AUTHOR'S NOTE: Crossover with Aussie cop show,'Stingers'. Jim and Blair travel to Australia to help track down a serial killer. So far, Blair is the sole survivor of the attacks.
Many, many thanks to Patt, who encouraged me with this when the going got tough, and to Patt and Blue Tattoo for the awesome artwork. Thanks also to Mary for her usual stellar beta. For my MME listsibs, because when the going gets tough, we're there for each other.
Story title borrowed from the song. 'Solid Rock' by Goanna. The Melbourne Midsumma Gay Festival is held annually in Alexandra Gardens in Melbourne. It runs for three weeks and consists of street parades, theater and music performances and a carnival.
Of all the My Mongoose stories I've written so far, this is my favorite, because I was able to inject a little bit of Australia into it, and introduce readers to one of my favorite Aussie shows.
"Tell me youre joking, Simon?"
"Do I look like Im joking, Detective?" Captain Simon Banks sighed deeply and sat down at his desk, steepling his elegant fingers in front of him. "This is a return exchange. Inspector Connor came here on an exchange, now its time to return the favor. When the commissioner saw the report on these murders indicating that the perp may have fled back to Australia, he decided it was the perfect time to put our part of the exchange program into motion."
"We cant even be sure its the same guy, Simon," Jim argued as he paced to the window and stared out at the skyline. "Its probably a copycat."
Simon nodded. "It could be, Jim. But the commissioner has requested that someone fulfill this exchange and the fact that this murder investigation so closely parallels the ones here is a perfect opportunity for a sharing of knowledge. It's only for a week, a couple of weeks at most."
Jim shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. "I cant see why the Aussies cant investigate their own crimes. I mean, if you listen to Connor, they have a solve rate second to none."
"Megan recommended you two."
"Thats what bothers me," Jim said glumly. He looked over at his silent partner. "You got no pearls of wisdom to throw in here, Sandburg?"
Blair looked up and smiled widely. "Are you kidding, Jim? I would love to go. God, theres so much history down there undiscovered, man. I mean, Aboriginal history, the dreamtime, Uluru, the Olgas, the Great Barrier Reef."
"Its a criminal investigation, Chief," Jim answered. "Not a budget tour."
Blair glared at his partner. "I know that. It would just be Even if we didnt get to see any of that stuff, just being there would be awesome." He pushed himself away from the table and stood up. "Just forget it, all right." He turned to Simon. "Im sorry, sir. If thats all, I have some reports to type up." He gestured toward the bullpen and Simon nodded and waved him away.
"Thats fine, Sandburg. Pack your bags when you get home tonight anyway. Regardless of what Detective Ellison has to say, youll be catching a flight to Melbourne, Australia at 12 noon day after tomorrow."
Blair nodded solemnly and left the office. He didnt look at Jim on his way out. Jim watched his partner leave with a troubled expression. "Simon, could we discuss this later?"
Simon shook his head. "No discussion, Jim. Youre going to Australia on Wednesday." The police captain stood and walked around the desk until he faced the detective. "Youre the best cop in Cascade, Jim. Im not asking you to go because I want the accolades. If anyone can catch this animal, you can. I think you need to catch this guy, to ease the guilt I know you feel over him getting Sandburg."
Jim said nothing for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "Thats what holding me back, Simon. Im scared of what I might do if I catch him."
"Thats why Sandburgs going," Simon replied, a sad smile upturning the corners of his mouth. "To keep you honest."
Blair snagged Jims arm the moment he walked out of the captains office. "We need to talk," he hissed.
Jim nodded and allowed Blair to lead him to the break room. Once they entered, he turned and locked the door, then watched Blair pace the confines of the small room.
Finally Blair spoke. "Jim, I need to do this."
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "Do what?"
Blair frowned at him in exasperation. "Come on, man. Do I have to spell it out?"
Jim remained silent so Blair sighed and began to pace again. "I need to go to Australia and catch this bastard."
"It may not be the same guy," Jim answered patiently.
"Thats bull!" Blair shouted. "You know it is. I know it is." He stopped suddenly as his voice broke on the words and Jim moved quickly to him, gathering the smaller man into an embrace.
"Im sorry," Jim whispered, planting a soft kiss on Blairs forehead. "Im scared, thats all." He ran a gentle finger up under Blairs shirt and along the thin scar that marred his lovers abdomen, shivering slightly at the sensation of puckered skin beneath his fingertips.
Blair rubbed his forehead against Jims broad chest. "You think Im not? I know its him though. I know weve got to stop him. You know weve got to stop him from doing that to anyone else ever again."
Jim nodded silently against the top of Blairs head.
Blair looked up at him then. "Why dont we go out to dinner tonight? Then tomorrow night, well pack and go to bed early."
Jim reached up a hand and cupped the back of Blairs head, turning his face up for a long kiss. "Can we fool around after dinner?"
"Are you kidding?" Blair answered, grinning like a loon. "You dont make passes at me over dinner, man, Im going to seriously consider taking Joel to Australia with me."
"You twisted my arm," Jim said, grinning back.
"Jesus, Jim. You have got to get out more," Blair said as he closed the apartment door behind them and stripped off his jacket. "We go to one of the best restaurants in Cascade and you find a burger on the menu." He hung his jacket over the back of a chair and hurried to stand in front of the fire, holding his hands out toward the heat and rubbing them together contentedly.
Behind him, Jim shook his head in frustration and picked up the jacket, hanging it up next to his on a hook by the door. "It was steak, Chief," he said in defense. "Rare steak on toasted wheat rounds."
"Hamburger," Blair said decidedly.
He smiled as strong arms encircled him from behind and deceptively gentle fingers stroked lovingly across his chest. "Love you," Jim whispered into the nape of his neck.
He felt Jim nod. He turned in Jims arms so that he was facing his lover. "Thats nice," he said, smiling gently. "Because I love you, too."
He planted a kiss on Jims lips, a chaste kiss that quickly became more as Jim opened his mouth and sucked Blairs tongue inside. Blair went with the flow, wrapping his arms around Jim, stroking across the broad back, then moving down to massage Jims firm ass. He threw his head back as Jims mouth nuzzled at his Adam's apple, then moved around to suckle on a bejeweled ear. "What do you want, Jim? Tell me."
Jim groaned as he fumbled with the buttons on Blairs shirt, finally getting them undone and pulling the pieces open to stroke his hands over the furred chest until he found a nipple. "I want you," Jim whispered, his voice sounding rough with lust. "I want to be in you."
Blair grinned; he loved getting Jim to talk when they made love. It wasnt an easy task; Jim was as silent in his lovemaking as he was with most things but the words seemed to loosen him up, make him more primal. He hissed as Jim tongued a nipple, making it wet and hard, then fingers tweaked and pinched it as the talented mouth moved to the other nub and began the sweet torture once more. This time it sent fire straight to his groin as Jims teeth tugged on the gold nipple ring.
Blair pushed Jims head back for a moment and looked into the passion-filled eyes that stared back at him. "Upstairs? Bed? Comfort?"
Jim nodded mutely and Blair reached for his lovers hand, giggling like a child when Jims other hand found its way resolutely to his backside as they walked up the stairs. Blair threw himself back onto the bed with a sigh and watched as Jim slowly stripped for him. The sight of Jims body alone was enough to make Blair come and he felt his cock fill as Jim opened his fly and pushed his pants down to his ankles before pushing them off his feet. The shirt was next and slowly Jims broad tanned smooth chest was exposed. Blair couldnt resist scratching his fingernails across his own torso as he watched. As Jim hooked his fingers in the waistband of his boxers, Blair shook his head. "Come here," he said, gesturing with one finger. "Let me do that."
Jim stepped closer and Blair knelt up on the bed. He reached both hands up and ran them down Jims arms from shoulders to fingers before raising Jim's hand to his mouth and sucking each digit in. Jim moaned softly at the warm, moist sensation and Blair let the fingers drop and began to kiss his way down the naked expanse of Jims body, stopping when his lips encountered the cool damp silk of his lovers shorts.
"What do you want, Jim?"
"Suck me, Blair. Please." Jims voice was almost breathy and Blair set out to do as his lover requested. He licked a broad swathe along the straining length of the still covered cock, then sucked on the head through the material of the boxers. Above him, he could feel the tension in Jims body as his lover fought not to thrust into Blairs mouth.
Blair placed his fingertips in the waistband of Jims boxers and pulled them down so that half of his erect shaft sprang free from the confines of the cloth. Blair licked around the cock-head again, taking time to tongue the slit, then finally lifted the shorts past the mounds of Jims ass and pushed them till they pooled around his lovers ankles. He traced a finger reverently along the length of Jims cock and then cupped the firm balls beneath, rolling them gently in their sac. "Beautiful," he whispered before lowering his head to his prize. "So beautiful."
He opened his mouth and engulfed Jims cock, one hand holding the base of the impressive length as he felt Jims hand fist in his hair. Blair used his teeth and tongue to massage Jims shaft, loving the feel of steel encased in silken skin as it glided in and out. He moved his other hand between Jims legs, pushing at the inside of his thighs to get the other man to widen his stance and ease his access. Sucking harder at Jims cock, he snaked a finger gently over Jims perineum and stroked softly across Jims pucker.
Jim groaned loudly now and threw back his head, his fingers curling tighter in Blairs hair. Blair stilled his motion for a moment, allowing Jim the exquisite sensation of fucking his mouth, while he concentrated on slipping one finger in and out of the loosening hole. Suddenly, Blair backed away and he sat on his haunches, bestowing a final kiss to the head of Jims raging hard-on. "No more," he panted. "I want you to come inside me."
Jim nodded and pushed his lover back onto the bed. Where Blairs movements had been slow and languorous; Jims were rushed and needy. He had Blairs clothes stripped from his body in seconds and then he knelt between his lovers wantonly splayed legs and ran his hands possessively over the shuddering body laid out before him. "Mine," Jim whispered roughly, then he moved in.
Starting at Blairs mouth, he kissed and licked his way down the compact body until he reached Blairs ribs. He traced a gentle finger along the puckered scar and instantly he was transported back to that night, a year ago. Blair had gone into the gay nightclub with Simons blessing, not with Jims. The anthropologist had convinced the captain that he was the only one who would not arouse suspicion, and who bore a strong resemblance to the other young men who'd been murdered. Jim didnt like the idea and said so vociferously.
"Youre going to be right outside," Blair had assured him. "If I see anything at all, Ill whisper your name."
"Dont take any chances," Jim said, one hand stroking down Blairs cheek.
Blair turned his head slightly, kissing Jims fingertips. "I wont."
Simons gruff voice startled them both. "Can we do this later?"
Blair grinned and reached for the door handle. "Later, captain."
Jim watched him enter the brightly-lit club and disappear from sight. "If anything happens to him, Simon "
The captain squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. "I know. Hell be fine."
But he hadnt been fine, thanks to Jim. Jim had extended every sense as far as he could, in order to follow Blairs progress into the club. The music was loud, patrons shouted at each other in order to be heard over the noise and glasses clinked shrilly. The brightly flashing neon lights had finally done it though. As Jim strained to find Blairs heartbeat and voice through the clamor, a bulb in the signs in front of them burst, sending sparks flying and causing the other lights in the sign to light up crazily and rapidly. Jim zoned.
By the time, Simons frantic voice had pulled him back from the depths Blair and his attacker were gone. A single bloody handprint was found on the wall leading to the back alleyway, the only clue to Blairs condition and Jim nearly zoned again on the sight and smell. He came back to find himself bent double, kneeling in a pool of dirty water in the crowded alley, spewing his guts out as a repentant Simon rubbed his back and apologized over and over.
In the end, Jim had traced Blairs whereabouts by employing the same tactic hed used when Blair had been kidnapped a few years before by a group of drug smugglers. The detective noted that the van witnesses had seen drive off with a man matching Blairs description slumped in the passenger seat, had an oil leak. Focusing on the odor and trail of the oil, Jim tracked them down. The murderer had not taken his victim far, perhaps because his M.O. appeared to be that he liked to dump his victims while they were alive but in extremis. Evidence suggested he hid somewhere and watched his victims slowly die of their injuries, getting off on their cries of pain and fear.
This time, however, he was nowhere to be found. Blair was there, his bleeding, unconscious body draped over a hard, cold memorial statue. Jim lifted Blairs unresponsive body into his arms and rocked him gently, one hand pressing against the gaping wound in Blairs stomach; the other stroking down Blairs face, unmindful of the bloody streaks he left there. Over and over, he begged Blair to stay with him and then when the eyelids fluttered open to reveal blue eyes filled with pain and fear, Jim rested his head on Blairs and begged his forgiveness.
Blairs recovery had been slow and tortuous. The ugly wound had festered with infection within days. Jim had remained at his lovers side, kissing the fevered skin, holding the flailing hands and whispering reassurances as Blair struggled through nightmares and fever, calling Jims name and begging for release from the pain.
Jim brought him home to the loft two weeks later, gaunt and hollow-eyed, his slender frame shaky, his confidence gone. He needed Jim near him constantly, fretting if the detective disappeared from his sight for more than a few minutes.
He spoke little of his ordeal except to give a detailed description of his attacker to Simon and a police sketch artist. He remembered the man had a broad Australian accent and regaled him with details of his previous crimes and what he planned to do with Blair before he left him for dead.
Throughout the journey in the van, he spat hateful epithets at the injured man, telling him he was a blight on the earth and that he was cleaning the earth of assfuckers, so that decent men could once more walk the streets unharmed. Blair felt the killers quest was a profoundly personal one and wondered if he had lost a son or friend to AIDS or some other sexually transmitted disease. His musings seemed moot, however. The killings stopped after the attack on Blair and the man was never found.
"Jim?" Blair's voice finally broke through his reverie and he pulled himself back from his dark memories.
"Sorry," Jim whispered hoarsely. He ran his palms up and down Blair's thighs, the strong muscles beneath his touch reassuring and calming him. He smiled at Blair's worried frown and pressed a kiss to the full lips. "I'm okay now."
Blair smiled back, a slow, gentle upturning of his mouth. "Prove it," he said. "Make love to me."
Their lovemaking started out slow and easy, but quickly accelerated to mutual needy thrusts of passion. As Jim slid into Blair's slick, welcome heat, he promised silently that he would never fail his lover again.
"Youre bullshitting me, Bernie, arent you?" Senior Detective Peter Church scrubbed a hand through his newly shorn blond locks and scowled at his commanding officer.
Bernie Rocca pushed his chair away from the desk and leaned back, linking his hands behind his head. "Now, when have I ever bullshitted you, Church?"
Church spun around at the snort of muffled laughter that came from behind him. Detective Oscar Stone shot his partner an apologetic look and grinned, his boyish features anything but chagrined. Sergeant Ellen Mac Mackenzie simply groaned quietly and slumped further into her seat.
"Since when do we need some big-shot cops from the States over here to do our job for us?" Church grumbled. "Theyll probably walk rough-shod over everything weve already set up and stuff the whole investigation up."
Mac leaned forward then and rested her arms on the desk. "Cascade, Washington had strikingly similar murders around a year ago, Pete. I got a phone call from Inspector Megan Connor, shes over there doing a police officer exchange and she heard about the murders here in Melbourne. This cop, Ellison, investigated the murders of six gay men who were stabbed to death and their bodies left at well known Cascade and Seattle landmarks. Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg, set the guy up, in much the same way you and Oscar are doing now. He kidnapped Sandburg, stabbed him and left him unconscious at a military memorial. Somehow, Ellison tracked them down and got to Sandburg before he succumbed to his injuries but the offender got away."
"Doesnt mean its the same guy," Oscar chipped in, stepping further into the room and lowering his lean frame into a chair next to Mac.
"My thoughts exactly," Church said.
"Megan said that the murderer had an Australian accent. Its possible that the heat got too much for him in the States and he headed for home," Bernie added.
"Just cant stop killing," Mac said softly.
The team was quiet for a moment before Bernie spoke again. "Regardless of anyones feelings on this, the Commissioner has insisted that we accept the Cascade PDs very kind offer of assistance in this matter, so get used to it. Its a return exchange."
Peter pulled his sweat-damp shirt away from his back and headed over to the old refrigerator in the corner. He reached in and pulled out a couple of cold beers, holding them out in offer to his work-mates. Oscars eyes lit up and he grabbed one gratefully, rolling the cold glass over his hot forehead before twisting off the cap and taking a long swallow. Mac accepted one and smiled her thanks but Bernie merely waved Peters hand away tiredly and turned back to his reports.
Church took a long swallow of the cold brew, sighing appreciatively as it glided down his throat. This summer was giving new meaning to the word heat. The mercury had hovered well over one hundred degrees for close to a week now with no sign of relief in sight. Church placed his beer bottle on the desk and looked down at his captain.
"What do we know about Ellison and Sandburg?"
Bernie grinned and shuffled the papers in front of him. The major reason he had insisted on recruiting Peter Church when hed been asked to head up the undercover unit was the younger detectives bulldog attitude to his job. He might be pissed off but Church would never allow his emotions to get in the way of him finishing an investigation. Though Church and the rest of the elite undercover unit had seen enough of the sleazy side of life to want to throw in the towel several times, Bernie knew when the chips were down, he could rely on his team.
"James Ellison, Detective Lieutenant and Cop of the year," Bernie began. "He was also in the military, survived a chopper crash and was stranded in Peru for eighteen months. Got the cover of Time for that. Arrest rate second to none. Blair Sandburg, anthropologist and civilian consultant to Cascade PD Major Crimes."
"Consultant on what?"
Bernie shrugged. "Doesnt say. Probably criminology. Theyre arriving tomorrow morning at 10AM. Church, I want you and Oscar to pick them up, take them to their hotel and get them settled in, then well meet up the following morning."
"You want us to bring them here?" Oscar asked, spinning his chair around and surveying the semi-dark warehouse the Stingers used as their base of operations. "Thats risky, isnt it?"
"No," Bernie shook his head. "Safe house number three. No need for them to know anymore than they need to. All right, get out of here. Good work on the Murray case from you and Angie, Mac."
Mac nodded and stood up. "Thanks, Bernie."
"You guys want to come down to the pub for a couple of cold ones?" Oscar asked as he paused at the office door. "Angie and I are heading down with a few of the other guys."
Mac and Church shook their heads simultaneously. "Think Ill have an early night," Mac said, ducking her head. "Chasing that little prick, Denny Murray, all over town wore me out."
"Ill give you a ride home, if you want," Peter offered.
"Thanks," Mac smiled at the blond detective and followed him out to the parking bay.
Bernie regarded the two thoughtfully for a moment. "Oscar?"
"If there was something going on between Mac and Church, youd tell me, wouldnt you?"
Oscar swallowed then nodded vehemently. "Course I would, boss. Um, gotta go, Angies buying the first round."
Bernie waved him away with an impatient gesture and went back to his files.
Heat shimmered off the tarmac as the plane from Washington taxied toward the airport buildings and Jim couldn't resist a sigh of pleasure despite the fatigue that pulled at him. If nothing else, it would be good to get away from the constant rain in Cascade.
The twenty-plus hour flight had been long and, for a sentinel, unpleasant with a crying child in the seat behind him and a chattering man-child-come-anthropologist in the seat beside him. The space between the seats was entirely too small for a man of Jim's size and even with the cabin lights dimmed during the night, he'd been unable to sleep. Finally, whispered instructions from his guide had lowered his spiking senses and sent him into a light doze.
Blair sat upright beside Jim, his eyes glued to the window, not missing a single thing as he bounced slightly in his seat. Finally, they came to a stop at the embarkation ramp and Blair was the first one into the aisle, pulling his backpack from the storage space above the seats and handing Jim his own carry-on.
"Take it easy, Sandburg," Jim grumbled as he stayed in his seat and allowed other passengers to disembark first. "I want to stretch my legs before we get off."
Blair simply rolled his eyes but then pressed himself back against the seats and allowed several people to pass before making his way to the door.
Getting through customs took some time, despite Jim's badge and Blair flirting with the attractive Customs officer, though a spark of jealousy on Jim's part caused him to complain, "We would have got through this faster if you didn't have to make eyes at everyone."
"Come on, man. I'm just being friendly."
"Yeah, right." Nodding thanks to the officer, Jim hefted Blair's suitcase, laptop and his own bags onto a trolley and pushed through the doors into the adjoining lounge.
A tall, slim young man with dark hair, one hand held out in front of him and a wide grin on his face, stepped forward. "I'm Detective Oscar Stone, Victoria Police." Jim accepted the offered handshake and waited as a second man stepped forward, his face as surly as Stone's was friendly. "This is Senior Detective Peter Church."
Church nodded brusquely and shook their hands. "G'day." He looked pointedly at Blair who shrugged at Jim's lapse in manners and stepped forward, sticking out his hand.
"Blair Sandburg. I'm Jim's partner. How you doing?"
"Bloody marvelous, mate," Church replied though his tone was far from welcoming.
Church was slightly shorter than Stone but well built, with the broad muscled chest of a man who took his workouts seriously. He was dressed in a black tee shirt and faded Levis, his cropped blond hair spiked up above a serious, rather menacing face.
Stone, on the other hand was dressed casually but smart in an open neck white Mexican shirt, a dark bead necklace similar to one that Blair often wore, dangling around his neck and beige Chinos, his tanned feet encased in lightweight leather sandals. His face seemed to be permanently creased into a smile.
The four stood in uneasy silence for a moment then Stone took the initiative again. "Right. Let's get you squared away at the hotel? You're probably looking forward to a kip after the flight, eh?"
Jim blinked. "A what?"
Oscar still hadn't stopped grinning. He slowed his pace toward the exit and looked back at Jim. "Sorry. I'm gonna have to remember you blokes aren't up with the lingo. Kip -- sleep. I hear the jetlag on flights like that can be a killer."
"Are you kidding?" Blair was attempting to keep pace with the longer-legged Stone. "I can't wait to get out and have a look around. How far is it to the hotel?"
"About a half-hour drive, though at this time of the day, maybe a little less," Oscar replied as he stopped in front of a dark sedan and opened the trunk. "Bernie, that's our boss, gave us the rest of the day off, so if you feel up to it once you check in, we could go for a stroll, take in a few of the sights, maybe grab a bite to eat at the markets. What do you reckon, Pete?"
Church merely grunted and climbed into the passenger seat of the car and fixed his glare out the front windscreen.
"Don't mind Church," Oscar advised in a low tone as he helped Jim stow their luggage in the trunk. "He's not too fond of Yanks." He blushed, then tried again. "Well, not Yanks exactly. He's just pissed off that you blokes have been asked to come over. We were doing all right with the investigation. He doesn't think we need the outside help."
"I know how he feels," Jim responded dourly. He opened the rear door of the car and allowed Blair to scramble in first, then seated himself. Shaking his head, he marveled over the uncanny similarity Oscar had to Blair, despite the very obvious disparity in their physical builds.
Blair leaned forward and tapped Church on the shoulder. "Would you mind if I sat up front?"
Church frowned but then nodded. "Why not."
It took a moment for the two men to resituate themselves and then Oscar pulled out into the departing traffic. Too weary to be truly interested in the scenery, Jim leaned his head back and closed his eyes, allowing Blair's mile-a-minute questions and Oscar's chatty responses to wash over him. The two already sounded as though they'd known each other forever.
"So, what have you got on this bloke?"
Church's voice startled him from his drifting thoughts and he straightened in his seat and looked over at the Australian detective, studying him carefully, trying to gauge if the man was truly interested or just trying to be polite.
Jim sat upright and stared out at the passing scenery. "Our reports were faxed to your department, weren't they?"
"Then you know as much as we do."
Church leaned forward then, angling his body so that he faced Jim. "Listen," he snarled angrily. "I'm no fucking happier about you being here than you are, mate, but I have my orders and I'm assuming you do, too, so why don't we just cut the bullshit and get down to business. The sooner we do that and nail this bastard, the sooner you can go home."
"Don't mind Jim," Blair said cheerily from the front seat. "He's gets pissy when he misses his nap."
There was a moment's silence then Oscar burst into laughter, Jim reached out and whacked the top of his partner's head and Church settled back into his seat with a faint smile on his face.
Jim sighed. "Sorry. It's still a little hard to talk about. All we really know is the guy is apparently an Australian, early fifties you've got Blair's composite pictures, no priors came to light on the guy. He just dropped out of sight."
Blair half-turned in his seat and draped an arm across the back. "We thought perhaps he'd committed suicide when the attacks stopped. It's happened before. The murderer is so appalled by his crimes that he either deliberately sets himself up to be caught or kills himself. Every exit out of Cascade was closed down immediately after the guy grabbed me, so we didn't think there was any chance he'd escaped the country until now."
Church nodded. "We still can't be sure it's the same guy."
Blair looked determined. "It is."
Further conversation was halted as Oscar pulled the car into a parking space in front of the Victoria Hotel. Climbing out, Jim felt the heat hit him hard after the relief of the air conditioning inside the car. "Hell of a heat-wave you've got going," he said as he handed his luggage over to the doorman.
Oscar's eyes twinkled with mischief. "This? Actually, I was just saying to Pete on the way over how cold it's been for this time of year."
Jim and Blair both grinned as the retort brought a timely whack to the young detective's head by his partner and Jim felt himself visibly relax. Maybe this trip wouldn't be so bad after all.
"Bernie booked you a couple of rooms with a connecting door, as per your Captain Banks' instructions," Oscar said as he led the way into the foyer.
Jim glanced quickly at Blair who seemed to be trying to hide a smile. "Thanks."
The hotel foyer was roomy and attractively furnished in dark wood and earthy colors. A wide staircase swept upward from beside the check-in desk while on the opposite side of the hall, a doorway led through to a bar, and beyond that, Jim could see a large dining area.
By the time they'd checked in and been given their room allocations, Jim was feeling too wired to rest. Blair had organized to meet Oscar downstairs once he'd changed. The Australian detective had offered to show the anthropologist around a market area not far from the hotel and Blair packed his ever-present backpack with credit card, camera, and notebook. Jim accompanied him downstairs and bought him a large bottle of water from the hotel bar. "You're not used to this heat, Chief. I don't want you getting heatstroke our first day here."
Blair rolled his eyes but packed the bottle in his bag. "What are you going to do?"
"I thought I'd see if they have a gym here. Put in a workout session. Might help me sleep tonight."
"Why don't you take him to the station gym?" Oscar suggested, turning to Church. "You said you were heading there this afternoon anyway."
Church nodded somewhat grudgingly. "Yeah, all right. I'll meet you back here at four. Don't be late, Stoney or you can catch a tram home."
Blair scurried to keep up with Oscar as they wove their way around other market-goers, past gaily decorated stalls, his busy eyes not missing a thing, a wealth of delicious aromas tantalizing nose and taste-buds.
"This is so cool, man," he said, pausing for a moment at a stall with Aboriginal art for sale. "Wait up a minute, I might find something here for my mom." He looked up in surprise as Oscar grasped his arm and led him away.
"That's fake, Blair. Don't worry, there's plenty of the genuine article here though. This is the biggest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere," Oscar added with a hint of pride. He looked around, then back at Blair. "You hungry?"
Blair shrugged. "I could eat."
Oscar grinned and led the way to a large food-hall, steering Blair toward a stall advertising sandwiches. Leaving Blair to pick up the drinks, Oscar carried their salad pitas to a nearby table and sat down. "You should really be having a meat pie, mate," he said, accepting a Coke from Blair, "but we'll leave that culinary delight for tomorrow. Don't want you throwing up first night."
Blair made a face. "That bad?"
"Oh, no," Oscar replied around a mouthful of sandwich. "Great stuff, just got to take it easy when you're a novice. Tomorrow, though tomorrow, it's a pie and sauce and a couple of Fosters at the pub, right?"
Blair tipped his soda in agreement and settled back to eat his sandwich and observe the locals.
"Do you mind if I ask you what it felt like?"
"What?" Blair took another bite of his food and eyed the other man over the top of the pita.
"When that bloke stabbed you."
"Happened so fast, I didn't even feel it at first. Not until he had me in the van." Blair's eyes grew distant. "Worst thing was wondering if they'd find me in time." He shook himself and smiled. "I knew Jim would. Find me, that is."
"I got shot once. Thought I was going to die right there on the floor. If Pete hadn't been there it was touch and go for a while. Took a long time for me to get back on my feet, and even longer before I felt I was ready to go back on the job."
Blair nodded his agreement, pleased to have found a kindred spirit. "I know exactly what you mean."
"How long have you and Jim been together?"
"About three years."
"I couldn't figure that out at first," Oscar remarked casually. "Wouldn't have thought the police would have much use for an anthropologist. That's what you are, right?" At Blair's careful nod, he continued. "Our records also said you're Ellison's partner. How long you two been together?"
"Like I said, about three years."
"How long have you been a couple?" Oscar's dark brown eyes peered at him earnestly as though he'd just asked when the next bus came along. "It's all right," he assured Blair. "I don't think Church has picked it up, or anyone else for that matter."
Blair placed his pita back on the napkin and leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. "The only other person who knows about Jim and me is our captain, Simon Banks. If it ever got out they'd split us up."
Oscar nodded. "I know how that goes. Church and Mac, she's one of our team, they've had a thing going for a while now." He snorted. "They think no one knows and I don't think anyone does, except me. If word got out, one of them would have to leave the team. So, nobody knows."
Blair smiled at the offer of a kept secret. "How did you know about me and Jim?"
Oscar shrugged and began to wrap their scraps, depositing them in the bin next to the table. "I'm just good at reading people. Comes in handy in this job. Always could sense things about people, even as a little kid. We had this old Aboriginal bloke who worked on my dad's farm, name was Alby, now he was uncanny. He could hear and see things even the best trackers in his tribe couldn't pick up. Alby said I had a gift."
Blair's interest perked up instantly. "This Aboriginal guy? Alby? Is he still around? Do you think I could meet him?"
"He died years ago," Oscar replied, standing up. "Word was his son had the same ability. Guess we'll never know. Came to the city, like a lot of Aboriginal kids, got swallowed up in the white man's life. Last time I saw him, he was strung out from sniffing petrol." He waited until Blair drained the rest of his drink and stood. "You ready? I know this great little stall where the guy does wood carvings." He glanced at his watch. "Reckon we've got time for a gander before we head back to the hotel."
"Oh, right. Of course."
Jim watched from the corner of his eye as Church hefted a sizable weight, muscles straining across a sweaty chest. A few years ago, he would have been exhibiting definite interest, hinting and probably flirting a little shyly. A few years ago before Sandburg.
Jim didn't try to stop the smile that came to his lips at the thought of his lover's name. Nor did he wish away the tears that stung his eyes when he thought about the many times he'd almost lost that love either through his own stupid pride, or by Blair's association with him.
When Blair had first begun to get close to him, Jim had acted predictably. He'd pushed him away, subtly at first, with unkind words and gestures meant to wound. Jim wasn't used to this needy passion he seemed to inflame in Blair. His marriage had floundered on the rocks of Carolyn's bitter recriminations, citing his duplicity in neglecting to mention his bisexuality prior to their wedding. Since then he hadn't allowed himself to get close to anyone. He'd convinced himself that a little flirting, some alpha male bonding, a quick fuck was all he needed to keep him satisfied, and it had worked fine until Sandburg. There it was again. Jim shook his head, then realized he'd chuckled out loud as he saw Church watching him with a somewhat bemused expression on his face.
"Did I say something funny?" the Aussie asked, a faint show of belligerence obvious in the thrusting jaw.
Jim slowed his pace on the stationary bike and wiped the sweat from his face with a corner of his towel. "Sorry. I was miles away. What was that?"
Church walked over to the nearby bench and sat. Reaching into the gym bag on the floor, he pulled out a bottle of water and took a healthy swig before offering it to Jim. The detective took it gratefully and downed a couple of deep swallows, relishing the coldness on his tongue.
"I asked how you managed to get lumbered with a civilian?"
"Oh." Jim sat beside Church and leaned down to pull clean clothes from his bag. "I wouldn't call it lumbered. Sandburg's one hell of an asset to have at the PD. His background's in anthropology, so he's used to studying people and cultures, figuring out what makes people tick. Becoming a criminologist and profiler was a natural progression for him."
"He helped me on a couple of cases, we got the collars and before we knew it we were partners. What about you and Stone?" Jim asked, hoping to deflect the conversation from his and Blair's relationship.
Church grinned widely at the mention of the irascible Oscar. "We work as a team, really. Me, Stony, Mac and Angie. Sometimes we pair up, depending on the case. Might be the girls together or Oscar and Angie whatever's needed but I think of Oscar as my partner, the bloke I'd like to know is watching my back when the chips are down. And he's suffered for that more than once."
Jim nodded but didn't comment, waiting for Church to continue as he saw a familiar, far-off look come into the Australian's eyes as he went back to a memory.
"We were at this pub one time. I was undercover in a bikie gang. Oscar was working as a drug buyer. He got mouthy, as only Oscar can, and the next thing you know the target takes to him with a chain. I had to leave him in the pub, half-conscious and bleeding so I didn't blow my cover. He ended up in hospital on life support for three days."
Jim flashed unaccountably on a memory of Blair lying in the hospital, hooked up to a ventilator as an overdose of Golden ravaged his body. Of having to leave to chase down the men who'd poisoned his lover, not knowing if he'd be returning to a corpse. "I know what you mean," he said, taking a swallow of water, his mouth suddenly dry. "Seems like talking isn't the only thing our partners have got in common. They're both trouble magnets, too."
Church smiled suddenly and Jim saw genuine warmth and understanding in the man's eyes. Church looked at his watch and stood. "We better get a move on or Stony'll be cursing me out for leaving him stranded."
Jim strolled out to the hotel balcony, sipping a cold beer and surveying the city while Blair showered and changed. They'd both opted for room service rather than going downstairs to the restaurant, both feeling weary after the trip and the exertions of the day. He'd phoned Simon earlier and let him know they'd arrived and were scheduled to meet with the task force the following morning.
It was cooler now though somewhat humid, a hint of rain in the air. The weather forecast had mentioned a drop in the blast furnace conditions of the previous five-day heat-wave and Jim was grateful for that. While his control over his senses was almost automatic now, especially with Blair to guide him, extremes in temperature still bothered him, and coming from the chill of a Washington winter into a broiling Australian summer was exhausting.
He turned as Blair's arms came around him from behind, engulfing him in an aura of herbal shampoo and soap. Bending his head, he nuzzled at his lover's neck, smiling as Blair arched up against his lips.
"Oh, yeah," Blair sighed, both hands roaming over Jim's broad back. "For more than food but I don't think I have the energy for anything more than this tonight."
Jim pulled back from the embrace and studied Blair intently, his senses automatically cataloguing his partner's vital signs. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine, just tired." Blair pecked at Jim's down-turned lips. "A good tired." A tapping at the door made him turn. "Food!"
Walking back into the room, Jim stared as Blair pulled the silver lid from their plates with a dramatic flourish. "What the hell is that?"
Blair grinned and seated himself at the table, rubbing his hands together in obvious enthusiasm. "That is bugs." Picking up a fork, he dug in, closing his eyes in bliss as he chewed slowly. "Mmm, s'really good."
"Oh, no." Jim backed away from the table, waving his hands in the air. "I am not eating bugs. What is this? Some kind of, what do you call it? Ethnic culinary delight? I'm going to phone room service for a hamburger."
"Just try it first, please. They're called Moreton Bay bugs, only they're like big shrimp. You'll love it." Blair held up one of the small crustaceans, pressing it to Jim's lips as he smiled enticingly.
Groaning and silently threatening dire consequences if his stomach protested the exotic fare, Jim accepted the morsel and chewed carefully. His grimace of distaste slowly morphed to a look of pleasure and he leaned in, licking the dressing from Blair's fingers. "Mm, not bad," he announced, giving Blair's pinky a final swipe with his tongue.
"Keep doing that, lover and we'll never finish dinner," Blair breathed as he adjusted his suddenly tight pants.
Jim grinned and sat, finishing the rest of his meal with alacrity.
Later, seated back on the balcony, matching glasses of wine in their hands, Jim listened with half an ear to Blair's chatter about his afternoon spent with Oscar. His interest picked up when Blair mentioned Alby, the Aboriginal man with possible heightened senses.
"It would make sense, I guess," Jim said slowly. "Out in the bush, having a watchman for the tribe."
Blair nodded excitedly. "Oscar said if we can stay a while after the case wraps up, he'll take us out to his family's farm. Alby died a few years back but some of his family still work for Oscar's dad. I might be able to get some anecdotal evidence, at least."
"Sounds good." Jim allowed himself to drift a little in the warmth of the night.
Blair snorted. "Oscar is such a goofball. One minute, he's horsing around, telling really lame jokes, next minute he's telling me how he took out a guy who was trying to kill him, with a bow and arrow." Jim's eyes opened in interest. "Yeah," Blair continued, nodding vigorously. "Seems he was a champion archer. A man of many talents."
Jim lifted a bare foot and rested it on Blair's groin, rubbing softly. "Sounds like someone else I know."
Blair shifted back in his chair, then lowered his hand to Jim's foot, massaging it slowly. "How did your afternoon go with Detective 'I am a rock'?"
"Better than I expected. Actually, he's an all right guy. He's a lot like me, just worries about his partner getting hurt."
"Oscar told me he got shot once. He was on life support and he was restless, fighting the ventilator but the doctors didn't know what was wrong. Angie, one of the other team members, knew. She got a transmission wire and put it in his hand. Oscar said it's like his talisman. If he goes undercover, as long as he has his wire, he knows Pete is watching his back, and he feels safe. Kind of like you and me." He continued to stroke Jim's foot, moving to the sole now. "He knows about us."
"You told him?"
"No, are you nuts?" Blair looked momentarily affronted, his gentle massage forgotten. "He's just intuitive. He's not going to tell anyone. I trust him."
Jim relaxed back in his seat and closed his eyes as the mesmerizing stroke began again. "That's good enough for me then."
"Then trust me enough to know that you don't need to worry about me any more. We're going to catch this guy and get closure on this thing. I have complete faith in you. After what's gone before, I know you will never let anything happen to me again." He pushed Jim's foot off his lap and stood, leaning in to press a kiss to Jim's lips. "I trust you. You have to learn to trust yourself." He extended a hand to his partner. "Bed?"
Jim accepted the hand and silently vowed to honor Blair's faith in him, in them. Wrapping an arm around Blair's shoulders, he led him into the bedroom.
The shrill tone of the phone woke Jim early the next morning. Levering himself from beneath Blair's slumbering body and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached out to snag the receiver with one hand as the other scrubbed over his face and back through his hair. Through the balcony window, he could see a pink tinge to the dawn sky indicating another hot day.
"Ellison." He listened to the voice on the other end for a moment then thanked them, and hung up. Turning, he shook what he thought was Blair's shoulder beneath the sheet and was rewarded with a muffled groan.
"Rise and shine, Sandburg."
A tousled head appeared from beneath the covers as Jim pulled his bathroom gear out and headed for the bathroom.
"Geez, Jim. It's not even daylight yet."
"Church just phoned. They found another body. Someone called Angie will be here to pick us up in twenty minutes."
Blair sighed. "Guess I'd better go muss up the covers on my bed before the maid comes in."
Jim looked up from his crouched position next to the blood-covered body of a long-haired young man and swallowed down the nausea that threatened to surge. He felt the press of Blair's hand against his back and took comfort in the knowledge that his lover was whole, breathing and safe beside him.
"You all right?" Church was studying him intently and Jim dragged a hand across his forehead, wiping off a fine sheen of sweat.
"Yeah. Still getting used to this heat. What is this place?" He swept his eyes upward, taking in the minute detail of the open-fronted shell-shaped structure they were standing in.
"It's the Myer Music Bowl," Oscar offered. "They hold concerts here in the summer. It's pretty well known."
Blair nodded. "It fits. Well-known place." He shivered a little. "Right victim type. Everything fits." He blew out a slow breath. "It's him," he whispered, the shakiness evident in his voice.
"How can you be sure?" Church asked.
Blair spun to the face the Australian and pulled his t-shirt out from the waistband of his jeans to reveal the jagged scars on his stomach. He pointed a trembling finger at the body slumped on the stage. "Check out his wounds. I guarantee they match."
He looked up as Jim placed a steadying hand on his arm and Blair covered it with his own, squeezing it gently. "I'm okay. Some things were left out of the reports in case they were leaked to the press. We've encountered that problem before. He carves an initial in his victim's flesh. I think it's his son's name, or maybe a close friend."
There was an uncomfortable pause before Church nodded and turned away to direct the Forensic people in a sweep of the area.
"You pick anything up?" Blair asked, his hand dropping to his side as he saw Angie watching them curiously.
"I don't know. Aftershave, maybe. It smells the same. Then again, the victim might use the same one. Give me a minute, huh?" He turned back to the corpse and took a moment to center himself then dialed up each sense in turn. Reaching out, he pulled the dead man's right arm from where it lay trapped under the body and gently uncurled the fingers.
"What is that?" Blair asked, leaning in for a closer look. "A button?"
Jim nodded and held it up for Oscar to take. "It's distinctive though. Evidence, at least, when we get the guy. It didn't come from the kid's shirt. Do you have an ID?"
Oscar stepped forward and studied his notebook. "David Price, aged 24. Comes from a coastal town, up here for the festival."
Oscar nodded, his dark hair dropping over one eye. "Midsumma Gay Festival. It's an annual thing."
Blair stood and offered Jim a hand. "What now?"
"Meeting with Bernie in a half-hour," Oscar replied. "We'll do some brainstorming and see what we can come up with."
"Any chance we can grab some breakfast on the way?" Jim asked as they trailed the petite Angie back to the car. She turned a wide smile on Jim. "Of course. Just tell me what you're after. My pleasure."
Blair nudged Jim and grinned. Jim rolled his eyes and whacked his lover on the back of the head.
"Detective Ellison, it's good to meet you."
As Angie ushered Jim and Blair into the safe house designated for the meeting, a tall, dark-haired man stepped forward from the group gathered around a table in the kitchen. They'd stopped on the way at a small café for breakfast though Blair refused more than coffee and a yogurt. He still looked a little pale and Jim once again doubted the wisdom in allowing his partner to accompany him on this trip.
Jim shook the other man's hand and looked him over appraisingly. Bernie Rocca was the head of the undercover unit, 'the boss' Angie had called him in an affectionate manner. Rocca was almost as tall as Jim; his once trim body now thickened a little from the confines of a job spent behind a desk. He had assessing brown eyes and a smile that seemed welcoming enough but wary. Exactly what Jim envisioned for the man running an undercover unit.
"Professor Sandburg. Welcome to Australia." Rocca turned his attention to Blair.
"Blair is just fine, Sergeant." Blair shook Rocca's hand in turn. "Rocca? I'm guessing Italian?"
Rocca smiled and nodded as he ushered them into seats at the table and pushed a water jug and glasses toward them. "Spot on, Blair, but a long while ago. My grandparents came from Sicily but I was born in Australia. Now," Rocca seated himself and pulled a thick folder toward him, "let me introduce you to everyone and we'll go over what we've got."
Angie was a familiar face. Seated next to Oscar, she was petite and pretty, her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail that made her look more like a college student than a cop, her blue eyes not leaving Jim's face and he heated a little under her attention. Sergeant Ellen Mackenzie sat beside Peter Church, her hair dark and her features somewhat exotic. She followed most of the discussion silently, appearing to weigh up every word, every suggestion put forward. According to Church, she was an electronics and computer whiz.
The house was uncomfortably warm, and the temperature outside had already climbed into the high eighties. A small air conditioner blew lukewarm air into the kitchen but apart from having the benefit of shifting the air around, didn't really help at all. Jim could already feel sweat dribbling between his shoulder blades.
"Okay," Rocca began. "We're fairly convinced this is the same bloke you two caught up with in " he consulted his file," Cascade. From the description of the last victim, it looks like he's still targeting young men, mid to late twenties, long brown hair, small build." Bernie looked at Blair. "Anything you want to add here, Blair? Why those men in particular?"
Blair thought for a moment, absently shuffling the paper on the table in front of him. "I've got two theories. One is that his son contracted a sexually-transmitted disease, HIV perhaps, and the victims are picked either because of their similarity to his son or to the person who gave his son AIDS. I'm leaning toward the latter."
"Why?" Ellen Mackenzie leaned forward and cupped her chin in her hands, her face showing only intense curiosity.
Under the table, Jim laid a hand on Blair's leg as the other man took a long swallow of water. Blair began slowly, his voice little more than a whisper. "When he had me in the van, he was abusing me, calling me names. His whole attitude was one of absolute hate, anger, totally threatening. It was It was terrifying, lying there bleeding, too weak to fight and have all that anger spewed out at you." His hand was shaking again as he took another drink of water.
"I'm sorry," Mac said quietly, genuine remorse on her face. "It must have been awful."
"So." Jim sat forward then and took over the conversation, allowing Blair some time to regain his equilibrium. "What now?"
"Why do you suppose he leaves them where he does?" Angie asked. "I mean, they may be well-known landmarks but there's no pattern in the type of places. Military memorials, look-outs, we had one body left at the Remembrance Shrine, now this last one at the Music Bowl."
"It would only be a guess," Blair replied, toying with his glass. "A lot of serial killers take something from their victims, a trophy that they can look at and replay the thrill of the kill. Maybe this guy doesn't want to take trophies because the people he's killing are abhorrent to him, but he still wants a trophy, a memory of his deeds."
Angie nodded. "Makes sense."
"Looks like he's targeting the Midsumma Festival," Bernie said. "This is the second victim. Last night of the carnival tonight so let's see if he comes back. I'll put some extra men on the street in Fitzroy, South Yarra and St. Kilda. They're the main gay precincts here in Melbourne. Church, I want you inside Alexandra Gardens, ready to move if you see anything suspicious."
"I'd like to work with Church on that," Jim added quickly. "I didn't come all the way over here to sit on my hands, Sergeant."
"Fair enough," Rocca replied, nodding his head. "Church and Ellison inside the Carnival. We'll see if we can find out from the victim's friends where he might have been picked up. Mac, fix them up with wires, so we've got two-way happening. Angie, you're behind the wheel in case this bloke gives us the slip."
"What about me?" Oscar asked.
"Oscar." Bernie seemed to think a moment. "Blair knows what this guy looks like, so I want you and Blair hanging around near the entrances. If you spot him approaching, give us a heads-up. Just try to stay out of the way so he doesn't see you, Blair. We don't want to scare him off."
"Look, I don't know about Sandburg being out there," Jim began. "If this bastard sees him he can watch just as easily from the surveillance van."
"No." Blair stood now and walked around the table to face Jim. "We talked about this, Jim."
Jim's brow furrowed. "I know what we talked about, Sandburg. I just don't think you need to be out there, not like the last time..."
"Exactly," Blair replied firmly. "It won't be like the last time."
"I'll be with him," Oscar put in. "He won't leave my side."
"It could be handy for us if he spots the bloke," Rocca said. "But he's your partner and I'll leave the decision up to you."
Blair spun on his heel and glared at the Australian detective. "Great. Thanks, Bernie. You're as bad as Simon!" With that, he stormed out of the room and down the hallway. Distantly, the front door slammed and Jim cringed.
"Sorry," Jim muttered to no one in particular as he followed his angry partner out of the house. "Pick us both up at six tonight, Church." He turned and pinned a laser-like stare on Oscar. "You keep my partner safe."
"You got it."
"All right. I'd better go and calm him down before he explodes."
Behind him, Jim heard Bernie ask Angie to drive them back to the hotel. Then, a puzzled mutter. "Who the hell is Simon?"
Blair was seated on the low brick wall that bordered the neatly kept house and garden. Jim turned back as he heard Angie walk up the hallway toward him. "Can you give us a minute?"
Angie smiled and Jim saw a flicker of understanding in her eyes. "Sure. I'll go bring the car around to the front."
"Thanks." Jim pushed open the squeaky wire-screened door and walked down the short flagstone path. Seating himself next to Blair, he waited.
"Sorry," Blair said softly.
"You've got nothing to apologize for."
"Sure I do," Blair countered. "I just yelled at Bernie and he doesn't know why."
"I'm the one who should apologize." Jim reached out and touched Blair's swinging leg, squeezing it briefly. "We agreed on something and I went back on the agreement. You asked me to trust you."
Blair shook his head and scraped his hair back from his face with both hands, securing it in a ponytail with a leather tie. "I asked you to trust yourself."
"I'm just scared for you."
Jim looked up as Angie steered the sedan around the corner and parked a discreet distance away. "Church and Oscar are picking us up at six."
Blair smiled. "Wanna go back to the hotel and fool around?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Warm water cascaded over Jim's shoulders as he knelt in the shower and took Blair's erection into his mouth. Above him, his lover arched upward at the sensation, Blair's hands reaching down to clutch at Jim's skull, as he thrust languorously.
Jim used his hands to press Blair back against the tiled wall of the shower, preventing him from moving, allowing Jim the pleasure of feasting on the sensory delights of his lover. He ran his tongue up one side of Blair's cock, then scraped gently downward with his teeth. Once he was sure Blair would remain still, he removed one hand and ran his fingers the length of his lover's leg, as he tongued the slit of Blair's penis and savored the salty tang of pre-come.
"Jim, please." Blair's voice was a breathy moan and Jim halted his ministrations to look up at his lover, smiling at the panting mouth and lust-dark eyes.
"What do you want, Blair?" Jim asked, enjoying this turning of the tables.
"Please." It seemed to be all that Blair could manage until Jim swallowed his cock once more, stroking his hand between Blair's legs at the same time, his ghosting fingers finding and penetrating Blair's entrance. Blair moaned and bucked upward. "I'm gonna come. Fuck me."
Jim stood and pushed Blair around so that he faced the wall. Blair immediately pressed his shoulders in and pushed his hips outward, his stance wide and welcoming. Jim's fingers found Blair's pucker and slipped in, the gel on his fingers easing the way. These days, prolonged stretching was unnecessary but Jim knew how much Blair loved having his ass fingered and indulged him at every chance.
Blair writhed, trying to push Jim deeper to stroke against his prostate, pushing back with a cry as Jim's fingertips hit the sweet spot. Jim's hand went down to pump his own cock as he watched his lover dance on his fingers, the thought and feel so erotic that he knew he couldn't last much longer.
With a cry, Jim pulled his fingers free and rammed his cock into Blair, reaching his hand around to encircle Blair's waist and pull his lover back to lean against him. He sent his hand lower to pull at Blair's own cock, milking his orgasm from him almost roughly. Blair cried out and rocked wildly, forward into Jim's fist and back onto the rod that impaled him. The contraction of Blair's ass wrenched Jim's coming from him in a whiteout so intense, he thought for a moment he'd passed out. Coming to his senses with them both on the floor, Blair seated on his half-hard cock made him realize he probably had.
As he softened and slipped from Blair's warmth, his lover turned on his lap and snuggled up against his chest, both arms going around Jim's neck, Blair's drenched curls tickling Jim's chin. Jim stroked a hand slowly down Blair's back, relishing the satiny flesh beneath his touch.
"Guess we should get dressed," he murmured. "We can grab something to eat downstairs while we wait for Peter."
"Yeah, okay." Blair huffed the words out against his chest. "Nice, though."
"What's that?" Jim let his fingers drift up to entangle in Blair's silky locks.
"Never ending hot water."
Jim snorted and tipped Blair unceremoniously from his lap to the floor. Blair took his sweet time getting up, so Jim turned the hot water off as he stepped out and laughed uproariously at the shout of outrage from his lover.
"I'll get you for that, Ellison."
"Yeah, yeah," Jim scoffed as he wrapped a towel around his waist. "I'm going to phone Simon. Any messages you want to pass on?"
"Yeah," Blair's voice echoed from the bathroom. "Tell him I'm bringing him home a kangaroo."
Jim pulled his focused gaze back from the milling crowd ahead of them and watched as Church scuffed at the dirt path.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," the Australian muttered angrily.
"Something like that," Jim agreed. He wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled his damp t-shirt away from where it clung uncomfortably to his back. Although it was approaching nightfall, the temperature was still high and a recent shower of rain had created an unwelcome humidity. Jim took a long swallow of water. "If he decides to strike again, he may wait until dark."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Church replied. "Even with the lights on, we won't be able to see a damn thing."
Jim shrugged. "I've got good eyes. If anything goes down, I'll see it."
Church studied him for a moment, then nodded and resumed the walk. "Maybe Sandburg will spot him."
Jim felt his mouth go dry at the very real thought of Blair coming face to face with the man who had almost killed him. He stared ahead, not really seeing anything. "I hate to say it, but I hope not."
Oscar watched as Blair sipped the last of the foam from the top of his cappucino and shifted impatiently on the hard plastic chair. They had set up their surveillance at a small outdoor café, not far from the main entrance to the Midsumma Festival. Jim and Church had been inside now for almost two hours and so far, there had been no word from them. Up ahead, just around the corner, he could just glimpse the end of a white vehicle, the Stingers surveillance van, currently manned by Angie and Mac.
"How long do we wait?" Blair finally asked as he toyed with the plastic spoon resting on his saucer.
Oscar shrugged. "Until Bernie tells us to go home, I guess." He held one hand closed on his lap, idly tapping it against his thigh. Clutched in his fist was a tiny radio transmitter tuned into Church, Jim and the van. He rested his chin on his other hand and stared at Blair. "What are the chances he'll go somewhere else to pick a victim?"
Blair shrugged. "As good as any, I guess. Though he hasn't been caught here and it's a place where he can guarantee picking up gays, unlike other areas where he has to hope his gaydar's correct. He "
Oscar straightened in his seat as Blair broke off and stared straight past him, the color draining suddenly from the anthropologist's face. Not wanting to draw attention to them, Oscar leaned over the table and touched Blair's hand. "Blair? What's wrong?"
Blair turned wide eyes toward him. "It's him. He's here." Then suddenly, before Oscar could react, Blair grasped hold of the front of the detective's shirt, pulling him across the table toward him and locking their lips together.
Oscar stiffened, both his hands coming up momentarily to tear Blair's away, until he realized exactly what the anthropologist was doing. Taking a deep breath, and hoping fervently that none of his teammates were watching, Oscar relaxed into the kiss. Footsteps passed behind him, a muttered word, said angrily but too indistinct to decipher and then Blair released him so suddenly, he almost fell on his butt.
Blair gave him a shaky smile. "Sorry," he whispered, his eyes following the rapid pace of the large man down the street. "Didn't want him to see me."
Oscar nodded his understanding and brought the radio up to his mouth. He looked once more at Blair before he depressed the send button. "Are you sure it was him?"
Blair nodded, and got to his feet. "I'm sure. Come on, he's going past the festival entrance and picking up speed. If we're not careful, we'll lose him."
Oscar hurried to catch Blair, the shorter man remarkably quick on his feet. "Church, we have a hit. Repeat, we have a hit."
As he drew level with Blair, he became aware that the anthropologist was mumbling softly under his breath and thought for a moment that Blair had snapped under the pressure of seeing his attacker. Listening carefully as they pounded up the pavement in pursuit, he realized with a start that Blair was talking to Jim, though he wore no wire.
"Shit!" Blair stopped talking and glanced quickly at him. "Ellison's like Alby, isn't he?"
"Let's just say he's blessed with remarkably good hearing and leave it at that." He gave Oscar a pleading look. "Please?"
Before Oscar could form a response, something jammed brutally into his lower back, driving sharp pain inward that stole his breath and sent him staggering to the ground. He hit the ground hard, his vision already graying out as he felt something hot and wet seeping down his back. He saw Blair stop and turn back toward him as he fell forward.
"Oscar? Oh, God! Jim! Jim, hurry! Oscar's hurt."
Blair's words rushed over him as Oscar watched the anthropologist drop to his knees and touch his back, pressing hard with the heel of a hand. The pain was so great, he felt himself blacking out. Reaching out one hand, he tried to push Blair away from him. "Go," he gasped. "Run."
Even as he spoke, a pair of shiny black shoes, the toes spattered lightly with blood filled his vision and he heard Blair grunt. Forcing his muscles to obey him, Oscar was able to turn his head slightly on the pavement as the man pulled Blair up against him. At the same time, he plunged a hypodermic needle into Blair's neck. Shifting his grip, the man wrapped one strong arm around Blair's throat and dragged the struggling man toward a car parked a short distance away.
Oscar could only listen as the car engine started and then he heard it accelerate up the street. Pounding footsteps approached and another hand pressed against his back, causing him to cry out.
"It's all right, Stoney. Take it easy, mate."
Jim Ellison's face filled his vision, blurring and shifting, then fading away. Through the pounding that echoed in his head, he faintly made out Ellison's panicked words. "Where's Blair?'
"Took him," Oscar ground out.
He could hear Church shouting for an ambulance over the clamor of other voices and he reached out, grasping Ellison's forearm in a weak grip. "Black Holden sedan, headed north on Saint Kilda Road."
Ellison nodded and patted his shoulder. "Take it easy, Oscar."
As the darkness swept him away, Oscar forced out what he needed to say. "I'm sorry."
From his position hunched up in the corner of the passenger seat, Blair eyed his attacker warily, the familiar, angry features sending his reeling thoughts spiraling back into horrific memories of pain and fear.
He knew he'd been drugged with something. He could feel the inexorable pull of the chemicals as they dulled his mind and slowed his body. He wasn't sure if he should feel elated or discomfited by the murderer's change in M.O. This time at least, the man hadn't stabbed him immediately, which meant he still had a fighting chance. Not much of one, though. Soon he knew he would lapse into unconsciousness or death and be unable to protect himself. For now, he had to trust that Jim was on his way and keep himself alive and awake.
He tried to force his weakening body to sit up straighter, but overbalanced and slumped forward against the confines of the seatbelt, his head dropping onto his chest. He blinked several times as his vision blurred. "What's your name?"
The murderer turned to glare balefully at him then Blair's head snapped sideways and fiery pain erupted along his cheek as he was dealt a stinging slap. "Why won't you stay dead?" his attacker muttered. "Michael's dead and it's all your fault. I should have made sure the first time. It's time for justice to be done. You have been judged and found guilty of murder, worthless ass-fucker. The sentence is death."
Blair's head rolled on a loose neck as he tried to focus on the man. "If you tell me his name "
The man shot him a venomous glare. "Like you don't know. He was named after me." Tears streamed down his cheeks and the car veered toward the edge of the road.
Blair reached for the door, wondering if he was brave enough to jump. The decision was taken out of his hands when he saw that the interior handle had been removed.
"Michael James Murphy. My only son. I moved my whole family to the States for my job, then you pansy weirdoes sucked Michael in." He shook his head sadly. "I didn't know him anymore. His boyfriend, David," his mouth twisted as he spat out the words, "looked just like you and all the others. That's how I knew what you were." He took a slow, shaky breath, then drew himself up ramrod straight, the words coming from between tightly clenched teeth. "Then he got sick. Did his precious little boyfriend hang around when the going got tough? Not likely, mate. Five years later, he was dead. They said it was pneumonia but if he didn't have AIDS, he wouldn't have got pneumonia. In the end, even my wife couldn't stand to look at him. I held him over the toilet while he puked up his guts, cleaned up his messes when he couldn't make it to the toilet anymore. I was the one who sat at his bedside while that disease ate him away." He punched Blair hard in the face. "I lost my whole family because of people like you."
Blair could barely hear the words through the rushing sound in his ears and he knew time was running out. He fell backward against the door, trying to swallow the blood in his mouth from his bitten tongue, and pressed his cheek against the window. Under his breath, he began to recite the direction they were traveling in the hope that Jim could hear him.
Jim and Church piled into the van next to Mac, leaving Angie to accompany the unconscious Stone to hospital. The detective had lost a substantial amount of blood and his condition was serious.
As Mac pulled out onto the road, Jim sat forward, expanding his senses, searching for anything that might indicate the direction Blair's attacker had gone. His enhanced sight focused on a dark sedan in the distance, traveling at high speed and ignoring all the basic road rules. He swore softly as the car raced through a red light, narrowly avoiding a collision with another vehicle. "The car's ahead of us, traveling north on this road."
Church nodded, then picked up the radio handset and relayed the information to the backup squads.
Taking a slow breath, Jim took a gamble without his guide present to ground him, and sent his hearing outward to piggyback on his sight. The sound wavered in and out for a moment, much like a faulty volume control, then settled and became stronger. He shuddered at the hateful words that spilled from the killer's mouth.
"You have been judged and found guilty of murder, worthless ass-fucker. The sentence is death."
Jim looked pleadingly at Mac. "Can't you go any faster?"
"I'm doing the best I can," Mac replied. "We're no good to Blair if we kill ourselves."
Church laid a hand on Jim's arm. "Roadblocks are being set up at every intersection. We'll get him."
Jim shook off the hand impatiently. "He's just pronounced a sentence of death on Sandburg. We could be too late."
Church eyed him strangely but Jim ignored it and went back to focusing on the car. Suddenly, below the noise of the engine, Jim detected a second voice, so faint it was almost non-existent and he had to dial up his hearing fully to decipher the words. He knew he was risking a massive zone-out, but didn't care.
Clenching his fist, he dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand, hoping the pain would keep him somewhat grounded, as he concentrated on Blair's whispered words. He smiled slowly. "Atta boy, Chief. Keep talking."
Keeping his hearing tuned into Blair, Jim spoke to Mac. "I need you to trust me on this. Blair's giving me directions. The problem is he doesn't know the names of the roads so he can't tell me which one they're on. If I relay them to you, do you think you can follow them?"
Mac looked at him in astonishment. "How can you hear him?"
"We brought some advanced gadgetry of our own."
"I didn't see a wire on either of you," Church said.
"Like I said, it's advanced. Look, do you want to get this guy or what?"
"Of course we do."
"Then trust me and follow my directions."
Mac nodded. "Okay."
The radio crackled and Church picked up the handset. "Go ahead, VKC."
"Preliminary ID of the number plate shows the vehicle licensed to a Michael Murphy, no outstanding warrants. Do you want an address?"
"I'll get back to you. Church out."
Jim focused on the car racing away from them. "All right. They're going north, still on the same road, and they've crossed the railway bridge. There's a church on the right hand side. Still heading north, there are a lot of shops and they're passing a large library on the right. Come on, Blair, come on." Jim smacked the dash in frustration. Blair's voice was fading, the pauses between his words getting longer. Stone had told them that he'd seen Blair injected with something. Whatever it was, it was beginning to take effect.
"Turning " It was the final whispered word from Blair and there was silence. "Shit! He's passed out." Jim peered out the passenger window into the rapidly approaching darkness. "Where are we?"
"Corner of Swanston and Franklin Streets," Church said.
Mac slowed the van as they approached the next intersection. Ahead, Jim could see the flashing lights of two police cars as they approached. In the distance, several sirens wailed. He looked up and down the street. "No sign of him." He sent his hearing out again but a police siren echoed painfully against his eardrums and he had to pull back. He looked at Church desperate for help. "Which way?"
"Did he say anything else, anything at all?"
"Just that Blair had been judged."
"We'll do a building to building search." Church listened for a moment to the radio. "Roger that, VKC. Out. Roadblocks are up, so he's trapped within a small area."
"There's no time," Jim ground out. "Wait a minute. Are there any legal buildings around here?"
"Police stations, you mean?"
Jim shook his head impatiently. "Courts, something like that, but keep in mind if he sticks to his M.O., they'd be of historical importance."
Church looked at him blankly for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Old Melbourne Gaol. Mac, hang a right."
In the rear parking lot of the Old Melbourne Gaol, Murphy opened the trunk and pulled a tire iron from within. Making his way around to the passenger side, he dragged his unconscious victim from the car and flung him over a broad shoulder in a fireman's carry. Treading silently across the asphalt to the rear entrance, he placed his burden on the ground, then hammered on the door of the small caretaker's office, before ducking around the corner.
The door opened, and the caretaker stepped out of the office, dropping to his knees beside Blair's crumpled form with a gasp. Murphy stepped out of the shadows and struck the man's bent head with the tire iron. As he collapsed, Murphy caught him and lowered him gently to the ground.
"Sorry," he murmured, wiping at the thin stream of blood that flowed from the caretaker's head. "It can't be helped."
Church instructed Mac to park a few blocks away from the old Gaol building and wait for backup to arrive. Motioning to Jim, he led the way back along the pavement and around to the rear parking lot of the Gaol.
The door to the caretaker's office was slightly ajar and the inside light switched on. Stepping cautiously inside, Jim saw the slumped body of an elderly man on the floor, blood streaming from a gash on the top of his head. Kneeling next to him, Jim felt for a carotid pulse, relieved to feel a steady beat beneath his fingers. He looked up as Church poked his head in the doorway. "He's alive," he whispered.
Church nodded. "I told Mac to radio for an ambulance."
Weapons drawn, the two detectives made their way into the enormous Gaol building. It was dark inside and Jim dialed up his sight and hearing to compensate. Sorting through the sounds, he catalogued them. Someone walking rapidly on a timber floor, their footsteps echoing even as they made an obvious effort to be quiet, their breath panting, a slight wheeze behind the sound, mercifully two heartbeats--one rapid, the other terribly slow. No voices now, Blair was silent.
As they turned a corner, they entered a vast room with a steep set of metal steps at each end. The steps led up to a landing that stretched across the upper expanse. Jim could see cells opening onto the landing. He heard a rhythmic thumping and looked ahead to see Murphy had Blair under the arms, dragging him up the steps at the opposite end of the room. Blair's limp feet hit the edge of each rung as he was pulled along.
"Keep him busy," he whispered to Church. Pete nodded and stepped out into the open, bringing his weapon to bear on Murphy just as the murderer reached the top landing and pulled Blair's body up to drape over one strong arm.
"Murphy! Freeze! Police."
Murphy paused for a brief moment, as though sizing up the threat then shook his head and dragged Blair along the grated landing. "He killed my son."
Jim took advantage of Murphy's attention to Church and ran for the stairs at the closest end of the room, trotting up as swiftly as he could without tipping Murphy off to his presence. As he made his way along the landing, he listened to the exchange between Church and Murphy.
"He didn't even know your son, Mr. Murphy. I'm sorry for your loss but murdering other young men will not bring him back."
Murphy shook his head vehemently. "It doesn't matter," he croaked. "They're all the same."
Suddenly he pushed Blair so that his limp body tipped forward over the railing then reached out and snagged a handful of Blair's hair, pulling his head back until the unconscious man's throat was exposed. Murphy's other hand went quickly to his waistband, pulling forth a long, narrow-bladed knife. As he pressed the blade to Blair's throat, Jim fired, then heard a second shot explode a split second after his own.
Murphy cried out, his body slamming forward from the impetus of Jim's bullet, sending him tumbling over the rails, the fist still caught in Blair's hair dragging the unconscious man with him.
Jim was at the railing before he realized he'd moved, his hands reaching desperately for Blair. His fingers found Blair's right wrist, wrapping around it tightly, feeling the muscles in the unconscious man's arm tear and the sickening snap of bone, even as the dead-weight of Murphy's body tore his grasp from Blair's hair and the man fell with a blood-curdling scream to the floor below.
Blair swung now in Jim's grasp, his head lolling on his chest. Jim put every ounce of strength he could muster into his arm and slowly began to haul his partner back to safety. A second hand reached down beside him and Jim looked sideways to meet Church's eyes.
"You got him," Church grunted. "Let me help."
As Jim dragged Blair's upper body over the railing, Church fisted a hand in Blair's belt and pulled him over to collapse in Jim's arms. Jim sank to the ground and cradled his partner to him, bending his head to feel the reassuring warmth of Blair's breath against his cheek.
Church stood and watched for a moment, hands on hips as he caught his breath. He looked up as he heard running feet and laid a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Here comes the cavalry. I'll direct the paramedics up here. You all right?"
Jim nodded and pushed Blair's sweat-slick hair back from the lax face, wincing at the sight of bruises and swelling from Murphy's fists. "I am now."
"Sandburg? Did you pack the sun-block?"
Blair's head poked from the doorway of the bedroom, a huge bottle of sun lotion clasped in his good hand. "With your skin, what do you think?" He walked out of the bedroom, a towel slung over one shoulder and headed for the kitchen where he pulled a large cold bottle of water from the refrigerator. "It was really nice of Oscar's folks to lend us their holiday house, huh?"
"It was," Jim agreed as he took a final look around the living area, checking they'd packed everything they needed for the trek to the beach. He watched as Blair pulled an apple from the refrigerator and bit into it with relish, relieved to see his lover's appetite returning.
The first days after Murphy's attack had been rough on them all, especially Blair, as nightmares seemed to permeate every sleeping moment, Jim often unsure whether he was reliving this most recent attack or the first.
Blair had spent two days in the hospital, recovering. The drug he'd been injected with was a common sedative though Murphy had not been finicky about the dosage he'd used and the level in Blair's blood had been close to toxic. His bruises were fading already, turning a sickly hue of yellow and green that only served to accentuate his pallor, so when Oscar had announced he was headed to the beach to recuperate from his own injuries and invited them along, Jim had agreed instantly.
They'd been here a week now. Oscar had left the day before to make a quick trip down to see his parents before returning to work the following week. The Australian detective had been fortunate. Murphy's knife had nicked an artery but prompt treatment by Church to stem the blood loss had prevented more serious complications. He bore a scar now on his lower back. The first night here, he and Blair had bonded together, baring their scars - their badges of courage - like brothers in arms, as only two who had suffered together, and fought to survive could.
Blair turned to Jim glumly, raising the wrist that had been broken when Jim grabbed for him as Murphy had almost taken him with him in his death-fall at the Gaol. "Not gonna be much fun at the beach with this thing on." He waved the cast in the air, then glared at Jim. "You want to tell me why you chose green?"
Jim shrugged and sidled up beside his lover, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling Blair in so he could nuzzle his neck. "I wanted it to match your eyes."
"Jim, I have blue eyes."
"I know," Jim replied. He pulled Blair's good hand up and took a bite from the apple. "They were all out of blue, so I picked a color to match your complexion." He didn't bother to duck the expected whack to his head, too busy savoring the feel of Blair in his arms, safe and whole.
"Your asshole," Jim corrected. "Anyway, there are lots of other things you can do at a private beach besides swim." He licked a bejeweled earlobe.
Blair towed him toward the door, picking up the picnic basket on the way and slinging the handle over Jim's spare arm. "Fine, but I'm warning you now, man, if I get sand up my ass, I am never listening to you again."
Two weeks later:
Simon accepted the can of beer that Blair offered him, shifting his toy kangaroo to his other arm. He lifted the can to his eyes, turning it around to study the unfamiliar label. "Fosters?"
Jim rolled his eyes as he turned the steaks on the barbecue. "Blair developed quite a taste for Aussie beer while we were there."
Simon shook his head. "Connor will be pleased." He took a tentative sip, then smiled and tried a deeper swallow. "Hey, not bad."
Blair smiled smugly. "See?"
The phone inside the loft rang and Blair handed Jim a beer and headed inside to answer it. Simon and Jim chatted for a few minutes more until the meat was ready, Jim filling Simon in with a more detailed report of the Murphy case. He found it easier to talk about it with Blair out of earshot, hating the stricken look that passed over Blair's face each time Murphy's name was mentioned. A closure of sorts had come about when Blair had asked Jim to accompany him to Michael Murphy Jr's gravesite. There, the anthropologist had left a small bouquet of flowers.
"What his father did was terrible, Jim," Blair explained when Jim had voiced his doubts at the idea, "but the son shouldn't pay for the father's sins. He'd already suffered enough."
Carrying the steaks into the kitchen, Jim was surprised to find Blair still seated on the couch. His hands were fisted tightly on his lap and Jim felt fear twist his gut. "Sandburg? Who was on the phone?"
Blair turned a white face toward him. "Oscar's dead."
"What? How? "
"They were protecting an informant from a hit-man, the gunman fired at Peter, Oscar jumped in front of the gun. He was shot three times. He died a couple of hours ago."
"Shit!" Jim slumped onto the couch and took Blair's hand in his. "I'm sorry, Blair. I know you got to be friends."
After a few moments, Blair pulled back and wiped at his face with his hands. "Fuck, sometimes, I hate this job." He took a deep, shaky breath as Simon walked out of the kitchen. "Sorry," he whispered.
Simon waved away the apology. "I've lost my share of friends, Sandburg. I'm sorry for your loss." He stood awkwardly for a moment. "Look, I'm gonna go. We can have dinner another time."
"No." Blair stood, then pulled Jim to his feet. "I want you to stay. It's what Oscar would have wanted too." He walked to the kitchen. "Table's set. Jim, can you open that bottle of wine we brought back? Simon, did I tell you that Oscar was a champion archer?"
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