My Brother's Keeper (Pt.2)
As it happened, Hanson and Penhall had to kick their heels at the Chapel until after five o'clock the next afternoon. By that time, they had Mr. Van Luy's translation in their hands and a bag full of Ioki's belongings that they thought he might appreciate having at the hospital. The notes told them little, beyond the fact that whoever wrote them had an extensive knowledge of ancient Indo-Chinese mythology and a taste for gothic imagery.
They arrived at the hospital, after the eagerly anticipated phone call from Hoffs, to find Fuller and Blowfish there ahead of them. With their entrance, the entire Jump Street team was crowded into the small room, along with Hoffs' latest floral offering an enormous vase of iris that, according to Penhall's caustic observation, damned near scraped the ceiling.
Hanson took one look at Ioki, sitting in his hospital bed, wearing a tired, wan, slightly confused expression, and broke out in a wide grin. Edging his way past Blowfish and Booker, he reached the bed.
"Too much of a good thing, huh, Iokage?"
Ioki smiled fleetingly at Hanson's sally, but he shook his head and answered, in his voiceless whisper that used an absolute, bare minimum of oxygen, "No. It's nice to see everybody."
"Except that you can't see everybody!" Penhall exclaimed, as he batted aside a stalk of flowers that kept drooping in his face. "Not with the Tropical Rain Forest in here!"
Hoffs threw him an infuriated glare. "Touch that again, Douglas, and I'll..."
"You were saying?" Hanson murmured, bringing a chuckle from Fuller and silence from the combatants. Into the sudden quiet, he added, "Now I understand why the doctor wouldn't let us in here."
Ioki produced a pale imitation of a smile and leaned his head back against the raised mattress to watch his teammates from half-closed eyes.
"Why dontcha lie down?" Penhall suggested. "It'd be a hell of a lot easier to sleep."
"Can't. Something to do with drainage."
Doug made a show of looking around at all the various tubes that festooned his friend. "Drainage? You already got more drains than a locker room."
Ioki shrugged and whispered, "Plumber's orders."
Penhall gave a crack of laughter. "That's a good one. Hey, Iok! They give you a sense of humor, while they were messin' around in there?"
Hanson rolled his eyes in exasperation. Stepping in before his partner could talk Ioki back into his coma, he waved Doug to silence and said, "We won't stay too long. We just stopped by to say 'hi' and bring you some things." He hefted the nylon gym bag from his shoulder and let it drop to the floor beside the bed.
A gleam of interest lightened the exhausted shadows in Harry's eyes. "Pizza?"
"Sorry, no pizza."
Ioki's mouth drooped in disappointment, bringing a chuckle from Hanson. He looked around for a place to sit, but the room was full to capacity, with Blowfish and Hoffs occupying the chairs, Fuller propped against the only clear section of wall, and Booker sitting on the windowsill. That left nowhere but the bed, so he settled onto the edge of the mattress, being very careful not to jar it.
"Maybe I can smuggle in a Rocket Dog tomorrow."
Ioki grimaced. "You trying to kill me?"
The laughter died from Hanson's eyes, and he answered, softly, "No, that job's already been filled."
"I'm sorry...bad joke. I keep forgetting."
"Forgetting that someone stuck a knife in your back?"
"I need to talk to you about that, Iokage. Before Doug does you in with his rapier wit, or Judy smothers you in flowers. You feeling up to some serious conversation?"
"I guess so."
Fuller left his post by the door and approached the foot of the bed. "We need some information, Harry, and we need it yesterday. But we aren't going to lean on you, if you aren't ready for this."
Fuller nodded acceptance, and Hanson asked the overriding question that all of them were dying to have answered.
"Do you remember what happened"
Ioki turned an apologetic look on him and shook his head.
"Nothing at all?"
"How about going home? Do you remember going into your apartment on Monday night?"
"What night was Monday?"
"Back up, Tom," Fuller suggested. "Let's start on solid ground. Harry, do you remember being in the Chapel Monday evening? Monday was the day you and Hoffs filed your paperwork on the Loftgren case. Remember?"
"I think so. It was...late. Dark. We..." He paused to think for a moment, then asked, "Did we have a day off?"
"We put the file on your desk. Then...Judy said she was leaving. I told her I'd...walk with her..." He faded out, a frown creasing his forehead.
After a wordless moment, Fuller prompted, "Good. That's good. What else?"
"I... I don't know. I don't...ngh!"
"You left the Chapel with Hoffs," Fuller supplied, in a soothing tone. Ioki hesitated, then nodded. "You walked her to her car and got into your own car to drive home." That earned another, even less certain nod. "Harry, that's the last time anyone saw you, till Hoffs and Booker found you in the closet on Wednesday. Can you tell me anything - anything - about that missing day and a half?"
Ioki gave a little grunt of frustration, closed his eyes, and let his head fall back against the mattress, leaving his friends to wait in painful silence. Finally, after what felt like hours to the other officers, he lifted his head and turned a dark, defeated gaze on his commander.
"I'm sorry, Captain. I can't remember."
"That's all right." Fuller closed his own eyes for a moment and massaged the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, in an attempt to push back fatigue and the headache that had plagued him all day. "You'll remember, eventually."
"What if I don't?"
Fuller met the young man's troubled gaze grimly. "Then you'll have to get used to not knowing."
"And the case?"
"That's our problem."
"Coach," Hanson asked, quietly, "can I tell him what we think? Maybe it'll jog his memory."
Fuller scowled at the floor for a moment, weighing the possible outcome of such a choice, then nodded.
"Listen, Iokage. I've got a name for you to consider."
Harry's eyes widened. "Loc?" His voice scaled up in alarm, sounding much stronger, but also much more upset, than it had up to now. What little color remained in his face drained away, making his dark, disbelieving eyes stand out like bruises against his ashen skin. Tom felt a sickening sense of regret fill him, but it was too late to go back, now.
"No. Not Loc! He wouldn't..." The protest died on Harry's lips, as his eyes fell on the small, parchment envelope in Tom's hand. Without stopping to think, he reached out to take it, but the movement of his right arm shifted the damaged muscles in his back and forced a gasp of pain from him.
Hanson quickly pulled the note from the envelope and unfolded it. "Here." He held the single piece of paper where Ioki could reach it easily with his left hand.
Ioki took it, but he made only a token effort to read it. His hand dropped to the blanket, turning the letter face down, and his head fell back again. "I know what it says."
"Then you know who signed it. Who signed all of them." Their eyes locked for a moment. It was Harry who broke away first, closing his eyes with an exhausted sigh. "Tell me you didn't know he sent these. Tell me who else could have sent them."
"I don't know." His voice had faded back to its empty whisper, and he spoke without opening his eyes. "Not Loc. Anyone but him."
"Is that why you didn't tell me about the letters?" Fuller asked. "You didn't want to implicate Loc?"
"No. Yes...I don't know. I just don't know, Captain. It had to be them, but...they were all in prison. All the dangerous ones. The rest are just...kids who needed a family. They're harmless."
"I understand that, Harry." Fuller's voice sounded uncharacteristically gentle, but the look on his face told the younger officers that this, more than all the rest, hurt him. "But you neglected to tell me that you were receiving death threats on a regular basis. And you did it to protect a convicted felon."
"That's not how it was."
"Then how was it?"
"I thought...I thought they wanted to scare me. They couldn't reach me, couldn't hurt me, and Loc..." He broke off to swallow the tears in his throat and whispered, "Loc wouldn't let them."
"Harry." The captain waited until Ioki opened his eyes, then he said, in a sad but firm tone, "Loc isn't one of the good guys. He never was."
"He's a thief, an extortionist, and a thug. He tried to kill a man, and he would have succeeded if you hadn't put a bullet in him. He's dangerous."
"I know what Loc is. I'm the one who arrested him."
"I'm glad you remember that, because there's a very good chance that he gave the order to have you killed."
Ioki pressed his lips together to stifle a protest and ducked his head.
"I hope, for your sake, that we're wrong, but all the evidence points to one or more of the Pai-Gow gang, and Loc is the Pai-Gow gang."
Fuller let that sink in. He stood with his hands clenched on the foot board of the bed, staring steadily at Ioki's bent head, while a deadly quiet gripped the room. None of the other officers dared to interrupt the strange battle of wills taking place between the two men, no matter how much they might wish to step in and deflect Fuller's attention from their injured colleague.
Finally, the captain straightened up and shoved his hands into his pockets. All the bite had gone out of his voice, when he said, "I think it's time for us to clear out. It's been a long day, and we all need some rest." His suddenly mild eyes scanned the roomful of faces. "Hoffs, Booker, you two look like yesterday's dirty laundry. Go home."
"What is it, Penhall?"
"If we're off the clock, I'm gonna hang here awhile."
"That okay with you, Harry?"
Ioki smiled faintly at Penhall and said, "Yeah. Thanks, Doug."
As Judy pushed herself out of her chair, she paused to pat Doug on the shoulder. "You've only got a couple of hours left before they throw you out. The doctor says we can't stay past normal visiting hours, now that Harry's moved into the penthouse suite."
"That's cool." Penhall stretched and yawned, then collapsed into the chair Hoffs had just vacated. "I'll catch a quick nap and be ready for the drive home by closin' time."
The others filed out of the room, chuckling at Penhall's antics and murmuring good-byes to Ioki as they left. Doug maintained his deflated posture until the last one had exited, then he jumped to his feet and strode over to shut the door.
"Man, am I glad that's over! Some people never know when to leave." As he returned to his chair, Doug reached into his pocket and produced, with a flourish, a deck of cards. "Now, I can kick your butt at gin rummy."
Harry gave a fair imitation of a chuckle. "Take all my money now. Save us both time."
"You, my friend, don't have any money. I'll play ya for your dinner."
Harry pointed to the clear, plastic bag hanging from the IV rack beside his bed. "That's dinner."
"Hmm." Doug broke out in a wide grin. "You're off the hook, Iok. Guess I'll have to play solitaire and tell you about my date Saturday night."
"You had a date?"
"No heckling." He began laying the cards out on the blanket, pausing every now and then to punctuate his words with a wide gesture. "Close your eyes and picture, if you dare, Corinne."
"Corinne? Nobody's really named Corinne."
"Shh! Where was I? Oh, yeah, Corinne. Corinne has bottled blonde hair, green eyes, and a big mole at the left corner of her mouth with three hairs in it. Five foot, four inches in her Doc Martens, shoulders wider than mine and hands that could crush a cinder block. Gorgeous. Incredible. A vision in spandex and flannel. I'm tellin' ya, Iok, this is a girl to worship!"
He continued in this vein for several minutes, playing his game of solitaire and extemporizing on the delights of an evening with his Vision, till he glanced up and saw that Ioki had fallen asleep. Breaking off his monologue, he turned to the game in earnest, whistling happily between his teeth. As he successfully placed the last card on its stack, he said to himself, in a tone of deep satisfaction, "Yeah, boy, that Corinne is somethin' else! Too bad I haven't met her yet. But some day I will...some day..."
*** *** ***
He moved down the hallway mechanically, as though drawn by an invisible cable that pulled him along the groove in the floor that his feet had made over the years. It all looked so mind-numbingly familiar, so blank and gray and endless. Perhaps it took him longer to cover the distance tonight, perhaps the hallway had stretched a bit in the last twenty-four hours, but that didn't disconcert him. He was aware of it, but he didn't notice it. Just as he was aware, but didn't notice, that his feet seemed heavier than usual, as if he were pushing them forward through shallow water or prying them up from an enormous sheet of flypaper with each step.
After a long, silent time, he reached the midpoint in the hallway, where another blank, gray surface waited for him. This time, it was a door. Perfectly smooth, graphite colored, expressionless. A door. His door. He slipped his key into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open.
Home, sweet home. He stepped through the door into darkness.
The blow came from behind, slamming into his back and spinning him off balance. As he hit the floor, he felt no pain, only a slight breathlessness and a preternatural awareness of bodies lurking in the shadows around him. He was already moving, rolling with the impact and pulling his feet under him again, before his brain had even processed the reality of the attack. Then he tried to breathe.
Agony burned through his chest, forcing a strangled gasp from him. His entire body went numb, paralyzed by shock, while his lungs refused to expand, but momentum and force of habit brought him to his feet anyway. The shadow figures had not moved fast enough to catch him, not expecting him to regain his feet at all, and his finely-tuned instincts reacted where his mind could not. Sensing a window of opportunity, his muscles unlocked and he was instantly on the offensive.
His foot connected with someone's solar plexus. He heard a grunt of pain, followed by a body hitting the floor, but he did not stop long enough to identify the fallen man. His left arm came up to block an intended blow to his head, then he slammed the heel of his right hand into the assailant's face. The man staggered back with a muffled cry.
For the next sixty seconds seconds that seemed to last a lifetime the universe narrowed down to a brutal, blind, life and death battle. Arms and fists and flying feet. An unknown number of mysterious men, fighting for the chance to do murder in the darkness. He didn't even try to count them, much less keep track of how many he had laid out on the floor. He didn't have the energy or concentration to spare for such trivialities. He simply struck anything that moved, with as much savagery as he could command.
But he was losing. He knew it, could feel it in the heaviness of his limbs and the explosive ache in his chest. He would have to take another breath soon, have to brave the crippling pain and the hot blood bubbling up in his throat. In another few seconds, his body would collapse. He took a step back, preparing to meet another attack, and slipped in the blood on the floor. A pair of iron hands caught him before he fell, grabbing his arms and hurling him against the wall.
As his body struck the unforgiving surface, his ribs contracted, forcing the last of the air from his lungs in a voiceless cry. He took one, sobbing breath, felt a gush of blood from his mouth, and began to slide nervelessly down the wall to the floor. Through the thickening fog in his head, he heard the low-voiced curses of his attackers, as they sorted themselves out and picked themselves up off the tile. His own voice came to him, calm and cheerful, saying,
"I guess that's it. Game over."
Then a flesh and blood voice spoke from the darkness immediately above him. A voice thick with hatred. "You better pray there's an angel waitin' for you on the other side, Traitor. 'Cause here, there ain't nothin' but dragons."
A sudden blaze of light cut viciously through his head and chased the shadows to the far corners of the room. He saw, with the unnatural vision of a man straddling the knife blade between two worlds, that he lay on the floor of his own apartment, gazing up at a wall and ceiling grotesquely painted with blood, while a familiar face loomed over him. The face of a child. The face of a killer.
Harry awoke with a start, his eyes snapping open to stare vacantly at the wall of his hospital room. His entire body ached, his lungs were on fire, and his head felt ready to explode, but he hardly registered his physical state. All he could see, all he could think about, was the crystal clear image that had followed him out of his dream and into this room. A face bending over him, its youthful features marked with the angry beginnings of bruises and spatters of blood, its eyes full of burning rage. A face he recognized all too easily.
He closed his eyes and struggled to breathe slowly, evenly, without aggravating the relentless pain in his back. The image stayed with him in the darkness, and others crowded in to join it. As the minutes ticked by, and the macabre scene played out in his head, he found himself automatically sorting the dream illusions from the true memories, reconstructing the actual events of that night, without the colorful embellishments of his subconscious. He remembered it all. And perversely, he hated himself for remembering.
He did not move or open his eyes for a long time, even when the nurse came in for her six am rounds. He didn't want to face her, didn't want to face the implications of his dream, didn't want to face being alive at the moment. All he really wanted was to curl up under the blanket, bury his face in the pillow, turn off his brain all together, and sleep till the end of the decade. Unfortunately, he couldn't do any of those things, which left him with only one acceptable option. If he couldn't ignore it, he'd have to deal with it.
When the nurse finally left, he waited another five minutes, just to be sure she wouldn't come back, then he opened his eyes and levered himself very carefully away from the mattress. He quickly found that he could not use his right arm at all, without igniting the terrible pain in his back, so he resigned himself to doing this the slow way. It took him nearly five minutes to detach the IV tubes, pull out the needles and untangle himself from the blankets. Then he had to stand up.
A breathless, exhausted time later, he found himself standing, somewhat unsteadily, beside the bed. He waited patiently, till his heart stopped pounding in his ears and his legs felt strong enough to carry his weight, then he moved over to the closet. He retrieved the gym bag from the floor of the closet and dragged it back over to the bed, where he dumped the contents out on the blanket.
As he had hoped it would, the bag held clean clothing, shoes, his badge, and his wallet. He opened the wallet, hoping that Penhall had exaggerated about him having no money, but his conscientious friends had emptied it of cash and credit cards, before bringing it to the hospital. An admirable caution, but it left him with no resources.
He tabled the question of how he would get out of this place and turned to the even more difficult problem of how to get himself decently dressed. This proved to be every bit as unpleasant as he had feared, but in the end, he managed everything except his shoes and socks. He couldn't bend over far enough, for long enough, to put on his socks, and the shoes...well, the shoes were plain hopeless.
Stuffing the footwear back into his bag, he zipped it shut, then put the empty wallet and badge in his pockets. He had no other belongings to collect. The detectives had taken everything.
By now, the clock read nearly seven. There would be no one at the Chapel, yet, unless Fuller had pulled an all-nighter. The thought of Captain Fuller made Ioki distinctly uncomfortable. He was about to do something reckless, something that would probably scare the daylights out of his friends and make the captain furious. In fact, the captain was already furious with him, and Ioki could hardly blame him, but he had no choice. This was not something that he could leave to his teammates. They meant well, but they simply didn't understand.
Ruthlessly pushing aside his qualms, he reached for the phone. He didn't like involving anyone else in this escapade, but he couldn't do this without a little help. And he had remembered, while trying to pull his jacket on without ripping his stitches open, that there was one person he could count on to help him, in spite of Fuller's disapproval.
Ioki dialed the number and waited. After about eight rings, the line opened and a gruff voice barked,
"Dennis? It's Harry."
"Hey, pal." Booker sounded more than a little surprised. "What's up?"
"I need a little favor. Can you come over here?"
"Sure, but...uh, you want to tell me what's going on?"
Ioki hesitated for a moment, then answered, "I need a ride."
On the other end of the phone line, Booker sank down slowly on the sofa, a frown pulling his dark brows together. "A ride to where?"
"I'll explain when you get here." Booker said nothing, and when Ioki spoke again, his voice sounded faintly pleading. "Will you come?"
Booker's eyes moved to the clock. "I'm not due to report in for another hour, so...yeah, I'll come." He almost asked what Ioki wanted him to tell Fuller, but then he bit off the words. If he didn't ask, he didn't have to abide by his friend's wishes and could make his own choices with a clear conscience. "I just got out of the shower, so it'll take me a couple minutes to get rolling. Be there in...fifteen minutes. Cool?"
"Cool. I'll meet you in front of the hospital."
"You sure you know what you're doing? I've got a bad feeling about this."
Ioki did not answer him, for a long moment, then he murmured, "See you in fifteen. And thanks, Dennis." Then the line went dead.
Booker slowly cradled the receiver, his eyes fixed on nothing and the frown still darkening his face. After a moment's hesitation, he lifted the receiver again, dialed another number, and spoke briefly to the person on the other end of the line.
"Yeah, I need to leave a message for Captain Adam Fuller, at Jump Street." A pause, then he answered, "I know he isn't in yet. That's why I want to leave a message. Ready? Okay. Tell him Booker called. I'll be late this morning, because...because I'm running an errand with Harry. Got it? Right...right...yeah. Exactly like that. No, it's not an emergency. Just get it over to him this morning, okay? Right. Thanks."
He hung up and looked at the clock again. It was just after seven, which meant that they had an hour before Fuller showed up at the office. The message would have to be sent over from the main switchboard another delay and would probably end up in the drift on Fuller's desk. On any normal day, Fuller wouldn't get that message till mid-morning, giving them at least two hours before he called out the troops to find them. That would have to be good enough.
Satisfied that he had fulfilled his obligations, both to the captain and to Ioki, he stood up and sauntered back into the bathroom to exchange his damp towel for some more substantial clothing.
* * *
Booker screeched to a halt in the hospital loading zone, making no attempt to park properly, and jumped out of the car. He'd taken substantially more than fifteen minutes to get here, figuring that Ioki would not make it this far, anyway, but he had underestimated his colleague. Ioki sat on a wooden bench, just outside the double glass doors, his gym bag beside him. As the car plowed into the curb, he rose slowly and stiffly to his feet, straightening up just in time to greet Booker.
"Hey, man. Sorry I'm late." His gaze swept the usually immaculate Ioki, from his rumpled hair to his bare feet, and he lifted an ironic eyebrow. "You didn't have to dress up on my account."
"You okay?" Ioki nodded and made a move to pick up the bag, but Booker snagged it first. "Aren't you gonna put on your shoes?"
Ioki smiled faintly. "Not till the hole in my back heals a little."
"Sit down. I'll do it for you."
"Are you kidding? I just got up."
The trace of humor in Ioki's voice did not fool Booker. One look at the heavy shadows around his eyes and the uncharacteristic lines in his face gave his friend a pretty fair idea of just how tired and sore he really felt. Booker waged a brief struggle with himself to control his automatic, defensive retreat in the face of his friend's distress. His better self won, and he said, in an uncomplicated, gentle tone,
"Okay. Get in the car."
They crossed the concrete walkway to reach the curb, and Dennis opened the car door. He waited until Ioki had eased himself carefully into the seat, then he crouched in the angle of the door and unzipped the gym bag.
"Gimme your foot."
"Hey, you step on a rusty nail, and Fuller'll take off another inch of my hide. I can't spare any, right now." His voice held a hint of its usual dry cynicism, bringing a genuine smile to Ioki's face.
"Don't worry," Harry assured him, "Fuller will blame it all on me. It'll make his day."
Dennis just shook his head and quickly pulled on Harry's socks and shoes. As he tied the laces on his tennis shoes, he commented, "Fuller is looking for a good excuse to chew you out. You sure you want to give him more ammunition?"
The laughter died from Ioki's face. "I don't have a choice."
Booker stood up and tossed the gym bag into the back seat, avoiding Ioki's gaze. He desperately wanted to ask Harry what he meant by that cryptic statement, but he was still much too new at this friendship thing, and he didn't have the right words yet. Tom Hanson would know what to say. He'd get Harry talking in two seconds, and come up with the perfect piece of advice into the bargain, but Tom wasn't here. As he slammed the car door and walked around to the driver's side, it occurred to Booker that Tom wasn't here, because Harry hadn't called him. He hadn't asked for Tom's help.
Booker sat down behind the wheel and cranked the engine, feeling a little confused and a lot worried, but mostly just glad that his friend trusted him enough to call him. Maybe he would screw this up, like so many of the other important things in his life, but maybe he wouldn't. Maybe this twisted karma would work out in his favor, and he'd do it right this time.
"Where to?" he asked pleasantly, over the rumble of the engine.
Ioki leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes, and murmured an address.
"That's over near The Heights, isn't it?"
They drove in silence. With his newfound optimism, Booker did not feel the need to force Ioki's confidences. Harry would tell him what was going on in his own time, and until then, he needed to conserve his energy. Neither man spoke until Booker turned onto a quiet, tree-lined, residential street and said, "This is it."
Ioki opened his eyes to find them cruising down the street, past modest houses on small lots, with family cars parked in their driveways. He pointed to an empty spot at the curb, and Booker obediently pulled over. Through the windshield, they had a clear view of a house on the opposite side of the street. Unlike the other homes, it looked deserted, with the garden overgrown and a drift of old leaves on the front porch. The house itself seemed in decent condition, except that a piece of plywood covered one broken windowpane, but it had the forlorn, dilapidated feel of a home that is not lived in.
Ioki sat staring at the house, his eyes distant and his face etched with sadness. He did not speak or move for so long, that Booker began to worry. The house gave him a cold, eerie feeling, and Ioki's obvious pain upset him.
"What're we doing here, Harry?" he asked, softly.
"I just needed to see it the way it is now. Empty."
"What is that place?"
Booker's face hardened in understanding. "You remembered." Ioki nodded. "Was it Loc?"
"I don't know." His gaze shifted to Booker's face. "That's what I need to find out."
"In there?" He gestured toward the house.
"At the prison."
"They're not gonna let you see him at this hour."
"I'm the arresting officer, and I'm on an investigation. They'll let me see him." Ioki gave him a slightly pleading look. "Will you take me?"
In answer, Booker pulled away from the curb and headed back out of the residential neighborhood, toward the highway. When they were cruising comfortably down the two-lane road that led east from town, he asked, "Harry, if it wasn't Loc who actually attacked you, who was it?"
"Sang, Loc's lieutenant. He had three or four others with him...three, I think...but he was the one with the knife."
"Is this one of the guys you arrested?"
"Yeah. They all were."
"Is there any chance that Sang decided to take you out on his own, without Loc's approval?"
"I just don't know." Ioki pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to bring his pain-dulled mind into focus. "It's possible, I guess. He hated me from the day we met, and he hated that Loc trusted me. Knowing that I betrayed the brothers...well, nobody'd have to ask him twice."
"And you can't condemn Loc till you know for sure that he did the asking."
It was not a question, and Ioki did not bother to answer. His eyes fell to his own hands, which now lay in his lap, and he unconsciously began to rub the small, round scar in the center of his right palm. After a quiet moment, he spoke without lifting his gaze from that scar.
"Am I completely stupid, Dennis?"
The haunted note in his voice told Booker that this was a serious question, however ridiculous it might sound. "That's not a word I'd pick to describe you."
"Then why do I trust a man like Loc?"
The answer came to Dennis cleanly, unhesitatingly, with none of his usual reserve. "Because you care about him. He's important to you, and you don't want to believe that he tried to kill you. What's so stupid about that?"
"I put him in prison, myself. I shot him and arrested him. I took away his business. I broke up his family. I betrayed him." Ioki's voice had taken on a desperate edge. "Why wouldn't he tell Sang to kill me?"
"Do you want him to be guilty?" Dennis asked, with a flash of insight. "Do you want Loc to punish you, so you can let yourself off the hook?"
Harry didn't seem offended by this suggestion, just saddened. "No. I did what I had to, and I don't torture myself over it. I just need to know if he...if he hates me that much."
"Because he's the closest thing to family I've had since I came here. Everyone I ever loved is dead - has been dead for fifteen years - and I'd stopped believing I'd ever be part of a family again."
"It wasn't a family, Harry. It was a street gang."
"I know, but it was a family, too. And Loc was so much like..." He bit off his words, abruptly, bringing Booker's eyes to him in surprise.
"Like who? Someone from... home?" Ioki nodded. "Someone special?"
"Someone I miss every day of my life."
Booker digested this in silence, then said the only thing he could think of. "I'm sorry."
Ioki's gaze drifted out the window, toward the unrolling landscape and away from the helpless understanding in Booker's face. "It's like I lost him twice."
"Loc isn't dead."
"He might as well be. He's in prison, and I'm the cop who put him there. What does that leave us?"
Booker spoke quietly and firmly, in a tone none of his Jump Street colleagues would have recognized. "Trust. Respect. Friendship. Maybe more, if you both want it that way."
"Maybe," Harry murmured, in a soft, resigned voice, "and maybe he tried to kill me."
* * *
Loc stepped through the door of the visiting room, his eyes darting about curiously, but his handsome face schooled into careful indifference. Then his gaze touched the man standing beside one of the many tables, and a flash of surprised pain shattered his mask for one, terrible instant. In the next heartbeat, his eyes turned to chips of ebony ice in his rigid face, but it was too late. Harry had been staring straight at him, waiting for that moment of recognition, and he had seen Loc betray himself.
Loc's reaction afforded him no satisfaction. He did not want to hurt the other man had never wanted to hurt him and had never quite forgiven himself for the unavoidable suffering he had caused. At their last meeting, more than a year ago, Loc had accused him of betrayal, of capitalizing on his own luck and destroying all the hard work of his brothers and his people. None of that had stung, because Harry had known that Loc was wrong. What had stung was Loc's expressed wish never to see him again.
Harry made no attempt to hide his own reaction from the other man. He followed Loc's progress through the room with dark, hunted eyes set in bruised shadows. As Loc stepped up to the far side of the table, he lifted his chin to meet the taller man's eyes but said nothing, afraid to trust his voice.
Loc just stared at him, wearing a faintly derisive sneer, while the guard lurking by the door shuffled his feet uncomfortably in the charged silence. Finally, his piercing gaze left Harry's face and moved over the rest of him. The sneer twisted into something indefinable, that contained as much pain as gratification.
"You look like shit."
"I've had a bad week."
"You come here to cry on my shoulder, little boy?"
Harry flinched at his mocking use of the once-affectionate nickname. "I came to find out if you did it."
"Did what?" Loc asked, with exaggerated indifference, as he pulled out a chair and folded his lean frame into it.
Harry sat down very carefully, a movement that was not missed by Loc's sharp eyes. It took him a moment to catch his breath, and when he spoke again, his voice had faded to a near whisper. "Sent Sang to kill me."
Loc's eyes widened, and his rigid expression dissolved into shock. "What did you say?"
"Don't play this game with me, Loc, please. I don't have the energy for it. All I want is a straight answer."
The gang leader shook his head in mute protest. If appearances were to be trusted, he was struggling under a rush of violent and conflicting emotions, the strongest of which was amazement.
"Don't tell me it wasn't Sang," Harry added, "because I saw him. He and three other Pai-Gow ambushed me in my apartment."
"What did they do?" Loc asked, in a flat, colorless voice that belied the anger brewing in his eyes.
"It doesn't matter, now. What matters to me is why he did it...and who told him to."
Loc's gaze slid away, and he uttered a short, humorless laugh. "Yeah, I get it. That's just great." He threw back his head to stare at the ceiling, blinking the telltale moisture from his eyes before Harry could see it. "Just great. You're a real piece of work, man. You throw me in this shit hole, forget I exist for a year or so, then show up to ask me if I tried to have you offed."
"I need to know."
"Why? So you can tack another decade on my sentence?"
"So I can sleep at night."
Loc lowered his gaze to fix him with burning, pain-filled eyes. "What do you want from me, Harry?" His voice took on an hysterical edge, as the words poured ever more quickly from his mouth. "You want me to tell you that it's all okay? That even though you took away everything I had, turned my life to dirt, destroyed my family and my future, I don't blame you? That I'll never turn my back on a brother, even a traitor? That I see the error of my ways and know you only did it for me? Is that what you want from me? Forgiveness? Absolution? Well, forget it! Forget it!"
Loc lurched to his feet and leaned across the table, bringing his shaking voice and furious glare closer to the silent object of his rage. "I do blame you, Harry! I hate you for what you did to me! I hate where you put me and what you turned me into! And most of all...I hate you for even thinking that I'd...that I could..."
With a harsh sob of mingled rage and despair, he collapsed nervelessly back into his chair and dropped his eyes to the tabletop.
Harry gazed sadly at his bent head and murmured, "I don't. I never did."
"You're here, aren't you?"
"I needed to hear it from you."
"Because you're not sure."
"Because I have to face my captain and my friends, people who don't have any reason to trust you, and tell them that you had nothing to do with it. If I'm gonna do that, I have to know."
Loc lifted mocking, tear-bright eyes to the other man's face and gave a strained laugh. "But you won't ever know. Will you, Renegade?"
Harry met his gaze squarely, unblinkingly, and said, "If you look me in the face and tell me you didn't do it, then I'll know."
"I didn't." He took a ragged breath, shaking his head slowly and insistently. "I didn't."
An incredible wave of relief washed through Harry, and with it, a bone-deep exhaustion that seemed to age his already drawn face by another ten years. He closed his eyes and murmured breathlessly, "Thank you."
After a long silence, Loc asked, in a soft, bitter voice, "You gonna sleep better, now?"
"I hope so."
"I'm glad someone will. You've got the touch, little boy. No doubt about that." He met Harry's questioning look and quirked a half smile at him. "Every time you get close to me, you break something."
Harry dropped his gaze, awkwardly. Loc's simple, cryptic words brought unwelcome tears to his eyes, and it took all his self-control to force them back. To Harry, the words weren't cryptic at all. They were a clear statement of where Loc stood, and just how deeply this twisted chain of events had wounded him.
Harry knew that Loc's loyalty to Sang and the Pai-Gow brotherhood would not allow him to express any concern or affection for the man who had betrayed them. But he also knew that most of the gang leader's anger was aimed at his lieutenant, not at Harry. Simply by telling him about the attack, Harry had shattered Loc's trust in Sang, depriving him of a valued friend. He couldn't let Harry back into his life, but he could not forgive Sang for hurting him, either.
Finally, Harry could not stand the silence any longer. He pushed his chair back and caught hold of the table to drag himself to his feet. Loc watched him from beneath lowered lashes but offered no comment. Only the subtle tightening of his face betrayed his distress.
When he had gained his feet and caught his breath, Harry stood close to the table, looking down at Loc. "Just one more question," he said. "Do you know where Sang is?"
Loc ground his teeth audibly, but he refused to meet Harry's eyes. "Like I'm gonna tell you?"
"I'll find him, sooner or later. Loc..." He waited till the other man reluctantly lifted his eyes from the table top, then he urged, "Help me. You know he can't walk away from this."
"I can't help you." Loc took a deep, ragged breath and spoke in a hard tone, his eyes riveted to Harry's face and glowing with a fierce, compelling light. "Even if I knew where he was, even if I agreed that he went too far and needed to be stopped, it wouldn't be right. He's my brother, and his house is rotten enough, already. Leave him to the rats, Harry."
Harry nodded acceptance, his face carefully blank. "I understand." He turned away from Loc very slowly, as if it cost him a huge effort to break the connection between them and face the outside world again. He stepped around the table, with his stiff, hesitant gait, then moved past Loc toward the door.
"So long, Renegade," the prisoner called, his voice rough with emotion, but managing to sound soft at the same time.
Harry turned back to look at him, one more time. "Good bye, Loc." Then he limped out the door.
*** *** ***
"Hey, Coach! We got something!" Hanson ripped a piece of paper off the printer and waved it triumphantly at his scowling captain.
"It's about time."
Hanson hurried across the room to where Fuller stood, at the coffee machine. "You're gonna like this. Remember the four Pai-Gow boys you arrested for trashing the newspaper office?"
"What?!" Fuller snatched the paper away from him and scanned the page.
"Sang and Sau Truong, Tri Nguyen, and Andrew Le were all granted parole two weeks ago."
"What about Loc?" Hoffs asked, as she tried to read the printout over Fuller's shoulder.
"Nope. He's still safely tucked away in the State Pen."
"Which doesn't mean he isn't calling the shots," Fuller commented, absently, his eyes still on the paper in his hands. "As I recall, these four weren't exactly the brains of the outfit. Hanson, contact their Parole Officers and get addresses on them. While you're at it, make sure they've been checking in on schedule."
"In two weeks, how many meetings could they miss?"
"You'd be surprised. Just get the information. Hoffs, you take Booker and... Where's Booker?"
Hoffs glanced at Booker's empty desk, then at her watch, as though just registering the other officer's absence. "He's only a half hour late. That's pretty good for Dennis."
"He's prob'ly at the hospital," Penhall said.
Fuller's face relaxed noticeably at that suggestion. "Hoffs, call Ioki and tell him to send Booker over here, pronto. I want you two..."
"Yo, Cap'n!" Blowfish sauntered up to the group, oblivious to the conversation he was interrupting, and hefted a large plastic crate full of miscellaneous envelopes, packages and files onto the nearest railing. "Got the morning delivery for ya. Where d'ya want it?"
"Give me the phone messages, and put the rest in my office."
"Aye, aye, Sir." He handed Fuller a sloppy handful of pink, yellow and green slips, executed a jaunty salute, and lugged the crate away.
Fuller began glancing over the message slips, while he continued with his instructions. "I want Hoffs and Booker to go out to the State prison and have a chat with Loc. See what he knows about our four parolees and their homicidal tendencies. Hanson and Penhall will start chasing down the boys, themselves, and I'll see what I can do about some warrants for... What the hell?!"
Three pairs of eyes blinked at him in shock.
"He's got to be kidding!" Fuller glared at the message, his face suffused with anger. "This is just perfect! I swear, I'm gonna skin the pair of 'em!"
"Uhhh...Captain," Penhall ventured, " is somethin' wrong?"
"Yes, something is damned well wrong! And as usual, Booker's behind it!" Fuller brandished the slip under their noses, as if the smell alone could reveal its foul contents. "He informs me, very politely, that he'll be in late this morning, because he's running an errand with Harry."
"You're kidding me, right?" Hanson snatched the message from his hand and held it so the others could read it with him. "I don't believe this guy!"
An explosion of outrage met his remark, as Fuller and Penhall competed with him to come up with the most scathing denunciation of Booker's character possible. They seemed to take it for granted that Booker had engineered Ioki's exodus from the hospital, for unknown nefarious purposes, and that his motives for informing the captain of it were entirely malicious. None of them could offer a reasonable explanation as to why Booker would do such a thing, but in this mood, none of them needed one. They poured days worth of overwrought emotion and outright fear into their attack, dumping onto Booker's absent shoulders the full burden of horror for this entire, unbearable situation.
Hoffs listened to them vent for a few minutes, without interrupting, until she decided she'd had enough.
"Guys! Hey, guys! Listen up!" They quieted and turned to gaze questioningly at her. "Don't you think you're jumping to conclusions?"
Hanson glared daggers at her. "What'd you expect us to do? Give him a medal?"
"Look, I know Dennis can be an insubordinate jerk sometimes, but he's no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing, when he called in that message."
"Yeah, jerking my chain," Fuller ground out.
"With all due respect, Captain, that's a crock. If he planned to do something you wouldn't like, especially with Harry along for the ride, do you think he'd give you any warning?"
The men all looked a bit startled by this observation.
"What's your take on it?" Fuller asked, reluctantly.
"That's Booker's way of telling you not to worry."
"How thoughtful of him."
She smiled ruefully at his acid tone. "Y'know, Captain, you gotta give Booker credit for trying. I'll bet you a jumbo supreme pizza that Harry's the one who dragged Booker off on this 'errand.' And Booker left you that message so you wouldn't call up the hospital, find him gone, and flip out. He's just trying to do right by everybody."
"He'd do better to stay out of it and let me deal with Harry!" He met Judy's frowning gaze and sighed. No, Booker couldn't stay out of it, any more than Hoffs could, or Hanson, or any one of them that Ioki might have called that morning. One of the nicest things about these young officers was that they stuck together. It made them a pain in the ass, sometimes, but a great team.
"All right." He took a deep breath and let the anger go, with the air. "I'll give Booker the benefit of the doubt, this time. But if he doesn't have a pretty damned good explanation..."
"You won't get any argument from me!"
"I'll give them another half hour to check in. No more. In the meantime, get started on your assignments. Hoffs, see if you c..."
The ringing of the phone cut him off.
* * *
Booker lay on the hood of his car, his head propped against the windshield, his eyes lazily following the movement of the clouds overhead. A cigarette dangled from between his lips, adding its fumes to the white swirls in the sky. The young cop looked as though he were thirty seconds away from falling asleep. Then his eyes strayed to the looming building, and he sat up abruptly. A familiar figure was threading a path between the parked cars, headed his way.
Booker had time to smoke his cigarette down to the filter and grind the butt to dust under his boot heel before Ioki reached him. He met his friend with a worried frown and a measure of suppressed excitement.
"How'd it go?"
"Okay." Ioki leaned tiredly against the car. He looked dreadful limp and exhausted, with new lines in his face and a dazed, vacant look in his eyes.
Booker was almost afraid to ask, but he couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. "What's the story, man? Did he do it?"
A smile of genuine relief swept over Booker's face. "You had me worried, for a minute there!"
"I'm just...tired. I need to sit down and..."
Booker caught his arm, as he swayed dangerously. "Whoa! Don't drop dead on me in the parking lot! Here..."
He opened the door and helped Ioki climb into the seat. Then he ran around to the driver's side. "If we're lucky, we'll make it back to the hospital before Fuller finds out you were ever gone."
"C'mon, Harry! You're not gonna pull this 'I hate hospitals' crap on me, are you?"
Ioki waved him to silence, then said, "Call Fuller."
"Call him. Now." As Dennis picked up the radio handset, he added, in his empty whisper, "I know where Sang is."
* * *
Hanson snatched up the phone, listened for a moment, then passed it to Fuller.
Fuller grunted and put the phone to his ear. "Fuller. What? Yeah, yeah, patch him through!"
"Captain Fuller," the familiar voice said in his ear, "it's Booker."
"Where the hell are you, Dennis? And where's Harry?"
"With me. We're just leaving the prison."
"Look, Captain, I know you're pissed, and I don't blame you. But could you save the chewing-out for later? Right now, we got work to do."
Fuller took a calming breath, pushing anger to the back of his mind, so he could focus on the problem at hand. After a moment, he asked, "What's going down?"
"We're headed for the old Pai-Gow House, and we could use some back-up."
"Harry's midnight visitors are hiding out there."
"Are you sure?"
"We'll be there in ten minutes. And Dennis..."
"Don't you set one foot inside that building till I get there, understand?"
"I mean it. No heroics!"
"I'm not the hero type, Captain."
"It's not you I'm worried about. You lock Ioki in the trunk, if you have to, but keep him out of trouble! We're on our way."
"Aye, aye, Sir!"
*** *** ***
Fuller found both of his runaway officers waiting, just as he had ordered, and the four Pai-Gow boys holed up in the basement, exactly where Ioki said they would be. It settled his nerves, having everything go like clockwork for a change. The only snag was that Ioki refused to stay in the car, while his teammates made the arrest. He promised faithfully to stay out of the way and not hamper their efforts to apprehend the four boys, but when Fuller suggested that he'd do better to leave the operation in healthier hands, he got that thin-lipped, stubborn look on his face that meant trouble.
In the end, the captain opted to cut the argument short and let him come. If he tore his stitches open, or got himself shot in the process, well that was his own, damned fault. So, armed with a spare gun that Booker pulled out of his glove compartment, Ioki followed them into the house and pointed them in the direction of the basement door.
The conspirators were sitting cross-legged on the damp floor, hemmed in by a motley collection of old furniture, boxes and gardening equipment, eating a take-out meal by the light of an electric lantern. The officers took them completely by surprise, and the startled boys had no chance to fight. Fuller watched them being frisked and cuffed with a sense of deep satisfaction. Things were finally starting to fall into place.
Sang did not move, as Hanson snapped the cuffs around his wrists. He stood with his head hunched between his shoulders and a look of sullen acceptance on his face, carefully avoiding the eyes of his fellow gang members. Then footsteps sounded against the concrete floor, and Ioki stepped into the light.
With a cry of rage, Sang threw himself across the intervening space, heedless of the handcuffs and the police officers surrounding him, intent only on reaching the object of his hatred. Hanson was caught off guard by his sudden lunge. He made a snatch at Sang's arm, missed, and dove after him with a muttered curse. Ioki neatly sidestepped the flying bodies and watched as Hanson piled into Sang, slamming them both to the floor at his feet. Sang began to writhe and kick, trying furiously to break free, and only Hanson's full weight on top of him kept him in check.
"I could use some help, here!" Hanson gasped.
Penhall and Fuller materialized to either side of the thrashing pile of arms and legs, Fuller pushing Ioki unceremoniously out of the way in the process. They pinned Sang's shoulders to the concrete and held him, while Hanson scrambled to his feet. Then they hauled Sang up.
The boy fought them mindlessly, shouting and swearing, in both English and Vietnamese, while the cops lifted his feet from the floor to hold him in place. When his eyes found Ioki, he stopped struggling and fixed a killing glare on him.
"You bastard!" he hissed. "How'd you do it? How'd you walk away, this time?"
"Good friends and clean living," Hanson informed him, tersely. "Something you wouldn't know about."
"I got lucky," Harry murmured.
"I'm gonna be there when you're luck finally runs out, and then you're gonna get dead!"
Ioki shook his head. "You missed your chance, man. Should've done it right the first time."
Sang bared his teeth in a grimace of rage and tried, yet again, to tear free of the hands that restrained him. Another stream of invective poured from his mouth.
Penhall tightened his grip on Sang's arm savagely and growled, "We've heard enough outta you." With a nod to Hanson, he started dragging their prisoner toward the stairs.
Ioki watched them go, wearing a thoughtful frown. As Fuller came up behind him, he murmured, "I really screwed up, didn't I?"
"Which of many screw-ups are we talking about?"
"I walked right into it...made it so easy for him. I'm alive because I'm lucky, not because I did anything right."
Fuller gave a tired sigh. "Come on, Harry. Let's get back to the Chapel and sort this out. Then you can get some rest."
Ioki turned hollow, bruised-looking eyes on his captain and said, "There's one thing I need to know."
"Can't it wait?"
"No...please, Captain. When we get back, there'll be arrest reports and questions and...and that bawling out you've been saving for me. I've got it coming, believe me, I know. I'm not trying to duck out of it."
"Good, because you can't. But I have no intention of giving you hell when you look like Death warmed over and can barely stay on your feet. I just want to tie up the loose ends on this bust and get you back to the hospital, where you belong. Anything else can wait for a better time."
"Anything but this."
Concern drew Fuller's brows together in a frown. "What is it?"
Ioki opened his mouth to answer, but seemed to have trouble coming up with the right words. After a few false starts, during which Fuller's frown deepened and his eyes darkened with worry, he finally blurted out, "I did some really stupid stuff, Captain. I don't have any excuses for it, and I can't take any of it back. I'm trying to fix it...with the bust and everything, but..."
"Harry, we've been through this already," Fuller reminded him gently.
"Yeah, I...I guess I'm afraid to ask you this, because I'm really afraid of the answer."
"Just spit it out."
With a visible effort, Ioki straightened his drooping shoulders and lifted his eyes to meet the captain's. "Are we okay? You and I?" he asked, in his soundless whisper.
Fuller hesitated, maintaining his severe expression and concealing his intense relief for one more heartbeat, then his face softened, and his hand dropped to Ioki's shoulder. Something perilously close to a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Yeah, we're okay."
*** *** ***
Penhall lounged back in his chair, propped his heels on the conference table, and stuffed an entire donut into his mouth at once. When he could get oxygen out around the powdered sugar, he asked, "How'd you know where they were, Iok?"
"Something Loc said about rats."
Ioki gave a one-sided smile and repeated, "Rats. And a decaying house. Once I thought about it, it was pretty obvious."
"Man, that Loc is one weird dude. Why would he give up his buddies, especially to you?"
"He didn't. Not exactly..."
Penhall gave a grimace of disgust. "That's even weirder. The guy can't make up his mind who to help and who to hate."
"Actually, it makes a certain kind of twisted sense," Fuller commented, as he strolled up to the group collected around the table. Booker trailed at his heels, and while Fuller seemed relaxed and pleasant for the first time in days, Dennis seemed a good deal shaken. Beneath his usual air of cynical amusement, his face had turned the color of dirty wax. None of his teammates wanted to speculate on what Fuller had said to him to put that cowed, furtive look in his eyes.
Fuller ignored him, focusing all his attention on the serious business of choosing a donut from the pink box on the table. Having found the perfect one to satisfy his tastes, he took a large bite and continued, in a conversational tone, "Loc was trying to balance conflicting loyalties, that's all. He had a responsibility to defend and protect his gang members, even when they did something he didn't like, so he couldn't come out and condemn them or turn them in. On the other hand, he wanted to help Harry catch the guys who tried to kill him."
"He was just trying to do right by everyone," Hoffs pointed out, with deceptive sweetness, earning a quelling stare from the captain.
"What's going to happen to Loc, now?" Ioki asked. "Will the D.A. believe that he's innocent?"
Fuller shrugged. "It's a moot point. There's virtually no way to prove Conspiracy, unless Loc confesses to it, and he did give you the information that led to Sang's arrest. Whatever the D.A. does or doesn't believe, we're not in a position to prosecute him. Sang and his friends will go down for the murder attempt. Loc won't earn any points with the Justice Department, but he won't do any extra time, either." Fuller shot the younger officer a searching look and added, "Were you hoping I'd cut a deal and get his sentence reduced?"
"No. I was just curious." Ioki pushed himself slowly and carefully out of his chair, then straightened his back with infinite caution. By the time he'd achieved verticality, he was grateful for Hoffs' hand under his elbow, steadying him. "Loc's not my problem anymore," he said, a little breathlessly. "I just want to go home and sleep for a week."
"Home?" Hanson, Penhall and Fuller all chorused, at once.
"Yes, home. Can I hitch a ride with you, Dennis?"
Booker opened his mouth to answer, but Fuller cut him off. "Booker's not going anywhere! I want him right here, where I can keep an eye on him! Hanson will drive you...to the hospital."
"I just want to sleep in my own bed. No offense, Captain, but you can't order me to go back there."
"No, I can't." Fuller sighed in resignation. "What the hell. You're not going to listen to anything I say, anyway. Go home and get some rest."
Ioki grinned tiredly. "Thanks."
"Uhhh, wait a minute!" Penhall dropped his feet to the floor and turned panicked eyes on his commander. "You're not gonna give up that easy, are you Cap'n?"
Fuller, in the act of leaving for his office, paused and lifted an ironic eyebrow at him. "What do you have in mind? Heavy sedation? A straitjacket?"
"Yeah! Great! Just make 'im go back to the hospital!" By now, everyone in the room was staring at Penhall in amazement. "You can't go home, Iok. That's a really bad idea!"
Hanson suddenly choked on something and began to cough. When he caught his breath again, he jumped into the fray on his partner's side. "Penhall's right. You definitely shouldn't go home. Alone in that apartment...no one around if you have a relapse..."
"A what?" Ioki asked.
"It's just a bad idea. Bad idea."
"Yes, bad idea." Penhall stepped up close to Hanson, and together, they turned matching looks of disapproval on their teammate.
"Very bad idea."
"We've established that it's a bad idea," Fuller put in, dryly.
Hanson brightened, as a new thought occurred to him. "Stay with someone! A friend. A colleague." He sidled over to Harry and slipped an arm around his shoulders. "Someone who's looking out for your best interests, Iokage. Someone like...Doug. He's got a great sofa!"
"I don't want to sleep on Doug's sofa." Ioki ducked out from under Hanson's arm and turned a hostile glare on him. "Or on yours, or on anybody else's, either. I want to go home."
Hanson winced, and Penhall looked crestfallen.
"You sure about that, Iok?" Doug asked. Ioki just glared at him, causing him to smile weakly and offer, "Then, uhhh, how about a drink first? My treat."
"Have you guys gone completely nuts?" Ioki turned to Hoffs. "Can you give me a ride, Jude?"
"No, no," Hanson hurried to assure him, "we'll do it. We just...well, there's a little problem..."
"Little...very little..." Penhall echoed.
"...and we didn't want you to get upset."
"I'm already upset," Ioki pointed out.
Hanson cleared his throat and found a spot on the far wall to study, as he mumbled, pointlessly, "Yes, well..."
"See, it's just that your apartment is a little bit...errr...messy," Penhall said. "And we know how neat you always like to keep everything, so we...uhhh..."
"We thought we'd clean it up, before you saw it."
Ioki shook his head in disgust and started for the door. "Is that all? I'll clean it up, myself."
"Oh, God, that's a bad idea!" Hanson groaned, as he and Penhall took off after their friend.
By the time they reached Ioki's apartment building, Hanson and Penhall had given up trying to distract or dissuade him. They trooped down the hallway on his heels, preserving a wary silence. If Ioki was remembering the last walk he'd taken down this hallway, or the last time he'd opened that door, he showed no sign of it. He merely looked tired beyond belief and relieved to be nearing home.
Ioki halted at the barricade of yellow tape that criss-crossed his doorway and reached in his pocket for his keys. Hanson laid a hand on his arm to stop him.
Under Ioki's startled eyes, Hanson prodded the door gently, with one finger. It swung smoothly open. Hanson and Penhall held their breath, while Ioki looked through the lines of tape, into the dimly lit room.
Nothing happened. Ioki made no sound, gave no sign that he even saw the incredible disaster that was his home. Penhall, who had turned away rather than watch the explosion, risked a glance over his shoulder to see if some miraculous transformation had taken place in his absence. But no, the piles of junk, upended furniture, and omnipresent smears of fingerprint dust were still illuminated by the ghostly stain of Luminol on the floor and walls. The only change was that the room now smelled of must and stale blood.
A minute ticked by. Hanson met Penhall's troubled gaze, and his eyebrows rose in an expression of bafflement. Penhall began to look around for possible cover. He had the uneasy feeling that he was standing on top of an active volcano, and he began to calculate the number of seconds it would take him to reach the nearest exit.
Suddenly, Ioki moved. He turned so quickly that his friends were taken completely off guard, allowing him to get several paces down the hallway before they picked their chins up off the floor and scrambled after him. He did not break stride, or even turn around, when Hanson called,
"Wait up, Iokage!"
"Where you goin', man? Wait for us!"
"Hey!" They had to run to catch up with him, and Hanson couldn't help wondering how a person who was three-quarters dead could move so fast. "Slow down, Harry! What's the big rush?"
They continued to clamor for his attention, while Ioki strode purposefully toward the elevator, seemingly unaware of their racket. Finally, a frustrated Hanson grabbed his arm and jerked him to a stop. "Harry! Where do you think you're going?"
Harry lifted tragic eyes to his friend's face, and gasped, "Back to the hospital! Now!"
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