an excerpt

Chapter One

The dry breath of the desert winds sucked up any hope of a mild day. It was barely six thirty, the sun not all the way over the horizon, and already the temperature hovered in the eighties. Bishop mussed his short cropped black hair with one hand before shoving a baseball cap emblazoned with the probation department logo on top of his head. He'd dropped his stuff off in the staff dormitory a few minutes earlier. In another hour and a half his twenty-four hour shift would officially start, although as a supervisor, Bishop liked to get in early to make sure the shift changeover went smoothly. He huffed out a breath and headed towards the administrative building.

The juvenile probation camps were where he'd started his gig with the department. When he made supervisor he'd asked to go back. Most all of his buddies in the department thought he was nuts. But the camps...they offered just a little bit of hope. It wasn't juggling a caseload of guys, waiting for them to fuck up so he could send them back in. This was a chance-a brief, slim chance-to route a few of those with brains and promise, who'd been shot down by fate into shitty situations and a bad home life, into a better future.

Bishop didn't kid himself. Probably more than ninety percent would cycle through the system; moving on to bigger and badder offenses. But if one in ten...hell one in fifty, turned their life around, it would be worth it.

A group of detainees and officers quick timed it towards the mess hall, most likely heading from calisthenics. They belted out, "Good morning, Officer Priest!" as they passed. The juveniles all wore identical haircuts, khaki uniforms, and carried identical black binders clasped in hands held behind their backs. It set them apart from the light olive drab utility pants and white shirts of the assigned officers.

"Morning, boys," Bishop called back as he watched them head to breakfast.

He knew most of them by name...well, the newest ones, not so much. Give him a week and he'd have ‘em down. Of course then there'd be another ten more detainees rotating in and out. Longest anyone ever stayed was eighteen months. Any longer of a sentence and they weren't candidates for the diversionary probation camps. Six dormitory pods with twenty-four beds each, housing kids between twelve and eighteen years old. Most of the detainees fell between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, which meant racing hormones and boundless stupidity. They tried to keep them all occupied with classes, chores, and physical activity. It generally worked. A few fights were about as bad as it got. Those disciplinary problems tended to be easily solved by transferring the troublemakers out of the camp and into more secure detention facilities.

The sprawling camp could be a maze if you didn't know the setup. For Bishop it meant a leisurely stroll between buildings while he got his head oriented for the day. There were rosters to go through, new caseloads to assign, and meetings to set up between the probation officers working outside the camp and those detainees scheduled for supervised release. That didn't keep him from noticing everything around him. The detainees had committed all sorts of crimes to land under his watch: from minor assaults to grand theft auto. If an officer let his mind wander too much, he'd be setting himself up for getting jumped.

One of the things he noticed was a rangy guy brushing down one of the pregnant mares in the paddock. The man looked up, smiled, and hailed him with a quiet, "Morning, Bishop."

In the months since getting transferred back to the camps, Bishop had usually managed to just avoid Russ. Especially with the extended vacation Russ had taken in the interim-probably to avoid him as well.

He didn't have to have a lot of interaction anyway. Russ was a part-time instructor, part of the 4-H program tending some of the sheriff's department's horses and mules. Since Bishop was a supervisory probation officer, his time was spent mostly on more administrative duties, not walking the detainees to and from classes or vocational training.

Still, Bishop wasn't so adverse to the man's company that he wouldn't be polite. "Morning, Mr. Scholtz." In fact, there'd been times where he'd actively sought it out. The last six months hadn't been one of those times.

Russ gave the mare a few more swipes with the soft brush before untying her and letting her wander towards the donkey that kept her calm. "You don't have to be so formal." He slapped his hands against his jeans and then ducked between the metal rails.

Even though Bishop knew Russ was around, it always jangled him a bit seeing him: beat-up jeans, broken-in cowboy boots, and a sun-worn smile. "I'm not really comfortable being that familiar." A few more lines crinkled the corners of his green eyes, maybe a bit of gray had crept into his mustache, but it was so hard to tell with a redhead. Of course, he supposed that span of years since they first met hadn't done him too many favors either.

"You talk like you don't use anyone else's first name." Russ added a snort to the barb. "Like you don't know me or something." That line came loaded with a lot of subtext that Bishop wasn't in the mood to figure out.

Instead he shrugged and just kept walking. "Not where a detainee might overhear." They insisted the detainees all use last names prefaced by either officer or mister/miss for the teachers. "Where people I work with might overhear." Bishop first met the man back when Russ still wore the uniform of the county sheriff and was the guy who was always on Bishop to be more cautious around other officers. Cynical deputy Russel Scholtz had hooked up with an idealistic young probation officer with a stupid ass name-on again, off again for a good seven years.

After a pause, like he just might let Bishop go, Russ hustled forward and fell into step with Bishop. "Point taken." He blew out a breath like he didn't know what to say next. Finally, he asked, "How you doing?"

Bishop never knew Russ to be at a loss for words. Still, he wished Russ would just walk away, leave him alone, but it didn't seem he'd get that lucky. "You know, same shit different day." A little part of him though, one he tried to shove into the out-of-the-way corners of his mind, felt kinda pleased that Russ still wanted to be near him, talk with him.

Another long, heavy, and drawn-out pause ebbed between them before Russ huffed, "Doesn't tell me much."

Somehow, he managed to get the niggling thought buried deep enough to respond. "Yep," he agreed in the most noncommittal voice he could manage. Fighting his own need to just fall down on his knees kept Bishop's mind too occupied to try and puzzle out Russ' mood.

Russ fell silent again for a bit then added, "You know, we ought to grab coffee sometime." It was the lamest come-on Bishop had ever been hit with and it boggled him that Russ was the one who said it. It came off forced and hesitant, like Russ wanted to suck back the words the moment they came out of his mouth.

This time Bishop figured he'd be a little more direct on the brush-off. "I'll catch up with you about that some other time." His tone indicated that some other time would likely be a cold day in hell. ‘Cause if they got coffee then dinner sometime might follow. Enough dinners, and sooner or later Bishop would end up with a bit in his mouth and a tail plugging his ass. The hot flare that thought brought on jolted down his spine and Bishop had to tighten his jaw and jam his hands under his pits to keep a shudder from following the heat.

A tight grin spread across that sun-worn face; Bishop rarely managed to hide his reactions to Russ from Russ. "I don't bite, Bishop." Russ actually laughed as he said it. "I don't have any hard feelings. I never do." Something in his tone implied otherwise.

Since Bishop had been the one to bolt each time things got serious, he figured Russ might feel that way. "Good to know." Bishop's tight grin equaled barely polite. "We'll catch up later." He picked up his pace just a hair.

Russ called after him, "You going to make me hunt you down?"

Bishop stopped, turned, and glared. "That's stalking a law enforcement officer. Not the best plan."

Two steps closed the slight distance between them. "Keep running, Bishop, I'll break you sooner or later." Russ' grin flooded the sun all through his face. "You keep coming back to the sugar." He rocked back and laughed, then added, "'Sides, I may have done my thirty, got my pension...but I'm still in the reserves." Another, kind of forced, biting laugh echoed the first. "Still got a badge." Then he leaned close again so no one but Bishop could hear. "Still got your tack." It almost sounded as though Russ pleaded with him. "Nobody else can wear it." Russ never pleaded with anyone, and Bishop figured he'd read that wrong.

Still, it struck him in all the sensitive places of his past, present. Places Bishop wasn't comfortable going. Both Bishop's hands came up, heel of his palms forward, fingers curled back. Bishop slammed Russ in the chest with a mule kick blow. Just hard enough to back him off. "Fuck you," he hissed. Shaking it off, Bishop turned and walked away. He looked back, just once, to catch Russ standing there, arms crossed over his chest, and shaking his head.

The rest of Bishop's day didn't develop much better. His morning filled up with staffing issues. Guys out sick and green officers needing training sunk him into the morass of unionized bureaucracy. Each fix created a different set of complications. It gave him a headache just dealing with the normal administrative details of coverage combined with a twenty-four on, forty-eight off shift schedule. Any wrench in the machinery took six times as long to sort out.

Finally, Bishop subdued those problems into a reasonable semblance of a solution. That meant turning to the mountains of forms and reports to hack through. All of it had to be juggled with the daily head counts being phoned in, meetings with officers, counselors or other staff, and insuring that Jasontae, a detainee on Gold status and assigned to help him with general office work, actually knew his alphabet well enough to file. It never ceased to amaze Bishop how many kids hit the juvenile justice system unable to read even a menu.

A subtle rap on the wall followed by, "Hey, Priest!" broke into his concentration.

At the sound of his name, Bishop pulled off his reading glasses and looked up from the most recent in a line of the dozens of forms he'd filled out so far. "Hey, Jackson." With four years under his belt, Cliff Jackson rated as pretty senior in the detention staff. Most officers bailed for street work as soon as they possibly could.

"The gang at the cafeteria said you hadn't come in today." Jackson's worn smile flashed as he plunked a tray of food down on a marginally clear area of Bishop's desk. "Asked me to run your lunch by on my way to pick up some inmates from counseling."

Bishop encouraged his staff to eat the same meals the juveniles were served as much as practical. The menu complaints of an adult armed with a Tazer, and union backing, got heard much better than those of a sixteen-year-old in custody.

He reminded the man, "Inmates are in prisons, detainees are at camps." Then he picked up a compacted, vaguely muffin-shaped, hunk of meat. Neither it, nor the mound of soupy mashed potatoes, looked particularly appetizing.

"Allegedly it's meatloaf." Jackson answered Bishop's unspoken question with another wry grin. "They said something about baking it in the cupcake trays makes it easier to serve." He pointed to a Styrofoam cup filled with brown liquid on the edge of the tray. "Put enough of the gravy on it and it's decent."

Still dubious, Bishop asked, "You ate it?"

"Two hours ago." He laughed. "I ain't sick yet." Jackson turned and headed to the door where he stopped. Reaching up, he slid the insert for the interchangeable name plate, currently indicating Bishop Priest, Sup., back and forth with his index finger. "Why the hell didn't you become a minister with your name?" A smile, a truer and friendlier one, over his shoulder followed the question.

Bishop paused from dunking the meatloaf-muffin in the cup. "Probation officer, social worker, priest, same crappy pay for the same job."

"No shit." Jackson agreed with a shake of his square-jawed head. "Okay, I've got to get my set of detainees now." When he was truly amused, Jackson's grin echoed of a wolf staring down a sheep. He left, rubbing his thick neck and snuffling down chuckles that sounded like growls.

Bishop chewed on his food, made palatable by liberal application of gravy, as he waded into reviewing intake reports. There were days when the job seemed insurmountable. A short-timer who'd always earned enough "points" to be on Gold or Silver behavior status would lose it and go after a staff member. The success story who'd walked out the gate a month ago within sight of his GED, would float back across his desk on a list of new arrivals. Civilian committee oversight visits always managed to coincide with broken freezers, busted sewer pipes, and dormitory brawls leading to lockdowns.

Sometimes he wished he could just step away from his problems like yesterday's dirty clothes. Only certain things got him out of it enough, rejuvenated him enough, for him to face striding back into a failing system to search for the small victories. Russ was about the only one who knew how to do those certain things to Bishop...and he'd quit him cold turkey six months earlier. Seven years on and off, with Bishop only able to handle how much he needed Russ and the way they were together, in chunks of time. He'd get overwhelmed by it all and bolt in fear before he lost the ability to leave. Russ never demanded that of him; Bishop just knew that someday he'd wake up and find himself so intertwined with Russ that he couldn't walk away.

It didn't help his concentration that those thoughts of Russ, little tendrils of mental ivy, kept working their way into the cracks in his consciousness. Ever since he ran in to Russ that first day back at the camps...well the distraction of him being even that close rattled Bishop. On shift, he had to consciously avoid the stable areas as much as possible-hard enough because it sat between the staff dormitory and admin building. Off-shift time was spent fighting the urge to get in the car, drive over, and take Russ up on his repeated attempts to reconnect.

Somehow, he managed to shove it all down and move on with his day.