Thursday, March 20, 2008


The funeral procession snaked from the First Baptist Church, east down Main Street for two miles to the Interstate. By the time the two funeral coaches reached the on-ramp, the final cars in the procession were only just leaving the church parking lot.

Ryan rode up front with Tommy Bollinger in the lead coach, the one with Barbara Collins' casket in the back. Attending her were Billy Fontenot and Mary Jo Barron, Gail Vetters and Jody Snell.

"Look at that, would you?" Ryan said quietly, nodding his head at the side mirror.

Tommy Bollinger looked up to see the procession streaming behind him for two miles, thirty-six ambulances and police cruisers following the funeral coaches, all with their emergency lights flashing. Bringing up the rear was an untold number of mourner's cars snaking onto the Interstate, their headlights shining.

It was an impressive sight.

"Pretty damned sad," Tommy mused, "When the best damned party a guy ever gets is after he's dead."

"Yep," Ryan agreed. "So how have things been around here, Tommy?"

"Same old story; good ideas and no follow through. Dave handin' out projects to one and sundry, then standing behind you tellin' you how to do it until you finally give up and let him do it hisself. Then Dave complainin' about how he cain't never git anything done. Asked for new cardiac monitors a couple years back, so Dave told me to get some bids. I did, and we had sales reps fightin' with each other over who could make us a better deal. Dave told 'em he'd think it over, then turned around and bought six new computers for the office. Still got the old cardiac monitors."

"You still working a truck?" Ryan asked.

"Naw," Tommy grunted, "they made me a supervisor three years back. Got tired of babysitting that bunch, so they put me on a truck part-time, and I manage the supplies and the fleet the rest of the time."

"Who are the supervisors now?" Ryan asked curiously.

"Me, I got the fleet and supplies," he answered. "Mack's the A-Shift supervisor, Royce has B-shift. Gail does education, when she wasn't fightin' with Miss Barbara because she refused to pencil-whip paperwork. Richard cain't lift no more, so he runs the wheelchair vans. Mack's wife Shannon is the Office Supervisor, Billy Fontenot's the Dispatch Supervisor, we got a gal named Molly Peters as the Training Center Coordinator…"

"Who runs the Department of Redundancy Department?" Ryan chuckled.

"It's a lot," Tommy admitted. "So," he ventured casually, staring straight ahead through the windshield, "how many of 'em you gonna fire when you take over?"

"What makes you think I'm taking over?" Ryan asked carefully.

"Ty called a company-wide meetin' fer this afternoon, right after the funeral," Tommy snorted. "Ain't hard to figger out."

"Still doesn't mean I'm taking over," Ryan dodged.

"Answer the question, Hawkeye," Tommy pressed. "This is me. We was partners fer six years, me and you."

"Things are going to change, Tommy," Ryan sighed. "They have to. Some people are probably going to lose their jobs. Who that is yet, I don't know. One thing is for certain; we have too many people in the office, and not enough on ambulances. That will change, and right smartly."

"Figgered on that," Tommy grunted. "How much did you buy the place for?"

"None of your Goddamned business," Ryan retorted good-naturedly. "How many people think they know what's going on? Who's been speculating?"

"Just the old timers," Tommy assured him. "Me, Mack, and Gail mainly, and we've kept our mouths shut. None of the rest of 'em knows that much about you. They've never met the man behind the legend," Tommy ribbed him. Ryan refused to take the bait.

"Well, keep on keeping your mouths shut," he ordered. "I want to meet with you three guys this afternoon, after everyone else has left."

"Just the three of us?" Tommy questioned. "What about Shannon, or Billy Fontenot?"

"Have Mack tell Shannon to come too, but Billy is a problem I'm going to handle privately."


In the coach behind them, Royce Trenton and Richard Chambless were arguing.

"I'm telling you, he's sold out," Richard insisted.

"Ty wouldn't sell his parents' company," Royce assured him. "He knows what it meant to them."

"He sold it to Ryan Pierce, and he's gonna come in and clean house," Richard said darkly. "You watch. We'll all be out of jobs in a month."

"You and your conspiracy theories," Royce rolled his eyes in exasperation.

"Then why the big meeting after the funeral? What else would they be announcing?"

"Dude, you're assuming Ryan would even want this place. I was there that day in the office when he stormed out. He ain't coming back, believe me."

"Then why did he quit his job at MetroCare, huh? Answer me that, smartass."

"I hadn't heard he quit his job. Where did you get that from?"

"You know that jackass that runs MetroCare?" Richard asked rhetorically, and Royce nodded. Everyone knew Roger Dickles. "Well, when him and that guy he had with him filed past the caskets, I heard Ryan lean over and tell him 'by the way, I quit.' I heard it with my own two ears. On top of that, he was on suspension for the past week. I ran into Mark Perry the other day and he told me."

"You're always full of gossip, Chambless," Royce snorted, rolling his eyes. "Presuming the story is true, what was he suspended for?"

"Perry didn't say," he confessed, "but I can make a guess; Ryan being Ryan, what else? You know what an arrogant ass he can be. He thinks he's so much better than everybody else."

"That's because he is so much better than everybody else," Ricky retorted, "including the both of us. Ryan's good, man. The best I've ever seen."

"You've always been part of his fan club," Richard snorted, "but just because his old man was some big shot doctor doesn't mean he's –"

"Shut up," Royce cut him off, the warning clear in his voice. "Your ass is showing, Richard. Ryan Pierce never once traded off his dad's name, and never once asked him for money. I had the room right next to his back when we both lived at the Mason Ferry station. If he ever even talked about his parents, I never heard it."

"He's a spoiled little rich boy who lives on a yacht. He's arrogant and immature."

"Don't think I don't know what this is about," Royce snorted in amusement. "He took a laryngoscope out of your hand eight years ago, and you've had it in for him ever since. Instead of thanking him for bailing your ass out, you took it as an insult to your manhood. And you can't let it go, even eight years later. If you ask me, Ryan's not the immature one."

"You won't find it so funny once he's gutted this place and pissed away everything Dave and Barbara worked for," Richard warned. "Mark my words, it's coming."

"You know what I think?" chimed in Lila Rogers, sticking her head through the divider window between the box and the cab. "I think you two haven't changed a bit. We're about to bury the two people who gave you your start in this business, and all you're worried about is how it will affect your paycheck. Do us all a favor by shutting up and showing a little respect for the next hour, okay?"


Ty and Trent Collins sat on opposite sides of the limo, each staring out their respective windows, lost in their own thoughts. They were as far apart as they could get, both literally and figuratively. Trent broke the silence first.

"You could have easily gotten six hundred thousand," he accused, out of the blue.

Is that all he's been thinking about? Ty wondered bitterly. How can I be related to this asshole?

Ty Collins shifted in the limousine seat to face his brother. "You going to come back and run this place, brother?" he challenged. "You're welcome to it, but you can do it without me. I'm done."

"I'm just saying you let Ryan take advantage of you, that's all. You trusted him too much. He's not family, Ty."

More brother than you've ever been. He taught me to drive, taught me how to shoot…

"Mom and Dad always said everyone who worked here was family," he said mildly.

"That's just something they had to say to keep this bunch of misfits working," Trent snorted derisively. "I always told Dad that if he hired better people – professionals – that such charades wouldn't be necessary."

"I like this bunch of misfits, Trent; I was raised around them. I just don't want to lead them. Ryan can do that. He can run it the way Dad should have."

"You've always looked up to Ryan, and you let that cloud your judgment, Ty. If you had just played this the right way, we could have –"

"Could have what, Trent?" he challenged, tears in his eyes. "Profited more from Mom and Dad dying?"

Trent said nothing, just stared at his brother openmouthed.

"Do me a favor, brother," Ty said caustically, fairly spitting the last word. "When this day is through, I never want to see you again. I'll send you your check when the deal is closed. After that day, you and I are no longer family."


Tommy Bollinger and Royce Trenton parked the funeral coaches as close as possible to the gravesite. Given the ground still damp from the last week's rain, it wasn't very close. The pallbearers stood in ranks at the rear of the coaches, more or less at attention, waiting impatiently for the last of the funeral procession to arrive.

The plot was near the back of Memorial Gardens cemetery, and the rank of ambulances and police cars parked in its narrow lanes stretched all the way to the main gates. Most of the mourners who chose to attend the burial service had to park the cars along the shoulder of the road outside the main gate and walk in.

It took a while.

Ryan's mind threatened to wander, and he occupied his time by scanning the crowd for familiar faces. To his shame, he recognized precious few.

Damn, have I been gone that long? I don't even know half the people who are going to be working for me, much less the rest of the people who came to pay their respects.

There were twenty chairs arranged under the awning erected over the graves, and the Collins family and employees filled up all of those, with a few employees left standing in a rank behind them. The rest of the mourners had assembled in a loose crowd surrounding the awning, taking care to avoid other graves.

Ryan was struck by an incongruous thought: How do you pack a few hundred people into an almost full cemetery, and crowd them around a 20x20 foot area without stepping all over the other graves? What's the proper etiquette? Is it okay to stand on the graves, as long as you don't climb up on the headstones to get a better view?

The idea brought a fleeting smile to his lips, one which vanished almost immediately as Don Bailey gave a quiet command, and the rear doors to the funeral coaches were opened. Whether by luck or design, Ryan found himself taking a position directly behind Billy Fontenot as the pallbearers slowly carried Dave and Barbara Collins to their graves.

Ryan found himself a place standing in the rear rank of Collins Ambulance employees, and listened respectfully as the minister quoted Scripture, an unfamiliar passage Ryan struggled to identify. He found himself feeling a little lost, wondering what came next. The funeral director had been rather vague about what the pallbearers were supposed to do after they had placed the caskets over the graves. Or he may have explained it in detail. Ryan hadn't been paying much attention anyway. In his mind, he was reliving another funeral entirely.

For all the death he had seen, Ryan had attended only four burial services; Ann Heflin's, and those of Renee and his parents. All four were Episcopal burial services with their own rituals and traditions, rituals Ryan found comforting in their familiarity. The words themselves had meant precious little, because by the time the funerals had been conducted, he had long since said goodbye in his own way.

He barely remembered the funerals of his parents. He had mourned his mother, of that he was reasonably certain, and at his father's funeral he had been unreasonably bitter, but the memories of both had been crowded into the forgotten corners of his mind by his sister's death. Renee's funeral, and the days preceding it, had been the elephant in the room, trumpeting for attention to the exclusion of all else. Ryan had been despondent and guilt-ridden, flagellating himself for not doing more, not having acted quicker, for not being more supportive in the first place…

After the burial, he had broken down and cried in great, wracking sobs, tortured with the belief that he had failed her. His father had laid a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him, but only Dawn understood that the failure in Ryan's mind began years before the day he found her dead on the floor of that crack house in downtown Oneida.

She's gone, son," his father had said gently. "She's been trying to die for ten years. Nothing you or I could do to stop it. You managed to postpone it for a week, but she got what she wanted. It's not your fault."

Something had snapped in Ryan's mind, and he swung. The punch had caught Robert Pierce square on the angle of the jaw. His head whipped around like he'd been shot, and he dropped like a bag of cement. Ryan didn't even remember the punch, only standing over his father with Dawn desperately clinging to one arm, begging him to stop. He hadn't spoken a word to his father since.

The skirling of bagpipes startled him from his reverie, and Ryan unconsciously assumed the position of attention as an Oneida Parish firefighter dressed in the traditional kilt of the Great Scottish Highlands concluded the ceremony with Amazing Grace. Halfway through the first verse, Ty Collins broke down. He made no sound, but his shoulders shook with sobs. Ryan hesitated a moment, then stepped forward to his chair. Ryan put his hands on Ty Collins' shoulders and kept them there until the bagpiper was through playing. He said nothing. He didn't have to.

It gets easier, kid. It'll fade. Crying over your parents is infinitely easier than wondering why you didn't. Believe me, I know.

Ryan stole a surreptitious glance at the mourners. Trent Collins stared straight ahead, stone-faced. His expression was matched by that of most of the Collins Ambulance employees, only most of their eyes were moist. Billy Fontenot was sobbing openly, and Dawn had a comforting arm wrapped around his waist.

Ryan had no idea what to think, or feel, about that.


"So that's it, then," Ty Collins sighed in relief as he signed his name to the sale documents. Actually, the sale would not be official until the estate had been probated, but the signing of the papers lent some degree of finality to his decision.

"More or less," Jeff Layton answered, pointing to the lines where Ryan and Trent were to affix their signatures. "Once we're through probate, you sign the final sale papers and I release the money to you, less the repayment of the loan, at zero interest. You then send a check to Trent for his half, or I can divide the money equally between you."

"Just send me my check," Trent Collins said shortly. He looked around the room. "Anything else?" he asked with a snide edge to his voice. "Any other papers to sign?"

Everyone shook their head, no.

"Good, then I've got a plane to catch."

He left without even pausing to tell his brother goodbye. Ty wordlessly watched him walk away, but Ryan could see the pain in his eyes.

Technically, the papers were an agreement with Citizen's Bank and Trust to place $390,000 into an escrow account, with Jeff Layton as the escrow agent. A different sheaf of papers covered Ryan's $60,000 loan to the Collins Ambulance business account, and made Ryan a required signatory to withdraw funds. A third document involved a Power of Attorney, empowering Ty Collins to act as his brother's agent in the sale of Collins Ambulance, Inc. and all assets and liabilities attached thereto.

Jeff had assured them that probate would take roughly thirty days. Ryan had his doubts, but then he remembered that Jeff and his lawyers had been able to shepherd his father's estate through probate in scarcely longer time.

Dave and Barbara Collins had no debt to speak of, thanks in large part to Ty, and no real assets other than their home and Collins Ambulance, a Louisiana corporation in which they had owned 100% of the shares.

The IRS lien was more problematic. Jeff had contacted a lawyer with the general details, and had been assured that he could negotiate a settlement substantially lower than what the government was currently asking, but it would take time. Six months, the lawyer had told him, and Ryan could expect to pay roughly sixty percent of the lien amount, and the specter of withheld Medicare payments would be forestalled while negotiations were ongoing.

Ten minutes earlier, Ryan had also privately ordered Jeff to pay the estate lawyers from his personal account, and had arranged for Ty Collins to be paid a salary of $1,000 a week as a "Transition Manager."

"What the hell is a 'Transition Manager', and why is it worth a grand a week?" Jeff had snorted dubiously.

"I just made it up," Ryan had grinned proudly, "but he's basically a kid who has been working for his parents for chump change for the past ten years. He's just as broke as you and I were at that age. He needs the money, Jeff."

"And what will he do?"

"Hopefully, stay the hell away from the place and give me some freedom to evaluate things and start making changes."

"How did he talk you into this, Ryan?"

"He didn't talk me into anything. He doesn't even know about it yet."

Jeff Layton had snorted and rolled his eyes. He walked to the door and opened it, bowed deeply and said, "After you, Alphonse. Let's get started on your trip to the poorhouse."


"So how do you want to do this?" Ty asked nervously. "Should I make the announcement, or do you want to?"

"By now they probably know," Ryan said gently. "It's still your company, Ty. Your call."

"I…I suppose I should break the news personally," Ty decided, but his voice carried little conviction. "Like you said, I'm still the boss…at least, for the next month or two." He paused, considering what he had said, and his eyes clouded over. His throat worked, and he said thickly, "I'm still the boss…Jesus Christ, Ryan, how did I come to this? I was never the boss of this place. My Dad was. I have no idea what to say."

"Tell them what you told me," Ryan suggested. "Tell them that your heart isn't in it, and you need some time away."

"Some of them aren't your friends, Ryan. You know that, right? Not everyone is gonna be happy to hear this."

"I'll deal with those problems as they come. Don't worry about me."

"You can't just fire the people that don't like you, Ryan."

"Who said anything about firing anyone?" Ryan protested. "You know as well as I do that some people are going to have to be let go, Ty. When I make those decisions, it's going to be about what's best for the company, not me."

Ty stopped pacing and leaned forward, placing his hands on his thighs. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "God, I'm glad I won't be around to see that," he shook his head. "I've never had to fire anyone in my life."

Neither have I, Spud. Come to think of it, your Dad wasn't real good at it either.

Ryan traded a look with Jeff Layton. "Uh, about you not being around…" he ventured hesitantly. Ty looked up at him questioningly. "How are you fixed for cash?"

"Well, in another couple of months, I'll have two hundred fifty grand. Right now, I have just enough to pay the rent and my truck note. I'll figure something out."

"That's something I wanted to talk to you about. I'd like you to stay around here until the sale is final, if you don't mind. You can help with the transition, and get paid to do it."

"Thanks for the offer, Ryan," Ty shook his head, "but when I walk out that door, I ain't coming back. It'd be too weird."

"So take a vacation. Bring your girlfriend and walk on a beach somewhere. The pay's the same whether you're here or not."

"I've got so much to do here, and–"

"So you'll be available by fax, e-mail or cell phone. Jeff knows some estate lawyers who can handle all the legal stuff. Take some time off, Spud."

Ty Collins looked at Jeff Layton, who simply nodded.

"I've already arranged to pay for the lawyers," Ryan explained gently, "and Jeff can arrange to have a thousand bucks a week direct-deposited into your checking account. Just let him know how they can contact you."

"That wasn't part of the agreement," Ty protested weakly. "You don't have to–"

"Go to all this trouble?" Ryan finished with a smile. He walked over and put his hands on Ty Collins' shoulders. "You're family, Spud. Always were."

Ty's eyes clouded over, and for a moment looked as if he might break down again. The moment passed quickly, however, and he squared his shoulders and looked at Ryan gratefully.

"Um, I don't mean to break up a tender moment between family," Jeff interjected dryly, "but wasn't your company meeting supposed to begin five minutes ago?"

"Don't worry," Ty chuckled, dragging a sleeve across his eyes. "Dad never started a meeting on time either. They're used to it."


If any of the Collins Ambulance employees were still in the dark about the deal struck between Ty Collins and Ryan Pierce, those questions were immediately and unequivocally answered when Ty walked into the room with Ryan trailing closely behind.

Ryan saw it in their eyes. The facial expressions ran the gamut from shock and dismay to elation, but all of them said quite clearly, "Hawkeye's back." Tommy Bollinger winked slyly from the back row, leaned over and whispered something to Royce Trenton. Richard Chambless narrowed his eyes and folded his arms across his chest.

They know. And not all of them are happy about it.

"Thank you all for coming," Ty stammered nervously, and then stopped cold, recognizing the inanity of the statement. They had just buried their employers not three hours before, and their new boss had called a mandatory company meeting. They could scarcely have done anything else.

"Especially those of you who are off-duty today," Ryan furnished. "We know how precious your days off are. I think it reflects well on all of you that you came to pay your respects to Dave and Barbara today, and to give Ty your support."

"Exactly," Ty went on, flashing Ryan a grateful look. "Look, everybody…I, uh…I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate each and every one of you. Most of you have known me since I was a kid. All I've ever known is this place, and you people. Before Mom and Dad started Collins Ambulance, they'd park their MetroCare rig at our house. They'd get a call, and Trent would look after me until they got back. Sometimes it seems like every memory I have is sandwiched between ambulance runs…"

"We love you too, kid," Tommy Bollinger rumbled good naturedly, instantly bringing tears to Ty's eyes yet again. Tommy fixed him with a gentle smile, and went on. "But you didn't call this here meetin' to reminisce about old times, and Ryan ain't standin' there behind you just to be a visual aid. You brung us here to tell us somethin', Ty. Might as well get on with it, son."

Ty stared at him for a few moments, almost visibly pondering what to say. His jaw set, and he blinked his eyes to clear them. "Okay," he shrugged, "I'm out, guys. That's what this meeting is about. Mom and Dad invested their whole lives in this place, trying to make it work, and never quite succeeded. I don't have the energy to try. So I sold the place to Ryan. The sale will be finalized sometime in the next couple of months, but as of right now, he's your new boss."

"Why Ryan?" Richard wanted to know, his lip curling. "Daddy's money burning a hole in his pocket?"

Why do you hate me so much, Rich? I'd really like to know what it was I did that offended you so much.

"Let's clear the air about that," Ryan answered firmly. He swept the entire group with his gaze, but came to rest squarely on Richard Chambless, who was staring back at him with a defiant sneer. "The terms of the sale are not the topic of this meeting. More to the point, they never will be a topic of discussion. All you need to know is, we reached an amicable agreement – one that was fair to both parties."

"Fair to you two," Richard shot back in disgust, "but what about the rest of us?"

"What about the rest of you?" Ty challenged hotly. "What are you trying to say, Richard?" Ryan laid a quieting hand on his arm and shook his head.

"Why don't you tell them why you came to me, Spud," he suggested softly.

Ty Collins, his facial features darkened with barely controlled anger, clenched and unclenched his fists. He swallowed hard, and nodded. "I never really considered StatFleet or MetroCare, guys," he explained. "We all know how they operate. They'd have probably made an offer, but you all know what they'd do as soon as the deal went through. They'd shut down two trucks and go right back to covering this parish with one truck again. Some of you would get raises for sure. The others, the ones they didn't need, would be let go. Dad and Mom didn't do business that way."

"Are you telling us Ryan won't do the same?" Richard snorted.

"Shut the fuck up, Richard!" Tommy growled. "Let him talk!"

Heads nodded around the room in agreement. Cowed, Richard Chambless slid lower in his seat and stared sullenly at the floor.

"No, I won't do the same," Ryan said evenly. "The way Dave ran this place will have to change. We have to do it leaner. We have to do it better. But I think we can do it without cutting trucks, or cutting salaries."

"How do you plan to do that, Ryan?" Gail wanted to know.

"Well," Ryan acknowledged, "that's a good question. The answer is, I don't know. I have a vision, but it ain't firm enough to be called a plan. Over the next two months, I want each and every one of you to think about what needs to be changed around here. I don't want impotent bitching. I want workable solutions. So, if you want to be a part of getting this place on sound footing again, I want to hear your ideas about fixing what's wrong. I do have a couple things going for me that Dave never did, though."

Everyone waited expectantly, waiting for Ryan to elaborate. When he didn't, Royce Trenton hesitantly raised his hand and asked, "Uh…what things?"

"Money," Ryan grinned, "and more money." The answer got the expected chuckle, and Ryan went on. "You know who my old man was. Some of you know that we never got along. Well, as it turns out, he left me a sizeable chunk of money, much of which I'm willing to spend to turn this place around."

In the corner, Jeff Layton's face slowly turned a sickly green.

"The pale man over there is my buddy, Jeff," Ryan laughed, "who hates hearing me say things like that. Jeff and I have known each other since we were kids. In addition to being friends, he's also my banker. That makes him Collins Ambulance's banker, and I think he'll tell you that Collins Ambulance's financial picture just improved immeasurably."

Jeff Layton mopped the sweat from his brow and nodded gravely.

"Jeff's job is to keep me from throwing my money down a black hole. This is a labor of love for me, but mark my words; Collins Ambulance will be profitable. I don't need to get rich doing it. I'm already rich. I don't intend to lose money here. I may never see my initial investment back, but I certainly hope to in a few years. The biggest asset any organization has is its people. Look at your budget, and the payroll records will reflect that."

Someone in the back snorted derisively. Ryan ignored it, and continued.

"In business, you protect your assets," he explained. "That's you people. So my first order of business will be to evaluate our assets and see where they can best be utilized. Right now, I don't think Collins Ambulance is making efficient use of its assets. That will change, and soon."

"So what does that mean for us?" Gail pressed. "Are you going to lay people off? Cut salaries? What?" At that, Richard Chambless looked up at Ryan with a challenge in his eyes.

"Nobody's going to lose their job," Ty interjected hastily. "Nobody's getting a pay cut."

Goddamn it Ty, we didn't agree to that, Ryan fumed inwardly. We've barely even made the announcement, and you've already sandbagged me.

"When I said 'protect assets', Gail," Ryan explained gently, "that's exactly what I meant. You guys are the biggest asset this company has, and I'm going to do everything I can to keep you here, and happy. What I'm saying is, I'm going to do my best to make sure this isn't a labor of love for you. You stayed here for fifteen years when you could have made more money elsewhere. Tommy did the same. So did Mack. I don't want you to have to choose between job satisfaction and better pay. I'd like to be able to provide both."

"And yer gonna be able to do that… how, exactly?" Tommy wanted to know.

"I don't know how, exactly. That will take me a little time to figure out. But some of it's going to involve you changing the way you do things. Some of you may be moved around within the company. That's all I'm willing to say right now, but I promise you that when I have a clear plan, I'll share it with each and every one of you. You won't have to guess where you stand with me."

"Are you gonna hang around, Ty?" Royce Trenton asked. "You know more about running the business than anyone else here."

"I'll stick my head in the door now and then," Ty blushed, sharing a sidelong look with Ryan, "and I'll be in contact. But for now, I think I'm going to take a little vacation."

"I wish you'd stay until the sale is final, Ty," Gail pleaded. "I mean, at least until Ryan has his feet under him."

Ryan said nothing, but as he looked out at the thirty-odd faces in front of him, he came to a sobering realization.

They don't think I can do it.


An hour later, Ryan huddled with the three supervisors at a secluded table at the Cajun Café, long a favorite haunt for Collins Ambulance crews. Ryan drained the last of his Coke and idly pushed his pistolette around the plate. The silence was uncomfortable. No one wanted to be the first to speak.

"Okay Tommy," Ryan said, almost casually. "Spit it out. I know all of you are itching to say something, so you go first."

"All right," Tommy Bollinger drawled. "I think you bit off more than you can chew. You got money to burn, Pardner, but you ain't no businessman."

"Dave was a pathetic businessman, and he made a go of it for fifteen years," Mack Barron pointed out. "I think Ryan can make a go of it too, if we help him."

"I'll share something with you, Tommy," Ryan said quietly, "and you damned well should have already picked this up from working with me for six years; I believe in picking good people, giving them the tools they need to do their job, and then getting the fuck out of their way."

"Dave never did that," Mack agreed. "You all know how he was. He wanted good people, but he wasn't willing to pay 'em enough. He never could understand that job satisfaction doesn't pay the rent. I guess the five of us here are the only ones who ever bought into it."

"Speaking of," Gail challenged, "why weren't Richard and Billy invited to this meeting? Why just us four?"

"Because you're the ones I trust," Ryan answered evenly. "You're the ones I can rely on."

"If you're thinking about getting rid of Billy, I think you should –"

"He's a good EMT, Ryan," Tommy said quietly. "He's done a good job as dispatch supervisor.

"And he's also fucking Ryan's wife," Mack Barron said flatly, and Gail Sellers punched him in the arm. Undaunted, he went on, "What do you expect him to do, Tommy, just smile and work with the little weasel?"

Tommy Bollinger bristled at the rebuke, and soon he and Mack were engaged in a heated argument. Names were exchanged. Ancestries were questioned. Threats were made. The usual.

Ryan watched it for a few moments, and then winked at Mack's wife, sitting across from him. Shannon Barron was watching the two friends bicker with a bemused, been-there, done-that expression.

"Don't you love watching two macho rednecks vainly trying to mask their latent homosexuality?" Ryan asked. "Makes you wish those two crazy kids would just admit their attraction for one another and get it on."

Shannon did a spit take, and Gail Sellers laughed gleefully. Mack and Tommy, faces red and angry, stopped in mid-argument and stared at Ryan incredulously. Tommy was the first to laugh.

"He's not my type," he lisped, batting his eyes coquettishly. "Even though I am a sucker for that porn star moustache."

Mack chuckled and affectionately gave Tommy the finger.

"To answer your question," Ryan said, turning serious, "I'm not going to fire him. Oh, I'd like to; I'd like to rip his fucking guts out. I invited him into my home, and he betrayed me by making moves on my wife. That's a sin that cannot be forgiven."

"But, I can't look at this like a betrayed husband. I own a business now, and I have to run it with my head and not my emotions. And my head tells me that we don't need a dispatch supervisor and two dispatchers working at the same time. We don't have enough call volume to warrant that. So what to do with Billy Fontenot?"

"He gets his license back next month," Gail pointed out quietly. "He could go back on one of the rigs."

"You want me to put someone with judgment so poor that he drinks and drives, and gets caught doing it, driving one of my ambulances?"

"He made a mistake, and he learned his lesson. I seem to recall a couple of EMTs from this company who drove home from a Christmas party in a lot worse shape than Billy was when he got his DUI."

Both Ryan and Mack blushed deeply at the rebuke. It was a miracle that they had not killed themselves, or someone else, that night.

"I'll figure out what to do with Billy," Ryan promised. "Let's talk about Richard Chambless. What's his problem?"

"Well, he's been mad at you for eight years," Mack answered, "but he's been mad at the world, and Collins Ambulance in particular, for the last two."

"Ever since he hurt his back," Tommy agreed.

"I can't believe he's still holding a grudge over that damned code," Ryan shook his head. "So why's he so pissed at Collins Ambulance?"

"Says he hurt his back on the job," Gail sighed. "He's permanently injured, not cleared to lift anything over twenty-five pounds."

"He never reported his injury, Ryan," Shannon explained. "Those forms come through me. The first we ever heard of it was when we got the excuse from his doctor and the order for the MRI. That was six weeks after it supposedly happened."

"Dave and Barbara disputed the fact that it happened on the job," Tommy chimed in. "He shot hisself in the foot by not reportin' it when it happened. So, no worker's comp."

"And then," Shannon sighed, "Dave lets our employee health insurance lapse. Told no one about it, either. Richard runs up five grand worth of doctor's visits and tests, and he only finds out he's uninsured when the bills start coming back to him. It was ugly. We had several people stuck with big medical bills when that happened. Two of them quit, but Richard stayed. I guess Dave and Barbara felt guilty about it, so they gave him a raise and put him in charge of the wheelchair vans."

"They're lucky he didn't sue their asses," Ryan spat. "So, now Richard runs the wheelchair van service, which includes himself and three part-time drivers, and has yet to turn a profit. That about sum it up?"

"Pretty much," Shannon reluctantly agreed. "Dave said it was a loss leader. We lost money on the wheelchair vans, but they made up for it by bringing us ambulance patients. Richard identifies a few patients every month that meet stretcher criteria; patients too sick or too heavy to ride in a wheelchair."

"The wheelchair vans are going to go away, guys. We can't sustain that operation. It's pure dead weight."

"So what happens to Richard and our other drivers?" Gail wanted to know. "You're firing them?"

"How I'm going to accomplish that without leaving people unemployed, I'm still trying to figure out. But you'd better accept the fact that some people are going to lose their jobs, Gail. We're bloated here. Dave ran this place for fifteen years like it was a jobs program for indigent relatives. That has to stop."

Gail Sellers plainly didn't like it, but she couldn't dispute his reasoning. She took a sip of her tea and savagely stabbed her fork at a stray cherry tomato in her salad.

"For that matter," Ryan continued, "your job in the Training Center is going to change."

Gail's head snapped up, and she started to speak.

"Hear me out," Ryan cut her off, one hand raised to ward off the inevitable tirade. "Right now, you're the Education Supervisor. Tommy says we have this Molly Peters chick as the Training Center Coordinator. We don't need both of you, so Molly has to go."

"It's too much work for one-"

"- person to handle alone?" Ryan finished with a smile. "Look, Molly's job is mainly clerical. She deposits checks and shuffles paperwork. You're the one that actually does all the education. We don't need an AHA Training Center. I know it was always a big feather in our cap, but lately the training center has gotten an unsavory reputation. I get complaints all the time about instructors from here not getting their course cards on time. I get student complaints, too. I always pass them off to another Regional Faculty, using the excuse that I have a bias against Collins Ambulance. Well, now I own that Training Center, and I don't want it or its reputation."

"That wasn't Molly's fault," Gail said in defense. "She'd deposit the checks, but Dave ordered the cards – or didn't order them, usually. He'd make Molly stall the instructors and students."

"That's because he was subsidizing the rest of the business with income from the Training Center. I'm not going to do that, but the damage has already been done. In a month, I'm shutting it down."


"I'll see Molly first thing Monday morning and break the news. She'll have a month to look for a new job. In the meantime, she'll be getting instructor records up to date and processing all the outstanding rosters," Ryan explained. "On Monday, you call Cynthia Duplechain at West Oneida Regional Medical Center; she's the head of the Education Department."

"I know Cynthia."

"Good. You tell her that we're shutting down our TC, and we'd like to transfer all our instructors – the ones that are willing, of course – under her umbrella. That'll double her cadre of instructors, and remove us as a source of competition. Tell her that we want to continue as an independent Training Site under West Oneida Regional. We'll retain only the instructors you choose, and we already have all our own equipment. Cynthia handles all the administration, insurance and record-keeping, and you keep on doing what you do best – teaching. No interference from me, and less paperwork for you."

"That sounds…good," Gail agreed grudgingly. "And you're sure Cynthia will agree to all that?"

"If she has any questions, you tell her to call me," Ryan instructed. "Ask her to waive the affiliation fee for all our instructors for the first year. Have Molly start sending out letters to the instructors announcing the change, and be sure to tell them that West Oneida Regional will accept them all, free of charge."


"Your only oversight will be me – another instructor – and you know I'm not going to ask you to pencil-whip anything. All you'll have to do is teach. I want you to come up with an educational budget, and justifications for what you want. Don't go nuts, but if there's something you really think you need, you'll get it. I also want you to start doing regular chart review and CQI, and build continuing education programs to address all the areas you think are weak."

"I'm already doing that," she answered, nodding at Shannon. "She pulls all the emergency run tickets, and I review them."

"Good. Probably a better way to do it would be to flag certain call types or procedures. That'll cut down on your workload. It may take you a few months to determine what criteria you need to define, but start working on it now."

"The system will do that," Shannon offered. "I can flag calls in God only knows how many ways. We just never used that feature."

"If you had been flagging calls, just how many transfers do you think we do require mechanical ventilation, or say dopamine or nitro infusions? Or fibrinolytics, for that matter?"

"Hard to answer," she mused. "I'd have to query the system. Offhand, I'd say five or six calls a month. Why do you ask?"

"Because all those calls qualify as critical care transport," Ryan answered.

"And we get reimbursed a lot more for critical care transport," Shannon nodded, catching on. "I like it."

"Query your system," Ryan ordered. "Monday morning, I'll get you a list of the qualifying criteria for critical care transport. I'm betting we do enough of those runs a month to justify putting up a CCT truck."

"And which one of our rolling pieces of junk do you think we'll set up for that?" Tommy asked caustically.

"First things first," Ryan admonished, holding up a hand to discourage further comments. He turned back to Shannon. "You do all the billing, right?"

"When I'm left alone long enough to do it," she answered. "Dave had a tendency to – "

"Lemme guess," Ryan interrupted with a grin. "He'd walk into your office, settle into a chair with a big sigh, cross his legs, fold his hands in his lap and say…"

"Gotta little project for ya'," everyone chorused, then dissolved into gales of laughter.

"Those words have struck fear into the hearts of every Collins Ambulance employee at one time or another, Shannon," Ryan chortled, wiping tears from his eyes. "And he probably nagged you incessantly, nitpicked everything you did, and generally got in your way until you gave up in frustration, and then wound up doing it himself, right?"

"Right," she chuckled.

"Well, I know damned little about billing. I know how much we should be getting reimbursed, but very little about the nuts and bolts. I need you to educate me on that subject, time permitting."

"Okay, when?"

"What's our reimbursement rate?" Ryan asked indirectly. "I mean, percentage-wise, how much do we collect from Medicare versus what we currently bill?"

"Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, maybe 60%," she admitted, shamefaced.

"Why so low?" Ryan pressed. "At MetroCare, we were collecting at 90% of what we billed."

"In a word, compliance," Shannon answered. "Crews don't get signatures, don't document stretcher necessity, don't get authorization forms completed…"

"Dave used to offer a bounty," Mack offered. "Four bucks to each crewmember for a completed, fully billable run ticket. It didn't work."

"I'm not offering a bounty for crews to do their fucking jobs," Ryan stated flatly. "They either get what Shannon needs, or they find a new place to work. I can understand not getting a signature or stretcher certification every now and then. But it shouldn't be the norm."

"And how are you gonna replace the people you fire, Hoss?" Tommy inquired. "Good EMTs ain't exactly linin' up to work here."

"They will," Ryan predicted confidently, "wait and see."

Tommy raised one dubious eyebrow, but said nothing.

"Tell you what, Shannon," Ryan offered, "if you get our collection percentage up to 90% in the next ninety days, I'll fire you."

"What?" Mack and Shannon Bryan blurted in unison.

"Relax," Ryan chuckled. "If you can get our collections up to 90% of billable, I'll set you up as an independent contractor. I'll lease you three offices and the computer equipment, and pay you 10% off the top. Sound good to you?"

"Maybe. What's the catch?" she asked suspiciously.

"No catch. You do whatever it takes to increase compliance from our crews. Gail and I will back you up on that. If you can increase our revenues by that 30% - and I think you can – I'd still be money ahead by paying you a percentage of the net revenue. Plus, I'd save the expense of your salary and health insurance."

"Can I hire my own staff?"

"You can do whatever the hell you like," Ryan laughed. "Like I said, you'd be a contractor, not an employee. You hire your own staff, and pay 'em whatever you think is fair. Even better, I'll pimp your services to all the other small, independent ambulance services around here. You could make a very nice living."

"That I could," Shannon breathed, mentally calculating 10% of Collins Ambulance's yearly billable charges. A very wide grin slowly crept across her face. "All I'd need is one other person, and Molly Peters would be perfect. She already knows a little about the system."

"Even better," Ryan grinned. "That'll make firing her so much easier."


Across town, at the same time Ryan was laying out his plans to his trusted circle of friends, Billy Fontenot was staring at a plate of crawfish etoufeé, barely able to eat. "He's going to fire me, first thing in the morning," he predicted morosely.

"Hold on a minute," Dawn interrupted. "Back up. You're telling me that Ryan bought Collins Ambulance? My Ryan? That's impossible, Billy."

"Why impossible?" he asked bitterly. "He's rich. You told me so yourself."

"He never touched that money when we were together. He refused to even discuss it. I tried to get him to set up a healthcare trust and a college fund for Caitlin with some of it, and he refused. The closest he ever came was buying Ecnalubma with the money he got from selling his parents' house. We took the other half of that money and set up Caitlin's trusts."

"Well, it looks like he's gotten over his moral conundrum," Billy observed sarcastically. "Next he'll fire me, and then he'll be trying to get you back. I don't see why you wouldn't go, either. He can give you everything you ever wanted."

"Not everything," Dawn disagreed. "I'm here with you, aren't I?"

"Why are you with me, Dawn?"

"Because I love you," she sighed. "That's why."

"Do you still love Ryan?"

"I always will in some way, Billy," she explained gently. "I've told you that. When I first met Ryan, he was cocky, and arrogant, and…gentle. He had this sweet side that very few people saw, except maybe his patients. I saw that, and that's what I fell in love with. But the last few years, that sweetness and gentleness…well, it went away. I haven't seen it for a long time. That's everything that I loved about Ryan Pierce, and it just isn't there anymore."

"Would you go back to him if it was?" Billy asked softly, his face betraying his fear.

"I'm here with you," she replied. "There's your answer."


"That's going to be very expensive," Mack Barron was saying.

"Not so much," Ryan disagreed. "Two servers at headquarters, and new workstations all around. Maybe ten or fifteen grand."

"You throw out words like 'maybe ten grand' like it's nothing special."

"Oh, it's my money, Mack. I know exactly how much I'm spending. We need new computers, period."

"How many?"

"The new servers, plus two workstations for dispatch, two more for billing, one each for me and Gail, and set up three in the classroom. That's nine."

"Hell, we have more than that now. It's a full time job just keeping 'em running."

"And why is that?"

"It's a full time job because he's always been half-assed about the way he does things," Tommy answered for him. "We've got computers from five different manufacturers, running seven different versions of Windows, all strung together by some nineteen-year-old Emo kid posing as an IT geek."

"Exactly," Ryan emphasized. "I'd rather hire a professional to set up a top end office network, out of compatible machines running the same operating software, and maybe pay him a per-diem every now and then to come troubleshoot it, than pay Dave Collins' nephew $32,500 a year to tinker with computers when he's not attending a rave or pretending to go to class."

"They paid that little fucker that much?" Mack asked incredulously. "That's ridiculous!"

"They paid him that much," Ryan confirmed grimly. "Now you're starting to see what I meant about bloat. I figure I'll spend another hundred fifty thousand just buying equipment for the office and the rigs. On the plus side of the ledger, I eliminate $100,000 a year in salaries just between Molly, Emo Boy, Shannon and a few others. I figure in two years, the equipment investment will have been recouped. That, of course, doesn't count the cost of new rigs."

"New rigs?" Tommy asked, brightening considerably.

"Yup, new rigs," Ryan confirmed. "You run the fleet, Tommy. Why don't you tell the rest of us what we paid McDaniel's Automotive last year for repairs and routine maintenance."

Tommy Bollinger fidgeted uncomfortably. "I didn't have no control over that," he rumbled, shamefaced. "I told Dave we was gettin' gouged by that greasemonkey."

"Tell them, Tommy."

"I even shopped around for other mechanics. Found a couple that was real reasonable. But Dave wanted a mechanic on 24 hour call, and Mike McDaniel was the only one willin'."

"Goddamnit Tommy, how much?" Mack flared, exasperated.

"Seventy four thousand," Tommy mumbled, staring at the floor.

"Jesus H. Christ on a flaming pogo stick," Mack groaned, propping his elbows on the table and cradling his head in his hands.

"It gets worse," Ryan said grimly. "We're talking $332.00 for an oil change. That's each and every oil change, on every truck in the fleet, every 3,000 miles. He gouged us even more on brakes and tires."

"Stop," Mack begged. "I don't wanna hear any more."

"I could buy four brand new trucks, built to our specifications, with service plans and extended warranties, and the monthly notes wouldn't be any more expensive than what we're paying McDaniel Automotive," Ryan told them all. "All it takes is decent credit, and folks…we have decent credit now."

"So what kind of trucks are we getting?" Tommy asked, over the embarrassment now and warming to the idea of new ambulances.

"Remember that company we talked to right before I got fired?"

Tommy nodded. "Them little European lookin' thangs."

"You talking about those little vans FedEx uses now?" Gail asked.

"That's them. Well, this company I was talking about now makes a box based on that same Sprinter chassis. Double the fuel mileage of anything you've got in the fleet now, and half the maintenance costs. That's half of what maintenance costs should be, not what you've been paying. The trucks will pay for themselves over their life span, just in the savings from fuel and maintenance."

"I like it," Tommy grinned. "When we gettin' 'em?"

"As soon as you can contact their sales rep and work out the specs. We don't need LED light bars and all that shit, Tommy. Get a list of must-haves, including equipment. Anything you consider a must-have, we'll spend top dollar on. But I ain't shelling out money for stuff we'll never use or need."

"So who gets to tell Mike McDaniel the bad news?" Tommy cackled evilly. "Please, please let me be the one to break it to him."

"Be my guest," Ryan chuckled. "And while you're at it, I want you to contact one of those other mechanics you mentioned, and start shuttling the entire fleet through their shop, one by one. Anything that's broke, I want fixed. Anything that looks close to breaking, I want replaced. I want every truck in the fleet mechanically sound. If there's any truck that's going to cost more to fix than it's currently worth, sell it for scrap."

"Why go to the trouble of repairing all the trucks if you're just gonna turn around and buy new ones?" Gail wondered.

"Because I have plans for those trucks," Ryan winked. "Plans that will pay greater dividends than we'd get in trade-in value."

"New computer network, new rigs and equipment, shutting down the Training Center and the wheelchair vans, splitting off the billing office as an independent contractor, and firing half the office staff," Gail summarized skeptically. "Pretty ambitious plan for your first thirty days, Ryan."

"Well, I didn't want to overwhelm you with too much in this first little meeting," Ryan winked. "So I decided to start small."

"I'd hate to know what you call 'big' plans, then," Tommy chuckled, to nods of agreement from Gail, Mack and Shannon.

"Y'all wanted to know my plan," Ryan said, turning serious. "That's it, in broadest terms. In three months, we'll have new everything – trucks, equipment, paint scheme, office equipment, uniforms. We're going to have another truck up and running, maybe two. And in six months, we're going to have the best employees, best ambulances, and best reputation in this area. And we'll be profitable. I've looked at the numbers, and so has Jeff Layton. We figure we can cut our expenses by thirty percent, and increase our net revenue by that much as well. That leaves a lot of room for salaries, benefits and equipment."

"I know it's a cliché to say that it takes money to make money, but sayings don't get to be clichés unless they have a lot of truth to them."

"They got another sayin', too," Tommy drawled, "and it goes like 'everybody's got a plan until they get hit'. What happens when you get hit, Ryan?"

"I don't know. I guess we'll all find out soon enough."

"You think we're gonna be in the black in six months," Mack observed dubiously.

"You already are in the black, and that's while collecting far less than you should, and spending far more than you have to. Dave was never more than a few missed Medicare payments from bankruptcy, but he was also never more than a good credit score from making this place really take off. We can do this, guys. Just do what I asked, and keep your mouths shut until all the pieces are in place."

"So you're gonna transform this whole place in six months," Tommy laughed. So where do you see us in a year?"

Ryan leaned forward and winked conspiratorially. Everyone unconsciously leaned in and waited expectantly for his answer. He simply said two words:

"Oneida Parish."

Monday, February 25, 2008


"This your first pediatric call?" Dave Collins asked.

"Second one as a paramedic," Ryan replied. "The first one was a seizure that was already postictal when we got there. Not much to do other than give 'em a ride and some blow-by oxygen."

"Well, I wouldn't get too worried," Dave reassured him. "Most of these choking baby calls are just Panicky Mother Syndrome."

Ryan grunted but did not reply. He slowed down, looking for the cross street. They had rolled out of the station ten minutes earlier, alerted by the Sheriff's Office that there was an emergency call. In the late eighties in Audubon Parish, there was no such thing as 911. People called the Sheriff's Office for help, who either sent a deputy, or called the ambulance or the Fire Department. Sometimes they sent all three.

Ryan had first heard the call over the scanner. After a year as an EMT, he had learned to sleep through most interruptions. With his brain attuned to listening for the words Collins Ambulance or 10-78, the radio code meaning "send an ambulance," nothing short of a brass band at his bedside could produce such instant wakefulness. He was already reaching for the phone when it rang the first time. He had taken the call, gotten dressed and been waiting in the idling ambulance for perhaps thirty seconds when his boss had climbed into the passenger seat, ninety seconds later.

I hope it's just PMS, because anyone this far out in the sticks is already dead if they haven't been breathing. I hope I'm up to this.

"Just the same, though," Dave mused, as if he had been reading Ryan's mind, "I'll take the lead on this one. If it's bad, that is. Pediatric codes are tough."

Technically, Ryan was Dave's superior in terms of training. Dave was an EMT-Intermediate, while Ryan was a newly-minted paramedic. In practical terms, though, Dave Collins' field experience dwarfed his own. As the owner of the company, he was also the man who signed the paychecks.

At least, that was the theory. Paychecks were still in short supply at Collins Ambulance.

Ryan nodded, braking gently as he saw a reflective street sign just ahead. Gently on the brakes, and gently on the accelerator, Dave had preached a thousand times. The smoother you stop and accelerate, the longer the trucks last and the less you throw your medic around in the back.

Mindful of his lessons, Ryan slowed the ambulance almost to a crawl, turned on the driver's side floodlights, and read the name on the sign: McCormack Road.

"This is it. Turn left here," Dave ordered, quite unnecessarily since Ryan was already turning as he spoke.

Three hundred yards up the road, they spotted their destination, a double wide trailer set well back from the road in a tree-filled lot. There was a Sheriff's Office cruiser sitting in the driveway.

"They sent a deputy, too?" Ryan wondered as he parked the rig.

"They didn't send one," Dave replied tersely as he got out. "He lives here. That's Don Bailey's cruiser."

Ryan bailed out of the rig, grabbing the first-in bag and tossing it onto the stretcher. By the time he pushed the stretcher to the porch, Dave was already inside. The wails of anguish coming through the open door told him that this choking baby call was most definitely not Panicky Mother Syndrome.

Grimly, he left the stretcher at the porch steps and lugged the first-in bag through the front door. He found Dave Collins kneeling next to a limp toddler lying on the floor, his ear poised over the baby's mouth, listening for breathing. A young man his own age, dressed only in boxer shorts, knelt on the other side of the child. His hands were still poised over the infant's chest, the heel of one hand atop the other, tears streaming down his face. Don Bailey, rookie deputy for Audubon Parish Sheriff's Office, had been doing CPR on his own son.

His wife sat on the couch, screaming hysterically. She had her hands clasped over her mouth, and her voice rose in a keening wail, as if she were holding back her horror with her bare hands, and failing at the task as the anguish of seeing her child lifeless on the floor escaped through her fingers like steam from a pressure cooker.

All of this Ryan processed in an instant as Dave began giving mouth-to-mouth ventilations. "What happened?" Ryan asked as he opened the flow meter on his portable oxygen tank and handed a bag-mask resuscitator to his boss.

Don Bailey acted as if her hadn't heard, staring down at his son with a stricken expression. His hands hadn't moved.

"Don." Ryan reached out and gently squeezed his arm. Don Bailey raised his eyes and looked at Ryan vacantly, and then focused. He took a ragged breath and ran his forearm across his eyes.

"I woke up to go pee," he said hoarsely. "I found him on the floor, barely breathing. He gets out of bed sometimes…wanders…his lips were blue, and he kept making these squeaking noises and I…I didn't know what to do, and I just called the SO and started CPR…"

"I'm not getting any breaths in," Dave muttered in frustration. Shifting position, he began delivering abdominal thrusts. He was not gentle.

Ryan watched Dave desperately working on the child for a moment. Don Bailey sagged back onto his heels and let his hands fall limply to his sides, defeated. The child's mother rose from the couch, tonelessly screaming for someone, anyone to save her baby. Distantly, Ryan registered the fact that Dave was ordering him to escort the woman from the room. The moment couldn't have lasted longer than a few seconds, but to Ryan every movement was almost languid, as if they were performers in a surreal ballet played out in half-time.

He calmly looked at Dave Collins and said, "Get out of the way."

Dave Collins blinked in disbelief, but shifted to one side as he'd been ordered.

"I need a laryngoscope with the #2 straight blade," Ryan said coolly as he took Dave's place at the baby's head, "and the pediatric Magill forceps. Don, you start compressions again."

"I can do the compressions," Dave started to argue. "He's tired, and he's –"

"Dave. Get me my scope and the forceps," Ryan repeated in a firm, yet reasonable tone. "Don, let's go."

Ryan scooted into a prone position at the baby's head, and held out his left hand. "Scope," he ordered. Wordlessly, Dave Collins smacked a laryngoscope into his open palm. Ryan walked the laryngoscope blade down the baby's purple tongue, looking for the glottic opening.

Just a little bit further and I should see the epiglottis…okay, now lift just the tiniest bit…there it is!

Without taking his eyes off the prize, Ryan held up his right hand and ordered, "Forceps. Once you give them to me, set me up a 4.5 tube. Don, speed up those compressions a bit."

Ryan reached into the baby's throat and gingerly plucked free a piece of hard candy lodged just below the vocal cords.

"Grape Jolly Rancher," he announced matter-of-factly, laying the forceps aside and holding out his right hand again. "Tube, please."

Ryan passed the tube through the cords, sat up, attached the bag-valve resuscitator and ordered, "Check placement." Dutifully, Dave auscultated the baby's chest and grinned, giving Ryan a thumbs up.

"Still not breathing, and no pulse," Ryan noted calmly. "Don, keep going with compressions. Dave, we need some tape on this tube. Soon as you get that done, set up a line. Don, how much does he weigh?"

"Twenty-four pounds."

"Okay, that's roughly ten kilos," Ryan mused, daintily holding the tube in place with his thumb and index finger as Dave taped it in place. "Dave, draw up a milliliter of Epi 1:1,000, and set me up a syringe of Epi 1:10,000."

"Both?" Dave wanted to know.

"The 1:1,000 syringe first. I'll give that down the tube while you're getting a line. Once the line's in, we'll give the 1:10,000 through the IV."

Dave Collins nodded his understanding and tore open the drug bag, looking for the miniscule ampoules of concentrated epinephrine.

"Want me to keep going?" Don asked softly, hope creeping into his voice as he rhythmically compressed his son's chest. In the thirty seconds since Ryan had been able to effectively ventilate the child, his color had improved dramatically.

"Just for a little longer, Don," Ryan said gently as he attached cardiac monitor leads with one hand and bagged with the other. "Let us get this IV in, and then you can see to your wife."

"Epi 1:1,000," Dave announced, handing Ryan a syringe.

Ryan briefly disconnected the bag from the endotracheal tube and instilled the medication. He reattached the bag and ventilated vigorously for a few seconds, trying to aerosolize the medication into the lifeless toddler's lungs.

Come on, kid. Give us a sign. Just a few beats to let us know you're still there…

Both Ryan and the child's parents watched the cardiac monitor expectantly. The only one who wasn't focused on the screen was Dave, still searching fruitlessly for a likely vein to stick. After a few moments, it became obvious that no electrical activity was forthcoming.

"Okay," Ryan announced, "we need a line. How's it coming, boss?"

"I can't find anything!" Dave snapped, fear and frustration manifest in his voice.

"Keep looking," Ryan advised, unperturbed. He reached out and dragged the first-in bag closer, rummaging through it with his right hand while continuing to ventilate with his left. After a moment, he found what he had been looking for.

"Dave, hold his right leg steady," Ryan ordered.

Dave Collins stared at him without comprehension.

"Hold his right leg steady, and rotate it out just a little bit," Ryan repeated, smiling reassuringly. "Swab just below his knee with a little alcohol, please."

Dave Collins did as ordered, his actions belying the dubious expression on his face. Ryan leaned far forward, and bored an intraosseous needle – with one hand - into the child's tibia, just below the knee. "Remove the stylet and aspirate," he ordered a shocked Dave Collins. When he saw blood slowly trickle into the syringe, he grinned and said, "We're in business. Give a milliliter of the Epi 1:10,000 and let's get him ready to go."


"You've got a gift."

The child had regained a rhythm on the monitor shortly after the second dose of epinephrine. By the time they had left the Bailey house, siren screaming, he'd had a pulse. By the time they had reached Fort Sperry Community hospital fifteen minutes later, he had been breathing and trying to move.

"What's that?" Ryan had asked absently, still basking in his first code save. The adrenaline rush was still coursing through his system, but he was not so amped that he did not notice that Dave Collins had spoken not a word to him since they had left the scene. Ryan had given the handoff report, waiting for Dave to chime in at any moment. The moment had not come. Until now.

"You've got a gift," Dave had repeated, meeting Ryan's eyes. "That was as smooth as they ever come, and it was your very first. I was impressed."

"Well, um…thanks," Ryan had stammered, blushing furiously. "I was just following your lead."

"No, you weren't," Dave observed wryly. "It shook me up, no question about it. I was working on a friend's son, with his parents watching. You can work a hundred codes, and I have, and something like that will still shake you. I didn't freeze, but I wasn't acting like I was in charge, either."

"Some of the stuff that needed doing, you couldn't do. I just did what was necessary."

"You took over," Dave argued quietly, "as you should have. And you ran a pediatric code better than any I've ever seen."

Ryan Pierce said nothing, absentmindedly fingering the Star of Life on his left collar point, remembering another cardiac arrest years before.

"You've got a gift, Ryan," Dave had advised. "Honor that gift, and one day you're going to do something special."


Ryan Pierce lay awake, staring at the ceiling. The dream had been vivid, all the more so for the emotions it evoked. Dave Collins' voice still rang in his mind, years later.

You have a gift. Honor it.

Ryan turned to look at the clock, but his vision was obscured by a tousled head of dark hair fanned across the pillow. Amanda Whatsername lay beside him, her body molded to his, save for one long, shapely leg draped across his upper thighs and a well-manicured hand idly toying with the hair on his chest.

He had joined her at a dive on the Oneida River Walk a little after five o'clock, and already the bar was rocking, filled to capacity with a raucous young college crowd. The place was smoky and noisy, the house band mediocre but enthusiastic, and the beer cold. In short, it was just his kind of place – fifteen years ago. He wondered how old Amanda actually was, and asked. She was twenty-six, but was quick to assure him that she much preferred older men.

On hearing that, Ryan Pierce had never felt so old in his life.

He had disguised it well, however. He had been witty, and charming, and just a bit dangerous, and Amanda had never guessed that his mind had been somewhere else entirely. Ryan Pierce was good at disguises.

They had chatted and laughed, engaging in what little conversation was possible over the music, but both of them knew that conversation was not what either of them sought. And so, Ryan had let himself be led to the dance floor, and when the moment was right, he had grabbed her by the hips, pulled her close and whispered a suggestion in her ear. It wasn't particularly hard; Amanda's hips never seemed to stray far from his own anyway. Her dance moves were unabashedly erotic, and decidedly feline.

She had readily agreed to follow Ryan to the marina, ostensibly so he could cook dinner for the both of them aboard his boat. She was not fooled, but then again he hadn't expected her to be. They hadn't been aboard Ecnalubma for more than ten minutes before she asked to use the bathroom. Ryan had pointed her down the hall, and settled onto the couch with a groan.

When she emerged from the bathroom five minutes later, naked and smiling lasciviously, Ryan's answering smile had matched her own, but inside his mind was raging with guilt and doubt. But whatever his thoughts of his wife, when Amanda climbed atop him and kissed him hungrily, he had not pushed her away.

And he hated himself for it.


What the hell are you doing, Ryan? You're thirty-six years old and married, with a child of your own, and you're lying here in bed with a girl you met less than twenty-four hours ago. You can't even remember her last name.

He groaned inwardly and lifted his head slightly to see the clock.

Shit, only 3:30, and I can't sleep.

Ryan turned to his right ever so slightly, and Amanda stirred, gave him a sleepy smile and rolled onto her side. He planted a kiss on the back of her head and whispered, "I'll be right back."

She murmured something unintelligible in reply, and Ryan gingerly extricated his arm and slipped out of bed. He quietly padded down the hall to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, studiously avoiding his reflection in the mirror.

Grabbing his robe from the hook on the bathroom door, he went to the kitchen for coffee, and finding himself surprisingly hungry, rummaged through the refrigerator looking for leftovers. He was suspiciously sniffing a foil-covered plate of pot roast of indeterminate age when an arm snaked over his shoulder and he felt warm breath on his neck.

"Jesus Christ!" he yelped in surprise and wheeled around, sending the petrified pot roast sliding off the plate and across the floor.

"Sorry," Amanda giggled. "That was supposed to be seductive."

"It was," Ryan smiled apologetically, taking her in his arms. "I'm just a little jumpy."

"Guilty conscience?"

"Not at all," Ryan lied. "I've just gotten used to being here alone." He forced a smile. "I was just about to fix something to eat. You hungry?"


"Well, um…what would you like to eat?" Ryan ventured. "Is this supper, or breakfast?"

"Breakfast," she decided, "and I'll eat anything but…" she smiled, casting her eyes toward the roast on the floor, "…whatever that is."

"How does bacon and eggs sound?"

"Bacon and eggs sounds great," she purred. "Scrambled, please."

"No problem, Ryan winked. "Aside from being a spectacular lover, I am one of the world's foremost egg scramblers."

"A man of many talents," she agreed, causing Ryan to blush.

"I could probably scare up another robe or something," Ryan stammered, "if you'd like to put something on…"

"Do you want me to put something on?" she grinned wickedly, raising her arms over her head and turning a slow pirouette. She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms – beneath her breasts, not concealing them. Showing off. Ryan blushed even more, and she chuckled throatily.

"No," he laughed, "it just makes it a little hard to concentrate, that's all."

Amanda smiled devilishly, but did not move. Ryan masked his discomfiture by busying himself with preparing breakfast for the two of them, keeping his back to her as much as possible.

They ate in silence for the most part, Ryan studiously avoiding meeting her eyes, Amanda looking at him appraisingly.

"So how long have you been separated from your wife?" Amanda asked, surprising him with the question.

"Six months," he answered, pushing his eggs around on the plate. "Long enough for me to get used to being by myself again."

"I'd have figured less time than that. Her ghost is everywhere around here." She looked around significantly, then leveled her gaze at him. "You still love her."

It wasn't a question or an accusation; more of a simple statement of fact.

"Of course not!" Ryan denied, perhaps a bit too forcefully.

"You're a very good liar, Ryan Pierce," she observed. "Best of all, to yourself."

Ryan sighed and put his fork down. "Look Amanda, I'm not the kind of guy to –"

"Do this very often?" she smiled, cutting him off. "That much is obvious."

"She asked me for a divorce yesterday," Ryan explained.

"Ah, so now we come to it," she nodded knowingly. "And you wanted to hurt her like she hurt you?"

"No, that's not it at all," Ryan shook his head vehemently, this time meaning it. "I was just…I don't know…tired of being alone, I guess."

Amanda said nothing, just continued to look at him levelly. Her frank gaze made Ryan even more uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry," he went on, his voice low and strained. "This was a mistake. I guess I'm not ready to –"

"Relax, Hero," she said softly, putting a finger to his lips. "I'm not angling to be the next Mrs. Ryan Pierce. I knew what this was when I followed you out here. Although," she chuckled, sweeping her arm at her surroundings, "a girl could definitely get used to this."

"She's dropping my daughter off here first thing in the morning," Ryan said. "Probably around seven."

"And you feel guilty, and want me gone before she gets here?"

Not trusting himself to talk, Ryan nodded and stared at the countertop, refusing to meet her gaze. His face flushed and his ears burned with shame.

"That's three hours from now," she said quietly, laying her hand on his trembling arm. He looked up at her, and she smiled softly. "Come back to the bedroom with me, Ryan. And this time, try not to pretend you're making love to someone else."

Ryan took her hand and followed her back to the bedroom.


Ryan walked Amanda to her car, leading her around the still-muddy spots in the basin between the dock's end and the parking lot. She had reminded him that he still had her number, and embraced him before she got into her car. Her kiss was equal parts farewell and open invitation, and Ryan still had his arms around her when Dawn's car pulled into the parking lot.

"Friend of yours?" Dawn asked sarcastically from behind him as Ryan watched Amanda's car drive away. He sighed and turned to face his wife. Her eyes flashed with barely concealed anger.

"Cell phone lady," he said shortly. "She came over to help me program my new phone."

"Fuck you, Ryan!" Dawn spat. "How long have you been sleeping with her?"

"None of your Goddamned business."

"Have you had her over with Caitlin here?" she demanded.

Ryan leaned forward until his nose was an inch away from hers. "Go to Hell,Dawn. You left me, and you've been cohabitating with DUI Boy in our house for months now. And don't tell me you weren't fucking him before you left. I know better."

"I wasn't - "

"I still have a few friends left," Ryan smiled cruelly, "ones that decided I needed to know the truth. I know about all his visits to the hospital when you were working, your little trip to Houston the weekend you ran out on our marriage…"

Dawn sucked in a shocked breath, and then tried to bluff. It wasn't very convincing.

"I want to know if you've been sleeping with this girl with my daughter on the boat," she insisted doggedly.

"You have no right to ask me anything."

"I have a right to know what kind of people you have around my daughter!"

"Oh, you mean like an EMT convicted of DUI?" he smiled nastily.

"He was a friend! He listened to me!"

"Listened to what? All the things you wouldn't tell me? So you pour your heart out to a stranger, and you won't give the same trust to your husband?"

"You withdrew, Ryan! Ever since your sister died, you've formed this…shell…and you wouldn't let anyone help you, not even me!"

"To have and to hold," he quoted, "to honor and to cherish…"

"Don't quote my marriage vows to me!" she flared, tears flowing down her cheeks.

"…for richer and for poorer, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…"

"Goddamnit, you abandoned me five years ago!"

"For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, Dawn," he reminded her. "That's the promise you made before God, and you broke it when I needed you most. You say I need to heal, well step one is realizing what I've known all my life; I can't count on anyone but myself, and I can't save anyone but myself."

Ryan opened the back door of her car and unbuckled a still-sleeping Caitlin from her car seat. He hoisted his daughter to his shoulder, grabbed her overnight bag, and walked away, leaving his wife standing there sobbing in the parking lot.

"Goodbye, Dawn," he called over his shoulder. "Loving you costs me too much."


"You're out of your fucking mind, Spud," Ryan hissed into the phone three hours later.

"That's my price," Ty Collins said stubbornly.

"Hang on a second," Ryan said, eyeing Caitlin sitting on the couch watching cartoons. He stepped out onto the deck, closing the door behind him. "Okay, I'm back."

"Three hundred thousand per truck is an accepted standard industry-wide, Ryan," Ty argued. "That's fair."

"Accepted standard, my ass," Ryan snorted. "Your trucks are all overdue to be replaced. Your equipment was obsolete when you bought it secondhand five years ago. You have an IRS lien hanging over your head, and if you miss one Medicare check, you won't make payroll. Your employees will work for whoever you sell out to. The only hard asset you have of any real value is the headquarters and the land those three stations sit on. The stations themselves are worthless, and all that real estate together ain't worth nine hundred thousand. Be realistic."

Ty Collins sighed explosively. "All right, what's your offer?"

"Half of yours," Ryan answered. "Four hundred thousand."

"Now who's being unrealistic?" Ty exploded in disgust.

"You can't put a dollar value on potential, Ty," Ryan said reasonably. "You're asking for what you think Collins Ambulance could be worth, not what it is worth. If you could make it worth your valuation, you wouldn't be on the phone with me, trying to sell it."

"MetroCare or Statfleet would offer me just as much as you are," Ty threatened weakly.

"And gut the company as soon as the papers are signed," Ryan finished, smiling into the phone. " I agreed to buy the company to help preserve it. I didn't agree to get raped on the price just because I've known you since you were a kid."

"Six hundred thousand," Ty countered, "and I'll try to get the IRS lien settled before we sign the papers."

In what, thirty days? It's been hanging over your head for five years, and now you're going to iron that mess out in thirty days? No thanks, kid. I trust Jeff's tax lawyers a lot more than yours.

"Four hundred fifty thousand, and I assume all assets and liabilities," Ryan offered, "including the tax lien. Plus, I'll loan you sixty thousand to help cover business expenses until the estate has been probated. That's an unsecured loan, on nothing but your word. We deduct the loan from the purchase price when we sign the papers. That's as far as I'm willing to go, Spud."

"Let me talk with Trent," Ty stalled. "I'll call you back."

Ryan smiled as he hung up the phone, because he knew he had him. Trent Collins would agree to any price that shed him of the responsibility of Collins Ambulance. All he'd see is two hundred thousand dollars and change, there for the taking if he'd only sign the papers.

Fifteen minutes later, Ty called him back. They haggled and argued for a while longer, but neither of them had their heart in it. In the end, they agreed to have Ryan place three hundred ninety thousand dollars into an escrow account, pending the final transaction, and transfer sixty thousand dollars into the Collins Ambulance business account later that day. Ryan would be added as a signatory to the Collins Ambulance business accounts, and any withdrawals prior to the final sale would require both their signatures for authorization. Ryan agreed to meet Ty at Collins Ambulance headquarters the following morning to pick up his uniform. They'd break the news to the employees later that afternoon, after the funeral.

I'm about to blow half a million bucks on a business that hasn't made a decent profit in its entire fifteen years in existence. I hope I know what I'm doing, Ryan mused as he hung up the phone, but despite his misgivings, he felt almost exhilarated. He smiled to himself, shook his head and dialed another number.

Jeff Layton proved to be decidedly less enthusiastic about the deal. After much arguing and not a little profanity, he had agreed to Ryan's requests. He could even do it that afternoon, if Ryan would be so kind as to come in and sign the necessary paperwork. After all, he had spat in a voice dripping with sarcasm, it was Ryan's money. Who was his banker to tell him how to manage it wisely?


"Five more minutes, Daddy," Caitlin Pierce bargained sleepily. "I wanna snuggle for five more minutes."

My fault, Ryan chided himself. No nap, and she watched cartoons all day. I drug her all over creation running errands, and she didn't get into bed until nearly ten.

He smiled gently at his daughter, pulled the covers back up to her chin, and let her sleep. He quickly showered and dressed, made coffee, and ate breakfast. When he could wait no longer, he rousted Caitlin from her slumber and plopped her unceremoniously into a warm bath.

She whined and fretted at first, but Ryan stood firm. He sat on the toilet and supervised as Caitlin bathed herself, helping only to reach the parts she couldn't with her left hand, and by the time he had dried her off and dressed her, she was happy and smiling again. Ryan quickly loaded her into the truck and roared out of the parking lot at half-past eight.

"We goin' to the park, Daddy?" she had asked around a mouthful of strawberry Pop Tart.

"Nope, we're going to see Miranda," he grinned, eyeing her in the rear-view mirror. Caitlin gave him a toothy, crumb-covered smile.

"We need some coffee, Daddy," Caitlin reminded him. "Coffee and donuts, to soothe the savage paramedic beasts!"

Ryan did a spit-take into his travel mug. 'Soothing the savage paramedic beasts' was his oft-used explanation for stopping at Krispy Kreme on the days he dropped Caitlin off before work. Hearing it come from a toddler's lips made him dissolve into a fit of giggles. For her part, Caitlin grinned and kicked her feet jubilantly. She had made her Daddy laugh.

"No donuts today, Stinkerbell," he laughed. "We're running late."

Caitlin pouted briefly, but the prospect of playing at Miranda's was too exciting to stay unhappy for long. Miranda had games. Miranda had puzzles. Miranda let her make stuff. Little did she realize that there was a purpose behind every activity devised by her occupational therapist.

"Hey Munchkin!" Miranda Wheatley greeted Caitlin as soon as Ryan unbuckled her from her car seat. "Why don't you go inside and get one of my puzzles from the box, and I'll be inside in a minute, okay?" She set Caitlin down and sent her through the open front door with a gentle swat on her rump.

"What time are you picking her up?" she asked Ryan.

"Probably not until after five. I've got a lot of stuff to do," Ryan admitted. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"The morning isn't, because she's my first appointment at 10:30. But after Caitlin, I'm booked until the center closes at five."

"I'm really in a bind, Miranda. I've got a funeral at ten o'clock and a big meeting after that. I don't really know when I'll be done."

"What about Dawn? Or dropping her off at daycare?"

"I'm still paying Tiny Tots sixty bucks a week," he mused, "even though I haven't taken her there in a couple of months. Last time I did, she learned how to say 'shit' and eat her own boogers in just four hours. And frankly, I don't know what Dawn's doing these days."

"Y'all still aren't talking?" Miranda asked sympathetically.

"At each other, not to each other. Wednesday, when we left your office, she asked me for a divorce," he said evenly. "I'm not going to fight it." Saying it aloud didn't hurt nearly as much as he thought it would.

"Damn. I had hoped you two would work it out."

"Doesn't look that way," Ryan grunted. "Anyhow, you can probably get used to seeing Billy Fontenot's truck parked across the street from now on."

"He's there every night as it is," Miranda snorted. "Look, I suppose Kristin and I can use Caitlin to co-treat some of my autism patients this afternoon. She'll get some extra work in, and I can use her to draw out Riley and the other kids. It'll work out."

"Thanks, Miranda," Ryan smiled gratefully. "You're a good friend."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she snorted, brushing off the compliment. "Just bring her a few changes of clothes and some baby wipes over here when you pick her up. And you'll have to make some childcare arrangements soon, Ryan. My caseload is picking up, and your schedules aren't nearly as predictable as they were six months ago."


Ryan pulled up to Collins Ambulance headquarters at 9:15. The parking lot was empty, save for two ambulances draped it black bunting parked out front. Ryan knew their significance, and the thought was sobering.

Place hasn't changed much since I worked here, he mused as he walked through the front door. It still reeks of Dave Collins; grand dreams and unfinished business, with a healthy dose of junk.

In front of him was a small but tastefully appointed lobby, decorated with overstuffed leather chairs and framed photos on the walls; Dave and Barbara Collins smiling, posing with local dignitaries; Dave and Barbara Collins working a wreck scene; Dave and Barbara Collins, among others, standing behind the Governor as he signed the 1999 EMS legislation into law. Barbara's face was partially obscured by the arm of a fire chief standing in the front rank. A carpeted hallway on the right led to a bank of office suites – far more offices than needed for such a small company. But that had always been Dave Collins, dreaming big.

Ryan stepped across the lobby and examined a picture closely. In it, a younger version of himself tenderly carried a child up an embankment, an overturned school bus in the background. Another photo below it showed him at a wreck scene, sprawled across the hood of a compact car, laryngoscope in hand, head turned to his right barking orders. He looked fearless, purposeful. In charge.

That particular photo had won awards, and appeared on the cover of a major EMS trade journal. In the far right of the photo, a pair of gloved hands held the wrecked face of the victim, still pinned behind the wheel of her car as Ryan prepared to intubate her. The hands had belonged to his partner, Tommy Bollinger, who liked to joke that he had the hands that made Ryan Pierce famous.

"Looky there," he'd say proudly, tapping the photo with a finger for emphasis. "Those are my hands. What that picture don't show is how I climbed in the back seat and ventilated that girl from behind, with nothing more than these two hands and a bag-mask. Five minutes I stood there, hunched over and breathin' for this girl, and whadda the fertographers git? My partner, the gloe-ry hound. I tell y'all, if not fer these here hands, he wouldn't be famous."

Ryan chuckled at the memory. His chuckle faded when a sliding glass window opened on the far side of the lobby and a head appeared above the sill. A familiar head, wearing a dispatcher's hands-free microphone and headset.

"Can I help you, Sir?" Billy Fontenot asked politely. When he saw who it was, his polite smile disappeared. "Oh. Ryan. Good to see you," he said perfunctorily, in a tone that indicated just the opposite.

"Billy," Ryan acknowledged levelly.

"They're all in the classroom," he said, pointing to Ryan's left.

"I know where the classroom is," Ryan assured him. "I built it." He refrained from adding, you asshole. But he thought it.

Enjoy it while it lasts, Billy. You won't be a dispatch supervisor for much longer. You won't even be an employee.

"Well, I'll be Gawddamned," crowed Tommy Bollinger as Ryan walked through the door. "Hawkeye Pierce, in the flesh! Damn boy, but ain't you a sight for sore eyes!" He walked across the room, batted Ryan's offered hand away, and lifted him off the floor in a fierce bear hug.

"How you been, partner?" Ryan smiled affectionately. Tommy Bollinger, born and raised in Possum Valley, Arkansas, was as country as grits and collard greens. At six feet, six inches and two hundred-eighty pounds, he was an imposing physical specimen, but Ryan knew from experience that he was as gentle as they came. That is, until you got him riled. Tommy didn't know his own strength, probably because in his forty years on this Earth, he had never encountered a situation that tested it to any great degree.

"I ever tell y'all how my hands made this ol' boy famous?" he challenged, still holding Ryan's feet six inches off the floor.

"Only about a million times," Ryan grunted uncomfortably. "You mind putting me down, please?" Chuckling affectionately, Tommy set him down and made a show of solicitously straightening his clothes, brushing off imaginary lint, smoothing back his hair…

"Enough, damn it!" Ryan laughed, pushing him away.

He made his way around the room, greeting old friends, some of whom he hadn't
seen in ten years. Lila Rogers and Mary Emory were there, long-time partners both on and off the ambulance. They had left for a job in Texas in Collins Ambulance's third year, for more money and benefits. Both of them greeted Ryan with an affectionate hug.

Mack Barron and his mother Mary Jo greeted him with handshakes and smiles. Mary Jo had long since retired from nursing and EMS, and Mack worked part-time as a reserve Sheriff's Deputy. Mack had followed his mother into EMS at the tender age of eighteen, in what he thought would be a brief stop en route to the police academy and a career in law enforcement. Fifteen years later, he was still an EMT at Collins Ambulance.

Jody Snell had left for Acadian Ambulance barely six months after Ryan became a paramedic. Slightly older than Ryan, and already a paramedic for a year, he had always seen Ryan as his rival. Every shift assignment Ryan got, every promotion he received, Jody bitched about incessantly, utterly convinced that his seniority as a medic meant those rewards should come to him. He and Ryan were not friends, but they shook hands and pretended to be glad to see one another.

Jody's partner's greeting, however, was much more affectionate. Gail Vetters smiled warmly and kissed Ryan's cheek. She had worked as an EMT at Collins Ambulance for fifteen years, and for MetroCare with Dave and Barbara for five years before that. She had been there and done that, and had put up with a hundred partners more arrogant than Jody Snell. Gail was like the steady dog in the team, the one you harnessed alongside the younger, rambunctious pups to calm them down and give them a little seasoning. She trained by example, but she had a sharp pair of fangs if needed.

"Glad to see you, Ryan," she greeted him. "And how's your little girl?"

"Growing like a weed and sassy as hell," Ryan winked. Gail's daughter had been one of Caitlin's nurses in St. Matthew's NICU. One evening when Ryan and Dawn had shown up for one of their thrice-daily visits, Caitlin had been dressed in a beautiful lace-trimmed gown, handmade to fit a micro-preemie, with openings in the back for IV lines and monitoring leads.

"It was a gift from Mama," her nurse had explained. "She says she's praying for y'all." Both parents had been profoundly grateful, and Gail Vetters had forever found a place in Ryan's pantheon of the Truly Good People.

"Ryan, glad you could make it," Trent Collins greeted him with an outstretched hand. Ryan shook it, and was immediately struck with distaste. The handshake was as limp as a cold fish. Trent Collins had already been a shallow, pompous asshole at the tender age of twelve, and adulthood had only accentuated his less-desirable character traits. He had always cultivated an air of piety and false dignity, something that looked decidedly out-of-place on a pre-teen boy. Couple that with the arrogance to believe that his status as the bosses' eldest son gave him the right to order grown men around, and on the day Spud Collins had dealt a fearsome ass-whipping to his older brother, it was no surprise to that he'd had a cheering section of EMTs.

"I'm sorry to hear about your parents, Trent," Ryan said formally. "We'll all miss them."

"Well, they're in a better place," Trent Collins said solemnly. "Praise Jesus." Behind him, Tommy Bollinger rolled his eyes.

Well, so much for the Army changing Trent for the better. He's still the oily little bastard he's always been.

"Gentlemen," Trent raised his voice, ignoring the fact that there were four ladies in the room, "here's the plan. Ty and the other crews are already at the church. Tommy and I will drive the two funeral coaches out front…"

Funeral coaches? Does he mean those two ambulances?

"…to the church, and the rest of you may ride along, or take your own cars if you wish. We'll park the funeral coaches at the west entrance - that's the one that faces Lee Street, boys – and the first two rows are reserved for family and pallbearers. Immediate family sits in the front row, and…

We know which way is west, Trent, and I remember a time when you couldn't read a friggin' map.

"…after Brother Taylor is finished, there will be a brief hymn, and then any of you who wish to do so may come up and give a brief eulogy. I'll ask that you keep your anecdotes solemn and respectful, in keeping with the sorrow of the occasion."

That's right. Let's all cry and wail and gnash our teeth, because this is a funeral after all. Happy memories are not welcome. Jesus, are you sure you weren't switched with another baby at birth? You're sure as hell nothing like your parents.

"Does anyone have any questions?"

I have one. How are you going to sit down with that ginormous stick up your ass?

"I have one," Tommy asked, timidly raising his hand. "Who's going to be the twelfth pallbearer? I mean, there's all of us here, plus Royce, John, and Richard at the church with Ty. That makes eleven. Ann's been dead for eight years. So who's number twelve?"

Dave and Barbara Collins had not been the first from Collins Ambulance to die in an ambulance crash. Eight years earlier, on a rainy March night, Ann Heflin had dropped the right wheels of her ambulance off a steep shoulder. The ambulance had rolled several times, ejecting her through the driver's window. Her picture was enshrined in the lobby in a special place of honor.

"I…I don't know," Trent stammered uncertainly. "Ty was handling all that."

"I'll do it," Billy Fontenot volunteered from the doorway.

"You weren't one of the original employees," Trent said coldly, "and someone here has to man the phones and radio."

"One of the original twelve employees is dead, Trent," Gail pointed out, "and Ty never told any of us who was to take her place."

"I'm sure Ty had someone in mind," Trent assured them. "We need to get to the church in time for the –"

"So what's the reason for leaving Billy here?" Ryan interrupted. "I thought the whole point of having Allemands Parish Fire Department sending a truck to cover was so everyone could attend the funeral."

"Someone still has to answer the phones and radios, and dispatch them if we get a call," Trent replied, as if speaking to a backward child.

"So we forward the phones to the Sheriff's Office, and let them handle the radio traffic, just like we did in the old days. Hell, they answer all the 911 calls anyway," Ryan snapped, rapidly losing patience.

Trent's eyes flashed with anger, but he said nothing. Billy Fontenot simply looked at Ryan appraisingly.

Haven't changed a bit, have you, Trent? You still think you own the place, yet you want nothing to do with running it.

"Billy, forward all the phones to Audubon SO," Ryan said decisively. "Call the dispatcher and the crew with Allemands Parish Fire Department, and tell them to dispatch over the Audubon SO frequency. You can ride in the truck with Tommy."

Billy looked at Trent Collins questioningly. After a moment visibly spent making up his mind, Trent nodded his assent.

"Let me get changed into a uniform, and I'll ride with you," Ryan suggested.

"I'll be out in the truck," Trent replied shortly.

Five minutes later, Ryan was wearing an obviously new Collins Ambulance uniform, and Trent Collins was driving them to the Fort Sperry First Baptist Church, where the funeral was to be held. The drive only took five minutes, but to Ryan it seemed like hours.

"So when do we sign these papers?" Trent asked. "I fly back to Qatar tomorrow afternoon."

"This afternoon is as good a time as any, I suppose."

"Less than five hundred grand seems a little low for all the work we put into this place over the years," Trent said mildly, but Ryan could see his mind working behind the remark. Trent was thinking how he could weasel more out of the deal.

"What's all this 'we' stuff?" Ryan asked bluntly, tired of the charade. "Any employee here has put more work into this place than you ever have. If anything, this should be Ty's company, alone."

Trent let the comment pass unchallenged, his only reaction the flexing of his fingers on the steering wheel.

"The only thing you ever wanted out of this place was the opportunity to bully grown men around because you were the bosses' kid. You've been gone ten years, and you know jack shit about running an ambulance service. If it's really all that important to you," Ryan went on with a cruel smile, "Ty can sell me his share and we'll be equal partners, you and I. You can get out of the army and come home and pretend you're running the family business. I'm just sure we'll work well together."

"I want no part of this fucking place," Trent Collins spat contemptuously. His distaste was palpable. "Picking up dirty, smelly…sick people…shuttling around old people to their fucking dialysis appointments, smelling their rotten bedsores…"

You're such a fine Christian, Trent, Ryan thought sarcastically. Jesus would be SO proud of you.

Apparently Ryan's disdain was evident upon his face, because Trent stole a quick glance at him and shut up.

"I'm just saying I think your offer's a little low, that's all," he went on. "I'm not sure we couldn't get better from MetroCare or StatFleet."

"Give 'em a call," Ryan challenged. "See if they offer more. Your financial situation is no secret, Trent. My guess is that they'll try to lowball you even more, or simply wait six months until you fold on your own, and then move in to pick up the pieces. You're just a couple of missed Medicare checks from bankruptcy as it is. Ty has done a good job keeping you afloat this long, but he's got too many plates spinning in the air. Sooner or later, they're all gonna crash."

Trent Collins considered that a moment, and then asked, "So how does this work?"

"Unless you want to come back from Qatar in a month or so just to handle the paperwork, you sign a document today empowering Ty to sell Collins Ambulance and all its assets to me once the estate has been probated. Once that's done, Ty signs the sale papers and splits the money with you, in accordance with the inheritance laws of Louisiana. I'm sure there will be some estate taxes and fees involved, but that's the deal."

"And how much is my share, after taxes and fees?"

Took you long enough to come to the point, you greedy little bastard. I'll bet you haven't shed one tear over your parents.

"Roughly two hundred grand, just from the sale of Collins Ambulance. What else you'll inherit from their estate is none of my business."

"I suppose that'll have to be enough, then," Trent Collins sighed with a put-upon air.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Trent," Ryan snorted in disgust.


The funeral was largely the standard affair, with the only difference being the preponderance of uniformed people crowding into the church. Ryan counted ambulances from over twenty different EMS systems, and it seemed as if every law enforcement agency in north Louisiana had sent an officer in dress uniform. The line of official vehicles had been impressive.

A Baptist minister mouthed generic platitudes about people he barely knew, spending most of the time expounding upon the virtues of a life led in service to others, a life which, he had assured all present, the deceased had most certainly lived.

'The deceased.' That's really classy there, Brother Taylor. Try looking down at your crib sheet more often, and you might remember their names.

As the preacher droned on ceaselessly, Ryan's mind began to wander, despite his best efforts otherwise. He looked around the church, and was surprised to see quite a few mourners crying, dabbing at their eyes with tissues or handkerchiefs. Enough of them that he began to wonder if perhaps he shouldn't be feeling more emotional, and question why he wasn't. The feeling made him vaguely uneasy.

This is why I don't like funerals, he mused. I don't see the point of mourning someone when they're gone. Better to celebrate the life they lived while they were here.

So you say, came the mocking voice in the back of his mind. Is that why you see your sister every night when you close your eyes, because you've moved on? How many times have you worked that code in your nightmares?

"Shut up," he whispered through clenched teeth, and several people nearby turned to look at him curiously. Ryan blushed with embarrassment as he realized he'd inadvertently spoken aloud.

That's because Renee never had a life worth celebrating, he whispered to himself furiously.

And whose fault was that? Who turned his back on her and left her to fend for herself?

Shut. Up. Renee made her own life. I'm not responsible for anyone's life but my own. I'm not responsible for anyone's life but my own…

Strange mantra for a paramedic, Hawkeye, the voice mocked. It explains a lot, really.


Someone elbowed Ryan in the arm, and he looked to his left to see Tommy Bollinger staring at him. Ryan looked at him in confusion, and Tommy nodded toward the dais, as if to say, pay attention.

Behind the podium stood Don Bailey, now Chief Deputy of the Audubon Parish Sherriff's Office. He was speaking of a night long ago, and how Dave Collins and a new paramedic had given back to his family their most precious gift. Beside him stood a tall young man of perhaps seventeen who bore a striking resemblance to his father, and Ryan instantly recognized Chase Bailey, the very child he had revived on that night nearly fourteen years before. The teenager gave him a shy smile and a tiny wave, and Ryan winked at him through eyes suddenly brimming with tears.

Not responsible for anyone's life but my own…but I can choose to accept the responsibility for another. That's what I do, and that kid up there is the payoff. My sister chose to end her own life, whether by a single event or by the slow march of years. She chose to die, and there was nothing I could do about it. I could only try to help her live. She chose otherwise.

The voice had nothing to say in reply.

Don Bailey's voice was faltering, but it strengthened when his son put a reassuring arm around his father's shoulder. He went on to say something about debts that could never be repaid, and the strange brotherhood of people who gave of themselves without asking for anything in return. It was a brotherhood he knew well as a peace officer, he said, and he had been honored to share that brotherhood for so long with as fine a pair of people as Dave and Barbara Collins. He finished by reading aloud from John 15, verses that Ryan knew well:

These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

When he finished, he slowly closed his Bible, turned to his left and faced the twin caskets. He snapped a solemn, parade ground salute and held it for a long ten seconds. The silence in the church was deafening. Don slowly lowered his arm, regarded the caskets for second more, then smartly performed an about face and marched purposefully out of the church without another word.

The church erupted in thunderous applause.

Ryan looked around in wide-eyed wonder. People were standing on their feet and cheering. Many of them were still crying, yes, but the somber mood of the proceedings had been utterly broken. Ty Collins sat in the front row, half turned around in his seat, smiling broadly through a veil of tears. Only Trent seemed put out by the show of warmth and affection.

Tommy Bollinger elbowed Ryan again and gestured toward the podium. "Go on up there and say something," Tommy mouthed.

No, Ryan shook his head vigorously. No way.

"Get up there," Tommy insisted, aloud this time. He prodded Ryan until he nearly fell off the pew.

Reluctantly, Ryan trudged up to the podium. He cleared his throat hesitantly into the microphone, and waited for the applause to die down. When he looked up into a sea of expectant faces, he almost froze.

Piece of cake, Ryan. You've spoken to bigger crowds than this. You can do this.

"Just my luck to follow Don Bailey after a eulogy like that," Ryan began hesitantly. "I could stand up here and read the phone book and none of you would remember a word I said. I suppose that's a good thing for me…"

A ripple of laughter passed through the church, and Ryan's voice found strength.

"My name is Ryan Pierce, and I was one of the original crews at Collins Ambulance. Some of you may remember me, and some of you I've not yet had the pleasure of meeting. I've been gone from here a long time, but in a way I suppose I never left. Dave and Barbara Collins hired me as a brand-new EMT straight out of school, not a week after they opened for business. In the years I worked here, they taught me a lot of lessons that I took with me when I left."

"The first, and I suppose, the most practical lesson I learned on my very first ambulance call; whenever you pick up a person that has urinated on himself, always try to be at the head."

The church roared with laughter, and Ryan continued with a devilish grin, "The corollary to that is, always carry a spare uniform shirt to work with you."

Again, the church erupted with laughter.

"Aside from the practical tips, they taught me how to laugh, how to love, how to recognize that the pain and suffering we see as EMTs can blind us to the joy we can experience if we let it. Dave had a business philosophy, a saying he used a lot that I'm sure everyone here in a Collins uniform has heard a thousand times…"

EMTs in the first two rows smiled and nodded knowingly.

"…but the point of that philosophy was that the patient always came first. He used to remind us to care for our patients and our partners above all else. He figured that if we did that, then the business would take care of itself."

"When he told me that for the first time, I knew two things beyond the shadow of a doubt; I knew that I wanted to work for a man like Dave Collins, and I knew that as long as I did, I was going to be eating macaroni and Ramen noodles a lot."

The crowd roared in appreciation, and Ryan smiled ruefully.

"Along the way, we had some hard times. I worked the fire at the mill where some of you lost loved ones. I've held people as they died. We lost one of our EMTs on the Mason Ferry Road eight years ago, killed in an ambulance crash. There's hardly a stretch of road anywhere in Audubon Parish that doesn't have a memory attached to it, and some of them are memories I'd rather forget. And now we've lost Dave and Barbara."

Ryan swallowed hard and blinked his eyes, and the church was silent.

"But I've also seen some good things. I met my wife here," he smiled at Dawn, sitting in the fourth row. "I was there with Dave Collins the night Don Bailey called the Sheriff's Office for help because his son wasn't breathing. We were lucky that night, and now I see him today, a grown man. I see some people with children here, and unless I'm mistaken, I delivered a couple of 'em..."

He paused for effect, then delivered the punch line, "…and not a single one of those parents saw fit to name their child after me." The line drew the laugh he had hoped for, and Ryan smiled gratefully at the room.

"All of us are here today to pay tribute in some way to Dave and Barbara Collins, and I think the way I'll do it is to be grateful for the opportunity they gave me sixteen years ago. They gave me a front row seat to the pageantry of human life, and reminded me that if you blink, you might miss a part of the show. Their role in the pageant has ended, but I think they'd be disappointed if we didn't all open our eyes to enjoy the rest of it. Thank you."

The crowd responded with a wave of warm applause, and Ryan quietly slipped back to his seat. A soloist sang a hymn, and the mourners filed past the caskets, offering hugs and tender words of support to Trent and Ty Collins, and the crews of Collins Ambulance.

As Ryan shook hands with a throng of well-wishers, he found himself thinking of that night in the hospital ambulance bay, when Dave Collins told him he had a gift.

I'll honor my gift, Dave, he promised silently. I hope that's enough.