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A MATTER OF TIMING

by Londa Pfeffer

... waited for me." Ranger James Trivette stalked into C.D.'s Bar & Grill, taking off his hat and setting it brim up on the bar. "One of these days—"

His partner, Cordell Walker, followed a few steps behind. "You worry too much, Trivette! I knew where you were and that you'd take care of them."

C.D. approached them, smiling. "Hey, boys! The usual?" The look faded as he saw the bruise forming on Walker's cheek. "Cordell, what in tarnation--"

Walker held up his hand, forestalling his old friend's inquiry. "It's nothing, C.D."

"Nothing, he says," Trivette growled.

The tone surprised Walker. They'd had this conversation before. But this time his partner seemed unwilling to let it go. Frowning, he said, "Trivette, we've done this before--"

"Exactly," the younger man snapped. "Too many times, Walker. You know your luck's gonna run out some day. And I might not be around to pick up the pieces. You ever think about that?"

C.D. felt the first stirrings of apprehension as he watched his friends. He had a sinking feeling he knew what had caused this.

"No," Walker laughed, shaking his head. "Why should I? You're the best--"

Trivette slammed his fist down on the bar. "You just don't get it, do you?"

The bartender tried diverting his friend. "Jimmy--"

The black Ranger ignored his mentor, focusing his attention instead on his partner. "You're so sure of yourself. So damned certain you're indestructible! Well I've got news for you, Walker. You're not. There'll come a time when a bust goes bad or a meet goes down wrong and you'll be counting on me and I won't be there! It's happened-- Forget it. Why do I even bother?" Face twisted in anger, Trivette grabbed his hat off the bar and stormed out the door.

Walker gaped at C.D. "What the hell was that all about?"

C.D. wiped the bar, taking his time in forming an answer. "Might be better if you told me first what happened out there tonight, Cordell."

"It was a bust like any other," the red-bearded man shrugged. Seeing his friend's serious expression, he took a deep breath. "Okay. We were chasing some guys who'd robbed an ATM machine. There were three of them. Trivette got his first, as usual. Cuffed the guy to a light pole then followed me. I'd chased my two guys into an abandoned house. They'd split up. One of them swung something at me, knocked me down. Could've turned out real bad, but Trivette showed up, took the guy out.

We've done it dozens of times before, C.D. So what was the problem tonight?" Walker took a sip of his beer, waiting for the older man's reply.

"I'm not sure it's my story to tell, Cordell."

"Give me some help, here, C.D.," the younger man asked. "I don't know what I'm supposed to have done wrong!"

After studying his friend a moment, the bartender sighed. "Okay... okay. But you'll have to get the details from Jimmy, y'hear?"

"Fair enough," Walker answered.

"I'm willing to bet he never told you he lost a partner, right?" C.D. took Walker's startled look as confirmation. "Well, it was years ago, right around this time. That might have some bearing on his state of mind."

"Damn." Grabbing his own hat, the Ranger climbed to his feet. "I'm going to find him."

"Cordell!" As Walker turned back, C.D. said, "If he's not at any of the usual places, try the old school off Commerce and Charles."

"Commerce and Charles... why there?"

"That's where it happened," the bartender answered sadly.

Donning his hat, Walker nodded. "Thanks, C.D."

Despite the fact that his instincts told him he'd have no success, Walker checked Trivette's apartment first. As he pulled into the parking lot, he noted the Mustang's empty spot. Not surprisingly, his knock on the door also produced no results.

Next he decided on an out-of-the-way bar he knew Trivette frequented when he wanted to be anonymous. He found himself hoping the other man would be there. It would be easier if Trivette were simply mad, rather than struggling with something deeper as C.D. suspected.

However, he had no luck there, either. The bartender, who knew Trivette, hadn't seen him in quite awhile. As Walker headed back to his truck, he knew he'd find his partner where C.D. had suggested.

Walker took his time driving to the old school. He needed to pull his thoughts together before facing his partner. Trivette didn't often fly off the handle which meant this particular memory cut deep.

Trivette slowly rocked the old swing back and forth. Hard to believe they hadn't been vandalized out of existence or rusted away.

His thoughts kept drifting back to C.D.'s and the look on Walker's face. The other man had no way of knowing the source of the problem; it hadn't been fair to jump on him like that.

Sighing, the black man savagely kicked a stone. Looking to see where it landed, he noticed a familiar pair of cowboy boots. Shit! C.D. must've told him where to find me. Which means...

"Feel better?" Walker calmly asked.

"Not really." keeping his eyes downcast, Trivette said, "I guess C.D. told you, huh?"

"Just the basics. I'd rather hear it from you." Walker leaned against the frame of the swing, watching his partner closely. The earlier anger had gone, replaced by an expression he couldn't quite name. . . not quite grief, but close.

"Not much to tell," the younger man shrugged. "I lost a partner once. It happens, right?"

"Sometimes." The red-bearded Ranger knew he had to string his friend along. Asking direct questions would have to wait.

Hopping off the swing, Trivette said, "Yeah, well I'd just as soon not have history repeat itself, okay?"

Walker reached out, grabbing the swing and holding it until it stilled. "There are no guarantees in this line of work. You know that."

"Maybe not. But there are things we can do that improve the odds. Like not taking off on your own. Or waiting for a partner." His voice cracked on the last and he stopped.

"Is that what happened?" the older man wondered. "Your partner didn't wait for you?"

Trivette took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes. Don't make me do this! He silently cursed the circumstances, which so closely mirrored those of so long ago. Taking a couple of steps away from Walker, he finally answered, "Partially."

The older man bit back his frustrated response. Getting Trivette to talk wasn't usually this hard. And yet he sensed the importance of letting his partner tell it in his own time. Cautiously, he asked "Which part?"

"The impatience." Trivette turned back, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets. "Cole never liked waiting. For anybody or anything."

"Was he a good cop?"

"Yeah." Walking back to the swings, the black man settled down again. "Cole joined the narcotics squad about six months after me. My old partner had transferred to Homicide so the lieutenant figured I should break in the new guy."

"What was he like?" Walker found himself curious about the other man.

"We were total opposites in a lot of ways. He was tall and stocky, blond. Guess you could say we were the stereotypical 'salt and pepper team'." Trivette managed a grin to show the description didn't bother him. "Actually, you remind me of Cole sometimes."

"Why do I think that's not a compliment?" the older man wondered.

"You're not totally wrong. He always thought he was indestructible, like he could take anyone on and win. He was a hell of a fighter, no question. But Cole sometimes forgot the meaning of the word 'partner'." Trivette avoided looking at Walker as he said the last.

"Ah." The older Ranger thought he could see what direction his partner was taking. "But knowing you, he didn't get away with it."

"Not often," Trivette agreed. "I couldn't let him get away with it... I was the senior partner, responsible for him to an extent."

"As much as any man can be responsible for another," Walked replied mildly. "Trivette, whatever happened to Cole wasn't your fault."

"How can you be so sure?" came the agonized question.

Taking a deep breath, the other man answered, "Because I've seen you in action, partner. It may seem like I take you for granted but I don't. When I make a move it's because I know you'll be exactly where you should be at the right time."

"Cole used to say the same thing," Jimmy whispered. "Only it wasn't true for him either."

Walker found himself at a loss. Everything he said seemed to compound his partner's guilt. He knew he held some responsibility for that. But Trivette couldn't fully understand that there were just times Walker knew, without facts, that he had to make a move.

Now was not the time to point that out, however. Though his actions had sparked this, Walker sensed tonight had more to do with Trivette's long-dead former partner.

"How did it happen?"

Trivette took a deep breath. He'd never discussed Cole's death with anyone, not even C.D., though the retired Ranger certainly knew the details. But Walker had the right to know. "It was a drug meet gone bad. I hit the scene in time to hear the shots fired." His eyes clouded over as the memories played across his mind's eye. "I saw Cole go down. Managed to take out the shooter but--" He shook his head. "He wasn't alone. His buddies rabbitted when I showed up. I wanted to go after them, Walker. But I couldn't leave Cole. He needed my help."

Walker nodded in agreement. It was an unwritten rule: take care of your partner first. The younger man's gruff tone struck a chord. Though this grief was an old one it still carried a lot of pain with it. Yet something about his partner's story didn't fit.

"How did you and Cole get separated?" the red-bearded Ranger asked.

"We, uh, didn't," Trivette admitted. "He got there before me. Something went sour and by the time I got there it had already gone down." Swallowing hard, the black man continued, "When I got to Cole I was sure he had to be dead but somehow he kept hanging on. They got him to the hospital and into surgery. Damned stubborn son-of-a-bitch even pulled through that. The doctors said each hour he survived gave him a better chance of recovering."

His partner nodded. They'd both been through the waiting game far too often.

"The lieutenant called Cole's family... he had a sister, Karen." Trivette paused a moment. "She and her husband came right over. She tried to talk to me, tell me it wasn't my fault. But I knew she was wrong."

Walker suddenly realized what bothered him about his friend's tale. "You said earlier that Cole was impatient... that he got there before you?"

"Yeah." Trivette met his partner's gaze, easily reading his thoughts. "You're thinking it's not my fault, right? That Cole jumped the gun?"

"It sounds that way," the older man admitted.

Shaking his head, Trivette said, "I got stuck in traffic, Walker. The time I lost sitting there cost Cole his life."

Needing more time to think this through, Walker asked, "How long did he survive?"

"He developed a blood clot. It broke loose and caused a stroke the next afternoon." The black man cleared his throat and briefly closed his eyes. "There was, um, too much damage. Karen asked them to take him off life support and he died that night."

"I'm sorry, Trivette." Walker knew the anguish of watching someone you cared about die a slow death. Knowing he risked igniting his partner's temper, he said, "I still don't see how his death was your fault, though. You arranged the meet together, he should've waited."

Trivette's eyes snapped open. "You should talk, man! Who rushed in earlier tonight on his own?!"

"There is one difference," the older Ranger said calmly. "I knew you were on the scene. And I knew I could count on you being there exactly when you were needed."

"Dammit, Walker, what happens on that one day when you're wrong?"

Walker considered his answer carefully. "Uncle Ray would have said that it would be my time to go."

"And how do you answer?"

"Guess I never gave it much thought, especially since we've been partners." Knowing how much rested on this, the other man said, "I always know you're there to cover my back."

The black man wanted desperately to believe the words. But he couldn't quite let go of the old grief. "You keep saying that, Walker."

"It's the truth," the older man shrugged. "You're my partner."

Trivette ducked his head, suddenly uncomfortable with the change the conversation had taken.

Sensing this, Walker turned his mind to the one thing that still nagged at him. "If you hadn't gotten stuck in traffic that night. .. you would've been early, wouldn't you?"

Trying to follow his partner's change of topic, Trivette blinked in confusion. "Yeah. Matter of fact, I would. How'd you know that?"

The older man smiled. "Like I said, you're my partner. I know you, Trivette. You'd never cut it that close." Pressing his advantage, he asked, "How late were you?"

"Actually, I arrived right on time," the black man admitted.

"Don't you see?" Walker reached out to grab his partner's swing, stilling it. "It wasn't your fault, Trivette. It wasn't anyone's fault except the man who pulled that trigger. His bullet killed Cole, not anything you did or didn't do."

The other man stared off in the distance at nothing specific. "My head knows that, it's my heart that won't listen. Cole was a good friend, y'know? We were close."

"How long were you partners?"

"Two years." Pulling his attention back to the present, Jimmy said softly, "His birthday would have been day after tomorrow."

The night's events fell into place for Walker. They had probably been building to this conversation for a long time, but the proximity to a reminder of Trivette's dead partner had brought it to a head.

"You'll never forget him, Trivette," Walker said. "But you can't live your life trying to correct a mistake you never made. I'm not Cole; you'll have to trust that."

Trivette looked over at his partner before saying, "It took me a long time after Cole died to get close to anyone I worked with, y'know? I kept it strictly business. Couldn't afford to hurt like that again."

The older man nodded. "I've done my fair share of keeping folks at arm's length. It doesn't always work though. Some folks manage to slip between the cracks."

"True enough." Jimmy climbed to his feet. "I think I should head back to C.D.'s so he can yell at me for worrying him. Wanna come watch?"

Knowing the older man would do no such thing, Walker nodded. "I haven't had much excitement lately."

Trivette laughed, feeling some of the earlier tension ease. He knew now that he'd always feel some of the responsibility for Cole's death. But he also knew that the past didn't have to repeat itself. He and Walker worked together when it really counted, and the older man had shown time after time how he valued the partnership.

"C'mon," Walker said, casually draping an arm over his friend's shoulder. "I'll buy you the beer you earned earlier."

"You're on!"

Together they walked towards their vehicles.