Previously published in Sentry Duty.

Chain Of Blame

By Annie

EMAIL: Annie

"Hey, Simon, you got a few minutes?" Joel Taggart asked as he opened the door to Banks' office.

"Sure, Joel. What's up?" Simon Banks poured a second cup of coffee and offered it to his fellow captain.

"I just got this in my mailbox. It's for Blair. You'd think the mail room would have worked out by now that my name isn't Blair Sandburg," Joel said, smiling grimly. "But that's not the real problem."

Banks took the envelope from Joel's hand and flipped it over. "These look like letters cut from a newspaper," he said, frowning.

"Yeah, like something you see in ransom notes. I guess the mail people thought it was some kind of joke or they didn't look at it all, just flipped it and let it land wherever, which is how it ended up in my pigeonhole. I haven't seen Blair around for a few days, so I brought it to you."

Simon shook his head. "Might be some sort of joke. Where's Ellison?"

"Not in the pen. He's on duty today, though."

Simon slit the back of the envelope with his letter opener and pulled out the note inside.

"Should you being doing that?" Joel asked. "Mail's supposed to be private."

"Not when it's addressed like a ransom note, especially if it involves Sandburg," Simon said bluntly. He opened the paper and read it, then looked up at Joel, his eyes wide. "Find Ellison," he snapped.

"What is it?' Joel asked.

"Just find Jim and get him in here. I'll tell you then," Simon said. "See if Blair's around, too. If he is, bring him with you."

He watched Joel walk out into the bullpen, then read the note again. The cut out letters read starkly:

You killed my wife, Sandburg. Now it's your turn to die.

"What's up, sir?" Jim stepped inside the office and closed the door behind him. "Joel said you wanted to see me."

"Where's Blair?" Simon asked.

Jim shook his head. "I have no idea," he said. "At the university, maybe. Why? What's he done now?"

Simon slid the note across the desk and watched as Jim read it.

"Is this some sort of joke?" Jim asked, handing the letter back.

"You tell me," Simon replied. "Give the kid a call and tell him to get over here. Better yet, get out to the university and pick him up… just in case."

Jim's jaw clenched. "Might be better if you sent Joel or Rafe, sir," he said.

"Why?"

Jim scrubbed a hand over his face. "He's not too happy with me right now," he said.

"What happened?" Simon asked.

"The last time I saw him, he stormed into the loft, told me what had happened was all my fault and took off. That was three days ago. I haven't really seen him since," Jim said, slumping down into the chair in front of Simon's desk.

Simon sat down as well and fixed Jim with an enquiring look. "The Dale case?" he asked.

"Yeah." Jim shook his head. "He seemed to think that I should have been able to arrest Jeff Dale for assaulting his wife, keep him away from her-"

"But Sharon Dale refused to press charges," Simon finished, "so your hands were tied."

"Yeah." Jim sighed. "I explained it to him at the time, when he first brought her to the loft, after Blair found out her husband was beating her up. We both tried to talk her around, but she was adamant that she couldn't have him charged. She was too scared of him. She said if she did, he'd track her down and kill her."

"Blair's been around cops enough to know that," Simon observed.

"I know. I think he knew it, too, but when Sharon's body was found…"

"He thinks you should have done something, anyway," Simon finished for him.

"I guess. I've left him alone since he left in the hope he'd work through it all, and realize there was nothing either he or I could have done to prevent Sharon being killed once she went back to Dale, but I haven't heard from him. I should have called him, gone to see him-"

"Uh-uh!" Simon wagged an admonishing finger in Jim's face. "No blame game. Sandburg's carrying enough guilt now for both of you. Look, Jim, this might be a hoax letter, a prank cooked up by one of his students-"

"Or it could be the real thing," Jim said, standing up. "The only thing I can't understand is how Jeff Dale thinks he's going to get to Blair. He's been in jail for the past two weeks, hasn't he?"

Simon nodded. "Yep, no bail and he's not up for trial `til next month. Jim, just go find your partner and let's see if we can get to the bottom of this, all right?"

"You got it, sir."

~oOo~

Blair leaned back against the rock at his back and breathed in a lungful of crisp Washington mountain air. He tilted his head back and watched the wisps of white cloud floating above him, through the pale blue sky. Wind ruffled his hair and he reached back, tugging loose the tie that kept his hair confined, letting the breeze card through his curls. Finally feeling relaxed and at peace for the first time in weeks, he dropped his head forward and rested it on his bent knees, allowing his breath to ease in and out in a calming rhythm.

This was he'd needed, he thought. It wasn't that he'd really blamed Jim for Sharon Dale being murdered, but with each day that passed after her death, and the apprehension of her husband, Blair had not had time to grieve. Within minutes of Jeff Dale being picked up, Blair and Jim were heading back to the station to write up their final reports of the case. Then they'd attended Sharon's autopsy and, in short order after that, her funeral.

Blair had tried to put it behind him then, had tried to focus on going back to work with Jim, guiding him in his role as a Sentinel, but the anger at Sharon's pointless death had festered away inside. He could have asked to see the police psychiatrist, he knew, but he felt that would be admitting defeat, admitting he couldn't hack being Jim's partner. So, he'd pushed the case to the back of his mind and concentrated on whatever job was at hand at the time, be it teaching at the university or helping Jim with a case. He'd thought he was getting over it.

Then another case had come in. The victim was unknown to Blair, but it had hit him hard just the same. This time there were children involved. A man had gone berserk and shot his wife and three small children to death, then killed himself. A neighbor said he'd been beating his wife for months, but she refused to press charges, even when the neighbor had called police, worried about the kids.

It had been too much. Blair'd gone over it and over it in his mind and it just didn't make sense. How could the police sit back and wait for a traumatized woman to want to press charges when the evidence of what had been done to her was right there in front of their eyes? How could they expect someone so frightened of retribution to turn in her tormenter?

He and Jim had discussed it repeatedly the night before he left, Jim explaining the legalities of it while Blair sat stony-faced.

After a sleepless night, he'd had enough. He'd stormed out to the kitchen where Jim was cooking breakfast; told him Sharon's death was all his fault and slammed out the front door.

He hadn't meant it. It wasn't Jim's fault that the laws were the way they were, that sometimes Blair felt that they were written more to protect the guilty than the innocent. But Jim was a symbol of all Blair had come to see wrong about the system, he was also Blair's friend and within reach and so Blair had thrown that in his face and then left.

He felt bad about it now. Now that the sun was shining and the sky was blue and he was calmer and could think more clearly.

He stood up and stretched. He'd stay another night, then he'd go back to Cascade and tell Jim he was sorry, that he'd felt burnt out and out of control.

He picked up his cell phone from the ground at his feet and switched it on. Maybe he should at least call Jim first. Let him know where he was and that he was okay. Regardless of the hurtful words Blair had thrown at him, Blair knew Jim was probably worried about him by now.

Jim would have waited a couple of days before trying to contact him, wanting to let Blair have his space, and wrestle with whatever demons were attacking him. But he'd be concerned that Blair hadn't called by now, and Blair hated the thought that he'd caused Jim additional worry on top of the unfair accusation he'd thrown at Jim before he left. He punched in speed dial one and waited for Jim to pick up.

"Hey, Jim, it's me-"

"Sandburg? Where the hell are you? I've been looking all over campus for you!"

"What? Why? What's happened, Jim?" Blair could hear the tenseness of Jim's tone, even through the tinny reception of his cell.

"You got a letter at the PD. I think it's from Jeff Dale. He's threatening to kill you. Where are you?"

"Jeff Dale? Why would he…?" Blair blew out a breath and wiped a hand over his face, trying to school his thoughts to some sort of coherence. "I'm in the mountains, about an hour from Cascade. I'll head back down-"

"All right, use the usual route," Jim interrupted. "I'll meet you on the way."

"Okay. Shit!" Blair instinctively threw himself flat to the ground as the cell phone was jerked out of his hand accompanied by the sound of gunfire. A second later, another shot kicked up dirt near his face and he rolled to his side, one hand snaking out to grab the phone. He made it to his feet and took off in a doubled-over run for the shelter of the boulder he'd been sitting against before. He'd almost reached it when a bullet punched into the back of his arm, sending him forward to land in a crumpled heap at the base of the rock, the phone falling from his numb fingers.

~oOo~

"Blair!" Jim yelled into the phone as the connection went dead. He pressed down harder on the gas pedal, then dialed Banks' number one- handed as he kept a precarious watch on the road ahead.

"Jim, I was just about to call you," Banks said as soon as he picked up.

"Blair's in trouble. He's in the mountains. I'm heading up Highway 54 to meet him, but his phone went dead," Jim said tersely.

"Rafe and Brown spoke to Jeff Dale. He said Sharon had been married to a guy named David Dwyer before they hooked up. Apparently, Dwyer tried to get her to come back to him when he found out Dale was mistreating her. He's the one who convinced her to go to the cops and file a complaint," Banks said.

"Look, I need backup and an ambulance just in case," Jim replied. "I'm halfway there."

"On its way," Banks replied. "Jim, be careful. Wait `til backup gets there. If you're going to help Blair, you need to be in one piece to do that."

"I know. I can't promise I'll wait for backup, though. It's going to be at least a half-hour behind me. Blair's in trouble now. Simon, I gotta hang up. I need to concentrate on driving." Jim thumbed off the phone and tossed it down onto the passenger seat.

~oOo~

Blair managed to roll to his back, cradling his injured, heavily bleeding arm against his side. He lifted his head warily, unsure if any movement from him would bring a hail of bullets his way. When nothing happened, he pushed himself to his uninjured side and crabbed himself further into the shelter of the boulder.

A bullet chipped the rock inches from his head and he ducked instinctively, yelping in pain as the sudden movement caused a bolt of lightning-like pain to flash down his arm.

Peering cautiously around the rock, he saw a tall, beefy man standing about twenty feet away, a rifle aimed in his direction. "Who are you?" he yelled. "You shot me, man!"

"That's just what I was trying to do," the man replied casually as if he wandered the mountains, shooting people every day.

"Why?" Blair asked, honestly perplexed. He didn't recognize the man, though his vision was a little blurry from the effects of shock and blood loss right now. Even so, he thought he'd recognize someone who hated him enough to want to kill him. It couldn't be Jeff Dale. The guy was still in prison... wasn't he?

"You're Blair Sandburg, right?" the man asked, dropping to hunker on the ground, the gun still aimed unerringly in Blair's direction. "You might as well admit it. I followed you here from your home. I've been watching you for a while, anyway."

"Yeah, I'm Blair Sandburg. Who the hell are you?"

"Name's David Dwyer."

Blair riffled through his memory, but came up blank. "I don't think I know you," he said finally. He glanced down at his arm. His shirt was red with blood all the way down to his wrist, and he clamped his other hand around his bicep, trying to plug the small hole in the back with his fingertips.

"You don't," Dwyer replied, "but you knew Sharon."

"Sharon- Oh, God," he said, understanding suddenly dawning. "You knew Sharon Dale?"

"She was my wife before she divorced me and took up with that scumbag Dale."

"Oh, man, I am so sorry."

"Not as sorry as you're going to be. You didn't get my note, I guess?"

Blair shook his head, his brain trying to keep track of the surreal conversation. He was an academic, he told himself. He was good with words. The Great Obfuscator, Jim called him. He could do this. All he had to do was keep talking, keep Dwyer from shooting him again and give Jim time to get here. His vision clouded over momentarily and he felt bile rise to bitterly coat his tongue. He swallowed it down, gagging as it touched the back of his throat, then coughed, clearing his throat. "No, I didn't get your note. You didn't answer my question. Why did you shoot me? I tried to help Sharon, tried to stop her going back to Dale."

"You told her the cops would stop him hurting her and when they didn't do anything, he tracked her down and convinced her to go back to him and he killed her, you asshole!" Dwyer screamed the last words, standing up again and cocking the rifle.

Blair tried to duck deeper into the shelter of the boulder, unable to stop a moan that seeped past his lips as his wounded arm protested the sudden movement. His fingers, slippery with his blood, slipped off the wound and the blood began to drip more freely again. He fought the fog clouding his thoughts and focused on Dwyer's voice. There was honest emotion there-not just anger, but real grief…

He moved forward again and spoke gently. "You really loved her, David, didn't you?"

"I still love her," Dwyer screamed back. "You think I'd do something like this for someone I didn't… didn't…" The rifle barrel drooped to the ground as Dwyer sank to his knees, his face contorted with emotion, tears running down his stubbled cheeks.

"Why'd you two divorce?" Blair asked, hoping to find a way into Dwyer's mind and heart, edging further out from his sanctuary even as he kept his blurry gaze fixed on the rifle's direction. "I only knew Sharon for a few months. She was a TA in the same department as me. I didn't know she'd been married before. She helped me out a lot, you know. Covered classes for me when I was in the hospital once when I got hurt."

"Sharon was always helping people," Dwyer said, his voice soft now, too. "That's how Dale suckered her in. He told her he had cancer and that he needed someone to look after him… Told her he'd give her the sun and moon if she'd move in with him."

"What about you two, though?" Blair went to his knees, his hand now wrapped firmly once more around his wounded arm. "What happened? I can see how much you love her…"

Dwyer looked over at him, then he put the rifle on the ground and shoved it toward Blair. "Take it," he said. "Shoot me. I don't want to live in a world without her in it, anyway. I'd always hoped we'd get back together, but…."

Blair scrambled awkwardly to his feet and stepped over to the gun, picking it up. He clicked the safety on, then turned and placed the rifle on top of the boulder. Turning back to Dwyer, he took a few steps forward until he was right in front of him, then dropped to his knees so he was on the same level as the other man. He hissed with the pain of the descent, but reached out his blood-covered hand and placed it on Dwyer's shaking shoulder.

"Sharon wouldn't want you dead," Blair said. "Tell me about you and her, okay?"

Dwyer slumped back onto his backside in the dirt and Blair moved to sit along side him.

"Not much to tell," Dwyer began. "We met in high school, fell in love and got married right after graduation. I was all tied up in my career. I'm a finance consultant. I was going places. Sharon wanted kids, I wanted to wait. Eventually we just stopped talking to each other. Every time we tried, we'd just end up arguing. In the end, she asked me for a divorce. I was so wrapped up in my work that I just agreed. Anything to have peace and quiet, you know? But we stayed friends, talked on the phone all the time." He turned his head and gave Blair a shaky smile. "I was so proud of her when she went to college. I thought, when she gets her degree, maybe we can talk about getting back together, have those kids she wanted so badly…"

"But before that could happen she met Jeff Dale?"

Dwyer nodded. He looked down at Blair's arm, seemingly suddenly horrified by the state it was in. He pulled his shirt out of the waist of his pants and ripped off a strip, then used it to fashion a bandage around Blair's arm. "You need to get to a hospital," he said. "You can take my car."

Blair shook his head. "I'm not going anywhere without you, David. We'll go back to Cascade together. We'll talk to the cops together, too."

Dwyer shook his head and Blair watched as his gaze shifted to the rifle lying on the rock a few feet away. He grabbed Dwyer's arm and shook it hard. "That is not what Sharon would want, David. Besides, I feel like I'm about to pass out any time and I can't make it back to town on my own." As if to lend credence to his words, Blair was struck by a nauseating head-spin and he slumped forward, trying to force himself to take deep, calming breaths as his pulse thundered in his ears.

"Dwyer! Put your hands in the air and stand up slowly!"

Blair looked up and watched through a filmy haze as Jim stepped out of the scrubby bushes to his left, his Sig Sauer pointed unerringly at Dwyer.

A sudden scrabble of movement brought his eyes around to Dwyer and he saw the man stand, then make a movement forward toward the boulder where the rifle lay.

"No!" Blair yelled, sidestepping so he was in front of Dwyer, blocking both Jim's shot and Dwyer's way forward. "Jim, don't shoot. He wants to give himself up. David, don't do this to Sharon's memory. You have to live for her. Someone should remember her, honor her life, and make the world better because she was in it. You can do that. You say she wanted kids? Then devote your life to them, make the world a better place for a kid somewhere…"

Dwyer stared back at him and shook his head, then without a word, he dropped to his knees and laced his fingers behind his head.

Blair let out a sigh of relief and sank down onto the ground beside him as Jim came over and handcuffed Dwyer, then moved him away from Blair.

Minutes later, Blair heard sirens approaching and soon Dwyer was on his way back to Cascade in a patrol car.

The next thing Blair was completely aware of was finding himself flat on his back on a gurney, a worried-looking Jim standing at his side as a paramedic placed a pressure bandage on his wounded arm and started an IV in the other.

"I'm sorry," Blair mumbled out, feeling overwhelmingly tired now, as if all that had kept him upright until now was adrenaline, which had leached away along with his blood.

"We'll talk about it later," Jim said tersely, but his gaze was concerned.

Blair thought that maybe he was forgiven for his hasty words in the loft. He nodded and felt Jim's big hand clench around his own, a gesture of reassurance so obvious that Blair finally gave in to the darkness enticing him and closed his eyes.

~oOo~

"I'm sorry." Blair repeated the words he'd said on the mountain. "I know it wasn't your fault. I knew it back when I said it, too. I was just angry at the system and…" His voice trailed off and he shifted uncomfortably in the bed, fixing his eyes on the back of his hand where the IV needle punctured his skin. His arm wound throbbed distantly, the pain held at bay by the narcotic in his system. He felt woozy and vaguely nauseous as if he'd had one too many beers.

"I was a symbol of that system," Jim said. "It's okay, Chief. You're not the first person to blame the cops for what looks like an injustice of the law."

Blair looked up into Jim's eyes, seeing the forgiveness there. "It was like a chain of blame," he said after a moment. "I blamed you, David blamed me…" He shook his head. "The only person who was really to blame was Jeff Dale-"

"And he's in jail," Jim reminded him.

"What about David?" Blair asked. "I don't think he ever really meant to kill me. He could have easily taken me out with a head shot," Blair shuddered a little as he said the words, "but he didn't. It was like he deliberately aimed for my arm, as if he couldn't go through with what he thought he wanted to do."

"David Dwyer is a registered marksman at his firearms club," Jim said. "If he'd wanted to kill you, he could have. He's going to be tried for shooting you, of course, but I'm pretty sure his lawyers will go for a temporary insanity defense."

"So he'll get some help, right?" Blair asked. "He loved her so much…" He shook his head as he remembered Sharon the last time he'd seen her; her pretty face bruised and streaked with tears. "She was special."

He slumped back down on his pillows and rolled to his side away from Jim, willing the burning in his eyes not to spill over into tears. "I'm fine, Jim," he said as steadily as his emotions would allow. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep?"

A warm hand gripped his shoulder, then softened into a pat. He heard ruffling as Jim shifted in the chair then the unmistakable sound of a newspaper being unfolded.

"I'm fine where I am," Jim said. "Get some sleep, Chief. Tomorrow we'll both go home."

End