Life's Not Fair
By EA Mallory
Somewhere up in the heavens a conspiracy took shape. Warm, moist air pushed upwards, feeding an ever-growing gathering of vapor. Cooler air dropped down, pushing winds across the land below. Powerful forces surged and boiled, and the sky responded with an angry flash of lightning.
Pete Malloy glared up at the dark clouds looming above him. His face assumed an expression which normally frightened suspects into submission. After eleven years with the LAPD, he could muster an intimidating glower indeed. But resignation soon set in. He looked away and shook his head, miffed at the cosmic forces that seemed determined to spoil his plans.
Pete's attention shifted to his younger partner, who had just finished stowing gear in Adam-12's trunk in preparation for the morning watch. Jim Reed had been Malloy's partner for a few years now, and the two of them could practically read each other's minds. That could be a very helpful skill for police work, but sometimes it made things annoying on a more personal level. Right now it was the latter. Jim's eyes sparkled with amusement, and Pete braced himself for whatever friendly sarcasm Reed planned to send his way.
"No, Pete, don't stop. If you just put a few more wrinkles in your forehead, you might scare those clouds away yet!" Jim slammed the trunk with a chuckle and headed for the passenger door.
Pete sighed and let himself into the driver's seat. The engine roared to life with the first turn of the key, and Pete felt the same little twinge of pride that he always felt when Adam-12 purred under his hands. At least something's working right today. He glanced again at the sky, and then turned his attention to the work at hand. No use pouting over what can't be changed.
The two officers rode in silence for a few minutes, testing the atmosphere of LA's streets. The morning felt normal enough. Commuters streamed towards their offices, and school children gathered at their bus stops. Jim shook his head as he regarded one group of juveniles.
"What?" Pete asked him.
"Oh, nothing." Jim turned quickly away.
Pete didn't pursue the matter. Jim's such a mother hen. Pete too had spotted the young toughs hurriedly snuffing out their cigarettes as the officers drove by. He felt sure that his partner was worrying about their health. This morning Pete preferred to focus on his own concerns
After a few more minutes of silence, Jim spoke up again. "You know, Pete, it won't do you any good to sit there and brood about it."
"I'm not brooding," Pete answered with annoyance. He hated it when Jim caught him brooding.
His partner resumed his speech without batting an eye. "The cabin and the lake will still be there later, and you can do your fishing some other time. Besides, this storm might be long gone by the time our watch is over."
Jim, I don't know how you always manage to look on the bright side of my problems, but I wish you'd cut it out. Pete swallowed his annoyance. Jim meant well, and normally Pete would have appreciated a little cheering up. But this time things seemed really unfair, and Pete wanted to thoroughly enjoy his pout.
"The weatherman says we could have storms all weekend." he replied.
"You believe weathermen?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Pete turned Adam-12 left onto Wilshire, almost unconsciously checking the familiar landmarks for any sign of trouble.
"Pete, what's eating at you? You don't normally let a little bad weather bother you so much."
"Watch the streets, Jim."
Jim turned to look out the window, his expression somewhat hurt. Pete instantly felt sorry. "Look, Jim, you're right. I shouldn't let it bother me so much. It's just that I've finally gotten the fishing rod I've been drooling over for months, and rain has kept me from using it two weeks in a row! I've been dying to break that thing in. And to make matters worse, Judy was going to come with me this weekend, too. Her company finally left, and it was going to be our first chance to be alone together in a while. It just isn't fair, that's all."
Jim's expression became incredulous. "This? From the man who's always preaching about how life isn't fair?"
"Watch the streets, Jim."
This time his partner turned away with a smile. Pete's mood lightened, too. He liked to pretend that Jim's bantering annoyed him, and sometimes he almost believed his own pretense. But in truth, Pete and Jim each counted on the other for a listening ear, and each knew he could trust the other to either give wise counsel, or else to tease him into lightening up.
Pete decided to bring up a cheerful subject.
"Isn't Jean's birthday coming up soon?" Jim's wife was usually a pleasant topic, except when she was mad at Jim. I hope they didn't have a spat this morning.
Jim's smile quickly allayed his fears. "Yeah, but don't worry, I'm on top of it."
"Oh, did you get her lingerie again?"
Jim's grin answered for him.
"Reed, when are you going to learn to buy her a present on her birthday, instead of getting something for you?"
"Pete, I'm offended." Jim tried to make his face match his words, but his smirk betrayed him.
"Uh, huh, I'll bet you are. 'Fess up. You did, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did, and that's not what I'm offended about." Jim waited for a response, giving Pete the impression that he was dangling some bait. Pete decided to swallow the hook.
"Ok, partner, I'll humor you. What are you offended about?" His voice sounded as droll as only his could be.
Jim grinned. "If I bought Jean lingerie, what makes you think I'd be the only one who'd have a good time when she wore it?"
Pete flushed a little. "All right, partner, we can drop that subject."
"Besides," Jim continued, "that isn't all I got her."
"I'm afraid to ask."
Large, heavy raindrops began splattering the windshield. Pete sighed, flicked on the headlights, and turned on the wipers. All around him, motorists did the same. All except one. Pete flashed his lights at an approaching car, and the young driver quickly turned her headlights on. She looked terrified, as if the mean officer might just haul her off to prison for her error. Pete gave her his most reassuring smile as they passed each other.
Jim chuckled. "Gestapo, terrorizing the innocent citizens of L.A!"
Pete responded with a chuckle of his own. "Yeah, I'm a real tyrant."
The radio interrupted with their first call of the morning.
"1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12, see the woman, unknown trouble, 4329 Oleander Street, Code Two."
Jim scrawled the address onto his notepad and acknowledged the call. "1-Adam-12, roger."
Oleander Street was part of a lower-middle-class neighborhood. The houses showed some age, but seemed mostly well cared for. Yards looked reasonably trim, and peaceful old oaks graced many of them. After school let out, Pete knew that several children would be out playing ball in this street, at least if the weather cleared. A typical slice of America. Adam-12 didn't get many calls here.
Jim pointed wordlessly toward the designated house, though Pete had already spotted it. A middle-aged woman stood huddled under a small umbrella. She gestured to them from the front lawn.
Pete pulled the unit over to the curb, and the woman hurried to meet them. She began talking even before he could shift into park.
"Oh, officers, I just don't know what to do! I'm afraid something terrible may have happened next door!"
The two men climbed out of the patrol car. Pete and Jim always took turns handling calls, and Pete always got the first one. He strode up to the woman and gave her a soothing smile. "Why don't we go in out of the rain, Mrs. . . ."
"Marshall. Georgia Marshall. I live here. And I'm so scared! She's such a sweet girl!" The woman led the officers through the front door and into her tidy living room as she spoke.
"All right, Mrs. Marshall. Why don't you just calm down and tell us everything from the beginning." Pete used his most patient voice.
"Yes, yes, of course officer." The woman took a deep breath and composed herself.
"The lady next door, her name is Leigh. Leigh Sanders. That's L-E-I-G-H."
Pete dutifully corrected his spelling.
"She's divorced. But she's a nice girl nonetheless. I'm really quite fond of her."
"Yes, ma'am." Pete smiled. Maybe it's another episode of Pacific mackerel. Concerned neighbors had called them once before, years back when Jim was a thoroughly green rookie. The neighbors thought they smelled a dead body under the house next door. In fact, there turned out to be quite a few dead bodies. Fortunately, all of them had fins and scales. I hope it's nothing more sinister than that.
"Anyway," Mrs. Marshall continued, "Leigh has three small children. The oldest is six, and her name is Kathy. The second is only five, and his name is Mark. The third is Carol, and she's just two years old. They're such sweet children, too. They often come over, and they always say 'Thank you' when I give them cookies and milk. I watch them for Leigh while she works. The poor thing doesn't have any choice, you know."
"Yes, ma'am." Pete guided her gently back to the subject. "What makes you think something terrible has happened over there?"
Mrs. Marshall's expression darkened. "Oh, I wish I'd checked on her sooner! Two days ago, that was Wednesday, I saw Leigh's ex-husband drive up. He doesn't come here often, and I'm glad, because he's trouble. He used to beat Leigh and the children, you know. Can you imagine such a thing? I really don't think he's stable up here. . ." Mrs. Marshall tapped at her head for emphasis. "He came here early in the morning, and he didn't stay long. Then Kathy came over, and she said that her mother was staying home, and I wouldn't need to take care of them today. I didn't think too much of it, and I had shopping to do, so I didn't check on her then. Then yesterday, I called on the phone, and Kathy answered. She said her mother was still home, and I wouldn't need to watch them. Well, I should have checked, but I wanted to get to my bridge club, so I didn't. Oh, I'm going to hate myself forever if something has happened to her!"
The poor woman nearly wept as she related her story, and Pete offered her a handkerchief.
"No, no thank you, I'll be okay," she responded. Jim and Pete exchanged glances. Sometimes the hardest part of a call was just waiting for the PR to get to the point.
Mrs. Marshall continued. "Well, now comes the bad part. I called this morning, and Kathy was crying. She said she and the younger ones were so hungry, and they'd run out of bread for sandwiches. I thought that was strange. Leigh is very conscientious, and she always takes good care of her kids. She really loves them, you know. So I asked about her mother, and Kathy really started crying. She said that her mother had been napping for days, and she wasn't allowed to disturb her. Well, naturally, I was alarmed. The more I thought about it, the more scared I got that her ex-husband had done something awful to her. I asked Kathy if I could come over, and she sounded scared. She said that her father told her not to let anyone come in and disturb her mother. Those kids always obey their father, because they're scared to death of him, even when he's not around."
Pete and Jim glanced at each other again. Napping for days? Suddenly this didn't sound like a mackerel story any more.
"All right, Mrs. Marshall, we'll go check things out, and we'll get back to you if we have any more questions." Pete nodded to Jim, and the two of them let themselves out into the rain. As they trotted across the lawn toward the neighbor's house, Pete could hear Mrs. Marshall lamenting in her doorway. "Oh dear, oh dear!"
The officers arrived, gratefully, under the shelter of the Sanders' porch roof. They stepped carefully around the few toys that lay scattered about, and then Pete rang the doorbell. He heard a scurrying noise, like three frightened little children might make.
"Kathy?" He called out. "Kathy, don't be afraid. We're police officers, and we're here to help you."
They heard no response, but the air felt charged with tension. Pete could almost imagine the children debating among themselves.
Pete continued. "Mrs. Marshall called us. She said you ran out of bread. She thought maybe we could help. We'd like to help you, Kathy."
Finally, soft footfalls approached the door. It opened a few inches, and a very frightened little face peered out. "My Daddy will be mad if you wake my Mommy up. Nobody's allowed to come in. We can't go into her room, or make any noise at all. That's what Daddy said." The child spoke in a frightened whisper.
"Is your Daddy here?" Pete lowered his voice as well, and knelt down to her level.
"No." The thought seemed to put the little girl at ease, at least a little.
"Has your Mommy been sleeping for a long time?"
Kathy's face fell. "Yes." Somehow that one word carried as much emotion as a thousand. Pete's heart ached for this little girl. He glanced at Jim, and saw deep concern etched on his face. He's so good with kids. Maybe he can reassure her.
Jim understood Pete's unspoken request, and addressed the little girl for the first time.
"Kathy, we know that you're scared. We want to help you. That's why we came here. Did your mommy teach you that policemen are your friends?"
A second blonde head appeared at the door. Little Mark spoke up enthusiastically. "Yeah, and sometimes nice policemen took Daddy away when he. . . ."
"SHHH!" Kathy hissed, pushing her brother away from the door. "We're not supposed to talk about that. Daddy will be mad."
Pete caught Jim's eye again. Daddy will be mad. I wonder how much of their lives has been controlled by that one phrase. Jim's expression seemed to mirror Pete's thought.
The younger officer continued. "I know that your Mommy loves you. She would want us to help you. And she might need some help, too. May we come in?
Kathy hesitated for a brief moment, then nodded and opened the door. Both officers stepped inside and swiftly surveyed their surroundings. The house itself seemed to confirm the neighbor's story. It looked basically tidy, but it clearly suffered from days of neglect. A few paper plates, an empty bread wrapper, and a half-finished jar of jelly stood on the table, mute witnesses to the children's attempts to care for themselves. The children, too, seemed to suffer from only recent neglect. Their mismatched clothing and rumpled hair seemed to emphasize their helpless innocence. All of these sights tugged at Pete, but it was the smell that made his heart break.
Pete glanced at his partner. Jim's nose had wrinkled a little, and his eyes had become deep pools of sorrow. Of course he recognized the odor, too. They had both smelled it too many times. Pete swallowed a lump in his throat and spoke to Kathy.
"Where is your Mommy sleeping?"
"In her room." Kathy gestured toward the first door down the hallway. As she gestured, she also backed away, as if she felt afraid of that room. Pete kept his face calm, but his heart wept. She knows. Deep down inside, she knows, but she's afraid to admit it to herself.
Pete managed to work up a weak smile for the children. "I know Mrs. Marshall would love for you to come over. She probably has bread, and maybe even milk and cookies. How about if Officer Reed takes you over there while I check on your Mommy?"
The children nodded. The two younger ones had brightened visibly at the mention of cookies, but Kathy remained subdued.
Pete watched his partner escort the children next door and then trudge heavily back to join him at the bedroom door. They shared a meaningful glance and deep sighs, and Pete turned back toward the door. Both men knew what they would find when they opened it.
Mrs. Marshall sobbed quietly into her dishtowel as she rocked back and forth. She was inconsolable, but at least she managed to keep the volume down. The children were wolfing down cold cut sandwiches in the dining room, and Pete didn't want them clued in. Not yet. Let them at least enjoy the first good meal they've had in days.
Jim stood in the doorway to the dining room, shielding the children from the sights and sounds in the living room. Pete felt almost as bad for Jim as he did for Mrs. Marshall. He knew his partner felt emotional agony for those children. If he had his way, he'd scoop them all up and take them home with him. Them and every other little kid who has ever needed our help. Pete sighed yet again, and touched Mrs. Marshall on the shoulder.
"You mustn't blame yourself. From the look of things, it happened pretty quickly. She probably didn't suffer." Pete fervently hoped that was true. "You couldn't have done anything for her."
"Yes, I know, but the children. . .! To be locked up in the house with. . . .with that. . . ."
Pete had no answer to that, so he fell back on procedure.
"Ma'am, I know this is difficult, but we need to find out as much information as we can. What time did you see her ex-husband pull up? And what is his name, by the way?"
"What's going to become of the children?" Mrs. Marshall didn't seem to have heard Pete's questions.
Pete allowed the diversion. "Do you know of any relatives nearby that could be trusted with their care?"
"No, they don't have any family here. Her people are in Nebraska."
"Then they'll be taken to McLaren Hall. They'll be well cared for."
Mrs. Marshall's eyes met Pete's with a sudden, fierce determination. "Oh, no, officer, we can't have that. I've cared for them many, many times. Leigh wouldn't want them sent to an institution. Oh please, officer, can't I please take care of them? It's the least I could do, considering. . . ." Her voice had a desperate edge.
Pete shook his head sympathetically. "No, I'm sorry, our procedures wouldn't allow it. Besides, to do so would be to put your own life in danger."
"How?" the woman asked, clearly alarmed.
"Well, the ex-husband. . . . what is his name?"
"Mike. Mike Keeler. His name's not Sanders. Leigh took her maiden name back after the divorce. Oh, the poor girl!" The quiet sobbing began anew. Pete shot a quick glance at Jim, to see if the noise bothered the children. Jim understood the unspoken question, and gave Pete a reassuring gesture.
Pete laid a hand on Mrs. Marshall's shoulder, steadying her. "Ma'am, I want you to pay close attention to what I'm about to say." He waited until she calmed a bit and returned his gaze. "Mr. Keeler knows that he left witnesses to the murder. He knows his children will eventually tell the story to the police. I'm amazed he left them there, to be honest with you. Perhaps it's because he's unstable, as you said. But anyway, he may think better of it and come back to try to silence them."
He paused to let the full weight of his words settle on the woman before continuing.
"It is best to have them in a place where they're used to dealing with these kinds of situations."
Mrs. Marshall nodded dejectedly.
Pete decided to give her a few moments of peace before worrying her with any more information. He walked over to the big picture window overlooking the front lawn. The house next door had become a macabre circus of activity. It seemed almost obscene; the peaceful oaks and soft grass being violated by the yellow crime scene tape, the detectives and uniformed officers milling around, and now the shrouded body being carried through the rain to the awaiting ambulance. I can't let Mrs. Marshall see that. It will completely unravel her. Pete turned back toward her, but then noticed that Jim no longer stood at his post. He excused himself to Mrs. Marshall and went to investigate. He hoped the distraught woman would follow him with her eyes, rather than looking out at the nightmare that had invaded her neighborhood. And, of course, he had to find Jim.
He didn't have far to look. Jim sat surrounded by the children, who listened happily as he read to them from a book he'd found Heaven-knows-where. Pete found a sad little smile and shook his head. Leave it to Jim.
Pete returned to his charge, pleased to see her somewhat more composed. She continued to rock, and dabbed at her eyes as he approached. The seasoned officer mentally prepared himself to wade back into her emotional upheaval, knowing full well that he had to add to it.
"Mrs. Marshall, I would like you to make me a promise." He unconsciously turned on just a little of the Irish charm that usually made women trust him implicitly.
"Anything, officer, of course." Mrs. Marshall waited expectantly.
"I want you to keep your doors and windows locked at all times, at least for the next few weeks. It is possible that Keeler will come back, and when he doesn't find his children at home, he may look for them here. Or, he may realize that you could be a witness."
"Oh dear, do you really think I may be in danger?"
"Probably not. But it never hurts to be careful in situations like this, especially when you're dealing with an unstable person. If you see or hear from him at any time, don't hesitate to call the police." Pete gave her his card. "There's my name and a number where I can be reached at the station. But if you can't get hold of me personally, do get someone. Any officer can help you."
"Well, I promise, officer, I really do. Oh, it's so hard being a widow in this crazy mixed-up world!" She resumed her rocking, and seemed to withdraw into her own thoughts. Pete returned to the window.
The detectives were still out there, of course. Pete also spotted Adam-36 still hanging around. The ambulance was gone. The children's mother, or rather, what remained of her, had gone with it. The children could not stumble across that pitiful corpse now.
Pete's heart filled with sudden rage at Mike Keeler.
His anger soon turned to dread. Talking to Mrs. Marshall had been hard, but it paled next to the job that awaited him. Pete deliberately tucked his heart away into the shell that he reserved for jobs like this. It was a special place, where his own caring feelings could shine out, but somehow only a portion of the pain could get in. The rest of the pain, he knew, would come out to haunt him from dark corners of his mind for a long time.
When I get back to the station, the punching bag is going to be sorry it ever met me.
He trudged resignedly toward his saddest duty, preparing to bring the world crashing down on three tiny pairs of shoulders. He knew that his introductory words, "I'm sorry, but. . ., " would bring little comfort when he said the rest, ". . .your mother is dead."
Pete entered the little dining room. Three innocent faces looked up with guileless curiosity. One more mature face regarded him with undisguised sympathy and pain.
Pete realized that his heart's special shell would never be enough.
The full moon shone down brightly on the streets of Los Angeles. Its cheery light illuminated many normally dark corners of the city, making it much safer for the officers if they had to go on foot pursuit. Normally, the bright full moon was a friend. But on this night it could do nothing to lift the spirits of two particular officers in a car called Adam-12.
As of tonight they worked night watch. The men's bodies always had to struggle a bit to adjust to the change in time, but more serious struggles engaged their hearts. Three days had passed since their call at the Sanders' home, but neither man could quite shake the gloom of it.
Jim broke the silence. "Sorry your fishing plans got rained out."
Pete shrugged. "It doesn't matter." Jim's face took on an alarmed expression, and Pete realized just how depressed that statement sounded. "There's nothing like the Sanders case to bring your own problems into perspective," he clarified.
Jim nodded, apparently satisfied. He surveyed the streets in silence for a few minutes, and then ventured another comment. "Still no luck finding Keeler, huh?"
Pete shook his head, his expressive features clouding over. "Give the detectives time. It's only been a few days." Despite his patient words, Pete was itching to find this particular murderer. The faces of the children who called Keeler "Daddy" had etched themselves on his heart.
Pete shook himself, forcing his attention back to the streets. He suddenly felt his partner's gaze, and for once made no attempt to put up a brave front.
"Yeah, Jim, it's eating at me, too," he admitted.
Jim just grunted in concurrence, and turned to look down an alley. They rode silently, respecting their unspoken agreement. There would be no banter yet.
Their first calls of the evening had been pretty routine. The officers used the slow pace of the night to work through some of their emotions, and though the men rarely spoke, the atmosphere in the cruiser lightened somewhat. Pete felt glad that Jim didn't push him to air his feelings. Truthfully, Pete couldn't make sense of his own emotions. The pain, sadness, and anger he could understand. But why couldn't he shake this shuddery feeling of dread?
I don't think Keeler is through causing us pain.
A loud yawn from Jim interrupted Pete's worried thoughts.
"Am I keeping you awake, partner?" Pete asked dryly.
"You? No. Jimmy's the bad guy. I tried to nap this afternoon to get ready for tonight, but he wasn't about to let that happen. He wanted me to play ball with him. Jean tried her best to keep him quiet, but you know what Jimmy's like when he gets his heart set on something."
Pete actually grinned. Thoughts of his 3-year-old godson always cheered him up.
"Yeah, I know what he's like. He's just like his father!"
Jim shot a sour expression at him. "Where'd that come from?"
Pete chuckled. "Oh, just from a few years of riding with Mister 'Never Say Die'."
Jim just humphed and looked back out the window.
Pete slowed the cruiser as they approached a red light. Several hippie-types stood at that particular corner. Both officers eyed them as inconspicuously as they could.
"Hey, fellas, did you notice the odor around here?" A young punk stared right at Jim as he spoke, his expression mocking.
"Yeah, smells like swine to me!" replied another. His friends joined in the laughter.
The light turned green, and Pete pulled around the corner.
"Hey, come back, piggie, piggie, piggie. SOOOOEY!" Their derisive laughter faded with distance.
Jim shook his head. "Why isn't anyone calling Mike Keeler a pig?" Pete was pleased that he sounded sad, but not bitter. He's growing up.
"I guess it's up to us to do that," Pete replied.
"Yeah. Too bad it's against regulations."
"Life's not fair, Jim."
The radio pulled both of them back to the present.
"1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12, meet 1-L-20 on Tac 2."
"1-Adam-12, roger." Jim switched the frequency and keyed the mic again. "1-Adam-12 to 1-L-20, go."
The familiar voice of Sergeant MacDonald responded. "Pete, I just got a call from a woman named Georgia Marshall. She said you needed to get to her house right away, and that you would know what it was about. Then she hung up without leaving any more information. She sounded pretty agitated. Isn't she involved somehow with the Sanders murder?"
Pete gestured for the mic so he could answer for himself. Jim quickly handed it over, and Pete's spoke into it with an urgent tone. "Yeah, Mac. She's a witness, and she may be in danger from the suspect. The address is 4329 Oleander Street. We're almost there already. I'd like some backup, and I want to roll Code 3."
"Roger that, Pete. You handle it as you see fit." Pete hit the lights and siren without waiting for the sergeant to finish. He pressed hard on the accelerator, grateful for the relatively thin traffic at this hour. The few motorists quickly scattered to clear a path, and Adam-12 roared and wailed on its way unhindered.
Mac's voice continued. "I'll have 36 meet you there, and I think I'll come along too. But I'm coming from clear across town."
"Roger, Mac. We're arriving at the scene now. Switching back to Frequency 1." Pete tossed the mic onto the seat next to him, then killed the lights and siren before pulling onto Oleander Street. Jim conscientiously retrieved the mic, switched frequencies, and radioed their status and location to dispatch.
Mrs. Marshall's house was completely darkened, with the shades drawn. Pete felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He and Jim quietly exited the patrol car, making sure the doors made no sound as they shut them. Neither man spoke. They needed only gestures and facial expressions to understand each other perfectly.
Armed with a flashlight and with pistol drawn, Jim moved quickly but carefully toward the rear of the house. Pete kept watch around the front, inspecting the bushes and even shining his light into the leafy heights of the oak. Nothing. Silence. Normally that wouldn't bother him, but somehow tonight it made his skin crawl.
The sudden twin glare of headlights made Pete turn. As he suspected, they did belong to a black-and-white, in this case Adam-36. He motioned to the men, and they approached him quickly. Pete filled them in on the details and gave them their assignments.
"Brinkman, go around back and check on Reed." Pete rethought his request. "No wait, you cover the back and send Reed back here, will you?" Brinkman nodded and loped toward the back. Pete continued. "Walters, you check on Mrs. Marshall inside. I'll keep covering the front, and I also want to check out the house next door."
"You'd better let Reed or Brink go with you." Walters' face showed his concern.
"I know. I'll wait until Jim gets here, don't worry."
Walters jogged to the front door, knocked on it, and announced himself. Pete caught himself holding his breath as he listened for her response. He heard none.
Take care of your own responsibilities, Pete! He chided himself for feeling more like a nervous rookie than a Senior Lead Officer. Why these jitters?
He directed his beam toward the Sanders' home. The crime scene tape had been removed. The house looked deceptively peaceful, not at all like a home that had just been emptied by murder and betrayal.
Pete froze. There, at the base of the Sanders' garage door, he saw a gap. Just a slight one, but enough to send all of Pete's instincts into overdrive. "Reed!" he hissed. "Reed!" Where is he? Pete suddenly realized that he felt unusually worried about his younger partner. Get a hold of yourself, Malloy! He became peripherally aware that Walters had kicked in Mrs. Marshall's door.
A lithe shadow cleared Mrs. Marshall's side gate and moved quickly toward him. Pete gestured toward the garage door, and waited silently for his partner to appraise the situation. A moment later Jim's eyes met his with comprehension. After a few more gestures and silently mouthed words, the two men flanked the garage door, guns drawn.
Pete tried to peer through the gap into the inky blackness of the garage, but he could make nothing out. He glanced back toward his partner. An unexpected flood of dread filled him as he saw Jim standing ready. Fear tightened in his chest, and sweat suddenly beaded on his forehead.
Pete felt all the anxiety of a Hitchcock film. He knew that something horrible would happen to Jim if they opened the garage door. He wanted to call out to Jim, to warn him, but warn him of what?
Am I going out of my mind? Pete mentally shook himself, pushing the sick feeling aside as much as he could. Come on, Pete, there's no reason for this. We've done this a hundred times. He nodded to Jim, indicating his readiness to act. Jim returned the gesture, and both men prepared to swing the door upward.
A loud roar inside the garage shocked them both, stopping their movement with a startled flinch. Someone in that garage was gunning an engine hard, holding it at full throttle but out of gear. Pete's gut tied itself in a knot. He knows we're here.
Pete drew a deep breath, rebuked his jangled nerves, and nodded toward the door again. Jim agreed, and with a concerted heave they threw it open, aiming their revolvers at the noise and making sure they stayed clear of the doorway.
The events of the next few moments seemed to Pete to happen in slow motion. Bright headlights shone out, illuminating Jim's face in a way that seemed wrong somehow. The angle is wrong. . . . The car sat at an angle inside the garage, facing toward the corner of the doorway closest to Jim. In the next instant Pete heard the car thrown into gear, engine screaming.
"JIM, GET OUT OF THE WAY!" The roaring engine nearly drowned out Pete's shout, but Jim had already begun to dodge. Pete half-emptied his revolver toward the driver's window, screaming the standard warnings even as he fired. He saw the shadowy figure of the driver slump forward, but the car kept moving at deadly speed. It slammed into the corner of the doorway with an explosive roar, and the wooden structure splintered. Freed from its cage, the vehicle lunged onward, plowing ahead until it slammed into a massive old oak. The engine continued to race, pushed on by the dead weight of the driver's foot on the accelerator. The wheels tore futilely into the turf, sending chunks of sod flying backward. Pete ran toward the car, intent on killing its engine and verifying that he'd already killed the driver. He could see Jim also running toward it from the other side. But then the tree shuddered and moaned. Loud cracking, popping sounds erupted like gunfire, and the oak seemed to explode from the assault. The lower part of the trunk caved in, sending the entire upper portion of the tree toppling forward onto the car. Pete pivoted at full speed, straining every muscle to avoid being crushed. Somehow he cleared the tree, and a second later he felt the ground shake from its impact. More snapping and popping ensued as branches broke themselves on the car or splintered on the ground. And then, after an eternity, there remained only the rustling of the leaves, whispering like frightened children. After a moment they too fell still.
The world seemed to come to a stop. The tree had, in poetic justice, killed the engine that had killed it. The quietness unnerved Pete. He collected himself, surprised to find himself free from serious injury. How is Jim?
That question would have to wait. Pete spotted the suspect's car, barely visible under the long tree limbs. He fought his way through the foliage until he could see inside the driver's window. The sight that greeted him made checking for a pulse a mere formality. Serves you right, pal.
Pete fought his way back through the branches, calling for Jim. Protocol had required him to check on the suspect first, but he cared only about his partner.
"Reed! Are you all right?"
Pete heard Walters and Brinkman calling him from the other side of the fallen giant. 'He's over here!"
They must have gone to check on Jim while I secured the suspect.
"Over here!" Walters repeated. The urgency in his voice sent ice into Malloy's veins.
Oh no! Pete pushed himself toward his friends, heedless now of the branches that scraped and tore at his clothing and flesh. A wailing siren caught his ear. What took Mac so long? Pete could hardly believe how much had happened in so little time.
A moment later he knelt next to Brinkman and Walters, and anxiously looked Jim over. His partner lay prone on the ground, his face turned to one side. He was conscious, and Pete could see no obvious sign of injury. Yet Jim did not move. His stillness terrified Pete. He'd get up if he could.
Mac's heavy footsteps pounded toward them.
Pete moved around until he could see Jim face to face. Jim's eyes were wide with terror. Pete swallowed the knot in his throat. "Stay still, partner, I'll get an ambulance."
"It's already taken care of," Walters said softly.
"A huge tree branch hit me." Jim's voice sounded shaky, frightened. "It knocked me down but didn't land on top of me."
"That's good. The driver wasn't so lucky." Pete managed a smile. "Are you in much pain?"
"No!" Jim's voice had an edge of panic. "I'm in no pain at all!" His eyes pleaded with Pete's, begging for help. "I can't feel my legs!" His voice became almost hysterical. "Pete, please help me, I can't feel my legs!"
Pete went numb. Horror and denial hit him like a physical force, rocking him back on his haunches. No. This can't be happening. Not to you. Not to him, do you hear me, God? He knew his feelings showed plainly on his face, but for once he could find no mask of reassurance. His world narrowed down, until he saw nothing but Jim's terrified eyes, and heard only his gut-wrenching words. I can't feel my legs!
Pete flinched. Someone had touched him. Strong hands rested on his shoulders. He looked up into the ashen face and moist eyes of Sergeant MacDonald. The sorrow he saw there mirrored the expressions of the other officers. Time stood still. No one spoke. No one, that is, except Jim, who seemed to be huskily, frantically praying.
Mac's soft voice came next. "The ambulance is here, Pete. Let's give them room." Mac literally helped Pete up and supported him as they walked back a few feet. Pete could feel waves of compassion pouring out from his friend, and he clung to them. There seemed to be no ground under his feet, and it felt as though only Mac's strength kept him from falling. Walters and Brinkman stood a polite distance away, giving Pete some privacy in his grief.
The men watched mutely as the attendants carefully rolled Jim onto a backboard. Only when they started to bear his friend away did Pete feel the strength to act. "I'm going with him, Mac."
He sought his superior's sorrowful eyes for permission, and found it there. Mac patted him on the back, and then said words that added a whole new dimension to this tragedy.
"I'll call Jean."
Jean! Pete hadn't even thought of her. This will kill her. The thought crashed in on him with fresh waves of grief. Pete doubted his legs would carry him all the way to the ambulance, but somehow he made it there. He climbed in beside his best friend and grabbed his hand. "I'm right here, Partner."
Jim turned his frightened gaze to Pete. "How will we break this to Jean? She'll be so mad at me! This is going to tear her apart, Pete!" His haunted eyes turned toward the ceiling. "Oh God, why? What kind of husband am I going to be to her now?" Tears ran unchecked down Jim's face and onto the stretcher. His grief was beyond any attempt at a brave front. Pete helplessly patted Jim's shoulder. He could find no words for his friend, nor the voice to try to speak. He had only his tears to offer, and he made no attempt to hold them back.
Sterile walls. Uncomfortable chairs. The room seemed to be a mirror of the building it occupied: a place of misery and suffering. Pete Malloy sat in one of those uncomfortable chairs, in a waiting room of Central Receiving Hospital. He kept his face buried in his hands, not caring who saw him that way. If he stayed still enough, and kept his mind blank enough, he could go numb. Shock had mercifully settled in, dulling the pain until it became a background annoyance. Ignore it, and it will go away. Don't think. Don't feel. Pete had known this numbness before, often while sitting in this same miserable place. He knew the respite wouldn't last, so he struggled to keep it as long as he could.
Pete ignored the softly padded footfalls of the nurses as they went about their duties. He ignored any footsteps that sounded like they would pass him by. One corner of his mind knew that a certain pair of feet would arrive here soon, and he would have to face the one person who felt an agony even deeper than his own. He couldn't think about her. Not now. So he kept that awareness at arm's length and focused on nothing.
A sound cut through his outer shell, and it sent a cold chill through his limbs. It's her. The footsteps faltered, and Pete heard the unmistakable sound of barely controlled sobbing. He raised his eyes to see Mac half guiding, half supporting Jean toward the waiting area. Her eyes were downcast, as if she couldn't even bear to see her surroundings.
Pete rose to his feet, for a moment able to fully set his own pain aside. He loved Jean like a little sister. But more than that, for the love of his fallen friend, he would take care of his friend's greatest love. Jim needs me to be there for her, now that he can't be.
Pete had helped Jean through crises before, and she had always been strong. But not this time. She's completely overwhelmed.
Mac's eyes acknowledged Pete, but Jean remained unaware of him. She seemed completely lost in her own fog of pain. Mac spoke softly in her ear, and she finally raised her head. The moment her eyes found Pete's, she rushed to him, no longer trying to hold back her sobs. Pete hesitated a moment, then folded her into his arms. Jim would want me to. Somehow he forced himself to be strong for her. She trembled so hard he wondered how she could remain standing, and after holding her for a few long moments, he gently released her and guided her into a chair. He sat next to her, letting her crumple against him, while he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. There's nothing I can say, nothing I can do that will help her. Pete had never felt so powerless in his life.
Pete looked to Mac for some kind of support, and the two of them commiserated silently.
This is going to be a long, long night.
After a long while, Jean's tears finally exhausted themselves. She sat up, wiped her eyes, and then fussed over the tear stains she had left on his sleeve. "I'm sorry, Pete. I didn't mean to blubber on you."
"Blubber away, please!" He managed a very brief, wan smile. She smiled back, then shuddered as reality settled in on her again. "It's so cold in here."
Pete started to rise, but Mac motioned him down. The sergeant went to the nurses' desk himself, approaching the two nurses to request a blanket for his officer's wife. It took several long minutes for one nurse to come up with the blanket. Mac chatted with the other nurse while he waited.
Don't waste your time, Mac. They won't tell you anything. I've already tried.
Mac finally returned with the blanket, and draped it gently over Jean's shoulders. Both men tried to rearrange it for the greatest comfort. Jean managed a fragile chuckle. "Look at you two fussing over me like a couple of mother hens." Her smile quickly faded.
Silence fell over the little band of friends. Pete checked the clock. The last half-hour had only taken four minutes. He decided against looking at the clock any more.
The silence settled like a blanket, as each one retreated into his own private thoughts.
Time ceased to have meaning.
Jean spoke up. Pete was so lost in himself that the sound of her voice startled him.
"Do you know how, when you're facing something really awful, you focus on the stupid little details?" Jean's voice sounded teary, and she swabbed at her nose with a tissue.
"Yeah," Pete replied, and he saw Mac nodding as well. Pete had, in fact, just been thinking about the hamstring injury Jim had gotten in college. I didn't even know him then.
Jean continued. "All I've been able to think about is that he'll never be taller than me any more. Isn't that ridiculous?" She dabbed at her eyes. The two men waited without comment.
"But you see," Jean went on, "whenever I'm sad, or hurting, or scared, all I want to do is lean against his chest, and feel him wrapping his arms around me. That feels like the safest place in the world. Somehow it won't be the same, bending down to try to hug him in a . . . wheelchair." Her voice merely quivered until the word "wheelchair", but then it broke pitifully. She buried her face in her hands and cried again.
Pete sucked in a harsh breath at the stark word. He turned to Mac, and saw him equally shaken. Suddenly the merciful numbness vanished. Rage and sorrow boiled up like lava in Pete's soul, and before he knew it he jumped to his feet and rushed blindly away. He had no idea where to go, or what to do when he got there. He only knew he had to get away from that awful word. Wheelchair. . . .wheelchair. . . .wheelchair. It followed him down the hall, chasing him like a swarm of hornets. He found himself in the men's room, without knowing how he got there. Emotion heaved in his chest, pounded in his heart, throbbed in his ears. He walked to the wall, drew his arm back, and slammed his fist into unyielding concrete. The shock of the pain in his hand pulled his thoughts away from the pain in his soul. He struck the wall again, and again now with both hands. Furious words poured out of his mouth. He raged against the wall until his knuckles bled and his wrists ached. He pummeled it until his wrath subsided into wracking sobs. He turned his back to the wall and slid down it onto his haunches, burying his head in his bloodied hands.
Pete had no idea how long he remained that way. His surroundings slowly became real to him. He opened his eyes and studied his hands, feeling a dull surprise at what he had done to himself. Those same hands next rubbed the tears out of his eyes, and Pete began to struggle to his feet. Only then did he notice Mac's watchful, worried eyes on him.
Pete stared at Mac for a few moments, trying to make sense of his presence. He must have followed me here. I never noticed. Did he see the whole thing. . . ?
"How long?" he asked.
Mac shrugged. "Long enough."
Pete regarded his superior carefully. "I suppose that was conduct unbecoming of an LAPD officer."
Mac's smiled his most winning smile, though only briefly. "It seems to me that the wall hurt you more than you hurt it. I suppose if anyone else had seen a uniformed officer going off his rocker, I might have to say something about it."
Pete's eyes widened with horror at the thought. "Did anyone else see it?"
"Of course not, Pete. How could anyone else see you, with the toughest sergeant in the LAPD guarding the door?" Mac's dry humor provided thin camouflage for his affection toward his officers.
Pete smiled and clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Thanks, Mac."
"Think nothing of it."
The two friends gave themselves a few moments to pull their emotions back together, and then headed back to their vigil.
Two Hours Later
The tree was falling, falling, falling. No matter how much time went by, the tree never actually landed. It just kept falling, terrifying in its enormity, forcing Pete to run toward safety and away from Jim. The cracking and snapping of branches took on a metallic sound, eerie and unnatural. Pete turned to look at the still-falling tree, just in time to see it finally slam to earth. Pete's heart pounded and his mouth went dry. The branches were no longer wooden, but metal, and as he watched, they turned into wheelchairs. . . .
Pete jumped at the sound of a stranger's voice. He couldn't believe he had actually fallen asleep in his chair, leaning his head on his hand. Mac and Jean had already risen to greet the white-robed man. It's the doctor. Finally! Pete stood and automatically accepted the outstretched hand. "How is he?"
"Why don't we sit down?" The doctor gestured to the chairs, and pulled up another for himself. Pete's stomach fluttered. I always tell people to sit down before I give them bad news.
What, you expected good news?
The doctor directed his comments to Jean. "As you can imagine, Mrs. Reed, we've been running a lot of tests. The best we can tell you right now is that your husband's spinal cord has been traumatized, but we can find no evidence of actual breakage. We also did a very thorough examination for other internal injuries, but so far he seems to have been spared damage to any other major organs."
"No breakage?" The words echoed back to the doctor from three astonished listeners. Jean finished the thought. "Then he'll be okay?" Her voice sounded unnaturally high as she grasped for a thread of hope.
The doctor shook his head. "I wish I could tell you. I've seen and heard of quite a few cases like this. In about 50% of cases, the paralysis is only temporary, though it lasts for different lengths of time in different people. Some fully recover after only a few days, and others take months. Some recover spontaneously, and others require intensive therapy. And of course, there's the other 50% that never recover the use of their legs. I have no way to predict which way this will go for your husband. I'm sorry I can't tell you more."
Jean's face beamed with hope. "Oh, thank you, Doctor! That's such good news!"
Pete felt buoyed, too, but he felt worried about Jean. Don't get your hopes up too high, not yet. His own heart remained guarded from too much optimism.
"Doctor, when can I see my husband?" Jean sounded so eager now.
"We're getting him settled in right now. A nurse will let you know when he's ready. I should tell you that we have immobilized his spine."
Jean's face clouded. "Why? I thought you said it wasn't broken."
"It's not. But we don't want to further traumatize his spinal cord while it's trying to recover. We'll need to move him and reposition him, so we have to make sure we can do so safely." Jean nodded her understanding. The doctor excused himself and left to attend to his duties.
Jean spun around to her friends, her face alive with joy. "Pete, Mac, there's HOPE! He can make it, I know he can! He's strong, and he's stubborn, and he'll never give up. He'll walk again, I know it!" She paused as a new thought occurred to her. "I won't have to hug him in a wheelchair after all. You wait and see." She fairly floated back to her seat.
Pete and Mac exchanged very meaningful looks. I hope she's not about to have a great fall. I don't know if we could put the pieces back again.
Mac laid a friendly hand on Jean's shoulder. "I have to get back to work. I'll come by and see Jim after my watch." Jean started to protest, but Mac held up a hand to silence her. "You two really need to have this time alone. Please give him my regards. I'm so glad that there's some hope." He patted her shoulder, nodded toward Pete, and turned to go.
As Mac prepared to round a corner, a thought suddenly occurred to Pete. "Excuse me a moment, Jean?" She nodded, and Pete called out to the Sergeant. Mac stopped and waited while Pete jogged up to him.
"What is it, Pete?"
"I'm wondering about Mrs. Marshall. The last thing I knew, Walters was kicking her door in. Is she okay?"
"Oh, yes, Pete. I'm sorry I didn't fill you in earlier. She had called because she saw lights in the Sanders house. Then she got so scared, she went and hid in her bedroom closet. She thought Walters had to be Keeler, and she almost had a heart attack when he opened the door to her closet. Walters said she shrieked like she'd seen a ghost. But she's fine."
"Thanks, Mac. That's good news." Pete nodded to his superior, then turned and made his way back to Jean. To his surprise she had waited for him, instead of going into Jim's room.
When he arrived beside her he couldn't help asking, "Are you sure you want me to come in with you? Mac's right. You should have him to yourself."
"I need you to help me be strong for him. I'm holding on to hope, but it will still be a shock to see him like that." For a moment her eyes misted, but she quickly recovered. "Promise me you'll come in with me, and that you'll stay."
Pete nodded mutely. Jean took a moment to fully compose herself, and then pushed the door open.
Jim lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He did not acknowledge their arrival. Pete hung back in a corner of the room, so that Jean could have some measure of privacy with her husband. His eyes took in the large, bulky cast that covered Jim from mid-back to knee. He followed that line of vision until his eyes came to rest on Jim's bare feet. The sight troubled him. He can't move them.
"Jim? Honey?" Jean's voice broke the silence. Pete looked up, waiting to see how Jim would respond. His partner fidgeted uncomfortably. Well, the parts that could move, that is. Jim still did not look at his wife.
"Oh, Jim, honey, don't cry. . ." Jean bent over her husband, taking his face in her hands and kissing his temples. "Don't cry, baby." Pete could see Jim's shoulders shaking. He had seen Jim with teary eyes more than once, but until today he had never seen him really crying. It unnerved Pete, who had always marveled at his friend's strength.
Pete lowered his eyes, feeling very much like a fifth wheel.
Jean continued her attempt to soothe her husband. "Didn't they tell you? There's hope for you to recover from this!"
Jim irritably brushed a tear off his cheek. "They told me," he whispered.
"Then you've got to believe you can do it. Honey, look at me."
Jim turned at last to look at Jean. His hand reached up to her face. "I'm so sorry, honey. I'm so sorry."
Jean took his hand in hers. "No, Jim, Mac told me how it all happened. There was nothing you could have done."
"I know, I know, but now you're stuck with a cripple. . . ."
"We don't know that, Jim!"
"But what if you are?" Jim's voice became angry. "What if you're stuck with a man who can't support you, can't help you around the house, can't take care of Jimmy, can't even. . . ." Jim paused, suddenly aware of Pete in the room. Evidently he decided to stop listing the things he couldn't do.
Pete wanted to bolt from the room. I don't belong here. This should be a private conversation. But I promised. . . .
Jean shook her head. "Honey, even if you don't recover from this, you'll be able to do a lot more than you think."
Jim lowered his voice. Pete tried not to listen, but the words reached his ears anyway.
"What difference will that make if I'm not even a man anymore?"
Jean found him a little while later, sitting in the same waiting room. He had been trying without success to put Jim's agonized question out of his mind. It's all so unfair.
He apologized for breaking his promise. "I'm sorry, Jean. I just didn't belong there right then."
Jean sat down beside him.
"I take it you left because you heard what he said. . . ."
Pete just nodded, too embarrassed to look at her.
"I'm sorry. I know he didn't intend for you to hear that."
"I shouldn't have been there. I'm the one who should apologize."
"For what? For doing just what I asked you to do?"
Pete sighed and wearily rubbed the back of his neck. "A good friend should know when to say no."
"Stop torturing yourself. C'mon, it's not like you didn't know he'd be worried about that."
Pete blushed a little. He couldn't quite believe they were having this conversation.
"Personally, I think it's good that you heard it, and that he knows you heard it."
"I think so. You did leave pretty. . .abruptly." Jean smiled a bit.
Her smile worried him a little. Boy, she really has her hopes up. But he went with the flow.
"Why is that good?" he asked.
"Because now he won't have any excuse not to confide in you. I've reassured him the best I can, but I suspect he'll need to talk to another guy about that. And I bet you're the guy."
Pete managed to meet her eyes, and even laughed a little. "Since you've got all that figured out, would you mind telling me what I'm supposed to say to him?"
Her brow wrinkled, and she looked astonished at his silly question. "How should I know? That's guy stuff."
Pete chuckled. "Thanks. Big help you are."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, but then Jean spoke up with alarm in her voice.
"Pete! What happened to your hands?"
Pete looked again at his poor abused appendages. The scrapes had begun scabbing over already, but his knuckles looked greenish with the beginnings of bruises, and his wrists looked swollen.
"I got in a fight in the men's room."
"You did?" Jean looked horrified. "What happened?"
Pete shrugged. "The wall won."
Jean's eyes twinkled with amusement at first, but then misted over. Pete realized that he had effectively admitted to the depth of his emotions. Jean's hand reached over and gently rested on one of his.
"You're a good friend, Pete Malloy."
She softly patted his hand and stood up. "He'll be okay. You'll see." After a quick squeeze on his shoulder she walked back into Jim's room.
Pete shook his head. That's quite a woman. He fervently hoped that she would have her husband back, whole.
Three days later
Pete sat near the head of Jim's hospital bed. Jean had insisted on giving him some time alone with Jim, while she took advantage of the chance to stretch her legs. Visiting hours would end in about 45 minutes, and Pete felt grateful to be have this time with his friend.
Today had been Pete's his first day back on patrol, after being forced to ride the desk for the interim. Mac had wanted to make sure Pete had his head on straight. In fact, if several officers hadn't called in sick, Pete would have continued on desk duty today. Mac seemed unhappy about sending him out just yet. Who can blame him, after what he saw in the men's room?
A question from his partner pulled Pete from his thoughts. Jim quizzed him about every detail of what Pete considered a boring day. Maybe I should make up something exciting. . . .
The door swung open, and a cheerful young nurse bustled in. "Hello, gentlemen. How are we feeling today?" She spoke with a thoroughly charming British accent. Her nametag said "Mabel".
"Well, this part of 'we' is still feeling about half of what he used to," Jim replied dryly. Pete could hear the pain behind the humor, but felt relieved to see his partner acting more like himself.
The nurse jabbed a thermometer into Jim's mouth, while chattering on about nothing in particular. Jim flashed a look and a quick grin at Pete. Yeah, partner, she is pretty funny.
Still chattering, Mabel removed the thermometer, read it, shook it down, and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Jim's bicep. She didn't even stop talking while she listened in her stethoscope. Jim bore it all patiently.
Suddenly, the chattering stopped. The nurse looked at Jim with a serious expression. "Now then, Love, we need to check those nerves. You know the routine."
Jim nodded and closed his eyes. The nurse pulled out a pointy instrument. "Tell me when you feel this, Love." Pete wondered idly if Jean had ever heard her talk to Jim that way.
But then his attention became riveted on the drama at the foot of the bed. The nurse ran the point of the instrument upwards, from the heel to the ball of Jim's foot. Pete felt his own toes curling inside his shoes in response.
Jim's toes didn't twitch.
The nurse repeated the procedure on the other foot. Jim remained silent and unresponsive.
"All right then. You can open your eyes, and I'll get you repositioned." She grabbed the draw sheet that was folded under Jim's body, and deftly turned the much larger man from his back onto his side. Pete marveled at how she could do it.
"Okay, Love, that's all for now. See you again in two hours." Mabel bustled out the door and was gone.
Pete walked over to the other side of the bed, so that Jim would be facing him. Neither man spoke. Jim's brave mask had vanished, and he looked very vulnerable.
"Nothing, Pete. I felt nothing." Jim's voice strengthened from sorrowful to angry. "Every two hours I have to go through that test, and each time I swear I'm not going to hope. But I can't help it. I try so hard to feel it. I focus with all the strength I have. I hope, and that makes the letdown feels so much more awful. And then I promise myself all over again that I won't hope the next time." Jim shook his head, eyes downcast and jaw muscles bulging. Pete waited silently, not wanting to interfere with Jim as he unburdened himself. After a few more moments, Jim continued in a lower voice.
"I feel like I've been cut in half. I even dreamed that the other night. The lower half of my body got cut off and thrown off of a ship. I watched it sink into the ocean and knew I'd never see it again." Jim's voice sounded heavy with emotion.
Pete shuddered at the image Jim's dream evoked. "Don't give up hope, partner. It's only been three days."
"Only three days?" Jim snapped. "You try going three days with only half a body, unable to get up or roll over, and wondering every second whether it's going to be this way for the rest of your life."
Pete had no answer. After a few moments Jim spoke up in a much softer tone.
"I'm sorry Pete. I had no right to snap at you. I guess I'm just getting really tired of trying to pretend I share everyone's optimism."
Jim's tone became fearful. "Jean just keeps going on about how I shouldn't worry, because I'm going to be one of the ones who recover. She's pinning all her hopes on that. I think it's because she couldn't bear to have it any other way. She won't accept the possibility of. . . of it being permanent, because she couldn't live with it."
Jim's eyes pooled. "I'm not sure our marriage will survive if the worst happens. I'm not sure I should even want it to, for her sake."
Jim retreated into silence for a few moments. He seemed to be wrestling with himself over whether or not to speak his mind.
"I keep thinking she would have been better off if I had died. I know that would have been awful for her, but then after a while she could go on with her life, fall in love again, have a real man for a husband, and a real father for Jimmy. But instead, she might only have this." He gestured toward his useless legs.
Pete felt a surge of anger toward his friend, and his voice became heated. "Is that how you would feel if the roles were reversed? Can you honestly tell me you'd rather have Jean die than live with you if she were handicapped?"
Jim shook his head. He couldn't look at his partner.
Pete had a lot more on his mind. "And don't you dare tell me that you're not a 'real father' to Jimmy. Jim, I'm surprised at you. And I'm disappointed. I thought you had a better understanding of what makes a man a man. And I certainly thought you had a better understanding of your relationship with your wife and son. They adore you, but not for your gold medal from the Police Olympics, or your prowess on a football field. It's not even for the paycheck you bring home. Of course they will suffer if your injury is permanent. But if you think they would love you less, well, you should be ashamed of yourself."
Jim kept his eyes averted and made no response. His jaw muscles stood out as he clenched his teeth. Pete recognized the signs of his partner's strong emotions.
"You know as well as I do that I've lost a lot more than athletic prowess."
"I know that you may have. I hope with all of my heart that you haven't." Pete's voice became husky with emotion, and he had to stop to collect himself. Jim's eyes met his, seeming grateful for his friend's concern.
Pete swallowed hard and continued, looking into Jim's eyes with all the sincerity in his soul. "But if the worst happens, you can count on one thing. Your wife and your son would still be grateful that you're alive. They would still love you just as much, and you'd get through it together. I know it would be hard, harder than I can even imagine. But lesser men than you have been able to rebuild their lives from a wheelchair. You could, too." Pete hoped he sounded more convinced than he felt.
Jim did not reply, but his eyes looked doubtful. After a few moments of silence, the men switched to much lighter topics. They chatted until visiting hours ended and the nurse came to shoo Pete away. Once safely out of Jim's sight, Pete leaned his back against a wall and closed his eyes. He puffed his cheeks out with a loud sigh, and hoped that Jim would never know the toll that conversation had taken on him.
Two Days Later
Pete dreaded another visit. He had begged off yesterday, citing all of the things he'd neglected to do over the past several days. All of that was true, and he did make good use of his time that day. But, though he hated to admit it, his deepest reason for staying away had nothing to do with unpaid bills and unwashed dishes.
I just can't stand seeing him this way.
Pete felt guilty about it, but the feeling wouldn't go away.
Pete rallied himself. C'mon, Pete, if you could face those three little kids, you can face Jim.
Somehow, that thought offered little comfort.
Pete steeled himself and pushed open the door.
Jim lay on his left side, facing away from the door. Pete walked around to face him.
"Hi, partner." Pete dredged up a smile from somewhere.
"Hi." Jim's reply was polite but emotionless.
"She just stepped into the bathroom. She'll be out in a minute."
He looks so depressed!
"How's she doing?"
Jim shrugged. "She's still hoping."
Looks like you aren't. Pete didn't voice the thought.
The bathroom door and the main door swung open simultaneously. Jean and Mabel almost collided with each other. Jean greeted Pete with a hug, while Mabel began her usual routine. Jim stared into space through it all, and seemed resigned when it came time to do the foot test again. Mabel, too, seemed less cheerful, less optimistic. Her face looked pained when she could elicit no response from Jim's nerveless feet.
Too much time has gone by. Maybe he's really not going to recover.
Pete felt sick at the thought. Jean tried to hide her pain, but she too seemed much less hopeful.
Mabel flipped Jim onto his back. "See you in two hours, Love." Jean said goodbye as the nurse left. Jim waited until she was gone to speak.
"Why do they keep trying? I just wish they'd quit and be honest with me. I'm stuck with this. You're stuck with this, Jean. And Pete, you've lost your partner. There. I've said it."
Pete could not think of anything to say. Jean began crying and walked out of the room. Jim clenched his jaw.
"I can't even go after her. I can't comfort her. I'm no good to her at all, any more."
Pete kept his eyes on the floor and struggled to regain his composure.
Jim spoke again, his tone bitter. "Would you please go see if you can help my wife?"
Pete kept his place, breathing deeply and trying to figure out what to do. Finally he decided to keep his mouth shut, and he went out without a word to search for Jean.
He found her sobbing in the waiting room. This is what I was afraid of. She got her hopes up too high, and now it's hitting her twice as hard.
Pete sat down beside her, but did not touch her. He waited until she pulled herself together enough to listen. When he spoke, his voice was soft, yet firm with conviction.
"Jean, you know, he feels utterly useless right now. He sent me out here to comfort you, and he was so upset that he couldn't do it himself. But Jean. . ." he paused until she turned her tearful eyes to meet his, ". . .he needs to know that he is still the one you need. He is still your best comfort, your best friend. He's still the one you love, and he's irreplaceable. If I could give you comfort right now, I would. But I'm glad I can't, because that make him feel left out in the cold."
He let his words sink in. After several long moments Jean stood up and wordlessly returned to her husband's room. Pete did not follow her. God help her to reach his heart.
Pete sat in the waiting room for a long time. Common sense told him that if he wasn't going to visit Jim then he ought to go home. But he couldn't bring himself to leave, not just yet.
I need some air. Pete stood and headed for an outside door, hoping that a brisk walk in the sunshine would help to clear his mind. He wandered aimlessly around the grounds, ignoring the passage of time. It almost seemed unfair that the day was so beautiful, when life had turned so ugly.
After a while he sought the shade of an oak. He would have preferred a different kind of tree. This one dredged up too many memories. But it was the shadiest thing around, and he was hot. Pete sat down on the ground, leaned his head back against the tree, and closed his eyes.
A familiar voice startled him and his eyes flew open. Was I asleep? Mac stood in front of him, a half-amused smile on his face.
"I thought that was you, but I couldn't believe one of my officers was asleep under a tree. I had to come see for myself."
Pete managed a half-hearted smile, and Mac's smile quickly faded. "What's wrong, Pete?"
"He's given up. I think Jean has, too." Pete plucked up some grass and tossed it away. "I suppose I have as well, but it's just so hard to accept. Of all people, why Jim? He's been an athlete all his life. He's told me how much he enjoys challenging his body, and then meeting that challenge."
"He'll have plenty of challenges to meet now, Pete."
"I know. But it's so wrong." Pete raised his eyes to his friend's again. "He and Jean are so in love with each other. They have such a terrific marriage. And it's never going to be the same again."
Mac nodded mutely. The enormity of Jim's loss defied words, and the two men fell silent for a while. Eventually Mac sat down on the soft turf beside Pete.
Pete knew he could share things with Mac that he couldn't even share with Jim. He didn't have to mentor Mac, or take his maturity level into consideration as he sometimes did with Jim. Mac was at least his equal in every way, and Pete confided in him now.
"I keep finding myself wishing that I could bring Keeler back to life, just so I could kill him again. I keep looking for some way to get revenge, and there's nobody to hurt. Nobody to make pay. Keeler didn't suffer. He died quickly. It was better than he deserved. And now there's a good man in there," Pete pointed up at a hospital window, "who's suffering through no fault of his own, and who's wishing he were dead."
"Life isn't fair, Pete." Mac couldn't have known that he was echoing Jim and Pete's earlier conversations, but the irony wasn't lost on Pete. He smiled humorlessly.
Mac continued. "But Jim is still better off than Keeler ever was. Do you think Keeler ever knew the joy of a happy marriage, or the respect of good people, or the peace of mind that comes from a clear conscience? As awful as things are for Jim, I don't think he'd trade places with Keeler for a minute."
"Of course he wouldn't." Pete picked a little rock up off the ground and idly rubbed it with his fingers. "But it's Jim's goodness that makes this all seem so. . .unfair! I know that's a stupid word, but it's the only one that fits. This whole thing stinks to high heaven." Pete hurled his rock angrily, his eyes tracing its futile flight and inevitable fall.
Pete sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I had a dream the other night that I dug Keeler's body up and cut it into little pieces."
"If it's revenge you're worried about, Pete, don't forget about the final Judge."
Pete nodded. Mac didn't often say anything even remotely religious, but his innate sense of fair play told him that Keeler's afterlife couldn't be good. Pete was inclined to agree.
After a few more moments, Mac rose to his feet. "Well, I'd better go in and see Jim. I promised Mary I wouldn't be late for dinner tonight. We're having company. Are you coming in, too?"
Pete glanced at his watch, and his face contorted with displeasure.
"What's wrong?" Mac regarded him quizzically.
"It's been almost two hours."
Mac looked at Pete blankly. "Two hours?"
Pete sighed. "Every two hours they do that test on the bottoms of Jim's feet." Mac nodded with sudden
"And you don't feel like witnessing that ordeal again?"
"Exactly. He wishes they'd stop torturing him with it, and frankly, so do I. But what kind of friend would I be if I skipped out during the rough times?" Pete rose wearily to his feet. Mac clapped him on the shoulder.
"Right. Then let's go." The two men remained silent for the remainder of the way.
They entered Jim's room right ahead of Mabel. Mac held the door open for her, and she acknowledged him with a quiet, "Thank you, Love." She seemed as unhappy about the upcoming ordeal as the rest of them.
Pete was pleased to see that Jim and Jean were holding hands. There was sorrow in the air, but not the tension of before. Maybe they've reached each other again.
Mabel went through her duties with much less chatter than usual. When it came time for the foot test, she patted Jim on the shoulder. "Come on, Love. Nobody likes this, but we'd better get through it." Pete's heart sank. She's given up, too.
Jean turned away from the foot of the bed, choosing instead to focus on her husband's face. Pete could see her struggling for emotional control. Jim, on the other hand, seemed resigned. He closed his eyes with a sigh.
Mabel ran the pointed instrument up from the heel to the ball of Jim's left foot. Pete's eyes jumped to Jim's face, despite his determination not to hope. Jim's brow furrowed, but he said nothing. He's trying hard to feel it, despite himself. Pete shook his head. Hope dies hard.
Mabel ran the test on the right foot. Mac and Pete looked miserably at each other. Jean sat on the edge of the bed, no longer even looking at her husband's face.
Mabel opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
"Wait a minute." Jim spoke with a dubious expression on his face.
"What, Love?" Mabel sounded almost hopeful.
"Was that my left foot first, and then my right foot?"
Four gasps followed his question, and then everyone started talking at once.
"You felt it? You felt that?" Pete felt a big foolish grin splitting his face, and he rushed to Jim's side. Jean just stared with her mouth hanging open.
"Well, answer me! Was it?" The irritation in Jim's voice somehow struck everyone as very funny. Laughter filled the room, and Mabel sparkled her best smile at him.
"Yes, Love, that's exactly what it was. Left first, and then right. You felt it."
"Well," Jim responded, "don't get your hopes up too high yet. It wasn't exactly a feeling. It was more like. . . ." he seemed to grope for words, ". . . .like an echo of a feeling, if that makes any sense."
"An echo of a feeling?" Jean shook her head with confusion.
"What the heck is that?" Pete chimed in.
Jim shook his head. "I don't know how to describe it. It's not as if anything like it has ever happened to me before." He twisted his face into a thoughtful pose, until a glance out the window seemed to inspire him.
"It's like this. Pete could come in and tell me that it is warm outside, and then I would know it was warm, but I wouldn't feel it myself. That's kind of what happened when she tested my foot. I couldn't feel anything, at least not consciously, but some part of me knew it was happening and 'told' me about it. Does that make any sense?"
Jean lovingly touched his face. "I may not understand it perfectly, but I'll still take it as a sign. I had given up, but I don't think I was supposed to. And you shouldn't either."
Jim wasn't ready to celebrate yet.
Two Weeks Later
Pete made his way to the entrance of Central Receiving Hospital. The California sun was just rising, and Pete wanted to visit Jim before heading home to sleep. He'd worked the graveyard shift, and it wore on him. But Jim's cast had been removed last evening, and Pete looked forward to seeing him without it.
He wound through the now familiar halls, turning corners he could have found in his sleep. The nurses at the station waved at him and greeted him by name.
"Hey, Pete," one of them called. "Wait 'til you see Jim today!"
Pete stopped. "Why? What's up?"
"Just go on, go on!" The nurse waved him on and flashed a lovely smile at him.
Too bad she's married.
Curiosity piqued, Pete quickened his pace until he reached Jim's door. His quiet knock was immediately answered. "Come in."
Pete swung the door open, and then stopped in his tracks.
Jim grinned broadly at him, not from his bed, but standing, standing next to it.
Pete just stared, his jaw hanging open. He began to feel foolish, but he simply could not believe what he saw. A big, sloppy grin spread across his face.
"Jim! What. . .how. . .but. . . .yesterday you were. . . .how did this happen?"
Jim laughed aloud.
I didn't realize how much I missed that sound.
"Jim, this is incredible. Yesterday we thought it was terrific that you could bend your knees in bed. Now today you're standing?"
"Well, I have a confession to make. I've thought for several days that I'd be able to stand if they'd just take that stupid cast off. But I didn't say anything in case I was wrong. Didn't want to get anyone's hopes up for nothing."
Pete just shook his head, certain his face still looked foolish. "Have you tried walking yet?"
Jim laughed again. "Are you kidding? I walked out to the nurses' station. It was hard work, and I really had to concentrate, but I did it. The nurse was looking down at a chart, and she didn't see who I was until I stopped right in front of her. When she looked up, she screamed and dropped her pen on the floor. She looked like she'd seen a ghost!" Jim's laughter flowed like medicine over Pete's soul.
"Jean must be beside herself. Where is she, anyway?" Pete looked around him, as if somehow he could have missed seeing her.
"She doesn't even know yet. I am dying to surprise her. She's running late this morning, because she had to drive Jimmy all the way to my parents' house. Her parents couldn't take him today."
"What a birthday present this will be for her, huh?"
"Yeah, in fact, I was thinking of keeping this a secret until the day after tomorrow. What do you think?"
Pete couldn't resist a chance to be mischievous. "My lips are sealed. But you'd better go let the nurses in on your little plan."
Two Days Later
Pete rapped on Jim's hospital door a few times. "We're here!" Judy appeared behind him, carrying a specially wrapped box.
"Come on in!" Jean and little Jimmy greeted their guests at the door.
"Jimmy!" Pete exclaimed with surprise. "Who smuggled you in here?"
Jean laughed. "The nurses decided they'd make an exception to the 'no kids' rule, since today is my birthday."
Pete took Jimmy from his mother, and the boy reached eagerly for the package. "Uh, uh, little man, this isn't for you." Pete tickled his godson's tummy, and the little fellow giggled invitingly.
Pete spotted his superior in a chair in the corner of the room. "Hi, Mac." Pete had told Mac that he couldn't miss this birthday celebration, but he hadn't told him why. The sergeant returned his greeting.
"Happy birthday, Jean!" Judy gave her the present with a conspiratorial smile. "You'll never guess."
Jean looked the package over with unabashed curiosity. "I told you not to bring me anything. Honestly!"
"Well," Pete chimed in, "a good friend knows when to say 'no'." Jean looked up at him quickly, then grinned at their little inside joke.
"Jim, these friends of ours don't follow directions very well. You need to do a better job of training your partner." Jean failed to sound the least bit annoyed. Jim and Pete just chuckled.
Jean shook the mysterious box, and then her eyes narrowed suspiciously toward her husband. "Wait a minute. You wouldn't happen to know anything about this, would you?"
Jim put on his most sincere face, the one that guaranteed he was lying through his teeth. "Naw, honey, I had no idea."
Jean smiled at him with affectionate exasperation. She was clearly not fooled. Jim grinned and winked at Pete.
"So, go on, open it!" Jim prompted.
"Oh, honestly, honey. What am I going to do with you? And that goes for you two, too." Jean smiled and shook her finger at her two friends.
Jean carefully opened the paper, and then opened the box it had covered. After removing several sheets of tissue paper, she found another wrapped box. Judy giggled, and Jean gave her the kind of look that she normally gave to Jim when he was being loveably impossible.
The second box yielded a third, and the third a fourth. By now the boxes were quite small. Jean shook the fourth one, and was rewarded with a little rattle. "Aha! I think this is it."
The three co-conspirators shot quick glances at each other, grinning with anticipation. Jean opened the last box and found. . .a key. She looked it over for several long seconds, but its meaning apparently escaped her.
"Would someone mind explaining this to me?"
Pete spoke up. "It's the key to the little fishing cabin I like to rent at the lake. It's a really cozy little place."
"And romantic," Judy added, with a wiggle of her eyebrows. Pete flushed a little.
"We rented it for you two for the whole week. Judy will watch Jimmy, and of course I'll spend as much time with him as I can."
Jean stared at them, completely baffled. "I don't understand. What week did you rent it for? We sure can't go there this week."
"Why not?" Jim asked.
"Jim!" Jean scolded, clearly annoyed at his answer.
Jim smiled. "Here, honey, open my present, and then maybe you'll understand."
He lifted a flat package from his bedside table. Jean took it from his hand, her face even more mystified. Pete couldn't help grinning in anticipation.
Jean tore the wrapping paper and removed a framed document. She squinted at the scrawled handwriting it contained.
"This looks like a doctor's handwriting, it's so bad." Suddenly her head snapped around to look, wide-eyed, at Jim. "What is this all about?" When she got only a widened grin for an answer, she returned to her painstaking deciphering.
"It's a. . .discharge report? A discharge report?" Her eyes demanded an explanation.
Her answer came in a form that left her speechless. Jim swung his legs over the side of the bed, stood up, and walked slowly but steadily toward her. Jean shrieked and dropped the paper onto the floor. Her hands flew up to her mouth, and she made several futile attempts to say something sensible.
Pete chuckled. Sounds about like what I said when I first saw him standing.
Jim came to within hugging distance of his wife, and he reached out for her. Jean took one hand away from her mouth and tentatively touched his arm, as if she were afraid she might knock him over. "Oh. . . oh my. . . oh, Jim." Her hand returned to her mouth, and she burst into tears.
The onlookers cheered and applauded as Jim gathered his wife into his arms. Pete had to brush a tear from his eye, but he wasn't too embarrassed. A quick survey of the room confirmed that there were no dry eyes present. Even the nurses, who had come to the doorway, wept openly.
"Happy birthday, honey." Jim unwrapped one arm from his wife, and gently brushed her tears away. His voice failed him, and he could only whisper, "I hope you like your present." Jean buried her face in his chest, and the room burst into cheers again.
Jean turned her head to look at Pete. "I told you! I told you I'd get to hug him like this again." Pete winked at her, and she closed her eyes, clearly savoring Jim's embrace.
After a few moments Jim lifted her face and kissed her. The onlookers protested in mock embarrassment, and Pete said, "Save it for the cabin!"
"Don't worry, Pete," Jim replied. "I've got plenty more where that came from."
Jim suddenly appeared fatigued. Pete and Mac leapt to his side and escorted him back to his bed. Jim looked relieved to lie down again, but his smile remained as bright as when he first stood. Pete couldn't help noticing the object of his partner's undivided attention.
He's only got eyes for her. It's like the rest of us aren't here. He smiled. Somehow, that seemed right.
Everyone in the room chattered with excitement. Jim received all sorts of manly thumps and feminine hugs. Pete hovered close by, watching for any sign of excess fatigue on Jim's part. Ok, so maybe I am a mother hen. . . .
Jean walked over and sat on the edge of Jim's bed. Jim reached for her hand.
"Did you notice that there's a lot of writing on that discharge report?" Jim's expression had grown more serious.
"Yes, but don't ask me to read it!" Jean smiled.
"Well, we've got a typed version of his orders. I'm still going to have to take it easy for a while. There's going to be lots of stuff I can't do, but that should only be temporary. The doctor told me he expects a full recovery."
Jean's eyes shone. She bent down and whispered something in Jim's ear.
Jim snickered. "If he did, that's one order I wouldn't obey." He and Jean shared a laugh, and Pete rolled his eyes. He had a pretty good idea what that was all about.
Pete decided it was time to break in. He motioned for Judy to join him.
"Hey, guys, what do you think of this? Judy and I were thinking that we might bring Jimmy up to join you on your last day at the cabin, and we could all have a picnic or something. Jimmy's never been to the cabin, and I'd love to teach him how to fish."
"Hey!" Jim protested. "That's my job!"
Jean smiled. "Of course, that would be wonderful."
Judy looked delighted. "Good! Then it's all settled."
"Well," Jim grumped, "just be sure you don't show up before the last day." Jean gave him a play-slap on the shoulder.
"Don't worry," Pete replied in his driest tone. "I won't try to catch you disobeying doctor's orders." Jean crowed with laughter, while Jim just colored a bit.
"What was that all about?" Judy asked.
"Never mind!" Jim and Jean answered in unison.
"Ohhhhh!" replied Judy, wiggling her eyebrows as comprehension dawned. Jim turned a deeper red, and Jean appeared delighted at her husband's embarrassment.
"This is no way to treat a poor hospitalized fellow, now is it?" Jim's attempt at appearing pitiful drew more chuckles.
Pete slapped his partner on the shoulder. "Quit griping, partner. When are you gonna get it through your head?"
Pete gave Jim his broadest grin.
"That life isn't fair!"