Joseph LaFiamma thrust the last of the day's completed paperwork into its designated folder as if it was radioactive, and took a deep, cleansing breath. This last case had been mind-numbing, and a complete waste of his and Lundy's time, but at least it was over. Normally, they wouldn't have been involved in a petty crime investigation, but Beaumont had owed Lieutenant Jackson in Fraud a favour - he and his partner had just been unlucky enough to draw the short straw.
Getting up from his desk in the bullpen, the Chicago native rolled his shoulders, working out the kinks as he reached for his leather jacket.
"Hey, Lundy - you want to grab some dinner? I found this great Jamaican place down on Richmond. You think your chili's spicy, you gotta try this guy's jerk chicken."
Preoccupied with finishing his own paperwork, Levon gave a small start at the sound of his partner's voice, and then leaned back in his chair with a smile. Ever since being reassigned to Houston for his own protection, Joey had taken it upon himself to try to broaden the Texan's culinary horizons. In turn, Lundy was determined to convert the Italian to the religion that was Texas barbecue. However, the campaign of each man had met with limited success at best - which wasn't to say either of them planned on giving up.
"Not today, LaFiamma," he said, as he rose from his seat and shrugged into his jean jacket, then went to retrieve his hat. "Between the stakeouts and the paper-pushin', I ain't even had the time to work Fooler on a lunge-line for the last week, and it's starting to tell on him. I'm thinkin' a long ride is just the thing to cure what ails im, and it should do me a world of good at the same time. I'm just gonna pick up something at Chicken's and head on home."
"So you'll take cholesterol-on-a-plate and barnyard smell over your partner? Nice to know where I stand in the scheme of things," Joe griped as they headed for the door, the humour in his expression belying his exasperated tone.
"Someday, you will come to appreciate good food, LaFiamma," Lundy said in a long-suffering voice, as he settled his Stetson on his head. "Besides boy," he said with a grin, "if you had any sense of smell to speak of, you'd prefer a barnyard over that fancy cologne you been bathing in all week."
"HEY! I do not wear too much cologne! And if you think horse sweat smells better than Armani, you've been spending too much time in the barn - the fumes have probably affected your brain."
"LaFiamma, if anything's affected my brain in the last two years, it's been working with you."
"Affected it for the better, if anything," Joe shot back as they made their way to their vehicles.
"If you call constantly bangin' my head against the wall an affect for the better, then I'd have to agree with you."
"It's not my fault if that's what it takes to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours," LaFiamma said, smirking.
"Is that what your Mama tried on you?" Levon asked, "Because Lord knows if there's any sense in your head, it didn't get there all on its own."
The Texan's riposte provoked a rare outburst of laughter from his partner, rather than the expected continuation of their verbal sparring, and Levon looked at Joey curiously.
"I'm Italian, Lundy," Joe said, still chuckling.
"So you don't grow up in an Italian family without getting knocked upside the head at least once a day, starting from the time you can walk, until the day you move out of the house. Banging your head against the wall's nothing compared to some of the little love taps I had over the years from Ma, Zia Teresa, and Nonna Angela... Nonna was the worst," Joe smiled fondly.
"Grandmother," Joe explained. "She threw her slippers at you when you pushed her too far."
"You're kiddin' me," Levon snickered.
"Not even close," Joe said ruefully. "With the arm she had, she coulda pitched in the majors, too. You just did not mess with Grandma."
"Reckon that's true of all grandmothers," Levon said with a sad smile.
LaFiamma mentally kicked himself. It was only just three months since Mother Minnie had died - and although her death was expected and Lundy had had time to prepare himself for it, it had hit the man hard.
"Yeah," Joe agreed quietly. Then, looking to make amends for his gaffe, he spoke again.
"You sure I can't change your mind about dinner? I'm buying."
The Texan's lips quirked upward at Joey's offer. "Yeah, I'm sure," he replied. "I'm gonna have to mark the date on my calendar, though, 'cause any day you offer to buy is one to remember."
"You're the one who took bolt-cutters to my credit cards, cowboy," Joey said, scowling at his partner. "If I still had them, maybe I'd be able to be a bit more generous."
"Yeah," Levon said with a roll of his eyes, "and maybe you'd be livin' in a cardboard box by the overpass after you got evicted for non-payment of rent."
"As if - and don't think I'm missing the hint that you wouldn't offer your own partner a place to crash until he got back on his feet. Again, nice to know where I stand in the scheme of things..."
"LaFiamma, if I was to have you bunk at my place for an extended period of time, one of us would be dead in a week. It ain't a matter of not lookin' out for a partner; it's a matter of not courtin' disaster."
"For once, I've gotta agree with you - maybe I should mark the date on the calendar."
"Maybe - but with three hundred an' sixty five of 'em, it's bound to happen every once in a while."
"Just as long as it's not so often we get redundant," Joe said, exchanging a grin with his partner.
"No worries on that account - see you tomorrow, LaFiamma."
The two men split up, going to their respective vehicles. Lundy had a little farther to go, as he'd had to run an errand at lunch, and someone else had scooped his spot before he returned. He was just climbing into the Jimmy when Joe drove past, giving him a parting wave on the way out of the parking garage, which Levon returned.
Carefully, he backed out of the space, then followed his partner onto the city streets. Traffic was terrible as usual, but nothing out of the ordinary, and Levon had no difficulty navigating his way around the worst spots. He made it to Chicken's in fairly good time, and as soon as he arrived at the counter, the big man had a take-out container in hand.
"You know I ain't ordered yet," Lundy smiled. "Maybe I don't want what you got there."
"Uh-huh. Beef ribs, extra hot sauce, with cornbread and slaw on the side. You ain't nothing but predictable."
"I don't always get ribs. I've ordered brisket on occasion."
"Yeah, you have - when I make it. And you know as well as I do that's only on weekends. Don't know what hours you've been pullin', but it'd have to be a lot to get you to confuse Wednesday for Saturday."
"I ain't that far gone - though if I was, it wouldn'ta been the quantity of hours, woulda been the quality," Lundy said with a wince. "This boy wasn't made for pushin' paper."
"That you weren't," Chicken agreed, chuckling. "So are you gonna keep tryin' to be smart with me, or are you gonna be thankful I know you well enough to have your order ready to go?"
"Thankful," Levon grinned, putting out his hand to display money exactly covering the price of his meal, "If I tried to get one over on you, I'd be here all night, and I got a horse to exercise."
"Smart boy," Chicken smirked as they completed the exchange of food and money, "You take care now, hear?"
"Will do - and you do the same," Lundy said, touching the brim of his hat in parting.
Once he cleared the city limits, the remainder of his drive home was pleasant enough to be soothing after the long day, and he felt himself start to relax. The case he and LaFiamma had just put to bed had taken more out of him than he'd let on.
It was a simple enough case, for all the paperwork that had been required. A fertility clinic had been bilking its patients, charging for tests and services that were never really delivered. The actual doctor who was associated with the clinic had had nothing to do with the scam - it was the manager of the place that had been running the show. He'd been pretty good about cooking the books too, though not quite good enough.
Joe had been the one to spot the first inconsistency - for a man who had issues managing his own money, he sure didn't seem to have a problem tracking other people's - after that, they'd managed to wheedle some help to go over the books in detail. It had taken several long days sorting through the financial documents, but they had finally gotten their break. It helped that the manager hadn't been anywhere near as careful with his own accounts as he had been with those of the business.
Lundy pulled up to his house, and with dinner in one hand and keys in the other, made his way up the walk. Entering the house, he toed off his boots, and set his keys on their hook. Carefully placing his hat on its shelf, he made his way into the kitchen and rummaged for some cutlery, placing it on the table along with the takeout container. Slipping out of his jacket, he draped it on the back of his chair, retrieved a beer from the fridge, and then sat down to eat.
While the lack of violence made for a nice change from their usual caseload, seeing the hopeful couples who had been bilked had been difficult. He had never mentioned it to Joanne or anyone else, but his job hadn't been the direct cause of Caroline s drinking. He sighed.
As both of them had been only children, and had grown up envying the sibling relationships many of their friends had had, they had agreed that they wanted to have at least two or three kids. They had only been married two years when she had her first miscarriage. The doctors had been very reassuring, saying that a miscarriage was actually very common in first pregnancies. It was a blow to be sure, but they were young, they were healthy, and they had time - they just had to let nature do the rest.
Unfortunately, the doctors had been wrong.
Each miscarriage was a bigger heartbreak than the last - particularly the last one, which had come just days short of completing the first trimester - and the doctors had no explanation. They had undergone every test there was, and as far as the specialists could tell, there was nothing wrong with either of them. Although Levon had reassured Caroline in every way he could think of that he didn't care if they never became parents, just so long as she was by his side, she felt that she had failed him somehow - and she had started to withdraw, blaming herself for the loss of their children. As she became more distant, Levon had started using his job as an escape from their pain, and Caroline had started using a bottle.
As private as he was, he hadn't managed to keep Joanne from finding out about Caroline's drinking. Beaumont was his partner, and she was too good a detective to miss all the subtle signs that he couldn't hide. More than that, she was also his friend. She was the one who had 'accidentally' left the Al-Anon pamphlet in his car after a stakeout. While he wasn't about to discuss personal problems with a roomful of strangers, he did find the information helpful, and had acted on it.
Things with Caroline were actually getting better, before the end. Despite the obstacles of his job and her alcoholism between them, their love had never faltered. She had started having good days again, days when she could make it through without a drink, and he was making an effort to spend more time at home, as she had started to respond when he reached out to her. There was every positive sign that they were going to turn things around and come out stronger for it. He had just started to believe the worst was over - and that's when she had been killed.
He had never fully come out of the tailspin Caroline's murder had sent him into - had it not been for Mother Minnie, Joanne and Sue Ellen's efforts between them, Levon was sure he wouldn't have recovered as much as he had - until after he had started working with his hot-headed, opinionated, insufferable partner. Levon smirked to himself.
Never thought a body could be annoyed into livin' life again - but damned if Joey didn't do just that for me.
He and the Italian had gotten off on the wrong foot and stayed there in the first few months of their partnership, butting heads almost from minute to minute. They were complete opposites in everything - appearance, background, personality and even investigative approach. While they grated on each others nerves, they soon found that their completely different viewpoints on their cases more often than not caused them to dovetail into the solution.
With that realization, there had come to be a grudging acceptance between the two men - if there was one characteristic they shared, it was a passion for the job. Their respective police department mottoes - 'We serve and protect' and 'Order through law, justice with mercy' were the tenets around which each of them had organized their lives. Early on, both Joe and Levon had independently come to the conclusion that they might not like each other, but if they got results, they could tolerate each other for the sake of the greater good.
Gradually, toleration had evolved into something else - respect. From there, it had been a relatively short trip to reluctant admiration and then friendship - not that either of them would ever willingly admit it.
Finished with his meal, Levon cleaned up, then changed into an older pair of jeans, a work shirt, and his riding boots, and made his way to the paddock. Fooler nickered as he approached, and reaching the horse at the fence, Lundy stroked the animal's neck affectionately.
"What say we get you outta this place for a couple of hours, boy?"
The gelding whinnied and pawed the ground, and Lundy grinned.
Levon led his horse out to be saddled and bridled, and he was pleasantly surprised at Fooler's patience as he went about the tasks involved - at least until he took a moment to check the animal's feet, and the gelding started lipping his hair.
"Enough o' that now," he said, gently but firmly pushing Fooler's head away, "You'll be gettin' that exercise you want in a minute."
Satisfied with his horse's condition, Levon finished tacking up, then put on the old Stetson he kept for trail riding before he mounted up. He felt the last of the day s stress evaporate almost instantly as soon as he was in the saddle.
Lundy started Fooler at a walk toward the back of the property, but the horse moved up to a fast trot on his own, obviously only too pleased at the prospect of stretching his legs. Shaking his head, Levon reined his horse in a little - it wouldn't do for him to work too hard too fast, especially after a period of relative inactivity - but while Fooler did as his rider asked, he wasn't shy about letting the man know how he felt about it. Levon saw the horse's ears go back, and braced himself in time as the gelding kicked out his hind legs to show his displeasure. Instantly, Lundy gave Fooler a pop with the reins before he had even managed to get his legs back under him.
"NO," Levon said sternly. "You know better'n that - now behave yourself."
With that, Fooler settled, and after five minutes or so at a slower pace, Lundy let him have his way. They went around the perimeter of the ranch, giving the detective an opportunity to inspect the fencing as well as giving the gelding a chance to warm up - but it was going to take more than that to really exercise the animal properly. He mulled over his options, then directed his mount off to the section of his property that abutted one of the area riding trails. They went on for miles, and there were a couple of nice flat, open areas where an extended canter or gallop could be safely done - given how uncharacteristically restive Fooler had been earlier, a few sprints would probably be just what the doctor ordered.
Apparently Fooler agreed, as he had obviously realized where his rider wanted to go. While he stayed - barely - at a trot, he picked up his pace further, and carried his head high, with one ear on his rider, and the other pricked forward, obviously excited.
Levon chuckled as he leaned down and fondly patted the animal's shoulder.
"Think feelin' the wind in our faces is just what we both need, huh?"
As they hit the trail, Lundy started to ease his horse into a smooth canter, and let the case and the memories of his wife fall away from his mind as he lost himself in the ride.