need to administer one milligram of epinephrine urgently or we might lose him for good…"

"All right. Keep going while I prepare it," Malin said and hurried over to the drawer that kept the box of syringes. Once she had one ready, she reached into one of the unlabeled drawers that held small ampules of the potent liquid she needed. With the syringe fully loaded with the entire ampule of the epinephrine, she depressed the plunger to see if the tube was free; the squirt that was produced proved it was, so she inserted the syringe directly into the man's heart and emptied out the container. "All in! Let's hope it works," she continued before she threw the empty ampule and the spent syringe into the biohazard wastebin.

"Yeah…"

"White, I'll take over… stand back," Malin said as she moved back to the patient. As soon as DeeDee stepped aside, the driver took over and resumed administering the CPR while they waited for the epinephrine to kick in and do its job.

A scant fifteen seconds later, the patient let out a pained croak; Malin matched the croak with a grunt of relief when she realized the heart she had been working on had been coaxed back to life. "R-O-S-C!" she cried over her shoulder though it was in effect unnecessary - DeeDee had already noticed the return of the patient's spontaneous circulation.

Malin stopped her CPR motions at once so she could avoid causing any damage to the highly sensitive area, but she kept her hands in the correct position to get back to work if it proved to be a false dawn.

The patient briefly jerked around on the gurney until he understood where he was and what was going on. It did not take long before he began to mumble the same, endless stream of Spanish words that he had uttered earlier. "I'll call in the paras. We can't risk it," Malin said, spending a few moments to stare at the pulse monitor that moved erratically until the sensors registered a heartbeat that was far steadier than it had been before the drama.

The man's pulse remained near eighty beats per minute which was a marked improvement over the previous readings that had either been all over the place, or at a flat zero. The base pulse was heightened due to the influx of the epinephrine, but it would return to hover around sixty to sixty-five BPM once the effect of the added drug would wear off.

"All right," DeeDee said, clambering from the bench seat where she had tried to catch her breath. Though she was in good physical shape, the respite had been too brief to combat the high-intensity situation, and she was still worked up and short of breath.

As Malin hurried up to the driver's compartment to hail the dispatch and request a paramedic unit to assist them, DeeDee remained at the patient's side. Like Malin had done before, she kept her hands ready in the correct position to jump in in case her help was needed once more.

The drama and live-wire tension she had just been through had caused drops of sweat to trickle down from her temples. After running across her cheeks, they eventually left her skin behind and dripped onto the collar of her uniform shirt where they left dark, wet stains. More sweat soaked her hair at the back of her neck, and even more sweat made her undershirt cling to her torso all along her back and most of her front. There was nothing she could do about any of it while she wore the orange medical gloves - if she wanted to dry her damp skin, she would either have to use the gloves to wipe off her sweat, or take them off and use her handkerchief. In either case, the gloves would be contaminated and would have to be thrown out.

"Sir," she said as she leaned down toward the patient who looked even more frightened, but perhaps slightly less pale, than before. "Sir, we've been administering CPR. Heart massage. You have also been given a dose of adrenaline to help restart your heart. Do you understand?"

" Si … yes. Yes, I understand," the middle-aged man croaked; like DeeDee, his hair and face still glistened with sweat. He seemed to have moved away from the brink of death at that exact point in time - and the pulse monitor confirmed it with a continued healthy reading - but fate had a nasty habit of intruding at the most inopportune of moments.

With the tension slowly decreasing after the life-or-death drama that had literally taken place between her fingers, DeeDee needed to do something to stop herself from flaking out. After spending a few seconds looking around for something she could turn to, she picked up the plastic bag and the pair of tweezers she had thrown onto the floor when the situation had initially developed. After gulping down a nervous lump brought on by the boost of natural adrenaline that continued to race around her own system, she went to work removing the final few shards and chips of stone from the man's cheeks and jaw.

"The paras have been alerted," Malin said as she came back into the rear compartment. "I'm guessing it won't be long before they're here… even with all that crap going on down on Skid Row. Oh, and dispatch obviously told us to remain in position… though… looking at our patient now, I'm thinking we would have been able to continue onto St. Mary's on our own," she continued, crossing her arms over her chest and co*cking her head while she took a look at the mustachioed man on the gurney.

"Maybe. Maybe not. I can't say. If the attack was caused by stress then it may have returned once we got going. We're coming up on three minutes… please have another two doses of epinephrine standing by in case the severe arrhythmia returns," DeeDee said as she finished up removing the small shards, chips and splinters of glass with the tweezers. Taking a piece of absorbent cotton cloth, she dabbed all around the man's face to mop up the blood. He smiled at her as she did so which was a good sign - she smiled back to keep him calm and comfortable.

"I guess that's true," Malin said with a shrug while she retrieved another syringe and two further ampuls of the potent drug from the drawers. "It's a moot point now we've called in the medics, anyway."

After putting the syringe and the ampuls onto the bench seat so they would be within DeeDee's reach, Malin intended to head back to the driver's seat. Suddenly, someone knocked on the rear doors. "What the hell?" she said, once more inching past DeeDee and the gurney to head down to the rear.

Opening the doors, she found herself looking out at a bowed though stern-looking elderly gentleman in his mid-seventies. He was dressed in slippers, high-waisted, dark-gray pants and a dark-brown cardigan that covered a lumberjack shirt - the threadbare state of the latter's collar proved it had seen better days. The white-haired man stood in the middle of the inner lane of the busy Twenty-eighth Street clutching a cane in his gnarled hand; the cane was soon held up in a pose that could be interpreted as being threatening.

"Now what?" DeeDee said over her shoulder as she continued to keep a close eye on the pulse monitor and their patient's condition.

"No idea… but I'm guessing we're about to find out," Malin replied as she looked down at the stern-looking gentleman. "Good evening, Sir. Can I help you?" she continued, shooting the man a puzzled look.

"You can't park here! This is a no-parking zone!" the gentleman said in a frail, though authoritative voice. As he spoke, he reached into his shirt's breast pocket to find a ball point pen and a notepad.

"I, uh… I beg your pardon, Sir?" Malin said, narrowing her eyes down into slits. "Perhaps you've missed the fact we have our warning lights on? I do believe that gives us the right to stop anywhere."

"Not in front of an escape route marked as such!" the elderly man said, pointing the ball point pen at a sign on the sidewalk next to the mouth of the alley that said 'No Parking - Keep Clear At All Times.' "You have failed to respect the warning sign. That's a traffic violation which is a fineable offence! I'm going to write down your license plate and then I'll report you to the police, young lady!"

Malin rubbed her brow. Then she rubbed it again. It was clear she did not know whether to laugh or turn annoyed at the man's pertinaciousness. When the gentleman followed through with his threat and jotted down the number on the ambulance's license plate, her scales were tipped toward turning annoyed. "Sir, you have obviously failed to notice this is an ambulance on an assignment. My riding nurse and I have just finished a successful resuscitation of a patient who went into cardiac arrest."

"I don't care if you have the President of the Coca-Cola Company in there! It doesn't give you the right to block the official escape route. People depend on the alley being passable, you know!" the man said in a voice that grew in volume. At the same time, red blotches blossomed onto his cheeks that appeared to catch fire. "What if someone needs an ambulance right this minute? It wouldn't be able to get here with you parking illegally!"

DeeDee had listened in on the first part of the outrageous exchange, but the latest outburst caused her to step away from the gurney to take in the strange goings-on down on the street. "What in the world?" she said to Malin who could only rub her brow and shrug in return.

"I demand you leave at once!" the elderly gentleman barked, stomping the tip of his cane into the ground. "Or I'll be forced to call the police who will come and arrest you!"

DeeDee and Malin shared another long look and let out identical sighs. "He's certainly persistent. I think he's about to have a stroke," Malin said flatly.

"Maybe he's already had it…"

"Mmmm-yeah. Good point. Didn't think of that."

In the distance, the special electronic siren only used by the fast-response paramedic units grew louder indicating that the promised medical assistance was on the way. Malin had had enough of the old man's foolishness, so she jumped down onto the street to flag down the bright-red SUV.

When the Carlyle city council had outsourced the ambulance services in the late 1980s following the crisis years, they had decided to keep the paramedics in-house to avoid a bidding war with resulting poor standards for the important, highly-skilled fast-response teams. Thus, the nine so-called fly-car paramedic units were all operated by the Greater Carlyle Fire Department though the volunteer riding doctors were all employed by one of the city's hospitals - spending a week to ten days each month patrolling the city streets continued to be part of their regular rotation.

Turning back to the old man, DeeDee scrunched up her face in concern as she took in the red blotches on his cheeks. He seemed to give up when faced with yet another foe in the shape of the paramedic unit that soon arrived on the scene, and it did not take long before he shuffled out of her line of sight. Shaking her head in puzzlement over the bizarre event, she went back to the gurney to keep a close eye on their patient. Through their skills and hard work, they had been able to defeat the Reaper and bring the mustachioed fellow back - at least for the time being.

The bright-red Ford Explorer soon came to a halt behind the ambulance. DeeDee briefly went back to stand in the doorway to see what was going on; she let out a grunt of approval when the female doctor stepped out at the passenger side and went to the rear of the SUV to get the paramedics' version of the rapid response kit.

A heavy-duty jacket similar to those used by the EMTs hung over the backrest of the SUV's front seat, but the riding doctor did not put it on - she settled for wearing her bright-red uniform consisting of a shirt with elbow-length sleeves, and pants that carried a fluorescent-white stripe down the outside of the legs. Diagonal reflective stripes had also been added to the shirt's front and back, and the rear side sported the Greater Carlyle Fire Department logo underneath the letters D-O-C-T-O-R.

It did not take long before she had shook hands with Malin and had been led up into the ambulance. "Hello, I'm Nurse White," DeeDee said, shaking the doctor's hand as well - they were both wearing the standard-issue orange medical gloves.

The doctor offered the riding nurse a brief smile and a curt "Doctor Claudia Ferrandini. Good evening," before she moved over to the patient to begin the examination and subsequent treatment.

DeeDee was too tired to care about the brusque dismissal. Instead, she sat down on the bench seat while studying the doctor working on the patient. The peroxide-blonde appeared to be in her late-thirties, and she was somewhere between DeeDee and Malin in height - which would make her five-foot-seven or so. Her hair was tied up in a tight ponytail to keep it out of her eyes while working; her nose and chin were perhaps a touch too prominent and thus disproportional with the rest of her features, but the brightness of her pale-brown eyes offset that tiny imperfection.

"Nurse White," Doctor Ferrandini said as she turned to DeeDee, "I need to know exactly what transpired from the moment you received the patient, the exact sequence of events, and your subsequent response during the initial treatment of the medical emergency."

A tired smile graced DeeDee's features as she moved up from the bench seat and began to relay everything that had gone down with great detail.

---

The condition of the middle-aged patient refused to improve despite the best efforts of DeeDee and Doctor Ferrandini; they had given him a second injection of epinephrine as a precautionary measure, but as that wore off after a few minutes, his pulse grew into being as irregular as it had been before the drama. The clammy skin and the waxen paleness returned as well meaning he was right back where he had started.

After Doctor Ferrandini had called ahead to the hospital to confer with one of her colleagues, it was decided that Malin and DeeDee were to continue onto St. Mary's while the doctor remained in the ambulance to monitor the situation and keep running statistics of the patient's vital signs.

DeeDee was only happy for the reprieve as it gave her a rare opportunity to release the tension that had done its worst to weigh down on her body and soul. Ducking through the cutout, she bumped down on the passenger seat and immediately broke out in a wide yawn that she had no time to conceal.

"Well, good mornin' to ya!" Malin said and let out a tired chuckle. Starting the engine, she let it idle for a few seconds before she pulled the shifter into drive and took off from the inner lane that had caused so much grief and high blood pressure for the elderly, bowed man with the cane. The warning lights were still on, but the sirens remained switched off - the paramedic unit was one-hundred yards ahead of them clearing the final few intersections.

DeeDee just smacked her lips. Instead of replying, she went straight for the storage box underneath the seat where she snatched her half-full thermos, the paper bag with her remaining sandwiches and the other bag with the trail snacks. She quickly poured herself a lidful of the dark-brown, extra-extra strong, extra-extra caffeinated liquid and chugged it down like there was no tomorrow.

"Oh… I needed that," she croaked as she screwed the lid back onto the thermos. Once that had been put back into the storage box, she held up the two bags containing her food. She weighed the pros and cons of either option for a short while before she reached into the paper bag with the sandwiches. As she held up the one with Crutchlow's Mayo Sandwich Helper, cucumbers, sun-dried tomatoes and smoked ham, she narrowed her eyes and let out a long "Hmmm…"

Then she reconsidered and put the home-made food back into the bag in favor of a trail snack. Moments later, she unwrapped the healthy candy bar and took a large bite out of the blueberry-cranberry special that she proceeded to munch on with great vigor.

"The coffee we definitely agree on, but the so-called healthy snack? No thanks. One was plenty for me," Malin said, constantly checking the mirrors and the busy streets ahead of them to make sure they could avoid suddenly getting snared into a dangerous situation with the doctor in the back.

"I thought you said you kinda liked the other one?"

"No, I said I was so hungry I could eat a bucketful of grits. And that's what the bar tasted like, too."

DeeDee shrugged and took another big bite out of the snack bar. "Your loss. I think they're delicious," she said, munching merrily. "You must be dead-tired… I mean, we've done more emergency runs tonight than the past two weeks combined…"

"Yeah, tell me about it," Malin said and rolled her shoulders even while they were doing fifty miles per hour down the uneven street. "My neck's as stiff as a board. And I did get a headache from wearing that damn coated mask like I said I would. I definitely need a break… so I hope they won't send us back to East Twelfth Street right away."

"I agree. I've seen enough despair tonight to last me a couple of days at least," DeeDee said, letting out a long, slow sigh. She fell silent while she thought back to the telephone conversation she'd had with her mother while she had made the sandwiches - then, she had been unaware of what kind of terrible day it would turn out to be. Returning to the present, she took the last bite of the berry-special snack and crumpled up the wrapper. "And it all happened on the day where Mr. Pettersson is supposed to evaluate me at the end of our shift-"

"Oh yeah, that's right! That's today… huh!" Malin said, briefly staring at her riding nurse before she looked back onto the street that flew past the garishly-colored ambulance.

DeeDee grimaced. To take her mind off the meeting with the owner of the company, she craned her neck to look at the reflection of the scenery in the side mirror. "Yeah. It's today," she eventually said. "My gut turns into an aviary just thinking about it… and then all this nasty business. Forget it. My brain will probably melt long before your father asks me to come up to his office."

"Ah, I wouldn't worry too much about if I were you," Malin said as she and the paramedic unit took the long way around a pair of colorful custom pickup trucks that cruised along at fifteen miles per hour in the inner lane. "I mean, the old man knows exactly what's good for the company. He's a lot of things but a fool he ain't. And let me tell ya, he would be a fool if he doesn't sign you up as a permanent riding nurse."

"Thank you," DeeDee said, sporting a tired smile - their conversation had to take a back seat to the external events after that.

With the paramedic unit and the GMC ambulance finally crossing Belvedere Street and entering the final stretch of West Twenty-eighth Street headed for St. Mary's, the turning lane into the hospital soon beckoned. Malin took her foot off the gas and braked well in advance to get down to a safe speed for the turn.

Taking the radio mic, she depressed the key to hail the dispatcher: "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Do you copy, over?"

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead.'

"Unit oh-one arriving at St. Mary's now. Loss of radio and data contact is imminent. Bringing in single patient and a riding paramedic. Has a medical team been alerted, over?"

'Acknowledged, unit oh-one. Cardio specialists standing by upon arrival. Use gate four.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Using gate four. Over and out," Malin said and put the radio mic back onto the hook.

Ahead of them, the lower and sleeker paramedic SUV blasted down the steep, curved concrete ramp that all ambulance drivers dreaded or flat-out hated with a passion. Malin was among the latter group, and she bared her teeth in an ugly grimace as she made the ninety-degree right-hand turn to access the upper part of the ramp. "Doc!" she said over her shoulder, "We're at St. Mary's. Hold on to something 'cos the boat's gonna rock in a moment!"

As they went into the turn, it struck DeeDee that she had never been up front in the driver's compartment upon reaching the final approach to St. Mary's. She and Malin had been there often enough during their shifts, but she had always been cooped up in the back with a patient. Just thinking about that odd fact gave her a flashback to the incident that had occurred on her very first shift: the traffic accident on Belvedere Street and the two patients they had transported from there to St. Mary's: Álvaro González and the young woman whom they had never got to know beyond her first name, Jessica.

"Holy sh*t!" she exclaimed, grabbing hold of the dashboard ahead of her as the street seemed to disappear into thin air. A moment later, the GMC ambulance dipped down at the front to begin the long, bothersome descent. Her eyes were wide as Malin rolled down the concrete ramp and performed a ninety-degree left-hand turn to clear the curved section at the bottom of it. That was dramatic enough in itself, but DeeDee soon discovered the steepness was just the first half of the challenge: "Watch out! The ceiling!" she said in a squeak as the low roof of the underground parking garage only seemed to come halfway up the windshield - Malin let out a snicker at her riding nurse's exclamations.

As always, the tall, boxy GMC Savana managed to clear the ramp, the turn and the low roof in one piece before Malin increased the speed to match the fifteen miles per hour speed limit that was in place down there. They drove past the first three gates until they reached the one they were there for; number four, the same one they had used on the assignment DeeDee had just thought of.

The driver of the paramedic unit had parked just short of the gate which left plenty of room for Malin to continue past it and come to a stop in the slots reserved for ambulances. She and DeeDee both left the cab at the same time and went around the back to open the rear doors; once there, they helped Doctor Ferrandini and the hospital's medical team made up of cardiology specialists to get the gurney carrying the ill patient down onto the concrete deck.

"Wait out here for a sec, DeeDee," Malin said as the patient was being wheeled inside by the lab coat-wearing hospital staffers. Moving in closer, she lowered her voice to a whisper: "We're out of radio range down here, so I think I'll try to organize some fresh coffee and get us something free to eat. There's also time to use their staff restroom if you need to go…"

"Oh! I actually do… all that coffee's gotta go somewhere," DeeDee said with a sheepish smile.

---

The improvised break only lasted for just over ten minutes, but the quick mug of strong, hot coffee and the pile of sugary vanilla and chocolate chip cookies DeeDee and Malin had time to wolf down gave them both a good boost that would help them get through another burst of drama in case they were sent back to the disaster area.

As the ambulance came back into the open, Malin took the mic off the little hook to hail the base now that radio and data contact had been re-established: "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Do you read, over?"

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. Go ahead.'

"Patient drop-off completed. Leaving St. Mary's now. Data contact restored. Requesting info on further assignments, over."

'Unit oh-one, you are to return to East Twelfth Street for further assistance of CARMICC USAR teams, over.'

DeeDee let out a deep sigh of disappointment before she glanced across the cab at Malin whose scrunched-up face proved she would have preferred to have been told anything but that. By the dark expression that fell upon the driver's expressive face, it appeared she would not even have objected - too much - if they had been told to take bad, old Freddie Mack for a free ride on a sampler tour of Carlyle's many soul food or Tex Mex restaurants.

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Proceeding to East Twelfth Street for further assistance of CARMICC teams. Unit oh-one over and out," the driver said as she hung the mic on the hook and turned down the volume on the transceiver unit. Though the dispatcher had not specifically told them to hurry back to the disaster area, she kept the warning lights on to be able to get through the intersections quicker. "Yeah, okay. Whatever. Man, this is gonna be a long night."

"We're running pretty low on absorbent cotton and a few other items. We've spent quite a lot of the demineralized water as well. Maybe we'll end up needing to borrow some from another company unit-"

"Won't work," Malin said and shook her head. "Then the inventory sheets won't match with the actual contents of the ambulances. No, we'll have to either go home to base to restock, or get someone to hustle down to East Twelfth with supplies."

"Oh… okay."

Malin sighed. "And it won't look good for the company if I'm not at the biggest disaster Carlyle's seen in years… not to mention the highest-profile operation Pettersson's has been part of in years. We can't be the only unit running low so we better get someone to bring us plenty of supplies. What time is it?" she said and reached for the mic again.

"Uh, a quarter past eight," DeeDee said after she had checked the little clock mounted on the dashboard.

"sh*t, we've only been at it for four hours? Man… it feels more like four days," Malin said before she hailed the dispatch once more to bring the home base up to speed on the impending lack of supplies.

-*-*-*-

It never rains but it pours - The ethereal concept of Fate definitely remembered the old proverb as it was not kind at all to the oh-one unit and the two EMTs operating it.

After Malin and DeeDee had returned to the disaster zone on East Twelfth Street following the near-miss with the overweight Latino man, they were sent north to the Community Hospital with a heroin addict who suffered from severe withdrawal symptoms all through the ride as a result of his 'stash of smack' being destroyed in the fire. The addict never stopped trembling, sweating like a pig or displaying utterly unpredictable behavior as Malin had the ambulance blasting through traffic to get the assignment over and done with in the least amount of time possible. DeeDee had literally been on the edge of the bench seat all the way to the hospital holding a plastic bag ready in case the addict would once more spew out a volcanic amount of vomit like he had done on the street when they had tried to get him onto the gurney.

That particular patient did not prove to be a positive experience for Malin and DeeDee, but it would soon seem like the good, old days compared to the next one they were sent to pick up: an unshaven, unwashed, uncouth, boozed-up alcoholic in his late-fifties who had at first moaned long and hard about the fact that he was not allowed to bring a bottle of his favorite cheap applejack into the ambulance. When he had realized both EMTs treating him were women, he had changed his tune into an even nastier one and had done nothing but spew misogynistic slurs about women in general and Malin and DeeDee in particular all through their interminable journey along Carlyle's endless streets en route to the Methodist Hospital. The steering wheel of the GMC had nearly been bent out of shape after Malin had held it in a choke-hold to stop herself from going back and throttling the alcoholic instead.

Time had flown by from all the fun and games the two EMTs had experienced. The clock mounted on the dashboard read a quarter to ten in the evening as Malin drove onto East Twelfth Street once more after getting rid of the misogynist she had referred to as a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, low-brow Neanderthal.

Pandemonium still reigned down on Skid Row: The floodlights mounted on the mobile cranes continued to shine down onto the rubble with the strength of the lights found in ten football stadiums. Additional heavy construction equipment in the shape of even bigger bulldozers and dump trucks had been brought in to begin the removal of the thousands of tons of bricks that had been scattered all over the street and elsewhere.

Malin soon drove up to the end of the long line of ambulances and moved the shifter into park. She let the turbo diesel run at an idle for a few seconds to give the electrical fans a chance to cool everything down; then she twisted the key which turned off the engine. An all-enveloping silence fell over the two women; it was only intruded upon by the sounds produced by the heavy equipment toiling away to remove the rubble. Unlike the awkward moments of silence that had existed between them before they'd had their heart-to-heart in the locker room, this one was fueled by strong fatigue that had overpowered even the coffee and sugary cookies they'd had at St. Mary's earlier in the evening.

The rear compartment of the GMC still held the foul odor that clung to the boozed-up and unwashed alcoholic's body and grungy clothes, so Malin ducked through the cutout to open all the doors in the hope of getting some fresh air inside - the quality of the air on East Twelfth Street was not much of an improvement but every little helped.

DeeDee climbed out and thrust her arms sky high to stretch her back. She could certainly feel every last muscle on the back part of her upper body, but it was less bad than it had been during or following her wheelchair-dragging stunt performance the other week. The temperature had dropped a couple of degrees, but it was not yet chilly enough to wear her heavy-duty jacket permanently so she remained in her shirtsleeves while they were out of the immediate staging area. Reaching into the cab, she took her well-used coated mask and stuffed it down one of her shirt's breast pockets in case the ruins were still designated a hot spot.

To stretch her tired legs, she decided to take a short stroll around the front of the ambulance. The street still saw plenty of activity at the CARMICC command post R-V that had been moved another time following the arrival of even larger construction equipment. There was nothing new to look at there, so she turned to glance up at the brightly-illuminated piles of rubble that had once been a seven-storey brownstone instead. A shiver ran over her at the thought of what it must have been like to experience such a catastrophic collapse.

The CARMICC urban search-and-rescue teams continued to lead survivors through the debris and onto the line of waiting EMT crews. The number of former residents being led down was far less than it had been earlier in the day, but whether or not that meant there were no more survivors to be found among the piles of bricks and wooden beams was a question she did not want to ask herself.

Vehicles not connected with the rescue efforts had been allowed back onto the street now most of the trucks from the fire department had left. One of the more unusual ones was an old, beat-up Hyundai whose base color may have been yellow once upon a time but that was now best described as a cross between a filthy grayish-white-yellow and plain, old rust-brown.

The strong floodlights illuminated parts of East Twelfth Street that had been hidden in shadows ever since the brownstones had been built; similarly, other parts were now deeply embedded in a mounting gloom as most of the street lamps had been unable to withstand the avalanche of rubble and debris-laden dust that had hit them.

Movement to DeeDee's right caught her eye and made her look further down the street. When she realized several young men wearing gang colors seemed to loiter just inside the shadows, she scrunched up her face in worry. Her old concerns and worries about the night-time hours suddenly came back to her, and she hurriedly joined Malin at the other side of the ambulance.

At that time of the day, the gangs would usually rule the streets of Skid Row, but they were unable to show themselves too much with all the police and emergency units still present. Their nasty business could not remain unattended for too long so they had chosen to relocate to the filthy alleys and back yards that could be found everywhere in the neglected neighborhood. As with all activity related to the street gangs, it only took the tiniest of sparks to make the bullets fly. For now, everyone seemed to be holding their collective breaths while the rescue work was still ongoing, but it was undeniable there was a lingering tension in the air that threatened to escalate from the presence of so many uniforms.

Malin sat on the aluminum running board by the time DeeDee hurried around the open rear doors of their GMC. The driver's face was pale and haggard like it had been a week since she had last slept, and furrows had appeared where smooth skin had been before. DeeDee knew her own features were as drawn and haggard as Malin's so she was glad her mother was nowhere near them to add her two cents' worth about the importance of eight hours' of sleep and skin-friendly facial conditioner creams. "Can you believe it's still going on?" she said though it was obvious from the activity all around them that it would be quite some time yet before the last rescue worker would leave.

"No. I can't recall a worse disaster in Carlyle. Well, I guess the large-scale fire in one of the old paper mills a couple of decades back was pretty big too. That was just an abandoned warehouse used by a buncha hobos, though. Nothing like this," Malin said with her head propped up on her arm.

"Do you really think it was caused by a drug lab exploding?"

"Who knows? But you know what… honestly… I wouldn't put it past the freaks, weirdos and crackheads living here. A drug lab in the basem*nt would be just their thing. Yeah, that would be the real five-star Skid Row Family Resort, wouldn't it?" Malin said and made a sweeping gesture at the rubble and the rest of the street. "Come to Nosecandy World and get stoned. Fun, fun, fun for the young and old."

DeeDee grimaced but abstained from making a comment.

A few seconds went by before Malin let out a deep sigh and sat up straight. "Hey, I got us some water," she continued, holding up a plastic bottle of the life-giving liquid. A second - empty - bottle was to her left.

DeeDee grunted a thanks as she accepted the bottle and twisted the lid off it at once. Gulping down the water with long, greedy swigs, she had soon emptied it down to the last drop.

"Oh well… as much as I'd like to, we can't sit here all evening. I guess we better head over to the staging area and see what's shaking," Malin said and got to her feet. Climbing into the rear of the ambulance, she unlocked the gurney and shoved it back down toward the exit where DeeDee took care of the rest.

"I just need my jacket, then I'm ready to go," DeeDee said and hurried up to the passenger side door.

Once the gurney was ready and DeeDee's arms were down the sleeves, Malin shut the side access panel and both rear doors before they set off toward the staging area and the long line of EMT crews that were still waiting there.

---

Because of the inevitable slow-down in finding survivors, the dull break while waiting for a new patient turned out to be far lengthier than it had been earlier in the evening. The inactivity resulting from the slow-down had an adverse effect on everyone's fatigue: DeeDee could not stop yawning as she snuggled down in her thick, heavy-duty jacket - like all the other EMTs, her jacket's reflective stripes sparkled under the floodlights - and Malin had jumped up onto the gurney to use it as a bright-orange sofa. A somber silence had spread out among all the EMT crews waiting for patients, and nobody even as much as thought of cracking a joke or making a smart-aleck comment.

When another ambulance from Pettersson's Ambulance Services rolled onto East Twelfth Street, Malin hopped off the gurney and put her safety boots back on the ground. She paused for a moment to check out the identity of the driver stepping out; when it was revealed to be her good friend Spencer Bradshaw, she turned back to DeeDee. "Hold the fort for me, okay? Blue just arrived. I want to talk to him before even more sh*t hits the fan here."

"Sure," DeeDee said, looking toward the row of ambulances. The easily recognizable figures of the tall, powerfully-built African-American and his equally buff riding nurse 'Sister Dynamite' were already getting their gurney out of the rear of the oh-eight unit to join the others.

While DeeDee waited for Malin and her colleagues to come up to the staging area, two of the ambulance crews nearest her received patients for further treatment. Unlike the first waves of rescued residents who all suffered from fractures, visible lacerations and the like, the people who were presently being helped down from the rubble coughed and hacked like they had inhaled dust, smoke or fumes. A few walked down unassisted, but some of those who were stretchered down wore oxygen masks connected to portable tanks.

Two CARMICC search-and-rescue teams worked together to bring down what appeared to be several members of the same family. Though the survivors were filthy beyond description from having been entombed in concrete for hours on end, the members of the family - two young children, their parents and an elderly woman who was most likely a grandmother - miraculously did not seem any worse for wear physically speaking save for a few cuts, scrapes and bruises that could be treated with bandages.

The members of the family were distributed among two ambulances from Sklar & Bonney so there was no need for DeeDee to use the walkie-talkie she still carried to call her driver over. She narrowed her eyes as she looked at the survivors. The young children had been silent and completely passive as they were brought down on a shared stretcher. From her time at the Community Hospital, she knew it meant the mental strain they had been under had made a strong mark on them that would take a long time, perhaps years, to erase.

Malin soon returned on her own with her hands stuffed down the deep pockets of her thick jacket; Spencer and Maria came right behind her wheeling their gurney across the street that still resembled a rock quarry. When 'Blue' was close enough, DeeDee moved over to the tall man and briefly pulled him into a supportive hug. "We heard your call on the radio. I'm sorry, Spencer."

"Thanks, Miss White," the tall man said in a voice that had grown flat and listless. Like all the rest of the EMTs there, he had turned pale and haggard from the fatigue, and his intelligent eyes sparkled far less than usual. "It was bound to happen. I felt it in my gut even before we started today. Malin told me you had a close call yourself."

"Yes, a man with heart arrhythmia and bradycardia. His heart rate was all over the place… it got a little hairy so we had to call in the paras," DeeDee said and shook hands with Maria Navarro who looked as tired as everyone else around there.

The buff Latina let out a weary chuckle. "It's just like that old Christmas song… Everybody's Waiting For The Man With The Scythe."

"That's not how I remember it," Spencer mumbled.

"Ah, losing one always sucks," 'Sister Dynamite' continued, waving her hand in dismissal, "but the fellow we lost was hanging on by his fingernails from the get-go. It would have been a miracle if he had stuck around. And you know what they say about miracles."

"Yeah," DeeDee said, blushing at Maria's typically direct language. She wanted to ask Spencer about what else he and his riding nurse had been up to during the emergency, but commotion behind them made them all turn around to look at what was going on.

Police Captain Dwight Buchanan, the officer in charge of the disaster zone, stepped up onto a large piece of rubble and held up a bullhorn that he turned on. Inevitably, feedback howled across the staging area before he had time to adjust the volume. "All EMT crews, listen up!" he said, swinging the bullhorn across the assembled ambulance units to give everyone a chance to hear what he had to say. "The time is twenty-two hundred hours. The following units will no longer be needed. From Sklar & Bonney, unit Tango-three, Tango-niner, Tango-fourteen and Tango-nineteen. From Harry Barton Fire Rescue, unit Alpha-two. And from Pettersson's Ambulance Services, unit oh-one, oh-four, one-one and one-six. The units that have been called out must report to their dispatchers for further information on their stand-down procedure. Units that have not been called out in this communiqué must remain on-site until further notice… repeat, those units that have not been called out must remain on-site until further notice. Thank you!"

DeeDee let out a deep, heartfelt sigh of relief at being selected for stand-down, but even while she did that, Maria Navarro thumped a fist into an open palm and roared out an emphatic: "Sonovabitch! Goddammit all to hell! We worked our asses off just like everyone else here! Un-frickin'-fair!"

"I'm sorry, Maria," DeeDee said. She moved to pull her colleague into a brief hug like she had done with Spencer, but the contact was firmly denied when the buff woman took a long step back to avoid being touched. Chewing on her cheek in equal parts embarrassment and puzzlement at the curious - and certainly unexpected - rebuttal, DeeDee stepped back as well to create an even wider gap between them; she cast a sideways glance at Malin who could only shrug in return.

"Well, in any case… stay safe, okay?" Malin said, reaching out to slap a hand across Spencer's gut. This time, she managed to get a clear hit in due to her old friend's fatigue, but the tall man paid back the favor at once by slapping his large hand down onto her shoulder.

"You too, Red," he said with a tired grin.

Malin pretended to buckle at the knees before the hand was withdrawn from her shoulders - the goofiness raised the first real chuckle of the evening among the four EMTs. "And stay cool, Sister D. We're all gonna have a lot to talk about after this one," she said, pointing at Maria who let out a dark, gloomy grunt as her only reply.

---

On their way back to the ambulance, Malin handled the empty gurney by herself while DeeDee walked a few paces ahead to clear away the worst of the rubble and debris that continued to crop up in their path. Once they were back on what remained of East Twelfth Street, she shot a worried glance at the deep shadows where she had seen the young men wearing gang colors when they had arrived. There were still a few of the dangerous-looking fellows around so she picked up the tempo to get out of there before the inevitable lead would start to fly.

She had to do a double-take when she looked further down the street at the beat-up, yellowish Hyundai. Just as she was looking at it, two women stepped into the car and reversed out of sight. That in itself did not rate much of a mention in the overall scheme of things, but the fact that they had been a tall brunette and a shorter blonde made her slow down and stare wide-eyed at the empty spot where the car had been only moments before.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, White," Malin said and let out a tired chuckle as she continued to wheel the gurney across the uneven surface. Since the portable stretcher weighed little when it was empty, it was prone to dance about on the countless big and small rocks the wheels ran into; in short, she had her hands full trying to get it to run straight.

"No, I… it was… oh, I… don't… I don't know what I saw, to be honest. My tired brain must be playing tricks on me. Never mind," DeeDee said, shaking her head as she went back to her task of clearing the path for the gurney.

---

Not long after, she let out a long sigh of relief as she sat down on the passenger seat in the GMC. She pulled out the storage box in the vain hope that she had overlooked something the last six times she had tried it, but it continued to hold nothing edible. The items down there were her pulp true crime paperback, a bone-dry thermos, a spent stack of wrappers for the candy bars, an empty paper bag for the home-made sandwiches, the freezer pack that had become lukewarm and finally an empty plastic bottle that had held water once upon a time but that now was as dry as Death Valley. Her stomach chose that moment to growl; alas, she had nothing she could use to feed the beast.

Malin soon climbed behind the steering wheel and reached for the radio mic. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Dispatch, unit oh-one. Do you copy?" she said before she released the key.

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. We copy. Go ahead,' a male voice said at the other end of the connection.

"Dispatch, Police Captain Buchanan has informed us we've been selected for stand-down. Can you confirm, over?"

'Stand-down is confirmed, unit oh-one. Over.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch," Malin said and flashed DeeDee a big, waving, pumping thumbs-up that was responded to by a tired grin and a small nod. "Requesting information on proper stand-down procedure, over."

'Unit oh-one, return to base for restocking, over.'

Malin blinked several times before she depressed the key again: "Say again, dispatch. Restocking?" she said with a scrunched-up face. She shook her head as she looked across at DeeDee. "I sure as sh*t hope they're not planning on sending us out again for the rest of our regular shift… 'cos they'll be sorely disappointed."

DeeDee could only utter a "Mmmmh!" at the prospects of being sent out to complete their regular four-to-two routine.

'Unit oh-one, confirm restocking,' the dispatcher said a moment later.

"Oh-ho, I don't f*ckin' think so!" Malin growled before she depressed the key once more. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Confirm returning to base. Negatory on restocking. Have far exceeded our regulatory assignment driving time at this point, over."

'Unit oh-one, dispatch. Stand by.'

"Unit oh-one standing by," Malin said and released the key again. Nothing happened at first, so she started the turbo diesel and let it idle for a while as she always did. When the radio continued to be silent, she pulled the shifter into drive and moved away from the row of ambulances parked at the disaster area.

For the first time all afternoon and evening, they were able to take it easy as they rolled down East Twelfth Street headed for Beauregard Street. The switches controlling the warning lights and the electronic sirens had been left in the off-position, and the absence of the dragon-like wailing proved to be a blessing to both of them.

As they passed by the spot where the Hyundai had been parked - in front of a section of the seven-story brownstone that was still standing and seemingly mostly untouched by the disaster save for a few smashed windows - DeeDee craned her neck to check out if she could see anything. Then she let out a grunt; even Sherlock Holmes would not be able to gather much data from an empty parking bay.

---

The ambulance had reached the intersection of East Twelfth Street and Beauregard and was waiting for the traffic lights to turn green when the radio squawked to life with their call sign. Malin picked up the mic at once. "Dispatch, unit oh-one. Go ahead."

'Unit oh-one, the Chief has approved early e-o-s. He requests a word with Nurse White when you return, over and out.'

"Ohhhh God… the evaluation!" DeeDee croaked as she clapped a hand over her eyes.

"Dispatch, confirm early e-o-s. Also confirm chat with the Chief. Unit oh-one out," Malin said before the radio's volume was turned down to a minimum. She let out a sigh of relief at the news. When the traffic lights switched to green on the gantry above them, she turned left onto Beauregard and began the long trek home to their base on Forty-fourth Street.

Malin seemed to relax after hearing the news they were going home, but DeeDee did the exact opposite of her driver - she tensed up. Not only did she bare her teeth in a nervous grimace, her heart rate picked up the pace to the point where the pulse monitor's sensors would have sent out a ventricular tachycardia upper-threshold-alarm if she had been hooked up to them. Sweat sprung from her pores, and she needed to pinch the bridge of her nose to stop a headache from rattling around in her brain box. "Mr. Pettersson wants a word with me… the evaluation," she croaked, staring ahead without seeing much at all. "Ohhhhh, I had hoped we could push it off until tomorrow or something…"

"Come on, White, it's gonna be fine. I promise. At least the old man approved the early end-of-shift. That's what e-o-s means, in case ya didn't know."

DeeDee tried to smile but it never amounted to much. All she could think of was the dreaded evaluation. All the things she had done in the two weeks she had worked for Pettersson's Ambulance Services would be weighed. The times when she had made the right decision versus the mistakes she had made; her successes and her failures. How she worked with her colleagues and probably even what they thought of her. All in all, facing the bone-tough, drill-sergeant-like Rickard Pettersson would be a frightening experience, she was certain of that - especially after the emotionally draining afternoon and evening she had already been through.

"DeeDee… hey. Come on, it'll be fine. Trust me," Malin continued as she reached across to put her patented slap on DeeDee's knee. "Cheer up, White. Tell ya what, I'll even come in with ya! Yep, I'll be there to back you up or put in a good word for ya if it's needed. Team mates, right?" When DeeDee did not provide much of a response beyond a long groan, she held up her hand in an invitation for a sideways high-five.

"Right…" DeeDee eventually said, slapping the open palm before falling quiet as a tomb the rest of the way back to the bunker-like garage.

-*-*-*-

Though Rickard Pettersson had asked to see them first thing upon their return to base, the need to splash plenty of water onto their bodies was so critical it would have been a flaming insult to everyone's sense of smell if it had been ignored. Thus, DeeDee leaned her forehead against the cool tiles as the steaming hot water poured down onto her neck, shoulders and back. The showerheads and the rest of the old and somewhat decrepit plumbing in the downstairs bathing facilities of Pettersson's home base worked faultlessly for a change. It allowed her to relax and get her head in the right frame of mind for the upcoming evaluation.

In the next stall over, Malin warbled out a song at the top of her lungs while she lathered herself up and scrubbed it all off again under the hot water using a long-necked shower brush. The quality of her singing made it impossible to decipher which song it actually was, but she used the words 'Ohhhh-baby-baby-baby' a lot.

The water that fell from DeeDee's showerhead eventually ceased - following a sequence of groans and clunks from the old pipes - as the pre-determined four-minute countdown ran out. She had spent a combined total of sixteen minutes under the hot water including lathering up twice, so she could safely say that the last of the dust and grime from the East Twelfth Street disaster had been surgically removed from her body.

Grabbing the towel, she began to rub herself dry while still remaining inside the stall. Next door, she heard Malin change from warbling to whistling as she stepped out of the shower stall and padded around in her bathing slippers. From startled experience, she knew the fiery driver had no qualms about walking around the ladies' shower facilities and even into their locker room wearing nothing but her attitude, but her own inhibitions prevented her from matching that behavior no matter how practical it may have been - she always brought a terrycloth bath towel and her underwear into the shower stall where she kept it in a waterproof plastic bag.

---

Dressed in their dark-blue fleece sweatsuits that carried the familiar logo on the front and back, DeeDee and Malin strolled up to the old-fashioned freight elevator that would take them to the top floor of the company building. DeeDee moved the iron grating aside and let Malin step into the elevator first; the grating was soon pulled back and locked so the buttons could be operated.

Upstairs, they walked over to the old, wooden door to Rickard Pettersson's office. The door still carried the odd-looking felt nameplate that used little plastic letters to spell out the name of the owner of the company - or close to it since the first E in the family name had fallen off the board and was lying on the floor.

"Hey, the old man's dropped a vowel!" Malin said and let out a snicker as she bent over to pick up the E. Just to cause a little mischief, she stuck it back onto the felt nameplate upside down so it would be the wrong way around - not even a pointed look by DeeDee could make her turn it into its proper direction.

Like the first time DeeDee had been there, she needed to steel her backbone before she raised her hand to knock on the wooden door. A few moments went by before Rickard Pettersson's gruff voice let out an 'Enter!' from beyond the closed door. Gulping, DeeDee entered the office with a grinning Malin in tow.

The vast office had not become any less utilitarian - or any less cluttered for that matter - since she had been there last. Just like downstairs in the garage, not a single thing had been moved save for the broken-down coffee machine that had been replaced by a new one. Even the potted plant that had badly needed water two weeks previously was still there; it had turned brown rather than green, so any attempts of water-to-soil resuscitation would probably be a waste of time for all parties involved.

Rickard Pettersson's pale-gray, square-edged metal desk still carried tall piles of paperwork, and the army-style bunk bed still filled the only spot in the office that was free of filing cabinets or heavily laden shelf-systems. The bunk bed's sheets and duvet were crumpled like someone had just woken up from a nap. Two no-nonsense swivel-chairs had been put in front of the metal desk instead of only one, but that was the extent of the change anywhere in the office.

Just like the first time DeeDee had been there, the old-fashioned portable transistor radio had been placed on the corner of the desk; it was tuned to an AM news station that continued to broadcast live from the disaster area on East Twelfth Street.

The owner of the company slid his cheap half-rim reading glasses up his forehead before he moved away from the computer's keyboard and swiveled his chair around to greet his employees. His injured leg had improved, but he still needed to put it up on a low footstool from time to time, and he still needed to use the arm crutch whenever he had to walk further than down to the secretaries working on the administrative floor below - it was leaning against the nearest filing cabinet so he could reach it in case he needed it to get up from the swivel-chair.

He sent a hard stare in his daughter's direction for failing to follow his request of speaking with them first thing upon their return, but Malin just shrugged and broke out in a wide grin.

DeeDee had no surplus mental capacity to do either. She made a beeline for one of the swivel-chairs to avoid falling down like a rag doll in the middle of her boss' office. Sitting down, she squeezed her knees together, folded her hands in her lap and let out an audible gulp.

Malin strolled over to the other swivel-chair and sat down in a slouch like she wanted to test her father. "Hiya, Dad. Man, you shoulda seen the mess down on Skid Row. Tons of crap and garbage everywhere. A Godawful stench from the open sewers and the weird folks. Oh yeah, and a building had collapsed, too. I guess that part was kinda sh*tty," she said with a tired, though cheeky grin.

"Mmmm. So," Rickard Pettersson said, taking a stack of papers and knocking them straight on the desk top. "Miss White, usually these evaluations are conducted in strict confidentiality, but since my daughter has apparently insisted on acting as your moral support, I suppose I must accept it this time. Unless you object to her being here?"

"I don't, Sir," DeeDee squeaked. She needed to force herself to stop wringing her hands - if she continued, it was inevitable she would twist them into a knot that would require surgery to unravel.

"All right," Rickard said, moving down his reading glasses before he focused on the papers he held. Taking the top sheet, he studied it a couple of times before he looked up and pinned DeeDee to the spot with a hard glare through the lenses. "Miss White, this meeting has been called to evaluate your two weeks' temporary engagement. First we'll go over the assignments you've been part of through the reports you filled out after each completed job. Then we'll move onto how you've adjusted and adapted to the special requirements of the front-line ambulance services. Finally, I'll read aloud a handful of statements made by the people you've worked with for the past two weeks. The statements were made under the promise of strict anonymity and offer an insight into how you are perceived by your colleagues. Once you've listened to them, I wish to hear your honest response to the points raised. Shall we proceed?"

"Yes, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee squeaked.

"Very well. First up, the assignments," Rickard said, putting aside the top sheet to begin a close study of page two.

Malin sat up straight; if she was disappointed that her father had not told her to do so from the get-go, it failed to register on her face. "Dad, we're just talking about the regular assignments, aren't we? I mean, today-"

"Today doesn't count toward this evaluation at all, Malin. Such a day breaks the mould on too many accounts to be useful. Only the regular assignments up to and including yesterday," Rickard said without taking his eyes off the reams of text on the page he was reading. Once he was done, he suddenly looked up and pinned DeeDee to the spot once more. "All right. Miss White, your first assignment was a code two-oh-two in progress at Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food on West Nineteenth Street."

"Freddie Mack," DeeDee squeaked; Malin just groaned at the mere mention of the eternal nemesis of every ambulance service roaming the streets of Carlyle.

"Freddie Mack," Rickard Pettersson echoed, moving his half-rim reading glasses back up into his flat-topped buzzcut before he leaned back on his swivel-chair. He folded his hands in front of him like he could not wait to hear the details directly from the person involved in what had been an elaborate con.

DeeDee chewed on her lips before she shuffled around on the chair. "Well, Sir, it was like this-"

---

Going through each and every one of the post-assignment reports that DeeDee had filled out over the course of the two weeks had sent her emotions through a strong, unpredictable rollercoaster ride. She experienced elation whenever the big chief had praised her input, and she experienced ear-burning embarrassment whenever he had pointed out an error in the paperwork or her procedures that she had been completely unaware of. All in all, it tallied up to being a positive affair that proved she had understood what she needed to do and how to do it.

"Ah, Dad," Malin said, slouching like crazy on the hard swivel-chair while the numerous post-assignment reports had been chronicled, "remember my first event reports? And how you reacted to reading them?"

Rickard nodded somberly. "I do. I had them laminated and put on the inside of the lid of my crapper. It gave me something to aim at."

A loud, choking snort burst through DeeDee's throat; it made her hack, cough and splutter for nearly half a minute after hearing the colorful description.

"Miss White," Rickard continued as he looked up to pin DeeDee to the spot all over again, "I can also tell from your reports that you've been able to fully adjust to the countless special requirements involved in this line of work. Your years of experience as a nurse at the Beech Grove Private Hospital has certainly helped you in that regard. The absence of complaints from your side has been commendable. I wish I could say the same for all my employees… Malin."

The boss' aforementioned daughter pulled a classic 'Who me?' by putting her hands on her chest and looking suitably shocked - the elder Pettersson just rolled his eyes at her behavior.

"All right. Let's move onto the third and final part of this evaluation," Rickard said and put away the papers he had been using so far. Taking the final, fifteen-page stack of the files that had been on the desk, he folded the top page over the bright-orange paper clip in the top-left corner so it was ready. The pages saw numerous typed paragraphs of text of variable length; all anonymous comments left by the drivers, the riding nurses and the technical staff working for the company, and all concerning how they perceived their trainee colleague, DeeDee White.

DeeDee's head was already swimming after the lengthy, in-depth analysis of her post-assignment reports; the anonymous statements from the people she had met or worked with was the part of the evaluation she dreaded the most. Because she was an idealist and a quiet brooder, she knew she could come across as being aloof or distant at times, especially compared to the loud, brash Malin, or Maria Navarro, or a few others she had spoken to. She gulped down a nervous lump as she steeled herself for the worst.

"Here's the first one," Rickard said after he had read the opening paragraph a couple of times. After clearing his throat and adjusting his glasses, he read aloud: "Nurse White is undoubtedly a skilled woman when it comes to her profession, but she has yet to learn, or perhaps fully understand, the importance of the unbreakable bond between the riding nurse and the driver. I cannot say whether or not she has the capability to learn that lesson. If not, she will not last long here."

DeeDee's ears caught fire from the poor assessment of her but kept quiet until she was asked to comment on it.

As always, Malin could only keep quiet for half a second. "f*ckin' C-Note," she growled before she sat up straight. "Dad, that's pure and unadulterated BS with a capital B and a capital S! There's f*ck-all wrong with DeeDee's understanding of the bond. Hell, she gets it better than a whole bunch of the other flopheads we have working for us!"

Rickard's jaw worked overtime for a few moments before he folded the top sheet over the bright-orange paper clip to be ready for the next one. "Malin, this isn't your evaluation. I need to hear what Miss White thinks of the comments… so butt out until asked!"

"Yes, Sir," Malin mumbled, moving back into a petulant slouch.

"Miss White?" Rickard continued.

DeeDee scrunched up her face while she compiled her thoughts. It was true that she had not fully understood the importance of the bond at first, but her lack of understanding had only lasted until the end of the first shift. After that, and after working so closely with Malin during the good as well as the bad times that had followed, she understood perfectly well how big a factor the right chemistry and the inherent trust between the driver and the nurse played during the actual assignments - not to mention during all the downtime where she had indeed had a problem with her driver until they had worked it out between themselves.

"Well," she said to stall while her tired mind finished coming up with an answer, "I don't agree with that statement… although I will admit to not knowing how important the bond would be. I hadn't worked in a team since my days at the Community Hospital so I was surprised how close the working relationship with my driver would be. To be honest, Sir, I had expected to drive with someone new each day, and only occasionally work together with the same driver for more than one shift at a time. Now, I feel that a strong bond has been created between myself and my driver."

"Damn straight," Malin mumbled.

"That's a very good answer, Miss White. Thank you. All right, here's another comment," Rickard said before he adjusted his reading glasses once more and moved onto the next paragraph. As before, he skimmed it a few times before he read it aloud: "I'll say that Miss White may have the necessary skills for the job, but her mindset is inadequate for the brutal reality that's going on out there on the streets. From what I've seen and been told, she gets far too invested in the patients. That can't be allowed to happen as it'll only lead to mistakes being made."

"Who the hell said that?" Malin growled.

Rickard held up the page and pointed at the printed lines of text before he tapped his index finger against his temple: "Use your head, Malin… the comments are anonymous."

" 's gotta be Curly," Malin continued in the same grumble.

DeeDee thought it might be Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro instead. The assessment would certainly match the buff woman's own mindset of keeping everything at arms' length - literally as well as metaphorically. Worse, the assessment was probably true. She broke out in a slow nod. "I must admit I'm guilty of that, Mr. Pettersson. At least to a certain exte-"

"Perhaps some of us knuckleheads need to get a little closer to the patients instead!" Malin said strongly.

Rickard Pettersson drew a very deep breath like he was going to yell at his daughter. Instead of yelling, he let it out in a dangerous hiss as he sent her a fiery glare that nearly cracked the lenses of his half-rim reading glasses: "Malin, for the last time… shut up or get the hell outta here! This is Miss White's evaluation! I'm not making this up as I go along… these are legitimate comments made by the people working for the company. So tell me, are ya in or are ya out?"

Malin's jaw worked overtime just like her father's had done earlier. She eventually nodded and fell back into the slouch wearing a facial expression that said she would love to get her hands on the lapels of those of their so-called colleagues who had written up the negative assessments.

"Good! Now please be quiet!" Rickard continued before he turned back to DeeDee. "Miss White… you were saying?"

"Overall, I agree with the statement, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee said as she squirmed in her swivel-chair - Malin let out an annoyed grunt. "I can get too emotionally invested in the well-being of the patients… but I strongly refute the claim that it might lead to mistakes being made. Perhaps I'm being naive, but it is my opinion, built from years of experience, that a reassuring smile and a friendly voice can go a long way in helping a patient who is frightened or in pain. That's why I do it."

"Another good answer, Miss White," Rickard said and folded the piece of paper over the paper clip. He ran his eyes across the next few paragraphs, but there seemed to be little he could use as a base for further questions in either of them. He folded the pages twice more before he finally reached a paragraph that seemed to pique his interest. "Ah, here's a good one to close this section of the evaluation. I quote: Overall, Miss White has a good head on her shoulders. Her negative sides include being too brooding for her own good. She has a problem understanding the gallows humor that's been a staple of this trade since its inception. She also seems to become indignant or grow offended too easily. Her positive sides: she's quick to learn, quick to seek alternative solutions to problems, and quick to come to the aid of her colleagues when they need it. All in all, Miss White would be a good addition to the roster of riding nurses."

DeeDee blushed hard at the praise; once that reaction had receded, she blushed even harder at the listing of her negative sides - especially since they were all true, and had been true since her earliest years. She had lost count of the number of times in her childhood where she had sat alone to ponder life and the world while her friends played ball or tag. She liked to think she had a good sense of humor, but it was of the classic, gentle kind that did not allow much room for the modern style of jokes that were nearly all crude and abrasive. She let out a sigh. "I can't argue with any of those negative aspects, Sir," she said in a croak.

"Hey," Malin said, sitting up straight, "and there ain't no arguing with any of the positive ones, either! And I can say that for damn sure 'cos I wrote that!"

"Oh… I… oh," DeeDee croaked, whipping her head around to look at her driver. The hard blush returned and colored all of her face tomato-red.

"Goddammit, Malin!" Rickard barked as he thumped his fist onto the desktop - the hard impact made the transistor radio dance about and nearly fall off the edge. "The comments are supposed to be anonymous! What part of ano-ny-muss don't you understand?!"

Malin threw her hands in the air in frustration but wisely kept quiet.

Rickard sent several Evil Eyes at his daughter before he shook his head and put away the stack of papers holding the assessments. Pulling out one of the desk's drawers, he found a different wad of files that looked more official. "Miss White," he said as he put the new papers on the desk and dusted off a few imaginary cookie crumbs, "this is a contract offering you permanent employment here at Pettersson's Ambulance Services. There's an empty dotted line waiting for your signature if you're interested. It's a standard contract that's been approved by all the trade unions. You can sign now if you wish, or you can wait a few days. You should obviously read it carefully, but you have a three-day right to renege on the signing in case you find something you disagree with."

"Oh!" DeeDee croaked, staring wide-eyed at the pristine pages of the important contract. Her heart exploded in her chest and sent her pulse thumping so hard she could hear the fast rhythm through her eardrums. Her palms turned clammy and she had to wipe them on her fleece sweat pants.

Relief should have washed over her from the fact she was offered steady employment after a while living off her savings and the exit bonus from Beech Grove, but the sudden burst of energy that had coursed through her had depleted her last resources - she had spent so much of it already during the horrendous afternoon and evening that not even the momentous event could poke through the blanket of fatigue that fell over her. She certainly understood the importance of the documents and how much of an impact signing them would have on her future, but the exhaustion made it all seem anticlimactic or even unreal.

"DeeDee, wait," Malin said, reaching over to put a hand on the riding nurse's shoulder. "Before you add your John Hanco*ck to the contract, I would like to hear your own thoughts and feelings on the two weeks you've worked here as a trainee riding nurse."

DeeDee scrunched up her face as she looked at her driver. She still had so much to learn about the trade; she knew and accepted that. She was more than willing to learn so that part would be an educational challenge even if the learning curve would be a steep one.

She had perhaps even more to learn about her colleagues, but they had plenty to learn about her as well. A working relationship would always be give-and-take, and the trick was to find a balance that would suit both parties. She was determined not to waste any energy on those who did not like her for whatever reason; similarly, she was determined to get closer to those of her colleagues she shared traits or interests with and who could help her grow into becoming a better riding nurse.

"Well… the shifts have certainly been eventful. The good has outweighed the bad, however," she said and shuffled around on the hard swivel-chair before she got down to her own closing statements: "I applied for the job to get back to being an active help to those in dire need of it, and that's exactly what we've been doing. I don't regret it for a second… though I could have lived without being fooled by Freddie Mack."

Malin and Rickard Pettersson both let out identical grunts.

"So," DeeDee continued, looking at her boss and her colleague before she zoomed in on the papers, "when all has been said and done… where do I sign?"

"Right here, Miss White," Rickard said, flipping open the contract to the correct page before he turned it around. Realizing he had not provided any kind of writing tool to sign with, he rummaged through the various layers on top of the cluttered desk until he found a ball point pen - held in bright-orange and carrying the company name - that he handed to his newest employee.

"Oh, there is one thing, Mr. Pettersson," DeeDee said before she lowered the pen onto the dotted line. "If it's not too much trouble, I would much prefer to remain Miss Pettersson's regular riding nurse instead of going onto the open roster."

"And I second that motion," Malin said, putting her hand high in the air and waving it around like she needed to be excused.

"Ah… I see," Rickard said, leaning back in his swivel-chair. After moving his half-rim reading glasses back up his forehead, he looked from his daughter and over to his newest riding nurse a couple of times before he broke out in a shrug. "I won't object to that. But Jason Schmidt might. I have a feeling he's going to be pretty damn upset when he finds out the change was permanent and not just for a couple of weeks."

Malin shook her head as she sat up straight. "Tell you something, Dad. White here is a far better riding nurse than C-Note ever was… or ever will be, for that matter."

"Well… all right. It's not like there's a conga line of other riding nurses ready, willing and able to work with you, so… yeah," Rickard said before he turned back to DeeDee. "I approve your request, Miss White. Welcome aboard."

DeeDee tried hard not to chuckle out loud at her new boss' comment or at Malin's shocked look and subsequent barely muted grumbles, but she did not have too much success in her endeavor. Finding the dotted line, she added her signature with a flourish to make it official.

-*-*-*-

The hands of time had just moved past eleven thirty-five PM when DeeDee and Malin strolled through the corridors on their way to the staff restaurant. Rickard Pettersson had approved their request to end the active part of the shift early under the condition that they remained at the base until their regular finishing time at two AM in case another major incident occurred that required the units to head back onto the streets - it was obviously not a problem for either of them.

A myriad of thoughts ran through DeeDee's mind as she opened the frosted swinging door to the staff restaurant and let Malin walk in ahead of her. She was no longer a trainee but a fully-fledged member of the team of EMTs at Pettersson's Ambulance Services; the private medical service provider with the best reputation in the business. She was proud to wear the colors - garish though they were - and she was determined to do her best to maintain the status the company had worked so hard for over the course of nearly thirty years. At the same time, she knew it was preposterous of her to even think that she could make the slightest difference in the big picture. Whatever else happened, trying her best could not hurt.

Working on autopilot, she moved over to the table that carried the battery of coffee machines. After taking a clean mug, she picked up a random pot and poured herself a mugful of the paint-stripper-strong, dark-brown liquid. It was only when she turned around while pale-gray wisps of steam rose from her new mug that she noticed Malin was already holding up a full one she had made for her.

"Well, top o' the mornin' to ya!" Malin said with a grin. "I guess I'll be having two oral infusions of rocket fuel tonight, huh?"

"Oh… I'm sorry, Malin… I didn't notice," DeeDee said sheepishly. She glanced around the staff restaurant to find someone else who could inherit the mug she had made so the good coffee would not go to waste, but the other people present - two crews she had not met yet - already had a mug in front of them.

"Ah, who cares when its hot, strong, and above all free," Malin said as she turned around and shuffled over to the central table she always sat at. With all her regular chatting partners still out on the streets of Carlyle, she and her nurse had the table to themselves.

DeeDee followed her driver over to the table and sat down next to her. Like always, she chose the chair on Malin's right so their positions were just like in the ambulance. It had just been a random occurrence the first time it had happened, but it was the natural choice for both of them so it had become a conscious decision. "Who are those guys over there?" she said, nodding at the two crews who occupied another of the fourteen tables. The three men and one woman were huddled around a computer tablet that was used as a TV; by the sound of the reporter and the constant background noise of flapping rotors, they were watching coverage of the continued clean-up down on East Twelfth Street.

"They're from the twelve-to-ten shift," Malin said after craning her neck to take a gander at the fresh faces. When the others noticed they were being observed by some of those who had spent nearly all of their shift at the disaster area, they raised their coffee mugs in a salute - Malin and DeeDee mirrored the gesture. "I guess the old man called them in early to cover for the units who've spent the day down at that stinking hellhole," Malin continued before she took a long swig from the first of the two mugs.

"Mmmm…"

The air held a pleasant scent of the food being prepared by staffers in the industrial-sized kitchen at the rear of the staff restaurant; DeeDee's nose picked up a few familiar ingredients and arrived at the conclusion that the dish of the day would be ground beef patties spiced with oregano and basil, and that they would be served with Basmati rice and sweet corn. The artery-clogging alternative to the healthy fixing would be fat slices of cucumbers pickled in peppery vinegar, a large glob of sweet-and-tart cowberry jam and plenty of boiled potatoes swimming in a sea of pale-brown, creamy gravy that would no doubt be so thick it needed to be cut into bite-sized chunks with one of the trauma shears from the rapid response kits. As a result of the delightful scents, DeeDee's stomach let out a long growl.

"Hungry much?" Malin said with a grin.

"Ah… that would be a yes."

Malin nodded and pushed her chair back. "Me too. Let's check it out before some of the gluttons come back and snatch it all."

On their way past the table occupied by the EMT crews from the twelve-to-ten shift, DeeDee's attention was caught when she heard Police Captain Dwight Buchanan's familiar voice coming from the small speaker in the computer tablet. Turning to look at the flat monitor, she watched the officer in charge of the disaster area being interviewed by a female reporter from one of the local news stations. The senior police officer had the same pale-gray and haggard expression etched onto his face as everyone else who had spent the entire afternoon and evening wading through the thousands of tons of rubble to find any survivors - or those who had not been so fortunate.

'Captain Buchanan,' the golden-blonde reporter said holding a bright-yellow microphone, 'after the good news on the sixty-eight confirmed survivors of the disaster, what's the latest on the number of casualties?'

'The death toll currently stands at twenty-four. There's a risk it may rise further as we sift through the debris. A collapsed building cannot be compared to a plane crash… we have no way of knowing how many people were in the building when it came down,' the captain said, looking like the uncertainty bothered his strong sense of justice.

'Have you learned more about the alleged drug lab in the basem*nt? Was it in fact the triggering factor in the explosion that brought down the building?' the reporter said into the bright-yellow microphone before thrusting it back into Dwight Buchanan's face.

'The search and rescue operation is still ongoing. To draw conclusions now would merely be premature speculation. We have yet to reach the basem*nt, and we have no way of knowing when we will be able to access that part of the building. It might happen tonight or it might be in a few days' time. Once we reach it, we can begin a thorough investigation of the premises. If criminal activities are revealed to have taken place there, we'll treat it as a crime scene and act accordingly.'

'All right. Thank you, Captain Buchanan. Back to the studio.'

When a somber-looking anchor from the news station appeared on the computer tablet's display introducing a new guest for further interviews, DeeDee grunted and moved away from the table occupied by the EMTs working the twelve-to-ten shift.

The food beckoned, so she followed in Malin's tracks up to the shiny aluminum counter to get a tray and some cutlery. She had to chuckle when one of the kitchen staffers brought out Malin's order: meat, potatoes and thick, pale-brown gravy; she had expected the fiery driver to get exactly that. After ordering an oregano-and-basil ground beef patty and a good helping of the Basmati rice dish, she leaned against the counter while the steaming hot food was put on a plate.

As she waited, the swinging doors opened to reveal Spencer Bradshaw and Maria Navarro entering the staff restaurant. The two buff people still wore their uniforms so they had presumably only just returned. Looking beyond exhausted, they made a predictable beeline for the table with all the coffee machines. Malin waved them over to their regular table, and they soon sat down next to each other in the same positions they had in the ambulance - just like Malin and DeeDee always did.

Once her order had been served, DeeDee shuffled back to the central table and sat down with her food. The two buff EMTs both practiced their thousand-mile stares as they warmed their hands on the mugs of coffee, and not even the pleasant smell of the steaming hot ground beef patties and the delicious fixings could bring them out of their dead-tired stupor.

"My friends," Malin said as she balanced a large slice of gravy-drenched potato on her fork. Once she had Spencer and Maria's attention, she went in for the kill: "you look like sh*t. And that's no exaggeration," she said displaying a wink and a cheeky grin.

"We lost another one," Spencer said somberly.

"Oh, no," DeeDee croaked as she stared at her two colleagues.

Malin smacked her free fist onto the tabletop in frustration - it made for choppy seas in all the coffee mugs but produced no spillages. "Man! No f*ckin' way!"

"Big way," Maria said with a slow nod. "The next one after you had left. A young guy. Hell, he was just a big kid. Scorched lungs after being too close to the fire… it meant he got nothing out of even pure oxygen. Turned blue and that was that. We worked our asses off but he refused to come back."

There was nothing any of them could add to that, so the four EMTs concentrated on their food and their coffee while it was hot. While DeeDee enjoyed her beef patty and her rice dish, she could not keep her eyes off the two buff people and the way their reactions were mirror-opposites of each other. Maria was certainly exhausted and perhaps annoyed about losing yet another patient, but she had seemingly already moved past it. Spencer on the other hand was gloomier and more down than he had been in the two weeks DeeDee had known him.

"You know," DeeDee said, putting down her cutlery before dabbing her lips on one of the napkins that had been strewn about on the table, "a really smart man told me just the other week that talking about our bad experiences always helps."

"Is that a fact?" Spencer said and let out a tired chuckle. He reached up to run a hand across his brow. "I wonder who that was. Sounds like a clever guy."

DeeDee smiled at the man whom she hoped she would get to know a lot better now that she had become a full-time employee of Pettersson's Ambulance Services. "Oh, he definitely is. It won't bring back those we couldn't save, but it'll give the specters on our shoulders a good kick up the rear. So… what happened out there, Spencer? In both cases tonight."

Even while DeeDee spoke, Maria Navarro let out a long, annoyed groan at the direction the conversation was headed. Eyeing her two deeper and more soulful tablemates wearily, she shuffled around on the chair like she was on the brink of getting as far away from the touchy-feely stuff as possible.

"Hey, Sister D," Malin said, pointing a fork that held a gravy-drenched chunk of beef patty at her long-time colleague, "perhaps you ought to stick around this time. I'm not saying you hafta, I'm saying you oughtta."

Maria looked at each of her three colleagues in turn before she put her hands on the table palms-down. Then she pushed her chair back with a curt: "You're so good at it, you don't need me around. I'll pick up some chow and find someplace else to eat."

"Your loss," Malin said before she returned to her own food.

Spencer offered the two women across the table a tired smile as he sat up straight. He picked up a napkin and began to fiddle with it. "Don't mind her, DeeDee. We're just different people, that's all. What happened tonight… well, what didn't happen? It went off the rails right from the start."

As 'Blue' Spencer Bradshaw began relaying the tale of woes that he and Maria had experienced over the course of the afternoon and evening, DeeDee concentrated fully on what he had to say to show the proper respect to the intelligent man - she was so immersed into the debriefing she even failed to notice that Malin stole the rest of her Basmati rice dish while sporting a wide, cheeky grin.

Her thoughts wandered for the briefest of moments as a memory of a special afternoon just two weeks ago flashed across her mind's eye: she saw herself driving through the heavy traffic en route to Forty-fourth Street and a job interview that had the potential of giving her a new career if she was lucky. She recalled meeting the high-intensity, short-tempered, foul-mouthed Malin Pettersson for the first time - it had not been a good first impression - and she recalled the highs and lows of the very first shift touring the mean streets of Carlyle at Malin's side.

She had experienced so much since then she could hardly digest it all; highs, lows, elation, tragedy and everything in between. What would stick with her, however, was the people she had worked with: The fiery Malin 'Red' Pettersson and her equally short-tempered, drill-sergeant-like father Rickard, the somber, intelligent 'Blue' Spencer Bradshaw, the shielded and distant Maria 'Sister Dynamite' Navarro, the abrasive and somewhat annoying Ken 'Curly' Hutchins and his far calmer riding nurse Raymond 'Uncle Fester' Vinh. And then there were all those colleagues she had only met briefly or had spoken to in passing, like Lamb Chops, Cranky Jack, Wild Bill, The Ice Princess and all the other colorful characters who roamed the corridors of the old brick building on Forty-fourth Street.

Budding friends, steady acquaintances and perhaps occasional adversaries. They were all special people in their own right who made up jagged pieces of the grand jigsaw puzzle known as life at the front lines - and they all wore the uniforms and drove the garishly-painted ambulances of Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services.

Where would Riding Nurse DeeDee White fit into all that? She hoped that she would be a good colleague to all of them, that she would be able to do a good job for the patients that she and Malin would be sent out to help, and that she would be able to go home after each shift safe in the knowledge she could not have done more than she had.

There would be plenty of bad times ahead - she knew and understood that. Such a high-risk profession was anything but a regular nine-to-five desk job where the most exciting thing over the course of a working week would be a paper cut on Wednesday and a free slice of apple pie on share-your-best-cake-recipe Friday. She would face death and tragedy, she would face grieving relatives and she would face difficult patients who did all they could to resist the necessary treatment.

There would also be plenty of good times ahead. She was hopeful she would be able to put smiles of relief on the faces of many of those who came into the ambulance. Perhaps she could give little kids positive, eye-opening experiences like the young street-soccer player whose ankle she had taped; perhaps she could ease the pains of pregnant women who were about to give birth; perhaps she could help elderly patients return home from a stay at a hospital or a rehabilitation center like the retired cabbie Stanley Kirsch. All those things would happen, she was sure of it.

Whatever else would come her way, patrolling the streets of Carlyle at Malin Pettersson's side would never get stale, boring or same-old even during the shifts where the frequency of assignments would be low - that was an undeniable fact. Returning to the present, DeeDee let out a brief sigh as she went back to concentrating fully on what her new friend Spencer Bradshaw had to say…

*

*

THE END of PART 4

*

*

THE END of WHITE, RED & BLUE

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Norsebard - WHITE, RED & BLUE (2024)

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