Redhawke.org
Secret
Secret
By Renegade

Beta Read by CarolROI
Written for PetFly by:
Teleplay by: Harold Apter and David Balkan
Story by: Gail Morgan Hickman
Rated PG
internal thought in * *


~~~~~ ACT I ~~~~~


Jim Ellison debated for a moment, then stuffed an extra thick sweater and several pairs of socks in his nylon duffle bag and zipped it shut. He and Blair would only be spending two nights camping beside his favorite trout stream, but it never hurt to prepare for the unexpected. The way his luck had been running lately, they'd end up stranded for a week in sub-zero weather. He hoisted the bulging bag off his bed and trotted downstairs where the rest of their gear was piled in the middle of the living room.

As he crossed the room to deposit his bag near the door, his attention was caught by the CNN news broadcast, and he nearly tripped over the inflatable raft that folded down to a compressed block the size of a large suitcase.

"The mystery continues regarding the disappearance of drug enforcement agent Ben Chavez," the newscaster was saying. "Last week, the D.E.A. revealed that Chavez vanished after his identity as a deep cover agent inside the Cali drug cartel was discovered. The cartel ordered Chavez's death. Although a rumor persists that the agent may have fled to San Jose, Costa Rica, most sources believe the D.E.A.'s move to crack this vicious cartel has met a tragic end."

Jim shook his head and picked up the remote to turn off the TV. Despite the often strained relationships between federal law enforcement agencies and local police, Jim still respected the work they did. And the courage required to infiltrate one of the most notorious South American drug cartels was nothing short of admirable. Jim couldn't help hoping that Chavez had managed to evade the cartel's assassins.

As the picture dissolved into a blank, black screen, Jim looked up to see his partner and roommate coming out of the downstairs bedroom. He frowned at the long pole topped by an oddly shaped metal contraption. "And, uh, what, pray tell, is that thing?" he asked.

Blair grinned and flipped the pole around for Jim to get a better look. "This is a Cree Indian fishing spear," he replied proudly. "I thought I'd give it a shot."

Jim raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Oh, really? Well, you'll be doing it downstream from me, Hiawatha," he said dryly. "Because I hate the sound of trout laughing."

"That's funny," Blair said equably. He waved a hand over the long cylinder containing Jim's more conventional fly rods and reels. "You know, Jim, all this modern gear -- it's great. But sometimes traditional methods are just as effective and," he hefted the fishing spear like a warrior preparing to do battle, "a little more satisfying."

"Well, you won't mind if I take the raft while you chip yourself out a log for a dugout, huh?" Jim asked with suppressed amusement. He leaned down to grab the raft and move it out of the way, then hissed between his teeth and released his grip on the weighty object. "Oh, man!" he murmured as he cautiously flexed his right arm.

Blair moved toward him, a frown creasing his forehead. "You all right?" he asked.

Jim nodded, but he felt his features still twisting into a grimace. "Hey, give me a hand with this thing, would you?" As Blair positioned himself on the other side of the raft and grabbed one of the built-in handles, Jim explained, "I hurt my shoulder working out a couple of days ago."

"What'd you do to it?" Blair asked. "Did you have it checked out?"

"It's nothing serious. I probably just pulled a muscle. But it won't quit hurting no matter what I do. I've tried liniment, pain killers, even that dial trick you taught me when I got shot."

Blair's frown deepened. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Jim shrugged, continuing to rotate his arm in an effort to ease the ache in his shoulder. "I didn't think it was any big thing," he said dismissively. "It's not the first time I've pushed a little too hard. But it usually only lasts a day or two. This…I don't know. Maybe it's because of my senses. It's just not letting up."

"This is exactly the kind of stuff that I need to know," Blair said, his voice rising slightly in agitation. "I mean, if pain relievers don't work, what about Novocain at the dentist? Or what if you're having surgery, what if anesthetics don't work on you any more?"

Jim met the tirade with a bland look. "Don't you think you're overreacting a little? It's just a muscle pull."

Blair was adamant. "No, I don't think I'm overreacting. Look, we already know that some medications, like stuff for colds, weirds your senses out. We've got to do some research and find out more about how you react to other kinds of meds, like painkillers. Does the fact that your senses are hyper-acute mean that you need larger doses to do any good? Are standard pharmaceuticals going to be worthless for you now? We to need to prepare for stuff like this."

"If you want to do pain research, you experiment on yourself, all right?" Jim said with finality, turning away to signal that the discussion was over.

He heard Blair's intake of breath, preparatory for more arguments, no doubt. But before his overly enthusiastic partner could say anything, the phone rang, cutting off the conversation. Jim went to answer it, deliberately turning his back to Blair's watchful gaze.

"Ellison," he said curtly. A phone call at this hour couldn't be good, and he was prepared to fight for his long weekend. One of these days, he promised himself, he was going to take a vacation that didn't result in getting caught up in some sort of criminal investigation.

A voice he hadn't heard in years greeted him through the static hollow of a mobile phone. "Jim, it's Sam. Sam Holland."

"Sam?" he queried uncertainly, wondering why his old Army buddy would be calling him now.

Holland's voice was taut and not entirely steady as he said, "I'm probably the last guy in the world you want to hear from in the middle of the night, but we need to talk."

"Where are you calling from, Sam? Florida?"

"No. I'm here, in Cascade," Sam replied, much to Jim's surprise. "Listen, there's a parking garage on 8th and Waterman. Meet me there in 20 minutes on the fifth level."

Jim frowned, and his fingers tightened on the phone. "Sam, what's this about?"

There was a moment's pause, then Sam said heavily, "It's about the colonel."

The colonel. Jim's teeth clenched at the mention of the man he hated most in the world, and he forced his jaw muscles to relax. Maybe Sam had finally wised up and realized that Norman Oliver, retired U.S. Army colonel, was a treacherous snake. If Sam wanted to sever any remaining ties he had to Oliver, and if he needed Jim's help to do it, Jim couldn't refuse his friend's request. Oliver had caused enough damage.

"All right," Jim agreed. "I'll be there. But, Sam, why did you come all the way out...?

Sam cut across his words urgently. "We need to do this in person."

"I'm on my way."

Jim hung up the phone and reached for his coat and his gun, only then realizing that Blair was watching him with mingled curiosity and concern shaping his features.

"Where are you going?" Blair asked.

Jim gave him a brief explanation and assured him that he'd be back soon.

"Just remember," Blair reminded him. "Three a.m., you and I, we're on the road, man."

Jim nodded. "This won't take long."

~~~~~~~~

It was just after midnight when Jim pulled into the virtually deserted parking garage and drove up to the fifth level where he was to meet Sam Holland. As a matter of routine that he refused to label paranoia, he'd checked for any vehicles that had taken an interest in his travels. Sam's obvious nervousness had rubbed off, and Jim wanted to make sure that someone -- like the colonel -- hadn't linked Sam's visit to Cascade with Jim's presence there. There were remarkably few cars out so late on a weeknight, and he'd seen no sign of a tail.

Jim spotted an unoccupied, nondescript sedan with a rental agency sticker on its rear bumper and braked his Expedition beside it. He got out of his own vehicle and looked around, wondering where Sam was hiding. He extended his hearing just enough to catch the uneven rush of anxious breathing nearby.

"Sam!" he called.

Sam's sandy-haired head slowly emerged from behind the sedan's front quarter, his eyes darting in all directions before fixing on Jim as he stood up to his full height.

"Hey, buddy," Jim said evenly. "What sort of trouble are you in?"

Sam responded with a smile that more closely resembled a grimace. "The kind with no bottom," he said grimly.

"And the colonel is involved," Jim mused.

Sam nodded. "I never meant to get in so deep with him," he said mournfully. "You told me a long time ago, he was trouble. I wish to God I'd listened to you."

Jim waited, giving his old friend a chance to vent some of the nervous tension that had him vibrating like a bowstring.

"Look, I know you're with the police now," Sam went on. "I thought maybe you could help."

"Yeah, I can help," Jim agreed. "But you have to tell me what's going on."

Sam nodded slowly, his eyes once again scanning the garage. He shifted from one foot to the other, suddenly displaying indecision, as if he were having second thoughts. "If it goes any farther than us, I'm a dead man," he warned.

"I can't promise that," Jim said, knowing that it was foolish to take on a man like Colonel Oliver one-on-one. Oliver didn't believe in even odds, and the one-on-one would end up being one-on-many.

Jim's eyes narrowed abruptly and he cocked his head, listening to the sound that pricked the edges of his awareness. Two cars -- big ones, judging by the engine pitch -- had just entered the garage and were steadily climbing up the levels. "Are you expecting company?" he asked. "I hear someone coming."

"I don't hear anything," Sam said. He whipped around in surprise when a pair of black vans suddenly appeared at the top of the ramp and turned straight toward them. He uttered a strangled curse and yanked open the driver's door of the sedan.

Jim reached for his gun and crouched behind the hood of the Expedition. "Sam!" he called, knowing that it would best for them to stick together. His friend ignored him, and the air filled with the acrid tang of burning rubber as Sam sped off toward the exit at the far end of the garage. One van shot past Jim's position in pursuit of the sedan. The other screeched to a halt, and two men spilled out, using the open doors as cover.

With his attention split between Sam and their unwanted visitors, Jim failed to see one of the men raise a gun and fire. Instead of an echoing blast, he heard only a breathy spit. He turned back toward the stopped van just as a sharp sting blossomed in the side of his neck. He reached up and pulled out a long dart, its tip reddened with his blood. The fingers that gripped the dart were already starting to go numb. *Damn good thing they were out to capture and not kill,* he thought hazily. A bullet in the same spot would have taken his head off.

He turned awkwardly, trying to see if Sam had managed to elude his pursuers, but his eyes were no longer focusing, and he saw only moving blurs of tan and black. The screech of tires ululated as his hearing cut in and out. The tan blur seemed to be going too fast and in the wrong direction, but Jim had no time to sort out just why it was wrong. Grey haze swallowed all perception as he slid to the concrete floor, his eyes closing on the sight of two man-shaped black shadows moving in like twin angels of death.

~~~~~~~~

Two more of the black-coated men peered over the shattered side rails and torn chain-link fencing of the garage. Far below the tan sedan rested upside down on the street, steam rising from its shattered remains. There was no chance that the man inside had survived.

"Nice shooting," the older of the two men said acidly. "The colonel wanted him alive."

The other man shrugged. He'd shot out one of the front tires, intending only to stop the vehicle and its driver from getting away. How was he supposed to know that Holland would lose control and crash through the railing?

"Should we get what's left of him and get out of here?" he asked.

His partner shot him a dark look. "How do you plan to do that, Harley?" he retorted. "You got a jaws of life on you?" He shook his head and turned back to where another pair of black-coats were examining their prisoner.

"He's a cop," one of them reported, holding up Jim's police ID and gun as evidence.

Harley frowned. "Do you think Holland had a chance to tell him anything?"

"I don't know," the man who seemed content to give orders said. He gestured to the third man who'd been with him and Harley in the first van and the man who'd taken out the cop with a tranquilizer dart. "You two, take him back to base." He looked again at Jim's ID. "Ellison," he said pensively. "He and Holland were in the same unit." He crouched down and dug in Jim's pockets for his wallet, flipping it open and finding his driver's license. He read off the address aloud, then stood abruptly, forcing his companions to back up a step. "Crisp, you and Harley sweep the place. See if our friend Sam sent his old Army buddy any souvenirs. Anything, anybody you find, I want gone."

~~~~~~~~

Blair had finished packing the bag containing extra clothes and toiletries for the trip. He did a quick inventory of the growing pile near the door and satisfied himself that they would meet their 3:00 a.m. departure time. He was humming lightly under his breath as he moved to the kitchen to pack the box of non-perishables. Fresh fish was great, but they would need other provisions as well, and their campsite was fifteen miles from the nearest town.

Bottled water, canned soup and fruit and bags of trail mix went into a medium-sized cardboard box. Blair shuddered a bit as he reached for the foil packets of dehydrated macaroni and cheese that Jim had picked up at the outfitter's store. He'd never learned to like the stuff, though he ate it when the only other choice was going hungry. With a sigh he dropped the unappetizing fare into the box. A jar of instant coffee and a packet of his favorite teas went in next, along with two new boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes to satisfy Jim's sweet tooth.

When he heard keys rattling in the lock, Blair looked up in mild surprise. Jim had been gone less than an hour, a pitifully short time for a reunion with someone he hadn't seen since his Army days. The door swung open slowly, and Blair, preoccupied with his packing, began, "Hey, Jim, that was…"

The man standing framed in the open doorway was definitely not Jim, and he didn't look like anyone Jim would claim as a friend. His expression was Arctic cold, like the gleaming steel barrel of the gun he raised to point at Blair. Eyes wide with shock, Blair dropped the cans he was about to add to the box and ducked behind the kitchen island to make an awkward scrambling bolt toward the opening opposite his room. He'd seen a second man behind the first; there was no way he could rush both of them to escape out the front. The fire escape from the small downstairs room was the only option.

The door frame to his left splintered a split second after the gun coughed in the peculiar manner of a silenced weapon. Blair winced as the fragments peppered his arm, some of them lodging in the thick flannel like porcupine quills. He ducked even lower and raised an arm to shield his head. He could hear heavy footsteps crossing the wood floor in pursuit.

The door at the end of his room opened easily, and Blair didn't stop to close it behind him. He slithered down the fire escape stairs, his feet sliding on damp risers, his hands gripping the handrails to keep from ending his flight head first in a heap at the bottom. More shots struck sparks from the metal rails, but miraculously none hit flesh. Blair vaulted down the last half-flight of steps and landed in the alley below.

He chanced a quick glance back at the building and saw a dark shape coming down the fire escape. The second stood silhouetted in the doorway, light from inside the loft robbing him of any semblance of human features.

Without really thinking about a destination, except *AWAY*, Blair turned and fled into the dead of night darkness.

~~~~~~~~

Simon Banks stuffed the last of the papers into a thick file and slid it into a functional leather briefcase. He stretched to relieve the stiffness that had settled in his back and neck after a long night spent hunched over the conference table. His stomach churned with too much coffee and indifferent take-out. He was more than ready to go home.

He reached down and tapped on Joel Taggart's shoulder. He called Joel's name, and the older detective emitted a sound that was half snore, half snort, and raised his head.

"Huh? What?"

"Come on," Simon said. "Wake up, man. We are done, and we are out of here."

Joel ran a hand over his face. "What's the rush?" he asked groggily. "We've been here all night."

Simon shrugged into his topcoat. "If I don't get home soon, I'll never be able to fool my body into my usual eight hours."

"Fool yourself?" Joel queried.

"Oh, yeah." Simon's voice rumbled out in a faint chuckle. "As long as I'm home before the sun's up, I'm fine. If not, the body says, 'oh, no.'"

Joel also reached for his coat, taking a few moments to get his arms into the correct sleeves. He echoed Simon's dry laugh. "You remember Houser in Vice? He had the same problem. He used to catch z's in a morgue drawer." He shuddered theatrically.

Simon's laugh was more definite this time. He agreed with Joel's reaction. He didn't know how anyone could willingly crawl onto the cold metal slabs on which countless dead bodies had rested. He slapped his colleague's shoulder companionably and turned him toward the door.

The phone's strident tone halted him mid-step, and he glared over his shoulder at the offending instrument. "No," he groaned, but went back to the desk to answer it. Instead of lifting the receiver, he merely tapped the button to activate the speaker.

"Captain, this is Blair."

Simon leaned wearily on the edge of the desk. "Ho! Hold it right there, Sandburg," he answered impatiently. "Taggart and I have just spent all night working on a court brief for tomorrow's hearing. Now, after eighteen hours, we are going home. Whatever it is, it can wait."

"It can't wait!" Blair protested. His heavy breathing emerged from the speakers as loudly as a shout. "Two guys broke into the loft. They tried to kill me, Simon! I've been dodging one of 'em -- I swear the guy's first cousin to a bloodhound -- for I don't know how long. I could really use some help here."

Simon's forehead creased in a grim frown. "Where was Jim during all this?"

"I don't know." Blair sighed heavily. "About an hour before these goons-in-black showed up, he got a call from an old Army buddy and he went out to meet him. I don't know where." There was a pause, then Blair added, "I'm worried, Simon. He's not answering his cell phone. Now, call me paranoid, but first the phone call from someone he hasn't seen in years, and then these guys showing up at the loft…"

"Sandburg, calm down," Simon broke in, using his most authoritative tone. "Tell me where you are. Joel and I will pick you up."

"I'm in an all-night diner somewhere on Cavett Street, near Dunmore, I think. The name is…." Blair broke off abruptly, then cursed. "Damn! I gotta go, Simon. He's here!"

"Sandburg!" Blair didn't respond, and Simon heard only the receiver banging lazily against a hard surface and the sound of hurried footsteps.

Simon pressed another button, this time calling Dispatch, and ordered all available units to the area where Blair was, presumably, running for his life. He turned away from the desk and saw Joel standing in the doorway, concern imprinted on his round face. "Let's roll," he said.

~~~~~~~~

Blair was certain that he'd toured every back alley within five square miles of the loft, most of it at a dead run. His leg muscles burned with fatigue, his chest heaved with his panicked breathing, and he wasn't sure his heart would ever resume a normal rhythm. For the moment, though, he'd managed to elude his pursuer, and he took advantage of the momentary respite to catch his breath.

The shelter in which he'd chosen to hide and rest offered little comfort. Its only redeeming quality was an adequate view of both ends of the alley and a chance to spot the black-coated thugs, he hoped, before they spotted him. The solid wall at his back insured that no one could sneak up on him from behind. Stacks of empty packing crates provided a modicum of concealment, and a single sturdy wooden box served as a place to sit.

He harbored little hope that Simon would be able to find him now. He'd run for uncounted blocks after his pursuer came into the diner and spotted him on the phone at the back of the empty establishment. Had there been other customers in the place, he might have been willing to chance that Black-Coat wouldn't make a scene and shoot him on sight or drag him out by sheer brute force. But the single, dull-witted waitress and stubble-chinned cook probably wouldn't have batted an eye no matter what happened. Blair had thought it best to run.

A sudden commotion at the end of the alley had him on his feet and ready to run again. He relaxed fractionally when a pair of scruffy cats tumbled from behind an overflowing trash dumpster, their angry yowls splitting the alley's quiet. The cats' sparring continued for several moments, then both animals froze in place and looked toward the mouth of the alley, their eyes glowing yellow-green in the wan moonlight. Whatever had attracted their attention impelled them to break off their own private war and bolt for safety elsewhere.

Blair followed their example and left his hiding place to skulk down the length of the alley in the opposite direction until he came to yet another unfamiliar street. Behind him he heard a shout and running footsteps, and he broke into a desperate run down the all but deserted sidewalk.

Half a block up and on the other side of the street, a city bus was just pulling up beside a three-sided shelter bearing the Cascade Transit System logo on its Plexiglas side. Blair ignored the traffic light and a car that barely missed running him down, to race across the street. A quick glance back showed him the familiar black-garbed man talking rapidly into a cell phone. Blair skidded to a stop beside the bus just as the long bi-fold doors were closing.

~~~~~~~~

"There's no sign of him, sir," the uniformed officer told Simon as soon as he arrived at the run-down diner on Cavett Street.

Simon clamped his lips over an unlit cigar and scowled at the shabby establishment. "You're sure this is where he called from?"

The uniformed officer nodded. "Yes, sir. The waitress remembers seeing a young guy with long curly hair come in and ask for the phone. A few minutes later, another man with a crew cut came in, started toward the back where the phone is, and they both took off out the back. The second man was wearing a suit and a black overcoat."

"All right, Hal. Thanks." Simon rubbed his forehead, feeling the pull of a tension headache across his brow. "Keep patrolling the area and see if you spot Sandburg or this guy in the black coat. Call me if you see anything." He went back out to the car where Joel was waiting for him.

"Where to now?" Joel asked.

Simon opened the door and leaned an elbow on the roof of his unmarked department car. "Back to Jim and Blair's place," he said. "If I were Blair, I'd try to head back to familiar territory."

They pulled up in front of 852 Prospect twenty minutes later. Blair's car was still in its usual place, but Jim's Expedition was not. Simon and Joel hurried inside and up to the third floor apartment.

They found the door shut and locked, and Simon used the emergency key Jim had given him to gain entry. He and Joel went in cautiously, weapons drawn, but lowered them when the loft proved to be empty.

"What a mess," Joel commented softly.

Simon's dark gaze traveled over the unoccupied room, and he nodded agreement. "Someone sure was eager to find something," he agreed. "Joel, call Forensics and get a team over here. It's probably too much to hope that whoever trashed this place left anything identifiable, but we'll give it a shot."

While Joel made the call, Simon moved farther into the room, stepping carefully over piles of papers and pictures strewn over the floor, camping equipment and duffle bags that had been yanked open and searched. He checked the bathroom and found toiletries and towels pulled out and dumped haphazardly on the floor. At the door of Blair's room, he paused, leaning closer to study the splintered woodwork. He recognized the deep gouges in the surface as bullet holes, and immediately began checking for signs of spilled blood. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief when he found none.

"Lab crew's on the way," Joel reported as he joined Simon in the narrow hallway.

Simon answered him with a distracted nod that turned into a weary negative motion. "I was really hoping that Blair had made it back here," he said.

"Maybe the APB will turn up something," Joel offered. "He's on foot. How far could he have gotten?"

"He's already made it a little over two miles from here on foot," Simon pointed out. "I guess we'll just have to wait for him to get in touch again -- that is, unless the unfriendly in the black coat caught up to him."

They checked the upstairs loft bedroom and found it in no better condition than the rest of the place. Whoever had searched the loft had either been in a hurry, or else they didn't care how much havoc they left behind. Some of the disorder seemed almost deliberate, and Simon wondered which old grudge had come back to haunt his detective and Blair.

~~~~~~~~

Frank Benson yawned as he made his scheduled stop, even though no one waited to board and none of his present passengers made any move to get off. Just three more months and he would turn 65. His retirement paperwork was already filled out and signed. All he had to do was turn in it.

"Hey!"

Frank glanced down to see a long-haired, wild-eyed man bracing his hands against the accordion fold doors, keeping them from closing. *Great,* he thought sourly. *Last route of the night, and I have to get a hopped-up crazy!*

He thought about simply pulling away, but then he remembered another driver who had driven away from a suspicious looking would-be passenger. The guy hadn't released the closing doors and had lost a couple of fingers. The resulting lawsuit had cost the driver his job and the transit system a tidy sum in an out-of-court settlement with the injured man and his family. Frank shot the latecomer a sour look and rotated the lever that would allow the doors to open again. The long-haired man tumbled into the bus and halfway up the steps to collapse in the shelter of the narrow access way. One long-fingered hand, dirt crusted on the knuckles, threaded through sweat-dampened hair to push it back from his eyes.

"No loitering in the vestibule, Ace," Frank said in a disapproving growl. He extended one hand and flexed his fingers in an easily recognizable gesture. "Come on. You want a ride? Stand and deliver." He pointed sharply at the change receptacle.

"Curly" didn't move. "You guys got communications gear on board, right?" he asked breathlessly.

Frank's grizzled brows lowered. Why in the world did the guy care how the bus was equipped? Was he planning to hijack it to Canada, or what? "Meaning what?" he demanded gruffly.

"Meaning this is a police emergency," Curly replied. "I need to get in touch with the Central Precinct."

"You're a cop?" Doubt dripped from his words like sour milk. If this guy was a cop, he was the Queen of England.

Curly shrugged. "Not exactly. I work with the Major Crimes division." His dirty hands patted at his pockets, and his eyes closed briefly. "Look, I don't have any identification on me right now," he said slowly, "but there's two guys out there that are trying to kill me."

Frank nodded slowly, but his smile was as sarcastic as his next words. "Oh, of course," he drawled. This loony-bird must think he'd been born yesterday, trying to sell a crazy story like that. His expression hardened and he pointed again to the change box. "Look, feed the kitty, or hit the bricks."

With a long sigh, the man stood, although he remained hunched over and his wide eyes darted nervously over the street outside the wide windshield. He dug in the pockets of his jeans and finally pulled out a crumpled ten-dollar bill.

"Exact change only," Frank told him, hoping that he could discourage the little hippie and get him voluntarily off his bus.

Curly rolled his eyes and extended the bill again. "This is all I got!" he protested, his blue eyes pleading. "Come on!"

Frank considered a moment, then snatched the bill from the dirty-streaked hand and jerked a thumb over his shoulder in tacit permission to sit down. He pocketed the ten, deciding that even a small bonus was worth letting the schmuck have his ride. And if he started causing too much trouble, Frank would simply call the transit police and have him forcibly removed. He watched in the rear-view mirror as Curly hurried down the center aisle to a seat halfway along the length of the bus. He dropped into the seat, slumping down and resting his head against the edge of the window. Maybe he'd fall asleep under the influence of whatever he was on.

Frank released the brake and the bus lurched into motion. He continued to monitor his passengers, especially his newest arrival. His frown deepened when the man suddenly stood and addressed the other passengers.

"Hey, does anyone have a cell phone?" he asked anxiously.

*Yeah, right*, Frank thought. The motley collection of drunks and lowlifes wouldn't be riding his bus to the boondocks in the middle of the night if they were the kind of people who carried cell phones.

Curly raised his arm and pointed to something on his left wrist. "I will trade this handmade Bantu bracelet for two minutes on somebody's cell phone," he offered, looking from one flat-eyed traveler to the next.

Frank pulled over to the curb, between stops, and turned in his seat. "Excuse me," he said sharply. "Did I miss the sign that says Trading Post?" He was met with a desperate blue stare. "Sit down," he commanded, "or get off." He really hoped that Curly would opt for the latter, but he just slid back into his seat and slumped against the window again. Frank reached for the radio-phone mounted above his seat and called the transit dispatch office. "This is Northbound 51," he said in a low voice. "I'm at Oakwood and Hill. I have a disruptive passenger. Possible substance abuse."

The dispatcher advised him to maintain his route and promised to have someone meet the bus to deal with the problem. Frank replaced the handset and flicked another backward glance at Curly. The man didn't seem to have noticed the brief conversation.

Frank resumed his nightly route, hoping that the transit police would show up soon.

~~~~~~~~

Blair slumped into the seat, keeping his head below the level of the window as much as possible. He had no idea where the bus was headed, but as long as it took him beyond the reach of his pursuer, he didn't care. By now Simon would have reached the diner and found him gone. The captain would be looking for him, Blair knew. All he had to do was stay out of the black-suit's reach long enough for Simon to catch up.

Despite his momentary relative safety, Blair continued to watch his surroundings carefully. His heart lurched into a faster rhythm when he saw a black van pull into the lane beside the bus. He got a brief glimpse of two men inside before a searchlight blinded him to anything beyond the bright, white glare. He ducked down again, praying that they hadn't spotted him. He waited for a count of five then peeked above the edge of the window again. The black van had driven on, and Blair released a heavy sigh.

The bus made its next stop without any changes in passengers. Two blocks farther along, a casually dressed man and woman boarded, and Blair slid out of his seat, intending to disembark and find another phone to call Simon. He froze when the tenacious black-suit appeared at the top of the steps and dropped a few coins into the change box.

The impassive face lifted, and cold eyes locked briefly on Blair. Wiping suddenly clammy palms on his jeans, Blair turned toward the rear exit, only to find it blocked by yet another stone-faced man in black. He pivoted to the front again, just in time to see a pair of uniformed transit officers board and speak to the ill-tempered driver.

"That's him. Long hair," the driver said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder toward Blair.

The lead officer looked down the aisle, and Blair moved quickly forward, hoping that the two black suits wouldn't try anything now. The transit cop intercepted him as he tried to move past them and get off the bus.

"Hold it!" he said sharply, grabbing a handful of flannel shirt.

The driver shot him a sour look. "Probably on drugs or something," he pronounced with cynical certainty.

"This your problem rider?" the officer asked, tightening his grip on Blair's shirt.

Blair tried to dislodge the man's hand and stared up at him with the fiercest scowl he could muster. "Yeah," he said contemptuously. "I'm the problem." He straightened, leaning forward in a defiant, combative manner, and all but shouted, "Screw the pigs!" He spat at the officer, landing a small wad of spittle on the man's uniform jacket.

The officer shook him once and forced him back against the metal support pole running from floor to ceiling. "Okay, smart-ass," he growled, "that's it. You're under arrest."

Blair turned in the officer's grip and raised a hand to point down the aisle. "Yeah? Well, arrest those guys in the black suits, too!" he insisted, his voice dropping off suddenly.

"What black suits?" the officer asked.

The two men had apparently chosen not to force a confrontation now. Blair saw only an empty aisle and, outside the bus, two dark shadows moving rapidly down the sidewalk.

~~~~~~~~

Simon chewed his unlit cigar with vigor born of frustration and worry. The loft swarmed with forensic technicians who had lifted fingerprints from the doorknob, several shelves, and other areas where it was clear someone had searched. Another technician carefully extracted the slugs imbedded in the doorframe outside Blair's room.

The purposeful activity seemed like so much busy-work. It might prove useful if they ever found someone to arrest for breaking-and-entering and assault with a deadly weapon. But it brought him no closer to knowing where either Jim or Blair was now.

His cell phone chirped abruptly, and Simon yanked it from his coat pocket. He listened for several moments, then snapped it shut and turned to survey the work going on around him.

"Taggart!" he called urgently. "Let's go. I know where Sandburg is."

Joel trotted over. "Where is he? Is he all right?"

"For now," Simon answered with a wry smile. "He's at the Northside substation where a couple of transit cops took him after he got rowdy on a city bus."

Joel's face scrunched into a disbelieving frown. "What's that?"

"Never mind," Simon said, planting a hand on Joel's shoulder and giving him a steady push toward the door. "Let's go collect our lost lamb. At least we know nobody's shooting at him there."

~~~~~~~~

Simon arrived to find Blair sitting alone in a bleak interrogation room. His face reflected the strain of his night's misadventures. The wide blue eyes were even larger than usual and ringed by shadows of fatigue. Despite his sleepless night, though, Blair's body quivered with barely contained nervous tension. His foot beat a rhythmic tattoo as it bounced rapidly on the stained linoleum floor.

Blair looked up sharply when the door opened, and breathed a long sigh when Simon stepped inside. "Simon! Hey, it is *so* good to see you."

Simon frowned and motioned to the younger man to follow him. "Sandburg, what the hell is going on here?" he asked, his voice roughened by his own fatigue. "First you call for help, but disappear before anyone can get to you. Then I get a call about you being hauled in for causing a disturbance on a city bus."

Blair bounced out of his chair and moved toward the door. "I will tell you all about it," he promised. "But first, has anyone heard from Jim?"

"Not a word," Simon said grimly. "Joel's checking with central dispatch to see if the APB has turned up anything." He followed Blair out into the empty hall, listening to Blair's hurried recitation of the unknown man showing up at the loft, fleeing through the streets, hopping the bus in a desperate attempt to put some distance between himself and his pursuer, and then being hauled off the bus by the transit officers and brought here.

"They didn't believe me when I said I was a police observer. When they first brought me in, they threw me in the tank with a bunch of low-lifes," Blair concluded indignantly. "But when I started talking about you and the rest of the guys in Major Crimes, the sergeant decided I might just be telling the truth. After he called you, he brought me up to the interrogation room to wait."

They rounded a corner and saw Joel Taggart coming toward them, his expression set in grim lines. "Simon," he said urgently. "They found Jim's truck in an empty parking garage over on 8th. There's what's left of a sedan on the street below, with a body inside. Looks like the driver lost control and smashed through the fence on the fifth level not far from where they found the truck."

Simon's scowl deepened, and a quick glance at Blair told him that they were both thinking the same bleak thoughts. "Is it Jim?" he asked, almost choking on the words.

"No. There's no ID yet, but it's not Jim."

"Thank God!" Simon began breathing again, and heard a similar out rush of breath from the man beside him.

"That's a relief," Blair put in. "But that leaves us with one important question: where the hell is Jim?"


~~~~~~ ACT II ~~~~~


Numbing pain in his shoulder and the steady drip and plop of water nearby brought Jim back to hazy awareness. He tried to move, to shift his body to a more comfortable position, but found his arms and legs immobilized by thin, constricting bands around his wrists and ankles. Confusion fogged his thoughts, robbing him of understanding of where he was and why he felt so utterly miserable. He searched back for some memory that would explain his circumstances, finally dredging up those last moments in the garage -- meeting Sam, the arrival of the two dark vans, the sting in the side of his neck, then nothing. It was a safe bet that wherever he was, it wasn't among friends.

Although he could see light from behind his closed eyelids, he postponed opening his eyes for several moments, using the time to assess his surroundings with his other senses. The hard, slightly rough surface beneath his cheek and the chill seeping through his jacket and shirt told him that he was lying on a cement floor. His nose picked up the musty odors of disuse overlain by fuel oil. The water noises echoed faintly, giving the impression of a fairly large area. A boiler room?

Finally, he had to move, had to try to figure where he was and how to get out. He lifted his head; ignoring the ache in his neck muscles in response to the awkward angle. Movement was difficult with his hands bound behind his back and his legs similarly restrained. His vision faded in and out of focus for a time, and he blinked to clear the muddled images.

There wasn't much to see. The floor was mostly bare, with a few old, oily rags dropped haphazardly here and there. The only furnishing was a metal-framed chair with worn vinyl padding on the seat and back. Walls sprouted pipes and valves that proved to be the source of the dripping water. Tendrils of steam rose lazily from some of the metal conduits. Overhead lights in wire fixtures cast a harsh glare over the unappealing scenery.

Jim inched his upper body farther off the floor, wincing at the renewed discomfort in his shoulder. On the far side of the room was an area closed off by chain-link fencing and a chained and padlocked gate. Beyond the fence a woman crouched on the dirty floor, her dark hair a tangled mess around a slender, oval face. The tails of her once white silk blouse hung unevenly beneath a tailored vest, and her long sleeves flapped unbuttoned around her wrists. Huge, dark eyes watched him closely as he struggled unsuccessfully to sit up.

"Who are you?" she asked in a low, tremulous voice.

"I'm Jim," he answered slowly, his words slurred by the dryness that stuck his tongue to the inside of his mouth. "Who are you?"

The woman rocked slightly and hugged her knees. "Tanya," she said finally.

Jim tugged experimentally at the bonds holding his arms immobile and found them too tight to slip his hands free. He had to wonder why they hadn't just tossed him in the cage with Tanya instead of going to the trouble of trussing him up like a Christmas turkey. Even more he wondered who she was and how she fit into this puzzle.

~~~~~~~~

Blair trailed behind Simon Banks as the tall captain charged through the Major Crimes bullpen and into his office. Despite his relief that Jim's body hadn't been found along with his abandoned truck and the other dead man at the garage, he had questions that no one could answer -- not even Simon.

"What about the guy who ran his car through the garage fence?" he pressed. "Was that the man Jim went to meet? Or was it someone else?"

"Sandburg!" Simon said impatiently. "I don't know any more than you do. Taggart's getting the full report now."

"That's great," Blair retorted, watching as Simon shrugged out of his coat then went to the coffee pot on the table behind his desk. "That's just great. Jim and I were supposed to be kicking back, relaxing and fishing this weekend. Instead, I've been shot at, I've been on the skid row express, and thrown in jail. And we still don't know where Jim is. What are you going to do about that?"

Simon turned, cup in hand, and glared at him. "Will you just give me a minute to think?" he shot back.

Blair reined in his worry and his need to do something to find out why yet another attempt at a weekend's vacation had gone sour. He gestured to the cup and asked, "Can I have a cup of coffee?"

Simon rolled his eyes and handed over the cup, reaching for another for himself. Both men turned when the door opened and Joel Taggart came in with a folder in his hand.

"Forensics hasn't put a name on the body in the sedan yet," he reported. "He didn't have any kind of ID on him. This tattoo --" he pointed to a photograph taken in the morgue when the body was brought in "-- is the most distinguishing mark."

Blair peered over the edge of the desk at the picture of a man's arm with the words "U.S. Army" imprinted above a lightning bolt. "Jim said they were in the service together," he pointed out.

Simon took off his suit jacket and hung it on the back of his chair before sitting down and reaching for the file. "Sandburg, lots of guys were in the army," he replied. "And lots of them have tattoos. Until we find something more to go on than this, we don't have zip."

Blair fixed the captain with a level gaze. "Simon, I want to help on this one," he said earnestly. "I know, I'm not a cop. But Jim and I -- we're a pretty good team. Maybe I could work with you."

Simon shook his head. "At this point, you are a protected witness, and that's *all* you are."

"Protected witness?" Blair repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Simon rose from his chair and placed a hand on Blair's shoulder, slowly ushering him out of the office as he explained. "What that means is Taggart is going to take you home, stay there, and keep an eye on you until we find out who these guys are, why they want to kill you, and what that has to do with Jim's disappearance."

Blair stopped and turned to protest, but was cut off by Simon's added, "I'll keep you posted." The door shut definitively in his face.

~~~~~~~~

"Oh, man!" Blair stood beside Joel just inside the loft door and looked around at the combined disaster of the search and the forensic evidence gathering. His voice thickened with dismay as he said, "You said the loft had been searched. But this…this is a mess!"

Joel nodded. "Yeah. They weren't being very careful. But they were thorough."

Blair moved quickly through the downstairs rooms, finding evidence that no area had been left untouched. "Is it *all* like this?" he asked hollowly. "Even Jim's room?"

"All of it," Joel confirmed. He patted Blair's shoulder reassuringly. "Come on. I'll help you clean up."

Together they tackled the job of putting the living room and kitchen to rights. Blair crouched in front of the low bookcase near the base of the stairs and began returning the spilled volumes to their proper places. A surge of anger welled up as he found torn pages and cracked spines on some of the books. "Jim is going to be *so* pissed," he muttered as he cradled one of the damaged books between his hands. "This is a first edition Kerouac," he said over his shoulder to Joel. "Signed by the author. He ran across it one day when I dragged him with me to a rare bookstore. You know, he didn't even want to go, said all that old dust and mold in the book jackets made him sneeze, but when he found this, it was like his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one."

"It doesn't look too bad," Joel offered, standing over Blair and peering down at the volume. "You know, there are places that restore books. Maybe one of them…"

"Yeah," Blair interrupted. "Maybe." He returned the Kerouac to its place on the shelf. His task done, he stood up and dusted his hands on the knees of his jeans. With a sigh he glanced up the stairs. "Guess I ought to go see how bad Jim's room looks."

Joel followed him up the stairs. "You know," he mused, "I don't understand. What could they have been looking for?"

Blair shook his head as he stepped over a pile of clothes that had been pulled from the closet and dumped on the floor. "I don't know. See if you can hang that stuff up," he added. "I'll deal with the rest."

'The rest' was most of the contents of the chest of drawers that did double duty as a file cabinet for Jim's personal memorabilia and correspondence. A wooden box with intricate inlay work lay open on top of the dresser; it held Jim's medals and commendations from his Army days. Blair carefully replaced the mementos of Jim's former life and returned the box to the bottom drawer. He sorted through stacks of paid credit card and utility bills, letters from people whose names he didn't recognize, and photos that dated back long before he knew Jim.

"Hey, Joel," he said abruptly, separating one of the pictures from the rest of the stack. "Look at this. It's Jim's old Army Ranger unit." He held out the picture, a black-and-white 8x10 showing eight men in jungle fatigues, then pointed to the tall man standing next to Jim. "Look at that." His finger tapped the image of an arm cradling a military-issue rifle. "Right there. Look familiar?"

The man in the picture bore the same tattoo as the dead man found where Jim had disappeared.

~~~~~~~~

Simon Banks rubbed a hand wearily across his forehead. It had been almost seven hours since anyone had seen or heard from Jim Ellison, and he had nothing that offered any hope of finding his missing friend. Jim's abandoned Expedition had been thoroughly checked out, with no result. The Forensics team had found no unidentified fingerprints at the loft, and the bullet fragments dug from the woodwork were too badly damaged to be of any use. The lab thought they were 9mm, but couldn't be certain of even that much. And no one in the building or on the street nearby had seen or heard anything.

Then there was the matter of a nameless dead body found at the scene of Jim's apparent disappearance. The car in which the crushed and lifeless form had been found was a rental, from one of the large agencies that had half a dozen offices in Cascade alone. The plates had not matched any of the local rentals; they were still checking Seattle and other major cities from which the man might have driven. A problem with the rental agency's computer network had slowed the search to a crawl.

Simon looked up when his office door opened and Detective Rafe came in.

"This just came off the fax," Rafe reported, and handed him a single sheet of paper.

Simon thanked him and began reading just as the phone rang. "Banks," he barked into the receiver.

"Simon, this is Blair." The younger man's voice was taut with excitement. "I've got a picture of the guy they found in that car. It's a shot of Jim's ranger unit, and it's dated from just before he got shot down in Peru. The guy in the picture has the same tattoo. His first name is Sam. It can't be that hard to find out his last name from Army records."

"It's Holland," Simon said flatly, reading from the paper Rafe had brought in. "Sam Holland. We ran his prints through the FBI computer, and the report just came in. He works -- worked -- for a Florida based import company called Graf Technologies."

The door opened again, and Simon looked up to see an unfamiliar man wearing a suit and a dark trench coat. His sandy blond hair was lightly dusted with silver, and his face was deceptively young. Only his eyes, pale and flat with the shuttered look of a man who'd seen a lot of unpleasantness, hinted that he was probably closer to 50 than 40. Simon had known enough feds to know that this was another one -- and of the less cordial variety. "Captain Banks?" the man queried in a neutral voice.

Simon spoke into the phone without looking away from his unknown visitor. "Hang on a second, Sandburg," he said, and punched the 'Hold' button on the phone. "Is there something I can do for you?" he asked the visitor.

"Yes." The man reached inside his jacket and pulled out an ID wallet. "Special Agent Tom Cameron," he said as he flipped the wallet open and held it out. "FBI. I have a federal order," the ID went back into his pocket, and he opened a long, folded document, "authorizing me to pick up the body of Sam Holland and all personal effects."

Simon frowned as he read over the document, translating the legalese jargon into plain English with the ease of long experience. "What the hell is this all about?" he asked brusquely.

Cameron shook his head, but Simon saw little genuine regret in his expression when he answered, "Sorry, Captain. I'm not authorized to say."

"You're not authorized to say." Simon repeated the agent's statement with poorly concealed contempt. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Look, Agent Cameron…one of my detectives is missing, and this man is somehow involved. His body is evidence."

Cameron didn't even blink. "I understand your problem, but a federal warrant supersedes local authority."

"I know that," Simon retorted. "I…can’t you at least give me some idea of what's going on?"

"At this time," Cameron said stiffly, "we've been told to keep a lid on it. All I can say is that it involves national security. Now, if you'll just point out the body, I'll be out of your way."

Simon sighed. "The morgue is in the basement. My people will give you full cooperation."

Cameron nodded with an annoyingly smug smile. "Thank you, Captain." He tucked the warrant back into his pocket and left.

Simon started to open a file on his desk, but recalled that he had left Blair holding, and picked up the phone instead. "Sandburg, I'll have to talk to you later," he said tiredly.

"No, Simon, wait!" Blair protested. "Look, I've been thinking. You know Jim was involved in covert ops when he was in the Army. If Holland was in his unit, then he was, too. Those black-suits that tore the loft apart could have been military intelligence or CIA or something."

"Yeah, Sandburg, I know." Simon sighed again. "The feds are here right now, picking up the body."

"What? What are they doing that for?"

"It's classified," Simon said, mocking Agent Cameron's officious tone. "Look, I'll call you later."

~~~~~~~~

Blair replaced the phone slowly in its cradle and turned to Joel. He shook his head in bafflement, Simon's words only adding to the concern that had been festering through the long, tense hours.

"Some guy out of Jim's past shows up out of the blue," he mused. "Now he's dead, and Jim's missing. And the feds are down at the morgue taking the body. Am I paranoid, or is this all just a little bit cloak-and-dagger?"

Joel shrugged. "You've been reading too many mysteries, my friend," he replied.

Blair ignored the implicit denial in Joel's response and reached for the phone again.

"Don't call him again," Joel protested.

"I'm not," Blair said as he punched in a number. "I'm calling a buddy at the university." He listened a moment, then said into the phone, "Jack Kelso, please."

Joel frowned, then asked, "That CIA whistle-blower from the Brackett case?"

Blair nodded, then turned away as Jack Kelso's voice came across the line. "Hey, Jack. This is Blair."

"Hi, Blair," Jack replied with his usual warm cheerfulness. "What can I do for you?"

"There's something weird going on here, Jack, and I was hoping maybe you could help me put the pieces together." Blair gave him a quick rundown on the night's events, and told him of his own suspicions that Sam Holland's unexpected appearance and death was somehow connected to Jim's sudden, unexplained absence.

Jack was silent during most of Blair's recitation, breaking in only occasionally to clarify a point. "You said this guy Holland works for Graf Technologies in Florida?" he asked when Blair had concluded his story.

"Yeah. Do you know it?"

"The name's familiar," Kelso replied. "Let me do some checking, and I'll get back to you. Are you in your office on campus today?"

"No. I'm at home." Blair gave Kelso the phone number for the loft and hung up. Jack had come through for them before with vital information. Maybe he could do so again.

~~~~~~~~

After several attempts, Jim had managed to lever himself up to a sitting position against the wall. It didn't help much, but at least his weight no longer rested on his aching shoulder. Whatever they'd drugged him with had worn off for the most part, though he still felt out of sync with his own body.

He glanced across the room to the wire cage where Tanya still huddled into herself, rocking slightly and lifting her head only occasionally in his direction. She seemed to know as little as he did about where they were and why they'd been locked up in this dank, windowless room. Her answers to his questions had consisted of "I don't know," and "I don't remember."

Jim shifted uncomfortably on the hard, cold floor, unable to find a position that would allow him to relax against the restraints on his wrists and ankles. He couldn't be certain how long he'd been unconscious, but he guessed that it had been at least three or four hours. His hands were almost completely numb from the straps that held them in place behind his back, and a general stiffness that he attributed to both immobility and the chill, had settled into his entire body.

So far, no one had come in to check on them. Jim had tried to extend his hearing beyond his immediate surroundings, but had found nothing except the hum of an electrical generator and the predictable creaks and groans of an old building. There were no voices, no indication that anyone else was nearby. It was as if they'd been dumped here and forgotten. But somehow that didn't seem to make sense. Someone had wanted him captured alive. Otherwise, they would have used bullets instead of darts to take him down. And what about Sam? He'd hinted that his life was in danger if anyone found out that he'd talked to Jim. Was he dead already? Alive and a captive as well? Or had it all been an act, with Sam as a decoy designed to bring Jim to a place where he could be taken without witnesses?

Jim shook his head, unable to make sense of anything. A low, scuffing sound drew his attention back to Tanya, who had shifted position and was now sitting with her long legs tucked beneath her, her arms folded against her body like a shield. She was watching him again, her eyes wide and unblinking behind the veil of her hair. Yet another question for which he had no answers. Who was she, and what was her connection to whatever was going on?

"How do you know Sam Holland?" Jim asked abruptly, deciding to try a more direct approach.

Tanya drew back, her eyes going even wider, and her arms tightened against her chest. "Who?" she asked, with unconvincing innocence.

"Sam Holland," Jim repeated. "Whoever brought me here was after Sam. Now, since you're here, too, it's a pretty safe bet that you have some connection to Sam."

She didn't answer, and Jim tried again, "What about a man named Norman Oliver. He used to be a colonel in the Army. Does that name ring a bell?"

That drew a quick, sharp look from her, and she shifted again, turning half away from him. "Leave me alone," she said, her voice sounding like that of a lost little girl, quavering as if on the edge of tears.

"Look, Tanya," he said reasonably, "if you could just trust me a little here, it would really help me try to get us out of here."

She looked up, pushing tangled hair back from her face. "You think you can do that?" she asked, still in that trembling, little-girl voice. Her teeth closed lightly over her lower lip and she stared at him with a needy, desperate hopefulness. The dark eyes held no trace of tears, though, and the hand that reached out to grasp the wire gate was steady.

~~~~~~~~

Blair busied himself cleaning up the lunch dishes, needing the physical activity even while his mind still spun with possible explanations for the last twelve hours' strange occurrences. He returned to the table where Joel was still finishing his meal, but when he tried to remove the almost empty serving bowl, Joel reached out a hand to reclaim it.

"Whoa!" the detective said. "Where're you going with that?"

Blair just stared at him. "Joel, you've had three bowls," he pointed out, not wanting to mention that Joel seemed to have forgotten about the diet he'd started to try to drop some extra pounds.

"Yeah," Joel agreed, emptying the serving bowl into his own dish. "It's really good chili. You say it's made with ostrich meat?"

Blair nodded and went back to the kitchen with the empty bowl. "Yep. It's low in fat and cholesterol, but that doesn't mean you have to eat the whole bird."

The phone rang, and Blair grabbed a towel to dry off his hands before answering it. He hoped it was Simon with news about Jim, but instead he heard Jack Kelso's voice greeting him.

"I heard back from my contacts at Langley," Jack said briskly. "And I have some interesting information for you."

"Great!" Blair replied. "What is it?"

Jack hesitated a moment. "Not over the phone," he cautioned. "I'm on my way over to the Student Union building. Meet me outside in, say, forty-five minutes?"

Blair had no doubt that he could talk Joel into letting him out of the loft long enough to meet with Jack. After all, Jim's life could be at stake. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I can do that."

When he turned from replacing the phone, he saw Joel sitting back from the table, one hand rubbing his rounded belly. The sounds the detective was making were no longer those of pleasure; he sounded almost pained. "What's the matter, Joel?" he asked. "That bird coming back up on you?"

"Yeah," Joel answered through a carefully controlled burp. "You got some bi-carb or something?"

Blair pointed down the hall. "Yeah. In the bathroom. Help yourself."

Joel got up and waddled toward the bathroom. Blair watched him close the door and reached immediately for his coat. If he left now, he wouldn't have to argue with Joel about the wisdom of leaving the loft.

~~~~~~~~

Blair found an unoccupied bench outside the Student Union and sat down to wait for Jack. He nodded and exchanged greetings with students he recognized from his classes, but kept a watchful eye out for out-of-place men in dark coats. He saw only students, faculty and staff, though, and he began to feel less edgy about his unauthorized departure from Joel's protection.

The automatic doors swung open and Jack's wheelchair rolled into view. Blair jumped up and met him, falling into step as Jack continued down the sidewalk. "We'll go back to my office," Jack said after only a perfunctory greeting. "There's some stuff on my computer I want to show you.

"You were right about Holland. He was on Ellison's last team -- the one that was lost in Peru. He was supposed to be on that mission, too, but he got sick and had to be replaced. Not long after that, his enlistment was up and he left the service, settled in Florida and went to work for Graf Technologies. I knew the name sounded familiar. It's a CIA front, supposedly importing industrial control systems manufactured from Latin America and the Far East where labor's cheap."

"So Holland's really CIA," Blair surmised. "I knew it had to be some kind of covert ops thing. But what did he want with Jim?"

Jack turned a corner and steered carefully around a group of students. "Graf Technologies is run by Colonel Norman Oliver," he went on. "He's got connections in the CIA that go way back to his earliest days in the Army. I remember meeting him once in 'Nam. He wasn't a colonel then, just a green lieutenant fresh out of West Point. He was a sniper, best I ever saw. He could shoot a man out of a tree at 1200 yards. He rose through the ranks and became a colonel at the age of 38."

"That still doesn't tell me what this has to do with Jim," Blair said impatiently.

"I was getting to that. After 'Nam, Oliver went into military intelligence. He provided Ellison and his team with the information for their mission in Peru."

Blair frowned. "Some intelligence. It landed them right in the middle of the insurgents where they got shot down."

Jack nodded. "Right. And when Ellison was rescued eighteen months later, he put the blame on Oliver for the screw-up. With an entire Ranger unit lost, the Army couldn't ignore it completely, but there was no evidence that Oliver knew the intel was faulty. Instead of facing a court-martial, he was allowed to retire quietly. That's when he took over at Graf. On the whole, he came out of it in good shape, but he's hated Ellison ever since."

Blair's reply was cut off by a series of sharp cracks that could only be gunfire. Several passersby screamed and began running for cover. Spurred by memories of the close call he'd had at the loft, Blair shoved Jack's wheelchair behind a low, concrete wall, overturning it in the process. Jack sprawled face-down on the pavement, and Blair crouched low over his body, trying to shield him from the sudden attack.

The shooting stopped abruptly and Blair heard the wild screech of tires as a vehicle pulled away at top speed. Only when it was gone did he raise his head and look around. Several people were running towards him and Jack, and Blair reached down to help his paraplegic friend up off the ground.

"Jack!" he called when there was no movement from the other man. "Jack? You okay?" He grasped Jack's shoulders and turned him over, cursing when he saw a spreading red stain on his chest and neck. He lifted his head and yelled to the gathering crowd. "Hey, somebody call an ambulance! Somebody, please, call an ambulance!" He looked back down at the unmoving form resting against his legs and murmured, "Oh, god. Oh, god."

Guilt crowded out the fear flashing through his veins like liquid lightning. He hoped and prayed that his need for answers hadn't killed his friend.


~~~~~ ACT III ~~~~~


Blair watched his injured friend through the transparent ICU window. He was only vaguely aware of Joel's presence beside him. On the other side of the glass wall, Jack lay unmoving in the narrow hospital bed, his neck and upper shoulder covered with thick bandages, his face obscured by an oxygen mask. *It's all my fault*, Blair berated himself. *I knew that someone was after me, and Jack got shot instead.*

Blair looked up when Simon's looming bulk suddenly blocked his view into the room. "What'd the doctor say?" Blair asked hoarsely.

"He said Kelso didn't suffer any damage to any vital organs. He lost a lot of blood, but he should be out of the woods in a day or so." Simon's brows lowered in a dark scowl. "Which is more than I can say for you," he added.

"Oh, come on, Simon," Blair said. "I was worried about Jim. I had to try to find out what was going on. Besides, I was right. Sam Holland was involved in covert ops, and now he's working for this CIA front company. His boss there, this guy Colonel Oliver, is the one that cost Jim his team in Peru, and Jack says…"

Blair broke off as a man in a dark suit and overcoat approached, followed closely by a doctor and an orderly pushing a gurney. He frowned, and Simon turned.

"Captain Banks," the man greeted Simon with an artificial smile.

"Agent Cameron," Simon returned, his voice dry and flat. "I had a feeling you'd be showing up."

Cameron just smiled again, with no more sincerity than he'd shown when he greeted Simon. "I've been ordered to place Mr. Kelso into protective custody," he said. "We'll move him to a more secure location."

"What for?" Blair demanded, drawing the agent's attention to himself and feeling a momentary flash of fear under the weight of the cold, pale stare. It reminded him too much of the two men who'd invaded the loft.

"Well, someone tried to kill him," Cameron answered.

Simon took up the conversation then. "Uh-huh," he agreed. "And who would that be?"

"I'm not at liberty to say." Cameron crossed his arms lazily over his chest.

Simon mirrored the act and stared down at the agent. "Well, until you are, he stays right here."

Cameron shook his head and smirked. "No, Captain, I don't think so." He stepped toward the door to Kelso's room, only to find a Joel Taggart-sized barrier in his way. "Oh, come on," he said frostily.

Joel didn't move, and Cameron turned back to Simon. "I can get an order," he warned.

"Then do it," Simon retorted. "I don't see a federal crime here, and until I do, this is still my jurisdiction."

Blair watched the two men face off like opposing gladiators. After several tense moments, Cameron spread his hands in a wordless gesture of surrender and walked away. Blair glanced up at Simon, whose face wore a strangely pensive expression.

"You know, Sandburg," Simon mused. "You just may be right. I haven't had this much dialogue with the government since my last tax audit." The captain turned to look thoughtfully at Blair. "You said Kelso had something he wanted to show you."

"Yeah," Blair replied. "We were on our way back to his office when the shooting started. Why?"

"I think I'd like to know what Kelso found that was so important."

~~~~~~~~

Jim bent his knees and pulled his bound feet as closely under his body as he could. Using the strength of his legs and the support of the wall at his back, he managed to stand up. He carefully tested his balance, then hopped over to the wire cage. When he reached it, he turned his back to the chain-link barrier and said, "See if you can loosen this strap a little."

Tanya pressed close to the gate and Jim felt the pressure of her cold fingers against his numbed hands. The binding tightened momentarily as she tugged on it. "It's no good," she told him. "It's plastic -- one of those things they use to bundle telephone cables together. It'll have to be cut."

Jim looked around, trying to find something he could use to saw through the strap. But the room was bare of any convenient implements as far as he could see. Hopping around like a demented Easter Bunny was not his choice of travel modes, but if he could get Tanya free, she could make a more thorough search.

He fumbled behind him for the combination padlock securing the cage door, finally locating it between his hands.

"What are you doing?" Tanya asked, her voice uncertain.

"Just…" Jim realized that his hands were too numb to feel the interior movements of the lock, and he extended his hearing to listen for the tumblers. "I need some quiet." He turned the wheel of the lock slowly, stopping as soon as he heard the tell tale click at each correct position in the combination. At the third click, he tugged it open.

Tanya pushed the gate open, almost upsetting Jim's balance in the process. "How'd you do that?" she asked.

Jim shrugged awkwardly with his bound arms. "The best way to catch a thief is to learn his techniques," he said simply. "I used to work in Burglary." An upward glance brought the wire-framed light fixtures into view. Inside the wire the long light bulbs were made of heavy glass. "If there was some way I could break one of those lights…"

"It's pretty high," Tanya remarked, following his gaze up to the high ceiling.

"Maybe you could get on my shoulders."

Tanya chewed her lip in thought. "No, wait," she said. She stepped close and reached for Jim's belt, smiling a little as she quickly worked the buckle loose. "It's not what you think," she said dryly, showing the first hint of humor since he'd awakened to find her there.

She pulled the belt free and slid the length of leather through the heavy padlock, creating a weighted lash. She hefted the belt in her hands, and positioned herself beneath one of the lights and a few steps away. Her arm snapped up, and the belt stretched out, the padlock cracking the glass with a satisfying crash.

"Nice shot," Jim remarked as Tanya bent down to retrieve one of the larger shards of glass from the floor.

"I do know Sam Holland," Tanya confided as she stepped behind Jim and began sawing at the plastic binding his wrists. "He's my boss."

Jim glanced over his shoulder, but saw only the top of her head as she concentrated on her task. "What about Norman Oliver?"

"Him, too. He's Sam's boss."

Jim winced as the plastic bit more deeply into his wrists under the pressure Tanya exerted against it. "What do you know about him?" he asked cautiously.

Tanya hesitated before she answered, "Not that much. He's not much for rubbing elbows with the staff. I know he's ex-military, some kind of intelligence work. He took over as CEO of Graf Technologies about six, maybe seven years ago. Most of the people he's hired since he took over he knew from the Army. He still has a lot of contacts in the government, and Graf wouldn't have half the business it does without them. Actually…" she paused, then continued, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but if you're here, you probably already know. The CIA uses Graf Technologies as a cover for intelligence gathering activities in several Latin American countries."

The plastic binding finally gave way, and Jim's hands were free. He eased his arms around, forcing himself to ignore the burn and ache in his abused shoulders, and rubbed his hands to try to restore some feeling. He studied Tanya for a moment, sorting through the implications of what she'd told him and trying to decide how much more she might know. "So, technically, everyone at Graf works for the CIA." Tanya nodded assent, and Jim asked, "Are you an agent?"

"No. Just a secretary," she replied with a wry smile. "A lowly G-7."

"Sam seemed to be afraid of Oliver," Jim said. "Do you have any idea why?"

Again she hesitated, her brows drawing together in a frown. "I think Sam found out that the colonel was involved in something illegal," she said. "Have you ever heard of Ben Chavez?"

"I think…yeah. He's that DEA agent that infiltrated the Cali cartel, right? I heard about him on the news." Finally able to move his fingers again, Jim sat down and began working to free his ankles.

Tanya remained standing and watched him. "Last week, Sam was in Oliver's office. He saw a classified DEA file on Oliver's desk -- Chavez's file. It's unlikely that it would be circulating in the agency main office, much less at Graf. Oliver claimed that a courier delivered it by mistake and was returning to pick it up. That was right around the time Chavez's cover was blown and he disappeared. Sam went ballistic on Oliver, accused him of selling Chavez out to the cartel."

"Sam told you all this?"

Tanya shook her head. "I heard most of it. Sam's office is right next to Oliver's, and mine is right outside both. They were talking loud enough for me to hear them."

"So, how'd you end up here?"

"I don't know." Tanya's face crumpled into a frown and her arms came around her body as they had earlier, when she was still locked inside the cage. "The night they argued, when I went home from work, someone jumped me in my driveway. They stuck a needle in my arm, and the next thing I know, I woke up here."

Jim finished freeing his legs and sat for a time, not looking at Tanya. Last week, she'd said, she'd been taken captive. If that was true, her captivity had been remarkably benign. Though tousled and uncombed, her hair seemed clean enough, and she didn't smell like someone who'd been locked in a cage for several days. When he raised his head again, she was watching him. He tucked one leg and pushed himself to his feet. "How long were you here before they brought me in?"

Tanya shrugged. "I'm not sure. They took my watch, and there's no way to tell if it's light or dark outside. But they've been bringing food, so I think it's been a day or two. Why are you here? Do you know something about what's going on?"

Jim answered her while he moved around the room, checking for possible escape routes. He felt reasonably safe in responding to her question, since Sam hadn't had a chance to tell him any of the details of his concerns. "I knew Sam Holland and Oliver in the service," Jim explained. "Last night…or, at least I think it was last night… Sam called me and said he needed help -- that he'd gotten in too deep and didn't know how to get out. It had something to do with Oliver. Then all hell broke loose, and I ended up here. I don't know what happened to Sam. He was still trying to get away when I went out."

"Do you think it has something to do with this Ben Chavez?" Tanya asked.

"I don't know," Jim answered truthfully. "Sam didn't mention him, but then we didn't have much time before things started getting rough." He'd had no luck finding a way out, and he turned toward Tanya again with a resigned shrug. It seemed that he'd have to wait for someone to open the door from outside.

~~~~~~~~

"Don't you need a warrant or something?" Blair asked as Simon unlocked the door of Jack Kelso's office and went inside.

Simon spared him only a brief backward glance as he pulled a chair up to Jack's desk and sat down in front of the computer workstation. "This office is university property, right?"

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"You're a university employee," Simon went on. "And you're consenting to the search, right?"

Again Blair nodded.

Simon flashed a triumphant smile. "No warrant needed." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation and said, "All right, let's see what he has." He jiggled the mouse to deactivate the screen saver, and his expression clouded. "Someone's already on-line."

Blair hurried over and stood behind Simon to see the screen. As he watched, directory after directory was vanished from the screen. "They're sucking the information out by modem!" he said in disbelief.

"Where's the phone line?" Simon barked.

Blair searched beneath the desk and finally located the right cord. "Here it is." He gave the cord a sharp yank, severing the connection to the dial-up modem. "Got it." He emerged from beneath the desk and stared in dismay at the blank screen. "Simon, what is going on here?" he asked.

Simon shook his head. "All the directories are empty."

"Let me give it a shot."

It took a little convincing, but Simon finally gave up his seat to Blair, who was able to locate another set of directories that had not yet been emptied. "Look," he said, pointing to the screen. "There's one called 'Ellison.'"

"Right. Let's pull it off."

Blair inserted a diskette into the computer and typed in a command to copy the files. To his horror, those files began to vanish just as the others had. "Oh, no! Everything's disappearing here, too. Whoever tapped into Jack's computer must have activated a virus."

"What?" It was Simon's turn to look on in helpless confusion. "Can't you stop it?"

"I'm trying," Blair said as he tried several commands to halt the destruction of the computer files. He muttered to himself as more and more of the information disappeared. When the screen was once again blank, he sat back and spread his hands in defeat. "That's it. It's gone."

"How much did we get?" Simon asked.

"I don't know." Blair extracted the diskette. "We're going to need another computer and some kind of monster anti-virus program to sort it out."

They left the office and headed back out to Simon's car. Simon drove carefully through the narrow university streets back out onto the main road and turned toward the station.

"You know," Blair said thoughtfully, "I know this guy. He lives in a cellar with 15 cats, but the man is an absolute genius hacker." He held up the diskette and inspected it as if it held the secrets of the universe.

"Forget it, Sandburg," Simon replied. "I don't want any more civilians involved in this. Whatever the hell 'this' is."

Blair tapped the diskette against his palm. "There's no telling what sort of dark, secret agency files are in here." He glanced at Simon's dark profile and tried to lighten the mood a little. "Hey, did you know that the CIA had Jim Morrison whacked for backward-masking nuclear secrets in Doors singles?"

Simon answered him with a scowl.

"It's a joke, man," Blair said defensively. "It's…funny..."

"I think we've picked up a tail," Simon interrupted. "A black van's been following us since we left the university."

Blair turned in his seat and stared out the back window to get a better look at the van.

Simon made an exasperated sound. "Why don't you just wave at him, Sandburg?"

Blair faced forward again. "Simon, that's one of the guys who shot at me at the loft."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah."

Simon nodded, then picked up the radio and called in to set up a roadblock on Channing Street to trap the van. When he received confirmation that it was in place, he pulled over and stopped, flipping on his hazard lights to signal a problem. The van stopped behind him, and Simon rolled down his window to wave him on. After a moment, the driver of the van did just that. Simon checked for traffic, then pulled out behind the van, neatly sandwiching it between his own car and the police car two blocks farther on.

The van came to a tire-burning halt in the middle of the road, and Simon stopped close enough behind him to keep the driver from turning around. "Stay down," he told Blair as he threw open his door and stepped out, gun drawn. The van driver got out as well.

Blair chanced a peek above the dashboard, but ducked quickly back when the van driver pulled his own gun and fired two quick shots. His ears rang with the sound of more shots, from Simon's gun this time. When the shooting stopped, Simon glanced back into the car.

"You all right?" he asked tersely.

Blair nodded shakily, seeing the holes in the windshield where the gunman's bullets had struck. "Yeah. I'm all right."

Had he moved a fraction of a second slower, he'd be dead.

~~~~~~~~~

Someone was coming. Jim heard the footsteps some distance away, but said nothing to Tanya. He had convinced her to resume their former positions until someone came in to bring food, as Tanya had said they would. The cage door was closed but not locked, and Jim had once again tucked his hands behind his back and draped the severed plastic tie across his ankles. Only a close inspection would reveal the deception.

A key rattled in the door, and Jim looked up expectantly. A tall, thin man in a dark suit came in with a covered tray in one hand. His flat, expressionless gaze rested briefly on Jim, then he stepped past him on his way to Tanya's cage. Once sure that he couldn't be seen, Jim rose silently to his feet and moved in close.

The man had just enough time to realize that the lock on the cage door was loose and half turn to check on the security of his other prisoner. Jim met him with a roundhouse blow to the jaw, knocking him down and out. He dragged the unconscious body into the wire cage, grabbed the man's gun and a large ring of keys, then locked him inside. With one opponent down, he took hold of Tanya's arm and headed out the door.

They followed a long hallway that ended in another door, and Jim handed the keys to Tanya. "See if you can find the right key," he said, taking up a defensive stance a few feet away.

Tanya fumbled with the keys, trying and discarding several before she said, "I think this is it, but it's stuck. I can't turn it."

Jim hesitated, not really trusting her, but unable to come up with any options for getting out. He could hear footsteps moving down the hallway near the room he'd just left. In seconds, they would know that he was gone. He tucked the purloined gun into his waistband on the side farthest from Tanya and bent to try to free the lock.

A whisper of sound warned him, but not soon enough to avoid the blow that struck the base of his neck, turning his limbs to jelly. He fell forward, and his forehead smacked against the wall with enough force to make stars dance across his vision. Once again he felt Tanya's hands fumbling at his waist, and this time she came away with the gun.

"Get up," she commanded, all vestige of the frightened and confused victim gone. She held the gun in a firm, two-handed grip, aimed at the middle of Jim's chest.

He grimaced as he flexed his neck where she'd hit him. The only thing that surprised him was that she'd managed to take him down so easily. "And just when we were starting to trust each other," he said wryly.

Tanya gestured with the gun again, and Jim rolled over to his hands and knees. His fingers brushed a thin length of hard metal, and he saw several loose nails lying on the floor nearby. Using his body to shield the motion, he palmed one of them. It might not be much of a weapon, but it was all he had.


~~~~~ ACT IV ~~~~~


The man Jim had knocked out and locked in the cage was not pleased. Freed by the associate who had apparently been stamped from the same mold, he hustled Jim roughly back down the hallway toward his former prison. Tanya and the second man followed behind, guns trained menacingly on Jim's back.

"You people went to a lot of trouble here," Jim commented. "Precise operation…phony prisoner to gain my trust. What else are you going to try?"

One of the men yanked Jim's arms around one of the pipes securely anchored to the wall and handcuffed them in place. Jim decided that two loaded guns aimed at him made for lousy odds for escape, so he made no effort. He studied the carved-stone face of his captor. "Are you military, or CIA, or both?" The man answered him only with a flat stare. "What?' Jim asked. "You think I know something?"

The man gave the handcuffs an experimental tug, sending a jolt of pain through Jim's already chafed and swollen wrists. "The only thing you're going to know is a hole in the ground," he said curtly.

Jim watched the trio turn to leave. When they were out of sight, he carefully flipped the nail into position and began trying to pick the lock on the handcuffs.

~~~~~~~~

Simon and Blair left the diskette from Jack's computer in the capable hands of Serena Chang in the forensics lab. She had been less than optimistic about being able to retrieve anything off the diskette. After listening to Blair's description of what had happened when they tried to transfer the data, she diagnosed the problem as a search-and-destroy virus that had likely corrupted any files beyond her ability to restore them. But after a gruff command from Simon and a healthy dose of ego stroking from Blair, she had promised to try.

In the hallway outside forensics, Blair cast a sideways glance at Simon and commented, "Hey, Captain, you really need to work on those people management skills."

Simon chewed on an unlit cigar. "Look, Sandburg, I don't have time for popularity contests, okay? These guys have been one step ahead of us from the beginning. After that kamikaze that followed us from Kelso's office, who knows what we're up against?"

"Yeah." Blair dropped his efforts to chide Simon. "That was really weird. I mean, that guy had to know that the second he pulled that trigger he was a dead man." He paused, shaking his head. "Hey, uh…" He stopped in the middle of the corridor, forcing Simon to stop as well.

"What?" Simon demanded.

Blair shifted nervously and shrugged. "Look, Simon, I didn't want to say anything before. Didn't even want to think about it, really. But…I mean…you don't think…?"

Simon's grim face softened fractionally. "You're wondering if Jim's already dead," he said knowingly.

"Yeah," Blair admitted.

Simon rested a hand lightly on Blair's shoulder. "Whoever these guys are," he said calmly, "if they wanted Jim dead, we'd have found his body back at that garage. So, for now at least, I'd say he's probably still alive."

Blair nodded and summoned a smile, hoping with every fiber of his being that Simon was right. Dissertation research aside, he simply didn't want to think about losing his friend.

As Simon steered him into the Major Crimes bullpen, Joel Taggart met them with several sheets of paper tucked inside a file folder. "Hey, Simon," he said, "we got an ID on the Channing Street shooter." He pulled one of the pages out of the file and handed it to his captain.

"Steven Crisp," Simon read. "Ex-mercenary. Florida address." He glanced up at Blair and Joel. "And guess who his most recent employer was."

"Wouldn't be Graf Technologies, would it?" Blair asked, certain that he knew the answer.

Simon nodded. "There's hope for you yet, Sandburg."

Blair perched on the corner of the nearest desk and raised his hands in a gesture of frustration. "CIA cover, mercenaries, everything points to some sort of covert ops."

"Wait. There's more." Joel pulled out another paper, this one creased with several fold lines and smudged with much handling. "Forensics found this map tucked into the back of his wallet."

Simon studied the map and Blair peered intently past his arm. "Olympia 3300, Chavez 714, Federal Building…" Simon recited the handwritten notations on the partial map of Cascade. "What's all this mean?"

"Olympia 3300," Blair mused. "Could be an address."

Joel shook his head. "We checked. It's not an address, or a phone number either."

Blair went on to the next note. "Chavez 714." He stroked his chin in thought. "Chavez... Chavez…I know that name…Wait! Ben Chavez, the DEA agent everyone's been looking for. Could this have something to do with him?"

"Yeah, maybe," Simon conceded. "It would make sense, with the feds involved."

"But what's the 714 mean?"

Joel pointed to the far edge of the map. "The airport's marked. Maybe it's an arrival time?"

Simon exhaled a long, exasperated sigh. "Or a flight number, or a locker number, or a damn parking space!" He rubbed his eyes. "Taggart, put together a team and see if you can make sense out of this map."

"Done," Joel promised, and left the office.

"Blair, you're with me."

Blair frowned questioningly at the captain. "Where are we going?"

"To the other place that's marked on the map. The Federal Building. If Agent Cameron wants to play games, he's going to have to start dealing from a clean deck."

~~~~~~~~

Simon Banks was a man on a mission. He strode purposefully through the lobby of the Federal Building, Blair trailing behind him almost at a trot to keep up with Simon's long strides. On the strength of Simon's police department ID, they passed through the security gates unchallenged and made their way up to the fourth floor where the FBI offices were located. A quick glance around the spacious suite told him where he needed to go.

The secretary outside Special Agent in Charge Thomas Cameron's office looked up when Simon approached her desk. "May I help you?" she asked.

Simon showed her his ID and introduced himself. "I need to see Agent Cameron," he said briefly.

The secretary studied his ID for a moment, then handed it back. "Do you have an appointment, Captain?"

"No."

"Then I'm afraid that's impossible," she said. "He asked not to be disturbed."

Blair spoke up from beside Simon. "You don't understand," he said urgently. "This is very important."

"Special Agent Cameron said no exceptions."

Simon leveled his most intimidating scowl on the secretary. "Well, he damn sure better make one," he growled and stepped toward the inner office door.

"Sir!" The secretary stood up quickly and tried to intercept him. "Sir! You can't just…"

The door opened and a frowning man stepped out. He was of medium height and slightly built, his dark hair receding from a long, angular face. "Tracy, what's the commotion out here?" he asked.

The secretary gestured to Simon and Blair. "I told them you were busy, sir."

"I need to see Agent Cameron," Simon announced, his ire rising more at the appearance of yet another lackey.

The balding man met him stare for stare. "I'm Cameron," he said impatiently. "Just who the hell are you?"

Simon's frown deepened as he once again presented his ID. "Agent Cameron, we need to talk," he said grimly. "Unless you don't care that there's someone running around claiming to be you."

Cameron stepped back and motioned the two men into his office. "I can give you ten minutes, gentlemen," he said curtly. "Talk fast."

Simon did, recapping yet again the tale of his missing detective, a dead man whose body had been claimed by someone purporting to be Special Agent Tom Cameron, and the attempt on Blair's life by an ex-mercenary who had in his possession a cryptic map that included the Federal Building

"You do have quite a mystery on your hands, Captain," Cameron said when Simon was done. "I wish I could shed some light on your situation."

"Oh, do you?" Simon challenged. "The name Chavez was written on the map we took from Crisp's body. The only Chavez I can think of that someone impersonating an FBI agent might be interested in is Ben Chavez, the missing DEA agent."

Cameron's expression gave no hint of his thoughts. *In fact, it was almost too controlled,* Simon thought. He had seen a brief flicker of something when he mentioned Ben Chavez, but it was gone so quickly he couldn't be sure it wasn't a trick of the light.

The FBI man steepled his fingers and appeared to consider Simon's implied question. "Yes, I suppose it's possible that this has something to do with Chavez. Despite the rumors that he was killed, at last report his whereabouts were still unknown. The only one who can confirm your suspicions, it seems, is the man you shot."

Simon stood up from the chair he'd been sitting in and loomed over Cameron's desk, both hands planted firmly on the polished rosewood veneer. "Cameron, right now, my chief concern is making sure that one of my men doesn't drown in this alphabet soup of federal agency gamesmanship. If I find out that you knew what was going on here and did nothing to help, I'll raise a stink they'll smell back in Washington, D.C."

Cameron regarded Simon without blinking for several moments. Then he stood slowly and said, "Gentlemen, your ten minutes are up."

~~~~~~~~

Blair said little on the way back to the station. He knew that Simon was still seething with anger and frustration at getting no help from Special Agent Cameron. He understood and shared the captain's feelings. They were running out of places to look for answers and coming no closer to finding out why Jim had disappeared.

Instead of heading up to Major Crimes, Simon stopped first by the Forensics lab to check on Serena's progress with the diskette.

"I have something for you," Serena said with mild satisfaction. "It took a while, but I did manage to retrieve a few intact files." She sat down at her computer and called up the recovered data. Her screen filled with a series of official military photographs, each with a name printed beneath. She tapped in a command and one of the pictures expanded to fill the screen.

"I'll be damned," Simon said.

Blair took a closer look at the unsmiling face above a dress uniform jacket liberally decorated with medals and ribbons. The picture was probably ten years old, but there was no mistaking that the face was that of the counterfeit FBI agent he'd seen outside Jack Kelso's hospital room. The text displayed next to the photograph identified him as Norman Oliver, Colonel.

Simon shook his head. "Whatever he's up to, it must be serious to risk impersonating an FBI agent."

Simon's cell phone rang while they waited for Serena to print out the file. His voice took on a certain urgency as he spoke to the caller, and Blair looked at him questioningly.

"Kelso regained consciousness," Simon reported. "Let's go see if he has anything else to tell us."

~~~~~~~~

For a man who'd almost bled to death, Jack Kelso didn't look so bad. He still sported thick bandages where the bullets had torn through his flesh, and the inevitable forest of medical machinery and monitors surrounded his bed. One cheek was darkened by a large, raw looking bruise where he'd hit the pavement, but his color was far closer to normal than it had been before.

He grimaced when Blair told him about the invasion of his computer and the destruction of almost all his files, but nodded when Blair showed him the printouts Serena had managed to salvage. "This is what I wanted you to see," he confirmed in a rasping voice. "Everything leads back to this man -- Colonel Oliver. I wanted you to be able to spot him if he shows up."

"He's already here," Simon said grimly. "Do you have any idea why he might have come to Cascade?"

Kelso's shook his head against the hospital pillow. "Not a clue."

"Could there be any connection between him and a man named Ben Chavez?"

"The DEA agent?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. We think he may be involved somehow. His name was written on a map one of Oliver's men had on him."

Kelso frowned. "For years there have been rumors about a group of rogue CIA agents working with the South American drug cartels, including the Cali. They fed them information, and even used some of their front companies to bring drugs into the U.S."

"Companies like Graf Technologies?" Blair wondered.

"Graf, and others. From what my sources have told me, Chavez identified the rogues and planned to blow the whistle on them. Unfortunately, they found out about him, too, and blew his cover with the cartel." Kelso's voice was growing weaker, and he seemed to be struggling to stay awake.

Simon crossed his arms over his chest and tucked his chin in close. "Sounds like Oliver was one of the rogue agents Chavez was going to burn. That's what this is about. He's trying to cover his butt and protect his connection to the cartel."

Blair looked from Kelso to Simon. "That map with the airport and the Federal Building marked. Simon, it sounds like Chavez is coming in from the cold here in Cascade, and Oliver plans to intercept him."

"Intercept, hell," Kelso said as he fought sleep. "Oliver's an expert sniper. He plans to kill him."

~~~~~~~~

The nail was too large to fit into the keyhole of the handcuffs. That much had become apparent almost immediately, and Jim had switched his tactics to trying to pry loose one of the links using the sturdy nail as leverage. Thus far, that hadn't met with notable success either, but he kept trying.

Footsteps outside the door alerted him to someone's approach, and he quickly palmed the nail again, concealing it against the base of his fingers as he curled his hand into a loose fist. The door slid open and Tanya sauntered inside.

She looked very different from the disheveled damsel in distress she had first pretended to be. Her long hair had been combed and pulled back into a knot at the crown of her head. Carefully applied make-up accentuated her dark eyes and the contours of her high cheekbones; red lipstick outlined her thin, smirking lips. She'd discarded her plain, secretary's garb for close-fitting black pants and a white mock turtleneck sweater under a thick wool jacket. Low-heeled boots covered her shapely legs to mid-calf.

"Miss me, Jim?" she asked sweetly.

"Oh, yeah," Jim replied dryly. "Like I miss a toothache."

Tanya feigned a pout. "Aw….I'm hurt."

"You'll get over it."

Tanya stood directly in front of Jim, her head tilted up so she was looking directly into his eyes. "You know," she said slowly, "if circumstances had been different," a freshly painted fingernail stroked his chest in an almost seductive caress, "we could have shared some special times together."

"Oh, stop," Jim said in a mocking parody of the woman's false charm. "I'm starting to get nostalgic."

"You should be more grateful." Tanya's voice hardened, and she withdrew her hand. "I voted to keep you alive, you know. It could have gone the other way."

Jim graced her with a cold smile. "I'm still alive because you still want something. Why don't you just spit it out?"

Before Tanya could answer, a man's voice spoke reproachfully from the open doorway. "You know the drill. Full disclosure has to be earned."

Jim looked up as Colonel Oliver came in. His manner was as smug and nonchalant as Tanya's, and he crossed the room to stand at the woman's side.

"Hello, Jim," Oliver said smoothly, belatedly observing the niceties. "What's it been? Seven years? Given the circumstances, you look pretty good."

"I knew you'd show up eventually, Colonel," Jim replied. He covered his hatred for the man with a smile that held about as much warmth as an iceberg.

"It's nice to know I've never left your thoughts." Oliver put an arm over Tanya's shoulders and she leaned into his side. "Sorry about the bait and switch with Tanya, but I needed to know what Holland gave up."

Jim shook his head. "You've wasted your time then. Those half-wits that work for you showed up before Sam told me anything. Now, why don't we end this little song and dance and get to the bottom line."

"I can sum it up in two words," Oliver said. "Two innocuous little words. Ben Chavez."

Oliver looked away from Jim long enough to address Tanya. "It's time," he said simply. "Go get Harley and Shea, and bring the stuff." He watched her leave the room, his expression saying clearly that he appreciated the smooth sway of her slender hips. When she was out of sight, he returned his attention to Jim. "Chavez got hold of some information that could be very damaging to me and some of my associates. You know the first rule of covert ops, Jim. Any variable that can't be controlled has to be eliminated."

"And Chavez is one of those uncontrollable variables."

"Oh, yeah. He's the worst kind of uncontrollable variable. A man with principles, and nothing, no family, no close friends, to use as leverage."

Tanya returned, carrying a small tray and followed by the two men Jim had encountered earlier. Harley and Shea came forward and released the handcuffs, but their iron grip on Jim's arms, and the gun that one of them pressed against his spine, kept him from making any bid for freedom. Tanya moved back to Oliver's side and held up the tray like an offering. He picked up a small vial and a hypodermic needle, which he inserted into the vial and began to fill with a clear liquid.

"There's a kind of poetry to all this, don't you think, Jim?" Oliver mused as he prepared the syringe. "Just when I need Ben Chavez erased, you come back into my life to help me tie up loose ends."

Bits and pieces of information and rumor gathered over many years began to make sense. "Chavez has been undercover in the Cali cartel," Jim commented, his voice devoid of expression. "Why are you so anxious to 'erase' him, Colonel? Did he find out that you're doing business with the cartel?" A flash of anger lit Oliver's eyes, and Jim nodded slowly to himself. "That's it. He was going to nail you, wasn't he?"

Oliver came forward with the hypodermic in his hand and a predator's smile on his face. "He's way out of his league. I've been doing this too long to get caught, Jim."

Jim felt a fresh surge of rage at this man's cavalier attitude toward human life. "Too long," he repeated hollowly. "At least seven years too long, eh, Colonel? That was no intelligence screw-up that killed my team in Peru. You set us up to protect your pipeline."

"Of course I did," Oliver admitted, completely unconcerned. "What good is a war without a profit?"

Jim's jaw twitched as he tested the strength of his captors' hold. The gun pressed harder against his spine and he forced himself to be still. "So you kill Chavez and walk away," he said harshly. "And now what? You want to do away with me, too? Finish what you started seven years ago?"

"Yes and no." Oliver reached down and yanked the sleeve back from Jim's right forearm, exposing the skin beneath. "You should be flattered, Jim. You're a very important part of my plan." He plunged the needle into Jim's arm, and a rush of warmth spread through Jim's veins as the drug began circulating in his system. "Your corpse is going to be found at the scene of the crime, along with the rifle that kills Ben Chavez."

Jim shook his head, fighting the drug that coursed through his body. "They'll never believe it," he said flatly.

Oliver shrugged. "Maybe not. But just imagine all the theories: Army vet goes off the deep end, unsuspected cartel assassin."

Jim locked his gaze on Oliver's and brought the nail he still held into position against his left thumb. He felt the point against his skin and pressed harder, wincing as the nail pierced his flesh and sent pain shooting through his entire hand.

"Or maybe just a good cop with really bad luck," Oliver continued his theorizing. "This puzzle will play out for years, Jim, and I'll be long gone before the first piece ever fits."

Jim felt the drug trying to overtake him. His vision was going gray and blurry, and his body sagged in the grip of Harley and Shea. In his mind he replayed Blair's words of concern about his seeming lack of response to pain medications. Was that last night, or last year?

*If pain relievers don't work, what about Novocain at the dentist? Or what if you're having surgery -- what if anesthetics don't work on you any more?*

Jim closed his fist more tightly over the nail, driving it deeper into his thumb. That sharp stab was the only sensation that penetrated the drug-induced numbness that spread throughout his limbs. He embraced the pain as a drowning man would cling to a piece of flotsam. He wanted to resist further, to force his legs to straighten and hold his weight, to drag his leaden eyelids open. But if he was to have any chance, he couldn’t let them suspect that he maintained even the smallest shred of consciousness. He reluctantly allowed his muscles to relax, forcing Harley and Shea to take his full weight. His head lolled forward, and his eyes closed on the unfocused blurs that filled his vision.

Only his tightly clenched left fist, unnoticed as the two men dragged him from the room, gave evidence that he was not as incapacitated as his captors believed.


~~~~~ ACT V ~~~~~


Ben Chavez waited until the other passengers had disembarked before he stood up from his seat and retrieved his single carry-on bag from the overhead rack. The bag held very little, a change of clothes, essential toiletries, and the evidence that would make the Hell of his long undercover assignment worthwhile. He harbored no illusions that the cartel would fall beneath his disclosures. But at least some of those responsible for the failures of law enforcement efforts would see their treachery brought to an end.

Two men waited for him at the cabin door. Chavez approached them unhurriedly and met the critical gaze of the older man.

"You're a long way from your tropical paradise, Ben," Tom Cameron said dryly.

Chavez flashed a smile at the FBI agent. "Yeah, well, paradise wasn't all it was cracked up to be."

Cameron returned the smile with unexpected warmth and reached out to grasp the young DEA man's hand in a firm grip. "Welcome home, amigo."

"Thanks," Chavez replied. "You probably think I'm crazy, going three thousand miles out of my way to get back. But after what I've been through, there aren't many people I trust."

"Well, I'm glad you decided to trust me." Cameron steered Chavez toward the door. "Come on. I have a car waiting at the employee entrance. We'll go through the baggage area and avoid the crowds in the terminal."

Two more men fell into step with them at the bottom of the boarding stairs, forming a square cordon around Chavez. Few people paid them any heed as they moved through the service areas of the airport, but all five remained watchful just the same. They reached the car without incident, and Cameron opened the rear door for Chavez.

"Just relax, Ben," he said reassuringly. "It's almost over."

~~~~~~~~

"Try Cameron's office again," Simon commanded as he navigated his way through the heavy, home-bound traffic. "Tell them it's about an assassination attempt. That should get their attention."

Blair picked up Simon's cell phone from the seat beside them, but before he could dial the FBI office, it rang. "Oh, hey, Joel," Blair said when he heard the familiar voice. "What's up?" He listened for several moments, then punched the 'End' button on the phone and relayed Joel's information to Simon. " Oceanic Airlines' flight 714 landed fifteen minutes ago. And '3300 Olympia' was part of an address. The old Olympia Building at 3300 Bancroft."

Simon spared a brief glance at Blair. "That overlooks the expressway -- which anyone going from the airport to the Federal Building would almost certainly use. It's a perfect location for a sniper."

Blair checked their present position at the next intersection. "Bancroft is four blocks west of here, Simon."

Simon positioned his flashing emergency light on the dashboard and picked up the radio. "This is Captain Banks," he said into the microphone. "I want all available units to 3300 Bancroft, the Olympia Building. Use extreme caution. There is a possible sniper at that location." As he made a sharp turn onto the next street, he muttered grimly, "To hell with the feds."

~~~~~~~~

Jim sagged into the wheelchair where Harley and Shea had dumped him after Oliver administered the unknown drug. He feigned unconsciousness even though the steady pressure of the nail against his bleeding thumb held the full power of the drug at bay. Each time he felt the darkness closing in on his senses, he tightened his fist enough to trigger a fresh jolt of pain. He could only hope that when the time came, he would have sufficient command over his body to stop Oliver from carrying out his plan.

The wheelchair lurched into motion, and Jim swayed until a rough hand on his shoulder steadied him. He heard four sets of footsteps on the concrete, and the change in air pressure against his ears told him that they were moving down a long, narrow hallway. Tanya's lighter tread and one that he assumed to be Oliver's sounded from in front of him. One came from directly behind him, and the other from his right.

"Give me five minutes to set up," Oliver said as the chair once again came to a stop, "then bring him up. Once I've taken out Chavez, we'll finish off Ellison."

Jim heard the faint crackle of Oliver's leather jacket as he moved. "You two, no matter what happens, you wait for me by the car behind the building. You got it?"

The clatter of wood slats and a metallic rasp broke the momentary silence. When the noise died down, Oliver said in a voice that was accustomed to command, "All right, people. Five minutes. Let's go!"

The clatter resumed briefly, followed by the whir of a heavy motor. An elevator, Jim realized. *Probably a freight elevator, from the sound of it.*

Oliver had said five minutes, but it seemed like five hours. Jim's mind had begun to drift again, and he had to remind himself not to make any movement that would alert Shea. Finally, Shea slid the elevator door open and pushed the chair inside. More noise, then the car moved slowly upward.

Jim relaxed his left hand, letting the nail fall from his grip to clink against the hard floor. He opened his eyes a thin slit, and waited for Shea to respond.

"What the…" Shea stepped around in front of the chair and bent down to look for the source of the unexpected sound.

Jim straightened his knee and brought his foot up to catch Shea on the forehead, knocking him back into the side of the elevator car. He pushed himself out of the chair and followed, but found both his strength and his coordination lacking. Shea responded with a forearm across Jim's throat, and a short punch in the ribs that sent Jim staggering back. Shea advanced, trying for a side kick, and Jim let his body collapse sideways to avoid the blow. A foot brushed his jacket, but missed the ribs that were its target. Shea balanced himself and tried a kick to the other side, and Jim again evaded him by a narrow margin.

Even slowed by the drug in his system, Jim managed to hold his own against Oliver's lackey. Within the small confines of the elevator, neither man could gain much leverage against the other. They ended up locked in a grapple, with Shea forced back against the wall and Jim all but falling against him as his rubbery legs tried to collapse. He managed to get his hands around Shea's neck and pressed inward against the carotid artery in a desperate effort to weaken his opponent.

The fight ended when Jim managed to land a solid punch on Shea's jaw and followed it with an elbow to the back of the man's neck as he rebounded off the wall and fell forward. Jim, breathing hard and feeling weak tremors ripple through his body, collapsed to one knee beside Shea. He reached beneath Shea's coat and retrieved the man's weapon, a 9mm.

When the elevator reached the top floor, Jim stepped out and reached back inside to send the car, with its insensible passenger, back to the basement. He paused a moment, leaning against the wall and gathering his strength to climb the short flight of stairs to the roof access. He found the door open, and he crouched in the narrow space as he looked out across the roof.

He saw Oliver, gloved hands cradling a sniper rifle, on the far side of the building. The colonel stood almost with his back to Jim, and he seemed unaware of Jim's presence. He was sighting through a sophisticated scope trained on something in the far distance. Jim braced his arm against the doorframe and raised the weapon he'd taken from Shea.

His vision blurred, and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, opening them again to see Oliver shift his stance and tighten his grip on the rifle. It would be so easy to simply pull the trigger and rid himself and the world of Oliver's malignant presence, so easy to become a killer hiding in the shadows.

"Oliver, drop your weapon!" he called sharply.

Oliver flinched and looked toward Jim, then snapped the rifle back into position and loosed a round at something Jim couldn't see from his hiding place. The colonel dropped to a crouch as he turned back and brought the rifle around to find a new target.

Jim fired a single shot, but his vision was still too uncertain. He missed.

Oliver returned fire, chipping wood from the doorframe behind which Jim hid. "What's it gonna take, Ellison?" he shouted. "What's it gonna take to put you down?"

From the shelter of the doorway, Jim risked a glance out and across the roof. "I always wondered why I survived the jungle," he said grimly. "But now I know."

He whipped around the corner and narrowed his focus on Oliver's black-clad shape. His finger squeezed the trigger of the 9mm, and Oliver jerked back, blood spurting from his shoulder where Jim's bullet tore through his flesh. The rifle fell from his hands and he staggered back, his legs catching the edge of the roof's perimeter wall. Jim caught one quick glimpse of a face etched with shocked disbelief, then Oliver tumbled over the wall.

Jim reached the edge of the roof seconds later. On the ground below he saw Oliver's sprawled, shattered body and a black van accelerating away from the building. He snatched up the sniper rifle from the roof and yanked off the scope in one practiced move. Two seconds to sight, and he pulled the trigger.

The left rear tire of the van blew out, and the vehicle skidded into an overflowing trash dumpster. From opposite ends of the street, a patrol car and a familiar sedan with a flashing red light mounted on the dashboard slewed around to block the van diagonally on either side. From the sedan emerged a tall figure with a drawn weapon, and a smaller form topped with long, curling hair.

~~~~~~~~

Blair gripped the armrest and dashboard as Simon braked the car to a halt scant inches from the black van. He ignored Simon's order to stay put and threw open the door as the captain rushed to the van's passenger door with his gun drawn and leveled at whoever was inside. He saw an unfamiliar woman, looking dazed by the impact, stagger from the van, helped along by Simon's grip on her arm.

"Come on, out of the car!" Simon commanded, looking past the woman at someone still inside. The captain pressed the woman against the side of the van, one hand crushing the lapel of her coat. "Where is he?" he asked in a dangerous growl. "You have exactly three seconds to tell me where Jim Ellison is."

Blair swept the area with a quick, searching look, finally tilting his head to look upward. "Simon!" he said with undisguised relief. When Simon looked around, Blair pointed upward to where Jim stood leaning against the edge of the roof.

"I'm going up!" he called as he ran for the entrance, ignoring Simon's order to wait till they secured the building.

It took a few moments to locate the elevator -- which still bore a human cargo that was just beginning to show signs of waking. Blair left him to the uniformed officer who had followed him inside, then pressed the button for the highest level. "Come on, come on, come on," he chanted as the elevator made its slow journey. When it finally came to a stop, he yanked open the door and ran up the stairs to the roof.

"Jim!" he called, seeing his friend sitting slumped against the perimeter wall, his head thrown back to rest on the grimy concrete structure. "Jim! Are you all right?" He skidded to a stop and crouched down at Jim's side, reaching out to rest a hand on Jim's shoulder.

Jim's eyes opened and he gave Blair a weak smile. "Fine, Chief," he replied wearily.

"You don't look all right," Blair countered, taking in the slightly hazy look of Jim's eyes, the shadow of beard stubble and dirt darkening his jaw, and the blood-streaked hand curled loosely against his thigh. He seized Jim's wrist and held it up for a closer inspection, frowning when he noticed the raw, angry marks of harsh restraint and the deep puncture in his left thumb. "What happened?" he demanded.

Jim winced and tugged his hand from Blair's grip. "Just testing your theory about my senses and anesthetics," he said. "Stuck a nail in my thumb to keep from going under when Oliver drugged me."

"What?" Blair's eyes widened in shock. "Did it work?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. It did."

"So how do you feel?"

"Tired, Sandburg," Jim answered with a heavy sigh. "Very, very tired."

~~~~~ EPILOGUE ~~~~~


Jim looked up past Blair, perched on the edge of his desk, when Simon swept into the bullpen on a wave of cheerful greetings. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his captain in such an ebullient mood.

"Gentlemen," Simon addressed them with a wide smile. "Good morning."

Blair glanced back at Jim, a bemused smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Whoa! What is wrong with this picture?" he asked, his voice shaking with suppressed laughter.

"What's wrong with this picture," Simon informed him, "is that you are looking at a man who has just logged 16 hours of hard sleep. So enjoy my good cheer, gentlemen, while it lasts."

Jim fully understood his attitude. He'd slept like the dead himself, after the obligatory stop at the hospital for two stitches in his thumb, a tetanus shot and medical assurance that the unknown drug was, indeed, leaving his system. This morning he felt surprisingly fit for someone who'd been kidnapped and drugged.

"Simon!" Joel Taggart came into the bullpen toward them. "The apologetic and very grateful Agent Cameron -- the real one -- called." Joel glanced down at Jim. "He needs to see you for one more statement."

Jim slapped the police journal he'd been reading down on his desk. "Man, what is it with the feds and paperwork?" he asked in frustration. A trio of FBI agents had already bird-dogged him to the hospital and cornered him as soon as he tried to leave.

Joel chuckled. "Man, they love you over there."

"Yeah, it's nice to be loved," Jim retorted sourly.

Joel looked up to where Simon and Blair stood side-by-side. "You should have seen these two guys in action, Jim," he said. "They really make a great team."

"No kidding." Jim sat back and eyed his partner and his captain speculatively. "Does this mean I should be looking for a new partner?"

"NO!" Blair said quickly, his denial echoed by Simon.

Jim just smirked as Joel and Simon both moved away, and Blair leaned across the desk. "You know," Blair said, "he wasn't too bad once he started using a little finesse in his police work."

Simon's head came up from his conversation with one of the other officers. "Whoa!" he protested. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" He edged back between the desks to loom over Sandburg, who just ran a hand over his face, wiping off the egg, no doubt. "What did you say?"

"Uh…finesse," Blair repeated. "It works a little better than bullying people."

Simon glowered at the younger man. "Are you saying I don't have finesse?"

Blair shrugged. "No, I'm not coming right out and saying that."

Simon leaned forward, thrusting his face close to Blair's in a move that Jim had seen intimidate serial killers. It had no noticeable effect on Blair. "You know, you're lucky I even brought you along," Simon informed him. "I should have had them throw your butt back in that substation holding cell."

Blair turned to Jim with a grand, sweeping gesture. "See? This is exactly what I'm talking about. How do you work with this?"

Jim smothered a laugh and extended his hands in mock supplication. "Ladies, please," he chided. "You got to pick a better place to fight." He pushed back his chair and stood up, announcing, "I've got some statements to make. Lots of statements." He sauntered away, leaving his two friends facing off like opponents in a boxing ring. At the door he paused, waiting to see how the drama would play out.

"You know what, Sandburg?" Simon said as he once again tried his intimidating, gargoyle hunch. "The reason we got this case solved is because it was conducted the way we always do."

Blair's mouth twitched with a smile that seemed to want to turn into a laugh. "Sounds like a little revisionist history here, Simon," he remarked.

Jim saw Simon's head tilt as he mocked a laugh. Then the dark features compressed in a scowl and he barked, "Revise this: It's Captain Banks to you!"

Blair raised a hand in a lackadaisical salute. "Right. Captain."

Jim chuckled to himself as he continued down the hall. He could always depend on his friends to spice up his day.


-- END --

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