Living at Fourth and Talmadge

The best laid plans of mice and men, or at least mice and underpaid graduate students … it wasn’t just being in viral hell, or the two hours sleep I managed to get last night, or the fact that Cranston gave me the notes from last class’s lecture and that I had to improvise with a ninety minute riff on incest taboos. It wasn’t even that they’d found another dead body down by the waterfront this morning, though that was something I didn’t even want to think about.

The real problem was that overnight Simon had succumbed to viral strain "Jim" too. Didn’t appear that he felt anywhere as near as bad as I did, but he sounded ten times worse. Always been my fucking luck I can be running a 102 degree fever and have what feels like razor blades in whatever I’m forcing down my throat, and never, ever, even sound hoarse. So Simon, while he’s not saying I’m not a little under the weather, is not at all convinced that I’m sicker than he is and *he’s* putting in a full day. Plus there’s that little problem down at the docks to be taken care of – with the implied "get down there and facilitate Sandburg."

Did I mention the usual Cascade downpour had set in right about the time I finished my lecture? Or that the Volvo is leaking? So it’s drip, drip, drip on my shoulder all the way down to the bay. Not like it mattered since I was soaked to the skin in a matter of minutes once I got there anyway. Every time I take an umbrella to Hargrove it disappears and a raincoat is not standard apparel at my income level.

On the way I’d called and checked on Jim who was apparently still feverish and whiney. At least as whiney as a man with less than two dozen signs at his disposal can be. Sally said twice she’d had to stop him from going out into the rain himself. Steven would be there after lunch, which was a good thing. He’s big enough to stop Jim if he should decide to make a third break for it.

She held the phone up to Jim’s ear so I could let him know I was okay. I murmured platitudes and dodged idiot drivers who had yet to understand the concept of hydroplaning.

No Man’s Land smelled of wet cardboard and worse. It would have helped had I thought to stop at one of the supply stores and get some plastic sheeting to take with me to help keep out the rain. If the Volvo is leaking I can only imagine the discomfort of the scrap wood and cardboard shacks some of these guys live in. Besides, if you want information, you have to give them some reason to trust you. Most of the guys know most days I’m good for a thermos of coffee or a sandwich. But today I’m empty handed. I didn’t think much beyond my plan to get home and get some rest.

Cold and wet is not conducive to having a meaningful conversation. The few guys who hadn’t made their way to one of the shelters were in no mood to talk to anyone connected to the cops. I’m normally not a quitter but frankly I felt like hell, and after a brief trip to the dollar store to pick up some dropcloths for the ones that were obviously going to wait out the downpour, I decide a day late is better than today-and-semi-coherent.

On the way home I make another call to check on Jim. Steven’s patience with his older brother, usually the pinnacle of calm reasoning to which all others strive, is apparently frayed to some breaking point I never even imagined the younger Ellison possessed. For reasons known only to Jim, as all Jim’s reasons are, he is desperate to leave his nice comfortable bed and go out into the cold and damp. He’s been stopped four times now, the last a block down the street when everyone failed to notice he’d given them the slip. When he was corralled the last time by his father and Steven he fought until they dragged him kicking and screaming into the house.

All I can think is the fever is messing with his senses - pretty badly by the sound of it. The phone is held against his ear and I can hear the same low keening he made when we found him at the hospital. It’s not something I ever wanted to hear again.

"Hey, Jim. Take it easy. You hear me?"

The moan tapers off to small whimperings.

"That’s it. It’s okay. Whatever’s hurting you, we can help it. It’s okay, buddy."

I can hear him trying to rein in his breathing and I mumble some more platitudes, trying to keep an eye on the road. I’m looking for the Crestwood exit. If I take it I can swing around to the bypass and get to the Ellison’s in fifteen or so.

"Just hang in there. I’m gonna come over and we’ll see what’s … shit!"

The moron in the red Toyota with a uni parking permit and no clue as to the physics of trying to halt 3,800 pounds of Swedish import on a rain-soaked highway decides to exit right from the far left lane. The cell is lost in the slamming of brakes as he veers in front of me. Cars check up behind me as the Volvo skids diagonally. I get that whole weird slow-motion wreck thing as I crash through the skinny reflector poles and onto the grass triangle by the exit.

You only laugh if you’re not dead, right? And I’m not dead because I don’t think my heart would be doing the opening chorus to La Bamba if I was. I curse weakly to no one in particular and lean over the steering wheel. I suppose I should get out and see if the car’s still in working order, except I’m afraid that if I stand up those spots dancing before my eyes are gonna take over completely. Adrenaline rush not being compatible with the flu-from-hell.

Of course, it’s Cascade, so no one stops. Not the asshole who caused all this. Not the dozen motorists that saw the whole thing. At least my heart’s slowing down enough that I can hear …

Oh god, Jim. Shit, where’s the cell?

"Jim?" I swallow and lower my voice. "Jim, it’s okay."

"Blair?" Steven sounds panicked and in the background I can hear Jim’s inconsolable keening. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"Some idiot just about took me out on I-5. I’m okay. The car’s probably a little worse for the experience." My hands are shaking so badly, keeping a grip on the phone is a challenge. When adrenaline comes is nothing compared to when it goes. "Oh man …"

"Blair? You sure you’re all right?"

"Um, yeah. Let me talk to Jim."

The horrible wordless sound coming out of the cell rises.

"I’m so sorry, man. So, *so* sorry. Jim? Hey, it’s okay. I’m okay."

Repeated twenty times or so, the reassurance finally reduces the wailing to soft sobs. I hear Sally murmuring gently, probably stroking Jim’s hair while he calms.

"Blair?" Steven comes back on. "Do I need to send a wrecker?"

"No, she’s drivable. Um, Steven, I was gonna head over there, but right now I’m not feeling so hot."

Steven is suddenly calm and collected. "I’ll come get you."

"No," I squint out at the sign arching over the six-lane. "I’m not far from home. I can make it over there. I think I just need to lie down, it’s the damn flu. I’ll be fine."

"I can come," he repeats.

I can still hear Sally comforting Jim.

"No, really, I’ll be okay." I take hold of the steering wheel with one hand and spin the wheels a little in the muck I’ve made in the median before edging out cautiously onto the emergency stopping lane.

There’s silence on the other end of the line then a worried sigh. "Call me when you get there, all right?"

"Uh, sure." I’m not used to having people request I call them to tell them I got home safely.

I’m still trembling, but I pull out into the lane. Nothing to worry about. I mean surely between the flu and this little side trip, the karmic deities have been paid off for the day.

~oOo~

The juice in the refrigerator expired in June and I can’t find that bottle of aspirin that used to be in the bathroom, but I am going nowhere but to bed. I crawl in between the sheets and am almost asleep before I notice I’m still clutching the cell phone. My fingers must have their own memory of the redial button ‘cause my mind is way past the point of actually directing something as coordinated as punching in seven digits. I mumble something at Steven and just as unerringly turn it off before it drops from my hand and I’m out.

I wake up a couple of times, or at least think I do. Fever-weirdness has got me. That not-awake, not-asleep, not-sure-if-I’m-remembering-things or imagining them. Angry voices seem to wax and ebb from somewhere on the street. I squint in the darkness. The space heaters hum disconsolately to themselves. There’s a loud crash, the squeal of tires and a brief moment of silence before the darkness is cut with a fiery brilliance. I dive for the fallen phone as the walls groan. Something gives and the roof collapses and I don’t know anything else for a long, long time.

~oOo~

There are several hundred unwritten rules to police work. One of them is that if you call in sick, you better be dying. I can hear Sandburg now, deriding the macho-police-bullshit-mentality, but you do not make captain at thirty-five by taking your sick days.

You do not stay captain by allowing your staff to ever forget that while they may succumb, the captain never does. If you can’t manage to be alert at three a.m., sick or not, you better go back to the parking scooter.

Besides, the old warehouse district street looks like a war zone and if the mayor can drag himself out of bed in the wee hours, you sure as hell can join him.

"McKenzie!" It’s amazing the number of people who live by these same unwritten rules. The head of the Gang Task Force puts a hand to his forehead and leans his head back until his vertebras pop. "Who the hell was it and where’d the get the C-4?"

Four ladder companies are still wetting down the smoldering remains of the warehouse. Rescue lights reflect off the damp streets. The blast has forced the front of the warehouse leftward; you can barely make out the bumper of some car crushed in the collapse.

"Los Primos," says Mac. "Caruso was running a meth lab in the back half of the warehouse. The Diamonds must have thought it was a little too close to their turf."

"Witnesses?"

"Not at the moment," McKenzie rolls his head again, rubbing at his neck, "unless you’ve got a way to communicate with the dead."

"How many?"

"Six wearing Primos colors outside in the back. They’re trying to check and see if the front was occupied. It’s going to be days before they get all the way through this mess."

The roof is pancaked. If there was some poor bastard living in there, he’s probably not any more.

~oOo~

"Not now, Rhonda."

My ass is still smoking from the chewing I just got from the chief. To say the mayor was not pleased to find Gang Task Force had "investigate possible meth lab" on the bottom of its checklist rather than on the top would be a serious underestimation of how mad a politico can get. How that was somehow *my* department’s fault I suspect only makes sense to someone who was going to wake up from their political beauty sleep to undoubtedly nasty looking poll numbers. I want to just get my bearings for a couple of minutes and pretend I could actually light up the cigar I’ve shredded between my teeth if I desired.

From the fact my secretary is still standing there, I’m not going to get my wish.

"It better be good, Rhonda."

"William Ellison’s on line one."

Wonderful. "He didn’t own that warehouse at Talmadge and Fourth, did he?"

"He says it’s about his son."

This better not be the day that Sandburg’s extracurricular activities come back to haunt me.

"Any close friend of the mayor’s …" I mutter, waving a palm in Rhonda’s direction to let her know it’s all right. She gives me a sympathetic smile and shuts the door.

The phone is still hot from where I knuckle-gripped it to keep from letting any words but "Yes Sir" slip from between my lips.

"Mr. Ellison, how may I help you?"

~oOo~

I’m trying to remember that I voted for the person responsible for letting one long-haired graduate student into my previously orderly existence. One graduate student who is nowhere to be found when I need him. The damn kid obviously had his cell phone turned off and not only was there no home phone listed in his paperwork, there was no home listed either. The address he’d given was his office at Rainer and, it being Saturday, there was no one in the university personnel office to see if they had anything better.

Not that I really needed the extra hassle of our energetic observer right now, but William Ellison wanted him found and saw no reason why Major Crimes shouldn’t be happy to stop and do it. I wondered what would make the chief more irate – ignoring the richest businessman in the city because we were lending our entire staff to GTF for the duration of the mayor’s rant or pulling trained detectives off the meth lab case to try and calm down said businessman’s autistic son.

There was a reason I wanted to be captain at one time, I’m sure. I just can’t remember what it was right now.

In the end, looking out over an empty bullpen, I come to the unwelcome conclusion that I’m the person the department can spare most.

If William Ellison thinks this means he’s got the best of the Cascade PD at his beck and call, then he probably hasn’t watched anybody above Lieutenant try to solve anything lately. But, if he wants a personal apology that the city of Cascade can’t keep track of one Rainer University teaching assistant, that’s what I’m here to deliver.

I know the moment the front door opens, though, that this is not an exercise in public relations. The crisis the man has on his hands is real enough.

Maybe he’s used to this, God knows he’s had his son’s entire life to adapt, but I suddenly think of my own son, of Daryl. I feel faintly the icy hand that must touch his heart every time his child cries out and how he must ache for anything to sooth the man curled near-fetal in his brother’s restraining arms.

My "I’m sorry" dies inadequately on my lips.

"Blair?" asks Steven, rocking his brother against him, as he probably has been doing all morning.

"I’m afraid we haven’t been able to contact him. His cell phone’s not on and through some oversight we’ve never gotten his home address. I take it you don’t have it either."

Steven shook his head. "Jim hasn’t been this bad since we got him back. We thought … Blair calms him."

He drew a hand through Jim’s short hair. "Last time I talked to Blair was yesterday afternoon. He nearly had a wreck and he was going home to rest. All I know is he was somewhere on I-5."

~oOo~

~Warm.~/Rock./~ New scent.~ Heartbeat?~

~/Rock./~ Heartbeat? ~

~No. ~/Touch./~ Stevie~

~Heartbeat?~No.~

~Hurts.~

~Hurts.~

~oOo~

His brother tries restlessly to turn in his grasp. I kneel down as Steven shushes him and find my hand hovering, afraid to touch the distressed man.

"What does Blair …" These people seem to have such faith in the student. "What does he do?"

"Jim," Steven hesitates, equally unsure, "he connects with Blair somehow. I don’t know how else to explain it. We could really use him."

I finally lay my hand quietly on a trembling arm and wait until Jim Ellison’s reddened eyes seem to look in my direction. "Remember the other day in the bullpen? I told you we take care of Blair. We’ll find him for you. Don’t worry."

I direct the rest of the promise to William Ellison, a father suddenly a father to me no matter which side of town he lives on. "We’ll turn up Sandburg. It just may take a little time. He couldn’t have gone far; he’s scheduled to come in on Monday."

~oOo~

~Noise.~ /Rock./ /Touch. / ~ Not Stevie.~

~Not heartbeat.~

~Heartbeat.~

~Heartbeat.~

~oOo~

 

That Monday will come a lot slower here than it will for me is not lost on me.

I don’t realize for a second that Jim Ellison has taken my hand, the touch is so light. I only later feel the warmth and hear Steven’s soft exclamation at his brother’s actions.

"Yes Jim?" I kneel back down, my knees creaking in the sudden silence of the room.

The hand disengages from mine, Jim drawing up a little in his brother’s grasp. His left hand forms a fist, his right hand supporting it and he lifts both toward his chest. Then he makes a second sign, one I’ve seen before, but I don’t know what it means exactly, the one where he grips his wrist.

"What’s he saying?"

"’Help,’" says William, drawing near enough to stroke the hair on his son’s head. "And ‘Blair.’"

I didn’t realize I could become more irritated at the kid, but I’m suddenly furious that Sandburg would just leave with no way to contact him, when he was so clearly needed. I know responsibility comes hard and the student hadn’t asked for this dependence, but once it’s taken …

"I’ll find Blair for you."

And as soon as I get hold of him we’re going to have quite a conversation.

~oOo~

Oh God … Yahweh, Pele, or any deity available. I’m not going to be picky. This feels less like the flu than that the building collapsed on me. I choke out a painful giggle a few seconds later when I realize the building *has* collapsed on me. I can’t sort out what hurts and I know that’s important. You’re supposed to assess your injuries, that’s what they used to do on Emergency. Johnny and Roy, ya’ know? Fuck. I’m buried in debris and I’m thinking about Dixie Carter … no, Dixie, hell, did Dixie have a last name? Did they let her? It was the 70s, man, they probably didn’t let her … oh, boy, um, I don’t think my thinking should be this sluggish. I gotta take inventory.

First off, someone’s glued my mouth together, who’d do a thing like that? Uh, wait, that’s probably blood, isn’t it … not a good sign. Wonder how long I’ve been out? Can’t see a damned thing. If my eyes are open. I think the right one is. Don’t suppose I could move one of my arms, could I? Oh God, not going to try that again. My left side won’t budge and I won’t even think about the bones rubbing together in my right arm.

I better stay awake. And it would probably help to try and scream. Think I’ll have to gather my energy for that. I just need to stay alert, stay awa …

~oOo~

"Did you get in touch with Sandburg?"

Christ, I’m yelling at Rhonda, who’s in here on a Saturday when she doesn’t have to be. But she’s used to me; I figure if she couldn’t stand it she’d have transferred long ago.

There’s no luck with Sandburg. How the hell could we not know where he lives? What are they doing for background checks these days? Though this being the mayor’s pet project, there probably was no background check.

My mind is still back in the Ellison’s living room. Does Sandburg have any idea how those people have come to depend on him? Is he just too immature to care?

Rhonda again, the chief’s on line one. Could my day get any better?

~oOo~

Cell phone. Cell phone.

I’m in the floor, admittedly the distance between it and the ceiling has been shortened to, like, none. But I’m on the floor and the cell phone was on the floor so we gotta be on the floor together. If I could just move my arms. No, forget about that, let’s start with something smaller. How ‘bout I try to wiggle my fingers?

Shit, that’s a no go. I can’t feel my left arm at all. And the right’s got serious complaints if I try to move anything, even my pinkie.

Wish it wasn’t so dark in here. Buried alive has never been one of my favorite scenarios. Ranks right up there with going out as a shark appetizer.

God, it’s cold. Right now I’d love a jungle, even if it was blue.

~oOo~

"I do not need this!"

Joel is better suited to withstand my diatribe than Rhonda, who was already unfortunate enough to have to deliver the news that Jim Ellison was last seen tearing out his father’s front door and running up Madison. And that William Ellison had, naturally, called us.

"We are not William Ellison’s private security squad. If he can’t keep his own son from bolting into the street, what does he think we’re going to do about it? This is all Sandburg’s fault. He’s the one that understands this guy. And he just thinks he can take off without letting these people know?"

Taggart shrugs. He likes the kid. I really need somebody that likes the kid right now to keep me from doing something the Chief will later regret.

"Forget it. Put out an APB on Ellison and on Sandburg. Tell them ‘don’t detain.’ They can call us. I don’t want any incidents. Ellison’s …"

"Aphasic," supplies Joel.

"Fine," I agree. Just damn fine.

~oOo~

Who knew the big kitty would turn out to be so warm? Nice kitty. How’d it get in here anyway? I ought to find it a nice home. I mean the warehouse could easily keep it in rats but not much else. Better find you a good home, kitty. Well after you get me warm … I like warm. Did I tell you that?

~oOo~

I gesture to Joel through the glass and put the phone on speaker.

"I want you to tell that again, officer, now that I have a witness. I’m not sure anyone would believe me."

Joel’s face creases in concern. "You’ve found Blair?"

"No," I correct, pointing at the speaker like it’s personally responsible, "he *lost* Ellison."

"You had Jim?" asks Joel.

"Yes, sir. We spotted him running down the median on Middleton. Crenshaw gave chase."

"And remind me again, which part of ‘do not apprehend’ were you having trouble with officer?"

"He was in the middle of the street. We just wanted to get him out of danger."

Joel looks over at me, puzzled. In a minute he’ll tell me I shouldn’t be taking my frustrations out on some poor uniform

"And why don’t you tell Detective Taggart how you accomplished getting him ‘out of danger’?"

The voice from the speaker grows noticeably quieter. "As I told you, Crenshaw gave chase. The suspect …"

"You mean the mentally disabled man who was probably frightened out of his wits without anyone pursuing him."

I shoot Joel a glance, daring him to say anything.

"He … he ran across the northbound lanes."

"And what happened then?" I prod.

"That’s when the motorist hit him."

Joel’s breath sucks in sharply. "Is he all right?"

"He wouldn’t know, would you, officer?"

The intake of breath you can hear over the phone lines is shaky. "No … sir. After he bounced off the hood, he got to his feet and ran."

"Was he hurt?" Given the right incentive, Taggart can bark with the best of us.

"There’s a pretty good dent in the hood."

"Go on …" I urge. I’ve already heard it, but I’m sure not going to be the one to share it with Joel.

"And there’s some blood."

Taggart looks downright pasty. "Good God."

I’m not sure if that’s a prayer or a comment.

"So officer, I trust that should you see Jim Ellison again, you now understand that you should call us. Not attempt to contact the man. Not chase him into traffic. *Call*. I assume that’s clear?"

"Yes … Yes, sir."

~oOo~

Thought the rain in the jungle would be warm. Blue jungles must only get cold rain … if they got warm rain they’d be red or something. Right? There’s this little bit of warmth, though, right near my heart. And it doesn’t hurt there. I wish Jim would stop crying … it was just a near miss. The Volvo and I have seen a lot worse.

"I’m fine ‘im. I’m fi …"

~oOo~

"Forget the coffee."

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to that cup anyway. Joel makes it so strong it could peel paint.

"They spotted Jim over on Fourth."

I shrug into my coat. "What the hell’s he doing way down there?"

Christ, if he’s even got sense enough to know where he’s going. He’s probably just running scared. Scared and injured.

"And where the hell is Sandburg?"

If anybody has to call William Ellison and explain why his son was bouncing off car hoods, it’s going to be one absent observer.

~oOo~

"N’…no J’m … ‘s alrigh’ …"

Jim’s keening is almost eclipsed by the sounds of crashing metal. The collision rocks me and I cry out too. I have to do this again? And this time the car hits me? Man, I gotta talk to my karma broker, pay off some of this shit in the next life. Unless that’s what I’m doing in *this* life. Maybe I had fun in the last one. Maybe it’s just time to pay. That’s me, Blair Sandburg, Vedic sacrifice. Gotta find the cell phone. Jim’s hurting.

~oOo~

Twelve hours has not improved me or the corner of Talmadge and Fourth. First off, I’m not too pleased with the knot of patrol officers huddled in front of the line of barrier tape and looking nervously in my direction. I have a teenage son and that’s the same look he gives me when I’m about to hear that he’s flunked his midterm.

Joel’s peering up the street, already on the lookout for Ellison, and I’m planning on making sure he has some assistance.

"Who’s in charge here?"

Actually, at this point, *I’m* in charge here and we all know it, but somebody is going to claim responsibility for this dismal herd of Cascade’s finest.

It’s a moment before they sort this out, the largest of them finally stepping forward. I used to get that too – you’re big, *you* go.

"Lieutenant Ambey wanted us to wait for the city engineers."

He’s not as big as I am, though.

"Well consider yourself reassigned. I’ve got a mentally-disabled, injured man last seen running in this direction. I want …"

They really do look like Darryl when he told me he was in danger of flunking Algebra II.

"We’ve seen him, sir."

"Well, which way did he go?"

Big and bold is not willing to tell me this and it’s finally the smallest of the quartet who manages to reveal the problem.

"It’s like this, sir." She points to the remains of the building. "He ran in there."

Oh hell.

~oOo~

I hear the metal crying. Maybe it’s the Volvo that’s hurt bad. Plants cry don’t they? I mean they don’t actually scream but they tell each other that something bad’s going on. So maybe cars do, too. Maybe they’re using the Jaws of Life on the Volvo. Wish they wouldn’t hurt her. Everybody’s hurt. Jim’s crying. The Volvo’s crying. Oh god, don’t shake her, man, please. It hurts too bad … don’t … don’t …

~oOo~

"You didn’t try to stop him?"

You wouldn’t know Joel could move fast, but for a man who takes his doughnuts quite seriously he can travel when he needs to. He obviously thought he needed to because he’s suddenly there, a hand on my chest, stopping my forward progress.

"Simon?"

"Exactly *what* are they teaching at the Academy these days?"

Except for feeling he needs to be between me and the four near-cowering bodies in blue, Joel is clearly at a loss.

"Simon?"

"Call somebody over at City Hall. I need to know if that building will take anyone else going in it!"

Joel is halfway to the car before he stops and frowns. "Who’s in there now?"

With the way this day is going, he has to ask?

"Ellison."

~oOo~

Who knew the Jaws of Life would feel like arms? People arms. Dixie-who-didn’t-have-a-last-name should have told everyone about this. Everyone would want to get rescued. Roy and … and … the other guy. Roy and the other guy would be backed up for days. Best of all they’re warm. The rain’s falling on my face. Drip. Drip. Hey, it’s warm too.

~oOo~

"I can’t give you a hard answer without further testing, but I can tell you one thing," the engineer resettles his baseball cap on his bald head, "I wouldn’t go in there. The only thing that needs to come in contact with those walls is a wrecking ball."

"This isn’t a choice." I counter.

"Must be one dangerous perp if you want him that bad."

Just what I needed to make the day absolutely perfect, a city pencil-pusher who’s watched too much cable.

"He’s autistic. There’s no guarantee he’ll come out, so we have to go in and get him. What you’re going to do is give us a best guess of how to get us back out before the rest of it collapses."

"Which one of you is going in?"

Joel starts to open his mouth but he shuts it when I glare. "I am."

~oOo~

The blast laid the back of the warehouse open. The on-and-off-again rainfall has been enough to leave puddles dripping under the precariously cantered hunks of metal roofing. Getting in the back will not be the hard part and is not the reason the previously mentioned city employee is fussing over me like a worried mama on the first day of school. Have I got my hardhat? My heavy-duty flashlight?

"Most buildings are designed to take two kinds of forces - compression that acts vertically and tension that pulls the building elements horizontally."

This guy is actually fastening the first-aid belt around my waist. He finishes and gestures back toward the warehouse.

"Nothing is designed to take that. Do not move anything that looks load-bearing. In fact, move as little as possible. I doubt your perp …"

I’m liking this guy less and less. "Our ‘perp’ is the victim."

"I doubt your *victim* would go anywhere you couldn’t fit. The power is off, but don’t touch any cables you don’t have to. Sweep the light around you as you go, you don’t want a piece of metal to catch you unawares. Try to remember exactly how you went in; you’ll want to come out the same way. Don’t …"

I’m wondering when he’ll notice I’ve left or if he’ll just continue his recitation to Joel. I juggle the flashlight to my other hand and thumb the radio for a check.

"Joel, he still talking?"

A sigh. "That’s affirmative."

 

"Any location on Sandburg?"

"Nothing yet."

Nothing yet. Well, when we do find him it’s going to take a lot for me not to pull his pass. No home address. No notification he was going to be out of cell range. No reason I should have been stuck with him the first place.

~oOo~

Things are rapidly becoming too tight for remaining upright. So much for Ellison not going anywhere a police captain wouldn’t. Remembering the tight ball Jim was curled in when I saw him earlier in the day there’s a whole lot of places in here he could fit. In a few more steps I’m going to be practically on my hands and knees.

If I’d thought Jim wouldn’t run from them, I would have sent in one of the patrol officers. I’m too old to be doing shit like this. Not that I’m not sure he won’t run from me. The only one who he wouldn’t run from is Sandburg and there’s no sense me having that conversation with myself again.

Just when I begin to think the uniformed wonders outside were mistaken and that I’m the only one crazy enough to be crawling around this disaster, I hear a faint sob. Unfortunately, in the crumpled remains of the warehouse the sound seems to come from everywhere at once.

"Jim?" I call softly, afraid to do anything to startle Ellison and risk him bumping into the precarious walls. "It’s okay, Jim. Just let me come get you."

I’m answered by another muffled cry from the directionless dark. The beam from the flashlight reveals nothing but more crumpled steel. Something brushes past my feet and I quickly switch the light down.

"The proverbial sinking ship," I mutter, kicking at the rat’s retreating back. My head is pounding. Ignoring the flu seems to have only made it more vengeful.

"Jim. Mr. Ellison, can you hear me?"

Hear me, yes. Answer me, no.

"I need you to let me know where you are."

My foot twists on the litter of debris I’m walking on and before I can right myself, I’m falling, hard. The light arcs up, then down, bouncing the beam against the darkness. I land against a rusty pillar with a grunt then curl my arms frantically, trying to protect my head as another part of the roof joins the junk heap on the floor.

Metal screams. Jim Ellison does, too.

"Simon! Simon!"

I snag the radio and lower the volume. "I’m all right," I whisper.

"The roof caved in."

"Thank you. I’m aware of that, Joel."

"You’re all right?" he reaffirms.

"Ellison’s in here. I just can’t figure out where, yet."

"Simon …"

"I’ll leave the channel open, just don’t say anything. I need to try to locate him."

"Okay, just be careful."

Careful would have been doing what my mother wanted and becoming an accountant.

~oOo~

I see the bit of cloth first, the bit of blue and green plaid like I’d seen Jim wearing that morning, snagged on the rough-edged hunk of metal barricading the maze I’d been so far able to follow. The strong light bleaches the color out of it, but I can see drying blood staining the jagged edge of the corrugated metal. It was a tight fit for Ellison. It’s going to be a tighter fit for me. Should have gone one of those diets Joan was always bitching for me to try.

At least beyond the narrow opening I can see a fairly large space where the roof’s managed to not completely meet the floor.

"Jim?"

The answering cry is still wordless, but closer now. Swinging the flashlight up I catch another glimpse of blue plaid. Jim hunches over when the light strikes him, so I can only see his back, but he’s sitting on the floor, his body moving rhythmically in the stark lighting as he rocks, an odd crooning a counter point to the swaying.

"Jim? We need to get you out of here. Your father and brother are very upset. Do you remember me, Jim? It’s Simon Banks, from the police station."

He rocks and vocalizes, unheeding.

"Jim, I’m going to touch you. I’m not going to hurt you. I just need to …"

I make the merest contact with his shoulder and he jerks away from me, moving awkwardly, and it’s then I realize he has something cradled against him.

I move the light for a better look and he cries out, bringing his hand to his eyes and revealing that what he has clutched so tightly to his chest is a body, small and limp. I can see long, brown hair spilling over his arm and a white hand resting lifelessly on his thigh.

"Joel, we’re going to need an ambulance. Someone else is in here, Ellison’s found someone."

"Are they alive?"

Jim Ellison rocks to and fro, his burden moving with him.

"I don’t know."

~oOo~

"Jim, I need to help you." He hunches over protectively, placing himself between my reaching hand and the person he holds. "I need to help you both."

I’m reminded of Daryl at five, bringing home a kitten someone had drowned in the neighborhood creek. How he clutched it and begged me to do something but it was too late. How I was suddenly, that day, no longer superman to my son.

Remembering how he flinched from the light at the hospital, I’ve turned the lantern away, but there’s still enough light for me to see. Jim has wedged himself, as tightly as he can, into the small triangle of space between where the roof completely joins the floor. The second side is blocked by the tattered remains of a bed - probably belonging to the person he’s clutching. I sit blocking the only exit. A standoff that can’t go on much longer.

I’m pondering the alternatives when it suddenly becomes clear that, unlike Daryl’s kitten, the body Jim Ellison holds is, at least for the moment, very much alive. The hand I can still see clutches spasmodically and Jim bends over further, sheltering the waking form, a big hand stroking curly hair back from a pale forehead.

~oOo~

"Don’t … don’t cry … ‘im. Gonna … gonna … get … help … Simon."

I want to get up but the warm jaws hold me back.

~oOo~

I move to my knees and Jim looks up sharply, really *looks* at me, like he’s studying me. The same thing he did in my office, only there’s no Sandburg dancing in impatience, babbling about what a marvelous thing it is.

He turns a little, his arms loosening to reveal more of the face cradled to his chest, but I’m afraid to look away, that if I do, when I look again, this tenuous connection will be gone. His mouth moves silently, then his eyes close. After much concentration, a harsh syllable grates from his throat.

"H’lp …"

His hold loosens further and he places his burden on the floor, one hand still gently cradling the lolling head. I look down to see the condition of the victim and nearly choke.

Dear God.

Sandburg.

~oOo~

My first impulse, to go to Sandburg’s side and reassure myself I had seen movement, is quickly checked by the way Jim Ellison shudders when I start to move.

"Joel," I know Taggart’s listening, but he’s kept to his promise and remained quiet. "I - or rather - Jim’s found Sandburg."

"Could you repeat that, Simon?"

"You heard me," I say roughly, feeling the weight of everything I’ve thought about the kid today in one sudden burst of personal gravity. "He must have been living in the front of the warehouse."

"Is he badly hurt? How do you plan on getting him out?"

"In answer to your first question, I don’t know. And you’re going to have to give me a few on the second one."

Jim looks torn between surrendering his protective stance and taking Sandburg back into his arms. A hand pets the pale forehead tenderly. He runs a thumb over the student’s slack features.

"Help," I offer. Despite Sandburg’s excitement about nonverbal communication, this is the one word we’ve shared. The only real sign that we’re communicating. Help is surely clear enough.

Jim moves back slightly, allowing me access, the hand slipping down to clutch the swollen fingers of an arm clearly broken. Blair groans at the pressure, causing Ellison to hunker closer to him.

I don’t need the reassurance of a pulse now, but I still press a finger to Sandburg’s throat. The beat is reedy and fast. Respiration is shallow and rapid. The student’s skin is cold. Shock, obviously. Internal injuries, probably. There’s dried blood at the corner of his mouth, contusions and scrapes on his temple and cheek. The right hand that Jim keeps a tight hold on is enlarged and discolored. The left shoulder looks dislocated to me. And that’s not even considering any spinal or neck injuries. Blair’s belly is distended and tight like a drum, convincing me of the need to move as soon as possible.

"Joel? Get those medics in with a stretcher as far as they can go. I don’t think we’ve got much time, I’m going to carry him out."

As soon as I say it, I know Joel is out there being bombarded by skilled testimony showing that is what I definitely should *not* be doing for numerous medical and structural reasons. I also know he will keep any advice he doesn’t think I really need – and that would be most of it -- to himself.

There’s little enough to work with – the first aid belt contains a folded-up emergency blanket and a selection of tape and bandages but little else that might be useful in this particular situation. I waste a few seconds trying to decide if I want to try and immobilize his arms but the strained creaking of metal leads me to believe the quicker we get out of here, the better.

I reached over and carefully remove Blair’s hand from Jim’s grip. The blue eyes that meet mine are tear-filled and intense, but there’s no interference until I try and position the injured limb to make the lifting less painful. Sandburg gasps and his eyes slit open. Jim moves as if to take back his charge.

"Help," I repeat, trying to let him know that I’m not trying to hurt Blair.

"Si … Si..’mon." Blair frowns up at me, confused. He takes in the other concerned face floating about him. "Jim?" He tries to rise and gasps.

"Take it easy Blair. I’m going to get you out of here."

"Do something about the Volvo, man." Blair slurs the strange request before his eyes flutter then close. "She’s hurt."

"Well, so are you, son," I mutter, returning to my task of making the student as comfortable as I’m going to be able to manage. I feel like I’m in that riddle Daryl used to tell about the man who had get his two kids across the river but his canoe only held two people and there was the small problem of a man-eating tiger prowling the other bank. I can carry Blair, but that will leave me no hands to make sure Jim doesn’t wander. "Help" has been fine as an explanation up until now, but it won’t tell him a thing about this maze we have to retrace.

"Jim, I’m going to …"

Well, I’m not going to do anything if the look he’s giving me is anything to go by. I vaguely remember Sandburg telling me at great length one day that Jim’s condition left him unable to equate cause and effect properly, but it looks like he’s equating just damn fine to me. I moved Blair and the effect was pain. From the warning growl, he’s put me down as "cause" easily enough.

I reach for Ellison’s hand. "I can’t help. The people out there …" I gesture vaguely past the lurking metal. "They can help. We have to take Blair to them."

He tilts his head, his eyes growing glassy and distant, and my heart sinks. I’m on that riverbank, looking across at the pacing feline then down at my pitiful canoe. Sandburg didn’t mention seizures, or, hell, he might have mentioned seizures. After a few minutes I tend to tune the bullpen’s personal font of information out.

To my relief, after a minute or so, Jim blinks and focuses on me. He pulls his hand out of mine and, despite my protests, carefully levers his arms underneath the battered body on the concrete. This time Blair is mercifully past awareness. Jim struggles to get his feet under him and I place a hand under his elbow to steady him, but in a minute he’s already moving out of the light’s meager illumination. Following behind I try to throw enough light on his path, but he moves steadily away from me in the semi-darkness, like he knows the path by heart. Maybe he’s some kind of savant with under-lit warehouses. Maybe next time the kid goes into lecture mode I’ll try to learn something. If there is a next time. I pray there’s a next time.

I expect getting the kid away from Ellison will be a fight, but then he surprises me and surrenders Blair to the EMTs without a protest, watching intently as they strap the student onto the gurney. Then his eyes close. Joel’s close enough to catch him when he collapses in a heap at the side of the stretcher.

One of the officers hands me a bottle of water. I sip it as Joel reconstructs as much of Jim Ellison’s day for the medical techs as he can. At the mention of the hit-and-run, the plaid shirt is unbuttoned and I have to close my eyes at the sight of the spongy purple-red bruise burgeoning on Ellison’s right side.

"We’ve got fractured ribs on this one," affirms the male half of the pair after a gentle probing. Still working over Sandburg, his partner nods her acknowledgement.

"Need to take ‘em two-for-one on Lifeflight?" she queries, finishing wrapping the cervical collar around Blair’s neck with a calmness that belays the whirring of the chopper blades in the parking lot and the rapidity of my pulse.

"Better go ‘head and transport with that one," he suggests and my heart sinks at how bad it must really be. "This one will do fine by ambulance."

There’s more concerted action by the duo then Blair is whisked away in a flurry of helping hands, Joel insisting on supervising, and I’m left alone with the tech and Ellison.

God, I need Sandburg for this.

"I think I better tell you, he’s autistic. If he wakes up and doesn’t understand, he may fight you."

The tech looks up, then back into the pile of dilapidated metal that was once Sandburg’s home. "He carried him out of there. With broken ribs? And he’s autistic?"

"Better than that," I search my coat for a cigar, "he *found* him."

"Wow," says the tech.

Yeah, if you wanted to do it monosyllabically, guess that would cover it. I doubt William Ellison is going to be so brief.

"Can I ride in with him?"

The tech shrugs, "You’ve got the badge."

Yes, indeed, I do.

~oOo~

I’ve woken up to some strange sights but nothing weirder than waking up to find Simon folded in a chair, snoring his head off. I’m thinking it may be a hallucination, because I definitely feel that floaty narcotic feeling. God, I hate drugs. Whoever Naomi had sex with that fateful 1968 night was obviously not gifted with her genetic predisposition for recreational pharmaceuticals. I would not have taken drugs knowingly. Which makes the fact that the chair Simon naps in appears to be one of those butt-ugly vinyl models you only find next to hospital beds a depressingly telling feature. You know, I’m thinking, considering that feat of cognition, that this is more coherent than I’ve been in a while.

If that is what makes me think it’s a good move to turn and see who else might be sleeping along with Simon, I’m definitely not as coherent as I think. How the hell can turning your head hurt *that* much? And since I noticed that pain, my body apparently thinks it’s time to report in what else is wrong. That seems to include everything above my waist and, in momentary panic from something *not* hurting, I have to wiggle my toes to reassure myself. That leads to general complaints from my right knee and more specific grumbling from the part of my anatomy that does not approve of having a plastic tube stuck up it.

I’m pretty much awash in all this internal moaning when I realize the one part of me that doesn’t hurt is my left hand, which seems to be enjoying its own island of sensory bliss. Since I’ve already gone through the whole head-turning agony I decide to try to pry open my scrunched eyelids and make sure it’s really still there, since everything else that’s attached really aches.

"’m …" I cough, try again and manage a raspy whisper. "Jim?"

A square of gauze decorates his forehead. I stare at it fuzzily, warily. I remember him crying. I remember driving. The hazy memory of rain and squealing brakes further clouds my limping brain. Please tell me I didn’t …

Jim rarely smiles. He never smiles openly. He smiles secretly, shyly. His amusement, like most Jim-things, is internal.

I force my focus away from the square bandage to take in light blue eyes. The hand gripping mine tightens minisculely, gently. I look down at my contented hand, clutched in his larger one. I look back up and Jim’s smiling.

Whatever I did, nice to know Jim doesn’t blame me for it. I can sit … no, lie, I think at this moment I can definitely only *lie* … I can lie here and Jim can smile and Simon can snore and that means everything’s going to be all right.

Best of all, nobody’s crying. Wonder if somebody got the Volvo some of the floaty stuff?

~end~