He pulled the rusty old truck into the small gravel parking lot of the country store. He had avoided seeing anyone for almost three months now, but his supplies were low and he needed to restock. Entering the store he nodded at the clerk and grabbed a yellow plastic basket to hold his purchases. First he would get some fresh produce, then he would grab some canned goods.
Moving toward the rear of the grocery, he reached the small produce section. He picked up a Macintosh apple and sniffed it appreciatively. The smell of tartness, of sweetness, seemed to pull him in. The rest of the world began to disappear into a foggy haze.
"Mister! Mister! You okay?"
Someone was shaking his shoulder and yelling in his ear. He shook his head, blinking as the store came back into his awareness. The tall, lanky man who had been behind the counter was peering at him anxiously.
"Uh, yeah, I'm fine, thanks." He pulled away and set the apple in his basket, then headed toward the coolers in the rear, trying to get away from the curious man. The clerk watched him, puzzlement clear in his wary eyes.
Moments before, the world had disappeared; now it was coming at him too intensely. The smells from the bread and vegetables and fruit and meat and cleaning supplies and dust and the clerk's body scent and his own were too strong. The fluorescent cooler lights that had seemed normal were now too bright, glinting off the bottles and cans in the cooler and the metal display racks, multiplying into a thousand shards of light, hurting his eyes. The handles of the basket suddenly seemed to dig into his hand, and his clothes rubbed against his skin like sandpaper.
Dropping the basket, he covered his eyes and staggered toward the front of the store. He made his way outside and risked a look around only to be blinded by the sunshine. He climbed into his vehicle, resting his arms and head on the steering wheel, struggling to gain control over his out-of-control senses.
Suddenly he sat up straight, staring at nothing, the intense sensory input ignored, then forgotten as he realized what was happening. Panic welled up in him, but he grabbed fiercely onto years of experience coping with panic-inducing situations. He forced it down, forced himself to consider options, and came up with a possible solution. His mind made up, he shoved the ignition key into the slot and started the engine. He backed the battered truck up, then turned onto the road, spraying gravel as he sped from the lot and headed toward Cascade.
Jim Ellison's loft
"Okay, now, focus your attention, let the intensity fade. . . . more. Good, good. That's good, Jim. Keep lowering the intensity until it's at a comfortable level."
Jim Ellison opened his eyes and grinned at his guide. "It worked!"
"Yes!" Blair Sandburg pumped his fist in the air and straightened up, dancing a little victory jig in front of Jim's chair. "I knew it would, Jim!"
The sentinel leaned back and smiled at his friend's antics. Blair had been working with him for several days to help him find a way to focus on highly intense stimuli without the magnitude of input causing either a zone out or a sensory spike. They had finally developed a variation on "piggybacking" his senses that helped Jim balance the intense stimulus with another, milder stimulus.
The phone rang. "I'll get it, Jim." Blair bounced over and answered it. "Hello? Sure, just a minute." He turned to Jim, one hand over the receiver. "Jim? For you. A woman." He smirked at his friend, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
Jim shook his head. Taking the phone from Blair, he aimed a playful swat at his head, which Blair easily ducked from long practice. "Ellison," the detective said into the phone.
"Hello, Detective Ellison. My name is Digby Essex." The sultry voice paused, as if the name should mean something to Jim.
"Yes?" Jim said impatiently. Blair rolled his eyes at Jim's lack of finesse with the mysterious female caller. The detective ignored him.
There was another pause. Then the seductive voice continued. "I have spoken with your superiors, Detective, and they assure me that I can spend some time with you."
Jim stared at the receiver for a moment, as if it had suddenly grown horns and a tail. "Uh, ma'am? Who are you? What are you--"
"Why, Detective, you don't know who I am?" A vaguely irritating, tinkling laugh sounded through the phone's receiver. "I am Digby Essex, of Essex Corporation?" When he did not respond, she sighed, and continued. "I am a great admirer of yours, Detective. I really wanted to meet you. So I spoke to the mayor and she spoke to your captain, who graciously agreed to let me spend time with you. I will be riding with you as you valiantly defend the helpless citizens of Cascade. We can. . . get to know each other better." The voice was husky as she finished her news.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Jim didn't even try to hide his irritation.
"I most certainly am not. You'll be my guide through the dangerous streets of Cascade and I'm--"
Whatever the woman had been about to say was lost as Jim hung up the phone.
"What was that about?" asked Blair, curiosity dancing in his eyes.
"I'm not sure just yet," the sentinel answered, dialing his captain's home number.
"Simon. What the hell is this about a ride-along?" Jim demanded to know.
"Real tactful, big guy," whispered Blair. Jim ignored him.
"Ellison. Do you realize how rude, not to mention foolish, it is to call your superior at his home and yell at him?" Simon questioned, with a definite hint of anger in his voice.
"Sorry, Captain." Jim shushed Blair with a glare when the anthropologist snickered at the chagrined detective. "I just received a phone call from some woman claiming she'd be riding with me."
"She called you already? Doesn't waste any time, does she?" Jim could hear the other man sigh across the phone line even without using his heightened senses. "I hate to do this to you, Jim, but I have no choice."
"Come on, Simon." Jim closed his eyes, imploring his captain to understand.
Blair laughed at the pleading tone in the detective's voice. Jim's eyes snapped open and he glared at him again, with the same level of success.
"Orders came straight from the mayor." Simon sighed. "God I hate election years. She'll be riding with you for a week. I tried to tell them it was a bad idea, but I was overruled. You should be grateful," Simon continued. "She requested a month's pass."
"I don't like it," Jim said darkly.
"I don't much care; you will do it."
After a couple more minutes of grumbling, to no avail, Jim said good-bye and they hung up.
"Well?" asked Blair.
"I'm stuck with this woman for a week."
"Could be worse."
"I'm sure it will be. But at least you'll be there, Chief."
"Sorry, man, no can do. I'm way too busy at Rainier. You'll have to tame this lion on your own."
The sentinel's argument was cut off as the phone rang again. "Ellison." If anything, his voice was even sharper than usual.
"Detective," purred Digby. "How rude of you to hang up on me."
"Yeah, uh, sorry. I guess it's all set for you to come with me tomorrow."
"Wonderful. I just knew we could work this all out. What time should I be there?"
"How about you meet me at the station at 8:00 a.m."
"Eight in the morning? Well, I'll try, but seriously, don't expect me too much before nine."
"If you're not there when I need to leave, you'll have to wait at the station. So, I'll see you at 8:00 tomorrow morning, or when I get back," he said and hung up on her again.
"Now, that's not nice, Jim. What if she's hot?" Blair asked, his expression one of carefully schooled innocence.
"I'll choose to think with this head," Jim returned, tapping the side of his skull. "Unlike some other people, who shall remain nameless."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Very funny. You should tour the comedy clubs with that act."
The next morning, Blair decided to make breakfast for his sentinel, as a consolation for not accompanying him to the station to deal with his new "partner." He trotted up the stairs to his partner's loft and started to rummage through Jim's refrigerator.
By the time Jim had finished showering and dressing, scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee were waiting on the table.
"Morning, Chief. What's the occasion?"
"Hey, Jim. Thought I'd give you a good send-off, with your new ride-along and all."
Ellison gave him a lopsided grimace, but the smell of coffee pulled his attention to the table and he ignored the comment. The two men sat in their customary chairs. For a few minutes there was a companionable silence as they poured coffee, dished up their food, and began eating.
"Jealous, Chief?" Jim finally said.
"Huh? Jealous?" Blair looked slightly startled.
"Yeah, of your replacement." Jim had a wicked gleam in his eye as he watched his partner.
"Replacement. Right." He rolled his eyes. "That'll be the day."
Jim laughed. "No insecurities there, huh?"
"Well, not based on your reactions on the phone last night. Who did you say this person was, anyway?"
Jim finished chewing his bite of toast and took a swallow of coffee. Setting down the cup and wiping his mouth, he said, "I don't remember. . . . Dexter Wigby, something like that. Some bigwig. With Essex Corporation, I think she said."
"Dexter Wigby? Wait a minute, you don't mean Digby Essex, do you?" Blair gaped at the sentinel.
"Yeah, maybe that was it. Why?"
"I can't believe it, man. You mean you've never heard of her? Digby Essex is, like, one of the richest women in Oregon. Her father's company is responsible for some of the worst environmental devastation of the Pacific Northwest. My mom has been involved in protests against Essex Corp--"
"Come on, Chief, so her company has cut down some trees or something--"
"No, Jim, it's a lot more than that!"
"Whoa, hold on, Einstein, I believe you, okay? I don't want to be with her any more than you want me to be, all right? I don't have any choice here."
Blair took a deep breath. "Yeah, I know. Sorry, man. It just makes me so mad to think of what her father's company has done."
Jim stood and began clearing the table. "Well, I'll try to keep her away from you. Wouldn't want any political conflicts causing Simon headaches, would we?" He grinned.
"Oh, no, never, wouldn't want that. Although this would be a great opportunity for me to meet her, give her a piece of my mind. . . . " Blair joined Jim in the kitchen. They scraped the plates and began washing the dishes.
"I don't think you could afford to lose any at this point."
Blair looked at him blankly.
"To lose any pieces of your mind."
Blair pointedly ignored the comment. He grabbed a cloth and wiped the table off.
After the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, Jim took his weapon from its storage space, checked it, and slid it into the Galco holster at the small of his back. "Thanks for making breakfast, Chief."
"My pleasure, Jim. And remember," he tried to look stern, "You play nice with the other kiddies."
"Hilarious, Sandburg. You're killing me here."
After saying their goodbyes, Blair headed back down to his apartment to get ready for the day.
Jim left the safety of his loft and drove to work, dreading the agony he knew was on its way. He had a terrible feeling that today was going to be the start of a very bad week. The detective pulled into the police garage and parked his truck. He made his way up to Major Crime, saying hello on the way to the officers he knew.
His desk was piled high with paperwork. Jim sat down, figuring he'd get some done while he waited for his visitor. Eight o'clock came and went. At nine o'clock Simon called Jim into his office.
"What's this I hear about a pink monstrosity parked downstairs?"
Jim groaned and shook his head ruefully. "I haven't been able to get it repainted yet."
"Are you sure you don't want to keep it?"
"Yes, I am secure in my manhood, Simon, but I think driving a pink truck is a step beyond. I have an appointment to get it redone next week. Is that why you called me in here, to give me a hard time?"
"Actually, that was a bonus. The main reason is to let you know that we have a possible suspect in theHawkings' hit and run."
Edgar Hawkings had been walking alone on the road in the suburbs where he lived when he was hit by a car and left for dead. Found by his neighbors, he was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. He had died two hours after being admitted, due to massive internal injuries. No one had come forward with the car's description.
The investigation had revealed that he had been heavily in debt, until a few weeks before, when everything had suddenly been paid off. No record of a loan or other payment to the deceased had been recorded. The money had just mysteriously appeared, and the debts paid off.
"So who's the suspect?"
"We got an anonymous phone call. The woman said David Michaels knows more than he admits to. He could be involved in the hit-and-run."
"Hawkings' next door neighbor? So what makes you think this call's for real?"
"It was made to 911 with an automatic trace. It was placed by someone at Michaels' sister's place. You need to check that out, see who placed the call. Hey," the captain said, suddenly realizing Jim was alone. "Where are the kid and your ride-along?"
"Sandburg had too much work at the university today and, so far, Wigby is a no-show."
"Wigby? Who the hell is Wigby?"
"Wigby? You mean Digby?"
"Digby, Wigby, whatever." Jim shrugged.
Simon glowered at his detective. "It's Digby, Ellison. Digby Essex. Get it right. She's got the mayor's ear."
"Hmph." Simon looked at him sharply for a moment before he sighed. "Maybe she won't show at all?" he mused.
"I am not that lucky."
"Seems you're right," Simon said motioning to the bullpen. Coming through the doors was a tall, slinky, bleached-blonde woman dressed entirely in skin-tight black leather. Jim rolled his eyes, looked balefully at Simon, emitted a long-suffering sigh and, at a glare from his boss, reluctantly walked out of his captain's office to greet her.
Jim stood next to Megan, who was watching the new arrival sashay through the bullpen, headed for Jim. "It's a wonder she doesn't knock everything off the desks," the inspector commented, eyeing the woman's swaying hips.
The woman zeroed in on Jim like a torpedo programmed to a target. Megan watched, one eyebrow raised, as a perfectly manicured hand grasped Jim's hand and pulled it toward a well-defined bosom. A husky voice purred, "You must be Detective Ellison."
Jim, who could handle drug dealers, international terrorists, and murderers without batting an eyelash, seemed nonplussed by the female heat-seeking missile who had attached herself to him. His arm was firmly plastered to her chest and she was beginning to snake her other arm around his muscular frame. "Uh, I, uh, yes, I'm Detective Jim Ellison, ma'am." He wiggled, trying to extricate himself from her grasp.
"Well, Jim--you don't mind if I call you Jim, do you, Detective?--Jim, I'm Digby Essex. We talked on the telephone last night. Do you remember? You hung up on me, you naughty boy, you." One finger, with a flawlessly rounded, buffed, and polished nail, reached up and gently tapped the end of his nose, then the hand reattached itself to Jim's body, entwining itself so he could not free himself without using violent means.
"I'd prefer it if you called me Detective Ellison, Ms. Essex." He caught Simon's glare from where the man stood in his doorway. "And, uh, it's nice to meet you, Ms. Essex."
"Please, Jimmy, call me Digby," the young woman replied in a breathy voice, moving so she could attach herself more securely to Jim's arm.
Megan had to choke back her laughter. Jim figured this was his cue to introduce this pain-in-the-ass woman to Connor.
"Uh, Ms. Essex, this is Inspector Connor. We're working together on a case. Megan, this is Ms. Digby Essex. She'll be our ride-along this week." He stressed the "our," hoping Essex would take the hint. Of course, it was a vain hope. He caught snickers from several of the other detectives in the bullpen; he was obviously providing the main entertainment this morning.
"But I thought I'd be riding alone with you," the heavily made-up woman pouted.
"I need backup," the detective assured her. And not only against the criminals, he thought.
"I'll back you up," she purred, rubbing against the detective, who futilely tried to stop her roving hands.
Jim glared at the smirking detectives watching his uncomfortable show. He decided it would be better to get away from the prying eyes of his fellow detectives. He tried to dislodge Digby's hand from his arm. Also, he thought, she smells. . . funny. Not in a "why-don't-you-take-a-shower" kind of way; there was just something "off" about her. "Come on, Connor," he called.
"Yes, Jim. Coming, Jim. Right away, mate." Megan laughed at the look thrown her way.
Blair Sandburg descended the spiral staircase from his partner's loft. He felt a little bad fibbing to Jim; he really wasn't all that busy at Rainier. He and Denise had caught up on the grading for their Anthro 101 class, and he already had his next few lectures planned out. But after the emotional rollercoaster he had ridden over the past few months, he just needed some "alone time." He didn't want to spend the day as a referee between Jim and his unwanted tag-along.
Then the anthropologist smiled, thinking back to when he first rode with Jim and had himself been the tag-along. He headed toward his bedroom to collect his dirty clothes, deciding now would be a perfect time to finish his laundry. Blair had just started the first load when there was a knock on the door.
Making his way across the living room, he opened the door. He stared in shock at the man standing on the other side.
"Hello, Sandburg," said Lee Brackett.