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by Jyllean

Thanks to Delilah and Lyn for their beta efforts. If there are mistakes, blame me.


Jim hid a smile as his roommate appeared from his room for the third time. A kid getting ready for his first prom would have fewer nerves. The whole scene was reminiscent of Blair Sandburg from the days when they'd first met, the young grad student who was excitable, a bit distracted, and completely endearing.

He sighed, the soul of patience. "Sandburg, I told you two shirts and three ties ago, you look fine. We're not meeting royalty or anything. It's just the two of us. You never freaked like this over anyone in your little black book."

Blair stood with his arms out. "You're right. It's not the shirt; it's the pants. I've got another pair - I think I can find them." He disappeared again, muttering, looking every inch the nutty professor he might have been. Jim could hear thumping, probably a shoe tossed over the shoulder as Blair hopelessly rummaged through his closet.

"Sandburg!" he called. "I swear, I'm turning your name in to one of those organization shows. The pants are in the dry cleaning bag." More thumping. "Next to your blue jacket. Now cut it out. You're making ME nervous. It's just dinner."

Jim grinned as Blair made muffled noises of success. That was the official line. Just dinner. His exact words were, "We're going to celebrate the end of your probationary period, my treat. We'll make it an occasion. Dress." Yup, he'd been pretty cool about it, indeed. Except, somehow, in his own perceptive way, Blair sensed there was more to it than that. How typical. He never could put anything over on Sandburg, at least not for very long.

Jim settled back in his chair to wait. They actually had plenty of time. He'd made the reservation later than he'd told Blair, a reasonable precaution for managing his habitually overscheduled partner. Dinner, followed by a jazz club with great music and even better atmosphere. They had the perfect table; secluded, even intimate. A special evening, the kind of evening you planned when you were going to propose. He had a proposal, all right. Now that Sandburg was on his feet, established in a new career, financially secure, the unhappiness of the dissertation behind them, now he could safely suggest expanding their partnership into other areas. He slid his hand into the pocket of his topcoat, tracing the edges of the box he knew was there. . Discrete, but sincere. Not a ring, but he felt comfortable with the choice. Like any Ellison operation of old, the entire evening had been minutely planned and executed.

The phone rang. Jim rose to answer it, cursing under his breath. If Simon called on this particular night, he was in for a big disappointment. Not even a gang of serial killers was going to spoil this evening.

Blair belted the gray slacks, fussed over the shirt and adjusted the tie one final time. Jim had something up his sleeve. For a detective, he was a little transparent - phone numbers and times scribbled on post-its, that sort of thing. You celebrated a probationary review with pizza and beer, not a dress-up dinner at some unknown location. Not that he was going to let on. If Jim wanted this to unfold according to his own timetable, Blair Jacob Sandburg could manage a bit of patience.

The stakes might be too high to do otherwise. At least, that's what he was hoping, or maybe he was afraid to hope. Or maybe he had the whole thing wrong and Jim just wanted an excuse for a great dinner without the hassle of a female date. Jim's females tended to be - complicated.

Finally satisfied, Blair grabbed his shoes and headed for the living room just as the phone started to ring. He heard Jim swearing softly. As usual, Jim got to the ringing phone before he did. Blair was unconcerned. Usually, he could get the gist of a conversation from hearing Jim's half.

Jim went totally motionless. That reaction alone focused Blair's attention completely. No hello, no sound at all. For a moment, Blair worried that Jim had zoned. The color drained out of Jim's face. His conversation, when it came, was clipped and angry, limited to terse monosyllables.



"All right. I'll come to you."


Jim set the phone down, and turned away from Blair, his shoulders heaving.

"Jim, what's wrong?" No answer, just a blank look when he finally turned. "Jim? Is it your dad? Steven?"

"No." Jim tossed his coat across the back of one of the chairs. It promptly slid to the floor. Alarm flared when Blair realized his partner, who never failed to hang anything up, didn't even notice. Jim pulled his tie loose and snatched his keys from the table. "I - I have to go."

"Jim! Tell me what's wrong."

"Uh - look, uh, why don't you give Brown a call? Grab a bite to eat, see a movie." Jim wasn't even looking. He grabbed his everyday coat and left, leaving the front door standing wide open.

"Jim! Hold up! I'll come with you..." Blair dashed toward the open door. The hallway was empty. He could hear Jim's footfalls as he ran down the stairs at breakneck pace.

Blair stood at the door, bewildered. "What the hell just happened?" he asked aloud to the empty room.

Jim mentally ticked off at least ten reasons he shouldn't be here. He couldn't determine the identity of the voice on the phone with complete certainty. He had no backup, and he hadn't told Sandburg, much less anyone else, where he was going. The location was the perfect spot for a trap or ambush - poor visibility, sheltered alcoves and accessible rooftops. Even sentinel vision wasn't much of an advantage.

He pulled the truck to a stop and forced his thoughts away from the reason that unsettled him the most. He'd left Sandburg behind, abandoned in the most callous manner imaginable. After all the hits their relationship had survived, this might be the final straw. His hopes, no, his dreams, were probably in ashes.

So why was he here, doing something so phenomenally stupid?

Because ignoring the possibility, no matter how slim, was too great a risk.

He shut off the engine and the lights and rolled down the window. Errant raindrops spattered his face. He pulled his hands to his chest and actually closed his eyes, shutting off touch and sight as avenues of distraction. Sound was his edge, his priority beyond all others.

He relaxed into the low hum of Cascade's infamous drizzle. Beyond that background were soft, regular plops of water droplets as they collected on rain gutters and fell. Then the scrabbling of rodents, burrowing through the detritus. Perhaps a stray cat prowling, pursuing the rats. Insects of several types.

The crunch of a footstep. Thank you. There, third doorway, right side. He exited silently from the truck. Now that he had a direction, he pushed past the overwhelming smell of new rain mixed with garbage and searched for other odors that might help him - cigarette smoke, aftershave or deodorant, gun oil. Yes. His visitor was armed.

Jim slipped the safety off on his own weapon.

Moving toward the same side of the alley as his unseen adversary, he worked his way along the walls of crumbling brick. He took no care to move silently. Standard procedure would dictate careful movement; he wanted to do the opposite. Anything to remove the advantage from his opponent.

He paused momentarily and heard his target shift uneasily in the doorway. So much the better. Perhaps he was beginning to have doubts.

Leaning against the brick, he made one last check of the area. Whatever was going on, it was going to play out between the two of them. No one else was in the area. He took two cautious steps away from the wall, pulled his service revolver and held it at the ready.

"I'm here. Say it fast."

A shadowy presence stepped from the doorway. "I didn't think you'd have the guts to come. I thought I'd have to work harder to get you out in the open."

There was no mistaking the timbre of the voice, the slump of the shoulders. Jim's heart sank, his thoughts hurtling back years, to another deserted street, shrouded in dark memory, watching in horror as this animal had done his worst. His nightmares had walked into reality.

"What are you trying, Faller? They didn't give you a free pass out of the Disciplinary Barracks at Leavenworth."

"I'm here."

The cocky, self-assured voice grated on Jim's nerves. "Which only proves you probably killed someone on the way out. Why take the chance of coming near me, or anyone else who knows you? Take your freedom and run. It's more than you deserve."

"Ah, yes. I tremble in the presence of some half-rate local cop. I didn't waste years rotting in prison because of you to settle for lively conversation or a little inconvenience. When I leave your life a smoking ruin, I want you to know it's coming and do it anyway."

Rage surged in Jim. "What makes you think you'll even walk away from here? You're a wanted fugitive with a weapon. No one would check for probable cause too closely."

Linc Faller scoffed derisively. "Right. Even in Special Ops you colored inside the lines. You're so predictable, it's pathetic. You'll never do it."

Jim felt as much as saw the movement: the swirl of air, the smell of gun oil. He dove for the ground, firing his own weapon as he dropped. Two shells brushed his cheek, and a hail of shattered brick particles pelted the back of his head. The mass in front of him vanished into the alcove, barely evading his return fire.

He scrambled forward, keeping low. The recessed doorway was empty. Jim tried the door. Locked, probably bolted. He smashed his foot into the panel. It held firm. Two shots shattered the lock, but the double bolts held. Faller had prepared in advance. Even if it came open, Faller was long gone. He gave the door another fruitless kick. A trickle of blood was running down his shin. He felt toward his knee. Just a scrape when he'd hit the pavement. He was damn lucky to not have gotten his head blown off.

Bile formed in his mouth. Faller, bent on revenge, was almost too horrible to contemplate. He'd taken time to prepare in advance, indicating even on the run he had means, assistance, or both. Years in prison would only have deepened his sadism, his total absence of any sense of morality. No action would be too depraved.

Disgusted, he returned to the truck. As surely as the sun would rise the next morning, nothing about this would be straightforward. Faller probably hadn't meant to kill him so quickly. The shots had been for effect. He'd seen this bastard work too many times before, knew his style. He wouldn't be the first target. That wouldn't appeal to Faller's delusions. Faller's specialty was psychological manipulation. He'd toy with him, hurt someone or something he cared about, spiraling ever inward.

He couldn't protect every possibility at once. Where would a ruthless, well-equipped soldier of fortune strike first?

Blair gently shut the door to the loft and leaned against it, still trying to puzzle out what had happened. He'd observed Jim Ellison in any number of stressful or unusual situations and never seen him panic. It shocked Blair. Panic was the last thing he'd expected to witness. Worried? Often. Angry? Absolutely. Surprised? Occasionally. But color-draining, dash-out-of-the-loft-without-explanation panicked?

Blair loosened his tie and tossed it over his shoulder. Obviously, the evening was cancelled. As he unbuttoned his shirt, he forced away the bubbling resentment and worry, trying to replay every nuance of the conversation he'd heard.

"I'll come to you."

No greeting, but not a question of identity. Someone Jim knew. He hadn't sounded pleased. Not someone expected. Jim would have mentioned something like that.

"I - I have to go."

Unplanned, and immediate. Something or someone that couldn't wait.

"Uh - look, uh, why don't you give Brown a call? Grab a bite to eat, see a movie."

Tougher to figure, considering they already had plans, plans that Jim had been looking forward to until he picked up the phone. They socialized with all the members of Major Crime, but usually in a group, at someone's home or a sporting event. Why suggest calling Brown at the last moment? What did that mean in Jim-speak? Blair frowned. Get out of the loft, perhaps? To leave it open for Jim? Or leave because it was dangerous?

Thoroughly depressed, he decided to finish changing before making plans for the evening. If Jim wanted him out, he could do that on his own. Stop off for a pizza, or maybe some really spicy Indian food. Something that Jim wouldn't normally enjoy. He shuffled across the floor in his stocking feet, shirttails flapping.

"Jimmy! What a pleasant surprise. Come in and sit down." William Ellison's smile faded as he escorted his eldest son into the entry. Jim's face was grim, almost ashen. "Can I get you a drink?" He rested a hand gently on the damp coat sleeve, then looked at his son more closely. His slacks were soiled, one knee torn and stained with blood. Jim wasn't just damp; he was soaked. William decided to forgo the obvious questions. Jim wasn't a man you pushed for information, even if he was your own son. "You look chilled. How does a warm brandy sound?"

"Thanks, Dad - but, look, I can't right now." Jim shifted uneasily. "I need you to do me a favor."

William made an effort to keep alarm out of his face. "You're my son. If you need something, just say it," he said, hoping for neutral. "Are you in some kind of trouble, Jimmy?"

"Dad, I can't explain this, but I need you to pack. I'll take you to Seattle and put you on a plane. How does Palm Springs sound? Take your clubs. You could get some golf in, drive up to Las Vegas."

Bill gave up on neutral and trying not to push. "You want me to get on a plane in the middle of the night? What about the house? And Sally?" Bill sputtered.

"Dad, I'm sorry, but I'll take care of all that crap. Sally's already on her way to stay with her sister. We need to go. Where's your suitcase?"

"Now just hold on a damn minute," Bill protested hotly. "I'm not running off like this without a decent explanation. This is crazy."

"Dad, please. There's someone - look, you DO NOT want to know about this. Past history isn't important right now. It's just that he might try to get at me through you. I need you out of harm's way."

William noticed the tone was angry, but something in Jim's eyes gave him pause. His son was frightened. "He? Jimmy, you hunt criminals for a living. I'm sure lots of people you've put away are dangerous. I'm not a child. I can take some basic precautions..."

Jim grabbed his father by both shoulders and gave him a firm shake. " Listen to me! We're not talking about knocking off a few convenience stores in Cascade. This guy is evil, there's no other word for it, and he's got no morality, no limits." He looked at his father's disbelieving face. "He's completely outside the law. I can't fight him and watch out for the people I love at the same time." He dropped his hands to his sides. "I'm sorry. Please do this for me, Dad. Please."

William studied his eldest son's eyes, saw the anguish and the fear, no longer veiled. Jim was being totally, brutally honest. "You know the combination to the safe in the study. Why don't you get my passport, in case I need it? I'll be ready in fifteen minutes."

Blair slipped quietly into the loft. He'd opted for the spiciest Chinese he could find, and had actually given Brown a call, hoping to scare up a place to stay for the night, on the chance Jim really needed the space. He'd missed Henri, talked to Connor's answering machine and given up. A really late movie was the best he could do. He'd dawdled in every way he could think of, including stopping off at an all-night grocery. It was nearly three AM when he parked next to Jim's usual spot, which was still empty.

He sighed, looking around the empty, silent space. He couldn't interpret Jim's continued absence any more than he'd figured out his strange behavior earlier that evening. The message light on the answering machine was stubbornly dark. Jim hadn't called. Should he call Simon? Put an APB out on the truck? Go to bed? Wait up? He really didn't have a clue.

Standing in the dark, he made his decision. If he requested an APB and Jim wasn't actually in trouble, his partner would kill him, no questions asked. If he called Simon at this hour of the night, he'd be just as dead. He was too tired to stay up.

So his education hadn't been wasted after all. He could still do objective analysis. Bed it would be.

He set the groceries in the kitchen and put the juice in the fridge. The least Jim could have done was call. He couldn't help but worry. On his way to the bedroom, he noticed Jim's discarded topcoat. The perfect indicator of how bizarre this night really was. No matter what else was going on, Jim would be appalled at the fact he'd tossed clothing on the floor. Next he'd be coming home with a tattoo.

Blair lifted the coat by the sleeve. He felt something shift and grabbed for it. He missed, and stared at the object as it clattered to the floor. The velvet-covered rectangular box was a dead giveaway. Jewelry. More by reflex than thought, Blair opened it.

It was beautiful. His thoughts darted in all directions, like snakes out of a box. Had Jim met someone, a woman he wanted Blair to meet? Had she backed out at the last minute, or gotten sick? Maybe Jim was spending the night. When had he met her? What was she like? How could he not have known? His half-articulated hopes for something special with Jim sank. Well, he'd pledged to himself long ago that if Jim ever found another love, Blair Sandburg would be totally supportive

But this was a man's bracelet. Turquoise inlay, beautifully worked in Southwestern silver. Elegant but understated. The kind of thing a man could wear every day, a piece that would become part of him. Mesmerized, unthinking of the consequences, he lifted the bracelet gently and turned it.

The next moment, he was seated on the floor. The inscription. Oh, God.

"I didn't mean for you to find out this way."

Blair jumped. Jim was standing over him.

"Jim!" Blair cringed with embarrassment. His behavior was inexcusable. Talk about an invasion of privacy. "I didn't hear...Oh, man, Jim, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have touched it. I'm so sorry, but it fell out, and I didn't think, and..."

"Breathe, Chief, you're repeating yourself." Jim squatted down on the floor next to him. "It's okay. I wanted you to know," he added softly. "Fairly obvious, since it was meant for you." He settled on the floor facing the other direction, their shoulders touching. "Score one more for my unfailing ability to screw up any relationship I care about." He looked at the floor, avoiding Blair's eyes. "That is, if there is a relationship, I guess."

Blair felt the color rise in his face. "Did you want there to be?"

"Let's just say I hoped."

Jim wouldn't look at him. Without the eye contact, Blair noticed the rumpled, blood-stained clothing. On the back of Jim's head he could see bloody spots through Jim's closely cropped hair. "Jim, look at me. Tell me what happened tonight. Who called? Where have you been?"

Jim didn't look up. The same pained look remained on his face. "Driving to Seattle and back. I took my dad to the airport and put him on a flight to Palm Springs."

"So your dad was the one who called? Jim, if there was some kind of family emergency, all you had to do was tell me." Somehow, it didn't fit. What had Jim and his dad been doing? Mud wrestling?

"No," Jim said, shaking his head. "It was - I can't really talk about it. I just needed to get my dad out of here, for his own safety. I had every intention of getting you out of here, too." He finally met Blair's eyes. "Guess we've been down that road before, haven't we?"

That hurt. Blair could barely get the words around the constriction in his throat, considering the implications of that simple statement. "I understand. I can pack. This was never supposed to be permanent." He fiddled with the bracelet, setting it back into the box. Anything to keep his hands busy, to distract from the sense of loss that threatened to overwhelm him.

Jim stilled the fidgeting hands with one of his own. "Don't. It's a long drive back from Seattle. Long enough for me to realize I don't want to do this alone. I want you here. Even if it's the worst possible time to ask. Even if it puts you at risk. Really takes being a selfish bastard to new heights."

He started to pull his hand away, but Blair caught it and threaded his fingers through Jim's. He turned slightly, resting his forehead on the point of Jim's shoulder. "Tell me. Tell me all of it."

Blair removed the infuser from their best teapot, added lemon and honey to both mugs, and poured the steaming brew. He'd purposely chosen a tea blended to encourage relaxation and calm, and sending Jim to take a shower gave him the time to steep it properly. He added a splash of whisky to Jim's mug for good measure. The rising fatigue under the edginess of a sentinel on full alert was easy to read if you knew what to look for. Jim needed rest. Hopefully, once they'd talked, he could get some sleep.

Jim came out of the bathroom, dressed in the PD sweats Blair had left for him, still toweling his hair. When he headed for the kitchen, Blair met him going the other way. "About face, detective. The couch calls. I didn't want to start a fire so late, so I threw some extra blankets out here. Wrap up and take a sip of this." Once Jim was settled, he pushed a plate of cinnamon toast in Jim's direction. "Here. It's a safe bet you didn't take time to eat."

Jim nodded as he took a cautious sip. "Didn't even think about eating." He looked over the brim of the oversized mug. "It's a nice thought, but I shouldn't be drinking. I need to stay sharp."

"Staying awake round the clock is no one's definition of 'sharp'. You're going to need a few hours of rest, at a minimum." Blair nestled on the other end of the couch and tossed a blanket over his own legs, covering Jim's feet with a second layer as well. "A long soak in the shower didn't do you any harm either."

"Thanks for suggesting it," Jim said. He wrapped his long fingers around the smooth surface of the pottery, relishing the warmth. "I'm sorry, Chief. Sorry in every way imaginable."

"I know," Blair said, his voice quiet with a calm he didn't feel. "Start with the call." Jim took a long breath, let it out and looked away. His reticence was palpable. "Jim, this isn't an interrogation, and I'm not here to judge you."

"I know. It's just - hard. Before I went to Peru, occasionally I was assigned to black ops." He watched Blair warily. "You understand what that means, don't you?"

Blair lowered the mug to rest in his lap. "I know what people say about such things, what the protesters have on the signs. School of the Americas and all that. I know you don't talk about that part of your life, and I sense there are things you were ordered to do that you're not entirely at peace with. If you're worried about what I think, I know that whatever those things were, you're fundamentally a good man, with a strong sense of morality. To me, that matters a lot more than something that happened in the past."

Jim shook his head, his eyes melancholy. "You know, Sandburg, sometimes you amaze me. Yeah, I guess that pretty well sums it up." He took another swallow of tea. "I was never in command on those missions. Some spook was always in charge. It was pretty unnerving, even on an operation that went smoothly. Some of those guys were way off the reservation."

"I'm not a fool, Jim. In those situations, you aren't in the position to argue the finer points of military procedure. You can't go into details, can you?"

"No. Even if I could, I wouldn't want to burden any decent person with some of those realities. What I can tell you is that after one of those missions, I brought an agent by the name of Lincoln Faller up on charges. He..." Jim stopped, his eyes falling closed. He swallowed hard, unable or unwilling to continue.

The silence stretched into minutes. Jim couldn't get the words out. "He killed innocents, didn't he?" Blair asked, taking a blind guess. Jim flinched ever so slightly. After a long silence, Blair asked, "One? Or several?" The color drained out of Jim's face for the second time in less than twelve hours. Blair couldn't think of another time in his years of knowing Jim that he'd seen that reaction. Why? He took a wild guess, something from gut level. "Did he kill a child?" Jim cringed. His guess was close. "You couldn't stop him, could you? There was nothing you could do."

Jim nodded. The track of a single tear glistened down his cheek.

Blair's heart twisted. He'd seen Jim mourn, for Danny, for Lila, for Incacha. Nothing matched this silent agony. "Shit. Was he convicted? On your testimony?"

Another nod.

"And now he's out. Making threats. Was he released, or did he break out?"

That was a question Jim could answer. "I'm not sure, but I can guess. Damn it, Blair. You already know enough to make it dangerous for you. I never should have let you get involved in this. If I really cared about you, I'd throw you out of here like the place was on fire."

"You're the one who's amazing, Jim," Blair said hotly. "You've never talked this out with anyone, have you? National security is pretty convenient that way. So you let his evil tear you apart for years. Then, when he shows up out of the blue, rather than going to any of the people who care for you or could help, you were going to take him on alone."

"He's a killer. A stone-cold killer. Brackett was a bad guy. Kincaid was a psychopath. They're Sunday school teachers by comparison. Faller could do anything: blow up nursing homes, send a missile through the window of Major Crime, use a biological agent. Nothing would hold him back. The more depraved the better in his book."

"So the Feds should want him under wraps. Call the damn FBI. Or the CIA. Or someone in the military!"

"You don't understand! He would have been incarcerated under the highest level of security. You don't break out of that kind of a prison cell by digging a tunnel under the wire. If he's out, I suspect someone let him go. He probably has a free pass. Going through normal channels might make things worse."

"Why would a federal agency let him go? What possible reason could they have?"

"A guy like Faller knows where a lot of skeletons are buried, and they're not all his. He may have had enough of a bargaining chip to get someone to look the other way at the right time." Jim placed his empty mug on the table. "He's smart. He knew where I lived, how to reach me. He prepared a place to meet in advance, so he has a safe base and resources. Here at home, I - we, are sitting ducks. The only option is to go under and hunt him down. I'm probably not talking about executing a legal warrant here, Chief. Normal law enforcement isn't set up to deal with a guy like this."

"Whatever it takes, you're not doing this alone," Blair said firmly.

"You can't possibly understand the implications..."

"Don't patronize me, Jim. I'm not a helpless grad student anymore, following you around like a puppy dog. Don't even think about bullshitting me here, or sending me away, or making up some fairytale to get me to go away on my own. Pack up my stuff right now and pitch it over the balcony if you like, just to get it out of the way. I'll get the first box."

Jim looked at him with a mix of chagrin and anger. "For an idealist, you play dirty, Sandburg."

"When it's something important to me, you'd be surprised what I'm willing to do. I want you to tell me the rest, Jim. The part that's sealed in the files. After all these years, you need to let it go. It stays within these walls, but you need to say it, and I need to hear it."

Jim pulled his knees to his chin. He looked terribly tired, aged beyond his years in a single evening. His voice was sad and distant, as if he were speaking from another time, and another place, not just the end of the couch in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe he was. "No matter how much I try to forget, I can still see the village," he said, his voice low and flat. "The dust in the streets. The chickens in the yards. The smoke. They torched the fields to drive the locals out of their hiding places. That's when he started..."

Catharsis took a lot of energy. Jim had barely rallied enough to climb the stairs and get under the covers to crash. Blair had stayed downstairs, checking the window latches and doors so Jim wouldn't have to. He could hear Jim rustling around, restlessly fighting the need to sleep. Stubborn sentinel.

Before Blair headed upstairs himself, he retrieved two items. The first was his now-loaded service revolver. That was one message Jim needed to hear, loud and clear. The second was the bracelet, returned to its elegant box. He draped a spare blanket over his arm.

Jim sat up abruptly as he came to the top of the stairs. "What's wrong?" he demanded harshly. He started to swing his legs from under the blankets.

"Stay. It's not very complicated. You can't sleep because you're on alert, and you're trying to track me. It'll be easier for you if I'm close." For once, Jim didn't argue. Blair lay down on top of the bed quilt, placed the gun in plain view between them and pulled the blanket up under his chin.

Jim snickered.

"Well, at least I got a smile out of you. Just a reminder that you don't have to treat me like a wounded bird. Everything's secure. Now close your eyes. We both need a couple hours of shuteye. You want me to talk you through your breathing?"

Jim rolled to his side so he was facing Blair. "Yeah. I guess I need it. Sorry."

They started slow. Basic relaxation. Finding the center. Easy stuff. Blair could almost see the tension slip away. When Jim was hovering on the edge of sleep, breathing in rhythm with him, Blair let his own voice trail off. He was tired, too.


Jim almost never called him by his given name. "Yeah," he answered softly.

"About the bracelet..."

"I have it." Blair slid the box under the edge of the pillow. Jim trapped his hand when he tried to withdraw. "I know you'll keep it safe." The grip stayed firm. Jim wanted - needed something, and he wasn't always the best with words. "How long?" Blair finally asked.

Jim sighed. "Over a year. The time was never right. Too soon after Alex, too near your dissertation. Then, just too much of everything. Damn, I'm sorry. I waited too long, or not long enough."

"No right time, Jim. It's been - tough. You know that."

"I didn't want it to be about sentinel and guide, or working as partners, or roommates. Just two people. I didn't want to screw it up."

"You didn't. Dinner would have been cool."

Jim's fingers curled around his hand more tightly. "I know you don't really care about all that stuff. I wanted..."

"Not work. Not sentinel. Not loft."

"Yeah. I could see it, at least the fantasy. Lobster for you. Filet for me. Drinks at that jazz club everyone's talking about. We had the table reserved, off to the side, with the view. Private."

Blair gasped. Jim had pulled some serious strings to make those kinds of arrangements. "Tell me the rest - just like you imagined it."

Jim's eyes were closed. He was half-asleep. "You say yes. Somewhere between the club and home, I kiss you senseless. The rest - I didn't figure that far ahead."



"When this is over, ask me again. With or without the lobster."

Maybe he heard, maybe he didn't. Blair curled his fingers into Jim's and drifted off to sleep.

Blair woke to the smell of coffee. He stumbled down the stairs. Jim was already dressed and in the kitchen, preparing breakfast.

"Hey, Chief. I was about to come wake you. If you're really fast, you can catch a shower."

Blair nodded and headed for the bathroom. He preferred to ask his questions when he was a little more awake. Besides, he had a few other things to think about other than crazed escapees from federal prison.

He shed his clothes and stepped under the spray before the water was completely hot. Ignoring the chill blast, he squinted his eyes shut and let the stream douse his face and hair. Had it been a dream? Everything seemed normal, which, considering the earth had changed in its orbit, wasn't normal.

Did Jim really like guys? Any guys? Was this some weird repression in his life, like Peru? Jim had never given any indication he was interested in men generally, much less a short, curly haired, former anthropologist. Had he thought through the implications, the difficulties? But Jim had said he'd waited a long time. The bracelet, the evening's arrangements - those were no spur of the moment impulse.

And what about himself? Was he willing - or capable - of turning his own life more inside out than it already was? He'd never really thought about a gay lifestyle as a permanent thing. The occasional men he'd been involved with were like the many women in that little black book Jim liked to tease him about, interesting side dishes, but not the main course. He'd always told himself there would come a time for "The One", the one you settle down with for a lifetime commitment. That was sort of the plan, in some amorphous, indefinite, way. He'd always been open to the idea that you could have a happy life if "The One" didn't show up. Naomi was living testimony to that.

He had a long-standing commitment to Jim, based on their unique relationship, their friendship. Love, at some level. He'd given up a career for Jim, and Jim had forgiven him for the monumental error of revealing his talents to the world. But was it love in the romantic sense? Was it monogram the towels, exchange the rings, announce to your friends, love?

"Sandburg! I said short! Get your butt out of the shower and eat!"

The door slammed. Blair shut off the spray and grabbed for a towel. Contemplation time was over.

Jim was already shoveling eggs into his mouth when Blair made it to the kitchen.

"Hate to rush you, Chief, but I don't want to use the phone. I want to catch Simon before he gets to the PD."

"We going to the house?"

Jim took a hasty swallow of juice. "Not exactly." He stood, already finished with his meal. "I want you to throw a bag together. We may not be able to come back here once this starts."

"This is just one guy, Jim."

"I know, but a guy who apparently has resources, and the expertise. Staking out the loft wouldn't take a genius. Listening on phones is a no-brainer if you have the know-how. The list is endless."

Blair picked up a couple slices of toast and his coffee. "I'll eat while I pack. Two days worth of clothes enough?"

"Should be. Throw in something warm. We'll probably be out at night."

"Warm and waterproof," Blair muttered grudgingly. "And a change of shoes. This is Cascade."

"You're sure you understand what I want you to do?" Jim asked the kid.

"Sure, mister. Ring the bell, hand over the paper, and give him the note."

"And you don't leave until he answers the door," Jim confirmed. "You bring a note back, you get an extra twenty." He climbed back in the truck.

"I don't know, Jim. Corrupting the youth and all."

"Whatever," Jim said, his gaze focused on the retreating paperboy. "After this, I want to go back to that alley. Faller's smart, but maybe he left something. Otherwise, we'll have to wait for him to make the first move."

Blair waved a hand in front of Jim's eyes, insisting he pay attention. "Can I make a suggestion?"

Jim raised an eyebrow and looked a bit embarrassed. "A little over the top, huh?"

"Not exactly. I'm sure you have cause, and I'm in not in a position to criticize. I want to talk with Jack Kelso."

"Sandburg, I told you, regular channels..."

"And Jack is irregular as it gets when it suits him. He's got no patience with people who abuse the system in the name of national security."

"No. Absolutely not." He turned away. If he acted like the conversation was over, then it was over.


Okay, not so over. "He got himself shot helping me before. Don't you think he deserves to be exempt?"

"Maybe, but principle matters to Jack. He'd want you to come to him. Besides, Jim, waiting on Faller pretty much guarantees that someone will get hurt. I know how Jack would feel about that."

Jim tapped the steering wheel with his fingertips. "It's out of the question. I won't do it. Leave it alone, Chief. Just leave it alone."

Simon grimaced as he pulled the robe over his still-wet shoulders. Whoever was hanging on the bell was damn persistent. He jerked the door open. The preteen on his doorstep recoiled.

"Sorry. I'm supposed to do this. There's a note." He handed the paper toward Simon with a quivering hand.

Simon hastily unfolded the note.


"Stay right here," he said, heading to the kitchen for a pen. He scrawled an affirmative and went back to the front door, taking time to dig a five out of his pants pocket. "There you go. Sorry if I spooked you," he said.

"It's okay," the kid said with a grin, pocketing the bill. "The other guy already gave me ten, and he said I could get more." He dashed off the doorstep, apparently eager to get his payoff. Simon shut the door, shaking his head. He was going to have to talk to Ellison about how much he was paying out to snitches and such.

"I can't believe I let you drag me in here," Blair groused. "Wonder Burger is bad enough."

"Good Lord, Sandburg. Eat a McMuffin," Jim said, sliding into a booth. Despite having just eaten breakfast, he was eyeing the menu for a likely snack.

"While you're clogging your arteries, you can buy me a coffee. And orange juice. It's your punishment for dragging me in here. Oh, hi, Simon."

Simon gave his two detectives a withering look. "You got me out of the shower. This better be damn good. Damn right, you're buying. Spanish omelet bagel and hash browns. And coffee."

"Right. I always wanted to wait tables," Jim said sarcastically. He gave Blair a slight nod before leaving.

Simon tried to get comfortable in the too-small booth. "I know he can hear us. What happened, Sandburg?" He had the whole story before Jim returned.

"Damn, Jim. How serious is this?"

Jim set the tray down and started to divvy out the food. "If my advice counts for anything, I'd have the whole city on alert. Treat it like a pending terrorist attack."

"I can't do that, Jim. I've got to have more to go on than a call in the middle of the night."

"I know that, sir," Jim said grimly. "Look, I couldn't live with myself if something happened and I didn't at least try to warn you."

Simon took a bite of bagel. "Do you have any idea what this nutcase might try?"

Jim looked almost sick. "I think he'd go after my family. I sent my dad out of town; put him on a plane last night to Palm Springs. Steven's out of the country on business, although there's a chance Faller doesn't know about him. I asked Sally to go stay with her sister. I think I scared ten years life out of her when I showed up on her doorstep in the middle of the night. She'll stay until I tell her differently."

"So family's covered?" Simon asked.

Jim nodded. "I'd appreciate some kind of patrol on the house, at least for a few days. Once he figures out that those targets aren't available, it's possible he might go after someone in Major Crime. Sandburg would be a likely guess." He looked down, fiddling with his napkin. Blair wondered what was going through his head. "Beyond that - shit, it will probably be like Veronica Sarris. Very public actions referenced back to me. Take your pick of targets."

Simon looked as though he'd lost interest in his breakfast bagel. "I don't know if I can survive a Sarris wannabe. Jim, I promise you, the first moment we have a suspicious action, I'll take it right to the top."

"Thank you, Captain. I - I wish I could do something more definitive. I'm not sure it's a great idea for me to come in to work."

"Jim thinks the bastard might put a missile through the window of your office," Blair volunteered.

Simon sputtered into his coffee. "Don't even joke about something like that. I don't want to live Garrett Kincaid again, either, even in jest."

"I'm not joking, Simon. I wouldn't put it past him. Do I have your attention now?" The glint in Jim's eyes was somewhere between anger and despair.

"Jim!" Simon set the coffee down. "If I gave you that impression ..." He shook his head. "Shit. We are talking on the level of a terrorist. I'll see Warren, and the mayor. It's always the same problem. We can't protect everything. No matter what we reinforce, there's always something left vulnerable. We've got to have some focus."

Blair carefully studied his friend across the table. This was Jim's story to tell, not his, and as much as he might be tempted, it wasn't right to interfere. It was a supreme act of trust for Jim to bare his soul, to divulge even a glimmer of his history with Faller. What had passed between the two of them was inviolate.

"It might - " Jim rubbed at his forehead. "Kids. With my immediate family out of reach - oh, God."

"Jim..." Blair said softly. No response. Jim wouldn't look at either one of them. He pushed himself out of the narrow booth and walked outside.

Simon rose and stepped away from the booth. He leaned over the table slightly, coming close to Blair. "Can you give me an age? Gender?"

"Nine or ten, maybe younger," Blair answered. "That's just a guess, you realize. Hispanic."

"I want you two in my office sometime this morning, missiles through the window or not."

"Yes, sir. We'll be there."

Blair looked around the alley with dismay and then disgust. "Jim, you should kick yourself in the ass, and then I'll do it. Meeting Faller - meeting anyone - in a place like this was damn near suicide. Even with your vision, I'll bet you couldn't see a damn thing."

"I could hear him."

"Translation, you couldn't see a damn thing, but you won't admit it. Like hearing him really made any difference. He could have drawn down on you and taken you out, no muss, no fuss. You're not clairvoyant. And to come here without backup?" Blair shook his head. "I could strangle you myself. It wasn't worth the risk, man. What were you thinking?"

"I had to come. I knew it wasn't safe. I didn't want to put you or anyone else in the line of fire." Jim knelt, carefully examining the door that had defied him the previous evening.

"Don't even think about doing it again."

Jim turned at the tone of voice Blair was using. "I mean it. Don't you do this to me."

"Do what?"

"Give me a little glimmer about what there might be between us, and then shut me out."

Jim stood up, his face wiped clear of emotion. "Chief, I can't do this now. I can't even think..."

"Which I totally understand. And I agree."

"Then what?" Jim asked, his brow knit with confusion.

"Then don't you dare treat me like an occasional somebody who flits through your life when it's safe and convenient. I'm your partner, and I'm your friend. On that basis alone, you'd leave a hole in my life if something happened to you. When you're threatened, don't expect me to stand aside and wait until it's over."

Jim started to reply and stopped. A bit of tension left his face and his eyes softened. In the fraction of a second, he was no longer all business, a detective on the trail of a killer. "Quite a statement, Chief."

They stared at each other for a moment, saying nothing. "To quote a recent conversation, do I have your attention?" Blair asked, with the ghost of a smile.

Jim nodded slowly. "Oh, yeah. You have my attention." He arched an eyebrow. "More than you know."

Blair whapped him on the arm. "Don't do that! Talk about distracting. Go - sentinel or something. Let's get rid of this guy."

It took the next hour to cover the area carefully, open the door, and track Faller's movements through the derelict building. "This is where he exited," Jim said, forcing the exterior door open with his shoulder. Blair joined him on the sidewalk. The bleak neighborhood looked totally deserted.

"So what do we know?"

"I know what brand he smokes. We can get a shoe print and some fingerprints, maybe some clothing fibers. I can identify the personal products he uses, but that won't help much, and we can't get it in a report. We'll get the shells out of the brick." Jim knelt at the curb. "Who did we pull from forensics?"

"Walters and some trainee."

"Walters is good. Who knows, maybe the trainee paid attention in class. There's a lot of residue here in the gutter. We might pull a tire print. It won't be conclusive or anything." He rocked back on his heels with a doubtful look.

"I'll go get them. I'll point out the other stuff we marked on the way back."

Jim leaned against the building while he waited. Not a lot of traffic, but certainly some of the homeless or otherwise disenfranchised haunted these buildings. Maybe Rafe and Brown could work the area. He needed a vehicle description, something, anything, to give them a direction to search.

When Blair returned, Walters was brisk and decisive, indicating what was possible and what wasn't. He listened briefly to Jim's summary, sans details, of what they were up against. He was willing to try a few tricks from his "out of left field" repertoire, which Jim gave him credit for. All the while, Blair was fidgeting over something. That meant important, but not important enough to override meeting with forensics.

They left Walters to his work. As soon as they were headed back to the truck and out of earshot, Jim stopped. "What's up?"

"We need to go to your dad's. Simon sent a patrol. Something's happened at the house."

Jim wheeled around the last corner, tires squealing, and screeched to a stop. A uniformed patrol officer was waiting on the porch.

"We called forensics. They're on their way. I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner, Detective."

"I'm glad you didn't," Jim muttered. "You might not be breathing." He started for the front door, and the officer reached out to stop him.

"Take a look at the door," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. The thing just swung open when we got here, and it looks fine on the outside." He gestured to the inner surface of the door panel. It was shattered, the dead bolt demolished along with the knob. The level of destruction was shocking. All that remained of the beautiful mirror in the hallway was shards of glass covering the floor. The chandelier had torn loose and lay in a heap. The surrounding walls bore scorch marks for twenty feet in every direction.

"Your dad had good quality locks on this thing. What kind of a charge did that?" Blair asked. "It had to be something special. All the force went inward."

"Didn't set off the security system, either," Jim said, examining the walls more closely. "Not that any residential system would give Faller much pause."

"We should let Joel take a look at this," Blair suggested. "I know he's officially out of the bomb squad, but I still trust his experience.

Jim nodded. "Would you use your radio and request Captain Taggart join us?" he asked the officer. "Then start checking with the neighbors. See if anyone heard anything."

"Sure thing. Consider it done. I'm supposed to notify your captain, too."

"Do that. Where's your partner?" Jim asked the officer.

"Right here," said another voice. "Keller. Pleased to meet you." The officer came down the stairs. "I couldn't see anything amiss upstairs. What's on the first floor is scary enough. Come this way."

They trailed along. The first stop was the dining room. The glass-fronted hutches had been pulled down, leaving broken china and crystal strewn everywhere. Anything within easy reach had been pulled down or thrown. A large portrait of William Ellison with his two young sons was propped against the dining table. Jim's boyhood face was circled in red. The canvas had been slashed through the images of William and Steven.

"You were right, Jim," Blair said. "You don't need a dictionary to read that message. Thank God you got your dad out of here right away."

Jim pulled a latex glove over his hand. He tapped gently on the red areas. "Whatever paint he used, it's not quite dry. Maybe forensics can give us a timeframe." He looked at Keller. "What else?"

"Looks like he went from room to room. I don't know, maybe we kept him from finishing. Like I said, nothing looks touched upstairs."

They checked the other rooms. Other than general destruction, the painting was the clearest warning. "He was going for shock value," Jim said. "Or maybe he was just pissed that Dad wasn't here."

"I think Keller was right. Some of the food he dumped out of the fridge is still cold." Blair leaned back against the counter. "Why didn't he torch the place?"

"The painting was the real message," Jim said. "That message doesn't get delivered if the house is in ashes. He wants me to know he can come and go as he pleases. I'd better get someone over to Steven's place. I don't know what to do about Sally."

"Sally will understand."

"I'm not sure Steven will. He's as stubborn as my dad ever was."

"What happened here ought to be enough to convince him," Blair suggested. "Go call him."

"I don't dare. I need a secure line."

Blair threw up his hands. "Then have Simon call the FBI. Someone in this damn city has to have communication this guy can't monitor."

"Detective Sandburg?"

"Yeah?" Blair said. Keller was standing in the hallway. "Go make some calls, Jim. And get your dad's insurance information." He shut the kitchen door to give Jim some privacy. Beneath the cool exterior, he knew Jim was shaken. So far, his apprehensions about Faller were coming to fruition.

"We may have gotten a lead," Keller said excitedly. "One of the neighbors saw a black Blazer. No one nearby seems to own one."

"Lead the way, Keller," Blair said. "We need a break, big time."

"That's right, Detective. I knew it wasn't Bill's. Absolutely not his type of vehicle."

No doubt, Blair thought ruefully. William Ellison probably abandoned Chevrolet as his brand of choice before his sons were born. Maybe that was the explanation for Jim's fixation with Fords. "Is there anything else you can tell me, Mr. Anderson? I know you didn't note the license, but was it a Washington plate? Was there anything remarkable about the car? Or the man you saw drive away?"

"Like I said, as soon as I realized he'd cut through Martha's backyard, I knew something was up. I should have confronted him right then and there."

"I'm sure it's best that you didn't." Blair stifled his frustration. Faller would have chopped this guy into pieces for the entertainment. Still, they needed to use the resources they had, no matter how marginal. "Was he wearing a coat? Or a hat?"

"Now that you mention it, I think he was wearing a ball cap. Some kind of team, I think. Dark blue, maybe orange letters. No coat. A sweater, maybe. Like you might get from a surplus store. I should have sicced the dog on him."

The little cocker spaniel at his feet promptly rolled onto its back and wriggled, obviously hoping for attention. Blair scratched the little guy's belly and tried to smile.

He found it on the second pass through the living room, scrawled in red across the coffee table.

Better than I expected, Jimmy, moving the old man I'll look elsewhere
Maybe that long-haired boy toy at your place You won't be lucky next time

Jim picked up the tiny worry doll, left as a sort of exclamation point. Faller was sending more than one message. He clenched the doll in his fist, mourning for innocents already gone and those who might be at risk. This was his city, his home. He couldn't let it happen again. Faller had to be stopped.

With a start Jim realized just how long Sandburg had been gone. He'd been so absorbed with the details. Forensics needed direction, Joel had just arrived, and he still needed to make contact with Simon and the insurance people. How could he have forgotten Blair? He wasn't even sure where his partner was at the moment.

Blair wasn't in the house. His senses could tell him that much. He went to the front window and looked anxiously down the street. Blair was walking back toward the house, Mr. Anderson in tow. Despite his concern for Blair's safety, Jim had an overwhelming desire to run. Anderson was pompous enough to even make his father crazy. Always complaining about the balls over the fence. As a boy growing up, he'd invented every opportunity to avoid the man. Jim wondered absently if he was still underpaying his yard help.

Blair had stopped at the edge of the property, deftly directing Anderson to one of the patrol officers. Jim smiled. Leave it to Sandburg to spare him the annoyance. The most important thing was that Blair was okay. He promised himself to be more careful. Faller had training as a sniper. Even now, his partner was exposed. Faller would have no problem picking him off with a long shot.

Blair was already heading toward the front door. Jim held his breath through every step, apprehension drawing tight around his throat. Somehow, he had to convince Blair of how vulnerable he was, particularly in light of Faller's threat.

"So you met Mr. Anderson."

"You bet," Blair said, smiling sweetly. "Some friend you are. The least you could have done was warn me. He's convinced that his pint-size puppy dog would have taken care of Faller. Can you imagine?"

"Unfortunately, I can."

"Faller's using a black Blazer, Washington plates. No number, but it will turn out to be a rental."

"Or stolen. He won't keep it." Jim scuffed a toe across the living room carpet.

"I'll check anyway. It can't hurt."

"I want you to see something." Jim led his partner into the living room.

Blair sighed. "Why do all the bad guys make some crack about my hair? It is not abnormal to have long hair. Talk about narrow minds."

"I wish you would take this seriously." Jim shook his head. "I want you to wear a vest."

Blair raised an eyebrow. "I will when you will."

"I'm not joking about this, Chief," Jim said impatiently.

"And so am I. If he can take a shot at me, he can do the same to you. Look, I agree, it would probably be smart, but let's make it mutual. I promise I'll be careful."

"When I realized you were wandering around..."

"I wasn't wandering, Jim. I was doing my job, just like you were doing yours." He looked around the shattered living room. "Do you think we can get anything else here?"

"No. I just talked to Simon. He wants us to come in. He wouldn't say why."

"Well, let's not keep the man waiting."

"Jim, I'm not jerking you around. I don't doubt you in the least. It's just that some of the actions we're discussing are politically unpopular. The higher you go up the chain, the more politically sensitive things get."

"What do they want from me?" The meeting wasn't going well. From the moment they'd walked in, Jim had been defensive and Simon demanding, almost argumentative. Now Jim's jaw was set, his eyes strangely blank. Blair shifted uneasily in his chair. This was a version of Jim he didn't know how to read.

"At a minimum, more background on your relationship with Faller." Simon halted Jim's protest before he could say it. "This isn't for public disclosure. From a purely pragmatic point of view, you know what sustained overtime does to a budget. That doesn't even account for any repercussions with the general public. They just need to be convinced that it's worth the risk."

"Worth the risk?" Jim burst out angrily. "This guy threatened my father's life, and we have physical evidence he would have followed through with it. My childhood home looks like a war zone. He targeted Sandburg directly. Threatening an officer of the court falls under statute. Since when isn't that sufficient?"

"It's not sufficient, in their opinion, to imply a threat to public safety. It's sufficient to put your father under protection. It's sufficient to pull you and Sandburg from the case and put you in a safe house."

"That would be totally unproductive," Blair interjected, hoping to get to something a bit more productive, or at least forestall a full-scale argument. "If you take me, or Jim, out of circulation, Faller will either wait us out or pick another target. Neither alternative is acceptable. Don't they understand that?"

"They'll be the ones to take the heat," Simon said. "I don't relish taking this position. Come on, Jim. Give me something I can use."

"I can't talk about it, Simon." Jim looked down at the floor, hesitating before speaking again. "Those files are sealed. I violate federal regulations if I do what they're requesting. It's out of the question."

Blair's stomach twisted. After listening to Jim bare his soul only a few hours earlier, he was certain national security was the least of Jim's worries. Jim would never - never - discuss the events that he'd witnessed with his superiors, even in the most oblique terms. If Blair, as the more or less neutral party, couldn't do something to stop this back and forth between detective and captain, they'd be at an impasse. Jim wouldn't take it well, and it would make their situation more difficult. "Captain, isn't there any way to get verification from the federal authorities?" Blair asked. "Faller was serving a sentence in Leavenworth."

"That would get Jim off the hook, but I'm not having any luck through normal channels." Simon spread his hands wide. "Look, the two of you convinced me this was serious, but I can't deploy resources without approval." He looked searchingly at Jim. "Can't you at least talk to them? Discuss it in some general way?"

Jim stood. "Thank you for trying, sir. I appreciate the effort." His tone was cold and unemotional. Blair knew immediately what he was watching. Jim retreated behind a lifetime of formal military correctness whenever he couldn't get what he needed and a display of temper was unacceptable. Jim did it without thinking. Just follow orders, do as you're told - in stoic silence. Check your emotions at the door. In the short term, it tempered the hurt. Unfortunately, it would also open a rift between Jim and Simon, and cut them off from the resources they needed most.

Jim was already on his way out the door. Blair grasped for something to say. "Captain, isn't there any other source we can contact? Through the DA's office? Maybe some branch of the justice system would be willing to talk to them."

"I can try," Simon offered. "Not so fast, Ellison. Get back in here." Jim froze at the door, his hand on the knob. He didn't turn immediately.

"Detective..." Simon was on his feet. Jim's very posture was a challenge to his authority.

Jim turned very slowly, as if it took great effort. "Yes, sir."

Blair cringed. He'd seen several tests of wills between these two. It was always volatile.

"I'd like to know your plans." Simon lowered his voice, but the tone implied he was expecting a straight answer.

"We'll review the forensics evidence. I need to find a way to communicate without using police radio. Faller can use a scanner. Cell phone might be vulnerable, too. I'd like to check out unmarked vehicles for Sandburg and myself."

Simon looked puzzled at that. "What kind of vehicles?" he asked suspiciously.

"My truck is easy to identify once you know to look for it. Sandburg hasn't replaced his 'classic'. It's easy to pick out and too damn unreliable anyway."

"Now wait a minute..."

Jim gave his partner a withering look. "It's a menace to transportation. End of discussion." He turned his attention back to Simon. "It's possible Faller would put something on the truck to track it. We don't have the equipment to screen for that kind of thing. I was thinking of something out of the impound lot."

"Sounds reasonable. When were you going to ask me for the paperwork?" Simon crossed his arms, challenging Jim to answer.

Jim shrugged.

"I know you're pissed right now, but don't even think of playing the Lone Ranger on this, Jim," Simon said firmly. "It's too dangerous. You tell me what you're up to, and I want to know where you are at all times. I'll call impound myself, and handle the paperwork from this end. That will save you a little time."

Blair reached around his partner and opened the door. "Say 'thank you' to the nice captain, Jim." As Jim stalked out of the office, Blair gave Simon a look over his shoulder. "I'll call."

"Damn right you'll call," Simon growled, searching for a cigar to chew on. His nerves needed it.

"I think the dark blue SUV is a good choice," Jim pronounced. "Four wheel drive, plenty of power. That one's a keeper."

"You must miss your old one. I liked that car," Blair said with a grin.

"Nah. Sweetheart is my princess these days. Think how much I save on insurance."

"Ouch. Will the department pick up the tab if we have a little - incident - with one of these?"

Jim glared at his partner. "Your confidence is underwhelming."

"Just playing the odds. You're sure we need two? How about that Volkswagen Beetle? The white one."

"Do I look like I want to ride around in a lumpy metal egg? Not a chance."

"It would be good cover," Blair said with a smile.

"I'm not that desperate yet. Pick a sedan if you want, but nothing that screams granola. I have standards, you know."

After twenty more minutes of suggesting and rejecting, they settled on a Crown Victoria with a custom engine, confiscated from a drug dealer, and a battered Chevy wagon with peeling paint. Jim became impatient with the minimal paperwork that remained and wandered outside. Blair took his time, grateful for the diversion. Jim was seriously on edge, and they really had no lead to follow at the moment. At least the car search and securing some communications had kept him occupied for a few hours.

"How about some lunch?" Blair suggested as they climbed into the 4Runner.

"Kind of early," Jim said noncommittally.

"I was hoping I could talk you into going somewhere to crash for a few hours if you had a full stomach. We don't really have much to go on right now, and neither of us got much sleep last night."

"I could eat, I guess," Jim said, fiddling with the radio.

"Come on, Jim. Didn't you always tell me a smart Ranger got rest whenever he could? We could go back to your dad's. Or the loft."

"Going back to a place Faller already knows sort of negates getting an anonymous vehicle."

Blair stifled a groan. Jim was being deliberately stubborn. "Then let's get a suite somewhere, someplace we can use for a couple of days."

They grabbed sandwiches at a takeout deli. Not quite what Blair was hoping for, but it would do. Jim stopped at a couple ATM's and withdrew a shocking amount of cash. Blair understood why. Credit cards or checks were too easy to trace, but the clusters of bills still made him nervous. In between ATM's, he dashed into a grocery store and bought soup, crackers, bread, peanut butter, bottled water and juice.

They selected an exclusive hotel downtown that had restricted valet parking. Jim considered it at least a minimal defense against Faller interfering with their vehicle. Checking in was another issue. Blair couldn't fault Jim's abilities to improvise. With his long hair stuffed under a Jags cap and a pair of mirrored sunglasses from the glove box of the SUV, Blair checked them into a suite for three days, but only after selecting one that matched Jim's exacting specifications. Key finally in hand, he went to the back door and let Jim in, unobserved by the front desk.

"Faller's a lot more likely to ask people about me than you, Chief," Jim said. "Hit eight. We'll walk up the last few flights."

Jim inspected every corner of their new headquarters. Blair loaded the mini-fridge and stored the other groceries. At least they could have a few minimal meals without going out. He found a container, microwaved some water and made some herbal tea that usually helped Jim sleep. They might not get many other chances for a while.

He handed the mug to Jim. "What do you think?"

"It's not perfect, but unless he follows us here, it's reasonably secure." He sniffed the liquid in the mug. "You're worse than a mother trying to get a toddler to nap."

"Like either one of us would know. My considered opinion is that the two year old would probably be more cooperative."

"Okay, Chief. I'll take the hint."

"Please do. I can't think of anything else to trick you with."

Jim gave him a scornful look and trooped off to one of the bedrooms. Blair puttered around and switched on a white noise generator. Hopefully, Jim wouldn't object. He set out some cheese and crackers they could grab on the run.

He checked on Jim before turning in himself. He'd pulled one end of the spread over his long legs, but hadn't actually gotten under the covers. Blair could see the dark metal of his service revolver peeking from under his hand. Blair grabbed a blanket off the shelf and covered his partner, hoping it would ease him into a deeper sleep.

Jim shifted, but snuggled his shoulders under the covers and didn't wake. Blair was certain, at some level of his sentinel subconscious, Jim knew it was his guide and not some intruder. Blair retreated carefully and pulled the door closed until it just barely touched the frame.

His last waking memory was of stretching out on the other bed with a sigh of relief. Sleep came quickly.

The cell phone woke him. Blair stumbled out of the bedroom, but Jim beat him to it. Although he couldn't make out individual words, he recognized Simon's baritone. Blair headed for the bathroom to splash water on his face and wake up. He was certain they'd be on the move.

He came out, scrubbing his face with a towel. They'd slept about three hours, not really enough to feel rested. Blair was already plotting where they could get some double shot lattes before leaving their new haven.

Jim was scribbling addresses. "We'll be there, Simon. It'll be at least twenty minutes." He disconnected. "They had a disruption downtown. It might be Faller."

"Was it a drive-by or something?" Blair asked, setting the towel aside. Any hopes he may have had for a shower and a real meal were gone.

"Vehicle to vehicle? No. Grand opening of that new department store. Right in the middle of the ribbon cutting, some kind of low-level explosives went off."

"How many people were there?" Blair asked anxiously, remembering days' worth of free coupons advertised in the paper. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Mass panic and confusion. Cascade General is pretty well overrun treating cuts from the shattered glass. The most serious injuries were from people getting trampled." Jim's eyes darkened. "If Faller didn't kill anyone, it was only because he chose not to."

"Maybe it wasn't Faller," Blair suggested.

"No way to tell until we get there. Simon sent Megan over to the hospital, hoping to get some statements. I'll get ready."

"Meet you downstairs." Blair gathered his wallet, coat, sidearm and headed for the door. If he hurried, he could have caffeine to go before Jim finished.

"Sandburg!" Jim barked. "Don't take the elevator straight down."

"What?" Blair frowned. His sleepy brain wasn't following. "Jim, Faller's not going to ambush me in the elevator."

"Sandburg," Jim muttered, sounding totally exasperated. "Didn't you listen to a thing I told you when we came up? Never take a direct route to or from your base of operations. Remember?"

Blair gave him a sheepish shrug. "Oh, right. No direct route. Got it."

Blair groaned when they parked the 4Runner several blocks away in an underground parking structure and walked. "It might add five minutes to our ETA, but Faller will be watching, Chief. You can count on it." They could both hear the wail of sirens close by.

Blair chose to be equally stubborn. He pulled a vest for each of them out of the trunk. Jim accepted his with nothing more than an annoyed scowl. "Good choice, Jim," Blair said. "If I wear one, you wear one."

Jim chose a circuitous route through some stores and offices before emerging onto the street. They were at least five blocks away, but Jim had a clear view toward their destination. "What chaos," he muttered. "I can see Simon, and Taggart."

"Joel must be doing the bomb thing," Blair said. "I hope he doesn't mind."

"I don't think he does," Jim said. "It's just as well anyway. In terms of experience, no one they have on the squad fulltime knows more than Joel. I trust his assessment."

Glass crunched under their feet as they approached. Simon was closing the gap the moment he saw them. "Ellison! Over here!"

"What a mess," Jim said. "How bad was it, Captain?"

"About fifty direct injuries. We've closed the downtown shopping area as a precaution. We couldn't get enough emergency vehicles here with normal traffic. As a crime scene, I think it's a lost cause."

Jim nodded. "Too much trampling after the fact. What does Taggart think?"

"He thinks someone knew exactly what they were doing," Joel said, joining their small group. He carefully shook glass fragments from his pant legs. "Very sophisticated charges, in my opinion. The lab will have to give us a composition, but it wasn't garden-variety stuff. Witnesses kept saying firecrackers, but I can rule that out right now. Whatever it was produced sound, smoke and a strong percussion wave. Not much heat or actual force."

"Care to translate, Joel?" Blair asked.

"It wasn't designed to do more than break glass. It did exactly what its maker intended."

"Maybe it was someone who just wasn't good at making bombs," Blair suggested. "Any hope of that?"

"Not much. The charges were set off by remote. From what I can tell, it ran the length of the faade, and blended in with the brickwork. Anyone with that level of sophistication could easily have built in more punch."

"They could have brought the whole block down," Jim said grimly.

Simon kicked at the glass under his feet. "Needless to say, the Mayor's been screaming in my ear since it happened. Is this Faller?"

Jim looked pained, almost helpless. "Give us ten minutes, Captain," Blair said, pushing Jim in front of him.

They stood apart. The other emergency workers drifted away without being told. Singed banners advertising the opening drooped to the pavement. Spots of blood marred the walkways at their feet. Discarded personal items, crushed in the panic, littered the area - a purse, a shopping bag, a child's mitten, a tiny pink parka spoiled with blood. Jim crushed the quilted fabric in his hands. "They were having a special on designer children's clothing, Chief. How many little ones were hurt?"

"I don't know. Don't think about it now. Shut out all the distractions. Close your eyes if you need to, and go through each sense. See what you can find." Jim's head drooped. His face screwed into a grimace. "Trying too hard, Jim," Blair said softly. Relax, and let it come." Blair watched him take one deep breath, then another. "That's it. If there's nothing here, you can't create it."

After a full minute, Jim looked up and slowly rotated on one heel. "There's nothing here I can use. Nothing at all."

"Let me talk to Simon," Blair said. "You stay here. Maybe you'll pick up something if you just walk around a little."

It was a short walk to where Simon was waiting, still directing personnel. Blair's mind was racing, searching for a way to put a hopeful spin on things. "I'm sorry, Captain. Jim can't pick anything up. I'm afraid it's a dead-end. I think we should go."

"What?" Simon bellowed. "We can't shut down the heart of Cascade and then go, 'Oops.' Get him over here right now."

Blair swallowed hard and gave the only answer possible under the circumstances. "No, sir. I don't think that would be a real good idea right now."

It was easy to read Simon's reaction. Joel grabbed his friend's elbow. "Hear him out, Simon. Blair's not being insubordinate. What's going on, Blair?"

"It's like any other case. We can't create a lead that we don't have. Come on, Simon. If you press Jim right now, he'll be useless." Blair shot a look at Taggart. Even though Major Crime had evolved its own version of "Don't ask, don't tell," Jim's abilities still weren't discussed openly. "If Faller did this, Jim's our best hope of stopping him. Making him crazy won't help him work any faster. Put other people on the case if it pacifies the powers that be. Just don't demand answers that Jim can't give."

"So what do you suggest?" Simon asked, a hint of sarcasm in his tone.

"Right now, the only thing we can follow up on is the black Blazer. I have faith in Megan's interview skills, but I don't think we'll get anything from the victims. Maybe Joel can get us a lead through the materials used. Backtrack a supplier, or a shipping address."

Simon looked totally unconvinced. Blair really couldn't blame him. "And the mayor?" he asked pointedly.

"Right now, this could just as easily be the work of some nutcase anarchist," Blair said. "Someone striking at corporate globalization, protest against clothing produced offshore. Child labor. We can be creative. Tell him that."

"Great. Just great." Simon looked skyward.

"Blair, was Jim serious?" Taggart asked. "Do you think the guy is really sticking around, trying to watch Jim's reactions?"

"It's a guess on my part, but I think he'll start sending messages. Expect them to be public."

"Why?" Simon asked.

Blair debated, knowing that Jim had revealed very little of substance. "This guy is out for revenge. It's very personal between the two of them. Jim said the guy's a crack shot. If he just wanted Jim dead, he could have done it easily enough and gotten away clean. That's not his objective."

"Then what is the objective?"

"Want me to make a guess? He thinks Jim destroyed his life, and he wants to return the favor. Look what he did to Jim's home. I think William Ellison would be dead right now, or a kidnap victim, if Jim hadn't acted so quickly."

"He'll want to hurt anyone Jim's close to," Joel said.

"I agree," Blair said. "Faller seems to know a lot about Jim, where he lives, where his family lives. He knows about Major Crime." He gestured to the Kevlar vest under his shirt. "I thought Jim was being overcautious, but right now the gear seems like a good idea."

"Simon, I think Blair's right," Joel said. "If he makes the department look bad, he makes Jim look bad."

"It won't just be the department, Captain," Blair said. "This is about power. Faller, if this is Faller, wants Jim to feel helpless while he trashes his life. Think public humiliation, disgrace."

"Damn. I don't like the sound of that." Simon scowled at the ever-present news vans already on the scene. "Maybe I can talk to a few media people, off the record, and pull the teeth out of that tiger."

"Did you have any luck getting more information on Faller?" Blair asked.

"Actually, I did have some luck there. I was feeling pretty good about things before this happened. Go see Beverly Sanchez." Simon jammed his hands into his coat pockets. "Try to get Jim out of here before I start massaging our friends from the press."

Jim took a lot of extra effort getting to Beverly Sanchez' downtown office.

"Jim, this is the third building we've cut through. Nobody's this good."

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said, walking briskly as they talked. "Anyone we see becomes a target by default. I really don't want Faller to know we saw Beverly."

Blair sighed. This was definitely more Jim's area of expertise than his, but he was willing to live with it. Following circuitous pathways was a tradeoff for Jim agreeing to the Kevlar. Jim's cable knit sweater covered his kevlar vest with just a hint of bulk, the blessing of broad shoulders. Blair's own wasn't as easy to disguise, but that was the breaks.

They entered the building from the rear. Blair rolled his eyes skyward as Jim calmly circumvented the lock and the security system. "Shit, Jim, how many laws did we just break?"

"Justifiable emergency," Jim said, holding up his badge in clear view of the not-so-hidden security camera. "Stairs only. I want to avoid as many people as possible." He took the stairs two at a time. Blair had to race along just to keep up. Jim was usually a little more mindful of the difference in their strides and adjusted accordingly.

Jim halted in the stairwell of Beverly's floor. "Can you sweet talk us past the receptionist, Chief?"

"I can try." He peeked around a corner. "I don't think I know her."

"Break out that old Sandburg charm," Jim said. "If you can deal with Samantha and survive, you're good to go, even is she's a barracuda."

"I look like I'm ready to storm the building," Blair complained. "That kind of negates charm as an option. Here goes." Presenting himself in the reception area, he said as quietly as possible, "I'm here to see Ms. Sanchez, discretely, please. She's expecting me."

The receptionist looked him up and down doubtfully. "Do you have some sort of identification, sir?"

"Please," Blair pleaded. "Just call her. It's important."

The receptionist started to pick up the phone. "We have procedures, sir. She has no notation on her calendar. I'll have to notify ...."

Blair brought her hand and the phone down together. "Don't call security. Ring her office, and let me speak to her. I won't move a muscle from this spot. Please."

The young woman warily selected a line and handed him the phone.

"Do I want to know how you got in here with your weapons?" Beverly asked. "Are you just showing off, Jim?"

"No. I didn't want to bring Faller's attention in your direction. If someone from security whines, remind them I clearly showed my identification." Beverly looked at him skeptically. "Please let it go, Bev."

"Only because what I've been able to get scares me to death," Beverly said, pouring a mug of coffee for both of them. "How did you ever get mixed up with this psycho, Jim?"

"Covert ops. You don't want to know any more than that. Who did you speak with, by the way?"

"Old friend from law school who's still in the military. He's a decent computer hacker, because he mentioned none of this came through unofficial channels. He's over-nighting some stuff to me that he didn't want to fax."

"Did he fax to your address here?" Jim looked up in alarm.

"No. He insisted otherwise. I used an internet caf a few blocks from here."

Blair moved to look over Jim's shoulder as he read. "I can't make any sense of this stuff, Jim."

"It's the security log from two weeks ago, apparently when Faller used his 'Get Out of Jail Free' card," Jim explained. "They seem to be a tad upset. If he had help, not everyone was onboard."

"My friend said a prisoner of his rating, with his history of violence, should have triggered a notification to all law enforcement. He's pretty sure they're looking for him, but not using official channels. And no one is talking."

"I hope your friend knows how to cover his tracks." Jim handed the sheaf of papers to Blair. "He may be at risk. It could get him killed. This could get you killed."

"Jim, you're being melodramatic. I'm a DA, remember? We deal with nasty people for a living." She swirled the coffee in her cup. "Faller is far above garden variety nasty, I'll give you that. I wouldn't want him taking an interest in me."

Jim rubbed at his forehead. Blair read the furrowed brow and went through his own internal checklist. One, maybe two, senses spiking. The beginnings of a headache that had the potential to become a killer migraine. The coffee probably wasn't helping, and Blair could detect some kind of scented candle or air freshener. Jim was probably going nuts. Jim's voice jerked him back to current concerns.

"Did he tell you what he was sending, Bev?"

"Faller's most recent pictures. Also a list of phone numbers he'd called during the last six months. Apparently, they don't have the authority to tape his conversations, but somehow there's a record deep in the system. It can't be used for prosecution, so everyone ignores it. I don't think I helped you much."

"More than you know. There's a cover-up at some level, either because they don't want it to be common knowledge Faller escaped, or because someone's protecting him. The phone numbers might be invaluable. What precautions is your friend taking? You need to be careful, too."

Beverly left her desk and took a seat close to Jim. "So we're not being melodramatic?"

"I'm afraid not. I wish I was. I'm positive the explosion downtown was his work, but I can't prove it yet. "

"I've learned my lesson. When Jim Ellison tells you to worry, you worry. What would you suggest?"

"Don't go home. Or if you do, call Simon first and get an escort. Where and when is the package being delivered?"

"Here, by eight in the morning," Beverly said. "It won't have my name on it, if you're concerned."

"Then I'll come get it," Jim said. "Don't let anyone else touch it. If you can keep it out of normal handling channels, that would be best. Thanks, Beverly. We'll go out the way we came."

She walked them to the door. "Can I call you tonight? Now I really am worried, but mostly about the two of you."

"We won't be at the loft. If there's something we really need to know, call Simon."

"I don't like it, but I'll live with it. Be careful, you two." She gave them a little wave, and snagged Blair's hand as he walked by. "Anything you need," she said softly. She nodded at Jim's back. "No matter what he says."

Blair gave her a hug. "I know. Be careful, yourself."

They exited the building the same way they entered. Jim cautiously chose his route. They stayed on foot and headed for the station, and Jim set a fast pace. Blair found himself dodging other pedestrians to keep up. "Simon should be back," Jim said. "Maybe Taggart has worked a miracle on the explosives end of things."

"Then we're stopping for food on the way," Blair said.

"What is it with you, Sandburg?" Jim said. His tone was split between joking and irritated. "You want to stop and eat every fifteen minutes. This isn't picnic time."

"I'll ignore that," Blair said sharply as Jim left him behind for the third time in a block. "Just like I'm ignoring the fact that your senses are spiking and you didn't bother to tell me, and you have a headache. That's just for starters." Jim wrinkled his nose. "Gotcha, partner."

"You were just guessing," Jim said defensively.

"Even if I was, you're not denying it. Stress burns a lot of energy, Jim. You're tired already. I know you. You'll grab some candy out of the machine and keep on going."

"Here we go. Vending machines and the disintegration of western culture." Jim slipped into familiar banter. Blair whacked his elbow sharply.

"Sarcasm isn't pretty, Jim. Candy is a quick fix, and you'll be paying for it by the end of the day. We going to be done with Faller by quitting time? Heading home for a decent meal and some downtime to put your system back on an even keel? Or shall we wait for the full-blown migraine that's on the way, sure as the sun will rise tomorrow?"

Jim stopped dead in his tracks. "That was a cheap shot, Chief."

"No. Just honest." His voice softened. A passerby wouldn't have heard. "I'm sorry I had to do that to get your attention. You're going to be taking the point until this is over. There's no quick fix and no backup. Let me worry about keeping you functioning at your best, so you can concentrate on Faller."

Jim swallowed hard, and looked across the street. "That Mexican place has those wraps you like," he said, not looking Blair in the eye. "Maybe I'll try one of those chicken veggie things you're always talking about." He scuffed the pavement with the toe of his shoe, nudging Blair's foot gently. "I suppose more coffee would be out of the question?

"One of those fruit smoothies might be better. It will have some sugar, but more nutrients and no caffeine." They started walking again. Blair realized he was no longer racing to keep up. Jim was matching his long stride to Blair's. Conscious choice or not, it was a welcome relief.

"Smoothies, huh? I won't do weird, Sandburg. No cactus root and bug wings."

"No bug wings. Got it."

"And Sandburg?"

"Ignore me."

"Only in a good cause, Jim. Only in a good cause."

"How did you get these results so fast?" Blair asked in awe. Taggart gave him a broad smile in response.

"You guys have to call the lab technicians and beg. They're overworked and under appreciated. Maybe they bust their butts, maybe they don't. If some jerk has yelled at them in the last forty-eight hours, your sample probably sits on the counter for a bit."

"Considering Jim's in forensics doing just that, I'm all ears." Blair read as he listened, looking up between pages. "So tell me the secret."

"No secret. I'm the old beached whale of the department. I know everyone. I talk to the boss, or the boss's boss, or the secretary, find out what's been happening, send down something nice and then go have my conversations."

Blair laughed. "You're not a beached whale, you're a big marshmallow."

Joel pulled up to his full height and struck a pose. "But I'm the leanest, meanest marshmallow you know."

"You are that," Blair said, laughing. "So what did you send?"

"I promised gourmet pizza for lunch." Joel smirked. "Hey, since I'm buying, I may as well pick something I like, too. I don't feel too guilty about messing with their routine. I checked first. They only had routine stuff in the hopper in front of us."

"Well, I'll chip in. What do you think so far?"

"The materials are pretty ordinary, it's the proportions that make it unique. I think your best option is the fuse material. It isn't designed to carry a big load, so industrial sites wouldn't carry it. The military would think it was useless."

"This guy was military, Joel. Well, sort of military."

"I guessed that. Okay, so it wouldn't appeal to legitimate military. I'm tracking suppliers and local providers for you now. Give me a couple more hours. I know it's not much, but it's all I can give you." Joel gave him a worried look. "I know Jim's under a lot of pressure, which means you are, too. At least I can save you chasing this particular lead down."

"What did Simon tell the rest of the guys?"

"That all of us need to be careful, without supplying a lot of extra details. That this bastard went after Jim's family first. There were enough regular uniforms at his dad's house to let that news circulate fast. Some punk goes after a cop's family, and that moves it to a new level. The brothers and sisters in blue have closed ranks."

"You're not telling me everything, Joel," Blair said, pulling off his glasses. "Everybody knows Jim worked covert missions. At least some of them are wondering if there's a monster in the closet. I know how gossip goes."

Joel leaned forward, keeping his voice quiet and their conversation private. "Don't go there, Sandburg. Jim's been in Cascade a long time. We know what kind of man he is."

"If you hear something, you'll let me know?"

"You mean you, and not Jim?" Joel asked pointedly.

"I guess. He might take it kind of hard, if you know what I mean. If he has to know, maybe I can soften the blow a little. Break it to him gently."

"I understand. He seems really on edge. In Jim's case, I read that as Faller being a very bad guy."

Blair nodded without answering. Even Joel, a veteran officer of thirty years, would be sobered at the extent of Faller's evil. He looked up as Jim came into the bullpen, his face grim. "They came up empty, didn't they?" Blair asked. It was more a statement of fact than a question.

"You got that right. If Faller doesn't change clothes, we can track his presence from crime scene to crime scene, but nothing so far is going to help us catch him."

"Joel might have some help for us." Jim listened carefully as the bomb-expert turned detective reviewed his work.

"Finally," Jim muttered. "So far, you're the only one with any lead at all. Thanks, Joel. You have no idea how grateful I am."

"Can I stay on this for you?" Joel asked. Jim's reluctance was obvious. "Look, something else will break. This one I can do as well as anyone."

Regret washed over Jim's face. "Thanks, Taggart. I didn't mean to imply that you weren't up to it."

"You didn't," Joel said reassuringly. "You just feel responsible, and I can't blame you. This jerk made things very personal. Just remember, Cascade is our city, too. You don't have to carry the whole load, Jim." Taggart slapped both hands on the desk and stood up. "This is my area of expertise. If you'll excuse me, I have fuses to find and places to be."

Jim leaned back in his chair. "Remind me not to underestimate him."

"Truer words never spoken. Simon assigned someone to contact rental car places and stolen vehicles, so that's off our plate, too."

"Have them call dealerships. After I thought about it, that's more Faller's style."

"I'll do that," Blair said, picking up the phone.


"Yes, sir." Blair nodded, continuing his conversation, while Jim went to answer Simon's bellow. The captain met him at the door of his office.

"Get over to Cascade General. Connor thinks she has something for you."

"On my way. Sandburg, wrap it up," Jim said sharply. Blair was already on his feet, trying to put on his coat, scribble notes and finish his phone conversation simultaneously. As soon as he hung up the phone, he was talking.

"What did she say? Is she in the ER or one of the wards?"

"Slow down, Sandburg. At least you asked," Simon said, looking pointedly at Jim. She's in the ER. Your lead is a five-year-old, so go gently."

"Got it," Jim said. Running off without getting all the information went way beyond silly. He looked appropriately contrite. "Sandburg can do the interview."

"Then you can handle the mother. Connor's having a tough time getting her cooperation. The medical personnel are helping her stall."

That sent both detectives running for the door. "And you call me!" Simon shouted after them. "I mean it!"

It wasn't difficult to locate their interview. They heard her, or more correctly, heard the mother from the minute they hit the doors of the ER. After a preliminary check with the desk, they walked down the all too familiar corridor. Blair shuddered. He truly despised hospitals, and ER exam rooms were far from welcoming. He quickly located their five-year-old, keenly aware of how miserable she must be. They knocked gently, and with a nod, Jim moved in Connor's direction to give Blair a clear field. Mom looked like a storm cloud, but Jim managed to silence the tirade enough to get them a few moments of quiet.

"Hey, Felecia. My name's Blair. How are you feeling?"

"Stitches hurt," the little girl said, sniffling a bit. She looked terribly small, sitting on the exam table.

"I don't like them, either. I bet you were really brave."

A huge tear welled up in her eyes. Her mother immediately began another protest. "This is ridiculous. She's been through enough. You people have no idea..." Her shrill voice sent her daughter into halting sobs. Blair shifted position, putting himself between the child and the ongoing argument. Jim did the same, subtly easing the disagreeable woman into the hallway. Marissa Collinsworth was far more interested in grandstanding than helping the investigation.

Taking advantage of the momentary break, Blair ducked behind the curtain. Felecia happily snuggled close to his side. "I want my daddy," she whispered.

"I know, sweetie. But Megan tells me you have a secret, and I need to have you tell me about it. Can you do that?"

She looked up at him, her head nestled into his shoulder. "The man said to give it to El'son. He made me say it over and over. He said not to tell mother. Something bad will happen if I do."

"He was scary, wasn't he? Can you show me?" Marissa Collinsworth angry voice rose behind them. Felecia shuddered and burrowed her face deeper into Blair's sweater. "Mother's mad."

"She's not mad at you, sweetie."

"Is too. Are you El'son?"

"My friend is, but he's kind of busy with your mom. We're partners, so giving it to me is like giving it to him."

The argument in the hallway moved up another notch. "She is mad." He voice caught again. "I want my daddy," she whimpered.

I'll bet you do, Blair thought bitterly. It didn't take a genius to put the details of Felecia's life in place from the minimal information they had. Marissa Collinsworth was dressed in Gucci shoes, a leather coat worth more than his monthly pay and no wedding ring. Little Felecia was the perfect pawn, no doubt used with stunning expertise. "I promise, I'll call your daddy myself. Show me quick, and I'll do it right now. What's his name?"

"David. He works in the pointy building."

Cascade Towers. That wouldn't be tough. "I know just where that is. Do we have a deal?"

Felecia dug into the pocket of her miniature designer jeans. Her lavender sweater was streaked with blood from the cut on her head. "Is it really okay? The bad man won't come back?"

"It's okay. I promise."

Her tiny fist uncoiled, releasing a crumpled bit into Blair's hand. Her recognized it immediately. "You've been a brave girl, Felecia. I'm going to take you to your mother now, but before I do anything else, I'll go see your daddy."

"He's busy," she said seriously, her eyes clouding over once again. For a moment, she seemed much older than her age, as if she knew the crazy world of angry grownups far too well.

"Not too busy for this, Felecia." Blair set her down on the floor, and got one of his own cards out of his pocket. "Are you too little to read yet?" A nod. "But I bet you can dial a phone number." Another nod. Blair pointed to his name on the card. "Well, this says 'Blair' right here, and you can call me if you feel scared, okay? You put it in your pocket for me."

"Our secret?" Felecia asked earnestly.

"Just until your daddy comes." Blair held out his hand and headed for the hallway. "We're all finished, Ms. Collinsworth. Thank you for your patience."

Marissa Collinsworth wasn't mollified. "I'll be contacting your superiors," she huffed. "Come on, Felecia." She stuck a hand toward Felecia and marched off, little Felecia struggling to keep up. Her mother never noticed.

As she disappeared from sight, Jim muttered, "I should send a sympathy card to her ex. Shit. Couldn't she give that baby a hug?"

"Apparently not," Blair said with a note of sadness. "Why do people treat their own children that way?"

"Because the whole world's screwed. I wonder if my parents were that awful when they were together?"

Blair chose to leave that rhetorical question unanswered. Despite the peacemaking role he played in Jim's family, he avoided a frank exchange of views where parents were concerned.

Jim was silent, clearly listening to something in the distance. "She's complaining because Felecia's sweater is ruined. That woman should be locked up." He sighed. "One crisis at a time, I guess. What have we got, Chief?"

"I need an evidence bag." Jim produced one from his pocket, and Blair gently shook his treasure into the open mouth of the evidence bag. He held it out for Jim's inspection. "A Mayan worry doll."

"Oh my God." Jim leaned back against the wall, as if staying on his own two feet was too much for him. Blair pressed up next to him, hoping physical contact would help. He could almost see the vile memory devouring Jim's conscious thought.

"It's Faller. That son of a bitch." Jim was breathing hard, struggling to maintain control.

"Not much doubt. Stay with me, Jim. Bring it back into focus. It's just a memory."

Jim swallowed. "He scared that little girl out of her wits. I heard her."

Blair shook his head. "I'm surprised you could listen over her mother. I'm impressed." He was also relieved. Jim seemed to be settling down. "He threatened to hurt her mom if she gave it to anyone but you."

"I swear, Chief, if ever a man deserved execution at the hands of the state, it's Faller. Let's go. I need to get my hands on that sorry bastard."

"Not until you've got yourself together," Blair said firmly. "Do you have a baseline? Is anything spiking?"

"I'm okay." Jim saw Blair's skeptical expression. "Well, not okay, but I'm not going to lose it. Is that better? We need to go back to my Dad's, and downtown."

"We have another errand first. I made a promise. We need another cruiser."

David Collinsworth did in fact work in the Cascade Towers, and was not particularly difficult to find. His firm's receptionist, charged with restricting access, was no match for two detectives from the Cascade PD. They yanked Mr. Collinsworth out of his meeting without ceremony.

"What's this all about?" he demanded angrily, giving a cursory glance at Jim's badge.

"We need to speak with you about you daughter, Mr. Collinsworth," Blair said.

"Oh, no. Not again. What's Marissa saying now? Is my daughter okay? Where is she?"

"Presumably on her way home -" Blair started, but Collinsworth cut him off.

"Damn you, tell me what's going on!" he shouted.

"You heard about the incident in the shopping district?" Blair asked.

"Yeah. The sirens were driving us crazy." The implication suddenly seemed to sink in. "Was my Leesha there?" The aggression leaked out of him, replaced by genuine fear.

"She's not in jeopardy, Mr. Collinsworth. She was cut by flying glass, and was taken to Cascade General. I spoke with her because the man we believe to be responsible used her to deliver a message."

"A message? But she's just a baby!"

"I'm glad you said that," Blair said, relieved to see something resembling parental concern. "Your wife seemed rather - preoccupied. Felecia is scared, and she was asking for you. She wants her daddy. I promised her I'd come find you."

Collinsworth seemed to be moving several directions at once. "Damn Marissa! Damn that coldhearted bitch!" He stabbed at the intercom. "Diane! Cancel my appointments. I'm leaving." He spun around, not quite sure what to do first.

"A moment, Mr. Collinsworth," Jim said.

"David, call me David. I'm sorry about earlier. Poor Felecia." The man was completely distracted. Jim persevered.

"Are you operating under a custody agreement?" Jim asked.

The question seemed to take Collinsworth back. "We're working under a preliminary settlement. We've agreed to a family court judge for matters involving Felecia."

"To be frank, your wife didn't seem overly concerned," Jim said. "Felecia's in no danger, but this was a traumatic experience and she may be an important witness when we catch this maniac. Contact the court before you leave, and inform them of the situation. I suggest you direct them to Captain Banks for the details."

Collinsworth studied Jim at length, measuring him. "Are you a divorced man, Detective? This sounds like the voice of experience."

Jim nodded. "Yeah. No kids, though. I know it can be rough."

"You have no idea," Collinsworth said, finally locating his coat and car keys. "Sometimes we're so busy fighting we forget that Felecia shouldn't really be part of it."

"I'm glad you realize it. If you'll pardon me, I don't think your wife does. Your daughter needs you right now," Blair said. "I don't think you'll regret it. We'll see ourselves out."

Collinsworth offered his hand. "I appreciate your concern for Felecia. Frankly, she deserves better parents than she got. Please let me know if there's anything you need. Marissa may object, but she isn't in a position to make all the decisions concerning Felecia."

They walked to the shopping district. The emergency vehicles were long since gone, but city crews were at work, finishing the cleanup. New windows were already being installed in the ravaged storefront.

"What exactly are we looking for, Jim?" Blair asked.

"I'm not sure. Something - I just have a feeling."

"Trying to find some indication that ties Faller to the scene? Doesn't the worry doll do that?"

"It does, but I'm not willing to discuss that with anyone, or put it in a report." Jim had drifted away from the sidewalk until he was almost in the middle of the pavement. Broken glass still scrunched under their feet. "I'm missing something. I just know it."

"Then we're talking deep sentinel instinct. Don't try to structure it. Just open up. I won't let anything bad happen."

Jim started patrolling the street from one end to the other, carefully crisscrossing his tracks. Blair waited patiently, moving to the far corner of the block, watching for any subtle change in body language. If Jim needed anything, he would certainly ask. If he zoned, so be it. He could intercede quickly enough.

Jim had nearly completed the circuit when he turned abruptly. His gaze suddenly shifted from street level. "We need to go up." Without another word, he set off across the street, heading for the taller of the three buildings on the opposite side. Blair raced after Jim, trying to avoid being left behind. He followed the sound of Jim's footsteps, winding up the staircase.

He found Jim kneeling on the roof, hands pressed onto the tarry surface. "He was here," Jim said softly. "I can smell the tobacco. Tweezers?"

Blair produced the tools and held out an evidence bag. "Fiber again. Dark wool."

"Same sweater, then."

"Probably. Easy to blend in. He was here, Chief. He watched us arrive. This is the perfect sniper's nest. I'm sure of it."

"Why didn't he take a shot?" Blair asked, remembering Jim's earlier fears. "He could have picked you off easily enough."

"I keep telling you, he won't be aiming at me. It's too soon. He wants to extract more pain than this." Jim stood, studying the street below. "He's aware of you, but he could probably tell you were wearing a vest. There were a lot of people here, emergency vehicles. A head shot is tough in traffic." He moved a few feet sideways. "From this angle, I think we ended up on the other side of a fire truck."

"I guess we should count that as one for our side."

"Maybe. He'll just be more careful next time. Plan it better." Jim shook his head. "We can't do anymore here. It's just like my dad's house, and the alley. We're too late."

"Let me call Simon." Blair left Jim to his inspection of the general area and dialed. "Captain? Yeah, he's here. We're downtown. Yeah, we talked to the little girl. Long story, but the short version is Faller sent us a message. Right, that's why we came down here. Jim thinks Faller was up here on the rooftop across the street, watching for us. If there's another suspicious incident, I think we should assume he's still in the area."

"What the hell is this guy playing at?" Simon demanded. Blair jerked the phone away from his ears. Simon was nearly shouting. Jim frowned and took the phone.

"He wants to play cat and mouse, Captain," Jim explained. "I'm making it tough for him by not being at any locations he knows. I have the same problem. I can't act against him if I can't find him."

Simon's voice quieted. "He's going to keep doing this, isn't he? Trying to draw you out until he can locate you?"

"That's what I'd expect, sir. By now he knows who's close to me on the force. He's going to start taking shots. It was only sheer luck that he didn't this time around."

"Where are you going now?" Simon asked.

"I wish I knew."

"If you don't have anything better, we may have gotten a break. One of the used car dealerships may have had a black SUV lifted. It went out on an overnight trial and never came back."

"I'm not surprised," Jim said. He motioned to his partner for paper and pencil and took the particulars. "We'll head right over there, sir. We'll call."

They walked down the cement stairs, side by side. Jim stopped on one of the landings. Blair took two steps and turned around, puzzled by the delay. "What is it? Do you hear something?" His next words were muffled as Jim wrapped him in a crushing bear hug.

"Uh, Jim? This is nice, but we're kind of not real private here."

"Jim? Hey, Jim. I need to breathe here."

Blair slowly stepped back when the stranglehold loosened. "Sorry," Jim mumbled, staring at the floor. "I - uh - shouldn't have done that. Sorry."

Blair bent over slightly, trying the catch the glance of the blue eyes that were avoiding his. "Want to tell me what's going on?"

"This is so screwed up," Jim whispered angrily. "He'll try for you first, Chief. What if - shit, what if I never get the chance to tell you, you know, tell you..." The words just tumbled out, and then he threw up his hands and turned away, chanting a string of profanities directed at himself and the world in general.

"Don't apologize. It's okay." Blair's only view was of Jim's slightly hunched shoulders. He wrapped his thumb and forefinger around Jim's wrist. "You have to have a little faith. And no matter what happens, I know how you feel. The question is if you know how I feel in return. Can you take confidence from it instead of fear?" Blair tugged gently on his wrist. Jim finally turned around.

"I'm worse than some damn stupid rookie," Jim said.

Blair laughed. "Actually, the damn stupid rookie would be me. You ready to get moving, you slacker?"

"Only you, Sandburg. Only you."

They took a different route back to their vehicle. Jim checked it carefully, even crawling under the vehicle to look for signs of tampering. It took a long time before he was satisfied and would allow Blair to unlock the door.

The used car lot was across town. Again, Jim left their 4Runner and made the final approach on foot. At first, no one could quite remember who had arranged for "Mr. Johnson" to take the vehicle overnight for a test.

"Give me a break," Jim said, beginning to lose his temper. The salesman broke into a sweat and shuffled through the same stack of papers he'd already skimmed twice. Jim leaned forward on the desk. "Quit worrying about getting your ass chewed by the boss. You're impeding an investigation. I'll bet a night in jail sounds like a high price to pay for being stupid."

"You can't do that," the man protested.

"Try me," Jim said. "When you do, you should know, we've had a really bad day so far. I might have to pull full vehicle histories on everything in your lot." He came almost nose to nose with the uncooperative salesman. "You could be writing VIN numbers for days. Think about it."

The man looked a bit sick and fumbled for the top drawer. "Here's the information sheet he filled out. The address is legitimate. I checked."

"How?" Blair asked.

"Well, I looked in the phone book," the salesman replied, his confidence dying as he finished the sentence.

"Perfect," Blair said. "Next time someone walks in and steals a car from you, assume they can read the same phone book."

"He left a credit card, you know," the man said, still trying to defend himself. His temporary bravado crumbled as it took Blair less than five minutes to confirm the card was a fake. By that time the sales manager had drifted in. His own questions stilled when Sandburg outlined the situation.

"So you think our vehicle is being driven around by some kind of urban terrorist?" he demanded.

"No," Jim said sarcastically, losing his temper a bit. He'd had enough of their general lack of cooperation. "By now he's probably handed it off for some quick cash, left it in a ditch or shopped it for parts."

"Now you wait just one minute here," the manager said angrily. "What are you doing to recover our property?"

"Right now, not much. I'm a lot more concerned with how you managed to provide secure transportation to a hardened criminal, and make sure it doesn't happen again. Don't you have any procedures for this sort of thing?"

"Our sales staff makes a judgment call," the manager said dismissively. "After all, it's their business to read people." He pointed confidently to his salesman, still sweating nervously in his chair. "Frank here can read 'em like a book. If he says the guy looked like a legitimate buyer, I believe him."

Jim threw up his hands in disgust. "The book he read is a damn fairytale. Don't you get it?"

"Checking an address in the phone book is just a touch transparent," Blair said, stepping in front of his partner. "Let's assume our suspect is interested in the same type of vehicle. If he dressed and acted the part, would the same approach probably work with another dealership?"

"It's a competitive business, Detective. You have to serve your customers."

"Right. So, do you have some kind of a trade organization that most of the dealers belong to? Some way we could monitor what people have in stock, and warn them to notify us if approached." Blair paused to let the manager think, then sank the hook. "I'm sure it would reflect well on your business when the story finally hits the media. And it will hit the media, eventually."

"I could probably make some calls," the manager said hesitantly, reality finally sinking in. He'd not only lost thirty some thousand dollars of inventory, they looked like idiots doing it.

"Excellent," Blair said. "Let's go do that right now."

That left the salesman with a glowering Jim Ellison. Now that his boss had caved, the young man looked ready to make a run for it. Jim pulled up a chair and sat down, crowding his personal space. "I want every detail. Every syllable of conversation. As of right now, you have a photographic memory and I want all the pictures."

It was well after dark when they climbed into the 4Runner. Jim was still muttering under his breath. "Last time I ever buy a vehicle. I'll just waltz in and 'borrow' one."

"Jim, take it easy. So they judged on appearances, and were a little overeager to make a sale? What's new about that?"

"Stop being reasonable, damn it. Faller spent at least twenty-four hours in a virtually untraceable vehicle and I shouldn't be upset?"

"You can be upset, but it won't do any good. Be content that we closed that loophole." Blair sighed as he realized that Jim was heading back toward the station. "Jim, we're both running on fumes. We need some rest, both of us."

"I want to review the forensics evidence. There's got to be something by now."

Blair gently rapped his head against the side window. The chance of getting any real lead from forensics was minimal. The smart thing to do would be to take a break until a promising lead materialized. He closed his eyes, trying to think of some approach to reason with his partner.

Under normal circumstances, Jim had amazing reserves of focus and energy. He never punched a clock when a case was active. Blair's concern stemmed more from the depth of emotional turmoil he'd seen the previous night. Jim was being driven more by a combination of guilt and desperation than his normal dedication to duty. Blair briefly considered mentioning it to Simon, and dismissed the possibility. Simon wouldn't really see the point, and Blair wouldn't be able to make his case without revealing more of Jim's story with Faller. He looked sideways at his partner. Jim's jaw was locked, his hands gripped tightly around the steering wheel. Whatever he was thinking about wasn't pretty.

Blair opted for silence. There was only so much he could do.

So this was what Ellison called home.

A shared home, from the looks of things, but not a shared bed. Faller clicked his tongue in disgust. A little sexual scandal would have been a nice touch. No pictures, no suggestive media, no sex toys. Sandburg was a roommate, nothing more. Ah, well, people still judged by appearances. He could make do with what was available.

Disappointing, but not the only reason he was here. He attended to the immediate details. Ellison had reacted quickly, anticipating some of his moves, removing opportunities he'd planned on exploiting. Even an idiot got lucky once in awhile. Let Ellison think he'd pulled a fast one.

He finished quickly and examined Sandburg's lair a second time, slowly and carefully. He'd read the news reports, but he had no measure of the man. Why would Ellison keep him here, and why would Sandburg stay? Was he a vulnerability, or a strength? How could he be exploited?

Blair wasn't surprised when Jim pulled into a parking structure several blocks from the station. His partner was still being very, very careful.

"Remind me to be grateful for driving right up to the building when this is all over," Blair grumbled.

"Can't be helped, Chief, unless you want to make things real easy for Faller."

"I'm not arguing. I'm just tired, that's all."

Jim halted at the entrance, carefully surveying the street. "So am I, but it pays to be careful. I wish I could get inside Faller's head. This isn't what I expected at all."

Blair fell into step beside him as they wove their way through Cascade's back alleys. He was afraid to ask what Jim had expected.

They took the most deserted route into the PD, taking the stairs rather than the elevator. They finally ran into Henri Brown in the hallway, just outside Major Crime. "Whoa there, men, has Banks been looking for you! You might think about making an escape while there's still time."

"What?" Jim demanded, obviously expecting the worst.

"Don't you two listen to the radio when you're driving around?" Brown asked, slightly amused. "Connor just got here a minute ago, and she knew all about it."

"Just answer the question, H!" Jim said impatiently. Blair gently slid in front of him. Henri had no way of knowing how edgy Jim was.

Brown shrugged, a little put out with Jim's attitude. "That little girl you ran off to interview? Her mother went straight to some reporter, claiming you terrorized the child. As of a couple of hours ago, you're Cascade's Number One bad cop. Captain's phone has been ringing off the hook. I think Rhonda's going to take a little piece out of you, too."

"Shit!" Jim exploded. "I should have known." The windows of the bullpen vibrated as he jerked the door open.

Blair watched in fascination as Connor, Banks and Ellison converged, all talking simultaneously, or to be more precise, yelling. None of the three was listening to the other. Blair stood outside the group slightly, trying to pick off bits and pieces of the hopelessly garbled interchange. Henri gave his shoulder a gentle nudge. "Hey, man. He's your partner. I'm not going in there."

"Yeah, but you're bigger, H. You go first and I'll back you up," Blair said.

"A bigger coward, maybe. Better you than me. That catfight's all yours, my man."

Blair reluctantly stepped into the fray. "Jim - Captain - hey guys." They ignored him. "Guys!" Throwing a hopeless look at a smirking Brown, Blair gave up. "QUIET!" he shouted.

In the moment of stunned silence, all three stared at him angrily. Before they had a chance to turn on him, Blair took charge. "Megan, what did you say? It's not Mrs. Collinsworth?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell them," Megan said, glaring at Simon. "It wouldn't kill you to listen. The last interview was on television. It's not her."

"What the hell?" Simon growled.

Megan rolled her eyes. "It's not her. And it's a complete fabrication. Besides, Jim didn't even talk to Felecia, Blair did."

"So I've been defending Jim to the Chief and the Mayor for the last two hours and it's not legit?" Simon demanded.

"One - more - time," Megan said impatiently. "It's not Marissa Collinsworth. And the things she's claiming can't possibly be true. That's what I've been trying to tell you. See for yourself." She marched into the break room and changed the channel. The brunette speaking was definitely not the woman in question.

"What did she say I did?" Jim asked through gritted teeth.

"That you shook and slapped the little girl. Used profane language, and then made an inappropriate sexual advance toward her."

"That's a lie!" Jim blurted out, his anger and frustration boiling over. "I never - damn it all -"

"Jim! Jim, it makes perfect sense," Blair said, still watching the image on the screen.

"Well go ahead and explain it, Sandburg, since it doesn't make any sense to me," Simon said.

"You said all along, Faller wants you to suffer. What could he do? Hurt your family? Already tried that. He can't find them; he can't get to you. So what's left? Trash your reputation? Oh, yeah. Let's go there. It's a set up."

"Nooo," Connor protested. "That sweet little girl wasn't lying."

"Of course she wasn't," Blair said. "Faller was with her long enough to threaten her. It wouldn't be hard to get her name, and her mother's. He just trots out someone who claims to be Marissa Collinsworth, throws a few inflammatory allegations around and the damage is done. By the time we untangle things, it won't matter what we say." Jim sank into a chair. His reaction must have seemed over the top to the others, but Blair understood. Anything, anything concerning a child would provoke a strong response from Jim right now.

Simon was absolutely furious. "Of all the nerve. Connor, get over to that broadcast center and arrest that woman."

"Yes, sir. It will be my pleasure."

"And Connor? I apologize for not paying attention."

Megan nodded graciously. "No worries, Captain. What am I bringing her in for?"

Simon had worked himself into a fine temper. "Obstructing an investigation. Slander. Littering. Make something up on the way," Simon barked. "Just get over there before she evaporates into the ether."

He pulled out a chair, and started talking to Jim. Blair slipped out, figuring they needed some time. He made a beeline for Rhonda's desk. She looked up, tired and distracted. "How's Jim?" she asked.

"He'll be okay," Blair said. "You heard?"

"Yes. It had to be. Jim might blister the hide off an adult, but he would never hurt a little girl like that."

"Rhonda, call the hospital for me. Some of those emergency rooms, they tape. You know, just to have a record because things can get so crazy. Even if they had a camera on the entrance door. And find out if we can get a list of all personnel on duty in the ER."

"Blair Sandburg, I love you. I'll go over and get it myself if necessary," Rhonda said. She flipped open the phone book. "I keep telling myself I should put Cascade General on the speed dial."

"With this bunch, you probably should," Blair said. Simon was still grilling Jim pretty closely. Blair was almost too tired to think. He drifted over to the desk he shared with Jim. Joel had left a message to call, along with another from forensics. Since Jim insisted on coming here for the forensics reports, they sure weren't leaving until he'd seen them. "Brown, is Taggart still around?"

"No, checked out about half hour ago. He said to call him at home if you guys came in."

"You planning on being here for a bit?"

Brown pulled up a chair to his desk computer. "As of right now, I'm married to this machine. I've been running around all day, like everyone else, and I have to finish some stuff the captain needs. He's a bit testy, if you know what I mean. You know an espresso place that delivers?"

Blair laughed. "Lots of luck. Buy a cup of hot chocolate and add it to some coffee from the break room."

"Low, Sandburg. Very low."

Blair gave another look through the windows into Simon's office. Their discussion was still going strong, and he wasn't about to interrupt. "Well, if you're going to be here, tell Jim I went down to Forensics."

"You got it, my man. Say 'Hi' to Serena for me. I'm gonna be bugging her all night long."

"Serena doesn't work the night shift," Blair said in surprise.

"She does tonight," Brown said ruefully. "Serena, me, and a half dozen other people will be burning the midnight out. Like I said. You guys should have hung around a little more today."

Serena was, in fact, still at the lab bench in forensics. She looked exhausted. "I know," she said wearily. "He wants everything. And at least ten things I didn't think of. And he wants it checked again." She plopped a thick folder onto the counter.

Blair said nothing. Instead he rolled the nearest chair across the room and gestured for Serena to sit. After a moment's hesitation, she took the offer with a sigh. Blair pulled a straight-backed chair over and sat down, too. "What happened? Why are you here?"

"We had one tech call in with the flu, and another came in sick but left at noon. The stuff from that mess downtown just overwhelmed the staff on duty. I came in to help out."

"You sent them home, and here you are," Blair said knowingly. "Tell me that makes sense."

"It was Jim." Serena shrugged. "He's a good man, Blair. This shouldn't be happening to him. His dad's house? Anyone did that to my family and I wouldn't be responsible. Is he doing okay? Or can you tell?"

Blair shrugged. "You know Jim."

"I wish it was better news," Serena said, opening the file. "Jim guessed right; the fibers he found are all consistent with the same garment. Problem is, you could buy that sweater at any Army surplus place. Even if they arrest the guy while he's wearing the thing, it won't help much."

"Jim suspected as much." His fatigue washed over him, and for the first time that day, he didn't fight it. He'd hoped for a miracle, something to put this nightmare to an end, and it wasn't to be. He forced himself to pay attention to the rest of what Serena had to say.

"Other than that, I didn't find anything useful. I made copies for you, and I promise I'll go over everything again."

"Don't. I want you to promise you'll go home instead. " Blair pulled Serena's coat out of the closet and held it open. "You can't find something that isn't there. This guy is really good. We're going to be lucky to find anything."

"You talked me into it, but I feel bad about it." Blair took a few steps in the direction of the door and waited for her expectantly. Serena sighed. "I suppose you're going to stand there and wait for me, huh?"

"Yep," Blair said with a cheerful grin. "I'm a pro at this, remember? Don't you think I have to chase Jim out of here like this all the time?"

Serena laughed. "Now there's a mental picture - you chasing Jim. If it was anyone else, Jim would have them for breakfast. I'm surprised he lets you."

"It's all that Sandburg charm. Just keep smiling, get your keys out and go home." Blair waited while Serena got her keys, locked up, and walked her to the elevator. The doors were almost shut when Serena stepped into the opening and poked her head out.

"I must be really tired. I made some calls about the worry doll. I'm sure I won't hear anything until tomorrow."

Blair nodded. "Thanks, Serena. Now go home."

Blair started the long journey back up to Major Crime, climbing each successive stair more slowly. You couldn't fault Serena or the rest of her forensics team. They'd done everything and more in record time. Trying to track the worry doll was sincere effort, but they were hardly unique anymore. Jim would be disappointed, or frantic, depending on how you looked at it.

Major Crime was deserted except for Brown, still essentially chained to his desk. Jim was nowhere in sight and the blinds were drawn on Simon's office. Brown followed his stare.

"The brass are in there, along with some suit from the Mayor's office. It was kind of loud a minute ago."

Blair sat dejectedly at the desk he and Jim shared, wishing for Jim's hearing. Simon would be furious, but he'd crash the meeting if he was sure it was going badly. He reread the forensics report and still no one had emerged. Rhonda wasn't back from Cascade General. What else was there to do? Even Jim said it wasn't going the way he expected, whatever that meant.

What did that mean? Blair's tired mind shifted gears. Jim knew what Faller was capable of, and he'd expected something more overt, a frontal assault. He'd reacted accordingly, but Faller had changed tactics after missing at the Ellison family home. Maybe that was why they were drawing a complete blank. They were looking in all the wrong places, following the wrong assumptions.

Blair grabbed a blank sheet of paper and scrawled a note to Jim. He checked his watch and realized he would really have to hurry. "H! Can you do something for me?"

Brown looked up at the agitated figure standing in front of his desk. "Can I do it here? If it involves leaving, then the answer is 'no'. Simon will kill me if I lift my butt out of this chair. That's a direct quote, by the way."

"Just give this to Jim. I don't have time to explain."

"Sure thing," Brown said, taking the folded sheet. "What should I tell him? Hey, Sandburg! Where are you going, man?" Blair didn't answer. Instead he bolted for the door and disappeared down the hallway, obviously in a hurry.

"Shit," Brown muttered. "I don't need to worry about Banks. Ellison's going to kill me, no questions asked."

"We still need to issue a appropriate statement. Politically, it's essential." Shawn Purnell slid the proposed press release back across the desk. Banks could yell, Ellison could stonewall, but he was going to get what he wanted.

"How many times do we need to go over it, Purnell? The whole thing was a red herring. We have witnesses. Ellison was never even alone with the child."

"And I keep telling you the obvious," Purnell said, "that witnesses from within the department will be dismissed as a cover-up. If you won't issue a statement, then put Ellison on administrative leave pending an investigation."

"That's as good as admitting guilt. Why don't I just save everyone the time? Just go straight down to the holding cells and request a sentence," Jim said sarcastically.

"There's no reason to be defensive, Detective," Purnell said smugly. "After all, I deal in political realities. I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"Oh, I understand just fine," Jim said hotly. "For the sake of temporary convenience, you'd like me to take the blame for something I didn't do, just so you won't have to actually do your job. You remember. The one that involves giving accurate information to the public, even when it isn't what they want to hear, or means you have to stand there and answer some questions that make you uncomfortable."

"Really, Captain Banks," Purnell chided, acting as though Jim was no longer in the room. "If your detective is this out of control on the street, of course you should consider sitting him down. Give him some vacation time. We can say he's taken some medical leave."

Simon was ready to join the shouting match again when he caught a glimpse of Ellison out of the corner of his eye. Jim's face had gone completely blank, his posture subtly different. The gleam in his eyes sent chills down Simon's spine. He recognized the look. This was Ellison at his most dangerous, when some totally unpredictable action, regardless of the consequences, was highly likely.

Jim leaned back in his chair, shifting his long legs out in front of him. He might have been relaxing in front of the fire if the eyes hadn't spoiled the picture. "Was that the plan, Purnell? Bait me until I lost my temper. Maybe get me to take a swing at you so suspension would be a certainty? Did you come up with that on your own?"

Jim stopped suddenly, cutting his statement short, as if he'd realized something important. With a strange half-smile on his face, he left his chair, grabbed a stray sheet of paper and scribbled something on the back. He folded the sheet and handed it to Simon. Without another word, he left the room.

Purnell began the expected and noisy protest. Simon ignored him, busy unfolding the note.

                His idea?  Heart rate up
                Faller got him.

It was an accusation they couldn't prove, but it would sure explain the last couple of hours. Simon refolded the sheet and slipped it under his blotter. He ignored Purnell completely. Instead he spoke to the representatives from IA and the Chief's office. "You'll have a statement from this office within the hour. I stand behind my detectives, all of them. That includes the statements supporting Ellison from Detective Sandburg and Inspector Connor. Ellison said the father was extremely cooperative. We can get a corroborating statement from him. If you want Ellison suspended, you'll have to bust me out of this job and do it yourself. Expect to have a fight on your hands if you try." He held the door open for his visitors. The meeting was over.

Taking a moment to calm down, Simon methodically opened the blinds on his office windows. He'd seen Jim do the heart rate thing during interrogations; he'd never known Jim to call it wrong. He shuddered to think what was in store for them if Faller had co-opted the Mayor's office, or even had a source of information in the chain of command. It would make an already difficult situation nearly impossible.

He went into the bullpen, looking for Ellison. Brown, surrounded by stacks of papers, was looking at him, a little wide-eyed. Otherwise, the room was empty. "Where's Ellison?" he blurted out.

"Just took off like his shoes were on fire, Captain."

"What? Where to?" Simon yelled, looking down the hallway in both directions. "Well?" he demanded, turning back to his remaining detective.

"I don't know, sir," Brown sputtered. "Sandburg left a note for him, and he read it and tore out of here. Didn't say a word." Simon glared at him. "Sorry, Captain. I'm just sitting here, trying to do my paperwork, just like you told me to."

Simon looked skyward. What had Jim spooked so badly? First that idiot Purcell, now this. It would have been nice to talk with Jim about the nature of his suspicions.

"Captain, you want me to try to find him?"

Simon chewed his lip for a moment. Tempting as it was to do something, anything, sending Brown on a wild goose chase wasn't going to help. "Sit tight, H. I've got to head over to the Chief's office. You hold down the fort here. If Ellison shows up here before I'm back, keep him here. Sit on him, if you have to."

Henri went back to his typing. As his fingers picked across the keyboard, he sang to himself in a sing-song voice, "We're in's getting worse..."

Jim nearly took a header when he missed a step, caught himself and kept running. Throwing caution to the wind, he blasted out of the service doors they'd been using without his usual caution. He covered the blocks to their car at a sustained sprint.

The SUV was in its place, the engine cold. Jim leaned against the car, his chest heaving. The Chevy wagon was gone. Blair said he'd meet him back at the hotel, so he must have used it. Damn him for taking off that way. Blair was a good cop, but he didn't have experience in counter surveillance. Faller could be making a move against him while he stood here, lungs burning, trying to figure out what to do next.

He could easily race over to the television station in the SUV and make sure his partner was safe. Considering his own careless flight from the PD, it was more likely that Faller was following him, not Sandburg. Jim walked deliberately to the stairwell, his footfalls echoing like drumbeats. He went up several floors, doubled back, worked his way through the adjoining office building. Satisfied no one was dogging his steps, he found a cleaning lady, flashed his badge and wheedled his way into one of the deserted offices. He made several calls, checking that his arrangements were still secure for Sally, Steven and his father. His final call sent a cab to a multiplex theater a few blocks away. He could walk over, blend with the crowd and take the cab back to their hotel.

"Miss Hawthorne, please," Blair stated firmly. The young woman in front of him looked barely old enough to be in one of his freshman classes. Judging from her hair and dress, she had on-camera aspirations.

"I'm sorry, sir. We're live in less than ten minutes. Would you like to leave a message?"

Blair swore under his breath. He didn't want to create a scene, and he didn't want to use his badge to get in unless absolutely necessary. "Let me write a note, but I need you to take it to her right away."

"After the broadcast..."

"I need you to do it now. It's important. Please." Maybe he'd have to use that badge after all. Blair tried one last time. He held the folded sheet in two fingers, waggling it in plain sight. "I expect Wendy won't be too happy with you when she finds out she missed a great story."

The young woman huffed in irritation. "Give it to me, and wait over there. She's in makeup."

Blair passed the time staring at the clock on the wall. Before the second hand had made a third sweep around the dial, Wendy was standing in front of him, a protective wrap covering her elegant suit. "What a surprise. I don't get a lot of visits from Mickey Mantle these days."

"I had a feeling you'd get the message. We need to talk - privately."

Wendy pulled him aside, away from prying ears. "I assume you're not here in an official capacity. Is after the broadcast soon enough?"

"It will have to be. I'd rather not be noticed."

"Follow me." Wendy led the way to her office. "This is as private as I can manage." She frowned. "You know Jim's the second story. I don't suppose you have something for me on that score."

"It's bogus. Completely a setup. I'm sure there'll be a statement."

Wendy's frown deepened. "You can't give me anything more? Something that warrants changing the lead? If it's a sham, Jim doesn't deserve this kind of treatment"

"Wish I could. I've got nothing. Other people are chasing down the proof." Blair gestured toward the set high on the shelf. "Can I watch?"

"Sure. Blair, you know it's not personal. I can't just take your word for it, even though I have no doubt you're telling me the truth. Well, I would, but not if you won't give it."

Blair brushed her cheek with a kiss. "Wendy, we're friends. I know the score. Do your job, and get back here as soon as you can."

The screen from the broadcast hadn't even run through the credits before Wendy returned. "I swear, the curiosity nearly killed me. If the department has a statement about Jim, why didn't they release it before we went on the air? It made me sick to read that crap, all the while knowing it wasn't true."

"You did your job, Wendy. Just try to make sure the follow-up gets as much attention, if you can. Jim would never hurt a child. That's not why I'm here, by the way."

"You're not? But I thought..."

"I didn't give you any reason to think otherwise," Blair said quietly. Despite their rocky start with Wendy Hawthorne, he'd come to appreciate her professionalism. She'd been especially supportive when the whole dissertation mess blew up, and Blair had never forgotten it. "This needs to be off the record. Can you do that?"

"For you?" Wendy slipped off her shoes and curled up at the opposite end of the couch in her office. "I can do that. No notes, no recorder. Just you and me."

"I need your professional opinion. If you were going to smear someone in Cascade, really ruin their life, how would you do it? Who would you go to?"

"I hope this isn't some reference to my flirtation with tabloid television," Wendy said seriously.

"No. It references the fact that I trust you more than any journalist in the city, and I really need your help."

"We're talking about Jim?" Blair didn't answer immediately. "I'll take that as a yes. In his position, even the hint of impropriety is news. You don't realize it, but there are members of the journalistic community that keep a pretty close eye on both of you."

Blair studied the toes of his shoes. "I thought all that dissertation crap had died down. It's been a year. Six months of the academy, more than that on the job. What's there to see?"

"Blair," Wendy scolded gently. "You already know the answer to that. Too many unanswered questions, and there's no statute of limitations on curiosity. It's a dynamite combination. If Jim would give anyone half an opening, they'd be covering him on the society pages. Can't you get him to do anything more scintillating than going to a Jags game?"

"This is Jim we're talking about?" Blair teased, enjoying the light tone after a tense day.

"Yes, Jim decorated war hero, Officer of the Year, Adonis-would-die-for-my-body Ellison. Yeah. That Jim Ellison," Wendy said sarcastically. Her mood changed quickly. "You wouldn't be here if you weren't worried about this. What's going on, Blair?" Blair started to open his mouth, and Wendy interrupted. "We are off the record. Totally."

"There's a very bad guy from Jim's past out for revenge. He made threats, told Jim he wanted him to know it was coming. The story this afternoon was part of it. The woman being interviewed wasn't even the little girl's mother, and I did the interview, not Jim."

"Jim must be going nuts."

"That's not all. He went after his dad, but Jim got him out of the city, so he wasn't home. Totally trashed the house. I think if Bill had been there, he would have hurt him, maybe killed him. The guy's for real."

"Shit. What's Jim doing about it?"

"We can't find the guy. Besides, I think Jim expected a frontal assault. He's made it tough for the bastard, and now he's changed tactics. I think this afternoon was just a preamble."

"I'll be blunt, Blair. What does he have to exploit? Does Jim Ellison have any skeletons in the closet, even little ones, that can be embellished? Spin is everything, my friend."

Blair chewed his lip thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I can answer that. Maybe we all have secrets. What would it do to your career if someone played up the faked story that got you fired the first time?"

"It would make it really tough," Wendy said seriously. "The only hope is that honesty will pull the teeth of the tiger. I've accepted that my reputation will never be completely clear. Now answer my question."

"Let's look at it the other way. Let's assume there's something, even without basis in fact. How would a stranger market it to create the most damage?"

"Okay, I get your drift. If the story had the patina of legitimacy, you go to the normal outlets. Get a headline and count on the fact that a retraction won't have the impact of the original accusation."

"Like this afternoon," Blair said flatly.

"Exactly like this afternoon." Wendy's eyes narrowed. "If it's flimsier - there's always the tabloid press, or reporters on the fringes trying to make a name." She snatched a tablet off her desk. "Talk to Phil Crane at the paper. I'll call ahead for you. He'd know which reporters on their staff have the right mix of ambition and weak ethics. As far as freelance, let me check around."

"How can we blunt that?"

"Interesting thought," Wendy said. "This current story gives you a foot in the door. Go right to the front office. Sit down with the head honcho here and at Channel 5. Tell them what you suspect might happen. If they accept that they've been burned with today's story, it might make them real cautious about running anything else." She scribbled more notes on the pad. She tossed it to him and grabbed her phone. "Sit right there. If I can track him down, I'm going to have a face to face with my boss, and get him in here."

Jim stood at the door of their room, the door card dangling loosely in his hand. He leaned his forehead against the smooth surface of the door. No heartbeat. Blair wasn't inside waiting for him. Wearily, he slid the key through the slot and opened the door.

He didn't really need the lights, but he clicked them on anyway. It might freak Blair out to walk into a dark, seemingly empty room. He called room service, ordered some sandwiches and a salad for Blair, and settled on the couch with a bottle of water. As the bottle emptied, he squeezed the plastic, popping it back and forth. He wanted to crush something, release his frustration in some physical way.

What a fruitless day. He was no closer to nailing Faller. If anything, Faller had the advantage. He had no idea what to do next, and by morning, his status in the department might be in jeopardy. If they pulled his shield, where would that leave him? Worse, where would it leave Blair? Stranded in lonely no-man's land between the department and his partner?

He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes. Sleep wasn't a remote possibility until Sandburg set foot through the door. He conjured up memories of Blair's voice, talking him though a relaxation exercise. If he could shunt away the tension, maybe he could think, come up with a plan. He wasn't very good at this even with Blair right there coaching him, but he took a deep breath and released it.

"John, can I have a word?"

John Sagle looked up from his cluttered desk and the host of problems that went along with the news division. "Wendy. Good show tonight. Sure, come on in. Actually, I'm glad you came. This just came over the fax." Wendy read quickly. Just as Blair had said, item by item. She handed it back to her boss. "Makes you wonder why they didn't get that out in time for the ten o'clock broadcasts, doesn't it?" he said.

"Would it surprise you that I knew ahead of time?" Wendy said.

Sagle frowned. "I'd want to know why the hell we weren't the only one breaking that story. Anytime we can scoop our competitors, we should be doing it."

"Come with me, John. There's someone I'd like you to meet."

Simon Banks pulled at the tie that had been torturing him all day. His administrative status might dictate he wore the damn thing, but he didn't have to drive home in it. Damn, what a day it had been. Rousted out of bed by the paperboy and tucked in by a stupid political fiasco. To top it off, Ellison and Sandburg had taken off, and he really had no idea what they were up to.

He stepped out of the stairwell into the parking garage. The area was brightly lit, and typically quiet this time of night, but something set Simon's radar off. He took two more slow steps, and knelt down, ostensibly checking his briefcase. He could see nothing out of place, but every trained instinct was on alert. Faking that he'd forgotten something, he headed for the doorway he'd just come through. At the last moment, as he reached for the handle, he ducked low.

The bullet chipped the wall just above his head. The ricochet followed him down.

Jim heard the wheels on the room service cart long before it reached their room. When the expected knock came, he called out, "Just leave it." The poor soul delivering hesitated, no doubt hoping for a tip at this hour of the night. Jim was content to outwait him. The scents from the food tickled his nose long before the sound of retreating footsteps finally satisfied him.

It was nearly one in the morning before he broke down and polished off the Reuben he'd ordered. The first few bites chased away enough fatigue to realize he was starving. The sandwich and fries were gone in an instant. He checked the time again. Where was Sandburg? Had he even made it to the television station?

Sounds in the hallway - finally! Jim bounded over to the door before Blair could swipe his key.

"Hey! Hope you saved some for me," Blair said cheerfully as he breezed past.

"Where have you been?" Jim blurted out. "And of course I saved some."

Blair had shrugged out of his coat and was peeking under the covered entrees. "Man, that chicken salad looks great. Thanks." He settled on the couch, plate in his lap. "Calm down, Jim and I'll save you the time. Yes, I'm perfectly capable of going off on my own." He took a mouthful and continued talking. "Mmmph - good. 'Cuse my manners. Wendy was a big help."

Jim knew he was wasting his breath chewing Sandburg out. He selected another sandwich and a second order of fries. "Good, and you're still not off the hook."

Blair smiled sweetly. "Yeah, yeah. The department's denial came in after the broadcast started. Why were they so late?"

"By design, I think. I'm pretty sure Faller has a guy in the Mayor's office." He gave Blair the summary of the prolonged meeting in Simon's office. "Looking back, maybe that was the whole point, to delay the statement. It won't have much punch tomorrow, no matter what it says."

"Maybe. Wendy and her boss were not pleased. Whatever we think of media people, they don't like to retract stories. They're pretty steamed about being played."

"Then they're all the more likely to bury it. I'm screwed either way." Jim tossed the remainder of the sandwich onto the plate. "Which brings us back to the beginning. It was stupid to expose yourself when there was really nothing to be gained. The damage was done."

"That's not why I went." Blair watched his friend's expression change. "You're finally listening. It occurred to me that Faller was changing tactics. You put a lot out of his reach, Jim. He's coming at you from a different angle; I'm sure of it."

"I'm not sure I follow. Besides, you don't know Faller."

"You're right. I don't know the man. But if you'll forgive me, I'm a decent amateur psychologist. He wants to crush everything that's important to you, and when you've suffered enough, take your life." Blair gave him a challenging look. "Give me a little credit. Tell me if I'm off base here."

"No," Jim said, poking at the abandoned sandwich. "And I apologize for me shitty attitude."

"I hadn't noticed," Blair said with a wry smile. "He went after your family and missed. You've made your closest friends difficult targets. So what's most readily available? He wants to ruin your life, including your reputation. I asked Wendy how she'd run a smear campaign, what she'd do, who she'd talk to. We may be able to head Faller off, if we're quick and take the time to think it through." Blair shoveled in a few more bites of salad. "We can't talk to anyone tonight. Let's wake up early, and we can figure this out. I can't think about anything unless I get some sleep. I have all these ideas just jumbled in my head, and I can't get them out coherently."

Jim nodded slowly. "You're plenty coherent. I'm the one not processing here. I'm just as punchy as you are. Look, I'm done eating. I'll shower and clear out for you." He gathered up his dishes and piled them on the tray. Blair had returned to his meal, but it looked like every bite took effort. Jim regretted his harsh tones earlier, even though Blair had brushed them aside. He stopped on his way to the bathroom and placed a hand on his partner's shoulder. "Thanks for thinking ahead, Chief. It's good that we're both not panicking."

Blair looked back over his shoulder. "You're not in a panic, Jim. It's against your nature."

Jim smiled ruefully. "Say it enough times and it might be true. Goodnight, partner."

Too bright. Voices from far away. He burrowed back into the darkness. A pillow? Didn't matter.


No. Hurt. G'way. Make 'em go away.

"Come on, Simon. Open your eyes. You can do it, buddy."

He opened is eyes just a bit. The face was blurry, indistinct, but the voice... Taggart?

"That's it. Yeah, look at me."

"Jzo'l? Wha...?"

"Stay with me, Simon. You're in the hospital, but you'll be okay. You hear me, Simon? You know who I am? Just squeeze my hand if it's hard to talk."

"S'ok." The room spun, but Joel's face stabilized in the center of the whirlpool. "Wha time? How...long?" Joel was close now, holding his hand, an anchor in the chaos.

"Two - three hours." Joel pushed the call button. "You scared me for a bit, my friend."


"You heard it? Didn't hit you. Took a couple of fragments to that hard head of yours. We were lucky, Simon."


"Yeah. I know. Simon, how can I find Jim? Do you have a number? I need to talk to Jim."

"Uhn nnn...h'call..."

The nurse came flying through the door. Joel shook his head as she came close. "Sorry. He drifted off again."

"It's okay. I could have been quicker. I was tied up with another patient." She checked Simon's vitals. "Everything looks good. It's fine for him to rest. How did he sound?"

"Groggy, but he knew what was going on." Joel scrubbed his hands across his face, trying to wake up.

"Captain Taggart, there are officers all over this floor. Why don't you go home and let us look after him?"

Joel shook his head. "I'll stay for a bit longer. His son's away. There isn't anyone else."

"Sure," the nurse said. "How about some coffee? I can probably rustle up a few extra pillows."

"That'd be great." Joel settled back in the armchair. It was a huge relief to hear Simon's voice, even if he was still out of it. He pulled the evidence bag out of his pocket. The tiny worry doll mocked him and sent a chill to the center of his being. Faller had been confident enough to take the shot right in the station, then walk up and leave his calling card right on Simon's chest.

Damn that bastard for coming into their lives.

Jim woke early. He never did sleep well in hotel rooms, under any circumstances.

Down the hall, he could hear Sandburg's soft snores. If the situation hadn't been so dire, he would have smiled. From way back in his grad student days, snoring was a good barometer of how tired Sandburg was. At the end of finals week, the poor guy used to rattle the windows in the loft.

Who was he kidding? That Sandburg was beat and he wasn't? Jim lay back, grabbing an extra pillow to stuff under his head. It was good to be still, in the quiet, and just let thoughts wash over him. He allowed himself to drop into the blissful state between awake and asleep, where dreams were directed instead of unruly and haunting. If only he could erase the last twenty-four hours, snip Faller out of his existence. Maybe Sandburg would have been beside him instead of down the hall, the two of them gloriously tangled together.

He snickered to himself, continuing to drift. No certainty there. After all, there was love, and then there was - love. Blair might have smiled and let him down gently, opting for platonic rather than romantic. He'd known the risks when he'd decided to ask. Jim conjured the fantasy in his head: the elegant evening, the loving, hoped-for acceptance. It would have been perfect.

It would have been a damn miracle. A damn impossible, unlikely miracle. And if they got through this, Sandburg would never be able to overlook the flawed, damaged goods he would be spending life with. No. Reality had come crashing down, and it was best to bow to the inevitable and move on.

Blair was stirring. Jim rolled to his side, miserable. As a young man, he'd bolted from home to the Army, hoping to leave the painful jumble labeled "family" behind. After years in the military, with his closest friends dead, confronted with the evil of Faller and Oliver, he'd reversed course and fled again, opting for his hometown and the Cascade PD. His marriage had foundered, and he'd been relieved to escape with no lasting entanglements.

Jim considered the possibility, to leave his problems behind one more time. He could resign, pull up stakes and just vanish, leaving Faller searching for a phantom he'd never find. Sandburg; well, he didn't want to think about that. Damn. The truth hurt. He had nowhere else to run. What would be the point? For the first time he had ties he didn't want to walk away from. He didn't want to start his life over again, and denial wouldn't wish this one away.

Jim rolled out of bed. Rather than be overwhelmed, he could keep going. Make coffee. Eat. Shunt all the hard realities until later. He didn't allow himself to linger at Sandburg's doorway, wishing for the dream that had already shattered.

"Where the hell have you been!"

Jim stopped dead in his tracks. When Simon was bellowing such things, well, that was business as usual. But Taggart?

"Uh - hi, Joel," Blair stammered. He looked at Jim, equally surprised by the buzz saw they'd walked into. "We've been trying to run some preemptive action and it took longer than we expected. What's wrong? We've been trying to reach Simon and..."

Joel leaned across the nearest desk, his eyes flashing. "Of course, you can't reach Simon. He's in the hospital. Why the hell didn't you leave us some way to contact you?"

"Hospital?" Jim blurted out.

"Is he okay?" Blair asked. "What happened?"

Taggart motioned toward Simon's office. "Get in there," he said sharply. "We need to talk." Blair and Jim exchanged glances and did as they were told. Joel shut the door firmly behind them. "That son of a bitch took a shot at Simon. He's still pretty out of it, but near as I can tell, he was headed for his car, smelled the ambush and took cover. He took some bullet fragments and chips from the cinderblock off the ricochet."

"How bad?" Jim asked.

"He'll be fine," Joel said, his voice gradually returning to its usual steady calm. "They plan on releasing him tonight or maybe tomorrow morning. You know how head wounds are. It looked like he had his skull blown out when we got to him. Scared me out of a couple years of life."

"It had to be Faller," Jim said grimly.

"There's no doubt." Joel pulled an evidence bag out of his pocket. "Recognize that?"

"Another worry doll," Blair said without picking it up. "How did he get that close?"

Joel shook his head. "That's the scary part. Walked up after Simon was down and left it on his chest."

Jim dropped into the nearest chair. "Simon shouldn't be breathing. It's not Faller's style to show mercy."

Blair grabbed Jim's shoulder, guessing how shaken he was. "Maybe the damage looked so bad he assumed Simon was dead, and didn't have time to really check." He looked at Joel. "The garage wasn't deserted. Someone had to have heard."

"They did," Joel said. "I don't understand how he got out."

"A uniform. I'll lay odds he had a uniform," Jim said. "No one would be checking badge numbers." He lowered his head into his hand, then banged a fist onto the arm of the chair. "Damn it. I warned him. I warned everyone."

"Jim, for all you know, Simon had that in the back of his mind," Blair said. "It probably saved his life." Blair could tell his partner was taking small comfort from that thought. "Is he under guard, Joel?"

Joel nodded emphatically. "I've got men all over that hospital. I was there until about seven. I've got Rafe on the door right now. No one gets in except for one of us."

"You'll be next," Jim said. "He saw you at the scene yesterday."

Taggart pulled up a chair next to his fellow detective. "Maybe, maybe not. Simon called me after your meeting with the brass. If Faller really has that overdressed monkey Purnell in his pocket, maybe he's the one who fingered Simon."

"What?" Jim asked. "I'm not following this."

"Think about it. Simon took all the heat and tossed it right back in their faces. If Faller wants to use the department to discredit you, Simon's proved himself a major stumbling block. Under normal circumstances, an acting captain, called in on short notice, wouldn't be privy to your suspicions. They'd be very susceptible to pressure. Getting Simon out of the way would make things a lot easier." He allowed that to sink in. "It's still not your fault, and don't even think it, Jim. They won't get any farther with me than they did with Simon."

"I guess I didn't consider the possibility," Jim admitted. "My performance has been pretty pitiful so far."

"Well, we need to regroup," Joel said. "First of all, I want a means of contacting you, and I want someone else in the loop in case something else disastrous goes down. Then I want to hear what you've been up to all morning while I've been losing my mind."

Jim didn't answer. He had a blank look on his face, as if the other people in the room were of no particular interest. Blair watched him carefully. His breathing was normal, and his eyes didn't have the telltale glassiness of a zone. Better to just let him process for a minute. "We had a little session with Michael Rollins," Blair said, filling the silence. He pulled a chair close to Jim and waited for Joel to take a seat as well.

"The editor of the paper?" Joel asked.

"The same," Blair said. "After that little fiasco yesterday, I was thinking Faller might go after Jim by releasing more false info to the media. Here's how I see it. Faller was going to kidnap or hurt his father or brother, maybe take them hostage, but Jim got his family out of town. He had to try other avenues to place pressure on Jim, to rattle him. I thought we might be able to keep it from happening. It seems like a stupid waste of time now, after hearing about Simon. We should have come in first thing. I apologize, Joel. It was my idea."

"I think it was a great idea," Joel said. "Were they receptive? Or did they think you were aiming for a cover-up?"

Jim snapped out of his reverie. "You're not responsible for Simon, Chief. It was a better idea than anything I thought of yesterday." He looked at Blair, who shrugged. "I think they'll take it under advisement. We gained some credibility when the hospital tapes showed the woman interviewed yesterday was a fraud. The best we can hope for is that if anything else drops in their lap, they'll be a bit more skeptical."

"Well, that's a start," Taggart said grudgingly. He pulled a small notebook out of his suit pocket. "I want that contact information. I understand the logic in dropping out of sight, but this was bad. Who else do you want in the know?"

Jim shook his head. This was exactly the opposite of what he had intended. "What you know can make you a target, Joel. Look at Simon." Jim stood up abruptly and went to the window, his back toward the other two men. His stance was rigid, tense to the point of seeming brittle.

Joel rocked back in his chair just slightly. Blair had seen the same look on Joel's face when he'd puzzled his way through a particularly difficult problem. "Let me guess," he said in a low, even voice. "You think if you toss that shield of yours on the desk that it will make a difference? Keep Faller from going after anyone else in Major Crime? Well, you're wrong."

Jim turned to face them, his arms crossed, his expression defiant. "Sounds like a pretty good bet to me."

"Yesterday he targeted complete strangers. Did it bother you any less? Did you feel any less guilty?" Jim answered with stony silence. Joel didn't miss a beat. "I thought not."

"Faller should be my problem," Jim said angrily. "My first responsibility is to make sure this stays my problem, and mine alone." He reached across his body, fumbling for the shield clipped to his belt.

"Damn you, Ellison." Joel came out of Simon's chair. Joel's normal, even tones were clipped and harsh. "You snap yourself out of this lone wolf, self-serving bullshit." He marched around the desk, past Blair and into Jim's personal space. Blair watched in horrified fascination. A profanity out of Joel's mouth? He'd never known it to be in Joel's nature to carry such fury. "You let Simon take a bullet for you, and denigrate that by walking out of here, I swear I'll whip your ass."

"The hell you will..." Jim shouted back, completely losing his composure in the face of this new assault.

"The hell I won't. As God is my witness, I'll throw you in a holding cell myself."

The two men glared at each other in silence. Blair sat in frozen shock. The big friendly bear he knew as Joel Taggart was not the man in front of him. Taggart's impressive bulk crackled with energy. Jim looked about ready to snap. There'd be no turning back if he did. Blair realized he was gripping the chair arms hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Without moving, he said evenly, "Sit down, Jim."

Jim didn't move. His expression was frozen with anger.

"I said, 'Sit down', and I meant it. Joel's right."

Jim's eyes flicked to his partner's face, then back to Joel's. He took a single step backwards, but lost none of the fire in his eyes.

Blair stared grimly at the floor, knowing that his next words would exact a terrible price. He also knew he had no choice. Jim was losing ground, believing that he was in a fight he couldn't win. He wasn't thinking clearly, and only a major shock would jerk him back to reality. "You got one thing right. This is your mess to clean up." Jim's intense eyes were locked on his own when he looked up. At least he had Jim's attention. "Go ahead, turn in your shield. Throw away what few resources you have in an empty gesture that appeals to your own vanity and pride. Run off and leave us because you're a loner and it's all on you. Guess what? Faller will see right through it." Jim's jaw clenched ever so slightly. Blair leaned slightly in Jim's direction, regretting what he was going to say next. No one can hurt you like a trusted friend. "What kind of a target do you think is painted on my back, Jim? You really think it'll vanish because you throw a tantrum and leave the playground? Maybe I should expect you to revert to type and hang me out to dry. We've been there before."

With regret, Blair knew his last arrow had sliced the soul. Jim swallowed hard, but blustered back. "That's not what's happening here. Any time you want a new partner, just go right ahead."

"That's the point, Jim. I am your partner, and the people in this department are your brothers-in-arms. You don't get to dismiss us with a few self-righteous statements and a bunch of crap about going it alone. We have a choice, and we chose you a long time ago. We're going to keep choosing you even if you try to ditch us. Now to quote our captain, knock this bullshit off, sit down, and let's do some police work. 'Cause if you don't, I'm going to help Joel throw your butt in that holding cell and let that stew some sense into you."

Jim opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it without uttering a word. Blair couldn't miss the hurt in his eyes.

Predictably, Taggart broke the silence. "I apologize, Jim. I know you're under a lot of pressure, no sleep, working all hours. I shouldn't have backed you into a corner like that."

The lines of Jim's shoulders relaxed, and he shook his head slightly. "Taggart, how much sleep did you get? Zero? You didn't say anything Simon wouldn't have said, and I had it coming."

"Enough said. Consider no harm done. Shall we get to work?" Taggart offered his hand. Jim responded in kind, and didn't resist when Joel clapped him on the shoulder. Instead of sitting at the desk, their acting captain pulled up a chair by Blair. "I want to go over everything, from start to finish," he said firmly. "I don't care how long it takes."

"The first call came to the loft," Jim said. His voice was forced, almost mechanical. Blair settled back in his chair, willing to let Jim tell his own story. Damage control would have to wait for another time.

Faller ducked into an empty exam room. He flung the white lab coat into a corner with a curse. So Banks had survived, and he had no hope of getting to him to finish the job.

He leaned against the corner in rising fury. In his overconfidence, he'd let Ellison second-guess him. He had Banks dead to rights, and hadn't finished the job. How could he allow himself to be so careless and sloppy? In the old days, he'd never let an opponent get a reprieve. His skills were rusty. He refused to consider the other possibilities. The shot had been from a bad angle. The miss didn't really mean anything. Banks wasn't really important, anyway. He was just as much out of commission injured as dead.

He wanted to break Ellison's spirit, make him beg for mercy. He should be hitting Ellison with a hard, unrelenting stream of adversity. You needed to drive a man like Ellison to the brink of despair to make any progress. These little missteps blunted the psychological impact.

He'd underestimated the depth of Ellison's support. He needed to increase the pressure, and fast. His master plan had called for Ellison to be isolated and alone by now. It was time for some storm and fury. He smiled grimly. They could lock him up, blunt his instincts, but he wasn't giving up yet. As fire burned through the grass, he would eliminate those close to his target. He could turn adversity into advantage.

He checked the hallway before he walked briskly to the nearest emergency exit.

"He's lying, Chief. I'm sure of it."

Blair let out his breath in a frustrated huff of air. "Do we have enough to get a warrant?"

"I doubt it. We'd just be wasting the time it would take us to file the paperwork."

"Faller set off a bomb in a public place, endangering civilians. I would think the DA's office would be pretty motivated if we think we've located his supplier."

Jim drummed his fingers on the steering wheel of the sedan they were using for the day. "I don't know. Call Beverly. See if she'll buy it." He backed the car into the street. "I want to talk with Simon before I go anywhere else."

Blair stopped in the middle of dialing. "I don't think he can tell us anything, Jim. Joel's already been by twice this morning."

"Doesn't matter. I need to see him, whether he can tell us anything or not." Jim was staring out the windshield, avoiding eye contact. The steady Cascade drizzle seemed to be requiring all of his attention.

"Oh. Right." Blair concentrated on his call and left Jim with his unspoken thoughts. They were both tired and fighting the temptation to snap at each other over nothing. The harsh exchange of words in Simon's office lurked like a black, amorphous mass between them. Neither of them had the energy to undo the damage.

The phone call lasted as long as the drive. Blair snapped the phone shut. "Nada."

Jim shrugged. "Why doesn't she volunteer for the stakeout, since she thinks it's such a great alternative?"

"You overheard that, huh? I suppose she has a point."

"Oh, really?" Jim said sarcastically. "If Faller waltzed back into that place, I wouldn't need the damn warrant to try to find him, now would I?" Blair looked out the window and started to open the car door. Jim did the same, disgusted with himself. "Sandburg, I didn't mean that."

Blair was already headed for the entrance. Jim ran a few steps to catch up. The only outward sign of Sandburg's irritation was the furious pace he was setting. Jim didn't pull even until the automatic doors were hissing apart in front of them.

"Sandburg, come on!"

Blair stopped abruptly. "Why don't you head on up? I'll run by the cafeteria and grab us some sandwiches and fruit. I'll be there in a bit. Simon's in room 474."

"Damn it," Jim muttered. Blair was seriously irked, and it was his fault. He started up the stairs, disgusted with himself and his inability to keep his emotions in check. This was exactly what Faller wanted to accomplish, and he was playing into it like he didn't know any better.

Fourth floor of Cascade General was reserved for general surgical patients. As usual, the smells of illness and medication were nearly overwhelming. Along with everything else, his sense of smell didn't want to dial down. By the time he checked in with the desk, the headache was already forming behind his eyes. He quickly swallowed two aspirin before Sandburg got back to catch him, and waved to the officers posted at the end of the hallway.

Rafe was seated by the door to 474. His normally crisp suit was rumpled, and the silk necktie was loose. "Hey, Jim. Go on in. The doctor was just here. I think things are looking good."

"Why don't you go ahead and take a break for a few minutes? Sandburg will be up, and we can cover it. Take a walk, stretch your legs."

"Do you have long enough for me to hit the Starbucks?" Rafe stood and stretched both arms over his head. "It's a couple blocks - maybe twenty minutes."

"Go for it," Jim said. "That'll be perfect." He knocked gently and went in.

Simon was sitting up. His eyes were closed and his head was leaning back against the pillows. Jim hesitated at the door, reluctant to wake him, when the eyelids opened slowly and Simon raised a hand.

"Hey. Come on in, Jim."

Jim walked to the bedside and looked down at his friend. Simon looked too big for the hospital bed, which made the sight of his stricken commanding officer all the more unnerving. "Were you resting? How's the ole brain bucket?"

Simon gave him a weak grin. "Leaky, but not broken. The stitches are driving me bonkers." He pointed to the left side of his brow. Long rows of black stitches snaked back across his forehead and into his hair. "I feel like a damn crazy quilt. They itch and won't quit."

Jim took a closer look. "No wonder you scared the life out of Taggart. Was it all superficial?"

"Pretty much. Still gave me a concussion. Been a long time since I had a headache like this."

"You were lucky, sir." Jim shook his head. "I can't tell you how sorry I am."

"Taggart warned me you were trying to claim this one. You know better. Water under the bridge." Simon reached for a glass of water on the side table. Jim got it first and held it steady for Simon to take a long sip. "You warned me. I never saw the bastard, but I knew he was there. I ducked at the last minute."

"You know about the worry doll?"

"Taggart told me. I have a very fuzzy image of someone standing over me, and then hearing 'officer down'. I think the troops arriving spooked him." Simon watched his detective closely. "Joel told me you almost turned in your badge. I don't want to hear any more of that shit."

"He shouldn't be bothering you with that stuff," Jim said. He looked away, not really wanting to have this conversation. "It wasn't my finest moment."

"Maybe not, but understandable. Besides, I have a headache, not cancer. The minute they spring me, I'm going right back to my desk."

Jim riveted his attention back on his commanding officer. "Don't be stupid, sir. A concussion isn't a hangnail. You need to recover."

"Don't you think I know how many officers Joel has guarding this place? If I'm at the station, think of the personnel it frees up. I'm not going home, either. That'll just pull more men off." He waved off Jim's protests. "I've already thought it through, and I outrank you, so that discussion is over. Tell me what the latest is."

Jim sat down, pulling the chair over so Simon could see him easily. "I think we know Faller's local source for the fuse material. We can't get a warrant, so it's probably a dead end. There haven't been any more incidents, so we're kind of stuck."

"Did he take off? Or is he just waiting for a better opportunity?"

"It would be smart for him to wait until our guard goes down, but my gut tells me otherwise. Sandburg just thinks he's regrouping, changing tactics again. Maybe he'll create another incident like yesterday, but we can't anticipate his intentions. I feel like a sitting duck."

"Not like you to be so pessimistic, Jim. You're letting the personal stuff get to you, which is exactly what Faller wants. Where is Sandburg, by the way?"

Jim played with the edge of the blanket like it actually held his interest. "He went to the cafeteria. He was getting some food, but mostly he's just pissed off at me."

"Ellison, I can't imagine you being temperamental or anything." Simon gave him a smirk. "Okay, so it's not high comedy." His grin disappeared. "I won't be there to knock you into shape, so I'll say this just once. Cut yourself some slack, and maybe you'll do right by your partner at the same time."

"Truer words were never spoken." Blair peeked around the door, his arms laden with food. "Good to see you up, Simon. What kind of a diet do they have you on?" He nudged the door shut with his foot, since his hands were full. "I brought you a strawberry shake. Can you have that?"

"Hand it over, detective, or I'll get out of this bed and cuff you myself."

The conference room at Channel 10 was deserted except for the two of them. They'd read through everything twice. John Sagle spread the sheets in front of him, studying them again, one by one. Wendy stood beside him, looking over his shoulder.

"These are explosive," Sagle murmured. "Incredible stuff, if it's true."

"It's a setup, John. It's got to be. Do you think this really sounds like Jim Ellison?"

"In a word, no." Sagle drummed his finger on the table. "We have a responsibility to the public."

"The same responsibility that requires us to check out a story before we report it," Wendy said firmly. "The photos are blurry, we have no means of checking the allegations. We got burned yesterday. You really want to go there again?"

"You call Phil Crane at the paper. I'll call channel 5. Let's see if they got the same packet of crap."

"What are you thinking?" Wendy said. "I won't lie to you. I'm not entirely unbiased, but I think it stinks."

"I think maybe the real story is an outside source is trying to manipulate the Cascade media. If all of the major outlets play it that way, no one gets burned on missing a scoop. We're protecting the public interest, not participating in a cover-up. Like I said, call Phil. Even money says he's got the same envelope burning a hole in his pocket."

Shawn Purnell hung up the phone with a shaking hand. Sweat beaded in a thin line above his eyebrows. One hand rubbed across his lips, which suddenly felt dry and cracked. The steaming mug of coffee sat at his left hand, but swallowing a mouthful seemed beyond him.

God, how had this gotten so out of control? Ellison was a pompous ass, always in the limelight, the golden guy. He was also completely uncooperative, politically nave, and dismissive of anyone who didn't see the world in a cop's eye view. When the first call had come, he'd jumped at the chance to turn the screws to the man he resented. At the time, the money offered hadn't seemed important; just an added perk for a little malicious prank, just desserts for someone who'd made his own life difficult.

Now the demands were taking a different turn. Purnell spread the photos across his desk. He didn't like Ellison, but these had to be total bullshit. The falsehood wouldn't stand forever. When the tide turned, he'd be the one answering all the hard questions. But what choice did he have? When could the guy have gotten him on tape? Shit, everything he'd worked for could blow up in his face. He liked his job, liked rubbing shoulders with the powerful. He worked an easy day, spent a lot of time on golf courses and at receptions, improving his contacts and spinning the locals for his boss. The mayor liked his work. When he ran for higher office, Purnell was confident he'd be along for the ride, maybe all the way to DC.

Perhaps the past tense was more correct. He had been confident.

"Let me take that, Simon. You look like you're ready for another nap."

"Thanks, Sandburg. That beats the custard they were trying to pawn off on me." Simon leaned back on the pillows and sighed. "Damn. I hate the headache, but the pain meds just wipe me out."

"Which is exactly why you need to take them. How far back do you want the bed?" Jim asked, manning the control.

Simon sighed as his body eased into a more comfortable position. "That's good. Maybe I can talk them into springing me this evening." A giant yawn ended that train of thought.

Jim carefully adjusted the blankets and poured a fresh glass of water. "Spend the night, sir. We can protect you better, and you're really not up to it yet. We'll try to come by sometime this evening. Can we bring you anything?"

"How about my cigars?"

Blair snickered. "Fat chance. The nurses would smell them at fifty paces. Rest easy, Captain. We'll try to bring you some good news when we come back." Simon was already nodding off. They left the room quietly.

Rafe wasn't back yet, so they waited in the hallway. "Feel better?" Blair asked.

"I guess. It never should have happened."

"Did Simon tell you anything that might help?"

"Not really. Just that his sixth sense told him something was up."

"What's wrong?" Blair asked.

"Am I that obvious? I guess that I'm surprised that Faller didn't make a play to finish the job. It's just not like him. He'd consider it a personal affront."

Blair looked down the hallway in both directions. The wide hall was cluttered with equipment, and plenty of personnel were moving between rooms. The officers standing guard at either end were obvious. "I don't know. It's a busy floor. Even at night, it isn't really deserted. The Cascade PD isn't hiding, either. Maybe he tried and decided he couldn't pull it off. "

"Maybe. Hang on for a second." Jim went to the desk. Blair couldn't hear all of his questions, but the nurse on duty nodded several times. Rafe arrived as Jim was returning.

"They're going to try to pull some security tapes for us to look at," Jim said. "Who relieves you, Rafe?"

"Taggart, I think, but if he can't get away, one of the other guys. I think I'm supposed to hook up with Brown. Then Megan is staying the night. You think we could have trouble?"

"Maybe," Jim said. "I have a bad feeling. We'll check with you later, buddy." Jim stopped again when they reached the stairwell.

"You want to stay, Jim?"

"No. Maybe." Jim shrugged. "I honestly don't know what to think," he said with a frown, and headed down the stairs to their car.

Faller snarled as he flipped off the television. The local affiliates weren't carrying anything about Ellison. He hurled the glass in his hand, shattering the glass and spattering the remaining liquid in a starburst across the wall. This was turning into one screw-up after another. If the media outlets were being coy, he'd have to rely on Purnell. He'd already had one conversation with the young man earlier. Did the little twerp really think not answering his phone would solve his problems?

He eyed the clothes spread on the bed and selected a button-down, wool slacks and an expensive leather jacket. He needed to pay Purnell a little personal visit, and then pick up some more transportation. The generic fatigue sweater and jeans didn't fit the image he needed.

Purnell wouldn't take long. Neither would a vehicle. Within an hour he'd be concentrating on his next objective. It was long overdue to pull Ellison away from his supports. He'd reevaluated, analyzing his mistakes. He should have seen it earlier. The new partner, this Sandburg, was Ellison's constant shadow. After deciding they weren't lovers, he'd dismissed the younger man, assuming Ellison was getting nothing from a misplaced academic who had somehow escaped the sixties. That had been a mistake.

Nothing else had rattled Ellison. Maybe he wouldn't be so cool when his shadow disappeared. How tough could a rookie cop be?

Blair hung up the phone. The water for his instant noodle soup was boiling. He grabbed it out of the microwave and kept talking. "Beverly's source from the feds went dry."

"What happened? Is the guy in trouble?" Jim asked.

Blair frowned as he ripped the plastic off the container and added the boiling water. He carried it back to the desk and sat down. "Maybe just a little worried. He called from Miami. Things were getting a bit uncomfortable and he opted for some leave he had coming. Said he couldn't send anything else, and apologized."

"Damn. I hope he's really okay."

"Beverly seemed to think once he was out of sight, that would do the trick." Blair stirred his noodles with exaggerated concentration. "It should be against the law to say "Instant' when you have to wait five minutes." He set the spoon down after popping it in his mouth. Jim was picky about food stains on the desk or their papers. "The more important issue is that it's another dead end."

"Don't you think I know that, Sandburg?" Jim said irritably. They were alone in the bullpen, waiting on Taggart. The setbacks and delays were getting to both of them.

Blair took a deep breath, visibly trying to keep hold of his temper. "Of course you know it. So do I. So does everyone trying to help us, and God knows how many members of the Cascade PD putting in overtime. Jim, it's time to talk with Jack. All our other options have played themselves out."

"We've been through this already. Kelso's not involved, and he's not going to be involved."

Blair weighed his next words carefully. "I question the wisdom of that decision. By delaying, we're putting innocent civilians at risk."

"Don't lay that on me, Sandburg," Jim said.

"You're not getting my point," Blair said. "Every day this cat and mouse game goes on, there's the possibility that Faller will try to get your attention by some random act of violence. Is it morally superior to protect Jack and risk other civilians? I don't think Jack would see it that way."

"Shut up, Sandburg." His face pulled tight, his tone contemptuous. "I don't have the patience for this new-age liberalistic crap. Call Naomi if you want to debate moral correctness."

"Earth to Ellison. You're out of patience?" Blair's tones were clipped in anger. He leaned across the desk in Jim's direction. "This is two old soldiers settling a score, and the shots all keep going into the crowd. It's about as new age as two gladiators going toe-to-toe in the Coliseum. And it is about morality. We're making choices that have repercussions."

"Jack's already taken one bullet. He was lucky to live. The answer's still 'no'."

"Oh, I see. The great Ellison has spoken. Is that how you think partners work?" Blair looked away and then blurted out his next words in a whisper dripping with emotion. "Any kind of partners? Life partners?"

"What else do you want from me?" Jim shouted. "I told you this wouldn't go down like a normal investigation from the start. I told you that from the beginning! Did you listen to me? Look at all this crazy, dead-end crap." In frustration, he flung both hands in a wide arc across the desk. The Styrofoam mug of instant soup sailed into Blair's lap.

"Shit!" Blair leaped out of the chair, slapping ineffectually at the soaked jeans. "Shit, that hurts! Ahhg!"

"I'm sorry!" Jim said anxiously, now standing helplessly by his friend. "Strip 'em off. Get it away from your skin."

Blair fanned at his pants while his skin continued to burn. "Damn. Damn, that hurts."

"I'm sorry," Jim said again. "Just get them off, Sandburg."

"I'm not in the mood to drop my pants in the middle of the bullpen, okay!" Blair snarled. His face was still etched with pain. He picked at the denim, trying to hold it away from his skin.

"I should hope not. Lord knows, I don't want to explain it to anyone." Both men turned to find Joel Taggart's large frame filling the doorway to the bullpen. "Simon always told me you two were a challenge to command, but he left out the naked in the office part."

"I'm with you on the naked," Blair said. Fragments of ramen noodles dropped forlornly from his jeans to the floor.

"Which explains why you're wearing lunch. How hot?"

"Boiling," Jim said. "It was my fault."

"I'll add it to the list of transgressions. I need to see you, Jim." He clapped Blair on the shoulder. "Get out of here, son. Clean up. There are some things you just can't work around. A crotch-full of hot soup is one of them."

"But I should..."

"I'll handle it," Joel said gently. "Go on, now."

Jim and Taggart disappeared into Simon's office. Blair sent the next five minutes trying to sponge soup off his jeans with paper towels. It wasn't working. A quick check showed red, raw skin below the denim. It hurt like hell. Blair winced as he zipped the jeans back up.

The only clothes he had at the hotel were more jeans. He had nothing in his locker except some cutoff sweats for workouts. He sighed in exasperation. He could send someone off to one of the department stores to buy him something with a looser fit.

He walked back to the bullpen, dreading the inevitable jokes about the provocative splotch on his front. Jim was still with Taggart, but the blinds were shut. Whatever was going on between them, he obviously wasn't to be included. He hesitated, trying to figure out who might have a few minutes to go shopping for him. He was on the verge of dialing Brown's cell number when he slammed the phone down instead.

He was sick of it. Sick of walking blocks to get to the station. Sick of slinking around like he was in some third-rate spy thriller. Sick of staying in a hotel like a fugitive, and most of all, sick of Jim's attitude. He needed some down time, and it was beyond stupid to send someone with better things to do off to buy clothes.

He'd let Jim call every shot so far, tried to be a support, and it was getting ridiculous. Both of them needed a little perspective before they discussed their differences. Blair scrawled a note for his partner. Partner, he thought ruefully. Maybe just the person he was assigned to work with. Maybe he and Jim were never going to progress beyond where they were now - truly in sync only when things were going fairly well. It always seemed to come back to that reality.

He didn't want to dwell on that thought. It was almost too depressing to bear. He creased the note with a flourish and left it on the desk. Jim really could get by for a little while on his own. He was going to get a car, drive to the loft, and get his own damn pants out of his own damn home. Feeling particularly defiant, he took the elevator instead of the stairs. The thought of hiking down multiple floors when every step hurt just wasn't appealing.

He took no notice of the stranger who exited the elevator as he entered. The elegant leather jacket and tie screamed attorney; the kind only the truly wealthy could afford. Blair wasn't in the mood to contemplate the inequities in the system he served. The remains of his lunch and general discomfort took all of his attention. He turned away, hoping to conceal his embarrassing clothing from other eyes.

Blair was still muttering to himself when the elevator doors slid closed. He never saw the man abruptly change directions and bolt down the stairway.

Joel gestured to the contents of the folder, spread in a wide arc on the desk. "I don't know what else to do, Jim. I've stonewalled this every way I can think. Simon can't think of anything either, and he's better at massaging the powers that be than anyone I know."

"You shouldn't have called Simon. He's supposed to be resting." Jim's fingers gripped tightly around the arms of the chair. "This just pisses me off. Tell me you don't believe it."

"You know I don't," Joel said, bringing an open hand down on the table between them. "It galls my soul that Purnell managed to pull this off. How could the mayor be so stupid? I've checked. Every major media outlet got this same stuff, and they all rejected it as unconfirmed rumor. They wouldn't touch it."

Jim rubbed at his forehead. His persistent headache was back. "So let me get this straight. I'm not suspended, and the allegations aren't being referred to IA."

"Right. Because this fairytale doesn't cover any actions while you were with the police department."

"So I'm just supposed to go on vacation because - because why?"

"Because Purnell has the mayor convinced it's the only was for the city to keep its hands clean. So they can announce the details of a story that can't be investigated, has no likelihood of being true, and didn't happen in Cascade, because they don't want to be accused of conducting a cover-up or withholding information from the public."

"Which they do on a regular basis whenever it suits them," Jim finished.

"That's why we call it politics." Joel's brown eyes glittered dangerously.

"And if I refuse?"

"They will send you on some wild goose chase out of the state, and when you refuse, you will be insubordinate and they will fire you. And then I will resign, and Simon will punch out the mayor, after he walks over here from Cascade General in his bare feet wearing a hospital gown. That's a quote, by the way. Then he'll resign, for all the good it will do."

"Joel, I need to stay on this case. There's got to be some civil service regulation that keeps this from happening."

"Which is why you need to call a lawyer." Joel leaned forward in his chair, resting his hands on his knees. "You need to be realistic about this, Jim. If the mayor's office releases this as an official statement, the media has to cover it, no matter what they suspect about the veracity of the allegations. I'm sure that was the whole point. No matter how it turns out in the end, the uproar will keep you from doing any kind of meaningful work."

"It's a pack of lies. All of it."

"Jim, believe me, I don't doubt it. The real issue is, can you disprove it?"

Jim made a helpless gesture. "You know I can't. The irony is, it should be a two-way street. A couple of blurry pictures and some wild allegations aren't proof positive either."

"A rumor doesn't have to be proven to do its damage," Joel said. "Isn't there someone you can contact? A commanding officer, someone you served with?"

"A lot of them are dead," Jim said, regret dripping from his voice. "Even if I could locate someone, I'd be asking him to violate a federal statute."

"There's got to be a way. We're back to getting legal advice. Maybe your father knows someone."

"This isn't corporate law, Joel. I don't think anyone in Cascade specializes in defending against war crimes. Do you?" He shook his head. "Look, I just can't deal with this right now. If they release the statement, I'll just keep working, and avoid making any comment. Be out of reach or something. Maybe I can find Faller before it gets impossible." He stood up. "You've got to excuse me. I need to mend some fences with my partner."

Taggart followed him out of the office, still talking. "At least let's contact someone to represent you." He knew Jim was doing his best to dismiss the whole issue, and took no offense. Sometimes denial was the best strategy. He waited patiently for a response, certain Jim wouldn't ignore him forever. Jim was shuffling through the piles of interview notes, forensics reports and assorted clutter on his desk.

"Oh, shit," Jim muttered softly. "Oh, no." He jerked his head to the right, checking the wall clock. "What time is it?"

"What?" Taggart asked, confused by the abrupt change of subject.

"Oh, God. Sandburg went to the loft. He can't do that. I've got to catch him. How long were we talking? I've got to get to our vehicle."

"It's a half-mile away. Forget it. I'll drive you. Go!" Joel hustled out the door on Jim's heels.

Maybe his luck had turned. This couldn't have worked more perfectly. Faller watched expectantly as Sandburg crossed the parking area and headed into 852 Prospect. Doing a little recon right outside Ellison's office had been a pretty crazy idea, but he'd never expected this kind of payoff. Even better, Ellison was nowhere in sight. The inseparable duo had finally parted company.

Faller opened his phone expectantly. The lights went on in the loft apartment, and he set his internal clock to wait one minute, maybe two. He couldn't help gloating just a bit. Brains paid off in the end. His earlier foray into Ellison's place was looking like a stroke of genius. He'd expected to sow a little consternation, send the message he could strike anywhere, anytime. This was beyond his wildest dreams.

His skin itched in anticipation. Wait - just a bit longer. He dialed the number, wishing he could transport himself to watch it all play out in person.

Blair tossed one pair of pants after another to the floor. Jeans were too rough, his old khakis too tight. Sweats would be comfortable, but he couldn't slum that much. His lone pair of summer-weight wool slacks were too dressy, but looked like the best choice. He gingerly pulled off his briefs, and winced as the elastic scraped across the tender skin. He smeared the area with burn ointment, which helped a bit. Next, he rummaged through his drawers in search of a pair of silk boxer shorts, and grimaced when he finally uncovered them - red with white hearts - Henri Brown's gag gift to him last Christmas. Jim would razz him forever. He settled them on his hips, hissing when the cold silk brushed the scalded skin. How much worse could the day get?

The phone started ringing. It was probably Jim, having a fit because he was here without proper precautions. He stomped out to the living area, red hearts and all, rehearsing his rebuttal. After all, Jim was the one who'd dumped the soup all over him.

"Hello? Jim?" Blair stared at the phone. The line was open, but no one was answering. "Jim! Come on, man. Don't make a big deal out of it. I'll be out of here in just a sec...and ... whoa..."

Three floors below, Faller heard the solid reassuring thump of a body hitting the floor. Grinning, he disconnected and moved his vehicle around to the alley in back, determined to take advantage of what fortune had thrown in his way.

Jim had placed four calls to Sandburg on the ride over; none had been answered. He was out of the car before Joel pulled it to a stop. They left the car double-parked. He could hear Jim's feet pounding up the stairs and opted for the elevator. No way was he going to catch him on foot. The temperamental elevator cooperated. Jim was fumbling with his keys when Joel joined him.

"I don't hear him. Where is he?"

Joel realized the statements weren't meant for him, just Jim thinking out loud. Like all the members of Major Crime, he had gotten very good at disregarding Ellison's idiosyncratic moments. He made no comment, and when Jim reached for his revolver and flipped the safety, he did the same.

"Sandburg?" Jim shouted, kicking the door open.

The room was empty. The phone was abandoned on the floor, beeping, asking to be hung up. The two men went opposite directions. Joel headed for the kitchen.

"Nothing in here," he called out.

Jim cautiously climbed the stairs to his room. "Clear. They're here somewhere."

"They?" Joel said, moving along the wall, checking the bathroom. At the doorway to Blair's room, he shouted, "Jim! Get in here!"

Clothes were strewn across the floor. The curtains floated gently into the room on the breeze from the open window. "Shit!" Jim cried. He flew to the windows and ripped back the cotton fabric of the curtains. "Freeze, Faller! Cascade PD!

Joel shifted to catch a glimpse of their quarry. The man he assumed was Faller had Sandburg thrown across his shoulders in a fireman's carry. The lowest section of the fire escape had already been dropped. Sandburg's body was limp. He was unconscious, or badly hurt.

"Take the shot, Ellison!" Faller shouted defiantly. He leaned back on the railing. "Your partner goes right over the side." He took a step, then another, sliding down along his intended escape route. "Go ahead," he taunted. "A couple story drop won't do much damage."

Jim stepped over the windowsill onto the rickety metal, following Faller step for step. Joel slid into position behind him, hoping to stay out of sight. "Give it up, Faller," Jim said, his aim never wavering. "I'll drop you, I swear."

"Crappy angle, Ellison, and a worse choice. We got ourselves a standoff. Put the gun down, I put him down." He shifted Sandburg across his shoulder, dangling his torso in midair, holding onto his legs behind the knees. "I'm not waiting for backup to show, Ellison. I'm pitching him into the wild blue." He took another sliding step, now inches from the ladder and escape.

Jim started to lower his gun. Faller shook his head. "Nope. Over the side. Do it now, or he goes over."

Jim tossed the gun and took several steps simultaneously, closing the gap between himself and Sandburg. From his awkward angle just inside the window, Joel watched it unfold, the action both too slow and too fast.

Faller released Blair's legs and surged forward, groping for a hold on the ladder. His forward momentum left Blair's torso balanced precariously, sliding down the handrail. Jim dove for Sandburg's feet, barely snagging an ankle before he tipped into freefall. "Take him out!" he shouted. "Taggart, take the shot!"

The angle was bad, and Faller was partially shielded from view by Jim. Jim, spread full length on the stair treads, couldn't hold Blair's weight. Blair was slipping over the railing despite Jim's frantic attempts to hold on. Faller's footfalls clanged down the metal ladder, more than halfway down. Joel leaned and took a desperation shot. It shattered a brick and Faller kept going. He was getting away.

Joel vaulted through the window. The metal groaned under their combined weight. He pounded down the stairs, leaned over the railing and grabbed for a hold around Sandburg's neck and shoulders. He got off two more awkward shots, both wide, as Faller jumped and hit the ground. Faller returned fire as he ran toward the back of the building. All three men were totally exposed. Bullets ricocheted wildly in all directions. Joel heaved backwards, falling on his butt and taking Sandburg with him. His last futile shots kept Faller running, but did no damage. Jim had rolled to his back and was trying to get his feet back under him.

Both men heard an engine roar to life and the squeal of tires. Faller was clear. They'd never catch him.

"He's gone, you're clear. Blair? Is he okay?" Joel said.

Jim pulled Blair's body back from the edge, placed a hand over his chest, then at the neck, feeling for a pulse. "I don't see a wound, but he's unconscious." They rolled Blair face up. His eyes were open, but unblinking. Jim held a shaking finger in front of his friend. The eyes tracked, barely.

"We've got to get him out of here." Jim pulled the limp body up by the arms. The narrow stair treads made it difficult for two big men to maneuver. Awkwardly they carried Sandburg back into the loft.

"He's freezing. What was Faller up to?" Joel asked.

Leaving Blair in Joel's grasp, Jim pulled a quilt off the futon and wrapped it around Blair's shoulders. They settled him on the bed.

"Sandburg?" Jim cupped his hands around Blair's face and turned it towards him. "You with me, Chief?" The eyelids flickered once.

"Was he drugged, maybe?" Joel suggested.

Jim nodded. "Looks like a good bet. Get backup, and call 911 for an ambulance." He was checking Sandburg's pulse. "Tell them to hurry." Joel started for the living area. "No! Don't touch the phone! Use a cell. Don't touch anything."

Joel gave him a confused look but decided not to argue. "This is a police emergency. Officer down. We need an ambulance at 852 Prospect. That's right. This is Captain Taggart." Joel disconnected. "How is he?" he asked again. "What can I do?"

"Breathing, but it's shallow." He pulled Blair's hands and arms free from the quilt, studying them closely. Jim traced a finger across the open palm. "Blair's hand is swollen. There's a needle mark. Stay with him, Joel."

Joel knelt beside the bed and wrapped the covers more tightly around Blair. The young man's eyes slowly shifted towards his own. "Take it easy, son. Help's on the way. Just stay with us." He stroked the head gently, hoping that it gave some comfort. Jim was back quickly.

"I think he picked up the phone and got hit with some kind of drug. There's a needle. At least that's what I think it is. We need to get forensics in here."

"Is Faller capable of that?"

"That bastard is more than capable. Don't touch anything. Faller had to have been in here, and who knows what else he left."

"What can we do?" Joel said, standing by anxiously. He still had a hand placed lightly on Blair's neck.

"Meet the ambulance and get them up here, fast." He looked up at Joel. "This is my fault. I kick him in the teeth until he finally needs some space, and then look what happens. Why can't I get my shit together?"

"Hey, Jim, this isn't the time, you know? Look, why don't we move him downstairs? Save the paramedics some time."

"Yeah, we can do that," Jim said. "Better than sitting here, waiting. I can smell Faller's tobacco. It's making me sick."

They arrived on the first floor as the ambulance pulled into to the small parking lot, along with the backup from Cascade PD. Jim pointed out his suspicions. The EMT's clearly thought he was nuts. He wanted to ride with Sandburg, they wanted to be rid of him. To make the situation more chaotic, the backup unit wanted instructions from the two detectives.

"Take off," Joel said crisply to the EMT's. "We'll be right behind you. Make sure they know this is a police emergency, attempted murder and kidnapping." He shook a finger in the EMT's face. "No crap about treating him like some OD off the street. We need a tox screen and we're not looking for street drugs." Jim made another move to get in the ambulance and Joel pulled him back. He shoved a cell phone into his hands. "Call Serena, and then we'll go." He steered him away from the ambulance and the waiting backup. Then he turned his attention to the two uniformed officers standing off to the side, looking bored and a bit impatient.

"Excuse me, Captain, can we go? Look's like you got things under control."

"You have somewhere else to be?" Joel asked sharply. "You have some concerns, officer?"

"No, sir," one of them wisely said. The other smirked, and failed to follow his partner's example. "We don't usually roll when some misfit parties too hard. Consider the players. Sandburg, right? Complete with love and kisses boxers. So where's the babe?" He rolled his eyes. "Not a surprise."

Joel checked over his shoulder at Ellison. Hopefully he'd stay absorbed with Serena, otherwise the foolish man before him would be a spot on the pavement. "You two seal Ellison's apartment. Do not enter the premises. The only one I want inside is Serena. Absolutely no one else, and a total communications blackout." The smart mouth shrugged indifferently. Joel got right up in his face. "Pay attention. I should bust you down to traffic for those ignorant comments, but I don't have the time. I'll be speaking to your watch commander, and I'll personally have your shields if you screw this up. One of you at the door, the other patrolling the outside, including the alley behind. You're on duty until I release you. Now get moving!" The two patrolmen moved off, a bit chagrined but chastened by the chewing out from a superior officer.

Joel turned and nearly ran into a frowning Jim Ellison. "What was that about?"

"Nothing that hasn't been taken care of." He insistently pulled Jim over to his sedan. Jim was tightlipped, but still talking, at least on a minimal level.

"I should have gone with the ambulance. I blew it back there, Taggart. We were right behind Faller. I should have checked the fire escape first, gotten the drop on him. Instead, I let him get away again."

"And leave Sandburg like yesterday's discarded trash? Don't be stupid, Jim. If Faller was in your apartment, we were damn lucky things turned out the way they did."

Jim went completely silent. "Shit. Sandburg was having trouble breathing. They were talking about bagging him when they pulled out."

Joel looked across the vehicle. That explained why Ellison hadn't heard the mean-spirited trash the patrol officer was throwing around. Jim' attention had been focused elsewhere. As they pulled into the ER entrance, Jim moved to exit the sedan and Joel flipped the locks. Jim opened it and Joel flipped it again.

"What the hell..."

"Jim, you've got to be more careful." Jim jerked the lock, swearing, and Joel clicked it down again. "Stop it! Listen to me! Think about what you're doing."

"Taggart, stop screwing around and let me out of this car!"

Taggart fastened his hand over Jim's wrist and jerked him to attention. "Smelling Faller's tobacco? Hearing what's going on in the ambulance? Seeing a needle mark on Sandburg's palm? You pull that stuff in front of anyone other than me and we'll have more problems than Faller."

Jim did a double take. "Oh, no," he said softly. "I've never done that before."

"Oh, yes. It doesn't matter. Just settle yourself down. For a minute there, you just got distracted. He's your partner, you know, and Faller's seriously pulling on your chain." Joel clicked the lock and got out of the car himself. "And don't fret. What I didn't know officially, I figured out a long time ago. Let's go find out what's wrong with Blair."

Faller beat his hands against the steering wheel. He'd had the perfect opportunity right in his grasp and hadn't pulled it off. He screamed in frustration, the sound echoing off the interior of the Blazer he was driving. At the least, he should have dumped Sandburg a few stories and let Ellison pick up the pieces. But no, he had to get cute, and had nearly been caught in the bargain.

One more time he'd lost the advantage. He should have taken out a member of Major Crime at the department store, and couldn't do it. He should have killed Banks, but the shot went wide and he hadn't finished the job later at the hospital. He could have taken Sandburg as a hostage if he'd played it better, or killed him outright, and had blown it instead. He couldn't keep missing these opportunities to weaken Ellison. He wanted the bastard broken and pleading for mercy, not counterpunching.

Fury overwhelmed him, along with the pain. He drove the heels of both hands into his temples, rubbing slowly. The symptoms were getting worse. Pills; he needed the pills. He fished the flat tin out of his shirt pocket, fumbling as he tried to apply pressure in the right spot. Damn, it was getting hard to focus. He shook two, then three tablets into his hand and downed them dry. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes, waiting for the medication to work. He mentally calculated the time. Each dose was burning off sooner than the last. The treatments weren't helping either. He was running out of time.

As the pain ebbed, he could be more rational, more analytical. He'd been stroking his own ego, acting like the years of prison hadn't taken their toll, trying to pull off things he had no business attempting. No more showing off. Ellison was tied in with every screw-up he'd ever had. Revenge would be sweet, taking the sting out of the crappy hand fortune had dealt him.

Time to go for the throat.

Jim tossed a magazine back onto the side table. Why couldn't hospitals supply decent reading material? The stories and photos irritated rather than distracted him. The fashion faux pas of the stars seemed out of place with issues of life and death. He leaned his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. Time couldn't crawl any slower. He'd been alone for the last hour. Joel had gone back to Major Crime. Yelling at the mayor's office over the cell phone just wasn't doing the trick, and he'd opted to do it in person.

"Detective Ellison?"

Jim head snapped up. He watched the man in front of him carefully, looking for subtle clues of body language and facial expression. His exchanges with the medical personnel so far were woefully inadequate. He'd heard plenty of platitudes and now he wanted some real answers.

"Mr. Sandburg is awake, his heart rate and respiration seem to be coming back to normal. I'm very encouraged."

"Thank God. Can I see him?"

The doctor took a seat next to him and shook his head. "I know you're anxious, but I need to go through a few things first. We're not having much luck with the nature of the drug itself, although your own forensics people are doing a wonderful job assisting us. Apparently it isn't long acting, at least in terms of consciousness, or more correctly, motor control."

"So I was right? He was conscious, but couldn't respond?"

"Whatever this stuff is, it seems to depress voluntary muscle control almost exclusively, although there was a slight spillover. That's why his heart and respiration were slowed. He's started to speak, and he's moving his hands. Facial expressions are back, that sort of thing."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Jim said, crossing his arms in front of him.

"On the surface, yes. There may be other effects that we haven't seen yet. It could be causing other symptoms that are more subtle, or might manifest themselves later. This could be an hallucinogen, or a slow acting metabolic poison. I just want you to be aware we need to go slow and monitor the situation, because we're operating in the dark."

Jim let out a long, exasperated sigh. "Why don't you explain it in plain English. What's the plan?"

"At a minimum, I want to keep him on IV fluids. It can't hurt in terms of flushing the drug out of his system. We don't need ICU, but I want monitoring equipment on him. I need information to treat him adequately."

"IV's and monitors mean staying in the hospital. If he's awake and everything else seems good, I don't think he'll agree to it." Jim gave the doctor a determined stare. "Let me be a little more accurate. He won't stay, period."

"I was hoping you'd try to convince him." The physician gestured with his hands, pleading his case. "His vital signs aren't the whole picture. He has an excruciating headache that he won't admit to, and terrible nausea. I'd like to give him something to get him to sleep through it. Let his body have a chance to recover."

"Aren't you worried about drug interactions or something?" Jim asked.

"Of course. If I felt comfortable giving him standard pain meds and cutting him loose, I would. If we send him home to rest, something might go wrong and no one would realize it. With supervision, I think we can risk a mild sedative and get him to sleep."

Jim would have loved to set him straight. The first flicker in Sandburg's heartbeat or respiration and he'd be loading him into the nearest vehicle. Still, he might not have the luxury of staying. Faller might pull something and he'd have to leave. Maybe a compromise would be the best option. "Let me talk to him," he suggested. "I'll have a pretty good idea of how he's feeling. He won't sugar coat with me. If he'd agree to stay for the afternoon, and he's doing well, would you agree to release him to me later?"

"We usually don't send patients home late in the day," the doctor objected. "It's a real burden for the staff. Truthfully, it's better for everyone to keep him at least overnight."

Jim swallowed his irritation. A little deviation from routine wasn't going to kill anyone. "We're not talking about a normal situation," Jim said. "Consider the burden for all concerned if we have to keep armed personnel on Sandburg's door for the duration. I'm sure you're aware of the situation with Captain Banks."

The doctor frowned. "I didn't realize the two incidents were related. Wasn't Captain Banks' injury from a shooting?"

"We're pursuing the same suspect for both incidents," Jim said grimly. "Wouldn't it be better for the hospital not to have any reason to draw this guy's attention? How about it? Halfway would work for everybody. Say you meet me in half an hour in Sandburg's room. We can go from there."

"Agreed." Both men stood up. "I moved him out of ER and onto the second floor. Go on up."

"You're making a huge mistake. Don't you understand that? You'll be handling a defamation of character lawsuit from Ellison, and he'll be totally justified." Taggart glared at Purnell. "There's no way to confirm or deny this garbage. You're doing nothing more than repeating rumor and giving it the patina of official recognition. It's a hatchet job from beginning to end."

"The Mayor's decision stands, Captain Taggart. I don't intend to discuss this any further, because he has no intention of changing his mind." He picked up a pen and shuffled a few papers around on his desk, obviously hoping Taggart would take the hint and leave. Taggart didn't budge. "I really must get on to other business. Your position has been duly noted. Please show yourself out."

Purnell walked him to the door wearing a polite smile with a hint of smugness. Taggart's eyes narrowed. "Who's doing the briefing?" he asked.

"I will, of course," Purnell said. "I trust you'll advise Detective Ellison of his situation."

"On the contrary, I'm going to advise you. A young puppy like you hasn't been around long enough to know that some of our elected officials don't have deep loyalty to their underlings. Our good mayor has played this game before. He's going to let you take the point, and when it all blows up, you'll be standing there all alone." He leaned closer, his voice soft and deceptively gentle. "And it will blow up, son, sooner rather than later. In the end, it will be all your idea, and all your problem." Joel patted him on the arm and said sarcastically, "He'll be so disappointed his trust in you was misplaced. He's quite the actor, you know. I'm sure he'll seem terribly sincere when he has to dismiss you to protect the integrity of the city administration. I'd start considering a career outside of politics." He started out the door and hesitated. "We'll be watching you, son." His smile was benign and menacing in the moment. "I hope you haven't been taking those calls from Faller on your office phone. They keep logs, you know?"

Joel walked down several flights of stairs until he was standing outside the office that handled building security for the city. He whistled softly as he dialed the main switchboard at the PD, and asked to be put through to IA. "Sheila Irwin, please. That's right. I'll hold. Interrupt her, and do it now." He leaned back in the chair, with no remorse over the course of action he was going to take. "Sheila? Taggart. We have a security concern that impacts an ongoing investigation. My, my, you're a smart lady. How did you guess? Well, here's my theory. We've got about thirty minutes before my individual shows up here looking to tamper with some potential evidence. Actually, I want them right now. Oh, yeah, I'll hold while you make the call on another line." Joel waited, seated in one of the wooden chairs in the waiting area, his legs stretched out in front of him. Less than a minute passed before he heard the phone inside the office start ringing. He smiled, and said to himself, "Age and guile trumps youth and ambition. Lord, some days I do love being old." He opened the door and stepped in with a flourish.

The room was dark. The blinds were shut tightly, and the curtains were drawn. Jim could hear rustling of the bedclothes just behind the closed privacy curtain. He peeked through the fabric. "Hey, Chief. How are you doing here?"

"Me?" Blair said softly. His face looked deathly pale, but his fingers motioned Jim toward the bed. "Just hanging out. The dancing girls will be here any minute." The words tumbled out slowly, as if it took great concentration to get them articulated.

Jim stood by the bed. "Dancing girls, huh? I hear you're not feeling too good."

Blair struggled up on one elbow. "You know how hospital people exaggerate. Turn the lights on."

"I don't really need them." Jim flicked on the bedside light. Blair winced slightly in the dim glow. Jim picked up the bowl of red gelatin that had been left on the bed tray and looked at it skeptically. "Doesn't look much like a mai tai. I bet the dancing girls wear sensible shoes and carry stethoscopes." Jim noted the trace of a frown, the tiny lines around the eyes. "You've had a tough day, partner." He balanced a slice of gelatin on the spoon. "Can you manage a bite? They really want you to eat."

"I can try. I've already barfed my guts out. Let me sit up some more," he said, fumbling for the bed controls. Jim beat him to it, raised his head just a bit and covered the rest of the distance with the spoon. Blair swallowed reluctantly, like he was expecting the worst.

Jim rested a light hand on Blair's midsection. "Must be one hell of a headache, and I can feel - and hear - your stomach doing flip flops. I don't think the doctors were exaggerating by much."

"You can tell, huh? It doesn't matter." Blair gagged a bit, and then motioned for another bite. "What did he hit me with, anyway?"

"They're still working on it. I'm just glad you're awake. You want to sit up a bit more?" The chin bobbed almost imperceptibly. Jim raised the bed slowly. Blair groaned.

"Oh, man." He breathed slowly, swallowing down the bile. Jim grabbed the emesis bowl, but Blair waved him off. "Bring it up a little more. I'm okay."

"Sure you are, Sandburg."

"Don't argue with me, Jim. I am so not in the mood to bandy words right now. The whole thing gives me the creeps. They kept talking around me and I just wanted to shout at them, but the words wouldn't come out. I felt trapped. Get these tubes off me and let's get out of here."

"Well, Chief, the docs sort of have a different opinion. They'd kind of like to keep an eye on you."

"Screw them. A hangover is a hangover; you just have to ride it out. I'm serious. Get me out of here."

Jim set the dish down. After seeing Blair, he had to agree with the medical opinions. "You don't really look up to it, partner."

Blair just glared at him and started to pick off the tape covering the IV needle. Jim stilled the fingers with his own hand. "Stay a couple hours. Get a little more steady."

Blair looked away, a stricken look on his face. "I'm sorry. About this, about taking off for the loft to begin with. I lost my temper. It was a dumb move."

"Don't apologize. You have nothing to apologize for."

"Don't patronize me, Jim. You took all kinds of precautions and I blew them off. We both know how stupid it was. Don't make it worse."

"And maybe it had something to do with me trying your patience." He grasped Blair's wrist firmly and moved it away from the offending IV. "You're right, you know? In the end, you're always right. I tried to dump you like unwanted luggage, and justify it as being in your best interest. Talk about dumb moves." He stroked the back of Blair's hand twice and left it resting on the blankets. "Please do this for me. Let them baby you a couple of hours and get your legs back. They'll let you out by nightfall. That's a promise. I need you back, Sandburg, but you're not up to walking out of here."

"Why don't you tell me what happened. I answered the phone, and then - I don't know. I could focus, sort of, but I didn't know what was real and what wasn't. Was I outside? Somehow, I remember outside."

Classic Sandburg deflection. Jim recognized it immediately and decided to play along. "Faller was in the loft at some point. The phone was booby-trapped. He tried to take you down the fire escape, and we interrupted him, which is good." Jim shrugged. "The bad news is we were close and I let him get away."

"Oh, no! Why didn't you go after him?"

"You were hanging over the edge of the fire escape, for one thing. You almost slid off while I was trying to get to you."

Blair closed his eyes and rubbed at them. "I can't sort it all out. I was scared, and then you were there. Joel?"

"Yeah. The big guy was there. You need to rest more than you need to remember it. It's over."

"I couldn't have been in the loft more than five or ten minutes." Blair raised up on one elbow. His movements were still clumsy and slow. "He had to have been right there. Did he make the call? How did he know I was there?" Blair clutched at his stomach.

Jim placed two fingers at Blair's temple. The skin felt clammy. "Ride it out. Concentrate on one object in the room." He waited a few moments while his partner struggled through wave after wave of nausea. "Better?"

"Yeah. For now," Blair said weakly.

"All things we need to find out. I think he planted stuff in the loft days ago. Forensics is going over the place with a fine-toothed comb. They'll find more. The hidden needles used to be Faller's trademark. I've been thinking about it while I was waiting for you to come back to us. I think it was a coincidence he was there. He was just trying to exploit an opportunity and blew it."

"Then he must have been at the station. Score another one for Sandburg. If he saw me, then I should have been able to see him."

"Maybe. He keeps trying to put on a show, but I have a feeling he's going to let it rip."

"Then all the more reason I need to get out of here." Blair started to sit up, and grabbed onto the bedrail when he listed sideways. "Oh, man. Who tilted the ship?"

"I thought we had an agreement, Detective." Jim looked over his shoulder at one seriously irritated physician.

"Meet your doctor, Sandburg."

"Hi. Nice to meet you. I'm checking out AMA. Where are the forms?" Blair demanded.

The doctor said nothing. He tapped his pen against the chart he was carrying and looked at Jim expectantly.

As much as Jim wanted his partner at his side, it was obvious he needed to take the doctor's side. "Here's the deal, Chief. The doc here thinks a few hours rest would get you through the worst of it, and then he can let you go. How about it?"

"No. Nice of you two to make these decisions without me." Blair angrily threw the covers off, rolled off the bed and onto his feet in a surprisingly quick motion, dragging the IV pole with him. He managed two steps before crashing. Jim caught him before he hit the floor. The doctor helped him hoist the reluctant patient back into bed. Blair's fragile control broke. Jim barely got the emesis bowl in time. This time the round of retching left Blair shaky and sweating. As the spasms faded, Jim eased him back onto the pillow and offered a few sips of water. The doctor handed him a damp washrag, and he wiped Blair's brow. His friend's face was ashen.

"Enough, Sandburg. The mind is willing and all, but you're not going anywhere." Jim wiped down the insides of Blair's arms and neck. "Come on, Chief. Let them give you something to help you rest. There's no need to suffer like this. When you wake up, the worst will be over."

"Do I have your word? Rest a few hours and then out the door?" Blair asked. Jim waited for confirmation from the doctor and nodded. "Okay, then. I'll do it your way."

The doctor handed Jim the medication in a paper cup. "It's just half a dose. If he doesn't drop off in twenty minutes or so, we can give him more, but I think this will be enough."

Blair swallowed the capsule and leaned back. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I really did it this time.

"I told you before, nothing to be sorry about. I'll stay," Jim said, nodding at the doctor, who eased out of the room and shut the door. He fussed a bit, adjusting the blankets, adding a pillow, wiping Blair's brow. Blair's eyelids drooped. Within five minutes he was asleep.

Gradually, Blair's breathing evened out into the slow, easy rhythm of restful sleep. Jim traced the dark circle under one of the closed eyes with his finger. Blair turned slightly to the touch, and didn't rouse. He fervently hoped Blair's recollection of his near-abduction would remain fuzzy. His friend's dreams shouldn't be haunted by the view of unforgiving pavement below, the feel of balancing in midair before plummeting to - what? A body or face maimed and crippled? A coma? Death?

He'd watched Zeller fall to his demise with a mixture of horror and relief. An evil man had gone to an evil end, but the image still flitted through his dreams on a bad night. Now Sandburg's face would be superimposed. No, better that Blair never know how closed he'd come, how close they'd come.

Jim closed his eyes, taking one last private moment to savor what only he could detect through a simple touch: the silky warmth of skin, the pulse of life. Then he settled the blanket around Blair's shoulders and left, closing the door behind him.

He headed for the exit. He could call a cab from the main reception desk, or get a cruiser sent from the station. Occupied with logistics, he took a shortcut across a small courtyard, one the hospital provided to give staff and visitors a break from the institutional atmosphere. A swirl of wind distracted his attention. A helium balloon, no doubt from someone's "get well" bouquet, tore loose from the branch which trapped it and raced skyward. Jim sat down heavily on the nearest bench and watched it dance and fade from view, a tiny red speck against the blue.

A puff of wind and gone. If his hand had slipped, Blair would have fallen. One of Faller's shots could have found the mark. And now Sandburg thought it was his fault.

Why hadn't he listened? Blair had all but begged him to call Jack Kelso, and he'd refused, repeatedly. His own stubborn pride had kept them from any help that Kelso might be able to offer. In the meantime, while he dithered, chasing meaningless leads, Faller pursued his own murderous whims. Congratulations, Ellison. You gave him long enough to nearly snuff the person you care about the most. It made him sick, deep down in his gut. Pride over love. What an admirable choice.

Sick with shame, he dismissed his plans. The station, the stupid politics, it could all wait.

Sheila Irwin glared at the unimpressive young man before her. "Mr. Reeves, you should really reconsider your position. You're a clerk. Purnell will be happy to let you take the fall for him. At a minimum, you're looking at being dismissed from your civil service position. You might be able to salvage something by cooperating."

"I've got nothing to say. You've got nothing on me."

Joel pulled the cuffs out and dangled them from his hands. "No problem. We'll just take a nice ride to the station and sort it all out there. I may just walk you by Purnell's office in cuffs, just so we can see how long it will take for him to cut you loose. Let me explain it to you again, young man. Charges will be filed. The DA's office will only make one deal. That deal can be with you, or it can be with someone else. Who do you really want to protect here?"

The faade finally broke. "I'm out of it, right? If I talk to you, I was just following orders. I won't be to blame?"

"I can guarantee you that you will not be the focus of the investigation," Irwin said. "Now quit jerking us around before I change my mind."

Reeves' eyes flicked back and forth between the two officers. He'd been in trouble before, but only as a juvenile. This would go on his sheet, and it would be permanent. Not to mention this was a cake job, and he wanted to keep it. He stared at the floor, his voice laced with resignation. "He wanted the phone logs changed. I've done it before." He finally looked up, a resentful sneer on his face. "He's a rich college guy, paid in cash, and it didn't hurt anyone. If you keep me out of it, I'll tell you everything."

Irwin took a small tape recorder from her purse and set it on the metal tabletop between them. She gave Reeves a menacing smile and pushed record.

Jack Kelso eased his wheelchair toward the center of the room and handed Jim a mug of coffee. "So Blair's going to be okay?"

"They think so. He was still shaky, but he tried to check himself out of the hospital." Jim took a cautious sip. Kelso, like lots of intelligence types, liked his coffee very strong and very black. None of Simon's flavor of the month to burn the midnight oil. "He nearly keeled over when he made a break for freedom, but I took it as a good sign anyway."

"It could have been, worse, Jim. You know that."

Jim nodded silently. The words of agreement stuck in his throat.

"I did some research after you called. I have some possible leads for you to check out." He had a stack of computer printouts on his lap. He handed the first sheet to Jim.

Jim recognized the third name on the list. "This guy - Tim Schell - we talked to him. I'm sure he helped Faller get the fuses for that fiasco downtown, but I can't prove it and I can't get a warrant."

"Your instincts are right on. He's an occasional conduit for the survivalist, white supremacy crowd. Faller would have no problem coming up with his name, and he'd be vulnerable to pressure."

"Why wasn't he on the PD's radar?"

"He's small time, and a lot of those hate groups are more talk than action. Unless you were actively pursuing a case, you wouldn't run across him, and lately our homegrown crowd stay away from bombing. A small blessing of 9-11. They don't want to be lumped in with al-Qaida."

"Is he worth a stakeout?" Jim asked.

"Probably not. I would expect that Faller milked him for everything he needed on the first contact, and he won't go back. Even if you crack him, he won't be able to give you much. Faller wouldn't trust him with anything of importance."

"I've got to get a break on this, Jack. First Simon, then Blair, not to mention the civilians that are caught in the crossfire. What can you tell me about the rest of these guys?"

"I wouldn't consider any of them direct leads. Just people Faller would have access to through other, closer contacts." He shrugged. "The blessings of having data bases that won't quit. I have a suggestion, but I want an answer from you first. Why didn't you come sooner?"

"I didn't want to get you involved," Jim said tersely.

Jack laughed softly and shook his head. "Try that one on somebody else. You know as well as I do, anyone who was a player will never really come clear. I'm guessing Blair was the final straw."

Jim looked away.

"He's a special young man, and I've always thought a lot of him," Jack continued. His eyes narrowed, and Jim saw a glimpse of another man, another harsher life. "The fact that he's still your partner tells me some things I find surprising. I'm one of the few people who have an inkling of what he gave up for you." Jim's eyes snapped back, and his retort died on his lips as Jack waved him off. "Leave it alone. Whatever your secrets, they'll be safe with me, for Blair's sake, not to mention yours. I want you to be certain of that before we continue, and so there's no doubt in the future. He ought to mean more to you than that."

Jim's jaw clenched. "Don't lecture me. You're presuming a lot."

"I presume nothing. It's painfully obvious. I'd hate to think Blair wouldn't be in a hospital bed if we'd acted sooner. That kind of guilt I don't need. You probably don't either." Jack fiddled with his coffee mug and watched Jim closely. "You and I have more in common than you may know. Bright spirits like Blair Sandburg are rare and precious. I let mine slip away, and I'd like to think keeping you from the same mistake would offer a bit of redemption."

Jim felt almost a physical pain, and his anger bled away. "Blair - he's - I meant to..." The rest of his jumbled words died in his throat. He closed his eyes, looking away for a second time.

Jack nodded knowingly, as if that small gesture answered all of his questions. "So I was right. Don't put either of us in the position of having regrets. Do we have an understanding?"

"Most people wouldn't read you as a ruthless bastard, Jack."

"Most don't look beyond the wheelchair, or just see the academic that writes exposs. But that's most people, and they haven't looked on the other side of the curtain, now have they? You haven't answered my question. Do we have an understanding?"

Jim swept any lingering bitterness aside. Kelso was right. He'd had enough recent lessons in pride not to accept advice for what it was worth. "Yeah," he said, chin raised defiantly. "We understand each other. I won't make that mistake again,"

"Good. Check out the last name on the page. He's the one I'd watch, with a stakeout if necessary."

"Peter Thorson? A doctor? What, Faller has a cold?"

"Hardly. Faller cashed in all his chips on this. There had to be a reason, and I couldn't find one. I finally hacked his medical records. Within the last year he started making regular visits to the prison infirmary, complaining about his vision and headaches. Went through a whole series of glasses, that sort of thing. Just recently they diagnosed the problem. He has a brain tumor, inoperable, terminal. He'll be blind before he goes."

Jim sat the cup down on the table in front of him with a bump. "Blind?" He shook his head. "He took some shots at us. We were wide open on that damn fire escape and every one of them missed. Faller's a crack shot. I couldn't figure it out."

"If you were wondering why he didn't use that sniper's eye and take you out with a long distance shot, now you know. Maybe that's why he didn't finish off Simon Banks when he had the chance. Anyway, they started treatment. Even a convicted killer like Faller gets a chance to string his miserable life out a little longer."

"Shit. No wonder he has nothing to lose."

"Exactly. Chemo will just slow it down a bit. He's getting it from someone, somewhere. At least long enough to get satisfaction. It does mean he's on a timetable. He can't play cat and mouse forever, and he knows it."

Jim stood. "Thanks, Jack. I'll be in touch."

"Don't be mistaken, Jim. He'll leave us all in flames if he can. He's an angry man who can sense only the darkness at the end of his own tunnel, physical and spiritual. Think what it would mean to a man like Fuller to end life blind and dependent. He'll have no fear of dying. In fact, I'm sure he wants to go out in a blaze of glory, but he wants you first. Don't worry about the arrest or the trial; he won't live long enough to see justice. You get him in your sights, you take him out under a black flag, procedure be damned."

"You have got to be kidding me," Simon said. "If this is how things are going, I should have blown out of that hospital yesterday. I can't believe this is an issue we're even discussing."

"Captain, with all due respects, maybe you should take a few days off and finish recovering." Sheila Irwin gave him a concerned, thoughtful look that was pure pretense. Simon wanted to strangle her. "We can't be emotional about this. We'll blow the case. We need to keep the priorities straight."

"Priorities?" Taggart said angrily. They were gathered in Simon's office along with a representative from the prosecutor's office. "Great idea. Let's review the priorities."

"We have to build a solid case," Irwin said. "You blow in there and turn the heat to Purnell, we'll lose any chance we have."

"Corruption in the mayor's office is a serious matter," Kirk Mills said, nodding in agreement. He was young, just out of school. The moment he set eyes on him, Taggart had muttered some uncomplimentary comments concerning 'wet behind the ears' lawyers.

"Do you really think building a case against a twenty-something political wannabe is more important than preserving the reputation of a decorated member of this department?" Joel exploded. "More important than catching Faller before he kills someone? The man nearly murdered two police officers already."

"I agree with Taggart," Simon said emphatically. "The priority should be Faller. Make a deal with Purnell if you have to, but Faller is the one you want."

"As much as we appreciate the information from Captain Taggart, Major Crime isn't running this part of the investigation," Irwin said, picking an invisible piece of lint off her suit jacket. Her expression was bored, as if she were confident the outcome was certain. "Your suggestions will be noted in the report."

"We're talking about a killer, not some business-as-usual report about official corruption," Simon argued. Irwin was unmoved. Simon turned his back to her, ostensibly to get more coffee. If this continued on its current course, it wouldn't matter if they caught Faller or not. Jim would end up leaving Cascade, the damage to his reputation irreparable, his career in tatters. They'd lose Sandburg with him.

Irwin was right about one thing. He needed a few days off. His head ached fiercely, and he was tired enough to sleep standing up. He'd lied his way past the doctors to get out of the hospital, telling them he would rest at home. Well, technically, that wasn't a lie. He'd gone home. Of course, he'd just packed a bag and changed clothes, since he had no intention of keeping personnel tied up in his neighborhood protecting him from some damn lunatic. And he had stretched out on the bed for five minutes when he was too dizzy to stay standing. That was resting. Lord help him, he'd been hanging around Sandburg too long. He stirred an extra teaspoon of sugar into the coffee just to recover from that realization.

When he faced Sheila Irwin again, he had a plan. He exchanged "that look" with Taggart, who would read between the lines and play along. "Mr. Mills, Taggart here will take care of you. I need a private moment, Sheila."

Taggart took Mills by the arm and practically hoisted him out his chair. "Excellent. You know, I have a current case that I need some legal advice on." He towed Mills behind him, still talking. Mills looked over his shoulder but was too bewildered to protest. The door shut behind them.

"We're off the record, Sheila." Irwin hadn't been Simon's direct subordinate for years, but at this point, it was immaterial. "I'm going to be brutally honest with you. I've known you and Ellison since the two of you ran into each other, literally. It's a love-hate relationship. You didn't know this involved Ellison when Taggart called you in on it, and you were a lot less interested in official reports and procedure until his name came up. If we end up taking this upstairs, I can make a damn good case concerning your ulterior motives."

"How dare you..."

"Oh, I dare," Simon snarled, finishing her sentence. "This guy nearly put me in the grave. He came a hair's breadth from dropping Sandburg three stories. Ellison and Taggart dodged a hail of bullets. We're damn lucky we didn't lose all three of them on that fire escape. He's setting off bombs around civilians and you dare stonewall me? Think again, lady."

Irwin was standing, furious and defiant, but she didn't answer. Simon softened his tone. "Search your heart, Sheila. You're a good cop, and we're on the same side in the end. Faller is the bad guy here. Do the right thing."

Irwin swallowed and took a single deep breath. "I'll get Mills to cut the warrant. I'll go ring Purnell's bell before he can do any more damage." She turned to leave.

"You'll call?" Simon asked.

She didn't face him, and the muscles of her shoulders tensed under the perfect silk suit. "I'll call. It won't take long."

Faller looked into the rearview mirror, annoyed with the interruption. He glared at the reflection staring back at him. He hadn't intended to play this card this soon, but so far, everything had gone perfectly. He wasn't in the mood to mess around.

"Mister? Oh, mister. You're supposed to turn back there. I'm the first stop, and you're going the wrong way."

"Sit down, kid. We're going a new way this afternoon." He wasn't old, just second grade. The white shirt of his St. Anne's Elementary school uniform was a bit mussed, and his navy cords had mud at the knees. Curly dark hair, big brown eyes. He'd planned on jerking Ellison's chain with a girl, a little trek down memory lane, but maybe this one would do fine instead.

The child sat down, and tears brimmed in his eyes. He'd been taught to be polite. With a quivering lip, he tried again. "But Ted doesn't go this way. This isn't the right street."

Faller stopped the vehicle with a jerk. The kid with a big mouth and a whiney voice barely came to his belt buckle when he yanked him out of his seat. He backhanded the boy so hard he flew backwards several feet and landed on his butt. The child promptly started to cry.

Fourteen pairs of frightened pairs of eyes stared back at him. "Listen up," he shouted. "All you brats lie down on the floor! You heard me!" He jerked a little girl out of the nearest seat and shoved her down. "Do it now!" Sobs erupted from all over the vehicle. A few more well-placed slaps and he got what he wanted.

Faller ground the gears and the minibus lurched forward. At top speed, he headed for the freeway.

"Hey, Chief, how are you feeling?"

"Cut the small talk and come get me out of jail, you rat. You said a couple of hours."

"I thought I said evening," Jim said, chuckling, balancing the phone on his shoulder while he read forensics reports. "It's barely four. Why are you always in such a hurry? We've been a little busy. Don't you want to hear about it?"

"I'll listen when I'm sitting in a vehicle you're driving. I've borrowed some scrubs. I'll find some shoes. Come pick me up or I'm boosting a car in the parking lot."

"You must feel better if you're talking about hot wiring cars again. I thought we discussed that."

"Jim, I warning you."

"Okay, okay. I'm on my way. Stay out of the parking lot." Jim hung up the phone. "Connor? You having any luck with the pharmaceutical people?"

Megan looked quickly at her notes. "Kelso was right on. This Dr. Thorson placed an order for the same drugs Faller was being treated with. He's never ordered that particular combination of drugs before, and he's not an oncologist. Are we going to turn the heat up on the good doctor, or just hope Faller shows?"

"Good question." Jim grabbed his coat. "Sandburg wants me to spring him. Let's bounce this off Simon before I go get him."

"I heard that." Simon's voice floated from his office. He was supposed to be taking a nap on the couch in his office, but everyone in Major Crime knew it was a ruse. The most they could hope was their ailing captain was better off his feet than running around the bullpen. The place had been a zoo all afternoon.

"Can I get you anything, Captain?" Connor asked when they entered. "Maybe a sandwich or something? You don't look too well."

Simon was sitting up, rubbing his face, looking a little bleary. "Maybe in a bit. The doctor looks good?" Jim nodded. "I take it you want to go in now. I'm not sure we have enough for a warrant."

"With the stuff Connor found, it's worth a shot. Maybe some of the employees saw Faller. We still haven't heard anything from Irwin, and I think it's too great a risk to wait. Who knows what Faller will pull next?"

Simon touched his bandaged head. "I tend to agree. Okay. Connor, you work on the warrant while Jim retrieves Sandburg from the clutches of Cascade General. What was that about hot wiring cars?"

"Did you rest at all, sir?" Jim asked. "Sandburg's just getting a little antsy." He tossed a set of keys in the air and caught them. "I'd better save him before he gets any more desperate. Then we can have both the walking wounded in one place."

"Very funny. Let's make this happen."

The door burst open. Taggart was in such a hurry coming in he nearly mowed Jim down on his way out. "Simon, I think we have a problem. Faller, or someone who claims to be him, is asking for Jim on line two." Jim reached for the phone, but Taggart grabbed his arm. "Wait! This might be related. We have a Catholic elementary school that seems to have lost a minibus of primary children. The parents started going crazy when the kids weren't home in time, and the driver wouldn't answer by radio. They went to check the communications gear and found the regular driver. He's dead. The officers on the scene say the caliber matches what Faller's been using. We're missing fourteen first and second graders."

"So where are they?" Simon was on his feet.

Taggart raised his hands in despair. "Don't ask me. How can you lose a vehicle that big with St. Anne's scrawled all over the side?"

"We're going to find out," Jim said grimly. He and Simon each picked up a phone. "Ellison." He nodded to Simon. Personnel were scrambling, trying to trace the call. "Those children have no part of this, you bastard."

"Oh, they're very much a part of this. A starring role, as a matter of fact."

"Don't touch those kids, Faller! Name the place and I'm there."

Faller's laugh crackled across the line. "No way, Jimmy. No traces, no tails. There's a cab in front of the station, and it's pulling out in sixty seconds. The first time you miss a deadline, one of these little snots buys the farm. Clock's running."

"Faller!" Jim shouted, but it was no use. The call disconnected with an audible click. Jim took one look at Simon and bolted for the stairwell. The members of Major Crime stared at each other for a split second in stunned silence.

"I'll go," Megan called, following in Jim's footsteps.

Banks and Taggart went for phones simultaneously. "I'll get the desk," Simon growled. "You get the APB."

Megan poked her head around the door. Blair was lounging on the bed, fidgeting impatiently. "Hi, Sandy. You ready to go? I've got shoes for you. Actually, I have clothes."

"Megan." Blair hopped off the bed where he'd been lounging. "Clothes I'll take. These scrubs are too cold. Where's Jim? He said he was on his way." He ducked into the restroom, keeping the door just barely open so they could talk.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure."

"What did you say?" Blair said sharply, stumbling back into the room, one sock on and one sock off. "What do you mean, you don't know?"

"We have a situation. Faller called the station. He's kidnapped some children and threatened to start killing them if Jim didn't do as he said. Gave Jim sixty seconds to get in a cab out front of the station."

"No trace? No backup?"

Megan shook her head. "We tried. There wasn't time. Two units managed to follow the cab away from the station. They were trying to tail him, but I don't know how it's going."

"Why didn't someone come get me sooner?" Blair nearly shouted. He nearly tore the scrub top off and left it crumpled on the floor.

"You're not listening. There was no time."

Blair was talking to himself as he struggled to pull his clothes on. "I never should have let him leave. How could I have been so stupid?" In his haste, he could barely manage the buttons. "You'd better have a car, because I'm going after him."

Megan shook her head. "Sandy, I don't even know where to go." She grabbed Blair by the wrist, halting the frantic movements. "We'd only get in the way. You know that."

Blair sat down heavily in the closest chair. "How long has he been gone?"

Megan checked her watch. "Thirty, forty minutes. Jim can take care of himself, you know, and..."

"Jim will walk right into a hail of bullets if it means saving a child!" Blair shouted back angrily.

Megan let it go. He wasn't angry with her, and they both knew it. "Look, we can't join the pursuit, but Jim got a lead through Jack Kelso..."

Blair's head snapped up. "Jim saw Kelso? When?"

"This afternoon."

"Thank God. I've been begging him to do it for days." He started tying his shoes, swearing softly when the laces on the two shoes tangled.

"Get this. Faller has a brain tumor. He's got some doctor in Cascade treating him, or at least we think he is. We were on our way to shake down the guy when the call came in."

Blair stood up, finally dressed. "Is anyone doing that?"

"Yeah. Brown and Rafe. Are you ready to go? Simon wanted us back at the station. He didn't even make a smart comment about my driving."

"Forget the station. Take me to this doctor."

"The captain..."

"Megan, I'll handle Simon. We're going. And I expect you to use every crazy Aussie trick you have up your sleeve getting there."

Megan rolled her eyes. "He's not going to like it. I think I'll just go on vacation."

The phone was already ringing when Jim banged the door to the phone booth open. He grabbed for the receiver and the silence was deafening. He couldn't be too late! "Faller!" More silence. "Answer me, you son of a bitch!" he shouted.

"Slow, Jimmy. Almost too slow. You wouldn't be trying to keep a tail now would you? Not going to work, buddy."

Jim was so angry, and breathing so hard, he could barely answer. Across the phone line, he could hear Faller chamber a round. "Don't you hurt one of those kids! I'm here, aren't I? Just tell me where to meet, and we'll settle this."

Another silence followed. Faller was in the mood to tease and taunt. Automatically, he collected the worry doll taped to the window. At each stop, Faller was leaving one, the only indication sometimes that he was on the right track. They were far past the point of collecting evidence, but he couldn't leave them.

"They're cute kids, you know. I think it's the uniforms. I've got one picked out special - dark hair, dark eyes. Brings back old times, doesn't it?"

Jim leaned back against the interior of the booth, nearly shaking with rage. He could see it; the tiny limp body, still clutching her doll, the spreading stain of blood on her white blouse, the screams of her mother. He couldn't let it happen again.

"Nothing to say? Good, I'm glad we have you in the proper frame of mind. There's a bicycle in the rack. You need to ride it across the park. There's another phone by the gazebo. I'm calling in three minutes."

"That's a couple miles, Faller," Jim said, looking frantically for the cars he knew were trying to follow. They were in vehicles. There was no way to drive across the park, and he couldn't take time to relay a message. They'd never stay with him on foot. Faller had planned this to a tee.

"Clock's running." Faller disconnected. Jim dashed for the bicycle. A few more twists in this goose chase, and he'd surely be on his own.

"You people just don't understand. Doctor-patient privilege is the only phrase you need to know." Dr. Peter Thorson stood blocking the way to his office, angry and defiant.

"The warrant is very specific, Doctor. Please step aside."

Blair watched quietly as Henri Brown went through the usual spiel. Thorson was being totally uncooperative, and H was getting impatient. Everyone felt the pressure; the surveillance teams had lost track of Jim, and they'd gotten no leads on the location of the missing minibus.

Blair gently touched Brown on the elbow. "Uh, Henri, why don't you let me speak with the man."

"Be my guest," Henri said angrily. He disappeared in the direction of the reception area, where Rafe and Megan were already questioning the staff.

When they were alone, Blair studied the man in front of him. If you ignored the bluster, Thorson looked more frightened than defiant. It was just a matter of finding the right key. "Could we use your office, Doctor?"

"I told, you my files..."

"I just want to speak with you privately." Blair reached behind the doctor and turned the knob, allowing the door to swing open. He gestured silently, and with a much aggrieved sigh, Thorson led the way.

"There's nothing you can say that will change my mind. I'm not violating professional ethics," Thorson snapped.

"Don't plan on asking," Blair said. He considered everything he knew about Faller. What possible hold could he have on the man that would ensure his silence? "How did he get to you, Doctor Thorson? What did he threaten you with?"

Thorson wasn't expecting that approach. He went quiet and shifted uneasily.

Blair noticed a photo in a silver frame on the doctor's desk, a young woman, about the right age to be Thorson's daughter. Her appealing smile was matched with the distinctive features of Down Syndrome. Faller's first threats to Jim had been toward family. Blair took a leap of faith. He picked up the photo. "Did he hurt her, or just let you know that he could?"

The doctor's face crumpled, but he didn't answer.

"She's your daughter? Your only child?" Thorson reached for the edge of his desk chair, as if he needed to steady himself. Blair was sure he'd guessed correctly. "She'd be so vulnerable," Blair continued. "You couldn't protect her, not from some predator like Faller."

Thorson dropped heavily into the upholstered leather chair behind his desk. "Please leave. I have nothing to say. I can't help you."

Blair set the photo in view, rested his hands on the desk, and leaned forward. "She's your child. You'd do anything to keep her safe. That monster has fourteen sons and daughters, and he's going to start killing them, one by one. What will you tell their parents? What will you tell yourself? Can you live with that?"

"Oh, God." Thorson's hands trembled as he picked up the frame. "He coaxed Laurie out of the house. Called the damn house and got her into his car. He had her call me. She was scared to death. She's still terrified - won't go to her day classes or her job at the grocery." His composure broke, sobs tore at his voice. "My nineteen year old daughter climbs on my lap and cries every night, afraid the 'bad man' will come back. He's destroyed her, what little joy and independence she had."

"Everyone will understand," Blair said gently. "Help us. Please."

Thorson continued to stare at the photo of his daughter. "He called her a retard. A retard. This precious, sweet natured girl." Thorson's voice steadied, laced with anger. "He took her to a state park. I'm sure of it. He wasn't careful, and assumed she couldn't read. She copied the signs onto paper for me. She's too frightened to remember anything very helpful. Believe me, I've tried." He shook his head. "She talked about some kind of building. She said it was green and had stripes. I could never figure that one out."

"Thank you, Doctor. It's a start. We'll send you home, with a protective detail. You did the right thing."

On his way out, Henri intercepted him. "Any luck with the doc?"

"Yeah. Faller kidnapped his daughter and let him know he could do it any time. We need a protective detail on these people, immediately. Maybe even a safe house."

"I'll get right on it," Brown said. Megan joined them.

"Be careful who we get assigned. The girl's nineteen but developmentally disabled. Faller scared the life out of her. The whole family's terrified. We need someone gentle."

"I'll take care of it," Megan said. "Just so you know, Captain Banks called. They lost Jim totally. He's spitting nails. They've turned the operation over to SWAT, and the F.B.I. wants in because it's kidnapping. We're supposed to go in, but Major Crime is officially off the case. Look, I'll take care of Thorson and his family, and you guys head back."

The two men regrouped with Rafe in the parking lot. "What's the first thing SWAT's going to do?" Blair said sullenly. "Send in some choppers? Roll in the troops? You want to lose Jim and most of those kids, that's the way to do it."

"That damn bastard," Henri said. "This guy makes ordinary street criminals look good. I'm afraid this was a waste of time. The staff couldn't help much, other than the fact that they're scared of the guy."

"I got that much," Rafe said. "Scary and totally unpredictable. One of the nurses told me Faller freaked out whenever she came behind him on his left. He even backhanded her once and accused her of sneaking up on him."

"Only on his left?" Blair asked, snapping out of his funk.

"That's what she said." Realization dawned in Rafe's eyes. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

Blair nodded. "That maybe we know why a guy rated as a sniper can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn. His vision's already gone on one side. That might give us an edge." Blair quickly explained the doctor's information. "What are the closest state parks?"

Henri shrugged. "Cascade Point Lighthouse, but that doesn't seem too likely. It's practically in the city. Foster Ridge would be the next one."

"Anyone ever been up there?" Blair asked.

"I have," Rafe volunteered. "It's a big place, heavily wooded. Public picnic areas, and a separate area for camping. You might be able to hide a vehicle, even a large one, back there in the off-season. There'd be no traffic."

"Thorson's daughter talked about a green building with stripes," Blair said. "Any idea what that might be?"

"Stripes?" Brown asked. "Like an awning?"

"I don't think so," Blair said. "She said a building. Rafe, you remember anything like that?"

"There are big metal maintenance sheds away from the public areas. They keep equipment and stuff in them. The sides are corrugated. Those are stripes - sort of."

"Maybe," Blair said. "Big enough to put a van or a small bus in?"

Rafe just smiled. "I don't know about you guys, but I didn't talk to the Captain personally. We didn't exactly get a direct order to go back to the station, did we?"

"Come on, you worthless heap, don't you dare die on me." A cloud of black smoke billowed from the exhaust as Jim fought to keep the engine running. Faller would be perfectly content to start shooting kids if he were late.

He checked the pencil-drawn map, hoping he was on the correct dirt track. The worry doll had been folded inside. The ancient Jeep barely ran, and Faller had sent him through a complicated set of checkpoints, each with just enough time to arrive. The gas gauge was already in the red. If it ran out of gas - Jim didn't even want to think about that. He was completely alone, with no way to call for help, and no time to plan anything to counter Faller's moves.

The track wound up a steep hill, then angled down sharply to his left. Runoff had scarred the way with deep gullies. The engine coughed and sputtered as he coaxed it through each obstacle. The cover was dense on all sides. If Faller wanted to pick him off, it would be easy. Even with sentinel senses, he'd never see it coming.

At the bottom of one particularly deep rut the engine died. He could tell from the sound the fuel had run out. Leaning his head against the steering wheel, he steeled himself for what was ahead. He pulled his service revolver, checking to see the clip was full. He was going to lose this game. Faller would never give him the time or opportunity, and no rescue would be arriving. The best he could hope was that he got at least some of the children out of danger before Faller did his worst. He swallowed down the rising bile of regret. Sandburg. He'd give anything to have a few moments to say - what? Goodbye? Thanks? I love you? He thought about all his carefully laid plans, the bracelet, all the feelings he'd shunted aside, waiting for the "right time" to approach Blair. God, why had he taken so long to make a move, only to have it slip through his fingers?

He climbed out of the jeep, keenly aware of the time slipping away. He fumbled for his wallet. Tucked behind the bills was Sandburg's old observer pass. Without Blair's knowledge, he'd taken to carrying it after his partner had entered the academy as a sort of talisman. He looked at it fondly, and slipped it into his shirt pocket, over his heart. Not much of a message, but somehow, hopefully, when it was all over, Sandburg would know.

He set off on foot, jogging at a brisk pace, hoping to balance speed with caution. The woods gave way to a grassy slope. A ratty cardboard box with "Ellison" scrawled across the side was waiting, another worry doll perched on the lid. Jim swallowed and tore open the cover. He'd have to play this out as Faller scripted it, and hope for the best. The box contained a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie, which promptly squawked to life. Faller must be able to see him.

"Took your time."

Jim looked up the slope. Faller's captives were spread before him across the hillside, the closest at least fifty yards away. The first boy was standing, frantically pulling against the rope that anchored his wrists to some kind of a cement block. He was sobbing, scared out of his mind. The other children were scattered across the wide area. At a full out run, it would take time to get from one to another. Jim's heart sank. Faller wouldn't give him that much time.

"I've got 'em rigged. You're gonna love it. You can come for me, take me out, but the kids are rigged to blow. Well, some of the kids are. I left the charges in sight. You can take the time to try to figure out which one is going to be lunchmeat. Life is full of choices. Keep the radio - might decide to give you a hint." Faller started to laugh. "Run, Ellison. Who are you gonna lose this time?"

Jim stuffed the radio into his waistband and sprinted up the slope. He didn't need the binoculars. Sentinel vision would be his aid one last time. He ignored the nearest child, the obvious bait. No charge at his feet, but the girl to the left was a different matter. As he ran, the first shot rang out. Of course. Faller had a rifle. The old sniper wasn't going to give him a pass to cover the distance. Dirt exploded at his feet with a second shot. He dove right, trying to give Faller a more difficult target. The next two tries zinged past his ears, the third grazed his thigh.

Jim kept running, knowing there was no hope.

They'd split up. Rafe, who knew the area, had gone to search the equipment shelters. Brown had kept the car and headed for the campground. Blair circled around, working carefully through the picnic areas. So far, they'd found no indication that Faller was even here.

Three shots rang out. Blair went to ground, searching for the source. Jim didn't have a rifle. It had to be Faller. All Blair could do was follow the shots, and he was much closer than either of the other two detectives. Forsaking any cover, he ran across the open meadows in what seemed to be the correct direction.

He spotted Faller at the top of a low hill, firing one shot after another. He was clearly aiming at something, not just making noise. Blair ran up the ridgeline. He was out of range for his own weapon. He could only get a vague impression of screaming, crying children when the first explosion sent him to the ground. From his prone position, he poked his head up and searched the slope. Jim. He was down. No, up, but limping, injured. More shots. It was a damn killing field.

He couldn't take the shot from here; he was still out of range. Rafe and Brown were behind him, and he couldn't wait for them anyway. Left. He was on Faller's left side. Blair charged up the hill, in plain sight, hoping his luck would hold and their guesses about Faller were correct.

Jim shook off the layer of dust. The child below him was silent, in shock, but safe. He'd side-armed the charge as far as he could throw it. It had gone off on the second bounce, sending shrapnel in all directions.

He felt the impacts rather than heard them. His ears, his whole head throbbed. He hadn't dialed down properly. His hearing was totally gone. Was Faller still shooting? All Jim could detect was an eerie silence.

He struggled to his feet again, clawing his way up the slope. He had to get to Faller. It was the only way. He took a few steps and staggered, a moment of good fortune. Faller's bullet burrowed into the soil to his right. Steadying himself on his uninjured leg, movement caught his eye on the far side of the hill. Sandburg, running straight at Faller. Jim stared, horrified. His partner was closing the gap fast, but there was no cover, he was completely exposed. Faller was going to blow him to pieces.

Not Sandburg, not like this. He reached out, as if he could stop what was going to happen by sheer force of will. The shout came before he could stop it, tearing at his throat even though he couldn't hear his own raw voice.


He stood, frozen, arms spread wide, as the rifle swung his way.

Too soon. It was happening too soon. Keep running.

Another step.

He wasn't close enough.

Another step. Go faster.

Each image came to him in slow motion, but he was moving slower.

Another step.

No! Jim was up, standing in one place, screaming, and waving his arms. He was making himself an easy target.

Another step.

Faller, throwing back his head, laughing. A leering, evil grin.

Another step.

The rifle coming up, ever so slowly. The next shot wouldn't be a near miss. It would take Jim in the heart.

There could be no more steps. Blair dropped to his knees to steady the shot. As Faller brought his rifle sight up to take aim, he raised his own weapon in both hands. The rifle recoiled as Blair squeezed off his first shot.

Faller's head snapped back from the impact, spinning him toward his new adversary. The grin dissolved into shock as a second, and a third bullet crumpled his chest. The rifle pin-wheeled to the ground as he fell.

Blair heaved in a ragged breath. Faller was down, motionless. Rafe was rounding the base of the slope, shouting something he couldn't comprehend. The kids. He was going for the kids.

Jim. Oh dear God, Jim. One eye on Faller, Blair stumbled down the slope to his partner's side. "Jim. Don't you die. Don't you dare." Blair rolled the unconscious man to his back, frantically feeling for a pulse. A steady thump greeted his fingers. Blood? There was no blood. Blair clawed at the shirt, exposing the vest, the forgotten Kevlar.

Jim's eyes fluttered, and he coughed. Blair grabbed his hand, helping him to sit. "Check - check Faller."

"Don't move, Jim."

"Check that bastard!" Jim shouted weakly, shoving Blair with one hand. "Put another bullet in him if you have to. Do it!" Jim made it to his knees, gun in hand, waving him on. Blair left reluctantly, approaching their downed victim cautiously. He kicked the rifle down the slope, then checked for a pulse. Nothing.

He holstered his weapon and went back to Jim, who still sat on the ground, pale and shaken. "Are you okay? Were you hit? Your leg?" Blair was talking too fast to get his words out clearly enough for Jim to lip-read. He placed his fingers over the fast-moving lips, bringing the flood of questions to a halt.

"Slow down. I'm okay. I can't hear, but I'm okay."

Blair's sense of panic grew. He couldn't decide what to do, how to communicate, how to get this most essential information from his partner. Jim seemed to understand his dilemma. Slowly he reached into his shirt pocket and handed a Blair flat rectangle of plastic. Confused, Blair turned it over, slowly realizing his own face was smiling back at him. It was his old observer ID, with a large chip out of the lower left corner where the bullet had gone through Jim's shirt. He silently placed his hand over the shredded shirt pocket and Jim's heart beneath it, profoundly grateful for the Kevlar which had turned the bullet from its intended target.

"You're always with me, Chief. You're always here when I need you." Blair's eyes filled, the enormity of it all washing over him. He'd come that close to kneeling beside a dying man. Jim reached a hand around the back of Blair's neck, pulling him closer until their foreheads touched. "We're going to make it, partner. Together."

Blair closed his eyes, held in this moment of stillness. He reveled in the nearness of his battered, but very much alive partner. After that reassurance, Blair rocked back on his heels. Rafe was waving from the bottom of the hillside; the kids were safe. Blair waved back, showing all clear. He could hear sirens faintly in the distance. Brown must have gotten through on the radio.

Before the crush descended upon them, he took Jim's closed hand, shaping the fingers slowly, raising first the little finger, then the index, then the thumb. Without a word, Blair repeated the sequence with his own trembling hand: I L Y.

Jim wrapped his hands around Blair's. With a steady pull, Blair brought him to his feet. As Blair wrapped an arm around his waist so he could hobble down the slope, Jim said softly, "I love you, too, Blair. Always have. Always will."

The End

End Phantom by Jyllean:
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