Redhawke.org
The Debt
The Debt
by: Renegade

Beta Read by: Cheri Allen and CarolROI
Written for PetFly by: Steven Baum
Rated PG

~~~~~~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~~~~~~

Jim Ellison parked outside the warehouse his recently acquired "associate" called home. He shook his head as he climbed out of the truck and carefully locked the door. Although he'd been here once before and knew that Sandburg had managed to create a reasonably livable space at one end of the drafty old structure, he still couldn't quite get over the choice. His loft might be spartan and uncluttered, but at least it had the benefits of a decent heating system and weather-stripped windows and doors.

He reached into the back of the truck to retrieve a video equipment case and tripod before he approached the reinforced metal door beneath a painfully bright light. He pressed the buzzer and waited for Sandburg to release the automatic locks. It took only a moment for the unconventional graduate student to respond with a cheery "Helloooo" to the buzzer.

"It's Ellison."

"Oh, great, man! I'll let you in."

A moment later Jim heard the faint click as the lock disengaged, and he opened the door. He was halfway across the open "foyer" when Blair trotted across to meet him.

"I got your video camera," Jim announced, carefully shifting his grip on the tripod as Blair reached for the camera case.

"Great. I really appreciate this, man."

"Not so fast," Jim said, pulling his arm back before Blair could relieve him of the heavy case. "I borrowed this from Carolyn's department. If anything happens to it, it's my ass on the line. Now suppose you tell me just exactly why you needed it in --" He broke off when he caught sight of the golden-furred primate crouched inside a wire cage sitting beside the couch. "Who's your friend?"

"That's Larry." Blair gestured from ape to human and performed a perfunctory introduction. "Larry, Jim. Jim, Larry."

Jim cocked his head slightly to meet the ape's curious gaze. "I think I met a couple of these guys in the jungle," he commented.

Blair slapped his arm and scolded, "Don't stare, man. They take that as a sign of aggression."

Larry didn't seem to mind the scrutiny. In fact, he seemed more interested in the bowl of popcorn that Blair had left sitting on the sofa just out of his reach. But Jim looked away and murmured, "Right. Now, about the camera…"

"Oh, right." Blair gestured toward his hairy, caged companion and explained, "See, I'm about to wrap up a study on how various types of external stimuli affect primate behavior in a social environment. The paper's almost finished, but I have to present my findings in a graduate seminar at the end of next week. I thought it would be great to actually show the differences in response to loud, high-decibel stimuli as opposed to something like classical music and a series of images drawn from nature."

Jim just stared at him, wondering where in the world these academic types came up with their weird ideas for research. "How many chimps do you know who watch TV or listen to Bach?"

"He's not a chimpanzee," Blair corrected impatiently. "He's a Barbary Ape. And the behavioral patterns of a Barbary Ape are remarkably similar to those of humans. I'm using this project to demonstrate that it's not just a cultural phenomenon that strong rhythms and visually stimulating attire help to heighten aggression in warrior societies. There are physiological reasons why the war drums and exaggerated imagery on tribal masks stimulate aggressive behaviors."

"So…you asked to borrow several thousand dollars worth of the PD's video equipment to take pictures of a monkey watching reruns of 'The Untouchables'?" He lifted his chin in a gesture toward the small television where black-and-white images of Elliott Ness and company filled the screen with a melodramatic reenactment of a 1920's Chicago gang war.

Blair flashed him an ingenuously wry grin. "I was supposed to be able to get one of the department's cameras, but some idiot got the reservation cards mixed up, and now *my* camera is on its way to a dig somewhere in central Arizona with Professor McHenry. I didn't know what else to do except ask if maybe the police department had one that I could borrow for a couple of days." His grin faded into a vague frown. "You didn't seem to have any problems with it when I asked you about it yesterday," he pointed out.

Jim sighed and surrendered the video case. "Just take good care of it," he warned. "If anything happens to that camera and Carolyn starts peeling strips off my hide, I'm going to turn around and do the same to you."

"It'll be safe, I promise."

Blair immediately began unpacking the camera and setting it up on its sturdy tripod, his movements clearly those of someone who had handled such equipment before. "Hey, Jim, how 'bout if you sit on the couch there and let me check the focus?" he suggested. "In fact…" His expression shifted from thoughtful to suddenly enthusiastic. "If you have time, you can help me with the experiment."

"Oh, no, Sandburg," Jim said with a firm shake of his head. "I'm not going to be the guest star in your little home movie here. Just forget it."

"Come on, Jim. It'll help my results. Right now, you're the unknown in Larry's world, and he may react differently to you than he does to me. I can use different levels of familiarity as a variable in his pattern of response when he gets all hyped up from the stuff he's watching on the screen."

Jim looked from the grad student, who in turn stared imploringly at him, to the Barbary Ape who mirrored Blair's action, even reaching a long-fingered hand toward him through the bars of the cage as if in supplication. With a sigh, he shook his head and rounded the end of the sofa to drop down onto the lumpy cushions. "This is just for your seminar, right?" he asked. "You're not going to send parts of the tape to some anthropologists' convention or anything?"

"No! No. It's just for the presentation next week. Only eight, maybe ten people will ever see it. I promise." When Jim made no further objections, Blair broke into a wide smile and bent over the camera again to adjust the focus. "This is really great, man." With a last look through the viewfinder, he left the camera running and came back to his seat next to Jim.

Once both men were comfortably settled in with the bowl of popcorn strategically positioned between them, Blair reached over and opened the door to the ape's cage, giving the animal the freedom to come out or stay in as he chose. After a few minutes, Larry chose to leave the confines of the cage. He swarmed over the arm of the sofa and onto the back cushions, pausing to root through Blair's hair for a moment, then dropping down onto the seat to steal his share of the popcorn. Every few seconds he would glance over at the action on the television, voicing his opinion of the fist fights and gunshots with shrill cries of objection. He squawked at Jim once or twice, but Jim only glared back at him and nudged him gently out of the way when Larry's movements obstructed the view of the screen.

"This is way cool," Blair said in mild awe as Larry finally tucked himself against Jim's side and wrapped his almost-human hands around the detective's arm. "Do you realize what he's done?"

Jim gave him a brief, sidelong look. "Yeah. He's gotten hair all over my jacket."

"No, man, that's not what I mean." Blair leaned toward the pair and studied the way Larry pressed himself close to Jim. "He's accepted you as the alpha male of his -- of *this* society -- you, me, and him. He's taking his cues for how to act from you. You're not bothered by what's on the TV, so he's not either. Any other time, he'd be climbing all over the place and going over there to pound on the screen. Look at him, though. He's perfectly happy sitting there letting you protect him."

Jim just rolled his eyes and tried to detach his arm slightly from Larry's grip. "That's crazy."

"It's the truth," Blair insisted. "I've been watching his reactions for days now. This is not his usual reaction to a show that's full of loud voices and gunfire and people beating the crap out of each other." He pulled his notebook close and began scribbling notes on Larry's behavior.

"Hey, Sandburg, you got a beer or something? That popcorn's making me thirsty."

Blair lifted his pen briefly and waved in the general direction of the kitchen. "Yeah, sure. They're in the fridge," he said without looking up from his notes.

"I'll take one."

"Ok. They're in the fridge."

Jim sighed and stood up, ignoring the plaintive whine from his furry companion. "Somebody needs to teach you the fine art of being a gracious host," he grumbled as he headed toward the refrigerator.

He stopped mid-stride and cocked his head, his senses sending tremors of alarm through his entire body. "Sandburg! Turn that down, quick!" he ordered.

Blair almost dropped his notebook in his haste to comply. "What? What is it?"

"I thought I heard gunfire." Jim still stood where he'd stopped, listening, but hearing only the uneven hum of the antiquated appliances.

"It's just the TV, man."

"It wasn’t the TV," Jim insisted. "Those are tommy guns they're using. This was different -- rapid fire, but the pitch wasn't the same." He stepped closer to the kitchen wall, senses still seeking outward for whatever had raised the hairs on the back of his neck and almost had him reaching for his own weapon. He heard the muted sound of voices, and an erratic splashing sound. The smell hit him abruptly, the pungent scent of gasoline stinging his nose. Then his ears picked up the low *whoosh* of fire, the crack and pop of an explosion, and he spun back toward the sofa.

"Get down!" he shouted, punctuating the command by launching himself in a diving leap over the back of the sofa. He was still airborne when the wall blew in, showering the space beyond with debris.

The two men landed in a tangled heap, rolling with the momentum of Jim's flying tackle until both crashed into the base of the video tripod. Jim's weight pinned his legs in place, but Blair managed to twist his upper body and catch the camera as it tumbled toward his head and capture it against his chest. A slight oof escaped his lips from the awkward effort. He blinked several times against the fine dust and soot filling the air.

"Jim?" he called sharply. "You okay, man?"

Jim slowly uncurled his arms from around his head and rolled away from Blair. A small shake of his head cleared some of the explosion's painful echoes from his hearing. He sat up slowly, only to have an unexpected weight land across his shoulders and head. He reached back and peeled away an agitated and talkative Barbary Ape. Larry didn't want to let go, but at least he transferred his tenacious grip to Jim's jacket instead of his throat.

The crackle of flames from beyond the ruined wall drew Jim's attention to the lingering danger, and he pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, dragging Blair up as well. "Get yourself and Larry out of here," he commanded, coughing slightly in the clogged air. "And call 9-1-1." He dug his cell phone from his jacket pocket and pressed it into the hand that was not occupied holding the video camera.

"What about you?" Blair demanded in return. "You can't stay in here!"

Jim gestured to the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall near the stove. "I'm going to try to keep the fire from spreading beyond that wall," he said. "Now, go!"

Reluctance obvious in the tense set of his shoulders, Blair grabbed the protesting Larry from Jim's chest and shoved him inside the cage that had been knocked to the floor in the commotion. As soon as he was free of the furry burden, Jim turned back to begin his efforts to contain the spread of the flames from the other side of the warehouse.

The wall itself was most vulnerable to the questing tongues of flame, along with the stacked wooden pallets and crates nearby. Jim concentrated his efforts on those, emptying the small fire extinguisher that was designed for controlling simple kitchen blazes. He turned to search for something with which to beat down the still threatening fire and found Blair beside him with an armful of wet bath towels.

"I told you to get out of here!" he said, his voice roughened by the smoke and particulate debris he'd inhaled.

Blair was already using one of the dripping towels on a hot spot near the kitchen cabinets. "I did what you said," he countered. "Fire department's on the way. Larry's safely outside. This isn't a one-man job."

Jim refrained from answering only because the fire demanded his attention once again. He devoted a few critical minutes to dragging the wooden crates farther from the flames, then stopped, again assuming the stance that signaled intense concentration. After a moment he reached out and grabbed Blair's shoulder, pulling him back a few steps.

"Fire Department's here, Sandburg," he announced. "Let's get out of here and let the professionals do their jobs."

Blair looked up, his face streaked with soot and grime, and nodded, letting Jim steer him out of the warehouse. The space outside was filled with fire trucks and running men, thick hoses and the thrum of compressors and pumps. The professionals were, indeed, doing their jobs. Pausing only long enough to cough the smoke from his lungs, Blair turned away from the flurry of activity and went to his car where he'd deposited Larry's cage on the back seat of the open convertible. He hoisted himself up to sit on the back hatch, hooking his heels onto the bumper for balance.

"What the hell happened in there?" he asked, turning a confused frown on the man standing beside him. "You knew something was going on. What was it?"

Jim sighed as he leaned back against the side of the car and dragged a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe at his streaming, irritated eyes. "Someone torched the warehouse," he answered simply. "I could hear voices, but not what they said. Then they splashed something all over the place -- it smelled like gasoline -- and lit it. I heard the flames getting closer, and a small pop like something exploded. That's when I yelled at you to get down."

Blair shook his head slowly, his wide eyes reflecting vague disbelief. "That is incredible. Your senses -- you could tell all that through a wall. If you hadn't been there…" His voice trailed off uncertainly.

Jim looked down at the dirty pavement beneath his feet. His mind's eye reconstructed the sight of the sofa they'd occupied moments before the explosion. A sizable section of the blown out wall had landed just where Sandburg had been sitting. Without forewarning, he could have been injured or killed.

An urgent hail broke Jim from his unexpectedly grim thoughts and brought his head up to seek the owner of the voice. He pushed himself away from Blair's car and went to meet the fire captain in charge of the scene.

"Is it safe to go inside?" he asked, seeing the fire fighters beginning to roll up their hoses in preparation for leaving.

"Should be." The captain tipped his protective helmet back onto his head. "It didn't take long to knock down the fire. Not much in there was combustible once the chemicals burned off. You've got yourself some dead bodies to deal with, though -- five that my men saw. And the fire didn't kill them. It looks like they were shot."

Jim nodded, unsurprised by that news. He knew he'd heard gunfire before the explosion. "Where are the bodies?"

The fire captain pointed to a cleared area beyond the last of the fire trucks. "I've already notified the police and the coroner's office. You want to have a look at them yourself?"

"Yeah." Jim turned toward the place where five shrouded shapes lay on the ground. He crouched to examine each of the bodies in turn, verifying the fire captain's assessment that the victims had not died in the fire. All had been hit several times by gunfire, but were largely untouched by the flames except for a few singed patches on their clothes. Only two had any sort of identification, and Jim made note of the names on the driver's licenses he found inside their jacket pockets.

"Jim! You got here quick, man." Joel Taggart trotted up, huffing a little at the exertion. "I only got the call ten minutes ago."

"I was already here," Jim said, gesturing to where Blair was still trying to calm an agitated ape. "Sandburg lives -- lived -- on the other side of the warehouse." He pushed himself to his feet and ushered Joel toward the charred shell. "Let's see if we can figure out what went on in there."

The two men spent several minutes going over the interior of the building, noting the ruptured drums and the burn patterns on the cement floor. A few drums remained intact, and Joel read off the contents stamped on the sides. "These chemicals are used to manufacture drugs," he said grimly. "It looks like when the gasoline went up, the chemical precursor exploded, too. That's what took out the wall." He made a quick count and added, "You know, with all the stuff they had around here, man, this was a major drug lab."

Jim nodded, but his expression was no less severe than his colleague's. "Good work, Taggart. There's just one thing missing."

"What?" Joel looked momentarily baffled.

"The drugs."

Jim turned away when he heard Simon Banks' distinctive rumble, answered by another unfamiliar voice. He started down a miraculously intact wooden stairway just as Simon called up to him, "Jim! Down here."

When Jim reached the lower floor, he found himself face to face with a dapper African American man of about Simon's age. The man's custom-tailored suit and Brooks Brothers trench coat made him look more like a rising corporate executive than the police lieutenant Jim knew him to be. In any world he would have been a man to be reckoned with. His flat, black eyes were as hard and uncompromising as obsidian, and his expression hinted at none of his thoughts.

"I've asked the anti-gang unit to get involved in this," Simon explained. "I think you know Lieutenant Williams." Simon quickly went on to introduce his detectives.

Williams took a pull from a strong-scented cigarette before acknowledging the introductions.

"I think we worked the Carmichael case together last year," Jim said, searching his memory for the reason Williams' presence immediately raised the hair on the back of his neck. His nose twitched as a cloud of pungent smoke wafted toward his face as Williams exhaled. "I thought you gave up smoking."

The lieutenant's answering smile didn't touch his shuttered eyes. "I did. The problem is, smoking didn't give up on me."

Another African American man, younger than Williams and dressed more like a street punk than a cop, joined the group, and Simon again volunteered the introductions. "This here is Earl Gaines, one of the best men in Williams' unit."

Jim didn't need Sentinel sight to see the almost defiant intensity in the younger man. Gaines held himself stiffly, his chin jutting, and his dark eyes all but dared anyone to cross him. Jim had heard of Gaines, knew of his aborted rise to collegiate athletic stardom, suspected that he still missed those glory days. Still, if they were to be working together… "Gaines." Jim nodded at the young detective and received only a vague "hey" in response. "I remember your game winner against Oregon in '93. That was a hell of a catch."

There was no hint of yielding in Gaines' demeanor, but neither was there any false pride. He merely shrugged and replied, "Yeah, I had a few lucky plays."

Simon stepped in to bring the conversation back to the matter at hand. "All right, what do you got, Jim?"

"So far, we've only been able to ID two of the bodies," he reported. "Maurice Brown and Eldridge Wardell. Both are known gang-bangers with rap sheets as long as my arm. The others we aren't sure of yet."

Earl Gaines spoke into the brief silence. "Byron Walker, Darnell Devane and Vernon Sims."

Jim's head swiveled around to regard the younger detective, automatically pulling his notebook from his jacket. "What was that?"

Gaines repeated the three names, his tone suggesting that he was addressing a mental defective.

"How do you know that?" Simon asked.

Again, Gaines' response suggested that he was stating the obvious. "I looked at the bodies in the coroner's van. They're all members of the 357's."

"So, you really think this is a 357 lab?"

"No doubt about it."

Jim looked from Gaines to Simon, his brows lowering in a grim frown. "If that's true, we're not talking about some punk wannabe gang."

"Wait," Joel interrupted. "The 357's are big time. Who'd be crazy enough to hit them?"

"What about the Deuces?" Lieutenant Williams suggested.

Gaines shook his head. "Not likely."

"The Deuces are their main rivals," Simon pointed out. "It makes sense."

Again Gaines shook his head, his face going even stonier than it had been before. "There's been a truce between the Deuces and the 357's for over a year."

Simon's voice held gentle insistence as he said, "Well, truces break down, Earl."

"No." Gaines was adamant. "We would have heard something before now. I've known Antoine Hollins, the Deuces' leader, most of my life. He made a promise to stop the killing. It's hard for me to believe that he'd just throw that away."

Jim just looked at him and said bluntly, "Well, someone sure as hell did."

Simon broke in again before Earl had a chance to challenge Jim. "Look, we have to at least consider the possibility. You may not want to believe the Deuces had anything to do with this, but there's been bad blood between them and the 357's for a long time. Right now, I don't see a whole lot of other suspects. Do you?"

Gaines didn't answer. His features twisted in disgust and he walked away without another word to anyone.

"I think we should bring this Antoine Hollins in for questioning," Jim said into the tense silence that followed Gaines' departure.

Simon nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger. "Of course we should," he agreed wearily. "But let's wait till morning to do it. I want to give Forensics a chance to gather whatever evidence the perps might have left behind." He looked past his men to where the technicians were already hard at work examining the scene.

Jim followed his gaze for a moment, but a loud thump from beyond the blown-out wall drew his attention to Sandburg's side of the warehouse. "Are we done here, sir?" he asked. "I'd like to get back and make sure Sandburg doesn't bring the rest of the building down on his head."

"Yeah, sure, Jim." Simon waved a hand in dismissal. "I gotta tell you, though. That kid's track record so far has me worried. He's been with you -- what -- a month? I hope his penchant for trouble doesn't rub off on you."

~~~~~~~~

"Sandburg?" Jim called out as soon as he stepped through the ragged and unplanned opening in the warehouse's interior wall. He glanced around, noting that several pieces of furniture and boxes that had stood on the floor before were now raised on wooden pallets. Larry's cage had been returned to its place on a crate beside the sofa, and the smallish ape huddled inside. "What the hell are you doing in here? I could hear you crashing around from the other side of the warehouse."

Blair emerged from behind a stack of boxes and dusted his hands on his already filthy jeans. "Just trying to make sure none of this stuff was damaged by the smoke or water," he answered, splashing a little in the puddles that had run into his living space. "This is all research and stuff from the university. It's irreplaceable."

Jim watched as the younger man turned almost a complete circle in place, his hands raking through disheveled hair and finally coming to rest laced on top of his head. "Come on," Jim said neutrally. "I'll help you load this stuff up so you can take it with you."

"Take it with me where?" Blair asked. His eyes were wide and questioning, his expression one that Jim had seen before in the aftermath of an unexpected disaster. The light from a strategically placed Coleman lantern threw his face into a sharp contrast of shadow and highlight. The effect made him look even younger and more than a little lost. "This is where I live, man."

"Sandburg, you can't stay here. The utilities have been shut off. By morning this place is going to be cold as a tomb. You've got a hole in your wall that means there's no way to secure this part of the building. And there's water all over the floor."

"So, where am I going to go?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. A hotel? A hostel? Something."

Blair paced a few steps, his body language that of nerves tightly strung. "That's fine for me," he retorted. "But what about Larry?"

"Put him in a kennel," Jim suggested. "He's used to being in a cage. He'll be fine."

"I can't do that. I have to finish my observations for that presentation next week. I can't do that unless I have Larry with me. It's going to be hard enough getting him settled down from all this confusion tonight…" Blair stopped abruptly when faced with an Ellison-sized human wall.

Jim placed a restraining, steadying hand on Blair's shoulder. Tremors from the younger man's body rippled through his fingers. "I think you're the one who needs to settle down, Chief," he said evenly.

Blair slid out from beneath Jim's hand and resumed his pacing. "Yeah, well, that's a little tough to do right now. Ya know? I heard what that fire captain told you about finding bodies." His hands flailed in punctuation of his words. "And I was listening to part of what you and Captain Banks were talking about over there. That hole in the wall doesn't do much to muffle sound." His steps brought him to the sofa, half buried as it was under debris. He shoved a slab of wall board onto the floor and dropped down onto the dusty cushions. "I just can't believe all this is happening," he concluded, sweeping an arm toward the crime scene just beyond his space. His voice had risen in agitation, and the hand with which he gestured was less than steady. "People died over there, Jim, not even fifty feet from where we were sitting. And I didn't know anything about it. I've been living next to a fucking drug lab, and I never knew it."

Jim sat down at the other end of the sofa, ignoring the slight dampness he felt against his back. He studied the younger man's face, seeing regret and self-recrimination and a sense of failure lurking beneath the surface shock of losing his home so violently. "Sandburg…Blair…you really never suspected that something was going on over there?"

"Man, I swear, that place was deserted," Blair replied, his eyes imploring Jim to believe him. "I mean, last week I started hearing some strange noises in the middle of the night. But there are always weird noises around here. You know, the plumbing, the rats, transients trying to find a place to get in out of the cold."

Jim just shook his head, once again amazed at the conditions in which Blair had chosen to live. "Come on," he said after a moment. He stood up and gestured for Blair to get up as well. "Let's get as much of your stuff as we can loaded up and go find you a place to stay -- at least for tonight."

"That's still going to be a problem," Blair pointed out, reaching over to lay his hand against the side of Larry's cage and let the ape wrap a hand around his wrist. "Unless…" He looked hopefully up at Jim, his eyes wide and pleading.

"Oh, no. No, no, no," Jim answered quickly. The potential for disaster if he took in Sandburg and the ape made his head ache with tension. "Just forget it."

Blair stood, spreading his hands in supplication. "Come on, Jim, please. Please. You said it yourself. I can't stay here. I've got no where else to go, not where I can take Larry, too."

Jim shook his head again. "I'm not a big fan of animals in cages -- or in the house, for that matter."

"Larry?" Blair turned and opened the cage door, letting Larry swarm out into his arms and up onto his shoulder. "Larry's no problem. See? He's been around people all his life. Hell, he's more human than most of my friends."

Jim had to curb a smile at that declaration. "That's supposed to reassure me?" he queried wryly.

"Jim, come on. One week, that's all, just till I get this presentation over with. One week, then I swear we'll be out of your hair. Please."

Only an ogre made of sterner stuff than Jim Ellison could have refused the two pairs of mournful eyes. And he did owe Sandburg for the help he'd already given him in getting some measure of control over his whacked-out senses. He half turned, rubbing a hand over his face and around the back of his neck where knots of tension were already forming.

"All right," he conceded finally. "One week. But if you or the gorilla act up…"

"He's not a gorilla," Blair cut in as Larry let out an offended squawk. "Look, you already hurt his feelings."

Jim rolled his eyes and sent up a silent plea for patience. "You know, I'm already starting to regret this. Let's just get your stuff loaded up before I change my mind."

~~~~~~~~

It was late when they finally closed the loft door after bringing up the last of Blair's personal belongings they'd salvaged from the damaged warehouse. The furniture was too large to bother with, and Blair had already declared his intention of going back the next day to put it in storage -- assuming vagrants and scavengers didn't beat him to it. That idea hadn't upset him overly much when Jim pointed out the possibility.

"Just stack your stuff over there," Jim suggested, pointing to the one unoccupied wall of the small spare room tucked beneath the upstairs loft bedroom. Larry's cage already sat on a small table in the far corner. The ape seemed to be taking his change of circumstances with relative equanimity. He clung to the bars and watched the two men moving around, his large eyes reflecting only curiosity. "Sorry the room doesn't have a door," he added, glancing at the empty space where the door should have been. "It wasn't hanging quite right, so I took it down to plane and level it. Figured I'd sand it down and put a new coat of stain on it while I was it. That was right before the Switchman thing came up. I got tied up in the investigation, and then my senses started going haywire, and I never got around to getting anything done with it."

"Jim, I've been living in a warehouse," Blair pointed out patiently. "And on expeditions, I've slept hanging from a tree in a hammock or sharing a tent with about a dozen other people. I hardly think a missing door is going to be a problem. At least not for me."

Jim nodded and went to check out the closet, which he knew was probably mostly full. "If you have clothes that have to be hung up, I can take some of this stuff down to the basement storage."

A quick survey of said closet revealed neatly marked boxes of camping gear and seldom used household goods. "Not a problem," Blair said equably. "I just need to hang up some shirts and my jacket. There's plenty of space here." He proved his statement by shifting a box from the top of a stack to the floor, creating enough of a gap beneath the clothes pole for an armload of shirts on wire hangers.

Jim made a face and waved at the air. "You'd better make time tomorrow to wash all that stuff up, Sandburg," he said. "It smells like smoke."

Blair shot him a "duh" look and replied, "Yeah, well, I imagine we're a little fragrant, too, Jim. Fires tend to do that." His brows furrowed slightly and he asked, "Is the smell going to bother you too much? I can go find an all-night laundromat."

"I can handle it," Jim assured him. "It's better than having you traipsing in and out all night doing laundry. There's a washer and dryer in the basement you can use tomorrow."

"Great." Blair returned to his unpacking, turning around a moment later with a small canvas bag full of toiletries. "Um…okay if I put this stuff in the bathroom?" he queried.

Jim pointed across the hall. "Use the cabinet under the sink. There's not enough counter space to leave it sitting out. As soon as you get done in there, I'm going to take a shower."

~~~~~~~~

Blair quickly put away his shaving and bath supplies, then, while Jim was busy with his shower, finished unpacking his rather meager supply of clothes. Jim was right. The stuff smelled awful, an acrid combination of wet ash and chemical residues. He would definitely have to make use of the laundry facilities as soon as possible.

Once done, he moved to the kitchen to unpack the box of food he'd rescued from the warehouse rubble. He was glad he'd grabbed the battered old teakettle from the stove; a thorough search of the cabinets revealed that Jim didn't seem to own one. He quickly filled the kettle and set it to boil, then finished putting away his natural foods while he waited.

"I have got to teach Jim better eating habits," he muttered, taking in the stocks of packaged foods, red meats and eggs that filled the pantry and refrigerator. "The man is a heart attack waiting to happen."

"There's nothing wrong with my heart, Sandburg," Jim's voice said from behind him, causing Blair to jump and turn so quickly that he nearly lost his footing on the smoothly polished floor.

He clamped a hand over his chest and closed his eyes on a long, sigh. "Don't DO that, man!" he protested. "This is SO not the night for any more surprises."

Jim was almost smiling as he leaned on the thick wooden posts that supported the loft's ceiling. One bare foot was crossed over the other, and the sleeves of his age-softened bathrobe had slipped back almost to his elbows where his arms rested against his chest. "Who's the heart attack waiting to happen?" he asked meaningfully.

"Ha-ha. Very funny, big guy," Blair said crushingly. He threw Jim a mock scowl and turned away to grab a mug off the wall-mounted rack.

"Making yourself right at home there, aren't you?"

Blair froze, the mug clutched between both hands, and blinked up at the Jim. "I didn't think you'd mind," he said. "I'm still a little frazzled from the explosion and the fire and everything, and I thought some herb tea would calm me down. You might like some, too. It'll help you sleep better."

Jim pushed himself away from the post and reached into the refrigerator for a beer. "I sleep just fine," he declared and added pointedly, "as long as the loft is quiet."

"Guess I shouldn't plan on doing any more television watching with Larry tonight, huh?"

"Guess you shouldn't." Jim swallowed a long pull from the beer. "Unless I'm out on a stake-out or working on a case, I usually turn in early and I get up early. And, as you might expect, I'm a pretty light sleeper. I expect you to keep that in mind."

Blair nodded, not surprised by the declaration. "Right. Got it. Quiet after lights out." He jumped again when the kettle began to boil with an increasingly shrill whistle, snatching it off the burner and turning off the gas before the noise could bother Jim. There was silence for several moments while he busied himself with tea ball, mug, and spoon.

Slowly nursing his tea, Blair watched Jim move into the living room and sit down on one of the pale leather sofas, extending his legs and stretching a bit. From the way he rolled his shoulders and tilted his head, first one way then the other, Blair suspected that his earlier acrobatics had left him with a few sore muscles. "Sure you don't want some tea?" he asked. "When I'm all tense and uptight, it really helps me unwind."

"I don't want any tea," Jim assured him. He sat slightly forward and reached for the remote control. "I'm going to catch the late news, then I'm turning in. Why don't you go ahead and take your shower."

Blair finished his tea and rinsed out the mug, then went to do just that. When he came out, dressed in sweat pants and a tee-shirt, his hair leaving dark, wet patches on the shoulders, Jim had turned off the television and was carefully checking the locks on the windows and doors.

Jim glanced at his "guest" as he turned toward the stairs to his room. "I'm going to bed," he announced. "Remember what I said about keeping the noise down."

"I will," Blair promised. "G'night, Jim."

~~~~~~~~~~ Act II ~~~~~~~~~~

Jim had always been able to wake early without an alarm clock. His eyes opened at the first hint of daylight filtering through the skylight, regardless of how much or how little sleep he'd had the night before. He preferred this slower process of waking to the jangling discord of bells and buzzers assaulting his ears.

He blinked several times in the wan morning light and frowned as his senses registered the differences in his surroundings. The changes were subtle ones, but enough to bring him to full awareness even more quickly than usual. His nose twitched with the faint residue of smoke and ash still wafting from the boxes they'd brought from the warehouse last night. His ears registered a series of uneven rattles and clangs -- Larry stirring in his cage -- and the soft snores of uninterrupted sleep from the room below. His roommates, he realized with a long sigh. His very temporary but already pervasive roommates.

Jim threw back the covers and sat up, his bare toes curling slightly on contact with the cold wooden floor. He scrubbed both hands over his face and wondered just what lapse in sanity had led him to agree to letting Sandburg and his monkey -- ape, a small internal voice corrected automatically -- move in, even if only for a week. He lived alone for a reason. Even during his short-lived marriage to Carolyn Plummer, he'd felt both stifled and chafed by another human presence. His preference for order and spartan surroundings had clashed badly with Carolyn's more elaborate tastes, as it did with most people's idea of domestic comfort. The normal day-to-day clutter most people took for granted set Jim's teeth on edge. Blair Sandburg and his Barbary ape certainly qualified as clutter in Jim's book. Noisy, odd-smelling, animate clutter.

//It's only for a week//, he told himself resolutely. //You've dealt with worse conditions for a lot longer than that//.

He reached for his robe and stood up, stretching to relieve knots of morning stiffness in his back and shoulders, then trotted downstairs to start the coffee. He had to move a few unfamiliar containers out of the way to get to the canister. As he ran water to fill the machine, he heard a series of muffled thumps and grumbles from the spare room, followed by the rusting of bedclothes and the soft tread of sock-clad feet. A few moments later, the bathroom door clicked shut

"Don't take too long in there, Sandburg," Jim called. "I have to shave and get ready for work."

The coffee had scarcely begun to drip when the door opened again and Blair stumbled out, eyes still only half open, his hair an uneven nimbus around his head. The overnight scruff of beard darkening his jaw and chin gave him a faintly thuggish mien that was completely at odds with his youthful features. He tugged a ratty-looking striped bathrobe over his tee-shirt and sweat pants and wrapped his arms around his chest.

"I thought this place had central heat?" he muttered through a yawn. "It's freezing in here."

"It's not that cold," Jim replied. "Besides, sleeping in a too-hot room dries out my sinuses and gives me a sore throat."

Blair reached for a mug and the coffee pot, but arrested his movement when he noticed that the coffee wasn't ready yet. "Yeah, well, sleeping in an icebox gives you hypothermia," he retorted and abandoned his mug on the kitchen counter. He ambled past Jim's bulk to extract a small container of fresh greens, nuts, and some sort of unidentifiable pellets from the refrigerator. "I'm going to feed Larry," he announced through another yawn. "Yell when the coffee's ready."

Jim just rolled his eyes as the disheveled figure disappeared back into the spare room. He stifled an unexpected impulse to laugh. As exasperating as Sandburg was, he reminded Jim of a sleepy little kid dutifully tending the needs of a cherished pet even before satisfying his own. Five minutes later Jim was finally able to pour two cups of coffee, calling to Blair that it was ready before carrying his own toward the bathroom.

The two of them nearly collided in the narrow hallway, and Larry took advantage of the opportunity to jump from Blair's shoulder onto Jim's, causing him to slosh coffee onto the floor and his own foot.

"Dammit, Sandburg!"

"Ah…sorry, Jim." Blair immediately rescued Jim from the enthusiastic ape -- or maybe he rescued Larry from Jim's wrath -- and put out a calming hand. "I'll clean up the spill," he promised. "Go on and do whatever you have to do." He herded the scowling sentinel into the bathroom and turned away even before the door closed.

Jim could hear him scolding Larry, warning the animal that he was going to get both of them thrown out if he didn't behave. He hoped that Sandburg would get the coffee spill cleaned up before it stained the wood flooring. He needn't have worried. True to his word, Sandburg had cleaned up the mess, and had done a remarkably thorough job of it at that. When he emerged after completing his morning routine, only a damp spot remained to mark the site of the mishap.

Jim paused at the end of the hall, staring in mild dismay at his usually orderly living room. Larry's cage now graced his coffee table, and Larry himself was engrossed in a 1950's western. The video camera, which had survived the previous night's adventures miraculously intact, was set up to record the ape's movements. Sandburg's notebook lay open on the sofa, and the uncapped pen threatened to roll off onto the white cushions.

He turned in response to frustrated muttering and found Sandburg inspecting every cabinet and shelf in the small island kitchen. On the counter in front of him was a pitcher full of thick liquid the color of fluorescent split-pea soup and that smelled remarkably like a swamp.

"Jim, tell me you have a blender hidden around here somewhere," Blair implored, glancing at the older man over his shoulder as he reached up to move a stack of mixing bowls out of his way.

Jim's forehead furrowed in confusion. "It's packed away in one of those boxes in the spare room," he said, eyeing the unappetizing mess with suspicion. "What the hell is that?"

"It's supposed to be an algae shake," Blair answered. "But it's way better if you whip it in a blender. Stirring just doesn't give it enough body."

"It smells like a toxic waste dump." Jim's nose wrinkled and he gave the pitcher a wide berth as he reached to refill his coffee cup. "What's wrong with normal breakfast foods?"

Blair made a face. "You mean other than the fact that they're usually loaded with cholesterol and all kinds of stuff that was never intended for human consumption?" he retorted. "It may smell like toxic waste to you, but an algae shake is, like, jam-packed with nutrients. It's all natural. No preservatives or additives or chemicals that you find in processed food."

Jim turned away and went upstairs to get dressed, casting a pained glance at the horseback chase progressing across his television screen. "Isn't it a little early for the O.K. Corral?" he asked.

"Gotta make up for lost time last night," Blair explained. "I want to record some more observations this morning before I go back to the warehouse and see if anything else is left."

"Just make sure you keep Larry locked up," Jim warned. "I don’t want him making a mess of the loft. Even when you're here, he stays in the cage. Understood?"

Blair's exasperated sigh was audible even from upstairs. "Yeah, Jim, I got it. Geez, he didn't mean to make you spill your coffee, you know. He was just being friendly." After a pause, he asked, "Hey, Jim, do you want me to scramble some eggs or something for you? All you've had is coffee. You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

"I'll grab something off the coffee cart at the station," Jim called back. "I want to get in and see if Forensics came up with anything at the warehouse last night."

Blair's voice came again from near the bottom of the stairs. "Is that likely? I mean, the place was pretty messed up by the time the fire fighters got done."

"I can hope," Jim replied with a sigh. "It's almost certain that a rival gang was behind it. The tricky part will be finding out exactly who shot the guys in the lab and torched the place. If we get lucky, maybe some fingerprints survived the fire and we'll be able to figure out who was there."

"So, are you going to be going back to the warehouse to take another look around?"

"Hadn't planned on it. I went over it pretty thoroughly last night. Now it's down to hauling in the known gang-bangers and making the rounds of our informants to see if anyone's heard noise on the streets about who had it in for the 357's."

Jim came downstairs a moment later. He finished tucking his holster into its place on his belt, then gestured to Sandburg and held out a small key-tab. "Here's a spare key to the loft. Be sure you lock up when you leave." When he had transferred possession of the key, he went to the coat rack and shrugged into his jacket. "I don't want to come home and find a sink full of dirty dishes, either," he added, glancing in dismay at the empty pitcher and green-slimed glass on the counter. "And do something about the bathroom, Sandburg. It looks like a cocker spaniel exploded in the tub."

Blair rolled his eyes. "It's just a little hair," he protested. "I didn't think about it last night after I showered. Can I help it if I shed?"

"No, but you don't have to leave it all over the place either. I'll see you later."

~~~~~~~~

Jim checked in with Forensics on his way up to the Major Crimes bullpen. As he had expected, there was very little undamaged evidence from the warehouse. They had managed to lift a few smudgy partial fingerprints, but no one held out much hope that they would be enough to match against whatever suspects Jim might identify. The empty gasoline cans found at the scene were the kind sold at hundreds of stores around town. Their best hope seemed to lie with the slugs that the medical examiner would extract from the victims when he completed the autopsies later that day.

Once he reached his desk, Jim checked his messages. The most important one told him that the uniformed officers would be bringing in the Deuces' leader. Jim didn't expect the interview to yield much; gang leaders didn't maintain their leadership by being easy to crack. But he wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't try.

His stomach grumbled to remind him that he'd skipped breakfast, and he went in search of the coffee cart to grab a Danish while he still had a chance. Joel Taggart was already there, looking over the selection of pastries just as Jim walked up. The bomb squad captain lifted a hand in greeting and asked, "So, where'd you end up stashing Sandburg for the night? I saw you helping him load up his stuff."

"Actually, he's staying at my place," he replied with a frown. "Him and Larry the ape." He snagged a Danish off the cart and took a large, satisfying bite. Preservatives and cholesterol be damned.

Joel chuckled at that. "So how are you and your new roommates getting along?"

Jim shook his head and swallowed. "Don't ask. He makes all these weird noises. He eats stuff I can't even look at, and he smells funny. All he does is watch TV all day. It's driving me crazy already." He paused, then added, "The monkey's okay, though."

That drew an even more definite laugh from Joel, but he sobered quickly when the elevator at the end of the hall opened. Jim followed the older detective's gaze to watch three men step out into the corridor. Two were uniformed officers. The third was a young African-American man in baggy trousers and a too-large leather jacket. Gold gleamed in both earlobes and around his neck. He wrenched his arm away from the officer who took hold of it to steer him down the hall and shot the cop a look that spoke volumes of contempt.

Joel frowned at the exchange. "Looks like your guest of honor just arrived. Mr. Antoine Hollins himself."

Jim started to comment, but turned instead when Simon came out of his office and said, "Oh, Jim, there you are. I've asked Earl Gaines to sit in when you question Antoine."

"Oh, come on, Simon!" Jim protested with a grimace.

The captain folded his arms across his chest and he stared down at his detective. "What? You got a problem with that?"

Jim shrugged. "Yeah, I do. Maybe Gaines wasn't a gangster himself, but the personal connection kinda bothers me," he said. "I don't want him around, in my way, if I decide to hardball Hollins."

Simon appeared less than impressed with the answer. "Now, c'mon, Jim. I brought Earl into the department. He may be young and green, but he's becoming a good cop. He won't let his history with Antoine get in the way of doing his job. Nobody wants a gang war breaking out on the streets of Cascade."

Again Jim lifted a shoulder and let it fall in a gesture of resignation. He knew when and when not to buck his captain's decisions. "All right. It's your call." But he knew he had an even bigger problem when Earl Gaines came striding down the hall wearing a scowl that could have melted iron.

"Excuse me," the younger man said with false courtesy. "Whose idea was it to bring Antoine in for questioning?"

Jim faced him without flinching. "Actually, it was mine."

Gaines nodded with disgust. "Figures. Look, I know Hollins. I could have talked to him in private, outside the station. This is not the way to deal with him."

"You think he'd admit it to you if the Deuces hit that drug lab?" Jim asked, his tone heavy with disbelief.

Gaines faced him with contempt in his dark eyes. "So, what? You figure some tin-flashing white man is going to make him roll over? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense."

Simon intervened before the two detectives could get into a shouting match. "Look, Earl…Jim was the one who suggested bringing Hollins in, but I agreed with him. We're dealing with this like we would any other investigation."

Gaines shook his head. "It's a bad move."

"The decision's been made," Simon declared, letting the voice of command take over. "So, why don't you just live with it."

Jim excused himself and went into the interrogation room where Hollins had been taken. Gaines still looked like a storm about to break when he came in a few moments later and took up a position against the far wall. The hostility radiating from the young detective was almost as intense as that from the gang leader slouched in a chair at the table in the middle of the room. Jim looked from one to the other, then circled the table, coming to face Antoine Hollins.

"You know why you're here, don't you, Antoine?" he asked.

Hollins just glared at him. "Deuces had nothing to do with those dudes gettin' capped."

Jim's head moved in a slow, derisive nod. "They just accidentally shot each other and blew up the lab. After they flushed several million dollars worth of ice down the toilet. Is that what you're telling me?"

"If you want Q and A, watch Ricki Lake," Hollins snapped, "'cause I ain't got a damn thing to say to you."

Jim rounded the table again and leaned over Hollins' shoulder, one hand braced on the tabletop. "I've got five dead bodies and a solid motive," he said warningly. "Talk to me now, Antoine. 'Cause when the evidence backs me up, you're looking at life in lock-down, and we're not cutting a deal."

Hollins turned his head just enough to meet Jim's steely gaze with one of his own. "You want to charge me, go for it. Otherwise, get out of my face."

The stare-down lasted several long seconds. Then Jim pulled back fractionally and suggested, "Ok. If you're innocent, then you just tell me who did it."

"You got the badge," Hollins sneered. "You figure it out."

Jim had already begun to believe that Hollins knew nothing about the shootings and fire at the warehouse. He sensed no fear or uncertainty in the man; only anger, thick and pervasive. But it wasn't in his nature to back down. He played out the scene he'd already started. "I already did," he answered flatly. "And you're going down."

Hollins didn't so much as blink "Ooh, you got me shakin', Die Hard."

Jim pushed himself off the chair and called to the uniformed officers waiting just outside the door. Only when they came in to escort the gang leader outside did Antoine look over at his long-time friend. He lifted one hand in a brief, unrecognizable gesture, to which Earl responded with a small nod. The door closed again and the two detectives were left alone in the room.

"Smooth work, detective," Gaines commented dryly. "Real smooth work."

Jim paced a couple of steps, his terse movements betraying frustration. "You know, if you thought you could have handled it better, you could have jumped in any time," he pointed out. "And what was that little by-play between you and Hollins just now?"

Gaines uncoiled himself from the wall where he'd been lounging with seeming disinterest. "Just an agreement to meet later on neutral ground," he answered after a slight hesitation. "I told you, I might be able to get something useful from Antoine. But not here. Not on enemy turf."

"If Hollins is innocent, I'm not his enemy."

"Sure you are." Gaines paused with one hand on the doorknob. "You're a cop, and you're white. You don't know shit about what it's like in Antoine's world. And he sure as hell isn't going to take you on a guided tour."

~~~~~~~~

An hour later, Earl Gaines ambled down a crowded street in his old neighborhood, waving to familiar shopkeepers and residents even as his eyes scanned the crowds for the one face he sought. He spotted him finally, inspecting the offerings at the grocer's outdoor bins. He approached his friend from an angle, knowing that Antoine wouldn't see him until he reached out to snag the head of lettuce Antoine juggled from one hand to the other.

"Yo, 'Toine," he greeted, tossing the lettuce back in an impromptu game of catch. "What's up with you?"

The shopkeeper yelled a protest at the treatment of his produce, and Earl laid it down with a placating spread of his hands. "Easy, man," he said calmly. "We're cool." Once the grocer was satisfied that no one was going to walk off without paying, Earl and Antoine moved off down the sidewalk, exchanging the same boyish taunts and teases they had used with each other for years.

"How's Grandmama?" Antoine asked, finally lapsing into a more serious demeanor.

Earl smiled a bit. No matter how tough Antoine tried to seem, he still had a soft spot for Earl's Grandmama LaCroix, one of the neighborhood's unofficial matriarchs. "She still cooks supper on Sunday," he answered. "You know, she keeps asking why you don't come by any more."

Antoine just shook his head with a wry laugh. "Oh, man. The head of the Deuces rollin' up to her house in broad daylight? That ain't happenin', brother!" The slight note of regret in his voice betrayed the cost of maintaining his tough gangster image.

Earl stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and moved half a step closer to his friend. "Talk to me, 'Toine," he urged. "I know the Deuces didn't do that lab."

"Tell that to the 357's," Antoine replied grimly, glancing sidelong at Earl then raking his gaze over the crowded sidewalk.

Earl could hear the dismay -- almost fear -- in the other man's voice. He steered them toward a relatively quiet area in front of an abandoned storefront. "How bad is it?"

"It's gonna get real ugly, real fast," Antoine confessed. "It's all fallin' apart, man. The gangs aren't like they were five, ten years ago. Guys like me and Tyrell Lang are on the way out. The younger brothers aren't down with the truce. They want to stir things up, grab onto the gold. You see what I'm sayin'? They don't see the gang as family. They see it as a way to get the power and the cash. Don't matter who they got to step on to do it."

"So, what are you saying?" Earl asked with a frown. "Somebody's taking a run at taking over the Deuces? That maybe that's who hit the 357's last night?"

Antoine shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. Talk is that somebody from outside is stirring up some of the brothers, saying that there's more money to be had, that all they got to do is reach out and grab it."

"Who is it, "Toine? Who's turning up the heat?"

Antoine surveyed the street again, his dark face reflecting hesitation as he brought his attention back to Earl. "You ain't gonna like it. I don't have a name, but I heard it's a cop. Someone with enough stroke to make the brothers dance to his tune."

Earl leaned back against the brick façade behind him. "You sure 'bout that?" he asked, careful to keep any hint of doubt out of his voice. "'Cause if that's true, shit's gonna come down on all of us."

"Straight up, man," Antoine declared. "No one's talking straight out, but it's there. They ain't gonna cross him, else they'll end up where there ain't no daylight for a long, long time."

"You gotta try to find out who it is," Earl said intently. "Meantime, it stays between you and me. You cool with that?"

Antoine nodded once. He reached out and grasped his friend's shoulder, squeezing it for emphasis. "It's gonna get bad, man. And it ain't like the 'hood. I can't watch your back no more." He held out a clenched fist, waiting for Earl to return the gesture.

"That's all right," Earl assured him, tapping the outstretched fist with his own before wrapping an arm around Antoine's back in a rough, brotherly hug.

After a moment, Antoine stepped back and raised a hand in farewell. "Say hello to Grandmama."

"Tell her yourself," Earl replied. "Sunday supper. Five o'clock."

"Five o'clock. Yeah. All right."

Earl watched his friend walk away and wondered just how he was supposed to handle this new information. He had no trouble believing Antoine's story about a cop stirring up trouble between the gangs. Bad cops had been a fact of his life for as long as he could remember. He just wasn't sure who he could entrust with that information. Simon Banks came first to mind. After all, Simon had recruited him for the PD, had been his unofficial mentor since he graduated from the academy. But Simon hadn't reached the rank of captain without following procedure. Right now, Earl suspected that procedure would do nothing but tip off whoever was behind the trouble and put a lot of people -- including himself -- at risk. He'd have to sit on the information for a while and hope that Antoine was able to give him something he could use.

The sound of gunfire brought him abruptly out of his thoughts. He was moving toward the sound, gun drawn, even before he realized what had happened. Panicked pedestrians scattering in all directions impeded his efforts, but he finally spotted a compact man, his face covered with a ski mask, running toward a black BMW just pulling up to the curb.

"Police! Freeze!" Earl shouted, at the same time dodging running figures and yelling for the frightened citizens to get down. "Drop your weapon!"

The gunman turned the weapon briefly toward Earl as he jumped into the back seat of the car, but he didn't fire again. Earl couldn't even try to stop him without endangering innocent bystanders. He could only watch in helpless frustration as the car sped away, leaving him with only a fleeting glimpse of a dark-skinned arm, scarred beneath the pushed back sleeve of a sweatshirt, and a flat silver bracelet encircling the exposed wrist.

He holstered his weapon and pushed his way through the crowd to the figure sprawled over the broken remains of a vendor's cart half a block away. His throat closed on a choked curse as he recognized Antoine Hollins, his shirt and jacket blackened with the blood that spilled from the terrible wounds in his chest. He knelt beside his fallen friend, extending a shaking hand to search for a pulse, even though he knew that he wouldn't find one. Uttering a soft but emphatic expletive, he bowed his head over his dead friend and gently stroked the side of his face.

"I called the police and an ambulance," a helpful bystander said from somewhere above him.

Earl reluctantly released Antoine's dead body and stood up, taking off his own jacket and laying it gently over his friend's face and chest. He knew he'd catch hell for possibly contaminating a crime scene, but he didn't care. He couldn't stand the thought of a bunch of gawking strangers staring down at Antoine's corpse.

The first response units rolled up only moments later and quickly went about the business of marking off the scene with yellow tape. The paramedics arrived soon after, only to find that there was no need for their services. A quick glance at the wounds, one of which was directly over Antoine's heart, was enough to know that he'd probably been dead by the time he hit the pavement.

Earl watched in a daze as the usual flurry of activity that followed crime ebbed and flowed around him. He spoke briefly with the uniformed sergeant who was in charge of site control, telling him what little he could about the shooter and the car in which he'd made his escape.

He knew that the report of the shooting would have been relayed immediately to Major Crimes, but Earl felt a brief flare of surprise when the first detective to arrive on the scene was Lieutenant Williams. The lieutenant, dressed as always with impeccable style, stood for a moment, his face impassive as he assessed the situation, then he came toward Earl and steered the younger man away from the center of the controlled chaos.

"Glad to see you're ok, Earl," he said simply. "The dispatcher notified me when he realized that one of my men was involved."

Earl merely nodded. Antoine's words haunted his memory, and he felt suddenly reluctant to volunteer any information, even to his own immediate superior.

"Why don't you tell me what happened here?

"Somebody capped Antoine Hollins," Earl replied flatly. "It looks like the police aren't the only ones who think the Deuces hit that drug lab. I figure this was payback."

Williams was silent while he lit a cigarette. "Did you see who did the shooting?"

Earl looked past Williams' shoulder to the second unmarked car that had just arrived. Simon Banks and Jim Ellison were just stepping out onto the street. "Let's wait till Simon and Ellison get over here," he suggested. "I don't want to have to tell this more than once."

When all four men stood in a small knot on the sidewalk, Simon repeated the same question that Williams had already posed.

"I didn't see the guy's face," Earl reported tersely. "He had on a ski mask, and he jumped into a BMW that pulled up right after the shooting. I only got a look at him as he was leaving, but I think I might know who it was," he added, almost hesitantly. "He had a scar on his right arm -- a long one, like a knife would leave. Word has it that LeRon Maxwell, one of the 357's, got into a scrape a couple of months ago and got his arm cut up with a knife. I haven't seen him since it happened, so I can't say for sure. But if anyone was going to hit Antoine 'cause he thought the Deuces hit the drug lab, it would be LeRon. He's a hot-head."

Simon nodded in acknowledgment and motioned to one of the uniforms, telling him to put out an APB on LeRon Maxwell. When the officer had left again, Simon turned back to Earl. "Did you have a chance to talk to Hollins before the shooting?" he asked.

Earl cocked his head slightly, casting a challenging look at the other three. "He still says the Deuces didn't have anything to do with the shooting and the fire. And I still believe him. Antoine thought maybe it was the work of some younger guys trying to make a name for themselves. He didn't know who, though." He set his jaw in a stubborn scowl, refraining from adding any more of Antoine's theories. Arms crossed, every line of his body reflecting his tension and frustration, he nodded past Simon to the news crews that were starting to arrive on the street. "Look, I've already given the sergeant over there everything I know. I need to go tell my grandmother what's happened. She's known Antoine since he was a baby. I don't want her hearing about him getting killed on some news report."

Simon clapped the younger man on the arm and said, "Sure, Earl. Go on. We'll see you back at the station later."

The three of them watched Earl walk away, then Lieutenant Williams turned to the other two. "I think we should take him off the case," he announced. "He's personally involved in it now, and that can affect his judgment."

Simon rubbed his forehead and sighed. "You may be right about that," he agreed reluctantly. "He hasn't been objective about this whole thing from the start. Considering his history with Antoine Hollins, I'm a little surprised you recommended him to work this case in the first place."

"That was probably a mistake on my part," Williams admitted. "I suggested Earl because I knew he had long-standing contacts in the gangs. At the time, I thought those contacts would help us. I should have pulled him off as soon as he started defending the Deuces."

"Yeah, Jim here was having a little trouble with that, too," Simon said. "Looks like his instincts were right."

Jim took a step closer to the two unit commanders and spoke up for the first time since their arrival. "With all due respect, Simon, I think we need Gaines now more than ever."

Both of the other men turned to him, and Jim quickly explained, "Look, as much as I hate to admit it, I blew it with Hollins at the station this morning. He didn't give me anything. And I don't think anyone else involved in these gangs is going to either. Gaines was right about one thing. This is a different world down here, and cops are viewed as invading aliens. Gaines has a history here, and he can approach these gang members on terms they'll understand."

"If Earl's loyalties are divided on this," Simon pointed out, "it could put the investigation -- and you -- at risk."

"Where do you think his loyalties are, Simon?" Jim asked.

Simon pushed his glasses up and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was a familiar gesture, and usually signaled that he was wrestling with a difficult decision. After a moment, he straightened his glasses and turned a stern look on his detective. "I think he'll do the right thing," he said firmly. "And I want you to make sure he does. If you think he's turning this into a personal vendetta, I want to know about it."

~~~~~~~~

As investigations went, this one was proving to be one of the most frustrating Jim could remember. By the end of the day he was no closer to finding out who was responsible for the shootings and the warehouse fire than he was to locating the man who'd gunned down Antoine Hollins on a crowded sidewalk. The APB on LeRon Maxwell had so far proved fruitless, not that Jim was surprised. And even if they did manage to pick him up, Jim doubted that they would be able to make a case against him. The gun was probably long gone by now, and no one had seen the face behind the ski mask. Only Earl Gaines had even noticed the scarred arm, a pitifully thin basis for an identification if the D.A. should decide to charge Maxwell with the murder.

Tired, frustrated, and ready to shelve the case for a few hours, Jim climbed the steps to his third-floor loft. He shut his mind to thoughts of anything but a shower, a quick dinner, and an evening spent watching whatever game was on ESPN. Of course, he'd have to wrest control of the television from Sandburg and his simian research subject…

He knew that Sandburg was at the loft; his car was parked downstairs. Jim slid his key into the lock and opened the door, half expecting to be greeted by the raucous sounds of gunfights and car chases. Two steps into the living room he froze, reaching for his weapon and casting a searching gaze around the disaster area that was supposed to be his orderly home.

The woven throws had been pulled out of place and bunched amid the scattered sofa cushions. Papers and small items were strewn over the tables and the floor. A full bowl of popcorn had been half overturned on the coffee table, leaving piles of buttery mess beside and beneath it. One of the kitchen towels lay draped over the stair railing. Larry's cage stood open beside the longer sofa, but of the ape and his human companion there was no sign.

A noise drew Jim's attention upstairs. He shifted position and looked up toward his loft bedroom, bringing his weapon to bear on the presumed intruder. "Come out with your hands where I can see them!" he commanded. "Now!"

"Jim, it's me!" Sandburg called, moving toward the loft railing with his hands raised at shoulder level. "Don't shoot, man!"

Jim exhaled sharply and holstered his weapon as Sandburg trotted down the stairs. "What the hell happened here?"

"Larry and I," Blair began, his voice taut with annoyance. "We were watching The Wild Bunch. Right? I opened the cage to give him some popcorn, and he freaked out, man…tried to bite me. I thought I had him upstairs in the closet, but he gave me the slip."

"Upstairs," Jim repeated, glancing upward. "He went berserk in my closet?"

Blair held out both hands in a placating gesture. "It's okay, Jim. He didn't damage anything, I promise. A couple of things fell off the hangers, but I picked 'em up."

Jim cast about with his senses, trying to locate the missing ape. "So where is he now? Still in the loft someplace?"

"No," Blair said miserably, gesturing toward the half-open balcony doors.

"He escaped." Jim picked up the phone and began punching a number into the keypad.

"Yeah, looks that way."

"Great. That's just great."

Blair gestured to the phone pressed against Jim's ear. "Who are you calling?"

Jim just gave him a long, disapproving look and said into the phone, "Animal Control, please."

"No! Jim, you can't do that," Blair protested.

"He could be dangerous if he tried to bite you." Jim stood impatiently, making a face at the on-hold music piped through the phone into his ear.

Blair shook his head. "He's not dangerous. He's just a little…" He pressed his fingers together, then spread his hands and waved distractedly. "He's high-strung, that's all. With everything that’s happened lately, and all the violence he's been watching on television…He must have snapped. If you turn him over to Animal Control, they'll put him in quarantine, and I won't get the rest of my observations, and…"

"Well, you should have thought about that sooner," Jim cut in. "Now, you'd better go find him. But first, warn the neighbors. Come on. Out." He jerked a thumb toward the door in dismissal, then turned back to the phone. "Yes, I'd like to report a lost Barbary ape…No, he's not a gorilla…Permit?" Jim turned to where Blair had paused, half in and half out the front door. His look plainly asked the question he didn't voice. He just rolled his eyes as Blair quickly disappeared around the edge of the door.

"Look, he belongs to Rainier University," he explained to the Animal Control officer. "I'm sure they have all the ownership permits on file there…I know he should be kept in a cage. He escaped… Description? He's about three feet tall -- if he stood up straight. He has kinda golden brown fur with a cream-colored chest and belly. And he's wearing a diaper and a leather collar…No, he's not housebroken. He's an ape!" Jim rubbed his eyebrows to forestall the headache trying to blossom inside his skull. He didn't need a frustrated comedian of an Animal Control dispatcher making light of this situation, so he forced himself to be civil as he gave his name and address.

As he went out to join Blair in searching for the lost ape, he wondered how his day could possibly get any worse.

~~~~~~~~

He should have expected that they'd have no luck locating the runaway. They continued until darkness and hunger compelled them to return to the loft for a late dinner of Chinese take-out and the daunting task of cleaning up the mess Larry had left in his wake. The Animal Control team that had responded to the report promised to pick up the search again in the morning. At least Jim was fairly certain that none of the neighbors would be unduly frightened if they happened upon Larry. Together he and Blair had canvassed a three-block radius, asking everyone they came in contact with to report any primate sightings.

"You don't have to worry, Jim," Blair assured him repeatedly over dinner. "I'll make sure everything is picked up and put back where it belongs. It's only right. Larry's my responsibility."

Jim didn't argue with that as he swiped the last egg roll and the carton of moo-shu pork. "Damn right about that, Sandburg," he agreed, pointing his chopsticks for emphasis. "I thought I told you to keep him in his cage."

Blair just sighed and wiped a drop of soy sauce from the corner of his mouth. "He was in his cage. Everything was fine until I went to give him the popcorn. He'd been rattling the bars and reaching out for the bowl. I thought he was hungry. When I opened the door, I guess the idea of freedom just got the better of him." He got up to take his plate to the sink. "Look, I'm sorry he went nuts and tore up the loft. At least you don't have to worry about it happening again, since you're probably going to boot my butt out of here as soon as I can pack."

"I promised you a week, Sandburg, and I'm not going to renege on that." He cast a disgusted look at the now-cold moo-shu and set down his chopsticks. He leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Besides, I'm too tired tonight to help you move your stuff to some other temporary flop-house."

Blair returned to the table and began gathering up empty take-out cartons and Jim's mostly empty plate. "And just to show you that I appreciate your forbearance," he said airily, "I'll even do the dishes before I start cleaning up Larry's mess. You go take a nice, hot, relaxing shower, and just leave everything else to me."

Somehow that idea was more than a little frightening. It also held a certain appeal. Let the kid pay for the chaos he'd unleashed. "You're on, Sandburg," he agreed. "Just be sure you do the job right."

By the time Jim finished his shower, Blair had cleaned up the kitchen and was sitting cross-legged on the living room floor as he sorted and stacked the loose papers gathered from around the room. The cushions had been restored to their positions on the sofas, and the spilled popcorn and butter smudges were gone from the table. Jim paused at the foot of the steps to his room and surveyed the cleanup efforts with a critical eye.

Blair looked up in response to the silent scrutiny. "It's all under control, man. I'll be done here before you know it."

Jim left him to it and went upstairs, intending to read for a while before turning in. As he settled into bed with the novel he'd been trying for weeks to finish, he could hear Blair moving around downstairs. The rustle of paper and book pages was oddly soothing, like the soft whisper of a rain shower. The sound lulled him until his eyelids grew heavy. He managed to read only a few pages before the book slid unnoticed from his hands and he was asleep.


~~~~~~~~~~ Act III ~~~~~~~~~~

For the second morning in a row, Jim awoke to immediate awareness that he wasn't alone in the loft. This time, though, it wasn't snores that announced Blair's presence. It was the sounds of purposeful movement in the kitchen and the aromas of coffee, butter warming in the iron skillet, and toasting bread. The kid must really be trying to make amends for the previous day's mishaps.

Jim dressed quickly and headed downstairs, noting with faint surprise that the loft had indeed been restored to its usual regimented order. Not so much as a stray paper-clip remained.

"Come and get it!" Blair called cheerfully. "Eggs are almost done, scrambled firm just the way you like them. Right?" He turned when Jim came into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. "Good morning. Have a seat. Breakfast is ready."

"Charming little courtship ritual you've got going here, Chief," he said dryly. "What kind of favor are you planning to ask me for today?"

Blair responded with an ingenuous smile. "No favors today, Jim. At least not for me. Today, I'm going to do you a favor and put myself at your disposal for whatever you need me to do."

Jim grabbed the salt and pepper shakers from the shelf above the sink as Blair carried their plates to the table. "That's a very generous offer," he acknowledged neutrally. "But I'm going to be following up leads on the drug lab and the Hollins murder all day. I think you'd be a little…in over your head."

Swallowing a mouthful of scrambled egg, Blair laid down his fork and met Jim's gaze evenly. "You know, Jim, a couple of years ago I did an extensive study of tribal warriors. They share remarkably similar behavioral patterns with American street gangs."

Jim pointed the pepper shaker at him and warned, "You know, these days, a comment like that can cost somebody their job."

"This has nothing to do with race," Sandburg countered. "This is about the dominance and submission of subgroups. I mean, it's simple once you think about it. In all male-dominated, power-based subgroups, antagonistic action by one group is usually met with equal or greater antagonistic action by another."

"Yeah, so?" Jim asked. "What you're saying isn't news, Chief. It's the way wars start all the time. From global conflicts to gang wars, like the one we're about to have here."

Blair nodded encouragingly. "Exactly. The Deuces and the 357's are caught in the escalating spiral of 'you bash me, I bash back.' "

Jim chewed a bite of toast while he thought. "Unless, of course, I can prove to one group that the other is innocent."

"That's exactly what you'll have to do," Blair agreed. "So, where do we start?"

"'We' don't," Jim replied firmly. "I'm going to have a talk with Earl Gaines this morning. See if he's gotten anything from his sources on the street. Then it's just plain, old police work. No sentinel stuff this time, Sandburg." He paused to wipe toast crumbs from his mouth. "Besides, I'd thought you'd be wanting to hit the streets looking for Larry again. What about that project you were so concerned about?"

Blair let out a long sigh. "Larry's probably long gone. Animal Control is still looking for him, and everyone in the neighborhood, too. He'll either show up or he won't. And even if he does, like I said last night, Animal Control will stick him in a quarantine cage for at least a week, to make sure he isn't vicious. So, I won't get him back in time to do any more work. What I've already got will just have to be enough."

~~~~~~~~

A couple of phone calls told Jim where he would find Earl Gaines. Half an hour later, he parked his truck and walked the half block to the field where Earl was coaching a group of youngsters in football basics. Jim leaned against the chain-link fence surrounding the field and watched. He had to admire the way Earl handled the boys, praising, correcting, and instructing as needed. When another boy of perhaps ten tried to join the group, Earl met him with a stern frown.

"No. No," Jim heard him say. "You know the rules. You want to play flag, you don't wear the rag." And he reached up to snatch the red handkerchief from the boy's head. "Give me this thing. Take this off."

A group of older teens and young men loitered nearby, each sporting the same kerchief Earl had taken from the boy. "Hey!" he called to them. "Yo, guys! No colors on the field, man."

They just eyed him with veiled disgust, and Jim wondered how many "recruits" they had lost to more wholesome pursuits under Earl's firm guidance.

Earl looked over and saw that he had another audience. He gathered his group into a huddle and gave them a few brief instructions, promising to be back shortly. The play continued as he jogged over to the fence where Jim stood.

"You're a little out of your territory," he observed. "What are you doing here?"

Jim looked past Earl to the kids enjoying the camaraderie and challenge of their game. "I don't want to see a gang war break out any more than you do," he said. "If we work together, maybe we can keep that from happening."

For a moment, Earl just looked at him, and Jim got the distinct feeling that he was being measured -- judged. Finally, Earl nodded. "Yeah. Okay. You feel like walking?"

"Sure." They turned away from the field, their steps unhurried. "Tell me about Antoine Hollins," Jim prompted.

"We grew up together," Earl said with a shrug. "'Toine knew that playing ball was my ticket out. He saw to it nobody messed with me. He even made sure I hit the books. He was into the gangs, but he always told me I was better than that -- that I had a future, and I shouldn't mess that up ending up with a record or dead in a drive-by. After my knee blew out, I came home, quit school, hung out a couple weeks, blowing crack and feeling sorry for myself. 'Toine saw what I was messing with. By that time, he was pretty straight, looking for a way to make things better. He cleaned me up, drove me back to school." Earl's face creased in a sad smile, the memory of his friend obviously a bittersweet one. "He said if I came home without my degree, he'd kill me."

Jim considered that a moment, trying to fathom the incongruities of a gang leader who threatened to kill a friend who failed to live up to his potential. He had to wonder what constituted "pretty straight" in Antoine's world, and how he had managed to maintain his leadership.

"The truce between the Deuces and the 357's," Jim mused slowly. "That was part of Hollins' effort to make things better?"

Earl nodded. "Antoine may not have had a college degree, but he wasn't stupid. Last couple of years, all he talked about was how America ain't going no further than its young black men can help carry it. And he knew they can't carry it very far from behind bars or from a grave."

"So, why all that attitude yesterday?" Jim asked. "If he wanted to keep peace on the streets, why not cooperate?"

"You're kidding, right?" Earl barked a short, humorless laugh. "You came in there with your mind already made up that he was guilty of something. Same kind of crap he's taken all his life from white cops. Why should he cut you any more slack than you cut him?"

Jim was silent as they navigated a path through a small crowd of people who had stopped near a sidewalk vendor. "Okay. I admit I made a mistake yesterday. I'm sorry."

"No argument there." There was no reprieve in Earl's blunt statement.

"So, are we going to be able to work together on this?" Jim asked.

Earl continued on a few more steps before he stopped and turned to look at Jim. "I asked around about you," he said. "The word I got is that you're a straight-up kind of cop. You got your blind spots, and you sure as hell can't understand the way things work down here."

Jim thought about the discussion he and Sandburg had had about subgroup dynamics. It was one thing to know how it worked, quite another to live it every day. "Isn't that why you're on the case?"

"Yeah." Earl's face went blank, and he stared off into the distance as if he was lost in thought. When he looked back at Jim, his dark eyes held resolve, and more than a little defiance. "I'm going to take a chance that you are the good cop Simon Banks seems to think you are. Antoine told me something yesterday. Something that could make this mess a whole lot tougher."

"What?"

"He said there's a cop involved in the trouble between the gangs."

Jim's look was openly skeptical. "A cop? Why would a cop want to start a war on the streets?"

"Money. Power." Earl didn't seem surprised by his colleague's disbelief. "Don't forget, a couple million dollar's worth of ice disappeared from that drug lab."

Jim's frown deepened, but he raised no more objections. A dirty cop was something no one liked to consider, but he knew that his brother officers weren't immune to the lure of easy money. Stolen drugs, marketed carefully, would yield more income than a cop would see in his entire career. And by arranging to have known rivals appear responsible for the theft, his own position was reasonably secure. Who would take the word of a street gangster over that of a cop, even if they tried to implicate him in the scheme?

"Have you told Simon about this?" he asked.

"No." Earl's features tightened and he stared down at the dirty pavement, his expression shuttered in way Jim was beginning to recognize. "Whoever it is, odds are it's a black cop. No one else would be able to get close enough to the gangs to set it up."

"Surely you don't think Simon has anything to do with it."

Earl shook his head. "No, I don't. But he plays things by the book. He'd have to report it, and then this guy -- whoever it is -- knows he's at risk. He'll cover his tracks, and we may never find out who he is."

"If Simon played things by the book," Jim pointed out, "you'd be off this case by now."

Earl nodded. "Yeah, I heard about him and Williams wanting to pull me off 'cause of my personal involvement with Antoine." He slid Jim a sidelong look. "Guess I owe you one for that."

Jim just shrugged. "So, are you ready to get to work?"

Earl pointed back in the general direction of the ball field, now some distance behind them. "I got a game to finish," he replied. "I'll see you at the station in an hour."

~~~~~~~~

Jim hadn't even made it to his desk before three different people told him that Simon Banks was looking for him. He gave up the idea of getting a cup of coffee first and headed to the office at the back of the Major Crimes bullpen. He opened the door after a brief knock. "You wanted to see me?"

Simon was standing behind his desk, coffee cup in hand. Across the desk, looking as neatly pressed and groomed as ever, was Lieutenant Williams, smoking another of those noxious cigarettes that made Jim's nose itch every time he came within fifty feet of them.

"Come on in and shut the door," Simon said grimly. "Where's Gaines? I thought you were going to meet him this morning."

"He'll be in soon," Jim said. His glance swung from one man to the other, then rested finally on Simon. "What's going on?"

Simon slapped a folder down on the corner of his desk within Jim's reach. "Forensics finished the tests on those slugs taken from the men killed at the drug lab," he said.

Jim scanned the contents of the folder, noting the caliber of the bullets and the type of weapon that had fired them. He saw nothing to explain Simon's demeanor.

"Ballistics ran a routine check through the computer data base," Simon continued. "And they came back with a match. The weapons used in the hit on the drug lab were confiscated in a bust last week. They were supposed to be in evidence lock-up."

Williams looked up at Jim from his seat. "As near as anyone can tell, they disappeared sometime after noon the same day as the hit."

Jim turned in response to the lieutenant's statement. "I assume you've checked the logs to see who might have had access to them?"

"Only three officers signed into the lockup cage that afternoon," Williams replied, handing Jim a photocopy of the log sheet.

Jim quickly ran down the list of names and signatures, noting times and which evidence bin the officers had listed. Collins from Burglary had checked jewelry recovered from a known fence against the insurance photos brought in by the owners. Warner from Homicide and a representative from the D.A.'s office had checked out several items that would be needed the next day for an in-progress murder trial. The third name caught Jim's attention, and he looked up again, seeing matching frowns on the others' faces. "Earl Gaines?"

Both men answered him with a silent nod.

"So you think Gaines stole those guns from the lock-up and gave them to a bunch of punks to shoot up a drug lab."

"Give me a better explanation," Simon challenged. "Jim, I don't like this either, but ballistics don't lie. And Earl is the only one who has a stake in this who had access to those weapons."

Jim closed the folder and laid it back on Simon's desk. "And he's too smart to leave a trail that obvious," Jim countered.

Simon released a long sigh and reached for the phone. "I'd like to believe he's too smart to turn his back on the badge," he said wearily. "But I can't give him any special treatment. As of this moment, he's a suspect, Jim."
He put in a request to have Earl sent to his office as soon as he arrived at the station.

Half an hour later, Gaines knocked on Simon's door, his expression reflecting only curiosity at the urgent summons. "What's up?" he asked as he joined the other three.

"What were you doing in the evidence lock-up Thursday afternoon?" Simon asked bluntly.

Earl frowned and hesitated before answering, "Thursday? Checking the inventory on the stuff from that crack house on Timmons Street. Why? What's this about?" His brows dipped low, and he glanced half defiantly from one to the other.

Simon told him about the missing guns and the ballistics tests that linked them to the drug lab.

"And you think I took them." Earl spun around to nail each man with an angry glare. "That's bullshit!" He focused his anger and disillusion on Simon then. "Simon, you know me, man. You know I wouldn't have anything to do with this."

"I hope you're telling me the truth, Earl," Simon warned. "Lieutenant Williams has already asked for a search warrant for your apartment. It should be here any minute."

"Fine." Earl almost spat the word out. "You search whatever you damn well please. Knock yourselves out." He dug in his pocket for a moment before slapping a key ring down on the desk. "Here. I'll even give you the keys so you don't have to break down my damn door." He turned again, catching sight of Jim, who stood a little apart from the others, arms folded over his chest. "Did you know about this?" he asked hotly.

Jim shook his head, his expression remaining impassive. "Just found out," he answered.

Earl's lips curled in a sneer. "I suppose you think I took those guns, too."

Jim's shoulders lifted in a noncommittal shrug, but he met the younger man's gaze squarely. The memory of their earlier discussion was still fresh, and it inspired Jim to caution. He hoped that Earl would remember, too.

They all went silent when the courier arrived with the search warrant. Simon quickly looked over it, making sure that it was in order. "I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, Earl," Simon said carefully. "I'm not going to lock you up. But I do expect you to be here when we get back."

"I'll be here," Earl promised. "Downstairs. I've got work to do."

~~~~~~~~

The three detectives and two uniformed officers paused in the hallway outside Earl Gaines' apartment. Simon unlocked the door and pushed it open, letting the two men in uniform precede him into the living room. Before he could issue instructions, Williams spoke up, directing them to search every inch of the place.

Simon and Jim followed, both coming to a halt in the middle of the room and looking around. Except for the expected bachelor untidiness -- newspapers left on the end table, an empty coffee cup on the kitchen counter, opened mail scattered on the dining room table -- the apartment was a typically middle class dwelling. The furniture was functional and sturdy, the shelves lining one wall filled with books and the memorabilia of Earl's college days. Framed pictures showcased his athletic talent, and several trophies served as bookends.

Jim glanced over the contents of the shelves, seeing volumes on social issues as well as popular novels and do-it-yourself guides. He was aware of the others moving around behind him, especially when Lieutenant Williams stopped just behind his left shoulder. Williams was smoking another of those damned cigarettes, and Jim coughed as the acrid smoke stung his nose and throat.

"Lieutenant, do you mind?" he said pointedly.

Williams just looked at him, his dark stare a challenge. "What's the matter? Smoke bother you?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact." Jim returned the look. "I have a pretty sensitive nose. And I don't think Gaines would appreciate it either." He gestured around the room. "No ashtrays. That usually means no smoking."

Before Williams could respond, one of the uniformed men came out of the bedroom. "We found these in here," he said, holding up a gun and a plastic bag full of milky white crystals. "The serial numbers on the gun have been filed down, but it matches the description of one of the ones that went missing from the lock-up."

Eyeing the evidence, Simon exhaled a mournful sigh. "I always knew Earl was involved in gangs," he said bleakly, "but I thought he was clean."

Jim rose to the absent detective's defense. "I don't know, Simon. Doesn't it seem stupid to you to keep a stash of drugs and an unlicensed weapon in your home? Gaines may have an attitude problem, but he doesn't strike me as stupid."

"You think he's being framed." It wasn't a question.

"It's one possibility."

Simon sighed again. "I hope you're right, Jim. But I can't ignore the evidence. I have to treat him like any other suspect." He turned to Williams, who was watching the exchange with veiled interest. "Call the station," he ordered. "Have him put in an interrogation room and held for questioning."

Williams went to the phone to make the call, and Simon turned back to Jim. "You seem awfully quick to defend Earl. I thought you didn't like him."

"We got off on the wrong foot," Jim admitted, dropping his voice almost to a whisper and turning so that he wouldn't be overheard. "But I think he's being set up here because of his past connections to the gangs."

Simon frowned. "Do you know something you're not telling me?"

Jim hesitated, all too aware of Williams returning from making the phone call. He didn't like the lieutenant's smug certainty that Earl was as good as convicted. And Earl's suppositions sent Williams straight to the top of Jim's suspect list. "Nothing definite," he answered finally. "It's just a little too neat, a little too easy."

"We've got a problem," Williams announced, breaking across the conversation. "Gaines left the station not ten minutes after we did. He got a phone call, then took off in a hurry."

"Damn it!" Simon swore, giving Jim a look that suggested he was leaning more toward believing in Earl's guilt. "Put out an APB on Gaines," he said. "I want his ass off the street."

~~~~~~~~

The one thing that could have compelled Earl to break his word to Simon was the phone call he received soon after he returned to his own desk. He left in a rush, pausing only to snatch up his jacket, and broke every traffic law in the book getting to Roosevelt Street. It was a miracle he wasn't stopped for speeding.

He pulled up to the curb and jumped out, running up the sidewalk to the elderly apartment building, only to find his way blocked by a knot of blue-shirted young men who radiated hostility. He didn't have time now for the 357's bullshit.

"Out of my way," he said sharply. "My grandma's sick."

LeRon Maxwell stepped out from behind the wall of his gang buddies and faced Earl. "Grandma's fine," he said. "We just wanted to talk."

"About what?"

"About your situation." LeRon smiled unpleasantly. "Antoine's history. Pretty soon, the Deuces gonna be history, too…Officer Gaines." He sneered the name as he would an insult.

Earl squared his shoulders and met the hostile eyes without flinching. "That's me, man."

LeRon looked down his nose at the detective. "You turned your back on your own," he said with contempt. "But now your cop friends think…you're dirty." He smiled a little as Earl's expression shifted.

For Earl, the missing guns and his name on the lock-up sign-in log suddenly seemed a lot more ominous. He wondered just what Simon and the others would find at his apartment. Inwardly he cursed himself for his stupidity.

LeRon continued to taunt him. "Ain't nobody around to cover your ass no more. You keep snooping 'round the 'hood, somebody gonna break down and blow your ass over to the next block. So my advice to you is…disappear!" He raised his hands, fingers spread like a magician performing some stage illusion.

"I ain't going nowhere, homeboy," Earl retorted. "Any time you and your gangsta-fool friends think you can make me do a ghost, then come on down."

For a moment, Earl thought he might have pushed too hard. LeRon's hand swept beneath his vest, obviously going for a weapon of some kind. Earl's gun was in his hand and pointed at the gangster before LeRon could make his move. But in response, he found himself surrounded by gun-wielding gang members. The sound of hammers cocking was like thunder in his ears.

LeRon eyed the standoff with satisfaction. "Dodge City, blood. Your call." He crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Earl's decision. His sleeves were again pushed back above his elbows, and the scar on his right arm stood out like a brand, as did the silver bracelet encircling his wrist.

Earl wanted nothing more than to shoot the son-of-a-bitch where he stood, certain now that LeRon had indeed been the one who had gunned down Antoine Hollins. But Earl would die, too. Of that he was absolutely certain. And he wasn't ready to do that, not until he knew how thoroughly he'd been set up, and by whom. He lowered his gun, tucking it back in its holster, and took a step backward.

"We'll talk again, LeRon," he vowed. "We'll talk again."

LeRon just sneered again. "Count on it."

~~~~~~~~

"Ok, Jim. Sit down and spit it out." Simon closed the door behind his detective and hitched a hip onto the corner of his desk.

Jim dropped into the nearest chair and rubbed a hand over his forehead. "I don't know, Simon," he said wearily. "I know the evidence right now is stacked against Gaines. Like I said, it's all just a little too convenient. If you were going to pull something like this, wouldn't you cover your tracks a little more carefully? Any rookie knows that forensics runs a routine ballistics check on every confiscated weapon, and that ballistics on recovered slugs are checked against every pattern on file."

"I have to admit, it's a damned stupid move."

"Yeah. So is keeping illegal drugs in your house, and then practically inviting a search. Gaines had no idea that stuff was there, Simon."

Simon crossed his arms and frowned down at Jim. "Just how do you know that?"

"I was watching his reactions when you told him about the search warrant," Jim explained. He knew he didn't need to point out that he could watch on a level that no one else could match. "He was mad, Simon. But he wasn't scared. Don't you think that if he knew those drugs were there, he'd have said or done anything to keep you from carrying out that search?"

"Maybe. Unless he knew that I'd trust him enough to not lock him up right then and there. He bolted, Jim. No one knows where he is, and he's not answering his cell phone."

Jim nodded. "Yeah. He's got a radio in his vehicle. He knows about the APB, and he now knows he's in deep trouble. Put yourself in his place, Simon. The two people on the force he trusts most -- his immediate superior, and the man who recruited him in the first place -- both think he's mixed up in a gang shooting and the theft of illegal drugs. What would you do?"

Simon cast a long, silent look at the ceiling before looking back and answering, "I'd keep myself out of sight until I could figure out what was going on."

"Exactly what Gaines is doing."

"Let's assume for a minute that you're right. That means someone else in the department is setting Earl up. Someone else is involved in this."

Jim chewed on his lip for a moment, then looked up at Simon. "Earl told me something this morning. Something that Antoine Hollins told him when they met yesterday, about a cop being behind the trouble between the gangs. He didn't know who."

Simon's frown deepened and a thread of anger crept into his voice. "Why the hell didn't Earl tell us about this yesterday after the shooting?"

"Because he didn't know who he could trust." Jim saw the protest forming, and raised a hand to forestall it. "He didn't think it was you, Simon. But he didn't want it going into the official report yet. Until today, it was just a rumor. Speculation. Now, though, I'd say Hollins was right."

"So, why would Earl tell you about it?" Simon asked. "You two aren't exactly best buddies."

Jim had to smile a bit at that. "This is one time when being white is actually a good thing, in Earl's book. He knew there was no way I'd get close enough to the gangs to set up something like that drug lab hit."

"He's looking for a black cop who's gone bad."

Jim nodded. "And someone who knows the gangs well enough to know who'd go along with it -- or who he could pressure."

Simon stood up and paced slowly to the window. "You're talking about someone in Williams' anti-gang unit," he concluded.

"Or Williams himself."

Simon sighed again. "Look, Jim, I know you don't like Williams. You bristle like an alley cat every time you're in the same room with him. But that doesn't mean he's dirty."

"No, it doesn't," Jim conceded. "But it doesn't rule him out, either."

"So, what do you want to do?"

"I want to have another look at those evidence logs," Jim answered. "And I want to talk to the officer in charge down there."

Simon waved toward the door and turned back to this desk. "Go on, then. Do your thing. Just make sure you know where you stand before you start throwing any kind of accusations around. And keep me informed."

Jim nodded and left, going straight to the evidence lock-up on the second floor. Talking to the officer in charge proved fruitless. Another officer had been on duty on Thursday when the weapons had disappeared. But the log sheets did yield one critical fact. They had been altered, one of the entries had been carefully erased and another name written in over it. No one except Jim would have noticed the fine, loose fibers left by the erasure, and the ghost of an underlying image beneath the letters scrawled in heavy black ink. There was not enough left of the original to determine whose name had been erased. It was more important than ever to speak with the officer who'd been there. He wouldn't be able to do so any time soon, though. The man had left this morning for a week's visit to San Francisco in preparation for his daughter's wedding.

Frustrated, but at least satisfied that he'd been right to believe in Earl Gaines' innocence, he headed back upstairs to his own desk. He was in the elevator when his cell phone rang.

"It's Earl."

Jim straightened at that pronouncement. "Where the hell are you?"

"Around." As an answer it wasn't very helpful. "What'd they find at my place?"

"Ice and a gun with the serial number filed off. They're checking now to see if it's one of the ones missing from evidence." Jim reached out and hit the Stop button on the control panel. He didn't want anyone else walking in on this conversation.

"It's a set-up. You've got to know that."

"I believe you," Jim replied. "Why'd you run, though?"

Earl explained about the phone call, ostensibly from one of his grandmother's neighbors. He also told him about his run-in with LeRon Maxwell. "That call is part of the set-up, man," Earl concluded. "They wanted it to look like I ran because I knew what they'd find at my apartment."

"You need to come in," Jim told him. "I've talked to Simon. He'll back you up, make sure the investigation doesn't dead-end with you as the patsy."

"Uh-uh. No way. Doesn't matter what you and Simon believe. I'll end up in lock-up, and you know how long I'll last there."

"That's not how it works, Earl. You'll be put in a separate cell, not where anyone can get to you."

Earl laughed, but there was no humor in the sound, only desperation. "Wise up, man! I walk back in there, I'm as good as dead. I'll take my chances on the streets. Anyway, I've got to see Tyrell Lang, see if he knows one of his boys is cuttin' deals on the side. No way LeRon is in on the set-up without being in on the hit, too."

"That's a bad idea, Earl," Jim protested. "How do you know Lang isn't part of it, too?"

"Lang wouldn't kill his own men," Earl said. "He's a lot of things, but he wouldn't turn on his own like that."

"I want you to meet me," Jim said firmly. "We need to talk, but it's not safe to do it now. I'm at the station."

Jim could almost hear the other man's furious thinking in the long seconds before Earl finally answered. "All right. But I want you to do me a favor. This is all getting' too crazy. I want someone to watch my grandmother. She's all alone and she's almost blind. She's the only family I got left, and she's the one person I'll do anything to protect. I don't want LeRon or anybody else trying to get to me through her."

"There should be a surveillance team watching her place, waiting for you to show up," Jim pointed out.

"Maybe. But that won't keep her safe. I want someone with her, making sure she's okay."

"All right. I'll see what I can do."

Jim started the elevator again as he and Earl arranged a meeting place. He never made it to his desk, heading instead back downstairs to the garage and his truck. Once there he called the loft. Blair answered almost immediately.

"You still want to help with the case?" Jim asked.

"Sure." Blair's enthusiasm carried clearly over the phone. "Just tell me what you need."

"I need someone to look after an old lady. Meet me at the warehouse on Third at Waters in forty-five minutes. I'll explain it then."

He could almost see the knotted eyebrows and half grimace that accompanied Sandburg's reply. "Uh…yeah…sure, Jim. Third and Waters, forty-five minutes. I'll be there."

~~~~~~~~

True to his word, Sandburg was waiting when Jim pulled up forty-seven minutes after the call. "Nice neighborhood," he said wryly as Jim got out of the truck. "Come here often?"

Jim quickly scanned the area, making sure that they were unobserved, then he reached back into the truck and pulled out a medical bag and a white lab coat. "Save it, Chief," he said. "Let's get inside."

The building where they were to meet Earl had seen better days a long time ago. The original name of the business was no longer readable on the faded sign. At least three different colors showed where the paint had peeled off the corrugated metal siding.

As they walked toward an unmarked door, Blair asked, "Planning a career change, Jim? What's with the medical stuff?"

"Your disguise," Jim answered briefly. "I'll explain everything once we're inside. We're meeting someone."

The darkness inside the warehouse was blinding after the daylight outside. Both men paused long enough for their eyes to adjust, then moved forward into full view. Earl Gaines stepped out from behind a stack of empty crates and frowned at the unknown visitor.

"Who's this?"

Blair introduced himself before Jim could get a word out, greeting Earl with his usual enthusiasm. He quickly explained that he was an observer and Jim's ride-along, which did nothing to lighten Earl's expression.

"I've asked him to keep an eye on your grandmother," Jim explained.

Earl shook his head and stepped back. "Him?" he asked skeptically. "What can he do? He's not a cop. He's not even carrying a gun. How the hell is he supposed to protect my grandma?"

"You'd be surprised," Jim said dryly, thinking of the times when Blair's resourcefulness already had proved invaluable in just the short span of their association. "Look, Earl, there's no way I can arrange to have an officer inside the building. The surveillance team is right outside. If Blair sees something threatening, all he has to do is put in a call. They'll be there in seconds."

"Just how are you going to get him in there?" Earl demanded. "The 357's are camped out on her doorstep. They'll never let some hippie-looking white man get past."

Blair just turned an ingenuous gaze on him. "Why wouldn't they?" he asked. "I'm no threat to them. Like you said, I’m not a cop, and I don't carry a gun."

Jim held up the lab coat and medical bag. "I borrowed these from someone who works with the community outreach health program at Cascade General. Sandburg can go in as a home health aide. You said your grandmother is nearly blind, so it makes sense that she'd have someone come in to check on her from time to time. Once Sandburg is inside, he can talk to her, explain what's going on, get her to move to a location where we can protect her more easily."

"How you gonna get her out past the 357's?"

"Just walk out," Blair answered, his agile brain making the connections and seeing Earl's concerns easily. "They won't make a move with a surveillance team sitting right there on the street. And if I know Jim, he'll be there, too. Right, Jim?"

Earl thought for a moment, then slowly nodded. "It could work. All right. We’ll do it your way. I'll call her, let her know you're coming. Otherwise, she won't open the door."

"Good." Jim handed the medical gear to Sandburg and faced Earl again. "Now, about this meeting with Tyrell Lang. You're assuming that he's not in on this thing, too."

"Like I told you before, Tyrell wouldn't turn on his own like that. I think LeRon and maybe a couple of greedy punks have gone renegade on him."

"Are you willing to risk your life on that?" Jim asked.

Earl gave him a hard stare. "So…what? You planning to take my place? Tyrell will never go for that."

"Sure he will. Get a message to him, set up a meeting. Tell him you've got a line on who hit the drug lab. He'll want to hear what you have to say. But I'll be the one he sees. Not you."

~~~~~~~~

Blair passed Jim's parked truck and pulled up to the curb a few car lengths ahead. He glanced at his reflection in the rear-view mirror, satisfied that he made a reasonably convincing home health aide. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and the white lab coat covered his plain, button-down shirt. He put on his glasses, which he normally used only for reading, to enhance his "professional" image. "Nothing more harmless than a guy wearing glasses," he muttered as he climbed out of the Corvair and grabbed the borrowed medical bag.

He had to fight the impulse to look back and make sure that Jim was watching as he walked the short distance to the building where Earl Gaines' grandmother lived. At the front stoop of the old brownstone, the gang members formed a cordon across the sidewalk, forcing Blair to halt.

"You goin' somewhere?" one of the gangsters demanded, greeting Blair with a hostile stare.

Blair gestured to the emblem on his lab coat. "Community Health Services," he said, a slight tremor in his voice. "There are several residents in this building we visit on a regular basis."

"You a doctor?"

"No. No." Blair glanced down as another of the gangsters snatched the medical bag from his hand and began rifling through the contents. "Just a volunteer technician. I do blood-pressure checks, make sure our clients are taking their regular medications, make sure there are no serious problems that need medical intervention."

The gangster who was searching the bag had found the small notebook tucked inside and was flipping through the pages. Written inside were several names with addresses in this building and others nearby. Lela LaCroix, Earl's grandmother, was on the list, but not prominently. "You gonna see all these folks today?"

Blair nodded. "Yes. They're expecting me." Blair clutched the bag to his chest as it was thrust roughly back into his arms. "Thanks," he said weakly, summoning a shaky smile.

"Go on." The gangster stepped aside and jerked his head toward the building.

Blair edged through the cluster of gang members, flinching a little when one flicked open a switchblade mere inches from his face. "That's nice. Very nice. Excuse me." And he almost ran up the three steps to the door, ducking inside and leaning back against the wall to catch his breath. Knowing that Jim would be listening, he pushed himself off the wall and said, "I'm fine, Jim. I'm inside, on my way up to Ms. LaCroix's apartment. Just hang tight, and we should be out soon."

Blair shifted the medical bag into one hand and mounted the stairs to the second floor where Lela LaCroix lived. The hallway was narrow and dimly lit, and Blair had to step around a tricycle and a pile of toys that had been left outside one of the units. He knocked briefly on Lela's door, and glanced over his shoulder when a door across the hall opened and an older man looked out. Blair smiled and lifted a hand in greeting, then turned back.

"Ms. LaCroix?" he called. "I need to talk to you. It's about your grandson, Earl."

The door opened a few inches, and a lined, stern face peered out at him.

"Ms. LaCroix? I'm Blair Sandburg. Earl was supposed to call and let you know I'd be coming by. May I come in?"

"You the po-lice?" the woman asked. She had a brisk, no-nonsense voice, and Blair suspected that even with failing eyesight, she didn't miss much. She opened the door wider to let him in, closing and locking it again behind him.

"I'm not a police officer," Blair replied. "I'm an observer with the department. Earl asked me to make sure you were safe. He wants you to leave here and go someplace else."

Lela shuffled across the room and sat down in an armchair that looked like it had been new in the 1940's. "Is my boy all right? He's not hurt, is he?" She was almost accusing.

"He's fine," Blair assured her. "I saw him just a little while ago. He's worried about you, though."

Lela's milky-pale eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened in a thin line. "That Lieutenant Williams was here before," she said, her voice rumbling angrily. "He said Earl was in trouble, that he stole guns and drugs. My boy wouldn't do that. Not Earl. He never stole nothing in his life."

"No, ma'am." Blair skimmed a hand over his head, pulling loose a few strands of hair. "Look, Ms. LaCroix, we really need to get you out of here."

She just rocked lightly in her chair, her gnarled hands grasping the chair arms as if hanging on to a lifeline. "This is my home," she declared firmly. "I ain't leavin' it."

Blair sighed and paced a few steps in front of her. "Ma'am, I don't exactly know how to say this, but…it's not safe here. There are people who want to find your grandson, and Earl is afraid they may want to use you to get to him."

"It ain't safe out there neither," the woman retorted. "I ain't been out of here in two years, 'cept to visit my neighbors or clean up the hall. And I ain't leavin' now. Earl ought to know better than to think I would."

"Great," Blair muttered, swinging around and staring in frustration at the ceiling before turning back to the stubborn woman sitting so placidly in her cushioned rocking chair. "May I use your phone?"

She waved toward the old-fashioned rotary-dial phone hanging on the wall. "Help yourself."

Blair picked up the handset that was so much heavier than the ones he was used to. He dialed Jim's cell phone number and wasn't surprised when Jim answered on the first ring. "We've got a little problem here," he said ruefully. "She won't leave."

"You told her what's going on?" Jim asked impatiently.

"She knows," Blair replied. "A Lieutenant Williams was here earlier and told her about the trouble Earl is in. I told her that Earl doesn't think it's safe for her to stay here, but she's -- very insistent. She won't leave her home."

Jim's sigh carried loudly through the phone. "All right. We tried. I want you out of there, Sandburg. The surveillance team is still out here. As long as those punks stay outside the building, she should be okay."

"Jim, I don't want to do that," Blair replied. "I don't want to leave her alone. And Earl expects someone to stay with her. You promised him she'd be safe."

"Sandburg, you're not a cop."

"I know that. But I can handle this. Trust me. First sign of trouble, I'll call. I'll talk to you later."

Blair hung up the phone and looked back toward the woman he was supposed to protect. "May I sit down?" he asked. "It looks like I'll be staying a while."

She smiled, a knowing, triumphant sort of smile, and gestured graciously toward the sofa. "Make yourself comfortable. And tell me how you know my boy Earl."

"Actually, I just met him today," Blair admitted. He launched an explanation of his brief history as an observer with the department and his association with Jim Ellison. He explained about the drug lab explosion and that Earl was called in on the case because of the gang connection. He talked for several minutes without stopping, breaking off mid-sentence at a firm knock on the door.

"Lela? Everything all right in there?"

Blair got up and went to the door, opening it to the older gentleman from across the hall. "Hi," he said, and introduced himself.

From her chair, Lela LaCroix said, "It's all right, Malachi. This here's a friend of Earl's." To Blair she explained, "This here's Malachi Johnson, my neighbor across the hall. People in this building, they watch out for each other. Just like Malachi's watchin' out for me now."

Blair nodded. "Good. That's good." A sudden thought flashed through his mind, and he smiled. Neighbors who watched out for each other might just be what he needed to insure Lela LaCroix's safety. "Uh…Mr. Johnson, Ms. LaCroix, do you think maybe we could get all your neighbors together? Have a little meeting?"

~~~~~~~~

Jim hated to leave his vantage point outside Lela LaCroix's apartment, but the meeting with Tyrell Lang had been set. He had to go. He just hoped he wasn't leaving Sandburg with a tougher situation than he could handle.

The abandoned garage where he was to meet Lang wasn't far from the warehouse that had once been Sandburg's home -- and the site of the 357's ice lab. Jim arrived early, parking his truck in the shadows and spending several minutes checking the surroundings for unpleasant surprises. As soon as he heard another vehicle approaching, he concealed himself behind the truck's bulk.

The black Mercedes that pulled in fairly shouted of money and a man who liked to display the fruits of his labors -- even if they were highly illegal ones. The gold-washed wheels shone even in the dim garage lighting, and the waxed finish gleamed like polished onyx. It seemed somehow ironic that the only sign of wealth on the man himself was the thick gold necklace encircling the strong, bullish neck.

Jim stepped out from behind the truck, his manner outwardly calm. "How you doing, Tyrell?" he asked conversationally.

The gang leader swept a wary gaze over the garage's interior. He chewed thoughtfully on a toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth, then answered Jim's question with one of his own. "What are you doing here? I was expecting Gaines."

"Yeah, well, it's a little chancy for him to be seen right now. Think of me as his official representative."

Lang frowned, obviously expecting a setup of some kind. "Gaines said he had information about my crew getting capped at the warehouse. Course, word on the street is that he's in deep shit for stealing the guns that did the killing."

Jim's expression didn't change, even though he wondered just how that news had reached Lang's ears. "Word travels fast."

"Yeah, well, knowledge is power, man."

"So is a nice, hefty shipment of Ice," Jim replied. "That's the kind of power that can tempt a lot of men -- even some of your own, maybe?"

Tyrell feigned ignorance. "What shipment of Ice?"

Jim tilted his head and gave the gang leader a long look. "Let's not play games, Tyrell. We both know that warehouse was an Ice lab. Now, after the shooting and the fire, there was no sign of the drugs themselves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that whoever hit the lab was after the drugs. That'd be a pretty nice take for someone with enough guts to pull it off."

"Someone like Earl Gaines and some of his cop buddies, maybe?" Tyrell glared at Jim.

"Or maybe LeRon Maxwell?" Jim crossed his arms and leaned back against the truck. "Where was LeRon the night the lab was hit? Or the next day when Antoine Hollins was gunned down in the street?"

Tyrell's body tensed, as if he expected a physical assault next. "What? You crazy, man. LeRon wouldn't do something like that. None of my crew had nothing to do with Hollins getting capped."

"Really? Witnesses at the scene described the shooter as not too tall, strongly built, dressed like a gang punk. Earl Gaines said he had a knife scar on his right arm and that he wore a silver bracelet on his right wrist. He jumped into a black BMW with dark tinted windows. LeRon has a black Beamer, doesn't he? And it only makes sense that someone would strike back against the Deuces, since everybody assumes that they hit the lab. Payback is the name of the game, isn't it?"

"No. No way." Tyrell reached up to pluck the toothpick out of his mouth. He used it to emphasize his next words. "Look, here it is. Straight up. The day after the hit, Antoine comes and he's, like, him and the Deuces ain't having nothing to do with that. He asked me for a week so he could find out who really did it."

Jim nodded slowly. "And you believed him."

Tyrell shrugged noncommittally. "Can't say if I did or if I didn't, but I gave him that week. Know what I'm saying? Gang war don't do nothing but kill a whole lot of brothers and bring down a whole lot of heat."

"And heat's something there's been a lot of on the streets lately, isn't it? Antoine told Earl Gaines that he'd heard someone was stirring up trouble between the gangs. Now, I don't believe Gaines stole those guns, and I know he had nothing to do with his friend getting killed. So that means that someone else has been trying to play the 357's and the Deuces off against each other. Any of your boys have any trouble with the cops recently? Maybe with one particular cop? Someone that would try to pressure them into breaking the truce that you and Antoine had set up?"

Tyrell shook his head and clamped his teeth down on the toothpick again. "Don't know what you talking about, man," he declared. "For all I know, you're just blowing smoke, tryin' to take the heat off your buddy Gaines."

Jim rocked back on his heels slightly. "Oh, yeah, there's some smoke-blowing going on here," he agreed. "But I'm not the one blowing it. Think about it, Tyrell. If Antoine Hollins and Earl Gaines have been hearing talk on the streets, then you must have heard it, too. Add it up for yourself."

~~~~~~~~

The streets that seemed unremarkable by day took on an entirely different identity by night. Shabbily dressed people who no longer had permanent homes huddled next to large metal drums in which trash fires had been kindled for some semblance of warmth against the chill Cascade night. Few people strolled the sidewalks, and the shops were now shuttered behind metal grilles and roll-down doors.

Silent, as one with the shadows, Earl Gaines slipped through the streets, searching for one man who might be able to provide answers to the questions that rolled endlessly through his mind. Earl had to be careful. At last report, he was still a wanted man, and he'd be a dead man if he let himself be caught. He found some small comfort in the thought that he did have allies -- men who would pursue the truth even if he failed. But he didn't want to fail. He wanted to be there to see those responsible for the gang trouble, for Antoine's death, for his own fall from grace into suspicion and distrust identified and brought down. He wanted to be the one to slap the handcuffs on whichever cop had used his position and his authority to feed his own greed.

After hours of searching, Earl found his quarry, falling into position to follow unseen until he could safely make his move. He chose his moment carefully, waiting until he was certain he wouldn't be seen. Jason Garvey had no idea that he was in danger until Earl's gun jabbed roughly into his ribs and a strong hand wrapped around his collar, nearly cutting off his air.

"You got to be more careful," Earl hissed into his ear. "The streets are gettin' real dangerous these days." He shoved the gangster forward, steering his steps into an alley that was even more secluded than the dark street. "I thought you and I could have a little talk. You know. Brother to brother."

Satisfied that they were out of sight of any chance passersby, Earl released his captive, shoving him roughly up against a wall and turning him around so they stood face-to-face. Earl leveled his weapon at Jason's chest. "I know LeRon killed Antoine. You're his partner, so I figure you were driving that big, fancy, Beamer. I want to know who put you up to it."

Jason held his hands up at shoulder height, trying to press himself into the bricks at his back. "I don't know what you talkin' about, man."

"Wrong!" Earl raised the gun, giving Jason an eyeful of gleaming steel barrel. "One way or another, you're gonna tell me."

A sound near the alley's entrance momentarily distracted both men, but Garvey recovered first, lashing out with an upraised hand to knock Earl's gun aside. He followed the blow by driving his shoulder into the other man's chest, knocking him back and off balance. The fight was brief and ugly, both men using tactics learned on the streets rather than in any self-defense class. Garvey got the upper hand when his foot caught the back of Earl's knee -- the one weakened by his years of playing football -- and Earl's leg collapsed in sudden, burning pain.

Breathing hard, Earl managed to regain his feet, looking around for his weapon. In the dark, cluttered alley, he couldn't see it, and a more thorough search would allow Garvey to escape. Earl abandoned the search, choosing to pursue Garvey. He caught up with him at the end of the alley where it branched off both left and right. Garvey clung to a metal fire escape ladder, where he'd slipped trying to climb too quickly. Earl jumped up, caught hold of a dangling ankle, and tugged. He felt Garvey's grip begin to loosen, then he lost his own hold when an unexpected gunshot echoed through the alley.

From above him, Garvey gasped and fell, landing heavily on the damp, dirty pavement. Earl bent to see if he was still alive, but was driven back by the sound of voices and running feet nearby. Another shot, this one aimed at Earl, narrowly missed him as he stumbled to his feet and fled.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday night in the Emergency Room at Cascade General meant chaos. Simon and Jim forced their way through the usual crowd of family and friends whose loved ones awaited treatment inside. They were met by Lieutenant Williams, whose presence surprised both me. Williams was still waiting for word on Garvey's condition.

"Anyone see what happened?" Simon asked.

"Not all of it," Williams replied. "A witness said he thought he saw Garvey and another man going into the alley. Then the gunshot. We recovered a gun at the scene." He held out the evidence bag containing a department-issue automatic. "We ran the serial number, Captain. The gun's registered to Earl Gaines."

Simon closed his eyes and sighed heavily. When he opened them again, he cast a dark, almost accusing look at Jim. "This just gets worse and worse," he said.

Again, Jim was ready to point out the obvious. "Why would Gaines leave his weapon at the scene when he knows it's easily identifiable? That's not just stupid. That's crazy."

Williams shrugged, his shoulders moving smoothly beneath the perfectly tailored coat. "Maybe he didn't mean to. The responding officer said a bunch of Garvey's buddies from the 357's chased someone down the alley just after the shot was fired. He went over a fence to escape. The gun was found in a pile of trash beneath the fence. He may not even realize he dropped it."

Whatever response Jim might have made was interrupted by the ER doctor who approached and addressed Williams. "Lieutenant, you were asking about Jason Garvey, the gunshot victim?"

"That's right."

"We got him stabilized and sent upstairs to surgery. It looks like the bullet entered his back between two ribs and exited through his side, hitting one rib on the way out. It caused some internal bleeding, but because of the angle, it didn't penetrate any vital organs. However, he did suffer a cracked scapula and a concussion, probably from a fall."

"How soon will we be able to question Garvey?" Jim asked, ignoring the scowl from Williams.

The doctor shook his head. "Not till morning, I'm afraid. He'll be in surgery for a couple of hours, then in recovery for a while before he's moved to the ward. Between the anesthesia and the effects of the injury and blood loss, he won't be awake and coherent for some time."

"I want him in a room, not a ward," Simon told the doctor. "He may still be in danger, and he's a material witness. I'll arrange to have an officer on duty outside his room as soon as he's moved from recovery."

"I'll see to that," Williams offered. "But I want to be here in the morning when you talk to him."

Simon nodded and watched as the lieutenant strode down the hall. When he was out of sight, he turned back to Jim with a frown. "Earl seems to trust you more than anyone else right now. Any chance you can get in touch with him, get him to come in and talk about what happened with Garvey?"

Jim shook his head regretfully. "No. He doesn't answer his cell. Sooner or later he'll get in touch, though. I'll see if I can talk some sense into him."

"Huh. Good luck!" Simon snorted. "He hasn't done anything the smart way since this whole mess started. Damn! He just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper."

"Yeah, and he won't come out until he thinks it's safe to do so," Jim agreed. "Which means we've got to find out who's setting him up. -- preferably before someone else spots him and puts a bullet through his head."

Simon sighed in resignation. "He's doing a damn good job of eluding us. He should be okay, as long as he keeps his head down."

"There is one thing that could make him come out," Jim said slowly. "And that's a threat to his grandmother. Sandburg is with her, but if some of the 357's take it into their heads to grab her to force Earl out into the open --"

"He'll be in way over his head," Simon finished for him. "You need to get him out of there, Jim. He's a civilian. He doesn't belong mixed up in this."

Jim shook his head again. "I tried to tell him that, Simon. But the kid insists on staying. I think he's gotten rather fond of the old lady, and he's not going to leave her alone while there's any danger. Look, Simon, I don't know why you decided to pull the surveillance off her, but I want you to reinstate it."

"Pull the surveillance?" Simon looked utterly confused. "What are you talking about? I never ordered the surveillance discontinued."

Jim's frown deepened. "Someone sure did. There was an unmarked car just down the block this afternoon when Sandburg went inside. When I talked to him a little while ago, it was gone."

"I have no idea who gave that order," Simon said bluntly. "But I intend to find out."

"And you'll put a team back on the building?"

"I'll see what I can do. Officially, Gaines is still a suspect and a fugitive. It only makes sense to keep an eye on any place he might go to hide out or look for shelter."


~~~~~~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~~~~~~

A light mist of rain had begun falling when the white Grand Cherokee pulled into the now permanently open doors of the empty and deserted warehouse. Rubble from the recent fire still littered the floor, creating shadowy shapes like those from a desolate landscape. The driver left the engine running and the headlights on even as he opened the door and stepped out onto the dirty, debris-strewn floor. His steps unhurried, he moved away from the vehicle toward the far wall where LeRon Maxwell waited.

"Hey," LeRon said grimly. "We got a problem. Jason's in the hospital."

Lieutenant Williams paused to light a cigarette before replying, "I know. I just came from there. He was coming out of surgery."

"That chump Earl Gaines shot him," LeRon spat. "I'm going to enjoy pumping that sucker full of holes."

"Don't worry about him," Williams admonished. "Between the cops and the 357's, he'll be dead soon enough. Now, where's the stuff?"

LeRon moved toward a stack of cracked and seemingly useless piping. "Over here. Look, what are we going to do about Jason?"

Williams shrugged to cover the sound of movement as he reached for the gun strapped beneath his arm. "We've got no choice. If he talks, we're finished."

"Yeah, well, I hate to cap a friend," LeRon said with mock regret as he leaned down and hauled several packages of drugs from inside the pipe, "but a brother got to look out for his own self first."

"Exactly right, LeRon," Williams agreed, raising his gun and taking careful aim at the other man's broad back. "You are exactly right."

LeRon jerked spasmodically as three bullets, fired in rapid succession, ripped through his body. By the time he slid to a motionless sprawl on the floor, his heart had already ceased to beat.

~~~~~~~~

Jim arrived early at the hospital, hoping to talk to Garvey as soon as the doctor had made his early-morning rounds. The smells of breakfast trays intermingled with the medicinal tang of antiseptics and the stench of illness to create an olfactory nightmare for the weary sentinel. He hadn't slept well. The dangling threads of the case had continued to brush like windblown cobwebs across his thoughts long into the night. Knowing that Sandburg was still sitting his solitary guard duty on Earl's grandmother didn't help despite the late night phone call from Blair assuring him that everything was still quiet and that Ms. LaCroix's sofa was a far more comfortable bed than he'd had on many a field excursion.

Automatically sidestepping nurses and orderlies, Jim went straight to the third floor, room 329, where he'd been told the night before that Garvey was taken after he came out of recovery. His features tightened and a frown settled into place when he failed to see the guard that was supposed to be posted outside the room. Someone would certainly be hearing about that, he vowed silently as he pushed open the door.

The bed was empty, and an orderly was busily stripping off the sheets. The man looked up when Jim came in. "You lost?" he asked in a bored and irritated tone of voice.

"I'm looking for Jason Garvey's room," Jim said.

"Yeah? And who are you?"

Jim reined in his annoyance and pulled his badge wallet out and flipped it open for the man to see. "Detective Ellison. There was supposed to be a uniformed officer outside this room. What's going on here?

"The guy in here died about an hour ago. Your man went down to the morgue with the body."

"Died?" Surprise sharpened Jim's tone almost to an accusation. "Why wasn't this room secured until someone could get here to check it out?"

The orderly just shrugged and continued bundling the bedding into his laundry cart. "Hey, I just work here. I do what I'm told. And I was told to go ahead and clear out the room. Besides, your men already checked out the room."

"What men?" Jim demanded.

"The guy that was guarding the door and some fancy-dressed black dude."

Jim closed his eyes briefly and swallowed the curse that wanted to find voice. "Williams." He stepped forward and waved the orderly away from the bed. "Look, could you stop that. Give me a couple of minutes. I want to have a look around myself."

The orderly shrugged. "Suit yourself. Just don't take all day. My supervisor will have my head if I don't get this room ready for the next one."

The door closed softly behind the orderly, and Jim turned his attention -- and his senses -- to the empty room. Whatever debris had been left by the code response team had already been swept up, and there was very little left to tell him what might have happened. Last night, the doctor had seemed to think that Garvey would survive his injuries. Now he was dead.

The faint odors of blood and Betadine clung to the sheets the orderly had left draped over the side of the laundry cart. Jim picked them up and held them closer to his nose, grimacing when another, familiar scent wafted up from the starched cotton. "Turkish cigarettes," he murmured.

He dropped the sheets and left the room at a brisk pace, going down to the basement where the body would have been taken. He found the uniformed officer still there, trading small talk with the morgue attendant who was filling out the paperwork on Jason Garvey.

The officer straightened abruptly when Jim strode in. "Detective Ellison."

Jim took a quick look at the man's name tag. "Donaldson. Tell me what happened."

The officer looked momentarily uncomfortable. "Uh…The doctor thinks maybe it was a blood clot that broke loose and reached his heart. The doc was in there on rounds, so I thought it was safe to make a quick run down the hall to get a coffee. I was only gone a couple of minutes, but it was long enough for the doc to get done. There was no one there but Garvey when I got back. Just after that, the alarm started going off."

"And there was no one near the room at the time?"

"Just Lieutenant Williams. He'd just gotten there. He was talking to the nurse on duty when I came back." The officer gave way to a pained smile. "Boy, did he ream me out for leaving the room!"

Jim wasn't in a mood to ease the man's conscience any. "With good reason. You were there to guard Garvey. It's hard to do that from the coffee machine down the hall."

The officer's face fell. "Yes, sir. I suppose it is."

"So, Williams didn't go into the room before Garvey's heart stopped?"

"Not that I saw. Like I said, he was at the nurse's station when I got back to the room. Why? You think somebody got to Garvey while I was getting coffee?" The idea seemed to genuinely shock the officer. "I wasn't gone that long. There was no one around but hospital staff. I swear!"

Jim still wasn't feeling charitable. "Guess we'll know when we get the autopsy results."

His cell phone rang, and he hurried to answer it. "Ellison."

"It's Earl."

Jim glanced at the uniformed officer, who looked faintly ill at the thought that his inattention might have led to a man's death. The detective turned away and went back out into the hall so that he could speak freely. "Where are you?" he asked sharply. "You were supposed to check in with me last night."

"I got a little busy."

"Busy doing what? Shooting Jason Garvey?" Jim's irritation at an already lousy morning found its outlet in the accusation that even he didn't want to believe.

"No. Dodging the 357's who think I shot Garvey," Earl shot back. "I take it they found my gun at the scene."

"That's right. Look, Earl, we've got to talk. Now."

"So you can turn me in?"

Jim sighed and swept a hand over his face. He really hated days that started out like this. "No. So I can hear your side of what happened. You've trusted me this far, and I don't see that you have a lot of options right now. Can you get to my place over on Prospect?"

Earl hesitated a moment, then answered, "Yeah, I think I can do that."

"All right. You meet me there."

~~~~~~~~

It didn't take long for news of Jason Garvey's death to hit the streets, or to find its way to Tyrell Lang's ear. The gang leader was angry, no less so at himself than at anyone else. But he was determined to do what had to be done to save his own reputation and to make sure that his gang member's death was avenged.

He pulled his Mercedes to a stop in front of the apartment building on Roosevelt Street, near a trio of his "boys" and rolled down the window. A lanky young man came over and leaned casually on the open window. "Yo, wha's up?"

"Any sign of Gaines?" Tyrell asked. The toothpick was once again in place, shifting only slightly between his clenched teeth as he spoke.

"No, man. It's like he's crawled into a hole somewhere, man."

"Yeah…and that hole's gonna be his grave when I get my hands on him," Tyrell warned. "Nobody plays me for a fool, caps one of my men, and just walks away."

"You think that detective, Ellison, is helping him?"

Tyrell sneered unpleasantly. "Don't matter who he's got helping him. He's got me in his face."

"He's got us all in his face," the other man said. "We put the word out. Anyone spots him, we'll hear about it."

Tyrell shook his head abruptly. "You know what? Forget that. Go pick up that old lady. Once we got her, he's gonna come to us. Go on, man." He scarcely waited for his man to move before he raised the window and drove off.

~~~~~~~~

Blair awoke to the murmur of soft singing, punctuated by an occasional "amen" or "hallelujah." The radio next to Lela LaCroix's chair broadcast an early morning church service, to which the elderly woman gave her complete attention. Not wanting to disturb her devotions, Blair emerged slowly from beneath the blanket and sheet. He sat up and rubbed his eyes sleepily, covering a yawn with one hand.

"Goo' mor'in'," he mumbled indistinctly when the seamed face turned vaguely in his direction.

Lela merely nodded to him and went back to her hymns

Blair shrugged and disentangled himself from the bedding. One sock was pulled almost off, and he bent to tug it back into place before he stood and stretched. His assurances to Jim aside, he had to admit than the bed in Jim's spare room was considerably more comfortable that Lela LaCroix's sofa.

He nearly dislocated his back when a knock at the door startled him out of a sideways stretch. "I'll get it," he said quickly, stepping toward the door.

"Who is it?"

Malachi Johnson announced himself, and Blair quickly shot back the dead bolt and opened the door. The older man drew back slightly when faced with a wild-haired and bleary-eyed Sandburg. He cast a glance over the rumpled clothes and stubbled chin and held out a small bag. "Thought you might need these to clean up," he said.

Blair accepted the bag, looking inside to see a razor, a small can of shaving cream, and a toothbrush still in its package. "Yeah, I guess I could," he agreed with a grin. "Thanks, man. I appreciate this."

Malachi nodded, his expression unchanging. "Those boys are still outside," he offered flatly. "Just settin' on the stoop, smokin' and makin' a nuisance of themselves."

"Great." Blair grimaced. "At least there's a police unit down the street again," he pointed out. "It's not likely they'll try anything."

Malachi stepped back toward his own apartment. "I got to get breakfast now."

Blair waved good-bye and closed the door, turning to see that Lela had leaned back in her chair and seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. He made a quick call to Jim, letting him know that the night had passed uneventfully and that they now had a patrol car nearby keeping an eye on things as well. When he had hung up, he excused himself softly and went into the one small bathroom to clean up, coming out again to find the chair empty and the apartment filled with the aromas of sausage, eggs, and freshly baked biscuits.

"Can I help?" he asked politely as Lela carefully turned the sausage patties in the frying pan.

"You can set the table," she said without looking around. She merely waved the spatula toward a cabinet above the kitchen counter. "Dishes are there. Silver in the first drawer on the right. I don't drink coffee no more, but there's instant in the cupboard for when Earl comes to visit. Otherwise, there's juice and milk in the refrigerator."

Blair went to collect plates and flatware. "Juice is fine," he said. "Glasses?"

"Cabinet next to the dishes. I take milk with my breakfast."

He finished setting the table and poured juice and milk into mismatched glasses. He helped Lela carry the platter of sausages and an enormous bowl of grits to the table, going back for butter at her request. When they were both seated at the table, Lela folded her hands and bowed her head, murmuring a simple grace that included a prayer for her grandson's safety and quick return.

"I never take a meal without giving thanks," she said when she raised her head again. "Something the young folks don't do often enough, remember to give thanks for what they got, rather than moaning about what they ain't."

There was little Blair could say to that, so he merely concentrated on serving both their plates. They ate in companionable silence, and when they were done Blair carried the plates into the kitchen and washed up. From the living room, he heard sounds of purposeful movement followed by a man's voice, low and mournful, made scratchy by the age of the recording. He'd seen the old record player sitting on the table near Lela's favorite armchair, and the small stack of vinyl albums, their jackets worn on the corners and faded with time.

"Now that is truly classic blues," he observed as he came out of the kitchen.

Lela nodded slowly, her face relaxed in some private reverie. "Leroy LaCroix," she said fondly. "My husband for forty years before he died. That man could sing blues like no one I ever knew."

Blair went to the sofa and began folding the blanket and sheet under which he'd spent the previous night. His head bobbed with the slow, soulful tempo of the song, and he had to resist the urge to sing with the recording. He placed the bedding back in the trunk where Lela had told him he'd find it, and returned to the sofa. An old photo album lay on the coffee table, and he reached for it, idly flipping through the pages. It was, he discovered, as much a scrapbook as a photo album. Among the photographs were programs from music concerts, ticket stubs, and newspaper clippings extolling the virtues of a small-town blues man.

"How long has it been since your husband died?" he asked softly, almost unwilling to break the peace.

"Nigh on fifteen years now," Lela answered, her face serene. "But as long as I got his voice, he ain't really gone."

Blair smiled a little at that, but the smile faded quickly at a brisk knock on the door. He got up and opened it to Malachi, whose face was set in a worried frown.

"Those boys are up to something," he said without preamble. "I saw some shiny black car drive up just now, and one of 'em was talkin' to whoever was in it. Then a couple of 'em went sneaking around to the back, and a couple more took off down the street."

"Ok." Blair reached out and placed a reassuring hand on Malachi's shoulder. "Mr. Johnson, if you can get the others, I'll call the police, get a message to the car outside." He patted the man's shoulder in encouragement and as soon as Malachi left on his errand, Blair went to the phone.

He was met with an ominous silence. Frowning, he jiggled the switch hook and listened again. Again, he heard nothing. "The phone's dead," he announced tautly, hurrying to the window. He was just in time to see the patrol car switch on its lights and pull away from the curb, executing a u-turn and heading away from the apartment building.
"Oh, man!"

Blair swept a hand through his hair and swung around, just as Lela's neighbors began pouring into the apartment. "Ok, folks, you know the drill," he said, trying to maintain a level tone. "Just wait in the kitchen until you're needed."

When they were out of sight, Blair resumed his seat on the sofa to wait. He picked up the album again, but didn't really see anything on the age-yellowed pages. When the next knock came, he almost jumped out of his skin. The urgency of the sound, and of the voice that followed, made it clear that this was the visit he'd been dreading.

"I'll get it," he said as Lela started to rise from her chair. "Are you okay?"

"Worse comes to worse," she said resolutely, "I'll be hearing Leroy sing the blues again."

Blair managed a smile. "Let's hope not." He took a breath and opened the door, stepping back when two young men burst through, nearly knocking him over in their haste. At a glance he took in their similar attire, and the trademark blue shirts of the 357's. Both jacket pockets bulged with guns.

"You got to come with us, ma'am," one of the gangsters said urgently. "We're here to take you to Earl."

Lela had been hovering beside Blair. She took a step forward, her hands upraised as if to frame the face that swam indistinctly in her failing vision. "I know that voice," she said in surprise. "You're Sylvia Hayes' boy, Marcus."

Marcus sidestepped before she could touch him. "Come on," he said impatiently. "We ain't got much time."

"Just a minute," Lela replied, turning toward the kitchen. "I just got to take my medicine." She got as far as the door, and was met by the small group of neighbors who were waiting for her signal. More filled the doorway behind the two gangsters, effectively blocking their retreat.

"Hey! What's goin' on here?" Marcus demanded. He backed away from the cluster of middle-aged and older men and women, pulling a gun from his pocket and waving it indecisively around the sudden crowd.

Blair couldn't suppress the satisfied grin that spread across his face. "Gentlemen, meet the Roosevelt Gardens Safety Committee."

Marcus elbowed Malachi, who had stepped closer, his face set in a stern scowl. "Get out my way, you old fool."

"You gonna shoot me?" Malachi challenged. "You gonna shoot all of us?"

Marcus's companion lost his nerve and bolted, sliding easily between two of the people blocking the door. "Hey! Where you goin'?" Marcus cried, turning just in time to see his friend disappearing from view.

The distraction was enough for Malachi to grab the gun from his hands and pass it to Lela, who held it unsteadily in her gnarled fingers. "We're not scared of you, Marcus Hayes," she declared. "We ain't scared of your punk friends neither." She waved the gun menacingly in his direction. "Now you go on, git out of here. Git!" She emphasized her command with another wave of his confiscated weapon, and Marcus fled as well.

Malachi closed and locked the door, and Blair breathed a long sigh of relief. "All right!" he said approvingly. "Congratulations, everyone. We did it."

"Those boys better watch out," Lela proclaimed, still enjoying her new role of pistol-packin' grandma. "I'm in a feisty mood."

Blair laughed, but reached out to relieve her of the gun before she accidentally shot someone in her enthusiasm.

~~~~~~~~

Earl was already at the loft when Jim arrived. He stood leaning up against the wall next to the door, looking as deceptively relaxed as Jim had during his meeting with Tyrell Lang the previous day. Jim quickly unlocked the door and gestured Earl inside. He just shook his head when Earl peeked in first, as if he expected to find himself facing a squad of SWAT snipers.

"Sit down," Jim said curtly as he veered off to the kitchen to start coffee. "And tell me about Garvey."

Earl sank down onto the nearest sofa and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Jason and LeRon are tight," he explained. "I figured if LeRon shot Antoine, Jason was there, too. So I went to see him, try to get him to tell me who wanted Antoine dead and the gangs at war. We got into a fight, and he knocked my gun out of my hand. I didn't see where it landed. Jason got away from me. I chased him, had just caught up with him when I heard a shot and Jason went down. If that was my gun they found, someone saw us go into that alley and picked it up while I was chasing Jason. Someone else shot him, man. Not me."

"You know Jason's dead."

Earl nodded miserably. "Yeah. I heard."

Jim came around in front of the kitchen island and leaned back against it, arms crossed over his chest. "Garvey should have survived that wound," he said. "Even the doctor in the ER said it wasn't that bad. I think he was murdered in the hospital."

"Wasn't he under guard?" Earl asked.

"Yeah. But the guard decided to take a stroll down the hall for coffee. When he got back, guess who was there, just outside Garvey's room."

Earl looked baffled.

"Your buddy, Lieutenant Williams."

"Williams?" Earl's face twisted in a grimace that was both confused and disturbed. "You think he's the one setting me up, and that he killed Jason Garvey?"

"Yeah, I do."

Earl raised his doubled fists to rest against his forehead, then dropped them again and looked up at Jim. "Then he's behind the hit on the drug lab, too. He stole those guns from the evidence lock-up, and he had someone plant those drugs and stuff at my place."

"Earl, does anyone else have a key to your apartment?" Jim asked suddenly. He could have kicked himself for not asking about that yesterday when they met; at the time, though, he'd had other things on his mind.

"I keep a spare in my desk," Earl replied, "ever since I lost my keys once. You know how much it costs to get a locksmith out in the middle of the night?"

"Did Williams know that?"

Earl nodded. "Sure. Everyone in the unit does. Why?"

Jim turned to go back into the kitchen to pour the coffee. "Because when we searched your apartment, I noticed that the lock hadn't been forced or jimmied. The windows were locked from the inside -- and anyway, anyone trying to get in that way would have to sprout wings. That means whoever planted the stuff in your apartment had a key."

"But why? Why go to all that trouble?"

"I don't know," Jim admitted. He brought the two mugs into the living room and handed one to Earl before going to sit down on the other sofa. "Let's take a look at this thing step by step. Those guns that were used in the drug lab hit disappeared that same day. If Williams took them, that means he had to have been signed in, too, and it was probably his name that was erased from the logs. Now, you'd already signed in that same afternoon, so he would have seen your name on the logs. That makes you a perfect target of opportunity if he felt like he had to cover his tracks -- which obviously he did."

Earl took a sip of his coffee and thought a moment. "But why? What set him off?"

"He knows you talked to Antoine," Jim answered slowly. "If there was talk on the streets about a cop causing trouble between the gangs, he had to know that Antoine would hear it. And he'd assume that Antoine told you. Even if Antoine couldn't give you a name, he'd figure that sooner or later you'd tell Simon and then there would be an official investigation. Framing you was a preemptive strike."

"And I played right into his hands by not telling Simon about what Antoine said. Okay, so that explains why he went to all the trouble to set me up. But why kill Jason Garvey?"

Jim set his cup down and leaned forward, his position mirroring Earl's. "Fear and greed," he answered readily. "He's sitting on a load of stolen drugs, and one of his confederates is in the hospital with a gunshot wound. Now, Garvey knows you didn't shoot him, so that pokes a big hole in the frame he's building around you. If Garvey talks, his whole scheme stands to unravel. Plus, with Garvey out of the way, there's more profit to go around."

Earl frowned suddenly. "Jim, I know Williams. He's a methodical son of a bitch. If he's trying to cover his tracks, LeRon Maxwell could be next on his list."

Jim got up and went to the phone, hitting the speed dial for the police department dispatcher. He quickly identified himself and asked, "Any results on that APB on LeRon Maxwell?" He listened for a moment, his expression shifting to one of pained resignation. When he'd heard what the dispatcher had to say, he murmured a hollow thanks and hung up.

"What is it?" Earl asked. "What's wrong?"

"LeRon's dead. Shot. It happened some time last night -- after you were last seen running from where Jason Garvey was shot with your gun."

Earl slammed a fist into the sofa cushion beside him. "Damn!"

Jim remained where he was, his expression pensive, his hand still resting on the phone. "We've got to find something to tie Williams to Maxwell and Garvey," he said. "He'd have to have been in contact with them fairly regularly to set up the hit, but he'd do it from either his home phone or his cell phone." He lifted the receiver again, this time dialing a different number. He waited through several rings, then made his request in brisk, economical terms. When he'd hung up again, he turned back to Earl. "If I'm right," he said encouragingly, "you'll be off the hook before the day is out."

"Phone records?" Earl said doubtfully after hearing Jim's end of the conversation. "It's a start, but is it enough?"

"Enough to push for an official investigation," Jim replied. He reached for his coat and keys. "I've got to go pick up a copy of the phone records. I don't want to risk Williams seeing them if I have them faxed to the station. While I'm gone, you stay put. Don't answer the door or the phone. I'll be back as soon as I can."

~~~~~~~~

Jim figured he used up an entire year's worth of good will with the telephone company in talking one of the managers into coming in on a Sunday morning to pull Willams' phone records. He knew he'd hit pay dirt, though, when two of the numbers matched those of LeRon Maxwell and Jason Garvey. Most of the other numbers were innocuous enough, tracing to police coworkers, local businesses, and his sister in Seattle. It took a little more effort, and more help from the manager, to trace a San Francisco number to which Williams had made several calls over the last week.

He was back at the loft in an hour and a half, and laying out the evidence for Earl to see as well. Earl made a call to a friend of his who had transferred from Cascade to the SFPD, and they soon knew that they had another nail for the coffin in which they would bury Williams' scheme.

"I'm going to call Simon," Jim announced, as they waited for a return call from Earl's friend in San Francisco. "It's time to bring him in on what's happening."

Earl looked a little doubtful, but he nodded agreement. A brief, wry smile creased his face and he said, "But I'm expecting you to keep him from killing me."

Simon might not have wanted to kill him, exactly, but he wasn't pleased with the younger man. The strength of his knock rattled the door in its frame, and he pinned Earl with a fierce scowl as soon as he was in the room. "You do realize that by running, you made it look as if you are guilty of something?" Simon asked.

"Yeah, Simon, I know." Earl had the good grace to look remorseful. He tilted his head to peer up at Simon from where he sat at one end of the sofa. "I wasn't meaning to run. I got a phone call saying that my grandma was sick, but it was all a ruse. LeRon was there, in my face, telling me that the cops thought I was dirty. I figured then that I'd been set up, and I didn't want to risk getting thrown in jail till I knew what was going on."

"So you just went Lone Ranger and started shaking down gang members on your own."

Earl hung his head and clasped his dangling hands between his knees. "I'll admit, that probably wasn't a smart move. But I wanted to find out who was pulling the strings and calling the shots. I figured Jason was my best chance to get that."

"But instead he ends up dead, shot with your gun."

Earl repeated the same story he'd told Jim. When he was finished, he just looked up at the stern-faced captain, who in turn looked at his other detective.

"I believe him, sir," Jim said. "The altered evidence room logs already suggest that someone is trying to make it look like Earl is mixed up in this. And there's more." He went on to relate what Earl had told him about the extra key kept in his desk, and about Lt. Williams' early morning visit to the hospital at the time of Jason Garvey's death.

"So you're saying that Williams killed Garvey and framed Earl," Simon concluded. "What evidence -- other than the purely circumstantial -- do you have?"

Jim reached over and pulled the sheaf of papers he'd picked up from the telephone company earlier. "I called a friend at the phone company and got Williams' records for both his home phone and his personal cell for the last three months. He's made several calls to LeRon Maxwell and Jason Garvey, including one the day of the hit on that drug lab."

Simon glanced over the printouts. "Okay. That will take some explaining. But as suspicious as it is, it's not illegal to make phone calls to known gang members."

"What about making calls to known drug dealers?" Earl asked pointedly. He pointed to several entries highlighted in blue. "These numbers are to a John Magnuson in San Francisco. I called a buddy of mine down there and found out that Magnuson is a major West Coast distributor."

"You think he's looking for an outlet for the Ice we didn't find at the lab?"

Jim nodded. "That's what I'd do. It's too risky to move the stuff locally, where all the dealers are likely to know who and what he is. So he contacts a distributor from out of state and makes arrangements to unload it a safe distance from his home territory."

The phone rang, cutting into the conversation. Jim answered, but quickly handed the receiver to Earl. The call was from his friend in San Francisco, and when he hung up the phone, the detective was wearing a triumphant smile. "Magnuson is on his way to Cascade, even now," he reported. "His plane gets in at four o'clock."

~~~~~~~~

The light Sunday afternoon traffic passed sporadically. None of the drivers took notice of the battered, golden orange truck that pulled to a stop at the side of Airport Boulevard. Inside the truck, neither Jim nor Earl made any move to get out. They were there to observe.

Jim pocketed his cell phone after a brief conversation, and filled Earl in on what he'd learned. "Airport security says Magnuson and his people rented a dark blue Lincoln Towncar. They left the rental lot about five minutes ago."

In the driver's seat, Earl raised a pair of high-powered binoculars to his eyes and scanned the main road, seeing nothing.

"There," Jim said as a dark shape became visible at the crest of a hill. "That's him, right there."

Earl lowered the binoculars and cast a questioning look at his passenger. "How can you tell from this far away?"

Jim shrugged. "Good eyes." He reached for the walkie-talkie on the dashboard and keyed the transmitter. "Two, this is one. We're on the move," he reported, receiving Simon's equally impersonal acknowledgment. Not knowing whether Williams would be monitoring the police frequencies on his own radio, they had decided to keep their transmissions as neutral and uninformative as possible.

They allowed Magnuson to get a safe distance past them before pulling out and falling in far enough back to avoid raising suspicion. A few times, Earl began to close the gap, only to have Jim caution him back. He knew from the quick, sidelong looks shot his direction that Earl was concerned about losing sight of the Lincoln. Jim wasn't worried, though. He knew that he would be able to spot the car from some distance. Even if something happened to spook their quarry, they could break off their own pursuit and let Simon, in the sedan trailing them by two car lengths, take their place.

Magnuson, it seemed, had planned to conduct his business as quickly as possible. Instead of driving to the usual destinations of a newly arrived visitor, like a hotel or restaurant, he headed to the commercial docks. Jim signaled Earl to stop some distance from the Lincoln, which had halted at one end of a deserted container yard. Simon's sedan pulled in near the truck, and the three men got out. Quietly, moving within the concealment of the stacked container cars, they approaching to within twenty yards of the dockside meeting place, but spreading out to be able to launch their assault from different positions.

Williams was already there, waiting beside his own vehicle, an older model Jeep Grand Cherokee. The exchange went much the same as many other drug deals Jim had observed in the course of his police career. Williams handed Magnuson a brown leather suitcase, remarkable only for its contents. One of Magnuson's companions slid into the back seat of the Lincoln. Through the open car door, Jim watched him test the drugs and give his boss an approving thumbs-up.

Satisfied, Magnuson opened the Lincoln's trunk and retrieved a plain black brief case, which he offered to Williams. In his turn, Williams checked the contents of the brief case, closed it again, and turned back to his own car. The exchange had been made, the deal concluded.

Jim edged around the container cars and leveled his weapon at the assembled group. "Police!" he called. "Throw your weapons down now!"

They never seemed to want to do this the easy way. Jim ducked back as four weapons came up and bullets clanged off the metal beside him. Dropping to one knee, he returned fire, hearing Earl's and Simon's shots join his own. The battle was short but fierce. One of Magnuson's men went down, and Magnuson himself surrendered when he ran out of ammunition. Williams took advantage of the chaos to jump back into his car, peeling away from the scene.

"I'm going after him!" Earl called, holstering his gun and running back toward the truck.

Jim saw him go, and wondered if Earl had any intention of bringing the lieutenant in alive, or if he would let his emotions dictate his actions. "Simon! You got it under control here?" he asked tersely.

"I've got it. Take off!" Simon advanced on the drug dealer, his gun pointed unwaveringly at the remaining men as he reached for his radio with the other hand to call for backup.

Jim was already on the move, running full out toward the truck that was now pulling away. He managed to grab the tailgate and vault into the back. He rolled on landing and came to his feet just behind the cab. The quick, startled glance he received from Earl told him that the other man wasn't expecting to pick up a passenger.

Earl drove like a man possessed, and drew up behind Williams' car in less than a mile. A block later they were side by side, with Williams swerving into the truck in a desperate game of bumper cars. Twice Jim lost his footing from the truck's uneven movement and the jolts when Williams' Jeep smashed the truck's side.

Jim knew he'd have to disable Williams' vehicle if they were to have any chance of stopping him without killing themselves in the process. But as long as they maintained their present positions, he couldn't get the angle he needed to place a crippling shot into the vulnerable engine compartment. With the next sideways impact, Jim hurled himself out of the truck and onto the roof of the other car, grabbing the luggage rack to hold himself in place.

The ride got even wilder. Jim could only cling in place, not daring to release even one hand to reach for his gun. When Williams decelerated, the truck Earl was driving was suddenly in the lead, and Jim lost the option of being able to change vehicles again. He was committed now; he only hoped he lived long enough to hear the tirade he knew he'd get from Simon for such a reckless act.

A large, moving shape drew Jim's attention forward, and his eyes widened in alarm. Less than a block ahead, a semi was pulling out onto the road, effectively blocking the way. Earl's truck veered right to avoid smashing into the semi. The Jeep cut sharply left, dipping onto the grassy verge on the left and nearly costing Jim his hold on the luggage rack. Six heart-stopping seconds later, the wheels found pavement again and the vehicle sped on.

Jim's relief lasted only moments. His hearing registered the ominous click of a hammer being drawn back. A bullet from so close, even if it didn't penetrate his Kevlar vest, would be disastrous. Jim released his right hand and rolled as far as he dared to the left. The shot fired through the roof of the Jeep missed him by scant inches. Balanced precariously as he was, the click of the hammer falling on an empty chamber was music to his hypersensitive ears.

The Jeep had finally stopped its wild swerving, and Jim decided that it was time to implement his earlier plan. Still clinging one-handed to the luggage rack, he drew his own weapon and fired several shots into the hood, aiming for both the radiator and the engine block. Either his aim was thrown off by the constant motion, or the Jeep was much sturdier than he expected. There was no satisfying hiss of escaping steam from the radiator, and the engine continued to run, albeit slightly sluggishly.

Williams stomped hard on the brakes, and Jim suddenly found that one hand was inadequate to hold his position. He slid forward off the roof, rolling over windshield and hood. He hit the pavement full on his back and rolled. The air left his lungs in a rush, and he knew that he'd be sporting road rash and bruises for the next two weeks. Still trying to get his breathing back to some semblance of normalcy, he looked up as the Jeep's engine suddenly revved and he was staring at a ton of death on wheels bearing down on his sprawled body. He threw himself into a roll, feeling the rush of wind as the Jeep sped past him.

Jim thought it unlikely that Williams would elude them long. Sirens from other units converging on the area drew closer. And Earl, though sidetracked by the semi several blocks back, wasn't completely out of the picture. He had been following on a parallel street and was now returning to the main chase. As Jim hauled his aching body off the wet street, he saw the flash of familiar golden orange as Earl barreled out of a cross street and clipped the Jeep's rear quarter. The impact over the rear wheel, and the spin that resulted, finally succeeded in stopping it.

Jim took off running toward the site of the collision. Earl and Williams were both out of their vehicles and running across a vacant field. From a distance, Jim saw Earl tackle his superior, both men obscured momentarily in a spray of water from the sodden ground. The scuffle that followed hardly deserved to be called a fight. Neither man could keep his footing on the slippery ground, and the few blows that connected didn't seem to carry much weight as wet fists slid off equally wet skin. Jim was a little surprised that Earl didn't try to draw his weapon. He was, it seemed, intent on making a clean capture.

Williams was operating under no such restraint. As soon as he found an opening, he reached for the backup weapon he carried in an ankle holster. Jim froze, still some distance away, as the small but deadly automatic came up to point unerringly at Earl's chest. Firming his stance, Jim lifted his own weapon, bracing his wrist with his left hand and letting his vision zoom in on Williams' gun hand. Before his senses came online, Jim wouldn't even have tried to make that kind of shot, much less expected it to be on target. Now, he could almost watch the bullet's flight as it left his gun, spinning elegantly across the distance and flattening against its target.

The gun flew from Williams' hand, hopelessly damaged even if the lieutenant could have gripped it. Even though Jim had been aiming at the gun rather than the hand that held it, he knew that the impact had probably broken a couple of fingers. Satisfied that Williams' threat was now neutralized, Jim trotted forward, holstering his gun as he did.

Still on his knees, recovering from the foot pursuit and the fight, Earl swiveled to cast a disbelieving look back at his rescuer. He swiped water from his face with one hand and asked, "How'd you make that shot from way back there?"

Jim just shrugged. "Like I said -- good eyes." He gestured to the angry and defeated man still clutching his injured hand and glaring at both his erstwhile colleagues. "You want to do the honors?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah." Earl's broad face split into a grin that was half satisfaction, half regret, as he pulled his handcuffs from his belt.

~~~~~~~~~~ Act V Epilogue ~~~~~~~~~~

Tying up the loose ends took longer than the bust itself. The prisoner had to be taken in and booked. Preliminary reports had to be given. Two detectives were in serious need of towels and a change of clothes. And an elderly lady had to be called and assured that her grandson was safe and no longer under suspicion.

Almost two hours after Williams was taken into custody, Jim's green pickup pulled up in front of the apartment building on Roosevelt Street to a waiting reception committee of residents and a smiling anthropologist. Earl went to give his grandmother a hug, receiving her comments about his lack of bulk with accustomed good humor, and quickly introducing her to Jim. Simon, who had also accompanied them, she already knew.

The spirited welcome and easy banter was briefly interrupted when a familiar black Mercedes pulled up at the curb near Jim's truck. Earl excused himself and walked over to the car, leaning down to face Tyrell Lang. From where he stood next to Simon, trading small talk with Lela LaCroix, Jim extended his hearing back to follow the conversation taking place behind him.

"I got your message," Tyrell said flatly. "Still gonna check it out, though, make sure you ain't trying to scam me. Know what I'm sayin'?"

Earl's intense, earnest voice replied, "We got to get the 357's and the Deuces back to the table, Tyrell. Antoine may be gone, but I don't want to see what you and him put together all fall apart. I don't think you do either."

"I'll be there tomorrow," Tyrell said. "We'll put the guns down -- for now." There was a pause before he added, "Uh-uh. Too soon for shaking hands, brother. Peace."

"Peace," Earl agreed, and his word sounded as much like an entreaty as a farewell.

The Mercedes pulled smoothly away, and Earl rejoined the others, smiling a little in response to Jim's questioning frown. "It's all right," he assured him. "I'll do everything I can to see that Antoine's truce holds."

Jim nodded, feeling certain that if anyone could manage it, Earl could. At the entrance of the apartment building, Lela LaCroix was busily inviting everyone to stay for supper, and Jim heard Sandburg cheerfully accept the invitation. He was about to interject when his cell phone rang, and he stepped away from the others to answer it. When he closed it again, he turned back and reached out to tug Sandburg toward the truck.

"I hate to break up the party," Jim said, "but some business has come up. Simon, give me a call later if you need a ride home."

Blair looked up at him in confusion as Jim herded him toward the truck. "What's going on, Jim?" he asked as he opened the passenger door and climbed into the truck.

"They found Larry," Jim replied.

Blair's eyes widened with surprise. "Really? Where? Is he okay?"

"He's fine," Jim assured him. "Someone spotted him and called Animal Control. They managed to trail him for a couple of blocks -- right back to where he started. That mini-Kong of yours broke back into the loft."

"No kidding! Hey, do you suppose he really does think of us as his 'family' and he finally got homesick?"

Jim glared at the enthusiasm emanating from his companion. "They've got the place surrounded, to make sure he doesn't get away from them again. I'm going to give you half an hour to get him back into his cage, then he's outta there. Back to the University or into quarantine doesn't make any difference. He's history."

Blair was silent for the remainder of the trip back to the loft. He looked over at Jim when the truck was finally parked in its usual spot. "You won't hurt him, will you, Jim?" he asked hesitantly.

"Not if he doesn't resist arrest," Jim replied, secretly enjoying the other's discomfort, even though he had no intention of harming the marauding little furball. He carefully unfolded himself from the truck, feeling the pull and ache of abused muscles. He followed Blair into the building, but opted for the elevator rather than the stairs.

Blair's expression was even more doubtful by the time they reached the door. "You want me to…" he gestured vaguely at the door, patting his pockets to figure out where his own keys were.

"I'll get the door," Jim assured him. "You just get the ape before he pulls another Houdini."

They didn't need to worry about Larry trying for another escape. When the door swung open, he was sitting peacefully on top of his cage, munching on a fistful of bread from the bag that was torn open and strewn all over the living room -- along with most of the contents of the kitchen cabinets and the living room shelves.

Larry's golden-brown fur was darkened and matted with dirt and what looked like the contents of every trash dumpster in the neighborhood, and he'd left smudges from his filthy body all over the furniture. The two-day-old diaper was still in place, but that wasn't necessarily a good thing. It sagged badly and exuded a stench that had Jim turning away and heading back out the door in self-defense.

"Jim?" Blair followed, a concerned frown etched across his wide forehead. "You okay, man?" he asked, flinching a little at the look that answered him. "Okay, dumb question. Look, don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of Larry, clean him up, and get him back in his cage while you go let the Animal Control guys know that everything's under control. Okay? Okay." He patted Jim's arm reassuringly and backed up through the still open door.

Jim just stared in silence when the door closed gently, leaving him standing in the hallway outside his own apartment. He wondered just when he had taken up semi-permanent residence in the Twilight Zone -- or, in this case, the Sandburg Zone.

Twenty minutes later Blair came out of the building, Larry safely inside his cage. He reluctantly handed the cleaner and freshly diapered ape over to the Animal Control officers. Despite the officer's assurances that the mandatory quarantine was just routine and that Larry would be returned as soon as they were satisfied that he posed no undue threat to the citizens of Cascade, Blair still looked like he'd just lost his best friend. He made no effort to go back in until the van had driven out of sight, and even then Jim had to nudge him from his fierce concentration on the path the vehicle had taken.

"Come on, Chief," he prodded, tugging at Blair's arm until the sad-faced anthropologist had to move or fall down. "It's going to take most of the night to clean up the mess Larry made this time."

They were halfway through the arduous task when Jim realized that Blair hadn't uttered a word in well over an hour. He looked up from scrubbing simian footprints off the sofa to where Blair was carefully transferring the remains of a broken windowpane into a cardboard box. Not even the hair hanging over his face could conceal the misery imprinted on the younger man's features.

"Hey, Chief," he said with an attempt at reassurance. "Cheer up. You'll get Larry back. At least you don't have to worry about him being out in all kinds of bad weather and the hazards of the city streets."

Blair forced a wan smile. "I know," he agreed, and went back to his part of the clean-up.

"So, why such a long face? You look like someone just died."

Blair didn't answer right away. He remained kneeling beside the balcony doors, his hands resting lightly on his thighs, his head still bent so that he wasn't looking at Jim. Finally he shook his head. "It's nothing, man. I just feel really bad about Larry tearing your place apart. That's all."

"Sandburg, you're a lousy liar," Jim informed him, rinsing and squeezing out the rag he'd been using to clean the cushions.

Blair sighed and sat back on his heels, finally looking up at Jim with something like desperation in his eyes. "Okay. You want to know the truth?" He took a breath, and the words tumbled out in a rush. "The truth is that I spent this afternoon, after everything settled down, looking through the classified ads for a new place to live. It's the middle of a semester, so I have, like, no chance of finding anything anywhere near the university. And everything else is either in a worse neighborhood than the warehouse or it costs twice as much as I was paying before, or they want such a huge deposit that, even if I sold everything I own -- which isn't much after the fire and everything -- there is no way I can scrape together that kind of cash by the end of the week. I was going to ask -- beg -- if maybe -- maybe -- you'd let me stay on for just a little while longer till I can find a place that won't blow major holes in my budget. And now Larry's gone and trashed the loft again, even worse this time, and I know you're probably just counting the minutes till I'm out of here. And it's my own stupid fault for opening the cage and not just handing him the popcorn through the bars…" He finally ran out of breath and stopped, again dropping his head and staring at the floor.

"The rental market is really that tight?" Jim asked. "I haven't had any reason to check it out since I found the loft."

"You have NO idea, man!" Blair said with a sigh. "Hell, it took me three months to find the warehouse when the last place I lived was torn down to make way for a shopping mall."

Jim slowly shifted the cleaning rag from one hand to the other. "Three months, eh? That's rough." He stood slowly from his position beside the sofa and stretched. He didn't recall hitting his head when he fell off Williams' Jeep, but the words that emerged next made him wonder if he'd suffered some sort of brain damage. "I'll tell you what, Sandburg. You repair the damage Larry did in here. Replace the groceries he ruined, fix that window, stuff like that. You help with the chores and the cooking, and I'll let you stay as long as it takes to find a place you can afford."

Blair raised his head, eyes wide and uncomprehending. "You'd do that, man?" he asked in disbelief. "After all the trouble Larry caused? You'd let me stay?"

"I'll let you stay," Jim clarified. "No more apes, or anything else with an IQ less than your shoe size. Is that clear?"

"Oh, yeah! Crystal!" Blair jumped up, nearly dumping out the glass fragments he'd so painstakingly collected. He ran across to give Jim a brisk clap on both shoulders. "You are wonderful, Jim!" he declared with a wide grin. "I can't believe…"

Jim waved away the effusive gratitude before Sandburg did something really annoying like trying to hug him. "Yeah, yeah. I know," he broke in. "Now, how about you start out this arrangement by getting your butt down to the market and seeing about getting us something for dinner. Thanks to Larry, we missed out on our chance for a free meal at Ms. LaCroix's, and I'm getting hungry."

"You bet, Jim!" Blair trotted over to the coat rack and shrugged into his jacket. "I'll get you the biggest, most cholesterol packed steak I can find, man! And potatoes, and stuff for salad, and…" He reached out to open the door, turning around and giving Jim another smile that could have lit half the city. "You are one very cool guy, Jim. I promise you won't regret this."

Jim watched the door shut behind the suddenly transformed Sandburg and just shook his head in bemused resignation. "Famous last words, Chief," he murmured to the empty room. "Famous last words."

-- END --

AUTHOR'S NOTE: My heartfelt thanks to my beta readers, who kept me from making too big a fool of myself. Also, a big thanks to my daughter, who is a great help when I'm tossing ideas around and trying to decide what works and what doesn't. It is due in part to her efforts that my betas didn't want to ring my neck!

~~~~~~~~

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 November 2005 )
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