The Compassion Trap
By Gil Hale – email@example.com
“You mean you didn’t warn them, Jim?” The jokers in the bullpen were pleased to see Jim and Blair again after their short leave—which hadn’t been spent in Denver.
“No mention of the Ellison Sandburg holiday curse?”
“Even a Fed’s entitled to a risk assessment before he goes near you two on vacation.”
“But who’s the Jonah? I’d say Hairboy; Ellison didn’t have holiday disasters before.”
“Ellison didn’t have holidays before.”
Jim Ellison strode past ignoring this. Blair, following him towards Simon’s office, just had to stop; it wasn’t the stride—he could do that—but he couldn’t let this injustice go.
“This is a typical example of how superstitions arise,” he said severely. “Just because on one or two occasions…”
“One or two?”
“We can do better than that. Where do we start. There was the monastery. That one called for real talent at finding trouble.”
“And the island. One lighthouse; no crime of any kind in living memory till you two visited.”
Blair was rescued from having to answer this by Simon looking impatiently from his doorway. He hurried across, but not too fast to look back over his shoulder and have the last word. “Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a holiday. It was a working break.”
“It still will be,” Jim said, closing the door firmly. “Simon’s cleared the next few days for me now. Rafe and Henri and the others won’t be grinning so much when they find the extra work they’ve got. We’ll fly down to Denver this evening.”
“You think Chris will be up to visitors?” Blair asked doubtfully.
“Good question. I wouldn’t want you two as house guests if I’d just got out of hospital,” Simon said. “Is he even home yet?”
Although the mills of monolithic government would eventually grind slowly and minutely over the whole case of Josephs and the CIA, the more immediate aftermath involved some detailed inhouse inquiries, especially as Miller had disappeared efficiently and all attempts to trace him had failed. Those enquiries were the reason for Jim’s planned trip to Denver—he and Larabee being called to appear in front of one of them. As the official version of their activities held a few key differences from the real one, they’d decided they’d better get every detail straight. Any discrepancy was unlikely to be overlooked.
This was why they’d decided to spend a few days staying on Chris’s ranch. It would give them the opportunity of getting Ezra’s advice; he was probably the best qualified of them all to make sure their story ran with silken smoothness. It was also the only opportunity Jim and Blair would have for quite a while to enjoy the Denver team’s hospitality.
Only, and Blair had to admit the coincidence level was maybe approaching statistically significant, yet again something unpredictable had interfered with their plans.
“Larabee’s home,” Jim told Simon. “A bit stiff and sore, and I imagine with a killing headache, but no lasting damage.”
“So what exactly happened to him? You just told me he’d been hurt on some routine bust.”
“Sheer bad luck,” Jim said.
Blair winced. He really shouldn’t put it like that, not when half the bullpen were talking about curses. “Actually, Simon, it’s amazing this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. It was a straightforward accident. Someone fell on him.”
Simon looked sceptical. “Can’t say it’s in the manual as a regular hazard. Do you mean jumped on him.”
“Fell on him,” Jim said. “Place was a typical warehouse. Larabee’s men were helping out another team who hadn’t done their homework well enough. The bust was going smoothly, then it turned out there was a man unaccounted for—and he was up high. He only got off a couple of shots before Tanner took him out, but one of those hit a man from the other team. It sounds like the team leader and Larabee were trying to get him undercover. Perp fell through the walkway and landed on the three of them. Big man, thirty foot drop—got to do a bit of damage. Larabee was concussed but apparently it wasn’t as bad as it looked.”
“When Vin first rang he was talking about coma and the works,” Blair added, remembering the careful control in Vin’s voice when he drawled the bare facts, sounding as though he was giving them an official report. Blair would have offered sympathy, but it was Jim who’d taken the call. Blair had stood there, shocked and concerned, alternately gesturing to Jim to give him the phone or say something encouraging, but afterwards he thought maybe Jim’s almost military response had been what Vin could handle just then. Vin had called back around dawn—which meant he got Jim again—to say that the doctors had underestimated the hardness of Chris’s head, and he was conscious, coherent and complaining. They kept him in for two days; Blair had picked up the idea that hospital stress levels had risen to an all time high. His release must have been as much of a relief to the nurses as to Chris himself.
“I talked to Larabee a couple of hours ago,” Jim said. This was news to Blair, who’d been at Rainier all morning, using his unexpected free time in the library.
“You spoke to Chris?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me? How is he?”
“I am telling you. He’s okay. Think he’d just won an argument with Jackson and that had made him feel better. He says his team are hovering, and he hopes we’ll distract them.”
“Should have got himself a pretty nurse instead,” Simon said. “Okay, Jim. Go and make your arrangements.” His phone rang, and he waved them away.
They were in the bullpen, giving the mockers there the good news that they’d now got Jim’s work to cover for a couple of days, when Simon looked out of the office with an odd expression on his face and called them back in.
“Denver?” Jim asked.
“No, Miss Duncan and your small friend with the large doll. She’s made a ‘get well’ card for Chris—the child that is—and would you call in and take it. You know, Jim, I wouldn’t tell the world you and Larabee are getting together. The CIA still have people who can add up.”
“We haven’t been telling anyone,” Blair said. “She’s just that sort of woman. One of her locals will have an aunt or a sister or son in law or something in every area of every city in the USA. You should be grateful she’s more or less on our side.”
Jim—who adhered in the face of all the evidence to the notion that Miss Duncan was a kind old lady and Jodie a nice little girl—said, “It’s no bother to call in, anyway. I expect they’d like the latest news.”
That, at least, was an accurate assessment. More than seventy years separated Miss Duncan and Jodie but they shared a strong preference for knowing exactly what was going on. Reassured that Larabee was doing rather better than the unlucky medical staff, they presented Jim with a large and highly decorated piece of cardboard to deliver. Blair looked at it with some amusement once they were safely on the plane.
“Not difficult to guess which one is Chris.”
There were a number of figures on the card, some drawn in more detail than others, but large and lovingly drawn in the middle was a man in black shirt and jeans with short blond hair. Jodie had written underneath THE BOS. Another hand, presumably Miss Duncan’s had squeezed in an extra ‘s’, but the message came over clear enough without it.
When they finally arrived at the ranch, after being picked up in style by Ezra, the work of art was presented to Chris and given a prominent position in the den.
“Perceptive,” Ezra commented, looking at it critically. “My jacket was not perhaps such a riot of technicolour, but her intentions are unmistakable. Do you think the gorilla figure is Mr Wilmington or Mr Sanchez?”
“Hey, that one’s me,” Buck protested. In one corner a man characterised by a face-smothering moustache was holding on to two bulging women.
“But of course. Mr Sanchez then. Mr Jackson, I see, has a syringe suited to the treatment of a rhinoceros, and this is…?”
“That’s Jim,” Blair said. He’d had the advantage of a flight spent with nothing much better to do than work it out. “You can tell by the lack of most of the hair. And the Popeye muscles… Besides, that’s Simon next to him—she’s got Miss Duncan to draw him a badge that says ‘I’m the captain’.”
Chris, sprawled in a chair, but not looking as bad as he might have been, held out his hand for it to look at it more closely. “She’s got Ellison’s jaw just right too,” he said. “So where are you, Sandburg?” He tilted it round for Vin to see, but Vin, quiet on the edge of the group, wasn’t drawn in.
“I don’t think she’s done the rest of us,” Blair said. “Just her and her friends. Maybe that’s her brother on the other side of Chris.”
Jodie herself was obvious, drawn holding Chris’s hand, her own clothes and her doll’s given meticulous detail. Every line of the picture proclaimed that she was a very good girl. The boy on the other side, though, seemed to be held by the arm, as if he was trying to run off.
Chris looked at it intently, and his mouth quirked in a half grin, but all he said was, “Jodie’s brother had red hair from what I remember. Short and spiky. That’s him in the corner tied to a totem pole. Now this one causing me trouble—and the waif squashed between Ellison and Banks—think I recognise them.”
Blair didn’t, but he hadn’t paid that much attention to the children at the party Miss Duncan had organised. He wondered what Jim was laughing at—Jim looked like a man who’d found a joke that made up for being insulted about his hairline, but the card wasn’t that funny.
“Meal’s ready,” Josiah said rather hastily. Ezra put the card back in its position of honour, and they piled through, hungry.
The kitchen at the ranch was large, luckily, and the lasagne was vast. Demolishing it and the accompanying garlic breads, salads and desserts took most of the rest of the evening. Chris ate but disappeared off to his room early; Vin went to check around outside; but the rest of them lingered, chatting and enjoying the company. Caught up in the conversation, Blair was a while before he noticed that Vin hadn’t come back in. He hadn’t heard Vin say more than a couple of words since he’d first joined in welcoming them, either.
“Well, boys, if there’s nothing left to eat, we’d best be on our way,” Buck finally said. “Want a lift, Josiah?”
Nathan was staying, though Chris seemed to be fine. Ezra followed Buck and JD outside. “Sleep well,” he said to Blair. “I suspect you will find that everyone else on the premises rises around dawn, so I would venture to suggest locking your door and adopting some means of muffling the noise.” He glanced into the darkness at the far end of the porch. “Goodnight, Vin.”
Blair turned in that direction as the cars left. “Vin?”
Vin slipped out of the shadows and joined him. He didn’t speak.
“Chris looks okay,” Blair said tentatively.
“I mean, I suppose it’ll be a few days before he’s right back to normal, but he seems to be recovering faster than they expected.”
“How about you?”
“Not a scratch.”
That wasn’t what Blair had meant, but the conversation seemed to be going nowhere fast. He tried something less direct. “Miss Duncan asked us to say she was thinking of you.”
“Nice of her.” There was another long silence, then Vin added quietly, “Thought of her a few times this last few weeks.”
“It doesn’t just stop, does it,” Blair said softly. “I hoped it would, but it’s been kind of slow progress. I’ve started to remember some of that time Josephs had us.”
“Jim’s been cool with it. I don’t want to know how he knows so much about that sort of stuff, but it’s helped to talk about it. About Denver, too. I mean, it’s better, really, having it all out in the open.”
It was hard to argue with agreement; but Blair felt that somewhere Vin was hurting. “Okay, Chris is getting better, and you’re getting past the Josephs thing. That’s good. So why did you only eat half your normal amount of lasagne, then come out here to look at the dark?”
Vin sighed. “Ain’t dark when y’ look at it prop’ly.”
“Yer like one of them little dogs, y’ know that? Th’ sort that nips onto yer ankle and hangs on.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Talk to me, Vin. You don’t usually pass on dessert and friends.”
“They eat all that choc’late cake?”
“No. Josiah made them put some in the fridge for you. Why did you turn your back on it in the first place.”
Vin sighed again. “Ain’t that I’m bein’ unsociable. I’m real glad you and Ellison could come. Ain’t even something I c’n easy find words for. It’s like—you don’t have something, or think y’ don’t, y’ realise how good it is when y’ get it back, then y’ really know how hard it’d be if’n y’ didn’t have it again. Just seemed t’ hit me t’night.”
Blair was just running this one past the language centre of his brain to make sure he’d got the gist of it right when Jim came out to join them. The dark, of course, really wasn’t dark to him, and he moved sure footed. He must have had his hearing dialled up too because he answered Vin, “But right now you don’t not have it. That’s a hell of a lot easier to live with than the alternative.”
They, at least, seemed to be talking the same language, even if Blair was having trouble translating it. There was a soft, heartfelt, “Yeah,” from Vin, and he straightened up at last. “Reckon y’ right, Ellison. Gonna give up borrowin’ trouble and get me some cake.” He dropped a light arm across Blair’s shoulders. “C’mon. Might be enough fer you. Y’ deserve it! Y’ don’t give up easy.”
It was late, past midnight by the clock in the kitchen, and past the hour when Blair could really appreciate chocolate laden gateau, but he could appreciate watching Vin dig into it with enthusiasm. After a minute Jim decided it was his duty as a polite guest to join in. Conversation was limited mostly to mutters of appreciation, but when they were finally heading for bed Vin paused at the door of the den, and looked at Blair with the beginnings of a grin. “Y’ worked out what little miss bossy done on that card yet?”
“How do you mean?”
Vin wiped a smear of chocolate off his hands and picked it up. “Y’ see Ellison, right?”
“Epitome of a captain.”
Vin blinked. “Gotta try that one on Ezra. Well, see that scrawny kid squashed between them, with his mouth open.”
Jodie had, Blair saw, drawn a speech balloon coming from the mouth and filled it with an enormous number of squiggles.
An uncomfortable thought occurred to him.
Jodie had told him kindly at their last encounter that he talked too much.
He looked at the picture again. Long hair. Checked shirt. Could this pygmy be a Blair representation? “She’s drawn someone coming up to about Jim’s waist!” he said.
“Reckon that’s what Ez’d call subjective,” Vin said. Jim was grinning, rather smugly.
“See,” Vin went on. “Chris, he gets t’ be real big. Jim here, too. Less important to Jodie, smaller they get. Her brother’s ’bout fit fer th’ dolls house.”
“I thought that was perspective.”
“Yep. Jodie’s perspective. She done me the same, on th’ other side of Chris t’ her. Reckernised it when I saw th’ look on Larabee’s face. Better face it, to Jodie we’re just th’ bad boys. Other folk get t’ be th’ heroes.”
Blair realised Jim had spotted this appalling caricature first time round. That somehow made it even more annoying.
“Ezra had it right,” Jim said. “She’s an unusually perceptive child.” He dropped a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “She’s tucked you in a nice safe position though. Maybe we should take a photocopy for Simon. Recommended situation for a police observer.”
“Laugh it up, spinach man,” Blair said, and went off to bed. Behind him he could hear Vin laughing; he found it an encouraging sound.
As the purr of Ezra’s car faded into the distance, Jim tilted back in his chair and closed his eyes to let his other senses appreciate the ranch. A lingering scent of coffee from the kitchen; the touch of autumn sun and fresh air on his face; the faint snicker of a horse; it was worth dwelling on a minute. He heard the slight sounds of Larabee coming out to join him, still moving a bit stiffly as he eased down into the other seat. It was too cool to sit out really, but the morning was lovely, and this spot something of a suntrap. Tension he hadn’t been aware of feeling seeped out of him.
“Ez’ll bring them back this afternoon,” Chris said. “He’s up to something, but these days I don’t ask.”
“I thought he was taking Blair to see some place where they work wood in traditional ways.”
“He is, but there’s more to it. I know Ez; there’s that little edge he don’t know he shows when he’s hoping something’s going to work out right with us—like a kid who doesn’t know if you’ll like the present he’s made at school.”
“So what’s he planning?”
“Like I said, I don’t ask. Something to cheer Vin up probably. Vin’s on the road back but he hasn’t quite got there yet—and this last week hasn’t helped.”
“Or that he was the one who took the shot?”
“Damn lucky he did. He knows he did exactly the right thing. Just his heart hasn’t quite caught up with his head, and he’s a bit slower to shake it off then he’d normally be. Having you two here’s a good thing. And I suppose we’d better get this story watertight. I’ve got a feeling this mess is going to rumble on for a long time.”
Vin enjoyed the pristine comfort of Ezra’s Jaguar and wondered where the hell Ez thought he was going. He’d avoided the fast and direct routes, showing a preference for a completely meaningless tour of the suburbs; in fact he seemed to have made a—for him—phenomenally early start especially so they could crawl along behind a school bus. Blair, talking about craftsmanship and the self respect it had given people, only noticed when they stopped altogether. A bunch of boys, laughing and jostling together as they ran for the bus, stopped to comment on the Jag and then had to run even faster as the bus driver began to lose patience.
“This isn’t the place?” Blair asked puzzled.
“Nope. Reckon this is Ez’s guide to the parts of Denver tourists normally miss.”
“It’s quite a pleasant area of suburbia,” Ezra commented, as everyday life continued around them with mothers going out to the shops and to work. “However, I gather that your interest in it is limited. Our destination is not in fact too far distant.”
Their destination turned out to be not simply a workshop but a whole landscaped site. As well as the traditional woodworking he’d promised them, there were other handicrafts, and acres of planting of herbs and rarer varieties of common plants and vegetables.
“Is this a commercial place?” Blair asked, surprised.
“It is in fact making a profit now,” Ezra said, “but it was founded as a charity. Many of the workers here suffer from some sort of mental disability. Here they work side by side with craftsman and horticulturists, and I believe the results have been satisfactory even beyond the expectations of its founders. Some of the furniture is quite beautiful.”
He led them into the workshop, and they walked round a while. Blair was simply enjoying the place, and talking to some of the designers about the origins of the styles and finishes they were using. Vin, like Chris, tended to believe nothing was simple with Ezra involved, but he liked this—liked the smell of the wood and the low hum of people enjoying their work.
Ezra stopped beside a big shambling young man who was rubbing some sort of wax into the pieces of a rocking chair. He was humming to himself as he worked, and his stubby, starfish hands sometimes paused to stroke the wood lovingly. After a minute he seemed to realise he was being watched. He looked up and beamed at their interest.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” Blair said. “That’s a lovely piece of furniture.”
Vin couldn’t say anything. Something about the unlimited friendliness in the young man’s expression caught at his memory and suddenly made his stomach lurch. He looked into brown eyes which met his with slightly puzzled warmth, and between one heartbeat and the next stopped seeing a stranger. He recognised that look.
“Know you?” the man asked.
“Aaron?” Vin managed, his voice strangled. He didn’t know how it could be, but even as he said it, he knew he was right.
Aaron’s smile, if possible, grew broader. “That’s right,” he said. He put down his polishing cloths and held out his arms, as if he could see Vin’s need. “C’mon brother,” he said. “Hug.”
Vin hugged him, fervently. He’d remembered a lot of things about Aaron, but he’d forgotten till now the sheer goodness that shone out of him. It hadn’t been crushed. This was Aaron as he remembered him, giving much more than he ever took, generous and uncomplicated in his affection.
“Are you a friend of Aaron’s?”
A rather pretty girl in stained jeans had come up to join them. Vin pulled back and swiped an arm across his eyes. “Knew him way back,” he said. “M’names Vin. This here’s Blair and Ezra.”
“I’m Susannah. I’m—I suppose you’d call it Aaron’s house sister. I help with the organisation of the house he lives in. How long ago did you know Aaron?”
Vin glanced at Ezra, but it was Aaron who came to the rescue. “Vin was my friend,” he told her. “My friend who came.”
Vin stared, and saw that the puzzled look had gone from Aaron’s expression. How clear his memories were Vin couldn’t guess, but there was recognition there now. Aaron patted his face, his hand smelling of something sweet in the wax. “Vin,” he said again, softly. “Thank you for coming.”
“I’m so pleased you came, too,” Susannah said, misunderstanding this as simply referring to today’s visit. “I came to call Aaron for coffee break. Maybe you’d all like to come over with us.”
Blair had already offered Aaron his own enthusiastic hug, and he and Ezra both showed some interest in improving their acquaintance with Susannah. Vin didn’t trust himself to speak, but he followed along with them to the bright and pleasant hostel which provided rooms for some of the workers on the site who didn’t live at home. An unfamiliar feeling that was almost joy was bubbling up in him. He was relieved to see there were a number of people sitting down for coffee, and he could get back his composure unnoticed. “Won’t ask how you managed this one,” he murmured to Ezra.
“It was Benny,” Ezra said softly. “And I was uncertain—whether he was right about the person and location, whether this was in fact one of my better ideas or not…”
“One of y’ best. One of y’ very best.”
Vin finished his coffee in silent but contented thought. He’d had no idea places like this existed. He’d never even begun to hope that Aaron would grow up into a place where he could thrive among friends and enjoy his work; never dared hope it for himself, come to that. He wondered what other places hope should have lightened. Had it only been Aaron, or had Ezra’s tour through the suburbs been a part of this day’s gift?
“Okay, Ez,” he said, as Aaron helped Blair clear the table. “Tell me about that street we stopped in.”
“That, I must admit, was a much more tentative endeavour. Your friend Sadie, according to Benny, was reunited with her baby, and given some sort of guidance in how to be a mother. His research had to be very tactful, but he believes that she currently lives in that street, and that her son—who of course is a teenager by now—would be one of the pupils at that particular picking up point. I would not suggest we intrude any more closely than we did today. You may like to share the information with Mr Sandburg, of course.”
Vin looked at him in wonder. “How long you and Benny been finding all this out?”
“I believe we began before your return to Denver. It was a rather slow and convoluted process. I visited this place last week, and then other events intervened. As Chris’s return home was to be rapidly followed by the advent of our colleagues from Cascade, this seemed an ideal opportunity to come. Although Blair did not know these people as you did, I thought he might also appreciate the closure.”
Vin nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “You given us something real precious t’day.”
“I imagine Aaron will be happy if you can come to visit occasionally now. Susannah can no doubt give you an idea whether some times are more appropriate than others.”
They improved on this with Blair’s dedicated help before they left though. Susannah, who had planned to spend her day off the next day with her sister and a couple of friends, was persuaded to bring all of them and Aaron out to the ranch in the evening.
“And if her sister is anything like Susannah, that should make the party go with a swing,” Blair told Buck and JD later, with satisfaction at a job well done.
Vin winked at Chris. “They’s all a bit young. Y’ might want t’ ask Mary and a few more matronly types.”
“Want me to repeat that to Mary?”
“I weren’t calling her matronly.”
“She might not appreciate that distinction. Anyway, she’s working. Hey, Ez!”
Ezra winced. “I wish you would make the effort to attract my attention in some other way.”
“I got something for you.”
Ezra looked more suspicious than enthusiastic, but he came over. “The word ‘something’ does not fill me with confidence.”
Chris produced a bottle of amber liquid. “Something from Scotland.”
“Ah, well in that case, accept my felicitations on your choice.” He took the bottle. “Glenfiddich. This is a very pleasant surprise. Have I forgotten my birthday?”
“Well, I was saving it for a special occasion. Reckon you made today that. And Vin knew which cupboard it was in…”
“Thanks, Ez,” Vin said again. “Feel like some kinda stone I been carrying round fer years just got shifted. Can’t tell y’ what it means to see Aaron like that.”
“I believe they are about to attempt to play poker in my absence,” Ezra said, and bolted, taking the scotch.
Chris laughed. “One of these days we might manage to thank him without scaring him off.”
Vin leaned back next to him, comfortable. “One of these days.”
“You know, I can just about remember being that young,” Chris said philosophically the next evening as Jim Ellison came in, put his cell phone away and dropped beside him. Nathan and Josiah were in the kitchen, but Buck was teaching everyone else a game which involved considerable contortion. He’d got them into threes, and was calling out instructions like ‘elbow/nose’ or ‘chin/knee’. Apparently the winning team would be joined in all the locations mentioned. Blair, JD and Susannah’s sister Alice seemed to be the most supple. Chris, who still ached in more places than he had any intention of admitting to, winced at the sight of it all.
Something about the silence next to him caught his attention. He glanced at Jim. “Problem?”
“Maybe. I hope not. That was Kelso who called. You remember a nasty piece of work called Botting?”
“He’s gone rogue. Kelso just heard. Not much loss in one way, but apparently he’d been mouthing off about the injustice of Miller having to run—and what should have been done to us instead.”
“Fits. So Kelso thinks he might be a threat?”
“No, not really. Kelso knows he was an incompetent little asshole, though he put it less bluntly. But he thinks the fact Botting got away clean suggests Miller might have recruited him. And Miller could be a threat.”
“Miller wouldn’t waste time on us unless we got in his way.”
“That’d be my assessment, too. We’re not planning to get in his way, so forget it. And I’m not planning to mention it to Blair, either.”
There was an outbreak of shrieking from the other side of the room. With the teams contorting with about equal success, Buck had introduced a new challenge. They had to hold their position while he went round and tickled the team members. As they all collapsed in ignominious heaps, Nathan looked in and yelled over the noise that the pizzas were cooked. Chris looked at Blair, laughing helplessly at the bottom of the pile, and Vin, who had extricated himself smoothly and was also laughing as he chivalrously helped up the girls. They didn’t need to know if there was some cloud way off in the distance. He nodded to Ellison, and they followed the others on through to the kitchen.
A long way from Denver, Miller was reading the classified version of the arrest and imprisonment of Lee Brackett. If Chris had known, maybe he’d have seen that cloud thicken and darken a little, but the ranch kitchen was noisy with cheerful conversation and he’d dismissed Miller from his thoughts.
Jim and Blair flew back to Cascade cheerful and well rested. They found the bull pen had been smitten with a nasty stomach bug donated by Daryl who’d caught it at school. The detectives who’d returned were pale and bad tempered.
It was irresistible.
“Lucky we were off on holiday,” Jim said.
“We missed all the problems.”
“Nice few days away.”
“This place just seems like a magnet for trouble.”
They got a couple of groans and a few more rude gestures, and Blair thought it would be quite a while before they heard the next joke about holiday disasters. He licked his finger and scored a one-up in the air, and he and Jim strolled through the convalescents and back to work.
~ End ~