Color of Despair

by Jana

Houston, Texasís largest city, glowed in the chill winter air. The tall buildings, outlined in twinkling fairy lights, lent a magical touch to the skyline. Even the weather was cooperating this year, to give this normally hot, humid city, the illusion of winter. An unexpected cold front sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico, had dropped the temperature from the usual low sixties, to the forties, adding to the holiday feeling.  The normally laid back city pulsed with a swell of daytime shoppers, looking for last minute gifts. Carols echoed from a multitude of businesses, as the shoppers left store after store, continuing on their urgent quest to find the perfect present for their loved ones.

Santas dressed in red, rang bells on street corners, wishing to gather money for the less fortunate.

As the business day closed and night descended, the daytime shoppers returned home to fix supper for their families, while night time revelers greeted friends and lovers, in the numerous bars and clubs, found all over town. The cityís darker side was momentarily forgotten, as the Christmas season took a firm hold on Houston.

Inside TJís, the current favorite of the cities upscale bars, the music pulsed with a rhythm that matched the city. Ringed by tables draped in fancy green and red cloths, the barís two dance floors glowed from the sparkling snowflake lights artfully strung throughout both the first and second stories. The second story was relatively empty as it was still early, but below, the first floor was packed. All ages were represented. Older couples danced slowly, in either a modified waltz or two step, while the younger couples moved in a more freeform manner. No matter where you looked, bodies moved to the swelling music.

Levon Lundy was frustrated, bored and irritated. His head pounded with a tension of itís own and it had nothing to do with the season or the weather. It was his partner. His partner of six months was driving him crazy. They fought like cats and dogs daily. They never saw eye to eye on anything. Not on food, not about music, and certainly not on the topic of women. Right at this moment, that fact was apparent. His Italian partner, Joey LaFiamma, was dancing with a woman that looked like she would gladly drink his blood at the earliest opportunity. Her red lips were hungrily pressed to his neck as they moved, her hands roaming over his shoulders as she tried to close what little gap distanced them. Their entwined bodies barely separated as the music changed tempo. With every turn they took around the dance floor, Levonís head ache grew worse.

"Damn," he muttered under his breath.

He had things he needed to do. He still needed to buy his gifts. His Grandma deserved a special gift, as she often took time to take care of him, by listening and commiserating when he got to the point that he couldnít stand it anymore. She was there after Carolineís death, then again, when he was handed Joey LaFiamma as a partner. Her kind counseling was the only thing allowing him to even stay seated across from the guy at the precinct.

His many friends needed gifts, especially Lieutenant Joanne Beaumont, his former partner. She would get a waterproof watch. That last case they had been on together, before her promotion, had almost caused her death. Her watch got wet in a sudden cloud burst and she didnít make the rendevous point until late, allowing the shooters time to pick her up as a target. She took a bullet to the shoulder, just missing vital arteries. He thought he would lose another partner, and the relief was palpable when the doctors pronounced her fit to return to duty. The watch would be useful and humorous, now that she was his boss, and the incident was not so fresh in their memories.

His mind skimmed back to his partner, still locked in that sirenís embrace. He didnít have time to waste sitting here in the dark, watching his overly loud, high strung, volatile, partner try to get laid. Joey LaFiamma. What kind of name was that anyway. As far as Levon was concerned, he wasnít even a good cop. He often frightened away their informants, badgered potential witnesses, and had no idea how to wait. Calm, he wasnít. Calm was what Levon needed. It seemed to him that as the days passed Joey was becoming even more impulsive.

Deciding he didnít care why Joanne asked him to spend time with his partner, he rose preparing to find LaFiamma and inform him, he was leaving. Making his way around the densely packed tables, he moved with ease to the far side of the dance floor, where he had last seen his partner. Yep, there he was, back in the corner, his hands roaming the girlís body with as much familiarity as he was allowing her. Public displays, like the one Joey was putting on, made him sick.

This should be fun, he thought as he moved to break up the pair.

Tapping LaFiamma on the shoulder, he said sarcastically, "I think you have things well under control. Iím out of here."

"Go." LaFiamma snapped, as he returned to the woman in his arms, with renewed passion.

Infuriated with the short response, Levon turned and left TJís as quickly as possible. He located his vehicle, jerked open the Jimmyís door and turned on the familiar country music that he loved. As the strains of Alabamaís "Dixieland Delight" washed over him, he could feel his pulse settle and his sense of peace return. His irritation with LaFiamma passing, he maneuvered the Jimmy into the oncoming traffic of Chaparral street and headed out to do some shopping of his own. Figuring it would take a few hours to make his purchases, he expected to be home in time to feed his horse, go to bed, then get back to the office for another long day of Joey knows best. Once again, feeling momentary irritation rise, he decided to dismiss Joey from his mind completely, and get on with his business.

Joey was not in a good mood either, but Levon wasnít the cause of his anger. The woman, Sue Ann Something, was not letting up, and while the dancing helped the handsome, dark haired, blue eyed, sexy Italian forget his troubles momentarily, he didnít want to take the woman home. He just wanted to be alone.

Disengaging her arms from his shoulders, he briefly kissed her, then said, "I need to go. Have a nice night," and prayed that this would be the end of it.

It wasnít.

"Where do you think youíre going? You canít just leave me here." Her voice rose, "What will my friends think?"

"I donít care," he snapped back, removing her arms one more time. "Iím leaving. Find another man to take home."

"You . . . You . . . You think because youíre good looking you can just use me," she screamed, as she slapped him.

Noticing heads turn, Joey gathered all his rage and held it as a shield, as he turned his back to her, and calmly walked out of TJís.

Finding his Cobra, he got inside and just sat, willing the shaking that had begun, to stop. Finally, composed, he found his keys and started the engine, driving rapidly through the still unfamiliar streets to his apartment. He couldnít afford to look around him. Every time he did, it just made maters worse.

Pulling into his apartment buildingís garage, he let his thoughts wander.

How was he going to spend this night? What could he do? Houston was so different and he hadnít made any friends yet. Not that he expected to, after all, he understood Texans less than they understood him. Then there was his partner. Levon! What a real treasure. Wishing he could be buried treasure, Joey laughed to himself at the joke, but it changed nothing. No matter how much he respected Levon Lundy for the talented police officer he was, there was no way the two of them would ever do anything but fight.

Throwing off his loafers, and heating up the espresso that remained in his coffee pot, he decided against dinner and took the warmed liquid to his room, where he removed his clothes, and climbed under the covers. It was only about seven, but sleep definitely helped the time pass, and God willing tonight would pass rapidly. Tomorrow he could return to work, and while the entire department seemed to resent him, at least he could be proud of his work. He didnít need anyone to tell him he was a good cop. He knew he was, and work was all he had right now. Refusing to pursue that train of thought any longer, he again tried to quiet his mind and sleep.

It only took fifteen minutes to know it wasnít going to work.

Throwing back the covers, he hastily dressed and decided to go for a walk, to burn off energy. As soon as he left the front door of his apartment building he knew that he was better off, wide awake, in bed. Maybe he should have brought Sue Ann home with him after all. A quick romp would at least keep him occupied for a while. No, he truly didnít want to use her, which is what he would have been doing, he admitted to himself. It might have felt good at the time, but in the morning he would feel guilty, and he didnít need to add another negative emotion to the ones already plaguing him.

As he strolled down the street, dressed only in his jeans and a Gucci sweater, he watched as bundled up couples strolled by, hand in hand, laughing at what each other was saying. He watched parents, as they carried their tired children home from a long day of playing and shopping. He saw a father, cocooned in a warm wool coat and long red scarf, kiss his daughter and clasp his son on the back, as he dropped them off at the Contemporary Arts Museum. He figured they were going to take in the Salvador Dali show that was currently being exhibited. Heíd seen it with Gina when it was in Chicago over a year ago. His head reeling, he realized that was the problem. He missed Chicago. Actually missed was way to mild a word. He ached for Chicagoís familiarity.

Finally deciding he had a handle on his problem, he retraced his steps and reentered his apartment. His apartment. His apartment in Houston. Feeling too weak to even climb the stairs to his bedroom, he took his sweater off and just sat on the couch, staring into space. He felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. He was too numb to even feel lost any longer. The truth was glaring. He was stuck in this God forsaken state for the rest of his life, unless he was willing to die.

Would that be so bad? His brain suddenly spoke up. Curling deeper into the corner of the couch, he stopped thinking again, only to have the next wave of thoughts come out of nowhere.

Where was the snow? Were these people nuts, bundled up against the cold? Hell, there wasnít even a wind chill factor. Where were the big trees lining the "Loop?" This was not Christmas.

And somewhere inside, buried deep, he knew that while these were all valid feelings, he still didnít have the answers to why he was so miserable. He couldnít pretend he wasnít miserable, but he could avoid thinking about it, by finishing off the reams of paperwork that would be waiting for him, from the successful completion of his last case. As he drifted off on the couch, the last thought that slipped across his conscience mind was that while he hated paperwork, it was vastly preferable to being in his apartment.

Morning came too quickly for Levon, as he dreaded having to see that man he called partner, knowing how he spent his night and hating him for his easy time attracting the opposite sex, while being disgusted with himself for that same admiration.

Joey felt the day couldnít have come soon enough. He worked out, pumping iron, then dressed as impeccably as always and headed to the office, ready to throw himself head long into the first case thrown his way. If nothing surfaced, he thought for sure he could at least do checks for another officer in his group. Gutierrez perhaps.

"Ready to work, Levon," he said, as he planted himself at his desk and picked up the first stack of papers he needed to finish.

"Right," Levon shot back, already angered by the brisk manner in which Joey was tackling his work. Why couldnít the man have a doughnut with the other members of the force? Would it kill him to actually speak politely to someone?

"Whatís your problem, man? The way I look at it, you should be thankful Iím handling your paperwork."

"Youíre handling my paperwork! Think again. Iím carrying you around here. You donít know a thing about how it works in this state."

As Levon continued, his voice clearly enunciating each word, Joey could hear his fellow officers muttering, "no kidding," and "Boy, Levon sure is right."

"You canít find your way around, you donít know what descent cooking is, you listen to garbage on the radio, and you rely on your looks. If it werenít for me, youíd be completely lost."

"If it werenít for you," Joey shot back, "weíd be able to close a case in under a week. Things never took this long in Chicago."

"Is that so," Jim Bob cut in, "Well that must be because criminals are really dumb in Sheecaaago," he drawled?

As the agreements resumed, the voices continued to rise, causing the entire station to get in on the action, Joanne Beaumont opened her door a said, "A minute of your time, Lundy, LaFiamma. NOW!"

As quickly as the tirade started, the two detectives stopped and sullenly walked into her office, pulling the door closed behind them.

"Whatía ya want Lieutenant?" Joey asked, his accent grating, in light of the altercation outside.

"What I want is you two to bury the hatchet long enough to get through just one day civilly. Can you two manage that, or are you both too stubborn to give a little?"

"Thereís nothiní to give on Lieutenant. Iím right, and Levon needs to see that."

"Youíre right! You think youíre right! Good Lord heís arrogant, Lieutenant. Canít I work alone? He and I just donít mix. Itís like oil and water, and heís the oil." Levon said.

"Well Lundy, at least I get the job done, I donít just sit around waiting for the next crime spree to occur."

"That will be enough, both of you." Joanne stated firmly. "There will be no changing of partners. You donít have to like each other, but you will learn to work together. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes Maíam" they both echoed in unison.

"Thatís better, now I expect you to get to work. We need to wrap up all the lose ends before Christmas break."

Opening the door, Joey gestured grandly to Levon, saying, "After you."

Deciding to let it go, Levon exited and returned to his desk, while Joey turned and winked at Joanne, saying, "Heíll come around." As she let out an exasperated sigh, Joey closed the door and headed to his desk. As he approached, he overheard Todd saying to Lundy that he was glad he had Bill for a partner, because if he was saddled with such a know it all as Joey, he would have to quit police work.

His chest constricting and a lump forming in his throat, as the words hit him, Joey made a hasty left and headed to the soda machine for a Coke. Dropping in the money, he retrieved the soda and popping the top, he took a long drink, then turned, squared his shoulders and returned to finish out the day. As he approached, he saw Annie talking to Levon. Annie had always been polite to him and he felt she could be counted on for support.

As he reached his desk, he said "Hi Annie, what brings you up here?"

"I had some information on the Wallace case, I was telling Levon about," she responded, swiveling her wheelchair back to face Levon. "As I was saying, the blood type B+, was a match to the blood on the wall. I know this is the gun that killed him. This should finish him in court."

"Thank you Annie, youíre a dream," Levon said, smiling at her. "That will make this an easy day."

All Joey heard was, I was not talking to you. Let me finish with my friend. The lump returned and he sat, pulled out his paperwork, and spent the rest of the day diligently completing form after form for the case lawyers.

As soon as the night shift arrived, Joey beat a hasty retreat, knowing that Lundy was going to be working with his horses and talking to his Grandmother. Once again he had no where to go and no one to talk to. Perhaps after he cooked dinner he would call home.

Picking up supplies from the local grocer to make a delicious veal picata, he unlocked his door and instantly turned on the radio. Without the noise the apartment was to quiet for comfort. Cooking, helped settle him somewhat, as he worked chopping the garlic and scallions. Pouring on the lemony sauce, he set the table for one and thought briefly of calling Lundy, to come over and share his dinner. He doubted Lundy ate well, and perhaps they could talk. As quickly as the thought surfaced, he buried it, as his mind replayed the words from today, "you donít know what descent cooking is." It was amazing how much power words held. Levon was probably sitting at Chickens right now, with the rest of the unmarried officers, eating pounds of fatty ribs and drawing closer to a coronary with every bite. As he ate his dinner, he stared at the phone. One thin fibre optic cable, connected to a receiver, and he could be in contact with his family, but would they answer? Were they home? Usually the family was attending a fund raiser or crowded party, this close to the holidays. He would try to call another time. Tonight he would sit. After he cleared away the dishesí he, once again, sat again in the corner of the couch, staring at the phone that was his lifeline. He was lonely, and needed a friend. Once again it would be a long night.

Levon was doing exactly as Joey predicted, and enjoying himself. He and a group of buddies were playing pool at Chickens while working their way through baskets of pork ribs, dripping in homemade B-B-Que sauce. As the night progressed, Christmas plans were discussed.

"Hey Levon, what do you intend to do?" Annie queried.

"See my Grandmother in the morning, then have dinner with Joanne and her family. How about you?"

"Same as always, I expect. The family is getting together for the usual full course dinner, starting with breakfast and presents," she answered back happily.

"Iím seeing my girlfriend, and I bet we have a great time celebrating." Jim Bob explained.

"I bet you do to," Levon returned grinning along with everyone else in earshot. Jim Bobís countless girlfriends were as legendary as they were numerous. "Whatís her name this week?"

"Jill," he returned, laughing with the rest of them. "Iíve known her three weeks. Thatís a long time for me."

"Yep, I bet youíll be getting married afore to long," Ted insinuated slyly.

"Youíre just jealous," Jim Bob shot back.

"Well Iím not," Gutierrez answered. "Iíll be having a personal celebration with Maria, myself. I think she is going to like the necklace I bought her."

"Is it on you?" Annie questioned.

"Sorry, Annie. Iíll bring it in soon," Gutierrez replied.

"Sounds like we are all planning on having great Christmases again this year," Samuel stated. "Now lets get back to my beating yaíll at pool. I need the money to finish up my gift buying.""Glad Iím not playing in this one," Levon said lightly, as a random thought assailed him. What was Joey doing for Christmas? Deciding that he probably had relatives coming in, he gave the idea little attention and returned to his ribs and the pool game. Finally the night wound down, and saying goodbye to Chicken, the group left, but not before Chicken called out, "Where was Joey tonight, Levon?"

"Donít know, Chicken" he shot back, but the question nagged him as he drove to his home. I n fact, it nagged him enough to make him briefly turn the Jimmy around and cruise by his partnerís apartment. Seeing no light on in the window, and noting that it was only eight oíclock, he figured LaFiamma was out, probably making a conquest, as it was far to early for bed.

He didnít know that as he drove home, Joey was alone in the dark, holding the end of the phone receiver, and paying Bruce Springsteenís "Wreck on the Highway" over and over. He couldnít be aware that Joey had it taped, just that one song, and that it would continue to play nonstop all night.

Joey knew it was possible, but he couldnít bring himself to accept what he heard, when he called home. His Uncle Mikey had answered, which was rare in itself, but when he started to talk . . . well he just couldnít believe it. It was etched in his mind.

"Yo, Uncle Mikey, Itís Joey."

"I donít know any Joey," came the curt reply from his uncle.

"Come on, itís me Uncle Mikey.

"I told ya, I know no Joey. Never did."

"But . . . "

"I donít need crank callís kid, now hang up and donít ever call back." Then the fatal click, and it was over.

Curled tightly, in a ball on the couch, listening to the strains of Bruce, he recalled the old desire for death. His fourteenth year had been a bad one. Really bad, and it was then that he planned how he would go, but soon things changed. Uncle Mikey took him in. Made everything okay again. The desire to die in a car wreck, ended. He could feel it all so clearly right now, though. The memories were flooding back. He could taste it, see it, feel it. The dark blue car, the white interior, his red blood flowing over it all. Red, white, and blue. It would have been easy to manage in Chicago. He knew how to hot wire a car and drive that young. His friends Kenny and Pauly had seen to it. Kenny was dead now. The only thing stopping him right now was that Levon was right. Giving a deprecating laugh, he realized he wouldnít know where to have the wreck in Houston. It was to flat, and to do it right, he needed a cliff.

Sleep finally overtook him about three a.m. still curled in a ball, clutching the phone receiver to his chest. The next day didnít look any brighter when he awoke. Oh the sun was shining in Houston, but his heart was dead. He was totally alone. No family, no friends.

He worked out, then dressed, as he allowed the weariness to settle over him. Foregoing breakfast, he got in his blue Cobra, with the white interior and thought about the irony, as he drove to work. He had owned four cars since high school, and every one of them had white interior and was dark blue. Maybe it would be a self fulfilling prophecy.

As he walked down the corridor to his desk, he heard people talking about their Christmases and felt nothing.

He still felt nothing when Levon said, "Morning Joey," very cheerfully.

Keeping his head down he just nodded and sat, ready to just survive another day, walking through life, but taking pleasure from nothing, kinda like being on auto pilot.

A few minutes later, he heard, "You okay?" coming from his partner.

"Fine Levon" he answered, still not meeting his partners eyes. To see more condemnation from anyone right now, might send him over the edge completely, and he still didnít know where a cliff was, he thought as a half smile formed on his lips.

Levon was concerned. Something was going on here, and he had no idea what. Joey wasnít fighting, or acting superior. In short, Joey was acting normal, and that was not right.

He tried again, hoping to get an idea of what was wrong. "Chicken wanted to know where you were last night?"

"I was home."

"Well we were all talking about our Christmas plans. What are you doing?" he asked.

"Having a big dinner," Joey responded, thinking that the way he felt he might give up cooking and just heat up a Hungry Man frozen turkey meal. That way he wouldnít be lying. They claimed that Hungry Man dinners were for men with big appetites.

"Sounds fun," Levon responded, assuming he was correct, and that Joey was seeing family.

"Yea, thanks for asking," Joey said quietly.

"No problem," Levon responded, wondering at his subdued mood. "Ready to get to work?"

"Sure, if you want"

"Letís finish the Bracken case then. Seems to me all we need to do is get the details laid out in chronological order, then look for the matches with the victimís movements."

"Good plan" Joey replied. "Just tell me what I should do, and Iíll get the info to you."

He couldnít carry on like this much longer. He needed a friend, and it was obvious that he wouldnít find one in Houston. Even his partner was frustrated with him. His looks got him almost any girl he wanted in Chicago, and it hadnít been that different here. It was just one more complaint to add to a growing list. His looks. Men envied him, women wanted him, but no one listened to him. They had no idea who he was. He was just an arm to be seen on, a conquest to be won, a prize to be displayed. How can you make friends when the few men he met really hung around to be near the girls that were attracted to him, not because they liked him?

In Chicago he had fun, friends who had known him all his life, a job where he was needed, not just tolerated, and he had family. Losing the first three was tough enough, but losing the family was too much. As his mind screamed Uncle Mikey, Nooooooo, I need you, donít shut me out, he handed page after page of documentation to his partner, like nothing was wrong. Soon it would be lunch and he could escape for a few minutes.

"Wanna go grab a bite at Chickenís, LaFiamma?" Levon questioned. If Joey said yes, they could talk, or at least Chicken could see him and decide if there was a problem, or if he was imagining it.

"Iím not really hungry, Levon. Iíll catch you after lunch."

"All right, see you later. Maybe we can finish this up right after lunch. Joanne mentioned a possible surveillance, but wants our desks clear, in case she assigns it to us. I think she would like to let us have our Christmas free of homicide matters this year."

"Okay," Joey responded, but he didnít get up, as Levon left with Jim Bob.

"Jim Bob, you think something is bothering Joey?"

"I hadnít noticed, then again I really donít pay all that much attention to him." Jim Bob said in response. "Why? You worried?"

"I think I am."

"So you two are finally becoming partners. Well I knew it would happen."

"Yeah, just what do you mean by that. Weíve always been partners." Levon countered.

"Yep, but you didnít worry before."

"Iím figuring youíre right. Iíll try to talk to him tonight." Levon smiled to himself. He did care, and he always had, even if the man was impossible and stubborn. Heíd given him back a reason to get up in the morning, even if it was just to see what crazy outfit he wore, or what they were going to argue about that day. Yes, he would talk to him tonight, but for now he was having ribs.

As Joey heard Levonís voice fade, he grabbed his Springsteen tape, and climbed the stairs to the roof. He had been up here before when things got to rough and knew it was always deserted. Sitting in the Northeast corner of the building, knees drawn to his chest, he allowed the cool breeze to wash over him, as he tried to unsuccessfully block the images that kept coming to mind.

He flipped the tape.

Levon Lundy, his partner, had asked him about his Christmas plans. Christmas was three days away, and he was stuck in Texas. He didnít have a tree, or the traditional Biscotti, or the big piles of lasagna, or ricotta crepes.

He flipped the tape, back and forth, the rhythm of the movements increasing with his agitation.

He had no packages from anyone, and now he knew why they wouldnít be coming. He was disowned, as fully as any MAFIA family could handle the arrangements. Soon the box would arrive and he would have to send the ring back. He was the eldest son, of the eldest son, etc . . . the ring by rights was his, but after his call, the mealy-mouthed Giovanni would be sporting it.

The tape flipped continually back and forth.

He had no reason to buy a gift for anyone, and the ones he had purchased and mailed to his family had come back that morning, labeled, REFUSED!

He flipped the tape back and forth between his hands to the rhythm of his mind taunting, red, white and blue. Red, white and blue.

Back, forth. Back, forth. Red, white, blue. Back, forth. Back, forth.

A horn, blaring in the stillness, brought Joey instantaneously out of his self induced trance. Checking his watch and noting that he was already ten minutes late, he pocketed the tape and headed back to his desk.

"That was fast," he commented to no one in particular as he took his seat. Seeing an envelope on his desk, he quickly opened it, hoping that it might be a gift. It contained a black velvet box, much more suitable for a woman than a man. When he opened it, the box was empty except for a note. He had no need to read the note. It would say, "you know what to do," or something to that effect.

"I see you got your mail," Joanne Beaumont said, as she hurried past him and back into her office, "it came special delivery, while you were at lunch. I signed for it."

"Yeah, thanks," LaFiamma replied, as the feeling of anticipation was replaced by a knot of cold despair. He had to breathe through it or he was going to be violently ill, and he refused to break in front of these cops, his partners on the force. In, out, in, out, there that was better, he thought. Finally he realized Levon was speaking. That would give him something to concentrate on.

"I thought lunch dragged a bit," Levon said again. "You should have joined us, it might have livened things up a bit."

"Things have a tendency to slow down during the holidays" LaFiamma remarked. "I think itís all the anticipating."

Levon smiled as he replied, "I know Iím anticipating Joanneís roast turkey."

Waiting for his partners response, he lifted his eyes and briefly caught LaFiammaís, noting a momentary flicker of what seemed to be hastily covered anguish, before they shuttered, returning his partner to the man he knew. Wondering what was going on, or if he had imagined the entire thing, he heard Joey say, "We usually have ham." Then more lightly, and seeming a tad bit forced, he added "Letís finish this up so our schedules are clear. I bet you have lots to do, before the celebrating begins." A slight smile crossed his lips as he added, "Finding cowboy boots for everybody must take time."

"It does, LaFiamma, it does," Levon bantered back, pleased to see Joeyís dark mood lighten.

LaFiamma passed paper after paper to Levon after he had checked and cross checked each one. The day was crawling by.

Time moved slowly for Levon as well. The work was getting finished, and in record time, but Joey just wasnít himself, and he was worried. He had never told his arrogant partner that he admired his ability to get the job done. He had never explained that he was afraid to push to much, for fear of losing someone close to him again. Carolynís death had almost destroyed him, and now his new partner was changing things. The safe reactions no longer worked, but Levon was discovering he couldnít hide forever. Joey was actually good for him, although he was loathed to admit it. It was time for him to be good for Joey too. Maybe they really could try to air out their differences tonight.

"Did you say something LaFiamma?" Levon questioned.

"Never mind," came the brusque reply, as his partner returned to work.

"Hey man, give me a break. I was just thinking. This work is so boring. What did you say?"

"Just wondering if there are any vistas in Houston or right outside in one of your many rural areas?" Joey responded.

"It does seem kinda flat, doesnít it?" Levon grinned after responding.

"Yeah."

"There is a mesa or two not that far out of town. Why?"

"Just curious," came a very casual reply.

Almost too casual, for Levonís peace of mind. Joey never sounded that casual. Joey and unbridled energy, went together, casual was Levon. Joey was up to something, but not wanting to say what.

As they continued to make their way through the case files, Levon decided he needed a break.

"Want a pop, Joey?" he questioned.

"No," he replied, barely raising his head from the computer screen.

"Sure? Iím buying."

"No thanks, Levon."

"Suit yourself," he said, moving to the pop machine in the back corner of the station. As he walked, he noticed that Joey never raised his head from the keyboard, and he wondered just what was going on as they didnít need a computer for the work they were doing.

On his way back, Coke in hand, he saw LaFiamma, get up and begin to make his way to the printer, just as Sharon picked up the printed stack of papers and began the daily call early.

"Okay, who has the Correctional Institute printout?"

"Thatís mine, senorita," Gutierrez said, as she handed him a few sheets.

"The L.A.P.D. files?" she questioned.

"Mine," Edward called, accepting the paperwork.

"Maps of Houston?"

"Uh . . . mine Sharon," LaFiamma replied.

"Guess that makes sense," she said as Levon cut in, "Here, Iíll take them to him, Iím headed that way," taking the stack from her hand.

"Iíll get them, if you donít mind?" LaFiamma said, moving toward his partner.

"Iíll walk them to you, and Iíll be sure they donít get crumpled" Levon shot back, feeling his temper rise. Canít even do a favor for the guy, without him having a fit, he thought.

"I said, Iíll get them."

"Fine, you do that, LaFiamma," Levon snapped as he allowed the papers to fall to the floor, but not before he had a quick look at them. Joey was printing off routes up to the mesas. What was the problem with that? Their first six months had been filled with nonstop cases and continual work, but they had resulted in the capture of one of the biggest serial killers in Texasí history. He deserved a break, probably a great place to take his family sightseeing.

He watched as Joey leaned over and gathered the papers to him, cradling them almost as if they meant life or death.

"You know, LaaFiiiiiaaaaaaaama, youíre not to use the computer for non related work projects," Jim Bob taunted.

A simple, "I need to learn my way around better," was all the answer he received, before Joey resumed his seat and went back to work.

Jim Bob shot Levon a pointed look that seemed to say, perhaps youíre right, he isnít acting normal. Usually that would cause a serious argument and a possible door slam. This only strengthened Levonís determination to spend time with his partner tonight.

Both men were surprised to finish up their work and realize that there was still twenty-five minutes to go, before the day ended.

"Any plans for tonight, LaFiamma?" Levon asked.

"Nothing important," Joey answered. His death wouldnít be important. Not here in Texas and certainly not in Chicago, he mused.

"How about we grab a bite to eat?"

"Not tonight, Iím tired."

"It wonít take long," Levon persisted.

"I said no. Isnít that good enough for you? I donít need food."

"Everyone needs to eat, LaFiamma," Jim Bob threw into the discussion, mostly to help Lundy get some time with his partner. He was actually glad they were beginning to get along, and wanted to help, but this Italian seemed to rub everyone the wrong way.

"I said, I donít need any food. Doubt I will," Joey said placing a hand in his pocket to make sure he still had the tape. Couldnít they all leave him alone? He just wanted this over with. He was too tired to argue any more.

"Now . . . "

"I said NO!" Joey spat at his partner. "Iím leaving."

Levon watched in shock as Joey LaFiamma walked out of the station room without saying "see ya tomorrow." He always, as a matter of routine said, "See ya tomorrow." Levon knew LaFiamma said it to remind him that he would still have to deal with him, and that he wasnít going away. Something was very, very wrong.

It only took him seconds to make the connection, and at a run, Levon took off after Joey, assuming he was going to the garage. At least I was right about that, he thought, as he watched LaFiamma get in his Cobra and start the engine. He was heading toward the Jimmy, ready to follow him, when he realized that Joey hadnít started backing out. He could hear faint music coming from the car, but Joey was just sitting still, with the door open. Changing direction, he headed to the Cobra, thinking again about all their differences. The sleek, sexy, Italian in the designer clothes had an incredibly fast car, that attracted women like flies. He owned a Jimmy. It was practical, useful, and safe. Just like me, he thought.

Joey hadnít moved. Levon crouched by the door and looked at his partner, but saw no recognition of his presence. Touching LaFiammaís knee softly, so as not to startle him, he whispered, "Joey?"

"Itís too light right now."

"I donít understand," Levon said, but he was afraid he was lying.

ĎThatís just it Lundy. You donít understand. No one does."

Could a voice sound any more flat? Lundy knew from experience that it couldnít. His had sounded like that just before he wanted to die, while blaming himself for Carolineís death.

"Iíd like to."

His head snapped up at that, eyes staring, but lost, and he began to laugh. A sarcastic laugh, carrying the beginnings of an even darker laugh that came from the core of his being. "Youíd like me to believe that, wouldnít you?"

Truly frightened, and unsure of what to say next, Levon said the only thing he could. "Yes I would, but I donít think you want to believe it, do you?" His tone was as sharp as LaFiammaís had been.

And then it happened, right in the middle of the police parking garage. Joey replied, "Iím afraid to believe it, Levon." Truth: honest, open, freedom giving truth.

"Come on Joey, lets go to your apartment and talk."

"I hate my apartment."

Smiling at the petulant sounding voice, Levon amended, "All right, lets go to my home, or for a walk, or a drink. You name it, Iím there."

The hesitant "Really?" reminded him that this crisis was not over.

"Really, Joey. Anywhere you like."

"Iíve got a map," Joey replied, holding up the computer printouts of the prominent Texas mesas.

"Iíll drive." Levon said, taking his partners keys, from limp fingers.

Nodding yes, Joey laughed that self deprecating laugh again, and said "I wouldnít know how to get there anyway," then he moved over to allow his partner in behind the drivers wheel. "You do know how to drive one of these, donít you?"

Ignoring the slap in the face, and refusing to rise to the bait and allow this conversation to end in a fight like always, Levon quickly answered, "Yes," then started the engine and smoothly eased the Cobra into the flow of traffic, taking the Route Nine exit leading out of town.

The drive was very quiet, with only the music playing on the cassette player to break the silence. Each was lost in their own thoughts, both hoping that they would get through this night. It took Levon an hour to make it through the rush hour traffic, which was greatly increased by the hordes of last minute shoppers.

Finding that saying nothing wasnít helping, and awfully tired of the music he hadnít even listened to, Levon broke the silence with, "Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? I finished mine last week."

Joey said nothing.

"Joey?" he tried again.

Still, nothing.

"Okay Joey, we can wait until we get there. If you want to talk before that, I am listening."

"ĎKay" came the subdued response. Then Joey softly began to sing the words to the tape. It was the same one heíd been holding onto for days.

As Joeyís voice sang in the background, Levon listened. First to Joeyís voice. Heíd never heard the fiery Italian sing before, actually heíd never really heard him do much but raise his voice, and Joey had a lovely voice. As Joey continued to sing, Levon began to be drawn to the cadence of the song, and as LaFiamma continued singing, Levon realized the song repeated itself, over and over, and that he was singing to a tape, not the radio. Some sections seemed to have been cut, and in places where only music was present, Joey seemed to be adding his own words.

Knowing that Joey wasnít about to stop singing, as this was a mantra of sorts, Levon listened intently, not only to Joeyís smooth baritone, but to the individual words as well.

The words heíd just sang were chilling, and even more than the song itself, were the added words, at the end.

Goodbye Joey,

Bye, bye.

What were those other words? His brain could only piece together broken fragments. Fragments of wreck on the highway-deserted county two lane, blood and glass all over, a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night saying, your baby died in a wreck on the highway. MESAís, his brain screamed. Lord heíd been right, Joey didnít need food, he wasnít planning on seeing Christmas. What in the hell was he going to do now?

Fearing to interrupt Joeyís singing, he continued to drive to the mesa they selected, his mind going a million miles a minute, when Joey interrupted his thoughts by asking, "What do we do when we get there?"

"Talk," he replied as gently as possible.

"Iíve got nothiní to say, Levon. Iíve got nowhere to go and nobody to see. Did you know that I got the box today?"

Box? What box was he talking about? "No, I didnít know that."

"Yeah, itís all over man."

Pulling off to the side of the road, Levon stopped the car and looked at his partnerís face, only to hear, "If you have to stop, at least leave the car running, I need to hear the tape."

"I donít think you do. Now explain about the box."

"Itís nothing really."

"Joey, can I tell you something?"

"It wonít change destiny."

"Maybe not," Levon smiled, "but it might help me."

"Talk if you want to, I wonít tell anyone. No one will listen in hell anyway." Joey said, head down. "You know thatís where Iím going donít you?"

Allowing himself to follow LaFiammaís lead, he answered, "Why would you be going there?"

"Did I tell you I was Catholic? Catholics go to hell. Well not all of them, but the ones that donít let God control their destiny do."

"Before you go on Joey, I really need to tell you this," Levon inserted.

"ĎKay."

"Caroline died, Joey, and so did I. She died and it was my fault. I shouldnít have left that day. I should have gotten in that car, not her. I was so alone after that. She was my life. Iíve never told anyone this before." He had Joeyís attention now, and he intended to keep it. "I told people parts, but nobody ever heard the complete story. I need to share it with you if youíll let me."

Watery eyes gazed at watery eyes, as Joey repeated "ĎKay."

"Give me a minute, this is hard," Levon said to nobody in particular, as he gathered his scattered thoughts. He knew Joey needed to hear this, as much as he needed to say it, but he didnít think it would be this hard. The wound was reopening, raw again as he replayed her death, and the last thing Joey needed was him losing control tonight.

"We were high school sweethearts. She held my heart in her hands. Short of her and mother Minnie, no one has been as close. After the funeral, I found that I couldnít get up. I just laid in bed and felt that there was no reason to live. I didnít eat, sleep, shave, cry, take care of the animals. Nothing. I just laid there. Do you know what that is like? To lose everything that is important?"

He waited, but Joey didnít answer.

"Anyway, I decided I needed to be with her, so I dressed, went to the barn, saddled my horse, and rode off. I took risks that no one should take. I jumped fences that I shouldnít have touched, rode through a canyon that the horse shouldnít have been able to navigate, took no caution as I galloped through an area full of gopher holes. You see, I intended to get thrown, and die. Itís that simple. If I didnít die on impact it would be days before someone came lookiní, and then the elements would have finished me off. The horse beat me. He didnít misstep, and he delivered me to a field that had been Carolineís favorite place. I dismounted and finally cried. To this day, I have no idea how long I sat there, but the next morning I rode home, knowing in my heart that Caroline wouldnít have wanted me to take my life."

"You were in love, that changes things. Iím not in love so the logic doesnít work."

"Joey, Caroline loved me. You are loved." Dang this was hard.

"If they cared, the box wouldnít have come."

"I donít understand the box you keep referring to, but I am here with you. Would I be here if I didnít care?"

Defiant, his tone angry, Joey talked, daring Levon to change what was true. "Youíre a good man Levon, youíd do anything to help anybody whether you cared or not. Did you know my Uncle Mikey disowned me? Hung up on me the other night, and today the box came. The box is for me to return the ring in. This ring," he said, extending his hand and displaying the expensive diamond and ruby pinky ring for Levonís inspection. "You wouldnít understand. Itís an Italian family tradition. The ring, in certain families, is passed on from first son to first son, etc. When they take it from you, your no longer a family member. Period, end of discussion."

"I didnít know," Levon quietly said, just now realizing how deep the hurt went. It wasnít just Houston, and customs he didnít understand, like turning a cowboy hat upside down, but it was his previous life as well, that he was giving up. Joey hadnít made any friends that he knew of. LaFiamma was truly more alone, than he had been, when Caroline died. He had still had friends, and his grandmother, even if he pushed them away temporarily. What was the answer?

Before he could say anything else, Joey resumed speaking, his tone desperate this time, "Houston is, well Houston. The force and I disagree on how to do things. Beaumont barely tolerates me. You and I havenít really hit it off. I need to get out, and if I go back Iím dead, so whatís the difference?"

"I can tell you the difference."

"Right."

Irritated at how Joey could actually get words to drip with sarcasm, Levon took a deep breath before responding, realizing once again, that thanks to Joey, his emotions were coming back to life. Time to tell him that.

"I was talking to Jim Bob at lunch today, and asking him if he thought you were acting different." Wanting to lighten the atmosphere, he smiled and added, "You know, why you werenít as loud and obnoxious as usual."

This elicited a smile in response, and encouraged he continued, "He said that he was glad we were finally becoming partners. I laughed and said weíd always been partners, but he said, now you care, partners care. Joeyís been good for you." Levon knew the last part was a stretch but he thought it sounded good so he added it. "Heís right Joey. I needed you, and I didnít even know it. Youíre good for me. You keep me on my toes. I need your energy, and your insights. I know I havenít told you this, and donít expect to hear it again, but you are a great cop, and Houston is better off for having you here"

Again silence, but at least Joey wasnít looking at the ground any longer. Levon restarted the car and drove up toward the mesa again, this time pointedly turning off the cassette player and removing the tape.

"Ya know somethiní Lundy?"Joey smiled. "Maybe Iíll rethink this whole situation."

"Glad to hear it."

He was close to the mesa now, but still thought there was one more thing he should do before they got there. "How about we both go to Mother Minnieís, she keeps asking about meeting my loud-mouthed partner, then we have dinner at my house?"

"I thought you were looking forward to the turkey at Beaumontís."

"I was but Iíd rather skip it now, if itís not going to interfere with your plans," he quipped.

"I have so many," Joey shot back, his usual personality reasserting itself. "Iíll take you up on the offer providing we have dinner at my place and I cook. Texansí donít know a thing about cooking!"

"Of all the . . . You conceited, arrogant . . . Fine. Dinner at your place, but I want sweet potato pie."

"Good Lord, what is that?"

"You take sweet potatoes and then some other stuff and you mix it together . . . "

"Never mind Levon. Iíll figure it out. I guess itís the least I can do for someone who saved me a trip straight to hell."

"Were here." Levon said, as he shut off the car and opened his door.

"Where?" came the confused response.

"At the mesa you wanted to see."

"Oh, yeah," he responded as he too got out of the car.

As the two men, now partners, surveyed the landscape, Levon told Joey all he knew about the mesaís, and why they were interesting. Joey told him he should never forget to shave, as his face was ugly enough without whiskers. Slapping each other on the back, the two men moved to the mesaís edge, and Joey said "You know, Houston looks really nice from up here right now."

*****End*****

 

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