Redhawke.org
Spare Parts
Spare Parts
By Renegade

Beta Read by CarolROI
Written for PetFly by Harold Apter
Rated PG-13 for minor bad language
internal thought in * *

~~~~ Act I ~~~~

The rain had stopped an hour ago, leaving the city streets glistening with an oily sheen. Fine spray hissed beneath the wheels of the sleek, black Ferrari being dangled as bait to catch a band of carjackers. Detective Mike Howard couldn't help but smile at the flashy car's smooth handling and the throaty purr of the perfectly tuned engine. He thought himself the luckiest cop on the force, being chosen for this assignment. The investigative team from Major Crimes had reviewed the files of at least a dozen officers, looking for just the right person to drive the Ferrari. But the thrill he'd felt when Captain Banks gave him the nod was nothing compared to the excitement of actually being behind the wheel of this quarter-million-dollar powerhouse.

Mike glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that his shadow was still in place. His smile turned faintly predatory.

"Got a nibble here," he said, knowing that the small microphone clipped to the underside of his jacket lapel would pick up his words. "A silver BMW has been pacing me for the last seven blocks. The driver's a woman -- blonde, mid to late twenties."

Mike's earphone crackled just slightly before Jim Ellison's voice replied, "Let her know you've noticed her. See if she stays with you."

Mike took the next corner faster than he would have dared in any other vehicle, glancing back when the BMW kept pace. He pressed the accelerator harder and momentarily widened the gap between himself and his shadow. But the woman driving the Beemer was no slouch behind the wheel. She matched his every move.

"I think we've caught ourselves a fish," Mike said with satisfaction. "Looks like she's trying to push me into the north end of Bradford Alley."

"Got it," Jim confirmed. "I'll head 'em off from the other side."

Mike's hands tightened on the wheel as he turned a corner and saw his way blocked by a road construction crew. He turned abruptly, thankful for the Ferrari's low ground profile and wide wheel base. He'd have spun out in anything else.

Ahead of him, a parked semi blocked the alley, and Mike braked to a halt. He threw the Ferrari into reverse, but before he could move, the BMW pulled in behind, cutting off that avenue of escape.

"Here we go."

The blonde woman who'd been driving the Beemer got out of her car, a gun held steadily in her hands. Mike glanced from her to the man who trotted down the ramp from the trailer in front of him. The man was armed as well, and his voice was hard as he ordered Mike out of the car

Trying to look suitably intimidated, Mike raised his hands. "Take it easy," he admonished, letting a slight quaver touch his voice. "Take it easy."

The dark-haired man who'd been waiting in the semi raised his gun as he yanked open the Ferrari's door. "Get out of the car!" he yelled again. "What are you, stupid?" With his free hand, he reached in and grabbed Mike by the front of his jacket and hauled him out of the seat. "C'mon, man, let's move! Move!"

Mike stumbled a little as the car thief shoved him back against the side of the car. "Okay," he said, the unsteadiness in his voice genuine this time. The glitter in the thief's eyes said this guy wouldn't think twice about shooting him just for the hell of it. Three people had already been injured in the course of having their expensive imported cars stolen by this same gang. Mike didn't plan to be Number Four. He wondered what was taking Ellison and the rest of his backup so long to make their appearance. "Take it easy," he said again, doing nothing to further incite the agitated carjacker.

In the space of a heartbeat, Mike went from being the luckiest cop on the force to being the unluckiest. The rough handling he was receiving at the car thief's hands managed to flip open his jacket enough to reveal the wire. The thief latched onto it, snatching it loose and holding it up for his partner to see.

The glint in the dark eyes turned to absolute fury. "He's wired! This guy's a cop!"

Mike surged forward, intending to disarm the thief and maybe get himself out of this mess in one piece. But the thief was quick and vicious. The butt of the gun slammed against the side of Mike's head. A thousand stars exploded inside his brain, then everything went black.

~~~~~~~~

Blair Sandburg braced himself against the dashboard as Jim Ellison's Ford F-150 skidded around a corner at a speed faster than was wise on the wet pavement. Jim's expression changed from mere concentration to tense worry as he called for backup at the location Mike Howard reported as the apparent destination. Up ahead, their most direct route to their rendezvous with Mike was blocked, and Blair clenched his teeth and grimaced as Jim skirted the edge of the construction blockade with scant inches to spare.

"Damn!" Jim swore under his breath and accelerated down the long block that led to the next available cross street.

Blair had sat in on the planning sessions where Jim and Mike had mapped out possible routes for Mike to travel in the Ferrari, hoping to catch the attention of the car thieves. They'd chosen this one because of the wide streets and relatively light traffic, thus minimizing the risk to the citizens of Cascade. For four days, Mike had driven without incident from a luxury high-rise apartment building to one of the new office towers on the edge of downtown. It was sheer rotten luck that an overnight water main break had necessitated emergency repairs that included tearing up sections of at least three streets to locate the problem. The unexpected obstacles were not making the job of keeping tabs on Mike any easier.

The taut lines of Jim's face bespoke his unhappiness with the way his plan was unfolding. He took another corner almost on two wheels, ignoring the blare of horns nearby and the pedestrians scurrying to get out of his way. Blair knew Jim had intended to drive the Ferrari himself; the carjackers had proven themselves ruthless in acquiring their chosen vehicles. Like the good team leader he'd been in the Army, Jim would never ask someone else to take a risk he wasn't willing to assume. But Simon Banks had vetoed that plan. Blair could see the wisdom in that decision. Jim Ellison might be a hell of a cop, but his driving was enough to scare Evel Knievel.

The detour cost them precious minutes getting to the scene. The radio resting on the seat between them crackled again, and Blair heard the carjacker's harsh voice ordering Mike out of the car. Mike's response was calmer, but the carjacker seemed intent on bullying his victim. Blair shuddered at the undiluted venom in the unfamiliar voice and cast a quick look at Jim. The detective's jaw muscles jumped erratically and his eyes narrowed when that angry voice spat, "He's wired! This guy's a cop!"

Blair flinched at the unmistakable sound of something hitting flesh just before the wire went dead. He flinched again when Jim careened into Bradford Alley, almost taking the handle off the passenger side door on the brick walls.

Jim braked to a sudden halt; a semi blocked the alley at his end. With a curse, he threw open the door and got out, running toward the weasely looking man who bolted from the semi.

Blair got out of the truck with slightly more caution, catching a glimpse of the silver BMW pulling away from the other end of the alley. He turned in time to see Jim take the truck driver down with an arm thrown out in a "clothesline" maneuver. The man immediately howled in pain and clutched one arm.

"Ow! My arm! You broke my arm!" the truck driver moaned. "I'm gonna sue."

Blair sprinted past the parked semi and went to check on Mike Howard, who he could see sprawled on the pavement next to the Ferrari. As soon as he touched the man's shoulder, Mike began to regain awareness.

"Take it easy," Blair said soothingly. The swelling knot on the side of Mike's head looked painful, but the skin wasn't even broken. By the time the backup units began arriving, the detective was sitting up and muttering disgustedly.

~~~~~~~~

Jim still radiated frustration as they reviewed the morning's events with Simon. Seated in one of the chairs at the conference table, Blair watched as Jim paced a short path in front of Simon's desk. He wasn't surprised by Jim's agitation. The case had been frustrating for him, and the plan to lure the thieves into a trap had been Jim's.

"Thirteen carjackings within the last 6 months," Jim summarized. "Each car worth no less than a hundred grand. Three people in the hospital. And our guy blows the set-up."

Simon frowned at his detective. "He didn't exactly blow it, Jim," he protested.

Blair nodded his agreement with Simon's words. He knew that Jim was just blowing off steam, but it didn't hurt to remind him every once in a while that sometimes things just didn't go the way you wanted them to. "Yeah, it's not like Mike was careless. You heard what he said, Jim. When that guy yanked him out of the car, his jacket came open and exposed the wire. And anyway, we got the driver."

Jim's heavy sigh seemed to release some of his tension. "Yeah, his name is Tony DeLuca. He's out on parole for bank robbery. We nail him on this; he goes away for 25 years under the three strikes law."

Simon nodded curtly. "Good. Let's use that. Maybe we can get some information out of him." The captain rounded his desk and dropped into his high-backed chair just as his phone began to ring. With a brief gesture to his two men, he snatched it up and answered, "Banks. ... Who? ... Look, can't this wait? Just tell her to call him...Wait. "

Blair was fighting an uphill battle trying to convince Jim that he was not to blame every time something went wrong on the job. Both men kept their voices low in deference to Simon, and both looked up in surprise when the captain suddenly barked, "Sandburg!"

"Yeah?" Blair responded with a slight frown. To the best of his knowledge, he hadn't done anything recently to aggravate Simon.

Simon dangled the phone from one hand. "Do you know someone named Naomi?"

Blair glanced from Simon to Jim then back to the scowling captain. "Uh…yeah." He wondered why in the world she would be calling him here, of all places. Granted, he hadn't seen her since just before he had met Jim, and he knew from her infrequent letters and phone calls that she was consumed with curiosity about the strange turn his life had taken. But the last thing he had expected was for her to call him at the station.

Simon's stern voice interrupted his thoughts. "In the future I would appreciate it if you wouldn't use this phone number for your personal calls!"

"Simon, I didn't give out..." Blair's protest went unfinished when Simon cut across his words, telling him to have his "lady friends" call him at home.

Blair stood up from his chair, ignoring the faint smirk on Jim's face, and moved toward Simon's desk. He shook his head slightly. "Simon, she's not one of my…"

Simon just waved him off and raised the phone to ear again, long enough to tell Rhonda to put the call through, then he handed the receiver to Blair. Blair accepted it with a helpless shrug.

"Thanks, Simon," he murmured, then he smiled and said brightly into the phone, "Mom!"

He chose to ignore the almost audible snap of Jim's neck as he looked up in surprise and the looks of sheer astonishment on both Jim's and Simon's faces. He needed all his concentration to deal with his mother.

~~~~~~~~

The argument had been going on for a good ten minutes. Blair had expected some resistance from his partner and roommate. After all, the loft wasn't really designed for guests. Blair already occupied the only spare bedroom. And sometimes the single bath could be a bit of an inconvenience even for two. But Jim was being downright pig-headed.

Blair leaned over Jim's desk and forced the detective to look up at him. "Come on, Jim," he cajoled. "It will only be for a couple of days. She's coming in from L.A. on her way to a spiritual retreat."

Jim's expression didn't change. "Don't you think she'd be happier at a hotel?" he asked as he closed the file containing everything they knew about Tony DeLuca and stood up.

"No." Blair fell into step with him as Jim started across the bullpen toward the hallway outside.

Jim continued to try to paint an unappealing picture of what Blair's mother would have to contend with if she stayed with them. "I mean, a couple of guys going around belching and throwing their underwear on the floor... I just don't feel like monitoring my behavior in my own home."

Blair almost laughed at the idea of Jim throwing his underwear anywhere besides the laundry hamper. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd come home to find his own stray shirts and books piled neatly on his bed after Jim had done another round of clutter patrol. But he refrained from pointing out the absurdity of Jim's argument. "You don't have to!" he assured him. "She's very open, totally new age. One of the original hippies. She even used to date Timothy Leary. Well, not date ... actually more like live with. In fact, I always thought he might have been..."

"Your father?" Jim said into the brief pause as they stepped out in the hall. For a moment, his mouth twitched in something that was almost a smile. "Well, knowing you, that doesn't surprise me, Chief."

Blair just shrugged. In years past, not knowing who his father was had bothered him. The man wasn't even named on his birth certificate, and since Naomi had always refused to speak of the matter, he'd finally let it go. Or so he told himself.

His voice was matter-of-fact as he said, "Well, I did have a lot of candidates to consider. It seemed like every man Naomi met would fall in love with her. She never stayed with any of them for very long though." He could have kicked himself for letting the regret color his words with that last statement.

Jim never broke stride as he turned to glance at him. "That's too bad."

Blair resurrected his usual cocky grin and gestured with one hand. "What? Are you kidding me? It was great! I went to three World Series, five NBA playoff games. Beautiful."

"I meant for her," Jim corrected with a quick, sidelong glance.

Blair couldn't tell if Jim was teasing him for thinking the regret was on his behalf, or if he really did sympathize with a woman who sought but never found her Mr. Right. Somehow, the idea of his mother cozily ensconced in domestic bliss struck Blair as absurd. He voiced a soft snort. "You don't know my mom."

~~~~~~~~~

Jim left the matter of Blair's mother and her impending visit at the door of the interrogation room. He had a suspect to question, and he couldn't afford to have his attention divided. Their case against DeLuca wasn't terribly strong, he knew. Any defense attorney worth his salt could easily argue that there was nothing solid to tie the man to the attempted car theft. The truck from which he'd fled wasn't even stolen; they had found the rental papers in the glove box. The fact that the credit card used for the rental was stolen was no help. No one at the rental company remembered the face of the man who'd picked up the truck.

DeLuca had to know that he was over a barrel, but still he tried to convince Jim that he had no idea that the people who had hired him were stealing cars. Jim was prepared to wait while the man stewed in his own juice. After the driver's most recent protestation that he "didn't know nothing about nothing," Jim merely paced the featureless room, casting the occasional glance at the man slumped in a chair.

The ploy worked. Fidgeting, tugging at the edge of the sling supporting his fractured arm, DeLuca watched as Jim made another circuit of the room. His swarthy skin gleamed with a fine sheen of nervous perspiration. "C'mon, man," he whined. "I'm already down for the count here, huh? And I ain't looking to be unfriendly."

Jim wheeled around, coming to a stop on the opposite side of the table. He slapped a hand down sharply and stared at DeLuca. "I need names."

"Yeah? And I need a break. And I ain't talking about my other arm, neither." DeLuca's dark eyes were accusing, but Jim was unmoved. The stupid bastard wouldn't have gotten hurt if he hadn't tried to run.

After several tense seconds, DeLuca released a heavy sigh and said, "Francine Barry, all right?" When Jim didn't react to the name, he added, "The babe in the Beemer?"

Jim pushed himself away from the table and resumed his pacing, though he kept DeLuca constantly in his peripheral vision. He kept any hint of satisfaction off his face as the man continued to talk.

"I'm telling you, man, she is really something. She was recruited by some big Wall Street company right out of college. She was making six figures right off the bat. But she gets bored, so she hooks up with this race car driver. Joins his pit crew. But that wasn't interesting enough. Somewhere along the line, she meets this guy, Petrie."

Jim came to an abrupt halt. That name definitely got his attention. "Petrie?" he repeated. "Bill Petrie?"

DeLuca nodded. "Yeah. I hear he's got crews working seven major cities. You heard of him?"

"What did I just say?" Jim asked grimly.

"What the hell. I say, oh, it's none of my business." DeLuca shrugged, and Jim went back to pacing. "Anyway, Petrie phones Francine. Tells her what he needs. She locates the merchandise, plans how we're gonna take possession. Once we bag it, I drive way out to the boonies, drop off the whole rig with the car inside. Then she uses a stolen credit card and rents another rig."

Jim didn't respond. His mind was already at work, concocting a new plan to put this particular ring of car thieves out of business. He turned toward the interrogation room door, ignoring DeLuca's plaintive voice as it followed him back into the hall.

~~~~~~~~

Jim opened the door to Simon's office without bothering to knock. He knew his captain wouldn't stay mad once he heard what Jim had to say.

"DeLuca just dropped a dime on Bill Petrie as head of that car theft ring," he announced.

Simon looked up from the papers on his desk and laid down his pen. "The Bill Petrie?" he asked incredulously. "That mob guy that was accused of engineering all those race track robberies a couple years ago?"

Jim nodded, a slight, smug smile forming on his face. "The Bill Petrie," he confirmed. "It all fits. The perfect planning and execution of the heists. The cars -- nothing less than a hundred grand. The strong arming."

Simon seemed less than pleased to know that Petrie was behind the Cascade carjackings. "Even the FBI couldn't pin him down. They send in people undercover, but he always managed to slip away. Now the jerk's got himself a new business, huh?"

"I got an idea, Simon. This time we can nail him."

Simon gestured for him to continue. "All right, what is it?"

Jim outlined the idea that had begun forming even before he left the interrogation room. "DeLuca tells Francine that he got away from us and he can't drive because of his arm. He introduces me to her as his cousin."

"Oh, yeah, right. I can see the family resemblance there," Simon retorted with a chuckle. He stood up and came around in front of the desk.

Jim conceded the point with a shrug. It was probably ridiculous to assume that anyone would accept even a distant blood relationship between them. "Okay. A buddy from prison, then. Whatever. The idea is for me to go inside and smoke out Petrie. This time we're gonna be able to nail him."

Simon didn't seem to share Jim's enthusiasm. His brows dipped into a frown behind his glasses, and he crossed his arms over his broad chest. "You sure you can drive one of those big rigs?" he asked dubiously.

Jim smiled, hoping that his own uncertainty wasn't too obvious. It had been years since he'd been behind the wheel of anything that large, and even then he hadn't had much experience. But he had an advantage now -- his senses. Learning new skills on the fly was something he'd done a lot recently. In this case, he wouldn't be learning a new skill; he'd only be polishing an old one.

Finally, he answered, "Yeah, sure. Sure. It's a piece of cake."

Simon's snort was openly derisive. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Jim turned the smile on wider. "No, no, you see, sir, I drove a rig a little bit after high school. It's like riding a bicycle. I mean, once you learn, you never forget."

"You go down to the impound yard and borrow one of the trucks there," Simon said after a long, thoughtful pause. "If you can handle it without wiping out half a city block, I'll consider it."

~~~~~~~~

Blair struggled to keep his face impassive as the truck lurched and bumped its way to a stop. His ears rang with the sounds of tortured gears and overworked brakes. He wondered how Jim could stand the racket.

He stared out the open window, unable to look at Jim, who had spent the last fifteen minutes wrestling with the semi. Jim's certainty that he could handle the truck had diminished with each groan of badly meshing gears. Blair suspected that it was only his stubborn determination to catch the thieves that had gotten away from him once that kept him from throwing in the towel. The rueful chagrin on the detective's face was almost comical, but Blair knew better than to laugh.

At least he hadn't hit anything -- yet.

From outside the semi's cab, the impound officer yelled, "Hey, Ellison, grind me a pound while you're at it!"

Blair looked over in time to see Jim shake his head and close his eyes in weary acceptance of the fact that he couldn't drive the semi worth shit. He could no longer resist teasing his friend just a little. "Jim, you lied?" he asked with mock reproach.

Jim made a face. "No, I didn't lie," he countered, but the fact that he wouldn't meet Blair's eyes squarely suggested that he hadn't told the whole truth either. "I...I had a friend who drove a rig for his dad's trucking company. He used to let me tool around with it a bit, but..."

"But what?" Blair prompted.

Jim jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Well, it didn't have a trailer attached to it," he admitted. "This is..."

Blair finally gave way to a chuckle. "Different."

"Yeah."

"Yeah, great," Blair said wryly, shaking his head at the seeming impossibility of turning Jim into a credible driver in the short time they had. He leaned toward Jim, reaching down to the gear shift lever. "All right, pop the clutch," he instructed, rolling his eyes when Jim gave him a look that spoke volumes of doubt. "Just do it." He flipped a switch located on the stem of the gear shift. "See that right there? That's the splitter. It gets you into the next gear level." He settled back into his seat, hoping that their next lap around the yard would be less likely to produce whiplash.

Jim eyed the splitter, then looked up at Blair. His expression was openly interested. "Oh, yeah?"

Blair nodded. "Yep."

"How do you know so much about this?" Jim asked curiously.

Blair gave him an impish grin. "I spent a summer driving across country in my uncle's rig. I did half the driving. Want me to take you through the basics again?"

Jim didn't seem to be in the mood for even mild teasing. He grimaced and replied in a mocking parody of Blair's words, "No, I don't want you to run me through the basics again." He looked down at the truck's controls as if he could somehow bully them into cooperating. With a barely audible sigh, he confessed, "I figured maybe I could tune into it with my hearing. You know, kind of like tune into the gears a little bit and listen to them mesh." His hands sketched circles in the air, miming the turn of the gears in a motion much smoother than he had managed to produce.

Blair considered that a moment. It sounded good in theory, but practice and theory often bore little resemblance to each other. He shook his head. "Uh, no, it doesn't work that way."

Jim looked almost relieved when his cell phone rang. He retrieved it from his jacket pocket and flipped it open. "Yeah, Ellison ...Yeah, he's here."

Blair looked up in surprise, and was met by a faint scowl on his friend's face. He started to reach for the phone, but Jim held it back, one hand covering the mouthpiece. "How did she get this number?" he asked, finally handing the phone to Blair when the younger man just shrugged and mouthed 'I don't know.'

"Mom? ... Hi, Mom, how are you doing? ..." Blair turned slightly away from Jim as he greeted his mother, though he continued to watch his reactions from the corner of one eye. "Yeah, great, just put your stuff in my room for now." Blair turned back when Jim waved sharply, shaking his head and whispering an emphatic "no." He used his free hand to bat Jim's hands down. He was having a hard time following what his mother was saying. "No, no, I don't think that's such a good idea, Mom. I mean, it's Jim's place. He's got the furniture arranged the way he likes it, you know." Jim again tried to gesture his displeasure with what he was hearing, but Blair countered with another swipe at his hands before he all but turned his back on his partner to finish the conversation. He was beginning to feel the first hint of alarm at his mother's insistence that she simply could not exist in a place so badly aligned with the natural harmonies of the universe. *Maybe insisting that she stay at the loft hadn't been such a good idea after all.* He tried again to calm her dismay. "Yeah, okay. Yeah, Mom, I know, I know. It's a little out of line with the next harmonic convergence, but I don't think we're gonna be falling into a crack in the earth next Tuesday, okay?"

Blair knew that Jim had probably been following the entire conversation -- both ends of it. He chanced a look back and saw the pained expression on his friends' face. He offered a reassuring smile and covered the mouthpiece long enough to say, "It's just for a couple of nights."

Jim's eyes closed briefly before he said with near desperation, "I'll pay for the hotel, okay?"

"C'mon, Jim, you'll love her." He intercepted Jim's attempt to reclaim the phone. "Stop."

Blair turned away again and addressed his mother, who was becoming impatient with the long wait. "Yeah, it's fine. All right. I'll talk to you later." He carefully folded the phone shut and handed it back to Jim, who was quietly massaging his forehead and looking like a man about to face a firing squad. Blair gave him a weak smile and said simply, "Thanks."


~~~~ Act II ~~~


The debate over Naomi's visit continued intermittently throughout the day, and was still ongoing as they returned to the loft that evening. It was a half-hearted effort on Jim's part. He knew he was beaten already and that Blair wasn't really listening to any of the objections he raised. *When did I get to be such a pushover?* he wondered despairingly. The criminal element of Cascade would laugh its collective self silly if they could see him now.

"You don't have to worry," Blair was assuring him yet again as they climbed the stairs to the loft. "Even though you're a cop, she's very accepting of people as they are. Live and let live, you know?"

Jim offered one last, futile argument. "Since she's got a thing about cops, she may feel kind of -- I don't know -- uncomfortable, staying in a cop's apartment. In a hotel, she can do whatever she wants without having to worry about whether or not I'm going to bust her."

Blair laughed as he stepped aside to let Jim unlock the door. "Nice try, man. But she's not into anything these days that you'd be able to bust her for. Now, come on. Be a mensch."

With a sigh, Jim preceded his still chuckling roommate inside. Within seconds, his nose was itching as he could feel moisture gathering in his stinging eyes. His entire body shook with a violent sneeze. "What is that?" he asked, sniffing cautiously in an effort to identify the pungent odor that pervaded the loft.

Undisturbed, Blair inhaled a deep breath as he closed and locked the door. A look of blissful nostalgia crept across his features. "She's burning sage, man. It's to get rid of the bad vibes."

"Bad vibes," Jim repeated doubtfully, his face contorting as he tried to contain another sneeze.

Blair nodded. "Yeah, the bad vibes. Oh, I forgot to tell her about your ... sensitive..." He gestured vaguely toward Jim's face with one hand, brushing at his own nose with the other.

Jim carefully sorted through the cloud of scent, following another, less irritating aroma to the kitchen where something simmered in his large stew pot. "She's also cooking something."

For a moment, he almost forgot the assault on his nose as a woman he had never seen before glided out of Blair's room. He could only stare at the willowy redhead who looked more like a fashion model than 'one of the original hippies.' From Blair's throw-away descriptions, he had expected a graying anachronism in faded jeans and a tie-dyed gypsy blouse, not an elfin beauty in peach-colored satin and expensive cosmetics.

"I'm making Blair's favorite," she said in a melodious voice, her full lips curving in a generous smile.

"Tongue?" Blair sounded like a small boy being offered a favorite treat, and his eyes sparkled with pure joy. He moved past Jim to wrap his mother in a welcoming embrace,

She returned the hug along with a kiss and a laugh that glittered like diamonds. "Yeah, tongue."

Blair, his arms still loosely encircling his mother's slender frame, turned to look back at Jim. "Jim, you like tongue?" he asked.

Jim shook himself out of his daze and dug in his pocket for a handkerchief. He hoped the mundane motions of wiping his still twitching nose effectively hid his shell-shocked expression. With careful nonchalance he replied, "I usually make it a point never to eat anything that comes from the head of an animal."

Blair's mother was more interested in her son than in Jim's offhand remark. She cupped her hands around his face, then slid her long fingers through his thick curls. "Look at this hair!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "It's so 60's. You look beautiful. And I am not letting you out of my sight for two whole days."

"I hope you don't," Blair replied, not seeming to mind the affectionate handling. Then, as if just remembering that they were not alone, he stepped back and motioned to his still staring roommate. "Mom, this is Jim Ellison."

Naomi turned her brilliant smile on Jim and held out a graceful hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Jim could envision grasping her hand and lifting it to his lips for a kiss, but his nose betrayed him, itching as if caterpillars were cavorting inside his nostrils. He turned away with an apologetic shrug and released another sneeze.

Blair winced at the reaction and turned to his mother to explain, "Jim...he's allergic to the sage."

Naomi's smile faded to be replaced with a look of dismay. "Oh, that's awful," she said sympathetically. "How do you stay clean?

Somehow, that question struck Jim as complete nonsense. He mustered a smile, though, and replied, "I shower."

"Oh, no," Naomi corrected. "I mean, how do you get rid of the negative energy?"

Jim wasn't sure whether to laugh or throw up his hands in surrender. He merely repeated, "I shower."

Naomi nodded slowly, but Jim thought he saw a hint of disappointment in her eyes. "Oh, I hear that."

She moved toward the kitchen, her long skirt floating gracefully around her lithe body. As she turned her attention away from Jim, the detective cast a puzzled look at his roommate. The words had been simple enough, but the tone had hovered somewhere between sympathy and condescension.

Blair explained. "Oh, she's saying she's willing to accept what you say without judgment."

"Oh. Great." Jim shook his head resignedly. It was going to be a long two days.

He started to go to his usual seat on the couch, but stopped when he realized that the couch wasn't where he expected it to be. Neither was the love seat, the chair, or the table on which the television sat. "Sandburg?" he queried in confusion.

"Yeah?" Blair was suddenly at his elbow again. He glanced at Jim, then swept a long look over the living room. His head tilted to one side and he made a small, indistinct sound. "Oh, hey, uh...you know, I kind of like the couch there."

Jim glared at him, and received a teasing swat on the chest in response. "I'll put it back when she's gone," Blair promised, his voice too low for Naomi to hear. He was chuckling softly when he turned away from Jim and went into the kitchen.

Naomi glanced up at her son as she lifted the tongue out of the pot. Her hands were deft and sure as she placed the gray-pink lump of meat on the cutting board and began slicing it, and her smile radiated happiness.

Blair inhaled the aroma of the freshly boiled tongue and closed his eyes in blissful appreciation. He hummed approval of her culinary efforts.

"Mmm. Looks good, huh?"

"Yeah."

Jim came to stand behind Blair and watched the rhythmic movements of the knife blade. There was something unnervingly domestic about the moment, and Jim gave up any remaining hope -- however faint -- of shuffling his unwanted house guest off to a hotel. Naomi Sandburg seemed just as adept as her son at making herself at home wherever she happened to be. She looked completely natural standing at his kitchen island and offering slices of tongue to Blair.

"I'm a vegetarian, unlike him," she confided to Jim. "But it makes him happy."

And Jim could see that his roommate was indeed happy, savoring the treat his mother had prepared for him. Jim would have been happy for them if he didn't have to concentrate on filtering out the sage fumes just to be able to breathe properly.

Blair shot a glance at Jim over his shoulder, then turned back to his mom. "Jim and I, we just came by to say hi," he said regretfully. "We've got to go somewhere in a couple minutes."

Naomi's huge eyes widened even more. "Oh, cop stuff?"

"Yeah."

Once again Naomi addressed Jim. "You know, Blair's been telling me all about the work you've been doing together for his research on ... what? Local subcultures?" When she received confirmation from Blair on the supposed reason for his association with the police, she went on, "You know, it's so ironic. I've spent so much time demonstrating against the tyranny of the pigs, and now..." She paused mid-sentence, looking up as if only just realizing who she was talking to. She raised a hand to her lips briefly, and a faint blush spread over her smooth cheeks. "Oh, I'm sorry. No offense intended."

Jim managed a thin smile, and echoed Naomi's own form of acceptance. "I hear that." He found it impossible to take offense at her words. There was something about the woman -- an almost childish simplicity so at odds with her elegant physical self. He could understand why every man she met fell in love with her; he felt her personal magnetism himself after only a short time in her presence.

Jim's pager beeped, jolting him out of his contemplation. He fumbled the small instrument off his belt and glanced at the message. At least now he could escape the loft and get back out into the more tolerable urban miasma of automotive exhaust and uncollected garbage. "That's DeLuca," he announced, gesturing to Blair and turning toward the door. "Let's go."

"Oh! I'll get my coat," Naomi said, moving to follow the two men.

Blair intercepted her with a light hand on her arm. "Mom, you can't come," he said.

Naomi turned an uncomprehending look on her son. "Why not?"

Blair turned her away with an arm around her slender form, creating the illusion that their conversation was private. But Jim could hear every word of the exchange. "You see," Blair explained patiently, "Jim and I, we had to do a mountain of paperwork just to get the department to allow me to ride along."

"Oh, well, then we won't tell them," Naomi countered brightly. "Blair, I haven't seen you in six months."

"Yeah, I know, but Mom..." Blair's voice held regret and more than a little exasperation.

Naomi's tone sharpened as she demanded, "Is there something dangerous about this?"

"No, no," Blair assured her. "It's just research."

"Well, then why can't I come? I visited you on other research projects. You never had a problem taking me along before."

Blair sighed. "I know, but..."

Naomi peered over Blair's shoulder and met Jim's watching gaze. She tilted her head in supplication, and her face took on a childlike pout. "Jim?"

He shook his head. "Naomi, I'm sorry. Not this time."

Blair gave his mother a hug and stepped away from her. "Look, Mom, we'll be back soon, I promise. And we'll get together, we'll talk, I promise."

Naomi nodded reluctantly. "Okay. I'll be here."

Jim waited until Blair was at his side, then gave Naomi a brief, parting smile. She answered with a small wave, still looking disappointed at not being able to go along. When the door closed between them, Jim turned to his roommate and said, "You know, Blair, Naomi's a very attractive woman. I never would have guessed she's so...young."

Blair stopped dead in the middle of the hallway, forcing Jim to stop as well. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he protested. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Just keep guessing, Jim. That's my mom!"

Jim almost laughed at the look on the younger man's face. Blair's eyes had widened with surprise, then narrowed in disapproval, and he thwacked Jim's arm with the back of one hand.

"Take a cold shower, man," he muttered as he moved past Jim toward the stairs.

~~~~~~~~

No one could ever accuse Naomi Sandburg of not knowing her own mind or of being shy to act on her own initiative. She waited just long enough to be sure that neither her son nor his police detective friend would notice her, then she slipped on her coat and followed them downstairs. At the street door she paused; the two men were still getting into Jim's dark green Ford F-150. She could see Blair's animated gestures as they talked, and a small smile crept over her features. Her Blair had always used his hands as much as his voice to communicate.

As soon as the truck pulled away, she ran to her own Volvo station wagon and started the engine. The late evening traffic was just heavy enough to make it unlikely that they would notice her, but not so heavy that she couldn't keep the larger vehicle in sight. Their route took them away from the residential and retail areas of the city and onto less traveled streets. Naomi was beginning to feel a hint of unease. Where in the world were they going, and what sort of observations was Blair planning to carry out?

The F-150 slowed and turned, coming to a halt behind a large tractor-trailer rig parked at the side of the street. Naomi turned off her lights and coasted to a stop just shy of the intersection. A fortuitously placed streetlight let her see Jim exiting his truck and moving up to the driver's side of the semi. When he had gone, Blair scooted across the seat and settled into the driver's seat of the Ford, his hands resting atop the steering wheel, his body inclined slightly forward as he watched Jim's movements.

A woman's slight, dark shape moved quickly down the sidewalk toward the Ford. Naomi pressed a hand to her mouth to contain a gasp as the woman jerked open the passenger door and climbed in beside Blair. The streetlight glinted dully off the gun she raised and pointed at Blair. A moment later the Ford's engine revved and Blair pulled away from the curb, stopping briefly beside the semi before accelerating smoothly away down the street.

Naomi was still staring in disbelief as Jim climbed into the cab of the semi and brought the big diesel engine to life. Dread turned her fingers to ice as the semi's exhaust stacks belched smoke into the cold night air and the big rig moved out jerkily in the wake of the smaller truck. Her hands shook as she put the car in gear and executed an uneven U-turn in the middle of the intersection. There was a phone booth a block back.

For perhaps the first time in her life, Naomi wished for a passing patrol car.

~~~~~~~~

Blair jerked around in surprise when the truck's passenger door opened. A young blonde woman slid into the seat and turned toward him, her right hand holding a gun pointed directly at him.

"Drive," she commanded, lifting the gun a few inches when Blair just sat and stared at her. "Move it!"

Blair put the truck in gear and pulled away from the curb, stopping beside the semi where Jim stood next to the open door. He could see the tension imprinted on Jim's face as the detective bent slightly to peer in through the open window.

"You were told to come alone," the woman told Jim with flat disapproval.

Jim just shrugged. "I always have somebody watching my back."

The blonde's smile was cold. "Well, let's see how you drive then. DeLuca knows the way." She rolled the window back up and turned back to Blair. "Take off."

Apprehension danced along Blair's spine and made his fingers clench on the steering wheel. With that gun pointed at him, he had no choice but to do as she said. He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Jim disappear into the semi's cab. A moment later the headlights came on, and Blair had to look away to keep from having his night vision completely destroyed by the bright glare.

He looked instead at the woman beside him. She was young -- no older than he, Blair thought -- and quite beautiful. Somehow, the deadly weapon in her hand seemed out of place. The cold lump of steel looked awkward in her delicate fingers.

"Floor it," she said, reinforcing the command with another lift of the gun. "Let's see what this thing can do."

Taking a deep breath, Blair braced himself against the seat and pressed down on the accelerator. The truck skidded around a corner, sliding briefly on the wet pavement before Blair brought the vehicle back under control.

"You're pretty good," the blonde said with a smile. She looked completely relaxed, almost happy, as the Ford continued to slew around corners as Blair raced down the streets, following her terse directions.

Blair frowned, his attention on the road ahead. "Great," he muttered. "Thanks a lot. I think."

She laughed and turned in her seat to eye him more closely. "So," she said conversationally. "Who are you?"

Blair felt his heart hammering inside his chest and used the unnecessary action of checking for cross traffic to gain a few moments to think. What should he tell her? They hadn't planned for this. He knew Jim's cover identity, but no one had thought it necessary to construct one for Blair; he wasn't supposed to be involved.

"Just call me BJ," he said finally, forcing a slight laugh. "You know, like BJ and the Bear? The old TV show about the truck driver with a pet chimp?"

The woman tilted her head speculatively. "So, you're a driver, too?"

Blair swallowed in a dry throat. "Uh…yeah…sometimes."

"And do you have a pet chimp?"

"No. Not unless you count Jim. But he's more like a gorilla." He tried to laugh again, but wasn't entirely successful. He cleared his throat nervously. "Uh…do you mind putting that thing away? I'm really not too crazy about guns."

The blonde cocked an eyebrow at him. "But your friend has you watching his back? That seems a little strange."

Blair tightened his grip on the wheel and made a face. "Yeah, well, just call us The Odd Couple."

~~~~~~~~

Naomi was glad that change wasn't required for 911 calls. She didn't want to waste time digging in her purse for the right coins. Her entire body vibrated with urgency as the calm-voiced emergency operator answered and asked what kind of assistance she needed.

"My son has been kidnapped!" she said impatiently into the receiver, forcing herself to take a deep breath before she answered the dispatcher's request for her name and location.

"Please calm down, ma'am," the dispatcher replied. "Did you see the kidnapping?"

"Of course I saw it!" Naomi retorted. "Some woman with a gun got into the truck with him and then they drove away! Nothing like this was supposed to happen," she added accusingly. "Blair isn't a cop. He said he was just observing. He wasn't supposed to be in any danger."

There was a brief pause, then the dispatcher asked, "Is your son associated with the police department?"

"Yes, of course he is." Naomi's fingers tightened on the receiver as her impatience grew. "Don't you people keep track of these things?"

"Give me your son's name again, please."

Naomi struggled for patience again. "Blair Sandburg," she said, carefully enunciating the name. "He's an observer."

"And he's observing which officer?"

"Ellison. James Ellison." Naomi ran a trembling hand through her hair, brushing the mist-dampened strands away from her face.

There was another pause, then the dispatcher explained, "Detective Ellison is assigned to the Major Crimes unit. It would be best for you to speak with someone there."

Naomi's voice sharpened along with her worry. "Look, I am not looking for information here, but something has gone wrong, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am, I understand that. I'll try to locate Captain Banks for you, Mrs. Sandburg. Please try to remain calm."

Naomi nodded to herself. "Yes, yes, I hear that. I hear that." Calm was the last thing she felt at the moment. The line clicked faintly and the dispatcher's voice was replaced with canned instrumental renditions of songs that were popular in her childhood. It seemed to go on forever, and Naomi wondered if she'd been forgotten. "Hello? Hello?"

There was no response except for the third verse of Moon River from a quavering violin. Naomi closed her eyes and chanted, "I'm letting this go. I'm letting this go. I'm letting this go." Her eyes snapped open and she stamped her foot in frustration. "God, why can't they play decent music?" she demanded of the air.

~~~~~~~~

"She ain't gonna go for this," DeLuca said for the fifth time as Jim pulled the semi into the warehouse that served as the carjackers' headquarters. Jim was frankly fed up with the crook's remarks about his driving; he didn't need DeLuca to tell him that his scheme was on the verge of falling apart.

The truck's headlights illuminated the trio awaiting their arrival. Blair stood next to the blonde who had forced him to drive away at gunpoint. On the woman's other side was a man in his late thirties who seemed to have been cut from the same mold as hundreds of other small-time crooks Jim had encountered in his police career. Both Francine and the man DeLuca had identified as Gary Hendrickson were armed. The expressions on all three faces were uniformly grim as the truck ground to a halt.

Jim exhaled a sigh of combined relief and resignation as he switched off the engine and climbed down from the cab. As soon as his feet touched the concrete floor, he found himself being assessed by Francine Barry's cold blue eyes.

"So, what?" the woman said disparagingly. "You gonna tell me you forgot your driving gloves?" She turned her frown on DeLuca and accused, "I thought you said this bozo could drive."

DeLuca shrugged, clasping his injured arm. "He's kinda rusty, that's all."

Jim knew that he had to do something to salvage this situation. If Francine and her tough-looking friend, Gary believed that he and Blair were a threat to their operation, they were in a great deal of trouble. He met their disapproving eyes squarely and said, "Actually, if you'd given me a chance, instead of pulling this stunt...." He crossed to where Blair was leaning against the front fender of his truck and stood next to his grim-faced partner. "I would have told you -- here's your guy, not me. I mean, you should see how he handles this rig, it's...whew." He rested a hand lightly on Blair's shoulder and tried to ignore the murderous frown on his friend's face. There would be hell to pay later, but he was trying to save their butts *now.*

"So what do we need you for?" Gary asked.

Jim shrugged. "Well, we're a team. Either you buy both of us or nothing."

Francine regarded the pair of them, her expression shuttered. Jim half expected her to demand a demonstration of Blair's driving skills, but she didn't. "You'll have to split your end," she warned.

Blair spoke up before Jim could even open his mouth. "Forget about it," he said flatly. "Equal shares or we don't do it."

Jim wanted to smack his unofficial junior partner. Blair was going to blow it if he tried to play hardball with these people. They weren't the kind you could push too far.

After a long moment, Francine nodded. "Done. You'll start tomorrow."

~~~~~~~~

The intermittent rain had started up again by the time Jim and his two companions pulled away from the warehouse. Blair occupied his usual place beside Jim. DeLuca sat in the rear crew seat.

Jim shot his silent and rather hostile partner a sidelong look. "What was with the attitude back there, Chief? You almost got us talked out of the case."

"That was the idea, man." Blair crossed his arms over his chest and slumped into his seat.

DeLuca leaned forward between the other two, ignoring the disgusted look Jim gave him. "Oh, he's right," the crook offered. "I know these creeps. They'll eat the little guy for breakfast. If you ask me, you'd better pack it in right now."

"Well, nobody's asking you," Jim snapped. He waved a hand, shooing DeLuca back into his own space. "Back off, huh?"

DeLuca lifted his good hand in surrender. "Okay, okay. Geez!"

Jim scowled out through the rain-streaked windshield and grumbled, "Your breath is bothering me."

~~~~~~~~

Francine watched the pickup bearing both her old and new drivers pull out of the warehouse. She hated it when things went wrong, as they had yesterday. But she hadn't stayed in business and out of jail this long without being able to make snap decisions and adjust her plans according to the needs of the moment.

The warehouse door closed with a metallic clang, and Gary locked it securely. Francine left her hireling to finish securing the place and went into the office. She could tell that he was still fuming over their failure to procure the Ferrari and over her decision to take on this new pair of associates. But she wasn't really in the mood to listen to his grumbling.

Gary didn't give her much choice, though. He followed her into the office despite her attempts to ignore him. Francine calmly retrieved her cosmetic bag from a desk drawer and flicked an irritated glance at Gary, who began pacing in front of the desk.

"I don't like it," Gary said roughly. "I don't trust DeLuca, and I don't trust *them*."

Francine lifted one slender shoulder in a shrug and finished applying a fresh coat of lipstick. Gary could blow off all the steam he wanted; the decision was still hers. "We needed somebody right away," she pointed out. "And the kid's a great driver."

Gary halted his pacing and leaned on both hands planted firmly on the desk top. "I say you'd better tighten things up around here, lady, or we're gonna get burned. Now we got real lucky yesterday. We might not be so lucky next time."

Francine closed her compact mirror and slipped it back into the cosmetic bag. Her beautiful face turned hard as she reminded him, "This is my operation, Gary. You work for me."

"And we both work for Petrie," he retorted. "He was really pissed that we lost that Ferrari. He said I'm not doing my job watching your back."

"The driver was a cop. They set us up."

Gary nodded, his expression savage. "Yeah. And you walked us right into that trap."

Francine said nothing as Gary swung around and stormed out of the office. Her manicured fingers tapped an idle rhythm on the desk, the slight movement the only evidence of her annoyance. She began to wonder if she shouldn't get a new strong-arm man to go along with her new driver.

~~~~~~~~

After umpteen repetitions, Blair was tired of telling Jim that he had no intention of going undercover as a truck driver for Francine Barry's car theft operation. He was still furious that Jim had presumed to volunteer him the way he had. It wasn't like Blair could defend himself at the time; to have done so would have put both their lives at risk. Not even his attempt to price his and Jim's services out of the market had worked. Now he was faced with an awkward dilemma: ruin Jim's plans, or get himself in far deeper than he really wanted to be.

He finally fell silent, refusing to repeat the same arguments he had already offered more times than he could count. The elevator ride up from the garage to the sixth floor seemed to last much longer than usual. Blair attributed it to the chill in the air between them.

Simon Banks hailed them as they stepped out into the hallway and motioned for them to follow him into the break room.

"Glad to see you both back in one piece," the captain said as he turned on the tap to wash out his coffee mug. He spoke primarily to Jim and didn't seem to notice Blair's brooding silence in the background. "You made contact?"

Jim nodded. "It was just like DeLuca said. Francine Barry and her hired muscle, Gary. We're in."

Simon frowned. "We? You mean *you're* in, don't you, Jim?"

"Well…" Jim gnawed the corner of his lip for a moment. "Actually, I need Sandburg in this, too, Simon. He's actually a much better truck driver than I am, and I had to pass us off as partners. They never would have bought it otherwise."

Blair was relieved to see Simon started shaking his head even before Jim finished his speech. This was one time when he had no intention of trying to talk the captain into accepting Jim's hare-brained schemes. He'd barely got out of his last "undercover" job with his skin intact.

"Look, there is no way I can sign off on this," Simon told his detective. "I mean, what if something goes wrong? Blair doing this kind of undercover...the department could be in all kinds of hot water."

"He'll sign a waiver, sir."

Blair pushed himself away from the counter against which he'd been leaning and protested, "Hey, man, speak for yourself."

Jim turned to him with a hopeful smile. "Blair, come on. This is a..."

"A golden opportunity, right," Blair cut in, "to do some real police work and put some hard core criminals behind bars, right?"

"Wait a second," Jim said with a confused frown. "I don't get it, Sandburg. You're usually chomping at the bit to do something like this."

Blair shrugged. "Yeah, I know," he conceded. "But this guy Gary -- he scares me. And I'm gonna be alone in a ten-ton truck with some psycho with a loaded gun!"

Jim put on his most reassuring face and patted Blair's shoulder comfortingly. "I'm gonna be with you the whole time backing you up," he vowed. "Now I need you on this one. You back out now and the whole thing is over. That's it. It's done. They're gonna figure out something's going on, and they're gonna close down shop." He turned his attention to Simon. "Now, sir, I know this is a stretch, but this may be our only chance to get Petrie."

Simon sighed heavily and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Aw, hell, Jim's right. Look, we didn't expect it to go down this way, but that's exactly the situation. It's still your choice though."

"Good." Blair looked from the captain to the detective and said flatly, "I choose to live." He pushed past both larger men and went into the bullpen. Halfway across the space, he stopped suddenly, his eyes widening as he caught sight of a familiar face peering out through Simon's office window. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Simon's broad hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

"Come on, Sandburg," the captain said grimly. "There's someone who is very anxious to see you."

~~~~~~~~

Blair watched his mother pace a trench in Simon's floor. He would have been pacing, too, but didn't want to risk a collision with the woman he scarcely recognized as his will-o-the-wisp, live-and-let-live mom. "I can't believe you actually followed us!" he said in exasperation.

Naomi wheeled about, her cape swinging out with the speed of her movements. Bright flags of color stood out against the pallor of her strained and worried face. "Just let me have my say and then I'll go," she said, her head jerking sharply to punctuate her words. "Captain Banks has already had an earful, but he refuses to come to his senses and see the situation for what it really is."

"What situation?" Blair asked, even though he didn't really need to. He had lied to his mother, told her that there would be no danger, just as he had omitted any mention of the perils he'd already encountered since he'd begun working with Jim.

"I saw a woman kidnap you at gunpoint," Naomi replied stridently. "I mean, clearly there's a lot more going on here than simply observing. I mean, the next thing I know you're going to be parading around here in a blue uniform and jack boots."

Blair felt like a twelve-year-old who'd been caught doing something naughty. He bristled both at the implication that he wasn't capable of choosing his own course in life and that police work was somehow beneath him. For the first time he could remember, he met his mother with defiance. "Well, you know what, Mom?" he retorted. "If I do, that's my choice."

Naomi didn't back down. "Well, make another choice."

"Mrs. Sandburg…" Simon tried to intervene, drawing the angry woman's attention away from Blair.

Naomi corrected the form of address with sharp reprimand. "Ms."

Simon accepted the correction gracefully. "Ms. Sandburg… Technically Blair is still an observer, but he's become much more than that. Your son has helped us solve some very difficult cases and I consider him part of the team."

Blair turned to stare in stunned disbelief at the captain's unexpected support. He'd always thought that Simon merely tolerated him because of the help he gave Jim, but he heard nothing but sincerity in the captain's words. "Yeah," he agreed. "And they need my help on this case." So much for his earlier resolve to stay on the sidelines.

Naomi eyed him with the same sort of maternal sympathy she had used when he was passed over for the junior high basketball team because the coach thought he was too small. "Oh, sweetie," she said gently, moving toward him and reaching out as if to touch him. "I'm sorry, but you're not cut out for this kind of work."

Blair wanted nothing more than for the floor to open up and swallow him. Could she possibly embarrass him any more? He glanced back at Simon and saw that the captain had been following every word of the exchange. Simon had defended him once; would he do so again?

Simon seemed to realize that he was Blair's lifeline in this. He rose slowly from his chair and came around to the front of his desk. "Well, technically, that's not entirely true," he countered thoughtfully. "I've gotten to know Blair over the past few months and, even though we don't always see eye to see, his enthusiasm is kind of -- uh -- refreshing." He paused and met Blair's gaze briefly. "And I trust him," he concluded. "Whether he decides to stay or go, I back him up 100 percent."

Naomi's shoulders sagged in recognition of her defeat. Still, she forced the issue. Her voice was only slightly unsteady as she asked, "So what's it gonna be?"

Blair gave her the only answer he could. "I choose to stay, Naomi."

"Hmm." Naomi nodded and exhaled a tired sigh. "I hear that."

"Do you?" Blair hoped that she understood that his decision wasn't made to spite her. He was committed to his work here, to a far greater extent than he had ever envisioned when he first teamed up with Jim.

Naomi nodded again and turned away, grabbing her purse from the conference table and striding toward the door.

She was upset, Blair knew. But, damn it, he was a grown man, not a child. She'd always been willing and able to accept his choices before. Why did she have to be so opposed to this one? He watched her go, and almost involuntarily followed as far as Simon's door. "Mom!" he called, wanting to apologize, to tell that he still loved her, even if they disagreed. She didn't even hesitate as she disappeared from the bullpen and into the hallway. "Come on," he murmured, mostly to himself. "Detach with love."

When he turned back from the door, he saw both Simon and Jim watching him. "Thanks for the support, man," he said to Simon.

Simon nodded and waved toward the still open door. "Let's just get back to work, okay?"

Jim said nothing as he grabbed both their coats off the back of a chair and handed Blair his. Blair had to wonder what was going through his friend's mind. Jim had said nothing at all, but Blair wasn't sure whether it was because he was deferring to Simon's higher rank, or because he didn't want to risk earning Naomi's enmity. But at least he wasn't making any seriously un-funny comments.

Blair started to follow Jim, but turned back before he reached the door. "Hey, Simon, I just wanted to say... "

"Please, don't," Simon interrupted him with a raised hand. "The memory is already too painful."

Simon wouldn't want to ruin his tough image by praising a mere observer, but Blair felt compelled to acknowledge his help. "Come on..."

"Eh-eh-eh-eh." Simon pointed an imperious finger at him and scowled. "Out! Out!"

Blair surrendered and left, knowing that, despite the captain's frequent grumbling, he had an ally if he should ever need one.


~~~~ Act III ~~~

The morning found Jim and Blair assuming their roles as car thieves. Nothing more had been said about the disagreement between Blair and Naomi, or about Blair's abrupt about-face on becoming involved with the operation. Jim knew better than to bring it up. He had seen Blair's distress in Simon's office last night, and he wouldn't compound his friend's embarrassment.

It was almost time to leave for their planned rendezvous with the Rolls Royce that was today's target. Jim jumped down from the semi trailer where he and Gary had been securing the wheel blocks and ramps they would need to load up the stolen car. Blair passed him with barely a glance, and Jim fell into step beside the younger man. "You ready?" he asked, keeping his voice low so that Francine and Gary wouldn't overhear.

"I should've listened to Naomi," Blair muttered.

Jim ignored the comment. Blair was always nervous before taking part in something major, but he had yet to let them down. "This is it," Jim said, wiping the dirt from his hands on a rag. Francine wouldn't want their prize to be soiled.

Blair sighed and kept walking. "Okay, when do we call for backup?"

"Backup?"

"Yeah, you know, sirens, flashing lights...whoo-whoo-whoo!" Blair circled a finger in the air to simulate the rotating lights of a patrol car.

Jim chuckled at the gesture. "You've got an active imagination."

They stopped near the cab of the semi, and Blair looked up at Jim in surprise. "What are you saying? You mean, we're really gonna steal a car?" he asked.

"We can bust these two clucks any time we want," Jim pointed out. "The idea here is to get the drop on Petrie."

Blair swallowed audibly. "How long is that gonna take?"

Jim shrugged and concentrated on a smudge of grease between his fingers. "No way of telling. Could be months."

"Yo!"

Both men looked across the warehouse to where Gary stood next to the silver BMW. The car thief signaled to Jim that it was time to leave. Jim just nodded and turned back toward Blair again, tucking the shop rag into his jacket pocket. "You just relax," he admonished with a grin. "All you gotta do is drive."

Jim folded himself carefully into the back seat of the BMW. Francine was at the wheel, with Gary riding shotgun. He waved to Blair, who was leaning out of the semi's cab as they drove past. They'd gone over the drill less than an hour before. Francine, Jim and Gary would intercept Martin Franklin's Rolls Royce when the man left his office in the Chesterfield Tower and drive the car to an alley a mile away where Blair would be waiting with the semi. The route had been carefully mapped, and contingencies noted in case of traffic snarls or unexpected interference. Nothing would go wrong this time.

Francine maneuvered the BMW expertly through the streets of Cascade, and pulled up half a block from the Chesterfield Tower garage exit. As soon as the nose of the Rolls became visible at the security gate, she pulled up, blocking the driveway and forcing the Rolls to stop. Jim was the first out of the BMW, pulling his gun from beneath his jacket as he moved toward the driver's door.

"Get out of the car," he commanded, leveling his weapon at the terrified driver from a distance of several feet.

Gary joined him, yanking open the car door and pulling Franklin from his seat. His harsh shouts were much the same as Jim had heard across the radio link when their setup with the Ferrari had gone bad. "Get out. Move. Get out of the car. Come on. Move!"

Martin Franklin, middle-aged and slightly overweight, stumbled and fell to the pavement, his face contorting in pain. Gary ignored him as he slid behind the wheel of the Rolls Royce.

Jim frowned at the fallen man, taking in the grayish pallor of his sweating face and the way one pudgy hand clutched at his chest. He tucked the gun back into his belt and knelt beside Franklin. "I think he's having a heart attack."

Gary leaned out of the Rolls. His face held nothing but impatience and contempt for his victim. "That's not our problem."

Still kneeling, Jim pressed a hand to Franklin's throat, feeling the erratic pounding of the man's pulse. Franklin's breath was labored and his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Jim quickly loosened his tie and unbuttoned the collar of his expensive, tailored shirt.

"Get in the car, right now," Gary ordered. He aimed his gun at Jim's head. "Get in!"

Jim remained where he was, his hand pressed flat against Franklin's chest, sensitive fingertips noting the irregular rhythm of the straining heart. Not even for the sake of his cover could he leave the man. He dug his cell phone from his coat pocket looking up to where both Gary and Francine were watching him. "Take off!" he said. "Go on!"

Francine put the BMW in gear and pulled forward far enough to let Gary take off in the stolen car. She leaned over the door of the convertible and yelled to Jim, "What the hell are you doing?"

"He's dying," Jim said simply. "I'm calling 911." He gave their location to the 911 dispatcher.

Franklin's eyes opened. "My pills," he gasped. "Front pocket. My pills..."

Jim reached into the man's suit jacket and found a small prescription bottle of tablets. "How many?"

"Two...two..."

Franklin's mouth opened like that of a baby bird waiting for a worm, and Jim carefully tipped two of the pills into the palm of his hand, then dropped them onto the man's tongue. He watched closely to make sure that Franklin didn't choke on them. His hand still rested on the man's chest as he used both touch and hearing to monitor Franklin's condition.

"Look, you've done your bit for humanity," Francine said impatiently. She slapped the side of the BMW with one hand. "Let's go!"

Jim shook his head. "I'll take my chances here."

The frightened victim had latched onto Jim's wrist. Jim patted his shoulder reassuringly and tried to look as unthreatening as possible. He found it incredibly ironic that the man whose car he'd just helped to steal was looking to him with such desperation. "Hang in there, sir," he said soothingly. "Help is on the way. Just relax."

The BMW's engine whined as Francine accelerated away from the curb, then the brakes squealed as she stopped and backed up. Jim glanced up to see her staring at him in indecision. She obviously didn't want to leave him behind, but she risked both of them being caught if she stayed. He could hear ambulance sirens approaching, no more than a few blocks away.

Francine had heard them, too. She glanced in the direction from which they came, then glared at Jim. "Are you ready now?"

Jim nodded once before he looked back down at Franklin. The man's breathing was less strained now, and his pulse no longer raced. Even his color was beginning to improve. "You're gonna be fine," Jim assured him as he pushed himself to his feet.

He jumped into the back seat of the BMW without bothering to open the door. He didn't even want to think about how much rubber was stripped from the tires as Francine peeled away from the scene.

~~~~~~~~

Blair struggled to contain his unease as he drove back to the warehouse with his cargo of a stolen Rolls Royce. He couldn't help thinking that this entire scheme was in a fast-moving handcart headed straight to Hell. So much for Jim's promise to be with him the whole time, backing him up. It had been a shock to have Gary drive up in the Rolls alone. Jim was supposed to have been with him.

All the way back from the pickup point, Blair had felt like he was sitting next to a lit stick of dynamite. Gary was one ferociously unhappy camper, and he didn't mind letting Blair know it. From his ranting, Blair had managed to capture the gist of the story: the Rolls' owner's apparent heart attack, Jim's refusal to leave the man where he'd fallen, Gary's insistence that being a Good Samaritan was not on his agenda.

"Come on, man," Blair said reasonably into a brief lull in Gary's tirade. "There's a big difference between stealing a car and killing a man."

"Hey!" Gary shot back. "It's not my business if the guy's fat and out of shape and ready to keel over at the drop of a hat. Your buddy put this whole operation at risk."

Blair said nothing. It was obvious that Gary was in no mood to be reasonable.

They made it back to the warehouse without incident, and Gary unloaded the Rolls. Except for the necessary task of guiding Gary's descent down the ramps, Blair tried his best to be inconspicuous. He felt immense relief when the BMW, with both Francine and Jim inside, rolled into the warehouse. But their arrival only seemed to spur Gary on to another round of fury.

Gary confronted Francine as soon as she stepped out of the BMW. "I'll telling Petrie I'm through," he declared harshly. "I can't watch your back if I got nobody watching mine."

Francine made a calming gesture with one hand. "Just relax."

"He should've let the old guy drop," Gary insisted, stabbing an accusing finger at Jim.

Jim rounded the front end of the car. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he protested. "I'm not into killing on the job here, pal. I do a little time, that's an accepted risk. But I'm not doing life."

Gary didn't back down. He was, quite literally, in Jim's face, standing so close that they were almost nose to nose. "That's part of the territory, Jack. Anyway, on this crew, one strike and you're out."

"It is not your decision, Gary," Francine reminded him sharply. The focus of the argument shifted to the battle for dominance between Petrie's original crew.

"Look, he could've blown the whole operation and put us all in the can."

Francine nodded and steered Gary away from Blair and Jim. "That is exactly what I was thinking at first, but this guy has got a point. We could have all found ourselves wanted for murder. He did the right thing. You should give him some credit."

Gary finally seemed to be cooling off a bit, but Blair wouldn't want to bet his life that the man was any more kindly disposed toward them than he had been from the start. He just hoped that Jim was wrong when he said it might take months to gather enough evidence to take down Petrie as well as his hirelings.

~~~~~~~~

Jim shifted in his hiding place behind a stack of boxes, glad that the warehouse Francine had chosen as her base was actually used for storage. It was much easier to sneak around when you had some form of concealment.

He and Blair had "left" earlier, but had returned unseen to monitor Francine's and Gary's activities. Jim thought it likely that Francine would contact Petrie to confirm possession of the Rolls Royce. If he was lucky, he just might learn something that would help him figure out how to take Petrie down. There hadn't been time to get authorization for a tap on Francine's phone, but Jim knew that his hearing was as good as any electronic surveillance. Of course, sentinel hearing wouldn't be admissible in court, but it wouldn't have to be. There would be plenty of other evidence on which to try the pair.

Jim hoped they wouldn't have to wait much longer. Beside him, Blair was beginning to fidget; inactivity wasn't natural for the kid. And if they stayed here too long, they ran the risk of being discovered. He was almost ready to call it quits when Francine reached for the phone on her desk and punched in a series of numbers. Eleven numbers. Long distance. Bingo!

Jim signaled to Blair that he was moving again, and the two of them crept even closer to the office, still being careful not to come within Francine's line of sight. He was aware of Blair's hand resting lightly on his shoulder; he felt safe enough in extending his hearing to follow the woman's phone conversation. He was unlikely to zone out with that steadying touch anchoring him to the here and now.

An unfamiliar man's voice answered the call, and said nothing to give any hint to his identity. For several minutes, the discussion centered solely on the successful "acquisition" of the Rolls Royce and the plans for shipping it as soon as Gary completed the task of switching the vehicle identification number plate and falsifying the ownership papers. But, inevitably, the slight hitch in the plan caused by Martin Franklin's heart attack came up, and the man presumed to be Petrie was decidedly disturbed by that news.

"Three words, kid," he told Francine. "Shut it down."

"Up till now, everything's gone according to plan," Francine protested.

"Up till now" -- another three words." There was a brief pause, then the man said speculatively, "You ever notice, Francine, how things always happen in threes? Hm? Birth, life, death. Beginning, middle, end."

From his vantage point, Jim saw Francine clench her fingers around an expensive silver pen. She leaned forward, resting one elbow on her desk. "Look, I have left room for every contingency here," she said firmly. "I change my base every month, my trucks every job. So what, I had a couple of snags the last time around. My business is sound."

The voice on the other end of the line was faintly disparaging. "Darling, you are a car thief, not a corporate CEO. There are no contingencies in our business. You either get caught or you don't. My experience tells me that the third act curtain is about to ring down on your neck."

"Petrie, you've invested a lot of money in my operation," Francine replied curtly, finally confirming that her backer was the elusive Mr. Petrie. "Here's the bottom line. You're a good customer. That does not give you the right to tell me how to run things."

Petrie's response was immediate and uncompromising. "That gives me every right, darling. Now here's my bottom line. Shut it down."

"I can't."

"Excuse me?"

Francine's mouth turned up in a smug smile. "Look, the Lamborghini you wanted? I found it."

Petrie hesitated before he said, "The Lamborghini. That's almost impossible. There's a three-year wait list for that car."

"And that means a hefty profit," Francine concluded.

"I'm aware of that, Francine."

"Look, it's an easy set-up," Francine assured him. "Nothing's going to go wrong. I will personally guarantee it."

~~~~~~~~

Gary Hendrickson left without bothering to tell Francine that he was going. He wasn't answerable to that over-educated, self-important bitch. His loyalty was to himself first, and to Petrie, even if he couldn't understand why a man like Petrie would put Francine in charge. She didn't have what it took to run an operation like this. Who in their right mind would accept a couple of bozos on the say-so of a loser like Tony DeLuca without checking them out? Gary certainly wouldn't.

The near fiasco this morning with the Rolls still rankled badly. Sticking around to make sure that guy didn't croak was just plain stupid. Someone could have seen what was happening and called the cops. And even if they didn't, the man knew, and he had plenty of time to fix their faces in his memory. They'd be lucky if they didn't end up with their faces on police composite sketches being passed all over town. And Francine had actually defended the decision to stay!

She didn't know it yet, but her days as Petrie's pet were numbered. Gary had seen to that. He'd made sure that Petrie knew of every glitch that had happened over the past few days. And he'd made sure to lay the blame squarely at Francine's door. Petrie didn't need a bimbo in a short skirt calling the shots; he needed someone with the guts to made tough decisions and be willing to get his hands dirty. Someone like Gary.

Gary was headed to his car when he noticed a familiar green pickup truck parked between two portable sheds outside the warehouse. That truck should have been long gone, along with their two new "recruits." He'd seen them leave not long after Francine and the new guy, Jim, had finally made it back to the warehouse. So what the heck was the truck doing badly hidden back here at their base of operations? It had been parked there a while. When Gary laid a hand on the hood, there was little residual heat from the engine.

So Francine thought they could be trusted, did she? Well, he was about to prove her wrong on that. He'd be willing to bet that the name on the truck's registration didn't match the one Jim had given Francine when DeLuca introduced them.

Gary cursed when the door failed to yield to his efforts to open it. A quick glance through the window gave him another option, though. A couple of pieces of mail had been left on the front seat. The printed subscription label on a magazine showed part of an address on Prospect. All he had to do was follow them home, then call in Francine and rub her nose in her own mess.

~~~~~~~~

Jim and Blair returned to the loft to find Naomi deep in meditation in the middle of the living room floor. Jim had half expected to find her gone after the scene in Simon's office the night before. The woman had been upset, that much was obvious. By the time he and Blair had got home, she had retreated to Blair's room. Only her coat, hanging on the rack by the door, and flickering of candlelight visible through the curtains covering the French doors gave any indication that she was even there. She had made no move to speak with either of them on their return, and she had still been asleep when they left this morning.

"She's still processing," Blair said with a sigh when Jim pointed to the motionless figure poised in full lotus position and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Hey, she's still here," he added with a wistful smile. "That's a good sign."

Both men went to their respective rooms to change clothes, Jim grabbing the cell phone from his pocket before he headed up the stairs. Simon would want to know about Francine's conversation with Petrie, and Jim wanted to know how Martin Franklin had fared after the theft of his car.

"I don't like this, Jim," Simon said when they had recapped the events of the morning. "That man could have died."

Jim tucked the phone between his ear and his shoulder; he needed both hands to zip and button the fresh pair of chinos he'd put on in place of the jeans he'd worn earlier. "Simon, I made sure he was out of danger before I took off," he assured his captain. "The ambulance got there a couple of seconds later."

"Yeah, and how the hell did you know if he was out of danger or not? You're no doctor."

"I've been a medic," Jim reminded him, grabbing a clean shirt as he headed for the stairs. "Besides, if there was any doubt, I wouldn't have left him."

Simon's tone was less than convinced. "Yeah, well, it was still too damn close for my comfort zone. When's this Lamborghini heist supposed to happen?"

"Sometime in the next couple of days," Jim answered. He carefully juggled the phone from one hand to the other as he slipped his arms into the shirt sleeves. He descended the stairs, briefly noticing that Naomi still hadn't moved, then turning toward the kitchen where Blair was making sandwiches.

Simon sighed. "All right. Keep doing what you're doing. But you be careful. If there's any question about the personal safety of you, Sandburg, or anybody else, we collect Francine and Gary and leave the Petrie thing over to the Feds. Now am I getting through?"

"Loud and clear, Captain."

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow."

Jim snapped the phone closed and glanced over his shoulder into the living room. "Has she said anything?" he asked. Blair shook his head, and Jim began to wonder if sentinels were the only ones who had to worry about zone-outs. "She's been like that since we came in."

Blair seemed more fascinated than concerned. "Yeah, I know," he murmured, layering cold cuts onto thick slices of fresh bakery bread. "Her personal best is three hours and 37 minutes."

"Five hours..." Naomi corrected, drawing both men's attention. She clasped her hands together and stretched her arms up over her head, turning to smile at her audience as she added, "Last month in Big Sur... And then I saw the most beautiful sunrise. Ah... It was glorious!"

Jim watched her unfold her lithe body with a dancer's fluid grace. On anyone else, the combination of olive green slacks and tangerine stretch top would have looked garish. Somehow, the brilliant plumage seemed to suit Naomi's personality. She might be old enough to have a grown son, but even when she was a grandmother many times over, Jim couldn't imagine her as anything but vibrant.

A sharp swat on his arm broke through his reverie, and Jim turned to meet his roommate's disapproving frown.

"Hey, man, cut that out," Blair said in a fierce undertone. "Don't do that!"

Jim assumed an expression of aggrieved innocence and held out his hands in a silent "what the hell did I do?" gesture.

Blair just glared at him again, then looked past him at his mom. "You hungry?"

Naomi picked up a sheer, gold-trimmed scarf that matched her blouse and draped the filmy length over her shoulders. "Oh, I'm famished!" she said as she glided into the kitchen. She leaned her hands on the end of the work island and turned toward her son. "I've been processing my feelings about your police work," she said, her voice still slightly dreamy from her lengthy meditation.

Blair winced. "Come on, Mom. Let's not get into that again, okay?"

Jim felt almost like an interloper as mother and son faced each other across the battleground of their differing opinions. But neither of them seemed to mind that he still stood there. In fact, neither seemed to notice him at all.

"Oh, Blair," Naomi said with almost wistful regret. "We've always been such great friends. I don't know why I…I suddenly turned into supermom."

"I don't know either."

Naomi smiled her gentle smile and said, "Well, anyway, I swore I'd never do it and I'm gonna let it go. And I will. I'm gonna let it go."

Blair didn't seem entirely convinced. "When?"

"When hell freezes over."

Blair looked away, rolling his eyes. "Mom..."

Naomi reached for him, chuckling softly and drawing him into her arms. "I'm joking."

"Thank you." Blair returned the hug. Jim thought he heard immense relief in Blair's voice.

Jim left them to their reconciliation when someone knocked at the door. He wasn't really expecting anyone, but there was always the possibility that one of Blair's students had been trying unsuccessfully to locate him. He stepped back abruptly to avoid being smacked in the face by the door. His raised both hands in immediate surrender as Gary Hendrickson barged in, his gun pointed unwaveringly at the center of Jim's chest. Francine entered behind him and moved to the side -- a smart thing to do if Gary lost his head and decided to start shooting people.

"We've got to talk, sport."

Jim backed up another few steps. "Take it easy with that thing," he admonished.

"You've been watching us," Gary accused.

Jim shook his head. "You're paranoid, man."

Gary smiled without humor. "Better paranoid than dead. You left the warehouse right after we finished the job. But I saw you drive off less than an hour ago."

*Shit!* Jim could have kicked himself for not realizing that Gary was still around. He knew that the carjacker disliked and distrusted them. He should have been more careful.

"They were with me," Naomi said unexpectedly. "I picked them up. We were all going to get some lunch, and I have the bigger back seat."

Blair hovered near his mother's side. "Yeah," he agreed with false heartiness. "If we would have known you guys were hungry, we would have invited you. It'd be nice to get to know you better."

Gary flicked a glance at Blair. "Would it?"

From behind him, Francine said, "Oh, come on, Gary, we're all on the same team here." Jim could tell that she hadn't entirely bought into Gary's suspicions. The power struggle he'd seen brewing between the pair earlier was working in his favor. Francine didn't want to be proven wrong.

"What about her?" Gary demanded, nodding at Naomi. "Where does she fit in?"

Naomi smiled and pointed to Blair. "I'm his mom."

Gary shifted his attention and his animosity, bringing the gun to bear on Naomi. "Don't be flip with me, lady," he snarled.

The momentary distraction was all Jim needed. He forced Gary's gun arm up and back, disarming him and knocking him to the ground in one practiced move. The thief stared up at him from the floor, his features twisting with confirmation of his doubts. "Well, I guess now we find out the truth, don't we?"

Jim leaned over Gary and gave him a taste of his own medicine -- and a close-up view of the gun that Jim had taken from him. "The truth is," Jim said, "I don't like people busting into my apartment with guns and bad manners." He drew back slightly, and offered Gary a hand up off the floor.

Gary slapped the hand away and stood up unaided. Jim knew that he hadn't won any points with the man, and that he and Sandburg would have to watch their backs even more closely than before. Gary wasn't a man to accept defeat gracefully.

Jim raised the gun again and ejected the clip before handing the weapon back to Gary.

"He could have just killed you, Gary," Francine said. "What more proof do you want?"

Jim held out a hand in truce. "What do you say we start fresh?" he suggested blandly.

Gary looked down at the extended hand but made no move to accept the peace offering. He snickered in derision and turned to leave.

Francine released a sigh. "Um...look, I'm sorry, guys. We'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"We'll be there," Jim promised.

Naomi stepped forward as Francine moved toward the door. "Nice meeting you," she said with a smile.

Francine nodded rather dubiously. "Yeah." She returned the smile and left, pulling the door quietly shut behind her.

For several seconds Jim stared at the door. "How the hell they find out where we live?" he asked of no one in particular.

"I don't know," Blair replied, his voice a little breathy in the aftermath of that tense encounter.

Naomi seemed more energized than unnerved. "You know," she said with a broad smile, "that was kinda fun."

"What?" Blair said, his voice rising in disbelief.

Naomi clasped her hands like an excited little girl. "Keeping your cool, not blowing your cover." She laughed delightedly. "Blair, you know what it reminds me of? You know when you used to dress up in that superhero costume? And you'd make me be the foreign evil spy. You remember that, Blair. How you used to drive to the lair in your Super-mobile." She turned to Jim and confided, "He used to sit on the back of the toilet and flush to make it go."

Jim almost felt sorry for his partner. The younger man's face reflected absolute mortification at the disclosure of his silly childhood fantasies; when he wasn't motioning for his mother to be quiet, he was casting desperate looks at Jim and circling a forefinger beside his ear in the classic "she's nuts" signal.

Jim just shook his head and looked away to keep from laughing out loud.

~~~~~~~~

Blair wasn't really looking forward to another encounter with Gary Hendrickson. He hadn't been lying when he told Jim that the guy scared him. All in all, he thought he'd really rather tangle with a certifiable nut-case than with someone like Gary who was just plain mean. It bothered him more than he had let on to either his mom or Jim that Gary had discovered where they lived. One unannounced visit from the bad-tempered car thief was more than enough! Now, Francine on the other hand…

The blonde woman had arrived just ahead of the two men, and she turned to wave as she collected her briefcase from the back seat of the BMW.

"You know," Blair mused as Jim parked the truck. "She is not bad for a car thief."

Jim eyed his partner speculatively. "Well, maybe you should get to know her better."

Blair shook his head emphatically. "Ah, forget it! We've been down that road before. Remember? I'm no good at that seduction stuff."

"Hey, man, nobody's asking you to compromise your high level of standards," Jim said dryly. "It's just that the more information we have, the closer we're gonna be to nailing Petrie."

"Does that mean we might not be doing this for months?" Blair asked hopefully.

Jim shrugged. "The sooner we get the goods on Petrie, the sooner we lock 'em up and go on to the next case."

Blair reached eagerly for the door handle. "You talked me into it," he said with a grin as he got out and headed toward Francine's office.

When Blair came into the office, she was bent over the small refrigerator behind her desk. A moment later she turned around with a bottle of water in one hand and a Styrofoam container in the other. She offered him a wry smile and sat down at the desk.

"Most people lose their appetite when they're angry," she commented as she picked up her fork. "I eat."

Blair hovered near the door, his hands shoved into the pockets of his plaid wool coat. He shaped his features into a regretful frown. "You're angry? If I did anything... "

Francine waved her fork in the air and shook her head. "No. No, no. Have a seat, please. I could use the company actually. " She tilted her head, her pale hair brushing the shoulder of her expensive suit jacket. "Look, I'm real sorry about last night. Gary can be a real hard-ass, you know, but that's also what makes him useful. How's your mom?

Blair laughed faintly as he settled himself comfortably into the chair facing her desk. "Oh, her? Don't worry about her. She's used to this stuff." It was time to expand on the fiction that he and Jim had already created for themselves. "My dad used to run contraband from state to state. My grandfather was a rumrunner. There's a rumor he used to work for old Joe Kennedy."

Francine swallowed a bite of her lunch and mused, "Kind of a family tradition, huh?"

Blair nodded. "I guess you could say it's in the blood."

For a moment, neither spoke. Blair was busy watching Francine watch him. If he had met her in any other way, at any other time, he might have tried to encourage a relationship. But the last few moths had taught him some hard lessons about getting involved with women he met "on the job." It really was too bad that she had chosen car theft as a career path.

Francine glanced down self-consciously and exhaled a breathy laugh. "What?"

"I was just wondering..." Blair said slowly. "You don't seem like the type of person to be in this line of work."

"Neither do you."

Blair grinned. "Touché."

Francine daintily wiped her lips and fingers on a napkin. "You know, it's weird. It's like a rush, you know. It's like driving a fast car, or bungee jumping from a helicopter."

Blair's eyes widened and his brows shot up in surprise. "You've done that?"

"I guess you could say I'm what they call an adrenaline junkie," Francine admitted. "I love that feeling when you're taking the big risk."

Blair could understand that. As much as he hated being so scared that he felt like he was going to pass out, he had to admit that there was nothing like teetering on the brink of disaster to make you feel completely alive. And every time he pulled some impromptu bit of magic out of his hat that kept his and Jim's hides in one piece, he experienced the heady rush of having beat the odds.

"So why don't you get yourself into a legitimate job?" he asked Francine, unwilling to admit to her that, in some measure, he shared her love affair with excitement.

Francine graced him with a small, secret smile. "I intend to one day when I'm old and tired, but for now -- aside from my unfortunate choice of partners -- I'm having way too much fun."

The phone on the desk shrilled, and Francine set aside the container she had been eating from. "Excuse me," she said. As she picked up the receiver she turned half away from Blair. "Hello ... Yeah ...Yeah, the Lamborghini is arriving Thursday morning ... Pier 37 ... Where's your drop-off?"

Blair pretended disinterest in the conversation, but he was listening closely to every word the woman said. He'd give half his hair to have Jim's senses right now, but half a conversation was better than nothing.

Francine suddenly sat up a bit straighter and her voice sharpened. "We've never done a job before without a confirmed buyer...I don't like it. This car is going to be unusually hot…No…Wait. You're coming here? All the way from Chicago?"

There was a long silence, during which Francine merely stared at the phone as if it had tried to bite her. She sighed and set it carefully back onto its base, her slender fingers tightening visibly on the instrument.

"Is everything all right?" Blair asked when she looked up at him again.

Francine's smile seemed forced this time. "Yeah. It's fine."

Blair suspected that it was anything but.

~~~~~~~~

It seemed like an eternity before Blair and Jim could reasonably leave. Blair had rejoined Jim shortly after Francine's phone call, but it had been too dangerous to fill him in on what he'd learned. Gary and Francine were both too close to risk being overheard. As soon as they were in the truck, though, Blair had quickly recapped the phone call. Jim had gone straight to the police station to report their findings to Simon.

"So Petrie's coming into town?" Simon mused. He paced slowly in front of Blair and Jim, who stood just inside the closed office door.

"Yep," Blair confirmed. "That's what she said."

Simon frowned at the empty coffee cup he'd been getting up to refill just as the two of them arrived. "Somehow we have to find a way to link him with that Lamborghini."

Jim raised a hand to catch Simon's attention. Blair wasn't certain what he had in mind, but he'd obviously been thinking about how to carry out their plan to nail Petrie ever since Blair told him about the call. "Petrie doesn't have a buyer for the car," Jim pointed out. "So we'll give him one. Our buyer will insist on taking delivery from him personally."

Simon tucked his chin in like a turtle under attack. His face reflected skepticism that catching Petrie would be easy. "Hey, hey, wait a minute. Remember who we're talking about here. Even the FBI couldn't get that close."

"I think we can." Jim sounded way too confident for Blair's liking. He wondered just what Jim was thinking.

"How?" he asked.

Jim's answer was addressed equally to his partner and his captain. "He's gonna be in a hurry to unload that Lamborghini. He's gonna want to shut Francine down and get out of town. We'll offer him as much money as he can expect to get anywhere else. Our buyer will be somebody his people already know. I mean, I don't think he's gonna have any other choice but to take this deal."

Simon looked confused. "Our buyer? Who do these guys know besides you two?"

Jim smiled in the way that Blair particularly despised. It always meant that no one -- especially Blair -- was going to like his plan. The pale blue eyes fell steadily on Blair, and suddenly the younger man knew what he had in mind.

"No!" Blair said flatly. "No way, man." He stepped forward and jabbed a finger into Jim's chest. "I know what you're thinking, and you can just forget it."

"Come on, Chief, it's the perfect setup. The groundwork is already laid. All we have to do is fill in a few gaps. After the way she reacted last night, do you really think she'll have a problem with it?"

"I have a problem with it!" Blair retorted hotly. "Gary was ready to shoot her, for crying out loud! And you want to mix her up in this? No. No way. It is *not*going to happen!"

Simon harrumphed behind them. "Would either of you gentlemen like to let me in on what the hell you're talking about?" he asked with deceptive mildness.

Blair glared at Jim as he explained about Gary and Francine's unexpected visit to the loft. "The one person Francine and Gary know besides us," he concluded, "is my mom." He swung away from the two detectives, paced a few steps, then turned back. "And you know what's even crazier than Jim even suggesting such a thing? Naomi's just crazy enough to go along with it!"

~~~~~~~~

Jim was faintly surprised that he had finally gotten Simon and Blair to agree to at least put forth his proposition to Naomi. Only Simon's assurance that he would be along to make sure things didn't get out of hand swayed his partner. Jim had never doubted that Naomi would agree; even with Gary's gun staring her in the face, she'd been like a kid playing make-believe. The woman might have issues with police work, but she certainly seemed able to keep her cool in a crisis.

They'd borrowed a Ford Econoline van from the impound yard and followed Gary for more than an hour after he left the warehouse. When he headed back to his apartment building, Jim began to feel the first stir of doubt. He really didn't want to have to go in after him. Inside the building there was a higher risk that they'd be seen and possibly stopped. And if they went up and knocked at his door, they sacrificed the element of surprise.

The car thief obligingly left again soon after dark, exiting the building and heading for his car parked on the street nearby. Jim and Blair moved up quietly behind him, positioning themselves so that he wouldn't notice them until it was too late. Jim grabbed him around the neck and shoulders, covering his mouth with one hand so that he couldn't call out for help. Blair wrapped both arms around the bigger man's middle, using the force of his shoulder to herd Gary to the waiting van.

In seconds it was all over. Gary lay in a heap on the bare floor of the van. Jim crouched beside him with a gun discouraging any attempts to escape. The van -- with Simon at the wheel -- lurched into motion, and Gary looked up with mingled fear and fury.

"What the hell is going on?" he demanded.

Naomi turned in the passenger seat and smiled. Gone was the flighty woman from last night. "I'll give you a hint," she said calmly. "These guys work for me."

Gary's lip curled in an ugly sneer. "I knew you were hinky the minute I laid eyes on you."

Jim prodded him lightly on the arm with the gun barrel. "You're a clever guy, Gary," he said placatingly. "That's why you're here."

"So what the hell is this? Some kind of shakedown?" Gary pushed himself up slightly from the floor, getting his elbows under him, but still in an awkward position to try to make a break.

"I run an import/export company out of eastern Europe," Naomi told him, reciting the story that Jim had rehearsed her with that afternoon.

Gary seemed unimpressed. "So?"

Jim took up the narrative. "There's always been a market for hard-to-get items, like luxury cars, parts. The point is... "

"Your boss and I should do business together," Naomi interrupted.

Gary nodded in sudden understanding. "And you want me to arrange it."

Naomi smiled her approval. "You *are* a clever guy." The smile vanished as she went straight to the point of their meeting. "I'll give you a half million for the Lamborghini."

"Twenty percent wired to your boss wherever he wants as soon as we get the car," Jim clarified their offer.

Gary had lost the sneer, but his frown was still in place. "What about the rest?"

"I'll give it to Petrie personally," Naomi replied, "just as soon as I take delivery."

"That'll be for him to decide," Gary said with a hint of uncertainty.

Jim shook his head. "Not this time. There's twenty thousand in it for you if you can make the arrangements."

Greed lit Gary's dark eyes. "Hm... What about Francine?"

Naomi leaned forward, her smile almost seductive. "Well, from what I hear," she purred, "you're the one who's really in charge."

Gary nodded, and a smug smile spread over his face. "You heard right."

~~~~~~~~

Francine was seething and it showed in the sharp gestures with which she punctuated her arguments and the hard thump of her heels on the concrete floor of the warehouse. She wasn't sure with whom she was most angry. Not that it mattered much. The stab of betrayal pierced her like a thousand knives. How dare they go off and make a deal behind her back? That new driver and his friend -- she had defended them to Gary, stood up for them even though she had no more reason to trust them than did Gary. And for her own partners to turn on her. Suddenly, instead of being the one calling the shots, she found herself the odd man -- odd woman -- out.

"I don't like it," she said sharply, slashing the air with one hand as she paced between Petrie and Gary.

"Nobody's asking you," Gary replied. He lounged against the wall of the warehouse office with his arms crossed indolently over his chest.

Petrie shot the younger man a sharp look. "Relax," he ordered curtly before he turned his attention on the angry woman. "You brought these guys in, Francine," he reminded her coolly. "Of course, there's nothing we can do about that now. They know our plan. If I don't accept their offer, they may attempt to take the car themselves."

Francine wasn't ready to throw in the towel yet. "Not if we get there first."

Petrie shook his head. "It's too messy. You're a loose cannon, Francine."

She shot a venomous look at Gary. "Speaking of loose cannons..."

"And your personal management skills leave much to be desired," Petrie added.

It was the first time he'd ever openly criticized her decisions, and Francine suspected that she had already lost his backing. "Are we done?" she asked, reining in her anger with an effort.

"You are," Petrie said flatly. "I wasn't sure when I walked in here, but I made my decision." To Gary he added, "You tell them there's one condition. I want the down payment here tomorrow morning in cash before you pick up the merchandise."

Gary nodded like the good little lap dog he had turned out to be. Francine wanted to wipe that smirk off his face with a two-by-four.

"You'll get your cut," Petrie assured Francine, "and then I want you to disappear."

Francine turned her back on him without speaking. She'd disappear, all right. But when she did, she'd be taking more than just her cut.


~~~~ Act IV ~~~

Blair watched his mother pack the last of her things. Even though her visit had been short, and he hadn't been able to spend as much time with her as he'd planned, he was anxious to see her on her way. He and Jim were due to leave soon to carry out what he hoped would be their last car theft, and he didn't want his mother anywhere around if matters took their usual unexpected turn into the danger zone.

From Simon's bellows, which he could hear even from the other room, he was beginning to suspect that there were already problems. He couldn't hear everything Simon said, but he got the distinct impression that someone was having second thoughts about coughing up the hundred grand they would need to satisfy Petrie. He said nothing about the possible snag to Naomi, though, as she handed him her larger suitcase to carry downstairs.

Whatever was bothering Simon didn't keep him from greeting her with a wide smile when she and Blair went out into the living room. "Ms. Sandburg," the habitually gruff captain said with charming sincerity, "I want to thank you again for all your help last night. If this whole thing goes down smoothly, it'll be your contribution that made the difference."

Naomi tilted her head to look up at Simon. "Well, maybe I should stay," she suggested. "I mean, wouldn't it be better for you if I were there when you arrested Petrie?"

Blair shook his head and waved both hands in Simon's direction. He knew that Naomi couldn't see him, and he hoped that Simon would heed the warning he was trying to telegraph to him.

Simon smiled as he mirrored Blair's actions with somewhat less vehemence. "Oh, I don't think that's necessary. Last night's operation was on our turf and you were completely protected. That won't be the same case when we spring our trap."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. "And I'll feel a lot better when I know you're safely on your retreat."

Naomi surrendered more easily than Blair had expected. With only the briefest hesitation, she said, "All right. After that last few days, I have a lot of processing to do."

"You do." Blair couldn't keep the relief out of his voice.

"Can I tell you something, Blair?" Naomi asked sweetly, turning away from Simon and moving close to her son.

Blair smiled, but wondered what it was she had to ask if she could say. "Of course."

She surprised him by saying with genuine warmth, "I'm proud of you."

*Did I hear that right?* he wondered. But the matching grins on both Jim's and Simon's faces told him that he hadn't imagined it. "Thanks," he said. "Thanks, Mom, that means a lot." He reached out to enfold her in a hug that she returned eagerly, her cheek resting against his hair just as he remembered from his childhood.

"Oh... Just be careful, okay?" she implored him as she drew away, one hand lingering on his arm. Despite her brave words, he could see the worry shadowing her eyes.

"Of course I will, Mom."

Jim went to the coat rack and grabbed a lightweight jacket, reminding them all that there was still a job to be done. "All right, I'm going down to the warehouse and try to stall Gary," he announced. "Blair, I want you to wait for the money and meet me there."

Blair nodded assent. His forehead wrinkled in a frown as Jim turned his most charming smile on Naomi and said, "I hope to see you again soon."

Naomi returned the smile and lifted her face to accept the kiss that Jim brushed across her cheek.

When his friend and his mother didn't immediately move apart, Blair cleared his throat and said, "Hey, uh, Jim... That's my mom."

"Yeah," Jim agreed with a grin that Blair could only describe as fatuous. "Aren't you lucky?" He chuckled softly as he turned and left.

Blair cast a disapproving look at his mother and said chidingly, "Mom!" He tightened his grip on her suitcase. "Come on. Let's get you on your way. You don't want to miss the opening session of your retreat."

Once outside, she tucked her hand through Blair's unencumbered arm and steered him down the block toward her car.

"Next time you come to visit, I'm not gonna let you hit on Jim, I'll tell you that much," Blair warned. Though his tone was light, he was more than half serious. His roommate's fascination with his mother, and her obvious appreciation of Jim, were a little disconcerting.

"I didn't hit on Jim," Naomi protested with a laugh.

"I think you were, Mom."

"No, I wasn't."

"Every guy you meet..."

Naomi slapped his arm playfully. "That's not true."

Blair turned when a car screeched to a halt just behind them. He murmured a faint curse when he saw Francine throw open the door and get out, striding quickly towards them.

"I want to talk to you," she said bluntly.

Blair pretended a calm he didn't feel. "About what?"

Francine's color was high, her lips pinched with anger. "Petrie and I dissolved our partnership."

"Yeah, I heard." Blair felt his mother's grip tighten on his arm. He really wished she do something sensible like run back to the loft and get Simon. But he knew that she wouldn't leave him here to face Francine alone.

"Why didn't you come to me first?" Francine demanded, her voice almost petulant. Blair wondered if she had read more into their little chat in her office than he had intended.

Naomi edged slightly in front of her son. "Sorry, sweetie," she said with feigned regret. "It was my call."

Francine looked like she wanted to scratch out the other woman's eyes. She slipped one hand into her coat pocket and withdrew a small but lethal weapon, pointing it unerringly at Naomi. "Well, now it's mine."

~~~~~~~~

Jim pulled up to the warehouse just as Gary finished loading the ramps and crash pads into the trailer. The distrustful thief looked up, his eyes narrowing as Jim got out of the truck.

"Where's your friend?" he asked. "And where's the money?"

"He's bringing it," Jim assured him.

Gary checked his watch. "Yeah? Well, he'd better get here soon. We should have left ten minutes ago."

"He'll..." Jim broke off as his cell phone chirped. He turned his back on Gary and walked a few steps away as he pulled the phone from his pocket. "Yeah."

Simon's tense voice greeted him. "Jim, we've got a problem."

Jim was uncomfortably aware of Gary hovering nearby, obviously listening to him. "I don’t want to hear that," he said.

"The money's here, but Sandburg never came back upstairs," Simon said grimly. "Naomi's car is still parked down the street, but there's no sign of her or Blair."

Jim rubbed his forehead as tension gripped him. "Damn!" Gary moved into his line of sight, his expression both suspicious and curious. Jim glared at him and moved farther away.

"Look, I've put out an APB on Sandburg and his mother," Simon offered. "They can't have just dropped off the face of the Earth. I'll bring the money myself. You just hang tight till I get there."

"Yeah. Right." Jim clicked the phone shut and stuffed it back into his pocket. He didn't have to go far to find Gary. "My partner's disappeared," he said, hoping that he could stage a preemptive strike against Gary's distrust. "Simon -- the guy you saw driving the van the other night -- is bringing the money instead."

Gary reached out and grabbed Jim by the front of his jacket. "What the hell are you trying to pull?" he demanded. "Your friend is our driver. He can't just disappear."

Jim closed his fingers around Gary's wrists, applying pressure to the tendons, trying to force him to release his grip. His pale eyes glittered angrily as he stared the other man down. "Well, he did. I don't like it either, but we'll just have to live with it. You can drive the truck. I'll make sure nobody gets in our way."

Gary opened his hands abruptly and shoved Jim backward. "Uh-uh," he said with a curt gesture. "I don't trust you or your friend. I think you're trying to play both sides against the middle and fix it so you come out with the car and the cash. You're out of it, sport. I'll handle this one myself."

"You're crazy," Jim protested. "This isn't a one-man show."

"It is now." Gary spun around, bringing his fist up in a round-house swing that caught Jim squarely on the jaw.

Jim went down hard, his vision blurring and his ears ringing with the force of the blow. He was vaguely aware of Gary opening the driver's door on the semi cab, and he knew that he needed to stop him. But his limbs didn't want to cooperate, and it took two attempts to get back to his feet. Pain shot through his jaw as he forced his legs to move.

The semi was just starting to move when Jim reached the cab and jumped up onto the running board. His head was level with Gary's open window. "What the hell are you doing?" Jim shouted above the throb of the diesel engine. "The money's on the way!"

Gary shook his head and shouted back, "The deal's off!" He took one hand off the wheel and grabbed the pistol on the seat beside him.

When Jim found himself staring down the business end of the loaded pistol, he released his hold on the truck and jumped clear, rolling out of the way of the trailer's wheels. By the time he picked himself up off the ground, the truck was too far away and moving too fast for him to catch again. He ran instead to his own pickup and followed, pausing only long enough to call Simon and let him know that their plans were falling apart.

~~~~~~~~

Things could be worse, Blair told himself resolutely. Francine could have just shot them where they stood outside the loft. Kidnapping was so much better. As long as they were alive, there was a chance to get out of this mess.

He flexed his hands on the steering wheel of the BMW and flicked an anxious glance into the rear-view mirror. Francine had ordered Blair to drive, then shoved Naomi into the back seat and got in beside her. Her gun, Blair knew, still menaced his mother. He couldn't even try something desperately stupid like crashing the car; he wouldn't put his mom at risk like that.

"Francine, what are you planning to do?" Blair asked as he steered carefully through the busy streets. "What do you need us for?"

"I'm getting what's rightfully mine," she said, sounding more like a petulant child than a professional car thief. "Petrie and Gary thought they could cut me out and leave me with a measly percentage of the profits for the Lamborghini. Well, I've got news for them. I don't like being brushed aside like yesterday's crumbs." She tossed her blonde head and raised the gun so that it was within Blair's line of sight. "You're going to get that car for me," she declared. "And you –" The gun swung back toward Naomi. "— you'll deal with me, not Petrie."

Blair had to give his mother credit; she was keeping her wits about her admirably, falling back into the cover persona of a European broker. She met Francine's angry eyes with cool appraisal and gave a small shake of her head.

"Forget it, sweetie," she said. "The down payment is on its way to Petrie. I'm not paying twice for the same merchandise, and I don't believe he's the kind of man to offer refunds."

For a moment Francine looked uncertain. Her tongue swiped nervously over her lower lip, and her eyes darted between Naomi and Blair. "That's all right," she said finally. "Petrie can keep his twenty percent. I'll take eighty percent of half a million, and you get the car. Turn right at the next intersection."

Francine directed him to an alley near the docks where they left the BMW, and they continued on in the semi she had arranged to "borrow." Blair maneuvered the rig close to Pier 37 where they would pick up the much sought after Lamborghini. From where he'd parked, they could see the loading crane lifting the bright red sports car out of a freighter's forward hold. Blair knew they were running out of time. He could hope that Jim and Simon had guessed what was going on when he failed to show up.

"We pick up the car and we're gone before Gary gets here," Francine said, almost salivating at the sight of her prize. "And then we make our deal."

Blair closed his eyes briefly, then turned when he felt Naomi's hand resting lightly on his arm. He could see the fear, and the resolve to see this through, in her eyes. "Francine, I will do anything you want," he pleaded. "Just let her go."

Francine shook her head. "Not a chance. She's my insurance." She opened the door and climbed down, somehow managing to keep the gun trained on her hostages as she did. Naomi followed, and Francine jostled her along, ducking behind the cover of crates and equipment, until they were close to the Lamborghini.

Blair waited a few minutes, chewing his thumbnail in agitation, then got out of the truck cab and went to position the loading ramps. It took longer with only one person shifting the heavy metal lengths, especially when that person was intent on keeping an eye on two women.

The dock workers released the lifting straps and wheel supports from around the car. As soon as they stepped away, Francine made her move, running to the car and shoving Naomi into the passenger seat. Blair saw her pause, head up and alert, as she turned to circle around to the driver's side. He followed the direction of her gaze and saw a tall, smartly dressed man standing by a stretch limousine, watching through binoculars. Francine ran to the other side of the car and jumped in. She brought the powerful engine roaring to life, and drove away, leaving an astonished group of dock workers shouting in her wake.

~~~~~~~~

Bill Petrie raised the binoculars to his eyes and watched with satisfaction as the Lamborghini was raised from the freighter and set carefully down on the dockside pavement. That car was a treasure. He stood to make more profit from it than from the last three acquisitions combined. Those ham-handed workers had better not put so much as a scratch on the crimson body. After all the problems, he would be happy to turn it over, but he didn't want incidental damage marring its value.

He set down the binoculars on the roof of his rented limousine and pulled out his cell phone to check on Gary's position. He wanted to pick up the car and conclude this deal as quickly as possible.

"Yeah." Gary's voice sounded taut and angry, and Petrie envisioned yet more hitches in their plan.

"Did they show up with the cash?" he asked, suspecting that he knew the answer already.

Gary snorted unpleasantly. "Forget it. They're history."

Petrie reined in his annoyance. "All right. We'll find another buyer. Just get me that…Hold on a second." Petrie raised the binoculars again when he saw a familiar blonde-haired woman sneaking out from behind a stack of crates. He cursed softly, then said into the phone, "It's Francine. She's here, and there's another woman with her. They're after the car."

"I knew it!" Gary shouted. "They double-crossed us!"

"Haul your butt here NOW," Petrie commanded, "and get me that car!" He threw his cell phone and binoculars onto the seat and ducked back into the limousine. "Go!" he ordered the driver. "Don't lose that car!"

~~~~~~~~

Blair ran through every curse in every language he knew when he saw the limousine take off in pursuit of the Lamborghini. It had to be Petrie, he realized, who had been on hand to conclude the deal. He wasn't going to give up easily, especially to his own former associate. Francine must have seen him, too. That would explain why she had taken off like the hounds of hell were at her heels. Blair would have gladly let her go, but his mother was in that car, too.

The Lamborghini sped away, disappearing behind one of the long warehouses lining the docks. The echo of its engines bounced between the wood and metal structures so many times that Blair lost track of the car's exact position. He yelped in surprise and jumped back against the semi when it slewed around the corner and nearly ran him down. He caught a millisecond glimpse of Naomi's face in the window, then the car was gone again, the limousine still gamely following.

Blair started to climb into the semi's cab, intent on joining the chase, but remembered the ramps hooked to the back of the trailer. Damn! He couldn't drive off with those still in place.

The rattle of gunfire jolted him into action. He set off at a dead run in the direction the car had gone. Petrie was no longer interested in the car, it seemed. He was out to kill the woman who'd double crossed him!

~~~~~~~~

Jim Ellison had had enough of the cat-and-mouse game he'd been playing with Gary ever since leaving Francine's warehouse. He'd caught up with the semi quickly enough. Despite Gary's lead, the larger truck lacked the speed and maneuverability of the F-150. The problem was what to do now that he'd caught up. Jim couldn't just bully the other vehicle off the road, or pull ahead and force Gary to stop -- not unless he wanted to end up as road kill.

They were rapidly approaching the docks where Gary planned to snatch the Lamborghini. Jim knew that Simon was on the way with backup. In the meantime he had two choices: he could try to herd Gary away from Pier 37, or he could wait until the thief came to a stop on his own and face him one-on-one. Both options carried risk.

The two vehicles emerged onto a wider stretch between rows of warehouses, and Jim accelerated around the lumbering semi. Surely there would be some place up ahead where he could block the way and force Gary to change his course. Gary wouldn't want to risk damage to the truck. He needed it to haul away the Lamborghini.

The semi swung over, forcing Jim to speed up and veer left to avoid a collision. The detective glanced over at the semi, then back just in time to realize that Gary was doing a little herding of his own. Just ahead a large boat up on stacked wooden supports blocked the way. Jim steered hard left and braked to slide past the boat with inches to spare. The F-150 lurched as he swung back to the right; a parked truck presented yet another obstacle.

A patch of oil-slicked pavement sent the Ford into a wild skid straight into the path of Gary's semi. Jim fought briefly for control, but realized with sinking dread that there was no way to avoid a crash. He released his seat belt and opened the door, bailing out of the truck just before the semi rammed it. The momentum of the crash sent both vehicles careening into a long warehouse and a stack of shipping crates.

He hit the ground rolling, coming up to his knees and reaching for his weapon in one motion. Breathing hard, he stood shakily and moved toward the semi that had finally stopped with its nose pressed against the warehouse wall. He threw open the driver's door, his weapon pointed unwaveringly at Gary. The thief posed no threat now. He lay draped over the steering wheel, his face streaked with blood from a cut on his forehead.

Squealing tires brought Jim around in a fast pivot, his eyes tracking the red blur that had entered the warehouse from the other end. The Lamborghini, with Francine at the wheel, bore down on him as it strove to outrun the black limousine close on its tail. Petrie stood braced against the sunroof opening, his arms cradling a submachine gun with the same surety that Jim handled his 9mm and firing at the Lamborghini.

Jim shifted his aim and pulled the trigger, his first shot blowing out the limousine's left front tire. The car swerved, sideswiping the edge of the door and plowing into another stack of cargo. The Lamborghini, though, was still on the move and heading straight for Jim.

He stood his ground, legs slightly apart and braced, arms raised to steady his weapon in a two-handed grip. His vision zoomed in on the car, and he almost dropped his stance. Naomi, her face pale and taut, her eyes huge, sat beside Francine. *Damn!* There was no way he could stop the Lamborghini the same way he had the limo. If Francine lost control and crashed, Naomi could be injured. He couldn't let that happen. And if she didn't buy his bluff and stop, he was in serious trouble.

The Lamborghini stopped less than a foot away, so close that Jim could feel the warmth from its engine rising in the cool warehouse. *Give it up, Francine,* he willed her. *You can't win. Just give it up before someone gets hurt.*

For an eternal moment, she stared through the windshield at him. Then her shapely mouth quirked in a knowing smirk and she threw the car into reverse, backing quickly toward the doors through which she'd entered. She had called his bluff; she knew he wouldn't shoot.

Jim's backup arrived in the form of two patrol cars with flashing lights and wailing sirens. They blocked the exit, uniformed officers piling from them and taking up defensive positions behind the open doors. Francine was effectively pinned in.

Jim ran forward and yanked open the door, his weapon still trained on Francine. "Get out of the car," he commanded. "Put your hands behind your back."

Francine managed to look both pathetic and furious as she complied. She said nothing as Jim snapped the handcuffs over her wrists.

He motioned to one of the uniformed officers. "Get her out of here and read her her rights."

Blair ran into the warehouse as Jim was securing Francine. Jim could see that his partner's face was flushed and he was breathing hard from exertion. He dodged around the patrol cars and zeroed in on the Lamborghini. "Mom!" He popped open the gull-wing door and held out a hand to help his mother from the low-slung car. He looked up at Francine as she was being led away and yelled, "Was the thrill worth the risk?" Jim thought he had never heard such disgust in his friend's voice.

"Mom, are you okay?" the young man asked anxiously, holding his mother at arm's length and eyeing her from head to foot.

She laughed a little desperately and nodded. "Nothing that an hour of meditation and two bottles of wine won't cure." She pulled her son forward into a hug and asked in turn if he was all right.

"Me?" Blair said. "Yeah. I'm fine." He nodded against her shoulder and closed his eyes. "Yeah."


~~~~~EPILOGUE~~~~~


Blair trotted up the stairs, not even minding that the elevator was out again. He was in too good a mood to let that minor inconvenience bother him. His day had gone well, as had his dinner with Sheila Moore. He didn't even mind that their date had ended with coffee and dessert; he understood her need to get back to her lab to baby-sit an ongoing experiment. Next time, he promised himself.

Tomorrow promised to be a good day, too. Naomi was due to stop in for a return visit on her way home from her retreat. Blair vowed to ignore any and all requests for help for the duration; he wasn't going to let car thieves or anything else get in the way.

Blair froze as he inserted his key in the lock, his head pressed against the door as an unexpected sound reached his ears. Laughter? A *woman's* laughter? Jim wasn't even supposed to be home, much less entertaining. Uncertain whether to go in or leave and find some way to kill a few hours, Blair listened a moment longer. The voices carried surprisingly well through the thick wood barrier.

"More tongue, Jim?"

"I'd love some."

"Okay, now, look, here he is. This was his third grade year and he was playing Richard Nixon. For weeks he was running around going, 'I am not a crook. I am not a crook!'"

Blair turned the key and pushed open the door to stand framed in the opening. Only the soft light from the lamp on the end table and the dancing warmth of candle flame lit the loft. From the couch two heads lifted in unison. Two hands -- one rough and masculine, the other softly feminine -- rested almost intimately on the pages of an aging scrapbook that Blair recognized as his own.

"Jim?" he queried in surprise. "*Mom?* What the hell is going on here?"

"Hi, honey," Naomi said brightly. She giggled and pointed to the plate on the coffee table in front of them and at the small slab of meat in Jim's free hand. "Look! He's eating tongue! He likes it."

Jim nodded, his face alight with amusement. He chewed exaggeratedly, making wordless sounds of pleasure. He popped the last bite into his mouth and reached for the wine glass sitting beside the plate. "Have some," he invited graciously.

Blair moved forward, shaking his head a little in bafflement. "Yeah," he agreed, accepting the plate that Naomi handed up to him. "I think I'm going to need a drink, too. Pass me the wine."

Jim's glass was closest, and it was that one that Blair claimed, taking a long sip of the golden liquid. "Salud," he said dryly.

Jim grinned and reached for the bottle to refill the glass that Blair had almost emptied. "Next we'll have some esophagus."

-- END --

Please remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to:

Next week's episode: Second Chance by Lyn Townsend




< Prev   Next >