Simon Banks put his signature on the last file from his in-box, closed the folder, and tossed it into his out-box with a sigh of satisfaction. Taking a cigar out of his desk drawer, he rolled it between his fingers for a moment, considering his options. It was four-thirty p.m. on a Monday, his paperwork was done, and he hadn't heard a peep out of the bullpen for the past hour. He pressed the button on his intercom. "Rhonda, I'm going to cut out early today--" he began. Blair Sandburg burst into his office. "Sandburg! What did I tell you about knocking?"
Blair grinned cheekily at him. "Sorry, sir." He rapped on the doorframe next to him as Ellison appeared behind his partner.
"We have a break in the Kettering case, Simon," Jim announced as he followed Blair into the room and shut the door.
Banks nipped the end off his cigar and lit it as Sandburg perched himself cross-legged on the conference table while Jim remained standing. "So what is this lead?"
"While we were checking out the Toy Box, I ran into an old informant of mine. They clued me to the fact that Thorvald owns that new club, Rage, and he's working a drug operation out of there."
"You're sure of this?"
Blair spoke up. "Yes, I did a quick city records search and the same dummy corporation owns both the Toy Box and Rage, though you have to dig to get that information."
Simon digested that bit of news. "You don't have any hard evidence of the drug operation, other than this informant's word?"
"That's true, sir, but we feel it's enough to go check it out," Jim answered.
"What do Vice and Narcotics have to say about the place?"
"That they've been keeping an eye on it, but haven't turned up anything suspicious. I'm not asking for much, Captain. Blair and I will go in and check it out. We'd like Rafe and Brown to back us up."
"Pardon me for asking, but what makes you so sure you'll turn up evidence of illegal activity when Vice and Narcotics haven't found anything?" Simon wasn't deliberately giving his men a hard time, but with the Mayor breathing down his neck, he didn't want them pursuing a questionable lead that could take days or even weeks to pan out, if it ever did.
Waving his hands to punctuate his words, Blair leaned forward so far he was in danger of falling off the table. "That's the beauty of having Jim and me go in, Simon. Jim can identify PMA by scent. If it's there, he'll find it. We can set up a raid based on his information."
The captain raised an eyebrow. That was a new one. "Just when were you planning to spring this new Sentinel ability on me, Jim?"
The detective shrugged. "It's not a big deal, sir--"
Blair interrupted him. "He's always had the ability to learn to identify drugs by scent, we've just never used it."
Simon bit down on his cigar. "And why is that?"
Jim shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Until now that ability hasn't been strictly 'legal' so to speak. But now that I'm out in the open about my enhanced vision and smell, I can use them to their fullest extent."
"And testify to what he finds using them in a courtroom. Of course, we want everything to be strictly by the book the first couple of times he goes to court. He'll have to demonstrate his abilities a few times, but once he's shown the court system he's for real, then they should treat his senses as just another forensic tool," Blair explained.
"All right. Get Rafe and Brown in here and we'll go over this in detail. Both of you will be wearing a wire. With the two of you, something is bound to go wrong, and I want your backup to be on top of it."
"Whatever you say, sir," Jim agreed as he opened the door to call the other detectives into the office.
Sky blinked as the door to the van slid open, light flooding the interior. The blond man who'd kept a watchful eye on her for the short trip gestured toward the open door with his gun. As she climbed out, she took careful note of her surroundings.
The van stood in an alley under a security light that shone over the unmarked entrance to a large, warehouse-sized, structure. The driver of the van opened the door to the building. The guy with the gun grasped her by the arm and hustled her inside.
They walked through a maze of corridors before coming to a stop outside a door marked "Office". Sky could hear the muffled sound of music coming from somewhere inside the building. It had to be extremely loud for the thumping bass to penetrate the cinder block walls.
Her escort rapped on the door, then entered, dragging Sky with him. He pushed her roughly into a chair, then stood behind her. Fuming, she glared at the man seated behind the desk, Lars Thorvald. When he showed no sign of looking up from whatever he was working on, she snapped, "If you wanted to talk to me, all you had to do was pick up the damn phone!"
His ice blue eyes lifted, his gaze running contemptuously over her. Thorvald rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together. "I was afraid a phone call wouldn't express my request strongly enough, Ms. Kullien." He got straight to the point. "Where are the herbal XTC pills that were mistakenly delivered to your store?"
"I don't have them. I turned them over to the police." She folded her arms across her chest. Thorvald's face turned bright red and she half expected to see steam come rolling out of his ears. "But you should have figured that out, since you destroyed my store looking for them."
"I did no such thing! Why would I, when all I have to do is ask you where they are?" He seemed genuinely offended, his expression puzzled.
"You know the stuff in that package wasn't any good, don't you? It killed a girl Friday night. So I did you a favor by getting rid of it. I mean, no one would buy from you if word got around that your stuff made people sick."
Again, he looked surprised. "You're lying! My suppliers are the most reliable--health product manufacturers--in Europe."
Sky shook her head, knowing they were dancing all around the real subject by pretending they were talking about harmless herbs instead of illegal drugs. "Maybe it was just a mistake. Look, if you let me go, I can get the police report from my friend that says exactly what was in them."
"Do you really think I'm that stupid? I have my own sources." He reached for the phone just as there was a knock on the door. At his "Come in", a man entered. Sky recognized him as the manager of the Toy Box.
"Boss, some more cops were in the store this afternoon, asking about the robbery next door." Belatedly, he noticed Sky. "What's she doing here?"
"We're discussing the break-in at her store. What did you tell the police?" Lars asked.
"The truth, man. That Ringo called in sick Saturday and we had to close early. Nobody was there when her store was robbed."
Thorvald smiled at Sky. "There, you see? I didn't have anything to do with it."
"Fine. I'll be going then." Sky started to get to her feet, but the goon behind her shoved her back into the chair.
"Now, now, Ms. Kullien. Before I let you walk out of here, I have to confirm your story, and that may take some time." He gestured to his henchman. "Find some place to put her where she won't get into trouble."
Once again, Sky was yanked to her feet and dragged from the room.
"Testing, testing," Blair said as he walked across the parking lot outside Rage. The headlights of Brown's and Rafe's sedan flashed.
"The wire works just fine, Chief. You don't have to keep checking."
Blair trotted a few steps to catch up with the sentinel. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I just have this bad feeling, that's all." He shivered slightly as they approached the entrance.
"Well, if you were wearing a little more in the way of clothes...."
"I need to blend in, man." He was dressed in a pair of very tight leather pants he hadn't worn in years and a sheer silk tee that didn't leave much to the imagination. "Though you surprised me. I didn't know you did biker chic so well, Jim." Blair glanced at his friend, who was clad in black jeans, formfitting black t-shirt and a leather motorcycle jacket.
Jim held the door open for the other man. "Did you ever get hold of Sky?"
Blair shook his head. "No, and I'm a little worried. She promised me she'd call me when she got home."
"Well, maybe she called your place and left a message on the machine." Jim slipped the doorman the cover charge for the both of them, then strolled into the club, Blair right behind him.
Blinking a couple of times, Blair let his eyes get used to the low lighting, then gazed around the large room. It being a Monday night, the crowd was sparse. The club appeared to have three levels, the dance floor at the bottom, surrounded by a tier of small tables. On the top level, booths were set back in the shadows, and he could imagine the patrons using the privacy to get to know each other better. Or to spy on the people on the dance floor and at the tables. A shiver ran down his spine. He had been in these kinds of places before, but Rage gave him the creeps. He could only imagine what the atmosphere would be like if the place was packed. Wall to wall decadent sensuality was the image that came to mind.
Turning his attention from the booths to the dance floor, he could make out the thrashing, gyrating figures in between flashes of the strobe lighting. Most of the patrons were dressed similarly to Blair and Jim, leather, skin, or some variation thereof. He was a bit surprised to note that some of the dancers were women, though the male couples outnumbered them two to one.
Blair moved closer to Jim. "How do you want to do this? Start at the top and work our way down?"
"Sure." They moved off, making their way slowly through the club. Blair directed Jim in a systematic search pattern as Jim concentrated on separating the myriad of scents.
As they wove through a throng of people clustered around the bar, Blair jumped. "Ow!" Jim looked at him strangely. "Someone just goosed me!" Blair hissed.
His partner snorted in laughter. "I told you you needed to be wearing more clothes."
Blair muttered something rude under his breath, then hurried to catch up with Jim.
The door slammed shut behind Sky. Swearing loudly, she immediately tried the handle, but it was securely locked. She let out a frustrated screech.
Why in the hell had this happened to her? She really, really wanted to throw something. Deep, cleansing breaths, girl. Let the anger go. It won't help you think your way out of this. Several minutes passed before she felt calm enough to examine her make-shift cell.
Thorvald's goon seemed to have stuck her in some kind of janitor's closet. There was a sink at one end of the 10 foot by 8 foot space, and the shelves lining the walls were filled with cleaning supplies and toilet paper. A mop and bucket stood next to the sink.
Sky took a closer look at the door. The handle was all one piece, no lock she could pick--if she knew how to pick a lock. A smile spread slowly across her face. The door opened in. Now if she could just find some kind of tools... .
A thorough search of the shelves turned up a rusty, paint flecked screwdriver behind some cans of paint. Things were looking better and better. An ear pressed to the door didn't detect any sounds of a guard outside. She set to work.
Taking hold of Blair's arm, Jim led him to one of the tables on the second level of the club. "Sit down, Chief."
"What? Did I do something?" he protested, though he sank into a chair, his expression relieved.
"You're a bigger distraction than you are a help. If I had to hear you say 'ouch' one more time, I was gonna slug someone." Jim sat down, rubbing his temples.
"Sorry, I didn't realize my outfit was going to be such a problem." He scooted closer toward his friend. "This place getting to you?"
The sentinel rubbed his eyes. "Yeah. And it's not your appearance, it's the whole atmosphere here. The strobe lights, the noise, the dry ice smoke, and the pheromones. It smells like one big orgy in here."
"And you would know what an orgy smells like?" Blair grinned at him, but his eyes showed concern.
"I can imagine, Darwin." Jim let out a long sigh as his guide rubbed his shoulder.
"Just turn everything down, man. I'm sorry. This was a pretty stupid idea, and it'll be my fault if you end up with a migraine. Were you able to pick up anything at all?"
Jim shook his head. "Did I smell any PMA? No, damn it. The marijuana smoke in here would choke a horse, but that's about it."
Blair chewed at his lip, his gaze flicking around the club. "You want to call it a night then?"
The detective leaned back in his chair. "No, let's not give up so easily. We can hang out for a couple hours, just looking and listening."
"Okay." Blair got to his feet. "I gotta make a pit stop. I'll get us something to drink on the way back."
Jim watched as his partner wove through the club toward the hallway marked 'Restrooms'. A hand snaked out from the crowd and unerringly found its target. Blair jumped, then whirled on the person. A few choice words and a glare, and he traveled the rest of the way unmolested. Jim felt a smile on his lips. Blair could take care of himself. He turned his attention to the dance floor.
"Hey, Jimmy, buy a working girl a drink?" Coco slid into the seat next to him, crossing her legs seductively as her skirt crept up her thighs. "I see you took my advice." She jerked her head in the direction Blair had disappeared to.
Jim flagged a waitperson and let the prostitute order, shaking his head when asked for his selection. "I ought to ask for my money back, Coco. There's nothing going on here as far as I can tell."
She thrust her lower lip out in a crimson pout. "I told you Lars was slick. He's dealing, he's just careful about it. And why are you asking me to do your job anyway? I gave you the dish, now it's up to you."
"Have you actually seen anyone buy the stuff here?"
She shrugged, one shoulder strap on her dress slipping down her arm. "I haven't purchased anything myself, but some of the other girls say Lars' stuff is high grade."
The waiter returned, setting a Singapore Sling before Coco, and a draft beer in front of Jim. "Uh, I didn't order this," he complained.
"Compliments of an admirer," the man said. "And it's not for you. It's for your friend in the tight pants."
Scowling, Jim paid for Coco's drink, then glanced toward the bar. No sign of his partner, and his head was killing him. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of aspirin and shook two out into his palm. He downed them with a swallow of Blair's beer. What Sandburg didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Blair washed his hands at the sink, studying his reflection in the mirror, noticing the lines around his eyes, and the tiny furrows across his forehead. Jim wasn't the only one getting a headache. The thought of spending even another hour in the club was painful.
Exiting the restroom, Blair headed down the dim hallway toward the phones he'd spied earlier. Fortunately, one was free, and he punched in Sky's home number. After three rings, her answering machine picked up. Leaving a brief message, he hung up and dialed his phone, then listened to his messages. There was one from Denise reminding him of a meeting in the morning, and another from a vinyl siding company, but none from Sky. He glanced at his watch. It was only a little after 9. Maybe she'd gone out to dinner, or to the grocery. He'd give it another hour, then try to reach her again.
Hanging up the receiver, Blair turned to walk back to his table, bumping into a man coming the other way. The man stared down at him, his eyes narrowing. Recognizing him as the manager of the Toy Box, Tony something or other, Sandburg mumbled "Sorry," and pushed past him into the club. Hoping Tony didn't remember him from his visit to the sex shop that afternoon, Blair got in line at the bar. Fifteen minutes later, he headed back to where he'd left Jim, balancing two glasses of mineral water.
Ellison was sitting at the table with a scantily-clad woman. She had her arm resting on his shoulder, and as Blair watched, she leaned over and blew in Jim's ear. What really shocked Blair was that Jim didn't seem to mind.
Catching sight of Blair, Jim waved a hand at him. "Over here, Chief."
Blair took a seat on the sentinel's right at the circular table, setting the glasses he held on the flat surface. He took in the other drinks on the table. "Who's your friend, Jim?"
Jim looked at the woman, as if seeing her for the first time. "Oh. This is Coco, an old snitch from my vice days. She's the one who gave me the tip about this place. Coco, this is my partner, Blair. " He grinned at her. She smiled at Blair and licked her lips.
Uh-oh. He didn't know what was going through Jim's mind, but Coco's was an open book. In French, no less. "Um, Jim, we're supposed to be working here--"
The woman giggled. "I'm supposed to be working, too."
Blair could imagine at what. Ignoring her, he addressed Jim. "I told you I was getting us something to drink. How come you ordered a beer?"
"I didn't. It's from an admirer." Picking up the glass, Ellison drained what little was left.
"Your admirer," Coco added, pointing at Blair with one red claw.
Blair rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could feel his headache pressing against the back of his eyes. The last thing he needed was some strange guy buying him drinks. "My admirer?"
"Someone besides me thinks you're hot," the prostitute informed him. "And they sent you a drink."
"And Jim is drinking my beer why?"
"I was thirsty." Jim got to his feet and extended his hand to the woman. "Let's dance."
"Oooh, Jimmy. How'd you know they're playing my song?" Taking his hand, she followed him down the stairs and onto the dance floor.
Blair pushed his hair out of his face. What in the hell was Jim doing? Maybe this was some kind of plan. God, I hope it's a plan. Settling back in his chair, he kept his eyes on the unlikely couple, and wished he had an aspirin.
Sky stepped back from the door in the cramped room and surveyed her handiwork. Some liquid soap, the screwdriver, and a lot of muscle and cursing had managed to pry one of the pins holding the door hinges together out.
One down, one to go. She just hoped Thorvald wouldn't decide he had an urgent need to speak with her again in the next few minutes. Picking up the bottle of soap, she sat down on the floor and squirted it over the bottom hinge pin, making sure it hit all the nooks and crannies.
Leaning her back against the door, Sky gave it some time to penetrate, and thought about Blair. She wondered if he'd been worried when she hadn't called. She wondered if she'd ever see him again. No. I can't think that way. No negative thoughts. I will get out of here. I will see Blair again. "And when I do, I'll tell him to have his cop friends arrest that son of a bitch."
Getting to her knees, Sky worked the screwdriver into the hinge and began to pry at the pin.
His arm around Coco's waist, Jim steered her toward where they'd left Sandburg holding down a table. He picked out his guide's glum face easily in the dim light. Jim knew just how to cheer him up.
Sneaking up on Blair from behind, Ellison wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders and rubbed his knuckles over his scalp in a vigorous 'noogie'.
"Yah!" Blair yelped and tipped off the tall chair, landing in an ungraceful tangle with it on the floor. "What in the hell are you doing, man? You damn near gave me a heart attack!"
"Get with the program, Chief! You're not smiling! You should be having a great time like we are!" Reaching down, he gave Sandburg a hand up. "What happened to your secret admirer?" he teased.
Sandburg batted Jim's hands away. "Don't know; don't care. What's gotten in to you? We're supposed to be working here!" he hissed in a low voice.
"I am working." Jim grabbed up a glass of mineral water and chugged it. He belched, then said, "I'm getting a feel for the place--whoops!" Coco's hand had come to rest on his ass.
"More like getting felt," Blair groused. "I'm going to try and call Sky again. Stay here until I get back, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Blairsy." Coco batted her eyelashes at him and pinched his cheek as he left.
"God damn it! Why does everyone here think I'm public property?" Jim heard him mutter as he headed for the phones.
Coco slid onto a chair. "How about another drink, Jimmy?"
"Whatever the lady wants, the lady gets." Catching the eye of a waiter, he gave their order, then leaned over Coco as he sat down. Damn, she smelled good. He buried his nose in her neck, feeling her fingers ruffling his hair as she laughed.
Vaguely Jim realized that something was wrong, but Coco's perfume was incredibly distracting. Finding out how she tasted was much more important than any serious thought.
Just as things were getting interesting, Coco squealed, "Oh, I'm vibrating!"
Stepping back, Ellison stared at her. "What?"
"My pager, silly." She produced the beeper from somewhere within her tight dress. "Drat it. It's been fun, but I gotta run." Giggling at her rhyme, Coco got to her feet. "Important client, and I have to get back to work. We'll have to make it another time, Jimmy." She patted Jim's face, kissed him on the lips, then sashayed off through the club.
Blair returned to the table a few minutes after he'd left. Sky still wasn't home, and he was beginning to get worried. He climbed onto the chair next to Jim's. "What happened to your 'date'?" he asked.
"She got paged."
"Great! Can we leave now?" Blair implored.
Jim set down his drink. "What time is it?"
Blair looked at his watch. "10:45."
"How about we stay to midnight, and if nothing's happened by then, we can go."
Letting out a long sigh, Blair nodded. "Okay. I'm worried about Sky though. She's still not home."
Jim shot him a glare. "She's a big girl, Sandburg. I think she's capable of taking care of herself. And I don't know if I'm totally convinced she's not involved in this Ecstasy, XTC thing in some way."
Blair bit his tongue to keep back the angry words. He was tired and irritable, and Jim must be too. They both wanted the same thing, for this case to be over. Taking a deep breath, then releasing it, he said, "Fine. You want to stay, get to work. See if you can't pick up something." Conscious of the wire he still wore, Blair touched his ear, indicating he meant for Jim to listen for anything out of the ordinary. Jim nodded curtly.
A few minutes later, Blair felt Jim's hand on his back. Figuring the sentinel just wanted an anchor, he didn't think anything of it, until Jim's fingers started to lightly rub over the fabric of his shirt in a repetitive motion. "Jim?" No response. Blair swiveled in his chair to look at his friend.
Jim's eyes were staring out at the dance floor, but Blair got the oddest feeling his mind was elsewhere. "Jim, man, talk to me. You're freaking me out here."
Just as he was beginning to think Jim had zoned, Ellison spoke. "Your shirt--it's so silky. I could touch it all night."
Blair was starting to get seriously alarmed. "That's because it is silk, Jim."
Jim's fingers ran through the curls lying on Blair's shoulders. "Feels like your hair. Or is it your hair that feels like your shirt? Either way, it just feels so good to touch it." Lifting a handful of hair, he inhaled deeply. "Smells really good too, like orchids... ." His eyes glazed over.
Frantically disentangling his hair from Jim's hold, Blair grabbed his partner by the shoulders and shook him. "Jim! Snap out of it!" What in the hell was wrong with Jim? If Blair hadn't known Jim had only one beer and a couple glasses of water, he'd have sworn his partner was drunk. Only Jim was never this mellow when he was drunk. In fact, he was acting like he was stoned, or--Oh, god, Ecstasy! But how? In the beer, you dope. The drink that was meant for you. But what if it wasn't? What if it was PMA? Jim could start having convulsions any minute, just like Amy Kettering!
Blair laid a shaking hand on Jim's forehead. "How do you feel, Jim? Are you hot? Do you feel sick?"
Jim grinned at him. "I feel great, Chief. On top of the world. I wish Coco hadn't had to leave. I really want to dance some more."
Blair chewed his lip. Jim was warm, but nowhere near as hot as Amy had been. He knew from his research that PMA lacked the euphoric effects of Ecstasy. And Jim was definitely euphoric. But there was no telling how his sentinel physiology would react to the drug.
"Brown, Rafe, I hope you're listening. We've got a big problem. Jim's been exposed to some kind of drug. I need to get him to a doctor." Blair got to his feet, lifting Jim bodily out of his seat. "We're heading out of here."
Jim blinked slowly, and threw his arm around Blair's shoulders. "Where are we going, Chief? Are we gonna go dance? I want to dance again." He twirled Blair away from him, singing, "I should be dancing, yeaaaah!" in a falsetto voice as he struck a pose.
Locking his hand around Jim's wrist, Blair began to tow him toward the exit. "Nope, sorry. No more dancing for you, Mr. Travolta. We need to get you to the hospital." They were almost to the front door when Blair saw Tony What's-his-name heading toward them, a couple of really big, muscular blonds behind him, and they didn't look like they just wanted to say 'hello'. "Oh, shit. Guys, we've got trouble with a capital 'T' here. We can't get out the front, going to try the back."
Reversing course, Blair headed for the doorway marked 'Restrooms'. There'd been an exit door at the end of the hallway if he remembered correctly. Jim was singing "Stayin' Alive" off-key as he attempted to do the electric slide.
Spotting the restroom sign, Jim said, "I appreciate the thought, Chief, but I don't have to go right now."
Hustling them down the hallway, Blair hit the release bar on the door, setting off an ear piercing alarm. Jim staggered in pain, his hands going to his ears as he stumbled under the sensory onslaught. "Sorry, Jim, sorry!" Wrapping an arm around Jim's waist, Blair half carried him through the door and down the cement block hallway toward the exit he could see at the end.
A door on the left side of the hall began to move as Blair and Jim approached. It tilted precariously out into the corridor, then with a huge crash fell across the hall to lean against the opposite wall. Both men instinctively jumped back to avoid being struck. "Shit!" Blair swore.
A familiar face peered around the doorjamb. "Blair? Oh, God, Blair!" Sky climbed over the door and threw her arms around his neck.
"Sky?" Truly shocked to see her, he nearly dropped Jim as he tried to juggle the two of them.
"Thorvald kidnapped me at gunpoint! He thinks I have his damn drugs! What are you doing here?"
Jim tapped Sky on the shoulder. "Dancing. Only Blair's not being any fun. Will you dance with me?" Sky looked at him as if Jim had grown two heads.
Blair sighed and began moving the three of them toward the exit. "Investigating Thorvald, only Jim accidentally took some Ecstasy." He glanced back the way they'd come. The door from the club was starting to open. "We can compare notes later. Right now we need to get out of here. Come on, Jim." Scrambling over the fallen door, he helped Sky over, then Jim. He began to run toward the exit, one hand gripping Sky's, the other firmly attached to Jim's elbow.
"Hey, you! Stop!"
Blair didn't even look over his shoulder. "H and Rafe, I hope you're outside the back of this place! We've got some bad guys on our asses!"
Jim hit the door first, pushing it open, and dashing out into an alley, Blair and Sky following. Thorvald's muscle was right behind them. Blair dragged Sky toward the cover of a dumpster, shoving Jim to the ground in front of him. "Keep your heads down, both of you!" he yelled, fearing imminent gunfire.
The blond bodyguards burst through the doorway to the sound of wailing sirens and "Cascade PD! Freeze!" The muscle hesitated for a moment, then they scattered in all directions.
"Shit!" Blair heard Brown curse as he picked one and dashed after him. Sandburg looked up to see Rafe running in the other direction.
Sky slipped out from under Blair's arm and dashed after a third. "Sky! Wait! What are you--" Blair began to yell as Jim took off the opposite way. "Aw, damn it!" He hesitated for a moment, then went after Sky, figuring that even extremely mellow, Jim was more than a match for a muscle-bound Swede.
When he caught up to Sky, she had her man on the ground. Every time he tried to get up, she hit him with a trashcan lid.
Several black and whites pulled into the alley, sirens screaming and lights flashing. As the officers approached, Blair dug in his pants pockets for his consultant's ID, managing to extricate it as he was being asked to assume the position. He quickly explained the situation while he pulled Sky off her kidnapper. Once he was satisfied she was safe and the cops had the thug under control, he went looking for Jim.
Blair discovered him at the other end of the alley. The man Jim had been chasing was sprawled on the pavement, a garbage bin on his head, Jim beating on it like a bongo. Sandburg shook his head. He was never going to be able to explain this to Simon.
He was prying Jim away from his new toy as two uniforms trotted up and swiftly took the perp into custody. "Come on, Jim. Party's over."
"So soon? But I like playing the drums--"
"I know, man, I know, but later,okay? We need to go see Dr. Abrams." He led Jim toward the parking lot where he could see the boxy shape of an ambulance just pulling in.
Sky caught up with him as Blair was trying unsuccessfully to coax Jim into lying down on the gurney. "One of your friends said I need to get checked out since I'm a victim of a violent crime."
He could see she was trying to hide the fact she was trembling. Blair knew that feeling, when everything you've been through catches up and hits you like a freight train. "Oh, God, Sky, I'm so sorry about all this--"
"Uh, Chief, I don't feel so good, feel really dizzy--" Both Blair and Sky reached out toward Jim as he sagged, guiding him toward the stretcher.
Once he was down, the paramedics stepped in to check him over. "Looks like mild dehydration. We'll start him on a saline drip on the way to Cas Gen."
"We're coming with you," Blair announced, giving Sky a boost into the ambulance, then scrambling up after her. "And could you call ahead and let Dr. Abrams know Jim Ellison is on the way in?"
"You got it." The doors closed and the ambulance drove off.
Blair leaned his back against the kitchen counter and rubbed his hands over his face. God, what a night. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so tired. He peered out of the kitchen into the living area. Jim was lying on the red sofa, his eyes closed, Blair's silk shirt in his grasp. Touching it had seemed to keep him calm while Sheila examined him, and Blair thought there wasn't any harm in letting him keep it when they got home.
He let out a breath slowly. So many, many things could have gone wrong--well, they had gone wrong, but it could have been much, much worse. Jim's reaction to the Ecstasy he'd ingested had been mild compared to what it could have done to his heightened senses. Blair figured whatever had been slipped to him hadn't been very pure, and he'd only received a small fraction of a normal dose. Dr. Abrams had wanted to keep him overnight, but by the time she was through examining him, the peak effects of the drug had worn off, and though Jim was still feeling very relaxed, he'd had enough backbone to state he wanted to go home. At which, Blair had insisted Jim spend the night in his apartment, where he could keep an eye on the sentinel.
The teakettle whistled and Blair snatched it off the flame, setting it on a cold burner, as he turned the gas off. Getting down two mugs, he dropped a bag of Bedtime tea in each and poured the water over them just as he heard the shower turn off in the bathroom. He'd insisted Sky spend the night as well, when she told him she'd been unable to get a hold of her friend Rowan to come stay with her.
A smile crossed his face as he remembered the door falling across the corridor inside Rage, then Sky cautiously peeking out. She was definitely an intelligent and resilient woman. And he liked that--a lot.
She quietly slipped into the kitchen, bundled up in his bathrobe. He handed her the cup of tea. "Thanks." She took a sip, her eyes closing as she swallowed. When she opened them again, she said, "I'm not going to break, you know. You're not going to spot any bits flaking off by staring at me when you think I'm not looking."
Blair felt his face burning. "Sorry, it's not that. Well, yes, it is that, a little, but more like I can't believe you're here after--I shouldn't have left you alone at the store--"
"Blair, what happened to me wasn't your fault. You didn't know Thorvald would go after me. It's over. He's in jail, and I get to give a statement in the morning that'll make sure he stays there. All the bad drugs are off the street, Jim's going to be okay, and I still think you're wonderful." She reached out to run her fingers over the stubble on his cheek.
"I do." Sky moved in close, kissing him gently. When she pulled back, she said, "I'm going to take this," she lifted the cup of tea, "and go to bed."
"Okay. I'm going to stay out here with Jim, in case he needs anything."
She caught his hand as she left, giving it a squeeze. "You get some rest, too, okay?"
"Okay," he breathed, then she was gone down the hall. Blair shook himself a few seconds later and, pulling the teabag out of his mug and tossing it in the sink, he took his tea into the living room.
Jim lay on the comfortable sofa, his eyes closed, listening to Blair and Sky talking quietly in the kitchen. He wasn't really paying attention to the words, but the cadence was nice, warm, calming. He stroked his hand over the smooth material of Blair's shirt, but it was losing its appeal. It no longer felt like his fingertips were having an orgasmic experience as he rubbed the fibers.
Now that he knew what had happened to him, knew he'd been drugged, things were beginning to make sense. A good deal of the evening was still fuzzy, but he trusted Sandburg would let him know if he'd made a complete ass of himself.
The light in the kitchen switched off, and Jim heard Blair padding quietly toward him. There was some rustling and squeaking as his friend moved one of the beanbag chairs next to the couch and dropped into it.
Rolling onto his side, Jim rested his head on his arm, regarding his guide silently. Blair was sunk deep in the beanbag, his head resting against the back, his legs stretched out in front of him. He held a mug in both hands, but didn't drink from it, just stared out the patio doors at the night. His sentinel sight automatically adjusting to the gray light, Jim could make out the tired lines on his partner's face and dark circles under his eyes. And yet, he seemed at peace.
Jim felt strangely calm himself. Normally a night after a big bust he would be too keyed up to sleep, his mind going over every last detail, making sure every 't' had been crossed and every 'i' dotted so the bad guys couldn't wiggle their way out. But not tonight. All he could think of tonight was how lucky he was, how lucky the world was, to have Blair Sandburg. Might want to tell him that sometime.
And now is as good a time as any. "Chief?"
"Hmm, yeah, Jim? You need something?" Blair set the tea mug down on the floor and started to get up.
"No, no, I'm okay. I just--" Jim didn't know quite how to say it. "I just wanted to say 'thank you'. Once again, you saved my ass, the way you always do, and I'm sorry I never tell you how much I appreciate that, about how much I appreciate you."
"Jim, you don't--"
"Yes, I do. You're my best friend, Blair. The best guide, the best partner any guy could have. I don't know what came over me with the whole dissertation thing--"
"That's all water under the bridge, Jim. You fixed it." Despite Blair's words, Jim could hear his heartrate speed up. Talking about the fiasco still upset him.
"It shouldn't have needed fixing, Chief. I should have trusted you. I should have trusted you right from the beginning, talked to you about my fears, about my doubts. The whole thing could have been avoided if I'd just said what I felt."
"No, Blair, let me finish. I need to say this, okay? It may be the only time I'm capable of saying it." At Blair's slow nod, Jim continued. "I treated you like shit. Hell, I'd been treating you badly for a long time, starting, I guess, when I read the introductory chapter to your diss when you asked me not to. I treated like you crap when Alex showed up."
Blair opened his mouth to protest, but Jim held up a finger. "Please, Chief. I don't want to hear any theories about territorial prerogatives. I know you. I knew in my heart that you wouldn't betray me, yet I listened to my head, listened to my own lies, instead of what I knew in my soul. You helped Alex because you couldn't not help her. It's who you are. And I wouldn't want you to be any other way."
"Jim, I--I don't know what to say, man. I just--" He was silent for a moment, just breathing. "I--thanks. I think I've needed to hear that for a long time."
There was silence between them for a few minutes, then Blair spoke up. "You're my best friend, too, man. Didn't want you to feel left out." His grin was blinding even in the dark.
Reaching out, Jim ruffled his curls. "Are you going to sit in that bean bag all night?"
"Go. Sleep in your own bed. I don't need a damn nursemaid, and I'm sure Sky would appreciate it."
Blair shook his head. "She's cool, Jim. She gets it. Unlike certain past girlfriends who shall remain nameless."
"All right, I won't argue with you, then. But I better not hear you complaining in the morning." Jim rested his hand on his friend's shoulder, feeling Blair's fingers wrap around his wrist.
Blair stood back, surveying the entertainment unit that stretched the whole length of the living area's back wall. It looked pretty good. He reached out and tested its sturdiness with a firm grip at the television and VCR ledges. Jim pushed at the bookcases and artifact nooks. They were rock steady too. The two exchanged a grin of satisfaction.
"Good job," Jim assessed, "if I do say it myself." He nodded
"Yeah, well you had help, don't forget," Blair prodded his friend. "And you don't have to say it. I'll say it's a damned good job!" He began scouring the floor for the detritus from their carpentry project.
"Hey, Jim, wanna give me a hand down here?" Blair asked with a little impatience.
"Yeah, sure, Chief. There's a bolt over in the corner there," a finger pointed to a dark corner, "otherwise, you got everything except sawdust. I'll get the vacuum from upstairs."
Blair straightened up to find his sentinel disappearing up the circular staircase. "Thanks, man," he yelled toward the ceiling. "I'll get started on the staining as soon as the sawdust is gone."
He had tidied up and put away the tools before Jim reappeared. "Thought you'd gotten lost up there, buddy," Blair joked. He clambered about halfway up to take the vacuum from Jim. Then both arrived at the bottom and the whirr of the machine blocked out any conversation.
"There, done," Blair pronounced. "Hey, thanks for the help, man. I couldn't have done it without you."
Jim reached out and swatted the curly hair, now a little haphazard from his partner's exertions. "You couldn't have found the hammer without me." He ducked a mock-swing, laughing. "I don't think you ever saw one of those before, did you?"
Blair's eyes were bright with the call to battle. "I could write a dissertation on hammers through the ages, Jim. In fact, since you're so interested...." He took a deep breath and Jim caught him at the waist, clamping a firm hand over the lecture about to pour forth. They vied back and forth for dominance until they bumped into the stair railing and fell apart, laughing.
"I figure a coat of stain and some varnish, and this will be something...beautiful," Blair said, half under his breath.
Jim stopped for a moment, then whacked him in the shoulder for good measure. "No stain, no varnish, not today," Jim announced, ignoring the pro forma 'Ouch!'.
"How come?" Blair rubbed at his arm, flexing to work out the kinks. "I can get the stain done today, and it should be dry enough to do the varnish tomorrow." He scanned his best friend's face for clues. "That was the plan. To finish it this weekend." There was a question in his last sentence.
"Yeah, well, the plans got changed," Jim told him. "I'm hungry."
"So we eat dinner -- I'll send out for pizza or Chinese, whatever you want -- and then I'll stain the unit tonight," Blair decided.
"Don't think you'll have enough time tonight," Jim said wisely.
A knock at his door interrupted their conversation.
"Sky!" Blair exclaimed with delight. "What are you doing here? Saturday's your biggest sales. Now that you're back in business, I figured you'd be tied up and tired out by now."
Sky accepted his exuberant kiss and swept into the apartment. "Hi, Jim," she said, tossing a gaily wrapped package over to the sentinel. "Pepper can handle the rest of the crowd from now till closing. Lovely job on this, Blair." She ran a hand over the smoothly-sanded surface of a bookshelf.
Blair closed the door behind her. "So what gives, guys?" he asked. "Is that for me?"
"No, that's Jim's gift," Sky teased.
"Oh, yeah, Chief. It's got my name on it," Jim reported. He picked out a tag. "B. L. A. I. R.," he read, then tauntingly held it over his head when his guide bounced up to grab it. The package went sailing across to Sky, who mimed dribbling and tried to fake a pass back to Jim, which Blair intercepted. He whirled Sky around until they both collapsed on the futon. Jim lay his lanky body on the red couch and sprawled himself at home.
"So what is this?" Blair asked, rattling the package, poking it, and doing anything but opening it.
Sky burbled. "No fair opening it now. You have to wait for the others."
"What others?" Blair demanded warily. Jim was looking far too smug. "Jim? What others!"
That was the signal. People started to pour into Blair's apartment, coming down the spiral staircase, spilling through the door.
"Yo, Hairboy! Surprise!"
"Hey, Blair, m'man!"
"Sandburg. Nice place!"
"Yeah. What do you call one of these, huh? A sub-Loft?"
And there was a gust of friends blowing through Apartment 207, all of Major Crime, come to pay a visit.
"Whoa!" Blair got up and started laughing and couldn't quite stop. "Where'd you all come from? What is this?" He stared from Rhonda to Joel to Daryl to Simon and thence throughout the crowd.
"Sandburg, don't you know what this is?" Simon Banks growled forbiddingly. "And here I thought you were a social anthropologist!"
"Wait, wait, wait," Blair protested, barely taking in the bright parcels of every size and shape, and something amazingly bulky that Rafe was trying to manhandle through the door alone. "No fair making fun of the guy you left out of the loop. Rafe, you need a hand?"
Rafe puffed, "Not from you. HENRI!"
Brown snapped to and they managed to get the thing into the apartment together, slammed the door behind them, and heaved it up to lean against the wall next to it.
"It's from both of us," Rafe said.
"And me, too," Joel inserted, indignantly.
"Yeah," H added. "Hope you like it, Hairboy."
Blair stood in the middle of a room invaded by his closest friends and suddenly realized what was happening. The grin on his face couldn't have been removed with plastic surgery. "Oh, man, oh, man," he kept saying until Daryl went up and pummelled him on the back, thrusting him toward the blue beanbag chair.
"Hey, dude," the teenager said briskly, "like, open the gifts so we can move on to the next stage. Pizza!"
Amid the cackle from the rest of the crowd, Blair did as told. Jim just tossed him the old red Tupperware from the loft, and Blair blew a raspberry back. He opened a set of Tweety Bird kitchen items, apron and gloves and potholders, which Sky had judged appropriate, and blushed as a new nickname began floating around the room. Daryl and Simon had chipped in with a toaster-oven, very useful, Rhonda with a multi-colored salad bowl set and glasses to match, and Megan's package held a warm, soft afghan woven in burgundy, navy and forest green. These gifts weren't cheap.
Blair looked up, overwhelmed. Everyone noticed.
"Hey, don't stop now!" H chided.
"Yeah, you haven't gotten to ours yet!" Rafe coaxed his friends. Together, he and Henri hauled Blair out of his beanbag chair and dragged him, unresisting, to the doorway where the weirdly shaped gift waited to be unwrapped. Joel came up behind, beaming.
Blair put out slightly shaky hands and Henri, with a look of disgusted pity, placed one of his own overtop Blair's and ripped.
"Oh, my God," Blair breathed.
He was looking at a beautiful drop leaf table, in the heavy Victorian style, cherry by the looks of it, waiting to be unfolded. He couldn't take his eyes off it. "Where did you find it and what did it cost?" he whispered.
"You don't ask the cost of a gift, Blair," Joel said gently. "Besides, it wasn't that much anyway."
"Yeah," H put in. "Rafe found it. He's got a real eye for value, Rafe does."
Rafe blushed as everyone stared at him. "Ah, I just read the weekly ads for forfeiture sales. This sounded like a heckuva a deal. So we, Henri and Rafe and me, we all went out to look at it this morning."
"Perfect timing," Joel said contentedly.
"Yeah, and the chairs that shoulda gone with, were destroyed in some kind of all-out brawl the old owners had. It was the table and nothing else."
"It's gorgeous," Blair said. He ran his hand along a scar marring the finish, and thought, 'It's gorgeous.' "Thank you, everyone," Blair choked out at last. "I, I love it all."
He was shaking hands and kissing cheeks and patting backs when the doorbell rang.
"Pizza!" Daryl crowed.
But the door opened to admit a tallish man with regular features in his late twenties, dressed in a cream cashmere sweater, fine tan slacks and Italian loafers. He did bear a couple of pizza cartons, however. "Hello, everyone. I got this from the delivery boy downstairs. Cute kid. It's forty-four fifty."
Everyone made way for the newcomer, although gazes ran around the room wondering who the man with the delicate features was.
"Hi," Blair said weakly at last. "Um, forty-four...."
"Got it, Chief," Jim said, and held out two twenties and a ten. The man pocketed the bills.
"Jim! How nice to see you again! Blairsy, you're looking smashing!"
The room was hushed and Jim was looking hunted. But Blair wore the lit-bulb expression of the newly enlightened. And a smirk.
"Nice to see you again, too, uh," Jim started.
The man began to laugh. "I knew you were a little gone when you invited me, Jimmy, but I didn't know you were that far gone!" He tittered into his hand.
"Jim?" Blair poked his sentinel in the back mercilessly.
Jim was a deer in the headlights. Without the aid of his guide taking him through a lengthy meditation, there was no question at all in Blair's mind but that Jim would never have any idea who this person was.
"We met Monday," the man said at last, holding out his hand for a shake from first Blair, then Jim. "I'm Coco."
At the expression on Jim's face, all of Major Crime cracked up. They all knew the name of Jim's snitch, but not her, or his, gender preference, and Jim obviously had had no idea what Coco looked like when she wasn't working.
"Happy housewarming!" Coco offered. He held out a glitzy box that revealed a salad-shooter. "Everyone should have one. I swear by mine!"
Then there was pizza to consume, and beer Jim had hauled down from the loft, and people fell into conversation in small groups. Simon was glaring as Daryl listened to tips from Coco on what ladies liked in their gentlemen friends, but everyone else was having a fine time.
Jim and Blair slipped away to the back of the kitchen. "You organized this, huh?" Blair asked.
"Guilty as charged. You, like, you don't...." Jim was stuttering.
"I'm touched, man," Blair said with overdone sincerity. "And where's my *real* present from you? Thought I'd fall for the Tupperware?" He dug his partner in the ribs.
Jim bopped his head hard. "Greedy little punk. For that I shouldn't give it to you."
"Cough it up, cough it up, laughing boy!"
Jim reached into a back pocket, hitherto hidden beneath his sweatshirt. "I didn't wrap it," he said almost shyly. "But here it is."
Blair was holding a mezuzah, scroll and scrollcase both, ready for mounting at his door. "Oh, Jim," was all he could say. His eyes were gleaming bright as he looked from his hands to his best friend's face.
"I know you don't go to temple, and that you're a shaman, like Incacha said, but, well, I wanted something *right* for you. So I asked Naomi...."
"You asked Naomi?" Blair was astonished that anyone had managed to reach his peripatetic mother, even the top cop of Cascade.
"Yeah, I did, Chief. She said to say she's gonna come Feng Shui you one of these days. Anyway, she said this would mean more to you than, say, a salad-shooter." Jim fell silent.
Blair put out his hand and grasped Jim hard at the left biceps. "Yeah, it does. It means...everything. Thank you."
At that, all of Jim's awkwardness visibly fell away and he put both his hands on his guide's shoulders. "You're welcome, Chief. I hope you always have a happy home."
Blair looked out over the throng of friends crowding his place. Megan and Coco were line-dancing while Henri chanted a country-western song. Under Sky's direction, Simon and Joel were getting the drop-leaf table into place, inspecting hinges, discussing the finish. Rafe and Rhonda had kicked their shoes off and were chattering with Daryl about whether Blair now lived in a pad, or a den, or a flop, or a subloft, all of them stuffing themselves full of pizza as they debated the merits of the right name for his place. And Jim was just being Jim, right there with him, right where he should be, and Blair being Blair where he should be, too.
"Something beautiful," was all he said.
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