Author notes: I realize this sequel has been incredibly long in the making. It was a tough story to write and I feared it was unsalvageable, but with TSL's encouragement, it's finally complete. I have to send a big round of applause to Deborah and Lisa for their superb betas. And a huge thank you to Tonya for allowing me to join the other incredible writers at Wolfpup's Den!
A knock on Blair Sandburg's ajar door drew the graduate student's attention away from the computer screen. At the sight of his visitor, he jumped to his feet and came around his desk. "Todd!"
Mirroring Blair's broad grin, Todd met him halfway and the two young men hugged and slapped each other's backs.
"I heard a rumor that you cut short your stay at the fishing island," Todd Keller exclaimed, brushing shaggy blond bangs off his forehead.
Blair stepped back from the sociology grad student and shrugged. "I decided I had gathered enough information for two or three theses."
"Seriously? Wow, that's great. So, how's the analysis going? Getting your raw data into some kind of empirical order?"
"To be honest, I'm having a hard time getting into it." Blair removed his glasses and placed them on an open book on his desk.
"That doesn't surprise me. You had your heart set on your sentinel subject."
Blair's gaze flickered downward. He didn't like lying to a friend, but there was a stronger loyalty involved. "You know how it goes, easy come, easy go." He looked at Todd. "So, what about you? Have you finally decided on a subject?"
"Maybe, but I don't want to say anything until I'm certain it's doable."
Blair laughed. "Still the same guy who had to have buttermilk for breakfast if he had a test that day, and who wore the same pair of socks two days in a row if he got lucky."
Todd's face reddened, but he shot back, "This coming from a man who drinks disgusting green stuff for breakfast and doesn't do laundry until the floor is covered with his dirty clothes."
"Not anymore -- at least, not the dirty clothes. My roommate's a neat freak."
Todd's hazel eyes widened. "You have a roommate? When did hell freeze over?"
"Ha ha. He used to be a cop."
Todd whistled low. "A cop? Now I know hell's been turned into an ice skating rink."
"Ex-cop," Blair corrected, amused by his reaction. In fact, he'd gotten that reaction a lot since he'd returned to Rainier. "He's opening a private investigation business with another ex-cop." He paused. "And a grad student."
"Wow! What happened to you on that island? Some pod alien take over your body?"
Blair recalled his first hostile meeting with Jim and the long hours spent caring for the man while he had pneumonia. A tentative friendship had begun then, and continued to grow, despite the potholes in the path of their relationship. Most of the difficulties hinged on Jim's arduous acceptance of being a sentinel and his aversion to being so reliant on another person. Blair had his own issues with independence, considering he'd essentially been on his own since he was sixteen. But they'd managed to cement a friendship based on respect, loyalty, and admiration, not to mention the overpowering connection they'd felt since the beginning.
"I grew up," Blair finally replied. He smiled to ease the heavy moment. "Pretty amazing, huh?"
Todd merely shook his head in disbelief. "It's going to take me a little while to get used to a grown-up Sandburg." Blair tossed a pen at him and Todd caught it with a grin. "Nice to see you can still act juvenile, though."
"Yeah, yeah." Blair rolled his eyes. "So, what's your schedule like this semester?"
For the next twenty minutes the two friends caught up with one another, as well as the latest gossip among the grad students they both knew.
A shadow filled the doorway and Blair glanced up, surprised to see his roommate. "Hey, Jim, what're you doing here?"
"I'm your ride, remember?" Jim asked.
Blair frowned at his curt tone, and noticed Todd's scowl as he gazed at Ellison.
What a way to make an impression, Jim.
Of course, Blair had forgotten that Jim was going to pick him up at three o'clock. He glanced at the clock above his doorway -- exactly three o'clock.
Blair stood. "Jim, this is Todd Keller, a fellow grad student and good friend. Todd, this is Jim Ellison."
Todd stood and extended his hand. Jim stared at it a moment, and Blair's irritation with him grew. Jim finally clasped it, but released it almost immediately.
"Keller," Jim said by way of greeting.
"Blair told me about you," Todd said.
Jim's gaze flickered to Blair. "He did, did he?"
"I was telling him how you've gotten me to pick up after myself and how I'll be working with you at the PI agency," Blair explained, forcing a smile.
Jim relaxed slightly and allowed a tiny quirk of his lips. "It's been a challenge housebreaking him."
Todd's eyes narrowed. "You make him sound like a puppy."
Jim shrugged. "Not much difference."
Todd took a step toward him and Blair insinuated himself between his friend and his sentinel. Blair recognized Jim's comeback as teasing, but Todd obviously didn't.
"Hey, guys, let's just relax here," Blair said, ensuring his voice was calm and cool. "Look, Todd, I'll see you tomorrow. I've got to get going."
"I'll wait in the truck," Jim stated, then spun on his heel and marched out of the small office.
"That's your roommate? Geezus, Blair, I didn't realize you were so hard up for money. Hell, I have a spare room you could've used," Todd said.
"Jim's okay," Blair said. Sometimes Jim's social skills lacked finesse, but Blair could forgive him knowing what he'd gone through since his sentinel senses came on-line.
Todd snorted in derision. "He's a jerk. The Blair I used to know wouldn't have put up with that crap."
"He's not a jerk," Blair defended without hesitation. "He can be kind of tactless sometimes but he's a good guy. I wouldn't live with him if he wasn't."
Todd studied him. "I still don't trust him. You watch yourself, Blair, and if you have any problems, call me. You hear me?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "Yes, Dad."
"I'm just worried about you," Todd said, hurt lurking in his voice.
"There's nothing to worry about." Blair stuffed some things from his desk into his backpack. "I've gotta get going."
"I thought you weren't afraid of the macho ex-cop."
"You're way off, Todd. Jim would never hurt me." He ushered his friend into the hallway and locked his office door behind him. "See you tomorrow." Blair waved and then jogged down the hall, feeling Todd's confused gaze boring into his back.
Jim's three-year-old Ford truck was easy to spot among the older model compact and mid-size student-owned cars, and Blair jumped into the passenger side. "Sorry, man," he apologized breathlessly.
Jim's stony profile didn't bode well for a relaxing ride. He started the truck and pulled onto the street silently. Blair opened his mouth to demand an explanation for the attitude, but abruptly closed it. Instead, he examined Jim's face more closely, and spotted deep creases at the corners of his eyes and his thinned lips.
"Why didn't you call me?" Blair asked softly.
Jim blinked and glanced at him, then returned his attention to the road. His cheeks flushed. "I didn't want to bother you."
Blair sighed, but refrained from groaning. "You only bother me when you don't call me about your senses. Which one?"
Jim's jaw muscle jumped into his cheek. "Hearing and touch."
"You should've let me drive." Blair sighed at the stubbornness in his friend's face. "How bad?"
Jim's knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. "My clothes are driving me crazy and my hearing keeps zooming in and out." He ducked his head. "Shaking your friend's hand was like touching hot sandpaper."
No wonder Jim had been so terse with Todd. "As soon as we get to the loft, we'll run through some meditation exercises, then you can take a warm bath with aloe. I assume you have a rash?"
After a moment, Jim nodded once, as if hating to admit it.
"Have you come in contact with anything out of the ordinary?" Blair asked.
"I was working at the office, putting up wallpaper in the reception area."
"Did you get the adhesive on your skin?"
"Yeah, a little," he admitted.
"That's probably it. The aloe bath should help."
Suddenly Jim struck the steering wheel. "I thought we had this shit figured out."
Blair ventured a hand on Jim's tense arm. "For the normal day-to-day living. But there's going to be things you come in contact with that are out of the ordinary. Sometimes they'll affect you; sometimes they won't. I wish I could predict which things will harm you, but I can't."
Jim took a deep breath and, with the long exhalation, his muscles lost some of their tightness. "I know, Chief. I'm sorry I was such an ass with your friend."
Blair smiled crookedly. "You didn't exactly make a good impression."
"Yeah, I heard. He sounds like a good friend."
"He is." Blair paused. "But I'd never tell anyone about your sentinel abilities without your approval."
Jim pulled into his usual parking spot in front of 852 Prospect. "I know, Chief. It's just that--" he broke off, embarrassed.
"Trust is a tough one for you," Blair finished quietly.
Jim nodded as if relieved he didn't have to say the words aloud.
A car horn sounded down the street and Jim clapped his hands over his ears, his expression contorting in pain. Blair flinched sympathetically.
"Let's go up to the loft," Blair suggested in a bare whisper.
Blair guided his hurting sentinel up to 307 and helped him remove his jacket. "Go sit down. I'll be with you in a minute."
He watched Jim shamble into the living room and drop onto the sofa. Hurrying into his room, he paused long enough to deposit his backpack on his bed and grab some unscented candles. Back in the living room, he placed the three candles on the coffee table and lit them. Noting how the sun slanted in the balcony windows, Blair lowered the shades to block out the brightness. Personally, he would've enjoyed allowing the rare Cascade sunshine into the loft. He had this sudden image of himself lying in a square of sunlight on the floor, stretched out like a cat... except that was Jim's spirit animal, not his. He smiled to himself, but sobered when he turned back to Jim. The sentinel hadn't moved nor opened his eyes since he'd slouched on the couch.
Taking a deep breath, Blair joined Jim and sat on the coffee table facing him. Lightly, he placed his palms on Jim's knees and the older man's eyes flickered open. Pain showed in their blue depths and Blair swallowed hard, hoping he could do something to ease it.
"How're your senses?" Blair asked, his voice barely audible to his own ears.
Jim squinted. "Sight's starting to get bad. Hearing's stuck at seven. Touch is at a five, maybe six."
Blair flinched. Two or three was normal. "Taste? Smells?"
"Taste was off a little at lunch so I haven't had anything since." He took a breath through his nose and jolted up to a sitting position.
Blair clasped his shoulders as Jim wheezed. "I think we can safely say all the senses have joined in the rebellion," the student noted with concern.
Once Jim regained his breath, Blair eased him back to lean against the couch.
"Close your eyes, Jim," Blair began. "I want you to just relax, let your body melt into the cushions."
After a few moments, Jim sagged back and Blair's hands settled on the sentinel's knees once more. Blair talked Jim through the breathing exercises he'd been teaching him, and then had him lower each sense dial until they were steady at two. The creases in Jim's face eased and Blair allowed himself a smile of victory, but kept his tone mellow and unhurried.
"Sleep, Sentinel, your guide and territory are safe," Blair whispered.
Jim snored softly, his body completely relaxed and his features free of their earlier pain lines. Blair watched him, thinking this was what it must've been like for a sentinel generations ago, when the guardians were responsible for a tribe's safety. The guide would become the protector as his sentinel slept.
Blair stood and retrieved the afghan folded over the back of the couch. As he spread it across the older man's lap and legs, he noticed the red welts on Jim's wrists disappearing under his cuffs. Biting his lower lip, he retrieved a bottle of aloe lotion from the bathroom and knelt beside the couch. He poured some of the lotion in his palms and warmed it before gently spreading it on Jim's exposed skin. Jim shifted and moaned.
"It's just me, Jim. It's all right. We're safe," Blair reassured in a soft, soothing voice.
The older man settled immediately, the furrows in his brow smoothing out. Blair continued a low monologue while he eased Jim's shirt open and rubbed lotion on his chest, which looked like a kid's game of dot-to-dot, not counting the scars Jim had received when Sarris had blown the bus all those months ago. His hands trembled as he recalled Joel telling him how close the sentinel had come to dying that day. Once he was done, he re-buttoned Jim's shirt and covered him with the blanket.
A wave of pride and possessiveness crashed over him. Jim was his sentinel and he'd allow nothing or nobody to hurt him. The unexpectedness of the intense feelings made Blair lightheaded and he blinked, only to catch a glimpse of a panther and wolf out of the corner of his vision. He turned to face the animals more fully, but they were gone, as was the chest-constricting sense of awe and protectiveness.
Shaking his head, Blair stood and stared down at the sleeping sentinel. Jim had been pushing himself for the past four weeks, ever since he resigned from the Cascade Police Department. He'd found a ground floor office in an older building and, after Blair and Joel's approval, signed a year lease and set to work preparing the Argus Detective Agency. He wanted to open for business by the end of the month, only a week away.
Joel had gone back to the island to get his affairs in order there. He planned to keep the pub, but needed to find someone to take care of it until he was ready to return. The last they'd heard, Joel would be back in time for the grand opening, unless something unforeseen came up. He'd apologized profusely for abandoning them, and not doing his share of fixing up the office. Jim had assured him that he didn't mind the work. In fact, Blair knew Jim would've gone crazy if he didn't have the project to keep him busy.
Blair brought his attention back to his roommate. Pleased that Jim remained deep in slumber, Blair tiptoed into his room and grabbed his laptop. He carried it to the table and set it up, hoping the blips and beeps wouldn't wake Jim. Once the computer was up and running, Blair set to work doing his assigned duty for the Argus Detective Agency. He had spreadsheets to create, as well as downloading data search programs they'd paid dearly for. In this day and age, any investigative company that wanted to survive needed access to personal information, which meant they had to shell out the bucks for the public records software.
Blair lost himself in his work as the afternoon faded to dusk.
Jim awakened confused and bleary. Everything seemed muted. What day was it? Was it morning or afternoon? How long had he been lying here? Why wasn't he at work?
"Easy, Jim. Go ahead and slide your dials back up to normal."
Jim recognized his guide's voice and, almost without thought, followed the quiet command. The room lightened, sounds increased, and pleasant scents filtered in. A light pressure on his arm told him Blair was using touch to help ground him.
"Better?" Blair asked gently.
"Yeah." Why did his voice sound so gravelly? "What time is it?"
The remaining cobwebs disappeared. "How long have I been sleeping?"
"Three hours." Blair grinned. "I guess your body is smarter than your brain."
Jim sat up and scrubbed his face. "I remember picking you up and coming back here, then nothing."
Blair lowered himself to the couch beside Jim. "Your senses were giving you problems. I talked you into a meditative state, then had you lower all your dials. You fell asleep. How're they doing now?"
Jim tilted his head, checking each sense like a mechanic checked the oil and brake fluid levels in a car. "Good."
"What about the rash?"
Jim tugged a sleeve upward and noted the nasty welts had faded significantly. He also smelled aloe on his arms and chest. "Almost gone. Did you--?"
Blair nodded. "After you fell asleep. I didn't want to wake you up to take an aloe bath, so just rubbed some lotion on whatever I could get to. You might want to put some on your legs if the rash is still there."
"Uh, thanks," Jim murmured. Even though Blair had stayed with him during his serious bout with pneumonia on the island, Jim wasn't accustomed to someone caring for him.
"I think you just pushed yourself too hard and your senses forced you to slow down."
Jim fingered the fringe on the blanket, unwilling to meet Blair's gaze. "I can't stand doing nothing, Chief."
"You and me, both." Blair bounced up and tugged Jim to his feet. "C'mon. I've got something to show you."
Jim rolled his eyes heavenward at his guide's exuberance, but his lips curved upward. At first the young man's animation had nearly driven Jim crazy -- it still did sometimes, especially when Blair came up with a new test. However, it was that same ebullient spirit which had brought Jim back from his self-imposed hell and given him reason to care again.
Blair led him to his computer. "I've got the bugs worked out of the accounting program, plus we now have access to state and national data for missing person searches."
Jim grinned. The computer part of the business was Blair's baby, and Jim had gladly handed it over to him. It wasn't that Jim couldn't surf the Internet with the best of them, but he didn't understand all the little technological details. Jim was the detective, Blair was the computer geek, and Joel was the people person. Between the three of them, Jim suspected they'd be successful as a private investigative team, but he was afraid to say it aloud -- afraid he'd jinx them.
"I don't know how you did it, Chief, but I'm glad you did." Jim slapped his back companionably. "This gets us a couple steps closer to our opening."
"Yeah, it's pretty cool. I'll save it to CD then download it onto the system at work."
"What do you say we celebrate by eating at Nettie's?"
Blair's eyes became unfocused and he smiled in ecstasy. "Her vegetarian enchilada plate with extra guacamole and a margarita. Oh, yeah, I'm definitely down with that. Give me a minute to shut down."
"That'll give me time to wash up and change my shirt," Jim said, already moving toward the bathroom. He paused. "Uh, thanks, Chief."
"For what?" Blair's brows were furrowed in confusion.
"For, you know." Jim motioned toward the sofa.
Blair smiled, understanding immediately. "No problem. It's all in the guide's manual on how to take care of stubborn sentinels."
Jim feigned a glare. "Where's the sentinel's manual for smart ass guides?" He headed for the bathroom, listening contentedly to Blair's laughter.
"Whoa, watch it, Chief."
A strong hand caught Blair's arm, effectively stopping him. Startled out of his concentration, Blair glanced up from the book he'd been reading as he walked down the short hallway. Jim held a spray bottle and paper towels in his other hand.
"Some microorganism make it under your radar again?" Blair teased.
"At least I don't have green and blue fungus growing in my leftovers."
"It was one tiny spot of mold. You are never going to let me live that down, man, are you?"
"Maybe in forty or fifty years."
Blair grinned, pleased to see Jim's natural dry wit and wicked humor emerging more and more from life's detritus which had buried them. His gaze shifted to the frosted glass door with bold characters, which read "Argus Detective Agency" and in smaller letters beneath it, "James Ellison, Blair Sandburg & Joel Taggert." His eyes lit up. "Oh, wow, that's terrific, Jim." Blair moved one way then the other to look at the door from all angles. "It finally arrived."
"Yep," Jim said, smiling one of his rare eye-squinting smiles. "He even gave us a ten percent discount since it was so late."
"Even better." Blair held up his hand and Jim high-fived him with the hand holding a damp paper towel. "Yuck!" The graduate student swiped his hand across his denim-covered thigh. "So how long have you been cleaning the glass?"
Jim shrugged. "It had all these fingerprints and dust on it." He eyed the door critically, his eyes narrowing. "And it still does." He shot a cloud of blue cleaner at the glass and vigorously began to wipe it.
"Jim, you're a sentinel. You will always see dust and fingerprints."
The sentinel muttered a few choice words but didn't attempt to remove any more invisible -- at least to non-sentinel eyes -- smudges.
"Any prospective clients?" Blair asked as he and Jim stepped into their renovated office.
Jim tossed the used paper towels in a wastebasket. "Someone called asking about our rates. When I told him three hundred dollars a day, he hung up."
"From the research I've done, that's a bargain."
"We know that, Chief, but your average joe doesn't. He may call back after he checks around some more and figures it out."
Blair set his backpack on the shiny reception desk with its brand new computer system sitting atop it. He brushed his hair back from his face and absently reached into his jeans pocket to snag a hair tie. "I have that last computer program to load and then I need to run some tests on it. Once that's up and running, I can get to work on our website," he said as he pulled his hair back into a ponytail.
Blair booted up the computer and Jim entered his office, which was small but neat. Without clients, there wasn't much to shuffle around yet, but Blair suspected once they did have some paperwork, Jim's corner would remain just as tidy. Blair had yet to figure out if it was a Jim thing or a sentinel thing.
The grad student pulled a CD out of his backpack and placed it in the PC's tower. After the program loaded and he restarted the computer, Blair clicked the mouse and the new business accounting program opened on the monitor. He smiled and pumped an arm in the air. They had received their tax identification number in the mail the day before and Blair typed it in the appropriate box. He'd already entered the social security numbers of himself and his two partners.
Blair blinked at the voice and glanced up to see a tow-headed boy about six or seven years old peering at him. "Can I help you?"
"The sign on the door says you're a detective."
"I'm not actually the detective. That's more my partners' job."
The kid slid a hand in his pocket and pulled out a handful of bills and coins. He dropped them on the desk. "I want to hire you."
Blair leaned back in his chair and rested his clasped hands across his waist. There appeared to be less than twenty dollars in the pile. "What seems to be the problem?"
"I want you to find my mom."
Blair narrowed his eyes even as his chest clenched sympathetically. "How do you know she's missing?"
The boy's chin jutted out. "She didn't come home from work last night."
"Where does she work?"
Although Blair had never been there, he knew it was a strip club not far from their office. Half a dozen possibilities flitted through Blair's mind. "What's your name?"
"I'm Blair." He extended his hand to the boy, who shook it solemnly.
Jim walked out of his office and came to stand behind Blair. "What's going on?"
"Matt would like us to find his mother," Blair replied, keeping his gaze on the boy whose green eyes narrowed as he studied Jim.
"Where is she?" Jim asked.
Blair rolled his eyes -- if the kid knew that, he wouldn't be in their office.
"I don't know," Matt replied defensively.
"How long has she been gone?" Jim continued his interrogation as if the boy were a suspected felon. Blair barely restrained himself from shoving an elbow into the ex-cop's ribs.
"She usually gets home from work about three, but when I got up this morning, she wasn't there."
"What about your father?"
"Don't have one."
Blair flinched inwardly at his defensive tone.
"Does she have a boyfriend?" Jim asked.
Matt frowned and replied reluctantly. "Yeah."
"Maybe she went to his place. Did you call him?"
Matt glanced down at his hands, which gripped the edge of the desk. "I don't like him."
Blair stiffened. "Why's that?"
"I just don't." Matt's knuckles were white.
"I think you should call him. She's more than likely there," Jim said.
Matt's face appeared pale under the soft lighting. "She never goes there without telling me first. Something's happened to her."
"Excuse us," Jim said. He grabbed Blair's sleeve and tugged him into his office. "He's lying. His heart's going a mile a minute."
"He's scared," Blair argued. "It wouldn't hurt to check out his story. It's not like we have anything else to do."
Jim's expression turned to stone. "Maybe you don't, but I have better things to do with my time than chase after some kid's made-up story."
"What if he's telling the truth?"
"Look, if you want to investigate his mother's so-called disappearance, I say go for it. But I've got some errands to run."
Struck speechless by Jim's flat denial, Blair could only stare at the sentinel.
Jim tilted his head slightly. "He's gone."
"The kid. He left."
Blair dashed back to the reception area to find it empty. Only the pile of money remained on the desk. There was something about the boy that prodded at Blair's conscience. He glanced up to see Jim framed in the doorway of his office. "Are you happy now?" Blair demanded.
"He was only looking for attention," Jim countered.
"So why'd he leave his money?"
Jim shrugged. "Maybe he just forgot it."
"Or maybe he really does believe something happened to his mother and wants us to find her."
Jim raised a hand. "Look, I've got to run over to Staples and pick up the supplies we ordered, plus buy a few more things. You want to come with me, or stay here?"
Blair studied the pitiful mound of coins and crumpled bills. "I'll stay."
"Suit yourself. I'll make supper."
"Knock yourself out." Blair sat down behind the desk and pretended to study the computer screen.
Jim remained in place. "Look, Sandburg, I saw a lot of kids just like him when I was a cop. Half of them were con artists and half of them were emotionally troubled. I'm sure Matt hasn't had the easiest life with his mom, but at least he has a mother."
Blair almost missed the bitterness in his voice, but he was as attuned to Jim as the sentinel was to him. "And you had your father, even though he wasn't exactly the poster dad for Father's Day. Matt only has his mom."
"This isn't about me, Sandburg," Jim growled.
Blair paused to gaze steadily at him. "That's right, it's not."
Jim's jaw clenched and he spun around. "I'll see you later."
At least Jim didn't slam the new door on his way out. Blair sighed and shook his head. He picked up Matt's money and put it in an envelope, which he tucked in a desk drawer. He glanced up at the wall clock -- 4:02. He'd work a couple hours then head home and hope his roommate had cooled down.
Blair removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He had managed to run successful diagnostic tests on all the programs and set up the agency's home page. He needed to add some links and get some more background information from Jim and Joel to add to their qualifications, but that could wait. The important items were there -- name, address, and phone number.
He was still somewhat surprised Jim and Joel had agreed to the name he'd come up with -- The Argus Detective Agency. In mythology, Argus was a hundred-eyed giant who protected Io, one of Zeus' many mortal lovers. Through the centuries, Argus came to mean 'watchful guardian,' which described a sentinel to a T. And since they didn't dare advertise Jim's gifts, this was as close as they could comfortably come to a meaningful name for their agency.
Blair shut down the computer and grasped his backpack strap as he stood, stretching and yawning as he did. Noticing the paper and pens scattered across the desk, Blair opened a drawer to dump them in so Jim wouldn't freak out about the mess. He spotted the envelope with Matt's money tucked into the drawer's corner.
Jim was probably right about the boy. Although it was in the opposite direction of the loft, Rip It wasn't far. Blair could drive over and ensure Matt's mom was okay and return her son's money. He slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket and turned off the lights, then locked the office behind him.
Once inside his old Corvair, Blair realized he should probably call Jim and tell him where he was going. On second thought, Jim would probably forbid him to go by himself. Blair snorted -- sometimes Jim carried his protectiveness to extremes.
Without calling his partner, he drove to Rip It and parked in the lot, which only had five cars in it. He suspected the lot would be full later that night. He pulled his wallet out of his backpack and placed it in his pocket, leaving the heavy pack in the car. Blair walked across the pockmarked asphalt and pulled open the battered wood door. Despite the few customers, smoke hung like gray specters above the large room, giving the interior a dismal dreary atmosphere that even the neon lights couldn't conceal. He crossed to the bar.
"What can I get you?" the bartender, a man about Blair's age but with scraggy dark hair and a goatee, asked in a bored voice. His nametag read Gary.
"Actually, I'm looking for someone," Blair said with a friendly smile.
Gary's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You don't look like a cop."
Blair laughed with genuine amusement. "I'm not. I'm a--" he paused "--private detective."
"Like that dude who drives the red Porsche?"
Blair remembered watching Magnum PI as a teenager in the dorm at Rainier. "Yeah, sort of. I don't know the woman's name, but she's a waitress here and she's got a son named Matt."
Gary nodded. "Sounds like Ally Lehman. She's a waitress. Comes on at seven."
"What time is it?"
"Quarter of. She should be here any minute; she usually gets here ten, fifteen minutes early."
"Sounds like a conscientious employee."
"She's been here three months and no complaints from the boss so far." The bartender laughed. "For here, that's saying something."
Blair forced a smile. "I think I'll just hang around until she comes in."
"Can I get you a drink?"
"Do you have tea?"
"No, thanks. How about a club soda?"
The bartender shook his head, but poured him the drink. "That'll be three seventy-five."
Wincing, Blair handed him four ones, which looked as crumpled as Matt's dollars. "Keep the change."
Gary the bartender left Blair to help another customer at the other end of the bar.
Blair hitched himself up onto a swivel stool and rotated slowly to study the murky milieu. The anthropologist in him scientifically catalogued two middle-aged men sitting in a booth ogling three women, who looked like they'd just left jobs with bosses who resembled the two leering men. A young couple entered the bar and took the darkest booth. Blair smiled to himself, recognizing the tactic.
"She should be here by now."
The man's voice caught Blair's attention, and he glanced up to see a white-haired man wearing a plethora of gold chains around his neck talking to Gary. The older man's purple polyester shirt was unbuttoned almost to his waist, revealing graying chest hair and a slight paunch. Blair figured he was the owner.
"Yeah. It ain't like her to be late," Gary said.
"Excuse me, are you talking about Ally?" Blair asked.
The purple-shirted man shot him a look. "Who're you?"
Blair gave him what he hoped was an innocent smile. "I know her son. He asked me to give her something." It wasn't exactly a lie.
"Maybe you should ask him where she is."
"I'd do that, but I don't know where they live. How late did she work last night?"
"She left at one. Said she had a headache and since it was a slow night, I let her off early," the owner replied.
"Did she say if she was going to see her boyfriend or was she headed home?"
"She didn't say nothing. She just left," the bartender interjected.
"If she knew what was good for her, she'd kick his ass and get the hell away from him," the owner grumbled.
"Who? Her boyfriend?" Blair asked.
The man nodded dourly.
"Her son doesn't like him either," Blair said.
"Doesn't surprise me. Ally's a good girl, but she doesn't have any sense when it comes to men."
"Is he abusive?"
Gary left to wait on a customer, leaving the aging Don Juan with Blair.
The owner shrugged. "Wouldn't surprise me, but Ally never said nothing bad about him." He searched the bar and swore. "I'm going to try to call her and find out why the hell she's not here." He turned to leave.
"Would you mind if I tagged along?"
"Who are you?"
"So you know Ally's son?"
"You'll have to wait outside my office."
"No problem." Blair slid off the stool and followed the man to the back. He leaned against the wall in the hallway by the office door with "Larry Bonham, Owner" on it.
A few minutes later, Bonham returned to the short corridor. "She's not answering her phone. I'm going to have to call someone else to fill in for her." Disgust filled his voice.
"Could I get her phone number?" Blair asked.
He shook his head. "I don't give out my employees' phone numbers or addresses."
Without anything official, Blair couldn't very well demand the information from him. Besides, that was Jim's forte, not his. Which reminded him... "What time is it?"
Jim was going to kill him. "Thanks for the information."
Blair hurried out to his car and drove five miles above the speed limit all the way back to the loft. He could smell the lasagna as soon as he stepped out of the elevator onto the third floor. The door opened just as Blair reached it.
"Where the hell have you been, Sandburg?" Jim demanded.
"Cool it, Jim. I had an errand to run."
Jim's nostrils flared. "At a bar?"
Wincing guiltily, Blair swept past Jim and entered the loft. "Smells great in here." He shucked off his coat and hung it on the hook beside the door. Dropping his backpack beside the small table, he strode into the kitchen.
Jim closed the door and stalked after him, stopping to lean against the island. He crossed his arms. "What's going on?"
"What makes you think--"
"Cut the crap, Chief. Your heart's beating like you just ran a marathon." He narrowed his eyes. "Your car didn't break down, did it?"
"No, nothing like that, man." Blair raked a hand through his hair. "I stopped at Rip It."
Blair made a face. "You know any other Rip It?"
"Stow the comedy act. Why'd you go there?"
"Matt's mother works there."
"The kid who wanted to hire us?"
Blair planted himself in front of Jim. "His mom didn't show up at work tonight. She's never been late before. The owner tried calling her, but she didn't answer her cell phone."
Jim straightened and glared down at his guide. "What the hell did you think you were doing? You don't know a damned thing about finding missing persons."
Blair jabbed his chest with a stiff forefinger. "I went because you blew the kid off. You didn't even check out his story."
"Because he's only a kid!"
"Yeah, and he's been alone for over twenty-four hours. If his mom doesn't show up, he's going to end up on the street. With a lot of luck, he won't end up as a John Doe Junior in the morgue."
Jim flinched. "Damn it, Sandburg, he's not our responsibility."
"Whose responsibility is he, Jim?" Blair asked softly, in sharp contrast to his angry words.
"Who are overworked and undermanned," Blair retorted curtly. "He'll get lost in the system."
Jim snarled and dragged his hand across his short hair, frustration evident in the terse gesture. He stalked over to the oven, lowered the door and lifted the lasagna out using a pair of burgundy potholders. He set the pan on the stove, pressed his hands against the counter and leaned into it. "So what do you think we should do?" he finally asked, not looking at the younger man.
Blair worried his lower lip between his teeth. "I was hoping you had some ideas."
Jim took a deep breath and straightened. "Would you get the salads from the fridge?"
"Sure." Blair set the bowls on the table beside the two place settings.
Jim cut the lasagna into eight pieces and placed one piece each on his and Blair's plates. He brought over a wicker basket filled with breadsticks and covered by a cloth napkin. Once seated, the two men began to eat in silence.
"Did you get her phone number?" Jim asked as he served himself another piece of lasagna.
Blair paused with a breadstick halfway to his mouth. "No. The owner wouldn't give it to me"
Jim nodded. "I'd be surprised if he did. Do you have anything on her?"
"Nothing other than a name -- Ally Lehman."
"That's more than we had." He took a drink of water. "I'll call Dan Wolf and see if anyone with that name has shown up in the morgue in the last twenty-four hours."
Blair's appetite fled and he set his breadstick on his plate. "Do you think she's dead?"
Jim's jaw clenched. "I don't think anything. We have to check all the possibilities."
"How can you be so cold about it?"
"You check your emotions at the door, Sandburg. You can't let kids like Matt get to you."
Blair shoved back his chair and stood. "Maybe you can do that, but I can't. And I don't want to be able to do it either. May as well toss aside your humanity."
Jim dropped his fork to his plate with a loud clatter. "This is why I didn't want to take this case. You cannot take this stuff personally, Sandburg. If you do, you're going to burn out faster than a cheap light bulb. Damn it, Chief, I need you sharp and focused."
"Don't you think I can be sharp and focused and still feel compassion?"
Jim studied him for a long moment. "So you think I don't have any compassion?"
"I didn't say that," Blair replied quickly.
"You didn't have to." Jim's chair scraped back and he carried his plate to the sink. He dumped the remainder of his meal into the garbage disposal, and then began to clear the table.
"I can do the--" Blair began.
"I'll do them," Jim interrupted, snatching Blair's plate from his hand.
Blair followed the older man to the sink and placed a light hand on his sleeve. "I didn't mean it," he said. "I was just upset."
"You're probably going to get even more upset before we find her."
Jim washed the dishes and rinsed them, placing them in the drainer. Blair withdrew a clean towel from a drawer and began to wipe.
"He reminds me of me," Blair admitted a few minutes later.
Jim's shoulders untensed and he sighed. "I figured. Did your mother ever leave you alone?"
"Yeah. Money doesn't grow on trees, y'know?" Blair attempted a smile.
"Did she ever not come home?"
Blair placed the two dishes in the cupboard. "Sometimes, but she always let me know."
Jim glanced at him. "Did it bother you?"
"I was a kid," Blair said, not meeting Jim's eyes.
"Exactly my point, Chief."
"She loved me. I never doubted that."
"It doesn't make it right," Jim said quietly.
The two men finished the dishes in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Once they were done in the kitchen, Jim picked up the phone. Not wanting to hear the conversation, Blair disappeared into the bathroom with Jim's latest issue of Sports Illustrated. Ten minutes later, he returned to the living room.
"Well?" Blair asked hesitantly.
"There have been two female DB's, but both were identified. No Ally Lehman," Jim replied.
Blair dropped onto the loveseat and scrubbed his face with his palms. "That's good."
"I called the hospitals, too."
Blair's head snapped up. "And?"
"Nothing there either."
Blair stood. "We should go back to Rip It tonight so we can talk to the people she works with."
"I was thinking the same thing." Jim snatched both his and Blair's jackets from the rack by the door. He handed the younger man his, then grabbed his keys. He paused a moment and met Blair's gaze. "You were right. I shouldn't have blown the boy off."
Blair smiled crookedly. "In your place, I probably would've felt the same way." His grin widened. "Besides, that's what you have me for -- to keep you humble."
Jim swatted the back of Blair's head playfully. "C'mon, oh humbling one."
The parking lot had filled up in the two hours since Blair had left, and a bass rhythm vibrated through the walls into the parking lot as they walked to the door. He glanced at Jim, noting the stress lines in his brow.
"Turn it down, Jim."
After a moment or two, Jim nodded.
Blair opened the door and the music nearly knocked them over. For a split second he thought Jim was going to abandon him, but then the reassuring solid figure was beside him. Instead of talking, Blair led him to the bar, dodging gyrating bodies and flying limbs. Jim's hand disappeared from Blair's back, and Blair glanced back to see him captured by a woman who was obviously trying to get him to dance. The sentinel gave her a brittle smile and cut around her.
Chuckling to himself, Blair continued on until he reached the bar. Gary was much busier, but he also had help from a second bartender.
Blair spotted an empty stool and quickly claimed it. Gary's gaze flickered across him, then returned as recognition kicked in.
"She never showed," Gary called to him above the din.
"Is Mr. Bonham still here?" Blair yelled back.
Gary nodded and motioned with his head to the back. "In his office."
"Thanks." Blair jumped off the stool and nearly collided with Jim. He leaned close to the ex-cop. "The owner is in the back."
Jim nodded and Blair led the way. Once in the hallway behind the bar, the noise faded substantially. Blair glanced at Jim and, although the sentinel was scowling, he didn't appear to be in pain from overstressed senses.
"Who is it?" came a muffled question.
"Blair Sandburg. I spoke with you earlier about Ally Lehman."
There was some muttering, but Blair couldn't understand what he was saying. He looked at Jim questioningly.
"He's not happy," Jim said with a shrug.
Footsteps heralded the opening of the door. Bonham's startled gaze fell on Jim. "Who's he?"
"Jim Ellison," Jim replied before Blair could introduce him. "I'm a private investigator." He held out his new PI identification card.
Bonham examined the card closely and then looked at Blair. "You a private dick, too?"
Blair nodded. "We're partners. May we come in?"
Bonham stepped back and motioned them into his office. He closed the door behind them and went around to sit in his chair. "I've tried calling Ally a few more times but still no answer. Frankly, I'm getting worried. She's a good girl."
"Has anyone been bothering Ms. Lehman lately?" Jim asked.
Bonham thought for a moment. "Nothing out of the ordinary. You know, give a guy a few drinks, bring in a stripper, and sometimes the guy can get a little too friendly."
"But Ms. Lehman was a waitress, not a stripper."
"Sure, but the waitresses are more accessible."
"Don't you have bouncers to make sure the men don't get 'too friendly'?" Blair asked.
"Look, if a bouncer's job was to keep customers from copping a feel of the waitresses, they wouldn't have time to check ID's or stop drunken arguments," Bonham replied impatiently. "A waitress figures out how to take care of herself early on or she doesn't last in the business."
"So there was no specific person who seemed to be bothering Ms. Lehman any more than usual?" Jim asked, bringing the questioning back in line.
"Not that I can think of, but you should talk to Mandy. She worked a lot with Ally."
"What about Gary? Did he and Ally work together much?" Blair asked.
"Yeah, they did. But he's usually too busy to notice who's giving the girls problems."
"Do you know if Ally has any relatives or an ex-husband who might check on her son?" Jim asked.
"She never talked about herself. I got the impression she wanted to keep her job here separate from her personal life."
"Could we get her address so we can make sure her son is all right?" Blair asked.
Bonham crossed his arms. "How do I know that ID isn't a fake and that it wasn't you who did something to Ally?"
"It's not, and we didn't," Jim stated. "We're legitimate."
Bonham eyed Jim closer and recognition dawned. "You used to be a cop. The one who finally got that bomber after she killed a bunch of people."
Jim crossed his arms and his face hardened into sharp planes and angles. Blair unobtrusively moved closer to his sentinel, knowing how much Veronica Sarris had scarred him, both emotionally and physically.
"Matt came to our office this afternoon," Blair began, as if Bonham hadn't spoken. "He said his mother didn't come home last night and wanted us to find her. He left before he gave us his address."
Bonham studied them for a long moment and then finally nodded. "All right." He went around his desk and pulled out a file from a drawer. He wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to Jim. "I sure hope nothing's happened to her."
"Thank you," Jim said, stiffly polite. "Is Mandy working tonight?"
"Yep. She's the brunette," Bonham replied.
"Thank you," Blair said.
Jim and Blair walked down the hallway, back to the main room.
"Do you think he was telling the truth?" Blair asked Jim.
The music swelled as they entered the bar lit by colorful strobe lights. Jim pressed a hand to his brow.
Blair leaned close so they were shoulder to shoulder. "Keep everything dialed down, Jim. Don't let it overwhelm you."
Jim nodded. He glanced around and motioned to a waitress with long dark hair. "I think that's Mandy."
Blair followed Jim, holding onto the back of his jacket as they pressed through the crowd. The waitress was waiting for a drink order.
"Mandy?" Jim asked in a loud voice.
Her eyes, highlighted by rusty-brown eye shadow and thinly arched brows, settled on him suspiciously. "Who're you?"
"Jim Ellison, private investigator. I'd like to ask you some questions about Ally Lehman."
"What happened to her? Is she all right? If that bastard hurt her, I'll kill him," Mandy exploded.
Jim held up a hand. "Calm down. We don't know that anything has happened to her. How long have you known her?"
"Ever since she started here, 'bout three months ago. She's a nice girl, kinda reminds me of my kid sister," Mandy replied.
"Do you know of anyone who's been bothering her lately?"
Mandy frowned. "Only her boyfriend. He's a jerk, but Ally's too damned nice to get rid of him."
"Do you know his name?"
"What do you know about him? Other than he's a jerk?"
"He's a loser. A gambler who's up to his neck in debts."
"And you know this how?"
"Ally told me. She gives him money because he tells her all he needs is one good score on the ponies and he'll have everything squared away."
"Except he keeps losing," Blair interjected.
Mandy glanced at him and nodded. "Exactly. Ally started takin' classes at the university last month and I think she was starting to wise up. Said she wasn't going to give him any more money."
"Rainier?" Blair asked.
"Yeah. She wants to be a teacher." The waitress smiled proudly.
"Do you know where this Rhodes lives?" Jim asked.
"No, and I don't want to. I'd be tempted to shoot the son of a bitch." Mandy accepted the drinks Gary handed her. "Look, I gotta get back to work, but if there's anything else I can do to help, let me know." She gave them her phone number.
"Thanks," Jim said.
They turned to leave, but Mandy caught Jim's wrist. "Please call me if -- when you find her."
"We will," Jim said.
Mandy picked up her tray and waded back into the fray.
Jim and Blair left the club and climbed into the truck.
Blair allowed the blessed quiet to wash over them for a few minutes before speaking. "I can do some checking around campus tomorrow, find out what classes she's taking and talk to her professors."
"All right, but that's all you do, and you call me with the information as soon as you have it."
"Sure, man, whatever."
Jim held up his forefinger. "I'm serious here, Chief. We don't know what happened to her so we have to assume the worst, and I don't want you getting into anything you can't handle. Got it?"
Warmed by his friend's concern, Blair nodded solemnly. "I got it, Jim, and I promise to be careful." He glanced around at the unknown neighborhood. "Are we going to check on Matt now?"
Ten minutes later Jim parked in front of a decrepit five-story apartment complex. Lights could be seen through worn curtains and bare windows in the crumbling brick building. Three boys in their mid-teens sat on the stoop despite the coolness of the evening.
Blair followed Jim up the steps, trying to ignore the belligerent stares of the teenagers.
"Don't you boys have school tomorrow?" Jim asked, his smile a little too casual.
"What's it to you, man?" one of the boys asked challengingly.
Jim shrugged. "Just want to make sure you get your recommended eight hours of sleep."
The boy snorted and his friends only shook their heads.
Jim took their derision in stride, continuing into the building, but Blair stopped by the boys.
"What grade are you guys in?" Blair asked them.
"Grade A," one replied, then laughed and shared handslaps with his friends.
Blair smiled. "That's pretty good. You ever try stand-up comedy?"
The boy shook his head.
"You should. You'd be a natural." Blair shrugged. "But you should probably get your diploma, too. That way you won't get screwed over when you're making deals with the comedy clubs." He followed after Jim, leaving puzzled and thoughtful silence in his wake.
"Only you, Sandburg," Jim muttered as they climbed the creaky stairs.
"Now what'd I do?"
"Counseling gang members to stay in school while on their turf."
Blair shrugged. "Can you think of a better place?"
Jim didn't have an answer. The detective stopped in front of apartment 228 and tilted his head.
"Is there anybody inside?" Blair asked.
Jim shook his head. "The kid should be here."
Blair grabbed Jim's arm. "What if they got Matt, too?"
"We don't know that anybody has anyone yet, Chief. Calm down." Jim gripped Blair's wrist gently and eased his roommate's hand from his sleeve. He knocked on the door even though he knew there'd be no answer. He tried the door, but it was locked, albeit with a flimsy lock.
A door cracked open across the hallway. A woman's dark face peeped out from behind the door.
"Excuse me," Blair said, walking toward her. "Can you tell me if Ally or Matt's home?"
"You friends of theirs?" she asked cautiously.
"We know Matt."
A boy peeked out the door beside the woman. "It's those detectives," he exclaimed to her. Matt slipped out into the hallway. "Did you find my mom?"
Blair hated to dampen the boy's excitement. "Not yet."
Matt's expression fell.
The woman, who appeared to be in her late twenties, stood behind the boy and placed her hands on his shoulders, but her wary gaze was aimed at Blair and Jim. "Is it true? Did Mattie hire you to find his mother?"
"That's right. I'm Jim Ellison and this is my associate Blair Sandburg." Jim held up his ID for her to see.
Once the woman finished inspecting the ID, she said, "I'm Ariel Jones."
"When was the last time you saw Ally, Ms. Jones?"
"Three days ago. She was comin' home from her classes."
"Did she seem frightened or worried about anything?" Jim questioned.
"Nothin' more than usual. I know she was plannin' on breaking it off with that no-account boyfriend of hers and she was kinda worried 'bout that."
Jim and Blair exchanged glances.
"When was she planning on doing it?" Jim asked.
The woman crossed her arms beneath her heavy bosom. "As soon as possible, she told me. Said she had enough of his--" her gaze flickered to Matt "--outbursts."
"Have you ever met him?"
"No, and didn't wanna. Not after what he done to her."
"And what was that?"
"He hit her," Matt spoke up, his chin uptilted. "He used to hurt her in other places, too. Places no one could see."
Blair swallowed the bile rising in his throat. "When did your mom last see him?" he asked Matt.
"I dunno. Maybe a week or a little less."
"Do you know where he lives?" Jim asked the boy.
Matt shook his head, his eyes glimmering with moisture.
"Do you have a picture of your mom, Matt?" Blair asked, diverting the subject.
The boy nodded. "Yeah."
"Could we borrow it to help us with our investigation?"
Eager to help, Matt dodged over to their apartment door and tugged out a string that hung around his neck beneath his shirt. As Matt unlocked the door, Blair's own memories of being a latchkey child inundated him. There had been a lot of Ariel Joneses in his life, too -- women who looked after him when Naomi was working or with one of her "friends."
"I got his address," Ms. Jones offered. "Ally give it to me one time when she started seein' the devil. I'll get it for you."
Matt returned, closing his apartment door behind him. In his hand was a five by seven color picture. He held it up to Jim and Blair. "Here."
"Thank you." Blair accepted it and gazed at their missing person -- a strawberry blond with a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Hazel eyes which were too somber for someone her age stared at Blair. Although not beautiful, Ally Lehman was pretty in a wholesome way, and looked young enough to be in high school.
Blair passed the picture to Jim then leaned down to speak to the boy. "Are you doing okay Matt?"
The boy shrugged, trying to act nonchalant but the fear in his eyes gave him away. "Yeah. I've been staying with Ariel. She and my mom are friends."
Ariel returned and handed Blair a slip of paper with an address and phone number scrawled across it. "Matt can stay with me until his mother comes home," she said firmly.
"Protective Services should be called, Ms. Jones," Jim stated.
"Ain't nobody going to get near Matt," the woman stated, her dark eyes narrowed.
Blair had no doubts Ariel would keep the boy safe from harm.
Jim finally nodded reluctantly. He handed her one of their new business cards. "Here's our number. Could you give us a call if you hear from her or if you think of anything else?"
She nodded, taking the card from him.
"Are you gonna find her?" Matt asked plaintively.
Blair opened his mouth to reply but abruptly closed it when his partner squatted down in front of the boy.
"We're going to do the best we can," Jim reassured Matt in a confident and reassuring tone that Blair knew he'd never be able to duplicate. "And if you should think of anything that might help, like her favorite places or maybe other friends, could you tell Ms. Jones so she can call us?"
Matt nodded solemnly.
Jim ruffled his hair and straightened. "Thank you, ma'am," he said to Ariel, then turned and guided Blair down the hallway.
"You're an old softie, Ellison, you know that?" Blair said quietly with a hint of a smile.
Jim merely grunted. Blair was still chuckling when they hopped into the truck.
Jim glanced at his watch. "Ten-fifteen. Early enough to drop by and pay Rhodes a visit, don't you think?"
Blair grinned. "Definitely." His smile faded. "Do you think he had anything to do with Ally's disappearance?"
"He's our number one suspect at this point, Chief." Jim checked the revolver in his shoulder holster.
"Do you think he's dangerous?"
"You've heard what everyone's said about him. What do you think?"
Blair shivered. "I think we have to be prepared."
"The name of the game, Chief."
"What was with the Protective Services thing?" Blair asked as Jim drove down the darkened street.
"Standard police procedure. When there's no relative to take care of a child, CPS is called in." He shrugged. "But I'm not a cop anymore, and Ariel seemed more than capable of taking care of him. Besides, like you said, he'd just get lost in the system."
Blair gazed out the windshield, both pleased and surprised Jim had listened to him earlier.
Twenty minutes later, Jim parked in front of a dumpy duplex. The corner street lamp flickered off and on in no perceivable pattern. When it was off, Blair was nearly blind, but he knew Jim wouldn't have any trouble seeing with or without the light.
"He's obviously not making any money gambling," Blair commented.
"Most don't." Jim stepped out of the truck and Blair joined him. "Stay behind me and don't get between Rhodes and me, got it?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "I got it, Jim." Sometimes having an overprotective sentinel was like wearing a jockstrap a size too small -- the support was appreciated but it was a pain in the ass.
Jim led him unerringly to the left unit, where a light could be seen through the crepe-thin curtains. "There's only one heartbeat inside," the sentinel said.
After a quick glance to be sure Blair was behind him, Jim knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" a faint voice called from inside.
"Publishers Clearinghouse," Blair muttered.
Jim shot him a quelling look. "Mr. Rhodes, we'd like to ask you some questions."
"'Bout what?" The voice was just on the other side of the door now.
"I don't like talking through a door."
There was a long moment of silence, then two locks snicked and the door was cracked open the width of the chain lock. They could see one bloodshot mud brown eye and a five o'clock shadow.
"Who're you?" Rhodes demanded.
Jim held up his badge. "Jim Ellison. Private Investigator. And this is my associate Blair Sandburg. We've been hired to find Ally Lehman."
"She didn't come home last night and she didn't show up at work tonight."
"I ain't seen her in a week."
"Aren't you worried about her?"
"She can take care of herself."
Jim shoved the door and broke the feeble chain. Rhodes stumbled back, allowing Jim and Blair to enter the garbage-strewn duplex. Jim quickly dialed down his sense of smell. He planted himself in front of Rhodes and glared down at the man who was a couple inches taller than Blair, and thirty pounds heavier. "Or maybe you already know where she is," Jim stated, his voice suddenly as inflexible as granite.
"Look, last time I saw her she wasn't real happy with me," Rhodes began, holding his hands up.
"Did you ask her for more money so you could place that sure win bet and hit the big time?" Sarcasm dripped from Jim's voice.
Sweat trickled down Rhode's forehead and his scent was sour. "Ally said she wasn't goin' to give me any more money. Said she had better things to spend it on, a lot better'n me. Next time I saw her I was goin' to call it quits with her."
"Or did you permanently call it quits last night when she dropped by?"
Rhodes' face paled even further. "She couldn't have been here last night 'cause I wasn't here."
"And where were you?"
Rhodes scraped up some courage. "That's my business."
Blair watched the exchange, observing and cataloguing Jim's technique. The student was glad he wasn't on the receiving end of an Ellison interrogation.
"What do you think, Chief? Think Rhodes here has been into something illegal? Maybe some off-track betting or maybe even murder?"
Rhodes' eyes widened and his face paled. "I didn't kill Ally." He suddenly rammed Jim, knocking him against the wall.
Rhodes swung at Blair as he ran, catching the grad student unaware. The man's fist struck Blair's left eye and spun him around. Blair managed to stick out his foot, tripping Rhodes before he could make it out the exit. As the gambler scrambled to his feet, Ellison caught an arm and shoved him against the wall. Jim's forearm pressed against Rhodes' throat. "Just one move and I could break your neck. Would you like a demonstration, Rhodes?"
The man froze and even his breathing stuttered to a halt for some seconds.
Jim took a moment to assess Blair's condition. "Chief, are you all right?"
Blair joined them, a hand covering his eye. "I'll live."
Jim frowned and he pressed his arm deeper into the man's neck. Rhodes groaned and Blair touched Jim's sleeve. "I'm all right, Jim. Honest."
After a long moment, the sentinel eased his grip on Rhodes, allowing the gambler to breathe a little easier. "Where is she?" Jim demanded.
"I don't know. I swear I didn't see her last night," Rhodes replied quickly, his voice hoarse.
Blair ignored his eye's throbbing and leaned close to Jim. "Listen to his heart rate. Watch his pupils. Is he telling the truth?"
Jim tilted his head, registering the man's physical reactions. "He's telling the truth, Chief." With a curse, he released Rhodes. "If you see or hear from her, or hear anything about her, you call me." Jim stuck his business card in the sweat-coated man's shirt pocket. "And if we find out that you've been yanking our chain, I'm going to come back here and make sure you never do it again. You understand?"
The pasty-faced man nodded jerkily.
Jim allowed his guide to go before him. When they got into the truck, Jim turned toward his guide. "Let me see your face."
Blair sighed and shifted closer to his friend.
Jim raised Blair's chin, giving him an unhindered view of his guide's face. He lightly brushed the swelling around Blair's left eye.
"See? No gushing blood," Blair said with feigned brightness.
"No, but you are going to have one hell of a shiner, Chief," Jim said grimly. "As soon as we get home, you need to put some ice on it."
"It does hurt a little," Blair admitted.
Jim started the truck, shaking his head. "Didn't I tell you to stay out of Rhodes' way?"
"Hey, it wasn't my fault. After he decked you, I was next in line."
"He didn't deck me," Jim grumbled. He pulled onto the quiet street. "I got sloppy."
"C'mon, Jim, just because you're a sentinel doesn't make you Superman. The guy caught you by surprise. It could've happened to anyone."
"I was a cop, Sandburg. I was trained to not be caught by surprise." Jim's voice was filled with self-derision. "If he'd had a gun, one or both of us might be dead right now." A shiver slid down his spine and settled like a lump of ice in his gut.
"But we weren't," Blair stated firmly. "Don't beat yourself up over might-have-beens."
Jim scowled, but decided not to argue. Blair was an anthropologist; he didn't realize how fine the line was between life and death. Jim had seen it up close too often in both the military and law enforcement. One moment a person is alive and joking with his buddies, and the next he's lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood and waste. If Rhodes had had a gun, Blair could've been that person.
A light touch on his wrist startled him out of his grim musings.
"Don't, man. We're in this sentinel/guide thing together, and I'm not about to sit on the sidelines," Blair stated, uncannily guessing Jim's thoughts. "I thought you figured that out already."
When Jim quit the police department, he'd done so because he couldn't count on support from his brothers in blue. Too many of them still blamed him for freezing when the Switchman had blown that bus over a year ago. Jim could understand since he blamed himself, too, despite Blair's never-ending battle to convince him otherwise. The kid was the only one who believed in him without reservation; sometimes it was a blessing and, other times, it was a curse.
They rode back to the loft in unwieldy silence. Once inside, Jim made a beeline for the freezer, withdrew a bag of frozen peas and carried it over to Blair, who was slumped on the couch.
"Thanks," Blair murmured, accepting the offering.
"Want some tea?"
"I can make it." Blair started to stand, but Jim pressed him back down.
"Keep that on your eye. I think I can handle a cup of tea. Do you want the kind that smells like dirty socks?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "That's ginseng. And yeah, that sounds good."
The anthropologist sat back on the couch and closed his eyes. He kept the frozen peas against his left one as he listened to Jim's quiet rustlings in the kitchen. The domestic sound was soothing and eased Blair's taut nerves. Although he'd told Jim he was fine, Rhodes' attempted escape had definitely shaken him. At the time, Blair had adrenaline on his side, but now he couldn't help thinking about those "what ifs" he'd warned Jim against. There'd been no doubts about joining Jim and Joel in the detective agency; his place was beside Jim. But he had figured PI work would be less hazardous than police work, where he'd been shot in the short time he'd ridden with Jim.
So what am I going to do -- bow out because it's turning into more than I bargained for?
He suddenly had the sensation of being watched and his eyes flew open, but couldn't see anyone but Jim in the kitchen. A flash of gray by the door and Blair's breath stuttered as he recognized the fleeing form.
"Here you go, Chief," Jim said.
Blair jerked, surprised that he hadn't heard his friend approach. "Uh, thanks."
"What's wrong, Sandburg? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Have you seen your spirit animal lately?" Blair asked, trying to maintain a casual tone.
Jim stared at him a moment, then plopped on the sofa beside him. "No, but I take it you've seen yours?"
"Just now. He went through the door."
Jim frowned. "Maybe you're supposed to follow him."
"I don't think so. I didn't get that urgent feeling like before." Blair sipped his steaming tea. "I wonder what he's trying to tell me."
"Maybe he likes the smell of your tea as much as I do," Jim deadpanned.
Blair elbowed his side. "Funny, Ellison." He set his tea on the coaster on the coffee table and leaned back. "So now what do we do about Ally Lehman?"
Jim settled back beside his guide, their shoulders brushing. "You can talk to her professors at Rainier tomorrow. I think I'll head downtown and visit Simon. Maybe I can get him to check if there's been any other young women reported missing lately."
"What about going back to the club? Do you think we missed anything?"
"If we haven't come up with anything else by tomorrow night, that will be our next step." Jim scrubbed his palms across his face. "For the kid's sake, I hope she's all right."
"But the odds get worse the longer she's missing, right?"
Jim nodded somberly. "Afraid so. How's the eye doing?"
"It's a little sore. I'm not looking forward to all the razzing tomorrow."
Jim took the thawing bag of peas from Blair and stood. "If you have any trouble, just let me know and I'll kick their asses."
Blair chuckled, suspecting Jim wasn't altogether teasing. "Thanks, Jim. I just might take you up on that."
Jim placed the peas back in the freezer for the next time an ice pack was needed, then made his rounds checking the door and windows. "I'm beat. See you in the morning, Chief."
As he finished his tea, Blair had to admit that it was kind of nice having someone who cared.
The sun shone brightly the next morning, giving Blair reason to wear his sunglasses from the parking lot to Hargrove Hall, besides the obvious one of hiding a swollen and bruised eye. He did get a few odd looks when he wore the glasses down the hallway and into his office though. Once in his office, he removed them and sat down at his computer, anxious to learn more about Ally Lehman. Within ten minutes, he had a printout of her class schedule.
A knock on his door startled him.
"Come in," Blair called out.
Todd Keller entered, his backpack tossed over a shoulder and his hair sticking out in a hundred directions, as usual.
"Hey, Todd," Blair greeted.
"Hey, yourse-- What the hell happened to you?" Todd demanded.
"Wha--" Blair lightly touched his black eye and grinned sheepishly. "Oh, that. Would you believe I ran into a door?"
Todd's expression grew even darker. "Did your cop roommate do that to you?"
Blair's mouth dropped open. "Jim? No way, man. I told you -- he's a good guy."
"Then what happened?"
"Jim and I were working a case last night. The guy we were questioning decided he didn't want to hang around and tried to get past us. I got in the way of his fist."
Todd didn't appear convinced. "If you're covering for him..."
Blair stood and held out his hands imploringly. "You know me better than that. I wouldn't stand for anyone beating the crap out of me."
"That's what my sister used to say, too." Todd slumped into the chair in front of Blair's desk, his expression abject. "If only she'd gotten away from him before--" He broke off, his hand covering his eyes.
Blair stood and came around to lay a hand on his shoulder, empathizing with his friend whose sister had been killed by an abusive boyfriend. "I'm sorry, man. It's only been a year, hasn't it?"
"Eleven months and two weeks," Todd replied. He took a shaky breath and looked up. "When I met your roommate last week, I didn't like the way he treated you."
"He was having a rough day and took it out on me, but he didn't mean it."
Todd muttered something.
"What was that?"
"Nothing," Todd answered. He smiled, but it appeared forced. "As long as you're okay."
"I'm fine. Really." Blair returned to his chair and picked up the schedule lying on his desk. "Do you know Ally Lehman?"
Todd frowned. "Yeah. She's in my ten thirty Intro class. Why?"
"She's missing. Her son hired our detective agency to find her."
"She has a son?"
Blair nodded. "Matt."
"She wasn't in class yesterday, but I just thought she was sick or something," Todd said absently.
"No one's seen her since she left work the night before last."
"Doesn't she work at some strip joint?"
Blair nodded. "Rip It. She's a waitress there. From everything we heard, she was a good worker, responsible, and wouldn't have left her son if she'd had a choice. Did you notice if she was friendly with anyone in particular in class? Or maybe was acting anxious the last time you saw her?"
Todd thought for a long moment. "She pretty much stayed to herself. A couple guys hit on her at the beginning of the semester, but I think she turned them down. And I don't remember her acting any different last time she was in class."
"What were the names of the two guys?"
"John Lawser and Bill Drayton."
Blair recognized both and jotted the names down in his notebook.
"What have you found out?" Todd asked.
"That she had a loser boyfriend but was planning on breaking it off with him."
"Have you talked to him?"
Blair grinned wryly, thinking about how Jim had persuaded him to talk. "Yeah, but he claims he hasn't seen her for almost a week. We think he's telling the truth."
"How can you be sure?"
Blair shrugged. "Jim used to be a cop and he's got excellent instincts."
Todd's lips turned downward. "I hope he's as good as you think he is." He glanced at his watch and stood. "It's almost ten thirty. If Ally's in class, I'll send her over here."
"Thanks, but I doubt she'll be there."
"Me, too." Todd shook his head sadly and lifted a hand in farewell. "Talk to you later, Blair."
Blair stared down at the two names and recognized one as a basketball player on Rainier's team, and the other as a football player. They were jocks, but Blair didn't think they'd do anything to a girl who turned them down. Unless they thought she thought she was too good for them. He could probably track them down and talk to them in between classes.
Remembering Jim's admonishment, Blair quashed that idea... unless he just happened to run into the young men. He had three hours before he was to meet Jim for lunch, which gave him more than enough time to talk to Ally's other two teachers.
Putting his sunglasses back on, Blair headed out on his mission.
Jim sat at a back table in the nearly deserted cafe. The weekday breakfast rush was over and the lunch crowd was still a few hours away. He refilled his coffee cup and glanced up to see Simon Banks enter the restaurant. He waved at his former boss, who smiled and waved back. Jim stood as Simon joined him, and the two men shook hands vigorously.
"Damn, it's good to see you again, Jim," Simon greeted.
"You, too." Jim's smile was more reserved, but his words were sincere.
The two men sat down and Jim poured Simon a cup of coffee from the brown thermal carafe.
"How've you been?" Simon asked.
"I got an email from Joel last week telling me all about your new office." Simon took a sip of coffee and then added in a quieter voice, "I get more news from Joel, who's five hundred miles away and on an island, than I do from you who's in the same city."
Jim glanced down. "I'm sorry, Simon. It's just hard, you know?"
"Because of the way you left?"
Jim nodded and lifted his gaze to meet Simon's. "I bailed on you after you stuck out your neck for me."
"You had your reasons."
The waitress arrived and took their orders. Once she was gone, Simon asked casually, "Is Sandburg still living with you?"
"Yeah. He's teaching me how to handle these crazy senses."
Simon shook his head. "I never pretended to understand how you two worked together, and I have to admit I was pretty leery when you requested that he ride with you, but you two meshed. If you would've stayed on, you two could've kicked some serious bad-guy ass."
Jim smiled crookedly. "Thanks, Simon. I appreciate that, but we both know why I couldn't stay. It would've gotten Sandburg or me killed. Maybe both of us. I couldn't ask Blair to take that kind of risk."
"So you quit the force." The words came out with a bitter twang and Simon waved a hand. "Sorry, Jim. It's just that I really thought you were back for good when you returned after that year. It was so damned good to have you in Major Crime again. Just like old times."
"Yeah, I thought so, too."
The two friends were silent for a long moment, then Jim asked how the other detectives were getting along and one thing led to another. By the time their plates were scraped clean thirty minutes later, Jim had gotten caught up with the happenings in Major Crime.
The waitress took away their empty dishes and the two men sat back with fresh cups of coffee.
"Okay, Jim, what's the real reason you wanted to see me this morning?" Simon asked.
Jim's face heated.
"I am a detective, you know," Simon teased.
"Busted." Jim smiled wryly. "We're working on our first case. It's a missing person. The woman's name is Ally Lehman, twenty-three years old, and waits drinks at Rip It. She disappeared the night before last on her way home from work."
"I'll check to see if a report was filed on her."
"I can almost guarantee there wasn't. What I would like to know is if there've been any similar missing persons cases. Young women disappearing, that kind of thing."
"How far back? Six months?"
Jim nodded. "That'd be good." He frowned. "Make it for male or female under the age of thirty."
"Sounds like you have a theory."
"I just want to cover all the bases, see if there's a pattern."
"I'll do it under one condition. You keep me posted on your progress, Jim," Simon stated firmly. His expression softened. "Besides, it gives you a reason to keep in touch."
Jim glanced down, embarrassed by how much his ex-boss' words affected him. "Blair and I'll have you over for dinner next week. How's that?"
"What day?" Simon pulled his dayplanner out of his breastpocket.
"Uh, how about Thursday?"
Simon jotted "Dinner-Jim's" in the square for Thursday. "Let me know the time."
Jim traced the rim of his coffee cup, idly noting how he could feel individual droplets from the steam form on his sensitive skin. "Without Blair I never would've left that island. Hell, I'd probably be dead by now," he admitted quietly.
"I know," Simon said, equally as soft. "I knew when you left Cascade you didn't plan on returning. Thank God for Sandburg."
Jim smiled crookedly. "Some days that's harder to do than others. He's a fireball when he gets rolling on something, and if you're in his path, look out."
He was aware of Simon studying him closely. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you actually like the kid."
Jim snapped his head up, ready to defend Blair, but the twinkling in Simon's dark eyes revealed his teasing. Jim smiled wryly. "He makes me think about things, puts things in perspective the way I never can." He laughed lightly. "He's almost got me convinced my senses are a gift."
"He's right, you know. I don't doubt your agency will do well."
Jim finished his coffee and set the empty cup aside. "I hope so." He smiled. "If you happen to hear of anyone who might need a private detective, you have my permission to pass our name along."
Simon chuckled. "Give me some of your business cards."
"I just happen to have a few with me." Jim dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful.
Shaking his head in amusement, Simon accepted the small stack and glanced at the top one. "Nice. Who designed it?"
"So he's pulling his weight?"
Jim's good mood evaporated. "He's not a moocher, Simon. And even if he didn't do that much at the agency, I wouldn't be able to do this without him. What he does is just as important -- if not more important -- than what I do. In fact, I wouldn't be able to function with these damned senses if it wasn't for his help."
Simon held up his hands. "Whoa, easy Jim. I just meant that I'm surprised he has time with his university schedule."
Jim scrubbed his face, the defensiveness dropping away. "Sorry, sir."
"You don't have to call me sir, Jim. I'm not your boss any more." Simon shook his head as he smiled. "It's nice to know someone's watching out for you, Jim. I'll always be grateful to Sandburg for that."
Uncertain how to respond to Simon's heartfelt words, Jim only smiled slightly.
Simon finished his coffee and glanced at his watch. Irritation creased his brow. "I have a meeting in fifteen minutes. Damned politics."
Jim chuckled. "Sounds like the military -- the higher the rank, the more bullshit you have to deal with."
"Ain't that the truth."
The two men split the bill and walked out into the rare Cascade sunshine. They shook hands on the sidewalk.
"Stop by the office around five or five thirty. I'll have that information for you," Simon said.
"I'll be there."
Waving good-bye, Jim turned and walked down the block to where he'd parked his truck. Although he'd been apprehensive about his breakfast with Simon, Jim was glad he'd gone. He'd forgotten how good a friend the man was, despite Simon having been his boss and seen him at his worst. If Simon could let bygones be bygones, Jim could do no less. He took a deep breath and nodded to himself. It was time for a new beginning.
Dejected, Blair trudged across campus. He'd spoken to Ally's other two teachers, who recognized her name but didn't remember anything about her other than she was a good student. Of course, the general education courses held over sixty students each and it was rare for a professor to get to know each freshman in his or her class.
Glancing up, he spotted Bill Drayton walking a parallel path toward him. He'd met Bill last year when the then-freshman had taken his Anthro 101 course. He wasn't a bad student; he just preferred to be on the basketball court or with one of his many admirers than in the classroom.
"Bill," Blair shouted, waving his hand.
The six foot five inch student stopped and waited for Blair to catch up to him. "Hey, Mr. Sandburg."
"Hey, yourself." Blair had to tip his head back to meet his eyes. "Getting ready for the new season?"
Bill shifted his backpack, which looked ridiculously small, across his back. "Yep. Coach says I'll probably be a starter this year."
"Cool." Blair had to take two steps for every one of the tall student's. "Do you know Ally Lehman?"
Bill frowned. "She's in my ten thirty sociology."
"Did you notice she hasn't been there the last couple of days?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah."
"I heard you asked her out and she turned you down."
Bill's fair complexion reddened. "Her loss."
"Did you know she was a waitress at Rip It?"
Blair didn't comment on how a nineteen-year-old got into an adults-only strip joint. "Was that the reason you asked her out? You figured she'd be an easy lay?" he forced himself to keep the question casual.
Bill's hands flexed into ham-sized fists. "When did my personal life get to be your business?"
"When a woman who turned you down ends up missing."
"Missing?" He appeared genuinely surprised.
Blair nodded. "Nobody's seen her for thirty-six hours. Her son is pretty worried. He's only seven."
"She's got a kid?"
"You didn't know?"
Bill shook his head. "She never said. Now I'm glad she turned me down. I don't want to be some kid's pretend daddy."
Irritated, Blair snapped back, "I'm sure Matt doesn't want to be anyone's pretend kid either." He blinked, as surprised by his outburst as Bill. "Sorry, man."
"Yeah, well, I haven't seen her since the last time she was in class," Bill reiterated. He looked down at Blair. "That's a helluva shiner."
"I zigged when I should've zagged. Thanks for the information."
"No problem. I hope you find her."
Blair veered back toward Hargrove Hall. The clock in the center of the campus courtyard chimed one. Jim was supposed to meet him at his office at one, then they were going for a late lunch. Blair hustled into the science building and down the hall. He spotted Jim leaning against the wall across from his door, and he didn't look happy.
"Sorry I'm late," Blair said as he neared the sentinel.
Jim didn't answer, but only followed Blair into his office. "I tried calling you a couple times."
"I've been in and out all morning."
"I tried your cell phone, too."
Blair frowned in confusion and opened the outer pocket of his backpack. He pulled out his phone and smiled weakly. "I guess it helps if it's turned on, huh?"
"Geezus, Sandburg, why even have a cell phone if you're not going to use it?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "Chill, man. I was saving the battery and forgot to turn it on, all right?"
Jim held up his hand and his features relaxed. "Are you hungry, Chief? My treat," he asked, his way of apologizing for snapping at his friend.
"You pick the place."
Fifteen minutes later, Jim and Blair sat in a window booth in a brew pub not far from Rainier. Although Jim had eaten a large breakfast with Simon, he found himself ordering one of the house burgers with everything. Blair had a smaller burger, but with no fewer condiments. A mound of onion rings sat on a plate between them.
"So, what'd you find out?" Jim asked after wiping some thousand island dressing from his lips.
"Ally's taking three classes. I talked to her teachers -- only Todd remembered her."
"Your friend Todd?"
"Yeah. Ally was in his general sociology course. He said she was a good student. He gave me a couple names of guys who hit on her."
Jim's eyes sparked with interest. "Good work, Chief. We'll have to talk to them."
"Already talked to one, Bill Drayton. I ran into him on campus right before I met you. He hasn't seen her."
Thunderclouds filled Jim's expression. "You questioned a suspect without back-up?"
"C'mon, Jim, he's a college sophomore jock, not some criminal with a record a mile long."
"You don't know that. Damnit, Sandburg, we had a deal. You get the names then we question them together. None of this solo shit."
"It wasn't like I went looking for him."
"What if he's the one behind her disappearance? He might've panicked and done something stupid."
"But he didn't," Blair said in exasperation. "And I don't think he knows anything."
Jim leaned forward and clasped Blair's forearm. "That's not the point, Sandburg. The point is you weren't supposed to talk to anyone about her without me."
Blair glanced up to see Todd and Lisa, a psych grad student, standing by their table.
"Hey, what're you two doing here?" Blair greeted.
"Same as you. Lunch," Lisa replied with a smile. She deliberately looked down at Jim's hand clutching Blair's arm, and the older man released his guide. She tilted her head to study Blair's face. "So that's the infamous Sandburg shiner I heard about."
"Infamous? What did you hear?" Blair asked warily.
Her smiled widened. "That the Blair Sandburg charm didn't work with a jealous boyfriend."
Blair groaned. "Great. Now my charm has been defamed."
"How can something be defamed if it never existed?" Jim asked, his tone serious but his eyes twinkling.
"Ha ha, Ellison."
"You doing okay, Blair?" Todd asked. "Sounds like you and your roommate were having an argument."
"Nah, just a misunderstanding."
Blair tossed him a mock glare, then turned back to Todd. "Everything's cool. Jim and I tend to have a difference of opinion on things."
Todd's expression was skeptical. "We'll leave you to eat. See you later, Blair."
"Later." It didn't escape Blair's attention that Todd completely ignored Jim.
"Your friend doesn't like me," Jim commented, clearly catching Todd's cold shoulder, too.
"Yeah, well, you didn't give him much reason to."
Jim shrugged and finished his burger.
"How did your meeting with Captain Banks go?" Blair asked after cleaning off his own hamburger.
"He's going to run a print-out on all the missing persons under thirty years old that have been reported in Cascade in the past six months," Jim replied. "I have to swing around by his office around five, five thirty to pick it up. I also ran a check on Ms. Lehman with our new programs at the office. She's originally from Kansas, but left after she graduated from high school. It looks like she worked her way to Cascade, always as a waitress. She's clean, not even a traffic ticket in the last three years."
"Why'd she leave home?"
Jim shrugged. "Hard to say. She had Matt when she was a junior in high school. She was never married and left the father's name blank on the birth certificate."
"Maybe someone from back home wants her back."
"But not take her son?" Jim shook his head. "I don't think so. Her mother and father still live back there, along with some brothers and sisters. I'll give her parents a call this afternoon and see if they know anything that might help us."
"I have a feeling you won't find out much."
"Probably, but we have to check out every angle." Jim wiped his mouth with his napkin and dropped it on his empty plate. "We need to talk to Ariel Jones again, as well as the people Ally Lehman worked with at Rip It. They might've remembered seeing somebody hanging around or watching her." He drained the pint of the brew pub's own amber beer. "What're you doing this afternoon?"
"I've got an article due next week I thought I'd get to work on. But if there's something else I can do--"
"We should talk to the other guy who asked Ally out."
"I've got his class schedule in my office, as well as his address," Blair volunteered.
Jim smiled. "Good job, Chief. Ready to go?"
"Yep." Blair grabbed his jacket and stood.
Side by side, they walked back to Hargrove Hall. Jim was surprised by how many students Blair knew as he seemed to be saying hello to every other person they passed. Of course, the kid had been attending Rainier since he was sixteen. He was bound to know a lot of people -- students and professors alike. But what truly amazed Jim was how much his guide was genuinely liked and respected. He could see it in their eyes and smiles. It gave Jim a healthy dose of guilt for stealing Blair away from his true calling.
Inside his office, Blair rummaged through the papers on his desk and found the one with John Lawser's schedule on it. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and read, "Psych 212 in Powers Hall, room 105, from one fifteen to two fifteen."
Jim thrust out his wrist and glanced at his watch. "Can we get there in five minutes?"
Blair nodded. "It's two buildings over. Come on."
They made it with a minute to spare and waited for the psychology class to end. When it did, students filed out of the room, adjusting backpacks and talking.
"That's him," Blair said to Jim, pointing to a young man an inch or two shorter than Jim, but with twenty pounds more on his frame.
"John Lawser," Jim called out.
The football player paused and moved out of the stream of students. "Yeah?"
"I'm Jim Ellison and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg," Jim introduced as he held up his ID.
"Aren't you a teacher here?" Lawser asked Blair.
"That's right, but I also work with Jim," Blair replied. "We've got a couple questions for you."
"They're concerning Ally Lehman," Jim said. "When was the last time you saw her?"
Lawser blinked. "A few nights ago. I was at Rip It with some friends and she was working."
"We heard you asked her out and she turned you down," Jim continued.
Lawser scowled. "Is there a law against asking someone out?"
"No. But she's missing, and there is a law against kidnapping."
Lawser's mouth dropped open. "And you think I had something to do with it? Look, I liked her, so I asked her out. She was real nice about turning me down, said she had a kid and all. I told her that was all right, that I liked kids, but she just said she was too busy with school and work. I was disappointed, but it's not like she's the only fish in the ocean, y'know?"
"What time did you see her Tuesday night?"
"I guess it was around ten or so. We hung around for a couple hours, then left about midnight. Ally was still working."
Jim tilted his head, listening to Lawser's respiration and watching for a telltale sign of stress. "If you think of anything, could you give us a call?" He handed the student one of their cards.
"Sure thing. I like Ally and I'm hoping I get a second chance to ask her out." Lawser tucked the card in his pocket.
"Thanks," Blair said as Lawser walked away. He turned to the sentinel. "Well?"
"He's telling the truth. I don't think he knows anything."
Blair's shoulders slumped. "So where does that leave us?"
Jim put a hand on Blair's back and steered him down the hall. "Nowhere right now."
"My money's on her boyfriend. He's a sleazeball." Blair shuddered.
"I'm not ruling him out, Chief, but we don't have anything against him right now, besides the fact he's a sleazeball."
"What could've happened to her?" Blair asked in frustration.
"A lot of things, and most of them bad," Jim replied honestly. "I'm going back to the office to call the Lehman's."
"I have to run over to the library to pick up a couple books, then I'll be over there, too. I can work on my paper there just as well as here."
Jim smiled and clasped the back of Blair's neck lightly. "Sounds good, Chief. Maybe we can bounce some ideas off each other."
When Blair arrived at the Argus Detective Agency an hour later he found Jim sitting behind the front desk, staring at the computer screen.
"Are you zoned, or just deep in thought?" Blair asked, although he already knew the answer.
"We have another case."
"Cool!" Blair grabbed a chair and swung it around to Jim's side to look at the screen. "What is it?"
"Another missing person. Michelle Radke. Same type of thing as Ally Lehman -- she left her job at Wonderburger a little after midnight a week ago but never made it home."
"How old is she?"
"Just turned eighteen. She's a senior at Westwood High."
Blair's stomach churned. "Damn."
"Yeah." Jim pulled a hand across his eyes. "Her father hired us."
"Simon. Mr. Radke stopped by the department to find out if there had been any progress. Simon saw the similarities of the cases and gave Radke our card."
"Was Simon able to give you anything else?"
"When I stop by to pick up the list of missing persons from him, he said he'd have the Radke file nearby."
Blair nodded knowingly, understanding that Simon was stretching his neck out by doing that. But Simon was also a parent and could empathize with the father. "So what're you working on here?"
Jim shrugged tiredly. "Nothing. I just got off the phone with Ally Lehman's mother."
"Nothing I haven't done before."
Blair felt more than heard the pain behind the flat words and laid his hand on Jim's arm. "It still sucks."
Jim offered a tiny smile and his eyes showed his gratitude. "Yeah, it still sucks." He took a deep breath. "She said they haven't heard from Ally in about three months. I guess she calls from a pay phone every so often to let them know she's still alive, but didn't want them to find out where she was living."
"So why'd she leave home?"
Jim shrugged. "Mrs. Lehman wasn't real clear about that, but I got the impression Ally didn't want Matt growing up there."
"Disapproval from the parents?"
"No, at least not from Mrs. Lehman. But, and I'm guessing here, Chief, I think Mr. Lehman is abusive."
"Partly. And partly from what I could hear in the background. A man was yelling at somebody, using some words I wouldn't say in mixed company. I don't know if he's physically abusive, but I'd bet my favorite Jags cap that he's mentally abusive."
"And Ally didn't want Matt being subjected to his grandfather's tirades." Blair nodded thoughtfully, his own memories of some of Naomi's less-than-stellar boyfriends coming to mind. "That makes sense. But it still doesn't explain where she is now."
"You're right. We've got a lot of supposition that isn't getting us any closer to finding her." Jim clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair. "Another couple hours and we can run over to Simon's office. Now we need to find out as much as we can about Michelle Radke and her parents, as well as run some background checks on those two students who asked Ally out and the people she works with at Rip It."
Blair stood and physically rolled Jim's chair, with Jim in it, away from the desk and moved his own chair up to the computer. He made a show of cracking his knuckles. "Let the computer maestro handle this end of it. I'll print out the information and pass it on to you."
Jim smiled. "All right. I'll put a pot of coffee on."
Some time later the smell of coffee permeated the office as the printer hummed along, kicking out more sheets of information. Jim had claimed the longer part of the L-shaped desk and was reading the papers, a cup in his hand. Blair, his glasses perched on his nose, alternated between typing, staring at the monitor, and drinking from his own coffee cup.
The door opened and both men looked up simultaneously. It was Ariel Jones with Matt.
Jim and Blair stood.
"Hey, Matt," Blair greeted. "Ms. Jones."
She nodded at both of them, but kept her hands on Matt's shoulders as she stood behind him. "Matt wanted to come down to see how you were doin'."
Blair glanced helplessly at Jim, who gave a slight nod then turned back to their visitors.
"I'm afraid we haven't come up with anything yet," Jim said. "We're talking to people who know her to see if anyone might've been bothering her. Have you thought of anything else, Matt?"
"Do you think she's dead?" the boy asked bluntly, his chin quivering.
Blair came around the desk and knelt in front of the blonde boy, then clasped his upper arms. "We don't know, Matt. I wish I could promise you we'll find her safe and alive, but I can't." The words burned like acid, but Blair couldn't lie. "But I do promise you we'll do everything we can to find her."
Blair glanced up to see compassion in Jim's typically stoic face and it lessened his own misery somewhat to know Jim shared his anguish.
"What happened to your eye?" Matt asked after he digested Blair's words.
Blair touched the swollen and black and blue eye. "A slight misunderstanding."
"That's what Mom always said, too," Matt said quietly.
Blair's chest tightened, and he hugged the boy.
"It was him, wasn't it?" Ariel asked Jim in a low voice.
Jim nodded grimly. "Rhodes didn't like us asking him questions about Ms. Lehman."
"Son of a bitch," she hissed. "Is he in jail?"
"No evidence and he's got an alibi for that night," Jim replied helplessly.
Ariel shook her head. "If he didn't do something to her, then who did?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out."
"Thank you." She glanced down. "I know Mattie didn't pay you nearly what you people charge, but that was every last penny he had."
"It's okay," Jim said awkwardly.
Ariel cleared her throat. "It's time we get back home, Mattie."
The boy moved out of Blair's arms and trudged back to Ariel's side.
"We'll call you if we find anything," Jim assured.
Ariel only nodded and guided the silent boy out of the office.
Blair straightened and leaned against the desk. "What if she's dead, Jim?" he asked hoarsely.
Jim crossed his arms. "The odds are that she is, Chief," he said quietly.
"Damnit," Blair said in a low voice, but with a world of impotent anger behind it.
"C'mon, let's get back to work."
Jim gave Blair's shoulder a sympathetic squeeze as he moved back to his place at the desk. Blair joined him a few moments later.
There was little activity in Major Crime when Jim and Blair pushed through the once-familiar swinging doors. A detective Jim recognized but didn't know was typing up a report using the hunt-and-peck method. He glanced up at the two arrivals, nodded, and returned to his painfully slow progress.
The light was on in Simon's office and Jim ushered Blair forward with a hand at his back. The ex-detective knocked lightly on the door.
"Come," came a bellow so predictable Jim smiled.
Jim turned the knob and entered with Blair right behind him. "Simon," Jim greeted.
The captain's face lit with a tired but genuine smile. "Twice in a day. New record." He peered at Blair. "Hello, Sandburg." His welcome to the student wasn't quite as warm, but it was sincere.
Jim could hear Blair's nervousness in his slightly accelerated breathing and see it in the creases on either side of his smile. But he had to give the kid credit -- he was hiding it well.
"Sit down," Simon invited, motioning to the two chairs in front of his desk. After Jim and Blair settled in them, the captain asked, "Did Mr. Radke call you this afternoon?"
"Yes. We're going to need more information on his daughter to determine if she and Ally Lehman have anything in common," Jim said. "Or for that matter, anyone else on the list."
Simon removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I got you the list of missing persons, but I'm stretching it by letting you look at Michelle Radke's file. There's no way I can let you see the file of everyone on that list."
Jim sighed. "I understand. When I was a cop, I would've played it the same way."
Blair's frown deepened as he listened to their exchange. "Your rules are more important than peoples' lives?"
"Rules are there for a reason, Chief," Jim explained patiently. "If they weren't, anybody off the street could request to look at whatever file they wanted to."
"But rules are made to be broken, too," Blair pressed.
"And I'm breaking a couple by giving you this list and opening Michelle Radke's file where you might just happen to read it," Simon said. Putting words into action, he opened the file directly in front of them.
Jim, familiar with police reports, skimmed the unimportant details and quickly delved into the main facts. He pulled a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote names and places in it as Blair read over his shoulder.
"Done?" Jim asked the student.
Blair picked up the five-by-seven color photo of the girl -- it was her senior high school picture -- and studied it for a long moment. Jim registered his partner's increased heartbeat and the miniscule change in his body chemical odor. It was the scent he associated with sadness.
"She looks ready to take on the world," Blair said quietly.
"We all did at that age," Jim said.
"But not all of us disappear before we have a chance to try."
"Let's hope we can find her so she gets her chance." Jim took the picture from Blair's hand and set it back in the file. He closed it and pushed it across the desk to Simon. "Thanks."
The captain sighed. "For all the good it'll do. You know what her chances are."
"And they're getting worse by the minute," Jim said firmly. "Do you have that list for us?"
Simon nodded and handed him a computer printout. "Eighteen missing persons under the age of thirty in the last three months in Cascade. The three months prior, there were only five in that age group reported missing, and three of them were found. Of the eighteen missing in the most recent group, only two have been found."
Jim frowned. "That's a hell of an increase. Why?"
"Nobody knows. Maybe just one of those statistical anomalies and the next three months we'll be back to four or five."
Jim wasn't so certain, but he didn't have any theories so remained silent. He and Blair shook Simon's hand and, after a reminder from Simon about next Thursday's dinner, sentinel and guide walked down to the street where Jim had parked his truck.
"What's this about a dinner next week?" Blair asked as they belted in.
"I asked Simon over next Thursday. Do you mind?"
"Nah. I'll just hang out at the university that evening."
Jim glanced sharply at him. "You're included in that dinner, Chief."
Startled, Blair passed a hand over his hair. "Does the captain know?"
"Yes." Jim slowed for a red light. "Besides, I planned on having some help cooking."
Blair laughed. "I knew there was an ulterior motive. Sure, Jim, I'd like that. What time?"
"I told Simon I'd check with you first and then call him."
"How about 6:30?"
"Sounds good. I'll give him a call this weekend to let him know."
Comfortable silence filled the cab as Jim drove to the loft. Blair had crammed all their notes from the Argus office into his backpack so they could continue their research after eating dinner.
"Whose turn to cook?" Jim asked.
"Mine. I've got this great new recipe I want to try."
Jim grinned at his partner's renewed enthusiasm and found he was looking forward to tasting his latest concoction.
"We got an email from Joel," Blair announced.
Jim, sitting a couple feet from Blair at the large desk, rolled up behind his friend to read the note over his shoulder. "It says he'll be driving back Wednesday and will stop by the office on Thursday."
"I wish he were coming back sooner," Blair said. "He might be able to see something we're missing here." He gestured to the reports and pictures spread out around them.
Jim kept his expression neutral, although he, too, was becoming frustrated by their lack of progress in the four days since Matt Lehman had hired them with all the money from his piggybank. Going through the list of missing persons, they'd picked out eight more cases in addition to Ally Lehman and Michelle Radke that might possibly be related. The ten individuals -- three male and seven female -- were between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five; they'd all disappeared after leaving work; and all of them were single. Ally was the only one who had a child.
"If a serial killer is behind the disappearances, at least one body would've shown up, right?" Blair asked, his blue eyes haunted.
Jim wished he could eliminate that possibility. "Not necessarily. Look at Gacy and Bundy -- most of their victims were discovered after they were caught." His gaze raked across the ten pictures they'd gotten from the families of the missing persons, and anger and frustration balled in his gut. They were all kids, younger than Sandburg, and more than likely their lives were cut short by some sadistic bastard who didn't feel a shred of remorse for his actions. "Damn it, there's got to be something we're not seeing, something that each of them have in common."
"Like what? They lived in different parts of the city, they shopped at different grocery stores, they had their hair cut at different shops, and they went to different schools. There's no common group they belong to." Blair's own frustration was clear in his rising voice.
"I know, I know," Jim grumbled. "Maybe we're trying to find a connection where there isn't one."
The two men sat in silence, listening to the low dulcet tones of a blues song over the public radio station piped into the office.
The abrupt ring of the telephone startled them and Jim snatched it before the second ring was complete. "Argus Detective Agency, Ellison speaking."
"Jim, it's Simon. You and Sandburg might want to come down to the warehouse district."
"One of those missing persons has been found."
His grave tone told Jim the bad news. He closed his eyes briefly. "Who?"
Jim's gaze settled on the picture of a laughing brunette, and he sighed heavily. "What's the address?"
Simon gave it to him and Jim hung up the phone.
"What?" Blair demanded.
Jim held up Natalie Rogers' picture. "She's been found in the old warehouse district. Dead."
Blair's face paled, but he gamely slipped on his jacket and grabbed his backpack. Jim turned out the lights and locked the door behind them.
Twenty minutes later, Jim and Blair spotted Simon amidst the official vehicles gathered at the scene. Above the foul odors of rubbish and stagnant water, Jim could smell the distinct scent of a body just beginning to decompose. He rubbed his nose, turning down his sensitivity.
"How'd she die?" Jim asked the tall captain.
"Looks like an OD. There are needle tracks in her arm," Simon replied.
"There was nothing in her background that indicated she was an addict," Blair spoke up.
Simon nodded. "She also has bruises consistent with physical restraint. Coroner's given time of death about ten hours ago."
"Can I take a look?" Jim asked.
Simon glanced around warily. "Stay close."
"Are you up for this, Chief?" Jim asked Blair.
The anthropologist nodded, but his face was still too pale.
"You don't have to," Jim added softly.
"You're going to use your senses, right?" Blair asked and Jim nodded reluctantly. "Then you need me with you. Let's go."
Giving his stubborn partner an exasperated look, Jim followed Simon with Blair walking close beside him. They entered one of the abandoned warehouses lit up by portable lights, although it was still gloomy, reflecting the afternoon's dreariness. A CSI was taking pictures while another gathered physical evidence on and around the body.
Simon stopped about ten feet from the victim and Jim inspected the area with his sharp vision. Natalie Rogers was dressed in a candy striper jumper, probably the same one she'd been wearing when she'd disappeared ten days ago, although it didn't appear it'd been worn all that time. He narrowed his sight, focusing on the bruises around her wrists and ankles. They appeared to have been caused by a wide strap of some kind. He examined her white, rubber-soled shoes and spotted a small object lodged between the heel and instep.
"What is it?" Blair asked, acutely sensitive to Jim's reactions.
Jim pointed at her shoes. "There's something in the sole. Looks like a rock or something."
Simon frowned and stepped into the crime area and squatted down by the victim's feet. He leaned close, then nodded and pointed it out to the CSI who pulled out a forceps and small plastic bag.
The investigator held up the tiny object. "A seed." He dropped it into the bag.
"What about smell?" Blair asked Jim quietly.
Jim swallowed. "I hate that one, Chief."
"I know," Blair soothed. "But it's the best one for getting information forensics would miss." He pressed closer to the sentinel. "Take a couple nice easy breaths and clear your mind." Jim did so. "Now breathe deeper and open your sense of smell little by little, don't let it overwhelm you. Catalog each scent and discard those you recognize."
Jim closed his eyes and followed Blair's quiet commands. He identified and discarded numerous odors until he got to Natalie's -- the decomposition and voided body wastes nearly brought him to his knees. Blair's steadying hand on his back kept him focused and he was able to set those smells aside and examine the other scents surrounding her. Something caustic and bitter which was probably the drug or drugs injected into her body; leather coming most strongly from the bruised areas around her wrists and ankles, as well as her thighs and upper arms; and latex and blood from her vaginal area.
The last one shocked him out of his concentration and he quickly lowered his sense of smell before he became sick. He barely choked back the bile that rose to the back of his throat.
"What is it?" Blair was asking, his expressive face filled with concern.
"She was sexually assaulted," Jim stated flatly. Only the clenching of his jaw gave away his anger and revulsion.
"Damn," Blair whispered hoarsely, his face now the color of skim milk.
The seasoned captain also appeared somewhat ashen beneath his dark complexion. "They'll be able to get a DNA from the semen."
Jim shook his head. "I smelled latex and blood."
Blair turned and stumbled a few feet away. Jim gazed at him, concerned and distressed by his reaction.
"Why don't you get him out of here and I'll call you once I get the coroner's report back?" Simon suggested.
"And the analysis on the seed and the drugs in her system," Jim added.
Simon nodded. "I will. Now go."
Jim moved to Blair's side and put a hand around his slumped shoulders. "Let's get out of here, Chief. We've seen enough."
"I'll be okay, Jim," Blair argued, even though he looked like all the blood in his face had vanished.
"There's nothing more I can get from the scene. There're too many people around."
After a moment, Blair nodded in acquiescence. Jim guided him out of the warehouse into the slow steady rain that had started while they were inside. It seemed the perfect postscript to Natalie Rogers' tragic death.
Soaked and dripping water in the lobby of 852 Prospect, Blair appeared to have overcome most of his shock. Now he merely appeared miserable, cold and wet. Jim could relate -- he felt the same way. And to top it off, the elevator was out of order yet again.
"When I win the lottery, the first thing I'm going to do is put in a new elevator," Blair grumbled in between chattering teeth.
"I'm with you there, Chief."
They headed to the side stairs and began to ascend side by side. A few steps from the third floor landing, Blair's foot slipped. He tried to recover but only succeeded in twisting his body sideways. He hit the steps hard, with his ribs taking the brunt of his weight and his jaw striking the edge of a step. Jim managed to stop his downward slide as he caught his arm.
"Owowowowow," Blair muttered as Jim helped him to sit on a middle step.
"Are you all right?" Jim's hands skimmed over Blair's shoulders and arms.
"I think so," Blair said through thinned lips.
"Any broken bones?"
Blair tentatively moved his arms, legs, feet, and hands. "No. My jaw and side hurt, though."
Jim gently cupped the already swelling jaw and grimaced. "The soles of your shoes are wet. I should've had you take them off."
Blair slapped his hand away, even though he had to bite down to keep from groaning at the motion. "Geez, Jim, I'm not a little kid. It was an accident. I'll be fine." He started to push himself up and this time he couldn't restrain the painful moan.
Jim wrapped his arm around Blair's shoulders and helped him. "When we get inside, I need to examine your side, make sure you didn't crack any ribs."
Blair rolled his eyes, but didn't argue. He was too busy concentrating on climbing the remaining stairs and making it into the loft. Once inside, Jim aided him over to the dining room table and had him sit down on it.
"Take off your shirt," Jim said.
Blair did so, careful not to make any sudden moves. "Talk about bad luck," he muttered.
Jim retrieved the same bag of frozen peas Blair had used on his black eye four days earlier. He hadn't expected to use it again so soon. "Hold it against your jaw."
"Yes, Mother," Blair said without rancor.
"You're a laugh a minute, Sandburg." Jim eased off Blair's thermal undershirt over his head. A large bruise was already forming on his right side. With gentle fingers, the sentinel probed the area.
"Ow, careful, man. That hurts," Blair complained.
"Sorry." Jim finished his tactile exam. "Nothing broken, just some deep bruising. I suggest soaking in a hot bath for a little while."
"This sucks," Blair stated, holding the peas against his jaw.
"I'll start filling the tub."
"I can do it."
"It's no problem, Chief."
Jim turned away, but Blair caught his wrist. "Would you cool it, Jim? It was a stupid accident. Nobody's fault but my own for not watching my feet closer."
Jim sighed. "I know, Chief, but I want to do something."
"You want to make it right." Blair smiled warmly. "That's what a sentinel does."
"Yeah, well, this sentinel is only trying to take care of his best friend."
Blair shifted uncomfortably on the table and his face reddened. "Thanks."
Jim, as surprised by his heartfelt admission as Blair, ducked his head. "I'll go start the bath."
He disappeared into the bathroom and ran the tap until the water was hot, then added some cold. Once it was at the right temperature, according to his sentinel touch, he rejoined Blair only to find he'd gone into his room. He listened at the French doors for a moment, hearing Blair gasp slightly as he removed his shoes, socks, and jeans.
"Need any help, Chief?"
"I've got it." The door opened to reveal Blair in his ratty plaid bathrobe.
"Take your time. I'll throw something together for dinner," Jim said. "And if you need any help--"
"I'll whisper your name," Blair finished, an amused smile twitching his lips.
Jim rolled his eyes, but he was also fighting a grin.
The sentinel walked back into the kitchen and picked up Blair's shirts, then carried them into the younger man's bedroom. He set them on the hastily made bed, beside the discarded jeans and socks.
For dinner, Jim quick-thawed four frozen chicken breasts in the microwave and browned them, then added white wine, minced garlic, and a few other spices to the Dutch oven, which he set on the burner on medium-low to allow it to simmer. He found a wild rice mix Blair had picked up at his nature food store and put that on, too. As he worked, he kept half his attention focused on the bathroom. Quiet groans of discomfort drifted out, along with the occasional light splashes of water. Twenty minutes after Blair went into the bathroom, the tub was drained and more water added.
When the chicken and rice were done, as well as the steamed broccoli florets, Jim knocked lightly on the bathroom door. "Dinner's ready, Chief."
"I'll be out in a minute."
Five minutes later, Blair shuffled out and into his bedroom. Five more minutes and he appeared in the kitchen wearing a worn t-shirt, soft sweatpants and heavy gray socks. His jaw had swelled even further, and had turned a deep bluish-purple.
Jim grimaced as Blair eased into a chair. "Good thing tomorrow's Saturday."
"Except I'm meeting some other grad students for our monthly brunch," Blair said with his own grimace. "They're going to love this." He glanced down at his plate. "This looks great, Jim. Thanks."
Jim smiled at the genuine gratitude in Blair's eyes. "You're welcome."
They ate in comfortable silence, although Jim could tell Blair's jaw bothered him as he chewed. But the anthropologist managed to clean off his plate and go for seconds on the rice and broccoli.
Once they were done, Blair wanted to help with the dishes, but Jim shooed him out of the kitchen to rest and watch TV. By the time Jim went into the living room, Blair was asleep and the Mariners were scoring another run. Smiling fondly, he draped the afghan over Blair's prone form. He gently lifted Blair's feet and sat down, resting his guide's feet in his lap.
As he watched the rest of the baseball game and opened his senses to his slumbering guide, he was able to set aside dark thoughts of missing and murdered kids for a little while.
Blair parked his Corvair in the slot next to Jim's pick-up and carefully tugged his backpack out of the passenger seat. Walking gingerly, he made his way across the street and up the stairs to the third floor. When he arrived at the top of the steps, he found Jim hovering anxiously in the open doorway of 307.
"Need any help there, Chief?"
Blair could hear the protectiveness beneath Jim's light tone and smiled reassuringly. "I may be moving like I need a shot of Geritol, but I'm fine."
Jim stepped aside as Blair limped into the loft and to the table, where he deposited his backpack.
"How was your meeting?" Jim asked.
"The usual -- we bitched, we ate, we mellowed."
Jim laughed. "Sounds like a few after-hour cop meetings I've attended." He sobered after a moment. "Simon called."
It took Blair a second or two to remember why Captain Banks would've called. He lowered himself to a chair carefully. "Well?"
Jim sat across the table from him and rested his clasped hands on the table. "The drugs in Natalie Rogers' system were a designer type. The lab techs determined they were a combination of Rohypnol and Levodopa."
"I know what Rohypnol is, but what's Levodopa?"
"Also called L-dopa, it's a prescription aphrodisiac."
Blair shuddered. "What about the latex and blood?"
"There were definitely signs of sexual activity, although it wasn't consistent with a violent rape."
"Because of the drugs, which would've made her more passive."
Jim nodded somberly. "But it was the L-dopa that killed her. One of the side effects is cardiac irregularities. Natalie had a heart attack."
Blair swallowed the sour bile in his throat. "She was so young."
"The coroner figured the injections didn't start until about five days ago. Before that, she was probably restrained, which accounts for the marks around her wrists and ankles."
"What about the seed?"
"It was from a cryptantha plant," Jim continued. "They're tracking down where it grows around here."
"That's something," Blair said, although wishing there was more. "What do you think is going on?"
Jim looked past Blair, his gaze turned inward. "This could be an isolated incident, where Natalie Rogers was kidnapped by some sick pervert who gets off on dominating women." He focused back on his guide. "Or it could be something else."
"Like what?" Blair asked, puzzled.
Jim suddenly rose. "Coffee?"
"Sure." Blair frowned, but didn't push his friend. Oftentimes it was best to let Jim say things in his own time in his own way.
Jim poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table. He set his down, but remained standing. "When I was in the army, I met this woman. She was twenty-one and had worked at this high-class brothel in Bangkok since she was sixteen. She was originally from some little town in Wisconsin."
"How'd she end up in Bangkok?"
"She was a runaway. She'd been kidnapped from a bus station in Chicago and--" Jim paused, his jaw clenching. "She'd been sold to the owner of the brothel after she'd been trained in the art of prostitution."
Blair's mouth dropped open in shock. "I thought white slavery was an urban myth."
"All urban myths have some basis in fact," Jim stated. "I would've gotten her out of there and brought her back to the States, but she wouldn't leave."
"She'd been brainwashed and trained so well, she couldn't imagine living without what those men -- and women -- gave her." Disgust and rage swirled through Jim's cold blue eyes.
Blair's brunch rose in his throat and he swallowed a few times to keep it down. "That's sick."
"Yeah, it is, but maybe it was better than her life at home."
Blair pondered Jim's words, trying to remain objective in the face of something so pervasively evil. Suddenly, the impact of his story hit him. "You think that maybe our missing persons are getting trained to be sold overseas?"
Jim threw his arms out as he paced the width of the kitchen. "I don't know. I hope not, but it's a possibility." He paused behind the chair he'd vacated and gripped the back of it. "Simon said there's three times as many young people missing over the past three months than the three months prior."
"But that wouldn't explain the missing young men."
Jim caught and held his gaze. "That brothel in Bangkok catered to every sexual appetite, not just those who liked women."
Blair shook his head at his own naivete and dragged a hand through his hair. "But aren't most of our missing persons too old?"
"I've been wondering about that myself, " Jim said. His eyes narrowed. "Maybe it's not age as much as type."
"What 'type'? We haven't found any common link."
"Maybe we haven't been looking in the right places."
Blair eyed his partner, trying to figure out where he was going.
"Are you up to interviewing some people today?" Jim suddenly asked.
Blair shrugged. "As long as we don't move too fast."
"All right, Chester."
Jim only muttered something about western classics.
The sun was close to meeting the western horizon when Jim and Blair exited the modest two-story home in the Cascade middle class neighborhood. They'd just interviewed the mother of one of the missing young women. They'd learned little besides the address of the ex-husband, whom they planned to talk to next.
Blair settled into his seat carefully, trying to hide his hiss of pain from Jim, which was ridiculous since the sentinel could hear every embarrassing sound his body emitted on a daily basis.
"Maybe we should hold off on seeing Stovall until tomorrow," Jim suggested.
"I'm all right," Blair argued irritably.
"Every minute we're wasting is a minute that might save someone's life."
Scowling, Jim started the pick-up. "You keep thinking like that and you'll drive yourself crazy, Sandburg. We do what we can and hope for the best, but we can't constantly play the 'what if' game."
Blair glared at his partner and didn't bother to hide his sarcasm. "So we just take the rest of the day off and maybe tomorrow, too, since it's Sunday."
Jim's jaw muscle knotted as he stared straight ahead, his hands wrapped around the steering wheel. For nearly a dozen blocks he remained silent. "Maybe it'd be better if you didn't do any more fieldwork," he finally stated.
"What?" Blair nearly shouted. "You need me."
Jim finally glanced at him, his blue eyes bleak. "I need someone who won't be diving off the deep end all the time. There's nothing wrong with compassion or sympathy, but you have to learn when to rein those in and be objective."
Blair didn't want to park his emotions on the curb; he needed them to fuel his anger and indignation. He needed them to remain focused on their goal. "Just because I don't react the way you do doesn't mean I can't be objective. As an anthropologist, I explore cultures by observing their present and exploring their past, and yes, damn it, I get excited by what I find. But it's that excitement which helps me put it all together in an objective manner."
"So is that what you're doing with me?" The question was so low Blair almost missed it.
Jim's knuckles whitened. "I'm your 'holy grail', your ultimate anthropological discovery. You observe me; you ask questions about my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Are you just filing it all away in that hyperactive brain, ready to pull out your data in a strictly objective way whenever you need it?"
Blair's mouth dropped open. "You can't be serious."
"Aren't you, Sandburg?" Jim reiterated.
Fury and confusion vied for supremacy as Blair struggled to maintain his composure. He gathered his chaotic thoughts, tugging a thread here and there to create a tapestry of what Jim meant to him. "I don't know what's going on with you, man, but you are so far off you're in a different solar system." Blair gazed at the sentinel's sharply-defined profile, noted the harsh lines around his mouth and the square jaw clamped shut. "I spent half my life looking for a sentinel, so yes, you are my holy grail. But you're also Jim Ellison, my roommate and best friend. Sometimes I might get in your face with tests and questions, but it's not because I want or need fodder for my thesis. It's because I want to help you. When you hurt, I hurt." He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed by his candidness. But in for a penny, in for a pound, and he continued, "I choose to stay with you, to give you whatever support or knowledge I can to help you deal with your senses. I choose to stay with you because we're a helluva team. And I choose to stay with you because you're my best friend and I know you'll always be there for me when I need you."
Jim was silent for a long time, his gaze never leaving the road as he continued driving down the rain-slicked street. Blair wished he could peek into his brain, see what was churning behind the stolid mask.
"If you start humming the Batman theme, I swear I'm going to make you walk home," Jim finally spoke. And when he turned to Blair, there was a slight sheen to his bright blue eyes.
Blair grinned, feeling a little loopy and a little teary himself. "Yeah, well, as long as you don't go ordering us tights and capes, I think I can restrain myself."
Jim aimed a swat at Blair's hair, but missed when the younger man ducked away. The tension bled away in the cab and Blair could feel his own emotions steadying.
"I won't stop working with you, Jim," Blair said softly.
Jim exhaled slowly. "I'm sorry. It wasn't my decision to make."
"You're damned right it's not," Blair said with a smile to temper his words.
Five minutes later they parked in front of a group of apartment buildings. Across the street was a park with a play area and a paved path for runners and walkers. There was only one brave soul dressed in running clothes pounding the wet track.
"Which building?" Blair asked, examining the white-painted square buildings that were arranged in two precise rows.
Jim peered through the blurry glass and pointed to the closest building. "That one. Two eleven."
The two men disembarked the truck and put their heads down against the rain. Jim opened the door for Blair, who entered as quickly as his aching body allowed him. The sentinel followed closely, and they each took a moment to shake the water from their jackets in the small security entrance area.
Blair read the names on the mailboxes. "Apartment 119."
Jim pressed the button for 119 and waited.
A man's tinny voice came through the intercom. "Who is it?"
"Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg. We're investigating the disappearance of your daughter Evelyn."
The next sound they heard was the buzz on the security door as the lock was disengaged. Jim and Blair slipped into a narrow hallway that smelled of cleaning chemicals and mildew.
A door was opened ahead of them and a man stuck his head out. "Ellison and Sandburg?"
"That's right," Jim said as he pulled out his ID. "We'd like to ask you some questions, Mr. Stovall."
"Come in." Stovall stepped back and ushered them inside.
The door opened into the kitchen and Stovall led Jim and Blair past the breakfast bar into the living room. Jim tilted his head, a dead giveaway that he was hearing something out of the ordinary. However, the anthropologist couldn't ask him with Stovall right there. Blair sank into the leather sofa, biting back a groan when the cushions yielded more than he expected. Jim sat beside him, and Blair could tell his senses were notched upward.
Stovall, wearing blue jeans and a faded UW sweatshirt, sat across from them. He folded his hands in his lap. "Did my ex-wife hire you?"
Jim shook his head. "No, somebody else whose daughter is missing. She's about the same age as Evelyn and disappeared within a week of her."
Stovall's face paled. "Are you saying there's some sick bastard out there kidnapping young girls?"
Blair leaned forward, ignoring the complaints from his bruised side. "No, that's not what we're saying. However, because of the similarities in the cases, we're exploring all avenues."
Stovall's stocking feet tapped the carpet. "I understand. I'm not sure I can help much since I only saw Evelyn every other weekend."
"When was the last time you saw her?" Jim asked.
"Five weeks ago. It was a week after that when she disappeared."
Jim nodded. "Did she seem upset about anything? Maybe a boyfriend? Or her boss?"
Stovall thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No more than usual. She had just given her two-week notice at her job because school was starting back up. I don't think she had a boyfriend. Between her job and taking a class through Rainier, she was pretty busy."
"What class was she taking?" Blair interjected.
"Some liberal arts thing -- psychology, sociology, etymology, something like that."
Blair watched Jim jot the notes in his ever-present pocket notebook. Thank heavens for anal-retentive sentinels.
"Do you live alone, Mr. Stovall?" Jim suddenly asked.
"Yes," he said after a moment of surprised hesitation.
Again, Jim canted his head. "Then why is someone in your bedroom?"
Stovall's eyes widened comically. "Uh, she doesn't live here."
"Who is she?"
Stovall stared at Jim a long moment, then sighed. "Chery, come on out."
A door down a small hallway opened and a petite woman with blonde hair joined them. Stovall rose and went to stand beside her, placing a propriety arm around her waist. "This is Chery Page, my fiancee."
Ms. Page remained silent, her head lowered.
"Did your daughter and Ms. Page get along?" Jim asked.
Stovall shrugged. "Not really. Evelyn kept hoping her mother and I would get back together."
Blair watched Jim scrutinize Stovall and his girlfriend. Obviously Jim had picked up on something. Suddenly the sentinel stood. He held out his hand to Stovall who shook it. "Thanks for your help."
"No problem. If there's anything at all I can do, please call me," Stovall said.
He walked Jim and Blair to the door, leaving Ms. Page standing in the middle of the living room like a lost waif.
"She wasn't more than twenty-two or three," Blair commented once they were back in the truck.
"Not much older than the man's daughter," Jim said, his lips twisting like he'd bitten into a Granny Smith apple. "Did you notice anything about her?"
Blair pictured her in his mind, from her physical characteristics to how she held herself. "She acted like a scared puppy," he suddenly said. "Like she was afraid she was going to be hit."
Jim nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought, too." He retrieved his phone from his jacket. "What's the ex-Mrs. Stovall's number?"
Blair pawed through the file until he found it and read it off as Jim punched in the numbers.
"Mrs. Stovall? This is Jim Ellison... Yes, we just spoke with him... no, nothing new." He paused. "Was your ex-husband abusive?"
Jim's expression turned grim.
"All right. Thank you, Mrs. Stovall," Jim concluded the call. He returned the cell phone to his pocket and gazed at Blair somberly. "Mr. Stovall used to beat his wife and child."
"Then why did she allow Evelyn to go there alone every other weekend?" Blair demanded.
"He was attending counseling sessions. Supposedly they were helping."
"Not if Ms. Page is any indication." Blair's eyebrows drew downward. "So Evelyn Stovall was more than likely abused by her father. We also know Ally Lehman's boyfriend abused her."
"And in Natalie Rogers' file, it said she'd been taken to the hospital Emergency three times in the year before she disappeared, supposedly because she was accident-prone," Jim added grimly. "We may have found our common link, Chief."
"Victims who've been abused? But who would be able to connect them? Abuse isn't an everyday topic of conversation."
"I don't know, but I think we need to concentrate in that area. Maybe find out if any or all of them were part of a support group, or if they'd all been admitted to the hospital in the past year. They might even have a common counselor or clinic they'd gone to." Jim started the truck and put it into gear. "We have some phone calls to make, Chief."
By Tuesday evening, Jim and Blair's enthusiasm had flagged considerably. None of the missing young people were being counseled as victims of abuse, and only one -- Josh Albany -- had been attending a weekly support meeting. Kerry Sifeld had been treated in a hospital ER five months ago, but that injury had been from a car accident. Michelle Radke's father, who'd hired them almost a week ago, confessed that his wife had verbally and sometimes physically abused their daughter. Even if all the missing persons had been abused -- which they couldn't prove -- it seemed improbable someone had connected them by that common denominator.
Consequently, Jim's theory remained inconclusive. However, Blair had a strong hunch his partner was on the right track.
Jim, who was working at the L-shaped reception desk with Blair, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands. "Time's running out, Chief," he said, his voice raspy.
Blair, his black eye now a sickly shade of yellow and his jaw dark purple and blue, sat back carefully. His spine cracked, telling him he'd been in a hunched position way too long. His bruised side was mending, but it had stiffened up while he'd worked. "At least there haven't been any more bodies."
"And no more missing persons," Jim added reluctantly.
Blair could tell he was not handling their setback very well. But then, he hadn't expected him to, not with his sense of protectiveness -- as enhanced as the rest of his senses. "We'll find the link, Jim," he reassured with more confidence than he felt.
Jim smiled tiredly. "Thanks, Chief."
Blair glanced at the silver and white wall clock. "I've got to get going."
"Where's the fire?"
"Ariel Jones has a meeting this evening. I volunteered to take Matt to a Rainier hockey game."
Jim frowned. "When did you talk to her?"
"Last night while you were at the gym," Blair replied. He stood and gazed down at his friend as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I didn't think you'd be interested."
Jim glanced away and gathered the papers spread across the desk, straightening them and placing them in the correct folders. "Yeah, I probably couldn't handle the noise."
"Whoa, man! That wasn't what I meant," Blair exclaimed. "I just figured you wouldn't want to spend your evening with a seven-year-old kid."
"I'll have you know I was a Big Brother while I was in college."
Blair gaped, grappling with the dichotomy of Jim as a Big Brother and the angry, remote man he'd met on the island. Still, that had been after Jim's senses had come on-line and he'd been frightened and alone with what he thought was encroaching insanity. Thinking about how Jim treated him now, being a Big Brother wasn't so farfetched.
"Geez, Sandburg, is it that hard to believe?" Jim grumbled, uncannily guessing his thoughts.
Blair snapped his mouth shut and shook his head. He grinned and his eyes twinkled. "Not at all. So, you want to go?"
"What about tickets?"
"I have three."
"Professor Stoddard has season tickets but he doesn't use them very often. When he asked me if I wanted them, I said yes."
Jim narrowed his eyes. "Who else were you planning on taking?"
Blair's cheeks warmed. "I'd hoped..." He grinned wryly and shrugged.
The older man studied him, his expression masked. Suddenly he rose and stacked the files in a drawer, which he locked. "Move it, Sandburg. We don't want to miss the face-off."
Blair opened the door to the apartment building and allowed Jim, carrying the sleeping Matt, to precede him. He followed Jim up the stairs, smiling at the picture of the boy's head resting on Jim's shoulder, Matt's mouth open as he drooled slightly on the sentinel's jacket. There was a smudge on Matt's cheek, probably from the cotton candy Jim had insisted on buying. Pure sugar, book 'em, Danno. But Blair didn't have the heart to deny Matt nor Jim the rare treat. And like Jim had whispered to him, "It's a hockey game, Sandburg. A kid's supposed to eat things that are bad for him."
Jim paused in the hallway on the second floor and Blair slipped past him to knock on Ms. Jones' door. It was opened within moments and Ariel smiled warmly at Matt.
"Looks like you tuckered him out," she said quietly.
"He tuckered us out," Blair amended with a wink.
Ariel laughed lightly. "Could you carry him to his bed?"
Jim nodded and followed the woman into the small apartment. Blair entered and closed the door behind them. He waited in the living room, which was half the size of the loft kitchen, although it was homey -- full of needlepoint pillows, framed pictures scattered here and there, angel figurines atop an ancient console television, and a magazine opened to a beautiful country home lying on the well-used overstuffed sofa.
Jim and Ariel returned, minus Matt.
"Thank you," Ariel said sincerely. "How was Mattie?"
"No trouble," Blair assured. "We had a great time. He explained all the rules and strategies to us."
"He loves to watch hockey on the TV," she said with a fond roll of her eyes. Her expression sobered. "Has there been any news?"
Jim shook his head. "I'm sorry. We're still investigating but I'm afraid the longer she's missing, the less chance we'll find her."
"And it's been a week now." Ariel turned to gaze in the direction of Matt's room and her eyes became bleak. "I love Mattie like a son, but we're barely getting by. But I don't want to take him to Child Services either."
"Wouldn't they let him stay with you?" Blair asked.
Ariel smiled bitterly. "Look around, Blair. My place is hardly big enough for me, much less a growing boy. Besides, they ain't going to want to leave a white boy with a single black woman."
Blair wanted to refute her words, but suspected she was right. It was archaic to think that skin color had anything to do with love, but it was just another reason the system sucked. He turned to his partner. "Isn't there anything you can do? Maybe put in a good word for Ariel?"
Jim rubbed his brow. "I can try, but I can't make any promises."
"How soon until you talk to them?" Blair asked Ariel.
"I figured I'd give it two weeks. If Ally hasn't been found by then--" She broke off and sniffed. "Next Monday."
Blair clasped one of her hands between both of his. "Maybe we'll get a miracle and find her before then."
"Yeah, and maybe pigeons won't dump in the park anymore, either," Ariel said, her attempt at levity falling flat.
"Look, I'll call you every day to see how you and Matt are doing. And if you need a sitter, just call me. In fact, I thought maybe I could pick Matt up Saturday afternoon and we could go to the park and shoot some hoops, hang out, maybe get some ice cream."
Ariel smiled tremulously. "He'd like that. He likes you." She glanced at Jim. "Both of you."
Jim cleared his throat. "We should get going, Sandburg."
After saying goodnight, the two men returned to the truck.
"You amaze me, Jim," Blair commented as Jim pulled away from the curb.
The sentinel arched a questioning eyebrow.
"I would've never believed you'd be so good with kids," Blair continued.
Jim shrugged. "I have a kid brother. Real pain in the ass when we were young. He wanted to follow me everywhere and after--" he paused "--after our mom left, he used to wake me up with his nightmares."
The streetlights played across Jim's angled face, the alternating shadows giving him a haunted look one moment, a menacing one the next. However, Blair suspected the sentinel's thoughts were more melancholy than angry. He also knew Jim wouldn't appreciate playing twenty questions with his feelings right now.
"Ariel said Matt's been having nightmares," Blair said.
Jim's shoulders slumped slightly, as if he'd tensed in expectation of being questioned about his family. "It would surprise me if he wasn't."
The adrenaline from the hockey game was rapidly fading, leaving both men drained.
"I had a good time tonight, Chief," Jim said, breaking the silence. "The noise wasn't bad as long as I kept it dialed down, and I wouldn't have been able to do that without you."
"Sure you could've. You're gaining more and more control every day."
"Only because you're with me."
"You don't give yourself enough credit."
Jim flashed him a half-smile. "Look who's talking." He rubbed his whiskered jaw. "I don't have anything going on Saturday if you and Matt want some company."
Blair restrained an enthusiastic whoop and managed to nod casually. "We'd like that." Oh, yeah, definitely the big brother type.
They arrived back at the loft but ended up on the sofa watching the news instead of going to bed right away. As the weatherman droned on about cool temperatures and the chance for rain, Jim yawned. He spoke as he turned to Blair, "Same old stuff. I'm going--" He broke off when he noticed his partner slumped beside him, sleeping soundly.
"Ah, hell, Chief, how am I going to get you to bed?" Jim grumbled quietly and with more than a trace of fondness. "C'mon, Chief, wake up. Time for bed," he said a bit louder.
Blair rolled his head to the side and mumbled, "Go 'way."
Chuckling softly, Jim took hold of Blair's arm and levered him to a standing position. Keeping a firm hold on his exhausted partner, Jim steered him into his room beneath the loft bedroom and sat him on his futon. After stripping the younger man's shirt, shoes, socks, and jeans, Jim tucked him in. He took the time to raise Blair's t-shirt and examine the ribs that had been bruised so badly on the stairs. The colors had faded but Jim still flinched at the size of the contusion. He carefully lowered the t-shirt.
Not even opening his eyes, Blair patted Jim's arm awkwardly. "S'okay, Jim."
His throat tight, Jim leaned over to brush a curl back from his friend's smooth forehead. "Sleep tight, Chief."
Assured his guide was safe and resting peacefully, the sentinel checked the locks, then climbed the stairs to his own room.
For the first time since he'd returned, Blair wished he were teaching a class or two. Because he hadn't expected to be back for the fall semester, he hadn't put in the paperwork for a teaching fellowship. He'd finished his article for the Journal of Anthropology two days before the deadline, something he'd never done before, and with no class to teach or seminar to attend, Blair wasn't certain which project to begin next. Of course, there was always the dissertation on the closed society of the fishing island.
Blair glanced at his wall clock -- 1:56. Jim was expecting him at the office at 3:00, which left less than an hour before he had to leave, not nearly enough time to delve into his dissertation. He leaned back in his chair, thinking about the missing young people. There had to be a connection someplace. But where?
He pulled up the files he had on each of them on his laptop -- files he'd put together while he and Jim had discussed each victim. As he reread them, he noticed seven of the ten were taking classes at Rainier. One was a full time student, but the rest were like Ally, taking a class or two when their schedules allowed it. What about the other three? They'd all been in high school.
Didn't Rainier have courses high school seniors could take to give them a step up for college?
Blair pressed his glasses up on his nose and typed in some commands on the PC at his desk. He started with Michelle Radke. She was taking an afternoon psychology course. Art Fairview attended an evening sociology class. Evelyn Stovall, however, wasn't taking a class at Rainier. He did another search on Stovall, and found that her mother had taken a class over the summer -- Introduction to Sociology.
His mind racing faster than his fingers, Blair trembled as he typed in another search. The name that popped up caused his eyes to widen and his breath to stutter.
"What're you working on?"
Startled, Blair snapped his head up to see Todd enter, along with another man whom Blair had never seen before. The stranger closed the door behind them.
Blair's heart missed a beat, then slammed into his throat. He forced a shaky smile. "I didn't hear you knock."
"I did, but you were so buried in your work, you must not have heard me," Todd said.
Blair quickly hit a key to close the screen as he ordered himself to remain calm. "You've accused me of that before."
Todd shrugged and crossed his arms. "So, how're you doing?"
"You've had more than your share of accidents in the last week."
Blair shut down his computer, giving the task more attention than it deserved. He had to hold it together. "The black eye wasn't an accident. Ally Lehman's boyfriend was trying to get out of answering some questions. But the jaw and ribs--" He forced a laugh. "That was definitely an accident. Lucky for me, Jim caught me before I fell down the rest of the stairs."
"Or maybe he's the one behind your 'accidents'?" Todd asked gently.
Blair stood, his palms growing damp. "No way. If you knew Jim at all, you'd know he'd never hurt anyone, unless they gave him reason."
"Did you give him reason?" the other man spoke up, his voice too smooth and his eyes too cool.
"No! Look, Jim had nothing to do with my bumps and bruises. Hell, he's the one who took care of me after I got them."
Todd held out his hands imploringly, and his expression was compassionate and sympathetic. "It's a proven fact that an abuse victim will often defend the abuser. The victim believes he or she actually deserves the punishment." Todd's eyes filled with frustration. "What kind of person allows himself to be beaten? What does that say about the victim's self-esteem?"
Blair swallowed hard. "Your sister needed help, Todd. But I'm not like her. I'm not in an abusive situation and my self-esteem is just fine. Ask anybody."
Todd looked like he was about to cry. "Geezus, Blair, that macho ex-cop has you totally under his control and you don't even realize it. Please, for my sake and yours, get the help you need before he kills you. My friend here will help you, like he's helped other people get out of abusive relationships."
Blair eyed the stranger warily. "Who are you?"
"You can call me John," the stocky man said. Although his voice was fashioned to be calm and reassuring, his eyes were cold and flat. "I work for an organization that rescues people like yourself and teaches them self-respect and assertiveness."
A pit opened in Blair's stomach. "Is that where Ally and Evelyn Stovall and Michelle Radke are?"
Todd blinked and surprise filled his expression. "You figured it out."
Blair kept his trembling hidden on the inside as he shrugged. "We're investigating the disappearance of nine more young people, in addition to Ally Lehman. We were searching for a common link, and it was you, Todd."
"You always were smart, Blair," Todd said with a smile of admiration. "That's why I can't figure out why you'd stay with someone like Ellison."
"Because he's my best friend and would shoot himself before harming me," Blair stated, his voice rising despite his best attempts to remain calm.
John's lips thinned. "By-the-book behavior for an abuse victim, Todd. Even now, he denies it."
"I know," Todd said quietly after a moment. "He needs the group's help."
"What group?" Blair demanded.
"The Butterfly Organization."
"I've never heard of them."
"That's the way they want it. They get people out of abusive relationships and take them to their camp where they're taught to respect themselves and not be anyone's punching bag. Like a butterfly, coming out of its cocoon."
"They kidnap people," Blair stated, frustration giving way to anger.
Todd shrugged. "It has to be that way. It's like cult de-programming."
Blair's eyes widened. "I can't believe you're mixed up in something like this, Todd."
"If I'd have known about it before, maybe Susan would still be alive."
"Enough of the chatter. The van's waiting," John broke in. He took a step toward Blair.
"Don't come any closer," Blair shouted, holding out a hand.
"You're only making this harder on yourself," Todd said.
"Like Natalie Rogers did?" Blair blurted out.
Todd's eyes clouded with sadness. "I heard about the police finding her body. She escaped the Butterfly camp. Someone must've found her and murdered her."
"She was drugged, and she'd been raped!"
"I know. It was a horrible thing, but it wasn't the group's fault," John said, his tone correct but his eyes reptilian.
Blair's mind raced, flipping through what he'd just learned and what Jim had said about being a specific type. Is this what this group was after -- the type with low self-worth? Those who were submissive? His stomach roiled and his lunch rose in his throat. "Have you ever seen anyone after they've been 'de-programmed'?" he demanded of Todd.
"No. Butterfly helps a person make a clean break from everybody and everything in their past life and start over someplace new."
"What if they aren't doing that? How do you know all those people are being helped?" Blair pressed.
A hint of uncertainty shown on Todd's face. Blair had known Todd ever for six years -- he couldn't believe he'd knowingly send someone into a life of slavery.
"Victims will say or do anything to convince you they don't need help," John reminded Todd. "Remember how your sister was?"
Todd blinked and the hesitation disappeared. "They'll help you, Blair," he said soothingly, stepping closer to Blair.
"What about Matt, Ally's son? Who'll help him? Does the Butterfly group approve of separating a mother from her child?" Blair asked, talking quickly, hoping and praying he could get through to his friend.
"We didn't know she had a son. And now, it'll be better this way. Ally will get the help she needs and can have a new start. Her son will be raised by her family. She told me her parents and brothers and sisters live in Kansas."
"And he'll be abused by Ally's father," Blair shouted. "That's why she left, so Matt wouldn't be hurt by him."
Todd's eyes widened. "She didn't tell me."
Blair stepped closer to Todd. "Think about it. Isn't it true most people in abusive relationships were raised in that type of environment? The victims sees that behavior as normal and loving."
Todd's eyes became unfocused, as if remembering something in his own past.
"He's trying to confuse you," John spoke up. "Remember, victims will turn things around to their reality. Blair is your friend and you want to help him. You have to help him because he won't help himself." He paused. "Just like your sister."
Blair stared at Todd, willing him to believe him.
With Blair's attention on the other grad student, he didn't see John move with a swiftness that belied his husky appearance. The man snaked an arm around Blair's throat while his other hand plunged a syringe into Blair's neck.
Blair barely had time to register the needle's sharp prick before his vision faded to black.
Jim glanced at the clock in the Argus reception area -- 2:20. Blair had said he'd meet him at the office at 3:00, so it wasn't like he was late. But he felt twitchy and out-of-sorts, and his gaze kept vacillating between the clock and the door.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he spotted a flash of gray, but nothing more. The unease grew and his heart filled his throat. He picked up the phone and dialed Blair's office phone number. No answer. He tried his cell phone. It went to his voice mail.
Dread thickened like evening fog and Jim's stomach churned. Had something happened to Blair? Or was the protective sentinel overreacting?
He stood and grabbed his jacket. When it came to the sentinel/guide connection, Jim had learned not to question his gut feeling. And right now, his gut was screaming at him.
Ten minutes later, he bounded across campus to Hargrove Hall from the parking lot. He was subliminally aware of the stares he received, but didn't care what anyone thought. His entire awareness was centered on finding Blair. He burst into the old building, his Nikes thudding dully on the tile floor as he raced toward Blair's office. Jim didn't knock on his door, but tried the knob and found it turned easily under his hand.
Although his ears had told him it was empty, his eyes confirmed it. Where was Blair? Scowling, Jim searched the chaotic mess. How would he know if something was wrong when everything was out of place? He stepped behind Blair's desk, and his gaze focused immediately on the backpack by the chair. Jim scooped it up and set it on the chair. After only a moment of hesitation, he opened the front pocket and found Blair's wallet and cell phone. Even if he'd gone somewhere without his backpack, he would've at least taken his wallet.
Narrowing his eyes, Jim gave the office a more thorough perusal. First his sight, which didn't find anything, then his sense of smell. The faded scent of cologne made him sneeze. Blair used to wear aftershave, but he'd stopped after moving in with Jim. Besides, the cologne he smelled was expensive, definitely out of Sandburg's league if he did wear it.
Like a bloodhound on a scent, Jim followed the faint trail. He ignored the students and faculty he passed in the hall, and the cologne trail led him to a side door not far from Blair's office. Jim depressed the bar and shouldered open the door. A short sidewalk led to a small parking lot where cars with faculty stickers in the windshields were parked. The scent trail ended abruptly. Jim turned up his sense of smell, felt the familiar lure of a zone and jerked himself back. He couldn't afford to zone without Blair.
"Goddammit," he swore.
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and punched in a number.
"Simon, it's Jim. Blair's missing. They must've gotten him, too." Jim began to pace, three steps forward, sharp pivot, three steps back.
"Calm down, Jim. Who must've gotten him?"
Jim dragged a hand across his short hair. "The same people who kidnapped Ally Lehman, Natalie Rogers, and the others."
"How do you know they're related? And why would they kidnap Sandburg?"
"I just know. And if I knew why, then I might figure out who, but I don't." Jim caught himself before he achieved shouting level. He sounded like a hysterical victim. He rubbed his throbbing brow and consciously slowed his breathing. "Look, I need an APB put out on him."
"How long has he been missing?"
"At least half an hour."
Simon's heavy sigh carried exasperation. "Dammit, Jim, I can't put out an APB on someone missing for thirty minutes."
"You have to trust me on this, Simon. Blair's been kidnapped."
A long pause ensued. Jim listened to Simon's steady breathing and the familiar background noises of the Major Crime department.
"Please," Jim pleaded.
"Is there any sign of foul play?"
Jim closed his eyes, counting to ten silently. "No, sir. But I know."
"Is this a sentinel/guide thing?"
Jim nodded vehemently then realized Simon couldn't see him. "Yes, sir."
"Where are you?"
"Rainier. Hargrove Hall."
"Stay put. I'll meet you there."
Jim snapped his phone shut. Simon hadn't said he'd issue an APB, but at least he believed enough to come check it out himself.
A man wearing a tweed jacket with corduroy patch elbows walked past Jim, going toward the parking lot.
"Excuse me," Jim called.
The man stopped and eyed Jim warily through a pair of thick eyeglasses. "Yes?"
"Who has parking permits for this lot?"
"The professors and administrative staff housed in Hargrove Hall."
"Who would have a list of those issued permits?"
"Well, I suppose that would be Campus Security. That's across--"
"I know where it is," Jim interrupted, swearing to himself for not figuring that out himself. He returned to Blair's office, hoping he would discover something to aid him in finding his guide.
Knowing he was taking a risk, he opened his sight, searching for any sign of who might've taken his friend. He zoomed in on a strand of hair on Blair's desk. It was maybe four inches long and lighter colored than Blair's. It looked familiar, but he was having a difficult time keeping his mind focused. Finding an envelope in a drawer, he used a pen to transfer the hair into it.
When his eyes yielded nothing more, he switched to scent and steeled himself. The cologne was still there, though fainter than it had been. He set that odor aside, hearing Blair's voice in his head and remembering the soothing timbre during the oft-conducted tests. There was something else in the air, something that reminded him of hospitals or doctor's offices -- a drug. But it was elusive and Jim opened his sense of smell further and further, chasing the fragile scent trail. His sight tunneled, his hearing disappeared, and then there was nothing.
"Jim, c'mon, snap out of it!"
Jim roused and groaned when his senses flared. A headache immediately made itself known, throbbing in his temples with staccato-like precision. He focused on the dark face in front of him. "Joel?"
The man's broad face broke into a smile. "Yeah. I don't know how Blair does it -- you scared the hell out of us."
Jim turned his head to see Simon, his expression worried and impatient.
"What were you doing?" Simon demanded.
"Trying to figure out what happened to Blair," Jim replied. Between his headache, his fear for his guide, and his irritation at Simon, he didn't bother hiding his impatience. He turned to Joel. "When did you get back?"
"A couple of hours ago. I dropped in on Simon right before you called," Joel replied. He grew somber. "Tell us what happened, Jim."
Under Joel's calming presence, Jim related his story. "A little after two, I got this feeling that he was in trouble." Jim shifted uncomfortably. "I tried calling him, but he didn't answer his office or his cell phone, so I drove over here."
"What makes you suspect foul play?" Simon asked.
"Blair's backpack was lying under his desk and his wallet was in it. He wouldn't have left without that."
"Maybe he's in the building talking with a professor or some students?"
Simon pressed his lips together, and Jim knew he needed more to accept his claim of kidnapping... or worse. Jim thrust that thought aside, unable to deal with it. "He was supposed to meet me at the office at three and it's after that now. I know him, Simon, and I know he would have called me if something had come up."
Furrows creased Joel's forehead. "Jim's right, Simon. The kid may not look it, but he's got a strong sense of responsibility. He also thinks the world of Jim and wouldn't want him to worry."
"Did you find anything else?" Simon asked Jim, motioning to the disorganized office.
"A hair." Jim handed Simon the envelope containing the blond strand. "It's not Sandburg's and it was sitting on an open book so it couldn't have been there very long."
"I'll take it to Forensics -- they owe me a favor."
"I also noticed a smell when I first got here. It was an expensive men's cologne. I followed it to a side door leading to a faculty and staff parking lot. It's probably a dead end, but we should get a list of those with permits for that lot."
Simon nodded. "I'll get it."
"I'd like a copy of it, too," Jim said.
Simon opened his mouth to argue, but Joel cut him off. "You were just telling me how overworked and understaffed you are. Let Jim and I handle the list."
"No," Simon stated. "Neither of you are cops anymore. I can't have civilians involved in an investigation."
"It's not an official investigation for twenty-four hours," Jim reminded.
Simon glared at the ex-detective, but relented. "All right, but I'll expect you to remain in contact and keep me updated. But if Sandburg hasn't shown up in twenty-four hours, it becomes an official missing persons case."
"Thank you, sir," Jim said. "Let's get that list."
Jim and Joel returned to Blair's office after walking around Hargrove Hall and talking to those who had parking permits in the lot behind the building. They'd been able to find all but seven on the list and none of them were likely suspects.
"I hate to say this, but that lot isn't policed very strictly. Anybody could've parked there long enough to come in and get Blair," Joel said, shaking his head.
Jim leaned back in Blair's chair, grimacing at the slight creak of the springs. Next time he came, he'd bring some WD-40 and fix it. He scrubbed his face with his palms, wondering why he was worried about a chair's squeak when Blair was missing.
"We'll find him, Jim," Joel said so reassuringly Jim almost believed him. "Tell me about this case you and Blair have been working on. Maybe a fresh pair of eyes will see a connection."
"It started with this kid, Matt Lehman," Jim began.
The door swung open, startling the two men. Todd Keller froze three feet into the office when he spotted Jim and Joel.
"What're you doing here?" Todd demanded.
"What're you doing here?" Jim shot back, narrowing his eyes.
Todd's gaze darted around the room. "I was looking for Blair."
Jim listened to the frenetic beat of Todd's heart, and his eyes widened as he looked at his blond hair -- the same length and color of the strand he found on Blair's desk. "Do you usually just walk into someone's office without knocking?"
Todd's face reddened, but his voice was steady. "We walk in on each other all the time."
Jim rose and prowled around the desk. "When did you last see him?"
"I don't know. This morning maybe."
"Guess again." Jim's anger simmered beneath an artificial calm. "What did you do to him?"
Todd took a step backward. "I don't know what you're talking about."
The student's racing heart gave him away. In three long steps, Jim closed the door, trapping Todd in the room with them. "Tell me!" Jim's sharp voice made Todd jump.
"And if I don't?" Todd asked with a false sense of bravado. "Are you going to beat me? Or is that reserved for your roommate?"
The air gusted out of Jim's lungs like he was gut-punched. "You think I beat Blair?"
"He never used to be so 'accident-prone'."
Joel stood, bewildered by the turn of the conversation. "I thought you were a friend of Blair's."
Todd straightened, gaining some courage back. "I am. A good friend."
Joel shook his head slowly. "I don't think so, because if you were, you'd know that Blair wouldn't stand for anybody beating him."
"And I sure as hell wouldn't hurt him," Jim growled.
"So you're going to tell me he got all those bruises from falling down the stairs or bumping into doors?"
Jim flinched. "He did fall down the stairs. That's how he hurt his ribs and jaw. The black eye was from Ally Lehman's boyfriend."
"In all the years I've known Blair, he's never been hurt like that," Todd argued. "Until he started rooming with you." His face flushed with righteous anger.
Jim glanced down, remembering how he'd felt walking with Blair on the campus a few days ago. Jim had pulled Blair out of his safe world, first with the Cascade PD and now with a private detective agency. Although Jim hadn't physically hurt Blair, it was still his fault for dragging him into danger.
"Stop it, Jim," Joel's sharp voice cut through Jim's self-flagellation. "Blair made his own choices, and even if you had turned him away, he would've found a way to work with you. You know that." He turned to Todd, his expression stern. "I'm going to tell you this only once. Jim Ellison has never, nor would he ever, hurt Blair. I don't know why you believe otherwise, unless you were jealous of Blair's friendship with Jim."
"No!" Todd shouted. "I didn't want Blair to turn out like my sister."
"What about your sister?" Joel asked.
"Her boyfriend used to beat her but she wouldn't leave him. One day he went too far and beat her to death." Todd's eyes glimmered with moisture. "I didn't want that to happen to Blair or any of those other people."
"Other people?" Jim demanded. "You mean Ally Lehman, Natalie Rogers, Art Fairview, Michelle Radke... all those young people who've disappeared?"
Todd nodded, his expression crumpling. "They were in my classes. I found out that they were being abused so I wanted to help them."
Jim grabbed the student's shirtfront in his fists. "What the hell did you do?" He shook the younger man. "Where's Blair?"
"I found out about this group called the Butterfly Organization. They help people get out of abusive relationships and start a new life."
"How do they help them?" Joel asked, his dark eyes filled with concern.
"They teach assertiveness and how to respect themselves."
"Where is this Butterfly group located?" Jim demanded.
"I don't know. All I do is contact them and they send out someone to pick the person up."
"Kidnap them," Jim spat. He released Todd. "I want your contact's name and phone number. And I want to hear everything you know about this group."
"I can't do that. I swore I wouldn't tell anyone."
Jim crowded into Todd's space once more. "You will tell me everything you know or I'll have you arrested for rape and murder."
"What?" Todd yelped, the color leaching from his face.
"That happened after she escaped from the Butterfly camp."
"Is that what they told you?" Jim asked.
Todd blinked. "Yes."
"And you believed them?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
Jim clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. "Because I think your Butterfly group isn't a rescue group at all, and those people they're kidnapping aren't being re-trained to stick up for themselves." He paused, swallowing hard. "They've been using you, Todd."
The student's breathing rate increased dramatically and a tear spilled down his cheek. "I just wanted to help."
Joel insinuated himself between Jim and Todd and put an arm around the boy's shaking shoulders. "And you will if you help us find them before it's too late," he said firmly, but gently.
Blair paced the square white room -- four steps forward, pivot, four steps back and start all over again. All he had was a bed with a bare mattress that reeked. No window, no chair, no bathroom. And it was cold. While he'd been unconscious, they'd stripped him of everything but his boxers and t-shirt. At least they hadn't put him in leather restraints. Yet.
He didn't know how long it had been since he'd been kidnapped. He'd awakened in the room alone, and no one had been to visit him since.
With his arms wrapped around himself, he stopped in the middle of the room and peered upward. "Look, I don't know what you want, man, but I have to tell you, I had four cups of coffee and two bottles of water. If you don't want a mess to clean up, you'll let me use the facilities." He waited, frowning. "I'm serious here, man."
A key turned in the lock and the door swung open. A petite dark-haired woman flanked by two behemoths entered.
"Blair Sandburg. Twenty-seven years old. Anthropology graduate student. Attending Rainier University since the age of sixteen. Mother never lived in one place longer than a year," the woman said, as if reciting from a grocery list.
Blair's heart hammered in his chest, but he kept his expression calm. "You have me at a disadvantage."
"Call me Butterfly." She laughed as if she'd just told a joke.
Blair inhaled sharply. This was Todd's Butterfly group. Somehow he doubted they helped people overcome their submissive tendencies. In fact, he suspected just the opposite -- they exploited them. "Why am I here?"
"Silence!" Her mercurial change from amused to dictatorial startled Blair. "All you need to know is that you are ours, to do as we please."
Shocked, Blair couldn't help but laugh. "You're crazy, lady."
Instead of being angry, she smiled. "We'll see who's the crazy one, Mr. Sandburg. Now there are some rules. There are always rules."
Blair couldn't help but think of Jim, and almost smiled at the image. Then his smile faded as he thought of his sentinel alone with his senses and searching for his guide. And Blair knew he would be searching -- frantically. His stomach roiled at the thought.
"What kind of rules?" he demanded.
"First off, if you wish to use the facilities," she paused, allowing him to realize that his room was wired for sound. "You must ask appropriately."
"You will ask for permission."
"And if I don't?"
"You will have to live with your stubbornness, as well as the smell."
Blair closed his eyes, hoping that when he opened them he'd be lying in his bed at the loft listening for his turn in the shower. No such luck.
"What about food and water and blankets?"
"The same rule applies. You will also address your question to Master."
"Master?" Blair held up his hands and shook his head. "No way. I'm not into that kind of thing."
"You are now." She turned to leave, but stopped and gazed at Blair over her shoulder. "If you really have to use the facilities, now would be the time to begin your first lesson."
Blair gritted his teeth, but his bladder was screaming in agony. "May I use the restroom--" He swallowed his disgust. "Master?"
Butterfly's plastic smile chilled Blair to the bone. "Very good, Slave."
"Sl--" Blair bit his lower lip. He had to play their game to give Jim time to find him. "Thank you, Master."
The woman turned to one of the guards. "See, I knew he would be well worth the trouble. Our buyer will be pleased with his purchase."
Blair's heart leapt into his throat. "Buyer? I'm not a thing you can buy and sell."
"Your permission to use the restroom is denied," she countermanded. Her eyes glittered with something akin to insanity. "Next time you ask, kneel. Maybe you will gain permission, and maybe you won't."
With that, she whirled around and exited, the two men following. The door locked behind them and Blair stumbled back until he hit a corner and sank to the floor, his back wedged between two cold walls. So much for playing their game -- he'd suck at undercover work. His lower belly cramped and his bladder reminded him his need was growing even more urgent. He lifted his head to search the room for the camera he knew had to be there. He spotted it in a vent in the ceiling and swallowed the bile in his throat. Could he do it? He had to.
His breath stammering in his lungs, he shifted to a kneeling position jerkily. Bent slightly at the waist, he asked in a hoarse voice, "May I use the restroom, Master?"
"Permission denied," came a disembodied voice.
Shocked, Blair stared up at the camera. "Why?"
Only silence met his strangled question. Blair sank to his side on the floor and curled up with his knees to his chest. Humiliation washed through him as his body surrendered to its urgency.
"Where are you, Jim?" he murmured, his voice breaking.
Jim struck the scarred interrogation table with his fist, causing Todd Keller to jerk in his chair. "Tell us where he is!"
His face pale, Todd pulled his shaky hands through his stringy blond hair. "I don't know. How many times do I have to tell you? I don't know where their camp is." His voice was hoarse with desperation and anguish. He raised tear-filled eyes to Jim. "If I knew, I'd tell you. Honest."
Jim fought back the irrational urge to toss the boy against the wall. For the past three hours they'd kept the student in the interrogation room, alternating between questioning him and letting him stew alone. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "One more time. How did you learn about this Butterfly organization?"
Todd buried his face in his hands. "They contacted me."
Jim braced his hands on the table and leaned forward, his nose inches from Todd's head. "How did they know to contact you?"
"I don't know," he cried.
Suddenly Jim shuddered, inundated with wild, chaotic emotions: embarrassment, fear, anger, distress, helplessness. Bright white surrounded him and cold hardness touched his skin. He stumbled back and gasped.
"Jim, are you all right?" a concerned voice asked.
Jim blinked and Simon's dark face coalesced into view. The overpowering feelings subsided to a low hum vibrating through his awareness and left his head pounding with a near-migraine. "I-I don't know."
Strong fingers gripped his arm and led him out of the stale, dim interrogation room. He staggered down the hall, feeling like he'd just come off a week-long bender. Then he was settled into a chair in a break room and a bottle of water was thrust into his hand. "Drink."
Jim did so, relishing the cool wetness as it slid down his throat. He didn't stop until the bottle was empty. He felt like he hadn't had a drink in days.
"What happened in there?" Simon demanded, his hands on his hips. "And don't tell me you don't know."
"I don't," Jim protested. A flash of brown caught his eye and he turned to see a wolf -- Blair's wolf -- sitting six feet away, his tongue lolling as he panted heavily. Its coat was dull, but it didn't seem to be hurt. "I-I think I felt Blair."
Simon's eyes widened behind his lenses. "What do you mean?"
Jim glanced back at the wolf, but it was gone. He clenched his hands into fists. "I had this strong sense of fear and helplessness, and I was surrounded by white walls. I was lying on something cold and hard."
Simon dropped into a chair across from Jim and asked in a low voice. "Is this a sentinel thing?"
Jim nodded vehemently. "We have to find him, Simon."
"Is he hurt?"
Jim thought a moment. "I didn't get the impression he's hurt." He met Simon's brown eyes. "Yet."
"Shit." Simon removed his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "Do you have any idea where he might be."
"I don't think he knows," Jim said quietly, fighting the tremors that skated along his nerves.
Joel entered the break room, his expression worried. "Are you all right? Rafe told me what happened."
"I'll be okay," Jim replied. "But we have to find Blair."
Joel nodded somberly. "I just came from forensics. Sam told me that the seed they found, the cryptantha, is a common variety wildflower. No way can we pinpoint a specific area with it."
Jim sprang to his feet. "Damn it! There's got to be something."
"There were traces of soil on her shoes, too," Joel continued. He smiled slightly. "It's not quite as common as the seed. It's found at elevations of four to six thousand feet on the east side of the Cascade mountains."
Jim swore under his breath. "That's still a lot of territory."
"I've got H running a check for places large enough to house something like this Butterfly organization within two hours of Cascade with that soil type."
Jim's lips quirked upward in gratitude. "Good work, Joel."
Simon shook his head and murmured, "I don't know why I let you two quit the department."
"Do you think Keller's hiding anything from us?" Joel asked.
As much as Jim wanted to think he was, he could tell the student was telling the truth. "No. He really believed he was helping those kids." He grimaced. "I can't believe he thought I was abusing Blair." Then memory snapshots of his first meeting with Todd, and the argument he and Blair had at the restaurant flipped through his mind. He swallowed hard. Although he'd cut off an arm before hurting Blair, his public behavior hadn't reflected that.
Simon stood and placed a hand on Jim's shoulder. "We'll get Blair back."
Jim didn't bother to comment.
"As soon as we get some matches with the soil type and properties, we can start checking them out," Joel offered.
Jim sighed. "It's all we have right now." He clenched his jaw. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"I'll see if I can get anything else out of Keller," Simon said.
Jim's thoughts turned dark. "I'll go with you."
Simon held up a hand, palm out. "No, I don't want you in there anymore, Jim. I've already broken the rules by letting you question him. Now it's going to be by the book," he said sternly. His expression softened. "You can watch through the mirror."
Although angry, Jim knew better than to push Simon. The police captain was putting his job on the line as it was. "Yes, sir."
He followed Simon and Joel down the hallway, feeling antsy and helpless -- a feeling he hated, especially when it involved his guide.
Blair slept little as the cold dampness kept him uncomfortable, unable to find a restful position. He'd had no more visitors and time was losing meaning. His stomach had given up growling hours ago and his mouth was parched, but Blair resisted begging. Even if he humiliated himself by getting on his knees and asking his "Master" for water and food, he had no idea if his request would be answered.
He thought of Jim and what he must be going through. He concentrated on his sentinel, wishing Jim's sixth sense was also hyperactive. If it was, he could maybe contact him psychically.
Blair snorted. Yeah, like that would really work. Even if Jim felt the "vibes", he'd probably dismiss them as his imagination. An imaginary Blair floating around in Jim Ellison's head. He giggled at the thought, and the sound startled him back to rationality.
Damn, he was losing it big-time. If Jim ever found him, he'd probably find a raving lunatic instead of his guide.
He needed water and food. For Jim, he would swallow his remaining pride and plead.
Blair struggled to his knees, feeling the sharp ache of cold, stiff muscles and the lightheadedness of dehydration. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a croak came out. After managing to gather a few droplets of saliva, he tried again. "May I have some water and food, Master? Please." He hoped the camera picked up his hoarse voice.
He remained kneeling, his knees growing numb from the chilly floor, but his upper body swayed and he caught himself before gravity forced him back down.
The door opened and Blair blinked, afraid it was a hallucination. But no, two burly men entered. Without a word, they picked Blair up by his arms, one on either side of him, then dragged him out of the cell and across the hall.
The dimness of the corridor after the past hours of bright white light was both a blessing and a curse. Blair couldn't focus his vision, but he caught enough to realize they'd taken him into a bathroom.
"You have ten minutes for your personal use, Slave," one of the guards spoke up. Then he and the other man closed the door behind him, leaving Blair sitting on the toilet seat.
Although weak, Blair forced his body to follow his commands. He drank from the faucet greedily, then stripped, used the toilet, and started the cubicle shower. Finding soap and shampoo, he used both as he leaned against the tiled wall. Feeling more human, he rinsed and towel-dried. Stepping out of the shower, he saw that his dirty underwear was gone and in its place was a black jumpsuit. He railed against donning it, but he wasn't so far gone as to realize they'd probably drag him back to his cell naked if he didn't.
Just as he finished pulling up the jumpsuit's zipper, the bathroom door opened. Blair braced a hand against a wall as he stared at them.
"Lower your eyes, Slave," one guard ordered.
Despite his still-rebellious spirit, Blair did as the man commanded. If he didn't, he'd be the one to pay for it and it wouldn't get him any closer to being reunited with Jim.
Instead of escorting him back to his cell, he was taken to a flight of stairs and ascended them. Blair kept his eyes downward but darted his gaze back and forth, knowing he had to learn his prison's layout before he could try to escape. At the top of the staircase, the steel door was opened... into a palatial dining room. Heavy dark wood furniture filled the room and subdued, tasteful tapestries and paintings covered the walls.
At the head of the massive dining room table sat Butterfly, looking regal and charming... and as cold as a Siberian winter.
"Kneel beside me, Slave," she ordered imperiously.
Blair opened his mouth to defy her, but one look in her icy eyes stopped him. That and the delicious smells of food. He shuffled over to her and, after a moment's hesitation, knelt on the floor.
She smiled without warmth and petted him, like he was a dog. "Very good, Slave. Now your training shall begin."
Jim's vision scoped in and out and he focused on keeping his sight set on normal. Finally he was able to get it under control, but blurriness now plagued him. It angered him, but didn't surprise him.
Seventy-two hours. Three full days since Blair had been kidnapped and not a single sign of him, except for the feelings that had inundated Jim while he'd been questioning Keller. But nothing since, not even a glimpse of his guide's animal spirit. Or Jim's own black panther.
Jim was growing increasingly frustrated by their lack of progress. The only good thing was Todd Keller would no longer be feeding the so-called Butterfly group innocent victims. Simon had managed to pull enough circumstantial evidence together to hold Keller on kidnapping accessory charges. Of course, the student had basically admitted his duplicity, although Jim believed his claims that he thought the organization was truly helping abuse victims.
The sentinel leaned his head back against the headrest as Joel drove to yet another mansion on the eastern slope of the mountains. After H had gotten the printout matching soil type location and large homes two hours from Cascade, Joel and Jim had begun inspecting each place. So far they'd run into nothing but irate homeowners and barking dogs.
The lack of sleep was catching up to Jim. Six hours of sleep in the past three days hadn't been enough when he was fifteen years younger; at thirty-eight he was pushing his endurance into the red zone. But without Blair nearby, Jim found his scant sleep filled with nightmarish visions, and he'd wake up at the slightest sound. However, it wasn't just the sentinel who needed his guide; the man also needed his friend.
"There's the next place," Joel announced quietly.
Jim opened his eyes to a sprawling single-level home with brick arches and a circular drive. It looked ostentatious but not threatening. Although exhausted, Jim risked raising his hearing level. He could hear movement in three areas of the house, but only one person per area. His hopes dropped a little more.
"He's not here," Jim said, his voice raspy.
"How--" Joel broke off and glanced at Jim. "Your senses?"
Jim nodded. "There are only three people inside."
"Maybe we should check it out anyhow," Joel suggested.
"We'd be wasting our time. He's not in there."
Joel drew to a stop on the edge of the road and studied Jim. "You look like hell."
Jim managed a brief smile. "I feel like it, too."
Joel's brown eyes were warm with compassion and empathy. "You have to take care of yourself for him, Jim. Blair'd never forgive himself if something should happen because you wore yourself down looking for him."
Jim stared out the windshield, helplessness battering his calm mask. "I'll never forgive myself if something happens to him because I didn't do everything I could to save him," he said softly. He turned to gaze at Joel. "I keep seeing Natalie Rogers' body dumped in that warehouse, then she turns into Blair lying there, cold and dead." He shivered uncontrollably.
Joel's hand settled on Jim's shoulder, but he didn't offer any empty words. They both knew if Blair was to be saved, they were the ones who would have to do it. The area was out of Simon's jurisdiction and the county sheriff was stretched thin already, although he'd promised some help the following day.
After a long moment of silence, Joel eased the car back onto the winding, narrow road. "Where to next?"
Jim looked down at the list and had to rub his eyes to clear the bleariness. "13487 Summit Drive." He pulled out the map and gave Joel the directions. It would be close to an hour before they arrived at the next possible location.
Jim ignored the acid burning his gut and concentrated on his senses. Maybe he could pick up Blair's voice.
Blair dropped onto the bare mattress in his cell and covered his head with his arms. Tremors skated through his muscles, but it was anger not fear that fueled his trembling. He'd been playing their game for days now, doing what was ordered of him and thanking all the gods he was being trained to be a household slave rather than one who served in the bedroom. The worst he'd had to endure, besides swallowing his pride and asking for everything, was being dressed in the attire of a centuries-past Greek slave. It was humiliating to wear the short tunic, and even more embarrassing to listen to Butterfly's comments about him and how it was a shame his new master wanted only a household slave. Blair got the impression she'd enjoy teaching him other areas of expertise.
He swallowed back the sour bile rising in his throat. He'd played the game and done everything asked of him and had only been punished once -- when he'd refused to hand feed Butterfly. The next time she demanded the same, Blair did it without fuss. But he played a dangerous game. His own eyes were his worst enemy, unable to hide the defiance he kept from his voice and posture. He'd already overheard the guards talking about other "slaves" who'd rebelled and how they'd become much more manageable after drugs. Blair had no wish to have some foreign substance injected into his body and relied on his undergrad acting experience to hide his rebelliousness.
But they were pushing him harder and harder. They allowed him only short naps, snatched when he could grab them. But he could feel the effects of sleeplessness, which made him feel less in control and more susceptible to revealing his true nature. And Blair suspected that was the idea, to use the lack of sleep to break him down completely.
Uncharacteristic hatred simmered in the grad student. How could a so-called civilized people treat fellow human beings with such callous disregard? Blair hated keeping his mouth shut against the barbarous treatment, and all his hatred was finding one target: Butterfly, or the Bitch as he referred to her in his mutinous thoughts. She took pleasure in humiliating him, making him perform the most menial of tasks in the damned tunic that left little to the imagination.
A scream interrupted his somber thoughts, and Blair tightened his arms around his head to try to shut out the horrible cries. Any time of day or night, he had heard other "slaves" being trained and disciplined, and that hurt worse than his own torment. The screams could be from Matt's mother Ally or Michelle Radke or Josh Albany or any of the other missing persons he and Jim had been investigating. The fact that their captors had left Blair alone was small comfort when he could hear the anguish of the others.
Why had Todd blindly accepted Butterfly's claims? Why hadn't he checked them out thoroughly before handing over people who, just by their very nature, could be brainwashed into complete submission? If Blair hadn't been sucked into it himself, he would've scoffed at the idea of some organization like Butterfly even existing. Despite all he'd seen during his world travels and anthropological studies, he'd never believed in the existence of white slavery rings. They were urban myths, created out of boredom and a wish to frighten people, like using the bogeyman to frighten children. Only this bogeyman was real.
If Blair escaped this ring's clutches, he vowed he would do an expose on his experiences. If he survived.
"Where are you, Jim?" he whispered, keeping his face close to the mattress so his words wouldn't be overheard by the camera.
His door opened a moment later. "Come, Slave," came the now-familiar command.
Blair groaned and pushed himself upright. He was surprised to see only one guard since there were normally two. Maybe they were beginning to trust him. He squelched a smile and decided to take a chance, if it appeared the guard was truly alone.
Bowing his head, Blair walked out of the small room. His guard walked behind him, guiding him to the stairwell, which Blair knew well now. It was going to be another lesson in servility and humiliation in the opulent surroundings above the maze of cells. Once in the stairwell, Blair and his guard were isolated. This was his chance.
Blair slowed until the guard was walking almost beside him up the stairs. The student suddenly threw his body at the guard, knocking him into the rail then shoving him down the stairs. The guard lay still and silent on the landing below as Blair's heart thundered in his chest. Even before he could think about it, he ran down to check for a pulse -- the man was alive. Relieved, Blair found a ring of keys in the man's pocket and hurried back to the corridor where the prisoners were kept.
Blair stopped in front of a door that looked like every other door along the hallway. He fumbled with the keys, his exhaustion and lack of food and water making him clumsy. Finally, he found the right one and turned the key in the lock, pushing open the door. A woman lay huddled on the mattress and, despite her blank face, Blair recognized her as Ally Lehman.
He stumbled into the room and squatted beside her. "I'm here to help get you out of here. Your son Matt hired me to find you."
"Matt?" she whispered.
Blair leaned close and kept his voice low. "Yes, your son. Matt. He misses you and wants you home."
Emotion flickered in her vacant eyes. "Mattie."
"That's right. We need to get out of here. Can you stand up?"
Blair carefully took hold of her thin wrists and helped her up. She was so limp she would've collapsed if Blair hadn't wrapped an arm around her slender waist. "C'mon, Ally, wake up. Fight it."
He felt her muscles stiffen and turned, only to see Butterfly and her two mammoth guards at the door.
"I told you he wasn't nearly as complacent as he pretended," Butterfly said to the two men. She gazed at Blair and shook her head as if he were a child who'd disappointed her. "Tsk, tsk. I'd hoped we wouldn't have to resort to more aggressive tactics, but I'm afraid you've proven your disloyalty."
Ally'd become a dead weight and her eyes were again glassy and unseeing. Blair eased her back down onto the mattress, then rose with his hands fisted at his sides. He wished he dared take on his opponents, but knew he'd be overwhelmed quickly. His breath stuttered in his lungs. "You can't force a person's loyalty. It has to be earned."
"For one so devious, you're incredibly naive. Loyalty is like any commodity, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder." Butterfly's dark eyes flickered across Ally. "Or to be manipulated by those who understand."
"What've you done to her?"
"I must say, you surprised me by not attempting to escape immediately," Butterfly commented, ignoring his question. "Instead, you tried to help another."
"An alien concept to you," Blair interjected caustically.
Butterfly laughed, the tinkling noise grating across Blair's ears. "Your claws have finally unsheathed. It's a shame -- I had hoped we wouldn't have to use extra measures."
Blair's heart skipped a beat and his vision tunneled for a moment. "Extra measures?"
"You'll enjoy them. Everybody does, after they get used to them." Butterfly lifted her chin toward Ally Lehman. "Ask her."
Blair studied the young woman who sat quietly, a benign smile on her face, and realized it was drugs and not shock which made her so pliant. Was that what he was going to look like in another day or two?
"I'm surprised the buyers approve of drugged-up slaves," Blair said, trying to break through Butterfly's calm demeanor.
She shrugged. "They have the option to continue with the drugs or inflict their own punishment upon their slaves. We have many return customers -- it seems the slaves don't hold up well to their form of punishment. In fact, your buyer is one of our best customers. He likes to discipline his slaves himself."
Blair shivered with deepening dread. This couldn't be happening! People didn't just sell other people to sadists who got off on torturing other human beings.
"Bring him," Butterfly commanded.
The two guards strode in and each grabbed an arm. Blair kicked and fought, but the men were too strong and too well-trained. In less than five minutes, Blair was lashed to a table, his arms and legs akimbo. When Butterfly filled the syringe and lowered the needle to his arm, Blair screamed in his mind, "JIM!"
Then there was only blanketing darkness.
"Blair!" Jim jerked up, his senses searching in vain for his guide's heartbeat.
Joel moved into Jim's line of sight. "Jim?"
"You fell asleep in the middle of a meeting with Simon at the loft."
Jim glanced around, noting the familiar apartment and the ceremonial masks and dreamcatchers on the walls. "How long?"
"About six hours."
"Six hours!" Jim shoved the afghan off and swung his legs off the sofa. A wave of dizziness halted his rise. "You shouldn't have let me sleep."
"It's been five days. You were heading for a meltdown," Joel explained patiently. He searched Jim's worry-ravaged features. "You yelled out Blair's name."
Jim blinked, recalling the sensation of Blair's fear and the pressing need to go to him. Jim scrubbed his face in his palms. "I felt him. Something's happened to him."
Joel rested a wide hand on Jim's slumped shoulder. "But he's alive. You wouldn't have sensed him if he wasn't alive."
"You believe me?"
"Why wouldn't I? Blair tried to explain the connection between sentinel and guide, but most of it went over my head. But even if I don't understand it, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
"Thanks, Joel," Jim said, his throat feeling oddly tight.
A knock on the door startled both men. Jim tipped his head, trying to figure out who it was, as Joel went to open the door. When it swung open, Jim was surprised to see Matt Lehman and Ariel Jones, the woman who'd been watching him since his mother disappeared.
Jim pressed himself to his feet. "Ariel, Matt. Are you all right?"
Ariel nodded. "We're fine."
Matt ran across the room to wrap his arms around Jim's waist and bury his face in his hip. "I don't want Blair to go away like Mom did."
Jim clasped the boy's shoulders gently, at a loss for words.
"We were just wonderin' how you were doin'. Matt and I know how close you are to Blair," Ariel said.
Jim had to clear his throat before he could speak. "I'm all right. I'm more worried about Blair."
Ariel nodded slowly. "We understand."
Matt raised his head to gaze up at Jim. "Blair promised to take me to the library."
"Blair always keeps his promises if he can," Jim said, his voice husky. He forced a smile. "I'm sure he'll take you when he gets back."
"No, he won't, because he won't come back. He's gone just like my mom." One tear trickled down Matt's cheek.
Jim scooped the boy into his arms and Matt wrapped his arms around Jim's neck, crying softly. Jim gazed at Ariel, who shrugged helplessly. He knew Ariel had already kept Matt longer than she planned, but it would be nearly impossible to leave the boy with strangers. Jim knew she'd hang on as long as there was a slender thread of hope, and at this point, that was all they had.
The phone rang and Joel picked it up. "Hello."
Jim didn't listen in, not wanting to strain his control any more than necessary.
"Have you found anything?" Ariel asked.
"Nothing," Jim replied in disgust. "The county is checking on some leads, but it's like finding a needle in a haystack."
"If anybody can find them, you can, Mr. Ellison," Ariel said solemnly.
Jim didn't deserve her confidence, but he didn't argue.
"We'd best get going," Ariel said.
Jim nodded and set Matt down. The boy swiped his forearm across his eyes. "I promise I'll call if anything comes up," Jim said.
Ariel squeezed his hand. "I know you will. Take care of yourself, too."
Jim managed a weak smile and escorted them to the door. After giving Matt a hug, Jim waved good-bye and closed the door behind them.
Joel hung up the phone and faced Jim, his expression grim. "That was Simon. He wants us at the station."
"What is it?" Jim demanded.
Joel's eyes became bleak. "He wants us to take a look at a body in the morgue."
"No! He's not dead!" Jim's gut ached at the thought of his vibrant guide still and lifeless.
Joel grabbed his arms and gave him a small shake. "Hold on, Jim. Simon didn't say it was Blair."
"But why else would he want us to identify a body?"
Joel shifted uncomfortably and was unable to hold Jim's gaze. "He didn't say he needed an identification, just that we should get down there."
Jim lurched out of Joel's hold and strode to the door, grabbing his brown jacket from its customary hook. The sight of Blair's leather jacket hanging beside it pinched his chest, and he struggled to breathe past the chokehold.
With Joel on his heels, Jim dashed out to his truck. He paused, prudence stopping him from jumping into the driver's seat. He held his keys out to Joel, who accepted them after a moment's hesitation.
Sitting in the passenger seat -- Blair's usual place -- Jim tamped down the panic that roiled close to the surface.
"Simon would've told me if it was Blair," Joel said quietly as he pulled onto Prospect.
Jim nodded, but his mind wouldn't let loose the horrific images that taunted and tortured him. By the time they arrived at the Police Department, his muscles were taut and his jaw ached. As he entered the building behind Joel, a fleeting sense of nostalgia touched him. He'd loved being a cop, knowing he was doing good, no matter how overwhelming the job was at times. If things had worked out differently, he would've remained a police officer with Blair at his side. He prayed the fates were kinder to Blair, wherever he was.
The elevator opened to the lower level. Although it was no less bright than the upper levels, it seemed darker. And quieter. Respect for the dead -- those who'd left life in all types of violent methods known to man. Perhaps this reverent silence was society's way of asking pardon for their vicious deaths.
Jim shook his head of the muzzy meanderings, blaming them on his exhaustion.
Shutting off his thoughts, Jim followed Joel into the morgue. Simon glanced up from the stainless steel table where Dan Wolf was doing an autopsy on a waxen-looking body. Jim felt Joel's hand on his arm as the floor tilted beneath his feet.
"When did you get so squeamish?" Simon asked dryly, but with a hint of concern in his dark eyes.
Jim blinked, forcing his gaze away from the body. "It's not Blair."
Simon frowned. "No." Comprehension filled his expression, followed closely by apology. "Shit, I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't even think. It's Todd Keller."
Jim's shell-shocked mind took a few moments to process the information. "Keller?"
Simon nodded curtly. "Shot once in the head, execution style."
"Damn," Jim murmured. Although he'd been furious at the grad student, Keller had been a friend of Blair's for a long time. "The Butterfly group must've figured he was a liability."
Simon shrugged. "They were probably right."
"How'd he get out of jail?" Joel asked curiously, eyeing the young man sadly.
"Posted bail." Simon sighed. "Can't help but feel sorry for the kid -- he really thought he was helping."
Jim's fisted hand struck his other palm in frustration. "He was our only lead."
Dr. Wolf held up a bloody forceps with a mangled piece of metal between the tongs. "Hollow point. Nasty."
"Caliber?" Simon asked.
Wolf shook his head. "Hard to tell. I'll give it to Physical and see what they can come up with."
"I'm having Rafe do a search for hitmen in the area in the past twenty-four hours," Simon said. "But it's a long shot. This could be an unknown or some pro could've slipped in and out under our radar."
Jim frowned. "It tells us one thing, though. Whoever is behind this Butterfly group isn't your run-of-the-mill pimp." He flinched inwardly at his term. "They've got connections, and they're smart."
"Russian mafia? South American druglords? What?" Simon demanded.
Jim shook his head impatiently. "I don't know." His mind kicked into gear. "We can't be the only city they've targeted. I have a feeling they move around quite a bit, never staying in one place long enough to draw attention to themselves. And if they're doing what I think they're doing, then they'd be working out of cities with seaports."
Simon scowled. "What're you getting at, Jim?"
"An international slavery ring," Joel murmured before Jim could answer.
Jim nodded somberly. "Ships would be the safest way to transport their 'goods.'"
"Do you know what you're saying?" Simon demanded.
"Yes, sir." He met Simon's incredulous eyes. "White slavery isn't a hoax. It's real." Jim recalled the young prostitute he'd met in Thailand. "Too damned real."
"I'll have to get into FBI files," Simon said gruffly. "They'd be the ones with that kind of information."
"Call Seattle and San Francisco PD's. Find out if they've had an unaccounted rise in missing persons over a three or six month time period in the last five years," Jim suggested.
Simon nodded. "I'll get Mendel on it."
"He, uh, took the opening you left."
Jim felt like he'd been sucker-punched. It wasn't like he expected Simon to keep his desk vacant, but knowing he'd been replaced... It left him feeling empty and lost. He needed Blair more than ever to fill that hollowness, to give him a reason. "Good," he forced out. "Were there any witnesses to Keller's murder?"
"Nobody's come forward. He was killed about seven-thirty this morning. It looked like he was getting ready to go to Rainier when the killer got him," Simon replied.
"I'd like to check out the crime scene, sir," Jim said respectfully.
Simon looked like he was going to refuse his request, then his shoulders slumped in capitulation. "C'mon. I'll get Mendel going on your theory, then take you over to Keller's place."
"Thanks, Simon." Jim held the door for the captain and Joel.
"Jim," Dan Wolf said.
Jim turned toward him. "Yeah?"
"Believe in him and yourself," Dan said. "You and Blair have something very few people have the fortune to find in their lives. Use it to find him." Then Dan returned his attention to Keller's autopsy, effectively dismissing Jim.
Confused but oddly comforted, Jim followed in Simon and Joel's wake.
When Blair was sixteen, he'd had his wisdom teeth removed. The orthodontist had given him a prescription of Percocet for the pain. It was before Blair had sworn off chemical medications. The pain had been intense so Blair had taken one of those Percocets. The pain had still been there, but Blair hadn't cared.
That was how he felt now, floating above his body. Detached, he watched himself perform demeaning tasks for Butterfly's sick enjoyment. Blair didn't care that he had to kneel beside her while she ate and had to jump up to refill her water and wine glass every minute or two. He didn't care that she made him eat the crumbs from the floor that she purposely dropped. He didn't care that he was constantly shivering in the light toga he wore or that Butterfly's hand would sometimes touch him in places he didn't want to be touched.
None of it mattered because his mind was free to do as it pleased. Only he wasn't sure what it should be doing. Something kept niggling at the corners of his consciousness, but when he tried to pin the thought down, it slid away like fog on a sunny morning. He did, however, know that he shouldn't be so complacent, but every time he thought of defying Butterfly, he would mentally shrug. Defiance took too much energy.
"You're becoming the perfect slave," Butterfly purred, stroking Blair's hair. "I believe you're ready to go to your new home."
A shadowy memory of a high-ceilinged room and a man standing beside a stove smiling at him flickered across Blair's consciousness. He tried to hang onto the picture, especially the tall man in the kitchen, but it slipped away, like sand between his fingers.
"He will arrive tomorrow and I'm sure you will be on your best behavior, won't you, Slave?" Butterfly asked.
As if a puppet guided his movements, Blair nodded.
"Say it, Slave," Butterfly ordered.
"Yes, Master," Blair said softly.
She petted his head. "Very good, Slave. Now you will go to your room and sleep. When you awaken, we'll give you some more medicine and you'll be cleaned and groomed to await your new Master."
Butterfly smiled coolly and stood. "Escort him back to his cell."
The two guards motioned for Blair to rise and he stood slowly. Everything seemed draped in a dreamlike curtain, gauzy and not quite clear. Blair's legs moved of their own volition and carried him back to his cell. He immediately lay down and closed his eyes, not caring that the short toga offered little warmth or cover.
A spark of clarity found him. He thought of the man by the stove -- Jim -- and concentrated on him. Jim would know how to help Blair get his jumbled thoughts in order. Jim would let him wear warm clothes. Jim would come and save him.
Blair fell asleep to swirling images of his friend.
Jim opened his eyes, surprised to find himself lying on a jungle floor rather than his bed at the loft. What was he doing here? Hadn't he already spent enough time in purgatory?
He pushed himself up to a sitting position and opened his senses. A heartbeat, as familiar to him as his own, beckoned him. Jim stood and found himself on four legs. Not caring, he loped through the jungle, following the siren call. His paws flew over the ground, hardly touching the damp soil. Finally, he halted and tipped his head, listening. Blair was closer now, so close he could almost taste the scent of his guide.
Jim emerged from the thick undergrowth to find Blair sitting on the ground, a wolf lying with his head on Blair's lap. His guide was stroking the wolf's head.
"Blair," Jim cried out.
Blair raised his head slowly and it seemed to take him some time to focus his eyes. "Oh, hi, Jim. I'm glad you came."
"Where are we?"
Blair glanced around and shrugged. "It doesn't matter. We're here together."
Jim found himself in his human body as he covered the last few feet separating himself from his guide. "It does matter. We can't stay here."
"It's comfortable and I'm warm. I want to stay."
A hint of Blair's characteristic stubbornness gave Jim a surge of pleasure. He laid a hand against Blair's cheek and found it alarmingly cool. "Hey, Chief, you don't feel very warm."
"Warmer here than back there."
"Where's back there?"
Blair shrugged. "Don't know. The Bitch is there."
Jim blinked. "Who's the Bitch?"
"Butterfly." Blair's face lost its vacant look and he snarled, "Master."
The wolf raised his head and growled deep in his throat, but Jim could tell he wasn't angry at Blair, but for Blair.
Jim settled closer to his guide, his hands clasping the younger man's shoulders. "Listen to me, Chief. I need to know where you are so I can come get you."
Blair's brow furrowed. "But you did come to me. You're here now."
"But this isn't real." Jim hadn't really thought about it, but his statement felt right.
"I like it here."
"I do, too, Chief, but we don't belong here."
Blair stared at him a long moment, then raised a slender-fingered hand and touched Jim's cheek. "Don't leave."
"Listen to me, Blair. Try to remember something, anything, that I can use to find you."
Blair closed his eyes and concentrated. After a moment, he shook his head and looked at Jim. "I can't. There's nothing."
The wolf snuffled and butted Blair's arm.
Blair scratched behind the animal's ears. "What is it?"
Blair and the wolf began to blur and Jim focused on keeping them there, but they were already growing transparent. Jim was losing him again. "Hang on, Blair! Don't go!"
"I'll be waiting," Blair's weak voice carried to Jim.
Jim opened his eyes and found himself in his loft bedroom. He heard Joel snoring on the couch below. He glanced at his clock radio and saw it wasn't even four a.m. yet -- only three hours of sleep, but Jim knew there'd be no more rest tonight.
A clicking sound began ascending the steps and Jim automatically reached for the revolver he kept under his pillow. As the clicks drew nearer, Jim raised the gun and aimed it at the top of the stairs. Pointed ears, then a long nose topped by dark blue eyes came into view. Jim aimed the weapon at the ceiling and slipped the safety back on.
"Can you take me to Blair?" Jim whispered, already reaching for his jeans on the nearby chair.
The wolf nodded and waited with his tail swishing as Jim finished dressing. Jim tiptoed down the stairs, following the wolf. For a moment he wondered if he was still dreaming, but a quick sensory check assured him he was awake and in the loft. He grabbed his jacket, ensuring his cell phone was in his pocket, then continued after the spirit animal.
Blair's voice echoed in his mind. I'll be waiting.
"Hang on, Chief. I'm coming," Jim whispered.
Blair was awakened with a rough shake, and he blinked blearily at the guard's sneering face.
"Wake up, Slave. Showtime," the man said.
Blair tried to clear the cobwebs from his head, but everything seemed steeped in thick syrup. He began to push himself upright, but he must've been moving too slow because the guard jerked him to his feet. Some part of his mind recognized that there was only one guard -- probably due to the drug swimming in his veins. They would figure he was too docile to try anything.
Docile. It made him sound like a dog or a cat -- a domesticated creature. He was a human being, not an animal to be trained and led around on a leash.
Clarity edged his complacency, giving him flashes of lucidity, and he cringed at how easily he'd succumbed to their drugs and commands. Jim would never become anyone's trick pony. That thought strengthened Blair's resolve as the drug loosened its hold, tiny bit by tiny bit.
The guard led Blair to the customary bathroom and ordered him to strip and shower, then closed the door and left him alone. The warm water brought even more awareness to Blair's cloudy thoughts, but he kept his expression lax. He would have to make his bid for freedom before the next injection.
The guard retrieved him after Blair was dressed in the clean tunic, which was lying out on the toilet seat for him. He was prodded down the hallway toward what Blair called the lab. It was there that the bespectacled man wearing a white coat would give him a shot. Blair stumbled along, faking awkwardness and hoping to allay the guard's vigilance.
As they entered the lab, Blair's muscles bunched as he prepared to make a bid for freedom, but the guard gripped him from behind and pushed him inside the sterile room. The white-coated man smiled, but Blair couldn't detect any kindness in the expression. A chill slid down his spine as the guard maneuvered him closer to the man, who already had a prepared syringe in hand.
As the needle neared Blair's arm, he twisted and fought the guard's clutches, but he was too weak and clumsy. He felt the pinprick's sting and the cool release of liquid in his veins.
Moisture burned Blair's eyes. He'd failed.
Jim rubbed his gritty eyes but didn't lose track of the wolf that flew down the highway, never tiring even though the animal was traveling close to sixty miles an hour. Of course, it was a creature from the spirit world, which meant mortal rules didn't apply.
He shook his head, realizing just how weird his thoughts were becoming. The wolf and the panther weren't anything he really wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about. Hell, Jim didn't believe in them half the time himself, despite the times they'd saved their humans' lives. But if the wolf truly took him to Blair, Jim promised to buy a case of Alpo for the animal.
The wolf had led him into the mountains, up switchbacks that made the hair at the back of Jim's neck stand on end. He'd been driving over two hours when the animal suddenly disappeared.
Jim steered his truck to the side of the road and studied the darkness that was just beginning to be alleviated by dawn. He focused his vision and spotted light through the trees up ahead. He was obviously supposed to leave the truck and proceed on foot.
Ensuring his revolver was in his shoulder holster, Jim stealthily moved toward his objective... and Blair, he hoped. His senses were sharper than they'd been since Blair disappeared. He could hear the trill of individual birds and the scuffle of small-footed animals in the underbrush. As he drew nearer to the house, he began to make out emanating sounds -- the clink of a pan and the sizzle of bacon, the morning news from a TV or radio, snores from three different rooms, heels clicking on tile, a toilet flushing, and a shower running. Then there were other sounds, less common and more menacing -- the sharp report of a palm against bare skin, a moan of pain, curt orders issued to "Slave," and the shuffle of heavy feet over carpet.
He crouched behind a bush and risked opening his hearing. Within moments he heard his guide's heartbeat, slightly elevated, but it was there. Blair was alive. He closed his eyes momentarily in relief, and determination filled him. Digging his cell phone out of his pocket, he called Joel back at the loft. After giving Joel directions to the place, he ended the call and settled in to wait for backup.
Blair's heartrate shot upward and Jim lifted his head sharply. Something was happening to him. Jim couldn't wait for the cavalry. He crossed the yard and searched the perimeter of the house for a way inside other than the front door. The sun peeked out from behind the eastern mountains as Jim heard a new sound -- the rumble of tires over gravel. He pressed his back against the house and watched a black Lincoln Town Car tool into the spacious driveway. The chauffeur got out and opened the back door. A sixty-something man with a gray goatee and darker complexion emerged from the car and stood a moment, his hooded brown eyes checking out the grounds.
The front door opened and a petite woman wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket stepped out. "You're punctual, as usual, Leonard."
The goatee'ed man granted her a slight nod. "My time is important. Is my latest purchase ready for inspection?"
"Of course. Come in and he'll be presented to you immediately."
Jim frowned as the door closed behind them. The chauffeur remained standing by the car, and by the looks of the bulge under his arm, he was wearing a shoulder holster. A chauffeur who doubled as a bodyguard most likely. Who was "Leonard?" And who was the woman?
Jim went over their short conversation in his mind and his eyes widened when he realized they were talking about a person -- a "slave." It could be any one of those on the missing list, or someone else. Or it was Blair.
Fear for his guide propelled Jim forward, and he quickly found a window, which he jimmied open with his pocketknife. Amazingly enough, no alarm sounded. But maybe they were so certain they wouldn't be bothered out here that they'd only set up perimeter guards, whom Jim had bypassed with little problem.
He heaved one leg over the sill, then eased into the spacious room, which appeared to be a study of some type. Voices carried to him and he tilted his head. He recognized them as the man and woman who'd spoken outside. Moving on the balls of his feet, he crossed to the door and cracked it open. Peeking in, he spotted Blair dressed in an obscenely short gown with two beefy men flanking him. The dark-complexioned man from outside was walking in a slow circle around Blair.
"You say he has completed his training?" he asked the woman.
She nodded. "I saw to it myself. Unfortunately, we did have to resort to drugs, but I know you'll take care of that yourself."
Jim's gaze fastened on Blair, who stood quietly, his gaze vacant and his eyes glassy. Rage threatened to erupt, but Jim kept it tamped down. He couldn't afford to let his emotions get the better of him. If he was to save Blair, he had to remain cool and detached.
Distaste flickered across the man's face. "As usual, I shall keep him sedated on the journey home, but when we arrive--" He smiled cruelly as he pinched Blair's arm, eliciting a soft whimper from the younger man. "He is mine to do as I please."
Jim growled deep in his throat, the desire to tear apart the man nearly overwhelming him. Blair was his guide and nobody had the right to hurt him. Jim panted with small, shallow breaths, trying to alleviate the protectiveness that thundered through his sentinel blood.
The woman bowed slightly. "But of course. If you'll follow me, we shall complete the transaction and you may take him."
Jim watched them move down another hall. The two guards relaxed and started talking about some ballgame from the day before. The normalcy of their conversation felt surreal among the insanity of training and purchasing human beings.
Knowing he might not have better odds, Jim took his chance. He stepped into the room and raised his weapon. "Freeze!"
The shocked expressions on the guards' faces would've been laughable if Jim had been the least bit amused. He wasn't.
"Raise your hands and step away from him," Jim ordered.
Blair raised his head and recognition flashed in his eyes. "Jim," he whispered.
"Take it easy, Chief. We're going to get out of here," he said soothingly.
The two guards followed Jim's command and stood a few feet from Blair, their hands in the air.
"Now lie down on your bellies and put your hands on the back of your heads," Jim said.
Although reluctant, the men did as they were told and Jim flowed across the room, pausing to give Blair's back a reassuring pat. Jim kept his gun aimed down at the guards as he searched the first for weapons. As he did, the other guard rolled and reached for his weapon. Jim fired his gun at the same moment he did. The guard fell back to the floor, scarlet already staining his chest. The second guard took advantage of Jim's inattention and rose up, his head connecting with Jim's chin with a loud crack.
Darkness danced across Jim's vision, and he managed to hang onto consciousness by a thin thread. Reacting from years of Ranger drills, Jim kicked at his enemy, hitting his kneecap. The guard screamed and dropped to the floor. Footsteps from various parts of the house converged on them and Jim grabbed Blair's hand. "C'mon, Chief." He tugged his guide after him, Blair stumbling and clumsy from the drug's influence.
"Jim," Blair said again.
"That's right, buddy, I'm here," Jim reassured. With his innate sense of direction, Jim headed for the front door. As they went through the doorway, gunshots sounded and wood splinters struck them, but fortunately the bullets missed them.
Outside, the chauffeur/bodyguard had his gun drawn. Jim didn't give him a chance to shoot, but nailed him in the shoulder, spinning him against the car and to the ground.
"Get in," Jim shouted at Blair, jerking open the driver's door and shoving his guide in. He followed close behind, pushing Blair across the seat as he settled behind the wheel. The keys were in the ignition and he started the car, gunned the engine, and peeled out amidst spewing gravel.
More gunshots and the thunk of bullets hitting metal. Jim pressed Blair's head down so he wouldn't get it blown off as the sentinel steered with one hand. The car shimmied across the narrow road, and Jim yanked it back on course. The sound of guns faded and Jim relaxed minutely. He gazed down at his guide who was huddled down on the seat.
"Hey, Chief, how're you doing?" he asked worriedly.
Blair lifted his head and blinked as if waking from a dream. "I-I'm not sure. Still groggy."
"You're going to be okay, Chief, once the drug is out of your system."
He could see Blair try to focus and the effort it took made Jim's throat tighten. Suddenly, the younger man's eyes widened. "You're bleeding."
Jim frowned, glanced down at his torso, and spotted a stain of red on his side. The pain struck then with blinding force, magnified tenfold. He couldn't see the road, couldn't get his foot to hit the brake, couldn't...
The foggy curtain lifted only slightly, but it was enough for Blair to see that Jim had been hurt, and when he uttered the words "you're bleeding," his sentinel reacted instantly. He felt the car go out of control and the adrenaline-induced fear cleared more of the fog from his mind.
He leaned close to Jim and grabbed the steering wheel, forcing the Lincoln to the other side of the road. Keeping his hands on the wheel, he used his body to push Jim's limp figure against the driver's door, and the sentinel's foot slipped off the accelerator.
Blair tried to find the brake, but the seat was pushed back too far. He shimmied down in the seat, stretching his foot toward the pedals. His bare toes touched the brake and he pressed hard, even as he found it difficult to see above the dash since he'd had to slip down so far to reach it. A sharp curve caught him unaware and the car plunged down a steep embankment a moment before Blair's foot pressed fully against the brake. Branches screeched against the metal car until the vehicle stopped with an abruptness that sent Blair's jaw against the steering wheel. Pain erupted, but it helped Blair hold onto consciousness.
For a long moment Blair sat there, motionless, letting the silence envelope him. His thoughts were still sluggish, but the drama of the past few minutes had gone far to temporarily overcome the effects of the drug. His entropy vanished when he remembered the blood on Jim. He maneuvered around so he could press two fingertips to Jim's neck, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he felt his steady pulse.
Dizziness assailed Blair and he braced a hand against the dash, hoping it would dissipate, but it only lessened slightly. A part of Blair recognized it as a combination of the drug and the effects of the escape and crash.
The car was set at a downward slant, the front end against a tree trunk and the hood accordioned. They were lucky they hadn't been killed.
Taking a deep breath, Blair shifted around once more and wrapped his arms around Jim's chest from behind. Grunting, he eased Jim out from between the seat and the steering wheel, but there was no way he'd get him out of the car.
Exhausted and unable to fight with his body, Blair felt the drug gain a toehold in his system once more. Sitting with his back against the passenger door, Blair kept his arms around his sentinel and rested his forehead against Jim's shoulder. Jim's comforting weight and warmth assured him they were together once more.
Jim had come for him, just as Blair knew he would.
Blair lost track of time as he vacillated between dull wakening and light sleeping. At one point he thought he heard cars on the road above them, but he didn't have the strength to call out.
The bright sun was high in the sky when Blair was startled awake by nearing voices. Fear, though distant because of the drug, kept his eyes open as he waited. He tightened his embrace on his injured friend as a spark of protectiveness fired through him. For Jim, he fought the drug's mind-numbing effects.
He turned his head to see a familiar face. It took him a moment to put a name to the person. "Joel?" he whispered.
"Simon, they're here," Joel said into a walkie-talkie. "We need a rescue team down here fast and an ambulance standing by."
Blair's eyelids drifted shut. Joel would help them. It was only when he felt someone trying to take Jim away from him that the fog again cleared. Blair snarled at the uniformed man, who backed off, his hands in the air.
"We just want to help your friend," the man said.
Joel's round face came back into view. "Hey, Blair, it's Joel, remember?"
Blair frowned. Of course he remembered Joel. He was their friend.
"These people want to help Jim," Joel said gently. "Jim's hurt and they can help him feel better."
Blair shook his head. They wanted to take Jim away from him. Wasn't going to happen. No way, no how.
"Come on, Blair, you can trust me. They won't hurt Jim, I promise."
With effort, Blair focused his vision on the two men standing behind Joel. He didn't know them. They might take Jim to that place -- the one with Butterfly, the Bitch -- and make him do things he didn't want to do. He shook his head again, this time more vehemently.
"Please, Blair, trust me," Joel pleaded.
Blair was about to tell him to leave them alone when a black panther appeared beside Joel. The animal bumped his head against Joel's leg and Blair could hear its purr. What did it want?
Blair closed his eyes, wishing he could think. Gods, he didn't know what to do.
He opened his eyes, only to find the wolf sitting next to him in the cramped car. He could feel the animal's warm damp breath against his cheek, and when Blair looked out at Joel, the panther was leaning against the man's leg.
Blair swallowed and gave Jim a slight squeeze. He leaned close and whispered, "They say to trust them, so I'm going to let them help you, okay?"
Jim remained still and silent.
"All right," Blair said to Joel.
The big man's expression lit with a relieved smile.
When the uniformed man opened the car door, Blair relinquished his precious burden and promptly passed out.
As Jim stirred the chorizo in the frying pan, he kept his left arm close to his side so he wouldn't jar the healing wound. He'd taken pain pills for the first twenty-four hours after he'd been shot, and bore the side effects -- upset stomach and headaches -- because they were easier to deal with than the wound. But after that, Blair had been able to walk him through the steps to lower his pain threshold. It had taken more concentration early on, but now Jim managed to hold the dial fairly steady. Of course, it wasn't too low or, as Blair had said, Jim wouldn't feel the warning signals if he overdid it.
He glanced at Blair and sighed. The younger man sat lotus style on the sofa, a book in his lap, but his gaze was unfocused and his expression melancholy. The news of Todd's death had hit Blair hard. In spite of Todd's duplicity with the so-called Butterfly group, Jim knew his guide blamed himself for his friend's death. Jim only wished he knew how to broach the subject.
"Mild or hot?" Jim asked, keeping his voice light.
Blair blinked and turned his head toward Jim. "What?"
"You want mild or hot Huevos Rancheros?"
Blair shrugged. "Whatever."
Jim fidgeted with the wooden spoon as he studied his roommate. "You sure?"
"However you make it'll be fine." Blair unfolded his legs and slumped against the sofa back.
"Because you won't eat it anyhow?" Jim asked, a sliver of impatience slipping into his tone.
"I'll eat some," Blair said with forced enthusiasm.
Jim turned off the burner and joined his guide on the couch. A sigh escaped him as he sank onto the cushion.
Blair frowned, his attention focused on his sentinel. "I knew I should've cooked. You shouldn't be trying to do so much so soon."
"Whoa, hold on, Chief," Jim said, grabbing Blair's wrist before the younger man could jump to his feet. "I'm fine." He paused. "It's you I'm worried about."
"Why? The doctors said the drug is completely out of my system and there won't be any lasting effects." Blair's puzzlement was genuine.
"I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about you."
Blair glanced down, his long hair curtaining his expression. "I'm all right."
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "You haven't been 'all right' for five days, ever since you heard about Todd." Although he couldn't see Blair's expression, Jim heard the stammer in his breathing and the rapid firing of his heart.
"Just processing, man." Blair paused, then added with forced nonchalance. "You know me -- I have to process everything."
"He was your friend, Blair. It's okay to grieve," Jim said self-consciously, unaccustomed to offering words of comfort.
Blair's gaze hardened as he brought it to bear on Jim. "I've taken psych courses, too."
Jim flinched, but gamely pressed forward. "Then you know it's also all right to be angry with him, too."
Blair's Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "They trusted him, Jim," he finally said, his voice raspy. "They came to him with their problems and he used that against them."
"He thought he was doing the right thing."
"Does that absolve him of blame?" Blair demanded, his eyes flashing. He stood and paced. "History is full of people who used the excuse they were doing the 'right thing,' but it doesn't vindicate their actions."
"I'm not saying it excuses Todd's," Jim said, flailing in unfamiliar waters. Usually Blair was the one to tread emotional whirlpools. "Todd made a mistake, a big mistake. He trusted someone he shouldn't have. But from what it sounds like, he was as much a victim as you and the others. The Butterfly group manipulated him, too."
"Why didn't he check them out? Why was he so damned blind?"
Jim leaned forward slightly. "You said his sister was killed by an abusive boyfriend. Maybe he felt guilty for not saving her, and the Butterfly group gave him a way to atone for his mistake. Maybe he wanted to believe so badly that he saw only what he wanted to see." Jim studied his younger friend's pained profile. "Do you think Todd deserved to die because he wanted to believe in something?"
Blair's head snapped up and he locked gazes with Jim. The sentinel could almost smell his anger and frustration, overlaid by the acrid bitterness of sorrow. "No," he said hoarsely. He took a deep, stammering breath. "He was a lot different before his sister died. He used to pull these practical jokes that he turned into learning exercises." Blair's smile wobbled, but held and grew wider. "A couple of years ago on the first day of the semester, he pretended he was a student in his own class. At five minutes past the hour, he started inciting the students to a strike against tardy teachers. Everyone in the class followed him to the commons area to stage a sit-down. After everybody had sat down, he introduced himself as the teacher and used what he'd done as an example of mob mentality." Blair sat down beside Jim. "You would've liked him, Jim."
The sentinel rested his hand on Blair's knee. "I'm sorry I didn't know him then."
Jim smelled the faint scent of salt.
The phone rang, startling the two men out of their silent communion.
Blair swiped at his cheek as Jim reached for the phone. "Ellison."
"Hey, Jim, it's Joel."
"What's up, Joel?"
"Simon just called to let me know Karen Jansen's dead, as are two others of the Butterfly group."
Jim blinked in surprise. "I thought they were under maximum security with the feds."
"They were. They were killed by a fast-acting poison, but the feds still don't know how it was administered."
"Suicide? Something missed during the body search?"
Jim could almost feel the bigger man shrug. "It's possible, but I'm betting it was murder, just like Keller." Joel sighed heavily. "With all of them dead, we lost the chance to shut down those bastards."
Joel rarely cursed so Jim knew how upset he was. "They'll slip up again," Jim assured. "Criminals always do."
"I'm not so sure about that. Simon told me one of the prisoners, before he died, claimed the slavery ring has been going on for over a hundred years."
Jim wished he was surprised, but he wasn't. Something as atrocious and reprehensible as a slavery ring had to have its roots deep. Besides, it would explain the disappearance of scores of children and young people over the years.
"And after this scare, they'll go even further underground, and we may not hear about them again in our lifetime," Joel continued. "As Blair would say, it sucks."
"Yeah, it does," Jim agreed. "How are the others who were rescued?"
"Everyone but Evelyn Stovall and Josh Albany have been released from the hospital, but from what I heard, all of them will be seeing a counselor until they've worked through everything. We were lucky we found everyone on your missing persons list."
"Yeah, real lucky." They were silent for a long moment. "Have we gotten any new clients?"
"Three. One looking for dirt against her husband; another repo; and grandparents wanting us to find their fourteen-year-old grandson. We also got a call this morning from Beverly Sanchez."
"She's now a private attorney. She asked if we could track down someone for an estate settlement."
Jim whistled low. "Business is really taking off."
"The newspaper article mentioning the Argus Detective Agency's vital assistance in finding those missing persons didn't hurt, even though you wouldn't go out with the reporter."
"I'd be safer swimming with a piranha than going on a date with Wendy Hawthorne," Jim said dryly. Joel's laughter made him smile. "Blair and I'll be in tomorrow." He noticed Blair's narrowed gaze aimed in his direction. "I won't be able to do anything too strenuous, but I can hunt-and-peck on the computer," Jim added. His guide's glare abated.
"Get a good night's sleep and I'll see you both in the morning," Joel said.
Jim said good-bye and hung up the phone.
"What's going on?" Blair asked.
Jim rubbed his jaw with the side of his hand. "The Butterfly -- Karen Jansen -- and two others are dead. Poisoned."
"I wish I could be sorry, but I'm not." Blair's troubled eyes met Jim's. "Does that make me a rotten person?"
Jim shook his head gently. "It makes you human, Chief."
Blair remained thoughtful, but his distraught expression eased. "What's going on at the office?"
"Four new cases. Joel could use some help."
Blair groaned. "I'm sorry. I should've been going there instead of having my own private pityfest."
"You needed the time, Chief," Jim said. "Between what you went through during your captivity and then with your friend's death... Joel understood."
"Thanks." Blair slid his hands into his jeans pockets. "It is going to take some time, but I'll be all right, Jim." He smiled, and a sparkle returned to his eyes. "Honest."
A knock on the door startled Blair, and he glanced at Jim.
"Ariel and Matt, and somebody else," Jim replied to the unspoken question.
Blair opened the door to Ariel, the boy, and a woman he'd seen under much different circumstances.
Before anyone could speak, Matt grabbed Blair's hand. "This is my mom," the boy said, his excitement obvious. "Mom, this is Mr. Blair."
Ally, her face still pale but her eyes much more spirited, held out her hand. "It's so nice to meet you, Blair."
He shook the extended hand, vaguely recalling their first meeting in her cell when he'd tried to escape. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Lehman."
"Please call me Ally," the young woman interjected.
Blair smiled. "Ally. Won't you all come in?" He stepped back and motioned them inside.
Ariel hugged Blair as she entered. "I had to thank you in person," she said. "Without you, Mattie and his mama woulda never seen each other again."
The grad student's face warmed. "We were lucky."
Blair guided them over to Jim, who started to rise, but Blair's touch on his arm stayed the motion. Blair stood behind the couch, his hand resting companionably on his sentinel's shoulder.
"Sorry," Jim said, one arm around his waist.
"There's nothin' for you to be sorry about," Ariel said with her characteristic cheekiness.
Matt sat down beside Jim. "Does it hurt, Mr. Jim?"
Jim ruffled the boy's white blonde hair. "Nah, it was just a scratch."
Blair rolled his eyes heavenward.
"I can't thank you enough for what you did," Ally said. She smiled at Matt and Ariel. "They told me how hard you worked to find me."
Blair shifted uncomfortably. "The truth is, if I hadn't been taken, too, I'm not sure we would've found you and the others."
Ally shrugged and her lips turned upward in a smile reminiscent of her son's. "It doesn't matter how or why; it only matters that you did."
Jim tipped back his head to exchange a look with his guide. Blair gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"What're your plans now?" Blair asked Ally.
She shrugged. "Other than trying to forget the last few weeks, I'm hoping to catch up with my classes and finish the semester."
"If you need any help, just give me a call. I'm not teaching until next semester so I have some free time."
"Thanks," Ally said. "I might just do that."
"And if that former boyfriend of yours bothers you again, you call me," Jim said sternly.
Ally's cheeks reddened. "I will. One thing I learned from all this is that if I don't stick up for myself, no one will. I hope I make better choices in the future."
"You will," Blair assured, meaning it. He turned to Matt. "So, what do you say we hit the library tomorrow night?"
"Mom?" Matt asked, sending a pleading look to her.
Ally brushed her son's bangs off his forehead. "I think if Mr. Blair says it's okay, it's fine by me."
"I'll pick you up tomorrow about six, okay?" Blair asked the boy.
Matt nodded, his expression bright. "When can you play basketball again, Mr. Jim?"
"Give me a week and I'll be good as new," Jim replied.
"Make that two weeks and we'll see," Blair interjected with a stern look at his friend.
"You listen to him, Jim. He'll take good care of you," Ariel said, her eyes twinkling.
"We take care of each other," Blair acknowledged, recognizing the depth of truth behind the words.
After a moment of comfortable silence, Ally said, "We should get going. I just wanted to stop by and thank you personally for everything."
They started to the door.
"Just a minute," Blair called out. He hurried into his room and returned a few moments later. He held an envelope out to Matt. "I think you forgot this in our office a couple weeks ago."
Matt opened the envelope and frowned at the crumpled bills and coins inside. "But this is yours and Mr. Jim's. You found my mom."
"And we found a lot of other people, too. If you hadn't told us about your mom missing, we may never have stopped those bad people."
Although Matt still wasn't certain he should be taking his money back, he said, "Thank you, Mr. Blair."
Blair grinned. "No problem. You watch out for your mom and Ariel now."
Matt nodded somberly. "I will."
"And if you have any problems, you come see us," Jim said to the boy.
After a flurry of good-byes, the loft emptied, leaving Jim and Blair alone once more.
"That was nice of you, Sandburg," Jim commented.
Blair went into the kitchen and turned the burner on beneath the chorizo. "What's that?"
"Giving Matt his money back."
Blair shrugged. "Michelle Radke's father paid us a bonus, as well as our regular fee. Besides, Matt can use that money a lot more than we can." He canted an eyebrow in Jim's direction. "You're not ticked, are you?"
Jim snorted. "Hardly. I would've given it back to him if you hadn't."
"So much for that tough guy image, Ellison."
"Yeah, well, I never could scare you off," Jim said offhandedly.
Blair laid two place mats on the table, then faced his friend. "Oh, you were plenty scary, Jim. I was just too stubborn to let that stop me."
Jim laughed, and Blair suspected Jim would've cuffed him if he'd been close enough.
"Could you add a case of Alpo to the grocery list?" Jim suddenly asked.
The non sequitur puzzled Blair. "If you haven't noticed, Jim, we don't have a dog."
"But we do have a wolf."
Blair blinked at Jim's casual tone. "I have a wolf, a spirit wolf."
"I know. He led me to you," Jim said, affection warming his blue eyes.
Blair studied him for a long moment, then added 'Alpo-case' to the list stuck to the fridge with a magnet that read, The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.
Blair's throat tightened as reread the quote. He wondered if Helen Keller had seen spirit animals in her dark, silent world. What he and Jim shared was something that couldn't be touched or seen, but definitely was felt with the heart.
"Are you all right, Chief?" Jim asked, clasping the younger man's shoulder.
Blair turned to find Jim standing behind him. The concern and caring in his sentinel and best friend's blue eyes made his throat tighten. He laid a hand on Jim's, which still rested on his shoulder.
"Fine, Jim." Blair smiled, and for the first time in days his smile was genuine. "Just fine."
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