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Vanishing Act
Vanishing Act
By Renegade

Beta Read by CarolROI
Written for PetFly by
Teleplay by: David H. Balkan and David L. Newman
Story by: Daniel Levine
Rating: PG-13 for minor language


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

Lush green foliage and a rainbow of bright blooms shone in the chilly afternoon sun glaring off the florist's shop window. Cascadians took advantage of the rare, bright day and filled the sidewalks, hurrying to and from shops and restaurants, sidestepping the man who seemed in no hurry to go anywhere.

He stood transfixed outside the florist's, his dark eyes filled with indecision as he gazed through the green-fringed window. The woman whose face caught and held his attention was both like and unlike he remembered. The changes were largely superficial. A different hairstyle, a little less weight, contact lenses instead of the wire-framed glasses she'd worn since college. But even from a distance he could see the subtle signs that the last three years had taken their toll. Her smile as she tended her customer reflected an underlying sadness. Her wide, expressive eyes drooped a little at the corners, as if she viewed the world through a veil of shattered dreams.

He knew all about those. His own dreams had died three years ago when they told him she was dead – blown to bloody bits along with their young son. Chance alone had revealed the lie, and hope suddenly blossomed from the barren ground of his three-year solitude.

But what about Elise? Would she want to return to the past? Had she moved on, found someone else to love? He frowned when his mind's eye conjured the first image he'd seen of her since being told she was dead. She'd been laughing, cheering, sitting with her son – their son -- and a man he'd thought was his friend. Perhaps that man had become more than a friend to Elise.

He wandered a short distance away from the shop, glancing back, knowing that she hadn't seen him. He stopped at the corner and leaned a shoulder against the brick façade, raising one hand to rub across his face as if he could wipe away his indecision. He should wait, he thought. Call her first, perhaps. She would be surprised, shocked even, to see him again after so long. But in her surprise he would read whether or not the future he wanted was real or just a tortured dream.

The man squared his shoulders and stepped away from the corner, his gaze flicking automatically across his surroundings. Before he could reach the door of the florist's, another figure caught his eye and he froze.

Anger and fear swelled, overriding his resolve to confront Elise. The tall, commanding presence he'd spotted from across the street brought back all the anguish that he thought he'd finally put behind him. Ellison. The name rose in his memory like bile. Treacherous, lying bastard.

Almost as if drawn by the intensity of his gaze, the other man's head swiveled in his direction. Their eyes locked for a split second of startled recognition

The man abandoned his earlier decision and ran.

~~~~~~~~

"Hey, it's our lucky day," Jim Ellison remarked as he rounded the front of the parked Expedition and stepped up onto the sidewalk. "Money in the meter."

Blair Sandburg grinned as Jim patted the top of the parking meter. "Yeah." He fell into step beside his friend, and they sauntered casually along the wide walkway. His eyes roamed over the collection of small shops while he considered and rejected a dozen possible gift choices.

"You know, I don't get it, Chief," Jim mused. "I thought you and Samantha were history."

Blair shrugged and wagged a hand in an indeterminate gesture to depict his on-again-off-again relationship with the beautiful but exasperating forensic technician. "Yeah, well, you know what they say. History repeats itself. And if I don't find a gift today, that's what we'll be again – history!"

Jim tilted a questioning look at him. "I thought you said her birthday was Monday."

"It was," Blair confirmed.

"So what's the big deal about getting a present today?" Jim asked. "If you're already late, what does another day matter?"

Blair landed a light swat on Jim's arm. "It's the forty-eight hour window, man."

"Excuse me?"

"It's a well-known cultural precept," Blair explained enthusiastically. "If you're dating someone, and you miss some important event, like a birthday or Valentine's Day, you have forty-eight hours to make it up. After that…it's too late, man."

Jim looked off into the distance and gnawed the inside of his cheek, but he made no comment on Blair's latest display of cultural trivia. He pointed across the street and suggested, "Hey, how about flowers?"

Blair shook his head and made a face. "No, no, no, no, no. Flowers would have been all right on Monday, when it was her actual birthday, but now that we're in the post-48-hour window, it has to be something really big…really special…" he spread his hands "…and most of all, really expensive."

Jim just rolled his eyes and assumed the long-suffering look of someone who would never understand the subtleties of human interactions. "Is there some sort of handbook where all this stuff is written down?" he asked. His tone conveyed the impression that he suspected Blair was making it all up.

"Oh, no," Blair replied with a laugh. "That's the interesting thing about this type of cultural rule. It's not written down anywhere. Everybody just knows."

"Everybody, huh?"

Blair assumed from his friend's dubious tone that he'd somehow been left out of the information loop. As he watched, the frown shifted, becoming something less benign. He tried to follow Jim's line of sight, but saw nothing but shops and pedestrians. Jim's attention seemed to be riveted to the florist's shop across the street, and he stepped off the curb without a word to Blair.

"Hey, Jim, I said no flowers…"

Jim broke into a run a split second after a man on the opposite sidewalk turned and bolted as if the hounds of Hell were chasing him. Blair winced when Jim narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming car. He shook off his surprise and followed, dodging traffic and apologizing to the irate drivers who honked and shouted.

He saw Jim disappear around the corner and lengthened his stride to catch up. He nearly crashed into the detective, who had stopped in the middle of the service alley, head turning as he scanned the immediate area. There was no sign of the man he'd been pursuing.

"Jim, what's up?" Blair demanded.

Before Jim could answer, a car sped into the alley not far away. It bore down on them, and Jim grabbed Blair in a controlled tackle that took them both to the ground and out of harm's way. The car didn't even slow as it hurtled past them.

Jim was on his feet in an instant. Beside him Blair stood more slowly, hauling himself upright with an effort. His entire body ached from being squashed between Jim's 200-pound bulk and the unyielding pavement.

Blair rubbed the shoulder that had taken the brunt of the impact and stared down the street at the rapidly disappearing car. "What the hell is going on?" he asked sharply. "Who was that guy?"

Jim answered without looking at him, his gaze still locked on the corner where the car had turned off out of sight. His voice was taut with something Blair couldn't quite identify as he said simply, "Gordon Abbott." He turned and headed back to where his car was parked.

~~~~~~~~

Blair almost had to run to keep up with Jim, who seemed to have forgotten his presence. The quick glances he shot at his suddenly grim and silent partner showed the prominent jaw muscles working overtime as Jim clenched and unclenched his teeth. He knew that look; it wasn't the time to press for details. He would just have to wait until Jim was ready to explain.

At the police station, Jim headed straight upstairs and into the bullpen. He cornered Simon Banks as the captain was wrapping up a conversation with Officer Johnson.

"I just saw Gordon Abbott," he announced.

A step behind Jim, Blair saw Simon's head come up and his brows dip into a frown behind his glasses. His expression reflected disbelief. "What?"

"I said, I just saw Gordon Abbott," Jim repeated.

"Gordon Abbott is dead," Simon said flatly as he turned and headed back into his office. "It can't have been him."

Jim was adamant. "Simon, I know what I saw."

"How far away was he?"

Jim shrugged. "Fifty yards, maybe. He saw me, too. He recognized me, and he ran."

Simon grimaced and shook his head. "Jim, even with your senses, you had to have made a mistake."

Blair held up his hands in a "T" formation. "Time out, time out," he interrupted. "Will somebody please tell me who this guy is -- or who he was?"

Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he answered. "Gordon Abbott was a low level accountant who worked for a company controlled by the Prosky crime family."

"Good career choice," Blair said dryly.

Simon rounded his desk and sat down. "He thought it was a legitimate business," he explained. "By the time he figured out the business was laundering dirty money, we were already closing in."

"All Abbott wanted to do was bail." Jim took up the narrative. "He was scared to testify, because he had a wife and son."

Blair felt like he was watching a ping-pong match, with Jim and Simon taking turns telling the story.

"Enter Dan Singleton," Simon put in, "a prosecutor with a political agenda. He threw Abbott in jail on a racketeering charge. While Abbott was in lockup, a car bomb took out his family."

"After that, Abbott changed his mind and agreed to testify against John Prosky. Put him away for life. The day after his testimony, Abbott was…ah…stabbed to death by another inmate. At least, that's what we were told."

"Two years later, Prosky hung himself in his jail cell."

Blair didn't bother to hide his confusion. "Sounds like everybody lost," he commented.

"Everybody except Nick Prosky -- John's son -- and Dan Singleton," Jim amended. "Nick took over the family business, and Dan Singleton hit the jackpot and now runs the federal prosecutor's office here in Cascade."

Simon was looking thoughtful as he idly fingered one of the angel figurines that graced his desk. "Jim, maybe you better have a talk with Singleton," he suggested. "Tell him what you saw."

"I'd like that, sir," Jim agreed, but his tone suggested that the meeting would be anything but pleasant.

"Try to be nice to him," Simon admonished as Jim turned and left.

~~~~~~~~

The federal prosecutor's office was in the old wing of the refurbished courthouse, in a series of interconnecting hallways lit by round overhead fixtures. Singleton was not in when Jim and Blair arrived, so they waited outside, leaning against the wall where the stairs opened onto the second floor.

They heard him before they saw him. His rich, baritone voice carried clearly up the narrow stairway as he berated someone for their lackluster legal efforts. At the top of the stairs he started to turn in the opposite direction, but Jim drew his attention.

Singleton faced them, his two hapless underlings forgotten. He smiled, revealing more teeth than a great white shark, and acknowledged the man standing with his arms crossed over his chest. "Detective Ellison. It's been a long time."

Jim just nodded, but didn't return the smile.

Blair stepped forward and extended his hand as he introduced himself. Singleton accepted the handshake, his grip firm and businesslike. When the pleasantries were concluded, he continued down the hall. Jim kept pace, leaving Blair once again to trail behind.

"So, what brings you uptown?" Singleton asked.

"I saw an old friend of yours today," Jim replied with deceptive casualness. "Gordon Abbott. He was walking down Prospect Street."

Singleton maintained his steady, unhurried stride. He chuckled lightly. "Gordon Abbott's dead," he countered. "I saw the corpse."

"Why am I having a hard time believing that?" Jim asked rhetorically.

Singleton's voice took on a harder edge. "Frankly, I don't care what you believe. Listen, I think you saw him because you wanted to see him."

"Gordon Abbott trusted me," Jim shot back. "He trusted us, for God's sake!"

Blair's eyes widened a little at the sudden heat in Jim's voice, but he began to understand a little better why this matter seemed so important to Jim. He listened carefully as the exchange continued.

"I did my job," Singleton said. "I put a major crime figure in jail. I've got nothing to apologize for."

Jim halted as Singleton turned toward his private office entrance. "You made a career move, Dan," he said derisively, "and Gordon Abbott paid the price."

Singleton turned back, his smile now gone. "Ellison, all this happened a long time ago. It's over now. If you want to walk around carrying a guilt complex, you go right ahead. But leave me the hell out of it." He spared Blair a brief glance. "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, you too," Blair said hollowly as Singleton disappeared into his office.

~~~~~~~~

Blair waited until they were back in the car and heading for the station before he asked, "So, are you going to tell me about it?"

"Tell you what?" Jim kept his eyes on the road.

"Tell me what you guys were talking about back there. Why Singleton thinks you're feeling guilty about this Gordon Abbott supposedly getting killed."

Jim's jaw was hard at work again, this time on a piece of chewing gum instead of his own molars. When he answered, his voice was carefully controlled, almost flat. "I was the one who brought Gordon Abbott in. I was trying to convince him to come over. I promised him that if he agreed to testify, we'd protect him and his family." The jaw muscle twitched again. "Singleton knew the Prosky case could get him a lot of press, so he moved in and took Abbott into federal custody."

"So it's Singleton's screw-up," Blair said. "Not yours."

Jim glanced across at Blair, his expression shuttered. "I made that promise to Abbott," he reiterated. "I knew there was a possibility the feds would step in. But I didn't bother to tell him that." He paused and let out a weary sigh. "I just wanted to make my case."

Blair could hear the self-derision in his friend's voice. Everything made a great deal more sense now. In Jim's mind, he had failed to keep his promise to Abbott by letting Singleton assume control of the case. Whatever happened as a result was his responsibility.

"The truth is," Jim confessed, "there wasn't much difference between me and Singleton."

Jim looked almost relieved when his cell phone rang, putting an end to the discussion. He answered it on the first ring, listened for a few moments, then said, "All right. We're on our way."

"What's up?" Blair asked.

"They got an ID off the partial plate from the car Abbott was driving this morning. It's a rental. Guy named Stewart Norman from Ft. Lauderdale. We're going to check out the motel he's staying at."

~~~~~~~~

Dan Singleton leaned back in his padded leather chair and gazed at the ceiling. His thoughts spun around the conversation with Jim Ellison, and kept coming back to one crucial fact: Gordon Abbott was back in Cascade. Why?

They'd had an agreement. Abbott had a new identity and a new life in the Florida sunshine. He hadn't even blinked when told that he could never come back to his hometown. Why would he want to? As far as he knew, he had nothing to come back to. Dan had seen to that. But now he was back, and Dan had to wonder what had enticed him to violate their agreement.

Whatever the reason, Dan wanted the man out of the way. He had too much at stake to let a loose cannon possibly shoot down his future ambitions. And Gordon Abbott was a loose cannon who had sworn that he'd never forgive Dan for failing to keep his family safe. Somehow Dan didn't think that finding out otherwise would mollify the man. He would most likely be furious at having been manipulated so completely. If he talked to Dan's superiors, made a formal complaint about the handling of the Prosky case three years ago, Dan's political aspirations would go down in flames.

Singleton straightened in his chair and reached for the phone. He might not be able to take direct action to get Abbott out of the way, but he knew someone who would be more than willing to see that his problem disappeared.


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

It was morning before Jim had a chance to review his findings with Simon Banks. He and Blair followed the captain into his office as soon as he arrived. Jim immediately began setting up the VCR while Simon removed his topcoat and suit jacket and lit a cigar.

"I'm assuming from your impatience," Simon said wryly, "that you found something of interest."

Jim nodded and inserted an unmarked videotape into the machine. He thumbed the remote control to start the show. "We found this in Stewart Norman's room at the Stardust Motel," he explained as the tape showed a lackluster hockey game between the Cascade Orcas and the Bridgeport Warriors.

Simon made a critical remark about the quality of play, then asked, "What the hell's so important about a hockey game?"

"It's not the game, Simon, it's the crowd." Blair answered before Jim could open his mouth, but Jim didn't bother to stop him. They'd spent most of the previous evening reviewing and analyzing the tape. Blair knew its significance as well as Jim.

The scene suddenly shifted from the action on the ice to the spectators cheering on their favorite team. Jim pressed the remote again, freezing the tape on a shot of the box seats near center ice. "The tape was cued up to this," he said.

"How can you recognize anybody?" Simon demanded, waving his cigar for emphasis and filling the air with noxious fumes.

"Norman -- or rather Abbott -- didn't see just anybody," Jim replied. "He saw his wife and son there. We found a receipt from a photo shop in the motel room. It was for a frame enlargement of this tape -- pretty much the same shot you're seeing now." He flipped open the folder he'd laid on the edge of Simon's desk and took out a grainy 8x10 photograph, which he held closer so that Simon could see it. The shot had isolated a man, a woman, and a boy of perhaps eight or nine. The boy wore an oversized hockey jersey and seemed to be completely taken by the ongoing game. He was on his feet, half in front of the woman, who had grasped his arms as if to move him back to his vacant seat.

"Now, I don't know who this guy is," Jim went on, pointing to the man sitting beside her. "But that is Gordon Abbott's wife, and Gordon Abbott's son."

Simon appeared unconvinced. "Jim, they were killed in a car bombing three years ago," he pointed out.

"That's what we've been told," Jim conceded. "But this game was played last week."

Jim waited while Simon looked back at the tape, still paused, then back at him. From the corner of his eye Jim saw Blair nod silent confirmation of the date.

"All right," Simon said after a moment. He got up from his chair and paced to the windows. "Let's assume for the sake of argument that this Stewart Norman is Gordon Abbott. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make it look like the Abbott family was dead. Why?"

"Maybe to protect him," Blair suggested. "Maybe something happened to Abbott while he was in prison."

Jim pointed to the still picture enlarged from the videotape. "Take a look at this, Simon," he said. "You can barely make out what looks like a number on that seat."

Simon examined the photo again, and Blair spoke up from behind Jim. "I'll bet you anything Forensics can enhance that for us."

"I'm sure she can," Simon agreed, his voice dry.

Jim turned to follow up the new possibility, then paused and looked back at his captain. "We need an authorization to exhume what's supposed to be Gordon Abbott's body," he added.

Simon snorted. "Jim, we barely have a case here. On what grounds am I going to get an exhumation order?"

"I don't know, Captain," Jim replied, his voice rising slightly with exasperation. "Maybe on the grounds that somebody lied to us? That maybe an official investigation was compromised as a result? Help me out here."

"I'll do what I can," Simon promised.

Jim stopped at his desk long enough to call down to Forensics to make sure that Samantha was there and that she could provide what he needed. She was, and she assured him that an image enhancement, even from the poor quality original, was possible. Jim picked up the folder again and headed downstairs with Blair.

As he and Blair approached the Forensics section, Blair hung back a step and said, "You know, Jim, I'm thinking you can handle this one all on your own."

Jim turned and looked at him questioningly, and Blair explained, "I told you about the 48-hour window, man. If I go in there without bearing gifts, I'm toast! You understand, right?"

Blair took refuge behind an officer pushing a wheeled cart laden with report files bound for Records. Jim just watched him skulk away in a low crouch and shook his head. "I really respect your courage, Chief," he murmured as his friend vanished around the next corner.

Sam looked up when Jim came in. "Where's your friend?" she asked after they exchanged polite greetings.

Jim shrugged. As ridiculous as Blair's hesitancy to face the woman seemed to him, he didn't want to make matters worse. "Uh…he had something to take care of."

"Maybe something that he…forgot to do?" Sam suggested.

"He really didn't say." Jim held out the photo, wanting to get the conversation back onto a more professional track. "Here's the picture."

Sam accepted the change of subject readily enough. "Ah. Okay. I've got this new program that will help us clean it up," she said as she positioned the photo on the scanner. "It was designed by NASA for satellite photo imaging. Here we go…"

The photo came up on her computer screen, still grainy, still indistinct. Jim told her what he wanted, and Sam typed in a command. The image on screen shifted, blurred, then began to re-form, with the seat number taking up most of the viewing area. Though still not completely clear, Jim could easily read the number.

"Seat 28," he said softly. Now he could contact the arena ticket office and, just maybe, find out who had purchased those tickets. He thanked Samantha for her efforts and left, getting as far as the corner where Blair had disappeared earlier before the door opened behind him.

"Oh, Jim," Samantha called, "when you see Blair, give him a message for me?" She had come out of her office and advanced to stand facing Jim. If she turned the other way she would see Blair.

Jim nodded and smiled, knowing full well that Blair could hear every word she said. His partner was hiding just around the corner beside a vending machine. "Sure."

"Tell him I think cowards are boring," she said coldly, "and tell him my window is closed." She glanced over her shoulder and added, "Have a nice life, Blair."

~~~~~~~~

Jim and Blair ran into Simon outside the Narcotics squad room on their way back from Records.

"We think we have an ID on the man in the picture," Jim said, flipping open the case file and handing Simon a fax copy of a purchase receipt from the hockey arena.

Simon read over the paper and handed it back to Jim. "So, all three tickets were bought by this Tim Schneider."

"He has season tickets," Blair added. "And he also happens to be Gordon Abbott's best friend."

Simon shot him a look. "How do you know that?"

"We dug into the old case files," Jim replied from behind Blair. This time the detective had ended up trailing behind his captain and his partner as they headed back to Major Crimes. "It turns out that Schneider and Abbot grew up together. When Abbot was sent away by the feds, he asked Schneider to look after his wife and son."

Simon snorted softly. "He did a great job, judging by that photo."

All three men turned when a familiar and unwanted voice called from the hallway outside the bullpen. Dan Singleton strode toward them, his face set in hard, grim lines.

"Banks! We need to talk."

"About what?" Simon asked with forced patience.

Singleton stopped directly in front of the tall captain. "Since when do you order the exhumation of a body pertinent to a federal investigation?"

Simon's brows lowered in a fierce scowl. "Since I got a whiff of something beginning to stink," he answered harshly.

"What are you talking about?"

Jim stepped in and held out the photo enlargement. "He's talking about Elise and Joey Abbott," he said flatly. "They were at a hockey game a week ago -- which is rather amazing, considering they've been dead for three years."

For a moment, Singleton looked uncertain. "That's impossible," he protested. "Elise and Joey were killed by a car bomb."

"Yeah," Jim agreed wryly. "And Abbott was killed in jail. I'd say Elise and Joey look remarkably well, wouldn't you?"

Singleton looked at the picture again before Jim plucked it from his hands. "If they're alive," the prosecutor vowed, "I'll find out. This is a federal matter. It has nothing to do with you."

Jim watched the prosecutor walk away. "We'll see," he murmured, almost to himself.

Singleton stopped abruptly and turned. "Oh, by the way, about exhuming Abbott's body? Don't knock yourself out. He was cremated."

~~~~~~~~

Only twenty years of courtroom gamesmanship enabled Dan Singleton to keep his poker face in place when he saw the picture of Elise and Joey Abbott. It took a moment longer to recognize the man sitting next to them. Anger flared up with the realization that the past was coming back to haunt him in ways he'd never expected.

Elise and Joey were supposed to be safely hidden away in Dubuque, thousands of miles from both Cascade and from Gordon in his Florida retreat. Yet here they all were, back where they had no business being. Damn them! Elise must have contacted Schneider, the trusted family friend who had stood by her after Gordon was sent to jail. Did Schneider know that Gordon was alive as well? He must have found out somehow and told him about Elise and Joey. That would explain why Gordon was back. It was only a matter of time before Gordon showed up, demanding explanations, stirring up the past, and creating a flood of doubt and disapproval for the way the Prosky investigation had been carried out.

Singleton unlocked his car and slid inside, but did not immediately start the engine. Instead, he pulled his cell phone from a coat pocket and punched in a number that was now regrettably familiar. He had to wait for someone to bring Nick Prosky to the phone, and when the man finally answered he sounded as impatient and ill-tempered as usual.

"There's a man named Tim Schneider," Singleton said flatly. "He may know where to find Abbott. The police will want to talk to him, too, so be careful. They'll most likely go to his house, but he spends more time in his shop on Lincoln Avenue."

~~~~~~~~

Jim parked the Expedition outside Tim Schneider's custom cabinet shop and cast a searching look around the darkened side street. He had decided to have one last try at contacting Gordon Abbott's long-time friend. Earlier phone calls to both his home and the shop had resulted only in a recorded voice inviting him to leave a message after the beep.

As he turned off the ignition and removed the keys, Jim glanced up at the converted warehouse that now boasted an office below and workshops behind and above. The windows were mostly dark, which they wouldn't have been if Schneider was working late. Yet the man's truck was there, indicating that he hadn't left.

"Something doesn't seem right here," he commented, flicking a quick glance at Blair, who had released his seat belt but hesitated before opening the passenger door. "Watch yourself, Chief."

Jim opened his own door and stood up slowly. He found the outer shop door unlocked; one more inconsistency that raised his suspicions another notch. He eased his gun from its holster and moved carefully inside, gesturing for Blair to remain behind him.

The pungent odors of sawdust, wood glue, and varnish assaulted his nostrils, and he made a conscious effort to blunt his sense of smell. In semi-darkness, he navigated around the sparse, functional furnishings to the stairway leading up to the work area. A quick sweep with his hearing revealed no sign that anyone was inside.

"Mr. Schneider?" he called. "Cascade Police."

He reached the top of the stairs and moved into the space where Schneider had set up his workshop. There the cloying miasma of death surrounded him. Hulking shapes of saws and planers and drill presses created a maze of irregular shadows. Unfinished chairs and a small cabinet waiting for their final detailing sat on large work tables. A single, umbrella-shaded lamp hanging from the ceiling cast a yellow glare over a bench in the middle of the room. Tim Schneider sat in a straight-backed chair beside it, but he was in no condition to answer anyone's questions.

"Hmm…"

Jim glanced over his shoulder and saw Blair turning away from the sight of Schneider's bound and bloody body. The younger man's face looked grey in the dim light. Jim reached out, the back of his hand coming to rest flat against Blair's chest. He could feel the accelerated heartbeat and the rapid, shallow breaths.

"Why don't you wait outside?" Jim suggested.

He heard Blair's footsteps retreating quickly down the stairs, and he turned to take a closer look at the body. Despite his years of experience with the results of human violence, even he had to admit it was a ghastly sight. He returned his weapon to its holster and pulled out his cell phone instead, speed dialing Simon's number.

"You can climb off that limb," he said grimly when his captain answered. "This investigation just became official."

~~~~~~~~

When Simon arrived, Blair led him up to Tim Schneider's workshop where Jim was overseeing the work of the teams from Forensics and the coroner's office. The crime scene quickly became even more crowded. Once the police photographer had taken all the shots he needed of the body in its original position, the coroner's technicians moved in to load Schneider's corpse onto a gurney, ready to be sealed into a thick, plastic shroud. Jim had to sidestep around them as he recapped his preliminary findings for Simon.

"Only way it tracks for me," Simon commented when Jim had finished, "is Gordon Abbott. The guy comes back to Cascade and finds his best friend doing the big nasty with his wife. He kills him in a fit of jealous rage."

Jim let his skepticism show. "With a belt sander, sir?" he protested. "Come look at this body."

"I'm going to get some fresh air," Blair declared. "Once was enough for me."

Once again Jim watched his squeamish partner disappear from view, then he gestured to the body that lay exposed on the coroner's gurney. "This is not a crime of passion," he maintained. "They really went to town here."

Simon tilted his head as he studied the multiple wounds covering Schneider's head and chest. "Like someone was trying to get something out of him?" he mused.

Jim nodded. "My guess is that whoever did this was looking for Abbott."

"Well, if Abbott isn't the killer, who is?"

"I have some ideas about that, Simon," Jim replied grimly. He frowned suddenly as an odor he hadn't noticed before filtered through the stench that inevitably accompanied dead bodies. "Do you smell that?"

Simon made a face. "Yeah, I smell it," he said in a voice that suggested it was a stupid question.

"No, no," Jim countered. "Something sweet…um…perfumey." He shone his flashlight over Schneider's shadow-darkened body, searching for the source of the aroma. After a moment he crouched by the man's feet and trained the light on the soles of his work boots. He used a pair of tweezers borrowed from one of the forensic technicians to extract a small white fragment from between the intricate treads and held it up to the light.

"What is it?" Simon asked.

Jim turned the tiny shred in the light. "It looks like a piece of a flower petal."

~~~~~~~~

"It's a petal fragment from an Asian flower called 'pikake.'" Samantha informed him when he checked in with her the following morning. "It's grown in Hawaii, and is most definitely not native to the Pacific Northwest."

Jim thought back to their findings from the scene and from Schneider's house, which had also been thoroughly searched. "There were no flower arrangements in Schneider's shop or his house."

Sam held up another evidence bag with another white fragment in it. "We found this in the sole of his other shoe," she said.

Jim took the bag and held it up, studying the lacy edges of the tiny bloom. "It looks like baby's breath." He might not be a botanical expert, but he'd bought enough corsages and rose bouquets over the years to be able to recognize the standard filler.

The lab door opened, and Jim turned just as Blair stepped inside. He was dressed in one of his "dress" pullover sweaters under a grey-brown suit jacket, and he carried a forearm-long rectangular box wrapped in multi-color paper and topped with a fluffy gold bow.

"Hey," he greeted as he pushed the door shut with an elbow. "Hey, Jim, how's it going?"

"Speaking of flower shops," Sam murmured dryly, "here's someone who apparently has never seen the inside of one."

Blair laughed, but to Jim it sounded a little forced. "That's funny," Blair said. "Very funny." He placed the gift-wrapped box on the table beside Sam's work space and stood back, smiling his most ingenuous smile. "Look, I know this is late," he acknowledged, managing to sound both sheepish and sincere, "but…uh…happy birthday."

Sam looked up at him, her expression flat. "I can't accept that," she said. "It's not a birthday gift. It's a guilt gift."

"What are you talking about?" Blair protested. "Guilt gift? I bought this -- what? A week ago?" His eyes begged Jim for agreement.

Jim knew that Blair had only just this morning bought Sam's birthday belated present. He shrugged, unwilling to denounce the lie outright, but not wanting to become an active accomplice.

Sam pursed her lips a moment, then turned back to Jim, pointedly ignoring Blair's presence. "I'll write up a list of all the florists in the area that carry that particular plant," she offered.

Jim nodded and pushed away from the shelf on which he'd been leaning. "Thanks. Don't knock yourself out, though. I think I know where to start." He opened the door and gestured to Blair. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair met him at the door and gave him a small push. "You go on ahead," he said, his voice lowered. "Give me one minute."

Jim gave him a look that he hoped wasn't openly pitying. He really hated to see Blair keep getting slapped down by Samantha's lack of forgiveness. "Come on, Chief," he admonished. "Live to fight another day, eh?"

Blair went back and retrieved the rejected gift, then followed Jim out of the lab.

~~~~~~~~

Under normal circumstances, Dan Singleton wouldn't have been caught dead visiting a place like Nick Prosky's wrecking yard. But the circumstances were far from normal, and after Prosky refused three times to take his calls, he felt that he had no choice but to confront the slimy little thug on his own turf. Contacting Prosky in the first place had been a mistake, he realized. He should have known, from the way Nick had acted during his father's trial, that the kid was nothing but trouble. Enlisting his aid to solve the Abbott problem had been a calculated risk that was proving to be more costly than he expected. It was time to end their partnership before Prosky got any farther out of hand.

Singleton stepped inside the pre-fab metal building that served as an office and immediately saw Prosky behind a desk, two of his henchmen standing nearby.

Prosky looked up and leveled a cold stare at him, then laughed. The laugh was just as ugly as the man himself. "I don't get you, Singleton," Nick said as he sauntered forward. "Years go by. I don't hear from you -- not so much as a card. Now, suddenly, you're my new best friend?"

"Why the hell did you kill Schneider?" Singleton demanded, ignoring Nick's attempts at small talk.

Nick sneered, his teeth flashing white amid the dark background of his Mephistophelean beard and mustache. "Ah, come on. Don't go all self-righteous on me," he chided. "We both want the same thing."

Singleton's eyes narrowed. "I didn't expect you to…"

"To what?" Nick challenged. "Commit another murder -- one you didn't ask for? One is all right, but two, no. That's not good because it dirties your hands, especially since you're the one that put me onto Schneider in the first place. Quite a morality you've got there."

"You listen to me, Prosky." Singleton stepped forward, only his awareness of Nick's goons keeping him from grabbing Nick by the shirt and shaking him. "I am finished with all this. I'm finished with you."

Nick didn't even blink. "The hell you are!" he shot back. "I want Gordon Abbott dead, but that doesn't mean that I forgot that you put my old man behind bars. Now, unless you want your remains floating up on the Oregon coast, you shut up and you go along with the plan."

He would carry out his threat, Singleton knew. Somewhere along the line, this punk had come to believe that he was invincible. He hadn't even tried to deny that he'd killed Schneider, knowing that Singleton couldn't turn him in without implicating himself. Killing meant nothing to him if it got him what he wanted.

Singleton said nothing as he turned to leave. He'd made a deal with the devil, and he couldn't help wondering if he was on the fast track to Hell.


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

"Why don't you wait here, Chief," Jim suggested as he parked half a block from the flower shop where he'd first seen Gordon Abbott.

Blair nodded slowly, his brows faintly creased with a frown. "Uh…yeah, sure, Jim. Any particular reason?"

Jim shrugged, uncertain how to explain his preference to meet Elise alone. "This whole thing with her husband -- she was pretty upset when he was arrested, and I don't think she'll be very happy to see me. No reason for you to get tarred with the same brush."

He stepped out onto the street and closed the door, looking back toward the shop. A quick phone call earlier had revealed that she wasn't using her real name. When he asked for Elise Abbott, the shop owner told him he had the wrong number.

At the door he paused, glancing inside to see if she was busy, then stepped back when he realized that she was about to leave. She stood next to the counter, jacket on, purse over her shoulder, a plant in a square basket in one hand. She lifted her free hand in a good-bye wave and turned toward the door.

"Mrs. Abbott?" Jim said as the dark-haired woman walked unhurriedly down the sidewalk.

She stopped, eyed him without welcome, then moved on, reaching into her jacket pocket for her keys. "I guess it had to happen," she said, her voice clipped. "Sooner or later I was bound to run into someone like you."

Despite the mild day, the temperature in the immediate vicinity seemed to drop. Jim fell into step beside Elise. "Mrs. Abbot, please…"

"The name is Morgan now," she informed him. "Elaine Morgan."

"I need your help." There didn't seem to be any advantage to the subtle approach. The woman didn't seem inclined to give him so much as the time of day.

She laughed without humor. "Well, I am the last person in the world who's going to help you."

Jim spread his hands in a gesture that he intended to placate her anger. "I don't blame you for how you feel…" He felt badly enough without her condemnation, and he hoped that he might be able to make up for that past fiasco. "I really need to ask you some questions."

"It never ends, does it?" She pinned him with an unforgiving stare and shook her head more in resignation than refusal. "Just be quick. I have to pick up my son."

Jim took a breath and started in. "Dan Singleton claims that you and your son were killed by a car bomb three years ago."

Her lips compressed. "I don't know anything about that."

"So, you never agreed to let Singleton fake your death?"

"No." Her denial was immediate and firm.

Jim faced her squarely. "Mrs. Abbott, I think you husband is alive."

A blink, nothing more. "That's impossible." She turned away and hurried around to the driver's side door.

"Tim Schneider was murdered last night." He hated to have to drop it on her so abruptly, but the pronouncement had the expected effect. She stopped, turned, her face stricken.

"What?"

Jim had rounded the car as well, and had closed the distance between them to a mere arm's length. "I think someone was looking for your husband," he said flatly. "And they killed Schneider to try to get to him. If you know where he is, Mrs. Abbott, you have to tell me."

Elise gathered herself with a visible effort and jerked open the car door. "I have to go," she said shakily, sliding into the seat and starting the engine.

Jim tried to detain her, imploring her, assuring her that he wanted to help. His words didn't change her mind.

She gave him one long, hard look over her shoulder and retorted, "It's a little late for that." She drove off abruptly, forcing Jim to step back or be knocked down.

He hurried back to his own car, intending to follow her. She knew more than she had let on, of that he was certain. He couldn't give up now and let the Abbott family place themselves into even more danger.

"Didn't go too well, huh?" Blair asked as Jim pulled out into traffic.

Jim didn't answer. He focused his concentration on the station wagon that was already a block and half ahead and was grateful that Blair chose not to press for a recap of his meeting with Elise.

He followed her for several minutes, losing sight of her now and then when she turned a corner, but never losing track of where she was. He had an idea where she was headed now, if she had told him the truth about picking up her son. There was a school not far ahead, and a park just across the street -- a reasonable place for a youngster to wait for his mother.

Jim turned again, jerking the wheel in a sharp maneuver to miss the black luxury sedan that cut the corner too sharply and nearly clipped his front end. His eyes narrowed when he saw Elise standing in the middle of the street, screaming her son's name and crying almost hysterically.

"My son!" she cried when Jim pulled up beside her. "He took my son!" She pointed in the direction the black sedan had gone.

Jim told her to wait, and swung the Expedition in a reverse U-turn. He stamped down hard on the accelerator, knowing that the sedan had a fairly large lead. Three blocks later he had the sedan in sight, and he increased his speed, whipping around slower traffic with single-minded determination.

Beside him, Blair tensed and grabbed onto dashboard and armrest, his eyes alternately wide with fear and closed to shut out what seemed to be imminent collision. The younger man muttered and cursed when Jim skidded through a turn, missing an oncoming car by inches.

Jim flung out his right arm to press Blair back against the seat, even though both were wearing their seat belts. He could feel Blair's thundering heartbeat; his own wasn't much slower. The sedan had obviously realized that he was following. Nothing else would explain the suicidal risks the driver took.

Horns blared and tires squealed as the sedan barreled through a busy intersection, sending other cars skidding out of the way. Jim was forced to stop. Too many vehicles rested at awkward angles across the intersection. Half a block away he saw the sedan turn into a service alley and vanish from sight.

Jim slapped the steering wheel in frustration. "Come on, come on," he muttered. "You're killing me here!"

One of the cars finally pulled away, leaving just enough space for Jim to cut a sharp turn and squeeze through a narrow gap. As the sedan had done, he barely slowed as he steered hard right into the alley.

"Jim, look out!" Blair's voice rose in near panic, and he jammed his feet so hard against the floorboards he actually came off the seat.

Jim slammed on the brakes, and the Expedition rocked to a halt less than a foot from the small human roadblock who seemed rooted to the ground in the middle of the alley.

The black sedan was nowhere in sight, but at least Joey Abbott was, for the moment, safe.

~~~~~~~~

Despite her obvious gratitude for her son's safe return, Elise only reluctantly agreed to let Jim and Blair accompany her home. Jim was ready for her continued hostility and met it with determined patience, letting her come around in her own good time.

The house to which she led them was larger than he expected, in one of Cascade's older neighborhoods that had not suffered the kind of decline that often accompanied an aging population. The grounds were simple but well maintained, with neatly trimmed grass and shrubbery and a scattering of rose bushes. Inside, the furnishings mixed contemporary traditional and antiques in a pleasing blend. The ambiance was one of established comfort, a home of long standing. Jim wondered how she'd managed to pull that off in such a short time.

Elise knelt beside her son just inside the doorway and placed her hands over his thin shoulders. "I need you to go and play," she said gently, stroking the boy's short, dark hair. "I have to talk to these men, okay?"

"But I want to stay with you." Joey's eyes still showed the effects of his ordeal. Fear lay close beneath the surface.

Elise smiled and drew him into a comforting hug. "Sweetie…"

Blair looked down at the pair and spoke up with his usual bright enthusiasm. "Hey, Joey…you know what I bet? I bet you're probably pretty good at games, huh?"

The boy drew back from his mother's embrace and turned toward Blair. "I got a new Space Enforcer game," he offered. "It's on my mom's computer."

Blair's grin widened. "Well, all right! What do you say you give me a lesson or two, and then we play a couple of games?"

Joey looked up at his mother and received a brief nod of agreement before he accepted Blair's suggestion.

As Blair mounted the stairs in Joey's wake, he glanced back down at Jim and Elise. "You guys take as long as you want," he said equably. "I got a feeling the kid's gonna clean my clock!" He called for Joey to wait and hurried up after him.

Elise watched him go with a faint laugh. "Your friend has quite a way with kids."

"He's not so far removed," Jim replied, suppressing his own amusement and getting down to official business. "Tell me, why did you move back to Cascade? You had a new identity and a new life."

Elise sighed and looked around the house. "My mother got sick," she said simply. "She's in a long-term care facility now, and I didn't want her to be alone, so Joey and I moved back. This is her house."

"What were you doing at that hockey game with Tim Schneider?"

"He's an old friend," she said, her voice becoming clipped and defensive. "I figured, what's the big deal? Joey loves hockey. We'd go to the game. It would be like old times."

Jim studied her expression, trying to gauge just how strong her feelings for Tim Schneider were. "It didn't seem like old times to Gordon," he pointed out. "He was watching that game in Fort Lauderdale. He saw you and Joey in the crowd -- with his best friend."

Elise wrapped her arms around her chest as if she were cold. "My husband is dead."

"Your husband is alive," Jim countered. "And you're protecting him." He waited a beat but received no response, so he went on, "You were genuinely shocked when I told you that Tim Schneider was dead, but you barely reacted when I mentioned your husband."

The phone cut off whatever response she was going to make. Jim discarded any regard for her privacy and listened in.

"Where's Gordon Abbott?" a man's voice demanded harshly.

Elise's fingers whitened on the phone. "Who is that?" she asked, her voice trembling.

"We grabbed Joey once. We can do it again. You, too. Now, where is he?"

Elise didn't answer. She simply told him he had a wrong number and hung up.

Jim watched the fear flicker across her features, quickly masked but not banished. "Elise, that was Prosky, wasn't it? Or someone who works for him? Unless Gordon made more enemies than anyone knew about, Prosky is the only one with a reason to want to find him. I'm betting that he's the one who snatched your son -- to frighten you, make you want to give him anything he asks to keep it from happening again." He saw the cracks beginning to develop in the armor Elise Abbott had drawn around herself. "If you know where your husband is, you've got to tell me -- before they get to him first."

She didn't answer immediately. Indecision showed plainly in the way she chewed on her lower lip and rubbed at her crossed arms. Finally, she exhaled a long breath and answered, "Tim told me that Gordon was alive. He said that Gordon had come to ask him how to find me. Tim told him that everyone thought he was dead -- including me -- and that he should let Tim break the news to me before Gordon just showed up at my door. So he did. Tim and I had lunch together yesterday, and he told me that Gordon was alive. Then, this morning, Gordon called me at work. I agreed to meet him at Butler Point at five o'clock."

Jim glanced at his watch. "That's in fifteen minutes."

He halted suddenly, his head tilting as an almost subliminal whine suddenly registered in his ears. The tone was electronic, but he could see nothing that would account for it. Frowning, he focused on the sound that only he could hear, and traced it to a Victorian-style floor lamp in the living room.

"Oh, good God!" he breathed as he plucked a device the size of his little fingernail out of the glass lamp cover. He held it up where Elise could see it. "It's a transmitter. Someone has heard every word we've said."

He closed his hand over the listening device and ran to the foot of the stairs. "Sandburg!"

Blair's voice drifted down from somewhere overhead and to the left. "Yeah? What's up?" He appeared at the top of the stairs and started down.

"You've got to stay here with these two," Jim told him. "Call Simon and have him send a protection unit over here. And have him send backup to Butler Point."

Jim was out the door at a run, leaving Blair to look after Joey and Elise.

~~~~~~~~

Butler Point boasted a small park where footpaths bordered the artificially dredged extension of Cascade Bay. A few pleasure boats bobbed on their moorings at the nearby public marina. Only retirees and people whose livelihood depended on the resident food stands and marine services occupied the park at this time of day, but on the weekends the place was crowded and noisy.

Jim spotted Gordon Abbott and pulled up at the main path winding along the waterfront. He got out of the Expedition and moved toward him.

Abbott froze, his expression both frightened and uncertain, when he turned and saw Jim. He looked left and right, as if assessing his options for flight.

"It's okay," Jim called. "Elise sent me."

He watched Abbott closely, seeing the man's weight shift as he prepared to bolt. His gaze swiveled right when his sensitive hearing picked up a familiar slide and click from a parking area nearby. Zeroing his vision in on the source of the sound, he saw a man leaning over the roof of a car, using the stationary surface as a brace for his rifle.

Jim reached for his weapon and dropped to a crouch, shouting, "Abbott! Get down!" just as the man turned and broke into a run.

A sharp crack split the quiet afternoon, and Abbott fell sprawling, rolled, and staggered to his feet. Jim returned fire, hearing glass shatter as his bullet hit the car windows on both sides of the gunman's vehicle. The rifle clattered against the roof, and the gunman fell out of sight.

Jim rose slowly, scanning the area and finding no sign of Gordon Abbott. He'd been hit, Jim knew. He wanted to follow, try to locate the fleeing man. But first he had a body to deal with.

~~~~~~~~

By the time Jim returned to Elise Abbott's house, lab technicians were swarming through the rooms, searching for evidence of who might have planted the bug in Elise's living room. The woman had already been through a lot this afternoon, and her defensive mask cracked even further when Jim told her about the shooting at Butler Point and Gordon's escape. Her eyes filled with tears that she refused to let fall, and she chewed her lip as she listened to his words.

"This is a nightmare," she said, shaking her head and looking up toward the room where her son was packing clothes and a few favorite toys for his retreat into safety. "For three years, he's been living a nightmare. All Gordon wanted to do was protect us, and he ended up losing everything." She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them to spear Jim with a look that was both angry and anguished. "He thought we were dead, Detective. Now he knows we're not, and he wants his family back. Is that so hard to understand?"

"No, it isn't," Jim replied. "But he can't do this alone…and neither can you. What happened to your son should have proved that to you."

Elise wouldn't meet his gaze for more than a few seconds. She looked away and rubbed her arms. "Gordon must be so scared right now."

Jim half turned when the front door opened and Simon Banks came in, looking serious. He introduced Simon and Elise, then followed when Simon motioned him aside.

"We got a match on those prints from the shooter," Simon told him. "They belong to a guy named Jack Wendick."

"He works for Prosky."

Simon shrugged. "Yeah, well, you and I know that, but we have no proof. The DA's not going to move on Prosky until we get some kind of evidence to connect him to it directly."

Jim rubbed his forehead, trying to smooth out a frown. "It's not only Prosky. He's had help on this. Somebody tipped him off about Abbott being in town, and somebody told him about Schneider."

"Yeah, somebody," Simon agreed. "But who?"

Jim glanced around at the technicians who were still busy searching the house. "Someone who has the high-tech skills to bug this place."

"And that could be…the feds." Samantha came around the corner holding a device slightly smaller than a personal pager between her gloved fingers. "I found this one in the kitchen." She turned her find so that the two detectives could see it more closely. "This, gentlemen, is the latest thing in designer listen-ware. Nobody has it except CIA, FBI, and the Justice Department." With a gleeful glint in her eye, she walked away muttering accolades to the miniature techno-marvel.

"It's Singleton," Jim said flatly.

Simon sighed. "Look, I know Singleton's a jerk, but he's being talked about as a future governor."

Jim refused to back down. "All I know is somebody's pulling strings on this case," he insisted. "The Prosky case was huge -- as big as Gotti's. Singleton made his career on it. Now, putting the pieces together, it looks like Singleton played fast and loose with professional ethics in order to get Gordon Abbott to testify. And with Abbott back in town, it's about to come back and bite him in the butt."

"That doesn't make sense," Simon replied. "Singleton prosecuted old man Prosky. Why would Nick throw in with him?"

"Because it's in the best interests of both of them."

~~~~~~~~

Dan Singleton left his office, intending to have a nice dinner at one of his favorite restaurants then go home to an evening of paperwork. His thoughts were so intent on his immediate plans that he jumped in surprise when a car pulled up behind him and honked. He turned around to see Nick Prosky leaning out the window of a white Mercedes.

"I wanted to make sure I had your attention," Nick said.

Singleton pointed an accusing finger at the young thug and barked, "You listen to me! You're a punk kid with shit for brains, and I want nothing more to do with you!"

He turned and walked away, only to be halted again when Prosky pulled ahead and stopped abruptly. The driver's side door opened to block the way, and Prosky stepped out of the car practically onto Singleton's toes.

"I thought we had an understanding," Prosky sneered. "I hate repeating myself. Some governor you're going to make." He paused a beat, then went on, "I need a favor. You help me with this, and we're home free."

Singleton eyed the younger man with mingled dread and resignation. "What do you want from me now?"

Prosky smiled coldly. "I'm tired of chasing around after Gordon Abbott. You're going to help me fix it so that he comes to me."

~~~~~~~~

Jim, Simon, and Blair stood in the entryway of Elise Abbott's home while Elise prepared to send her son away. It had taken a lot of talk and negotiating, but she had finally agreed to let a protection team take him to San Francisco -- far enough from Cascade, they all hoped, to keep him out of Nick Prosky's reach. She settled the coat snugly over Joey's shoulders and turned him to face her.

"But why can't you come with me?" the boy asked, his voice falling just short of whining.

"I'll be there before you know it," Elise promised, drawing her son into a fierce embrace, caressing the short-cropped hair and looking up at the detectives who surrounded them.

"Joey will be perfectly safe," Simon assured her. "He'll be under 24-hour protection. We have the full cooperation of the San Francisco PD on this. The chief is an old friend."

"This way, we can keep the feds out of it for now," Jim added. If he had his way, they'd keep the feds out of it permanently, but he knew better than to think that was possible.

Elise nodded, obviously still torn between wanting to protect her son and not wanting to let him out of her sight. She broke their close embrace, but continued to stroke his hair. "Let me walk you to the car, okay, sweetie?"

The two of them went outside, escorted by a plainclothes female detective and two uniformed officers. As the door closed behind them, Simon's cell phone chirped and he stepped away from the others to answer it. Jim waited for his captain to take the call, and Blair moved to the stairs to help Samantha with a bulky equipment case.

Jim watched with rueful amusement as Sam surrendered the case with a curt, "Thanks." As Blair stepped back to let her precede him down the stairs, she added, "But the window is still closed."

Blair's face took on a bemused smile as Sam went down the stairs and out the door, closing it in his face. He looked back at Jim with a wry chuckle and said, "I guess we're just going to be friends."

Jim just shook his head, wondering vaguely which of them was more pathetic in the romance department. He shoved the thought aside when Simon stepped back into view.

"They just got a call. A guy matching Abbott's description is buying first aid supplies at a drug store over on Fifth. The clerk said he's bleeding pretty badly."

Jim nodded and stepped toward the door. "I'm on it."

~~~~~~~~

Ten minutes later, Jim and Blair were on the sidewalk outside the drugstore where Abbott had been spotted. The clerk had positively identified their elusive quarry from the picture Jim had shown her, but had only a vague idea of which way he'd gone when he left the store.

As they moved down the sidewalk, Blair extended his arms in an all-encompassing gesture. "Take a look around, man," he said in frustration. "There's nothing. He's probably long gone."

"He can't have gotten far," Jim countered. "If he was bleeding that bad, he'd want to find a place close by and patch himself up. He's no fool, though. He wouldn't stay in a public place."

Jim scanned the area, using his superior vision to examine every inch of the surrounding territory. "He must've gone someplace," he said, almost to himself. "Someplace private."

He spotted a familiar tan sedan parked down the block, a man's silhouette plainly visible in the back seat. He tapped Blair's arm and pointed at the car, then hurried toward it.

The door wasn't locked. It opened easily to Jim's touch. The man in the back seat turned abruptly, dropping the roll of gauze he'd been winding around his upper arm. Dark, frightened eyes met Jim's, and for a moment he feared that Abbott would try to bolt again.

"Gordon, it's okay," Jim said quickly, crouching beside the car. "We're here to help you."

Abbott stared at him in silence for a moment, then leaned his head wearily back on the seat and closed his eyes.

"Did Elise send you this time, too?" he asked hoarsely. "Or are you here to do someone else's dirty work?"

"Elise wants you safe," Jim replied in his most sincere tone. "So do I. Now, let's see about getting that wound looked at properly, by a doctor."


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


Gordon Abbott's wound proved to be messy and painful, but not serious. The ER doctor at Cascade General stitched the deeper parts and bandaged the entire shoulder and upper part of the injured arm. A large dose of injected antibiotics, a prescription for oral follow-ups, and a sling to keep the strain off his arm saw the wounded man ready to leave the hospital.

Sullen anger had reasserted itself by the time Jim collected him from the emergency room, and he hardly spoke during the entire ride back to the police station, except to demand to be taken back to his own car.

Jim refused, politely but firmly. "Someone tried to kill you," he pointed out. "We need to talk about that." He diverted his attention from the road long enough to cast a brief glimpse at his unwilling passenger. "You're not under arrest, Gordon," he added. "All I want you to do is listen to what I have to say. After that, if you still insist on going it alone, you can leave. Your car is being brought in to the station." He paused again, checking for any lightening of Abbott's resistance and finding none. He sighed. "In case you didn't notice, that was a no parking zone you were in. It probably would have gotten impounded if it had stayed there."

Abbott glared at him for a moment, then turned away to stare out the window.

Jim didn't press him. He couldn’t really blame the man for his distrust and resentment, and he wasn't yet ready to force a confrontation. Maybe the drive to the station would give Gordon time to come to his senses.

Abbott broke his silence only when Jim herded him into an interrogation room. "I've got nothing to say to you," he said. He folded into one of the chairs at the plain, metal table in the middle of the room, but his posture was tense, poised as if ready to flee at the first opportunity.

Jim paced the floor on the opposite side of the table. "You need help, Gordon," he said simply. "But I can't help you if you don't help me."

"Help you?" Gordon laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. His dark eyes held accusation and disbelief. "You don't care about me," he spat. "I'm just some dumb pawn you guys move around on your private little chessboard."

Jim grimaced at the painful truth of that assessment. "Gordon, listen to me," he said, bracing his hands on the table and leaning toward Abbott. "I signed you over to Singleton because he promised me that you wouldn't face federal charges. Then he screwed both of us. He told you that Prosky killed your wife and son to get you to testify. Am I right?"

Abbott's resistance didn't soften. "Where is my wife?"

"We've got her under protection," Jim assured him. "Joey, too."

"Oh, you're protecting them, huh?" Abbott repeated derisively. "Then I guess I got nothing to worry about." His tone was anything but reassured.

Jim sighed. "I understand how you must feel…"

"No, Detective," Abbott broke in, anger sharpening his voice to a near shout. "You don't have the slightest idea how I feel!"

Jim accepted the protest. "Okay. All right. You're right," he agreed. "I don't know how you feel."

"No, you don't."

Jim pushed himself away from the interrogation table and paced a few steps away. "I asked you a question about Singleton," he reminded the angry man. "You didn't answer."

"Yes. Okay, you're right," Abbott spat, his words clipped. "He lied to me about my wife and son. Everybody thought they were dead." Some of the anger seemed to leave him then, and he seemed only weary and frustrated. "Look, all I want is my wife and son back. Then I'm out of here. Okay?"

"I understand that, Gordon," Jim replied, leaning forward again. "But what about Prosky? You think he's just going to forget about you?"

Abbott shook his head. "He's not going to find us where we're going," he claimed. "I'll guarantee you that."

"He's going to find you like that," Jim countered, snapping his fingers sharply to punctuate his words. "Especially if he has Singleton helping him." He swung away from the table and moved toward the room's single window, speaking almost to himself. "My guess is that Singleton told Prosky that you're alive and in Cascade. And I'm sure he told him about your meeting with Elise."

"No." Gordon was adamant. "Prosky and Singleton hate each other's guts."

"That's very possible," Jim agreed. "But they both have a lot to gain with you dead." He came back to the table and hoped that Abbott's fear for himself and his family would impel the man to cooperate. "I need you to testify to what Singleton did," he said. "If we sweat him hard enough, he'll roll over on Prosky, and this whole thing will be over. You can go home to your family. No more hiding. No more looking over your shoulder. I just need you to make it happen."

Gordon looked away, his head moving slowly in either negation or indecision; Jim wasn't sure which. Gordon's face twisted in a grimace, but when he looked up, his dark eyes were full of anger and condemnation. "I trusted you three years ago," he accused, stabbing the air with a finger. Had he been closer, Jim thought, that finger would have been poking a hole in his chest.

"I trusted you," Abbott repeated, disillusion beginning to color the anger in his voice. "I am not going to make that same mistake again. You understand me? No."

Jim sighed and turned away, wiping a hand over his face. In Abbott's place, would he be any more willing to trust someone who had once used and betrayed him? The answer to that came quickly enough, and Jim sighed again. He'd have to find some other way to get to Singleton and Prosky. But he would do everything in his power to make sure that the Abbotts came out of this alive and reunited.

~~~~~~~~

The house was quiet when Dan Singleton and the two hoods Prosky had saddled him with arrived. At first, Singleton thought that the place was empty, that the local police had already moved Elise and Joey Abbott to a safe house. But if that were true, why would a patrol car still be parked in the driveway?

Singleton knocked, and a moment later the curtains were edged back to reveal a man's face above a uniform shirt. The officer's eyes narrowed on the ID Singleton held up, then opened the door.

"Hi. Dan Singleton, Justice Department." Singleton moved past the officer into the house, hearing the two goons' footsteps behind him. He wondered if it was only his own knowledge of their true identities that made their suits and neatly slicked hair seem as absurd as Halloween costumes. The officer didn't seem to notice anything wrong with them. "These men are federal agents," he lied. "We're here to take Mrs. Abbott and her son into protective custody."

Singleton moved into the living room where Elise stood with another officer at her right side. He ignored the first officer's contention that he couldn't let her go without authorization. "Mrs. Abbott," Singleton said smoothly. "We're here to take you to a safe place. If you'll just go get your son, please?"

Elise looked confused and more than a little frightened. "My son isn't here."

"Sir, with all due respect…" The first officer had followed them into the living room and now took up a position on Elise Abbott's left. His hand rested on the butt of his gun, but he made no move to draw the weapon.

Singleton stood motionless as the two men behind him slid their own silenced guns from beneath their coats and shot the two officers. His eyes never left Elise's as she gasped, but didn't scream. She'd always been a strong woman; he had to admire her for that. One of the hoods seized Elise's arm and hustled her toward the door. She brushed past Singleton on the way, and he had to look down then. The accusation in her eyes was too intense.

Hell was closing in on him fast.

~~~~~~~~

From the bullpen, Blair watched the three men inside Simon's office. Their expressions told him what their words, unheard through the thick glass windows, couldn't. Gordon Abbott sat at one end of the conference table, with Simon standing on one side and Jim doing his gargoyle imitation on the other. Abbott telegraphed his resistance to their arguments with the set expression on his face and his retreat from them as he swung half away in his seat. Fatigue and frustration etched furrows above his eyes and on either side of his mouth. After what seemed like a very long time, his shoulders lifted and fell, and he gave a small, sharp nod.

Jim turned away from the table and left the office, shutting the door behind him. He walked toward Blair where he sat on the front of Jim's desk, one elbow resting on top of the computer monitor. "At least he finally agreed to police protection," Jim said wearily.

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Blair asked.

"That's really nowhere," Jim countered, his voice sharper than usual. Blair read frustration and worry in the way Jim kept looking back toward Abbott, still sitting at the table in Simon's office. "We can keep him alive," Jim said with a sigh, "but if he doesn't agree to cooperate with the investigation, Prosky and Singleton are gonna skate." He looked away and planted a hand on his belt in a tense, watchful stance.

Blair tried to calm his friend's irritation. "Come on, Jim," he said reasonably. "This isn't some mob hard-guy we're talking about here. He's an accountant who fell in on a bad deal. He hasn't even seen his wife yet."

"Yeah." Jim exhaled a heavy sigh and reached for the phone, musing, "Maybe I should call her. Maybe she can get him to make a statement."

Before Jim could dial Elise Abbott's number, an unwelcome figure walked into the bullpen. Blair eased off the edge of the desk onto his feet as Jim lowered the phone. Blair could feel his friend tense, and Jim's pale blue eyes glittered like ice as he regarded Dan Singleton.

Blair glanced into Simon's office and saw the captain place a restraining hand on Gordon Abbott's shoulder and push the man back down onto the chair. His dark face thunderous, Simon came out of the office just as Jim faced off with Singleton.

"What do you want?" Jim asked.

Singleton's smile reminded Blair of a trolling shark. "I want to see Mr. Abbott."

"What about?"

Singleton flipped a silver key fob against his knuckles and tilted his head in an appraising stare. "That's none of your business. And let me remind you…he was once a federal witness."

Jim crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels. "The operative word here is 'once.' You're out of luck."

Simon had taken up a position beside Jim. "Gordon Abbott is here voluntarily," he said flatly, "and is under the protection of the Cascade PD. Until I hear otherwise from a superior, he doesn’t have to talk to anybody."

Singleton smiled again and kept flipping the key fob. "I just have a couple of questions for him," he said disarmingly. "You know…professional courtesy."

Blair wondered why neither Jim nor Simon didn't immediately go on the offensive. If they were right -- and Blair believed they were -- Singleton was guilty of no less than manipulating his own witness, lying to the man, and then covering up his original lies with yet another. And if he had been the one to clue Prosky in on Gordon Abbott's presence in Cascade, then he was a conspirator in attempted murder as well. Perhaps they didn't want to tip their hand just yet, especially when Abbott still refused to testify.

From behind Simon and Jim, Gordon Abbott spoke in a tight, trembling voice. He had come out of the office and was standing beside the open door. "Captain, I'll talk to him," he said simply.

When Singleton stepped forward, Simon blocked his way. "You have five minutes," he warned. "Then I want you off the premises." When Singleton closed the office door, Simon turned to Jim. "I have a meeting to go to," he said. "You keep an eye on him. I wouldn't be surprised if Abbott went for his throat."

"I doubt we'll get that lucky, sir," Jim said grimly. He turned toward the office as Simon left, and his head tilted in the way it always did when he was focusing his hearing. His brow creased in a slight frown at whatever he heard.

Blair saw Singleton get up from his chair and turn on the radio Simon kept on the bookshelf. Jim flinched and cursed. "I can't hear him now," he said.

"What are you talking about?" Blair asked, surprised at Jim's quick surrender. "Filter out the radio," he coaxed. "You can do that."

Blair split his attention between Jim, whose features tightened in concentration, and the two men conferring in Simon's office. Whatever Singleton had to say, Abbott was clearly unhappy. Blair thought he saw as much fear as anger in the man's face, and when Singleton seemed to have finished, he dropped his head onto one hand and stared blankly at nothing. He remained that way until Singleton got up and turned off the radio, then leaned close and dropped a hand on Abbott's back. Abbott turned his head then and gave Singleton a look that was pure murder.

Singleton came out of the office a moment later, a smug smile on his face. He strode past Jim and Blair with only a casual, "Thank you, gentlemen."

"Did you get it?" Blair asked.

"Not all of it."

Jim was still staring after Singleton, so Blair was the first to see Abbott yank open Simon's door and quickly exit the office. He jumped up and went to intercept Abbott, calling to Jim as he did.

"You have no right to keep me," Gordon said, not looking at either of the two men who tried to block his way.

"What about police protection?" Blair asked.

"I'm waiving it." Abbott scarcely slowed, even though Jim now stood directly in front of him.

"What exactly did he say to you?" Jim demanded, placing a hand on Abbott's arm to slow him down.

"Nothing," Gordon answered curtly. "He didn't say anything. I just want to get out of here."

"You're a material witness," Jim reminded him.

"I'm not staying."

Blair thought for a moment that Jim would physically restrain the man, but Simon walked back in, apparently never having made it to his meeting. His face grim, he ordered Jim to let Abbott go.

"Simon, can you tell me what the hell is going on here?" Jim asked sharply when Abbott had gone. "Singleton said something about Elise in there."

"We have two officers down," Simon told him. "Elise is gone."

Jim's face clouded over as completely at his captain's. "That must have scared the hell out of him. That's why he bolted."

Blair looked from one detective to the other. "Do you think he's going to trade himself for his wife?"

"I would," Simon said, then looked at Jim. "It's going to take a few minutes to sign out. You stay on him."

~~~~~~~~

Tailing Gordon Abbott was easier than Jim expected. Either the man didn't think about the possibility of being followed, or he simply didn't care. Whichever, his inattention made Jim's job a lot simpler.

"He looks like he's in a hurry," Blair commented from the passenger seat. He was leaning slightly forward, watching Abbott as he quickly unlocked his rented car and slid inside.

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "Whatever Singleton said really lit a fire under him."

Jim followed at a discreet distance, going only a short distance before Abbott turned down an alley a few blocks from the police station. Jim made the same turn and saw both Gordon Abbott's and Dan Singleton's cars parked in the alley. Singleton was standing next to Abbott's car, his back pressed against the door, arms splayed at his sides. Abbott held a gun pointed shakily at Singleton's chest.

Jim braked the Expedition to a halt and opened the door. Where the hell had Abbott gotten a gun, he wondered. It must have been in the car all along, unnoticed by the officer that brought it in.

Abbott's thumb moved, drawing back the hammer of the revolver just as Jim got out of his own vehicle and called to him. "Gordon! Gordon, don't be stupid!"

Abbott flinched, but did not lower the gun. He spared Jim only the briefest glance, then returned his attention to Singleton. The gun wobbled even more noticeably, and Jim feared that it would go off just from the vibration of Abbott's hand.

"If you shoot him, you'll be guilty of murder," Jim said firmly. He stepped forward slowly, aware that Blair did the same on the other side of the Expedition. "You'll be separated from your family again, Gordon. Maybe for good this time. Prosky will still be out there, and he'll get to you, Gordon, even in prison. You think he doesn't know people on the inside?"

Abbott glanced over at Jim again. The gun wavered a few inches downward, but not far enough for safety.

"Come on, man," Blair spoke up next to Jim. "Just put the gun down. Let us help you here. Trust us this one last time."

After what seemed like a very long time, Abbott uncocked and lowered the gun, his face sagging with defeat. Jim took the gun from him and pocketed it.

"I want him arrested," Singleton said harshly, straightening his tie and trying to regain some measure of dignity. "You saw what happened. He was going to kill me."

"He kidnapped my wife!" Gordon proclaimed. "He and Prosky. You were right, Detective. They're working together. And now Prosky has Elise. I've got to get there by three o'clock, or he'll kill her!"

Jim pulled out his handcuffs and secured one end around Singleton's wrist, jerking the man over to a convenient trash dumpster and locking the other cuff around the heavy metal handle. "This jewelry really suits you, counselor," he said dryly. "I'm going to send a unit to pick you up. In the meantime, just make yourself comfortable. It's a lovely neighborhood."

When he had disposed of Singleton, Jim turned to Abbott and said, "All right. Now, let's go see about getting your wife back."


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


Gordon Abbott parked near the office of Prosky Auto Salvage and Wrecking. As he got out of the car, he looked around to see if anyone was watching his arrival. He licked his lips nervously and wiped clammy palms on his pant legs. Cold sweat traced an erratic line down his spine.

Ellison was out there somewhere, he knew. The detective had promised that no harm would come to Gordon or his wife. Despite the events of three years past, Gordon wanted to believe him. If nothing else, he still needed Gordon to testify against Singleton and Prosky when the time came. It was in his own best interest to keep his promise. But for the moment, Gordon was on his own.

He walked into the office, pausing just inside the door and taking a deep, steadying breath. Nick Prosky stood behind the service counter. Two other men, large and mean looking, lounged nearby. Nick looked up when Gordon entered.

"Gordon," he said with false welcome. "Come on in."

One of the thugs came forward and searched Gordon for weapons or wires. He found nothing and shoved Gordon farther into the office, steering him around the end of the counter.

Nick grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and yanked him forward. He bared his teeth and said, "Here. Take your old seat back." He pushed him roughly down into a chair at the cluttered desk.

Gordon gasped and grabbed his injured arm, which had begun to throb with the rough handling. He fought to bring his breathing under control as he watched Nick pace slowly in front of him.

"Do you remember when we used to sit around the office?" Nick asked slowly. "You tried to explain the books to me. I have to be honest with you. Not much stuck, except for this." Nick raised a hand and pointed. "The books have to balance. Debits, payments. Right?"

Gordon wondered where this little stroll down memory lane was heading. This was not the fresh-faced heir apparent he remembered from three years ago. This was a dangerous, vengeful man who looked even more satanic with his short-trimmed dark beard and unforgiving eyes.

"When you testified against my old man," Nick went on, "you became accounts receivable. Overdue. With a penalty."

Gordon swallowed hard. "Where's my wife, Nick?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.

Nick yanked him up out of the chair and into the waiting grasp of one of his attendant thugs. "Time for a nice little family reunion," he said with an evil smile.

Gordon stumbled more than once as he was hurried out the back door of the office and into a waiting Mercedes sedan. Nick got into the back seat on one side, and the larger of the two thugs crowded in on the other. The second thug slid in behind the wheel and started the car.

The salvage yard covered a good five acres. The area to which Nick's hired muscle drove them was almost dead center in the middle. A metal rack held tires that had been pulled from the wrecked cars, and fifty-five gallon drums most likely contained motor oil drained before the engines were removed. A large crane with a giant, claw-like appendage and a forklift with muddy tires sat idle amidst the metal jungle.

Once again Gordon found himself being manhandled by Nick's goons, pulled from the car and marched toward a battered, ten-year-old Cadillac. Inside he could see Elise's face, pale and strained, looking out at him with both hope and despair.

"Okay, Nick," Gordon said. "You've got me now. So, please, just let her go. Please."

Nick eyed him with something that looked almost like pity. "I guess you missed the point about the books, Gordon," he replied. "She's the penalty payment."

Gordon felt his throat tighten. Nick had never intended to let Elise go; she'd been only the bait to draw him into the trap.

"Anyway," Nick went on nonchalantly. "You'll both be together -- in a cube, at the bottom of the bay."

~~~~~~~~

Jim had chosen an indirect approach. He and Blair came over a fence at the rear of the property and slowly worked their way inward. Rows upon rows of rusted auto carcasses formed a maze through which they picked their way with meticulous care. Some of the stacked bodies looked ready to topple.

His careful scanning with both sight and hearing brought his attention to a scraped and dented Cadillac almost hidden between a crane and a forklift. A tall man with hard features and a thatch of wheat-colored hair stood beside the vehicle, now and then looking inside. Through the dirty, scum-frosted windows Jim could barely make out a shape with longish brown hair. Elise Abbott.

Nick Prosky's Mercedes pulled up near the Cadillac and four men, including Gordon Abbott, got out. Jim handed his cell phone to Blair and told him to check on their backup. The situation was coming to a head much sooner than he had hoped.

Jim edged around the stack of cars to get a better sight line on the group assembled in the middle of the wrecking yard. Nick seemed to have said everything he had to say. He moved a short distance away. One of his lackeys climbed into the cab of the crane. The other mounted the control deck of the forklift. The man who'd been guarding Elise shoved Gordon face down over the trunk of the Cadillac and raised his gun, aiming at the back of Gordon's head.

Jim had to move. He raised his own weapon, bracing his arm across the hulk of a derelict car. One shot took the goon with the gun out of action. The man went down, and his gun went flying. The two others drew their own weapons and returned fire, forcing Jim to duck back into shelter.

One man had taken cover behind the forklift. The other darted away as if trying to flank Jim's position, firing as he moved. Almost too late Jim realized what he was doing. A second crane sat fifty yards from the first, its lifting claw already clamped around a crumpled car. While Jim was busy with the man behind the forklift, the other fired up the crane's engine and swung the car in a wide arc, bringing it close to where Jim was crouched.

Jim fell back to keep from becoming the filling in an auto body sandwich. The dangling car swung back, and he resumed his position, firing again at the man at the forklift. He was vaguely aware of Gordon and Elise Abbott, bolting from the Cadillac into the wrecking yard maze. He lost track of them when the car swung in again and he was forced to dodge.

He heard Nick Prosky yell for the man behind the forklift to go after Gordon, but he was helpless to do anything. If he broke cover, the man in the crane would have a clear shot at him.

Blair suddenly sprang into view, climbing up onto the crane's mud-caked treads and taking out the second man with one well placed blow with an enormous wrench. He hauled the man out of the seat and let him drop to the ground where he lay unmoving.

Jim nodded a quick thanks to his partner and took off in pursuit of the man who'd gone after Gordon and Elise.

~~~~~~~~

Blair watched as Jim disappeared between the rows of wrecked cars, but he made no move to follow. The wrench was useless against the man's gun, and Jim didn't need to be looking out for Blair when he was on the hunt. Blair figured that he could help most by making sure the man he'd already felled didn't revive enough to become a renewed threat.

Movement behind a stack of oil drums caught Blair's attention. Nick Prosky was making a break for the Mercedes. There was no sign yet of their backup; it was up to Blair to stop him.

He slid into the crane's control cab and pressed the "Start" button on the panel. The big diesel engine coughed to life with a throaty roar. Blair grabbed at the controls, scanning the legends imprinted above each lever until he found the one he wanted. The crane arm swung wildly for a moment, and the giant claw released the car that had come close to crushing Jim. It fell with a crash, blocking Prosky's escape.

But Nick Prosky wasn't one to give up easily. He skidded to a halt just in time to avoid hitting the fallen derelict, then reversed and swung around the sudden obstruction.

Blair worked the controls again, and the crane arm jerked above him. He moved another lever and the claw descended, one pair of long, steel prongs smashing through the Mercedes' windshield, the other digging into the car's roof. Blair winced involuntarily as steel and windshield glass shattered and screamed in protest. A flash of apprehension momentarily dimmed his triumph; he had wanted only to stop Nick Prosky's escape, not rip the man's head from his shoulders. But then the thug's angry face appeared in the window, a snarl twisting the thin lips, and Blair exhaled a sigh of relief.

Another shift of the controls lifted the Mercedes from the ground until it dangled in mid-air twenty feet above the muddy ground. The car swung lazily beneath the giant claw, its classic lines marred by the crushing impact of the steel prongs. Inside, Nick Prosky beat twice more on the jammed door, his mouth shaping curses unheard through the intact windows. Finally, when the door failed to open and he found himself well and truly trapped, the snarls turned to an almost petulant grimace and he pressed his head against the window in defeat.

Blair, watching the transformation, felt his own features shift into an unholy grin and he gave in to a delighted, cackling laugh.

~~~~~~~~

Jim located his quarry as the gunman entered a work shed behind the office. The man's face wore a triumphant smile as he raised his gun toward Gordon and Elise Abbott, trapped at the back of the shed. The smile dissolved quickly when Jim hit him squarely across the back of the neck, driving him to the ground, unconscious.

"Are you all right?" he asked the terrified couple as he found a length of cord to secure the gunman's hands.

Gordon's good arm was wrapped around his wife's trembling body. Elise clung to him with both hands. "We are now," Abbott said. "Thanks."

A loud crash from outside brought Jim to his feet from where he had crouched to secure the downed gunman. Nick Prosky was still on the loose, and Blair was out there, armed only with a wrench. He nodded once at the Abbotts and told them to stay put, then he ran back out into the yard.

Sirens announced the arrival of Simon and their backup -- too late to be of any help except in collecting the garbage. Jim saw Simon get out of his unmarked sedan and stop, staring up at the Mercedes dangling from the big, claw-equipped crane. He stopped beside his captain, and a moment later Blair trotted up to join them.

"I had my doubts, Chief," Jim said mildly, glad to see his partner still in one piece after all the crashing he'd heard just minutes before.

Blair exhaled a long breath. "Yeah, me too."

Simon pointed at the suspended car and the man trapped inside. "Would someone mind explaining this?"

Blair looked up at his handiwork and mimed the action of the claw. "Well, you see, I picked his car up with a crane, Simon," he said simply, as if he did the same thing every day.

"You knew what you were doing?" Simon looked doubtful.

Blair laughed. "No, no, not at all, actually," he admitted cheerfully. "But it's kind of like those games at the penny arcade, you know?" His hand again clenched in claw-like fashion.

Jim smiled slightly and said, "Only a slightly bigger prize."


~~~~~ EPILOGUE ~~~~~


Three years after his life was torn apart by Dan Singleton's manipulations, Gordon Abbott looked again like a happy man. The tense anxiety was gone from his face and posture, and the tired lines had begun to fade from around his eyes. After he and Elise were rescued from Prosky's wrecking yard, they spent hours giving their statements. With that information, and with the Abbotts' agreement to testify, Singleton and Prosky would not cause any more problems for a very long time.

Now, the next morning, he was back to sign his statement before he and Elise went to San Francisco to pick up their son and spend a few days having a long-delayed reunion. Blair watched him come out of Simon's office beside Jim. The man was actually smiling, and looked more than a little ashamed.

"I spent three years as a dead man," he said regretfully, reluctantly meeting Jim's gaze, "and I blamed you for a lot of it. I was wrong about that." He offered his hand, and smiled again when Jim accepted it. "So…thanks for giving me back my life -- and my family."

Jim dipped his head in acknowledgment of Abbott's gratitude. "You're welcome."

Gordon released his hand finally, almost like a man parting from a long lost friend. "Take care." He exchanged a brief farewell with Blair as he walked past him and out of the bullpen.

Blair looked up at Jim, still standing in the middle of the room, and grinned. Jim was looking much happier than he had since he first saw Gordon Abbott in front of the flower shop. Blair suspected that it was because he'd managed to redeem what he saw as an earlier failure, and he'd kept his promise to see Gordon and Elise Abbott safely through their ordeal.

"Blair?" A hesitant female voice drew his attention. "Got a minute?"

He turned and saw Samantha leaning against the door frame with studied nonchalance. They had barely spoken since she rejected his belated birthday offering, and Blair had to wonder why she'd sought him out. "Uh….yeah…sure," he replied.

"I thought…" Sam broke off and caught her lower lip briefly between her teeth and lowered her lashes like a bashful little girl. "If you're still inclined…I would be very happy to accept your gift."

Blair frowned. "Why the sudden change?" he asked.

Sam shrugged, her mouth twisting in a shape that was half smile, half smirk. "Well, I have a window, too," she answered. "I figure 48 hours of groveling is enough."

"I see." Blair's frown deepened. He would have sworn from the way she had treated him in the lab and at the Abbott house later that she had no interest in restoring their frayed relationship. "Gee, Sam, this is really awkward," he said after an uncomfortable silence. "See…you seemed so serious, so sure that you didn't want anything from me…well…I returned the gift." He ended with a shrug that mirrored Sam's.

She stared at him in silence for a moment, then her gaze lifted past his shoulder to where Jim and Simon were watching their exchange. "Oh. Well…that's…never mind, then." She forced a smile and turned on her heel.

Blair watched until she rounded a corner out of sight, then he turned to see his friends studying him. Both men stood with their arms crossed over their chests, heads tilted slightly to the side.

"What?" he demanded, spreading his arms in a gesture of confusion. "What was I supposed to do? Let her keep leading me around like some kind of pet poodle?"

Jim's pale eyes sparkled with amusement. "I don't know, Chief," he said pensively as he sauntered closer. "Maybe you should just give up this relationship thing. You don't seem to be very good at it."

"Oh, yeah?" Blair snorted. "Like you have room to talk!"

Jim had come up even with him and draped a companionable arm over Blair's shoulders. Simon took up a similar position on his other side so that Blair was effectively trapped between the two larger men.

"What do you think, Jim?" the captain asked, joining the good-natured ribbing. "Think Saint Sebastian's has room for him? I hear it's very nice there this time of year."

Blair looked from one smirking face to the other. "You guys are so not funny!"


-- END --

 

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