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.
"Man, I cannot believe you fell for that one, Jim! That is so old." Blair snickered. "I could have eaten half your pie before you figured it out."
"I trust you, Chief," Jim shrugged, quirking an eyebrow. "Or I did. Just remember what happens to those who 'cry wolf'."
"Yeah, they get ignored when the nasty thugs are --"
The door to Simon's office opened abruptly. "Jim! Can you come in here a moment?"
"That was almost polite," Blair muttered. "What's up with him?" He rose almost at the same instant as Jim, following him to the open office door.
"Ah, ah, ah," said Simon, waggling a finger at his most junior detective. "Did I call your name? Did I ask for you?"
"Well, no, but..."
"Then SIT DOWN!!"
Sandburg shrugged and then returned to his desk to sit, a puzzled look on his face.
Simon shut the door and turned back to Jim, his voice dropping to more normal tones. "Jim, we need to talk." He reached onto his desk and retrieved a plain white envelope. "I received a formal letter of complaint about you today... and the nature of the complaint makes me question my own senses.
"You'd better sit down."
One Month Earlier
Jim smacked the dashboard with his fist. "Damn! We are so close! Everything comes back to this guy!"
They were sitting in Jim's truck after a long meeting in the park with a curiously reluctant informant. The last three weeks had seen an unprecedented rise in drug-related violent crime in Cascade, and an exasperated Simon Banks had assigned Jim and Blair to root out the cause.
"I don't expect you to necessarily solve the drug problem," he'd growled. "That's Vice's territory. But we've had four petty dealers and known users turn up dead or seriously injured in ten days, and people are getting nervous. Get out there and find me a connection."
Blair coughed softly, then drummed his fingers absently. "You think he's a real person?"
"He's got to be, or there's no point to all of this," pointed out Jim reasonably. "We've got his code name, but someone out there has got to be able to give us his real identity."
"'El Raton'... the Rat, they call him. Doesn't sound as if this guy is too well liked." Putting his fisted hand over his mouth, Blair coughed again, this time in a painful paroxysm.
Jim frowned. He sounds terrible. I heard some wheezing sounds on that last cough, and I know he's got a fever. Despite his "Oh Jim, I feel fine" comment earlier today. He shook his head, knowing that his stubborn partner wouldn't appreciate being fussed over. Well, it's not as if we're doing anything too strenuous.
"Marty implied that 'El Raton' might be in some position of prominence," Jim reflected. "I think he was telling the truth, before he clammed up and denied everything."
"Do you think," Blair began... but never finished, as another wave of coughing shook him. Belatedly, he managed to get his hand back over his mouth.
Jim looked at the clock. It was getting late, and they seemed to have reached a dead end for the day. "Come on, Chief. You're sick. Let's get you home where you can get warm." He looked over at his partner, who was only now getting his breath back after the coughing fit. "You shouldn't have gone for that two-hour walk in the rain with Susan last night."
"Jim, getting wet and cold does not make a person sick! How many times do I have to tell you?" Another brief cough. "In the winter, you're safer outside. It's staying indoors with all of the sick people that causes trouble. Jeez!"
Jim eyed the flushed cheeks and fever-bright eyes. "All the same, Louis Pasteur, I think we'd better get you home."
"Here." Jim gave the younger man a gentle push in the direction of the couch. "Go sit down. You make me tired just looking at you. I'll go fix you something hot to drink."
"I can't be sick," came the mumbled response from behind Jim as he stepped up to the stove. "There's too much going on this week."
"The couch, Blair. Now," responded Jim, without turning around... then smiled to himself as he listened to his partner stomp across the room and sit down noisily. Even his footsteps sound impatient.
"All right, I'm sitting, I'm sitting," grumbled the younger man. "So... where do we go with this next? We have got to find out who this Rat guy is. If we can shut him down, things might return to normal around here."
"Or what passes for normal, anyway, to quote Simon," agreed Jim, as he poured boiling water over the sweetly scented teabag he'd fished out of his partner's stash of herbal concoctions. It was unlabeled, but Jim could detect orange peel, cinnamon, rosehips and hibiscus. He added a generous dollop of honey, after first checking the sticky lid for ants; the loft was finally recovering from a recent infestation of uninvited six-legged visitors.
He carried the steaming mug to the coffee table, and carefully set it down where Blair could reach it easily. "I've still got one good informant I want to talk to, plus a couple of hunches I want to check out." He sat down next to Blair.
"It's not that guy with the shoe fetish again, is it, Jim? Because if it is, I'm going to wear those old ratty sneakers that I spilled paint on last summer, so I don't have to worry about losing another pair of --" The rest of his sentence was lost in coughing.
Jim sighed. "It's not, but you're not going to have to worry about it, Chief. You're going to go see the doctor in the morning, and then you're going to go back to bed."
"Oh, come on, Jim," Blair groaned. "It's just a cough."
"Yeah, and a Harley is just another motorcycle. Face it, Chief, you're sick." He reached over for the afghan, and handed it to Blair. "Here. Wrap up, and drink that tea while it's still hot."
Blair sighed. "This, from a man who once worked a case while he was temporarily blind. Jim, you are such a hypocrite, man." Despite his protests, he draped the colorful afghan around his shoulders.
"The situations aren't parallel, and you know it," responded Jim. "That was a case where it was crucial that I keep going. We've been stalled on this case, anyway... you'd have the right to say the same thing to me if I looked as bad as you do."
Blair mumbled something unintelligible into the depths of his tea mug.
"What was that, Chief?"
"I said... (slurp) maybe the need to (slurp) fuss at me like this... (slurp) maybe it's a Sentinel thing, (cough) sort of hard-wired into you. You know..."
Jim shook his head. "If it makes you happy, you can think of it that way. Now, are we agreed, or are we going to argue about this some more?"
Setting the now-empty mug aside, Blair shook his head. "No... truth is, I feel too lousy to argue with you."
"That's the spirit, Junior."
After a restless night punctuated by repeated coughing spells, Blair finally dragged his weary body out of bed and into the bathroom. He was shocked at the sight of his own pale and haggard face in the mirror. I've seen road kill that looks better than I do. The thought provoked a weak laugh, which became a coughing paroxysm... which ended with Blair spitting a mouthful of foul brown mucus into the bathroom sink. Oh man... that was gross. He shuddered, then brushed his teeth to get rid of the taste.
When he emerged, he could smell food and coffee. His stomach churned uneasily at the thought of ingesting anything, but he sat down at the table anyway.
"Sorry, Jim," he croaked at his friend, who was busily flipping pancakes on the stove. "I don't think I can eat much... but it's nice of you to cook like this."
His face unreadable, Jim brought over a glass of orange juice. "Here, Chief. Sip this slowly, and take this Tylenol... then try a few bites." When Blair glanced up, he could see the faint lines of worry around the Sentinel's eyes. He picked up the juice and sipped meekly.
Jim sighed. "Your appointment is in about fifteen minutes. I'll be curious to hear what the doctor says."
With an effort, Blair summoned up the ghost of a smile. "And if I tell you to wait in the waiting room?"
"Fat chance, Junior. Besides, I'd still hear."
The doctor frowned as he held Blair's chest x-ray up to the light. "This is why you feel so bad, Detective Sandburg. Look at this."
"Please... call me Blair." He squinted wearily at the piece of black film, which really didn't look like much of anything to him.
Jim, however, leaned forward intently. "That definitely doesn't look right," he pointed out. Thanks, Jim.
"You've got pneumonia, as we thought," the physician continued. "Both your right middle and right lower lobes are pretty well socked in. And over here," his index finger traced something that Blair couldn't quite see. "I think you've got a slight effusion... a fluid collection outside your lung, that is."
He replaced the x-ray on the desk. "If you were elderly or chronically ill, I'd hospitalize you. If you'd rather, I can still do that."
Blair shook his head emphatically. "No, please. I can manage."
The doctor gave Blair a searching look. "All right, then," he said, finally. "I'm going to have my nurse come in and give you an injection of a long-acting antibiotic, and I'll give you a prescription to fill for a ten-day course of another antibiotic. I want you back here in two days for a follow-up visit."
"I can do that," said Blair, shifting uncomfortable on the vinyl-covered table, and trying to sound more confident than he felt.
"If you feel worse between now and then, you call the office. If you get shortness of breath, chest pain, anything like that, I want to hear from you."
Blair nodded in agreement, and the doctor left the room.
"Chief, maybe you should let them hospitalize you," Jim said quietly. "I'm glad to take care of you, you know that, but..."
"He gave me the choice." Blair shook his head stubbornly. "I'm a healthy young adult, Jim. And you don't need to stay home with me; I can manage."
"We'll see," answered Jim.
Before Blair could argue further, the door opened to admit a large, well-muscled, middle-aged nurse. Blair's eyes widened. She looks like she used to be on the East German swim team. He swallowed nervously, and tried to smile as he bared his arm in expectation of the injection.
"Oh, no, Mr. Sandburg..." She grinned. "Down with the pants. Rocephin is much less painful in the hip."
Jim drove the truck carefully, trying not to smile at the way Blair sat perched awkwardly on one buttock. "I thought you were going to climb out the window when you saw that needle, Chief," he teased.
Blair shuddered. "Ow. That really sucked, man. It still burns, whatever it was." He coughed a few times, then lay back, resting his cheek against the window with his face turned away from Jim.
The Sentinel watched his partner covertly, casting quick glances out of the corner of his eye and listening to the slightly labored breathing. He needs to go home and go to bed. And I'll sit on him if I have to, Jim vowed to himself.
"All right. You should be set."
Crossing his arms over his chest, Jim surveyed his handiwork. Blair sat propped up on the couch, his legs stretched out in front him, and the two large pillows from Jim's bed stuffed behind his back. An open book lay on his legs; it was Blair's much-battered copy of "The Milagro Beanfield War." On the coffee table stood a bottle of water, a bottle of Gatorade, and a mug of steaming tea.
Jim snapped his fingers. "Whoops! Hang on a minute." He walked the few steps into Blair's little room, and snagged the comforter off of the futon bed. "Here you go," he said as he spread it over his partner, tucking it in securely.
Blair managed a weak grin. "Stop fussing, Jim, I'll be fine."
"And here's the Tylenol, and your bottle of antibiotics," Jim went on, ignoring the protests from the blanket-draped figure. "Here's the box of Kleenex, and there's a trash basket."
"You don't have to stay here, Jim," responded Blair. "Go on in to work. You'll be bored to death if you stay here," he paused to cough and spit into a tissue, "because I fully intend to sleep all day."
Jim shook his head. "It's okay. I called Simon, and there's nothing new going on. Our case is the only really active one, and I need to think some more about that one anyway. We've more or less run aground, I think. So I'll find something to do here." He sat on the end of the couch. "Do you want to watch something?"
"Only if you can find a show that'll make sense if I doze off and miss half of it. But go ahead. I'm going to try to read a little, and the noise won't bother me." Blair's eyes were already half-closed, the lids heavy, and his cheeks were flushed again from the fever.
After a few minutes of channel-flipping, Jim settled on a Discovery Channel program about trekking in the Himalayas. Looking over at his partner, he wasn't surprised to see that Blair had already fallen asleep. The book had closed and slid into the crack between Blair and the couch, losing a few more loose pages in the process. The younger man's head lay back against the pillows, and he snored lightly.
Smiling to himself, Jim retrieved the book and its missing pages, removing them to the safety of the coffee table. Blair's glasses followed suit, after Jim had carefully pried the earpieces out of the tangled hair. Finally, the Sentinel pulled the blanket up around Blair's shoulders. Almost involuntarily, he touched his own cool hand to the hot forehead, pushing back the sweat-dampened curls. He's so flushed. I hope he feels better soon.
With a sigh, Jim returned to his end of the couch, and soon lost himself in the program.
Hot... so hot. Smothering. Thirsty.
Waking up was distinctly unpleasant, but Blair was now conscious enough that he knew he had no choice but to do so. Like swimming up through syrup, he dragged his tired awareness up through layers of mental fog until he finally blinked his eyes open.
Where am I? Oh, on the couch. Bleah. That's right; I'm sick. Boy, am I sick.
His eyes felt gritty, his mouth tasted utterly foul, and his chest ached with a kind of heaviness. More ominously, he realized that with each exhalation he could hear and feel little crackling sounds in his lungs. The sensation was not reassuring.
Experimentally, Blair took a deep breath... and started off on another coughing spasm. He hastily grabbed a handful of tissues to catch the revolting brown goo that was suddenly filling his mouth.
"Oh, man, that is so gross." He wiped his mouth, shuddering, as he tossed the slimy wad into the trash basket. Good thing Jim put that there.
"You okay, Chief?" came the concerned query from the kitchen.
"Yeah," Blair croaked. "Just going through the proverbial rude awakening. What time is it?"
"Almost five. You've been asleep for hours." There was a clattering sound... a frying pan? Blair shifted his body, and craned his neck to look into the kitchen.
Jim continued. "You think you could eat something? Maybe some eggs? Soup?"
Food? Now, there's a thought... Blair concentrated on his stomach, and was relieved to find no nausea, and maybe just a hint of cautious hunger. "Yeah, I'll try something. Eggs sound kind of good."
"Coming right up."
Blair closed his eyes and listened to the cozy domestic sounds that followed: eggs cracking, the rattle of a whisk, a pan sizzling... He was nearly asleep again when he heard Jim's voice, this time much closer.
"I was thinking, Chief..." Jim trailed off.
Blair cracked his eyes open again. "What?"
"I was thinking... after you eat something, and if you feel a bit better... I might desert you for a couple of hours." Now standing at the end of the couch, Jim wore a facial expression of mixed concern and guilt that was almost comical.
Since laughing would almost certainly lead to coughing, Blair contented himself with a weak smile. "Jim, it's okay. Go ahead, man. Where are you going?"
"Don't you remember? The city awards banquet is tonight. I'd skip it... but Simon relies on me to get through it without losing his sanity."
Blair groaned. He had forgotten. "Awww, crap. I was supposed to take Melissa, too. I'd better call her and let her know." He thought for a moment. "Hey, Jim, I'd don't suppose you'd want to..."
"Stop it right there, Sandburg." Jim waved the egg-coated spatula at his partner. "I'll take you to the doctor, watch you cough up disgusting phlegm, and nag you to take your medicines... but I am not going to baby-sit your would-be date. That woman's a barracuda in high heels."
"Hand me the phone, then," Blair sighed. "May as well get it over with."
Simon squinted sourly at the rain streaming down the windshield. "Lovely weather," he commented sarcastically. "Jim, how long has it been since you replaced your windshield wipers?"
The Sentinel shrugged. "I can see just fine."
"Why do I bother?" asked Simon. "Never mind, don't answer that. How's the kid doing?"
"Better than this morning, I think. I got him to eat a few bites, and he was watching TV when I left." Jim glanced at the dashboard clock, one of the few amenities in the truck. "All the same, Simon, I don't want to leave him too long."
"Just through the end of the presentations," promised Simon. "I should be able to escape after that."
Jim frowned at the multicolored buffet spread. Look at all of these exotic goodies. Sandburg would have a field day. Mindful of his history of unusual reactions to strange foods and medications, he selected a variety of familiar-looking tidbits for his tiny hors d' oeuvres plate.
Looking around, he spotted Simon already seated at one of the round tables. He sighed inwardly to himself, and began the laborious process of threading his way through the throng of well-dressed people.
Halfway there, a feminine elbow seemed to appear from nowhere to jostle his plate. One of the Spanish olives that Jim had piled on top rolled dangerously close to the edge, but he managed to level things out before anything could hit the deck. He looked up to see who the elbow belonged to.
Young, with caramel-colored hair swept up into some kind of complicated knot, and wearing a dark brown velvet cocktail dress that clung to every adolescent curve... the girl looked at him with undisguised irritation, lips pursed in a pout.
"Sorry, Miss." He gave her his best apologetic smile. "Didn't mean to get in the way."
For a few seconds she gazed at him speculatively, then nodded. "Sorry about the elbow," she said, the effect of the apology diminished by the expression on her beautiful, sullen face.
She whirled about and disappeared into the crowd. Jim silently shook his head as he worked his way through to his goal, breathing a quiet sigh of relief as he set his plate down next to Simon's.
"I see you met Miss Congeniality," snickered Simon.
"Britanni Lombard. The little debutante you bumped into out there."
"She bumped into me," Jim replied automatically, picking up what appeared to be a bacon mini-quiche and sniffing it suspiciously. Deciding it was safe, he started to take a bite... and almost choked.
"Britanni Lombard?" he spluttered. "That was Frank Lombard's daughter?"
"His oldest. You haven't seen her for a while, obviously."
"Not for... three or four years, I guess. She seemed like a nice little kid then." He spotted the object of their discussion, now clinging to Councilman Lombard's arm. Probably complaining to Dear Daddy about the big dumb cop that tried to run her over, he thought glumly. Aloud, he added, "She's grown a bit."
Simon snorted. "That, and acquired a big dose of attitude. I heard Lombard's been sending her to some private ranch school in Arizona. Which might explain his lack of concern for the Cascade school district."
"What is she... seventeen, eighteen? It can't have been that long..."
"Fifteen," Simon corrected. "Going on thirty."
Jim whistled under his breath. "Well, I'm glad I'm not Lombard. He's going to have his hands full with her, I think."
"Well, that's over with for another year." Jim unlocked the truck's passenger door for his captain. Despite their earlier intentions to leave as soon as possible, they'd somehow ended up staying for the entire affair.
Simon nodded. "I think the only part I really enjoy anymore is the volunteer awards. It's good to be reminded that there are still people in our city for whom every generous action isn't a calculated political move."
"Yeah," Jim smiled. "Especially the kids. Could you believe that one girl? Over 500 hours of volunteer time at Cascade General?" Bet Miss Lombard wouldn't be caught dead in a candy-striper uniform.
"So..." Jim asked as he pulled the truck out into the darkened street, peering through the sheets of rain. "You want me to drop you off at your place? Or do you want to come back to the loft and see my pitiful wreck of a roommate?" He grinned at Simon. "I'm sure a bit of Banks Bluster would cheer him right up, and it's a good night for a hot drink or two."
Simon consulted his watch. "I could come over for a while."
"Okay." Jim shifted into the left lane, away from the freeway entrance that would have taken them to Simon's house. He turned left into the next side street... and heard sounds. A man, shouting angrily. A girl sobbing.
His vision cutting through the darkness and mist, he saw them standing on the sidewalk. "Christ, Simon, it's Lombard and his daughter." He maneuvered the truck over to the curb and parked.
Frank Lombard could be heard shouting into his cell phone as they walked up. "I don't care! Just tell me when you're going to have someone here!"
Simon cleared his throat as they reached the sodden pair. "What's happened here, Councilman? Where's your car?" Clinging to her father's arm, Britanni continued to weep.
"Banks!" Lombard slammed his cell phone shut. "My God, what kind of job can the Cascade P.D. be doing if --"
"Oh, Detective Ellison!" Suddenly, Jim found himself with an armful of shivering, sobbing teenage girl, as she plastered herself against his chest. Huh... I guess she does remember me.
"It was awful. Please... help us," she cried. "Get me out of here!"
Jim stared down at her, finally patting her back awkwardly.
"And those bastards just pulled me out of the car at gunpoint," Lombard was saying. "Then they got in our car and drove off. We'd only been standing here about two or three minutes when you came by."
The councilman sounded calmer now, but his distraught daughter still appeared to be having a hard time. Jim had managed to gently disentangle her from his chest and direct her back to her father's side... but she still wept in soft, hiccuping sobs, her makeup dripping slowly down her face. The rich brown velvet dress was drenched and dripping, in spite of the raincoat that Simon had gallantly thrown around her shoulders. Her wet face, as well as everyone else's present, shone alternately blue and red in the oscillating lights of the patrol car that had just arrived.
"Councilman, we'll need you to come down to the station and make a statement," Simon was saying. "Officer Hartley will be glad to drive you there."
Lombard looked annoyed. "What more do you need to know? I just told you the whole story!"
"Please, sir... for a crime of this magnitude, it really is necessary." Simon spread his hands out in front of him..
The politician sighed. "I suppose you have to cross all the T's and dot all the I's. Let's get it over with." He turned to look at his daughter, his eyes narrowing. "I'd really rather get Britanni home as soon as possible."
"Tell you what..." Simon had a false, nervous smile on his face, the one the Jim referred to mentally as the Kiss-up-to-the-Politician smile. "I'll ride on back to the station as well, and we'll have Detective Ellison drop off your daughter. He'd be glad to do it." He gave Jim a pointed glance.
Jim groaned inwardly, and tried to catch Simon's eye, but the police captain was talking to the two patrol officers. Resisting the urge to tug at Simon's sleeve, he managed to finally lean close enough for his comments to be heard.
"Simon... can't she go home in a patrol car?" he murmured. "I really want to get back and check on Sandburg."
"Jim, it'll only take an extra twenty minutes or so, and to be honest..." Simon drew a deep breath, "it'll do us a world of good politically. Please."
"All right... but," Jim cast a reluctant look over at his bedraggled would-be passenger, "but you owe me big time for this one, Simon."
He went over to the truck and opened up the passenger door. With all of the graciousness he could summon up, he directed his guest inside. "In you go, Miss Lombard. We'll have you home before you know it."
Continue on to Act II...
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This page last updated 2/2/01.