Chapter 1 – The Hunter

SMACKIN' MACK'S BAR,

340 E. GERHEM, SCUTTLE ROCK, FE

"It's been said that Life is a cruel mistress. Well, I beg to differ. I know for a fact that Life is not alive. Day in and day out Life is like rock. It doesn't move. It doesn't change. It's as solid as anything you can find on an everyday trek through the mountains, and feels harder than steel. And every damn time I run into it, it hurts like hell."

"You said it, Eddie." Mack the bartender interrupts my thoughts, or what little I still had of them. I shudder, feeling the booze slip through my body seemingly at the speed of sound.

"I'm feeling good, my man. Gimme another Rail."

"You better not be driving tonight. I've gotta stop you right there."

"The hell you are!" I yell, slamming my fist on the counter. My mind is starting to slip away into dreams. Mack sighs, walking away.

"I'm so damn tired... I don't even care what the hell happens to me at this point." I sigh, clumsily standing up. I toss a twenty-coin onto the counter, and make my way toward the entrance. I almost fall out the door, but manage to steady myself against a lightpole.

"Hey, man, can I call you a cab?" I look up to see a young boy, probably twenty or so, looking at me, smiling. My head starts to hurt and I begin sliding down the pole, barely able to stay awake. I can only attempt a slight nod of my head before I black out.

THE NEXT MORNING, LANGE RESIDENCE,

1020 S. BALFLORES, SCUTTLE ROCK, FE

"Oh, geez... It feels like somebody hit me on the head with a hammer last night." I sit up in my bed, rubbing the sore area of my head. I look around, now aware of my surroundings.

"What the...?" I stand up, and notice that all I had on was a pair of boxers. I remembered being at the bar, going out the door, and then... nothing.

"How the hell did I get home?" I look around. Everything seemed normal, my watch and personals were on the bedside table, as they always were. I sigh, sitting back down on the bed, holding my head.

"Awww, man! What the hell happened last night? My head hurts like hell..." I groan, lying back down for a few minutes.

"Good morning!" A female voice echoes into my head. I quickly reach toward my pillow but suddenly stop as a gun is shoved in my face. I freeze.

"Don't even think about it!" The woman stands over me, smiling. She looks me over, then chuckles wryly.

"Have I caught you at a bad time, Mr. Lange?" I stare at her, an annoyed look on my face. She pulls her weapon away from my face and then tucks the gun into the back beltline of her jeans.

"Geez, Di, you sure picked a hell of a way to be waking me up." I mutter angrily, standing up from my bed. "Get outta my room so I can make myself decent."

Diane shrugs as she walks out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. I pull on a solid black shirt and some jeans, lace up my belt, and then grab my gun from under the pillow. I sling it into the harness and wrap it around my waist, securing it snugly. I take my badge from the bedside table and tuck it into my front pocket, making sure the shield showed. I grab my leather jacket from the hook on the closet door, pull it on, and then walk toward the bedroom door. I twist the handle, flinging the door open. The door slams violently, deepening the gap of an already pit-studded drywall. The noise echoes throughout the house.

"Geez, could you be any louder? You're gonna wake up the whole damn neighborhood!" Diane exclaims, getting up from the couch and turning off the TV with the remote. She throws the remote onto the couch, and walks over.

"Who the hell cares, anyway? My head's hurting like hell and I don't give a damn about who hears me or not! Now come on, we've got work to do, rookie!" I walk toward the front door, grabbing my gloves and my sunglasses from a nearby table. I open the front door and kick out the screen door, walking out into the lawn and standing in front of the street.

"Get the truck. We're heading out." Diane nods as she runs into the garage. After a few moments, the sound of a rumbling engine could be heard as a large, dark blue truck rolls out of the garage and into the street in front of me. I put my gloves on, and then slide my glasses on.

"Let's go hunting." I say to myself, opening the passenger side door and jumping into the seat. Slamming the door, I motion for Diane to start driving.

FLEMING STREET BIKE SHOP, BACK ROOM,

506 S. FLEMING, FREEGATE, FE

The overhead lamp flickers to life as I enter the room. Diane walks over to the back wall and leans against it, her arms crossed. A man sits at a poker table in the middle of the room, as if waiting for me to sit down across from him. I take a nearby chair, turn it around, and sit on it, my legs saddled against the back of the chair.

"What's the prize this time, Hosce?"

The man looks up from a stack of papers in front of him.

"Is the door locked, like I told you to do?" I sneer at him slightly, nodding.

"As always, nothing said in this room will be repeated outside. Anywhere or anytime, for any reason." I nod, affirming his questioning glance.

"Good. Now, this one's gonna be a tough one. This guy has several charges on him, including armed robbery and even one charge of manslaughter. We need him alive to get the money."

"Oh, good. I love homicidal maniacs." I snicker.

"This is nothing to be joking about!" Hosce exclaims, standing up. He walks over to a dry-erase board on the side wall, and pulls out a picture. He tucks it onto a clip attached to the top rail.

"This my man?"

"Yes. His name's Damien Easling, 41, Blue Eyes, weighs about 190 pounds, and last seen with a moustache and a scruff of hair below his lower lip."

"You make any contact with any of his relatives or friends?"

"He doesn't have any."

"What?" Diane stands up from the back wall and walks over to the dry-erase board.

"There's no legal guardian, as you can already guess, and he hasn't made any friends."

"Hah! More for me, then! This'll be a hell of a challenge!" I laugh, as big grin creeps onto my face. "So, Hosce, any last knowns?"

"He's been seen hanging out around Smackin' Mack's in Scuttle Rock recently, seems to be his favorite place, but trust me, he knows what you look like. The second you walk through the door, he'll bolt."

"Alright, rookie! Looks like this'll be your first real mission! You'll draw him out, and when he least expects it, I'll slam him outta nowhere! This guy's going back to jail, for good this time!" I give a thumbs-up sign, still grinning from ear to ear.

"Geez, Ed. Curb your enthusiasm, will ya? Are you really gonna make me the bait? That's how you lost your last rook, you know."

"Don't remind me! I don't wanna hear anymore about that prick Goldie. She couldn't handle it, but I know you can. You're the best rookie I've had in years!"

"I don't wanna hear it! I'm not gonna put myself on the rack just so you can get your guy. There's gotta be another way!"

"What the hell are you talking about? This is the only way! He's got nobodies looking out for him. He's a mean street man, not gonna stop at nothing to get what he wants. If we wanna take him down, we gotta give him what he wants, and then we crush him!" Pain suddenly explodes into my head as Diane's foot connects with my jaw, sending me reeling to the floor.

"Shut the hell up! You don't know what you're talking about! This is my life you're talking about throwing away! Now sit down and shut up while I think. ...Shit!" Diane sighs, walking over to one of the empty chairs near the table. I hold my jaw as I try to stand up from the floor. I sit back in my chair, still dizzy from the blow.

"Alright, if he doesn't have any hook-ups, then that means he aint' got money. That'll be the first thing he'll look for. Since the police will most likely watch for robberies, he's not gonna be stupid enough to try it. He'll most likely try to push drugs, maybe other illegal subs. We'll make a deal with some of the known locals, have them tell us when he comes around for whatever, in exchange for not taking their sorry butts to jail. If he shows up then, we'll plan an ambush at Smackin' Mack's."

I stare intently at Diane, smiling at the level of intelligence she seemed to possess.

"And if that doesn't work?" I quip.

"Then... well..." Diane stutters.

"You don't have a freaking clue, do you?"

"To be honest..."

"No."

"But still, it's a hell of a lot better than your plan!" Diane leans back in her chair, crossing her arms.

"Awright, listen up! We'll make yours Plan B, for now. Plan A, I'm gonna have Smackin' Mack himself keep an eye out for our guy, and update me on his whereabouts as well as where and when he likes to ride the bar. I'll show him the picture and make him swear up and down that it don't get anywhere else. I'll check records for where he used to live and maybe check that out. I'll make sure the airports, buses and trains let us know if he's spotted. I don't think he'll be stupid enough for that. I'll also check DMV for any autos he's had in the last couple years and run them all down. That should at least pull the noose closer to his neck, if nothing else. Just because he hasn't had any people doesn't mean he hasn't existed.

Hosce, you're the go-to guy for this one, I'm letting you be headquarters while I'm out running around. Di, you're with me. You work on records and I'll work on the people."

"Now, that sounds like a plan." Hosce smiles.

"We're gonna have to hurry up if we wanna catch this guy. Let's go, rookie!" I walk over to the dry-erase board and take down Damien's picture. I unlock the door and pull it open, walking quickly towards the front of the store. Diane runs up to me and walks alongside. I push the front door open as we walk onto the sidewalk just outside the store. Just then I turn around and walk back into the store.

"Be right back, Di." Diane nods as I head toward the front desk.

"May I help... Alright, what did you forget this time?" Hosce looks at me accusingly.

"Geez, Hosce, could you be any colder? Listen, I need you to make a quick copy of this picture and fax it to the Transportation Department for Greenlow County. I show him Damien's mug.

"Way ahead of you, Ed." Hosce pulls out a copy of Damien's picture from the fax machine.

"You rock, Hosce. Let me know if you hear anything."

"Will do. And you better damn well catch that guy before I see you again." Hosce smiles wryly, turning back to the fax machine. Content, I turn around and head back outside.

"What was that about?" Diane asks, walking toward the truck.

"Ah, the usual. I forgot something I wanted Hosce to do, and then he'd already done it, so of course I'm feelin' stupid for forgetting, again, that Hosce is faster than hell at doing my job than I am. So... You know, the usual." I grin, opening the door and hopping up into the passenger seat of the truck.

"Awright. First stop, we're checking out Smackin' Mack's." Diane nods as she looks around, shifting into drive.

SEVERAL MINUTES LATER, AT SMACKIN' MACK'S BAR

"Mack! You in here!?" I yell, swinging the door open as I walk into the bar.

"Who the hell do you think you are, barging in here like that!?" Mack shouts, coming out from behind the bar and holding a shotgun in his hands. I immediately reach for my pistol as a reflex, but Diane is already ahead of me, aiming her pistol directly at Mack's face. Mack grunts disapprovingly, but lowers the shotgun. Diane lowers her weapon, staring intently at Mack.

"Mack, sorry to burst in on you like this, but I got important business. Ain't got no time for manners." I grunt, walking toward Mack.

"You coulda at least come in the way everybody else does, by opening the door instead of barging in. The last guy who did that was the one who robbed me last year." Mack walks up to my face.

"Didn't mean to bring up any bad memories. We need to talk private-like. Meet me in the back in a couple minutes, and make sure no one follows." I head toward the back room of the bar, looking around for any familiar faces. No one looks up as we pass by. I walk into the brightly lit back room, finding a keg to sit on as Diane closes the door behind her. A couple minutes pass before I hear a knock on the door.

"Yeah?" I answer.

"It's me." Mack's voice can barely be heard through the door.

"Come in!" Diane raises her voice, almost sounding cheery. I glare disapprovingly at her for a second, and then stand up. Mack enters the room, closing and locking the door behind him.

"Now what is so damned important?" Mack leans against the door with his arms crossed, a look of irritation on his face.

"I'm on the hunt for a man."

"Shit! What else is new? You've been doing this for years now. You getting bored enough that you gotta tell me about every damn thing you're doing now?"

"Cool yourself, Mack. You're gonna overheat, and that won't do anybody any good, least of all me. I got a man I'm hunting, and I need your help to take him down." I flash a grin toward Mack.

"Forget it! I'm not gonna be your bait! It's your damn fault those robbers last year kicked my door down in the first place! I was your go-to guy, and I sure as hell paid for it! You can find yourself another fall guy!" Mack growls, turning back toward the door.

"I'm not taking prisoners this time, Mack. I only want my man; no one else has to get hurt." After a few seconds, Mack whirls around and tries to take a swing at me, but Diane jumps in front of him and knocks Mack backward with a solid body blow.

"Damn it, rookie! Don't kill him!" I yell, shoving Diane out of the way and leaning down to take a look at Mack, who is clutching his chest. He seems to be alright, though he is breathing heavily.

"Shit! Your girlfriend here packs a hell of a punch!" Mack breathes hard, trying to catch his breath.

"Sorry about that, Mack. She doesn't know better, she's still a rookie." I look over to Diane, who is sitting on a keg across the room, a sour look on her face, her arms and legs crossed.

"Get on with it! Stop staring at me! ...It was a mistake, alright!?" Diane exclaims angrily, and then turns around with her back to me.

"We'll talk about this later, rookie!" I shout, turning back to Mack. Just then, a fist slams into my jaw as I am sent reeling onto the floor. I look up to see Mack standing over me, his hands balled into fists.

"Damn, Mack! What the hell was that for!?" I growl, holding my jaw as I try to stand up.

"That was for those robbers last year. And this-" Mack stops mid-sentence as he heaves another punch at me. I manage to dodge it, running into Mack's torso and knocking him down to the floor.

"That... was supposed... to be for... your rookie... But... I guess... I'll have to... try again... later." Macks words came out in between bouts of wheezing.

"Are you boys done? We didn't come here to fight, you know." Diane stands up, walking towards us.

"Speak... for yourself... girl..." Mack laughs weakly. He slowly stands up, and then pats me on the back.

"You guys make a great team, you know that? Seriously." Mack pulls out a chair from one of the darker areas of the room, props it up, and then sits in it.

"Enough small talk. Can we get back to getting my guy?" I ask, growing impatient.

"Yeah, yeah. Geez. Sit down, will ya? You're like a kid with a new toy, can't wait to play with it. Just make sure you remember who you're dealing with." Mack snorts in my direction. I scoff at him, sitting down on a nearby keg. Diane walks back across the room to sit on the other keg.

"Alright, what do you need?" Mack stares at me.

"I got a high-wire one here, several armrobs and even one mankill."

"What, are you serious? They let someone with a manslaughter charge out on bail? Damn, what the hell is the world coming to...?" Mack sighs, shaking his head.

"That's not all. This guy's got no connections, people-wise. No known relatives, no guardians, no friends, nobody."

"He's a ghost?" Mack's eyes grow wider. I nod, showing him Damien's picture.

"What can you tell me about him?" Mack inquires. I shake my head, holding my finger to my lips. Mack nods, seeming to understand what I meant.

"Alright, then. This one's invisible."

"I've already told more than I should have. I came to you because he likes to hang out around here. Now, look real carefully. Think real hard. Have you seen him in here at all within the past month or so?" I stare at Mack intently, as if willing to not let him turn away. Mack looks at the picture carefully, scanning every detail. He looks up at me for almost a full minute, thinking.

"Okay."

"So tell me." I sit back down on the keg, keeping my eyes on him as if he was an elusive prey.

"I've seen him here... once." Mack replies. I stand up, quickly pulling my pistol and jamming it in his face.

"Try again." Mack's face grows pale. I hear Diane stand up from across the room.

"Sit down, rookie! This is between him and me!" I snap angrily, hearing the keg rattle as she sits back down.

"I know for a fact that he's been seen at this bar at least four damn times in the last month. Are you trying to make a damn joke? Because I don't think it's that funny." I click back the hammer on the pistol, holding the gun steadily to Mack's head. I keep my finger held across the trigger guard.

"A...a... alright... I've seen him... more than once... He asked me not to tell you about him... coming here, but I guess if you already know..." I sigh angrily, and then release the hammer, pulling the gun away from his head. Sliding the gun back into my holster, I sit back down on the keg, feeling exhausted. Mack's breathing becomes ragged.

"Hell... that was uncalled for, Ed." Mack grumbles.

"Sorry, Mack, but I had to make sure I got the whole truth. When does he come in?"

"He doesn't."

"Mack..." I reach for my gun.

"I'm serious! He doesn't come around anymore since last week. I think he knows you're looking for him."

"And... did you tip him off?" I stare him in the eyes. Mack kept trying to look away.

"No!" Mack shouts, standing up and running toward the door. Before he could reach it, Diane jumps right in front of him. I stand up.

"Where do you think you're going, Mack?" Diane cuts in.

"I need to get back to my bar. I'm going to lose money if someone isn't keeping an eye out." Mack moves toward the door, but Diane pushes him back, hard.

"Sit your butt down!" Diane yells, pointing to the chair. Mack pauses for a second, letting out a big sigh.

"Damn! What the hell am I throwing away my life for...?" Mack grunts, walking back to the chair.

"The truth, of course. Justice, and the American way." I flash a cheesy grin.

"The truth is overrated. I often find something new about this world we live in, and I find the line between truth and fiction grows smaller everyday."

"The truth ain't overrated. It's underrated. I don't hear enough of it as much as I want to, and in return, I find lies to go further than the truth these days." I sit back down on the keg.

"...So what do you wanna know?"

"Everything, Mack."

"Alright. The first time he came into my bar, I didn't really think much of him. As you can imagine, I get all types in here. He mostly liked to keep to himself, sitting at one of the tables in the corner. After his third or fourth visit, he moved up to the bar to strike up a conversation with a young fellow, about five foot ten, blond. The next time he came in, he decided to strike another conversation, this time with a black guy, about the same age as him.

Then, he worked up to my side and finally ordered a drink, a highball. He asked me if I knew who you were, and I told him you were the best bounty hunter in these parts. He said he was an old friend of yours and jokingly admitted he wasn't supposed to be drinking, so he asked me to keep his bar tabs a secret from you.

So I asked him, 'Well, where do you know Ed from?' he says, 'Oh, he's an old friend of mine, he and I went to the same school together. It's funny, he used to pick on me all the time, and this time, I get to pick on him now.' We joked with each other a little bit afterwards, and then he said, 'You mind keeping this a secret from my old pal? He'd sure blow a gasket if he ever found out we've been gabbing.'

So I said, 'Sure.' and he left out the door. I haven't seen him since, and then two days later, well, we're here, ain't we?"

"That's everything, alright." I nod my head approvingly.

"Alright, can I go now?" Mack looks up at me.

"Fine. This time, you make damn sure to call me if he comes in here. And I mean it!" I hiss.

"Sorry about the deception, I didn't wanna waylay him."

"Should be more worried about waylaying me, I'm the hunter... and he... he's the prey... My prey." I smirk, putting my sunglasses on. I notice Diane's eyes rolling from the corner of my eye, but decide to ignore it. I stand up and turn toward the door.

"Let's roll, rookie!" I walk over to the door and open it. Diane follows me out of the bar entrance. Just then, the memory of that drunken night floods into my head. I lose my balance and find myself leaning against the same lightpole I had fallen against that one time I got drunk.

I shake my head, trying to free myself from the memory's grip, and look up to see a young man, about twenty or so, staring at me. I quickly shake my head, looking around. Diane was standing right next to me, trying to keep me from falling on the sidewalk.

"Hey! Ed! Wake up! Damn it, this is no time to be falling asleep!" Diane's voice echoes into my head as I begin to drift into darkness.

SOME INDETERMINATE TIME LATER, SMACKIN' MACK'S BAR, BACK ROOM

"Ed? Ed! Snap out of it!" A female voice echoes into my head as I slowly open my eyes. Mack and Diane are standing over me. I look around, realizing I am lying on the floor. I immediately jump up on my feet in disgust.

"Geez, Mack, you could've at least laid me out on the bar! Ugh!"

"Are you kidding? People pass out all the time in the bar, place gets messy as hell. I'd rather do it in here so people don't have to look." I start looking around at my clothes, but they were clean.

"Not to worry, Ed, I clean up here more than you think I do."

"I'm still not sure you clean up back here enough." I remark in annoyance, grabbing my sunglasses from Diane's shirt pocket.

"Hey!"

"Chill, rookie. I'm fine." I reply, taking a deep breath.

"Anyone want to explain why the hell I ended up on the floor?" I stare at Mack and Diane, waiting for an answer.

"You mean, you don't remember?"

"All I remember is walking out the front door, and then... Aw, crap!" I mutter, stomping my foot on the floor.

"What?"

"The same damn thing happened to me last night, before you woke me up this morning." I look at Diane.

"What are you talking about?" Mack interrupts.

"This. The passing out. It happened to me last night, too. And in the bar, as well."

"You weren't here last night."

"What the hell?" I gawk at Mack.

"No, seriously. I was here for most of last night manning the bar, and I can swear on whatever that you never came in at all last night."

"Then what the hell was that about...?" I sit down on a nearby keg, trying to recall that night. The picture of my falling into the lightpole comes into my mind, and then a young man appears.

"Wait... Diane, when I passed out just now, was there a young guy, about twenty, anywhere near the area?"

"Yeah, actually, now that you mention it, he helped us get you back in the bar, and I guess he must've left right after that. I don't really remember him that well, with you being in a coma and all."

"Damn it, rookie! You could've at least gotten his name! You can't let your feelings get in the way of business!" Diane's foot races toward my face, and before I can react, I am lying back down on the floor as dull ringing echoes through my ears.

"Whoa! Geez, Diane, you got issues." Mack grunts.

"Don't make me kick your face in, too!" Diane snaps. Mack puts his hands up defensively, taking a step back. Diane reaches down and grabs the collar of my shirt, pulling me back up on my feet.

"Forget this. Let's get going." "Diane turns toward the door, still holding on to my collar. I grab her hand and throw it aside.

"No." Diane stops, and turns around. Her piercing eyes glare at me as I suddenly feel as if I am falling through the floor.

"Get out here!" Diane yells, bringing me back to reality. She grabs my collar, but I grab her hand, twisting it around her back, and throw her against the side wall. I quickly pull my gun out, but before I can point it toward her a gun barrel is pressed between my eyes. I hear the hammer cock and immediately freeze, holding my hands up with my gun still in my right hand.

"Damn it, Ed! What the hell have you been teaching me all these months? 'Never freeze when someone has a gun to your head, or you're goin' to hell.' Well, what the hell happened!? Damn, I'm pissed!" Dine yells. I grunt as Diane kicks me full force in the chest, sending me sprawling to the floor. She turns around and walks out the door, tucking her gun into the back beltline of her jeans. The door slams with a dull thud that echoes into my ears. I grunt in pain, trying to clamber to my feet, but something in my chest roars at me to lie back down.

"Mack... Can you help me up? I think I really broke something this time. And I don't mean my relationship with the rookie." Mack leans down and pulls me up to my feet. Mack moves slowly, but I gasp in pain as my spine straightens up.

"Damn... hurts like hell..." I gasp. Mack walks me over to a keg and sits me down. He rips open my shirt and feels carefully around my ribs. As he reaches toward my side I suddenly kick him back, falling off the keg with a loud groan.

"Arrgh! Damn it, that hurts!" I pant, pain shooting through my body from seemingly every direction possible.

"Looks like one of your ribs must've cracked. It's a real nasty one. I'm gonna have to call the hospital. You can't walk with this, not unless you wanna rip your spleen out." I pay no attention to Mack as he stands up. I stare straight ahead, trying to keep my mind off the pain. I manage a slight nod as Mack walks over to the telephone on the wall. I stare up at Mack as I feel myself beginning to slip into darkness.

GREENLOW COUNTY HOSPITAL,

103 W. GERHEM, SCUTTLE ROCK, FE

Bright, white lights flash into my eyes, threatening to blind me. I find it hard to breathe deeply, but I feel no sharp pains. After a few minutes adjusting to the light, I look around. I am in a hospital bed, and a nurse is standing next to me.

"Oh, Mr. Lange. It's good to see you're awake." The nurse smiles at me.

"Wh… What happened?" I ask, trying to be polite. What I really wanted to do was jump out of bed and get the hell outta here.

"You suffered a pretty serious injury to your ribs, and one of them sustained a fracture, so you'll have some slight trouble breathing, but you should be fine. It will heal on its own in time."

"Oh." I sigh, feeling a numb poke on the inside of my chest.

"Man, if it wasn't for the painkillers, I'd be going out of my freaking mind, huh?" The nurse smiles sweetly, slightly nodding.

"Yes, I'm sure you'd be screaming your lungs out, and with that fracture, the injury would only get worse."

"So, what's your name?" I smile, working to sit up in the bed.

"Claire."

"Claire. That's a good name."

"Thank you." The nurse turns around and starts to walk toward the door, but I grab her hand. Startled, she quickly retracts her hand and starts becoming irritated.

"I'm sorry, but could I trouble you for some company?" I smile warmly.

"Hmm... well, alright. But only for a few minutes." The nurse walks over to an empty chair. She sits down, crossing her legs, and puts her clipboard on her lap and then sits back. She crosses her arms as if waiting for a response.

"So... where are you from?" I ask politely.

"Freegate. I'm working on my nursing degree at U.F.G."

"Really? So you want to help more people like me?" I reply curiously. Claire rolls her eyes, and a big grin creeps onto her face.

"Like you? Not sure about that. But I do want to help people."

"Say, you're really pretty." I chuckle. I notice Claire's cheeks turn bright red.

"Oh, stop it, Mr. Lange. You're embarrassing me." Claire replies in annoyance. "Besides, this is hardly the proper way to talk to someone."

"No, really. I mean it." I say, smiling. Claire shoots me a serious look.

"Oh, come on! I'm twenty-four, and you're thirty. That's a six-year difference. It'd never work. Besides, I have a boyfriend already."

"Wow, you're smart, too." Claire rolls her eyes at this remark.

"Mr. Lange!" Claire sighs. She stands up from her chair and grabs the clipboard from the bed. "Listen, it's been fun, but I really should get back to work now." Claire turns toward the door.

"Just one more thing, please?"

"Alright, what is it?" Claire turns back toward me, sighing haughtily.

"When are they serving dinner? I'm starting to get hungry." Claire smirks and then replies.

"They should be here in a few minutes. I'll make sure Dr. Cranel knows you're awake."

"Thanks... Claire."

"Sure, no problem..." Claire looks at the clipboard in her hands, and then replies, "...Edward." I was about to correct her when the door opened. Diane comes in. Her eyes were wet with tears as Hosce follows her into the room. Claire winks at me as she exits. Diane is too focused on me to notice, but Hosce does a double-take. I shake my head slightly when Hosce turns back to look at me. He nods slightly, apparently understanding what I meant.

"Oh, Eddie!" Diane puts her arms around me, but I push her away.

"I don't need your drama, rookie." She steps back and is about to take a swing at me, but stops herself.

"Damn it, Eddie! You had me worried as hell! I still can't believe I'm the one who sent you here in the first place... Sorry. Can you forgive me?" I could tell that Diane's stoic expression was meant to hide her true feelings. I sigh, resisting the urge to roll my eyes at such drama, motioning her over to my side. I extend my arms out and let her embrace me. After a minute or two, she pulls away.

"I'm sorry for going off like that in the first place, Di. You were worried about me, and I was too busy worrying about some damn thing I didn't have any clue about in the first place."

"Forget it, ya pinhead. You're not taking the blame for this one. I kicked you too hard, and that's my fault, 'kay? Listen… Eddie," Diane walks over to the empty chair and sits down, "I shoulda been more careful. Being angry is no excuse for kicking in your ribs." I try to laugh at Diane's sentimental explanation, but all I could manage was a hacking cough.

"Listen, Di. I'll be fine. It's a fractured rib, it'll heal eventually. I'll be out of breath a little from time to time, but it'll be fine. I can promise you that." Diane tries to take my hand in her hands, but I pull it away. Diane begins to protest, but I shake my head.

"Listen, rookie, you and me are partners. Not lovers. Not husband and wife. Partners. I'm not looking for a girl to be bawling over me every day of my life. What I need... is someone strong enough to stand with me, to make sure I don't overstep my boundaries. What I need, is Diane Simmons, the rookie who's gonna help me capture the baddest prey so far... Damien Easling." Diane wipes the tears from her eyes and stands up. She pulls the gun from her back beltline, whirls it around, and then slides it back in. I sigh in annoyance.

"You got it, Ed! I won't screw around this time!" Diane grins, seemingly confident. Hosce walks up to the side of my bed. I nod to him, and then look at Diane.

"Listen, Di, do you mind leaving me and Hosce alone, just for a few minutes?"

"What? I thought we're a team. What're you kicking me out for?" Diane grumbles.

"Beat it, rookie. This won't take long." I point toward the door. Diane sighs in disappointment.

"Fine. I'll be right outside if you guys need me." Diane pats Hosce on the shoulder, walking toward the door. As soon as the door closes, Hosce leans over.

"So, what's the story between you and that nurse?" Hosce chuckles wryly.

"What story? There's no story."

"If you say so. I saw the way she looked at you. You'd better watch yourself around both of them, the nurse and your rookie, or you're gonna have a lot more to worry about than a fractured rib."

"I already have more to worry about. I'm supposed to be hunting down that guy instead of sitting here, waiting for myself to heal." I sigh dejectedly. Hosce walks over to the chair and sits down.

"I almost forgot to tell ya, we got a hit on the guy the other day, some guy by name of Jones called, was looking for you. Di took the call for you, but made sure to write down everything this time." Hosce takes a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and hands it to me. I quickly take it from him, rushing to unfold the paper. I could feel sweat running down my back as I begin reading the note.

"Damien last seen at Cedar Pointe searching for something. At closer look, seemed to be a small box. When I checked, it was empty, but I could smell cash. Not sure how much. Couldn't track where he's going, but with money, anything's possible." A feeling of dread washed over me as I contemplated the multitude of possibilities and the increased difficulty of tracking this guy down.

"Damn! He could've gone so many freaking places; Hell would freeze over before we'd ever find him." I grunt in anger. Pain started to return to my senses. I lean back on the bed, taking slow breaths to calm myself.

"He's gonna be a lot harder to find now, that's for sure." Hosce sighs.