The Ride Along

by Gail R. (Cavefever@aol.com)

            Walker stepped into the Ranger office, noticing right away that Trivette, who was always a sharp dresser, was wearing an extra nice suit and tie.  It was Monday and Walker knew they weren't scheduled to testify in court or give a deposition.  As he poured a cup of coffee, he headed to his partner's desk.

            "Morning."

            "Hey, Walker.  How was your weekend?"

            "Enjoyable.  How about yours."

            "Not bad.  I had a blind date Saturday -- we went to dinner."

            "Was the menu in Braille?"

            Trivette smiled, chagrined.  "Ah, humor so early in the morning."

            Walker grinned, making his way to his own desk.  Trivette followed him.

            "She wasn't blind or deaf or dumb.  In fact, she was very nice.  I asked her out again."

            "She said yes?"

            "Uh huh."

            "I thought you said she wasn't dumb."

            Trivette whistled softly.  "You're on a roll, partner.  What put you in such a jovial mood?"

            Walker shrugged innocently, but he smiled as he thought about Saturday -- Alex had come out to the ranch, they had ridden Amigo and Cookie for most of the day, then Alex fixed dinner for the two of them.  They ate by candlelight on the porch and later, spent hours on the porch swing, stargazing and talking.  Walker knew why he was in a good mood.  He'd let Trivette keep guessing.

            "So," Walker said, indicating Trivette's suit, "you going to a wedding?"

            "No, I have a meeting today with the commissioner and the DEA task force.  Don't you remember?   I'm going to do some computer searches for them.  Your rider starts today."

            "Oh, right."  Walker had forgotten.  A weekend with Alex could do that to him.  Today began a ride along program initiated by the mayor's office.  Law enforcement college students, in their senior year, would be assigned to various police and judicial personnel to ride along or intern with a mentor.  While Trivette worked with the task force, Walker would show the ropes to a future police officer.  He liked the idea and was looking forward to explaining what the Rangers were all about to a future recruit.

            A young black woman entered the Ranger office, stopping at the secretary's desk.

"Where can I find Ranger Walker?"

            The secretary pointed to Walker's desk where he and Trivette were discussing the goals of the task force.  The young woman's face brightened as she eyed Trivette.  Striding to him, she held out her hand and offered a huge smile.

            "Ranger Walker, I'm Trina McCray, your rider."

            Trivette shook her hand.  "Um, nice to meet you, Trina, but I'm Ranger Trivette.  You want my partner here."  Trivette gestured to Walker.

            Trina's face fell noticeably when she turned to view Walker, looking him up and down, but she forced a plastic smile and shook his hand.

            "Oh, hello, Ranger Walker."

            "Hi, Trina.  Glad to have you aboard."

            "Thanks.  So, you two are partners?  That means we'll be a threesome?"  She stared hopefully at Trivette.

            "No," Trivette told her.  "I'm on special assignment this week.  You and Walker get to hold down the fort all by yourselves."

            "Oh."

            "Let's get started,"  Walker said to Trina.  "We have an arson report to take."  He grabbed his Stetson and headed for the door.

            Trina followed, glancing back at Trivette with wistful eyes.  Trivette waved to her as she rushed to catch Walker.

            As they left the building, Walker made small talk, assuming she was nervous. "So, Trina, how long have you wanted to be a Ranger?"

            "Well, no offense, but I have no interests in the Rangers.  I'm more interested in big city police departments.  I don't think I'd look good in boots or a cowboy hat."

            Walker chuckled.  "Clothing is a personal choice.  Look at Trivette, he dresses more traditionally."

            "Yeah, he looked rad!"

            They crossed the parking lot and Walker pointed to his truck.  Trina stopped walking and stared.

            "A pickup truck?"

            Walker frowned.  "Yeah.  What's wrong?"  He opened the passenger door for her.

            "It's just that I've never even been in a pickup truck.  It's so.....redneckish."

            Walker felt a hint of annoyance creeping up his spine.  As he climbed behind the steering wheel, he told her, "I need a truck on my ranch and the cargo room comes in handy during arrests."  He stopped, suddenly feeling ridiculous at having to explain his vehicle to her.

            She wasn't paying too much attention to him anyway.  Instead, she was scanning the area as if she was mortified someone she knew would see her in a truck.  Walker drove out of the parking lot and onto the highway.

            "I bet Ranger Trivette has a hot car," Trina said.

            "Yeah," Walker said sourly, "a real hot car."  He felt the annoyance level rise a bit more.

            The morning was quiet.  Walker responded to a robbery in progress, but when they arrived, Dallas PD was already on the scene and had it wrapped up.  Mundane duties of checking buildings, taking complaints of various natures and following up some loose ends on a few on-going investigations seemed to bore Trina to tears.  Walker, deciding her earlier comments were due to the brazenness of youth, treated her to a hotdog and fries from a street vendor.

            As the mustard was squirted on and the dogs wrapped, Trina frowned in disapproval.  "Does the health department check these guys?"

            Walker handed her a hotdog.  "This is the best hotdog you'll ever have."

            They sat a nearby table, shaded by an umbrella.  Walker chomped into his hotdog.  Trina took a small bite, then another.

            "Are you from Dallas?" Walker asked.

            "No, I live in L.A. with my mother.  She thought going to school here would be good for me."

            "What about your father?  Is he in L.A. too?"

            She grew pensive.  "No, I don't see him.  They're divorced.  He always treated me like a red-headed stepchild."  The old expression tumbled out of her mouth, then she smiled apologetically at Walker, looking at his hair.  "I mean, not that having red hair is all that bad.  But you know, you could color it.  There's all kinds of products on the market for men."

            Walker stopped chewing and stared at her.  He couldn't tell if she was actually insulting him or just concerned about fashion.

            She went on.  "But I guess there'd be a problem with matching your beard.  I like clean shaven faces myself."

            "Like Trivette's," Walker guessed.

            She nodded, a light popping on in her eyes at the mention of Jimmy's name.  Walker kept eating, the annoyance factor coming into play again.  He changed the subject.

            "Isn't that a great hotdog?"

            "It's good."

            "Trivette's a vegetarian.  He doesn't know what he's missing."

            Trina put down the rest of the hotdog.  "I've been thinking about converting.  Meat is so bad for the human body.  Ranger Trivette must be very informed."  She tossed the leftover hotdog into the trash.  Walker finished his in silence.

            At five o'clock, driving back to the office, Trina, who had no problem letting Walker know she was bored, suddenly asked, "So, I guess you have choir practice now."

            "Come again?"

            "Choir practice.  You know, that's what cops call it when they go to a bar after work and drink themselves into oblivion to forget all the ugly things they've seen."

            Walker stared hard at her.  She'd seen too many movies.

            "Don't you read Joseph Wambaugh?" she asked.

            "I usually go home after work."

            "Yeah, figures.  I suppose you cowboy Rangers don't see any of the ugly stuff like police departments do.  You deal mostly with cattle rustling and horse thieves."  She chuckled sarcastically.

            Walker didn't answer.  The terrible memory of a dead toddler flashed through his mind.  She'd been molested and strangled.  He'd found her buried in a crate.  Just the latest in a lifetime of ugly things he'd seen.  He peered at Trina sternly, but decided it wasn't worth bringing up.  She'd apparently already formed her opinions about the Rangers.

            He dropped Trina off at her car.  "See you tomorrow."

            "Right," she answered flatly.

            "Trina, I get the feeling this is not what you expected it to be.  Why didn't you request a ride along with DPD if that's what you wanted?"

            "I did.  But whoever made the decisions saw fit to disregard my request."

            "Then why not make the best of it.  There's a lot you can learn."

            "Like where to find the best hotdog?  I'm interested in the action, the nitty-gritty."

            "You have to take it in steps.  Everyone starts at the beginning."

            She got out of the truck, obviously displeased with her situation. "Look, I'm going to stick it out because I have to if I want to pass this class.  Goodbye."  She closed the door and huffed away, leaving Walker perplexed.

            Alex had a student also, a young woman who hoped to become a lawyer.  She shadowed Alex all day, learning how to prepare for court, then actually sitting in on a case where Alex made mincemeat of the defense witness.  The case ended with a conviction and the student, MaryJo Green, was ecstatic.

            "Miss Cahill, you were terrific.  That guy never had a chance."

            Alex smiled appreciatively.  "Thanks, but if I hadn't done my homework, it could easily have gone the other way.  That's the most important lesson I can teach you -- the six "P's."

            "What are they?"

            "Prior preparation prevents piss poor performance."

            MaryJo laughed.  "I still think you're wonderful."

            Alex smiled again.  She could get used to having this girl around.  What an ego booster.

            "So, MaryJo, what are you doing this evening after your first day of interning?"

            "I'm meeting my roommate at a place called C.D.'s.  I hear a lot of police types hang out there."

            "They sure do, " Alex chuckled.  "C.D. is a very good friend of mine.  Actually, I'm headed there too.  I'm meeting someone."

            "A date?  Your boyfriend?"

            Alex only smiled a Mona Lisa smile.

            "Oooh, what does he look like?  I'll bet he's a hunk."

            Alex kept smiling but wouldn't say any more.  "Want a ride?"

            "Yes, thanks."

            Trina was sitting in a booth at C.D.'s when Alex and MaryJo walked in.  She waved.

            "Oh, there's my roommate," MaryJo told Alex.  "See you tomorrow, Miss Cahill."

            Alex went to the bar, speaking briefly to C.D., while MaryJo scooted into the booth across from Trina.

            "Is that the Assistant DA?" Trina asked.

            "Yes, she's wonderful!  The day was so exciting.  We went to court and she nailed the guy."

            "She's gorgeous too."

            "She sure is.  She's meeting her boyfriend here tonight.  Can't wait to see what he looks like.  How did your day go?"

            Trina was glum.  "Bummer.  I got teamed up with some cowboy Ranger.  It was so dull I thought the day would never end."

            C.D. approached the table.  "Hello, ladies.  Alex tells me you're interning with her this week," he said to MaryJo.

            "Yes, she answered.  "It's been great so far.  This is my friend Trina.  She's doing the ride along program."

            "Howdy, there, Trina.  Who'd you get partnered with?"

            "Ranger Walker," she replied dolefully.

            "Oh, you're with Cordell?"

            "Cordell?" Trina laughed.  "His first name is Cordell?  Even his name sounds like a silly cowboy."

            C.D. raised an eyebrow.  "You know, young lady, you can't help the name your parents give you.  What matters is the reputation your name earns, how you live your life and how your name becomes known.  In Cordell's case, his parents would be mighty proud."

            "He sounds like a good man," MaryJo said as Trina rolled her eyes.

            "Now, what can I get you ladies?"

            Trina livened up.  "Two beers and some nachos."

            C.D. put his hands on his hips, preparing to ask for their ID's.  MaryJo spoke up.

            "Make that two cokes and some nachos."

            "There you go," smiled C.D.  He started to leave, then turned to Trina again.  "Give Cordell a chance, missy."

            "I was just hoping for someone younger, more energetic.  Ranger Walker seems so.......sedate."

            C.D. stifled a chuckle.  "Oh, Cordell's sedate all right.  About as sedate as a rattlesnake who's had his tail stepped on."  He winked at Trina and left.

            "Wonder what he meant by that?" MaryJo said.

            "He's old.  They like to babble on."  Trina suddenly scrunched down in her seat.  "Oh no, speak of the devil."

            Walker entered C.D.'s and strode toward the bar.  Alex met him with a bright smile and an outstretched arm.  Walker slipped into her hug and gave her a light kiss.  Then they sat down on the barstools and started talking with C.D.

            Trina and MaryJo stared, their mouths open with astonishment.

            "That's her boyfriend?" Trina gawked.  "Ranger Walker?"

            "He's cute,"  MaryJo observed.  "And so rugged."

            C.D. poured Walker a mug of coffee.  "How'd your rider go today, Cordell?"

            Walker shook his head.  "Not too good."

            "Why not?" Alex asked.

            "Well, for starters, she hates cowboys, trucks, red hair and beards."

            Alex couldn't help but giggle.  "The girl must have taste."

            Walker grabbed at Alex's ribs.  She jumped up, laughing, and he caught her arm, pulling her to him.  Inches apart, they stared at each other for a few seconds, feeling the chemistry, as C.D. looked on, enjoying it.  Realizing they had an audience, Alex took a breath, tore her eyes away from Walker's face and looked at her watch.

            "We'd better go if we're going to make that movie."

            Walker held her for another few seconds, reluctant to let go, then released her, smiling shyly.  "Okay, let's go."

            In the booth, MaryJo sighed.  "Look at his face.  He's crazy about her."

            Trina made a barf gesture.

            "What movie are you seeing?" C.D. asked.

            "Titanic," Alex answered.  "I can't wait."

            Walker rolled his eyes at C.D.  "I don't know why she wants to see it -- we know how it ends."

            Alex took his hand and pulled him toward the door.  "Come on."

            C.D. called after them.  "He won't like it, Alex.  There's no guns or car chases."

            "But it's romantic," she returned, catching C.D.'s eye.

            C.D. grinned and gave her a thumb's up.

            The next morning, Alex had a prisoner brought to the interrogation room.  He was a crack dealer who'd been booked on a possession charge but now wanted to negotiate a deal.  Alex gave MaryJo some advice as they made their way to the room.

            "Sometimes these guys will say anything to get a rise out of you.  They'll speculate on what you look like naked, ask about your sex life, suggest all kinds of filthy stuff.  Ignore it.  Your attitude should be one of no nonsense, be totally unrattled and totally in control."

            "Okay, I'll remember."

            But when they entered the room, MaryJo stayed near the door, immediately intimidated by Tom Donati.  He was a large, hairy man who obviously abhorred bathing.

            Alex nodded at Ward Crawley, Donati's lawyer. "Hello, Ward."

            Donati leered at MaryJo.  "You're built, sweetie.  Are you any good between the sheets?"

            "You have five minutes," Alex snapped, shutting him up.  "Make it worth my while."

            "First, I want your word I'll get out of here."

            "No promises, but I'll see what I can do."

            Donati seemed satisfied by that.  "There's a new drug organization moving in the area.  I'm sure you've noticed the sudden increase in drug-related murders?"

            "Rival gangs," Alex said.

            "Uh uh, wrong, counselor.  It's been meant to look like that.  But these guys are taking over and I know who they are."

            Alex wasn't certain she believed him, but she decided it was worth listening to.  "Go on."

            "Allegro."

            "Allegro?  That's the name of the organization?"

            Donati nodded.

            "I need more than that, Donati.  Names, locations."

            "I don't know any names.  This stuff is super secret.  No outsiders are supposed to know."

            "Then how do you know?"

            "I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  Let's just say no one knew I was there."

            Alex considered what he was saying.  There had been an increase in drug deaths and there was a methodical pattern to the killings.  A new organization would make sense.

            "Is that all?" she asked Donati.

            "Hey, Cahill, that's a lot.  Now what about our deal?"

            "Let me check out your story.  If it rings true, we'll work out something."  She glanced at Crawley.  "Talk to you later, Ward."

            "Thanks, Alex,"  Crawley said, then took Alex aside and whispered, "I wouldn't give you two cents for his info.  He's full of it."

            Alex threw a ponderous look at Donati, then returned the whisper. "It won't hurt to check it out.  You never know."

            Alex and MaryJo left the room as the guard came in to take Donati back to his cell.

            "Would you really let him off?"  MaryJo asked.

            "Sometimes you have to throw the little fish back to get to the big fish," Alex admitted.  "You have to weigh all the issues and circumstances carefully."

            "Do you think he knows what he's talking about?"

            Alex shrugged.  "Possibly.  I know someone who can look into it for me."

            "Ranger Walker?"

            "Yes, as a matter of fact," Alex smiled. "And Ranger Trivette."

            "How was your date?

            "It was nice."

            "Ranger Walker is really handsome.  You two looked so cute together."

            Alex laughed to herself.   "Cute" was not a word Walker would ever want to hear as a description of their relationship.

            "How serious is it?" MaryJo pried.

            Alex gave her a warning glance.

            "Okay, okay," MaryJo laughed.  "No more personal questions.  It's just that Trina didn't really hit it off with Ranger Walker.  She thought he was boring.  But Trina can sometimes be awful hard-headed.  She's a spoiled rich kid, you know the type.  Anyway, I can't see you dating someone's who's boring."

            Alex smiled knowingly.  "Tell Trina to stick around.  Walker is anything but boring."

            Taking a burglary report, Walker and Trina were driving back to the office when a call came over the police radio.  Possible homicide, Dallas PD officer requesting assistance.

            "We're close," Walker said, grabbing the radio to respond.  He stepped on the gas and Trina's eyes grew wide with excitement.

            So far the day had been much as the previous, and although Trina complained less, Walker knew she wasn't happy.  He had given up on pleasantries and small talk.  She wasn't interested.  But he continued to explain in detail each aspect of the Ranger's job as it arose.

            They pulled into an apartment complex next to a DPD patrol car and got out of the truck.  Approaching the building, Walker recognized the DPD officer.

            "Steve, what have you got?"

            "Brian Walters.  You knew him, didn't you?"

            "Yeah," Walker said sadly.

            "The landlord found him."

            "Where's the landlord now?"

            "He ran to his place -- getting sick, I think.  Better brace yourself, it's bad.  Colombian necktie."

            Walker blew out a breath, then turned to Trina.  "Stay here."

            "But I want to go in.  This is the first real action we've had."

            But Walker shook his head.  A Colombian necktie was brutal.  The throat was slit from ear to ear and the tongue pulled out through the cut.  Six liters of blood, gushing out in a few moments' time would be everywhere.

            "No, stay here."

            Trina pouted angrily, looking at Steve as if he'd take her side.  Steve turned away, still appearing shaken himself.

            Walker steeled himself and entered Brian Walters apartment.  The metallic odor of blood permeated the room.  The victim was lying on his back, his head tilted back oddly and the horrid neck gash gaping.  The floor was covered with blood.  Walker tried to step around it to get a closer look at Walters.  Nothing was in the victim's hands.  There had been an obvious fight -- furniture and lamps were upended and broken.  Then Walker noticed something through the man's torn shirt.  Some kind of injury on the chest.  Using a pencil, Walker lifted the shirt up and stared at a burn mark, about an inch and a half long and shaped like a capital A.  It almost looked like a cattle brand.

            There was a loud gasp behind him.  Trina had followed him inside.  Viewing the body, she covered her mouth and ran outside.  Walker was ticked off.  He'd expressly told her not to come in.  Hurrying outside, he found her sitting on the steps, her face displaying the horror she'd just seen.  Angry and recalling her comment of the day before, he said to her, "Ugly enough for you?"

            She nodded, then got up and headed for the truck.  Walker was sorry he said the words as soon as they came out, but maybe this would impress upon her the need to heed his instructions.

            Another DPD unit rolled in.  Walker put a hand on Steve's shoulder.  "You okay?"

            Steve nodded.

            "I'll go talk to Brian's brother.  Maybe he'll know what Brian was messed up in this time.  Let me know what forensics finds out."

            "Sure, Walker."

            There was silence in the truck as they drove toward Chris Walters' auto parts warehouse.  Walker, still regretting his words, began to feel sorry for Trina.

            "I wish you hadn't gone in there."

            "I had to see for myself."

            "This ride along program has rules, Trina.  Number one, you do what I say.  It's for your own protection."

            She nodded, looking out of the window.  A few moments went by, then she asked, "What does a Colombian necktie mean?"

            "It's a drug execution."

            "You knew the victim?"

            "Yeah.  He was only 22 or 23.  His parents died when he was 12.  His older brother raised him, but he was in and out of trouble when he was a teenager.  I finally busted him on a burglary charge.  He did a year in county, then won early release into his brother's custody.  I vouched for him  -- I knew he was basically a good kid and I knew his brother had a job for him and offered some stability."  Walker sighed sadly.  "Chris is going to take it hard."

            "Chris is his brother?"

            "Yeah, he's a good guy, he really tried to keep Brian in line.  Chris owns an auto parts warehouse.  He's done very well for himself."  He paused, then looked at Trina. "You'll have to stay in the truck while I talk to him."

            "What?  Why can't I go?  You just said he's a good guy.  How am I supposed to learn police work if you won't let me participate?"

            "Simmer down.  After Brian got out of prison, Chris started hiring ex-cons to work in his warehouse -- he figured he'd give them a chance to get their lives back on track.  Some of them take the chance and move forward, others don't.  Not too many of them are friendly to cops.  I put a few of them away myself."

            "I can take care of myself.  I'm taking karate lessons."

            "From who?"

            "There's a school on Dover Street."

            "Mr. Chan?  He's an excellent teacher."

            Trina laughed.  "Ha, like you know karate.  Cowboys only know how to punch and pistol whip."

            It wasn't worth explaining, Walker thought to himself.  This woman was so infuriating.  He'd envisioned an eager, willing and cooperative student, a mind ready to soak up anything he could impart.  Instead, Trina was stubborn, willful and downright unfriendly.  She viewed him as an obstacle, the enemy even.

            They pulled into the auto parts parking lot.  Walker cast her a strict look.  "Stay here."

            She glowered and folded her arms across her chest.

            Walker went into the warehouse, immediately spotting several faces that turned surly when they recognized him.  There were some grumbling whispers, then a few men stepped forward.

            "Where's Chris?"  Walker asked.

            They gave Walker gruff expressions, but they knew better than to challenge him.

            "He's in the office," one of them answered, pointing to the back of the warehouse.

            When Walker entered the office, Chris Walters jumped up with a big smile.  He extended his hand.

            "Walker!  Hey, how are you?"

            Walker shook his hand but his face was grim.

            "What's wrong?" Chris asked.

            "Chris.......Brian's dead."

            Chris' face changed from happy to grief-stricken in a split second.  He sat down and put a hand to his forehead.

            "I'm sorry," Walker said quietly.

            Chris swallowed hard.  "What happened?"

            "He was murdered.  It looks like a drug execution."

            "Oh God," Chris whispered.  A few tears sprang to his eyes, then he wiped them away and looked at Walker.  "I knew he was in to something.  He started coming in late for work, then sometimes he didn't show at all.  He never seemed to have any money and he was always on edge."  He paused, shaking his head. "I knew the signs, I guess I just didn't want to believe it."

            Walker put his hand on Chris' shoulder.  "Chris, do you know who he was hanging out with?  Did he mention any names?"

            Chris tried to think.  "Yeah, he kept getting phone calls from a guy named Evers.  Kyle Evers.  I knew the guy was trouble."

            "Okay.  Can you think of anything else that might help?"

            Chris shook his head, tears once again filling his eyes.  "No, but I'll call you if I do."

            "Thanks, Chris.  And, I'm really sorry."

            Trina had ignored Walker again.  She knew police work involved good interrogation techniques, and despite what Walker said, she felt she had a rapport with ex-con types.  She found a group of five men huddled together in the warehouse.  One of them whistled as she neared them.

            "Hey, any of you guys know Brian Walters?"

            "Who wants to know, brown sugar?"

            "I do.  And I want some answers.  Brian's dead."

            The men suddenly became very agitated.  One of them grabbed her arm.

            "What happened?  Did Walker have anything to do with it?"

            She pulled away from him.  "Walker said you guys were creeps.  I guess he was right."

            They began to speculate among themselves how and why Walker had killed Brian.  The more they talked, the louder and angrier they became.  One grabbed Trina again, but she took a karate stance and jabbed at him.  He easily ducked it and pushed her backwards, a hand raised up to hit her.  But as his hand came down, Walker was suddenly there, pulling the fingers back and twisting the arm so that the man fell to his knees, yelling in pain.  The other four moved in.  Trina sank back to the wall, watching in total amazement as Walker spun and kicked, delivered fist and elbow punches, and tossed 230 pound men to the floor like they were sacks of flour.

            A phone was on the wall beside Trina.  She yanked the receiver up and dialed 911.  Then her mouth fell open as she saw two huge men grab each of Walker's arms, but the Ranger effortlessly kicked low on one of them, knocking his feet out from under him, then punched the other.  The fifth man, scrambling to pick himself up off the floor, rummaged through a tool box and withdrew a hacksaw blade.  He lunged at Walker, slashing his left forearm.  But Walker caught the man's wrist before he could strike again, squeezing until the saw blade tumbled to the floor, then did a back spin kick that sent the guy reeling.

            All five men were on the floor.  Trina stared at them in stunned disbelief.  She'd never seen the martial arts performed so perfectly, gracefully.  Not even by Mr. Chan.

            Drawing his gun, Walker motioned the men up.  "Move it," he ordered and herded them outside to his truck.  Trina followed meekly and in awe of the Ranger.

            Walker pulled down his tailgate and the five men climbed in, still moaning from the licks they'd taken.  A Dallas PD patrol officer sped up, lights and siren going.  Walker pointed to his truck.

            "Watch them for me, will you, Charlie."

            "Sure, Walker, " Charlie chuckled, then he noticed Walker's arm. "Hey, you're bleeding."

            "I know."  Walker looked at his arm, then threw a piercing glance at Trina.  He was furious that she'd caused the ruckus by disregarding his orders again.  He'd just spent six months rehabilitating his left arm after a devastating bullet wound had nearly destroyed it.  Now he held his hand around a gaping wound on the same arm.  Blood was oozing between his fingers.  Before he could say anything to Trina, Chris came charging out of the warehouse.

            "Oh my God!  What the hell did you guys do?"

            The five men in the truck didn't answer, only mumbled among themselves.  Chris took Walker by the arm.

            "Come on, I'll get you a towel."  They went back inside to Chris' office.

            More police cars arrived and a rescue squad.  A rotund black woman stepped out of the squad and surveyed the men in the truck.  Two were lying down groaning, one was pinching his bloody nose, and the two remaining ones looked bruised and dazed.

            "Hi, Maisie," Charlie said.

            "Hey, sugar.  This looks like Walk-Man's handiwork."

            Charlie laughed.  "Don't you know it."

            "Which one's my patient?"

            "It's Walker.  He's inside.  Cut his arm pretty bad."

            "Which arm?" Maisie asked, suddenly very serious.

            Trina spoke up.  "His left arm.  Why?"

            "Oh Lord," Maisie exclaimed and rushed inside to the office.

            She found Walker sitting on the corner of the desk as Chris held a towel tightly around the Ranger's forearm. 

            "Let me see what you got, Walk-Man."  She removed the towel and scowled at the cut, prodding it with gloved hands.  "I could slap some butterflies on it and send you to the department doctor, but with this arm's history, I think you belong in the ER."

            To her surprise, Walker agreed.  He wasn't going to take any chances with his arm.  He thought about all the biceps curls, the triceps presses, the wrist and hand strengthening exercises he'd been laboring at for months now.  Trivette had planned out a routine for him and often worked with him in the gym, encouraging him and making certain he didn't overdo it.  Objects still occasionally fell from his hand, his grip weakened by nerve and muscle damage, but it had been steadily improving.  He hadn't dropped a coffee mug for over a month now.  But in a second's time, thanks to Trina, he had been dealt a setback.  His face reddened in anger and frustration.  Why didn't the girl just listen?

            Maisie finished dressing and bandaging the arm.  "Come on, Walk-Man," she said, taking him by the elbow.

            "Hold on, Maisie.  Chris, you want to come get your boys out of my truck.  I have a feeling they were provoked."

            Realizing there would be no charges, Chris nodded in appreciation. "Yeah.  I'm sorry, Walker.  You know what kind of lecture they'll get from me."

            Walker nodded and they headed outside. 

            Chris went to the truck.   "Get down here, morons."  They piled out and shuffled inside.  "Which one of you cut Walker?"

            They pointed at each other and traded accusations, then disappeared into the warehouse.

            "Climb aboard," Maisie said, pointing to the rescue unit.

            Walker shook his head.  "I'll drive myself."  He slammed his tailgate shut, then in frustration smacked it with his palm.

            Maisie, sensing his anger and worry, put a consoling arm around him. "You need some stitching, but I don't think it was deep enough to get the muscle.  It'll be okay.  There's no need to be so pissed off."

            "Yeah, thanks Maisie," he mumbled, not convinced.

            "Want me to call Alex?"

            He cut his eyes at her and was greeted with a playful grin.  He cracked a small smile.

            "There's that magic word," Maisie said, "works every time."  She patted his beard and got into the squad.  "Later, Walk-Man."

            "Charlie, will you drive Trina back to Ranger HQ?"  Walker shot another killing glance at Trina.  She wisely kept quiet.

            "Will do, Walker.  Take care of that arm."

            Without looking at Trina again, Walker got into the RAM and headed for the hospital.

            Alex and MaryJo, at Trivette's desk, watched as the Ranger entered information into his computer.

            "Allegro -- did I spell it right?" he asked.

            "Yes," Alex replied.   "It's a musical term, means a fast tempo."

            "Okay.  It'll do a database search.  May take some time.  Who told you about this?"

            "Tom Donati."  Then, getting Trivette's skeptical eye, "I know, questionable source.  But he seemed sincere enough."

            MaryJo spoke up.  "You should have seen Miss Cahill dealing with him.  Direct and to the point.  And she wasn't afraid at all."

            Trivette smiled.  "Yeah, not too much ruffles her feathers."

            Alex showed a wry smile.  "That's because I hang out with a couple of Rangers who never seem to have dull moments."

            Trina came into the office, a dejected look on her face.  MaryJo waved her over.

            "Hi, Trina.  How'd it go today?"

            "Where's Walker?" Trivette asked.

            Trina spoke quietly, her eyes betraying shame.  "He's on his way to the hospital."

            "Why?" Alex asked abruptly.  "What happened?"

            "There was a fight and his arm got cut."

            "Which arm?" Alex and Trivette asked in alarmed unison.

            Bewildered why everyone was asking that question, Trina said, "The left.  Why?"

            Alex and Trivette didn't answer.  Instead, they dropped what was in their hands and hurried out of the office.

            MaryJo, mystified, gazed at Trina.  "What happened?"

            Trina lowered her eyes.  "I really messed up."

            Walker was just coming out of the treatment room when Alex and Trivette arrived.  They rushed to him, viewing the left forearm wrapped in gauze.

            "How bad?" Trivette asked.

            Walker sighed, still angry at the situation.  "Thirty two stitches.  No therapy for two weeks."  He clenched his teeth, fuming.

            Alex put an arm around him, relieved it wasn't worse and that he was walking and talking, unlike times before.  "How did it happen?"  She could tell he was upset and experience told her he wouldn't be too talkative.

            "It's a long story," was all he offered.

            Trivette said, "Okay.  Let's head over to C.D.'s, grab some dinner and you can tell us."

            He started to object, but Alex, her arm still around him, squeezed him softly.  He looked in her eyes and relented with a nod, then wondered how it was that Maisie was always right.

            "Oh, good Lord," was C.D.'s comment as Walker approached the bar, his bloodied shirt sleeve rolled up past the elbow.

            "Ice pack," was all Walker said as he sat down.

            C.D. had discovered long ago that it saved time to keep an ice pack supply handy.  He plucked one from the freezer, wrapped it in a clean towel and gently laid it against the bandaged arm.

            "Big Dog, serve us up some coffee and chili," Trivette said.

            C.D. complied, knowing the story was forth coming.  Walker picked up his coffee mug with his left hand and promptly dropped it, his fingers not fully responding to commands.

            "Dammit," he muttered in frustration.

            Alex cast Trivette a worried glance.  As C.D. cleaned up the spill, Trivette grasped Walker's arm.

            "It's all right.  Your hand is probably still numb from the local.  You'll get it back, we'll work on it.  Just don't push it."

            As dismal as Walker felt, he looked at Trivette with appreciative eyes.  Trivette had worked tirelessly with him building his arm back up and he had no doubt he'd coach him through this setback.

            Walker nodded, put his injured arm in his lap and took the mug with his right hand.  "How about a refill, C.D.?"

            C.D. grinned, poured the coffee, and they leaned in as Walker told of the day's events.

            Walker's mood improved considerably during the next hour as they ate, talked and enjoyed the ambiance of C.D.'s.  They had moved from the bar to a table to eat their meal.

            "She cried the whole last hour of the movie," Walker was telling Trivette.  "As if there wasn't enough water on the screen."

            "It was so sad," Alex said in defense.  "And the love story was so tragic."

            "Why do women do this?"  Trivette said, puzzled.   "You drag us men to these morbid movies where the lovers die and no one lives happily ever after."

            "Walker liked the movie, didn't you?  Admit it,"  Alex prodded.

            "The iceberg was awesome," he said seriously.

            Alex smacked his leg playfully.   "Your idea of a great movie involves gunpowder, carburetors and karate."

            "Yeah, so?" shrugged Walker.

            "Don't forget the voluptuous wom......" Trivette started but Walker put a hand over his mouth before he could finish.

            Alex glared at the two of them. "I guess if I want to talk about romance, I have to go see the expert."  She got up from the table and with a swish of her hips headed for the bar where she linked her arm into C.D.'s.

            "Dumped again," Trivette said.

            As Walker smiled at the comment, a hand touched his shoulder.  He looked up to see Judge Henry Smith standing beside him.

            "Hello Walker, Trivette."

            "Judge," Walker said, surprised to see him.  He couldn't recall the judge ever frequenting C.D.'s.

            "Walker, may I have a word with you?"

            Walker started to stand but Trivette motioned him to stay seated.  "I need a refill anyway," he said, holding up the peanut basket.

            "Thank you, Ranger," the Judge said, taking Trivette's chair as he left.

            Judge Smith pointed to Walker's bandaged arm.  "I heard you had some trouble today."

            "A little."

            The Judge knitted his brow.  "The way I heard it, your rider was the cause."

            Walker nodded, wondering why the Judge had looked into the matter.

            "I hand-picked Trina McCray to be with you, Walker.  I know how willful and obstinate she is, like a wild bronco.  I knew if anyone could break her in, you could."

            "She's definitely a handful," Walker said in understatement.  He wondered where the conversation was leading.

            "I never considered that her disregard for authority would cause an injury to you.  I know you've been rehabilitating your arm.  How did this affect it?"

            "It'll be fine.  Judge, how do you know so much about Trina?"

            Judge Smith blew out a deep breath.  "She's my daughter."

            Walker sat back in his chair and let that sink in.

            "When her mother and I divorced twelve years ago, they moved to Los Angeles.  We kept in touch all the time at first, then, the phone calls became spaced further apart, letters were less frequent, visits even less than that.  In a few years' time, my daughter and I were strangers to each other.  She even took her mother's maiden name.  I know a lot of it is my fault, but.....Well, I don't need to trouble you with those problems.  I just wanted to apologize for what happened.  I feel responsible."

            "She's an adult, Judge.  You're not responsible for her decisions.  And I told you, I'll be fine."

            "Thank you for being so gracious.  I'm thankful it didn't turn out worse.  I'm sure you'd like to drop her from the program."

            "To be honest with you, I think that's the wrong thing to do.  She showed poor judgment and her attitude needs adjusting, but the girl's got a lot of spunk.  If that energy gets channeled in the right direction, she could be an excellent police officer."

            The Judge allowed a small smile to form.  He was amazed that Walker could find anything positive to say about Trina, and more amazed that he wanted her to stay in the program.

            "All right.  I'll let her make the decision if she stays or not.  But I'll understand if you'd rather she be assigned to someone else."

            It was mighty tempting, but Walker shook his head.  "I'm willing to try again if she is."

            The Judge smiled again.  If anyone could turn Trina around, it would be Walker.  The Judge greatly admired Walker's ethics and integrity and valued his opinion.  For those traits, he had sought Walker out for a second reason.

            "Walker, there's another matter I need to discuss with you.  It's personal and I'm deeply ashamed of the events that led to it.  I'd like to keep it confidential."

            Walker frowned and leaned forward as the Judge lowered his voice.

            "I'm being blackmailed and I don't quite know how to handle it.  I got a call this afternoon from someone who threatened to reveal something from my past unless I quell an investigation launched today by Miss Cahill."

            "The Allegro organization?"  Alex and Trivette had told him.

            "Yes," answered the Judge.  "This is the first I've heard of them.  They were quite specific -- pressure Cahill to drop the investigation or a past transgression of mine will become public knowledge."

            "Are you asking me to influence Alex?  You know I can't do that."

            "Well, it crossed my mind but no, I'm not asking that.  A man of your character would never do such a thing.  I'm asking you to help me nail this blackmailer, preferably before my secret is let out."

            "Judge," Walker began carefully, "how bad is the secret?  If it's something that would just cause you some embarrassment, well, maybe it would be better to get it out in the open."

            The Judge shook his head.  "I wish it was that simple.  I'd gladly take embarrassment over possible criminal charges."

            Walker raised an eyebrow, curious, but he wasn't going to ask details.  He realized the tough spot the Judge was in.

            "I'd like to tell you about it, if you don't mind listening," the Judge said.

            Walker nodded and the Judge began.  "After my divorce, I developed a drinking problem, a fairly bad one.  I was driving one night, drunk, and I hit an elderly man who was walking his dog.  He died at the scene.  The only relative was a great nephew and he was a fairly unscrupulous man.  The nephew suggested for a large sum of money, he would wait until morning to call in the accident and it would be logged as a hit and run.  And God help me, I did it.  I paid him off and no one was the wiser."  He put his head into his hands.

            Walker sighed to himself.  This was a tough situation.  The charges that could be leveled against the Judge would be major: manslaughter, felony hit and run, drunk driving.  He'd certainly lose his seat on the bench.

            "What do you want me to do, Judge?"

            "I know what your advice would be about the death -- come clean and take the consequences.  That's the kind of man you are.  But that option for me ran out long ago.  What I want is for you to find the blackmailer and with any luck that'll lead to this Allegro group.  And with more luck, my secret will stay buried.  I can't ask for your respect under the circumstances, just your help."

            Walker was thinking.  "Judge, how did they know an investigation had been started?  The only people who knew were Alex, Trivette and Donati."

            "I don't know.  I got the call about two hours ago."

            "Do you remember the nephew's name?" Walker asked, changing gears a bit.

            "Oh yeah.  I have nightmares about him.  Cole Brinson.  Here's the last address I have for him."  He passed a piece of paper to Walker.

            "All right, I'll see what I can do."

            "Thanks, Walker."

            As the Judge started to leave, Walker said, "Judge, we've all made mistakes in our lives."

            "But the difference is, an honorable man atones for them."  With sad, guilt-ridden eyes, he left C.D.'s.

            Walker sat back in his chair and chewed his lip.  The Judge had put him in an awkward position.  There was no statute of limitations on a felony hit and run, and legally he was duty-bound to tell what he knew.  But he'd sit on it for awhile, at least until he found out more about the Allegro organization, and then, maybe he could convince Judge Smith to turn himself in.

            Walker went to the bar, standing between Alex and Trivette.

            "The Judge looked upset," Alex said.

            "Yeah, he is.  For one thing, Trina is his daughter."

            "Good reason to be upset," C.D. said.

            Still thinking about the conversation, Walker was unconsciously rubbing his arm.  The combination of the fight and the stitches had caused the whole limb to ache.

            "Need the ice pack?" C.D. asked.

            Walker dropped his hands by his sides.  "No, I'm heading home."

            "Take it anyway."  C.D. re-wrapped the ice pack in a towel and handed it to him.  "Night, Cordell."

            "I'm going too," Alex said.  "Goodnight."

            Trivette waved as they left, then looked at C.D.  "Somebody needs to talk to this Trina girl.  When I heard his arm had been hurt again...."

            "I know.  It gives me shivers.  But you know Cordell, he doesn't like you dwelling on it or fussing over him."

            "You're the one who kept pushing the ice pack."

            "Oh, blow it out your ear, Jimmy."

            Outside, Walker took Alex to her car.  Before getting in, she gently took his left hand and put her fist in his palm.

            "Squeeze," she said with a smile.  It was a game they'd been playing for the six months since his arm injury.  For weeks her could barely grip her fist, but gradually the strength returned.   She rated each squeeze from one to five.

            "That was a three.  Not bad with stitches."

            He opened her fist and laced his fingers between hers.  "It was a four last week."

            "It probably will be again next week, and maybe a five the week after."  Her smile was full of encouragement and it was difficult for him not to believe her.

            "Alex, do something for me.  Take extra precautions while you're digging into this Allegro thing."

            "Hey, that's my line."

            "I'm serious."

            "So am I.  You're the one who always ends up with things like this."  She softly touched his bandaged arm.

            "Did Donati tell anyone else?"

            "No, I don't think so.  But Trivette put it in the computer.  Anyone with computer smarts could access the information."

            "That would eliminate me," he grinned, then, "Does your intern know about it?"

            "Yes, she was there when I talked to Donati.  And his lawyer, of course."

            "Okay, keep a close eye on her too."

            "What's this all about?  It was something the Judge told you, wasn't it?"

            "I can't go in to it.  Just promise me you'll be careful."

            She nodded, curious about what he knew, but she also knew he would never betray a confidence.  "Okay."

            He gazed at her for a few seconds, then pulled her into an embrace.  She wrapped her arms around his back, then turned her head up to him, wanting a kiss as badly as he did.  They granted each other's wish, then touched foreheads, smiling.

            "Was that a three?" he asked.

            "Uh uh.  It was off the scale."

            MaryJo and Trina walked into C.D.'s and approached Trivette at the bar.

            "Hi," MaryJo said to Trivette and C.D.

            "Hello," Trivette answered.

            Trina mumbled hello but her eyes remained downcast.  Trivette fought the enmity he felt toward her.  Walker had almost lost his arm, then they'd spent half a year of daily workouts getting it back to a functioning level.  Her insolence had nearly negated all the effort.

            MaryJo continued.  "Miss Cahill's answering service said she was here.  We were hoping Ranger Walker would be with her."

            "You just missed them," C.D. said.

            Trina looked at the two men.  "Is he okay?"

            "He needed a lot of stitches," Trivette said rigidly.

            "I want to apologize to him.  I know it was my fault and I'm so sorry.  I guess he never wants to see me again."

            C.D. softened a bit.  "Cordell's not like that, Trina.  He knows you didn't mean for it to happen."

            "You and Miss Cahill were so concerned about his arm," MaryJo said. "And Trina said the paramedic was too."

            "Must have been Maisie," Trivette said to C.D. with a smile.

            C.D. gestured to the barstools.  "Ladies, sit down.  I'm going to tell you why we're so excitable when it comes to Cordell's arm and then, Miss Trina, I'm going to fill you in on the wild and woolly career of one Ranger Walker."

            Walker headed out early the next morning, driving to the rural address Judge Smith had given him.  As he pulled into the driveway, a woman was leaving the house, wearing a waitress uniform.  She frowned as he walked toward her.

            "Morning, ma'am.  Is Cole Brinson here?"

            She uttered a humorless chuckle.  "No, he hasn't been here in three weeks."

            "Do you know where I can find him?"

            "Sure.  Pleasant Hill Cemetery."

            Walker sighed.  "Oh, I'm sorry."

            "It's okay.  He'd been in prison until two months ago, so I really haven't been his girlfriend for awhile now."

            "How did he die?"

            "Murdered.  Drug related."

            Walker nodded his understanding.  "I'm sorry to have bothered you."

            Entering the Ranger office, Walker scanned the room, wondering what Trina had decided.  Trivette looked up from his computer and waved him over.

            "She's back.  She's with MaryJo and Alex."

            Walker wasn't sure if he was pleased or disappointed.

            "How's the arm?"

            "Okay."

            "Trina and MaryJo showed up at C.D.'s last night.  She had a large slice of humble pie.  I think it'll go a lot better now."

            "It couldn't go much worse," Walker grumbled.  He put his hand on Trivette's monitor. "Pull up a file for me, will you?"

            "Okay, who?"

            "Cole Brinson."

            Trivette's hands ran over the keyboard and in a moment the file popped onto the screen.  Walker leaned down to read.

            "Where's the rest of it?"

            "Scroll down."

            "What?"

            "Oh, for Pete's sake, Walker.  You're hopeless.  I'll just print it out for you."  Trivette clicked on the print command and Walker pulled the first page from the printer.  He carried it to his desk to read.

            "I've got a file on Kyle Evers, too, the name Chris Walters told you about."  Trivette flipped through the file.  "He's got a lot of priors."

            "So does this guy," Walker answered.

            "Hey, hey," Trivette said suddenly.  "Look what I just found.  Guess who Kyle Evers' cellmate was?"

            "Cole Brinson," Walker replied, finding it in the report at the same time as Trivette.

            Walker rubbed his beard, thinking.  If Cole Brinson had a connection to Allegro, and now there was a connection between Brinson and Evers, then Brian Walters may have been involved too.

            "Where's the ME report on Brinson?" he asked Trivette, following up on a hunch.

            Trivette got the remainder of the report from the printer and handed it to Walker.  Scanning the death report, Walker stopped at a paragraph that described a burn mark on Brinson's chest.

            "I'll be damned.  It was a brand."

            "What?" Trivette asked.

            "Brian Walters had a capital A burned onto his chest.  So did Brinson."

            "A for Allegro," Trivette deduced.

            Walker nodded.  "What time do you meet with the task force, Trivette?"

            "Eleven a.m.  Finally we have something to go on."

            "This thing goes deeper than you know, partner.  Watch your back."

            Trivette was curious.  "Who was Brinson?"

            "Just a name I ran across."

            Trivette started to ask him more but the door opened and in walked Alex and the students.

            "Good morning," Alex smiled at Walker, then took MaryJo by the arm and led her to Trivette's desk, purposely leaving Trina alone with Walker.

            Trina shuffled her feet.  "Ranger Walker, there's no way I can apologize for what I did.  I understand if you'd rather have a different rider.

            Walker stood up and faced her.  "I don't want another rider, Trina.  Look, why don't we start from scratch.

            A hopeful smile brightened her face.  "All right.  Thank you.  How's your arm?"

            "It's fine.  Forget it."  He pulled a second chair to the desk.  "Sit down, I have a report for you to read.  We got a lead on the Brian Walters murder."

            Walker got Kyle Evers file from Trivette's desk and gave it to Trina, then sat down to finish reading the Brinson report.  Trina hesitated as if building up the nerve, then looked at Walker.

            "So, what degree black belt are you?"

            He glanced up, reluctant to tell her anything more about himself, but she seemed sincere.  "Eighth."

            Her jaw fell open.  "I've never seen anyone fight like that before.  I was impressed.  No, I was awed."

            Walker felt a flush hit his cheeks.  He sensed Alex's eyes from across the room, saw her smiling at his discomfort.  He pointed to the file in Trina's hands.  "Read."

            Trina nodded as Walker went to Trivette's desk.

            "Alex, think you could talk to the ME's office for me?"

            "Sure, what do you need?"

            "I'm looking for burn marks like the one on Brian Walters.  A capital A."

            "Okay, I'll check all murder victim reports for the last several weeks."

            "Thanks."  He was grabbing his hat.  "Trivette, there's a work address here for Kyle Evers.  I'm going to ask him some questions.  Trina, you ready?"

            Trina jumped up and hurried after Walker.

            Trina didn't complain about riding in the truck.  She looked at Walker, a new-found respect glowing in her eyes.

            "Mr. Parker told me some stories about when you two were partners."

            "Don't believe everything he tells you," Walker said.

            "Ranger Trivette did too.  I don't think they were both exaggerating."

            Walker didn't answer.  He'd have to talk with Mr. Parker and Ranger Trivette about filling her head with tales.

            Trina was still going on.  "They told me you were kidnapped once and forced to fight a series of men to the death.  And that you got bitten by a rattlesnake while clearing the name of Ranger Hays Cooper.  And..."

            "Trina," he held up his hand.  "Let's concentrate on this case."

            "Oh, you're embarrassed.  Okay."  She was quiet for a time, then said, "I tried practicing the kicks I saw you do yesterday.  It's going to take a lot of work to get it right."

            "Trust Mr. Chan.  He'll help you."

            "I went to see him last night.  He said you two are good friends and that nobody comes close to fighting like you do.  He had some stories too."

            Oh brother, Walker thought to himself.  He was starting to wish Trina would revert back to her sullen, brooding persona of yesterday.  He changed the subject.

            "Have you seen your father lately?"

            She peered at him suspiciously.  "You know who he is, don't you?"

            Walker nodded.  "He came to see me.  I think he'd like to get to know you again."

            "He messed up his chance.  He cheated on my mother.  That's why she left him."

            Walker was quiet for a moment.  There was no defense for things the Judge had done, but he was her father.

            "Don't you believe in second chances?"

            Now Trina fell quiet, then, "Like the one you gave me today?"

            Walker gave her a knowing smile.  She smiled back. 

            "I'll think about it."

            Kyle Evers worked in the golf pro shop of a country club.  Walker let Trina follow him inside, instructing her to listen, stay out of the way and don't talk.  She agreed.  Recognizing Evers from the mug shot, Walker approached him.  He was engrossed in conversation with another man.

            "Kyle Evers?  I want to talk to you."

            Evers gazed at the Ranger star, then cut his eyes to his companion. "What about?"

            "Brian Walters."

            "Never heard of him."

            "How about Cole Brinson?"

            "Nope."

            "That's funny.  You two were cellmates for four years."

            Evers, rattled, suddenly grabbed Trina and shoved her into Walker, then took off running.  Evers' friend took a few swings at Walker, who pushed Trina aside, blocked the punches, delivered one of his own and then flipped the man hard onto his back.  He then ran after Evers, shouting to Trina, "Get back to the truck.  Stay there!"

            Evers bolted outside, jumped in a golf cart and sped onto the green.  Walker gave chase on foot, catching up to the cart and climbing in.  Evers put up a fight.  As they tussled, Trina, climbing back into the RAM, watched as the cart sped out of control, headed for a wooded gully.  She slid into the driver's seat, started the truck and followed the golf cart. 

            Still fighting, Walker and Evers were thrown out of the cart as it tumbled into the gully.  Walker tried to catch himself as he rolled, coming to a stop in a muddy stream bed.  The golf cart rolled on top of him, pinning him underneath.  Evers, thrown clear, jumped up and ran out of the gully.  Two golfers in their own cart had seen the accident and ran to help.  While they lifted the cart off of Walker, Evers stole their cart and headed for the parking lot.

            Walker, unhurt thanks to the deep cushioning muck he'd landed in, pulled himself free as they moved the cart.  Thanking them, he raced up the hill in time to see Evers abandon the cart and run to his car.

            A horn blew behind him.  Walker spun around, seeing his truck coming towards him.  Still rolling, Trina opened the driver's side door as she slid into the passenger seat.  Walker jumped into the truck, grabbed the steering wheel and stepped on the gas.  Mud and grass flew from the back of the tires.  He glanced at Trina.

            "I stayed in the truck," she said quickly.

            He grinned.  "Fasten your seatbelt."

            She did so as they chased Evers out of the parking lot and onto the highway.  Trina's eyes were wide with excitement as they swerved in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed.  She glanced at Walker.  He was covered in mud but his eyes were focused totally on the chase, his face amazingly calm.

            Evers veered off the road, jumped a curb and entered a park.  Dodging trees, picnic tables and swing sets, he drove up a grassy hill.  Walker followed.  When Walker crested the hill, the sight 100 yards ahead made him gasp.  A class of pre-schoolers was picnicking, their blankets spread out on the grass.

            "Oh, God," Walker croaked.  He slammed on the brakes, skidding sideways, then turned 90 degrees to the right to signal he was ending the pursuit.  Praying Evers would do the same, Walker grimaced when Evers continued to head directly for the children.  The three teachers screamed and scrambled to gather up the kids and push them to safety.  Walker sped around them, a wide half circle, hoping to cut Evers off.  Evers, never slowing, raced across the blankets, crushing food and picnic baskets.  He then had to turn to avoid a wooded area in front of him, but as he did, Walker cut in and forced Evers' car into the trees.  With a loud crunch, Evers smashed into a pine tree.

            Trina watched Walker's face.  He was livid.  He got out of the truck, pulled down his tailgate, then went to Evers' car.  Evers appeared shaken but otherwise uninjured.  Walker yanked him out of the car and dragged him to the truck, tossing him in the back and cuffing him to the rail.

            "Trina, call for help.  Then bring the first aid kit from the back seat."

            As Trina nodded, Walker hurried to the children.  Most of them were crying.  The three teachers were helping as many as they could, gathering them together and hugging them dearly.

            A little girl who had been knocked out of her wheelchair sat on the ground, her elbow scraped and bleeding.  Walker picked her up, then went to the three teachers who were still trying to calm the frightened kids and assess the damage.

            "Anyone hurt?" Walker asked.

            "I think it's just bumps and bruises," one teacher said.

            Walker shifted the little girl to his other arm.  The braces on her legs told him she probably had cerebral palsy .

            "What's your name?" he asked her.

            "Abby," she said, wiping away a tear.

            "Everything's okay now, Abby." 

            He reached down and tousled the hair of a frightened boy.  The boy noticed the badge.

            "Hey, you're a Ranger!"

            Walker nodded, sitting down on a bench with Abby.  Trina arrived with the first aid kit.

            "How about a band aid for that elbow, Abby," Walker asked.

            She smiled shyly.  "Okay."

            Trina dispensed band aids to the teachers to put on various scraped knees and elbows.  Walker gently applied the band aid on Abby's elbow.  She smiled brightly.

            "They seem okay," Walker said to the teachers, "but you should probably let them get checked out at the hospital anyway."

            The teacher nodded and then pointed to Evers.  "What kind of person would do this?"

            "One without a conscience," Walker replied. "He won't do it again."

            The young boy touched Walker's star.  "Wow!"

            The children gathered around him.

            "Is everybody okay now?" Walker asked them.

            A chorus of "yes" rang out.

            "You're muddy," a little girl told him.

            "Your Mom is gonna be mad," another child said.

            Walker laughed, and the children started asking questions about being a Ranger and the chase that had just occurred.

            Trina watched Walker's eyes light up.  He seemed perfectly at ease with a child on his lap and others gathered around him.  Animated, he answered their questions and handed out reassurances at the same time.  He was a natural, and the children seemed drawn to his calm and comforting style.

            Police units and rescue crews arrived within minutes.  Maisie was aboard one of the squads.  She made her way through the swarm of tots and waved at Walker.

            "Hi Maisie.  I have some young patients here for you."

            "Thank heaven it's not you," Maisie said.

            Abby spoke up.  "He has a boo boo too."  She pointed to his left forearm.  Several spots of blood were showing through the shirt sleeve.

            "Oh no," Trina uttered.

            "Does it hurt?" Abby asked.

            "No, I just need a band aid like the one I put on your elbow."  He stood up, Abby's arms tight around his neck.  "Let's get you back in your buggy."

            One of the teachers brought Abby's wheelchair to them and Walker sat her down in it, kneeling beside her.  She beamed at him with huge brown eyes.  Walker turned to Maisie's partner. 

            "You might want to check her elbow again, Paul.  I think it's only a scrape."

            Paul nodded.  Walker stood again, turning to the children.

            "Okay, kids, these policemen are going to talk to your teachers and the paramedics are going to make sure you're all right."

            "Bye, Ranger," a boy said.

            They all joined in to say goodbye, then started chatting among themselves.  Too young to realize how close to disaster it had been, Walker knew.  He waved and headed toward his truck.  Trina and Maisie followed.

            "Have you been mud wrestling, Walk-Man?  I didn't know you were in to that stuff."

            Walker gave her a wry smile.  "Trivette's idea."

            "I know that's a lie.   Trivette's always so clean he shines like he's been dipped in Ajax.  Let me see that arm."

            "It's okay, Maisie."

            "Uh huh.  You let some this nasty mud get into those torn stitches and see where that takes your arm.  All that work you and Trivette put into therapy, only to get waylaid by some germ-filled crud."

            Walker, sighing, rolled his eyes and silently rolled up his sleeve.  Maisie pointed to a picnic table beside the truck and Walker obediently sat down as she set her medical kit beside him.

            She was right.  The bandage was mud-soaked.  Cutting it away, she irrigated the cut, dried it, then inspected the torn stitches.

            "Looks like two or three are popped," she said.  "We can fix that up with surgi-strips."

            She laid the surgi-strips across the areas where the stitches had pulled, dotted on an antibiotic ointment, then re-bandaged his arm.

            "Thanks, Maisie."

            Evers, in the back of Walker's truck, pulled futilely against the handcuffs. "Hey, Walker, I'm dying here.  How about some help."

            Maisie squinted her eyes in Evers' direction, then said to Walker, "Is that the jackass who tried to run those babies down?"

            As Walker nodded, Evers yelled, "Hey, fat woman, do something.  My head's bleeding."

            Walker and Maisie went to the truck.  Evers leaned his head over the side.

            "It's about time.  You're wasting your time on those damn whinny brats.  Ought to drown them all in a sack like you do unwanted kittens."

            Walker clenched his jaw, turning his back on Evers as if ignoring him, then his left elbow suddenly shot backwards, jabbing Evers hard in the face.  With a loud groan, Evers fell onto the bed of the truck.

            Maisie gazed into the truck and chuckled.  "Now your nose is bleeding."  She playfully squeezed Walker's left biceps.  "Seems to me this arm is coming along just fine.  My compliments to your trainer."  She winked at Walker, then gave him her trademark pat on the beard.

            Trina, smiling at what Walker had just done, was still standing next to the picnic table.  Maisie packed up her medical kit, then took Trina by the arm.

            "You can learn about police work from any lawman, sugar.  But if you want to learn about honor and scruples, and when to sneak in a good elbow jab, stick with Walk-Man.  He's the best."

            "I'm finding that out," Trina told her.

            Waving to Walker, Maisie headed back to the group of children.

            Kyle Evers gave up nothing in interrogation.  As Trina and MaryJo looked on, Alex and Walker tried to convince Evers to cooperate.  Frustrated, Walker left him with something to think about.

            "Twenty counts of attempted murder of pre-schoolers.  I don't think you're going to find a sympathetic judge or jury."

            Alex took over.  "When you're ready to talk about Brian Walters or Allegro, maybe we can deal."

            Walker, Alex and the two students left the room.  Heading back to the Ranger office, Alex resisted the urge to take Walker's hand.  She knew how he felt about the near tragedy with the children and she wanted very much to help soothe the anger it had stirred inside of him.  But it wasn't the time or place.  Later, she would get him to talk about it and offer support.

            Instead, she smiled at his appearance.  "Well, Trina, at least he didn't drag you through the mud puddle with him."

            Trina smiled ruefully.  "I stayed in the truck like I was told.  But I would have been right there with him if he'd have let me."

            "You were there when it counted," Walker told her and she smiled at his praise.

            Alex had noticed blood spots on his shirt sleeve while they were questioning Evers, but she refrained from asking him if he was all right.  Too much fussing over injuries irritated him.  She would take Trina aside in a few minutes and get the whole scoop.

            Trivette, back from the task force meeting, had a list of known associates for Kyle Evers, Cole Brinson, and Brian Walters.  A fourth man was included in the research, one that Alex had discovered from the ME's office had the same burn mark.

            As they entered the Ranger office, Trivette stood up.

            "I've got a name.  Blake Battaglio.  He shows up as a known associate in three of the four files."

            Trina looked at the computer screen.  Photos of the KA's were displayed.  "Hey, here's the guy who was with Evers at the golf course."

            Walker looked over her shoulder.   "Richie Gregson.  Good pick up, Trina."

            Trivette was reading the report on Blake Battaglio.  "Battaglio owns a music store and plays the cello with the Dallas symphony.  That could be the origin of the Allegro word."

            Walker looked at Alex expectantly, but she shook her head.  "It's not enough for a warrant."

            "It's enough for questioning," Walker replied.

            "You are going to change clothes first?" Trivette said.

            "Yes, Trivette, I am."  Walker leaned toward Trina.  "Maisie was right -- he does look like he's been dipped in Ajax."

            Trina giggled.

            "Alex," Walker said, "why don't you let Trina tag along with you and MaryJo while I get changed."

            Alex nodded.  This would give her the chance to get the details on Evers' apprehension. "All right.  Come on, ladies."

            After they left, Walker made a phone call to Judge Smith, his back to Trivette and keeping his voice as low as possible.

            "Judge, it's Walker.  Cole Brinson is dead, but I have another lead on the case."

            "Walker, they contacted me again.  I think they realize there's no stopping the investigation.  Now they just want money.  I'm going to meet them this afternoon."

            "Judge, don't do that," Walker said, louder than he intended.  Trivette looked his way, but Walker lowered his voice again.  "If you pay up now, it'll never end.  They'll blackmail you forever."

            "I know that, but what choice do I have?  You know what will happen if I come forward."

            Walker hesitated.  It would have to come out sooner or later.  "Look, Judge, at least let me go with you.  Maybe we can end it today."

            The Judge thought for a moment.  "All right.  Meet me downstairs in thirty minutes."

            Walker hung up the phone, then rifled through his bottom desk drawer for a change of clothes.

            Trivette, pensive, sat at his desk.  He was trying not to eavesdrop but his ears couldn't help but perk up when he heard the judge's name.

            "The Judge must be in some hot water."

            Walker nodded.  "I'll say."

            "I know you know what you're doing, but if protecting him might get you into trouble....."

            Again Walker nodded.  Trivette's powers of perception were amazing sometimes and he appreciated his concern. "I'm going to get it settled now.  Hopefully he'll do the right thing.  I should be back in an hour or so."

            "Want me to check out this Blake Battaglio?"

            "No, wait till we can go together.  I've got a bad feeling about this Allegro thing."

            Clean clothes in hand, Walker headed toward the restroom.

            "Hey," Trivette called out.  "Be careful."

            "Yep," Walker replied.

            When Alex found out from Trivette that Walker had gone out on an "errand," she,  Trina and MaryJo read over the reports again.  MaryJo went to a computer in Alex's office and researched then names involved. 

            Moments later she jumped up and exclaimed,  "Miss Cahill, look what I found!"

            Alex and Trina hurried to the computer desk.  MaryJo pointed to the screen.

            "I checked into the Dallas symphony since Battaglio is a member.  Look who also plays in the orchestra --- Ward Crawley!"

            "Who's that?"  Trina asked.

            "Dontai's lawyer,"  Alex replied, suddenly very concerned.  If there was a connection between Crawley and Battaglio, this could be the Allegro leak.

            MaryJo voiced the same idea, and Alex, against her better judgment, let the students talk her into some detective work of their own.  The three women drove to Blake Battaglio's music store and went inside to look around.

            A clerk approached them.  "May I help you?"

            "Is Mr. Battaglio here?" Alex asked.

            "No, I'm sorry, he's not."

            While Alex spoke to the clerk, Trina neared a door to the back room of the shop and was met with a pair of familiar eyes --- the man who had been in the pro shop with Kyle Evers, who had taken a swing at Walker and had paid for it with a black eye.

            Trina hurried to Alex.  "Let's go, Miss Cahill.  I think we're in trouble."

            They left quickly, but were accosted in the parking lot by several men, including Richie Gregson from the pro shop.  He showed them a gun and motioned them toward a van.

            "You wanted to meet Mr. Battaglio?  Now you'll get your chance."

            Trina sucked in a terrified breath.  MaryJo, trembling, grabbed onto Alex's arm.  Alex wanted to reassure them but she was too busy silently reprimanding herself.  How many times had Walker told her not to go off on her own for the sake of a case?  Let the Rangers and police do the leg work.  Her job was in the courtroom.  Now she was in deep trouble by disregarding his warning and she'd led two innocent young women with her.  Angry at herself and frightened, she prayed she'd be around to see Walker's stormy face and hear his scolding tirade.

            Walker followed Judge Smith to the meeting spot arranged over the phone by someone from Allegro.  The Judge was to sit at a table of an outdoor cafe with his briefcase containing the hush money.  The instructions then called for him to walk away, leaving the briefcase behind.

            Walker parked his truck in a loading zone on a side street two blocks away from the cafe, then made his way to the store next to the cafe.  Hiding inside, he had a perfect view of the table when the judge sat down.  A few moments later, the judge stood up and left without looking back.  He got in his car and drove off.

            Almost immediately, a well dressed man picked up the briefcase and walked down the alley between the cafe and the store.  Walker followed him to a waiting car.  When the courier opened the car door, Walker was suddenly behind him, training his gun inside the car.

            "Everybody out," he ordered.

            Two men from the front seat got out.  They were large and muscular -- body guards, Walker assumed.  He motioned them against the car while a third man came out of the back seat.  He was also well dressed, about 55 years old with distinguished gray hair.

            "Ranger Walker, I presume," he said.  "I'm Blake Battaglio."

            "You're under arrest for extortion, Mr. Battaglio."

            "I don't think so."

            At those words, the two bodyguards made their move, but it was a short, one-sided fight.  Never even lowering his gun, Walker kicked the first one hard in the gut and punched the second one senseless.  The courier never moved, stunned at seeing his cohorts beaten so easily.  He wisely raised his hands.  But Battaglio never lost his smug expression.

            "Very impressive, Ranger, but I think you may want to reconsider your position."

            "Why would I do that?"

            "What if I told you that assistant DA Cahill was an unwilling guest at my warehouse?"

            Walker fought down a surge of adrenaline.  "You're bluffing."

            Battaglio snapped his fingers at the courier.  "Phone, Max."

            Max looked for an okay from Walker, then slowly pulled a cell phone from his coat pocket.  Battaglio dialed.

            "Put on the DA," he said into the phone, then handed it to Walker.

            Warily keeping his gun pointed at the bodyguards, Walker took the phone.  His heart sank when he heard Alex's voice.

            "Hello?  Who is this?"

            "Alex," he said, "are you okay?"

            "Walker!  What's happening?"

            "Are you okay?" he repeated.

            "So far.  Walker, Trina and MaryJo are with me."

            As Walker's face fell in defeat, Battaglio smiled, took the gun from his hand and then the phone.

            "Let's take a little ride," Battaglio said and the bodyguards forced Walker into the car.

            Trivette was still running computer searches when Judge Smith strode to his desk.  Trivette looked up, surprised.

            "Ranger Trivette, have you seen Walker?"

            Trivette frowned.  "No sir, not since he left here two hours ago to see you."

            The Judge began to pace.  "He was supposed to meet me in my chambers an hour ago."

            Trivette picked up the phone.  "I'll try his car phone."  He dialed and waited, but there was no answer.

            "Did he tell you what was going on?"  the judge asked.

            "No sir, I know it's something confidential between the two of you.  Maybe he went directly to Alex's office."  He picked up the phone again and punched in Alex's extension.  Her secretary answered.

            "Jessica, this is Jimmy.  Is Walker with Alex?"

            "No, Jimmy, and I'm really worried about her.  She and the two students went to that music store hours ago.  She said she would check in but she never did."

            "Okay, thanks, Jess."

            Trivette hung up the phone but it rang before his hand left the receiver. "Trivette."  He listened, his brow furrowing.  When he hung up, he stood and faced the judge. "That was DPD.  A patrol car found Walker's truck -- it was illegally parked -- but there's no sign of him.  Judge, I think Alex Cahill is in trouble.  If you think something's happened to Walker too, then I think we have some talking to do."

            The Judge clasped and re-clasped his hands, then nodded his head.  "I'm being blackmailed by this Allegro organization.  Walker was trying to find out who was behind it and trying to help me save face.  He was confronting them when I left."

            Trivette grit his teeth, annoyed that the Judge would endanger Walker like he'd done, knowing Walker wouldn't refuse his request for help.

            "I know where to start looking," Trivette said, heading for the door.  "And Judge, I think your daughter is with Alex."

            "I'm going with you," the Judge stated, following Trivette.

            Walker was led into the warehouse by Max and the bodyguards, who seemed anxious to retaliate for the trouncing they'd taken.  Battaglio gestured to the crates of musical instruments.

            "Perfect way to import and export drugs, don't you think."

            "It's never perfect with drugs,"  Walker said.  "You're going to go down, Battaglio."

            One of the guards punched Walker in the ribs, but Battaglio held a hand up before he struck again.  Walker, a hand on his side, straightened back up.  He knew he could take them easily, but until he knew where Alex and the students were, he'd have to go along peacefully.

            Battaglio opened a crate to show Walker a guitar stuffed with bags of cocaine. "Don't you think Allegro is a clever name?  We swooped in and took over the drug trade before anyone could stop us.  Our tempo was rapid.  Very musical."

            Battaglio's ego was as big as the warehouse, Walker was discovering.  That might work to his advantage.

            "Where's Alex?"

            "Over there."  He pointed and they began to walk to a row of stacked crates.

            "Figures someone like you would hide behind women,"  Walker goaded.

            "Whatever works.  I've got you under control because of it, don't I?"

            Battaglio smiled, then nodded to the guards.  Walker got another fist to the ribs.  Doubled over and trying to catch his breath, he quickly decided to change tactics.

            The body guards took Walker's arms and dragged him behind the stack of crates.  Alex, Trina and MaryJo were there, a gun held on them by Richie Gregson.  They pushed Walker in.

            "Are you okay?" he asked the women.

            "Yes," Alex answered.

            Battaglio looked at his four hostages.  "These crates will be your final resting places.  Who knows where you'll end up -- Japan, Australia, Peru.  Except for you, Walker.  I'm going to leave you somewhere as a warning.  A letter A and a Colombian necktie -- a nice little message that says don't screw with us.  Max...."

            The bodyguards grabbed Walker firmly.  Max appeared, carrying a red hot branding iron.

            "No!" Alex shouted.  Gregson shoved her away from Walker.  Walker knew that to fight against them would mean instant death for the women.  Gregson was holding a gun to Alex's throat.  Walker caught her eye, his expression one of helplessness and anger. 

            Battaglio ripped open Walker's shirt.  Walker tensed and the guards gripped him tighter.  Max, grinning, pushed the iron against Walker's chest.  There was a sickening sizzle.  Walker clenched his teeth, determined not to give them the satisfaction of a cry of pain.  Sweat broke out on his face.

            "Scream, Walker," Max commanded, but the only screams were from Trina and MaryJo.  Alex was shuddering, tears streaming down her face.

            The searing heat tore into Walker's chest, but still he didn't utter a sound.  One of the guards pulled his head back.  Walker's eyes were burning with unbridled rage.  So intimidating were they that Max lost his smile and backed away.  The branding iron dangled limply in his hand.  The guards pounded Walker's ribs, then let him fall to the floor.  One of them kicked him.  Walker, even though doubled up in pain, almost caught the foot to flip the man, but decided it was best to pretend he had passed out.  Maybe that would buy them some time.  The guard pulled a length of cord from his pocket and tied Walker's hands together in front of him.  As an oversight, he didn't bind Walker's feet.

            Battaglio laughed and motioned for his men to leave, feeling Walker was no longer a threat.  Gregson took the gun away from Alex's throat and resumed a stance near the stack of crates.  Alex rushed to Walker, her body blocking Gregson's view.  He was lying on his side and he opened his eyes to let her know he was okay.  She was sobbing.

            "Shhh," he said very quietly.

            She got herself under control.  "What can we do?" she whispered.

            "Get Trina and MaryJo ready.  When I start something, run like hell."

            Alex felt her chin quiver.  She knew what he was planning.  He was going to fight them, hands tied, to give them the chance to get away. 

            She shook her head slightly.  "No."  She balled up her fists in futility.

            But Walker wrapped his left hand around her fist and squeezed.  She managed a small smile.

            "That was a five," she whispered.

            He nodded, smiling back at her, then motioned for her to stand with Trina and MaryJo.

            "Be ready to run," she whispered to them.

            MaryJo, almost in shock with fright, nodded.  But Trina, anger building in her eyes, whispered back.

            "Miss Cahill, can you fight?"

            Alex nodded.

            "So can I."

            They looked into each other's eyes and acknowledged their plan.

            Walker sat up and leaned against a crate.  He couldn't decide which hurt worse, his ribs or the burn.  But when the guards and Max walked back in, he pushed the pain totally out of his thoughts, preparing his mind for battle.

            Battaglio followed his men, nodding at the body guard who pulled out a large knife.  Max  and the second guard reached for Walker's arms.

            Walker kicked out with both legs, knocking both men down.  He then leaped up, slamming his bound hands into the first man's face, then kicked the knife away.

            Gregson turned his gun toward Walker.  Alex and Trina sprang into action, punching and kicking Gregson until he fell.

            Battaglio ran out, calling for help.  There were voices answering him throughout the warehouse.  Walker heard the voices as he put the finishing touches on Max, realizing he hadn't considered the possibility that there'd be reinforcements.

            "Alex, get out of here!"  He pushed her and the students toward the exit as running footsteps raced toward them.  There was no time to untie his hands, but Alex picked up Gregson's gun and put it in Walker's right hand.

            "Go!" he yelled.

            He ran the opposite way to draw the men away from Alex and the girls.  Gunfire erupted all around him.  Diving into a space between the tightly packed crates, he steeled himself for a shootout.

            Trivette had organized four teams: one to pick up Richie Gregson at the golf course, the second would take the music store.  The third team had a warrant to search Battaglio's home and the fourth team would check out Battaglio's warehouse.  Trivette, following a hunch, elected to go to the warehouse.  Against advice, Judge Smith accompanied him.

            Hearing the shooting, the team readied.  Suddenly, MaryJo came flying out.  Crying hysterically, she fell into Trivette's arms.

            "Where are Alex and Trina?" he asked.

            "They went back for Ranger Walker," she sobbed.

            "Move in!" Trivette yelled to the team.

            Walker was surrounded and nearly out of bullets.  He prayed he'd stalled them long enough for the women to escape.  Two men ran toward him.  Walker aimed and fired, felling one, but then the gun clicked empty.

            "Use your hands," Battaglio shouted to his men, anxious to see hand-to-hand battle.

            Walker moved out into the open to give himself plenty of maneuvering room.  With his hands still tied, he took on the whole group of men surrounding him, kicking for all he was worth.

            One man suddenly yelped and fell,  then another.  Walker caught a glimpse of Alex and Trina as he ducked a punch and threw a kick into a stomach.

            Battaglio ran, chased by Alex and Trina.  Trina tackled him and together they restrained him.

            The warehouse was suddenly filled with police and Rangers.  In short order, all of Battaglio's conscious men were rounded up.  Trivette found Walker, weary from the fight and grimacing with each deep breath.  Trivette looked at the prone bodies on the floor and shook his head in wonder.

            "Untie me, will you," Walker said. He held his hands out.

            Trina, sitting on Battaglio, looked up to see her father standing over her.

            "Daddy?" she said, "what are you doing here?"

            Alex walked away to give some privacy, then the urgency to find Walker overtook her.  She ran through the warehouse until she found him, trading handshakes with Trivette.

            "Talk about in the nick of time," Walker was saying.

            "I don't know, partner.  Looks like to me you and your crew were handling yourselves pretty good."

            Walker caught Alex's eye.  "My crew was supposed to be running outside."

            She ran to him and hugged him tightly.  He hugged her back, then held her at arm's distance, a vexing scowl on his face.

            "What in the hell were you thinking?  You knew this group was dangerous.  You promised me you'd be careful.  You don't go after the bad guys, that's my job.  And another thing...."

            As he ranted, Alex recalled the first time he had chewed her out for taking an investigation into her own hands-- when the religious cult held her prisoner.  They hadn't known each other too long then, hadn't gone through the challenges of law and life that had now brought them so close together.  But even back then, when he'd rescued her, she'd felt the spark between them and had surprised the devil out of him by planting a kiss on his mouth.

            Now she looked up at him, ready to do the same, but he stopped fussing and made the first move, kissing her tenderly.

            "I guess the lecture's over," Trivette murmured with a smile.

            Alex let her hand slide down Walker's chest, pulling it back sharply when he flinched.  She'd forgotten about the burn.

            "Oh, Walker, I'm sorry.  Let me see."  She pulled his shirt open and grimaced.  A perfect letter A was ingrained on his skin, red and blistered.

            Trivette took a look.  "Oh, geez, man.  You need to get that looked at."

            "And this," Alex added, touching his blood-splotched left shirt sleeve.

            Walker wanted to put a hand to his throbbing ribcage but he knew they'd be on that too.  He eased himself down on a crate.

            "I'm okay.  You'd better check on Trina and MaryJo."

            Trivette nodded and left.  Alex sat beside Walker and looked into his eyes.  She had caused this by diving in head first when she didn't even know the depth of the water.  So stupid, so careless.  Had she been trying to impress MaryJo and Trina?  Or to show Walker she was capable of investigating on her own?  If so, she had failed miserably.  But no, that wasn't it.  Walker had nothing but utmost confidence in her abilities -- he showed it daily by his words and deeds.  Whatever had possessed her, Walker was paying for it now.  Although he was trying to hide it, she sensed his fatigue and pain.  She knew how much a small grease spatter in the kitchen could hurt.  His burn was probably excruciating.

            "I'm so sorry," Alex whispered, her eyes filling with tears.

            "Hey," Walker said softly, putting his arm around her, "everything's okay.  We brought down the whole organization."  He smiled at her, his eyes void of blame or recriminations.  She laid her head against him.

            Trivette returned, followed closely by Maisie and Paul.  Alex stood up to get out of their way.

            "I swear, Walk-Man, I'm gonna quit my job and hire out as your personal paramedic,"  Maisie grumbled.

            Walker was silent.  He had learned to take her playful abuse in stride.

            Maisie looked at the burn.  "What in the hell did this?"

            "It was a branding iron," Alex told her. 

            Trivette held up the offending instrument.

            "Holy moly.  What kind of perverts are these people?  Yesterday they're running down little children, today they're searing your flesh like you were a prize bull.  Not that you aren't, Walk-Man, it's just that I'd find another way to mark you if you belonged to me."  She chuckled and winked at him.

            Walker felt his face turning red.  Alex and Trivette tried to hide their smiles.

            "Maybe an ear tag," Trivette teased.

            Maisie looked at Trivette, who didn't have a wrinkle or speck of dirt on him. "Not a bad idea, Ajax."

            Trivette gave her an odd look as she took a chemical ice pack from Paul, cracked it, then gently put it against the burn.  Walker put his left hand on it and Maisie spied the blood spots.

            "Oh, good grief!"  She put his right hand to the ice pack, then held the left one and investigated the wound.  More torn stitches.  She looked at Walker, her face uncharacteristically serious.  "It's never gonna heal this way, Redbeard.  You gotta take some time off, let it knit proper."

            Knowing she was right, Walker nodded, letting out a big sigh.

            "We'll see to it," Alex said.  "I've got some time to burn too."

            "Ouch.  Don't say burn," Trivette said.

            "You know, this may work out," Maisie said, her face illuminated. "Walk-Man, you have a permanent A for Alex stamped right over your heart."

            Again Walker felt his face redden, but he met Alex's smile with one of his own.  As he stood, Maisie patted him on the ribs and he sucked in a painful breath.  She pulled up his shirt, revealing fist-sized, red welts.

            "Uh huh," Maisie said.  "Holding out on me again.  We'll just add X-rays to the list for the ER docs.  Paul, get the stretcher."

            "I don't need a stretcher," Walker said, finally getting a word in.

            "Stop being so stubborn," Alex scolded.  "You have to do what I say."

            "Why?"

            "Because you belong to me.  That's my brand and the law says that proves ownership."

            Walker laughed, holding his ribs as he did so, and as much as he hated to be incapacitated, he had to admit it felt good when he got off his feet and onto the stretcher.  As they headed for the rescue squad, Maisie looked at the branding iron in Trivette's hand.

            "You know what, Jimbo?  It wouldn't take much to change that A into an M for Maisie.  What do you say?  How about my tattoo on you?  We could start a whole new fad here."

            Trivette stuttered.  "Uh, no, um, this is evidence."

            She reached for the iron, but Trivette pulled it away.  "No, Maisie."  He walked faster, but she followed.

            "I'll let you do me too!"

            Trivette began to run and Maisie gave chase, while Alex and Walker laughed.

            Trivette had called ahead to C.D.'s, telling him they were on their way there from the hospital. He relayed the injury report:  some rib fractures, a re-stitched arm and the nasty burn.

            As they walked in, C.D. poured four mugs of coffee, silently assessing Walker when they sat down.

            "Ice pack, C.D.," Walker said.

            C.D. had it ready and Walker held it against his chest with his right hand.  Picking up his coffee mug with his left hand, it dropped out of his grip and turned over on the bar.  But Walker didn't appear upset.  He shrugged at C.D.

            "Sorry."

            "No problem, Cordell.  If it weren't for you, this bar would never get wiped down."

            Alex smiled, putting her fist into Walker's palm.  "Don't squeeze, just hold," she said softly.

            He smiled, telling her with his eyes that he was happy to do so.  She warmed inside, having seen deep into his heart today without his even knowing it.  His grip strength was a three when he dropped a coffee mug, but it was a five when he was preparing to fight for her life.  That spoke volumes.

            "How's MaryJo?"  C.D. asked Alex.

            "The ER doctor gave her a couple of valiums and sent her home.  I think she's had enough excitement for one day, but she'll be fine.  And thanks to her, Ward Crawley is behind bars where he belongs.  He was passing information to Battaglio."

            Trina and the judge had been sitting at a table, awaiting Alex and Walker's arrival.  Now they approached the bar.

            "Walker, are you all right?"

            "I'm fine, Judge."

            "Trina and I have been doing a lot of catching up.  I can't believe what I've missed all these years."

            "Me too," Trina said.  "But we'll make up for it now."  She hugged her father.

            "Miss Cahill," the Judge began, "may I come to your office tomorrow morning?  I have a criminal matter that needs addressing."  He looked at Walker, who nodded in approval.

            "Certainly, Judge, but you'll have to see DA  Hill.  I'm starting a few days of vacation tomorrow."  She surreptitiously squeezed Walker's hand.

            "I'll do that.  Walker, thanks for all your help."  He shook the Ranger's hand.

            "So, Trina," Trivette said, "I understand you'll finish out the ride along program with me."

            "Yeah, but let's get some things straight," she said. "First, how in the world do you expect to chase criminals with that little sports car of yours?  What if you need to go gardening?"

            "Gardening?" Alex asked.

            "Yes, that's what Walker calls it when his truck tires churn up grass and dirt on someone's lawn.  Like we did on the country club golf course."

            Walker cringed guiltily.

            Alex nodded knowingly.  "Ah, so that's the term I should use when I get a citizen's complaint about lawn damage.  Gardening, huh?"

            Trina went on.  "And Trivette, how do you expect to catch the bad guys wearing a suit and those shoes?  I'm wearing my new boots tomorrow."

            Trivette looked insulted.

            "And for lunch, I know where to get the best hotdogs in the world.  Forget that vegetarian junk."

            "Walker, help," Trivette said.

            But Trina took Trivette by the arm and led him to their table, still jabbering in his ear.

            Alex, C.D. and Walker were laughing.

            "Jimmy's having the worst trouble with women today," Alex giggled.

            "So," C.D. began, "what are you two going to do with this vacation time?"

            "Well," Alex said, "I thought about white water rafting."

            Walker cut his eyes at her and she burst into a grin.

            She continued.  "Actually, I rented us some movies so we can just sit back and relax."

            "Oh, brother," C.D. moaned.  "Cordell, I bet she picked out some sappy chick flicks."

            Walker made a gloomy face.

            "Wrong, C.D.," she said.  "I got Die Hard, Top Gun, a couple of old Bruce Lee films...."

            Walker's eyes were dancing.  "Great!  Let's go."  He stood up and pulled her toward the door.

            Alex glanced back at C.D., giving him a thumbs' up.

            "Smart woman," C.D. said to no one.  "Guns and karate, the way to Cordell's heart.  And if they're lucky, there might be some gardening in there too."

The End 

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