Up in Smoke by

Lelani Dixon

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Ranger's Walker and Trivette were in Walker's Ram truck returning from an interview with an informant. The fact that they had agreed to meet with a man who went by the name Huge Hugh was indicative of their desperation for a break in the case they were working on. "I don't know Walker, what were we thinking?" James Trivette asked his partner in a voice that told of his own bewilderment at their actions. "We weren't thinking, that's the problem. We've gotten so desperate to find a way to take Juan Ortiz down that we have stooped to new lows." Juan Ortiz was a man who profited from the desperation of others. He helped people from south of the border to get into America and then put them to work in his sweatshops. He had managed to elude every investigation into his criminal activities mainly because the people he exploited were afraid of the authorities and clammed up the minute questions were asked.

The two Ranger's had been contacted by a man who claimed to have done work for the coyote, Hector Sanchez, who brought the people across the border and despite his name, Walker and Trivette had followed up on the lead. When they arrived at the meeting place, sixty miles outside of the city, they were greeted by a man who looked as if he were a character from a low budget horror film. The man was huge; he stood close to seven feet and weighed three hundred pounds. His face was elongated and his chin would have put Jay Leno's to shame. All of his front teeth were capped in silver and he had one blue eye and one brown eye. His hair was bright orange and stuck straight from his head in an unkempt Afro. The information he gave the Ranger's was well over a year old and it was doubtful that anything would prove relevant to their current investigation. When he was asked why he had called to set the meeting up, Huge Hugh said that he had fallen in love with one of the women he helped smuggle into Texas and he had been unable to locate her once she was taken to work by Ortiz.

"What do you think Walker? Given a choice between Huge Hugh or working in subhuman conditions for no pay, what would this Lola choose?" Walker smiled at the grim thought, pretty poor choices. "They say love is blind Trivette, maybe she shared his attraction." "Love may be blind, but it does have a since of smell. Did you get a whiff of that guy?" "I was standing upwind for a reason." The Ranger's were passing through the outskirts of town having opted to take city streets to avoid the traffic on the freeways. It was rush hour and dusk had grayed the sky. "Trivette, what is that over there? It looks like a fire." Trivette rolled the window down and the scent of smoke confirmed Walker's suspicion. "Yeah, it's some sort of structure fire." He picked up the radio to get emergency vehicles dispatched as Walker turned the Ram toward the fire. When they got closer, they could see that it was an apartment complex that had been condemned that was burning. It was old and the wood was rotted and dry making great fuel for the fire.

The tires squealed as Walker pulled up to the curb and stopped the truck. He leapt out to check if there were people inside while Trivette radioed in the exact address. As Walker approached the front of the building, he heard a scream from within. Not stopping to consider his own safety, he kicked in the locked and boarded up front door. He rushed in keeping his head low and trying to see through the dense smoke. It was a small apartment building; there were two floors and two apartments on each floor. He crashed into the first apartment and ran in calling out to locate any trapped victims. He no longer heard any screams or calls for help and was forced to search with his eyes that were burning and watering.

After radioing dispatch, Trivette ran in after his partner and took the apartment on the left side of the bottom floor, doing much the same thing as Walker. The two men finished their searches of the bottom floor apartments at about the same time and both ran up the stairs to the top floor. This was where the fire had started and the heat was overpowering as they crouched down and barreled into the apartments. Jimmy again went to the left and his search turned up no one in the apartment. Walker wasn't as lucky. He tripped over a body as he ran into the apartment on the right that was fully engulfed in flames. He dragged the child out into the hall and went back in. Another child was on the floor just two steps further in than the first. He pulled her out to the hall as well and again went in. Trivette had finished his search and joined Walker at this point. The two men frantically dragged six more children into the hall from the front room and then each took one of the two side by side bedrooms. The one on the left was an inferno and Jimmy tried to get in and then realizing the futility of his effort, turned to help Walker. Walker emerged with a young child in his arms and his face set in stone. "Don't bother," he said and Trivette knew that everyone else in that room had no chance of survival.

Now they needed to concentrate on getting the others out.

Walker threw a child over each shoulder and held the smallest in his arms and plowed his way to the bottom floor. He was met by the firemen who had just arrived on the scene and they relieved him of his burden and carried the victims out to the street. Trivette had slung two children over his shoulders and carried a third in his arms; Walker sidestepped as he passed him coming down the stairs. Walker climbed to the top of the stairs his lungs feeling as if the fire had spread to them. He coughed and wheezed as he gathered the last three children and headed downstairs. The firemen who were starting up the stairs to search for more victims met him. "There aren't anymore survivors," Walker said and the firemen read from his expression the horrible truth. Powerful water hoses sprayed the now fully engulfed structure as white smoke plumes poured out.

Walker and Trivette were escorted to the fire engine and given oxygen masks as the paramedics worked on the nine children who were laid out in the street. Two ambulances arrived and the EMT's scrambled out to assist the overworked paramedics. Walker and Trivette both breathed in the oxygen and coughed with each breath. Trivette looked at the carnage in front of him and realized that the oldest child could not be more than ten years old. He wondered where the adults who were responsible for these children were. Had they been overwhelmed by smoke in the bedroom that he had been unable to enter? He refocused on the scene in front of him and watched as a sheet was placed over two of the victims. He looked over at Walker and saw the pain he felt reflected in his partner's eyes. The sound of a helicopter came from overhead and police guided it to land a block down the street in an empty field. Three of the children were loaded on gurneys and placed in the helicopter. Two more were placed in one of the ambulances and another two were covered by sheets. Of the nine they had pulled out, only five showed any signs of life.

The EMT's from the remaining ambulance walked over to the Ranger's to examine them. Both were suffering from smoke inhalation and Walker had a nasty burn on his right forearm while Trivette had a burn on his right shoulder. Both were covered in smoke and soot and had first degree burns, caused by the intense heat, on all of their exposed skin. Walker had burned his forearm reaching for a child. Trivette had bumped into the doorframe when he had given up his attempt to enter the room that had been completely engulfed. Within an hour, the fire was under control and nearly out. The Coroner's office had sent units to the scene and after some urging, the two Rangers were loaded into the back of the ambulance for transport to the emergency room.

Chapter 2

 

Alexandra Cahill-Walker rushed into the emergency room after having been informed that her husband and his partner were there. The nurse told her that both men were being admitted for smoke inhalation. They would be receiving breathing treatments to help heal the damage the smoke had caused to their lungs and bronchioles. They were being transported to their room and she would have to wait until they were settled in. The nurse did tell her that neither one of them had a life threatening injury and she was able to breathe a sigh of relief. After looking at Alex and realizing that she was somewhere between the second and third trimester of her pregnancy, the nurse escorted her to a waiting room on the 4th floor where the men would be admitted and offered her a seat.

Alex sat in the waiting room long enough for the nurse to return to her own floor and then she went in search of the two men who held very special places in her heart. She saw a gurney with Walker on it being wheeled into a room to the left. She hurried in after it and the two orderlies turned the gurney around so that it was parallel with the hospital bed to allow Walker to slide over into it. When he saw his wife enter the room, his face showed concern. "Alex are you here alone?" "Yes, I came as soon as I heard, how are you?" "I'm fine, I thought Sydney and Gage were going to bring you over." "I haven't seen them, but that doesn't matter. Are you sure you're all right?" Walker began coughing and the nurse who came in ahead of Trivette's gurney rushed over to reattach the oxygen. Walker gasped for air and finally managed to get the coughing spasm under control. Alex waited for him to get more air before asking him more questions.

Jimmy was similarly transferred to a bed on the other side of the room. There was a draw curtain to give privacy to each bed, but it was currently pushed open. After Jimmy was settled in his bed and the gurneys and orderlies had all left the room; Alex went over to check on her dear friend. "Jimmy how are you?" Trivette gave her a tired smile and nodded that he was okay. He had already learned that talking increased the coughing, so he didn't answer her verbally. She walked over and squeezed his hand gently and then stepped back as the nurse came over to hook up his oxygen.

Alex returned to her husband and reached for his hand. She saw the bandage on his forearm and said, "don't talk, just nod. Is this a burn?" He nodded 'yes'. She surveyed the rest of him. The skin on his face, hands and arms was pink, but not blistered. She drew the sheet down. He was covered with a hospital gown, but she wasn't shy about moving it out of her way to check the rest of his body. Walker started to protest, but realized that the nurse had drawn the curtain between the two beds as she settled Trivette into his bed. He knew that he wasn't in a position to argue with his wife, so he gave in. After inspecting her husband and finding a few bruises, but no more burns, she replaced the gown and the sheet. Looking back at her husband's face, she said, "so you have smoke inhalation, some burns where your skin was exposed and a bad burn on your right forearm. Is that all the damage?" She hadn't bothered to mention the bruises; it was rare that her husband was without some bruises. He again nodded in response to her questions. "The burn on your arm, is it really bad?" He shook his head 'no'. "You're not trying to cover anything up are you?" He rolled his eyes at her and again shook his head 'no'. The nurse came back through the curtain. "What's the story on his arm?" Alex asked the nurse. "It's a pretty nasty burn, second degree and possibly third degree, but it will heal fine if it's kept clean. It's a small area so the doctor didn't think a skin graft would be necessary. It's undoubtedly painful though. The doctor gave him a pain killer that should last through the night anyway." "And Jimmy, how is he?" "He faired slightly better, he has a second degree burn on his shoulder, but it's also a small area, so he should heal fine." "What about the damage from the smoke?" "They both breathed in a lot of smoke. The respiratory therapist will be here soon to start them on their breathing treatments, but the doctor said that they would most likely be released in a day or two and they will both recover fully." "The kids?" Walker managed to ask her before she turned to leave. "I'm sorry Ranger, we lost two of them. One little girl is in the burn unit and a second girl and little boy are in critical condition from the smoke they inhaled. Everything possible is being done for them." Walker lay back against his pillow with an attitude of defeat.

The nurse left and Alex opened the curtain so that she could keep an eye on both men. Jimmy had closed his eyes and looked asleep. She sat on the edge of Walker's bed and stroked the hair back from his forehead. He fought against the fatigue, but Alex's rhythmic stroking of his hair was very soothing. That combined with the painkiller and the physical and emotional exhaustion finally lulled him to sleep. As Alex drew her hand away, it smelled of smoke. She walked over to get a close look at Jimmy and she thought how young he looked in sleep. She looked up to see Gage and Sydney enter the room. She put her finger to her lips to let them know to be quiet and then stepped out into the hall with them.

"Alex, we're sorry, I guess we missed you," Sydney said. "Walker had dispatch tell us what was going on and we were supposed to tell you and bring you over. I guess you heard the news through the grapevine before we were able to get over there." Alex smiled at Sydney and said, "I happened to be in Ranger Headquarters talking to Morales about a case when the word came in. I came straight here." "How are they?" Gage asked. "They'll both be fine, but they'll have to take it easy for awhile. Apparently, there are three children still alive from those they pulled from the building. Do we know what happened?" "Dispatch said that Trivette and Walker happened on the fire accidentally and they pulled out nine children before the fire department arrived. The scene was so bad that they've sent grief counselors to help the firefighters and the people from the Coroner's office deal with it." Alex asked, "what was the scene?" "A condemned apartment complex that should have been empty. The front door was boarded up, but someone had pried open the back door and it looks like there were many people living in the cramped space with no electricity or running water. The apartment doors all had outside locks on them as if people were held prisoner there. At last count, the Coroner's office had a total of twelve victims still in the building. Plus the nine Walker and Trivette brought out, that's twenty-one people and the oldest appears to be no more than twelve years old." "My God," Alex breathed. "The kids that were pulled out were Hispanic, but no one knows where their parents might be," Gage finished describing the horrific scene. "How awful," Alex said thinking of the panic these children must have felt before they succumbed to the fumes. "If you're all right, I'd like to get over there and see if we can help find the parents of these kids. When I find the person or persons who placed these kids in such jeopardy..." Gage was livid. He had been raised in the foster care system and had been placed in a home where he and his sister were abused. He had a soft spot for defenseless children and he wanted to cause serious pain to those responsible for the horror these twenty-one children had suffered. "Go on you two, I'm fine here. I'll get someone to drag in a comfortable chair for me to sit in." "Let me do that before we go," Gage offered and went in search of the most comfortable chair he could find. Alex was only six months pregnant and she was carrying the pregnancy well, but he felt that it was his responsibility to step in and look out for her while Walker was incapacitated.

Sydney looked at Alex and asked her for details on Trivette and Walker's injuries. Alex filled her in and by the time Gage returned, the respiratory therapist had come in and hooked up nebulizers to the oxygen masks the two men wore. He explained to everyone that the medication was delivered in a gaseous form and would help to open the breathing passages and to reduce the inflammation of the tissues. He said that he would have the Ranger's doing breathing exercises beginning the next day to strengthen their lungs and help them to expand fully. Sydney and Gage left with him and Alex settled herself in the semi reclining chair that Gage had procured from somewhere. She propped her feet on the bottom rung of her husbands' bed and watched him sleep.

 

Chapter 3

 

The next morning, Walker awoke to find his wife sleeping in a chair beside his bed. He wasn't happy to find her still there and knew that she had stayed the night. His chest wasn't nearly as tight and he was able to breathe much easier, but his arm hurt like hell. "Alex," he called in a hoarse whisper. Alex's eyes opened and she smiled at her husband. "Hi sleeping beauty. I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever wake up," she teased her husband. "What time is it?" he asked. Alex looked at her watch and said, "it's after ten and you probably haven't eaten since lunch yesterday. I'll go get you something." "You get yourself something first," he ordered. "I ate breakfast a couple hours ago," she informed him. Jimmy was awakened by their quiet conversation and he chimed in, "if Walker doesn't want anything, I'll eat his. I could eat a Texas sized meal, I'm famished." "I'll be back," Alex promised and left the room to seek a nurse.

Later that afternoon, both Rangers' were clamoring for release. They neither one liked being in the hospital and wanted the comfort of their own beds. The doctor made them breathe into tubes with balls inside to see how high they could make the balls rise in the tubes with their breaths. They both were proud of their efforts when the balls reached the top of the tubes, but the doctor threw them a curve when he said that they had to keep the balls there. It was only seconds before their lungs gave out and the balls fell to the bottoms of the tubes as the Ranger's coughed and gasped for air. The doctor shook his head from side to side and said, "sorry men, you didn't pass the minimum time requirements. You'll have to have more treatments and we'll try again tomorrow." Alex dealt with the grumpy men with patience and a smile although there were moments when she could have wrapped the oxygen hoses around their necks. After dinner, she had had just about as much of their company as she could stand. Gage and Sydney had stopped by to visit so she took herself off for a well-deserved break.

Alex found herself on the children's ward and recognized the nurse as Jessica Rodes, a woman Jimmy had dated briefly over a year before. She asked her about the victims of the fire. Jessica told Alex that they had lost the little boy during the night and that the girl in the burn unit was not expected to make it. This was the child that Walker had pulled from the bedroom and the only one of the children they had rescued who had actually been burned; the others died of smoke inhalation. The nurse did say that the third child, a little girl of about five, was holding her own.

Alex walked into the room and looked at the tiny child with her shoulder length dark hair spread out on the pillow. "She's so tiny," Alex whispered. "From what I understand, all the children were small for their ages and undernourished. She hasn't woken up yet, but she may come around anytime." "Is it all right if I sit with her for awhile?" Alex asked. Jessica trusted Alex and knew that she would just sit quietly with the little girl, so she approved the request. After sitting next to the little girl and stroking her hair for about twenty minutes, the little girl's eyelids started to flutter and then opened. She looked around at her surroundings and was immediately frightened. Alex spoke soothingly to her and the little girl's large brown eyes latched onto her. She still looked extremely afraid, so Alex began to sing a lullaby in Spanish that a volunteer at the HOPE Center had taught her. The singing relaxed the child and after she quieted, Alex pushed the call button for the nurse. Jessica came in and saw that the girl was awake and began checking her. The little girl reached for Alex and Alex gripped the tiny fingers in her hand. The girl relaxed a little after she saw Alex talk to and smile at Jessica. It was an hour more before the child fell back to sleep and Alex gently disengaged her hand and left the room.

Walker and Trivette grilled Sydney and Gage for information on the house and the victims of the fire. "The Coroner confirmed that the oldest victim was eleven or twelve. There were twenty-one victims total, presumably all of Hispanic origin. The fire destroyed any evidence of who or where their parents might be. There are very few neighbors in the area and they report that a van came late at night and unloaded people and then returned before dawn the next day. One woman said that they were all women and that they were poorly dressed and looked exhausted when they arrived. No one could give us a good description of the van and no one has come to the house since the fire. Somehow the women must have heard about the fire and are staying away." Gage looked over at his partner to see if he had left anything out of his report. Sydney added, "or kept away. We assume that these women are here illegally and are probably working long hours for little or no wages and are living as virtual slaves."

Walker looked over at Trivette; "do you think these people could be tied to Juan Ortiz?" Trivette answered, "well he certainly isn't the only person in Dallas who brings people into Texas illegally to work in his sweatshops, but housing more than twenty children together without adult supervision does sound like something he would do." "Look into it you two," Walker ordered the young Rangers. Gage nodded, "we'll do boss." They took their leave soon after, as they knew they would need to get an early start on the investigation the next day.

Alex returned to the room and filled the men in on the status of the children. She told them of the little girl and how she had woken up frightened, but had quieted back down and gone back to sleep. "Jessica's with her?" Jimmy asked. "Yeah, she said that she's on through the night, so she'll keep a close eye on her." "She's great with kids, I'm glad she's the nurse watching over her," Jimmy said. "Alex, I want you to go on home now and get a good nights sleep. Trivette and I are both fine and you need to stretch out and let the baby get comfortable." Alex started to protest, but Walker gave her one of his looks that meant no amount of arguing would let her win this one. She won most of their arguments, but when Walker put his foot down about something, there was no budging him. "All right, I guess I could use some sleep," she consented. "Bring me in some clean clothes in the morning," Walker requested. She looked at him and knew that he was going to leave the hospital in the morning regardless of what the doctor said. "Me too," Jimmy added from the other bed. She just looked at the two men, rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. "Okay, I'll see you two in the morning. She leaned over and gave Walker a chaste kiss, waved at Jimmy and exited. She didn't go straight home though, she went down to check on the little girl one last time and then she headed home to the ranch for a much needed break.

 

Chapter 4

 

Alex arrived at the hospital the next morning with two duffel bags containing all the things Walker and Jimmy would need to change and leave the hospital. She walked into the room and dropped the bags on the foot of each bed, turned on her heal and walked out. She didn't speak one word of greeting to either man and Walker started getting a little worried. Alex headed down the hall to the nurse's station and asked about the two troublesome patients. She was told that they had both passed the tests this morning that allowed the doctor to release them and the paperwork was being processed. Alex thanked the nurse and then went to the children's ward to find out about the two children. The nurse there had been told by Jessica to answer her questions and to let her visit with the little girl as the child responded well to her. The nurse told Alex that the child in the burn unit had slipped into a coma and that her condition was grave.

Alex went to visit her little friend and found her awake with her eyes wide staring at the equipment in the room. She was attached to an assortment of lines including the nasal canula that supplied oxygen to her. The little girl relaxed upon seeing Alex and Alex sat with her and spoke soothingly to her. Alex had stopped on her way to the hospital and picked up a stuffed animal for her. It was a brightly colored parrot and if you squeezed its beak, it said, 'hello.' The child's eyes lit up and Alex saw her smile for the first time. A nurse entered with a breakfast tray and said that they were hoping the child would start eating solid food. She said that they had only managed to get liquids down her. It took a great deal of encouragement, but Alex managed to get her to eat more than half of the food. Just as the child lay back in the bed, exhausted from the effort of eating, Walker strode into the room. Alex looked up at him and smiled. He looked wan and tired, but seeing him dressed in his own clothes and on his feet was a relief. "Hi, I hope I'm not intruding." "No, we were just visiting." Walker looked at the little girl and wondered which child she was of the nine he and Trivette had rescued. They hadn't had time to look at their faces or even check to see if they were still breathing when they were pulling them from the inferno. He smiled at the child and then asked her what her name was in Spanish. Alex could understand some Spanish, but she only knew a few key phrases, whereas her husband had a good command of the language. The little girl looked at Alex and so Alex repeated the question. "Angelica," the child whispered and then began to cough. "She's well named," Walker commented. Alex nodded her agreement and then spoke to Angelica until she saw her eyelids droop. She again sang the Spanish lullaby to her and soon the little girl was sound asleep.

Walker reached his hand to his wife's shoulder and turned her to look at him. "Is everything okay?" She smiled knowing that she had worried him by not speaking to him when she arrived in the morning. Tilting her head up for a kiss, she looked into his eyes and waited. Walker accepted the invitation and bent down to kiss her. When he pulled back, there was a question in his eyes and he waited for her to answer it. The two knew each other so well that nonverbal communication was very common between them. Alex sighed and said, "I knew that you two would be grumpy if you hadn't passed the tests this morning and that no amount of arguing was going to get you to stay here if you needed to. I decided to save my breath and let you and the hospital staff work it out. Angelica is a much better patient and after putting up with you and Jimmy yesterday, I thought I would spend my time with her until you were ready to go." Walker seemed satisfied by her explanation and even apologized. "We were pretty miserable company yesterday. I'm sorry. I'll be good at home though." "Yeah right." "You don't believe me?" "Walker, I've played nursemaid to you enough times in the past to know that you will do far more than you're supposed to. You won't rest and let yourself heal properly and you'll think you can do whatever you want. I'll get mad at you and you'll act all righteous and," Alex sighed, "we've been here before. I can almost write the script in advance." Walker couldn't argue with her, he knew that she was right. "Jimmy's waiting for us, let's go." Alex bent over Angelica and kissed her forehead and then they walked out to meet Jimmy.

Once they were home, things went pretty much as Alex had predicted. The doctor had ordered the two Rangers not to return to work for ten days. That didn't keep Walker off the phone though. He ran the investigation into the fire and Juan Ortiz from the ranch. Sydney and Gage did all the legwork, but Walker stayed abreast of every development and Trivette used his home computer to research the tiniest lead the younger Ranger's came up with. Walker had almost frenetic energy and he wasn't sleeping. Alex recognized the signs and knew he was mulling something over in his mind and that he wouldn't talk about it until he was ready.

On his third day home, Alex was worried enough about him to talk to the department psychiatrist. Walker was having nightmares when he did manage to sleep and he woke himself in the night thrashing and calling out. He said that he didn't remember the nightmares, but Alex didn't believe him. Dr. Wong listened to Alex describe the symptoms and said, "it sounds like post traumatic stress syndrome. I understand that the scene at the fire was particularly disturbing. I have seen two firemen and one technician from the Coroner's office who have been having similar problems. Seeing the bodies of small children charred beyond recognition, well if that's not the stuff nightmares are made of, I don't know what is." "Walker has had problems in the past with flashbacks to Vietnam. Do you think that could be happening again?" "It's possible. I'd really like to talk to him. Why not ask him if he would come in." Alex shook her head, "he won't. I know him. If he isn't able to get over this on his own, he'll go out to the badlands to be alone and work it out. If that doesn't work, he'll go see White Eagle, the spiritual leader of his tribe." Dr. Wong smiled, "don't worry Alex. Walker's good at taking care of himself. I don't care if he speaks to me or to this White Eagle as long as he talks to someone and gets it out." "I wish he would talk to me," Alex stated quietly. Dr. Wong smiled at the other woman and said, "my husband never talks to me about his problems either. I think he's afraid I'll sit there psychoanalyzing him." Alex nodded to the doctor and said, "he's better than he used to be, but he's still not much for sharing his feelings."

Alex was feeling a little better after having spoken to Dr. Wong. She also went by the hospital to see Angelica who was getting better each day. She loved seeing Alex come into the room and refused to eat her dinner until Alex got there in the evening. Alex spoke to her in English and told her the names of the food items on her plate and Angelica told Alex how to say them in Spanish. As with most young children, Angelica was learning a second language much more quickly than an adult would. She was already forming two word sentences while Alex stumbled over single words and retained little from one lesson to the next.

After she left Angelica for the evening, she went to speak to Jessica. "Really, there's no reason to keep her here. I think the social worker is looking for a temporary placement for her," Jessica told Alex. "I have a connection at Child Protective Services. I wonder if I could pull a few strings and get temporary custody of her while they look for her family." "How do you think Walker will react to that idea?" Jessica asked. "Well, we fostered an infant, Max, for a short time and Walker got attached pretty quickly. It was really hard when Max went home with his mother, but we got word that we would be having a baby of our own that same day and the news softened the blow. I think he'll be okay with it." Alex didn't mention the time Walker took in Lucas and fostered him until he died of a secondary pulmonary infection related to AIDS. She knew though that Walker loved children as much as she did and rather than just saying that someone should do something, he was a man of action and jumped in to help in whatever way he could. Alex decided to go home and talk to Walker about her idea.

When she parked in the driveway at the ranch, she saw that Walker had camping gear in the bed of the Ram. It was almost frightening how well she knew her husband. They had been married for less than a year, but she'd known him for eight years. She walked into the entryway and saw him in the dining room at the table with dinner ready. "Hi," he greeted her as she walked to the table and gave him a kiss." "Hi back. I take it you're planning to get an early start in the morning." Walker looked a little guilty. "I thought I'd go out to the badlands for a few days since I'm not allowed back at work." Alex just nodded. "I won't go if you don't want me to." Alex looked at him as she sat down and picked up her fork to start on the salad he'd made for her. "You know I don't 'want' you to go, but I understand if you feel you need to." Walker looked relieved. "I just need a few days to get things sorted out. I know that I'm missing something and that I'm not looking at this case objectively. It's hard to be objective about so many children dying so senselessly. The official ruling on the cause of the fire came through today. The kids were cooking on a sterno oven in the bedroom and a sheet must have caught fire. They apparently tried to put the fire out, but were overwhelmed by the fumes. The building was so full of dry rot that it went out of control very fast. The kids that made it into the front room couldn't get out because the door was locked from the outside. Whoever put them in there wanted them to stay there." This was the longest speech Alex had gotten from Walker in days. "Do you still think there's a connection with Juan Ortiz?" "Not one that we've been able to uncover. Trivette and I got some information about the coyote, Hector Sanchez, who smuggles people in for Ortiz from an informant. Sanchez might be of some help if I can find him." Walker stopped talking, he hadn't meant to let that slip out. He really was tired, he wasn't thinking straight. "So you're going on a little trip to hunt down a man you want to question because you're officially on medical leave. I'm sure he'll be more than willing to talk to you and you probably won't have to get physical at all," Alex said with sarcasm. "I may not even find him, but I have Jesse working on it for me on the Mexican side and if I can I'd like to crack this case." Alex stood up and started clearing the table, she wasn't particularly hungry. "Alex, please eat some dinner, I roasted some chicken for you and made new potatoes. Don't forget you're eating for two and you haven't eaten enough for one yet." "I really think that I'd like to just go to bed. I'll eat tomorrow. Oh by the way, I called Nina Woods and asked her to find out what it would take for me to bring Angelica home temporarily. Normally they would want to place her in a Spanish speaking foster home, but Nina is willing to overlook that since I have an established relationship with Angelica. I told her that she would be spending her days at HOPE Center where there are several people who speak Spanish. I also told her that you spoke the language. Of course that's a moot point now, but I can always get Sydney to act as translator if I need to." "I don't know if I feel comfortable with you having Angelica here by yourself. You already do so much and you're nearly into the third trimester which is when the doctor said you would need to start cutting back, not adding more responsibilities." "Tell you what Walker, you go out into the badlands and track this Sanchez since the doctor says that you're not healthy enough to work and I'll take care of myself, our baby and Angelica." Walker's mouth tightened as Alex made it clear that she was really mad and the more he said, the madder she was getting. She walked out of the room and went on upstairs changing and climbing tiredly into bed.

Walker cleaned the kitchen, packed some of the chicken in a ziploc bag and put it in the cooler he had prepared. He didn't plan to stop for meals and would hunt for what he needed once he was camping out. He changed the bandage on his arm and went upstairs and climbed in next to his wife. Her breathing was deep and even, she'd obviously fallen asleep. He reached out and stroked her hair. Her back was to him and he was careful not to wake her. A couple hours before dawn, he reached over and planted a kiss on his wife's cheek and another on her belly and then quietly slipped out of the room to get started on his trek.

 

Chapter 5

 

Walker had been gone for two days and as usual, there was no word from him. Alex picked Angelica up late Friday afternoon and Sydney rode out with them to the ranch answering the inquisitive child's questions. Angelica loved the horses and she petted them and fed them carrots until Alex finally put a halt to it after dark. Alex settled her new charge into the guest bedroom located directly across the hall from the master bedroom. After Angelica fell asleep, Alex returned downstairs to find that Sydney had washed the dishes and straightened the kitchen. "Thank you Sydney for all your help today." "Hey, she's a great kid and I think it's really wonderful of you to take her in like this." "She's so alone, I really feel drawn to her. Since the other little girl who was in the burn unit died, I just had to do something to help Angelica. To be the only child out of twenty-one to survive that fire, she's one amazing little girl." "I hope that her life gets better, although I don't know how it could be worse than it was." Alex agreed with Sydney. What could be worse than living locked in an abandoned building with no running water, electricity or adult supervision? "I plan to make sure that her life gets better." "I take it you haven't heard from Walker?" "No, I don't expect to. He'll come back when he's sorted things out." "I don't know how you do it, being married to a man who is so closed mouthed about his emotions." "Actually, things are much better than they used to be and Walker continues to get better about sharing things with me. This particular set back is just one of those things that I will have to accept as part of loving the man." "Well call me if there's anything I can do," Sydney said as she got up to leave.

Walker looked at the campfire he had made and thought about the flames that raged in that apartment building. There was one image he couldn't get out of his mind and he suddenly jumped up and extinguished the campfire. He sat back down with his legs crossed and tried to center himself. He took deep breaths and focused on the one image that was always stronger than the others, his wife's face. He could visualize her smiling into his eyes and he began to breathe more calmly. He slowly came out of the trance he had put himself into and smiled, Alex would be surprised to know that he had started using a visualization of her face within weeks of meeting her. He had never shared this little secret with her. The face he saw now was different from when he first started visualizing her. The face now looked at him with such love and trust and joy, it always calmed and reassured him. Walker walked over to his sleeping bag and climbed in. He knew that he had hurt Alex and he knew that she was angry that he would leave instead of confronting things and sharing them with her. It was his way and as much as he had changed since knowing her, some parts of him still resisted her pull. He vowed to himself that he would make a greater effort to open up to her and share his feelings in the future. Having made this vow, he managed to relax and get some sleep.

It was just after dawn when he heard the scuffles of feet walking in his direction. He was just over the border into Mexico and with the help of his friend Jesse, he had found the route the coyote, Hector Sanchez, used to bring the immigrants to the border. He waited patiently to see how many people were in the group. He counted ten women, four children and seventeen men. One of the men was the coyote and two others, who were carrying guns, were his guards. Walker crept behind an outcrop of rock and climbed up on top of it jumping down and knocking one of the guards out as he hit him with both feet. The second guard whirled and drew his gun, but Walker's reflexes were faster and he spun, kicking the gun out of the man's hand and then followed that up with a kick to the chin that laid the man out flat. The coyote had halted the group and yelled at the men to attack Walker. Walker stood his ground and told the others in Spanish that he meant them no harm and that he merely wanted to speak to Hector Sanchez who had caused harm to some other people. The group of immigrants looked at each other and then stepped back allowing Walker clear view of Sanchez. This man had taken their money and treated them no better than cattle; there was no loyalty to him among the group. Walker approached Sanchez who held his gun aimed at his chest. Walker halted ten paces in front of him and told him that he had come to take him in for transporting people across the border illegally and for selling them into slavery to Juan Ortiz. The group listening to this looked at each other again. This Ortiz was the man who promised them good jobs in America. Walker continued talking in a quiet matter of fact voice, describing the life waiting for the men, women and children on the other side of the border as Juan Ortiz' slaves. Hector began shouting that this man was telling them lies, but Walker continued to paint the grim picture of the life that awaited them. Then he pulled out his ace, he described the scene of the children who had been locked in the abandoned apartment building and told how they had burned to death or died of smoke inhalation. The parents of the four children in the group pulled their children closer to them and some cried at what Walker described. Walker didn't have proof that the apartment building fire was connected to Ortiz, but his gut instinct told him that there was a connection and he felt no compunction at stating it as fact.

Sanchez looked at the group of people and Walker dove forward into a roll and knocked the man's feet from under him. When Hector tried to stand, Walker punched him in the gut and while he was bent over, cuffed his hands behind his back. Walker turned to the group of people and asked them to reconsider their decision to enter America illegally. He then marched Sanchez in front of him the two miles to where he had left his truck. Walker drove to the border and turned Sanchez over to the INS agents waiting there. He had made a deal with them to transport him to Dallas to Ranger Headquarters for questioning in the Ortiz investigation. INS wanted Sanchez as much as Walker did and they were willing to keep it quiet that Walker had been involved in his capture. The last thing Walker wanted was the Captain on his case for defying orders.

After Sanchez was safely in custody, Walker considered his options. Three days in the badlands had done nothing to resolve the conflict in his soul. He considered heading home, but didn't think that he would be able to get the image he had seared into his brain of that crib in the room he had entered. He turned his truck toward the reservation and toward the wisdom of White Eagle.

 

Chapter 6

 

Sydney called Alex at the ranch to tell her of the latest developments in the Ortiz case. "Alex, you'll never believe who INS just brought in and dumped in our laps." "Hector Sanchez," Alex stated matter of factly. "How did you know?" Sydney couldn't fathom how Alex could know this; she had called within minutes of his arrival. "Walker." "You've heard from Walker?" Sydney questioned. "No, but I knew that he was going to go after Sanchez and I figured he would somehow get him to you and Gage for questioning. My husband is getting more politically correct by the minute. It wasn't so long ago that he would have just ignored the doctor and the Captain and brought him in despite being on medical leave." "So Walker arrested him and turned him over to INS who in turn gave him to us?" "Makes sense doesn't it?" "The man is amazing. While I have you on the phone, how is Angelica doing?" "She's doing very well. She loves the ranch and she gets healthier everyday. She has had some nightmares, but when she is awake, you would never know that she was recently traumatized." "That's great news. How's your Spanish coming?" "It's not, but Angelica's English keeps getting better and better. We manage to communicate. I'm taking Monday off, but I should be there Tuesday. Keep me informed would you?" "You've got it. I better get into the interrogation room. I want to play bad cop this time and if I don't get over there, Gage will have already claimed the role." Alex was chuckling as she hung up the phone.

Sydney and Gage entered the interrogation room with blown up photographs of the victims of the apartment fire. They still did not know if Juan Ortiz was connected to the fire, but they were presenting the pictures as if the connection was fact and they were planning to pin the charges on Sanchez if he didn't give Ortiz up. Hector Sanchez had seen many horrific things in his life, but these pictures made him sick to his stomach. He didn't crack though and after three solid hours of interrogation by the two Rangers, he was escorted to a cell.

"Didn't Walker and Trivette go interview an informant who led them to Sanchez?" Gage asked his partner. "Yeah, I could call Trivette and see if maybe we could track the guy down. Maybe if Sanchez saw him, he would think we had more evidence than we have." "Yeah, why don't we give Trivette a call. I'm sure he's sitting at home bored stiff."

The phone rang and Trivette pulled back from the beautiful woman sitting on his sofa. "Don't answer it Jimmy," Jessica begged him. "I'm sorry, but I have to, this could be important." "Now I remember why I stopped seeing you," the pretty nurse pouted as Jimmy picked up the receiver. "Trivette here." "Trivette it's Gage. Listen, Walker caught Hector Sanchez and sent him to us via the INS guys. We tried to crack him, but no luck. Syd and I were wondering if maybe bringing in that informant you and Walker spoke to might make the guy a little more nervous." "Huge Hugh? The guy would make anyone nervous. If you look in my top right hand drawer and get my electronic address book out, you'll find him listed under informants. There's a contact number in there." "Okay Trivette, we'll call if we get anything further." "Thanks Gage. I'll see you guys later this week." "Oh yeah, how are you feeling?" "I'm doing fine, nursing myself back to health," he winked at Jessica who rolled her eyes at his bad pun. "Now, where were we?" he asked as he went back to the couch.

It took Sydney and Gage several hours and three people to finally make contact with Huge Hugh. He was very reluctant to come in to confront Sanchez, but finally agreed. "Huge Hugh said that he would come in tomorrow," Gage related to Sydney. "That's great. I guess we've done all we can here today, I'm ready to call it a night." "Hey, want to get some dinner?" Sydney looked at her partner. It was normal for them to eat together during the course of a working day and they often joined their friends, Walker, Alex and Trivette for meals after work, but to go out after work just the two of them? Sydney didn't know what Gage had planned, so she made up an excuse. "I'm heading out to the ranch to check on Alex and Angelica." Gage looked chagrined, but he accepted her excuse. "Oh, okay then, tell them 'hi' for me." "You got it, I'll see you tomorrow."

Sydney drove out to the ranch a little angry with herself. It wasn't as if she and Gage had to do anything more than enjoy a meal and some conversation. Ever since she had kissed him all those months ago when Walker and Alex had landed safely after the hijacking attempt on the jet taking them to Paris for their honeymoon, she had been in escape mode. She knew that Gage was frustrated with her, but she just couldn't get comfortable with the man. She wasn't sure what had happened. They had worked undercover together for months, posing as man and wife and nothing. No sparks, no awkward silences, nothing. They had been partners and by the end of the assignment, they were friends. So what had changed? 'The problem with you Sydney Cooke is that you need a love life. You've gotten so desperate for a man in your life, that you're starting to see romance where it just doesn't exist.' Sydney felt slightly better, she didn't really believe herself, but she appreciated the effort she was making on her own behalf.

Alex was surprised by the knock on the door; she wasn't expecting company. She looked at Angelica and said, "I'll be right back, momento." Her combination of English and Spanish seemed to work as the little girl stayed at the dining room table waiting. Alex opened the door and was surprised to see Sydney. "Hi Alex, I hope I'm not intruding." "Of course not, come on in." "I should have called, but I didn't set out to come here, it was just an impulse." "Don't be ridiculous Sydney, you're always welcome. Come on in and join us. Angelica is beating me at Candyland." Sydney walked in to the dining room and saw the little girl waiting at the table with the board game that was made for children who were too young to read. Angelica was happy to see Sydney and she chattered away in a mixture of Spanish and English. Alex was able to follow the conversation and the three spent a quiet evening together until Alex announced that it was Angelica's bedtime. "I should go," Sydney offered. "Nonsense, let me get the munchkin here to bed and then we'll have an adult conversation. You have no idea how starved I am for another adult to talk to." Sydney smiled and agreed to wait in the living room. She went to the stereo and selected a CD called 'The Romantic Piano'. It was classical music that set a soft mellow tone to the room as she waited for Alex to return.

Alex stopped as she entered the room, the music transporting her back to a scene of her and Walker on the rug in front of the fire. The rain was lashing against the windows, lightening flashed occasionally and Walker sat looking into her eyes, his fingers stroking her cheek. She was totally focused on his mouth. The entire world had kaleidoscoped down into his two lips surrounded by the soft red fur of his moustache and beard. As he leaned toward her, she saw an ever increasingly small part of his lips until she closed her eyes and he placed feather light kisses on her eyelids. His lips trailed a path down her cheek and down to her chin. His breath warmed her face. He explored the ridges and hollows of her face, alternately brushing his soft lips against her skin or flicking the tip of his tongue against her. She wanted to taste him, but he tormented her, never letting her mouth join with his. The music swelled and just as her need reached desperation, he touched her lips with the tip of his tongue and... "Is Angelica asleep?" Sydney's question shattered Alex's daydream and she struggled to regain her equilibrium. She knew that her breathing rate had altered and hoped that Sydney would think she was winded from the stairs. "She was really tired, I barely made it through one verse of the lullaby before she was out." Alex thought her voice sounded a little high and breathless and she knew that if Walker were there he would recognize the fact that she was aroused, but Sydney didn't seem to notice. "How are things going with her here?" "I'm loving it. She is such a sweet child. Walker was right, she was aptly named. It's been a quiet few days and to tell you the truth, I haven't missed the hectic pace of work and social obligations." "Do you think you might want to stay home after the baby is born?" "I doubt it. I've enjoyed this respite, but I thrive on the challenge of my job. I know I'll be torn though, what working mother isn't?" "You do have a great situation though, with the daycare at HOPE House." "Yeah, I never even considered having a child in the nursery there when I conceived the idea of the Center, but it is the ideal solution. I can leave the baby with people I trust to take as good care of him or her as I would. I can go do my job and either Walker or I can pick the baby up depending on who gets off earliest." "They say that people who give of themselves get far more back in return than they give. Maybe you're just an example of that. By creating HOPE House, you have given countless people a chance to improve their lives and themselves and now you'll have as close to the ideal set up to be a working mother as possible." "Well whatever the reason, it's great having the option to be a mother and have a career that I find fulfilling. I'm going to take Angelica to the Center on Monday. I want her to meet the people there and get comfortable so that when I leave her there on Tuesday to go to work, she won't feel abandoned." Alex changed the subject, "has there been any progress in tracking down anyone related to the apartment building?" "No, not really. We know that a van arrived late every night and that people went into the apartment and left again before dawn. It sounds more and more like Walker was right and that someone was using the women as slave labor and housing them and the children in the abandoned apartment. Juan Ortiz is still our top suspect and we have an informant coming in tomorrow to try and rattle Hector Sanchez into giving us some piece of information that will lead us to Ortiz or some part of his organization." "When I come in on Tuesday I'll do some digging on my end as well."

Alex got up and stoked the fire in the fireplace and looked at Sydney as she sat down. "So how is Gage doing?" she asked. "Fine I guess. He wanted to go out to dinner tonight, but I wanted to come here." Alex read between the lines and smiled at Sydney. "So he asked you out, you got spooked and ran and I got the pleasure of your company?" Sydney looked up startled, how did Alex always know what she was thinking and feeling? Alex read the look on Sydney's face and again accurately guessed her thoughts. "Sydney, you met Walker and I long after we had given in to our feelings for each other. I spent years playing one step forward, two steps back with him. If I was willing to admit I was falling for the guy, he was totally committed to being my friend. Then when he started to get close, I would throw up the walls and keep him at a distance. It was years before the timing was right and we got together." "Gage and I are just friends. We're partner's and I can't imagine it going anywhere." Alex laughed sympathetically at her friend. "The problem is that you spend too much time 'imagining it' isn't it." "I swear Alex, you're almost as bad as your husband. Do you two read each others minds too?" "All the time. Like right now. I know he went to the badlands to try and deal with the after effects of whatever it is he saw that disturbed him so deeply. He captured Sanchez because he had to do something positive toward preventing a tragedy like the fire from happening again. Now, he has gone to White Eagle to seek his council and finally when all else has failed, he will return to me. He still has some old habits and he occasionally reverts to his old ways, but I know that he won't be fully healed until he shares whatever it is that's torturing him with me. If he wasn't such a stubborn, muleheaded..." Sydney laughed, but felt a twinge of jealousy at the same time. To know that you were that loved and cherished. To have the confidence to let your husband go seek answers to his problems elsewhere and know that he would come back to you in the end. Well, regardless of what happened with Gage, she wasn't going to settle for less than the love Alex shared with Walker. Feeling calmer and happier than she had in some time, Sydney said goodbye to Alex and drove home. Alex walked over to the CD player and started the CD again. She turned off the overhead light and sat on the rug in front of the fire and let her mind go back to lips that touched and tasted hers.

 

Chapter 7

 

Walker sat in the sweat lodge with White Eagle and called to the spirits to cleanse the ugliness that he had witnessed from his soul. He was nearly delirious from the heat and dehydration, but still he had not found his center and he was not at peace. "Focus your mind on an image of beauty Washo. Let the image fill you and push out that which has caused you such torment." Walker immediately saw Alex's face. Her eyes were so blue her nose long and straight. Her lips smiled at him and her skin was so smooth, he could almost feel its silkiness. After another thirty minutes, it was all Walker could do to crawl out of the sweat lodge and sit in the cool evening air drinking the water that was offered him.

White Eagle shook his head at the young warrior. "Washo, you wage war on evil and it is not possible to escape these battles without scars. Some of the ugliness has attached itself to you and you must learn to cleanse it from your soul." "I want to White Eagle, but how do I get the images out of my mind. Whenever I close my eyes I see the crib on fire with the tiny infant inside. I reach for the infant, but the pain of the burn as my arm touches the top rung forces me to pull back. Then I see the infant's skin blister as the fire touches it and consumes it." There was so much pain and anger in Walker's voice. The old man sighed and shook his head from side to side. "You seek answers for why this happened. The why is not important. Only that it did happen and now you must find a way to prevent this terrible thing from happening again. Was there no one saved from this fire?" "A little girl. She is about five and her name is Angelica. There was one other child still alive, the one I pulled from the room with the crib, but the last I heard was that she was not expected to live." "And this child, Angelica, where is she?" "With Alex. Alex had developed a relationship with her and she was going to bring her to the ranch to help her heal until her family was found." "Washo, when I asked you to focus on something beautiful, what is the image that you saw?" "Alex's face." "You know the answer to your quest, why do you deny it?" "I don't know the answer White Eagle." "Washo, when the ugliness becomes too much of a burden, it is necessary to share that burden. Go to your wife and share your burden with her. It is her spirit that will heal yours as it heals the child." "I don't want to tell her about the infant being burned, she is expecting our child in less than three months. How can I share this with her?" "Washo when the wind blows with all of its fury against the land, which are the trees that remain? Those that stand strong and tall against the wind or those that bend and bow to it?" "The trees that bend survive." "As it is with the human spirit. Alex knows this. She is able to handle the ugliness of life because she does not stand against it and deny its power. She acknowledges its strength and bends to it, but she does not break. There is a reason why this woman was brought into your life. Do not seek answers outside of your own home Washo, for the answers are there." Walker knew that White Eagle was right, he was searching for something that had been right in front of him. It was time to return to the woman who had swept a great deal of ugliness from his life over the years and had replaced it with love and laughter.

Gage and Sydney both stopped in stunned silence when Huge Hugh entered department headquarters. The man looked no less unusual than he had the day Walker and Trivette had interviewed him. He walked to Gage's desk after being directed there by a coworker. "Ranger Gage?" the man inquired. "Uh yes, uh that's me. I mean I'm Gage. Oh and uh this is my partner, Ranger Cooke." Huge Hugh tipped an imaginary hat at Sydney and said, "how do you do ma'am?" "Fine thank you. We appreciate you coming in." "Well, if I'm going to find Lola, I guess I'm going to have to take some chances now aren't I?" "Yes sir. Now, we have Hector Sanchez and we have enough charges on him to put him away for a very long time. The INS would love to have him all to themselves, but we want Juan Ortiz and we believe Sanchez can give him to us." "Ortiz is the boss. Sanchez works for him. When Sanchez brought the Mexicans to the border, I met them and took them to an old warehouse. I kept them there for a couple weeks and then Ortiz would send a van to pick up twenty at a time. He would take women separate from the men." "What about kids?" "Well the kids would go with their Momma. Ortiz really didn't want kids, not unless they were old enough to work. I remember once a woman had three kids and Ramirez, he was the van driver, he refused to take the woman. He said that he had no need for a woman with more mouths to feed than she could work for. I finally made him take her 'cause there weren't no place for them to stay and we were closin' up the warehouse. Ortiz didn't like to stay in one place too long in case someone got suspicious and come to investigate."

Gage escorted Hector Sanchez to the interrogation room, 'accidentally' passing by the room where Sydney was talking with Huge Hugh. Just as Gage and Sanchez walked by, Sydney opened the door to the room and walked out, giving Sanchez a clear view of the man who sat inside. With his bright orange Afro, Hugh was not hard to spot. Sanchez blanched slightly, but recovered himself and entered the interrogation room. After another two hours, Gage had pried out a location on Ramirez, the van driver, from Sanchez.

Armed with a search warrant, the Rangers knocked on the door of an apartment rented by Ramirez. When the door was opened, the slight built man inside tried to escape by running inside and heading toward the fire escape. He climbed out the bedroom window, but Sydney caught his foot as it slipped out of the window and yanked him back inside. Because he was straddling the window frame when she yanked on his foot, he was pulled rather abruptly against the windowpane. This caused intense pain to a particularly sensitive part of the man's anatomy. Gage clinched his teeth and grimaced as Ramirez collapsed onto the floor, sweat pouring from his forehead and hunched in intense pain. Sydney looked at her partner and shrugged. Ramirez was read his rights in English and Spanish and then he was cuffed and transported to headquarters. It didn't take long to get Ramirez to talk. Gage let Sydney take the role of bad cop and run with it. She was a natural and she had already convinced Ramirez that she could back it up. Ramirez admitted to transporting illegal immigrants from a new location just inside the Texas border to what was essentially a distribution center located thirty miles south of Dallas.

The Rangers called the border patrol to raid the location near the border where people were held until Ramirez picked them up. Sydney and Gage followed up on the location south of Dallas. They arrived with a search warrant and back up both from the local police and from the INS agents. When they burst into the building, they discovered twenty illegal immigrants inside and two more men in Ortiz' organization. Gonzales and Hernandez were as closed mouthed as Sanchez had been and they came up against another wall. The raid on the location near the border proved to be slightly more fruitful as Huge Hugh's replacement there was ready to talk in exchange for a lighter sentence. Unfortunately, he wasn't high enough up in the organization to give the Rangers any new leads. Gage called Trivette and updated him on the new developments in the case. They had a couple of new leads that they hoped would give them leverage against Gonzales and Hernandez, but until something further broke, they were at a standstill.

Alex spent several hours at HOPE House on Monday. Angelica was shy at first, but with encouragement from Martha Ruiz, a volunteer in the day care, she began to join in the activities with the other children. The children were all under school age and Angelica was older than they were which helped her gain confidence. As the older children arrived for the after school program, she reverted to her shy demeanor. "She's a lovely child, Mrs. Walker," Martha remarked. "Yes, she is truly a little angel. I hope that we can find her family soon." "So you believe that she has family?" "I don't know Martha, I hope that she has someone. I would hate to think that she is all alone in the world." "There must be many families who would be glad to give her a home," Martha remarked. "Yes, I imagine that there are, but how many changes can one child be expected to adjust to? I wish I could communicate with her better. She's learning English quickly, but I can only have simple conversations with her." "Well if you need any help with her, please let me know. I will be here all this week and I will make her my special project. I would like to see her make friends here and be comfortable when you are not with her." "Thanks Martha, I really appreciate your help."

Alex stopped by Josie's office to let her know that she was taking Angelica home and would return with her in the morning. "That little girl is very bonded to you, you are aware of that aren't you?" Josie was always observing people and using the life experience that she gained daily at HOPE Center to give advice and help people avoid pitfalls. "I know and I'm completely taken with her as well," Alex confessed. "Alex, I know you and you still miss Max very much. I don't know if you're a good person for these temporary foster situations, you get far too attached." "Maybe that's why I am good with these kids. When they go on to their families, I'm the one whose heart gets broken not theirs. I can handle it. It helps to know that I'm going to have a child of my own soon to tuck into bed every night." "Well I talked to Nina Woods and told her that I would keep an eye on things and let her know if it became too much for you." "Thanks Josie, you're a good friend to worry about me, but I'm tough." "On the outside maybe, but you have a marshmallow heart." Alex smiled, but didn't try to deny the truth of her friend's statement. "Martha Ruiz was taken with Angelica as well and she has promised to keep a close eye on her for me. The fact that she speaks Spanish should help." Josie just nodded and Alex said goodbye and went to collect Angelica.

It was close to 9:00 p.m. when Walker finally arrived home. He picked up his bag and headed toward the house. When he opened the door and let himself in, he saw a light on in the living room and walked in. A lump formed in the Ranger's throat at the sight that greeted him. Alex had sat on the couch with Angelica snuggled onto her lap and read her a bedtime story. The child, who was worn out from her adventures at HOPE Center, had fallen asleep before the end of the book. Alex had cradled her and closed her own eyes for just a moment and fallen asleep. Walker gazed at the scene. The child's dark hair rested against Alex's shoulder and Alex's blond hair contrasted with the dark silkiness. Both wore peaceful and contented expressions on their faces. 'This is what my future holds,' thought Walker, 'coming home and finding Alex cradling our child. What man could ask for more?'

Walker quietly climbed the stairs and went into the master bathroom where he stripped and stepped under the spray of the shower. He washed several days' worth of grime and sweat from his body and then he stepped out and dried himself. After pulling on a clean T-shirt and sweat pants, he picked up his dirty clothes along with the clothes in his bag and went to the laundry room. Walker started the load of wash and then returned to the living room. He quietly eased the sleeping child from his wife's arms and carried her upstairs and placed her in bed, covering her up and tucking her in.

Walker returned to the living room and gently kissed his wife's forehead. He continued to trail kisses over her face, waking her slowly and gently. He felt Alex stir as he reached her lips and she opened her mouth to taste him as he claimed her lips in a passionate kiss that told her how much he had missed her. When he finally drew back to look at his wife, she still had her eyes closed. "Careful, my husband may be back at anytime," she said. "Not funny Mrs. Walker," her husband growled. His wife giggled and then opened her eyes and reached up, placing her arms around his neck and pulling him back down to her again. Much later that night, Walker briefly described his trip to Alex and she told him how her time had been spent during his absence. They both knew that they would need to have a long in depth talk about their disagreement before he left and Walker wanted to tell her what he had discovered while on his trip, but that discussion would have to wait for another time.

 

Chapter 8

 

Alex took Angelica to the HOPE Center daycare the next morning and Martha Ruiz took her under her wing and helped her join the other children. After ensuring that Angelica would be all right, Alex left and headed to work. There was of course a lot to catch up on; even just taking a long weekend gave her a great deal of extra work. After being brought up to speed on the Ortiz investigation, Alex decided to try her hand at interviewing Gonzales and Hernandez. Her tactics were very different than those used by the Rangers. She outlined in plain terms the sentences awaiting the two men based solely on the evidence currently gathered. She also explained how much worse their sentences were going to become as the case was expanded and new charges were added. She explained that they would even be charged as accessories in the deaths of twenty children in the apartment fire as soon as a connection could be made. Alex had the authority to offer the men a plea bargain and she told them the specifics of that plea bargain. Frank Landry, an attorney who had never been too selective of his clients, represented the two men. He was a high priced lawyer and Alex knew that Ortiz was undoubtedly footing the bill. Based on this, Landry advised the two men to keep quiet. Alex looked at the men and said, "I'll give you a day to reconsider. Twenty-four hours gentlemen and the deal will be withdrawn." She walked out hoping that one of the men would break.

Walker spent the morning doing chores around the ranch. He employed a teenaged neighbor who did the daily feeding and watering when he was away, but there were several maintenance chores that needed to be done and he was now feeling strong enough to do them. He called Trivette and the two agreed to meet at the doctor's office. They still had a couple more days to go on their medical leave, but they were both determined to change the doctor's mind and get him to release them. He phoned Alex and asked her to meet him for lunch, but she had plans to go to HOPE Center and have lunch with Angelica, so he said that he would meet her there.

Sydney and Gage continued to track the slightest lead in the case and were encouraged by a break they had received. A piece of paper had been found at the scene of the bust outside of Dallas. On that paper was an address and they staked that address out. It was almost a carbon copy of the neighborhood where the apartment had burned. There was an abandoned building and the doors and windows were boarded up. The two Rangers got comfortable and planned to wait until someone came to the building.

Alex walked into HOPE Center and found Angelica laughing and catching bubbles that Martha Ruiz was blowing into the air. All the children were in the large backyard of the house and Alex just stood and watched the little girl run and jump into the air clapping her hands together to catch and pop the bubbles that floated all around her. It was hard to imagine that this child had nearly died less than two weeks ago. She looked healthy and happy and Alex felt tears form in her eyes to see the change in her. Someone walked up behind Alex and placed their arms around her. She leaned back as she recognized her husbands embrace. Walker wrapped his arms around her waist and cupped his hands over her pregnant belly. He leaned his face into her neck and breathed in her scent. The two just stood together relishing the feeling of being together.

Walker looked up and watched Angelica rush over to Martha Ruiz and start speaking in rapid Spanish. The child was so happy and excited. Martha reached out and gave her a hug and then looked up to see the audience standing together watching. She turned Angelica toward the Walker's and stepped back as the child took off at a sprint to share her joy with them. Alex laughed and bent down to speak to her and beg her to slow her speech down. Walker scooped her up in his arms and brought her up so that Alex could stand and talk to her more comfortably. They shared a picnic lunch together with the other children at the center. The day was warm and sunny and the children loved being outdoors after a week of cold temperatures that had kept them inside. Alex needed to head back to work and Walker had a doctor appointment, so the lunch break was brief, but Alex took a moment to tuck the memory away in her heart.

Trivette sat in the waiting room of Dr. Karsten's office. He looked up as the door opened and his partner strode in. "Hey Walker, long time no see." "Hey Trivette, I wish I could say I missed your ugly mug." "You're always so emotional about these reunions, stop before I cry." Walker just shook his head at his partner. The two men were best friends and they spent almost as much time together as Walker spent with his wife. Neither would admit it, but they each felt something was missing when they weren't together. The past several days had been the longest they had gone without seeing each other since Walker had gone to Paris for two weeks on his honeymoon. The two friends even vacationed together. Walker went to the reception window and signed in. A nurse came and called Trivette back into the exam room and soon called Walker back as well. Both men were in excellent health and Dr. Karsten could find no reason to deny their request to return to duty. Cleared of the cumbersome medical leave, the partners headed straight for Ranger Headquarters.

As the two men walked into the office, there were cheers and greetings from fellow Rangers and others who staffed the office. Alex was in the room speaking to Ranger Morales about a case that she was presenting in court the next day. She grinned as she saw her two favorite Rangers walk toward their desks. She walked over and hugged Jimmy while Walker watched with a tolerant smile. "Hey what am I, chopped liver?" Alex grinned and gave him a quick squeeze. "I just saw you a couple hours ago. I haven't seen Jimmy in a week," she explained. The three retired to her office where she updated the two men on the latest in the Ortiz case. "Gage and Sydney said they would call if anything develops." "I'd still like to go out there," Walker stated. Alex's phone buzzed and she picked up the receiver, "Alex Cahill-Walker...yes sir, I'll pass on the message." Alex turned to the two men and said, "that was the Captain, he wants you in his office." The two sighed and headed out.

The Captain grounded Walker and Trivette for the remainder of the day. He didn't like his Ranger's to get too cocky about flouting the rules and he had his suspicions about how Sanchez had been captured. He told the men that they could report for duty the next day and until that time if he heard of any involvement by them in any ongoing case, he would suspend them for a week. Walker and Trivette were both unhappy with the Captain's edict, but decided it was in their best interest to follow it. Walker told Alex that he would pick Angelica up and take her to the ranch where they would wait for her to get home.

Alex did her best to arrive home at a reasonable hour and walked into the house to find Walker and Angelica cooking spaghetti for dinner. They hadn't heard her come in and she watched her husband with the little girl without his knowledge. He was so kind and gentle with her. She was obviously smitten with the man. Alex wasn't surprised; her husband had that effect on most women. "Hey you two, what's cooking? I'm starved," Alex announced her presence. "Alex! Alex! We cook pasghetti!" Angelica jumped up and down in her excitement. Alex grinned at her mispronunciation of the word. She remembered her parents teasing her about the same mispronunciation when she was roughly the same age as Angelica was now. "It smells yummy," she said as she gave Angelica a hug and grinned at her husband who gave her one of those winks that made her heart stop in her chest and then race out of control. "I'll just go change and be right down to help." "Take your time honey. My assistant and I will have dinner ready in about fifteen minutes," Walker told her.

The three had a quiet evening together, sharing the meal and then the evening chores. They played a game of Candyland and then Alex gave Angelica her bath. Tucked up in bed, Angelica asked if Walker could read her a bedtime story. Of course he complied and then Alex sang her a lullaby and they tucked her in and switched off the light. Walker closed the door half way, allowing light from the hall to keep the room from being in total darkness. "Let's go downstairs and talk," Walker suggested. Alex nodded in agreement and they headed down to their favorite spot in the house for evening chats.

Alex turned on the CD player. The same music that Sydney had selected a few nights before was still in the player and the soothing sounds filled the air. Walker sat on the couch and patted the cushion beside him. Alex walked over and sat next to her husband and they sat together listening to the music for awhile. Walker broke the companionable silence. "I need to apologize to you for the way I left last week." "No you don't, I understand." "Still, I should have talked to you and shared what I was feeling." "You're allowed to keep some things to yourself. Our marriage is about sharing, but everyone needs to keep some small part of themselves private." "I've learned over the years though that telling you how I feel always results in good things. Whenever I keep my feelings to myself, for whatever reasons, I end up regretting it." Alex turned to look into her husbands' eyes and she smiled, "I really have had an effect on you haven't I?" "Like water dripping on stone, eventually the water will leave it's mark." "I wouldn't call you stoneheaded darling." The two shared another smile and then Walker became serious once again. "When I went into the upstairs apartment, I found several children in the front room. They had been overwhelmed by smoke and Trivette and I dragged them into the hall. Then I went into one of the bedrooms. The fire had started in the adjoining room and had spread to the room I was in. There were three children in that room, one had suffered fatal burns, another is the one I pulled out and later died in the burn unit." Walker's voice cracked and there were tears standing in his eyes. "There was a crib placed next to the wall and there was an infant in the crib. I'm sure the infant had already died from the fumes, but the crib itself was on fire and I tried to reach in and pick the infant up. That's how I got this burn on my arm, I touched the rail that was intensely hot. I instinctively pulled my arm back and before I could reach again, the mattress burst into flames. There was nothing I could do, any further effort would have been futile, but I feel so guilty for leaving that baby there to burn. I can't help thinking that if it had been our baby, I would have been there faster or I would have done whatever it took to save it. Instead, I left it there and picked up the little girl on the floor and rushed out. That image keeps haunting me and I can't seem to let it go."

Alex had tears streaming down her cheeks. She reached for her husbands' face and cupped it between her hands. "You could not save that baby. Taking the time and risking your own life to try and save a child who had no chance of survival would have been utterly senseless. Instead, you managed to pull nine children who did have some chance out of that building. I know that Angelica is the only one who survived that fire, but maybe she's enough. It's tragic that twenty children lost their lives. There will undoubtedly be many people affected by the loss of those children, but there is one beautiful little girl who owes her life to yours' and Jimmy's heroic efforts. I watched her today and I couldn't believe that the happy little girl I saw playing was the same child I visited in the hospital. Your efforts weren't in vain. Even if no lives had been saved, the attempt would have been for something. Maybe simply as a comfort to the parents of those children. To know that someone cared enough to risk their own life to save them. What you did says that these weren't just throwaway children. I'm sure that after the way they had been treated since their arrival in this country it must have seemed that way. We are going to find the people responsible for putting those children at risk. We will make them pay for the pain and suffering the children and the families endured."

Walker listened to his wife's impassioned speech and knew that she was right. Someone who felt that they were expendable had put those kids in that apartment building. There was nothing expendable about the little girl who had helped him make 'pasghetti' and had touched his heart tonight. Walker refocused on his wife as he felt her gently kiss away the tears that had escaped his eyes and stood on his cheeks. "White Eagle said that the answers I sought were in my own home. He said that your spirit would heal mine. He is a wise old man and I plan to listen to his advice. In the future, I won't try to protect you and end up causing you more pain by keeping quiet. I'll do better and learn to share my feelings with you, whether they're good or bad." "I know that there will be times when you need to get away, to go and be alone to replenish your spirit. I don't mind when you do and I'll always be waiting for you to come back to me. I just don't want to feel shut out. You don't have to tell me what the problem is if you don't want to, but please tell me that there is a problem. Don't try to hide the fact that you are in pain." "I promise to try," Walker said. Alex reached up and pulled his face down to her shoulder and she hugged him to her. Walker relaxed in his wife's arms and allowed her to comfort him. They sat that way for nearly an hour and then headed upstairs for much needed rest.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Gage and Sydney watched as a van pulled up in front of the abandoned building they were staking out and fifteen women piled out. The women walked with their heads and shoulders bowed. Their body language screamed out their exhaustion and defeat. It was past ten at night and who knew what time they had left that morning? Gage said, "lets have Carvelle and Singer follow the van and we'll go into the house after it's gone." "Yeah, the women in that house will probably respond better to another woman who speaks Spanish," Sydney agreed. After radioing the other Rangers, they waited while the van driver padlocked the door and left. It was another twenty minutes before they went to the backdoor and cut the lock off to gain access. There were several INS agents who were involved in the raid, but they had agreed to wait outside until they were called in. The criminal investigation into the fire took precedence over capturing undocumented workers.

There were shrieks of fear as Sydney and Gage shined their flashlights around the large room. Mats lay on the floor and there were a total of fifteen women and four children sharing the space. Sydney spoke in Spanish and told them that they would not be harmed, but that they would be transported to a detention center until their status in this country had been determined. Sydney felt a pang of remorse for having to take these victims into custody, but she had promised to uphold the law when she joined the police force several years ago and this was one of the difficult jobs that keeping that promise included.

Gage also had difficulty with this aspect of his job, but he tried to reassure himself that he was in the long run helping these people. At least at the detention center they would be given clean clothes and plenty to eat. He heard Sydney tell the people in Spanish that they would like to get as much information from them as possible in order to punish those responsible for putting them into the circumstances they had been forced to live in. No one spoke up to volunteer information, but he hoped that once they had the chance to speak with them individually, they would get some cooperation. After everyone had been rounded up, he and Sydney headed home to rest up for what would undoubtedly prove to be another long day.

The next morning, Sydney and Gage strode in to find Walker and Trivette already at their desks. The young Rangers filled them in on the most recent events and Walker told them that Carvelle and Singer had tailed the van to a large factory beyond the outskirts of the city. Further stakeout teams had followed fifteen separate vans to a variety of homes or abandoned buildings where more women were transported to the factory. INS agents had gone into these homes after the vans had left and they had taken thirty-three additional children to the detention center. Now there was a task force surrounding the factory waiting for orders to move in. Walker wasn't willing to raid the factory until he gave Alex a chance to get as much information from Hernandez and Gonzales as possible. If they moved in too soon, they risked missing the big fish when they pulled in the net.

Two hours before the twenty-four hour deadline Alex had given the two men, she had Gonzales and Hernandez taken to separate interrogation rooms without notifying their lawyer who was due to arrive later. Alex walked into each of the two rooms and reiterated her offer. She then left and waited for the two men to sweat a little. Returning to Hernandez, she told him that they now knew of the factory and also gave him some of the addresses of the houses that had been discovered that morning. She didn't tell him that Gonzales had given her the information, she merely alluded to the fact. She then did the same for Gonzales so that each man thought the other had taken the deal. The two men couldn't talk fast enough, trying to outdo the other and give more information in order to reduce the number and severity of the charges against them. Walker looked at his wife and shook his head in wonder as she gave the Rangers detailed information of Juan Ortiz' entire organization. "Remind me never to play poker with you," he said in admiration. She leaned forward and whispered, "too bad, I was going to suggest a game of strip poker later tonight." The color on Walker's cheeks heightened, but the other Rangers in the room knew better than to ask.

Alex left to get to court to present the case she had been working on with Ranger Morales. As soon as all the search warrants were in hand, the task force moved in on the different addresses they had been given. The factory was a fruit-canning factory and eighty percent of the workers were undocumented. The management of the business were all arrested and taken to prison. Simultaneously, an additional seventy-five men were taken to the detention center from the produce fields where they had been put to work cultivating and harvesting the fruit crops. The managers of the farms were also arrested and taken to prison.

Trivette and Walker went to the corporate offices of Juan Ortiz' business. He owned the parent company that owned the factory and farms. Walker held up the search warrant as he breezed past the receptionist and burst into a board of directors meeting with Ortiz' sitting at the head of the table. Several of the beefy men seated around the table got up and turned to greet the Rangers with violence. Walker was glad of the opportunity to vent some of his frustrations on these unwise cretins. Fists and feet flew, as did a few of the board members. Trivette and Walker were joined by several of Dallas's finest who helped to subdue and arrest the members of the board. Walker used a roundhouse kick to knock a particularly aggressive man senseless and then turned to face Juan Ortiz. Ortiz had long since passed his prime and his paunched belly and receding hairline gave testament to that fact. Fortunately for Walker, he still believed in his machismo and he came after Walker. Walker easily feinted to the left and then the right avoiding the blows aimed at his face. Walker pulled his arm back and used an upper cut to Ortiz' chin that packed so much force, the man was lifted from the floor onto the long conference table where he slid down the polished surface to the other end. Trivette was there waiting for the senseless man and he cuffed him and had two DPD officers carry the man out. "Feeling any better partner?" Trivette asked Walker with a grin. Walker moved the fingers of his right hand to make sure he hadn't broken anything on Ortiz' face. His hand throbbed and he also had a welt on his left cheek where one of the board members had connected a left hook. "I feel great!" was Walker's enthusiastic reply. "Let's get back to headquarters and start sorting all of this out."

At 5:00 p.m. Alex looked at all the files on her desk and called HOPE House. "Josie, it's Alex. I am so sorry, but there is no way I'm going to be able to get off work for several more hours. Walker took down Ortiz and I now have over thirty people in custody who have to be processed. Not to mention the fact that Walker and Sydney went to the detention center to try and locate Angelica's mother." "Oh Alex, I hope they find her. I understand about you being late, but I have a date tonight so... never mind, this is more important, I'll reschedule my date." "Wait a minute. You have a date? With whom? Why didn't you tell me about this?" "Slow down Ms. District Attorney, I am not one of your suspects and I don't need grill marks on my backside from your interrogation." Alex chuckled and apologized, "sorry. I do want to hear all the juicy details though and I hate for you to have to break your date." "Alex, wait a minute, Martha Ruiz is standing beside me asking questions." There was a pause as Josie spoke with Martha and then came back on the line. "Martha was just on her way out and she suggested that she take Angelica home with her. The two of them have really hit it off and I'm sure Angelica would be fine with the idea. What do you say?" "I think that's a wonderful idea. Here, give me Martha's address and phone number and Walker and I will be by to pick Angelica up as soon as we can." Josie relayed the information and ended the phone call to get ready for her date.

Walker and Sydney had decided to go to the detention center since they both spoke Spanish and they left Trivette and Gage to book the suspects they had arrested. When they got to the center, they found that all of the people who had been brought in that day had been given the opportunity to shower and change. Those who were ill were being given medical care and everyone was given plenty of food. Walker approached a group of women who had their children with them and showed them a picture of Angelica. He asked if any of them knew her mother or any other family members. They all shook their heads 'no'. He moved throughout the center going from group to group and showing the picture. Finally one woman spoke up, "I know the child. I have never seen her with such a happy face and I almost did not recognize her. She is little Angelica, no?" "Yes that's right. I'm trying to find her family." "Angelica has no family, she is an orphan." Walker felt shock and pain for the little girl. If this was true, then her future was even more uncertain than he thought. "What happened to her family?" "Her mother was raped as a young girl and had Angelica when she herself was no more than a child. The father is unknown," she stated. "And her mother, what happened to her?" "She was such a beautiful young thing. Angelica is very much like her, both in looks and temperament. Ortiz took a liking to her and took her off the line to be one of his special ladies." Walker felt his stomach muscles clench, knowing what this meant. "Do you know what happened after that?" "No, I only heard that she was dead and those of us who were staying in the house tried to take care of the little girl." "You lived in the same apartment as Angelica?" "Until two months ago. I was moved to another group at that time. Ortiz felt that I was a troublemaker and he put me with some women who had been 'taught a lesson' by his men. It was unnecessary to do anything further, I got the message." "Can you point out others who were in the same place as Angelica?" Walker asked. She pointed to a group of women who stood huddled together. Walker had not noticed the way they held themselves apart from the others until they were pointed out to him. There were so many people in the room and they were all afraid and withdrawn, their separateness was not immediately noticeable.

Walker approached the group at the same time as Sydney. Both of them had been led to the same group of women. There were also some men with the group and many of them had paired off and clung to each other. As with many of the husbands and wives, they had not seen each other for a very long time. Walker and Sydney approached this group with concern and compassion. "I would like to know if any of you know Angelica, the little girl in this photo," Walker said. Finally, one woman nodded yes and said that she recognized her. "We are looking for her family," Sydney said. "She had a young mother, Rocio. We have not seen her for many months. Please can you tell me of my son, Martin? He was in the apartment and then one day we were not taken back there. I have not seen him for many days and he is not here." Walker intervened and announced loudly to the room, "if any of you are missing a friend or relative and have not been reunited with them, please follow me." He led a group of fifty people out of the main center into a smaller room. Those of you who are missing a child, please stay in this room. If the person you are looking for is an adult, please follow Ranger Cooke here to another room where she will take down the information and we will try to find your loved one." After about half the group had left, Walker turned to face the group of parents to deliver news that no parent should ever have to receive.

"Did all of you have children who lived in an apartment building on Cypress Street?" The people looked at each other, they did not know the name of the street, so Walker described the apartment. All of the women nodded that yes, this was where they had been. They all said that one day they were taken somewhere new and they hadn't seen their children since. "Please, my baby, he was only four months old. I begged the men to let me stay with him, but they insisted that I work long hours in the factory. I asked one of the older children, Maria, to watch out for him. Please I must find him." Walker was moved by the young mother's plea. Her husband cradled her in his arms and all eyes were on Walker. "I am so sorry to tell you this, but there was a fire and the building burned." There were wails of anguish throughout the room. When they had quieted enough for him to continue, he said, "my partner and I saw the flames and we tried to rescue the children. We pulled nine out of the building, but I'm sorry, only Angelica survived. There were twenty children who perished in the fire." "My baby, no it is not true, he cannot be dead!" The young mother was distraught over the news and fell to the ground. Walker squatted down in front of her. "I am so sorry. I tried to get to him, but it was too late, he was already gone. I see him every night in my dreams and I wish more than anything that I had been there a little sooner. That I could have saved him and all the other children." The woman's husband bent down and pulled his wife into his embrace. They clung to each other and sobbed into each other's arms. "I thank you Senor, I thank you for trying to save my son. God Bless you," the young man said. Walker nodded his head to the man and then walked out of the room to give these grieving parents privacy. He had such a lump in his throat that he could not speak.

The INS agents took over the care of the illegal immigrants. Sydney and Walker left the center feeling sadness and remorse. How could a dream for a better life lead to this? Sydney filled Walker in on the missing adults. Most were beautiful young women who were missing. Others had been deemed troublemakers and had most likely been killed. Now that they had names and descriptions, they planned to lean on those in custody and find out where all of these individuals were.

Back at headquarters, the questioning continued. Many refused to speak, but there was such an overwhelming amount of evidence against every single person that they had arrested that a few were willing to cooperate for reduced sentences. The preface of every offer made by Alex and her staff was that anyone found to be related to a murder or the deaths of the children in the apartment fire would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and there would be no deals for these individuals. The District Attorney was out of town and Alex as his Deputy was in charge of the entire proceedings. She was in phone contact with him, but she made decisions about who to bargain with and what to charge each individual with. Of course not all of this would be sorted out tonight, but they would make as much headway as possible. At ten p.m., Alex had a moment to look at the clock again. She decided to phone Martha and check on Angelica. "Hi Martha, it's Alex, how is it going?" "Fine Alex, Angelica is sleeping. She went to bed with no problems. I sang her a lullaby and she said that it was the same one you sing to her at night." "Yes, well you're the one who taught it to me. I am so sorry, but this looks like it may be all night. Is there any way..." "Alex please do not worry. Jose and I are enjoying this very much. Ever since we lost our little Rosita we have been so lonely. Angelica is welcome to stay with us. Have you found her mother yet?" "No. In fact Walker has an unconfirmed report that she is an orphan. We are still looking into it. Listen, I really need to get back to work. Thank you so much for looking after Angelica." "Of course Alex, do not worry. I will talk with you tomorrow." Alex hung up the phone and went back to press a suspect for details on the missing women.

Gage managed to get one of the board members to give them an address of Juan Ortiz' private brothel. He selected certain women to live in a luxury apartment and he used them to entertain his business contacts. With a search warrant in hand, Walker and Trivette headed to the address given. They found eighteen women ranging in ages between sixteen and twenty-five. They were all dressed in revealing lingerie and each was beautiful. Walker asked them about Angelica's mother, Rocio, and one told him that Rocio had resisted one of Mr. Ortiz' customers and Ortiz had struck her very hard across the face. Rocio had fallen backwards and hit her head on a coffee table. She had died two days later despite the other women's efforts to care for her.

It was two a.m. the next morning before all of the suspects were booked and in cells. Alex was conferring with her staff and assigning caseloads to each. She would handle the case of Juan Ortiz herself, but many of the others would be prosecuted by more junior ADA's and they looked to her for guidance and advice. Walker waited until all of the ADA's had their assignments and had finished asking questions, and then he went over and got his exhausted wife's attention. "Come on honey, I'm taking you home for awhile." Alex looked up, "Walker, there is still so much to do." "I know, but it will wait until tomorrow. You need to have a clear head and that means sleep. Not to mention the fact that you are now in the seventh month of your pregnancy. Let's go." Alex wanted to argue, but she was just too tired, so she consented and allowed her husband to lead her out and down to his truck.

Alex only got about five hours of sleep before she was once again headed into the city in Walker's truck. They stopped at the Ruiz' home to visit Angelica. Alex noted that Angelica was very comfortable with Martha and her husband Jose and the guilt at having to leave her in their care was lessened. Back at work, she and Walker were both so busy that they didn't see each other until nearly seven in the evening. Martha had agreed to keep Angelica again, so Alex had stayed late to finish filing charges against Ortiz and his henchmen. She looked up when her husband walked into her office. "Are you ready to pack it in for the day?" he asked. "Mm hmm," she agreed. "Lady, when you're too tired to form words, I know it's time to get you home and into bed." "I'm all yours Cowboy, but we need to stop and pick up Angelica." "I didn't forget. Let's go."

Walker pulled the Ram into the driveway of the Ruiz house. He went around and helped Alex out of the truck. He was much more solicitous of her since her pregnancy had advanced. The truck cab was high and it was difficult for her to get in and out of it since her balance was thrown off by the extra weight of the baby. Alex reached her arms around her husbands' neck and let him lift her down and set her on her feet. She didn't step back right away though; she just stood in his embrace and rested her head against his chest. Walker stroked her hair and sighed with worry. "I don't like you working so hard. That damn DA needs to get back and take over juggling these cases. You have more than enough on your plate with the Ortiz case." "He'll be back next week and I'll be fine after a good nights sleep." Alex lifted her head and added, "let's go, Angelica's waiting."

Jose Ruiz greeted the Walker's and invited them into his home. Angelica's face lit up upon seeing Alex and Walker and she ran excitedly to them jabbering away about all the things she had done since she had last seen them. Alex was amazed at how much English the little girl had already mastered, but there was enough Spanish mixed in that she required some translation. Martha smiled and gave the Walker's an account of Angelica's time with them. Alex and Walker thanked them and they headed home with Angelica talking animatedly in the back seat of the cab.

At the ranch, Angelica insisted on going with Walker to take care of the horses. Alex took advantage of the quiet to have a long soak in the bathtub and it was all she could do when she emerged to continue to function until Angelica was tucked up in bed. Walker took his wife's hand and guided her into bed and tucked her in as well. He needed more time to wind down, but he didn't want her waiting up for him when it was clear that she was out on her feet.

 

Chapter 10

 

 

The next two weeks proved to be hectic, but they had managed to charge Ortiz with nine counts of murder and twenty-one counts of child endangerment and twenty counts of manslaughter. There were many other charges, but the most gratifying was the charge of murder against him for causing the death of Angelica's mother, Rocio, and the charges against him for the deaths of the children. There had been witnesses to Rocio's murder and since Ortiz had struck her himself, there was no way he was going to get out of it. Alex was confident that she could get him consecutive life sentences by the end of the trial.

Walker continued to visit the parents of the children who had died and he helped them to learn what had become of their children. It was a comfort to the parents that he cared, just as Alex had said it would be. They were prepared for repatriation into their own country, but before they left, they held a special Mass for their children thanking God that there were people on this earth like Rangers Walker and Trivette who risked their lives to help others. The Mass was huge and everyone who had been involved in the tragedy from firemen to Coroner's Office and hospital staff attended. Alex watched as her husband finally let go of his guilt and acknowledged that there was a Higher Power who controlled the destinies of the children. That night, Walker slept peacefully for the first time since the fire.

Huge Hugh was reunited with Lola who to the amazement of everyone seemed to return his feelings. Trivette and Walker just shook their heads when the woman raced up to him and hugged him when the Rangers brought him to the detention center. Lola was being sent back to her own country, but Hugh made plans to join her there and intended to marry her and bring her back to America legally.

Nina Woods was torn about what to do with Angelica. By rights she should have gone back to Mexico, but since she had been orphaned in America, Nina was determined to pull as many strings as she needed to so that she could stay. Alex and Walker had talked it over and they had agreed to take her as a long-term foster child until such time that they could adopt her. It was a big decision as their plates were already full with the baby on the way. They both agreed that they would have to be more selfish of their time and that except for the charities they were most invested in, they would cut back on the time they spent helping the community.

Josie was the one to throw a wrench into their plans when she asked them to come into her office one Saturday. "Alex, Walker, I know how much the two of you have become attached to Angelica, but I would like to ask you to consider giving her up." Both Walkers looked at Josie as if she had grown two heads. "Josie, I can't believe I'm hearing this! Why would you ever suggest such a thing?" Alex asked in a shocked voice. "Please, hear me out," she implored them. Because of their years of friendship, the Walkers allowed her to finish. "You know that Jose and Martha Ruiz had a daughter named Rosita and that she died." The Walkers nodded their heads. "Well Rosita died from Cystic Fibrosis. The condition is genetic and both parents have to be carriers for a child to be born with it. Once a couple has a child with CF, they are made aware that they risk any additional child they conceive together to also be born with it. Martha and Jose made a very painful decision to not have any more children. Not only do they both love children, but also they are Catholic and so they had to make a conscious decision to go against the teachings of the church. Those two were meant to be parents. You've seen them with Angelica, they absolutely love her. The only reason they haven't spoken up is that they believe that because you rescued her and took her in, they feel they don't have the right. I know this is a lot to absorb, but I'd like you to consider allowing them to adopt Angelica. You could still be part of her life, I know that Martha and Jose would want that. Look out the window," Josie pointed to the window in her office that looked out onto the backyard. Martha was standing gazing lovingly at Angelica and Jose. Jose was pushing Angelica on the swing and the little girl was laughing. Alex reached for Walker's hand as she saw the family that played together in the backyard. "Martha is here everyday all day long to be with her and Jose comes over everyday on his lunch break," Josie concluded.

"Josie, can Walker and I be alone for a while please?" "Of course, I'll be in the daycare if you need me." Alex looked at her husband and the tears were swimming in her eyes. "I don't know how I could be so blind. I think that sometimes I get so wrapped up in saving the world I don't stop to ask if it wants to be saved." "Don't blame yourself honey. We both fell in love with that little girl and we both want what's best for her." "And what's best for her is Martha and Jose. They'll give her a wonderful home and they'll allow her to keep her language and culture while easing her into life in America." The two didn't need to discuss it further; they both knew what the right decision was. "Let's go tell them," Alex said. It didn't take long to talk Martha and Jose into the idea and the Walkers backed off to allow them to present the idea to Angelica. Standing out of earshot, it was still clear that the little girl was very excited by the idea and any questions they may have had were laid to rest when they saw her reaction. They called Nina Woods and started the legal process. Within a week, Martha and Jose Ruiz were given legal custody of Angelica and started adoption proceedings. The drive back to the ranch from the courthouse was silent. Both Alex and Walker knew that they had done the right thing, but still they grieved the loss of a child they would love to have included into their family.

Alex walked up the steps to the house rubbing her lower back. The hard bench seats in family court had not done her back any favors. Seeing her discomfort, Walker escorted her into their room and had her stretch out on her side with a pillow between her knees. He positioned himself beside her and began kneading the muscles of her lower back. Alex sighed with pleasure as the ache was replaced by a need for a different sort of touch. Rolling onto her back, she reached up and pulled her husbands face down to hers. She placed gentle, teasing, kisses on his cheeks and forehead. She let her fingers curl into the hair at the nape of his neck and tickled that sensitive spot. Slowly, she brought his mouth to hers and began a deliberate seduction of his lips, teasing them open to accept her tongue. For his part, Walker continued the massage, only he moved his hands over her enlarged abdomen in a gentle soothing motion. "I'm almost to the point where making love is going to be quite a challenge," Alex stated. "I will always be up to the challenge, Honey," Walker answered with a teasing glint in his eye. "Cordell Walker, I am head over heels, passionately, in love with you," his wife proclaimed. "Alex Cahill-Walker, I love you and I am crazy about every lovely inch of your body. I am so incredibly aroused by you that I'm going to have to stop talking now." Alex didn't mind the fact that he stopped talking. When it came to nonverbal communication, her husband was an expert.

 

The End

 

 

 

*All the usual disclaimers.