Sorry it's been so long. RL and writer's block made writing a challenge, but this story came with surprising ease--even if I didn't know what the story was about or how it was going to end when I began it. I guess it was sort of a "free association" writing project.
Thanks to my beta, K2, who was there for every chapter, and to Lilguppee who caught the little things at the end.
Hope you enjoy!
"How you gonna tell him?" Simon asked softly.
"I don't know. How do you tell someone that he threw away his life for nothing? That he threw away millions for nothing?"
"It wasn't for nothing in his mind."
"He wanted me to be able to do my job...but I can't. We both know that. If something serious had happened to Brown and Rafe...."
"It didn't, Jim."
"But it could have. That damn reporter giving away their location because he was trying to interview me. It's bad enough when the criminals 'test' me, trying to get the biggest story about the sentinel to tell in jail, but to have my fellow officers put in danger.... You understand, don't you, Captain?"
Simon looked at the gun and badge on his desk. "I understand, but I don't have to like it. It'll blow over--"
"We've been saying that for weeks now and it hasn't diminished. I'm like some damn retired gunfighter in the Old West. Everyone is out to 'best' me--reporters, criminals, hell, even some of the cops here at the station. And it's only going to get worse with Sandburg graduating from the academy next week."
"He's worked hard. Don't you think he's going to resent it that you let him stay, let him go through all that shit for nothing?"
"Probably." Jim rubbed his hand against the back of his neck. "I figure the anger will offset the guilt he's going to feel. I'd rather he be angry at me than himself."
"Or his mother," Simon muttered.
"I'd rather leave the 'estranged family' part of the equation in my camp, sir."
"Fine. But you're the one stuck out on a limb without a damn net," Simon said angrily. "What are you and the kid going to do now?"
Jim sighed. "I don't know if there's going to be any more 'me and the kid.' Maybe it's better if he just cuts me loose."
"But maybe he should. Even without his doctorate, he's an educated man. Me? I'm just a worn-out, burnt-out walking advertisement for Mercenary Today."
"You don't have to become a goddamned mercenary!"
"Of course not. I can always use my talents to be a fucking rent-a-cop!" Jim took a deep breath and forced his fingers to uncurl from his palms. "I'll be okay, Simon. My government pension will kick in, and I have a trust fund that I've never touched.... I'll probably be leaving Cascade."
"And go where? Back to your Indians in Peru?"
Jim shook his head. "I can't go back there, not after how I failed Incacha."
"You caught his murderer."
"I allowed him to be murdered."
Simon growled beneath his breath. "Most fucking fools have chips on their shoulders. You want to carry the whole fucking world up there, Ellison."
"That's me, sir. The fucking freak who thinks he's Atlas."
"I--I'll keep you informed, sir. Let you know--what decisions Sandburg and I come up with, together or independently. You've been a good friend to both of us. Thank you for that."
"You're not going to do anything foolish, are you?"
Jim chuckled grimly. "You mean like using my spare piece for personal use? No, I'm not going to add the weight of my death to Sandburg's shoulders. One person lugging the world around is enough."
Simon tossed his glasses to the desktop and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I hate this."
"Fate's always been a bitch, sir."
"You scare me when you start throwing the 'sirs' around."
"Just trying for some distance. It won't do for the others to watch me run out of here crying like a baby. Bad for morale."
Jim smiled and resisted the urge to brush away the tear he felt creeping down his cheek. "Spoken like a true leader. As Spock would say, 'Live long and prosper, Captain.'"
Jim straightened his spine, opened the door, and never looked back.
Jim laughed as he saw the items he'd piled into the grocery cart. Comfort foods--mac and cheese, Oreos, Captain Crunch…. Shit. The stuff you'd feed a kid when you told him his puppy was now in puppy heaven. Despite how he and Simon referred to his partner, Blair was no kid. He was a man who'd had his share of ups and downs. He'd handle this with the same elan Jim had.
He turned down the Kleenex aisle.
Something tapped his arm. He looked down to see an actual kid--maybe seven or eight--holding out a pen and pad. He sighed and started to give out his patented, "I'm just a cop" speech. Then he thought, "What the hell?"
"To my fan, Jason, from J. Ellison, The Sentinel," he scribbled with flourish. The kid read it, clutched the pad to his chest, and ran off to find his parents.
Jim went to the medicine aisle and stocked up on Pepto and Pepcid AC.
"Simon give you the afternoon off, man?" Blair asked as he slung his backpack into its usual corner.
Jim didn't look up from the grilled cheese sandwich he was making. "How did you do on the shooting range?"
"Solid top fourth of the class. Your tutoring last weekend helped a lot. The sandwiches smell good. Need any help?"
"You can get us something to drink. I'll take a water."
Blair walked toward the fridge. "You expecting Simon to call?"
"No." Jim heard Blair's heart spike a beat at that.
"We out of beer?"
"You feeling queasy?"
"No. I just don't feel like beer."
Blair nodded and opened the refrigerator. "There's a gallon of milk in here."
"With eyesight like that, why are you wearing glasses?"
Blair didn't laugh. Instead he went to the cabinet. Jim watched him take out the Oreos and the Captain Crunch.
"Jim, stop cooking."
"I'm almost thr-- "
Blair turned off the burner and set the pan on a trivet. Jim removed his apron and followed his partner to the sofa.
"First, does this involve the…death of anyone that you or I know?" Jim shook his head, and Blair let a breath escape. "So tell me."
"I turned in my badge and gun today."
Blair's heart started beating in double time. "Why?"
Jim decided to gamble with a near truth. "Disability retirement." He pointed his chin toward the cane that he still used when tired. He and Simon had chosen that as the excuse he was going to give the department.
Blair looked at Jim's leg, then back to Jim. "Bullshit."
"The doctors are always telling you that you're going to have limited range of motion, that your injury is going to hamper your performance, blah, blah, blah, and you always tell them to fuck off, then prove them dead wrong."
"I've never told a doctor to fuck off in my life. At least, not aloud," Jim amended.
Blair sighed. "Wanna tell me the truth now, Jim?"
Oh, well, he'd tried. "My fellow officers are at risk because of me."
Blair blinked twice. "What happened?"
"Brown and Rafe were on a stakeout. Just as the suspect was coming out of his apartment, a news van drove up to ask them about setting up an interview with me. A car chase ensued. Brown and Rafe wrecked."
A deep breath. "Were they injured?"
"Thankfully no. Just angry."
"But you're angry at you?"
"Yes." Jim smelled blood and looked at Blair's hands. His fingernails were curled tightly into his palms.
"Why--why did the reporter want an interview with you?"
"They wanted to interview the sentinel."
Blair paled. "They didn't believe me?"
Jim shrugged. "For five minutes maybe. But when it leaked out that you were at the academy, they put two and two together. Actually, the criminal element wasn't even fooled that long."
"The criminal…. What kind of shit have you been putting up with while I've been at the academy?"
"A man robbed a bank and deliberately used a distinctive cologne to lead me to him. A reporter blew a dog whistle and took video of me grabbing my ears. The guys at the station put a pea into the stuffing of my office chair." Those were the mild tests. Blair didn't need to hear about the rest.
"You're being tortured? Because of me?"
Jim laughed uneasily. "Ease up on the melodrama, Chief."
Blair stood and went to the bookcase. He pulled down a dictionary and flipped through it familiarly. "Torture--anguish of the body or mind. Torture--to cause intense suffering to."
Jim stayed silent.
"I--I thought that reporter that kept hounding me about you just wanted an interview with the local fraud," Blair mumbled distractedly.
"You didn't tell me someone was harassing you."
"And you didn't tell me you were being tortured. Goddamn it, Jim! Why were you keeping this from me?"
"Because I knew you'd get yourself all wound up about it."
"And why shouldn't I--since it's my fault!"
Jim got up and limped toward the patio doors. The injury was being a bitch about healing, but Blair had been correct; with physical therapy and the occasional painkiller, he could have passed any fitness exam. Still, he wasn't going to need his sentinel senses to tell him when bad weather was approaching. "Haven't we moved on past the blame game, Chief? Everybody did what they did, reacted how they reacted, and now that's in the past. It's not your fault you're a lousy liar."
"I'm not a lousy liar."
"You're bragging about that?" Jim smiled to show he was teasing. "It's time we ease up on ourselves, Blair. The world goes round, shit happens, and we deal."
"How? You're a cop, man, and thanks to me--" He stopped when Jim glared at him. "And thanks to circumstances, you have to quit. How do you deal with that?"
"The same way I dealt with graduating high school, graduating college, and leaving the Army. I don't necessarily like change, and I may bitch about it for a while, but I eventually adjust."
"But you're not bitching," Blair argued, "And I think that's what's scaring me the most." Jim just shrugged. "When does your retirement go into effect?"
"Immediately. Simon's sending in the paperwork. I.A. has cleared me in the matter of Zeller's death. I've been on desk duty for the past several weeks so my cases are all up to date or closed. I have a couple of weeks of vacation and by the time it's used up, it'll be official."
"What am I supposed to do?" Blair asked, looking around the loft, lost.
Jim opened his mouth to say, "It's your life," but then he closed it. It wasn't Blair's life. Blair had given up his life in a vain attempt to allow Jim his. Now, neither one of them had much of anything. "Focus on the short term, Chief. Tomorrow morning; either get up and go to the academy, or don't. Your choice."
Blair nodded. "Go. I'll go, finish. Too many things left unfinished lately."
"Yes." A finished dissertation, but not a doctorate.
"And who knows, somewhere down the road, the training might be useful." Blair looked happy that that was settled. "What about you? Short term?"
"Sleep in. Read that copy of The Art of War that you gave me for Christmas. It's a good book to have. You find something new each time you read it."
"Are you 'zenning' on me now, Jim? Is this what this calm acceptance is all about?"
Jim chuckled bitterly. Had he been such a jerk lately that the kid was worried that he wasn't exploding? Didn't say a lot for him, did it? "Sometimes when you're surfing, it seems like everything is calm all around you. But you know that there's a wave building far in the distance and that when that wave comes, you're in for a hell of a ride that will always end at the shore. The wave's been building so it's not really a shock to me," he tried to explain.
"You should have told me."
"We can't…we learned from the mess with Alex that we can't keep things from each other."
"You mean like you kept what your mother had done from me, until a reporter stuck a mike in my face?"
Shit. He hadn't meant to say that.
"I wanted to spare you the worry in case I could've gotten everything stopped."
"So now you know why I didn't tell you."
Blair got up and went to the kitchen.
"We just have to learn to be more selfish," Jim said, focusing on the view beyond the doors.
"No, we just have to trust each other more, trust in the other's strength." Blair began getting out bread for more sandwiches. "I trust you to protect me, but I don't think I trust you to protect yourself. I think that's where we always get it wrong. You didn't think I could handle knowing you were dreaming about killing me, and I didn't think you could handle knowing about Alex Barnes. We were both waiting for the timing to be 'right,' whatever the hell that means. The same thing applies to this situation."
"So what? We make a pact to always be honest with each other? We all know the loopholes in that."
"No, we make a pact that we don't sit on information that we damn well know could be damaging. It's very much a conscious decision, an active choice. We just have to consciously choose the alternative."
"Does it count if I bitch about this change? Protecting you is what I do, Chief."
Blair slapped the bread into the hot pan. "But you're not protecting me when you do this, Jim. You're just delaying the hurt…and maybe intensifying it. It's not just you; I'm guilty, too. Protecting you…that's what I do, that's what I've done since the whole garbage truck thing."
Jim turned back toward the balcony. "I know."
"We'll just do it the way you said--short term. Tomorrow, I will get up and go to the academy. Tomorrow, you'll read your book. Tomorrow, we'll both realize that the other is a lot less fragile than we believe."
Jim focused his gaze until he could see the waves coming into the bay and crashing onto the shore. "I guess we have tomorrow pretty well planned."
"Sounds that way. C'mon, man, let's eat." He set bottles of water at both place settings and Jim raised an eyebrow. "I changed my mind," he said defensively, then lifted the bottle. "To change."
The plastic thudded dully as the bottles hit each other. "To change."
"Well, Karl, did you get in touch with America?"
Karl looked at the frail old man lying in the bed, a soft blanket pulled up to his chin, a handmade quilt folded at his feet. Looks could be so deceiving. "Yes, Father. It is as our agent said. The detective has been cleared of any complicity in my brother's death."
"Then you know what you have to do." Karl nodded. "And, son, I want it to be painful. He should suffer."
Karl walked out of the bedroom and went to another three doors down.
Karl shook his head at the blonde woman who questioned him, wondering if she would accompany him to America. There she could take advantage of their excellent beauty salons. Her roots were showing badly. "We knew how it was going to be. Shall I make reservations for one or two?"
"This is insane, Karl! If your brother hadn't been such a fool as to go on a shooting spree inside a police station--he left them with no choice. But you have one, my love. Klaus is dead. Don't let your father talk you into sacrificing your life as well."
"I take it that I should only make reservations for one?"
"For God's sake, Karl! Your brother, dead or alive, is not worth this!"
He absently looked down at his stinging hand, then at the woman who had fallen back against the bed, her hand cradling her bruised cheek. "We are Zellers, and we are worth more than you will ever know." He straightened his tie and headed to the walk-in closet. "Be grateful that I love my son enough not to deprive him of his mother at an early age, Angelise."
"May you burn in hell with your brother," she hissed brokenly.
"There is always that possibility," he said calmly, and debated which suit he would travel in.
"You all right, man?"
"The auditorium steps were a bitch."
Blair watched Jim sink down on the sofa, the cane clattering to the hardwood floor. Jim had leaned heavily on it for most of the night and Blair knew it had little to do with where he'd sat during the graduation exercises. No, it was Jim's forced interaction with his former co-workers that had brought on the need for the cane. Cops couldn't get together without discussing cases, and the realization that that world, that camaraderie was forbidden to him now, had sucked the strength right out of Jim. Perhaps if it had been a true retirement, his choice to walk away from the job, Jim could have handled it with his typical wry humor. But to know that he could be part of that life again, would still be part of it if not for fate shitting on them, that was the clincher Jim was choking on.
"Third in your class. I'm proud of you."
"Thanks, Jim. It means a lot coming from you." And it did. Jim was a good cop and an honorable man. His approval was a gift, a validation. "But now I need to make new short-term goals."
"Accept your appointment to the department or not."
Blair shook his head. "That's easy--not. I agreed to become a cop because I wanted to work with you. If you're not one, why should I be one?"
"Because you'd be good at it."
"I'd be competent, not good. The department has enough competent officers. No, my short-term goals definitely do not include being a cop."
"You want some of my clay?"
Blair's eyes flicked over to the dining room table, which now was Jim's art studio. The man had left the loft once since his "retirement." He'd gone down to Edwards' Hobby Shoppe and basically picked up one of every kit the store offered. He'd tested and tossed aside the introductory kits at an alarming rate, but the sculpting kit had finally held his attention. Blair figured it was because Jim always had tactile tendencies--he touched more than most men were comfortable with. It was a sentinel thing, and perhaps a Jim thing. It was also no surprise that he was relatively good at it. He piggybacked touch onto sight and could make his hands bring out the forms his eyes saw. The internet had landed more clay at the front door and Jim seemed content to while away the hours "playing in the mud" as he liked to call it.
Blair liked to call it "isolating himself." Jim was shutting everyone out but Blair, and while Blair was grateful that he wasn't included in the excluded, he knew the situation wasn't good. Jim needed to be around people, if not actually with them. Did that make any sense? Probably not, but that didn't make it any less true. Jim was a loner, but he'd always been a loner in a crowd, the crowd he protected. In the Army he had his men, at the station he had the entire police department, and now he had--Blair. The sentinel in him must be going nuts.
"Nah, Jim. I think one of us up to his elbows in dirt is enough."
Jim shrugged. "I'm thinking about moving over to woodcarving anyway."
Blair snorted. The sculpting had lasted longer than he'd expected.
"I'm also thinking about leaving Cascade."
"Anywhere in particular?" He wasn't shocked. Simon had said something about that when they talked at the restaurant. Major Crimes had taken over a few tables for a celebration of his graduation, although most of them had figured out that Blair wasn't going to actually become a cop.
"My grandfather left me a cabin up near the Canadian border. It was rented out until six months ago, so it should be in relatively decent condition."
"Trust funds, cabins…I'm beginning to think you're not the plebian you pretend to be."
"People see what they want to see."
"Is that why you were so successful at undercover work, 'cause, quite frankly, I was always surprised when you didn't get made."
"You wanted to see Jim Ellison, so that's who you saw. The others wanted to see someone else."
"And who do you want to see, Jim?"
"Not who, but what. My bed is calling my name." He got up slowly, bobbed a little, but made his way to the stairs without the cane.
"The cabin tomorrow?"
"Sure, why not? We'll leave whenever. 'Night, Sandburg."
"Good night, Jim," Blair called, trying not to stare as Jim climbed the stairs. He was liking all of this less and less. Jim was slowly becoming not-Jim and it was scary…and depressing…and heartbreaking.
Blair removed the uniform that he'd worn for the first and only time, and crawled into bed. As a short-term maneuver, it was okay.
But it was time to start thinking long term.
"I think you lost him."
An affirmative grunt.
"Is this normal?" Not even a grunt, just a roll of eyes. "I mean, is this the way it's been for you? Every time you make a move, some reporter follows you? Is that why you've been holed up in the loft?" Blair asked rapidly.
"I've gotten used to them."
Blair decided to take that as an affirmative. "I don't understand why they haven't been dogging me. I mean, I'm not as paranoid as you, but I think I could pick up a news van following me around."
"You got on television and called yourself a fraud to protect me; they know you're not going to say anything they want to hear."
"But…but they know you're not going to say anything either."
"But they might get lucky. There could be an accident and I'll have to use my 'amazing powers.'"
Blair blanched. "No. I did this--"
"Say it and you're walking the rest of the way to the cabin."
"Why the prolonged interest?" Blair muttered worriedly, steering away from his guilt. "You've been on desk duty since the shooting, so you haven't done anything remotely remarkable--"
"Make a guy feel special."
Blair smiled wryly. At least Jim hadn't totally lost his sense of humor. "You know what I mean. What's the payoff? There's been at least four or five major scandals since the diss was leaked."
"Maybe I'm unforgettable," Jim commented dryly.
"Simon thinks it has something to do with the need for--what do they call it? Soft news, I think. You know the kind that sounds good, unlike the latest murder or government scandal."
"Maybe they're just looking for a hero."
Jim laughed. "Yeah, that's me, just another freak like Superman and his friends."
"If the guilt thing is getting old, so is the freak thing, 'kay?"
Silence, then a soft, "Okay."
"Well, we are heading into a millennial shift and that brings about a unique sense of fear and trepidation. It's amazing that in this day and age of science and technology that we as humans fall back on age-old superstition and religious apocrypha, not to mention any seemingly prophetic doggerel they can get their hands on. So it makes sense that they're desperate for a hero, something that says, yes, we will endure. And you just happen to fit the bill--an Army captain who survived eighteen months on his own; a decorated detective with cop-of-the-year honors; and now a sentinel with senses that you've used to save people. My God, Jim! If someone made a TV show about you the critics would complain that you were just too good to be true. Of course, the critics wouldn't be your roommate who knows what an ass you can be at times."
"Feel free to pass along that observation to any listening party. Maybe then, they'd leave me alone. That's why I don't want them following us to the cabin. I just need--time."
Blair nodded. "Tell me something honestly, Jim. No bullshit or what you think I want to hear or any of that, okay?"
Jim inhaled deeply. "Take your best shot, Chief."
"Do you really hate being a sentinel?"
"I'm only a sentinel because I choose to be one."
"I know the party line, and I know you made that choice because you want to protect your tribe. But I'm asking you, not the sentinel, not the cop…. Hell, maybe it's the little boy I should be asking, the one who watched his friend get killed but couldn't say anything about it. Does he--do you--hate being a sentinel?"
They went another ten miles before Jim answered.
"No. I said I wanted it to go back to the way it was. I said I just wanted to be normal, to know who I was without all this shit complicating matters. But I lied--mainly to myself, I think. After I tried and failed to be the best according to William Ellison, I said I was going to be the best according to Jim Ellison. I think I did a fairly good job of that until this sentinel business flared up again. I backslid into trying to live up to William's expectations. No matter how old we get, we're still our parents' child, I guess. Maybe not on the outside--on the outside we're independently-thinking and self-reliant and 'our own man.' But in our hearts, we're still looking for approval--and William never approved of the sentinel."
"When I'm not being stubborn and dense, and possibly feeling sorry for myself, I do approve. I don't hate the gifts I've been given. I get frustrated when I can't control them. I get annoyed by those who just want to see what I can do, like I'm some circus fr--sideshow. But no, I don't hate who I am. And that answers the question I asked you during the dissertation crap. Who am I? I'm me, Chief, senses and warts and all."
"That's good, Jim. I'm glad you can admit that to yourself and to me. But what about the rest of the world? You're going to have to tell them something eventually."
"Yeah, like when hell freezes over."
Blair eyed the knuckles grasping the steering wheel in a death-grip and sighed.
Back to the short term.
"I knew there was a reason why I only minored in psychology."
"If it's any consolation, I've made professionals cry like babies."
Blair smiled. "Oddly enough, that does make me feel better. In a sick, smirky way."
"Stick with me, kid, and we'll best every shrink on the West Coast."
Well, hell. As far as long-term plans went, that was pretty demented (pardon the pun), but at least it was a step in the right direction. Blair grabbed a bottle of water from the small cooler at his feet and held it up. "To the deconstruction of every psychiatrist-slash-psychologist on the West Coast. May God have mercy on their souls."
Jim just grinned and drove.
Jim opened his eyes and looked at the sketchpad on his lap. Not bad. For a bunch of trees. He sighed and flipped through all the previous pages of trees. Blair was right; he needed a change of scenery.
The cabin was nice and isolated, and he'd felt such a…peace when they had arrived. No reporters. No sirens blaring all night. No neighbors arguing, loving, or berating children, pets, or wayward spouses. No garbage trucks, street sweepers, or singing drunks to serenade the mornings in. He'd slept so long that first morning that Blair had gotten worried.
Two days after they'd moved in, Blair had found himself a job. A nearby reservation needed a tutor so its high school seniors could pass a statewide test which wasn't actually required to get into college, but the Elders figured their kids were already seen as "disadvantaged" enough.
So Blair took the truck to the reservation each morning--the Volvo just wasn't healthy enough to be far away from a trained specialist and Moose Creek didn't have any imported car dealerships--while Jim played hobbyist. The woodcarving didn't last long, not because Jim wasn't any good, but because the knives made Blair nervous. Jim had found he had a gift with art, but he had a little quirk; he couldn't do it with his eyes open. If he saw something and tried to recreate it in wood or mud or charcoal, he couldn't do it unless he closed his eyes and let his third eye/middle eye/inner eye guide his hands. Blair was fascinated, but his fascination stopped at the sight of Jim blindly wielding sharp instruments. He'd told Jim it was okay, but his heart rate had told a different story.
Which was why Jim now had a sketchbook of trees.
Well, Blair had the truck, but there was a small park within walking distance. Before he could change his mind, Jim got up, locked the door and set off down the driveway to the main road. It wasn't like he didn't know he was flirting with depression. Isolating himself, sleeping long hours, lack of caring about what was going on in the world around him. Blair had thought he was kidding when he'd said he'd made professionals cry, but it was true. The school psychologist, to whom he'd been referred after Bud's death, had taken up smoking after trying to get him to even acknowledge that Bud had existed. Her resignation had appeared in the "What's Happening In Area Schools" column of the Cascade Herald the following June.
The Army shrink in charge of his "debriefing" after the rescue in Peru had finally broken down and called him a "fucked up ticking time bomb who needed to be locked up before he shot up the base or a McDonald's." The Army had quietly retired the officer, and his replacement had merely taken one look at Jim's records and signed off on Jim's honorable discharge. Jim figured that was the Army's way of covering its ass when he took out McDonald's.
The police department psychiatrists, all six--no, seven, he realized--learned to schedule his appointments after a shooting, make no note at all when he missed them, and then sign off on his back-to-work orders. It was easier than talking to him because he inevitably said what he thought they wanted to hear, or told the truth--which scared the shit out of them. All in all, they agreed that it was better for him to be in an environment where his gun usage could be controlled.
Professionals aside, it was Jim himself who kept the McDonalds' of the world safe. With his depressions came serious bouts of self-perception and awareness. Wry, but rather accurate, introspection alerted him to just how deep he was sinking and what he had to do to get to the surface again. In fact he was so in tune to it that he could write a book: Chronic Depression--Getting to Know Your Friend. That was why the senses coming back online had upset him so. The spiking senses weren't part of his normal dysfunctional routine. He didn't know where they fit in. He didn't know if it was a signal for McDonald's to close its doors to him permanently.
If he had a longstanding fear, that was it--that he would snap and innocents would go down with him. He didn't want that, which was why he usually withdrew when he felt himself going down. Of course it was harder to accomplish now that Blair was in his life. Blair seemed to think that pushing him away meant that Blair was supposed to push back harder. When that whole mess with Alex Barnes had gone down, he'd just had to pack Blair up himself and show him the door. It had hurt like hell, but what was he supposed to do when he was having dreams of killing Blair?
Prophetic visions. Wolves. Jaguars. More burdens to carry as he walked the knife's edge. God only gives you as much as he knows you can bear. Bullshit. Or else God knew something he didn't. Which was a distinct possibility, now that he thought about it. He grinned and shook his head. He was on his way back. When he could actually laugh about God, the crisis was pretty much over.
He looked up as he realized he was hearing children noises--squeals, yells, giggles. Must be the park. He went in and realized it was spring, when every man's fancy turned to--baseball. There were a couple of baseball diamonds neatly laid out, but he ignored them and took a seat on the grass overlooking a game being played in a grassy field. The players were young, the oldest maybe twelve, and the sexes were mixed, but Jim could feel their enthusiasm for the game throbbing from the playing area and it called to him.
He didn't know how long he sat there, his eyes closed and his pencil moving, but when he finally opened his eyes, he noticed the sun had moved quite a way across the sky. Two hours, give or take a minute or two. Gauging time by the sun had been a lifeline to him in Peru. He'd survived the crash, but his watch hadn't. Not that the Chopec paid much attention to time--at least not on anything as small as a minute or an hour, but it had been comforting, something familiar, for him to think in terms of hours.
So much had been unfamiliar to him in the jungle. The Army thought they'd prepared them, and perhaps if he'd been with his men, or even just one more of his kind, he would have been prepared. But no, they'd fallen from the sky and he'd ended up alone in a world that he had to struggle to understand. His Quechua had been basic. He'd been too injured to do more than aim a shaky gun at the warriors who'd found him. Their food and water delayed his recovery. Half of the tribe wanted him dead. The other half wanted him gone--left in the jungle to the will of the gods. If it hadn't been for Incacha and his standing in the tribe….
Still, it hadn't been easy. Incacha had gotten his foot in the door, so to speak, but being accepted had rested totally on Jim' shoulders. For one of the first times in his life, he'd been grateful for his father. Living with William had taught him how to be adaptable, how to bend when all he wanted to do was snap, and how not to give in, even when your face was in the dirt and a heel was on your neck. The warriors had tested him, and he'd survived their tests. Had he led the patrols just because he was a sentinel? Hell no. He'd led them because he'd earned the right.
A few months after his arrival, as he and Incacha had lounged around a riverbank after a particularly bloody skirmish with several determined drug runners, the shaman had admitted that Jim had impressed him.
"Thought your head would be a shriveled husk adorning the pike outside the gate by now, Enqueri."
"Such confidence in me, my friend," Jim had replied in fluent Quechua. "And here I was thinking I was the man of your dreams."
"You were--are still, Enqueri--but the future can take many routes. I saw you changing the path of the Chopec. Your soldiers finding your head perched atop the gate would also create a change. But I think I prefer this one instead."
"I'm honored," he'd replied dryly and they'd both had a good laugh as they washed away the remaining blood of their enemy.
"You knew better, Meg!"
"I didn't do it on purpose! I didn't even expect to hit the damn thing!"
"I'm gonna tell Mama!"
"Go 'head, you little wuss. See if I care. You see anything, Aaron?"
The voices dragged Jim back to the present. He focused on the field and saw that the game had broken up. The players were combing the wooded area that flanked the field on the left.
"We can't see a thing in here, Meg, at least not without a flashlight. Donnie, stop! I think that's poison ivy."
Lost ball, Jim surmised, as he slowly climbed to his feet. He was grateful for the cane as he levered himself up, and made a mental note to himself that he was too old and too battered to be sitting on the ground. The ground was for the young; he'd definitely hit the heavily padded recliner stage.
As soon as he regained his balance he scanned the woods. He nodded, spotting the ball beneath a plant with broad leaves. At least it wasn't the poison ivy. He limped toward the kids, his leg stiff and protesting its abuse. Bitch, bitch, bitch.
"Lose something, guys?" he asked when he was within non-yelling range.
"Our ball," Meg said, rolling her eyes as if it was obvious.
She had reminded him of Megan from the beginning. The comparison only grew. He smiled and walked over to where the ball was hidden. Not wanting to put any additional pressure on his thigh, he used the cane to move the leaves out of the way.
Her mouth dropped open. "How'd you do that?" she demanded.
Jim looked at all the kids who now surrounded him and said, "I'm a sentinel." He glanced up at the sky. The sun shone. The ground beneath his feet was still. Not a single sign that his admission had rocked the world in the slightest. That actually sorta sucked.
"What's that?" one of the kids asked.
Hell, if I know, he started to answer. "Well, a sentinel is someone who protects something. But in my case, it means I have five heightened senses that I can use to protect something."
"And that means what?"
Meg, of course. "That means I can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch better than most people."
"No shit--shut up, Kenny."
Ah, so that was the little wuss's name. "Yep," Jim confirmed.
"You one of those mutants, like the X-Men?"
Jim put voice to name. Aaron. "Guess that's as good an explanation as any."
"So what do you protect?"
"Used to be a city named Cascade. I was a cop until…." He adjusted the cane in his grip.
"Just like Professor X," one of the kids whispered.
A handicapped mutant. Better than a freak.
"Well, thanks, Professor," Meg said. "Come on, Kenny. Mama's gonna have a cow if we're not at the entrance when she drives up."
The other kids trailed after her, all of them waving or smiling shyly at him as they passed by--following their queen. Jim watched them go, then headed home himself.
He wondered if Blair would think he was nuts if he started collecting action figures.
He'd heard her approaching so he wasn't surprised when the small body plopped down beside him on the park bench. He'd come to the park for the past three days, but having learned his lesson, he'd discovered the benches and sat his ass down on something that wasn't retaining the moisture and cold of the winter. Sure, spring was abounding in Washington, but it would take the deeper earth a while to catch up.
"Your eyes are closed."
"Thanks for pointing that out to me, Meg."
"Oh. One of your mutant powers, huh?"
He sniffed something familiar. Plaster. "What'd you break?" Jim asked without opening his eyes.
"Wrist. Stupid cat just leapt out in front of my bike."
"Playing ball. Got tired of watching them. Came to see what you were up to. Can I look?"
Jim opened his eyes and handed her the pad. She glared at him.
He managed to bite back a chuckle. "Sorry. I forgot you were short-handed." Obediently, he began to turn the pages for her.
"That's us," she said when he got to the pictures of the baseball game. "You're not half-bad, Professor. You even got that prick of a little brother of mine."
"Where did you get that mouth?" he asked curiously.
"Television. It's the great corrupter of youth, you know."
"I though that was the internet."
She shook her head. "You gotta know how to type and spell to get anything out of the internet. The TV--you just push the power button."
"You know how to type and spell?"
She just grinned at him.
"You can close your eyes and go back to drawing," Meg said a few moments later. "I'll just sit here and watch, 'kay?"
Jim nodded and looked at the scene in front of him. It was the sandy playground where the younger children held court. The benches were for their caregivers. Jim had smiled at several of them, aware that they would be on edge with a stranger nearby. Although no one had approached him directly, he was sure his description had been passed around--just in case.
He hadn't even finished his newest sketch before he felt something warm sag against him. Poor Meg. The warm sunlight, pain medication, and probably a rough night, had taken her out for the count. He felt honored, instinctively knowing that Meg would have never let her guard down around someone unless she trusted them. He saw a lot of himself in Meg. A natural-born survivor.
"Mama told her to stay home."
Jim opened his eyes. "Game over, Kenny?"
"Yeah. She tell you she broke her arm?
Kenny shrugged as if to say, "Whatever."
Jim debated whether he should attempt to carry Meg to the park entrance. But his leg wasn't a hundred percent, and it probably wasn't right for him to be carrying a young girl he barely knew. He thought of a better plan. "Why don't you go meet your mother, Kenny, and tell her that Meg's here asleep."
Ten minutes later, he heard Kenny's light gait accompanied by his mother's more even steps. He held out his hand as soon as she was in reach. "Hi, I'm--"
"Professor Xavier," the brunette said with a friendly smile. "My husband and I have heard all about you."
Jim was stunned. "Why? I only met your kids briefly the other afternoon."
"But you made a heck of an impression. Linda Hartman."
"Jim Ellison, ma'am."
Her eyebrow lifted, then she nodded. "That's right. They said you'd been a cop. Some city down south?"
"Cascade." He hadn't realized the kids had listened so closely to what he'd said.
"My husband's the sheriff, Mr. Ellison. The kids have picked up the importance of knowing details. Comes from hearing their dad bitch about the unreliability of witnesses. They also know the dangers of meeting strangers, but I think I can let this time pass. There's something about you that just screams trustworthy, and God knows if you can pass the Meg test, you're definitely an upstanding citizen."
"Meg's certainly--unique," he said hesitantly, glancing down at the redhead leaning against his arm.
Linda Hartman laughed. "My husband's certain that as soon as she graduates college, she's coming after his job. I, on the other hand, figure she's going to be the next J. Edgar Hoover--minus the dress. Can't get her into one even on Sundays." She sat down beside her daughter and gently shook her shoulder. "Wake up, baby girl. And mind that hand."
Meg blinked and sat up. "Mama?"
"You fell asleep on the professor."
"It's okay. I know how tiring an injury can be. If I were you I'd go to bed early tonight."
Linda shook her head. "Definitely still asleep. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Ellison."
"Make it Jim, and it was nice meeting you, too." Jim surprised himself with what he said next. "If you don't have any plans for Memorial Day, I'm having a cookout at my place. Some folks from Cascade and the reservation. You and your husband and the kids are welcome to drop by."
"Sounds like fun. You'll be here tomorrow?" Jim nodded. "We'll talk plans then." She turned around looking for her son, who was over playing in the sand. "Kenny! Let's go!"
Jim folded the cover over his sketches, hefted his cane in his hand, and headed back toward the cabin.
A cookout. Blair was going to be ecstatic.
And he didn't feel too badly about it himself.
"Sandburg, I knew you could talk blood out of a turnip, but how in the hell did you get Jim to agree to this?"
Blair smiled, shook his head, and continued tearing greens for an ever-growing salad. The 'this' Simon was talking about was turning into Sunset County's biggest bash since its bicentennial celebration, according to its citizenry. And since the citizenry was there in full force, he figured they should know. "This was Jim's idea from start to finish, Captain."
"Don't kid a kidder," Simon warned.
"I'm not. He came home from the park and said, 'Sandburg, I invited some neighbors over for Memorial Day. You want to invite your friends from the reservation? And we'll call the guys from Cascade too.' So I said it was a great idea. I didn't know how big it had become until we were awakened at 6:00 A.M. by people coming to set up their cooking pits and stuff. Good thing most have arrived with food or we would have run out by now." He looked out the window over the sink at the adults tending their grills/fires/kegs and the children running around yelling and laughing. Just when he thought his world was settling down, it was becoming way bizarre.
"So have aliens snatched his body or what?"
"That's about the best explanation I've thought up. Come with me, Simon." He wiped his hands on a dishtowel and led Simon to Jim's room. Thankfully the cabin remained empty. "Look on the shelf."
Simon's eyes widened. "You've seen my office; I can't say anything. Although I'm dying to."
"Feel free. You've been collecting your figurines forever. Jim just started this X-Men collection a couple of days ago."
"Do you know why?"
Blair looked at Simon sheepishly. "I was afraid to ask."
Simon nodded. "I think I am, too. So I wasn't hearing wrong when I thought one of the kids called him Professor X?"
"Nope. That's what they all call him. I did ask about that. His reply: 'What else are they going to call a handicapped mutant, Chief?' After that, I gave up asking any questions."
"If I had known so many people were going to be here," Simon said as he trailed Blair back to the kitchen, "I wouldn't have passed the word around the station. But there were so many people who were worried about Jim, how he was coping, you know. Guess we shouldn't have been worried."
"Hell if I know, Simon. Last week I could barely get him out of the cabin. The past week he's gone to the park every day, and now there's this big party. I have no idea what's going on with him."
"Tsk, tsk. Thought you were the big psych minor."
"About that, Simon. You might want to look into the turnover rate of the department shrinks. You might find it correlates with Jim's visits to them."
"You're joking, right?"
Blair shrugged. "Cats like to toy with their food." He'd done his own unauthorized checking of the CPD Counseling Services. Within two weeks of a final appointment with Detective Jim Ellison, there was a resignation submitted. Every time.
"I came up here for reassurance that Jim was going to be okay. You're not reassuring me, Sandburg."
Before Blair could reply, Jim stuck his head in the doorway. "Do we have any more room in the freezer, Chief? The Richardsons brought ice cream--enough for everyone."
"Yeah, now that the kegs are getting low. How's the punch holding up?"
"I just added a couple of gallons. Enjoying yourself, Simon?"
"Sure, Jim. Impressive acreage you have here."
"There's a ball game starting in about ten minutes."
"Count me in."
"I'm just umpiring, Chief. You want in?"
"Oh, and Roy Miller just arrived."
"Yeah. He said he got a permit for fireworks and he and some of the volunteer firemen are putting together a display. Great, huh?"
"Great. But I expect you to find me before they start." Blair raised his finger and tapped his own ear.
"I will. Let me go help unload the ice cream." The screen door clicked behind him.
"'You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind,'" Simon muttered.
"Thank you, Mr. Serling, but I've known for years that anywhere around Jim is the Twilight Zone--and it has nothing to do with his senses."
"I thought it was the Sandburg Zone."
"Yeah, you just conveniently forgot how weird he was before I came on the scene. Slick existed long before me."
"Fine. I apologize, but you have to admit you've attracted your share of weirdos."
"Including my mother?"
"You sound like Jim."
"Sorry, but in the realm of he-men that we occupy, you don't ever talk about anyone's mother. That's rule number one."
"And numbers two and three are politics and religion, right?"
"Ah, your day pass to the club is paying off."
"Hey, is this allowed?" Blair asked, flipping Simon the bird.
"Going for full membership, huh?"
Blair laughed and picked up the salad bowl. "Come on. We have a ballgame to play."
"It was a good party."
"The clambake was fun."
Blair looked up from his position on the first stair of the front porch. Jim sat in the rocker, drawing in the dark. The gentle rasp of the charcoal scratching the paper blended in with the chirping of the crickets. "You want to tell me what's going on with you?"
"I'm simply adjusting, Chief."
"Oh. And this adjustment requires that you tell the neighborhood kids about your senses?"
"They think it's cool."
"You think it's cool."
Blair glared, knowing that Jim could see his face even if he couldn't see Jim's.
"The cat's out of the bag, Chief. Might as well feed it and give it a good home."
Blair watched a pair of fireflies dart across the lawn. "You going back to the CPD?"
"No. I don't feel like setting precedence for right-to-privacy cases. Never did like going to court."
"How long are we going to stay here?"
"Why? The reservation want to offer you something permanent?"
"If you want to take it, go for it. I can draw anywhere."
"That's what you plan to do from now on?"
"I got some offers for a couple of my sketches. And I'm going to try my hand at watercolors and oils."
"You don't think I can work with brushes?"
"I don't think you can stand to be that passive."
"Well, with my gimpy leg--"
"There's nothing wrong with your leg, Jim! You can have full use of it by summer and you know it!"
Blair heard Jim set aside the sketchbook and charcoal. "What's this about, Chief?"
"Simon seems to think you've stepped into the Twilight Zone. I'm starting to agree with him."
"What the fuck do you guys want from me? You brood when I'm broody. You brood when I'm happy."
"Are you, Jim? Are you happy? Or are you just playing some fucking mind game with us and I'm going to walk into this cabin one day and find you with a bullet in your head and a goddamn X-Men action figure clutched in your hand?"
Silence. Even the crickets respected the moment.
"Well, damn, Chief, what do you really think of me?" Jim asked softly. He picked up his art supplies and quietly went into the cabin.
"Shit," Blair hissed to himself. He'd let his mouth get ahead of his brain. No, he'd let his fear have control. That had been the real reason behind the hastily-gathered news conference. He'd been afraid that the constant presence of the press would cause Jim to self-destruct. He'd been afraid that Jim's frustration at having been so close to Zeller, the lost opportunity that could have prevented Simon and Megan from being shot…. Damnit! He'd been afraid that he'd screwed up Jim's life so badly that Jim would--
It really did seem he had no faith in Jim. But it wasn't that. It was--it was that Jim meant so much to him. For years he'd hidden behind the dissertation. The truth, however, was that he, who'd been brought up to detach with love, was now firmly attached--and liking it. He could no longer see himself running off to this country or another, staying with these peoples for six months here, or another for six months there. He'd--he could hear his mother weeping now--settled down. He'd learned to take Jim for granted, and the loft for granted…and even that crap with Alex Barnes hadn't stirred up his interest in moving on. In fact, it had only made him work harder to stay where he was.
He'd fought hard to regain the trust he had in Jim before Jim packed up his things and told him to leave. Fought hard not to lash back when he found Jim kissing the woman who had basically killed him. Fought hard not to just say, 'Fuck it,' when Jim had disappeared into the jungle, leaving him and Megan behind. And he'd been rewarded. Jim's trust when Molly the ghost had appeared. The fun they'd had going undercover in the suburbs. Jim's support when the shit had hit the fan with Brad Ventriss. No, Jim hadn't told him what he wanted to hear. He hadn't sympathized or joined him in going off on Ventriss. Instead, Jim had told him the cold, hard truth about making charges stick without a cooperating witness, had given him a frozen bag of peas after running off the goons beating up on him, and allowed him to be part of the team that brought the arrogant s.o.b. down. Those weren't the actions of a friend; those were the actions of a good friend, one who understood but didn't sugarcoat, one who treated him like a fellow warrior…one who knew what he needed to do to live with what he'd learned about his students and academic politics.
Just when he'd achieved what he'd been fighting for, his own carelessness had threatened to bring it down around his head. He'd been planning on taking out Jim's name, but he was just so damn proud of what he'd done, what he had accomplished, that he just wanted to savor the thing in its entirety for a few days. And speaking of lack of faith, Naomi had won the gold medal in that event. Damnit, he hadn't been sure of his work in the fifth grade!
He took a deep breath. "Let it go," he mumbled to himself. Jim was right--the cat was out of the bag and using the litter box in the corner of their lives. It was pretty stupid to brood over what had been done. The end result was that they had survived with friendship and trust intact. Except--
"It wasn't lack of faith in you, Jim. It was lack of faith in myself," he said aloud, but without yelling. "I was afraid that if you fell apart, I wouldn't be strong enough to put you back together again. Afraid that I couldn't put you back together again, even though I was the one who'd broken you."
"You take too much upon yourself," Jim said. Blair turned and made out the dark form leaning against the other side of the screened door. "Shit happens. Just because I blame you doesn't mean that I blame you."
Blair laughed. "God, that actually makes sense to me. It's like the way I reacted to Sweet Roy's murder, right?"
"Right. If you can't be emotional around your best friend…."
"You know, I'm starting to understand why you've broken so many professionals."
"But I've never broken, Chief. And you certainly can't break me, especially since you're the one holding me together."
Blair stood and stretched for a long minute. "I'm glad school's out tomorrow. I probably won't get up before noon."
"Welcome to the post-thirty world."
The door opened as Blair approached. "The fireworks were nice."
"Yeah, Chief, they were."
"The surveillance finally paid off, sir."
Karl Zeller looked up from his morning newspaper. "You've found the detective?" He had been disappointed to learn that Jim Ellison had left the police department and Cascade just before he arrived. He had put people on Ellison's family and friends knowing that someone would eventually be in contact with the detective.
"Yes, sir. We followed the police captain to Ellison's new residence. What are your orders?"
He thought back to the conversation he'd had with his father the night before. Make him pay, Karl. Make me proud. A life for a life was just too easy. "Keep track of him for a week. I want him to hurt before he dies, and for that I need to know what will hurt him the most."
Karl took a sip of his coffee and went back to reading the paper. American comics were so funny.
"Mr. Ellison, I'm Sheriff Ed Hartman. We met at the big bash you held last week."
Jim nodded and opened the door, gesturing the man inside. Since it was nearly midnight, he was certain the man wasn't just making a social call. Besides, he'd seen--worn--that look too many times. "You're Meg's father. What can I do for you?"
Hartman gave a tired smile. "Actually, Meg's the one who sent me over here. We got a little girl missing, Dana Rollins. She's four, and the most recent picture her parents have is when she was about two. According to Meg, you probably got a decent drawing of her that we can send out over the wires."
"Jim?" Blair stumbled out of his bedroom, shrugging into his bathrobe.
"Missing child, Chief."
"I'll get dressed."
"Actually, all Sheriff Hartman wants is a picture of her. Meg says I have one."
"Is there any evidence that the child was kidnapped, or do you think she just wandered away?" Blair asked.
"We're not certain. I have a couple men out searching--"
"Then you need us."
"It's dark out there, Mr. Sandburg. My men are familiar with the area and you aren't," Hartman said, obviously wary of taking them up on the offer.
"Jim can't get lost. Were you still up, Jim?" he asked, seeing Jim had on pants and a t-shirt.
"I heard the sheriff's car coming up the drive."
"Okay. Just give me a second to catch up. You better gather your sketchpads too." Blair disappeared back into his room.
"We have men coming in from the region in the morning to do a search--" Hartman began.
"Might be too late," Jim said, grabbing a sweater from the multi-armed coat rack near the door. "Don't worry. Blair's right; I can't get lost."
"Hey, I know the kids call you Professor X, but--"
"I have gifts. I don't know if that makes me a mutant, but it does make hunting in the dark a lot easier." Jim picked up a stack of pads. "Did Meg say anything about when I might have drawn this little girl?"
"She said she was at the park Wednesday."
"Wednesday?" Jim sorted through the pads. He tossed all but one and opened that one up on the dining room table. "Can you recognize Dana, Sheriff? I don't know them by name."
Hartman nodded and stared at the pictures as Jim flipped through them. "That's her," he said, pointing to a little girl Jim had captured in profile. "You don't have a front view, huh?"
"I'm ready," Blair said, going to grab a couple of bottles of water from the refrigerator.
"I don't have a clear drawing of the girl, Chief."
"You remember seeing her?"
"Then do one in the car on the way."
Jim nodded and grabbed a new pad. "Let's go."
"Do I need to put the light on or something?" Hartman asked as Jim clicked his seatbelt and flipped to a clean sheet of paper.
"I draw with my eyes closed anyway."
Hartman looked over the backseat at his other passenger.
"Jim's the strange one in this duo. I just go along to make sure he doesn't get into trouble."
"Funny, Chief. I'll have to call HBO and tell them you're ready for your own show."
"Aren't you supposed to be drawing?"
"I am. Why don't you fill us in on the details, Sheriff?"
"There aren't any details. Janie Rollins went to look in on Dana before she went to bed herself and discovered the child missing. The window in her room was open, so we're combing the area near the house. Unfortunately, the area's pretty rugged out that way. Haven't come up with much. Probably won't 'til morning."
"Any other missing persons lately? Or any mention of strangers hanging around town?"
"Other than you, Ellison? Not really."
"Am I a suspect?"
Hartman cleared his throat. "You should be, but somehow you got Meg's seal of approval and that's no easy feat. I'll trust her judgment for now."
"She's going to make a hell of a sheriff one day."
"Yeah, I know." They turned down a street and saw the flashing lights of other official vehicles. "When you finish that sketch, Ellison, I'll--"
Hartman stopped the SUV and opened the door. The light allowed him to see what Jim had done. "Damn, that was quick. And it looks just like her!"
Jim and Blair exited the vehicle. "Think I can get permission to see her room?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, come with me." They walked up to the house and directly inside. "Janie, Mason, this is--"
"Professor X," Janie said. "Sorry we couldn't make it to your party last week. Mason and I took Dana to see her grandma."
Jim nodded, taking in the red and worried eyes of both parents. It was sad, but they had to be considered the first suspects in a missing child case. He listened closely as they told Hartman the story again. Blair shifted until his hand was just brushing Jim's elbow, making the listening easier. At the end, he shook his head. He was ninety-nine percent sure the parents weren't involved.
"Can I see her room?" Jim asked.
"Sure, in here."
The room was tiny, but so was the little girl.
"We were gonna have her picture taken, but we figured since she'd be in kindergarten in the fall we'd just wait until the school pictures were taken," Janie said apologetically.
"I did a sketch."
Hartman handed the picture to the parents. Janie gasped and threw herself into her husband's arms. "She looks so real."
"Jim's really good at this, Mrs. Rollins. Not just the art but in finding people as well," Blair quickly corrected. "If you could tell us about Dana, what she likes, what might attract her attention, has she been sleeping nights, stuff like that. We need to get a sense of her reactions in certain situations."
Mrs. Rollins eagerly told what she knew, then stopped as Jim abruptly left the room.
"Continue," Jim heard Blair urge. "I assure you he's still listening."
"Oh, yeah. Extra good senses, right?"
Jim found himself oddly pleased at how normal she made it sound. The smile died suddenly as he stepped around the house to the ground just beneath Dana's window. Footprints. Probably too faint for the Sheriff and his men to see in the dark, even with flashlights. Man-size prints. Dress shoes--totally different from the ones cops would wear. He closed his eyes and pictured Mason Rollins. No, his feet were more narrow. Damn, he didn't like this at all. He watched the prints trail into the wooded area behind the house.
"Chief." Blair looked at him from the other side of the window. "I got a trail. Grab a radio and let's go."
"I can send one of my men with you," the Sheriff said, accompanying Blair outside.
Jim shook his head. "It's too dark. They'll just slow me down."
"And Mr. Sandburg won't?"
Blair shook his head. "Unlike the rest of you, I know how to just hang on for the ride." For emphasis, he grabbed onto Jim's belt. "It's sorta like being blind."
"If you're comparing me to a German shepherd, I might just leave you out in the woods," Jim muttered as he followed the trail as far as his eyes could see. Unfortunately, that wasn't very far thanks to several dense areas. "Got the radio?"
"And my backpack."
"We'll call in if we find anything, Sheriff."
"Or if you get lost."
"Something tells me he's not fond of the X-Men," Blair said as they walked away.
"Probably saw the movie and not the cartoon."
"The movie wasn't that bad. Hugh Jackman was pretty good as Wolverine. And I think Patrick Stewart nailed Professor X."
"It was the bad guys that I mainly disliked. And Cyclops. And Jean Grey, but I never liked Jean Grey."
"Funny, considering you and her are sorta similar. I mean, you did mindmeld with Molly and all."
"Actually, I think I'm more like Wolverine. He has heightened, animal-like senses."
"Aw, you just want to hang out with the he-man crowd."
"Better than a push-up bra." Jim held up his hand and stopped.
"Relax into it, man," Blair coached.
Jim took a deep breath and let his senses flow from him. He didn't like what they reported back to him. "Call in our coordinates, Chief! Gonna need paramedics!"
He could hear Blair muttering behind him, but he knew he had to hurry. He could hear her heartbeat, but it seemed…below him. He stopped and looked around quickly. A ravine. Damn. He slid down the bank, not even wincing as vines, thistles, and nettles clawed at him. Then he was on his knees, digging through a tangle of greenery.
The child was there, bruised, dirty, and not breathing. He didn't want to move her, God only knew how many broken bones she had--possibly her back and neck included--but it would take too long for help to come. So as carefully as he could, he started resuscitation. It seemed like forever, but in a few minutes, she started breathing faintly on her own. Straining his sight, he finally saw an old plank that someone had discarded. Scanning for snakes, he picked it up and carried it over to the child. Taking off his overshirt and t-shirt, he slid them over the board, then rolled the child on top. Using his sleeves he tied her carefully onto the wood and lifted the whole thing up. It was awkward, and it was going to be a bitch trying to get back up the bank, but he could hear help coming and knew he needed to meet them on the trail.
"Jim, is she--"
"Alive for now, Chief. We need to get her--"
"Let me help you--"
"No, she's not all that secure. If you stumble--"
"Then I'll go ahead and make sure the others are headed in the right direction."
The whole thing, from finding the child to transferring her to the care of the paramedics took less than twenty minutes, but it felt like hours to Jim. He was worried about Dana. He was worried that he'd made her situation worse. He was worried that someone had done this to her. And he was worried that the someone was still out there, waiting to prey on other children.
"How you doing?"
Jim glanced over at his partner. "I'm okay. The epinephrine seems to be working." Once his own adrenaline had worn off, he'd had an allergic reaction to something in the ravine. Not long after they'd gotten to the hospital, he had started wheezing and the tiny cuts on his body had begun swelling and itching.
It wasn't easy being a super hero.
"You should be at home."
"Thought you'd be all gung-ho over the idea of me being so close to medical attention."
"Only if you'd allow them to X-ray your leg."
"It's just strained. I'm going to have to add on a few more weeks of exercises that's all."
"At least they gave you a loaner cane until we get home. But I still don't want you standing more than necessary."
Jim looked up as he heard determined steps headed in the direction of the waiting room. "I think the doctor's on his way." He started to get up and got a hand against his chest for his trouble. He sighed and relaxed back into the seat. Some arguments just weren't worth the energy.
"Mr. and Mrs. Rollins?" Janie and Mason came forward. "Kids are fragile, delicate little creatures. But they're also resilient as hell," the doctor said with a smile. "It's going to take some time, but I don't foresee any permanent damage."
"When can we speak with her?" Sheriff Hartman asked.
Jim, having asked the same question and received the same answer many times, tuned out the doctor's stock reply.
"Is there a Detective Ellison here?"
The nurse's question took a second to sink in. Had he totally stopped thinking of himself as such? "Yes?"
"You have a phone call at the desk."
"Who?" Blair asked, handing Jim his cane.
"I have no idea. You wanna say our goodbyes while I'm gone? The desk is halfway to the door. No use in me coming back here."
"Damnit it, Jim. You are in pain."
"Nothing that eight hours of sleep won't go a long way in healing. Oh, and see if you can charm the sheriff into keeping us involved in the case."
"Why do you leave me all the tough jobs?"
"But, Chief, I'm in a weakened state," Jim said with a smirk.
"I lose either way I reply, don't I?" Blair reasoned good-naturedly. "Go take your phone call. I'll meet you in the lobby."
Jim smiled and walked out of the waiting room, leaning heavily on the cane. Sitting for so long had made the leg stiff, and although the medicine was working, the allergic reaction had drained a lot of his strength. But damn it had felt good doing police work again. Or maybe just work. Or just helping people. Or…or maybe he was just rusting away doing his stupid sketches and trying to enjoy, rather than resent, his forced retirement.
Maybe he needed to be needed again.
"Just press two," the nurse said when she saw him.
"Thank you." He pushed the button. "Ellison."
"It's not safe being an acquaintance of yours," a mechanical voice said over the line. "Something that your captain and a fellow officer learned. Something that your new little friend learned."
Jim gripped the phone so tight that he heard the plastic cracking. "Who is this?" He glanced around and tried to get the nurse's attention, but she was in conference with a doctor. Such a small hospital compared to Cascade General. "What are you talking about?"
"It's so sweet how you watch over the children each day. But do they know their hero is a killer? We all pay for our sins, Detective. Your payment has begun."
Jim stared at the phone long after the other party had hung up.
"Jim? Jim, what is it?" Blair asked anxiously.
"Go get the sheriff. What happened to Dana wasn't random."
"What do you mean?"
"She was attacked to hurt me."
Blair paled and retraced his steps.
And, goddamnit, it had worked, too, Jim thought, as he continued to stare at the phone.
Blair had always imagined that it took a while to "come full circle." But, of course, Jim would be ahead of the curve--so to speak--and accomplish it in a fraction of the normal time. He stared at the figure sitting in the rocking chair on the cabin's porch and sighed. Jim had closed up after the telephone call. He didn't even have the sketchpad with him.
He got out of the truck and walked toward the cabin. "Hey, Jim!"
"How ya doing?"
"The swelling's gone."
"Heard from the sheriff?"
"You call him?"
Blair sighed again. Last night had felt so--right. Working a case. Working together. And now…. "Don't do this, Jim."
"Don't do what?"
"Shut down on me. Shut down on your tribe."
"Haven't I damaged the tribe enough for a single twenty-four hour period?"
"What happened to Dana is not your fault! The asshole who did it is the one to blame."
"Then why the hell are you sitting out here feeling sorry for yourself?"
Blue eyes pierced him and he braced himself for a scathing reply, but instead all he got was a soft, "How the hell did we get so lost, Chief?"
Blair dropped his backpack to the porch, then joined it. "I'm not following."
He blinked and wondered how he had missed the big white rabbit that had apparently dragged him down a hole into an alternate universe.
"I'm not sitting here having a pity party."
"No. I'm sitting here mad as hell. You used to be able to tell the difference. That's what I mean about being lost."
Blair leaned his head back against a support post. Jim hadn't shut down--well, he had shut down but it was because he was angry. There had been a time when he would have figured that out. But Jim was right; they were lost from each other. Because of Alex Barnes? He wished it was that easy. "When did it happen? It was before the night the alligator got loose in the station."
"Not a night I'm particularly proud of."
"A lot of anger and hurt on both sides."
"That should have been our first clue, but we chose to ignore it."
"Alex was strike two."
"And this is our third strike?"
"Doesn't have to be."
"You've thought about this a lot."
"Funny thing about thinking--seems to happen when you don't have anything else to do."
"But you do have something else to do."
"Not alone, Chief--or it will be strike three."
Well, duh. Even he knew it had to be a combined effort. Why else had he fucking gone through the police academy, learning stuff he'd been doing for the last three years and firing a fucking gun at a fucking paper target? He'd gotten that it was more than just friendship before Incacha had come to town with his "passing on the way of the shaman" spiel.
But he hadn't figured out they were both lost, had he? "I thought I was supposed to be the brains of the outfit."
"Could be where we screwed up. We were so busy being who we were supposed to be that we weren't who we should have been."
Blair looked at him in amazement. "Maybe I should put my life on hiatus for a while and do some deep thinking."
"Sure, go for it. I'll float you some cash if you run short."
Debating the option of whether to laugh or scream, Blair decided on the happy medium of a whimper. "So, Deep-Thought-Man, what happens now?"
"I get the son of a bitch who attacked my tribe."
"We get the son of a bitch who attacked our tribe."
Jim chuckled. "Just checking to see if you're listening. I'm heading back to Cascade tomorrow. Gonna go through the files, see who might be making threats."
"I'll call the reservation."
"You don't have to come now. I can come back and get you on Friday."
"Who's not listening now? Being your partner is not some fucking game to me, Jim. I'm not sure if you ever understood that. My place in this world is beside you. And I think it's past time that you accept that. I didn't get lost on my own, you know."
"Point taken," Jim said--a bit grudgingly, it sounded like to Blair. "Call the reservation. Call the sheriff next and tell him we'll be out of town for a while."
"Why can't you call him?"
"Because I'm liable to tell him that this is no longer his investigation."
"And that's bad because…?"
"Because I'm no longer a cop."
"You're not going back to the department?"
"Wouldn't be fair to Simon. It was never fair to him."
"I know. So we're going to freelance?"
"You get a vote in this."
"Are you sure?"
"Fuck you, Sandburg."
Blair laughed, feeling better than he had in a long time. "Sandburg-Ellison Investigations?" Jim didn't even bother to react. "Fine. Ellison-Sandburg Investigations." After all, Jim was the one who had the background and experience. Not to mention Army medals galore and "Detective of the Year" awards.
"Should I pack for long-term or short-term?"
"Short-term. I kinda like the quiet around here."
"Yeah, it's been nice. Maybe I'll volunteer at the reservation during our down times."
"And I can practice drawing trees."
Blair stood to go make the phone calls. He laid a hand on Jim's shoulder as he went past him. "I don't think we're as lost as we were."
"Sometimes that's the best you can ask for."
While waiting for someone to answer at the reservation, Blair started making mental notes. They needed to upgrade the electrical wiring, check on broadband access, and multiply the phone lines. "Raymond Little Bear, please." If they were going to use the cabin year-round, then the roof needed to be checked, the furnace serviced, and Jim's medical records needed to be sent to the Moose Creek Clinic. "Raymond, it's Blair. Sorry to do this to you, buddy…."
"Does this mean we won't be celebrating the Fourth at the cabin?" one of the uniforms called out as Blair and Jim made their way to Major Crimes.
"Don't worry, Mulholland. Your place at the picnic table is secure," Jim replied.
Blair smiled. So far, coming back to the department had been low on the trauma scale. Everyone seemed generally happy to see them. Some, like Mulholland, thought that Jim was coming back to the force. Others figured they were just back to visit old haunts.
"How you doing, Chief?" Jim asked in the elevator.
"It's all good, Jim."
"We could have stopped by the loft first."
"No, I'm eager to get started. I'm sure with a little practice, you can learn to filter out the voice scrambler." It was an idea that had come to him in the middle of the night. Like in the good ol' days of testing Jim's limits.
"I'd forgotten how giddy Guinea Pig Jim made you."
Jim's eyes twinkled so Blair knew Jim was feeling the rush of "how it used to be," too. Damn it. Just how long had they been at odds? "Wonder if I can still forge Simon's signature?"
"One of the guys I sent up a few years back said it was a skill that one never lost. Of course, you're lucky that I'm no longer official or I'd have to run you in."
"You never ran me in when you were official and needed something from Evidence."
"Loyalty is a virtue, Sandburg."
Blair laughed all the way to the sixth floor.
"Just in time," Rafe said when he saw the two of them. "The Captain has us going over your old case files, Jim. Were you trying to fill up the local penitentiaries or did you just get lucky?"
Jim just smirked.
"Sorry, Rafe, but Jim and I have something else we need to take care of. Maybe we can help you out later."
"Brown's in court. Megan and Taggert are on a case. And I'm here buried under a pile of Ellison's files. And we haven't even received the ones from Vice yet."
"Vice is pretty picky about who sees their files," Jim said. "Simon is going to have to ride them. Or better yet, I might take a stroll down there this afternoon."
"What can you do without a badge?" Rafe asked baldly.
"Many, many things," Jim answered with a truly evil smile.
"It's not nice to scare the hired help."
"Yet highly entertaining, Captain." Jim turned to face his friend. "Hi, Simon."
"Jim, Sandburg. Somehow I knew I'd be seeing you today. You come to help with the file reviews?"
"No," Rafe answered for them.
"Maybe later. Right now I want to try something with Jim."
Simon eyed them both knowledgeably. "Come on in my office."
"I need a request form," Blair said, moving to where Simon kept them. "We're going to see if we can't get Jim to tune out the enhancements made by the voice modulator, so we can get an idea of who made the call."
"Gee, Sandburg, make yourself at home. Or is that what this visit is about?"
Jim shook his head. "We're not coming back to the department. Too many rules and regulations. Too many lies you have to tell. We'll work from the outside from now on."
"You're going private?"
"Yeah. We can count on you for a reference, can't we?"
"Shit, Jim. You'll have references coming out the wazoo. No way your application will get turned down. But are you sure this is the way you want to play it?"
"It's the only game in town for me, Simon. I can't operate within the system anymore. Who I am--what I am--is too 'out there' for conventional law."
"The media might eventually let this go, Jim," Simon argued.
Blair watched the two men closely although he pretended to be working on the request form. The dynamic between them was changing right before his eyes. Jim, Army refugee that he was, had always deferred to Simon. Even at his most rebellious, he recognized Simon's authority over him. But now Simon was no longer his superior officer and there was something in the set of Jim's shoulders, in the way he tilted his head, that said that Simon was now just a friend.
"I'm not going back to hiding who I am. I'm nearly forty years old. It's time I got to be me, and not a construct of someone else's design."
At that Blair gave up the pretense of being busy.
"We're just trying to protect you."
"Thank you, but no thank you. Trust me, I can take care of myself."
"That wasn't what you were saying just moments before I got shot."
Blair gasped indignantly. That was a low blow.
"And maybe you wouldn't have gotten shot if I'd been a sentinel instead of just whining about being one." Jim wiped a hand across his face. "Damn it, Simon, like it or not, I am a sentinel. I can do the extraordinary and if that makes me a freak, then so be it. But I'd rather be a freak helping people than some pathetic idiot who's so busy covering his tracks that he lets his friends get shot."
"I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't mean--"
"Yes, you did, but that's okay. It's what you've been taught--to cover my ass, to make excuses for what I am. But it's okay, Simon. That course has been completed. No more creative editing of reports. No more lies."
"But your enemies--"
"Are already my enemies. They have more ammunition, so what? I do, too."
"And what about your friends?"
"They either accept me as I am or they don't. Their call--your call."
"Defense lawyers are going to have a field day."
"I'm available to the DA and to the courts. If they want to test me--"
Blair cleared his throat.
"They'll have to go through Sandburg," Jim finished smoothly. "If they want to make new laws for people like me, that's their prerogative, but unless these laws somehow become retroactive, then the assholes I've put in jail should remain there. If anyone wants to make a bigger issue of the matter, they can discuss it with my attorneys."
Simon sighed. "You sound as if you've made up your mind and I know from experience that there's no turning back after that. What about you, Sandburg?"
Blair was startled. He'd thought his presence had gotten lost in the alpha battle just waged. "What about me?"
"Since Jim's no longer in denial, you gonna finish your diss and get on with your life?"
Blair didn't know whether to be pleased that Simon cared enough to ask or pissed that the man assumed the life he had wasn't good enough. "I've already gotten on with my life, Simon."
"That's not what I meant."
"Jim's already told you what our future plans are."
"So you're sticking with him?"
Now Blair was sure he was pissed. "Jim and I are partners. You know this, man. You were the one who asked him if he could handle being a sentinel without me. The answer is yes, but I believe he can be a better one with my help."
"What about a better you? You sure you want to get caught up in Jim's tribal crusade?"
Blair tried to figure out what was going on. Suddenly it hit him that the alpha battle wasn't over; he'd just been dragged in as a weapon. But there was something else. He studied Simon's body language--and discovered fear. His anger melted away. Fear of being left behind. He knew it well. "The tribe is mine, and yours as well, Simon. Working together to protect it--that's what we've always done, and it's what we'll continue to do. We're just coming at it from a different angle from you this time."
"You didn't want to be a cop; you think being a private investigator is going to be easier?"
Blair anxiously ran his fingers through his hair. "You know anything about the Tao? About finding your path?"
Simon nodded. "The last administrative retreat I went on had some guru giving us relaxation stress management techniques. Each person has a path they must follow, if they ever manage to find it, right?"
Blair smiled. "Something like that. I must have taken every detour and dead end possible, but I've found my path, Simon, and it runs alongside Jim's. Not exactly the path I would have picked out of a catalog of paths, but it's mine and to succeed, I need to stay true to it."
"Fate? Pre-destination?" Simon asked, his dislike of the concepts evident.
"Maybe. I'm not sure. But why fight, why question, something that I agree with? I was pretty sure that I belonged beside Jim when I decided to attend the academy. I mean, it wasn't an easy decision, and I certainly wasn't in the best frame of mind. Everything had just blown up in my face. My mom, although trying to be helpful, had just screwed me over. Jim was acting as if I'd deliberately stuck a thorn in his paw. I worried that the academy was just a consolation prize, something to do because I had nothing else. Then I worried that I was doing it for Jim, because his way of life had been compromised by something my mom and I had done."
"Why didn't you say something?" Jim asked.
"Because it was necessary that I work it out for myself. The decision to attend or not to attend the academy had to be mine. And it was. Just like the decision to finish it and not become a cop was. I didn't blindly follow Jim to Moose Creek--well, actually, I did, because I had no idea what was going to happen. But I knew my path was to remain with Jim. And the search for little Dana the other night confirmed it. I'm Jim's partner, and if my mom and whoever else have a problem with it, well, they just have to deal." He looked at Jim to make sure he understood--if he had a problem, he'd just have to deal, too.
"Hey, I've seen the light, remember?"
Blair grinned. "Yeah, Deep-Thought Man."
"I thought Jim was the one who came up with the cutesy names," Simon said, still not happy.
"Um, you should know that Jim and I have decided to de-categorize our expected roles in the partnership."
"He's not the brains and I'm not the brawn. We just--are," Jim explained.
"Yeah, we're gonna be who we need to be when we need to be."
Simon pinched the bridge of his nose. "You know, I didn't realize until this moment how much I missed the pain of the headaches you two gave me. Just the other day the guy at the pharmacy across the street asked me if I had retired or changed offices because I hadn't been in for my usual mega-sized bottle of ibuprofen."
Blair slid to the edge of his chair. "Well, with that ringing endorsement, I'm heading downstairs to the equipment office."
"Just a minute, Chief."
Jim looked at Simon for a long moment, unwilling to let the battle end in a stalemate. Blair knew that if Simon didn't give in, then he and Jim would walk out and find some other way to do what they had to do.
"I'll clear Interrogation Three for you," Simon finally said.
Jim nodded. "I'll go to Vice and see what the hold up is with my records."
Simon stopped them as they reached the door. "The Cascade Police Department will always be available to you as long as I have anything to say about it."
"And Ellison-Sandburg Investigations will always be available to you, Simon," Jim said solemnly. "When you need us, we'll be there."
Blair looked over at Jim as they waited for the elevator. "So, we're okay?"
Jim smiled. "Yeah, Chief, we're okay."
"Man, maybe we should have stopped by here to air the place out first before we went to the station."
Jim stepped into the loft and held back a tickling cough. "It's all right, Chief. We'll just open the balcony doors and a couple of windows for a cross breeze."
"You open the doors and stay outside until the air is fresher in here."
"Don't get cocky because we made some progress on the voice."
"Progress? Jim, you identified the voice as a man with an accent. That totally rocked!"
Jim watched Blair bounce as he went to toss his bag in his room. Damn, he'd missed that bounce. "Rafe wasn't impressed."
"Rafe just has a bad case of the gloomies. Comparing your arrest records to a U.N. member list is just--wrong. Sure, I know you've had trouble with the Russians, the Japanese Yukuza, that foreign guy Megan was after… Damn, Jim, maybe Rafe has a point."
"Screw you, Sandburg." Jim opened the fridge. "You want a beer?"
"Yeah. And why aren't you out on the balcony?"
"I'm going. Here."
Blair looked at the bottle of water Jim had gotten for himself. "Why aren't you having a beer? What's wrong?"
Jim sighed, grabbing a chair from around the dining table. They had put the patio furniture in storage in the basement before they left. "Nothing's wrong. It's just--"
"Just what?" Blair asked anxiously.
"The senses are a little sharper."
"What do you mean by sharper? Are they spiking?"
"No. Everything is just more--intense. It's not painful, just distracting until I adjust." He sneezed.
"Get your ass outside."
"I'm not sure I like your current 'de-categorization,'" Jim muttered as he hefted the chair and obediently went outside.
Blair joined him a few minutes later, carrying a chair and a notebook. "You should have told me this."
"I don't think I fully realized it until we got here. I was concentrating too hard at the station."
"Well, give me the details now."
Jim described the input he was getting and Blair did some basic tests on his sight and hearing. He scribbled furiously in his notebook, ran back into his room, brought back another notebook, studied it, then looked at Jim.
"What's the diagnosis, Doc?"
"Your abilities have dramatically increased."
"No shit? I wonder why?"
"Probably because you're no longer fighting against them. That energy can now be channeled into your senses."
"That's logical. You know, maybe Simon had a point about you finishing your doctorate."
"You want me to go back to school?"
Jim heard the hurt in Blair's voice and shook his head. "Tomorrow, we're going out and getting you a gps receiver."
Blair frowned, then his eyes widened. "Oh, a global positioning satellite receiver. Is this your way of telling me I'm getting lost again?"
"What do you think?" Jim asked dryly.
Blair looked at the notebooks in his hands. "I think that you think I deserve credit for the work I've done--and that you're gonna love introducing me as 'your partner, Dr. Blair Sandburg.'"
"So maybe you don't need a gps; just a roadmap and the occasional knock on the head."
"And all you need is a good swift kick whenever you forget to tell me something important," Blair countered.
"Add a whip and some leather and our relationship could get really interesting," Jim said, wiggling his eyebrow suggestively. Then he stared out at his city. "I've been fighting it a long time, haven't I?"
"What? The purchase of leather clothing?" Blair asked, leaning back in his chair.
Jim rolled his eyes. "Being a sentinel. I think that was my first wrong turn, what started me heading away from you."
"Finding out that I've had these abilities since I was a child. It scared the hell out of me to discover I had virtually rewritten my entire past. It still scares me. I mean, what else have I conveniently erased? God, I knew I was fucked up, but to wipe out a vital part of who I was so cleanly…."
"You were a kid."
"Which just makes it twice as scary, Chief."
"We all deal with trauma differently."
Jim shook his head. "I deal with it the same way every time. When you asked me to speak to your class about living with the Chopec, I could clearly recall the time I spent in the village, but I made up some of the stuff when they asked about going on patrol with the tribesmen. And if they had asked me at all about the helicopter crash--"
"I specifically told them not to do that."
"Thanks. But even if they had asked, I couldn't have told them anything."
"What did you tell the Army?"
"That I had a concussion and couldn't remember."
"They bought that?"
"No, but--like I said before, some of the best shrinks in the world have crumbled in my wake."
"You pick some of the strangest things to be proud of. An arrest record that every cop in the country envies--and you just shrug it off. Destroy a couple of hard-working, well-meaning psychiatrists and you're bragging like a teen who just got laid."
"Maybe whips and leather aren't my only kinks."
Blair laughed. "I'm best friends with one very sick bastard. God, I love my life!"
"I'm sure our neighbors are glad to here that," Jim said dryly, wincing slightly.
"Oops! Sorry about the volume, man."
"It's okay. I'm sure even the guy sitting in the car watching us didn't mind."
Blair didn't even look toward the street. "Really? Cool. We gonna do anything about him?"
Jim shook his head. "Not until dark."
"More of your kinks?"
Jim grinned. "Oh, yeah."
Blair tapped on the car window, mouthed something, then pointed at the back of the car.
The man inside scowled and rolled down the window. "What?"
"I said there's a bomb attached to the back of your car and if you don't get out, you're going to become a permanent part of Prospect Avenue."
Blair backed away before the door flew open.
"What the fuck are you talking about!"
Jim closed the door behind the man. "Hi, I'm Jim Ellison and he's Blair Sandburg. I wasn't sure if you knew the names of your assignment or not."
"My--what the hell is this?" the man asked, adjusting his tweed jacket.
Jim grabbed the man's wrists and pulled them behind him. Blair moved forward and frisked the man for weapons. He removed a gun, a taser, and a wallet.
"Who's paying you to watch us?" Jim hissed.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Maybe Mr. Taylor would like to take this to a more private place," Blair suggested, flipping through the wallet.
"I'm not going any--"
Jim clamped a hand over the man's mouth. "And if you bite me, I'll make sure you gum your food for the rest of your life," he warned as he forced the man to walk toward an alley. Well away from any streetlights, he pressed Taylor against a brick wall and removed his hand.
"Do you know your bible, Mr. Taylor?" Jim asked. "Specifically, the book of Matthew, chapter eighteen, verse six?"
"What? You some kind of goddamn preacher?"
"'But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.' That's from the King James Version, by the way."
"Why should I fuckin' care?"
"Because someone watched one of my little ones, and someone stole one of my little ones, and someone offended one of my little ones, Mr. Taylor. And since I caught you watching, maybe you were the one who also offended. No, I'm not a preacher, Mr. Taylor. Let's just say I'm familiar with the other side's work."
"I don't scare easily," Taylor said, sweat belying his words.
Leaning forward, Jim took a deep breath.
"What the hell are you doing?" For a man who didn't scare, Taylor sounded anxious.
"I think he's scenting you," Blair said conversationally.
"Chianti is overrated," Jim murmured.
"Only because you're a beer man, Jim."
The man yipped. "You bit my ear!"
"Domestic will work," Jim said, unperturbed by the squirming man.
It took Taylor a few seconds to add the clues together--even those who hadn't seen Silence of the Lambs knew the movie's famous line--and Jim grinned when he felt the man tense.
"What the fuck are you people!"
"You haven't read my press? I'm hurt."
"Don't be like that, Jim," Blair consoled. "Maybe he's just too stupid to read."
"There's always TV."
"But your story didn't run on any of the porn channels."
"Oh. You're a very smart man, partner."
"Why, thank you, Jim. You're special, too."
"Yo, can we stop with the love fest," Taylor shouted. "Listen, I know you're some kind of freakin' superhuman, but it didn't say nothing about you being a cannibal."
"It didn't? Guess I need to contact my publicist. Make a note of that, Chief."
Taylor gave a nervous laugh. "Y'all just messing with my head, ain't you?"
"If it's true that you can read, you will discover that I spent eighteen months--MIA and presumed dead--in the fucking Amazon, where I resided with a very primitive people known as the Chopec. It's also noted that during that eighteen months when someone wandered into Chopec territory, they were never heard from again."
"I think we might have a copy of the magazine up in the loft," Blair said helpfully. "And you said domestic beer, right?"
"What the hell do you want from me?" Taylor's body quivered badly.
"Who. Do. You. Work. For?"
"He'll kill me."
"Roasted just right, it's possible to pull the scalp completely off with one quick jerk. After that it's a simple knock with a rock and, voila, some of the most tender meat you've ever tasted," Jim breathed against Taylor's ear.
"His name is Zeller, Karl Zeller!"
Jim and Blair grinned at each other.
Blair pulled out the tiny cassette recorder he used to carry to class. "Gee, Mr. Taylor, tell us more."
"You really didn't bite his ear, did you?" Blair asked worriedly as they let themselves into Simon's office.
"Just a nip. I had to make the threat real."
"It's okay, Mother Blair. When I went down to Vice earlier there was a prophylactics salesman giving his spiel along with some nifty sample packs. I was protected."
"You pick me up a pack?"
"What do you need with prophylactics, Chief?"
The sentinel laughed. "Yeah, I got you a sample pack and the name of the rep in case we need supplies for our business."
"Cool. How's Simon's coffee?"
Jim's nose wrinkled. "Old. But he's on his way. You could ask him to make a fresh pot."
"What's his mood?"
Jim concentrated for a moment before sitting with a sigh. "Maybe we'll just head for Starbucks after this is over."
Blair nodded and took a perch on the corner of Simon's desk. "So, are there any glow-in-the-dark varieties in this sample?"
"I don't know. I forgot to take your kinks into consideration as I looked around for a mouth dam."
"I'm not talking about a kink. I was thinking that we need to get your responses to fluorescence and--"
"Testing me is definitely one of your kinks, Sandburg. And I'm not going to--" Jim paused as the door opened-- "sit in the dark looking at glowing condoms so you can get off. Hi, Simon."
Simon opened his mouth, shut it, shook his head, and opened it again. "Why is my jail full of people spilling their guts and fanatically reading that old magazine with your story in it?" he asked, directing his question to Jim.
"You get enough for a warrant?"
"Enough for a warrant to arrest Karl Zeller, brother of Klaus Zeller? Why, yes, we did. Considering that the man he hired to watch you, and the man who kidnapped the little girl, have both confessed to being in his employ, it was a piece of cake."
"Good. So we can go pick him up now?" Jim stood and Blair joined him.
"Just a minute, Ellison. What the hell did you do after you left here?"
"Do? Sandburg and I went home, aired out the loft, he had a beer, I had water--"
Simon dropped his head. "Can I at least ask why one of them requested a bible?"
Jim shrugged. "Maybe he thinks confession is good for the soul."
Simon looked at Blair. "You'll have pity on me, won't you?"
Blair smiled. "Gave up pity for Lent. Just accept your presents like a nice captain, Simon. Hey, Rafe, you joining us for the raid on the U.N.?"
Rafe shrugged into his jacket. "I'm so happy that I don't have to dig through any more files that I'm not even going to ask how you guys pulled this one off."
"Skill," Blair and Jim said in unison and went to call the elevator.
The four men were quiet as they headed down to the parking garage where a couple of uniforms waited for them. The string of cars pulled out of the garage solemnly.
"Next time I get to be the bad guy," Blair said from his side of the truck, watching Jim put on a pair of shades although it was night. He'd offered to drive, but Jim said the shades cut the glare of the headlights to a manageable brightness.
"No offense meant, but I don't know if they'll buy you as a big, bad cannibal, Chief."
"I was thinking more along the lines of a drugged-out hippie. I'll tease my hair a bit, fake the shakes, be all hyped, and demand that we just kill whoever it is because I have an important meet coming up."
"You're getting into this, aren't you?"
Blair grinned, thinking back to the alley and listening to Taylor explain to Hillie--the guy who'd taken Dana--that he was in danger of becoming dinner for a man-eating savage who could see through walls and hear across whole oceans. It had been as amusing as hell. "It's just good--to be doing good."
"Yeah, I know the feeling. Still, it won't always be that easy. And it could get dangerous."
"Do we need to stop and buy a roadmap?"
"I'm not getting lost. Just handing out a reminder."
"Cool, but don't worry; I still remember how to duck."
"And save my ass?"
"And save your ass. Provided you do the same for me. Oh, and instead of shoot for you, I'll exchange that for hold on to your gun."
Blair watched the dark streets of Cascade go by. "Jim?"
"I like Moose Creek."
"It's a nice place."
"But it isn't home." He turned to catch Jim's reaction.
"No, but it's a nice getaway for the spring and summer."
Blair smiled. "Yeah, it is. Mrs. Hanover is going to live with her son."
"She has the apartment under our place?"
"Yeah. It's smaller than the loft, of course--"
"But will make an adequate office. Good thinking."
"From now on, Chief. Except when I'm leading."
"Of course. The Hilton is not going to be happy with us, are they?" Blair asked as the row of flashing lights pulled up in front of the hotel.
"Not 'we'. We don't have lights, remember?" Jim rolled down his window as Simon approached.
"You two stay here," he ordered, then stalked off with the officers.
"Guess Simon remembered."
"He would, Chief."
"We going to obey?"
"Sure. I'll just…" Jim tapped his ear and got out of the truck.
Blair stood next to him just in case he needed grounding. Fifteen minutes later, Jim started moving forward.
"They're coming down."
They were standing with the police cruiser's door open when the men walked out. Zeller was in handcuffs.
"Look as good on you as they did your brother," Jim commented, taking off the shades despite the lights of the hotel.
"I will get out of this," Zeller vowed.
"I hope you do," Jim said agreeably, startling the prisoner. "I handed you over to the cops this time. Next time, you probably won't be so lucky."
"You don't scare me, Detective Ellison."
"Actually, it's just plain Citizen Ellison now--which is the part, if you have any sense at all, that should really scare you."
Jim shot Simon a look. The captain just turned his head and pretended not to hear what was being said.
"My father--" Zeller began.
"Your father. Shall I tell you about his holdings, his investments, his health?" Jim asked. "If you want to be the best son you can be, you will tell him to leave me and mine alone, Zeller. Or I shall take away one by one everything that he cares about--and yes, I know, you're not at the top of that list." Jim smiled and replaced his shades. "C'mon, Chief. The Save-A-Lot stays open all night, doesn't it? We need groceries. And, Simon?"
"We'll be celebrating the Fourth up at Moose Creek, but the poker game's still at the loft. Tell the guys to bring lots of cash. Sandburg's feeling lucky."
Blair grinned and followed Jim to the truck. Jim was right; he was feeling damned lucky. "Darwin knew what he was talking about."
"What? That if a monkey can evolve into a man, there might be some hope for us?"
Laughing, Blair latched his seatbelt. "I was thinking more along the lines of his 'A man's friends are one of the best measures of his worth' quote."
"Oh, I've always known that, Chief." Jim put the truck into drive and looked over at Blair. "Always."
Blair nodded, waved to the news vans that were just now arriving, and quietly reflected that while the journey had been interesting, it was good to be home.