Redhawke.org
Prisoner X
Prisoner X
By Sherrylou and LindaS

Beta Read by CJ
Written for PetFly by
Teleplay by: Rick Husky and Laurence Frank
Story by: Rick Husky
Rated PG-13, Language, Violence
internal thought in * *


~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~

The large, beefy hand connected hard to his jaw, and then brilliant stars exploded wildly before his eyes. Falling back onto the ground, Matt heard the chanting and cheers increase. *Damn vultures!* he thought as he sat up, spitting out the foul-tasting mixture of blood and saliva.

Wearily, he pushed himself up from the floor and struggled to his feet, staggering on two legs that felt as weak as a newborn colt's. Blood from the oozing cut above his right eye trickled down the side of his face and merged with a similar flow from a deep gash on his cheek. Swiping his shirtsleeve across the side of his face and smearing the congealing blood, he blinked away the stinging tears and tried to focus on what was happening. But he was so damn tired and he hurt -- oh, god, he hurt! -- and he just didn't know if he could continue.

*Oh, Kelly. I'm so sorry for...for everything. Forgive me. I love you, baby.* He choked back a sob; his throat knotted with overwhelming emotions as he thought of his beautiful wife and son. *Take care of Matty. Don't let him forget me.*

His mind railed at this unfair turn of events his life had taken, and his heart ached for what he knew would never come to be. Three more months and he would have been home -- home with his wife and son. And all this would have been in the past.

Weaving unsteadily, Matt only narrowly avoided a roundhouse kick to the mid-section and then took advantage of his attacker's off-balance position. Renewed hope flared momentarily as he managed to kick out one of his attacker's legs, knocking the larger man down. *Maybe, just maybe...*

But within the next few moments, he found himself back on the ground in a very vulnerable position. *Get up! Get up, damn it!* Matt pleaded with himself. The frenzied cries echoing around them only increased his panic as a looming shadow blocked out the harsh glare of the lights above. Before he could make a move, a large booted foot crossed in front of his face and then he felt it press down slowly onto his throat. Eyes wide with panic, Matt's hands flailed at the threatening appendage, grasping and clawing to no avail. Air! God, he needed air!

The foot applied a greater pressure, painfully squeezing his windpipe. Gulping like a landed fish, his breaths came in shallow gasps, making an awful wheezing, rattling sound. Shouts that earlier had been ear-splitting were now fading as a buzzing in his ear became louder. Matt's vision misted over; his struggle lessened. Quivering legs stilled, and fingers jerked involuntary as his body entered its final death throes.

~~~~~~~~

Sunday Afternoon:

"All right!" Jim shouted enthusiastically at the TV. Contented, he leaned back against the couch, stretching his arms across its back. The wonderful smell of soup simmering on the stove filled the loft, accompanied with soft sounds of his roommate puttering around in the kitchen.

With three minutes left in the first half and the Seahawks in the lead by six, Jim paused from his afternoon viewing of TV football to glance over at Blair. Busy chopping up vegetables, Blair didn't seem too bothered by his recent injury, managing to maneuver the crispy greens on the cutting board even though his left wrist was firmly encased in a white fiberglass cast. Jim studied his friend, watching the awkward movements with the injured joint. As if knowing he was being watched, Blair looked up from his chore and smiled.

"So, tell me again, Chief, why you were skating without wrist guards?"

Blair set the knife down and held up the injured wrist. "Man, I wasn't grinding or attempting a three-sixty. That is so beyond me. I was just trying to go from point 'a' to point 'b,'" he said, explaining the incident. "I know...you don't have to tell me. I should have known better and worn the wrist guards." Picking up the knife and resuming his chopping, Blair shook his head. "I don't know how Alec made it look so easy."

Jim chuckled, remembering the sixteen-year-old genius that had tried to teach Blair the basics of in-line skating last year. "You're lucky that's the only thing you broke." A roar from the television set interrupted the conversation and brought Jim to his feet. "Oh, no, no, no, not another fumble. Come on, my six-year-old niece can do better than that."

"It's only a game."

Jim remained focused on the replay and snorted at Blair's remark. "It's the modern-day equivalent of the gladiatorial battle. I mean, you're the anthropologist."

"With, uh, painkillers, time-outs, and product endorsements," Blair quickly snapped back.

A rapping on the door cut off the cultural comparison.

"Could you get that?" Jim asked, pointing toward the door. Hunched near the television set, he clapped his hands together as play resumed. "All right, here we go."

Even though the football game held his attention, the fringe of his hearing picked up the creaking sound of the door opening and Blair's welcoming, "Hi," along with a responding softer, "Hi."

Recognizing the familiar voice, Jim straightened up and turned to face his old friend. He hadn't seen Kelly for several months, but she was still as pretty as their days from high school. Shoulder-length brown hair framed her petite face and emphasized her expressive green eyes -- eyes that were now revealing a painful sadness. Dressed in dark slacks that flattered her slender figure, the woman stepped hesitantly into the loft. Offering a wide smile, he crossed the room and engulfed her in a warm hug. "Hey, Kelly...what brings you here?"

Her body remained stiff, trembling slightly. Releasing Kelly and holding her at arms-length, Jim searched her face, uneasy at her silence. "What's going on?"

Kelly's eyes filled with tears, and she swallowed convulsively several times before managing to choke out, "Matt's...Matt's dead."

Quickly Jim pulled Kelly back into his arms, wrapping his arms tight around her, as he struggled to make sense of her statement. "What?"

Tears now came unbidden, and her voice quivered in wake of her crumbling composure. "I'm s-sorry. I didn't know who else to come to."

No. It couldn't be true. Matt. Dead? Jim's mind fought to accept those two words. They were incompatible, like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Full of life, a charmer with an easy smile, always looking for a way to make some fast money, those were the words that described Matt -- but not dead.

He tightened his arms around Kelley for a moment before stepping out of the hug and then gently guided her over to the sofa. As they sat down, his eyes met Kelly's mournful ones, reading the sad truth. "What happened?"

"I...I had a phone call. A prison official said that Matt was shot trying to escape."

"I just saw Matt like a month and a half ago. He had three months left to go. Why would he try to escape?"

She bit her bottom lip, failing to contain a shuddering gasp, then answered shakily, "I d-don't know."

Whispering, "Oh, my god," Jim closed his eyes briefly. With his mind still reeling from the news, he tried to organize his whirling thoughts into a plan of action. "Um... All right... Let me go get changed."

"Okay."

Patting her lightly on the knee, he rose from the couch and made his way up the steps to his room. Grateful for Blair's presence, he listened to the soft voices below as his roommate spoke comfortingly to Kelly. Those consoling words soothed him too, helping him face the fact that Matt was really gone. There. He admitted it himself. There was no getting around it. Matt. Was. Dead.

Crossing over to the closet, Jim pulled out a clean shirt and walked back to his bed. *Oh, Matty.* Still stunned by the news, he dropped heavily onto the bed. Setting the garment aside, he began to unbutton his shirt. His fingers felt thick and clumsy, and a crushing heaviness filled his heart.

~~~~~~~~

Six Weeks Earlier:

"Hey, Jimbo. Good to see ya again."

Jim sat down, peering through the reinforced glass that separated him from his friend. Matt's bright smile did little to chase away the oppressiveness he felt within the room. As often as he'd been inside prisons, it was a feeling he knew that he'd never get used to. The walls were too close, too confining; and an overwhelming coldness wrapped around him, penetrating deep within his soul. He shook off the unwanted feeling and smiled back at Matt. "You keeping your nose clean?

Matt rubbed his nose, then chuckled. "It's a whole another world in here, but, yeah, I'm staying out of trouble. Only got a little over four months left -- then freedom! I can hardly wait. I'm turning over a new leaf, Jim. I mean it. Kelly's dad is fixing me up with a job once I get out of here."

"That's good to hear. You know, if there's anything I can do..."

"Nah, you've done enough, more than enough," Matt effused, then the wide smile was replaced with a sobering look. "I...I want to thank you for keeping an eye on Kelly and Matty. She told me how you've been there for her. If she didn't have her family and you...well...I just want you to know that I'm grateful."

Warmed inside by Matt's declaration, Jim's smile widened, lighting his eyes, and he replied softly, "Hey, that's what good buddies are for."

They continued their talk for a while, making idle conversation until visiting time was over. Rising to leave, Jim took one last look at his friend and wondered where all the years had gone. If he squinted real carefully, he could still see that carefree, freckled-face kid grinning back at him. He raised his hand in a farewell salute. "You take care now. We'll go out and celebrate when you're sprung."

Matt's grin became even wider, and he winked at his good friend. "You got yourself a date!"

~~~~~~~~

Present:

That was the last time he'd seen Matt alive. Regret flooded through him at the thought of the unclaimed celebratory dinner.

"Jim?" Blair's concerned voice called from below, dissipating the recent memory. "You okay up there?"

"Yeah...yeah, I'm fine." Slipping on the clean shirt, he quickly buttoned it. "I'll be right down."

After tucking in his shirttail, he then grabbed his wallet, shoved it in his back pocket and headed down the stairs. Jim steeled his feelings, tamping them down, ready to offer Kelly his support. He'd be there for her and help with any necessary arrangements. And more importantly, he'd find out what happened to Matt.

~~~~~~~~

Monday, Coroner's Office:

Walking down the hallway, Blair asked again, "Okay, let me get this straight. One of your best friends from high school was in prison for harvesting weed?"

"Not one of the smartest guys you'd ever want to meet. I mean, Matt did a really stupid thing. The guy had a gambling problem so he tried to work his way out of it by selling pot. Not too bright, huh?"

"Nope," Blair quietly agreed.

Reaching their destination, Jim paused by the door and noted the six letters that stared back at him. 'Morgue.' Unfeeling. Impersonal. Beyond the door, a stark reality waited for him on a cold, aluminum table. His fingers lightly touched the door. Once he entered that room, words would become a solid, actual truth.

"You ready?" Blair asked softly, nodding his head toward the door.

"Yeah. Sorry." Straightening his shoulders, Jim slipped from his persona of friend to that of detective and opened the door.

"Dan," Jim greeted the Native American as he entered the room. Blair followed, a few steps behind. "What you got?"

Setting aside a chart, Dan Wolf donned a pair of latex gloves and moved over to the autopsy table. The medical examiner reached for the sheet and perfunctorily began the initial commentary. "Thirty-six year-old male, Caucasian."

The detective's breath hitched as Dan pulled back the covering, revealing the body of his childhood friend.

Wolf stopped his observations, and compassion filled his dark brown eyes. "I'm sorry, Jim. I heard he was a friend of yours."

"Yeah...uh...it's...it's okay. Please continue."

It was not the bullet wound in the back that held Jim's attention as the ME rolled the body, showing the point of entry, but the myriad of vivid bruises and contusions that covered the lower back, chest, upper arms and face. His eyes traveled to the throat where the bruises took on the shape of an odd pattern.

"What's this?"

"Ah. I knew you'd catch this." Wolf's gloved finger pointed toward the herringbone-like pattern decorating the neck.

Jim studied the strange bruising. "It...it looks like part of a shoe print"

"You got it. If I had to guess right now, probably a size 13 work boot."

"So, was the bullet wound the cause of death?"

"Huh?" Dan Wolf looked up from the body. "No. He was already dead when that happened. Most likely the crushed larynx, asphyxiation." The ME picked up a lifeless hand from the autopsy table and ran his finger across the nail beds. "Note the blue discoloration around the fingertips."

"But his wife was told that he was shot trying to escape," Blair cut in.

"There's no way this man could've been shot trying to escape seeing as he was already dead when the bullet entered his body. The neatness of the entry wound and lack of bleeding clearly indicates this. You got to have a beating heart to pump blood."

"So what are we looking at?" the detective asked, edgily.

"Preliminary findings -- manner of death -- homicide. I'll know more after I complete the autopsy."

Jim's fists clenched, his nails digging painfully into the palms of his hands as he heard Dan's conclusion. Anger? Shock? He was unsure what he was feeling, but was it really a surprise? He'd felt something was wrong the moment Kelly told him about the phone call from the prison. Dan Wolf's findings only confirmed it. A light touch to his arm reminded him that Sandburg was still by his side.

"Jim?"

He turned toward his partner. Sandburg's eyes revealed so much. Jim could easily see the concern and support offered and read the unspoken question: are you okay? He gave a little nod and then turned back toward Dan. "Send a copy of the report to my desk."

The ME glanced up from the corpse, answering, "You got it, Jim," then continued on with his examination of the body.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday Morning, St. Aloysius Cemetery:

With Blair by his side, Jim followed the solemn procession through the dew-laden grass of St. Aloysius Cemetery to what would now be Matt's final resting place. A green and white striped tent covered the small sitting area for the immediate family, and the bronze casket rested in front of the chairs, a harsh reminder of their purpose here.

The priest droned on and on about life, death and the hereafter, but Jim tuned him out, preferring to say his 'good-by' in his own way -- his own time -- until the celebrant's booming voice said, "Live a little. No, I say live more! Live in eternity with our Lord and Savior..."

Live a little. Wasn't that what Matt used to say to him? Yeah, that was Matt's motto all throughout their senior year, but Jim could never be as adventuresome as Matt, living life on the edge. No. There were responsibilities, Stevie looked toward him for guidance, and then there was his father...

~~~~~~~~

Cascade Senior High School, Boy's Locker Room - Fall 1979:

Standing up to snap his jeans, Jim was hit in the face with a wet towel. "Hey!" he grumbled, tossing the towel back in the direction of his wet-haired friend.

"What's eating you? We won the game, didn't we?" chuckled the boy as he shot and scored with the towel into the laundry cart.

"You were supposed to roll to the left," Jim replied, pulling on a long-sleeved plaid shirt.

"Oh, as if it would've mattered. You were still able to get the pass off and into the end zone for the winning touchdown."

*Yeah, I did,* Jim thought. *But barely. I had to scramble to throw the ball before being creamed by the two largest defensive players on the opposing high school team.* He paused in buttoning his shirt in order to rub his hand across his bruised ribs. "Your goof could have cost us the game."

"Come on, Jimbo, lighten up. We won. Remember what your Dad says...winning isn't everything...it's the only thing! Let's go celebrate." The boy pulled a dingy white tee shirt over his head and brushed back the long, dark bangs out of his eyes. "I'm picking up Kelly and a keg and heading over to the park."

Jim studied his friend carefully. Matty had been his best friend since first grade, and he wasn't sure why. Maybe because his friend had such a zest for life. The freckled-face boy was always the practical joker, the class clown. He was either getting into a tight spot or was in the process of getting out of one. His father was always telling him that Matt was nothing but a troublemaker, a loser, and a longhaired freak. Maybe that was why he liked him. Matt was so different from himself.

"Matt, the park closes at sundown," Jim cautioned.

"That's the point...there won't be any grown-ups around." Matt laughed as he waggled his eyebrows. "The whole gang is going. There'll be plenty of girls."

Jim paused, giving it some thought. Would it be worth the risk? Indecisive for only a moment, he shook his head. "Sorry."

Matt then gave him a lecherous grin. "Susie Jenkins is going to be there."

Jim's eyes lit up. He really liked that perky, redheaded cheerleader, maybe too much. He just couldn't seem to work up the nerve to ask her out...and then there was his father. Jim knew that his father wouldn't approve of this type of 'party.' Furthermore, Dad had told him to come home right after the game in a tone that clearly indicated immense displeasure and ramifications if not obeyed. Jim knew what the punishment would be and he didn't want to lose the opportunity to drive the '65 Cobra to the homecoming dance. His father had promised him that he might let him drive the car if he stayed out of trouble and kept up his grades.

"I don't think so...not tonight."

"Jimmy boy, you need to loosen up. You know you don't always have to please your father. Live a little."

"Hey, I do live a little -- just not to your extent."

Chuckling, Matt threw his jacket over his shoulder and slammed his locker door shut. "Well, if you change your mind, we'll be over at the pavilion behind Manleo Field."

Jim sat on the bench alone wondering if he could change his mind. He wished he could, in fact he was even envious of Matt's carefree attitude. What wouldn't he give to be able to cut loose? Would it be worth it to incur his father's wrath? He stood up and removed his jacket from the locker. Maybe he would head over to Manleo Field -- he sighed and slipped on the jacket -- and then again maybe not.

~~~~~~~~

Present:

Jim squinted in the bright sunlight. No, he never went to Manleo Field that night. He had been tempted...so much so that he even drove by it. But he never stopped. Just as well. The police had raided the keg party. Matt was one of the unfortunate few to be picked up. It earned him a weeklong suspension from school. And among his classmates, it only added to his reputation and popularity. Of course...where were his classmates now? He didn't see one among the few mourners standing and sitting along the graveside...just his wife, Kelly, his ten-year-old son, Matt, Jr., Kelly's dad, and a few distant relatives probably from Kelly's side of the family.

Jim rocked back on his heels and stared at the distraught wife dressed in black. Was it only a few days ago that Kelly had appeared at his doorway bearing the news of Matt's death? Refusing to believe the circumstances of her husband's death, she sought him out for help. But that was Kelly, faithful to her husband to the end.

Kelly always stood beside Matt. They'd eloped right after graduation from high school. Kelly went to work for Sears and Matt with the local garage. Unfortunately, Matt was unable to settle down. He still liked to party and wager a bit more than he could afford on the ponies. He still believed that winning wasn't everything...it was the only thing. He kept waiting for the big score. Even after Matt, Jr. was born, he continued to play. And when he got into trouble with the bookies, he figured he could grow a little grass and make enough in sales to pay off his debts. He never figured on getting caught...he never figured on getting killed.

"Hey, Jim." Blair nudged his partner. "You hanging in there?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Jim replied flatly. "You know, Matt may not have been one of the good guys, but he wasn't a bad one...he was just stupid. Stupid for thinking that selling pot would solve all his problems, but not stupid enough to try to escape from prison. Not with only three months left to go on his sentence."

Blair remained silent, letting his grieving friend vent his feelings.

"I saw him just a month and a half ago," Jim spat out. "Escaping was the farthest thing on his mind. And you saw the autopsy report. The bullet wasn't the cause of death. He was murdered, and I want to know why."

As the graveside service ended, Jim stepped up to Kelly. Wiping a stray tear from the woman's face, he continued to cup her cheek in his hand. "I'm so sorry, Kelly."

"I know, Jim." The woman gave him a sorrowful smile. "Promise me you'll find out what really happened to Matt."

"I promise." Jim brushed his lips lightly across her cheek, sealing the vow. "I promise, no matter what it takes."

Turning, he headed toward where he parked his truck, leaving his partner to pay his condolences to the family. "No matter what it takes," he whispered softly to himself. That's what he had said and he intended to keep his pledge.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday Afternoon, Major Crime:

As Jim rapped lightly on the captain's door, he was already formulating in his mind what had to be done. Now he would have to sell his boss on the idea. Entering with Blair in tow, Jim was so intent on his musing that he failed at first to notice the woman sitting across from Simon's desk.

"Excuse me, sir." Jim paused wondering if he interrupted something or if he had the wrong time for the meeting. Before he could backpedal, the captain moved over ushering both men further into the room.

"I've invited someone to sit in," Simon stated quickly, intending to squelch any disagreement the detective may have with his 'guest.' "Maggie Chandler, this is Detective Jim Ellison."

Jim glanced at the well-dressed, African-American woman before responding grudgingly, "Nice to meet you."

Leaning back against the wall as Simon proceeded to introduce his partner as a consultant to the department, Jim ignored the look that the captain sent him, which clearly meant to play nice. She was an unknown quantity and until he knew what she was here for, he would play it any way he wanted.

"Maggie was an Assistant DA." Simon directed his voice toward Jim. "Now she's with the State Board of Corrections."

The woman smiled at the men before asking, "Tell me what you know?"

Jim moved across the room, dropping the file in his hand onto the table. Was she here for the truth or for a cover-up? Deciding to be blunt, he faced her. "I have reason to believe an inmate was murdered at the Starkville facility and the authorities there are trying to cover it up."

"Matthew Temple?" Chandler offered the name without pause.

Simon raised an eyebrow, and his eyes met Jim's in a silent acknowledgement before responding, "You're familiar with the case?"

The women nodded her head in agreement. "It struck me odd that a model prisoner whose sentence had already been reduced would attempt an escape three months before parole."

"The doctor's report says he was shot in the act. We recovered the body and performed our own autopsy. The ME confirmed the bullet wound, but determined a different cause of death." The detective's voice clearly displayed the disdain he had for the prison doctor's report.

"Are you positive?" Chandler questioned, ignoring the man's tone.

"The prisoner had ruptured kidneys and a fractured jaw and ribs...basically, though, he died from asphyxiation, a crushed larynx."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that he was shot in the back after he was beaten and then asphyxiated." Jim folded his arms across his chest and stared hard at the woman. *There, now let's see her try to cover that up.*

The woman glanced down at her hand, sighing. "I'm afraid this may just be the tip of the iceberg. There's been a high incidence of serious injuries and fatalities to the inmates at Starkville."

"You have evidence to back that up?" the captain questioned.

"Dr. Spencer at the prison contacted me. He was going to give me some files. He died on his way to our meeting, in a car accident."

"That's a hell of a coincidence, huh?" Blair snorted.

"After that, we sent someone undercover. A detective with the state police went in as a guard. He was stabbed by a prisoner before he could find anything."

There was a lull in the conversation. Jim had remained quiet, absorbing the information provided by Chandler. She seemed to be on their side and with her help, perhaps he could convince the captain what he wanted...no, needed to do.

"I want to go inside, sir." Jim's statement was not a request.

"Out of the question," Simon sputtered. "Didn't you hear what Ms. Chandler just said? They already sent someone under as a guard and he was stabbed."

"Not as a guard, sir." Jim locked his eyes with Simon's. "As a prisoner."

"It's too dangerous-- " the captain started.

Before he could continue, Chandler spoke up, "Simon, we could transfer out anyone who might recognize Detective Ellison...any previous arrests..."

"That's not it!" Simon glared at the women. "What if the authorities are involved? They'll find out who he is..."

"They won't," she reassured the captain. "We'll keep what we're doing in this room. No one else will know."

Simon crossed over to his detective. "You really want this?"

Jim studied his friend's face. It was a mixture of anger and concern. *Simon, if only you knew how much I want this.* Jim could read in Simon's eyes that the decision was now his. Not breaking eye contact, Jim only nodded his response.

"All right." The captain begrudgingly gave his blessing to the demand.

~~~~~~~~

What the hell was Jim thinking? That thought kept churning through Blair's mind as he sat alone at Jim's desk. He glanced over toward the captain's office knowing that the detective and the captain were busy planning the details of transferring Jim into Starkville prison, a meeting he wasn't privileged to attend.

Tossing a pencil aside, he shuffled the papers on the desk, giving only a pretense of reading them. No way could Jim go undercover. Didn't he realize how dangerous it could be? Look what'd happened when he went undercover as a bodyguard for the Lazar family. A drugged bottle of water had sent his senses on the fritz.

Seeing Jim leave the captain's office, Blair jumped up and followed the detective through the bullpen, narrowly evading Brown's desk as he reached out to grasp the taut shoulder. "Are you nuts or what?" he hissed.

Jim turned and offered a flat, "Or what."

Blair stared at Jim incredulously.

Spreading his arms wide in a placating manner, Jim explained, "Look, Chief, something has to be done--"

"Oh, and you're the one to do it?" Frustrated, Blair ran a hand through his hair, then an idea struck him. "I could go in as your backup."

"Oh, forget it, Chief. You don't want to go near that place."

"Yeah, I know I don't want to go near it..."

Jim began walking again and Blair hurried to keep up. "Besides, Simon already has my backup -- some new recruit from Detroit. He's clean. Nobody in the jail's going to know him. He's gonna be teaching a creative writing course that I'll take as part of my cover."

Blair shook his head; Jim just wasn't getting the big picture here. "I don't like it, man. I mean, what if something happens to your senses? He's not gonna know what to do."

Stopping, Jim turned around, facing Blair, and said very seriously, "I'm gonna have to take my chances. Now if you go anywhere near that place, I'm gonna have to use your head as a football."

Sighing deeply, Blair watched as Jim continued down the hallway. He knew the empty threat was Jim's way of looking out for his best interest, but still it hurt not to be included -- to be there as backup. So much could go wrong. His concern turned toward frustration.

Clenching his good hand, he pounded it into his thigh, exasperated at his partner. Damn stubborn sentinel! Jim was too close to the case, it was too personal -- the murder of Danny Choi was a perfect example of what could go wrong. Sure, for the most part, Jim had good control of his senses, but anything could set them off. Starkville was a long way from Cascade. Who'd be there when the noise became unbearable, the lights too bright, the food unpalatable? What about the clothes, the smells? And, god forbid, a zone-out. Who'd be there then? Who?

~~~~~~~~

Sunday Night, One Week Later:

Jim stared at the reflection in the bathroom mirror. His steel blue eyes had already taken on the hardness that was so familiar from his covert-ops days. He had been trained well on how to immerse himself into a character, especially one as unfeeling as Jim Curtis or perhaps as unfeeling as Jim Ellison before Blair. "Damn," he swore softly as the name itself caused a chink in his façade. His eyes faltered briefly before regaining their coolness. The slip only strengthened his resolve to keep his friend out of the loop.

Grabbing his toothbrush, he smeared a bit of toothpaste on it before fervently attacking his teeth. Blair didn't understand...how could he? The unpleasant dinner conversation played back in his memory. Perhaps he had been a bit too hard on the kid, perhaps...but...

~~~~~~~~

Earlier:

"What part of 'NO' don't you understand, Sandburg?" Jim said tersely as he stabbed repeatedly at his steak. "No is no." Jim continued sawing at his meat. This was to be his last dinner before prison and instead of enjoying a relaxing meal, it was churning in his stomach.

Blair picked up his plate, which still contained most of his dinner, and sulked into the kitchen. "All I'm asking is to be nearby somehow."

"This isn't a game we're playing at, Chief. Don't you understand, I can't afford contact with you." Jim emphasized the last part. Blair had to understand that Jim couldn't let his friendship interfere with his cover. Jim Curtis couldn't be a nice person.

"I never thought of it as a game," Blair responded, sitting back down at the table. "I was only thinking about you...what if something should happen with your senses and..."

"Don't throw my senses up in my face again," Jim responded loudly as he dropped his silverware. The clatter the utensils made on the plate only underlined his point. "I already told you that I'd take my chances, so drop the subject." Jim pushed hard back from the table causing his chair to scrape noisily against the wooden floor. Without another word, the detective stomped off to his room, effectively putting an end to any further discussion on the matter.

~~~~~~~~

Present:

Yeah, he would take his chances. Spitting out the toothpaste along with the memory, Jim rinsed out his mouth before placing the brush back in its holder. He had only come down from his room to get ready for bed after he was sure that Blair had retired for the night. Wiping down the sink, he placed the damp towel into the hamper and then quickly headed back up the stairs. Staying downstairs only increased the likelihood of another encounter with Blair.

Sitting on the edge of his mattress, Jim carefully removed his watch and laid it on the night table. He wouldn't need it tomorrow. Stretching his tall frame across the bed, Jim stared up at the ceiling. The light from the nightstand made an interesting pattern. He knew he should turn the light off, he knew he should get some sleep -- tonight being his last night in his own bed for who knew how long. Tomorrow he'd be processed as he entered Starkville as Jim Curtis.

However, the discussion, the almost argument, all right the argument, had left unsettled feelings between him and Blair. He could hear his friend below tossing and turning. Sleep wasn't coming to Blair easy either. Blair was right in all that he'd said. Any number of things could go wrong, especially with his senses. He would just have to keep them turned down most of the time, use them sparingly and hope that the control Blair had taught him so far would be enough. He couldn't admit to his fear that something could go wrong with his senses. Curtis could show no fear whatsoever. The inmates would eat him alive if they sensed any weakness. Nor could anything personal be taken into the mission, including his friendship with Blair. That was the number one thing he learned from his covert days.

Jim closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of the sheets and the softness of the mattress. He had to put his friends out of his mind...especially Blair. He was no longer Jim Ellison but Jim Curtis. He had to assume his persona totally in order to make his cover work. Curtis was a hard, solitary man, sent up for twenty-five years to life for robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and murder. Not a very nice man. If Blair was his contact, he didn't know if he could keep up the ruse. Couldn't Blair see that? There was no separating the inner shell from the outer shell.

Reaching across the bed to switch off the light, Jim rolled over as he gave his pillow a punch or two. Tonight he'd go to sleep as Jim Ellison; tomorrow he'd wake up as Jim Curtis.


~~~~~ Act II ~~~~~

Monday:

The bus hit another rut, and Jim groaned knowingly as the motion caused him to bump once again into the prisoner sitting next to him. With a shrug of his shoulders, he offered a look that said 'What'cha want me to do about it?' and received a cold glare in return. He wondered if they were ever going to reach Starkville; the bus was hot, stuffy and the smell...

Rubbing at his manacled hands, he was anxious for the ride to end and to begin his investigation. Twenty other prisoners filled the bus and he stared at their faces. Some had looks of indifference, some were angry, others scared, but none were familiar. He only hoped that Maggie Chandler had kept her word and transferred out those who knew him.

He glanced out the window and saw the prison coming into view. It looked like a cement fortress in the middle of a sea of green. Several miles of rolling hills and fields surrounded the prison, isolating it from the town of Starkville. The bus slowed as it approached the prison's gate, then after a short stop it continued into an inner yard.

With the exchange of paperwork, one-by-one, the prisoners shuffled down the bus's steps, their leg chains clanking with the movement, and were made to stand in line. Finding himself about midway in the row of orange-clad inmates, Jim noted the welcoming committee off to the side -- several guards and another man in a suit, probably the warden.

"On the line! Eyes front! You! Look alive!" a guard snarled. Short in stature, carrying an extra twenty pounds of weight, the man made up his shortcomings with the menacing look he wore on his face. "This is Warden Hanlon," he called out. "Man has something he wants to say to you."

The warden faced the new inmates. He looked more like a high-powered exec with his designer suit, long overcoat, and neatly coiffed hair than someone in charge of a prison. "Okay, gentlemen, it's no secret that you screwed up. That's why you're here. As for me, I don't care what you did. You already stood before a judge. Now, I'm here to give you a chance to get your lives back together." He paused, looking up and down the line, then said solemnly, "The choice is yours."

Hanlon walked away as the guard strutted in front of the prisoners, mouthing loudly, "Did you get that? I'm Sergeant Burnette and I own your asses. I'm your mother. I'm your father. When you close your eyes, you'll see me. When you open your eyes, you'll see me. I decide where you go, when you sleep, and when you get visitors." He stopped his tirade directly in front of Jim, but Jim kept his eyes fixed front, ignoring the presence of the guard. "Has anybody got a problem with that?" He stood, waiting for a response. When none were forthcoming, he asked again more forcibly, "I said, has anybody got a problem with that?"

A chorus of "No, sir," greeted the guard and he nodded approvingly.

With the welcoming speeches over, Jim found himself, along with the other prisoners, channeled through a maze of doors and hallways, eventually ending up at the receiving area. The inmates were each handed white boxers. Ordered to strip down, Jim quickly complied, slipped on the boxers and then rejoined the line forming against the wall. A young black man chuckled.

"What's so funny?" growled Burnette, getting in the inmate's face.

With downcast eyes, the youth mumbled, "Nothing."

"What?"

The black youth straightened up and said a little louder, "Nothing, sir."

"Do I look like I'm laughing?"

"No, sir."

"Because this place ain't a joke. Now you're going to join the others, and Officer Douglas," he said, pointing to a thin man with graying hair and a well-lined face, "over there's going to search you." Burnette raised his head and addressed the line of prisoners, "All of you. There'll be no talking."

To Jim, the whole process seemed endless, and he felt like a bull being herded from one place to another. One at a time they were searched and then hustled off for a quick medical evaluation.

The doctor sat behind a desk, a young black woman in a white lab coat, glasses perched upon the end of her nose. A stack of files rested next to her left hand. She removed the top file and began filling in the information, barely glancing at the man before her.

Jim stood in his newly issued boxers, hands behind his back, waiting patiently, all the time feeling like a specimen on display. He could see through the grated window the other inmates, dressed likewise, milling about the outer room.

"Hepatitis?"

He shook his head.

"Tuberculosis?"

Again, another negative nod.

"Syphilis?"

"No, thank you."

With that remark, the doctor finally put her pen down and took a good look at him, then picked the pen back up and checked off the appropriate boxes before continuing, "Any history of heart problems?"

"No, but, uh...one of your former guests said there were some decent people to be found if you looked. A Dr. Spenser for one?"

"Well, Dr. Spenser's no longer with us, but I'm his replacement, Dr. Wilder."

"Ah...well, you seem nice enough, Doc." He smiled.

Jim thought she was about to say something, but instead her gaze shifted toward the small interior window in her office. He followed her line of sight to see a guard, the skinny one called Douglas, watching them from the outer room. Quickly she closed the file and called out tersely, "Next."

Another inmate entered the room, and Jim realized that he was finished. Moving along, he lined up at the last stop. An old inmate stood by a service window; behind him, shelves lined the back wall with an assortment of state-issued prison clothes: underwear, socks, blue workshirts, denim jeans, and work boots. The monotony of the job was evident in the old man's voice as he repeated over and over, "Next man. What size?"

~~~~~~~~

Officer Douglas escorted Jim through several gates and down a corridor. Now dressed and carrying a blanket and linens, Jim kept his eyes focused front, emotionless except for a slight twitching of his jaw, ignoring the inmates' catcalls and whispers as he walked by. He could feel their eyes checking him out, sizing him up. He was fresh meat.

Immersing himself deeper into the Curtis persona, he moved boldly; he knew not to make eye contact, to just keep walking.

Stopping in front of a cell, the guard gestured toward the opening. "Here's yours, right here, Curtis."

Jim glanced around, taking in the small 12-by-10-foot cell. "Home sweet home, huh?" Walking over to the bunks, he placed the bedding on the top one.

Douglas snorted. "Sense of humor. You'll need it." Leaving, the guard passed by a black inmate. "He's all yours, Turner."

Without turning around, Jim could feel the presence of the other man, large and angry.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"I'm getting a bunk."

"That's mine."

Jim picked up the bedding and set it on the bottom bunk, saying casually, "No problem."

Now the voice was loud and heated. "I put down sixteen years in here. You just don't walk into my crib and act all comfortable, punk."

He turned to face his cellmate, not ready to back down yet. "The name's Curtis."

"You got a name when I give you one."

For several seconds, a minute -- Jim didn't know how long -- their eyes locked, each man apparently sizing the other up. Jim was the first to break contact. He knew he didn't need any enemies, but in prison there were no friends -- just people who wanted something. Turner looked like a 'gate gangster,' all talk and no action, trying to establish his control, especially with the other inmates watching on with interest from the corridor.

Softening his voice, he reasoned coolly, "Look, man, I don't have a beef with you."

Turner didn't relax, his body taut, muscles flexed; and he took a step closer to Jim, hissing, "You get in my face...we go to war."

Semi-acknowledging the remark with a shrug, Jim returned to making up the bottom bunk.

~~~~~~~~

As Jim lay in bed, sleep being elusive, he tried to imagine himself back home. However, home didn't have starchy sheets and didn't smell like an old sock left for months in the bottom of a gym locker -- and it also didn't have hundreds of beating hearts in such close proximity. He scratched at a rash on his arm. Damn institutional laundry detergent! Scratching again, he tried to get settled, eventually rolling over and pounding his pillow.

Frustrated, he rested his head on his crossed arms and listened to the nighttime sounds. Extending his hearing, he allowed it to wander, searching for anything that might help in finding out what really had happened to Matt. Voices became clearer, drifting from different areas of the cellblock.

<Man, I got fifteen years on the back of my hand.>

<When I see my lady, you know what I'm going to do?>

<I'll trade you a blunt for some of that Jim Jones juice.>

Careful not to go too far, Jim reached out further with his hearing. A cell door creaked open and he winced at the grating noise.

<Let's go, Frazer. You're on the list.>

<No, I don't want to go, man.>

<You don't get a choice, Frazer. Move!>

<No, man, please. Pleeeaase!>

There was anguish in the man's voice, the panic palpable. Jim wondered where Frazer was being taken and what the list was that he'd mentioned. He stayed awake for a while longer, until all the sounds started to blend together, a dissonant mixture of noise, and he lowered his hearing. His eyelids drooped, now heavy with exhaustion, and after a few minutes he fell asleep.

~~~~~~~~

Tuesday:

The loudspeaker blared with the wake-up call, jolting Jim awake. Wearily rubbing his eyes, he blinked several times, then sat up. Inwardly, he groaned at the time -- five-thirty A.M. -- too early after a night of little sleep. Scooting out of his bunk, he joined Turner at their cell door and waited for the head count. After the guard cleared the count, Jim made his bed and then got ready for breakfast.

Buttoning up his shirt, his stomach rumbled, and he wondered what he'd find on the menu. After the cell doors opened, the inmates made their way to the dining hall -- and to start another regimented day. Jim followed the flow of traffic, joining the others to wait in the cafeteria line. Food was dished out non-discriminately; a spoonful of this and a ladle of that were plopped onto plates and handed out.

Jim got his food and looked for a spot to sit -- some place where he could get a good view of the dining hall. A large man, with tattoos wrapping around both his well-developed biceps and looking to be part of the Aryan brotherhood, eyed him as he passed by with his tray. Now there was someone to avoid. What was his name? Vincent? Vinnie? No, Vinson.

Finding an empty table towards the back, he sat down and surveyed the meal before him. Watery scrambled eggs, a paste-like substance -- possibly oatmeal -- and soggy toast. Jim wrinkled his nose at the meal and turned down his sense of taste. *Here goes nothing.* Picking up a forkful of eggs, he shoveled it into his mouth.

~~~~~~~~

His work assignment was easy enough, and Jim quickly fell into the routine. Making gutters and trim had never been a particular skill of his, but how hard was it to bend and cut metal? After lunch, he'd have some free time, and tomorrow he'd start his writing class. So far he'd discovered very little, but he had his ears tuned to the different conversations around him.

Camacho, a small Puerto Rican working nearby, tapped Turner on the shoulder. Jim picked up on their exchange, edging closer, slowly insinuating himself into the group.

"What's up, Camacho?" Turner asked, stopping his work.

Camacho glanced around nervously, then whispered to Turner, "You hear what happened to Frazer last night?"

Turner turned to face the Puerto Rican. "No, man, what'd that fool go and do now?"

"He hung himself in his cell."

Carrying a piece of aluminum over to the table, Jim interjected, "That's not what I heard."

Turner glared at his cellmate. "Who's talking to you?"

"I heard the screws drag his ass from his cell, kicking and screaming."

"Take some advice, punk. Don't hear."

Jim left the two men, retrieving another piece of aluminum, and paused as the work supervisor walked over to the bulletin board and posted a work order. Tightening his sight, he read the tacked-up sheet: 'Orangewood Hardware, November 21, 1997.'

*Interesting,* he thought. *What kind of operations are they running here? And who profits?*

~~~~~~~~

Tuesday Evening, Major Crime:

Blair glanced around the bullpen noticing that most of the detectives had left for the night, which was good...it meant he wouldn't have to answer any questions as to why he was here or where Jim was. The light in the captain's office shone brightly through the blinds, the large shadow behind the desk indicating the captain was there. Of course, Blair knew that already. Simon was waiting for him.

Pausing a moment and then knocking, he gingerly opened the door in response to the gruff, "Enter." Blair moved toward the desk under the glare of the large man. Standing his ground with determination, he waited for the captain to make the first move.

"You just had to do it, didn't you, Sandburg?" Simon rose from the desk looking none too pleased. "You had to go behind my back."

Momentary remorse swept across Blair's face. "I'm sorry, Simon, if that upset you, but don't you see how much sense this makes? Who else could you get to replace Officer McFadden at this late date?" Blair firmly pressed his case. "I'm unknown and I'm a teacher."

"Well, I don't like it, but apparently I don't have a say in the matter. Maggie Chandler phoned after you contacted her." Simon removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You'll be pleased that she agreed with you. You're set to go."

"Yes!" Blair couldn't suppress the exclamation, but upon seeing the frown on the captain's face, he quickly regained his composure.

Simon just shook his head. "You know how I feel about putting a civilian in this type of situation, an injured civilian at that."

"Hey, the fracture's almost healed," Blair hedged, holding up his casted left wrist.

"Yeah, well, I don't ever want you to go behind my back again, you got it, Sandburg?"

Blair simply nodded.

"Let's get to it then." Simon crossed back to his desk and sat down. Picking up a file folder, he pushed it across the desk.

Blair plopped in a chair and grabbed the folder. Glancing at the prison information, he found it hard to hide his smile from Simon. He did it! Jim might not be too pleased with the turn of events, but he had no say in it now. Blair had been so worried earlier when he'd heard about the officer from Detroit. It had been just luck that when he was checking up on Jim, much to the captain's annoyance, the phone call had come in informing Simon about the unavailability of his undercover cop due to appendicitis. His plea to volunteer as the replacement had been immediately turned down. Frustrated, Blair turned to the one person who could help him and that had been Ms. Chandler. She had no trouble accepting his offer to go into the prison.

Blair scanned the last few pages of the report in his hand. "So, is there anything else I should know, Simon?"

The older man sighed. "Yeah, Sandburg, and this time I want you to listen to me. Jim's life is depending on you."

"I know," Blair whispered beneath his breath before directing his whole attention to the captain and the rest of the preparatory meeting.

~~~~~~~~

Stretching out on his bunk, Jim was glad that his first full day was over, but frustrated at his lack of progress. Another inmate dead, and he was no closer to figuring out what was going on. A lot of questions, but no answers. He sighed. The list. It had to have something to do with the list.

He thought back to his little encounter with Vinson in the workout room. That was one hell of a big guy! His upper arms had to be at least eighteen inches in diameter, and the man had been bench-pressing at least three hundred pounds easily. Vinson acted like he had the run of the whole damn prison -- him and his gang.

What had Vinson said to him when the large man realized that Jim had been studying him? Oh, yeah. 'You stare at me like that again...I'm going to put your eyes out.'

But Jim hadn't backed down; he stood his ground, returning Vinson's angry glare. He had remained cold and emotionless, showing no fear. Curtis was a lifer, a cop killer. Eventually, the skinhead walked away.

It was then that he had a good look at the workout room. What was up with that? The chain link fencing, high spotlights, and thick floor mats made it almost look like some sort of an arena -- a fighting ring. Nothing made any sense.

Taking his work assignment sheet out of his shirt pocket, Jim wadded it up into a small ball. He juggled it back and forth between his two hands, then bounced it off the bottom of the top bunk and caught it.

"Yo, Curtis," a low voice from the top bunk called out.

Jim tossed the paper ball and caught it again, then answered, "Yeah, Turner?"

"Watch your back with Vinson."

"I got no problem with him. I'll take him out as quick as I took out that cop."

"You took out a cop?" Turner exclaimed in a surprised tone, then snorted. "I thought I was stupid."

"What are you in for?" Jim asked, now curious about the black man in the top bunk. He thought it was interesting that this was the most conversation he'd had with Turner and they weren't even face-to-face.

"Held up a liquor store. Dude was in the wrong place, man." Turner paused. Jim could hear him lightly pound the mattress. "So was I."

"When you getting out?"

"Every year at my parole hearing, they trot out his widow. Long as she cries...you can find me here."

The silence lengthened between them, effectively ending the conversation. Getting up from the bunk, Jim tossed the paper ball into the wastebasket, then approached the window, drawn to it by the sounds of distant shouting. Piggybacking his sight to his hearing, he looked across to the opposite wing of the prison and saw lights and movements coming from the workout room. Then, like a sharpening of a lens, he could see the backs of people, arms waving, voices cheering, as they looked on -- watching something. Try as he might, fearful of extending himself too far and ending up zoned, he couldn't decipher the noise of the crowd or get past the wall of people to see what held their interest. Damn!

A clanging on the bars jerked Jim's attention back to his cell, and he turned to see a guard staring at the two of them.

"Lights out. Shut it down."

Listening to the quiet footsteps of the departing guard continuing down the corridor, Jim sat back on his bunk, hands in lap, quietly thinking. "What's the list?"

"Don't go there, man. Leave it alone."

"Or what? Or I'll end up on a rope like Frazer?"

Turner didn't answer his question; Jim heard him rolling over in bed. Turning out the light, he settled back in his bunk for another night -- another night of sounds he didn't want to hear and another night in a small, dank cell with four walls that seemed just a little bit closer.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday Morning:

Out in the yard after breakfast, Jim watched several inmates play basketball while off to the side stood the Aryan brotherhood, looking to all like Vinson was holding court with his entourage. He ignored the racist group and fell in step with Turner.

Turner nodded his head toward the skinheads. "The Aryan brotherhood runs this dump."

"You must have seen a lot come and go. Who are you aligned with here?"

"I'm aligned with myself."

"You know a guy who came through a while back named Matty Temple?"

The black man stopped walking and faced Jim. "What's it to you?"

"I knew him on the outside."

"What's up with all these questions? It's going to get you in trouble."

Before Jim could come up with a logical answer to Turner's question, the loudspeaker squawked announcing that break time was over and for all to report to their work stations. As Turner and the other inmates headed back in, Jim paused by the fence and observed a large delivery truck parked by the loading dock. That in itself wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary. Deliveries to the prison were made all the time. What *was* interesting was the fact that huge slabs of meat destined for the prison's kitchen were instead being unloaded directly from the truck onto a smaller van marked, 'Venturi Meats.'

~~~~~~~~

Spying Burnette and Warden Hanlon standing in one corner of the metal workshop, Jim busied himself with several gutters while listening in on their conversation. The two were all cozy, head-to-head, discussing their latest business ventures. First there was Orangewood Hardware, then the beef, and now Sullivan's Depot. They had quite a racket running here -- a very profitable one. Jim felt a small degree of satisfaction. All the pieces were starting to fit together -- all that is, except for 'the list.'

Hanlon left, and Miller sidled past him, narrowing his eyes as he walked by. There was something about that con that Jim didn't like. Miller was weasel-like, slimy, quick to be your friend and just as quick to stab you in the back.

"I'm going to need more welding rods," he heard Miller tell Burnette.

The guard led Miller over to the storage area. "Turn away," Burnette commanded.

Miller turned around, and Jim focused his sight on the door of the storage area, watching Burnette tap in the code on the security panel. 6-2-6-8-2-3. He filed that number away in his memory. As the guard entered the storage room, Jim's eyes caught the sight of a tag hanging on the second shelf, fluttering. Following the direction of the air movement to a vent in the storage area, Jim saw what could possibly be a way to get to the outside. Something else to keep in mind, he noted.

The reverberating clang of a gutter being dropped drew Jim's attention away from the storage room and back to the work area.

"Move it, Liotta. You're slowing us down." Vinson loomed over the squatting man. "Squid breath, I'm talking to you. Why don't you just suck it up and pull your weight like the rest of us?"

"I'm s-sorry. I'm trying." Liotta picked up the gutter and set it on a table.

With both hands, the large inmate shoved the smaller one, shouting, "Not hard enough!"

Liotta went sprawling face first onto the hard cement floor. Walking over to the downed man, Jim gave him a hand up.

"Hey! Back off, boy scout!"

Returning to his table, Jim replied calmly, "I'm just trying to keep things moving along, all right?"

"Do I look like I need some help? I'm talking to you. What's your name?"

Now Vinson was right up in his face, inches away. Jim shrugged. "I don't want a beef with you or anybody else."

"You already got one."

Vinson leaned in closer. A thudding crack of a nightstick onto the worktable broke the tension, causing the two men to move apart.

"You two...dance on your own time. On mine, turn out product," Burnette growled, then walked away.

A buzzer sounded, announcing the end of the work period, and Liotta hurried out, first to leave the metal shop. Jim followed him into the hall and grasped the smaller man's forearm, asking, "Are you all right?"

Gasping, fear written across his face, Liotta answered, "Yeah, thanks for your help, but I'm a dead man. Vinson keeps saying it's a matter of time."

"What's his deal?"

"I was a trustee in the infirmary. I sold overstock pills to dealers outside."

Liotta continued down the corridor, and Jim kept in step, determined to find out more. "He wanted a piece of the action?"

"Yeah. But it wasn't mine to give. I had to say no. Why am I telling you this for?"

"Who signed the requisition for the overstock?"

"What's with the 'Q and A,' man?"

Jim wondered how far he should push. "I'm just trying to save your ass here."

He felt Liotta's eyes studying him, reading the sincerity in the offer. Liotta shook his head. "Well, forget about it. It's too late."

Leaning against the bars of a cell, Jim watched the small inmate scurry away like a little mouse, timid and scared.

~~~~~~~~

Finished signing in, Blair heard a pleasant voice ask, "First day?"

Setting the pen down, he looked up from the sheet to see a professionally attired African American woman smiling at him. He smiled back self-consciously. "Ah...yeah. Shows, huh? I'm Blair Sandburg, the new creative writing teacher." Blair gestured around at the bars and gates. "It's a little overwhelming. Check-in, the security gates, guards and all."

"Well, you'll get used to it."

"Been here long?"

"I've been here about a month."

"And you are...?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Dr. Wilder."

She held out her hand, and Blair accepted it, giving it a gentle shake. "Nice to meet you. Look, I was wondering if we could get coffee sometime. You could, you know, kinda show me the ropes."

Dr. Wilder's smile widened, then Officer Douglas appeared at Blair's side, and her smile quickly faltered. "I...ah...I don't socialize at work. Please, excuse me." She brushed by Blair and hurried away.

Puzzled at her hasty departure, Blair looked down the hallway where she'd disappeared, then at the guard.

"Class is waiting, Teach. This way."

Blair followed the craggy-faced guard, all the time giving himself an impromptu pep talk, until they stopped by a doorway. Peeking inside the classroom, he saw about twenty prisoners sitting at desks. They didn't look so tough, he thought with a little bit of bravado. He picked up his briefcase with his good hand and glanced inside the room once more.

"You coming or going?" Douglas asked, snickering.

He bit back a nervous gulp. Who was he kidding? They looked like they'd eat their own mothers for breakfast and then spit them out and chew them up all over again. Squaring his shoulders, he entered the classroom, ignoring the many wanton stares from the inmates eyeing him like a tasty morsel.

~~~~~~~~

Jim rubbed his hand across his forehead hoping to dissipate the growing headache. He looked up and glared at the inmate sitting across from him. The guy was busy rapping out a tune with his pencil, and Jim's look only encouraged the man to tap harder. He didn't think any of the other inmates wanted to be here. Creative writing...yeah. The only reason anyone was here was to get out of work. At least this room was air-conditioned.

Placing his hands on his forehead, Jim leaned forward and closed his eyes. He was only on his third day here and already he was finding it harder and harder to maintain control over his senses. His senses were being bombarded by the constant stench, the unpalatable food and the noise...most of all the noise. It was never quiet, not even at night. There was always someone bellyaching, or fighting, or worst yet, crying. And then there was the metal shop. The loud screeching and grinding of the power tools against the aluminum could give anyone a headache, let alone a sentinel. He hated to say it, but Blair was probably right. He was nuts to attempt this. What he wouldn't give right now to hear Blair's voice.

"Good morning, gentlemen."

*What the...?* Jim raised his head up in surprise and disbelief. There standing at the front of the classroom was not the officer from Detroit but his roommate. Snapping his jaw closed, Jim hardened his face and hoped no one noticed his slip.

"I'm the new creative writing teacher. My name is Blair Sandburg. As you all know, this is a writing class. And as writers, we tell stories." Blair spoke clearly, but Jim noticed the false bravura, the slightly higher pitched voice, and the small tremors. "So who out there wants to tell me a story?"

The silence that greeted that question was painfully loud to Jim.

"Anyone?" Blair gestured to the class with his hand. Jim watched Blair for a moment searching for a volunteer. *Yeah, right Chief...this isn't Anthro 101 where you can expect a pretty coed to come up with an answer.* Seeing Blair's eyes moving in his direction, Jim quickly ducked his face behind his hand in order to avoid being called upon. *Don't do it, Chief. Don't call on me.*

"How about you, sir? Want to tell me a story?"

*Shit!* Jim straightened up in the chair and pointed to himself.

"Yeah." Blair smiled as he indicated he wanted Jim to respond to the question.

*Oh, Chief, you are so dead when this is over and we get home.* Jim nonchalantly shrugged and then deadpanned his answer. "I was born, I killed a cop, I went to prison. The end."

The other inmates hooted and whistled. Some even applauded Jim's remarks. It was agonizing for Jim to watch Blair struggle to get the class under control. However, Blair seemed to be unfazed by the men's comments and attitude, instead he kept plugging away at teaching the class. Little by little, Sandburg was able to stimulate some classroom participation, and Jim sat back to listen to his guide's voice. The tension of past three days faded away amid the cadence of Blair's words...

"So, for the next class, I want you to think about some personal incident and how you can expand it into a story. Class dismissed."

Jim jerked to attention at Blair's closing remarks. Amid the scraping of chairs being moved and the inmates exiting the classroom, Jim sat still as he tried to understand what had happened to the rest of the class. Anger flared as he realized he must had fallen into a light zone while listening to Blair's voice. Irritably he rose to find Blair standing next to him.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Jim hissed.

"Take it easy. Your guy from Detroit had an emergency appendectomy, so I volunteered. Banks said no, of course, so I got Maggie Chandler to talk him into it. So, here I am. I'm your new contact. Are you okay?"

Damn! Jim sighed in resignation, giving in to the worried look directed his way and shook his head. He couldn't fault the kid for caring and wanting to help. "Yeah, I am now." Jim paused before continuing, making sure they weren't overheard. "All right, look for the laundry bag from cellblock 'B' marked 'Curtis.' You got that?"

"Okay."

Nothing further could be spoken as a guard entered the room. "Beat it. School's over."

"Uh, thanks for the tip," Jim offered as an explanation for remaining in the room.

"No problem." Blair smiled.

As Jim left, he couldn't help noticing the guard giving Blair the once over. Hopefully nothing had been overheard. He didn't want what had happened to the previous doctor to happen to Blair. When he got out of here, he was going to have to give Banks a lesson on how to say 'no' to the kid and stick to it. Jim sighed. At least one good thing came out of it...his headache was now gone.

~~~~~~~~

Blair returned to the desk, sat down, and began straightening his papers. It had gone surprisingly well after that rocky start. He knew none of the inmates really wanted to be here, kinda like when he got jocks taking his Anthro 101 course -- just another course to fill GER's -- no interest whatsoever in the class itself.

Checking through some past evaluations and educational records of the inmates in his classroom, he knew that he needed to look busy for the next half an hour -- kill a little time until he could retrieve Jim's update from the laundry room. Hopefully, he could slip in and out without being noticed.

And Jim, though angry, hadn't ripped him a new one, not yet at least. He'd actually seemed a little mellow during the class. Almost like -- No! Blair thought back to the class and Jim's behavior during the lesson, then dropped his head into his hands. A zone. Nothing heavy, probably just on the fringe of one, but Blair was sure that was it.

A noise brought Blair's head up, and he saw a large figure standing in the doorway. *Why the hell's he roaming the hallway all free-like?* Blair looked around for the guard, but he had somehow vanished. The inmate entered the classroom, closing the door behind him.

"Ah, Vinson, right?" Blair asked, remembering the inmate from the class. Standing up, he moved sideways along the desk, wondering if he could make a break for it.

Vinson said nothing, just moved closer until he stood directly opposite Blair.

"Did you want something?" Blair cringed. *Oops! Definitely not a good choice of words. I'm sure this guy wants something. Just so it isn't a five feet-nine grad student.* He felt small next to the giant of a man.

"Sandburg. What kind of name is that?"

Blair recognized what Vinson represented, the tattoos and the closely shaven head a giveaway. "Ah, Irish," he joked uneasily.

"Are you a Jewboy?" Vinson asked as he made a grab for Blair.

Dodging the large man unsuccessfully, Blair felt his good arm caught in a vise-like squeeze, the powerful fingers digging painfully into his muscle. Pulled chest-to-chest, he looked up into the steel-cold eyes of the inmate. Vinson was probably the type of child that got some sort of sick pleasure out of tormenting small animals, and he was sure that Vinson was getting enjoyment out of Blair's present discomfiture.

The door swung open, and both heads turned toward the approaching figure. Blair felt the grip loosen on his arm, and he relaxed as Officer Douglas entered the room.

"Vinson! Back to your cell."

"Teach here was just explaining the assignment." Vinson released Blair's arm, pushing the young man away. "Catch ya later, Teach," he called, strutting to the door.

As Blair watched Vinson leave with the guard following the large man out of the room, he pulled in a shaky breath and then sank wearily onto the chair. Oh, man. Rubbing his bruised arm, he looked out across the now empty classroom. Oh, man, oh, man, oh, man.


~~~~~ Act III ~~~~~


Wednesday, Late Morning:

Miller rolled the laundry cart through the cellblock calling, "Laundry! Laundry!"

One-by-one, inmates tossed their laundry bags into the cart. Miller chatted with a few, while others quickly stuffed their bags full with dirty linen and clothes. He liked this job much better than his time in the metal shop. This one gave him a little bit of freedom.

Pushing the cart along, he paused by Turner and Curtis' cell. That Jim Curtis. Damn! He looked familiar. Studying his features again, Miller knew that he'd remember the guy sooner or later.

Curtis placed his bag on top of the cart and offered a quick, "There you go."

Still wondering where he'd seen him before, Miller gave him a nod and continued wheeling the cart down the corridor. He finished with collecting the laundry for cellblock 'B' and headed toward the laundry area. Whistling all the way, he deposited the cart with the others in the laundry room. Finished with the chore, he decided that he had just enough time for a quick visit to the dayroom before lunch.

~~~~~~~~

Blair watched from around the corner as an inmate left the laundry room, and then made his move. He hoped the cart for cellblock 'B' was there. He needed to grab the note and sign out before that guard came looking for him again. This cloak and dagger stuff wasn't exactly his style.

Several carts lined the one wall, and Blair hurried over to them and quickly found the one for cellblock 'B.' Setting his briefcase aside, he rummaged through the bags until he located the one marked 'Curtis.' Carefully looking around first, he reached inside the bag, pulled out the note, and then slipped it inside his shirt pocket, giving it a little pat. Relieved that the laundry room was still empty, he smiled and picked up his briefcase. *Mission accomplished.*

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday, Early Evening:

As he sipped at the remainder of his now-cold coffee, Blair grimaced. Picking up the thermos, he shook it a few times, disappointed to find that it was empty, and set it back down on the seat.

He'd been parked on a hill overlooking the prison for most of the afternoon, about as close as he could get without drawing attention to himself. Nothing much was happening below. One van sat in the delivery area being loaded with what looked like meat products, and that was about it.

Disposing of the coffee cup, he shifted in the driver's seat and waited for a callback from the captain. Blair had called earlier, however once Simon knew that Jim was all right, the captain had cut off the conversation -- something about a mini crisis in the bullpen. That had been hours ago.

The shrill sound of the cell phone pierced the quietness of the car, first startling Blair before he quickly snatched up the phone. Thinking it's about time, he answered, "Sandburg."

Blair heard a deep sigh, and the weariness was evident in Simon's voice as he spoke, "Sorry about the delay. What did you find out?"

He fished around the front seat, finally locating the sought after slip of paper. "Okay. Jim saw trucks taking frozen meat from the kitchen, and hardware items are sold retail. Stuff the prisoners are working on. He thinks there's some black market going on. You know, I could go check out some of their delivery routes."

Simon's tired voice suddenly took on a sharper edge. "No, that sounds like detective work. Do I need to remind you that you are there to receive Jim's dispatches only? That's all I signed you on for. All right?"

"But, Simon --"

"No, Sandburg. Where are you right now?"

"Uh..." Feeling like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Blair mumbled sheepishly, "Outside the prison."

There was silence on the other end. He could almost feel the captain's frustration radiating through the phone, though no words were spoken. Finally, Blair heard the level, no-nonsense command, "I want you to head back to town. Go to the motel or get something to eat. Understand?"

"Got'cha," Blair agreed readily, then disconnected the call. Relieved that Simon hadn't chewed him out this time, he figured that maybe the captain was getting used to his little side trips off the so-called procedural path.

Turning his attention back to the prison, he saw the van leaving. *Sorry, Simon, but who's to say I can't go in the same direction. Town's that way anyway.* He started the rental car and as the van passed, fell in behind the vehicle.

The van made no stops along the way, but headed straight into town to the Starkville Restaurant. It parked in the back of the establishment, and Blair pulled his car into an open space nearby. With the window down, he watched the meat being unloaded and listened to the conversation between the driver and the restaurant owner.

"Here you go. Three sides of beef."

"Looks like it's all here," the owner said, as two kitchen workers carried off the last of the beef. Blair watched as the owner signed some paperwork and handed it back to the driver.

Tucking it away into his shirt pocket, the driver shook hands saying, "Pleasure doing business with you," then returned to the van.

Slouching lower in his seat as the van drove away, a familiar figure walked by his car and caught his eye. It was the young doctor he'd met earlier that morning. Quickly getting out of the car, Blair followed the black woman into the restaurant.

A nice-sized dinner crowd filled the restaurant, and Blair thought it was a good sign that the food there was edible. Even if talking to the doctor didn't pan out, he'd at least get a hot meal before returning to the motel. As he was being shown to a table, Blair spotted Dr. Wilder sitting alone. Stopping the hostess, he took the menu from her hand, offering a quick, "thanks," and then turned toward the young doctor's table. Acting surprised to see her there, Blair said lightly, "Dr. Wilder?"

The doctor looked up from her menu. "Ah...Sandburg, right?"

"Yeah. How you doing? I prefer Blair, though. This is the only place open besides the Dairy King."

She chuckled. "They roll up the sidewalks in this town at six o'clock. You'll get used to it."

Blair placed a hand on the empty chair at her table. "You know what? I hate eating alone. You mind if I join you?"

She nodded her head toward the chair, and Blair smiled as he sat down. "Thanks."

"So, how'd it happen?" The doctor pointed toward his cast.

"This? I zigged when I should've zagged." He grinned. "I was rollerblading."

Dr. Wilder nodded knowingly. "No wrist guards?"

"Guilty. I learned my lesson, though. I guess the hard way." He opened his menu and looked it over, saying casually, "You know, it's good getting outside of those walls once in a while, isn't it?"

"Truth is, you never really get away from it. This is a real company town."

*You got that right,* he thought and decided to push on. "I know what you mean. You wouldn't imagine where this place gets its beef from."

A look came over her face -- fear? -- and a shaky hand set the menu down, knocking over the coffee cup. "I'm sorry I'm so jumpy," she quickly apologized.

Blair leaned in, righting the cup, and asked, "What are you so jumpy about."

He heard her voice drop lower, slightly tremulous. "I...I shouldn't be getting into this."

"Sounds like you need someone to talk to." He softened his eyes, sending an expression of genuine caring, and hoped that the compassionate look would be an encouragement for her to talk.

Blair sensed a quiet acceptance as she seemed to be deciding how much to tell, and then she began to speak in a hushed voice, "I treat some injuries...from beatings...bad beatings. And knife wounds. And I'm not talking about homemade shivs. These are from hunting knives."

"You got any idea what's going on?"

"No. The inmates won't talk to me."

"Do you keep files? Records?"

"Who are you?" she asked suspiciously.

Backing off, Blair picked his menu back up, studying it. "Just a friend. You know, someone you can talk to."

After that, dinner passed quietly with little conversation. When they did talk, most of it settled on safe topics: school experiences, colleges, and their travels. Occasionally, Blair would catch Dr. Wilder scrutinizing him, apparently trying to figure out exactly where he fit into this whole scenario.

As they left the restaurant, now on friendlier terms, they walked by two parked vans. Quite a few people, people he didn't remember seeing in the restaurant, were now getting into the vehicles. Beside the nearest van stood one man having a smoke.

Dr. Wilder pointed at the tall man with graying hair and deep-set wrinkles. "See that guy by the first van? Douglas? He's a prison guard."

"Yeah. I recognize him from this morning. Maybe he's moonlighting or something."

They continued walking toward their cars, then the doctor paused, looking unconvinced by Blair's suggestion. "I see these vans several times a week."

"The same ones?"

"Yes. I don't know where they go."

They reached her car. Before letting her go, Blair took a card from his pocket and slipped it into her hand. "I'll tell you what. I'm giving you my cell phone number. You call me anytime. I'll be in touch."

Noticing the first van pulling out, Blair hurried over to his car. As the second van left the parking lot, he was right on its tail. Keeping his distance, he followed the two vans onto the same road he'd taken into town. After driving twenty minutes, he knew where they were heading.

Damn! Blair sat back in his seat, surprised. He was right back where he'd started -- at the prison. What were all those people doing there? What the hell was going on?

~~~~~~~~

Nearing lockdown for the evening, the prisoners moseyed around the cellblock, some chatting, others making a few exchanges before they had to return to their cells. Sighing, Jim leaned against the bars near his cell and listened in on the conversations around him. One in particular caught his attention. Looking down the row of cells, he saw Turner and Camacho in a heated discussion. Camacho, clearly agitated, was swearing once again that he was on 'the list,' and Turner, using a level voice, worked his best to calm the hot Puerto Rican.

Deciding to try to find out more about 'the list,' Jim approached the two inmates. Camacho eyed him distrustfully, then waved Turner off with a, "Later, man."

Jim jerked his thumb in Camacho's direction. "What's going on with him?"

"I recall giving you advice about asking questions."

Turner took off toward their cell, and Jim followed. "It's 'the list,' isn't it?" *Come on. Give me something.*

Whirling around, Turner faced Jim. He stretched his height to the max, a good two inches taller than Jim's, and narrowed his dark eyes. "Back off. Hear what I'm saying? You got no idea."

Just then, Liotta skidded into the two, and Jim saw the fear etched on the little man's face. Pushing away, Liotta scrambled down the hallway as shouts began to echo around the cellblock.

"Liotta!" Jim called.

A forceful shove knocked Jim against the bars, and heated breath warmed his ear as Vinson growled angrily, "This is my world, Curtis!"

More bodies pressed around him, and Jim pushed his way past in time to see the large man storm down the hallway after Liotta. Inmates surrounded the timid man, preventing his escape, and someone handed Vinson a towel-wrapped object.

"You're getting it now, squid-breath. Right now!"

As Vinson opened the towel, Jim caught the gleam of the shiv. "No!" he shouted. "Liotta!"

Vinson grabbed the little man and shoved him into the shower room. Jim struggled through the hands that held him back, swinging wildly. He couldn't see Liotta, but he could hear the painful cry. Finally reaching the door, he punched out the one inmate standing guard.

Stepping through the opening, Jim saw Vinson holding a bloody knife and wearing a victorious grin. Different noises swirled around him -- shouts of inmates, clattering of feet -- gaining volume, as prisoners scurried around the grisly scene. Jim knelt by the fallen man, shocked, feeling so powerless at having been unable to save him. No, no, no! This wasn't supposed to have happened.

The smell of blood permeated the air, a sickly odor that was so thick he could almost taste it; and he found it hard to tear his sight away from Liotta's lifeless eyes. Another life gone. First Matty, then Frazer, and now...now... He could feel himself teetering on the edge; there was too much coming at him from all directions, too much input. Fingers grasped his shoulder and he gasped. Startled, he turned to look into intense brown eyes -- Miller's eyes.

The inmate hissed, "You don't want any part of this. I know who you are, *Cop.*"

That three-letter word caught his attention, drawing him back from the verge of overload, leveling his senses. Jim schooled his face, taking on a harder edge, realizing he'd been right -- Miller was a snake. "I don't know you," he ground out.

"I'm the guy you didn't count on. I'm the one who slipped under the radar." Miller said it proudly, like he'd pulled one over on the cops.

*Stay cool. Keep your cover,* Jim coached himself. "You hard of hearing? I said, 'I don't know you.'"

"You busted my kid brother, Danny Ray Miller. A shootout. I was in the courtroom, front row. Every day I wanted to kill you."

Guards were now entering and securing the area, sending the prisoners into lockdown. Burnette approached them, shouting, "Lockdown! Move out!"

Jim realized that Miller held all the cards, it didn't matter if he was a cop or not, once the word was out, he was as good as dead. Hoping to stall for time, he asked, "What do you want?"

"I want out of here."

"What are you in for?"

"Nothing big -- fraud, counterfeit, forgery."

For now, there was nothing to do but agree. Tomorrow he'd get word out that he'd been made. "All right, I'll see what I can do."

"If you don't, every con in this place will know who you are."

Jim nodded, knowing that Miller would make good his threat. Now not only Miller, but also time was his enemy. He had to watch his step, and pray that Simon would move fast in getting him out of here.

Burnette came over to them again, slapping his nightstick against the palm of his hand. "I said, 'Lockdown.' Now, move, damn it!" He looked to the other guard and ordered, "Lock them up!"

~~~~~~~

Blair glanced at his watch again wondering what was keeping the doctor. He'd been sitting outside Starkville Prison since following the vans there. He hadn't seen any other activity after the people got out of the vans and would have left back to town if it hadn't been for the doctor's phone call. Apparently, she had gone back to the prison after dinner and something had upset her. She'd called him on his cell phone and asked for a meeting. So here he waited and nothing had arrived yet except for the rain.

From his vantage point, the dark prison walls mixed with the overcast night created a dismal picture worthy of a gothic novel. With the added rain, Blair could easily think of other places he'd want to be instead of parked near a prison. Actually, places where he and Jim could be together, safe places. Jim...Blair couldn't stop worrying about his friend in there. His brief contact with prison life had only increased his concern for his partner.

The glare of a car's headlights cutting through the drizzle caught Blair's attention. As the car pulled alongside, Blair quickly rolled down his car's window.

"Thanks for meeting me, Blair." Doctor Wilder looked genuinely relieved.

Blair, recognizing the young woman's need to trust someone, put his best face forward. "Oh, it's no problem." Watching the doctor glance back toward the prison, for a moment Blair thought she was going to bolt. He noticed her gripping the steering wheel tighter, her whole body tense. He was so absorbed in his observation of the woman that the next statement caught him by surprise.

"I think an inmate was murdered today." The doctor's voice trembled at the revelation.

"What? What happened?" *Did she say murder?* Blair's head was filling with the possibilities. Stunned at the news, he had to swallow to clear his throat before he could voice his next question. "Who...who was killed?"

"I don't know. All I know is there's a dead body and they won't let me touch the paperwork."

Blair sat there silently until he noticed the doctor's eyes upon him. Realizing that she was waiting for a response from him, he knew he had to continue the conversation. Later he could check with the captain...Simon would know something. "Uh...did you find anything on the other cases?"

"Oh, a few files." The doctor handed the files out the window to Blair. "But all the serious injuries that I treated...those files are missing."

"What about Dr. Spenser? The one who died in the car accident...did you see his files?" Blair asked hopefully.

Dr. Wilder sighed and shook her head. "No, but I'll look again."

His chest tightened with worry and disappointment. He needed the information so that he could get Jim out of that place. Jim had to be alive; he couldn't be that dead body. No way. "We need to find out if Dr. Spenser saw the same injuries that you did. Maybe that way we can link the evidence."

"Just who are you?"

Blair studied the puzzlement on the doctor's face, and then inwardly berated himself for slipping up with that last statement. "Just a friend. Just like I said."

A look of disbelief was directed toward Blair, then she closed her window and drove away. Blair hoped that she wouldn't ask questions about him at the prison. Simon would be furious to find out that he was still snooping around. Thinking of the captain, he grabbed his cell phone and punched in the number for Major Crime. Getting the captain's voice mail, he left a short message before sitting back to wait. He wasn't going to leave his 'stakeout' until he knew more. He had to find out the identification of the body.

~~~~~~~~

Locked in their cell, they began their late-night ritual, stretched out on their bunks, pretending to sleep. Sooner or later one of them would speak first. It was easier to talk this way, disassociating one from the other, not face-to-face. Jim waited patiently, wanting his cellmate to break the silence. He didn't have long to wait as Turner began speaking; his voice, low and angry, cut through the heaviness that permeated the cell from Liotta's murder.

"The prize bull's going to feast on you, man. Be smart. Play the game or you'll be next."

*Next for what? The list?* "What do you mean, 'next'? What's up with you?"

"What's up with you?" Turner snapped back.

*We're just dancing in circles.* Frustrated, Jim asked, "What did Camacho do?"

"Nothing."

"Then why's he on the list?"

"Who said he was?"

Jim leveled his voice and stated the fact, "Nobody. You can see it in his eyes."

He got up and walked over to the grated window, looking out into the nighttime sky. The rain had stopped for a moment, but Jim knew that it would soon begin again. He could sense it -- smell it, feel it. Even see the dark clouds rolling and tumbling together in preparation for another downpour.

It didn't matter though; no stars could shine through the brightness of the security lights. Only a dismal black-gray painted the sky. But the yearning was there, to be out from these walls, to see the stars, bright and twinkling, and the sky as black as ebony. That's where he wanted to be, not here in prison, but outside, away from the despair of prison life, away from the death.

His hearing picked up the sound of a cell door opening at the end of the cellblock.

<Hey, man. What do you want?>

<Get up, Camacho. You're coming with us.>

<No! No way. I ain't going.>

<I said, get up punk! You're coming with us whether you like it or not. This is it for you, punk!>

Getting a small shaving mirror off the sink's ledge, Jim slid into the corner of the cell, against the bars, and angled the mirror in the direction of the voices. Looking at the reflection, he could see Camacho being led away by two guards.

<Get your hands off me, man. I can walk on my own.>

Camacho shrugged off the guards and straightened up, walking down the corridor, head held high. Jim watched as long as he could, only pulling in when the men passed by his cell, then moving back to continue to watch until they rounded the corner.

He moved over to the window, stretching out his sight and hearing. This time he knew where they were heading -- to the workout room. Already there was a loud commotion coming from there, and he could see people gathered around the outside of the fencing. It was a ring, but what was it used for -- boxing?

In the center stood Vinson, and then a gate opened. Camacho was pushed into the ring

<Come on, punk,> Vinson roared.

Scanning the crowd, Jim could see Warden Hanlon, and now people were cheering, placing bets. It started out as a simple fight, a few punches here and there. Then Vinson grabbed Camacho and violently threw him across the ring.

Camacho lay there stunned, shaking his head as if to clear it. Vinson didn't hesitate. The large man picked the Puerto Rican up and lifted him high over his head in an illegal move that could snap a man's back. Forcefully, Vinson tossed the man hard against the mat. Camacho didn't get up. His body remained unmoving, his head at an awkward angle.

<Yeah!> Vinson raised his arms in triumph. <Yeah!>

Jim pushed away from the window, shocked. A modern-day gladiatorial fight? Fuck! Why Camacho? Why Frazer? He dropped onto his bed, still stunned by what he'd seen. It was abhorrent. Unthinkable. His heart clenched when he imagined what had taken place in that room over a week ago, and his cry was for one more: why Matt?

~~~~~~~~

Somewhere in the haze of sleep, Blair could hear the ringing of the phone. *Darn, why doesn't Jim answer it?* Yawning, he sat up dazed, confused at first to be sitting in a car, apparently out in the middle of nowhere. Searching for the source of the ringing, Blair finally located the cell phone on the car's floor.

"Yo," Blair mumbled. A loud, booming voice answered in response. While not comprehending the words, his brain, nevertheless, was able to identify the voice.

"Simon?"

"Sandburg, where the hell have you been?"

Blair winced at the harshness of the words. "Uh, Simon...didn't you get my message? I left one on your voice mail." The silence in response was all the answer Blair needed. "You know, Simon, you should clean out your mail box more often."

"Stow it, Sandburg, and answer the question."

Blair grimaced as he imagined the captain's retort when he told him his location. Hadn't Simon said earlier no detective work?

"Look, I hooked up with a new doctor at the prison. There's been a number of unaccounted for injuries she's trying to document. She said someone was killed earlier."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Someone was killed?" Simon's concern was evident. "Did she say who? Was it another inmate? A guard?"

"It might be an inmate, she wasn't sure. She thinks they're trying to cover it up." Blair paused, waiting for a reply. He could imagine Simon chewing on one of his cigars while mulling this information over.

"Look, it's too late to pull you out." The captain sighed. "I'm gonna leave you in there, but you stick to teaching. You could be jeopardizing yourself, not to mention Jim."

"Do you think Jim's okay?"

"I haven't heard anything from Maggie. We may not be able to find out anything this late at night. Listen, you call me tomorrow after your morning class and let me know whether Jim's there."

"Yeah, I hear you, Simon. I'll talk to you later, all right?" Blair disconnected the call and leaned back against the car seat. Looking at the windshield, he watched the rain hit the glass, each drop joining up with others, running into tiny rivers and tributaries. The gloom of the night matched the gloom of his soul. Disappointed that there was no news, Blair figured he'd better head back to the motel room. After all, he had a class to teach tomorrow. Wearily he started the car and turned the vehicle toward town.

~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~


Thursday Morning:

Jim slid into his seat, anxious for class to begin. With a few chosen words, Jim was sure he could get a message to Blair. He needed to be pulled, and soon. Not only did he have that slime Miller to contend with, but he also was sure his problem with Vinson would only multiply. The problem was he needed evidence, hard facts about what was happening at nights in the workout room. Right now it was just his word. Once on the outside, everything would disappear, the roaring crowds, the betting, maybe even Vinson. If the warden was involved, that man would know to lay low until the investigation petered out.

Jim rapped his pencil on the desk and sat up straighter. He could hear Blair approaching the doorway, chattering a friendly 'hello' to the guard. The murmuring in the classroom died down as Blair entered the room and placed his briefcase on the desk. Blair looked up at the class, and Jim was surprised to see a relieved look on Blair's face. *It's almost as if he didn't expect to see me.*

Catching Blair's smile as he said 'good morning' to the class, Jim relaxed. It looked like maybe he could be out of this joint by lunchtime.

"Hey, Teach..." Jim started before he was interrupted by a shove to his shoulder.

"Curtis, get your butt out of my chair."

Surprised, Jim glanced up and found Miller standing next to his desk.

"Sorry," Jim said, his voice indifferent, and rose. "I didn't know it was yours."

"Yeah, right," Miller responded. "You think you can walk right in here and take anything you want." Jim was uncertain as to what Miller was trying to prove, except maybe getting the guard's attention.

"Miller, Curtis, knock it off and sit down," the guard yelled from the doorway.

"Hey, the seat's yours. I don't want any trouble." Jim walked away with upraised hands. He couldn't afford to be thrown out of the class.

"Yeah, like that's gonna make it okay." Miller pushed Jim up against the wall.

"That's it," Douglas shouted as he walked up to the two prisoners. "You two, out of class and back to your cells now."

"But..." Jim started to say.

"No talking, move it."

Jim barely had time to glance toward Blair before being ushered out of the door. However, he had plenty of time to look at Miller on the walk back to the cellblock. What he wouldn't give to wipe that smile off the little twerp's face. Damn, he didn't like this, not one bit.

~~~~~~~~

Pushing the cart along, Miller had an extra kick to his step. He was getting out of this joint -- and soon. He looked around at the other cons. *Suckers!* Not him, though. He knew how to work the system, whether stuck in the slammer or on the outside. There were always two sides to a coin, and who said you couldn't choose both?

Bags were tossed into the cart as he wheeled it down the cellblock. Once again he had to wait for Jim's bag, and Miller eyed him suspiciously. "Laundry, man. Let's go!" he snapped. What the hell was the cop doing? He didn't trust him, but he wasn't worried because he knew he had the upper hand.

As Jim placed his bag on the cart, Miller asked, "You got what I need?"

"It's coming."

"You got 'til tomorrow or you're dead." Yep! He was in control. God! He loved that feeling of power.

And he was no dupe. Smart -- top of Vo-tech school. Yeah, he had the brains of the family. Even that classroom scene earlier hadn't fooled him.

After seeing the looks between Ellison and that teacher, Sandburg, he was sure that the longhaired geek was the inside contact. Either that or the cop had a thing for pretty men. Miller snorted at that thought. He'd fixed him good, though.

Reaching the laundry area, Miller pushed the cart in with the others, then paused, fingering the top bag. Suspicious, he reached inside and felt paper. Pulling it out, he realized it was a note and read the hastily scribbled words: 'Been ID'd. Pull me ASAP.' With a swift kick to the cart, he grew angrier by the minute as the words sunk in. Damn him! Damn that cop! *You're not going to pull one over on me!*

Miller laughed to himself as he got another piece of paper out from the old notebook he carried. He wrote a new note, folded it, and then stuffed it inside the bag. The soft clattering of footsteps warned him that a guard was coming so he quickly shoved the old note into his mouth. *Mmmm. Mighty tasty!*

Yep! Einstein had nothing on him.

~~~~~~~~

Blair couldn't believe that he was sneaking around the hallways again. Why did it always look easier in the movies? Watching an inmate leave the laundry area, he quickly entered the room, knowing this time where to find the cart.

Jim's bag sat right on top, and Blair fished through the dirty laundry for the note. "Gotcha!" he said, chuckling softly. Opening the slip of paper, he read aloud, "'Making progress. Stay tuned. P.S. The food sucks here.'" Blair shook his head in amusement. "Oh, that's a good one, Jim. What'cha doing? Channeling me?"

He tucked the note safely into his pocket, then turned to leave.

"You lost, Teach?"

Oh, god! In the doorway stood that Nazi mountain of a man. Blair moved backwards, away from the formidable figure, and bumped into a row of shelving. Vinson took advantage of their positions and strutted closer, pressing his large body against Blair's and putting his arms on either side, hands resting against the edge of the middle shelf.

Searching for a guard, an inmate, anyone, Blair looked around frantically. Trapped! He was unbelievably trapped! High metal shelving was behind him, and in front of him was a man -- a man who made the Incredible Hulk look puny.

He thrust his good hand against Vinson's chest in an attempt to push him away, but it was like trying to move a brick wall. All that he accomplished with the futile movement was to give Vinson the opportunity to smirk at his predicament.

Then there was heaviness, hot and sweaty, as Vinson lowered his weight onto Blair, pressing Blair's back painfully into the shelving. Now on tippy-toes, stretching, twisting, squirming against the assault, Blair could feel Vinson's hot breath brush across his face as the con hissed, "I saw you making eyes at that Curtis guy. You into guys?" One hand moved off the shelf, and a thick finger stroked Blair's cheek, stopping at his lips. "A candyass like you could go far in a place like this."

Closing his eyes, Blair swallowed thickly and said, "Uh, I should --"

Before he knew it, a large hand clamped over his mouth, and words, low and dangerous, were spoken. "Should what, Teach? Should scream for the guard? It's a little late for that. There's nobody around -- nobody at all -- just you and me."

Breathing heavily through his nose, with his heart racing, he stared into Vinson's cold, deadly eyes that gleamed with power, hatred and disgust. Blair could read the perverse enjoyment the con was getting from his struggle, as if he were toying with a fly, ready to pluck the wings.

The other hand reached around the nape of his neck, fingers digging into the back of his hair, and pulled him closer. Then the hand dropped to his back, then even lower, giving a little squeeze. "You know what we do at night?

Blair didn't need to imagine what went on during the hours of darkness, and he certainly didn't need to hear the answer. With all his might, he raised his casted left wrist and brought it down hard in a swinging left cross onto Vinson's nose.

Oh, god. His eyes stung with tears at the impact; and intense pain flared up his arm, all the way to his shoulder. Hunched over, gasping for air, he realized that the restraining hands were gone. Immediately, he took off, scuttling toward the door -- ignoring Vinson's howling as the con stumbled away in pain and clutched his bleeding nose.

The roar of, "Ow! You little shit! I'm going to get you!" faded into the background as Blair ran from the laundry area. Slowing his pace to a fast walk once he reached the hallway, he cradled his throbbing left arm to his stomach and bit his lip to keep from moaning. *Keep walking,* he told himself. *Don't look back. Don't you dare look back.*

~~~~~~~~

Jim strolled out into the recreational yard and spied Turner up on the risers reading a book. Time was running out; soon he'd be pulled out and he needed information now. Turner's resolve at being a loner was weakening. He could see it in the large black man's eyes, each time he issued a warning for Jim to back off or be careful.

Crossing the basketball court, he picked up a stray ball and tossed it one-handed to a waiting player. As he climbed the bleachers, he knew that he wasn't going to dance around the subject anymore, but be straight with Turner.

"I know what's going on here," Jim said as he sat down.

Turner didn't even look up from his book as he replied, "What do you know?"

"I know Camacho died in a fight last night with Vinson in the gym." He paused, letting Turner mull over the information, then continued, "In front of an audience."

Flipping a page of the book, Turner didn't even bat an eye at the mention of Camacho's death, but replied simply, "Guess his number was up."

"Meaning his number on the list?"

Turner closed the book and set it aside. Turning to face Jim, his eyes narrowed, and he asked, "Who are you, man? Ever since you got here, you've been asking questions...way too many questions. Just like this prison guard six months ago. Poking his nose around 'til he got shanked. Want to know why?"

Standing up, Turner looked down at Jim and continued, "He was a cop. Yo, Curtis, you a cop? If you ain't, I got nothing to say to you. If you are, maybe I can help."

"Why would you do that?

"So you can put in a good word for me at the parole board."

Jim took a deep breath. There was no turning back now. "I might be able to. No guarantees."

"What do you need?"

"I need evidence on the killings. Matty Temple, Doc Spenser. You in?"

Turner bent down and picked up his book. His eyes met Jim's; they were solemn, intense, as if conveying acceptance of the offer. "No guarantees," he said as he walked off.

Jim remained seated for a while after Turner left and watched two groups of inmates play a pickup game for a few minutes, then glanced over at the clock on the prison wall. Eleven-thirty. By now Blair should have the note. An hour -- in an hour he should be free of this place.

~~~~~~~~

Blair sat on the exam table waiting for the doctor to return with his x-rays. His arm, now void of a cast, still throbbed. Apparently the whack he gave Vinson cracked his cast, and he could only hope that it also cracked the goliath's nose. He couldn't believe that after the encounter, he managed to sign-out of the prison and drive himself to the small town clinic. For a moment, he thought about going to see the prison doctor, but he was afraid that he might spook Dr. Wilder.

With his upper body only attired in a hospital gown, a slight breeze sent a shiver through Blair as the curtain parted and revealed a familiar figure.

"Hey, Simon, what are you doing here? Didn't I just talk to you?" Stupid question. Of course, he just did. He'd called from the clinic letting Simon know where he was and that he'd have to call him back. Which meant that the captain hadn't been in Cascade at the time, but had actually been somewhere in Starkville -- probably looking for him.

"I was a little bit nervous about leaving you on your own. Thought you might need supervision." Simon eyed the man, shaking his head. "And it appears that I was right. What the hell happened to you, Sandburg?"

"I sort of bumped into an immovable object," Blair offered as an explanation.

"Does that immovable object have a name?"

"Uh, yeah, a big giant of a man named Vinson. But it was just a disagreement, nothing to worry about, Simon," he hurried to add. No way did he want the captain to pull him from the assignment.

Simon raised an eyebrow at the brief account, and Blair ducked his head waiting to be grilled for the full story. When no immediate questions followed, he was relieved that the captain decided to let it rest for now.

"Blair." His name. His first name said with such warmth that it caused him to look up and meet Simon's eyes. "It’s my job to worry, not only about you, but also Jim." With their 'little moment' over, Simon returned to the real reason he was there. "Speaking of Jim, did you hear from him?"

"Check it out." Blair waved toward his jacket lying across the chair. "The note's in the side pocket."

The captain crossed the room and retrieved the crumbled paper from the pocket. Unfolding it, he quickly scanned the words, laughing at the last line. "The food sucks here. I suppose he's right. It's probably worse for him with his sense of taste." He set the note aside. "You see him today?"

"Briefly. He was at my class this morning, but another prisoner started an altercation and both he and Jim were thrown out of the classroom. I never had a chance to speak with him."

"I don't like it. You think someone was trying to keep Jim from talking to you?"

"I don't know. It seemed like a typical fight, territorial and all that stuff, over a stupid chair. I don't think anyone there suspects me." Blair paused in thought. "But you know what? I did see Dr. Wilder last night. She said she might be able to get Dr. Spenser's old files. Maybe that'll be enough and we can pull Jim. How long did Maggie say it would take to get him out?"

"An hour, maybe less."

"What do you want to do?"

"If Jim says he's okay, then he's okay. Give him another twenty-four hours."

The conversation between the two men was interrupted as a young doctor entered the cubicle.

"Looks like good news, Mr. Sandburg. There doesn't appear to be any substantial damage to your wrist. You might have bruised it slightly, there's a little swelling, but the bone is healing fine. In fact, I think we can forgo putting a new cast on the arm. Instead, a splint should support the wrist adequately for the remaining weeks. Just try to be a little more careful. I'm going to give you Tylenol with codeine for the initial discomfort, and after that Tylenol should handle any little aches or pain."

Blair nodded, relieved that he hadn't re-injured his wrist. There was no way he wanted to miss tomorrow's class and miss seeing Jim.

~~~~~~~~

Thursday Evening:

Dinner was over, and he was still here. Feeling anxious and uneasy, Jim paced along the fence in the rec yard. "Come on, Simon, where are you?" He needed out -- things were starting to heat up. Miller was breathing down his neck for a free ride out, Turner knew he was a cop, and Vinson -- well, Vinson was definitely plotting something.

Looking around at the security, he read the sign posted. 'Warning: anyone attempting to cross this fence will be considered attempting to escape. You can be shot.' The sign was there as a deterrent, Jim knew that, but was it impossible to escape? He walked along the fence, studying the fortified barricade.

The first fence was about eight-feet high, topped with Constantine wire. Directly after that was another fence with sensors. He knew that it only took a couple of pounds of pressure to set the alarm off. Then rows of Constantine wire with small, sharp razors surrounded the prison. And finally, there was one more fence, most likely another sensor fence.

No. There was definitely no way over the fences. He needed another way out. Perhaps...?

It was then that he remembered the storage area and the vent with the open shaft. Even if it didn't lead to the outside, it could provide a place to hide. Tonight -- that's where he'd go. However, he needed to make his break before lockdown.

Checking to see where Vinson was, Jim spied him across the yard with his gang, their heads together, obviously in some sort of scheming or planning mode. He listened in.

<He doesn't leave the yard alive, Cooper. You got it?>

Jim didn't need a reference book to know who 'he' was. Avoidance was the name of the game, and he immediately turned around to go inside. Before he reached the door, falling in by his side were Vinson and Cooper. Jim kept walking, ignoring their presence, but at the same time on alert, ready for when they made their move.

Then something surprising happened. First one, then two, three, four black men -- no, even more now --surrounded him like a protective shield, blocking Vinson and his gang and allowing him to reach the door without incident. Turner was there, too. Shouting back at Vinson that they'd got him first.

He heard one inmate say to Turner that they were square now, evened up. Jim wanted to stop, whether to offer thanks or just to reassess the situation, he wasn't sure, but then Turner urged him on, saying, "Keep moving. We're on our own."

Together they walked down the hallway, no one talking until they turned a corner, and then Turner spoke, "Thought about what you said. About the parole board. You straight?"

"Absolutely. You can count on it," Jim said unwaveringly. He'd be there personally; he now owed this man his life.

"Here's what you got. High rollers driving in, betting ten grand a pop on the fights. Nobody who comes is going to say a word 'cause they're all accessories to violent crime."

"What about Matty Temple?"

"Vinson killed him in the ring. He was going to rat on the fights. Right now you got a bigger problem than making a case. Vinson's coming for you. You gotta get your people to pull you out."

Jim knew that Turner couldn't have been more right with that statement, however, he didn't think it was going to happen. "I put out the word. Something must have gone wrong. I got to get out on my own somehow."

Turner just stared at him with an incredulous look on his face. "You're crazy, man."

"Check it out. There's this open shaft behind the metal shop. Where does it go?"

"Steam plant."

"And after that, where?"

"You're stuck. No way out. Unless..." Turner paused for a moment. "I worked a crew that laid pipe down there. There's dozens of these tunnels and shafts all around the steam plant. You find the right tunnel, and it's a straight run to the river."

"Thanks, man." Jim walked back to his cell, thinking about what Turner had told him. It looked like that would be his way out -- through the metal shop. Tonight he'd make his break. One way or another, he was leaving Starkville Prison and the horrific memories it contained behind.

~~~~~~~~

So, far it'd been easy to elude the guards as he left cellblock 'B' and made his way to the metal shop. With his senses tracking their whereabouts, he timed each movement carefully. Nearing the metal shop, Jim jerked in surprise when a hand reached out and grabbed him.

"You going somewhere without me, Cop?" Miller hissed. His eyes flashed with anger and mistrust.

Great. How'd he miss Miller following him? He'd been so focused on the guards and the security, that he never heard the footsteps behind him. Escaping without detection was going to be difficult enough, now it just increased times ten. "I'm working on it. Now get out of here." *Come on. Just leave.*

"You're taking off. Well, I'm going with you."

Jim knew that it had been too much to hope for Miller to be sensible; and he couldn't stay in this hallway forever. Another plan was needed -- quickly -- and he decided for a little intimidation. Grabbing Miller by the shirt, Jim shoved the con against the wall and whispered heatedly, "Listen to me, Miller. You just stay cool. I told you I'd take care of you." He gave the con an extra shake, then started to walk away.

Miller followed, trailing after Jim, his voice rising in volume with each step. "Yeah, you try leaving me here, and I'll go right to the warden, man. I'll rat you out."

Damn! The little weasel had him. Jim spun around and pointed his finger at the con. "All right. You screw up and we're both dead. Now let's go."

They continued down the hallway, and then entered the metal shop. Heading straight to the storage area, Jim stood in front of the security panel and punched in the code.

"How'd you get the code, man?"

Ignoring the question, he hurried to open the door. The security camera in the corner hadn't gone undetected by him, and he knew that they had to get out of view quickly. Once inside the small room, Jim located a screwdriver and began removing the vent cover while directing Miller. "Get the flashlight and wire cutters."

He set the cover aside and climbed through the opening. Miller was quick to follow. As soon as they were both inside the shaft, Jim lifted his face upward, feeling the air current brush across his face, then said, "This way"

Walking only several yards through the tunnel, their forward movement was halted by a grated gate blocking their exit. "You got those wire cutters?" Jim asked.

Miller handed him the cutters, muttering uneasily, "Come on. Come on." The con shuffled his feet nervously and took a quick glance over his shoulder, then raised the flashlight to shine on where Jim was working.

With a quick squeeze, Jim snapped the chain that had secured the gate and swung it open. All of a sudden, footsteps from behind them echoed noisily in the tunnel, and he heard a loud shout. "Don't move! Hold it right there!"

Turning around, with hands raised, Jim saw two guards, Burnette and Douglas, approaching them; rifles were pointed at their chests.

"That's far enough," Burnette warned.

Miller edged closer. "Mr. Burnette. Mr. Burnette, sir, there's some...something I got to tell you about this guy.

Jim knew it! He just knew he couldn't trust Miller. That two-timing son of a bitch! Out to save his own skin. Standing there, Jim fumed, wishing he could wrap his fingers around Miller's neck. That'd keep his mouth shut.

"Save it. Get out of here." Burnette jerked his rifle toward the exit.

"What?" Miller sounded puzzled by that offer, and Jim was just as confused. What was Burnette up to?

"The river's that way. Go on, before I change my mind."

Taking a step, Miller hesitated and looked back, unsure what to do. Then he turned around and ran. He'd only gone several yards when the loud report of the rifle reverberated through the shaft.

Jim stared in disbelief as Douglas lowered the rifle. It had been murder, plain and simple, without hesitation, without remorse. And what about him? Was he next?

Burnette strutted over to Jim and said, "You're going to work a little harder to die."

~~~~~ 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~*~

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