Thank you to Kitty, Tonya and Cindy for their generous help. Any lingering typos or tiny inconsistencies are my own fault. Feedback gratefully received & more fanfic available at www.sandramcdonald.com
"Stay here," Jim Ellison ordered, pulling to the curb and parking his Ford Expedition. In the passenger seat, Blair Sandburg looked up from a computer printout and squinted past the rain-splattered windshield to the run-down tenement in one of Cascade's poorest neighborhoods. The bad weather did nothing to improve the dirty, forlorn, abandoned appearance of the street or old buildings.
"How come?" Blair asked.
"Because I said so," Jim returned, with a flash of irritation. Sandburg should know better than to ask questions like that, he thought. Intelligent, courageous, and usually capable of taking care of himself in an emergency, the graduate student nevertheless remained only a police observer. His presence in the squad room, his authorization to accompany Jim on police calls, and the leeway Cascade's police brass gave him to ask questions in an official capacity all hinged on a set of written and unwritten rules. The most important rule revolved around not intentionally putting Blair in danger. If Jim thought a situation might be tricky or turn bad, he ordered Blair to stay in the truck. Ninety percent of the time, Blair obeyed. The other ten percent of the time usually gave Jim a raging headache.
"Come on," Blair wheedled. "It looks fine. It looks like any of a dozen other rat-traps you've dragged me through this month. You really think Billy Carpetti's holed up in there?"
"No, but his only known relative lives here, and if anyone might know where he is, she might." Jim freed his seat belt and opened the door. He didn't elaborate on what Blair already knew - Billy Carpetti had the police in three states looking for him, and came in the 'armed and dangerous' category. Even the slightest possibility of him having taken refuge in his sister's apartment made Jim wary. "Stay here," the police detective repeated.
Blair frowned and made a point of turning his attention back to the papers in his lap. "Fine."
Jim couldn't pinpoint exactly why the situation made him so uneasy, but he'd learned to not question his own instincts. He climbed the broken steps to the trash-filled doorway and wedged his way inside. The entrance hallway, dark beneath broken light bulbs, smelled heavily of urine and rotting garbage. A dozen apartment doors had been slashed and spray-painted with gang graffiti. The staircase shook beneath his weight, and loose plaster spilled from the handrail's tenuous holds on the wall.
Not exactly the Ritz.
Jim opened up his Sentinel hearing as much as possible. He identified a television blaring Spanish commercials, a drunken man talking on the phone, a running shower, a whirling blender, and what sounded like an army of rats running through the walls. The rats unnerved him - so many, so tiny and furtive, their claws scratching hundreds of times a minute . . .
He caught himself before the sound pulled him into a trance. This is not a good place to zone out, he told himself sternly. Alice Carpetti lived in apartment two-oh-three, at the very end of the hall. Jim stood carefully to one side of the door, knocked sharply, and called her name.
"Who is it?" she yelled from inside.
"Cascade Police," he said. "Open up."
In the twenty seconds it took for her to shuffle to the door, he identified over two dozen smells including tobacco, coffee, beer, sour milk, butter, carpet mold, cockroach spray, garlic, bleach, chocolate, deodorant, bath soap, shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, and one of Elizabeth Taylor's perfumes, the one whose name he could never remember. He heard the flop of slippers on the wooden floor, the rustle of cloth pulling tight, and her quickened breathing and heartbeat. She opened the door, but kept the security chain latched and stared at him through the four inch gap. Tall, reed-thin and mulatto, she wore a brown terrycloth robe which, if cleaned, might actually prove to be red. Her short curly hair hadn't been combed in quite some time. Her criminal record, spanning an unspectacular career of prostitution, drug possession, and pandering, stated she was forty years old. Every day of those forty years reflected in the harsh lines of her face.
"I don't need to talk to you," she said, her eyes narrowing in suspicion and hostility.
"Well, ma'am, that's debatable. I'm looking for your brother Billy."
Her lips turned down. "Ain't everyone."
She tried to close the door, but Jim's foot got in the way.
"It's important that we find him," he said, smoothly and calmly. "He killed a man in Texas."
Alice did not appear impressed. "So go look for him in Texas. I haven't seen him in a long, long time."
"And if you had seen him, would you tell me?"
Alice's eyes brightened, with either humor or malice. "Why not? I love the police. The police are my best friends. You want to come in? You want to take off your pants? I've got a special going on today, just for you boys in blue."
The offer didn't surprise him, but the mere thought of Alice in all her natural charm turned his stomach. He didn't need a pamphlet from the Cascade Free Clinic to warn him of the communicable diseases she might be carrying, ranging from gonorrhea up a well defined spectrum of itchy, smelly, putrefying conditions all the way to AIDS.
"Not today," he said. "Here's my card. If you see or hear from Billy, give me a call."
Alice took the proffered card, ripped it into two, and let the pieces drift to the floor.
"Thanks," Jim said, unruffled. He took his foot away and let her close the door. Since his very first day walking a beat he'd met women and men like Alice, people who had never learned to trust the legal system or the system of laws that governed the United States. He had never understood them. Jim didn't believe the legal system always worked fairly, and he'd run across a motley collection of crooked cops, lawyers, judges and prison administrators over the years, but he upheld the ideals of the law and the goals of effective policing. Despite all the crap, frustration, danger, long hours and incredible stress, he retained an essential faith in his job and his co-workers. Alice lived in a world several degrees off kilter from his, where police counted as the enemy while a brother who'd killed three people and stolen thousands of dollars did not.
Blair could undoubtedly weave some complicated explanation of societies and sub-societies, of social conditioning and the implicit norms of the poverty-stricken, but Jim had heard that academic song and dance before and didn't believe it. Poverty didn't just wander out of the clear blue sky and strike someone down - but even if it did, it could be cured by hard work, self sacrifice, and discipline. Jim believed a great deal in the concept, satisfaction and reward of discipline. But talking about the subject to Blair always proved frustrating. Blair's idea of discipline revolved almost solely around media images of stern, unforgiving drill instructors in military boot camp, scowling men in spit-shined boots who ate nails for breakfast and who would fight each other for the chance to hack off the graduate student's long hair with their Marine Corps-issued, steel-capped knives.
Jim had liked and admired his drill instructors. Fifteen years out of boot camp, he still kept in touch with one of his old gunny sergeants. Of course, at the time Jim had been learning to clean latrines, strip rifles and run ten miles under forty-pound packs, Blair's mom had been dragging her only son from one hippie compound to another in her offbeat quest for New Age enlightenment. Jim liked Naomi well enough, but she'd exposed Blair to so much pop philosophy, psychedelic bullcrap and fringe beliefs that he often sounded hopelessly idealistic and certifiably nuts. Sounded and acted so . . . undisciplined.
As if to prove the point, Blair had disobeyed Jim's order to stay in the truck and appeared at the top of the staircase. "Jim?" he called out, looking down the wrong end of the hall.
"Over here, Chief," he said, walking toward his partner. "I told you to stay downstairs."
"Yeah, but a call came over the radio - a bank robbery over on Shatley - you think it's that same gang you and Jennifer have been tracking?"
Jim's pace and interest increased. He and Detective Jennifer Allen had invested almost two months of work trying to find a gang of young Caucasians armed with tear gas and semi-automatics who had pulled three robberies on the city's west side. Rapid footsteps descending from the third floor distracted Jim from asking Blair how long ago the call had come through. Two skinny Asian teenagers came racing down, poking and jabbing each other and laughing as they traded words in Chinese. One saw Jim, hesitated for a split second as humor drained from his face, and bolted straight into Blair with such speed and force they both went tumbling down the stairs. The second teen chose a different strategy and sped back up toward the tenement's third floor.
"Sandburg!" Jim yelled, racing to the landing as the sickening thump-thump-thump of limbs and heads banging wood filled his ears. Blair and the kid landed in a crumpled heap. Jim practically leapt down after them. His partner lay unmoving, but the teen scrambled to his feet and started for the door. Jim grabbed him and shoved him up against the wall with perhaps a little more force than strictly necessary.
"Police! You're under arrest!" Jim yelled in his ear. "Blair, are you okay?"
"Sandburg! Answer me!"
A groan drifted up from the floor, followed by the slightly dazed words, "Yeah. I'm okay."
Relief washed through Jim's chest. "Just stay still," he told his partner. Blair might feel okay, but Jim didn't want him aggravating any possible spinal damage, head injury or internal injuries.
He read the kid his Miranda rights, each sentence coming out in angry bits. The teenager didn't answer and wouldn't meet his gaze. Jim hauled him to the base of the staircase and handcuffed him to the railings. The kid spat on him and started speaking angrily in Chinese. Jim ignored both the spittle and the words, and dropped to Blair's side. The graduate student, disobeying again, struggled to sit up.
"Stay still, " Jim repeated, "I'll call an ambulance."
"I want to sit up," Blair insisted. He didn't sound groggy, and Jim saw no obvious injuries, so the older man let him sit up against the grimy plaster wall. Blair put a hand to the back of his head and grimaced. "Ouch, ouch, ouch. Those stairs are *hard.*"
"How's your vision? Any numbness or tingling in your arms or legs?"
"I'm fine," Blair insisted.
"Your face is all red - "
"Quit fussing, Jim!" Blair slapped Jim's hand away from his face. "I said I'm fine. Leave it alone."
Jim sat back on his haunches, surprised and a little hurt at the vehemence. "Okay. You're fine. Sorry I asked."
Blair had the good grace to look abashed as he climbed to his feet. "I'm sorry," he said, avoiding Jim's gaze. "Just don't worry about it, okay?"
Jim didn't like the way Blair stood - slightly hunched, as if his back or ribs hurt - but decided not to push the issue. "I'm going to call for a cruiser to pick up Bruce Lee here, and then I'm going to go look for his buddy."
Blair nodded. "I'll wait outside," he said, and headed for the door.
Once outside on the sidewalk, where the cold drizzle helped cool the heat of embarrassment in his face, Blair began to swear under his breath. First he swore at the kid who'd slammed into him like one of the university's premier running backs. Then he swore at his own clumsiness, and for yelling at Jim like he had. Swearing didn't help. In addition to the lingering pain of having his skull bounced down twenty wooden stairs, his lower back ached as if he'd been kicked by someone wearing steel-tipped boots. He knew he didn't need an ambulance, and maybe he wouldn't even have to visit the campus clinic, but any plans for bungee-jumping, pole- vaulting or doing the Macarena would have to be put on hold indefinitely.
He tried walking the pain away, slowly making his way down the sidewalk to the corner and back. The exercise helped only a little. Jim found the second teenager hiding on the roof, and brought both boys out to the black-and-white that showed up from the Jump Street station. While the patrol cop called in a check of the boys' driver's licenses, Blair took refuge in the Ford from the increasing rain and leaned back in his seat, cold and wet and wishing for some heavy-duty aspirin.
Jim slid behind the steering wheel several minutes later. "Both of them have outstanding warrants for theft and vandalism," he announced. "Not in Billy Carpetti's league, but give them a few years. I'm going to drop you off at home and then go down to Jump Street to do the paperwork. How's that sound?"
"Are you sure - "
"Jim, don't even say it!"
"You don't look so good," the Sentinel said unhappily.
"I feel fine." A lie, that, and one growing increasingly untrue by the second. Pain flared behind Blair's eyeballs, and a muscle spasm twisted up his back with flashes of tight, hot redness. But he had absolutely no intentions of going to a hectic, overcrowded, expensive emergency room. "Let's just go, okay?"
Jim sighed and turned to the steering wheel. He didn't say anything during the fifteen minute drive back home. Blair forced himself to keep his eyes open and concentrated on the sweep of the windshield wipers as a distraction. When they reached the loft, Jim double-parked and said, casually, as if nothing had happened, "I'll be back in a couple of hours. If you need anything, give me a call."
"I won't need anything," Blair promised. His back had stiffened up during the ride, but he tried to hide any symptoms as he leveraged himself out of the seat and to the wet asphalt outside.
"When I get back, you and I are going to sit down and have a long chat about following orders."
Jim's no-nonsense tone and stern expression hit Blair like a slap to the face. "Whatever," he muttered, slamming the Ford's passenger door shut. He went inside without a backwards glance, but he heard the truck's engine rev before it pulled back into traffic and knew Jim had left.
Anger overwhelmed the discomfort of climbing the stairs, but once inside the loft Blair found himself shaking and freezing and in considerable pain. He slowly made his way to his room, and began stripping off his wet clothes. Almost every movement aggravated his lower back. He wanted to take a shower to ease the chill in his bones, but dreaded the thought of stepping over the high bathtub rim. Instead he wrapped himself in his bathrobe, turned the radiators up, and eased himself flat on his bed. Thank goodness he'd let Jim talk him into buying a new mattress - his old one, although full of fond memories, had been a lumpy collection of broken springs that would have done him little good in his present condition.
Twenty six years old, and he'd thrown out his back. How humiliating. The teenager, on the other hand, had bounced back to his feet as if composed entirely of Silly Putty. Blair sighed as he stared at the ceiling and replayed the event over and over. He could see Jim's point. If he'd stayed in the truck, he wouldn't have been hurt. If he'd followed Jim's orders, he wouldn't have been hurt. But he wouldn't have left the truck if the news over the radio hadn't seemed important. Couldn't Jim see that? Probably not. The older man suffered from a compulsive tendency to say "I told you so." That he'd been right in this case didn't matter. The issue was freedom of choice. Individual responsibility. Blair's right to make a decision on his own.
He wished he could sleep. Sleep would wile away the hours until Jim returned home and started lecturing him. A trace of Blair's earlier anger reappeared - who was Jim to dictate and dominate the terms and rules of their relationship? How had all the power in the partnership shifted to him?
Because Blair had let it. Because Blair had ceded control in return for permission to burrow into Jim's life and study his Sentinel abilities. He enjoyed a wide range of access to the closely guarded fraternity of the police force, and as a result had learned more about closed cultures in the previous four months than he had in six years of college and the study of dozens of third world societies.
All he had to do to maintain that access was give up his freedom of choice and follow Jim around like an obedient, housebroken puppy.
Follow every order.
Stay in the truck.
Don't get hurt.
Could it be as easy as that? Could it be as hard?
Jim compartmentalized away his anger at Blair to deal with later. He drove in the dismal rain to Jump Street and ensured the teenage delinquents Li Chao and Li Yan were properly booked. He toyed with the idea of charging Li Chao with assault, but didn't think his partner would see it that way or want to press charges. To be truthful, the kid hadn't meant to shove Blair down the staircase. Blair just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, instead of in his proper place down in the truck.
Jim drove back to headquarters, listened to six assorted messages on his voice mail, and tried to find Jennifer Allen. She'd gone to the site of the robbery on Shatley Avenue. He left a message on her beeper, and wondered gloomily if she'd managed to solve the case without him. Jim eyed the paperwork on his desk, vacillating between tackling it or going home to confront Blair. Judging by the pout on Blair's face and the way he'd slammed the truck door, he probably wasn't in the mood to listen to reason. He would probably argue along the lines of his being an adult, able to make his own decisions and chose his own destiny. In theory, Jim agreed with him. In practice, Blair's impulsive nature and genuine desire to be useful sometimes led him into rash, dangerous choices, with Jim still responsible for his safety and well-being.
"Jim!" Simon Banks called from his doorway. "Where's Sandburg?"
Jim looked up at his captain's scowling face. "Home, sir."
"Why is it he's never around when you need him? He's the only one who knows what to do when my computer starts acting up. Why in the world do we have an ADP department if all I get when I call is voice mail?"
Jim couldn't think of a clever retort, so instead kept quiet.
Simon's displeasure deepened. He weaved his way through the bull pen and towered over Jim's desk. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing I can't handle, sir."
"Oh. One of *those* things. You and Sandburg squabbling again?"
"We don't squabble."
Jim picked up a pen and twisted it between his fingers. He hated to involve Simon in such an essentially simple matter. He certainly didn't want to give the captain any cause to consider pulling Blair's special status. At the same time, however, he had the sneaking suspicion that his planned approach with Blair wouldn't be any more successful that afternoon than it had been on any other occasion - and if he didn't stop this problem, Blair might one day die because of it.
"It's nothing, really, Simon. He just didn't do something I told him to."
Simon sat on the corner of the desk. "So?"
"So, he could have been hurt because of it."
"Something you want to share with me?"
"It's not a big deal. It's just what *could* have happened that's eating at my gut. Why doesn't he understand that I tell him stuff for his own good?"
Simon stroked his chin. "Maybe because it's hard to tell when you're saying something for his own good, or because you like to be in control, or because you feel responsible for everybody on the planet. You're a pretty authoritative type of guy, you know. And it strikes me that Sandburg might have a little difficulty with authority figures."
Jim lifted his eyebrow. Simon calling *him* controlling was fairly ironic.
"Maybe he thinks you don't trust him," Simon added.
"I do trust him! Ninety percent of the time."
Simon smiled. "Oh, so now you're keeping statistics. Compiling a database. Is there a special formula for the times he doesn't follow your orders, and saves the day because of it? Don't get me wrong. If he wants to be a police observer, he observes. He doesn't arrest people, fire guns, read rights, or throw himself at criminals. But he's got good instincts and he keeps his cool. Maybe that's enough for you to trust."
The pen snapped between Jim's fingers. He threw the two plastic halves onto the desk. "I do trust him!"
"I know you do. Ninety percent of the time." Simon stood up and slapped him on the shoulder. "Think about it, Jim. I'm going to go find someone who knows how to fix my computer. What the hell is a 'general protection error,' anyway?"
Simon stalked away. Jim watched him go. Authoritative? Perhaps. That Blair had problems with authority figures wasn't any startling revelation, either.
Authoritative. He didn't want that. He wanted a partner. Someone to count on, and be counted on by. Sentinel and Guide. The police work itself couldn't be an equal relationship - not in a cop's dangerous world, where Jim had several years experience and Blair had virtually none. Their Sentinel work, however, was obviously different. Yet both had become entwined with each other, so closely and tightly he had trouble knowing when one ended and the other started. The third aspect of their relationship, the friendship, just added more complications.
Jim did trust Blair. He trusted Blair to do what he thought was right or just. He just didn't trust him to take his own self- preservation as seriously as he should. He didn't trust him to stay in the truck.
Jim picked up his coat and headed home.
The tantalizing aroma of spaghetti and marinara sauce wafted to Jim in the hall. The garlic bread smelled just as good. Jim let himself into the loft and found Blair in his bathrobe, leaning against the kitchen counter and stirring the sauce from an awkward angle. Something soft and New Age played on the stereo, a soothing accompaniment to the rain and wind rattling the windowpanes.
"Hey," Jim said.
"Hi," Blair answered. "Hungry?"
"Sorry is more like it."
Blair smiled faintly and dropped his gaze. "Apologies already? Man, you're just not following the script."
Jim hung up his coat, spread some newspaper underneath it to catch any drops of water, and fetched himself a beer from the refrigerator. "Which script?"
"You yell, I yell, we retreat to separate corners, and we hardly speak to each other for the next day or so. Eventually we come to our senses, apologize, and reach some kind of compromise."
"Well, Chief, that's a pretty boring script. Can't I just apologize now? I shouldn't have treated you like you were a kid when I brought you back here."
Blair eyed him speculatively. "But something. How about, 'I shouldn't have treated you like a kid, but you should have listened to me.' Something like that."
Jim swallowed some beer. "I'm not going to say that."
"Because no matter what you do, I still don't have the right to treat you like a child. You made a decision. I told you to do something, and you did the opposite. You could have gotten killed. Broken your neck on the way down those stairs. That's not my fault, that's yours."
"But you might have been blamed. They hold you responsible for me, don't they?"
"If you get hurt, and I get blamed, that's my problem. Not to mention the fact I'll probably be wracked by guilt. I'll have to deal with whatever happens."
Jim grinned. "You can drop the leading statements, Sandburg. I said what I have to say."
"No you haven't! Next you're going to tell me the logical conclusion is that we can't be partners, because I'm your responsibility and I won't listen."
"Now who's the one who's following the script, Chief?" Jim teased.
"Not funny, Jim." Blair waved the marinara spoon at him, and Jim's Sentinel vision tracked tiny droplets scattering all over the kitchen. Blair turned from him, looking angry and afraid, and bent to pull the garlic bread from the oven. Halfway over he froze in place and let out a little cry of pain.
Jim put down his beer and hurried to Blair's side. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Blair hissed through clenched teeth. "I just need to sit down for a minute."
Jim helped him to the nearest kitchen chair. "Did you hurt your back when you fell?"
"No! I did it while playing pro football in a former life. Oh, crap, it hurts."
Jim knew firsthand how painful muscle spasms could be, and he clearly remembered how his first jump in Ranger school had left him with a sprained back for two weeks. "Did you take any aspirin?"
"Tylenol." Blair made his back ramrod straight and grimaced. "Sorry about the football remark. I'm a little cranky."
"Maybe just a little, yeah. I've got some Motrin in my night stand, that's a little stronger than Tylenol. Some liniment, alternating ice packs and heating pads, a nice flat bed - you'll feel better in no time."
"Let's eat first," Blair proposed. "I hurt my back, not my stomach, and I'm starving."
They switched places, with Blair watching while Jim finished the meal and set out the plates. The Sentinel served dinner and sat down on his side of the table. "I wasn't going to suggest ending this partnership," Jim remarked as he picked at his salad. "I do wish you'd be a little more considerate of my liability. If you get hurt or killed when you're with me, the press is bound to rip the entire department to shreds because of your observer status. Not to mention I will have lost just about the best friend I've ever had."
Blair stared at him. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Jim said, ducking his head as his cheeks began to burn.
A wide smile lit up the younger man's face. "Thanks."
"I feel the same about you, too."
Jim picked up a piece of garlic bread. "Okay, let's not get sappy."
Blair laughed. He chewed on a forkful of spaghetti with a thoughtful look on his face, swallowed, and said, "I never want people to question your performance or the department's culpability. After all, I signed all those waivers, didn't I? It would help, though, if you trusted me and gave me a little leeway."
"I will, Chief - if you trust me, and don't let the leeway get out of hand."
"Deal," Jim echoed.
Blair's acute back pain lasted for another four days, although the soreness lasted awhile longer. He refused to stay in bed after day two, but did promise to take it easy at school - no cartons of anthropological relics hauled to class, and no sprinting across campus when he was late. The liniment, ice packs and heating pad worked fairly well, and Jim arranged for a licensed therapist named JoEllen from the corner fitness studio to come to the loft and give Blair a massage.
"Don't get too excited," Jim said. "I'm adding her fee to your rent money next month."
While Blair enjoyed his massage, Jim checked out an anonymous lead and found Billy Carpetti living in a mobile home in a Cascade trailer park. The little sleazebag spied him through the window, bolted out the door, and took off running. Jim chased him down two alleys, over a wire fence and through a junkyard before nailing him. The pole-vault over the fence resulted in a very uncomfortable pull along Jim's lower back, but he told no one and stole the liniment when Blair wasn't looking.
A week after his fall, Blair started riding with Jim again in those few spare hours when classes, faculty meetings or lab work didn't demand his attention. Jim and Jennifer Allen still hadn't managed to track down their elusive band of robbers, but they'd narrowed down an initial list of seventy suspects to just under thirty. Jim had grabbed half the list for field interviews. He pulled the Ford up to a decrepit warehouse by Shrimper's Wharf and re-checked the address on the computer printout.
"Suspect number twelve, Kevin Kenneally. He listed this address as his place of work with his parole officer."
"Doing what?" Blair asked. "Pest control? Rust proofing? He should be fired."
Jim got out of the truck. The mild spring day hadn't offered much in the way of sunshine so far, but at least the rain of the previous weeks had stopped. He took in a deep breath and sorted through the odors of sea salt, diesel fuel, rust, seagull droppings, and some kind of paint that smelled familiar. He told Blair what he smelled.
"Like the paint we used to redo the bathroom?" Blair asked.
"Watercolors? I saw the elementary school kids putting up posters in the lobby back at the station. MacGruff the crime dog and that sort of thing - "
Jim shook his head. "No. Something else. I'm going to go check it out. You stay here."
Blair opened his mouth as if to argue, but abruptly shut it again.
Jim circled around the warehouse and found a way inside through two rusting side-panels. The interior of the warehouse had seen much better days. The sagging roof let in patches of daylight. Large wooden crates, most of them opened and empty, lay scattered in the gloom. Pigeons and gulls flapped in the rusting girders, their chattering interfering with his concentration. His palms itched, always a bad sign.
Jim followed the faint odor of paint, linking his sight to his sense of smell, and zeroed in on an office wedged into the back corner. Two men sat at an old army desk. The first, a greasy-haired blond in his early twenties, matched the photo of Kenneally in his file. The second man, burlier and brawnier, had his face turned away. Jim tuned his hearing in that direction. Kenneally and his cohort were playing cards and discussing the Seattle Sonics. Two open bottles of Coors sat on the desk. Ten o'clock in the morning might seem a little early for most people to be drinking beer, but Jim could hardly call it a criminal act.
The paint smell came from that office. Jim reviewed the bank robberies in his head, and remembered that in the second hit a teller had slipped a paint bomb into one of the cash bags. He would bet anyone that the forensics team could find traces of that paint in that room -
"Hey, you!" A man yelled out from somewhere behind Jim. "What are you doing here?"
Jim heard the click of a safety being released and ducked a split second before the gun fired. The bullet whizzed over his head by three scant inches. So much for giving a guy a chance to answer. The gunshot brought Kenneally and his friend out of the office, shouting and swearing.
"There's someone in here!" the man who'd fired at Jim shouted.
"Leave him and let's go!"
Jim remained crouched in place - no use making himself a target just yet. He tracked the sounds of their footsteps. The three men converged in the northeast corner of the warehouse. Car doors opened. Jim edged forward among the empty crates and spied the thieves inside a green 1989 Chrysler LeSabre parked by the warehouse doors. "Police!" he yelled, centering his weapon on Kenneally behind the driver's wheel. "Freeze!"
Instead of obeying, Kenneally gunned the engine. The car shot forward through the closed doors, ripping them off their hinges. Jim didn't fire on him - the situation didn't warrant the use of deadly force - and he would have centered his sight on the rear tires, except that the screech of metal tearing apart overloaded his brain for a moment. The LeSabre turned sharply east, skidding on something slick, and disappeared with a wild spin. Seconds later Jim heard a shattering impact - no, *three* impacts - and all the blood in his body turned to ice.
No. No. No.
Jim forced his feet to move. His legs, rubbery and unsupportive, threatened to collapse beneath him. Once out of the warehouse, he saw the worst sight imaginable. The LeSabre had plowed right into his truck, driving the Ford into a metal dumpster and subsequently ramming both into a concrete wall. Not even Superman could have survived the narrow, mangled wreck of the Expedition - not with the windshield shattered into a million glittering pieces of glass, the engine block relocated in the front seat, and the side doors completely crushed.
Jim couldn't move. Only dimly aware of the cries for help coming out of the LeSabre, he fought to suck in enough air to stay conscious. Cold, sickly shock spread up from his stomach and chest to the very top of his skull. The worst had happened. Blair had been killed. Ripped from his life, studies, hopes, dreams. Crushed to death because he'd followed Jim's orders.
Because he'd stayed in the truck.
Blair's ghost mocked him.
"Man," the ghost said from somewhere at the corner of Jim's vision, "your insurance rates are going to go through the roof!"
Jim spun to focus on him. Blair's ghost looked exactly as Blair himself had. Jim expected transparency, levitation, maybe an unearthly blue glow. But instead he saw Blair's ugly brown coat, his faded jeans, his favorite old tennis sneakers with holes at both toes.
The ghost shook his head at the wreck. "I heard a gunshot," he said. "I called for backup and went to see if you were all right. I know you said to stay here, but - wow. What a mess. Don't you think we should go help those guys?"
"Blair," Jim said.
Blue eyes. Long hair. Hoop earrings in his left earlobe. How much more realistic could a ghost get?
"You didn't listen to me," Jim said. The horrible crawl of his skin began to fade under a sweeping sense of exultation.
"Man, don't start with me!" Blair replied, throwing his hands up. "Where would I be now if I listened to you?"
Jim reached out, grabbed him, and wrapped him in a bear hug. Real. Warm and breathing. He could hear his heartbeat, and feel it through layers of clothing and skin. Not a ghost after all. Jim wondered exactly when it had started to rain, because suddenly he couldn't see for the moisture in his eyes.
"Never listen to me again," he said fiercely. "Do you understand? Never, ever again."
Blair laughed against his shoulder and squeezed him equally hard. "If you say so, Jim! No problem whatsoever."
P.S. I couldn't resist a little reference to one my old favorite cop shows, which I believe was also filmed in Vancouver - 21 Jump Street! Any Penhall fans still out there? :-)
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