Act V


Friday Morning, Solitary Confinement:

Jim paced back and forth in the small, windowless cell. Isolated, there was no way for him to get out or to get a message to anyone. God, Sandburg, I hope you're not caught up in this mess. The man pounded the wall in frustration. He could imagine what his fate was going to be. What had Burnette said? 'You're going to work a little harder to die.' He supposed that meant he would be put in the ring to fight. Who would listen to him there? Not the crowd of screaming people who were there for entertainment and a bit of betting. They were nothing but vultures gambling on who would win or die. Jim slid down the wall until he was sitting on the cold cement floor. Oh, god, gambling...isn't that how you got in this whole mess, Matty?


A Few Years Earlier:

"Matty, Matty, Matty..." Jim shook his head as he walked around the table in the interrogation room. Jim knew it wasn't good when he got a middle of the night phone call from Kelly, and then the talk with the arresting officer only confirmed the amount of trouble that his friend was in.

"I'm so sorry, Jimbo," the man moaned; his usually cheerful countenance held nothing but despair.

Jim just stared at his friend, handcuffed and seated at the table. "There's not much that I can do for you...this isn't high school or college."

"I know, I know," Matt mumbled. "But I owed so much money, I couldn't pay it off and I didn't want to lose the house. I thought, what could it hurt, growing a little weed?"

Jim only knew too well what it could hurt. Matt would be paying a huge price for his gambling problem. Trying to solve his troubles by harvesting marijuana would send him to prison for a few years and anything the DEA wouldn't confiscate, would probably be lost to the financial hardship of being in prison.

"Listen, I'll help you through this. There're some people I can talk to and maybe they'll go easier on you. But there's no way you can avoid jail time for this." Jim saw the way Matt's shoulders hunched over at the last sentence. "I'll be there for you and for Kelly and Matt, Jr. You don't have to do this alone. And maybe in prison you can even get some help or counseling for your gambling problem."

Matt lifted his tear-stained face toward the detective. "Thanks, Jim. You've been more than a good friend. And I promise I'll get help, I won't gamble anymore."


Present:

Jim chuckled to himself remembering that remark. How often had he heard those types of promises to change an addictive behavior whether it was drugs, alcohol, or gambling? But Matt was sincere. He'd kept his nose clean in prison and attended group counseling for his problem. He was all set to start anew with his wife and son. How ironic was it that gambling had killed him? And now...maybe even me.

The sound of hard-heeled shoes in the hallway caught Jim's attention, and he scooted back from the entrance to the cell. As the metal door swung open, a dark figure was roughly pushed inside. Listening to the door clang shut, Jim studied his former cellmate.

"So, Vinson figured out you helped me?"

The dark man settled down on the floor across from Jim before agreeing with him. "Yeah."

"What happens now?"

"Same as Frazer. Same as Camacho. Animals to the slaughter. I guess in the end it don't matter what you do." Turner snorted as if it was an inside joke.

Jim looked at the convict knowing that it did matter. "Why did you help me?"

"To get out of here quicker," Turner deadpanned. "I ain't a hero, I missed the redemption train a long time ago."

"It comes through every now and then," Jim offered softly.

The quiet words only aggravated the convict. "I should have never messed with you, man. I should have cut your ass the minute you rolled up in my cell."

"Well, it doesn't matter what you did, man. It matters what you do now."

Turner stared at Jim in disbelief. "Now...now I'm going to pay." The dark man's eyes reflected the fear in his voice. "Pay...with my blood."

Both men fell silent at the statement. Jim had to wonder if Turner was right.


Parking outside the diner, Blair got out of his car and slammed the car door with a little more force than necessary. It didn't change what had happened, but the action felt good. Damn good. The whole investigation was going to pot, class canceled, no Jim and now the doctor. And Blair felt guilty about that. He was the one that had gotten her involved in this mess in the first place.

He glanced across the parking lot and saw Simon parked several slots down. Walking over to the sedan, he climbed into the passenger side and slammed that door too, avoiding Simon's concerned expression.

"You get Jim's latest drop?"

"No. They canceled my class permanently," he uttered miserably. He clenched his fist in frustration, his knuckles going white.

"What?" Simon asked. Blair could hear the surprise in Simon's voice and expected the captain was just as upset by this new development.

"You think they caught onto something. Think they put you and Jim together?"

"No, no way," Blair responded adamantly. "They probably connected me and the doctor."

"Where is she now?"

"They said she called in sick with the flu, but I went by her apartment before coming back here...she's not there."

"Oh, this is not good." Simon pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. "Yeah, this is Captain Simon Banks. I need to talk to Maggie Chandler...San Francisco?"

"San Francisco? Simon, is Maggie in San Francisco?" Incredulous at what he'd heard, Blair reached for the phone.

"Quiet, Sandburg!" Simon batted Blair's hands away. Blair sat back, listening intently to Simon's side of the conversation. Maggie Chandler had promised that she would be available this whole week. She knew how dangerous this operation was with Jim going undercover.

"Well, no, I need to talk to her now. No, tomorrow will not do! A policeman's life is at stake."

Life! No, no, no, no! He held his breath while Simon finished up the conversation, railing on the assistant. If he were to lay odds, he'd bet that the captain would get Jim out of the prison today, even if it meant flying down to San Francisco and dragging Maggie Chandler's ass back here.

But, god! Could he stand the wait?


Friday Night:

Pushed through the entranceway to the workout room by one of the guards, Jim paused, amazed at the change. The room now resembled a fighting ring. Stands were filled with people, some screaming, others exchanging bets. Warden Hanlon was strutting around like a pit boss, supervising his guards collecting the money. And there in the ring, the center of attention was Vinson. Like a WWF wrestler, the man was pumping up for the crowd. Flexing his arm muscles and chanting, "Yeah! Who's the man?"

Jim was thrust through the crowd and by the time he was at the gate to the ring, the throng was in a screaming frenzy. Glancing back at the warden, the man gave Jim a knowing smile. Jim shook his head. Guess the man wins both ways. He gets to entertain his crowd while ridding himself of one nosey cop.

A final shove sent Jim into the arena face-to-face with Vinson. The man was nothing but intimidation. Built like a bull with muscles rippling in the overhead lights.

"Yeah, you're dead! Come on, baby! Come on!" the giant screamed toward Jim while wrapping his white-taped hand around a weight.

Realizing that this would not be a fair fight, Jim moved cautiously, trying to size up Vinson's weaknesses. He quickly slipped out of his long-sleeved workshirt, knowing that it would be one less object Vinson could latch onto. A female voice in the stand yelled, "Yeah, man, take it all off."

Vinson chuckled at the remark. A quick left punch to his face, follow by a corresponding right, left Jim dazed. Taking the advantage, Vinson grabbed a handful of Jim's t-shirt, pulling the man up off his feet.

"We always give what the ladies want," the con snarled in Jim's face. Using both hands, the man pulled at the shirt.

Jim felt a tight restriction in his chest and then heard a loud ripping, followed by a release. He found himself sitting on the ground, bare-chested, staring up at Vinson parading around the arena, waving his shirt like a flag.

The crowd hooted at the show; and another woman yelled out, "Yeah, baby, I'd like to run my hands over those pecs."

Vinson moved back over to Jim, posturing. "Come on, man. You haven't even laid a finger on me yet," he said smugly.

Jim staggered to his feet, brushing his hand across his naked chest. Pointing at the small butterfly bandage across the inmate's nose, Jim attempted to aggravate his opponent. "But it looks like someone else managed to get the drop on you."

Vinson's face became a mask of anger. "That little longhaired teacher got a pop in."

Jim's eyes went wide at the remark and before he could school his features, he knew that Vinson must have read the emotion on his face.

"What's the matter, Curtis," the muscle man taunted. "Did you have a thing for the Teach? So sorry, but I had his sweet ass for breakfast...and it was good."

Stunned by Vinson's statement, Jim froze. Just the thought that anything could have happened to Blair was devastating. God, hadn't he told the kid not to get involved. However, the cold feeling of dread was quickly replaced by a burning hatred. Enraged, Jim's chest swelled in anger, as he was no longer able to suppress his feelings. Roaring at Vinson, the hatred and frustration he'd experienced this past week surfaced. Jim lashed out at the con with a quick kick to the side and a right arm across the throat. Each contact with the monster brought about a feeling of vicious satisfaction. This is for Blair...for Blair and Matty and all the others.

The crowd was booing, but Jim paid no heed to the sound, letting his anger guide his movements. Another swing missed and Vinson was able to get in a roundhouse kick to Jim's chin followed by a kick to the side. The detective went stumbling to the ground as cheers resounded in response.

"Come here! Who's sweating bullets now?" Vinson knocked him back to the floor.

Jim felt the hot breath on his neck as the wild man shouted in his ear, "Who's the man? Come here! Get up!"

Vinson dug his fingers around Jim's arms and pulled him up off the floor, throwing him against the fencing. As Jim bounced off the fence, Vinson shoved him back, laughing, pressing his large body up against Jim's.

Jim shook his head, sending droplets of sweat flying. God, he hurt. His struggle to get free only succeeded in Vinson pressing harder on him. As he exhaled, the massive weight bearing down on him pushed the chain link fencing into his bare chest, squeezing the breath from him. Panting, Jim knew he was losing the battle. He was letting down everyone...Matty, Kelly, even Blair.

"Teach wasn't hard like you," the con chortled, taking one hand off the fence to stroke the trapped man's back. "He was soft, with sweet smelling hair."

No, no, no, Jim screamed in his mind. No longer thinking, he shot a hard elbow into the monster's stomach. Vinson stumbled back, setting Jim free to slam repeated punches across the man's jaw before nailing his head with a roundhouse kick.

Vinson fell like a rock to the mat; dazed, he crawled over to the fence where the guard, Douglas, was standing. Alert, Jim watched the con, waiting for the next attack. As Vinson turned and approached, Jim raised his arms, taking a boxer's stance. Prepared to counter, Jim was surprised when Vinson stopped his swing in mid-air. A sudden hiss distracted him, followed by a burning spray that hit him square in the face.

Familiar enough with pepper spray, Jim immediately recognized it. Flailing his arms, he tried to divert most of the spray away from his face. That bastard must have lifted it from the guard. Coughing and stumbling, Jim tried to move away from Vinson. A voice to his right cried out, "How do you like it now, baby? You couldn't leave well enough alone."

Jim moved away from the voice, squinting his eyes. Everything was blurry, the bright lights creating halos. Wiping at his eyes proved fruitless, and he realized that he needed to use his other senses, especially his hearing. Remembering how Blair instructed him to listen for sounds when he had been blinded by Golden, Jim concentrated on nearby noises.

Vinson wasn't light on his feet, so it was easy for Jim to locate his position. One step, two, and then a whoosh. Jim ducked just in time, feeling the air disturbed by an object passing nearby. Figuring out Vinson's location, Jim retaliated with a lucky punch to the large man's chin. Like Goliath, Vinson fell with a thud.

Jumping on top of the downed man, Jim grabbed Vinson's head, keeping one hand on the face in order to guide his next few punches. Satisfied that the man was unconscious, Jim crawled away, rising to his feet, still trying to wipe his eyes clear of the pepper spray. From all around the arena, he could hear the people booing. The warden's voice was shouting, "Get up, you bastard! Get up!" When the prison official was finally done yelling at Vinson, Jim heard him tell someone to get the con.

Moving back away from the opening, Jim's vision, though fuzzy, could make out four guards dragging the fallen man out of the ring. Now what? What would happen next?


A SWAT van, several patrol cars, and an assemblage of other response vehicles all waited at the prison's entrance in readiness. Blair stood with Simon and a SWAT lieutenant by the van and wondered what the hold up was.

It was dark and miserable...and raining again, of course. Turning to face the captain, he couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Simon, we need to get in there now!" Blair ran his good hand through his damp hair in frustration. He felt like just grabbing a hunk and ripping it out. Damn! What the hell's taking so long?

"Without a search warrant, we can't make a move. You know that by now, Sandburg."

"But Jim --"

"You don't have to remind me about Jim."

A young patrolman joined the group, handing Simon a large envelope. Opening it immediately and scanning the document, Simon looked up at the others and announced, "We got the search warrant. It's a go."

Blair followed Simon to the captain's car and quickly got in. Everything seemed to be moving so slowly. He wanted in now. He needed to see that Jim was okay -- that he was alive. Those transport vans parked inside the prison stood as a testament of some sort of transgression. Those people were involved somehow. He knew that something was going on, something was not right.

Simon started the car, and Blair sat forward, willing the car to go faster. He began a centering mantra as the gates opened and they drove into the receiving yard. Come on, Jim. Be there. Be all right.


Douglas pushed his way through the crowd yelling, "All right. Let's go. Watch out. Coming through!"

Jim could see through his bleary eyes that the guard heading his way had someone with him. As the gate opened, he stumbled back, away from the large figure being shoved inside. Blinking several times and wiping the tears away with the back of his hand, he saw that it was Turner getting up from the floor mat.

The black man stood up tall and proud, shoulders back, his chin shoved out in determination. Shirtless, Turner's well-defined chest gleamed under the hot lights. "Now isn't that a fine looking piece of meat?" a woman cried.

"Here you go," Douglas said, handing each a long hunting knife, then moved toward the exit.

His bruised knuckles ached as Jim grasped the knife. He stared at it in disbelief and moved away from the large black man. Shaking his head, he said emphatically, "I'm not going to fight you."

"If we don't fight, they'll kill us."

Turner lunged at him, making a vicious swipe in the air, and Jim skirted away, narrowly avoiding the blade. "You don't have to do this, man," he reasoned.

"I told you, I ain't no hero."

More shuffling of feet, circling one another, then Turner charged forward. Once again Jim dodged the movement. He couldn't believe what was happening. The bloodthirsty crowd was in a frenzied bloodlust, hooting, screaming, just waiting for one of them to gut the other. In disgust, he threw down the knife. "It's over," he said, then he repeated it again with more conviction. "It's over!"

"No!" Warden Hanlon shouted through the fence. "Stick him!"

Turner grabbed Jim by the shoulder and lifted the sharp knife chest high. A woman in the stands screamed, anticipating a quick and bloody finish.

"Don't do it," Jim whispered to his cellmate. "You're better than this." He could see Turner wavering, the uncertainty written on the black man's face.

The crowd began to chant, "Stick him! Stick him!" louder and louder. And as Turner raised the knife high above his head, ready to bring it down on his opponent, ecstatic screams and shrieks increased at the expected outcome.

Jim watched as Turner glanced around at all the heartless people enjoying this ruthless and inhuman sport. The black man shook his head and let the knife drop from his hand. Moans of disappointment flowed through the crowd at the action.

Glancing around the stands, Jim searched for the warden, wondering what the man was going to do with his two 'disobedient' prisoners. When he located Hanlon, he was confused to see a look of panic on the prison official's face. The warden was screaming into his walkie-talkie.

All of a sudden a SWAT unit entered the workout room shouting, "Drop your weapons! Drop your weapons!" One-by-one, each guard was surrounded and then disarmed. Douglas, still in the ring, paused before finally surrendering his weapon to Jim.

As the SWAT unit contained the crowd, Simon came winding through the mass of people calling out, "Ellison! You all right?"

Pleased to see his superior, Jim wearily replied, "Glad to see you, sir. Just get me the hell out of here." Then he looked around the captain, searching myriad of faces for another familiar face. At the entrance to the fighting ring, there stood Blair, and Jim felt tremendous relief flow through his aching body at seeing his friend.

Turning to his former cellmate, he offered his hand saying, "I owe you, Turner. I'll see you at the parole board," and Turner grasped it firmly.

"No guarantees."

"I know," Jim reaffirmed. But that didn't mean he couldn't do his best to make sure that Turner got a fair hearing. Turner had saved his life more than once, and if that didn't deserve a guarantee, then what did?

His captain approached him again as Turner left. "Don't you worry. They're going to do time in the same institution they helped supervise. I know, though, that it doesn't make up for Matt, Jim."

Exhausted, Jim rubbed his hand across his face, then looked toward Simon. "I was losing it, Simon. All the hatred...it was just eating away at me."

"Come on, let's get you out of here."

"Yeah," Jim agreed hesitantly as he looked around the now empty workout room. The quiet was almost overwhelming since the screaming mob had been removed. He had never thought of himself as being claustrophobic, but right now the walls and bars surrounding him were too confining. "I think I'm going to take a little walk. Sit outside in the open somewhere. Any place without walls, huh?" He walked away, not waiting for Simon to answer.

Jim wandered out of the workout room and looked for an easy exit. Stroking his chest, he supposed one or two ribs at a minimum were bruised. In fact, by tomorrow he was sure that he'd be sporting an array of colors, black, blue, purple and yellow over most of his body.

Rubbing his eyes, which still burned from the pepper spray, he was surprised to see Blair and the doc waiting at the end of the hall. He had caught a glimpse of his friend while talking to Simon in the arena. He had been relieved to see that Sandburg apparently was all right, especially after Vinson's comments, but he'd been disappointed when he went to leave that Blair hadn't stayed around. Maybe there was some truth to Vinson's accusations.

Jim stopped a few feet from the couple, staring at his friend. "Chief, you really okay?"

Blair looked puzzled at Jim's remark. "Yeah... Sorry I couldn't wait for you but the doc and I were ushered out of the ring for safety reasons. By the way, shouldn't I be asking you that question? You're the one that went ten rounds with The Hulk."

"No, Vinson, he said to me..."

"He said what, Jim?"

"What he said to me..." Jim paused, not sure if he should be discussing this in front of the doctor. "He said that you hit him and that...that he..."

Blair shook his head with an understanding look. "I'm fine, Jim. Nothing happened. Really. Vinson and I got a little close for a few minutes, but I used my own personal slingshot to slay the giant." He waved his splinted wrist.

The doctor, remaining quiet during the discussion, crossed over to Jim and lightly touched his left cheek.

"That looks pretty nasty," Doctor Wilder said while scanning the rest of Jim's face, studying the redness around the eyes. "What did you get hit with, pepper spray?"

Jim could only nod, relieved by Blair's last statement. He was glad that Vinson had only been bluffing.

"I think we've better get you up to the infirmary."

Jim heard the doctor's last statement, but didn't move. He was still hoping to escape outside the prison walls.

"Come on, Jim. We need to get you checked out," Blair urged.

Jim didn't have the energy to argue. He allowed Blair to lead him away, enjoying the hand that guided him toward the infirmary. It had been too long since he'd felt a kind and caring personal touch.

Silently, he followed Blair and the doctor through the maze of hallways. He was glad when they arrived at the infirmary that Vinson had already gone by ambulance to a local hospital. He didn't trust himself to be in the same room with the con. A part of him still wanted to finish the job he'd begun. There were ways, ways he learned in his covert-ops days, which he could have used to take him out. He should have.

The infirmary was surprisingly well equipped. After the doctor irrigated his eyes, she was able to take x-rays of his chest. As she stepped out to develop the plates, Blair reentered carrying a duffle bag.

"I kept a change of clothes for you out in the car. Thought you might like to put something else on beside prison blues."

Jim smiled and took the bag, pulling out his clothing. He quickly donned everything but the shirt. Without even seeing the x-rays, he knew that the doctor would probably want to tape his ribs.

Grunting as he bent over to tie his shoes, a thought occurred to him. "You want to tell me why, after you got my note, that you didn't pull me out?

"What? The 'food sucks' note?"

"No. The note that said I'd been ID'd." Jim read the confusion on Blair's face. "You didn't get it, did you? Why that rat Miller..." He didn't finish the remark. He didn't have to worry about Miller any more, that weasel got more than he'd deserved.

Shaking his head at Blair's questioning look, Jim said, "It doesn't matter," then muttered to himself, "anymore." Angry at Miller, Jim pulled harder then he should have on his shoelace and broke it off. Knotting the two pieces together, he finished tying his shoe and then sat back on the exam table right before the doctor entered with x-rays in hand.

"Did I interrupt anything, gentlemen?" the doctor asked in response to the silence in the room.

"No, nothing," Jim supplied. "Are we almost done?"

"Just about," she replied. "Nothing's broken, but I would like to tape up the ribs. And then I believe your Captain Banks wants to see you in the warden's office. Something about making a statement."

Jim sighed. The idea of escaping these four walls anytime soon was becoming a distant dream. Without a word, he raised his arms so the doctor could strap his ribs. Jim turned his head, staring out the barred window. There was nothing to see, nothing but the bright prison lights obscuring the dark sky.


Saturday Night, The Loft:

Jim stared out at the night sky. This was the first time he'd been able to be by himself since the fight. After he had been escorted to the warden's office to give a statement to the prison officials, he was thrust into a car for the ride back to Cascade.

His hope of heading home had been delayed when a phone call from Maggie Chandler informed Simon that she had returned from San Francisco and was waiting for them at the police station. Arriving late morning, the rest of the day had been spent trapped in some windowless conference room being debriefed by her and the DA. As soon as he'd arrived home, he headed straight out to the balcony

He knew that it was cold out, after all it was late autumn, but he couldn't bring himself to go back inside. He had to be outside after a week of confinement. Here he could stand and gaze at the stars and catch a whiff of the ocean breeze. Here he could let his senses roam and be free. Jim turned his face upward toward the heavens. He stared so long at the stars that the tiny pinpoint of lights caused his eyes to tear. At least that's what he was telling himself. It couldn't be for Matty, could it?

Oh, god, he went into the prison so determined to find out what had happened to his high school buddy. He'd expected to discover that maybe some prisoner or even guard had it in for his friend. That Matt had been killed in a fit of rage or even over something trivial, and the death had been covered up. He'd never expected to find out that Matt had been slaughtered while a crowd cheered on the murderer.

Jim squeezed his eyes tighter as if that could erase the memory of the shouting horde screaming for his own blood. Much that went on that night remained a blur, a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. Yelling, screaming, Vinson egging him on, the guards shouting, the burning, bright lights of the arena.

Grasping the railing of the balcony, Jim tried to stop the trembling that had invaded his body. He was only cold...it was just the cold, wasn't it?

Jim heard his name softly called and at the same time a warm hand was placed on his shoulder. "Why don't you come inside now?"

He moved to follow the request, but his legs had turned into jelly. Suddenly, he found himself sitting in a heap on the floor of the balcony.

A few moments later, Jim felt a blanket draped around his shoulder along with two warm arms and a voice telling him that everything was going to be all right.

"Mmmatty's...dead," Jim managed to stutter.

"I know, Jim."

"He...he died for no...nothing. For sss..someone's sick ff..form of entertainment," Jim sobbed. God, was he weeping now?

The voice kept reassuring him, and supporting arms somehow managed to get him off the floor and into the loft.

Seated on the couch, a warm beverage was placed into his hand, and then guided to his mouth when his own shaking hands caused the liquid to slosh over the side.

"Ss...so many d...deaths." Jim squeezed his eyes shut again, thinking of all the deaths. Besides Matty's, there were Frazer's, Liotta's, Camacho's and even Miller's.

"But no more, Jim. You stopped them," the voice spoke with a firm conviction. "You stopped them and you kept your promise to Kelly."

Jim felt another shudder go through him as he thought of what would become of Kelly, a widow now, her son growing up without a father. And the mob, the people paying to watch the deaths, what of them? While the warden, guards and Vinson would be facing tough sentences, the crowd would get off lightly. Some with community service or suspended sentences, less time than Matt.

Exhaustion began to set in as Jim's body ceased to tremble. He turned toward the voice, his eyes taking in his roommate sitting there. "I'm tired," he uttered, suddenly very weary.

Blair nodded in agreement. "Why don't you just sleep down here, tonight."

As Blair rose from the couch, Jim stretched out his long legs, saying nothing as the younger man covered him with the blanket. Sensing Blair was about to depart to his room, Jim made a simple request. "Leave a light on, Chief. Just for tonight. It...it was too dark in prison."

He wasn't really speaking about the physical darkness, but the darkness that permeated the prison -- a darkness of evil, despair, and hopelessness. Here the light cast away the darkness, letting him see clearly that he was no longer in a dank 12-by-10-foot cell.

"Sure, Jim," came the response.

Jim looked around the loft, noticing the many objects strewed about. Blair still had some blue books sitting on the kitchen table. An odd African mask was leaning next to the TV. Listening, he could hear the bathroom faucet dripping and the hum of the refrigerator motor -- all common every day things that he couldn't find behind the locked walls of prison.

It was time to lock behind his own walls everything he had seen or heard there, time to put Jim Curtis away. Jim took a shuddering breath as he imagined the bricks needed to build that wall. Tonight he'd do what was needed to bury that memory and persona, and tomorrow he'd be himself again -- tomorrow he'd be Jim Ellison -- detective, sentinel, friend.


Several Weeks Later:

Blair grabbed the mail before dashing back up the stairs. He needed to get back before the oven timer went off. He had a new vegetarian casserole dish baking that he planned to try out on Jim.

He just made it inside the door when the timer beeped. Dropping the mail on the kitchen counter, he quickly turned off the timer and set the oven on warm knowing that Jim would be home soon having called earlier to say he was leaving the station.

Blair picked up the mail from the counter, sorting it as he flipped through the stack. Bill...bill...bill...letter, who does Jim know from Montana? The return address name was Temple. Blair carefully laid the letter next to Jim's place setting at the table. He knew that Jim would want to read the letter right away. The rest of the mail, he set on the counter.

Blair went back to the kitchen to get the salad ready. However his eyes were constantly drawn toward the envelope. He could only hope that it was good news, nothing that would dredge up old memories. With the exception of the first night home from prison, Jim had somehow been able to put the whole experience behind him. Locked away with all his others bad memories such as Peru and the helicopter crash. Only occasionally had he heard Jim in the middle of the night calling out for his friend.

The opening of the door interrupted Blair's thoughts. He smiled at his friend, who seemed to be more relaxed lately. He watched as Jim caught his smile and reflected it back toward him.

"What's up, Chief?"

"Nothing, just good to see you home on time for once. By the way, there's a letter for you on the table."

Blair watched as his friend crossed over and picked up the letter. Several times he flipped it over staring at the envelope before opening it. Blair didn't realize that he was holding his breath until he saw Jim grin as he was scanning the note. It must be good news, he thought while releasing his breath.

"It's from Kelly." Jim held up the decorative card with a 'Thanks' written on the front. "She said that she, Matt and her dad have settled in nicely at their new home. Matt is enjoying his new school and has even gone out for basketball." Jim paused before relaying the next bit of information. "She apparently has settled with the state for a nice sum of money guaranteed to put Matt through college. She didn't want a drawn out court battle, wanted to put everything behind her."

Blair watched as Jim became more solemn over the next part of the correspondence. "Uh, she wanted to thank us for everything we did in finding out how Matt had been killed. She wanted to thank me for keeping my promise."

Jim pulled two photographs from the envelope. Blair kept silent as Jim stared at the images in his hand until curiosity got the best of him.

"What you got?"

"Picture of Kelly, Matt and her dad." Jim shuffled the pictures around, obviously taking a longer time viewing the other photograph. "And a picture of Matty and me."

Blair took the photo from Jim's hand. The picture must have been taken after a football game. Both boys were still in uniform, sweaty and muddy, arms draped over one another. "You were what...seventeen?"

"Yeah, seventeen. Sometimes it's hard to believe we were so young. So much has happened since then."

"Bet you were the heartbreaker, eh?" Blair joked as he waggled his eyebrow.

"Nah, not really...but there was this one cheerleader."

"Oh, yeah, well you can tell me all about it during dinner. Have a seat and I'll dish it up."

Blair went into the kitchen to pull the casserole out of the oven. Out of one eye he watched as Jim carefully set the picture of him and Matty on the bookcase. It was good that Jim had finally come to term with Matt's death. Tomorrow he'd have to go out and get a frame for the photograph.

Setting the food on the table, Blair let Jim have another minute with the photo before calling him over.

"Food's ready, Jim."

Jim settled his long form into the chair and glanced with appreciation at Blair. "Looks good, Chief."

"Thanks," Blair responded. "And now, Jim, I think you were going to tell me about a certain cheerleader?"


~*~THE END~*~


 

Act IV