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Clarity

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Clarity

by Kelyn

Author's disclaimer: They ain't mine, but you knew that already.


Clarity
By Kelyn

There had been all the indicators that this was going to be a particularly shitty day. I'd ignored them in some kind of vague hopefulness -- like maybe I'd already passed the worst and we were getting on with things.

Right.

Jim woke up on the wrong goddamn side of the state. I don't expect any day he's required to wear a tie to be a winner, but this was an all-time low. I tried to stay clear as he cursed his way through a shower (using up all of the hot water), ignored breakfast, and blew out growling about 8 a.m. depositions.

My morning was supposed to be light. I had an interview with one of the academy shrinks to determine my 'psychological fitness' -- one of the last hurdles between me and a steady income. It's terrible to discover how appealing positive cash flow is once the student loans come out of remittance.

Anyhow, two problems cropped up immediately. First, I'd seen the short form of the test before -- studied it actually -- so the shrink couldn't cut any corners. The barracuda they'd assigned to me seemed to take the necessity of the long form as a personal insult, declaration of war, and excuse to pick away at every single one of my statements. I could have dealt with that, except for the second problem. There are a lot of things -- how Major Crimes really works, the extent of my relationship with Jim, the way Simon covers for us, the circumstances of my departure from Rainier, and my general outlook on life -- that the Cascade PD would be a whole hell of a lot happier not knowing.

Tap dancing across that particular minefield is not the best way to spend a morning. Trust me.

I didn't think that my day could possibly get worse, excepting gruesome multiple homicides. Wrong. Obviously Simon hadn't gotten the memo. I hadn't even crossed the threshold into Major Crimes before he started bellowing for Jim and I to report to his office, with that look on his face... the one that looks like he accidentally swallowed part of his cigar by mistake. Not a good sign. I trudged across the bullpen, dropped my bag, and headed into Simon's lair on Jim's heels.

Simon, not bothering with the pleasantries, just leapt in. "Charlie Immer, down in Narcotics, has put in a request for assistance."

"What for?" Jim growled. It didn't look like ditching the tie had improved his mood any. Not that Simon's announcement had me jumping for joy, either. Charlie Immer is a pushy, fascist, little zombie with bad taste in jokes, clothes, and women; he and I get along just great.

"The boys downstairs were tipped off this morning to a major deal going down on the waterfront tonight," Simon explained. "It's a real rush job, so they still need someone to scout the location -- as discreetly as possible -- before the raid tonight. We're providing backup for his team tonight, and I'm sending you two ahead to eyeball the place for the rest of us."

"Simon, is this Immer's idea of a joke? A full scale raid on information they only picked up this morning?" Jim asked.

I spoke right on top of him. "Why are we doing the backup -- why not SWAT? And why the hell does Immer want our help with this?"

Simon glared at us both.

"Because SWAT is about as subtle as a brass band, Sandburg. They're also not up to strength after their takedown of that Syndicate operation a few weeks back, and part of the team is out of town for retraining. Everybody we've got in town gets to come to this party. I agree that they seem a little gung-ho, but they will have this department's full support, and that means you will do the job I assign you without yanking Immer's chain, understood?"

I nodded, sourly.

"Great," muttered Jim, "full support for that jackass, so we can make the PD look good after SWAT's screw up last month."

"Ellison." Simon turned his name into an order, and Jim backed down.

"We'll get down there. You have an address for us?"

Simon passed off a piece of paper, and away we went. An afternoon with Jim being a grouch, Simon playing politics, touchy SWAT goons, territorial Narcs, and me playing monkey in the middle.

Goodie.

//Rappelling out of a helicopter is nothing like rappelling from a fixed point. The differences are both obvious and subtle, and boil down to an understanding of the forces involved: gravity, the helicopter, you, and the rope.

Most people forget about the rope.//

I told Jim all about my lovely morning with the barracuda on the ride over, but he didn't seem to be listening to me. I had zero clue about what was bugging him. Eventually, I stopped talking, and we rode the rest of the way in silence. Jim parked the truck, and I put a hand on his arm to stop him from getting out. "All right, Jim. What gives?"

He didn't even bother to respond, just raised an eyebrow and stared right back at me.

I didn't let it go. "You've been grouchy since I started coming back to the station, but this morning takes the prize. Are you gonna tell me what's going on or am I going to have to beat it out of you?"

He smirked, breaking the hard-boiled facade at last. "I'd like to see you try, Sandburg." Nice to see the real Jim was still in there somewhere.

"Don't tempt me, babe, we're working." His expression didn't change, but I saw something flicker in his eye when I mentioned working. "Is this about the job?"

He sighed, and swept a hand across his face, ending up pinching his nose. For a moment he looked very old, and very tired, and then he was my Jim again, looking everywhere but my eyes.

"It's weird, Chief. Everything is the same, but it all feels so different. Same players, completely different rules. It's not like I can tell you to stay in the truck anymore."

"Nope." I grinned at that one. Not that I'd ever really stayed in the truck anyway.

"It's just hard. Seems stupid to complain. You're the one who's rearranged his life."

"Jim," I reached out and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look at me. "It's okay. It'll be rough the first few times, but we'll figure it out. Like you said, we've done this before. Quit worrying about the labels and get the job done. Besides, the day you actually go with the flow and accept change without a fuss is the day I drop dead from shock."

"Sandburg." Jim groaned.

I laughed, kissed the red mark he'd made on his nose, and darted out of the truck before he could say anything else. Teasing Jim is definitely one of my favorite sports. The Ellison Angst-fest temporarily postponed, we headed down to the waterfront.

//The sergeants run you through the simulator -- half an old helicopter mounted on a six meter platform -- at least a dozen times before a real practice run. We figured it'd be a low-stress day, since we'd come in from field maneuvers the night before. Everyone's brain was half fried, morning coffee or not, but the procedure was reassuringly simple. Jog up the stairs of the tower, check your equipment, clip your harness onto the line being used by your half of the stagger, and wait for your orders. When called up you look for the guy on the other line to hit the ground, then drop over the edge, skimming towards the ground, reminding yourself to relax as you fall away from the rope for that last few feet. You look up while you fall, so the next guy knows it's his turn to get out the door. Keep your eyes on the sky until you finally hit the earth, then tuck and roll away from the drop zone. Rolling in full gear is a hell of a lot harder than it looks; it takes you a second to catch your breath. Then you get up, and start again.//

We cruised Fish Row for lunch. The Row started life as canneries near the fishing docks; they shut down when the small fishermen were run out of business. The large companies moved on to tax shelters in Alaska, leaving behind an urban wasteland -- three cheers for capitalism.

The second incarnation of the Row was as office space, which disappeared as the neighborhood grew worse, becoming bars and clubs for the folks who worked the waterfront. The counter-cultural groups moved in because the rent was cheap after the fishing companies bailed out. When the yuppies finally discovered Fish Row there wasn't a damn thing they could do to change it, thank God.

Only a couple of the places on the Row have been gentrified to cater to the white-collar element. The rest is a melange of dart boards, pool tables, sports bars, dark holes in the wall for serious drinkers, dance clubs, and underground places you can't get into without kinks and a password. Then there are places like Tireseas, where middle management yuppies, slumming Microserfs, goths, gangs, gays and working stiffs all drink in the same place. If I could, I'd write a paper about the place; it's a wonderful example of culture clash and adaptation in microcosm.

The atmosphere on Fish Row made our little stroll seem perfectly natural: the buff authoritarian type and the hippie in nerdish glasses fighting about where to eat as they walked along the waterfront. We blended right in with all the other wanderers. Everybody comes round to Fish Row eventually, even if it's only for lunch.

The warehouse we were interested in was about a half mile down from the end of Fish Row. We ambled along the waterfront after eating, trying to look like we were walking off lunch before going back to cubicle hell.

Jim stopped me about half a block away from the site, and I perched on the seawall while he stopped to investigate the building. Fairly routine stuff for us, really, except for one or two sideways glances (gosh, we were touching in public). That reaction was normal for most of town, but unusual down on the Row. Like I said, Fish Row is culture clash central; you learn to live and let live pretty quickly if you want to hang out there. The handholding likely to prevent your average zone-out is really tame by local standards. If people really wanted something to stare at, they could go to the club at the intersection of Depot and the Row and pay for the privilege -- assuming they could get in.

Shit. Don't ask how I know that, okay?

The only thing that saved the exercise from being completely dull was the graffiti. Oh, I paid as much attention as Jim did to that warehouse, the people working around it, and who was watching it -- more when he was concentrating on the interior. But still.

Graffiti is (according to the police handbook I've recently had to memorize) a public nuisance and defacement of property. It's also modern art, and that's what fascinated me. I couldn't help but take in the strange and powerful pictures the kids put on the walls.

Once you leave the Row proper you start to see the graffiti tags marking whose territory you're on. Fish Row itself is no-man's-land, by mutual accord of the gangs who run in that area. There are too many outsiders down here -- if they got caught in the crossfire the cops would shut the Row down before you could click your heels and say DMZ three times fast. I guess the gangs liked the parties enough to declare a regional truce.

One particular tag was freshly painted; it wasn't one I recognized. Whomever it belonged to had seized power recently, judging by the older tags it was painted over, and had so far remained uncontested, as nobody had painted over any of their tags. It was an interesting design, a simple sweeping curve that was almost, but not quite, a symbol or letter. I wondered what it meant, and how it fit into the Fish Row microcosm -- was it generated there, or an import?

I know, I know, I'm not an academic anymore. Jim isn't the only one who needs to make adjustments.

//Foley was the guy out of the simulator just after me on the opposite line. He'd listened intently to the instructors, nodding at all the right places, and went ahead and did it his way anyhow. There's always one cocky bastard who thinks he knows it all and can't wait to show the rest of us, or some poor fool who is too tired to care. Foley raced down that rope like he'd been shot from a cannon, braking hard as he approached the end of the rope, coming to a complete stop before dropping off the end, or at least that was the plan.//

Back at the office we laid everything out for Simon before he went off to the planning session -- which was Immer's party, so Jim and I weren't invited. I drew out a rough sketch of the warehouse and where things seemed to lie in it as Jim rattled off our observations.

"There were a couple of guys in the place -- they were talking about getting gearing up for something big. They implied it was tonight. Accented English, sounded European. Then another guy comes in, and starts bitching them out in another language... something Slavic. I want to say Russian, but I'm not sure. The first pair argue back, same language, then go about their prep. They were moving around a lot of crates-- the team going in should expect changes in the layout." Simon nodded, looking concerned.

"I don't like the way this is coming down, Jim. This whole thing is being rushed through at the last minute, hanging on pretty sketchy intel. If they start rearranging the building, they've got a setup that could withstand siege." Simon pointed at a couple of places where the crates could easily be moved to create fortifications. "With only two entrances, no access from the upper levels, no windows at less than 20 feet. We won't be able to flush them without providing a lot of targets. If this is the layout we'll have to send an entire squad into the building just to cover all the fire lines."

"Look, if you station people here, here, and here," Jim pointed at the map, "you get full coverage. That gives you better than half a team to cover the main entrance here, and go through the building, and enough people to be flexible if they've built up a maze inside. They can sweep any one in the building to one of these points, where the outside team will have a clear line of fire."

"Assuming nothing goes wrong inside," I added darkly. I had a bad feeling about the whole business. I don't, can't, condone the drug trade, so I knew that Narcotics had to go in. But planning kill zones for a raid makes my skin crawl, necessity or not, weapons training or no weapons training.

My bad day was not improving.

"It shouldn't if they do the entry right," Jim tried to reassure me, but he didn't look too pleased either. Simon was silent, still frowning at the map. "The problem is a lack of places for the backup team. The van that Immer wants sent down is going to be spotted quickly. We're going to have to do the drive-bys, doorways, and drunks routine on this one."

"I vote we not do drunks." I knew full well that Immer would put us in the most unpleasant surveillance position he had available; the little shit liked throwing his weight around. Last time we'd done a stint as homeless impersonators, it had taken a week to get the stink out of my hair. A week with some lingering smell keeping Jim at arms' length was not acceptable after this terrible day. I knew I wouldn't be comforted when I got home that night -- we would both be exhausted. If the raid turned out as ugly as I was beginning to think it would, I'd be lucky to get any sleep at all.

But, tomorrow, Scarlett, is another day. I'd have to face the results of planning kill zones, and I would seriously need to lose myself for a while. Which is usually doable if I can get within arms' reach of Jim. I wondered if we could talk Simon into keeping us off call for the weekend. We could go hide in the woods for a few days, or not...

"No drunks for us, Chief," said Jim, interrupting my pleasant train of thought. He looked up, pushing the map away. I suspect he was thinking of the fight we'd have with Immer to get out of the nasty jobs. "We're going to get a dinner on Fish Row courtesy of the department."

I grinned, as Simon made a strangled noise.

Jim cut off Simon's argument by explaining his tactics. "Best way to keep the information updated is if Sandburg and I hang around down there, Simon. We'll do sweeps every hour or so, and see if we can pick up anything from the locals in between. Immer's people came up with this on short enough notice that nobody has been able to get confirmation from the snitches. We need more intel. There are enough yuppies in the area for keeping in touch via cells to look normal; and trouble enough for handguns to be common. Sandburg is the only one who looks like he belongs on Fish Row midweek, and he's not going without me."

Talk about your left-handed compliments.

Once he got over the shock, Simon seemed to accept Jim's reasoning pretty quickly, not that it stopped him from taking a parting shot. Revenge for the upcoming fight with Immer, I suppose. "Ellison, how is it that you take a simple stakeout and turn it into a department sanctioned date?"

Jim looked Simon dead in the eye and deadpanned, "Long years of training, Sir..." I managed to keep a straight face until after we got kicked out of the office, but only barely.

//I had just scrambled to my feet after my descent, walking over to where Cruz was loitering, when Foley slammed into the bottom of the rope and bounced up a few feet as the rope stretched and recoiled from his weight. He suddenly dropped like a stone, hit the ground hard and lay there splayed like a turtle on its back. I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye and tackled Cruz into the dirt in one of those moments of quiet exactness, a heartbeat before the world fell in on us.//

Dinner was... interesting. The Narcs reluctantly agreed continued surveillance was needed, so we got our 'date', if you could call it that. (If Jim ever tries to claim that he took me out somewhere, when we were actually doing everything but relaxing and enjoying each other's company, I'll kill him.) The boys from Narcotics, however, thought it was a hoot we were 'acting' as a couple for their benefit.

Clueless pack of sophmoric hyenas.

Jim was on cell phone duty, telling Simon the stuff that we didn't really want to let slip on an open channel. I got to hide the earbug radio under my hair (proving once again why departmental dress code is so much bullshit), which unfortunately meant we both had to endure snide comments from the Narcs all through dinner.

The fact that the food is really good at the Earthen Jar, though it took me a half hour to actually convince Jim to try it, is the only thing that made the experience survivable. And no, I don't think squid ink pasta is too weird to eat. Honestly, they trained the man to eat bugs in the military. God alone knows what the Chopec consider to be normal cuisine. A little pasta isn't going to kill the big wuss.

We kept as close a tab on the warehouse as we could without becoming completely conspicuous. Just another couple hanging out on the waterfront, enjoying the gorgeous sunset, nothing to see here. Or it would have been if I could shake the feeling that something just wasn't right. Not just the usual imminent-danger, what-the-hell-have-I-gotten-into bad vibes. It was more like I was missing something -- something important. Maybe it was the jokes from the Narcs that left me on edge. Maybe it was being on Fish Row and hitting prejudice that totally didn't belong there. Maybe it was the fact that none of the snitches Major Crimes keeps in sneakers, or booze, or out of booking, had any information on this supposed drug shipment. Maybe I'd just lost my grip and paranoia had me starting at shadows.

Of course being paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

It's hard to tell just what's going to give you away during a stakeout. There were a couple of times when I was sure that we, or one of the other teams, had blown it. Everything was so last-minute that people were making mistakes we should have paid for. As Jim had predicted, the locals spotted Immer's spook-mobile within fifteen minutes. Retaliation was immediate. Five minutes later the van had lost all of its antennae; had all of its windows spray painted over with profanity in English, Spanish, and something I couldn't identify (definitely not Russian, though); lost its plates; and was forced to make a strategic withdrawal. The locals continued to harass any unrecognized vehicle, preventing Immer or SWAT from driving in anyone else ahead of time. They'd do the raid itself from drop zones, leaving Major Crimes to do the pre-raid surveillance.

Any halfway intelligent criminal, after seeing the spook-mobile, would start scanning the police channels. They would have found the Narcs clogging the bandwidth with sexual innuendo and bad jokes about my (admittedly odd) eating habits. Immer's goons would not shut up. Any concept of 'radio silence' was so far out of their minds, they'd have to call NASA to find it again. I turned the radio off once, only to have Simon calling Jim on the cell ordering me to turn it back on. No rest for the righteous, y'know?

Then there was the crowd in the warehouse we were watching. When they weren't rearranging crates, they were glued to ESPN's rebroadcast of some European league soccer game. Manchester United against someone from Germany. From the running commentary he relayed, Jim and I guessed they were all betting heavy on the Germans. They had to know that the waterfront was swarming with cops, and kept on playing it cool, arguing about soccer. I figured they'd cancelled, and were laughing at us, when we nearly ran into two of them.

Jim was concentrating on the warehouse interior, trying to figure out the new layout (the suspects had rearranged again during the half-time break) when I spotted two of them. They were too close for us to make a clean escape, so we ducked into an alley, groping for cover. Or, more precisely, we groped as cover, once I shut the squawking radio off. Sure enough, they stuck their heads in to the alley to check us out. We gave them something to look at, and here's where it got weird, they saw us and stood there talking anyway. I only caught the first bit, when the Russian was swearing, but Jim filled in the rest, on the pretext of nibbling on my ear.

" The Russian from earlier. " Jim whispered. "He says, 'Jesus Christ,' um, 'how can they allow people like that in the streets. Disgusting, just disgusting.' He just spit in our general direction, lousy aim and no distance. Okay, the other one is talking now, what an accent, definitely New York, not one of the guys from earlier. He says, 'Will you get a hold of yourself, that's what's normal for around here. I've already had to spread one pissant story to cover your ass, so either pull yourself together, or I take my pay and pull out.'"

That was intriguing. New Yorker was covering for the Russian while the deal went down, and the Russian was paying him to do something -- engineer the deal maybe? The Russian hadn't been on Fish Row long enough to get used to the locals. The New Yorker was more urbane. So was this shipment a multi-national operation, were they distributing to a local gang, or were they trying to move into new territory?

Jim kept whispering to me, "The one has started swearing in Russian again. Bronx Boy's shutting him up, says there's too much police activity, they should postpone. Russian switched back to English, says that it's going down tonight or nobody's getting paid." He paused, eyes vaguely unfocused in an effort to listen, as the pair abruptly started walking again. "Nope, they've gone on to bitch about the soccer game again."

"I hope the Manchester boys kick their butts. Jim, none of this makes sense, they have to know we're out here. They saw Immer's van, they have to know that something's up. We know the American spotted us, and the Russian wants to go ahead anyway?" The feeling of wrongness I'd had all night had been cranked up even further by our encounter with these two.

"I don't know, Chief. Maybe they figure that they've caught whatever presence we set up down here, and it's safe to continue."

"Jim, they can't possibly be that stupid." Jim gave me a look, which said that I ought to know better, slung an arm across my shoulder, and steered me back out onto the waterfront. "They can't be that stupid," I protested feebly as Jim's phone rang. It was Simon, telling me to turn my radio back on.

No, they couldn't have been that stupid, which should have tipped me off right there. Part of me was content to believe, all sensations of imminent doom aside, that we were getting karmic bonuses for being on the side of the angels, or maybe the people setting up the deal we were busting had sampled their product a little too often, something like that. I told the voice screaming, 'Danger Blair Sandburg!' in my head to shut up and move along, trusting in whatever God looks after fools that the raid would come down with no casualties.

We finished the sweep and headed back towards the Row to phone in the summary, ending up in a little blues house on the edge of the strip. I like the Indigo; it's a place I used to drop in on occasionally in my pre-Jim life. (Post Jim, I don't get to come down to Fish Row very often. Someone is way too conscious of the local neighborhood, which, I admit, is not that good.) Anyway, the Indigo has nice atmosphere, a staff who knows enough not to amp the band up to eleven, comfortable chairs, decent food, and good beer. Jim gave Simon the latest update on the cell while I ordered coffee. We had a half-hour before kickoff, and my brain was ready to call it a night: caffeine to the rescue.

It was Tuesday night, so the place was pretty slow. The bartender set aside the paper he was reading, greeted me neutrally while he poured the coffee, and then went back to his paper. Jim had wandered towards the restrooms in back, arguing about moving one of the snipers where nobody could hear him. I ended up looking over to see what the bartender was reading. No luck. It was a foreign language paper -- looked like Arabic.

Spoken slowly, I can pick out about one word in three of Arabic, via my smattering of Hebrew. It's like trying to use high school French to follow colloquial Italian, shaky, with amusing misinterpretations, but just barely possible. Unfortunately, I can't read a word of it, though Arabic's cool to just look at. As scripts go, it and Chinese really make art out of handwriting. But until the coffee kicked in, contemplating an Arabic newspaper was likely to put me right to sleep.

Someone had left a pen on the counter, so I started doodling on a napkin, waiting for Jim and chugging coffee. I ended up making random Chinese looking characters and Arabic style swirls, until one of them hit a chord. I stopped, and turned the napkin around. Looking closely you could almost see the shape from earlier. My friend the graffiti tag. The bad vibes came back full force. I drew out the tag on a fresh napkin and stared at it.

"C'mon Chief, let's go." I hadn't even noticed Jim come up behind me. My coffee was gone; I hadn't noticed that either. I stood up, putting a few dollars on the bar. This caught the bartender's attention, he started to pick up the money, then his eye fell on my doodles and he stopped, eyeing me nervously.

I leaned forward asking quietly, "What does it mean?"

"Why do you care?" He came back, just as quietly.

"I'm worried some of my friends are going to end up trespassing by accident."

He took a long look at me, and then at Jim. I felt Jim step closer, ready to defend me if necessary, and watched the guy realize that we were together in all senses of the word. The bartender thought about it for a second longer, then answered slowly "Steer clear. It's new, supposed to mean revenge. Rumor says they're fundamentalist Muslim types, trying to scare folks away from the sin of Fish Row. More like kids from the war zones who hate everyone they imagine caused their suffering. Nothing in their world ever taught them might doesn't makes right." He shook his head. "They blew in a week or two ago, chased everyone out of a two, three block section south of here, and haven't made a peep since. They just sit there, making people nervous."

I nodded, dropped an extra twenty on the bar, and followed Jim out into the night.

"What was that about, Sandburg?"

"I'm not sure yet."

//Thing is, you can't push on a rope. It's a rule of physics so basic most people don't even stop to consider it. When Foley hit the bottom of that rope he pulled hard on the chopper, and that rope couldn't push the chopper back up. When he bounced Foley yanked the chopper down on top of us, killing everyone, or he would have if it were real. That simulator, atop its tower, concealed a giant hinge from trainees too ignorant to look for such things. If you went down wrong, that trap would spring: the hinge would throw that bird down on your head, bouncing it a foot or so above where our faces would have been if we were standing, while the instructors grinned at our ignorance and terror.//

We began our final check along the waterfront. This time the end of our survey would mark the beginning of the raid. I let my subconscious chew on the puzzle as we circled the building, checking the position of the occupants and the cops.

Finally, one of the things that was bugging me jumped to the front of my brain. I got on the radio to Connor and Brown, who were watching the front of the building. "Hey guys, have you seen anything but white people coming in and out of that building?"

"What are you talking about, Sandy?"

"C'mon, Megan, humor me?"

"Nothing but Caucasians far as we can tell, Hairboy. You gonna let us in on the joke?"

"Soon as I can, H, thanks."

I couldn't make it add up. Maybe these people really were too stupid to leave, even after it was obvious that they'd been spotted and cornered. That was certainly the simplest explanation, but I couldn't bring myself to believe it.

Arabic symbol, but no obviously ethnic types, not even locals, and the ones I'd heard excoriating Manchester, including the Russian, cursed like Christians. Okay, you had Christians from that part of the world, there were Eastern Orthodox and Catholic enclaves all through the region that matched up with war zones, assuming the guy at the Indigo was right. That gave you Georgians, Syrians, Afghani, Armenians, Kurds, maybe some Azerbaijani to choose from, but most of those groups hated the Russians. Why work for one? And why hire a guy from the Bronx, who presumably started the Muslim rumor to keep the Russian's prudishness from being a problem. Why did he pick Muslim? Why not fundamentalist Christian? Why the false trail?

No matter how I answered those questions, I was still left with a bunch of pale skinned guys who sounded like Europeans, educated to speak at least two languages, using an Arabic sigil, and hiding behind religious fundamentalism because Fish Row was 'too shocking', which was not at all true by most urban European standards.

And if the symbol meant revenge, who, or what, were they going to be revenging down here, and on whom? Had we stumbled on the first step of something bigger? Probably not -- so why advertise with gang style tags if you're planning a larger operation? Better to make a deal with the locals and stay quiet, not tear in and claw out some territory for yourself. The only reason to identify your group would be if you were trying to make a point with the locals. It had to be something local, something soon, and the Arabic was an explanation from whoever was really pulling the strings.

Revenge.

There was nothing down here tonight but warehouses, clubs, crooks and cops.

Criminals who were too stupid to leave, even after it was obvious that they'd been spotted and cornered.

And cops who had taken out a Syndicate operation a month ago.

Revenge.

Bloody fucking hell.

Jim stopped so suddenly I ran into him, and started swearing. He broke into a run, calling back, "That bastard Immer decided to start early."

"Jim!" I tore after my partner, "get them out! It's a trap, get them out!" Jim was barking into the phone, I was screaming into the radio, and we ran. Never has a quarter mile seemed longer.

Jim got through to Simon in seconds. It took me a little longer but I managed to get through to the team in front. The Narcs had dropped me out of the loop entirely. Between them, Connor, Brown, and Simon managed to get Immer's people to stop their charge and hold position, a yard or two into the warehouse, long enough look around. When they did they realized that the crates had been shifted around to subtly funnel them along a single alley.

Lambs to the slaughter.

Refusing to enter the corridor started the firefight in earnest. I can't tell you who fired first, but by the time Jim and I got to the back door all you could hear were guns and screaming. Jim dropped the phone when we hit the back perimeter, and went in shooting. I was only a few steps behind him, watching his back, and yelling for the team Jim had set up in back to follow us in. We ran from the back to the front, the opposite of Jim's kill zone sweep, around the turkey shoot the Syndicate survivors had planned, trying to get the Narcotics and SWAT teams out.

They kept coming and coming. It felt like I was firing my gun endlessly, cover fire, so much worse than the Tin Can Alley run at the range I'd done only last week. It dragged on and on. I don't remember reloading, just aim and shoot, aim and shoot, and the screaming. Jim ran out of ammo, reloaded, and ran out again. We'd managed to trap the gang between Immer's force and the people Jim and I had brought in, but it wasn't enough. They wouldn't surrender. So Jim and I watched as Immer's team, one by one, shot them down.

By then my throat was too raw to scream.

//Somewhere between dropping Cruz and realizing that I wasn't going to be pulverized by a helicopter, this moment of clarity hit me. I knew that somebody had to pull that bird down, so we would believe that it would happen. Foley only had to deal with the embarrassment of being the particular moron who pissed himself when he pulled the simulator down. By pulling it down he had made us the people on the hot spot, and we would be measured by our reactions.

I knew that if it had been real, I would have been the right person at the right place, in the right time.//

Quite honestly, I don't remember the explosion. The firefight had ended, and the wounded had been taken out to the ambulances. Jim had confirmed the warehouse was empty. We were just heading out, and forensics was starting to come in, when he stopped and started sniffing the air. Two snorts, and Jim was herding the forensics team out of the building as fast as he could. I didn't stop to ask, I just grabbed a couple of people and started pulling, ignoring all protests.

As they said at the Academy, when you see a guy from the bomb squad running, you'd better try and keep up.

We managed to get everyone corralled outside before it went off. Everyone except the two of us, who were checking to make sure the place was clear. It's amazing, really, that the explosives hadn't been set off during the firefight. It's a miracle that no cops were hurt. And it's strange that Jim didn't pick up on the explosives at all during the day we spent watching the place, but he could smell them so clearly through the stench afterwards.

I do remember Jim grabbing me, falling backwards over the seawall, and then noise, and darkness. Simon apparently fished us out of the drink and packed us off in an ambulance. He showed up at the hospital after he'd gotten the forensics folks calmed down -- not that they were actually going to put in a whole lot of time until the building stopped smoldering. I was more or less coherent by then, so I told Simon the story while I filled out the endless paperwork. (You'd think the emergency room would just keep Xerox copies of the necessary forms on hand so we wouldn't have to do this every time. Frequent customer benefits, you know?)

Jim had to get his head stitched up, and we both had headaches and ringing ears, but they let us go pretty quickly. I tried to ignore the threat of various disgusting fungi we could have picked up from the harbor, and the possible nightmarish reactions Jim could have to them. Not that it stopped me from practically throwing Jim in the shower the moment we walked in the door. I waited for him to finish, as cleaning out my hair was going to be a full-scale job I'd rather do without editorial comment, even if it meant suffering through my second cold shower of the day. Our shower is plenty big, but not big enough for two people and the mess I was going to make.

I finally noticed that my hands were shaking after I finished both the detox and cleanup to the point where Jim would be annoyed, but not actively homicidal. We had come that close... that close. Dwelling on it only made it worse. I tried to look calm, as I headed out to the kitchen, taking the tea Jim had thoughtfully made, trying desperately not to spill it while I sat down at the table.

"Are you all right?" Jim asked, calm as can be. I have no idea how he does it. Me, I need to sit down and shake, or howl, or something after a day like that. He just sits there, makes me tea, and asks how I am. I held the mug with both hands to drink.

"I've been better," I reply. "Nothing big. Post-adrenaline shakes." I held out a hand to demonstrate, watching it quaver with a sick fascination. "Today really sucked."

"Wasn't all that bad, Chief." Jim captured my hand in between his, which were warm and steady. "You were right you know. We get the job done. We make things right." Jim was pleased enough with his statement to give me one of the patented Ellison thousand-watt smiles. I had no clue what he was talking about, and I was too tired to try and puzzle it out, but if it made him happy, that was good enough for me.

"I'm relieved that your identity crisis has passed, just in time for me to have one." And that's when it really hit me, all at once, for an instant I was back in that warehouse, watching in mute horror as men went down.

"God-- what if I'd been wrong?"

"You weren't wrong."

"What if I hadn't put it together? A few seconds later and we couldn't have stopped it."

"You did."

"And you," my voice sounded alien, roughened by the smoke, the water, and screaming. "You just ran with it. What if I'd missed something?"

"I trust you."

I made an inarticulate noise, swallowed another slug of tea, and moved to safer subjects. "So what was the deal with the explosives? What changed that you to suddenly be able to pick up on them?"

"I stopped thinking about what you ought to be doing, and started doing my end of the job."

This was my end of the job? How terrifying. "Jim, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this."

Jim said nothing, he just led me upstairs and held me until I stopped shaking. When I was finally calm again he began, softly and quietly, to tell me a story.

"Rappelling out of a helicopter is nothing like rappelling from a fixed point...."

I listened to his voice echoing in his ribcage, marveled at the miracle of the man, and, strangely, found myself agreeing. We are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.


End Clarity.