"... the theory of black holes was developed before there was any indication from observations that they actually existed. I do not know of any other example in science where such a great extrapolation was successfully made solely on the basis of thought. It shows the remarkable power and depth of Einstein's theory. There is still much we don't know, such as what happens to objects and information that fall into a black hole. Do they re-emerge elsewhere in the Universe, or in another universe? And can we warp space and time so much that one can travel back in time? Maybe someone will come back from the future and tell us." - Stephen Hawking
October 10th 1999
Jim pushed Blair back against the bridge railing as a siren announced the arrival of the fire department. They'd been on their way home from the PD and watched in horror as an oil tanker lost control on the approach to the bridge, attempting to avoid a load of spilled timber that had fallen from a crane. There were workmen below the street level, trapped by a juggernaut of death sitting on top of the manhole that could blow at any minute, the acrid combination of smoke and spilled oil a hazard to even a non-sentinel. He tuned out the call coming over the radio about another body being found: another victim of the serial killer they'd been chasing for several months. Henri and Rafe would have to pick that one up.
"Stay here, Chief," Jim yelled over the roar of sirens and engines, and the shouts of the firemen and rescue workers. "I'm going to get closer, see if there's anything I can do to help."
"I'm coming with you," Blair replied determinedly. The set expression on his face made Jim sigh in exasperation.
"It's too dangerous," Jim said anyway. "I might be able to find another way out for those guys, something they can't see."
It was the sort of shorthand they used whenever there was a chance that someone might overhear and discover Jim's heightened senses.
Blair shook his head mulishly. "Not without me. You might have been online for four years, Jim, but there's too many unknowns down there. You could zone, and the sensory spikes are too unpredictable. God knows what the smell of the oil could do to your -"
Jim rolled his eyes, grabbed his partner's arm and dragged him behind him, sheltering Blair with his body. "All right already, Chief. Just stay behind me, and if I tell you to run, do it."
"You'll get no argument from me there, big guy," Blair muttered as he hurried to keep up with Jim's rushed pace. "And you better be right behind me."
Jim could hear the frantic words of the engine driver as he appraised headquarters of the volatile situation over the radio.
"We've got oil all over the street. Cracked water and gas mains. Four companies coming in . What a damn mess. And to top it off, we've got two Con Ed men trapped in an underground electrical conductor vault." Jim dialed up his sight and focused on the bridge and the manhole now blocked by the massive oil tanker. Thick black oil gushed from the fractured tank, snaking into the manhole. Firefighters were desperately positioning sandbags between the base of the truck and the manhole in the hope of diverting the flow of oil, but Jim could see the damage was already done.
A fire chief stepped in front of Jim and Blair, waving them away from the area. "Stay back, please. This is a restricted emergency area," he bawled.
Jim held up his badge then clipped it to his jacket pocket. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. I called it in. I might be able to help you out. Get to the men who are trapped."
Blair's hand snagged Jim's arm. "What the hell are you thinking of doing, man? That's a death trap down there."
Jim spared him only a cursory glance. "It will be for those guys if we don't find a way to get them out." He turned his attention back to the chief. "I'm experienced in search and rescue and I've been beneath the bridge a time or two."
The chief shook his head. "Won't do any good. We've got high voltage cables ripped loose in the underground. If they hit any water, the whole thing will arc." He gave Jim a steely glare. "I appreciate the offer, Ellison, but I can't authorize it." "I can." Simon's voice came from behind them. "Trust me, Bob, those men stand a better chance of getting out of there if Jim leads your men in." Jim was already off and running, snagging a hooligan tool off the back of a truck as he jogged past. Simon snagged Blair's sleeve. "Sandburg, you stay with me."
Blair rounded on the captain, pulling his arm away. "You know Jim needs me there if he's going to do his job, Captain, and I'm only two weeks away from claiming that badge you promised me," he said firmly.
Simon stared at him for a moment, then sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Go, but stay out of the way." Blair grinned, nodded and took off, racing for the northern end of the bridge where he could see Jim already lowering himself into a manhole. He snatched two helmets that a passing fireman held out to him and jammed one on his head.
"Ralph, go with them," the chief ordered one of his men.
Ralph snapped off a laconic salute and followed Jim and Blair.
Blair jumped from the lowest rung of the ladder, grimacing when oily water soaked his shoes and feet. He heard Jim cough, then gag and reached out, pressing a hand against the sentinel's back. "Dial down smell and taste, man," he instructed, wishing he could do the same thing. Jim nodded wordlessly. "Okay," Blair continued, "concentrate on your hearing first, but go slowly, all right? Once you've pinpointed where they are, open up your sight."
Jim took a moment then headed off, with Blair close behind him. The smell of gas was thick in the air and Blair pulled his jacket collar up over his mouth and nose in an effort to keep out the worst of the noxious fumes. He could hear the sound of others descending the ladder, then the splashing as they hurried toward them. Finally, faint voices came to his ears.
"Help, we're trapped here."
"Stay where you are," Jim called out. "We'll come to you." The bulkhead door between them and the workmen was heavy and old, and appeared to be rusted shut. Jim set to work on the hinges with the adze, and after several minutes of cursing and effort, the door slowly swung open. Blair gasped as they were drenched by an onrush of water and fuel from the chamber beyond. The odor of gas here was almost overwhelming. He could feel his throat closing over, his lungs struggling to draw in enough air. Shakily, he reached out and snagged Jim's jacket. "How are you doing with the gas, man?" he croaked.
Jim reached around and squeezed his hand. "I'm good, Sandburg. You don't sound so great. Maybe you should head back "
"Not without you, Jim," Blair replied stubbornly, though he wished that he could do just that. Wasn't going to happen, though. He and Jim were partners, and he wasn't leaving Jim alone to deal with this.
"There are live wires down here, man. Stay back," one of the men called out. The two of them were huddled into a far corner, attempting to stay out of the way of the lethal spitting cable. Jim forged on regardless, and soon was facing the two men they'd come to find. A wildly swaying cable snaked between them, spitting sparks from its severed end. Jim eyed it carefully, then hoisted the hooligan tool and swept it upward, his hands on each end of the tool, catching the cable and then jamming the spike and claws on either end into the concrete above his head. Everyone froze, waiting breathlessly, then Jim grinned. "Time to go home, fellas."
Blair had never been so relieved to get above ground. He paused for a moment on the top rung of the ladder, dragging huge lungfuls of relatively fresh air into his burning lungs. Something rammed his backside from below, pushing him bodily onto the roadway and he looked down to see Jim surging up the ladder.
"Take cover!" Jim yelled as he scooped Blair up by an arm and started to run. "It's going to flash!"
Blair didn't think his feet actually touched the ground. He could feel them slipping in the oily residue inside his shoes and stumbled, going almost to his knees before Jim dragged him back up.
There was a muffled explosion and the ground beneath them shook. Blair chanced a look back and saw orange flame belch from the open manhole, shooting several feet into the air before being sucked back beneath the surface. A second explosion followed and Blair felt himself lifted off his feet, then the jarring of impact with the road, the burning of his hands and knees as he skidded helplessly along. He pulled himself up this time, grasping Jim's hand and pulling him along, gaining cover seconds before flames engulfed the tanker and it exploded, showering the area with shards of metal and burning rubber. Jim pulled Blair to him, turning them so his back was to the deadly firestorm, Blair concealed protectively in front of him.
There followed a sudden silence, like the calm before the storm, and then chaos erupted, with people shouting, the hiss of foam as the firefighters fought to extinguish the flames, the wailing of sirens as ambulances arrived to ferry the injured to hospital. Blair slumped against Jim, enormously weary, trembling in earnest as the adrenaline wore off.
"You all right, Chief?" Jim asked, looking at him searchingly. Blair nodded wordlessly, watching as Jim lifted his hand and fussed over the grazes there. "Let me finalize things with Simon and we'll go home. Get cleaned up, all right?"
Blair sagged to the ground and leaned back against the barricade at his back, watching listlessly as Jim jogged over to Simon. God, was this really what he'd signed on for, four years ago, when Jim Ellison walked into his life? He knew without a doubt the answer was yes, and he shivered a little. This was turning out to be one hell of a ride.
Blair stood in front of the balcony doors, finally clean, warm and still shaking a little inside from the trauma of the day. He'd faced danger every day since becoming Jim's ride-along observer, but he doubted he'd ever get used to the fear that gripped him whenever they were faced with a hazardous situation, and especially when there was a chance he could lose Jim. His feelings for Jim Ellison had changed over the years; the initially awkward camaraderie had given way to mutual respect and a genuine friendship, especially in the weeks following Blair's press announcement that his dissertation on Jim's abilities as a sentinel, were fraudulent. For Blair, at least, that time so fraught with insecurity and sadness had been the toughest of his life and he'd rather face a hundred Lashes than go through it again.
The shoring up of their relationship had meant more to Blair than he thought Jim would ever know. It brought security and peace, and most of all, love for the man whose side he had stood by for the last four years. It was a love that went beyond the boundaries of partners, or sentinel and guide, and Blair knew it was something he could never share with Jim. He'd almost lost his sentinel too many times, he would not risk it now with the slip of a tongue.
He heard Jim exit the bathroom behind him, and pad toward the stairs leading to his bedroom. The footsteps paused and changed direction, and he felt the heat from Jim's shower-warm body as he stood close behind him. Jim's hands came up to rest on Blair's shoulders, squeezing gently.
"You okay?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded, a lump suddenly forming in his throat. "Yeah," he finally managed to get out. "Better."
"Good." Jim patted his shoulders then walked back into the apartment. Blair turned to watch him. Jim was dressed in just a towel, wrapped low on his hips, his cropped hair still damp. Bruises marred his shoulder and lower back, a legacy from being thrown to the ground by the explosion. "Thought I'd phone in a pizza," Jim said as Blair joined him in the kitchen, riffling through the take-out menus on the cupboard. "I'm too tired to cook."
"Sounds good," Blair replied, the familiar homey activity relaxing him further. "Why don't you let me call it in while you get dressed?"
"Okay." Jim found the menu he was searching for and came back, handing it to Blair before heading once more for the stairs. "And after a day like today, I want extra pepperoni on my half." He shot Blair a mock glare that brooked no argument about calories and fatty arteries.
Blair flashed him a jaunty grin. "Not a word, man. I might even add some pepperoni to mine."
Jim shook his head. "Will wonders never cease? I might have to let you follow me into explosive situations more often, Chief."
The words brought back a flash of the old terror, and Blair had to clench his hands against his thighs to stop them from shaking. "Think I'll pass," he said hoarsely. "Jim?" His partner stopped on the top riser and turned toward him. "I'm glad you're okay," he whispered. "I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you."
"Feeling's mutual, Chief. You mind if I get out Dad's old CB later? I thought I'd see if I can get it up and running again." The radio had been discovered by Jim in a box of old toys and books at his father's house a week after the elder Ellison's death from a heart attack. Jim had enthusiastically regaled Blair with stories from his childhood of himself and his brother, Steven pretending to be secret agents on dangerous missions, listening in to the myriad of conversations from around the world.
"No problem," Blair answered. "I've got some studying to do anyway. I'll just set up in my room."
The evening passed quietly, with the two men eating on the sofa while watching a basketball game. By the time the game was into the second half, Blair bid his partner goodnight and headed for his room. He figured he should be able to get in a couple of hours' study before he gave into the exhaustion pulling at him and crashed for the night.
The following week was a rush of activity, with Jim and Blair passing each other like ships in the night, rarely having time for even a quick hello in the mornings before one or the other was hustling out the door. Blair had his final firearms course all week, culminating in an exam at the Academy shooting range on Friday. Despite his nervousness about the test, Blair couldn't help feeling some elation and relief that by Monday the following week, he'd be Jim's official partner for good.
Jim left early on Friday before Blair was even out of bed, called into the PD to handle a volatile hostage situation in the Chinatown area of Cascade. Blair tried to phone him several times with the good news that he'd passed his exam with flying colors, only to discover Jim's cell phone turned off. Feeling a little disappointed, he decided instead to make the most of his afternoon off and go home to cook a celebratory dinner. Throwing financial caution to the wind with the thought that the following week, he'd have a real paycheck, he stopped at the market and bought an expensive bottle of wine to go with the meal.
The linguini sat congealing on the plates, the wine bottle re-corked and there was still no sign of Jim. Blair knew before the knock sounded at the door. His heart heavy with certainty, he opened the door to see Simon standing in the hallway, his face gray, tears brimming in his bloodshot eyes.
"Blair, it's Jim "
Blair backed away from the door, shaking his head wildly, the denial falling from his lips, keeping time with the pounding of his heart. "No. Nononono."
He staggered back, tripping over the coffee table and sprawling onto the floor. Simon knelt beside him, one hand rubbing his back, his words buzzing meaninglessly in the air, the raw sorrow on his face lending truth to that which Blair could not bear to hear. "Hostage situation fire zoned or something so sorry."
October 15th 2004
Blair followed his lover up the stairs, stopping at the top and watching as Sam angrily pulled open a dresser drawer and began to pull clothes from within, haphazardly stuffing them into a suitcase laying open on the bed. "So, this is it," Blair said. "You're just going to leave without even discussing it."
Sam rounded on him, his blue eyes flashing. "Discuss it? Blair, I've tried talking to you about this until I'm blue in the face. I can't live here anymore, with his ghost in every room, in our bed."
"It isn't like that, and you know it," Blair retorted angrily. "Jim and I were never lovers -"
"Not in the physical sense, maybe," Sam fired back, "but it was what you wanted. Even now, you can't let go of him." He picked up a framed photo from the bedside table. Etched in the silver frame was the date, 1998. It was a snap taken in happier times, Jim and Blair in the loft on Christmas Day, their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, wacky grins adorning their faces, Blair's mother, Naomi seated on the floor in front of them, leaning back against Blair's legs. Sam waved it at Blair. "You don't need me, Blair. You need him, dead or alive. He's the only one you've got room for in your heart."
"I'm sorry," Blair whispered. "I didn't want it to be like this. I've tried I just can't "
"Let go of the past, Blair," Sam interrupted dully, his anger spent. He picked up his suitcase and brushed past Blair, heading for the door. "Let go of Jim Ellison's ghost before it destroys you."
Blair jumped a little as the door slammed shut. He stood staring into space, his face inordinately sad, a single tear sliding slowly down his cheek. "I can't," he whispered.
He stood for a moment listening to the overwhelming silence, then walked downstairs and gazed around the empty apartment. "Jesus, Jim," he whispered brokenly, "why did you have to leave?"
He crossed the living room into the kitchen and pulled open a cabinet door. Not normally a drinker of anything stronger than beer, he knew what he needed now was numbness and oblivion. Pulling an almost full bottle of whiskey from the shelf, he twisted off the cap and tossed it onto the sink. The liquid burned going down and he choked a little as the fumes seeped into his nasal passages. He took a breath then swallowed again, the liquor warming him inside, sending a pleasant buzz through his brain. Cradling the bottle in his arms, he walked back into the living room and stared at the memories of his life with Jim. No wonder Sam had taken off. Every shelf, every bookcase held a memento of Jim. There were none of Sam's touches here. Disgusted with himself, Blair took another drink.
The CB radio caught his eye, standing under the staircase, almost hidden from view, a collection of books cluttering its surface. Blair smiled whimsically, remembering telling Jim it was far easier to use the Internet these days.
Jim shook his head. "You can't talk to a computer, Sandburg."
"You can talk to me," Blair shot back without thought. He had blushed furiously when Jim had studied him thoughtfully for a moment.
"I do talk to you," he said finally. "All the time. Sometimes," he continued, looking so sad that Blair had wanted to hug him, "I can hear too damn much with these senses of mine. Sometimes, I don't hear enough."
I wish you could hear how I feel about you, Blair thought desperately, knowing Jim never would.
Jim had gone off on a tangent then, telling Blair about a trucker he'd been conversing with, a young man on a cross-country haul, worried sick about his wife, home alone, and due to give birth any day.
Impulsively, Blair set down the bottle of scotch and walked over to the radio. Pushing the books from the top, he hefted it and carried it over to the coffee table. The casing was dusty, the hinges rusted from disuse, a certificate was taped to the top giving Jim's name and call sign. Jim had taken some classes and received a license to operate the radio a year or so before
Blair closed his eyes and fumbled for the bottle, downing a healthy swig, then reached out and hit the on/off switch. He grimaced at the deafening static that emanated from the box and turned down the volume, then set about attempting to tune in a band, but with no success. Giving up, he sat back and stared desultorily at the TV; Stephen Hawking was being interviewed about the Aurora Borealis.
"Is this anomaly connected to the space storm and the NASA satellite that disappeared in 1993?" the announcer asked Hawking.
"We don't know," Hawking's automated voice replied. "But given the similarities of their location and appearance, this is a question that merits further investigation."
It was something that ordinarily would have interested him, but tonight he was too sad, too angry, too lonely. His gaze alighted on the date at the bottom of the screen. Oh God, day after tomorrow. The anniversary .
He got up and staggered to the phone, his eyes blurring with tears. He stared glassily at the numbers for a moment then hit the speed dial. After a couple of rings, the answering machine came on and his mother's cheery voice came through the receiver. Blair waited for the prompt then spoke. "Hey, mom, it's me. Guess you're not home yet."
His mother, Naomi, had seemed to have taken Jim's death almost as badly as Blair and, nomadic character that she was, had taken off to one commune or another ever since, not able to watch her son's decline as Blair struggled to cope with and accept Jim's death. She'd taken a job volunteering at the local hospital, not long before the accident that had ruined all their lives. Her way, she said, of giving something back to the universe. Blair smiled sadly, remembering Jim laughing outright at the idea of Naomi settling anywhere for longer than five minutes, but she'd genuinely wanted to put down roots, perhaps seeing the contentment in Blair once he had a permanent place to live at the loft with Jim. With Jim's passing, her natural instincts to flee from anything too hurtful came to the fore, and she was off again. Blair knew though, that she'd be back to be with him for this most horrible anniversary. It was something she never allowed him to suffer alone.
A sudden burst of static came from the radio, and he glanced over his shoulder, surprised to hear a faint voice emerging through the hiss. He turned his attention back to the phone. "Anyway, I just called to say I love you, and I'll definitely see you tomorrow night for dinner. You'd better be making tongue."
Hanging up the phone, he paused for a moment, forgetting what he'd been doing. Another explosion of static from the radio reminded him, and he strolled back into the living room. Sitting down on the couch, he stared for a moment at the box, unsure exactly what to do. "Can't be that hard," he muttered and pressed the red squawk button. "Umm, hello?"
"CQ 15, here is WB2YXB, by for call," a faint voice said.
Blair turned the volume knob but was only presented with more hiss that hurt his ears. He turned the knob back down.
"CQ 15, come in 15," the voice said. "WB2YKXB, who've I got?"
"Uhh, sorry," Blair replied, feeling a little foolish. "I don't know the call sign. My name's Bl - "
"Are you licensed to broadcast, buddy?" the caller asked.
"I don't really know how this thing works."
"Listen, you can't broadcast without a license. Unless this is an emergency, you gotta get off the band," the man blustered.
Blair rolled his eyes. "My whole life's an emergency, man."
"Come again," the voice said. "You're fading on me."
Blair waited a moment, unsure what to say to the disembodied voice. He jumped a little when it came again.
"Where are you transmitting from?"
"Yeah?" The voice warmed a little. "I'm Washington born and bred myself."
Blair grinned. "Well, I wasn't born here, but I've lived here all my adult life. Hey, I thought these things were for talking around the world."
"15-band closes down at night," Blair's new friend informed him. "During the day you can talk to China if you want." Blair shook his head as another round of interference almost blew out his eardrums. "I can't believe people are still using these things. Give me the Internet any day."
There was a chuckle from the radio speaker. "That's what a friend of mine always says."
Blair could hear a faint rhythmic sound coming from the radio now, making it even more difficult to hear the caller, who must have read his mind.
"Can you hold on a second?" he asked.
"Sure." Blair heard the muffled sound of voices then a door closed.
"Sorry about that." Blair's caller was back. "So, Chief, you psyched for the Series?"
Blair felt a lump form in his throat at the endearingly familiar nickname. "I don't I don't really follow baseball," he managed to choke out. He reached for the bottle of whiskey and took a swig, almost gagging on the taste.
"I got fed up with all the bullshit." He took a shaky breath. "No one to go with anyway, and I'm too busy, you know?"
"Fed up?" The voice took on an affronted tone. "Let me tell you something, in a 1000 years, when school kids study America, they're gonna learn about three things: the Constitution, Rock 'n' Roll, and Baseball."
Blair couldn't help the chuckle that bubbled up at the comment, despite his somber mood.
"How can you live in Washington and not love the Mariners?"
"If you're talking the '99 Mariners, well, that's different." Blair grinned, remembering the party they'd thrown at the loft after the Mariners had won the series. "You know people talk about Campese, but I'll love Martinez 'til the day I die," Blair replied with a smile.
"I'm right with you, man," the other man said, through increasing static. His voice grew harder to hear. "He's got the heart of a lion. Hey, how about the first game of the Series?"
"Yeah. It was all over after Boon nailed Scott's first pitch out of the park." Blair frowned as the radio crackled loudly again, drowning out whatever his caller was saying.
" way, brother. gonna hap "
"Sorry, what was that?" Blair hit the squawk button again but the only response was more static and then a sudden silence. He stared at the radio for a moment in surprise. "Who the hell was that?"
Blair was feeling less than human when the phone rang at seven AM the following morning. "Sandburg," he croaked into the receiver.
"Banks," the voice on the other end said. "You all right, Sandburg? You don't sound too good."
Blair sat up and looked around, stifling a moan at the ache in his back and neck. He'd fallen asleep on the couch. "I'm okay, sir. What's up?"
"We've got a body at a construction site on 155th. I want you and Rafe to cover it."
"What about Henri?" Blair asked around a yawn.
"He doesn't get back from sick leave until tomorrow," Simon reminded him.
"Oh, right. I forgot." Blair stood and stretched to ease the kinks, then scrubbed a hand through his cropped curls, leaving them looking more wayward than ever. "Okay, Simon, I'm on it."
Hanging up the phone, he made his way into the bathroom, pausing for a moment to survey his blotchy, red-eyed face in the mirror. He shook his head in disgust and turned away to turn on the faucet. "You sorry-looking son of a bitch."
Showered, shaved and feeling marginally less hung-over, Blair drove downtown and parked his car next to a squad car near a partly demolished Greek restaurant. Rafe was waiting for him behind the yellow police tape. Behind him, several uniformed officers were crouched down, looking intently at something on the ground. Blair swallowed convulsively; five years on the force and he still got queasy looking at dead bodies. He prayed this one wasn't too awful.
"Hey, Rafe, how you doing?" Blair greeted the other cop.
The handsome detective smiled. "Better than you, by the look of it, Hairboy. I, um, heard about Sam."
Blair flashed him a quick glare. "Oh yeah. Word travels fast, doesn't it?"
Rafe shrugged. "He was at the gym last night, working up a sweat. We talked." He lifted the tape enough for Blair to duck under. "Don't be crazy, Blair. The guy really cares about you."
Blair shrugged. "Sam made his own decision. There's nothing I can do to change that."
"Nothing you're willing to do," Rafe interjected. "I know you still miss Jim, but "
Blair strode away and ignored Rafe's last words. "Hey, Kel, what have we got?"
The officer straightened up. "Survey crew found a body. Actually a skeleton."
Blair took a slow, deep breath and crouched down by the body. Skeletons he could do. As an anthropology undergrad, he'd spent a lot of time studying skeletal remains. A patch of overgrown weeds had been partly scraped away and from a square of freshly dug earth protruded a skull and what looked like part of a shoulder.
Rafe joined him, bending down and carefully pulling the hem of his expensive coat away from the dirt. "We'd better be careful getting it out," he said. "Don't want to ruin any evidence."
Blair nodded. "Get the dirt around it too. We might pick up something there."
"Where's Ellison when you need him?" Rafe joked, then looked immediately stricken. "Blair, I'm sorry."
Blair waved the apology away. "You're right. Jim would have picked stuff up already." He flashed Rafe an understanding smile. He stood and looked around the area. Across the road, a man was raking leaves in his garden, keeping a surreptitious eye on the proceedings. Blair tapped Rafe's shoulder and pointed the man out. "I'm gonna go interview the neighbor."
The neighbor was making a fast retreat around the side of the old weatherboard house by the time Blair arrived. "Excuse me," he called. He pulled his badge from his pocket and held it out to the elderly man. "Cascade PD. I'm Detective Sandburg. I wonder if I could have a word with you?"
The old man gave him a gruff nod and dropped the garbage bag of leaf rakings onto the ground. Wiping his hands on his pants, he led the way to the front porch and into the house. He turned and held out a grimy hand. "Fred Shepard." A woman entered the hall, giving Blair a smile. "This is my wife, Emily."
Blair nodded at her, getting another smile in return.
"I'll make coffee," she said decisively.
The two men made inconsequential small talk, while they waited, both keeping an eye on the crime scene across the road.
"Here you go, Detective," Mrs. Shepard said, coming back in and handing Blair a steaming cup of fragrant coffee.
"Thank you. This is certainly better than the stuff we get at the station." He turned his gaze back to the window where he could see Rafe supervising the removal of the skeleton.
"I used to get breakfast there all the time," Mr. Shepard said, stepping over to join Blair. "I worked on a trawler. I'd come home early in the morning, my stomach growling. Those Greeks really knew how to feed a man. Once the Wonderburger opened up on Dyckman, they lost all their trade." He shook his head sadly.
Blair glanced around the room. Several photos sat in proud display on the fireplace mantle. Walking over, sipping on the hot coffee, Blair gazed at each of them in turn. They were happy family snaps. Blair recognized a younger Fred Shepard aboard a commercial fishing boat, and a bridal photo of Mrs. Shepard. His gaze lingered on the black-framed color picture of a young man, in dress blues. "Your son's a police officer?" he asked.
"He was," Fred replied. "He died in the line of duty - October 1999."
"I'm sorry," Blair said sincerely.
Fred pointed to a frame that hung on the wall above the mantle. It held a distinguished service medal, awarded posthumously. "My boy lived and died for the force," he said quietly, his voice breaking a little on the words. The room was silent for a long uncomfortable moment, then thunder rumbled in the distance and a few drops of rain pattered against the window.
"Damn," Blair whispered. "Oh, excuse me, ma'am."
Mrs. Shepard waved his apology away. "With a fisherman and a policeman in the family, I've heard worse, young man."
"I'd better go before we lose any evidence," Blair said, handing the coffee cup back to the old woman. "Thank you for the coffee and your time." He let himself out of the house and hurried back to the crime scene. With the crime lab having finished their on scene investigation, the body was carefully lifted from its grave. Blair saw the arms were bound behind its back, wrapped in glass tape.
"Let's go," Blair said to Rafe. "We've got reports to do and we can run a check, see if the crime lab picked up anything." They walked companionably back to their cars.
"You going to your mom's for dinner tonight?" Rafe asked.
"Like usual. Why?" Blair asked.
Rafe's cheeks colored a little and he looked away. "Nothing. The captain and I were just saying well, if she wasn't back yet, we could grab a bite together, have a few drinks."
Blair reached out and squeezed Rafe's arm. "Thanks, man, I appreciate the thought."
Rafe gave him a relieved smile and opened his car door. "See you back at the PD."
Dinner was a subdued affair, and Blair wasn't sure whether to be relieved or concerned. As much as he really didn't want to remember the traumatic events of almost five years before, it was unlike his mother to remain silent. Naomi believed in venting your emotions, talking through them and usually Blair agreed with her. It was what he'd tried to hammer into Jim so often in their time together, but the detective was a stoic, reserved man who kept his emotions in check, his feelings bottled up for the most part. Talking tonight though was the last thing Blair wanted to do. Rehashing everything, remembering what Jim had meant to him was not going to bring him back.
He watched Naomi as she cleared away the last of the dinner dishes, her face averted from him, but clearly wrestling with some inner disquieting thoughts. "So," he began, "how was the retreat?"
She turned and smiled at him. "Wonderful. It was so nice to see Amy and Bob again. They're grandparents now, did I tell you?"
"Well, they're so proud of little Jake. They were asking if you were going to make me a grandma any time soon." She laughed a little nervously. "I told them I didn't think I was grandmother material."
"You'd make a wonderful grandma," Blair told her, leaning forward to kiss her cheek.
Naomi wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "How's Sam?"
"Fine." Blair pulled away from her embrace and walked into the living room. "Busy," he called out. "You know doctors."
"I know he left, Blair." Naomi had followed him and leaned against the doorframe.
Blair shrugged. "I never could keep anything from you, no matter how long you're away."
She smiled. "Even when you were with Jim " Her voice trailed off and she gave him an apologetic look. "I knew you were doing things that were a lot more dangerous than you let on," she went on determinedly. She came into the room and cupped his cheek. "It's been five years, Blair. Don't you think it's time to let go?"
"I have," he replied. "Sam and I just weren't meant to be. We weren't right for each other. Sam just saw it before I did."
"You still miss Jim, don't you?"
"Of course I do. He was my partner, my best friend "
"Your lover?" Naomi interrupted.
"It was what you wanted," she said.
"Maybe. It doesn't matter now. Jim's de gone."
"I just want you to be happy, sweetie." Naomi's voice wavered and a tear slid down her cheek. Blair reached up and brushed it away.
"I am, mom. I'm happy."
"WB2YXB calling unidentified station, CQ 15."
Blair looked up, startled as the voice came over the radio. There was still heavy static coming from the box, but he recognized the voice as his mystery caller from the night before. He grinned and walked over to press the send button. "Hello?"
The other man chuckled. "We're gonna have to get you some lessons on radio etiquette, Chief."
Blair froze. There was something familiar in the voice but he couldn't grasp it. Before he could speak, the other man went on.
"How the hell did you do it?"
"Call that game?"
Blair shrugged. "Well, it wasn't that hard, considering it happened five years ago."
"Yes, way," Blair replied, a knot of worry starting to form in his gut.
"What are you talking about?" the other man said. "I'm talking about Boon's homer this afternoon."
"This afternoon?" Blair echoed. "No, wait. It can't be."
"Watched it right here at home with my buddies. We threw a hell of a party after."
Blair heard a phone ring in the background. "Hold on a minute, would you?" the caller said. Blair heard him answer the phone and speak, though most of the conversation was muted by the static. Then "Yeah, all right, Sandburg, just don't stay out all night, okay, or you won't even be able to see the target tomorrow."
Blair's heart hammered in his chest, cold sweat breaking out on his brow.
"Sorry about that," the man said.
Blair reached out with a trembling hand and pressed the button. "What what did you just say?" he asked hoarsely.
"I said, sorry."
"No." Blair shook his head emphatically as though the other man could see him. "Before that."
"Oh, that was my roommate, and soon to be partner." The man chuckled. "He was a grad student and he can't seem to shake the habit of pulling all-nighters to study."
"What's " Blair pulled in a rasping breath. "What's his name?"
"Blair Sandburg. Why? You know him?"
"You never told me your name," Blair said.
"Jim. Jim Ellison."
All the air seemed to have been sucked from the room. Blair took a step away from the radio, backing into the chair behind him and staggering blindly before crashing to the floor.
"Hey, you all right?" The man sounded concerned.
Blair cursed and got to his knees, crawling over to the radio. He stood and pressed the button. "Is this some kind of sick joke? H, is that you? I know you like fucking around, man, but this is sick."
"Look, Chief, I just want to know how you -"
Blair cut him off. "You're telling me your name is Jim Jim Ellison and you just saw the first game of the '99 series?"
"H, if this is you, so help me "
"Why would H been screwing around with you, and how do you know him? You on the force?"
Blair lowered himself into the chair and stared at the lettering on the top of the radio casing. "What did you say your call letters were?"
Blair followed them on the card, checking them off. All there. "You listen to me. My name is Blair Sandburg and I live at 852 Prospect Avenue, Cascade. Apartment 307."
"I watched the '99 World Series with my partner, Jim Ellison, five years ago."
"What?" The voice sounded shocked.
"I'm dreaming this." Blair scrubbed his hands over his face, trying desperately to wake himself up. "This has to be some kind of crazy dream."
"I'm wide awake, Chief, and you're not making any sense at all. You on something?"
"No! Well, a little niktabi root for my cold but "
"What did you say?" There was an edge of tension in the voice now.
"Niktabi. It's a root and Never mind. I want to know who the hell you are, and why you're doing this, you sick fuck!"
"Now, wait a minute - "
"No, you wait. My partner's name was Jim Ellison. He was a cop and he died five years ago!"
Blair smiled humorlessly. "That's right. So, whoever you are, the joke's on you because Jim Ellison is dead."
Silence hung heavy in the air, broken only by the hissing from the radio.
Blair leaned forward. "What?"
"Nothing. I just spilled something."
Blair was about to continue his tirade but something caught his eye. A stain was appearing on the desk, next to his hand. Startled, he pulled his hand back and gaped in shock. A coffee stain slowly took form on the wood. "You spilled your coffee," he said in a daze.
"How did you know that?"
"I'm sitting here at the coffee table, and there's a coffee stain on it."
"That's impossible." The other man's voice was barely there.
"What if it's not?" Blair replied. He reached out hesitantly and touched the radio with the tips of his fingers. "Jim?"
"Blair? No, wait, this can't be happening. How is it possible?"
"I don't know."
"We must be bouncing off one heck of a sun spot."
"Yeah, that's how hams work."
"Wait a minute. There was something on the TV last night some kind of space anomaly. The Aurora Borealis. They said it was connected to some space storm in 1999."
"I've got the news headlines here about it. So, you're saying it's "
"2004? No, no way! All right, who the hell are you? What the fuck is this about?"
"I told you who I am, and if you're really Jim Ellison, then what I'm about to tell you, will prove it to you. I was a grad student at Rainier University when we met. I became a civilian observer and your partner at Major Crime in 1991. You needed me to help you with your senses. You have five heightened senses. I told you that you were a throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man." He chuckled despite the strangeness of the situation. "You slammed me into a wall for that comment. You're a sentinel, Jim."
There was a long moment of silence and Blair was afraid he'd lost the connection, then Jim's voice returned.
"Blair? It's really you, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it really is."
"God, I don't know what to say. What are you doing with yourself now? You said you're still on the force. Is Simon still in charge? Henri, Joel "
"All present and accounted for," Blair laughed. "Rhonda got married."
"That's nice. You?"
Jim laughed. "You married?"
"No. I was in a relationship. It didn't work out."
"You're happy though?" Jim's voice sounded choked.
Blair couldn't answer. No, he wanted to scream out. Not since you left. I couldn't be happy with anyone else.
"I'm here, Jim. I miss you, so much." Blair winced as a burst of loud static broke through. "What's happening? Jim? You still there?"
"I'm still here." He could barely hear Jim's voice.
"No, you're not," Blair whispered. "You're not here."
"What do you mean?"
Blair struggled to get the words out. "I told you. You died, Jim, five years ago."
"Hostage situation. You went in to get the girl. They started a fire and you you zoned, because I wasn't there to ground you. The girl got out, but you It was my fault."
"Don't say that, Chief."
"It's the truth."
"October 17th, 1999."
"Tomorrow," Blair finished.
"Tomorrow," Jim echoed. Blair could barely hear him now. He stared in shock at the radio. "It hasn't happened yet." Leaning forward, he spoke urgently. "Jim, listen to me. It hasn't happened yet. You have to tell me to go with you tomorrow."
"I don't understand."
"No matter what happens, you can't go into that warehouse alone tomorrow. You have to make me go with you."
"What am I supposed to tell you this you?"
"I don't know." Blair rubbed his forehead, thinking frantically. "I don't know if you can tell him me the truth. I just -" A sudden crackle of noise sounded from the radio and then there was silence. "Jim?" Blair tried fruitlessly to get the signal back but it was gone. Exhausted and drained, he sat back and stared at the radio. It wasn't possible, was it?
He was drunk. Blotto, inebriated, blind. Blair giggled a little hysterically. He stared down at the radio, then got up and weaved over to the front door. Turning left, he headed up the corridor to the stairs that led up to the roof. Reaching the top, he paused for a breath and had to grab onto the handrail when he wobbled on his feet. "Shouldn't have drunk so much," he admonished in a slurred voice. "Gonna have a doozy of a hangover tomorrow."
He exited the stairwell and walked out to the roof where the radio antenna had been set up. It was raining heavily and Blair realized belatedly that he was dressed only in a shirt and jeans. The antenna was rusted and bent and Blair tried to straighten it a little, hoping it would allow him to reconnect with Jim.
Jim was alive! He shook his head mournfully. No, Jim was dead here. A sob bubbled up from his throat, followed by a flood of more and Blair gave in to his grief, collapsing onto the rooftop, resting his head on his pulled up knees.
He ignored the voice, wanting it to leave him be. A hand touched his shoulder then shifted to his elbow, hauling him up from the ground.
"Sandburg? What the hell " Blair blinked lazily and looked into the concerned face of Simon Banks. The captain shook his head. "Never mind. Let's get you inside. You're freezing."
Blair allowed himself to be led back inside and half-carried down the stairs.
"Christ, you stink, Sandburg," Simon muttered as he pushed Blair into the bathroom and turned on the shower. "You been swimming in scotch?"
Blair looked at him sadly as the captain divested him of his wet clothes and pushed him under the shower. "Jim's dead, Simon."
Simon sighed. "Yeah, kid, I know. Five years tomorrow."
Blair shook his head. "Not gonna happen, Simon. Not gonna let it happen."
"It wasn't your fault, Blair. I know that, and so did Jim."
Blair had drifted off, rousing only when Simon pulled him from the warm spray and toweled him dry. He sat on the toilet seat, allowing Simon to dress him in sweats and lead him into the upstairs bedroom. He lay down obediently when Simon pushed him flat, feeling sleep racing to claim him. "Not gonna happen," he mumbled.
"Get some sleep, kid."
Blair made his way into the crowded bar and headed for the table at the back. It had become a yearly ritual for the men from Major Crime to gather and have a drink in memory of Jim. Blair, feeling decidedly seedy and more than a little embarrassed over his drunken behavior the night before had offered to be the designated driver and stick to juice. He doubted his stomach would stand any more alcohol for at least the next thirty or so years. He avoided Simon's eyes as he slid into a chair.
"Hey, Hairboy." Henri Brown slapped him on the back as he sat. "You're looking better than you did this morning."
"Not much," Rafe said with a grin.
"I'm not feeling too great either," Blair said. He picked up his juice and took a sip. He was happy he'd been busy all day, chasing up leads on the skeleton they'd discovered the day before. His stomach had been tied up in knots since he'd woken, not knowing what the day was going to bring. Right now, he wanted to be at home in front of the radio, waiting to see if he could contact Jim. His friends though would not allow him to leave until they were sure he was going to be okay. As much as he chafed to get home, he appreciated their support.
Simon held up his glass and waited for the others to do the same, clinking the rims together in unison. "To Jim," he said.
"To Jim," the others echoed.
Blair had a lump in his throat that wouldn't allow him to join in. He set down his glass and was suddenly overcome by a wave of dizziness. The glass slipped from his fingers, crashing to the floor and he felt himself toppling out of his chair. Images flashed before his eyes, grainy and blurred like an old movie. His breath rasped loudly in his ears, his heartbeat racing and deafening.
He blinked and looked up at Simon who kneeled beside him and pushed a hand against his shoulder. "No, don't get up. Just lay there for a minute." He glanced over his shoulder. "Rafe, call an ambulance."
"No," Blair protested. "I'm fine."
"You don't look fine," Simon said doubtfully. "You're as white as a sheet. You look like you've seen a ghost."
Blair pushed himself into a sitting position and rested his head in his hands. "I'm all right," he said again. "Just not enough food and too much booze."
"You're probably right," Simon agreed. "Look, let's call it a night, huh? I'll give you a ride home."
"Okay. Thanks." Blair looked up at the concerned faces surrounding him. "I'm sorry, guys."
"Don't be," Henri said, a sad smile wreathing his face. "If Jim was here, he'd blame us."
"J - Jim? Jim's dead."
Henri frowned. "Yeah, we all know that, Blair. Two years ago."
"He didn't die in a fire?"
"Car chase. His brakes failed. They were faulty. You sure you're okay?"
Blair felt an overwhelming sense of grief at Henri's words. Jim was still dead, still lost to him. A sudden thought occurred to him. It didn't matter. He'd changed Jim's destiny once, he could do it again. He managed a nod and staggered to his feet with Simon's help, eager to get home. "I'm good."
Walking back into the apartment, Blair looked around, his brow furrowed in concentration. Things looked different somehow, though he couldn't seem to put his finger on any overt changes.
The afghan. He strode over and pulled the blanket off the back of the couch, running his fingers over the soft wool. Jim had bought it, claiming the old one was getting worn and scratchy on his sensitive skin. He remembered now didn't he? He looked at the bookcase, which seemed fuller. There were several paperback novels there, action and spy thrillers mostly, the type Jim always favored.
Running upstairs to the bedroom, Blair picked up the framed photo that sat on the bedside table. Jim's hair was in a buzzcut, accentuating the thinning on top that Jim bemoaned and Blair had loved to tease him about; the photo before had shown it longer. Naomi was wearing a blue flowing caftan that Blair had bought for her. Thoughtfully, he ran his hand over the date etched in the silver: 2001. Dropping onto the bed, he replaced the photo and scrubbed a hand through his hair.
There were inherent problems, he knew, in changing one's future. If Jim had not died in the fire in 1999, their lives had already been changed irrevocably except Jim had still died, three years later. Did that change things or not? It was a rhetorical question, and he'd already decided he didn't care.
Getting down on his knees, Blair pulled a cardboard box from beneath the bed and opened the flaps, then rummaged through it desperately. Pulling the scrapbook from within, he sat on the floor and opened the book with shaking hands. There it was in black and white. A newspaper headline proclaimed that the Seattle Mariners had won game two in the World Series. Below it, a sub headline screamed out at him.
"Detective of the Year rescues hostage from fiery death."
Blair let the book drop to the floor. "Oh God."
He made his way downstairs on shaky legs and just made it to the radio before his legs gave out completely. Words were scratched into the surface of the coffee table and Blair rubbed his eyes, blinking away tears as he read the message left for him five years before.
"I'm still here, Chie..."
"Huh?" Blair watched in amazement, the tears falling freely now and dripping off his cheeks as the letter 'f' appeared in the wood. The radio sputtered to life, startling him.
"Blair? Can hear Chief?"
Blair smiled and wiped the moisture from his face. "Jim?"
"Is that Sandburg?"
"Yeah, Jim, it's me. You made it!"
"Yeah." Jim chuckled. "Thanks to you twice over."
"How did you do it? Convince me Blair to go with you?"
"I didn't," Jim said. "He you made me take Conner with me. You said you had some kind of premonition and if I didn't take Conner, you would cancel your exam and come with me anyway. I started to zone, on the accelerant, I think. Conner whacked me a good one and brought me out of it."
Blair laughed outright at that. "Well, it's not the way I taught her to bring you out of a zone, but as long as it worked."
"It did, Chief. Thank you."
There was a moment of heavy silence before Jim spoke again. "Tell me about you now. What are you doing, Chief?"
"Not much has changed," Blair said slowly. "I'm still a cop in Major Crime. I've been partnering Rafe while Henri's on sick leave. Megan went back to Australia not long after " He stopped and smacked his forehead. "Oh man, Jim! You gotta make a note, man, to get your truck overhauled before October 2002; especially the brakes."
"Sure, Chief, you got it. Now, you were saying, about you. You you found anyone? I mean, I'm figuring if I'm still here, and you're there, and we aren't together, then I still died."
"Two years ago," Blair whispered. He leaned forward, frustration tearing at him, "but it doesn't have to happen. Your brakes, Jim!"
"I got it, Chief, I'm writing it down."
Blair sat back and took a deep breath. "There's no one, Jim."
"Oh? I mean, your dance card seemed to be filled every night of the week."
"There can't ever be anyone else because Oh Christ, Jim, if I don't tell you and you die I'm in love with you, Jim. Have been for always, I guess, but if we fix this, I don't expect you to reciprocate or anything. I just thought it was time for me to tell you "
"I love you too, Chief," Jim said quietly.
"You do?" A smile cracked Blair's lips. "I mean, I love you, Jim."
"Same here," Jim replied. "I wanted to tell you for so long, but I figured there was too much chance of losing you. Crazy, huh?"
"Both of us," Blair said sadly.
"Tell me what happened today."
"I don't really know," Blair began slowly. "At first I thought it was a dream. I suddenly had all these memories I'd never had before of you and me. I went on a trip after I graduated from the Academy before starting at the PD. You couldn't come, so I ended up only staying two days and coming back." He paused for a moment, tears brimming once again in his eyes. "When you died in that fire," he said, his voice breaking, "I just wanted to die too. I felt so alone."
"I'm sorry," Jim whispered and Blair could hear the tears in his voice.
"Naomi, Simon, everyone tried so hard to help me through it, but it was like I wanted to suffer. It was my fault you died, and I wanted to feel the pain of that. Naomi couldn't stand it any longer. She went to one commune after another. At one stage, I didn't see her for almost a year."
"I didn't know," Jim said, his voice sounding stunned. "I didn't want you blaming yourself, Chief. I didn't think -"
"Well, you think about it now," Blair interrupted harshly. "Because I don't ever want to go through that again. I don't ever want to lose you again."
"You won't," Jim said fervently. His voice was being drowned out by the static once more and Blair knew they were about to lose the connection. "I swear you won't. I love you, Blair."
In the abrupt silence that followed, Blair relaxed back into the sofa and closed his eyes. In moments he was deeply asleep, his body resting, while his mind replayed the memories he'd thought he'd never experience.
Naomi looked up at the clock on the wall of the ER and sighed. She was exhausted. The ER was busy tonight, and she was looking forward to leaving for her two week retreat in Arizona. Her volunteer shift at the hospital was supposed to have ended an hour ago, but a young man had been brought in. Disheveled and dirty, looking lost and terrified, Naomi's heart had gone out to him, and she'd offered to stay until the doctor could come in to examine him.
Seated at her patient's bedside, she soothed him as he moaned and began to thrash weakly on the bed. "Shh, sweetie, it's okay. Just squeeze my hand. I'm here."
The patient's struggles died down and he lay quietly, breath panting beneath the oxygen mask, his eyes at half-mast, his hand clinging tenaciously to hers. Naomi looked at the clock. 12.01am. She was supposed to phone Blair before she left. He'd understand. It was the same sort of thing he would do.
October 17th 2004
The funeral parlor was dim and eerily silent, save for the muffled sobbing of a mourner in the front row. He made his way hesitantly down the center aisle toward the plain casket at the front of the room. He forced himself to look down at the beloved face, unaware of the tears that coursed down his cheeks, but then his breath caught in his throat and he reeled back in shock. "No! Not Naomi! It can't be! Not my mom! Please, no!"
He felt himself falling but strong arms caught him and he was cradled against a broad chest. Looking up through his tears, he looked into Jim's pale face, stark with pain, etched with sorrow.
"I'm sorry, Blair," Jim wept. "I'm so sorry."
Blair shifted on the sofa, whimpering softly in his sleep, sweat beading his brow and matting his short curls. Nightmares had taken the place of pleasant dreams, and he fought to pull himself from the morass of sleep, to escape the horrifying visions. He took a strangled gasp of air and surged upward, then sagged forward, cradling his head in his hands. When he was sure his legs would support him, he stood and staggered toward the bathroom.
Sluicing cold water over his face, Blair felt the tremors subside somewhat and he looked at the mirror, shocked at the haunted, gray-faced visage that stared back at him. He turned and made his way into the kitchen, fixing a pot of tea with a still trembling hand. Taking the steaming brew into the now light living room, he picked up the cordless phone and hit the speed dial on the third button. He sipped at his drink while he waited for an answer.
"Noah's Deli. Can you hold?" a disembodied voice on the receiver said.
Blair shook his head and hung up the receiver, then swiftly picked it up again and punched in the same number.
Hand shaking, Blair dropped the phone to the coffee table and ran for the door, pausing only to pick up his car keys.
Standing in front of the apartment door, Blair took a deep breath then rapped decisively. There was a subdued muttering from within, then the door opened to reveal a dark-skinned woman, dangling a baby on her hip, while a slightly older toddler clutched her leg.
Blair glanced past her into the apartment. The furnishings were different but the window opposite was the familiar bay window he'd gazed out of on many an evening spent here with his mother.
"What?' the woman asked laconically. She jiggled the infant she was holding, trying to shush its crying.
Blair's throat closed over and he could only stare at her mutely.
The woman rolled her eyes. "Can I help you?"
"I I'm looking for Naomi Sandburg."
Blair shook his head, dreadful certainty churning his gut. "No. This is She lives here."
"No one by that name here," the woman replied impatiently.
"But - "
A crash sounded from within and the woman looked over her shoulder and cursed. Before Blair could react, she stepped back and the door slammed resoundingly in his face. He stood there a moment longer, undecided, feeling lost and desolate. Finally he turned and headed for the stairs. Climbing back into his car, he rested his head on the steering wheel, trying to calm his pounding heart. Feeling no less confused but determined to find the answers, Blair pulled into the traffic and headed for the station.
Simon Banks was exiting the break room with a stash of coffee filters in one hand and the newspaper in the other when Blair arrived. He eyed his bedraggled looking detective with a critical eye. "You look like shit, Sandburg. You go on another bender last night?"
Blair ignored him in favor of turning toward the men's room and pushing open the door before heading for the sink and sluicing cold water over his face. By the time he caught sight of Simon in the mirror above the hand basin, he felt a little better; the cool water waking him up, his hands no longer shaking.
"So you gonna keep drinking yourself into oblivion every night? Coming in here looking like crap, not able to do your job? And there's no way in hell I'm sending you out on the street in your condition."
Blair shrugged and made to move past the other man, but Simon grabbed him by one arm, spinning him around and slamming him into the wall. The captain's face was inches from his own, his coffee-scented breath hot in Blair's face.
"Do not disrespect me, Sandburg," Simon growled. "Disrespect yourself all you want, crawl into the gutter, if you want, but I expect and deserve your respect, and so does everyone else here who works with you. You got that?" Blair sagged in Simon's grip, nodding tiredly. "This is becoming too much of a habit, Blair, and I'm fed up with it," Simon continued. "If you need help, ask for it or go talk to a professional, but do not endanger your work mates."
Blair looked down at the hand still grasping his arm. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "Sometimes, it just gets too much "
"You've been through more than your share of grief, Sandburg, I'll admit that, but you've never let it drag you down this far "
"I'm sorry," Blair said again.
Simon gave him a shake as though he were a naughty puppy. "And I'm tired of the sorry's too. I need you straight and on board. I need a detective I can trust." His gaze softened and his hand dropped to his side. "I care about you, Blair, not because of the friendship I had with Jim, but because of the friendship I have with you. I want to help you but I can't if you won't let me in." He paused a moment then stepped back and reached out to open the door. When he spoke again, his voice was business-like. "We got the preliminary Forensic report on that skeleton. I need you to take a look at it. With your previous Anthropology background, you might pick up something I've missed."
Blair remained where he was for a beat, then sighing, tossed the paper towel he held in his hand into the trash and walked out of the room. Sliding into his desk chair in the bullpen, Blair waited until Simon pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the desk and slid a 8x10 photo of the recently discovered skeleton from a manila folder and held it out to him.
Blair leaned forward, studying the photo, his keen eyes taking note of the tape binding the skeleton's wrists.
"Either we've got a copycat or we found a forgotten victim of the Nightingale killer." Simon sighed. "Bad memories for you, I know."
Blair's gaze shifted and alighted on other photos spilling from the folder. Written in block letters on the front of the envelope: 'NIGHTINGALE MURDERS.' He felt a shudder ambush him.
"She makes six," Simon continued.
Blair shook his head. "No, I remember this case. There were three victims."
Simon stared at him in obvious confusion. "What are you talking about, Sandburg? You know this case better than anyone. You've read this file a thousand times."
His mind screamed a denial at him but Blair's hand inexorably reached out and dragged the file toward him. His throat closed up, his mouth becoming desert-dry and he could feel his meager stomach contents threatening to make a reappearance. Though his hand trembled as though he was afflicted with palsy, Blair fanned out the photos. Six victims: all women, all garroted, all with their hands bound with glass tape. One photo lay face down on the desk and Blair flipped it over then gave a strangled moan.
Naked, her once lively blue eyes staring unseeing from a face flecked with blood. A cord was knotted tightly around her throat, her wrists bound together with tape.
"No!" Blair gasped.
He didn't realize he'd blacked out until a heavy hand landed on his shoulder and he realized he was on the floor, Simon's dark eyes looking at him worriedly.
"Christ, Blair. All right, that's it. Go home. Better yet, I'll get Rafe to drive you. Sleep it off and don't come back until you're dried out."
"I'm fine," Blair insisted, pushing himself up. He moaned as a wave of nausea crashed over him and he lowered his aching head to rest on his upturned knees. "Right," the captain muttered sarcastically, but Blair could hear a note of sadness in the voice. Simon straightened and turned away. "Rafe? Give Sandburg a ride home."
Blair sat in front of the radio and willed it to crackle to life. His hands were wrapped about his chest in an effort to stem the cold that chilled him from the inside out. He glanced at the folder containing the details of the grisly murders of the Nightingale case and clenched his jaw, willing himself not to read the details again. Reaching out, he rubbed his fingers softly over the words carved into the coffee table surface.
'I'm still here, Chief.' "But mom's not," he whispered brokenly. He leaned forward and pressed his finger on the squawk button. When he spoke, his voice was hushed. "Jim? Are you there, man? I really need to talk to you."
There was a crackle of static then a long silence. Just as Blair sighed and leaned back in his chair, a voice came over the radio.
"I'm here, Chief."
Blair couldn't contain the sob that bubbled up. "Jim? There's something I can't " His voice trailed away, replaced by racking cries of grief.
"Blair? What's wrong?"
"Something happened," Blair managed to get out.
Jim's voice was instantly concerned and Blair longed to reach out and bury his face in that strong shoulder. "What happened?"
"Na Naomi. She she's gone."
"What do you mean, she's not there? You're not making any sense, Chief."
"She died, Jim. It's like it just happened."
Jim's voice was puzzled and saddened. "Your mother just died? Blair, I "
"No," Blair interrupted. "It happened a couple of years ago but - "
"When?" Jim cut in.
"October 28thth, 1999.
"Jesus," Jim whispered. "That's ten days from now. What happened to your mom?"
"She she was murdered, Jim."
"Oh God. Why?"
"The Nightingale murders, Jim. We were working on them before the explosion at the bridge."
"I got it. I've got the files at work. But your mom? Chief, that doesn't make any sense."
"He murdered three women between 1995 and 2000 and he was never caught, then the murders just stopped." Blair leaned forward again and scrubbed the tears from his face. "Jim, we did something. Something that made it worse."
"You're not making sense, Sandburg."
"He didn't kill three women anymore. He killed six."
"You mean "
Blair nodded. "Something we did changed the course of history, and changed the case." He paused a moment, trying to come to grips with the terrible details. "Naomi wasn't dead, but when you didn't die in that fire, something happened. And this serial killer kept on killing three more women."
"I'll get Naomi and take her away from Cascade, and you," Jim said hurriedly. "He can't hurt her if she's not here."
"I don't know," Blair said slowly. "That might just make it worse. What about the other women he murdered?"
"I'll go see them, warn them."
"They'll think you're nuts," Blair muttered, struggling to find a way around the conundrum.
"I'm a cop. I'll tell them we've heard things and it's for their own safety. How can we find out who this guy is before he has a chance to strike again?"
"Nobody got..." Blair trailed off and looked again at the folder on the table. "Wait a minute." He felt his excitement grow. "We might not know who he is, but I know where he's going to be. I've got the file right here, Jim! We know what he's going to do before the son of a bitch does it!"
"So what will I do?' Jim asked. "Tell Simon? What kind of story am I going to spin, Chief? Tell him it's a sentinel thing?"
Blair chuckled briefly but sobered quickly. "They'll believe you if you can catch him in the act. You can make that happen, Jim. You tail the victim and call it in at just the right moment. I don't think you can tell your Blair anything. The more people that get involved, the worse this is going to get."
"You're out of town," Jim said. "Simon asked you to attend a seminar in Seattle."
"Okay, that's good. Oh, right." A ghost of a smile touched Blair's lips as that memory suddenly surfaced. He shook his head; this was getting too far into the realm of the surreal. "When am I due back?"
"A couple of days. Look, what if the radio stops working?" Jim asked, sounding doubtful. "Damn thing's been acting up and getting worse every day. What if I can't reach you again?"
"Then you get Mom the hell out. But Jim, those other women weren't supposed to die. That's my fault for wanting you back. If we don't try to stop this guy, we're gonna live with that for the rest of our lives."
"Okay," Jim replied, sounding decisive. "Get out the file, Chief. We've got some planning to do."
Blair opened the folder on his lap. "The first woman I've got here is Karen Reynolds. It's supposed to happen tomorrow." He scanned the notes in front of him quickly as the static from the radio grew louder. "The case file says she left Cascade General Hospital after her shift at six. She met friends at a bar, Cozy's Bar, at six-thirty and left around an hour later. They, um, they found her body in an empty lot behind the bar at eight." He closed his eyes and licked his dry lips, reaching out to take a swig from his beer before continuing, trying not to imagine how terrifying the young woman's ordeal must have been, how Naomi
"You still there, Chief?" Jim's voice was worried.
Blair took a deep breath. "Yeah, I'm here. I just "
"Don't think about it," Jim admonished gently. "If we fix this, it's not going to happen."
"Why don't I get a stakeout team to watch the place?" Jim asked.
"They're gonna ask too many questions," Blair replied. "We've got to keep this between you and me for now. If they question her, it could change things again. I'm scared, Jim. This is all getting out of control, like a snowball getting bigger and bigger." He shivered and rubbed at his arms. "Can you follow her? From the hospital?"
"Sure, and with my sight, I can keep a ways back and not get her spooked."
"Don't keep too far back. I'm betting someone's going to walk out of that bar with her, when they do, you'll be on it before she gets hurt." "Hey, you taking my job over, Chief," Jim said jokingly. "I thought I was the lead detective here."
"You are. Always will be. I'm just watching your back."
Blair smiled. "Yeah. Jim, I just want to say " Blair reached out and touched the carved letters again. "If this means I don't get you back, I need you to know I love you and I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
"That goes for me too, Chief."
"I wish I could touch you, kiss you, make love to you. Do you think this happened because I wanted too much. Naomi's a great believer in karma. Maybe it's because I didn't tell you how much I loved you."
"I don't know about karma, Chief, but who knows what would have happened if you had told me or I'd told you. It's something we'll never know." Jim was silent for a moment. "The important thing now is to get to those women and catch this bastard. I'll be in touch."
"Be careful. I love you."
"I love you too."
Blair couldn't concentrate on anything except Jim and the chance they were taking by changing their future. He tried to settle back and watch TV but after a minute or so found his gaze straying constantly back to the radio. He wouldn't know if Jim had been successful until that night. Giving up on having a relaxing day off, Blair grabbed his jacket and headed for the station.
He did no better there, his hands fiddling with the photos of the Nightingale victims, fanning them out, staring again in horror at Naomi's dead face. Disgusted, he shoved all the photos except that of Karen Reynolds back into the envelope and powered up his computer.
"Any news on those bones?"
Blair jumped a little and looked up to see Simon staring at him.
"Sorry, didn't hear you come in."
"You looked pretty out of it." Simon's eyes narrowed. "You all right? Should you be here?"
"I'm not drunk, sir," Blair replied evenly. "Just wanted to do some background checks on the victims, see if we overlooked anything."
Simon nodded, apparently satisfied. "And?"
Blair pushed back his chair and sighed. "And nothing yet. Apart from them all being nurses, and the method of death, there's no common thread."
The phone rang, cutting off Blair's reply. Picking up the receiver, he identified himself then listened for a moment, a smile slowly breaking out on his face. He thanked the caller and hung up.
"Well?" Simon asked.
"We got a break," Blair said. "Forensics identified the dental work. Mary Finelli, reported missing April 16th, 1998."
Simon walked over to the whiteboard set up with all the details they had thus far on the case. "April 16th? That means she was the first."
"You know what else it means?" Blair stood up and joined the captain. "There's a good chance he knew her."
Simon gave him a grim smile. "This case just got hot. If we pull on this string "
Blair however, didn't hear the rest of his words. Glancing across at the folder on his desk, he felt sweat break out on his brow. Woodenly he walked back to his desk and stared down at the folder. Upending it, Blair riffled through the photos. She was gone. He scanned the written reports. Nothing.
Karen Reynold's details had disappeared.
He whipped around and stared at the whiteboard. No mention of a Karen Reynolds. A small smile curved his lips. "Jim," he whispered.
"Karen Reynolds is alive and well," Blair said over the heavy radio interference. "How'd you do it?"
"Just used my natural charm, Chief," Jim replied, rather smugly, Blair thought.
"Did you see the guy?"
"The place was full of sleazes. I got the girl talking, bought her a drink and she decided to stay on and party with her friends. I left after about a half hour and kept watch from outside. She didn't leave until closing time and got a ride home with one of her friends."
"So we're no closer to finding out who this is," Blair said glumly.
"We saved one of them, Sandburg. The news isn't all bad."
"You're right, I know," Blair said. "It's just what if we don't find him until it's too late, before he gets to mom?"
"We'll get him," Jim replied fervently. "Who's next?"
"Sissy Clark," Blair said, quickly scanning the file. "190 Riverside Dr., apartment 3C. Tomorrow. Let's see. She's a nursing student. Paying her way as a cocktail waitress at the Peppermint Lounge, on west 63rd. Left work at two AM... killed in her apartment, between two-thirty and five. You got all of that?"
"Okay, how are you going to handle it? I don't know if I like the idea of you chatting up pretty girls in bars."
"You don't have to worry, Chief." Jim's voice was warm with amusement. "I'm already taken."
"Yeah." Blair grinned widely. "You are." Going back to the matter at hand, he spoke again. "I think I may be able to get you enough information to make sure the DA can nail this bastard."
"A couple of days ago, a body was dug up in Cascade Heights. The girl's name was Mary Finelli. She disappeared in 1998. It turns out she was the first victim. We're thinking he probably knew her. Most serial killers know their first victims. I'm going to work on it from this end, see if I can put any of it together."
"I just hope we know what the hell we're doing."
Blair flinched as static erupted over the speaker, almost drowning out Jim's words.
"So tell me, did the Mariners pull it off? I could stand to make a killing here, Chief."
Blair's voice took on a mock stern tone. "If you promise not to use it to your advantage, I'll tell you."
"Cross my heart," Jim quipped laconically.
Blair smiled. He'd missed this easy-going banter, this camaraderie. He missed Jim. "Well, game five was the big one. It turned in the bottom of the 6th. We were down 3-0. Clenedon gets hit on the foot - left a scuff mark on the ball. Boon comes up. The count goes to 2. High fastball. He nailed it. Martinez slammed a solo shot in the 7th to tie. Davis scored in the 8th."
"Wow. Sounds like a great game. I'm sorry I missed it."
"You haven't. Not yet anyway."
"You all right?"
"No, but I will be when I see you again."
"Don't worry, Chief. I'm not gonna let anything happen to her... no matter what."
"Just don't let anything happen to you either," Blair whispered.
There was a sudden crackling from the radio and the line went dead.
Blair knocked and entered Simon's office at the captain's invitation. His superior looked tired and strained and Blair wished he could share the news of Jim's resurrection with him but restrained himself. Soon, he told himself, just hang in there a little longer.
He seated himself and accepted the cup of coffee Simon held out to him. "Thanks. Look, Simon, I just want to say I'm sorry for how I've been acting lately."
"You've been through a rough time," Simon began. "With Jim and your mom."
"It doesn't excuse the way I've been behaving toward my friends. I know you all care, and well, I just wanted to let you know that you don't have to worry about me any more." He smiled. "I'm going to be okay."
"Glad to hear it." Simon studied him a moment longer then spoke again. "Where are you on the Nightingale case?"
"I'm going out to talk to Mrs. Finelli right now."
Simon nodded. "Get back to me if you turn anything up."
Blair rose and walked to the door, pausing when Simon called his name. He turned.
"I'm glad you're back with us, kid."
Blair smiled. "Me too, Simon."
Blair picked up a small white diary from the dresser and placed it on top of the high school year book he held. He thumbed through the first few entries in the diary, aware of Mrs. Finelli's scrutiny of him from the bedroom doorway. He felt uncomfortable doing this but he hoped there was a clue within the pages. He looked up and smiled at Mary's mother. "May I keep these for a little while?"
Anna Finelli shrugged and gave a weary sigh. "The police have already seen them, but yes."
"You won't forget to bring them back?" A tear glistened at the corner of her eye and she brushed it away then walked over to pick up a small crucifix from the dresser, stroking a finger over it.
"I promise," Blair replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag with a scrap of cloth inside. Hating himself for resurrecting this mother's grief and loss, he held it out. "Do you recognize this?"
Anna's eyes widened, then she strode to the closet door and opened it. She rummaged inside for a moment then pulled out a candy striper's uniform, cloaked in plastic. "Mary was a volunteer at the hospital. She loved it. She wanted to be a doctor."
Blair took the uniform from her hands. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Finelli. I'm so sorry for your loss."
Anna reached out and squeezed his hand. "I thought it's better this way, knowing what happened to her, where she is. Maybe now our lives can go on."
Blair swallowed around the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry," he said again, his voice hoarse. Giving the woman's hand a gentle touch, he gathered up the items and left.
An evidence table had been set up next to the whiteboard in the bullpen. Blair placed the uniform on the table then headed into Simon's office with the diary and yearbook. Simon waved him in when he approached and Blair wasted no time, opening both books to the appropriate pages.
"Okay," he began, settling himself on the edge of Simon's desk. "This is what we've got so far. There are three guys that show up in both the yearbook and Mary's diary." Turning the yearbook so Simon could see the grainy photos, Blair pointed out each young man. "The first guy died in a car accident nine years ago. The second died of complications following surgery a year after he graduated. The third," he tapped the photo with a finger, "is Darren Simpson."
"And?" Simon gave him a questioning look. Blair smiled grimly and handed over the sheet of paper he still held in his hand. "Darren Simpson's rap sheet. He has an arrest for sexual assault, dated April 2000. Ten days after the last Nightingale murder."
Simon nodded slowly, his face thoughtful. "So you think the murders stopped because he was off the street. By the time he got paroled, he'd smartened up enough to control himself?"
"It's happened before," Blair said. "Studies have shown that serial murderers escalate when they're not caught. I've got a feeling about this, Simon." He tapped the photo again. "This is our guy."
"All right," Simon said. "Bring him in. Let's see what he's got to say for himself."
Darren Simpson slouched in the chair in the interrogation room and glared at Blair through bloodshot eyes. A thin hand came up shakily to wipe at his nose and he sniffed loudly. "High school?" He snorted and shook his head. "That was a long time ago, man. I don't remember."
Blair leaned forward and rested his folded hands on the table. "Sure you do, Darren. You remember Mary Finelli."
Darren stared at a spot on the wall over Blair's shoulder. "What about her?"
"Okay," Blair said agreeably. "Let's talk about something else. We'll come back to Mary in a minute. Sexual assault." He felt a sense of satisfaction when Simpson's gaze darted to him. Blair nodded. "Three years in the joint. You got off pretty lightly if you ask me."
"It was a set-up," Simpson muttered sullenly. He pointed a trembling finger at Blair. "And I got good behavior. I've been clean ever since."
"You got something else too, didn't you, Darren? Something you did that you think no one's ever going to find out about."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Simpson licked nervously at his lips.
"I'm talking about Mary Finelli," Blair continued. "You went to the same high school. You lived five blocks away from her. You liked her a lot. But she didn't want to know you. Thought she was too good for you."
"She was a slut," Simpson shouted, pounding a fist on the table.
Blair waved away the uniformed officer who'd taken a wary step forward. He grinned ferally. "She pissed you off, didn't she? What did you do about it?"
Simpson's eyes widened and he rocked back in his chair. "Nothing," he whispered.
Blair stared at the clock on the interrogation room wall and rubbed at his stinging eyes. Twelve-fifteen AM and they were no further than they'd been before they brought Simpson in. Blair knew his time was running out. Simon was in the adjacent room, watching the interview, getting antsy about springing Simpson before his rights were violated, and somewhere out there, in a different time, Jim was tracking this man, hoping to get to him before another young woman was killed.
Blair drained his coffee and strode back to the table. He waited until Simpson had stubbed out his cigarette before pulling a manila folder from behind his back and emptying the contents onto the table.
Simpson reared back as though he'd been shot. "What the Oh, fuck! Fuck! Get them away from me." His face turned a ghastly shade of white and his throat worked convulsively as he struggled not to throw up.
Blair leaned forward so his face was only inches from Simpson's. "Nicky Moore. Patty Ryan. Mary Finelli. These names mean anything to you, asshole? Naomi Sandburg! She mean anything?" He stifled a sob, his breathing ragged, his hands balled into fists at his side. "She means something to me!" One fist came up and hung in the air for a moment before coming down to rest on the photo of his dead mother. Savagely, Blair gathered the photos together in a pile and stormed from the room.
Simon met him outside. "That's it, Sandburg. I'm pulling you off the case. I don't know what I was thinking, letting you stay on it after your mother -"
"No!" Blair pleaded. "Simon, please! I'm close, I can tell. Just give me another hour with him. Please."
Simon didn't look convinced. He stuffed an unlit cigar between his teeth, his jaw clenching. "One hour."
Simpson accepted the can of coke Blair placed in front of him with a brief nod. He watched nervously as Blair removed his watch and badge, and laid them on the table. Pulling his sidearm from its holster, he pulled the clip and set it aside. "You know, Simpson, when I took this job, I was full of the honor and respect that this position supposedly brings. The best cop in Washington instilled that in me, but sometimes all that honor and respect doesn't mean a thing. Despite all that respect, all that honor in ourselves, sometimes you come to a point where you don't give a fuck. Know what I mean?" Blair stood and walked slowly toward Simpson, who cowered back in his seat. "You're going to tell me what I need to know, Darren "
The door opened with a crash and both men looked up to see Banks standing there, a deep frown on his face. "Sandburg," he said in a clipped tone, "you got a minute?"
Gathering up his weapon, badge and gun, Blair followed Simon out of the room. Simon turned disappointed eyes on him.
"He's not the guy, Sandburg."
Blair shook his head vehemently. "Just because he didn't want to look at the photos doesn't mean he's not the killer. Not everyone fits the profile."
Simon sighed. "If he was going to give us anything, he would have done so by now."
Blair closed his eyes, defeated. Nodding his head, he walked away. "I'm going home. Catch a few hours' sleep."
He'd been hailing Jim for over an hour and there was still no reply. Worried sick about his partner, terrified that he'd been caught by the killer, or that they'd had lost the radio connection for good, Blair was about to head for bed when a faint voice came from the speakers. Grinning with relief, he thumbed the send button. "Jim, is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me, Chief."
Blair frowned. Jim sounded exhausted. "Are you all right?"
There was a long silence. "Not really. Head hurts dials not working."
"Oh God. Jim, listen to me. We've done this plenty of times, man. You with me?"
"Okay. Can you tell me what happened?"
There was a groan. "Bastard hit me from behind." He cursed softly. "I followed the girl, waited in the bar until she finished her shift. She went into the back to get changed and I went into the men's room. I was washing my hands and next thing I know I'm kissing the handbasin -"
"Do you need a doctor?" Blair interrupted. He felt useless and inept being so far away. "Maybe you should call Simon "
"I'm all right," Jim reassured him. "If I can just get these dials down."
"Did you get a look at him?"
"Yeah, he roughed me up a bit, tossed me into a cubicle and took off. I mentioned Mary Finelli's name. That really shook him up. He kicked me in the head. I don't know how long I was out. By the time I came to, he was gone."
"Okay, let's work on that dial," Blair said. It took several minutes of calm coaching but Blair was finally able to hear an improvement in Jim's voice. "That better?"
"Yeah," Jim sighed. "Thanks, Chief."
"I miss that."
"Doing that for you, guiding you, helping, backing you up."
"Don't give up. It's not over yet."
"He killed her, Blair. He killed her, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it," Jim said a few minutes later.
Blair's heart clenched at the despair he could hear in Jim's voice. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault, Jim."
"Yes, it is!" Jim's voice was low and angry. "We did this - you and me. We changed things, for us I've been having weird dreams. Dreams where I die in that fire. I can feel the flames eating my skin, the smoke suffocating me, hear the girl screaming for me to get her out. I was supposed to die in that warehouse."
"No!" Blair's tone was sharp, desperate desolate.
"Yes." Jim sounded resigned. "It's like I don't know, like we cheated somehow."
"I know," Blair whispered. "And I know that we can't go back. You didn't die in that fire and nothing will change that now. All we can do is deal with it and try to fix it, make it right."
"I don't know if I can, not without you here with me. You're my guide."
"I still am. We can do this together." Blair hunched over the radio. "Believe in us, Jim, in our bond." He paused. "I dream about you about you touching me." He laughed harshly. "I feel like a goddamned teenager with raging hormones. I wake up, wanting you, imagining your hands on me, your lips "
"If we do this right, I'll make it real for you."
"Need you now."
"We've got all the time in the world, Chief." Jim's voice sounded equally as rough and needy. "Once we get this guy. There's something else."
Blair's stilled at the words. "What?"
"The bastard took my driver's license."
"When he knocked me out in the men's room, I guess. My wallet's still here, my badge, everything except my license."
"Shit!" Blair racked his brains. "What would he want with it?"
"To know where I live, maybe? I don't know."
"Wait a minute." Blair thought furiously. "He touched your wallet. Where is it now?"
"In my pocket."
"That's it! We've got him. You've got his prints on your wallet. Can you run his prints through the criminal index?"
"Yeah, great idea, Chief. Look, I'll do it now. I'll be in touch."
"Just hurry, man, we don't have long before Naomi "
"I know, Chief."
"Guy's name is Carl Shepard."
Blair stared in surprise at the radio. "What? Did you say Shepard?"
"Yeah, Carl Shepard," Jim replied. "What's wrong?"
"We've been trying to pin it on the wrong guy," Blair said. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and smacked his forehead in frustration. "Shit, Jim! He didn't die! The son of a bitch didn't die! Okay, give me a minute." Quickly logging on, Blair punched in his password to Department Records and then typed in Carl Shepard's name. He stared in shock at the face that flashed onto the screen, the information scrolling below confirming the man's identity. The face was several years older than the one that had smiled out of the Police Academy graduation photo, haggard and thinner, but there was no mistaking that it was the same man. He turned back to the radio. "I got him, Jim, but he's supposed to be dead."
"I'm not following you, Chief."
Blair glanced back at the computer screen. "It gets worse, Jim. Shepard's a cop, works out of North Cascade precinct." He swallowed convulsively, tasting the sour taint of bile at the back of his throat. "He never died."
Blair parked his car in front of the Shepard house. Fred Shepard was watering the healthy-looking roses in the front yard. He looked up as Blair approached and turned off the faucet.
Blair plastered a friendly smile on his face. "Hi there. I was just down here, wrapping this case up. Thought I'd call over and say hello."
Fred gave him a welcoming smile. "Good to see you again, Detective. Why don't you come in, have a cup of coffee?"
Blair nodded. "Thank you. I'd like that." He followed the older man into the house, taking surreptitious note of the changes, small but obvious, in the condition of the interior since his first visit a few days before. Gone was the neat, clean appearance, the rooms looked worn and dusty, blinds drawn to block the pallid sunlight. "Is your wife around?" Blair asked.
The old man's eyes widened then he gave a small, embarrassed sounding laugh. "No. No. Well, in my heart, maybe. She died four years ago."
Blair's heart seemed to skip a beat. "I'm sorry," he managed to get out. "Do you mind if I ask " His gaze flickered to the color photo of Mrs. Shepard taking pride of place on the mantle, next to Carl Shepard's graduation picture.
"She " Fred cleared his throat, looked away. "She was murdered, Detective." His voice caught, a sob just beneath the hesitant words. "A terrible crime it was too. She didn't deserve to die that way." He pulled a photo album from the coffee table and opened it before holding it out to Blair. "That's my Emily."
Blair felt sweat break out on his brow and run between his shoulder blades. He shivered. Emily Shepard's black and white photo was the only one on the page. She stood in what appeared to be the front yard of the house, smiling prettily, dressed in a nurse's uniform.
Fred shook his head. "She was the mother of a cop, and they still never found out who did it."
Blair stared out the window, across to where Mary Finelli's skeleton had been found. "Unfortunately it happens that way sometimes."
"Yeah." Fred took the photo album and placed it back on the coffee table.
"Is your son still with the force?" Blair asked.
"No. He's doing P.I. work now." Fred paused for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice held a note of bitterness. "He got caught up in something at the precinct. Some dirty cops who needed a fall guy set him up. It hurt him bad. Would have broken his mother's heart."
Blair kept his snide comments to himself. This man was hurting enough, would hurt more once they closed in on Shepard. "Can you tell me where I can find him?"
Fred's eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Blair gave a nonchalant shrug. "We found the body right across the street. He's an ex-cop. Maybe he can shed some light on something we've overlooked." He gave the old man a small smile. "I'd hate to think of another woman's murder going unsolved, wouldn't you?"
Ten minutes later, Blair headed back to his car with the address of two likely diners that Carl Shepard liked to frequent. Pulling up in front of the first, he climbed out of his car and headed inside. His eyes found his target almost immediately, and he had to force himself to stroll casually to the bar and pull out a stool. Carl Shepard sat two seats away, looking up briefly from his newspaper to give Blair a glance, then going back to his perusal of the sport scores.
"You used to be on the force?" Blair asked.
Shepard looked up and held Blair's assessing gaze. "Yeah," he replied slowly. "Do I know you?"
Blair shrugged. "Do I look familiar?"
Shepard seemed to study Blair intently for a moment then he shook his head. "No, what house do you work?"
"Cascade Central. Major Crime."
Shepard gave him a feral grin. "A hot shot, huh?"
Blair popped a chip into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before replying. "Not me, man. Just doing my job." He waved over the bartender and ordered a soda, waiting until it was served before speaking again. "As a matter of fact, I've been working a case that started when you were working the job. The Nightingale murders. You remember them?"
There was a heavy silence then Shepard spoke up. "Yeah, I remember them."
Blair nodded and took a sip of his drink. "Yeah. Missing teenager. She disappeared six years ago. Her bones were found last week buried behind an old diner by Dyckman Street. Name of Mary Finelli." He waited, tension clawing at him, making his head pound as hard as his heart. Shepard merely grunted noncommittally so Blair continued. "Talk about luck, huh? The odds of them digging up that patch of dirt, six years later, and then getting lucky and hitting her dental records. And the best part is, she was the first victim." He gave Shepard a predatory smile of his own. "She knew her murderer. I'm betting those bones are going to give us a lot of information."
Shepard picked up his drink and took a hasty swallow, choking and spluttering. He reached for napkin and blotted his mouth, his breath panting.
Blair ignored him and continued. "I used to be an anthropologist. Know a lot about skeletons, and the past. We've all got skeletons in the closet. You just never know when they're going to pop up and bite you on the ass, Carl."
Pulling a photo from beneath his jacket, he slid it over to Shepard. The response was immediate. Shepard reeled back, almost toppling off the stool as he stared in horror at the crime scene photo of his murdered mother. He glared at Blair, perspiration sheening his pale face.
"Who are you?" he croaked.
Blair slid off his stool and leaned over to pick up the photo. "I'm the train wreck you didn't see coming, Carl, and I'm going to steal your life away, just like you did to those women." He walked away then turned back at the door. "You went down five years ago," he added. "You just don't know it yet."
"I can't believe you did that, Chief," Jim said over the radio static. "Goading Shepard like that. This guy is a maniac. He's dangerous. You know that."
"I know, Jim," Blair replied, "but he needed to know that we know. Maybe it'll make him stop."
"And maybe it'll make him come after you instead." He sighed. "What now?"
"Call the FBI from a pay phone. Don't give your name. Just give them Mary Finelli's and tell them where she's buried then tell them Carl Shepard is the Nightingale murderer. They can link it together. Same high school, same class, and I'm betting when they search his house, they'll find souvenirs."
"Why don't I just " Jim paused. "Hang on a minute, Chief. Simon's here, I can smell his cigars and it sounds like he's brought company. I'll leave the line open so you can listen in."
"Okay. Tell him I said hi," Blair joked weakly. He sat and waited, then heard the muted sound of voices over the radio, Simon's familiar bass more easily heard than the others.
"Jim, we need to talk."
"What about? What's with the uniforms?"
"Jim, I need you to come down to the station with us," Simon said.
"Sure, let me just finish up on the radio and -"
Blair could only sit and listen, his concern mounting. Unable to contain his worry, he called out. "Jim? What's happening?"
"I don't know, Chief."
"Look, Jim, let's just go down to the station," Simon said.
"Not until you tell me what this is about," Jim objected.
Blair heard Simon mutter an oath. "All right," the captain replied. "Where were you last night?"
Blair realized suddenly what was going on, and Jim apparently did too. "Why?" Jim asked evasively.
"This is your driver's license," Simon continued. "You know where it was found?"
"I dropped it somewhere."
"It was found under the body of a murdered woman, Jim."
"No. You've got it all wrong, Simon. Tell him, Chief."
But before Blair could get a word out in Jim's defense, not sure anyway how he was going to explain what he couldn't understand himself, the unmistakable sound of a struggle broke out and Blair watched, flinching as sparks shot out of the wiring at the back of the radio. In front of his disbelieving eyes, a large dent appeared in the side of the radio, the dials becoming cracked and useless.
He felt suddenly light-headed and felt his body sway, collapsing to the floor as his legs refused to hold him up. He lay on the floor, struggling to hold onto consciousness, a confusing, frightening litany of memories cascading through his mind. 'Oh God, Jim!' He remembered the phone call from Simon, rushing home to find Jim in a jail cell, arrested for murder. "No! Simon, wait!" He managed to get to his knees but overwhelming dizziness assailed him and he felt himself falling, blackness crowding his vision, oblivion seeping in to replace his tortured thoughts.
Jim Ellison looked up at Simon. He was seated at a table in an interrogation room at Cascade PD. Simon paced on the other side of the table, bitter disappointment warring with anger on his dark face.
"Look, Simon, I can explain all of this but "
Simon turned and slammed his hands down on the table, his face inches from Jim's. "Explain how your license was found under this girl's body!"
"It was stolen. I was in a bar and -"
"The same bar this girl worked."
"Yes, but " Jim slumped, feeling defeated. "The murderer's name is Carl Shepard," he continued listlessly. "He's a detective out of North Cascade."
"And you found all of this out, without bothering to let me know you were working the case alone. Why?"
"I didn't think you'd believe me."
Simon straightened and drew his lips up in a mock grin. "Well, what's not to believe? It's not enough we have to go through all this sentinel stuff, now you're telling me that you and Sandburg a Sandburg from five years in the future, mind you, are working this case together."
"Yes. Simon, I know it sounds crazy. I don't understand it myself."
"Yet you expect me to just take your word for it?"
"Yes." Jim leaned forward, clenching his hands into fists. "At least check this guy out. Get a warrant to search his house. I'm betting you'll find souvenirs there from the first Nightingale murder."
"You think I'm going to get a warrant if I front up with this story? You are in a world of shit here, Jim. An eyewitness places you outside the dead girl's apartment, your prints are all over the fucking place, your license " Simon waved the suggestion away in disgust.
"I got there too late," Jim insisted. "We've been over this already. Look, he's going to go after Naomi, Blair's mother, next. If you can't do anything else, you watch out for her and Sandburg."
"Captain?" Henri Brown poked his head in the door, giving Jim an uncomfortable glance before speaking. "Hairboy Blair's on the phone. Wants to know what's going on."
"Tell him to hold on, I'll be right there."
"What if I can prove to you that what I'm telling you is the truth," Jim said urgently.
Simon appeared to think it over, then nodded. "Go on."
"The baseball game today." He held up a hand when Simon seemed about to protest. "Just listen The Mariners are going to win the game when Clenedon gets hit on the foot. It's going to leave a scuff mark on the ball."
Jim raised a hand. "Hear me out. The next batter is going to hit one out of the park. In the bottom of the seventh, Martinez is going to hit a solo home run. Davis is going to score in the eighth, and the Mariners are going to win 5-3. Go watch the game, Simon. Give me that much time at least."
"You're going to be charged with murder and you want me to go watch a fucking baseball game?" Disbelief dripped from Simon's words. He shook his head. "What do you want me to tell Sandburg?"
Tell him I love him, Jim thought, knowing he couldn't say the words. "Just tell him to come home, Simon, all right?"
Watching Simon leave the room, Jim pounded his fist on the table in frustration. He should have seen this coming. The door opened again and a man dressed in a suit walked in. Jim didn't recognize him, but there was a predatory air about the stranger that made Jim immediately suspicious.
"Well, well," the other man said laconically, pulling his handgun from its holster, "if it ain't the Detective of the Year. On your feet."
"Who are you?" Jim asked.
"I said, on your feet!" The man reached for Jim's arm, dragging him up, then threw him against the wall. The muzzle of his weapon ground into Jim's neck. "How did you know?" he asked, his voice trembling.
"Figure it out." Jim half-turned and saw the other man pull a leather garrotte from his pocket. "You sick animal," Jim growled.
"The evidence says you're the animal," Shepard retorted. "That's why you hung yourself. Couldn't live with what you'd done."
"They'll never believe it."
"Let me draw you a picture," Shepard said. He took a step back, allowing Jim to turn and face him. "You live at 852 Prospect, Apartment 307. Your little faggot partner lives there too. He give good head, Ellison?"
"Leave him out of this, Shepard," Jim warned but Shepard continued regardless. "His mother, a redhead with a body to die for does voluntary work at Cascade General Hospital. You getting the picture, Ellison?"
There was a noise at the door, and Shepard grabbed Jim's arm, pushing him down into a chair. He looked over his shoulder as Henri Brown walked in. Henri frowned. "What's going on here?"
"He's trying to kill me, H," Jim said.
Shepard gave a snort. "My captain asked me to question him. We've got a victim matches the M.O. of the Nightingale murders. I okayed it with your boss."
Henri glanced from Shepard to Jim, clearly unsure what to do. "Let's step outside for a minute," he finally said.
Shepard shrugged but followed Henri out. Jim extended his hearing, following the conversation as he stood and looked around for something he could use to escape. If Shepard was able to walk away now, Jim knew the killer would go after Blair or Naomi next.
"I'm sorry," Shepard began. "I didn't mean to step on your toes. Sergeant on the desk sent me up. I thought you'd be in there with him."
"What did you say you wanted him for?"
"Just a few questions."
"I don't know, man." A note of hesitation crept into Henri's voice. "Jim's a friend of mine. I don't think he killed that girl."
"The evidence says otherwise," Shepard replied.
"Look, I'll go find Captain Banks, see what he says. You hang out here until I get back."
Jim gave a grim smile when he heard Henri's response. Spying what he needed high on the wall, Jim quietly pulled over a chair and set to work. By the time Shepard came back into the room, Jim was sitting at the table, idly toying with the ashtray. Shepard took a step into the room and looked down, wrinkling his nose when he realized he was standing in a puddle of coffee. Jim smiled and held up an electrical cable he'd hidden on his lap. The end was stripped, the wires hanging loose.
"What the fuck?" Shepard said.
Before he could react, Jim tossed the cord, landing it squarely in the spilled coffee. Shepard gasped, his body convulsing as a surge of electricity passed through him. The light above flickered then blew out and the entire building was plunged into darkness. Shepard was staggering and Jim jumped up, swinging the chair around his body to smash down on Shepard's head. The killer was driven to his knees.
Kicking the still live wire out of the way, Jim grasped Shepard's limp body by the shoulders and dragged him further into the room. Frisking the unconscious man, Jim slipped Shepard's badge and wallet into his pocket before picking up the spray can of Lysol he'd found on the window ledge. He aimed it up at the fire alarm sensor and hit the button, then lit it up with a match. Flame shot out of the nozzle, igniting and setting off the alarm.
As water cascaded over him from the sprinkler system, Jim knew he was out of time. Cracking open the door, he glanced quickly both ways. He could hear voices from the break room where some of the officers were watching the baseball game but the corridor was deserted. Quickly, Jim crossed the hall and slipped into the stairwell.
Simon stared solemnly at the phone receiver still in his hand and, with a heavy sigh, returned it to its cradle. Sandburg was on his way back to Cascade and hoped to be there within a few hours. The incredulity and shock in Blair's voice had disturbed Simon as much as the almost impossible idea that his closest friend could be a killer. The evidence was there though, as much as Simon wished he could throw it all away and pretend it had never been found.
He leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. He could hear the television from the break room and the wild cheers of several officers who were watching the game. His curiosity piqued after Jim's words, Simon stood and made his way through the bullpen and down the corridor to the break room. He paused in the doorway, leaning against the frame, only half-listening to the commentator's tirade. But what he heard next had him standing ramrod straight, his hands clenched into fists at his side.
"There's a scuff mark on the ball!" the announcer said excitedly. "The umpire has reversed his decision. He's sending Jones to first base!"
Simon swallowed convulsively and felt cold sweat break out on his brow. Brian Rafe gave him a curious look as he passed.
"You okay, Captain?"
Simon nodded. "Yeah," he said hoarsely, his eyes not leaving the TV screen. He watched as Martinez came in for his third hit and nailed the ball, sending it sailing into the crowd. Simon felt a grin break the tension on his face. "He was right!" he shouted. "God damn it, Jim was right!"
There was a shout from the viewers when a spark suddenly ignited at the back of the screen and the picture abruptly went black. Not bothering to wait, Simon spun on his heel and headed for the elevator.
Blair strode down the hallway leading to Carl Shepard's apartment. He studied the two locks on the front door for a moment then gave a mental shrug. Four years as Jim's partner had taught him a thing or two about getting through doors. He slammed his body into the door until he felt it give, then brought up one foot and smashed it in.
The living area was empty, and doing a sweep of the apartment, Blair discovered that Carl Shepard seemed to have left in one hell of a hurry. A pile of unpaid bills sat on the dining room table, closets had been left open, a few items of clothing still hanging inside.
"Damn it!" Blair scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. He looked around the seedy apartment, his gaze falling on the phone on the floor and an evil smile broke out on his face. Pulling his cell phone from his pocket and opening up his notebook, he found the number he was looking for and dialed it.
"You have the right to remain silent," Blair said. "If you give up that right "
"Who the fuck is this?" Shepard growled. He sounded out of breath.
"Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law," Blair finished.
Blair ignored the query. "You have the right to speak to an attorn -"
Shepard cut him off. "Fuck you, asshole."
"It's a small world, Carl," Blair replied, though his throat seemed to have closed up. Impotent rage curled his gut, his hands tightening on the phone. "And I'm gonna find you. Real soon." Savagely he punched the end button.
Hidden in the broom closet in Shepard's apartment, his senses on high alert, Jim heard Shepard enter the apartment and tracked his movement through the rooms. The killer stopped in the kitchen and Jim heard a rustling sound. Not waiting, Jim threw the door open and pounced on Shepard, sending him to the floor. Photos scattered over the floor and Jim lunged, burying his fist in Shepard's stomach. The killer doubled up with a gasp but rolled to the side, narrowly missing Jim's follow up punch to his jaw. His own hand shot out and caught Jim in the throat. Choking, unable to draw in a breath, Jim collapsed. Shepard was on top of Jim now, raining blows on his face, opening up a gash above one eye.
Jim reached out, his desperate fingers closing over the handle of a glass pitcher on the table next to him. His sight was blurring, his breath still coming in agonal gasps that set his throat on fire. Shepard had pulled his weapon and the barrel was only inches from Jim's face. This close up, Jim could see the murderer's fingers tightening on the trigger. Swiping the pitcher in a wide arc, Jim cracked it resoundingly against Shepard's head then reeled back at the explosion from the gun. Shepard dropped like a stone, the gun sliding away.
Jim didn't wait to see if Shepard was dead or unconscious. He headed for the fire escape, clattering down it and jumping from the second last step. He staggered and hot pain shot up his leg. Metal clanged above him and glancing up, Jim could see Shepard, blood pouring down his face, making his way down.
Bullets ricocheted off the building above Jim's head, brick dust stinging his face as Shepard let loose a couple of wild pot shots. Jim edged up the alley, keeping close to the building, favoring his injured ankle.
Holden Park was just across the road. Glancing left and right, Jim took off at a shuffle into the park.
Jim's ruse was working. He could hear Shepard gaining on him and he slowed, allowing the agony in his ankle to ease. A long wooden bridge was just up ahead, the end barricaded off for restoration. Jim sprinted forward and hurdled the barrier then threw his body over the side, catching hold of the steel girder below. He dangled just above the water, his hearing focused on the bridge above. Footsteps echoed above him then stopped. He could hear Shepard's rasping breath.
Something skittered along Jim's arm and he flinched. Looking down, he saw a fat sewer rat topple from his arm into the water, making a splash. Glancing up, Jim saw Shepard lean over the side, his gun aiming at the water. Shepard fired off a shot then leaned further out, taking aim again. Jim swung his body out in a graceful arc, one strong arm reaching for, and grasping Shepard's arm. Caught off balance, Shepard gave a startled shout and Jim took advantage, pulling the killer over the side of the bridge. Unable to maintain his grip, Jim followed Shepard into the murky water.
He managed to grab hold of Shepard's gun hand, but the killer had become a frenzied mass of flailing arms and legs. Jim bit Shepard's hand and the killer released the weapon with a yelp. Shepard came back at him with murderous vengeance. Both hands wrapped around Jim's throat in a vise-like grip, and despite his best efforts, blinded and choking on the filthy water, Jim could feel his consciousness beginning to fade. He threw out both arms, trying to shake the determined man loose and one flailing hand closed on a brick. Bringing it up in a roundhouse sweep, Jim slammed it into Shepard's skull. Shepard dropped like a stone.
Jim dragged air into his oxygen-starved lungs, his limbs feeling heavy and numb. He waded back to the side of the lake, collapsing in an exhausted heap on the bank. Oblivion beckoned but he shook it off and staggered to his feet.
Dripping blood and water, Jim limped out of the park and made his way through the crowds now out on the streets celebrating the Mariner's World Series win. The mood was electric, the fans so wild about their team's good fortune that no one gave the bedraggled man a second glance.
His cell phone was dead, the water having taken its toll, so Jim made his way wearily to a phone box, punched in the number for Cascade PD, and asked for Simon Banks.
"Simon, it's Jim. I need you to listen to me -"
"We know, Jim," Simon interjected. "We know it's Shepard. We got into his apartment, there were photos, souvenirs Christ! Sick son of a bitch!"
"No kidding." Jim leaned his head tiredly against the glass of the booth. "I'm in a phone booth across from Holden Park. Come get me, will ya?"
"You got it, Jim. I'll be right there."
Hanging up the phone, Jim slid another coin into the slot and dialed again. He smiled when Naomi answered the phone in a bright, very much alive voice. "Hi, Naomi."
"Jim? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," Jim assured her. "Just wanted to let you know Blair's coming home early. I thought you might like to come over for dinner."
Huddled inside a blanket, Jim stood beside Simon and watched as police divers prepared to search the lake for Shepard's body.
Simon smiled at his friend. "You missed a hell of a game, Jim."
Jim grinned back. "Next time, let's put some money on it."
"You got it." Simon slapped Jim on the shoulder and walked with him to a squad car. "Go home, get cleaned up and get some rest. I want to hear the whole story first thing in the morning." He shook his head. "If I thought the sentinel stuff was hard to explain, you want to tell me how I'm supposed to write this one up?"
"I'll leave that in your capable hands, sir," Jim joked. "Later. Much later."
Thanking the uniformed officer for the ride, Jim climbed out and walked wearily into the apartment building. He sighed in relief when he saw the elevator was working. He slumped against the wall of the car and closed his eyes. His entire body ached, bruises bled down one side of his face and numerous small cuts peppered his cheek and forehead.
He needed to let Blair know it was over, he thought as he walked to his door, but with one hand on the doorknob, he remembered the broken radio. Entering the apartment, Jim gathered together a few tools and set to work.
A noise from Blair's bedroom startled him and he looked up to see Naomi exiting the room. "Hi, Jim," she said with a bright smile. "Hope you don't mind, I let myself in so I could get dinner started and thought I'd tidy Blair's room a little. He hasn't changed, you know. He's just as messy as when he was little."
Jim shook his head. "That's fine, Naomi, but I, um, I need to speak to someone about a police matter on the phone and "
Naomi waved his excuse away nonchalantly. "I wanted to go down to the store and pick up some things, some wine and bread rolls. I'll be back in twenty minutes."
"That's fine, Naomi. Thanks." Jim waited until she walked out the door before pulling the back off the radio.
Blair let himself into his apartment, still berating himself over his stupidity in baiting Shepard. While the killer now knew the police were onto him, Blair doubted he was going to turn himself in, and that it might in fact spur Shepard on to more brazen and horrific acts. And it had done nothing to save Naomi or bring Jim back to him. If anything, Jim was further from his reach now because of the radio
The radio Blair swiveled slowly and stared into the living room as a faint hiss of static emanated from the speakers. "Jim?"
"You there, Chief?"
A wide smile graced Blair's face and his exhaustion fled. Crossing the room in a few strides, Blair pulled up a chair and depressed the squawk button. "Jim?" he said again.
"Yeah, it's me, Blair. I finally got this damn thing fixed." Jim sounded exhausted, and drained.
"Are you okay? What happened?"
"We did it, Chief. We stopped him."
Blair lowered his tired body into the chair. He shook his head. "Wait a minute. Something's wrong. I don't ."
"What's wrong. Are you all right?" Jim asked worriedly.
"I don't remember," Blair said, confused. "I should remember this, Jim, and I don't. Don't you see? I should remember Shepard getting arrested."
"He's dead," Jim told him.
Blair shook his head vehemently. "It doesn't matter. Jim, I should remember him being killed."
There was a sudden thump from the speaker, then a muffled grunt. Blair spoke again. "Jim? You still there?" Before he could speak again, something heavy smashed into the back of Blair's skull. Pain exploded in his head and he toppled from the chair, fighting to remain conscious. He managed to roll to his side and looked up, blinking back the darkness that encroached on his vision. A sneering Carl Shepard loomed over him, his handgun aimed at Blair's head.
"My turn to steal your life," Shepard snarled.
Blair snaked a hand over to his holster, cursing silently when he discovered it empty.
"Looking for this?" Shepard held up Blair's gun, popped the clip and tossed it aside. Pulling a set of handcuffs from his waistband, the muzzle of his own weapon never wavering, he snapped one bracelet around Blair's wrist and then began to drag him toward the stairs.
Fiery agony erupted in Blair's manacled wrist and he snapped out a foot in a move taught to him by Jim and landed a solid kick to Shepard's groin. The killer shrieked and doubled up, his gun flying from a flailing hand and sailing across the room. For a heartbeat, neither man moved, then Blair erupted, throwing himself toward the weapon, scrabbling on hands and knees when Shepard's solid weight crushed him to the floor.
Blair tried to shake the bigger man off, desperately attempting to hang onto the gun, but Shepard's hand was around his own, his fingers prying Blair's loose. Blair's head snapped to the side as Shepard slammed a fist into his cheek and his vision grayed out. By the time he regained his senses, Shepard was wrenching the gun from his hand. Blair lunged upward, his hand clenching around Shepard's and both men flinched as the weapon fired. Blair kept his finger on the trigger, the sound of the gun deafening him.
Shepard had a hand under Blair's chin now, forcing his head back and Blair stared in shock, his fight for the weapon halting as a jagged line of scars suddenly appeared on the killer's face. The gun fired again, and Blair shook himself, squeezing the trigger again but there was nothing but the clicking of an empty chamber.
Shepard gave a savage smile and took advantage of Blair's momentary inaction. In a flash, he had Blair bent back, one strong arm reaching to encircle Blair's throat, the other fisted in his hair, pulling him back against his chest. Blair gasped, struggling to drag air in past the obstacle against his throat, his vision fading, his body drooping. And then the crushing weight was gone and he slumped forward, choking and coughing weakly.
Shepard was standing now, backing away, his eyes staring in horror at his suddenly withered hand. Blair scuttled back a bit on his butt, one hand reaching up to massage his aching throat. The walls seemed to warp, closing in on him, and he swallowed back the bile that surged into his mouth. Shepard's face seemed to be distorting too, making it seem more grotesque and threatening than ever. Blair followed Shepard's disoriented gaze as he stared around the apartment at the tribal masks on the wall, Jim's Red Heron poster on the back of the door, Jim's jacket on a hook by the door
Blair staggered to his feet and threw himself at the killer, the sheer force of his attack sending both men to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Blair managed to bring one hand up and balled it into a fist, pounding it repeatedly into Shepard's face, tears blinding him and mixing with the blood dripping down his cheek.
Something hard jammed into his temple and he saw Shepard grinning at him through the bloody mess that was his mouth. Blair heard the safety click snick off on the back up weapon in Shepard's hand.
"I remember you now," Shepard said, spraying Blair's face with his blood. Keeping the gun pressed to Blair's head, he got to his feet. "But this time, there's no cop of the year here to save your sorry ass."
Blair closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping in defeat. I'm sorry, Jim.
An explosion of sound at the door had Shepard's head snapping around. Jim stood in the doorway, his weapon centered on the killer. Shepard had no time to react. Jim squeezed the trigger three times, the impact lifting Shepard off his feet. He landed just beyond Blair, his eyes open but sightless, his chest a mass of blood.
Blair looked up at the man he loved more than life, his body shaking so much he could barely hold his head up. "Jim?' he whispered.
Jim was at his side in a few long strides, gathering Blair's trembling body to him, embracing him tightly. He pressed a kiss to Blair's tangled, matted curls. "I'm still here, Chief."
"It was the weirdest thing, man," Blair said softly, "watching those scars appear on his face when my mom scratched him, and his hand, I don't know who was more freaked, him or me." He leaned up, resting his chin in his hand and stared at the man lying beside him. "You did that, shot him in the hand back in 1999, and it just appeared."
Jim rolled over in the bed and smiled at his lover. "Yeah, pretty weird. I just wish your mom hadn't come back when she did." He shook his head. "I thought I didn't think I'd get free in time."
"You never told me how you got free."
Jim pushed Blair over onto his back and straddled him, one hand straying up to scratch through soft chest hair and gently stroke a nipple until it peaked and hardened. "That trick you taught me, after the train. Picked the handcuff lock with the pin from my watch."
Blair grinned. "So it seems I have taught you a thing or two."
"I guess you have. Now, how about I teach you something."
Blair pretended to think it over. "Teach me what?"
Jim began to undulate slowly, his erection stroking against Blair's, precome slicking the way, causing a sensuous glide of heated flesh against heated flesh. Blair moaned and arched up, his hands reaching up to clasp Jim's arms, increasing the contact of their cocks.
Jim pressed a kiss to Blair's lips and Blair opened his mouth, sucking in Jim's tongue, stroking it and exploring his mouth. It lasted only long enough to bring Blair to the edge then Jim lifted up slightly until their aching erections were barely ghosting against each other.
Blair stared at him. "You're gonna kill me, man."
Jim just smiled and pulled gently at the silver hoop threaded through Blair's right nipple, causing his lover to push up harder against him, his knees rising to bring Jim closer. "I told you I'm going to teach you something," he whispered silkily.
"And what would that be?" Blair managed to ask, not giving up on getting Jim's cock back where he wanted it.
"How to make love to a sentinel," Jim replied. He lowered his head and took Blair's mouth in a bruising kiss that left both men gasping for air. Blanketing Blair's body with his own, he allowed the other man free rein and matched him stroke for stroke, their breathy moans of pleasure and completion echoing through the loft.
Finally sated, Jim rolled to one side and pulled Blair to him, curling protectively around his lover. He rubbed his hand over Blair's still heaving chest then rested it splayed over Blair's heart. "See, Chief," he said, his voice full of the wonder of it all, "I'm still here."