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Chicago Sunset

By Ross Manuel All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Thriller

Chapter 1

Jacinta Ruthbridge had begun to loathe night shift. Chicago had once been a city that possessed a vibrant nightlife, now it shut down at dusk as people stayed locked up in their homes unless they absolutely needed to. All because of stories. It had been three years since the media started reporting an increase in violence, it didn't take long for the cause to be attributed to make-believe monsters. As a paramedic she saw first-hand the real world implications of those stories.

The only reason she continued to endure the torture of twelve hours of brain-numbing boredom was to save up enough money to get out of Chicago; to escape the paranoia of a city gone mad.

Her five-foot-seven frame lounged on one of the station's sofas, boots propped up on the far arm, watching the wall-mounted television across the room. She rolled her eyes at the infomercial on the screen trying to sell the latest must have beauty item. Looking at the large clock on the far wall caused Jacinta to groan as the clock-face confirmed her thoughts that the shift wasn't even half over.

Her disappointed tone caught the attention of the nearby collection of fire-fighters sitting behind her playing cards. The emblems on their work shirts designated them as belonging to either the station's Engine or Truck Companies. The remaining members belonging to the station's two fire fighting vehicles were scattered throughout the stationhouse occupying their time by sleeping, eating or working on their respective vehicles out in the apparatus bay.

Like her they had to endure a mind-numbing twelve-hour shift but unlike her they were making the most of it as the stack of poker chips sitting in the centre of the table testified.

They looked over to Jacinta, the only woman in the station, before their gaze finally fell on the only other paramedic on shift sitting at the end of the table with the smallest stack of chips. "Hey, rookie, I think your partner needs some attention," one of the truck company members commented snidely while others laughed.

Face reddening as the other participants continued making jokes, Tobias McClaskey, Jacinta's partner, sunk in his chair and asked, "Sin, you alright?"

Jacinta stood up scowling before running a hand through her thick, brown, below shoulder-length hair. By the time she turned around, her expression had returned to normal. She hated the fact that Tobias had started addressing her by her nickname, something he must have picked up from the fire crews.

She nodded, acknowledging the question before heading towards the kitchenette at the rear of the break room. As she moved her body-hugging black uniform shirt and paramedic pants pulled against her hourglass figure. She had always known her curvy appearance was one of her more noticeable attributes, and while it had gained her a number of admirers, she considered it a hindrance to her duties. Approaching the fridge to remove bottle of cola, twisting the top off the bottle in the same movement as she nudged the door closed with her hip.

"Just wondering what I'm going to do for the next eight hours, there is nothing good on at the moment, so unless you had any objections, I was thinking of watching a movie," she remarked before taking a sip from the bottle. Returning to the sofa, she casually picked up the DVD case of a soppy romantic comedy from the coffee table showing it to the card players. "What do you guys think of this one?" she asked grinning slightly, she had no real desire to watch it, but knew it would get a reaction.

To their credit, the grouped fire fighters started gagging, grasping at their throats as if choking; one even fell to the floor feigning death.

Jacinta laughed before placing the DVD back on the sofa, "A no would have been sufficient," she commented while grinning, causing the others to laugh before they threw handfuls of chips in the centre and returning to their game.

Jacinta shrugged and returned to the sofa and trawled through the pile of magazines that littered the coffee table, sighing at the fact that she was the sole woman on the shift and all the magazines in front of her focused on sports, guns, cars, or large-breasted women in varying stages of undress. Rolling her eyes, Jacinta picked up the nearest magazine and flicked through its pages absently, wishing that there was at least one magazine where she was the target audience.

Before she could become engrossed in the small token articles that were spaced between heavily photo shopped bodies, the station alarm sounded, "Engine 26, Truck 7, Ambulance 45, Townhouse fire, 3627 North Magnolia Street," came over the station's intercom. The card players groaned at the untimely interruption before dropping their cards and standing. They stole a moment to look over each other's hands, which increased the pitch of the groan.

Matthew Hutchinson, the Engine Crew Lieutenant, turned to the assortment of fire-fighters that had gathered in the break room in preparation to move out to the garage in their assembled teams. "Remember, everyone, Night Protocols are in effect, keep an eye out, that part of town is heavily populated." They nodded grimly; they all knew what night protocols meant.

"Are we going to have any backup for this one?" Tobias asked, collecting a trauma kit from a nearby equipment locker and loading it into the back of the ambulance.

"What's the matter, Probie, scared the bogeyman will come and get you?" one of the ladder crew commented dryly as Jacinta moved into the locker room to collect her equipment, excluding her from the rest of the conversation though judging by the noises coming from the break room, things were not going well for the candidate paramedic. Stopping to remove a hair tie from around her wrist, she returned her brown locks to their proper positon tied in a tight ponytail before opening her designated locker. Removing her black uniform jacket; slipping it on she reached once more into the locker, removing a black bulky equipment vest with reflective stripes located evenly across the garment. The reason for the bulk was due to the succession of reinforced ribbed panels on the front and back, and a thick, stiffened neck guard. She hated wearing it, it was uncomfortable and restrictive, not to mention unflattering, especially the way it constricted her large chest, though she was thankful that she wasn't a firefighter who also had to wear the heavy response jacket over the top of it. "All this because of some sadistic freaks and supposed satanic ritualism," she muttered to herself as she left the room.

Entering the garage, she approached the white Chicago Fire Department Ambulance parked alongside a pair of black-and-red fire engines, a short, general-purpose fire engine and a specialised long-bodied ladder truck. Climbing into the cabin she dropped her vest behind her seat and belted up. Looking over to her partner studying a clipboard, she asked, "You ready?"

Tobias nodded, slipping his seatbelt over his shoulder and securing it in place. Jacinta turned over the engine, activating the ambulance's light bar as the vehicle pulled out of the garage following the two fire engines. The three vehicles raced down empty streets in convoy.

As the vehicles sped towards the fire that was gradually starting to poke through the cityscape, Jacinta looked over to Tobias sitting uncomfortably in his equipment vest. This wasn't her normal partner, her usual partner, Zack, had developed food poisoning from a recent station chili cook-off and Tobias had been called up to take his place. "You haven't done a night shift before, have you, kid?" she asked, merging onto the I-90 Interstate several miles faster than the posted speed limit, following the two fire engines in front of her. While Jacinta was the senior paramedic, making it actually Tobias' job to drive the ambulance, it was one of the few luxuries that Jacinta had in her life working nights that she enjoyed; that, and the fact that she didn't yet trust this rookie EMT to have the wheel.

"Nope, they don't allow candidates to work nights until our second year anymore, well, not normally anyway. I asked the chief if I could ride with you as relief, hopefully get more experience," he replied, pulling at the tabs on his shoulders, trying to get comfortable as each bump and turn caused the vest to shift uncomfortably.

Jacinta shook her head as she continued to drive; in her peripheral vision she could see Tobias staring at her, "Is there something you want?" she asked as the fire started to become more visible, intermittent flashes of blue signalled that the Police Response Unit was already on the scene. The appearance of the specialised taskforce caused Jacinta to roll her eyes, as the PRU was created as the direct result of the rash of recent night-time attacks and was regularly despatched to emergency call outs as part of the Night Protocols.

Her question seemed to startle the rookie before he took a breath to gather the courage to ask his question. "Um, I've been curious, some of the guys in the stationhouse told me stories about how you broke your nose, and some of them seemed pretty farfetched…" he trailed off when he noticed the scowl on Jacinta's face as she stole a glance to a side mirror, immediately noticing the slight bump on the bridge of her nose. Meekly Tobias continued, "How did you get the bump?"

Her scowl deepened, the station complement knew better than to talk about a time when she was as much the naïve rookie as the one seated beside her; a fact she didn't like to be reminded of.

"My face happened to coincide with the same time and space as some drunk's left cross, I was lucky to survive my rookie mistake; you may not be," she hissed, beginning to fume. "If you want to work nights again, don't bring up rumours; there are no monsters, they simply don't exist. All that does are nutjobs and psychos, and if you don't have the balls to face the reality of the situation then you shouldn't be at the station," she snapped as the small convoy of vehicles came to a stop outside a row of white townhouses, one of which was well alight. She looked over to her partner to see him shrinking into his vest, his expression clearly showing that what she had said had upset him. "Now is not the time for that, Rookie! We have a job to do!" she said brusquely before grabbing the receiver of the vehicle's two-way radio and spoke into it, "Ambulance 45 arrived on scene." Once she received acknowledgement from dispatch she opened the driver's door and slipped out of the vehicle, reaching behind her seat for her vest. Donning the cumbersome garment she closed the driver's door with a thud and moved to the rear of the vehicle, noticing that Tobias was already there, opening it to retrieve a trauma kit while struggling to settle his own vest. "Final piece of advice, Rookie, don't wear the vest when you're in the rig, otherwise you'll be fidgeting with it forever."

Tobias cast his gaze downwards again and mumbled something akin to an apology. The Incident Commander approached the vehicle, fluorescent panels on his police vest reflecting the pulses of light from nearly a dozen different light bars. When he arrived he placed a hand against the open rear door of the ambulance while the fire crews went to work combating the blaze in front of them.

"We don't have any casualties yet, it seems the fire started in an upstairs bedroom in that empty townhouse and spread from there; we've been lucky and it's been contained to this building, but stand by unless the situation changes," the commander reported before turning back to see the fire crew entering the building.

"Understood, sir, we'll set up here," Jacinta replied, looking over to Tobias and nodding towards the interior of the ambulance to start preparing a triage post. The Incident Commander looked over at the probationary EMT and shook his head in sympathy before heading towards his command vehicle to liaise back with the incident control centre. Rolling her eyes, the paramedic joined her colleague.

Jacinta took a moment to look out at the scene around her. Despite the fact that there was a townhouse on fire in a heavily populated area there were surprisingly few bystanders looking on; even people in the surrounding houses had resisted the lure of coming out to the street to look on, favouring to watch the spectacle through the safety of barred windows. Shrugging, the paramedic took a seat against the rear fender of the ambulance, awkwardly crossing her arms over her vest as she watched the fire crews go to work. As she sat, she did her best to ignore the movements of her partner as he pottered around in the back of the vehicle.

As the fire crews continued to battle the inferno, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye which caused Jacinta to look towards a gangway a short distance from the building. Something appeared to be shuffling away from the scene of the blaze. The light created by the burning building and the half dozen emergency vehicles allowed her to see that this figure was humanoid, and limping severely. Rising to her feet, the paramedic reached in and removed a trauma kit from a shelf in the ambulance and started towards the individual to investigate. "Rookie, hold the fort, I think I saw something," she commanded, not waiting to see if the probationary EMT had heard her as she slipped the straps over her shoulder and headed off. Grapping her walkie talkie, she clipped it to her vest and pressed the button."2-4-9 to 4-5-7, leaving ambulance to investigate a possible casualty, 3-2-4 is still at the vehicle.""Confirmed, 2-4-9, stand by, uniforms are enroute to your location for backup," the Incident Commander replied.

"4-5-7, backup really isn't required, chances are there isn't anything there," she commented, rolling her eyes at the notion of an escort.

"Understood, 2-4-9, maintain radio contact and stay safe, 4-5-7 out."

Walking away from the ambulance, Jacinta continued down the direction she was convinced her mystery person had gone, even if she wasn't completely sure that there was anyone there. She looked down and noticed a faint trail of blood reflecting nearby emergency beacons. She removed her flashlight from its belt loop and began to pan the surrounding area following the blood trail. Unaware of the distance she had travelled, a faint murmuring caused the paramedic to look behind a dumpster at the rear of a nearby building to find a man slumped against it, his features highlighted by a single bank of security lights installed on the corner. One hand was trying hopelessly to stem the course of bleeding from a number of jagged tears, making it look as though some kind of wild animal had mauled him; the other was holding onto the wall behind him as if this act was the only thing keeping him on the planet. His dark clothing was torn in several places and soaked in blood from his various injuries. The `blood loss draining the colour from his complexion.

"Shit," Jacinta muttered, dropping the trauma kit and her flashlight and slipping a pair of purple examination gloves from a pouch on her vest onto her delicate, slender hands and kneeling beside the man. "Sir? Can you hear me? Can you tell me what happened?"

The man before her mumbled incoherently while pawing at the massive open, bloody wound in his abdomen in a vain attempt to slow the course of bleeding. Opening the main compartment of the kit, Jacinta the largest dressing pad she could find to start stemming the course of bleeding, securing it in place the best she could before she shuffled through pockets and flaps looking for additional bandages and analgesics to start treating the man's other injuries. Narrowing her gaze, she scrutinised the layout of the kit and was unfamiliar with the way it had been set out. Irritated at the layout she drew her penlight and checked the tag on the bag's handle, "Who the hell is Rodriguez?" Cursing, she dropped her light and removed a Hudson mask from the resuscitation kit inside the bag and connecting it to the oxygen bottle in the base, she placed it over the man's mouth and nose, turning the dial on the regulator once it was secure. "This is 2-4-9 to 3-2-4; I've found someone: male, mid-thirties, he looks like he's been mauled by a bear or something, looks unrelated to the fire. Also where the hell is my ALS bag?"

There was a brief pause before Tobias replied, "Um, the stationhouse I think, 'cause I don't see it in the vehicle." Jacinta swore off channel as she attempted to do her best to apply pressure to her patient's larger wounds.

"Then bring me a drug bag and the stretcher. I went down the gangway near the townhouse, beside a dumpster, I'm not sure how far down I've gone, but this guy doesn't look in great shape so get the lead out."

"I'm on my way, 3-2-4 out."

Sighing, Jacinta pressed the talk button again on the two-way. "2-4-9 to 4-5-7, Commander, I've found a patient unrelated to the fire, male mid-thirties, multiple deep lacerations down the gangway alongside the townhouse row. Once 3-2-4 arrives at my location I will be extracting him back to the rig, he'll need a pickup; it's an urgent case."

The radio crackled to life with the Incident Commander, "Understood, 2-4-9, assistance will be on site by the time you arrive, 4-5-7 out."

"Rookies," Jacinta muttered exasperatedly to herself as she wrapped another bandage around her patient's torso to secure the dressing before picking up her penlight to inspect some of the smaller wounds now that she had more or less gotten the major bleeding under control. "What the hell did this to you?" she wondered as her patient faded in and out of consciousness. He would occasionally mutter incoherently in a language she couldn't identify as she attempted to work on his wounds wishing she had more effective equipment to do her job.

Jacinta reached into the trauma bag and withdrew a smaller cannula kit and an IV line; rolling up her patient's sleeve she attached the blue tourniquet from the kit just below his bicep. She then ran a swab across the inside of his forearm before priming the IV line from the 1000mL bag of saline and hung it from an anchor point on the dumpster. Placing the penlight between her teeth, she prepped the site before inserting the needle into a palpated vein. Holding the cannula in one hand, she paused when she noticed that the blood filling the cannula's reservoir was not the normal dull red she expected from venous, deoxygenated blood, but a dark red more commonly seen with congealed blood.

'Well that's not normal,' she pondered, raising an eyebrow before removing the tourniquet and the insertion needle and connecting the IV line. She opened the slide wheel allowing the fluid to flow into the cannula.

Taking observations on her patient she looked over her shoulder and wondered where her partner was. Standing, she removed the penlight from her mouth and manipulated her two-way. "2-4-9 to 3-2-4, what's your location?" her question was met with silence. "3-2-4 this is 2-4-9, radio check?" Again nothing, "2-4-9 to 4-5-7, radio check?"

"2-4-9, you're coming through clear, are you receiving?" the Incident Commander replied. "Is there a problem?"

"4-5-7, all clear, but I can't get in contact with 3-2-4, I haven't seen him and this guy needs extraction." Jacinta looked down at her patient and frowned as blood started to seep through the bandages.

"I see, 2-4-9, hold tight, I'll sort something out." She heard the commander attempt to page Tobias to the same result before she heard the faint click of the Commander switching to the local frequency instead of the dedicated EMS one. "4-5-7 to all personnel, be on the lookout for EMT McClaskey, he was last seen near Ambulance 45 heading towards the gangway alongside the townhouses. He's not responding to comms so it's possible he could have technical or other issues. Report back to central dispatch if you see him or the stretcher; as Paramedic Ruthbridge needs an extraction, 4-5-7 out."

As the radio reported acknowledgements from the fire crews, Jacinta shook her head and returned to her patient."Damn it, Tobias, where the hell are you?" she asked, taking her patient's observations again and recording them on a notepad from her pocket while she checked the cannula and the bandages to make sure they were still doing their job. A noise behind her brought her attention away from her patient. "Rookie, where the hell have you been, this guy needs to get out of here and why haven't you been responding to my calls?" she demanded while placing a hand on the large abdominal bandage, checking to make sure that its integrity was intact before moving on to the oxygen tank to ensure that it was still supplying her patient. Her comment went unanswered.

A low guttural snarl behind her caused her to turn sharply; the light from the alley seemed to be absorbed by the night around her, but she was able to make out a faint silhouette. The figure was hulked over but it was obvious that it was easily taller than her by at least a foot; its long arms appeared to reach the ground unnaturally as it approached.

While Jacinta normally enjoyed the feeling of her heart racing when she responded to a call, her heart was racing now for a completely different reason. An unaccustomed chill ran down her spine as she backed away from the figure, putting herself between it and her patient, casting a quick glance around trying to assess the situation. Her training instructed her that if she was ever threatened, the trauma kit was a good improvised weapon; however, in this situation that was not an option as it was currently attached to her patient. Reaching for the belt loop she realised that she had dropped her flashlight when she arrived on scene.

"Shit," she breathed, furiously looking around to see where it had rolled to as the figure drew closer.

In the back of her mind, she was cursing Tobias for not responding to her summons and probably getting lost, and that Zack would never have been so careless to get into a situation like this and that if she survived all this that she was going to punish Tobias severely.

Stealing a moment to look down she saw the light from her flashlight emanating from under the dumpster and slowly lowered herself to a crouch, keeping her gaze locked on the figure, blindly groping beneath her for the device. Once her fingers took purchase, she stood once more holding it like a baton.

The creature did not appear perturbed by this move, snarling mockingly as it continued to approach her; however, a crash nearby diverted both its attention and hers as a trashcan tipped over, spilling its contents across the gangway. A stray cat emerged from the wreckage mewing loudly as it pawed through the garbage looking for food completely ignorant of the situation occurring around it.

Shrugging, Jacinta turned back towards the figure fully expecting to be the next day's front page article, picturing the headline as she did: Paramedic killed in bizarre satanic ritual attack defending patient because partner was too dumb to follow instructions… She stopped mid thought when she realised that the figure that had been stalking her was gone. Flicking on the flashlight she slowly panned it around her, making sure that the area was secure before turning back to check on her patient.

"You have got to be kidding me!" she cursed uncomprehendingly, looking down to find that her patient had also vanished. Looking around she saw the IV bag still hanging from the dumpster, the end of the line dragging through the pool of brownish-red blood that marked the spot where her patient had been slumped. The oxygen mask still attached to the O2 canister which continued to deliver oxygen despite the fact that there was no one receiving it. Shaking her head she bent down to shut off the regulator before noticing that the main section of the kit was in disarray, with a number of bandages and other supplies missing. Policing what remained of her equipment, she slung the trauma kit over her shoulder and reached for her two-way to inform the incident commander what had happened.

"1-1-7 to 2-4-9, Sin, get back here, we've found Tobias," blared over her radio as she was about to press the mic. button. 1-1-7 was the call sign of Lieutenant Hutchinson, the engine crew's team leader; normally he was calm and collected over the radio, but judging by his tone and complete disregard of communications protocols, something bad must have happened. Jacinta could feel the blood leaving her cheeks.

Taking a breath she pressed the button. "Understood, 1-1-7, what is your location, over?" she replied making sure that she hadn't left anything behind before briskly heading towards the flashing emergency beacons, her recent encounter completely absent from her mind. She had to resist the urge to run as the weight of the equipment she was carrying threw off her centre of gravity forcing her to lean in the opposite direction as she walked to compensate.

"2-4-9, we're just off the entrance to the gangway, there is a laneway about ten feet from the street, 4-5-7; we have a situation requiring your attention at my location, over."

Jacinta did not like the direction the radio conversation was going and gradually turned down the volume on her two-way. She had a fair idea what was going on as she could see three members of the engine crew standing at the entrance to the laneway; one was shining a large handheld flashlight down the laneway while the other two were facing opposite directions as if they were waiting for her. When one noticed her approach he jogged towards her, holding his hands up for her to stop.

"Sean, what's going on?" she asked, instinctively removing a fresh set of gloves from a pouch on her vest. When he didn't immediately reply, she hardened her gaze. "Sean, where's Tobias?"

Senior Firefighter Sean Watson looked away towards the laneway before meeting her gaze. He was one of the older firefighters attached to Engine 26, becoming a de-facto father-figure for most of the station. "When the Commander put the call out to look for him we all thought that he had just gotten lost. When Tony exited the townhouse to clean his visor and found your stretcher toppled over in the gangway, it wasn't long after that that we found Tobias…" He looked over his shoulder to see another engine crew member, Tony Alveraz, sitting on the back step of Engine 26, with a blanket around his shoulders; his face pale looked as if he had seen something horrific.

Jacinta stepped around Sean and into the laneway, immediately noticing the fluorescent 'Lieutenant Hutchinson' nameplate on the back of the jacket of one of the engine crew who crouched over something being illuminated by another fire-fighter. It didn't take Jacinta long to realise that he was crouched over Tobias; however, he didn't appear to be treating any injuries the man might have suffered or talking to him, he just sat crouched beside him, laying between Jacinta and the lieutenant was an opened trauma kit, and a number of opened dressing packs lay scattered around the laneway. The engine lieutenant looked up when her shadow was cast over the scene and stood, blocking her field of vision. "Sin, there's nothing you can do," he muttered; the front of his jacket had patches of blood on it as he looked past her towards the laneway. Jacinta pushed past the lieutenant, only to stop cold in her tracks by what lay in front of her.

Tobias lay crumbled alongside the overturned stretcher. His skin had a pallor that nearly matched the bandage that was secured against his neck, offset only by the bloody smear that covered the right hand side of his head, turning his blonde hair an obscure red colour. The armoured vest, identical to the one she wore, was torn open, with reinforced panels splintered as if snapped under severe force. Beneath the vest was another blood-soaked bandage. Crouching beside the kid that moments before she had mocked for jumping at shadows, Jacinta placed two fingers against the inside of his right wrist, while staring at his face, the image of terror immortalised into lifeless eyes as she failed to feel his pulse.

"He was already dead by the time we found him," Matthew remarked in a tone that suggested that he wasn't speaking to Jacinta.

"Paramedic Ruthbridge, please take a step away from your partner, I'd like you to return to your vehicle, we need to debrief you," the Incident Commander commented from behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder. Jacinta didn't feel his hand as her vest was between them. Standing, she turned around to face the Incident Commander as a second ambulance, Ambulance 84, pulled up to the scene; a pair of police officers from the Response Unit had also arrived and started marking out the scene with yellow police tape. Jacinta nodded slowly before she moved away from the gangway and returned to the ambulance, dropping the trauma kit in the back and sitting on the step.

She hadn't met Tobias before this evening as he had only been assigned to the stationhouse after the cook-off since passing candidate EMT status the month before and had only worked during the day shift, but she still felt bad for the way things turned out. She had spent the entire shift telling him off; her last thoughts before finding out what had happened related to how she was going to punish him for getting lost, and now he was dead. Placing her head in her hands she took a slow, deep breath and shuddered as the adrenaline from both her encounter and the current situation started to subside.

"It's one of those nights, eh?" the Incident Commander commented. Jacinta hadn't even registered his approach to her. Raising her head, she looked up at him, smiling weakly, her eyes clouded.

She nodded dumbly before reaching into the back of the ambulance for her water bottle and opening it, taking sips in between washing her hands. It took her a moment to realise that she was still wearing gloves. Shaking her head she removed the gloves and dropped them on the pavement.

The commander frowned, placing a hand against the open door beside her. "Are you okay?" he asked gently, trying to get Jacinta's mind focused but unsure whether she had even heard him.

"He disappeared," she muttered, catching the commander off guard; he returned her gaze with a confused expression. "My patient, he disappeared. While I was waiting for Tobi- EMT McClaskey to arrive with the stretcher, a large animal - a dog or something - probably the one that attacked him in the first place, started sniffing around the scene. I was distracted for like a second as I tried to scare it off but when I turned back to him, he had vanished."

The Incident Commander frowned once more, "You said he wasn't in a good state to begin with, and you have no idea where he could have gone, or if there was anyone else around who could have helped him?" Jacinta returned his expression before shaking her head. "Are you okay?" he asked again.

Jacinta looked up at the commander, now wearing a defeated expression. "It's not every day that you lose both your patient and your partner within the space of an hour of each other, do you, so you tell me," she remarked with an edge to her voice.

Ignoring the flippancy of the remark, the commander took a seat on the step beside her. "Things happen, things that we can't control, tonight has been one of those times..." The sound of a vehicle approaching caused the two to look up, noticing a black-and-red SUV pull up to the scene, its light bar flashing periodically, a white number four decal on the driver's door marking this vehicle as belonging to her Battalion Chief.

Three people emerged from the SUV, the white-shirted battalion chief and two additional paramedics, who, judging by their dishevelled appearance, looked like they had just been woken up.

"We need to know the location of where you found your patient so that the CSU can mark it out as a potential crime scene. While you said that there isn't any connection between him and the fire, it's up to the investigators to make that determination," the Commander remarked as the new paramedic crew removed equipment from the rear of the SUV.

Jacinta turned and pointed down the gangway. "That way, past a dumpster, under a security light; you shouldn't be able to miss it, there is quite a bit of blood," she replied before registering the presence of the new paramedics, realising they were there to replace her.

"What are they doing here?" she asked as the trio approached the ambulance. The chief wore a concerned expression before stopping a respectable distance away from the ambulance as the two replacement paramedics continued on, placing their kits in the rear of the vehicle beside Jacinta. The replacements looked at Jacinta with sympathetic gazes before moving away to give her space.

"Protocol, you know that, Miss Ruthbridge, you are on forty-eight hour stand-down until you are debriefed by someone from bereavement services," the Incident Commander reported before standing to confer with the Battalion Chief. Jacinta looked around briefly; noticing that more police had entered the gangway.

A pair of police officers approached the ambulance, standing a short distance away. "Paramedic Ruthbridge, we need you to surrender your uniform and any equipment you used so we can use any DNA on them to identify just who your patient was as they may have something to do with the fire."

Jacinta nodded absently before handing them the waste bag that contained all the equipment she had used to treat her now-missing patient. The officers smiled at her sympathetically before placing the waste bag within sealed paper bags to preserve any evidence.

"Why do you need my uniform?" she asked before standing and, catching her reflection in a metallic door panel, noticing the blood stains on her pants, vest and boots. "Ah, that's why."

She stood, holding her arms out at her sides as one of the officers took photos of her in her uniform to chronicle the location of the blood splatters. She then unclasped her utility vest, letting the officers remove it from her before they took additional photos of both the bloodstained vest and Jacinta in the rest of her uniform. Untying her boots she showed the soles to the officers who nodded that they too had to be collected before taking additional photos. Unclasping her equipment belt she dropped it in the back of the ambulance before unzipping her pants, and stepping out of them and handing them also to the officer who placed them in another brown bag. Standing in only her black uniform jacket and black lace boy leg panties, she placed her hands on her hips. "Is there anything else you need?" she asked, shivering slightly as a faint April breeze nipped at her bare legs. The two officers stood stunned for a moment; they weren't expecting the curvaceous brunette to disrobe in the street.

"Um, no, we're good here, but if we need anything we'll be in touch," one of the officers said before grabbing the arm of this colleague who was discombobulated by the sight of a half-naked paramedic.

Jacinta shook her head before sitting down again on the rear step of the ambulance, immediately regretting it as her bare skin came into contact with the cold steel grating causing her to shiver once more. Wrapping her arms around her chest in an attempt to warm herself she wondered if the officers were going to collect the stretcher which was still in the gangway or make the replacement paramedic crew retrieve it.

Looking up she saw the Battalion Chief approaching, holding a small duffel bag in one hand. As he got closer she could see that his expression was the same one everyone else who had approached her had. He handed her the bag and said, "That's a spare uniform from the Truck, I doubt that it will fit, but it should keep you warm." Jacinta stood and accepted the duffel, withdrawing the bulky over-trousers and putting them on. As the chief had said, the trousers were too big so she did her best to secure it using her thick equipment belt and braces. "Come on, I'll take you back to your place."

Jacinta nodded before collecting her clipboard from the front of the ambulance and re-joining the chief, the two of them walked back to his SUV. Opening the vehicle's rear door, Jacinta put her gear in the back seat of the truck before climbing in the passenger seat.

The Chief took his position behind the wheel and started the engine once they had their seatbelts on and Jacinta seemed settled. Reversing, the Battalion Chief pulled away from the townhouse, which by now was just smouldering, and proceeded towards her apartment, driving down uncustomary empty streets. It was hard to remember that Chicago used to be a city with a thriving nightlife, when to all intents and purposes, the town appeared deserted.

The SUV pulled up to her apartment building and came to a stop. "I think the best thing for you right now is to get some sleep; someone from bereavement services will be in contact with you in the next couple of days, but until then you are off duty. Remember you're not alone in this; we are a family, we're with you all the way so if you need to talk to someone, do not hesitate to call. Don't worry about your car, I'll have someone drive it here at shift change, now get some sleep, you've had a rough day."

Jacinta unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door; collecting her gear from the back seat she returned to the still open passenger door and removed her keys from a zippered pocket in her tunic, detaching her car keys from the ring and handing them to the chief. "Thanks, Chief, I appreciate it," she replied wearily before closing the door and standing on the kerb until the SUV pulled away. Turning, she entered her building and climbed the stairs to her apartment.

Shutting the door behind her, Jacinta rested her head against it for a moment as she dropped her bag. Closing her eyes she took a deep breath before locking the door. Moving further into her apartment she discarded her equipment belt on the arm of the couch and let the over-trousers slide to the floor. Stepping out of the heavy, bulky garment she walked to the bathroom, removing her uniform tunic mid-step and likewise dropping it to the floor, quickly followed by her figure-hugging undershirt. Entering the bathroom she unhooked her black bra and placed it on the edge of the basin before stepping out of her panties and removing her socks. Now standing naked in the bathroom, she turned the shower taps on. Resting her hands on the basin, she leaned into the mirror; her brown hollow eyes looking back at her as she waited for the temperature to reach a desired level.

As steam started to rise, she stepped into the shower, sighing appreciatively as the water hit her skin, relaxing tired muscles. Turning around under the water several times to allow the water to flow over her body, she faced the wall to allow the warmth to embrace her. Closing her eyes she immersed her head under the stream, allowing the water to cascade down her curves as she ran her hands through her brown tresses untangling knots with her fingers. She rested the back of her head against a tiled wall of the shower as the water directly streamed onto her chest. As the water coursed down her cheeks as she was alone with her thoughts; giving in to her exhaustion she slowly slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor of the shower, her legs tucked up under her chin as she wrapped her arms around her knees and placed her head against them. The trickle quickly because a full torrent as the floodgates opened as she started crying, her body simply unable to hold back any further.

By the time that the hot water had started to cool Jacinta had exhausted what tears she had left to shed as well as any energy that she may have had following her shift. Standing slowly she snaked her hand up the wall and turned off the taps and reached for a towel and dried herself off. Grabbing another towel she wrapped it around her body and exited the bathroom. She walked to her bedroom almost entirely on instinct and fell onto her double bed, exhaustion finally taking her to a deep dreamless slumber.

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