Previously published in Chinook 5 by Blackfly Press.
Thanks to Lyn for the excellent beta, and as always for giving me a place to hang my imagination.
Blair kicked angrily at the front tire of his car. The thin tread showed a gaping gash where it had blown out and he cursed himself for putting off buying a new spare with his last paycheck. Unfortunately, there'd been other things he needed - books for the new semester, a warm jacket now that winter was setting in. He'd thought the tires would make it another couple of weeks. He'd had no way of knowing that he was going to have to make a long car trip before his next payday. He'd always lived from one week to the next, buying what he could when he could, and then coasting along till the next lot of money came in. Jim, on the other hand Blair groaned as he thought about his ever so organized roommate. Detective "Always Be Prepared" Ellison would never have allowed himself to have been caught in a situation like this.
Taking his courage in both hands, he fished his cell phone out of his backpack and dialed Jim's number.
"Hey, Jim, it's me," he said as soon as he heard Jim answer. "Look, I'm really sorry but my tire blew out and I don't have a spare. I'm about 50 miles from Cascade on a road called Longview. It takes you onto the main highway into the city-"
He stopped suddenly as he heard Jim interrupt his flow of words. "Can't hear you, Chief. You're breaking up. Where are you?"
"I'm on Longview Road-"
"Chief, you still there?"
Blair covered the speaker of the phone as he heard a goods train on the adjacent railway line hoot in the distance. Then he tried again. "Longview. It meets up with I 59 into Cascade. It's pretty deserted right now though. Can you come get me?"
"Chief? You still there?"
Blair pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at the face. One bar. Damn!
"Jim, can you hear me?" He groaned in frustration as the phone cut out. 'Shit!' He shoved it into the pocket of his coat then quickly grabbed it out again as it rang. "Jim?"
"Chief? I can hardly hear you. Are you in trouble? I'll come get you. Tell me where you are."
"Jim!" Blair shouted into the phone, realizing that was a futile effort but unable to resist. "I'm on Longview, about 50 miles out of Cascade-"
The goods train honked its horn again and Blair covered the mouthpiece, hoping Jim hadn't dialed his hearing up too far in order to hear past the static. The phone beeped, signaling the end of the call and Blair cursed again. Now the bars showing the battery power were only on one too. He shoved the phone back in his pocket and gave his mind over to what he should do.
Jim stood up and shoved his desk chair back hard enough to hit the wall behind him. He glared angrily down at the cellphone in his hand then walked quickly across the bullpen and knocked on his Captain's door, then entered without waiting to be told to go in.
"I think Blair's in trouble," he stated starkly.
Banks looked up and raised his eyebrows in a gesture that clearly said, "Again." He sighed heavily. "And you know this, how?" he asked, reaching out to pick up the unlit cigar lying in the ashtray on his desk.
"He just called me. There was too much interference to understand what he was saying properly but I made out enough to know that he's stranded somewhere between here and Carson Springs. I couldn't hear exactly where he said he was but I did hear what sounded like the horn of a goods train somewhere nearby so I figure if I follow the roads adjacent to the train tracks I'll be able to find him."
"Jim, you're supposed to be in court tomorrow morning for the Markham case-"
"I know that, sir, and I'll do my best to be back in time but " Jim gave his boss a beseeching look and Banks wondered momentarily if his detective had been taking lessons on that from Sandburg.
"Look, if it's just car trouble, he'll probably catch a ride to a gas station somewhere along the way-" he began.
"He wouldn't have called me if he thought that was the case, sir," Jim replied. "Blair doesn't call me unless he's out of options. He knew about the court date tomorrow. Look, Simon," Jim dropped the air of formality and sat down in the chair in front of Banks' desk. "Blair's had a rough week. His friend was killed. Someone's who's been more of a friend to him sometimes than I have. I wanted to go with him to the funeral but I couldn't because of this Markham thing. He understood that. I wanted to be there for him and I couldn't. He wouldn't have called me if there was some other way to fix the problem. Yes, we could send out a patrol but I can find him faster than they probably can." He tapped his eye and then his nose gently and gave Banks a conspiratorial smile. "It's getting late and cold and I'd really like to just go track him down and bring him home." He paused. "Okay?"
Simon replaced the cigar and stood, turning around to haul his coat down from the hook behind his desk. "You'll be able to concentrate better if you have someone with you," he said. "Besides, Sandburg'll have my ass in a sling if I let you go alone and you do that zoning thing out there by yourself." He put on his coat and grinned over at Ellison. "Well, get the lead out, Detective. I have the rest of the day and night free but tomorrow's fully booked. Let's go find your partner."
Jim shot up out of his chair and headed for the door. "Thanks, sir," he called over his shoulder.
"Yeah, well, you and Sandburg aren't going to pay this one back with a greasy meal from Wonderburger," Banks muttered as he followed. "I want Gianni's Pizza at the very least."
Blair walked to the back door of the car and opened it, pulling out his backpack. He checked the contents to make sure he had his water bottle and the few energy bars and the trail mix he'd picked up at the last general store he'd passed. He slammed the door shut, locked the car, and then began walking in the direction of Cascade.
It felt like he'd been trudging along the roadway for hours. He stopped, rolled back his sleeve and looked at his watch. He was a little surprised to see it had only been thirty minutes or so. He looked up and down the road, hoping for some sign of traffic. He would have settled for a horse-drawn cart but his surroundings were quiet and the stillness unbroken by the sound of anything resembling transport. Sighing, he shrugged his pack higher onto his shoulder and set off again. For something to do, he kept check on his watch, marking out landmarks ahead and seeing how long it took him to get to them. After two hours, he called a halt and settled down under a scrubby tree, pulling out his water and one of the bars.
He thought back to the times he'd spent with Jesse. They'd been best friends growing up. In fact, Jesse had been the one constant in Blair's life apart from Naomi. No matter how far apart they'd been, no matter how many times Naomi had dragged him off to a new town as she searched for her own place in the universe, Jesse and Blair had found a way to stay in touch.
When Blair had started University at the age of sixteen, Jesse was still in high school, but they'd written each other every week - Jesse, impatient to grow up and leave home and Blair, wishing that he could have had Jesse's life with a stable home and parents who were always there, brothers and sisters to tease and be teased by. They'd commiserated over Blair's misery at feeling out of place on a campus where even the youngest students were still at least two years older than him and over Jesse's father grounding him for taking the car without permission on a school night. They'd celebrated vicariously over Blair's high grades and his gradual acceptance by the faculty and students at Rainier, and Jesse being made captain of the high school football team.
Even after Blair met up with Jim, began working with the detective and moved into the loft, each week's end brought an exchange of correspondence between Jesse and Blair. Technological advances and lack of time in both their busy lives meant that they were emails now, rather than letters, but Blair always knew Jesse was out there, a few hundred miles away, ready with a shoulder if it was needed.
Then three days ago, Jesse's mother had called and said that Jesse was dead, killed in a car accident on his way home from work. Blair had still been holding the phone in his hand when Jim came home, though Jesse's mom had already hung up.
Jim had looked at Blair, walked over and sat down beside him then taken the phone from his hand and listened for a moment. Then he hung it up and pulled Blair into his side. "What's happened?" he asked. "Your mom?"
Blair shook his head, raising grief-stricken eyes to Jim's. "Jesse. Dead. Car accident."
Later he'd wonder about how grief had reduced his normally voluble speech to the bare essentials but just then it didn't matter. Jim understood. He'd pulled Blair closer against him and murmured comforting words and then got up and made him tea and forced him to eat and go to bed at a reasonable hour so Blair could be on the road early the next day to drive to Jesse's hometown for the funeral. Jim had wanted to go with him, Blair knew, but he had to be in court the day after and it just wasn't an option. Instead he'd tried to insist that he buy Blair a plane ticket but when they'd looked at the flights, it wouldn't have got him there any quicker than if he drove. Carson Springs was out of reach of most airports and he would have had to hire a car from the airport to get there anyway. Besides, he'd told Jim, driving would give him time to reflect and unwind before the harrowing event of the funeral.
Blair had gone to bed when Jim suggested it, and then laid awake till the early morning hours anyway, reliving every single moment he could remember of his friendship with Jesse and regretting that he'd never had the opportunity of having Jesse and Jim meet.
Then, he'd gotten up before Jim was awake, left a note on the table thanking Jim for his support the night before and telling him when he'd be back, climbed into his car and headed off for what he knew would be one of the most painful experiences of his life.
As he'd driven away from the loft, he'd felt a little guilty. He was Jim's guide after all. He could only hope that Jim's senses wouldn't act up, and that if they did, Jim would be able to manage without him for this brief period. Jim had gone to great pains to assure him he'd be fine, and Blair had wanted to believe that. As much as he cared for Jim and had vowed to be there for him, he didn't think anything could keep him from being there for Jesse at this time, either. It would be the last time he could show his friend how much he'd meant to him, what a special place he'd held in his heart, and would continue to hold in his life. Friendship was important to Blair, and it was hard to choose between being there for one friend, even if it was too late, at the expense of another, who might yet need him.
Blair looked up as the sound of an engine disturbed his thoughts. He stood as a rig appeared in the distance. "Yes!" Finally seeing an end to his waiting, he stepped up to the side of the road and held out his hand, thumb up in the traditional gesture, then heaved a sigh of relief as the vehicle slowed as it neared him and finally pulled to a stop a few yards away.
"Hey, man, thanks for stopping," he said gratefully as he hauled himself up into the passenger seat beside the driver.
"No problem, buddy," the man said, giving him a quick grin and pulling the truck back onto the road again. "Where you headed?"
"Cascade," Blair replied. "My car blew a tire a way back and I didn't have a spare."
"Yeah, I passed it," the driver said. "Pretty dumb idea to drive without a spare."
"I know," Blair said. "I had to leave in a hurry. Didn't have time to organize things properly."
"Where you traveling from?"
"Carson Springs. Oh, I'm Blair Sandburg."
"Everyone calls me Dozer," his samaritan said with another easy grin. "Guess cos I'm built like one."
Blair eyed the man's impressive build beneath the slightly grimy workshirt. "Guess so," he said, smiling. "Anyway, I really appreciate this, Dozer."
"Forget it. I can use the company. Help to keep me awake. I've been driving for sixteen hours without a break. Got to get this load into Cascade by tonight or the boss is gonna tear me a new one, if ya know what I mean."
"You know, I drove my uncle's rig across country one summer. If you need a break, I could handle it," Blair offered.
"Yeah?" Dozer looked at him skeptically. "You don't look big enough to handle a rig this size, son. But I tell you what. If I feel like I'm going to nod off, I'll give you a yell, all right?"
Blair swallowed hard and nodded faintly, wondering if perhaps it was too late to ask Dozer to set him down on the roadside and continue walking back to Cascade. "Good," he said finally. "You do that, man. Be glad to help." He pulled out his cellphone and looked at the face, hoping he could call Jim back now and tell him not to worry, that he'd be home soon. But there was only one bar showing still. He held it in his hand and rested his head back against the seat. Hopefully, they'd hit a stretch of road soon where he'd be able to make a call.
"Well, his car's here," Simon said as Jim made a U-turn and pulled up behind the Volvo.
Jim got out of the truck and walked up to the car, checking the doors and peering through the windows. "Doesn't make sense," he said, turning to face Banks. "We should have passed him on the road."
"Maybe he got a lift," Simon suggested.
Jim shrugged as he climbed back into the truck. "Maybe," he replied, "but Blair would have tried to call me back as soon as he could get reception on his cell. The battery wasn't flat. The reception was just poor in this area."
"Maybe the reception's still poor," Banks offered. "He might have got picked up just before we got here."
Jim shook his head and pulled the truck back onto the bitumen, going slow. "In that case, we should have passed a vehicle by now. You see any traffic since we hit this road?"
Simon shook his head. "No," he admitted. He sighed. "Tell me what you need me to do, Jim."
"Just keep watch out your side and let me know if you see any treadmarks or anything out of the ordinary. Oh," Jim quirked a grin over at his captain, "keep an eye on me as well and make sure I don't zone or anything."
"Don't know how Sandburg does it," Banks replied.
"He calls it multi-tasking. Look, Simon, I appreciate you coming with me. If I thought it was something Blair could get out of himself -"
"Yeah, I know. How do you know when he's in enough trouble that you need to wade in and haul him out?" Simon asked. "Sentinel-Guide thing?"
Jim shook his head. "Friend thing."
"Right." Sandburg and Jim had been there when he'd needed help too. He guessed 'friend thing' pretty much covered it. He wound down his window and leaned out, watching for any sign that would lead them to Sandburg.
Pain assaulted him the moment he came to and he couldn't keep back the groan that seeped between his lips.
"Hey, kid, you okay?"
The gravelly voice came from beside him and Blair turned his head.
"What happened?" he managed to ask.
"I fell asleep. I'm sorry, son."
"Dozer, right?" Blair asked, his mind still blurred and slow to catch up.
"Yeah," the man beside him replied. "You hurt bad?"
"I don't know. My leg hurts. You?" Blair saw the pain written all over the big man's face even as he asked the question.
"Yeah, pretty bad." Dozer nodded towards his chest and the shaft of the steering wheel that impaled it. "Jeez, I'm sorry. Can't remember your name. Know you told me but-" He grimaced and sucked in a shallow breath.
"Blair Sandburg," Blair said softly, reaching out a hand to grasp the man's shoulder in a shaking hand. "It's okay. Help will come. I called a friend of mine just before you picked me up. He'll be looking for us."
"Well, unless he's one of them psychic fellas, I can't see as how he'll find us." Dozer nodded out the driver's window and Blair followed the motion with his eyes.
The truck appeared to have slid off the side of the road and down a steep embankment, its engine facing up the grade of the hill.
"He'll find us," Blair said, his voice as sure as he could make it in view of the pain he was in. "It's what he does."
"Finds people?" Dozer rolled his head back to look at Blair again. "What is he? Some kind of tracking dog like those ones in the mountains?" He laughed a little then grabbed at his chest, fingers white-tipped around the haft of the steering column. "Hope he's got one of them little barrels of brandy round his neck when he gets here. I could sure use a drink."
"He's a cop," Blair said. "My partner. He's got me out of worst scrapes than this. He'll find us," he finished, hoping he sounded as confident as he felt.
A sudden spasm of pain surged up his leg and he clenched his fingers tight around the object in his hand. After it receded, he looked down and closed his eyes in relief. Somehow, he'd managed to hold onto his phone. He punched in the number for Jim's cell. Nothing. He held the phone to his ear. No dial tone. "Shit!" he whispered.
"Hey, don't sweat it, Blair. Like you said, your buddy'll come, right?" Dozer closed his eyes momentarily then opened them again, fixing his pain-filled gaze on Blair. "This buddy of yours must be a pretty good friend for you to have that much faith in him."
"He is. He's also a good cop. If anyone can find us, Jim can." Blair stared hard at the phone in his hand. There had to be a way to - Of course! "Hang in there, Dozer. I've got an idea."
Blair clicked through the menu until he came to reminders. Then he punched in a reminder to go off every five minutes. He could only hope the battery would hold out long enough for Jim to be within hearing range.
He looked over at Dozer and gave him a reassuring smile. "We just need to hang on till Jim can find us. He'll be out looking for me by now."
Dozer nodded, his face tight with pain. "Hey, Blair, just in case Look in the glove compartment there, will you? There's a wallet in there. Got my name and address on it and inside a copy of my will. Want to make sure my wife gets what she needs to look after the kids, you know?"
Blair hissed in pain as he leaned forward and popped the release. "Got it," he said, holding up the wallet for Dozer to see, "but don't you think about checking out on me, man. You're gonna see your wife and kids again."
Dozer didn't respond and Blair saw the man was barely conscious. "Stay with me, Dozer," he implored.
Dozer grunted and his eyes flickered open. "What were you doing out here? Talk to me, kid. Don't know if I can stay awake-"
"I went to the funeral of a friend in Carson Springs," Blair said quickly, half-cringing at the association that brought up, but willing to do whatever it took to keep Dozer present.
"I'm sorry," Dozer said. "Tell me about him. Must've been a good friend for you to risk traveling all the way to Carson Springs from Cascade without stopping to grab a spare tire."
"He was." Blair bit his lip as pain radiated up his leg. He flopped his head back against the headrest and rolled it sideways to look at Dozer. "Tell me about your family," he said, hoping to keep the other man from slipping into unconsciousness, "and then I'll tell you about Jesse."
"Deal. Lisa and me have been married twenty-five years. The prettiest woman this side of Canada. Got us four kids too "
Blair dropped his head back against the seat and let Dozer's words wash over him.
"Damn!" Jim pulled the truck to dust-swirling stop on the side of the road. The late-afternoon light was rapidly giving way to darkness now and the air was growing chill. "Hand me a flashlight, Simon."
"You need a flashlight?" Simon replied, unable to keep a quirk of amusement from tilting his lips.
"Funny ha-ha," Jim said. "Look, you drive. I'm going to get out and walk just in front of the truck, see if I can see any signs of traffic that might have passed here." He climbed down and took the proffered flashlight then waited till Simon slid over to the driver's seat. "Don't run me over, okay?"
Simon shook his head as he put the truck in gear. "I'll do my best. Last thing I need is to have to break in a new detective this close to the end of the financial year."
They'd only gone a few hundred yards further before Jim stopped and raised his hand. Banks halted the truck behind him and got out. "You got something?"
"I can hear something." He cocked his head to one side, holding up a hand to ask for quiet. "Sounds like beeping, like an alarm. Sandburg's phone! It's got a reminder function. He's got to be around here somewhere." He moved off to the very edge of the roadway. There are skid marks here." Jim shone the beam down over the bitumen. "Wide tires too. Looks like a rig of some sort went off onto the soft shoulder " He took a few steps toward the center of the road and then moved over to the other side. "Then it went over this edge Shit!"
Simon was at his side in seconds, peering down the steep incline of the hill that banked away from the roadway. "Ah crap! I'd take odds Sandburg got a ride in that rig. It'd be just his luck."
"Yeah. There's some rope in the back of the truck, Simon. Tie it off on the fender and give me the other end. I'm going to rappel down, see if anyone's inside."
Banks spun and headed for the truck at a run.
"Sandburg? Come on, Chief, wake up."
Blair pulled his head away from the hands patting gently at his cheeks. He liked this dream. It was much nicer than the pain-filled reality he'd been in before he fell asleep.
"Come on, buddy, you can do it. Open your eyes for me."
Awareness crashed in on him suddenly and Blair jerked awake, to find himself looking into the face of his partner. "Jim?" he whispered, wanting to believe the apparition was real but uncertain whether he was still asleep or unconscious.
"Yeah, there you are!" A grin spread across Ellison's face and he reached through the window to grasp Blair's shoulder gently. "Don't try to move, Chief. We're gonna get you out of here as soon as we can but you need to stay still for now, okay?"
Blair nodded. "My leg hurts," he said, hating himself for the weakness the admission revealed but needing to voice the pain anyway.
Jim leaned in through the window and looked down at the trapped limb, his face grave now. "I bet it does, Chief. But you're gonna be okay. Simon's gone to call for help and then he's going to come back and bring a blanket down to keep you warm till we get you out of here."
Blair jumped as a sudden noise outside the driver's door startled him. "Dozer? You still with me, man?"
"It's me. Simon." The captain's voice was warm and soothing. "Help's on the way, Blair. You just stay still and calm, all right?"
"Dozer? Is he okay? He was just talking to me a minute ago," Blair said. He looked into Simon's sad, compassionate face and saw the gentle shake of his head.
Blair turned his head away and felt Jim's arm wrap cautiously around his shoulders, the detective leaning in as far as he could through the open window. "I'm sorry. He didn't make it," Jim whispered.
Blair raised a hand and swiped at his eyes. "I'm sorry too. He was a good guy. He helped me."
"I know." Jim's hand clenched softly on his shoulder and Blair turned his face into Jim's arm, taking all the comfort he could.
"I'm so glad you're here," he murmured. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Hey, where do you think you're going?" Jim moved quickly over to Blair's bedside just in time to stop his partner from trying to stand up and move across into the wheelchair next to his bed.
"I asked the doctor for a day pass. There's something I need to do," Blair replied firmly.
"And the doctor agreed?" Jim said skeptically as he moved the chair out of his way. "Christ, Sandburg, you've only been here four days. You had surgery on your leg three days ago. You have pins and screws and God knows what other bits of hardware holding your bones together. You need to be resting in bed, not out training for the Cascade Marathon. Wait here while I go speak to your doctor-"
"No!" Blair's voice was emphatic. "I really want to do this. Please."
Jim shook his head. "What? What's so goddamned important that you need to risk breaking your other leg to go do?"
"Dozer's funeral," Blair said quietly. He kept his head down, his eyes fixed on the floor.
"Oh." Jim pulled Blair's hair away from his face. He waited until Blair finally turned and looked at him. "You weren't planning on going alone, were you, Chief? I don't think you'll be driving a stick shift for a couple of months at least."
"I was going to catch a cab."
"Hmm." Jim nodded. "Expensive. Luckily for you, I know this guy who'd be happy to drive his best friend anywhere he wants to go. And he just happens to have the day off today."
"Happy coincidence," Blair said, a small smile tilting his lips.
"I thought so." Jim pulled the wheelchair back next to the bed and carefully helped Blair into it. "We'll have to swing by the loft so I can get changed. Lift's out so you'll have to wait in the truck for me. No way am I carrying your ass up three flights of stairs, especially with all that extra hardware you have masquerading as bone now."
"Okay." Blair nodded. He reached out and gripped Jim's forearm. "You're a good friend, Jim. Thanks for being there."
Jim smiled at him then pushed him slowly towards the door. "Glad I can be, Chief. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you with Jesse. I wanted to be."
Blair shook his head. "You were with me, man. You always are."
"Ditto, buddy. You ready? Let's go give Dozer the send-off he deserves."