When paramedic Nick Swain responds to a shooting in a seedy neighborhood, his entire world is thrown off its axis. His life is threatened…twice. Allegations of racism and medical neglect threaten his career and his ability to sleep at night. Not that he’ll be sleeping any time soon after the incident throws him into the path—and arms—of Detective Andrew Carmichael.
One hot night after another with Andrew may help Nick relieve some work-related stress, but sex won’t solve every problem in his life. With the media hounding him and the city watching his every move, he starts to wonder if the world is out to get him.
The world may not be out to get him, but someone is.
And that someone wants Nick dead.
“You know, if you keep sitting like that, you’re going to break your damned legs one of these days.” Leon took his hand off the steering wheel and gestured at my feet, which were on the ambulance’s passenger side dashboard.
“Only if you crash.” I glanced up from the clipboard on my lap. “Though with the way you drive, that wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Hey, back off my driving. And if you’re that worried I’m going to crash, put your goddamned feet down.”
“I’m not worried.” I signed the bottom of my report and flipped to the next page. “Besides, if you do crash, and I do break my legs, you have everything you need to put them back together.” I pointed with my pen at the back of the bus.
“You keep your feet up like that, I’m going to let you suffer when your legs break.”
“Keep staring at my legs instead of the road, and I might have to tell Zoe I’ve turned you to my side.”
He shot me a horrified look. “Oh, don’t you even think about it, you son of a bitch.”
“Then quit staring at my—hey! The road! Watch the fucking road!”
Leon looked up and swerved just in time to avoid hitting the curb. “Now see? See? If I’d crashed just then—”
“My legs would have been fine and I’d have used them to kick your ass.” I glared at him, then went back to filling out my report.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He slowed the ambulance to a stop at an intersection and stretched his arms while he waited for the light to turn green. “Man, it’s getting to be dinner thirty.”
“Dinner thirty?” I laughed. “It’s not even five o’clock. Besides, weren’t you just eating before we left the station?”
He let out a huff of breath. “Yes, Nick.” He threw me a glare. “And I didn’t get to finish it because we left the station.”
“Damn those inconsiderate people.” I sighed dramatically and put the back of my hand against my forehead. “Getting hurt and keeping you away from your food.”
He started to come back with something snide, but the radio crackled to life.
“Code one, code one. Shooting at Jackson and Fourteenth. Multiple casualties. All units respond.”
We were just blocks away from the location. Leon and I exchanged glances, and he gave a sharp nod.
I picked up the radio. “Dispatch, this is Twenty-seven Alpha. On our way to Jackson and Fourteenth, over.”
Leon accelerated through the intersection as he flipped on the lights and siren. I dropped my clipboard and feet to the floor. God only knew what the scene would be like, but I had little doubt there would be blood and lots of it, so I went ahead and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
“Busy night in Masontown tonight, isn’t it?” he said.
I didn’t reply. We’d already been to that neighborhood once tonight, but that wasn’t unusual. Between the people so wasted they couldn’t remember how to care for themselves and those who were too poor to do so, Masontown was no stranger to flashing red lights. Sex and substances were the staple crops of that place. This wasn’t the first shooting we’d attended there, and I doubted it would be the last.
As signs, cars, and buildings blurred past us, I shifted into autopilot. Training kicked in, pushing emotions to the back of my mind along with any thoughts I didn’t need for the task at hand. It wasn’t apathy per se, but it was close—something to keep me calm and focused on the clinical so I could do my job.
In minutes, we’d arrived at the scene. A small crowd had gathered, but there were no flashing lights in sight except for our own reflecting off cars and windows.
“Think it’s safe?” Leon asked. “Or do we wait for the cops?”
I surveyed the scene. With no police in sight, it was our discretion to move in or wait. In this case, there didn’t appear to be anyone brandishing a weapon, so it was probably safe for us to attend. That, and shootings usually meant serious injuries that couldn’t wait long.
“Safe as it’s going to be.” I unbuckled my seatbelt. “Let’s go.” I went into the back, grabbed the jump kit, and stepped outside. There was blood on the pavement, panic in the air and four people on the ground. No one else looked to be injured, but the wounded still outnumbered us for the time being. Triaging the scene, I silently cursed the budget cuts that had only two people manning the ambulance instead of three or four.
I could use a few more pairs of hands right about now, you fucking bean counters.
I went from patient to patient, assessing wounds and vitals as quickly as I could. Triaging a situation like this always did weird things to the passage of time, or at least my perception of it. I moved in slow motion while everyone around me was in fast forward, and even they couldn’t keep up with the rapid fire ticking of the clock.
One male was in obvious pain with blood seeping between his fingers as he gripped his upper arm. He was lucid, though, and not in immediate danger.
The other male was on the ground, semi-conscious and bloody. His vitals were fairly stable, but the bleeding was significant and his condition could quickly deteriorate at the drop of a hat. A few paces away, a woman writhed and moaned in a blood-soaked shirt, clinging to the hand of a bystander, who pressed a wadded rag against her chest. She was bleeding profusely and her breathing was labored.
The second woman lay motionless in a huge and rapidly expanding pool of blood. The man kneeling beside her alternately screamed at her to wake up and shouted at me to help her. Her vitals were bad and worsening by the second, and had she been the only victim, I’d have helped her immediately. With more wounded than medics, though, she was too far gone. I had a better chance of saving the other three, so difficult decisions had to be made.
Glancing at Leon, I gestured at the unconscious woman and the bleeding, cursing male. “She’s a black tag. He’s green.” Then I pointed at the semi-conscious man and the moaning woman. “The other two are red. You work on him and I’ll take care of her.”
Leon nodded and we went to work.
“Hey! Hey!” The man beside the dying woman screamed as we both walked past her. “She needs help!”
“We’re doing everything we can,” I said. “Backup is on its way.”
“She’s going to die!” he shouted. “You gonna let her die just because she’s black?”
I gritted my teeth. There wasn’t time to explain to him what ‘black tag’ meant, or that it had nothing to do with race. Though I felt for him, and I certainly felt for the woman on the ground beside him, there simply wasn’t time. With her plummeting vitals and that much blood loss, there probably wasn’t much that could be done for her even if I had the manpower to try.
Kneeling beside the other woman, I looked at the man by her side. Her husband, I assumed, judging by the gold ring on one blood-stained hand and the way he gripped her hand with his other.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.
“Her name?” I asked. Maybe my assumption was incorrect. Maybe he wasn’t her—
“Chelsea. Chelsea Wayland.”
“Chelsea? Can you hear me?” I touched her shoulder. “Chelsea, my name is Nick. I’m here to help you. Can you hear me?” She moaned, which could as easily have been in response to the pain as to the sound of my voice.
Her husband looked over his shoulder, then back at me. “Tell me they’ve got backup coming.”
“On their way.”
Come on, guys, where are you?
Getting into Masontown was a nightmare in heavy traffic, and as luck would have it, we were right in the middle of rush hour. Every unit in town was probably stuck on that fucking two-lane bridge.
Chelsea tried to take a breath, wincing and wheezing with the effort. Her lips were losing color and quickly.
“Her breathing has been getting worse,” he said. “When she could still talk, she said her chest hurt, but I assumed she meant where she was stabbed.”
“Stabbed?” I looked up. “I thought this was a shooting.”
“It was.” He nodded toward the other woman. “She had a knife, though.”
A comment about bringing a knife to a gunfight stopped at the tip of my tongue. Gallows humor may have kept me sane in these situations, but the same usually couldn’t be said for a husband applying pressure to his wife’s bleeding chest.
“We need to get her shirt off,” I said. With her husband’s help, I cut it away. To my surprise, removing her shirt revealed a bulletproof vest underneath. In a less urgent situation, I might have questioned just what I’d walked into, but the vest was stained with too much blood to wonder why she was wearing it in the first place. We quickly unfastened the straps on the side and got rid of it.
With the vest out of the way, I looked at the wound. It was a deep laceration with substantial bleeding, but it was more or less under control. It was her breathing that concerned me. Removing the vest didn’t make it any easier for her to breathe, and the color of her lips continued to fade.
“Chelsea, can you hear me?” Again, I couldn’t tell if the response was to the pain or my voice. I held her free hand. “If you can hear me, squeeze my hand twice.”
She responded with two squeezes, the second more feeble than the first. I pressed the stethoscope against her chest and she flinched weakly.
“Chelsea, can you take a deep breath?”
She tried, but immediately grimaced. Her chest barely rose. The more I took her vitals, the more pieces fell into place, and it didn’t look good. Her heart was racing, her blood pressure was dropping, and the shallow, rapid breathing was getting worse.
“I’ll be right back.” I sprinted to the ambulance, ignoring the furious, panicked shouts of the man beside the black-tagged woman. Cursing the traffic that kept backup dangerously far away, I grabbed a few items out of the ambulance and hurried back to Chelsea’s side. There, I slipped an oxygen mask over her face and opened the valve on the tank.
Her husband raised his eyebrows. “How bad is it?”
“Her lung’s collapsed.”
“Jesus,” he whispered.
It wasn’t quite so simple, but I had no time to explain in detail that she had a tension pneumothorax and needed a thoracentesis to release the air building up in her chest cavity. This wasn’t the first time I’d treated something like this in the field, and I anticipated the barrage of questions about how bad it was and if she was going to die. He said nothing though. In fact, he was quite calm given the circumstances.
Kneeling beside her again, I gestured to two bystanders. To them and Chelsea’s husband, I said, “Hold on to her. Keep her as still as you can.”
“I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” her husband said through gritted teeth.
“No, but she isn’t going to like this.” As I pulled the large needle out of its packaging, his breath caught. “Don’t watch. Look at something else. Trust me.” When I pressed the needle against a groove between her ribs, he cleared his throat and looked away. At least he didn’t insist on watching. Leon and I had enough to worry about without a passed out husband on our hands.
Just before I pushed the needle into her skin, something cold and solid dug into the base of my skull. My hands and breath froze. Moving only my eyes, I looked at Chelsea’s husband. He stared past me, lips parted and eyes wide.
“Get away from her,” an unsteady voice commanded from behind me. Something creaked, and even with my limited experience with guns, I recognized the menacing sound of a hammer being drawn back. “Get the fuck away from her.”
“Jesse, stop.” Chelsea’s husband tone was still surprisingly calm, but the faintest note of uncertainty sent ice through my veins. “Listen to me, Jesse. Put the gun down.”
“No, no, he’s hurting her.” The voice bordered on hysterical now, and the gun’s muzzle twitched against my skin. I swallowed hard. It wasn’t just the metal against my skin that concerned me. It was the way that metal shook. A shaking hand on a loaded gun against my head wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable combination.
Chelsea moaned and gasped for air. Every breath was more difficult than the last, and her lips were beginning to turn blue beneath the mask’s clear plastic. Gun to my head or not, she needed this tube in her chest. Willing my hands to stay steady, I pressed the needle against her, but the muzzle of the gun dug even harder into my head. The shaking was more violent, and my mind’s eye showed me a trembling finger on a trigger. One twitch. One twitch was all it would take. Oh, fuck.
“Jesse.” Chelsea’s husband looked at him even as he tried to hold her still. “He’s trying to help her.”
“He’s hurting her, Mark.” The one called Jesse’s voice was getting shriller. “Mark, Mark, he’s hurting her. Make him stop hurting her!”
“No, he’s not,” the husband—Mark, apparently—said. “He’s helping her. Put the gun down.”
Chelsea tried to suck in a breath, wheezing hard and writhing on the pavement. The cyanosis worsened by the second, and she couldn’t wait any longer. Hoping to God I hadn’t just signed my own death warrant, I leaned against the needle and forced it between her ribs. She released a feeble cry, thrashing as much as the three men holding her down would allow, and a split second later, air hissed out of the needle.
For a moment, I held my breath, fully expecting a bullet through my head after my sudden movement and Chelsea’s struggles.
When that bullet didn’t come, I tried to continue concentrating on Chelsea. I gestured toward the kit.
“Hand me that plastic tubing,” I said to Mark. My voice shook more than I expected it to, and I shuddered. I could almost ignore this heart-stopping terror until I heard it in my own voice. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. Pushing those thoughts away, I forced myself to focus. He handed me the plastic tube I’d indicated, and as he reached over her, his eyes darted over my shoulder to the unhinged lunatic.
I worked as quickly as I could to get the tube into her chest. The faster I moved, the sooner I could get her on the ambulance and out of here. I could also pretend my hands weren’t shaking and maybe, just maybe, ignore the gun that was still pressed against my head. The gun that twitched every time Chelsea moved or made a sound.
“He’s hurting her,” Jesse said. “Make him stop hurting her.”
“Jesse, he’s helping her.” Mark’s voice got calmer and gentler as if to counter Jesse’s hysteria. “If you kill him, you’re going to kill her too.”
The gun twitched. Then again. After a second, it moved away from my head and I released my breath. As I slid the tube in and the needle out, some of Chelsea’s color returned. She murmured, then moaned, weakly trying to get away from the pain I was undoubtedly inflicting.
Clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering, I struggled to focus on Chelsea. With the tube releasing the air from her chest cavity, her lung would have room to reinflate, but she needed to get to the hospital. I needed to get her out of here. I needed to get myself the hell out of here. Away from this armed idiot.
With Chelsea’s condition improving slightly and the gun down, I became aware of my surroundings again. A crowd had gathered. The black-tagged woman’s companion was beyond hysterical now. In the distance, sirens filled the air, coming at us from all directions. Backup at last. Still, I prayed there were no blue lights among them. Though the gun was down, I didn’t know how crazy Jesse really was. Something told me if he saw cops and panicked, I was done.
Chelsea whimpered and tried to pull away from me, but the three men held her still. The whimper became a cry and feet shuffled behind me. I cringed, expecting the muzzle of the gun against my head at any second.
Mark moved suddenly, and the shuffling halted. Several bystanders gasped and the air around me flexed as they all took a collective step back.
“Put it down,” he snarled. My eyes flicked up and I sucked in a breath. He had his own gun now, drawn and aimed past me. His hands were alarmingly steady, and there was nothing but cold, murderous rage in his eyes. Slowly, he rose, eyes and weapon still trained on my unseen assailant. “Jesse, raise that gun again and you won’t live long enough to put it to his head. Put. It. Down.”
Then, feet shuffled again. More gasping, more movement, more oh God, where is that gun?
“Jesse, you son of a bitch!” Mark flew over Chelsea and darted past me.
All around us, emergency vehicles pulled up with sirens screaming and engines roaring. My senses focused only on the fading footsteps. I expected gunfire, but there came none, and eventually the footsteps faded away, leaving only the rumble of diesel engines and the murmur of panic and confusion in the air. A violent shudder rippled down my spine, relief knocking the breath out of me.
A hand touched my arm and I jumped, nearly falling back before I looked up to see Leon.
“What the hell happened over here?” he said.
I shook my head and gestured at Chelsea. “Let’s get her out of here.”
He cocked his head, but didn’t argue. With police on-scene and other firefighters and medics attending the rest of the victims, Leon and I got Chelsea onto the stretcher and wheeled her across the sidewalk to the ambulance.
Just before we reached it, a hand flew out of the crowd and seized my arm, nearly hauling me off my feet. I regained my balance and found myself face to face with the distraught companion of the woman I’d black-tagged.
“You racist son of a bitch,” he snarled. “Why didn’t you help her?” Behind him, the woman lay between two kneeling firefighters, one of whom drew a sheet over her face.
“You killed her. You fucking killed her!” He grabbed for my neck, but I deflected his hand with my elbow. Two officers pried him off me and I stumbled back, staring at him in stunned silence. I jumped when another hand touched my shoulder, even though I knew before I looked that it was Leon again.
“Come on,” he said. “We need to get her out of here.” I turned and followed him and the stretcher to the ambulance.
“You fucking racist!” The man called after me. “I will kill you! Do you hear me? I will fucking kill you!” I glanced over my shoulder at him, and the icy hatred in his eyes sent a chill down my spine.
He continued screaming at me, warning me over and over that he was going to hunt me down and kill me. The officers led him out of sight and I turned my attention back to my patient, trying to focus on the threats to her life instead of my own. Leon closed the doors behind Chelsea and me.A moment later, he climbed into the cab. The tires beneath us squealed and we left he scene. As Masontown and its flashing lights faded behind us, I’d never in my life been so thankful for Leon’s habit of driving too fast.