DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.
David Vincent sat at the cluttered desk in his small dorm room and typed furiously at the keyboard. Tears wet his cheeks and blurred his vision, but he didn't care how many typos he made. His readers would get the gist of the letter. He finished writing and wiped at his eyes, then sent the document to print. He wouldn't bother signing it.
He rose slowly from his chair and walked in a near-daze toward the front door, swerving slightly to avoid the bright, golden rays of sunlight streaming through his window and cascading onto the carpet. Bright, golden light. He knew if he touched the rays, they would scorch him.
He had to get to the roof. The light up there wasn't this kind of light. It wouldn't hurt him. Not that it mattered, but he wanted to do it his way. So, it did matter.
No, it doesn't matter. He staggered through the door and headed up the stairs. Nothing matters. It's all a lie. A waste. Grasping the handrail, he practically dragged himself up the steps, finally emerging onto the roof, sunlight bathing him in a warm glow. The beauty of the yellow light stole his breath and he knew he was making the right decision. He would find peace at last.
His feet carried him to the ledge and he looked down at the serene campus below. With a small smile, he spread his arms and leaned forward, letting gravity pull him into the welcome arms of oblivion.
Who'd have figured I'd be good at this? Blair had soared to the top of his class at the Academy on the firing range. His scores put him near the sniper mark. Sure, he'd always had good aim. Hell, it wasn't easy to hit a man smack dab in the middle of the forehead with a baseball from across the room while bullets whizzed through the air, but he'd made the shot easily. It was always something he'd been good at; he just never liked guns. He'd never been to a firing range, but he had held and even fired a gun on a few occasions when his work with Jim made it necessary.
The gun felt heavy at Blair's hip. Well, it wasn't exactly a real gun. It was actually a heavily modified Glock 9-mm police-issue handgun that would never fire a bullet again. Instead of a magazine of bullets in the grip, this 'weapon' had electronics, and a cable snaking off to a computer interface. The barrel now housed a non-visible laser that was calibrated to the sights.
Today, Blair was going through a section of the Academy that had a reputation for washing out cadets: FATS. The Firearms Training Simulator, despite its unfortunate acronym, was an exciting and extremely well put-together training tool. Most of the time, cadets were excited about going through it; even seasoned cops out in the field enjoyed coming back to learn from this state-of-the-art simulator. With a $50,000 price tag attached to the computerized wonder, Blair's biggest fear (or so he joked with the other cadets, careful not to mention any deeper anxieties) was that he would somehow break the machine and get booted out of the Academy on that account.
Blair grimaced. He really needed to focus on the scenario instead of worrying about the technology... or worse, the real-life implications of today's training session. Once, he would have laughed at anyone who predicted he would someday become a police officer, but here he was at the Academy with a 'mock Glock' on his hip. He tried not to think about that paradox too intensely. He was doing this for Jim, and that's all that mattered. He took a deep breath, readying himself as he stared into the huge video screen that filled his vision.
He was 'walking' along the sidewalk in what appeared to be a trendy urban shopping area. He passed a blue Geo Metro parked to his right on the street. The driver's door of the shiny red Chevy Suburban stationed in front opened, and a pair of sneaker-clad feet poked out from under the dashboard just as the Suburban's car alarm went off. A stocking-capped head popped up in the driver's seat and looked directly at Blair.
"Police! Stop and put your hands where I can see them!" Blair found himself yelling, just as he'd been taught.
The modified gun was unexpectedly out of its holster and in his hands, pointing at the fellow with the stocking cap. Blair realized, in the split-second that he took to think about it, that he didn't even remember drawing the weapon.
Stocking Cap ducked down and disappeared from view again, just as a young man wearing a red bandana shot up out of the passenger seat... and pointed a sawed-off shotgun towards Blair.
Blair found his wrists twitching to the right. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The speakers thundered as he squeezed off three rapid shots at the 'gunman.' The gun jumped in his hands as the computer used CO2 puffs to create the feeling of 'recoil' in the gun. Red Bandana slumped down against the dashboard just as Stocking Cap jumped out of the car with a handgun and brought it up to point at Blair.
"Drop the gun!" BOOM! "Drop the gun!" BOOM! BOOM! "Drop the gun!" BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Stocking Cap was now sprawled face-down on the sidewalk, with the handgun lying about a foot away from his hand, dropped before it had even been fired. It's just a simulation, Blair told himself. Nothing more than a high-priced video game. No one's really getting shot. I'm not really shooting anybody. Ignoring the downed gunman, Blair straightened, his hands shaking ever so slightly. A bead of sweat traced its way down the back of his neck and disappeared beneath the collar of his uniform.
Me in a uniform? Naomi would freak if she saw me now, even if she did pretend to be happy about my getting a badge. Yes, he was getting very good at this. He might even beat Jim on the range. Okay, maybe not. Sentinel senses did have their advantage, but barring super eyesight, he might just be able to rival his ex-covert-ops partner. He wondered what reaction that would elicit from Jim.
Suddenly, a figure in a long coat with short hair came into view, his back toward Blair.
"Police! Don't move!"
The figure turned around and Blair saw the gun swing toward him.
"Police!" BOOM! BOOM! "Freeze!" The gunman crumpled to the sidewalk.
"Oh, shit, Sandburg!" whispered Blair. It wasn't a man. It was a woman with a baby cradled against her chest. The gun he'd thought he'd seen was actually a cellphone. His right hand dangled loosely at his side as the modified firearm fell to the concrete floor. A mother with her baby... and I shot her.
The street corner became alive to his senses and the body suddenly looked real. Oh God, what am I doing? He saw himself sometime in the future. One mistake. A gun in his hand. A dead mother, an injured child. Or maybe a kid with a fake pistol. Or maybe a downed grandmother after a bullet from his gun ricocheted off a building.
It was like waking up from a dream... and suddenly nothing made sense anymore. He didn't make sense anymore. His gaze dropped to the gun lying motionless on the pavement and, with a gasp, he spun around and fled.
Simon fingered the report on his desk, his eyes staring sightlessly through the blinds of his office door. A fragrant cup of fresh-brewed coffee sat at his elbow, slowly growing colder, but he paid it no attention.
First, there had been the initial report from the officers who responded to the frantic call from the University. A student had been spotted on the roof of one of the dormitories only seconds before he plunged five stories to the ground in an eerily graceful fall.
By the time the police and ambulance arrived, of course, it was much too late to do anything other than comfort the witnesses and try to reconstruct the events. The young man was unquestionably dead, his neck broken in the terrible impact with the concrete that had mercilessly awaited him.
Yes, bad enough to have an apparent suicide. Even worse when it was a promising young student such as David Vincent. The University community would be reeling in shock; even now, the college's counseling center was sending therapists amongst Vincent's friends and dorm-mates. If we're all lucky, prayed Simon fervently, there won't be any copycat events. He repressed an inward shudder at the thought.
But what if it had not been a suicide?
The events had moved too quickly. None of the witnesses had reported seeing anyone on the roof with Vincent before his fall, so straightforward murder was unlikely. Possible, but unlikely.
This new information, though, from the team that made the first cursory search of the student's room... Simon shook himself out of the haze of his thoughts as he heard the knock at his office door. Hopefully that will be Ellison.
As Jim Ellison eased himself through the doorway, Simon scowled at him.
"Ellison, where the hell have you been? You said you'd be here in ten minutes!"
"Sorry, sir," said Jim in his usual low, pleasant voice. "There was construction on the bridge. I didn't think you wanted me to just drive right through it."
"And have the department pay for more repair bills on that truck? No, thank you. Sit down."
Jim sat in the chair that his captain indicated. "What's happened, Simon?" His eyes narrowed. "Is this anything to do with Sandburg?"
"No, it does not have anything to do with Sandburg!" Simon shouted, then stopped and lowered his voice. "Jim, you have got to stop worrying about him. The Academy is not going to eat him for lunch. Just let the kid be for a while."
Jim smiled ruefully. "Sorry, sir. I'm a little edgy today."
"Yeah, well, join the club. I live there. Here, have a look at these." Simon handed him the stack of reports to read, and watched his face while the detective skimmed them quickly.
Jim let out a low whistle. "So this kid jumped, huh? Ouch. That's always ugly."
"Read the rest," Simon snapped.
The police captain had the meager satisfaction of watching Jim's head jerk up as he read the next page. "'A large amount of an unknown substance was found in the desk drawer'? Simon, do we know what it is?"
"We don't have the final analysis yet," Simon said quietly. "Mind you, Jim, this is still unofficial... but the lab thinks it's probably Golden."
"What!" Jim flung the reports back down on Simon's desk. "I thought we were finished with that crap. Damn it! Who's making it this time? We caught those bastards!"
Simon watched his detective with some concern as he answered. "Obviously we don't know, Jim. That's what I want you to find out."
More than anyone else on the force, Jim had reason to despise the drug Golden. Once before, during its previous appearance on the streets of Cascade, it had torn his life apart. He'd been temporarily blinded by it during an accidental exposure, forced to rely on his other four heightened senses to function as best he could.
And Jim had been there, at the station's parking garage, listening helplessly while Sandburg raved nonsense about Golden Fire People coming to get him... the kid's perceptions clouded by the drug, his fine clear intellect crazed and warped as he fired Jim's backup weapon at the fiery invaders that only the young observer could see.
Well, not exactly helplessly, Simon amended to himself as he recalled the incident. Jim saved his partner's life that day, even with his vision shot to hell. No wonder he's upset now.
Jim had talked Sandburg down, using exactly the right words, the right tone of voice. Somehow, operating on pure instinct, the detective had convinced Blair to hand over the gun, just before the kid collapsed. Simon knew he would never forget the sight of Jim cradling his stricken partner in his arms, reassuring Blair even as the younger man slipped into unconsciousness.
"So, what do we know, sir?" asked Jim now, in a more resigned tone of voice.
"Pretty damn little. I want you to get over there. I was hoping maybe Sandburg could get away and help you; it's late enough that he might be...." Simon's phone cut him off abruptly, and he snatched it up. "Banks!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Simon could see Jim pick up the reports again as the voice of the caller came on the line. "Simon?"
That voice sounds familiar. Oh no, I know. It's...
"Marv Bennett, over at the Academy. I need to talk to you about something."
...It's just what I don't need today. Not on top of everything else. "Go ahead, Marv."
"It's about that young protege of yours, Blair Sandburg." Marv didn't sound angry, at least, just tired. Simon knew the man well; he'd instructed cadets in the use of firearms for almost twenty years.
He cast another wary eye on Jim, who still seemed absorbed in the reports. This would not be a good time for him to listen in on his captain's private conversations. "What about him?" he asked, his tone neutral.
"Well, he's been doing well overall, Simon." The voice was cautious, and Simon remembered that Bennett had expressed some mild reservations about having Sandburg at the Academy. "He's a very good shot. Almost a natural, really. But he had a little problem today, and I think someone may need to talk to him."
"What kind of problem?"
Bennett briefly explained what happened, them added: "I'll leave it to you. He's not in any trouble, not yet, but... well, I've got some concerns. Just talk to him."
"I will, Marv. Thanks."
After hanging up, Simon turned back to Jim and briefly considered how much to tell him. All of it, I guess. He'd find out eventually, and Sandburg will probably clam up on him.
"Jim, we've got a new problem. Have you heard anything from Sandburg this afternoon?"
"No, nothing at all today. But that's not unusual for him. What's wrong, Simon? What was that call about?" Simon could sense Jim's efforts to stay calm.
"That was Marv Bennett, the firearms instructor out at the Academy. Blair went through the Firearms Training Simulator today. Marv says he's been doing well overall; he's actually a very good shot. But while going through the FATS, he accidentally 'shot' the mom with the cellphone and baby. You remember that part."
Jim nodded. "Yeah, those simulations are tricky. I remember hitting the wrong target a few times myself, in practice. But that's why it's practice, Simon. And even if it was his test, he can retake it until he gets it right."
"Apparently Sandburg doesn't think of it the same way we do. Marv says he threw the gun down and ran off, looking very upset."
"Crap." Jim dropped his head to his hands for a moment, then looked up at Simon. "I suppose I'd better find him, sir."
"Do that. Straighten him out, Jim, then get both of your butts over to Rainier and see what you can find out."
Jim punched the button for the garage as the elevator doors closed and used his free hand to hit the autodial for Blair's cellphone. Four rings later, the voice mail picked up and Jim briefly debated whether he should leave a message. How upset was Blair?
Really upset? Then he won't want to talk to me. Mildly upset? Then he might. Whatever message he left would alert Sandburg to the fact that Bennett had called Simon, and Sandburg might decide to remain conveniently hard-to-reach. Hanging up, he dialed the loft and frowned when the machine answered.
Okay, so where is he? Where would he go? Not the university, that was for sure. Unfortunately, that's where this new case led them. It never rains but it pours. It was just a bad time for this, all around. Setting foot back on his old University turf would be hard for Blair after his confession as a fraud and subsequent dismissal from academia. He had 'disappointed' a lot of people -- mentors, students, and friends -- and Blair placed a high value on friendship and loyalty, as he'd proven beyond a doubt. So, it was hard for Blair to lie to his friends and peers, to renounce his work and call it a fraud, to disappoint his mentors and deceive his friends, to betray his students...
Damn. Jim, of course, knew the truth -- Blair was not a fraud. In fact, Sandburg was the most honorable man he knew. It wasn't until just before Blair had started the academy that the two of them really talked and Jim found out what kind of painful thoughts were swirling through the young man's head.
And now he not only has to go back there and face everyone, but it has to be on a Golden case -- more painful memories. And it has to come on the heels of his error on the target course. It didn't take a Ph.D. to realize why Blair had run off the course. Sandburg had never liked guns and, for the longest time, he'd refused to carry one. Now, with his anthropology career destroyed and his reputation in ruins, Blair's only viable option to remain partnered with Jim and earn a paycheck had been the police academy.
But does he really want it, or does he feel forced into it? If anything, the press conference had proven just how much Blair was willing to sacrifice for friendship. Everything. He put me above his own welfare and I still can't get over that. So is he going to the academy because it's the only way he can remain my partner, or does he really want to be a detective? Jim hoped being a cop was something Blair genuinely wanted; it pained him too much to think of Blair spending his life doing something he didn't like. He deserves more than that.
He needed to find Sandburg, but, at the moment, he had no clue where his friend might be. He also needed to get over to the university for a preliminary investigation and, after he completed that errand, he'd put his detective training to good use and see if he could locate his elusive partner.
Ellison parked the classic Ford truck in the middle of the street amidst a crowd of emergency vehicles and gawking spectators. Overlapping red and blue lights painted the sidewalk and buildings with flickering shadows that seemed ominous in the encroaching twilight. Sliding out of the seat, Jim hurried over the yellow police line and ducked under, heading directly for the paramedics surrounding a body bag on a stretcher.
Jim flashed his badge. "What's the condition of the body?"
One of the EMTs held back as the others loaded the stretcher into the ambulance. "Not pretty. The building's six stories high and it looks like he landed at an angle, head-first. His skull is crushed, making a visual identification impossible, but he was carrying a wallet with a driver's license and student card that both identify him as David Vincent, a sophomore here."
"Any evidence that this wasn't a suicide?"
"Nothing that's immediately apparent. Of course, there's so much trauma to the body just from the fall that any bruises or cuts from a struggle would be pretty hard to decipher. That'll be the coroner's job. We're just bagging and tagging him."
Jim nodded and turned to survey the scene. A large, dark blotch of what had to be blood marred the sidewalk and the nauseating scent hit Jim a second later. He turned his head away as a reflex, even though doing so did nothing to dispel the odor. He worked on the sensory dial, getting the scent to a tolerable level, then turned his attention back to the area. A young, uniformed officer who he recognized immediately stood at the edge of the crowd and Jim trotted over to him.
"Got a sec, Baxter?"
"Huh?" The officer turned around, grimacing when he saw Jim. "Yeah, sure, Ellison. Ugly sight, isn't it? Did you see the body?"
"No. No use unbagging it with all the spectators around. I wanted to ask you a few questions."
"Who found the body?"
"Take your pick. About half a dozen people saw him hit the ground." He pointed to a grouping of squad cars in the distance. "Two of the witnesses are still giving their statements. The rest were dismissed."
Jim spotted the two red-faced women seated in the back of neighboring vehicles, their eyes puffy from tears. He turned back to the young officer. "What about the substance found in the kid's desk drawer?"
"Looks like Golden, but, of course, we don't have the official analysis yet."
"Did you find any other packets since then?"
"Nope. Just the one."
Jim shifted on his feet, feeling the tug of exhaustion after a full day's work. "What about the other students? Have they been questioned about the drug? Does anyone know where Vincent got the stuff?"
"There are a few officers working on that --"
Jim turned in response to the unfamiliar voice and spotted a woman he recognized but had hoped to avoid. The Chancellor. Great. Just great.
She rushed up to him. "Detective, I hope your people will have this place cleared up soon. This is a tragedy and many of the students are understandably upset. Several officers have been harassing students about a possible drug connection on campus and I've had two complaints already of illegal searches being conducted of students' dorm rooms and backpacks."
A faint throbbing behind Jim's temples signaled the beginning of a headache. "Chancellor, I'll look into it. I don't think any officers would take to conducting illegal searches, but they have a right to ask for consent to a search and, given the circumstances, I would think you and the students would want to cooperate to get to the bottom of David Vincent's death."
"What's to find out? He jumped off the top of a building."
Try not to sound so broken up about it. Jim suppressed a sigh and used his enhanced eyesight to hone in on the woman's watch. 6:45. Damn. He really needed to find Sandburg.
"Are you listening to me, Detective?"
"Yes, I'm listening. We will work as quickly as possible, but this is a police investigation and we won't cut corners to spare you and a few students a bit of inconvenience. Now, if you'll excuse me, this'll go faster if I'm working and not chit-chatting." He turned without waiting for an answer and continued his briefing with Baxter.
All right, deep breaths, in and out. Find the center, relax, get calmed down.
Blair closed his eyes and took the requisite deep breaths as he tried to slow down his racing heart. The soft aroma from the lavender-scented candles he'd lit was helping; he'd purposely chosen the most un-macho, un-cop-like scent he could find in his collection of aromatherapy paraphernalia. He sat there for quite a while, willing his taut muscles to relax, blocking out the world as much as he could, trying to bury his confusion and hurt.
As if from a great distance, he heard the phone ringing, but let the answering machine pick it up rather than be interrupted. Now, if he could just get past the emotions of the afternoon, he could start thinking productively again.
I'm so good at that when it's someone else's problems that we're talking about. I can badger Jim into telling me his hopes and fears, his heartbreaks... but when it comes to my problems, I guess I'd rather treat them with denial. Hey, I'm tough. I'm a helper, a listener, a counselor at heart. I'm not supposed to be the one who needs help.
Beginning the deep-breathing once again, Blair tried to empty his mind of the events of the day. That's it, let it all go. Let peace and tranquillity return...
Unbidden, though, the images rose up in front of his mind's eye... the dying mother and baby of the simulation... his panicked flight from the testing area.
Blair sighed, finally giving up on the idea of any further meditation. He opened his eyes and stared at the soft, ragged quilt covering the bed, picking at it absently.
I shouldn't have run away like that. That's only going to make things worse. What must the instructor have thought, when he saw me freak out like that?
No, he should have stayed, should have faced up to his fears and to his mistake.
Instead, I ran off like a scared kid. Oh, man, is Jim ever going to be disappointed in me. He'll be pissed.
Through the half-open French doors leading to his bedroom, Blair heard the unmistakable sounds of a key rattling in the lock. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that meant. Jim was home.
Well, if I'm lucky, he won't have heard anything about my little mishap anyway. In a way, it's none of his business. Blair put both hands over his face for a moment, trying to will his facial muscles into a less morose expression Well, here goes. Time to exercise your acting talent, Sandburg. He got slowly off the bed and started to move through the doorway... only to encounter a large, unmoving wall of Sentinel.
Blair managed what he knew must be a half-hearted, sickly smile. "Hey, Jim. Man, are you home already?"
Jim didn't smile back, but Blair thought he could read flickers of concern in the strong-jawed face. "Yeah, I'm back, Chief." He lifted a hand, as if to lay it on Blair's shoulder, then halted the motion and let his hand drop. "And we need to talk."
Damn, thought Blair. Yes, he knows.
Jim watched his partner's face carefully as he spoke. He hadn't missed the startled, guilty expression on Blair's face as they'd nearly collided in the doorway. And the soft lighting and scented candles spoke volumes about the younger man's emotional state; Jim knew that his friend tended to retreat into quiet meditation when troubled.
Now, however, Blair had pasted a bright, artificial smile on his face. "Talk, Jim? Hey, isn't that my line?" He ran a hand through his unruly curls, backing away slightly. "I'd love to, but I just remembered that I was going to go to the store today, and I never got around to it. So, unless you want cheese and crackers for dinner..."
Jim grabbed an elbow as Blair drifted further away from him. "Cut it out, Sandburg. Don't play games with me, please," he said in a low, even tone as he tried to capture Blair's eyes with his own. "Get angry, get defensive if you want, but don't screw around like this. It just wastes our time." He stopped himself from saying my time.
Blair's expression changed to one of resignation, as he turned away to sink down onto the couch. "Sorry," he said softly. "Habit, I guess."
Jim sat down next to him, his heart aching at the sight of his partner. Blair looked, well, so defeated, not to mention miserable. He forced his own voice to remain carefully neutral.
The last thing I want to do is yell at him. I've done that way too much over the past year.
"So, Chief, do you want to tell me what happened today? Bennett called Simon; they were concerned about you over at the Academy." Not half as concerned as I am, though.
Blair leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and covering his face with his hands. "So you heard the whole thing?" he asked dully.
"All I know is that you were getting a perfect score on the simulation... until you made a mistake, and then apparently left the area without debriefing." Now Jim reached over and squeezed his partner's shoulder. "Chief, don't take it so hard. A lot of cadets find that simulator a bit unsettling, after all. You just dust yourself off and try again."
"Unsettling," Blair murmured with a hollow laugh. "That doesn't begin to cut it." He rose abruptly from the couch, shrugging off Jim's hand, and began to pace. "Jim, you're being very understanding about this, but the truth is, I shot an innocent civilian who was no threat to me. Sure, the person wasn't real -- this time -- but how do I know... what will keep me from..." He trailed off, biting his lip, and closed his eyes. Jim thought he could see the glint of tears on the dark lashes as he watched Blair fight for control.
"You're not a cop yet, Chief. You're not finished. You've got time to go back and get that simulation right. Don't let it defeat you like this."
"Jim, you're not hearing me! This is not about failing a course. It's about human life!" Blair whirled about, his fists clenched. "I'm not sure I can go through with this. What if someday I screw up and I shoot someone?" His voice rose. "And don't tell me that it never happens. Even you shot someone accidentally once. What if that security guard hadn't been wearing a vest?"
"I saw that man in my nightmares for months, Sandburg! That incident almost destroyed me. Every cop faces that possibility, if not the reality." Irrationally, Jim felt himself growing angry. "This was a training exercise! Don't over-dramatize it into something more than that." He barely stopped himself from adding, Stop acting like this. Grow up, and learn to face the music.
Angry blue eyes locked onto another pair of orbs, desperate and haunted in the deceptively youthful face. So easy to get mad, Jim realized. So easy, to try to force him into my mold, and to blame him when everything falls apart. Somehow, in the instinctive part of his brain, Jim realized that the two of them stood at a cusp in their relationship. Say the wrong thing, and Sandburg would toss out the entire scheme of becoming a detective. Say the right words, and their partnership just might survive and become stronger.
He forced down the anger, trying to regain his emotional footing.
"Don't do this to yourself, Chief," he pleaded finally.
Blair shook his head, still looking directly at this partner. "Maybe... maybe I should just quit. Now."
Simon chewed on his unlit cigar, staring out the window of his office as he listened to Marv Bennett.
"I'm concerned about Sandburg. I know you pushed to get him here after the media thing and I know you have a special interest in him, but I don't think he's got the stuff to be a cop. For one thing, he's too introspective and inquisitive. He's not the type to just follow orders. He has to think about everything and rationalize it. He can't distance himself. Hell, Simon, he RAN out during the simulation. He lost it. Face it, Simon, putting this kid in a uniform with a gun at his hip won't be doing him or the city any good."
Simon leaned back in his chair and tried to ignore the dull pounding behind his eyes. "Marv, you don't know Sandburg like I do. He's put in four years with Major Crime already. He's seen more shit than most seasoned cops and demonstrated courage when most men would have turned tail and ran. He's got what it takes, trust me. He just needs to adjust. Things happened damn fast around here, and his whole world turned upside down virtually overnight."
"I understand that, Simon, but --"
"And a situation has developed at Rainier that I need him for. He's got experience that no other cop has when it comes to the university and, uh, this particular drug connection. If I can borrow him for a few days, that'll help me out a lot and give him a break from the academy. I'll talk to him, give him and Ellison this assignment and let him bury himself in work again like he used to. It'll be good for him and it'll only be for a few days. What do you say?"
"Hell, I don't mind. He's an ace when it comes to his courses, so the time off won't hurt him. How long do you think?"
"No more than a week."
"I'll make the arrangements. If he intends to return, though, he'll have to keep up with the class assignments."
"I understand. Thanks, Marv."
"You'll talk to him?"
"Yeah. First thing in the morning. Bye, Marv."
"Take care, Simon."
Banks hung up the phone and succumbed to a tired sigh. Sandburg, what are we going to do with you?
"What do you mean? Quit? You want to quit now?" Jim heard his voice rising and made a futile attempt to bring it under control. "After Simon and I went to bat for you?" He realized his mistake immediately, but it was too late. The words were already out.
The edges of Blair's eyes flared red and his breathing turned shallow and ragged. "Just like Doctor Stoddard went to bat for me. Just like my students counted on me. I disappointed all of them, so you think a few more people matter to me at this point?" His voice was low and strained. "I don't want to carry a gun, Jim. Don't you get it? I never wanted to carry a gun. I don't want to shoot anybody. I don't think I could live with myself if I killed someone, even in self-defense. I'd always wonder if there had been another way out. And, God forbid, but if I do make a mistake..." His voice gave out and he shook his head, then turned around and all but ran to his room. Jim moved to follow, but stopped when Blair paused in the doorway and glanced back at him, his eyes wet. "How much more of myself do I have to give up to satisfy you, Jim?"
The doors closed hard, sending vibrations through the wood floor beneath Jim's feet. For a fleeting moment, he saw the future through Blair's eyes. Saw Sandburg pull the trigger and watched the bullet slam into a faceless gunman's chest. Watched the man go down, blood pooling on the sidewalk. And what if the unthinkable did happen. What if the bullet ricocheted? What if it hit an innocent civilian? He couldn't deny that, once in awhile, such tragedies happened. Accidents. Human error. And Blair was definitely human -- more human than any cop had a right to be.
Shit. I screwed up. He'd pushed too hard. Partly because he wanted Sandburg as his permanent partner more than he'd wanted anything before -- well, almost anything. Not more than he'd wanted Blair to start breathing again back at the fountain. One year ago almost to the mark. He'd made a thousand promises in the span of five minutes that day, and he'd broken almost all of them already.
The other reason he'd pushed so hard stemmed from good old-fashioned guilt. He couldn't deny that he felt partially responsible for the catastrophe surrounding Blair's academic career, and he wanted, almost desperately, to fix things. He needed to fix things because that's who he was. Sandburg would call him a control freak and he'd be right, but, damnit, he couldn't stand being helpless -- though, technically, he wasn't helpless, and that was all part of the guilt that kept gnawing at him. He had the power to give Blair his life back. Snap! Sandburg could have his reputation, his Ph.D., his three-million dollars and maybe even the Nobel Prize. All Jim had to do was tell the truth. Vindicate Blair's research. Give up his privacy and maybe even his own career.
But he wasn't willing to do that. He was willing to give up Blair's career to save his own, and part of him hated himself for that. The other part of him knew that he could do a lot of good as a cop and a Sentinel, and he needed to be out there in the middle of the action. But he needed Sandburg there with him.
The phone rang, jarring him from his thoughts. He hurried over to the phone and picked it up on the third ring. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Simon. I want you and Sandburg in my office first thing tomorrow morning."
"Uh, what about the academy, Simon?" He almost hated to ask.
"He doesn't have to worry about going back there tomorrow. I cleared him. He'll be working with you on the Golden case for the next few days. You two just get here by 8 a.m. Got it?"
All right, Sandburg, Blair said to himself for about the sixth time. Get up, go out there, and make things right.
He was lying on his bed, outstretched on his back, staring at the ceiling. The fury that had sustain him just a few minutes ago had faded, leaving him with only a dull ache and a sense of loss. It's not worth it. I think that I'm right about this gun thing, but trashing my friendship with Jim isn't the answer here.
Just as he sat up and blew out a resigned sigh, he heard the soft knock at his door. In spite of the painful emotions of the last couple of hours, he smiled slightly.
"Come on in, Jim."
The French doors opened, and Jim's worried face appeared. "Hey, Chief." He stood in the doorway, uncertainty evident in his posture. "Are you going to be okay?"
The words were spoken gently, a welcome substitute for the arguments and recriminations Blair had been expecting. So, maybe he's finally learning. Yell, then apologize... it's a hell of a lot better then his old method of 'yell, then gloss over the whole thing'.
"I'm okay." He swallowed with difficulty against the lump in his throat. "It's just been a rotten day, I guess." He looked away, down at the colorful scrap of rug on the floor.
After another second or two, Jim left his post in the doorway and came across the little room, sitting next to Blair on the rumpled bed. He placed one hand on Blair's nearest shoulder.
"Can we call a truce, here?" Jim said finally.
Blair nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. You're not really the one I'm mad at."
"I'm sorry, Chief... about what I said, about being let down after Simon and I going to bat for you." His eyes grew hooded. "I have this annoying tendency to tell the people I care about how they should live their lives."
Blair managed a half-hearted smile. "I should be used to it by now, then." He shifted slightly closer to his friend. "Sorry I lost it, man."
Slipping an arm around the younger man's shoulders, Jim laughed slightly. "Blair, you should 'lose it' more often. I hardly ever see you get angry."
"That's 'cause I feel so lousy afterwards," Blair admitted. "We Sandburgs don't deal well with these negative energies." He felt himself relax slightly against Jim's shoulder. "We find it much easier to just joke about life." But some things are too precious to joke about.
Sitting there on the bed, with his friend once more smiling at him and making wisecracks, Jim was tempted to brush off the rest of what had happened. But I can't. We haven't dealt with the problem; we've just stuck a big Band-Aid on it. I need an answer from him on the Academy issue, and I need to know that he's not throwing another career away just because he's afraid he doesn't measure up.
Straightening up so that he could get a better look at his friend's face, Jim searched his brain for the right words.
"Blair, I want you to know something," he said, finally.
His partner nodded and look at him, clearly listening.
"You don't owe me anything." Jim let the words hang in the air, without elaborating.
Blair shook his head. "What do you mean, Jim?" he said, with a nervous laugh. "This isn't a score-sheet here, man. No one's keeping track of, oh, how many times you've saved my butt versus how many times I've pulled you out of a zone-out."
"That's not what I mean, Chief." Now he knew what to say. "I'm not talking about helping each other out, or the research you were doing, or even all of the help you used to give me when you were just an observer. Sure, we've helped each other a lot.
"But I know you. You have more personal loyalty than anyone I've ever met. I worry that you've become so loyal to me that you're going to try to live your life the way I tell you to live it. And that's not right."
"Let me finish, please." When Blair finally nodded mutely, Jim continued. "You owe me nothing. You have to decide, Chief... you have to ask yourself the question: What's best for Blair Sandburg? Not, what's best for Jim Ellison?"
"I was hoping," Blair whispered, "that they were the same thing." He leaned his forehead against Jim's shoulder, a portrait of agonized indecision.
"Maybe they are, maybe they're not." Jim sighed. "You can't ask me. I'm too close to all of this, obviously. I'm selfish. Of course I want you for my partner. I want you to finish the Academy and go on to have a glorious career as the most amazingly insightful detective in the history of Cascade." His voice dropped, and almost broke. "But I don't want you to have to become someone else to do it. It'll break your heart." And mine.
Blair rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Ya know, Jim, it would have been easier if you'd just come in here and yelled at me. Then I could have told you to take the Academy and stuff it ."
"Don't go there, Junior," teased Jim. "But I have a suggestion." Not a condition, or a demand, or even a request. I've lost that privilege.
"Go ahead," Blair answered, his face unreadable.
"Simon just called. He wants to pull you away for a couple of days to help me with an assignment involving the University. It's not an easy one, but you'd be a definite asset. And it would give you a few days to think it over."
Blair nodded slowly. "That sounds like it might help. A few days, working with you... that might help a lot, Jim." He looked up at Jim. "The Academy doesn't mind?"
"Not as long as you keep up in your course work. I'll make sure you have study time."
The younger man grinned. "All right, you've got your shadow back. It's a deal."
Blair squinted at the sky as he got out of the passenger side of the truck. "Nice thunderheads over to the west, Jim. I'm glad I'm not going to be running around the Academy track today."
His voice sounded relaxed and nonchalant, betraying no hint of any emotion he might feel at being back on the Rainier campus again after his departure in disgrace... but as Jim watched him surreptitiously, he thought he noticed a fine tremor in Sandburg's hand as the student-cum-police cadet toyed absently with his neat ponytail.
They did everything but ride him out of here on a rail, but here he is, back in their faces. There's a victory in that, Jim realized with satisfaction and pride. Hell, maybe it's harder on me than on him. He looks so much like his old self in these surroundings. Blair could have worn his cadet's uniform, but had chosen instead to dress casually in jeans and flannel shirt. The resemblance to the Sandburg that Jim had met four years ago was acute, and made his heart ache just a little.
But you can't turn back the clock. No matter how hard you wish.
They'd talked for a while longer last night, finally heading out to a nearby Chinese restaurant for dinner. Jim had briefed Blair more fully about the case while they munched on parchment chicken and bok choy with mushrooms.
"This isn't going to be an easy assignment for you, Chief," Jim had warned him. "There's a good chance you'll know the victim, or at the very least know some of his friends." He'd watched Blair's face as he handed him the photograph of David Vincent, and he hadn't missed his partner's slight gasp of recognition.
After gentle prompting, Blair had admitted to knowing the dead student. "He took an intro-level class from me last year, and did a good job. Wrote a couple of great papers. We got together once for coffee after talking about a class assignment, and he told me he was headed towards anthropology as a major." Blair's face had gone expressionless at that point. "I told him to be sure to let me know if there was anything I could help him with."
Then the waitress had shown up with more tea, and Blair had flirted with her... this tiny Chinese woman twice his age... and when she'd left, Blair had somehow changed the conversation back to safer topics.
Now, Jim sighed inwardly as they walked up the path to the dormitory, their shoes crunching pleasantly on the gravel. Just how well did Sandburg know David Vincent? I should have pried a little more out of him last night.
Just before they reached the door, Jim stopped and grabbed his partner's shoulder. "Hang on a moment there, Chief."
Sandburg turned back, a question on his face. "What?"
"Are you sure you're okay with all of this? Coming back here in an official capacity?" Jim tried to lock eyes with his partner. You're too damn good at squirming away from me, kid... verbally and physically.
Blair nodded, his face serious. "Jim, I'll be okay. Stop worrying about me."
And that's the big difference between now, and four years ago. Back then, he was all skylarking and false bravado, always talking his way around these issues rather than meeting them head-on. Now, he knows when I need to hear a straight answer.
I just hope it's also a truthful one.
"Right, then." Jim let his hand drop. "If it's okay with you, then, I'd like you to talk to his friends while I take my first look around his room. You can help me go over it a second time when you get done."
"Okay." He grinned suddenly, rewarding Jim with one of those brilliant Sandburg smiles. "But I'll save any lovesick little freshman girls for you. I've been in enough trouble around here as it is."
"All right, Amy." Blair smiled his gentlest smile at the young woman in front of him. "I'm going to ask you some questions about David. If you know the answer, tell me, but don't make anything up if you're not sure."
Things were going surprisingly well. He'd interviewed the dead student's roommate already, as well as two of David Vincent's friends. Thankfully, the young man hadn't been dating anyone seriously, so Blair was spared the ordeal of questioning a bereaved lover.
So far, Vincent's friends hadn't revealed anything earth-shattering about him. No medical problems to speak of except some mild asthma. No major losses of loved ones or crushing experiences. No previous attempts at suicide, or chronic self-destructive behaviors.
He'd been a sophomore this year. Those who knew him from the year before admitted that he didn't seem quite as happy as when he was a freshman, but that was common with a lot of students. It was fun to be a freshman and sample a lot of different subjects, but the sophomore year tended to take its toll on stressed and overextended students.
"Do you know anything about his family, Amy? His parents?"
The sweet-faced Japanese-American girl nibbled at a thumbnail. "His parents are divorced. He mentioned his mom fairly often. It sounded like they got along okay. She lives here in town."
That means we'll probably have to talk to her, Blair realized. That won't be much fun.
As he went on to question Amy on other subjects -- possible drug use by Vincent, debts he may have had, relationships -- he slowly began to realize something else.
I'm good at this.
This was the part of police work he enjoyed -- talking, working with people, gathering information... using his charm, his instinctive empathy to persuade reluctant witnesses to confide in him. Not that Amy was reluctant, but Vincent's roommate had been difficult to interview -- grieving, guilt-ridden, teary-eyed, and more than a little confused about the sequence of events. Blair had taken his time, spoken gently, offered tissues, and showed infinite patience with the young man's broken and convoluted story.
When you really think about it, this is what a police detective spends most of his time doing. Talking, not shooting. Maybe I've gotten a skewed picture, riding around with Jim.
He felt a slight twinge of guilt at the thought, for the implied criticism to Jim. After all, Simon tended to use the Sentinel on the most dangerous or deadly assignments. Jim wasn't a violent, trigger-happy throwback or anything; trouble just seemed to find him.
"That's about it, Amy. Can you think of anything else? Anyone you think I should talk to?"
She thought for a moment, still chewing on the now-ragged thumbnail. "No, I don't... wait. There's this guy we kept seeing hanging around with David. I remember thinking... well, they didn't have much in common. David is... was really smart, and never had much to do with the party-all-night crowd. But this guy started coming to see him a lot over the last few weeks. He always gave me the creeps. If David was doing any drugs, well, he seemed the type to supply them."
"Do you know his name?"
She shook her head, dark glossy hair bouncing. "No. But if I see him again, I can find out for you."
"All right." Blair reached into a pocket, pulled out one of Jim's cards. "This has a number where you can reach my partner, Detective Ellison. If you find out this guy's name, give him a call."
She took the card, and looked at it quizzically. "I can't call you?"
Blair laughed. "I'm still a cadet, Amy. A student. I won't get cards, or a phone extension of my own, until I get finished with my training."
"Oh." She smiled, and held out her hand. "Good luck with school, then, Blair."
"Thank you" He shook her hand warmly. For your information, and for your well-wishes. I'm going to need them both.
Halfway through his slow circuit of the tiny dorm room, Jim made an interesting discovery.
There's a hum in here, and it's coming from the desk. Cutting across the room, he studied the computer that took up most of the cramped student desk. No papers littered the desktop; along with the rest of the room it was almost painfully neat.
The computer's on. Did the original team check... Jim flicked the monitor switch to the "on" position, and watched as the screen lit up.
A large and prominent error message appeared in the middle of the now-bright screen. "Unable to locate printer. Check printer and re-try."
Jim looked around for the printer, found it on top of a box under the desk. Sure enough, it was turned off. He turned it on, and went back to the computer... and clicked on the "print" icon of the error message.
The printer hummed to life, slowly spitting out a single sheet of paper. Jim snatched it as soon as it exited the printer, and sat down on the bed to read it.
After leaving the downstairs lounge where he'd been interviewing the students, Blair headed back toward the main staircase of the dorm. Just as he turned to go up the stairs, the main double doors opened and two people stepped in, deep in conversation. Automatically, Blair turned back to see who it was.
Then he wished most fervently that he hadn't. It was Chancellor Edwards, and from the look on her face, she'd already spotted him.
He stood his ground at the bottom of the staircase, trying not to show the anger he felt, as she strode up to him. Blair recognized her companion as one of the math professors; someone he'd often seen around campus but had never actually met.
"Mr. Sandburg," she said in icy tones. "I hope you have a legitimate reason to be standing around in a Rainier residence hall."
He met her gaze. "As a matter of fact, Chancellor, I do," he said evenly. "I'm working with Detective Ellison, and we're here on the Vincent case." He showed his Academy ID.
She barely glanced at it. "So they made you a cop," She turned to the math professor. "It certainly seems that the standards of the Cascade PD have hit rock bottom if they're admitting a liar and cheat to their ranks." The other professor, looking almost embarrassed, could only nod.
"Conduct your investigation, Mr. Sandburg," she said, turning back to Blair. "But if I find that you've been causing trouble, or sticking around here one minute longer than absolutely necessary, I'll have you prosecuted for trespassing." She swept down the hall, with her bewildered colleague in tow.
Fists clenched in silent rage, Blair stood there for a moment watching them leave. Then he turned and slowly made his way up the stairs to the third floor, to find Jim.
No. Not this. This is just what he doesn't need.
Jim read the note again, as if the words would somehow take on a different meaning if reread. I can't let him see this. The way things have been going, this could push him over the edge.
He made an abrupt decision. Folding the note neatly, he tucked it into his jacket pocket.
I'll turn it in as evidence and put it in my report... but I can't let Sandburg read this.
Jim resumed his meticulous examination of the room. He had almost finished one complete circuit when he heard his partner returning down the hall. He noted, somewhat absently, that Sandburg's heart rate was up.
The kid should be in better shape than that. You'd think he could climb up to the third floor without getting worked up.
A moment later, Blair entered the room. Jim glanced up from where he'd been crouching by the dorm room's ancient radiator. "Hey, Chief. How'd the interviews go?"
"Well enough." His voice was flat and he sat down on the bed. "No one seemed to be hiding anything, but they didn't give me much to work with, either. Vincent's friends couldn't tell me any reasons why he might have been suicidal." He looked out the window as he spoke.
Jim frowned. Something wasn't quite right here. Blair's heart rate was still up, and he sounded as dejected as he had been last night. Maybe the dead student's friends had been distraught or hysterical; that sort of thing could be pretty tough on a cop's emotional distance.
"What's wrong, Chief?" he asked lightly, settling back on his haunches. "You don't sound too happy yourself."
Blair let out a short, bitter laugh. "I ran into Chancellor Edwards downstairs. She sort of, well, put me in my place."
Jim bit his lip. "Sorry."
"Yeah, well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I can handle it."
Jim eyed him for a moment, then nodded. "I'm just about done here. There're traces of Golden in the desk drawer still, and a little of it over on the bedside table. Other than that, all I've found is a large pile of dirty laundry." Except for the most important piece of evidence. Damnit, Sandburg, I don't like lying to you.
Leaving his perch on the bed, Blair came over to stand behind him. "What's so interesting about the radiator?"
Jim stood back up, using the radiator for leverage. "Nothing, now. I was just looking to see if anything had rolled under it. Just dust bunnies." He indicated the piles of indeterminate gray fluff. "Though there might be some hair in there somewhere. I might take some back for Forensics to look at."
"So what do we put in our report, Jim? We still don't know why he did it, or even if he did commit suicide, or just OD'd and hallucinated his way off that roof." He snapped his fingers. "One of the students told me of a possible drug connection who knew Vincent. I gave her your card; she'll call if she can find out the guy's name."
"Good work, Chief." Jim stuffed some of the lint into an evidence bag. "Let's get back. We're done here for now."
Jim thought he detected a moment's hesitation on Blair's part as they strolled into the bullpen, but when he glanced at Sandburg, the young man seemed fine.
Jim gave his partner a brief pat on the shoulder and pushed him toward the desk. "Why don't you get started on your witness reports?"
Blair nodded and sank into the chair. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to have a word with Simon. Be right out." He hurried to the captain's office before Blair could form a protest about being ditched. Knocking once, he barely waited for the captain's invitation before barging inside.
Simon glanced up from his desk, looking through his slatted blinds at the former anthropologist seated out in the bullpen. "How's the kid?"
Jim sighed and dropped into the nearest chair. "He's having second thoughts about the academy, but he's agreed to hold off on making any decisions until this case is over."
"Maybe I should have a talk with him."
"No, sir, I don't think that would be a good idea right now. He doesn't need anybody else breathing down his neck. You know Sandburg -- if we push, he's likely to push right back. If we lay off and give him some breathing space, things'll go a lot smoother. Besides, he has to make whatever decision is right for him. We can't force him into our world."
Simon nodded. "Okay. So what did you two find out at the university?"
Time to come clean, Jim groaned inwardly, pulling the folded paper out of his pocket. "A suicide note, sir."
Simon stiffened and leaned forward. "A note? You mean they missed that the first time?"
Jim shook his head. "It wasn't printed out, sir. I detected a small hum from the computer and, when I turned it on the monitor, I saw that there was a print job pending. The printer was turned off at the time. When I turned it on, it spit this out." He handed the note to Simon, who eagerly unfolded it and began reading.
After a few seconds, Simon dropped the note to his desk, leaned back in his chair, and pulled off his glasses with a weary sigh. "Damn. How'd he take this?"
"I haven't told him yet, sir."
"I see." Simon glanced quickly through his office window at the figure seated yards away at Jim's desk. "Well, he's going to find out sooner or later. After all, this will have to go in your report, which I'm sure he'll read."
Jim's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I know."
"I think you'd better show this to him now before he finds out you've been keeping it from him. That'll just make it worse. He's going to be your full-fledged partner, Jim. That means you'd better start treating him like an equal and not like a younger brother."
An imperceptible smile lightened Jim's features, but it still didn't belay the anxiety in his eyes. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Of course I am. I'm the Captain." He waved toward the bullpen. "Now go talk to your partner."
Jim nodded. "Yes, sir." He rose from the seat and meandered toward the door.
"Oh, and Jim?"
He turned. "Yeah?"
A gentleness crept into Simon's eyes. "Try to get Sandburg to set up an appointment with the department psychologist. It doesn't take a genius to know this is going to hit him hard, especially after the academy thing."
"And, uh," the captain glanced anxiously through his office window at Blair. "Send him in here after you're done."
Jim's eyes narrowed. "Why, sir?"
Simon stiffened, his face once again assuming its gruff countenance. "Because I said so, Detective."
Jim straightened. "Yes, sir." Then he turned and marched out of the office.
Blair looked up from the computer and knew immediately that something was wrong. Jim did not look happy as he strode toward the desk, a sheet of paper clenched in his right hand.
Uh-oh. Let me guess. Chancellor Edwards called and laid into Simon about my being there. Damn, I...
"Blair, I found something in Vincent's room."
Blair raised his eyebrows. If his partner's tone was any indication, whatever Jim had found must not be good. He waited for the Sentinel to continue.
Jim held the sheet out to him. "A suicide note."
"A note?!" Blair's voice rose a little too high, gaining him uncertain glances from the other detectives in the bullpen. He consciously lowered his tone before continuing.
"Why didn't you tell me this before at the university? It's a tad important, you know."
"Just read the note, and, uh... Well, just read it."
There was obvious concern in Jim's voice, and Blair figured he had a pretty good idea why his partner had held off revealing the note. He knows Vincent was one of my students. Probably was waiting for a decent time to break the news to me, and considering my run-in with the Chancellor back at the university, he didn't think that was the time.
A flush of warmth touched his chest and a smile threatened to rise, but he suppressed it, knowing the reaction would make him seem like a callous ass and confuse the hell out of Jim. Taking the note, he looked down and began to read.
|Good-by, proud world, I'm going home!|
Blair recognized the first line immediately. It was from the poem Good-by by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a mockingly bitter piece about a man leaving this harsh world to find his own nook of utopia in the Beyond. He continued to read...
|I thought I could find happiness in this world, but I can't. It's all trash. Nothing's good here. Nothing's pure. Nothing anybody does makes any difference at all, but I know there's something better waiting. The Light People showed me. Some came to hurt me. To burn me. But there are angels in the sky and I'm going to meet them. It'll be a much better place than here. No fakes. No people to gain your trust and then shatter it. Like Lot, I thought maybe I could find one good person in this Gomorra, but there isn't. Even Sandburg.|
Blair's breath caught as a fist clamped over his heart. No. Oh no, David... Swallowing hard, he forced himself to continue, painfully aware of Jim's eyes on him.
|I thought you were someone I could look up to, but you're just a lying cheat like the rest of them. So what's the point? I'm going to a better place now. And when I am stretched beneath the pines, Where the evening star so holy shines, I'll laugh at the lore and the pride of man, At the sophist schools, and the learned clan; For what are they all in their high conceit, When man in the bush with God may meet?|
That was the end of the note, but Blair stared at the paper for several seconds.
Oh God, what have I done?
Oh God, what have I done? Blair's hands grew cold, and he could no longer feel the note gripped between his fingers. Never had he thought his false confession as a fraud would hurt one of his students this badly. He'd known people would be disappointed in him. Shocked, even. Angry. But not this...
"Blair?" The note was pried from his hands, but he kept his gaze on the now-empty spot it had occupied.
He died because of me.
"This wasn't your fault, Chief."
Had he spoken out loud?
"David Vincent was disturbed. He was high on Golden. You know what that shit does to people."
He was a clean kid when I knew him. He must have gotten into it right after...
Jim crouched in front of him. "You going to be okay?"
Am I going to be okay? Maybe, but David Vincent is never going to be okay. He's gone, finis, kaput, no second chances. Suicide doesn't have a reset button.
Blair closed his eyes, tried to concentrate on something other than the emotions rolling in his mind. Tried to think about simple things, such as the need to breathe slowly and deeply, the reassuring weight of Jim's right hand on his knee, and, of course, the importance of not breaking down right here in the middle of the bullpen.
Reality check. Don't need a gun to take a life. He almost sobbed, but clamped down on the sound as it rose in his throat. Dimly, as though from a terribly long distance away, he heard Jim continuing to speak to him in low, earnest tones.
"Chief, you can't let this mess you up. You're not responsible. You have to just pick yourself up, and keep on going." The hand squeezed his knee reassuringly, then he heard his own words of long ago coming back to him using Jim's voice. "This is not about you. This is about some poor kid with nothing to believe in, no sense of himself. This is not about you," Jim repeated.
Taking another careful, deep breath, Blair opened his eyes again. "This really sucks, man," he said, inwardly disgusted at the way his voice shook.
Jim stood up and transferred his hand to Blair's shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. "I'm sorry. Look, if you want to just go home for the day, I'll drop you off. I can do the rest of this on my own if I need to."
"No." Blair swallowed. The last thing I want to do is sit at home and brood. "I'll stick it out, Jim. Thanks." With difficulty, he forced his emotions and his distress to the back of his mind. If I'm going to be a cop, I guess I have to learn how not to feel so much.
Jim still looked concerned, but finally nodded and dropped his hand. "In that case, then, Simon wants to talk to you."
"I'm not sure. I need to go be the bearer of bad news, Chief; someone has to tell Vincent's mother. Better go see what he wants, though."
Simon would have missed the soft knock at his office door if he hadn't been listening carefully for it. "Come on in," he said quietly, for once abandoning his usual bark.
Blair Sandburg appeared in the doorway. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
Simon looked up from the papers on his desk. "I did. Have a seat, son." He motioned to the empty chair, and Blair sank into it. The police cadet kept his eyes focused on the edge of Simon's desk.
I hate doing this sort of thing, Simon mused uncomfortable. I'm not a counselor or a therapist. But a good police captain helped to look after the well-being of his men - and women - and while Sandburg was still a cadet and technically the responsibility of the Academy, Simon knew that he couldn't squirm out of the task of debriefing Blair about recent events.
Best to get straight to the subject. "Did Jim show you the note he found?" he asked, trying to keep his voice calm and even.
Blair sighed. "Yes, sir, he did." The voice was flat, noncommittal.
Dammit, Sandburg, I wish you would look at me. "Sandburg, I don't want you to take this personally. From what we know, this poor kid was pretty whacked out when he wrote that. There are any number of people he could have lashed out at. He'd probably just been thinking of you, or something."
"I don't think so, Captain," Blair shook his head. "I think I... meant a great deal to David Vincent. I let him down. There's no pretty way to say that." Now he raised his gaze briefly to Simon's, and the police captain felt a chill at the bleakness he saw in those eyes.
"No!" Simon slammed his fist down onto the sturdy desk. "Blair, stop that! You are not responsible for the actions of another adult! Do you understand?"
Nodding mutely, Blair looked away again, and Simon continued. "Healthy, sane young people don't just up and kill themselves because they were disappointed in their mentor." He sighed. "Let me put it another way. Let's say I've been taking bribes for the last ten years, and IA finds out and busts me. How would you react? For that matter, how would Jim react?"
Now, Simon was rewarded by a faint smile from the young man. "You wouldn't do that, sir. I don't think even my imagination is that good."
"Nevertheless," Simon shook his index finger for emphasis, "you wouldn't go and jump off a building because of what I'd done. And neither would Jim. He'd be angry as hell, but neither of you would do anything foolish."
"No," Blair shook his head. "We'd be too busy."
"Busy, how?" That's not what he's supposed to say.
"Too busy trying to find out who'd set you up, framed you." Now Blair smiled again, through his obvious sadness; the resulting expression made Simon's heart ache. "There's no way we'd ever believe you were a dirty cop."
Unaccountably, Simon felt his throat tighten at those words, at the simple declaration of faith. "Thank you, Sandburg. That's not the point I was trying to make... but in a way, it all amounts to the same thing."
"What do you mean?"
"Despite what you said that day, what you had to say that day at your press conference... you're not a fraud. And anyone who truly knows you must have listened to your words and wondered what the real story was."
For a couple of heartbeats, Blair looked up into his captain's eyes. Simon thought he saw something there... perhaps, he hoped, a slight easing of the pain the younger man was experiencing. Then Blair looked away again, and the moment was lost.
"Sandburg, does that help at all?" Simon asked, feeling more than a little awkward.
Blair nodded and answered softly. "Yes, it does." A moment passed before he spoke again, this time more strongly. "I'll be all right, Simon. Don't worry."
Simon snorted. "You'd better be. I count on you to keep Jim well-adjusted. A moody, depressed Sandburg ... now that's an awful thought." Suddenly, he remembered something he'd said earlier to Jim. "Blair, I want you to make an appointment with the department psychologist, to talk some of these things over." Before the younger man could protest, he raised his hand. "That's an order. And if necessary, I'll have Jim carry you there bodily."
"That won't be necessary, Simon," answered Blair with another half-smile. "I'd rather keep my skin and my dignity intact, thank you."
Jim pretended to be busying himself with the piles of paperwork on his desk, but a careful observer would have noted that the case report in front of him was upside down and that he was casting frequent furtive glances at Simon's office.
An even more careful observer, such as another Sentinel, would notice the tell-tale signs of stress: the elevated heart rate, the slick and sweaty palms... and would know instinctively that the police detective was trying very hard not to listen to the conversation currently occurring between his captain and his friend.
Finally, Simon's door opened, disgorging a subdued Blair Sandburg. The ponytailed cadet came immediately over to Jim's desk, frowning.
"You're still here? I thought you were going to go inform David Vincent's mother about the note."
Jim cleared his throat. "I, uh, had some work I wanted to finish up first."
Blair's face was unreadable. "Work involving eavesdropping?"
Jim started to retort with an angry denial, then thought better of it. He's had a lousy couple of days, and he's hurting, and he's trying to push my buttons a little. Just like I do to him when I'm in a bad mood. The least I can do is take it as well as he does. "No, Chief," he answered in an even tone. "I wouldn't do that. You know that."
Blair flushed slightly. "Sorry."
Jim sighed. "You okay? I didn't want to leave until... well, are you okay?"
"I'm fine." His gaze dropped to the suicide note itself, now wrapped in an evidence bag on Jim's desk. "Jim, I want to go with you." He looked up at his partner, his small jaw set firmly and stubbornly.
"No way, Chief. You're way too involved." Jim shook his head. "This is still an investigation. We have to find out where the Golden was coming from." You're not going to win this one, partner. Give it up.
Jim moved closer to Blair and rested one hand on his shoulder, speaking softly into his ear. "What you are going to do is finish your reports, then get your butt down to the department shrink's office and make an appointment. I'll see you back here in an hour or so."
"All right." The sighed words sounded reluctant, but Jim thought he detected a trace of relief. "You'll call me if something comes up?"
"Of course." Jim gave his partner a gentle push toward the desk. "Go lose yourself in some mind-numbing paperwork, Chief. It'll help."
Jim climbed into the cab of the truck, slamming the driver's side door with somewhat more vigor than was absolutely necessary.
Well, he thought as he started the engine, at least that's over.
Mrs. Vincent hadn't exactly taken the news well. An elegant, poised older woman with silver-blonde hair, she'd cast a suspicious eye upon the detective almost immediately. Rather than allow him into the house to talk with her, she'd kept him out on the porch for the entire conversation.
Feeling distinctly awkward, Jim finally produced a copy of the suicide note and handed it to her to read.
"And what proves the authenticity of this?" she asked. "He never signed it."
Jim had been prepared for tears, anger, impassioned denial... but this cool skepticism had caught him by surprise. Irrationally, he wished Sandburg was there after all, with his gifts of communication and empathy.
"It can never be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, ma'am. But I myself printed it off his computer after his death. His roommate swears that no one else touched the computer."
Finally, she nodded slowly. "It does read like David, in places. So, I'll grant that he may have written it. But who is this Sandburg he talks about?"
Jim sighed. "He was one of David's instructors at Rainier. He's since left his position, after a fraud scandal." Something in the woman's frosty manner prompted him to add, almost as a challenge, "Now he's a cop. My partner, as a matter of fact."
She looked at him sharply. "And he's investigating my son's case? Detective, I don't believe that is at all appropriate." Reading through the note again, she shook her head. "Whoever or whatever he is now, I hold him personally responsible for the death of my son."
Jim then tried, unsuccessfully, to turn the conversation to David's drug use. His mother reacted with flat denials. "Some one must have slipped it to him. In any case, Detective Ellison, I'm sure I know nothing that could be of any help."
Now, seated in the truck and driving pensively back to the station, Jim tortured himself by mentally repeating the woman's words.
"Whoever or whatever he is now, I hold him personally responsible for the death of my son."
Jim shook his head as if to clear the bleak thoughts from it, and tried to concentrate on his driving. There's no way in hell Sandburg is ever going to know what she said to me. It's got nothing whatsoever to do with the case. Thank God I talked him into staying behind.
Thoughts of his partner suddenly made him crave the sound of a friendly voice. He picked up the cellphone and dialed his desk number. A few rings later, he was rewarded by a familiar sound.
"Detective Ellison's desk. Blair Sandburg speaking."
"Hey Chief, it's me. How are you doing?"
A quick pause before the answer. "I'm all right, Jim. How did it go?"
Jim sighed. "Unpleasant. But it's over." He glanced at his watch, surprised to see that it was already past two. "Want to grab a late lunch with me? You can even pick. My treat."
A sigh of relief answered him. "I'll meet you in the garage."
Blair stabbed at a piece of meat on his raspberry vinaigrette chicken salad. "So how'd it go with the mother?" He popped the forkful into his mouth, hoping the question had sounded casual enough.
Jim's gaze fell to his steak sandwich. "She didn't get hysterical, so overall it went better than I expected."
"Did you, uh, show her the note?" He pushed a few salad leaves around on his plate.
"So what did she say?"
Jim shrugged and took a mouthful of his sandwich. "Not much," he mumbled through his food.
Blair frowned and dropped his fork to his plate. "You okay?"
"You seem a bit, uh, well... I don't know, down, maybe. Upset."
Jim swallowed. "Just hard breaking that kind of a news to a person, you know."
"Oh." Blair looked back down at his salad. "Sorry, Jim. You know, I really could have gone with you."
"No, Chief, it would have been just as difficult either way." He gestured to Blair's salad. "You sure that's gonna fill you? Why not try one of these?" He held up his steak sandwich, effectively changing the subject.
Blair grimaced. "No way, man. I like having clear arteries, thank you." He stabbed another leaf for emphasis and popped it in his mouth.
This time, Simon was deep in thought when the phone rang. With his feet resting on his desk and his head tilted back, he was musing pleasantly about the days when Sandburg would be finished with the Academy and back on the streets as the less-conventional half of Major Crime's best detective team. With their phenomenal arrest history, the other detectives' caseload would ease. Ellison would be easier to get along with, less touchy.
And though he would never have admitted it, even to Jim, Simon himself was secretly looking forward to having that curly head and infectious laugh bouncing around the bullpen again. The kid just had a way about him, a way of molding the men and women around him into a team of tight friendships.
A talent for happiness, Simon thought. Where had he read that?
All such thoughts were cut short at the shrill summons of the phone. Simon glared at it, then answered. "Banks!" he shouted in his trademark bark.
The unmistakably nasal voice of the mayor crackled through the ear piece. "Banks, we've got a little problem."
Simon sighed almost inaudibly. "What is it, sir?"
"I just got a call from Gloria Vincent. She's very upset about the way her son's case is being handled."
Suddenly, Simon remembered where he'd heard of the Vincent family before. The father had been a prominent local businessman before the messy divorce; the mother continued to be extremely involved in community affairs even after her husband's departure. Financially well off and quite influential, she headed up several local volunteer organizations, and was well respected in Cascade.
And she's probably one of the mayor's biggest campaign contributors, thought Simon.
"What exactly is bothering her? It was clearly a suicide, and though we're continuing to investigate the drug angle."
"She said something about oh, what's-his-name, that ex-grad student that you sent to the Academy."
Simon groaned inwardly. "You mean Blair Sandburg?"
"That's the name. She wants him off the case. Says that he was one of the reasons her son killed himself, and she doesn't want him involved in the investigation."
"With all due respect, sir..." Simon felt his anger gathering. "I don't think I can agree with doing that. His experience at the University is proving invaluable in this case. If I'm to have any chance at breaking up this college drug ring before it gets a foothold, I need him." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "I'll tell him to keep a low profile, and make sure that he doesn't come into contact with the Vincent family, but Sandburg stays."
There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds. "All right. But if I hear anything more from Mrs. Vincent about his involvement, he's out."
"We'll see about that, sir." Simon hung up the phone with a loud clatter.
After a full day of police work, Jim and Blair braved the tricky, potentially dangerous aisles of the supermarket, weaving around mothers with bouncy children and maneuvering the clunky cart through tight turns.
"Bagels!" Blair spotted the breads up ahead and bounced off to retrieve his prize. He scanned the racks, his brow scrunched, muttering as he searched. "Onion.... plain.... Man, where's... Oh there it is!" He snatched the egg bagels and tossed them into the cart as though throwing a basketball.
"Great, Junior. Smoosh them." Jim pushed the cart past his younger partner, doing his best to dutifully ignore Blair's infectious grin.
"Next, of course, we need cream cheese."
"Different department. You see, Chief, there's a way of doing this. We go systematically down the aisles and pick things up as we come across them. We do not go from item 2 in the bread aisle to item 3 in the refrigerated section all the way on the other side of the store."
"Well, then, you should have written them down in the order in which they're organized in the store."
"I mean, don't tell me you haven't memorized the layout of the store, conducted calculations to figure out the most time-efficient method of sweeping the place, made a mental note of all the exits -- official or otherwise --" A bat to the back of his head stopped his rambling and brought another mischievous grin to his face.
Jim kept a stone face. "Smart ass."
Late that evening, just as he was preparing for bed, Jim heard his cellphone ring from where it sat on his bedside table. He picked it up automatically. "Ellison."
"Detective Ellison?" It was a young female voice.
"Yes, this is he."
"My name is Amy Yamamoto. Blair Sandburg gave me your number when he was on campus today."
"Ah, yes." Jim sat up straighter on the bed. "Blair said you might have some information for us on a possible drug connection of Vincent's."
There was a sigh from the other end of the connection. "I haven't been able to remember his name yet. But I've got someone else here who wants to talk to you. It's Dirk Poulson... he was David's roommate."
A male voice came on the line. "Detective Ellison... I talked to your partner today, about David. But I didn't tell him everything. Amy thought I should call you."
Jim repressed a brief shudder of apprehension. Downstairs, he could hear the quiet tap-tap of Blair's fingers on the keys of his laptop as he worked on some Academy assignment. "Go ahead."
"It's like this... I never blamed Sandburg for that whole fraud business, but I recognized him today. I didn't want to tell him, not to his face."
"Tell him what?"
"Look, David used to be real straight. Always serious about studying, wouldn't even have a beer with us. But that scandal with Sandburg, that really disillusioned him. He got real depressed. Couldn't sleep, lost his appetite. His grades really started to stink."There was a pause. "If David got into drugs, I think he may have just been trying to make himself feel better for a little while. I don't think he knew what he was getting into."
Jim rubbed a hand across his face. "Anything else?"
"No... but, look, do you have to tell Sandburg about all of this? I really liked him, when he came by to talk with us today. He's going to make a great detective."
"Thanks," murmured Jim. "He'd be pleased to know that you feel that way, I think."
Hanging up the phone, Jim rolled over and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
Jim rummaged in the fridge. "Hey, Chief! Didn't we buy bagels last night?"
Blair emerged from the bathroom, vigorously toweling his hair. An occasional word was able to escape from between the folds of blue terrycloth. "...behind the milk... top shelf... cream cheese... in the meat drawer..." The towel, and its occupant, headed into Blair's little bedroom.
Translating the choppy Sandburgese into normal English, Jim finally located the elusive bagels. Balancing the package of Philly's on top, he made his way to the table. He was just sliding a freshly sliced bagel into the toaster, admonishing it silently not to get stuck, when his cellphone beeped insistently.
"Ellison," he answered automatically, cradling the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he kept vigil over the toaster.
"Detective Ellison? This is Amy Yamamoto again."
"Oh, hello, Miss Yamamoto." Jim opened a drawer and fished out a butter knife. "I'm glad you called. The information you gave me last night will be helpful."
"Oh, good. But that's not why I called." There was a brief hesitation. "I know who he is, the weird guy that was hanging around with David."
The toaster popped, but the bagel remained firmly jammed inside. Shifting the phone slightly, Jim grabbed a fork and began prying out the offending piece of bread while he continued the conversation.
"That's very good news. Is he a student?"
"Not any more... look, it would be easier to explain all of this in person. Can I meet you both at the Rainier Library? I've got an hour free at ten o'clock."
"We'll be there, Miss. Thank you." Jim closed the phone and returned to his assault on the toaster.
Blair reappeared from his room, now fully dressed, just in time to spot Jim probing deep in the toaster with the fork. The younger man sprinted into the kitchen and hurriedly reached to unplug the toaster from the wall socket.
"Geez, Jim! Don't you know you can get electrocuted doing that?'
Jim shrugged. "I can tell which parts are 'hot,' Chief. Relax." With a final tug, Jim managed to extricate the remains of the battered bagel. He looked ruefully at his scorched breakfast as it dangled on the end of the fork.
"Aw, hell," he muttered.
Other than a brief, furtive visit months ago to return a few remaining books, Blair hadn't been inside the library at Rainier since before the infamous 'press conference'. Now, stepping into the stately building gave him a twinge of longing.
It's not my world anymore... but I had a lot of fun here.
Late-night study sessions, some with good friends; sleepy Saturday mornings spent half-dozing on a pile of books or thumbing through the latest journals. Flirting, meeting new people... Blair sighed inwardly, and forced himself to pay attention. Looking up and down the rows of tables and carrels, he spotted a familiar dark head. He nudged Jim.
"There's Amy now."
They began to make their way over to her table, but she spotted them before they'd gotten more than halfway there. Closing her books with a snap, she wound her way among the scarred wooden tables to meet them.
"There's a bench around the side of the building," she said, by way of greeting. "Let's go there and talk."
They followed her back out the front door and partway around the library. As promised, a stone bench stood there, half-hidden amongst the rhododendrons. Amy sat down, her books on her lap, and the two men sat on either side of her.
"His name is Rob Fletcher," she said, without further preamble. "He was a student here at Rainier."
"But he's not now?" asked Blair. He noticed that the top book she held was last year's Rainier yearbook.
"He graduated last year, in my sister's class." She leafed through the pages until she came to the section containing senior pictures. "He finished up with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, but he started out in Chemistry. My sister said he kept failing the chem courses so they finally kicked him into another major."
The photograph showed a young man of medium height, with a broad face, crooked teeth, and a mustache. Blair turned back to Amy.
"If he's graduated, why does he hang around?" he asked, puzzled.
"That's what I've been asking myself, the last couple of days," answered the student. "I don't have any proof here, just a feeling... but the few times I've seen him lately, he's acted very strangely. Out of it, like he was on drugs or something. And like I said the other day, he and David spent a lot of time together."
Jim nodded. "Right. Well, we'll see if we can track him down. Can we borrow the yearbook for a day or two?"
"Sure. It's my sister's, but she said I could keep it for a few days." Amy grinned. "She'll approve, anyway. She's hoping to get a job with the police, as a forensic technologist."
Jim stood up. "Thank you, Miss Yamamoto. You've been very helpful. Come on, Chief. Let's see what we can dig up on this guy."
Locating Fletcher's residence proved to be surprisingly easy. In less than an hour they were able to find his shabby apartment by the simple expedient of checking with the Alumni Affairs office. The middle-aged clerk behind the desk was initially reticent, but helpful once Jim showed his badge.
"Some of our alumni have, well, fallen into financial hardship," he explained apologetically, bringing up Fletcher's file on the monitor screen. "It's not unusual for collection agencies to send someone to our office, pretending to be an old friend, just to get a former student's address. Ah, here he is." He printed out the address and handed the sheet of paper to Jim.
As Jim studied the address, the clerk glanced curiously at Blair. "You were a student here, weren't you? I remember your face."
Only Jim's fine temperature sense could detect the slight flush that appeared on the young man's cheeks. "I... yes, I was. I spent some happy years here."
The clerk smiled and held out his hand. "Well, my dad was a cop, and I'm always glad to see one of our Rainier young people end up in law enforcement. Good luck, young man."
Jim smiled to himself as the two of them left the building. You see, Chief, not everyone at Rainier looks at you and sees a fraud. Seeing the extra spring in the kid's step, he had the suspicion that the clerk's comment would serve to buoy Sandburg's spirits for the rest of the day.
A fifteen-minute drive brought them to the indicated address. Jim mused out loud while he drove. "So this guy's got a chemistry background. Maybe he's making the stuff himself."
"Jim, you heard what she said. Doesn't sound like he was exactly top of his class." Blair sounded dubious.
"It doesn't take brains to cook up drugs, Chief. Even a little lab experience would be helpful."
The apartment, one of many in a grim, concrete fortress-like complex, looked quiet. After a few minutes of knocking, Jim shook his head. "I don't hear anyone inside."
Blair pointed around the corner. "Let's have a look in the window, then. Maybe we can come up with something to justify entering, or at least enough to get a warrant."
The younger man got to the window first. Craning his neck to look past the opened drapes, Blair squinted slightly to see better into the darkened apartment...
... and stopped dead in his tracks when he spotted the crumpled, bloodstained body, lying face-up in the middle of the living room floor.
"Uh-oh... hey, Jim, I think we found our guy."
The guy's a dead ringer for his picture, thought Jim. Sort of takes on a different meaning in this context. He rose from where he'd been kneeling by the man's head.
"Well, looks like someone beat us on this one, Chief."
There was an obvious gunshot wound to the chest, as well as one to the left thigh. From the looks of it, Fletcher had probably been dead for hours.
Jim continued. "Go ahead and call the station; get Forensics and the meat wagon out here. I want to have a look around this place before the horde of locusts descends."
Blair nodded, and Jim could hear him speaking in low, earnest tones into the cellphone as the Sentinel slowly walked around the perimeter of the cluttered apartment. Somewhere, faintly, he could smell it... the sharp, nauseating smell he'd come to associate with the designer drug Golden. Where was it coming from?
A few more steps brought him into the apartment's tiny bathroom. Jim wrinkled his nose at the many odors present. Obviously, housekeeping had not been a priority with Rob Fletcher. Yanking open one of the two drawers built into the bathroom counter, he was rewarded with an abrupt increase in the unpleasant Golden smell.
He finally found the tiny packet, tucked inside what had appeared to be a package of mint-flavored dental floss. With the lid flipped up, Jim could see the clear plastic bag of sulfur-yellow powder. Slipping the entire assembly into a plastic evidence bag, Jim returned to the living room where Blair was gingerly searching the victim's clothing. Even with vinyl gloves on, the police cadet was looking faintly squeamish.
"Never mind that, Chief; the Forensics team'll take care of him." Jim held up the plastic bag. "It was here, though; I'll bet Amy was right about Vincent getting his drugs through this guy."
"But where was Fletcher getting the stuff?" Blair wondered out loud, rocking back on his heels. "Golden isn't meth, Jim, remember? The analysis showed that several rare or controlled substances went into its manufacturing."
"Yeah... I think you're right. I get the feeling that our friend here was just the middleman." He shook his head, then looked down at his partner. "So, tell me, brilliant young police cadet, what do you do when you hit a dead end?"
Blair answered slowly. "You go back to your last sure lead."
"Right. Who knows how to make Golden?"
"What's-his-name, that biochemist... but he's in prison."
"Exactly." Jim reached out a hand, pulled his partner to his feet. "Here comes the team now. After we get done here, we're going to take a little trip to prison."
"I think that's the complete list." The prison clerk handed Jim the printout. "Pretty short... the man hasn't had many visitors."
They stood in the office of the medium-security prison where Andrew Komenski was serving his sentence from the Golden conviction of about three years previous. Blair remembered reading the accounts in the paper, though he hadn't been required to attend any of the proceedings regarding Komenski. The biochemist had confessed to the manufacture of the powerful hallucinogen, but had adamantly insisted that he'd wanted no part of the violence surrounding the case.
Jim perused the list, while Blair tried to read over, or rather, around, his shoulder. "Yeah, let's see... this one who's been here the most looks like his attorney... huh, his mother comes to see him. How sweet of her. And a Mrs. Lisa Thompson... oh, says here she's his sister. But who do you think this is?" Jim's finger indicated a name halfway down the page.
"Tom Hewlitt," read Blair. "Date of birth is 7-7-78, so he's... twenty-one. And listed as a 'friend' on this visit." His eyebrows rose questioningly. "What's a thirty-five year old biochemist, especially a convicted drug manufacturer, got in common with a twenty-one year old kid?"
Jim smiled faintly. "Spoken, of course, from the lofty age of thirty." He pointed at another entry. "And look at this one. Here, he's listed as 'cousin'. Maybe this guy isn't really sure who he is." He turned to Blair. "Chief, get on the phone to Rainier. See if this Hewlitt guy has any legitimate reason to be on campus there."
"You think he's making the Golden?" Blair picked up the phone and dialed the campus switchboard.
"I think Komenski may have slipped him the instructions, somehow. Either verbally or in a letter. It wouldn't be hard to do, not for a couple of smart guys, if they were careful."
Finally, the secretary from the Registrar's office came on the line. Blair hurriedly explained his mission. "Let me see," said the secretary. "Here he is. Hewlitt, Thomas. He's an undergraduate here, a senior this year."
Blair felt a brief chill. "Do you have his major listed?"
"Yes... it's Chemistry."
"Room 315." Blair tucked the piece of paper back in his pocket as he followed Jim down the dorm hallway. "Right up there." He pointed, and quickened his pace to keep up with Jim.
Jim knocked on the door. "Mr. Hewlitt." No answer. Another knock. Again, no answer. Jim cocked his head, extending his hearing. "There's no one inside, but I can smell the Golden."
"Well, according to the schedule, he doesn't have a class right now."
A high-pitched, desperate scream rang through the hallway. Jim and Blair exchanged quick glances, then took off running toward the source. The screaming continued, and doors opened as student crowded into the hallway. Jim flashed his badge. "Police! Stand back!"
They traced the source to room 345 and Jim tried the knob, finding it unlocked. Withdrawing his gun, he lunged inside... and froze.
Blair slid to a halt right behind him.
"Golden." Jim glanced back briefly at Sandburg. "I can smell it on her."
Blair swallowed, keeping his eyes focused on the young woman perched on the edge of the small balcony. She continued her screaming, batting furiously at the air. Tears poured unrestrained from her eyes to wet her cheeks, chin, and neck.
"Hey, hey." Jim returned his gun to its holster and took a hesitant step toward the woman. A sudden wave of deja vu washed over him, and old memories resurfaced. The wild, terrified look in the student's eyes was the same one he'd seen in Blair's eyes years ago when his partner had been dosed with Golden. Before that, there'd been the young woman on the dam. He swallowed, remembering her face as she'd plummeted to her death. Not this time.
"Get back!" She hopped to sit on the railing and swung her legs over the side. "Stay away! There's demons all around! Stay back!"
Blair stepped in front of Jim, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. Jim honed in to his partner's heartbeat and found it alarmingly elevated. He couldn't help but wonder what kind of memories this brought back for Blair. The young man had never remembered everything that happened that day in the police garage, just bits and pieces. But if anybody had a chance of getting through to the young woman, it was Blair -- someone who had been right where she was now.
"Find out her name," Blair whispered, soft enough for Sentinel ears only. Jim nodded and hurried out into he hall, keeping an ear on his partner and the young lady.
"Does anybody know her name?" he asked the crowd of students.
"Molly," a voice answered.
Jim spun back around and returned to his partner's side, ready to convey the info.
"I heard." Blair kept his voice low as he moved forward slowly. "Molly, if you jump, the demons will only follow you down. That's what they want you to do. They want you to jump. Can't you see how they're trying to herd you to the balcony."
"No! No! Their touch burns. I don't wanna be like them! Please..." Her voice disintegrated into sobs and she glanced at the ground three stories below, then back at Blair, her eyes wide and uncertain. "You see them?"
A shiver snaked down Jim's spine. She'd asked the question in the same plaintive tone Blair had used when he'd stood on the hood of the car with a gun in his hand. "You don't see them? They're coming through... through the walls and the floor, man."
Jim blinked, returning to the present. He needed to stay focused on the situation at hand. God, don't let her jump. He remembered what it'd felt like when the girl had slipped out of his grip at the dam. He prayed that was something Blair didn't experience. After his mistake at the academy, losing this girl here would devastate Sandburg. It might just be the thing to push him into quitting for good.
"I see them." Blair took another cautious step forward. "They can't hurt me because I know the magic words."
She cocked her head, leaning away from the edge to gaze at him. "Magic words?"
Blair moved forward another few inches. "Yeah. You have to close your eyes and say the words three times over."
Blair closed his eyes and tilted his head back. "See, just like this. First you close your eyes... " Jim could see the tiny slit in Sandburg's eyelids indicating he was still keeping an eye on the girl.
Come on, Jim urged silently, his gaze shifting from his partner to the girl.
"Close your eyes, Molly, and say these words..."
Molly swallowed hard and nodded, closing her eyes.
Blair inched forward. "The demons have no power here. Nothing can hurt me."
Molly's voice trembled, broken with tears. "The... The demons have no power here. N-Nothing can hurt me."
"That's it Molly. Say it again." He took another step as she repeated the words, then prodded, "One more time."
She crumbled forward and Blair caught her, sinking to the floor with her weight against him.. At first he thought she'd blacked out, but as his arms wrapped around her he felt the tremors in her fragile body and tightened his hold.
"Please... Please help me," she sobbed against his chest.
He closed his eyes. "I'm right here. You're okay."
"I don't know what's real. I'm so scared."
"I know." He cradled her head against his shoulder. "I know, Molly, but you're safe now. I won't let them get you."
Blair watched the ambulance speed off toward the hospital, sirens blaring. The girl had lost consciousness moments before the paramedics arrived, but, thankfully, she'd continued to breathe on her own. If she's lucky, she got a lot less of it than I did.
He jumped slightly as Jim's hand found his shoulder. "You okay, Chief?"
Sandburg drew a shaky breath. "Yeah. That was close, man. Way too close."
"You did a great job, Blair. I... I don't think I've ever seen that sort of thing done better. You were absolutely smooth."
Blair felt his face growing warm at the unexpected praise, and he grinned up at the Sentinel. "Thanks, Jim. But I have it on good authority that you do pretty well yourself at talking down drug-crazed young people... and I was armed at the time, which was probably a bit more exciting."
"Exciting is not the word, Chief." Jim took a deep breath. "All right, Simon'll send someone else to take charge of things here. We need to catch this guy, and fast."
"Maybe the lab?" suggested Blair. "If we could actually catch him making the stuff..."
"Lead on, Junior."
Jim leaned nonchalantly against a hallway bookshelf while Blair rapped politely on the frame of the open door. "Dr. Sikorsky? Do you have a moment?"
From his vantage point, Jim could see a sandy-haired and bespectacled gentleman of middle years seated at a disheveled desk. Come to think of it... in all the times Jim had been over to Rainier for one thing or another, he had yet to meet an academic type who kept his or her desk neat.
"Of course... Blair Sandburg, isn't it? Come in." The professor moved to clear a chair, but Blair stopped him.
"I just have some questions for you, sir." He waved back at Jim, who promptly stepped forward. "This is Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD. We need to ask you about a student by the name of Tom Hewlitt."
Sikorsky's eyebrows shot up. "Hewlitt? Why?"
"Do you know where we might be able to find him?" asked Jim. "The department secretary told us that you were his advisor."
"Yes, I am... I think he's working in the lab today. The senior research lab is up one floor, left after you get off the elevators." He blinked. "Is Tom in some kind of trouble, Detective?"
Jim opened his mouth to repeat the standard line of no-he-isn't-we-just-want-to-ask-him-a-few-questions... but Blair spoke first.
"Yes, I'm afraid he might be, Dr. Sikorsky. Does that surprise you?"
"I'm not sure," answered the chemistry professor slowly. "He's a strange young man, our Tom. Absolutely brilliant, single-minded... but a bit, well, ruthless. Not the kind who'd stop and help his classmates if they got stuck on a problem."
Oh, well, may as well see what this guy knows about our suspect. "Sir," Jim said carefully, shooting what he hoped was a meaningful look at his partner, "we have reason to believe that your star student may be manufacturing illegal substances."
"Manufacturing... such as what? Explosives?"
"Hallucinogens," Jim answered quietly.
The professor looked stunned; Blair jumped in. "Do you know what Hewlitt is doing for his senior project, sir?"
"Yes... something with a synthetic caffeine analogue, and its effect on rats. He's doing a Chemistry-Biology double project, you see."
Jim nodded slowly. "We'd better go talk to him."
The senior research lab was clearly in one of the older parts of the building, and even more clearly in need of a good cleaning. Blair could see Jim wrinkling his nose slightly as they approached the lab entrance.
"Golden?" murmured Blair.
"And a bunch of other crap," Jim whispered back. "Have I ever mentioned how glad I am that your field of study doesn't... didn't have anything worse-smelling than old books?"
The comment, and Jim's momentary slip, brought a brief smile to Blair's face. "So is he in there?"
"I hear one heartbeat," Jim confirmed.
"What do you want to do? We can't just rush in there and arrest him. You'd have a hard time explaining that to his lawyer... how you somehow knew that he was cooking up Golden without even setting foot in the lab."
"Yeah, Simon hates it when I do that sort of thing." Jim put one hand on his weapon, and reached for the doorknob. "No, we'll give him just enough rope to hang himself."
Through the glass which made up the door's top half, Jim could see a young man facing a complicated array of expensive-looking lab glassware. As the Sentinel and the police cadet stepped into the room, the student whirled about.
"Can I help you? You really shouldn't be in here, you know."
Ignoring both the question and the comment, Jim reached into his jacket and produced his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison with the Cascade PD. Are you Tom Hewlitt, and is this your project?"
"Yes, of course. It's my senior project. Hey, what is this?" The student, a dark-haired and well-muscled young man, glared at Jim.
"We're on campus investigating the manufacture of illegal substances. What are you making?" Jim asked evenly. Come here, little fishie... take the bait.
"It's, um, related to caffeine. It's called theobromine; it's found in chocolate. Of course, this is a slightly altered version, with an additional methyl group." Hewlitt folded his arms scornfully. "Not that I expect you to understand any of that. But it's completely harmless."
"Ah. Then you won't mind if we take a sample, then." Jim's hand moved toward the flask that seemed to be the source of the Golden scent.
"I certainly do mind!" answered Hewlitt sharply. "This is an illegal search! What gives you the right..."
Jim barked a short, humorless laugh. "Son, you are on Rainier University property, using equipment owned by the University to make designer drugs. Your faculty mentor gave us explicit permission to search the lab."
Looking startled, Hewlitt dropped back a few feet. Jim lunged closer to the counter and seized the flask, passing it back to Sandburg.
"Cork that and stick it in a bag, Chief." Jim drew his weapon. "Tom Hewlitt, you are under arrest."
Without warning, the door to the lab opened... to reveal the bemused and worried-looking Dr. Sikorsky. Jim's head swiveled automatically toward the sound.
The next the he knew, he was on all fours... his head exploding with pain from the force of Hewlitt's kick, and his weapon skittering harmlessly away, out of his reach.
Damn... got too close...
"JIM!!" screamed Blair. "Watch out!"
But it was too late. Jim was down, and the gun was just starting to slide under a cabinet. Blair dove for it, and breathed a quick, silent prayer of relief as his fingers closed around the cool metal of the gun barrel.
He scrambled to his feet, holding the weapon properly. Just as he'd been taught. Just as he'd held the modified firearm the other day, in the simulation. But unlike the impersonal horrors of the simulation, the sight that greeted his eyes now was one dredged up from his own nightmares.
Hewlitt held a groggy, bleeding Jim in a headlock, both of them half-crouching on the concrete floor. With his free hand, Hewlitt was doing something to Jim's ankle. What? What's he doing? Then, to Blair's horror, he saw the student's hand grasp the backup weapon that Jim always carried in an ankle holster.
Jim fought to stay conscious, though pain and gut-wrenching nausea were almost blinding him. Steel-toed shoes... he was wearing steel-toed shoes. Oh, God, this hurts. Chief... get the gun. Stop this guy.
He struggled feebly, trying to worm his way loose. But an iron grip seized him around the neck and by one leg. He heard the sharp, startled intake of breath as his adversary found the gun stored on Jim's ankle. He gave one last desperate kick, and found himself howling in agony as the gun was wrenched away.
Blair had never really understood the phrase "time slowed to a crawl". Until now. As if in a dream, he saw Hewlitt grasp the gun and slowly raise it. In another few milliseconds, it would no longer be pointed harmlessly at the floor, but at Jim's head.
"Drop it!" The gun continued its ascent. Recent training and surprisingly fierce protective instincts took over, and Blair felt his finger tighten on the trigger.
The confident words of his academy instructor echoed through his head. "You want a guy down, aim for the chest." Blair shifted the barrel and felt the strong kick of the weapon as his natural good aim sent the projectile toward the student. Even after his time with Jim and his training at the university, he still hadn't gotten used to the surprisingly strong recoil of a gun discharged in his hand. He heard Jim cry out... a warning? A bellow of defeat? Blair heard the report of the gun, muffled as if from a great distance...
...and saw Hewlitt's body jerk in pain as he released Jim and fell to the floor, landing half on top of the detective. Blair heard a muffled gasp from the Professor.
Blair ran forward, almost falling on top of his friend. "Jim! Jim, are you okay?" He turned to yell behind him. "Somebody get an ambulance!" He half-lifted, half-dragged the bleeding, protesting and very much alive Hewlitt off of the Sentinel, making sure to pick up the fallen handgun. With a relieved sigh, Blair noted that his aim had been true. The bullet had nicked the kid's shoulder. Finally, he was able to get one hand under Jim's chin and tilt his bruised face to get a better look. The Sentinel's eyelids opened.
"Nice shooting, Chief."
"Are you okay, Jim?" repeated Blair, anxiously checking the size of Jim's pupils.
"Think so. Head hurts... kid has a hell of a kick. Is'at him yelling?"
"Yeah." Blair sat back up. Campus Security was just arriving, in the form of one grey-uniformed middle-aged fellow, and the police cadet waved him over.
He gestured toward Hewlitt. "Hey, sit on that guy, will you? And he needs some first aid 'til the ambulance gets here." Blair turned back to his friend as the security guard bent to check on Hewlitt.
"Jim, he could have killed you. You're damn lucky." He grinned. "Didn't they teach you not to get too close when arresting a suspect?"
"They tried... but I was never much for listening." Jim managed a weak smile. "Hey, Chief? I don't think they'll make you go through the firearms simulation again. You just did the real thing... and you passed with flying colors."
Blair walked hesitantly into the hushed hospital room, the steady beeping of the heart monitor the only sound in the room. An older man and middle-aged woman sat silently next to the bed. They looked up at his entrance, their faces somber. He smiled briefly, his insides shaking, and looked at the still, fragile figure on the bed.
"Um, how is she?"
The woman rose from her chair. "She's going to be okay. She's just sleeping now."
His smile grew more genuine and he released a heavy breath. "I'm so glad."
The father stood. "You're the cop that talked her down?"
"I'm, uh... well, I'm not a cop yet."
The woman tilted her head, studying him. "You look familiar."
Blair glanced at the floor and turned toward the door. "Well, uh, sorry to disturb you. I just --"
The mother took a step closer to him. "You're that student who got kicked out for academic fraud, aren't you?"
"Yeah," the father spoke up. "I remember now. I wondered what kind of school my daughter was going to after I heard --"
The mother elbowed her husband in the ribs and he grew silent. "I want to thank you for saving my daughter's life."
Blair glanced up, fidgeting awkwardly. "I, uh..." He swallowed, his throat tight. What could he say? "I... uh... Well, let's just say I have an idea of what she'll be going through when she wakes up and starts to remember. If she remembers." He held his head higher, forcing himself to meet their gazes. "It's important she know you two don't blame her. Kids make mistakes."
The father sighed wearily and sank back into his chair. "She's never done drugs. She's a good kid."
"It's possible she ingested it unknowingly. No other illegal substances were found in her room. Either way, she'll need your support." He knew an officer had interviewed Molly's friends, but none had been very forthcoming. At the moment, no one except Molly knew whether she'd taken the drug intentionally.
The mother moved forward, looking almost hesitant. Slowly, she slid her arms around Blair's waist, then rested her head on his shoulder. "Thank you so much." Her voice cracked. "You saved my baby's life."
He swallowed, his eyes stinging, and blinked back tears. "You're welcome." He returned her embrace, his gaze drifting toward Molly. This was the part of police work that made all the horror and violence tolerable. As an anthropologist, he had never directly saved a life. Working with Jim, he saved lives every week.
But, occasionally, he might have to take one. He didn't yet know if he could do that. All he knew for sure was, after his vision in Sierre Verde, his place was at Jim's side. And Jim's place was at his.
Jim finished buttoning his shirt and hopped off the exam table, but found himself with a restraining hand plastered against his chest.
"Uh-uh, tough guy." Blair gestured to the vacant wheelchair. "In you go."
Jim's eyes narrowed, but the affect was dampened by the large white bandage on his temple. "Sandburg..."
"Hospital rules, and you do have a head injury. I wouldn't want you to fall and give yourself another concussion."
"It's only a minor concussion, Chief."
"Thanks to your exceptionally hard head."
Jim raised his eyebrows, the mock anger in his eyes suddenly replaced with something much more genuine. "No -- Thanks to you. I messed up, but you came through. I'm damn lucky to have you as a partner."
Blair's smile faded instantly and he glanced nervously at the floor. "Thanks, man." His voice trembled faintly, and he covered it with a cough.
"That was a good shot." Jim slapped a hand on Blair's shoulder, offering a smile when Sandburg raised his head to look at him. "You acted fast, without hesitation. You saved my life."
Blair shrugged, turning away to grab the wheelchair and move it closer. "Nothing you haven't done for me lots of times. Now, in you go."
Jim didn't budge. "Look at me, Sandburg."
Blair's head came up slowly, his eyes wide and bright. "Yeah?"
"The kid you shot is going to be okay. Are you?"
Blair swallowed and dropped his gaze quickly back to the wheelchair. "Yeah, sure. I'm not the one getting out of the hospital."
Jim saw right through the hollow attempt at nonchalance. "Have you made a decision about the academy yet?"
Taking a deep breath, Blair looked up. "Yeah. Yeah, I have. I'll be honest, Jim. Shooting that kid today... Well, I've never shot anybody before. I knew when I pulled the trigger I might kill him. I didn't want to, though. I disregarded what they taught me at the academy. I didn't aim for his chest. I aimed for his shoulder. If I'd missed, you probably wouldn't be here right now."
"But you didn't miss, Chief."
Blair closed his eyes briefly. "This time." He sighed heavily. "I don't like guns. Part of me is screaming that's not who I am. I'm not someone who carries a gun with me everywhere. But there's another part of me that really wants to be your partner." His gaze drifted nervously back to the wheelchair. "I want to be there to back you up. No matter what it takes, Jim. So, yeah, I'll stay in the academy - if they'll let me." He shrugged and glanced awkwardly back at Jim, a shallow smile on his lips. "Besides, it isn't like I have a whole lot of options, is it?"
Jim flinched inwardly, leaning back against the bed. "Are you doing this because you have no other choice?" He held his breath, almost afraid of the answer.
Blair raised his eyebrows, his face serious. "No, Jim. I'm doing this because I want to be out there with you fighting bad guys and, more than anything, I want to make sure nothing happens to you." He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice, then leaned a fraction closer to Jim. "You're still a sentinel and you still need someone to watch your back... Right?"
Jim nodded, feeling something twinge in his chest. "Right, partner."
Blair smiled, and this time it was genuine. He gestured to the wheelchair. "Then quit your stalling and get your ass in the chair, Ellison."
Jim raised his hands in surrender and chuckled. "Okay, okay, tough guy. No need to get pushy."
The door opened just as Sandburg opened his mouth to reply. Captain Banks stepped in, grinning when he saw the Sentinel in the wheelchair. "Well, you look good, Jim. I take it that hard head of yours came through okay?"
"Of course." Jim glanced quickly up at Blair. "Thanks to my partner, here."
Simon raised his eyebrows, his smile growing. "Yeah, I got the official story. That was some nice work, Sandburg. Can I, uh, take this to mean --"
"Yeah, I'm staying in the academy, sir. I mean, if they haven't decided to kick me out."
Simon grunted. "Not likely. Not with your marks. As for the field test, hell, it's designed to make you screw up. That's the whole point."
Blair nodded, his smile fading. "Yeah. I got the point, all right."
Simon exchanged glances with Jim before looking back at Blair. "Listen, Sandburg, I know things have changed pretty quickly for you within the past few weeks, but I hope you'll consider coming to me in the future if you have doubts. I'd like to think I'm your friend as well as your captain." He leaned forward, using his full height to tower over the smaller man, his lips twitching at Sandburg's wide-eyed stare. "And make no mistake. I am your captain now. Got it?"
Blair swallowed, nodding quickly. "Yes, sir, uh, Captain, sir."
Simon raised an eyebrow and looked at Jim. "Well, I'll be damned. Never thought I'd hear those words out of his mouth."
Blair glanced at the ceiling and pushed Jim through the doorway. "Funny, Captain, real funny."
|E-mail the authors of this story, DawnC, at DawnC@bigfoot.com, and Kim Heggen, at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
|Read Dawn's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Blair Angst Fiction Page
Read Kim's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Shycat's Domain
|The artwork in Act I, Desperation, was created by Kristen... Enjoy more of Kristin's art at her website, Magic Moments|
|Please visit our Virtual Season 5 Staff Page to learn more about the hard-working behind-the-scenes crew responsible for bringing you this episode|
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NEXT WEEK on THE SENTINEL: Back to School (10/13/99, FPP-503) by Brenda Bailey
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