Watch Me Burn
copyright 2011, Enfleurage
"How's she doing?"
He'd reached them just in time; Gage was handing DeSoto the biophone and the drug box, as they loaded the victim into the back of the ambulance.
Roy's face contorted into his hedging look, the one between cautiously optimistic and 'I wouldn't hold my breath.'
"Well, she's doing pretty well, considering. She has second-degree burns over about twenty percent of her arms and legs, a little smoke inhalation but her BP's still pretty rocky."
"Internal injuries," Gage said and then muttered something under his breath.
Since they were eager to get moving and he needed to get back to his Engine crew, Stanley clapped his hands together and rubbed them, a habit he couldn't remember starting but which everyone seemed to understand.
"I talked to Vince and he's asked us not to discuss what happened here until they have a chance to interview each of us separately, and that means not talking about it with each other or anyone else."
He saw Gage and DeSoto exchange frowning glances and thought it was probably a waste of breath to ask them not to talk to each other, particularly since they'd been side-by-side through the entire series of events. On his own, DeSoto wouldn't say a word but Gage was going to need to vent a little in the Squad on the way home and there was a good chance he'd draw his partner out.
"By the time you get back to the station, we'll know whether the Chief is going to take the station out of service for a while so we can make our statements tonight or whether we'll do them in the morning. Either way, keep all your discussions at Rampart focused on the victim."
"Got it, Cap. Did Vince arrest that guy?"
Stanley nodded and Roy seemed satisfied but Gage was still scowling as he closed the back doors of the ambulance, with the customary two thwack signal. As he turned to pack up the rest of the squad's equipment, he called over his shoulder.
"You know, if I'd've done what you did, my ears would've been bleeding by the time you got through with me."
"You bet your ass they would've," Stanley snapped, instantly back in Command voice. It wasn't the right place for this discussion and he damn sure wasn't in the right frame of mind but the faster he restored a bit of normality in his crew, the better. "You have a lot of experience with a .45 automatic that I don't know about, Gage?"
"Uhhhhh…." Gage turned around and looked at him, expression twisted as if trying to comprehend the question.
Stanley straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin, unfurling into his full 6 feet 3 inches.
"Uhhh, no sir," Gage stammered as he unconsciously mirrored his Captain's posture. "No experience with a .45 automatic." He frowned and confessed, "I don't much like guns, Cap."
"Neither do I, John," Stanley said, back in normal voice. He patted Gage on the shoulder. "Neither do I. I'll see you back at the Station."
The crew from both Engines were doing overhaul and clean up as he met Bill McDowell near what once had been a nice garden border by the front door, now trampled into California dust and mud by hoses, boots and water.
"You want to stand your guys down, we'll finish up here," McDowell offered.
Stanley gave him a grateful smile. "That's a pretty generous offer, but it'll go faster with both companies. Besides, a little hard work won't hurt my guys."
And a little routine wouldn't either.
They were quiet on the way home, quieter than was normal for the size and duration of the fire. It hadn't been complicated or especially dangerous, except for one unnerving sixty to ninety second period of time. The last time they'd been this quiet on the way back to the Station was after being on scene almost four hours at an industrial fire, and that was mostly because Kelly had gone hoarse after taking his mask off for a minute or two for some idiotic reason that Stanley couldn't remember.
He caught Stoker stealing glances over at him and normally he would have batted those questioning looks away verbally. The quiet suited him tonight but after a few minutes, he realized that it might not be what his men needed.
"Hey, Marco, will you do me a favor, pal, and make sure Kelly didn't fall out somewhere? We might have lost him back there when Stoker did that hard 90 degree turn at an excessive rate of speed."
The corner of Stoker's mouth was twitching and he heard a quiet chuckle from Lopez.
"Ah c'mon, Cap you told us not to talk about it," Chet grumbled.
"I told you not to talk about what happened until after we get the official interviews done," Stanley said. "Now, I know I'm going to look back on this moment of peace and quiet and wonder what the hell I was thinking…."He paused, wrestled his expression into submission. "Mike, was I just encouraging Kelly to talk?"
That was definitely a snicker from the driver's seat, a slightly louder chuckle from Marco and an annoyed huff from Chet.
It wasn't that easy, of course. He'd only just defused a little of the tension but was pleased to hear snatches of conversation between Chet and Marco that seemed to have something to do with their plans for tomorrow. They went quiet again when they saw they had company back at the station.
He'd requested the Battalion Chief meet him at the Station though he'd been hoping for a chance to shower and change into a clean uniform first. The turnout had absorbed most of the grass stains but his trousers were wrinkled and dirty. Firefighters spent half of their working time soaked in smoke, sweat, grime, water and occasionally blood and the other half cleaning themselves, their gear, their apparatus and their station. The Chief knew that; he just preferred to see his men turned out in a way that reflected well on the department.
He left his turnout in the cab, straightened up his uniform as best he could and met his Chief by the office.
"Chief, thanks for coming down."
"Hank." Chief Miller looked past him; sharp eyes evaluated the Engine crew loitering near the Engine and blatantly eavesdropping. "Sounds like you boys had a rough time of it."
"A few bad minutes, Chief, but no one got hurt. Gage and DeSoto are at Rampart with the victim. They should be back shortly."
Miller nodded towards the office. "Why don't you fill us in on what happened."
The 'us' became clear as he entered the office and saw that Lt. Crockett had made himself at home at his desk and was just hanging up the phone.
Crockett inclined his head graciously, as if welcoming Hank into his own office. "Captain."
Stanley turned around and looking at his crew, jerked his head towards the day room, hoping one of them would make a fresh pot of coffee as it was probably going to be a late night. Then he shut his office door.
It was different telling the story this time. With Vince, it had all come out in a rush and he'd felt a lot better afterwards as if he'd expelled something unsettling from his system. Now, conscious of how he'd already told it, the words were slower to come, more deliberate and the questions after he'd finished were different.
"Did you see him come from the house?"
He thought about it and then shook his head. "I didn't see him when we first pulled up, but after we were all out of the Engine and the guys were dragging hoses towards the house, I saw him on the front lawn. He was standing midway between the house and his car, turned away from us, looking at the house."
Crockett nodded and scribbled something in his notebook.
He noticed a few sheets of mimeographed paper, blue ink smeared, peeking out from Crockett's notebook. A copy of Vince's notes, maybe?
"How do you know it was his car?"
Stanley frowned and then shrugged. "I guess I don't. After I told Gage and DeSoto to search the house, he walked in that direction. I guess I assumed that's where he'd gone, where he got the gun."
"But you didn't see him open the car or in the car?"
He sighed. "No."
"Well, the car is registered in his name, but just give me the facts, what you know, don't speculate or try to guess."
He tensed and shifted his jaw. Crockett was doing his job, was reportedly very good at his job, but something about the man had always made him wary. He just seemed a little too glib, a little too quick to think the worst of people.
"Tell me about the gun."
Stanley raised an eyebrow and waited.
Crockett looked up from his notebook and waved a hand at him to hurry it up.
"It was an automatic pistol, a .45," Stanley said slowly, trying to determine what more one could say about the gun.
"Yes…" Crocket said encouragingly. After a minute, he flipped back to the mimeographed paper. "You told Vince Howard that it looked like a standard Army Officer sidearm."
"Yes, it did."
"You were in the Army, Captain?"
Stanley nodded. "'Two years. '57 through '59."
"You an Officer in the Army?"
"No. My Company Commander recommended me for OCS. I decided I preferred to fight fires instead of wars, but I have handled a .45. In the Army and as a civilian."
Crockett was frowning at his notes and Hank wasn't quite sure how to read him. The detective was still sitting in the chair Stanley normally used while Chief Miller was quietly observing from the other desk chair, which was fine. He was still a little too wound up to sit quietly so he stood, and occasionally shifted about on his feet.
"You said that you didn't smell gasoline or any other accelerant on the man. What about alcohol?"
"ETOH?" He shook his head. "No, I didn't smell that either."
Crockett stared at his notebook for what was probably only a minute or two, but what seemed an much longer time, and then turned with a bright smile that Stanley still didn't trust.
"The D.A.'s going to love you, Captain. You're precise, detailed and consistent. You make one hell of a witness."
Hank blanched. It was a logical sequence from the minute the man pulled the gun, to an arrest, to a trial, but his brain hadn't made the leap yet, possibly hadn't wanted to think about it. He looked at Chief Miller who was frowning, obviously not thrilled at the idea of dragging Fire Department personnel into a criminal case, much less the media circus an Attempted Murder case would entail.
"I may have some more questions for you later, Captain but I'll have these notes typed up into a statement and I'll need you to stop by in the morning, review it to make sure I got the details right and sign it for me. I need to speak to the rest of your crew now, get their stories down and have them sign statements tomorrow morning too."
"Lieutenant," Stanley said quietly. "What are the chances of keeping our names out of the morning papers? Give us an opportunity to talk to our families first? We're on shift through tomorrow morning and I'd rather not have our family members read our names in the newspaper before we get home."
The look on Crockett's face wasn't encouraging.
"I'll do what I can to keep your names out of it, but we've already had a few calls from reporters and they know it was Station 51 that was involved."
Stanley glanced at the clock on the wall. 21:45 already, with five men still to interview.
"Then I'd appreciate it if you could interview Roy DeSoto next so he can call his wife afterwards, before it gets too late. "
He'd heard the Squad pull in at least five minutes earlier; otherwise he would have asked Crockett to start with Chet Kelly, who was probably tying himself into knots trying not to talk about the incident.
"Happy to accommodate you, Captain," Crockett said, still wearing that glib grin. "If you don't mind me asking, just between us, what on earth possessed you to jump a man with a gun, even if you were sure the safety was on, instead of waiting for the police to arrive?"
Hand on the doorknob, on his way to get DeSoto, Stanley stopped and turned. "I had a responsibility to the woman in the burning house to get it resolved quickly, and a responsibility to my men to get it resolved safely."
Chief Miller shifted in his seat, tilted his head and didn't bother to try to hide his interest.
"How's that?" Crockett asked.
"Let me ask you a question, Lieutenant. If I'd waited another couple of minutes for Vince to arrive, or for Engine 36 to arrive and she died, would that have made me or my men accessories to that woman's murder?"
Crockett shook his head, and his lips were pursed, not smiling. "I just enforce the laws, I don't interpret them but I'm pretty sure being held at gunpoint would mitigate any failure on your part to rescue the woman or to fight the fire."
Stanley decided he might possibly grow to like this serious, thoughtful version of Crockett.
"Let me ask you another question. That man set his house on fire with his wife in it….
"Allegedly set the fire," Crockett said with obvious reluctance.
"Whether he set the fire or not, he pointed a gun at me and my crew and threatened to kill all of us to prevent us from entering the house to rescue his wife or extinguish the fire. You think a man like that would think twice about eliminating witnesses to what he did?"
"Hank," Miller said finally, breaking his self-imposed silence, "At what point did it occur to you that the man might consider you witnesses to a crime? At the scene or after it was all over?"
Stanley exhaled. "It was a lot less coherent a concept at the scene, Chief. I just knew that a guy who let his wife burn to death wouldn't have any trouble shooting the firemen who could identify him. I was worried that one of my guys would do something that would set him off."
He paused for a moment and waited for Crockett or Miller to tell him he was wrong.
They didn't, so he opened the door of the office and walked toward the day room where he could smell a pot of coffee on the stove and hear voices rising and falling, and then suddenly go silent as they heard his footsteps.
He leaned in the door and raised an eyebrow. "Roy? You're up next. That way you can call Joanne afterwards, before it gets too late."
At the table, Kelly groaned and Gage snickered.
"Pay up, Chet," he crowed. "Told you Cap would pick Roy for that very reason, didn't I?"
"Actually, I'm pretty sure it was Mike who said that," Marco said with a long-suffering sigh and a glance that shifted from Gage to Kelly and back again.
"Well, I agreed with Mike when he said it," Gage argued.
DeSoto, standing at the cooktop, lifted the pot of coffee and Stanley nodded and then headed back to his office to offer coffee to Crockett and Chief Miller.
Miller followed him back out of the office, turning to Crockett as he crossed the threshold. "Don't start without me, Lieutenant. Either Captain Stanley or I will need to sit in on the remainder of the interviews."
"It'll have to be you, Chief," Crockett said with a shrug. "Captain Stanley's a witness. Intentional or not, his presence might influence the statements from the other witnesses."
Miller nodded and then tapped Stanley lightly on the shoulder before they'd reached the day room.
"Hank? A word please."
He nodded and they walked to the area between the Squad and the Engine.
"The Department places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of our Company Officers, not least of which is your responsibility to ensure the safety of the Fire Department personnel under your command and to ensure that your decisions do not expose them to unnecessary risks."
Stanley squared his shoulders, steeling himself for what he knew was coming next.
"Hank, you're one of the best Captains in the department, one of the better Incident Commanders I've seen in my career and I have a great deal of confidence that you deploy resources safely and very effectively at a fire or a rescue."
"But attempting to subdue an armed and dangerous individual on your own was a brave and extremely risky move that could have resulted in your own death and the injury or death of your men. If you ever try something like that again, I will personally put a letter of reprimand in your file. Next time you wait for local law enforcement."
It took every ounce of discipline to spit out, "Understood, Chief."
"All right," Miller sighed. "At ease, Captain. You're not in the Army now."
Stanley relaxed his shoulders and nodded. There was no argument he could offer in his own defense that Miller hadn't already heard.
Miller looked in the direction of the day room. "What are your thoughts about bringing in someone to talk to your crew? This was not a situation any of you were equipped to handle, technically or otherwise."
"Well," Stanley stuck his hands in his trouser pockets and rocked gently on the balls of his feet as he gave it some thought. "We usually do some informal debriefing after a bad call. Let me see how that goes, get a reading on how they're handling what happened. I'm not opposed to bringing in crisis counselors if necessary."
"All right, Hank. Let me get a cup of coffee and then I'll sit in on the rest of the interviews. "
"Appreciate that, Chief."
And he did. Knowing that the Department was looking out for his men in this unnerving situation took a burden of worry off his own shoulders.