Blair glanced at his pocket watch. 7:45 p.m. *Damnit, Jim, where are you?* He didn't mind lending Jim the Volvo while the truck remained in the shop, but, at the very least, he expected a ride to the bank and then home. He'd tried the loft, Jim's cell phone, and the office phone, all with no luck. He was beginning to get worried. He'd also tried to reach Simon, but he'd met with failure there, too.
*Where the hell is everyone?* With a final, futile glance at the watch, he sighed and shifted his backpack on his shoulder. *Fine, I'll walk.* He was exhausted, having had a total of four hours sleep in three days, and he really wasn't up to lugging his backpack all the way to the bank. *But that's what I'm gonna have to do.*
He didn't relish the thought of walking the street at night, but the bank was only about five blocks away and there was a bus connection right on that corner which would take him straight home.
Twenty minutes later he arrived at the bank. Of course, it was closed, so he opted to use the ATM. He needed to deposit his check, hoping it went through in time for him to purchase his books. He'd just placed his card in the slot and punched in his code when rough hands grabbed him from behind.
"Oh man." Jim tossed his keys in the basket and hung his jacket on the rack. "What a night."
Simon, Rafe, Brown, and Joel followed him inside the loft.
"Tell me about it." Simon headed straight for the refrigerator. "Mind if a I grab a beer?"
"Go ahead, get me one, too." Jim walked over to the answering machine and pressed the button. "Help yourselves to the fridge, guys."
Blair's voice played over the speaker. //"Jim? Jim, man, where are you? You were supposed to be here over half an hour ago. Look, I'm just going to catch the bus home. See ya. I hope everything's okay."// The machine stamp placed the message at 7:30 p.m.
"Oh hell." *Damn. Damn. Damn.* He looked at his watch. 8:56 p.m.
Simon chuckled. "Forgot to pick up the kid? He's going to be pissed. You borrow his car then leave him stranded."
Jim grimaced. "Thanks, Simon." He rubbed his hands over his face in a futile attempt to ease his conscience. He'd totally forgotten about picking up Sandburg. It had been one hell of a day and he hadn't even thought about the time. *How the hell did I forget about it?*
His face must have given something away because Simon placed his beer on the table and walked up to him. "Look, Jim, I was just yanking your chain. You know Sandburg. He'll be a little ticked, but he'll understand. You've had a bad day. Hell, breaking the news to a wife is always bound to get anybody a little frazzled. Don't be so hard on yourself."
Jim sighed, feeling the exhaustion tugging at him. "Well, the least I can do is make him a good dinner. Though I wonder if he already ate somewhere."
Rafe spoke up from the kitchen table. "We'll deal him in the game and he'll forget all about it. Hell, he winds up taking our money more often than not, anyway."
Joel chuckled, sinking into a vacant kitchen chair. "Yeah, I gotta get lessons from him sometime. What is it with Blair and gambling? First the horse track and now poker."
"Probably math. You know, statistics," Rafe said. "Keeping track of numbers and odds."
A heavy shuffling sound in the hallway outside the loft caught Jim's ear. He cocked his head and honed into the heavy breathing and rapid heartbeat of his young partner. *Yep, he's pissed.* "Sandburg's home."
"How do you know?" Brown asked.
Jim tensed. *Shit.*
Simon threw an annoyed glance at Jim. "I... uh... hear him in the hall, too."
Brown frowned. "I don't."
Moments later, the front door opened and Blair shuffled inside. Jim opened his mouth to apologize but the words caught in his throat as he took full notice of Blair's condition.
Simon stiffened. "Jesus, Sandburg, what the hell happened to you?"
Blair's hair hung in a loose ponytail with wild strands sticking out in all directions. His bottom lip was split open in the center, and a cut along the edge of his right eye oozed blood. He didn't have his leather jacket or backpack, and one sleeve of his flannel shirt was torn from the shoulder, clinging to the fabric by a few thin strands.
His eyes blazed fire and he looked right at Jim, his jaw tight. "Forget something?"
Jim rushed to Blair's side, reaching out to to touch the fresh wound on the young man's face. Blair flinched away, huffing angrily. "Where the hell were you, man?"
"Blair, I.... What happened?"
"What the hell does it look like? I was mugged." He stormed past Jim and headed straight for his room, limping slightly on his right leg. He didn't even bother glancing at the other men clustered in the kitchen.
Simon threw a concerned glance at Jim, then caught Blair's elbow as he passed. "Who did this?'
"Hell if I know."
"Can you give us a description? We need a statement, Sandburg."
Blair yanked his arm away from the captain. "Three guys. Masks. The ATM on 3rd and Broadway. That's all I can tell you."
Simon raised his eyebrows. "Look, Sandburg, I realize you're upset, but we need a bit more than that. And I think we ought to get you to a hospital."
Blair shook his head and turned his back to Simon. "Forget it. I'm tired. I've got to call the bank and my credit cards and everything and everybody else that got stolen. Then I'm going to bed."
Blair spun around. "You're not my boss. You don't pay me. Get off my back. You want to talk, make an appointment and come see me in my office. Right now I'm going to my room."
A stunned silence fell over the group. Blair turned back around and stalked to his room, closing the door hard enough to rattle the glass panes.
"Wow." Joel left his unopened beer at the table and rose from his seat. "I've never seen him that angry."
Rafe cleared his throat. "I guess we should leave. Get him to a hospital, Jim, if you can."
Simon nodded and moved toward the door. "His head looks pretty banged up and he should get that limp checked out. I know he's pissed right now, but try to get a few more details out of him."
Jim sighed and nodded tiredly. "I'll try, sir, but Blair knows we've got one in a million chance of catching these guys. If he can't even give us a decent description, the case will die before it even gets started."
Blair tore his sleeve completely off and threw it on the bed, then collapsed in the corner between the closet and the bureau. He pulled his legs up and dropped his forehead on his knees, every muscle in his body tight as he struggled to control the surge of emotion that threatened to explode. He was shaking all over, on the inside and the outside. His head hurt and his leg throbbed, but there was no way he'd go to a hospital.
*God. God. God. Just calm down.* He felt a twinge of guilt at the way he'd spoken to Simon, but he knew there was no way they'd catch the guys. He hadn't seen their faces, and they'd descended upon him so fast he hadn't even had time to react. With so little evidence to offer, there was no way he'd tell Simon or Jim what really happened.
Jim waited a few minutes after the guys had left and listened to his partner's shallow breathing and rapid heartbeat. He moved into the kitchen and pulled a can of chicken vegetable soup from the cabinet. Grabbing a pot from the strainer, he opened the can and poured its contents into the pot, then set the flame on medium.
Once the mixture started to boil, Jim poured a generous amount into a bowl and grabbed a spoon from the drawer. Walking carefully to the french doors, he tapped on the glass. "Blair?"
No answer. He tried the knob and was pleased to find it unlocked. Slowly, he cracked the door open and peeked his head inside. When he saw Blair huddled in the corner like a wounded animal, he nearly dropped the bowl. A hollow, cold feeling settled in his stomach and he hurried into the room, setting the soup on the desk. Everything about Blair's trembling figure told him something more than a mugging had happened.
"Blair?" He ventured further into the room and crouched in front of his friend. "Talk to me, buddy. What happened? What *really* happened?"
Blair didn't look up, but Jim heard the spike in his heartbeat and became aware of just how violently the young man was shaking. A slow panic formed inside him like a crushing weight on his chest and he tried not to think the worst.
"Chief, look at me. Please." He reached hesitantly and placed a hand on Blair's shoulder, half-expecting the young man to pull away. Blair didn't move, though, and Jim didn't know whether to be grateful for that or more concerned.
"What is it? What did they do to you?"
Finally, Blair looked up, his eyes tinged with red. "Please, not now, Jim." His voice shook and he rubbed his hands quickly over his face.
Jim let his outstretched hand fall to his side. "Are you hurt? Tell me the truth. Do you need to go to the hospital?"
Blair shook his head. "No, I don't think so. My leg hurts a bit, and my head... but... but I think I'm okay."
Jim nodded and sat back. "Are there, uh, any other injuries?"
Blair paled and seemed to curl in on himself. "No." His voice was whisper soft and shaky.
He had to ask. "Did they --?"
"No. Almost, but no. I fought them off." He dropped his
forehead back on
his knees. "But almost."
Jim closed his eyes, releasing a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. This all happened because he *forgot* something so simple but so important. He *forgot* about his partner. "I'm sorry, Chief. I'm so sorry I forgot you."
Blair looked up, sniffling quickly, his eyes wet. "No, Jim. This wasn't your fault. I'm sorry for what I said earlier. I... I..." His voice cracked and he looked away. "I wasn't angry at you. It was me. I was stupid. I shouldn't have gone to that ATM at night. It's not in the best neighborhood. It could have waited 'til morning. I mean, what kind of idiot walks up alone to an isolated ATM at night and waves his card around like candy? And I wasn't paying attention. They grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth and pulled me into the alley and I couldn't fight because they held me down and there were three of them and they took my backpack and searched me all over and then I kicked one and pissed him off and that was stupid, I know, I should have just let them take what they wanted, but I was stupid, stupid, stupid, and the guy had the others turn me over and then he said he'd teach me a lesson and do I like it rough and he tried to get my jeans off but I bit one of them -- a girl thing to do, I know, but it was all I had -- and he let go and I kicked again and I managed to get away and run and I didn't even realize I'd run all the way home --"
"Shhhh." Jim reached out quickly and pulled his friend close. Blair tensed initially, then sank into the embrace. "It's okay." Jim tightened his hold. "You're okay now. I'm sorry I wasn't there. I'm so sorry."
Jim felt a warm wetness on the front of his shirt and Blair
mumbled frantic words into his chest. "Please, please don't tell the others, man. I
mean, I'd make a statement if I thought it would help, but I didn't see them. They all
wore masks and all I know is there were three
of them and they were bigger than me. That's not much, and if there's nothing to go on then I'd really rather no one knew about this. Please, Jim, please."
"Okay, Chief. Take it easy. I promise, this stays between you and me." Like magic, he felt Blair relax and lean further into him.
"Thank you," Blair breathed, his voice muffled. "I'm sorry for spazzing out. Stupid, I know. Nothing really happened."
Jim managed a smile even though it was lost on Blair. "I think that's the fifth time you've said you were stupid. You're not. This wasn't your fault, you know. I'm the one who forgot, so blame me."
"Okay?" He hadn't expected *that.*
Blair pulled back and flashed a sheepish grin, his eyes and nose red and his cheeks wet. "If it means you won't think me a woos and or a coward when I ask you to apologize to Simon for me." He swallowed and continued. "I, uh, I'd rather not do it myself and have him start asking more questions."
Jim nodded. "You got it. I won't tell him what really happened, but I'll make sure he knows you were just shook up. Actually, I think he knows, anyway."
Blair took a deep, shaky breath and wiped quickly at his eyes. "Thanks, Jim."
"Don't mention it." He glanced at the now-cold soup. "If I heat that up, will you eat it?"
Blair nodded. "Yeah, man, I'm starved."
Jim smiled brilliantly and rose to his feet. "Give me two minutes to nuke it and dinner is served. Then, if you're up to it, I'll clean those cuts on your face." He turned and grabbed the bowl, casting a final glance back at Blair before heading out to the kitchen. "Thanks, Chief."
Blair raised his eyebrows, confused. "For what?"
"For trusting me enough to tell me." He ducked out of the room quickly, but not before he saw the surprised smile on his friend's face.
Blair held the warm bowl in both hands and sniffed the soup appreciatively. Foregoing a spoon, he brought the lightly steaming mixture to his lips and took a cautious sip, eyeing Jim skeptically over the rim.
"That's gonna hurt, isn't it?"
Jim looked up and grinned, dabbing a generous amount of rubbing alcohol on the tissue. "Just a bit. Sorry, buddy, we're all out of peroxide."
Blair sighed and took another sip. His hunger kicked in and he downed half the bowl in less than a minute. "Oh man, Jim, this is great soup."
Jim chuckled. "All I did was heat it up, Chief."
"Yeah, well it's still good." He set the bowl on the floor next to him and jerked his chin toward the bottle of alcohol. "Okay, go ahead."
"You don't want to finish you soup?"
"After. I don't want to be thinking about all the pain that stuff's gonna cause." He softened his words with a smile, closed his eyes, and raised his chin. "Fire away."
Jim couldn't help but smile. "You're being just a bit melodramatic."
Blair opened his eyes a fraction and squinted at him. "Just working the sympathy angle, man."
Laughing, Jim shook his head and raised the tissue, then gently worked at the wound near his partner's eye. He saw the younger man wince and close his eyes, but that was Sandburg's only reaction. Blair remained still during the rest of the ministrations and, when Jim finished, he taped a butterfly stitch to the cut near the eye and left the split on the lip alone. There wasn't much he could do for that anyway other than clean it.
Now that he was finished, he had something he needed to do, though he knew success was a long shot. "You going to be okay here for a little while? I want to run to the store for some things. Peroxide, for one."
Blair nodded and reached for his soup. "Yeah, go ahead." He raised the bowl and waved one hand toward the alcohol bottle. "Thanks, man."
Jim grinned. "Don't mention it, partner."
Jim pulled the truck up to the Bank ATM on 3rd and Broadway and hopped out, strolling casually up the machine. He extended his senses, his eyes piercing the darkness to search for clues on the pavement, his nose hunting for a distinctive smell.
He found it -- Blair. But the smell was so faint it threatened to elude his focus. There was something else, too. The subtle scent of Simon's cigar. He furrowed his brow. Why would he be smelling Simon's cigar?
Putting the question in the back of his mind, he tracked the scent. It led him to the alley, and his vision zoomed in on a small patch of dried blood on the blacktop. Anger flared hot in his chest and he took a deep breath, inhaling a large whiff of the cigar.
He took off, tracking the odor like a bloodhound. Back to the sidewalk. Down the street. Had they traveled on foot or gotten into a car? The scent would be much easier to follow if the perps had remained on foot.
Fortunately, the odor remained relatively strong and he quickened his pace. Five blocks later he stopped in front of a shody apartment building. It was small -- only five units. He located the cigar scent behind one door, his hand resting on the gun in his holster. Dimly, he thought about calling for backup, but how would he officially explain his presence here? He couldn't. So no backup.
Jim cocked his head, listening. Two heartbeats. Blair had said there'd been three guys. One probably lived elsewhere or was out using whatever cash they'd stolen to buy alcohol or drugs. If he knocked, he'd lose the element of surprise. He focused his sense of smell tighter, searching for gunpowder inside the apartment. He filtered out the scent coming from his own firearm and closed his eyes, concentrating on whatever lay behind the door.
*All clear.* No gunpowder. He was a bit surprised at that, but not all criminals carried firearms -- or maybe the third man was armed. He'd have to stay alert to make sure the missing man didn't surprise him.
He heard them laughing inside, and the sounds of an action movie played in the background. Being careful not to make noise, he tried the doorknob. It turned easily and he almost smiled. Withdrawing his gun, he burst inside.
The men froze. They sat on the couch, looking at him like deer caught in headlights. Both were very large. The one on the left looked hispanic, with dark hair and dark eyes. The man on the right looked caucasian, with brown hair, hazel eyes, and broad shoulders.
Blair's backpack lay on the floor, its contents sprawled on the carpet. A rectangular, gift-wrap item rested amidst the pile and Jim identified that as the source of Simon's distinctive cigar odor. Realization dawned on him. The Captain's birthday was next week, so Blair must have bought some of Simon's favorite cigars as a present.
Jim's eyes drifted upward to the leather jacket draped over the arm of the old sofa. A familiar wallet fold rested open on top and it looked as though all the credit cards were still inside. His nostrils flared. Sandburg's jacket. Sandburg's wallet. These were the bastards who'd not only beaten and robbed Sandburg, but tried to...
His jaw clenched, muscles twitching. "Put your hands in the air." His tone was deadly. Flat.
The men obeyed wordlessly. Jim kept his gun and his eyes trained on the two men while he closed and locked the door, securing the chain so the third man wouldn't be able to enter -- if he showed. "Now, you --" he jabbed the gun at the hispanic, "do as I say and do it slowly. You make a sudden move, I'll shoot you. Understand?"
The man swallowed and nodded. Jim remained perfectly still. "Put all that stuff back in the backpack. Take the wallet and put it in the jacket pocket. Then carefully toss both over toward me. Carefully. You throw it hard and I'll shoot just to make sure you don't get a chance to try anything.
"Okay, man, no problem." He moved slowly, as instructed, grabbing the jacket and almost reverently folding the wallet and slipping it into the outer pocket. Then he crouched to the floor and scooped the scattered items back into the pack. When he finished, he rose slowly, his eyes trained on the gun, and tossed the items lightly. They landed only a few inches away from Jim's feet.
"Now put your hands above your head." The man obeyed. "You--" he jerked the gun toward the other man, "get up slowly, keep your hands in the air, and both of you turn around."
When both men were in position, Jim knelt to retrieve the items, keeping his gun carefully aimed at the two robbers. He slung the backpack over one shoulder and draped the jacket over the other, then made a slow retreat toward the door. Unhooking the chain, he was pleasantly surprised with how easy this had been. He couldn't make an arrest here, but he knew who they were now. He'd talk to Simon and have a tail put on the men. It wouldn't be long before they hung themselves, criminals were criminals -- they broke the law. The next time these guys so much as ran a red light, someone would be there watching.
He grinned and headed for the truck. Keeping his ears tuned to the men inside, he heard them cursing, but neither seemed inclined to follow. Quickly, he hopped into the truck and tossed Sandburg's jacket and backpack on the passenger seat, then sped toward home.
Blair glanced at the VCR clock as he rubbed the towel absently over the freshly-washed plate. 11:21 p.m. *Where is he?* Jim had left over an hour ago and the store was only a few blocks away. It wouldn't be crowded this time of night, so Jim should have been in and out.
He put the dish in the strainer and pulled the plug, letting the
soapy water drain. Quickly drying his hands, he moved over to the couch and sank onto the
cushions, favoring his right leg by resting it atop the coffee table. Just as he reached
for the remote, he heard keys jangle out in the hall, then the knob turned and the door
opened to reveal Jim... carrying a
familiar jacket and backpack.
Blair's mouth dropped open and he pushed himself off the couch. "How--?" He swallowed hard, confused.
Jim stood in the doorway, grinning foolishly. "Here you go, Chief. Everything's pretty much accounted for, except for the cash. How much were you carrying?"
Blair looked at the items Jim held out to him as though they were the rarest of artifacts. "Uh, not much. $20 maybe, but they got cash out of my account."
Jim raised his eyebrows and moved into the loft. "Don't worry about that, I'm sure the bank will credit you. If not, maybe we'll recover the money from them."
Blair took his backpack and jacket and set them on the edge of the couch. "Huh?"
"I tracked them, Chief. I called Simon on the way here and he's going to put a tail on them. An unmarked car is already on its way for surveillance duty.
Blair's leg twinged with pain and his knees gave out on him. He dropped to the cushions, stunned.
Jim was at his side instantly. "You okay, Chief? Do you need--?"
"I can't believe you did that." Blair looked up at him, his eyes wide. "I mean, I don't know whether to hug you or belt you. You could've been killed! You didn't even call for backup, right? You just tracked the scent, waltzed in there, got my stuff, and left. Man oh man." He shook his head and leaned against the arm of the sofa. "That's the nicest and *stupidest* thing anybody's ever done for me."
Jim's grinned, his eyes lighting up. "Bad thing is we can't get them for attacking you. I took the evidence and there's no way I can tell a judge how I found them. But I'm certain they'll slip up very soon. Criminals do crimes, and these two looked like the career types. I'm betting we'll have them in custody within two days."
"How will you explain the tail?"
"Confidential informant led us to believe the two were involved in a local drug connection so we put them under visual surveillance. Nothing wrong with that."
Blair found himself smiling. "Yeah, that'll work."
"You bet your ass it will, Chief."
"Hey, that's what overprotective partners are for."