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Timor Vita, Part One
by
Kim Heggen

.

Act I

Oblivious to the predawn chill and the faint mist now filtering down from the still-dark sky, Jim Ellison leaned both elbows on the balcony rail. He had forgotten about the mug of coffee growing cold at his right elbow. Peering into the distance, he focused his eyes on the lazily flapping wings of a seagull. Idly, he adjusted his visual focus until he could pick out each individual feather, see the wings turn and shift as the bird banked into a turn. He felt himself begin to slide into the first stages of that state of extreme concentration that Sandburg referred to as a 'zone-out'. Reluctantly, he forced himself to pull back, to reorient himself to his surroundings.

No, can't risk zoning out anymore. Too dangerous, now. I might stand out here for hours and get hypothermic. He snorted, wryly amused at the idea of becoming hypothermic standing out in Cascade's mild weather. But prolonged zone-outs could be dangerous in and of themselves. Who would know or notice, on his day off, with no one to check on him?

Change, he thought. It sneaks up on us. We can try and try to push it away, snatch at the past with both hands, but we can't make time stand still. I wish -- I wish he'd come back.

I know I've done the right thing, that I can't just do what my instincts tell me to do. My gut is screaming at me that I should go find him and convince him to come back. And if I used the right words, played on his guilt, he just might...

No, I'm doing the right thing.

But that doesn't make it ache any less. It doesn't make me any less... lonely. Something I never thought I'd be.

With a sigh, he turned away from the fog-shrouded view of the city and went in to face the rest of his solitary breakfast.


Eleven Days Earlier

"Jim, this is so totally bogus!"

Stopping in mid-stride, Jim turned to survey his partner. Blair Sandburg stood a few paces behind him, in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Chief, keep your voice down. Those witnesses can probably hear you." Jim threw a glance over his shoulder at the small knot of people standing in the elementary school parking lot. A child's thin wail still rose intermittently from the midst of the cluster.

"So what?" Blair exclaimed scornfully, but at a slightly lower volume. "Jim, the whole concept of the scary stranger who abducts children from playgrounds, that's probably one of the most persistent urban myths in modern America. You know as well as I do that in most cases, children are abducted by people they know." He started walking again, and in a few more seconds they reached the truck. Jim missed a few words of his partner's tirade as he opened his door and climbed inside.

"-- taught them to watch out for Mommy's ex-boyfriend, or dear Daddy who lost the custody decision, instead of the bogeyman, and maybe we'd see less of this sort of thing." Blair snapped his seat belt into place with unnecessary force, then sat back with folded arms. "Now none of these parents are going to let their kids outside for weeks, even though most likely they're safer at the playground than in their own house. Statistically, anyway."

Jim studied his partner out of the corner of his eye as they pulled away from the school. What's eating him? He's been touchier than Simon dealing with his ex-wife. Aloud he said merely, "The little girl said that she didn't recognize the man."

"She's seven years old, man. She was scared. And she described somebody with a beard and glasses. It's almost certainly a disguise; I could whip up that one in a minute."

"Maybe so, Chief." Jim cleared his throat. "You know, it's one thing to play your hunches, but you've got to keep an open mind in this business, see all the possibilities."

Blair muttered something that sounded suspiciously like a rude parody of the Sentinel's words. Jim ignored it, and turned his thoughts inward as he reviewed the case's facts. This was the third child near-abduction in as many weeks that had been reported to the Cascade P.D., and Jim wasn't looking forward to the inevitable media feeding frenzy that would surely ensue after this case came to light. He also preferred not to think about Simon's probable reaction to the whole thing. The Captain of Major Crimes tended to be sensitive to publicity issues, often to the point of what Jim considered to be undue caution. But then, he's the one who ends up dealing with the press, he thought wryly.

They had been called to the scene by the patrol cops who had initially responded to the neighbor's 911 call. It had taken a while to piece the muddled story together, as the child and her friends were just short of hysterical. The girl's mother, who had already arrived, was in even worse shape. She had alternated fits of relieved weeping with bouts of shrieking accusations. Jim had finally given up on getting much information from her and concentrated on the actual witnesses.

As near as Jim could tell from questioning the little girls, they had come to the school yard to play. Today was a teacher's in-service day, and the children had no classes, but the school grounds were a popular location for the local kids to play.

They had been sitting with their Barbie dolls under a tree by the fence when they heard loud snipping sounds. They looked up to see a strange man with a beard and glasses who had just finished cutting a gap in the chain-link fence "with a big pair of scissors," one of the little girls had intoned solemnly. While the girls stood momentarily frozen with fear and surprise, the man had darted in one arm and seized the coat of the girl known as Becky Newcomb. Only the child's quick action of slipping out of her coat and running away had saved her, but unfortunately the suspect had vanished. The children had gone running across the street to a neighbor's house.

Jim shook his head, still puzzled. The other two near-abductions had been similar, one occurring at another elementary school and the other at a city park during a kiddie-league soccer practice. Each had involved a bearded man with some kind of cutting implement. Each time, the child had gotten away in time. Some kind of copycat phenomenon? I just don't know. And why bother cutting through the fence? He could have walked 'round it in twenty seconds and grabbed a kid easily. Doesn't make sense.

With Blair's help, he'd made a careful sweep of the area around the tree and near the hole in the fence. All he'd found, aside from the Barbie clothes scattered by the little girls, was a still-moist wad of used chewing gum. He'd given it a good sniff, noticed that it had an unusual acrid odor, and packed it up to send to the lab. No great insights there.

Blair snorted, breaking his train of thought. "Y'know, it's possible those girls made the whole thing up. Remember the Salem witch trials? Kids can do some strange things when they want attention. And if they saw the news stories about the other two episodes, they'd have had all the information." He laughed, a short bitter sound without any humor. "Good God, their parents have probably been warning them every morning for the last two weeks to watch out for a bearded man who cuts through fences! It could all be group hysteria."

Jim sighed. "Sandburg..."

"What?"

"Did you decide to be such a pain in the ass when you first got up this morning, or was it more of an after-breakfast sort of decision? Because I'm getting tired of your attitude."

Blair slumped into silence and stared out the window. After a minute or two of this, Jim couldn't resist one more biting comment.

"Hysteria, huh? Harley Spencer's five little victims would beg to differ with you, Chief. And someone cut a hole in that fence, and I doubt it was one of the kids." He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Some of these bastards are real. You know that, you've met them. You were the one who found Spencer. You were the one that had to watch him almost kill that girl." And you damn near killed him for it, Sandburg.

"Yeah, some of them are real," Blair retorted. "And yeah, most urban myths have a grain of truth in them somewhere." He scuffed at the floor mat with his left foot. "It's just not fair. Whether there's a real Bearded Bogeyman or not, it's the kids who are going to suffer. Scared out of their wits, and forbidden to leave their backyards."

"The innocent suffer, Chief. That's the way it always is."

They made the rest of the drive in silence, Blair staring out the window and Jim driving with exaggerated caution. As they pulled into the station, Blair cleared his throat.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Sorry, man."

"S'all right."


"Come on, Jim! You've got to give me more to work with here. The mayor's already breathing down my neck on this one."

The two detectives sat in Simon Banks' office. Or rather, Blair sat cross-legged on the conference table, and Jim paced like a caged beast between words of explanation.

That's one advantage of being the junior partner, Blair thought ruefully. I may not always get taken as seriously, but neither do I get yelled at as much when we come up empty-handed.

That thought brought an uncomfortable corollary that Blair shoved mentally away almost as soon as it took form in his mind. Maybe Simon just doesn't expect that much of me. He swallowed and jerked his attention back to the conversation.

"Simon, what more can we do? We've questioned everyone who was involved with each incident. I didn't pick up any extra evidence with my senses. All I could tell was that the fences had probably been cut when the kids said they were. What do you expect us to do, stake out all of the grade schools and playgrounds in town?" Jim resumed his pacing. "No one's been hurt, no one's actually been kidnapped. It just doesn't seem a priority compared with some of the other cases we've got." He stopped and spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "We can't find any connection between the cases besides the M.O. Other than the beard and glasses, the kids haven't been able to give us much of a description. We don't even know for sure if it's the same man."

Blair spoke up from his perch on the table, trying to choose his words more carefully than he had earlier in his arguments with Jim. "The composites don't look that much alike. If you ask me, the poor kids are scared out of their wits by all the warnings they're getting from parents and are jumping at shadows. Maybe this last guy was just a maintenance man or something, or one of the local street people."

Jim grunted. "Now there's a reassuring image to throw out to the parents of Cascade. Better keep that theory to yourself, Chief."

"You really think the cases are unrelated?" Simon poured himself another cup of fragrant coffee.

"Sir, I don't know. They might be, and they might not. But I would bet if we looked through the statistics for the last ten years of incidents like this, we might find that it's just -- just a case cluster of some kind. Maybe the statisticians can come up with something reassuring." Jim wore a pleading look on his face. "We'll definitely need to keep the investigation open, but it would be nice to have the public settle down a bit over this one."

"All right. I think you're on the wrong track, but talk to the stats people, see what they come up with. I'll try to keep the press out of your way. But, Jim?"

"Sir?"

"If you come up with any new evidence that we really are dealing with a serial wacko here, any connection between the victims, or possible motivation, you tell me immediately. We will not stand by and watch children put in danger."

"Simon, you'll be the first to know if we find anything."


Jim glanced at his watch. "Come on. Getting chewed out makes me hungry, and I'm not settling for another vending-machine lunch. You up for a bite?"

"Yeah, sure." Blair's answer contained all of the enthusiasm of a child on the way to the dentist.

"Anything sound good?" Jim tried again.

"Whatever, man. Nothing too heavy, I guess."

"Which disqualifies most of what I consider to be food. How 'bout Tino's? You can always get a salad if you're feeling virtuous."

"Sure."

Jim looked sidelong at his partner as they climbed into the truck. Blair looked, well, just sort of droopy and disinterested. For a moment, Jim debated suggesting somewhere else, but he really did have his heart set on an Italian meatball sandwich, loaded with tomato sauce and redolent of garlic. Besides, when he gets moody, it's usually safer just to ignore it and let him come out of it on his own.

The quiet little restaurant was almost empty; at two o'clock most of the lunch crowd had already come and gone. Jim selected a booth, and waved at the elderly proprietor behind the cash register.

"Tino, how's it going?"

"Wonderful, Detective, wonderful. My daughter Anna, she had her baby last week. My fifth grandchild, and the first girl." He bustled over with the menus. "Hold on, I'll show you a picture. She's an angel, a little angel." He headed off to the kitchen, presumably in search of his baby granddaughter's photograph.

"Great, just great," Blair groused. "I wanted a nice quiet lunch; now we're going to get regaled with stories from the proud grandpa."

"A few minutes ago, you were acting as if you didn't want any lunch."

"For once, I'd just like to eat in peace. Besides, Tino's probably so distracted by the arrival of Grandbaby Number Five that he'll get the orders all screwed up. I am not in the mood for any of those weird Italian pickled peppers on my sandwich."

Blair's tirade was cut short by the arrival of the menus and the promised photograph. Jim dutifully admired the picture of the little pink-clad and bow-bedecked newborn, but Blair stared stonily at the menu. After they placed their orders and Tino scurried away, Jim studied his partner quizzically.

"You know, Sandburg, when the people of Cascade are glad to see us, and look upon us with pride, that's a good thing. The Cascade P.D. is well respected, even in this part of town, and we can be proud of that. People like Tino are important to the way we function. It wouldn't hurt you to be a little more sociable."

Blair toyed with his water glass. "That's a laugh, coming from the Hermit of Prospect Street. You, telling me to be more sociable?"

"It's just part of the job. You don't have to like it, you just have to do it." He's right, though. Used to be, I had to rein him in from telling his life story to everyone we met. When did he get so reserved? Jim tried to think of when he had last seen Blair acting more like himself, but was unable to pinpoint a specific day. He was uncomfortably aware that the press of recent cases, all jostling for attention, had pushed more personal matters out of his mind. All this time we've spent together, and I'm still not used to having a partner to take care of. Maybe I'd better talk to him tonight, find out what's wrong. But not here.

They sat in silence until their food arrived, exactly as they had ordered it despite Blair's cranky predictions. Jim gave the meatball sandwich his full attention, savoring the rich sauce and the tender meatballs. There are times when being a sentinel definitely has its compensations.

"Chief, you don't know what you're missing," he said around a mouthful. "Tino even bakes his own bread for these. The day he closes up shop and retires, I'm going to wear black in mourning."

He looked over at his partner, who was picking at a roast chicken panini sandwich with provolone. That looks almost as good as this does. If he isn't going to eat it, I'm staking it out for later. The kid'll bring it along; he hates to waste food.

"You going to eat that or --" Jim stopped in mid-sentence as his hearing picked up snatches of a conversation.

"This place? He ain't got no money. Waste of time."

"That's what you think, dumbass. It's just after the first of the month. The old man's son sends him a check every month around this time, and he cashes it. He'll have a couple housand in that cash register, you can bet on it. You'll get what you need, never fear."

"What?" demanded Blair. "You break a tooth or something? Tino's meatballs not as pure as you thought?" Sandburg's tone was pure acid.

"Shut up, Blair." Jim responded automatically, already moving his hand toward his weapon. "Get up casually, go into the kitchen, and tell Tino to stay where he is. Move it."

"What? Why?"

"Just do it! Now!"

Jim rose nonchalantly from the table and turned to look toward the windows, hoping he could get into position by the cash register before the would-be burglars entered the restaurant. But even as he took a step toward the counter, the door opened and two young men entered.

Strung out, was Jim's thought as soon as he saw them. They're strung out, and looking for drug money. One, a tall skinny boy with greasy blond hair and filthy jeans, was trembling visibly; both he and his shorter, darker companion had the desperate, wild-eyed look Jim had seen on too many faces over the years. Worse, he could smell the acrid metal odor of a handgun. There was nothing more unpredictable than a junkie with a weapon.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see Blair walking down the narrow aisle toward the swinging kitchen doors, his back to the suspects. God, don't let them notice him. Let them think he works here, don't let him get shot in the back. Blair disappeared safely into the kitchen, and Jim turned all of his attention to his adversaries.

As expected, the nervous blond one reached toward his pocket for the gun that Jim knew was there. But the detective saw the motion, and had his own weapon out in a fraction of a second.

"Don't even try it," he growled. But the junkie, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was staring into the muzzle of a loaded gun, reached into his pocket anyway to reveal a loaded 45 mm. revolver.

"Cascade P.D.! Drop it now!" Jim's voice was strong and steady, but the junkie's hand shook with the palsy of withdrawal.

"You idiot!" wailed the shorter one. "It's a cop! Let's get out of here!"

Then Jim heard the sound of the kitchen doors crashing aside, followed by the unmistakable report of a shotgun. In eerie slow-motion, the blond suspect fell backward into the plate glass window, his chest a bloody mess. His companion stood stunned for a partial second, then yelled a few choice obscenities and took off through the door, just as Jim whirled around to face the kitchen.

An angry Tino Vespugi stood in the doorway, shotgun still aimed, with an ashen Blair Sandburg clinging to his arm and apparently trying to drag him back into the kitchen.

"Tino! Drop it, man! You need to drop it! Sandburg, get him back inside, and get that gun away from him!"

Tino's shotgun clattered to the floor, and Jim leapt out the front door in pursuit of the other suspect.


What a mess.

Blair looked around at the shambles of the restaurant. The wounded suspect had been removed by the ambulance, but his blood still spattered the floor and window. Old Tino, shaking with reaction, was seated in one of his booths, talking with one of the patrol cops who had responded to Blair's call for backup.

Poor Tino. He'll have to be charged, probably, with attempted manslaughter, but it's a grey area. They were trying to escape, after all.

After walking casually into the kitchen as per Jim's instructions, still fuming a little at the "Shut up" that had come so easily from his partner, Blair had located Tino. He told the restaurant owner that something was going on and he needed to stay back in the kitchen where he was safe. But the old man had gone berserk, shouting that no punks were going to rob him of his money, and had grabbed the shotgun from where it hung over the back door. Before Blair could stop him, he'd careened through the swinging doors and shot one of the suspects.

I did it all wrong. I should have grabbed Tino and restrained him, cuffed him if necessary, pulled my own weapon on him before things got so out of hand.

In the brief instant before Tino had charged out of the kitchen, he'd pointed the shotgun at an astonished Blair Sandburg, yelling at him to get out of the way. Blair had ducked, only to grab Tino a few seconds later after the shotgun blast had echoed through the building.

Crazy guy. Could've shot me. Could've shot Jim, or that other suspect might have been armed. What a fiasco.

Blair looked up as he saw Ellison's broad figure stepping over the yellow tape barricade in front of the restaurant. Jim looked uncharacteristically grim as he shouldered his way into the room.

"Lost him," he said shortly, and sat down at the table nearest the door. "He had too much of a head start, and then I got caught on the wrong side of a train."

"If the train's gone now, maybe we could try to find him with your sense of smell. We've done that before," murmured Blair, conscious of the other officers present.

"Forget it, Sandburg. He's gone, and it all happened too quickly for me to get any clear impression of his scent." Jim sighed. "We'd be better off trying to figure out how to explain this one to Simon."


Simon didn't yell, didn't bluster. Instead, he remained quiet and dangerously calm while Jim told the story of their encounter at Tino's.

When Jim had finished, Simon stood up and walked out from behind his desk to stand directly in front of them.

"Let me make sure I have this straight, gentlemen. Jim, you had good warning that something -- an armed robbery -- was about to happen. You sent your partner to secure the civilian and keep him out of the way."

"Captain, I didn't know what was happening," Blair protested. "Jim may have known what was going on; all I knew is that he told me to go keep Tino in the kitchen. He didn't say anything about armed robbery suspects." The glance he shot Jim looked accusing.

"Sandburg, I didn't have time for a debate! I gave you an instruction, and I expected you to follow it."

"You had the suspects at gun-point," continued Simon, in that same voice of deadly calm. "Probably, they would have surrendered at any moment."

"Sir, I can't say that for sure," amended Jim. "They were both pretty strung out, and you know how unpredictable junkies can be. I was half-expecting to have to take out the gunman; he looked pretty twitchy. Tino may have saved my life."

"And you," Simon turned to Blair. "You, an armed detective, you were back in the kitchen with this little seventy-year-old man who can't weight more than a hundred and ten pounds. Yet he was somehow able to overpower you, grab a shotgun, and wound a suspect so badly that he's in the ICU and may not survive?"

"Simon, I tried. But..."

"But what? Speak up!"

"But I guess I didn't see him as a threat," Blair explained lamely. "Even when he went for the shotgun, I guess part of me didn't really believe he'd do anything with it. I mean, who would picture Tino as such as hothead? I didn't even think it was loaded."

Uh oh, now that was the wrong thing to say. Jim watched as Simon's complexion turned an interesting shade of purple.

"Detective Sandburg," Simon said, his tone icy. "Perhaps you need to return to the Academy for some supplemental training in the management of an apparently armed suspect! Would you like me to arrange that?" The final phrase was a shout.

"No, sir," mumbled Blair.

Simon stalked back behind his desk and sat down. "The outcome of today's work, Detectives. One grievously wounded suspect. One suspect escaped, on foot, mind you. And one elderly restaurant owner vigilante who will now probably have to face charges. I'd say that just about covers it." He leaned forward. "Gentlemen, we are here to protect the public. Even from themselves." He brought his fist down on the desk. "Ellison, you're dismissed. Sandburg, you stay here."


After Jim left, Simon's face loss its rigidity and his voice grew more quiet. "Sandburg, sit down."

Blair complied, sinking into the nearest chair.

"For the last week you've been snippy, short-tempered and just plain difficult to be around. Your reports, once models of wording and detail, have become incomprehensible, and what's more, whatever is going on with you seems to be affecting Jim. Is there anything else going on, anything you want to tell me?"

Looking up at his captain's face, Blair was surprised to see the deep concern reflected in Simon's eyes. And something else, something that he couldn't quite identify. "No, sir, there isn't. Nothing that you could help with, anyway."

"Then whatever is going on, I expect to you solve it, or end it, or whatever is appropriate. Talk with Jim, call your mother, see a shrink, do something. Or come talk with me, if you need to. I think I know... Well, you're not functioning at full capacity right now, and we need you."

Blair dropped his eyes again and nodded. "I'll do better, Simon. I promise."

For a moment, silence hung in the room. Then Blair heard a creak as the captain leaned forward in his chair. "Blair, you've been with us now, as a detective, for almost a year. Are you happy doing this?"

The unexpected compassion of that question stunned Blair, and he felt his eyes sting with suppressed tears. How do I answer that? Tell him, that I thought I was, but now I'm not so sure?

The 'beep' of the intercom of Simon's phone made them both jump. Rhonda's voice came over the speaker. "Simon, I've got the Chief on line two for you."

"Thanks, Rhonda." Simon moved to pick up the phone, stopped in mid-motion.

"You can go, Sandburg. But we're not finished with this. I want an answer to my question the next time we get a chance to talk."

Continue on to Act II...


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