Blair Sandburg shifted his gaze from the sea view before him and turned to look at his son. "What's up, Jake?"
"I need help with this." The little boy held up his junior sized fishing rod and displayed the snarled line.
"Okay." Blair put his own rod down and moved to the boy's side, placing his own capable hands over the tiny ones gripping the rod. "There you go." He began to wind the line in, grinning when Jake pushed his hands away.
"I can do it, daddy."
"Slowly. Slowly. There you go." Blair beamed at his son and tousled the shoulder-length blond curls. "Oh hey, Jake? See that yacht?" Blair pointed out to sea where the twin masts of a large yacht could be seen in the distance. "That is the most beautiful yacht on Whitby Island. She's called 'Morning Star.'" Blair hugged his son to him as he directed the boy's gaze out toward the horizon. "When you grow up, I'm going to teach you to sail."
"Is it as good as fishin'? Jake asked.
"Oh yeah," Blair answered fervently. "You bet."
Jake nodded happily at his father and went back to winding his line. Blair dropped to his knees and watched for a moment, ensuring the child didn't get his fingers caught up in the line. "Wait a minute," he said suddenly. "I don't think I want you to grow up, little dude."
"Why not?" Jake asked, clearly not caring one way or the other.
"Well, when you grow up, you'll probably go and marry some beautiful girl. Who'll sail with me then?"
Jake appeared to consider the question for a moment. "What about dad?"
Blair laughed and scooped the boy into his arms for another hug. "Not a chance."
The fundraiser had been in full swing for about an hour now and Nick Cassidy looked around the assembled gathering with satisfaction. He moved to the bar and poured himself a scotch, his eyes taking in the kids frolicking in the indoor pool, surprised that his son, Jake wasn't in there with them.
"Nick? We need to talk."
Cassidy pushed his blond locks from his forehead and smiled at Neil Davis. "Always a pleasure to talk to you, Neil," he said. He nodded at the man who stood at his other side. "Hey, Warren."
"Did you get the notice from First Seattle today?" Davis asked without preamble.
Nick nodded and began to head for the stairs. "As a matter of fact, I did."
The two men kept apace of him. "We've got a real problem there."
Nick smiled and shook his head. "Trust me, guys," he answered easily. "It's not a problem."
He paused as he watched a young couple on the landing closely examine one of the paintings that adorned the walls of the upper level of the house.
"It's a Picasso, blue period," the young man said knowledgeably, leaning in close to the girl at his side.
"Actually, it's a Kandinsky," Nick said, coming up behind them. The young man whirled around and glared at him.
"Vassily Kandinsky, German-Russian extraction, 1866 to 1944." Leaning forward, he tapped the frame with a fingernail. "He did this one in 1911." He smiled at them both and winked at the pretty young girl before moving into the main bedroom to retrieve a pullover, then heading back downstairs.
Blair stood on his tiptoes trying to catch a glimpse of either his errant son, or his lover. Finally, he saw Megan Conner, Jake's biological mother heading toward him with Jake perched on one hip.
Blair Sandburg had met Nick Cassidy six years before at a charity ball and had immediately fallen head over heels in love with the tall, handsome businessman. It had taken a little persuasion from Blair to encourage the admittedly bisexual Nick to notice him. He finally had, at a rock concert, of all places, where the music had been too loud for them to speak, and so they had simply stared at each other all night long. Nick had walked Blair home, stayed for a coffee and they'd been inseparable ever since.
Five years ago, Blair had begun talking of wanting a child. His own childhood had been a lonely one, raised by a free-spirited single mother who dragged Blair around the country and various parts of the world in her search for enlightenment and happiness. She had never disclosed the name of Blair's father, if indeed she ever knew, for Naomi had been a child of the sixties who espoused free love. She indulged her only child with an unquestionable love but was a needy woman, demanding and receiving a constant demonstration of Blair's devotion and Blair was loathe to upset her by asking for his father's identity. It was not important, Blair had decided early on, in the grand scheme of things. He had Naomi and Nick and now Jake, and he was a supremely happy young man.
Nick had not been conducive to the idea of fatherhood initially, but had eventually been swayed by Blair's pleas. Megan Conner, a close friend of Blair's since college had immediately offered to be the surrogate mother. After several long discussions, both men agreed that Blair should father the child. There was more chance of success if the deed was performed naturally and Megan felt more comfortable with Blair. Nick had agreed, but had needed constant reassurance whenever Blair returned from Megan's house and he had behaved rather like a jealous sibling when little Jake was finally born and taken home by his proud fathers to their home by the sea. Now when he saw Nick and Jake together, Blair knew that it had all been worthwhile. The only thing that saddened him was that it was he and Megan's names on Jake's birth certificate. The law would not allow both Nick and Blair to be named as the boy's father.
Now, Blair grinned and then shook his head in exasperation as his best friend made it to his side with Jake clinging like a limpet to her neck, his grubby sneakers dirtying her obviously expensive designer dress. "We're never going to marry you off if you insist on carrying this kid around," Blair lectured as he unloaded Jake from Megan's arms and sent him scampering off to the pool.
Megan merely smiled and shrugged, then kissed his cheek before turning her attention to the lawn where Nick had climbed up on a chair and was clapping his hands and asking for quiet.
Nick surveyed the gathered group and smiled. "I want to thank you all for coming today. Glad to see you've all had a good time." He held up a finger. "Now is the time to ante up for drinking all my booze, eating all my food." He leaned down as a tiny hand reached for his and pulled Jake up onto one hip, grimacing when the boy's wet bathing suit came into contact with his pants, then shrugged and returned the little boy's hug. He grinned at the laughter from the crowd. "With your generosity, we're going to be able to supply the school with all the equipment needed to make it a place of exceptionally high standard. Not that it isn't already, mind you, especially with the lovely and very talented Janet Anderson at the helm. I'm going to hand< you> over to her now."
A plump, middle-aged woman standing at the front of the crowd stepped forward, blushing furiously as Nick planted a kiss on her cheek. "Thank you so much, Nick," she nodded and waved, "and you, too, Blair. I don't know how "Small Fry" would have survived without you both." After a round of applause, she continued. "Nor without our wonderful staff."
Megan turned to Blair and rolled her eyes. "Oh God," she whispered out the side of her mouth. "Here we go."
"First, I'd like to introduce our head teacher, Megan Conner...."
Blair leaned back and settled himself more comfortably into Nick's arms, smiling as the other man lifted his curls and nibbled at an earlobe. It had been Megan's idea for the two men to buy a home here on the island. The population was small, consisting mostly of well-to-do businessmen seeking a life away from the rat race and artists, needing a serene atmosphere to paint or sculpt or write. The lifestyle was laid back and generally accepting of gay couples, especially since Nick had ingratiated himself with several very large donations to various community groups. Blair taught anthropology part-time at the university on the mainland and spent the remaining time with Jake. He was incredibly happy with his lot in life.
He looked up and smiled as Megan dodged around the caterers cleaning up and walked toward them. "Hey there," Blair smiled. "Come and sit with us."
Megan nodded and took a seat on the lounge chair opposite and watched as Nick continued to nuzzle Blair's neck. Nick looked up briefly and smiled at her. "Do you suppose we should tell him?"
Megan sighed then nodded. "Might as well," she agreed, "before someone else lets the cat out of the bag."
Blair sat up and pulled himself out of Nick's embrace. "What? Tell me what?"
"Close your eyes," Nick commanded, shifting around so that he faced Blair.
Blair glared at him. "Nick?"
"Close your eyes," Nick repeated.
Blair looked at Megan for help but she simply nodded. Blair closed his eyes. He started when Nick pulled him to his feet.
"It's okay," Nick whispered in his ear. "I've got you."
Blair felt himself turned around and then Nick's arms enfolded him in a warm embrace.
"What do you love most, Blair?" Megan's voice and Blair canted his head slightly toward her.
"Me." Nick's voice puffed warm air into his ear that sent a shiver of arousal through him.
"Not a chance," Blair answered and received a nip on his earlobe in response.
"Open your eyes, Blair."
Blair did and took in the spectacular sight of sunset on the bay. "What?" As he spoke, he caught sight of the 'Morning Glory' as she sailed past close to shore.
"I arranged for us to go sailing for the weekend," Nick whispered. "If you like her, she's yours."
"If I...Oh Nick, this is too much."
"Nothing's too much for you, baby."
"You don't like sailing."
"I love you."
Blair turned in Nick's arms and pressed his lips to his lover's. He opened his mouth and lost himself in the sweet taste.
"Um, I might go say goodnight to Jake." Megan's voice said moving away and Blair waved a vague farewell as Nick nudged his legs apart and rubbed his erection against Blair's thigh.
Blair looked over at his decidedly wan lover and smiled. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Nick smiled weakly and waved. "I'm okay," he said. "Really," he insisted at Blair's worried frown. "I'm enjoying myself. Um, are you sure you know where we are?"
"'Course I do," Blair answered. He waved an expansive arm at the ocean. "Canada's that way, Europe's in that direction and Australia's somewhere down there."
"Ha-ha, very funny," Nick replied, stepping closer and handing him a glass of their favorite cabernet sauvignon. "So, what do you want to do tonight?"
Blair considered the question, then leaned in for a long kiss. "I think I want to have dinner in bed."
Blair sprawled on his back and beckoned to Nick. "Come here and make love to me."
The remains of their dinner sat on the cabinet by the bed, and an empty wine bottle rolled along the floor until it came to rest by the doorway. Nick smiled and obligingly draped his muscular body over that of his naked lover. Blair arched his neck up as Nick licked a wet swathe along it. One questing hand found a hard nub and pinched it, then rolled it while Nick's lips suckled at the other.
Blair muttered softly at the sensation, his hand cupped on Nick's head, directing the mouth where he wanted it. Nick came up for air and planted a soft kiss on Blair's lush lips.
"You're so beautiful, do you know that?" he whispered, stroking Blair's sweat-damp curls back from his face.
"I love you, Nick," Blair answered, arching his hips up so that his erection rubbed against Nick's thigh. "We're so lucky, you and me. With Jake, we've got everything we wanted."
Nick allowed his lips to travel downward. He licked along the length of Blair's straining shaft and pushed his lover's thighs open with one hand. Sitting back, he waited until Blair pulled his knees up to his chest, exposing his center. He ran a gentle finger along the crease, stopping to press his finger into Blair's opening. "Beautiful," he breathed. "God, you're beautiful."
Wasting no more words, he leaned in and licked across Blair's pucker, then pushed his tongue inside, stroking with the same motion he was now using on Blair's cock. Blair rocked up at the pleasure, pushing Nick's tongue further inside him. He purred in delight as Nick replaced his tongue with fingers and began stretching him, one hand in Blair's ass, the other now stroking himself.
"Now, please," Blair said as he rocked back onto the fingers again, his own hand busy on his drooling cock. Nick leaned down and placed a kiss on Blair's anus, then rolled on the condom, smiling in pleasure as Blair took the lube from him and slicked over him, his hand lingering to stroke lovingly along Nick's hard length. Finally, he pushed Blair over to his stomach, then stroked a gentle hand down the ass that thrust back impatiently at him. He placed the head of his cock at the puckered opening and waited for Blair to push back and take him in. When he was fully enclosed in Blair's passage, he reached around and found Blair's cock. Pushing away his lover's own hands, Nick began to stroke as he thrust in and out.
Blair began to chant now as he pushed back harder, encouraging Nick to go deeper, harder. "So good, Nick. Harder. Fuck me hard, baby. That's it."
His chanting became incoherent moans of pleasure as Nick obeyed his commands, finally using one hand to pull Blair up from the bed so that he sat on Nick's cock and rode it up and down, Nick's hand jacking him hard. Blair came, spewing over Nick's hand and his own belly, his clenching ass muscles wrenching Nick's own orgasm from him. Blair slumped forward and would have allowed Nick's cock to slip from him but his lover had other ideas. Almost roughly, he pulled Blair back up and began to thrust again, biting into Blair's exposed neck as he did.
"Nick? Not so hard. You're hurting," Blair moaned. He fought for a moment to get away, then stilled his struggle, as Nick's thrusts became more violent. Finally, his lover turned them so that Nick lay on his back on the bed. Quickly, he pulled Blair down again and guided his cock back into Blair's ass. Placing his hands on Blair's hips, Nick began to push the other man up and down on his cock, thrusting his hips up with every down stroke, driving himself deep.
Blair cried out as a particularly violent thrust sent Nick's cock too deep and sharp pain scissored through his insides. Blair's cry of pain seemed to trigger another orgasm for Nick who thrust hard and pulled Blair down violently onto his spasming cock. Exhausted, Blair slumped down onto Nick's chest, the small spasms from Nick's cock causing little slivers of pain through his ass.
"Love you," Nick mumbled and then he was snoring softly. Blair pushed himself up and watched the sleeping man for a moment. He pressed a soft kiss to Nick's forehead.
"Love you, too," he whispered, then he lifted himself up and walked quickly to the shower. Fifteen minutes later, he crawled back into bed and wrapped himself in his lover's arms, drifting quickly into an exhausted slumber.
He wasn't really sure what woke him, but the cabin was dark and the space in the bed beside him was cold. Blair pulled himself up onto one elbow and looked around the darkened room.
There was only silence, save for the creaking of the masts and hull and Blair felt a shiver of apprehension go through him.
"Nick?" he called again. Still only silence greeted him and in a frightened rush, he pulled himself up in the bed, wrapping his robe around him to ward off the chill. Getting out of bed, he made his way slowly into the galley, still calling out his lover's name. His apprehension grew as he noticed spots of wet blood on the floor of the galley.
"Oh God," he whispered. He could feel his heart beginning to pound; his chest tightening with every step he took. There was blood on the cheese tray, smears that had dribbled down the side of the bench and Blair fought to stop the nausea that surged from the smell. Two more hesitant steps took him to the steps that led top-side and he began to moan soft, keening noises of distress as his eyes took in the smeared, bloody footprints on the risers.
Four small paces up took him to the deck and he shivered in the fog-shrouded air, reaching to pull his robe closer around his naked body. He recoiled violently as his fingers touched wet cloth and he looked down to see a large splotch of blood staining the front of his robe. Terror drove him forward, frantic steps taking him along the length of the yacht while he called out desperately for his lover. Something skittered along the deck as his foot hit it and he bent down to pick it up. Again, a wail forced itself from his throat, his chest too tight to take in air. Blood stained the blade of the knife, the handle sticky with its residue.
Suddenly, the loud sound of a motor filled the air and Blair stood, shielding his eyes as a searchlight pierced the darkness and blinded him.
"Coastguard," a voice shouted over the distance. "Please just stay where you are."
Blair backed away despite the request and raised one hand to protect his burning eyes. "N-Nick," he stuttered, feeling the hysteria rising like a tide and threatening to sweep him away. "I can't find Nick."
Blair watched as the coastguard jumped from the launch and stopped to speak with Henri Brown, the local sheriff. Both men stole a quick glance at Blair, then shook hands. Blair shivered as he watched his friend's approach, his face grim.
"Did they find anything?"
Brown shook his head sorrowfully. "I'm sorry, Blair."
Blair squared his jaw. "Then they have to go back out and look again. Nick was a really strong swimmer, H." His voice had begun to shake but he went on determinedly. "He's really str-strong. You know that."
The sheriff was already shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Blair, but these guys are experts. They studied the wind, the tides, the current, and the water temperature overnight. There's no hope of finding Nick alive."
Blair shook his head vehemently, feeling the terror return, constricting his chest until he fought to breathe. He leaned gratefully into Henri's support as the sheriff whispered soothingly to him and then finally, the misery broke free and he sobbed despairingly for his loss.
One week later:
"Daddy! Look!" Jake's excited voice disturbed Blair's reverie and he looked toward the roadway that abutted the beach. The sheriff's car pulled to a stop and Blair watched dispassionately as Henri Brown and Nick's lawyer and friend, Simon Banks stepped from the vehicle.
"Hey there, Jake." The tall black man caught the excited youngster up into a bear hug, then turned and handed him to Brown, who lowered the boy gently to the ground.
"Hey, Blair, how are you doing?" Simon asked. Blair shrugged. "The um, inquest was today," Simon continued, "and they concluded that Nick was dead." Blair averted his face at the words, as though ignoring them could make them meaningless. "But, they looked at all the evidence and um," Simon took a deep, shaky breath, "Blair, they declared Nick's death a wrongful death and Henri has to take you in."
Blair's head swung back at the words and he looked at Simon in disbelief. "What?"
"You're being charged with Nick's murder. I'm sorry, Blair." His voice faded away, then came back strongly, the lawyer now firmly in place. "I'd advise you to say nothing until you get a lawyer."
"You're our... my lawyer, aren't you?"
Simon smiled sadly. "I'd be honored." He turned and nodded at Brown who still stood silently watching Jake play at their feet. Swallowing convulsively, the sheriff pulled his cuffs from his belt.
"H!" Blair's voice was harsh and raw with pain as he backed up a step from the other men. "Not in front of my kid, okay?"
Blair looked up as his name was called. A tall thin deputy with a sorrowful face stood at the door of the cell. "You've got a visitor."
Blair nodded and followed the deputy out to the adjacent interview room. He breathed deeply. It felt good to get out of the claustrophobic closeness of the cell for a while. Simon Banks stood up as he entered and wrapped his arms around the young man. Blair returned the hug, reveling in the close contact, Simon's arms felt strong and warm about his seemingly forever-cold body. Ushering Blair to a seat, Simon pulled several sheets of paper from his briefcase and looked through them quickly.
"Can Megan look after Jake for a while longer?" the lawyer asked, not looking up.
Blair nodded, then realized he'd have to speak. "Yes, of course." His worry deepened when Simon merely nodded and continued to read the typewritten notes in front of him. Blair reached out a hand and placed it over the other man's. "Simon, what's wrong?"
Simon sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I'm sorry, Blair, the judge denied bail."
Blair felt the color drain from his face and he swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat. "Look, Simon, let me tell you what I think happened."
Simon shook his head but Blair plunged on. "We had some wine with dinner and I fell asleep. I think maybe there was a snagged line and Nick went up on deck to fix it. He took the knife from the galley and the boat must've pitched and he cut himself and then he came below but I was asleep..." He knew his voice was rising, his hysteria threatening to swallow his sanity. Blair felt Simon's fingers close around his own ice-cold ones, feeling as hot as fire. He felt tears well up in his eyes and the familiar tightness returned to his chest, stealing his breath.
Simon said nothing for a long time. He waited until Blair took a deep shuddering breath and pulled his hand away. "I've been looking at your and Nick's insurance details, business investments, that sort of thing."
Blair shrugged. "I left all of that stuff up to Nick. I was never any good with the legal stuff. Nick used to say that I'd give the house away to someone one day and not even realize I'd done it."
Simon snorted. "I remember." Then he sobered again. "You both bought life policies about four months ago now."
Blair nodded and wiped impatiently at the single tear that welled and trickled down his cheek.
"You're named as the beneficiary."
"That's not surprising," Blair answered. "We were life partners."
"Blair, the policies were for 2 million dollars."
"Nick worried about me and Jake. He wanted to make sure if anything happened to him that we'd be okay."
"The jury might see a big difference between okay and 2 million dollars, Blair," Simon countered. "They may think of it as motive."
Blair's eyes widened in shock and he pushed himself up from his seat and began to pace. "Is that what they're saying out there? That I murdered Nick for money?"
"They're not saying anything yet. I'm just trying to explain to you what it might look like to others. We need to be ready for that."
Blair shook his head. "Nick and I had our little problems but we were okay. We loved each other. I don't need the money. We were doing fine..."
"Blair. Blair!" Blair stopped his frantic pacing as Simon's shout filtered through his chaotic thoughts. "Two of Nick's investors were suing him for embezzlement. First Seattle issued a lien on all of his real estate investments and your personal property. With Nick's death, all of these little problems disappear behind a corporate shield and you end up with 2 million dollars."
Blair stared at the lawyer for a long moment. "You know, Simon, you never told me if you think I killed Nick."
Simon shrugged as he began to pack away his papers. "You know lawyers. It doesn't matter what we think."
"It does to me."
Simon looked the younger man squarely in the eye. "No. No, I don't think you killed Nick."
The jury foreman's voice echoed in the expectant silence and Blair felt his knees buckle. He was barely aware of the arms that held him up, not cognizant of the judge's words as they washed over him. Finally, he succumbed to the darkness that clamored for his attention and allowed it to sweep him away.
"W'a's a matter with daddy? Why won't he wake up?"
Blair slowly became aware of a small, insistent hand patting at his cheek and gradually the meaningless buzzing above him coalesced into voices.
"Blair? Blair? You with me here? Come on, buddy, open your eyes."
Blair obeyed the command, blinking as Simon's dark face swam into focus above him, tight lines of worry creasing his forehead. "Simon? What... Oh God." Blair shot up from the couch and pushed against the staying hand on his chest. He looked up at his lawyer, then his gaze drifted over to Megan, who sat beside him, a pale Jake nestled on her lap, tears streaming unnoticed down her cheeks, leaving black lines from her mascara. "Oh God," Blair said again. He cradled his aching head in his hands and fought not to throw up.
Jake's voice shuddered through him, tearing a hole in his heart and Blair took a slow, deep breath before lifting his head and smiling at his son. "Hey, little dude. How you doing?" Blair held his shaking arms wide. "Come on over here and give your old man a cuddle."
Jake obeyed with alacrity, scrambling out of Megan's arms and into his father's warm embrace. Blair held him tightly, breathing in his baby scent, feeling the tiny, fragile bones beneath his hands, the warm puffs of sweet breath that tickled his neck as Jake burrowed up under his chin.
"Can we go home now, Daddy?" Jake asked around a yawn. "'m tired."
Blair nodded against his son's soft curls. "Sure, sweetheart. You can go home in just a minute." He pushed the toddler back slightly and cupped his face in his hands, lifting Jake's chin so that he looked into the little boy's big blue eyes. "Can you go wait outside with Uncle Simon for just a minute, dude? I need to talk to Megan about something."
"'Kay." The little boy's face grew solemn. "Don't be long though. You gotta teach me how to sail on the weekend, remember?"
Blair blinked back the tears that stung his eyes. "I won't forget. Go."
Jake nodded and began to climb off his lap, then suddenly reached up and wrapped his chubby arms about his father's neck. He squeezed tightly and then pressed a kiss to Blair's cheek. "I love you, daddy. Don't be long."
Blair hugged the boy to him then lifted him up and handed him to Simon. He watched as Jake rested his head on Simon's shoulder, his solemn eyes watching Blair until the door swung shut. The silence in the room was deafening but Blair finally shook himself and turned to his best friend. "I want you to adopt Jake."
Megan straightened in her seat, one hand coming up as though to stay the words even as her head was shaking. "Oh no. Blair. You'll be out of here in no time. Simon will launch an appeal. I'll take care of Jake for as long as you need, but he's your son. Yours and Nick's."
"And yours," Blair added. He leaned forward and took Megan's trembling hand in his. "Megan, I'm going to do some serious time here. I don't want Jake suffering through this. Please, you're the only one I trust to care for him. You love him as much as I do. If you won't do it for me, do it for Nick."
Those words seemed to almost bring her undone and Megan nodded then, her emotions finally breaking forth as she clasped Blair's hand in both of hers and showered it with kisses and tears.
One week later:
"Well, well. What we got here? Ain't he a pretty one?"
Blair's head shot up and he stiffened as a hand trailed down his back and caressed his denim-covered ass. He'd been rostered to do latrine duty for his first week in the penitentiary and the work, though backbreaking, smelly and dirty at least was mindless enough to allow him time to think. Quickly, he moved away from the hands on his body and stood, taking a step further into the stall he was cleaning in an effort to put some distance between himself and the three men now ogling him.
"Look, guys. I don't want any trouble, okay? Just leave me alone."
A big, black man snorted and stepped forward from the group. He glanced back at his comrades, grinning. "I don't want any trouble," he mimicked in a squeaky falsetto. "Seems to me you shoulda thought of that before you killed your boyfriend."
"I didn't kill..." Blair bit his lip and turned his back on the men resolutely, dunking his scrubbing brush back into the bucket at his feet. "Just leave me alone, all right."
"Don't think I can do that. You're about the prettiest piece of ass to come through those gates in a long time." A hand fisted in Blair's hair, pulling him off-balance and he stumbled awkwardly, feeling the bucket tip and warm water slosh over his feet. Others grasped his arms and he lashed out reflexively, the hand holding the scrubbing brush catching one of his attackers a stunning blow to his cheek.
The big man roared in outrage and before Blair could draw breath, his arms were caught up in a vice-like grip, and a foul-smelling piece of rag was stuffed into his mouth. He gagged on the oil impregnating it and screamed hoarsely past it, at the same time, kicking out with his legs and squirming wildly, his heart hammering madly in his chest. Something slammed brutally into the side of his head and darkness rampaged into his mind, stealing thought and strength.
He came to his senses lying on his stomach on the cold, hard floor. A heavy weight pushed across his shoulders, imprisoning his arms and he bucked up wildly as his jeans and underwear were stripped from him and cold air blew across his ass, causing him to shiver violently.
"Get his hips up. Hold him still." The voice was close to his ear and Blair felt himself carried away on a wave of hysteria as he felt his cheeks parted and something hard pressed into his anus. He keened past the dirty rag in his mouth in terror, still struggling as the dry fingers pumped in and out, becoming slick now with his blood.
Suddenly, the fingers and the weight were gone and he rolled away toward the tiled wall, curling himself into a ball, his hole burning with a fiery agony that seemed to consume his insides. The angry words above him made no sense and then suddenly silence reigned as running footsteps receded down the hallway. Blair flinched as a gentle hand touched his shoulder.
"No!" he screamed as soon as the gag was pulled from his mouth. He felt his breakfast surge up in an agonizing cramp and he doubled over and emptied his stomach onto the already wet floor. He was vaguely aware of a strong hand holding him up through the convulsion, another hand massaging gently at the back of his neck. Finally spent, he wrenched himself away from the comforting touch and backed toward the door, pulling his boxers and jeans up with a shaky hand as he went.
A handsome young man, no older than himself stood watching him carefully, a worried frown on his face. "Let me help you, man. You're hurt."
Blair shook his head and held up a staying hand. "Please, just leave me alone."
The man nodded. "I won't touch you if you don't want me to. Just let me walk you back to your crib. I can't be sure those goons are gone for good."
Blair hesitated a moment, then nodded. The movement of his head caused his vision to recede and he slid slowly down the wall as his legs turned to jelly. The clamor of voices was back in his head but Blair chose this time to ignore them and slipped away.
A cool cloth wiped the sticky sweat from his brow and he sighed in pleasure and leaned into the cooling touch. Slowly, he forced his eyelids open and looked at the shadow above him. He had to blink several times before his sight cleared. Blair stiffened as he recognized the young man from the bathroom and he pushed himself up, wincing as the movement awakened pain deep within his body. Clamping the discomfort down, he scrambled up to the head of his bunk and pulled his knees up to his chin. From that defensive position, he glared with as much menace as he could muster at the stranger.
Which obviously wasn't much because the other man simply smiled and dropped the cloth into the bowl on the floor. "Good, you're awake," he said. "You're going to be pretty sore for a while though." He stood and walked to the door of the cell, then turned back. "I cleaned you up." He motioned toward Blair's jeans. "You're bleeding a little but it didn't look real bad. We got you back here without a fuss so nobody's any the wiser about what happened. I'd advise you to keep it that way. You've got a few years to do and having Artie off-side ain't no way to spend that time."
"What if he tries it again," Blair managed to whisper past the lump in his throat.
The man shook his head and smiled a little. "He won't. As far as Artie's concerned, you're my property, bought and paid for. He won't challenge it."
Blair nodded and slid down in the bunk so that he could rest his aching head on the thin pillow. "Thank you." He ran his tongue over his swollen top lip. "I don't know who you are."
"Brian Rafe, and you're welcome. Get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
Blair chose not to question the statement, his body already closing down in shock and exhaustion. He turned to his side, so that he could watch the door and saw the other man leave. A tear slid down Blair's bruised cheek as a silent sob was wrenched from his throat. "Nick? I need you."
One month later:
Blair sat dejectedly on the bench seat, ignoring the shouted invitation from the group of inmates on the basketball court. He glanced up as someone sat down and observed him silently.
"I hear you've been having trouble contacting your kid," Brian Rafe said as he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it.
Blair nodded and began to rock on the seat. "Nobody knows where they are," he whispered. "They've disappeared."
Blair sat up straight and glared at the other man, waving away the stream of smoke from his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Nobody disappears that easily," Brian said. He poked a finger into Blair's chest. "If it were that easy, I wouldn't be sitting here." He groaned at Blair's questioning look. "You're supposed to be smart. Think about it. Somebody has to know where they've gone. There's got to be some way of finding out where they went." Brian leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on Blair's cheek, grinning at the catcalls from the watching men. He hooked a finger over his shoulder. "Artie's watching," he said, by way of explanation. Blair nodded absently, his mind already turning over the possibilities.
Blair dropped the coins into the slot of the payphone and motioned impatiently to the noisy queue behind him for silence. Grimacing at the generally good-natured derision and laughter, he plugged his ear with one finger and placed his mouth close to the receiver. "Kathy? Hi, this is Blair Sandburg. Yeah, it's been a long time. Prison? Oh, you know, it's prison. What can I say. Look, Kathy, that favor that you owe me? I need to call it in. I need Megan's new address. It's Jake's birthday next week and I want to send him something. Yeah, I've got a pen here. Hey, you know what? I might surprise him and give him a call. Do you have their new number there? Yes, Kathy, I know they moved, that's why I'm calling." Blair reached for his pen and a scrap of paper, not really listening to the voice on the other end of the line until the young woman began to cry. "Oh, Kathy, come on now. Don't cry. No, it's going to be fine. I love you too. That means a lot to me, Kathy, that you think I'm innocent." The clamor from behind him became insistent and he winced at a painful blow to his ribs. "I gotta go, Kathy. Okay, bye." He hung up the phone and turned to the man behind him. "Artie? Hey, how you doing? I've got just one more call to make, okay?"
"Sure, Artie doesn't mind, do you?" Brian Rafe stepped up beside the big man and reached out to stroke a finger down Blair's cheek. "You go ahead, baby. Artie'll wait."
Artie licked his lips and nodded. "Just don't be too long," he grunted. "I got people to call as well."
"Thanks." Blair smiled at both men and turned back to the phone. Squinting at the paper and wishing he could get his glasses upgraded, he punched in the phone number.
Blair felt as though he'd been punched in the gut at the sound of Megan's voice. "Megan? It's Blair."
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone before Megan spoke again, her voice sounding tight and strained. "Blair? Oh, thank God, you called. I've been trying for ages to get in touch with you."
"Why did you move to San Francisco and not tell me, Megan?"
"I was...I was just about to phone you," Megan replied and Blair clenched the receiver tightly. "It was an unexpected transfer and..."
"Bullshit!" Blair answered vehemently. "I've been trying to phone you for a month. Where's Jake?"
"He's right here," Megan sounded close to tears. "He's fine."
"Put him on the phone."
"Put him on the damn phone, Megan." Blair heard Megan's voice call softly to Jake and then he was there, his voice like a balm to Blair's heart.
"Jake. Hey, little dude. How are you doing?"
The voice was hesitant at first. "Fine. Who's this?"
Blair bit back a sob at the question. "It's your daddy."
"Daddy? When are you coming home?"
"Soon, little dude, real soon. Are you being a good boy for Megan?"
"Uh-huh, but she doesn't like to fish." There was a moment of silence, then, muffled noises in the background, a door shutting, whispered voices. "Dad? I'm talking to Daddy on the phone."
Blair heard Megan's startled gasp and felt the blood drain from his face. "Nick? Nick? Answer me, damn it! Nick! Nick!" The only reply was the insistent tone of a disconnected line.
One week later:
Blair stopped stirring the huge pot of tapioca, lost in his chaotic thoughts 'Nick was alive. Nick was alive and with Megan. Oh God." The words seemed to keep time with the brassy Christmas tunes that echoed tinnily from a speaker high in the kitchen wall. Nick and Megan and Jake.
Blair had phoned Simon as soon as he realized that Nick and Megan were gone. He'd tried talking to the insurance company but it was like beating his head against a brick wall. Nick couldn't be alive, they reasoned, because you killed him. Simon hadn't been any better. "Look, it was noisy, Blair. Jake is only four years old. You probably just misunderstood what he said."
"Keep stirring." The voice startled him and he jumped a little and did as he was told. Brian Rafe watched from across the stovetop as he poured flour from a sack into a large steel bin. "You do not want to piss these guys off by burning their tapioca."
Blair glared at him, but continued to stir. "Does it smell like it's burning?" he asked peevishly.
Rafe sighed. "I swear you have got shit for brains. Look, you are not going to get off on a prison-based appeal, so you can get that out of your head right now. Nobody listens to prisoners. Appeals take years and they're 95% unsuccessful. You want my advice, you do your time..."
"I didn't ask for your advice."
"Yeah? Well, you're getting it for free."
"What are you now, a lawyer?"
Rafe looked around quickly but everyone was immersed in their own work. "Once upon a time, but they tend to disbar murderers." He moved around until he was standing next to Blair. "You ever heard of something called double jeopardy? Fifth Amendment to the Constitution?"
"What's that got to do with my case?"
"Here's my Christmas present to you, and pay attention because it's the best damn advice that anyone's going to give you," Rafe said in answer. "The amendment provides that you can't try someone for the same crime twice. The State says that you already killed your lover. You can't be convicted again. That means when you get out of here, you can track him down and you can kill him." He nodded at the stunned expression on Blair's face. "That's right. You can walk right up to him in the middle of Times Square, put a gun to his head and pull the fucking trigger. Ain't nothing anybody can do about it." He smiled and patted Blair's pale cheek. "How about that? Kinda makes you feel all warm and tingly, don't it?"
Six years later:
"So, this is the big day, huh?"
Blair looked up from packing his meager possessions into a cardboard box and smiled at Brian Rafe. "Yeah, this is it. Come on in."
Brian sidled in almost shyly and Blair stopped his packing for a moment and sat down on the bed, patting the spot beside him in invitation.
"So, what swayed them?" Brian asked, picking up a small photo of Jake and running his fingers over it. "That old line of I'm know I'm guilty and I'm so remorseful and if I had my time over, it would never have happened?"
Blair shrugged and took the photo from him, laying it on top of the pile of clothes in the box. "That, and batting my eyes at Alfred Barnes."
Rafe's eyes bugged. "That old fart? You gotta be kidding me, Sandburg."
Blair grinned. "Hey, you do what you gotta do, right?"
Rafe made a few convincing retching noises, then suddenly wrapped Blair up in a tight embrace. He held the other man against his chest for a moment then pulled back and planted a kiss on Blair's lips. "You take care out there."
Blair just nodded; his emotions were too close to the surface to allow him to speak. Brian stood and walked to the door of the cell, then turned back and grinned. "When you catch up with that old man of yours, if you can't do the deed, you let me know. I've already done in one cheating, lying son of a bitch, ain't no bother for me to do another one."
Blair shivered at the words but nodded and waved a hand in farewell.
Blair finally found the address he was looking for and adjusted his grip on his box of belongings as he climbed the steps to the front door of the old brownstone building, studiously ignoring the catcalls and lewd comments from the youths that gathered on the sidewalk.
He stood for a moment, unsure whether to knock or not, then simply pushed open the door and stepped uncertainly into the darkened entrance hall. There were several rooms that led off each side of the hall and ahead Blair could see a flight of stairs that led to the upper levels of the halfway house.
He could hear muffled voices coming from the door on his left and he was about to open that door when a voice called to him from the opposite side of the hallway. "Sandburg?"
Blair squinted into the sunlight that poured from the window behind the voice, casting the figure into dark shadow. He nodded.
"In here." The man looked up from a stack of papers on his desk as Blair entered the room. Blair stayed silent, his prison etiquette coming to the fore, and studied the man at the desk. He was big. Tall, with a broad chest and strong biceps that stretched his rolled up shirtsleeves. He looked up finally and stared at Blair with cool blue eyes and motioned to a small space on the precisely ordered desk. "Put your stuff down there."
Blair stepped forward and complied with the order, then immediately stepped back, his hands balling tightly into fists as the man began to go through his things. When the box was empty, the man pulled open a drawer in the desk then held out two business cards to him. "This is your Social Security card. The other one is my phone number. You will find gainful employment. You will not consume alcohol, do drugs of any kind, or fraternize with any ex-cons or prostitutes. You are not allowed to have any weapons in your possession, particularly knives. If you are going to be even one minute late for your scheduled meeting with me, you will phone me. If you miss even one meeting, I will have a warrant sworn out for your arrest and you'll be back inside so fast, your head will spin. Any questions?"
Blair began to shake his head, then nodded. "I don't know your name."
"It's on the card. Pack up your stuff." The probation officer sat back down at the desk and picked up the small photo. He held it up. "Is this going to be a problem for you?"
Blair swallowed convulsively but shook his head. "No."
The man studied him carefully, then picked up a Polaroid camera. "Take your hair out of the ponytail."
Blair did so, then blinked and grimaced as a flash from the camera momentarily blinded him.
"You're in Room 12, on the second floor."
Blair nodded and held out his hand. The man looked confused for a moment then gave him Jake's photo. Blair placed his son's picture on top of his other belongings and picked up the box. He was at the door before the other man spoke again.
Blair turned back. "I'm sorry?"
The man looked up, a faint smile twitching the corners of his mouth briefly, then it was gone. "My name is Jim Ellison."
Blair grimaced at the computer in front of him and sighed deeply. He'd managed to find a job in a small bakery near the library and the owner had suggested he try the computers here when he'd mentioned that he was looking for an old friend. Now, he had the computer fired up and ready, but he had absolutely no idea where to begin.
"Can I help you with that?"
The voice at his shoulder startled him and he jumped. The young man beside him was handsome, in a sweet boy-next-door way and Blair smiled at him. "I'm trying to find someone. An old friend."
The boy nodded slowly. "Boyfriend or girlfriend?"
"Neither," Blair answered. "Just a friend."
The boy's grin widened and he deposited his book on top of the monitor. "Okay. Let me see what we've got." He edged closer to Blair and pushed him gently to one side. "Name?"
The boy nodded. "Zip code?" At the disappointed shake of Blair's head, he reached up a hand and squeezed his shoulder. "That's okay. Social security number?"
Blair shook his head again, then looked hopeful. "She's a teacher."
"All right." With a few deft clicks of the keyboard, the young man had the Teachers' Registration list up on the screen. "Voila!" he said with a grand sweep of his hand.
Blair smiled appreciatively at him and punched Megan's name into the search engine. He looked up as the boy crept back into his personal space, his erection pushing against Blair's hip.
"So, when you're done here, would you like to have a drink with me?"
Blair studied the young man for a moment then smiled slowly. "Well, I have to check in with my parole officer first but, yeah, I'd love to have a drink."
The boy swallowed convulsively. "You've been in jail?"
"Oh no, no," Blair waved away the comment. "Prison. Jail's a whole different thing."
His admirer laughed nervously. "What did you do? Not pay your parking tickets?"
"No. I killed my lover. Stabbed him to death. Actually, the prosecution called it slice and dice." He wrinkled his nose, then laid his hand on the boy's arm. "You won't believe how long it's been since I had a drink with a good-looking guy."
The boy took a step back now and looked at his watch. "Oh God," he squeaked. "Is that the time. I, uh, I have to..." He motioned toward the door and Blair smiled and waved him off.
Shaking his head, Blair turned back to the monitor. His mouth dropped open in disbelief as the screen began to spew out the first of 24 Megan Conners. "Shit!" he said.
Blair heard the raised voices and ruckus as he opened up an anthropology magazine that he'd bought with his first week's wages. Joe and Eddie, the two men sharing Blair's room, looked at each other knowingly and headed for the stairs. Blair followed them curiously. On the lower level, Chris Adams struggled in Jim Ellison's tight grip.
"I swear to you, man. They were not my drugs. Someone planted them."
Ellison tightened his hold on Adams arm and pushed him face-first into the wall, pulling his arm up behind his back. "That's bullshit, Adams. You know it and I know it. You've had this little business going in my halfway house for two weeks now, you piece of shit, and now you're going back to prison."
Adams stiffened as a police officer entered the building and quickly cuffed him before dragging him toward the door. The parolee turned back to Ellison. "Don't send me back there, man. They'll kill me."
Ellison was unperturbed. "You should have thought of that before you brought that crap in here, Adams." He nodded at the cops. "Thanks, guys."
Adams was dragged through the front door screaming obscenities and threats. Jim Ellison waved an unconcerned hand. "Yeah, yeah, whatever." He turned and glared at the assembled group on the stairs. "What the fuck are you looking at. This isn't a peep show." He looked at his watch. "Curfew. Hit the sack." Then he turned abruptly and stormed out of the building.
Blair watched him go with a troubled mind. "What the hell is his problem?" he asked of no one in particular. "I don't think I have ever seen the man smile."
"Way I heard it, he was driving drunk and got in an accident. His daughter got killed," Eddie said conspiratorially.
Joe slapped Eddie's back, then grabbed his arm and hauled him back up the stairs. "You don't know shit, man. Nobody was killed, though by the time Ellison's wife got through with him, he probably wished he was. Wife left him and took the daughter with her. He ain't seen her for eight years. You coming, Blair?'
Blair was startled from his reverie by the summons. "Yeah, sure."
Blair alighted from the ferry on Whitby Island and looked around apprehensively. The island town didn't seem to have changed at all in the past six years and though he fought the urge, his eyes tracked up to the large house on the hill overlooking the bay. He wiped roughly at the tears that spilled down his cheeks and began his trek to the little nursery school that Jake had attended in happier times.
"You really shouldn't be here, Blair." Janet Anderson looked at the young man disapprovingly as they strolled through the playground of Small Fry preschool.
"I've got nowhere else to go, Janet. I need to see my son."
Janet stopped and turned to face Blair, laying her hands gently on his shoulders. "Jake's had six years with Megan. You can't just go waltzing back into his life now." She hesitated, lifted her hands and resumed walking, stopping now and then to chat to the youngsters playing around them. "I'm sorry, Blair. I can't help you. Jake's had enough disruption in his life already. Losing Nick, then you..." Her voice broke. "Think about what that little boy has already suffered through."
"I do, Janet. Every day."
Janet shook her head and walked back toward the classroom. "I'm sorry. I think you'd better leave."
Blair stood and watched her go. "Not until I get what I came for," he said softly. He waited until dark, biding his time strolling along the beach where he and Nick had spent so many happy hours. Then he climbed the mesh fence surrounding the school buildings and approached the door. He was relieved to see that the front door was still a half glass affair. Looking around, he found a discarded beach towel and wrapped it around his hand before punching through the glass and releasing the lock on the other side.
He remembered the layout well enough and was standing in front of the filing cabinets in the office in a matter of seconds. The drawers, of course, were locked and Blair cursed softly as a quick rummage through the desk drawers did not reveal a key. He froze as he heard the approach of a car outside, then hurried to the window and looked out. He could see the faint outlines of the sheriff's jeep parked just outside the gate and as he watched, Blair saw the familiar figure of Henri Brown exit the vehicle.
"Shit!" Blair moved quickly back to the cabinets and smacked one softly in frustration. He smiled as he heard the metallic rattle of something at the side and reached around to pull the keys from the tiny hook. Pulling open the drawer, Blair rifled hurriedly through the numerous files, finally spotting the one he needed and pulling it out. He scanned it quickly, then stuffed the paper into his pocket as he saw the approaching glow of a flashlight. He jumped through the hastily pulled up window just as Henri and his partner entered the office.
Blair ran as fast as he could in the almost pitch black through the playground and then launched himself at the fence. He gasped as he twisted his ankle as he landed on the other side, then hobbling as quickly as he could, scrambled through the bushes. He could hear the muttered curses and heavy breathing close behind him as the two cops crashed through the undergrowth. Heedless of the small, stinging cuts on his face and his burning lungs, Blair continued to run, bursting out of the bush and onto the beach.
Suddenly, a heavy weight slammed painfully into his back and he hit the ground hard, momentarily stunned. He felt his arms pulled around behind him and then cold steel encircled them as cuffs were locked in place. The sheriff pulled him up to his feet, supporting his weight as the young man staggered.
"Blair!" Henri Brown gaped in surprise. "Jesus Christ! What are you doing here?"
The cell on Whitby Island was hot and airless but Blair felt strangely numb to everything except the overwhelming awareness that he'd lost. Jake, his freedom, everything. He looked up as he heard the door open and watched Jim Ellison walk in to lean nonchalantly against the barred door and observe him quietly. Blair glared back.
"Did you have a nice day at the beach?" the parole officer drawled.
"You piss me off, Sandburg."
Blair risked a glance at Ellison as he steered his truck onto the ferry ramp. The big man sighed and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. "Megan Conner. She's the woman who's got your kid, right?"
Blair felt tears sting his eyes. "I don't want to talk about it, all right?" He stared out the window, grateful for the cool sea breeze on his hot face.
Ellison continued unabated. "Why did she skip town?"
Blair sighed and closed his eyes, fisting his hands in the denim of his jeans. "She just did."
"With your lover who isn't dead, because you didn't kill him." The parole officer snorted derisively. "Bullshit!"
Blair turned angry eyes on the other man. "Okay. I killed my lover." He bit the words off, acutely aware of the tremor in his voice. "I stabbed him and chopped his body into little pieces and threw him into the ocean. Satisfied?"
Ellison stopped the car and glared at him. "No. Six years ago, you were closer to your kid than you are today. All you had to do was wait out your probation. You're a fucking idiot."
Blair stared straight ahead. The air in the car was hot and heavy, making it difficult to breathe. He licked at the sweat that beaded his upper lip before he spoke again. "You can't know what it was like to sit in prison for six years and think about your son." His voice hiccuped a little and he knew he was losing control, that he was a hairs-breadth away from spiraling down into a well of despair. "Did I make the wrong choice, Ellison?" He finally spared the other man a glance. "You asked the wrong question. I didn't have a choice. So fuck your curfew." Blair's eyes wandered up to the sunshade and the small photo of the pretty child secured to it. "Is that your daughter?"
Ellison reached and flipped the visor up.
Blair pushed it, his voice as cold as ice. "Is that a problem for you, Ellison?"
The parole officer turned a glacial stare at Blair and then unsnapped his seatbelt. "I'm going up top," he announced. Walking to the passenger side door, Ellison pulled his cuffs from his pocket. Reaching in through the window, he grasped Blair's arm firmly and handcuffed it to the door handle.
Blair instantly pulled on the manacles, wincing as the steel cut into tender skin. "Wait. I'm sorry." He lay his free hand on Ellison's arm now. "Ellison. Jim. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
Jim stared at him, then nodded. "I'll bring you back a cold drink."
Blair wiped his shirtsleeve over his forehead and tried to work up some saliva to wet his mouth. He'd been sitting here in the sweltering heat of the car for twenty minutes now and there was still no sign of Jim Ellison. In the distance, he could see the mainland coming into view. He gazed out at the wide expanse of ocean, wondering if this were the last time he'd ever see it. He knew in his heart that it would. Blair knew that there was no way now that he could go back to prison and survive. The moment the gates closed behind him, he knew he would have lost Jake forever. He let his gaze wander aimlessly around the deck of the ferry, taking a second look at the stanchion set to the rear passenger side of the car. With his heart in his mouth, Blair dared to look at the ignition. The keys dangled there and he swallowed convulsively as nervous bile surged up his throat.
Reaching out with a shaking hand, he turned the key. He closed his eyes in blissful terror when the truck surged to life. Stretching forward now, Blair put the vehicle into reverse and pressed his foot onto the gas pedal. The car jumped back convulsively, slamming into the sturdy pole as it did so. Cursing, Blair drove the car forward and aligned the steering slightly before repeating the reverse maneuver. This time, the stanchion crashed with a loud screech into the door handle and Blair gritted his teeth against a cry of pain as the cuff bit deeply into his wrist.
Hearing the sound of voices and a woman's scream, Blair risked a quick look up to the top deck and found himself pinned by Jim Ellison's icy blue eyes. He saw the parole officer fling his paper cup away and turn quickly from the railing. Frantically, Blair slammed the truck back into first and planted his foot on the accelerator. As he looked back, he saw Ellison jump the last few steps and run toward him. Blair leaned over and wound up the drivers' side window and locked the door as he saw Ellison duck that way. He saw Ellison's weapon come up and thought for a terror-filled moment that the man intended to shoot him, and then the officer flipped the gun and slammed it into the window. Blair held one hand up as the glass shattered and then the parole officer had the door open and was throwing himself into the cab.
In a purely reflex move, Blair's foot came down on the gas pedal and the truck shot forward, crashing through the flimsy chain link barrier at the front of the ferry. The truck hung for a stomach-churning split second over the ocean, then plunged into the icy depths, the shock of the impact causing Blair to blackout briefly. He returned to consciousness to feel fingers pulling at the handcuffs and opened bleary eyes to see the cab half full with icy water and rapidly filling. Ellison was leaning past him now, as he frantically fumbled with the manacle key. Finally, the cuff opened up and Blair shook it off, allowing Jim to push him out of the window. His hand closed over the weapon he saw lying on the dash of the truck, then he kicked out and headed up toward the ocean surface. Both men swam furiously away from the sinking vehicle, then Blair panicked as he felt a large hand close around his ankle and pull him backwards.
With strength borne of desperation and despair, Blair twisted in the water and brought the butt of the gun down hard on the forehead of the parole officer. Ellison's eyes rolled up in his head and he went completely limp. Blair dove under the surface and kicked out hard. He swam until he thought his lungs would burst before surfacing and treading water until he got his breath back. In the distance, he could see Ellison being towed back to the ferry, his arms wrapped around a rescue ring. Relieved that the man did not appear to be seriously hurt, Blair turned back to the mainland and began his long swim to freedom.
Naomi Sandburg regarded her son as he sat at the breakfast table of the retreat compound. Stepping forward, she wrapped her arms around his neck from behind and pressed a kiss to the top of his curls. "You've lost weight," she admonished gently. "Eat."
Blair looked up and smiled at his mother, his eyes shadowed and reddened, haunted, Naomi thought.
"I'm not hungry," Blair said, sipping from the cup of coffee in front of him.
Naomi placed her hand over his and lowered the cup to the table, then placed a muffin in his hand. "Fresh baked. Eat."
Blair sighed and nodded, then tore off a small piece and chewed it. Naomi sat down opposite him and toyed idly with the handle of the coffee cup. "Blair? Are you sure you're doing the right thing? I don't mean running from the law, though that scares me to death. But, I mean, maybe Janet was right. Maybe this will be too traumatic for Jake."
Blair regarded his mother levelly. "When your parents wanted you to abort me, what did you do?"
"I left. You know that. I've told you that story a hundred times, sweetie. I don't see what that has to do with you and Jake."
"You fought to keep me with you," Blair answered as he stood and poured his cold coffee into the sink. "You said you would have died before you gave me up." He turned and looked beseechingly at his mother. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
"That's what you said when I asked you if Nick was the right person for you," Naomi replied softly.
"Jake's my son." Blair's voice shook with emotion. He knelt at his mother's side and took her hand in his. "I have to do this. I have to know I tried, at least."
Naomi wiped away the tears that trickled down Blair's cheeks, then lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it gently. "I'm just afraid for you." She smiled bravely, though it was a wobbly attempt. "That's what mothers do." Pulling her hand away, she reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a large rolled wad of bank notes. Wiping at her own eyes, she held the money out to her son. "I had this put away for a rainy day, and today certainly qualifies." She leaned forward then and wrapped Blair in a tight embrace. "You come back to me," she whispered. "And bring my grandson with you." Blair didn't speak but she felt the movement as he nodded his head against her breast and then she felt the warmth of his tears soaking her top.
"Did you voluntarily give him your weapon?"
Jim Ellison glowered at the young investigator standing at the foot of the gurney punching information into a laptop computer.
"Jesus, Carl, what kind of question is that?" At the other man's steely gaze, the parole officer sighed and shook his head. "No, I did not voluntarily give Sandburg my gun."
"Any idea where he might be headed?"
"No." Jim pressed a finger to his temple and massaged the spot gently as his headache began to pound in earnest. He winced as the doctor wiped an alcohol swab over the three stitches above his eye, the stinging feeling like a dozen tiny bee-stings. "Don't you believe in using local anesthetic?" he asked, glaring at the doctor.
The doctor looked affronted. "I always use a local, Mr. Ellison. The numbness shouldn't be wearing off for at least another twenty minutes."
Jim nodded tiredly. "Yeah, okay. I have this problem with drugs. Sorry."
Carl waited until the doctor was finished before adding his own verdict. "I guess that's it then, Jim."
Jim nodded again and stood up, reaching for his dry but very smelly clothes.
"There'll be an investigation," Carl continued as he closed down his laptop. "I can't guarantee that you'll keep your job."
"Yeah, what's new?" Jim watched the young man leave, then rolled his eyes. "Shit! When I catch up with you, Sandburg, your ass is mine."
Jim had to admit that there was something compelling about the young man. An innocent, fey quality that made it difficult to imagine Blair Sandburg hurting anyone, particularly his lover. Jim shook his head carefully and headed for the hospital exit. His head ached badly and all of his senses seemed out of control, his sight blurred, but his hearing too sensitive. His mouth tasted like he'd swallowed half of the bay and whatever pollutants were in it. His fingers tingled and he tried to shake out the feeling as he walked back to his car.
He cursed as he fumbled with the keys for the rental car and bent carefully to pick them up as they dropped to the ground, fighting a resulting surge of dizziness. Finally getting into the car, he sat for a moment and closed his eyes, willing away the pain and the strange sensations. He did not need this now. It wasn't the first time Jim had suffered strange and inexplicable sensations such as these. At least this time he seemed to have escaped the weird drifting of his consciousness that seemed to occur if he concentrated too hard on a sight or a sound. Clenching his jaw, Jim opened his eyes and started the car. It wasn't going to happen ever again, he decided. The first time it happened it had cost him his job on the force, the second time, he'd lost his family. He finally had a handle on it and he wasn't going to let it defeat him again. As soon as he tracked down Sandburg, he'd do what Carolyn had begged him to do all those years ago and go see a doctor at the University Hospital. Somebody somewhere had to have an answer.
Blair felt sure that his heart would burst right out of his chest as he made his way up the neat path toward the two-story house. He'd discovered Megan's new name and address by using the advice given him by the young man at the library and punched her Social Security number into the database. She was Megan Ryan now and she was living in Evergreen, Colorado. Reaching the front door, he paused for a brief moment and closed his eyes, attempting to steady and calm his quaking nerves. Finally, he wiped his suddenly sweating hands on his jeans and raised a shaking finger to the doorbell. As he waited, he allowed his hand to drift to his pocket and close over the butt of Ellison's gun. The door was opened slowly and Blair felt his mouth go dry as his eyes took in the young boy standing in front of him. "J-Jake?"
The child blinked slowly. "Huh?"
"Davy? Who is it?"
A woman's voice rang out from within the house and the young boy looked over his shoulder, then stepped away from the entrance, his place taken by a slim, blonde woman with a baby perched on her hip. She looked Blair up and down and kept the door partially closed. "Can I help you?"
Blair nodded. "I was looking for Megan Ryan. I was pretty sure I had the right house." He turned to squint at the number of the mailbox at the start of the drive.
"We only moved in two weeks ago," the woman said kindly. "You could ask Mrs. Malone next door. She's lived here for twenty years."
Blair nodded his thanks and with a final lingering look at the young boy, he turned and walked toward an elderly lady who was kneeling in her flower garden, pulling weeds. She looked up, raising one dirt-covered hand to shade her eyes as she smiled up at him. "Can I help you, young man?"
"I'm not sure," Blair began. "I was looking for an old friend of mine, Megan Ryan."
The woman frowned. "Oh dear." She stood up slowly, accepting Blair's assistance with a nod. "You haven't heard? Megan was killed just over two years ago. There was a leak and the gas stove exploded. Broke all my windows. Oh dear, are you all right?" She stepped closer and placed a solicitous hand under Blair's elbow as he swayed on his feet.
He could feel cold sweat beading on his brow and his vision grayed out just for a second. He steadied himself against the trunk of a tree and nodded. "I'm fine," he assured the old lady. "It's just such a shock. What about her husband and son?"
"Steve was shattered, as you can imagine," Mrs. Malone replied. "They were a lovely young couple, so in love. And little Jake, well, it broke his heart."
Blair tried to speak past the lump in his throat. "Do you know where they went?"
"I'm sorry, dear. I'm not sure. Steve just said he couldn't bear to live here any more, not with the memories of poor Megan. He was devastated."
"I just bet he was," Blair ground out past his clenched teeth. "Thank you for your time."
He walked slowly back to his mother's old car and sat in front of the house for a long time. Nick was obviously attempting to cover his tracks and Blair wasn't sure where to even begin looking. It was already growing cold and dark, so Blair drove a short distance away to a deserted spot beside the lake. Wrapping himself in an old sleeping bag, he climbed into the back of the car and tried to sleep. By the time morning dawned he was still wide-awake and shivering violently from the cold. Starting the car, Blair headed toward the library. Perhaps he could find some information on Megan's death from the newspaper archives. Poor Megan, Blair thought, another victim of Nick's greed.
Jim Ellison waited in the line behind a young man who seemed intent on chatting up the pretty girl behind the counter. Finally growing impatient, Jim prodded him in the back and he reluctantly stepped aside. The clerk looked up at him and smiled.
"Hey, Jim. How are you doing, honey?"
Jim smiled back. "Hey yourself, Tina." He leaned forward conspiratorially, placing both his hands on the counter. "I need a favor."
Tina cracked her gum and eyed the parole officer appraisingly. "Oh yeah? What?"
"I need the address of a Megan Conner." He pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket. "I've got her Social Security number."
"Now, Mr. Ellison, you know I can't go divulging personal information like that to anybody," Tina chided.
Jim pulled back from the counter and raised his hands. "I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked." He watched the young woman for a moment as she fixed her hair and smiled some more at the young man filling out his form at the rear counter. "Speaking of personal information," he said conversationally. "Does your employer know that you performed fellatio on clients for a fee..."
"All right, all right," Tina screeched, jumping to her feet and pulling him back to the counter. "You know I'm straight now. I don't do that stuff any more," she pouted.
Jim nodded. "I know." He held out the paper once more.
Tina sighed and took it from his hand. Sitting down, she punched the numbers into the computer in front of her.
"You're looking good, Tina, honey," Jim purred.
Tina looked up briefly and shrugged. "I know."
Blair sipped his hot coffee gratefully and brushed a loving finger over Jake's photo. "Come on, little dude," he whispered. "Give me a clue."
Sighing, he placed the photo back in his shirt pocket and picked up the photocopied newspaper sheet from the table and reread the account of Megan's death once more. He wondered mournfully if Megan had been murdered in order to finance Nick's escape and his lifestyle or if she had threatened to turn him in, finally tiring of living a lie. Blair decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter. It didn't really matter one way or the other, he knew, but Megan's betrayal had been hard enough to bear in the first place. Blair needed to redeem her actions for his own peace of mind. Megan had been a good person when he first knew her. Mentally, Blair berated himself for not seeing it coming.
He allowed his gaze to sweep over the picture of Megan again, then began to read the newspaper report once more. Glancing away as his stomach churned ominously, he took a second look at the picture in his hand and his mouth dropped open in surprise. Looking around, he saw exactly what he was looking for on the other side of the road. Standing up, Blair left money on his plate for his coffee, then pocketing both photos, he hurried across the road and entered the front door of the Sui Generis Art Gallery.
The man who greeted him was wary at first, until Blair removed the still sizable wad of cash from his pocket and refolded it extravagantly before returning it to his wallet. The manager clasped his hands in front of him and shook his head slowly. "Kandinsky? No, I don't think we have anything by him right now. Though we do have several Picassos."
Blair shook his head firmly. "I'm only interested in Kandinsky."
"Hmm. Well, we could try Art Scan," the man suggested as he ushered Blair out to his office. Seating himself at the computer, he punched into a search engine and began to scroll down. "I don't think....ah, here we are. A Kandinsky, 1914 lithograph."
"I'm only interested in his 1911 work," Blair said, leaning over the man's shoulder to squint at the screen. "The Blue Rider period. It's my favorite."
The man sighed but nodded and continued to scroll past the painting listed. Finally, he stopped and turned to face Blair with a pleased expression on his face. "Here we are." Then his smile dropped. "I'm afraid it's already been sold to the Art Gallery of Russia."
"Can we find out who sold it?" Blair asked anxiously.
"Shouldn't be a problem." The manager looked up as a faint tinkle announced the arrival of someone at the gallery door. "Excuse me just one moment, won't you?"
"Of course." Blair quickly slipped into the vacated chair in front of the computer and clicked on the seller icon. He smiled without mirth as the name came up. Muted voices in the front of the shop caught his attention and he immediately recognized Jim Ellison's voice.
"I'm looking for the driver of the car parked out front, probably a young man with long curly brown hair..."
Blair studied the name and address in front of him, his lips moving silently as he committed the information to memory. Then he got up and left through the rear entrance of the gallery, circling around the building warily until he came back to where he'd parked his car.
"Fuck!" Blair glared at the car that sat directly behind his, then with a stifled curse, got into his car and started the engine. He slammed the vehicle viciously into reverse, feeling the resultant collision and screaming metal jarring through his already aching head. Looking back, he saw with satisfaction that he'd shunted Ellison's car to one side. Pushing down on the accelerator, Blair steered the car onto the road, wincing as a pedestrian jumped out of his path. A quick glance in his rear-vision mirror showed Ellison and the gallery manager running up the footpath to stare after him. Blair could almost feel the heat of the parole officer's anger burning the back of his neck. He allowed himself a glimmer of hope at last as he headed for the airport and bought a plane ticket to New Orleans.
"Watch out, Nick. I'm coming after you."
Jim focused his sight on the license plate of the car, struggling to decipher the numbers as the car weaved drunkenly up the road. He started as the man beside him spoke.
"And he seemed like such a nice young man."
The parole officer watched Blair's rapidly disappearing car with dismal resignation. "I would really like to know what that young man wanted in your gallery."
Blair slept for the entire flight to New Orleans and arrived feeling more refreshed than he had for some time, and, if it were possible, more determined than ever to track down Nick and Jake. It didn't take him long to track down Nick's address, a small but elegant hotel in the center of New Orleans. Taking a deep breath, Blair pushed open the ornate front door and stepped inside.
The lobby was small but stylish, fairly typically Nick, Blair thought. A large bulletin board on one side of the lobby announced a bachelor's charity auction that evening in the hotel. How like Nick, Blair thought, to ingratiate himself with the local well-to-do citizens. Some things never changed.
"Can I help you, sir?"
Blair turned toward the young woman at the reception desk. "I'm looking for Jonathon Devereaux."
The girl shook her head. "I'm afraid he's gone out for the day. He won't be back until the party tonight." She indicated the bulletin board with a nod of her head. "Can I take a message for him."
"No, it's fine." Blair hovered at the edge of the desk and tried to rein in his disappointment. It was going to be okay, he assured himself. He'd found Nick. He just had to bide his time a little longer. He watched idly as an elderly gentleman booked in at the desk, trailed by a bellhop with a cart of suits and cases. The receptionist greeted him warmly.
"Welcome, Mr. Anderson. You're in Suite 204. I hope you enjoy your stay."
The old man nodded peremptorily. "Yes. I've booked Ella for a massage in half an hour. Send her straight up, would you?"
"Of course, sir."
Blair walked quickly through the hotel until he came upon the clothing shop attached to it. Walking in, he wandered around the racks of suits and tuxedos, stopping when an imperious clearing of a throat caught his attention. Blair smiled easily at the nervous young man beside him.
"Are you lost or something?" The assistant asked, looking him up and down with obvious distaste.
Blair shook his head. "No. I need something for the charity auction tonight. I was going to wear my Armani but I just bet everyone else will too. I've just had a massage from Ella. Isn't she divine? Now I'm feeling refreshed and adventurous, so, I thought, time for a new look."
The sales assistant took a step closer. "Of course, Mr. ?"
"Anderson," Blair replied smoothly. He pulled a dark tuxedo from the rack. "What do you think of this one?"
"I think you should wear the one with the dark blue cummerbund and tie," the young man answered as he led Blair to the dressing rooms out back. "They'll show off your eyes."
Blair nodded his agreement as he stepped into the cubicle. "I'll be charging this to my room," he said. "204."
The assistant hurried over to the computer and punched in the details, smiling in satisfaction as the information came up. "Very good, sir. Would you like the clothes delivered to your room?"
"No, I'm going straight back there to rest up for tonight. I'll take them with me."
Jim Ellison gave his name to the duty sergeant and was directed upstairs to the Major Crime department. It had been easy enough to track where Blair had been headed. Jonathon Devereaux's name and address was the only one showing on the Art Scan screen when the parole officer and the gallery manger had returned to the art gallery.
The more Jim learned about Blair Sandburg and his lover, Nick Cassidy, the more his suspicions grew. After learning that Megan Conner had died in a gas explosion and that her husband and adopted son, Jake had disappeared, Jim was beginning to wonder if there was more to the story Sandburg was telling that met the eye. What he couldn't figure out was where Jonathon Devereaux and New Orleans fit into all of this. He had to admit too that he felt a vague attraction to the good-looking young man. Jim was not gay, nor was he bisexual. Having admitted that, he felt himself, nonetheless, being sexually drawn to Blair Sandburg. It was an unfamiliar but welcome sensation, Jim thought as he waited for the police captain to arrive. It had been a very long time since he had felt affection for anyone.
"I'm Captain Joel Taggert."
Jim extended a hand. "Jim Ellison. Washington Department of Corrections."
The big police officer walked around and sat down at his desk, then studied Jim closely. "You're a long way from home, Mr. Ellison. What brings you to New Orleans?"
Jim pulled Sandburg's wanted poster from his pocket and held it out.
Taggert looked at it for a moment. "He's a good-looking boy."
"Oh, yeah. Good-looking and dangerous," Jim replied. "He was sent up for murdering his lover. He jumped bail on me and I'm here to warn you that he's in New Orleans to kill one of your prominent citizens."
"How does he plan to do that?"
"Probably with the 38 special that he stole from me," Jim answered without blinking an eye.
Taggert got up and walked to the door. Opening it, he summonsed one of the detectives seated in the outer office. "Murray?" He held out the wanted poster. "Get these in the works now."
Blair walked slowly along the pavement toward the hotel. There was a lineup of people at the entrance showing invitations to the security guards stationed at the doors and for a brief moment, Blair's bravado deserted him. A picture of Jake flickered into his mind's eye and clamping down on his nerves, Blair stepped up and joined the queue. He tapped the woman in front of him on the shoulder.
He pushed himself closer to her as she turned. "I'm so sorry," he said, flashing her his most charming smile as he took her elbow. "I thought you were someone else."
The rather homely matron smiled at him. "Oh, not at all. Quite all right."
Blair kept up an inane flattering patter as they glided up the steps and into the lobby. Smiling once more at his savior, Blair offered to find drinks for them both and fled. The banquet room was packed with people and just ahead a jazz band played on stage. Blair wandered aimlessly through the crowd, his eyes searching for the one face he dreaded, yet needed to see.
A burst of applause from the audience made him pause and he looked toward the stage as a master of ceremonies called for everyone's attention. "Welcome to New Orleans first and foremost annual bachelor auction," the MC announced. "As is always the custom, the first bachelor to be placed on the auction block is none other than our host, Jonathon Devereaux."
There was enthusiastic applause and whistles from the crowd and Blair caught a glimpse of a man working his way through the crowd and stepping onto the stage. He fell back as though he'd been physically punched and thought for one heart-stopping moment that he was going to throw up on the elderly matron in front of him. Looking around quickly, Blair pressed himself into the shadows and pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the cold sweat from his face. Nick's words and the appreciative replies from the crowd filtered through the roaring in his ears.
"What you see before you, ladies, is a moderately presentable man in his thirties with absolutely no redeemable moral qualities."
"Are you all right?"
Blair found himself face to face with the woman he'd come in with. He nodded, not taking his eyes off Nick. "Fine. I'm fine." He smiled slowly at her. "How would you like to help me play a little joke on my old friend, Jonathon?"
The woman batted her eyes coyly at him. "What do I get as a reward?"
Blair pointed at the stage. "The bachelor of the year, of course. He's all yours after I'm finished with him."
The woman smiled. "Just tell me what to do."
Blair stayed in the shadows and watched Nick flirt with the ladies bidding for his time. He whispered instructions to the woman beside him and watched the crowd begin to show a growing interest in the proceedings. When the bid reached five thousand dollars, Blair smiled. Leaning forward, he whispered in his ally's ear. Her mouth dropped open in surprise.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Blair reached for her hand and kissed it gently. "Believe me, it'll be worth every cent, just to see the look on his face."
The woman grinned and turned back to the stage. "Ten thousand dollars," she announced smugly, and you could have heard a pin drop. The entire room went utterly silent. Then a voice spoke up, the tone laced with sarcasm.
"You're welcome to him, honey. He's not worth ten thousand dollars and I'm speaking from personal experience."
The audience erupted into laughter and Nick looked embarrassed. "Would the mystery lady at the back step forward and claim her prize?"
Blair leaned in to the woman beside him and kissed her cheek. "Just one minute of his time and he's all yours." Taking a deep, shaky breath, Blair walked slowly up to the front of the room and had the satisfaction of watching Nick's face go deathly white. Blair smiled. "Hello, Nick."
Blair allowed Nick to usher him toward the back of the room. "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse, Nick. You used to love a good deal, didn't you?"
"Can't we take this somewhere private?" Nick asked, his gaze flittering nervously over the curious onlookers.
Blair wrenched his arm from Nick's grasp. "I don't think so," he spat. "I remember what happened the last time I was alone with you." He stopped as a tall red-haired woman stepped up to them.
"I'm Cassie Welles," she said, looking Blair up and down. "I don't believe we've met."
"Blair Sandburg, his partner."
Cassie's eyebrows raised. "Well, well, Jonathon," she drawled, turning her attention to Nick. "A minute ago, you were a swinging bachelor, heterosexual at that, I might add and now you have a gay partner. You don't waste any time, do you?" She looked back at Blair. "Are you going to be in New Orleans long?"
Blair shook his head. "I'm just passing through to pick up our child." He smiled in satisfaction as the woman's mouth dropped open. "I'll be gone very soon," Blair continued. "We're finally putting the past behind us and moving on. Aren't we....Jonathon?"
Nick swallowed convulsively. "Sure."
"Just answer one question for me," Blair said, his gaze swinging back to Cassie. "How long were you fucking Megan before you decided to get rid of me?" He was not disappointed as the woman went pale and quickly excused herself.
Blair began to walk quickly toward the exit. "Where is he, Nick? You destroyed my life and I will destroy yours unless you give me Jake. That's all I want." He spun around, his eyes blazing when Nick grabbed his arm.
"Let me explain," Nick said placatingly. "We were going under. We were going to lose everything. If I'd had any guts, I would have killed myself but I was trying to protect you. That's why I got the life insurance, so that I would be out of the picture and you and Jake would be okay." Blair watched him in stony silence. "I never, for a minute, thought that they'd convict you."
Blair smiled coldly. "They did, Nick."
Nick rushed on. "And the thing with Megan? That happened later. It was a nightmare and the worst part was being away from you." Blair felt nausea surge as Nick's voice broke on his final words.
"So, is that why you killed her?"
"That was an accident."
"Nice try, Nick but I'm not buying it. It's bullshit."
"No, no," Nick reached out a hand. "I swear on the life of our son."
Blair wrenched his arm away hard. "Don't you fucking dare," he ground out. "You can keep your hotel, your fancy accent and your new name. Just give me Jake."
"You've got to understand..."
"No! Give him to me now."
"It's the middle of the night. I can't just walk out of here."
"Do you think I'm stupid?"
"No, I don't think you're stupid, Blair."
"You think I'm going to let you slip away from me again?"
"It's too far to Jake's school. You just have to be patient."
"I've been patient for six years, Nick. I want my child." Blair stiffened as he saw Jim Ellison come into view over Nick's shoulder and begin to work his way through the crowd toward them. "I'll call you tomorrow, Nick. No screwing around." Blair waited until he saw Ellison turn away to ask for Nick, then he slipped quickly out into the street.
Jim shook Jonathon Devereaux's hand and got down to business, refusing the offered drink. "Are you sure you haven't seen this man around?"
Devereaux shook his head and tossed a neat scotch down his throat. "No, sorry. Now, let me get this straight. He thinks that I'm his dead lover?"
"That sounds a little far-fetched to me," Devereaux said, waving over the bartender.
"Well, far-fetched or not, he's in New Orleans, he has a gun and he's looking for you." Jim took a small measure of satisfaction at seeing the man in front of him lick his lips nervously.
Jonathon knocked another drink back and nodded. "I'll alert our security people then."
Jim nodded and left Blair's photo on the bar. "You do that."
Blair paused in his eating of a particularly delicious piece of apple pie as the manager of the bar approached him. He held a poster out in front of him. "Cops have been passing these out," the man said. He studied it for a moment. "No reward. Screw 'em." Blair smiled gratefully as he tore it in two. The man looked up over Blair's head, then pulled an umbrella from beneath the bar and handed it to Blair. "Here they come. Get out of here."
Blair accepted the umbrella and stood. "Thank you." He turned and pushed his way through the Mardi Gras crowd, his heart pounding wildly as he passed within inches of the uniformed officers.
Jim looked up from the magazine he was idly flipping through as Captain Taggert hung up the phone and pulled on his jacket. "Let's go, Ellison," he said as he headed for the door. "Your boy's been seen."
The sidewalks of New Orleans were a mass of noisy people despite the steady drizzle that poured from the sky. Jim climbed out of the police car and paused for a moment to try to mute the sounds. Looking around, he carefully dialed up his extraordinary eyesight, digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands. He'd discovered that pain sometimes helped to keep him grounded so he did not lose focus and lapse into his mysterious fugue state. There! Ahead, he could see a small man holding an umbrella over his head walking rapidly away from them. Just as Jim made a move to follow him, Blair turned around and their eyes seemed to bore into each other. Then Sandburg put on a burst of speed and disappeared around the corner.
Jim pushed past the people spilling out of the many bars and restaurants onto the pavements and raced after the fleeing man. Finally, he rounded the corner and saw his target just up ahead. With a desperate lunge, Jim managed to snag an arm and spun the other man around to face him, only to see he was hanging onto a strange woman who screamed with fright.
"What the hell do you want?"
Jim let go immediately, backing off with both hands up. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
The woman gave him a disgusted look and stormed off. Jim looked around the area in disappointment. He'd been so close.
Jim knocked on Jonathon Devereaux's office door and smiled as the man looked up to greet him.
"How are you this morning, Mr. Ellison?" Nick stood up and walked toward him, a cigar in one hand. "As you can see, I'm still alive and kicking."
Jim smiled. "Yes, indeed you are. We spotted Sandburg in the quarter last night. I came to ask you if you've heard from him at all?"
"No. Can I offer you a cigar?"
Jim waved it away. "No, thanks. They play havoc with my sinuses." Nick shrugged and lit one up for himself. "Do you have any idea why he's fixated his lunacy on you?"
Nick blew a plume of thick, fragrant smoke into the air before answering. "World's full of crazy people, right?"
"Truer words were never spoken." Jim let his gaze wander around the plush office. "Those are nice pictures. Who's the artist?"
"A great painter by the name of Kandinsky," Nick replied. He frowned at the parole officer. "But why do I get the feeling you already knew that?" He looked over to his desk as the phone rang. "Excuse me." Reaching over, he picked up the receiver and identified himself. When Jim made no move to leave, Nick covered the phone and looked pointedly at him. "Do you mind? It's a business call."
"No, no problem." Jim walked toward the door, then turned back. "Glad to see you're still in one piece."
"Hello, darling. I hope you had a good night."
Blair grimaced at the honeyed tones of Nick's voice and wasted no time. "I want you to bring Jake to LaFayette cemetery Number 3."
"Rather an odd place for a reunion."
"It's a big tourist place, Nick. Lots of people."
"You're a smart guy, Blair. I'll have him there by 4."
Blair watched the burial parade pass by and noticed Nick standing alone on the other side of the path. Quickly, he pushed his way past the crowds and stepped up to him, looking around anxiously. "Where's Jake?"
"Calm down," Nick answered as he led the way through the cemetery gates. "He was a little nervous, so he's playing inside."
Just inside Blair stopped dead as he saw a small boy up ahead. "Jake?" At the voice, the boy looked up, then ran off.
"He's a little scared," Nick said. "I'll go get him."
"No." Blair stayed the other man's movement. "I'll go." He walked slowly toward the crumbling tombstones and as he reached the end of the row, he saw the child waiting around the corner. His face was grubby and his clothes loose and ill-fitting. "Jake?" The boy took a stumbling step away from him again. "Hey, little dude." Blair held out a shaky hand, then cursed quietly when the boy ran off once more.
Picking up his speed, Blair trailed the footsteps to the back of the cemetery where the vast old mausoleums were. Looking around, Blair finally saw him sitting on the steps of one of the crypts. He looked up as Blair came close then his eyes went wide with fright. Blair knew suddenly without a doubt that this child was not Jake. Before he had time to react, he felt a strong arm encircle his throat, then he was pulled sideways and his head slammed brutally into the stone edge of the mausoleum. He collapsed without a sound.
Joel Taggert sighed as he watched the parole officer slap the computer console and curse. "Mr. Ellison, you're going to have to be patient," he said. "What are you so worked up about anyway?"
Jim turned to him and frowned, then looked back at the screen as though willing it to give him the information he sought. "Did you ever arrest anyone you thought was innocent, Captain Taggert?"
"Can't say I have," the captain replied. He winced as Ellison slapped the top of the computer again.
"No results. Of course, there's no results for Jonathon Devereaux," Jim growled. "He's only three years old. Three years ago, he didn't exist."
Taggert shrugged. "So he changed his name. That doesn't make him a murderer."
"Yeah, but I'm betting he changed it from Steven Ryan and before that it was Nick Cassidy."
Taggert stood and picked up his completed paperwork. "But you can't prove it." He slapped Ellison on the shoulder. "Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
"In a minute. I've just want to make a quick phone call."
"Is it long distance?"
Ellison picked up the phone and punched in a number. "You can bill me," he said. "Lucy? It's Jim. I need you to get the Washington DMV to fax me a driver's license photo of a Nick Cassidy. What? Okay, put him on." He rolled his eyes at the police captain, then spoke again. "Carl? I think Sandburg's been telling the truth. No, I can't get back there today. Well, tell the Commission to sack me, Carl. It won't be the first time. Now, I'm going to ask you politely. You get me that goddamned picture." Taggert winced again as Ellison slammed down the receiver and began to pace.
Blair regained consciousness in small painful increments. Slowly, he became aware of a terrible pounding in his head and a warm, stickiness that coated the side of his face. Wherever he was, he was in pitch darkness and he fought for a moment to contain his spiraling terror as the blackness threatened to suffocate him. He appeared to be enclosed in a tight, small space and scrabbling with one hand, he found the old cigarette lighter he kept in his pocket. After a couple of false starts, he managed to light it up.
His terror overwhelmed him as he waved the lighter around and realized with a horrible certainty that he was inside a coffin. A quick glance to one side and he had to swallow the bile that surged up his gullet as he found himself staring into the long-dead face of an old man. His panic took hold then and he tore at the lid of the coffin, hoarse screams bubbling from his throat, stopping only when his broken, bleeding fingernails could not find purchase on the lid.
Sweat and tears dribbled down his face to mingle with the blood. His spirits took an upward turn when he tried to move and something hard dug into his hip. Inching his hand down in the tight space, his fingers closed around the butt of Ellison's gun. Pulling it from the waistband of his jeans, Blair ignited the lighter again and ran his fingertips along the edge of the coffin lid until he found the brass hinges. Turning his face away, he held his breath as he lifted up the gun and fired it, then moved it down to the second set of hinges and repeated the process. With a shuddering sob, he pushed open the coffin lid and clambered out, collapsing to the ground as his knees buckled beneath him.
Many minutes later, he somehow found the strength to stagger to his feet and bang on the mausoleum door. After several pain-filled moments of fruitless hammering, Blair tottered over to the ornate stained window. Picking up a vase that stood on the shelf below, Blair flung it with all his might through the window. Shaking with fatigue, he pulled his aching body through the shattered window, not even feeling the pain from the glass as it cut deeply into his hands.
Jim felt the heavy weight of defeat hunch his shoulders as his taxi made its way through the bustling New Orleans streets. The driver's license photo of Nick Cassidy that had been faxed to him had turned out to be no help at all. The Nick Cassidy in the picture was a beefy, gray-haired man of about sixty. It certainly bore no resemblance to Jonathon Devereaux. Glumly, he gazed out the grimy cab window and watched the milling Mardi Gras crowds. And then took a second look. He leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. "Stop right here. Wait for me."
Jim hurried up behind the limping, disheveled figure of Blair Sandburg and caught him by the arm. Blair gasped and spun around, then fought to wrench his arm free. His strength was quickly exhausted though and he sobbed in despair. Jim looked at him sadly. "It's over, Blair."
Blair shook his head then his knees buckled and Jim drew the trembling man into a sheltering embrace. Suddenly, Blair went silent and limp in Jim's arms. Getting one hand under the unconscious man's legs, Jim hoisted Blair into his arms and hurried back to the taxi, heedless of the curious stares. "Find me a quiet, cheap motel," he said to the driver. The man hesitated until Jim pulled a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket and tossed it over the seat. As the car accelerated away, Jim gathered Blair to him and held him close.
Jim wrung the washcloth out in warm water and gently washed the dried blood from Blair's face. The water seemed to rouse the younger man and he stirred, moaning softly as one hand came up to push the cloth away. Jim caught Blair's hand and held it, continuing to wipe around the bloody knot on Blair's temple. Blair was a mess, his face was bruised and gray with pain and fatigue, his fingernails torn and bleeding, his hands bore deep cuts still laced with slivers of colored glass. The young man moaned again, then slowly, drowsy blue eyes opened to look at Jim.
The parole officer smiled and put the washcloth back in the bowl before reaching for the roll of bandages on the bedside table. "About time you woke up. How are you feeling?"
Blair's gaze traveled around the room then settled back on Jim. "Where are we?" he croaked.
Jim reached for the glass of juice and helped the younger man to sit up by wrapping one arm about his shoulders. He held the drink to Blair's lips. "Drink a little of this. You're dehydrated. You're safe." He watched as Blair took a couple of sips then pushed the tumbler away, nodding his thanks. "We're in a little motel on the outskirts of New Orleans." He held a gentle finger to Blair's lips as the other man opened them to speak. "You're safe here," Jim repeated. "No one knows where we are."
"Like I said, Chief, it's over. While you were sleeping the day away, I've been looking into some things regarding Jonathon Devereaux."
Blair's eyes grew wide. "What time is it?"
"Nearly 7p.m." Jim replied. He gently restrained Blair as he struggled to get up. "No, you don't. I told you it's over. You let me handle this from here."
A single tear welled up from Blair's eye and trickled down his cheek. "He'll get away again. I'll lose Jake for good this time."
Jim brushed the moisture away with his thumb. "Not if I can help it. How about you tell me what Devereaux did to you. How did you get so beaten up?"
Blair turned his face away toward the wall. "It doesn't matter anymore," he whispered brokenly. "He won, nothing matters."
Jim placed a finger under Blair's chin and turned his face to look at him, hoping Blair could read the sincerity in his gaze. "It matters, Chief. I care." Leaning forward, Jim pressed a gentle kiss to Blair's lips and when the young man stared at him in surprise, he smiled. "I think I'm in love with you, Blair Sandburg."
Blair smiled, the first smile Jim had seen grace his face and it lit up his features, making him look even more beautiful. "You'll help me?"
Jim stood up from the chair in the lobby as Jonathon Devereaux walked into the hotel. "Mr. Devereaux, I was wondering if I might speak with you?"
Devereaux picked up his mail from the receptionist, then looked at his watch. "It's rather late, Mr. Ellison, I'm afraid this really isn't a good time."
"It won't take long," Jim assured him. "I have good news."
Devereaux pursed his lips, then nodded and ushered Jim into his office. Jim sat down and watched as Devereaux leaned against his desk and crossed his arms over his chest.
"I have an apology to make," Jim began. "I was beginning to think that maybe Sandburg was telling the truth about who you used to be. So, I asked Washington DMV for a copy of Nick Cassidy's license photo and this is what came up." He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and held it up.
Nick smiled and visibly relaxed when he saw the photo bore no resemblance to him. "We all make mistakes," he said magnaminously.
Jim smiled and nodded in agreement. "Then I got to thinking about what a common name, Nick Cassidy is and I found out there were 6 Nick Cassidy's in the state of Washington. This," he held up another picture, "was number 3."
Nick Cassidy's face hardened as he saw his own features staring back at him. "I never liked that picture." He stared at Jim assessingly. "You obviously came here to make a deal. What's your price?"
"A million dollars."
Nick snorted. "A million dollars."
Jim shrugged. "It's a nice round figure."
"Look, it's 9 o'clock at night," Nick said. "I can't get to that kind of money now."
Jim pulled out his cell phone and pulled up the antenna as Nick held out his hands. "Wait," Cassidy said. "I've got a hundred thousand dollars in my safe. I'll give you that now and you'll get the rest tomorrow."
Jim considered the offer. "Deal. We do still have one other problem. Sandburg could still make trouble, even from prison."
Nick walked over to the window and looked out onto the street. "Don't worry about it. The problem is buried." He turned to look at Jim. "He's gone, I promise."
"You're not very good at keeping promises, are you, Nick?" Blair spoke from the doorway and Nick paled in shock as he saw the gun held steady in Blair's bandaged hands and aimed at his chest. He backed toward the wall as Blair advanced on him. His eyes flitted to Jim.
"Do something," he hissed.
"Do what," Jim answered lazily. "He's the one with the gun."
Nick licked his lips nervously. "You'll never get away with it, Blair. The laws are tougher here. You'll get the electric chair if you kill me."
"It'll never happen, Nick," Blair answered smoothly. "You ever hear of double jeopardy? No? I learned a lot in prison. You see, I've already been tried and convicted for your murder. They can't try me for the same crime twice. So, I could kill you right in the middle of the fucking Mardi Gras and the police can't do a thing about it."
"As an ex-cop, I can assure you he's right," Jim put in helpfully.
"At St. Alban's school in Georgia. There, you've got what you wanted. You can..." He broke off and flinched as Blair brought the gun up and fired it - over his shoulder and into one of his prized Kandinsky paintings.
Jim shifted nervously in his seat, then relaxed when Blair spoke again. "I don't want to kill you, Nick. I just want you to suffer like I did."
"You're going to prison for murder," Jim said.
"Murder of who?"
Blair tapped his chest. "Me."
"All you've got is an old fax photo," Nick blustered.
"And that provides motive," Blair answered. "The lover who you framed tracks you down and to keep him from exposing you, you kill him."
Nick shook his head vehemently. "You'll never get away with it."
Jim held up a tiny tape recorder and pressed the button. Nick turned even paler as his own voice came spilling tinnily from the speaker. //The problem is buried. He's gone, I promise you.//
"Taped confessions are very persuasive in court," Jim added. "That plus the physical evidence we've put in your car."
"A shovel, hair, my fingerprints, a little blood."
Jim smiled. "The prosecution rests." He looked at Blair. "You'd better get out of here. Nobody wants a dead guy walking around while the police are trying to arrest someone for his murder."
Blair nodded and walked toward the door.
"Wait a minute. You'd better give me that gun." As Jim stood and walked to him, all hell broke loose. Blair heard the roar of a gun discharging and then Jim was flung into him, blood spraying from his shoulder as he collapsed to the floor. Blair dove headlong behind an armchair and huddled down, shaking as he saw Nick approach and stand over him. Just as Nick cocked the gun a second time, he was knocked off his feet by a body slam from Jim. The two men went to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs and Blair hesitated to fire for fear of hitting Jim. The gun was knocked from Nick's hand for a brief moment and then he had it again, slamming the butt into the side of Jim's head. As Jim lay on the floor, too stunned to move, Nick scrambled back to his feet and brought the gun to bear on the fallen parole officer - then staggered back to slam against the wall as another gunshot rang out. He touched a hand to the blossoming bloodstain on his chest and looked up at Blair in surprise before sliding down the wall, his dead eyes staring sightlessly ahead.
"Blair? Blair?" Blair turned shocked eyes on Jim, the gun now dangling uselessly from his hand. "Come here, Chief. It's okay."
Blair dropped to his knees at Jim's side and buried his face on Jim's chest. Jim reached up tiredly and stroked a gentle hand through Blair's curls. "It's okay," he said again. "It's over."
Jim knew the moment he awoke that he was in the hospital. What he didn't expect to see was the hunched, exhausted figure wedged into a chair beside the bed, one hand clasped firmly in his own. The parole officer moved carefully, trying not to disturb the other man but Blair was awake instantly. He sat forward and studied Jim's face intently.
"You're awake! How are you feeling? Do you want me to get the nurse or the doctor?"
Jim held up his good hand and stilled Blair's flow of words with a finger to his lips. "I'm fine," he smiled. Then he sobered. "I didn't expect to find you here. Why didn't you leave while you had the chance."
Blair scooted closer and pressed a kiss to Jim's lips. "I think we both know this story isn't over," he whispered. "Let me get the nurse. Let her know you're awake."
Blair settled on his side and supported his head on one hand as he used the other to trail across Jim's broad chest. The ex-parole officer had been released from the hospital the day before and the two men had headed immediately for the airport and a flight to Georgia. They had stopped long enough for Jim to assure the authorities in Washington that Blair Sandburg was indeed returning with enough evidence to clear his name just as soon as he picked up his son. He'd also preempted the Department of Corrections probable disciplinary action against him and faxed off his resignation, courtesy of Captain Joel Taggert, who wished them well and, surprisingly waived the cost of the fax.
They'd booked into a small hotel just south of St. Alban's school to freshen up, and to get to know each other a little better. Now, Blair ghosted his fingers over Jim's chest and down his abdomen, carefully skirting the small white gauze bandage covering the bullet wound in his shoulder and leaned in for another kiss. "Tell me about your daughter," he said softly.
Jim took a deep breath and appeared to study the ornate ceiling for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was hushed. "Melissa was four years old. We, my wife, Carolyn and myself and Missy were coming home from my father's sixtieth birthday party. It was raining and foggy. I have this thing with my senses. Have had since I was a kid. I somehow seem to be able to see and hear better than most people. Smell, too." He didn't seem to notice that Blair's fingers had halted their mesmerizing caress. "It was getting harder to see the road and Carolyn suggested that we stop in a lay-by to see if it would clear, but I insisted on going on. I had an interview for my job with the Department of Corrections the following day and I didn't want to be late. I'd already lost my job as a cop because I over-focused while chasing a perp. By the time, I came out of it, the guy was gone and he went on to murder another woman before he was caught. The commissioner suggested I might want to retire for health reasons." He was silent again for a long time then he shook himself and continued. "Anyway, I dialed up my eyesight so that I could see through the rain and fog and I...."
"You zoned out?"
Jim looked up sharply at the comment. "Next thing I remember was waking up with the car wrapped around a tree. Missy was in a coma for three months. She's brain injured, has learning difficulties. I haven't seen her since she came out of the coma. Carolyn had her moved to a rehab center out of state and started divorce proceedings."
"I'm sorry." Blair leaned in and kissed Jim again. "So, you're a sentinel."
"If you have all five heightened senses," Blair lifted Jim's hand and gently kissed the tips of each one, "touch, too?"
"Sir Richard Burton, an explorer, not the actor, did a study of tribal guardians who were picked to protect their tribes because of a genetic advantage of heightened senses. He called them sentinels."
"How do you know all of this?"
"I'm...I was a professor of anthropology before the shit hit the fan," Blair said.
"I promised Carolyn I'd go see a doctor at the University Hospital, get some tests done but I never got around to it."
"You don't need a doctor," Blair said. "All you need is me."
Jim reached up and pulled Blair over to lie on top of him. "How can you help me? Do you know how I can switch them off?"
"You can't switch them off, Jim, and they could become a great asset to you. Ever thought of going into the private investigator business?" Blair asked, raising an eyebrow as he slowly began to stroke his cock over Jim's hardening erection. "With me to guide you and ground you so you don't zone out, you could be a walking crime lab. Of course," he continued, looking very serious. "I'll have to conduct some tests to see just how extensive your senses are. We should really start right away."
Jim looked doubtful. "I'm not much on tests or doctors."
Blair snaked a hand between their bodies and grasped Jim's cock in his fist. "We could start with touch," he suggested silkily.
Jim pulled the car to a halt alongside the playing field of St. Albans' school and looked over at his nervous lover. Reaching out, he squeezed a trembling hand. "It'll be fine."
Blair stared through the window at the group of boys running up and down the field chasing a soccer ball. "What if he doesn't remember me?"
"He will. Go."
Blair took a slow, deep breath and nodded. "Thanks, for everything." He got out of the car and made his way slowly over to a teacher who stood watching the boys play. The teacher nodded as Blair approached and blew a whistle to signal the end of the game. Laughing, chattering boys scurried off the field and headed quickly toward the gymnasium. "Jake?"
The small, tow-headed boy trailing the back of the group stopped and turned around slowly. His hair had been cropped so that his abundant curls framed a sad, handsome face. Blair leaned down to be on eye-level with the child and smiled. "Hey there, little dude. Do you know who I am?"
The boy nodded shyly. "They told me you were dead," he said softly as he stepped closer.
"I'm sorry, Jake."
Jake shook his head. "You're here now, Daddy. Are you going to take me home with you?"
"If you want to come home with me, then I'd like that very much."
Jake's answer was to throw himself into Blair's arms and Blair gathered his son close, tears from both falling freely now. Blair straightened finally and wrapped an arm around Jake's shoulders. "There's someone over here that I'd like you to meet."
As they walked back to Jim who stood leaning against the car, Jake looked up at his father. "Would you still teach me how to sail?"
Blair ruffled his son's hair. "You bet, little dude, you bet."