Was there a law written somewhere that every batch of coffee brewed in a precinct had to taste like sludge? Maybe it was that the rookie officers didn't appreciate the mild hazing ritual that ordained the senior detectives never had to change filters or measure coffee grounds and for revenge brewed the worse batches possible. More likely it was that the police budget didn't allow for more than cheapest machine and instant coffee on the market. Mack's coffee didn't even have the element of heat to distract him from the god-awful taste. He had let it cool while trying to make a dent into the Wallace case paper work. He'd finished all of the originals yesterday but with the trial starting the next day he wanted to make sure everything lined up the way it should for the DA. Everything seemed textbook, not a single discrepancy apart from that initial miscount of the cash. Miscount, right. Maybe if he repeated it to himself enough even he'd believe it.

Mack knew that there were cops, even right here in his precinct who helped themselves from the evidence locker from time to time, figuring with the danger, crap salaries and lack of respect they put up with on a day to day basis, the job owed them a little something extra. Mack did not hold with that. As a rookie Mack had found out his partner was on the take, taking cash from an associate of the Hongs in exchange for "losing" some evidence. Mack had slapped the cuffs on him and dragged his ass straight to IA. Needless to say this move had made him real popular around the precinct. In addition to the dead rat he found in his desk the morning following his partner's dismissal, he had been unable to keep a partner for more than three weeks for the next two years. None of it made Mack regret what he had done. He had not pursued a career in law enforcement because he wanted to be liked.

Almost no one likes real cops. TV cops sure, everyone loves the heroes dashing around on the screen, saving little children and beautiful women from terrible villains with black hearts. Real cops don't have things nearly so easy. First, the work isn't glamorous or exciting, its hours of interviews, surveillance, and paperwork. Second, most victims will never thank you for your effort. During the investigation you're either stupid and lazy, or making a complete nuisance of yourself, nosing in where you have no business. If you fail to catch the culprit, you're incompetent, if you succeed, well nothing to get overly excited about, all you did was your job, and by the way why couldn't you have stopped the crime from taking place in the first place? So no, recognition wasn't what motivated Mack.

Mack had been twelve years old when he'd decided to become a police officer. It had all started the day Mack and his father had been coming home from a one of Mack's baseball games. It had been a great day; Mack had pitched a no hitter and the coach had given the game ball. To celebrate they had been stopping at a convenience store to pick up some ice cream. Mack had stayed in the car listening to the game on the radio, while his dad had gone in to buy the dessert. Mack would never forget the sound of the gun firing, just once. The man had run out of the store with a black bag and a ski mask on and drove off without ever noticing the boy sitting in the parked car. Mack had stared after the vehicle long after it pulled away.

He later found out from the policeman one took his statement that his father had interrupted a robbery in progress. He was shot in chest, but miraculously the bullet had missed anything vital. "Lucky" was what the doctors at the hospital called it. Upon hearing this accessment the normally even-tempered Mack had flown into a fury. Lucky? His father had nearly died, and his mother would bare the full weight of the medical bills because his father's factory job, which he probably wouldn't have by the time he'd recovered, didn't offer health insurance. All because some junkie needed cash to feed his habit and decided getting a job wasn't an expedient enough alternative. The only silver lining was that the police, with a little help from Mack tip about the suspect's license plate, managed to find the guy and send him up for 20 years. The sentence Mack could live with, even though he would have preferred it if the criminal had gotten life, but what continued to trouble him, long after the trial was over, was that this hadn't been the con's first offense. He'd been dragged before a judge multiple times before for possession, theft, breaking and entering, and drunk and disorderly. All he'd gotten was a bunch of slaps on the wrists. The reasons he'd gotten off so lightly were that he was young, came from "a troubled home", and had previously been a "non-violent" offender. Mack didn't care. Shouldn't they have known how it was all going to end? Why hadn't someone, anyone, stopped the criminal before his father had ended up with a bullet in his chest? Mack vowed to himself that someday he would be a cop and he'd stop this kind of thing from happening to other kid's dads.

While the years had worn away at Mack idealism, they hadn't lessened his desire to put criminals behind bars where they belonged. He still kept that baseball on his desk as a constant reminder of why he believed in justice. Unfortunately Mack's belief in the law had been somewhat damaged. Years of watching offender after offender skate on technicalities had shown him how criminals like the one that had shot his father beat the system. Criminals like Wolf West.

Mack had been singularly dedicated to putting Wolf behind bars since he was just a rookie officer. Intellectually Mack knew that West wasn't the worst of the scum that were marched through the station's doors, but there were few perps he enjoyed arresting more. Wolf had this air about him, like he was so much smarter than the rest of the world for choosing not to follow the rules the way the rest of us had to. It infuriated Mack, who had been raised to believe that the only way to succeed in life was through integrity and hard work. Yet too often it seemed that Wolf was right.

Until recently Wolf had never had a single stretch for longer than a year. Most of the time Wolf never even went to trial for his crimes because he was too good at covering his tracks. Apart from his occasional vacations to the big house, Wolf's life seemed pretty damn good compared to Mack's. Wolf had a nice house. Mack had a crappy apartment. Wolf had four kids who worshipped the ground he walked on. Mack didn't even have a pet dog. Wolf had Cheryl, beautiful, strong, smart, loyal, loving, and funny Cheryl. Mack was divorced from a woman who he now internally referred to Barbara the Ball-Busting Bitch. Where was the justice? Planting that betting slip was far easier than it ought to have been for someone who'd sworn to uphold the law. Anytime any residual guilt arose Mack reminded himself that Wolf was guilty. Ultimately what was in the best interest of the law, the Palms Springs Community, and yes even the family who were so devastated to lose him was for Wolf to be locked away as long as possible.

Mack's first legal indiscretion wasn't what was driving him to fanatically check that every "t" had been crossed in the Wallace case. It was his second indiscretion, committed less than a week ago that had him feeling uneasy. Mack had once again been motivated to cross the line because of a West. Cheryl West. He had taken money from the evidence locker and given it to Cheryl to reimburse her for the business money that had found its way into the drug dealers pockets. In a convoluted way Mack hadn't done anything wrong, he had just returned property to a law-abiding citizen. That's how he'd explained it to Cheryl at any rate. It wasn't as easy to convince himself. He didn't regret what he did. It wouldn't have been fair if Cheryl had lost her business because of a couple of drug dealers. Still, he had to ask himself, if it had been anyone else, would he have done was he did? Would Mack have jeopardized his career and the integrity of the case against Wallace for anyone other than Cheryl West? If he was being honest with himself, the answer was no. This provoked more questions he didn't want to answer, even to himself. To avoid any self examination on the subject, Mack had decided to throw all his energy into ensuring the Wallace trial went off without a hitch.

The phone on Mack's rang once, jerking his attention away from his paperwork. Good more distractions.

"Detective Mack," he shot into the receiver with his usual lack of preamble.

"Detective Mack, so glad to have caught you. This is Margaret Peters from the DA's office. Prosecutor O'Brien wanted to know when he was getting the complete witness list for the Wallace case." Mack frowned and started shuffling through the papers on his desk.

"I'm pretty sure it was faxed over on Monday-"

"No, I meant the updated witness list." Mack stopped flipping through the pile, unsure of what he'd just heard.

"Excuse me?"

"You know, the information regarding your inside source." Mack still wasn't getting it. The lowlife Terry's name had been on the information he'd sent the DA.

"You should already have everything you need."

"Well, here's the thing, so far we haven't received anything on Mrs. West's testimony. We appreciate the need for witness protection, but-"

"Whoa, did you say 'Mrs. West'? As in Cheryl West?"

Mack could not believe what he was hearing. The DA's office thought Cheryl was some kind of secret witness and Mack was withholding information to protect her anonymity?

"Yes. As I said before we appreciate the need for discretion-"

"There is no need for discretion! Ch- Mrs. West didn't inform on Luther Wallace. She doesn't have anything to do with this case."

There was a long pause on the other end of the line.

"I'm sorry, we had heard that- I see it was all a misunderstanding. Terribly sorry to have wasted your time, Detective Mack. You have a nice day."

The woman hung up before Mack had a chance to say anything else. He was floored. There was rumor going around that Cheryl had informed to the cops? It was the most absurd thing he'd ever heard. Wests did not snitch. It was the first rule in their precious code. Cheryl's strange sense of honor would never let her do such a thing. She hadn't even turned in those insurance women after they'd fired her for refusing to participate in their scam and reported her to cops. Mack was looking forward to the day he had enough evidence to lay charges against those 'ladies'. Even with her business on the line Cheryl hadn't busted that creep Terry. How could anyone possibly believe Cheryl had turned state's evidence? He needed a fresh cup of coffee.

Mack weaved through the maze of desk and bodies until he'd reached the coffee pot. A couple of new officers were in the staff room talking animatedly to one another. They quieted down when Mack entered and shooting grins at one another and sneaking glances at Mack. Mack just wasn't in the mood this morning.

"Something I can do for you boys?" The pair looked at each then back at Mack.

"We wanted to say, congratulations."

The only two things in his life he felt he really deserved to be congratulated for where putting Wolf behind bars and signing his divorce papers, and those were both yesterday's news. It was premature for them to be talking about Luther Wallace so what on earth were they referring to?

"Congratulations for what?"

"I mean it's got to be some kind of record."

Why today off all days did he need to be having this conversation?

"What is?"

"Two Wests in two months. This is the family that wouldn't turn in their grandmother's murderer and you got two of them to flip in two months time."

Not again.

"Cheryl West is NOT my informant!" Mack hadn't meant to yell, it just kind of came out that way, "Who is spreading around this crap?"

"Sergeant Mack! My office, now."

Great, now the captain. As if Mack's day needed any more bullshit. The captain was settling his substantial girth into the plush leather chair behind his desk when I entered.

"Detective Mack, what is it you're bellowing at the rookie officers for?"

All right Mack, calm contrition is the route to take here.

"I'm sorry Captain. The officers had the misfortune to rally to me some ridiculous gossip that seems to be floating around."

Captain nodded deeply, like some omniscient sage. Mack really disliked this man.

"You're referring to the fact that 99 percent of Palms Springs believes that Cheryl West is your secret witness in the Wallace case."

Mack felt his stomach lurch at words '99 percent'.

"You mean this isn't localized to law enforcement? Everyone thinks that Cheryl flipped for us?"

Oh God this could be bad, very, very bad. If Luther believed the rumor Mack seriously doubted it would matter to him that Cheryl had once been his den mother.

"News that she was at the bust was spread pretty quickly."

Mack was pretty sure he knew who was responsible for that. That no-good piece of shit. Mack ought to have guessed that weasel would try and draw suspicion away himself. Faced with the prospect of a long stretch back inside, Terry was only too happy to testify against his former business partner in exchange for immunity. Mack supposed he wasn't equally happy to take the risks that accompanied that decision.

"Overall I would expect you to be pleased this was going around."

Mack blinked twice.


"If interested parties believe Cheryl West is the informant, our real witness is safe until trial."

Mack could see the logic behind that statement, but it didn't stop his gut from twisting with anger. Outwardly Mack kept his cool.

"The only problem is that 'interested parties' might try to target a completely innocent woman."

After all Luther Wallace wasn't some small time dealer distributing dime bags of pot. He was involved with some pretty nasty customers who wouldn't take kindly to anyone they perceived to be interfering with their business.

"I'd hardly call Cheryl West 'a completely innocent woman' and frankly I'm surprised you would."

So, what, that was it? Cheryl had a less than spotless record, so she didn't deserve our help? Whatever happened to serve and protect?

"Can you at least assign a few units to watch her house, in case Wallace's goons try something?"

"With Ramirez still on his honeymoon and Jones out sick we are short-staffed enough as it is. I can't justify assigning uniforms to guard someone who isn't even our witness. I'd just as soon consider this a kind of involuntary civil service on Mrs. West's part, making reparations for all the trouble her family's caused the department over the years. Besides the whole thing will blow over by tomorrow when our real witness takes the stand. Dismissed."

Mack slowly walked back to his office, reminding himself with each step that punching out one's superior officer was generally not considered a good career move. Involuntary civil service? Like being shot by drug dealing thugs was somehow on par with picking up trash on the side of the highway. Like Cheryl somehow deserved whatever crap the universe threw at her because she was a West.

Not too long ago Mack had more or less felt that way. Now things weren't so simple. Over the past few months he had started seeing Cheryl as herself, rather than Wolf's wife or Cal's mother. In Cheryl he saw a good, strong, honest woman whose only crime was loving unwisely. Who was Mack to hold that against her?

Mack picked up the phone on his desk and was poised to dial the West's number when he reconsidered. What could he tell Cheryl that she didn't already know? By this point Wolf, Cal, or one of her neighbors would have given her the news. He could try to convince her that Wallace was dangerous and that she should keep a low profile. As far as protection went she didn't have any great options. Mack seriously doubted that Cal, Palm Springs resident genius, or Logan, newly minted officer of the court, would be a heck of a lot of help in that department. Mack had never dreamed he would ever think this, but he almost wished Wolf were out of jail.

It was then Mack had his great epiphany. He could protect Cheryl. The moment he'd thought the words they seemed to spread a feeling of rightness throughout every cell in his body. If Wallace's associates were planning to make a move it would be tonight. It wasn't as if he hadn't done an all night stake out of the West house before. She'd be safe and he wouldn't have to worry. The only question was whether or not to tell Cheryl. There was a small sliver of a chance she would feel safer…no scratch that, there wasn't. In the past Cheryl had made her feeling about cops hanging around her house abundantly clear. Mack was pretty sure the ban still applied to him, despite their recent cease-fire, and tentative bonds of…what? Mutual understanding? Friendship? In any event he doubted Cheryl would consider his protection a good thing. Knowing Cheryl, she'd probably resent even the suggestion that she needed protection from the man she still somehow saw as a cub scout. Mack returned the handset to its cradle, decision made. She didn't have to know.