He floated up to consciousness slowly, somehow knowing that it was suddenly very important that he do so. He struggled to focus, both mentally and audibly. The sound that had disturbed him was hushed, subdued, but unmistakable.
When he felt capable of opening his eyes, he did so, staring at the ceiling as he attempted to gain control over the exhaustion and discomfort that wracked his entire body. Carefully, he turned his head to look at his companion.
Steve was slumped in the chair beside the bed, head in his hands, his shoulders shaking in silent sobs. Instinctively Mike realized that this uncharacteristic behaviour was not related to his own situation; this pain and anguish went much deeper.
Mustering all his strength, Mike reached out and was grateful that he was close enough to able to lay his hand over one of his partner’s. Steve flinched, not anticipating the touch, and his head snapped back.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped, shaking his head, “I didn’t mean to –“
Mike shook his head, cutting him off, staring into his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked softly.
It was Steve’s turn to shake his head. “No, nothing…not now…you need to –“
Mike cocked his head. “Steve,” he said with as much firmness as he could summon up, “talk to me.”
The young man’s face crumbled and he ran a hand over his eyes, wiping away the tears.
“What happened?” Mike asked quietly, grasping his partner’s hand in an attempt to pull him closer to the bed.
Steve hadn’t wanted to do this right now; he had wanted to put more time between himself and what had happened that morning, and he also wanted Mike to be stronger. But suddenly he was not being given much of a choice; even in his debilitated state, Mike Stone was a force to be reckoned with.
With a resigned half-smile in spite of himself, Steve slid the chair closer, took Mike’s hand in both of his, propped his elbows on the bed and stared into his partner’s sympathetic blue eyes. He took a deep breath. “You really want to hear this right now?” he asked softly.
Mike closed his eyes and nodded. Knowing his partner as well as he did, he knew this was not going to be easy for either of them, but he also knew that this pain was so unbearable that he couldn’t allow this young man to shoulder the burden alone any longer.
Steve stared into his partner’s eyes for several long seconds before he took a deep breath and started to talk. “You were right,” he began with a quiet chuckle, “it was the kids.”
For the next half hour, as Mike successfully struggled to stay awake and to focus, Steve’s filled him in on the events of the past couple of days – of working with the Oakland police department, coordinating resources, zeroing in on the two black teenagers that Mrs. Vandonigan had seen.
He told of bringing in the two teens, of ‘Beenie’ the informant and the revelation that the third teen was a ‘rich white boy’; of the identification of ‘that boy’ as being the favoured son of a prominent Oakland family, and the decision to bring Gerry O’Brien in and to present their findings to the Oakland ADA in the hopes of getting a search warrant before word got out that the family was under suspicion.
Mike smiled under the oxygen mask, his eyes warm and impressed. “You guys did an amazing job,” he said softly.
Steve smiled wistfully. “We had a lot of help.” Then his face turned serious, disconsolate. He felt Mike’s grip on his hand tighten. He took a deep breath and looked down. “We were waiting on the warrant. Norm suggested I give you a visit.” He felt Mike twitch slightly and looked up into his startled eyes.
“You were here?”
Steve smiled slightly, and nodded with raised eyebrows. “Last night. You were in ICU on a ventilator. You scared the hell out of me.”
Mike’s grip tightened again and under the mask he smiled sheepishly. “Sorry…”
Steve’s smile widened then disappeared. “Jack Elliott had been working with us over in Oakland. He’d finally seemed to be putting Charlie’s death in perspective, and he was doing a great job.” He hesitated for a few seconds. “I got a call from Rudy while I was here with you. They were staked out in the kid’s neighbourhood, waiting for the warrant. Jack was in the car with Norm and a couple of OPD guys. Norm said that Jack got quieter and quieter while they were waiting, then he muttered something about ‘I can’t let this happen’ and got out of the car and went up the house.
“When I got the call, he had holed up in the house in the kid’s bedroom, holding his gun to the kid’s head and threatening to kill him.” Steve felt Mike stiffen. “He asked for me.”
Steve cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He stared down at the bed, his eyes unfocused. When he began to talk again, his voice was quiet, drained of emotion.
“When I got there, Jack had the kid in a choke hold, and he was pointing his .38 at the kid’s head. His eyes were wild…he was out of control. It was like he decided he had nothing else to lose…. I sat on the floor near the door; I didn’t want to get too close and spook him. I knew the only hope I had was to talk him down.
“Somehow, and I think it was Norm, Jack found out you were back in the hospital. I had deliberately not told anyone except Rudy and Norm. And it seemed to be the straw, I guess… Jack told the kid about you and me, about how the kid had not only killed Charlie, but he was killing you as well… I tried to tell him you were going to be alright, but he wouldn’t listen…”
Steve stopped and looked up to meet Mike’s worried stare. He smiled ever so slightly. “I took a page from your book,” he said with quiet pride, “I started to talk to him about Charlie. About how Charlie loved him and was always there for him… But all Jack could talk about was how much of a disappointment he’d been to Charlie, about the gambling…about how after Charlie died, all he could do was go back to Vegas and get himself even more in debt…how he had betrayed Charlie even after he died…”
The silence lengthened, Steve staring unfocused, Mike’s eyes fixed unblinkingly on his partner’s face. Steve inhaled deeply, released the breath in a quiet sigh, and continued, his tone measured, his voice barely above a whisper.
“He’d given up, Mike, he couldn’t see anything except his own failure, his own overwhelming guilt and grief. And I couldn’t help him…” His breaths were now becoming ragged; his grip tightened once more on Mike’s hand.
Neither of them moved for several long seconds, then Steve looked up, his eyes wide and tormented. “He did it, Mike. I couldn’t stop him… He told me there was nothing he could do for Charlie when he was alive, but that now this was something he could do…” Mike held his breath.
Steve’s face crumbled and the tears began to flow. “It all happened so fast…I didn’t have time to react… He shot the kid in the head, right in front of me,” he heard Mike gasp and he paused slightly and took a short, very audible breath, “and then he shot himself…” Steve began to shake, one hand over his mouth.
After a few seconds of stunned immobility, Mike pulled his hand from Steve’s grip, took off his oxygen mask and struggled to push himself into a sitting position. Ignoring the blinding pain, the older man reached out and gingerly pulled his partner into his arms, cradling the young man’s head against his chest. And, with eyes closed against the pain, both physical and emotional, Mike gently rocked them both, stroking Steve’s back and wishing this was just a bad dream.
And all he could hear, over and over, was the heartbreaking refrain, “I couldn’t stop him….I couldn’t stop him…I couldn’t stop him…”