Title: Juggling Act (1/3)
Date Written: 5/29/02
Author: JanetD
Rating: PG-13 (strong language)
Summary: This story picks up where The Beginning left off. It contains spoilers for The Beginning and Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
Author's Notes: CAUTION: This story contains high levels of Nick-angst. If you have been advised by your physician to avoid excess Nick-angst, please consult with your doctor before reading this story. The author will not be held responsible for any consequences that may befall those persons choosing to ignore this warning. All others proceed at your own risk!
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The characters in this story are borrowed from the TV show "The Guardian". No money is being made from this story. Any resemblance of a character in this story to any real person living or dead is purely coincidental. Likewise, any resemblance between an organization depicted in this story and any such actual organization is purely coincidental.

Prologue from The Beginning
A Thursday night in late May: Mandy Gresler is lying dead in Nick Fallin's living room. His father, Burton, has just left after telling Nick about the deal he made with Senator Caldwell to keep Nick out of jail after his drug arrest. Nick closes the front door, and, breathing heavily, walks back into the living room where Mandy is lying on the floor. He pauses there, then returns to the foyer, and sits on the stairs. He dials the phone, and says in a ragged voice (breathing heavily throughout the call):

Hey, Dad. It's, uh....it's Nick. Uh...I'm leaving you this message cause, uh, I'm, uh.... Yeah, I-I-I'm sorry. I'm sorry for, for, uh, everything, and, uh, I just haven't, uhm...been .... Yeah, I-I'm just, I'm sorry....okay?... Look, I-I-I came back here because...I wanted to work with you cause I-I respect you, and I, and I wanted to spend more time with you, and...and-and I'm afraid that I-I've just done what I always usually do, and...I'm just afraid, and...Dad, I-I-I just want you to know that...that I-I-I, I love you, and, and I just want to apologize.


Nick Fallin sat on the bottom step of the spiral stairway in the foyer of his home. He was dressed in a black suit and blue dress shirt. He had discarded his tie earlier in the evening, and his collar was open to the third button. He had just hung up with his father's answering machine, and he was the picture of misery. His eyes were wet with unshed tears, and he looked as if he might begin to cry at any moment. He hung his head as the sound of approaching sirens grew louder. But then, seconds later, lifted it up again. He knew he had to pull it together, and make another call. Reaching into his suit jacket, he took out his wallet, and pulled out a card. Drawing in a deep breath, he dialed a number. When the phone was answered, he said in a pain-filled voice, "Bob, it's, it's Nick Fallin. I-I'm in trouble. Mandy Gresler showed up at my house tonight.... She...we struggled, and I think she's dead.... Yeah.... Yeah, I called for an ambulance. They're pulling up now. Can you come over here, Bob?... 1980 Elsworth in Shadyside. Thanks. Thank you.... Okay. I won't. Bye."

Nick hung up the phone, set it down on the stair, and drew in another long cleansing breath. His face clearly reflected the distress he was in. Just then there was a knock at the door, and a voice sang out, "Fire Dept." Nick got up off the steps, and went quickly over to open the door. A man and woman in uniform stood on the stoop, their hands full of medical equipment. Before either could say anything, Nick said raggedly, "She's in here. She, she fell down, and hit her head. I-I-I can't find a pulse." The two paramedics followed Nick into the living room, and immediately began to examine Mandy. Nick stood a few feet away, arms crossed over himself, biting his lip in anxiety. After the initial examination, the male paramedic exchanged a "this isn't good" look with his partner, and then started CPR. Nick was silent as the two professionals worked over the lifeless woman.

Minutes after the paramedics had started their work, two uniformed police officers arrived. They entered the house in a no-nonsense fashion, and immediately located the party in the living room. The first officer said, "We got a report that a death had occurred at this location." The female paramedic answered, "She's got no pulse, but we're not giving up on her yet. We're just about ready to transport. Could one of you guys go out to the ambulance, and get the gurney? My partner and I kinda have our hands full."

"Sure," said the second policeman. "Need anything else?"

"No, just the gurney, thanks."

As the second patrolman left, the first officer, Fredricks, opened his notebook, and walked up to Nick. "You the one who called this in?" he asked.

"Yes," Nick said, his attention still focused on Mandy and the paramedics.

"This your house?"

Nick nodded.

"What's your name?"

"Nicholas Fallin."

Fredricks paused to write this down. "Who's the woman?"

"Her name, her name's Mandy Gresler."

Fredricks recorded this too. "She your girlfriend?"

"No, no," Nick said with an accompanying shake of his head, his despair still visible on his face.

"Okay, can you tell me what happened here?"

"She fell, and, and hit her head."

"How did it happen exactly?"

Nick turned to the officer, and looked at him for a full three seconds before he answered. "My, my lawyer is on his way. I don't think I should say anything more until he arrives."

Fredricks was about to argue the point, but then stopped himself. "Okay, then we'll just wait here together for him to arrive." At that moment, the other policeman returned with the gurney. In just a couple minutes time the paramedics had placed Mandy on the gurney, and bundled her out the door. Shortly afterwards, siren blaring, the ambulance pulled away from the curb.

At the sound of the siren, Nick seemed to shake himself, as if awakening from a bad dream. He glanced around the room, and then walked over to one of the two couches that stood on either side of the coffee table. He collapsed down onto the couch in a sitting position. Officer Fredricks had relayed to the other patrolman what Nick had had to say about Mandy's "accident", and now the two officers stood talking quietly, gazes fixed in Nick's direction. Nick ran one hand down the back of his head, and then brought his chin down to rest on one closed fist. His anxiety was palpable

After five minutes time, another figure came through the open front door. It was Detective Darger, the man who had first taken Nick's statement on the double murder at the Girls! Girls! Girls! strip club three weeks before. Darger was in his early fifties, slim, with a moustache, and long, slicked-back dark hair. Hair that was starting to gray. He had dark, almost beady eyes, and his teeth showed signs of tobacco stains. He was a cop who had served his whole career in the Pittsburgh P.D., and he was shrewd. He knew how to get what he wanted out of both witnesses and suspects. Tonight he was dressed in slacks and a beige dress-shirt, open at the collar. He wore a black leather jacket.

As he entered the house, Darger was already calling Nick's name, "Fallin!" He quickly spotted Nick and the two uniforms in the living room, and headed their way. Nick had glanced up when he'd heard his name, and now he stared at the detective disconsolately. Darger looked at Nick, but turned to the two patrolmen to ask his first question, What's the situation?

Officer Fredricks replied, When we got here the paramedics where working on the girl. She wasn't breathing, and had no pulse. The ambulance left about five minutes ago. Mr. Fallin here says she fell and hit her head, but he won't say any more than that until his lawyer shows up. He says he's on his way.

Darger fixed Nick with a sharp stare. Is that right, Nick, you won't answer my questions until your lawyer gets here?

Nick nodded.

Darger paused, and then said sympathetically, You look like a wreck. Officer Lister, go into the kitchen, and get Mr. Fallin a glass of water. Turning his attention back to Nick, he asked, Mind if I sit down? Nick shook his head, and Darger took a seat on the couch opposite Nick.

I got your call, Nick. Good boy. But we were cut off. It sounded like some kind of altercation was going on. I heard yelling.

Nick said slowly, I'm willing to tell you the whole story, Det. Darger, but not until my lawyer is present.

Darger smiled slightly as he realized that his act was not going to work with Nick, at least not at the moment. he said, then we'll wait.

Lister returned, and handed the glass of water to Nick, who took it gratefully. He was thirsty, and he quickly emptied about half the glass.

A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Fredricks went over, and opened the door to Nick's lawyer, Robert Colden. Colden was a man in his early fifties, medium height, with white hair, and steel-rimmed glasses. It was obvious that he'd been relaxing at home when he got Nick's call, as he wore a casual pair of khakis and a short-sleeved printed shirt. As he entered the living room he said, You okay, Nick?

Nick said, nodding, although privately Colden thought he looked pretty shaken up.

Detective Darger, I would like a few minutes alone with my client.

Certainly, counselor, Darger said agreeably. Be my guest.

Come on Nick, let's go upstairs, and talk.

Nick preceded Colden up the stairs, and led him into his bedroom. Colden shut the door behind them.

First, Nick, I need to know what you've told the police.

Nick nodded, took a breath, and said, Other than identifying myself, and, uh...and Mandy, the only thing I told them was...uh...that, that Mandy fell, and hit her head.

That's it?

That's it.

Okay. Good. Now, tell me everything that happened tonight. Don't leave anything out.

In a strained voice, Nick proceeded to describe to Colden how Mandy had shown up at his doorstep just as he was arriving home, how she had wanted to take a shower and come down off her high before going to the police. Nick told his attorney that after he left Mandy in the bathroom, he had put in a call to Det. Darger, but that before he could get out more than than the fact that Mandy was there, Mandy had come storming out of the bathroom, hit him in the head, and made for the front door.

Nick became more agitated as he was finishing his recital. I-I-I ran after her, Bob, and...uh...tried to stop her...to stop her from leaving. I had her around the waist, and we, we were struggling, and...and suddenly...suddenly she twisted free...and, uh, she...she fell backwards into the, the sunken living room.... That's, that's what happened. I swear it. He was visibly distraught now.

Colden nodded. You're sure? You're sure in the heat of the moment you didn't somehow throw her to the floor? Maybe in reaction to her hurting you somehow? Something like that?

No, No, Nick said with conviction, repeatedly shaking his head. It happened just the way I...the way I told you. She slipped free, and...and...I guess lost her balance, and she fell.

Okay. Then you called 911.

Nick's hand went to the back of his head.

Then what?

Then, uh...then my-my father showed up at the door.

Colden showed his surprise. Were you expecting him?

No, he, he just...just stopped by.

Colden nodded, and said, Did he come in?

No.... No, I-I-I didn't let him into the house. I talked to him at, at the door, and I, uh, I got rid of him as soon...as soon as I could.... I...ya know, I didn't want him mixed up in, in any of this.

Colden nodded. He still doesn't know anything about the events at the strip club, does he, Nick?

Nick's look of distress increased, and he shook his head .

You realize he's certain to find out now.... I hate to say it, Nick, but your name's going to be all over the papers tomorrow. This is a lurid story, what with the two deaths, and Mandy's profession. The papers eat that up. It's not going to be pleasant. And, I'm sorry to say, even if you're cleared in her death there are liable to be consequences to you, to your reputation. You need to prepare yourself for that possibility.

Looking clearly unhappy at this pronouncement, Nick said quietly, I understand, Bob.

Okay, so you got rid of your dad. What then?

The paramedics arrived, and...and started working on Mandy.

What did they say her condition was?

Uh, they said she, she wasn't breathing...and she, uh...didn't have...didn't have a pulse.... They started CPR.... Then, uh, the two, two uniformed cops showed up.... After a few minutes, the paramedics took Mandy.... Nick paused for breath. took her to the hospital. The pain of this recollection was apparent in Nick's body language and expression.

Hhmm. You said Mandy was high?

Yeah, she told me that...that she'd bought, uh, an eight ball that morning, and, and, uh, had ended up using the whole thing.

Colden looked thoughtful. That could very well be a factor in her collapse, Nick, that's a lot of coke at one shot.

Nick didn't say anything. He realized he hadn't considered this possibility. He had just assumed that the fall had caused her death, that she'd broken her neck, or, or something. It hadn't occurred to him that the drugs might have played a part. Could that be it?... He just didn't know. He didn't know anything about Mandy's own tolerance for coke. He only knew that she had been busted for drug possession, and that was how she'd come to meet Dale Petrocki, his probation officer. He suddenly became aware that Bob was speaking again.

Sorry, what? Nick said.

I said, What happened after they took Mandy out?

Oh, I, uh... sat there in the living room waiting...waiting for you.

You didn't say anything else to the police while you waited?

Nick was a bit distracted in his reply. He was still considering whether it was really possible that Mandy's heart had stopped due to an overdose.

Okay, when did Darger get here?

Uhm, about, about four or five minutes before you, I guess.

What did he say to you?

He, uh, he told me he'd gotten my phone call...but that, uh...that we were cut off. He said...he said he'd heard sounds of, of an altercation...in, in the background. He...he asked me about that. But I told him...I told him I couldn't say anything until, until uh, you got here.

Good. Good. You did just right.... Okay, is there anything else? Anything you might have forgotten to tell me?

Nick shook his head. No, no I don't think so.

I want you to be sure, Nick. Think. Is there anything you've left out?

Nick was silent for a moment as he reviewed the events of the evening, and what he'd already told Bob. he said at last. There isn't anything else.

Okay.... Ready to go downstairs, and talk to Darger?

Nick still looked a little shaky, but he answered without hesitation,

All right. Now, remember, you tell him exactly what happened here tonight, and that's it. Don't volunteer any unrelated information, don't speculate, just stick to the facts. Okay?

Nick nodded his understanding.

If Darger asks you a question, and you have any doubts about answering it, you get my okay first, right?

Okay, let's go.

The two men returned downstairs. Darger and Officer Lister were still there, but Officer Fredricks was not in sight. Nick took his original seat, and Colden stood next to the mantel. My client is ready to talk to you now, Detective, Colden said.

said Darger, but before he could say anything further, Fredricks walked back into the house, and addressed himself to the detective. I found her car, and it's unlocked. I could see a purse on the front seat, and some clothes and things on the back seat.

Good, good. You'd better go back out there, and keep an eye on it until Forensics arrives.

Fredricks nodded, and went back outside.

Okay, Nick, Darger began. Let's hear your story.

Nick began to repeat the information he had given to Colden upstairs, but before he had gotten too far, the phone rang. Nick looked to Darger for permission to answer it, and the detective nodded his assent. Walking over to the steps where he had earlier abandoned the cordless phone, Nick picked it up, and headed into the study. Holding the phone to his ear with his right hand, he made a nervous swipe at the back of his head with the left. He was afraid this was going to be his Dad. "Hello," he said tentatively.

Burton's voice came over the line with swift urgency, "Nick, you all right? I got your message. What's going on, son?"

Nick looked pained, and said quietly, "I can't talk now, Dad."

"What? Why not?"

"I, I just can't. I'll call you later, okay?"

"Son," Burton said insistently, "I need to know what's going on. That...that message.... Christ! You scared the bejesus out of me with that message, Nicholas."

"I-I'm sorry, but I can't explain now, Dad. I-I-I can't.

"I'm coming over, Nicholas. I'll be there in twenty minutes."

"Dad, please don't.... Dad?"

But it was too late, his father had already hung up. Nick stared at the phone in his hand with a feeling of renewed despair and helplessness. Then turned slowly, and headed back into the other room.

"Who was that?" Darger inquired with interest.

Nick just stared at him with no expression, and didn't answer the question.

Darger let it drop, and said, "Okay, have a seat, Fallin. Let's hear the rest of your story."

In painful detail, Nick laid out for Darger exactly what had happened at the house earlier that night. He only withheld the part about his father's visit. It had no bearing on the facts, and he didn't want Darger bothering his father with questions. Things were going to be bad enough as it was when Dad found out about all this. And based on that phone call, that was going to be pretty soon now.

Darger had not interrupted Nick while he was describing the night's events. Now he went back and asked questions on several points. When he finished he said, Okay, Fallin, let's go over this again...


Nick had just finished relating his story for the second time, interrupted by the occasional query from Darger, when the detective turned to Officer Lister, and said, "What hospital did they take Mandy Gresler to?"

"St. Bart's," Lister replied.

"Okay, get on the horn, and find out her condition."

Then Darger turned back to Nick. "In the meantime, Fallin, I'm declaring this a crime scene. I'm not going to hold you.... For now, I'm going to believe your version of events, but we'll be checking for forensic evidence to confirm, or disprove, your story. Understand?"

Nick nodded dispiritedly.

"I don't want you leaving the city though. Is that clear?"


A couple minutes passed in silence before Lister came back into the room. He glanced at Nick, and then turned his attention to Darger. "She's dead. The emergency room docs called it at 9:05PM."

Nick hung his head, and wiped a hand down his face. When he looked back up his eyes were damp.

Darger stood up purposefully, and directed his next comment to Nick's lawyer. "Well, now I guess we wait for the autopsy report."

He glanced around the room, and then turned back to Nick. "Well, Fallin, you'll have to clear out of here now. Officer Lister will take you upstairs so you can pack a bag. Be prepared to be gone for a couple days." Nick nodded with weary acceptance, and started toward the stairs. Darger leaned in close to the officer, and said quietly, "Make sure he doesn't take anything but the essentials. Got it?"

Lister said, "Right," and turned to follow after Nick.

After the two men had left, Darger turned his attention to Colden, and said, So counselor, get many clients like young Mr. Fallin there? Colden chose to ignore the barbed remark.

Only a few minutes had passed since Nick and the patrolman had gone upstairs when the front door opened, and Burton Fallin strode in, calling urgently as he did so, "Nick! Nick, where are you?"

Darger walked into the foyer to intercept him. Placing one hand on Burton's chest to stop his forward progress, he said in a semi-aggressive tone of voice, "Excuse me. Who are you?"

Burton glanced down briefly at the hand barring his way, then glared at Darger, and said, "I'm Burton Fallin. Who are you, and where's my son?" At that moment, he recognized Robert Colden, who had been a couple steps behind Darger. "Bob, what's going on here? he demanded. Where's Nick?"

Colden held up his hands as if attempting to calm down the older Fallin. "He's fine, Burton. He's upstairs."

Before Colden had finished speaking, Darger said, "I'm Det. Darger from the Pittsburgh P.D., Mr. Fallin, and I'm afraid you'll have to leave. This is a crime scene."

"A crime scene? Burton said incredulously. What are you talking about? What kind of crime scene?"

"Mandy Gresler died here tonight."

"Mandy Gresler? Who, who is Mandy Gresler?"

Darger exchanged a look with Colden, and then said, "I guess your son hasn't been keeping you up-to-date with recent events, Mr. Fallin. He was a witness to a double murder about three weeks ago. At least, that's what he claims.

"What?" Burton said loudly, his face turning red. "What the hell's he talking about, Bob?"

Colden shook his head regretfully. "You know I can't talk to you about your son's legal affairs, Burton. It's privileged."

Burton looked extremely irritated for a second, but then called out loudly, "Nicholas!... Nicholas!"

Nick had heard his father call out for him when he first arrived. When Nick made no move to respond, Officer Lister had looked at him curiously, but Nick had just continued to gather up his things. He had caught snatches of the conversation that was taking place below since then, but had tried to concentrate on getting together everything that he would need for the next couple days. It was not easy to focus on that task, though. He found himself straining to pick up what was being said by his father and the two other men. Nick's bag was almost packed, when he heard his father calling out loudly, "Nicholas!... Nicholas!" He quickly threw the last couple of items into his bag, picked up the two suits he had laid out on the bed, and headed down the stairs, trailed closely by Officer Lister.

Burton's head rose as he saw his son and a uniformed police officer coming down the steps. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that Nick seemed okay - physically at least. He was wearing the same clothes Burton had seen him in earlier. Nick's hair was mussed, and there was a look of strain on his face, but other than that he looked all right.

"You okay, son?" Burton asked with concern, as Nick came down the last few steps. Nick shook his head "yes", but wouldn't meet his father's eyes.

Darger, notebook in hand, said to Nick, "I'll need a number where I can reach you, Fallin."

Before Nick could answer, Burton said in a tone brooking no opposition, "He'll be at my house." When Nick made no objection, Burton recited his home phone number for the detective. Darger nodded, and scribbled the number down.

"Come on, Nick. Let's go," Burton said, standing clear of the open door. Nick started for the doorway, but Darger put a hand on his arm. "I'll be talking to you again, Fallin. You can count on that.

Nick gave him a blank stare, and then walked out of the house. Burton gave the detective a last look, and then followed Nick out. Colden fell in behind the two Fallins. Darger stood at the doorway, and watched the men as they walked away from the house. Then he turned back to Officer Lister who had been standing in the background, and began issuing new orders.

As the three men reached the curb, Colden said, "Nick, we need to talk further about this." Then examining the younger man more closely, he added, "But I guess we can do it in the morning. You look beat."

Nick nodded, and said, "Thanks, Bob. I-I really appreciate your being there tonight. Thank you."

"That's what you pay me for, Nick," Colden replied, but grinned to take the sting out of the remark. "Talk to you tomorrow." He turned toward the older Fallin then, and with a nod of farewell, said, "Burton," and then departed.

Father and son stood on the deserted sidewalk, and watched the other man walk away. At last, Burton said, "Come on, son. My car's over here." Nick followed his father wordlessly to the Cadillac. He had yet to meet his father's gaze, and he dreaded the conversation that he knew was still to come that night. His father wasn't likely to wait until tomorrow for an explanation of what he was mixed up in this time. Nick dreaded telling Burton about his involvement with Dale Petrocki's deal to buy the strip club, and the subsequent disaster that had unfolded from that fateful misstep. God! He just wanted to close his eyes, and try to sleep, try to erase the picture that seemed permanently etched on the back of his eyeballs -- Mandy -- lifeless -- on his living room floor. God! He felt a shudder pass through his frame as he relived that moment. At that physical manifestation of his son's inner horror, Burton glanced over at Nick, but didn't say anything. He just opened the rear passenger door, took the overnight bag and suits from his son, and placed them in the back of the car. Then he waited for Nick to get in. Once he had, Burton walked around to the other side, and took his own seat behind the wheel. Looking at Nick once more, he started the engine, and pulled away from the curb.

The two men were silent on the twenty minute drive to Burton's house. Burton was full of questions, but had decided not to raise any of them until he had Nick safely home. His own emotions were at war with one another. On one hand, he was angry at Nick for concealing whatever his part was in this double murder that the detective had mentioned. The detective -- Darger, that was his name -- had said the killings had taken place about three weeks ago. "Three weeks ago," Burton thought with angry frustration, "Three weeks, and he hasn't told me a thing! Not a damn thing!"

On the other hand, Burton had been immensely relieved on his second visit to the house to find Nick safe and sound. That message that Nick had left on his machine.... His son had sounded so distraught, so...lost. Burton had teared up listening to that heart-breaking message -- his son apologizing for "everything", acknowledging the reason he had come back to Pittsburgh was to spend more time with his father, and ending with that last agonizing statement -- "I love you, and I just want to apologize." Remembering that final statement from Nick, Burton's eyes welled with tears again. He hadn't heard an I love you out of Nick since he was just a boy, probably not since the divorce. Yes, if he was honest with himself, probably not since the divorce.

Listening to the message, Burton had not known, at first, what to make of it. According to the time stamp, it couldn't have been recorded more than five minutes after Burton had left Nick's front door. What could have possessed Nick to make such a call? Burton didn't think it could just be his own revelation about the deal with Caldwell, the deal to ensure that Nick would not do jail time for his drug offense.

Burton had played the message again. This time his son's words struck cold fear into his heart. It almost sounded like Nick was saying goodbye. Could he.... Oh my God! Could he be contemplating suicide? Burton's heart said, "no", but his lawyer's mind considered the question carefully. Could Nick be depressed, or...or back on the drugs? Could it be something like that? Could the realization that his father had put his own career in jeopardy to save him have pushed his son over the edge? He couldn't believe it, but at the same time he couldn't entirely dismiss it either. He often seemed at a loss to know what was going on in Nick's head. Nicholas wasn't an easy one to figure out, even for his own father.

It was at that moment, that Burton had picked up the phone, and called Nick. His relief upon hearing his son's voice had been overwhelming. He had felt almost light-headed in the wake of the emotions that had washed over him. When Nick had refused to talk to him, though, Burton had had no hesitation in heading back over to his son's house to demand some answers, regardless of what Nicholas said. If nothing else, from the sound of that message, he knew the boy was in a lot of mental pain, and he didn't intend to let Nick bear that pain alone this time. Not this time.

Glancing over at his son now, Burton saw that Nick's head was back against the headrest, his eyes closed. He felt strong emotion threatening to overcome him again, and he quickly turned his eyes back to the road. "Get him home," he said to himself. "Get him home, then deal with the rest."


Burton pulled the sedan into the garage. He saw that Nick still sat with eyes closed. Burton got out of the car, and walked around to Nick's door. He opened it, and said quietly, We're home, son. Nick opened his eyes, ran a hand down his face slowly, and then climbed out of the car. He hadn't actually been asleep, he had just not been ready to face the interrogation that was sure to come. He saw his father reach into the back seat, and grab his overnight bag and suits, and then the two men walked into the house together. As they came into the hallway, Burton said, Come on into the kitchen, Nick. I'll make us some coffee. Nick followed his father silently into the kitchen. He leaned against a counter, arms folded, while Burton filled the coffee maker, and hit the on' switch.

While they waited for the coffee to brew, Burton studied his son. Even though Nick was looking away from his father, he could see his face was taut with strain. Burton said in a level tone. But he got no response, no indication that he had even been heard. Nicholas, I'm not angry (he was; but he wasn't going to let Nick know that right now). Son, I just need to know what's going on. What, what you've gotten yourself mixed up in...how you were involved in those killings, and what, uhm, what happened with this, this woman Mandy Gresler tonight.

Nick still didn't reply, and Burton let out a long sigh, rubbing a hand across the sparse hair atop his head. He decided to try a different tact. Nick, that message you left on my machine tonight.... He couldn't go on, and had to take a second to collect himself. When he did his eyes were moist. Son, I, I love you too.... You must know that. I just want to help you out, here, Nicholas. Let me help you.

Nick's eyes had teared up as his father spoke. He looked stricken. Slowly he shook his head, , and really looked at his father for the first time since he had reappeared at his door. Burton saw the stark emotion on his son's face, and didn't say anything more.

When the coffee was finished, Burton poured them each a cup, and motioned for Nick to move into the dining room.

Nick complied. After he was seated at the table, Burton placed a cup in front of him, then took a seat opposite Nick. Both men sipped silently at the restorative. After a moment, Burton said gently, Tell me about it, son.

The pained look returned to Nick's face, and he stroked a hand down the back of his head. He shifted in his chair. At last he said, You, you remember when I told you that my-my probation officer was going to write me up on some technical violations?

Burton nodded.

Well, he offered to make me a deal (both men winced internally at the sound of that word). He, he and his girlfriend Mandy were trying to, uh, to buy the strip club that Mandy worked at--

This girl tonight was a stripper? Burton interrupted.

Nick replied, and Burton's face showed mild disgust at that revelation.

Anyway, Dale offered to forget about my violations if I, if I helped him with the purchase of the club. You know, vetted the contract, that kind of thing. Nick glanced up at his father's face, and then back down again. You, you were in the middle of your hearings for the judgeship, and I-I-I didn't want to hurt your chances, so...so I agreed.

Burton said with weary defeat.

Nick glanced his father's way again. Then slowly continued his explanation. He told his dad how he had learned that Mandy was actually in league with the owner of the club, Lenny Getgin, to cheat Dale, that the two of them had planned to do Dale out of the $4000 earnest money that he had given Getgin when he signed the contract.

When I told Dale that Mandy hadn't even applied for a loan he wanted me to, to go over to the club with him. I refused, and he said...he said if I went with him he'd, uh, he'd overlook any future infractions. Nick raised shamed eyes to his father. I-I agreed. We got to the club before it was open. When we came in, we found Lenny and-and Mandy kissing at the bar.... Dale got really angry. He, he pushed Mandy around, and then told Lenny that he was going to, uh, to shut down the club.... He went behind the bar, and picked up the phone, and.... Nick's breathing rate increased. And Lenny...Lenny picked up this big fire extinguisher, and bashed Dale in the head with it.

Burton had been listening intently to his son's recital, but now he looked up, startled. He had read something in the papers about the case at the time, of course, but the details had not stuck with him. It had just been one more senseless, unsolved crime. Nothing that touched him in any way.

Nick, wide-eyed now, continued with growing agitation in his voice. I-I-I, uh, I ran behind the bar, and tried to stop Lenny. We struggled, and I went down, and-and...Lenny was about to, to hit me with the extinguisher when, uh...when Mandy shot him. He noticed that his father now wore a shocked expression. After a couple seconds Nick continued. I...when I got up, Mandy was pointing the gun at my head. Burton started, but didn't interrupt. Nick wiped at his face. I-I-I told her to put the gun down, but she just, she just said, What are ya gonna do?' He looked at his father. Dad, I, I didn't know what to do.... I couldn't think. .. Then I saw the fire alarm a few feet away. I, uh, I told Mandy that I was going to pull the fire alarm, and, and leave.. . I moved toward the alarm slowly, and when, uh, when it didn't look like she was going to stop me, I pulled the handle, and then, well, then I got the hell out of there.

Burton was stunned. All this had happened to Nick -- almost getting his head bashed in, almost getting shot! -- and he hadn't told him anything about it? Burton was too overcome, too saddened for speech. Nick had been carrying all this around, and hadn't felt he could share his burden with his father. This saddened Burton immensely.

Burton put a hand to his moustache, and asked quietly, What happened then?

Nick sighed, and ran a hand down his hair again. I was up all night.... I, I wasn't sure what to do. For all practical purposes, Mandy had been my, my client in the deal to purchase the club, so I knew...I knew there was a chance that her actions might be covered by privilege.... I just, I just didn't know what to do.... I finally decided that since she hadn't applied for a loan to cover her part of the purchase price, she was not...not acting in good faith, and therefore...therefore any obligation I might have had to her was null and void. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and sighed heavily. In the morning, I, I called Bob, and asked him to meet me at the police station. That's where I first met Det. Darger. He was the one who, who took my statement.

Burton nodded, and then asked quietly. Nicholas, why didn't you tell me any of this? Why, son?

Nick's look turned to one of distress, and his eyes grew wet. I.... It was.... He finished all in a rush. It was just another screw-up. Another mess I'd gotten myself into. I.... I.... He couldn't finish his statement, and hung his head in consternation. He was such a fuck-up, he thought to himself, such a total loser. Why did his father continue to have anything to do with him? If he had a son who had screwed up as many times as he had, he'd be glad to see the last of him. But his father had never done that. His father had always tried to fix things', to clean up his messes. Nick knew in his heart that it was long past the time that he should stand on his own two feet, refuse to let his father intercede on his behalf. That's what he'd been trying to do here. He'd been trying to deal with it on his own, and look what happened? Dale, Lenny, and now Mandy (he shuddered inwardly), now Mandy -- all dead. God! It was too much. That final scene played out in his head once more. He saw Mandy fall...heard her head hit the floor...saw her lying there so still, not breathing. Christ!

Burton didn't know what thoughts had been passing through Nick's head, but he saw the agony on his son's face, and the eyes that threatened to brim over with tears. He decided to give Nick a chance to collect himself, so went into the kitchen to fetch the coffee pot. Lingering in the kitchen for an additional moment, he then returned to the dining room, and topped off both Nick's cup and his own. Then he set the pot down on the table. Nick put both hands around the large ceramic cup, as if seeking its warmth. After a moment, he took a drink.

Burton thought he could now ask the next very important question. Looking steadily at his son, he said, Nick, what happened tonight...how did that come about? Burton hadn't been able to bring himself to say the words: Nick, how did that girl die in your house?

Nick, a little calmer now, took another swig of coffee, then told his father about the events of this past week, how Det. Darger had told him that Mandy would seek him out, and how Mandy had jumped into his car on Monday night. He had told Darger that Mandy had contacted him, but it turned out that Mandy had stolen one of his credit cards, and the next day, Darger had shown up at the office waving a credit card receipt from a motel in McKeesport, demanding an explanation. Darger had threatened to haul him in for probation violations stemming from the incident at the club, if he didn't help him find Mandy. Then tonight, Mandy had shown up at his doorstep as he was arriving home.

She told me, Nick continued, she told me she was ready to go to the police, but she was...she was high, and...and needed a-a shower and a cigarette first. So, uh, so I let her come in to take a shower--

You what? Burton exclaimed. You let her into your house just like that? You let a wanted felon take a shower in--

Now it was Nick's turn to interrupt. He said urgently, I didn't have a choice, Dad! I had to keep her in one place long enough for the police to get there. Once I heard the water running, I-I called Darger, and told him she was there. But Mandy must have, uh, must have been listening...at the door.... She flew out at me, and hit me over the head with...with something, I don't know. Than she ran down the stairs.

At this point in the story, Nick seemed no longer able to sit still. He got up from the chair abruptly, and paced the room. When he came to rest, he said, I-I-I ran after her, but she managed to get the front door open before I got there. She.... I, I grabbed her around the waist, and...and tried to hold her.... We, we struggled, and then, and then.... I don't know exactly what happened.... She...somehow she fell backwards into the living room, and-and hit her head. He drew in a deep breath. All I know is that I didn't cause her fall, Dad. I.... Somehow she slipped out of my grasp, and...and must have lost her balance, or-or something. I don't know.... Nick's voice faltered, and he wiped a hand across his eyes. Recounting this last part of the tale had left him visibly shaken.

Burton remained silent, and after a moment, Nick continued in a halting voice. I-I-I checked for a pulse, but there wasn't one. I didn't know what else to do, so I called 911. He paused, and then looked at Burton. Right as I was hanging up the phone, you...you showed up.

Burton exclaimed in disbelief. You mean that girl was lying there on the floor while you and I were talking at the door? While I was telling you about Caldwell? He paused, and then said softly, God, son.

Nick nodded. That's why I was trying so hard to get you to leave, Dad. I didn't want you there when the police showed up. I-I didn't want you involved in any of this.

Burton was now nodding his head in understanding. He had seen at the time how Nick was trying to get rid of him, but he had chalked it up to his son still being angry with him over Caldwell's appointment as managing partner. And, frankly, he had been so intent on conveying his own message (his own confession, he thought derisively) that he hadn't stopped to analyze why Nick was acting in such a distraught, distracted fashion. It was only later, after he had gotten home and listened to that heart-wrenching message, that Nick's behavior had hit home.

Looking back at his son now, Burton realized that Nick looked completely washed-out. The recital of events had seemed to take everything out of him. He was pale, and his lower lip was quivering slightly. His eyes were glistening. Burton felt a wave of compassion pass through him, followed quickly by the familiar desire to protect his son. he said, but Nick didn't let him finish his thought. He turned his agonized gaze on his father, and said in a broken voice, I tried, Dad.... I tried so hard to make it all come out right...to-to handle it. I-I-I really tried. He looked ready to burst into tears, and Burton's heart ached to see it...to see his boy in such distress.

Getting up from his chair, Burton walked over to Nick, stopping right in front of him. Nick glanced quickly at his father, and then away, biting his lip in an attempt to keep his emotions in check. Burton hesitated, then leaned forward, and wrapped his arms around his son. At first, Nick was rigid in his embrace, but after a few seconds, he let himself relax into his father's hold, his own arms coming up to rest on Burton's back. As he did so, Nick gave into the tears that he had been holding back so precariously. Head resting on his father's shoulder, he sobbed. The harsh sound of his son's grief struck Burton to the quick, and he felt a tear or two slipping down his own cheek in response. He rubbed a hand up and down Nick's back, and tried to comfort him. It's all right. It's all right, son, he whispered, over and over. Everything's gonna be all right.

Burton realized that the last time he had held his son like this had been the day Nick's mother had died. That morning, twelve-year-old Nick had rushed into his father's arms, sobbing wildly. But a brief moment later he had pulled away, eyes angry, and making accusations, accusations that Burton was in some way responsible for his mother's death, that the cancer had been his fault. Burton had tried to respond, to reason with Nick, but Anne's mother had interceded, and put an end to the conversation. Burton wondered sometimes if a lot of their problems didn't stem from that one moment. He and Nick had never discussed the topic again. Nick's grandmother had told Burton later that Nick hadn't really meant the words he'd said, and that he was sorry for saying them, and that had been the end of it.

Burton sighed, and held Nick closer, a hand going up to stroke his son's hair. Nick seemed to be calming down now, the torrent of tears receding to a quiet trickle. Gulping for breath, Nick said raggedly, It's so hard, Dad.... It's so hard to hold all the threads together, to, to stay away from the...the drugs, a-a-and handle all the cases at the clinic and my...my responsibilities at the firm. He brought up a hand, and wiped at his nose awkwardly. It's like...it's like I'm trying to keep all these balls up in the air at once...like a, a juggler. Nick drew in a quavering breath. And I know...all the time, I just know...I-I-I'm only a few seconds away from...from dropping one. Always...just a few seconds away.... And if, if I drop one...if I drop one, the rest will come raining down on my head...and that'll be it.... I'll never be able to...to...get them all back up in the air again. Ever.... And I-I-I can't stop either cause, cause if I do, I know, I know I'll lose them all that way too. I know that. I just know it.

Burton was speechless. He had no idea that Nick had felt this way. He knew it was stressful for his son to split his time between the cases at the clinic and Burton's own firm (former firm', he corrected himself disheartedly). He knew Nick was working a lot of hours, but he had no idea that he had felt the stress to this extreme. It pained him to realize that he hadn't known. But then Nick had never been one to share his feelings, not, at least, since his mother's death. He kept everything inside. Half the time Burton didn't know what his son was feeling, and usually any effort to find out was met with resistance. Nick wasn't a touchy-feely person. Despite the present circumstances, Burton found himself laughing silently at that last thought. No, Nick definitely didn't fall into that category. He preferred to keep his inner thoughts to himself. And Burton tried to respect that. Now he wondered if that had been a mistake too, if he should have tried harder to get Nick to share his feelings in this last year and a half since his arrest. He might not have succeeded, but maybe he should have tried. Or, maybe he should have urged Nick to see a therapist, like the drug counselor had suggested. Nick had been totally against that idea, and Burton hadn't wanted to push it, not putting that much confidence in all that talk-therapy mumble-jumble himself. He grew up in a world where people dealt with their own problems, usually in the privacy of their own family. They certainly didn't seek out a stranger, and air their troubles, not by a long shot.

Burton was interrupted from his musings by the realization that Nick had raised his head, and was trying to step back, to disengage from his embrace. Burton released his hold on his son, and watched as Nick turned away, and retrieved his handkerchief from his suit pocket. Finding it, he wiped at his nose, and ran a hand across his eyes. They were visibly red and swollen from his recent crying jag. Burton realized that Nick was making a concerted study of the dining room floor. He seemed to be shamed by his recent outburst. Burton stuck out his hand, and touched Nick's arm. Son, don't, don't worry about it. We all lose control sometimes, it just, it just takes different forms, that's all. You don't have anything to be ashamed of.

Nick gave the briefest nod of his head, but continued to stare at the floor boards. You okay now? Burton asked with gentle concern, his hand still on his son's arm. Nick nodded again, more firmly this time. Burton continued. Okay, whadaya say we call it a night? Things, uh...ya know, things always have a way of looking better in the morning. All right?

Nick nodded again, but this time echoed his father's last word, saying in a faint voice. After which, he drew in a weary breath. God, it had been such a long, such a horrible day. He would be thankful to see it come to an end.

Nick retrieved his stuff from the kitchen, and then father and son walked slowly up the stairs together. Burton made for the master bedroom, while Nick, without conscious thought, turned into the room that had been his in childhood. He hadn't slept here in almost five years. The last time was when he had moved back to Pittsburgh after accepting his father's offer to work at Fallin & Associates. He briefly recalled some of the emotions that had flitted through him that first time he had reentered this room then, but he was too worn out to give them any attention now. All he wanted to do was fall down on his old bed, and sleep (God, he hoped he could sleep). Putting his bag down, he began to rummage through it for the things he would need for the night, then, exhausted, walked slowly into the bathroom to get ready for bed.