TITLE: THE REPLACEMENT

AUTHOR: MINN

DISCLAIMER: I don't own nothin' - mores the pity - just playing. No character was really harmed during the typing of this nonsense. The creators of Third Watch are, of course, gods. (But if you ever do get stuck for ideas, guys, gimme a call...HAH!)

CHEERS! to all the kind folks who said such nice things about my maiden outing "Grace". Just remember, if you encourage me, you'll NEVER get rid of me...

EXPLAINATION: This wasn't HALF as much fun to write as Grace was, so don't feel too bad if you find yourself not liking it. Consider this as back-story - the journey to Grace, if you like. But be patient. Nothing in the Minn-verse ever happens quickly...

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PART ONE

Somewhere at the edge of the darkness that held her close, voices echoed.

Though they sounded nearer this time and had more form, there was still a detached, almost disembodied character to them she found disturbing. The pain that accompanied her attempts to focus on anything other than the still black fog in which she felt suspended was excruciating.

Instinctively she withdrew from the voices and they began to fade.

The next occasion the voices intruded upon her consciousness they were stronger and clearer than ever. This time she could discern they were that of two men and a woman. Her other senses brought her the feel of coarse and heavy blankets covering her and the smell of musty stale air mingled with wood smoke. The surface on which she lay tried its best to be comfortable in places, but was mostly lumpy and bruising.

The voices were in earnest conversation.

"We should have taken her to a hospital," one of the men was saying.

"No hospitals!" yelped the woman. "Not what they did to Billie."

"Billie was old," said the other man in a tone that was softer, gentler than the others.

"No hospitals!"

The sharpness of the woman's voice was like a knife to her skull. Lying prone she guessed somewhere not too far from them she attempted to rise. A gasp escaped her as pain shot around her head and down through every inch of her. As it subsided she raised an unsteady hand and gingerly fingered a large and very painful lump on her head just above her right temple.

Silence followed, so complete she began to wonder if those who had been speaking were still there.

"She's awake," she heard the woman say in a hoarse stage whisper.

A hand gently touching her arm followed the sounds of a shuffling approach.

"You OK?" asked the gentle voice.

Her throat was parched and uncooperative. Barely able to open her eyes, her vision was less than perfect, and though the room was far from brightly lit, what illumination there was proved barely tolerable. She tried her voice once more.

"Where am I?"

"Safe!"

The reply was so loud and so close it made her jump.

"Meredith!" hissed the gentle voice. "Not so loud."

The owner of the voice moved closer and despite the shortcomings in her vision she could see he was an elderly man with a kind face.

"Would you like a drink?" he asked softly.

She nodded as gently as she was able. The man produced a small glass and offered it to her. The rust flavoured water was only just palatable but it felt good washing the back of her throat. She slowly turned her head to where Meredith crouched watching her with wide-eyed fascination. She wasn't as elderly as the man, nor was she young, but her face had a strange child-like quality to it.

"What happened to you?" Meredith suddenly asked.

Another voice, further back in the shadows where her vision wasn't reaching, responded tartly: "We've already told you about a dozen times!"

The glass paused on her lips. A confusing rush of images paraded through her mind but none of them had any meaning to her. They may as well have been the memories of a stranger. As the moments passed her confusion grew and slowly began to consolidate into panic. Her mind was a puzzle of abstract pieces that had no order or meaning to her whatsoever. The rising panic reached new heights when she found she could not even recall her own name.

She looked from the man to Meredith and back again.

"I...can't think properly..."

Images flew through her mind. She chased each one frantically but they just became even more elusive and incomprehensible.

"My name...what's my name?"

There was a moment's pause.

"Marti," said the man with comforting authority. "I'm Manny, or Manfred if you want to be proper; this is Meredith. And over there," he indicated into the shadows, "is Lockey."

"You know me?"

"Of course we do," Manny assured her with a warm smile. "We've all been together...what is it now Meredith? Five years?"

Meredith stared at her companion blankly. In the background Lockey was muttering something that she couldn't quite make out.

"You need to rest, Marti," Manny said, taking her hand with warm familiarity as he relieved it of the now empty glass. "You've been through a lot.

"I need to know what happened..." she began, but discovered quickly what a bad idea trying to rise was. Falling back against the musty pillows behind her wasn't terribly clever either, because the pain that shot through her head and most of her body was searing.

"As I said, you need to rest some more," she heard Manny say. After tucking the blankets around her he rose from the rickety old chair he had been sitting in and shuffled away. Meredith trotted after him.

Once he was some distance from her he took Lockey to one side and whispered: "Don't ask any stupid questions. Go and find the others."

"What the hell are you up to old man?" Lockey hissed.

"Just go and find the others," Manny replied. "And take Meredith with you."

When his companions had gone Manny settled himself at the old battered table in the centre of the room upon which an old lamp and some candles sat. From his coat pocket he pulled a scrap of newspaper. Carefully unfolding it he peered again at the photo accompanying the article on a New York City police officer, missing, feared dead.

He leaned closer to the lamp and squinted at the name beneath photo accompanying the article.

"Officer...Faith...Yokas."

Crumpling the paper back into his pocket Manny looked over to where their new companion lay and exhaled heavily.

"Not any more."

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TBC