CHAPTER 1

Seattle, Washington-Dakota wiped the rain from his eyes, and ran a hand through the three days of growth that cast a shadow across his face. Inhaling deeply, Dakota sucked in an enormous blast of the cold, damp, morning air. The briskness succored his senses into fully awakening. He blinked a few times to clear his vision, although he couldn't have dozed off for more than fifteen minutes. What I wouldn't give for a cup of coffee, Dakota thought to himself. Cold, dirty, and decaffeinated was no way to be at five o'clock in the bright and early. Glancing around, he corrected himself. It was dark and early.

Mornings like this personified everything that he loved about this city Seattle, the Emerald City, where coffee was ingested more often than water. How you drank it, the brand, even the type of coffee-maker, were more important than the type of car you drove. Seattle, a city in which a convenient stretch of cloudy summer days proved ideal for scaring away visiting out-of-state types. More importantly, it kept most of those sun-loving Californians away. Those erratic summer

storms were usually enough to do the trick. If those occasionally sunless July days didn't do it, the nearly constant chill from November to April sent them back to their places of origin. They would spin horrific tales of a dreary place, tucked back in the ominous woods. They would rant incessantly about a bunch of flannel-wearing, grunge rocking, caffeine freaks. That suited Dakota just fine.

Peering out from his place in the alley, Dakota felt that familiar and welcome tinge of excitement. Not, he imagined, too unlike that of the tiger waiting in the reeds of a water hole. This was Dakota's water hole, the city of Seattle.

At first glance, Dakota looked like any other vagrant that hung around the fringe of Seattle's City Center. Dirty brown hair matted to his head. A tattered bandanna held his damp locks out of his eyes. He wore an oil stained field jacket that had been some shade of green at one time. It served not only to keep away the chilly morning air, but also managed to conceal his bulky frame. Closer inspection would reveal that Dakota possessed a rather muscular build. His height of just over six feet tall was masked by the way he now stood, slouched over and leaning against the alley wall. The intimation of a beard, along with the grime that smudged his face, only increased his likelihood of being mistaken for a vagrant.

However, if someone took a closer look, the eyes would

give him away. That was unlikely considering that most people preferred to ignore one of the nation's most troubling epidemics. What they would see in those blazing jade eyes would belie the usually sad, sometimes angry, often empty gaze of the archetypal pan-handler. That emptiness was supplanted by a look of intensity that, at times, seemed to bore through your very soul. The compassion in those same eyes could cause you to expose your inner-most thoughts. There was no trace of the bloodshot look of a wino. Instead, these eyes were crystal clear.

Dakota Cameron Riley was no pan-handler, nor was he homeless. He was an agent of the Seattle Narcotics Investigative Agency, under the direct supervision of the D.E.A.. A division that he had belonged to for seven years.

After a three year stint in the United States Air Force as a military police officer, Dakota had returned home. Home was a modest two bedroom rambler in Des Moines, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Using his service acquired G.I. bill, he put himself through college. By sustaining a perfect grade-point average, he had no problem gaining an appointment to the Police Academy.

Upon completion of his training, he was quickly recruited by the Des Moines Police Department. Home town boy joins the local force made for good public relations. That was until he issued his first citation, then he was just another cop.

Speeding tickets, along with the occasional D.U.I., quickly lost their thrill for him, and he soon settled into the daily grind of police officer. September 18, 1990, would be the day that brought an abrupt halt to his ordinary life. On that day, a new door opened and Dakota stepped through it.

Dakota sat in his squad car as usual. He waited patiently for anyone who chose to exceed the posted speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour. He set up in a small cul-de-sac facing outward with his engine running. This position allowed him to monitor cars that came down the main access road to the local marina.

He smiled to himself as various cars would enter the dip in the hill that prevented his being noticed until the vehicle was almost on top of him. His radar gun led would read "40...37...32."Several cars passed, each one slowing as he became visible to the driver.

Ten minutes into his vigil, it happened, a car roared past. The driver seemed oblivious to his midnight blue squad car. A small beep emitted from the radar gun. The display flashed "63"!

Dakota slipped his car into gear and rolled out in pursuit. Reaching over, he flipped on his lights and was unprepared for the driver's response. Instead of slowing, the car accelerated and began to pull away. Dakota reached for his mike as he gunned the engine to give chase.

"Dispatch, this is Riley," he said trying to conceal his excitement. "I am in pursuit of a high speed perp moving west on one-three-two. We are approaching first, request backup."

Before dispatch could respond, the car shot into the intersection. Apparently the driver had little knowledge of the streets of Des Moines. He darted into the intersection against a red light and promptly smashed into a city bus.

The driver of the car turned out to be in possession of an entire kilo of pure cocaine. Dakota made the bust that resulted in a commendation, along with a great deal of praise from his commander.

The tiny office of the Des Moines Police Department now housed its first real major felon in its tiny cell. The felon's name was Mark Sherman, a known drug dealer, currently wanted by the local D.E.A. affiliate for suspected involvement with a major drug trafficking operation currently under investigation by the Seattle Drug Task Force.

The day before Mr. Sherman was to be transferred to the King County Jail where he would stand trial, four men paid him an unscheduled visit. The lone security camera showed four men in ski masks burst in and gun down the duty officer that sat at his desk. They proceeded to Mark Sherman's holding cell and shot him in the head...five times.

It was quickly assumed that word had gotten out that Sherman was going to testify. He had readily expressed knowledge that he could identify the major players of the drug ring in question. A drug operation that used Seattle as a distribution hub running from Vancouver, Canada to San Diego, California.

In exchange for his testimony, Sherman would receive immunity from prosecution. In addition, he would be given a new identity, and then covertly relocated. He relocated to Sky View Estates Cemetery.

Dakota received an invitation to assist the Seattle Drug Task Force in its investigation. During that time, he quickly impressed Captain Matt Bell. Bell held the position of not only liaison between the Seattle Drug Task Force and the D.E.A., but commander of the task force as well.

Although none of the assassins were apprehended, a complete search of the Sherman residence by Dakota yielded some more useful intelligence. A major shipment of heroin was being transported To Seattle from San Diego. Its ultimate destination was Vancouver, Canada. The street value had an estimate of just over one million dollars.

Dakota assisted the men of the Seattle Drug Task Force with the bust. His performance in that raid prompted Captain Bell to recommend that Dakota turn in his citation pad. "You seem more suited to busting some real bad guys," Bell suggested.

With a few phone calls, the arrangement was made. Dakota put his patrolman uniform in mothballs and became a "suit". Four years as a speed trap cop was over, he became an official undercover detective on November 21, 1990.

The next three years were the fastest in his life. He was paired up with a senior detective by the name of Derrick Rider. Rider, a seven year veteran of the war on drugs, proved to be a superb mentor. Dakota quickly learned that undercover work wasn't the thrill-a-minute, shoot 'em up lifestyle depicted in movies.

If Derrick was an excellent teacher, Dakota established himself as an even more ambitious student. It took almost no time for a solid bond to develop between the two. Their relationship extended beyond just work. The pair spent many of their off hours together forming a bond stronger than any friendship the two had ever experienced before. When Derrick married his childhood sweetheart, it was Dakota who stood at his side as best man. Throughout it all, they never ceased in their relentless investigation of the drug ring known on the streets as San-Sea-Ca. It became their obsession to bring the organization down. The big break came when they least expected it.

In February of 1995, a routine drug raid netted additional information involving alleged personnel of the San-Sea-Ca organization.

This time, Derrick and Dakota vowed not to let the prize slip through their grasp. Leading a strike team, they went after every name on their street. Time after time it seemed that the bad guys stayed one step ahead.

Finally the break they needed was at hand. They were called in when a routine traffic stop yielded a man named Victor Nonsa. The unit pulling Nonsa's car over was a K9 unit. The dash mounted camera caught it all as the officer approached the vehicle. Suddenly the occupant, Nonsa, slams the door into the officer and leaps from his car as if to run. Then a blur darts from the area of the squad car. Brutus, the trained police dog had his jaws clamped around the fleeing suspect's throat awaiting his partner's arrival.

A little questioning was like pulling the arm on a slot machine and lining up the cherries. Enough packaged drugs were found in the car to send Nonsa away for the rest of his formative years. He quickly gave up working for the San-Sea-CA and just wanted out from under the organization's thumb.

He claimed not to know much more than the person immediately above him, who he revealed as Marty Pennington, owner of the Pennington Motor Group. He did however know one key element of the current supply load, it would be coming from Canada.

When lab results came back on the drugs confiscated in the bust the initial guess that they were dealing with a heavy meth distributor took a slight twist. This meth was cut with a potent hallucinogen that packed a much stronger rush than standard crank. The twist was that it eventually mellowed into euphoria akin to L.S.D.. In a short period of time, it became the choice in Seattle's many 'Techno-Rave' clubs. It also gained immense popularity with the socially elite. Plain and simple, this stuff was bad news.

So far, nobody actually knew just how this stuff arrived in the Emerald City. To date the Canadian and American Border Guards had yielded a big fat zero in their attempts to make any Sort of bust. The only consistent fact was that the 'White Rager' only arrived for distribution to its dealers twice a month. This increased its appeal as a hot commodity.

A little more strong armed interrogation of Nonsa resulted in a few additional pieces to the puzzle. First, deliveries were always on Thursdays. Second and more essential to tying their leads together, delivery was always made by the same man, a man whom Nonsa easily identified as Brian Sherman, brother of the late Mark Sherman. Third and the icing on the cake, Sherman always arrived in the same vehicle, a HummVee.

With all the miles of heavily forested and mountainous terrain, it would be impossible to monitor a single vehicle with the capabilities of handling rough terrain like the Hummer. Any attempt at single unit surveillance would be too simple to detect and likely be unable to manage the trip in any case.

After a few hours of brainstorming, Dakota and Derrick devised a plan while a bit extreme it was doable. The plan would need the varied components of a Piper single prop airplane and a helicopter in addition to the unmarked cars for city driving. After some heavy convincing by both Dakota and Derrick, Captain Bell gave the approval after some negotiating with Canadian Officials.

******Anticipation grew as the first Tuesday arrived after affirmation had been received by the Canadian government. A team took station to observe Sherman as he left the Pennington Lot in his Hummer. Once the word had been relayed, the helicopter picked up the trail. It maintained a visual on the Hummer, reporting regularly the location via secured-channel radio communications Once outside the more densely traveled areas, the clandestine pursuit became the responsibility of a series of unmarked cars. The unmarked cars maintained contact on the ground until Sherman exited the Interstate.

From there, Sherman utilized a series of back roads as he wove his way towards the border. Eventually he turned off anything resembling a road and made for the foothills and forests that gave the Northwest its idyllic beauty. That was where the Piper took over surveillance. The Piper held contact for this leg until the Hummer slipped back onto a major thoroughfare inside Canada. At that point, the Piper peeled off so that it could refuel. The unmarked cars led by Derrick and Dakota picked up the trail from there.

Since they were out of their jurisdiction, they trailed Sherman in the accompaniment of a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Sherman led them to a parking garage located in downtown Vancouver B.C.. The location was quickly relayed to R.C.M.P. officials who were asked to wait for Sherman's departure before raiding the location. The last thing Dakota wanted was for Canadians to barge in before the exchange could take place. Extraditing Sherman would be a major pain in the ass.

Apparently Sherman and his contact (or contacts) were very adept in this exchange. Less than ten minutes elapsed when Sherman emerged from the garage. Dakota quickly relayed the go-ahead for the Canadians to proceed with their end of the bust. After bidding farewell and good-luck to their R.C.M.P. rider, Dakota signaled his surveillance team that the suspect was returning. This time however, things would operate a little differently.

******At about one o'clock in the morning, Sherman pulled into a rest area. The news was immediately relayed to Dakota and Derrick who had taken up a position just inside the U.S. -- Canadian border. They were set up to apprehend their suspect once it was determined where he would emerge on the U.S. side.

"Maybe he's got to take a leak," Dakota radioed back.

"Uh, that's a negative," a voice crackled back on the radio, "he appears to be just sitting in the vehicle."

"Well, just maintain visual contact and keep us advised of anything that occurs, over."

The two Canadian agents sat in their vehicle staring at the parked Hummer waiting for something to happen. What could this Sherman fellow be waiting for? Had he caught on? The answer came about fifteen minutes later.

"Hunter, this is Bloodhound Six, come in, over," the radio squawked, startling Dakota.

Derrick grabbed the mike, "Go ahead Six."

"Hunter, we've got an interesting situation. A big car-carrier rig has just pulled in. They appear to be loading up the Hummer, over."

"You want to run that by me again!" Derrick replied, not sure he had heard the report correctly.

"I said, they're loading the Hummer onto a car transport rig," Bloodhound six repeated.

"Shit!" Derrick muttered. He keyed the mike again,

"Maintain surveillance, Bloodhound Six. Inform us as soon as they roll out, over."

A moment later the radio came to life again. "Hunter, I have an update you're gonna want to hear," Bloodhound Six announced, "man, these guys have got it together."

"Just give the report and save the commentary," Derrick snapped.

"They have off-loaded a second Hummer identical to the first. They are currently switching the plates," Bloodhound Six reported.

"What about the shipment?" Derrick asked.

"It appears to still be aboard the vehicle on the transport rig."

Dakota quickly pulled out a map of the area, checking any routes that the transport rig might utilize. After conferring with Derrick, he deployed their surveillance teams to the locations that would best allow interception.

"Hunter, this is Bloodhound Six, the switch has been completed. Both contacts are rolling out."

"Are you certain that they didn't transfer the drugs?" Derrick asked.

"It doesn't appear so," was the reply.

"Thanks for the good work," Derrick acknowledged.

Within minutes, the directions of the transport rig and the decoy Hummer was determined. Dakota assigned the Piper to maintain contact with the Hummer, while ground teams kept an eye on the transport rig. Considering its size, the semi would need to stay on the major highways. The transport rig proved to be relatively easy to follow as it circled around in a southwestern arc towards Utah.

Sherman did little to mask his movements as he cut through Idaho and into Oregon. He stayed on Interstate 8, and then switched to I-5 at Portland. From there he made a bee-line straight to Seattle.

He pulled into the Pennington lot early Wednesday afternoon. Less than four hours later, the transport rig arrived. Dakota and Derrick had already set up surveillance early that same morning, choosing to observe the arrivals personally.

They watched as the original Hummer was off-loaded. Afterwards, the decoy was reloaded along with two other vehicles that sat beside the garage adjoining what could only be the office.

Upon completion of this obviously well oiled evolution, Brian Sherman, along with a man Dakota identified as Marty Pennington from D.E.A. photographs, disappeared into the office. Meanwhile, a mechanic pulled the original Hummer into the garage, pulling the door down behind him to keep out prying eyes.

Ten minutes passed as Derrick and Dakota waited anxiously for any sign of activity. Finally, the mechanic emerged from the garage and strolled casually to the office. The garage's roll-down door remained partially open, allowing for an only slightly obstructed view of the Hummer inside.

Derrick produced his field glasses and took a look. "Well, what do you know," he passed the binoculars over to Dakota.

Dakota took a look. There sat the Hummer. The driver's side door sat propped against the body of the vehicle. Also, the driver's seat had been removed.

Another half an hour elapsed with no further activity. Derrick radioed back to Captain Bell that everything so far seemed to substantiate their suspicions. He informed the captain that they would hold their position until Pennington was alone before making the bust. Captain Bell approved, informing them that Brian Sherman's residence was staked out. Warrants for the arrest of both Pennington and Sherman were already complete, along with the appropriate search warrants for the two locations.

"No mistakes boys. You've worked long and hard on this one," Captain Bell warned.

"Roger that, over and out," Derrick replied.

"Here they come!" Dakota nudged Derrick.

Brian Sherman exited a side door with a briefcase in hand. They expected him to leave in the Hummer, instead, he climbed into a gray Mercedes. If he was indeed en route to make his deliveries, then he wasn't conforming to the story Nonsa gave them. Both men watched as the Mercedes turned onto an access ramp that led to I-405.

Another minute later, Pennington exited the office with the mechanic. There was a brief exchange of words between the two, a handshake, then Pennington proceeded to a red Corvette. They both noticed a metal box that Pennington carried tucked under one arm. Pennington placed the box in the car, climbed in, and drove off. Meanwhile, the mechanic busied himself with locking up the office and garage.

"What do we do?" Dakota asked.

"We follow Pennington," Derrick replied, "He's our man. We can nab the John Doe mechanic later if need be."

Dakota started the engine of the car they had spent the last two days in and took off after their suspect. He managed to keep three cars between Pennington and themselves as they followed their quarry towards I-5. Once on the interstate, maintaining contact became more difficult. Rush hour was in full swing causing Dakota to fall as many as five cars behind at times.

Once they approached Seattle's City Center, Pennington exited. His route made it likely that the ferry terminal was his destination. It was in the downtown chaos that Pennington managed to elude them. A red light brought the car in front of Dakota to a halt, they watched helplessly as the red Corvette pulled away.

By the time they managed to continue pursuit, Pennington had disappeared from sight. Dakota crossed his fingers and hoped their assumption about the ferry terminals being the ultimate destination was a correct one. They slowly crept along in the bumper-to-bumper gridlock that plagued downtown Seattle's rush hour.

Eventually they rounded the corner. The terminal came into view, but their dread was confirmed as they watched the ferry pull away from the pier. As it broke out into open water, they spied Marty Pennington's red Corvette in the car bay.

"Dammit!" Dakota pounded the steering wheel.

Derrick radioed back to Captain Bell with the bad news as they moved in line for the next ferry. Thirty minutes later, they were on the trail again proceeding to the address that belonged to Pennington. By the time they arrived, an hour had elapsed. Pulling up to the house, they saw no sign of the red Corvette. A quick check of the residence revealed that Pennington was not there.

"Now what?" Dakota turned to his grim faced partner.

"I say we get on the horn and get a unit out here to keep an eye on the place. We go back to the car lot and wait to see who shows up," Derrick decided.

They drove back to Burien in silence. On the way, Derrick pulled a duffel bag into the front seat and changed into a pair of worn out coveralls. Once they reached their destination, Dakota pulled out another bag from the back and changed as well.

The night passed with no activity. Word came that the situation at the Pennington house likewise was proving to be a bust. As morning came and went, Dakota could feel the frustration Building. They continued to wait. Sooner or later, someone would have to show up.

In the years that he had been partners with Derrick, Dakota had learned a lot. The first lesson had been the hardest.

"Be patient," Derrick had said, "these guys ain't rocket scientists. Eventually they make a mistake. Our job is to be there when they do."

Right now, Dakota found little consolation in those words.

As noon approached, there was still nothing to report from either location. Just maybe someone had caught on to their scheme. Was it possible that Sherman or Pennington discovered the fact that Sherman had been trailed? Dakota doubted it, but then why hadn't anyone returned to either the Pennington home, or the rental lot?

The next afternoon, hopes mounted and plunged in one fell swoop. A car pulled up in front of the lot. A man in a nice suit emerged from the car. Derrick arose from his position at a nearby bus stop and began to shuffle down the street to get a better look. The man peered into the window of the office then looked at his watch. As Derrick got close enough to get a good look at the man's face, a cab arrived at the lot. The mechanic stepped out carrying a briefcase. He paid the driver of the cab, and then went to greet the man in the suit.

Derrick moved close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation. He listened as the mechanic apologized for being late for the arrival of the man in the suit. He ushered the man to the office, unlocked the door, and the two disappeared inside.

Derrick continued along the street waving Dakota off. Dakota watched as his partner ducked inside a small diner that sat kitty-corner to the Pennington lot. He eased back into his alley and continued to watch the office for any activity.

A few moments later, the mechanic exited and led the man in the suit to a black Range-Rover. He opened the door for the man in the suit. The two shook hands, then the man climbed in and drove off. The mechanic waved as the man drove away, then Returned to the office. Three more customers came and went during the remainder of the day. At around seven that night a cab arrived. The mechanic exited the office. He checked the door to ensure it was locked, and then left.

Inside the diner, Derrick sat at a table that provided an excellent view of everything. When he had entered, he quickly identified himself to the hostess behind the counter. He asked for the manager, and waited at the counter for the hostess to return.

The manager turned out to be the owner as well. He explained that he had recently retired from Boeing and purchased the place. He ran it with his wife, also recently retired from Boeing.

Derrick briefly explained that he needed a seat by the window. The man seemed eager to help, ushering Derrick to a booth at the end of the restaurant. In addition, he personally delivered a hot cup of coffee and a stack of roast beef sandwiches. Derrick reached for his wallet, but the man waved him away.

"That's very kind of you mister," Derrick said.

"Anthony Munroe is the name, but folks just call me Mo," he introduced himself.

"Pleased to meet you, name's Derrick."

"I don't know who or what you're lookin' for, and I reckon it ain't none of my business. I s'pose you'd tell me if ya wanted to, but anytime I can help an officer of the law...well then that's my civic duty. That's the trouble nowadays. Everybody and their cousin wants to bitch, but nobody wants to do their part to help."

Derrick thanked him and spent the rest of the day observing the Pennington lot from the comfort of that booth. That evening, after the mechanic left, Derrick got up to leave. Mo met him at the front desk with two large to-go boxes. Each one contained a homemade meatloaf dinner complete with baked potato, corn on the cob, and a dinner roll. He also produced two large thermoses full of coffee.

"I imagine your partner could use some hot coffee and a home-cooked meal," Mo smiled.

"I'm sure he could," Derrick returned the smile.

"Got to be better than the junk you fellas get from the vending machines," Mo said.

Derrick once again thanked the man for his generous hospitality and left. He walked up the dimly lit street, carefully balancing the two boxes and the coffee. He spotted Dakota in his alley.

"How's the weather been?" Derrick chuckled.

"About fifty degrees, and wetter than a duck's ass. Thanks for asking!" Dakota retorted with just a hint of his normal playful sarcasm.

"So, what do you think?" Derrick eased down next to his partner.

"I think this stake out is a strike out."

"When are you going to learn?" Derrick shook his head, "Patience young buck."

"So how long do we keep this up?" Dakota snapped. He was cold, wet, and hungry. He was certainly in no mood for Derrick's lessons. "I mean sometime soon we are gonna have to face up to it. Maybe we blew it."

"You know what you need?" Derrick ignored his younger partner's comments. "You need one of Bo Munroe's hot meatloaf dinners."

Dakota looked incredulously at his much drier partner. "You brought me dinner?" Dakota clasped his hands under his chin in his best impersonation of an excited child. "Oooh, well then, that changes everything. Let's stay here forever!"

"Not only dinner, but hot coffee as well," Derrick offered one of the thermoses to Dakota. He then handed one of the boxes containing dinner to his still less than appreciative partner. While Dakota devoured the meatloaf, Derrick explained his afternoon in the diner to his partner.

"You slime ball!" Dakota growled through a mouthful of meatloaf.

"Hey!" Derrick protested, then pointed to the open box on Dakota's lap, "I brought you dinner didn't I?"

"How romantic. What would Mona say?" Dakota wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smacked his lips in an over­dramatic kissing gesture.

"Probably something like 'I hope you like the couch!'" Derrick laughed.

"How about 'you disgusting pig!'?" Dakota attempted an impersonation of Mona.

The two men laughed. After the laughing subsided, they returned to devouring their still steaming hot dinners. Once they had finished, Dakota leaned back against the cold, damp wall. He cupped the thermos in his hands and began sipping the tongue scorching coffee. Derrick wasn't far behind. Soon the two were both wrapped in the silence of the night, except for the occasional passing car. Each of them drifting in and out of his own thoughts as the warmth provided by the hot liquid spread throughout their bodies.

"So?" Dakota broke the silence, "How far along is she now?"

"Four and a half months," Derrick replied. A smile flashed across his shadowed face.

"You getting excited yet?"

"Truthfully?" Derrick sat up straight." I think it's finally starting to settle in...I'm gonna be a daddy."

"Still thinking about dropping out of the task force?"

Derrick paused, looking up into the dark, wet sky as if he were searching for an answer that hid in the pattern of the falling rain. Blinking a few times, he turned to face his partner and best friend. His expression had transformed into one that Dakota had never seen in the seven years he knew Derrick.

"I can't make that decision yet pal. Maybe when I see my child for the first time an answer will come. For now...I just don't know," Derrick looked directly into Dakota's eyes.

"I don't know what I would do without you man," Dakota swallowed the lump that began to rise in his throat.

"Same thing you do now. Fight for the good guys and bust the bad guys."

"Who will teach me the tricks if you leave?" Dakota protested.

"My friend," Derrick put a hand on Dakota's shoulder, "you ain't got that much left to learn. At least nothing left for me to teach you."

Once again silence fell upon the two. After finishing their coffee, the two resumed their vigil. While one watched the lot, the other slept in the car parked around the corner. The remainder of the night only ended up being a continuation of their frustration.

** ** **

Somewhere behind the dark clouds, morning came. Dakota left his spot in the alley and walked to the car. Derrick awoke from his catnap as the car door opened. He looked up at his partner hopefully.

"Still zip," Dakota sighed. "How much longer are we gonna continue with this exercise in futility?"

By that afternoon, Derrick himself began to have his doubts. It seemed as if they had somehow been discovered. Even the mechanic hadn't shown up yet today. He got up from his observation post next to a dumpster and slowly trudged the familiar path to the car where Dakota lay sleeping. As Dakota wiped the sleep from his eyes, Derrick checked in with Captain Bell.

"I was beginning to wonder about you two," Bells voice sounded excited. "There was some activity at the Pennington residence less than an hour ago. He came home, was there ten minutes, then left."

"Why didn't somebody grab him?" Derrick demanded.

There was a long pause.

"The guys were, how do I say this, um, sleeping," Bell answered timidly.

"What in the hell do you mean sleeping?!" Derrick yelled.

"I'll deal with them," Bell tried to console his angry detective. "You guys just stay on your toes. I think he'll head your way."

Derrick tossed the mike to the floor of the car. Dakota headed to his lookout post in the alley. He knew better than to talk to his partner when he was this angry. It didn't happen often, but when Derrick went off the handle, it was better to just let him be.

The two stayed in position the remainder of the day and into the night. As the night began to give way to morning, it looked as if they were still at a deadlock. Derrick rose from his spot. Perhaps it was time to try a different avenue. He began heading towards Dakota's position to break the news.

Dakota watched his partner, knowing that Derrick had finally given up on the stakeout. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and slouched against the alley wall. As Derrick began to cross the street, a car rounded the corner. It was the red Corvette! Dakota felt his heart began to pound in his chest.

The car pulled into the darkened lot of the Pennington Rental Agency. The engine died as the lights flipped off and out stepped Marty Pennington. Reaching into the car, Pennington procured a briefcase. Walking to the rear of the car, he popped the trunk and removed an additional small suitcase.

He walked to the office, looked around as if to see whether or not he was being observed, and unlocked the office door. Dakota watched as Pennington quickly entered, shutting the door behind him.

Dakota continued to watch as lights came on inside the adjoining garage. That seemed strange. What would he be doing in there? Movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to look away from the garage. It was Derrick. His partner stood near the entrance to the office. He beckoned for Dakota to come over to where he was crouching.

Dakota drew his .45 caliber semi-automatic from inside his jacket. Crossing the street quickly, he joined Derrick near the office door.

"You ready for this pal?" Derrick flipped the safety of his 9mm off. "It's show time!"

"Time to make the streets safer for the citizens!" Dakota answered in their ritualistic pre-raid chant. He struggled with the eagerness that welled up inside. That familiar, dry, coppery taste of adrenaline filled his mouth.

"Let's go bag us a bad guy," Derrick whispered. Excitement crept through the senior partner's voice.

"You won't give this up," Dakota smiled. "Baby or no baby, this is in your blood."

Derrick flashed a smile at his friend, and then inched towards the door. He took a position on one side, while Dakota set up on the other. Derrick nodded, turning the doorknob slowly. Easing the door open, the two men slipped silently into the office.

Scanning the room quickly, they slipped over to the doorway that opened to the garage. Dakota waited for the signal from his partner. Derrick held up three fingers and silently counted down,...two...one. Dakota threw the door open and they burst into the garage. Each man brought his gun to bear on a startled Marty Pennington.

Pennington looked up from the briefcase that lay open on the hood of the partially dismantled Hummer. His facial cast quickly transformed from stupefaction to exasperation. For some peculiar reason, Dakota began to get an uneasy feeling. Anxiety washed over him in an unexpected and unpleasant rush. He didn't like this reaction from Pennington one bit, but he couldn't understand why.

"Put your hands where I can see 'em!" Derrick barked.

"What is the meaning of this?" Pennington demanded, apparently ignoring both the pistols pointed at him as well as the order just given by Derrick.

"Hands in the air, and step away from the briefcase, asshole!" Derrick reiterated. He stepped forward to emphasize his point.

Slowly, Marty Pennington raised his hands. He stepped backwards, a smile creeping onto his face. "I don't want any trouble. If money is what you came for, the safe is time-locked and I don't carry much cash."

"Nice try. You know damn good and well why we're he-," Derrick began to approach Pennington. A loud crack cut him off.

Dakota spun around towards the unexpected noise. He caught sight of a man crouched behind the main desk. Another shot rang out. The bullet splintered the door frame near Dakota's head. He brought his arm across his face reflexively to protect it from the shards of wood that flew at him.

A dull thud shocked him back into action. Looking down, he saw Derrick sprawled on the floor at his feet. He stared in stunned fascination as a rivulet of blood trickled from the corner of Derrick's mouth.

A sudden noise caused Dakota to wheel around towards the office. He fired twice towards the shadowy figure coming from behind the desk, then steeped out of the doorway. There was a moment of silence, followed by a large crash that sounded like a metal filing cabinet toppling over.

Realizing that he had forgotten about Pennington, Dakota whirled around to face the garage. The briefcase remained open on the hood of the car, but Pennington was nowhere to be seen. Glancing down, Dakota saw a pool of blood forming around Derrick.

"Alright Pennington," Dakota called out, "you better show yourself. If I have to come looking for you, the next rental you'll ride in will be a long black one!"

"How cliché," Marty Pennington rose from behind the Hummer, hands in the air, "Riley is it?" Pennington smiled again making no effort to veil his disdain.

"Step out from behind the car!" Dakota waved with his gun. He could feel the rage boiling within. Pennington complied, maintaining his calm demeanor.

"Alright!" Dakota called out, "Whoever's in the office, toss out your gun!"

There was no response. Dakota backed against the wall. He felt something jutting into his back, preventing him from coming flush. Reaching behind to feel what it was, he felt a phone. Fumbling with his left hand to remove the receiver, he felt the keypad and dialed 9-1-1. After two rings, a voice answered.

"Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?"

"This is Detective Riley. Seattle Drug Task Force. I need an ambulance and police back-up at this location!"

"What is your authorization number?" The voice sounded unimpressed.

"Listen, you idiot!" Dakota screamed, "I don't have time for this shit! I have an officer down and I need assistance now!"

"This is Kenneth Martell, Dispatch Supervisor," a voice cut in on the line, "I am sending units right away, Detective."

Dakota slammed the receiver onto the cradle. He felt something brush against his foot. Derrick was trying to crawl towards him. Dakota dropped to his knees beside his fallen friend.

"Don't move, buddy," he whispered, "I got help on the way. Everything is gonna be all right."

Glancing up, he looked over to Pennington. His face showed no emotion whatsoever. Dakota struggled with the anger that surged within him.

"Get over here!" Dakota ordered.

A nervous look darkened Pennington's face for a second giving, Dakota a rush of pleasure. Dakota was no dummy. He had no intentions of shooting Pennington, but it gave him a feeling of satisfaction to know that Pennington didn't know that.

"Now," Dakota rose to his feet, grabbing Pennington by the hair, "you're gonna lead me into the office. If you so much as scratch, I'll put so many holes in you, people will mistake you for a window."

Marty Pennington was a lot of things...stupid was not one of them. He walked slowly, leading Dakota into the office. A filing cabinet lay on its side. Papers were strewn across the floor. Sprawled out beside the fallen cabinet was a man. A pistol lay on the floor next to his right hand. Dakota spotted an open desk drawer, ending the mystery of where the gun came from.

"Looks like your little organization will be missing one of its lackeys," Dakota nudged the lifeless corpse with one foot.

"How so, Detective?" Pennington asked indifferently.

"Well, unless you can raise the dead, this guy isn't going anywhere on his own."

"Be that as it may," Pennington shrugged, "that man has nothing to do with anything other than the operation of this office."

Dakota jerked Pennington around to face him. Pennington only smiled that disturbing smile of his.

"Mister Tillman, excuse me, the late Mister Tillman was indeed in my employ. However, his capacity was as shop mechanic and business manager...nothing more," Pennington said matter-of-factly.

"You mean?" Dakota gasped. He already knew what Marty Pennington would confirm.

"Your partner was shot by a man whose only crime was that of protecting his boss from what he presumed was a robbery. In addition, you, my good friend, have killed an innocent man...relatively speaking."

Dakota could sense a large knot forming in his stomach. It quickly transformed to a ball of ice. Fury welled from within, drying his mouth, then charging it with a bitter taste. That taste was his wrath.

He stared into the eyes of the man who now stood calmly before him, that Cheshire grin compounding his rage. The impulsive desire to empty his clip into that grinning face seemed almost irrepressible to Dakota at that moment.

He could claim that Pennington tried to escape, or that he made a grab for Derrick's gun that lay on the floor. Nobody would know the difference. Nobody except for himself that is.

His thought must have been visible on his face, because Pennington's grin faltered. He staggered back a few steps from Dakota, raising his hands to accent his defenselessness.

"Now see here, Detective!" Pennington was almost pleading, "Regardless of what you may believe, I would never shoot an officer of the law." He straightened himself again, realizing the satisfaction Dakota derived from his groveling. "I have very good lawyers. They are more than capable of beating any rap that you can conjure up."

Sirens began to wail in the distant background. Dakota decided to ignore the desire that gnawed at him. It would be more satisfying to put this man in an uncomfortable gray cell. Instead, he cuffed Pennington to a nearby pipe and rushed to his partner's side.

"I'm here, buddy, just hang in there. Help is coming," Dakota whispered.

Three squad cars arrived along with an ambulance. Five uniformed officers, along with a pair of paramedics rushed into the room where Derrick lay. Dakota rose to his feet, waving the paramedics over to him. He didn't even notice the police officers as they ushered Pennington from the room.

The paramedics knelt beside Derrick and quickly went about the routine of attaching various monitoring devices, along with checking his vital signs. They hastily applied a dressing to the gunshot wound and made preparations to transport him to the ambulance.

"Hang in there, man," Dakota grasped Derrick's hand. He watched with a feeling of helplessness as the medics went about their tasks.

As they loaded Derrick onto the stretcher, Dakota looked into his best friend's eyes, they were dull and lifeless. The sparkle of vigor that had shown in them only minutes ago was gone. The oxygen mask that covered his mouth and nose was splattered with flecks of blood mixed with saliva.

Dakota's best friend, and mentor, no longer even resembled the strong willed, powerfully athletic man he had once known. He looked fragile and helpless. It was as if there was a total stranger lying on that stretcher.

As he followed the medics out of the office towards the ambulance, Dakota glanced at the man he held responsible. An officer was putting Marty Pennington into the back of a squad car. They locked eyes as Pennington looked out the window of the police car. For just an instant, Dakota thought he saw a look of consternation cross the man's once impassive face.

A muffled voice grabbed his attention away from Pennington. It was Derrick. He was trying to talk, but the mask stifled whatever he was trying to say. Dakota leaned down next to his partner's face to listen.

Derrick rasped something unintelligible, his voice labored to be heard through the oxygen mask.

"Don't try to talk right now," Dakota consoled. He glanced down as one of the paramedics cut away Derrick's shirt. As the blood soaked dressing was removed and replaced by a fresh one, Dakota noticed a small hole that welled with blood every time Derrick breathed.

"Just shut up and listen!" Derrick hissed.

"He really shouldn't talk right now," the paramedic cautioned.

"Promise me something," Derrick ignored the warning, "promise that you'll be there for Mona when the baby comes."

"You're gonna be okay," tears began to trickle down Dakota's cheeks. "Just hang in there a little longer!"

"Not this time," Derrick coughed. Blood splattered the inside of the oxygen mask. "It's up to you now. You have to finish this one by yourself...no matter what!"

The paramedics hoisted Derrick into the waiting ambulance. Every movement evoked a response of pain from Derrick. Once they finished loading him into the ambulance, one of the paramedics climbed inside. Dakota climbed in as well. The other shut the door and hustled to the driver's seat.

The driver put the ambulance into gear and flipped on the siren. As they rolled out onto the nearly deserted morning street, the driver radioed the hospital that they were on their way.

The short trip was a blur for Dakota. The attending paramedic worked furiously to save the injured detective. Within minutes, they were backing up to the emergency entrance. Doctors stood waiting at the doors for their arrival as they wheeled Derrick into a waiting trauma room. Dakota stared at the doors as they closed between him and his friend. He peered through a small window to watch the flurry of activity as doctors and nurses scrambled to save Derrick's life.

Ten minutes passed before anyone emerged. A doctor pulled the mask from his sweat drenched face, his green scrubs smeared with blood, Derrick's blood. He approached Dakota, his grim expression bearing the news before he could say it.

"I'm sorry," the doctor shook his head, "we utilized everything in our power. All efforts at resuscitation failed. Your partner is dead."

Those words echoed in Dakota's head. He slumped to the floor in shock. Bringing his hands to his face, Dakota began to cry bitterly. His best friend had died, shot by an innocent man trying to protect a guilty one.

CHAPTER 2

Dakota walked along the mostly deserted waterfront avenue. Occasionally he would glance out across Puget Sound. In those moments, he would lose himself in his thoughts as he stared into the tranquil blue waters that stretched before him. Boats glided across the water, but he was as oblivious to them as they were to him, his mind stuck in a loop of endless torment replaying the almost surreal events of yesterday.

He could still envision the doctor's grim face as he emerged from the trauma room. The eyes gave the answer to a question unasked. Dakota knew his friend's fate before the doctor spoke the words that still echoed in his head. "Your partner is dead."

The events that followed came in surges as Captain Bell arrived, followed by Derrick's wife, Mona. Her hysterical sobs reached Dakota's ears before he even saw her. When she spotted him, she rushed into his arms, clinging for support. Dakota glanced over her shoulder at his grim faced captain. It was obvious that he wanted information, but he had the sense to wait until a nurse led Mona away.

Dakota explained the events in detail that led to Derrick's death. Captain Bell listened intently, only nodding periodically in approbation of the way that the situation had been handled.

"I don't see anything that either of you could have done differently," Captain Bell said.

"Well, obviously there was something!" Dakota snapped, "Otherwise Derrick would still be alive."

"I want you to go home," Bell began. Dakota started to interrupt, but the Captain cut him off, "that's not a request, it's an order. I still need you to finish this. I want your head together tomorrow when you question Pennington. From what I understand, this guy has his shit wired tight. Hell, his lawyer is already at the office demanding to know why his client is being arrested."

"He's lucky his client isn't wrapped in a fucking body bag," Dakota spat bitterly.

"That is just the kind of crap we don't need tomorrow. Don't give the little weasel anything he can turn against the department. Do you understand me?"

"Whatever," Dakota waved a hand.

"Oh, and we have one slight problem," Bell added hesitantly.

"What's that?"

"The press is outside. The hospital staff is keeping them at bay for now, but they won't be kept out for too much longer,"

"You've got to be kidding!" Dakota fumed.

"No," Bell shook his head, "in fact, they beat me here."

"How did they find out?"

"You know the press," Bell shrugged, "they're fucking omniscient when it comes to this shit."

"But nobody knew we were on this stake out."

"Some asshole probably picked up the ambulance call on his scanner. I'm sure that when it was discovered that a narcotics cop was the passenger, they decided that a story was in there some place."

"Bloodsucking bastards," Dakota growled. "I swear, if they go near Mona..."

"Don't worry about that," Bell assured." We have her tucked away. Once it clears up, we'll slip her out. Right now, nobody knows the name of the deceased. She'll be safe for a while. Now get your ass home. I want you in the office by eleven tomorrow morning. We have Pennington and his lawyer to deal with."

"Okay," Dakota sighed. "I'll see you tomorrow at eleven." Captain Bell was right. He needed some rest. It would do him some good to get a shower and some sleep in a real bed for a change.

Dakota made his way down the brightly lit hallway of the hospital. As he made his way towards the exit, Dakota passed an officer he recognized from the Pennington lot. The officer looked at Dakota for a moment as if uncertain what to do. He seemed to realize that he was staring and waved. Dakota returned the gesture accompanied by his best attempt at a smile.

"I'm sorry about your partner," the officer placed a hand on Dakota's shoulder. "Is there is anything I can do?"

Dakota considered the offer for a moment, and then replied, "as a matter of fact, I could use a lift home. My car is back at the...," his voice trailed off.

"Hey!" the officer's face seemed to brighten. "No problem, uh, I'm sorry but I don't know your name."

"Dakota," he extended his hand, "Dakota Riley."

"Duane," the young officer replied, then smiled, "Duane Boat, but the guys call me 'Tug,' kinda like a joke."

Dakota smiled weakly. The young officer seemed nice enough, and at this moment, he represented the easiest way home. "Pleased to meet you, Tug."

The two walked together towards the exit. As they opened the doors that led to the parking lot, a surge of reporters rushed forward. Questions came in a jumble from every direction. Dakota tried to ignore them as Tug began to push through the crowd like a professional football fullback against a bunch of high school kids.

One reporter managed to slip in behind Tug. He thrust a microphone into Dakota's face, "Was it your partner who was killed, detective?"

"Get away from me!" Dakota growled.

"Is it true that the San-Sea-Ca drug ring is involved in your partner's death?" the man persisted.

"I said get away from me," Dakota stopped walking and glowered down at the man.

"Will the death of your partner have an effect on the way the Seattle drug task force handles this case?"

Dakota felt something inside him snap. He had had enough of this contemptible little reporter. He reached out, grabbing the startled man by his jacket. Hoisting him off the ground, Dakota pulled the man towards him. Staring into wide eyes, he saw surprise and fear. "What part of 'get away from me' did you have trouble understanding?"

The man suddenly found he had nothing to say, or at least no ability to reply. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

"I'll say this one more time," Dakota whispered. "Get. Away. From. Me!"

With that, he tossed the man into the gaggle of cameramen and reporters that stood in astonished silence.

The crowd scattered as the reporter crashed to the ground in a heap. Ironically, all attention now shifted to the downed reporter. Dakota took advantage of the momentary diversion, and quickly made his way past the crowd. Tug already had the engine running in the waiting squad car. Dakota didn't even have his door closed when the young officer gunned the accelerator and pulled out.

Mercifully, the man remained silent during the drive only breaking it to ask for directions. Upon reaching Dakota's house, the two bid each other a quick farewell. He watched as the squad car drove off, and then walked up the pathway to his door.

He unlocked the front door, and entered his quiet, dark home. He shed the blood-stained jacket, letting it drop to the floor and make his way through the darkness to the bathroom and fumbled for the light switch.

The sudden illumination caused Dakota to squint for a moment while his eyes readjusted. Eventually his sight adjusted to the brightness and he could see. He stared at the visage of his reflection in shock for a moment. He only vaguely resembled his former self. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen from crying. The thick stubble that covered his face only added to his haggard appearance. Dakota noted that, ironically, he resembled a vagrant more now than he did on the stakeout.

A deep weariness seemed to overwhelm him, and Dakota leaned against the doorjamb. His insides hurt in a way that he never experienced before. It felt as if a cyclone had torn a path of destruction through his very soul. Queasy and dizzy, he placed his hands on either side of the sink to steady himself. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to regain some control. Finally, he gave in to the waves of nausea and emotion that raged within. Dakota lurched forward over the sink and vomited.

** ** **

After a while, the sick feeling dissipated. Dakota wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and ran some water into the basin. That did little more than create a pungently viscous muck. Having no energy to clean up his mess, he shut off the water and staggered out of the bathroom. He made his way down the hallway towards his bedroom.

Not bothering to even remove his dingy clothing, he collapsed onto the bed. Sleep remained just out of reach as he tossed about unable to find comfort. Pounding his fists on the unyielding mattress, he rolled out of bed and wandered into the living room. Grabbing his discarded jacket, Dakota fumbled through the pockets for his keys. Frustrated and weary, but unable to sleep, he decided to take a walk.

** ** **

Walking along the serenely quiet street he grew up on, his mind began to wander. He headed towards his favorite spot, the local marina. As he reached water's edge, he noticed the sun beginning to paint the sky with majestic orange and purple hues. The dark waters of Puget Sound reflected the early morning colors off its barren surface. Dakota gazed across the empty waters that reflected the same emptiness he felt inside. He had lost more than a partner, he lost his best friend.

As he wandered along the empty boardwalk that skirted the marina, Dakota's mind drifted back to the day he and Derrick met. He arrived at the headquarters of the Seattle Drug Task Force where he was to meet his partner, Derrick rider. He approached the first desk he came to with the shyness of a schoolboy.

"Could you tell me where I might find Detective Derrick Rider?" he asked the man seated behind the desk.

"Why?" came the curt response. He hadn't even bothered to look up from an open file that lay spread out before him.

"Well...," Dakota stuttered, "I'm his new partner." Dakota remembered feeling like he had shown up for his first day of school, and entered the wrong classroom.

"Sit over there," the man indicated an empty chair nearby. He still didn't bother to look up from his work.

Dakota took his seat, and placed his new briefcase on his lap. He watched the man as he leafed through pages in the open file. Finally, the man closed the file and got up. Dakota watched in amazement as the man replaced the file and walked out of the office.

About an hour passed with no one paying him much attention as he sat there. He began to feel unsettled as time dragged on. The man eventually returned carrying a cup of coffee. He passed Dakota without so much as a glance, and took his seat behind the desk. The man produced a stack of papers and began to sort through them, occasionally making notes. He glanced up at Dakota once and scowled, shook his head, then resumed his work.

Three more hours crawled by as Dakota sat there fidgeting. The man continued his work, seemingly oblivious to Dakota's presence. On a few occasions, the man left his desk, returning with a fresh cup of coffee. On one instance, he returned carrying a sandwich.

Exasperation began to set in as Dakota watched the minutes drag by. That was soon replaced by indignation as the hours began to pass. Every time someone entered the office, Dakota would look up at them hopefully. Each time, his hopes were dashed as the person walked by with only a casual glance.

After another hour passed, the man behind the desk gathered up his work. He filed everything away and picked up his coat. The man headed towards the door, leaving Dakota alone with his frustration. As the man reached the door, he turned around with a devilish grin on his face.

"C'mon partner, let's go have a beer."

Dakota felt his face flush in astonishment and anger. He could feel his ears burning hotly as the blood rushed to them. His mouth hung open in amazement at how his new partner had let him sit there all morning.

"Welcome to the Seattle drug task force, where excitement and glamour only exist in the movies. Oh, and by the way, I'm Derrick Rider," Derrick had smiled that same smile that Dakota would always remember. "Most of our work involves researching files on possible bad guys. We spend days and days of observation, and only minutes making the actual bust."

All Dakota could do was laugh. In that instance, a special bond developed between the two. A covenant that developed just as quickly as it shattered with Derrick's abrupt demise. A special comradeship that had begun with that very smile, a smile that Derrick's wife claimed "Could melt the ice off a windshield in December."

These thoughts filled Dakota's head as he stared out across the empty waters of Puget Sound. Suddenly, Dakota felt the fatigue overcome him. Taking one last look at the water that opened up before him, Dakota turned and trudged back home.

Once again Dakota entered his quiet, empty home. He picked up his coat from the floor and hung it on the closet door. Next, he walked into the bathroom and cleaned his muck filled sink. With that done, he returned to his bedroom and undressed. He briefly entertained the idea of a hot shower, but decided he was just too tired.

Dakota peeled back the blankets and slid between the cool sheets. The faint glow of the rising sun cast various shadows about the room. He rolled over, turning his back to the window. As he did, his eyes fell upon a picture that sat perched on his dresser. It was a photo of him and Derrick. They were both smiling foolishly, holding a large bag of marijuana up in a flamboyant pose. Derrick had that oh-so-familiar smile plastered on his face. Dakota dozed off into a restless slumber, that smile still etched in his mind. However, the dreams that soon came were not of Derrick's smile, rather that of Marty Pennington.

** ** **

The annoying ringing would not go away. Dakota was standing in the garage of the Pennington rental dealership. Derrick lay at his feet in a pool of blood. Marty Pennington stood above the body laughing. But every time he opened his mouth in laughter, that damned ringing echoed throughout the garage. It was maddening.

Dakota woke with a start, his body drenched with sweat. The phone beside his bed rang again, causing him to jump. Reaching over to answer the phone, he knocked his holstered gun to the floor.

"Yeah, what?"

"Now that is a hell of a way to answer one's phone," the obnoxiously blithe voice at the other end replied.

"So," Dakota snapped, not bothering to hide his irritation.

"Do I have the pleasure of speaking to Detective Riley?" the voice asked. The gleefulness remained unabated by Dakota's sour response.

"Who is this?"

"That is unimportant, my friend. I just called to express my sincerest condolences at the unfortunate loss of your partner."

"Who the hell is this?" Dakota popped up, wide awake now.

"Always a tragedy when an officer of the law is lost in the line of duty, especially when it is done by a person of no consequence," the voice continued, ignoring Dakota's query. "I would have so enjoyed seeing your expression when it was divulged that a simple mechanic shot and killed your friend."

"Who the fuck are you?" Dakota shouted. He felt the anger boiling over inside him.

"Not to worry, Mister Riley. Soon, you and your partner shall be conciliated." the line clicked, and the electric buzz of the disconnection hummed in his ear.

Infuriated, Dakota slammed the receiver back onto the cradle. Now things were personal. There left little doubt that the head of this organization was after him. He determined that it would be wiser to keep this tidbit of information to himself for now. There would be no telling how the captain would react. The last thing Dakota wanted at this point was to be taken off the case. He resolved to finishing this at any cost. The only way he could ever look in the mirror was to blow this guy, whoever he was, away. If it called for unorthodox tactics...so be it.

He glanced down at his watch. It was only a little past nine o'clock. He reached over and switched off his alarm. He knew that sleep was out of the question now. Climbing out of bed, Dakota stumbled to the shower. He stood under the hot water, allowing it to flow over his body. After washing the accumulated grime away, he quickly shaved. Feeling only slightly rejuvenated, he dressed. Grabbing his keys, Dakota headed out the door.

** ** **

He arrived at the office forty minutes later. The anger inside had only tailored off slightly. He walked over to his desk and sat down. An envelope lay in the center addressed to him. He quickly glanced around the room. Everyone went about their business, paying him no attention at all. It became obvious that they intentionally ignored his presence. They were all aware of the closeness between him and Derrick. Turning his attention back to the envelope, he tore it open and removed the contents. It was a letter. Unfolding it on his desk, Dakota read it quickly:

Detective Riley,

Hopefully this will reach you in time. I have been working for a man named Mitch Alanda. He operates a taxi-cab company in this city. He is also in association with a Mr. Pennington, a name you are now familiar with. For some time now, I have been one of his drivers. Shortly after I began working for him, I was asked to become a sort of courier. He uses the cabs to distribute the drugs to his string of dealers. Only a few of the other cabbies are in on this little deal. We leave the garage to pick up fares at specific locations. These fares leave a parcel containing the drugs under the seat. Then we go to the next pick-up. The dealer takes the drugs and leaves the money in the cab. When we drop them off, they pay the fare, and leave a large tip of five hundred dollars (usually in tens and twenties). I have been doing this for almost a year.

Well, my wife got pregnant and we decided to move to Arizona with her family. When I gave my notice to Mr. Alanda, he said I couldn't quit. When I tried to explain, he said too bad. If I tried to quit then I would be dead within a week. Not just me, but my wife as well. I read about you this morning in the paper. I'm not asking for any special treatment or nothing, but I am willing to offer some information that would be useful. The only thing that I do want is assurance that my wife will be taken care of. Meet me on the corner of 6th and wells, Thursday at four.

My cab is a gray one with red writing. Flag me down and we'll talk.

Sincerely,

Rob Orson

Dakota stared at the letter for a moment. He had to concentrate to remember what day it was. Giving up, he glanced over at a calendar. It was Tuesday. Perfect, he thought to himself that would allow him plenty of time to gather some information on the mysterious Mr. Alanda. He tucked the letter back inside the envelope and placed it in the top drawer of his desk.

"Hey! Dakota!" a familiar voice boomed. "Get your butt in here!"

Dakota spun around to see Captain Bell standing in the doorway of his office. Captain Bell motioned him over with his hand. Dakota closed the drawer, and slowly made his way across the silent room. He once again became aware of his comrades' attempts to go about their business without gawking at him. He entered the office, closing the door behind him.

"Have a seat, son," Bell gestured to a chair. "How are you feeling?"

"Still a little tired."

"That's not what I mean."

"You mean about Derrick?"

"Yes," Captain Bell nodded.

"How am I supposed to feel? My best friend is dead!" Dakota felt his eyes begin to sting as tears welled up in them.

"Yes. He is dead," Bell nodded, "and I'm sorry. I known how it feels. I lost a partner about ten years ago," Bell commiserated, "We were a lot like you two in many ways. A couple of mavericks that kicked ass and took names. We were also the best of friends."

"Look, Captain," Dakota sighed, knowing what kind of speech was coming, "I really appreciate this."

"But you want to get out there and bring these guys down for Derrick. Right?" Captain Bell leaned forward in his chair.

Dakota sat there in silence. He began chewing the inside of his cheek as his frustration grew. He had to be careful of what he said. The slightest indication of agitation could be reaction the Captain needed to pull him off this case. That was if he hadn't already decided to do so.

"Look, son," Bell took a deep breath, "you gotta believe me when I tell you that there is no bringing Derrick back."

"I know that," Dakota struggled with his composure.

"These are some big time dudes you're messing with," Bell sensed Dakota's anger. "You need to be on the level when you take 'me on. Nothing stupid. In other words...don't try and be a hero."

"Don't you think I know what I'm dealing with?"

"I think that in your state of mind, you might be inclined to take foolish risks. You might act without considering the consequences," Bell said.

"What? Like some kinda death wish?" Dakota rose to his feet. He resigned himself to losing the battle over self control.

"No. That's not at all what I'm saying," Bell shook his head." What I am saying is that this isn't like riding a horse. You don't necessarily have to get right back on."

"Maybe not, sir," Dakota replied. "But closing this case would make me feel a hell of a lot better. Otherwise, all our hard work, as well as Derrick's death, will be for nothing."

Captain Bell stared at the young man that stood before him. It was difficult not to show the pity he felt for his young detective. "So you think you can bring these guys down all by yourself?"

"No," Dakota lied.

"Don't bullshit me, Dakota," Bell said, "I know exactly how you feel. You think you can play some sort of super-hero act, and you know it. The only thing you'll accomplish is getting yourself killed."

"How do you figure?" Dakota asked defiantly.

"You'll rush into some situation blindly. That feeling of invincibility will end up putting you on a slab right next to your partner," Bell stared into Dakota's eyes. He couldn't penetrate those eyes, no matter how hard he tried.

"That's not true!" Dakota protested.

"Quit trying to jerk me around," Bell continued, "I've been there, done that, man. The only way you think you're gonna get any relief from what is eating you up inside, is to take an eye for an eye."

"Are you taking me off the case?" Dakota asked, afraid of the answer.

"Not as of yet," Bell answered. "But I will give you one bit of advice. You've only got one eye left."

"I need to finish this, Captain," Dakota whispered. "We're so close. Nobody knows this case as well as I do. It would take weeks for anybody else to get up to speed. By then, these guys could vanish."

Captain Matt Bell sank down into his chair. He tried to weigh out his options. He quickly came to the conclusion that Dakota was right. He did know the case better than any other agent at his disposal. This case was too hot to allow the possibility of failure. Giving it to someone else presented the risk of losing everything they had worked on. The volumes of information gathered so far would take a team of agents days to sort through, even if somebody could get up to speed quickly. Nothing could replace the intuition and insight Dakota held. For the time being, his hands were tied. He must be allowed to continue working the case he started some three years ago.

"Fine," Bell conceded." But I want you to take the day off."

The phone rang on Bell's desk, interrupting the conversation.

"Hello?" he hated being interrupted and his voice expressed it clearly.

"What?" he exclaimed, sounding outraged. He continued to listen to the voice at the other end of the line, his expression of annoyance making Dakota very curious. After a few grunts of acknowledgment to whomever he was talking to, he slammed down the receiver.

"Small change of plans. We interview Pennington at two o'clock today."

"Why?" Dakota became concerned.

"He's being transferred to protective custody. The DA wants to get his deposition right away," Bell answered. "But that is all for the better. I want you to take tomorrow off as well. I want you fresh when you come back to work."

Dakota considered protesting the extra day but thought better of it. He knew when to leave well enough alone. The look on the captain's face showed that his mind had been made up.

"Thank you, Captain," Dakota said.

"Yeah, yeah," Bell waived his hand in dismissal. "Now go and do something that has absolutely nothing to do with work until two."

Dakota turned and exited the office. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was about an hour before he was to meet the captain for the interrogation. Realizing that he hadn't eaten for a while, he decided to venture down to the cafeteria for a bite to eat. The cafeteria was really the only place close enough to allow him enough time to eat before he grilled that weasel Pennington.

Stepping out of the elevator, Dakota headed towards the busy cafeteria. The room was crowded with uniformed officers and plain-clothes detectives. Many were getting ready to start their day, or, with the courthouse so close, on a break from a trial. It became immediately obvious that many of them recognized him. As he entered it reminded him of the old broker commercial. The whole room seemed to go silent as everyone noticed him. Then, as if they all realized it at once, everybody hastily returned to their conversations.

"Hey, Dakota!" a voice called over the din of the room. "Over here!"

Dakota searched for the vaguely familiar voice. He quickly found the owner. It was Officer Boat standing there waiving his arms. Dakota nodded to acknowledge the kid, and then made his way to the service line. He tossed some fruit and a sterile looking salad wrapped in a paper bowl onto his tray. Paying the cashier, he made his way over to Tug's table. The young officer still stood, waiting for Dakota to take his seat before he sat down.

"How you holding up?" Tug asked with honest concern.

"As well as could be expected, I guess," Dakota replied, unwrapping his salad.

The two ate their lunches, talking quietly amongst themselves. There seemed to be a quality to the younger officer that Dakota liked. He seemed to be a great deal similar to how Dakota remembered himself when he wore the uniform. Eagerness rounded out with a degree of pride in the job of law enforcement.

They avoided the disquieting topic of the events of the night before. Instead, they discussed trivial things like sports, cars, and girls, Tug's favorite topic of the three. At times, Dakota actually caught himself laughing, something he hadn't done for a while. It did him a lot of good to sit and talk with this young policeman, still wet behind the ears in most respects.

Eventually, Tug said he had to return to work. "The Captain is going to bust a vein if I'm late again," he said, as he rose to his feet. "Nice talking' to ya though," he smiled as he grabbed his blue hat from the table.

Dakota nodded to his new acquaintance, reaching up to shake the outstretched hand that was offered. He watched Tug weave through the emptying cafeteria, and exit through the double-doors. Alone once more, Dakota finished his lunch in silence.

Soon, the room was all but empty. Only a few stragglers remained, scattered about in small groups. Dakota checked his watch and discovered it was almost half-past one. He dumped his tray into a garbage can, placing the tray on the shelf nearby and headed to the interrogation corridor.

** ** **

He was met outside the room by Captain Bell and another man that he didn't recognize. Captain Bell introduced Dakota to Chris Shriver, the assistant district attorney. After a brief conference, the three entered the small stifling space that availed itself as an interrogation room. Pennington and his lawyer were already seated at the small wooden table. They abruptly ceased their conversation as the three entered the room. Both remained seated as Dakota, Captain Bell, and Mr. Shriver took their seats across from them.

"First off," Pennington's lawyer wasted no time with small talk, "my client does not feel safe with, Detective Riley present. He fears that the unfortunate death of his partner may incur a vehement response towards himself."

"Tough shit!" Bell exclaimed, surprising both Mr. Shriver, as well as Dakota.

"It is standard procedure that the arresting officer be present for the deposition, Mr. Greene. You know that as well as we do," Shriver spoke, after overcoming the surprise of the Captain's blunt response. "My name is Chris Shriver of the District Attorney's office and I will be representing the state in this case. To my left, is Seattle drug task force Captain Matt Bell, to my right, I am sure you are familiar with Detective Dakota Riley."

"What is the purpose of Mr. Bell's presence here?" Pennington's lawyer, Barry Greene, asked abruptly.

"Detective Riley is one of my men," Bell responded through clenched teeth, "I am his superior, and also the person who authorized the investigation of Mr. Pennington."

"Well," Greene waived his hand as if in dismissal of Bell's response, "we can dismiss with the formalities. Let us get down to the issue at hand. We can save considerable time and tax­payer's money if I can see a copy of the warrant that allowed your detectives to barge into the business of my client and--"

"Right here!" Bell cut the man off. He slid a photocopy of the warrant across the table.

Greene only glanced at the document briefly. He frowned, and then stuffed the document into his briefcase that sat open beside him. Folding his hands in front of him, Greene leaned forward, "And what led you to believe that my client has any sort of involvement with this 'so-called' international drug ring?"

"We have several statements on record from individuals willing to testify on the state's behalf," Shriver answered matter-of-factly.

"And I am sure the caliber and reputation of these individuals is most impressive," Greene smirked.

"Listen, you little snake!" Dakota could not sit still and listen to this crap any longer. "My partner, an officer of the law, is dead. A respectable man with an excellent record of service to his community. Your client is a drug dealer, plain and simple. So knock off the legal bullshit and let's just call things what they are!"

"Last I heard, Detective Riley, a man is innocent until proven guilty by the criminal justice system," Greene retorted sarcastically.

"Fuck that!" Dakota rose to his feet in anger, "that man is responsible for not only the death of my partner, but for widowing a pregnant woman. A child will be born and never know its father. Not to mention the fact that he is responsible for bringing a highly addictive drug into this country. We have him cold, you pretentious little sonovabitch. We followed a shipment directly to his office. I have documents and reports from all the officers involved. We watched his little system operate first hand. His man was tailed all the way from his office, to Canada, and back. By the way," Dakota leaned towards Pennington, "the Canadians made a nice little bust as well on that little group of thugs in the parking garage in Vancouver."

"If things are as you claim, Mr. Riley," Greene leaned forward "why then didn't you make your arrest during the delivery?"

"Because we wanted the suspects to be taken alone and without casualties."

"Seems to me that you failed in that regard. I believe, Detective rider's widow can attest to that," Greene smiled smugly.

Dakota lunged across the table. He grabbed Greene by the throat as they crashed into the wall. "I'll rip your fucking head off!" Dakota screamed. He slammed the lawyer into the wall again. The look of cocky self assurance had been replaced by one of absolute fright. He clawed frantically at Dakota's hands as the air ceased to reach his lungs.

Captain Bell leaped from his chair, rushing to pull Dakota off the terrified lawyer. Dakota's grip tightened as he shoved his face into Greene's. "How can you live with yourself...representing scum like him?" Dakota indicated towards Pennington, who had retreated to a corner. Hoisting Greene off his feet, Dakota tossed him into the opposite corner. Greene hit the wall with a thud, and then collapsed to the floor, gasping for air.

Dakota spun around to face the cowering Pennington, "You won't get away with this!" he yelled. "I'll see to it that you end up the personal sex toy of some three-hundred-pound convict. You'll wish that I shot you back in the garage!"

Bell grabbed Dakota by the arm, spinning him around. "That's enough!" he snapped. "C'mon," he dragged Dakota towards the door.

Dakota jerked loose, stomping towards Pennington with clenched fists, "And if that little weasel over there that calls himself a lawyer manages to get you off," he stood over Pennington now. "I will dedicate my life to making every day of your life a living hell. When I'm done, you'll wish you were in prison!"

Once again, Bell grabbed Dakota, snatching him backwards. He dragged the struggling detective out the door, kicking it closed behind them with his foot.

"Are you trying to blow this?" he shook Dakota by the shoulders. "That is just the sort of bullshit that I was talking about earlier."

"That was all a bunch of crap in there and you know it," Dakota protested. "He's guilty and you know it."

"That's right. And we have the evidence to put him away," Bell released Dakota. "Now we are probably going to have to deal with an assault charge against you."

"I ain't sitting around for this shit anymore!" Dakota snarled.

"You're right," Bell nodded. "I want you out here now."

"What?" Dakota asked incredulously.

"I want you to take off," Bell said calmly. "I don't want to see your face until Thursday. You understand me?"

"This is crap!"

"I want you to take a breather until Thursday," Bell repeated. "I want you to get your head straight."

"But," Dakota began to argue.

"The matter is closed, Dakota," Bell said shaking his head. "When you come back, if your head ain't screwed on, you're off the case."

"But what about Pennington?"

"You let me and the day deal with him and his ambulance chaser."

Dakota stared at Captain Bell like he had just been stabbed in the heart. Finally, he shoved past the Captain and headed for the elevator. He punched the button with his fist, not bothering to look over his shoulder. He leaned against the wall. All the adrenaline began to leave as quickly as it had come. He heard the door to the interrogation room open. Only then did he glance up the hallway. He watched as Bell ducked inside, managing to catch a glimpse of Pennington's lawyer, Greene. His face remained a deep shade of red that glistened with sweat. Greene looked over Bell's shoulder in what could only be fear.

Dakota smiled slightly. Sure what he had done was wrong. It sure made him feel better though. A chime sounded, announcing the arrival of his elevator. Dakota allowed himself one last glimpse of the flustered Barry Greene before the doors slid closed. He rode the elevator to the lobby, exited, and headed for the parking garage.

** ** **

Dakota owned two cars. The one he and Derrick used on the stake-out (which to his knowledge, still sat parked where he left it), and his personal one. His 'baby' was a 1966 Ford Mustang. The car had been a gift from his mother when he graduated from high school. It had belonged to his dad who had been shot down over Vietnam. His father was never found, and eventually, presumed dead.

Dakota's mother never drove the car after the news of her husband came. She preferred to take the bus, or on pleasant days, walk. As a boy in high school, he cherished the classic sports car. He washed and waxed it almost religiously, never once asking to drive it. On occasion, he would just sit behind the wheel while the engine purred invitingly.

The day of his graduation, Dakota walked outside to discover a large red bow on the hood. He ran back inside to where his mother sat sipping a cup of tea. She looked up with a warm smile and slid the keys across the table to him. He grabbed his mother out of the seat in a bear-hug, kissed her cheek, and ran outside.

All summer long, Dakota carefully spent every waking moment with his new prize. Then, as summer came to an end, he prepared for boot camp. Like his father, he had enlisted in the air force immediately after graduation.

The week prior to completion of boot camp, Dakota received the news that his mother had passed away. In her will, she left everything to her only son. Included was a photo album that he had never seen before. One of the photos inside was a snapshot of Dakota's father standing beside the black Mustang. He wore his uniform, and had his arms around Dakota's grandmother. On the hood of the Mustang, a red bow sat prominently attached...

** ** **

Dakota drove around for a while. He was unsure of where to go or what to do. As he drove, his mind wandered aimlessly. He suddenly came to a screeching stop. Looking around, he realized where his wanderings had taken him. He sat right in front of Derrick's house.

Although the curtains were drawn, he knew that Mona would be inside. It dawned on him that if he was grieving the loss of his partner and best friend, surely it must hold no comparison to Mona's pain. Shame washed over him as he realized how insensitive he had been to her loss. He knew that if anybody needed comfort right now...it was Mona. He eased into the familiar driveway and turned off the engine.

CHAPTER 3

Dakota stood at the door of Derrick and Mona rider's house. He hesitated as he brought up his hand to knock on the door. He could not think of anything to say when Mona answered the door. What could he possibly do to ease the pain she must be feeling? Maybe his strength would provide her with some brief respite. Dakota doubted that, but it was worth a try. He owed that to both of them.

He glanced over his shoulder at the well-kept yard. Derrick always puttered around that yard, working tirelessly to keep it as immaculate as he could. Dakota spotted a baseball in the lawn. Its worn, battered surface, jutting out like a diamond on a sheet of black velvet. Another wave of memories came flooding back, triggered by the image of that ball.

He recalled the countless days he and Derrick spent tossing that very ball. Standing out in the street in front of the House, the two tossed the ball back and forth. Usually they were accompanied by a small radio perched on the trunk of the car, or precariously balanced on the curbside. The play-by-play broadcast of a baseball game squawking from the tiny speaker provided the entertainment.

Dakota still had a fair arm from his days as a high school pitcher. He kept it in shape by pitching for the department's softball team when he and Derrick weren't on assignment. He enjoyed keeping his arm loose, and these little moments did just the trick. Dakota would throw as Derrick caught while simultaneously giving commentary on the imaginary batters. A number of no-hitters were tossed in those days.

Mona would come out and replenish their beers, chiding the two about being nothing more than a couple of oversized teenagers. Occasionally, she would sit on the curb to watch, much like a mother keeping tabs on her boys. A shudder rocked Dakota as he realized that those days were gone forever.

He shook his head to erase the memory from his mind, much like a child might shake an etch-a-sketch to remove an unwanted picture. God, he thought, how many other simple things would bring these painful flashbacks flooding into his mind?

He steadied himself, and summoned the courage to knock on the door. He searched for whatever strength it might take to face the pregnant widow of his best friend. He rapped on the door lightly, afraid for some unknown reason of making too much noise. A few seconds passed before the door opened just a bit, the safety chain preventing the door from opening any further. It was likely that unwanted visitors had been calling.

"Yes?" an obviously apathetic voice hissed.

Dakota could vaguely make out a familiar face in the thin space the slightly open door provided. The red hair and fair skin confirmed Dakota's assumption. It was Brenda, Mona's sister. A moment passed before she seemed aware of who he was. When she realized, her voice quickly changed.

"Dakota!" she exclaimed. The door closed, followed by the sound of the chain sliding back. The door swung open again, and Brenda flung her arms around him tightly with a sigh that let him know just how welcome his presence was. After a long hug that threatened to squeeze the air from his lungs, Brenda released him and stepped back.

"Thank goodness it's you," she smiled. "Every bloodsucking leech that calls himself a reporter has been here. They all seem intent on getting the big sound-bite from the grieving widow so they can run it into the ground on the news."

"I understand what you mean," Dakota nodded. "I've had my own encounters with them."

"So I've seen," Brenda laughed.

"What do you mean?"

"Your little encounter outside the hospital has made every newscast in town," again she smiled, almost with admiration.

"Oh," Dakota blushed, "that."

"Quite a toss there, Dakota."

"Hey," Dakota shrugged, "the guy wouldn't back off. I gave him a crash course in manners, that's all."

"I heard that the leader of some big drug ring is involved," Brenda's tone changed, her voice got quiet. "Is that who shot, Derrick?"

"It's a little more complicated than that," Dakota shook His head. He quickly changed the subject, "How is Mona doing?"

"Not that good," Brenda's face darkened. "The doctor said she could lose the baby if she doesn't calm down. The poor thing, she won't eat, barely sleeps. She is devastated."

"Can you blame her?"

"How are you holding up?" Brenda looked up into Dakota's eyes.

"I've been better," he sighed. "Is Mona up now?"

"Yes," Brenda nodded. "I had her go into the bedroom, just in case it was another reporter."

"Can l see her?" Dakota looked past Brenda. The house was dim. Only one lamp in the corner offered any light. "I mean," he fumbled for a minute with what to say, "If it would be worse on her...I'll understand."

"No," Brenda stepped aside, ushering Dakota in." Come on in, it might actually do her some good to see you."

"Who was it?" a meek voice called from down the hall after the door closed.

"Dakota," Brenda called back.

Mona peered from around the corner tentatively, her eyes seeking him through the gloom. Dakota had to suppress a gasp when she stepped into view. Mona looked terrible. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut her cheeks, puffy and tear streaked from constant crying. Her nose red and raw from constantly being wiped at.

Dakota glanced around the shadowy living room. All the pictures of Derrick that had once hung on the walls were gone. The wall that once brimmed with citations and awards, (Derrick had always referred to it as his 'I love me wall') was now barren. Only nails remained to mark where the many frames had once hung for all to see. Glancing over at the couch, he saw several wads of tissue scattered on the floor and on the nearby coffee table where Mona had been sitting. Looking back at Mona, Dakota forced himself to smile. With equal effort, she tried to return the gesture. It became quickly obvious that she lacked the energy. He stared into those puffy, red eyes and saw that all the youthful exuberance that had danced within them was extinguished. He believed that even if she came to grips with the loss of her husband, she would never again be the same person.

Mona made her way to the large wrap around sofa, swept an area clear of tissue, and took a seat. She patted to the open space beside her, indicating for him to join her. He sat down, tentatively placing his hands over hers which she held clasped in her lap. He could feel her trembling at his side as she slumped against him.

The sensation of overpowering shame washed over Dakota again. How could he have been so selfish? The entire time he had spent wrapped in his own blanket of self-pity, he had completely ignored the idea that Mona's suffering far exceeded his. Sure, he thought bitterly to himself, he lost his best friend, his partner, but Mona had been left a pregnant widow. He slowly brought his arm up, awkwardly placing it around Mona's shoulders. In that instant, Mona buried her face in Dakota's chest, sobbing violently.

The more she cried, the more Dakota began to doubt his decision to see her. Perhaps his assumption had been correct. His presence served as nothing more than a reminder that Derrick was dead. How could he possibly comfort this woman?

Well, Mona, his mind began to play out the scenario, Derrick died busting the baddest drug cartel in the country. He winced inwardly. Like she would give a damn, he thought bitterly. All she knew right now was that her husband was dead. The father of the child growing inside her would never come through that front door again. He would never see his baby.

The sensation of guilt began to override his sense of shame. At least he had been there with Derrick at the end. He was the last to see him alive, or hear him speak. The last few days of Derrick's life had been spent with Dakota. The final image that Mona had of her beloved spouse was him kissing her as he headed out the door, the day that they began the surveillance of Brian Sherman during his drug transfer.

No, Dakota became resolute. He would stay here and gut this out. He briefly recalled Mona turning to him at the hospital. He had unloaded her on the first nurse to pass by, his only desire at the time, to get out of there as soon as possible. This time he must stay and see things through. Mona was more than just his partner's wife. She was also his friend. Sure, he may not be able to whisk away the pain she felt, but at least he could provide some comfort.

So Dakota just sat there with an arm around Mona. On occasion he would caress her tangled hair, or gently pat her shoulder. He found himself uttering those useless catch phrases that people often repeated during these times. Stupid things like, "There, there, things will be okay."

He glanced up periodically to find Brenda keeping herself busy around the house. She bustled around the house, grabbing anything and everything that could remind Mona of her late husband. She would briefly examine the item in question, then toss it into a box she dragged around with her. Certainly, Dakota thought to himself, there would be many psychiatrists (or talk show hosts) that might disapprove of this. They would no doubt spew some sort of mumbo-jumbo about confronting and dealing with the pain. Dakota guessed that they never lost a spouse in this manner either. Perhaps in the long run, that might be a good philosophy, but right now there had to be considerations for the unborn child she carried inside her. Later, a therapist could try and ease Mona into the acceptance phase of her grief.

Periodically, Dakota would glance up and catch Brenda watching the pitiful scene on the couch. She would smile, nod, then return to her task of sanitizing the memory of Derrick's existence. Dakota thought back to when he first met Brenda. It had been at Derrick and Mona's wedding. She was in the process of getting over her divorce at the time. Dakota had tried to make small talk at one point, but she had scarcely given him the time of day.

CHAPTER 4

Brenda found herself recalling that same encounter. A hint of embarrassment caused her cheeks to flush as she watched the way Dakota sat uncomfortably at Mona's side. The more she looked at this man, the more she realized just how attractive he was. He exuded the rugged, yet warm quality that women were Helpless against. She didn't need to look too closely to observe his athletic, muscular features. He seemed awkward at the moment as he tried to console the grieving widow. He obviously was the type of man who felt much more comfortable with the guys. Brenda wasn't much for the sensitive, weepy type.

As she went around the house, gathering Derrick's things, she continued to sneak the occasional glance at the man sitting beside her sister. She admired the courage it must have taken to come here. How uncomfortable he must feel as he sat there. Certainly he had anguish of his own that he struggled to conceal. He may not have lost a spouse, but he had lost his best friend. Not to mention the guilt that he must certainly be feeling. After all, it could have just as easily been him that was at the receiving end of the lethal bullet.

Brenda felt a jolt of discomfort wash over her as she realized she was staring into Dakota's eyes. She had no idea how long she had been staring. The sudden sensation of embarrassment akin to that of a homely school girl who had been caught ogling at the varsity quarterback washed over her. She quickly turned away, returning to the task of storing anything reminiscent of Derrick.

After what seemed like an eternity to Dakota, Mona drifted off to sleep. He carried her gently to her bed and laid her down. After pulling up the covers, he tip-toed out to the living room, closing the door behind him. As he gently pulled the door shut, he heard Mona moan softly. He paused for a moment, suspecting she had awakened. After a brief pause, he heard her whisper Derrick's name. After easing the door shut, he returned to the living room. Brenda sat on the couch, sipping a cup of coffee.

"Well, I should be going."

"I want to thank you for coming here," Brenda stood. She still held the steaming mug in her hands, the rim of the cup brushing her lips. Dakota could still make out a smile behind the mug. He smiled weakly in return. "It couldn't have been easy for you."

"Hey," he shrugged, "she's my friend too. I just wish there was something I could do for her."

"Like what?" Brenda brought the mug down from her face. "What could you possibly do differently?" Brenda winced inwardly. That hadn't come out right at all. She realized it as the words escaped her lips. The flash of pain that darkened Dakota's face confirmed it.

"Look," she crossed the room to him, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"I know," Dakota nodded. "It's just that my mind keeps asking the same questions over and over. Why did it have to be Derrick?"

"Nobody can answer that question," Brenda fidgeted with her hands. She desperately wanted to comfort this man who stood before her.

"Yeah," he nodded, closing his eyes, "but a foot to the left and that bullet hits me instead."

"You can't live the rest of your life thinking that way. You do, and you'll drive yourself insane," Brenda took one of Dakota's hands. "You have to go on with your life. You knew Derrick as well if not better than anyone. You know that he would want you to go on with your life. If the situation were reversed, sure, he'd be heartbroken, but he would go on! You need to do the same thing."

"I just don't think I can remember how," his voice suddenly sounded very childlike, scared.

Brenda gazed up into his eyes. She could see all the pain and sorrow as clearly as if she were looking at a mirror image of Mona. Behind the masculine and gruff exterior, a boy sat in the corner sobbing. His jade green eyes blazed with the emotions storming inside.

She slowly brought a hand up and gently caressed his cheek. A surge of passion welled up from within. She noticed the look of surprise that flooded over Dakota's countenance. She felt his body stiffen as if caught in the grips of paralysis. Brenda shook off the voice inside her that screamed a warning. She reached up, cupping Dakota's face in her delicate hands, embracing him with a passion that she could no longer deny.

Dakota's senses churned in confusion. This was not the scenario he envisioned when he had pulled into the driveway. A brief war raged inside him for self control...passion came out the victor. He swept her into his arms, slipping his tongue into her waiting mouth. His last shred of protest tore loose, fluttering away in the winds of desire that raged inside.

Concupiscence raged within like a furious river, momentarily drowning the pain, fury, and frustration that had taken firm root. Dakota lifted Brenda off the floor in a sweeping motion and whisked her into the open bedroom down the hall. He had slept in that very room on countless occasions, usually as the result of a few too many cold adult beverages being consumed by him and Derrick.

Clothes were practically ripped away by the two as they sought the most tender spots on each other's body. Once they had managed to strip the other of every shred of clothing, the two locked in a sensual embrace. They made love repeatedly until neither had any strength or energy left. They collapsed in exhaustion, a tangle of limbs wrapped around each other.

** ** **

Dakota awoke in a disconcerted haze. Everything seemed Blurry and jumbled for a moment. He struggled to regain his bearings. The first realization was that this was not his bedroom. The second to hit him was that he was completely naked and that his body felt as if were coated with a thin layer of glue. His skin felt abnormally sticky and almost seemed to glisten in places.

As if a lightning bolt had struck him from the sky, revelation came. The events of the previous night came rushing back as the floodgates that had momentarily impeded his memory opened wide. He rolled over, expecting to find Brenda beside him. The bed was empty.

The sunlight that found its way between the slats of the window shades informed him that morning had indeed broken. Dakota frowned. He had not intended on staying the night. As he fished his memory for a clue as to what time he put Mona to bed, he realized it had been dark. "Shit," Dakota whispered as he climbed out of bed.

Searching around the room, he managed to locate his pants in a heap in a corner. Retrieving his shirt from a nearby table lamp, he began to dress. His mind began to race with possible explanations that he might be able to use when he encountered Mona. Nothing seemed to avail itself as a plausible excuse.

"Oh, good morning, Mona," he could almost hear himself saying, "I slept with your sister in the guest room last night, hope you don't mind. And by the way...how are you feeling?"

How could he be so stupid? Dakota rapped on his forehead with his knuckles as he mentally kicked himself. He quickly made up the bed. Taking a deep cleansing breath, he grasped the doorknob, turned it, and entered the hallway. It was time to face the music.

Dakota immediately noticed a drastic change in the living room. Sun beamed through open curtains. The walls, just hours ago devoid of anything, were now replete with paintings. Beautiful landscapes hung about the room displaying fantastic mountain ranges, lush forests, and crashing surf. The transformation was magnificent, if not astounding.

Brenda sat alone on the large couch, a mug of coffee in her hands. She seemed engrossed by the morning news until realizing that she was no longer alone. "Good morning," she smiled, looking up at Dakota with the look of an impish vixen.

"Where's Mona?" Dakota glanced about nervously.

"She's still sleeping, thank goodness," Brenda assured. She seemed to read the thoughts he had racing in his mind. "Poor girl has to be utterly exhausted. I just looked in on her a moment ago. For the first time, she actually looked peaceful."

"Look," Dakota began to stammer, "about last night. I don't want you to-"

"Don't say a word right now," Brenda cut him off. "We can just let it be for a while. I think we both need time to get our heads straight. I'll be here for a couple of weeks, if you call, you call. If you don't, I'll understand."

"Understand what?" a small voice from behind Dakota asked, causing them both to jump.

Dakota spun around to discover Mona standing behind him, a thick gray robe wrapped about her tightly. She rubbed the creases on her face that had been deeply etched by her pillow during the night. She stretched, yawned, and then asked again, "Understand what, Bren?"

"Understand if Dakota can't come around for a while," Brenda explained almost truthfully. "The case still has to be finished, and he's gonna be busy working on it. I just explained to him that we would understand if he ended up being too busy for visiting on a regular basis the next few weeks."

Dakota stared in astonishment at Brenda. She was very quick on her feet, he was very impressed. He glanced at Mona to see her reaction to the impromptu explanation. She seemed satisfied with the answer, which caused him to sigh inwardly.

"Well," Dakota broke the brief silence, "I have to get to work." he leaned over and kissed Mona on the cheek.

"Stay for breakfast," Mona offered.

"Thanks, but I really must get going," Dakota shook his head. "Besides, I work better on an empty stomach. The hunger motivates me, makes me mean and nasty to boot."

"Well, today you'll just have to be full and pleasant," she insisted pushing past Dakota, and heading into the kitchen. The topic was apparently not open for discussion.

Dakota glanced over to Brenda. She just smiled and shrugged her shoulders. He returned the gesture, sighed, then took a seat on the couch beside Brenda. He looked into the kitchen where Mona began to busy herself with the breakfast preparations. Through an opening in the robe, he could see some worn flannel pajamas underneath. It was obvious that they belonged to Derrick because they hung very loosely on her hips. Occasionally she would tug at them as they slipped down a bit. He also noticed the beginnings of a protrusion where the baby grew inside of her. Four months into her pregnancy, Mona still maintained her very petite figure.

Before long, Mona emerged from the kitchen with a plate brimming with food, which she set before Dakota. Beside the plate loaded with eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast, she placed a mug of coffee. Stepping back, she gestured for Dakota to begin eating. He obliged by scooping up a mouthful of eggs.

"Nobody does anything better on an empty stomach, Dakota Riley," she scolded." besides, I think you just wanted to get out of here before I said anything about you and Bren,"

Dakota sat there with a mouthful of food almost afraid to chew, staring up at Mona with feigned innocence. He could feel his face grow warmer as he began to blush. He reached for the coffee, taking a large gulp to wash the eggs down.

"You know?" Mona continued. "Derrick always said we should get the two of you together."

Mona took a seat between the flabbergasted couple. She reached over and tussled Dakota's hair playfully. A smile erupted on her face as she leaned over to hug the dumbfounded man beside her.

"Look, Mona," Dakota stuttered, "I...uh-"

"Please don't say you're sorry," Mona looked up at Dakota with eyes that had already begun to water. "My husband is dead. I imagine you feel almost as bad as I do," she paused to brush a tear from her cheek. "You know that he loved you very much. Sometimes I even resented the relationship that you two shared. I guess I felt he might love you more than he did me. But, I also know that if it had been you instead of him, he would have found comfort in my arms."

Dakota opened his mouth again to protest, but Mona cut him off.

"Not a word. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold."

He looked over at Brenda. Her face displayed the same incredulous look that his had. Their eyes met, and a sheepish grin crept onto her mouth. He found himself momentarily lost in her radiance and beauty. He was mesmerized by the way her auburn hair cascaded down her shoulders. The perfect symmetry of her voluptuous body held an erotic enticement that he struggled to control. He suddenly realized that he was indeed quite famished.

Dakota resumed eating in silence as Mona rose and headed for her room to dress. Brenda also rose, refilled his coffee, then joined Mona in the bedroom. A muffled conversation began almost before the door to the bedroom closed. The conversation was occasionally broken up by girlish giggles.

"Women," Dakota mumbled as he shook his head.

As he resumed eating, Dakota grabbed the television remote. He began flipping through the channels, searching for the local news. He stopped flipping when he found a broadcast that was replaying the incident outside the hospital the night Derrick had been shot. Turning up the volume, he listened to the newscast.

" ...to recap our top story," the anchorman's voice spoke over the replay of the now apparently famous scene, "suspected drug merchant, Marty Pennington, is dead. He was apparently killed last night during his transfer from the offices of the Seattle Drug Task Force. He was being transferred to the King County jail where he was to be held, pending arraignment. The car transporting Mister Pennington exploded, killing him and the two officers inside the vehicle with him."

"Task Force Captain, Matt Bell, could not be reached for comment. You will remember that it was one of Bell's detective's that lost his life apprehending the suspected drug kingpin. The other agent involved is said to be on a brief leave, and was also unavailable for comment."

The bedroom door burst open as Mona and Brenda rushed into the living room. The newsman continued to re-cap the story of the arrest, and Derrick's death. Mona stood transfixed before the screen as she listened to the report. A picture of Marty Pennington flashed up onto the screen as the anchor spoke. The picture vanished as the station cut away to a reporter that stood in the foreground of a chaotic scene. A van blazed in the background as rescue teams fought to extinguish the fire. Dakota switched off the television and set down his mug of coffee.

"I have to go," Dakota announced as he rose to his feet.

"This is bigger than you thought, isn't it?" Mona asked, still staring at the blank screen.

"I don't know," Dakota lied. He didn't want to upset Mona any more than she already was. He walked to the door, opening it to leave. He felt a hand grasp his arm, preventing his quick exit. He turned, expecting to see Mona. It was Brenda who stood there. He looked into her eyes, mesmerized again by her beauty.

"Be careful," she kissed him on the cheek, then stepped back, blushing slightly.

"I will," he nodded. "You take good care of Mona. I'll call as soon as I can," Dakota turned to leave, then paused. "That could be a few days," he added.

Dakota pulled the door closed, and headed for his car. As he slid behind the wheel, he looked up at the door. It stood open. Brenda's head poked out. She blew him a kiss, then closed the door. He started the car and waved to Mona who stood in the window. She waved in return as Brenda took her place beside her.

As he backed out of the driveway, his car phone buzzed. Dakota turned to head up the road, and paused to answer the phone. Hitting the button on the receiver, he answered, "This is Riley."

"Well, detective," a familiar voice piped cheerfully. "It seems that you possess more lives than the proverbial alley-cat."

"Who the fuck is this?" Dakota yelled.

"Now you should know by now that I won't answer that question. It could incriminate me," the voice replied mockingly.

"Listen you little sonovabitch," Dakota seethed, "when I get my hands on you. I'm gonna rip your f-"

"Yes, yes," the voice interrupted, "I am sure that there is a multitude of things you would do if given the opportunity. Sadly, there is no time for that now. Take one last look at your friend's wife," the voice instructed." Now, wave good bye."

In his confusion his mind refused to accept the possibility of what the unknown voice hinted at.

Glancing up at Derrick's house, Dakota saw Mona and Brenda still standing beside each other at the large picture window that framed the living room. They both wore bewildered expressions on their faces. He realized that they could see the angry look on his face, and they were obviously concerned. Dakota slammed his car into park and reached for the door.

Almost simultaneous with his actions, a bright flash lit up the interior of the house. The window exploded outwards as a fireball erupted somewhere inside. Both women vanished in the flames instantly. The last image Dakota saw of them etched into his memory forever. The image of Brenda glancing over her shoulder, eyes wide as the wall of flames engulfed her and Mona. Dakota screamed in anguish.

"That morning coffee can be a real killer," the voice taunted. "It's a shame you didn't stick around for another cup."

Dakota was too stunned to respond.

"People seem to have a habit of dying around you lately, Detective Riley," the voice laughed. "Not to worry, my friend, your day will come." More laughter sounded from the receiver. Followed by the click as they line went dead.

Dakota climbed out of his car, falling to his knees as his legs momentarily refused to support his weight. He struggled to stand, using the car for support. Stumbling up the driveway, he threw his arm across his face for protection, but the heat drove him back. Staggering back to the car, he collapsed into the driver's seat and picked up the phone.

He dialed 9-1-1, summoning emergency crews to the scene. Moments later, the once tranquil neighborhood street teamed with fire engines and police cruisers. Barricades were hastily thrown up to keep the gawking residents at bay. News vans soon added to the chaos as reporters and cameras fought through the crowd of onlookers. Dakota sat on the hard asphalt, leaning against his car for support. The scene surrounding him reminded him of some macabre circus.

** ** **

A plain blue sedan arrived, working its way through the throng of people and reporters. It reached the barricade where an officer waved it to a halt. The officer leaned over to the driver's window, exchanged a few brief words, then allowed the vehicle to enter the scene. The sedan came to a stop beside Dakota's car. Captain Bell emerged and walked to where Dakota now sat.

"What in the hell happened?" Bell kneeled beside Dakota.

Dakota recounted the events of the previous day, carefully omitting his involvement with Brenda. He described the newscast he had watched, and the phone call he received just prior to the fatal blast.

"This is getting way outta hand," Bell shook his head. His anger caused his voice to tremble slightly, "It appears that we are dealing with a more serious case than we imagined. The hit on Pennington, now this."

"Yes sir," Dakota nodded. "I think it is now quite obvious that Pennington wasn't the leader like we assumed."

"I guess not."

"Look," Dakota rose to his feet, "I have a few more leads I want to check out. I may have an angle on this invisible man."

"Well, you're not in this alone anymore," Bell announced.

"What do you mean?"

"Meet your new partner," Bell stepped to the side and indicated to a young man standing nervously beside Bell's car.

Dakota eyed the man who tapped apprehensively on the roof of the car. He couldn't be much past twenty, Dakota guessed. His body was lean and almost spindly looking. Probably couldn't fight his way out of a wet sack, Dakota mused. He certainly couldn't have much experience in the field. It dawned on him in a flash, "That kid is straight out of the academy, isn't he?"

"I know what you're probably thinking," Bell saw the irritation begin to show on Dakota's face. "Detective Marc Bradley is the best newcomer there is. I thought a fresh face might help on the street. If you go undercover, it might do you some good to have an unknown assistant. Less likely that he will get made on the street."

Dakota couldn't believe his ears. The last thing he needed was a raw rookie to slow him down now. The next few days would be critical, especially if that lead the cab driver claimed to have, panned out. Besides, he had no intention of taking this guy, who ever he was, alive. This academy stiff might not like that idea too much.

"I am officially taking over this scene," Bell interrupted Dakota's thinking. "So I want you out of here before the press can get to you. I don't need anymore publicity right now."

Dakota spun around angrily, yanking the car door open. He heard footsteps rushing up from behind him. Without even looking, he knew it would be the rookie.

"Get in the car," he snarled. "We have work to do."

Climbing into the car, Dakota shoved the key into the ignition and gunned the engine. A rattle sounded from the passenger's side. Reaching over, he unlocked the door, allowing Marc Bradley to open the door. Dakota shifted the car into gear without waiting for the confused man to close the door. As Dakota eased the car forward, he saw his new partner struggle to get in and pull his door shut. The two drove to the office in silence.

** ** **

Dakota took a seat at his desk and began producing various files. He spread them out across his desk, covering it entirely. Glancing up, he noticed his new partner looking around the deserted office. New partner! Now that was a joke, he scoffed to himself. He was sure that this kid was a decent enough guy, but right now, he didn't have time to play nurse maid for some raw rookie. This case was too complex, not to mention dangerous.

He couldn't afford to make a mistake with these guys. They had already demonstrated that they weren't playing around. If this kid slipped up, there would certainly be somebody there to wax his ass into oblivion. This, Dakota believed, was no place for some wide-eyed class valedictorian who wanted to play 'cops and robbers, not to mention all the hours he had personally put in on the case. The time it would take to get this new guy up to speed could be vital. Then, there was the personal score he intended to settle. The death of Derrick had turned this case into a crusade. The explosion that claimed Mona's and Brenda's lives made it a vendetta.

Dakota never kidded himself about the risks inherent in the job he performed. Derrick had known as well. In fact, he made it a point to remind Dakota frequently. His death, although a tragedy, was a prospect of the job he was aware of. He died in the line of duty. Brenda and Mona were a different matter. The leader of this organization had crossed a line. That person, presumably the voice on the other end of the phone, would pay with his life. It didn't matter to Dakota if it cost him his badge, or his life. There would be retribution. He intended on doing what ever it took. He resolved that his career was secondary to revenge.

His only obstacle seemed to be his new partner. If he needed to result to unethical tactics, this new guy, Marc Bradley, might be a hindrance in the field. Also, this kid had a future. Dakota could not be responsible for an unceremonious ending to Marc's fledgling career, or his life. The last thing he needed was another death to be responsible for.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Marc broke the silence, disrupting Dakota's thinking.

"I really doubt it," Dakota snapped. He looked at his eager young partner and scowled.

"Well, how about those files," Marc pointed to the files scattered across Dakota's desk. "Maybe if I read through some of them, I might be more useful. I should at least get caught up on what you know."

"Listen, Marc, is it?" Dakota leaned back in his chair. "This case is almost three years old. How in the heck do you figure to catch up?" Dakota made quotation marks in the air. "In less than twenty four hours, this baby goes down, one way or the other."

"That soon?"

"Yep," Dakota nodded. "I have a lead that will most likely bring me to the leader of this organization."

"Well," Marc shifted his weight uncomfortably, "if it helps any, I have read most of the computer files on the case already. The captain faxed them to me before I flew out here."

"Is that so?" Dakota was openly skeptical.

"Sure," Marc nodded. "I may not have all the fine points, but I do have at least an idea of what has gone down so far," Marc took a deep breath before he continued. "Up to the point that Detective Rider was killed."

"And just what do you think that you can do to help in a case that two experienced agents haven't been able to close," Dakota ignored Marc's last statement about Derrick.

"I don't know," Marc shrugged. He felt trapped all of a sudden. He knew to choose his words carefully. "I just thought it might be better if I was up to speed on some of the things you two had in your personal files about the case."

"And why is that?" Dakota leaned forward.

"Well," Marc replied slowly, "if we're gonna bust these"

"We ain't doing shit," Dakota snapped, cutting Marc off harshly. "I'll make the bust. You will be there to learn and observe."

"But I'm your partner," Marc tried to protest.

"Stop right there, rookie," Dakota stood turning his back on the confused young man. "Right now you ain't nothing. Bell forced you on me, that's all. You will watch and stay out of the way, period. This case is too big for some inexperienced kid fresh out of school. It ain't like the academy where if you screw up, you lose points on a test. You fuck up in the field with these guys, and you'll end up in a body bag. That is, if there is enough of you left to put in one."

"That's not right, Dakota," Marc replied." We're supposed to be a team."

"That something they taught you in school?" Dakota shook his head. "Welcome to the real world, Detective Bradley. Maybe after tomorrow we can be a team. But for right now, you just keep your mouth shut and stay out of the way."

"Look, man," Marc said calmly, "I really think I could help you if you just gave me the opportunity."

"Let's get one thing straight," Dakota said angrily. "The name is Dakota. You can call me that, or Detective Riley. Are we clear, Detective Bradley?"

"Fine," Marc agreed, "whatever you say." He slumped down into a nearby chair with the feeling that he had been pounding his head into a brick wall. "Then could you maybe give me some files to browse. If I can't do anything to participate, at least I won't walk in blind?"

"Here" Dakota tossed a computer disk across the desk." The last report is in there. You can find it in the protected files for the San-Sea-Ca investigation. The password is 'parasite.' I have some work to do. That ought to keep you busy for a while."

"Welcome aboard," Marc muttered as he collected the disk and switched on the terminal at his desk.

The next several hours elapsed with no further conversation between the two. People filtered in and out of the office periodically. Marc immediately observed two things. First, they all kept their distance from Dakota, second, they completely ignored his presence. Real friendly place, he mused to himself. He began to doubt his coming to Seattle. He had hoped that the rumors were true about how friendly people were in the Northwest. Apparently not.

** ** **

As late afternoon rolled around, Marc had a much clearer picture of some of the intricacies of the case. He also fostered a much deeper respect for his incorrigible partner, Detective Dakota Riley. It seemed at times as if he and his late partner possessed the ability to make leads appear out of thin air. He marveled at their intuition as he followed their steps through a web of puzzles and dead ends. Looking in as an observer would indeed be a lesson for even a veteran. Not once did a lead just fall into the lap of those two. Every solution had come from painstakingly slow research and investigation.

"You hungry?" Dakota called out, bringing Marc back to the present.

"Yeah," Marc looked up from the terminal screen. He blinked a few times to clear the spots that danced around before him.

"There is a deli downstairs," Dakota announced. "I'll take a turkey and Swiss on wheat, coffee, black." Dakota went back to his paperwork, searching the mounds of reports before him for the hidden clues like a knight questing for the Holy Grail.

Marc sighed and rose to his feet. It didn't take a brick to fall on his head to make him realize what his role in the case would be. He would be the concession stand operator. He would be on hand to supply snacks. "Ah," Marc said to no one in particular, "the glamorous life of a detective."

Marc returned to the office carrying two sandwiches and two cups of coffee. He and Dakota ate in more of the same silence that had dominated their partnership thus far. As Marc nibbled his lunch, he found himself staring at the haggard man across from him. He wondered how things could have gone so badly in such a short period of time for the man. He learned from reading the files on the disk that neither Dakota, nor Derrick, was a careless sort. Everything the two did seemed to follow a sort of game plan.

Perhaps Dakota was correct in his decision to keep him in the background for now. Who was he to think that he had anything to offer in the solving of this case? He sank back in his chair in resignation, "What a way to begin a career," he whispered.

With agonizing slowness the day passed by. Afternoon dissolved into evening as the office eventually emptied, leaving the two of them alone again. Marc reflected on his first day on The Force. It fell well short of his expectations. His dream of climbing into the saddle and busting bad guys had not materialized. Instead, he had sat in an uncomfortable chair and watched the office go from empty, to full, to empty again. Glancing up at the clock, Marc was even more discouraged to see that it read half past ten. He finished the last of the computer files at around eight. Now he just sat in an uncomfortable silence as Dakota dissected the puzzle hidden in the papers on his desk. Twice he glanced up at Marc, scowled, then returned to his work. It was as if he kept expecting him to be gone and was disappointed to see that he wasn't.

Having finished reading the files on the disk, Marc had no idea what to do next. He didn't dare disturb Dakota. It was more than obvious to him that the man held more than just an obsession with the case. Hell, who could blame him? Within the space of a day and a half, he lost his partner and best friend. Plus, he witnessed the death of his partner's pregnant wife and her sister. How could a person not take those sorts of events personally? To add to his frustration, a raw academy rookie gets tossed into his lap. He probably felt responsible, and a bit concerned that another death may result that he would feel a burden of the accountability for.

Marc looked over at Dakota again. He sat slumped over in his chair, fast asleep. A file slowly slipped from his relaxing grip. Marc rose slowly, picked up the file, and placed it on the cluttered desk. A hand written letter caught his eye amidst the clutter of photocopied reports. He cautiously picked up the letter, careful not to wake the sleeping detective. The letter was addressed to Dakota from a man named Mike Orson. Marc read the contents of the letter in amazement. He finished reading, carefully placed the letter back in its original place on the desk.

Marc sat down in the chair that occupied the desk next to his partner quietly. Why, he wondered, had Dakota never mentioned this letter? He looked over at the clutter spread across Dakota's desk. From his new seat, he could make out most of the exposed pages. Marc read some of them until he eventually dozed off as well.

** ** **

Marc awoke with a start. He was being shaken rather roughly and somebody seemed to be screaming at him in anger. Quickly rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Marc looked up at his aggressor. Dakota's face gradually came into focus. His expression immediately warned him that something was terribly wrong. His mind searched for a possible reason, but came up blank. That is, until Dakota began screaming again.

"Just what in the hell do you think you're doing?" Dakota demanded. His nose was almost touching Marc's.

"Umm...," Marc said groggily, "you fell asleep. I was just waiting for you to wake up. I didn't want to leave in case you did during the night. I wasn't sure what you had in mind for today."

"This isn't your desk!" Dakota fumed, indicating the spot Marc had fallen asleep.

Marc glanced around the desk in bewilderment. He felt his heart sink as his eyes came across a picture on the desk. The picture showed Dakota and another man standing side by side in tuxedos. It didn't take him more than a second to realize that the spot he had chosen was Derrick's old desk.

He stood up quickly, apologizing to Dakota as he did. Marc groaned inwardly. The last thing he needed was to further annoy his already agitated partner. To his surprise, Dakota calmed down quickly. Marc returned to the seat he had occupied all the previous day and sat down. Dakota began to gather up all the files on his desk.

"You want to make yourself useful?" Dakota asked. He looked up at Marc with a peculiar expression on his face.

"Sure," Marc sighed. "Coffee, black, right?"

"That sounds great," Dakota nodded. "But I have something else in mind if you're feeling up to it."

"Really? Like what?" Marc felt his spirits rise dramatically. Maybe Dakota was actually reconsidering his decision of yesterday to keep him out of the case.

"I have some errands to run today that I really don't need you for," Dakota replied. "I thought you could get your feet wet by going over to the Pennington Rental site. You could rummage through the file for anything that we can use. Derrick and I never had the chance to thoroughly go over the place."

Marc got the feeling that there might be more to his sudden assignment then that. His inexperienced intuition began to set off its silent alarm. The letter! Marc remembered the letter he read last night. Today was the day Dakota was supposed to meet this Orson guy! Realization exploded in Marc's mind. Dakota had no intention to include him even as an observer. He was going to do this on his own.

"Okay," Marc agreed, hiding his suspicion from his new partner. "Where are you gonna be, just in case I come up with something?"

"Just some boring footwork," Dakota lied." I figure you will learn more conducting a search than tagging along on some useless stuff. I'd bring you along

if I really thought you could learn anything on this trip."

Marc nodded.

"Don't worry if you don't actually find anything," Dakota continued. "Just having some actual experience in the field will do you a world of good down the road."

Dakota mentally patted himself on the back. He now had the only obstacle in his path out of the way. If this Orson lead was as good as he hoped he would be seeing Alanda today. This case would be closed and he could get on with his life (if he didn't get caught). He felt certain that this Alanda person would prove to be the mysterious voice from the calls. He was bent on taking him down for good. No long, drawn out trial.

Certainly Marc wouldn't understand. He may even try and interfere. That could get them both killed (he and Marc that is). "Meet me here tonight around nine," Dakota said.

"Sure," Marc agreed a bit puzzled.

Dakota finished putting all the files back in the cabinet and grabbed his coat from the back of the chair. Marc noticed him place the letter inside one of the interior coat pockets, which only confirmed his suspicions. So, Marc thought, you are going after these guys alone! Dakota fished out his keys as he exited the office.

"See you tonight," Dakota called over his shoulder as he left.

Marc stood there for a moment considering his options. The way he saw it, he had two choices. He could shut his mouth and do as he had been told by Dakota… search the Pennington site for clues that didn't exist. Or, he could trail his partner, disregarding the instructions of his 'first' assignment. His mind wrestled itself over the decision that could possibly break his career before it even began.

"Ah," Marc headed for the door, "the hell with it. I ain't too attached to Seattle anyhow."

** ** **

Dakota's shiny black Mustang was just too easy to follow. Not even morning traffic could allow this car to just blend in. Marc marveled at the machine's beauty as he kept a safe distance from his partner. The trail ended at a quaint residence that Marc figured to be Dakota's home. Once Dakota went inside, Marc found a good observation point just a couple of blocks away. From his vantage point he would wait for his hopefully unsuspecting partner's next move.

Marc felt a surge of excitement pour into his system as his mind informed him that this would be his first stakeout. Never in all of his training for this event did Marc assume that his partner would also prove to be his first target. Great, Marc frowned, now he had to pee. He didn't dare leave or get out of the car for fear of either being spotted, or losing his target.

At almost three o'clock, Dakota exited his home. Marc perked up in anticipation as he observed Dakota climb into his mustang and leave. Marc ducked down into the seat until he heard the car pass by. He stayed down long enough to ensure that he would not be discovered, then anxiously popped up and started his car.

The Mustang headed back to the freeway, which Marc already predicted to himself. He kept his surveillance even more relaxed on the return trip because, if his deductions were indeed correct, Dakota would be going downtown. As expected, the trail led directly downtown where Dakota parked within two blocks of the meeting place proposed in the letter. Taking a side street, Marc circled the block. He wanted to be behind the cab so he could just slip into traffic and trail him. It only took a matter of seconds before the cab described in the letter pulled up to the curb. Dakota climbed inside, and the cab eased into the downtown traffic. Marc slipped in to pursue, keeping a distance of nearly a block. If he was spotted by this guy, it might cause this Orson person to drop Dakota without giving the information. Then there would be hell to pay. Well, Marc shuddered, he may as well jump off the nearest bridge, because he would be a dead man.

** ** **

Four p.m. Dakota raised his hand to hail it, but he saw it easing to the curb before he even completed the gesture. The driver glanced over his shoulder as Dakota climbed into the cab. He smiled nervously as the door closed and Dakota nodded.

"Man, am I glad you got my letter," Mike Orson made an unsuccessful attempt to conceal the tremor in his voice.

"Alright," Dakota dismissed the man's futile attempt at small talk with a wave of his hand, "start talking, Orson."

"Geez," Mike exclaimed, "you sure don't waste any time." Mike turned his attention to the traffic as he pulled away from the curb. "Look," he began once he merged into the rush hour traffic, "I want your word that my wife-"

"You don't make the deals here," Dakota snapped. "If I get the information I need, and it pans out, then we'll see."

"What a hard-ass," Mike whispered." Sure," he nodded, "I mean hey, you're the boss, right?"

"Enough of the bullshit," Dakota grew intolerant of all the small talk. "You said you knew the so-called leader of this drug ring. A Mitch Alanda was it?"

"Okay," Mike nodded." Hold your water for a minute. I'll tell you everything you need to know. First things first, I need to get off the street. We can pull into that parking complex up there," Mike pointed to a five-story parking garage just ahead.

"Hold on there slick," Dakota felt the warning bells go off in his head. He slid his hand into his jacket, gripping the .45 that rested in his shoulder-holster. "You never mentioned anything about going into any parking garage."

"Look, buddy," Mike saw Dakota reach into his jacket in his rearview mirror, "I don't care to be seen with you. In case you've been living in a cave for the past two days, your face has been all over the news. If one of the other drivers happens to see us together, my ass is grass."

He had a good point, Dakota conceded. Slowly, he removed his hand from within his jacket and sat back. Mike Orson pulled up to the automated ticket dispenser and pulled a stub from the little machine. The gate opened, allowing the taxi to enter the parking structure. They drove past the heavily occupied lower tiers, continuing until they reached the second to last level. The taxi pulled into one of the empty spaces and Mike killed the engine.

Pulling the keys from the ignition, Mike climbed out of the cab and motioned for Dakota to follow. "I would rather we did this outside of the cab just in case we get monitored," Mike whispered.

Dakota shrugged and climbed out.

"I don't see why," Dakota said as he closed the door behind him. "If you are being monitored or bugged, then chances are, they already know."

"Alanda switches around at random," Mike replied." That way you never know when he's listening to you."

Dakota studied the man who stood before him. He noticed sweat beginning to break out on the man's upper lip and forehead. The color had drained from his face, giving him a shiny, plastic appearance.

"I am really sorry," Mike apologized. "It was the only way that I could be sure that my wife and baby would not get hurt."

Dakota looked at the man in confusion. His confusion dissipated as he realized what the man had just apologized for. He reached for his gun, but it was too late. Something solid crashed down on the back of his head. The burst of pain that accompanied the blow caused him to drop to his knees. Another blow followed the first, but he barely felt it as he crashed to the concrete. He struggled to remain conscious. Slowly, he lost the battle.

Before he faded out completely, he felt his body being hoisted up. He was dropped unceremoniously into the open trunk of the taxi. The hatch slammed shut, plunging him into total darkness.

** ** **

Marc sat anxiously in his car across from the garage that Dakota's taxi had entered. He felt torn as to what to do. If he didn't go in, he might not be able to find the taxi again if it exited from a different point. That would leave Dakota on his own. If he went in, he might spook the informant. That would piss Dakota off to no end. Marc abruptly began to understand just how much of a novice he really was. He tapped his steering wheel nervously as he considered his possibilities.

He didn't have to wait long to make his decision. As he sat there struggling with his choices, the taxi emerged from the garage exit. The driver reached over and handed his ticket to the man in the booth. After an exchange of cash, the cab rolled out into traffic. Marc squeezed in two cars behind to follow. He quickly perceived something different about the two men in the cab, neither one of them was Dakota!

That led to two different possibilities, either Dakota had gotten out and another man had hailed the cab. Or, and this seemed much more likely, he had fallen victim to some sort of ambush. If this was indeed the situation, then Dakota was in grave danger.

Marc considered calling for back-up. He paused with the cellular phone in his hand. If he was wrong, he would look foolish. Plus, he might end up getting Dakota into trouble with the captain. That would put more strain on their partnership than already existed. He dropped the phone in the passenger seat and

decided to follow this cab for a while.

The taxi wove its way through the traffic. Eventually, it came to a large building. The sign hanging over the drive-in entrance read 'Alanda Taxi.' Marc watched as an electronic door swung up, allowing the taxi to drive inside. Marc could vaguely make out a large open bay with other taxis that resembled the one he had followed. He watched as the electronic door swung closed, ending his observation.

He quickly turned into the first parking lot he found. Placing his newly issued 'Official Police Business' card on the dashboard, he shut off the car. Checking his gun to ensure that the safety was off, Marc got out and locked the car. He walked back up the street to the entrance that the taxi disappeared into. There was a door just beside the large electronic garage door. Taking a couple of deep breaths to calm himself, he slowly turned the knob to see if it was locked. The knob turned easily. Marc opened the door a crack and listened for sounds of any sort of conversation on the other side.

** ** **

Dakota felt the car come to a stop. He still struggled to regain full consciousness. Reaching into his jacket, he breathed a sigh of relief when he discovered his gun was still There. The sound of keys rattling in the lock of the trunk prompted him to draw his pistol. As the hatch flipped open, he brought his gun up to bear on whoever might be on the outside. He found himself squinting into the barrels of three pistols. Dakota cocked the hammer of his .45. He wouldn't go down without taking somebody with him.

"Detective Riley," an older, balding man greeted him with a broad smile. "It is so nice of you to join me. Your impetuousness has saved me a great deal of time and energy."

There was no mistaking the voice. It belonged to the man who had made those two phone calls. The fog that had, up to this moment, still clouded Dakota's mind, lifted. He swung his gun to bear on the man that smiled down at him.

"You must be Alanda," he growled through clenched teeth.

"Yes," the man nodded. Apparently oblivious to the gun pointed at him. "Please, come out of there and be my guest."

"Actually," Dakota began to squeeze the trigger, "I can blow you away just fine from here. I realize that your goons will fill me full of holes...but that is a fair trade."

"There is really no need for this open hostility," Alanda still acted as if he didn't notice Dakota's gun. "I had hoped that we could converse a bit. Perhaps we might even come to an agreement of sorts on this most unpleasant situation. Really, Mister Riley, must there be more bloodshed?"

Dakota was dumbfounded. He considered his options for a second. Certainly he stood a better chance of surviving if he was out of the trunk of this cab. Dakota climbed awkwardly out of the cramped space, keeping his gun leveled on Mitch Alanda as he did. He glanced at the two men who stood beside Alanda. One of them was Mike Orson. The other he didn't recognize. He was most likely the person who had jumped him from behind.

Alanda lowered his pistol casually. The other two kept theirs trained on Dakota. Orson seemed nervous. His face was now drenched with sweat. The other man seemed calm and collected. He obviously held no qualms about shooting someone.

"Why'd you do it?" Dakota addressed Orson. He still held his gun pointed at Alanda, however. He had no intention of dropping his guard for a second.

"My dear, Detective Riley," Alanda offered, "he had no choice. Mister Orson is about to become a family man."

"Who will now face criminal charges that will ensure he never sees his child from anywhere other than from behind bars," Dakota quipped.

"Look," Orson spoke up, almost whining, "Mister Alanda, I did what you asked. I brought this guy just like you asked me to. I want out like you said."

"Well," Alanda shrugged, "if I am to gain any chance of dealing with the fine detective here, I imagine that I must demonstrate that I am a man of my word."

Without hesitation, Alanda brought his gun up and shot Mike Orson in the head. The man staggered backwards a few steps and crashed to the ground. A neat hole in the center of his forehead began to ooze blood. It occurred so quickly that Mike Orson's face didn't even have the chance to register fear or surprise.

** ** **

Marc jumped at the sound of gunfire from within the garage. He knew that he had no other choice but to go in. Even if Dakota had been shot, he may still be alive. He cursed himself for waiting so long. If only he had acted quicker, his partner would be okay.

Taking a deep breath, Marc opened the door. He slipped inside and quietly closed the door behind him. He found himself in a large foyer. An archway opened to a ramp that most certainly led down to the garage. Moving into position beside the archway, Marc drew his gun from the holster. He clicked the safety off on his 9mm Browning, semi-automatic.

Slowly exhaling, he determined that he would shoot first and ask questions later. The first person that came into his field of vision would receive a rude greeting indeed.

** ** **

Dakota stared in utter disbelief. The sheer callousness of this man seemed to have no boundaries. Alanda turned back to Dakota with an impish grin on his face.

"There," Alanda waved a hand at the sprawled body of Mike Orson, "he's out." His voice held no remorse for the man whose wife he had just made into a widow. "Now, to the business at hand. You have managed to become quite a thorn in my side, Mister Riley."

"Just wait," Dakota gestured with the gun in his hand, "it gets better."

"I am willing to offer you a rather substantial sum," Alanda smiled warmly. "If you walk away and forget all about my little operation, I will personally hand you ten million dollars, cash. To sweeten the deal, I will also promise to pull up stakes and leave this fair town of yours."

"Fuck you," Dakota spat.

"Now Mister Riley," Alanda made a half-hearted attempt to feign indignation, "that isn't the way it is done. I offer ten million. You in turn ask for twenty. We settle on fifteen and nobody feels cheated. Please, I beseech you to play the game properly."

"I've seen how you play the game," Dakota nodded towards Orson's body. "I don't think I want to play with you."

"Pity."

Without any indication of a change in emotion, Alanda fired his gun. The

bullet caught Dakota in the left shoulder, shattering bone and knocking him back into the trunk.

Dakota fired reflexively as he fell. He managed to squeeze off two shots into the chest of the man who stood beside Alanda. The man had taken a step forward to finish Dakota off, but stopped in his tracks as the bullets tore holes through his vital organs. Alanda momentarily disappeared from view as Dakota collapsed into the taxi's open trunk.

The barrel of a gun appeared over the lip of the open trunk, followed by the still smiling face of Mitch Alanda. Dakota struggled to bring his gun to bear on his hated adversary with no avail. His arm had lost all its feeling and strength.

"I would love to continue this little game," Alanda sighed. "Sadly, I have neither the time, nor the patience to allow this to go on any further." He leveled his gun at Dakota's head, "Any final words to immortalize yourself with?"

"Fuck you!"

"Please," Alanda frowned, "I actually hold you in rather high esteem. Don't soil your image with senseless profanity. Just be brave and accept you death valiantly."

"Before you kill me, I have some questions."

"Let me guess," Alanda's smile returned. "They would be something to the effect of how I think I will get away with this. The always popular query of what I feel I will accomplish by killing you. Really, these old clichés can become tiring. I have watched you long enough that I can almost predict not only your actions, but your questions as well."

"Yeah," Dakota winced though the pain in his shoulder, "well, if you knew we were on to you, why did you wait so long to act?"

"A simple mistake on my behalf," Alanda answered. "In the beginning, I underestimated the skills of you and your former partner. I did not feel that you two possessed the intuition to find my well hidden trail."

"What about this little set up?" Dakota asked. "Wouldn't it have been easier to blow me up or have some hit man bump me off? What was the purpose of bringing me here?"

"That, I confess, was my ego acting out. I wanted to meet you face to face. I am a subscriber to the theory that every man has his price," Alanda shook his head. "I am afraid that this conversation, while entertaining, most be concluded. Good­bye, Detective."

Dakota stared into the eyes of Mitch Alanda. For an instant, he felt that same fascination that a possum must feel when it becomes transfixed by oncoming headlights. Two shots rang out in the nearly empty garage. Dakota winced, expecting the burning sensation as the bullets tore through his defenseless body. He squeezed his eyes shut in the anticipation of his imminent death.

Strange, Dakota thought peacefully, he didn't feel a thing. Perhaps he was already dead and only his brain remained in the closing moments of his life. Death didn't seem nearly as harsh as he expected. Awareness of his senses informed him that he was, in fact, still alive. The dampness of the taxi's trunk became his first clue. Risking a peek, he opened his eyes to the tiniest slits. Alanda still stood above him. His expression had changed drastically from that cocky smile, to a look of bewilderment. The arm that held his gun had begun to drop slowly back down to his side. Two dark stains spread across his chest, turning his blue shirt black in those spots. Mitch Alanda gasped once and fell to the ground.

Dakota struggled up to a sitting position. He leaned forward to risk a look out into the open garage. Across the vast taxi garage, he saw Marc standing at the top of a landing near the entrance. He was slipping his gun into its place in his shoulder holster. Looking up, Marc made eye contact with Dakota. A huge smile of relief burst forth on his face.

"Dakota!" he cried. "You're alive!"

"Good observation, rookie," Dakota managed through the pain. "You learn those powers of observation in the academy, or did it come naturally?"

Marc sprinted across the garage to where Dakota still sat in the trunk of the cab. His initial expression of alleviation quickly altered to one of concern when he saw Dakota's wounded shoulder.

"I thought you were dead," Marc whispered.

"I may still die from blood loss if you don't get some help out here soon," Dakota replied with only a hint of his usual sarcasm.

Marc searched frantically for a phone. He located it on a wall nearby and quickly called for an ambulance. Once the dispatcher assured him that one was enroute, he hung up and returned to where Dakota now lay inside the trunk.

Marc looked down into the small space where his partner had apparently decided to lie down and gasped when he saw Dakota's eyes closed. He relaxed when he saw the man wince in pain as he tried to find a comfortable position. Kneeling down, Marc placed a hand on Dakota's good shoulder. "Help is on the way, buddy," he whispered reassuringly.

Dakota opened his eyes, glaring menacingly at his concerned partner. "I told you once," he hissed, "that's Detective Riley, or Dakota." His stern look remained for only a fraction of a second before it was replaced by a feeble smile.

"You can really be an asshole," Marc laughed. Dakota joined in the laughter until it became so painful that he had to stop.

"So," Dakota whispered, "how come you didn't follow my orders and go over to the Pennington place to check it out for any clues?"

"I had a feeling that you were just trying to keep me out of your way so that you could take out this guy," Marc replied. "Plus," he added tentatively, "I read that letter you got from Orson."

"So you deliberately disobeyed?"

"Yeah, something like that."

"Good work, rookie," Dakota made another attempt to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

"That's Marc, or Detective Bradley," Marc did his best impersonation of Dakota's stern voice.

The two began to laugh again. Dakota ended up crouching as the pain became too unbearable. Marc tried to comfort his injured partner by removing his jacket and placing it behind Dakota's head. He wondered if this may be anything like how the man had felt the night Derrick had been shot. The feelings of helplessness as he watched him lie there in pain. The minutes dragged on like hours as the two waited for the ambulance to arrive.

When the paramedics finally arrived, Marc stayed at Dakota's side while they bandaged his wound. He walked along beside the stretcher as his partner was loaded into the waiting ambulance.

"I'll meet you at the hospital," Marc whispered.

Dakota nodded a frail affirmation of understanding.

After learning which hospital they would be transporting him to, he headed for his car and radioed back to Captain Bell informing him in brief detail of the events that had transpired. He carefully omitted certain details that Bell might become angry about. Their conversation was brief. The Captain informed Marc that units were already being dispatched to the garage and that he would meet him at the hospital.

** ** **

Marc waited solicitously in the lobby for Captain Bell's arrival. When the captain did arrive, he virtually stormed through the doors, and he immediately demanded to know Dakota's condition.

"He is in emergency surgery as we speak, Captain," Marc answered. "The doctor assured me that, although he has lost a lot of blood, he should recover quickly."

"He damned well better," Bell fumed. "I plan on tearing him a new asshole for keeping me in the dark about this little meeting!"

"What do you mean?" Marc asked innocently.

"Well," Bell snapped, "I want to know when and where he came across this lead on this guy. What's his name? Alanda?" Bell paced back and forth as he spoke. "Then I want an explanation as to why he decided to charge in all alone!"

"But," Marc interrupted, "he wasn't alone. I came along as his back-up."

"He knows better than that," Bell turned to face Marc angrily. "He still should have cleared this with me. You don't just walk into that kind of situation on your own. He sure as hell doesn't do it without consulting with me first!"

"There just wasn't enough time," Marc insisted." We got the call and had to act right away. If we didn't, we risked losing this guy." Marc surprised himself at how easily his lying came." Besides," he gave his best 'embarrassed rookie' expression, "I was supposed to radio back to you. Things happened so quickly that I forgot."

Captain Matt Bell stared at the young man before him and studied his face for a second. Something about the story just didn't seem right. He shrugged in exasperation, surely this new guy wouldn't be bold enough to lie to him. Still, Bell considered the story he had just heard and folded his arms across his chest. Things just sounded too neat. He gave the young detective a harsh look, attempting to stare him into confessing the truth. Marc stared back without even blinking. Bell didn't buy this load of crap. He was about to challenge the story when a doctor burst into the lobby.

"Detective Bradley?" the doctor called.

"Right here," Marc turned around, breathing an inward sigh of relief.

"You're wanted in the recovery room," the doctor pointed towards the door he had just come through. "Right this way please."

Marc followed the doctor, not daring to look over his shoulder at the unconvinced captain. The doctor walked down the sterile corridor to an open room. The room was separated into small curtained cubicles. He stopped at one and drew the curtain open, ushering Marc inside.

Dakota lay peacefully on a hospital bed, his shoulder heavily bandaged. Marc stared at his partner, who opened his eyes slowly and smiled. Moving up to the head of the bed, Marc took Dakota's open hand. Dakota whispered something inaudible. Marc leaned over closer so he could hear.

"Did you call Captain Bell?" Dakota's speech slurred slightly from the painkillers.

"He's in the lobby," Marc answered. He quickly recounted the story he had given to the angry captain.

"Not bad for a rookie," Dakota mumbled through his haze. "You just might make a decent partner after all."

"Thanks," Marc's face beamed proudly at the compliment. That was the first time Dakota had referred to him as a partner. "Look, I'll keep Bell outta your hair. Get yourself some rest. I'll come back in the morning," he stepped back to leave, but felt Dakota's hand tighten on his.

"Thanks, Marc" Dakota opened his eyes a bit more and looked up at Marc. "You saved my butt back there. I owe you."

Dakota's eyes closed and he lumped back into his pillow. Marc walked out of the small, curtained cubicle. Suddenly, he felt as if he were part of a team. He walked back out to the lobby to face the captain again who resumed questioning him about the details of what occurred back at the garage. Marc answered each question carefully, but his mind raced with excitement. He had been accepted by his new partner. Marc Bradley felt great!

CHAPTER 5

It was difficult for Marc to determine whether he was being commended, or having his ass chewed. He decided that he could settle on calling it a 'Commendable Ass Chewing.' First, Captain Bell would praise his quick thinking in coming to Dakota's assistance. Then, he would yell at him for not requesting back-up. He would switch to applauding his coolness in a pressure situation. That would be followed by a scolding for rushing into a situation without the full knowledge of the events that were taking place.

It remained very obvious that Bell was not convinced by the quick cover story that Marc concocted in the lobby of the hospital. Something told the seasoned veteran that his two detectives were indeed concealing small, but important, nuggets of the truth. However, since their stories conformed (albeit a bit too perfectly for his liking), in addition to the fact that there were no witnesses to dispute he was forced to surrender into subscribing to events as they told him.

Marc sat quietly in the chair that he had been directed to. Dakota forewarned him this morning that this sort of event would surely take place in the captain's office. He advised Marc to just keep his mouth shut and take everything said to him with a grain of salt.

Eight days had passed since the incident in Alanda's garage. Marc spent much of the time during those eight days at the hospital with Dakota. During the first two days, he refused to leave his partner's side until his condition had been upgraded to satisfactory. Afterwards, the two passed the time getting to know each other. In those few days, a friendship began to cement itself rapidly.

Marc spent the remainder of his waking moments filling out felicitous reports. He was unceremoniously introduced to the 'real world' of detective work. At least that is what Dakota called it.

He also received a crash course in media relations. They circled the hospital like vultures in the desert waiting for a man to drop from the heat. Everyone wanted to get the scoop on what, even the national media called, the most significant international drug bust of the decade. The words, 'no comment,' sprung from his mouth anytime he exited the hospital doors although he rarely did so except to report to the office to clarify some of his reports. On one occasion, he ventured out to smuggle in some junk food to liven up Dakota's bland hospital diet.

Captain Bell held daily press conferences to update the media on Dakota's condition. In addition, he gave a few details on various arrests of the remaining dealers involved with the San-Sea-Ca drug ring. Information on the identities of the dealers was obtained during the search of Alanda's office and residence. On the fifth day, he announced that the case was being turned over to the District Attorney's office for prosecution.

All the local networks televised the funeral procession of Detective Derrick Rider. One station even carried the funeral of Mona Rider next to her husband's grave. The coverage continued with the award presentation to both Marc and Dakota. In addition, there was a posthumous presentation for Derrick. That proved to be the most emotional of the events of the week as Dakota accepted the award for his fallen partner.

By the end of the week, the coverage began to dwindle. It ceased being the lead in, and became just an update at the end of the broadcast. The updates included film of the confiscation of all the assets tied to members of the ring. The Seattle Drug Task Force was authorized by the governor to auction it all off. The proceeds from that auction were to be placed in a trust fund named The Derrick Rider Fund. The Rider Fund would be used to assist families of detectives and police officers who died in the line of duty. Thus, the final page closed on the San-Sea-Ca drug bust.

Slowly, things began to return to normal. By the end of the second week, the doctors pronounced Dakota fit for discharge from the hospital. By that time, only one news team arrived to cover the event. Ironically, it turned out to be a team from the station whose reporter had gotten in Dakota's face the night of Derrick's death. There were many sighs of relief when the reporter who arrived was not the one Dakota had tossed that night.

Captain Bell, accompanied by most of the other members of the task force, stood by as Dakota exited the hospital in the customary wheelchair. Marc stepped out from behind the wheelchair, and helped Dakota to his feet. After some enthusiastic applause from his comrades, Dakota stepped forward to address the reporter. He made a brief statement of thanks to the people of Seattle for their support and countless cards and gifts. When he concluded his statement, Dakota was asked what his plans for the immediate future might be.

"Go back to work and bust the next most significant drug ring of the decade," Dakota responded with a grin. A titter of laughter crept through the small crowd on hand.

There were a few more questions, which Dakota answered quickly. The crowd began to dissipate as his colleagues had to return to work. Before too long, only Marc, Dakota, and Captain Bell remained. Bell asked for them to stop in at the office for a brief meeting in about an hour, then climbed into his car and left as well.

** ** **

Bell stood in the doorway of his office, seemingly waiting for their arrival. He waved them over, then went inside and took a seat behind his desk. Marc and Dakota made their way through the office, delayed by all the pats on the back, and handshaking that occurred as they crossed the room.

"Welcome back," Bell greeted Dakota warmly. He indicated for the two to close the door and take a seat. Dakota wasn't sure, but he thought that he caught Bell winking at Marc who returned the gesture. "So, how's that shoulder holding up?"

"Fine," Dakota replied. He cast curious glances at both, Captain Bell and Marc. Neither could conceal secretive smiles from showing. "What exactly is going on here?"

"I'm curious," the captain began, "when was the last time you took a vacation?"

"Why?" Dakota asked suspiciously. "Are you gonna make me take some more time off?"

"Well," Bell's smile broadened. "You could look at it that way if you really wanted to."

"C'mon, Captain," Dakota groaned.

"So how long has it been?"

"I don't know," Dakota shrugged. "Maybe a year...year and a half."

"That's about to change. I think you need, as well as deserve, a break from the field," Bell said cheerfully. Again he and Marc exchanged glances.

"Are you putting me behind a desk?"

"Quite the contrary," the captain assured. "I need you in the field doing what you do best. I just want to be sure that you are fresh."

"Can I ask what it is that you have in mind?"

"Next month I want to send you and Detective Bradley undercover. There is a fishing boat operation based locally that is rumored to be catching more than just salmon," Bell leaned forward at his desk.

"And you want us to break it open?" Dakota asked tentatively. "Sir, with all due respect, I'm not much of a fisherman."

"Jesus, Dakota!" Bell laughed, "You've grown up in Washington! This place is an outdoorsman's Mecca."

"So sue me," Dakota quipped. "I can't help the fact that I never got excited about sitting on the bank of some river or lake for hours wondering if some little fish was gonna bite my hook. Besides, if I wanted fish, I could go to the store and buy it much quicker. I don't think I'm the right guy for the job this time and as for Marc…"

"He happens to be the son of a fisherman in Charleston, South Carolina."

Dakota glanced at his partner. During the time the two had spent getting to know one another in the hospital, Marc had never mentioned this little fact.

"May I tell him?" Marc asked the captain. He was literally squirming around in his chair with anticipation. Bell nodded to the young detective, who hopped to his feet and spun around to face Dakota.

"How would you like to spend a couple of weeks in the Old South?" Marc smiled. "Before you answer, consider the things you will find on your trip," Marc affected his best 'game-show host' voice, "That's right Johnny, tell him what he's won! Well, let's start him off with some fine Low Country traditional favorites like oyster roasts, iced tea, and the always popular porch swing. And that's not all. While in Charleston, you'll be staying in the quaint and hospitable Bradley Estates, serving the Bradley family for two generations."

Marc paused in his presentation and inspected Dakota's expression for signs of interest. Dakota raised an eyebrow, coaxing him to continue.

"We will have a lot of work to do to get you up to the level of a passable fisherman," Marc said." But while we're there, I promise to show you a good time. There is a lot of history in Charleston. We'll eat like kings, see some sights, and in between, my dad will teach us the ropes of working on a fishing boat."

"When you return to Seattle," Bell spoke up, "we'll set up your interview with the operation in question. We already have an operative inside. Mister Bradley has offered to prepare a fake background employment history."

"Heck," Marc laughed, "we'll even have you talking with a good of southern drawl."

Dakota looked back and forth between his partner and the captain. They both returned his stare with anticipation of his response.

"You had this in mind all along. Didn't you, Captain?" Dakota eyed the man suspiciously. "That's why you paired me with this guy. Isn't it?"

"I just considered the possibility that my best field agent may be available soon," Bell answered cautiously. "I was hoping the San-Sea-Ca ring would be busted open soon. Not as quickly as you managed to finish it I have to be honest."

"I don't buy that," Dakota shook his head." You couldn't possibly have had any idea when this case would break."

"I was only hoping," Bell said. "Besides, this fishing boat case won't even be ready for infiltration for a while. Our contact is still feeding us information. That is why you are going to Charleston for a couple of weeks. We have the luxury of not having to rush you through this training too quickly."

"But what if we hadn't made the bust soon enough?" Dakota asked.

"You may not like the answer," Bell cautioned. "I was considering plans to take you off the case." Dakota began to protest, but Bell cut him off, "Look, Dakota, we both know this case had taken a personal turn with you. I felt that your assessment of the situation was clouded by the events of the two days you went through. I'd like to add that you proved me right with that dumb assed stunt you pulled. Busting into Alanda's on your own was just stupid. You know as well as I do that the standard procedure in that situation is to call for back-up."

"But I had Marc," Dakota argued.

"You had a rookie with zero field experience," Bell retorted. Glancing at Marc, he quickly added, "No offense to you, Bradley."

"None taken," Marc nodded. Okay, he thought, maybe a little.

"Anyhow," Bell continued, "your plane leaves for Charleston the day after tomorrow. Effective as of this moment, you two are on vacation," Bell leaned forward and tapped Dakota on his chest. "I want you on that airplane, Dakota. You need to get away for a while. Have some fun for pete's sake."

"You're the boss," Dakota nodded.

"One more thing," Bell added as an afterthought, "change your appearance. Your face has become a bit too well known. Grow a beard or something drastic like chopping off some of those precious locks of yours."

Dakota ran a hand through his thick wavy hair that fell just past his collar. He loved his hair, so did the women for that matter. Oh well, he sighed. He didn't imagine that there would be too many women on the fishing boat. If there were, he didn't manage they would be the sort he would be asking out for a quiet evening on the town.

"You are dismissed, gentlemen," the meeting had been officially ended.

Marc and Dakota stood, ready to begin this supposed vacation. As Dakota opened the door, Bell cleared his throat to get their attention. They stopped in the doorway and turned around to see a smiling Captain Bell.

"Hey, Bradley?" Bell's expression became stern. "Give this guy some culture, show him some history."

"No problem," Marc answered. "There's plenty of that down there."

Dakota grabbed Marc by the arm and dragged him through the doorway. "Let's go partner. We are officially on vacation and every second spent here is wasted time."

Bell smiled as the two sped through the office. He felt very good about sending Dakota on this trip. He actually felt bad that the trip couldn't be longer. Dakota needed a break after all the things he had been through.

** ** **

Dakota stared at the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror. Perhaps he had gone too far. A change in appearance was one thing. This was a little over the top!

"I can't believe you shaved your head!" Marc laughed hysterically.

Dakota rubbed the stubble that remained on his pink scalp. He cast a rueful glance at the pile of hair that lay at his feet. Running some warm water into the basin, Dakota cupped his hands and splashed the water on to his head. Picking up the razor, he completed his transformation by shaving he finished, he grabbed a bottle of after-shave from his medicine cabinet.

"Don't do it, man," Marc warned, still laughing.

Dakota ignored the warning, splashing his now barren scalp with a palm full of the after-shave. Marc was right. A tremendous burning sensation exploded across the surface of his head. Quickly turning on the shower, he doused his burning head in the cold water. As the fiery sensation eventually subsided, he grabbed a towel and began drying off. He turned around to face Marc who now sat on the floor of the bathroom with tears running down his cheeks.

"It's not that funny," Dakota snarled.

"Yes, it is," Marc howled. "This is a definite Kodak moment!"

"So would the surgical procedure that removed my foot from your ass!" Marc struggled to suppress his laughter for a moment. He studied his newly shaven partner, measuring the intensity of the scowl plastered on his face. He stifled the laughter for as long as he could endure before he exploded once again. Dakota began to snicker at first, but soon, he too was overtaken by the contagious quality of Marc's laughter. They laughed so long and so hard that both of them ended up on the floor, holding their stomachs and gasping for breath.

Once they had recovered, the two stumbled into Dakota's kitchen, arms around each other's shoulders. Dakota opened the refrigerator and produced a couple of beers. Twisting the caps off, he placed one in front of Marc and took a long pull from his own. The two sat in silence for a moment, regaining their composure as they struggled with small fits of giggling. The first beers were drained quickly and just as quickly replaced.

The next few beers lasted longer as conversation and joke telling ensued (mostly about Dakota's bald head). Slowly, as the alcohol began to loosen tongues, Dakota began to relate stories from the field. Marc sat in silent fascination as he listened to the highlights of Dakota's career with Derrick. After a few more hours, and several more beers the conversation became more serious.

"What made you join the force?" Dakota asked. Resting his head on his hands, he observed his new partner carefully. He watched as Marc's face flinched at the question, then quickly recovered.

"My brother," Marc paused, frowning as he recalled the painful memory. "He died in a drug raid."

"I see," Dakota nodded. "So you wanted to follow in his footsteps. You want to finish the job he left undone...like a sort of personal crusade."

"No," Marc shook his head. He struggled for a moment to keep the tremor out of his voice. "He was a dealer. He was dealing cocaine and shit to the kids at my school. Mostly to friends of mine."

"I am so sorry," Dakota apologized. "I didn't mean...shit! Now I really feel like an asshole."

"No, don't worry about it," Marc assured. "It's not a big secret or nothing. In fact, it almost kept me out of the academy," Marc's face brightened. "You know how those pricks will do anything to get inside your head. When I went to my Certification Board, they really tried to mess with my head. I got a kick out of watching them getting flustered. They'd take shots at me by asking if I intended on continuing the family business," his smile broadened. "I'd sit there with a look of dumb innocence and tell them that fishing wasn't really my thing."

They polished of the last of the beer in silence, each lost in their own individual past traumas. When they had finished, each turned in for the night. Marc climbed into the blankets Dakota set out for him on the couch. Dakota staggered down the hallway to his bedroom. He flopped down onto the bed and reached over to switch off the lamp. His gaze fell on the picture of him and Derrick that still rested on the dresser.

"Rest in peace, Derrick," Dakota whispered. "We got the bad guys."

Switching off the light, Dakota drifted off to sleep. For the first time since Derrick's death, he didn't have any nightmares.

** ** **

Dakota woke up to find Marc sitting on the edge of his bed. He looked as bad as Dakota felt. His eyes were bloodshot and he squinted to keep even the very minimal light on the room from penetrating them.

"So," Marc said. He immediately grimaced and clutched the sides of his head at the sudden loudness of his own voice. "How should we spend our last day in the big city?" he whispered.

Dakota gradually made his way up to a sitting position. He considered their choices and then decided, "What say we go catch a basketball game?"

"That's right," Marc exclaimed as loudly as he dared, which was still barely above a whisper, "Portland is in town tonight."

"I wouldn't mind watching the home team run a little rough shod over that group of punks," Dakota's enthusiasm began to increase.

"You must still be under the influence of last night," Marc countered. "Portland is wicked this year. They'll bust Seattle open and watch 'em bleed."

"Well then," Dakota eased himself out of bed, allowing his body to catch up with the room, "let's get cleaned up and go pick up some tickets."

After quick showers, the two were dressed. They left the house and searched for the closest restaurant in town. After a hot meal, both men felt much better.

Once tickets for the game had been procured, they wandered around the downtown mall area. Marc shopped around for suitable souvenirs to return to Charleston with. Dakota tagged along happily, teasing Marc about being a tourist. All in all, the afternoon passed pleasantly. The events of the past few weeks now seemed a million years away.

The time for the basketball game finally arrived. It turned out to be a huge disappointment for Dakota. Portland came out of the blocks with fury. The all-star guard for Seattle was ejected three minutes into the game after he had obviously been hacked on the arm. By the third quarter, most of the arena began to empty as disgruntled fans gave up on any hopes for a rally.

Marc cheered and jeered at the home team while Dakota sat sulking in his seat. Marc's enthusiasm was only interrupted when an angry Seattle fan threw a half empty beer at his head. Dakota jumped to his feet, but Marc placed a firm hand on his shoulder.

"I'm a big boy," Marc smiled as he made his way towards his drunken assailant. After a heated exchange, Marc leaned over and whispered something to the man who abruptly shut his mouth and took his seat. Marc returned to where Dakota sat with a questioning look on his face.

"What's the use of having a position of authority if you don't use it on occasion?" Marc grinned.

The remainder of the game passed with Marc cheering even louder than before. When the final horn sounded, the two made their way to the nearly vacant parking lot and drove to a nightclub of Marc's choosing. The place was packed and the music was a bit too full of bass for Dakota's liking.

"Hey, buddy," Marc shouted over the din, "let's find us some bar bimbos and get nasty!"

"This really isn't my scene," Dakota shook his head.

"I suppose you're into that local grunge thing," Marc chided. "Hey," Dakota protested, "Seattle is the new rock capitol of the world!"

"Well I'm gonna scope the scene for prospects," Marc shrugged. He wandered into the sea of people and disappeared.

It didn't take him long to return to Dakota's table with two scantily clad girls in tow. Hasty introductions were made, then Marc and one of the girls departed for the dance floor. Dakota stood and offered a seat to the other girl that remained.

Out of habit, he went to run a hand through his hair. He stopped short when he remembered it was all gone. He quickly brought his hand down and placed it in his lap. After considerable coaxing and a couple of shots of tequila, the girl managed to get Dakota out on the dance floor. Looking around in confusion, Dakota did his best to imitate some of the bizarre gyrations he observed others doing around him. He was comically unsuccessful.

As the night dragged on, it became obvious that this girl was interested in Dakota. Either that, Dakota thought, or she had consumed a few too many drinks.

When the club closed, Marc and Dakota left in the company of the two women. To Dakota's relief, they were invited to the apartment of the two young vixens. Marc and his 'date' quickly adjourned to one of the bedrooms leaving Dakota alone with this girl whose name he still did not know. He was treated to a not too unpleasant strip-tease. A marathon of wild sex soon ensued until the wee hours of the morning.

Dakota awoke to find Marc gently shaking him. His face had a broad smile plastered on it as he nodded in the direction of the unconscious blonde sprawled beside him. Marc gestured toward the door and Dakota nodded in understanding. The two slipped silently out of the house to Dakota's car and drove off.

The ride home was ripe with stories of the evening's events. Once the two arrived back at Dakota's, they grabbed a suitcase and packed the few necessary items he would need. Then, they drove to Marc's and grabbed the bags that already sat waiting by the door.

As they made their way to the airport, Marc began to fill Dakota in on what to expect. "My pop is a great guy, but once we get on the boat, he's all business," Marc warned.

"Hey," Dakota shrugged, "I've got a lot to learn in a short time."

"Just don't take it personal if he rides you a bit," Marc cautioned. "He's really excited about being involved in this. After my brother died, I suddenly became his pet project. He didn't want me to end up like...," Marc paused, "lets just say that it was a really proud moment when I graduated. He got even more excited when I received my assignment out here in Seattle."

"That seems perfectly understandable," Dakota tried to ease his partner's sudden angst.

"You know that the news of our bust went national. When my pop heard about it," a smile beamed on Marc's face, "I guess he told everybody, whether he knew them or not, that his son had been a part of it. He's pretty excited about meeting you. When I told him that we were coming out, he just about had a coronary. He is taking this assignment to train you very seriously."

"Look," Dakota said, "I understand. You don't have to warn me about it." Dakota thought for a second, then added, "I'm sure that if my dad were around today, he'd be the same way."

The car phone rang, interrupting their conversation. "Riley," Dakota pressed a button on the cell phone.

"Just wanted to wish you well on your trip," a familiar voice on the phone piped.

"You sure you're not just checking up on us, Captain?" Dakota asked sarcastically.

Laughter cackled in Dakota's ear. "Okay," Bell conceded, "so maybe I was a bit worried that after last night, you two might have a little trouble making your flight." There was a pause on the line before Bell added, "By the way, nice haircut."

"What did you do, have us followed?"

"I just had some new guys get some surveillance practice," Bell replied innocently.

"On us?"

"Oh don't be such a baby," Bell said. "Anyway, have a safe trip. I'll see you in a couple of weeks."

"If we come back at all," Dakota said mischievously. "Marc tells me that this place is pretty relaxing. I might just like it enough to transfer out there."

"I doubt it," Bell dismissed the comment. "They are still a little behind the time out there. Some of those yahoos still think the war is going , you'll always be a Seattleite at heart. You big city types just don't blend in that well with country folk."

"Thanks for the warning," Dakota acknowledged. He had no idea what Bell was talking about, but decided to just let it go. "See you in two weeks."

"Just take care of yourself out there," Bell warned. "It's a different society."

The phone clicked as Bell hung up. Dakota considered the captain's warning for a moment. It struck him as odd. Oh well, Dakota dismissed the warning as a protective captain showing concern for his detective after a rough few weeks.

** ** **

They arrived at the airport and checked in at the ticket counter. The woman behind the counter immediately recognized the notorious duo. With a shy smile, she asked for their autographs. They glanced at each other in disbelief, and then acquiesced to the surprising request.

Within an hour, they were airborne. Dakota looked out the window at the city below. The serene beauty of the skyline mesmerized him. He recalled his little joke about staying in Charleston. No, he thought. The captain was right. He could never stay in Charleston. This was his home. Seattle was where he belonged, no matter what.

CHAPTER 6

Charleston, South Carolina-Dakota glanced out the window at the landscape below. The pilot had just announced that they were making their final approach to Charleston International Airport. He expected to see some semblance of a city below, but that was not the case. Instead, what he saw consisted mostly of farmlands, forests, and swamps. He pressed his face to the window looking in every direction, still no sign of a city.

"So where is this grand old city you've been bragging about?" Dakota asked.

Marc burst out laughing, "Well, Dakota, we country mice don't much care for airplanes buzzin' over our town. We keeps those strange flying machines out in the boondocks."

"I don't suppose you ever considered a profession as a comedian?" Dakota quipped.

Before long, the plane taxied to the terminal. The two got up and made their way off. Dakota always despised the debarking process. Everyone crowded the aisle, jostling their way forward as if they feared the plane might suddenly take off again.

Walking up the fluorescent lit tunnel that led to the terminal, Dakota became immediately aware of the climate change. The air already seemed dank and heavy with moisture. How could anyone in their right mind want to live in such a stifling, muggy and hot place? He would take the crisp, clean air of Seattle any time.

Marc led the way as they exited into the gate area. He seemed to vanish suddenly in a sea of bodies. Dakota emerged to find a rather large woman engulfing Marc in a hug that would have squeezed the life from a grizzly. A rather tall and weather worn man stood beside the woman surveying the scene with obvious pride. Marc managed to wriggle free from the woman's grasp and suck in a deep breath.

"Momma, pops, this is my partner, Dakota Riley," he announced.

Dakota stepped forward to extend his hand. He never saw it coming. Two huge arms snatched him forward, as Dakota found himself in one of Mother Bradley's hugs. He gasped for air to nourish his suddenly deflated lungs.

"My goodness," Marc's mother exclaimed, "ya'll even more comely than those pictures on the television!"

"Thank you ma'am," Dakota managed.

"Now, Martha, you're gonna squish the life outta the boy," the tall man admonished gently.

Martha Bradley released her hold on Dakota and stepped back. She smiled one of the warmest, most heartfelt smile that Dakota could ever recall. She hastily brushed her ruffled dress, straightening the wrinkles resulting from her fierce hugs.

Marc's father stepped forward, offering his hand to Dakota, "The name is James Bradley, but everybody just calls me Jake."

Dakota shook the man's hand. He felt the callused roughness that came from years of arduous work. The grip was powerful to the point of nearly causing pain. "Pleased to meet you," Dakota said.

"So," Jake began as he released Dakota's hand, "I understand you boys are here with a purpose. I'm supposed to teach you the craft of deep sea fishing."

"Yes sir," Dakota nodded. "That's the plan. I've got a couple of weeks to learn all I can so that I can pass myself off as a fisherman."

"Here's a couple of tips," Jake looked sternly at Dakota, "first, call me, Jake. Sir sounds too uppity for my liking. Second, it takes more than a couple of weeks on a boat to be a fisherman."

Marc cast an 'I told you so' look at Dakota. Dakota just stood there and returned Jake's imposing glare with his best smile. Marc headed towards the baggage claim area, effectively ending the confrontation. Dakota now realized what all of his partner's warnings had been about. This man would be a tough nut indeed.

They gathered the few bags that the two had brought along. After that, everyone exited the small airport, stepping out into the sultry warmth of the South Carolina sun. Jake led the way to a big red Suburban and loaded the bags into the back.

After everybody piled into the vehicle, they left the airport and merged on to a freeway that, by Seattle standards, barley passed for a business loop. As they drove towards Charleston, Martha gave a guided tour of the area. The real interesting points were in the actual downtown area of Charleston itself. It seemed as if a historical landmark rested at every corner.

No matter where he looked, Dakota was confronted by a building or monument. It seemed as if time had chosen to stand still in this little part of the country. Everything from the architecture to the cobblestone streets exuded a heritage that he had never experienced before. He had heard rumors of the pride that southerners took in keeping their history on display, but to see it was flabbergasting. The city looked like a three dimensional history book come to life.

They turned down a street that Martha referred to as 'the battery' a row of venerable houses that faced Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. In the middle of the harbor, Dakota made out the outline of an old fort. The street was narrow, barely wide enough for two cars. On one side sat the grand houses of a bygone era, on the other side of the street was a stone wall, barely waist high. A red brick sidewalk provided a pedestrian walkway for people to amble leisurely along while they enjoyed the view. From that walk, they could look out across the harbor at Fort Sumter. The fort still seemed to sit as a sentinel, guarding the harbor entrance. The simple beauty of this city was a far cry from the glass and steel that dominated his home of Seattle.

They arrived at one of the many two-story houses that lined the street. Everyone piled out and helped unload Marc and Dakota's luggage. Jake insisted on carrying the largest of the suitcases to the house. Dakota caught a glimpse of the man's cable-like muscles that were the direct result of his years as a fisherman.

Martha quickly escorted the two to their rooms, then vanished downstairs to the kitchen. The rattle of pots and pans could be heard as Dakota unpacked his things. Marc asked his mother not to go to any trouble. She promptly scolded him for being silly, then commented that the two of them looked as if they hadn't eaten a decent meal in months.

The meal, feast seemed a more appropriate word to Dakota, was beyond anything he had ever witnessed. Everything from fresh, homemade cornbread smothered with honey and butter, to the glazed ham, seemed to melt in his mouth. To his surprise, there remained little more than table scraps at the conclusion of dinner.

Once they had all eaten their fill, everyone adjourned to the living room. Martha referred to it as the parlor, a term Dakota found very fitting. The men each took their seats and rapidly proceeded to unbuttoning the top buttons of their jeans. Martha exited into the kitchen and returned with large glasses of iced tea which she distributed.

Casual conversation ensued for a while until Marc was asked about his first assignment. Marc eagerly told a slightly exaggerated account of the, now famous, drug bust. Dakota sat quietly, nodding in agreement at the appropriate times. After Marc finished his story, everyone sat back to allow their dinners to settle.

Dakota's attentions were drawn to the spectacular view provided by the large picture window. The parlor window looked out across the water where a dazzling sunset reflected off its surface. A fiery orange hue lit up the harbor, giving it a mystical glow.

Shortly after darkness draped itself over the water, Jake rose and announced that it was time to turn in. He explained that a good night's rest would be essential for the busy day ahead. Marc nodded in agreement, then winked slyly at Dakota. Dakota cast a questioning glance in return, but Marc turned and climbed the stairs to his bedroom.

Dakota did the same. He closed the bedroom door behind himself and made his way to the window. Opening it slightly, he reveled in the cool night air that met his face. Turning off the light, Dakota undressed and climbed into bed. The coolness of the freshly washed linen sheets caressed his skin. Sleep came instantly.

** ** **

Dakota's pleasant slumber was interrupted by a bothersome invasion of light. He opened his eyes to find Marc standing above him. For some peculiar reason, Marc was dressed. Dakota glanced out his window to confirm what he already expected, it was still pitch black outside.

"You have got to be kidding," Dakota moaned as he pulled the blankets over his head.

"C'mon, buddy," Marc whispered in a voice that sounded way too chipper for this early hour.

"What the hell time is it?"

"It's still early enough that my pop is still sleeping."

"Well then," Dakota growled, "wake me when he gets up."

"No way," Marc responded, yanking Dakota's covers back. "This first day on the water is just you and me. We're gonna have some fun. A day to do with as we choose."

"Fine," Dakota snapped, "I choose sleep!"

"You don't get it," Marc smiled, "we're sneaking out. Believe me when I tell you that we'll have plenty of time at the hands of 'the Taskmaster'. Today, we take a little pleasure cruise."

"Sure," Dakota pulled the sheets back over his head, "that's just how it started for those seven people on Gilligan's Island."

"Will you just shut up and get dressed before the ogre awakens?" Marc urged. He made an honest attempt to look stern, then exited the room.

Dakota lay there for a moment. Reluctantly, he climbed out of the bed and grabbed his clothes. He knew that Marc would not give up. Before long, Marc would be back in the room goading him to hurry up. The pestering would continue until he caved. Why prolong the inevitable?

A few minutes later, Dakota joined Marc in the kitchen. The room remained dark except for the glow from the small power indicator light on the coffee-maker. Marc thrust a steaming cup of coffee into Dakota's hands. Grumbling a thanks, Dakota downed half the contents and refilled the cup.

"What about, Jake?" Dakota demanded." He's gonna be pissed when he wakes up and finds us gone."

"He'll get over it," Marc said. "Now, grab your piece and let's roll."

"My piece?" Dakota was confused.

"Sure," Marc nodded. "I plan on bringing some targets. We can have a little fun today. Besides," Marc smiled slyly, "I want to see what you can do when the deck is moving under your feet. I'd like to know how well my back is being covered. You'll discover that things are just a little different at sea. You need to be able to adjust for the movement of the boat."

Dakota polished off the rest of his coffee. Without a word, he returned to his room for his pistol. He was the rookie in this field. He had to give Marc the ball on this one. His only experience on water involved the ferry system in Seattle.

Checking the safety, Dakota slid his handgun into its holster. He buttoned his flannel shirt halfway, then picked up his teal wind breaker. Considering how warm it had been yesterday, Dakota felt a little overdressed, but better safe than sorry.

Joining Marc on the porch, Dakota strutted down the walkway like a fashion model, "How do I look?"

"Like a refugee from a Pearl Jam concert," Marc chuckled.

"And just what is wrong with that?"

"That stuff rots your brain," Marc snorted. "The more you listen to that crap, the dumber you get."

"Whew," Dakota mockingly wiped his brow, "I still got a shot at catching you in a few years. I was worried that we may not be able to communicate beyond simple sign language."

They climbed into the red Suburban together. Marc tossed a large duffel bag in the back seat. The pair drove to the marina cracking jokes about each other's tastes in everything from music to clothing.

Reaching the marina, they quickly found a parking spot. The sun wouldn't rise for a couple more hours. Most of the fisherman had yet to arrive. Grabbing the duffel bag, Marc led Dakota up the pier. They came to a forty foot trawler. The name on the stern identified its owner to Dakota, Jake's Junket was painstakingly painted in two foot black letters in the Olde English style..

Marc leaped across to the deck and began to lay out the gangplank. Dakota brushed the gesture aside, "I may be a landlubber, but I believe I can board on my own."

Marc stepped aside, making a grandiose gesture with his hand, inviting Dakota across. Studying the gentle rocking of the boat, Dakota began to bob forward and back as he tried to get in sync with the boat's motion. He waited for the perfect moment and jumped. His leap was graceful, his landing, artistic, until he lost traction on the slippery deck and fell smack on his butt.

"Not a word," Dakota cautioned.

Making a locking gesture with his hand over his lips, Marc headed forward to begin the preparations for getting underway. Dakota sat alone, gathering up his dignity. He stood cautiously, rubbing his bruised backside, which, at the moment, matched his ego.

As Marc scurried about the bridge, making the necessary pre-underway checks, Dakota toured the trawler. He felt like a fish out of water, all puns intended. Marc called from the bridge, telling Dakota that they were ready to cast off the lines. He directed Dakota to slip off the mooring lines. Then he explained what the mooring lines were.

Dakota marveled at the ease in which Marc pulled away from the pier. He made his way to the bridge and observed his friend with a newfound respect. Marc operated the trawler with the same deftness that Dakota operated a car.

Within a half hour they were cruising past Fort Sumter. Dakota rushed to the rail to take a closer look at the timeworn fortress. Its silhouette seemed oddly foreboding like an icon from the past that remained for the sole purpose of reminding everyone of a darker chapter in the annals of American history. It seemed ironic that such an embarrassing time in the nation's history could be a tourist attraction.

Once they cleared the fort, the channel opened up before them. Soon, they were cutting through the gray-green waters of the Atlantic. A warm southerly wind served to expurgate the air. Not a hint of exhaust remained to taint the salty, refreshing sea breeze. Dakota breathed deeply of the tangy air. His nostrils welcomed the clean purity that rushed to fill his lungs.

Marc steered an easy course, heading southeast across the swells that gently rocked the trawler. Dakota had the sensation of being in a giant hammock that allowed him to walk about as it swayed in the wind.

Dakota looked back to notice the outline of Charleston becoming nothing more than a dark line on the horizon. After about two hours, the steady vibration of the well-tuned diesel engines ceased. Looking up towards the bridge, he noticed Marc coming down to join him on the deck. He brandished a .44 magnum that would have made Dirty Harry envious.

"It's time to ask yourself," Marc hissed, "do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

"Rich Little you ain't," Dakota shook his head.

Marc seemed to ignore Dakota's disparaging comment. He went to the duffel bag, producing a small orange float. Marc flaunted it proudly as he swaggered over to Dakota." This's our target."

"Big deal," Dakota seemed unimpressed.

"Ah, grasshopper," Marc cautioned, "this is no ordinary target." He flipped a switch on the float, causing it to emit a high pitched whirring sound. "It is motorized. Watch carefully."

Marc tossed the device over the side. It landed with a splash then began to dart about, changing directions at random. Marc fired three quick shots. Each one lifted the little target out of the water. The third shot struck the target causing it to explode. Marc turned back to Dakota, his face beaming with pride.

"I made these myself," Marc proclaimed. "It has a small pressurized oxygen bottle in an aluminum casing. If you score a direct hit on the casing, it blows up. Wanna try?"

Dakota nodded in approval, then drew his trusty Colt. Flipping off the safety, he indicated that he was ready. Trying to steady himself against the rocking of the trawler, Dakota took aim. As the float sped about, he fired off two shots. Both rounds hit the water, nowhere near their intended mark.

He looked sheepishly over to Marc, expecting some sort of taunt. Instead, his partner stepped up behind him and gave careful instruction on how to adjust to the movement of the boat. When it became clear that Dakota still struggled with this new concept, Marc returned to the bridge. Unlocking the wheel, he steered the trawler onto a more peaceful course.

Shouting instructions from the bridge, Marc continued to tutor his landlubber of a partner. The morning passed by as the two worked to perfect Dakota's abilities of firing his weapon while the deck under his feet rocked to and fro. Gradually, Dakota began to grasp the finer points.

Once all the targets were gone, the two plopped down on the deck. Marc removed his shoulder holster, stowing it in his duffel bag. Dakota instinctively reloaded three clips, inserting one into his pistol. With a flip of his thumb, the chamber slid into place, forcing a round into the chamber. He tucked the other two clips into his jacket pocket.

"All the targets are gone," Marc said, looking up at the sound of Dakota's gun.

"Force of habit," Dakota explained." I never leave my weapon unloaded."

With that done, they stripped down to shorts and stretched out to enjoy the sun. The weather was gorgeous. Before long, the two dozed off. The warm afternoon rays, combined with the gentle rocking, allowed the two to enjoy a leisurely nap.

Dakota awoke to find the trawler pitching about. Water sprayed over the rails, covering him with a fine mist. Marc was already on his feet, pulling his clothes on in a hurry. He was looking off in the distance with an expression of concern.

"What's the matter?" Dakota asked, shaking off the effects of the nap.

"Looks like a storm heading our way."

Dakota scrambled to his feet. He looked out in the direction of Marc's gaze. Sure enough, dark clouds seemed to be materializing in the distance. Dakota grabbed his clothes, pulling them on as he followed Marc to the bridge. Entering the small shack that acted as the bridge, he found Marc studying a printout. He kept shaking his head as his fingers ran down the printed lines of text.

"This isn't right," Marc uttered.

"What?" Dakota asked, slightly alarmed. "What's not right?"

"This weather report says that we should be experiencing nothing but blue skies and sunshine," Marc tapped the printout.

"Hey, you know weather reports," Dakota offered, forcing a laugh, "they never get them right."

"Maybe so," Marc agreed, "but there is no sign of storm activity. Certainly something this big would show up."

"So what are you saying?"

"I am saying that this storm doesn't exist," Marc replied, becoming agitated.

Marc began to fidget with a radio mounted on the overhead. He swore as static hissed from the tiny speaker. Flipping from channel to channel, Marc's efforts were eventually rewarded. He found a clear channel and grabbed the hand-set, "Coast Guard Station, this is Sierra-Charlie-six-eight-two. Come in, over."

There was a long span of silence.

"This is Coast Guard Station," a faint reply came back. It sounded a million miles away to Dakota.

"Coast Guard Station," Marc keyed the mic, "my position is approximately ten miles southeast of Charleston. We are in visual of what appears to be a major storm front. What does your radar show?"

Another long delay followed. When a response came, it was barely audible. Marc shook his head in frustration, then keyed the mic again, "Could not read your last, please repeat, over."

"We show scopes clear to one-zero-zero- miles," a tinny voice responded. "Re-check your position, over."

Marc studied the digital readout of a small silver box mounted beside the radio. He carefully wrote down the numbers, then checked a chart tacked up on the wall.

"That is fucking impossible," Marc blurted out. He quickly went back to the box to double check his numbers. Dakota shifted anxiously back and forth until he could no longer stay quiet.

"What the hell is going on?"

Marc turned to face Dakota with a grim look of concern. "According to this," he indicated to the silver box, "we are less than four miles from shore."

Dakota peered out the window towards where he assumed land should be. All he saw was a shimmering haze that obscured his vision. "I don't see anything."

"Exactly," Marc nodded. "This thing must be on the blink," he slapped the silver box in emphasis of his point.

As if in retaliation, the trawler pitched hard to the right, then back upright again. Dakota fell backwards, crashing through the door that opened out onto the port bridge wing. Marc grabbed the wheel for balance and reached over to pull Dakota back inside.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" Marc exclaimed.

Regaining his balance, Dakota looked out to the starboard side. The black clouds, which only minutes before, had seemingly been miles away, were right on top of them. Gasping in amazement, Dakota stepped out onto the starboard bridge wing. These clouds were like nothing he had ever seen before. They didn't just darken the sky, they blotted out all light. It seemed to him that he was staring into a long dark tunnel with no exit. A thunderous rain began to beat down on the roof of the bridge, accompanied by peculiar ozone like smell.

"What's going on?" Dakota screamed over the growing howl of the wind.

"I have no idea," Marc yelled over the din of the rain," but we're getting outta here. Get inside, I don't want you going overboard." Marc turned the key, bringing the trawler's powerful engines to life. He unlocked the wheel, spinning it hard to port away from the storm.

The boat lurched forward, rising on the crest of a wave and crashing down. Water washed over the bow as the trawler dropped into a trough. The diesel engines would rev as the propellers left the water, then bog down as they dug back in.

Marc keyed the hand-set, "Coast Guard Station, this is, Sierra-Charlie-Six-Eight-Two. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Do you read me, over?"

"Sie---arl--ix--two--what--or--day?" the speaker crackled.

"Coast Guard Station, please dispatch rescue," Marc hollered over the storm. The desperation in his voice was obvious. "We are floundering."

Suddenly, there came a loud grinding sound. The diesel engines screamed a final protest, then died. Dakota and Marc spun around, facing the aft of the heaving trawler. Thick black smoke poured through the cracks in the hatch above the engine compartment.

"Have mercy," Marc gasped. He keyed the hand-set again, "Coast Guard Station, we have lost our engines. We have a fire on board."

In response, a loud buzzer began to sound from the bridge console. Marc flipped a switch, silencing the alarm. With a press of a button, he activated the halon fire-extinguisher system. A look of disbelief came over him. He pressed the button again, waited a moment, and shook his head. "Shit," Marc swore to himself.

"Now what?" Dakota felt a sense of helplessness and panic that surpassed any such feelings he could recollect.

"The Halon system isn't responding," Marc whispered.

"What does that mean?"

"It means," Marc faced Dakota, "that the engine fire is going to burn out of control."

Keying the radio in desperation, Marc tried to summon help. "Coast Guard Station, we are going down. Mayday you mother fuckers, mayday!"

"SIERRA-CHARLIE-SIX-EIGHT-TWO, PLEASE GIVE YOUR COORDINATES AT ONCE!" the speaker blared.

Marc keyed the mic to respond. As he did, a loud electrical scream emitted from the radio. Dakota covered his ears. Marc dropped the hand-set and did the same. Sparks shot from the box as the power light flickered, then went out. Marc grabbed the hand-set and flipped the on/off switch a few times, but he already knew the radio was shot.

By now, the freakish storm sat directly overhead. Only a small emergency light mounted above provided any illumination. The air became strangely diffused as the smell of ozone overwhelmed them. Rain continued to hammer at the roof, and small leaks began to spring from above.

"I'm sorry, buddy."

"Why?" Dakota asked with a shrug. "This is completely out of your control."

"But if my pop were here," Marc tried to explain.

"There would be three of us riding out this storm," Dakota cut his friend off.

The windows of the bridge creaked in protest as they began to flex inward. Instinctively, Marc lunged at Dakota, tackling him to the floor. As they crashed to the deck, the windows imploded. Dagger-like shards of Plexiglas rained down on them.

The two struggled to their feet, brushing themselves off. A fierce wind buffeted them. The gust felt hot, as if it came from the billows of a blacksmith's forge. Their exposed skin began to tingle and burn. The overhead light flickered, popped, then went out, leaving them in total darkness.

"What could possibly happen next?" Marc asked, semi-rhetorically.

He wouldn't need to wait for an answer. The trawler heaved once again, this time snapping hard to port, pausing momentarily, then violently righting itself. Marc lost his footing and slammed hard into Dakota. Dakota crashed through the door leading to the starboard bridge wing. Marc heard his partner crash to the deck with a sickening thud.

There was a rumble, followed by an explosion from back aft. A fireball ripped through the deck above the diesel compartment. In the bright orange light from the flames, Marc could see Dakota sprawled awkwardly. His body lay in a heap, half in, and half out of the doorway.

The boat started spinning slowly to starboard in a tight arc. It reminded Marc of a merry-go-round. He tried to climb to his feet, but the boat was spinning faster and faster causing him to become dizzy and nauseous. Crawling seemed like an easier alternative. As Marc reached the doorway, the bow of the doomed trawler began to rise into the air. Sliding backwards, Marc slammed into the aft bulkhead of the bridge. He watched helplessly as Dakota slipped through the doorway and slid from view.

Marc gathered all the strength he could muster and pulled himself to his feet. What he saw made his blood run cold. The trawler sat in the vortex of a whirlpool, spinning wildly out of control. He tried to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat, but discovered that he could not.

With painstaking slowness, he managed to claw his way out onto the bridge wing. Grasping the railing for balance, he made his way towards the ladder that led down to the deck. Reaching the edge, he looked down to see Dakota at the bottom. He was slowly slipping aft as the bow of the boat rose higher and higher. The only thing keeping him from sliding into the inferno that used to be the engine room was his foot stuck in one of the rungs.

Marc gripped the sides of the ladder and slid down to the deck beside Dakota. The hot gusts of wind, coupled with the heat from the fire, made breathing next to impossible. The rain that poured down on him did little to ease his discomfort. Bending down, Marc rolled Dakota onto his back. A nasty gash on Dakota's head bled freely, covering his face with a sinister looking crimson mask.

Marc tried to drag Dakota away from the flames. As he pulled his partner loose from the ladder, something that felt like a marble struck his arm. He looked around to see hailstones dropping on the deck all around him.

Bending over to shield Dakota's body with his own, he checked for any signs of life. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the steady rise and fall of Dakota's chest.

"Come on, Dakota," Marc patted his partner's cheeks in an effort to revive him. "Wake up. Don't you quit on me, buddy."

This received no response at all. He slapped Dakota harder this time, still getting no response. He glanced back at the flames that seemed to be raging higher and hotter with every passing second. His only option would be to get the two of them into the water. He searched around with his eyes until he spotted what he needed, several coils of rope hung on the rails nearby. He felt a bubble of optimism. This was the first break since this storm managed to overtake them.

Using the ladder for support, Marc struggled to his feet, pulling Dakota up with him. Grabbing a coil of rope, he quickly lashed Dakota to the wooden ladder. Once Dakota was secure, Marc began kicking the base of the ladder, breaking it free from the bulkhead. The weight of his partner being lashed to it helped tear the ladder free from its mount. Holding on to the nearby railing, Marc pulled his partner and his makeshift raft towards him. Grabbing some planks that tore free during the explosion, Marc tied them to the underside of the ladder. He said a quick prayer and tossed Dakota overboard.

"Good luck, partner," Marc whispered. He allowed himself a moment to admire his handiwork, thankful that, not only did it float, but it landed with Dakota face up. He watched to be sure that his makeshift raft stayed upright and above water, then searched for something that would support him. He spied the door that Dakota had been thrown through. Hastily, he tied himself to it and hobbled to the railing. Glancing around, he saw no sign of Dakota. Oh well, Marc thought as he positioned himself on the edge of the railing, he would find him once he hit the water.

As Marc prepared to launch himself over the side, he heard a crackling sound from above. He looked up to see the walls of the bridge cabin burst forth in an eruption of wooden splinters. Marc brought up a hand to shield his face, and never saw the heavy oak steering wheel as it hurled towards his head. To his fortune, it only grazed him. Had it struck him squarely, it would have crushed his skull. A sudden jolt of pain sent his senses reeling. The pain was replaced by a soothing numbness. Marc's final thought kept repeating itself over and over in his head.

This is just a nightmare.