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."
One of these days, we'll need to do something about those cobwebs.
Almost dreamily, his thoughts sluggish with fever, Blair stared up at the light fixtures and their attendant gauzy cobwebs. He was no longer certain of what time it was, or how many hours had passed since Jim had left. He'd been drifting in and out of a light doze, the television programs and the text of his book sifting weirdly into his dreams.
I wish Jim would come home.
The floor around the inadequate little wastebasket was littered with a snowfall of wadded-up tissues, collectively containing more phlegm than the young detective really cared to think about. Jim had forgotten to empty the wastebasket before he left, and Blair had simply felt too ill to care.
The various liquids that Jim had left out for him to drink were gone, and he was beginning to feel almost thirsty enough to get up and replenish the supply... when he heard footsteps outside the door. Even with his ordinary, un-enhanced senses he recognized Jim's walk somehow, and smiled in muzzy relief.
"Hey, Jim," he called out weakly as the door opened. "How was the banquet?"
Jim stepped into the loft, slowly tossing his keys into the basket and slinging his drenched and dripping jacket onto one of the hooks. He shook himself slightly, like a wet dog, then walked into the bathroom.
"Hey, Earth to Jim," Blair quipped when his partner reappeared. Jeez, he looks wiped out. Must have been a seriously sucky party.
Jim's head turned, and he seemed to see Blair for the first time. "Oh... hey, Chief. You should be in bed." He scrubbed at his face with one hand. "I'm beat... I'll see you in the morning."
Then he walked purposefully up the stairs to his loft sleeping area without a backward glance, leaving a bewildered Blair blinking in astonishment from his sweaty nest on the couch.
What's with him? No nagging me about taking my medications? No good-natured griping about having to sit through a boring banquet?Blair was puzzled, and though he fiercely denied it to himself, a little hurt as well. Being fussed over was embarrassing, but being ignored seemed infinitely worse.
Quit being selfish, he admonished himself. Jim's just tired... either that, or he's catching this same damned pneumonia. With a sigh, Blair gathered up the pill bottles and other trappings of illness before making his unsteady way into his own little bedroom.
Jim stopped for a second, coffee pot poised above the empty mug, as he listened to the sounds coming from Sandburg's bedroom. He's coughing again... sounds like he's awake.
Whistling cheerfully, he poured his coffee and doctored it to his liking, then surveyed the refrigerator and cupboards. Ahh... Cream O' Wheat. That's what Sally always fixed for us when we were sick. Maybe Sandburg would like some.
The French doors opened, and a pale and disheveled Blair Sandburg stepped out of his bedroom. He stopped, leaning against the doorframe for a moment.
Jim put the saucepan of milk on the burner to heat. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Chief."
Blair scowled. "I should say the same thing to you." He folded his arms over his chest.
"What do you mean?" Jim looked at his friend in puzzlement.
"You don't remember?"
"Remember what? Chief, have you been dreaming again? Fevers can give you really weird dreams, and your temp's still up. I can tell."
Blair waved the thought aside. "Never mind me. Jim, when you came home last night, you were acting strange. Really tired, and kind of out of it."
"So?" Jim shrugged nonchalantly, but the physical gesture of dismissal was insufficient to keep the uncomfortable thought from creeping into his mind.
I don't remember coming home last night.
"So?" he said again.
"Jim," Blair walked slowly to the couch and sank down into the cushions. Jim could heard the coarse rattle of his breathing even without any special effort. "You walked right past me. I was right here on the couch. You went up to bed after saying about six words."
Jim stirred the bubbling Cream O'Wheat, and said nothing.
"At first, I thought you were just tired," Blair persisted. "Then I got worried... I thought maybe you were sick, or... or maybe I'd done something to really piss you off without knowing."
Jim forced a laugh. "No, no more than usual." Then, looking over at his partner's deadly serious face, he regretted the ill-timed attempt at humor. "Sorry, Chief. No... I wasn't mad at you. Why would I be?"
Blair continued on as if he hadn't heard. "So... after a few minutes, since I couldn't sleep, I walked upstairs to check on you, to make sure you were okay.
"Jim... I couldn't wake you." The blue eyes stabbed almost accusingly at Jim. "No matter what I did. I shook you, and talked to you, but all you did was mumble." He paused to cough, wheezing slightly. "Finally, I pinched your elbow, and you woke up rather abruptly and took a swing at me..."
"Oh, no," Jim groaned. "Blair, I'm sorry."
"Don't worry." Finally Sandburg smiled, albeit rather weakly. "You missed. You babbled something, then went back to sleep. I watched you for a while, then decided that whatever had happened... you would probably be okay. And I was exhausted," he admitted. "So I came back downstairs and fell asleep."
Jim looked down at the cereal, which he had continued to stir. It was about to boil over. Quickly, he turned off the burner and popped the lid on the pan.
"Sandburg, are you sure about all of this? I can see the first part... I was probably just really tired, maybe zoning out a little. But are you sure you didn't dream the rest of it? As sick as you are, you may not be the most reliable observer." He tried to say it gently.
Blair shook his head stubbornly. "I was awake, that much I'm sure of. Jim, did you drink something new or eat something strange at the banquet? Maybe it was some kind of reaction, or..." The younger man trailed off, fatigue suddenly showing on his face.
Walking over to the couch, Jim rested a hand briefly on his friend's shoulder. "Whatever it was, it can wait. I've got some breakfast for you, if you can eat it. Then I want you to get back in bed, or at least lie down out here."
A brief smile flashed across Blair's face. "Now you sound more like yourself, at least."
"C'mon, Manuel, you've got to be able to tell me more than that." Jim cast a sidelong glance at the man huddled at the other end of the park bench.
"No, I tell you no more," insisted Manuel.
Jim opened his wallet reluctantly, starting to withdraw some more cash... but Manuel's hiss stopped him.
"No! Mas dinero no va a ayudar... the money, senor, it don't help, sabe usted? El Raton, he knows you are looking for him, senor, and he has marked you for death."
"Right," laughed Jim. "If you tell me who he is, then we can put him away. Then you and your friends will all be safe."
"No!" Manuel stood up. "I said... he will kill you... you and anyone who helps you to find him."
"Hey, Hairboy! Welcome back!"
Blair turned from his frustrated study of Simon's closed office door to greet a smiling Detective Brown.
"Hey, Henri! Thanks. It's good to be back." Blair perched on the edge of his desk as the other detective slapped him on the back with molar-jarring force. "Oof! Man, I was getting so bored at home I was ready to start committing crimes myself just to see you guys."
Henri eyed him critically. "You look a lot better than the last time I saw you, Blair."
"Three-day-old oatmeal looks better than I did then." Blair grimaced at the memory of his hospital stay.
After his diagnosis of pneumonia, about a month ago, he'd continued to feel worse. The follow-up visit to the doctor two days after the original appointment had revealed Blair to be very significantly ill; his physician had taken a quick look at the pale, gasping figure in his office and ordered him to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics and repeat x-rays.
What had been proposed as a one- or two-day stay had lengthened into ten days in the hospital. The chest x-rays had revealed that the tiny fluid collection seen on the original film had expanded to become a large collection of pus. Blair had endured a painful procedure to drain the infection, and still bore on his ribs an angry red healing wound left by the chest tube that had been required to complete the drainage.
Jim had been wonderful during the entire ordeal: calm, caring and solicitous. He'd driven Blair to the hospital and taken care of the paperwork. He hadn't flinched while Blair practically squeezed his hand off during the needle drainage of the infection. And during that first frightening night, while Blair fought the rising panic he felt at not being able to breathe properly, while the physicians talked about moving him to the ICU, while he lay there, listening to the oxygen whistle through the plastic tube under his nose... Jim had sat by the bedside, warm and reassuring and solid.
The hospital staff had at first seemed resentful of Jim's continual presence at Blair's bedside... then they had gradually come to see through the older detective's gruff facade to the gentle man who lurked beneath. By the time Blair was finally discharged, the nursing staff had become extremely fond of both of them.
It had taken Blair another two weeks to slowly regain his strength. He still coughed with exertion, and the spot where the chest tube had been tended to ache by the end of the day, but his physician had cleared him to return to his duties.
"You still look a bit puny, though, kid." Brown squeezed Blair's left bicep playfully. "You're too skinny. We need to take you out and fatten you up."
"No, thank you," Blair laughed. "I get enough of that from Jim. The guy acts like I'm on chemotherapy or something."
"Where is the big dude, anyway?"
Blair jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "He's in talking to Simon. They kicked me out, so it must be some kind of major reaming out. Which is strange, 'cause Jim's been mostly doing desk work while I was sick. I'm not sure what he could have done to get Simon so pissed off." He cast one quick glance at the closed office door. "I'm not sure whether I should go in and rescue him, or run and hide."
Brown grinned. "Well, you'll find out soon enough if you wait here. Want to go out to lunch with me where you'll be safe?"
"Nah, Jim and I just got back from lunch. And I figure... if Simon's let me live this long, I'll probably survive."
"Pregnant?" Jim frowned, puzzled.
"That's what the letter says." Simon handed the offending missive across his desk to Jim. "Furthermore, Jim, she's naming you as the father."
"What? Simon, that's absurd! You can't possibly believe that! My God... she's only fifteen!" Jim jumped up to his full height.
"Jim! Calm down, and sit down!" Simon bellowed.
Slowly, Jim lowered himself back into his chair.
Simon went on in a more controlled tone of voice. "Look, Jim, I believe you. I don't think you make a habit of preying on fifteen-year-old girls. But this is a serious charge, and we need to talk about it." He leaned back in his chair.
"I called Frank Lombard this morning when I received this... and you owe me big time for that, by the way. He's not a happy man. Anyway... the girl's claiming that it happened on the night of the city awards banquet, when you took her home after the car-jacking."
Jim dropped his head into his hands. "Oh, shit. That's the perfect story. No one else was with us... and I think that Sandburg was pretty out of it when I got home. He probably won't remember much."
For some reason, that particular train of thought reminded Jim of something... something that lay naggingly close to the surface, but just out of his mental reach. Before he could pursue it further, Simon was answering.
"But we should be able to go through the 911 tapes and find the record of your calls to dispatch with time and mileage. That should clear you, since the girl's claiming that you drove her in the opposite direction. She says you took her down to the waterfront somewhere, where the alleged act took place." Simon frowned. "You did call in your time and mileage, didn't you?"
"When we pulled away from the crime scene, yes... but I don't think I called back in to Dispatch after I dropped her off." Jim raised his head. "It was late, and I was tired. I must have forgotten."
"Of all of the stupid..." Simon's voice rose again. "Ellison! There's a reason for that policy! To protect us from false accusations!"
"I know, sir... I'm sorry," Jim said woodenly.
Simon sighed. "Look, Jim... we've got some time to get this figured out. Lombard's complaining, but no one's doing anything official yet. Talk to Sandburg, see if he remembers what time you got in, or anything helpful. See if you can think of anyone else who might have seen you that night."
"So I'm not suspended?"
"No, not yet. I need you too much right now. If Sandburg's up to it, see if the two of you can make any headway on this Ratman or whoever he is-"
"El Raton," Jim said automatically, smiling slightly.
"Whatever. We've had two more street people disappear into the ozone in the last couple of days, plus that guy they found last week, and I don't like it."
"I'll get on it, sir." He rose to leave.
"Jim," came Simon's voice, as the detective started to turn the doorknob. "Jim, I do believe you."
"I know, Captain," Jim whispered, his eyes closed. "Thank you."
Blair looked up as he heard the familiar clatter made by the drawn blinds on the door to Simon's office. Jim slipped through the doorway, shutting the door behind him before Blair could get a glimpse of their captain.
Without saying anything, the Sentinel headed for his desk and picked up the phone, stabbing at the numbers with somewhat more force than was necessary. Blair glided closer, trying to be unobtrusive.
"What's up?" he murmured.
"It's called checking my voice mail, Chief. See, that little blinking light there means that I have messages."
Blair made a rude sound. "Sounded like Simon was giving you a message or two."
Jim sighed, and rubbed his forehead. "It's... complicated. There's been a mistake about something." He paused, presumably listening to his messages, then hung up the phone and swung around in his chair to face his partner.
"Are you up to going out and following up on something? I mean... officially, aren't you on desk duty for a few days?"
Blair shook his head. "The doctor told me to use my judgement."
"God help us all." Jim shook his head in mock despair.
"So, who is this guy?"
"Just a down-and-out street person, Chief. But Manuel says that he knew one of last week's victims."
"One of the missing persons?"
"No..." Jim sighed. "One of the found persons... as in, found dead. Like I said, it was last week, when you were still out."
They were in one of the alleys near the bus terminal. Blair repressed a shudder as he eyed his filthy gray surroundings: trash cans, scattered bits of rain-sodden litter, and cold murky puddles all sandwiched into the narrow gap between buildings. Halfway down was a recessed doorway, one of the few in the area not blocked by a locking steel grate to keep squatters from seeking its meager shelter.
As they walked closer, Blair could see a shapeless heap of what appeared to be stained and dirty denim. The pile stirred, and the shape resolved itself into a crouching human figure.
Jim squatted beside the stocking-cap-clad man, who gazed blearily at the two detectives.
"Your name Carl? Carl Gunderson?"
The eyes below the blue knit hat blinked for a few seconds. "They call me Carl," he croaked finally. "Whatsamatter... I got to move outta here?" He jerked a thumb over his right shoulder, indicating the closed door behind him with its single boarded-up window. "Building's vacant. No one cares."
Both detectives showed their badges. "It's all right, Mr. Gunderson," assured Jim. "You're not in any trouble. We just want to ask you a few questions."
"My ex-wife send you guys?" The transient began to laugh wheezily, without making much actual sound. Blair could see the half-rotten teeth in his open mouth, and swallowed as the bile rose in his throat. No matter how long I do this, I'll never get used to seeing people reduced to this level.
"No, Mr. Gunderson. Manuel Espinoza sent us. He told us that you knew Adam Kirkland."
The homeless man looked puzzled.
"Also known as Piglet," Jim supplied. "The young man found dead last month a few blocks from here."
Recognition dawned on Gunderson's face and he began to nod. "Yeah... poor Piglet. Poor kid. He didn't belong down here."
"Why did they call him Piglet?" Blair asked, curiosity overcoming his uneasiness.
"Well, he was just a kid, only about twenty or so..."
"Nineteen, actually," Jim added.
"Whatever. He had an older sister, that he was just crazy about... just worshiped her. A working girl, if you know what I mean." The wheezy laugh made a reappearance. "Goes by the name of Pooh, so we called her little brother Piglet. Made sense, y'know?"
Blair shifted his weight restlessly, wishing that the old man would get to the point. His nose had grown used to the background smells of the alley, as well as the foul miasma rising from Gunderson... but he was getting tired, despite his earlier staunch words to his partner.
Jim was nodding patiently. "Yeah. It makes sense. What happened to the sister?"
"Oh, she's around. She works the area by the waterfront. Has to work pretty hard to support her habit." The old man coughed. "Piglet hated seeing her on drugs. Never took anything himself, and was always trying to get her clean, get her off of the stuff."
"Mr. Gunderson..." Jim spoke slowly. "Did Adam... Piglet, I mean... did he ever say anything about someone called El Raton?"
"Yeah... all the time. That's how Pooh got her meth, from El Raton's people."
"Did Piglet know who El Raton is?" asked Blair. This sounded promising,,, after all, the now-dead youth would have had a reason to hate the man or organization who supplied his sister with drugs.
Gunderson shook his head. "Beats me, kid. If he ever found out anything, it died with him."
Jim pulled out one of his cards and handed it to the transient. "Thanks. If you think of anything else... please call us."
"You should have told me you were so tired, Chief. We could have packed it in an hour ago." Jim eyed the groaning figure sprawled on the couch as he hung up his jacket. "An afternoon stumbling through muddy alleys and around the waterfront is probably not what your doctor had in mind for your first day back." They'd spent the last couple of hours searching for the dead man's sister, the elusive Pooh.
Blair sat up and coughed softly. "I'm all right. Nothing some rest and food won't fix. I didn't want to stop; it sounded like we were actually getting somewhere today." He yawned. "So, what was the mistake that Simon wanted to tell you about in person?"
Jim froze in the act of opening the refrigerator. Sandburg's tone of voice was casual, but the Sentinel hadn't missed the slight jump in heart rate as Blair asked his question.
"It's a long story," he answered shortly. "What do you want for dinner? There's still some of that bean soup in here that you made, and I picked up some French bread the other day."
"That'll be fine. Whatever." Blair waved one hand distractedly. "Did it have anything to do with me?" he asked after a few seconds of silence.
Jim set the pot of cold soup on the stove. "What, the bread?" he joked.
"No! Quit trying to change the subject, Jim! The mistake, or whatever it was that Simon was reaming you out about! Was is something I did?"
Startled, Jim turned around and looked at Blair's tense and unhappy face. I'm going to have to tell him, he concluded reluctantly. Otherwise he might believe that he really did do something to piss off Simon.
Besides... I'm going to need his help. "No, Chief," he said softly. "It's nothing to do with you." He sighed. "Let me get this heating up, then I'll tell you the whole story. I promise."
Blair nodded slowly, apparently mollified. "Okay."
Jim turned the burner on "low" and gave the soup pot a stir. He turned the oven to "warm" and placed the baguette inside. Then, on impulse, he fixed a cup of tea for Blair, using the peach-flavored tea he'd seen the younger man buy on their trip to the grocery store two days before. He inhaled the fruity fragrance deep into his lungs as he carried the mug cupped in his hands.
"Here you go, Chief." Jim sat down next to his friend after placing the mug safely on the table.
"Thanks, Jim. That smells good." Blair smiled at him, and Jim could see the concern underneath the expression. "So, what's going on? What was Simon having such a conniption about? It can't be that bad if I didn't have anything to do with it."
Jim answered tonelessly. "It's bad enough, Chief. The teenage daughter of one of the city council members is pregnant, and she's naming me as the father."
In an attempt to head off further incredulous interruptions, Jim slowly told him the entire story. By the time he reached the end, he could hear the bean soup starting to bubble, so he walked over to the kitchen to tend to it.
Neither of them said anything while Jim dished up the soup and sliced the warm bread, but Jim could feel Blair's eyes upon him the whole time. Partly out of deference to his partner's fatigue and recent illness, and partly because of a wordless gut feeling that the dining room table was the wrong place to have this discussion, he carefully carried the food over to the living room.
"Here," he said gruffly, feeling more than a little self-conscious about being so solicitous. "Eat it while it's hot."
Blair accepted the food but made no move to eat it. "Jim... she says you got her pregnant the night of the awards banquet?"
Jim shrugged. "That's what she's claiming. Unfortunately, I forgot to call in my time and mileage to dispatch after I dropped her off." He picked up his bread. "But she's just a kid. Eventually, she's going to slip up and say something inconsistent, something that'll trip her up and show that she's lying." He began to eat rapidly.
"Jim... hang on a moment, man." Blair leaned forward and set his food on the coffee table. "That was the night you were acting so strange! Remember? I asked you about it the next morning."
"Frankly, Chief, I wrote that off as you being a bit delirious. If you recall, we put you in the hospital about twenty-four hours later."
"It was my lungs that were sick, Jim, not my brain!" Blair struck his fist on the arm of the couch. "Something was going on with you that night! You weren't yourself at all."
Jim frowned. "Blair, I went to the banquet, we found them at the scene of the crime, and I dropped her off at her house. I then came home and went to bed. That's it. End of story." Unbidden, the thought crept into his mind: he doesn't believe me...
If Sandburg doesn't believe me, who will?
"Chief," he said slowly, feeling his tongue grow thick and clumsy with the words that were so hard to say, "are you trying to say that you think I did it, somehow? That I seduced this... this child?"
Blair hesitated a moment before answering, each split second adding to the painful silence in the room. "Jim... I know that you would never willingly do something like that. Not in your right mind, anyway. But..." Now it was Blair's turn to look away. "But we have to consider all of the possibilities. You yourself told me that next morning that you didn't remember much about coming home that night."
Suddenly losing his appetite, Jim placed the soup bowl and bread back on the table. "I didn't do it, Chief," he maintained stubbornly. "I may have been a little tired and out of it when I got home, but this isn't like forgetting to put the trash out! Until Simon told me about this letter, I hadn't given the kid a moment's thought since I dropped her off." He glared at his partner's slightly averted face. "By her version of the story, we spent a good hour cavorting lustfully in my truck! What process," Jim almost spat the word out, "could possibly make me forget that, let alone allow it to happen in the first place?" His voice rose.
"Hypnosis," countered Blair. "Drugs. Some kind of psychological fugue state! I don't know!" He paused to cough. "Jim, I'm not saying it's likely, just that it's possible."
"Maybe theoretically, Chief. But we're not talking about something theoretical. We're talking about me."
"Jim," Blair leaned forward intently. "If you can tell me, with absolute certainty, that you remember every moment of that evening up until the time you came home... then I'll drop it. But you have to be honest. Whether or not you remember changes our whole strategy."
Jim shook his head. "It's my problem, Chief, not yours. I'll take care of it. This whole thing could get pretty ugly."
"Yes or no, Jim. Do you remember?" Blue eyes bored intently into his own.
Moments passed. Then, "No. Not really, not very clearly," he admitted at last.
Blair sighed. "Let's finish eating, then I have a few ideas."
"Chief, even if this works, we can't exactly use it as evidence."
Jim sat on the couch, his long legs stretched out in front of him and his head flung back. Despite the note of skepticism in his voice, his eyes were already closed.
Blair sat perched on the arm of the couch, placing himself where he could speak softly into his partner's ear as well as keep a sharp watch on Jim's overall reactions. "Never mind that. First, we find out what happened, then we worry about your defense." He felt his patience starting to wear a bit thin. "You want to go up against Internal Affairs -- or worse, a prosecutor -- and tell them you can't remember anything that happened that night? 'Cause that's what's going to happen if you don't cooperate with me here." He bit his lip, trying to get control of his suddenly flaring temper... and glad that Jim couldn't see his face.
"All right, all right," Jim sighed. "I'm relaxed. What do you want me to do?"
"Just keep relaxing. Remember, we've done this before... called up your memory of events by using the imprint of sensory input. Just listen to the sound of my voice..." One of these days, Blair thought ruefully, I'm going to get around to getting some formal hypnotherapy training. "Let it take you back to that night."
He waited a few beats before proceeding. "You left the banquet with Simon, right? So you're in the truck with Simon. You hear the sounds of the engine, and Simon's voice. It's dark. What was the weather like?"
"Raining. Raining hard," murmured Jim.
"Good. So, add the sound of the rain, the glare of lights on the wet pavement... the squeak of the windshield wipers. What happens next?"
"This part... I remember this part, now. We go around the corner, and there's Frank Lombard and his daughter." Slowly, almost dreamily, Jim recounted the incident, recalling the conversations word-for-word. "She did touch me... threw herself up against me, crying. Everyone saw that."
"Okay. So, you're all standing around, and somehow you end up taking the girl home?"
"That's Simon's idea. He's sucking up to Lombard. She climbs into the truck... I remember asking her how to get to her house..."
"And?" Blair prompted.
"That's it." Jim trailed off. "Nothing. It's like a fog."
"All right, we'll just have to take you a little deeper, that's all. In and out, slow deep breaths. I want you to be almost asleep. Don't give up, Jim, you're doing great." Blair took a deep breath, to steady himself. "Focus on the girl herself. Was there a sound, a smell, something you could fix on? Was she wearing perfume? Did her dress rustle?"
"Perfume... yeah. Something sharp, citrusy, almost unpleasant. Pretty strong." Jim's voice grew drowsier.
"That's good, Jim. Remember that scent. Fill your mind with it. Keep up with those deep breaths. Now... in your mind's eye, you're going to see her in the truck sitting next to you. Tell me what she looks like, every detail you can remember. What is she doing, what is she saying?"
"Beautiful, young... makeup smears on her face, a brown dress. She's... she's pouting. Giving me trouble. Telling me she doesn't want to go straight home after all... she wants to go for a drive with me..."
Jim sipped at the styrofoam cup of coffee he'd brought from the banquet. The girl folded her arms over her chest, her pretty bottom lip protruding.
"I don't see why I have to go straight home. It's not even curfew yet! You can't make me."
The detective snorted at that. "You're going home," he said shortly.
Silence for a few minutes, then Jim could almost feel her gaze upon him. Involuntarily, Jim turned to glance at her... and almost fell into her tentative but glowing smile.
Evidently, she'd decided on a change of tactics. And despite her bedraggled appearance, and the fact that Jim suspected that she was trying to manipulate him, she remained startlingly beautiful.
The girl ran one finger lightly down Jim's right forearm. He froze at the touch, every hair standing on end. "Oh, come on," she purred. "Wouldn't you like to show me the rest of the city? The exciting parts of town, where you solve your cases and arrest people?" She continued to smile beseechingly, all of her earlier distress having apparently fled.
Jim wrenched his attention back to the steering wheel. "Miss, I promised your father that I'd take you straight home. That's where you're going."
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the gas gauge was hovering close to "E". That hadn't been much of a concern when he'd thought he was only going to the loft followed by the short drive to Simon's apartment, but he would be cutting it close to get Britanni to her suburban house without running out. Ignoring his passenger and her attempts to catch his eye, he steered the truck into the next gas station he saw. Without a word to his sulky young hostage he climbed out to pump the gas, wrinkling his sensitive nose at the pungent gas fumes.
"Gas station. That's good," crooned Blair. "Maybe they'll remember you... plus, there's the credit card record. Go on."
"I stuck my head in the cab, and asked her if she wanted anything from the mini-mart. She ignored me. I went inside to pay for the gas..."
Jim walked quickly toward the truck. He'd felt a little uneasy about leaving the teenage girl unattended in the vehicle, but as he approached he could see that she still sat inside, staring out the passenger window. Good. Maybe she'll behave now, and I can get her home and get this over with.
He climbed in and started the engine, and reached for his remaining lukewarm coffee. Wishing briefly that he'd thought to pick up a fresh cup at the convenience store where he'd paid for the gas, he drained the cup.
"The coffee..." murmured Jim.
"What about the coffee?"
"Tasted... different. The coffee tasted different than it had earlier!" Jim's voice grew excited and his eyes flew open.
Blair leaned over and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Hey, steady. Stay under. We're not through here, yet. Deep breaths..." The coffee tasted different?
"All right... concentrate on the coffee. Only the coffee. Block everything else out, and tell me what it tasted like."
Jim's brow furrowed; the effort was obvious. "Lukewarm. Fairly bitter... just some cheap food service-type coffee that I grabbed at the hotel. Black."
"What was the difference? Jim, how was it different after you got back into the truck?"
A long silence followed, during which Blair began to wonder if Jim had fallen asleep. Then:
"Bitter... but a different bitter. A medicinal bitter, and a hit of... alcohol? Antifreeze? Something I don't recognize."
"Okay, Jim... what happened after that?"
"Nothing. I drove her home, and she didn't speak the entire way home..."
"There it is." Britanni pointed to the large pale-colored house at the end of the curving suburban street.
Jim pulled into the indicated driveway with a sense of relief. He would be glad to get rid of his disturbing little passenger and get home. He could feel fatigue washing over him in thick soft waves, dark and muffling.
Looking up at the house, he could see lights shining inside, as well as a slight twitch at the miniblinds of the front room. "Good... your mother must be home."
Britanni scowled. "My parents are divorced. My aunt is here, watching my little sister for the evening." She started to open the door.
With his last remaining vestiges of chivalry, Jim exited the truck and walked around to open the passenger door. "Here you go," he said, trying to end the errand on a pleasant note. "Ellison Taxi Services. This one's on the house."
To his surprise, the girl climbed obediently out of the truck cab... and somehow, without a clear idea of how it happened, she was in Jim's arms with her sweet mouth opening against his.
"Oh, my God." Jim's eyes flew open, and he straightened up.
"What? What's wrong?"
Jim swallowed, with effort. "She kissed me, after I dropped her off. Somehow, she caught me by surprise and did it. With someone, probably her aunt, watching at the windows." He sat forward and dropped his head into his hands, moaning. "This is not going to look good."
Blair climbed down from his perch on the coach arm and came around to sit on his other side. "Jim, forget it. Getting kissed by a teenager isn't a crime..." He paused. "But drugging a police officer is pretty serious business."
Jim raised his head. "She drugged the coffee," he said slowly, then stood up. "That's it! That's why I don't remember, and why I was so groggy when I got home!"
"And if she used something that messed with your memory, she knew you would have trouble putting up a good defense," finished Blair.
Half-running to the door, Jim snatched up his keys. "Come on, Chief, let's go have a look at the truck."
Blair frowned as he watched his partner open up the passenger door. "Why are you so certain that you'll find something here?"
Jim climbed in and began rummaging through the glove compartment. "I'm not... but if she drugged me, she may have left some evidence here. She had only a tiny little handbag, and there certainly wasn't anywhere in her dress for her to hide very much. Besides... I've got a hunch." He finished with the glove compartment and began to look under the floor mats. "If she really did put something in my coffee, maybe I can... aha! Hand me one of those plastic bags, will you, Chief?"
Blair did so, craning his neck in an effort to see what his partner had found. "What have you got?" he asked, trying ineffectually to see around Jim.
Jim backed out of the truck and held the plastic evidence bag out toward Blair. "Maybe this will begin to explain a few things."
Frowning in puzzlement, Blair took the transparent bag from his partner. Inside, he could see a tiny glass vial. One end had been snapped off, and the broken edges gleaned. There was some writing on the vial, but it was very small and difficult to make out through the bag.
"Do you smell anything on it?" Blair asked.
Jim concentrated for a moment, his eyes closed. "I think so. It's... yes, it smells like the same stuff I detected in the coffee. I couldn't say for sure..." His eyes flew open. "But I didn't leave that vial in here, and I assume you didn't --"
"-so it's got to be from that damned kid. Let's get it to the lab tonight. If we're lucky, we'll have some results by morning."
Simon put down the phone and took off his glasses. He was massaging the bridge of his nose when the knock sounded at his door; he hurriedly slipped the plastic frames back on. "Come in!"
Ellison and Sandburg entered a microsecond later. Simon groaned inwardly at the sight. Oh no... not yet. I don't want to deal with this at this time of the morning.
Jim was carrying a plastic evidence bag, with something small and glittering encased inside, while Blair had a thin sheaf of papers in his hand. "Simon, Jim was drugged that night!" the younger detective said excitedly. "We found this in his truck, and her prints are all over it according to the lab." He pointed at the papers that he held. "The lab said that the effects would include disorientation, amnesia, sedation," Blair paused to consult the paper, "loss of muscle coordination... so we're lucky, Jim, that you didn't get into a wreck or something... and let's see, um, urinary incontinence. Well, I guess we can be grateful that you didn't have that particular side effect. Anyway --"
"Yes, Simon... Captain?"
"Breathe, son. And one of you... tell me what the hell is going on!"
Jim stepped forward. "Captain, with Blair's help I was able to remember more about the night of the awards banquet. One of the things I recalled was a medicinal taste in my coffee that I had been drinking. So, we searched the truck. This vial was under the floor mats on the passenger side, and it still contained traces of the drug."
"What exactly was it?"
"Lorazepam," supplied Blair. "Used for sedation, anesthesia, and to stop seizures. We found an empty four milligram vial, and the lab says that would have been enough to make a guy Jim's size pretty loopy even if taken orally."
Simon accepted both the plastic bag and the lab printouts, and gave them both a cursory glance. "And the coffee? Was there anything left to test?"
Jim shook his head. "Unfortunately, no... it was in a styrofoam cup and I threw it out the next morning. It's probably decomposing in a landfill by now, and --"
"Jim, you know that stuff doesn't ever decompose!" Sandburg broke in, predictably.
"And it's too late to run a test on me." Jim continued smoothly, ignoring the interruption. "But I can honestly state, under oath if necessary, that I noticed a difference in taste. At the time, I had other things on my mind, and just thought it was crummy coffee. And I definitely felt most of the effects. Sandburg remembers me coming home and acting oddly. I can only conclude that Britanni Lombard must have drugged me to ensure I wouldn't remember the trip to her house."
"How did we happened to have her prints on file, anyway?" Simon wondered. "Does she have a record?"
Blair grinned. "Shoplifting, at age thirteen. Amazing how that little piece of information stayed out of the papers, now, isn't it?" He threw a glance at his partner. "But that should do it, shouldn't it, Simon? We've got her!"
Simon sighed. "Sit down, both of you." He waited until the two detectives complied, then continued. "I just got off the phone with Frank Lombard. He's starting to throw his weight around, Jim, and he wants you suspended. He's... threatening to go to the newspapers with this whole mess."
"Simon, we've got enough evidence right now to arrest his daughter, and for all we know, he's in on this with her!" Blair half-rose from his seat. "You can't let him get away with this!"
"Sandburg, settle down. You know how the newspapers are. They'd be all over this scandal in an instant." Simon tried to make his voice sound both authoritative and reasonable, tried to keep the worry from creeping in. "The publicity would not only be bad for the department, but it would hurt Jim personally." Predictably, that scored points; Sandburg flushed and sat back down. "Jim... why is this girl out to get you? She, or someone else, has gone to an awful lot of trouble to set you up."
"I don't know, sir," said Jim miserably. "I can't think of any connection, but that doesn't mean anything."
"Jim, I'm going to have to suspend you until this investigation is concluded." He raised both hands in front of him as Blair climbed to his feet again, and spoke hurriedly over the young detective's words of protest. "Now, just hang on! Jim, if someone's out to get you, it might be safest for you if they think that they've succeeded." He paused to let the meaning of the words sink in. "Sandburg, sit down and be quiet. Interrupt me again, and I'll have you out directing traffic. Are we clear?"
Blair nodded without speaking, and had the grace to look chagrined.
"Good." Simon leaned forward on his desk. "Jim, I'm going to put it about that I've suspended you and told you to get away for a few days. I want you to drop out of sight, keep a low profile. You can continue working on this, but strictly behind the scenes." He cleared his throat. "That will give us a window of time to work in, and keep Lombard from going to the papers for a while." He let his gaze touch on Blair, and had to work to keep from smiling. The kid was practically quivering, he was trying so hard to behave.
Blair gulped. "Yes, Captain?"
Simon continued to eye the young man for a moment before speaking, his gaze taking in the obvious eagerness but also noting the pallor and the too-hollow cheeks from Sandburg's recent illness. "How are you feeling, son? You still don't look too well."
"I'm fine, Simon. I've been cleared to return to work, and I worked all day with Jim yesterday."
This statement brought a brief snort from Jim, but the older detective made no other comment. The police captain shook his head. "Blair, I want you to concentrate on clearing this whole thing up. Drop that Ratman case, and work on getting Jim cleared instead. But..." Simon waved a long dark finger at his newest detective. "I don't want you out there by yourself just yet. Take Connor with you, and go interview Britanni Lombard. See if you can find some holes in her story, or what she's up to."
Blair's eyes lit up. "I can do that." He walked to the door, touching Jim's shoulder briefly on the way out.
"Remember, you're still the rookie detective around here. I want you to listen to Connor... do what she tells you to do. Just as well as you listen to Jim."
"No problem, Captain." Blair slipped through the door and was gone.
Jim was eyeing the closed door speculatively, with a fond half-smile on his face. "Maybe you should have used a different example, Simon." He rose from his chair as well, but found himself stopped by Simon's hand on his shoulder.
"Jim... I'm sorry, but this suspension has to be real. For your protection, and the department's." The police captain held his other hand out. "You know, and I know, that you don't deserve this... that I don't believe you did anything wrong... but we need time to prove it to the rest of the city."
Biting his lip for a moment, Jim finally nodded. He reached under his jacket and slowly retrieved his weapon and badge to place in Simon's outstretched hand. "I'll be back for these," he said quietly.
As Megan Connor rang the doorbell to the Lombard house, Blair held his breath momentarily. Would Frank Lombard cooperate and allow his daughter to be interviewed? Would Lombard recognize Blair as Jim's partner? While Lombard would have to eventually allow his daughter to make a statement, he certainly had enough clout to request that a different team of detectives be assigned.
The door opened to reveal a tiny olive-skinned woman in a traditional maid's uniform. "May I help you?"
Both detectives showed their badges. "We need to have a word with Mr. Lombard," added Megan.
The maid's facial expression remained unchanged. "I will see if he is available. Please wait here." She disappeared.
Blair had first contacted the city councilman's office downtown, only to be told by Lombard's secretary that he was taking the day off to attend to "personal matters". They had gambled that he might be found here at home.
The maid returned after a minute. "Mr. Lombard will speak to you. Come inside."
They were escorted to a living room furnished with deep leather couches and soft, pale carpeting. Impressionist prints hung on the walls. Megan took a seat, but Blair paced about the room restlessly.
"Sandy, sit down," Megan hissed. "You're making me tired simply watching you."
Sheepishly, Blair sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs just in time to stand up again as Frank Lombard entered the room. Megan, with a wary glance at Blair, took the lead. "Mr. Lombard, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us."
Lombard ignored her proffered hand. "Is it about my car? Have they recovered it yet?"
Blair sat down again, hoping that Lombard would also do so, and Megan followed suit as she answered. "No, sir... I'm not certain who's handling that case. We're actually here to talk to your daughter about the charges she's made against Detective Ellison."
Here it comes... Blair braced himself for a verbal storm.
The councilman's eyes grew cold. "We have not made any formal charges yet. I'm not entirely certain that I want to put Britanni through all of that yet."
But you're not above using your influence to get Jim suspended. With an effort, Blair suppressed the wave of fierce, protective anger that he felt. "Mr. Lombard," he said, forcing his face to assume what he hoped was an ingratiating smile, "it won't hurt to go ahead and get Britanni's statement now. You can always decide later whether or not you want to just forget the whole thing. And I'm sure that Inspector Conner and I can manage to talk to her without traumatizing her."
Megan spoke up, her voice low and soothing. "I would be glad to talk with her alone, if necessary. I'm sure that Britanni would feel more comfortable telling these things to another woman."
Lombard frowned. "All right... I'll let her make a statement to you both. But not alone. I intend to be with her. After all, she is a minor. Wait here." He swept from the room.
Megan leaned toward Blair and spoke quietly. "You know, Sandy... if this sham goes much further, we'll have to insist that Miss Lombard have a doctor's exam. We don't even know for certain that she's pregnant."
Blair nodded glumly. "And it would be easy enough for Lombard and the girl to ruin Jim's reputation and career, then just say 'Oops! She wasn't pregnant!'" He kicked absently at the ball-and-claw feet of the immense carved wooden coffee table. "Why do these people hate Jim so much, Megan? What's he ever done to them?"
Connor shrugged. "I don't know... but look sharp, mate, here they come."
As Frank Lombard's oldest daughter walked slowly into the living room to perch nervously on one of the couches, Blair sat back and studied his adversary. He saw a girl who bore little resemblance to Jim's description of how she had appeared the night of the awards banquet. She was dressed in a red flannel shirt and faded jeans and was barefoot; her pallid face shone free of makeup and the light brown hair hung straight and limp. Rather than the scheming vamp he had expected, this very young woman seemed both scared and defiant, both lost and determined.
Blair felt a momentary twinge of guilty uncertainty. This... this child is the one who is successfully framing my cynical and suspicious partner? Then he mentally shook himself. Maybe the girl had made a stupid decision, maybe she's even regretting the whole thing now... but Jim's memory, once called to awareness, wouldn't lie to him.
Megan leaned forward and made the introductions; Blair watched Britanni's face change to a sullen blankness when she saw the badges. Perhaps her father hadn't bothered to tell her exactly who was waiting to talk with her.
"Miss Lombard," Megan went on, "we need to ask you about what happened a month ago, on the night of the city awards banquet." She reached into her bag and drew out a small tape recorder. "We'll put this on tape, just to keep from having to write it all down now..." She glanced at Lombard, still glowering in the doorway, and Blair knew that the Australian detective was half-expecting Britanni's father to object to the recorder.
Frank Lombard frowned but said nothing. He knows that it's the sworn and signed affidavit that really matters, thought Blair.
Megan placed the recorder on the table and turned it on. "All right, let me ask you some routine questions, Britanni." She proceeded to walk the girl through the basic facts of age, name, address, and school, then began to ask about the evening in question. Britanni's account of the banquet and the carjacking episode afterwards more or less matched Jim's story. After that, the two versions began to diverge radically.
"I have to admit," Britanni said, studying her flawless fingernails, "that I was rather excited to ride home with Detective Ellison. He is so handsome, and I've always liked him. I knew that I would be, you know, safe with someone so big and strong like that taking me home.
"So... when he asked me if I wanted to drive around a bit first, look at the city, I said yes. I don't know what came over me; I should have come straight home, of course." She lowered her eyelashes, looking across at Blair briefly, almost shyly.
"He took me down by the waterfront, and parked the truck in a dark spot. Then we talked for a while..." The girl trailed off.
"Yes?" prompted Megan. "What did you two talk about?"
Blair thought he saw panic surface briefly on the young girl's face before he answered. "Oh, well... mostly he talked, and I listened. He told me stories about work, criminals he had caught, stuff like that."
"Do you remember anything specifically that he said? Any stories that you could tell us?" Blair cut in.
Britanni looked trapped. Frank Lombard cleared his throat. "Detectives, please hurry this up. I don't want my daughter traumatized. She's a victim, not a criminal."
Megan turned her head to look at Lombard, a dangerous glint in her eyes. "With all due respect, sir, we are not in the habit of victimizing teenage girls. We are here, however to get at the truth." She turned her attention back to the girl. "What happened next, Britanni?"
"He started kissing me, touching me... I knew I should ask him to stop, but he was so strong, so gentle... I just closed my eyes and acted on instinct," she said softly.
"Britanni..." Megan leaned forward. "We need to know exactly what happened between the two of you, physically. I'm going to ask you a series of specific questions.
"Did Detective Ellison kiss you?"
The girl made an impatient gesture. "Of course. I just told you that he did... and he was good, too."
"Did he touch you, on the breast, with your clothes on?"
Britanni nodded. "Yes." Her voice dropped to a whisper.
"Did he..." Megan shot a meaningful glance at Blair. "Sandy... perhaps I should finish the rest of this part without you."
Blair stood up, resisting the impulse to roll his eyes at his colleague. C'mon, Megan, I'm a sensitive kind of guy... I can handle this. Then again, maybe she's just afraid I'll jump to Jim's defense.. "Of course. Mr. Lombard, I understand that you have a younger child as well. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask her a few questions too. She may be able to corroborate her sister's testimony."
Lombard's eyes narrowed, but he gave a curt nod. "Suit yourself. Jessica is upstairs; the maid will show you."
As Blair walked up the stairs after the neatly dressed maid, he could hear Megan pick up the thread of questioning. "Now, Britanni... did Detective Ellison have his clothes on or off at this point?"
Britanni's younger sister Jessica turned out to be a charming little ten-year-old imp who took to Blair immediately and appeared to have little in common with her older sibling. Unfortunately, she also didn't appear to know much about her sister's activities.
"She's been away at school, mostly. Since she got to be so grown-up, she never tells me anything anymore," she confided in Blair. "Would you like to see my hermit crabs? They're named Louise and Claudia, and they're really cute." She ran over to the terrarium, beckoning eagerly.
Blair admired the odd little creatures dutifully. "Yes, they're fine crabs, Jessica. But --"
She sighed. "But you want to ask about my sister."
"Yes, I'm sorry." Blair put a hand into the terrarium, curious to see how the crabs would react. One scuttled away, the other suffered his touch for a few seconds before retreating into its (her? his? How could you tell?) shell. "Does your sister have lots of boyfriends?"
The girl shrugged. "She gets a lot of phone calls when she's home, but I haven't met any of the boys. Daddy's very strict with who he lets her go out with."
Blair nodded, then hesitated as he thought about the best way to frame the next question. "Jessica... has Britanni been feeling well lately?"
"Well, she's been really crabby." The child snorted. "And something's going on, 'cause she and Daddy have been whispering a lot. But no one tells me anything; she's always been his favorite." Her face fell momentarily, then she smiled at Blair. "You have awfully pretty blue eyes, Blair. Blue's my favorite color."
To Blair's embarrassment, he found himself blushing at this complement from a ten-year-old. Before he could answer, there was a soft knock on the doorframe. He looked up to see Megan standing there, her face unreadable.
"I'm finished with Britanni, Sandy. Are you ready?"
Jessica scrambled to her feet. "Wait! You can't take him away yet! I was just getting ready to show him my scrapbook!" The little girl half-ran to the bed and pulled a box out from under it. She removed a large fabric-covered book from the box and climbed up onto the bed, patting the spots to either side of her. "Come and take a look, both of you."
Megan quirked an eyebrow up and looked vastly amused, but seated herself on the bed on the girl's right while Blair perched on her left. Jessica flipped pages at a dizzying rate, chattering happily. The scrapbook held an eclectic content: photos, newspaper clippings, even pretty candy wrappers and bits of wrapping paper had found their way into its pages. The last section appeared to be dedicated entirely to blue things: cut-outs from greeting cards, magazine pictures, and even a few faded pressed flowers.
As Jessica was turning the final page, Megan put her hand out to stop the child. "Wait! Jessica, go back one page." The girl complied, and Megan pointed to something at the bottom of the page. "Jessica, where did you find this?"
Blair looked, and saw a narrow strip of paper with some markings and two large blue dots at one end. It certainly didn't look familiar to him.
"In the bathroom," replied Jessica. "It was on the floor by the wastebasket."
"Mine... well, I have to share it with Britanni when she's here."
"When did you find it?" asked Megan.
Blair shot her a puzzled glance. What was she getting at?
"Right before my birthday. I remember, 'cause Britanni flew home one weekend and we celebrated my birthday a few days early." She pouted slightly. "Britanni's birthday is only about three weeks before mine, but she didn't come home for that. She was too busy with school, so Daddy flew down to Arizona to see her."
Megan's facial expression didn't change, but Blair could feel suppressed excitement coming off her in waves. "Jessica, how long ago was your birthday?"
The little girl grinned. "A month ago exactly, on the eighth. I'm ten years and one month old."
"Jessica... could we borrow that page from your scrapbook? I promise we'll take good care of it, and we'll get it back to you as soon as we can."
"Sure! You can even add something to it if you want; there's lots of room." She opened the binder and removed the page. Megan slipped a plastic evidence bag around it then tucked the resulting parcel under one arm.
"Thank you, Jessica. You've been very helpful." She got up to leave, and Blair followed after directing a smile and a wave at the child.
"Do you mind telling me what that was all about?" he muttered in the hallway.
She shook her head. "Wait till we're in the car."
Blair noticed that she carried something else, a flat bundle of something brown also wrapped in plastic. "What's in the bag?"
Megan sighed. "Britanni's dress, the one she wore to the banquet. And her stockings and underwear."
They let themselves out the front door; the Lombards were nowhere to be seen. Blair swallowed in a throat suddenly gone dry as they climbed into his green Volvo. "You're taking her clothes to the lab, aren't you? Don't you believe Jim?" He was disgusted to hear a slight shake to his voice.
"Sandy, calm down. You need to stay objective about this. Jim's counting on your help."
"Simon told me to come out here and find information to clear Jim. He didn't tell me to gather evidence against my best friend! I can't do that, Megan. No one can be that objective." Blair trailed off, and looked away... only to be stopped by Megan's hand on his chin.
"Blair," she said softly, "listen to yourself. You're a cop now. You can't pick and choose, you can't hear some facts and ignore others. Despite the instructions that Simon gave to you, this is a statutory rape case. I chose to treat it as such, and I sent you away so you wouldn't have to be torn up by hearing the details." She sighed. "It wasn't easy for me either, mate. I care about Jim too.
"Yes, I believe him. But I just sat there and listened to a fifteen-year-old girl tell me that she had sexual relations with a police detective. Even if it's all a lie, I can't ignore a statement like that. I'm a sworn officer of the law... as are you." She let her hand fall from Blair's chin.
"You know she's got to be lying!"
"Lying about Jim, yes... but some parts of her story ring true. Someone had to get her pregnant, if she is... and she may have been recalling that event when she told me." She gestured to the pile of plastic-wrapped clothing, now in the back seat. "I thought perhaps she had a sexual encounter later that same night; that's why I requested the dress and knickers."
Blair took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, and started the car. "So... you think the lab might find DNA evidence that will clear Jim?"
She shook her head. "No... I'll have them run it, but I rather think that the lab won't find much of anything. You see, Blair... Britanni Lombard was already pregnant that night when Jim took her home, and her little sister is helping us to prove it."
Simon scowled at the piece of plastic-wrapped cardboard. "Connor, you want to run this one by me again? It's a pregnancy test?"
All three detectives had converged upon Simon's office as Megan and Blair attempted to explain what they had learned. Connor stood next to Simon's desk, the scrapbook page in her hand, clearly enjoying her moment of triumph, while Jim and Blair both sat on the conference table.
Jim was content to listen. He'd accomplished nothing that morning other than to contact his credit-card company about getting a more legible copy of his receipt for his gas purchase on the night in question. That task finished, he'd succumbed to a frenzy of cleaning the loft in an attempt to cover up his bad mood.
"The scrapbook belongs to Jessica Lombard, Britanni's little sister," explained Megan patiently. "She states that she found the pregnancy test strip -- only she's got no idea what it really is -- in the bathroom that she shares with her sister. Sir, the only other female who spends any time in that house is the maid, who looks to be about fifty." She straightened up, leaving the scrapbook page on Simon's desk. "The little girl seems very bright and reliable, and very clearly states that she found that strip prior to one month ago."
Jim felt a surge of hope as he heard these words. "Then she was already pregnant!" I'm cleared!
Simon shook his head. "It'll never stand up, Connor. No chain of evidence. If one of you had found it in the bathroom , maybe..."
"But it'll be enough to rattle Lombard." Blair slid off the table. "We can call his bluff, insist on a doctor's statement about how far along the pregnancy is. We talked to an obstetrician, and she said that with a combination of blood tests and an ultrasound they would be able to tell pretty accurately."
No one spoke for a few minutes, while Simon stared off into space and chewed absently on a pencil. At last he sighed.
"All right, people. This may work. I think what I should do is contact Lombard and tell him we want to meet with him officially, with attorneys present. If we confront him with this information, he'll probably just drop the whole thing." He looked at Jim, his gaze softening slightly. "Jim, is that what you want?"
Jim cleared his throat. "Sir, I just want my job back. I'll leave Lombard alone if he'll leave me alone to do my job."
"Jim, those people poisoned you! They could have killed you!" protested Blair. "You're just going to let them get away with it?"
"Chief... all I want is to get back to work," he repeated. "What could will it do for me to bring charges? That'll just tie me up in a courtroom, and we've got work to do."
Blair nodded, and sat down again next to Jim on the table. "Yeah, I guess you're right. It doesn't seem very fair, though."
Megan frowned. "Sir, that still leaves the issue of the girl. She is only fifteen, after all, and someone got her pregnant. I'm concerned about that."
"Maybe after she gives up this story about Jim, she'll come forward and identify the father. It's the best we can hope for, Connor." Simon picked up the phone. "All right, good work, people. Now get out of here while I set up this meeting."
Blair laughed as he took his jacket off the hook. "Man, this feels really weird. Me going to the station, and you staying here."
"Get used to it, Junior. Simon wants the suspension to stand until we meet with Lombard on Thursday, just to make sure that our dear councilman doesn't get wind of anything."
"Yeah... but they don't really need me at the station by myself," Blair protested. "I'm not going to go out in the field without you on this 'El Raton' case; I'm just going to help Megan with her active cases."
"It'll be good for you, Chief. It's good practice for you to learn to work with everyone; Simon encourages that for all of the detectives."
"Except you," Blair said softly.
Jim shrugged. "He tried, years ago. Then he gave up and decided to let me work alone... until you showed up, and I had the damnedest time convincing him that I really did want you around." Jim smiled at the memory. "Even after I explained the whole Sentinel thing, he was pretty dubious." He waved the morning newspaper at his partner. "Go on, get moving or you'll be late."
"All right." Blair grinned infectiously. "Let me know if you want to meet for lunch."
"Now that, I'll take you up on. That'd be in character, all right... depressed suspended cop seeks solace in lunch with his partner. I'll come by the station around twelve-thirty and see if I can find you. That is, you can tear yourself away from Megan." Jim grinned.
"Sounds good... and I'm going to ignore that comment. See you at lunch." Blair gave his partner a cheery wave and was gone, a cloud of clean-smelling soap and after-shave lingering in the kitchen after he left.
Jim smiled and shook his head. It was good to see Sandburg feeling well again and in a good mood... hell, it was good to be back in a good mood himself. With the evidence that Blair and Megan had stumbled across yesterday, along with the empty vial he himself had found in the truck, he felt they'd have no problem convincing Frank Lombard that any further pursuit of the issue would be likely to be far more damaging to Lombard himself. And then life can get back to normal around here.
Jim opened the refrigerator door and studied the near-empty shelves. Well, if I'm going to be house-bound, I may as well make the most of it. Sounds like a trip to the grocery store is in order, and maybe even a decent dinner. It had been a while since he'd had the time to whip up anything complicated in the kitchen, and he thought maybe it was time to remind his roommate that yes, he did know how to cook, thank you very much.
Whistling, he grabbed his keys and jacket and headed out the door to the corner grocery.
"Hey, Megan, sorry I'm a bit late. Jim was chatty." Blair threw down his jacket and walked over to her desk, where she was seated.
She favored him with one of those mischievous smiles. "No worries, Sandy. Here, take a look at this file. This is what I particularly wanted your help with."
The file contained information on a bombing that had occurred over a month ago, destroying a (thankfully empty) warehouse owned by one of the largest of the area's lumber companies. Still standing by Megan's desk, Blair looked up in surprise.
"The Columbia-Pacific bombing? They've got you working on that?"
"Read the next page, Sandy. The Earth League is suddenly taking credit for it, and we're getting reports that there may be some more eco-terrorist activity planned. Simon wants us to check it out quietly before he has to drag in the F.B.I. I thought you had some connections with those environmentalists at one time."
Blair frowned. "That was years ago, and we were just a bunch of kids. And we were strictly non-violent. That was part of the deal, man! If you go around being destructive, you're just as bad as the people you're protesting against!" He drew a deep breath, intending to continue the tirade, but was stopped by the sudden appearance of a clerk with a manila envelope.
"The lab sent this up for you, Inspector Connor." The clerk smiled and departed.
Megan's eyebrows rose. "Well, that would be our nice negative report on Miss Lombard's clothing. Let's take a look." She tore open the envelope and pulled out the papers, frowning as she scanned them. Blair, reading the missive over her shoulder, let out a low whistle.
"That doesn't look like a negative report to me."
"No," she said absently. "No, it doesn't, and it isn't. The lab reports the presence of semen on the girl's underthings, although none was found on the brown velvet dress." She looked up at Blair. "Something more is going on here."
"She may have worn those clothes since the night of the awards banquet," Blair pointed out.
"Yes, but... while the dress was already described to us, she could have given us any random underwear and stockings that she owned. She's a bright girl; she must know that modern DNA analysis can prove that Jim wasn't involved. If she's trying to frame him, why would she do this? It doesn't make any sense."
"I don't know," answered Blair. "But this will be sure to clear Jim beyond any doubt, once they run the DNA."
She nodded, and put the manila envelope back down. "Yes. Oh, well. Let's talk about eco-terrorism, Sandy. Suddenly it sounds like a happier subject."
Hey, a sun break. Now I won't have to dash home with a soggy bag of groceries.
Humming slightly to himself, Jim ambled down the sidewalk and thought about the contents of the brown paper bag he held in one arm. That's one beautiful piece of salmon in there. I can't remember the last time I made my salmon fettuccine.
His mind already in the kitchen, his ears distracted slightly by the sound of his own humming, he didn't notice the large bald man with the tire iron in his hands until the guy stepped out of the alley. Someone else shoved him into the alley from the direction of the sidewalk, and he found himself falling hard onto his hands and knees as groceries rolled everywhere.
Red blossoms of pain exploded behind his ears, and mind and body collapsed as one.
Simon looked up, his momentary irritation at the interruption made slightly worse when he saw who the interruption was. "What is it, Sandburg?"
"I was wondering... have you heard anything from Jim?" The young detective looked moderately worried.
"No... is there any reason that I should have? He's your problem, Sandburg."
Blair ignored the jibe. "He said he was going to meet me here for lunch at 12:30, and I haven't heard from him. It's past one now, and you know how Jim is."
Simon sighed. "I supposed you've tried calling him."
"I've called the loft, and his cell phone. Nothing." Blair ran his hands through his already disheveled hair. "I guess I'll go home and see if maybe he's left me a note or something..."
"Sandburg... aren't you overreacting? He's probably sacked out on the couch with his earplugs in, enjoying a nice rest for a change."
"Maybe." Blair sounded unconvinced. "But I'd feel better if I --"
Megan exploded into the room, breathing hard. "Captain, I don't know exactly what Lombard is trying to pull, but we need to call off that meeting right now and get a warrant for his arrest."
Simon held up his hands. "Don't you people ever knock? Connor, what the hell are you trying to say?"
"I just listened to a message that Britanni Lombard left on my voice mail," she gasped out. "She was hysterical and barely talking loud enough for the phone to pick it up, but she was trying to tell me that if her father can't have Jim safely out of commission, where he can't interfere, then he'll settle for having him dead. Captain, she says she's overheard him making plans to kill Jim."
"Oh, shit," whispered Blair.
First there was pain.
It was amazing, really, how many different kinds of pain the body could keep track of at once. Jim was first aware of the sharp pain behind one ear, where he could feel the torn edges of scalp as they pulled dryly away from each other, leaving a jagged laceration.
Next came the pounding of the blood in his abused cranium as it returned to life. He groaned softly as palpable waves of ache flowed from the back of his head forward. As his body slowly began to respond to his commands again, he could feel the torment of muscles stretched and bruised, of the boot-shaped imprint on his chest from one of his captors. Beneath his left cheek, the rough concrete of the floor scraped his skin and sent its leaden chill into his cheekbone.
Jim opened his eyes. He lay on his left side, with his ankles bound and his hands tied securely behind him. The light level was low, but by moving his head slightly he could tell he was in a garage. A large, suburban two-car garage, rather tidier than most. He heard no one else in the room with him, no other heartbeats, so he struggled mightily and succeeded in sitting up.
A crack of light shone into the garage from a door, presumably leading to a house... and with that bit of light, came voices.
"Do it anyway you want... but get rid of him." Lombard's voice. "He's been getting too close."
"This will be different, though... he is a police officer, que no? Strong, healthy, well-liked; we cannot simply make him disappear like we did with those -- como se dice?-- those sellers of the drugs. His friends, they will look until they find him or his body." A silky voice that made Jim's skin crawl.
Me... they're talking about me. How to kill me, I suppose. He tried to look around a little more at his surroundings, grateful for his enhanced vision. If I'm lucky, they'll argue about it long enough for me to find a way out of here. Moving as stealthily as he could, he half-rolled, half-scooted himself over to a set of metal shelves that he had spotted in the darkness.
"You know, senor... my boys, they are thinking that perhaps it is time for El Raton to give out some more bonus money. For... how do you say? The dangerous work pay."
Jim stopped in mid-roll. El Raton?
"Yes, yes," came Lombard's irritated voice. "I'll give you all bonuses. But if you don't kill him, El Raton is going to be out of business permanently. Do you hear?"
"The policeman, he has not seen us, I am sure."
"I don't care. Your men will kill him, Fernando, or we are all dead men."
Jim reached the shelves. Rolling onto his right side, facing away, he held his bound wrists against the rough corner he'd spotted from across the garage. Scrape, scrape. Up and down, with more skin peeling away than rope... and a fresh stench of his own blood welling up. He clenched his jaw against this new source of pain and continued to scrape away, his mind whirling with the implications of what he'd just heard.
Simon pulled his car up against the curb, across the street from Lombard's house. With satisfaction, he noted in the rear view mirror that two patrol cars had also just arrived. He took a deep breath and turned to the young man in the passenger seat.
"All right, Sandburg. We do this by the book, not the Ellison way. We go in there, with backup, and make this arrest. Getting this guy into custody is Jim's only chance, if Lombard's got him."
Sandburg nodded. "But if Jim's there..."
"We're going to take that house apart, son. But we need to be careful." He opened his door and climbed out.
The door was answered by the maid, who look startled. "Mr. Lombard is not available."
"Miss, we have a warrant for his arrest, as well as one to search the premises. Please step aside." Simon brushed past her, with Blair at his elbow; they were followed by two uniformed officers.
"Sandburg, you and I will look around down here. Marlin, Lukens... check upstairs; the kids may be here as well." With one hand on his weapon, Simon stole down the long hallway.
Almost there... almost... With an audible snap, the last rope fibers parted... along with a bit more of Jim's skin. Hurriedly, he worked at the bindings around his ankles, finally slicing them with a rusty old utility knife he found on the top shelf.
Massaging some life into his swollen feet, he looked about for a place to set up an ambush. The voices inside had quieted, and no doubt they'd be coming for him soon. He tipped his head back and saw the joists of the open garage attic, and smiled into the darkness.
Lombard and the man with him looked as startled at the interruption as Blair felt when he and Simon stumbled upon them in the den. The councilman, however, recovered quickly.
"Banks, what's the meaning of this? You can't come barging in here without a warrant! Who the hell do you think you are?"
Simon smiled, and Blair felt a chill snake down his spine at his captain's facial expression. That teeth-baring feral grin made him fervently glad that the two of them were on the same side.
"Oh, I've got a warrant, Lombard. And you've got my detective, haven't you? You figured that if you couldn't get him out of the way by having your sweet daughter blackmail him, you'd take him out, wouldn't you?" Simon drew his weapon and aimed it carefully at Lombard. "I'd like him back, Lombard. I really would."
Lombard made a dismissive gesture. "You're nuts, Banks. I don't know what you're talking about. You haven't got anything on me."
Simon gestured to Blair, who pulled out cuffs and stepped up. "Believe that, if it makes you feel better... but you're under arrest. Cuff them, son, and let's get to the bottom of this."
Even without Sentinel senses the rattle of the doorknob would have been enough to make Jim startle. He lay crouched lengthwise along one of the attic joists, clutching the utility knife, and hardly daring to breathe.
Then came the doorknob rattle, and the creak of the door as it swung open to reveal a rectangle of light and a hulking figure silhouetted in the doorway. Jim saw the man's hand reach for the light switch...
...and in that instant, Jim swung down from the joist, hitting Lombard's thug squarely in the abdomen with both his feet. The man went down instantly, his weapon skittering across the floor and coming to rest within Jim's reach. He dropped, cat-like to the concrete floor and picked up the gun.
His adversary was still curled up, groaning, when Jim held the gun to his ear. "Get up. I think your job description just changed."
Blair and Simon looked up in unison, tensing automatically and reaching for their weapons as the door to the den opened. Lombard, cuffed and slumped against one wall, growled something unintelligible.
"Freeze! Cascade P.D.!" shouted Simon, coming around to the door... which opened to admit a disheveled but reasonably whole-appearing Jim Ellison.
"And here I thought you'd be glad to see me, Captain." He dragged his prisoner into the room with him. "Here... I think this guy misses his buddies in here. Let's reunite them all in the back of a squad car."
"Jim!" Blair's face lit up with relief. "Hey, man, you had me worried."
The two uniformed officers filed into the room just then. "Nothing upstairs except the two kids, Captain... we told them to wait in the bedroom for now and we'd send someone up. They seem to be doing okay."
"Great." Simon pulled out a cigar and chomped on it, grinning. "Take care of these three for us, would you? And someone call Connor... she seems to have taken an interest in these girls, and I think I want her on hand when before we take them anywhere." He glanced at Jim. "Jim, you all right? You need the medics?"
Jim handed his prisoner over and inspected his wrists, grimacing. "No... this is isn't as bad as it looks. But," he massaged the back of his neck, "I've got one killer of a headache. If you don't mind, sir, I think I'll leave the wrapping up to you on this one." Suddenly, Jim's face brightened in a tired grin. "Oh, and Simon... make sure that when you question Lombard, you take a look at the 'El Raton' file. I think you'll find that the missing piece that Sandburg and I have been chasing turns out to be Lombard-shaped."
"No, no, no... it has to be a bit tighter, Chief, or it'll slip off."
"Jim... if I tie this too tight, you're going to lose circulation in your fingers." Jim was seated at the dining room table, holding both arms out in front of him while Blair attempted to bandage his badly abraded wrists. Jim had begun to droop noticeably after the arrests at the Lombard house, and Simon had finally told Blair to take his partner home and make him rest. "He's been cracked on the head, beaten up, and filleted himself escaping. He needs to be taking it easy, Sandburg, and I'm holding you responsible."
"And what is this stuff you put on me, anyway? It smells funny. I told you, there's a perfectly good tube of Polysporin in the medicine cabinet."
"This ointment is much better. It's like petrolatum, only vegetable-fat based, and it contains natural herbal antibacterial compounds. Much less likely to create those, you know, super-bacteria."
Jim sighed and held up one completed wrist, staring at it ruefully. "You know, I'd do this myself if I --"
The phone rang. Blair set the roll of gauze down and walked over to answer it. "You stay right there; I'll get it."
Jim snorted. "Do I have a choice? I feel like the mummy, here."
"Hello? Oh, hi, Megan. Sorry we skipped out on the wrap-up, but Jim was about to pass out. I'll get back and do my share of the paperwork later this evening."
By barely trying, Jim could hear the Australian woman's voice faintly on the other end of the phone, but didn't bother to concentrate enough to actually make out the words. He was beginning to feel better, now that the ibuprofen was kicking in. And, though he hated to admit it, that ointment that Sandburg had been smearing all over his wounds had a nice smell to it. Sort of soothing. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and let his head lean back, only half-listening to his partner.
"So she talked to you? That's great, Megan... you really have a way with people sometimes..."
There goes Sandburg again, sucking up to Connor, Jim smiled drowsily.
"What? You're not serious." A long silence. "Oh, jeez... the poor kid. That... that explains a lot." Blair's tone of voice had changed from buoyant to shocked. "And the lab... maybe by Monday? Let me know, okay. Thanks for your help. What? Yeah, he's okay, just banged up and tired. I'll see you later." He hung up the phone slowly.
Jim cracked an eye open. "What was that about, Chief?"
Blair walked back to the table and sat down, all traces of his earlier jauntiness gone. "That was Megan," he began unnecessarily. "She drove the Lombard girls down to the station to wait for their aunt, who will be watching them until their mother can make it up from Seattle." He looked down at his hands briefly, then up at Jim's face. "Jim... Britanni Lombard finally broke down and told Megan the truth about her pregnancy."
"And?" Jim asked softly.
Blair swallowed, his face pale. "It... it was her own father, all along, Jim. Megan didn't say much... she seemed pretty shocked herself, but Britanni says that Lombard himself is the baby's father. Apparently, when he found out she was pregnant, he came up with this little scheme of framing a police officer for it, and she had no choice but to play along. Even to the point of drugging you, which she admits to doing."
Jim closed his eyes. "It all makes sense, doesn't it? No wonder she was so hard for me to read, to figure out." No wonder she didn't want to go home, that night.
"Megan says that the lab will probably have confirmatory DNA evidence by Monday. So, in addition to the charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, Lombard will be facing rape charges."
"What a total bastard, Chief."
"Jim... I was so wrong about that girl. I had written her off as some little slut who was out to get you." Blair swallowed. "If Megan hadn't been paying attention..."
"Chief, you can't torture yourself with the 'what-if's' in this business," Jim pointed out. "I was wrong about her too. But now, she's got a chance at a happy ending, if the right people care about her." He held up the second, unbandaged wrist. "Now," he said gently, "you want to get back over here and finish tying me in knots?"
Blair smiled weakly. "There's not enough gauze on that roll for a muzzle, Jim."
~ Finis ~
E-mail the author of this story, Kim Heggen, at firstname.lastname@example.org Read Kim's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Shycat's Sentinel Domain 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 E-mail Faux Paws Productions at email@example.com NEXT TIME on THE SENTINEL: Trust, Part One: Season Finale! (3/15/00, FPP-522) by Susan Pokorny
Jim goes on a date and stays out past his bedtime, Blair hitches a ride and gets lost, and Simon may have to change his name to Benedict Arnold. Who's behind the plot to destroy Cascade's finest?
Return to the VIRTUAL SEASON 5 EPISODE ARCHIVE Return to the FAUX PAWS PRODUCTIONS' HOME PAGE
If you experience any problems with this page, please contact The Pagemaster.
This page last updated 2/2/01.