A LESSON FROM ZAC

By Annie

EMAIL: Annie

Originally published in Tribal Lore 2 published by DE Press

Thank you to Kathy and Mary Ellen for publishing this. Special thanks to Lyn for the beta and for the place to hang my imagination. To my websibs at BiA for their support and encouragement to keep doing this stuff, especially to Jayed, who keeps me on my toes.

Summary: it's Blair's first case as Jim's official partner , and it's a tough one for both of them.

It was the sort of case Blair hated, had hated ever since he started working with Jim. The sort he hoped he'd never have to deal with again.

Fortunately, in spite of his partner, Jim Ellison, being the primary detective for Cascade PD's Major Crime Unit, it was the sort of case they'd had only a handful of in his time at the PD.

Sure, they'd covered child kidnapping before, but the two or three Blair had played a more than a passing role in had been different to this one. Those kids, tragic as it was, had been kidnapped because of who their parents were: Gwen's parents were loaded, Tyler's grandpa was one of the country's most wanted, and little Joey's dad had been involved with unsavory underworld figures and dirty cops who would have preferred it if he and his mom had played dead like they were supposed to.

Not this time, though. This was a crime of advantage, of some lowlife creep taking advantage of the fact that 11 year old Abby Goldberg was in the wrong place at the right time, in the place where he had the time and the opportunity to take her from her family. The only witness to Abby's abduction was her 7-year-old brother, Zac.

So that's where Jim and Blair were going now, to interview a little boy who had seen his sister taken out through the bedroom window late the night before by a man with a stocking mask over his face.

The man had reportedly told Zac that if he screamed or told his parents that Abby was gone before morning, the man would come back and kill Zac and his mom and dad. If the boy kept quiet till morning, the man said, he would bring Abby back the next day.

So this petrified, traumatised little boy had snuck off into his own room and lain awake all night, terrified with fear. As soon as dawn came, he'd run to his parents' room, screaming that a bad man had taken Abby. Then he'd collapsed onto the floor, hyperventilating. This was their witness, and Jim and Blair had drawn short straws to go and make him relive what had to be the worst night of his entire young life, and probably all his nights for the rest of his life to come.

It was Blair's first case as a detective and as Jim's official partner and he was consciously aware of wanting everything to go right, to not do anything to let Jim down.

Blair snuck a glance over at Jim as he drove, staring straight ahead, his jaw already twitching in the manner Blair was used to seeing whenever Jim felt under particular strain, or for that matter, was particularly pissed off, usually at Blair.

Jim shot a look over at his partner, his jaw loosening and his eyes softening, perhaps sensing Blair's nervousness. "You okay, Chief?" he asked, his voice sounding concerned.

"Me? Yeah, I'm fine. You okay?" Blair asked back, though he already knew the answer.

"I'm okay. Just hate these cases, you know?" the Sentinel replied, not saying anything Blair didn't share.

"Yeah." Blair swallowed then added, "I don't want to let you down, Jim."

He looked over at Blair again and this time his eyes crinkled in a smile. "In spite of what I may have said before, I know you've never let me down, Sandburg. I can't imagine you starting now."

Blair nodded tightly, his heart too full to say anymore as Jim turned his attention back to the road. He looked out at the scenery flashing by. *Christ, Jim, what did I ever do to deserve a friend like you? * Suddenly, the butterflies were gone and he was looking ahead to what he had to do, as a cop and as Jim's partner and he felt as if he was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what fate had determined for him. "Thanks," he said quietly.

Jim nodded in reply. "Read over those prelim notes again for me, will you, Chief? I want to make sure we're prepared for everything when we get to the house."

Blair opened the file and started to read.

~oOo~

The Goldberg house was on the very outskirts of Cascade, in what had become known as the poorer end of town. It made Abby's abduction even more inexplicable. It was obvious they were not looking at a kidnapping for ransom here, which led to the inescapable, if premature conclusion that Abby was taken by a predator of children; a child molester of the worse sort.

They ducked under the yellow crime scene tape surrounding the house and driveway and made their way up to the front door. It was open and Jim flashed his badge at the uniformed cop standing outside. The man waved them in and the partners stepped inside.

Blair's heart was beating triple time now and Jim obviously heard it. He reached a hand out and gave his friend a gentle pat on the back, whispering, "Take it slow, Chief, okay?"

Blair nodded, his heart inexplicably in his throat as they walked further into the house and met a scene that caught at Blair's heart.

A woman was curled in a heap on the floor, moaning and crying, as a man at her side tried ineffectually to pull her into his arms. The woman looked up as the men entered the room and made it to her knees then her feet. "Have you found her?" she asked, her voice filled with pain. "Please, tell me you've found Abby. I just want her back! I want her back!"

"I'm sorry," Jim said. "There's no word yet. We need to speak to Zac."

The man who'd been kneeling next to the woman pulled himself to his feet and grabbed the woman in his arms, forcefully holding her against his chest. "I'm David Goldberg, Abby's father… stepfather. Zac's upstairs in his room. He's very upset, as we all are…"

The woman pulled away from him again and ran to Blair, grabbing his hands and pulling him over to the fireplace where photos of happier family times stood on a shelf. "This is Abby," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Please bring her back. I'll do anything."

Blair knew Jim was behind him before he saw him reach out and release his hands from the distraught mother's grasp. "Has someone called a doctor for Mrs. Goldberg?" Ellison asked.

"I don't need a doctor. I need my little girl!"

Jim leaned past Blair and grabbed Abby's mother as she fell, her eyes rolling back in her head. "Someone get an ambulance here!" Jim yelled as he carried the unconscious woman over to the couch and laid her down gently. He pulled a blanket from the back of the sofa and covered her with it.

"She wouldn't let me call a doctor," came a hushed voice. Jim looked up and saw the woman's husband standing next to him. "She was afraid they'd sedate her and she wouldn't be awake when… when…" the man collapsed to his knees next to the couch, grabbing the woman's hand in his, tears streaming from his eyes. He looked up into Jim's face then turned to Blair. "She wanted to be here when you brought Abby home."

Jim stood and placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "We'll get a doctor out here to look at your wife. Is it all right if we talk to Zac now? It's important we get as much information as we can as soon as possible."

Mr. Goldberg nodded. "Whatever will bring Abby home," he said. "Take the stairs. It's the first room on your right. He's very upset, but he's a bright boy. I know he'll try to help. He loves Abby too."

Jim nodded and looked over his shoulder at his partner. Blair's face was tense and pale. "Chief?"

"I'm with you, Jim," Blair said as he followed the Sentinel from the room.

~oOo~

They found the child's room easily enough. Jim nodded at the uniformed cop standing outside the door and entered, Blair at his heels.

It was a small room, papered with motorbike and car wallpaper. There was a desk in a corner, a few books piled haphazardly on top and a chair pulled in close to it. A box of toys stood in another corner and the bed was unmade. The boy seated on top of the bed was small, with a riot of short dark curls and wide fearful blue eyes that were overflowing with tears. The tears had trailed down his cheeks and dribbled continuously onto the blanket he held pulled up to his chin. His nose was runny and he sniffled as he began to sob in earnest.

"I don't want to talk any more. Make them go away. I just want Abby to come home now. The man said he'd bring her back if I didn't scream and I didn't. If you stay here, he'll think I went back on my promise and he won't bring her back!" With the final words, the boy jumped off the bed and ran to a door built into the wall. Wrenching it back in a sliding motion he dropped to hands and knees and crawled inside, pulling the blanket after him. He held the blanket, which Blair now realized was pink - his sister's perhaps? - up to cover his wet face and tried to pull the door of the closet closed with his other hand.

In an instant, Jim was there, crouched in front of the child, his big hand grasping the child's smaller one, preventing the door from being closed. "Hey, Zac, " he said, his voice dropping into the soothing cadences Blair remembered so well when he, himself, had been on the receiving end of them after being hurt in some way, "my name's Jim and I really want to try to help bring Abby home for you. Do you think you could tell us what you told the other policemen, just once more? Okay, buddy?"

Zac shook his head furiously. "You have to leave!" he shouted, his voice husky with the remnants of many hours crying. "He won't bring her back if you're here. He'll say I lied!" The boy tried once more to ineffectually pull the door closed but was stopped by Jim's greater strength.

"Jim?" Blair spoke up hesitantly, moving up to stand behind his partner. "Could I try? I mean, you guys are all pretty big and intimidating to a kid, you know? Maybe I could give it a go?"

Blair heard a snort of what sounded like derision behind him and whipped his head around. Jeff Barnes, one of the uniforms who'd made no secret of his dislike for Blair, stood in the doorway.

Jim heard the sound as well and released Zac's hand, rising to his feet and advancing on Barnes.

Zac lost no time in pulling the door of the closet closed and began to cry again.

"You got a problem with Detective Sandburg questioning the witness, Barnes?" Jim all but snarled into the other cop's face.

Barnes looked at the man glaring at him and obviously decided to back down. "Me? No, sir, Detective. No problem at all. It's just that the kid already gave a statement and a description of the perp and I just thought maybe we should give the boy a break, that's all. I mean, he's really upset." Barnes looked past Jim and smiled smarmily at Blair. "You go right ahead, Detective," he added, just barely managing to keep the smirk out of his voice as he used Blair's new title.

"Thanks," Blair muttered. "Can I see the statement and the description, please, Sergeant?" He held out his hand and saw Jim's approving nod as Barnes handed over his notebook.

"All right, let's everyone go outside while Detective Sandburg sees if he can get through to Zac," Jim ordered, clapping his hand on Blair's shoulder as he spoke. "Chief? I'm gonna go check out the girl's room, see what I can pick up."

"You sure you don't want to wait for me?" Blair asked.

"I'll be fine, Sandburg," Jim said with assurance and a small grin. "I promise not to do anything too ambitious, all right? See what you can do here, okay? I know the boy's already made one statement but you need to look for anything new he might tell you that he may have forgotten, or any discrepancies between what he says now and what he said in the original statement he made to Barnes."

"Yep, Jim, I know," Blair replied, an answering smile on his own face. "Taking Statements 101. I did go to the Academy, remember?"

Jim had the grace to look abashed, then led the way from the room, leaving Blair alone with the frightened young boy.

Blair sat crosslegged on the floor in front of the closed closet door. He made no attempt to open it or to speak until he heard the boy's sobs beginning to trail away. Once they did, he dropped his voice unconsciously into the Guide tones he had so often used to pull his Sentinel back from a zoneout or a sensory spike. Without consciously thinking about what he was doing he raised one hand and placed it, palm facing inwards, on the door.

"Hi, Zac," he began. "My name is Blair. I know you don't want to talk about this anymore and I understand you're worried that the man who took your sister won't bring her home if we stay here. I really want to help bring Abby home and the best way to do that is for you to tell me as much as you can remember about what happened last night. There are police all around the house so if the man comes near here we will catch him. Will you at least talk to me a little?"

After a moment the closet door opened and Blair could see one blue eye peering through the crack at him.

"You don't sound like a policeman," Zac announced.

"That's probably because I've only been one for a very little while. I was an anthropologist before. Do you know what that is?"

"No," the boy said, shaking his head.

"Okay," Blair replied, what he hoped was a reassuring smile lighting his face, "let's start there. I'll answer one question of yours about being an anthropologist and you answer one of mine. Deal?" He put a hand side-on through the crack of the door and held his breath. After a moment a shaky little hand reached out and shook his.

"Deal," said the small voice.

~oOo~

Jim nodded at Barnes' partner, Mike Richards. "Any physical evidence so far?" he asked.

"Not a lot," the veteran cop replied. No fingerprints so far. He nodded towards the window. "He left a ladder leaning up against the window sill there. Dad says it's his; he left it leaning up against the tool shed after dong some painting yesterday. Techs haven't found any prints on that either. There's a small pool of blood on the concrete below the ladder. The CSI guys will get a match on it ASAP."

"Thanks, Mike," Jim said as he began to range around the room, focusing his senses just enough to pick up any clues the techs might have missed but not so closely that he risked zoning. He rarely did that anymore but Blair didn't think there was any way to avoid it happening altogether, so instead, they'd worked on ways to minimize the chances of it happening.

Jim was examining a small spot of what looked like mud near the window frame when Blair came into the room. There was something stuck in the center of it and Jim asked one of the techs for tweezers and pulled free a small clump of what looked like lawn grass. He put it in a plastic bag and handed it to the technician. "Might be nothing but analyze it anyway, will you?" He stood up and looked over at Blair. "How'd you go with the boy, Chief?"

Blair huffed out a sigh. "Good, I guess. I mean at least he agreed to let me ask him some questions, but there's a discrepancy in what he told Barnes about the guy's height and what he just told me. Everything else checks out pretty much the same."

Barnes moved inside the room from where he'd been lounging against the doorframe, defensiveness apparent in all his movements. "I wrote down exactly what the kid told me, Sandburg," he growled, coming to within an inch of Blair.

Jim stepped between them, using his formidable presence to make the hulking Barnes step away.

"I'm not saying you didn't," Blair said appeasingly, looking around Jim's large frame. Shaking his head at how that must look, he moved around his partner and stood next to Jim instead. "Look, here you've written he said the guy was around 5 feet 11 inches to 6 feet, right?"

"Yeah, and?" Barnes asked, belligerence still apparent in his tone.

"Well, Zac described a man close to my height and there's no way I'm anywhere near 6 feet."

"You got that right," Barnes replied, sneering down at Blair from his height advantage of at least 2 inches.

"Knock it off, Barnes," Jim said quietly.

Blair sighed again, loudly this time. "Look, I think I know what's going on here but we still need to find out which height is likely to be right, correct?" He looked to Ellison for confirmation.

Jim nodded. "Well, come on, Chief. Don't keep us in suspense here. What's your theory?"

"Zac is a little scared kid and this guy comes in, grabs his sister, threatens him and then leaves, right? Well, when something like that happens to a little kid, *everyone* looks big, especially the guy who's threatening to come back and kill you if you don't keep quiet. That's our problem. I don't think Zac has any real idea of how big the perp was. He was too scared -"

"Wait a minute, Detective," Barnes interrupted. "What makes you so sure that what he told me was wrong? I asked the kid how big he thought the guy was and he pointed at me and said the perp was as big as me and I'm 6 feet, that's why I wrote that measurement down."

"Yeah, see, that's exactly what I mean, Sergeant Barnes," Blair responded, keeping his tone even. "I asked him the same thing and he pointed at me and said the same thing - "as big as you are." Now, I'm 5 feet 9 so you can see there's quite a discrepancy here."

Jim held up a hand as his cell phone rang and moved just outside the bedroom to take the call. He came back after a couple of minutes, snapping the phone closed as he walked. "May not matter too much right now, Chief," he said. "That was the Captain. Appears there's a guy named Harry Neville living just down the block from here. He was released from the pen a month ago after serving 2 years for molesting his de facto's daughter. Let's go, Sandburg. Barnes, you and your partner can come with us and give us some back-up in case the slime tries to run."

~oOo~

Harry Neville's house was run-down and unkempt, weeds overgrowing the driveway and the windows shuttered and dirty.

Jim parked a street away and he and Blair, with Barnes and his partner in tow, approached the house on foot. Jim had called for radio silence until they were in place, not wanting to tip Neville off if he happened to be outside and overheard the police communications. They found a spot behind the tall brick wall surrounding half the front yard and crouched down, while Barnes and Richards circled around to the back.

Jim pushed his hearing out, seeking any lifesigns inside the house. He could feel Blair's hand come to rest gently against his back and he allowed himself to relax into the warmth of it, knowing it would ground him and help him focus.

"There's one person inside," Jim whispered. I'm going to go knock on the door. You," he turned and gave Blair a firm look, "stay here."

"What?" Blair asked. "I'm your partner, Jim. I am not staying here. I'm a cop now, remember? You can't do this 'stay in the truck' shit anymore, man. I'm coming with you."

Jim tried to stare him down but Blair had set his jaw and the Sentinel could see he wasn't about to win this one. His instinctive need to protect his guide warred with his innate sense of police procedure and he momentarily wondered whether he'd given any thought to this situation when he'd talked Banks into asking Blair to stay on as a detective. Within moments the question became moot as there was a gunshot from behind the house and they heard a door crash open then the sound of footsteps running towards them.

"What the hell…" Jim stood and stepped out from behind the wall in time to see a huge man barreling down the driveway, a knife glinting in his hand. Jim's gun was already in his hand and he held it out in front of him, identifying himself and calling to the man to freeze. The next sequence of events was a blur. Jim was vaguely aware of Blair standing at his side, then the perp's hand came up in a flash of motion and Jim fired. He heard Blair grunt and saw the man who'd thrown the knife list to one side. Blair fell against him, collapsing to his knees and Jim spared a quick look down at his partner.

Sandburg was slumped forward, one hand cradling his right shoulder. Jim could see bright blood turning Blair's shirtsleeve crimson, the knife still embedded, then Blair was toppling further down, his head coming to rest across Jim's shoes.

"Shit! Chief!" Jim dropped to his knees next to his guide and turned Blair onto his back. The blood was pumping now, small spurts keeping time with Blair's heartbeat.

Jim was aware of footsteps running past him and then Barnes was there, Richards moving past them to look up and down the street.

"Ellison, where the fuck did he go?" Barnes yelled. He shook his head in seeming frustration when Jim didn't answer, all his attention centered on Blair.

Jim pressed his hand down against the wound, his hand encircling the knife and wincing in sympathy as Blair writhed on the ground and tried to twist away. He spared a swift glance up at Barnes. "Get an ambulance here!" he roared, turning his attention back to Blair.

"Fucking great, Ellison," Barnes muttered, not quite under his breath. "The fucking kidnapper gets away because you're too busy playing nursemaid to your little girlfriend. Damn kid shouldn't even be on the job."

"Shut up, Barnes!" Richards was there now, too. "Get on the horn and call it in. Get the guy's description out on an APB and get some medics here now! Then shut the hell up!" Richards looked down at Jim, then pulled a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and handed it over. "My mother told me never to leave home without a clean one," he said with a faint smile. "How's he doing, Detective?"

Jim accepted the handkerchief gratefully, smiling his thanks up at the uniformed cop. "I think the knife sliced a vein. He's losing a lot of blood." He looked down at Blair and pressed down hard with the handkerchief. "Sorry, Chief," he whispered to the unconscious man. "Gotta slow the bleeding." He smiled as Blair's eyes fluttered open dazedly. "You're gonna be fine, Sandburg."

Blair's eyes flickered from Jim to Richards. "I'm sorry. I made you lose him, didn't I?" he croaked out.

"Yeah, that's right, Sandburg. You made us lose him," Barnes snarled, flicking off his radio mike.

"Shut up, Barnes!" Richards snarled. He knelt down next to Blair, and ruffled the young cop's hair gently. "It wasn't your fault, Sandburg. He came out of nowhere with a knife. Nothing you could have done. You just listen to your partner here and take it easy, kid, okay?"

Blair nodded slightly then closed his eyes.

"Chief? Blair? You still with me?" Jim said urgently. He looked across at Richards. "He's out," he said, stating the obvious. "Thanks for what you said to him, Tom."

"Hey, just telling the truth, Jim," Richards replied. "Here come the medics now. Let's get your partner looked after."

~oOo~

"Jim?"

Ellison looked up to find Simon Banks standing next to him in the ER waiting room. He stood, stretching the kinks out of his back as he did so. "It wasn't as bad as it looked," he said, relief coloring his voice as he glanced down at his hands. Hands still blotched with Blair's blood. He'd been so intent on staying with his partner when they got to the hospital and then on eavesdropping on the doctor's report in the cubicle where they'd taken Blair, that he'd forgotten to wash them.

"So the kid's okay?" Banks asked. He shook his head. "Gotta stop calling him 'the kid'," he said with a small smile.

"Yeah, knife nicked a vein in his shoulder, he lost a fair amount of blood but they've stitched him up, given him some Demerol and antibiotics. Doc says he can go home in a while."

"Here he is," Banks said and Jim turned, surprised that he hadn't heard or sensed Blair behind him.

"Hey Chief, how you feeling?" Jim walked across and placed a careful arm around Blair's shoulders, noting the pallor and the faint sheen of sweat on his Guide's face.

"Punctured," Blair responded. "I'm all right." He shrugged then winced. "That shot should be kicking in soon, the doctor said."

"Then lets get you home and off your feet," Simon suggested as he joined them. He smiled down at Blair. "You're an accident waiting to happen when you're sober, Sandburg. I shudder to think what you'll do to yourself wandering around looped out of your head on Demerol."

Blair cut a quick glance at Ellison and frowned. "You listened in," he said accusingly.

Jim spread his hands then grimaced at the dried blood on them and grabbed Blair's shoulder again with one hand, putting the other one in his pocket.

Blair smiled a little. "Why do I even bother trying to have a private life?" he asked rhetorically as he allowed his friends to usher him out to Simon's car.

"I do have some good news for you, Chief," Jim said as he ushered his shambling Guide toward Simon's car. "They picked up Harry Neville only ten minutes after we lost him. He's downtown in booking right now."

Blair shook his head woozily as he climbed into the front passenger seat. "I still don't think we can count on Zac's description, Jim. The kid was too scared and he didn't see the guy's face."

Jim patted Blair's uninjured shoulder gently as he climbed in to the back seat. "We'll talk about it tomorrow, buddy. By then I'll have had a chance to run a Q&A on Neville."

~oOo~

"Why didn't you tell me you'd been having problems with Barnes?" Jim asked as he sat down across the dining table from Blair the next morning.

Blair gave a small smile which was all he felt up to at the moment. His shoulder throbbed distantly, though not as badly as it had when he'd first gotten up, thanks to the pain pill Jim had pushed on him with his breakfast.

"Well?" Jim asked. His tone wasn't accusing, simply concerned.

"I can handle it," Blair replied casually. "Most of the other cops accept me now. Barnes is just a little-"

"Intimidated by the fact that you're a better detective than he'll ever be?" Jim suggested, grinning a little.

"I was going to say, jealous because he thinks I stole his spot in Major Crime but I'll accept your reason instead."

"You still don't think Neville took the girl, do you?"

Blair shook his head. "I think Zac was intimidated by Barnes' size and manner. He was much more at ease with me and yet he still said the man was my size. Neville is even taller than Barnes." He sighed and closed his eyes then opened them as he felt Jim's big hand come down to rest against his head for a moment and realized the detective had moved to stand next to his chair.

"Maybe you shouldn't come in today…" Jim suggested.

Blair pushed himself up from his chair and picked up his backpack, which Jim immediately snatched out of his hand and shouldered himself. "I'll do paperwork or chase up stuff on the computer but I'm definitely going in."

"Figures," Jim said as he held the door open for him.

~oOo~

Blair looked up from what seemed to be a never-ending stack of paperwork as Jim stopped in front of his desk. "Well?" he asked succinctly.

Jim sat down heavily in the chair opposite. "He says he knows nothing about Abby. Didn't even know the girl lived near him, has never seen her. The DA got a continuance to keep him locked up till he's arraigned for the assault on you. If he gets bail then, we'll put a tail on him."

"What did you think, though? I know you can tell if someone's lying, man."

Jim ran his hand up over his face and into his hair. "Much as I hate to say it, I think he was telling the truth. He says he ran because now that he's got a record as a child abuser, he figures the cops'll roust him every chance they get. And I have to say, he's probably right about that."

"Ellison! Sandburg! My office."

"His master's voice," Blair quipped quietly as they rose and walked into the captain's office.

Banks gazed at them over his steepled fingers, his dark eyes solemn and troubled. "There's been another abduction of a child. Her name is Jasmine Matthews," he said. "Sounds like the same M.O. This time, at least we have an adult witness. The child's father was returning late from work and saw a man climbing out of his daughter's window with what looked like a bundle of clothes. He chased the guy but the perp had a car running just outside the gates and the father couldn't catch up to him before he took off. When the father went inside to check on his family, he found the mother still asleep in the master bedroom, not having heard a thing and their two year old daughter missing."

"Oh God!" Blair was horrified. "But it can't be Neville then. He's still in jail."

"Copycat, maybe," Jim said flatly.

Blair glared over at him and Jim raised his hands in a defensive gesture. "Just throwing out ideas, Chief," he said.

"It gets worse," Banks continued. "Abby's body's been found. No sign of sexual molestation but it appears she died from a fractured skull."

"Oh no," Blair whispered. "That poor little girl. Oh man, what about Zac?" His mind filled with images of the small boy who'd begged him to bring his sister back.

"The Goldbergs have asked if you'd go talk to him, Blair. They said he seemed to feel safe with you. If you're not up to it though…" he indicated Blair's injured shoulder with a nod of his head.

"Of course, I'll go," Blair said, rising to his feet and locking his suddenly shaky knees. "Jim…"

"Right behind you, Chief," Jim said, as if he understood what Blair needed from him. "We'll interview Mr. Matthews on the way."

~oOo~

John Matthews looked like a man in total shock. His hands shook as he took the glass of water Jim had brought him from the kitchen. "Sorry," he murmured, his voice made husky by an undercurrent of swallowed tears. "I'm trying to stay positive for Linda, but Jasmine's so small, so young. I'm afraid she might already be-"

"We're going to do all we can to find her," Jim interrupted.

He sat down opposite the grieving man. "Tell me what happened that night. I know you've already told the other detectives and it's difficult to go over it and over it-"

"I'll go over it a hundred times more if it helps bring Jasmine back," Matthews said fervently.

Blair sat next to Jim and just listened for now. Something was teasing at the edges of his subconscious, just out of reach of verbalization.

He looked around the room they were sitting in and out through the spotless windows that faced a spacious landscaped garden. Unlike the Goldbergs, the Matthews family appeared to be well-off. The house was large and comfortable and the grounds extensive and neatly-kept.

"Mr. Matthews," he asked suddenly, "do you have a gardener?"

Matthews seemed puzzled for a moment by the question then he replied, "Of course. I couldn't manage the grounds on my own. I work long hours. As a matter of fact, we have two men who work for us."

"I understand," Blair continued. "These men you employ - have they worked for you long? How well do you know them?"

Jim was looking at Blair now, understanding dawning in his eyes.

"Mario and Tony have been in my employ for several years. They're extremely trustworthy and reliable, and besides they look nothing at all like the man I saw." He paused then went on, "Although…"

"What?" Jim asked.

"Last week Tony called my wife and said he was sending his nephew over in his place as he and his wife were going to Mexico for a few weeks. I never met the young man myself but Linda said he seemed polite and hard-working… Oh my God!"

"Sir?" Blair leaned forward.

Matthews' face had gone sheet-white. He looked at Blair, horror on his face. "She said he was very taken with Jasmine. He let her pick flowers with him while Linda watched them."

Jim was already on his feet. "How do we contact the uncle?"

"I'll get his address but he's still away."

"We'll start there anyway," Jim said.

Matthews flew into his study and was back within seconds, a torn off sheet of paper in his hand. He handed it to Jim. "I want to go with you. If Jasmine's still alive, she'll be frightened."

"We can't allow that, sir, I'm sorry," Blair said. He nodded towards the door to where Linda Matthews stood, her face chalky, her whole body trembling. "Your wife needs you."

"Just please bring Jasmine home or," his voice dropped to a whisper, "if that's not possible, make sure you catch the bastard who did this so no one else has to go through what we have."

Jim nodded. "You have my word."

~oOo~

In the truck, Jim glanced across at Blair as he started it up. "This time-"

Blair shook his head firmly. "I am not staying in the truck, Jim. I'll keep out of the way of knives and bullets but I *am* backing you up. Besides, that way you can take care of the perp and I'll take care of the child. I'm good with kids."

Jim pulled out of the driveway and onto the road, slapping the mars light into place and turning on the siren as he picked up speed. "She might not still be alive, Chief."

"I know," Blair said softly.

He picked up the radio and called for backup.

His cell phone rang, and he pulled it out one-handed and answered it. "Sandburg. Yeah, sir, we're already on our way there. Right, I'll tell him." He thumbed the off button and looked across at Jim. "That was Simon. They got an anonymous tip that someone living near Tony Martinez's house heard a baby crying last night and the sound was coming from Martinez's house. The caller said Martinez doesn't have any kids or grandchildren and when they saw the news about Jasmine…"

Jim gave a grim smile. "Looks like that little hunch of yours was on the money, Sandburg. And the Martinez house is only two blocks away from Abby's."

He pulled the car up in front of a nondescript bungalow a house away from the Martinez property, acknowledging the two squad cars that had pulled in behind his truck with a wave. "Okay," he said to Blair, "if you won't stay in the truck at least stay behind me. You're already injured."

"Yeah, yeah, let's go." Blair unholstered his own weapon somewhat awkwardly, grimacing a little at the pain as he moved his shoulder. He kept the safety on and pointed it down at the ground as he moved to follow Jim.

They moved stealthily to within inches of the front door and Jim took up position on one side, with Blair at his back while one of the uniforms, Barnes, Blair realized belatedly, stood at the other side.

Barnes hammered on the door and shouted, "Cascade PD, come out with your hands held away from your sides."

Jim cocked his head in a classic listening pose for a moment the turned to Blair and whispered, "There are two people in there, one an adult and one a child. The second heartbeat is much faster." He readied his weapon as he spoke and motioned for Blair to do the same.

Blair watched as Jim took a step forward and lifted his foot. Before he could land the kick, the door swung open, and a young dark-haired man stepped through, his arms held stiffly away from his body.

"I'm not armed! Don't shoot!" the man screamed as Barnes holstered his weapon and collared him, throwing him to the ground and using his considerable bulk to keep him there.

Jim stepped over to them, pulled his handcuffs from his belt and placed them around Martinez's wrists. "Get him on his feet and read him his rights, Barnes. Chief, check on the baby."

Blair ran inside and slid to a halt at the sight he found inside. A small, blonde toddler was sitting on the floor in front of the television, her thumb planted firmly in her mouth. She looked around and stared at Blair curiously.

"Hi," Blair said, crouching down and approaching the child slowly. "I'm Blair. What's your name?"

"Jazz," the little girl replied and Blair felt his eyes grow damp. "Want me to take you home to your mommy and daddy?"

The blonde head nodded fervently, and Blair reached down and scooped her into his arms, grimacing as the small, precious weight pulled at his stitches. He carried her out onto the porch. "Jim, this is Jazz," he said, grinning broadly as Ellison met them at the steps. "She wants to go home."

Jim placed one gentle hand on the child's head and ruffled Blair's curls with the other. "Good idea, Chief. Let's do that."

Blair handed the child over to the paramedics to be checked out, then turned to watch as Barnes pushed Martinez into the squad car.

"Hey, Sandburg," Barnes called out as he climbed behind the wheel.

"Yeah?" Blair replied hesitantly.

"Inch for inch, this guy could be your twin," Barnes said, indicating Martinez with a nod over his shoulder. "Good call, kid. Guess you're a good detective after all."

"Thanks."

~oOo~

Blair pulled his car to a stop in the driveway of the Goldberg's modest home. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and tried to mentally prepare himself for the meeting ahead.

He'd promised Zac's parents he'd do this; wanted to do it, in fact, but he didn't delude himself that it was going to be easy.

Luis Martinez had said during his interrogation that Abby's death had been an accident. She'd struggled as he was carrying her down the ladder, causing him to lose his grip, dropping her, and causing her head to smash into the unforgiving concrete below. When he'd realized she was dead, he carried her body to the car and abandoned it in its lonely resting place.

Blair doubted that the excuse was of much comfort to Abby's family and it wouldn't change the charges against Martinez anyway. Abby had been killed during the commitment of a felony. It was murder any way you looked at it.

Then, Martinez had gone looking for a smaller, more compliant victim. Meeting Jasmine had been pure and utter bad luck for the little girl and her parents.

Fortunately the two year had emerged from her ordeal relatively unscathed. Martinez hadn't assaulted the child, In fact, he'd said he'd wanted to take her back but had been too afraid of getting caught to do so.

Blair thought it far more likely that Martinez was simply waiting for Jasmine to become used to his presence so she'd be easier to control when he was ready.

Inhaling a steadying breath, Blair sat up and climbed out of the car, then slowly walked up to knock on the front door. Before he could, the door was pulled open and Blair looked down to see Abby's brother looking up at him with a shy smile.

"Hey Zac, is it okay if I come in?"

The boy nodded and stood back.

Inside, Blair crouched down so his and Zac's eyes were on the same level.

"Abby died," Zac said solemnly.

"I know. I'm sorry I didn't bring her home for you."

"Did you catch the bad man?" Zac asked, his bottom lip quivering.

"Yeah, we did. Because you told us what the man looked like, we were able to catch him before he hurt anyone else, and he'll be in jail for a long, long time. He won't be able to hurt any children ever again, because you were brave and helped us," Blair said, assurance coloring his voice.

Zac nodded, his blue eyes solemn and damp. He reached a hand up and scrubbed a way a tear that overflowed and trickled down his cheek. "You tried to bring Abby home," he said, sniffling. "Dad says the best you can do is try."

Blair reached out and hugged the child to him, blinking back his own tears as Zac sobbed against his chest. "Yeah, that's all you can do, buddy."

~oOo~

Although Blair had said he didn't need Jim along for this meeting with Zac, Blair wasn't really surprised to come out of the Goldberg's house and see Jim leaning up against the hood of his car.

"Hey," he said approaching his friend. "How'd you get here?"

"Got Joel to drop me off on his way home. You okay, Chief? How did it go?"

Blair nodded. "Good, I think. The little dude's got a lot of courage, you know. I doubt I would have been that strong at his age, if I'd been through what he has."

"You would have been," Jim said, slinging an arm around Blair's shoulders and pulling him in for a quick hug. "You're one of the strongest people I've ever known."

"I learnt something important from that little boy," Blair continued. "We need to teach cops how to deal with kids like Zac, how to take statements, and read between the lines of what they're saying."

"Funny you should mention that," Jim replied. "Simon thinks the same thing and he thinks you're just the person to do it." He opened the passenger door and climbed in, waiting till Blair was seated next to him before going on. "What do you think, Sandburg? You interested?"

Blair smiled over at him and nodded. "Yeah, it's a great idea, Jim. I'd love to do it."

"Good, because Simon already put a notice up the bulletin board about it and you've got fifteen students signed up. Jeff Barnes was the first to put his name down for it."

Blair blinked in surprise. "Really? Well, that's cool. I'm a little surprised though."

Jim laughed out loud and ruffled his hair quickly. "When are you going to learn just what a good effect you have on people, Chief? I swear you could turn a vampire into a milk-drinker."

"That's just the power of the gab, Jim," Blair said with a grin.

"Yeah, well, as long as it works," Jim replied softly. "I'm proud of you, Chief, you know that, right? Proud you chose to be my partner." "

Blair blinked to clear his suddenly blurry vision and started up the car. "I'm proud to be your partner, man." He winked across at the Sentinel. "So does this mean dinner at Reg's Veg Restaurant?"

Jim shook his head and sighed. "Yeah, yeah, okay. But only if we call in at Wonderburger so I can get a burger to go."

The End