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!


Fidus Amicus

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?"

"After seven."

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.

"Hey, mister."

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?"

"Rip It."

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?"

"Long Island."

"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."

"Gee, thanks."

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?"

"Blair Sandburg."

"So you know Ally's son?"

"That's right."

"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?"

"Seven twenty."

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."

"The club?"

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.

"Social Services."

"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.

Jim shrugged.

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?"

"Billy Rhodes."

"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's missing?"

"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."

"Good-night, Jim."

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."

"See ya."

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.

"Good. Busy."

"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?"

"I knew."

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."

Jim snorted.

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."

"How did--"

"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."

"Cops' intuition?"

"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."

"Sounds good."

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.

"Hi, Captain."

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?"

"Natalie Rogers."

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.

Part Two