Jordan falls off the edge, and finds herself in the one place she dreaded, a psychiatric ward . She must find her way back, to the friends she wounded emotionally, and seek redemption. Will it come, or is enough, enough?

It was Saturday night, and again, Jordan Cavanaugh was alone. Her colleagues had plans involving body parts not all their own. Uninvited, Jordan left the morgue and wondered how to fill the hours. She drove home in late evening traffic, listening to the radio, lonely and wishing she had the skills to engage with others like her colleagues. Once inside her small apartment, restlessness swarmed over her. It was a familiar attack, and when it came, it showed as much mercy as the Spanish on Mexico. Rather than fight it, she changed clothes and headed out. A new bar opened a few weeks ago, a couple of blocks from her apartment building, and she decided to check it out. When she'd stepped through the oak and stained glass front door, she saw a medium-sized room, done in wood and brass and art reproductions from Prohibition. A long, burnished bar ran the depth of the room, with booths lining the opposite wall, and tables scattered at the back. It wasn't crowded. Jordan sat on a stool and waited for the bartender. He served a couple of young guys at the far end, then turned to her. He had a nice walk, she thought, as he approached. She ordered a beer.

She understood the basic need driving her. She saluted herself in the beveled mirror behind the bar and sipped beer, singing "I'm just like a turtle, hiding underneath its horny shell" with the interior music of a twelve bar piano blues. "If you just want to go out drinking, honey, won't you invite me along please." She sipped again, letting the song play in her head. She knew the other patrons wouldn't recognize the song, nor appreciate her cover of it, so she kept her performance to herself. Funny, she thought, how I can pull up a soundtrack to accompany every mood.

By her third beer, her mood was somewhat prickly. She knew she drew stares from the men at the bar, but none of them approached. Am I too old for you boys, she thought. Guess so, she added, as they rose, paid their tab, and left. She continued to drink, alone.

By the time she left the bar, several hours later, she'd developed a theory about loneliness. Not a character flaw, it was something hard-wired into a person, she decided, dictating the choices one made, drove one ever forward, destroying dreams as it steamrolled along. Rebellion was not tolerated. Once it moved in, it took over, and life proceed according to its demands.

She walked home, slightly unsteady, nothing anyone would notice. She put great effort into placing one foot in front of the other in a straight line, pretending she was a soldier. Arriving home, she let herself into the apartment, then got a fresh beer from the refrigerator. She kicked off her shoes, pulled off her sweater, leaving them where they fell. She flipped through her CD collection, smiling triumphantly when she found the one she wanted. That twelve bar blues she'd sung earlier filled the room. She let the whiskey and cigarette voice of the only white woman entitled to sing the blues wrap around her as she flopped on the couch.

Truth or dare time, she thought, as images of her friends at play filled her mind. Like a personal home theatre system, she saw them as larger than life, laughing, drinking, exchanging innuendo, none of them would go home alone, not even annoying Lily. Jordan smiled. That girl had her hooks in Bug so deep a surgeon would need to remove them. Jordan didn't have a hook to her name. Why, she wondered for the umpteenth time, could others find happiness in relationships and she couldn't?

Trust issues, a score of psychiatrists assured her over the years. An indifference to life, assessed staff psychologists at her various jobs. While I can't say you're a danger to yourself or others, her first shrink preached, from the pulpit of his office, you really don't care if you live or die, and that's dangerous. Sixteen year old Jordan laughed at him, ignored his insight, and walked out. She'd told Max it was a waste of his limited finances. Jordan finished her beer and got up for another. A woman left lonely is just a victim of her man, yes she is, sang the white blues queen as Jordan sank back on the familiar lumps and sinkholes in her couch.

Woody. The song never failed to remind her, painfully, of Woody, but she let it play. It was a beautiful song and it said a lot, both about the musician who wrote it and her audience. Woody left her for Lu, and why not? Lu wasn't lugging seventeen tons of baggage on her narrow back. Lu was normal. She had a mother and father and a home with a white picket fence, a Golden Retriever frolicking in the yard. Lu had never seen the darkness, thought of it as something that could be kept at bay with therapy. Therapy. Jordan snorted, beer flew from her nose. She wiped it with her fingers and drank some more. Pretty little unscarred Lu, perfect for Wonder Bread Woody Hoyt. Who needed complications when a Stepford woman waited? Woody's bed wouldn't be cold tonight.

The CD player was set to random, and now Jordan listened to the story of Bobby McGee and the meaninglessness of freedom when one was alone. Somewhere up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away…Jordan closed her eyes. Woody slipped away somewhere a lot closer than Salinas. Jordan pretended she didn't care, she embraced her role as the indifferent, quirky Jordan within the confines of the morgue, but here. Here was different, here was home, and the roles she played fell off like a shed skin.

When the third verse of one of the more famous cuts from this album kicked in, Jordan sang with it, changing the lyrics. Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town, I'm counting on Woody, please don't let me down, prove that you love me, Woody buy the next round…She abruptly stopped, draining her beer. Woody was gone. She'd blown her chance. She'd tested him, only it proved to be a test of herself, and she failed. She couldn't break down the barriers erected decades ago between herself and others.

All is loneliness…she cocked her head. She'd been oblivious to the conclusion of one song and the random choice of another. She didn't like this song. She got up and hit the skip button, then swayed before the player. Disapproval was easily remedied with electronics, she thought, why didn't human relationships work the same way? Little Girl Blue was up, and Jordan liked, no embraced, that song. She returned to the couch, grabbing a pillow and hugging it to her chest.

This shit has got to stop, she thought. There must be a way out of the pain, tools to dismantle it, a waste management company ballsy enough to collect the pieces of her heart and dispose of them. She knew better. She was locked into this lonely existence for the rest of her life, unable to make lasting connections with anyone. She drove everyone away.

As she had today. God, she thought, I was so nasty to everyone. I made Lily cry, I hurt Nigel's feelings, and Bug puffed up like a threatened insect. Even Garret turned away in disgust. She knew Garret would understand, sooner rather than later, even if he opted to blame it on PMS. Nigel, wounded though he was by her cutting remarks, would find a way to absorb them, blame them on something other than Jordan's malfunctioning heart and social skills. Lily and Bug were another story. Lily and Bug, she snorted, what a pair, never have two people been so made for each other. Lily and her do-gooder complex, the way she forced herself, subtly yes, on grieving people. As if talking to Lily would take away the pain of a lost mother, daughter, sister, wife. Lily had delusions of self-importance, an ego that would fill Fenway Park, and she had a talent for getting on Jordan's nerves. "You should talk about it," she'd said today.

Jordan shook her beer can and got up. That case. She shuddered, remembering the teenaged girl, dead by her own hand, but in an extremely messy way. Megan Miller, who made vertical cuts in both arms and let her life bleed away, doing the deed where her grandparents would find her. In the living room, where the family gathered every night to watch TV. Megan, with her long, dark, curly hair, her slender body, her collection of forensic journals and textbooks in her tidy room. She reminded Jordan too much of herself at the same age. Her grandparents professed cluelessness as to why she'd do such a terrible thing. They'd raised Megan since the age of seven, when her parents were executed by drug dealers for failure to pay for stock and profits. It wasn't a mystery, Jordan thought, as an invitation to take another little piece of my heart now baby filled her ears. It was an answer to inconsolable pain and loneliness.

Burned bridges, she thought. That girl burned hers, and now I've burned mine. I don't think my colleagues will forgive me after today's performance. Why should they? I hit their weak spots with perfectly aimed poisoned darts. They saw Megan as another body, they didn't care about the person she'd been, and that infuriated Jordan beyond any semblance of self-control. Garret heard the screaming in his office and came to break up the squabble, only to find a few darts landing in his soft spots, too.

Getting the next to last beer out of the refrigerator, Jordan leaned on the cooking island and looked at her small apartment. The sum of my years in the world, she reflected, what does it show for my efforts to merge with humanity? Megan had the right idea. Leave, on one's own terms, no one would miss her. Oh, appropriate platitudes would be uttered, and Garret would bitch about filling her slot in the rotation on short notice. Lily would wring her hands and whine about locating Max, counseling Max. Nigel might miss her, for an hour or two. They might hold a memorial service of sorts in the conference room, but Jordan herself would not be missed.

She pushed away from the island and opened a drawer. She picked up a boning knife, idly testing its sharpness with her thumb. She carried it, with her beer, to the couch, as "bye bye baby, bye bye" flowed through her speakers. She knew she was drunk, as she knew drunkenness did nothing to ease the pain she'd carried for so many years. She didn't wear it well. Even Max abandoned her in the end, worn out by angst. It was her right, she reflected, the one right inalienably human, though efforts were made to legislate against it. She pressed the blade tip against the soft skin of her inner arm near her elbow, dimly recalling the veins and vessels that mapped an arm. It was time, she was too broken, and not all the king's men nor all the self-important psychotherapists in the world could put her back together. She pressed the blade tip into her skin and drew the knife downward.

--II--

"Jordan."

She heard him, he sounded like Nigel. She eased her eyelids up, stopping halfway, the light was too bright.

"You're back with us, good." It was Nigel. He grabbed a chair and pulled it to the bedside. "It's a good thing I decided to drop in on you, love. Quite a mess you made."

She watched him through lidded eyes. She tried to move her arms, then realized they were restrained, and her nose itched. "You?" It was all she could force out.

"Yes, me. I knew it was a bad day, I wanted to make sure you were OK." He shrugged. "There are less ugly ways, Jordan."

She closed her eyes. She deserved whatever condemnation he dumped on her. She'd failed, again. She sighed. "It was handy, Nige."

"So was the phone. You could have called me."

"After calling you a butt pirate? After screaming insults?" She moved her head in an abbreviated no. "I couldn't, I can't, face any of you after the things I said."

"Did you mean them?"

She opened her eyes again and stared at him. He wore a vulnerable expression, underscored by exhaustion, marked by dark circles under his eyes. Of all the people she worked with, she cared most for Nigel. They were kindred spirits in a way. "Not to you. I'm sorry, Nigel. I didn't mean the things I said to you."

He reached for her restrained wrist and stroked the back of her hand. "But you did mean what you said to Lily and Bug? And Garret?"

She looked at the ceiling. His fingers on her hand felt like a bug crawling around, and she wished she could shake free of it. "I don't know. Lily gets on my nerves, with all her touchy-feely, I know best poses. And Bug." She squeezed her eyes shut as tears threatened to escape. "He just annoys the hell out of me sometimes. And I'm so tired of Garret acting like he's my father. I'm so tired of everything, Nige." She looked at him. "So where am I?"

He released her hand, scraped the chair on the floor, scooting closer. "The psych ward at Mass General."

She cocked her head. "How did you get in my apartment?"

He smiled. "I remembered where you leave your spare key, behind the fire extinguisher in the hall. I heard music, but you didn't answer." He shrugged. "I knew you were in one of your dark moods, I had to check on you. I'm glad I did."

"So one of us is." She licked her dry lips, and her gaze cut to the water pitcher on the meal table. Nigel got up and poured water into a heavy plastic cup. He helped her drink. "So," she said, "How long have I been here?"

Nigel looked at his watch. "Almost twenty-four hours."

Jordan ran a quick calculation. "Forty-eight to go. Would you go tell them I don't need my wrists restrained?" She glanced around the room. "It's not like I'm going to find the means to finish the job in here."

He stood. "I'll ask, but I'm not optimistic." His long strides closed the distance to the outside world in a few seconds. Jordan stared at the door as it closed, feeling embarrassed, regretful. Then she looked around the room. It was a standard hospital room in its way, albeit with a fine mesh screen over the window. She noted the lack of flowers or cards, and shrugged. Why would they, she thought? I crapped all over them.

Nigel returned in a few minutes with a nurse. The woman, in her thirties with her hair pulled into a ponytail, smiled down at Jordan in that patronizing way she hated. "The doctor has agreed to release your restraints. Misbehave, and they'll go back on." Jordan nodded, and the nurse made quick work of removing the straps from her wrist. "Dr. MacEntire will be in shortly, probably an hour at most."

Jordan nodded again, then focused on Nigel. He stood against the wall, out of the way, in his usual jeans and tee shirt. She wouldn't ask about the others, she didn't want to hear it. She just wanted to get out of here, and she knew how to play the game, knew the right words to say, attitude to exhibit.

"I have to go," Nigel said. "Dr. Macy called a staff meeting for four o'clock." He shrugged a shoulder. "I'll come back later, if that's OK with you."

"Yes, please," she said. She watched him walk out of the room, fondness welling in her heart despite her best efforts. They were both outsiders, but Nigel could deal with the larger world far better than she could. Awake and alone, she thought about the predicament her drunken moping caused. Stupid, she thought, gently scratching the bandages covering her wound, I should have gone with pills if I meant to do it right.

There was a quick rapping on her door and then it opened. She expected to see this Dr. MacEntire, but Howard Stiles came in, bearing a plant. She smiled despite herself.

"Howard."

"Jordan." He put the plant on a table. "Dieffenbachia. Eat it and you'll slowly, painfully die." He smiled at his own bad joke. "Actually, it's not." He sat in the chair Nigel previously occupied. "So what went down?"

"I wanted to get laid and no one would have me," she replied.

"And that's grounds for spilling blood? I would have thought you'd try to do the guy, not yourself." He crossed his legs, and his face, which reminded Jordan of a frog, grew serious. "Why did you think this was the answer, Jordan?"

"Why does anyone think suicide is the solution, Howard?"

"What were you thinking about?"

She sighed. "Life. Loneliness. Broken relationships."

"And killing yourself would fix those relationships, make you less lonely?"

A shrug. "There was one way to find out." She leveled her gaze at the short little shrink. "Have you heard anything from Woody?"

"I'm afraid your Woody views this as a melodramatic bid for attention. Aided, of course, by that wannabe shrink he's sleeping with. She's no doubt feeding him all the platitudes about failed suicide attempts, not mentioning that yours would have succeeded had Nigel not sought your company. I hear it was quite a day yesterday."

"You could say that. I lost it, I blasted everyone."

"Your censor filter failed, you told them what you really think?"

"I did."

The door opened as the person knocked. Jordan looked up. A woman, perhaps mid-forties, walked in, chart dangling from her left hand. She stopped when she saw Howard.

"Dr. Stiles," she said, in an even tone, "What are you doing with my patient?"

Howard rose and smiled. "Jordan is one of my wards of the state." He glanced back at her and winked. "I'm not treading on your toes, Dr. MacEntire. It's a social visit."

She frowned at the smaller man. "As long as it is. You'll excuse us?"

"Certainly. I'll see you soon, Jordan."

When he'd left, Dr. MacEntire approached, taking the same seat as her previous visitors. "I'm Betty MacEntire," she said, and opened the chart. "You did a number on yourself. Would you like to talk about why you let things get so out of control, Doctor?"

Jordan closed her eyes, her hand slowly caressing the bandage that ran the length of her inner arm. "I'm tired," she began, "tired of loneliness, of feeling lied to about my mother, of seeing death and being powerless to change it. Of the inability to change my own life."

"You were drunk, do you drink to excess often?"

"No," Jordan lied. She had to play the game, mix honesty and untruths in equal measure, lest she give this woman cause to seek a court order keeping her locked up.

"Did you think death would alleviate these issues?"

"Obviously, or I wouldn't have done it."

"How do you feel now?"

"Tired. I'm guessing I lost a lot of blood. And embarrassed."

"Why?"

"Because I failed, because now my colleagues know I'm whacko, because I'll no doubt lose my job and I don't know what else to do."

"Are you sorry you're alive?"

Jordan thought about that. "No," she said. "It was a stupid thing to do, brought on by depression and too much alcohol."

Dr. MacEntire made notes as Jordan spoke. "What kind of support system do you have? Family, friends?"

Jordan scratched her nose. "My mother is dead, my father took a hike. My only sibling is presumed dead, and if you want to talk about the disturbed, take a look at him. As for friends, I think I lost them all yesterday."

"You've had visitors."

She smiled. "Nigel. Poor Nigel, he'd visit a fish in a veterinary hospital. And I'm sure Howard came to reassure himself that he wasn't at fault."

"Dr. Stiles is a competent psychiatrist." She stopped writing and looked at Jordan. "So what happened yesterday to trigger this? Have you thought of suicide before?"

"Doesn't every thinking person consider it from time to time?"

"In the abstract, maybe." She tapped her pen on the chart in her lap. "So what went wrong yesterday, what made you feel you were out of options?"

Jordan kneaded the sheet with both hands, staring at her feet. "We had a body. A teenager. She killed herself. She reminded me of myself, both in appearance and history, and the gang kept making little jokes. I know black humor is necessary in a place like that, but this was a young girl, she deserved more respect in death than she got in life. And I guess I blurred the issues. I saw how they'd treat me if I was on the slab. And I lost it."

"Describe 'lost it.'" The woman crossed her legs, tapped the pen again, waited for confession.

Play the game, Jordan. She cleared her throat. "I told them, in detail, what I thought of each of them. It was hurtful and unkind."

"Was it justified? Did you really feel that way about them, or was it your anger and confusion speaking?"

Jordan drew her knees up under the sheet and continued to knead it. "Both, maybe. I do find Lily to be an insufferable do-gooder, prone to intruding on people's deepest moments of grief, cloaked in her title - created by Garret, by the way, to keep her around while he decided if he wanted to sleep with her - she's truly one of the nosiest people I know. And it drives me nuts. I've always acted like it was OK, that I didn't mind her prying into my private thoughts, life. Then there's Bug. Napoleon complex. Hyper sensitive. And quite possessive of Nigel and Lily. He and I don't see eye to eye, literally and metaphorically." She allowed a slight smile at her put down of the much shorter man. "I insulted Nigel, in a way that was cruel, even if the allusion has a grain of truth to it. And when Garret came in to restore order in Autopsy One, I told him where to stick it. And I walked out. I got stinking drunk. I realized I'd deep-sixed another job, and I couldn't handle it. I carry a lot of baggage, and I guess I don't deal well with it when you get down to it."

Dr. MacEntire nodded, made a note, looked up to meet Jordan's eyes. "Tell me about your mother."

Jordan sighed. "She was murdered when I was ten. No one ever talked to me about it. My father was a suspect for awhile, I was packed off to live with my maternal grandmother. That was fun." She rolled her eyes. "White glove teas, proper decorum at all times. And I was a ten year old who thought dressing up was putting on clean overalls. My working class background clashed with her upper class life." She cleared her throat. "When my father was cleared, I went back to him. He raised me as best he could - he was a cop - but he more or less treated me as a boy, which was fine. And he refused to discuss my mother, or her murder, with me, except to tell me periodically it was still unsolved. A year or so ago I learned I had a half-brother, the product of one of Mother's flings with other cops." She shrugged, that should be a sufficient answer to the question of Emily Cavanaugh.

"So you have trust issues. Not uncommon in people who feel abandoned by a parent. Yet it's my understanding your trust issues revolve around men, as opposed to women. Why is that? It was your mother who abandoned you, although not by choice."

"Oh, she abandoned me several times. She was in and out of psychiatric facilities until the day she died. To get back to your question, men have been the ones who prove unreliable, who will promise anything and then leave. They can't seem to handle the issues that come wrapped around me."

"Anyone in particular, or is this a generality?"

"My father took a hike, I don't know where he is. And the men I've dated. Well, once we get close enough, they find an excuse to disappear. Like Woody."

"Tell me about Woody." More scribbles on the chart, Jordan so wanted to read those notes.

"It's an off and on thing. He's a sweet guy, but he's out of place in Boston. He comes from Wisconsin farm country, and until he moved here, he didn't have much experience with the horrors humans do to one another. It's been an adjustment for him." She pulled the sheet into a short rope, then released it, smoothing it over her flat stomach. "That white bread face and demeanor conceal a sharp mind, he's a good cop. But he couldn't cope with my issues, my unwillingness to get too close, and so he found someone else."

"And that hurts."

She stared at the psychiatrist. "Like a bug bite. Ever been to northern Maine, doc? Been bitten by a black fly? The bite itself doesn't hurt, but the aftermath - huge, painful swelling that lasts for weeks. That's Woody. Every time we get close, something bites us, and he runs away. Then there's Pollock." She smiled, a sad, vulnerable smile. "I was ready, or so I thought, to go the distance with him. He didn't seem to mind my baggage. And then I had to go and fuck that up."

"How."

"I slept with Woody. We were out of town, in the woods, on a case. Conveniently snowbound and with only one room available at the inn." That humorless smile reappeared. "And we did the deed. Being me, I told Pollock, in the name of honesty and full disclosure, not knowing he'd bought a ring…" her voice trailed away. "I made a mistake, an error in judgment, but even I can see that death isn't an escape from that, it's just a waste." She met the doctor's probing gaze. "So when can I get out of here?"

Dr. MacEntire made another note and closed the file cover. "We'll keep you for another couple of days, decide then if you're still a threat to yourself. From here on, you'll come to my office, it's near the nurses' station. On time and ready to talk." She stood. "You have a lot of issues to work through, Dr. Cavanaugh. Do you see Dr. Stiles on a regular basis?"

"Not if I can avoid it."

Dr. MacEntire nodded. "That will need to change. I know Howard is sometimes less than professional, we've had complaints, but in the end, he usually gets to the heart of the matter. You'll need to see him several times a week at first. And it's my understanding that you've been placed on a leave of absence. I'd like to know you won't be alone so much of the time."

"I doubt you'll find volunteers rushing to be by my side."

Dr. MacEntire wiggled her eyebrows. "Perhaps. And perhaps they care enough to overlook your lapse and be there to support you."

Jordan glanced around the room. "Don't see signs of that."

"Give it time, doctor. I'll see you this afternoon, my office, two o'clock."

--III--

Jordan participated in the one on one sessions with Dr. MacEntire, as well as the required group session each afternoon at four. She even endured the stupid craft exercises. She molded a skull out of clay and attempted to paint a woodland scene, with a open grave in the background. No one commented.

When the involuntary commitment ended, she was called to Dr. MacEntire's office. Her street clothes had been returned - Nigel stopped by her apartment and picked up fresh clothing - and she sat on the edge of a chair, anxious to be released.

"I've arranged for you to see Dr. Stiles three times a week," Dr. MacEntire said. "Should you prefer to find a private psychiatrist, that's fine, as long as you comply. You need help, Dr. Cavanaugh, it's time to stop denying it. Your stitches can come out in a week or so. Dr. Macy will discuss your leave of absence at his convenience. I hope you find constructive things to do with you leisure time. I strongly urge you to abstain from alcohol. I wish you would consent to taking anti-depressants."

Jordan shook her head. "No," she said.

"I think you've made progress here, I hope you continue to explore wellness with Dr. Stiles. You can be fixed." She smiled. "Take care of yourself, and I mean that. I'd hate to see you back here, or worse, read that you were successful next time." She made a final note and closed Jordan's chart. "You're free to go. Nurse Hawthorne will see you out."

When Jordan stepped out of the locked ward, she looked around. No one waited for her, big surprise, though she'd held out hope Nigel would be there. Then the elevator opened and he stepped out, short of breath.

"Sorry I'm late, love," he said, gently hugging her. "I had to listen to Macy's interminable instructions." He put his arm around her and guided her to the elevator. "He'll come by later."

Nigel took her home. Someone, she noticed, cleaned up the blood. The apartment was clean and neat, as if the ghost of June Cleaver visited while Jordan was away. She went to the refrigerator. Someone thoughtfully stocked it with Diet Cokes, fruit, milk, and other essentials, but there wasn't a beer in sight. Never mind. She sighed and grabbed a cold can of Diet Coke. Then she looked at Nigel across the island.

"I'll be fine," she said, smiling. "You've been very sweet, and I really appreciate everything you did."

"No worries," he said.

"It's OK, really, I have to be alone at some point. I'm not going to hurt myself."

He hesitated. "Are you sure? I can stay -"

"I'm sure, Nigel. Go back to work, they need you."

He crammed his hands in his hip pockets, studied her, and nodded. "Very well, then. You have my cell number. Call if you need anything, Jordan."

"I will," she reassured him.

When he was gone, she wandered around the small apartment. She'd been foolish, yes, and she hadn't counted on Nigel checking on her status. Without him, she'd be exploring afterlife. She rubbed her bandaged wound, relishing the stinging pain. It reminded her that even good plans go wrong. One can't factor all the variables into a plan, she thought. Still, she was here. She'd failed, and there was nothing for it but to soldier on. If her job was gone, there were other jobs. Jordan didn't need much in the way of material things, she could flip hamburgers and still subsist.

She sat on the couch, then turned to lie down, hugging a pillow against her stomach. She wondered when Garret would summon her. Or would he arrive on her doorstep, that was more his style, make it personal. She wasn't sure she could face her colleagues if Garret gave her yet another chance. It wasn't embarrassment so much as it was the microscope effect. The feeling that everything she said or did would be examined in minute detail, nuances supplied when none existed.

She finished her Diet Coke. She longed for something else, something to numb the pain. Her wound throbbed, stabbing pain interspersed with throbs. Nerves reconnecting, she thought. Her head ached. She needed relief, and if the goddess of luck was with her, Jordan knew where to get that relief.

She reached for the phone on the end table, then into the drawer in the table. She found her slender address book by touch, and flipped it open to "P." She pressed the number.

On the third ring, she heard the drowsy voice of her med school friend, Cassie. "Dr. Page," she said. "Is caller ID deceiving me, or is this Jordan Cavanaugh?"

"Hi, Cass," Jordan said. She rolled off the couch and walked to the refrigerator, needing a Diet Coke to soak a vicious case of cotton mouth. She popped the top as she walked back to the couch. "How are you?"

"I'm fine. I was called in during the night, you caught me trying to catch some zees." Her voice grew more alert. "What's up?"

"I was wondering if I could con you into a house call. I could use a few Percocet."

There was silence for a moment, then Cass said "You still living on Pearl?"

"I am."

"OK." Cassie sniffed. "Give me half an hour."

"Thanks, Cassie." Jordan pressed the disconnect button and replaced the cordless phone in its charger base. She stretched out and locked her hands behind her head. Glancing at her arm, she tugged the long sleeve of her tee shirt over her wrist. No sense broadcasting her stupidity, she thought. And Cassie Page was sharp, it was hard to fool her.

Cassie knocked exactly half an hour later. Jordan opened the door and stepped back. Cassie walked in, glancing around, a small, white paper bag in her hand. Jordan closed the door and led them to the couch. "Would you like a Diet Coke?" she asked.

"Sure, thanks." Cassie gave her a quick once-over, a warm smile playing on her face. Jordan returned with two cold drinks. "Thanks," Cassie said, taking hers.

Jordan sat on the other end of the couch and faced her friend. They'd known each other a long time, starting as lab partners in med school, eventually sharing a large, ramshackle house with several others for the duration. She tugged nervously on her sleeve, then sipped her drink, then she shrugged helplessly, with a wry smile. "I need some help, Cass."

"So what's going on? Why do you need narcotic painkillers, and why aren't you asking your regular physician for them?"

"Long story?"

Cassie crossed her legs. "I have all afternoon. I was at the hospital most of the night." She tossed the small white bag on the couch between them.

"I have the headache from hell, to begin with," Jordan said, eyeing the bag, hoping it held what she needed.

"Tylenol doesn't work?"

Jordan shook her head. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't need them." She fought the urge to rub her wound.

"A headache is hardly grounds for a schedule II narcotic." Cass gathered her long blonde hair at the nape of her neck, then released it. "C'mon, Jordan. Talk to me."

Jordan sighed. Cassie knew her well, knew the pain Jordan wore like a second skin. She'd witnessed a few of Jordan's walks on the edge, yet she remained her friend. "I cut myself, pretty badly, and now the nerves are firing, the stitches hurt, and the surrounding muscle tissue is screaming."

"And the treating physician didn't think meds were necessary?"

"I don't think it was an option," she said, flatly, looking away from her friend.

Cassie studied her, her probing gaze taking in every detail, from the faint circles under Jordan's eyes to the slight unevenness under the shirt sleeve. With the speed of a terrier chasing a rat, her hand shot out and grabbed Jordan's wrist. She pushed up the dark blue sleeve. "Oh my," she said. "Horizontal or vertical?"

Jordan flushed. "Vertical." She didn't resist Cassie's examination.

"Why."

Jordan, tears filling her eyes, unloaded on her friend. The loneliness, depression, broken relationships, Woody, everything poured out and over her sympathetic friend. Finished, she looked at Cassie. Cassie slid across the couch and took Jordan in her arms.

Stroking Jordan's hair, Cassie said "It's unprofessional of me to give you these drugs, you know that. I know you know no other physician would." She touched Jordan's chin with her fingers and turned her face upward. "I'll give you some, but it's conditional. I'll administer the dosage, I'll stay with you, at least for this afternoon, and I will not leave you with enough to try a repeat performance. I'm risking my license, you know that."

"I do."

Cassie reached for the white bag squished between them and opened it. She reached in and brought out a small pharmaceutical bottle, shaking it. "My ass is on the line, Jordan, don't ask me again." She opened the bottle and tipped two into Jordan's palm.

Jordan swallowed them with Diet Coke. "I won't, Cass. I really appreciate it."

Cass put the bottle on the table and scooted back to her corner of the couch. "Hurts a lot, huh? Your physician could have prescribed four or so, instead of making you gut it out."

"Punishment." Jordan's smile was weak. "I've broken the social contract, there must be consequences." She looked at the bottle. "Four?"

Cassie grinned. "No, ten. I wrote the script for you but picked it up myself, using the hospital pharmacy, which means I need to document this visit." She reached into her overly large shoulder bag and pulled out a chart. She scribbled in it. "Deep knife wound, nerve firing, severe headache. Patient under personal care at home." She slid the chart and pen on the coffee table. "I've always hated the DEA." She grinned, Jordan knew that grin, Cassie Page loved tweaking authority up to a point. "They're always on my ass, my practice gets more scrutiny than the average medical deity."

Jordan laughed. Cassie ran a pain clinic at Mass General, and was known to make house calls for some of her patients, usually those bedridden with cancer. "What did you expect, deciding helping those in pain - are they whispering 'Dr. Feelgood' behind your back?"

"Probably. But I keep excellent records, backed up by films, and my patients are held to a strict contract. Lie down, you look like you're about to drop."

Jordan eased down on the couch, putting her stocking feet in Cassie's lap. Cassie's hands, her short but supple fingers, massaged Jordan's feet. It felt good. Jordan remembered when, in their second year of med school, Cassie took a class in massage - an outlet, she called it, working on healthy bodies instead of diseased ones. Jordan wasn't surprised that Cassie ultimately chose a field where she could alleviate pain. She knew her friend was not easily deceived, that her potential patients were thoroughly screened. Cassie Page didn't mind doing battle with the DEA on behalf of those in real need of palliative care, she wasn't easily intimidated.

The pain medication kicked in, and Jordan felt drowsy. Her headache was gone, the pain in her arm a memory, at least for now. She opened her eyes and looked at her friend. "Thank you."

Cassie squeezed Jordan's toes and released. "You're welcome. Don't expect a refill, though." A half smile took the sternness from the warning. "Really, Jordan, why. You could have called me."

Jordan clutched her pillow a little tighter. "I'd sliced and diced everyone in range, I didn't want to do that to you." Her eyelids grew heavy. "You don't deserve it."

"Did they?"

Jordan nodded, drifting into inner space. "I thought so. I get so tired of it, Cass. Lily the nosy do-gooder, pushy as hell. Bug with his hypersensitivity and unrequited love for Lily. Nigel and his interminable stories and descriptions of how he solved some small issue. Garret and his closet drinking, while holding us to standards he can't keep. And me, I'm supposed to be the dark, unpredictable one. Am I that way?"

Cassie shrugged. "You have your moments." She started work on Jordan's ankles. "Overall, though, I'd say you're a pretty solid person, once one gets to know you. Yes, you have shadows, you hear things go bump in the night, but aren't you damned good at your job? Don't you find some way to cope with the nightmares when they come?" Jordan nodded, her grasp on her pillow relaxing. "What will you say when you face them?"

"Who says Garret is going to let me keep my job?"

"I think he will. A good medical examiner is hard to find." Cassie got up, and Jordan's feet landed softly on the couch. She walked into the bedroom and returned with a blanket. "Sleep, my friend. I'll be around, I brought charts to keep me busy."

Jordan didn't argue. The drugs were too seductive, and she acquiesced to their demands for dreamless sleep.

--IV--

Garret knocked on Jordan's door at six, a small box from her favorite bakery dangling by its string from one hand. Cassie opened it, and he was taken aback for a moment. "Jordan?" he asked, trying to look around the tiny, petite woman blocking the doorway.

Cassie stepped back and Garret walked in. Jordan was reclining on the couch, a mug of steaming coffee in her hand. Garret found his mouth watering in response to the aroma. Cassie smiled as she closed the door and offered a cup. He quickly accepted, then walked to the couch.

"For you," he said, offering the boxed chocolate chip muffins. Jordan took the box as Garret eased down on her coffee table. "Thank you," he said, looking up at Cassie.

"Share the wealth, Jordan," Cassie teased.

Jordan passed the box to her. "Do the honors, please," she said, and then she looked at her boss, probing with her eyes. He looked tired, but then, he always looked on the verge of exhaustion. She caught a faint hint of alcohol, but said nothing. This was Garret's show.

Cassie returned with a plate, four large muffins arranged on it. Jordan took one. Then Cassie, after placing the plate on the coffee table, leaned over and kissed the top of Jordan's head. "I'll check in later," she said. With a nod at Garret, she left the apartment.

"These are great," Jordan said, wiping crumbs from her lips.

"Good," Garret said, and he sipped his coffee. "Jordan."

"I know." She put the half-eaten muffin back on the plate and waited.

"What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?"

"A lot of things, things that don't seem to matter so much right now. Am I fired, Garret?"

He sighed. "No. I met with the staff, told them I didn't want to let you go, that despite everything, we're a family, and a family deals with its issues." He rubbed his forehead. "You hurt Lily the most, Bug a close second, but they're willing to forgive you. We all know you bear wounds that never healed. But." He drank more coffee. "When you come back, we're talking light duty. Half days. And you're going to have to apologize, privately, to each person you vivisected."

She sighed. "I know. Whatever it takes, I suppose."

He studied her. "You aren't sorry?"

"A little, yeah, sorry I hurt their feelings, but I do feel those things, and I can't apologize for that. I can apologize for saying them. I'll try to make amends." She finished her coffee. "They aren't bad people, I know that, it's just that they get on my nerves sometimes. Like I'm sure I get on theirs."

"You're going to have to go into therapy."

"I know. Maybe that's not a bad idea."

"It's not, if you don't play games with the therapist." He drained his coffee and got up, hopeful for more. He brought the pot back and refilled their cups. "Four days a week. When Howard says you can come back to work, then you'll start with half days."

"Howard, huh? God really wants to punish me."

Garret let a smile slip. "I know he's annoying, but he can help."

She sipped fresh coffee, then pressed the cup to her bottom lip. "Have you heard from Woody?"

Garret heard the hope underscoring the indifference she put into the question. "Yes. He's concerned about you, naturally. He wants to see you when you're better."

Jordan rolled her eyes. "And what determines when a suicide attempt is better?"

"You'll know."

She looked at him. "If that's the standard, I am better. I know it was a stupid, destructive, wasteful thing to do. It won't happen again."

"I hope not," he said, and he picked up a muffin.

--V--

Jordan walked into Howard Stiles' office on time. She'd dressed up a little, she wore khakis and a cotton sweater, covering the bandage. He stood when she came in. She closed the door and looked at him. "Well?" she said.

"Sit," he said. "That's how it usually works. Unless you'd prefer to lie on my couch."

"Not on your life, Howard." She sat in a comfortable leather armchair in front of his desk. He resumed his seat and picked up a pen, then opened a file. She waited.

"You meant business," he said, conversationally. "True artistry, if one might go that far. You surely know your way around a blade."

Jordan rolled her eyes. "Are we going to make half-assed, inappropriate remarks for the next hour?"

His shoulders relaxed. "No. But you did mean business, did you not?"

"I did, at the time."

"And now?"

"Now I'm embarrassed and sorry and glad I failed."

Howard made a notation. "How much does alcohol play in your daily life?"

"Not much. A glass of wine after work, maybe a drink with the guys. I usually don't drink excessively."

"So I've heard." When her eyebrows hit her hairline, he smiled. "I interviewed your friends, Jordan, what did you expect? And they said you weren't prone to drunkenness. So what prompted this binge?"

"A convergence of events. A bad case, PMS, annoying colleagues. Loneliness. Missing my mother."

"And why would these other factors cause you to miss your mother?"

She sighed. "I'm not sure they did, consciously. I suppose I thought about my father telling me about periods and sex, instead of my mother, thought of all the things she should have done, and there was that girl on the table, who'd been hurt badly enough by the people in her life that she bought tickets off the planet…" she trailed off. "I don't know how it all jumbled together in my mind."

"I think you do," he said, and then he got up. "Coffee?" When she nodded, he poured from a thermal decanter and brought a cup to her. "Something flipped a switch."

"Maybe it was Lily's incessant clinging and whining, and Bug's defense when I told her to shut the hell up, that she wasn't qualified to deal with issues like mine." Jordan shrugged, then tasted her coffee. Not bad.

"I thought you liked Lily."

"Most of the time. In small doses. She reminds me of those girls in high school, who are so desperate to be popular, who then grow up to enter the 'helping professions' so they can insist on being part of whatever's going on. If that makes sense. I don't need or want Lily's help, such as it is. Her job was created, you know, so Garret could keep her close, keep her on a string."

"And you resent that?"

"I resent a lot of things, Howard. I resent the hell out of you, I think you're unprofessional too much of the time, yet I'm forced to talk to you if I want my job back."

"And your job's important to you."

She stared at him. "Yes."

"But you tried to sabotage it, tried to take the easy way out, instead of dealing with work place issues."

"Isn't that my style, cut and run?" She cringed at her inadvertent pun. Howard ignored it.

"So let's talk about that," he said. "Let's talk about your work environment and the emotions it stirs in you."

--VI--

Jordan parked her car and stared at the door to the morgue. First day back, it felt more like the first day of school. She was on her own, and she didn't know how to face her colleagues. She couldn't call them friends now. She drew a deep breath, then got out of the car.

She stepped off the elevator, wearing jeans and a sweater, no scrubs today, she thought. She nodded at the receptionist, who nodded back, whose eyes curiously followed Jordan's path down the hall to Dr. Macy's office. Jordan rapped on his open door.

He looked up and beckoned. She closed the door, then walked to one of the chairs in front of his desk. She sat, hands folded in her lap, and waited.

"Glad to have you back," Garret began. "You'll be reviewing autopsy files this morning. Routine stuff. If you have any problems, come to me. Let your encounters with the others happen naturally, don't seek them out."

She nodded. Whatever he said. "Are the files on my desk?"

"Yes."

She stood. "Then I guess I'll get some coffee and get busy." She walked out of his office and went to the break room. It was empty. She glanced through the glass, into autopsy one. Woody was there, with Nigel, hovering over a body. Sadness washed over her. She missed him. She turned, she might as well get to work, and met Lily coming through the swinging door.

"Oh. Jordan." Lily looked at the floor. "I guess I didn't remember you'd be back today."

"Six weeks," Jordan said, "easy to forget in six weeks. Look, Lily?" Lily looked up at her. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. I don't think you're a useless busybody. I respect what you try to do around here, comfort the grieving. I don't expect you to forgive me, accept my apology, but I am sorry." There, she thought, that was done, I remembered my script.

Lily weighed her with sad eyes. "I admired you, Jordan, that really hurt. The Jordan I adored was honest to a fault, so I have to believe you did mean them, and that really hurts."

Jordan swallowed. "I was in pain, Lily. It doesn't excuse my behavior, but I truly didn't mean what I said. I am sorry."

Lily nodded. "I came for coffee, I have an appointment in a few minutes, the parents of a kid who slid under a truck on his bike." She moved past Jordan to the coffee machine.

Jordan walked to her office. Was she imagining it, or were people ducking back into offices, locker rooms, bathrooms, when they glimpsed her? She shook her head and smiled. She knew she shouldn't have taken a paranoid pill with breakfast. She settled at her desk, arranging her coffee, pens, and cell phone, then leaned back in her chair, staring at the far wall.

She knew this wouldn't be easy. She doubted anyone would fully forgive her, though they would be civil. Redemption, she thought, was for the mystics and the naïve. In real life, revenge was the modus operandi instead of redemption. She'd been unspeakably cruel and could not expect that to slide.

She looked up at the tapping on the glass in her door. Nigel, with a cheery smile, waved, and she waved him in. He carried two large specialty coffees from the shop around the corner, a white bag under his arm. He put the coffees on her desk, then grabbed the visitor's chair and dragged it to her side. Seated, he opened his bag and took out two apple strudels, still warm, carefully placing them on paper napkins.

"Breakfast," he announced. "You know I hate to eat alone."

She smiled. "Thanks, Nige." She pushed the morgue coffee away and opened the cup Nigel brought. God that smells good, she thought, and she greedily slurped it. She wasn't disappointed. Then, more daintily, she broke off a piece of strudel and popped it in her mouth. "Oh. My. God." She chewed quickly and swallowed. "Heaven. That's heaven. I haven't tasted strudel like that since I was in Salzburg."

He beamed. "Glad you like it." He glanced at passers-by. "I heard you encountered Lily."

Jordan was sipping that wonderful coffee, and the taste evaporated. She put the cup down. "Yes. It went as well as being told one has herpes. She couldn't get away fast enough."

"Give it time, Jordan. She'll get over it."

"And Bug? I really thought he was going to deck me. Of course, I have the height advantage and we know Bug isn't made of Valor and Courage…" she stopped, she was doing it again.

Nigel reached for her hand. "Jordan." Her name always had a musical tone when he said it. "People fight, especially people who are close, who spend hours a day together. They'll get over it. Eat your strudel before it gets cold."

"Yes, Uncle Nigel," she said, and tried to smile.

She met Bug just before lunch, as she carried the stack of reviewed reports to Garret's office. He gave her a curt nod and continued on his way. She shrugged. She had time to deliver these, grab a quick lunch, and then she had to be in Howard's office.

"Jordan." Garret cut into her self-imposed schedule. "How's it going?"

She looked at him and flashed a nonchalant smile. "Fine, Garret. I'm a pariah, and they're a closed unit. Business as usual."

"You feeling OK?"

"Fine, I told you. Really. I need to grab some lunch before prostrating myself before Howard, I'll catch up with you later." She turned and walked quickly out of his office. She pressed the elevator button, twice, staring at the floor but feeling the stares. When the doors opened, she bumped into Woody. "Excuse me," she said, without looking up from the mesmerizing floor pattern.

"Jordan." He took her by the shoulders and walked her backward out of the elevator entry. Pushing her against a wall, he turned her face up with his hand. "Jordan, how are you? Really?"

You'd know that if you'd bothered to call, she wanted to shout, but that would be a rule violation, and she'd have to start again. "I'm fine, Woody."

His brilliant blue eyes bored into her dark brown ones. "I wanted to come by, I just wasn't sure…"

"If Lu would let you?" Jordan immediately regretted the bitter tone, the sarcastic words. Go directly to jail, she thought, or in my case, the psych ward of Mass General. She wanted to wiggle out of his hands, but stilled the urge.

Woody rolled his eyes, then pulled her into the curve of one arm and walked her to her office. "Jordan, for God's sake," he said, closing the door, "I care about you. A lot. I nearly went crazy when I heard what happened. All I thought was could I have done something." He sat with her on the couch in her office. "I know I hurt you, and I'm very sorry about that. I wish I could do it over again. If there's anything I can do -"

"Well, you can let me get to my required appointment with my shrink on time," she said, "as my lunch break is going up in smoke."

"I'll take you to lunch," he said. "If you don't mind Mickey D's."

She shrugged. Food didn't interest her these days, anything would do. Woody walked with her to the elevator. She kept her silence, and Woody didn't push it. They ate quickly, then he insisted on taking her to her appointment with Stiles.

"Won't Lu object?" she asked, getting in his car.

Woody shrugged. "I think Lu and I have pretty much run our course."

Jordan didn't pursue that. She couldn't. Hope was not something she could afford these days. When she got out of the car, on the curb in front of Howard's office building, she leaned back in and said "Thanks, Woody, for lunch and the ride." She gently closed the door. She couldn't think about Woody, her jousting session with Howard was taxing enough.

--VII--

Snow fell, big thick flakes. A winter storm warning was in effect, and Garret sent non-essential staff home. Jordan expected to be included in that group, though she'd been back at work for three months. He'd allowed her to assist on two autopsies over the past week, and while she appreciated that thaw, on the human side the deep freeze remained. Lily spoke to her only when necessary, and Bug not at all. Nigel was still Nigel, he made her feel welcome, as if the big breakdown had been nothing more than a severe case of flatulence, and Garret had relaxed, too. Woody made formal dates with her, twice a week, even if all they did was watch a video and eat pizza. He didn't push for anything more, and Jordan couldn't decide if he came around out of guilt or pity.

She stood at her office window, watching the snow, feeling the cold through the glass. She wore thermal underwear under her scrubs, but she still rubbed her arms for warmth. She wouldn't mind going home, but then Garret stuck his head through the doorway and told her she was needed there.

Essential staff consisted of herself, Garret, Nigel, and Bug, with Lily insisting she could be valuable. Garret didn't argue with her. They were in the conference room, with its wide windows, and Jordan watched the windblown snow. Could be a high traffic night, she thought. A chance at redemption, if she did her job well and treated her associates with kindness and respect. Garret had the TV on, tuned to a local channel, the storm was getting a lot of coverage. After awhile, the staff dispersed. Jordan went with Nigel to trace, and they played with some of his new computer programs.

It was eight o'clock when the call came. A major pile up, multiple injuries, on the Charles River bridge. Functioning as the trained unit they were, they donned heavy parkas, boots, ski hats, and gloves. Prepared trauma kit bags were gathered, and they climbed into the morgue van. Garret took the wheel. It took nearly forty-five minutes to reach the bridge, and then they had to disembark on the near bank and make their way around stalled cars until they reached the crash site. Five cars, mangled together into one mass of twisted metal, shattered glass, and blood. Fire department personnel were there, as were the paramedics. The dead had been extracted and placed on the footpath along the railing. The firemen and EMTs frantically worked on the living still trapped in their cars.

Jordan stood in the wind and snow, holding her parka hood in place at the neck. She looked at the bodies, all people apparently trying to get home from work or shopping. She glanced at the wreckage. A trunk was popped open, and she saw grocery bags, picked out a box of Shredded Wheat, a half gallon of milk, a bag of carrots in one. A stroller was visible behind the brown paper bags. Don't, she thought, don't think of them as people with lives, who were struggling to get back to their warm, well-lit homes and the people who loved them. She shook her head and turned her attention to the body closest to her. She knelt and began a cursory examination.

Hours passed. Jordan had long since ceased to feel the cold. She performed her duties, taking one break at the emergency services trailer, for coffee and a chance to get out of the wind. Garret finally announced the end of this part of the job, and Jordan helped her colleagues with the loading, the cleaning up of debris, and climbed into the van with the dead and the living.

Techs unloaded the bodies from the van and placed each one on a table in the autopsy rooms. They undressed the bodies, placing the clothing and personal effects in large plastic bags, labeling each bag with a name taken from a driver's license. Delicate body parts were covered with blue sheets.

While that was done, Jordan joined the others in the break room, hovering around the coffee machine, waiting to warm up before tackling the harder part of the job.

Garret sidled up to Jordan. "You OK?" he whispered.

"Yeah," she said, and she met his eyes. "I am. This is what I'm supposed to be doing." She finished her coffee and dropped the Styrofoam cup in the trash. "I'll get started." She looked expectantly at Garret, who merely nodded his assent.

Autopsy One had three bodies. She got a clean apron and put it on, then found a headset and face guard. She approached the first body, studying it. It was a young woman. She picked up the driver's license next to the computer, where she was supposed to enter the data, and read it. Sarah Jane Winters. Twenty-seven. Organ donor. Not anymore, Jordan thought, and she sat on the stool in front of the computer and entered the data. Pushing a final key, the scanned license and personal data came up on a monitor next to the body. Jordan sighed, then got up. Putting on the mask, she approached Sarah and whispered, "I'm sorry for what I must do, but I promise to put you back together with all the skill at my disposal."

When she'd finished with Sarah Winters, Nigel came in. "We just got word, one of the cars reeked of alcohol, and witnesses reported the driver swerving as if he was trying to hit someone. We don't know if the driver was male or female, so we have to determine which one it was."

"I'm running blood tox now on her," Jordan said, pointing to Sarah Winters. "I didn't smell alcohol."

Nigel put a hand on her shoulder. "You doing OK?"

"I am. I'm tired, but I'm fine. Let's find out who wiped out these lives."

--VII--

It was a slow process, but over the months, Jordan rebuilt her relationships. She knew she wasn't fully trusted, but the hostility was minimal. Lily initiated conversation now, and Bug stopped glaring at her every time she passed him. Garret, however, was still drinking, but Jordan felt hypocritical saying anything to him. It was Nigel who was her rock, who spent the off hours with her.

Woody worked on her, as slowly as she worked at repairing her relationships, without pushing, without promising. She was no longer sure she wanted a relationship with him,

They were eating dinner, in a small but exclusive restaurant, and as Jordan toyed with her food, became aware of the noise Woody made when he chewed. It quickly became an irritation, one that morphed into an obsession with silencing him. He noticed her stare.

"What." His fork was poised over his steak, and she wanted to plant it in his hand instead.

She sighed. "Nothing." She couldn't tell him, it would be hurtful, and she'd worked hard at not saying hurtful things these days.

He put his fork down and reached for his wine. "Not hungry?" He glanced at her plate, if she'd eaten more than two bites, it wasn't obvious.

"Guess not. Sorry, Woody. It was a hard day." She put her hands in her lap and looked at him. It was true, it was one of the harder days since her breakdown. She tried to remember the coping skills Stiles harped on, but all she saw was the corpse of a young man, with tats covering most of his body, with enough bullet holes to rival the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde.

"Are you OK?"

She hated that concerned note in his voice. Always on guard, she thought, everyone always watched her for signs of mental decomposition. "I'm fine. I'm tired, that's all. I'm sorry to waste this lovely dinner."

"Don't worry about it," he said. He looked up and signaled the waiter. "I know it's hard, it's the beginning of a gang war -" he stopped as the waiter delivered the check. Woody slipped his credit card into the holder and the waiter moved away. "I checked with the gang unit. The Ghost was the main man, his gang isn't going to let this slide."

Jordan couldn't hide the smile that broke free at the thought of her corpse's gang name. He was certainly a ghost now, she thought, though she knew the name came from his ability to appear as if out of nowhere and leave death and mayhem in his wake as he slid back into the shadows that were his world. "Then I guess we'll be busy." She shrugged.

Woody signed the credit card slip and eased the card into his wallet. They stood and walked out of the restaurant. It was raining. "Stay here, I'll get the car," he said.

She nodded, leaning against a brick wall, under the restaurant's awning. Something about The Ghost's body bothered her, but she couldn't quite isolate the problem. Woody's car stopped at the curb and he leaned over to open the door. She got in.

"Would you mind taking me back to the morgue?" she asked.

"Why?" He put the car in gear and merged into light traffic.

Jordan shrugged. "Something keeps nagging at me, something I missed."

Woody checked his watch, it was just after seven. "OK." Spending an evening hovering over a dead gangbanger was not his idea of a good time, but he indulged Jordan. She'd brood if he didn't acquiesce, not a good thing. He drove across town to the morgue building and into the parking garage.

Jordan stopped outside the locker room. "Give me a minute," she said, and he nodded. She came out a few minutes later, in scrubs and the battered pair of Nikes she kept in the bottom of her locker, and led him to autopsy two.

The Ghost, officially named Eddie Jerome Smith, was all of twenty years old. Heavily muscled, with a shaved head, he looked threatening even in death. Jordan looked at him for a couple of minutes, then sat on a stool in front of a computer terminal. After studying various reports and images, she spun on the stool to face Woody.

He'd loosened his tie, unbuttoned his top button, looked uncomfortable and out of place. She put her hands on her knees and said "I think he was done by one of his own. I think you're looking at an internal power struggle." She turned and pointed to a ballistics report. "The gun used to kill him was used to take down two rival gang members by his crew."

Woody came closer, leaning to get a closer look. "And a power struggle, vacuum if you will, means other gangs will move in to eliminate the whole crew."

Jordan nodded. "The question is, do they think we'll figure that out? I can't imagine how Nigel missed that." She tapped the screen with her fingernail. "And if we look closer, I'm sure we'll find more evidence that it was an inside hit."

"Will you print that?"

She nodded and touched a button. The printer across the room whirred.

"It's going to be ugly," Jordan said. "A lot of bodies on the streets."

"No kidding," Woody said. "If it gets out that this was internal affairs. If it's assumed to be a rival gang getting their own back, it might not be so bad."

"Nothing like a coup to attract attention."

"Will you guys sit on this?"

She shrugged. "The information has to be turned over the to the DA's office. It's up to them."

The door swung open and Garret came in. Dark circles and a few days growth marred his otherwise pleasant face, and Jordan leaned back, waiting. She smelled booze even with ten feet between them. He walked up to her.

"What are you doing?"

"Double checking something. It kept nagging at me. Nigel seems to have missed a crucial piece of evidence."

"Which is?"

"The same gun used to whack Mr. Smith is the one used to take down a couple of bangers last month. I think this was a hit by one of his own men."

Garret frowned, studying the computer screen. The ballistics were there, the striations identical. "OK, so that gives the cops a better starting point." He looked at Woody. "Take her home, no need for her to hang out here."

Woody moved toward Jordan, but she waved him off. "I want to go over the trace again," she said. "If we can somehow nail his killer, maybe it will head off the power struggle before it blooms."

Garret's eyes had trouble focusing, but he looked at her, then shrugged. "OK, I don't see the harm in that. Make yourself useful." He turned and carefully walked out of the autopsy room.

"Do you think Nigel really missed that?" Woody asked.

Jordan shook her head. "No. I'm sure he had his reasons for not mentioning it at the time." She smiled. "He's always wanted to be the one to solve a case. That web site of his, you know."

Woody smiled, too. "What would the world be like without Nigel and his toys?"

"Boring," she said. "He's been a good friend, when friends were hard to find."

"I hope I've been a friend."

She looked at him. "Lately, yes, but is that from guilt, or because you really do care?"

The question caught him off guard. He pulled another stool away from a terminal and sat in front of Jordan, taking her hands. "I know I hurt you," he said, softly, wishing her hands would relax in his. "I don't know what I thought I was doing, being with Lu. Maybe it was because I thought you'd decided we had no future. But I'm here, now, and I want that future, Jordan."

She looked at him, weighing her words. If I listen long enough to you, I'll find a way to believe that it's all true, knowing that you lied, straight-faced, while I cried, still I look to find a reason to believe…the song rose unbidden and played in her head. "You sure it's not that you just wanted to get laid?"

He flushed. "No. It's a lot more than that, and you know it."

"Is it? You laid me, and you went back to Lu."

"As you went back to Pollock," he countered.

True enough, she thought. "I don't know if we're meant to be together, Woody. We're too different, the chasm between us too wide to bridge."

A phone rang in another office. Jordan ignored it, her gaze locked into Woody's as they edged around the issue. Then Garret stuck his head through the doorway, holding the swinging door with his left hand.

"Change," he said. "We've got two bodies on the south side."

Woody's beeper went off as Garret gave Jordan the address. He checked it, then said "Damn." He looked at Jordan. "I'll wait for you."

She nodded and walked to the locker room. She kept a change of clothes in the bottom of her locker, and she pushed the clothes she'd worn to dinner aside. She stripped, tossing the scrubs in the laundry basket, then stepped into jeans and pulled on a heavy cotton sweater. She put her battered, dirty Nikes back on and joined Woody in the corridor.

They didn't speak as he drove to the housing projects on the south side of the river. Locating the crime scene was easy - RMPS, with flashing beacons, ringed the area, and uniforms kept the curious at bay. Woody and Jordan, flashing badges, stepped under the yellow crime tape.

Two young men, no more than twenty, Jordan thought, were sprawled on the sidewalk, blood pooling around them and running toward the gutter in thin streams. They wore the colors and bandanas of The Ghost's crew, their jeans faded and fashionably torn at the knees. Jordan surveyed the scene first, her kit bag dangling from her hand, then she knelt by the closer one.

She heard Woody talking, but tuned him out. Your lives were ahead of you, she thought, why did you make these choices? What self-destructive urge drove you to this moment? She flexed the wrist of the dead man, examined his fingers, then gently laid his hand on the pavement. She looked at his face. He was a good looking man, and in death his features looked almost childlike, innocent. She blocked everything out as she took a liver temp, did the things she must, tuned out the crowd, Woody, the uniforms, even the traffic.

When automatic fire sprayed the area, she was absorbed in bagging the man's hands, still oblivious to anything but the body on the ground. Something struck her shoulder, hard. She spun around, hit the pavement, felt pain like she'd never known it, as something stabbed her pelvic area. She heard screams, more gunfire, tires peeling rubber, sirens. Pain, she thought, this is what real pain is. She was still, aware she was bleeding, copiously, and she hoped the EMTs who'd showed up as a matter of course would find her. Maybe they were shot, too, she thought, drowsy now. She felt a kind of peace, as she'd felt when she tried to end her life, and recognized it as loss of blood pressure. I'm bleeding out, she thought, I'm going to die after all.

--VIII--

This hospital room was different. The window wasn't screened, it was sunny and this time flowers were arranged on her bed table, the window sill, even her meal table. It took her a moment to fully return to awareness, and when she did reach that point, pain kicked her, hard. She groped for the call button draped around the bed rail and pressed it.

"Dr. Cavanaugh?" A young nurse came within seconds.

"Pain," Jordan whispered.

The nurse smiled. "We can fix that. I'll be right back. You have visitors, are you up for company?"

"I don't know." Jordan's voice didn't seem to work the way she wanted. The nurse stepped out of the room. Jordan watched the door, praying the woman was a track star in college. Five eternal minutes later, she came back and injected the IV line in Jordan's forearm. "What happened?" Jordan asked, clearing her throat.

"You were shot," the nurse said, as the drug kicked in, God, Jordan could fall in love with modern pharmaceuticals. "The doctor will be around later to explain the extent of your injuries. What should I tell your friends?"

Friends, Jordan thought, do I have friends? She tried to shrug, but pain cut that motion short with a vicious stab. "Uh, is there a tall, skinny Brit out there?" When the nurse, her name tag said Allbright, nodded, Jordan said "He can come in."

She waited, floating in her innerspace, amazed at the detail in the tiles of the ceiling above her head. Then she heard Nigel's footsteps and she looked at him as he sat next to her bed.

"You've gave us quite a fright," he said.

"Again." She tried to smile, but couldn't bring it off. "What happened, Nigel?"

He rubbed his face, then used both hands to push his hair away from his face. "You were hit by automatic weapons fire, three times. Seems the wankers wanted to make a statement and take out the emergency crews, too."

"Woody?"

"He's fine, he hit the ground as soon as he saw the Hummer, or so the rumor goes among the uniforms. They lost two of their own." He sighed.

"I hurt all over. Where was I hit?" She rubbed her throat, felt a bandage, and looked at her hand as if it would tell her what a bandage was doing on her throat.

"You took one in the shoulder, your neck was grazed, but the worst one was in your abdomen. You were in surgery for several hours." He looked over his shoulder at the closed door. "Everyone's out there, Jordan. They'd like to see you if you're up to it."

"I'm back on their Christmas card lists?" A bitter laugh drew Nigel's concerned gaze. "I guess nearly dying at my own hand was unacceptable, but when some gangbanger tries to whack me, then sympathy is the order of the day." She closed her eyes for a moment.

"They never stopped caring about you. I think you know that."

"I don't know what I know." She rubbed her left thumb with her right.

The door opened and they looked up. A doctor, judging by his lab coat and the chart he held, walked in, a pleasant smile on his handsome face. He had long blonde hair, pulled into a ponytail, and round wire-rim glasses. Jordan thought he resembled John Lennon. The name stitched in blue on his coat said Mark Ervin. He stood by Jordan's bed and looked at Nigel.

"Excuse us for awhile," he said, "I need to consult with my patient."

Nigel obediently rose and patted Jordan's uninjured shoulder. "I'll see you later, love," he said.

When he was gone, Dr. Ervin looked down at Jordan and smiled again. "You're a lucky woman. The EMTs weren't in the field of fire, they were able to stop the hemorrhaging and get you here in time for surgery." He opened the chart, glanced at the notes, then pulled a pen from his breast pocket. "The shoulder wound was a through and through, and the neck graze, while painful, will do nothing more than lower your voice a few octaves for awhile." He noted something, then perched on the edge of her bed. "That said, Dr. Cavanaugh, the other wound was far more serious. You were on the ground when it hit, and unfortunately, it ripped through your womb." He waited for a reaction. "You'll recover, but I'm afraid you won't be able to conceive. I'm sorry. I did all I could, but the damage was severe."

Jordan watched him, absorbing his prognosis as best she could, given her altered state of consciousness. "Guess I'll save a lot of money on birth control," she mumbled.

He patted her hand. "That's one way of looking at it. Counseling is available, if you want it. You're a young woman, I know this kind of news can be devastating."

"I didn't plan to have children, Doctor. I was afraid of passing on dysfunctional genes." Woody, she thought, this would certainly send Woody shopping for a replacement breeder. One thing he'd always said was he wanted children. "Did it affect the rest of my equipment?"

Dr. Ervin took a second to process that. "No," he said. "One ovary was destroyed, but the vaginal canal is intact. You simply cannot conceive, there's too much scarring from the removal of the shredded tissue."

"Menopause with a bullet," she muttered, unable to look at him now, thinking of Woody and how quickly life changed.

"Are you in a relationship? Do I need to explain to him?"

Would one charitably call it a relationship, she thought. There were flickers of hope, that somehow she and Woody could connect despite her problems, their problems, but this would effectively end that. Farm boy wanted his brood of little tykes, wanted the whole Norman Rockwell thing, and that was history where she was concerned. Not that she could ever see herself in an apron, baking cookies, while Daddy helped Woody, Jr. put up the Christmas tree. "No," she said, looking longingly at the water decanter.

Dr. Ervin poured, and unwrapped a flexible straw. He helped her drink. "Is there anyone you'd like me to talk with? There's a group of people camped out in the waiting room."

"They're either doctors or very competent medical techs," she said, "lengthy explanations aren't necessary."

"I know you're a medical examiner," he said, and then he picked up her arm, turning it to look at the ugly scar her gown couldn't hide. "I understand, from talking with Dr. Macy, I think he said, that you've had some tough times recently." He eased her arm back on the bed, and she slipped it under the sheet. "I'm concerned this wound is going to depress you again. He said you'd made great progress, I am worried about setbacks."

"Don't be," she said, staring at her feet. "I didn't want children. I wasn't particularly fond of periods and PMS. I can deal with it."

"And your boyfriend?" He glanced toward the door.

"Nigel isn't my boyfriend," she said, sighing. "I was seeing a cop, off and on, he wanted kids, yes, but he wasn't sure he wanted me." She looked up and met his eyes. "I'm not exactly the easiest person in the world to live with."

"Shall I call your therapist?"

God, Howard. If she refused, the doctor might take it as a decline in her stability, if she accepted, then Howard would say God knew what about the nature of her injuries. "If you think it's best," she said, deciding that was the best course.

Dr. Ervin stood. "I've left orders for pain medication. You may have visitors if you want. I'll be back this afternoon. Rest and heal, Doctor." He smiled, with real warmth in his eyes. "You'll be up and about before you know it."

--xxx--

Mark Ervin stood in the doorway of the waiting room, taking in the small group of people sitting on the hard plastic chairs, vending machines at their back. They looked up expectantly, and the man he knew as Dr. Macy got up, approaching, a blue and white cup of coffee in hand.

"Dr. Ervin," he said.

"Dr. Macy." Mark leaned against the door frame. This man carried the aura of authority, even if he looked like he hadn't encountered a razor in days and his clothes could use a visit with a washer. "She's going to be fine, she's young enough to heal quickly. We anticipate no complications, the shots were through and through, one advantage to high velocity gunfire." He absently tapped Jordan's chart against his thigh. He weighed privacy issues against the welfare of his patient, who clearly had emotional problems in the past. He sensed this man cared and so he opted to explain the nature of the wounds.

He felt the eyes of his audience, but no one moved to join Dr. Macy in this informal conference. "Her shoulder wound is of little consequence, it won't interfere with her ability to do her job, though she will experience some stiffness for awhile. The graze is inconsequential. Her most serious injury involves her reproductive system. Her womb, her uterus, was essentially destroyed, along with one ovary. I'm sure you understand why, the bullet tore right through that organ." He glanced over Macy's shoulder, wondering if the boyfriend was one of the men present, then he looked at the shorter doctor again. "She said she didn't want children, so it wasn't devastating news. She was evasive when I asked about a relationship. Is there a boyfriend, a partner, I should speak with?"

Garret closed his eyes, pressed the bridge of his nose. "There's Woody. That would be Detective Hoyt. I think he's busy trying to catch these bastards, but I can page him. He cares about her, I think it's something he'd like to know."

"Shouldn't we let her tell him?"

Garret acknowledged his oblique reference to privacy issues. "Jordan probably wouldn't do that well," he said. "I'm not sure she'd be forthright, she'd tend to gloss it over and pretend it doesn't matter to her, release him to find someone else."

"So you want me to talk to him."

Garret nodded. "He needs to understand, and I think it would be better coming from you. I'll page him."

Dr. Ervin nodded. "Just have the nurses page me when he gets here. If you want to see her, go ahead, she needs the support right now. I don't care what she says, this kind of news has to be devastating to a woman, having that most basic of choices taken away from her." He patted Garret's shoulder and walked away.

Garret turned and faced the group. He walked, slowly, like an old man in the grip of arthritis, back to them and sank heavily in a chair. He told them what the doctor reported, then drained his cold coffee and crushed the cup.

"God," Lily said, "she must be devastated. A freak wound, but one that has taken away any hope for a future."

"She still has a future, Lily," Nigel snapped, "it just doesn't include children, and I don't think Jordan was all that wild about having children in the first place."

"Women change their minds, Nigel," Lily said, unperturbed. "Should I talk to her?"

"No," Garret said. Then, more gently, he added "Not yet. I'm going in, I'll let you know how she's doing with all this." He got up and braced himself, then marched to Jordan's room.

She was dozing from the morphine's effect when he stepped into her room. Garret watched her sleep, feeling helpless, wishing he could somehow help this tormented young woman. But, he wondered, how do you help someone who resists help at every turn? Her eyes opened and she focused with some difficulty on Garret.

"Hi, Jordan," he said.

"Garret." Her voice sounded odd to his ears.

"I talked to Dr. Ervin, you'll be out of here in no time." He stood by the bed and brushed her dark hair away from her face. "How are you doing?"

"I'm stoned, how you do think I'm doing?" She managed a quick smile.

"I mean about the news."

"Oh. That. No big deal, I didn't want kids, now I don't have to worry about it." She eased his hand off her face. "And Woody can go shopping, maybe it's not too late for him and Lu."

"You don't mean that."

She squinted, focusing more. "Sure I do. He's not going to want a barren woman. No little Hoyts wreaking havoc around his happy home."

"Shouldn't that be his choice?"

"Garret." She sighed. "We are never going to be a couple, we have too many problems to overcome. This just puts a period to the whole sorry story." She closed her eyes again. "I need to rest, Garret."

He nodded, patted her hand, and left her to sleep.

--xxx--

Woody met with Dr. Ervin in the doctor's corner office, listening intently as the physician described the extent of Jordan's injuries, of the permanent effects of that one bullet. Then he nodded and got up, exiting the office and heading for Jordan's room.

She was awake, and she studied him as he sat in the chair beside her bed.

"Jordan," he began, and he reached between the bedrails for her hand, "I don't care if you can't have children. I care about you, I want you to get well and then we'll work on our problems. I love you, and that's the bottom line. You aren't alone. I want to grow, and grow old, with you. When I saw you on that sidewalk, bleeding out, I was terrified. The thought of life without you, without time to tell you all you mean to me, was more than I could bear." Tears wet his brilliant blue eyes. "We don't have to rush anything, we can take all the time we need to work things through. You don't need to say anything, just please, accept that you aren't alone, that I'll always be here for you, and we'll get through everything together."

Somewhere in the fog of her drugged brain, a familiar refrain played, softly as the major fell and the minor rose, a woman left lonely is just the victim of her man, yes she is. Tears filled Jordan's eyes, and she squeezed Woody's hand. She was tired of being alone. Could she hope that Woody meant it? She wanted to, but history taught her that in the end, she was a woman left lonely, and she didn't know if she could bear it again. Still, she knew her judgment was affected by the morphine, and she couldn't make a decision now. She felt his fingers tighten around her hand. All right, she thought, I'll get well, go home, go back to work, don my hardhat and work on reconstructing my life. And that includes Woody. And if fate determined that loneliness was her destiny, at least she'd know she tried. She smiled and squeezed back. For every woman left lonely, there was the woman who wanted a Mercedes Benz and a night on the town, and she decided to take a chance that dialing for dollars had finally called her.

She wept. Woody rose and kissed her, softly and sweetly, and wiped her tears with a tissue. Guns and roses, she thought, through her weeping, as she saw the vase of long-stemmed roses on her bedside table, and her good arm reached for Woody's shoulder, pulling him down. She had to try, to trust this good man, and leave the angst behind at last.

END