Sentry Duty 8 (2004)
K Hanna Korossy
It was strange, riding with someone again.
Detective Jim Ellison glanced to his right, at his long-haired, hyperactive passenger. Okay, so maybe it was who he was riding with that was strange. Blair Sandburg would have been about the last person Ellison would have pegged as a possible friend or colleague, let alone a roommate and a ride-along. Besides the appearance, there was the age difference, the complete opposite personality and interests, and, at least Jim had thought, maturity level.
But Sandburg had surprised him. He was good with both people and paperwork, a combination rare in the department. He didn't obey orders worth squat, but he did so out of curiosity and a desire to help, not some macho trip, which Jim had to admit was a refreshing change from the usual rookies. He had helped, too, in some pretty hairy situations just in the two months since they'd met, showing a lot more guts than even many veterans Jim knew. And he'd made considerable progress with controlling Jim's senses, which had been what had brought the two of them together in the first place. Sandburg wouldn't be in his life indefinitely, just until the senses thing was under control, but until then, this whole arrangement wasn't as bad as Jim had feared. In fact, besides the... weirdness of having someone with him on the job, it really wasn't bad at all.
It also made the routineness of a day like that one a little more bearable, of riding around doing the boring legwork of the job. They had a list of people to talk to in connection with different cases, tedious but necessary work, a lot less so with company. This was the time he really could relate to the kid, when they weren't in his world of law enforcement or Sandburg's bizarre world of science, but on the neutral ground of two guys shooting the breeze.
"So, what do you think about this contract they gave Wallace?"
Sandburg visibly brightened at the switch from whatever train of thought he'd been on. "It's sweet, man. Guy not only gets to play for a living, but he earns about fifty times what I do doing it, too."
"Yeah, well, you learn to score points like he does and maybe the Jags'll make you an offer." Jim grinned as he turned a corner smoothly.
"I wish." An automatic tuck of the hair behind his ears. How could someone live with hair that long, Jim never ceased to wonder. It would have driven him crazy. Sandburg continued, unaware of Jim's tangent. "The great thing about it is, it keeps him here in Cascade. I mean, Orvelle's the heart and soul of the Jags. If he'd have left for the Bulls, basketball would never have been the same here again."
Jim opened his mouth to respond when his eyes caught the woman down the street, waving to them. His eyebrow went up. His police lights weren't really obvious and the truck was unmarked, but maybe she'd recognized the police antenna? Whatever it was, a citizen in need of help was always a priority. Jim nodded to her.
"Looks like we've got a little detour here, Chief." He was already pulling to the side of the residential street.
The woman looked careworn, like someone to whom life had not been kind, her clothes faded, her bearing timid. A victim, Jim thought automatically, whether of a person or a hard life.
He rolled down his window. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Are you a police officer, sir?"
Clearly she'd already guessed, but he obligingly pulled out his ID and flipped it open for her. "Detective Ellison, Major Crimes."
"Oh." Her uncertainty increased. "Well, I don't want to bother you, Detective."
"Not a bother, ma'am," he said with forced patience. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I think there's someone in my back yard."
Jim stopped the truck, hearing Sandburg stir behind him as he got out. He didn't look over, his attention now divided between the woman and the neglected little house behind her.
"You live alone, Ms.--?"
"English. Mrs. Evelyn English. Yes, I just got divorced -- my husband left, so I live alone now."
"Was it an amicable divorce?" Jim asked distractedly, stretching out his hearing as he spoke. There were too many noises from the street behind him, the trees and bushes surrounding them, for him to fine-tune that closely.
It took a moment to realize an answer hadn't been immediately forthcoming. He glanced at Mrs. English again. Her eyes were downcast, which was probably answer enough, but she said a quiet, "No."
"Why don't you wait here with my associate, Mrs. English," he said with some attempt at being soothing, his gun already in his hand, watching the house. Bad divorce, living alone again -- the woman was probably just jittery, but you could never assume. And the whole yard was ringed with bushes; it wouldn't have been hard for someone to sneak around unnoticed from the street. Although what they thought they could steal from a dilapidated little house like this, Jim couldn't imagine.
Sandburg, as he'd already guessed, had gotten out after him and rounded the truck, and now stepped forward to take Mrs. English in hand, his voice low and calming. Sandburg had always been better at the touchy-feely stuff than Jim, which was fine with the detective. It was part of the job he had never enjoyed very much and had no problem leaving to the anthropologist. He had his own task before him.
"Just sort out the other sounds, Jim, focus on what doesn't belong," came the soft instruction behind him. He didn't acknowledge it, the coaching already almost automatic. With both the civilians accounted for, Jim just tuned them out and slunk forward to the side and then back of the house.
The back yard was even more rundown than the front, tangled shrubbery almost indistinguishable from the weeds and several short saplings. A small section near the peeling back door had been cleared, as if someone had finally mustered the effort and started to fight back against encroaching nature, but the job was a big one and obviously had a long way to go. Maybe Mrs. English's fresh start after her divorce? It wouldn't be the first time Jim would have seen something like that. He himself had cleaned out the spare room and repainted the whole loft after Carolyn had left.
But that wasn't relevant now. Trying to listen for sounds and watch for movements that didn't belong, Jim cautiously extended his senses.
The overgrown garden was very alive. Crickets rustled through the thick underbrush. Birds twitted and flapped in the upper layers. There was the slide of some small garden snake through the grass, and a family of small animals in the far corner. But no sounds nearby Jim could hear that shouldn't have been there, no strong, slow heartbeat of a human.
He didn't quite trust his senses, though. Gun raised and at ready, Jim slowly waded into the greenery.
But he had no success, besides scaring the birds into flight and the crickets into silence. No one lurking in the bushes, nothing that didn't belong in that mini-jungle. Jim lowered his gun slowly as he made it to the other end of the yard and peered down the row of wild bushes that edged the side of the yard all the way to the street. And caught a flash of movement, an unnatural shade of blue...
Apparently he hadn't tuned out Sandburg and the woman completely, because the suddenly racing heartbeat of the anthropologist began to resound in his head like an alarm. Jim raced down along the side of the house, back into the front yard, gun already seeking a target.
He didn't have to look far.
Mrs. English was already dying. There was still some small movement in the thin body, but Jim knew without looking at her empty eyes it was too late. There was too much blood pooled around her, the severed arteries of her throat already hardly pumping. At least it had been a quick death. She stopped moving even as Jim did, only ten or so feet separating him from Sandburg and the man who stood behind him, his bloody knife at the observer's throat.
Jim's eyes didn't even flicker. "Police. Let him go," he announced harshly.
The man, about as short as Blair but a little more muscular, his dark hair balding and his eyes wide-set and cold, stood his ground, his knife pressing hard enough to indent the skin of Sandburg's neck. "No," was all he said.
As for Sandburg, he was frozen, his usually active hands stiff at his sides, his lively eyes riveted on Jim. Ellison refused to meet them -- it was a good way to get yourself and your vic killed, empathizing too much with them. Only his pounding heartbeat rang on in Jim's head, a constant reminder of how scared he was and how serious the situation was. Funny, Jim didn't hear the bad guy's heartbeat at all.
"This is a no-win situation, buddy. Let him go and we'll talk."
"I killed Evie. You think I don't know I'm cooked?"
Evie. He'd known her. Jim would have bet a week's pay he had the infamous Mr. English standing in front of him. Which was bad; common everyday prowlers usually didn't mean harm and were quicker to give up when they got in over their heads. Mr. English had probably come there to kill his wife, which meant he'd already been prepared to murder and would have nothing left to lose. Maybe he would have already killed Blair if Jim hadn't gotten there on time, or maybe this was a variable he hadn't planned on and wasn't sure what to do with, but whatever the case, the man was dangerous.
Sandburg gulped, the swallow barely squeezing past the knife at his throat. His heart was hammering dangerously fast, and Jim did glance at him long enough to see his eyes kept flitting to the still body of Mrs. English. Not exactly a calming sight. And he probably hadn't even thought yet of the risks of being cut with a bloody knife. There would be blood tests for both the body and him, a lot of waiting, an additional trauma. Jim's lips thinned. This had to end and soon.
"Okay, Mr. English, what do you want?"
If his use of the man's name surprised him, English didn't show it. He shifted his position, jerking Sandburg with him. "I wanna get out of here."
"How?" Jim asked practically. He hadn't budged an inch, his weapon trained on English's face. He could probably take the shot, but it was always that slim percentage of unknown that was the problem.
"You let us go, I release him a few blocks away."
A black-and-white, probably sent as backup when he'd called in the citizen stop, rolled to the curb behind the truck, two officers climbing out silently and staying low. Jim approved, glad to know he wasn't alone now. English wasn't going anywhere, no matter what.
Now he just had to get Sandburg out alive.
"How about you release him and we don't shoot you?" Jim countered calmly.
A laugh, straight out of the borderline crazies book. "I don't think so. If I go, so does he." He twisted the knife, forcing Sandburg's chin higher, pressed back against English's shoulder. It made his gaze harder to miss, and Jim sent him a silent reassuring glance. The kid's heartbeat eased a fraction.
"You hurt him and you're not gonna be around to regret it," Jim said, well aware this was going nowhere, not even really a negotiation. It was just a waiting game: tire out the bad guy, keep him talking so he isn't acting, killing. That wicked knife, long and sharp and still dripping blood, was way too close to Sandburg's jugular.
Jim had watched a throat cut before -- it was an ugly sight. Arteries spurted, sometimes several feet. There were a few moments of awareness before death, of horror as the victim knew he was about to die and there was nothing that could stop it, every bit of that knowledge spelled out in his eyes and expressions. It had to be painful, too, that kind of damage. Ellison wouldn't have wanted anyone to go through that except for maybe a few choice enemies, one or two of whom had, at his hands.
But Sandburg... The kid could be annoying, but he was young and God knew he was trying. Jim wasn't always easy to live with and he knew it, yet the kid had stuck around and helped him. He got his blasted paper in exchange, yeah, but he was also supposed to get Ellison's protection. Yet there he was, a knife at his throat, held by somebody who looked like he was already dead inside, and a body at his feet whom he'd watched be murdered. It was a failure on Jim's part, one he couldn't help but think would also cost him even more dearly if those senses of his were left unguided.
His jaw firmed. No way was he letting Sandburg die, not here on his watch, not now.
"Give it up, English. Evie was your target, right? She's dead. No point in killing anyone else." It was cold, yeah, and the bleeding-heart kid would probably give him grief about it, but you had to think like the dirtball if you wanted to stop him.
His words did seem to make the suspect think. English paused, hand loosening a fraction. Jim's finger tightened minutely on the trigger. Talking the guy down was always the best option, but Jim wouldn't hesitate to kill him at a vulnerable point if that was what was needed.
Sandburg's lips were moving. It took Jim a moment to realize, as the world had almost narrowed down to him and English. Blair couldn't get enough air through his pinned throat to really talk, but a breath of sound reached the Sentinel's ears.
Predict? What was he, some kind of psychic? Jim frowned, staring hard at Blair, then at English. Narrowing his senses onto the man, he finally picked up the hard heartbeat, the quickened breathing. And heard both hitch as English's eyes narrowed the slightest bit, his hand starting to tighten.
He'd made up his mind and was going for the kill.
Jim squeezed the trigger, saw the bloom of red just before English fell backward, nearly taking Sandburg with him. The knife fell out of his spasming hands to harmlessly hit the grass.
The uniformed officers, waiting out of sight on the sidewalk for Jim's cue, took it now, converging on the dead suspect, their guns at the ready just in case. One quickly went for backup, the other bent down to make sure English was dead. He was. Jim had heard the death rattle.
Which made Sandburg his new priority. The kid was just standing there, splattered with blood, shaking like a leaf in the fall wind, staring at Mrs. English's body. His skin was blanched, the smell of the sweat that dampened his hair discernible even from that distance -- he had to be soaked with it. Of course, the fact he'd managed not to wet his pants was in itself an accomplishment. Some cops had done so in less extreme conditions.
Jim tucked his weapon away as he crossed the feet separating him from the grad student, ducking his head to see the kid's. "Chief? You okay?"
The tremors grew until he wasn't sure how the guy was still on his feet. Jim took one of his arms firmly and led him over to the truck, opening the door and plunking Sandburg down on the edge of the passenger-side floor. Blair wrapped his arms around himself, looking cold, on the edge of hyperventilation.
"Deep breaths, Sandburg."
He groaned. "I think I'm gonna be sick."
Jim unceremoniously pushed Blair's head down between his legs. "Deep breaths, Junior," he repeated, absently massaging the back of the kid's neck. "Try to relax." One of the officers handed him a handkerchief as he walked by, and Jim crouched briefly to wipe the worst of the blood off Blair's unresponsive face, then stood and resumed his vigil.
A long minute passed before one of the officers beckoned him over. Blair no longer sounded like he was going to pass out, and Jim sat him up and looked him over before moving off to answer a few questions. There was already a detective on the scene, too, Henri Brown, who apologetically claimed Jim's gun.
"I need a statement from you, too, man," he added, looking a little embarrassed.
Jim didn't know why he should be; Henri was doing his job just as Jim had been. And it was a righteous shoot, the uniforms and Sandburg's statement would back him on that, as one of the uniforms had already confirmed. He clapped Brown on the shoulder.
"Let me get Sandburg home, first, huh? The whole thing kinda shook him up -- he needs to take it easy for a while." And not be in Jim's hair when he was only on half-thrusters.
Brown nodded. "Sure. I'm gonna need a statement from him, too, though, today."
"We'll get it later. See you at the station in an hour, H."
"Yeah, man." Henri waved him off as Jim returned to the truck.
"Ready to go, Chief?"
He still looked glassy and gray, but Sandburg nodded quickly enough. "I think I just wanna go home now, okay?"
"Just what I had in mind." Jim helped him up with a hand under his elbow, made sure he was settled, then went around to his own side.
It was a quiet trip. Massive shudders still ran through the grad student at random moments, but otherwise he sat huddled and silent in the seat, his hands clenched together, one foot tapping the only sign of movement. That was interesting. Jim was pretty good at reading people and could usually tell Sandburg was anxious by his roommate's speeding up, words rolling out of him at breakneck speed, movements on fast-forward. He had to be tense after what had just happened, and yet, besides that manic foot, he was still, withdrawn. Maybe tension wasn't the right word. Maybe this was Blair in shock, still trying to process what had happened. Jim usually liked silence; he still wasn't used to a companion, let alone one who usually talked so much. But this wasn't healthy, either.
"You okay, Sandburg?"
He got a mute, jerky nod. Really reassuring.
"I'm gonna drop you off at the loft and go back to the station for a few hours. Call me if you need anything."
Another nod. Sandburg wasn't even looking at him, staring blankly at the glove compartment. His life had been at risk at the wrong end of Veronica Sarris' gun, then when Kincaid had taken him on what was probably supposed to have been a one-way helicopter trip, but Blair had seemed to almost get off on the excitement and danger, going into hyperdrive each time after. Ellison had actually been worried for a while he had an adrenaline junkie on his hands, a definite danger in their line of work, before realizing the kid was just excitable. Very excitable.
Where was that Sandburg now?
"Don't worry about dinner," Jim added, a little more uncertain. "I'll pick up something on the way home."
He didn't even get a nod this time.
They were turning onto Prospect already. Now or never if he wanted to get some sort of response that wouldn't make him feel he was leaving unattended the walking wounded. "How 'bout a movie tonight after dinner? I'll even let you pick."
It wasn't exactly energetic, but it was an improvement. Jim relaxed.
They were pulling up then in front of the loft and Blair reached for the door latch with an unsteady hand.
"You did good, Sandburg. You did everything right."
There was a pause, a slight hesitation, and Jim had the sudden sense it was the first thing he'd said that had really gotten through. "Evelyn English still died," Blair said quietly, his voice also not quite even.
"You didn't. That's what matters."
A pause, then Blair got out of the car without another word. Jim watched with a frown as he trudged into the building, then extended his hearing to follow the footsteps upstairs -- no elevator, even though Sandburg sounded like he could have used it -- then a long fumbling with the door lock before he went into the loft. Jim kept eavesdropping through the dropping of keys and shedding of clothes... and then the rush to the bathroom as Sandburg finally was sick.
Making a face, Jim turned the truck around with one hard pull and took off back to work.
It was never a normal day of work after a shooting. There was I.A. to visit and talk to, an inch of paperwork to complete, Simon to fill in, the department shrink to convince you were fine, and then you were on paid suspension until you were cleared of wrongdoing and okayed to work again. Jim knew the drill and waded through it in record time. No one kept him late with questions; the conclusion of "justified shooting" was almost a given. Simon let him keep his backup piece and his badge and, after checking to make sure Jim was fine, sent him home.
It was good to work someplace he could finally respect, and that respected him. The Army had bent over backwards to alienate him, and Vice hadn't been much of a fit for the angry vet Jim was upon his return. But Major Crimes was home now, with fellow detectives who'd nodded in respect and sympathy after a day like that one, not in condemnation. Despite the death of Mrs. English and the threat against Sandburg, Jim was almost in a good mood as he pulled into a spot in front of the loft.
He took the stairs two at a time, also eschewing the slow, rickety elevator that day, and pulled his keys out of his pocket as he reached the hallway. There were soft sounds of movement inside he could make out without trying that hard, Sandburg apparently busy doing something. That was good -- Jim had been dreading coming home to the zombie who'd sat stiffly in his truck that morning. If Sandburg was active again, he must have snapped out of his shock, back to normal.
Or whatever passed for normal with Sandburg. Jim smiled minutely at the thought as he let himself into the loft.
Which was... clean.
It was all Jim could muster for a moment. He kept a tidy home, Sentinel senses not tolerating well the build-up of dust or the dirt in the corners only he could see. But this was beyond even his obsessive powers of cleaning. The kitchen sparkled like a display model, every counter and fixture and appliance scrubbed clean. The floor was waxed, both there and in the living room, where furniture was precisely placed and pristine in appearance, as if straight out of the store. The coffee table, usually piled high with Blair's school papers and Jim's magazines, was shockingly empty, only two Sports Illustrateds remaining. Neatly parallel to the edge of the table, of course. There wasn't an iota of dust anywhere Jim could stretch his vision to see, and the smell of pine cleaner and Windex were heavy in the air.
The sounds of movement came from the bathroom, and, baffled, Jim headed that way, wondering what sort of being had possessed his roommate that would turn him from a slob to a neat-freak within hours. Maybe if he was nice to it, it would stay.
The bathroom door opened, Blair stepping out with a mop and bucket in hand. And jumping an impressive distance into the air when he suddenly saw Jim standing there.
"Jeez, give a guy a heart attack, why don't you! When did you get home?" He went around Jim, heading for the closet, where he neatly stowed the mop and bucket.
"Just now... Sandburg, what's going on?"
"I'm cleaning the loft." He was wiping his hands on -- good grief, was that actually an apron? "You're always complaining about what a mess it is."
"Yeah, but..." Jim fell momentarily speechless, eyes sweeping his home again. It was... beautiful. But, as much as he would have liked to revel in it, it was also suspicious.
"But what? You don't like it?"
Blair was, he noted, still wiping his hands, which already looked reddened. Jim's eyes narrowed fractionally in thought. "I love it. I'm just wondering what brought it on so I can make it happen again."
"Ha, ha." The sarcastic response eased his concern, as did Blair's hands finally letting go of the apron and falling back to his sides. Blair took a step closer. "Listen, Jim, about today..."
Great. Ellison swallowed a sigh as he pulled his jacket off and skirted Sandburg to hang it on its hook. "I told you, you did fine. When you've got a weapon held on you, best thing you can do is stay still, not make any sudden moves and spook the guy and get yourself hurt." The bag of takeout he'd dropped on the counter was his next target, and Jim opened it, starting to take out containers.
"I appreciate that, Jim." Sandburg moved up to the kitchen island next to him, idly sorting through the various containers of Thai food. Jim noted automatically the slightest tremor that remained in his hands, invisible to any but a Sentinel's eyes, the slightly clumsy movements, as jittery as his voice. "He-he came up on us so fast -- he cut Evelyn's throat before we even realized it, and then--"
"Sandburg." Jim stopped what he was doing, waited for Blair to fall silent. That took longer. "I'm not taking your statement. H's gonna come over and do that in about an hour. You don't have to go into it now, okay?"
"Okay. I get that." A nervous tucking of his hair behind his ears. "But I just... I keep playing it over in my head, man. One minute I'm talking to Evelyn, the next minute... she's dead, and this guy's--"
The guy he'd been trying to track down, the guy who'd gotten the slip on him and killed a civilian and threatened Blair. Not his favorite subject -- why did Sandburg have to harp on it? "I know, but it's over now," Jim said flatly, concentrating again on various boxes. Did they have to put every single dish into its own box? And then there were about five small containers of various sauces which went with God knew which dish. Maybe he should have ordered something simpler, like a Wonderburger. No confusion there. As an afterthought, he added to Sandburg, "Try not to think about it. You're safe, you're okay, you move on."
Blair wasn't moving, looking at him with one of his many unreadable expressions. The kid had a bagful of them. "But--"
"You want this green stuff or the white stuff?" The subject was closed as far Ellison was concerned. It would just push the kid back into his earlier shock and Jim didn't like the thought of that. Weirdness, talkativeness, and all, he preferred this moving, speaking version of Blair Sandburg.
It was a little soft, but he'd had a real shaking up today. Everybody deserved some slack after something like that. Jim gave him a friendly grin as he handed over the white sauce, whatever it was, then gathered the rest into a handful. Just for today, maybe they could suspend some of the house rules and eat in the living room. Sandburg had earned it with all that cleaning and after being sick and all. "You pick a movie yet?"
"You do that and I'll get drinks. Beer good?"
Okay, so the grad student didn't say another word after that, but he was probably worn out. Jim gave him his space, even going out for a walk when Brown arrived to take Blair's statement. They finished the movie after he left in equally deep silence, Jim not asking and Sandburg thankfully not offering, but Jim noticed at least the last of Blair's shakes had slowly faded away. His heartbeat still wasn't quite at its usual cadence, but sleep would probably help that. Jim didn't argue with him when Sandburg decided to turn in early, giving him a warm good-night. He deserved it.
Good mood undiminished, Jim put in another tape, an action flick instead of the drama Sandburg had chosen, and munching leftovers, mostly Blair's, TV muted so only he could hear it, settled back to watch.
Simon had wanted him in the station the next morning; I.A. verdict or not, as far as his boss was concerned, suspension was a good excuse to have Jim stay at his desk and catch up on paperwork. Jim was up at dawn doing push-ups and crunches, then sneaking down for as quiet a shower as he could manage. It sounded like his roommate was up, anyway, Blair's respiration and heartbeat faster than that of a sleeper.
Any intention of asking Sandburg to come along and give him a hand with the work, died when Jim caught sight of the younger man when he exited the bathroom, buttoning the sleeve of his shirt. He stopped, quirking an eyebrow at Blair's impersonation of the living dead.
It actually was not a question he needed to ask. Jim had not been able to help but wake more than once to the noises that came from the room downstairs, the galloping heartbeat and soft moans. The first time he'd reached for his gun before he'd realized it had to be a nightmare and would undoubtedly pass. It had, after Blair had woken with a start. For the first of four times during the course of the night. Going down would have only embarrassed the man, however, so Jim had rolled over and gone back to sleep. Maybe Sandburg hadn't been so fast to do the same.
Blair shook his head. "I kept dreaming about that stupid knife, and Evelyn English. Her face when she died..." He shuddered.
Jim grimaced. He'd had a few of those himself after various missions, a few busts gone bad. "They fade after a couple of days. Takes a little longer for the mind to unwind."
"Yeah?" Sandburg looked at him with interest. "Sounds like you've been through this a few times, too, huh?"
"More than I like to think about." Jim finished buttoning his shirt and started for the kitchen. He was starving. Early dinners always left him hungry in the morning.
"Like what?" Blair sat down at the kitchen table, starting to look more awake despite the wild hair, wrinkled t-shirt, and boxers.
Jim shook his head. "Not something I really like to think about, Sandburg." He dug out two glasses for juice, then reached for the refrigerator door.
"But... something like this has happened to you before? I mean, how do you forget seeing somebody killed like that?" The nervous hair-tucking was beginning again. "Every time I close my eyes, I see Ev--"
"There's something right there." Jim turned away from the refrigerator to point at him. "You keep calling her 'Evelyn' like she was a friend or something. That just makes it harder. She was another victim like the kind we get calls about every day all over the city."
"But I saw her die, Jim." The hands were in motion now, too. "I was standing right next to her. I saw her eyes. She knew she was--"
Jim's good mood was starting to thin, and he shut the refrigerator door, hard. He really didn't need a rehash of the woman he'd let get killed or Sandburg's nearly following her. Couldn't the kid give him a break and drop it? It was as if he wanted to torture Jim. "Just... stop," he ordered. "This is why you keep getting nightmares, Sandburg. You're letting your imagination run away with you. Evelyn English married an abusive man. He didn't want her to leave, he killed her. He threatened you, we stopped him, he's dead, you're fine, capice?"
He was surprised by the flicker of cold anger that crossed Sandburg's face. Well, victims sometimes needed someone to blame. If Sandburg wanted to make him the scapegoat, fine. The sooner he heard the truth, though, the better.
Jim turned back to the refrigerator, scanning its contents. Milk and juice. "Hey, Sandburg, you want--" He glanced up.
The room was empty, Sandburg's doors shutting softly.
Well, fine. If he wanted to brood, Jim wasn't going to force him to be nice. He had more important things to do than dwell on the gory details and might-have-beens his lapse had allowed. It was past, the bad guy was dead, Sandburg was safe, and Mrs. English finally had peace. He was sorry about that last, really, but sometimes that was the best they could wish for.
Still, all this was new to Sandburg and the anthropologist clearly wasn't taking it as well as Jim had thought. He stared hard at the doors, not allowing himself to cast his senses beyond it, acutely aware he owed his roommate at least that much privacy. Sandburg had found his tongue again, and the energy Jim was used to seeing, but somehow this still wasn't the excited hyperactivity he'd shown after previous crises. Why couldn't he just forget what happened and move on?
Unaccountably angry at the thought, Jim jammed his cap on his head and flung on his jacket. He'd grab donuts at work, where things made a little more sense than they did there in his haven, his home. He made sure he closed the door loudly on the way out, and stomped down to the truck, only relenting there as he climbed in, a little less certain.
Why was he so upset, because Sandburg hadn't wanted to have breakfast with him and kept running on? So he was still a little shaken up -- that wasn't completely unexpected and hardly merited Jim's anger. Maybe the guy just needed a little more time and space.
Subdued but no less troubled and unsure why, Jim frowned the whole drive to the station.
Paperwork was a necessary evil. And even then, Jim wasn't always sure about the "necessary" part. He understood the importance of keeping records for the system, especially if a case went to trial, but no one had yet been able to explain to him why he needed to fill out the same information on a half-dozen reports in a half-dozen ways. This was when he really missed Sandburg; the kid couldn't do his statements or incidence reports, but at least he filled in all the rote details so Jim didn't have to do that a over and over again, too. It usually made all the other redundancy bearable. With a sigh, Jim filled in the suspect's license plate number he already had memorized into yet another little red box, and wished the observer had come in with him that morning. Without the attitude.
Jim glanced up at Simon's call, but Banks was already back in his office. Great, his last name and impatience. Sounded like someone had screwed up again and Banks wasn't happy. It was the perfect backdrop to that day. Jim stood, smothering another sigh, and went to the captain's office.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" He stood in the doorway and tried not to look too hopeful it would be a quick and easy matter.
"Yeah, Jim. Come in and sit down." Simon was on the phone, but waved him in gamely enough. Maybe it wasn't as bad as he'd thought. Jim came in and sat.
Simon finished on the phone, hung up, and poured himself a cup of coffee, offering Jim the carafe. He put a hand up to decline. Almond spice didn't smell too appealing that morning.
"I.A. just called -- you're cleared for duty again. It was labeled a justified shooting." Simon pulled open a drawer and plunked Jim's gun on the desktop in front of him.
Jim grinned as he reached for it. "Thank you, sir. I'm glad to hear it."
"Never any doubt in my mind, Jim." A friendly pause. "How's Sandburg?"
He'd asked the same thing yesterday. Jim didn't know if he was genuinely worried about the grad student or just worried about the department if it got out a civilian observer had been threatened at knife-point while on a ride-along. Jim shifted in his seat. "Okay, sir."
"Yeah? Back to normal? He had quite a shake-up there."
"Uh, mostly. He's still quieter than I'm used to--"
"No complaint there." They shared a grin at that.
"--except when he's going on and on about what happened like some broken record."
Simon leaned back, a cigar in his hand. Jim hadn't even seen him take it out. "Well, that's normal, too. I don't know how many times Daryl told me about what Kincaid did to him before he finally started getting past it." His voice hardened at the mention of Kincaid, the cigar crunching slightly under his tightening fingers. Jim pulled his attention away from the pungent tobacco smell that followed, taking a deep breath.
"Well, sir, I kinda wish he'd just drop it. The last thing either of us needs to remember is how close he came to buying the farm because I didn't keep my eyes open."
Simon frowned, propping himself up on his desk. "Are you telling me you don't want him to talk about it?"
The naturalness of the question and Simon's incredulity immediately put him on the defensive. "I'm not a shrink, Simon. Sandburg's got friends if he wants to get something off his chest -- he doesn't have to tell me. I was there, remember?"
"Yeah, I do." Simon looked at him thoughtfully. "Same way I was there when that joint bust with the ATF went bad and the agent you were working with got killed. Remember her? What was her name... Alva? Enya?"
"Alba Santori," Jim said stiffly. "Is there a point to this, sir?"
Simon's voice was deceptively pleasant. "Just this, Jim. You watched her die and spent the next week sleeping on my couch, telling me over and over again how it happened. Not because I wasn't there, but because you needed to process it. I understood. I didn't enjoy it much," an ironic cant of his eyebrows, "but I understood because I was there. I doubt any of Sandburg's other friends have that kind of experience."
Jim didn't miss the usage of other, but it just made him wince. "Simon, maybe I don't want to hear it again. Once was plenty for me. If he needs to discuss it, fine, we'll set him up with the department shrink, but that doesn't mean I have to be the listening ear just because we live together."
"And ride together and he's your observer." Simon lit his cigar and gave him a long look. "Jim, let's be honest, this isn't about Sandburg, it's about you feeling like you screwed up and not wanting to be reminded of it."
"Let me finish. Maybe you could have done things better, I wasn't there, but the department doesn't hold you responsible for not having x-ray vision or being able to be in two places at once, and neither do I. It's time to go on, Jim. And your observer's going be out on his ear if he doesn't, as well. I can't let the kid ride with you if he's traumatized. So, as I see it, you have two options." He leaned forward with that Cheshire cat grin Jim hated. "One, you can ignore the problem and hope it'll go away. Maybe it will -- Sandburg's turned out to be pretty hardy -- but I wouldn't count on it. Messes like this dig pretty deep. That leaves option two: you can help the kid, and probably yourself at the same time. If nothing else, you owe it to him, Detective, but that's not why you should do it."
"Why do I have a feeling you're going to tell me why, then, sir?" Jim said mock-respectfully.
Simon smirked. He always had been immune to Jim's irritation. "Because I'm a good captain and I care about my men." That forced an amused grunt even from Jim. Banks grew serious. "Because Sandburg deserves better, Jim. And, well, don't tell him I said this, but he's a good kid. He's had a gun pointed at him a few times, been taken hostage, and even gone undercover, and he's still here. The least you can do is listen when he needs to let some of it out. Don't you think so?"
Unfortunately, he did. The logic, spelled out like that, made him uncomfortable. Jim fidgeted in the chair. "Simon... I'm not good at this fuzzy stuff, you know that. I don't know what to say..."
"Don't say anything. If I know Sandburg, he'll do enough talking for both of you. Just listen." Simon stuck his cigar into his mouth, still unlit, and sat back, looking satisfied.
"Are we done, sir?"
A little of the satisfaction faded. Simon sounded resigned. "Yes, we're done, Jim."
He stood, immediately heading for the door.
He turned unhappily.
"I thought you liked the kid?"
"I do," he said quickly, defensively.
"Then don't let your wounded pride get in the way of helping him when he needs it."
He felt the sting of the admonition. Simon only let Sandburg ride with him because Jim had vouched for the anthropologist and declared he needed him. And he did -- sometimes. The senses thing had worked a lot better since Sandburg was around, there was no question of that. For a while, Ellison did need him, or at least, he made life a lot easier.
But... once you got past the mile-a-minute mouth and the long hair, he sorta liked the kid, too. There was an earnestness and loyalty to him you found more often in dogs than in people. And he was tough, more so than Jim would have given him credit for once. He'd stared down gunman and terrorists with aplomb. And... he worried about Jim more than a mother hen. It was irritating, yeah, but it was also kinda touching in a private, never-to-be-discussed way. You had to be heartless not to like someone who was both that devoted to and trusting of you.
And who just needed for him to listen for a while, maybe offer a little understanding. That didn't seem to be asking so much. Blair Sandburg did deserve that and quite a bit more.
He nodded to Simon and shut the door, returning to his desk in the bullpen.
Jim sat for several minutes, trying to focus on the paperwork, finding his attention was elsewhere. A guilty conscience wasn't a feeling he liked. The worry he liked even less.
"Hey, Jim." Henri stopped in front of Jim's desk, hand full of papers. "How's Blair hangin' together? He did good yesterday, but he sounded pretty shaky."
Jim flinched. Okay, okay, there was only so many times he needed to be hit over the head with something before he got it.
"He's gonna be fine, H," he said as he stood, collecting a pile of work. "Just fine. Hey, tell Simon I'm taking off early and working from home, huh? He'll know why."
Brown nodded at him, and Jim left, heading for home and unfamiliar territory.
More soft sounds of movement greeted his ear as he approached the loft door, and Jim rolled his eyes. Surely the kid wasn't cleaning again. He was going to scrub the varnish off the wood if he kept at it much longer. Jim turned the key in the lock and stepped inside.
And his jaw dropped.
Whereas the day before had been picture-perfect, this time the loft looked like the aftermath of a roust. Papers sat everywhere, in neat stacks but blanketing every available horizontal space in the room. Including the floor around the doorway, effectively painting Jim into the corner by the door.
Blair Sandburg sat on the couch in the middle of the disaster area, like the eye of the storm, hands full of paper and in deep concentration.
Jim sputtered for a minute before he found his voice. "Sandburg, what..."
The grad student's head snapped up, startled. He almost looked like he lost color at the sight of Jim, and he tried to say something until he realized there was a pen in his mouth. He quickly took it out.
"Uh, Jim, hi. I didn't expect you so soon."
"I can see that." He was afraid to put his files down, not knowing if he'd ever find them again. "Sandburg, what is this?"
"Uh, just some organizing. I thought I'd go through all my notes, put them in some kind of order. I'll have it out of here in a few hours, I promise. Uh, if that's okay?"
His brain was finally kicking into gear. Organizing -- Sandburg? Same compulsion, different expression. Jim wiped his frown away with effort. "Have you been at this all day?"
"Not really." Blair's eyes were back on the papers. "I went over to school this morning to talk to someone, but... I got back around noon. I didn't expect you back until this evening. I.A. send you home?" he asked earnestly, looking up again. Worried for Jim.
He'd gone to school to talk to someone. Blair had said it almost as an aside, but Jim was paying attention now and had an uncomfortable feeling he knew what Sandburg had tried to talk about, and what had happened. Few people were ready to hear about what it was like to watch a woman's throat cut in front of your eyes.
He cleared his throat, looking at the young observer who sat staring at him, his hands nervously working the pen in his lap, occasionally straying up to brush his hair back into place. His heartbeat thumped slightly too fast in Jim's ear. Glancing toward the kitchen, he saw the two glasses he'd taken out were now gone, and the dryer rack by the sink sat empty. Jim would have laid good odds his roommate had skipped breakfast and probably lunch as well. So, it was his pride and comfort level, or the kid's well-being. Simon had been blunt, but that was what it came down to, didn't it?
It was a choice he would have resented once. Now, it was frighteningly easy.
Jim deliberately reached out and shoved three piles of papers on the kitchen counter into one, setting his files in the cleared space. His jacket and keys came next, going in their usual places, and then he headed for the couch, silently collecting papers as he went, clearing himself a trail.
Blair gaped for a moment like a fish, but didn't say a word. Probably realizing it was the detective's home, after all, and that he deserved a chewing out for making it practically impregnable. It was a lecture Jim Ellison had no heart for, however, as he reached the couch and sat the accumulated papers onto the coffee table. Papers he'd caught the word Sentinel on repeatedly. He almost shook his head. As he recalled, he'd cleaned out Simon's tool shed in that week he'd stayed at the Banks home, replaying Alba's murder in his head over and over, making a worse mess than Sandburg had, before he'd made it better. Simon had been amazingly tolerant of him then, come to think of it. Apparently it was what you did for someone you cared about.
Jim made a face, smoothing it out as he saw Sandburg wince at it. Okay, yeah, so he cared enough to keep his roommate and observer from being a basket case. It wasn't exactly a promise of marriage. But... it was the least he could do. He glanced at Blair's drawn face. That, the kid deserved, and Jim owed.
That, he could and wanted to do.
Jim sat at the other end of the couch. "Sandburg..." He hesitated. Maybe he was supposed to just listen, but it still meant offering some kind of invitation. How did people do this? Jim squirmed in place, Blair watching him with rapt attention.
Maybe just whatever seemed right?
"Look, I know what happened yesterday was... hard. It never gets easy seeing somebody killed in front of your eyes, especially an innocent. It feels like you've... failed somehow, like it's your fault, even if there wasn't anything you could do about it."
He paused waiting for Sandburg to jump in, disappointed when all he got was a cautious, "Yeah." Well, hadn't he just spent the last day telling the kid to shut up? Jim leaned in, tried again.
"I've been there a few times, too. You keep seeing it happening at first, but it gets better."
"Yeah?" A little less wary this time, but Blair wasn't exactly running with the ball like Simon had said. Jim wasn't supposed to be the one opening up.
Then again, the kid's hands had gone still, his expression unsuccessfully trying not to be hopeful. It was... good to see. Jim's tongue seemed to loosen. "Yeah. The faces stick in your mind, especially the eyes."
"Evie knew she was dead."
It was a whispered admission, both afraid of the memory and of Jim's reaction to it. He didn't say anything, just offered what he hoped was an inviting look. It actually wasn't as hard as he'd expected.
"The minute she saw Scott -- that was her ex -- she knew, before she even saw the knife. I didn't see the knife, either, until he already had it at her throat. Jim, he didn't even hesitate, like he was just, I don't know, opening a door or mailing a letter or something. I don't think the guy was human." Some of the nervous energy was back, but it was punctuating his words, the anguished glitter in his eyes, not just aimless motion.
"They're not, Sandburg. They're animals."
"But she had to have seen something in him once. She told me they'd been married eight years. Eight years, Jim. And he kills her just like that." He had his arms wrapped around himself, an effort to keep himself together while the words flooded out of him. "She was just starting to live again, man. And it's over before I could even say anything to her..."
And Sandburg kept talking as Jim listened, more than polite interest now. How could you not value the baring of another man's soul?
He ended up making a fire while Blair talked, trying to get rid of some of the shivers that had returned, then cleaned up the papers scattered around the room, made dinner, poured beer. Mostly he just sat and listened and offered the stray comment. And when Sandburg finally wound down sometime long after sunset, half drunk and completely exhausted, Jim pointed him to bed and pulled the covers over him. He looked ragged, but more at peace, too.
It wasn't, by any means, his favorite way to spend an evening. Jim gave the kitchen and the living room a good cleaning himself as his own thoughts sorted themselves out. It was one of the reasons he and Carolyn hadn't worked, because she'd wanted to talk more than he'd been willing to listen or reciprocate. But Jim needed this partnership to work, for however long it would last. If that meant a few evenings of soul-purging, he could live with that.
Deep down, there was a twinge of feeling it was more than that, that the observer meant something to him and Jim worried about him and wanted him to be okay, and that there was some sort of protective imperative at work, too, something more than being a cop, that he didn't quite understand.
But that was deep down and easy to ignore. For now, what mattered was things would be okay again, soon back to normal, Blair riding with him once more. It was, Jim considered with a not unpleasant start, something he was looking forward to.
Jim stood in the doorway of the spare room -- Sandburg's room -- and watched the battered figure twist and turn in the bed. Despite the fact there was still some chloroform and that drug Lash had forced into him in Blair's system, he wasn't sleeping easily. Not a surprise, considering what he'd been through the last 24 hours. He'd been nearly hysterical when Jim had gotten him out of that damnable dentist's chair and those chains, calming down only when Jim held on to him, talked to him, kept repeating he was all right. It was what you were supposed to do for a traumatized victim, but it worked in a way Jim hadn't seen before, as if Sandburg had felt Jim's own relief.
He'd tried to calm the kid down after the hospital had let them go home, making him some tea, watching TV with him. Blair had only been half-awake, fuzzy from the drugs, but too wound up to lie down. Jim had finally herded him to bed, then spent the next few hours waking him from repeated, apparently vicious nightmares.
One was building again as he watched, and Jim stepped inside the room, reluctantly giving Blair's shoulder a shake. "Sandburg, wake up. It's only a dream."
A dream that the man snapped out of with wide eyes, a racing heart, and sweat-soaked clothes. He stared wildly at Jim for a moment before recognition took over and he could match the detective's half-smile. "Again, huh? You're not gonna get much sleep this way, Jim."
Yeah, like either of them were at this rate. Jim sat down in the one chair in the room, and crossed his arms, doing his best to look imposing. Safe. "You ready to tell me now what happened?"
Sandburg had given a groggy statement at the scene before Simon conceded that letting him get checked out and get some sleep were more important than the report. Since then, he hadn't been aware enough to put two coherent words together. This was the most lucid Jim had seen him since he'd gotten to Lash's little game room, and now was as good a time as any.
If he'd learned any lesson in the last month of their being together, it was that Blair functioned better if he talked. And Jim needed him functioning, for more reasons than he was prepared to go into. If Sandburg needed something, if it was at all in his power, Ellison would see he got it. Simple as that.
And so as Blair curled up and began to talk in halting tones, Jim made himself comfortable and sat back to listen.
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