Jim was a block away, but he could hear Eddie's whimpering as if right in his ear. He also heard the dull thud of a boot meeting flesh, and fury pounded through Jim's veins, a fury he hadn't felt since Peru.
His people. Being hurt.
There were three of them standing over Eddie, one of them with long, reddish hair, and Jim's rage transmuted into unholy glee. It had to be them—Joey's attackers. He was going to fucking kill those motherfuckers. They wouldn't know what hit them.
And they didn't. He approached near-silently, and time went into the stop-motion of a combat zone: the flicker of his arm catching beneath the chin of one, the sideways snap of the man's neck, not deadly, but debilitating. Already, Jim's left foot was swinging out in an arc to take out the weight-bearing leg of the second man, who was caught mid-kick. The man's foot never reached its destination, and he hit the ground headfirst.
The third man had enough warning to drop into a crouch, and Jim mirrored his position. He heard the deadly whisper and snick of a blade clicking to, and saw the glitter of the knife in the man's hand. Jim shifted his stance for a knife fight.
His shift made the man pause, a beat of hesitation, and Jim exploited it, already exploding forward, arm raised to block the swing of the knife. Jim's fingers clenched, the knuckle of his middle finger pronged to connect with wicked force below the man's Adam's apple. Jim barely felt the bite of the blade on his arm. He was already drawing back his fist for another blow, but it wasn't necessary. The man dropped the knife with a gargled scream and fell to his knees clutching his throat.
Jim kicked the knife to the curb and quickly scanned the other attackers. They were both still on the ground, although the first man was struggling to rise to his feet. Jim planted one foot in his side, in the soft space just below the floating rib, and the man groaned and settled.
The whole fight, from beginning to end, had taken maybe twenty seconds.
Jim turned to see Sandburg staring at him, his eyes wide, face pale. He must've seen the whole thing.
Jim's stomach dropped. So? Now he knows. Jim had kept his covert ops training pretty much a secret. Joey knew, of course—Jim had told him just in case. There was only one way to safely awaken an ex-operative, and as a vet himself, Joey would know what to do.
Jim hadn't wanted Blair to know. For one thing, he needed the kid too much now. But that wasn't why Jim's guts were in a knot.
One of the men groaned and diverted Jim's attention. Still panting heavily, he tried to slow his breathing. Fooling the body into normalcy as quickly as possible was the best way to get over the adrenaline shock.
"Jim." Blair was closer now. But he still kept his distance.
"Help Eddie, Chief. Please."
Eddie had crawled away to huddle against a storefront. He was whispering to himself. "Stop it. Okay? Okay?"
Jim ached to check on his friend, but couldn't risk taking his eyes off the thugs. Instead, he wrapped one hand around the cut on his arm, pressing his shirt against the wound. It didn't feel too deep, but Jim still had too much adrenaline flowing through his system to know for sure. In fact, his sense of touch was way down. Something he should mention to Sandburg when this was all over.
Assuming Blair still wanted to work with him.
Finally the sound of sirens echoed in the distance, maybe a few minutes away. Jim continued to stand watch over the thugs, and listened to Blair's soothing voice as he tried to comfort Eddie. The soft tones comforted Jim as well, and his heart calmed.
A squad car slowed down the block and then sped up again, heading their way, lights flashing. Jim took two steps toward the curb but kept the thugs in his sight. One of the cops got out of the car, and Jim held up his hands.
"Please call an ambulance. We have four injured. I don't know how severe."
The officer leaned back into the car to say something to his partner and then walked over to Jim.
"You wanna tell me what's going on?" His hand was resting on the butt of his sidearm.
"Yeah. I heard yelling on the street. I told my friend," Jim waved his hand at Sandburg, "to call 911, then I came over to check it out. I saw these three guys beating on Eddie. Eddie is a homeless vet. I know him from the soup kitchen where I work."
The officer—his nametag read P. Avery—looked over at the three attackers, two of whom were starting to sit up and take notice.
"So, how comes it they're all lying on the ground there?" Avery asked lazily.
"I, uh, stopped them."
Avery raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'm a vet, too. Special Forces."
A low chuckle greeted that revelation.
"There's more. Detectives Brown and Rafe from Major Crime have been investigating murders in this area. I think these might be the same three guys that attacked Joey O'Brien, who owns the soup kitchen. Could you contact Detective Brown?"
That got him another raised eyebrow, and when Avery's partner came over, Avery handed him his cuffs and told him to secure the attackers before disappearing back into the squad car.
Confident the situation was under control, Jim finally let himself go over to Eddie. The poor guy was moaning and holding his stomach, his filthy head in Blair's lap.
"How're you doing, Eddie?" Jim asked quietly.
"Jim? Is that you? Okay. It hurts, Jim. I think I hurt myself bad."
"You're gonna be okay, Eddie." Jim crouched low, turning down the little knob on his sense of smell as he got close, and put his hand on Eddie's arm. "You're gonna be just fine. Blair and I will take care of you. And the ambulance will be coming soon. Okay? Just hang tight."
"Yes, sir," Eddie mumbled meekly.
Blair shot Jim a concerned look. Jim was worried, too. Eddie had never quite made it back from the war in his head, but usually he was aware he was stateside and out of the service. Maybe he had a concussion.
The ambulance came quickly for once, and Eddie was carried in first, then the man with the head injury, who still hadn't regained consciousness. One of the cops got inside, too. Jim spared about a split second's thought to wonder if the guy would ever wake up. And then he stopped thinking about it. Avery loaded the other two attackers into the back of the squad car.
The ambulance had just left when Brown pulled up in a dark blue sedan. Rafe was with him.
"Is it true? Are these the guys?" were the first words out of Rafe's mouth.
"I think they might be," Jim said cautiously. Brown was talking to Avery and looking into the back of the squad car. He came trotting over.
"That's Scalia in the back there." Brown's round face was creased in a grin, and he was practically rubbing his hands together. "Damned if you guys haven't caught those assholes in the act, Ellison. This is fantastic."
"I hope Eddie thinks it's worth it," Jim muttered, but softly.
"Jim." It was Sandburg, at his elbow. "Christ, Jim, you're bleeding."
Oh. Jim had forgotten all about it. He turned toward Brown. "One of the guys had a knife. I kicked it over the curb." Jim spotted it and pointed with his other hand. There was something odd about the knife that rang a bell, but Rafe was already crouching over with an evidence bag to scoop it up.
Blair muttered something under his breath about primitive throwbacks who bled to death without noticing.
"You think you'll need stitches?" Brown asked.
Jim tugged the dark material away from the wound so he could examine it. It was still bleeding, but the cut wasn't that deep. Butterfly bandages would do.
"Nah. I can patch it up easy."
"Great," Brown said, "'cause we'd really like you two to come down to the station and give statements."
"I have to lock up." Jesus, he'd left the Kitchen wide open.
"And I left the phone off the hook." Blair sounded a little dazed. Jim started to put his hand on the kid's arm, and then aborted the gesture at the strange look Blair threw him.
"All right," Brown said soothingly. "We'll follow you back to the place and then give you a ride into the precinct after you're patched up."
Back at the Kitchen, Jim went downstairs and changed into a clean, short-sleeved T-shirt, then pulled his first aid kit from the bathroom. The cut was long and shallow, along his triceps. He sat patiently while Blair cleaned and muttered and taped him up.
"I hear Joey's getting out of the hospital tomorrow," Brown said.
"If he's feeling up to it, maybe you can bring him by the station so he can do an identification."
"I don't have a car," Jim said apologetically. In fact, he didn't trust himself to drive with his senses being out of control. But that was another thing that might change for the better in the near future. No more buses and cabs.
"I've got a car," Blair said, looking up from Jim's arm. "In fact, we should take my car tonight. That way I can drop Jim back here afterward. And I'll bring Joey tomorrow if he's feeling well enough."
Blair finished wrapping his arm. He'd used a little too much gauze, but Jim kept his mouth shut. Rafe gave Blair directions to the station, and then Jim followed Blair to his car.
The kid walked fast—he was practically vibrating. Jim was a little worried for him. This probably was a hell of a lot more than he signed on for.
Hell, Jim was more than he signed on for. But Blair had been with him all the way. Steady as a rock. Not shying away from Eddie, who stank to high heaven and was crazier than a bedbug. No, Blair had taken Eddie into his lap and comforted the vet. Probably as much as he'd comforted Jim the night before.
The kid was gold.
The front desk sergeant directed them to the sixth floor, where they met up with the detectives and gave their statements separately—Jim to Brown and Blair to Rafe. Jim recited his recollection carefully, giving it straight like a military debriefing and including as much detail as he could. After the detectives had typed up their statements, they each read them and then signed the printed copies.
Jim made sure to get a hold of Blair's and read it quickly. Turned out the kid had an incredible memory for detail. And he'd seen everything, just as Jim had feared.
"Jim," Brown said as they all stood up to leave, "You should rethink what we talked about before."
"Huh?" Jim was looking at Blair, who was shaking Rafe's hand and making a joke.
"You seem like you're doing fine, healthwise. You really gonna let some headaches keep you in a soup kitchen when you have all the training to be a terrific cop?"
Jim stood, stunned, as Brown's words sank in.
A future. He'd forgotten he could have a future. Here he'd been getting excited about the possibility of sitting in cafés and driving cars, when his biggest dream of all languished in the corner gathering dust.
He could try to be a cop.
Brown's low, pleasant laugh pulled him out of his shock. "You look like you just got whacked with a two-by-four."
"I—it's just...I hadn't thought about it. I haven't let myself think about it."
"Well, I think you'd better start thinking, then." Brown clapped him on his good arm.
Jim felt a smile bloom on his face. "I think you're right."
"Tell you what—when you come by with Joey, I'll introduce you to Captain Banks. All right?"
Stunned, Jim barely felt his feet under him as he followed Blair down to the car.
Blair drove carefully, his hands still a little shaky from the crazy events of evening. Every so often he'd dart a glance over at Jim, who was sitting quietly in the passenger seat, obviously lost in thought.
Jim. He had taken those guys out. Jesus, Blair had never seen anyone do anything like that in real life, like something out of a kung fu movie. Silent, vicious force, controlled by unbelievable reflexes. Like a machine.
Or like a trained killer.
His pet Sentinel was a trained killer, which shouldn't have surprised him at all, except it did. Blair was surprised all out of his mind. But the thing that had surprised him the most was the stark fear that had grabbed him when he'd seen Jim closing in on the guys, his helpless terror that Jim was about to get very, very dead.
Only Jim hadn't died. Jim had dispatched them with all the difficulty of a kindergarten teacher breaking up a playground tussle.
Afterward, when he'd seen that Jim was bleeding and seemingly unaware of it, Blair had felt anger creep up to replace his fear. Jim wasn't allowed to get hurt. That wasn't in the rules.
But, hell, Blair should give up on the fucking rule book, because he had a feeling, once Jim got a handle on the problems that had been crippling him, that there'd be no stopping the guy. Not rules, and certainly not Blair's fear.
So he'd better get a grip on it, because that was why he was in the game—to make his Sentinel whole again. Whatever came afterward he'd just have to accept.
"Are you all right?" Jim's voice was soft, almost hesitant.
"What, me? Sure, man."
"It just occurred to me I hadn't checked. It wasn't like tonight was what you signed on for."
Funny. Jim's thoughts were apparently traveling along the same road as his.
"I signed on to help you, big guy. This counts as help in my book."
"No buts. No wherefores or how comes, either. Okay? We're a team."
Blair looked over in surprise at the sheer volume of relief that Jim had packed into that one syllable. Jim was staring ahead, the passing streetlights flickering across his rigid profile.
"I mean it, Jim. I'm in it for the whole roller coaster ride. And the cotton candy. I love cotton candy." Blair laughed, a little edge in it. The night had gone from exciting to scary to purely strange.
But Jim laughed, too, and he seemed to relax in his seat.
"Hey, Chief. Can't you get this bucket to go any faster?"
After a quick breakfast the next morning, Jim went to the closet where Joey kept a spare set of clothes and threw them into a duffle bag. He also wrote up a note for Betty, requesting she stock up on some items for the dinner shift, and giving her the news that Joey would be going home that day.
It would be a while before Joey would be coming back to the Kitchen, though, so Jim collected the checkbook and the ledger from the office and tossed those in the bag as well.
At the hospital, Jim was surprised to find Vanetta already in attendance. She was trying to coax Joey into eating something.
"You're stuffing me like a goose, Van. Are you after my liver?" There was pure affection beneath Joey's gruff tone, and Jim had to hide a smile.
Van and Joey. Well, there were stranger couples. And Jim let himself think, for a moment, that he and Blair could make an even stranger one. The way Blair had talked about them being a team...Jim had had to bite his tongue from saying something incredibly stupid in that moment.
It had been two years since he'd allowed himself to be close to anyone. Another dream he could maybe take off the shelf and dust off? But not now. Not until he was whole and strong again.
"Van says there was a little bit of excitement on McAllister last night. Jim?"
"What's that, Joey?"
Joey gave him a look, and Jim replayed the tape in his head.
"Oh. Yeah, that's why I came by early. I wanted to tell you about that."
"She says you caught the guys. Says you kicked their asses six ways from Sunday." Joey coughed. "Well, in so many words, that is."
Startled, Jim looked at Vanetta. "How did you hear about it, Miss Van?"
"Never you mind," she said primly. "Question is, is it true?"
"Yes. At least one of them—that Stan guy, Joey. And one of them had long, reddish hair, to his shoulders. They were ganging up on Eddie; which reminds me, I have to go check on him—"
"He's just fine, Jimbo. My boy already looked in on him. They're gonna transfer him to the V.A. Hospital this afternoon. He has his own doctor there, and they want to keep him in the psych ward for a little while."
"Oh." Jim looked down at his hands, which were clenched tightly around the handle of the duffle. Eddie was just one step further into the hole than Jim had been a week ago. Jim had really thought he was heading there himself.
Until he met Blair.
"Jim." Joey sounded concerned. "He's gonna be fine. They know how to bring him out of it."
"Yeah." Jim cleared his throat. "Anyway, Blair and I went down to the station last night and gave our statements. Two of the guys are locked up. The third guy might still be in the hospital. I'm not sure."
"Sounds like you did a real number on them." There was dark satisfaction in Joey's voice.
Raising his head, Jim locked eyes with Joey for a long moment. Joey gave a faint nod.
Jim smiled. "If you're feeling up to it, you can put the nail in the coffin by going down to identify them in a lineup. We could swing by on the way to your house."
"I don't think Paulie will let you get away with that," Vanetta broke in. "You're supposed to go straight home and directly to bed."
"I'm a grown man, for gosh sake. I can make my own decisions."
Jim grinned when he heard Joey's careful language. "Well, make up your mind quick, because Sandburg will be here soon. In fact, we'd better get you dressed."
With that, Jim started pulling clothes out of the duffle. Vanetta gave Joey a quick peck on the cheek and left, her cheeks a little pink.
"So," Jim said, helping Joey out of his hospital gown and into his shirt. "You and Miss Van, is that it?"
Joey gave him a shove. "Get me my pants. And don't forget: I'm not too old to kick your ass."
"Sir, yes, sir," Jim murmured, grinning.
Blair coaxed his old Volvo started in the morning, then puttered over to County General and went up to Joey's room. He found Jim already there.
"Paulie wants me to sell," Joey was saying. "But I keep telling the boy this is my neighborhood, punks or no."
"Did someone offer to buy the Kitchen?" Blair asked as he came in. There was something tugging at the back of his mind.
"Howdy, Blair," Joey said. He was already dressed and perched on the end of his bed. Jim was kneeling at his feet and helping him with his shoes. "Yeah, some real estate hack called me a month ago. Miss Van, too, but she told him to get stuffed." Joey laughed.
"Someone is trying to buy both properties? That's interesting..."
Jim raised his head. "What? What is it, Blair?"
"Well, doesn't that seem like a weird coincidence? Joey and Miss V. tell the real estate broker to kiss off, then that old lady gets killed and Joey gets jumped. And there was Murray, too, the hit-and-run. And then there's Eddie, who's also connected to the Kitchen."
"Shit." Jim rubbed his hand over his hair. "Brown told me that Scalia has connections, like maybe he was hired and not just doing it for kicks."
"You think someone hired these guys to scare people out of the neighborhood?" Joey looked furious. "They don't know shit, do they?"
"Nope, they sure don't." Jim patted Joey's leg and rose to his feet. "Come on, let's find you some wheels and get you out of here. Are you signed out yet?"
"No. But I know this young doctor who owes me one..."
Paulie came by with a wheelchair soon after, and with very little fuss they got Joey downstairs and reclining in the back seat of the Volvo. Joey was all for going directly to the police station on his way home, and Blair could tell Jim couldn't wait to talk to Brown and relate their pet theory.
Jim looked good. His face had filled out a little, and his color was better. The lines around his eyes had disappeared. He didn't seem to be having any spikes. At the moment, he was leaning over the seat and talking animatedly to Joey, asking for more info about the calls from the real estate office.
They stopped at a light, and Jim turned his head and flashed Blair a quick grin. He looked alive. He looked really alive, and it made Blair want to lean over and just plant one on him, give the guy a big sloppy kiss.
Which was so wrong it didn't even bear thinking about. Jim was probably straight. And even if he wasn't, Jim needed him, depended on him, so any move would have to be his, because Blair couldn't stand it if he thought Jim was just reciprocating out of gratitude or obligation.
So Blair shut off that little train of thought and concentrated on the road.
The Cascade Police Department was a lot busier during the day, and while Jim helped Joey up to the sixth floor, Blair ran interference so he wouldn't be jostled. They bumped into Rafe when they were getting out of the elevator.
"Rafe, you remember Joey?" Jim said.
"Sure do. You're looking a lot better than the last time I saw you, Mr. O'Brien."
"Call me Joey, kid."
Blair grinned. Seemed he wasn't the only kid around. Rafe led the way down the hall to Major Crime, where Brown was sitting at his desk and eating a sandwich as big as his head.
He stood quickly, wiping his mouth. "Mr. O'Brien. How are you feeling?"
"It's Joey, and I'm doing good. Doing even better now that I hear you might have caught the guys that did this."
Jim nudged Joey toward a chair. He sat down slowly while leaning hard on the desk.
"I surely believe we have, Joey," Brown said. "That's why you're here. I'll call down to the tank and have them brought up. The lineup room is on the fourth floor." He picked up his phone.
"In the meantime," Joey said, "how about I get a bite of that sandwich?"
Brown looked a little shocked, and Jim chuckled. "You want me to get you something, Joey? I can run out."
"Nah. I'm sure Van will have something waiting for me at home."
Jim's eyebrows went straight up, and Blair could see he was biting his tongue.
"Don't you start," Joey muttered.
When Brown got off the phone, Jim pulled him aside and started talking fast. Blair saw Brown pick up Jim's excitement, and soon he was back at his desk in front of the computer. Jim came back over to Blair.
"I think he buys our theory," he said softly in Blair's ear. "I can see what's on his screen."
Blair suppressed a shiver at having Jim's breath caressing his ear. "Joey and Van can't be the only ones who've been approached. Maybe someone has already succeeded in buying up some of the property in the neighborhood."
"That's what Brown's doing," Jim said, sounding pleased at Blair's logic. "He's looking up the titles for buildings in the area. Anything that's changed hands in the last couple of months."
This detective stuff was as exciting as hell. Blair turned his head to face Jim, who pulled back a little to give him room. Their eyes met, and Blair could practically smell the ozone. Pure electricity.
"You realize we might've solved this case for him," Blair said.
A weird look crossed Jim's face, half-sad, half-hopeful. Then he shook his head. "They'll still have to prove it. Find evidence of the connection."
"Or maybe they can get Stan or his pals to turn. You know, like in the cop shows. Get him in the interrogation room and have at him."
Jim shook his head. "I don't think it works that way in real life, Chief. If they came clean, these guys would be on the hook for two counts of first degree murder, not to mention the assaults."
"'On the hook'? Who's been watching too many cop shows?"
Jim winced and turned away.
After all the buildup, the identification was pretty anticlimactic. Joey and the others stood behind the glass. In the other room, some guys shuffled in. It took Joey about a second and a half to identify the first man. On the second round, it took him a little longer, but he when he called out 'number four', a broad grin appeared on Brown's face.
"That's the ticket," he said. He offered his hand to Joey, who shook it with a smile. "The third guy is still in the hospital, so you'll have to do a photo ID." Brown lowered his voice, "I think we have a lead on the developer who might be behind all this. A company called Hobart Enterprises has purchased eight properties in the past ten months, most of them on McAllister, near Grant. Hobart is owned by a guy named Clarence Oakland. He's been suspected of racketeering but no one's ever pinned anything on him."
"Sounds like you maybe should have a little chat with Mr. Oakland."
"Oh, indeedy," Brown said. His grin had turned positively evil.
They all went back up to Major Crime, where Brown had Joey shuffle through a short stack of Polaroids. He identified the third man and then asked to use the restroom. Rafe offered to take him. While they were gone, Brown dropped back behind his desk and Blair and Jim moved in to read over his shoulder.
The information on Clarence Oakland was still up on the screen. It looked like the guy was a real bigwig, a major office building developer in Cascade. According to the newspaper profile, he had a lot of irons in the fire.
Just the kind of guy who might think it was worth a shortcut to get rid of some stragglers in a buy-out.
"We all ready to go?" Joey asked when he and Rafe came back in. Joey looked a little worn out.
"Yeah, let's get out of here. Jim?"
Jim snapped to, his eyes moving to Joey's face. He nodded. "We'd better get you home before Paulie catches wind of this."
Joey cackled. "You'd be smarter to be scared of Vanetta. That woman's gonna tan all our hides."
Jim and Blair wisely kept silent.
Jim felt guilty. Once they got Joey settled in, it became obvious how exhausted the man really was. He fell directly asleep on the couch, Vanetta clucking over him and shooing them away to the kitchen, where she made them sit down and eat a belated lunch.
"You know, as much as that man cooks down at the Kitchen, you'd think he'd have a decent cooking pot in his own kitchen," Vanetta complained.
"I don't think he cooks much at home, Miss Van," Jim responded, graciously taking the time away from his single-minded consumption of the thick, greasy hamburger Vanetta had prepared. He looked up to find Blair eyeing him with a little disgust. Blair had opted for a grilled cheese. Jim wiped his mouth and gave him a grin.
Blair's eyes widened before he smiled back, slowly.
Jim swallowed hard and turned his attention back to Vanetta, who was grumbling about the lack of potholders.
"I guess someone needs to take him in hand," Jim offered, then bit his cheek.
Vanetta stopped mid-tirade and gave him a sharp glance.
Jim tried to look innocent. From Blair's muffled snort, it was apparent he hadn't been too successful.
"Detective Brown asked me if I wanted to watch Scalia's interrogation," Jim said, changing the subject hastily. "You wanna come, Chief?"
"Heck, yeah," Blair said.
"Great. You can give me a ride." Jim gave Blair his smuggest smile and took another bite of his burger.
"How about a beer, boys?" Vanetta had stopped her cleaning and was hovering by the fridge.
A beer. Jim hadn't had a beer in months. Should he risk it? He frowned, considering it, and caught Blair looking at him again with eyebrows raised.
"Sure," Jim said cautiously.
"Sounds good," Blair added. "Thanks."
The first sip exploded across Jim's taste buds like an assault from heaven—thick hops and that little tang at the back of his throat. He put down his bottle and just sat there, savoring the moment. After a while he realized Blair was staring at him again, the weirdest expression on his face.
"What?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "Happy. I guess you look happy."
Jim felt a tickle of heat on his neck. Happy. "I guess I am," he said.
He only drank a couple more swallows, afraid to push it. He didn't want to lose his newly found control, and he had a feeling those little switches and knobs wouldn't work very well if he were pie-eyed.
After lunch, Vanetta and Blair cleaned up while Jim helped Joey transfer from the couch to his bed, Joey mumbling crankily and Jim holding back his laughter. Jim pulled the sheets up and tucked him in.
"Quit babying me," Joey snarled.
With a final tuck, Jim stopped and put his hand on Joey's shoulder over the quilt. "Hey, maybe I'm glad to see you safe at home, all right?"
Joey surprised him by grabbing his wrist. "'Cause of you, Jim. Thanks for that—I never said. And thanks for getting the guys."
Jim cleared his throat. "You saved my life about a hundred times, Joey, these past two years. Near as I can figure, I'm the one owes you."
"You're doing good now, though, huh? You look good, kiddo. You look better."
Jim nodded cautiously. "Blair's been helping me meditate. To get a handle on things," he said, a little embarrassed.
"That's good. He's a great guy." Joey yawned suddenly.
"Go to sleep, old man."
Jim couldn't make out Joey's mumbled reply. He gathered up Blair and thanked Vanetta, and then the two of them drove back to the Kitchen.
One bad thing about the soup kitchen was there weren't really any nights off. People needed to eat every day. And while Blair was glad there was a place like that for folks to go, he really wished Jim didn't have to start in with fixing dinner right away.
But it was fun working next to him. He discovered Jim had a pretty wicked sense of humor when he wasn't cranky from a headache or trying to hold onto the contents of his stomach. They got into a potato peeling contest that involved using elbows to keep the other guy from working effectively. It made the food prep take twice as long but also made it twice as fun.
Then Jim showed off his chopping skills. That was just amazing. The sharp knife flashed smooth and fast—incredibly fast, a dangerous blur—and the perfect, even chunks just appeared on the other side as if by magic. The intent focus on Jim's face was...beautiful. God, the man was perfect.
Shut up, lizard brain. Wake up, higher brain functions.
"How were things, today?" Blair asked. "Sight and hearing okay?"
"Everything was copacetic, Chief. Well, the hospital was a little tough, but I could handle it. And I think I almost spaced out on that first sip of beer." Jim grinned. "I haven't had a beer in months."
Blair swallowed back the lump in his throat. "Then you're doing better?"
"Yeah. Better doesn't describe it." Jim stopped cutting and put down the knife. He wiped his hands slowly with a dishtowel and then turned, putting his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I've got my life back, Chief. Thanks to you."
Blair forced himself to raise his eyes and meet Jim's. The usually cool blue looked as warm as the Mediterranean.
"That's good, Jim," Blair got out. "Real good."
Jim dropped his hands, looking a little surprised at himself. He turned back to the prep table. "So, what's on the docket for tonight?"
Blair stifled his immediate, raunchy answer to that question. "Taste, and then I thought we'd try testing your sight range. See what you can do."
Jim just nodded and kept chopping.
The next day was Sunday, but apparently detectives worked the weekends, because Brown called Jim to let him know when the questioning was taking place.
"Kid's already lawyered up, but we might be able to get something out of him anyway. I'm hoping you can listen in and let me know if anything doesn't ring true from the attack."
"No problem. Is it okay if Sandburg tags along?"
"No, that's great. See you at noon."
Visiting hours at the V.A. psych ward started at nine o'clock. Jim was there a little after, and patiently stood for the search and the instructions.
"Don't touch a patient if they become agitated. If the alarm sounds, hold up your visitor's badge and walk quickly to the exit," the orderly droned.
Jim just nodded at the right places, remembering a time when he was on the other side of the ward door, when he first returned Stateside. Culture-shock, they'd called it. Post-traumatic stress. The jungle had been in his head, and the gray walls were covered in vines.
They'd drugged him—kept him completely under for days and then kept him logy for months, and when he came out of it he'd forgotten the jungle, but his whole life had changed. His senses were heightened. Fortunately, the worst of the spiking didn't start until he'd already been released, or he'd still be in there, talking to the snakes hiding in the vines. Trapped and lost.
Like poor Eddie.
But Eddie seemed better today. His eyes were alert, and they'd forced a shower and a haircut on the poor guy. He looked small sitting in his hospital robe instead of his usual layers of clothing.
"How's it hanging, Eddie?"
"Hi, Jim! It's good, it's good. Is that for me?" A crafty look creased Eddie's face and he pointed to the box in Jim's hand.
"Well, I dunno. Are you the kind of guy who likes homemade fudge?"
Eddie smiled broadly. "Could be, could be."
Jim handed over the fudge and Eddie opened it. He offered Jim a piece first, then tore into it himself.
"Are they treating you okay, Eddie? 'Cause if they're not, all you have to do is say the word—"
"No, it's good. They're nice here. And they've put me on some new meds. Hey, Charlie," Eddie called out, "come on over here for a sec."
A big man in orderly whites walked over, a smile on his face.
"Charlie, this is Jim. He's my friend."
"Hey there, Jim. Eddie's told me a lot about you." They shook hands, Charlie's big hand swamping Jim's.
"Jim saved my life," Eddie said gravely. "But, more important, he brought me fudge."
Jim blinked and laughed.
Charlie joined in. "Now that's a true friend," he said, then put on a mock-sad expression. "But aren't I your friend, too, Eddie?"
"Hmm." Eddie seemed to give it deep thought before reluctantly holding out the box of fudge.
Charlie snagged a piece and popped the whole thing in his mouth. "Mmm."
Jim leaned over and tapped Eddie on the leg. "Eddie, I just wanted to let you know that Joey identified the guys—they're the same ones that attacked him. You get what I'm saying?"
"Yeah. Okay. Okay." Eddie suddenly looked nervous.
"I promise they're going to jail for a long time. And if it weren't for you, we might never have caught them. You were in the right place, and you held on, and yelled so I could hear you."
"Yeah. So, you did good."
Eddie's eyes were clear as he held Jim's gaze. "We both did."
"Yeah, Eddie. We both did good."
"Scalia's lying," Jim muttered.
Captain Banks, who was sitting in on the questioning, shifted noisily behind him.
"Well, yeah, but what makes you say so, Ellison?"
Jim shrugged. He'd been introduced to the captain when he and Blair first came in, but hadn't had a chance to size up the man before the session started and his attention was diverted.
"His pulse," Jim said finally. Brown already knew about Jim's 'good vision', so no harm in explaining. "See that fat vein in his throat? When Rafe asked him about Oakland it gave a serious jump. He definitely recognized the name, whether he knows him or not."
"Punk's showing a lot of loyalty, considering what he's on the hook for," Banks said thoughtfully.
"On the hook," Blair said almost soundlessly. Jim shot him a look.
"I wish Rafe would ask him if he's met him."
Rafe seemed to be a good interrogator, which surprised Jim, since the detective had always been so quiet around him. But, sure enough, Rafe circled back to the subject of Oakland after a couple of diversionary questions.
"I don't know if I believe you, Stan." Rafe's voice was tinny coming through the speaker, and for Jim there was an echo effect because he could also hear Rafe through the glass. "Take a look at this picture. Have you met this man?"
"Nope, never," Scalia said sullenly.
"And that was the truth. I'm sure of it," Jim said to Blair.
"There must be a middleman, then," Blair said slowly. "Someone who works for Oakland—does his dirty work for him."
"Someone who pays the kid well. That leather jacket he was wearing the other night was no cheap cow-skin. And that knife—" Jim snapped his fingers. "That knife! I knew there was something about it bugging me."
Jim turned to Banks, who had a bemused expression on his face.
"Captain, that knife the kid tried to use on me. It wasn't a regular switchblade. It was a butterfly knife—I think it might've been a balisong. Is there any chance I could get another look at it?"
"I suppose," Banks said, nodding slowly. He reached for the phone and dialed. While he was talking, Jim turned back to the questioning.
He tried to focus on what they were saying, but he was suddenly conscious of Blair standing next to him, of the scent of fresh cotton flannel and clean musk. And a slightly sweet smell coming from his hair, maybe a honey-based shampoo. Jim took in a deep breath through his nose.
Jim startled. "Yeah?"
Blair leaned closer, "You okay? You're not slipping into a zone-out?"
Not yet, but if you lean any closer I might.
"I'm fine, Chief," Jim said.
Rafe had moved on to ask Scalia about his friends. After a while, there was a knock at the door, and Banks stepped over to open it. He came back with a plastic bag and handed it to Jim.
"It's a balisong, all right," Jim said. "Can I take it out?"
"Sure." The bemused expression had returned to Banks' face.
Jim pulled out the weapon, flipping it open, the sound and motion bringing up old memories. It was a beautiful specimen, with a wavy blade and onyx handles.
"Butterfly knives are illegal to carry in Washington," Banks commented.
Running his fingers lightly over the handles, Jim felt a slight irregularity. He held it up to the light, tilting it until he could see the source—a strange, engraved symbol, possibly the artisan's signature.
"This is custom-made," Jim said, pointing to the insignia. "Expensive little toy for a street hood. It might even be a gift. A well-made Pananandata weapon like this isn't something you can just buy on the street."
Banks made an interested noise.
"What's Pan—whatever?" Blair asked.
"Pananandata. It's a martial art form from the Philippines that uses weapons like this one. If he's been training in Pananandata, well, there's probably not a lot of places in Cascade where you can learn."
"That's a lead. A couple of them." It was Banks, who had moved closer and was now standing by Jim's elbow. Jim bagged the knife and handed it back to Banks.
"Could be nothing."
"Could be something, too." Banks dropped the knife on the table beside him. "I'll have Rafe and Brown follow up on both, starting with the knife. Maybe we can locate the manufacturer, find out who bought it."
Jim nodded and turned back to the window. Scalia was slouched with his arms crossed, his lawyer looking unhappy.
"The other one rolled over on him pretty quickly," Banks said. "But this one's going to be tough to crack."
Jim nodded. The whole thing stank of something deeper. And loyalty was a tricky bitch—useful in your subordinates, dangerous in your enemies.
Rafe and Brown seemed to be wrapping it up. The lawyer picked up her briefcase and followed them out, a uniformed officer squeezing by to come in and handcuff Scalia.
Banks leaned with his back to the glass and pulled a cigar from his pocket. He stuck the end in his mouth and regarded Jim narrowly.
"Brown gave me the rundown on your involvement," he said to them both. "He said he trusted you with details of the case. I gave him a little hell about that, but he told me you'd been real helpful. That was the only reason I consented to having you two observe the questioning."
Jim leaned back in his chair, trying to show his unconcern. He could feel Blair's tension next to him.
"And now? You planning on cutting us out?" Blair sounded defensive.
"It depends." Banks pulled the cigar from his mouth and poked it in Jim's direction. "Brown told me you're ex-Special Forces."
Jim felt his shoulders stiffen.
"I just want to make sure you understand we don't have a war on, here. You're a civilian. You'd better act like one." He stuck the cigar back in his mouth.
Raising his palms, Jim said, "Hey, we're just trying to provide information. Obviously, we know the people and the neighborhood. And Sandburg was the one who made the connection between the real estate offer and Joey's beating. That wasn't something your detectives might've thought to ask."
"No," Banks admitted. "But we're still not sure there even is a connection."
"There is. There's someone working behind this. Someone responsible for beating an old lady to death. And unless you guys find out who, there's no connection with Scalia and his pals to that murder, or Murray's, for that matter."
Banks' teeth clenched on his cigar. "You trying to tell me how to do my job, Ellison?"
Jim knew Banks' type from his Army days, so he just grinned cockily and remained silent.
The tension broke, and Banks laughed ruefully. "Guess you are. Guess you are, at that. You sure took those punks out easily enough. Barely a scratch on you, according to the report. How's that vet doing—what's his name?"
"Eddie. He's doing fine. Thanks for asking."
"All right." Banks' glance flickered over to Blair. "And how about you, kid? You gonna stay out of trouble?"
"Not likely," Blair said, grinning. Jim suppressed a laugh.
Banks grumbled as he turned and picked up the evidence bag. "See you at the preliminary hearing. Prosecution always loves it when the victims show up, so please see if you can get Eddie to come."
Banks' eyes widened momentarily at the address, and then he walked out.
Blair sighed explosively. "Man, he's a little scary."
"Naw. Nothing but a big pussycat."
Blair punched him in the arm. Grabbing the spot, Jim groaned theatrically before giving him a shove toward the door. He was amazed at how natural it felt to clown around with Blair. And how good.
They continued down the hallway, Blair offering to spring for lunch. As they approached the elevator they encountered a small crowd. Jim identified Brown and Rafe, and then there was a disturbance at the center, a ripple of movement, and a voice rang out.
"You son of a bitch! You piece of shit!" It was Scalia, yelling at Jim and struggling against the grip of the officer he had on each arm. "Rico's still in a coma, you shithead. I'm gonna—"
Brushing away Brown's warning hand, Jim stepped forward and leaned in, fixing Scalia with a glare.
"You're a little confused, punk," Jim said, keeping his voice mild. "See, you're the one who dragged Rico into this shit. So it's your fault if he ends up wearing diapers the rest of his life." Jim bared his teeth. "You shouldn't have messed with my friends."
The elevator doors opened, and the two officers hustled the cursing Scalia inside.
Jim turned to see Brown grinning at him. "My, my."
"Twisted little fuck," Jim muttered.
"I have to agree with you there. But we'd better hope he doesn't get out, or he'll be coming after you."
"Let him come." Something in Jim's chest tightened, that hard place inside him the Army had loved so well. He felt a tug on his arm, but he was afraid to turn his head, knowing Blair was there. Jim didn't want him to see the expression on his face.
"C'mon, Jim. Let's take the stairs."
Jim let himself be nudged away. "See you, Brown."
"See you guys."
Blair was quiet on the walk to the car, an unusual state for him. Jim focused on the tightness in his chest, trying to warm it again, trying to find his humanity. But he didn't feel it.
"I know what you're thinking," Jim said, keeping his voice low. "I should—be better, have a little compassion for the man I injured—"
"I forgot all about him," Blair broke in suddenly. "I forgot he was hurt."
"I didn't. I just—I didn't care." Jim let the words leave him in a rush, "I can tell that's wrong, but on the inside I just can't feel it. He hurt Joey. He hurt Eddie. Those other two people—we don't know for sure, but he might've helped murder them. And I've lost too many good people, Blair. I lost them. I couldn't save them, but this time I could do something, so I did. And I don't regret it. So, I can't find the compassion I should have." Jim took a deep breath. "And now you know that about me."
Blair jingled the car keys in his hand. He was staring down to the side. "Jim, I'm not your confessor or whatever. I'm not your conscience."
"Of course not. But I need—" I need you to like me.
Maybe Blair heard it, because he raised his head. The blue of his eyes was deeper than Jim remembered, as if something terrible had darkened them, and Jim felt a surge of guilt.
But in the next moment Jim realized Sandburg was almost smiling. Not quite, but almost. He'd misread Blair's expression. What Jim saw now was even more terrifying.
"That's twice you've called me that," Blair said, whispering.
Jim shook his head, disbelieving. Time seemed to drag. Jim became aware of a new sound, rhythmic, fast, familiar—a heartbeat, not his own.
He was hearing Blair's heartbeat.
The realization was disturbing enough to pull him back. He raised his eyes and saw Blair almost visibly shake himself.
"Here," Blair said, nudging him. Jim put out his hand automatically, and felt the cold press of Blair's keys.
"It's your turn to drive." Blair's eyes were locked on his as if trying to convey a message.
Jim was both terrified and elated to discover he read it loud and clear.