Author's Note:

Okay, everyone. This is the fifth and final chapter. Thanks for the feedback, both on and on Cold Case Source #1 boards. Enjoy!

Masks

I gotta get out, I can't breathe. I ignore Lilly's icy glare, whose sitting on her desk. Being on the Ice Queen's shit list ain't got nothing on how pissed I am at myself, and I'm used to being in the dog house where she's concerned. I go out on the balcony. The snow's falling, and it's warmer out there than it is in the office, all things considered.

A minute later, Nick comes out. What'd they do? Draw straws? I ain't in the mood for a pep talk, 'cause there ain't any words that'll make this right. Eight years this has been waiting to bite me in the ass, and it finally did. Still, I got off lucky. Ana's the one dead, and maybe if I'd done my job, she'd be out there somewhere, working at a desk...with a nice view, and flowers. 'Maybe?' Ah, who the hell am I kidding?

"Nice spot." I bet he's freezing his ass off, but he's too good of a friend to walk away and leave me to beat myself up in peace.

Fine, you wanna watch? You want the truth? "I killed this girl." Like I had the knife in my own hands. I can almost feel her blood, hot and sticky, and I'm a step away from getting sick off it.

"Come on." He ain't one to waste words.

Still, I can't get around it. I'm taking a good, hard look at myself, and don't like what I see. "I shouldn't have done that job. I can't keep my boundries."

"Look, you give a damn. It makes you a good cop in most situations."

No, giving a damn is helping little old ladies across the street, it's trying to help a buddy out, it's working long hours. It ain't putting a job on the line. It ain't jumping into bed with the first pretty girl that makes eyes at you, because you can't stand the quiet. It ain't buying into a bunch of lies, and getting hung out to dry.

"I do this over and over. You saw me last year with Christina." Hell, everyone saw it, probably drawing up bets too see how it'd take to crash and burn. If that ain't enough to burn a guy's ass, I don't know what is. "So damn sloppy." I liked it. I liked every screwed up minute, liked seeing how close I could cut it, how far I would push it. Not to mention, what Chris could do in the sack...Way to go, thinking with your dick, I tell myself bitterly.

"You were screwed up last year." I've told myself that enough times, my get-out-of-jail free card. But this ain't a game, this is real.

"I wasn't screwed up in '98," I remind him, and myself. "If I just been careful...kept things clean..."

"What?" he asks, in his give-me-a-friggin'-break way. "A girl was swallowing drugs to get a better life-she was doomed. You couldn't save her."

Maybe, maybe not. It don't change the bottom line. "I got bad habits. I got to change." Before the boss has a brain wave, and gives me the boot. And I got to change for me. It seems like I'm dodging one mess after another, my addiction wrapped up in a feminine package. I got to kick it. Not that I got to go live like a monk, I just gotta stop going after women who will screw me over, or who I can screw over.

"Whatever floats your boat. Personally, I don't bother. I got more vices than I can shake a stick at," he patted his gut to drive his point home, "and I don't care. I was on this kick once. I went on a diet, starting buying my wife flowers and all that junk, got home every night, six on the dot if I could help it, and dotted my i's and crossed my t's on the job. You want to know somethin', Valens? I've never been more miserable. I went back to my old ways, and I was happy as a clam."

"Sounds about right." I still feel like the world's biggest jerk, but that little bedtime story takes the edge off. "I don't think that's the way it's going to go down in my case."

"You going to be okay? I mean, you don't need to knock off for the day, walk it off?"

Oh, sounds like a bang-up idea. More time to think about it, really dwell on it. "Naw, thanks, Nicky, I'll make out all right. Just give me a minute to get my head on straight."

The rest of the day, I muddle through. Nick's watching me like a hawk. Is he afraid I'll start bawling, crying for mommy, or something? Will, I got to hand it to him, doesn't come off as obvious, but I can still tell his he's keeping an eye on me. Sure, I mess up, but I ain't a detective for nothing. Will's giving me that hang-in-there-buddy look. Lilly is painfully polite, but it's more of a frost than a deep freeze, so I figure she'll come around in a few days. Kat is careful to keep her nose out of it. She still learning the way things go around here, on a personal level, and she ain't sticking her neck out yet. Stillman keeps his distance, but on our way out, pats my shoulder. He figures that I got that I was wrong, no sense taking me out to the woodshed.

I go to church Saturday, the church she died behind. Not exactly my regular place of worship, but I want to feel close to Ana. Her last night on earth was spent here. I look up at the Virgin Mary, I light the candles for her souls. From Peralta's account, that's exactly what she was doing-eight years ago. Outside, Peralta's baptizing a baby. Poor little kid, he don't even know what kind of world he's got born into. He'll get wise soon enough, I guess, but I send up a prayer that he get's to be innocent for a while. Ignorance is the ultimate bliss sometimes.

Looking over, I see her. She's just like I remember her, those long curls tumbling down, same sweet face. There's a peace in her eyes, and I know, whatever she had to put up down here, she's past it now. Heck, if I'm really going for the gold, maybe I can believe she understands I did the best I could by her, even if it didn't measure up in the end. Maybe I can finally understand it. She turns, and disappears.

I say three Hail Mary's, and three Our Fathers, asking forgiveness. I mean to do good by what I said to Nick. I've got to change.