Title: The Conscience of a Knight
Author: Birgitt Schuknecht
Fandom: due South
Rating: R (mild slash; the R relates to violence)
Pairing: male/male
Category: drama
Disclaimer: The characters used in the following story are not mine. I
do not make any money out of this. It's written for fun and for the fans
of the show.
Feedback: birgitt.schuknecht@uni-essen.de
Spoilers: The Deal (kind of); sequel to "The Conscience of a Friend"



The Conscience of a Knight
by Birgitt Schuknecht

Author's note: This is the second instalment in my "Conscience" cycle,
inspired by the ep "The Deal". It follows immediately after "The
Conscience of a Friend". Please give me your thoughts. The male/male
pairing are no characters from the show.


A look at my wrist confirms my worst expectations. Itís only 7.00 PM and
there are still hours ahead us. Our watch won't be over before midnight.
The heat is killing and opening the windows of the car did not help
much. This is a safe neighbourhood, so our job means cruising the
streets most of the time, stopping once in a while to have a little chat
with the people living here. Very nice, very normal, very boring.

My name is Daniel and I'm a rookie in law enforcement. Two months ago I
graduated from Academy and this Italo-American neighbourhood in Chicago
is my first assignment. But although I'm new member of the force Iíve
already learned what it means to be an officer in this beat.

My partner, an veteran cop who seems to take an delight in calling me
Kid all the time, filled me in on my second day. We were driving through
the streets as usual, when he finally pointed out a small diner. I
stopped in front of it and he jumped out. After a few minutes he
returned with coffee and sandwiches. He handed me over my share and I
thanked him with a smile. That smile came readily, since Paul Temple is
a likeable guy. Tall, fair complexion, with blue eyes, grey hair. I like
his voice. Itís kind and full of humour. Well, most of the time it is.

"Now, Kid, welcome to the kingdom of Renato Zuko. I think you'll fit in
perfectly." I nearly choked on my coffee hearing those words. "What?" He
smiled at me with patience, nodding. "Yes, you'll know shortly. Renato
Zuko is the most influential man in this part of Chicago, Kid. The Zuko
family has always been... very influential. I should know this by heart.
I'm here since 37 years and playing by the rules has kept me content and
- above all - alive."

I had difficulties devouring that information then and there and - to be
honest - I still have trouble accepting it. Two months hadn't help to
like things any better. When Paul told me about the Zukos, I was first
incredulous, than I became angry.

"Paul, are you trying to tell me that you're taking..." Words escaped
me. No, I knew what I wanted to say. But I wasn't ready to say them,
fearing to make them real. My "partner", I had - and still have -
difficulties seeing him as such, was helpful enough. "... money? ...
orders? You'll see it soon enough. Let me put this clear. This...
discussion has never taken place. You get my meaning, Kid?"

Slowly I nodded. I should have kept my mouth, waiting for the future to
reveal for me, how things were run in the neighbourhood. But I just had
to know then and there. "Who is that Zuko anyway? What does he do?" I
intended my words to sound defiantly, but my voice trembled slightly, if
from anger or fear, I couldn't tell. Maybe from both. Probably from
both. But anger was the stronger emotion. I became an officer to set
things right in the world. Not to follow any rules outside the law.

Paul slapped my shoulder and gave me another one of his patient smiles.
My stomach turned slightly. Coffee and sandwiches were forgotten,
whereas Paul seemed to enjoy every bit of his meal. "It is not good for
us to ask questions. You can trust me in this. Renato Zuko is a wealthy
business man. He is an active member of the local parish, devoted to
several charitable institutions in Chicago, a friend of the mayor..."

I stopped listening as Paul rattled on with his litany of the great
Renato Zuko. I felt sick. And that feeling still haunts me when I think
of the Zuko family. The last two months showed me that this
neighbourhood is one of the safest in the whole of Chicago. And most
police officers are content how things are run. I haven't had the
possibility to wind down any offer of bribery, the "occasion" never
occurred up till now. But I am determined to stay true to the law, no
matter the price. Have I told you that my most annoying quality apart
from snoring rather loudly is my unbreakable idealism? Nonetheless, I
don't want to accept law and order established by the well-meaning of a
mobster.

My mind snaps back to the presence. Paul stretches beside me and I know
what's going to come. "Well, Kid, let's see how things are at Finelli's.
I think we need a short break." Every night we end up for at least one
hour at Finelli's, the most frequented bar in the beat. Paul wouldn't
want to miss his nightly pool game. Nonetheless I give him an annoyed
stare.

He laughs without humour at my expression. "Daniel, we're not going to
miss anything. Nothing, I say, nothing is going to happen tonight. Look
around. Everything's so peaceful. You can stay in the car if you want
to." I slowly nod and take the next turn. Yes, that would be OK. I'd
stay in the car. If anything happened I would drag Paul out of the bar.
Not that I expect anything to happen. Paul is right of course, it is
peaceful. Renato Zuko has the means to keep scum from the streets of his
neighbourhood. Nevertheless, I won't go into Finelli's. I do not like
the atmosphere, nor the people hanging out there every night. Playing
pool seems to be their only occupation.

Once I was invited to play with them. It was still my first week and I
did not dare to refuse. I ended up playing against a guy named Vecchio.
Later I learned from Paul that he is one of the best players in this
beat. No wonder he beat me, or better humiliated me. I do not mind to be
beaten. But there's something about the man that makes me uncomfortable.
His eyes. Those are cruel eyes.

So I try to avoid going into Finelli's. When I stop in front of the bar,
Paul jumps out. "Can I get you something?" He sticks his head through
the open window. "Yes, that's nice, Paul. Get me an iced tea." He grins
broadly, I know he'll be having some rounds of beer. "Whatever you want,
Kid."

I look after him, seeing him disappear in the bar. When the door opens I
can hear the cheers greeting the new guest. As I say, Paul is a likeable
fellow. Quite. Minutes later the door reopens. But it's not Paul coming
out, itís Rico Finelli himself. He comes over to my window and hands me
a large glass with ice tea. "Here you go, Officer. Why don't you join
us?" I empty about half of the glass before I answer: "I have to watch
the radio. And the weather is far too fine to be inside."

The short man scratches his head through a mob of pitch black hair. His
smile reveals brilliantly white teeth. Rico Finelli is only two years
older than me. His father died about six months ago and Rico had still
difficulties with his new role as a responsible landlord. "From what I
see, you are inside, Officer."

"You know, what I mean, Rico." I empty the glass completely and give it
back to him. "I hold nothing against you, you know. But I don't like the
atmosphere at Finelli's..." Rico nods, concentrating on the glass in his
hands, toying with it for a few minutes. But then he looks up and our
eyes lock. "Dan, I know how you feel. And I would gladly change it if I
could..." His voice trails off and in the next moment he turns and goes
back into the bar. I havenít even thanked him for the tea.

I know his story. It happened before I came here. Two months after
inheriting Finelliís from his father he stopped paying for "security",
provided by Zuko's goons. They smashed the bar thoroughly, and broke his
left wrist. Rico was prepared to testify against them. Until his little
daughter got a very special birthday card on her third birthday. There
was picture attached to it, showing the gravestone of her grandfather.
On the back of the pic was a scribbled message for Rico: "Your father
would wish to be with her!"

No testimony, no case. Now I want to go after Rico, try to help him. But
he won't take any chances. And I won't make him to take any. But I swear
I will be there waiting, if Zuko makes one wrong move. Until then I
would have to control my anger - and my fear.

Again I check my watch. It's almost 7.30 now. I know Paul won't come out
before 8.30. I pull a manual on interrogation tactics from the
compartment. I do not plan to stay a patrol officer all my life. A few
minutes after I started to read I'm lost to the world.

When the radio cackles, I give a little start. Itís 7.42. I pick up the
mic, accepting the call. "The janitor of St. Francis school reported a
battery. Ambulance is on it's way." I swallow hard. "We're on it." After
replacing the mic I'm out of the car in a flash. When I open the bar's
door, noise and smoke-laden air greets me. Tears sting in my eyes and I
blink them away. I spot my "partner" at one of the pool tables. Grabbing
him by his right arm I pull him with me. He protests loudly, muttering
curses. I ignore the other patrons completely. We leave their shouted
curses behind us.

Outside Finelliís I stop and face Paul. "We have a situation." I stress
every single word. He stares at me unbelievingly. "What?" I nod, "Yes,
St Francis school. Battery." In the next moment we drive off in the car.
Only five minutes later I stop the car in front of the school gate. A
man is pacing the sidewalk, clearly upset. We get out and he faces us.
His whole body is trembling. I place a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, man.
What happened? You called us?" I give Paul a sideways glance. He doesn't
seem to mind me taking the lead here. Maybe he's just shocked that we
have a situation in this peaceful neighbourhood.

The janitor has difficulties to calm down. After the third try he finds
his voice. "They... dio mio, they just played basketball. Almost every
night they're here. Just taking shots, or playing... I never
imagined..." He chokes and stops. "OK, show me the scene." The ambulance
is nowhere to be seen. We'll have to check on the victim first. The man
just points the direction. I fall in a run and cross the school-yard,
heading for the basketball field on the opposite side. As I come nearer
I see two figures there, one lying flat down, another kneeling next to
him.

The sight that greets me when I reach the scene makes me sick. With
difficulty I hold down the contents of my stomach. The boy lying
there... I dare not to form the next thought, but I know I must. He has
no face at all. It's a lump, a bloody lump. Slowly I kneel down and
check his wrist for a pulse. Nothing. Wait... There! He's still alive,
but barely so. The pulse is weak and erratic. Oh God, don't let him die
on me. There is nothing I can do but wait. There is nothing I dare to
do. I just hold his wrist in my hand. I cannot turn my eyes from the
boys face, sickeningly fascinated by the fact that he is still
breathing. I ask myself how he's doing it. He has no mouth, he has no
nose...

With an outcry I break away, letting go of his wrist. I jump up, try to
walk few paces. And then I vomit until I am only retching. The next
thing I know is that Paul is patting my back and when I look up into his
eyes I see a flicker of compassion. His voice is calm. "Easy, son." He
hands me his hanky and I clutch it desperately. I wipe my face with it.
It gets damp from my sweat and my tears. I think there are more tears
than sweat.

Paul looks still concerned. I nod to him, trying to find my voice. It
sounds hoarse in my ears. "Let's help him." My partner shakes his head.
"No way, son, we'll have to wait for the medics." In the next moment we
can hear the sirens and we look in the direction the noise is coming
from. Somehow I manage to ignore the sight of the battered boy.

The janitor must have opened the gate, the ambulance races over the yard
at full speed now. With screeching breaks it stops and the medics spill
out. In a flash two of them are at the side of the boy lying on his
back. I watch in fascination, but suddenly focusing on the other boy,
kneeling there, oblivious of all that happens around him. Another medic
is beside him. He tries to make him stand, but fails to do so. He
whispers in a low, soft voice, so low that I cannot understand what heís
saying. But he gets no reaction from the boy. I decide to help. With
joined efforts we make him walk a few paces, giving the other medics
more room to operate. I am glad to have something in my arms that
distracts me from the sight of the victim.

The medic clears his throat. "He's under severe shock. We will have to
take him to the hospital as well. Can you tell me, what happened ,
Officer..." I think he expects me to give him my name. I cannot tell. I
don't remember. I don't mind. It's not important anymore. "I have no
idea. We just arrived a few minutes before you did. We found those boys
as you've seen them. Oh God, this is monstrous. Will he make it?" And I
don't even know which boy I am referring to. "I cannot say," the medic
replies calmly. "I haven't seen much of the other one, and this one..."

I concentrate on the boy firmly held by me and the medic. I let go of
him and kneel before him, searching his face. It's wet and grimy. But
beneath the grime the face is deathly pale. His eyes are staring into
nothingness. I try to establish an eye contact, but there's no response.
I look down and my gaze focuses on the ball in his hands. It's a
basketball and it's covered with blood. I swallow hard. Maybe we haven't
found only the victim, maybe we've got already the monster who did this
to him.

With an effort I put those thoughts away. Not enough evidence to come to
those conclusions. Perhaps the janitor can give a detailed testimony. No
way that I can ask the boy who stands before me like a statue, not
moving ever so slightly. Slowly I raise my hands to take the ball away
from him. The medic speaks up, "Better not. You shouldnít' try that. Not
yet. Could you help me getting him into the ambulance now?"

Automatically I respond, "He will have to testify." The medic hardly
conceals his anger. "Not in the next 24 hours. You can have your
testimony as soon as the doctor gives you a green light on this." I
realise my mistake. "Sorry, I didn't mean it that way. I meant... Oh,
God, I didn't think at all..." This gets me a understanding look. "I see
that you're slightly under shock yourself, Officer. But maybe we can go
now?"

It seems to take ages to get him over to the ambulance. At the sight of
it a thought comes to my mind. I look at the medic, and I see he had
the same thought. No way that we can take the boy to hospital in the
same ambulance as the other one. "We can get him to the hospital in the
patrol car. Wait here, I'll fetch it." The medic gives me a thankful
smile. "Ah, and you can call me Dan, yeah?" The medic smiles more
broadly, making me smile myself. I turn and start running. "I'm Tom," he
calls after me.

On the way to the car I think about the indifference of life. Although
two boys are fighting for their lives I can still answer a smile from a
fellow human. Indifference of life? Maybe it's the only way to cope with
disaster, the only way to keep sane.

I find Paul next to the car, interrogating the janitor. When I come up
to him he interrupts his conversation: "I called for backup. This is
definitely a Serious Crimes affair. The guys'll take over. They told me
to interview the witnesses, though." A look at the janitor tells me that
Paul wouldn't get much of coherent information from the still trembling
man. But I have no time to lose.

"I take the car to bring one of the boys to the hospital. I do not know
how long this takes." He waves his left hand at me. "Don't bother, I'm a
big boy, I'll get home to Mammy with no problem." There it is again:
Smiling, smiling into the face of disaster. "OK, Paul, I'll be at the
precinct later. Then you can fill me in." He already has restarted his
tedious interview.

Tom and the boy haven't moved an inch. And the boy was still holding
onto the ball. Suddenly I look at the hanky I still hold in my right
hand. With an angry gesture I toss it outside the car window, stopping
in the next moment right beside the pair. I get out, opening the door to
the back seats. I go over to Tom to help him with the boy. I glance over
my shoulder. They got the other boy already into the ambulance. In the
next moment they take off at neck-breaking speed.

The noise of screaming tyres does not penetrate the shield of the boy we
are leading to the car. After a little discussion we decide to lay him
down on the back seats. When he is settled in Tom and I get on the front
seats. Tom looks at the boy once more. "Better hurry, Dan. Better
hurry." I need no further encouragement and in the next second we are on
our way... uh, race to the hospital.

***

Tom hands me a cup of coffee. "You should go home, Dan. There's no way
that he will be up to an interrogation before tomorrow." I sip the
scalding hot liquid automatically, not really registering what I'm
drinking. "Tom, I can't. I have at least to know if he will make it. You
can die from shock, can't you?"

I look at the medic. He told me that he will be on shift for another
couple of hours. But it's quiet now, after the ruckus we brought with
us. Both boys are in treatment now and Tom joined me in the waiting. He
looks so young. Younger than me, although heís balding. His thin blonde
hair, cropped close to his head, seems nearly white to me in the cold
light of the waiting area. He sits down beside me and puts the heels of
his shoes on the edge of the uncomfortable chair. He folds his long
lanky arms around his legs, whipping back and forth slightly.

I want to ask him if his job is hard on him. Then I remember my vomiting
and the hanky and I know it is hard. Instead I repeat my question. He
hadn't reacted at all. "You can die from shock, can't you, Tom?" His
dark eyes, so much in contrast to his pale face and hair, lock with
mine. "Yes, Dan, that's possible. But I know this one will survive. He's
a fighter, this one."

Staring at him open-mouthed I try to think again properly. I manage to
say, "You know the boy?" He nods slowly, still whipping back and forth.
"Yes, I know him. He's my cousin. My father and his are brothers. His
name is Ray, Raimondo Vecchio, to be precise." Swallowing hard, I try to
think of anything I can say to him that might help him. But all I can
ask is, "Which Vecchio?"

Tom stays silent for several minutes. I just wanted to ask again, when
he finally says, "His father is Ernesto. You may know him from the pool
bar. He stays almost the whole day at Finelli's." Cruel eyes. The man
with the cruel eyes is the boyís father. Poor fellow. "His family?" My
voice is only a whisper. Tom lets go of his legs and stretches them out,
placing his hands in his neck. "They'll be here any minute. That is, his
mother and the girls will be here. Finelli's still open." He offers me
no explanation for the last remark. And I think I do not need one.

My mind works really slow now. It takes me another five minutes to
formulate the next thought. "Tom, do you think he did it?" His face
lights with sudden anger. For a second I think he'll slap me in the face
full force. "Never ever. Marco's his best friend. He'll never hurt him.
He'd die for him." His fierce reaction takes me aback. I fell silent. I
should have known that he knew the victim as well. The victim. Maybe
there's a good chance that we have two victims here. I can't explain it,
but I do not want Ray to be a monster, although there was some evidence
for it. With a sickening impact to my stomach I remember Ray clutching
the blood-covered ball. And then the memories of the other boy return.
The other boy.

Marco. He has a name. It was easier to think about Ray all the time,
blocking out the image of the boy without a face. Marco. He has a name.
"Tom, what do you think? Will Marco survive?" Tom is still upset. "I'm
no doctor!" he snaps at me. But he seems to regret his outburst
immediately. "I'm sorry. I have no clue, Dan. But I'm not sure if he
wants to live - after this." I nod, as if I understand, but I do not
know Marco. I have no idea how he will be able to deal with the assault
he'd endured. "I take it his parents are informed, too." Tom gives me a
hard stare. "They're not in town. Their housekeeper tries to contact
them." Perhaps it's for the best. They will learn soon enough of their
son's predicament. But then, he may not even survive...

It's easier to think about Ray. I don't want to, but something inside me
forces me to stammer, "And R-Ray? W-Will he want to live after this?"
Tom shakes his head slightly. Then he hides his face in his hands,
slumping forward in the chair, elbows resting on his knees. I hate
myself for asking, but I had to do it. And I do not think Tomís reaction
means that the answer to my question is no. What had Tom said before?
"He's a fighter, this one."

I empty my coffee, already cold by now. The liquid doesnít do any good
to my stomach. In a flash I'm in the restroom and retch violently. When
I see my pale face in the mirror, I detect tears in my eyes. What a fine
officer you make, Dan. Better get out of here and back to the precinct.
Where's your professional attitude?

It's gone as soon as I see Tom when I get back into the waiting room.
He's not alone. Three people are with him now. That must be Mrs. Vecchio
and the girls - Ray's sisters. The older girl has a hand placed on Tomís
shoulder. They seem to be about the same age. Mrs. Vecchio holds the
younger girl by the hand and listens intently to Tom's report. When he
nods in my direction Mrs. Vecchio turns around to face me. I go over and
introduce myself.

"Mrs. Vecchio, I'm sorry to bother you. I'm Officer Daniel Colliard. I
was the first on the crime scene and found your son and his friend.
Please believe me, that I do hope the boys will make it." The woman
standing in front of me is of small height and more than a little
overweight. The thought "a real Italian mama" comes to my mind
involuntarily. Then I see into her eyes and I just want to take her into
a hug. But I hold myself back. You're are already in too deep, Colliard.

"Officer Colliard, what are you doing here?" Her voice is subdued, but
steady. I think I see the fighting spirit Tom told me about. Not only
Ray is a fighter. This woman deserves the truth. Nothing more, nothing
less. I prepare myself. "Perhaps we can sit down, Mrs. Vecchio?" I throw
a glance over to Tom and he understands. "Come on, Maria and Francesca,
we'll fetch some coffee for Zia Anita and the officer." Taking the hands
of his cousins into his Tome pulls the reluctant girls in the direction
of the cafeteria, instead of heading for the nearest vendor machine.
Intelligent fellow.

"Mrs. Vecchio, I know there's no way to speak to your son or his friend
about tonight before..." I stop myself. "In the moment I'm only waiting
for some news of the boys. To report it back to the precinct..." I hold
her fierce gaze and continue, "... and because I want to know for
myself. Believe me, I mean no harm." She searches my face, her brown
eyes locking with mine. She gives me little smile. "I believe you,
Officer. And thank you for your concern."

I dare to take the next step. "Maybe I can spare you a bit of...
discomfort. You can answer some questions I have now, and maybe you'll
be spared an interrogation by the Serious Crimes Unit." A sudden thought
lets me pause. Where are those guys anyway? At least one of the bunch
should have appeared by now. They wouldn't leave this here to a rookie
like myself, would they? I decide to ignore this thought for the moment
and go on. "Will you try to give me some answers?"

Mrs. Vecchio is serious now. "Of course, Officer Colliard. Go ahead."
Good going, Colliard. Next step. With embarrassment I can't think of any
question at all. Mrs. Vecchio smiles at me encouragingly. Oh God, I'm
such a failure. This woman here gives me strength when she herself
should be comforted. The thought brings me back in line. "Uh, oh, yes...
Mrs. Vecchio, have you any idea what happened tonight on the
school-yard?" Great question, really great, Daniel!

"No, Officer, I have not. Marco..." she swallows hard, but refuses to be
stopped. "Marco and my son are best friends. They are together all the
time, in school and in their free time. Now, in the summer holidays, Ray
almost lives with the Mitranis." After a second she adds, "la famiglia
di Marco." I nod and beckon her to go on. Most of the time they play
basketball. They are fanatic about it. And they often play on the
school-yard."

"What about other friends? With whom are they playing?" I have pulled
out my notebook and started scribbling. Mrs. Vecchio's eyes concentrated
on my hands. "Other friends? No, Marco and Raimondo don't have other
friends they play with. Most of the time they played on their own. There
are some boys they team up with when playing against Frankie Zuko..."

The point of my pencil breaks through the paper as I hear the name.
"Frankie Zuko? Is he related to Renato Zuko?" Mrs. Vecchio's head jerked
up when I broke my pencil and looks at me intently now. "He's his only
son. He's the same age as Marco and Raimondo, he's in the same class." I
try not to push her here. This has to come out step by step. Treat
careful now, Dan.

"Do you know if there was a match planned for tonight, between Frankie's
team and your son's?" Mrs. Vecchio shakes her head determinedly. Somehow
I feel she fears to formulate a thought that is already bothering my own
mind. "I cannot say yes or no, Officer." She smiles weakly. "You see,
Raimondo doesn't tell me much. And as I said, he's almost not at home
during the summer holidays. It's been five days since I saw him the last
time."

"And you're not worried by that?" I pull out another pencil, replacing
the broken one. Those notes will come in handy for the further
investigation. Mrs. Vecchio shakes her head. "No, not at all. Raimondo
is family for the Mitranis."

"I see. One last question. Have there been any other... incidents?" I
regard her expression carefully. But I cannot detect any reaction at
all. "No, Officer, Raimondo has never been harmed before." This answer
surprises me. "Mrs. Vecchio, surely Tom has told you that Marco has been
beaten, not Ray. Your son is under severe shock, but he wasn't
physically harmed."

Mrs. Vecchio expression has turned stoic. She doesn't give away
anything. "As I said, Raimondo has never been harmed before." With that
she stands and turns her back on me. And I know that there would be no
way to get any more answers from her. I decide to put away all she's
said for future reference. After stowing away notebook and pencil I make
ready to leave. I do have to return to the precinct after all. I look at
my watch. It's no later than 9.50. It's a little more than two hours
since the call came over the radio. Just two hours.

Someone taps my shoulder: I turn and face Tom. "Marco will make it. When
he's up to it he will face..." Tom nearly chokes on the word, "surgery.
But it's going to take a long, long time. Whatever, he'll survive." I
let out a deep breath. "Thank God. And Ray? Any news?" Tom shakes his
head. "I can keep in touch, if you want me to." I clasp his shoulder: "I
would be grateful. I must report back to the precinct." Again I pull out
my notebook and pencil. I scribble down my number at the office and my
private number. I tear out the piece of paper and give it to Tom. He
stares down on it briefly, than looks up again. Tears shine in his eyes.
"Thanks for your help, Dan. The Vecchios appreciate it."

I cannot hold myself back any longer and give him a fierce hug. "And
what about yourself, Tom?" He stares at me open-mouthed, than his
expression turns into a beautiful smile. "I'll give you a call, after my
shift is over. You'll be at home then?" I have no idea and tell him so.
"Just try my private line first. Then you call the precinct and I'll
come over here and give you a lift." Tom still smiles through his tears.
"I'd love that. Ciao, Dan, take care."

"I will. And give my regards to your aunt." With that I turn and leave
the waiting room, eager to finish my report and get back here, reluctant
to leave at all. With my last bit of strength I force myself to
straighten my back. And the man who leaves the hospital looks nothing
more and nothing less than an officer of the Chicago PD on duty.

***

The precinct is in an uproar. When I enter the squadroom Paul is at my
side the next second, pulling me into an empty interrogation room. He
must have waited for me to come back. Impatiently I draw my arm out of
his grip. He closes the door behind us and turns to face me. "What is
that supposed to mean?" My anger shows clearly, I know, but I do not
care.

He crosses his arms and holds my gaze. After a few moments he turns his
eyes away. I allow myself a feeling of triumph. But this feeling
vanishes when he says, "The janitor, Mr. Putrami, didn't testify
anything of value." I can't believe what I hear. "What? He hasn't seen
anything?"

Paul sighs. "I knew you would not believe it. No. He doesn't know
nothing. He found the boys when he made his usual round. He closes the
gate at 8.00 each night, when the school is open. Of course in the
holidays it's closed all the time. But he sticks to his customs and
started his final round at about 7.30. That's when he found the boys. He
ran back to his office and called us. The time fits all right."

"But that's all that fits," I yell, losing my temper completely. "No
assault like that can go unnoticed." Paul shrugged his shoulders,
stroking back strands of grey heir from his forehead. "He said he'd
watched TV, rather loudly. He hasn't seen or heard anything."

Suddenly the thought is there. "Zuko's in it." I state a fact, convinced
that I'm right. My partner looks... what, shocked? Yes, but there's
something else. Fear? "You must be out of your senses, Dan. How does
Renato Zuko fit into this?"

I give him a cruel smile. "I didn't say Renato. I am speaking of
Frankie, his only son." I stress the last two words. Paul turns his back
to me. "Renato, Frankie, what's the difference? You'll tell the Series
Crimes fellows and they'll let on something to Zuko's attorneys, they'll
have our hides. You and I, finished in the beat and in the force."

I make him face me, turning him by grabbing his shoulders with both
hands. "Zuko's attorneys. Theyíre here?" He nods, not looking up. I
decide to probe a little further. "So there will be no investigation?"
Paul doesn't reply. I repeat my question, louder now. He has to face me
in the end, he knows that. He stares at me angrily. "Of course there
will be. Serious Crimes gathers evidence against Raimondo Vecchio."

My heart misses several beats. I force myself to breathe deeply. "What's
the charge?" I know the answer before I hear the words. "Attempted
murder." I cannot bring myself to believe it. "But he's only a boy. And
Marco is his best friend. Why should he try to kill him?" Paul hesitates
shortly before answering. "Those boys tried to play in a different
league..."

***

As I stop the car in front of the hospital it's already dark. I have
left the precinct immediately after my "conversation" with Paul. I had
not the strength to talk to anyone. I changed into civilian clothes and
left without answering any questions of my colleagues. I didn't bother
over leaving work early.

It's half ten now and there's low traffic. I watch the hospital entrance
and try to form coherent thoughts in my mind. But I fail miserably.
Images flash through my mind, memories of the last hours. Marco's...
face, Ray clutching the basketball, the janitor talking to Paul. I'm
sure now that he looked guilty then. And then Ray's family, above all
Mrs. Vecchio and Tom. Tom. His face fills my mind now, blocking out all
other memories.

When someone knocks at the window on the passenger side I give a little
start. When my eyes come into focus I see Tom smiling at me through the
window. I reach over to open the door. In the next moment he's sitting
beside me. The expression on my face must have given me away, he looks
troubled now. "What happened, Dan?" With those words he takes my right
hand between his. A little of my strength returns. I manage even a
smile.

"I'll tell you when we get home." He nods confirmation, never asking
where home is. I pull my hand from his grip, start the engine and pull
out of the curb. "What time is it, anyway?" I do not care to check my
watch. "A quarter past eleven. They made me leave early."

I risk a short glance and look at him, before concentrating again on the
street ahead. Tom lays his hand on my thigh. I feel... comforted. "Ray's
come to. It was... I... Oh, Dan, it was horrible, his screams... I'd
guess they could hear it in the whole building. He screamed Marco's
name, over and over. Over and over again. They had to give him a shot of
sedatives. He sleeps now, but... I'll never forget those screams till I
die! It didn't sound like Ray, it reminded me of... of an animal." Tom
hides his face in his hands, starting to sob uncontrollably. I look for
a place to stop and pull to the side. The car behind us passes us,
honking aggressively. Can a car have aggressions? Oh, God, I'm losing my
mind...

I concentrate on the man beside me. All I can do is stroking his
thinning hair; I do not dare to pull him into an embrace. His hair feels
like silk. For a moment I try to imagine the scent of it. Tom lifts his
head and looks at me with those dark, big eyes, shining with tears. "The
doctor told Zia Anita that it's too early to be sure about his mental
health."

I cannot say anything to this. What will happen to this family when
they're pressing charges against Ray for attempted murder? I do not know
how I should tell Tom. I continue stroking his hair. Tom takes my right
hand into his left and presses it to his cheek, damp with tears. I start
brushing them away, comforting him and myself. Tom blinks at me,
blushing a little. "I'd like to stay at your place tonight."

That breaks the spell. I pull him into an embrace, opening the
seat-belt. It feels right to be with Tom. I try for a second to shut out
the rest of the world. But I can't do it. My mind goes back to Tom's
account of Ray Vecchio. The poor boy. That reminds me... I do not want
to disturb Tom, now breathing calmly, his head on my chest, but I have
to.

"Ray... how did he come to?" Tom stiffens in my embrace and I let go off
him. He straightens and stares at me. "Who's asking this? The friend or
the officer?" A sigh escapes me. He doesn't trust me. He wants to
protect his family and doesn't trust me. "Both. Because I am both. I
will be forever your friend. But I am a cop, too. And I'm involved in
this case. And I do not plan to back away, because you think I can't
handle this."

At first I think I have offended him, but finally he gives me his
beautiful smile again. "Sorry, Dan, but I am so tired. I didn't mean to
take it out on you." Without even thinking I bend forward to kiss his
right cheek. It tastes salty... "I wasn't with him when he came to. I
just heard his screaming. You were gone for about a quarter of an hour,
when it started. The doctor had finally decided to take the ball away
from him. After a few seconds Ray blinked, wailed for a some time rather
silently. Suddenly he started to scream. That's when they gave him the
sedative. The nurse told me all that afterwards. I went in with his
family when he was already asleep. He looked so young, and vulnerable.
His face was still dirty with tears and grime, but the nurse had started
tending him. Zia Anita took the sponge from her and did the cleaning
herself. All the time she cried. When she was finished, she bate me to
bring the girls home. I left the room with my cousins and found my
mother outside. She took care of Maria and Frannie. She will be with
them all night. I re-entered Ray's room and told my aunt. She nodded and
sent me out again. She wanted to be alone with Ray. Holding his hand I
guess..." He ended with a sigh.

"I am sorry, Tom." The feeling of helplessness seems to overwhelm me.
Tom touches my hand lightly. "Don't Dan, it's not your fault. And it did
help to tell you about it. Thank you for being here." I laugh at that.
"You may recall that this is my car. But you're welcome anyway." I give
him a little time to smile about my joke. "Tom, what happened to the
ball? I told you when we got to the hospital that it's important
evidence..."

His smile doesn't waver a little, it even intensified. "It was Ray's
only possession. A gift from Zio Raimondo. You see, it meant a lot too
him, a kind of symbol for all his dreams. In the last four years he used
it only on very special occasions." I snap to full attention at hearing
this: "Like what?" Tom looks at me questioningly. "What occasions did he
use it for?" He reflects shortly. "When they played against Frankie
Zuko..." That fits in perfectly, again. Now, I have to know about the
basketball. "Where is the ball now, Tom?"

"I think your colleagues took it with them. They came to the hospital
and spoke to the doctor. I had informed the doc that the ball would be
needed, right at the beginning when we brought Ray in. He said he would
take care of it." He closed his eyes shortly, then he looked up again.
"Is there any chance that he'll get it back?"

Shrugging my shoulders I tell him that it will take a while. They would
need it for the investigation. But all I can think is that a lost
basketball, however precious, will be the smallest problem for Ray
Vecchio...

***

Tom is sleeping now. I told him all I gathered from the conversation
with Paul. He cried again. Then he pleaded with me. Pleaded with me to
help his family. I promised him I'd help. Now I'm sitting here in a
quite comfortable armchair, that I brought over from the living room,
watching Tom lying in my bed. And I wonder just how I could help his
family.

Little Ray. I am sure he's innocent in this. I just know. What I figure
is that Marco and Ray had a run in with Frankie Zuko. Tom told me that
they were rivals on and outside the basketball field. The only thing I
can do is reporting my suspicions to Serious Crimes. But since a Zuko is
in this, their investigations will be... unenthusiastic. Maybe forensics
find out something about the basketball, fingerprints and such. But
there was only one good chance for Ray and the Vecchios. Marco's
testimony. But it will take a long time before the boy will be in a
state fit for testifying.

So I have to do my duty and do anything I can to further investigations
against Frankie Zuko. There have to be witnesses. Not all of them can be
silenced. Or could they? I know very well what can happen to me, if I
don't follow Paul's implicit advice to stay away from this. I'm risking
my career in law enforcement. But is their any other way to go on
living? My conscience and the love I feel already for Tom leave me no
opportunity. I will speak with Tom about it in the morning. We will do
this together. With that thought I fall into a sleep, haunted by dreams
that are no match for the nightmares I've seen during the day.

***

The morning starts brightly, promising another day full of sunshine. If
only it wasn't so hot... Tom and I share a small breakfast I have
prepared. We eat in silence. Then I lean back in the chair, holding a
mug of coffee in both hands and watch Tom finishing his meal. Finally he
looks up. "I needed that, Dan. Thank you! And about last night..." I do
not intend to wait for another thank you or an apology. "Don't speak
about it. You're welcome to all I can offer you."

Tom pours himself another mug of milk. But he just looks at the mug in
his hand, not drinking. "Tom... where does that come from?" Brown eyes
lock with mine. He is still upset, I can see it in his eyes very
clearly. "Thomas or Tomasino. You see, it depends whom of my parents
you're asking. My mother is American and she calls me Thomas. My father
prefers Tomasino. He can be quite a fighter for tradition."

"And how should I call you?" Such a simple question, but I think the
answer important. He seems to think so himself, because he ponders about
the question for a while. "Thomas would be nice. You see, Tom is OK
for... for people who are just friends. And Tomasino? I don't speak with
my father anymore. Not since he found out that I'm gay. I'm still living
at home, but there's nothing I can talk to him about."

"I'm so..." I want to say, but bite my lip. Thomas smiles at that. "I
like they way my mother calls me Thomas. I'd love to hear you say it."
That is an invitation I cannot turn down. "Then it is... Thomas." I like
saying it. And by the gleam in his eyes I can tell Thomas likes to hear
it. I hate to destroy the magic of the moment, but there are too many
problems on my, no, our hands.

"Thomas, we have to do some planning. I must be sure that you understand
that Ray is in real danger, apart from the threat to his health. We have
to leave the latter to the doctors, but what we can try to change is the
threat he faces from law enforcement." I wait for him to give some form
of acknowledgement. He takes a sip from his mug and nods determinedly.

"Let's see what we have so far." After putting down my mug I reach for
the notebook I had placed on the kitchen table and check it. "I'll do
this step by step, so we won't miss anything. The call comes in at 7.42.
Ten minutes later we are at the school. Add five minutes more and Iím at
the crime scene." I try to say this lightly, but my voice sounds
strangled all the same. With an effort I go on. "Marco is alive, but
unconscious, Ray is in severe shock. You guys arrive a couple of minutes
later, make that 7.55. We leave for the hospital at 8.10, reaching it
twelve minutes later. The boys go into treatment. You join me in the
waiting room shortly after that. At 9.05 I speak with your aunt. And I
leave at 9.50. You said Ray came to about a quarter of an hour later.
When did the guys from serious crimes show up exactly?"

Thomas shrugs. "As I said I wasn't there. After you left I stayed with
the family in the waiting room. Then the screaming began and I had to
comfort Zia Anita. Next thing I knew is the screaming stopped... I don't
know when. It seemed to be ages, but I really don't know. They must have
been there when we were with Ray."

"What time was that?" He thinks a little. "A quarter to eleven, maybe a
little earlier." I scribble that additional information down. "Was the
basketball still in Ray's room, when you were with him?" Thomas shakes
his head slowly. "No, it already had been removed." I scribble again,
then check what I've written so far. "I must have fallen asleep when I
waited for you to come out. I haven't seen my colleagues coming nor
leaving." I stare at my notes. I cannot remember to have dozed, but then
I *was* rather startled when Thomas knocked at the window last night.

"Thomas, you joined me in the car a quarter past eleven. Since you
haven't seen them, they must have been there between 10.40..." I look at
him questioningly. He nods affirmation. "... and 11.10. Not a very
thorough investigation." Thomas gives me a glance. "Will this help?" I
decide to tell him the truth. "Probably not. But I'd like to be ready
for the report I'm going to make. I'll talk to the assigned officers
first thing this morning."

I reach for my mug. The coffee is cold by now, and I set it aside. "What
else we have? There's the basketball. Let's hope there will be results
by now. Then there's what you and your aunt told me, that they often
played basketball often, on occasion against Frankie Zuko. And they used
the ball Ray only took with him for special occasions. That is, when
they planned a match against Frankie Zuko's team. Thatís all we have to
suspect Frankie Zuko has something to do with this." The last sentence
comes out as a whisper. I clear my throat. ĄThe Zuko lawyers turn up at
the precinct and the investigation takes a certain direction. They plan
to place charges against your cousin. " Again Thomas nods affirmation.

"That's not much. We can only hope for two things. That the basketball
has Frankie's fingerprints on it and that Marco's testimony will clear
Ray from any charges." I stand and go over to Thomas. I cup his cheek
with my left hand. "I promise to do my best."

When he looks up to me, I can't detect any anger in his eyes. He looks
sad and tired. "I know you will, Dan. But whatever you say to them, you
have to tell them that you found Ray at the crime scene with the
blood-covered basketball still in his hands." I freeze and realise that
I have known this all along: There was no way I could help Ray Vecchio.
We have to pray for Marco Mitrani's recovery.

***

I should have expected this. When I finished my report with the assigned
officers in the case, they looked at me like I had two heads. Then
Detective Miller started yelling at me. That I should stay true to the
facts instead of accusing the son of an important member of the Chicago
society, solely based on suspicion. He stormed out of the interrogation
room we used for this, leaving me alone with Detective Maltrese. He just
eyed me like a peculiar specimen of the human race. He didn't say a
word, and I was silent too. I knew I had failed.

A few minutes later he came back, not alone. My superior officer,
Lieutenant Russel, was with him. He told me that I could take leave for
some days. I should use the time to recover from the horrible sight I
had been confronted with. He expected me to call in a few days, to make
my final report - he stressed the word final, no doubt - and then go
back to normal. For a moment I was shocked. I looked at the detectives,
wearing suits that seemed all of a sudden to be a bit too expensive
considering the salary of an officer. They tried to stare me down, and I
had not the strength to fight this lost battle. Defeated, I nodded
towards the Lieutenant. I had never noticed before that he had the face
and the voice of a diplomat or a politician. But now I could picture him
in an TV interview, relating this incident with no regard to the truth.
There was nothing I could do here anymore, and so I left.

When I enter my apartment and find Thomas still being there I want to
turn and run. But a part of me is full of joy to see him. And he has to
know. He sits in the living room, leafing through a sports magazine.
Without saying a word, I sit down on the couch beside him. He doesn't
look up. "Was it that bad?"

I bend forward, hands on my knees, and nod. "Worse, to be precise. I'm
on "leave" until I feel "better". They expect me to fake my report." I
give Thomas a sideways glance. He looks at me, his face non-committal,
but his voice is steady. "You won't do it!" Does he know me already so
well? Or is it just what he wants to become true? Anyway, I won't do it.
"No, I won't change anything. But that is only going to worsen my
situation without helping Ray." I'm surprised that there's no bitterness
in me. Maybe I knew since the first time Paul told me about the Zukos
that something like this was bound to happen.

"I'd rather leave the town, ask for transfer. I do not wish to leave
Chicago, but I can't leave the force either. And that I would have to
do, if I stay." Thomas face shows compassion... and there is more.
"Whatever you're going to do, we're together in this. I won't leave you.
You have done what is right, your duty as an officer. And I'll help you
to face the consequences." The last is said with apparent pride.

I lean back on the couch, moving closer to Thomas. He puts his arm
around me and I relax against his side, placing my head on his shoulder.
I am where I belong and I fear to face the outside world ever again. But
as long as Thomas is with me, there's nothing I have to lose. We can
start anew somewhere else. But a little voice inside my head tells me
that this means running away. And that we will leave behind two boys
whose lives seemed to be destroyed before it had already started.

The End