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Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

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Day One

 

Nick watched his partner limp stiffly across the salon, heading for the coffeepot.  He winced in unspoken sympathy when Cody sucked in a soft hiss after putting too much weight on his injured leg.  "Want me to get that?" he said, starting to stand.

"Naw, that's okay," Cody replied, gesturing for him to sit while he inched closer to his goal.  "The doctor said I need to keep moving around and putting more weight on it."

Nick nodded, but he couldn't look away from the suffering man.  And it was all his fault.  Their last case had turned sour and he'd let his temper get the better of him.  Ignoring their plans, he'd left Cody alone and as a result his best friend had gotten shot.

But the man they'd been after was a predator, an animal who preyed on children, and Nick couldn't let him get away.  He just couldn't.

But Cody had paid the price.

Thank God the bullet had only passed through the thigh muscle, missing bone and artery, but Cody was still hurting, and each flinch, grimace, or grunt of pain sent a stab of guilt and remorse straight through Nick's heart, leaving him feeling miserable.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, the fight between Nick and Thomas Penderson had ended up taking out Murray as well, leaving the slender computer wizard with a sprained wrist and a nasty bruise on his cheek from where he hit the curb.

Man, I should've just stuck with the plan.  We would've gotten him…

But the images of the man's last victim, a beautiful four-year-old Asian girl, had haunted him, and continued to do so.  Even in death her face had remained angelic, but what Penderson had done to the rest of the child's body was beyond imagining.

Nick shook his head slightly, chasing the gruesome memories away.  I did what I had to to stop that bastard, he told himself sternly.

But you let Cody get shot, and you got Murray hurt, the critical side of his mind chastised.

"Nick?"

"Huh?"  The detective looked up, his eyes haunted.  "You need something?" he asked, starting to stand again.

"No, I'm fine," Cody said, waving at his friend to sit again.  He carried his coffee to the table and carefully sat down.  "Nick, listen, I'm fine, okay?  It's just a little sore.  Stop beating yourself up, will ya?"

Nick dipped his head and stared into his empty coffee cup.  "I just feel–"

"Responsible," Cody interrupted.  "I know.  Look," he said, reaching out to rest a hand on Nick's arm, "it didn't go the way we wanted it to, but we got the bastard.  He's not going to hurt any more kids, and that's the most important thing."

"I should've stuck with the plan," Nick argued.  "If I had you wouldn't've been shot."

"Maybe, maybe not," Cody countered.  "Nick, out there we have to go with our gut; you know that and so do I.  How many times have we acted on instinct in the middle of a case?  A situation?"

Nick shook his head.  "That's not the point, Cody.  If I'd been where I was supposed to be–"

"Then Penderson might've gotten away and there might be another family out there mourning a dead child."

Nick sighed heavily and leaned back.  "I'm just so damned sorry…"

Cody smiled reassuringly.  "I know that, buddy.  And I appreciate it – I do.  And I appreciate all the help you've been giving me, but I'm fine.  It's no big deal.  I would've done the same thing."

Nick's blue eyes rounded slightly.  "Really?"

Cody nodded.  "You bet.  There's no way I would've let that animal get away."

Cody's words eased the worst of the guilt, but not all of it.  Nick smiled back his thanks.  Then his expression turned serious again.  "But Murray–"

"Is doing just fine," Bozinsky finished as he climbed up the stairs to join the two men.

"How's your wrist?" Nick asked, noting that the bruise was still in the ugly green and yellow stage.

"It feels much better," was the immediate reply.  "In fact, I think I'll be able to take the brace off in a day or two."

Nick nodded, but he still looked like a boy who'd just broken his mother's favorite vase.

Walking to the Mr. Coffee, Murray poured himself a cup, then carried it back to the table and sat down with them.  "Nick, I was going through the mail last night and I noticed that you received another letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Nick rolled his eyes and groaned, "Oh, man, I forgot about that."

"You forgot about renewing the lease for the Mimi's pad, too," Murray added, his expression apologetic for having to bring it up.

Nick groaned again, then leaned over the table, resting his forehead on his folded arms.  "And I have to testify today at one," he moaned pathetically, rolling his head back and forth.  A soft whimper was next.

Cody grinned at Murray.  "Uh, Nick, why don't you let us help?"

Nick lifted his head, a pathetic hang-dog expression showing on his face.  "But you're–"

"Doing fine, remember?" Cody said before the dark-haired man could refuse.

Murray brightened.  "Yes, yes, we could do that.  Cody and I can take the Jimmy. He can drop me off at the DVM and pick me up when he finishes with Mister Ross.  His office is only a block or two from the DMV, remember?"

Cody nodded.  "Yeah, sure, that works for me."

"But your leg," Nick argued.  "You can't drive."

"The Jimmy's an automatic, Nick," Cody replied.  "I don't have to shift."

Nick looked from one man to the other.  They were going to do it whether he wanted them to or not.  And he really did want them to.  He sighed.  "All right, but take it easy, okay?"

"You worry too much, Nick," Cody said with a grin.

 

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

 

Near noon, Nick stood in the salon, nervously straightening his tie while Murray arranged the paperwork for their respective trips on the table.  He tugged and pulled, yanked, then pulled the knot out and started all over again.  On the third try he was finally satisfied.  Tugging down his suit jacket, Nick turned to Murray.  "This look okay?"

Murray looked up from the paperwork scattered across the salon table and grinned.  "It looks very nice, Nick.  Very, uh, professional."

Nick peered at the slender man's face, looking for any sign of subterfuge.  "You're sure?"

"Very sure," Murray assured, then went back to the paperwork, pulling sheets into piles and sliding them into two waiting file folders.

"Thanks," Nick said, running a hand over his hair, then pulling at his tie again.

"Looking pretty slick there, Nick," Cody said, clearing the stairs and maneuvering to join his friend, using the cane the doctor had given him.

Nick grinned.

"Okay," Bozinsky said, "I'm just double-checking.  I have the plates off the 'Vette, the registration receipts, current registration, and your driver's license," he announced.  "Oh, and a copy of the power of attorney, just in case.  Do you think they might need anything else?"

Nick shook his head.  "There isn't anything else.  I can't believe they want to recall my personal plates.  I've had 'em for years!  Whoever this other Nick is, he's the one who’s gotta get new ones.  These are mine, Murray.  You make sure you don't let 'em take 'em away, understand?"

Murray nodded, then handed Cody several sheets tucked into the second file folder.  "This is the paperwork on the helipad: Nick's pilot's license, all the papers on the Mimi I could find, and another copy of the power of attorney."

"Great," Cody said, accepting the proffered file.  He turned to his best friend. "Hey, Nick, don't you think we should drop you off at the courthouse?"

"Why?  It's in the opposite direction."

Cody grinned indulgently.  Nick's mind was definitely not on his paperwork.  "The 'Vette won't have any plates and you won't have a driver's license.  If you get stopped–"

Nick dismissed the man's concern with a wave of his hand.  "It's not that far. I'll be careful."

 

"Okay," Cody said, but his tone was dubious.  "I still think you should take a cab or something."

"A cab?" Nick echoed.  "Come on, Cody, you know how much that'd cost?"

Cody shrugged.  Nick had a point.  "Just be careful, okay?"

"I will.  And guys?"  He waited until he was sure they were both paying attention. "I really appreciate this."

Murray smiled.  "That's quite all right, Nick, I mean, after all, we're partners, friends, compadres.  We–"

"You can take us out to dinner at Straightaway's if you want to say thank you," Cody said, interrupting the looming speech.

"I'll do that," Nick agreed with a thankful grin.

 

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

 

Walking to his car, Nick's mind drifted to his upcoming testimony.  It should be pretty straightforward, but he knew he had a tendency to let defense attorneys get under his skin.  He couldn't let that happen this time.  The accused was a local thug who was trying to claim that Nick had assaulted him when the detective stopped him from extorting money from an immigrant shopkeeper at Pier 57.  Nick shook his head, anticipating the questions he would face.

It was not going to be a good day.

Anger bubbled to the surface.  It wouldn't be so bad if they knew who Deevers worked for, but the little punk refused to say.  He was convinced that his boss could arrange his freedom.  But that's not going to happen, Nick decided.  I'm gonna stay cool and that puke's going to prisonMr. Tran's not going to pay any damned "protection" money.  He's gotta help pay for Vin's community college classes.

Lost in thought, the detective missed the clack-and-rattle sound of an approaching skateboard.  When he was hit in the shoulder, Nick jumped back, yelling, "Hey, watch where you're goin', will ya!"

The teenager on the board ignored him, speeding away, his leg pumping.

The detective took three more steps toward the 'Vette before he noticed something was wrong.  His hand automatically reached back for his wallet, but it was long gone.

"Damn it!" he hissed.

But you didn't get anything, you little thief! he silently yelled at the boy.  Murray had his driver's license, Cody had his pilot's license, and all of his credit cards – the few there were – were in his dresser onboard the Riptide so he wouldn't be tempted to use them.

I hope it was worth it, Nick fumed.  Eight lousy dollars, couple of photos and library card, boy, that's a big haul…

He took a moment to memorize the kid's description: about five foot six, one-hundred and twenty pounds, longish sandy blond hair, so-so tan, mismatched high-tops shoes and shabby clothes that were a mix of army green and bright tie-dye.

Probably a street kid, he decided, shaking his head.  They were seeing more and more runaways hanging out, even living around the pier.  "Rainbow children" they called themselves.  Most were under sixteen, skinny, dirty, their eyes a disturbing mix of apprehension and defiance.

He sighed, deciding not to report the incident.  The library card he could replace, same with the photos.  And eight dollars wasn't going to help the kid much if he wanted drugs.  But it would buy him a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake if he was hungry.

Reaching the 'Vette, Nick vaulted over the closed door and dropped into the driver's seat.  He checked his watch, then started the car and headed for the quickest route to the 110 freeway.

 

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

 

Behind the wheel of the classic convertible, his anger dimmed, replaced by a steely determination that his testimony would put Mr. Larry "The Bug" Deevers behind bars where the man belonged.  Then we're goin' after your boss, he promised the absent thug.  And we'll find him.  Sooner or laterNo way I'm gonna let some puke like that take over the Pier.  No way, no how.

Nick's thoughts continued to wander during the drive to the downtown courthouse.  Penderson, the rainbow kid, and finally to what he didn't want to think about – Cody.

The guilt from earlier that morning began nibbling at the edges of his thoughts, slowly taking larger and larger bites out of his attention.  Nick sighed heavily and shook his head.  "Too close, Cody," he said softly.  "Too damn close."

The image of his best friend going down flashed through Nick's mind and he cringed.  He'd caught the man before he could kill Cody, but it had been close.  A second or two more and there would have been a funeral.

A cold chill snaked down Nick's back and settled deep in his gut.  Why do we do it? he asked himself.  Is it the rush?  The thrill?  Are we just adrenaline-addicted vets trying to keep the war-buzz alive?

He rejected the idea.  What we do is important.

But it was also dangerous.  And dirty.  They saw some of the worst humankind had to offer of itself.  You can't help getting a little stained, he thought.  You end up thinking like the bad-guys to catch the bad-guys.

You get numb, like in 'Nam.  Maybe I'm just feelin' a little burnout.

But no matter what the explanation was, he was definitely still feeling guilty about what had happened to Cody and Murray.  He smiled thinly; their willingness to forgive and forget also kindled a warm glow in his chest.  They were good friends.  If they could forgive him, maybe he'd eventually be able to forgive himself.  And next time I'll stick to the plan.

And my friends are too few and too far between to put them at risk.  I really could've gotten Cody killed.  I was stupid, really, really stupid.  It's not going to happen again.  I'm not going to get either one of them killed.

I couldn't live with that.

A flash of bright blue cut along Nick's peripheral vision a moment before he felt a glancing but hard impact along the right side of the 'Vette.  The car jerked and bounced, Nick's head snapping forward and back, as the right front wheel popped off the pavement, then bounced back.  The car groaned as the suspension twisted.  The car struck him again and Nick bucked forward, his shoulder- and seat-belts holding him in the convertible as the steering wheel was yanked out of his hands.  The 'Vette skidded sideways, inching closer to the cement median that separated him from four lanes of oncoming traffic.

"What the hell're you doin'!" he screamed at the driver, but his attention was on getting the 'Vette back under control.  But before Nick could pull the convertible back off the shoulder and into his lane, the blue car struck again.  He felt the 'Vette's left fender slam into the cement barrier, the impact whipping the car's rear end around.  The torque threw him forward, his head impacting solidly against the windshield.  The last thing he heard was the squeal of brakes before everything went dark and silent.

 

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

 

"Holy shit!" Kallie Brin squeaked, jerking her wheel and stomping on her brake to avoid colliding with the bright blue Mustang as it sideswiped the red Corvette, then darted across her lane and away.  The car behind her honked, then sped around her.

"Asshole!" she yelled at the driver.

Braking to a stop in the far left shoulder lane, Kallie backed up, stopping just in front of the Corvette.  Climbing out of her car, she darted to the convertible.

Seeing the blood on Nick's face, she paled as she stumbled to a stop.  "Oh God," she breathed, then bolted back to her silver Trans Am.  Grabbing her car phone, she called for help.

The police and an ambulance summoned, she returned to the 'Vette, trying to remember the details from the first aid class she'd taken during high school.

"Ohh," she groaned, "what good is taking the darned class if I can't remember anything?"

You just wanted to be a life guard so you could hang around with Robbie Stevens, she chided herself.

She rolled her eyes, then her gaze raked over the interior of the sports car, looking for something she could use as a bandage.  Finding nothing, and not knowing what else to do, she pulled off the well-worn flannel shirt she was wearing over her t-shirt and used that to apply pressure to the bleeding cut on the man's scalp.  With trembling fingers she sought out a pulse on the man's neck while making sure that she didn't move him.

She found a beat, but couldn't tell if it was weak or strong.  It was, however, very fast.

"Just don't die, okay?" Kallie begged the unconscious man as she continued scanning the traffic for the patrolmen.

Drivers and passengers slowed down, staring at her as they passed.

"Thanks for all your help!" she yelled at two young men who pointed and laughed as they rolled by.  "Assholes," she grumbled.

The sudden whoop of a siren reached her ears and she sighed in relief.  A couple of minutes later two CHP cars pulled up and parked behind the 'Vette, the officers immediately heading for her and the injured man.

"I called for an ambulance," the younger of the two officers said when he reached her.  "But they're already on the way."

"Good," Kallie said, "I called them when I called you."

"You know this guy?" the older officer asked, already examining the 'Vette.

Kallie shook her head, then had to reach up and tuck her loose, dark auburn hair behind her ears.  "I just saw the accident happen.  There was this blue car, a Mustang,  I think, it hit him and he crashed into the median."

The two officers immediately went to work, the younger man working with Kallie on Nick, the older man beginning to take notes and make sketches.

 

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

 

Kallie stood by her car, watching the ambulance attendants preparing to load Nick into the back of their vehicle.  The older highway patrol officer was with the medics, the other one was headed her way.

The young man smiled at her.  "Uh, Miss–?"

"Brin.  Kallie Brin," she said, still watching the medics working on Nick.

"Miss Brin," the officer said.  "I need to get a statement from you."

"Is he going to be okay?" she asked, nodding in the direction of the ambulance.

"Don't know, but they seem to think so."  He reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly.  "Good thing you stopped and called for help, though."

Kallie looked from the man on the gurney to the officer.  She smiled thinly.  "I guess so.  I just hope he's okay."

"Uh, Miss Brin," the officer said again, "did you see any papers, or a wallet maybe, when you walked up to the car?"

She looked confused.  "No," she said, shaking her head.  "There was nothing. I was looking for something I could use to stop the bleeding.  There was nothing."

"Okay," the officer said, his tone slightly dubious.  "Now, can you tell me everything you saw, from the beginning?"

She nodded and started talking, explaining the bright blue Mustang's multiple attacks on the Corvette, the convertible's eventual collision with the cement barrier, and her own near accident as she tried to avoid the fleeing attacker.

"I stopped.  I saw he was bleeding and called for help," she said.  "Then I went back and looked for something to stop the bleeding.  I ended up using my shirt.  Then you got here."

"That's it?"

She nodded.

"Did you happen to see the license plate on the Mustang?"

"No," she said apologetically, "I wasn't even looking for it.  I was just trying not to get hit."

The officer nodded.  "Okay, I have your phone number and address.  We'll need to ask you to look over this report when it's done and sign it."

"Sure, no problem," she said.

The young man smiled.  "And you're sure there was no ID?  We couldn't find anything to tell us who he is."

She shook her head.  "I didn't look, but I didn't see anything."

"Okay," the officer said.  "You're free to go, Miss."

"Where will they take him?" she asked as the ambulance pulled into traffic, siren wailing.

The patrolman waited until the sound faded before he answered, "L.A. Community Hospital," he said.  "You going to drop by?"

She nodded.  "After work.  I want to know if he's okay."

"I'm sure he'll be happy to meet the beautiful young lady who saved his life."

She blushed and dipped her head, feeling her cheeks go rosy.  "Thanks."

He grinned.  "No problem."

 

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

 

"What do we have?" the ER doctor asked when the two paramedics rolled Nick into a treatment room and transferred him to a waiting treatment table.

"Car accident.  Head trauma, his Glasgow's eight," one of the medics related. "BP is one-sixty over a hundred, pulse is ninety-four.  Pupils are equal and responsive, no lateralizing symptoms, but he's been out cold about twenty or thirty minutes."

"Get set up for a skull series and x-rays," the physician called out.

"I've got it," someone replied.

In the room several nurses took over, working around Nick while the doctor began irrigating the detective's scalp laceration with a large dose of normal saline solution.  With the majority of blood removed, he examined the wound with his gloved finger, looking and feeling for a fracture.  He found one.

"Definitely need that x-ray," he said.  "And set up a CT scan."  He looked back at the remaining paramedic.  "Any med alerts?" the young Hispanic man asked.

"Not that we know of," the medic replied.  "No ID."

The doctor looked up, his dark-brown eyes curious.  "Nothing?"

The medic shook his head.  "He's a John Doe, Doc."

"Madre de Dios, just wonderful.  Nurse, suture his scalp closed and get me that x-ray A-S-A-P."

"Yes, Doctor," one of the nurses replied as the Latino physician moved to examine Nick, rechecking his Glasgow scale and probing for any other possible injuries.

A short while later another nurse handed the man an x-ray film.  Walking to the view box, he shoved the film into place and turned on the light.  A short, fine, dark line snaked through the whiteness of the surrounding bone.

"Simple linear skull fracture, but it's close enough to the temporal bone to worry me," he stated.  "Let's get him admitted on a seventy-two hour hold, just in case, and call Doctor Trang for a neurological consult."

His patient stable, Dr. Randy Ortiz exited the treatment room only to find a Highway Patrol officer waiting for him.

"Doctor," the man greeted.  "You working on the John Doe?"

Ortiz nodded.

"How is he?"

"I think he'll be okay.  He has a skull fracture, but I'm thinking mild concussion.  We have a few more tests to run, and I've called in a neurologist.  We're going to have to monitor him for a while before we're sure he's out of danger."

"Listen, Doc, I think we might be dealing with a car thief here."

Ortiz's eyes widened.  "A thief?"

The officer nodded.  "The car he was driving was a classic Corvette convertible, late '60s model, no plates, no registration, and he wasn't carrying any ID either.  Sounds suspicious, don't you think?"

"I suppose it does.  The paramedic told me he had no identification," the physician said.  He looked down at the chart he'd been handed on his way out of the treatment room.  "We have him listed as John Doe number thirty-one."

"Until we get this worked out, we'd like him admitted to a secure ward.  I'll see to it he's guarded.  We don't know if he's dangerous."

The doctor nodded.  "I'll see to it.  But he's not going to be much of a threat to anyone for a while."

"Appreciate the cooperation, Doctor," the patrolman said.  "These days, you can't be too careful."

"I understand."

 

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

 

In the treatment room Nick moaned softly, the sound vibrating through his body like fingernails across sandpaper.  He forced his eyes open with a shudder.

He was cold… and his head hurt.

He swallowed.  Nauseous, too, he realized.  What the hell happened?

Looking around the room, he blinked rapidly, trying to clear the foggy veil that blurred vision.

"Sir?  Sir, are you awake?"

The voice was tinny and sounded far away.  Nick frowned.  His head pounded like storm-blown waves crashing against the breakwater and he swallowed again, feeling more sick to his stomach.

"Sir?"

He turned his head, seeking out the source of the voice.  Maybe it held answers to the questions that flooded his mind, most getting lost in the pain and confusion.

"Sir, can you hear me?"

Nick carefully continued to roll his head toward the voice.  When he found it he asked thickly, "Where am I?" as he watched the woman's face contort like it was made of rubber.

"You're in the hospital," the woman said.  "You were in a car accident.  Do you remember?"

"No," Nick said, swallowing again.  The press of bile surged slowly up his throat.  "Feel sick."

She grabbed a kidney bowl just in case.  "What's your name?"

Nick thought a moment, but nothing surfaced.  "I…  I don't know."

Nick felt a wave of panic surge through his body, leaving him weak and trembling.

The woman, a nurse, he realized, reached out, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze.  "That's okay.  You hit your head.  Don't worry, you'll remember in a little while."

"What's my name?" he demanded, fear pushing back the nausea for the moment.

"I don't know," the nurse admitted.  "The paramedics didn't find any identification at the site.  Now, listen, I want you to lie still; I'll get the doctor.  And don't worry, you're going to be just fine."

Nick closed his eyes, fear prickling his skin.  Who am I? he demanded, but a damning silence, backed by pain, was the only answer.

Despite the nurse's orders, he tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness swept over him, forcing him back down.  His fingers curled around the edge of the gurney and he groaned.  Who am I? he demanded again.

Voices drifted in from behind the closed door and he looked, hoping whoever was out there had an answer for him.  For a brief moment he felt as if he were falling into a bottomless well, dread and loneliness swallowing him whole.  Who?  Who?  Who? he chanted silently with the throbbing in his head.

Nick's breath caught, a stab of pain shooting from temple to temple like a spear penetrating his skull.  His stomach rebelled, bile climbing up the back of his throat again.  He sucked in a deep breath and willed his stomach to settle as he swallowed convulsively, his mouth watering uncontrollably.

He shivered, the icy cold creeping further into his bones only to make them burn. Who, damn it? he cried silently.  Answer me!

When no answer was forthcoming, Nick closed his eyes again and tried to rein in the terror that sparked in his chest, making it hard to breathe.  Then, finally, he heard the door swung open.

 

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

 

"Doctor Ortiz," the nurse called as soon as she stepped outside the treatment room.

The physician turned.

"Mister Doe's awake, but he has amnesia," she said.

"Amnesia?" the patrolman echoed.  "Terrific.  Could he be faking?"

"Maybe," Ortiz said, "but it's not uncommon, given the nature of the trauma he sustained."

"But he's awake?" the officer asked.

The nurse nodded.

"Can I see him?"

Dr. Ortiz thought a moment, then nodded.  "But just for a moment," he cautioned, escorting the officer into the treatment room.

 

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

 

Nick forced his eyes open when he heard the door swing inward.  The first thing he noticed was the highway patrolman.  Images of holding cells flashed through his mind and Nick felt his fear escalate another notch.  Am I a criminal?

"How are you feeling?" asked a young Hispanic man wearing a white labcoat.

"Head hurts," Nick admitted.  "Feel sick."

"I'm Doctor Ortiz," the young man continued.  "And your name is…?"

"Don't know," was the immediate reply.  "What's wrong with me?  Why can't I remember?"

"You took a pretty nasty blow to the head," Ortiz explained.  "You have a skull fracture.  Do you remember the car accident?"

"No," Nick replied, his fear making his answers short and curt.

"What's the last thing you do remember?"

Nick searched his mind but it was curiously empty.  "I-I don't know," he half-moaned.  "I can't remember anything.  I–"

"Okay," the doctor said, reaching out to rest a hand lightly on Nick's arm.  "Just take it easy.  Don't try too hard; let whatever images there are there surface naturally."

"There's isn't anything!  Nothing," Nick declared, his voice rising.  "I told you, I don't know!"

"Easy," the man soothed again.  He looked at the nurse.  "See if you can find Doctor Trang for me."

She nodded and left.

"Do you know what city you're in?" Ortiz asked.

Nick began to pant, his gaze darting around the room, searching for some clue.  "No," he said thickly.

The patrolman took a step closer and Nick immediately felt defensive.

"You were driving a vintage red Corvette.  That ring any bells?"

"No," Nick said, looking back to the doctor.  "How long's this gonna last?"

"I'm not sure," the man admitted.  "But I want you to relax, okay?  Things should start filtering back pretty quickly."

Nick looked back at the officer.  "What's going on?  Why are you here?"

The patrolman hesitated, then explained, "You weren't carrying any ID, and the car you cracked-up didn't have any plates or registration."  At Nick's confused expression he asked, "Did you steal that car?"

"N-No," Nick replied, but he could hear his own doubt clear in his voice.

"But you don't remember," the officer pressed.  "Right?"

"No.  No, I don't remember, but–"

"I think this should wait until later," Dr. Ortiz interrupted.  "Mister Doe needs to get some rest."

Doe? Nick echoed.  John Doe?  Oh, this is just great.

The patrolman headed for the door, but the doctor remained.  "We're going to get you moved to a room," he explained.  "Then a specialist will take a look.  He should be able to answer all your questions."

"I doubt that," Nick grumbled, the pounding in his head escalating again.

Did I steal a car? he asked himself.

More images assaulted him, fast moving cars, being chased, sirens, the jail cells again.  Oh, man…  He groaned, squeezing his eyes shut.

He saw the doctor stop a nurse at the door.  There was an exchange of whispers, but Nick heard "psych evaluation" and "secured ward" mentioned.

Crazy?  I'm not crazy, he argued silently with the physician.  I'm not crazyAnd I'm not a thief either…  I think.

He looked back at a nurse, who was arranging his IV for the move.  I've gotta get out of here.

 

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

 

Cody and Murray arrived back at the Riptide around five, each man toting a bag of Chinese carryout.  The blond was the first to spot the police lieutenant waiting for them on the fantail of the boat.

"I wonder what Quinlan wants?" Cody muttered, still moving slowly with his cane.

"Quinlan?" Murray asked, glancing around, looking for the man.

"He's waiting for us."

"So he is," Murray said, sighting the grumpy detective when he stood up, having also spotted them.  "I wonder where Nick is."

"Probably hiding," Cody muttered, wishing he could as well.  He was in no mood to listen to Quinlan's usual harassment.

The two men continued on to the boat in silence.

"Lieutenant," Cody acknowledged after he carefully climbed on-board.

Quinlan stared at Cody's leg for a moment, then said, "Okay, Hopalong, where's your beach-bunny partner?"

Cody's eyes widened slightly.  "You mean Nick?"

"Yes, I mean Nick!" the man blustered, mimicking Cody's tone.  "He missed his court appearance, that scumbag walked and–"

"Wait!  Hold on!" Cody interrupted, his face folding into a mask of confusion and concern.  "What did you say?"

"I said," Quinlan repeated slowly, exaggerating each word, "that your bozo partner blew off his court date and Deever walked – adios, amigo; free as a bird."

Cody met Murray's concerned gaze, then looked back at Quinlan.  "Look, Lieutenant, Nick left for the courthouse around noon," he said.  "If he didn't get there, then something happened to him."

"Yeah, something did happen!  Ryder decided to blow off my case!" Quinlan steamed, his hands curling into fists.  "When he finally crawls back here, you tell him I want to see him A-S-A-P.  He cost me this case, and–" he shook his head, his jaw tightening and jutting forward.

"We'll tell him," Murray assured the agitated detective.  "I'm sure there's a good explanation."

With an annoyed, disbelieving "hrumph" Quinlan climbed off the Riptide, muttering about "beach bums", then stalked up to the pier and his waiting car.

"Something must've happened," Cody said, worry making his voice tight.  He headed straight into the boat as quickly as his injured leg would allow.  Dropping the bag of food he carried on the salon table, he headed straight to Murray's computer.

The slender man trailed after Cody, sitting down and turning on the machine. "Where should I start?"

Cody thought a moment, then said softly, "The usual, Murray, hospitals, police…"

Bozinsky nodded, his fingers tapping across the keys at top speed.

After a few minutes the hyper tapping noise was driving the blond crazy.  "Look, we're both hungry," Cody said.  "I'll go fix us each a plate and bring it down."

"Thanks, Cody.  I am hungry and this might take a while."

The blond nodded, heading back up the stairs, his leg aching more with each step.  Laying his cane on the table, he grabbed the two bags of food and maneuvered his way to the galley to fix their supper.

"Damn it, Nick," he said softly as he pulled the boxes out of the paper-bags, "why didn't you let us drop you off?"

Pulling down two plates, he opened the containers, dipping out a helping of fried rice, cashew chicken, and Mongolian beef for himself and Murray.  He added an egg roll to each plate, then grabbed two beers from the refrigerator.  All the while he ran through the possible enemies who might have struck: Deever's boss, someone acting on Penderson's behalf, whoever it was who'd sent them to the Colemesa Work Farm, or any number of others.  The possibilities were alarming.

Damn, damn, damn, he thought.  Call me, Nick.  Something.

Holding the beer against his ribs with his elbows, Cody grabbed both plates and steered a course up the stairs.  He paused in the salon, remembering his morning conversation with the missing man.  Blue eyes narrowed dangerously.  "Nick, if you're hiding someplace, feeling guilty, I'm going to personally kick your butt all the way up the beach," he muttered softly.

Then, with a sigh, he limped down the stairs to Murray's room.  The computer expert looked up, then stood and took his plate and beer from Cody so the blond could sit down.

"Oh, hell."

"What?" Murray asked.

"I forgot the silverware."

"I'll get it."

"Thanks," Cody replied.  "Hey, Murray?" he called as the man disappeared out the door.

"Yes, Cody?" he asked when he backed up to the open door.

"Could you grab my pain pills, too?"

"Your leg sore?"

Cody nodded.  "And I think it's going to be a long night."

"Sure," Murray said.  "Why don't you pull your chair over to the left," he suggested.  "You can put your leg up on my bed while you eat."

Cody nodded, setting his plate down and rolling the chair around.  Using his hands, he lifted his leg and rested his heel on the edge of the bed.  Murray stepped back into the room, handing the man his plate and bottle of beer.

"Thanks," Cody said.

"I'll be right back," Murray assured him, then disappeared again.

Cody leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed.  Come on, Nick, call, damn itWhere are you?

There was no answer to the question, but the dull constant buzz in his gut told the detective his friend was in trouble.

 

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

 

Almost four hours later Cody eased down the stairs to Murray's room again.  Bozinsky was hunched over his keyboard, grumbling.

"Find anything?" the blond asked hopefully.

"No," Murray admitted, looking up.  "I've checked the morgues, jails, hospitals–"

"Morgues?" Cody interrupted, his face going pale.

Murray dipped his head.  "I'm sorry, I just thought…"  He trailed off, shaking his head.

Cody took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh.  "No, Murray, you're right.  We had to check."

The man's expression brightened.  "But there was nothing, Cody, not even a John Doe."

"And nothing in the jails or the hospitals?"

Murray shook his head, then added, "Well, there are seven John Doe's that match Nick's general description either in jail or in the hospital.  I'm following up with those right now, but some of the data simply hasn't been added to the databases yet, so it might take a while."

"Stick with it," Cody said, landing a light slap on Murray's back.  "You want some coffee?"

He shook his head.  "Too much coffee already.  But a glass of milk would be very nice."

"I'll get it," Cody said, turning.

"No, Cody, you should get off that leg."

"I'm fine," the detective assured, his tone a warning not to press the issue.

"No luck with the calls?" Murray asked before the man could leave.

"Nothing.  I called everyone I could think of," Cody replied, his voice turning slightly rough.  "No one's seen him."

"We'll find him, Cody."

The blond nodded, then turned, limping out on his way to get the milk.

"Cody!" Murray called excitedly, stopping the man three steps beyond the door.

Backtracking, the blond re-entered the room, his eyes and posture hopeful.  "You found him?"

"No, but I think I've found the 'Vette.  At an impound yard, in Park View; I mean, it might be the 'Vette."

"Park View?"

Murray looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Well, it is on the way to the courthouse, if he took the 110."

Cody nodded.  "More or less.  Let's go see."

Murray's eyes widened.  "Cody, it's after nine o'clock!"

The detective stopped on his way to the door.  "Nine?"

"I'm sure the lot's closed.  We can go in the morning, first thing," he suggested.

Cody looked like he wanted to argue, but after a moment he nodded.  "Okay. First thing in the morning."

Murray nodded, knowing that he was going to have to keep a close eye on the blond or he'd drive himself right back into the hospital.

 

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

 

Nick stumbled to a stop in the shadows of a nearly empty alley.  Dizzy, his head pounding, he slowly fumbled his way to the first dumpster he saw, sinking down behind it, hoping he would be hidden from sight.  Taking several deep breaths, he tried to keep from getting sick, but his stomach was too upset to be denied and he leaned forward, heaving.

Every contraction of his stomach set off explosions of agony in his head.  When the heaves finally stopped, he crawled to the next dumpster and curled into the space between the container and the dirty building wall behind it.  A soft whimper escaped his still-burning throat when the pain inside his skull reached a crescendo, forcing tears past his closed eyelids.  He pulled in on himself, wrapping his arms around his legs and resting his forehead on his knees, rocking slightly front to back, soft whines escaping his throat.

When the pain finally subsided he was able to uncurl, his abused muscles protesting.  Fear caught in his throat, making it almost impossible to breathe.  He didn't know where he was.  He didn't know who he was.

Then the memories returned in a rush: the hospital, Dr. Ortiz and the police.  A nurse was going to move him to a room in some kind of prison ward or something.  He could imagine the room, with bars on the windows.  There was an officer standing out in the hall.  Then he heard something about handcuffs.

But she had to take him someplace else first.  A CT scan, he thought he heard them call it.  Then another man, an Asian, had spoken to him, but the conversation was all a blur.  All he could think about was the room with the barred windows and the officer.  Trapped.  He was going to be trapped.  So when the Asian left to get the nurse, he pulled out the IV and staggered to a small closet where he'd seen a nurse hang up a labcoat.  But there was nothing.  Returning to the gurney they'd wheeled him in on, he spotted the plastic bag resting on the bars at the bottom.  He opened it, finding his clothes.

He left the bloody suit jacket and tie in the bag.  The shirt he'd pulled on was only slightly stained.  Looking down at himself, he found both his pants and shirt were smudged and dirty.  Another explosion of pain in his head forced Nick up against the wall where he ground his teeth and rode it out.

But how did I get here? he wondered.  Where am I?

Concentrating was almost impossible, but he squeezed his eyes shut and forced them free of the burning agony in his skull.  Once dressed, he'd somehow made it into the hall, into another room and then through a window.  He fell in the landscaping, cutting the palms on his hands on something, but he ignored it.  He had to get away.  He couldn't let them cage him.

He staggered along the side of the hospital, using the wall to steady himself, until he saw a delivery truck.  The driver was standing not far away, smoking a cigarette and talking to a pretty young woman wearing green scrubs.  Nick crossed to the truck and waited until the man dropped his cigarette butt and ground it out with the toe of his shoe.  When he started to cross to the truck Nick opened the back and climbed in, closing the door before the man noticed anything was amiss.

Nick couldn't remember where he'd finally gotten out just that it was at some red light.  Then he'd walked, and walked, and walked, trying to remember where he was and who he was.  Neither question had been answered, and it didn't appear that they would be any time soon.

Now, sitting in the dark, rank alley, his head trying to crack itself open, he allowed himself to cry.  What's happening to me? he pleaded with himself.  Why can't I remember?

Knife-like thrusts of torment continued to rip through his head, bringing with them more disturbing images.  Pimps, hookers, guns, breaking into houses, cops chasing him…

I've gotta be a crook, a thief, something.  I must've stolen that car and cracked it up…

But that didn't feel right.  He didn't feel like a bad person.

He snorted.  Oh, man, a crook with a conscience.

More images assailed him.  Shooting guns, men falling, a helicopter being blown to bits.

My God, I kill people, he silently choked.  What the hell am I?  Nick closed his eyes again.  Who am I? he pleaded silently, but there was still no answer.

With effort, he struggled to his feet and continued down the alley.  It was dark.  He had to find someplace safe to hide until he could figure out what was going on.

He paused where the alley intersected another street, peering out at the neighborhood that lay beyond.  It was dirty and rundown, most of the street lights apparently shot out to give the drug dealers shadows to operate in.  Definitely not the kind of place a normal person would want to be, but he wasn't a normal person, he was…  What?

A killer, he answered himself.  And in his gut he knew it was true.  He had killed people.  Why? he wanted to know, but the answer remained as elusive as his name.

"Well, well, well, look who's back in the neighborhood," a smooth voice taunted.

Nick turned, too quickly, and staggered back to sag against the wall as waves of vertigo nearly swept him off his feet.  Pressing back against the graffiti-covered concrete, he stared at the man who had spoken.  Pimp, he recognized.  He felt the short hairs at the back of his neck rise.  White suit, open green silk shirt, white fedora, several thick gold chains draped around his neck; an oily throwback to the 70s, but Nick's gut told him the man was dangerous.

"Who are you?" Nick demanded.

"Everyone around here calls me the Preacher," the man replied with a sinister smile.  His dark eyes remained cold, calculating.

"You-you know me?" Nick asked, his gaze sweeping over the man, looking for any potential weapons.

"Oh, I know you, yes, that's true," the man replied, his eyes narrowing like a predator sizing up its prey.  His gaze took in Nick's dirty clothes and the bandage on his head.

"Who am I?" he demanded.

The Preacher grinned, starting to enjoy the moment.  "Now that's a good question, friend."

Grabbing the man's snowy lapels, Nick swung the Preacher around and shoved him hard against the wall.  But the motion and the impact caused the pain in the detective's head to flair again and he grimaced, his knees starting to go weak.

The Preacher broke free.  "Take it easy, friend.  I'm not gonna hurt you.  In fact, I… owe you… a favor," he said, watching Nick fight to remain on his feet, his grip loosing all its strength.

Nick took a step back, one hand coming up to cradle the side of his head though the bandage.  "A favor?"

The man nodded, a dangerous smile curling his lips off his smoke-stained teeth.  "You made me the number one man in this neighborhood.  And for that I'm… grateful."

"How'd I do that?" Nick asked, not believing a word the man was saying.

"Why, you're the man who took down Tyrone Diamond."

The name felt familiar, and Nick's thoughts tumbled after the feeling, searching out a memory.  He found it – a gunfight, a large black enforcer, a black pimp, a knife…

When Nick finally blinked and looked around the alley the Preacher was gone.

You're the man who took Tyrone Diamond down…

Who am I? Nick pleaded with himself.

A killer, some part of his mind replied.

 

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

 

The Preacher sat in the Top Hat Lounge, sipping on a glass of white wine and pondering the vagaries of fate.  He looked up when the door opened and another man entered the dimly lit room, taking a seat at the bar, reinforcing the man's faith in kismet. Picking up his glass, the Preacher walked over and sat down next to his biggest rival, Robert "Dickie" Ward.

"Preacher," the handsome blond said without looking at the man.

The bartender set a glass of beer in front of Ward and moved off, not wanting to get involved with the business of the two men.

"D," the pimp replied.  "How's tricks?"

"Just fine," the man half-growled, not amused by the pun.  "Why do you ask? Thinking about taking me up on my offer and selling out?"

The Preacher laughed.  "Hardly," he said.  "Just curious."

"Well, I'm doing just fine, thank you very much.  Now, go away."

"With Tyrone gone we're all doing just fine," the Preacher continued with a soft chuckle.  "God rest his twisted, greedy soul."

Dickie chuckled, then took a sip of his beer.  "Yep, all us small fish are just swimming happy in one happy little pond."

"'Til one of us becomes another big fish," the Preacher acknowledged, his tone a vague threat.

The blond's eyes narrowed.  "Why the trip down memory lane?" Ward asked, wishing the other pimp would take a hike.

"Ran into the man who did us all the favor, that's all.  It left me in a… nostalgic mood."

"Oh?" Ward replied.  "We talkin' about… Ryder?"

"Mmm," the Preacher said, nodding.  He worked on his own drink, but watched Dickie in his peripheral vision.

Ward's eyes narrowed.  "You saw Ryder?"

"I just told you, didn't I?"

"You find him again, you let me know," Ward growled, his voice cold and hard.  He meant business.

The Preacher's eyes widened.  "Oh?"  He could smell money in the man's interest.  Money that might just line his pockets.

"I hear there's someone who's willing to pay some serious cash for the man."

"And who would that be?"

Dickie chuckled again.  "No way, Preacher.  You find him, you give me a call.  We'll work out a deal."

The Preacher took another sip of his wine, then tapped his glass against Ward's. "I might just do that."  Then, draining the glass, he set it on the bar and with a tip of his hat, he left, wondering how a man like Dickie, who was known for his ability to provide "unusual" merchandise to his johns, could be connected to anyone who might want Ryder's head on a platter.  He shook his head and grinned.

It didn't matter.  If there was money to be made in it, that was all that counted.

 

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

 

With nowhere to go Nick finally escaped into one of the many strip joints just off Lincoln Avenue.  The music was too loud and the lights were too bright, but he was able to find a small table in a dark corner on the second level.  Moving a chair back into the dark corner, he leaned back against the V of the two walls and closed his eyes.  His headache was getting worse, the dizziness and pain almost unbearable sometimes.  He knew he should be in the hospital, but that was a sure one-way ticket to jail, if the CHP's attitude was any indication.

No, he needed to be out here, looking for who he was and what was going on.

"Can I get you something?"

Nick opened his eyes and stared up at a young woman standing in front of his table.  She looked too young to be working in a place like this, but Nick couldn't bring himself to ask her about it.  He made plenty of his own problems at the moment.

"Uh, mister, can I get you something?" she asked again.

His stomach growled.  Reaching around to his back pocket, Nick found it empty. He fished into both of his front pockets, finding a ten dollar bill and thirty-seven cents.

"You serve food?" he asked.

"Just peanuts, pretzels and popcorn," she said, studying him more carefully.  "Hey, you okay?"

Nick shrugged.  "Not sure.  Head hurts."

"Look, why don't I get you a beer and some stuff to munch on, okay?"

Nick nodded and handed her the money.  "I'm really hungry," he repeated absently.

"I'll see what I can do," she promised, tucking the money into her pocket.

When she left, Nick closed his eyes again, ignoring the top-less dancers performing on a small stage a floor below.  A handful of hooting, ogling men cheered them on, waving dollar bills.

More images flashed through his mind – running on a beach, gunfire, a fist fight, an explosion…  The stream of images picked up speed, tumbling into his mind one after another, all of them violent.  He wasn't sure how long the barrage lasted, but the images shattered like a bullet-struck windshield when the waitress returned, saying, "Here you go."

He opened his eyes again.  She was back, her short blonde hair reminding him of someone, but who, exactly, remained a mystery.  Her blue eyes were also familiar, and he struggled call up a face or name to match the feeling.

The girl set a beer in front of him, along with two small baskets, one filled with popcorn, the other with pretzels.  Then she handed him a plastic container full of steaming spaghetti.

"Where'd this come from?" Nick asked, confused.

"My dinner," she said with a small smile.

Nick looked up at the woman, his eyes wide with surprise.  "I–  I can't eat your dinner."

She smiled, the expression making her look even younger.  "That's okay, I need to lose some weight, and I've been snacking on popcorn all night."

She definitely didn't need to lose weight.  "But–"

"Hey, look, you look like you could really use it, mister, so go on.  What you gave me is more than enough to cover it.  I can grab a burger on the way home."

"Uh, okay," he said, admitting to himself that it smelled wonderful.  "And thanks."

"Sure, mister, no problem."

"Uh, John," he corrected.  "My name's John."

"Okay, John," she said, smiling at him.  "You sure you're okay?"

"Got a killer headache," he admitted.

"Looks like you hit your head," she said, nodding at the bandage.

"Yeah.  Car accident."

"I've got some stuff that might help; I get these migraines sometimes."

"No, thanks," Nick replied automatically.

"I mean the over-the-counter stuff, you know, like extra strength stuff."

Nick tried a bite of the spaghetti.  "This is good, thank you."

"I'll get you some of that stuff, okay?"

Nick nodded.  "Yeah, okay, maybe that'll help."

"You eat that, and I'll get you another beer, too."

 

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

 

Day Two

 

Cody drew himself up, squared his shoulders and led the way into the impound lot, still using the cane to help take some of the weight off his aching leg.  Murray followed, thinking that the cane added just the right touch to the overall portrait Cody painted, dressed in his best suit and carrying a leather notebook tucked under his free arm.  The computer expert was dressed the same way.

Crossing to the small shack that sat along one chain-link fence, Cody pulled open the door and entered with a self-assured flourish.  Inside, a young man in coveralls looked up from the magazine he was reading: Soldier of Fortune.

"Can I help you?" he asked suspiciously.

Cody flashed the man a professionally cool smile as he hung the hook of his cane on the counter, then pulled a business card out of his notebook.  "I certainly hope so," he said, handing over the business card as he continued, "I'm Mister Abernathy, and this is my associate Mister Obenoberobenoski.  We're from Tate, Tate, and Beekman Insurance Consortium."  Cody extended his hand, but when the young man reached for it, he quickly pulled it back and smiled apologetically.  "Grease… you understand."

The man did, and he wasn't impressed, but he was sure that Cody was "somebody."  He wiped his hand on his pant leg and asked, "What do you need?"

"We're here about Mister Naughenhauser's classic Corvette," Murray explained, flipping through his own notebook.  "We were told that it had been brought here?"

The man, whose name patch on his coveralls read "Tom," reached for a clipboard, then stopped.  "You have a release form?"

Cody smiled, his expression indulgent.  "Oh no, you misunderstand, Mister–? Uh, Tom, we're not here to collect the car; we simply need to confirm that the car is, indeed, a part of Mister Naughenhauser's collection."

"Collection?"

Murray took a step forward.  "Oh, yes, Mister Naughenhauser has one of the most extensive collections of classic cars in the state, why, in the entire region," he corrected himself.

Cody nodded, his expression wistful but aloof.

"Why, his vintage Corvettes are the envy of–"

"What Mister Obenoberobenoski means to say is, Mister Naughenhauser loves his cars, and when his red '69 disappeared, well, he was–"

 

"Devastated," Murray supplied, shaking his head sadly.

"Devastated, huh?" Tom asked, not sure if he should be amused by the two dandies, or annoyed.

"Utterly," Cody confirmed.  "So if we could examine the vehicle and verify the VIN number, and appraise the damage, of course…"

"Poor Mister Naughenhauser," Murray said softly.  "I do hope it's not a complete loss."

Tom pulled a clipboard closer and checked the first page, then folded it back to the second.  "Uh, we do have a '69 Corvette.  Red one, too.  Looks pretty bad."

"Excellent," Cody said, flashing another smile at the man.  "Well, not excellent that the car has been damaged, of course, but excellent that the car is here.  We appreciate your assistance, Tom, and I'm sure Mister Naughenhauser will as well," he added, then looked at Murray, who nodded in agreement.  "And where, exactly, is the car?"

"Uh," Tom said, "it's out by the garage."

"And you say it's been… damaged?" Murray asked, pushing his glasses back in place and leveling a curious if bored expression on the man.

"Says here it was involved in a hit-and-run accident on the 110," Tom said.  "Pretty much totalled the left front and rear ends."

"Hit and run?" Cody echoed, his voice taking on a concerned tone.

Tom looked up at him.

Cody took one quick breath and covered himself, saying, "Well, if Mister Naughenhauser's driver is at fault, then the annuity might be voided, but if the car was involved in a felony crime, we'll have to establish felony liability, and then–"

"The report we got says a blue sports car, maybe a Mustang, hit the 'Vette and the driver lost control, hit the median," Tom interrupted, hoping he'd stopped the man from launching into a spate of legalese. 

"What happened to the driver?" Murray asked.  "In case we have to interview him, you understand."

Tom shrugged.  "Don't know.  Don't say."

"Well, you have been a great help," Cody said.  "Now, we should go look; they're expecting us back in the office by ten to finish the Sussulkin investigation."

"Go out, take a right, left around the garage and you can't miss it."

"Thank you," Cody said, extending his hand only to pull it away again.  "Sorr… you understand."

"Yeah, you're welcome," Tom said, reaching for his magazine.  He was reading again before they were out the door.

 

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

 

"It's the 'Vette," Cody said as soon as he saw it.  He could feel Nick's presence attached to the car.

"We still need to check the VIN," Murray said softly.

The blond nodded, waiting while Murray made the check.

"It's Nick's," the slender man said a few moments later, his voice tight with worry.

"We have to find out who responded to the accident."

"It was probably the highway patrol," Murray offered.

"Let's go find out."

As they started back to the Jimmy, Murray asked, "Your leg hurting?"

"What?"

"You're limping more," he explained.

Cody nodded.  "Yeah, it's sore."

"Maybe we should stop and get something to eat so you can take some of the pills–"

Cody shook his head, his lips set in a thin line of determination.  "Not until I find out what happened to Nick."

 

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

 

After working their way through three different people, Cody and Murray finally found somebody at the CHP Headquarters who could help them.

"Mister Allen?  Cody Allen?"

Cody turned, then smiled.  "Kathy?  Kathy Corke?"

The woman smiled back, then gave Allen a quick hug.  "Cody, it's so good to see you!  But it's Kathy Karon, Captain Karon, now."

"You two know each other?" Murray asked, his gaze sweeping over the forty-something woman with short reddish-blond hair and freckles.  She was wearing a CHP uniform and carrying a file folder.

"Cody and I went to high school together," Kathy explained.  "Spent a lot of great weekend catching waves."

"And she dated one of my best friends," Cody added with a grin.

"How is Hound these days?" she asked.

"Hound?" Murray echoed.

"Bradley 'Hound' Harrison," Cody filled in.  "And I don't have a clue.  I lost track of him when I went to Vietnam."

"Vietnam?" Kathy asked, her eyes rounding in surprise.  "Boy, we do have a lot to catch up on!"  She shook her head, then continued, "I understand that you want to know about an accident that happened yesterday afternoon?"

Cody nodded.  "Yeah, between noon and two p.m.  It involved a red 1969 Corvette on the 110.  A hit and run."

She nodded and offered, "Why don't you come into my office?"  As they headed off she looked down at the cane and Cody's limp.  "War injury?"

He grinned.  "Naw, a slight accident on a case."

"Case?" she repeated.  "Don't tell me you're a cop!"

"Private investigator.  This is Murray Bozinsky, one of my partners.  My other partner, Nick Ryder, was driving that car," he said as they reached her office.

The two detectives followed Kathy into a small, but comfortable office and sat down across the desk from her.  "Your partner?" she asked.

Cody nodded.  "Yeah, Nick was on his way to testify in an extortion case.  He never made it to the courthouse.  Can you tell us what happened to him?" he asked, his tone and expression imploring.

She hesitated a moment, then opened the file and said as she skimmed, "Looks like two of our officers responded to a 911 call at 12:27 p.m.  They arrived on the scene to find a red Corvette with no plates involved in an apparent hit and run accident."

"They saw the incident?" Murray asked.

"No, but there was a witness who stopped to render aid," Kathy said, glancing up at the two men.

"Who was that?" Cody asked.

Kathy flashed him an indulgent smile.  "If you're a P.I. you know I can't tell you that," she chided him.

"What about Nick?" Cody asked.  "What happened to him?"

Kathy looked back to the file.  "The driver, a male, was unconscious and had no ID.  He was taken to L.A. Community.  The officers on-scene thought he might've stolen the car."

"It's a long story," Cody said, "but that was Nick, Nick Ryder, and it was his car, so if you're looking for him, you can call that off.  Can you tell me anything about the hit and run?"

Kathy hesitated, then looked back at the report.  "Okay, I'm not supposed to do this, but… according to the witness, a bright blue sports car, probably a Mustang, purposefully struck the 'Vette two time, maybe more, then sped off."

"Does it say what's wrong with Nick?" Murray asked.

"No, I'm sorry."

Cody stood.  "Come on, Murray," he said, "we'll go over to the hospital."

"Good luck," Kathy said.  "And drop by some time so we can catch up!"

"I'll do that," the blond promised, picking up his cane and hobbling for the door, Murray two steps behind him.

 

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

 

Less than a hour later the two detectives sat across from Dr. Ortiz while he explained, "Mister Doe, uh, Ryder, was brought in with a simple linear skull fracture and a mild concussion.  He was unconscious for less than an hour, and when he woke, it appeared that he was suffering from amnesia."

"He'd lost his memory?" Cody asked, his face paling slightly.

Ortiz nodded.  "Amnesia with rapid recovery isn't uncommon with this kind of head injury.  Mister Ryder couldn't recall his name, or where he was."

"Can we see him?" Murray asked.

"I'd like nothing more than to say yes," the physician replied, "but Mister Ryder snuck out of the hospital sometime yesterday."

"Snuck out?" Cody repeated, leaning forward in his chair, his face now a distinctive ash-gray.  "When?"

The doctor shrugged.  "He was only left unattended for a short period of time."

"Doctor, is he in any danger?" Murray asked, wringing his damp-palmed hands nervously.

Ortiz's expression turned troubled.  "To be completely honest, I don't know.  He does have a concussion and there are potential complications.  I'd feel better if he were back here so we could keep an eye on him for a day or two.  And if he should sustain a second impact, it could cause brain swelling."

Cody swallowed hard.  "Worst case, Doctor, if he takes another hit and it–  How soon do we have to find him?"

"Twenty-four hours," Ortiz replied.  "But that's a worst case prediction.  I don't think he's in any immediate danger.  And the police are looking for him; they said something about him stealing a car?"

Cody's eyes widened.  "Nick didn't–"

"He didn't have any ID," Murray interrupted.

"Damn," Cody breathed.  He brightened.  "But Kathy should've already taken care of that."

"That's too bad," the doctor said.  "The more people looking for him, the faster we might find him."

"There is that," Murray replied, nodding thoughtfully.

"Do you have any idea what he might do?" Cody asked.

"Even though he's lost his memory, that knowledge is still in his head," Ortiz explained.  "You're his friends; you might be able to anticipate where he might go.  He's likely to be attracted to familiar places.  But if you do find him, please, bring him back here if you can?"

"We will," Cody promised, standing.  He shook the physician's hand. 

Murray did the same, then the two detectives left.  In the hallway, he asked, "Where do we start?"

Cody thought a moment, then said, "Pier 56."

As they headed out, Cody pulled Murray to a stop.

"What?" the slender man asked.

Cody nodded at a young woman standing at the information desk, arguing with the volunteer on duty.  "I told you, I don't know his name," she said, "but he was brought in yesterday, around noon-ish.  He was in a car accident."

The aide behind the desk shook her head.  "If you don't have a name, I'm afraid I can't help you."

"Uh, excuse me," Cody said, limping over to the young woman.

She looked up.  "Yes?"

"Are you asking about a dark-haired man in a red Corvette?"

Her green eyes widened and she smiled.  "Yeah, how did you know?"

Cody smiled back.  "Can we, uh, talk someplace?"

She shrugged, eyeing both men cautiously.  "Uh, yeah, I guess so…  What'd you have in mind?"

Cody glanced around, thinking.  "How about the cafeteria?"

Relief flashed across her face and she nodded.  "Sure, I can do that."

 

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

 

In the cafeteria Cody treated her to a cup of coffee.  Murray opted for a soda.  They sat with their drinks and Cody asked her to tell them about the accident.

When she was through, Murray reached out and squeezed her arm, saying sincerely.  "We really appreciate you stopping to help."

Cody nodded his agreement.

"I just wanted to find out how he is.  So, how is he?" Kallie asked.

Cody and Murray exchanged concerned glances.  "We don't know," the blond detective admitted.

"Excuse me?" Kallie asked.

"Nick, uh, left the hospital yesterday," Murray said, not sure how much he should tell the young woman.

"Left?" she echoed.  "But he was really bleeding."

"The doctor said he lost his memory," Cody explained.  "He thinks Nick might've panicked and left because he was confused about what had happened."

"Will be he okay?" she asked, her concern clear in her voice.

"He thinks so," Cody assured.  "But we're going to go see if we can't find him.  We're just glad we could hear from you about the accident."

"Why don't you give me your phone number?" Murray suggested.  "I'll give you a call to let you know how it works out."

"Great," Kallie said, waiting for Murray to pull out a small notepad and pen before rattling off her number.

When she left, Cody and Murray headed back to Pier 56, beginning their search for Nick.

 

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

 

Nick woke and glanced around, studying his surroundings – a small bedroom with a dresser, nightstand and full-length mirror in the corner.  The walls were a utilitarian cream, the carpet a mixture of earth-tones.  Several small Victorian paintings hung on the walls, their surrounding frames gilded and lacy.  All in all it was clean and neat, but nothing looked familiar.  He frowned, trying to remember how he'd gotten there.

"You're awake!"

He blinked and turned his head.  The waitress.  "How'd–?"

"You almost passed out at the table in the club.  I had Sam help me bring you here.  It's my apartment," she explained.

"Did we…?"

She blushed and giggled.  "No.  You were dead.  I slept on the sofa."

Relief swept over Nick, although he didn't know why.  She was pretty enough, thin with short blonde hair and pale blue eyes, and she obviously had a good heart. He paused, staring at her for a long moment.

She looked familiar last night, he reminded himself.  Why?  Who does she look like?

"Look, uh, your clothes, they were, uh, pretty dirty.  I borrowed some things from my neighbor for you.  I hope you don't mind.  You didn't have anything in your pockets."

Nick nodded, slowly sitting up in the twin bed, but keeping the sheet over his lap even though he was wearing briefs.  She handed him a pair of worn jeans, a faded flannel shirt and a pair of white athletic tube socks.  She dipped her head, saying, "Uh, all Tony wanted for the clothes was your shoes."

"My shoes?" Nick asked.

"Yeah, but Tony gave me some money for them, too.  We can stop at Payless and pick up something.  How's your head?"

"Better," Nick lied, reaching up to touch the bandage.  "Can I take a shower?"

"Sure," the woman said.  "Out the door on your left."

She turned to leave, but Nick stopped her, saying, "Hey, I don't even know your name."

"Stacy," she said, then smiled.  "I'm going to go get breakfast started.  Toast and eggs okay?"

"Sure," Nick replied, his stomach grumbling.

Standing, he had to reach out and use the dresser to steady himself.  His head pounded as fiercely as it had the night before, and the dizziness was still haunting him. He sighed.  At least his stomach wasn't doing back-flips.

In the tiny bathroom, Nick stared into the mirror as he tugged the ends of the bandage up and then removed it.  Gingerly feeling along the stitches, he grimaced.  It wasn't as bad as he'd expected, given how much his head hurt.  Then, climbing into the shower he washed away the dirt and hospital smell.

 

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

 

"Nothing," Cody sighed as he dropped onto the Riptide's fantail seat, leg throbbing.

"Me, either," Murray admitted, leaning back against the railing.  "But I did start a search for that blue Mustang."

Cody looked skeptical.  "Murray, do you know how many blue Mustangs there are in the L.A. area?"

"Over fifteen thousand," the computer expert admitted.  "But only seventeen were reported stolen as of this morning."

Cody's expression brightened.  "Good idea!"

Murray looked pleased with himself as he asked, "So where do we look next?"

Cody thought a moment, then suggested, "How about where he grew up?  Maybe the high school?"

Murray nodded.  "It would be a familiar area."

"I talked to Dooley and some of the store-owners.  If they spot Nick they'll call.  We can stop and check the messages every hour."

 

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

 

After a stop at a Payless shoe store where they picked up an inexpensive pair of slip-on boat shoes, Stacy drove Nick to a small community clinic.  After a two-hour wait, he was taken in so a doctor could examine his scalp wound.

"Have a seat on the table," the young black man said.

Nick walked as normally as possible to the examination table and eased himself up.  The movement triggered a wave of dizziness and nausea, but both quickly faded once he was settled and not moving.

The doctor pulled on a pair of latex gloves, then maneuvered an overhead light over and turned it on.  Leaning closer, he inspected the wound.

"Well, whoever fixed you up did a good job.  I'm just going to clean this up, put some anti-bacterial cream in it and put on another bandage," the young black man said.

"Thanks," Nick replied, trying to ignore the pounding inside his skull.

"I noticed that you gave your name as Doe," he said casually as he worked.

"Uh, yeah," Nick said, "not too original, huh?"

"We don't ask questions here, Mister Doe," the doctor assured.  "I just want to make sure you're not having any other problems.  Any headaches?"

"No," Nick lied, wincing as the man worked.

"Dizzy?"

"No."

"Stomach upset?"

"No."

"Double-vision?"

"No."

"Well, then, I guess you're okay," the physician said.  "But if you did have any of those symptoms, it'd be a good idea to check yourself into a hospital."

"I'll keep that in mind," Nick replied.

A few minutes later, a new bandage in place, Nick and Stacy left the clinic.  In the car, he asked, "You think we could just drive around a little?"

"Want to see if you remember anything?" Stacy asked.

Nick nodded.

"Sure.  I don't have to be at work until three."

"Thanks," Nick said.  "I appreciate your help."

She smiled.  "That's okay.  To tell you the truth, you kind of remind me of my brother.  Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

Nick thought and moment, then mumbled, "I wish I knew."

 

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

 

The Preacher stopped, watching Nick climb out of a small silver Honda parked in the lot for the Jeweled PussyKat.  Stepping back into the shadows, he watched the detective follow one of the new waitresses inside.  He smiled, then headed for a phone booth.

Dropping in a quarter, he dialed.  "Dickie?" he asked when someone picked up.

"Yeah?" asked a sleepy voice.

"It's me, Preacher.  I found Ryder.  Let's talk."

 

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

 

Sitting at the same table he'd found the night before, Nick tried to sort through the images that had been assaulting him all day – the beach, football games, a car race on a cliff-side road, a small orange robot, a hulking pink helicopter, along with the familiar violent images of guns, firefights, fist fights, car chases and jail cells.  The images left him feeling weak and troubled and a fine film of sweat coated his skin.  There were other images, too, faces that haunted the edges of his memories, but refused to surface.

As the day passed Stacy continued to stop by, occasionally delivering a new beer and a snack along with more of the over-the-counter painkillers.  He'd thank her, take the pills, drain the drink, then close his eyes again, willing the images to make sense.

As the hours passed, the pain in his head slowly swelled, eventually making it impossible to think.  He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, hoping that sleep might free him from the pain.

"Nick Ryder?"

The detective's eyes opened and he looked up at the white man standing in front of his table.  In the early-thirties, he was well dressed in a business suit.  His short brown hair was conservatively cut, and muddy brown eyes peered at Nick with a disconcerting intensity.

"Who?" the detective asked, confused and unhappy about having to concentrate past the thrumming agony in his head.

"Nick Ryder.  That's you."

Nick could sense the man's barely hidden hostility.  "Me?  Who the hell are you?"

"Don't play games with me, Ryder."

Nick's eyes widened.  "Nick Ryder, that's my name?"

The man's eyes narrowed, but he grabbed a chair and sat down.  Leaning over the table, he asked, "What's the matter with you?"

Nick didn't trust the man, but he seemed to know more than the detective did.  "Car accident.  I hit my head.  I can't remember anything."

"So I heard," the man said, studying Nick's face, noting the bandage, the dark circles under his eyes, and the pain lines that puckered the corners of Nick's eyes and mouth.

"Do you know me?" Nick asked.

The man nodded. 

"And I'm Nick Ryder?"

Another nod.

Nick hesitated, then asked, "What do I do?  For a living, I mean."

The man didn't answer, leaning back in his chair instead. 

The headache flared, and Nick's eyes narrowed.  "Listen, I haven't got time for games."

A ruthless smile lifted the corners of the man's mouth.  "You really don't know who the hell you are, do you?"

"No," Nick admitted.  His eyes narrowed and he snarled as menacingly as possible, "But you're gonna tell me."

The man nodded.  "Sure, why not."  He bent forward, resting his forearms on the small round table.  "You kill people," he said softly.

Oh, God, Nick thought.  I am a hitman.  "And-and I… work for you?" he asked the man.

A nod.

"And you are?"

"Penderson, David Hale Penderson."

Nick sat up straighter.  The name sounded familiar.  God, did I already agree to whack someone for this idiot?

"And you were supposed to take out some private detectives for me."

Christ, I did.  "Why?" Nick asked.

"Does it matter?" Penderson asked, his expression turning hard.  "Look, you kill people for money.  I paid you, you took the money, now I want to see the bodies.  I want the job I paid for done – immediately."

Nick swallowed thickly.  "What did they do?" he demanded.

Penderson was silent a moment, then said, "They killed my brother.  It's revenge, pure and simple."

"Look, I don't–"

"You were paid, Ryder," the man snarled.  "You are going to finish the job, or your family's going to pay the price."  He watched a shocked expression flash across Nick's face, quickly suppressed.

"Family?"

The man's eyes narrowed.  "Wife," he said, "and your daughter… sweet little thing.  So young, so innocent.  And they won't die fast, Ryder.  I promise you that.  I'll see to it they go slow.  Very, very slow.  There are plenty other people out there like you, you know."

Images of the mutilated body of a young Asian girl flashed through Nick's mind and he shuddered, his stomach almost emptying on the table.  Then the faces of two other Asian children flashed through his mind.  They were smiling, happy, the little girl in a wheelchair.  Was his wife Asian?

"Look, you want to back out, you give me back the twenty-grand, I'll get someone else.  But if you keep the money, you do the job."

Nick frantically sought the location of the money.  If he could just give it back, get the man off his back…  But there were no images, no hints where the cash might be.  "Where are these detectives?" he asked in a rough voice.

"King Harbor," Penderson supplied.  "I'll take you."

Nick raised a hand, trying to slow the man down.  "Look, I don't know if I can do it right now, I–"

"You don't and–"

"Listen," Nick hissed, reaching out to grab the man's arm.  "My head's killing me here, understand?  I can't see straight.  Maybe in a day or two–"

"Tonight, Ryder.  You kill them tonight or so help me, you and your family will die."

The look in the man's eyes told Nick that he meant what he said.  He nodded, not knowing what else to do.

Oh, man, what've I got myself into?  Killing people?  I can't, I

He shut the thoughts off.  It was all too painful, too confusing.  He'd go along, see what the score was.  Then, if he had to do the two detectives to get Penderson off his back, he would.  But not before the man told him where his wife and kid were.  If he could find them, he could get the answers he needed.

 

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

 

Cody and Murray both sat at the table in the salon, too tired to eat the hamburgers and fries they'd picked up on the way back to the Riptide.

Giving up, Cody leaned back against the cushions and sighed heavily.  "I don't know where else to look, Murray," he said tightly, frustration rounding his shoulders and aging him ten years.

Bozinsky nodded, concern for the blond clear on his face.  "How's your leg?"

"Sore," he admitted, absently rubbing at it.

"You're pushing yourself too hard."

"What choice do I have?" Cody asked, his voice too loud ad too strained.  "We have to find Nick before–"

"The doctor said he should be fine.  I'm sure his memories will start to surface soon.  I was reading–"

"What if they don't?" Cody interrupted.  "What if we can't find him?  What if he's gone?"

Murray knew he didn't have an answer that would satisfy the man, but he said, "I just don't think that's going to happen.  You really should eat something."

Cody looked at the thin man, his anger shifting to understanding and concern.  "Works both ways, buddy."

The two men lapsed into silence, picking at their food.  Neither detective was able to even make it halfway through their meals.  After a cup of coffee Cody headed below to get some much-needed sleep.

Despite feeling exhausted and emotionally drained himself, Murray headed to his computer, hoping there might be something helpful waiting for him.  The Roboz swiveled its orange head to peer at Bozinsky as he entered and dropped into his chair.  A series of question marks appeared across its chest.

"I'm fine, Roboz," Murray told the little robot.  "Really."

He grinned at the robot, then turned his attention to the computer screen.  Typing in commands, he waited for the information on the stolen Mustangs to come up. Skimming the information, he frowned.  There didn't appear to be anything to tell him who might have been driving the car that had hit Nick.  He sighed, printing off the information, then turned off the computer and crawled into his bed without bothering to undress.

 

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

 

Standing in the shadows of one of the Pier 56 shops, Nick and Penderson looked down at the dark Riptide.

"That's their boat," the man said, reaching inside his jacket and pulling out a military issue M-9.  He handed it to Nick, saying, "Two men, Allen and Bozinsky.  I want them both dead."

Nick took the gun, images of the dead Asian child flashing through his mind again.  He looked up at Penderson, asking, "I have a daughter?"

Penderson smiled, but the effect was a condescending sneer.  "You won't if you don't do what I paid you to do."

Nick look down at the gun, his hand shaking slightly. 

"Look, Ryder, you take care of this job and I'll see to it you get out of town and get some medical attention," Penderson promised.  "Then you can go back to your family and lead whatever kind of life you want."

"They know what I do?" Nick asked.

Penderson scowled.  "How the hell should I know?  I just hired you to kill two men."

A wave of dizziness washed over the detective, nearly causing his knees to buckle.  He reached for his head, saying, "Look, I can't–"

"You will, or so help me I'll see to it your wife and daughter end up in pieces." The last came out as a hiss.

Nick swallowed and drew in a deep breath, willing the pain and dizziness away.  He looked back at the boat, something familiar tugging at his gut.  Maybe I already cased this place.  Maybe I already worked out how I was going to do this, he rationalized.

But that didn't feel right. 

"Go on," Penderson snarled.

Nick took one unsteady step toward the boat, then another.  He stopped, an explosion of agony in his head making him sway on his feet.  He reached out, bracing himself against the wall of the building.

Penderson pulled a second M-9 out of his jacket pocket and stepped up next to Nick.  "All right, damn it, I'll go with you, but you pull the trigger, understand?  I paid for at least that much."  Then, grabbing the detective's arm, he pulled Nick along to the boat.

By the time the detective stood in the Riptide's salon his head was pounding, bright white and yellow lights erupting in front of his eyes like strobes and 4th of July sparklers.  A barrage of images passed through his mind so quickly he couldn't even begin to interpret then.  His breath caught as his stomach almost emptied.

"Go on," Penderson hissed.  "Go find them and kill them."

 

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

 

Murray lay curled on his side, sleeping peacefully until the Roboz tapped him on the shoulder.

"Huh?" the slender man grunted, jerking awake.  Groping in the dark, he found his glasses and pulled them on, asking, "What's wrong, Roboz?"

Across the little robot's chest flashed "Intruder alert!"

Grabbing his baseball bat, Murray pressed the button that buzzed in Nick and Cody's room – an addition they'd added after they'd been caught twice in the middle of the night.  That done, he crept silently toward the stairs.

 

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

 

Lying awake on his bunk, Cody jumped when the soft buzz sounded next to his pillow.  He sat up and pulled his dresser drawer open, his fingers closing on the butt of his gun.  Levering to his feet, he limped to his door and listened.

In the salon he heard a man whisper, "Go on…  Go find them and kill them."

Who the hell's that?

Taking a deep breath, Cody headed up to meet the intruders.

 

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

 

Nick took a step toward the stairs, but stopped when he saw Cody emerging from the shadows, his gun up and ready.

"Nick?" the blond said no louder than a whisper, his expression totally confused.

"Kill him!" Penderson barked, stepping in behind Nick where he could use the dark-haired man as a shield.

Nick brought up the M-9, aiming at Cody's chest.  For a moment it was a stand-off, both men covering each other, then the blond whipped both his hands up, making it clear that he was no threat, even if he was still holding a gun.

"Nick, it's me," he said.  "What's wrong, buddy?"

Images stormed through Nick's mind, ransacking his resolve, but he still couldn't remember who the blond-haired man was.

"Shoot him," Penderson commanded.  "Do it, or so help me your family's going to suffer!"

Cody's gaze slipped from Nick to the stranger, then back, blue eyes locking on blue in an unbreakable bond.  "Look, Nick, I don't know who the hell this guy is, but we're your family.  Me and Murray.  Don't you remember?  We've been looking for you. You were in an accident, remember?"

"I can't remember," Nick growled, his shoulders pinching up in an attempt to ward off the agony that threatened to tear his head apart.

"You're hurting, I know, buddy, I know," Cody soothed.  "We talked to the doctor who treated you.  Latino guy, uh, Ortiz.  He said you have amnesia."

"You're going let him get your family killed?" Penderson snarled, his own gun coming up to cover Cody.  "Where's Bozinsky?" he demanded.

Cody's eyes narrowed, knowing Murray was probably watching the unfolding scene from the shadows along the stairs behind Nick and the stranger.  "Gone.  A computer conference in Vegas," he lied.

"Get up here," Penderson demanded, gesturing at Cody with his M-9.

Cody limped up the rest of the stairs to the salon.

Nick frowned, more images flashing through his vision – a fight, a gunshot, a murdered Asian child, the blond man lying on the ground, holding his leg while it bled.  Guilt and remorse exploded in Nick's chest, competing with the agony in his head for a brief moment.

"Do it now, Ryder," Penderson panted, his dark eyes wide and wild.  "Do it or when I get back to your daughter I'm going to shove this gun inside her and pull the trigger," Penderson rattled.  "I'll-I'll burn her, I'll burn her with cigarettes, cut her, cut her up.  I'll cut her.  You watch me, I'll do it.  I will."

As the man ranted Nick could see the images of the same kinds of wounds on the little Asian girl's body.  He started to shake and the room began to tilt dangerously.  I can't kill this guy.  I don't know who he is, but I can't kill himI can't.

"Who are you?" Cody hissed, anger folding over his face as he glared at Penderson.

The man didn't reply, continuing, "She's bad.  She's very, very bad.  Just like mommy was bad, but we can fix that.  We can make sure she's never bad again.  Cut, burn, cut… she won't be bad anymore."

"Nick–"

"Kill him!" Pendersen screamed.

Nick's finger tightened on the trigger, but the blond's face faded from sight, lost in the exploding lights that flashed in front of the dark-haired man's eyes nearly blinding him.  He groaned and choked back a longer, louder cry as it felt like someone was drilling straight into his brain.

"Kill him!"

Nick took a step closer to Cody, then swung around with a pain-filled snarl, his gun coming up on Penderson in a two-fisted grip that still shook uncontrollably.  Behind the man he saw Murray, clutching a baseball bat to use on Penderson if the man tried to hurt Cody.  Whoever these two men were, they were tight.  And familiar, but he didn't have time to think about it.

"What're you doing?" Penderson screamed at Nick.  "Kill him – now!"

"No," Nick growled deep in his throat, his vision beginning to narrow, a band of black working its way in from his peripheral vision.

Rage twisted Penderson's face into an unrecognizable mask that was no longer human.  He screamed, his weapon shifting from Cody to Nick.  In the detective's mind, events slowed as Nick watched Penderson pull the trigger.  But Murray was lunging forward with the bat, striking Penderson between the shoulder blades with all of his strength, sending him stumbling forward as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Nick fired just before he felt the bullet strike his upper chest.  A third report echoed in the small boat as Cody fired on Penderson, who was on his knees, bringing his gun up to fire at Nick again.  The blond's shot killed the man and Nick watched him fall in a slow-motion ballet of death, then staggered back himself, his legs buckling.  As he fell he saw the fear and concern on the blond's face, but the image was quickly erased when he hit the back of his head on the edge of the table.

“Nick!" Cody shouted, lunging to Penderson and kicking the man's gun away before he bent to check for a pulse.  There was none.

Murray dropped his bat and grabbed for the phone, plucking up the receiver and punching out 9-1-1.  "Hello?  I need the police and an ambulance immediately; a man was shot…  Pier 56, slip 7, the Riptide.  Please, hurry…  Thank you."

"Murray, get me a towel or something to stop this bleeding," Cody snapped as he dropped to the floor beside Nick.

Bozinsky was moving before the blond finished speaking, disappearing down the stairs like he had wings.

Cody reached out, gripping Nick's shoulders with trembling hands.  "Nick?  Nick, can you hear me?  Come on, buddy, don't you die on me, damn it.  Not now."

There was no response.

"Come on, Murray!  Hurry up!"

"Here," he said, scrambling up the stairs with an armload of towels.

Cody grabbed the one on top of the pile, then carefully lifted Nick to check for an exit wound.  He was surprised to find only a slightly larger opening.  Pressing the cloth against the bleeding wound, he let Nick roll onto his back, his own weight putting pressure on the injury.  Then, grabbing a second towel, he pressed it against the entry wound while Murray checked Nick's airway.

"He's breathing okay."

"Where are they?" Cody asked, glancing up, willing the sound of sirens to materialize.

"They're on the way," Murray said.  "Do you think he remembered?"

Cody shook his head, looking back at his fallen friend.  "I don't know.  Maybe. He seemed to know this guy was the real problem."

"Who is he?" Murray asked, glancing guardedly at the corpse and swallowing hard.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Cody replied, pressing harder against the cloth as blood began to soak through.  "Hang on, Nick," he said.  "Please."

"Did you hear what he said?" Murray asked in a whisper.

Cody nodded, his breath catching painfully in his chest when Nick gasped in a short breath and moaned.  The sound ended with a sharp grunt of pain.  "Please, Nick, please listen to me.  You have to fight, okay?  You have to hang on.  Help's on the way, buddy.  Just hang on, please."

Dark eyelashes fluttered against bloodless cheeks before pain-glazed blue eyes opened halfway. 

"Nick?" Cody said, his voice catching.

The dark-haired detective tried to focus on Cody's face, but his eyes refused. "Wh–"

"What?" the blond asked.  "Nick?"

"Who… am… I?"

"Not now, Nick," Cody said, a nervous chuckle bubbling over his lips.  "Right now you concentrate on stickin' around so we can tell you everything you want to know, okay?"

Nick stared at Cody for a moment, trying to remember who he was.  "Friend?" he whispered airily just before his eyes dropped closed again.

"Yeah, buddy, friends.  Best friends, so don't you give up on me, you hear?  Hang on, Nick, just a little longer."

 

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

 

Sitting in the ER waiting room, Cody ran his hands over his hair and sighed heavily.  He wanted to get up and go ask the nurse what was going on, but Murray had done that less than ten minutes ago and there was still no word.  He huffed, trying to force the anger and frustration back to manageable levels, but they still pressed against his breastbone, trying to claw their way out.

"Damn it," he breathed, shoving himself back against the sofa seat.

"Cody?" Murray asked worriedly from where he sat in one of the more comfortable chairs.

"Nothing," the blond sighed, feeling his jaw muscles start to twitch.  "I just want someone to tell us something.  It's been almost four hours, for Christ's sake!"

"I'm sure we'll hear just as soon as there's something–"

"I know, Murray, I know, all right?" Cody interrupted, then added more kindly, "I just hate waiting."

"Me, too," Murray admitted.

Cody offered the man a brief, reassuring smile he didn't feel. 

"He'll be fine.  The paramedics got him here very fast."

The blond nodded, worried anyway.

"How's your leg?"

Cody thought about lying, but he wasn't in the mood.  "It feels like someone's trying to cut it off, okay?"

"I could ask the nurse–"

"No!" Cody snapped, then forced himself to stop before he said something he'd regret ten minutes later.  "Yeah, okay, maybe that would help."

Murray stood, the sympathetic, understanding expression on his face making Cody feel like a heel.  "I'll be right back," the slender man promised.

Cody waited until Murray disappeared around the corner before he whispered, "I'm sorry, Boz, but if he–"

No! he shouted at himself.  You think like that, you're just inviting the worstHe'll be all right.  He has to be.

 

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

 

Almost an hour later, Cody and Murray were still waiting impatiently when a young black woman stepped into the waiting room.

"Mister Allen?" she asked.

Cody stood, a twinge of pain racing down his leg and up into his hip.  He winced, but said, "I'm Cody Allen."

The women smiled, her practiced eyes taking in the condition of his leg.  "I'm Janique Oba, Mister Ryder's doctor."

"How is he?" Cody asked, starting to limp over to her.

"Stable," she said, gesturing for Cody to sit back down.

The detective hobbled back to the over-long couch and sat back down with a grunt.

The woman sat down next to him, and glancing from Cody to Murray as she spoke, explained, "First, I want to you know that the bullet caused minimal damage.  It was deflected by a rib, which is fractured, but should heal just fine with time and rest.  Mister Ryder has a small lung bruise under the fracture, and we're monitoring that closely, but I'm confident it won't turn dangerous."

"What about his head?" Cody asked.  "The other doctor said if he hit his head again–"

Dr. Oba shook her head.  "Our neurologist has already examined Mister Ryder.  It was just a glancing blow, in an area removed from the original injury.  There's no sign of second impact syndrome, but we're keeping a close eye on that, too, just in case."

"When can we see him?" Murray asked, relief making him slightly lightheaded.

"Not until tomorrow, I'm afraid.  He'll be in recovery for another hour or so, then we'll get him moved to our post-op ward.  Visiting hours start at nine."

Cody nodded.  "Oh, Doctor Ortiz at L.A. Community saw Nick after his car accident."

Oba noted that on the chart she was carrying.  "Thank you, I'll have Mister Ryder's records transferred over here."

"They'll be listed under John Doe," Murray added.  "Nick lost his memory in the accident."

The young woman's eyes widened slightly.  "Okay, I'll pass that along to the neurologist."  She stood.  "He's in good hands," she promised.  "Get some rest.  You look like you could use it.  I can have someone take a look at that leg if you'd like."

"No, thanks," Cody replied.  "I just need to rest it some."  He stood and shook her hand.  "We appreciate all your help, Doctor."

"Very much," Murray added as he shook her hand in turn.  "Nick's our friend."

She smiled understandingly, then headed back to call Ortiz.

 

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

 

The following morning, Cody and Murray walked into the UCLA Medical Center two minutes before nine, both men looking tired and haggard.  Cody's limp was more pronounced and he leaned heavily on the cane as he proceeded slowly with small, shuffling steps.

After checking with an older man who was volunteering at the information desk to get a room number, the two detectives crossed the lobby to the elevators and rode up to the fifth floor.  Stepping out into the hallway, Murray checked the numbers, and led them to Nick's room.

Stepping inside, both men paused.  Nick lay in a small bed, the guardrails pulled up.  Two IVs hung on a single pole, dripping fluids into the back of his left hand.  His head sported a new, smaller bandage in addition to another partly visible on his side.  The man's skin was pale and damp, accentuating the dark circles under his eyes.  A nasal tube delivered oxygen to the unconscious man.

"Maybe we should come back," Murray whispered.

Cody shook his head.  "I'll wait."

A half-hour later Dr. Oba arrived to check on Nick's progress.  She smiled at the two men who sat on either side of the window; Murray reading a journal, Cody staring at Nick.

"Good morning," she greeted.  "He had a good night.  No complications."

Murray smiled, the news cheering him.  "Has he woken up?"

"Not yet," the doctor said, checking the chart where the floor nurses had recorded Nick's vital signs.  She made a note on the chart she was carrying, then set it on the bedside table and picked up the neurologist's chart and read the notes there.

Cody had read both documents earlier, but he couldn't make heads or tails out of the information – most of it appeared to be in some kind of physician's code.

"Well, everything looks as good as we could expect."

"What does that mean?" Cody asked, his temper still frayed.

Oba smiled.  "That he's doing very well."  She turned back to Nick.  "Mister Ryder?" she said.  When he didn't respond, she reached out, squeezing his right hand.  "Mister Ryder, can you hear me?"

The dark eyelashes fluttered and his eyes opened.  He blinked owlishly as his vision slowly cleared.

"Good morning.  I'm Janique Oba, your doctor.  How're you feeling?  Any pain?"

"M' head hurts," Nick said, his voice thick and slightly slurred.

Reaching for a glass of water sitting on the nightstand, she bent the straw over and held it up to Nick's lips.  He took three swallows.

"Thank you."

"You're very welcome.  Your head hurts?"

Nick nodded slightly.

"Any other pain?"

"My side," he replied.  "A little."

"Good.  Now, are you having any trouble breathing?"

"No."

"How many fingers?" she asked, holding up two.

"Two.  I can see okay."

"Any nausea?"

Nick hesitated a moment, then said, "No, I don't think so."

"Well, we'll be keeping you here for a few days, just to make sure everything's fine.  If your chest starts to hurt you can just press this button," she explained.  "That will release a painkiller into your IV."

Nick stared at the button, then reached out and pressed it once.

"And if you start to have any trouble breathing, I want you to call a nurse, okay?"

"Okay," he echoed back, already feeling the medication erase the pain in his side.  His head still pounded, but he didn't care as much about it.

"You feeling up for a couple of visitors?" Oba asked.

Before Nick could reply, Cody and Murray stood and moved to the bedside.

"Hey, Nick," Cody said, trying to smile, but his anxiety made it impossible.

Nick stared up at Cody and Murray, but there was no recognition in his eyes.  "I don't know you," he muttered dismissively, wishing everyone would go away so he could sleep.

"Oh, yes, you do, Nick," Murray corrected.  "You just don't remember."

"I want to be alone," Nick told the two men, looking away.  "'M tired."

Cody's expression turned hard.  "Okay.  We'll, uh, drop back in to see you a little later, okay?"

"Whatever," was the mumbled reply.

Oba watched the two detectives leave, then looked back to Nick, her expression concerned.  "You want to talk about it?"

"No."

"Okay," she said, making a mental note to have one of the psychologists drop in on the man.  "But you should know they were here most of last night, waiting to hear how you were.  It took a real effort to get them to go home and get some rest.  And they were back early this morning.  You might not remember them, but they know you, and they care about you."

Nick watched the woman leave, then sighed.  He felt a connection to the two men, but it had no foundation in his memory.  He couldn't even recall their names.  And as much as he wanted to know more about himself, he wasn't ready to let anyone inside his defenses.  Not yet.  Maybe not ever, he thought as sleep finally claimed him again.

 

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

 

A week later Nick was finally released on the promise that Cody and Murray would take him home and make sure his recuperation proceeded smoothly.  Nick protested, but Dr. Oba and his neurologist, Dr. Carlson, were adamant.  He conceded to escape the mind-numbing routine of the hospital.  But he still didn't know who the two men were, or where he was, and it made him nervous and irritable.

After a few days Nick became sullen and withdrawn, only opening up to the psychologist he was required to visit three times a week.  Dr. Milton Davidson was an older man who looked like he'd be more comfortable living in a log cabin somewhere in the woods than sitting behind a desk.

Davidson had a low key approach that usually put his patients at ease and made talking easier, and Nick was no exception.  And he did talk, telling the psychologist about the confusion, the fear, and the embarrassment he felt, living with Murray and Cody, but not remembering anything about their shared past together.

Milt reassured Nick on each visit that amnesia was a common reaction to his kind of head injury, and that in almost every case it disappeared in a short period of time.  But almost a month after he left the hospital Nick appeared no closer to remembering his past than he had been right after the accident, and that hinted at something else – something psychological that was getting in the way of his recovery.  At first Nick resented the diagnosis, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that he "wasn't crazy."

But after a while even the stubborn detective had to admit that something wasn't right.  He finally gave in and answered Davidson's questions.  They talked at great length, trying to uncover what might be keeping Nick's memory from returning, but nothing concrete rose to the surface.

Hoping that a steady diet of normalcy would eventually begin to erode the problem, Davidson encouraged Nick to resume his ordinary life to the extent possible.  Nick agreed, but he wasn't particularly happy about it.

 

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

 

After a day looking for Deever's boss, which included a run-in with Quinlan, the drive back to the Riptide was made in relative silence.  Cody or Murray were still occasionally pointing out familiar landmarks to Nick, but this time he only nodded or grunted in reply.  They'd already told him all this before and it wasn't helping in the slightest.  At the boat they encouraged Nick to wander through the rooms – again – looking, but not recognizing anything.  He wondered briefly if Davidson had put them up to the refresher course, but it didn't really matter who had thought up the tests; the bottom line was it wasn't working.

He agreed to their demands to get them off his back, but his examination was lackadaisical at best.

In the room he shared with Cody he asked the blond, "Why do we share a room, anyway?"  He nodded at the two bunk beds.

"Well, we didn't use to, but we doubled-up when Murray came on-board," Cody explained.  "All his computer stuff takes up the other stateroom."

"Guess we knew each other real well, huh?" Nick commented, running his fingers over an old football sitting on the single dresser.

"Yeah, you could say that," Cody replied, the hopeful edge to his voice rubbing Nick's already strained nerves raw.

Curiosity getting the better of him, Nick asked, "Just how long have we know each other?"

"We met in Vietnam," Cody said softly, sitting down on his bunk.

Nick's eyes widened.  He didn't remember a single thing about the war.  Now that's weird.

Cody didn't look up at Nick as he added, "Then we were MPs for a while stateside.  We've, uh, been working together here on the Riptide about two years now."

Nick turned away.  "I'm kinda tired.  I think I'll take a nap."

"Okay," Cody said, defeat ringing in the single word.  He stood and walked out of the room, leaving Nick alone.

The man's sagging shoulders told the dark-haired detective that Cody Allen was slowly but surely giving up on him.  Why does that scare me? Nick wondered as he pulled off his shoes and sat down.  But before he could lie down, on impulse, he stood and silently padded through the boat, looking for Cody.  He stopped in the wheelhouse when he heard the man's voice outside.

 

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

 

"I don't know if I can take much more of this," Cody said quietly, his eyes bright.  Sitting on the fantail with Murray, the blond detective shook his head.  "It's like he's not even trying anymore."

"I'm sure he's trying, Cody," Murray assured.  "But the doctor said it might take some time.  There's some reason why Nick doesn't want to remember."

"It's been five weeks," Cody sighed.  "Five weeks, Murray.  And why wouldn't he want to remember?  It's not like he has a bad life here, you know.  I mean, we're best friends.  I know Nick better than I know myself most of the time.  But this guy's not Nick; I don't who the hell he is.  And I'm getting tired of living with him."

"We just have to give him some more time," Murray argued.  "He'll come around; I know he will."

"I don't know how much I have left to give," Cody replied tiredly.

 

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

 

Nick felt like he'd been punched in the gut.  I've let him down, he thought.  I do that a lot.

He stopped and turned that idea over in his mind.  I do that a lot, he silently repeated.  So why does he put up with me?

There was no answer to that question.

Well, at least this time there's something I can do about it, Nick concluded.

 

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

 

The pair fell silent when Nick stepped out of the wheelhouse and climbed down the stairs to join them.  He shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot, his gaze focused on the deck, then said, "Look, guys, I, uh, I really appreciate what you've been trying to do, but this just, uh, isn't working, you know?"

"It's too soon to give up, Nick," Murray said, sitting forward, his expression worried and scared.

Nick shook his head, the muscles in his jaw working.  "The Penderson cases are finished, and I don't seem to be much help out there like this, so, uh, I think it'd, uh, be better if I, uh, moved out."

"Nick–"

The dark-haired detective cut Cody off, saying, "Maybe my memory'll come back if I just stop trying so hard to remember."

Murray nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.  "You might have a point, Nick.  Some of the research I've read says that memory recovery is aided when the subjects stopped trying to remember; when they accepted their situation."

Cody sighed.  A part of him wanted to shoot the idea down, but another part was too tired to care.  "Nick, where are you going to go?" he snipped.

The dark-haired man shrugged, his head dipping.  "Not sure," he said softly.  "The weather's nice enough… maybe I'll just stay on the Mimi."  His head came up, a challenging tilt to his chin.  "Besides, Straightaway said I could bum a room at the hotel when I first got back.  He'd probably still let me do that."

"I don't like it," Cody admitted, leaning back and folding his arms over his chest.  He was mad, but he refused to let Nick see that.  "We can't stop you, Nick.  You can do whatever you think you have to."

Nick nodded, his lips pursing briefly when he realized that they weren't going to talk him out of it.  They were willing to let him go.  Guess I wasn't a very good friend even when I could remember.

"Good," he said, nodding.  "I'll, uh, just, uh, get my stuff together."

"You don't even know what your stuff is," Cody said, his tone making Nick feel like he was five years old.

"Sure I do," he snapped back.  "You keep pointing it out to me all the time."

When Cody didn't say anything Nick turned and angrily pulled himself up the stairs.

Cody and Murray sat in silence, watching Nick climb back up to the wheelhouse and disappear inside. 

"Was that a good idea?" Murray asked quietly, his expression pure confusion.

"What else could I do?" Cody demanded, his tone sharp.  "I can't lock him in his room; he's an adult."

"But–"

Cody shook his head, the anger he felt slipping free.  "It's his choice.  If he wants to bail out, that's his right."

"Cody, he's not himself," Murray argued.  "You can't expect him to act like Nick when he doesn't know who Nick is."

Cody pushed to his feet, his leg aching for the first time in several days.  "I know he's not Nick," he snapped.

"I'm not so sure."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cody asked, his hands coming up to rest defensively on his hips.

Murray remained in his seat.  "Just that you've been pushing him away, Cody. And he knows that."

The blond paced the deck several times, then dropped onto the padded seat. "I don't know what it is, Murray," he said, his voice catching.

"Maybe you're just mad at him?"

Cody snorted, then laughed, the sound rough and half-wild.  "Oh, yeah, I'm mad all right.  He's acting like a–  like a–"

"A stranger?"

Cody thought a moment, then nodded.

"But, Cody, he is a stranger.  He can't remember."

"I know that, but it's Nick.  He's–"

Murray reached out and rested a hand on the blond's arm, stilling the man's words.  "Listen to yourself, Cody.  You're mad at Nick because he can't remember us… remember you.  You're hurt and you're taking it out on him.  It's a natural reaction, but–"

Blue eyes widened.  "I–" he interrupted, then dipped his head.  "God, you're right," he sighed.  "I'm being a damned idiot."

"Well, it is understandable–"

"No, Murray.  No, it's not.  He's my friend, and I want him to get better, but you're right; I can't expect him to act like himself when he doesn't know who that is."  He paused, looking out at the harbor.  "I guess it just reminds me of the time after I found him back in '80."

"Found him?" Murray asked, his head cocking to the side in curiosity.

"I don't know if you know this, but Nick and I lost touch between '76 and '80."

"That's a long time," the slender man said, his eyes rounding at the news.

Cody nodded.  "I ran into him again at an old unit reunion.  Neither one of us knew why we went, but when I saw him there, I did.  I went because I was hoping he'd be there.  I missed him, his friendship.  I talked him into moving onto the Riptide, got him involved in the business.  But he was a lot like this – quiet, withdrawn, chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood.  I wasn't sure I was ever going to get through.  I almost lost him, Murray," he said his voice choked.  "I'm afraid we really might've this time."

Murray frowned.  "Maybe we should go talk to Doctor Davidson.  He might know something we could do."

Cody shrugged and shook his head, feeling helpless.

"It can't hurt," Murray added.

After a deep breath, Cody nodded.  "You're right.  It can't hurt.  Okay, we'll go."

 

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

 

Lying on a piece of eggshell foam in the back of the Mimi, Nick drifted off to sleep.  The dreams were waiting for him, just like they had been for the last eight nights.  Cody and Murray were key players in the nightly sagas, getting hurt and dying while Nick stood back, letting it happen.  Sometimes they were in Vietnam, sometimes in California, but always the two men were hurt or killed, and always it was his fault.

Waking with a start, he sat up, and rubbing a trembling hand across his face, Nick sighed heavily.  His stomach grumbled, but he was too tired to see what was left of the provisions he'd packed into the helicopter.  It wasn't a new story.  Even when his stomach demanded attention, his head didn't feel hungry, so he refused to eat.  Over the past week he'd lost nearly ten pounds.

He didn't care.  Nick passed the time sitting on the beach, or trying to sleep, or just sitting in the chopper, staring at nothing.  Images continued to assail him, but he made no effort to sort through them anymore.

He also refused to see Dr. Davidson again, even after Cody had come by several times, asking him to do so.

Why don't they just leave me alone? he wondered.  It's obvious that I'm worthless to them.

He shook his head.  So why did they keep stopping by, trying to talk him into coming back to the boat? 

Okay, so they're friends of Nick Ryder, but who am I?  Not that guy, not the man they knew, that's for sure, he concluded.

He looked up at the clear blue sky.  Am I ever going to know who I really am? he asked the fates, but there was no answer.

Sighing heavily, he lay back down, hoping the dream wouldn't find him again this time.

 

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

 

The next day weather turned cool, growing cold and damp in another twenty-four hours.  And then it rained, and rained, and rained some more.

Four days into the deluge Nick thought about going to the hotel, but he couldn't work up enough energy to haul his few belongings over there.  Instead he lay in the Mimi, listening to the rain pelt the craft while he shivered and coughed.  How long had he been sick?  He couldn't remember

He giggled softly.  I can't remember anything!

Nick coughed again, pain ripping through his lungs as it became harder and harder to breathe.  And he was hot.  Another chill attacked his body, making him feel like his bones were caught in vices.  He moaned.

Oh, man, what's goin' on?

Some part of his mind registered the fact that he was sick and needed help, but there was no place to turn.  Besides, getting help meant he had to move, and he definitely didn't want to do that.

He tried closing his eyes, but another cough tore through his chest, curling him into a ball on his side.

Get up! some part of his mind commanded.

He groaned and curled tighter, tugging the blanket tighter around his shoulders.  "Go away," he mumbled to the voice inside his head.

Get up!

"No, go away," he moaned louder.

Go to the Riptide.  Now!

Another cough and he thought he tasted blood, but he didn't bother to check.

Cody will help you.  Go to the Riptide!

Nick groaned, but sat up, unable to ignore the drill-sergeant style commands.  His whole body was shaking, sweat dripping off his chin and onto the blanket.

"Cody's not going to help me," he sighed.  "He hates me."

He doesn't hate you.  He'll help you.  Move!

With a frustrated growl, Nick inched to the cargo door and weakly pulled it open. A howling wind whipped rain into the opening and he pulled back.  "Ah, man…"

Get your ass in gear, damn it!

Nick climbed out into the storm, the blanket he was holding around his shoulders immediately getting sucked away by the wind.

The Riptide, go to the Riptide!

Stumbling down the pier, Nick wheezed his way to the boat.  The lights were off, telling him that both men were already in bed.  He would have to get inside somehow.

Slipping on the wet wood next to the boat, Nick fell to his knees, the impact triggering another round of coughing that nearly drove him unconscious.

Get up!  Get up, now!

With strength he didn't think he had, Nick managed to struggle to his feet, then pulled himself on-board.

Leaning heavily against the wall, he fumbled his way blindly to the stairs leading to the wheelhouse.  Looking up the short flight of steps, was like looking up at the peak of Everest.  "I can't," he said, shaking his head.

Yes, you can!  Come on, climb, damn it.  Climb!

Forcing his foot onto the first step, Nick tried to pull himself up, but he was too weak.  Falling back, he stumbled to the fantail seat, another round of coughing tearing at his lungs with fiery, sharp claws.

Get up!

"I can't…"

Call for help!  Call Cody!

Following his internal instructions, Nick called as loudly as he could, but he could hardly hear himself over the sound of the falling rain and wind.  There was no way the blond could hear him.  "Cody," he wheezed again, darkness finally stealing away his consciousness.

 

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

 

Lying in his bunk, Cody stared at the ceiling.  With a sigh he turned over and closed his eyes, willing himself to sleep.

Cody…

He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling again.  After a minute he sat up with a frustrated huff.  "Damn you, Nick," he whispered, shaking his head.

Knowing that he wouldn't be able to sleep until he at least checked on the man, he tossed the covers back and stood.  Reaching for his clothes, he pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a sweat shirt.  Socks and shoes followed.  Dressed, Cody headed to the galley.

Stopping in the salon, he peered around, puzzled.  Something wasn't right.  Something was… out of place.  But nothing appeared to be disturbed.  He took another step toward the galley and stopped again.

Cody…

"What the hell?" he muttered softly.  "Nick?" he called, realization dawning.  "Nick."  Turning, he bolted to the wheelhouse.  From the vantage point he peered out through the storm, scanning the pier for any sigh of his friend.  On impulse he opened the wheelhouse door and called, "Nick!"

What sounded like a soft moan echoed out of the night, followed by a wet cough.

Venturing outside, he called again.  "Nick?"  When he reached the upper rail he saw the dark-haired man.  "Nick!"  Stepping back inside, he bellowed, "Murray!"

"Cody?" was the sleepy reply from below.

"Murray!  Call 911, now!"

Then, rushing back into the storm, Cody headed down to the fantail, shouting, "Nick!"

The man didn't move.

Reaching his friend, Cody could hear the wet, labored breathing.  "What the hell've you done to yourself, Nick?" he asked, shaking the man's shoulder.  "Come on, Nick, wake up!"

"Huh?" was the answering wheeze.

"Come on, Nick, we have to get inside."

"Can't… too tired."

"Yes, you can," Cody insisted, pulling his friend up so he was sitting against the seat.

"Tried… can't."

"I'll help you," Cody urged, maneuvering the man to his feet.

Together they made their way to the steps.

"Grab the rung," Cody ordered.

Nick reached out, his fingers grabbing, then slipping off the wet metal. 

"Again!"

Nick did, his fingers around the rung this time.

"Now your foot!" Cody yelled, already starting to shiver from the cold and rain.

Nick climbed, Cody pushed, and together they made it to the wheelhouse.  Murray thundered up the stairs just as the pair stumbled inside. 

"Let me help," the slender man said, helping Cody walk Nick down the stairs into the salon.  That done, Bozinsky scrambled to shut the wheelhouse door, then bounded back into the salon, his eyes going wide when he finally saw Nick in the light.  "I called for the paramedics," he said.  "They should be here anytime."

"Nick?" Cody said, ignoring the comment as he lowered Nick to the floor, then checking him for any other injuries.  "My God…"

Murray joined the blond.  "What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know, but he's burning up with fever."

Nick sucked in a shallow, rattling breath.

"I'll go get a blanket," Murray volunteered.

"Make that two," Cody said, gathering Nick up in his arms and maneuvering him around so he was leaning against the sofa.  "Hang in there, buddy," he said.  "You're gonna get through this, I promise."

Murray returned a moment later with the blankets off of Nick's bed.  Together the two detectives undressed the sodden man and bundled him up the best they could.

"He's having a hard time breathing," Cody said, watching the rainwater dripping off the man's hair.

"Maybe he has the flu," Murray offered, handing the blond a towel.

"Or pneumonia," Cody said softly, drying Nick's hair the best he could.  "God, Murray, he's lost a lot of weight."

"I know.  He looks so tired."

"Terrible is more like it," Cody corrected, angry though he didn't know why.

The burst of a siren told both men help had arrived.

"Nick," Cody said, leaning close to the man's ear.  "You listen to me, damn it. You die and so help me–  Just don't, okay?  Just don't."

 

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

 

"Didn't we just do this?" Cody muttered as he sank back against the overstuffed chair in the hospital waiting room and closed his eyes.  He absently rubbed at his leg.

Murray leveled a concerned look on his friend.  "It'll be fine," he stated confidently.

The pair settled into a comfortable silence as they waited to hear from the doctor, Murray even dozing.

After an hour or so, Cody sighed and said, "I think this is some kind of a record."

"Oh?" Murray mumbled, blinking sleepily.

"Yeah.  Nick's been in three different hospitals in less than a month."

Murray grinned.  "We'll have to come up with an appropriate reward."

"Excuse me, are you waiting for a Mister Ryder?" a young man asked. 

"Yeah," Cody said standing.

"Doctor Summer will see you in her office.  If you'll come with me?"

The two detectives followed the man to a small office where they were met by a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and cinnamon-colored eyes.

"I'm Doctor Summer," she greeted, shaking hands with Cody and Murray, then leading them inside.

She gestured for them to sit in the two available chairs while she walked around her desk and sat down.  The young man stepped in, handing her a chart.  "Thanks, Tim," she said with a smile.

Opening the file she started, "Well, first the bad news.  Mister Ryder has a nasty case of pneumonia."

"Pneumonia?" Cody asked, a sudden chill snaking down his back and pooling in his guts.

She flashed him a reassuring smile.  "The good news is, he stabilized quickly and he's already responding to the antibiotics we put him on.  However, he is running a very high fever, which is being closely monitored, but I think he should be through the worst of it over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours."

Cody's cheeks puffed in relief.  "I suppose we can't see him until tomorrow," he grumbled, annoyed with the usual hospital rules.

Dr. Summer shook her head.  "You can see him now if you'd like.  We have twenty-four hour visiting hours here at Redondo Community.  In fact, there's a pull-out bed in his room if someone wants to stay with him."

Cody's eyes widened.  "You're kidding."

"Not at all," she assured.

"Can we both see him?" Murray asked hopefully.

"I don't see why not," Dr. Summer said.  "The pull-out's only big enough for one, but if you'd both like to stay I'm sure we can come up with something."

Murray beamed.  "That's really wonderful.  Really.  So many hospitals–"

"I don't think we'll stay the night," Cody interrupted before Murray was able to get too wound up.  "But if we could check in on him that'd be great."

Dr. Summer checked the chart.  "He's in room 313.  Turn right out of the elevators, middle of the hall."

The two men stood.  "Thank you, Doctor," Cody said.

"You're quite welcome.  I'll be in to check on him one more time at midnight, then in the morning."

Cody and Murray headed straight from the doctor's office to the elevators.  On the third floor they turned right, but still took the wrong hall.  They backtracked to Nick's room.

Inside the dark-haired man was hooked to an IV and an oxygen tube rested across his upper lip.  The tableau was far too familiar, but what was new was a soft scraping sound that accompanied each breath, though that was better than the earlier rattling wheeze.  He was also awake.

"Nick?" Cody said quietly as they reached the bedside.

Nick blinked, but his eyes remained glazed and unfocused.

"Hey, buddy, how're you doing?"

Nick rolled his head to the side as he sought out the source of the voice.

His face was damp with sweat, and when Cody reached out to grip his arm he could feel the heat radiating off his skin before he touched him.  "Nick?"

The blue eyes slowly focused on Cody's face, and Nick smiled weakly, saying, "Cody…?"

The blond felt his heart jump.  There was something about the way he'd said his name.  Or maybe it was the familiar expression in the blue eyes.  "Nick?"

"Guess I'm… pretty sick, huh?"

"Nick, do you know who I am?" Cody asked, squeezing his friend's arm harder.

The dark-haired man's forehead wrinkled.  "Feel kinda funny…"

Cody squeezed the man's arm.  "Don't worry about it," he said.  "Just work on getting better, okay?"

Nick closed his eyes.  "'kay…  Sleepy."

"Get some rest.  Don't worry about anything, buddy," Cody said, his voice gentle with affection.

 

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

 

The next day Nick's fever peaked and he slept for eighteen hours straight.  Murray and Cody took shifts, sitting with him, encouraging him to get well and wake up.

Nick groaned softly, his eyebrows arching as he pulled his eyelids open.  Peering around the room, he found Murray sitting in a chair, a thick journal lying open in his lap.

"What're you reading?' he asked, his voice raspy.

Murray's head snapped up.  "Nick?"

The dark-haired man nodded and swallowed.  "Water?"

"Oh, sure, let me get it," Murray said, setting the journal aside and standing. It took him a moment to locate a glass and fill it at the sink in the room.  Carrying it back to the bed, he rummaged in the rolling bedside tray for a straw.  Bending it over, he held the glass for Nick, who took several sips before saying, "Thanks."

"Oh, it's no problem, no problem at all.  I'm happy to help," was the immediate

reply.  "How're you feeling?  How's your chest?  Are you in any pain?  What can you remember?"

Nick grinned slightly as he thought a moment, then replied, "Uh, pretty good… sore… not really… and you have some kind of little thingamajig, a ro– ro–"

"The roboz?  You remember the roboz?"

"Short, orange, big bug-eyes?"

Murray beamed.  "That's right!  That's very good, Nick, very good."

"But that's it," the dark-haired man complained.  "That's all."

"But it's a start.  A very good start!"

"I hope so," Nick sighed, then coughed.  The grimace on Nick's face and the sudden loss of color in his cheeks was sufficient to prompt Murray to ring for the nurse.

 

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

 

"Hey, Nick, you awake?"

Blue eyes blinked open.  "Cody?"

"Hey, how're you feeling?" the blond asked, walking over to grab a chair, dragging it over to the bedside.

The dark-haired detective frowned.  "Why is that always the first question anyone around here asks me?"

"Hospital rule," Cody replied with a grin, sitting down.  "Any more memories come back?"

Nick shrugged.  "Still a lot of pretty violent stuff," he admitted, looking away, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

"Hey, Nick, that's to be expected, you know?  I mean, we did survive a war, worked as MPs, and now we make our living as private detectives.  We've seen a lot of violence."

"I guess."

"Come on, Nick, what really bugging you?" Cody prodded, leaning closer.  "Talk to me.  You used to."

Nick rolled his head over and met the man's troubled gaze.

Talk to him, said the now-familiar drill sergeant voice inside his skull.

"It's just that I keep seeing times when you and Murray get hurt."

Cody frowned.  "Nick, that's gotta be dreams.  Murray and I haven't been banged up much.  Really."

"But when you are it's my fault," Nick challenged.

The blond cocked his head to the side.  "Nick, I don't know what you're seeing, but I can tell you this, you've saved my life more times than I can count.  Murray's, too.  And we've saved your butt from the fire a few times, too.  There's never been a time when you were to blame for one of us getting hurt."

Nick's eyes narrowed.  "What about–  What about–  Oh, damn it… that-that pimp, uh, Diamond!  What about that?"

"You were trying to save Peggy, Nick."

"I left you guys high and dry!"

"You did what you had to–"  Cody stopped in mid-sentence, his eyes going wide.  "That's it!"

"What?" Nick asked, trying to get more comfortable in the narrow bed.

"Doctor Davidson said that sometime amnesia fades slower when the person has an unresolved issue that they're grappling with."

"Must be one hell of an issue," Nick scoffed.

Cody stood, looking down at his friend as he said seriously, "Nick, I want you to listen and listen good.  The last big case we were on was a missing child, Alisa Poon, a four-year-old–"

"Asian girl," Nick finished.

Cody nodded.  "It turned out she was just one of five children who'd been abducted and–"

"Killed," Nick said, the images of the girl's body racing through his mind.  He recognized them.  "Tortured."

"Yeah," the blond replied softly.  "But we didn't know that at the time.  We were just looking for Alisa.  We narrowed it down to a couple of suspects.  And one of them turned out to be the right guy."

"P-Penderson," Nick whispered, his gaze turning inward.  "David Penderson."

"No, not David, Thomas.  Thomas Penderson was the man who actually tortured those kids."  Cody reached out and squeezed Nick's arm, bringing him back from the morass of memories that were bubbling to the surface.

Nick blinked, tears welling in his eyes as he remembered the child and her family's reaction.  "He shot you."

Cody nodded.  "Murray found out where he was staying.  We went to bring him in."

"The plan!" Nick said, remembering.

Another nod.  "But when we got there we found that he'd already grabbed another child, a little Mexican girl."

Nick nodded, the events playing themselves out like a movie in his mind.

"You did what you had to do in order to get Penderson.  If you hadn't, God only knows how many more children would've died."

"And you got shot," Nick said softly.

"But as you can see, I'm perfectly fine now," Cody added, meeting the man's guileless gaze.  "Like I told you the day of the accident, Nick, you did the right thing."

"But you got hurt," he argued.

"Nick…"

The tone was threatening, but Nick knew his friend didn't mean it.  He smiled thinly.  "Okay, okay.  I guess it just comes down to the fact that I'm afraid I'm going to get you and Murray hurt.  I'm gonna lose it out there and one of you are going to pay the price."

Cody thought a moment, then said, "Nick, I can't promise that what you're saying will never happen.  Hell, for that matter I can't say that I won't do the same thing and get you or Murray hurt.  But I can tell you this.  We work well together, and I think we're better still with Murray there to rein us in.  But just like in Nam, sometimes you have to play it by ear.  And sometimes you have to take risks to get the job done, and believe me, there are times the job's the most important thing, like with Pendersen.  But I trust you, and so does Murray."

Nick blinked rapidly, trying to control the emotions that battled for release.

"You know," Cody added softly, "I'll bet you dollars to donuts that you were worrying about the Pendersen case when the accident happened."

Nick nodded.  "I don't remember, but Doctor Davidson said that it was probably something like that."

"Guess your subconscious thought it could keep us safe by keeping you from remembering, but it's wrong.  We need you out there, backing us up."

Nick nodded again and Cody took a risk, standing up and leaning in to give his partner and best friend a hug.  Nick returned the gesture, holding on tight.  "I'm really sorry, Cody."

"Don't be, just get better so we can get back to work, and life."

"I will, but I know this was hard on you."

"On all of us, but, hey, it's over," Cody said, stepping back when Nick's grip loosened.

Nick looked up at the blond, his expression thoughtful.  "I guess there's just times I end up hiding behind the walls I built in Nam."

"We all do that," Cody replied softly.

"Yeah, but you haven't gotten trapped there."

Allen shrugged.  "Maybe not, but I have my own demons to fight, Nick, believe me."

A small smile lifted the corners of Nick's mouth.  "Yeah, I guess that true enough, we all do.  Guess the trick is to work 'em out together when we can, huh?"

Cody nodded, reaching out to rest a supportive hand on Nick's shoulder.  He squeezed, saying, "Look, I'm gonna go get a cup of coffee; give you a little time to think. When I get back, we're going to talk, you hear me?  Really talk."

Nick nodded.  "Okay, I think I'm ready," he said, then watched as Cody walked to the door.  "And Cody?"

The blond paused in the doorway.  "Yeah?"

"Thanks," Nick said softly. 

Cody nodded, feeling his throat tighten.  He'd come so close to giving up – they both had.  Nick wasn't back yet, but he was on the road, and that was all that mattered. "Back in a minute," he promised.

Nick nodded.  "'kay."

 

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

 

Nick stepped on-board the Riptide and looked around.  What had seemed so strange and foreign a couple of weeks ago now almost hummed with a sense of familiarity.  Stopping, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long, contented sigh.  He was home – finally.

Continuing inside, he stopped again to gaze around the salon.  He knew which coffee cup was his, remembered who had bought what for whom, recognized the minor changes made over the last month and a half.  He smiled.  He was almost back to normal.  There were occasional holes in his memory, but they usually closed quickly when he found them and concentrated.  The day of the car accident remained a complete mystery, but that was perfectly normal according to Davidson, so Nick stopped trying to recall the events that led to the amnesia in the first place.

Murray was still trying to determine who had been responsible for the hit and run, since David Penderson categorically denied any involvement.  But Nick didn't expect that search to bear fruit.  It could've been anyone, including a complete stranger who was drunk, or stoned, or just pissed off at the world.

Walking to the sofa that sat under the windows, he dropped down and enjoyed the sensation of being home.  He'd met the young woman who'd stopped to helped him after the car accident, Kallie Brin.  Cute, perky, and very embarrassed when Nick had spontaneously given her a hug and kiss.  He wasn't sure the young Highway Patrol officer she was dating had approved, but he didn't care.  He wanted to say thank you, so he had.

Tomorrow he'd go see if he could find Stacy and thank her for all her help.  The alcohol she'd given him might have been one reason his memories hadn't returned more quickly, but she couldn't have known the risks.  And she'd saved his butt when he needed it most.

Leaning back, he listened to Murray and Cody carrying groceries down and setting in them on the deck.  A few minutes later, the Jimmy unloaded, they carried the haul to the galley and started putting it away.

Nick closed his eyes, letting the waves of ordinariness wash over him.  Tomorrow he had to go get the 'Vette.  Cody had warned him about the damage.  Luckily the reward money for capturing Penderson and his brother would take care of the repairs.

Thinking about the two brothers made Nick's skin crawl.  Severely abused as children, the twins had ended up in several mental institutions until federal funding ran out and they were put back on the street.  David plotted the rituals and Thomas carried them out, but not any more.

He heard Cody climb up the stairs and stop.  The blond was looking at him, trying to determine if something was wrong.  Nick opened his eyes and smiled.  "It's good to be home."

Cody grinned in reply.  "I know what you mean," he said.  "It's good to feel like things are back to normal."

"Normal?" Nick asked.  "Around here?"

Cody chuckled.  "Okay, you've got a point."

Murray joined them.  "Well, it's all done."  He glanced down, checking his watch. "Uh, Cody, I think it's about time."

"Time?" Nick asked suspiciously.  "Time for what?  Don't tell me the doctor sent home a bunch of pills I have to take."

"Oh no, nothing like that, Nick," the computer expert assured.  "It's reservations."

"Reservations?"

"At Straightaway's," Cody added.

The suspicious look on Nick's face deepened.  "Since when do you need a reservation for a table at Straightaway's?  I haven't forgotten everything, you know.  What're you guys up to?"

Murray grinned and giggled.  "That's very good, Nick!"

Cody shook his head.  "But you need reservations when you reserve the banquet room."

"Banquet room?"

"Jeeze, Nick, you're starting to sound like a parrot," the blond complained as he stepped over and offered Nick his hand.

Letting Cody tug him to his feet, Nick huffed, "Answer me, Cody, what do we need the banquet room for?"

"A party," Murray supplied with a shrug of his shoulders and a giggle.

"A–"

"Nick!"

"Sorry," was the sheepish reply.  "But–"

"Come on," Cody said.  "You'll see."

Nick shook his head, but he went along. 

At the restaurant he wasn't all that surprised to find a bunch of people waiting for him, including Kallie and her CHiP, Kathy Karon, and Stacy.  He walked to the waitress first, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"How are you?" she asked, her serious expression not masking the twinkle in her eye.

"Fine," Nick said.  "Remembering more every day.  Like all you did for me."

She blushed.  "It wasn't that much."

"Yes, it was," Cody said, stepping up to join the pair.  "And I wanted you to know how much I appreciate everything you did for Nick."

She nodded, blushing more before Quinlan interrupted, giving her an opportunity to escape.

"So, the beach-bunny has his memory back, huh?"

"Most of it," Nick replied a little defensively.

"Like blowin' off your court date?" the detective asked.

Cody stepped in, saying, "Lieutenant, Nick doesn't remember anything from the day of the crash."

But Nick's eyes widened.  "The Deevers case?"

Quinlan nodded, trying to look stern.  "The very one, fly boy."

"Ah, man," Nick spat.  "That little punk walked?"

Quinlan nodded again, then grinned.  "But we picked him up last week in the middle of a B-and-E.  He's going away for a few years this time.  No thanks to you," he added, then headed off to the bar.

Nick shook his head.  "You know, there are some things, some people, I really wouldn't mind forgetting."

"I know what you mean," Cody said, then took Nick's arm and walked him over to meet Kathy Karon.

 

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

 

Three hours later, dinner and the well-wishers had left Nick pleasantly tired and very content.  Leaning back in his chair, he listened to the buzz of their conversations, but didn't pay any attention to any of them.  The ring of a knife on a water glass broke his reverie.

Cody stood and smiled, glancing around the table.  "I just want to thank all of you for coming tonight," he started, then looked down at Nick, who was sitting next to him.  "I think Nick would agree, it was a great welcome home."

Nick nodded.  "Absolutely, thank you."  The guests applauded and he dipped his head to hide the stain of color on his cheeks.

"Nick," Cody said, "I just wanted to say, well, it's not just good to have you back, buddy – it's the best.  And I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend when you really needed me. It, uh, took Murray kicking some sense into me to bring me around."

Nick immediately felt his eyes begin to burn.  "Cody–" he said, but his voice caught.  Pushing himself to his feet, he shook his head.  "It's not like that," he said to their assembled friends.

Cody smiled and took the step that put him face to face with his best friend.  He could see Nick was anxious, not sure what he was going to do.

Murray and the other patrons at Straightaway's watched the friends as Cody reached out, grabbing Nick's shoulders and pulling him into a tight hug.  "You're the best friend I've ever had, Nick," he said quietly.  "And nothing's ever going to change that."

Nick returned the hug, unshed tears stinging his eyes.  "You got that right," he pushed through his emotion-tight throat.

"I'm here, buddy," Cody reassured.

The onlookers erupted into spontaneous applause and the two detectives laughed.

"We must look pretty damn silly," Nick said, but refused to move from the circle of Cody's arms.  He had finally made peace with himself.

"Who cares," was the reply.  "Let 'em look."

 

The End