He awoke with a start, his heart pounding violently, his mouth dry with fear, and the tatters of his dream still clinging to the edges of his mind. Out of instinct, he reached for the warm body that lay beside him, groping for comfort and reassurance in the haunted darkness. His hand came to rest on her back, and he felt it rising and falling, gently, in the slow rhythm of sleep.
A voiceless sigh escaped his lips. After a lingering moment, he let his hand drop and closed his eyes again. He could still feel his heart thudding in his chest, its labors shaking his entire body. As desperately as he wanted to curl up against her, bury his face in her hair, and draw on her seemingly inexhaustible store of strength to calm the terror that clawed at him, he did not want to wake her.
He huddled deeper beneath the blankets and screwed his eyes shut, as though he could force the dream images from behind his eyelids. Pulling the quilt up to his chin as a kind of shield against the night, he listened to the hypnotic sound of rain drumming against the windows and waited for sleep to claim him again.
The figure beside him stirred. She rolled over and flung an arm across him. In the next instant, she was awake.
"What's wrong?" Her voice sounded thick, warm and heavy with sleep.
"Nothing." Even as he said it, he knew she didn't believe him. "I'm okay, really."
She shifted closer to him, and her arm moved to circle his waist. "Dreams?"
He hesitated, but the familiar clasp of her arm and the caressing note in her voice were too much for him to withstand. He traced his fingers lightly up her arm to find her cheek, where his hand settled as if it had been formed there. "Yeah. Some old friends."
"Thought so." She put her head on his shoulder and curled close to him. When she spoke again, he could feel her lips moving and her breath warm on his skin. "I'm sorry. I wish I could keep them away."
The muted sounds of the storm outside filled the room on the heels of her words. He lay listening to her breathing, to the rain, to his own slowing heartbeat to anything but the memories that spilled, unbidden, from the darkest recesses of his mind. It had taken him so long to shut them all safely away, and it frightened him to learn how quickly and with how little encouragement they could break free. One phone call. That's all it took to destroy his defenses and set the demons loose in his head again. One innocent, shattering phone call.
Flashback: Spring, 1990
The bell rang, announcing the end of classes for the day and sending students swarming for the door. In the middle of the cheerful bedlam, one young man sat quietly at his desk, his eyes fixed on nothing and his face strangely thoughtful. To judge by his appearance, he ought to have been breaking into cars, beating up freshmen or snorting coke in the bathroom, not sitting in such abstracted silence, as if reluctant to leave that den of torture known as English class.
From his vantage point in the doorway, Tom Hanson was struck with the absurdity of the picture he presented. Something about the death's head earring and combat fatigues didn't fit with that wistful look in his eyes. Tom paused and carefully wiped the smile from his face before he tapped a knuckle on the door. The dark head came up sharply.
"Need a ride, Harry?"
Tom jerked a thumb toward the nearly empty hallway and urged, "C'mon, then. Let's blow this joint."
Ioki got to his feet and traipsed out of the room on Hanson's heels. He didn't seem inclined for conversation, and since brooding menace suited his cover better than friendly chatter, Hanson didn't press him. They reached the car without breaking the silence. Tom waited until they had pulled out of the parking lot, away from the eyes and ears of the Hamilton High student body, then turned to his colleague and asked,
"So, did you flunk a test, or lose your best coke spoon?"
Harry glanced over at him, startled out of his private musings. "Hm? What did you say?"
"Nothing. Dumb joke. You okay, man?"
"Yeah." Harry's gaze shifted to stare out the window at the passing scenery, his face going blank and distant again.
Tom let the silence stand for several minutes, while he debated with himself about whether or not he should stick his nose into something that was obviously bothering his friend a great deal. Concern won out over caution, and he shot a measuring look at Harry from the corners of his eyes. "Looks like you got it bad," he commented, dryly.
Harry gave no sign that he heard.
"Trust me, Iokage, I know all the symptoms. I've been there." He waited for some response, and when he got none, asked, "Who is it?"
"Would that no one have copper hair and a taste for Jane Austen?" Harry gave him a blank look. "She's a beautiful woman. A guy would have to be blind and brain dead not to notice. But take it from someone who's been down that road, man, you don't want to let your imagination take you places you can't go. You'll only drive yourself crazy."
"Harry." He waited until Ioki reluctantly turned to face him, then continued, "You be careful. I'm not joking."
Harry sighed, and his features relaxed into an expression of wistful melancholy. "I know, but you don't have to worry. I haven't done anything stupid."
"That's not what I'm worried about. I told you, I've been there, so I know how you feel."
"Yeah," Tom sighed heavily, "it does. Look, Harry, I know you too well to think you'd blow our cover over some lady no matter how incredible but I also know how bad the temptation is to tell her the truth. Just remember what's at stake here. If we blow this case, we could lose a lot more than a collar."
"Between Fuller, Briody and the suits at City Hall, we'd be burned at the stake."
Hanson couldn't quite suppress a grin. "You've been doing your homework, haven't you?"
An answering twinkle crept into Harry's eyes, and he smiled in spite of himself. "I've been motivated."
By the time Hanson pulled into his parking space behind the Chapel, Ioki had regained his usual good humor. The two men climbed the stairs to the exterior door, exchanging off-color jokes and the latest bits of gossip about their co-workers. They were both laughing when they stepped into the Chapel's main room, but before they could even reach their desks, Captain Fuller stuck his head out of his office and barked,
"Hanson! Ioki! In here!"
"Uh-oh..." Harry dropped his jacket on his chair and headed for the Captain's office, tossing a quick smile at his partner as he passed her desk. "Hi, Jude. Bye, Jude."
Hoffs chuckled at his retreating back. "I'll notify your next of kin!"
He arrived at the office door just in time to step inside, shoulder to shoulder, with Hanson. Both young officers looked more than a little nervous at this summons. They had been undercover at Hamilton for more than three weeks and had made no significant progress on their case. In fact, they had hit a brick wall. They could not even glean any information about their only lead a boy named Jeffrey LaRouche, who had disappeared just days after the murder. With everyone from the School Superintendent to the Mayor putting pressure on Fuller to show some results, and Fuller leaning on them, they found themselves in a very uncomfortable position, indeed.
Fuller waved them in. "Sit down."
They obeyed, though neither of them could relax under the captain's frowning gaze.
"Fill me in, gentlemen."
Hanson shrugged uncomfortably. "We're still where we were last week. The students aren't talking. The teachers are scared. No one can believe it happened or figure out why."
"A teacher is murdered on campus, and the students aren't talking about it?"
"No. They never bring it up, themselves, and if we mention it, they shut down. It's weird."
"It's beyond weird, Hanson. It's unnatural. You can convince one teenager to keep quiet about something like this, maybe even a small group of them, but a whole school? I don't buy it. What about you, Harry? Any luck?"
"None. It's just like Hanson says, Captain." He smiled slightly and added, "Even when they're stoned, they don't talk."
"Do you get any sense of how they feel about this Mr. Ansel? Aside from the murder?"
Hanson answered, promptly, "He was the most popular teacher in the school. Nobody has a single bad thing to say about him."
Ioki's dubious expression drew Fuller's notice. "You don't agree with that assessment?"
"Go on," Fuller prompted.
"It's hard to explain. I think Tom's right about the teachers they all thought he was great. But the students are different. They...they don't act like they're sorry he's gone."
"Can you be more specific?"
"Not really. It's more of a feeling than anything else. They get real quiet if you mention his name, but they don't look sorry. More like...angry."
"Angry about what?"
Ioki shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
"All right. Here's the deal, guys. I'm pulling you out and turning the case back over to Metro Homicide."
"But Coach, we got this case in the first place, because they screwed it up!" Hanson protested.
"We got this case, because the Mayor wanted us to have it. 'Wanted' being the operative word, here. Now he wants us out."
"Are we in trouble with the Mayor?" Harry asked.
"No. I'm in trouble with the Mayor."
"And we're in trouble with you."
Fuller sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I was sure, for once, that the Mayor's grandstanding would work in our favor. I was sure we could crack this thing. Now, I have to swallow my pride and hand it back to the big boys at Metro, while they have a good laugh at our expense."
Ioki looked dejected. "We blew it."
Fuller shook his head. "If you ever do blow a case, be sure you'll hear from me about it. But this one isn't your fault. It just didn't work out. Now, get out of here and get started on your paperwork."
Penhall met the two officers as they came out the door and pounced eagerly on his partner. "So? What's the deal? Is the Mayor gonna have you for lunch, or what?"
"Thanks for your concern, Doug."
Ignoring the sarcasm in Hanson's voice, Penhall draped an arm around his shoulders and followed him back to his desk, still chattering. "Fuller was downtown all morning, and he did not look happy when he came back! My cop's instincts tell me that you two had better pull a murderer outta your hats pretty quick, or you're gonna spend the next six months writing traffic tickets."
"We're off the case," Tom snapped. "Happy now?"
Doug looked momentarily taken aback, then burst into an enthusiastic grin. "It's about time! I'm sick of workin' alone!"
"If you hadn't gone on vacation right before Mr. Ansel got his head bashed in, you'd have had the pleasure of hanging around Hamilton High for three weeks, bored out of your mind and accomplishing nothing."
"Hey, Tommy! Look who you're talkin' to! Would we have been bored? You and me? Tom and Doug? Batman and Robin? Rocky and Bullwinkle?"
"Bugs and Daffy?" Ioki suggested.
"George and Gracie?" Hoffs chimed in.
"Very funny, Judith," Penhall groused. "All I can say is, I'm sure glad you guys are back. It's been a real drag around here, with no one to talk to but Madam Detective!"
Hoffs stuck her tongue out at him.
Ignoring them both, Hanson smiled blandly at Ioki and asked, "Want to get something to eat? I'm buying."
"You're buying?" Ioki mirrored Hanson's guileless expression. "Let's go."
"How about Rocket Dog?" Tom snagged his jacket and fell into step beside Harry, as both men headed for the door.
"How about something we can digest?"
"Okay, but I'm driving."
"No way, man. I'm driving."
"You drive like a maniac."
"No, you drive like a maniac."
"No, you drive like a maniac."
Penhall watched them disappear down the stairs, their circular argument growing fainter as they stepped outside, then he turned to Hoffs. "Did we just get the brush-off?"
She grinned and draped a companionable arm around his shoulders. "You better believe it, Gracie."
*** *** ***
Ioki sat on the hood of his car, his heels propped on the bumper and his elbows on his knees, watching the front of the building with curiously intent eyes. The flood of bodies from the big double doors had slackened, till only a few groups of students still loitered around the front of the school or lounged on the steps. More than one of the kids that drifted past his car cast a surreptitious look in his direction. In his three-week tenure at the school, he had achieved a notoriety that made him recognizable to much of the student body even without his urban combat gear and aura of menace.
He had been sitting, unmoving, for more than an hour when he saw a tall, slim figure step through the door. She paused on the top step to tuck her briefcase under one arm, then she continued on her way toward the parking lot. His eyes followed her graceful figure, an expression close to fear on his face. As she drew level with his car, only a few paces away, he slid off the hood and rose to his feet.
The woman hesitated. Her clear, gray eyes looked at him without recognition for a moment, then widened slightly in surprise. "Harry?"
She changed trajectories and strode over to him. Standing just a few feet away, she looked much younger than her confident bearing and conservative clothing suggested. She had regular, classic features that might have been cold or vapid, if not for the lively intelligence in her eyes and the stubborn set to her chin. She wore her waist-length hair in a neat, fat braid that controlled its unruly waves, but nothing could dampen its color into anything less than outrageous. It flamed copper and gold in the sunlight.
"This is a surprise." She smiled a welcome, but her gaze was cautious. "I thought Friday was your last day."
"What brings you back?"
Harry's eyes slid uncomfortably away from hers, and his mouth hardened with tension. When he spoke, his voice came out sounding like someone else. "I wanted to talk to you."
Miss Coleridge frowned in sudden concern. His odd, nervous manner and strangely civilized clothing warned her that she was not dealing with the sullen delinquent who had inhabited her classroom for the last month. "Harry, are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No." A slight flush crept into his cheeks. "It's nothing like that."
"You wanted to turn in your last essay, maybe?" she teased, trying to dispel his nervousness.
That got a fleeting smile. "I did write it. I liked "Tale of Two Cities"."
"Then you're the first High School student in history who did."
"I...I'm not a High School student." He opened his ID and stared at it for a moment, then turned it around and held it up where she could see the badge clearly. "I'm not Harry Park," he said, softly.
"You're a police officer?" The sudden chill in her voice startled him and brought his eyes up in alarm. "What were you doing in my English class, Officer?"
"My job." His courage failed him in the face of her cold, rigid expression, and his eyes dropped again. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you the truth, but that's part of being an undercover cop."
"Why are you telling me, now?"
"Because I'm not on the job anymore."
That was obviously not the answer she had expected. Her eyes flew from the badge to his face, an arrested look in their gray depths, and a frown of concentration creased her forehead. "Did you solve your case, or catch your crook, or...whatever you were here to do?"
He flipped the ID closed and pocketed it, mostly as an excuse to continue avoiding her direct gaze. "I've done my part. I don't have to be Harry Park anymore, and I don't..." He broke off and finally lifted his eyes to hers. "I don't have to lie to you anymore."
She studied him intently for a long, silent minute, as though trying to find something elusive, yet essential, in his face that would reassure her. He had to lift his chin slightly to meet her gaze, but this did not seem to discompose him. He just waited, calmly, while a series of emotions flitted across her features. Finally, the warmth stole back into her eyes, her face visibly relaxed, and a hesitant smile lifted the corners of her mouth.
"You're awfully young for a police officer, aren't you?"
"I'm a lot older than I look. It's an Asian thing."
Her eyes began to twinkle again. "Well, you're obviously old enough to drive, and you're probably old enough to vote..."
"A gentleman never tells his age. Wait. That's not right..."
She laughed, and the bright, delighted sound drove away the last of their reserve. Harry's shy smile lit up his face in the first natural gesture he'd managed since laying eyes on her. Her own smile widened in response, and her eyes softened.
"I don't know your name."
She lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "I thought Harry was a drug dealer with a really bad fashion sense."
"Only when he has to be." Ioki fished his wallet out of his pocket and handed her his driver's license. "You tell anybody how old I am and I'll deny it."
"Hmm. Positively ancient." She chuckled again. "I have to admit, I wondered why a coked-out delinquent without two functioning brain cells was so good at English Lit. You've done this before."
"The first time I went through High School, I could barely speak English, much less wade through "Tale of Two Cities"."
"What's your native language?" She glanced at the license again. "Harry Truman Ioki. I guess that would make you Japanese and your parents a little twisted."
He smiled wryly and shook his head. "I can't blame my parents."
"You picked it yourself?"
"Sort of. It's a long story."
"So, let's go get a cup of coffee, and you can tell me all about it."
"On one condition."
"You tell me your first name."
"Helen." She held out her hand to shake his, wearing an embarrassed smile. "Helen Coleridge. You were named after a man who dropped an atomic bomb; I was named after a woman who launched a decade of war. Do you detect a pattern, here?"
"Of course," she answered promptly. "We're destined to destroy the world."
*** *** ***
"Hey, Iok! Where're those reports, man?" Penhall tilted his chair back on two legs to get a better view of his colleague's desk, and bellowed, "Fuller wants 'em today!"
Ioki smiled absently at him and whistled through his teeth, as he strolled over to Penhall and dropped a sheaf of papers in his lap. "Just need your signature."
"Huh? You got 'em done already?"
Harry looked at him in mild surprise. "You said Fuller wanted them."
"Yeah, but... I thought you were gonna argue with me about it, first."
"Next time, you type and I'll sign." He patted Doug on the shoulder, then deftly caught the chair as the other man over-balanced and began to fall. "And try not to break your neck before lunch."
Penhall watched him meander back to his own desk, a perplexed frown furrowing his brow. "What'd you have for breakfast? A bottle of Valium?"
"Doug, when are we due downtown for the deposition?" Hanson asked.
Penhall glanced over at his partner, still frowning, and demanded, "What's with Harry?"
Hanson's gaze remained carefully neutral as he turned to look at Ioki. "He's in a good mood."
Doug shuddered theatrically. "Make 'im stop! It's giving me the creeps!"
"We could invite him to lunch with us. Watching you eat would depress anyone."
"Oh, you're a riot. Har-ry!" Ioki looked up at Doug's full-throated summons. "Get over here!"
"You roared, Mr. Penhall, sir?"
"You wanna do lunch with us? We've gotta be downtown for a deposition this afternoon, so we figured we'd go to one of those upscale places near the courthouse."
Ioki smiled sweetly at him and asked, "Will they let you in a place like that?"
"Everybody's a comedian, today! Just answer the question."
"Thanks, but I've got plans." Harry favored him with another serene smile and returned to his desk, still whistling softly.
"Oh, man," Doug groaned, "he gets wore every day. I can't take it anymore!"
Hoffs sauntered over to his desk and perched on the edge, a teasing grin on her face. "Don't worry, Doug. This stage never lasts for long."
"Huh? Stage of what?"
"Oops, I forgot! It's been so long since you had a date, you don't even know what it looks like anymore." Leaning close to the scowling Penhall, she purred, "Harry's in lo-o-o-ove."
Doug shot her a disgruntled look, managing to keep the curious gleam out of his eyes so as not to give her the satisfaction of rising to the bait. "Well, I hope he snaps out of it soon."
"Me, too," Tom muttered under his breath, too low for the others to hear.
*** *** ***
Hanson trudged slowly down the stairs toward the alley door, a thoughtful frown pulling at the corners of his mouth and his gaze focused inward, on his own thoughts. His head was full of the surprising news that Jeffrey LaRouche, the missing Hamilton High student, had turned up in Portland with his parents. The Portland PD had interviewed him and sent a copy of the transcript to Metro Homicide. Jeffrey's account of his activities over the last two months answered all their questions very neatly. Homicide considered the issue closed, but something about the whole sequence of events felt wrong to Tom. He couldn't pinpoint the source of his unease, but the more he thought about Jeffrey's story, the stronger it got.
He needed peace and privacy to think, to mull over his reaction to Jeffrey's interview, and to examine the lurking sense of disquiet that had dogged him for the last few weeks. Luckily, he had managed to ditch Penhall and get away for a solitary lunch. He had a whole, precious hour to himself, if he could only make good his escape before someone else spotted him.
As he pushed through the door, onto the outside landing, his eyes fell on two figures standing in the parking lot below, and he came to an abrupt halt. A surge of curiosity filled him, overriding his impulse to retreat before they spotted him. The sight of Harry Ioki in close conversation with a beautiful woman was unexpected and interesting enough to make even Hanson forget his manners.
He recognized the woman by her flaming copper hair, but she was not dressed in the conservative style of a High School teacher today. In her softer, more casual clothing, with her hair loose down her back and her whole posture relaxed and warm, she looked like a different person. A very lovely and very dangerous person. She leaned comfortably against the old Buick, tucked into the curve of Harry's arm, her head bent so close to his that his dark hair brushed her face when he moved. A melting smile lifted the corners of her mouth that radiated a magnetic power Hanson could feel even from his distant vantagepoint.
Harry said something that brought a delighted laugh from her, and he lifted one hand to touch her face in a gentle, possessive gesture. Tom glanced quickly away, his cheeks hot with embarrassment. He felt exactly the way he had when, at the age of seven, he'd walked into his parents' bedroom unannounced and discovered that some adult activities were not meant for a child's eyes. He knew his reaction was irrational - the little scene below could only be described as chaste - but he had suddenly been reminded that he was spying on an intensely personal exchange between two people who would not thank him for intruding.
He turned to duck back through the doorway, but his haste to escape unnoticed made his movements strangely clumsy. He misjudged the direction of his stride, kicking the door painfully with one booted foot. The blow jarred the knob loose from his hand, and before he could recover, the door slammed shut.
Two heads snapped up at the sound, and two pairs of eyes fixed on the blushing Hanson. He made a quick recovery, turning to saunter down the stairs as if he'd only just come through the door, a look of studied innocence on his face. Miss Coleridge smiled up at him in recognition, while Harry watched him with guarded, neutral eyes.
As he stepped onto the pavement, the teacher held out her hand and said, "If it isn't Tommy Larson! Another one who cleans up nicely." Her eyes twinkled at him, bringing a rueful smile to his face.
Tom shook her hand, as Harry murmured an introduction. "Tom Hanson, Helen Coleridge."
"Nice to meet you. Properly, I mean." Before either Ioki or Miss Coleridge could speak, he sidled toward his car, smiling awkwardly and saying, "'Scuse me, but I've gotta run. I'm sure I'll see you around, Miss... uh... Helen."
Helen gave some polite response that Tom completely lost in his hurry to escape. He waved a wordless farewell to Ioki, then jumped into his car and pulled out of the parking lot. Not once did he allow his eyes to stray toward the rearview mirror, where he knew he would see his friend and That Woman standing together, looking like...like they belonged that way.
Harry Ioki and Helen Coleridge. Tom shivered with apprehension and gripped the steering wheel harder, to still the tremor in his hands. He'd known this was coming all along, though he'd done his damnedest to avoid it. Then trouble, with her laughing eyes and velvet voice, had walked right up to him and shaken his hand, turning his nebulous, unvoiced fears to a cold lump of certainty in the pit of his stomach.
Harry had blown his cover. That much was obvious. True, their participation in the case had ended, but the murder was still unsolved, the faculty and student body of Hamilton High still under suspicion, and the case still very much open. One careless word from Helen to the wrong person could put Ioki's badge and possibly Hanson's with it in the trash. Worse yet, she could be involved in the murder, herself. Ioki had staked his future on his trust in a woman he barely knew.
The knot of fear in Hanson's stomach tightened. After his encounter in the parking lot, he faced a difficult choice of his own. The only clear way to protect himself was to tell Fuller everything he knew about Ioki and Miss Coleridge, but he didn't think he had the courage to do it. Fuller would never forgive Harry, and Harry would never forgive him. He'd lose one of his best friends, and for what?
Hanson's face hardened in frustration. He didn't want to choose between damaging a friend's career and risking his own even if that friend had forced the choice on him. After all, he'd been on the other side of this equation, often enough. How many times had he pressured his colleagues into shutting their mouths and looking the other way, while he went off on a personal crusade? How many times had he left one of them holding the bag for his bad decisions? What right did he have to judge Harry's actions, considering his own track record?
No, he could not go to Fuller, unless he knew it was absolutely necessary. He owed it to Harry, and to himself, to give his friend the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Helen Coleridge had not earned his trust, but Harry Ioki certainly had. So, what choice did he really have?
He was still pondering that question an hour later, when he climbed the steps to the Chapel and found Harry sitting at his desk, reading. He moved over to the desk and perched on the corner, with a fair assumption of his usual ease. Ioki glanced up at him, that guarded look in his eyes, and waited for him to speak.
"Is that the LaRouche file?"
"What do you think?"
Harry flicked at the top piece of paper with one finger and pulled a grimace. "The kid's got an answer for everything."
Tom smiled fleetingly. "Doesn't sit right with you, either, huh?"
"I wish we knew more about this kid. Do you get any feel for what he's like, when you read that thing?"
"No. That's part of the problem. How do we know that's him talking, when we don't know what he's supposed to sound like?"
"Maybe Helen knows." The question came out, almost before Tom realized what he was saying. When Harry didn't answer, Tom shot him a slightly challenging look and urged, "You could ask her."
The hard finality in his voice left no room for discussion, but having broached the subject of the problematic Miss Coleridge, Tom had no intention of letting it drop. "Why not? It's a simple enough question."
"Stay out of it. Please."
"I can't." He rose to his feet and leaned over the desk, bracing both hands on its top and bringing his urgent whisper closer to his friend. "You brought me into it when you introduced me to your girlfriend in the parking lot."
Harry lifted wide, worried eyes to his face. "What was I supposed to do? She recognized you from school."
"You were supposed to stay away from her."
"Why? Because you don't approve?"
"You blew our covers, Harry!"
"Do you also know what this could mean to our investigation? To our careers?"
Harry's features hardened. When he spoke, his voice was sharp and cold. "I'm not stupid, Hanson. I know what's at stake."
"Then why in hell did you do it?"
"I didn't have a choice." After a tense, silent moment, the rigidity drained from Harry's face, letting his confusion and doubt show. "I'm sorry you got caught in the middle of this," he murmured softly. "You do what you have to. I'll understand. But I'm not walking away from her, Tom, even if you tell Fuller. I can't."
Tom just stared at him for a long moment, absorbing all the implications of his words. Finally, he heaved a sigh and settled back onto the edge of the desk. "I'm not gonna tell Fuller." His shoulders slumped in defeat. "This is your call. Your decision." After a moment's hesitation, he added, "I wish I could say I was happy for you, Iokage."
"I wish you could, too." Harry gazed sadly down at the papers on his desk, without seeing the printed words, and his voice dropped to a barely audible murmur. "I care what you think, and I hate... I hate knowing you're angry."
"I'm not angry. I'm scared."
"Of what she can do to us, if she isn't the person you think she is."
Harry lifted his eyes to meet Hanson's again and said, firmly, " She can't hurt the investigation. She doesn't know anything about it."
Tom's eyebrows rose in surprise. "What? You mean..."
"I mean, we've never discussed it."
"She doesn't even know why we were undercover?"
"I didn't tell her. If she's guessed, she hasn't said anything."
"That's very weird!"
Harry shook his head. "It's survival. You stay out of the mine field, you stay alive longer."
"Good Luck! How long do you think you can keep out of that particular mine field?"
"As long as it takes to solve the case. Then Helen won't be part of an investigation, our careers will be safe, and it won't be anybody's business but mine who I spend my time with." He quirked a half smile at his friend and added, "Maybe then you can be happy for me."
"I hope so, pal."
*** *** ***
Ioki drove silently, his eyes on the road but his mind obviously somewhere else entirely. He swung the cumbersome Buick around a corner and sped off, down a side street, without noticing what he was doing. The woman in the passenger seat glanced over at him in surprise.
"Where are we going?"
"Not on this street, we're not."
"Huh?" For the first time since pulling away from Helen's apartment building, Harry seemed to come into focus. He shot her a quick, frowning glance, then let his gaze slide over the buildings that lined the street. "What are you talking about?"
"This isn't the way to the restaurant. Where's your brain today?"
Their location finally registered on him, and he smiled sheepishly. "Not on my driving, I guess. I headed for home without thinking. You want to eat at my place?"
"Have you got any food?"
"I didn't think so. Turn around, and let's try this again."
When they were once more moving in the right direction, Helen fixed half-laughing, half-troubled eyes on her companion and asked again, "Where is your brain today?"
"Anything you can talk about?"
His lips thinned in a familiar expression of frustration. "We finally tracked down a big lead, and it...it turned into a dead end."
"Not bad; just useless." He hesitated for a moment, and Helen thought he was about to change the subject. Then he added, "It was our only lead. Our only chance to break this case open."
"You'll find another way."
"I don't think so."
"You're really upset about this."
He nodded absently, his eyes going distant again. He drove in silence for a minute or two, then asked, "When does school get out?"
"Less than a week. I was planning to teach Summer School this year, but... Harry!" The car swerved sharply toward the curb, and he slammed on the brakes. "What's wrong?!"
Ioki brought them to an abrupt stop, cut the engine, and twisted around in his seat to face her. His look of grim determination startled her, and an irrational jolt of alarm set her pulse pounding.
"I have to ask you something." His voice sounded strange, as if he had to force the words out, and fear lurked in his eyes. "I told Tom I wouldn't, that I didn't want you involved, but we're running out of time. We don't have anywhere else to go."
"What is it?"
"What do you know about Jeffrey LaRouche?"
"Jeffrey?" As she breathed that name, a cold thread of horror seemed to weave itself into her voice. She knotted her hands together in her lap to conceal their sudden trembling, and she turned to gaze blindly out the windshield. In the space of a heartbeat, a solid wall slammed down between the two of them. Harry heard it fall and knew, too late, that he had just made a hideous mistake.
"You know who he is, don't you?"
"Yes. A sophomore at Hamilton." Her words came from very far away.
"He left school, a few days after Mr. Ansel was murdered, and disappeared."
"We found him."
She opened her mouth, closed it again without speaking, then finally choked out, "Is he all right?"
"He's in Portland, with his parents, on some kind of business trip. They were going to go without him, but they were afraid to leave him at home, after the murder, so they brought him along."
"There was some wild talk at school...when he was gone for two months with no word..."
"He says, they've been all over the Pacific Northwest, not staying anywhere for more than a day or two. They didn't know the police were looking for them."
"I see. Is he coming back?"
"Not till the fall. His parents think he needs more time to get over what happened to Mr. Ansel."
Helen shifted her gaze to her tightly clenched hands and asked, "Is that the news you got today?"
"You thought finding Jeffrey would solve Greg Ansel's murder."
"We thought it would help, at least."
"And that's..." She broke off and swallowed audibly. "That's why you were at Hamilton. To find Greg's killer."
Harry didn't answer, just watched her with troubled eyes.
She swallowed again, and this time, he could hear the tears in her voice when she spoke. "I should have known."
"Didn't you?" he asked, softly.
"Maybe...maybe somewhere, deep down where I didn't have to look at it, I guessed." After a long, quiet moment, Helen lifted her gaze to Harry's face and said, "You told me that you weren't on the job anymore."
"I'm not. We were pulled off the case. But the investigation is still open, and the murderer is out there. I can't forget that, just because the Mayor changed his mind about us handling the case."
"But it's not your job to catch this person."
"It's every cop's job."
"Your career won't suffer, if you don't solve this murder? It isn't your personal responsibility anymore?"
Harry hesitated, frowning, then admitted, "N-no..."
She sighed and seemed to wilt into the seat. The hand she lifted to rub her eyes shook visibly. "I'll tell you what I know about Jeffrey. It isn't much, but I'll tell you. Then please, please Harry, let it drop!"
"If I can."
"I don't want any part of this investigation. In fact, I'd like to forget how we met, all together. We could pretend that our friends fixed us up on a blind date, or that we used to bump into each other at the Laundromat every Tuesday night. Anything! Just not... murder! Can we do that? If I answer your questions, can we go back to being normal people, who don't discuss violent death on their way to dinner?"
Her pleading gaze brought a wistful smile to his face. "If it's what you want, I'll try."
Her answering smile thawed the cold lump of fear in his throat and dissolved the last remains of the wall that separated them. "What do you need to know about Jeffrey?"
"Does his story ring true, to you?"
"It's hard to say. I never had him in my class he's too young but I heard Greg talk about him. He admired Greg very much. One of those hero-worship things that happen between teachers and students sometimes. He's a very sensitive, high-strung boy. I suppose he could have been so upset by Greg's death that his parents might worry about leaving him alone."
"Have you ever met his parents?"
"How about Jeffrey? Did you talk to him much?"
"Only an occasional 'hello' in passing."
"Did you see him after the murder? Before he left?"
She thought about that, briefly, then shook her head. "Not that I remember."
Ioki stared blankly at the dashboard, a frown of deep concentration on his face. Helen watched him, silently, and while she managed to keep her mask of calm in place, the tension around her eyes and mouth betrayed how great an effort it cost her. Finally, Harry sighed in acceptance and turned a rueful gaze on her.
"I guess it's still a dead end."
"What were you hoping for?"
"I don't know, but Jeffrey was our only lead. He didn't pan out, and now school is closing for the summer. Basically, we're screwed."
"I'm sorry, Harry." She let that sit for a quiet moment, then added, with a trace of her usual humor, "Now can we eat?"
A warm, relieved smile swept over his face, though it did not touch the shadows in his eyes. "Sure. I'm starving."
* * *
They drove to the restaurant in near silence, only exchanging a few commonplaces, and both of them struggled to appear normal through the course of their meal. They succeeded, to a point, and if their conversation felt a little stilted, or their faces looked a bit strained, they could set it down to fatigue after a long day. Both had their smiles in place when they rose to leave, but Helen's shoulders felt rigid under Harry's arm, as he walked her out to the car.
They were still smiling, still finding enough words to keep the silence back, when they arrived at Harry's apartment. Helen breezed in the door and headed straight for the kitchen, to make coffee. Harry went through his usual routine of hanging up his jacket and holster, checking his phone for messages, and sorting his mail. Then they settled onto the sofa together, to drink their coffee and relax. It was a pattern they had developed, in just a few short weeks, that felt comfortable and reassuring to both of them, especially now.
Tonight, as Harry sat sipping his coffee, he kept a surreptitious eye on the woman slumped into the other corner of the sofa. Her brittle smile and determinedly cheerful voice did not fool him. The droop of her mouth and the forlorn, almost desolate look that crept into her eyes, when she wasn't guarding herself, gave her away. The sight of her distress, and the knowledge that he had caused it, started an unbearable ache in his chest.
Setting down his coffee cup, he slid over next to her and put one arm around her shoulders. She stiffened slightly, but as he gathered her up in his arms and pulled her against him, the tension gradually drained from her muscles. She curled as close to him as the size of the couch and the laws of physics allowed, her head dropping to his shoulder and her eyes closing in mingled pain and relief.
He just held her for a long time, his face buried in the velvet mass of her hair, not wanting to shatter the fragile peace. Finally, when he could tell by her even breathing that she had truly relaxed, he mustered the courage to speak. "I know I broke something today," he whispered into her hair, "something important, but we'll fix it. Tomorrow, when we can face it, we'll fix it."
She shuddered and huddled a little closer to him. He lifted one hand to stroke her hair, while he continued, soothingly, "You don't have to tell me what it is. Not tonight. Just stay here with me, where it's safe, and leave everything till tomorrow."
He put one hand under her chin to tilt her head up, brushed the rumpled hair back from her face with the other, and bent to drop a soft, undemanding kiss on her lips. She clung to him fiercely for a moment, then suddenly wrenched herself away and sprang to her feet.
"No!" she gasped.
When Harry made a move to catch her, she tore her arm free of his grasp and covered the distance to the window in two long strides. "No! Don't...don't touch me!"
With her back turned, she could not see the stricken look in his eyes. But she heard panic in his voice when he asked, "What did I do?"
"Nothing." Her burst of mocking laughter turned to a sob, and she closed her eyes tightly against a sudden rush of tears. "Not a blessed thing. I did it...I let this happen when I knew...I knew it would come to this! I should have walked away the instant I saw your badge! Or after that first cup of coffee, when I realized how...how hard it would be... "
She wrapped her arms around her ribcage in a futile attempt to hold herself together. "God help me, I fell in love with a cop! And not just any cop! One who..."
She spun around to face him and called, sharply, "No! Stay right there!"
He halted his move to rise from the couch, but she took an involuntary, frightened step away from him, anyway. Her eyes were mad holes in her death-white face, her hand raised to ward him off.
"Stay there. Don't come near me. Don't...don't say anything!"
"Why are you doing this?"
"I have to tell you a story, Harry. And if you interrupt me, I won't be able to finish."
"I don't want to hear it," he said, in a haunted whisper.
"You have to. You always had to; I just pretended...pretended..."
"You sit there and listen to me, and when I'm finished, you can say anything you want. If you still...w-want..."
He started to stand up again, but she shied away from him, turning back to the window, her shoulders hunched defensively and her head averted from his gaze. Finally, he abandoned his protests and sank back on the couch. His entire body fell still, his face blank and motionless. He stared intently at her, the look of a wounded animal in his eyes, and waited for her to continue.
"Shakespeare would love this," she remarked, bitterly. "Or better yet, Oscar Wilde. He'd turn it into a farce. What are we, Harry? High Tragedy or Low Farce?" When he made no answer, she risked a quick glance in his direction. What she saw made her wince and look away again. After a brief struggle with herself, she mastered her threatened tears and began talking in a level, distant voice.
"It was April...April 22nd. Friday afternoon, in the middle of a gorgeous spring thaw. The place was deserted within two minutes of the final bell. Even the Principal had someplace better to be. I had just gotten my hands on a movie for my class Olivier's "Richard III". Not a video tape, mind you, but a real 16mm movie! I was so excited, so proud of myself! I figured I'd show the first part of it on Monday, but you know how school equipment is. You can never get the blasted projector to work, or the bulb burns out, or the screen falls off the wall. So, I went to the AV supply room, to make sure everything was ready and waiting.
"The door was locked, and the light was off, just as I had expected. It never occurred to me that anyone was in there. I..." She broke off and swallowed painfully. Her voice, when she began again, had roughened noticeably.
"I went in...turned on the light...and there they were. Jeffrey LaRouche and Greg Ansel. Bent...over a table..." Tears began to slide down her cheeks. "Jeffrey was crying...begging him to st...stop. He saw me, before Greg did, and he screamed at me...screamed for help. I grabbed Greg and tried to pull him off, but he's a big...big man. I'm no lightweight, but he threw me off with one arm. Tossed me right into the wall. I got up, picked up the first heavy thing I touched a microphone stand, I think and... I hit him."
Her head dropped forward, till her forehead rested against the glass, and her eyes closed. After an agonizingly long moment, during which neither of them appeared to breathe, she whispered, "I killed him. He was still alive, still breathing at first, and I tried to get out of that room...get to a phone...but Jeffrey was...clinging to me. Crying and shaking and...and he begged me not to leave him there alone. I tried to... I tried... Oh God, I tried! I tried to do everything right! Instead, I killed a man, and I walked away from it!"
For the first time, Harry interrupted her. He had sat through her recital with his elbows propped on his knees and his face buried in his hands. Now, he lifted his head and turned his wounded eyes on her again. "Why did you walk away?"
"Jeffrey. I know that doesn't sound right. It isn't right! But at the time, I didn't know what else to do. I wish you could understand...wish you could have seen him..."
"I have seen it."
"Then maybe you do understand. I'd never seen anyone in so much pain, before. Never dreamed anyone could be! It terrified me. When I told him that I would call the Police, he went into hysterics. First, he pleaded with me not to make him tell anyone what had happened. When that didn't work, he...he threatened me. He swore he'd run away and leave me to face the Police alone. If they caught him, he'd deny everything, and I would go to prison for murder.
"I knew he was wrong. And I knew he'd probably change his mind, once he recovered from the first shock of the...the rape. But right there, in that room, he was totally irrational, and I didn't know what to do, except to shield him. So, that's what I did.
"I cleaned up everything. Even...even Greg. It was like I suddenly remembered every detail from every cop show or movie I'd ever seen. I erased any sign of who had been there, or what had been going on right before Greg died. I got Jeffrey out of the building without being seen and drove him home, then I went home myself and waited.
"I planned to wait till Jeffrey calmed down and then go to the Police. I knew I'd have to pay for destroying evidence, or whatever, but anything was better than dragging a traumatized, terrified, shattered child into the Police station and forcing him to tell a roomful of strangers that his favorite teacher had just raped him. So, I waited."
A faint, bitter smile drifted over her face, then was gone. "Then...Jeffrey ran away. And you came."
"Helen, do you know what you've done?"
She turned at the sound of his voice, to see him staring at her, with tears running steadily down his face. The ghostly smile came and went again, and she nodded. "I killed someone."
"You confessed to murder. To a cop."
"Would you believe me if I told you that, once or twice over the last few weeks, I forgot?"
"Forgot I was a cop?"
"No, forgot that I was a murderer and that you would have to put me in prison, once you knew. You made me forget. And in spite of everything, you made me happy."
Harry rose slowly to his feet and took a few steps away from the window and the woman who stood there, braced in anticipation of his rage. He stood with his back to her and his head bowed. The silence lengthened unbearably, and still he did not move. Finally, when Helen felt that she would have to scream, or laugh, or throw something, just to break the stasis that gripped them, Harry lifted his hands in a gesture of defeat and whispered to the far wall,
"I can't do it."
"Can't do what?"
"Send you to prison. Punish you for protecting that boy. I can't."
"Harry..." She moved instinctively toward him, forgetting her own reluctance to touch him in her alarm. "Harry, you have to."
"No." He turned, just in time to meet her, as she crossed the room to him. Her arms went around his neck, and he pulled her close in a tight, desperate embrace. "They couldn't convict you, even if they knew you did it. There's no evidence, nothing but your confession, and no one else knows about that."
"It isn't right."
"Neither was what Mr. Ansel did to Jeffrey or what Jeffrey did to you. None of it makes sense, and none of it comes out right. How does it get any righter, if you're convicted of murder?"
"You left one thing out."
He tightened his hold on her, and she could feel the sobs shaking his body. "It's the only thing I can do, Helen."
"You don't really believe that."
"I have to."
She pushed slightly away from him so she could see his face, and her brows drew together in a troubled frown. "Don't dig yourself into any holes you can't get out of." When he opened his mouth to answer her, she clapped her hand over it and said, hurriedly, "No, don't say it! I can't hear this. Not from you." Putting her arms around him again, she settled her head on his shoulder and murmured, "Please, Harry, don't become someone you aren't, just to protect me. That's not what I want."
"What do you want?"
"To stay here, quiet and safe, till morning. After that...we'll figure it out."
"There's nothing to f..."
"Shh! Just let me be here with you, remembering why I got myself into this mess in the first place."
"Why did you?"
She gave a watery chuckle. "Stupid. Because I love you."
"Then everything'll work out fine."
"Yeah." The life drained out of her voice, leaving it flat and despairing. "Just fine."
*** *** ***
Harry awoke at the usual time, dragged out of merciful unconsciousness by force of habit. For several minutes, he could not manage to pry his eyes open. His face felt stiff and swollen, his mouth parched, and his body heavy with exhaustion. In his other lifetime, when a fourteen-year-old boy had cried himself to sleep every night through endless months of grief, he had grown to dread these mornings. Waking up in yesterday's stale clothing, with a dead place in the center of his body where his heart used to be and his tears dried on his face. On mornings like this, he hated being alive.
With a heartfelt groan, he rolled off the bed and headed for the bathroom. He needed a hot shower and at least a gallon of coffee, before he could even consider facing the day. Halfway across the room, he suddenly halted and turned back to stare in disbelief at the empty bed. Helen was gone.
Gone. It took him a long, agonizing moment to absorb the reality of that thought, but as it penetrated his fogged head, he began to shake in reaction. Gone. There might be a dozen rational explanations for her absence, a dozen innocent errands that could have taken her out of the apartment at just this time, but none of them occurred to him. All he knew was that she was gone, and he was filled with a shrieking, black panic.
Driven by a cop's stubborn instinct, so deeply ingrained in him that it did not need conscious direction, he began scouring the apartment for any sign of her. Two minutes later, he found the envelope taped to the coffee maker. He should have thought of this, first, he realized. She wouldn't go without leaving a note, and this was the logical place for it. After all, she loved that coffee maker more than she loved...
He squashed that thought and snatched up the envelope. His fingers shook just enough to make opening it difficult, but he finally succeeded in pulling out two sheets of paper. Unfolding them, he read:
Harry stood rooted to the spot, staring blindly at the innocent pen strokes and struggling to breathe with a vice crushing his chest. He knew where she had gone. He knew exactly where to look for her, if he could only convince his limbs to move again and his eyes to see through the sickening gray haze that clouded them. He had no time to waste. No time to stand like a zombie in his own kitchen, staring at a hateful piece of paper. No time to stop her before she walked into that minefield and blew both their lives to Hell.
With a strangled sob, he crumpled the letter into a ball and dropped it on the floor. That gesture seemed to bring him back to the present and start his body functioning again. He ran full tilt into the bedroom, where he grabbed the first pair of shoes that came to hand, his car keys and his Police ID. Nothing else mattered, where he was going. Then he slammed out the door.
*** *** ***
Captain Fuller stepped out of his office and paused to rake the Chapel with his sharp eyes. He immediately spotted Tom Hanson seated at his desk, hard at work. Ioki's desk was empty, with no sign that its occupant had been anywhere near it today. A thoughtful frown tugged at Fuller's mouth. Casting a second, troubled glance at the empty desk, he strode over to where Tom sat.
"You want to explain this to me, Hanson?"
Tom glanced up, startled. "What's up, Captain?"
"Funny, I was about to ask you the same thing." He tossed a thin sheaf of papers down on the desk in front of the younger officer. "Briody sent that over, this morning, with his congratulations."
Tom snatched up the papers and instantly recognized the first page. It was an arrest report. He felt a cold trickle of apprehension run down his spine.
When Tom made no comment, Fuller demanded, "When, exactly, were you and Ioki planning to tell me about this?"
Tom's eyes moved down the form to the name of the suspect. Helen Coleridge. The cold trickle turned to an icy torrent. Helen Coleridge, arrested at 07:20 hours for the murder of Gregory Ansel. "Oh, God."
Fuller caught his muttered words, and his frown deepened. "What's wrong, Tom?"
"I need...I need to talk to Harry."
"I'd kind of like to talk to him, myself. Where is he?"
Tom wrenched his eyes away from the report to look over at Harry's desk, then he glanced at his own watch. It was nearly ten o'clock, and Harry was never late. Never. Ignoring Fuller's eyes on him, he turned back to the arrest report and scanned the page. The neatly typed lines blurred together, uselessly, until his eyes fell on the label 'Arresting Officer(s)'. There, clear as day, he saw the names Harry Ioki and Tom Hanson.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, he lifted his eyes to the Captain's face and rasped out, "I'll go find him. I think I know where he is."
Fuller's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Where?"
"Please, Coach, let me go. I'll talk to him."
"Is Harry in some kind of trouble?" The look in the young man's eyes warned him not to ask any more questions and brought a resigned sigh from him. After a moment's hesitation, he nodded. "Keep me posted. And tell Harry I expect to see his body in that chair the next time I come out here. Got it?"
Hanson did not wait for more. He snatched up his jacket and the report, and made for the exit at a dead run. Pounding down the stairs two at a time, he barrelled through the outside door, narrowly missing Penhall on the landing. Doug flattened himself against the railing to avoid being trampled and called after him,
"Where you goin', man?"
"None of your business, good buddy!" He was in his car and peeling out of the lot, before a startled Penhall could come up with a suitable response. As he drove, his eyes kept straying to the report that lay on the seat beside him. The bare facts, typed into neat boxes on a form, told him precious little, but they suggested all kinds of scenarios that made his blood run cold. He didn't have the time to read all the fine print and attached documents. The knot of fear in his stomach told him that he had to find Harry. Fast. And if Helen had been arrested, then there was only one place he could be.
Tom found the old Buick exactly where he had expected, parked at the curb, across the street from the City Jail. He pulled up behind it, jumped out of his car, and ran up to the driver's side door. Stooping slightly to look through the window, he took a long moment to absorb what he saw.
Ioki sat behind the wheel of the Buick, his hands resting, motionless, in his lap and his eyes fixed straight ahead of him. Even through the smudged glass, Tom recognized the set, blank, brittle expression he wore, and it sent a wash of remembered agony through him, like the echo of a distant scream. He'd worn that face, himself, more than once. He knew exactly how it felt and exactly how the world looked from inside that translucent shell of pain.
Thankfully, the door was unlocked. Hanson swung it open and crouched on the pavement in the angle of the car and door. Ioki did not move.
"Harry?" He got no response, so he tried again in a louder, more insistent tone. "Look at me, Harry."
This time, his words seemed to reach his friend. Ioki turned in his direction, his gaze tracking slowly over to meet Tom's, but he stared at the other man for several dreadful seconds before any hint of recognition crept into his shell-shocked eyes. Finally, Harry took a careful breath, as if he weren't at all sure that he remembered how to do it properly, and whispered,
"Yeah. I came to get you. We...Fuller and I...we're worried about you."
"I'm fine. Tell the Captain not to worry."
"Let me take you home, okay?" When Harry shook his head, Tom put the ring of authority into his voice and repeated, "I'm going to take you home."
Ioki responded, both to the commanding tone and to the hand on his arm. He stepped out of the car and stood on the pavement, staring numbly at the building across the street. "I didn't get here in time to stop her," he murmured, so softly that Tom barely caught his words. "I...overslept."
"I know." Tom put one arm around his shoulders and guided him in the direction of the Mustang. "It's gonna be okay," he added, soothingly.
"Is it?" Harry stopped walking and turned questioning eyes on him, as if Tom could actually provide the answers he needed so desperately. "She won't tell the whole truth she promised him she wouldn't so they'll put her in prison. She wouldn't let me help...wouldn't even see me."
"She's going to prison, Tom. How can it be okay?" It was an honest, straightforward question, not a challenge.
Tom shook his head. "I don't know, pal. I only know that the...the ache goes away and let's you breathe again, eventually. You just have to hang on till then."
Harry blinked back the first traces of tears that Tom had seen in his eyes. "Can I?" He looked confused and fragile, but the gaze he turned on Tom was oddly trusting.
"Of course you can, Iokage. You're indestructible."
"I don't feel indestructible. I feel like I got run over by a tank."
Tom quirked a half smile at him. "That's love, pal. A big, beautiful, red-headed tank."
The threatened tears began to slide down Ioki's face. "It stinks."
"Yes, it does. Come on." He gave Ioki a gentle shove to start him moving toward the car again. "Let's go home."
He had not slept all night, and the strain of lying alone in the darkness, struggling to control the direction of his thoughts with nothing neutral to occupy them, made the hours seem endless. The familiar, demanding cry of a hungry child came as a welcome release to him, announcing the start of a new day and the end of his sleepless vigil. Instead of cramming the pillow over his ears and pretending not to hear the summons, as he usually did on wet, cold mornings, he immediately shoved back the blanket and swung his feet to the floor.
A hand on his arm halted his movement, and from deep in the pillow beside him, a muffled voice said, "I'll go."
"I don't mind. Stay in bed for a while."
"Uhnn." The woman rolled over and peered at the clock on her bedside table. "Time to get up, anyway. I'll take care of the Air Raid Siren in there, while you get a shower. Hurricane Elsie will be up to speed by the time you're finished."
"Okay." He climbed out of bed, shivering at the winter chill of the room, and staggered into the bathroom on auto-pilot. The hot shower felt so good that he dragged it out twice as long as usual. It steamed the aches from his muscles and washed the cobwebs from his brain. He stood with his head tilted back against the tile, letting the nearly scalding water course over his face and down his body, and felt relaxed, calm, safe for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours. Since the phone call.
Eventually, he had to turn off the water and venture into the real world again. Back out in the cold of the room, he moved quickly, completing his morning routine with a haste born of physical discomfort. As many years as he had lived in this city, in this climate, he had never really adjusted to the severe winters here. He owned more coats than pairs of socks or so his wife claimed a different coat for every shift in the weather patterns or quirk in his mood. Including one to wear around the house, when he didn't feel that the heater was living up to its name. This morning, he hurried to put as many layers as possible between himself and the elements.
He heard a familiar shriek of laughter from the back of the house and knew he'd run out of time. He gave his hair a quick towel-drying, then combed his fingers through the damp strands, to settle them into place. Not exactly up to his usual standard, but close enough. His family would forgive the lapse, and his visitor... Well, after four years of distance between them, his visitor wouldn't know the difference.
His features tightened with lingering pain, and he resolutely pushed away the unwelcome memory. If he continued this way, he'd find himself regretting those years, which would only cast shadows on a rich and satisfying period of his life. He couldn't pretend that the silence and distance had not affected him. They had created a hole in him that nothing not even his wife and children could completely fill. But years of practice had taught him to cope with wounds of all kinds. This was nothing more or less than another wound that must be endured. Or maybe...just maybe, healed.
That was the one hope that made this meeting bearable. On the whole, he loved his life and wanted nothing to disrupt it. He had long ago put any resentment or regret over the way it had turned out behind him. Sorrow, yes. He sometimes felt sorrow for lost opportunities and abandoned dreams, but that was a gentle and fleeting emotion. It bore no relation to the ugly, soul-searing anger he had once felt, or the crippling pain of loss and isolation. Those could not last, if he hoped to survive.
Now, with the comforts and contentment of his life all around him, he suddenly found himself dragged back to that time, reliving old pains and suffering through old horrors. He did not want to be in this place. But at the same time, he could not turn down the chance perhaps his last chance to break the silence. To fill the hole. To find his friend again.
He hurried into the kitchen and began the ritual of making breakfast for his family. He had it down to a science, programmed to the last stroke of the butter knife. He even knew exactly when...
Right on schedule, he heard the warning slap of small, bare feet on the floor, and a three-year-old whirlwind blew into the room. He didnt know where Elsie had inherited her love of mornings, and he didn't really want to know. Some weird mutation in his wife's DNA, maybe. He could only pray that her little sister did not have the same evil gene.
"'Morning, Monster Child."
"Don't call me that," she retorted, in a lofty manner that didn't sit right with her childish voice and diction. "My name is Elizabeth." She could barely get all the syllables out in the correct order.
"Whatever you say, Ewithabuff."
She burst into a chorus of giggles. "You're not talking right!"
"And you're not ready for breakfast, yet. You can't go to school in PJs and bare feet."
He cocked a knowing eyebrow at her and said, "Oh, yeah? Is that the latest in flannel fashions?"
"Not going to school," she amended.
"Try again, squirt."
"It's raining!" she wailed, as if this lone fact could alter the course of history.
"I see." He expertly cracked an egg into the frying pan and asked, "Are we trapped? Are the flood waters rising?"
She giggled again. "Like Pooh up in the tree."
"Even Pooh didn't go out in the rain in his pajamas."
"You're silly, Daddy."
"How very perceptive your child is," his wife observed, as she came into the room. She paused to settle the baby in her highchair, then continued into the kitchen and gave him a quick kiss, before retrieving the waiting bowl of oatmeal. "Elsie, go put your clothes on. I set them out on your bed."
"I can't by myself!"
"Do your best, and I'll help you finish. Go on."
"I want Daddy to help."
"Daddy is making breakfast for us locusts. Now, GO!"
As the three-year-old gave a protesting shriek and scampered into the bedroom, the woman came up behind him to murmur, "Get any sleep?"
He shook his head.
"What time is he coming?"
"Middle of the afternoon."
"You've only got the one morning class today, right? So you'll be home in plenty of time."
She slipped an arm around his waist, as she leaned over to check his progress on the eggs. It was a casual gesture, but he felt her sending him support and reassurance with the simple contact. "I'll drop you off on my way to the office."
"I can walk."
"Don't be daft, love. The sky is falling out there!"
"Yeah, but you'll never make it to work on time."
She shot him a measuring look and asked, shrewdly, "Do you need some time alone? Is that it?"
He thought about that for a moment, then gave her a slightly off-kilter smile. "No, I guess not. Maybe I could use a ride."
"Your chariot awaits, milord."
He shook his head and grinned. "Talk about daft..."
Somehow, they all managed to get fed, organized, and into the car with their pile of boots and umbrellas. He rode the short distance to work, savoring the barely-controlled chaos of a morning with his family and storing away the warm feelings to bolster his courage later. He'd need every shred of it that he could muster, when he had to face his visitor.
He climbed out of the car and hurried across the sidewalk to the double glass doors, feeling the rain run down his collar in those few, short steps. As he grasped the handle to pull the door open, he couldn't help thinking about another building, another door, another job. Another one of those things he couldn't afford to remember too often...or miss too much.
Flashback: Fall, 1990
The shout came from three directions at once, halting the fleeing man in his tracks. He instinctively lifted his hands above his head and turned his empty palms toward the watching officers.
"Don't shoot me! Don't shoot!"
"Keep your hands up, and hold still!" Hanson shouted. The young officer crouched behind a stack of wooden crates, only his eyes and his gun showing above the edge of the upper box. Off to his right, Penhall peered around the open car door to scan the interior of the warehouse for trouble, and somewhere off to his left, Hoffs waited to cut off the back exit. Beside him, Ioki rose slowly to his feet, his gun never leaving its target, and moved around the crates to approach the obviously terrified drug dealer.
All three watching officers tensed. Something about this entire set-up bothered them. They had been working on this case for weeks, carefully gathering evidence to bust Gallagher and his cronies, and they felt as if they knew the man, even if none of them had laid eyes on him till tonight. His reputation for brutality and cunning was well-deserved, as he had proven time and again, and this trembling, sweating, pleading figure just didn't meet their expectations.
Ioki proceeded with extreme caution, shifting his ground slightly to come up behind the larger man. He rested the muzzle of his gun in the center of Gallagher's back and said, "Put your hands behind your head."
The man obeyed.
"There are plenty of guns pointed at you, so don't get any stupid ideas."
"Just tell 'em not to shoot me, man!"
"Don't move." Ioki carefully patted the other man down for weapons. The rest of the team did not relax until Harry had Gallagher handcuffed, then a collective sigh of relief ran through them. "You have the right to remain silent..."
Ioki began the familiar ritual, as he holstered his own weapon, turned his prisoner toward the car, and gave him a nudge to get him moving. Hoffs came past them at a trot, and Hanson stood up to flash a satisfied smile at his colleagues.
"Nice and neat. Just the way I like it."
A sudden movement in the back of the warehouse went completely unnoticed by the grinning officers. Penhall, Hanson and Hoffs were grouped around the car, and Ioki was guiding his stumbling suspect through the maze of packing crates, when a shadowy figure slipped up behind him. Hoffs' cry of warning came a split second too late. Even as the sound left her lips, Harry dropped to the floor in a limp heap. A single gunshot echoed deafeningly in the huge space, and Gallagher's body slumped down beside Ioki's. The figure melted into the darkness as swiftly as he had appeared.
Hanson shot one appalled look at the two motionless figures, then turned to shout, "Go! Out the back!"
Hoffs and Penhall immediately took off after the vanishing attacker, dodging and leaping crates in a mad, futile dash for the back door. Hanson holstered his gun and crouched over the two downed men.
Gallagher was dead. A bullet straight into his heart. Tom felt only relief at the certainty that the one shot fired had gone into the drug dealer's body, not Harry's. Shoving the corpse aside, he ran a quick eye over his unconscious friend. He saw no visible wounds and no blood, so the most logical conclusion was that Ioki had been knocked out and very efficiently, too.
"Harry? You okay?"
"I know the feeling. Come on, pal, slow and easy."
By the time the others returned, Ioki was sitting up, his very sore head propped in his hands and a decidedly queasy look on his face. He had a vicious bruise at the base of his skull but was otherwise unhurt. Judy dropped to a crouch beside him and demanded to know if he was all right. He turned slightly glassy eyes on her and started to nod, then thought better of it.
"Oh, Harry, you don't look so good."
"Didn't catch the bad guy, huh?"
"No. Sorry, partner."
He just grunted and let his head sink back into his hands.
"I've called it in," Hanson assured them. "Fuller's on his way."
"How 'bout transport for...that?" Hoffs poked at the corpse with one toe and grimaced in distaste.
"On its way."
* * *
Captain Fuller regarded the wreckage of their painstaking work with a jaundiced eye. "Any guesses as to who our mystery man was?"
Harry, who now stood, leaning heavily on the hood of his car for support, lifted his head and answered, tersely, "Gallagher."
Fuller stared consideringly at him, then nodded. "Making the stiff a decoy. He set a neat little trap for us, guys, and he blew your covers. More than a month of work down the drain." Ignoring the mutters and groans of disgust from his officers, he moved over to Ioki and dropped a companionable hand on his shoulder. "Well, there's nothing we can do about it tonight, and you have a date at the hospital."
Harry rolled his eyes in a theatrical expression of dismay and pleaded, "C'mon, Captain! Not the hospital!"
Fuller smiled at the ritual response, but the gaze he turned on Ioki was sober. "I know you hate hospitals, but you need to get checked out."
"I'm fine. By tomorrow, I'll be ready to go another round with Gallagher. Honest, Captain."
"Don't give me that, Harry. I'm not falling for it." Instead of obeying his commander's order, Ioki turned such a soulful, pathetic look on him that Fuller couldn't help laughing. "Okay, no hospital. On one condition!" he interjected, as he saw the smile of triumph spread over Ioki's face. "You don't drive, and you aren't alone tonight. Someone needs to wake you up every couple of hours."
"I'll drive you home," Hanson offered, "and crash on your couch for the night, if that's cool with you."
Fuller nodded in satisfaction. "Then, I suggest you two get out of here. I'll take Hoffs and Penhall back to the Chapel."
Ioki surrendered the car keys without complaint and sank into the passenger seat of the Buick with a barely detectable sigh of relief. Hanson shot him a worried look, as he cranked the engine and began jockeying the large automobile through the warehouse doors. He, like Fuller, knew just how deep and important Ioki's hatred of hospitals was, and he knew that Harry would go to almost any lengths to avoid landing in yet another hospital bed. Tom couldn't honestly blame him not after the endless weeks he had spent in one, recuperating from the drive-by shooting but he couldn't help worrying, just the same. Only the fact that he would be there, himself, to make sure his friend was all right and haul him off to the hospital at the first sign of trouble, allowed him to accept the situation with an appearance of unconcern.
Out of the warehouse and on the street, Tom stopped the car long enough to turn on the headlights and fasten his seat belt.
"When did you put these back in?" he asked, as much to keep Ioki awake as out of any real curiosity.
"After we chased that Beemer through the construction site." Harry flashed him a thin ghost of his usual smile and confided, "Judy swore she'd never ride in my car again, unless I put 'em back."
"Wish I'd thought of that two years ago." Tom stared thoughtfully at the dashboard for a moment, then twisted around in the seat to look squarely at his teammate. "Harry, tell me the truth. How hard did that guy hit you?"
"Hard enough to crack my skull, but he didn't. Don't worry about it, Tom. Let's just go home, okay?"
"Okay." As Hanson turned back around, his gaze touched a still figure, perched on a motorcycle, parked between two buildings on the opposite side of the street. The figure was dressed all in black, with a black ski mask obscuring his features. He sat at ease, one leg folded across the seat in front of him, his gloved hands resting idly on the handlebars, and his eyes turned in their direction.
From this distance, Hanson couldn't be sure if the lurker was watching him, or the warehouse, so he tried to keep his movements as casual as possible when he reached over to nudge Ioki.
"See that guy on the motorcycle?"
Ioki cracked open his eyes and followed the subtle twitch of Hanson's head, without lifting his own head from his supporting hand. He stared at the watcher for a few quiet seconds, then murmured, "Yeah."
"How much you want to bet..."
"Forget it; sucker bet. It's gotta be him." Still sitting half slumped against the door, his head propped in his right hand and looking for all the world like he was three-quarters asleep, Ioki reached for the glove compartment and the radio.
"What are you doing? He'll see you!"
"We've gotta tell Fuller."
"He's going to...Shit!"
At that moment, the black-clad figure swung into motion. Whether warned by some movement in the car, spooked by the fact that they had not driven away as expected, or simply finished with whatever mysterious business had kept him there, he straightened up on the bike and gunned the engine. Tom swore again and stamped his foot on the gas, as the motorcycle peeled away from the curb and sped into the night.
"Call the Captain. And fasten your seat belt!" he shouted over the roar of the straining engine.
* * *
The motorcycle took another turn at warp speed, the rider's knee almost brushing the pavement as he laid the bike on its side. Tom hurtled around the turn after him and felt the tires begin to slip. They went into a screaming, four-point skid, smoke pouring from beneath the abused tires, yet somehow, Hanson managed to maintain control. A split second before they hit the building on their left, the wheels bit into the pavement again, and they were roaring down the alley in pursuit of the motorcycle.
Ioki clicked on the radio handset and relayed their location to the cordon of cars racing to catch up with them. He had barely gotten the words out, when they took yet another corner on two wheels and sped off down another narrow alley. He braced one hand against the dashboard and the other against the door, his eyes closed in abject terror, as Hanson performed a truly hair-raising maneuver to keep the biker in sight. In the process, he left a six-inch strip of paint on the tailgate of a cargo hauler. Harry heard the squeal of metal on metal and groaned.
"Trust me, Iokage."
"Trust you? You're gonna kill us both!"
They burst out of the alley and onto a main street. "In this boat? We could hit a concrete wall and not even dent the fender." As he spoke, he floored the accelerator again and began weaving around a scattering of warning cones. The wail of sirens reached them, and they knew that back-up had finally arrived. "Besides, you don't want those guys to get the collar, do you?"
"I want to go home...in one piece!"
Hanson's mouth tightened in a humorless smile. "After we catch the Bad Guy. Hang on!"
The cumbersome automobile swerved perilously, just barely missing an open manhole in the middle of the street. The violent lurching of the car forced a soft grunt of pain from Ioki, and Hanson shot him a quick, apologetic look.
"Watch where you're going!"
Hanson's eyes flicked back to the road, just in time to slam on the brakes before they drove up the tailpipe of a cruising taxi. "Damn! We're gonna lose him!"
Both men spotted the bike disappearing into a dark, narrow, nameless alley between two rows of shipping warehouses, and Ioki called,
"Go for it, man!"
Hanson let out a shrill, triumphant war whoop and swung the car into a tight left turn. In the next heartbeat, he was screaming out a warning, both feet slamming down on the brake pedal. The car howled in protest, as the wheels locked and it's shuddering, skidding turn became a death roll. With the closest thing to grace it had ever achieved, the Buick flipped onto its right side, sailed majestically across the pavement, and buried its nose under the body of the enormous flatbed truck that blocked the alley. The shriek of tortured metal died away, and only the distant wail of sirens broke the silence.
* * *
Hanson awoke to a throb of pain in his shoulder and the smell of gasoline. It took him several, terrifying seconds to remember where he was and to identify the ominous sounds and smells that assailed him. When his limping brain finally registered the fact that he was dangling from his seat belt straps, in the driver's seat of a car that had collapsed like a paper sack against an immovable object, with the stench of burnt rubber and the crackle of hot wiring all around him, he began to thrash in sudden, overwhelming panic.
Luckily, the straps held until he regained some measure of rationality and forced himself to hold still. He'd only make matters worse, if he tore himself free and fell on top of...Harry! Where was Harry?
Hanson craned his neck around and instantly spotted Ioki, who lay on what used to be the right hand door but was now the floor of the car. His seat belt had also held, but the dashboard had crumpled inward, pinning him to the seat. Pieces of the decimated automobile hid the lower half of his body and his right arm and shoulder from Hanson's view, preventing him from getting any clear idea of how badly his colleague was injured. In the darkness, he could not tell whether the black stains on the glass beneath Ioki's head were water, spilled gasoline, or blood.
"Harry? Wake up, man! Wake up!" Tom leaned out of his shoulder harness, reaching his hand down till he brushed Harry's shoulder with his fingertips. "Harry, we can't stay in here! We've got to get out! C'mon, buddy, don't do this to me! This car's gonna go up in a fireball, any minute."
By wriggling around in his lap belt, Hanson managed to add a few inches to his reach. He found the pulse point beneath Ioki's jaw and gave an audible sigh of relief. "Okay, okay, we aren't dead. That means, we're alive. That means, we've got to get out of this car before we get barbecued. Come on, Harry! Don't do this to me!"
The familiar voice sounded ragged and breathless with pain, but it brought a wide grin to Hanson's face. "Harry! You're awake! Now let's get out of here!"
"Out of where?"
"This car! Your car, which I wrecked, and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to hang around and wait for it to blow up!" Tom realized that he was babbling, but he couldn't seem to control his tongue. Words poured out of his mouth in a frantic, nearly hysterical stream that made little sense, even to him. "There's gasoline all over the place, and hot metal and burnt tires and torn wiring and..."
"Turn...nngh! Turn the car off."
"What? Oh, shit!" Hanson fumbled for the keys and switched off the ignition. "It's off. I turned it off! Harry... Harry? Are you all right?" It suddenly occurred to Hanson that Ioki had not moved, or even opened his eyes, since coming to. He lay in a crushed, huddled posture against the door, his breathing uneven and broken by small sobs of pain that he couldn't swallow. In the dim light, Tom just barely saw the shining traces of tears sliding reluctantly down his face, and he felt his own stomach contract in fear.
At Tom's panicked question, Ioki took a careful breath and said, "I can't get out. Feels like the whole car is s-ngh...sitting on me."
"Just the front half," Hanson quipped, automatically. He paused, listening to the approaching sirens for a moment, then urged, "They're coming! Hear the sirens? They're coming to get us out! Just...don't move!" Hanson began fumbling for a grip on the window frame above him and struggling to brace his feet against the buckled dashboard.
"You okay?" Harry asked, quietly.
"Pretty much. I won't feel so great tomorrow, but right now I'm...Mm! Hang on..." He got his left foot up on the steering column and hooked an elbow through the open window. "Harry? I'm going to see if I can get out this window. I have to unfasten my seat belt, but I'll try not to step on you."
Without waiting for an answer, Tom groped for his seat belt catch and hit the release button. His body swung suddenly free, and he hauled himself painfully through the side window, trying to ignore the tearing sensation in his left shoulder and the innumerable aches and pains that filled the rest of his body. By the time he had worked his way onto the door, the first of the following police cars was screeching to a halt in the mouth of the alley.
"I'll be right back," Hanson called down to his injured teammate.
A car door slammed, and Fuller's voice called, "Hanson! You all right?!"
"Don't go anywhere without me, pal." Tom used the beam from the headlights of the parked car to help him drop safely to the pavement. He heard rapid footsteps approaching and saw three figures silhouetted against the dazzling glare.
Lifting one hand to shield his eyes, he managed to pick Captain Fuller out from the group. "Captain, we lost him!" he called.
"I put out an APB! Metro will pick him up!"
"Tom!" Judy's voice sounded shrill with tension. "Are you all right? Where's Harry?"
Hanson scrambled around the tail of the wrecked car to reach the rear window, calling over his shoulder, "Stay back, Jude! There's gas everywhere! Call the Fire Department, and get an ambulance!"
"Stay back!" He studied the cracked glass for a moment, then raised the front of his jacket to protect his face and swung his boot heel hard against the weakest spot. The glass sagged and splintered.
As he dropped to a crouch and tugged the crumpled sheet of safety glass out of its frame, Fuller materialized at his shoulder. "Hoffs! Penhall! Stay back by my car! That's an order!" Iron fingers gripped Hanson's arm, and Fuller's voice sounded urgently in his ear. "Come on, Hanson. You have to get clear, as well."
"I'm not leaving him alone in there."
"The emergency crews are on the way. They'll be here any minute."
"Not soon enough." Hanson shrugged off his commander's restraining hand and ducked through the window.
"What the hell are you doin', man?!" Penhall shouted.
Fuller watched the younger man crawl into the rear of the car, his face a mask of indecision and fear. After a brief, violent struggle with himself, he dropped to a crouch and called into the car, "Let me know if there's anything we can do! And be careful, Tom!"
A muffled, "Right, Coach," answered him, then silence.
Back in the car, the smell of gasoline assailed Tom even more strongly than before, making his nose wrinkle in disgust. He climbed into the back seat, then stretched out on the right side of the car and squirmed around the front seat, till his head was only a few inches from Harry's.
From this close range, it was much more obvious just how seriously injured his friend was. Tom could see blood on the twisted vinyl of the dashboard and pooling on the glass and metal beneath his head. Worse still, he could see the pain pass through him, like a solid wave, with every breath. Ioki shivered violently with cold and shock, and tears ran steadily from between his lashes to mix with the blood on his face.
Hanson placed one hand gently on his head, being infinitely careful not to move him, and murmured, "I'm back. Told you I wouldn't step on you."
"Shh. Let me do the talking."
"You b-ngh...better get out of here."
"And miss all the fun?"
"I mean it, Harry. Be quiet." When Ioki offered no comment, Hanson ruffled his hair affectionately and said, in a milder tone, "You know better than to argue with me, Iokage. You never win." He heard Harry's quiet choke of pain and his store of playful banter deserted him. "It's okay...okay. You're shaking. Are you cold?"
"Hang on." Hanson wriggled into the back seat, with some difficulty, and called through the empty window frame, "Captain?"
"I need a blanket, or something."
Fuller promptly shrugged out of his heavy overcoat and crouched to pass it through the window. As Hanson's pale, strained face appeared in the opening, he asked, softly, "How's Harry?"
"Not good. He's going into shock."
"Try to keep him warm. The paramedics are on the way." Fuller held the younger man with his gaze for a moment, then spoke in a rough whisper. "Are they going to be able to get him out?" Hanson shook his head. "How bad is he, really?"
"I can't tell for sure, but he's in a lot of pain. I don't know how much more of this he can take."
"All right. Tell him to hang tough, and we'll have him out of there as fast as we can."
Hanson nodded shortly, bundled the coat up in his hands and disappeared into the shadows. Fuller stayed crouched beside the car, deliberately avoiding the troubled eyes fixed on his back, until the rumble of an enormous deisel engine told him that the fire truck had arrived. Straightening his shoulders with some effort, he turned to face his frantic officers and the raft of other police and fire personnel who suddenly crowded the alley. Time to take charge again, no matter how old and tired he felt.
Tom ignored the increased noise and activity outside the car. He couldn't afford to think too clearly about what was going on out there, or he'd panic. For the first time in his life, he felt distinctly claustrophobic, and the cabin of the enormous Buick seemed to close in on him threateningly. Ruthlessly squashing down the fear, he crawled back around the seat.
"Hey, Harry. Miss me?" When he got no answer, he called, sharply, "Say something, Harry!"
Tom laughed, in spite of himself, and answered, "That'll do."
He started grunting and twisting around in the confined space, struggling to spread out Fuller's coat without touching his injured friend. Ioki listened to him for a minute, then asked, "What're you doing?"
"Don't distract me. This is harder than it looks." After a few more minutes of difficult contortions that aggravated the pain in his shoulder unbearably, Hanson managed to spread the coat over Ioki and pull it up around his chin. "There. That should h..."
"Officer Hanson!" The shout came from the rear of the car, and Tom peered around to see a fireman leaning through the window. "Officer Hanson?"
"We're going to spray flame retardant on the vehicle, Officer! You both need to protect your faces and avoid contact with the chemicals! Can you do that?"
Tom thought of the overcoat and promptly answered, "Yes! Go ahead!"
"Roger. Two minutes."
Turning back to Harry, Tom grabbed the nearest edge of the coat and tugged on it. "Did you hear that?"
"I'll ask you later whether that's a yes or a no." He pulled the coat up over his own head, forming a tent over both of them. In the stuffy darkness, he murmured, "I feel like we ought to be telling ghost stories."
A moment later, they heard the hiss of high-pressure hoses, and the pungent odor of chemicals seemed to suck the oxygen out of the car. Harry took one shallow breath and began to cough. The sound raised the hackles on the back of Tom's neck.
"Take it easy," Tom gasped, his own lungs aching and his throat raw. "Just breathe!"
"...can't...I can't..." Another cough tore through him, and Tom began to swear steadily.
Shoving back the coat, Tom twisted around to scream through the window, "Stop it!! Turn it off!!" Flecks of foam blew around him, and he ducked back under the coat. "It's okay, Harry," he mumbled uselessly. "They have to make sure the gasoline doesn't..."
"Tom!" The single word came out as a ragged cry of pain.
"Shh. It's okay. Just breathe."
When he heard a pause in the hissing, Tom popped his head out from under the coat again and called furiously, "Listen to me, damn it! You have to stop!"
Another strange figure appeared in the rear window. "Officer Hanson?"
"Don't spray anymore!"
"Officer Hanson, you have to come out of there!"
"No! I'm not leaving!"
"You must come out now!" Tom heard the note of command in his voice and swallowed his angry words. The stranger took advantage of his silence to say, in a more normal tone, "My name is George. I'm a paramedic. I have to get in the car, but I can't if you don't come out."
"Tom?" Even muffled by the coat, Ioki sounded panicked.
Hanson shoved the fabric back from his face and leaned closer to murmur, "I've gotta go, pal."
"Hey, I thought you wanted me out of here," he quipped, almost desperately.
"Please don't l-nngh...leave!"
"Now, Officer!" the paramedic shouted.
"I'm sorry, Iokage. I'll see you when you get out."
He abruptly turned and crawled through the window frame, trying not to hear his friend's whispered protest. Hands reached out of nowhere to grab him, and he found himself bundled in a blanket and plunked down on a stretcher before he could catch his balance. The alley had been transformed into a weird, white hell of noise and hurrying bodies. Arc lights cast knife-edged shadows and bathed the wreckage in unnatural light. Foam coated the ground, spilled from the Buick's engine bay, and formed drifts around the feet of the firefighters. And harsh voices competed with the rumble of deisels and the howl of machinery. Tom lay on the stretcher, watching a hoard of figures in yellow coats and rubber boots mill around him, and wondered when exactly he had lost his grip on reality.
Captain Fuller's face appeared above him, a blessedly familiar object in all this chaos.
"You all right, Tom?"
"Yeah, I'm..." He tried to sit up, but a paramedic held his shoulder to the mattress, bringing a hiss of pain from him.
"Hold still, and let them check you out," Fuller commanded.
But the psychedelic nightmare continued. Strong, impersonal hands moved over his body, while strange voices asked him a series of terse questions. Cold instruments prodded him. A light shone in his eyes. Another blanket settled over him, and straps tightened around his legs and torso, securing him to the stretcher. Through it all, he could hear his friends' voices, calling reassurances to him, but he could not find them. At the last moment, just as they were lifting him into the ambulance, he saw Captain Fuller beside him and managed to catch hold of his arm.
"Relax, Hanson. You're gonna be fine."
"Don't let them take me, yet!"
"It's better if you go."
"I told Harry I'd be here."
Fuller shot a frowning look at the paramedic and asked, "Is he really okay? Can he wait here, till they get the other officer out?"
After a moment's thought, the man nodded. "Then he goes straight to the hospital."
Tom heaved a sigh of relief, as they settled his stretcher back onto the pavement and loosened the straps that held him. He shoved aside the clinging blankets and climbed to his feet, assisted by Penhall's hand under his arm and Hoffs' words of encouragement. Finally, all four of the Jump Street officers were collected in a knot, at the outer edge of the circle of activity that surrounded the wreckage, waiting in charged silence.
Hanson had no idea how much time passed. His body began to ache, the pain expanding from his shoulder to fill every corner of him, and his vision swam in and out of focus as exhaustion claimed him. Doug stood close at his shoulder, offering mute support without betraying to Fuller how close his partner was to collapse. Only pure stubbornness kept Tom on his feet.
Suddenly, a burly figure in a yellow coat loomed up in front of them. He came up to Fuller and rasped out, in a voice turned raw from shouting, "We got 'im out, Cap'n. Paramedics'll take it from here."
Tom stepped forward, but the fireman's hand on his chest stopped him. "You can't go over there."
"I need to see him."
The paramedic who had examined Hanson earlier suddenly appeared at his shoulder. "You need to get in the ambulance. We're pulling out in just a minute."
"Please, Officer. We don't have time for heroics."
"I promised," Hanson said, in a haunted whisper.
"Trust me, your friend isn't gonna know the difference. Come on."
"Go, Hanson." Fuller gave him a gentle shove, urging him after the paramedic. His eyes lingered on Hanson's retreating form, until an apologetic grunt from the fireman drew his attention. The man handed him a sodden bundle of fabric and said, "Thought this might belong to one of you." Then he was gone.
Fuller clutched the overcoat to his chest, feeling something dampen his hands as he did so. The fine wool was covered with bits of foam and stank of gasoline. When he pried his fingers loose from the cloth and turned his palm into the light, he saw that it was slick with blood.
Hoffs gave a soft choke of pain, jolting him out of his abstraction. Fixing a frown on her that only poorly concealed his worry, he said, curtly, "Let's get to the hospital."