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A Little Culture in Texas

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          "I have the information you wanted, sir," a young, dark-haired man said, handing over a thick manila folder.  He looked like he might still belong in high school, but the baby-face was deceiving, hiding nearly thirty years.  However, the cold, dispassionate expression in his eyes hinted that those years had been spent in less than compassionate endeavors.

          The man who accepted the proffered file nodded silently, watching as his employee waited a moment, then turned on his heel to leave.  "I'll buzz you when I'm finished.  Be available."

          Cold-eyes left his employer alone in the sparse, if aesthetically decorated office.

          Oliver Wendell Corrigan Lethwell carefully removed each of the files already sitting on his leather ink-blotter, returning them to their places among the fastidious filing system occupying one drawer of his overly large desk.  When he finished, he set the newest addition to his collection before him.

          Opening the cover, he stared at the small color picture of a man stapled to the first page of the file – Levon Lundy.  The detective's eyes did not reflect the smile on his face and the older man studied the detective's face.  Sharp features, blond hair, slightly unruly.  But primarily Lethwell studied Lundy's eyes – eyes that held a hint of pain in their depths the camera had captured that day. 

          Lethwell memorized the man's face, and then he began to read.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Bradley Torras sat at his desk, leaning back in his leather chair, eyes closed, while he waited for his employer to finish with the police officer's file. Why the old man was obsessed with this particular Houston detective was a mystery to the man. However, if it provided Torras with a fresh test subject, what business was it of his to question his employer's motives?

          Previously, Torras had delivered files on Joseph Anthony LaFiamma, the officer's partner, Joanna Beaumont, Lundy's former partner and now his superior, Caroline Lundy, his deceased wife, and several other family members and friends.  The old man would make his decision concerning the officer's vulnerabilities, and then it would be time for Torras to take over.

          Bradley pondered what Detective Sergeant Levon Lundy might have done to focus the wrath of the richest man in Texas on him.  Whatever it was, it must have touched Lethwell deeply, Torras decided.  Oliver Lethwell wasn't moved by anything but the intensely personal.

          The buzzer sounded softly, calling Torras away from his musings.  The old man was through with the file.  Bradley checked his platinum Rolex – six hours.

          "Must have been an interesting read," he chuckled aloud as he stood.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "LaFiamma, you goin' to buy that thing, or d' you just plan on standin' there all day, admirin' it?"

          Joe sighed and scowled at his partner's mocking expression, hanging just over his left shoulder in the full-length mirror.  

          "Lundy, a good suit adds to a man's character.  You don't just buy one without checking how it sits on you."

          "It sits like a dandy's Saturday night."

          "What's that supposed to mean?"

          "It means, it looks fine, LaFiamma.  Now, can we get outta here?"

          Joe carefully shrugged out of the expensive Italian linen and handed it to the waiting sales clerk with a smile.  "I'll take it."

          "That's what I was afraid of," the Texan said under his breath.

          "What was that?  I don't think I heard you insulting my great taste in clothes, partner."

          "Might be great taste for Chicago, but it's sure as hell gonna stick out like a goat in the hen house around here."

          "Goat in the hen house?  Jeez, Lundy, where do you get these?"

          "Think of it as local color, LaFiamma.  Now, come on.  We're goin' to be late as it is."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "I want him," Lethwell said, sliding the color snapshot of Lundy across the leather ink-blotter to Torras.  The man nodded, running a hand over his thick black hair.  Houston BioTechnixs was a large international corporation with unusual resources and connections – one lowly Houston detective shouldn't be any trouble at all.



          Torras raised an eyebrow.  That was only four days away.  "Monday?"

          "If you can't—"

          "I can do it, Mr. Lethwell.  I just don't want any evidence left behind that might be traced back to either of us, or Technixs.  Haste leads to careless mistakes."

          "Monday," the older man repeated.  The pale gray eyes that stared out at Torras were the same color as the man's hair, and as cold as space metal.

          "All right."

          "His weakest points are his deceased wife and his partner."

          "Not his family?  I was becoming convinced that all Texans were obsessed with the notion of family."

          The older man glared cold fire and Torras fell silent.  "You will concentrate on the wife.  Make him think his partner was responsible for her death.  That should create the utmost emotional agony.  Then, arrange for his Lieutenant to become involved, on the partner's side.  I want Detective Lundy to feel totally isolated."

          "Yes, sir."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "You're late," Lieutenant Beaumont snapped when the two detectives finally stepped into her office.

          "Sorry, Lieutenant, we—" LaFiamma began, but she cut him off with a jab of her manicured finger, pointing toward the two empty chairs in front of her desk.

          "What's up, Joann?" Lundy asked, sitting down.

          "This," she said, handing the two detectives copies of a letter.

          The pair accepted the sheets and read them over in silence.  It was Lundy who looked up first, his eyes flashing with anger.  "Is this some sorta joke?"

          "You don't see me laughing, do you, Levon?"

          LaFiamma handed the sheet back, unsure what to say.  "Uh, Lundy, look—"

          "If you're goin' t' ask me if any of this is true—?"

          "I wasn't," the Italian interrupted, defending himself.  "I wouldn't.  I was just going to ask if there's someone out there who'd want to discredit you that I don't know about."

          "Sorry," was the quiet reply.  "And there probably are," he admitted.  "I've been a cop a long time.  Did this come directly to you?" he asked Beaumont, still fuming.

          "Yeah.  Registered, can you believe it?  I had to sign for it."

          LaFiamma rolled his eyes.  "That's cold."

          "Tell me about it," Joanna snapped, then softened.  "Look, I don't buy this for a minute, Levon, but I had to tell the Chief.  I'm sorry, but it looks like it'll be turned over to Internal Affairs.  There's nothing I could do about that."

          "Am I under suspension?" the blond asked.

          "No.  Not at this time."

          "No one's gonna believe this, Lundy," LaFiamma said softly.  "I mean, how could they?"

          "Maybe, maybe not, but I want t' know who the hell's accusing me of bein' a dirty cop!"

          "We all want to know who sent this," Beaumont assured him.  "And fast, before the press gets wind of it."

          "Believe me, I plan on findin' out," Lundy said, his voice cold.  "As soon as I can."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          The phone rang several times before the dark-haired detective finally heard it.  Reaching through the darkness of early morning, he fumbled for the receiver, tangling his hand in the cord.  Four days working on their regular cases as well as checking into the letter accusing Lundy of being on the take – primarily on their own time – had left both detectives exhausted.  The last thing LaFiamma wanted was another midnight call interrupting his sleep.

          By the time he got the instrument to his ear he was already mad, and wide awake.

          "What?" he snapped, expecting to hear Lundy's voice on the other end. Unable to sleep well the past three days, the blond had resorted to early morning calls to his partner – to bounce the latest idea off the Italian.

          "I want to see you in my office A-S-A-P."


          "Now, LaFiamma."

          "It's ten minutes after midnight."

          "Don't you think I know that?  Get in here, LaFiamma."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          The ex-Chicago detective walked into Beaumont's office, glancing momentarily at the man already sitting across from her.  "You wanted to see me?"

          "Joe, this is Sergeant Walter Croms, from CID."

          "Internal affairs?" He looked at the woman, wondering if another letter had arrived, accusing Lundy—

          Lundy.  Why wasn't he here?

          "Detective, if you'd have a seat, please, I have a few questions for you."

          "Questions?  What's this all about?"

          "Joe," Beaumont said sternly, "sit down and answer the Sergeant's questions to the best of your ability.  Do you understand?"

          "Yeah, sure," he said, reluctantly easing himself into the second chair.

          "Now, Detective LaFiamma, how well do you know your partner?"


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          A squeal from his barn brought Lundy wide awake.  Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his pants, shirt and revolver, pulling the jeans and light blue flannel as he walked through the living room.  Looking out the window he scanned the still darkness, finding nothing out of place.  A second squeal punctuated the early morning silence.  Something was definitely upsetting the roan… maybe another stray dog rummaging in the barn.

          Lundy released the safety on the Colt and stepped quietly outside, heading for the barn.  He could hear Fooler moving restlessly in his stall, snorting and stamping a hoof in irritation.

          Entering the structure, Lundy eased along the wall until he reached the agitated animal.  Carefully searching the gray shadows, the Texan still couldn't identify what was upsetting the horse.

          "Shh, easy boy.  What's wrong, huh?"

          "Not a thing, Detective Lundy," a voice replied.

          The blond turned to face the intruder, thumbing the hammer back on his Colt.  The sight of a Mac-10 pointed at his chest drew a soft curse from his lips.  The young black-haired man holding the weapon smiled in reply.

          "If you would be so kind as to set the safety back on your Colt and lay it down?"  He waited as Lundy assessed the situation.  "I assure you, Sergeant, there's nothing you can do."

          "Do as he says," stated another voice from behind the detective.

          "Now," added a third.

          Lundy tensed, but he didn't turn around.  Outnumbered and outgunned, the Texan did as he was told.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "If you honestly think Lundy's a bad cop, why the hell isn't he sitting in here? Or in a cell?" LaFiamma exploded after five hours of trying to answer one leading question after another.

          "Joe!" Beaumont said, raising her voice just enough to get the detective's attention.

          "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but if you think I'm gonna to sit here and listen to this bullshit—!"

          "Sergeant LaFiamma," Croms interrupted evenly.  "I'm here with you and the Lieutenant right now because I know detective Lundy's record and his reputation, and I found this as hard to believe as you.  But, the evidence we have is… disturbing.  It's my job to check this out, and if it happens to be true, it'll be my job to arrest Levon."

          "If you believe any of this, you don't know Lundy at all," LaFiamma snapped. "Lieutenant, how can you go along with this?  He was your partner, too."

          "Don't you think I know that?" she said, pain clear in her voice. "I have no choice, and I don't like it anymore than you do, but, it's my job.  Now sit down and let's get through this."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy watched while the two nondescript backup men entered his house.  "What're they doin'?" he asked the man holding the Mac-10.  The small, comfortable smile on the man's baby-face was more disconcerting than the weapon he held.

          "Oh, just a little interior decorating, detective."

          The Texan frowned but he didn't question the man any further.  He flexed his fingers, trying to force the blood back into them, his own handcuffs cutting off his circulation.  After several minutes the two men exited, drawing the door shut behind them.  One walked over to the Jimmy and climbed in.

          "Time to go, Detective," the dark-haired man said, motioning to a brown sedan that had pulled up behind the Jimmy.  The third man joined them, opening the car door for the blond.

          Lundy waited until they were on the freeway, following the Jimmy out of town, before he asked, "Just what 'n the hell is all this about?"

          "All in good time, Levon," the younger man replied.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "I can't believe this," LaFiamma said when the police lab technicians exited Lundy's house with several plastic bags full of pure cocaine.  Croms followed them out, carrying a metal file box.

          "Found it hidden in a closet.  There's enough evidence in here to put Lundy in prison for twenty years."

          "I don't believe this!  Can't you see he's being set up?" LaFiamma stormed.  "Where the hell is Lundy?"

          "Probably gone into hiding."

          "Hiding?  Man, you're as stupid as you look, Croms!"

          "LaFiamma!  That's enough!" Beaumont yelled.

          Croms shook his head and walked off.

          "Don't antagonize him, Joe," she said.  "It'll only make it harder on Lundy in the long run."

          "Antagonize him?  He's already got my partner convicted and sentenced!"

          "The evidence is overwhelming."

          "It's a frame, Lieutenant."

          "I know that as well as you do, but there's not a damn thing I can do about it unless we can prove it, and that's going to be rather difficult until we find Levon."  She sighed heavily and rubbed at her temple.  "I'm going to have to put an all-points out on him."

          "It should be a missing officer report."

          "I know, I tried, but Croms wouldn't go for it."

          LaFiamma snorted in disgust and stalked away, Estaban walking up to take his place.  "There's no sign of a struggle of any kind, Lieutenant."

          "Damn.  Where's Levon?" she asked, echoing LaFiamma.

          "Running?" he asked half-seriously.

          The woman eyes flashed dangerously at the detective.  "You, too, Gutierrez?"

          The Mexican raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and shrugged.  "I don't believe it either, but someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure everyone else does."

          "I want you, Joe-Bob, and Carol on this full-time, starting now.  Find Lundy."

          The man nodded.  "And LaFiamma?"

          "I'll take care of him."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy shrugged off the help, struggling out of the car on his own.  Once outside the sedan he found himself facing an older, distinguished-looking man in his mid-sixties.

          "Welcome, Detective Lundy."

          "You know me?" he asked, trying to remember if he knew the man.

          "I know you better than you know yourself, Detective."

          The blond snorted.  "Who the hell are you?"

          "Oliver Wendell Corrigan Lethwell."

          The name made an impression on the detective.  Lethwell was reported to be the richest man in Texas.  He was also a recluse, eccentric in the same vein as Howard Hughes, the papers said.  No one had seen the man in years, but he was reputed to be living in a small castle somewhere in the Scottish lowlands.  His companies ranged from cattle to oil to publishing to the very successful biology and pharmaceutical company, Houston Bio-Technixs.

          "Why am I here?"

          "You are here to learn a new truth about yourself, Detective.  You are here to learn to kill.  You are here to die and be reborn.  You are here to be an avenging angel, righting the scales for my son's death."

          "Your son?" the blond asked, utterly confused.  The man sounded mad as a sun-stroked coyote and more dangerous.

          "David Waycross Douglas, Detective.  A man you shot and killed.  The man you and your partner hounded until he had nowhere left to run.  The man—"

          "David Waycross Douglas was a mid-level cocaine dealer who dabbled in kiddy-porn," Lundy interrupted.  "Snuff kiddy-porn.  Do you know what that means, sir?  It means they killed children, Mr. Lethwell.  While the camera was running, they killed kids so other perverts could get off watchin' it.  Douglas deserved what he got."

          "He deserved respect!  He was my son.  He was the living memory of his mother!"

          Lundy pressed his lips together.  It was useless.  The man was not sane.

          Lethwell nodded at the man with the Mac-10 and Lundy was escorted around the main house to a small brick building nearby.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "LaFiamma, come in here, please."

          Joe rose stiffly from where he was hunched over a file on his desk and headed for the Lieutenant's office.  Eight days, and Lundy was still missing.  The longer the investigation dragged on, the more convinced he was that Lundy had been kidnapped.  The Department, however, had launched a full-fledged manhunt after Levon's house was searched a second time, turning up further evidence that the Texan was involved with several known drug dealers and one Texas and Louisiana crime boss.

          More time passed, and with each moment the Italian grew more worried that his partner was already dead, but something deep inside himself told him that wasn't true.  Lundy was alive.  Somewhere.  And he was in trouble.

          "Close the door," Beaumont instructed.

          "You have something?"

          She paused, studying the detective's face.  "Are you getting any sleep at all?"

          He smiled.  "Yeah, couple hours a night."

          "Well, get some more tonight, because you're now officially off the case."

          "Off the case?" he echoed disbelievingly.  "Lieutenant, I'm the only one who's on the real case!"

          "I'm sorry, LaFiamma, but my orders comes straight from the Chief." She sat down and rubbed at her own puffy, sleep-deprived eyes.  "They've turned up more evidence.  Vice busted a mid-level dealer, and he's willing to talk.  It's even starting to look like Levon might've been involved with Caroline's death."

          "What?  That's insane, Lieutenant!  We both know—"

          "Yes, I know we both do, but it's bad, Joe.  It's really bad."

          "I've gotta find him."

          "You've got to go home and stay there.  There are already some suggestions that you might be involved in some of these deals with Lundy."

          "Oh, this is great, just great!  Now I'm getting set-up, too?"

          "There were some documents that suggest you're working for your uncle down here—"

          "I've never worked for my uncle!"

          "I know!" Beaumont yelled, slamming her open palms on the desktop. LaFiamma fell silent and she lowered her voice, saying, "There's even evidence suggesting that Lundy and I were on the take when we were partners."


          "You heard me.  The Chief can't afford the publicity of a dirty police Lieutenant, so I'm safe for the time being.  And he agrees that this thing with Lundy is a frame, but we can't prove it – not without Lundy.  Whoever's behind this is good, Joe.  Very, very good, and unless we can find Lundy and figure this out we're all going down.  And…"  She trailed off, rubbing her eyes again.


          "You know as well as I do that he might already be dead."

          "I won't believe that, Joanna."

          "I don't want to either, LaFiamma, but—"

          "I'll resign.  Then I can look—"

          "No.  That's not the answer.  It wouldn't look good right now."

          "You can't ask me to just sit home and do nothing, Lieutenant.  Lundy's my partner.  I owe it to him!"

          "I know, I know.  Just be careful, please.  Discreet.  We're on eggshells here."

          LaFiamma nodded.  He understood discreet.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy tested the restraints holding him to the cold examination table.  How he'd got there was a mystery, but he suspected some sort of drug in his food or water.  They had stripped him, too, re-dressing him in thin white cotton drawstring pants, but no shirt or underwear.

          Lying there, the Texan thought about his partner, knowing that LaFiamma would be looking for him.  Given the professionalism Lethwell's men had demonstrated so far, Levon wasn't sure he wanted Joe to find him. It was too dangerous.  The man might be a billionaire, but he was also obsessed with his son's death.  LaFiamma had been in that warehouse as well, but it was Lundy's bullet that had killed Douglas.

          Lundy tested the padded leather straps holding his wrists and biceps a second time.  Matching restraints bound his ankles, calves, and mid-thighs.  They were all as secure as the last time he'd tried.

          The door opened with a hiss and the resulting cold draft sent a chill racing through the detective.  The young man who had captured him entered and Levon studied his captor as he moved around the room, laying out various pieces of equipment.  About five-foot-eight, he was no more than 140 pounds – thin, but the tailored shirt he wore showed wiry muscles beneath the cloth.  Nearly black hair, and dark brown eyes.  No distinguishing marks.  Lundy couldn't recall any warrants for someone with that description.

          The man's hands were long-fingered and moved with practiced precision as he quickly organized a collection of instruments on a metal tray, then carried it to the rolling stand next to the examination table.

          "Detective," Torras greeted him cordially.

          "Just what the hell are you planning' t' do t' me?"

          Torras pursed his lips, then folded his arms across his chest.  "I suppose it won't hurt to tell you," he decided aloud.  "You see, Levon, for the past several years I've been involved in researching certain mind-altering drugs.  Synthetics, really.  It's all government and private sector sponsored research – pharmaceutical companies mostly.  You'd be surprised how easy it is to eliminate a man's memory with drugs.  However, accurately re-creating a man's memory, or altering it in certain, permanent ways, has proven to be much more difficult.  However, I have had very good teachers.  Unfortunately, they were unwilling to carry the research forward in a… progressive manner, shall we say?"

          "And you are," Lundy added.  "Using unwilling patients, too, I'll bet."

          The man shrugged, but his expression was one of amused disinterest.

          "And now you're gonna try to re-create one for me, huh?"

          "Something like that, yes.  But first we must break down the more… primitive boundaries of resistance."

          "What he hell're you talkin' about?"

          "Pain, Detective.  Pure, simple, pain."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Joseph LaFiamma scowled down at the unmarked car that was parked across the street from his apartment building.  HPD had finally decided to put him under surveillance.  Stepping over to the phone, he picked it up and dialed a number he had hoped he could forget.

          "Hello," greeted a soft baritone.

          "Uncle Mike?"

          "Joey?  Is that you?  Is something wrong?"

          "Yeah, Uncle Mike, listen, my phone's probably tapped, okay?"

          "Tapped?  What the hell's going on, Joey?"

          "I don't know yet, but they're dragging you and the business into it."

          "Explain," the older LaFiamma directed his nephew and the younger man complied, laying out the events of the last week in as much detail as he could.

          "…Now they're watching the place.  I have to know, Uncle Mike, is there something going on there I should know about?  Could this be a way to get back at me?"

          "No.  No, it's not that.  And there's nothing happening here that would bring this kind of heat down on you, Joey.  I give you my word."

          "That's good enough for me, Uncle Mike."

          "I'll look into it, okay?  You just sit tight.  And, Joey?"


          "I hope your partner's all right."

          "Thanks.  And, uncle Mike?  I'll call you."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy stared at the bright light that swung slowly from side to side above him.  The glowing sphere was his only link to the world around him, everything else had fallen away, stripped off by intense pain, drugs, and unending discomfort.

          Torras stood outside the small cell and watched the detective as his eyes tracked the bare light bulb.  Eight days and Lundy was finally ready for him to begin a memory alteration.

          It was taking far longer than Torras had expected, the detective holding out against the first levels of the process much better than his earlier test subjects.  Torras had planned for three days to break the detective down, but the weaknesses he tried to exploit were also among the Texan's strengths, and he clung to them tenaciously through the nearly ceaseless ordeal.

          Now, however, the drugs and the lack of sleep were doing what the beatings and the pain had not, wearing down the walls of the man's reality.  Torras knew Lundy would soon slip into a void where he could take over and re-create a new reality for the blond – a reality where Levon Lundy was a dirty cop.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          The detective shivered, drawing his knees up to his bruised chest and wrapping his arms around them.  Lowering his forehead to his skinned knees, Lundy tried to sort through the confusion that clamored in his mind.  It was the first time they had left him alone for more than a few minutes, and he was certain it was another trick of some kind.  Carefully, he checked his memories.  He could remember who he was, but he could no longer remember who was treating him like this, or why, or if anyone would be looking for him.

          Lundy felt himself slipping into an exhausted sleep at the same time the stream from a fire hose hit him, sweeping him back against the cold stone wall of his cell.  Fighting to stand against the harsh rush of water, Levon coughed and choked, his feet slipping out from under him and submerging him in the main flow.  Finally, on hands and knees, he retreated to the corner of the small room and hunched into the tight space, his back turned to the powerful spray, silently begging for it to end.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          LaFiamma let the phone ring while he quickly toweled off after his shower, snatching it up on the sixth ring.  "Yeah?"

          "Joe, it's Chicken.  Joanna called.  She told me you weren't eating like you should these days, so I have an order of ribs ready for you."

          The Chicagoan paused, almost asking the man what the hell he was talking about.

          "Did you hear me, LaFiamma?"

          "Uh, yeah, sure, thanks.  You caught me in the shower, I'm still drying off.  Sorry.  Sounds good.  The Lieutenant's right, I haven't been eating like I should."

          "Understandable, but you make sure you stop by and pick 'em up before they get cold."

          "I'll be right over, Chicken.  And, thanks.  I've missed that three alarm barbecue sauce."

          The big black man chuckled on the other end of the line.  "I'll be here. I'll even toss in a side of one of my special baked potatoes."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "No!" Lundy screamed.  "Caroline!"

          "Back off on the drugs," Torras instructed his assistant.  The slightly overweight, middle-aged man hastily stepped over and reduced the rate of flow on the IV drip.

          The blond relaxed on the examination table, his fight removed by the narcotics.

          Torras nodded and smiled as only Lundy's head continued to roll from side to side.  Sweat ran off the detective's face and chest, slicking the vinyl tabletop.

          "His vitals are beginning to destablize, sir," a third technician said.

          "Put in the tape we prepared."

          "But, sir, his vital signs—"

          "Do it!" Torras snapped.  "He's on the edge and I have to push him over – now."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          "Chicken, what's going on?"

          "Beaumont had this delivered for you," the man said, handing over a folded piece of paper.

          The detective opened it, reading quickly.  "Great," he breathed.

          "Bad news?"

          "They're going to pull me in for questioning again.  Seems they've uncovered some new evidence against Lundy and me."

          "What're you planning to do?"

          "I don't know, Chicken.  This is getting out of hand!  Can't they see it's a frame?  It's so obvious a blind man could see it!"

          "Care for a suggestion?"


          "Drop out of sight for a while."

          "Oh, that's a great idea, Chicken.  That's all I'd have to do to prove they're right."

          The large black man glanced around the room before he whispered.  "I have a possible lead for you."

          LaFiamma sat down at the counter.  "I'm all ears."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy didn't feel the impact when Torras's men tossed him back in his cell.  Sights, sounds, and feeling tumbled through him, disconnected, confused, and painful.  Raising his hands to his ears, he tried to silence the voices that bombarded him, but they continued to taunt him.

          "Stop!" he yelled.

          Rising, the detective swung drunkenly from side to side, flailing at the invisible tormenting demons that refused to leave him alone.  "Stop!"

          Lundy charged the wall, colliding with enough force to send him rebounding off the hard surface, sprawling into the middle of his cell.  He stayed on the cold stone floor, curled in a fetal position while the bedlam ripped though his mind.  Gripping his knees tighter to his chest, Levon let his tears fall, silent as the sound of his sanity slipping away.

          "He's ready," Torras said matter-of-factly as he watched the man.

          "You're sure?" Lethwell questioned, leaning forward in his plush leather chair.

          "Yes, sir."

          "Your life is at stake, Bradley."

          "He's ready."

          "Very well.  Turn him loose."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          LaFiamma slipped out the back of Chicken's and into the waiting car the man had "borrowed" for the detective.  On the seat was a gym bag with a change of clothes and a second note from Joanna.


          Joe, the address at the bottom of this should be a safe place for you to stay while we work this mess out.  If anything happens to me, consider using your Uncle for plane fare.  This is much bigger than we thought.  Oliver Wendell Corrigan-Lethwell, owner of Houston Bio-Technixs, might be involved.  His file is in the bag.  You and Lundy are good cops, I know that.  Good luck.  Joanna   (123 S. Glengreen)


          Pushing the cigarette lighter in, LaFiamma turned the key and eased the nondescript hatchback into the alley.  When the lighter was hot he removed it and touched it to the end of Joanna's note, curling it into a black ribbon as he drove.  At the first light, he crumbled it into powder between his fingers and scattered it out the window onto the street.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy sat rigidly in the back seat of Torras's private limousine as they drove through Houston.  Sunken, vacant eyes watched the world passing outside the heavily tinted window with impartiality.  The bruises on the detective's face were faded to a dull yellow-green, unlike the others hidden beneath his flannel shirt, which were still a vivid purple-black.  The Texan pressed on hand against his side.  The fleeting notion that he might have a cracked or broken rib was ignored.

          "Well, Detective Lundy, it's time you deal with the people responsible for your current situation.  When you meet them, what will you do, Levon?"

          "I'll kill 'em."

          "Very good, Detective.  You will kill them.  And then, Levon?  After you've killed them, what are you going to do?"

          "I'll go to Chicken's and wait for you."

          Torras smiled.  "That's right," he said.  But it will be the police who come, Levon.  And they will kill you.  Houston will have a tragic story of a cop gone bad.  A detective who fell off the edge, killed his partners and had to be killed himself.  I only wish we could have allowed you to heal first.  It will be difficult to explain the wounds and scars, but Mr. Lethwell owns the County Coroner, so that should eliminate any messy questions.

          All in all, Torras was surprised the detective looked as well as he did, at least on his face.  With luck no one would see the rest of it, except the Coroner, and he wouldn't talk.  Bradley smiled inwardly.  And, with luck, he would soon have another subject – Joseph Anthony LaFiamma.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          LaFiamma reached for his twin automatics.  The light tap on his hotel door was not repeated.  Easing off the bed, he moved to the door.  His voice dropped as he said, "Yeah?"

          "Joe, it's me, Joanna.  Let me in."

          He opened the door a crack.  The Lieutenant stared at him, concern etched deep on her face.  "Come in."

          She stepped inside and walked straight to the bed and sat down.  "It's Lundy."

          Joe froze.  "Is he—?"

          "He was at Chicken's.  Walked right in and cased the place, like he was looking for someone, then left.  Chicken said he looked bad, like someone worked him over with a tire iron.  He tried to stop him, but Levon pulled a gun on him.  Whoever it was, it wasn't the Levon Lundy we know."

          "What the hell's going on, Joann?"

          "You tell me, LaFiamma.  First I get a letter detailing Lundy's supposed involvement with a Mexican drug lord, then he disappears for twelve days and they find drugs in his house, evidence in a separate bust that ties him into dealers and mob figures.  They go back to the house and find evidence that Caroline had acquired some bad gambling debts while she was drinking, and Levon might have arranged her death to avoid trouble with his mob connection!"  Her voice had risen steadily as she spoke and Joe moved over to sit down next to her.  "Then evidence starts to surface to tie you and your family into part of the Houston mob.  And the next thing I know, Lundy's back, but he's been beaten into hamburger, and we still don't know what the hell's happening!"

          "Joanna, what—?"

          She shook her head, ignoring the detective.  "Chicken also said Levon was fighting something, Joe, something inside."

          "Like he was drugged?" he asked.

          She shrugged and shook her head, too tired to play twenty questions.

          "We're all being set up," he said softly.  "That much is obvious.  We just need to find someone who'll listen to us.  How'd you get here?"

          "Slipped out.  The Chief's probably going to have a warrant out for me after this one."

          "You really think Lethwell is involved?  I can't find any reason why he'd be interested in Lundy."

          "I don't know.  But even if he is, how're we going to track it down?  We're all wanted, Joe.  You, me, Lundy.  They even added an 'armed and dangerous' to Lundy's name."

          "Oh, that's just great."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          The blond staggered down the alley behind Chicken's.  Where was he? Where were the two people responsible for Caroline's death?  For discrediting him?  He had failed.

          Where was LaFiamma!  It was supposed to go as planned.  No slip-ups, no changes.  He had failed.

          Voices rose from somewhere inside his head, condemning him.

          Pausing in the end of the dirty alley, he leaned heavily against the graffiti-stained brick wall, panting for breath.  His strength was failing and Lundy knew it wouldn't be long before he collapsed.

          I have to find them, he growled silently.  I have to.

          A big black man had tried to stop him, but he had broken away.  Run.  Now that same black man was leaving the restaurant.

          He would know.  If anyone knew where they were, he did, Levon was sure of that.  He would follow him.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          A knock sounded at the door.  Joanna and LaFiamma reached for their guns, moving to both sides of the door.

          "Yeah?" LaFiamma said.

          "It's Chicken."

          The big back man finished speaking and let the impact sink in.  Joanna and LaFiamma both looked pale.

          "I had no idea Douglas was Lethwell's son," Beaumont finally said.

          "It's not common knowledge, since the boy's illegitimate," Chicken said.

          "I've heard Lethwell's eccentric, but kidnapping a cop?"

          "Why not?" Chicken asked.  "He's got enough money to keep him out of prison, regardless."

          "But why go to all this effort to discredit Lundy when he could just kill him?" Joann asked.

          "Maybe killing him isn't enough," LaFiamma replied, pacing in the small hotel room.  "Maybe he wants to destroy Lundy's reputation and his career, too."

          "Well, there's no way in hell we're going to get a search warrant for his estate."

          "Hell with the warrant, Lieutenant," LaFiamma snapped.  "I'm going in there. Alone.  If there's a chance—"

          "Joe, look, I know you're worried about Lundy, but we can't afford to screw up with someone like Lethwell.  He's just too powerful."

          "We're talking about Lundy's life here, Joann!  If there's any evidence that might—"

          "We can't risk the reputation of the Department for one man!"

          Joseph LaFiamma glared at the woman.  "So what're we supposed to do, huh?"

          "I don't know," was her only reply.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy watched the threesome leave the run-down hotel on the outskirts of Houston.  There was something vaguely familiar about the place, and it gnawed at him, but he shrugged it off.  The truck the Texan sat in, an old Ford he'd hot-wired in Chicken's parking lot, fit well in the mostly rundown neighborhood.  He waited until the black man left the pair, riding off on a vintage Harley-Davidson.  Beaumont and LaFiamma climbed into a hatchback and left.

          He followed them.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          As they drew closer and closer to Lethwell's estate, the Texan grew more agitated.  Something was wrong, but he didn't know what it was.  The voices returned, crowding into his mind, screaming at him, but he couldn't hear what they were saying.  He finally pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor of the already rattling truck, his bumper colliding with the back of the small hatchback.

          LaFiamma glanced in his rearview mirror to find the menacing front end of a pickup truck obscuring everything else.  He pressed more speed out of the hatchback, but the truck stuck with him, slamming into the smaller car a second time.  He tried swerving, but the truck seemed to anticipate his move and they were hit again.

          "My, God, that's Lundy!" Beaumont said.

          "What?" Joe asked, fighting the car back onto the road.

          The brunette started to speak, but she was cut short when the truck caught the bumper of the hatchback, forcing them off the highway.  The tires, catching in the gravel, ground the car to a stop.  Half the automobile lifted off the ground, but not far enough to turn over.  It dropped back with a hard thud.

          "Get out!" LaFiamma heard his partner yell.

          "Jesus, Lundy, what were you trying to do?  Kill us?" he asked, shoving the car door open and lunging out.  The Lieutenant did the same.  Neither was prepared for the sight that greeted them.

          Lundy's face was heavily bruised, the black and blue smears reaching down his neck and disappearing beneath the flannel shirt, both corners of his mouth torn, and one eye was nearly swollen closed.

          Chicken was right, LaFiamma thought.  He does look like someone took a tire iron to him.

          "Hey, Levon," the Italian said.  "Look—"

          "Get off the road!" the blond snapped, motioning to the open, landscape behind them with his Colt.

          "Lundy, what's going on?" Beaumont asked, more irritated than frightened.

          "Move!" the man growled, aiming the Colt at the woman.

          "Lundy!" LaFiamma bellowed.

          "I said, move!  Now!"

          The pair complied, albeit reluctantly, moving off slowly while the blond followed, the gun held on them.  When they were about fifty yards away from the road and hidden from passing traffic, Lundy called a halt.

          "Come on, man," LaFiamma said.  "What the hell's going on?"

          "You're goin' to die, LaFiamma.  That's what's goin' on," Lundy snapped.

          "What?  For God's sake—" Joanna started.

          "Shut up!" Lundy half-screamed.  "You're goin' to die, too!"

          "Why?" LaFiamma asked.  It was clear Lundy wasn't operating on all cylinders, but his seriousness of purpose could not be mistaken.

          "The two of you are the ones responsible."

          "Responsible for what, Levon?" Joanna asked, trying to break though the wall the blond had constructed.  Now she was frightened.

          "You ruined my career.  All I ever wanted t' be was a cop, and you took it away, draggin' me into illegal dealings to cover yourselves!  You took everything away!"  His voice caught with emotion, the last line coming out as a half-cry.  "You killed Caroline!"

          LaFiamma glanced nervously at the Lieutenant.  It was worse than he'd thought.  Whatever Lethwell had done to the Texan, it certainly had the man confused on his facts.  Levon must have been brainwashed, the Chicagoan concluded, watching the woman come to the same conclusion, a frown folding over her face.

          Lundy raised the gun, lining the sights up with Joanna's face.

          LaFiamma felt the rush of adrenaline hit his system.  He had to act, or Lundy would execute them where they stood.  He focused on a memory he thought would be clear for the Texan and spoke, his voice a harsh slap.

          "The last time I saw you looking like this, Lundy, I said it was pretty ugly, but this takes the prize."

          The blond's eyebrows pinched together above his sharp nose.  He was listening.

          "You're a whole lot uglier now, Lundy.  You remember the last time, don't you?  We broke the case, Lundy.  We got the guy who killed your wife.  We got Taylor."

          Levon heard the words, but they collided against the repeating track Torras had implanted in his mind.  LaFiamma's words and phrases tumbled through the wall, but in a random pattern.  Lundy shook his head, trying to clear away the confusion, but it only echoed louder, more painfully.

          "Last time you were drunk, Lundy.  You remember that?  Chicken called me."

          "Chicken," Lundy muttered.  "Have t' kill ya and go to Chicken's."

          "That's suicide," Beaumont whispered.

          "When did Caroline die, Lundy?" LaFiamma barked out, the tone demanding he be answered.

          "March seventeenth, 1985," was the immediate reply.

          "Lundy, think, man, when did we become partners?"

          Sweat broke out on the blond's face, and he raised his free hand to wipe away the drops that ran into his eyebrows.  His hands began to tremble.

          "I got here more than a year after Caroline died, Lundy.  Remember? We hated each other when I got here.  Remember?  You and your damned Texas, red-neck, shit-kickin' attitude.  The weather stinks.  Nobody knows how the hell to dress…" He trailed off.

          Lundy bent forward slightly, like his stomach was cramping and he blinked several times to clear the sweat away from his already stinging eyes. The gun dropped several inches.

          "Keep talking, LaFiamma," Beaumont urged quietly.

          "I'm no dirty cop, Lundy.  You know that's why I had to leave Chicago. I tried to take down a top boss, and his son got in the way.  Bang.  The kid's dead and here I am, stuck in Hickville.  We're good partners, Lundy.  We're good cops.  Nobody here is dirty."

          Lundy heard the words, each of them a knife slicing through his mind, searing him with an intense pain that threatened to turn his stomach, but he couldn't stop.  He didn't want to stop.  But somewhere there was a resonance of truth that rang with each comment, too strong to ignore.  He reached out, clinging to the pain.  It was his only reality, the only thing he really remembered.  It was safe, simple.  The voices were too confusing.

          Dropping the gun lower, he looked away from Joanna and focused on his partner.  There was a flash of recognition.


          "Yeah, it's me.  Put the gun down, huh?  You don't want to hurt us.  You remember that time I was runnin' scared because of that AIDS test?  You took me with you to meet your grandma – Mother Minnie, remember her?  She was some woman, Lundy.  You remember that trip?  It was when she told you about the cancer."

          A deep, aching emptiness opened up around the blond's heart and he nearly collapsed.  His mother, father, Mother Minnie, Caroline, all gone, he was alone.  Taking an unstable step back, a soft moan escaped the blond's throat.  He was slipping, falling closer to the cacophony of voices shredding his mind.

          "We've been there for each other," LaFiamma continued.  "Even if we do yell at each other all the time.  Remember last week, you giving me grief over that new jacket.  You told me I'd look like a goat in the hen house.  Remember?"

          Confusion and agony swelled, overwhelming the Texan.  He let the gun drop to the ground.  Turning, Lundy managed three lunging, awkward steps before he fell, unconscious, his muscles twitching.

          LaFiamma and Beaumont sprinted to the fallen man and knelt down on either side of him.  They carefully turned Lundy over.

          "My God, he's like ice," Joanna said, unconsciously drawing her hand back from the man's face.

          LaFiamma checked his partner's pulse and found it rapid and weak.  "He's in shock," he concluded.  Looking over his shoulder, he weighed the options they had and made a decision.  "Look, we have to get him some help, but if we go to a hospital here he's gonna be put on the prison ward.  I have an idea.  You with me?"

          Beaumont nodded.  "Yeah," she said, "why not."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Joanna drove for the location at the border where Estaban would be waiting for them.  LaFiamma sat in the back of the truck, watching his partner.  Lundy lay rigid, his body alternating between chills and fever-sweats.  Through both his skin remained cold and clammy, the darkening gray cast to his skin frightening Joe more than he wanted to admit.

          Reaching out, LaFiamma pulled the grease-stained blanket he'd found under the truck seat up around his partner's shoulders again.

          A half-caught groan stalled in Lundy's throat, and he choked, coughing – the action immediately drawing him into a ball.  LaFiamma moved closer, uncurling Levon as best he could.  Reaching for the man's thigh, the Italian missed, his hand colliding softly with his partner's abdomen.  Lundy screamed.

          "Jesus," LaFiamma whispered, pulling down the blanket.  The blond went utterly stiff after the cry, and it was an easy matter for LaFiamma to carefully unbutton the blue flannel shirt.

          Opening the material, Joe quickly looked away.  The man's chest was one large bruise, faded to an ugly black and green.  Over the color were scars of various sorts, many of which the detective hoped he never identified.  The abuse extended beneath the level of the man's jeans, and LaFiamma wondered if his back and legs looked the same.

          Closing the man's shirt, LaFiamma pulled the blanket back into place.  A few minutes later, Lundy finally relaxed slightly, shifting so his arm moved out from under the blanket.

          LaFiamma reached out and took his partner's hand in his own.  "Lundy, if you can hear me, you have to hang in there until we can get you to a doctor, okay?  Just hang in there, partner." He squeezed the fingers in his own and prayed that the slight pressure that echoed his own wasn't a figment of his imagination.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Estaban watched as LaFiamma carried his partner into the small house in Matamoros, refusing the Hispanic's offer of assistance.  He worried that the trip and the risk they were all taking might be for nothing.  Lundy looked like a corpse.

          He followed LaFiamma and the Lieutenant into the house and to the tiny bedroom that had been set up for the injured man.  The doctor took over immediately, shooing the three officers out of the room as soon as Lundy was on the bed.

          They wandered into the small living room and took seats.  Beaumont sighed heavily, then asked, "What's happening, Estaban?"

          "There is a warrant out for your arrest.  All three of you."

          "We guessed that much," LaFiamma said.  "Is anyone looking into the possibility that we're all being set up?"

          "Not officially, no," Estaban admitted.  "But, unofficially there are quite a few people checking.  Even Sergeant Croms, I think."

          "Croms?" LaFiamma snorted.  "If he's on our side, we're in serious trouble."

          "No, my friend.  He has gone over the evidence they found at Lundy's house, and much of it was fabricated."

          "Well, that's something, at least," Joanna said.  "I'm sorry we had to ask you to get involved in this."

          Estaban grinned.  "And you haven't found yourself in the middle of things with me, Lieutenant?"

          She smiled thinly.  "You're a good man, Estaban."

          "I know."

          The three stood as the doctor exited the bedroom, pulling the door shut behind him.  The lighter mood was immediately destroyed by the concerned expression on the man's face.

          "What is it, Doctor?" Joanna asked.

          The older man looked up at three anxious faces.  "I'm afraid I won't be much use to your detective," he said in lightly accented English.

          "Is there someone else here who could look at him?" LaFiamma asked.

          "I'm afraid not," the man replied.  "Don't worry, Detective.  I might not be an American, but I trained at Harvard Medical School."

          Joe looked away, a bright blush decorating his cheeks.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean any disrespect.  I'm just worried about Lundy."

          "And you have every right to worry," the physician said.  "I believe he will heal, physically, but I have no way to determine what sort of drugs was used on him here.  And even the hospital does not have the necessary machinery for that sort of test.  The psychological damage done by the drugs might be irreversible.  He will have to remain here for several days so I can treat his physical injuries.  Once he is conscious, I can make a better diagnosis on his mental condition."

          "Thank you, Doctor," Joanna said, extending her hand.

          The man took it in a firm, friendly clasp.  "Will you be staying as well?"

          "If that's possible?" the Lieutenant asked.

          "Yes, I have room.  Not much, but enough."

          LaFiamma took the man's hand next and shook it.  "Thank you."

          "He is your partner?"

          LaFiamma nodded.

          "And you were the ones who helped Estaban?"

          A second nod.

          "I will do my best," he promised them.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          For three days Lundy remained unconscious, Dr. Guerrero staying with him nearly twenty-four hours a day.  Joanna and LaFiamma also took turns sitting with the blond, trying to pass the rest of their free time sorting through the materials Estaban and Chicken continued to contribute concerning Lethwell.

          LaFiamma was sitting with Lundy when the blond shifted slightly and opened his eyes.  It took a moment for the blur of pain and sleep to clear, then he focused on the Italian.

          "Hey," LaFiamma said softly, "how're you doing?" The long pause that followed was nearly unbearable as he waited to see if Lundy had put the misconceptions Lethwell gave him behind.


          "Yeah, it's me.  Listen, don't try to talk too much, okay?  You're still real weak."

          "Where am I?"

          "Matamoros.  A friend of Estaban's is a Harvard-trained doctor; do you believe it?  He retired here.  He's been taking care of you."

          "How long?"

          "Four days."

          "What happened?"

          "What—?"  Joe stopped, caught unprepared for that question.  "I don't know, exactly.  You were kidnapped – gone for twelve days.  Joanna and I found you four days ago."

          The blond's forehead wrinkled.  "I… I tried t' kill you?"

          "Not exactly."  An accusing blue gaze locked on LaFiamma's blue.  "Okay, I'll admit, it looked like that's what you had in mind when you walked us off the road.  But, I know you wouldn't have followed through, Lundy."

          "How do you know?"

          "You, Lundy, you're a Texas straight arrow all the way, partner."

          "Don't remember…" Lundy said, frustration flattening the comment to a growl.

          "Don't worry about it now, you hear me?  Just rest, okay?  Joanna and I are digging around in Lethwell's past—"


          "The man who kidnapped you."

          "I— I remember… old man… gray hair."

          "I told you, don't worry about it.  We'll hitting this from all sides.  Something will crack soon enough."

          Lundy glanced suspiciously at his partner, wondering what the man wasn't telling him.  Searching back in his thoughts, Lundy was frustrated at not finding any clear memories beyond a trip to a clothing store with LaFiamma… when was that?

          "What?" LaFiamma asked, noting the confused frown on his partner's face.

          "How long was I gone?"

          "Twelve days," he repeated.

          "Twelve?  I can't remember, just a store, you were gettin' a jacket.  The old man…"

          "The doctor said you were drugged pretty bad.  Whatever it was, it's still passing through your system.  Estaban ran a blood sample over to a hospital in Brownsville.  The report read like an inventory of designer drugs, my friend."

          The blond blinked as LaFiamma undulated out of focus at the same time as the words were twisted into a painful blare of noise.  He flinched away.

          "Lundy?  Hey, are you all right?" Joe asked, stepping closer.

          Levon retreated with surprising quickness, knocking over the I.V. stand as he tumbled out of the twin bed.

          "Lundy?" Joe repeated, taking a step toward his partner as the blond scrambled the best he could for the far side of the room.

          "Get away!" he yelled.

          LaFiamma stopped in the middle of the room, unsure what he should do.

          Then the doctor's voice sounded softly from the bedroom doorway.  "Go very slowly, Joseph.  The drugs are still strong in his system.  He is capable of hurting you, or himself, right now."

          Lundy pressed balled fists against his temples, trying to force the swelling pain away, but it continued to grow, exploding agony and colors in front of his eyes. His ears roared, the voices returning in a screeching opera of pain.  The tapes that Torras had prepared began to replay in his mind and the detective repeated the words aloud, echoing the programming.

          "My God," Beaumont breathed when Lundy finally finished and collapsed against the far wall, sliding down until he sat on the floor.

          LaFiamma and the doctor quickly moved to the injured man and hefted him back into the bed.

          "Lieutenant Beaumont, if you would bring me a damp washcloth, please," the doctor said as he checked Lundy's vital signs.

          She nodded and left the room.

          LaFiamma watched the doctor working over his partner.  Levon's face was a chalky gray again, reminding Joe of the trip to Mexico, but as he watched, his color slowly returned.

          Joanna returned and handed the doctor the washcloth.  Guerrero accepted it, using it to wipe Lundy's face and chest, cooling the hot, dry skin. "I believe this might be the end of the drugs.  They are working out of his system; a type of withdrawal period."

          "That's good, right?"

          "In this case, yes.  They used a synthetic drug that is modeled on LSD, but after seeing the report Estaban brought from Brownsville, I do not

believe this drug will act like LSD and remain locked in detective Lundy's system."

          "Thank God for that," Joanna said.  "It would mean the end of his career."

          Joe nodded and swallowed hard.


          The Italian looked down at the bed and found his partner staring up at him.  "Yeah?  You okay?"

          "What happened?  I was talkin' t' ya, then everything faded out."

          "Little drug flashback."

          The blond nodded, sleep drawing his eyes closed before he could ask another question.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Six hours later, LaFiamma came awake to the sounds of struggle echoing out of Lundy's room, followed by a loud, "LaFiamma!"

          He lurched to his feet and staggered into the bedroom.  Gutierrez and the doctor were both working to keep Lundy on the bed.

          "Grab his feet!" Estaban called.

          LaFiamma stepped in to relieve the doctor, who wasn't strong enough to fight Lundy long.

          Levon struggled with all the strength he had, which, given his appearance, amazed his partner.  With the two detectives to hold the blond down, the doctor was able to fashion some soft restraints out of several washcloths and a role of packing tape.  When he finished immobilizing Lundy, the blond was sweat-drenched and exhausted.

          Panting, Levon growled low in his throat and threw himself into trying to escape the restraints.

          "He's going to hurt himself," the doctor said.

          "Can't you give him something?" LaFiamma asked, the sight of his struggling partner twisting in his guts like a hot knife.

          "No, I cannot.  We do not know the exact proportions in the dosages he received."

          Each time it looked like Lundy had run out of strength, he found more and made another attempt against the restraints.  Then he would lie still for a moment, breathing heavily, and then begin fighting all over again.  LaFiamma finally stepped up to the side of the bed, then reached out and grabbed the man's shoulders and shook him sharply.  Lundy froze.

          "Stop it!" he commanded.  "Lundy, you're safe.  You're okay."

          The blond trembled from muscle exhaustion, but he didn't relax in the man's grip.

          Joe looked over his shoulder at the doctor, his expression pleading for the man to tell him what to do next.  Guerrero stepped forward and quickly checked Lundy's vital signs.

          "He's verging on doing himself some serious harm," the man said softly.  "Could you hold him for a while if I can arrange it?"

          LaFiamma nodded.

          It took them several long minutes, but the three men were able to move the Texan up and forward far enough for Joe to ease in behind Lundy and lean back against the wall.  Then Estaban and the doctor leaned Levon back against his partner.  At first the blond fought, confused as to who was trying to control him, but as the flashback subsided, he slowly relaxed against LaFiamma, who rubbed the knotted muscles along the top of his partner's shoulders.

          "Lundy?" Joe asked after the blond had laid quietly for several minutes.


          "You hanging in there?"

          Lundy nodded.  "Sorry, man," he rasped out.

          "About what?"


          LaFiamma grinned.  He knew he'd have a great weapon to tease his partner with, but only once the man was back to a hundred-percent.  "What are partners for?  Besides, you've helped me out enough times."

          A chill passed through the blond and he quivered against LaFiamma.  "Easy," Joe said softly.  "You've gotta live, Lundy.  Just remember that.  I couldn't stand to break in another redneck partner."

          "Can't get rid of me that easy," Lundy replied.  "Ain't another Texan stupid enough t' put up with ya…"  He trailed off as another chill passed over him.  He groaned.

          "Lundy?" Joe asked, his fear and concern unmasked.


          "I'm here," he replied, wrapping his arms around Lundy and holding him as he shook.

          "I'm sorry."

          "I told you—"

          "I thought you— I thought—"

          "That I killed Caroline?" LaFiamma finished for him.

          Levon nodded.

          "It was the drugs, Lundy.  You didn't think that, they made you think that."

          "So damn weak.  I should've—"

          "No!" LaFiamma snapped, tightening his grip.  "Don't you take the blame for what they did to you, you hear me?  You're no superman, and I won't stand for you taking the blame for this one.  Do you hear me?"

          "I hear ya," Lundy whispered, then a few moments later asked, "Joe?"


          "I'm scared," he admitted, his voice so soft the Italian had to strain to hear it.

          LaFiamma hugged the man closer.  The admission frightened the Chicagoan more than the trembling or the cramps.  "I know.  Me, too."

          Joe shifted slightly, and Lundy stiffened.  "LaFiamma, don't go, okay?" he asked so quietly LaFiamma wasn't exactly sure what the man had said, but his tone was clear.  He was scared, really scared.

          "I'm not going anywhere.  Just getting a little more comfortable."


          "Rest, Levon," he said, unconsciously rocking his partner slightly from side to side.

          Lundy relaxed into the feeling of strong hands kneading out the pain and tension in his shoulders, finally dropping off to sleep.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lethwell watched as the police team searched his house for any evidence that Levon Lundy had been held there.  He smiled to himself, knowing it was a hopeless effort on their part.  He had removed all traces of the detective from the premises the day they had turned him loose.

          The thought, however, caused the old anger to rise again.  Torras had been wrong.  The detective was not ready.  Lundy had failed to kill LaFiamma and Beaumont.  In fact, no one, including himself or the police, knew where the three were.  Lethwell hoped they were all dead, lying somewhere out in the desert but it was uncertain, and he wasn't one for dealing in uncertainties.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Sergeant Croms waited until his men searched the estate twice before he begrudgingly called an end to the activity.  He knew Lethwell was behind Lundy's abduction, he even knew why, but there wasn't a shred of proof to be found.  And, with the three officers missing, Croms wasn't sure if the evidence he was searching for would point to the reason behind the initial kidnapping, or the location of their bodies.

          Lethwell was just too powerful, the detective concluded.  He knew the man was guilty, but there was nothing to link him to the whole affair.  Still, the investigator had put together enough conflicting evidence to get the warrants lifted off the three Houston detectives.

          The day before yesterday, Croms and his men found what was left of the body of Bradley Torras.  The physician had been taken out into the desert and nailed to a tree.  He had died from exposure and blood loss.  According to the forensic's report, Torras died the same day Lundy had surfaced at Chicken's, but no one had seen Levon, LaFiamma or Beaumont since then.

          Like Lundy's abduction, there was no evidence to connect Torras's murder to Lethwell, but Croms was sure the billionaire was responsible for the man's death.

          "Are you finished here?" the old man asked.

          "Yeah," Croms said.  "You know, it a damn shame we don't still have a little frontier justice."

          "And why is that, Sergeant?"

          "Because I know you're guilty, Lethwell.  You kidnapped Lundy, you tried to ruin his career, you killed Torras, and God knows what else you've done.  If this was a hundred years ago, I'd just take out my gun and shoot you myself."

          "It is a fortunate thing that I am a man of my times, then, isn't it, Sergeant."

          "Come on," Croms told his men.  "Let's get out of here."

          Lethwell watched the police leave, then walked over to his office phone, picked up the handset and dialed.  "Henry?" he asked when the line was picked up. "Get the Lear gassed up.  I'll be flying to the Caribbean this afternoon."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Estaban relayed the news concerning Torras with little emotion.

          "Hey, why aren't you happier about this?" LaFiamma asked, pleased by the news that the warrants for their arrest were lifted and enough evidence concerning the frame had been found to clear their names.  "I really didn't think Croms had it in him."

          "He was very thorough.  He even went back to trial transcripts to prove that Lundy couldn't have been at some of the meets that the evidence suggested, since he was in court, giving testimony."

          "What's bothering you?" LaFiamma asked.

          "It's Lethwell," Gutierrez said.

          "What about him?" Beaumont asked.

          "He's left the country."

          "What?" LaFiamma snapped.  "How'd that happen?  How'd they just let him leave?  He's the primary suspect in a kidnapping and murder investigation!"

          "He has very powerful friends, I'm afraid," the detective replied.  "Croms was not able to get the necessary warrant in time."

          "No surprise there," Beaumont said, accepting the inevitable.

          "But what if he comes back?  What if he decides to try for Lundy again?  That man's a lunatic!"

          "There's nothing we can do, LaFiamma."

          "I don't accept that, Lieutenant.  It stinks that a man with Lethwell's money can bend the system whenever he damn well chooses."

          Estaban grinned at the visual metaphor.  "I think he will remain out of the country for quite a while, my friend."

          "Yeah, but he can come back any damn time he pleases.  Just like this time.  Everyone thought he was living in Scotland, but he was here, torturing Lundy."

          "Don't ya know you've gotta let those ideals go, LaFiamma," Lundy said from behind the Italian.  "It'll just eat ya up inside otherwise."

          Joe turned to find his partner standing in the doorway to the living room, leaning on the frame for support.  "Lundy, what the hell're you doing out of bed?"

          "I had t' get up, and I heard ya talkin' so I decided it beat lyin' there starin' at the ceilin'."

          LaFiamma rose and walked over to his partner, ready to carry him back to bed, but the silent plea for some time away from the small bedroom flashing in the man's eyes stopped him.  Joe was further surprised when Lundy allowed him to help him over to the couch.

          Levon sat down with a sigh of relief; he might want the time out of bed, but he was still weak and unsteady on his feet.

          LaFiamma took a seat next to his partner.

          "I don't think the doctor is going to be too happy with you when he gets back," Estaban told the Texan.  "You still look terrible, my friend."

          "Thank you, Estaban, for those encouraging words of support."

          The three grinned.  It was good to hear pieces of the old Lundy falling back into place.  "You know me, Lundy, I like to be honest—"

          "When it suits your purpose," Lundy finished with a smile, then nodded seriously at the man.  "I appreciate all you did, amigo."

          "Anytime, my friend."

          "What now?" Lundy asked looking at Joanna.

          "We get you to a Houston hospital, and LaFiamma and I go see the Chief and find out how much trouble we're all in."

          "Sounds simple enough," Lundy said.

          "Yeah, right," LaFiamma countered.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          Lundy lay in his hospital bed, watching the Texas Aggies trounce their Illinois opponents.  He gloated over the score, savoring how it was going to feel to break the news to his partner.  He stretched.  Two more days and they were going to send him home.  The Texan calculated that his release date would correspond to the last measure of his patience.  He hated being cooped up like this.  Still, it had been a needed rest.

          Physical therapy had restored his body.  He was still a little stiff, but they assured him it would pass in a month or so with plenty of exercise and rest.  At the more sophisticated hospital, the doctors were also able to design their own counteragents to wash the remaining drugs Torras had used out of his system.

          An almost equal number of sessions with one of the staff psychologists had helped him deal with the feelings and confusions resulting from the attempted memory reconstruction.  And, although the detective was forced to relive the grief of his wife's death once more, he knew exactly the sequence of events surrounding the tragic accident and his exact relationship with the woman and his partner.

          It finally felt like his life was returning to normal.  All charges had been dropped, and after six interviews with Croms, Lundy was sure the IA man was on his side, a welcome change. 

          However, it made no difference that Lundy was finally able to recall most of what had happened to him.  Lethwell was out of the country and no one was exactly sure where.  They were stymied until he surfaced again.

          The Texan sighed.  All that matters, he told himself, is the fact that LaFiamma, Joanna, and I have been cleared of all charges and suspicions

          Sooner or later Lethwell would try for him again, Lundy was sure of that.  But next time he'd be more prepared for the man and what he could throw at him.  Levon had no delusions about bringing the man down, or of being able to stand up against the kinds of things Lethwell could afford to level against him.  But Lundy also knew that if it happened again he'd fight back immediately and fail, or escape.  His mind wouldn't be used like a test tube ever again.  He'd die first.

          The door whooshed open to admit a harried police lieutenant carrying a large arrangement of flowers.

          "How're you feeling?" she asked, deciding that the flowers fit best on a small table near the window.

          "Fine.  I'm ready t' go home.  Whose idea was that?" he asked, nodding at the strained arrangement.

          "Oh, everyone chipped in.  We wanted to find an arrangement of alfalfa and thistle, but they were all out."

          Levon grinned.  He wasn't a flowers sort of guy, but it was a nice thought, and he felt the familiar warmth in his chest when he considered his "family" at the Major Crimes Unit.  "LaFiamma's stopping by, too?" he asked.

          "Later.  How're you two doing?"

          "Okay.  Why?"

          Beaumont looked away, slightly embarrassed.

          "Joanna?" he asked.

          She walked over to stand near the foot of his bed.  "He's been acting a little funny…"

          "He's always actin' a mite funny.  It's all that northern blood."

          Beaumont smiled.  "He was really worried about you, Levon.  We all were.  I don't think I've ever seen him so… scared."


          She scowled, then saw the glint of mischief in the blond's eyes.  "Yes," she snapped, but there was no sting to the word.

          Lundy nodded.  "I was a little skittish there, myself."

          She patted the peak of his foot.  "You have a helluva partner there, Levon."

          Lundy nodded.  "I know."

          "Well, I have to get back.  The Chief wants to see me.  Don't worry, the whole thing's sorting itself out."

          He nodded.  "Thanks, Joanna.  For everything."

          "You're welcome," she said, heading for the door.


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


          A light rap on the closed door signaled his partner's arrival.  "Come in," Lundy called.

          "Hi," LaFiamma said as he entered the door.  "I thought you might be sleeping since the door was closed."

          "Naw, the nurse said I was disturbing the other patients with it open."

          "What were you doing?" Joe asked.

          "Cheerin' A&M on while they kicked Illinois' butt."

          LaFiamma ground his jaws shut and reminded himself that the blond was his partner, and that HPD wouldn't look kindly on him strangling the man in his hospital bed.  "Yeah, well, everybody has an off day, you know."

          "Sure, I know.  But Illinois must be having a bad lifetime, LaFiamma.  They're already thirty points behind and it isn't even half-time yet."

          "So," LaFiamma said, straining not to yell, "you're going home day after tomorrow, huh?"

          "That's what they tell me."

          "You need a ride?"

          "Beats takin' a cab."

          "Okay," LaFiamma said.  "I'll drive you home… on one condition."

          "What's that?" the blond asked suspiciously.

          "You don't mention the damned game!"

          Lundy looked as innocent as he could.  "You really are upset about this, aren't ya?"

          "No, I'm not.  It's just a stupid football game."

          "Didn't you have a little cash riding on this game?"

          LaFiamma sighed.  "I put a few dollars in the department pool… so? What's wrong with that, Lundy?  I've seen you playing the pool, too."

          "Ain't nothin' wrong with it," the blond replied.  "How much you put on Illinois?"

          "None of your business, Lundy."

          The pair lapsed into silence, then both men broke into playful grins.

          "We sound pretty normal, huh?" LaFiamma asked.

          "Yeah, I guess we do," Lundy conceded.

          "What're you going to do when you get out of here?  You still have a month's sick leave coming."

          "Oh, I thought I might do a little work around the place, then maybe do some campin'.  You want to tag along?"

          The Italian looked aghast.  "Me, camping?  I don't think so, Lundy."


          "Haven't seen him," LaFiamma mumbled, hoping to turn the conversation, but it did little good and Lundy launched into a speech on the virtues of the great outdoors.  The detective sighed heavily, but smiled inwardly.  It was over, for now.  Lundy was fine.  Lethwell could wait for another day.

          "Okay, okay," he consented.  "I'll go if it'll shut you up."

          "You'll enjoy it, LaFiamma.  It'll be good for you."

          "I have another condition."

          "What now?"

          "That you introduce me to that blonde nurse at half-time."

          Lundy smiled and shook his head.  "LaFiamma, don't you ever give up?"

          "Not when it's important," he replied.

          The Texan looked at the man and turned serious.  "I know.  And I wanted t' say thank you."

          "You did it, Lundy.  You hung in there.  I don't know if I would've."  The blond had no reply.  "You had me pretty scared."

          "Me, too."

          Joe stuck out his hand and Lundy took it.  "Partners?" LaFiamma asked, his voice slightly deepened by emotion.

          "Partners," Lundy echoed.  "And… friends."

          "Yeah, and friends."  Joe grinned.  "One of these days I'll have to take you to Chicago."

          "Uh, no thanks."

          "Why not?  I'm letting you take me camping."

          "Lettin' me?" Lundy questioned.  "I'm doin' you a favor, LaFiamma.  But you takin' me t' Chicago wouldn't be no favor."

          "How would you know, Lundy?  You ever been there?"

          "No, and I don't plan on changin' that fact, either."

          "Yeah, well, maybe I should just take my own vacation," LaFiamma replied.  "I could go to New York for a couple of weeks.  Somewhere with real culture!"

          "Culture?  Now listen here, LaFiamma, let me tell you about Texas culture—"

          "Culture in Texas?  Yeah, right!"

The End