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Pawns

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Pawns
By JJJunky

 

Levon Lundy felt like a heel. Yet, knowing the importance of his task, he forced himself to ignore his feelings. "You've got to do it, Janie," he raged at the young woman. "We can't get Barnes off the streets if you don't help us get the evidence."

"If he catches me, he'll fire me." Wiping tear-stained cheeks with a trembling hand, Janie sobbed, "I'm a widow with two daughters to support."

A bird chirped, drawing Levon's eyes to a huge oak tree. He'd realized almost immediately upon their arrival that Sabine Park was the wrong place for a meeting of this type. The sun-washed grass and the perfumed air were part of a fantasy world that made the one he described seem unreal. "You've got two children," he said, "we're trying to save hundreds, maybe thousands."

"How old are your girls?" LaFiamma softly inquired, squatting in front of the young mother. Taking one of her hands in his, he squeezed it encouragingly.

"Victoria's four. Cynthia's two."

"The oldest one's almost ready to go to school."

Taking his partner's lead, Lundy said, "Did you know that Barnes has pushers who're in the third grade? They usually go after the little kids, the ones that look up to them. Even kindergartners want to be cool these days."

Janie covered her ears with her hands and hid her face in her lap. "Please, I want to help. I'm just so scared."

"That's good," LaFiamma said, pulling her hands away. Cupping her face, he gently raised it. "It's good to be scared, then you'll be careful."

"W - what do you want me to do?"

"Copy any files that look like they might have something to do with drug shipments."

"Barnes and Wright is an import/export company specializing in antique furniture. The only files I ever see concern a Queen Anne desk or a Hepplewhite chair."

Lundy pushed his cowboy hat off his forehead. Wiping away the sweat, he observed, "That's because it's what you expected to see. Now you'll be looking at those papers with a different eye."

Rubbing her puffy cheeks, Janie asked, "What if I don't find anything?"

"Then Barnes is being even more careful than we expect," Lundy said.

LaFiamma sternly emphasized, "We don't want you to go looking for the documents." He squeezed her hands until she looked at him. "Barnes is a killer. Don't do anything you don't normally do."

"In other words, don't go looking for trouble," Lundy simply stated.

"If we could get Barnes any other way," LaFiamma apologized rubbing her hands, "we would."

Janie opened her purse and pulled out her wallet. She flipped through the photographs until she found the one she wanted. Holding it out to LaFiama, she whispered, "Promise me something."

"Name it," LaFiamma flippantly agreed, looking at the picture of two little girls at play. One had blonde hair, the other dark brown.

"If I get caught, don't let my father take my girls. I swore I'd kill him before I'd let him do to them what he done to me."

"I promise."

"Then . . ." her voice cracking with her fear, Janie agreed, "then I'll see what I can find for you."

His stomach in knots, Levon urged, "Just be careful. Your boss isn't a nice man."

"I know that already," Janie dryly acknowledged.

****

LaFiamma looked in the mirror one last time. Dolores liked her men stylishly attired. Without being vain, he knew he would pass her test. Glancing at his watch, he softly swore. He had to hurry. Dolores also liked her men to be punctual.

He was looking forward to tonight. It wasn't often he got a Friday evening off. He intended to take full advantage of the opportunity. Dinner in a classy restaurant followed by dancing would do wonders to ease the stress his job created.

He had his hand on the door knob when the phone rang. He was tempted to ignore it. Cursing the sense of duty that wouldn't allow him to, he grabbed the receiver, "LaFiamma."

"What took you so long, boy?" Lundy demanded.

LaFiamma counted to ten before replying, "I was just on my way out, Lundy. Is this important?"

"Depends on what you reckon's important."

"I'm not in the mood to play twenty questions."

"Are ya in the mood to identify a corpse some kids found in Sabine Park?"

Tears filled LaFiamma's eyes. Wiping them away with an angry hand, he said, "I'll be there in ten minutes." The receiver was still rocking in its cradle when LaFiamma picked up a glass and threw it against the wall.

His rage followed him out to his car. When he was on the road speeding toward the park, he finally let pain replace it. He wouldn't need to identify the body. He knew from Lundy's voice who it would be. Janie Trotter had spent time in jail for prostitution and assault. After the birth of her first daughter, she'd cleaned up her act. That's when Lundy lost one of the best snitches he'd ever had.

A clenched fist pounded the steering wheel. They never should've solicited her help. Their desire to purge drugs from the schools had clouded their judgment. Now, two children were motherless, and Barnes was still dealing.

Red and blue flashing lights illuminated the sky, washing out the stars. LaFiamma pulled up behind Lundy's truck. Despite the trees and bushes, it wasn't difficult to find the crime scene. Yellow tape already cordoned off the bench where the three of them had met that morning. LaFiamma could almost hear Barnes laughing at the irony.

Janie sat in the same spot she had for their meeting. In the soft illumination of the emergency lights, LaFiamma could see that something had stained the top of her dress. He didn't need to get closer to know it was blood. A knife pierced her chest pinning her to the back of the bench. Her eyes stared sightlessly at LaFiamma. Accusing him?

"Glad you could break your date, LaFiamma."

His partner's slow Texas drawl grated on nerves already close to the surface. Not in the least concerned that he'd forgotten to call Dolores, LaFiamma snapped, "Stow it Lundy, I'm not in the mood."

"I can understand that," Lundy acknowledged, allowing some of his own pain to show.

"What've we got?"

"Nothin'! They're dusting for prints, but we both know they won't find any."

"Barnes may be a heartless bastard," LaFiamma agreed, "but he isn't stupid."

Lundy unhappily sighed, "It looks like we're back where we started."

"Not quite," LaFiamma turned away from the gruesome sight, "now two young girls will grow up without their mother."

"Well, if it isn't the Dynamic Duo."

The derisive address was delivered in a voice that made LaFiamma cringe. Ted Rogers had been assigned to the Major Crimes Unit before LaFiamma's transfer to Houston. Only a week before the Chicagoian's arrival, Rogers was sent back to his original position in Homicide. Despite official denials to the contrary, he'd always maintained that his demotion had been initiated to make room for LaFiamma.

"What're you doin' here, Rogers?" Lundy angrily demanded.

"Every now and then," Rogers sarcastically replied, "homicide gets involved when there's been a murder. No one told me that Major Crimes was involved."

LaFiamma turned to confront the bitter man, "Now you know, so why don't you get the hell out of here?"

"Touchy, touchy."

Disgusted by the other man's unprofessional behavior, LaFiamma walked away without replying. He would never understand how anyone could be so irreverent in the presence of an innocent victim. Each one tore at his heart ,often making him wonder if he should find a new profession. Only the prospect of putting the perpetrator behind bars kept him from doing so. A hand on his arm pulled him to a stop. He swung around with the fingers of his right hand clenched.

"Whoa, partner,! Lundy put up an arm to deflect the punch.

"Sorry, Lundy," LaFiamma apologized, dropping his arm and turning away.

"You better watch it boy," Lundy warned, following the younger man. "Rogers would've pressed charges. You could've found yourself suspended for a month."

"Right now, I don't much care."

"Where ya headin' in such an all fired hurry?"

"Reisner. I want to see what DFS is doing with Janie's girls. I made a promise. I intend to keep it."

"I'm headin' there myself," Lundy said, crossing to his truck. "I'll meet ya."

LaFiamma hopped into his car without opening the door - a sure sign of his distress. Switching on the engine, he shifted into gear and pulled out. Once on the North Freeway, he turned on the radio. After all, music has charms to soothe a savage breast and there was no denying he felt pretty savage at the moment. He twisted the knob looking for the solace he sought. Unfortunately, all he found were news and country and western music. Disgusted, he snapped the knob to the off position. Nothing seemed to be going his way tonight.

He pulled into the Reisner parking lot only minutes ahead of his partner. LaFiamma smiled. Lundy must have had the pedal to the floor to have made such good time. It was an unusual action for the normally laid-back Texan. Though tempted, LaFiamma refrained from teasing him. Instead, they walked in silence to the main entrance where the night guard cheerfully unlocked the door and let them in.

"Evenin' boys."

"Hello, Fred," LaFiamma greeted the older man. "Is anyone from DFS in tonight?"

"Pamela Turner went upstairs not more'n thirty minutes ago," the deputy replied.

"Thanks."

The building was unusually quiet for this time of night. The two men found an elevator waiting for them. LaFiamma drummed his fingers on the control panel as the car slowly ascended, but a look from his irritated companion made him quit. As soon as the doors opened, LaFiamma charged through only to be confronted by locked doors. He was about to pound a fist on the glass demanding admittance when Lundy pushed him aside.

Pulling out a ring of keys, the Texan inserted one into the lock. The bolt noisily sprung open. "Master key," Lundy explained, pocketing the ring.

"How'd you get one of those?" LaFiamma demanded.

"Don't ask."

LaFiamma led the way to Pamela Turner's corner. He'd dealt with the black woman before. She'd been efficient and caring. Though small of stature, she seemed to have a big heart. The door to the office was open, so LaFiamma walked in, "Pam?"

Papers flew as the young woman jumped with surprise. When her eyes rested on the dark Italian, her fear turned to anger, "Joey, you scared me to death."

"Sorry," LaFiamma absently apologized, bending down to pick up the papers. "We were wondering if you knew what was going to happen to Janie Trotter's two little girls."

"As a matter of fact, I just finished the arrangements."

Turner carelessly pushed aside a photograph. It was a larger copy of the picture Janie Trotter had carried in her purse. LaFiamma stared at it, really seeing the two little girls - and the innocence that might soon be destroyed. The older one, Victoria, he hesitantly remembered, had the same strawberry blond hair as her mother. Freckles dotted her nose and beneath the bright blue eyes that seemed to look into his soul. Her smile was tentaive, as though the world seemed to be a frightening place. Tears welling in his eyes, LaFiamma shifted his gaze to the younger girl. His guilt intensified when he realized he couldn't remember her name. She apparently took after her father. The only feature he could associate with Janie was a small dimple at the corner of her mouth. It reminded him of Shirley Temple.

Triumphantly holding up the report she'd been working on, Pamela said, "They're spending the night with their baby-sitter. We thought it best if the girls stayed in familiar surroundings for the time being."

"And then?" Lundy prompted.

"Tomorrow, they'll be turned over to their maternal grandfather."

"You can't do that!" LaFiamma exploded.

"I don't see why not," Turner indignity replied.

"Because he's a child molester."

The DFS officer quickly scanned the report, "What makes you think that?"

"Janie Trotter," LaFiamma said. Leaning on the desk, he explained, "She said she would kill her father before she let him do to her daughters what he did to her."

"That's it? That's all the evidence you've got?"

"Isn't it enough?"

"If I told a judge that was my sole reason for denying a grandfather the custody of his grandchildren, he'd laugh me out of court. The man is a retired minister for heaven sakes."

"Even ministers have vices. What's more important, your dignity or those children?"

Pamela dropped her eyes. "My hands are tied, Joey. As far as I've been able to discover there are no other blood relatives. Besides, the man hasn't had so much as a traffic ticket."

"Being a good driver doesn't equate with being a good parent."

Lundy took off his hat and scratched his head, "What about his daughter becoming a prostitute? You could attribute it to what he'd done to her."

"Get me a witness," Pamela argued. "I need some solid evidence that he is what you say he is before I can deny him custody."

"That evidence is dead," LaFiamma quietly contended. "I thought it was your job to protect children?"

Rising, Pamela pointed a finger at her accuser, "I'm doing my job. You're asking me to believe in a phantom."

"I promised Janie that I wouldn't let her father take her girls."

"You should never have made a promise you couldn't keep."

"Aren't you both forgetting who's going to pay?" Lundy intervened. "It's not us, its those two little girls."

"Suffer the little children," LaFiamma softly recited, "to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

Returning to her chair, Pamela defensively pulled it close to her desk. "You can't make me feel guilty by quoting from the Bible."

"Maybe that's what's wrong with the world today. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything any more."

"I'm doing my job."

"That's what scares me."

When Pamela turned her attention to the reports on her desk, LaFiamma knew he'd lost. Her shaking hands were the only visible sign of distress. It was an action that could easily be attributed to anger as well as displeasure. It didn't matter which, it was obvious she wouldn't - or couldn't , he reluctantly conceded - change her position. Tears stung his eyes as he walked out of the office and back to the elevator. His emotions boiled over until he had to lash out. A wall directory took the brunt of his anger. He slammed a fist into its glass door. To his surprise the glass shattered. He stared in shock at the blood stained shards.

"Nice going," Lundy dryly observed, ducking into a nearby bathroom. He emerged with a handful of paper towels which he quickly wrapped around his partner's bleeding hand.

LaFiamma shook his head, "Who'da guessed they'd use such flimsy materials?"

"I don't suppose they designed it to be a punching bag," Lundy said, pushing the Chicagoian into the elevator. "We best get you to the hospital, boy. Some of those cuts look like they'll need stitching." Pressing the button that would take them back to the main floor, Lundy pleaded, "Just don't go bleedin' all over my truck."

****

The emergency room was packed, making it impossible for Lundy to pace out his frustration. Not for the first time, he wished LaFiamma would develop a thicker skin. Often, to his detriment, the Chicagoian became too involved in the lives of the people they encountered. It took its toll both physically and mentally.

The smell of disinfectant making his nostrils twitch, Lundy stretched out his legs and pulled his hat over his eyes. He didn't sleep though. Instead, against his own advice, he reviewed the case that had brought them here.

When he'd first met her, Janie Trotter was a bratty kid with a smart mouth. While he used her as a snitch, he'd worked on building her self-esteem. He'd seen the good in her and helped her cultivate it. She eventually went straight and he'd lost his best street contact, but he wasn't sorry. He'd rejoiced in her good fortune and knew with pride that he'd been instrumental in her development. When she fell in love and got married, he'd stepped aside - much to his regret. He hadn't been there for her when the young husband tragically died in a car accident only three years later. Lundy had eventually returned, but only when he needed her and she'd come through for him. He'd paid her back with a knife in her heart.

Tomorrow, two more Janie Trotter's would be born. Young lives shattered forever by the wanton act of a sick grandfather. Lundy's lips twisted in disgust. LaFiamma was right. There was something wrong with a world that couldn't prevent history from repeating itself.

The tip of an expensive leather shoe jabbing the bottom of his boot-clad foot was Lundy's first indication that LaFiamma had returned. The second was a sigh of pure bliss from the teenager occupying the chair next to his.

"Let's go Lundy," LaFiamma said, kicking his partner's foot again.

Lundy lazily pushed his hat back and climbed to his feet. "What's the verdict?"

"The middle finger's broken," LaFiamma recited, leading the way out of the building. "It took five stitches to close the cut on the ring finger and three on the index.

"Told ya. I knew you'd done a number on yerself."

"Too bad you didn't say something before I did it."

"Wouldn't have done any good. Nothin' short of a straight-jacket woulda stopped ya."

Smiling ruefully, LaFiamma suggested, "You might consider carrying one in your truck in the future."

"I'll bear it in mind," Lundy mockingly agreed. "Right now though, I think I best get you home."

"I'd rather go get my car."

"It's safe at Reisner."

"It'll be safer in my security patrolled garage."

"How ya gonna shift with that hand?"

"I'll manage."

Even as he turned down the road that led back to Reisner, Lundy wondered if he was doing the right thing. He was tempted to take LaFiamma home with him. There wouldn't be much the Italian could do to stop him. However, Lundy knew they both needed their own space tonight. The healing process had to start immediately. Only then could they begin to forgive themselves.

****

LaFiamma watched until the truck lights faded in the distance. Lundy had wanted to follow him home. It'd taken a great deal of persuasion, but he'd eventually convinced the Texan that his mother hen routine was unnecessary.

Alone at last, LaFiamma took a deep breath and laid his head against the back of the seat. He'd felt like he was suffocating in Lundy's company. Only now with some space between them did he feel like he could breathe again. He knew his reaction was a result of the guilt he felt. Knowing the cause, however, didn't diminish its impact.

Nursing his right hand, he crossed over the steering column with his left to turn the ignition. The soft throbbing of the engine soothed his shattered spirit. He almost welcomed the discomfort as he awkwardly used the heel of his injured hand to shift into gear. The pain made him feel he was paying penance for his role in Janie Trotter's death and the defiling of her little girls. By this time tomorrow, they would no longer be children.

Instead of turning left, which would take him to his apartment, he headed south. The further he drove from the lights of the city, the more relaxed he became. For the first time in his life, he felt threatened by the buildings and people who invaded his space. He needed to get away. He needed to leave everything and everybody behind.

He didn't pay attention to the roads he followed. The more deserted the better. Eventually, he found himself alone surrounded by an unrelenting darkness. There wasn't a street light or house in sight. In his rear-view mirror the soft glow of the city still lit the sky. It was the only sign of the civilization he'd left behind. At the edge of his high beams, he noticed a dirt road. On impulse, he reduced speed and turned onto it. Dust quickly covered his beloved car, the interior as well as the exterior. The black silk jacket he'd found so fashionable earlier in the evening turned a dirty brown. For once, he didn't care. He deserved to suffer for his sins.

He eased up on the accelerator to avoid a pot-hole. As if in response to his action, the engine coughed. Dropping his eyes to the dashboard, he searched for the cause and winced the needle trembling in the red box below the big E. Disgusted with himself, he coasted to a stop before turning off the dead engine. Leaning back against the head rest, he stared up at the stars. They were brighter out here with no lights to compete against. He almost felt like he could reach up and touch one.

Alone. Out of gas. In the middle of nowhere.

It was ironic that his physical circumstances should so accurately reflect the despair he felt inside.

****

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Lundy jerked awake, the pounding reverberating in his head. He felt like he'd just fallen asleep. Through blurred vision, he stared at his clock in disbelief - and groaned. He had just fallen asleep.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Groaning again, Lundy crawled out of bed. Slipping on a robe, he stumbled into the hallway. A man's figure was outlined through the curtain on the front door. "Dammit, LaFiamma," he grumbled, "if this is your fault, yer gonna wish you were never born."

A yawn destroying his attempt to appear angry, Lundy threw the door open. He took a step back in surprise when he saw Ted Rogers.

"Where's LaFiamma?" the homicide detective demanded, pushing his way into the house.

Stifling another yawn, Lundy shook his head, "How should I know? I'm not his baby-sitter."

Rogers motioned to one of the uniformed police officers standing respectfully on the porch, "Dougherty, you check the barn. McMichaels, you and I'll search the house."

Though he wanted to protest, Lundy could see the search warrant sticking out of Rogers jacket pocket. He decided not to give the detective the satisfaction of demanding to see it. Instead, he called, "Hey Daugherty, while you're out there, would ya mind turning out my horse and givin' him some feed?"

"Sure, Sarge," the young officer agreed, flashing him a smile before making his way to the barn.

"These men are not your servants."

Rogers scowling face left Lundy in no doubt as to what mood the other detective was in. Leaning against the door jamb, he crossed his arms. "Mind tellin' me what this is all about."

"Your partner killed a man last night."

"Who is he supposed to have killed?" Though it was difficult, Lundy forced himself to remain calm.

"Reverend Thomas Miller."

The name wasn't familiar to Lundy. "Why," he asked, "would LaFiamma kill a reverend?"

"Some cops think that badge gives them a license to kill."

"LaFiamma's not one of them," Lundy stated with conviction. "Who is this Miller?"

"He's the father of the girl that got herself skewered to the bench in Sabine Park," Rogers smirked. "Quite a coincidence wouldn't you say?"

"Damn!"

"As soon as she heard the news, a DFS officer by the name of Turner contacted us. She told us how upset your partner was last night. She even reported that he damaged public property."

Lundy softly swore. He could see how a rookie might be swayed by the circumstantial evidence that had been accumulated against LaFiamma. Rogers wasn't a rookie, but he was a fifteen-year veteran with a grudge. To him, the Chicagoan was guilty until proven innocent. "What made you think LaFiamma would be here?"

Opening the door to a closet and checking inside, Rogers said, "He isn't in his apartment. His bed hasn't been slept in. Where else would he go?"

A sad smile curved Lundy's lips. He could name numerous beds the handsome Italian would be welcome in. But, he knew his partner. LaFiamma was hurting. The solace he needed wouldn't be found in a woman's company. Where he would go was a mystery. One that Lundy knew he better solve before Rogers.

****

The first rays of the morning sun peeked above the horizon. Rubbing eyes as gritty as his clothes, LaFiamma climbed stiffly from his car. He'd spent the remainder of the long night lost in thought. As the hours passed, anger had turned to despair. Only after a long and painful self-examination had he accepted his role in the destiny of Janie Trotter and her daughters. He was honest enough with himself to admit that when he'd started this journey, he'd sought a physical and emotional escape. At the time, it hadn't mattered that death was the only way to achieve his goal. Somewhere in the quiet of the desert and the soothing glow of the stars, he'd found peace starting the torturous path to acceptance. He'd always know he couldn't change the past, but he'd learned to live with that knowledge. Helping to shape the future is where he'd always found his salvation. This case had taken even that small consolation away from him. All he had to do was read Janie Trotter's file to know her daughters would follow the same path. Yet, he was powerless to stop it. The photograph of the two little girls, the innocence of their play, stabbed at his heart. They would never know happiness again. Would he?

Stretching stiff muscles, LaFiamma glanced up and down the road looking for a tell-tale dust cloud that would mark his rescue. There was nothing to see or hear to show him the way. Tossing a mental coin, he started walking. He'd been in Texas long enough to know he needed to find shelter before the sun reached its zenith. Out here in the open, he risked sun stroke, heat prostration, even death. His only hope was to find an accommodating farmer with a gas can. How ironic, he could save himself, but he couldn't save two little girls.

****

Mike Phillips stood in front of the mirror and inspected his uniform. His stomach wasn't as flat as he'd like, but he still looked fit. If only he felt as good as he looked. In over eighteen years as a traffic cop, he'd seen almost everything - or thought he had. The one situation he could never reconcile was a cop going bad. Money for lives wasn't an even exchange in his book.

Shifting his eyes from his own reflection, Phillips let them rest on his new partner. Too many years with to many over eager rookies had made him leery. Craft was cocky. Too confident for his first day on the streets.

"Let's go, Partner." Craft slapped the older man on the shoulder before leading the way outside. "Times a wastin'."

With a shake of his head, Phillips reluctantly followed the rookie out to the squad car. How long would it take before this one lost his enthusiasm? He'd seen it happen in less than a day. "Don't be in such a hurry to meet your destiny, Kid," he softly advised.

Craft grinned as he climbed into the passenger seat, "Seems strange that my first APB should be for a bad cop."

"Don't be so quick to judge," Phillips said, sliding behind the wheel and switching on the engine. "Sergeant LaFiamma's a good cop."

"Was," Craft corrected.

"Is!" Phillips firmly repeated. "I've worked with him. He could no more kill a man in cold blood than I could."

"The APB says to consider him armed and dangerous."

"Take my word for it, he's not dangerous." Phillips shook his head, "Somebody screwed up somewhere."

Hooking his seatbelt, Craft pointed out, "I heard he's got ties to the Mob."

"Those ties couldn't keep him from being transferred down here to save his life."

"You can't trust anyone who's connected with the mob," Craft insisted.

Phillips shifted into gear and pressed the gas pedal. He was glad he wasn't a kid anymore. He no longer saw things only in black and white. Somewhere in the gray is where the truth about LaFiamma would be found. His gut instinct told him the Sergeant was innocent. It was unfortunate that his superior's didn't rely on their own instincts.

****

Levon Lundy roared into the Major Crimes Unit with a full head of steam. Oblivious to his co-workers greetings, he stormed into his superior's officer without knocking, "Joanne, you gotta do somethin'. . ."

The telephone receiver pressed against her ear, Beaumont angrily motioned him to silence. She nodded her head a few times, before acknowledging, "I'd appreciate your help, Sir. I'm sure the APB on Sergeant LaFiamma's a mistake."

Though he wanted to voice his agreement, Lundy restrained himself. He recognized the look on his former partner's face. She was in no mood to be disobeyed . Besides, she was already doing what he'd raced into town to ask her to do.

Replacing the receiver, Beaumont turned a stern eye on Lundy, "Tell me exactly what happened last night and don't leave anything out."

"What 'bout the APB?" Lundy asked.

"The Captain's going to see what he can do," Joanne said, leaning back in her chair. "If he calls back with any questions, I want to have the answers."

Taking the hint, Lundy described their meeting with Janie Trotter. Though it felt like putting salt on an open wound, he detailed the discovery of her body, the meeting with the DFS officer, Pamela Turner and the subsequent visit to the hospital.

A frown creasing her forehead, Joanne probed, "Is there any chance that LaFiamma killed Reverend Miller?"

"You already know the answer to that," Lundy said, glancing at the telephone. "If you hadn't been sure, you wouldn't have talked the Captain into canceling the APB."

"Still," Joanne sighed, shaking her head, "it looks bad for Joey."

Lundy slapped his hand on the desk and leaned toward his boss, "I don't care how it looks, he didn't do it."

"Then get out there," Beaumont waved her hand indicating the squad room, "and prove it."

"I will," Lundy vowed.

His mood slightly improved, Lundy considered his options, as he crossed to his desk. Lifting the receiver, he dialed the number that would connect him with the coroner's office.

"Coroner, Richard Reilly speaking."

"Rich," Lundy said, "this is Levon Lundy. I was wondering if you've completed the autopsy on Reverend Miller?"

"We just finished not fifteen minutes ago, Levon."

"Would ya mind answerin' a few questions?"

"Be happy to," Reilly agreed. "Just bear in mind these are preliminary results."

Grabbing a pad of paper and a pen, Lundy asked, "What was the cause of death?"

"A knife in the heart."

"Was it a kitchen knife?"

"If it'd been a kitchen knife there's a chance the Reverend would still be alive. The killer used a commando knife with serrated edges. They made mincemeat of the aortic valve and the left atrium."

Though not the evidence Joanne had demanded, Lundy felt encouraged by what he was hearing. A knife wouldn't have been LaFiamma's weapon of choice. The commando knife suggested pre-meditation. Also, it sounded like it was the same type of weapon used on Janie Trotter. "Were there any others signs of assault on the body?"

"There wasn't a struggle if that's where your going."

"How about a time of death?" Lundy pressed, tapping the top of his pen on the edge of his blotter. Silence followed the question. In the background, Lundy could hear the rustle of paper.

"Somewhere between 22:00 hours and 01:00," Reilly finally supplied.

Excitement made Lundy's voice quiver, "Can you be more specific?"

"Given a little more time."

"How much time?

"Is it important?"

"Extremely," Lundy said. "LaFiamma's being charged with the Reverend's murder."

"That's crazy," Reilly protested.

"How long before you'll have a time of death?"

"Two or three hours."

"Make it two," Lundy pleaded.

"I'll do my best," Reilly promised. "I'll get back to you as soon as I have the results."

Before he could express his appreciation, the soft buzz of a disconnected line filled Lundy's ear. Replacing the receiver, he leaned back in his chair, a look of satisfaction on his face. It'd been after midnight when they'd walked out of the Emergency Room. Though it was still possible that the Reverend had died after the two officers separated, the odds pointed to an earlier time of death. A time when LaFiamma was surrounded by witnesses not even Ted Rogers could dismiss, first, Pamela Turner, then, St. Joseph's Hospital's emergency staff - and a smitten teenager.

****

Dust blew off the sleeve of LaFiamma's jacket and into his face, making him cough. He was thankful it was Saturday, there was less traffic than usual on the normally bumper to bumper highway. Taking advantage of the situation, LaFiamma let his foot rest heavily on the gas pedal. He desperately craved a hot shower and sleep. His muscles ached, as much from their long confinement in the cramped car as from the hike he'd made searching for gas.

At least he wasn't hungry. The farmer's wife had been more than kind to a total stranger. Before being driven back to his car with a can of gas, she'd insisted on feeding him. It was the best chicken, potatoes, fresh vegetables and cherry pie he'd ever had. In fact, it was the best meal he'd had since his mother died.

A siren whooped alerting him to the presence of a squad car. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw the driver motioning him to the side. He sighed unhappily. He knew his badge would take care of the speeding ticket, but the delay meant it would be that much longer before he got his shower.

Easing off the road, he braked to a stop. Turning off the engine, he took off his sunglasses and laid them on the dashboard before climbing from the car. He knew from experience how disconcerting it was not to see a person's eyes when you were talking to them.

A young officer, barely old enough to shave, stood shielded by the squad car's passenger door. His gun was aimed at LaFiamma.

Puzzled by the show of force, LaFiamma took a couple steps closer. "What's going on?"

"Stay where you are," Craft warned.

Holding his hands away from his body, LaFiamma soothed, "I'm Sergeant LaFiamma of the HPD. I'm going to reach inside my coat and pull out my ID."

"I know exactly who you are, Sergeant."

"Then you know you don't need a gun."

Finishing his call, the older officer slipped out of his side of the squad car, "Put your gun away, Craft."

"The APB says he's armed and dangerous, Mike," the boy protested.

"And I'm telling you he's not."

"No offense, but I don't think you're impartial."

"Maybe not, but I am the senior officer," Phillips snapped, "and I'm ordering you to put your gun away."

Confused by the exchange, LaFiamma took a step toward the older officer. The move took him out of the shadow of a tall building and into the sun. Wishing he hadn't left his sunglasses, he raised a hand to shield his eyes. He'd barely started the motion when he heard the rookie scream, "GUN!"

LaFiamma froze, but he knew it was already too late. He felt as though he were no longer part of his body as he watched Craft raise his weapon and squeeze the trigger. Phillips' desperate "N-O-O-O!" filled the air drowning out the noise of the traffic.

The bullet sliced into LaFiamma's chest throwing him back against his car. His strength seemed to pour from the hole. His knees buckled and he felt himself sliding to the ground. He felt Mike Phillips arms circle his shoulders and ease him to the pavement. Through lips suddenly gone dry, he whispered, "Why?"

"That doesn't matter now," Mike said, his voice cracking. "You just hang on." Turning his attention to his partner, Phillips ordered, "Call for an ambulance."

"Not until you disarm the suspect," Craft refused, keeping his weapon trained on LaFiamma.

Phillips angrily threw the injured man's jacket open. "He's not wearing his guns. Now get on the horn and call for that ambulance, or so help me you'll need one yourself."

"Mike," LaFiamma paused licking dry lips, "tell Lundy . . ."

The officer's desperate demand that he hold on followed LaFiamma into the pit of pain that had been waiting for him. He was sorry that Lundy would never know of the feelings he'd always kept hidden.****

Brring . . .

The phone had the opportunity to ring only once before Levon snatched up the receiver, "Sergeant Lundy."

"Reilly here," the coroner identified himself, excitement audible in his voice. "I've got the time of death for you."

Grabbing a pen, Lundy said, "Give it to me."

"Tissue shows that death occurred at approximately 23:00 hours, certainly no later than 23:30."

Lundy couldn't contain himself, "Ya-Hoo!"

"I take it that was good news," Reilly observed.

"It proves that LaFiamma couldn't have killed the Reverend. He was in the Emergency room getting stitched up at the time."

"Did you ever doubt him?" Reilly softly inquired.

"No," Lundy soberly admitted, "not for a minute."

"Let me know if you need anything else," Reilly offered, before signing off.

Relief lending him energy, Lundy rose and almost ran to Joanne's office. He waited impatiently - but politely - for her to end her phone conversation. He couldn't stop smiling. As soon as she replaced the receiver, he announced, "You can call off the dogs, Joanne. Time of death puts LaFiamma in St. Joseph's Emergency Room, with plenty of witnesses."

"I'm afraid its too late, Levon." Tears filled Beaumont's eyes. "LaFiamma was pulled over by a patrol car. Something happened. Joey took a bullet in the chest."

Blinking rapidly, Lundy demanded, "How bad is he?"

"I don't know for sure. An ambulance is taking him to Mercy Hospital."

Lundy didn't wait to hear more Three steps took him back to his desk. Donning his hat, he ignored his colleagues concerned inquiries and headed for the exit. Just as he reached the swinging doors one of them flew open almost smacking him in the face.

"You should watch it," Ted Rogers warned, a smirk on his face. "I almost got you."

"Out of my way, Rogers," Lundy ordered, trying to push past the detective.

Instead of obliging the distraught man, Rogers moved directly into his path. "I haven't found that pretty boy partner of yours yet, but I will."

Of their own volition, the fingers of Lundy's right hand curled into his palm. Falling into the well of pain and anger that Rogers had dug, he drew back his fist. The satisfying smack of flesh meeting flesh echoed around the quiet room. Without a word of apology or triumph, Lundy stepped over the prone body. Walking down the hall to the elevator, he was oblivious to the cheers that followed him.

****

Phillips nervously paced the length of the waiting room. The scene that had taken place on the highway kept replaying in his head. What could he have done to prevent the tragedy? He looked down at the blood staining his uniform. He could feel it sticking to his flesh. It made him shiver. Not from the air conditioning that seemed to be set too high, but from fear. If LaFiamma died, it would be his fault as much as it was Craft's. As the senior officer on the scene, it was his responsibility to take charge of the situation. Had he doubted LaFiamma's innocence after all? Is that why he'd called in their location while letting Craft take control? What was he going to tell Lundy?

Though the two detectives tried to deny it, there was a bond between them that went beyond their partnership. Anyone with eyes and a heart could see it. Mike envied them, mostly because he knew what he was missing. It was just over two years ago that his first partner had retired. He'd hoped that lighting would strike twice, but it hadn't. Instead, he'd been stuck with a succession of rookies, each greener than the last.

Pushing away the self-pity that he felt he had no right to indulge in, Phillips stopped pacing and threw some coins into one of the refreshment machines. Drops of hot coffee splashed onto his hand making it sting. The physical pain was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.

****

Lundy pulled into the first empty parking spot he found and switched off the engine. Resting an arm on the top of the steering wheel, he stared at the Emergency Room sign painted above the wide double doors. He couldn't remember driving here. He couldn't even remember if he stopped at red lights or stop signs. He knew his lack of concentration should scare him - but what he might find behind those doors scared him more.

How long had they been partners? When the decision had come down to pair them, Lundy had raged and fought, trying to deny LaFiamma a piece of his heart. It'd been a fruitless battle. The more he pushed the Italian away, the closer he got. Lundy hadn't felt so alive since before Caroline's death.

Gritting his teeth, Lundy finally climbed out and slowly made his way across the parking lot. With each step, he had to fight the urge to run back to the truck. Within the confines of its cab, he could pretend that everything was all right. His world was full and happy, not empty and depressed.

The first person he saw, after his eyes adjusted to the artificial light of the emergency room, was Mike Phillips. Relieved to see a familiar face, he pushed through the growing crowd to the older man's side. "Any news?"

"Not yet," Phillips replied, "but you know Joey. It'd take an elephant gun to kill him."

"Yeah!" an unconvinced Lundy half-heartedly agreed.

Before Lundy could press for the details of the incident, a doctor beckoned them. On the stretcher behind him lay a pale figure that Lundy barely recognized as his partner. Tubes and wires seem to be attached to every available space. In a voice that he couldn't keep from quivering, Lundy asked, "Is he gonna make it, Doc?"

"The bullet nicked Sergeant LaFiamma's left lung and settled near his heart. He's on his way to surgery to have it removed. Barring complications, he has a good chance."

Unable to take his eyes off the blood staining the doctor's gown, Lundy nodded his understanding. He should feel relieved, but he didn't. And, he knew he wouldn't until LaFiamma was talking and laughing with him again.

****

Lundy strolled into Chicken's and handed the big black man the keys to his truck. Though it was still a bit early for the dinner crowd, most of the seats were filled. Grabbing a beer Chicken held out for him, Lundy fixed his gaze on a teenage couple occupying the end stools. Laughing hazel eyes eventually met his. An invisible command passed between them. The boy's smile disappeared. Taking his girl friend's hand, he nervously rose and backed away. Lundy slid onto the last stool and put his hat upside down on the other empty seat. When he'd effectively created his own space, he took a swig from the bottle of beer.

"Hey," Chicken gently scolded, "whaddya doin' drivin' away payin' customers?"

Lundy raised his bottle and stared sightlessly at the label. "Just keep these comin'" Nursing his bruised right hand, he put the bottle down and worked his left hand into the front pocket of his jeans. Pulling out a wad of bills, he threw them on the counter. "This should make-up for your losses."

Retrieving the money, Chicken counted it before putting it in his pocket. When the night was over, he would return what wasn't imbibed. "What did LaFiamma do this time to drive you to drink?"

"Got himself shot."

"What!"

Belatedly realizing that his friend hadn't heard the news, which made his disclosure unnecessarily heartless, Lundy apologized, "Sorry Chicken, I thought you would've been given a full report by now."

"Well, I wasn't," Chicken indignantly replied.

Contrite, Lundy described what had happened in the last two days. He was careful not to leave out a single detail. Chicken had his own sources and would find out sooner or later anyway. Being reticent would only damage their friendship. While the story appeased the big man, it also reignited Lundy's anger. Each sentence was punctuated with a swig of beer. By the time he'd finished the story and three bottles of beer, his words had started to slur.

"Is Joseph gonna be all right?" Chicken asked.

"Yeah," Lundy nodded and sighed. "It's hard to believe when ya see all those tubes and things sticking out of 'im. The bullet was near the heart, but they got it out without too much trouble or so they said."

Chicken opened a fourth bottle and placed it in front of Lundy. "What's gonna happen to the kid who shot him?"

"That's up to Internal Affairs." Frustrated, Lundy threw his empty bottle against the wall. The sound of breaking glass drew everyone's attention, but Lundy didn't notice. "I know what I'd like to do."

"I thought you'd already done it," Chicken said, indicating Lundy's bruised and swollen hand.

Lundy started to shake his head, but even that slight movement threatened to unseat him. Grabbing the bar to stead himself, he proudly surveyed the swollen flesh. "I done this on Ted Rogers face."

A fight broke out at one of the pool tables. Chicken hurried over to confront the combatants and stop the war. Lundy wasn't sorry to see him go. He didn't need or want any witnesses as he drank himself into oblivion. It was the only place he could escape to where he wouldn't be haunted by the picture he'd left at the hospital. All the tubes running in and out of LaFiamma's usually strong body had looked obscene. They'd made him feel helpless. He hated the feeling.

****

His first conscious day in the hospital and LaFiamma was already fit to be tied - which for all intents and purposes, he was. Tubes still ran from his chest draining the fluid around his heart. It made him mildly uneasy, but it was the other one that he found downright embarrassing. In his opinion, he was well enough to use a bedpan. Though he'd used all his wiles, he couldn't find anyone who agreed with him.

The door swung open admitting Lundy. Walking gingerly, the Texan crossed to the chair next to the bed. "Mornin'."

"What happened to you?" LaFiamma demanded. "You look worse than I do."

"Bad headache," Lundy whispered.

LaFiamma grinned. "It looks more like a hangover to me."

One eye peeked out from beneath the cowboy hat. "It's. . . a . . . headache," Lundy slowly enunciated.

"Whatever you say," LaFiamma amicably agreed. "What are you doing here?"

"Thought you might be bored. If you don't want my company, I'll leave." Lundy put his hands on the chair arms and started to rise.

"No, no," LaFiamma hastily soothed, "I just thought you were on duty today." Silence filled the room bringing a frown to LaFiamma's face.

"I've been suspended for two weeks," Lundy finally revealed.

"For what?"

"Striking a fellow officer."

"You mean the kid who shot me?"

"No," Lundy's voice was so low it was barely audible, "for hitting Ted Rogers."

LaFiamma almost cheered. In deference to his partner's aching head, he restrained himself. "You told me I'd get suspended for a month. If I'd know it would've only been for two weeks, I'd have hit him myself."

"I think the powers that be decided he deserved it." Lundy kept his face hidden in the shadow of his hat. "He almost got you killed."

"What do you think will happen to him?"

"He'll probably be asked to retire."

Shifting to reach for a glass of water, LaFiamma winced, "I wished they'd asked him to a long time ago."

"So do I," Lundy heartily agreed. A groan escaped his lips as he rose to assist his partner with the water. "Rogers pretty much ruined any chance we had to nail the Reverend's killer."

Framed in the open doorway, Joanne Beaumont contradicted her sub-ordinate, "We still have a good chance." Coming further into the room, she handed Lundy a folder. "Forensics lifted a print from the blade of the knife taken from Miller's body. It belongs to Eric Davies."

"Barnes' muscles man," LaFiamma said, straining to look at the report in his partner's hand.

Joanne nodded, "Estaban and Carol are on their way to pick him up now."

"This is our chance to get Barnes," Lundy crowed, snapping the folder shut. "Davies could be facing the death sentence. No one else knows what a scumbag the Reverend was. The unprovoked murder of a man of the cloth will generate a lot of publicity."

"What's your point?"

"Make Davies a deal, Lieutenant," LaFiamma answered for his partner. Without even looking at Lundy, he knew they were on the same wavelength. "Offer him life, if he'll give us Barnes."

Forgetting his hangover in his excitement, Lundy said, "This way, we'll get two for the price of one."

A rare smile graced Joanne's lips, "I'll suggest it to the DA." Taking the file from Lundy, she added, "I better get back. I want to be there when they bring Davies in."

The Lieutenant had no sooner left the room than Lundy slumped back into his chair. A soft groan escaped his lips.

"That's one hell of a hangover, Lundy," LaFiamma commiserated, thoroughly enjoying his partner's discomfort.

"It's . . . a . . . headache," Lundy growled.

Realizing it would be futile to argue with the head-strong man, LaFiamma said, "There's one thing I don't understand. Why did Barnes order the hit on the Reverend?"

"He probably didn't know that Janie was estranged from her father. He had to cover all the bases. Barnes doesn't leave anything to chance."

"At least he did those little girls a favor. They'll have a chance their mother never had."

"Their baby-sitter's petitioning to adopt them," Lundy said, relief in his voice. "They'll be all right."

Silence fell between the two men. Unlike other occasions, this was a comfortable silence. The case wasn't ending happily ever after. Janie Trotter was still dead. She had tried to do what she thought was right. Because of that, two men who were responsible for the deaths and addiction of numerous children would be off the street. LaFiamma was satisfied. It didn't eradicate the guilt, but it did ease his pain. Leaning his head back against the pillows, he closed his eyes. Maybe now, he could rest in peace.

"You look tired," Lundy said, rising. "I better let you get some sleep."

LaFiamma forced heavy eyelids open, "Thanks for coming."

"There's just one thing," Lundy stopped with his hand on the door frame. "Mike Phillips said you tried to tell him something before you passed out."

"Did I?" LaFiamma feigned innocence. "It must not have been too important. I can't remember what it could've been."

"Yeah," Lundy sighed, forced to accept the explanation. "I'll see ya tomorrow."

"Take care of that hangover."

"It's . . . a . . . headache," Lundy growled through gritted teeth.