The Reality of Fantasy
Chapter 9 - Ain't Nothin' But a Gangsta Party

On Monday morning, Jim stepped blearily off his final bus an hour after he was supposed to be at work, and trudged across the street towards the library. He grunted his greetings to everyone, and ignored Chris growling about getting the transportation issue together. It wasn't Jim's fault that his car was stolen, or that his insurance was so crappy that it didn't fully cover the cost of a rental, or that he apparently lived in the black hole of bus stops, where buses, plural, zoomed past your ass because they were already overcrowded with fucking morons who couldn't get their asses out of the stairwells.

Jim plopped down at the reference desk without bothering to drop any of his shit at his own desk, and looked at Leonard. "In case I forgot to mention it before: I am so sorry that I made you get up at ass o'clock in the morning last week."

Leonard, who was his usual chirpy self this week, just chuckled and shook his head. "Jim, I told you, I don't mind. You need a ride in the morning?"

"No. I will not subject you to this shit. Just. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. The bottom of my feet." Jim scratched his head. "Why do people always say the bottom of their hearts? Their hearts are way up here – that's not very deep at all."

Leonard turned away. "Oh yeah, you're a different kind of not-morning-person from the rest of us, Jim," he muttered, and went back to his own work.

"Har har." Jim hid behind his computer monitor and flipped Leonard the bird. When Jim straightened up, he could see a little girl with tangled pigtails and red fruit juice stains on her face and shirt wandering out of the adult stacks. She sauntered past the reference desk, towards the children's area, with a women's magazine in her hands. That was odd.

A patron came to the reference desk, and Jim thought nothing more of it. He took the harried young man to the natural sciences section, and proceeded to pull out every book the library had on California's natural geological structures, which, granted, weren't that many. He finished helping the flustered student and turned away just in time to see the same messy little girl trot past the aisle he was standing in. Curious, Jim went to the edge of the aisle and watched the girl disappear behind the periodical section. He had half a mind to follow the girl, just to be sure she wasn't ripping up their magazines, when the PA system crackled to life. "Jim, you have a call on line three," came Tonia's smooth voice.

Jim trotted back to the circ desk. "You couldn't take a message?"

She smiled sweetly. "You wouldn't want me to. The lady introduced herself as an officer." Jim squeaked a little, and ran past Tonia to take the call at his own desk. "Hope it's good news," she called after him.

He waved his thanks and grabbed the phone, fumbling it with both hands. "This is James Kirk," he said, hoping he didn't sound completely breathless."

"Good morning, Mr. Kirk. I'm Officer Janice Rand with the Long Beach Police Department. How are you doing this morning?"

Jim ground his teeth impatiently, but he got through the greeting bullshit without rubbing the lady the wrong way. With the way she was talking, though Jim doubted it was possible to do such a thing. She went right on with her droopy way of asking questions. "You filed a report in the city of Gardena about a stolen car, is that correct?"

"Yes, ma'am." Get to it...

"Yeeeaaaah, an 82 Tercel? Four door? White?"


"And that's plate number... 1NCC701?"

Jim thumped his head on the desk. "It sure is," he said, no longer caring if he sounded sarcastic.

She shuffled some papers on her end. "Okay, Mr. Kirk. The good news is we found it." She stopped, as if that was all there was to it.

"Uh... okay, great. That's great!"

"Yeah, but the bad news isn't so great."

Jim thought he would tear all his hair out before she spit it out. "Okay, well, hit me. What's the bad news?"

"She's been pretty effectively stripped."

Jim's heart fluttered to a stop. "What?"

"Yeah, I mean, her chassis is still in remarkable condition, and most of her electronic workings are in order, but the tires, bumpers, front passenger seat, and engine – all gone."

"The engine is gone."

"And tires, bumpers, and the front passenger seat. Everything else is good, though." The officer shuffled more papers and began to explain where Jim needed to pay to retrieve his car.

"Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait. Just... just wait." Jim patted himself down, looking for his pills. "I... she has no engine! How am I supposed to get her off the lot?"

Officer Rand was infinitely patient. "We'll tow her, of course." She went right back to explaining the city's car storage policies. "Did you get all that?"

He hadn't gotten any of it, but he wasn't about to stay on the phone with Officer Prozac another second. "Yeah, yeah. Sure. Thanks." He disconnected in a haze and wandered back to the reference desk.

Oh. Yeah. Reference. He hadn't taken his stuff to the back. Hadn't put it away. No engine? Who does that? And there are the pills. One should take the edge off. Couldn't they find the car a little fucking sooner? Hell, take two, they're small. Wait, was the license plate still on the car? Why leave the damn plate on, if you were going to take the seats and bumpers and friggin engine what the fuck?

"Are... you okay?"

Jim turned his attention to the outer world, where people had no idea that there were assholes who would steal the heart and soul of your car, and blinked in confusion. Someone had spoken to him. "But the engine?"

Leonard rolled his chair over and snapped his fingers in front of Jim's eyes. "You don't look right, Jim. Your voice is a little off, too. Seriously, are you alright?"

The rage was simmering down to a vague sense of neverending gloom. The hit wasn't hard enough, and the rush was practically nonexistent. Jim sighed. He knew better than to try to pop oxys when he was down, but... fuck. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

The little girl wandered past the reference desk again. Jim wished he was that age again. He didn't have to worry about losing ten years of work on restoring a classic car. Of course, at her age, he had to worry about whether or not he was going to be allowed dinner, so maybe not. Whatever. Everything sucks. Sucked. Whatever.

"I don't like that, Jim."

Jim was about to ask Leonard what was wrong with wanting to be young or old again or whatever, but he realized that there was no way that Leonard was inside his brains with him, and was probably talking about something else. "Like what?"

"That." Leonard indicated the little girl with a nod of his head. She was wandering over towards the DVDs, and her little punch stained mouth was getting more and more pouty by the second. "At first I thought she was showing somebody something, but now... I think she's just plain looking for somebody."

Jim watched her more carefully, putting his own difficulty on the backburner for the moment. She did look a little lost. The girl turned around in a circle, dropped the magazine she was carrying, and took two steps towards the periodical section again. Then she said something. She was too far away to be heard, but an elderly patron turned and looked at the little girl with concern. He shuffled over to the circ desk and spoke softly to Tonia. The little girl's face crumpled, and though Jim couldn't hear her, he knew she was crying.

He looked away, too raw to witness the realization of what had to be her deepest fear. The fact that it bore such a painfully uncanny resemblance to an incident in his own childhood was not lost on him.

Leonard, meanwhile, was walking toward the girl, muttering under his breath one minute, and cooing like Jim had never heard him coo before in his life the next. When Jim could stand to look again, Tonia had joined Leonard, and together they seemed to coax some info from the little girl. She appeared to calm down while Tonia returned to the desk. Jim plugged his ears with his fingers as the phone crackled, and Tonia called for a guardian to come collect the little girl from the circ desk.

By the third time Tonia had paged, Spock was leading the now hysterical girl towards the children's section, while Leonard leaned on the reference desk and growled angrily on the phone with the police department. Leonard slammed the phone down and stalked over to his chair. "Just makes me so fuckin' mad!"

Jim sighed and tried to tune out the oncoming tirade, but there was no tuning Leonard out when he was in such a mood. It wasn't long before everyone in the building was giving Leonard the eye, while he preached and frothed about the soulless vipers in the world who would abandon a child and leave her to fend for herself. "People like that should be strung up and exposed on a goddamn mountain face!"

Jim popped out of his seat before he could stop himself, sending it clattering into the reference shelf behind him. "Why don't you shut the fuck up?! Who the fuck are you? What, because you don't have custody of your kid, you think you can be judge, jury and executioner on people who can't take care of their kids? You don't know what's going on there! And you don't know why people don't take care of their kids! You don't know any fucking thing! All you're doing is screaming, and it's not helping that little girl one damn bit, it's not helping you get custody of your kid, and it's not helping the people who have to live with this shit hanging over their heads at night! So just shut the fuck up!"

For the first time in Jim Kirk's career, the library was actually quiet. Leonard was staring at him in wide eyed shock. Jim lifted his eyes, and realized everyone was staring at him in wide eyed shock. Yeah. Maybe he could take a little of his own advice. "Sorry, Leonard." Jim didn't wait for a response. He turned and walked quickly towards the back room, grabbing at his box of cigarettes with trembling hands.

Two cigarettes and five minutes of hysterical laughter and sobbing later, Chris appeared at Jim's elbow on the loading dock. "So. You wanna tell me about it, or do you just wanna go home with the understanding that you're going to make an appointment with Psych services before you return to work?"

Jim laughed softly. "I wouldn't even know where to begin."

Chris shrugged. "How about we start with how personally you seemed to take Leonard's rant? Somehow, I don't think he was talking about you. After all, we all know you don't have a kid."

"Yeah, we did know that, but we were all totally wrong. Totally wrong about that one."

Chris frowned. "You do have a child...?"

Jim put his face in his hands, trying to keep the hysteria from bubbling to the surface again. "I... I didn't know."

Chris sighed and leaned a little closer to Jim, as if to hold the younger man up with his own shoulder. "How old?"

"I don't know. Old." Jim sagged gratefully against Chris. It wasn't even noon, and he was already completely exhausted.

"How much is the mother asking for?"

Jim shook his head. "It isn't like that."

"Then what's it like?"

Good question. Jim struggled to make sense of the situation well enough to explain things so Chris would understand. "I... I don't even know where she is. Or if the kid is really my son. I think he could be - she was faithful to me, as far as I knew. We were just children. This shouldn't have happened."

"Have you opted to get tested?"

Jim's laughter escaped, just barely. "I... no."

"She's not in the picture, no one is asking for money... so what's the problem?"

"The kid's grandfather. He's sick, really sick. I think he wants me to take the kid in until he gets well enough to take him back."

Chris sighed. "And you said no."

"I said no." Jim closed his eyes. Fuck, but that did not sound good.

"And now you feel like shit, because you think you just told your son to kiss your ass, be orphaned, right?"

It wasn't like that, either, but Jim couldn't explain that. He didn't have it in himself to explain the kind of life he led, or the way the kid would just get hurt in the end. He didn't have it in himself to explain that he was so fucking jaded from his own fucked up childhood that there was no way he was going to be able to give the kid what he needed to grow into a well adjusted member of society. He didn't have it in himself to explain that it was better for everyone to abandon the kid now, than to let the boy get close, let the kid come to trust him, and have to put him out like so much garbage. Jim didn't have it in him to explain anything, so he said nothing.

But Chris didn't seem to need an explanation. "Jim... if it's eating at your soul, and I'm gonna step out on a limb here and say that it is, then maybe you should reconsider your decision."

"But-" Jim stopped, all choked up.

"You know, there are people out there would give anything for the chance you've got. So many people separated from their kids, and are dying to get close to them." Chris shook his head. "You do what you gotta do, Jim. Just remember, not everyone gets this chance. Some people spend their whole lives missing their children."

A big fat tear rolled down Jim's face, but he said nothing – just stood there, weeping, while Chris went quietly back into the building. Oh, but Jim knew all about parents missing their children. And that sometimes, those children missed their parents back.

In the end, Jim followed Chris into his office to discuss how to take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, and then went home for the day. The thought of facing his coworkers again after that morning's meltdown was... unappealing. Besides, there was a phone call he needed to make, one that could only be made in private.

It didn't hurt that the bus was far less crowded when taken in the middle of the day.

He got home and fished out the Yellow Pages, and hoped like hell David Marcus kept his number listed. Well, okay, that the correct David Marcus kept his number listed, since clearly half the David Marcuses in Los Angeles were listed in the Yellow Pages.

Jim breathed a sigh of relief on the third number on the list. The familiar, wet wheeze came down the line like a song. Jim braced himself for what was probably going to be a really unpleasant conversation. "David Marcus?"


"This is Jim Kirk."

"Jim..." David hacked wetly, long and loud, and Jim turned the phone away from his own mouth, so David wouldn't hear him gagging in response. When David had recovered, Jim was standing over the kitchen sink, dry heaving and hating pretty much everything ever. "Now, listen, I did what your parents asked, I stayed away, so I don't know what-"

"I've changed my mind," Jim gasped. "I'll take the boy." There. He said it. Jim Kirk was going to settle down and take on some responsibility. Once the concept was out there in the open, a deep calmness washed over him.

"Now, Jimmy, I don't mean to be patronizing, but... he's not a puppy. You can't take him back to the store."

Jim's blood began to boil, but he forced himself to calmness. "People shouldn't be taking puppies back to the store either."

"That isn't what I was getting-"

"I know what you meant. But I'm telling you that I wouldn't take a puppy back to the store, no matter how hard being a pet owner makes my life. So you kinda don't need to worry about me returning a human being. Do you get what I'm getting at, now?"

David sounded contrite. "I do. I apologize. I forget you're not so young."

"Why? I'm the same age as Carol."

David's response was cryptic, hedgy. "Yes, well. That's not my story to tell."

Jim didn't know what the fuck that was supposed to mean. "Uh. Okay. Maybe we should work out the details of how I'm going to get him? I don't exactly have reliable transportation at the moment, so..."

"Huh. I guess we can talk about that..." David seemed to be off on his own planet, reaching for some unknown celestial beings well beyond Jim's scope. Jim hoped the guy wasn't stroking out on him, because that would be awkward, to say the least. "Listen," David said suddenly, "how about this?" The wheezing man described a park that was hilariously inconvenient for Jim to get to, considering the current vehicle situation. "Sound good?"

Jim decided not to press the issue of location. "Yeah, sure. Saturday okay?"

David hesitated. "Well, Jim-"

If Jim could work with having to bus hop all over the world, the old man could deal with the day Jim chose. "I'm available Saturday. The next time I'll be available to get to that particular park is the following Saturday. Your option is Saturday. Just say Saturday is okay. Everything else will work itself out, I assure you."

"Oh. Okay, then, Saturday is... okay. I guess. I have to check with my wife-"

"I'll see you this weekend. Saturday." Jim disconnected the phone before the old man could object.

Jim spent the next three days preparing for a new addition to the family. At work, he shifted responsibilities to the other librarians, wrapped up certain book purchases, and left instructions for the desk staff on which incoming items would need priority processing while he was out. Off the clock, he spent his time acquiring clear plastic covers for his living room furniture and raiding thrift shops for extra blankets. He came across an old Playstation on his forays, and realized that it might be a good idea to also get the television replaced. (The fact that his cable bill had arrived in the mail three days after destroying said television had apparently not been sufficient motivation to seek a replacement.) Having procured protection for his couches and some sort of entertainment device that didn't necessarily require constant parental input, Jim considered his home thoroughly prepared for the long term presence of a child. (He didn't even glance at his still empty refrigerator.)

Next on Jim's agenda was getting a set of wheels. There was no way he was going to be carting a kid around on the bus. He'd seen plenty of wild children hanging out in bus aisles, and he'd seen all the extra multitudes of shit parents seemed to need to carry around on the bus. Even parents travelling with their teenaged kids seemed to be bogged down with all the detritus in the universe.

If Jim was going to be bogged down with a bunch of extra shit, he was gonna do it in a car, thank you very fucking much.

He thought about buying another used car on the street, but he didn't really have enough extra cash for that kind of sudden expenditure – but the thought of tapping into his second, shadier income source gave him a better idea anyway. Gary had seemed pleased enough with his work. Maybe Gary had an extra set of wheels, some old clunker that Jim could use until he figured out what to do about Enterprise.

Gary hadn't been surprised in the slightest when Jim began putting out feelers on the car idea. "Yeah, I wondered when you were going to start asking. Don't worry, man, I got something much better than what I give any of the girls. Meet me in the parking lot by the AMC Theater in Rolling Hills after eight tomorrow night."

It took some doing, but Jim managed to get to the still fairly busy parking lot just a few minutes late. It was a Friday night, and people were still coming into the shopping center to eat at the fast food joints closest to the ever busy Crenshaw Blvd. It was going to be impossible to find Gary in the thick of all the party-time traffic.

"Jim! Over here, Jim! Man, you're blinder than a bat in a blizzard!"

Jim blinked at the colorful turn of phrase – Gary's ridiculous statement sounded almost exactly like something Leonard would say. Jim shuddered as he thought about the way they’d tiptoed around each other all week – neither of them wanted to be the first to apologize, and it made the atmosphere in the workroom awkward at best.

Jim scowled and physically turned away from the memories. He had more pressing issues at hand. Jim stepped over the knee high brick wall that separated the sidewalk from the shopping center, and made his way towards Gary.

He was careful to stay close to the parked cars as he picked his way through the lot – no matter what time of day it was, the lot was always full of batshit-crazy ass drivers who seemed to think that traffic laws were vague suggestions. He hesitated at an intersection, where he was vulnerable to all kinds of vehicular madness, but he saw nothing of interest. Carefully, Jim pressed on, towards the wall where Gary was waving his arms like a loon.

Suddenly, blinding lights blasted Jim from the right, and a giant SUV screeched towards him at about a gazillion miles an hour. He froze and stared right into the bright blue-white lights that were headed straight for him.

The behemoth slammed to a stop a hand's breadth from Jim's chest. Jim could feel his heart thumping like a jackrabbit on speed, and his breath rasped and burned in his dried out throat. The car jerked a little as it was shifted out of gear, and Jim jumped back a step. The driver's side door opened, and Helen poked her head out between the chassis and the wide swing of the door. She had a huge grin on her face. She pointed to her right – the direction Jim had originally been walking – and disappeared inside the SUV again.

Bewildered, Jim turned toward Gary, who was no longer waiting at the far end of the lot, but was trotting happily up to Jim and the ginormous vehicle from Hell. "Man, Jim, you are hilarious!" Gary's face was pink in the bright headlights. "Seriously, you could have your own comedy routine!"

"Very fucking funny, asshole." Jim leaned forward to get his head between his knees in an effort to not die of a fucking heart attack. "Somebody needs to tell her that's not how you treat someone who saved you from rape, by the way."

Gary guffawed even louder. "Jim, stop, I'm gonna piss myself here!" Soon, a hand was on Jim's arm, and he found himself being propelled into the driver's seat of the huge car. Jim flailed and fell over the center storage between the front bucket seats. He wriggled his way upright, holding onto the steering wheel for support, and saw the blinding flash of about a zillion straight white teeth in the rear view mirror. He twisted to glare at Helen, who was sitting almost primly in the middle column of the middle row of seats. She just waved a hand at him and grinned even wider.

By then, Gary had made his way over to the front passenger seat, and was hoisting himself into the car beside Jim. He started pushing buttons and pulling levers and rearranging knobs all at once, sometimes with both hands. "Okay," Gary said, after he'd adjusted everything he could possibly find to adjust in his seat, "it's time to roll." He rubbed his palms together briskly and grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Let's take this bad boy for a spin!"

Jim jumped away from the steering wheel like it was on fire. "Do what now? Take what? What?" There was more hysterical giggling, and Jim could feel his ears getting hot. "And just what the hell is so damn funny?"

"Oh man, Gary!" Helen actually snorted a few (a few!) times before she calmed down enough to really speak. "Sorry, sorry... but dude!" Jim glared at her in the rear view mirror while she wiped tear smeared mascara from her cheeks. "Man, I know you said it would be funny Gary, but damn! Oh, I needed that..."

Gary jumped up as much as he could to turn excitedly to the girl in the back. "I told you! Didn't I tell you?!"

"Hey!" Jim thumped the horn, and it blared through the parking lot, startling a number of people hurrying to and fro. "I'm so glad to bring the two of you so fucking much joy and everything, but I kinda wanna get home sometime tonight!"

"Yeah, well, with that, I'm gone fellas. I gotta get my beauty sleep too." Helen leaned forward and kissed Gary firmly but chastely on the mouth. "I'm supposed to be meeting with some old fart from some city council." She shuddered and turned towards Jim. "Gotta say, though, that sounds way better than dealing with that sick fucker from East L.A." She grimaced briefly before taking Jim's head in both her hands, and planting a much softer, much sweeter kiss on his lips. "Thanks sweetie. Seriously." She thumped him on the nose with a fingertip. "Stay hilarious!" And off she went, cackling into the night like a beautiful banshee.

Jim rubbed his nose, more from offense at having been laughed at all fucking night than any actual pain, and glared at Gary. "Are we done laughing at me?"

Gary was still smiling, but his demeanor shifted, just slightly. "That's no way to talk to a man who's doing you a favor," he said. "But you really helped my girl out the other night, and from an outsider's view point, I have the least reason to trust you, but you've been the straightest man I've had all fucking year." Gary shook his head. "That's some fucked up shit, let me tell you. You just can't trust people these days." He clapped Jim on the shoulder. "You, though? You I can trust. And do trust." He grinned wildly. "And will trust. With this."

"With what?"

Gary rolled his eyes. "The car, stupid."

Jim's mouth went dry. "Th-this? This huuuuuuge thing?"

"Uh, yeah. Why? What's the matter?"

Jim gaped at Gary. "Dude! Do you not remember what Enterprise looks like?"

Gary side-eyed Jim. "Enterprise. Jim. You are not talking about that miniature marshmallow from high school, are you?"

"SHE IS NOT A MARSHMALLOW OR MINATURE! She's a beautiful lady and I love her."

Gary stared at Jim a little longer before exploding into even more laughter. "Holy shit, Jim! I... this – I can't even..." Gary slid down the seat, he was laughing so much. "Duuuuude!"

"Favor or not, you really fucking suck, Gary."

"And you are really fucking hilarious!" Gary began to wheeze and choke on the laughter.

"I NOTICED." Jim put the car in gear and began to move forward. "Might as well get used to it," he grumbled.

By the time Gary had regained his composure, Jim was trying to navigate a wide right turn, and failing miserably. "Jim, just turn the wheel. Just turn the wheel, man. Just turn, turn the, turn –"

"Goddammit, I am turning!" They jumped a dividing curb and rocked perilously. "Fuck!"

"Watch it, Jim! This is a fucking Cadillac! I want my car back in one fucking piece, man!"

Jim slammed his foot on the brake. "I haven't even had a chance to warm the engine up and you're already riding my ass about giving the thing back?"

Gary went chillingly still. "This car is part of my fleet, Jim. It's one of the best in the fleet, and it's something I don't loan out to just any old body, but it's part of my fleet. You gotta earn the right to ride in any of my cars. And that means promising to take care of it, among other things."

Jim forced himself to calmness. He knew it wouldn't be as easy as 'here's the keys, have fun'. He maneuvered the car into an empty row of spaces and parked across three stalls before shutting the engine off. "Okay, Gary. Maybe I'd better ask exactly what this agreement is before I accept your offer, gracious though it may be."

"Maybe so." Gary's terms weren't terribly unreasonable, considering his line of work. The car (and the accompanying cellphone that magically appeared in Gary's hand) was free for Jim to use, so long as Jim continued to make himself reasonably available for sales. ("Don't worry, man, I know, you got a legit paycheck, I won't fuck with that. You know I'm looking out for you, just like you look out for me and mine, bro.") And Jim was certainly free to drop out of the business whenever he wanted, but he either had to return the car, or buy it off Gary. That was fine with Jim – he figured it probably took a whole tank of gas just to open the car's door. Besides, as soon as Enterprise was healthy and on the road again, he would gladly give up the behemoth.

Terms settled, Gary squeezed Jim's shoulder. "So. Ready to try again? Maybe with a little less crashing into shit?"

This time, Jim saw the humor. "Fuck you," he laughed. "Bumping up a two inch high curb does not constitute 'crashing into shit'!" And then he drove over a parking divider.

After an hour of merciless teasing and nonstop laughter, Jim was finally comfortable enough in the giant SUV to drop Gary off. Jim was directed to a small, unobtrusive little brick building at the bottom in a fairly industrial area. A couple of dudes with heavy leather jackets, black slacks and sunglasses stood at the door of the building, like they were part of some elite Blues Brothers Security Force. One of them approached the SUV and opened Gary's door. "Evening, Mr. Mitchell. Watch your step."

Gary looked back at Jim and winked. "Can't beat that, can you?" Gary's face turned serious. "Or maybe you can. Let's see, huh?" He turned to the man holding open the door. "Kevin, you see the man behind the wheel? This is Jim Kirk."

Kevin's lips parted in awe, just a bit, and the other guard approached the car cautiously. They both took off their sunglasses and gaped at Jim, just enough to give him the creepy crawlies. Finally, Kevin extended a hand past Gary's chest. It shook visibly. "It's an honor to finally meet you, Mr. Kirk."

Jim took the offered hand and shook briefly. The fuck? What the hell could Gary have told a couple of guards?

The other guard made his way around to the other side of the truck. "Will you be coming inside, Mr. Kirk?" The guard almost looked like he wanted to beg for the opportunity to open the door for Jim.

Gary slid out of the vehicle and landed on the gravel covered sidewalk with a crunch. "He will, Martin, if only for a few minutes." Gary walked towards the door, and never looked back at Jim's bewildered face.

The driver's side door opened, and Martin grinned at him like a mad man. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir. This year just keeps getting better and better." He helped Jim, who was too confused to respond, out of the car, and guided him to the door that Gary had just entered. "Kevin will give your car the once over, sir – looks like someone bumped a curb on that front right tire there. We'll have it all cleaned up, just like Mr. Mitchell ordered." Jim was scooted inside the building, and just before the heavy door latched completely, he could hear the two men talking excitedly – no wonder Mr. Mitchell ordered the Escalade, he'll stay for sure, ready for the big time now!

Jim turned his attention away from the door when he could hear them no more, and went down the short corridor to a second interior door. This door had no knob, just a plate on the side, like a swinging door. He pushed it gently.

Dark, pulsating electronic music blasted him to his very bones. Purple light flooded the little vestibule where he hid. There were tables and chairs inside, with several well dressed men taking drinks from practically naked serving girls. Some areas had brighter lights, almost like spotlights, and in each of these areas was an elevated stage. The one closest to Jim had a girl swinging from a pole.


He went inside, and was yanked to his right, and swung in a circle, before being shoved roughly onto a leather couch. "Jimmyboy!"

Jim careened through the air and landed with a flop against the cushion and tried to get a hold of his adrenaline spiked heart. "Hi, Finnegan," he said breathlessly.

"Lay off him, Finnegan, he's been at work all day," Gary said.

To Jim's surprise, Finnegan didn't protest, or even make a face. He just leaned forward and helped Jim to sit up properly on the couch. A few familiar faces gathered around the three of them, all gaping happily at Jim, as if he'd returned from the dead. "The gang's all here," Finnegan said with a smile.

Everyone tensed a little. Gary sighed and waggled his fingertips over his head. A blond girl with a pink thong, pink heels, and pink pasties on what were probably pink nipples hurried over as fast as she could in her heels, and leaned into the group. "Yeah, Gary?"

"A toast, to missing friends, Tina."

Tina nodded briskly, and caught sight of Jim. "And new friends?" The tone of her voice made it quite clear that she wanted to be friends with Jim, if at all possible.

Gary's answering smile was more of a grimace, and Tina ducked away without another word. A moment later, she came back with several empty shot glasses, and two bottles of rum. She poured the drinks quickly, and hurried off, not wanting Gary's attention on her for any longer than strictly necessary.

No one touched the glasses until Gary plopped himself down on the couch right next to Jim, and grabbed a pair of shots. Everyone else took his own shot glass, and watched Gary's next move. Gary reverently passed one of his glasses to Jim, and nodded sagely at Jim. "To James Kirk. Wherever he is, we wish him nothing but the best."

"To James Kirk!" They slammed their shots in unison, and Jim realized this was a ritual they'd engaged in many times. They'd never forgotten him.

Jim swirled the dark rum in his own glass, and thought about how charmed his life had been since he'd turned his back on this group of friends. He'd gotten his degrees, he'd found a place to live, he'd made a life for himself. Had they been rooting for him all the while? He wasn't a superstitious man – he knew he'd worked hard to get where he'd gotten in life, and had that the good things he'd had were a result of that hard work. But he also knew that he'd been damned lucky at times. And this now explained why Gary hadn't turned him away when his prescriptions had reawakened old hungers, why Gary hadn't turned his back on him in Hollywood. Jim held up his own glass, and said quietly, "To well wishers of old, whose good luck has always arrived in the nick of time." He drained his glass and set it down on the table, and waited.

It was the closest Jim had ever come to seeing Gary submit to an emotional break down. Gary turned away from Jim's ernest stare and settled in to compose himself, before reaching out for the remaining bottle of rum. Glasses were refilled, and Gary was back in control of himself. He lifted his glass. "To Carol Marcus. May she find peace in her choice."

Jim blinked. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? But the crew seemed to waiting for Jim, so he took up his glass, and, not quite in sync with the group, called out, "To Carol Marcus!"

Then there were hands on Jim's shoulders, his back, ruffling his hair, squeezing his arms. Some people were as choked up as he and Gary had been pretending not to be, while some were just ridiculously enthusiastic about his reappearance in the group. The well wishing seemed to go on forever, and the bottle was soon drained, replaced, and drained again. Jim was careful not to take a third shot – the first two were already fucking with his equilibrium, and he had a long drive ahead.

After a little while, Jim was ushered, arm in arm with his oldest buddies, to a seat close to one of the five elevated stages in the room, and offered more drinks and a tapas sampler. Gary and Finnegan had drunkenly and enthusiastically gushed about the success of their latest venture, and were explaining the set of the room, the set up of the legitimate business arrangement, and how this slotted so beautifully into their not so legitimate business arrangements. Most of what Jim had gotten out of their explanations was that they were principal owners of this particular strip joint, and there were five stages, and their best dancer was about to show up on this one.

The stage darkened dramatically, and the guys in the seats closest to Jim were suddenly hushed. The silhouette of a woman appeared at the far end of the stage. She was small, with shapely legs. Her hair whipped out as she swung her upper body to the beat. The key changed, and she ran out, again in time with the music, to the end of the stage where she began to methodically remove her clingy leather outfit. She looked down where Jim sat, and almost – almost – lost her rhythm. But she recovered quickly, and executed the rest of her routine with divine precision.

Jim, meanwhile, was stuck on one question: Helen could dance?

Jim sat back and processed this new tidbit. So not only had he saved one of their girls, he'd saved probably their favorite. No wonder everyone was so excited that he'd intervened. Jim reached into his wallet and pulled out some of the cash that Gary had rewarded him with. He grabbed an almost half inch stack of the smaller bills and flicked them up onto the stage. Helen caught the movement, and smiled broadly, bringing those deep, deep dimples out for all to see. Jim gave her a little wave and leaned over to talk in Gary's ear. "Thanks for the bonus cash, man. I always wanted to make it rain, and I doubt I will ever get a better opportunity, or a more deserving dancer."

Gary was smiling just as broadly – of course, because Jim was sure that Gary took a cut of the girls tips. "You're a prince among men."

Jim meant to say something witty, but what came out was a giant yawn. He frowned. "Apparently, this prince should have been in bed a while back, man."

"Hey, stay in the back," Finnegan said over Jim's shoulder. "We can put you up!"

It was a tempting offer, but Jim needed to be able to wash the stink of strip club off himself before next day's appointment in the park. "Thanks, man, but I have to get home. I've got a really important meeting tomorrow."

"What kind of meeting?" Gary was sharp, cold.

There was no logical reason for Jim to lie, but the way Gary's joy flipped off like a switch made his hackles rise. Instinct told him to keep the details of his private life completely to himself. "At work. Something about the library budget. They probably just want to tell us we can't buy more books this year."

Gary stared at him, as if he were trying to bore his way into Jim's soul, to steal the truth from him if Jim wouldn't offer it outright. "Isn't tomorrow Saturday?"

Jim kept his cool and held Gary's gaze. "Yeah, that's what makes the meeting important. Apparently, we'll listen better if we have to rearrange our schedules to accommodate this meeting." He rolled his eyes, hamming it up. "I'm surprised they didn't schedule it for half past midnight on a Sunday morning."

Gary watched him a little longer, but Jim could see that he was going to buy it. Finally, Gary shook his head. "See, this is why I didn't go the corporate route. You're definitely a better man than me, dude." Gary peered into Jim's eyes. "You let me know when you're ready to drop out of the rat race."

As grateful as Jim was for the warm welcome, the timely assistance, and the beautiful perks, there was no way in hell Jim was going to get himself further ensnared in Gary's crazyass world. He smiled broadly. "I will keep that in mind, man."

Jim got to his feet and began the long process of saying goodbye to all his old cronies, promising them all he'd be back, before finally escaping into the night.

He drove away from the little strip club at the edge of Signal Hill, and sighed unhappily. It was a long drive back home, and he was a little too drunk to feel comfortable with so long a commute. His options were slim – find a dive motel, pull over and sleep in the car, or suck it up and drive the fuck back home.

He crossed over the city line into Long Beach. Jim slowed down – Leonard lived in Long Beach. But he and Leonard were fighting (again). Still, it was another option, and even with the way they'd been at each other's throats, bugging Leonard still looked a lot better than any of the other solutions Jim had come up with. Decision made, Jim pulled into the nearest gas station to ask how to get to the bridge over the Port of Long Beach. He'd be able to figure out the rest from there.

Chapter 8
Chapter 10

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