Redhawke.org
The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door
By CarolROI

Beta read by BethB
Written for PetFly by Harold Apter
Rated PG -13

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


My life sucks.

It's one of Cascade's rare beautiful summer days. The temperature is a balmy 78 degrees, the sun is shining on the bay behind me, my teaching duties are over for summer break, and I *was* looking forward for once to a stakeout. Usually spending a night on stakeout means sitting in the cramped confines of Jim's truck in the freezing cold. Tonight, however, the location is a strip bar, which means young, beautiful, nubile women in scanty clothes or, if I'm lucky, no clothes at all. The gods, for once, are smiling on me.

So what's my problem? My car. The piece of shit (my affectionate term for the Volvo, but you'll never hear me call her that in front of Jim) hasn't run right since Jim used her as a pursuit vehicle a few weeks ago. Every time I put her in the shop, she comes out running worse than she did when she went in. I'm heading back from the garage now; the only reason I'm driving her at the moment is because I don't have another way to get home, and I know Jim's waiting on me. "Come on, come on, you can do it," I plead as the Volvo crawls up the hill, her transmission grinding.

She hops, backfires and pretends to stall, just as my cell phone rings. Grabbing it from the seat beside me, I hit the on button and tuck it between my cheek and shoulder as I downshift. "Yeah."

"Sandburg, you were supposed to meet me at the loft thirty minutes ago."

Jim. Shit. "Hey, Jim, look, I'm sorry I'm late. I was just having my car checked. My mechanic still can't figure out what's wrong with it." To emphasize my words, the Volvo hiccups again. It doesn't drown out Jim's sigh.

"The department already gave you replacement money, Chief. Just go get a different one."

The man has no sense of loyalty to a vehicle. He's gone through three trucks in the two years I've known him. "Get a different one? What are you talking about? You just don't replace a classic, man."

"It's your nickel. Anyway, I got to get rolling."

"Look, just wait five minutes. I'll be right there. This is an important stakeout. You'll need me to back you up." But my fantasy of a night spent with a bevy of beautiful strippers is fading as I hear Jim moving around the loft, picking up keys, heading for the door.

"Chances are it won't go down tonight. Why don't you just catch up with us tomorrow, okay?"

"Jim?! Jim...?!" My pleas are lost on the dial tone. The Volvo squeaks and shudders and the phone slides out of my tenuous hold and under the dashboard.

My life sucks.

~~~~~~~~

Okay, I lied about the five minutes. It takes me fifteen to coax the Volvo the six blocks to Prospect, with me stroking her ego all the way. "Just a little further. We're almost home, honey, almost home." I give the dashboard a pat as I turn into the parking area in front of the loft.

I look up in time to slam on the brakes as a motorcycle shoots in front of me and takes off with a roar. I'm too stunned to hit the horn. "Whoa! Hey, man! Watch out!"

He doesn't even look back.

I sit for a moment, not moving, feeling the tingle of adrenaline from the close encounter coursing through my veins. "Man." Exhaling, I let out the clutch and pull the Volvo into a parking space. A quick look around confirms Jim's truck is gone. Now what am I going to do with my evening?

My car continues to shudder and knock even after I've turned off the ignition. "Should have stayed at the damn garage and made him fix it right," I mutter as I get out.

I'm heading toward the loft when I hear a thumping noise. Leaning over the hood of the Volvo, I listen intently, but it's not coming from her.

"Help!" The sound is muffled, like the person is in a closet…or a car….

"Hello?" I'm turning around, trying to pinpoint the noise. As I watch, the trunk lid of the Honda parked next to me shivers under the force of a blow from the inside.

"Help! Can you help, please?"

Jesus! There's someone in there! "Yep, hang on!" The Honda's window is open, and I lean inside, stretching to reach the trunk release. It pops open as I head around to the back of the car. Raising the lid, I find myself looking down at a slim, dark-haired woman curled up in the trunk, surrounded by boxes, her head resting on a pile of bedclothes. Relief flashes across her face, then she giggles.

I can't help it. I smile back and give her my hand. "Oh my god. Let me help you."

She clambers over the bumper and brushes at her purple slip dress. At least I think it's a dress, and that whoever locked her in the trunk hasn't disappeared with the rest of her clothes. "Thank you. It was getting difficult to breathe in there." She smiles at me, her dark eyes lighting up.

"Yeah, I can imagine." Her good humor is contagious, and I laugh. Who needs strippers when they can rescue a damsel in distress? "It's none of my business, but how in the world did you manage to…?"

She sighs in exasperation. "My ex gets really carried away sometimes."

"Your ex?" This is quickly turning not-so-funny. Domestic disputes can be ugly.

She doesn't seem too troubled, though. "Uh-huh."

Pulling my cell phone out of my pocket, I hit the speed dial for the PD. "I'd say this is a little bit more than--"

She cuts me off. "No. We were having an argument, you know? He gets carried away. Who are you calling?"

Putting the phone to my ear, I say, "I'm calling the police."

Her joking mood takes on an edge of nervousness. "No, please don't do that."

I raise an eyebrow as I wait for the call to go through. "You have a problem with cops?"

"Yes, I really do," she answers firmly, taking the phone away from me and snapping it closed. "Thank you. My parents were protesters in the '60s. They got beat up a lot," she offers in way of explanation.

I know where she's coming from. Before I started working with Jim that's how I felt as well. "Yeah, I understand. My mom, she was a protester, too. She was really into the counterculture. She still is, as a matter of fact."

She hands my phone back to me, once again smiling, sunlight flashing off the tiny jeweled stud in her nose. "Anyway, thanks for…helping me."

"No problem. You're sure you don't want me to call?" Despite her light manner, I still get the feeling she's shook up.

"No, that's fine. Thanks." Reaching into the trunk, she picks up a box.

"Okay." I start to go, then the obvious hits me. Car, boxes… "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

I'm expecting her to ask me to carry something for her, but she surprises me once again. "Do you live around here?"

I point toward the loft. "Yeah, I do, actually. I live right up there."

She shifts the box in her arms and looks toward her building, then back at me. "Well, I'm moving in here, and they haven't turned my water on yet, so could I…could I take a shower at your place later?" She giggles.

"A shower?" That was the last thing I expected her to ask. Well, maybe not the last, but…"Uh, yeah, that'd be fine. That'd be fine." Like I said, who needs strippers? Maybe she'll let me wash her back. I can dream….

She shoves the box into my arms, giving me a flirtatious grin. "Cool. Here, hold this." She grabs another carton from the trunk.

"Great. By the way, I'm Blair."

"Iris," she says over her shoulder as she heads toward her building.

I follow, thinking. Jim's supposed to be gone all night...hmm. "Iris. Say, did you know in Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow and…."

~~~~~~~~

Yawning, I stagger out of the bathroom and head for the kitchen. Flipping on the coffee maker, I glance at the clock on the stove. 9:45 A.M. Well, I almost got five hours of sleep. Of course I woke up when Jim rolled in at six. He stopped by my room long enough on his way to bed to tell me the stakeout was a bust. Guess it was just as well I spent most of the evening helping Iris move in. And I did keep my promise to let her take a shower here.

I feel a smile crossing my face at that memory. No back washing went on, unfortunately, but there was sparkage. I can tell she likes me. A brilliant idea hits me. If Jim's guy never showed last night, then he'll be gone again tonight--all night. That means the loft will be empty. I could ask Iris over for dinner…and we could work on that mutual attraction thing. I'm still grinning as I go to answer a soft rap at the door.

Iris is standing there, her hand still raised to knock again. "Hey, Blair. I wasn't sure you'd be up yet. I just came over to thank you for helping me out again yesterday."

Shrugging nonchalantly, I say, "No problem. Glad I could help."

"I have another favor to ask. They still haven't turned my water on. Could I like…borrow some? I am so in need of caffeine."

Stepping back, I usher her into the loft. "I can do better than that. I've got a fresh pot going right now." As I close the door behind her and enter the kitchen, the coffee maker gurgles and finishes brewing. I fill the mug I'd gotten out for myself and hand it to her, watching as she takes a sip.

Her eyes close as she swallows, and a sigh of appreciation slips past her lips. "Man, Blair, you know just what I need." Blowing on the steaming liquid, she takes another drink, and I turn away to get a second cup down. "You know what this really needs, though, is something to go with it…a croissant or a cinnamon roll, maybe?" There's a hint of hopefulness in her voice.

"That does sound pretty good. There's a bakery around the corner. I'll run and get us some croissants and be right back." Grabbing my wallet and keys from the basket by the door, I tell her before I leave, "Make yourself at home. I shouldn't be gone more than a couple minutes." Then it's out the door and down the stairs. Things are working out even better than I imagined.

~~~~~~~~

I'm only gone ten minutes but as I climb the stairs on the way back, I can hear someone fumbling through a song on electric guitar. *My* electric guitar…shit! I forgot to warn Iris to keep it down because Jim is asleep!

Fumbling to fit my key in the lock, I hear the guitar abruptly cut off. That can only mean one thing. Jim was asleep; now he's not. I get the door open just in time to see Iris' gaze run slowly up my friend's body. He's nearly naked, clad only in plaid underwear, a sleep mask pushed up on his forehead, making his hair stand on end. I barely contain my laughter. Iris, however, doesn't seem to see the humor.

"Nice boxers," she purrs. "You must be Jim. I'm Iris, your new neighbor. Blair helped me move in yesterday."

Jim blinks, then says, "Right, right. I don't mean to be rude, but I'm trying to get some rest. I've been up all night on a--"

Closing the door loudly, I jump into the conversation, desperately wanting to steer Jim's attention away from Iris. "On a big project, right, Jim? Big project? See, Jim, he works for the city--road maintenance. He's one of the chief supervisors. Right?"

Jim looks at me like I've grown a third eye in the middle of my forehead but takes my hint. "Right. Excuse me." He heads toward the stairs, his expression telling me he's not pleased at the whole situation.

Iris is watching him ascend to his bedroom. Moving to interrupt her view, I say, "Oh, hey, look at that." Picking up the guitar from where she laid it down, I sit next to Iris on the couch. "You know, this was actually a present from my mom on my 12th birthday. It once belonged to Jimi Hendrix."

Her attention returns to me, if a bit reluctantly, as Jim disappears. "That's a really nice line, Blair, but--"

"He signed it." I cringe at the note of desperation in my voice, but I turn the white guitar over to show her the inscription on the back. "To Naomi, my own purple haze, Jimi Hendrix."

She's suitably impressed. "He gave her this guitar?"

I nod. "That's right."

Reaching for it, she says, "Your mom and Jimi Hendrix?" Maybe a little too impressed.

"They were pretty close." Rising, I put the guitar back in its case.

She watches me, her eyes filled with interest. "Wow, I would love to do some more jamming on that thing. I have an amp over at my place. Um, you wouldn't mind if I…" She shakes her head and looks away. "…of course you would."

My brilliant idea from earlier resurfaces. "Well, I tell you what. You let me cook dinner for you tonight, and I'll let you borrow it." I give her my best smile.

She grins back at me. "All right. It's a date."

Handing her the guitar case, I answer, "Good. You still want breakfast?"

Her gaze darts around the loft, landing on the clock. "Oh, god, look at the time. I gotta get going." She gestures in my direction with the guitar. "Thank you."

"Okay. See you tonight. Be gentle, you got it?"

"Umm-hmm, I got it. Later!" She rushes out the door, and I'm left with a bag of croissants.

Sighing, I pick the sack up from where I left it on the table and head to the kitchen. I can hear the slap of Jim's flip-flops as he comes down the stairs again. I look up to see that *now* he has a robe on. The forgotten sleep mask is still sitting on top of his head.

I hide my smile as he asks, "Doing okay there, Chief?"

"Yeah, I think I'll live. Want a croissant?" Handing him the bag from the bakery, I start opening cupboards and pawing through the contents. "Hey, you're still on stakeout tonight, right?"

"Urm, myeh…" he answers around a mouthful of pastry. "Why?"

"Perfect." Damn it, I know the can's here somewhere. I open another cabinet.

"Perfect for another train wreck in the ongoing disaster that is your love life," he quips.

Smart ass. He's licking butter off his fingers as I come back with, "Yeah, yeah. This coming from a man who I've never known to date the same woman twice." He's just as loyal to his girlfriends as he is to his trucks.

"At least I'm consistent. Why didn't you want her to know that I'm a cop?"

I open the fridge. "She's got this thing against cops. It's no big deal."

"But road maintenance? Well, at least you made me a supervisor."

Closing the fridge, I turn to face him. "Yeah, you're welcome. Hey, I used to have this can of grape leaves. Have you seen it? I got this recipe out of this Persian folklore book. There are these seven dishes that when eaten together are supposed to create this amazing aphrodisiac effect."

He snorts in disbelief. "You're personally testing this theory, are you?"

Nodding, I head for the front door. "Yeah, and it will not work without the grape leaves. You're welcome, by the way."

A croissant pauses midway to his mouth. "Huh? Oh, yeah, thanks." He waves the sack at me.

Shaking my head, I exit the loft.

Cascade PD, Evening

As Jim rounded the corner toward Major Crime with Simon Banks and Joel Taggart, Simon asked, "Where's your shadow?"

Jim shrugged. "Found something better to do."

Joel looked surprised. "Something better than staking out a strip joint? You know that place has women down there who wear nothing but thimbles. Not to mention the $5.95 special on roast beef."

Jim shot his captain a grin over Joel's head.

"Or at least that's what I've heard," Joel continued. "All I'm saying is, if you guys need an extra hand, I'm--"

Jim couldn't resist teasing his friend. "I think we got it covered."

Simon appeared to hesitate, before saying with mock reluctance, "Well, Jim, technically since Sandburg won't be there…"

"We are a man down, sir," Jim agreed with him.

A broad smile crossed Joel's face. "What time?"

"Nine-thirty."

"I'll clear my calendar." Laughing, Joel walked off as Jim and Simon entered the bullpen.

"So, Jim, what's Sandburg got going anyway? I'd think he'd jump at the chance to visit a strip bar at the department's expense."

The detective shrugged. "He's cooking dinner for some girl he just met. She's not too fond of cops."

Simon chuckled as he paused outside his office door. "That's all right. I don't like cops either."

Shaking his head, Jim said, "There's something familiar about this one, though, like I've seen her somewhere before. I've just got a bad feeling about her."

His friend clapped him on the shoulder. "Jim, you're taking this big brother thing with the kid way too far. You've got to let him out on his own, let him make his own mistakes. He's got to fail once in a while. If anything else, it'll build character. God knows he needs it." With that, he entered his office, effectively ending the conversation.

Walking over to his desk, Jim took a seat, picked up a pencil and opened a file folder. Simon was right, it wasn't any of his business, and Sandburg seemed to get his heart broken every other week with no ill effects. But the uneasy feeling he had about Iris wouldn't go away. Jim ignored it as long as he could, but his curiosity finally got the better of him. Shoving his paperwork aside, he dragged the computer keyboard toward him and started searching arrest records.

~~~~~~~~

Humming to myself, I add a bit more cumin to the spiced lamb mixture in the skillet. For once it looks like everything is going to be ready on time. I'm even ready, dressed in the blue shirt I know brings out my eyes and a pair of Dockers I actually pressed. All I have to do to make this evening a success is spoon the mix into the grape leaves and roll them up. Phyllo pastries are just out of the oven--

The chirp of the telephone interrupts my cooking. Snatching it off the cradle, I go back to stirring. "Hello."

"Blair, it's Iris. I'm sorry. I can't have dinner with you tonight." There's an echo to her voice, like she's in an empty room.

Staring at my beautiful lamb, my heart sinking, I manage an "Oh."

She makes an exasperated noise then says, "Okay, I was parked in a handicapped zone, but it was only, like, five minutes."

My heart soars. It's not me; it's circumstance. "Where are you?"

"I'm downtown at the Kelly Center garage."

"I'll come get you." I'm determined we're going to get together tonight, and a little thing like Iris' car being impounded is not going to stop it.

"No, Blair, that's sweet, but I already ruined dinner, and--"

I interrupt her protest forcefully. "Don't be silly. I'll be right there." I shut off the burner under the skillet and cover the food, then stick the pan in the fridge, glancing around the kitchen to make sure everything's off. "Great." Pulling the tie out of my hair, I grab my keys and head out the door.

Cascade PD, Evening

Jim sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. This was stupid. He didn't know Iris' last name, or even if Iris was her real one. At this rate, he wouldn't find her until next week. He glanced at the mugshot on the screen and clicked the mouse to go to the next one. "Wait a minute," he muttered, and went back. Damn if that wasn't her. Her hair was different, but he recognized the sulky look she seemed to think passed for sultry.

"Jim? You ready to go?"

Ellison looked up at the sound of his captain's voice to find both Simon and Joel standing beside his desk. "Yeah, give me a minute. I gotta call Sandburg."

"What for? I thought you said he was giving the stakeout a pass tonight," Joel said.

Picking up his phone, Jim swiveled the monitor of his computer toward the two men. "That's Sandburg's date."

Simon let out a low whistle. "Will you look at this? Robbery, extortion, suspected drug trafficking, grand theft auto…."

Jim swore under his breath. "Damn it. I got the machine." He heard his own voice saying, "Leave a message and we'll call you back."

"Sandburg, if you're there, pick up the phone." He waited for few seconds, but Blair didn't come on the line. "Okay, listen, I hope you're having fun, but when you're done with dinner, would you remember to count the silverware." He hung up, chewing the inside of his cheek. He didn't like this, didn't like it at all.

"Why didn't you just tell him?" Simon asked.

Jim shook his head. "No, not on the phone. I mean, if she's listening, it might get ugly. And besides, what can happen in one night?" he replied, trying to convince himself. Turning his computer off, Jim followed the two men out of the bullpen.

~~~~~~~~

Fifteen minutes after Iris' phone call, I'm pulling the Volvo into the lower level of the Kelly Center garage. Iris sees me coming and, giving me a big smile, gets into the car. She's dressed in hip-hugging jeans and a stomach-baring tank top with tiny spaghetti straps. Giving her an appreciative look, I smile back. "Hey."

"Hi!" she chirps, "Thank you so much! You're a lifesaver."

Her praise makes me blush, and I duck my head as I put the Volvo in gear. "No problem. We'll go pick up your car and then go back to my place and eat. I've got a really fantastic meal planned--"

"I have to make a stop. Is that okay?" An unreadable look flits across her face, then is replaced by a hopeful smile.

"Uh, yeah, sure, no problem."

Despite my reassurance that a little side trip isn't a big deal, she explains further, "It'll only take a minute. I just have to stop by. A friend owes me some money. It's on the way."

"Relax, Iris, it's not a problem." As I let the clutch out, the Volvo hops, backfires and quits. Iris grabs for the dashboard, then laughs. I feel my face burning for the second time in as many minutes.

"Sorry! This car gets a little temperamental." Come on, you piece of shit, start! Pushing the clutch to the floor, I shift into reverse and turn the key again. The Volvo coughs and sputters, but she starts. "There it goes. Okay!" Giving Iris a grin, I let out the clutch again. We go backwards. I want to sink under the floorboard. "Oops, wrong way." Great impression I'm making. I shove the gearshift into first and step on the gas. We exit the garage in a cloud of smoke.

I hope the rest of the night goes much, much better.

~~~~~~~~

'It's on the way' turns out to be an hour across town, but I obediently pull into the parking lot of a convenience store at Iris' direction. Dinner is ruined; I can picture the lamb sitting in congealed grease, the pastries I slaved over are, by now, cold and soggy. I'm trying to figure out how to salvage it as I park in front of the store and turn off the engine.

Iris opens the car door. "Can you wait here? My friend gets a little weirded out at strangers."

"Sure, no problem," I reply absently, wondering how much money I have in my wallet. She shuts the door and heads into the shop.

I might have enough for takeout Chinese. Out of the corner of my eye I see a car pull in on the opposite side of the lot, but I don't pay it much attention. I'm trying to remember if that emergency twenty is still in my sock drawer.

The passenger door to the Volvo is yanked open. Startled, I jump as a creepy looking guy sticks his head inside. We stare at each other for a moment, then he says, "Sorry, kid. I thought you were somebody else." Slamming the door shut, he retreats across the parking lot.

"Easy on the car, man," I mutter under my breath. The door to the store opens and a guy walks past my side of the Volvo, heading for the car parked on the other side of the lot. Something just doesn't feel right, and I adjust my rearview mirror so I can see the other car. The longhaired guy who just came out of the store is talking to the creep who thought I was someone else.

I jump a second time as the passenger door of my car is opened again. It's Iris. "Start the car," she says, then looks toward the two guys.

"Yes, ma'am," I answer, starting the engine, wanting nothing more than to get out of there. The whole thing is giving me a serious bad vibe. She makes no move to get in. "You know, it works a little better if you're actually in the car--"

The sound of a gunshot stops my heart for a split second, then I'm leaning over the seat, grabbing Iris by the wrist. "Get in the car!"

Evading my hold, she says, "Relax, Blair, relax!"

"Relax! Are you nuts? The guy's got a gun!" I hear the sound of running feet, and the guy with the gun is climbing into the back seat of my car. "What are you--what are you doing? Get out of my car!" What in the hell do I think I'm doing? He's got a gun! And now it's pointed at me!

"Move!"

"Calm down," I manage, trying to keep the situation from becoming ugly.

"Move, move!" he shouts in my ear as Iris gets into the car and slams the door.

"Drive now!" she yells.

"Take it easy," I say, still trying to keep everyone calm as I back out of the parking space.

Iris' voice is tight. "Drive. Drive now."

As I pull out of the lot with a squeal of tires, the guy in the back seat screams "Whoo-hoo!" in my ear. What the fuck have I gotten myself into?

"Yeah! You take a left onto 97 south," he orders me, leaning forward between the seats.

Sweat is trickling down between my shoulder blades, and I feel like I'm going to hurl. "Where are we going?"

"Shut up and do what I tell you."

I glance over at Iris for help. "Iris, what is going on here?" I ask, trying to keep my voice from squeaking.

Shrugging, she grins at me. "Well, I should have told you, but we needed a ride, and I didn't want you to freak out."

"Well, I'm freaked out," I snap, "so why don't you just tell me what's going on?"

She gives the guy in the back seat an approving look. "Chance just stole a half a million dollars in uncut heroin from a guy named Artie Parkman."

"Oh, my god…" I'm *so* sorry I asked.

"You got a problem with that?" Chance breathes in my ear.

"Um…" He jabs the gun into my side. What does it say about me that the sensation is familiar? "No."

I had it right yesterday. My life sucks.


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


Cascade PD, Morning

Jim and Joel got off the elevator on Major Crime's floor, both laughing as they walked toward the bullpen. "Interesting night, huh?" Jim asked.

Joel nodded, still laughing. "It's the worst night I ever spent."

Jim grinned at him. "Too bad we've got to do it again tonight."

"Oh, yeah. I'll check my calendar." Giving Ellison a wave, Joel walked off.

Shaking his head, Jim watched him go, then he headed toward his desk, intent on calling Sandburg. He'd tried several times during the night, but hadn't gotten an answer at the loft. Of course, that could just mean his roommate had spent the night at Iris' apartment…or he'd turned the ringer on the phone off….

"Jim, can I see you a minute?" Simon called from the Operations room.

Turning around, Jim walked toward his captain, a knot of worry forming in his stomach at the serious expression on Banks' face. As he entered the room, he could see a VCR and a television were set up.

"Go ahead. Run it," Banks said to the uniformed officer manning the equipment.

The screen flickered, and what was obviously a black and white tape from a security camera began to run. It looked like it was from a convenience store. A man with long curly hair stood with his back to the camera. Iris Johnson walked up the aisle toward him, her face clearly visible.

Puzzled, Jim asked, "Sandburg and Iris?"

Simon nodded. "Last night at ten p.m. We got a call of shots fired, convenience store on 6th. Both the shooter and the intended victim got away. Clerk saw the whole thing. Called 911. Rafe and Brown went over to check it out, came back with this."

The man in the video showed a gun to Iris. Jim shook his head. This was wrong, all wrong. The knot in his stomach tightened. "This can't be Sandburg. He doesn't carry a gun, hell, won't even touch one unless lives are in danger."

"You and I know that. But we also know he had a date with that girl, and the clerk said he saw them both get into a green '68 Volvo. Now, how many of those can there be in Cascade? And one more strange thing…."

"What's that?"

"The clerk said he saw the girl get in the front passenger seat and the guy get in the back."

Jim turned that over in his mind for a few seconds. "There had to be a third person driving."

Simon nodded. "It makes sense, but who?"

Something on the screen caught Jim's eye. "Hold it right there. Back it up and freeze it." The tape rewound and stopped on a shot of the man holding the gun. "This guy uses his left hand to carry the gun. Sandburg's right-handed. Another thing, Sandburg doesn't own a jacket like that." He shook his head. "I was just going to call him when you pulled me in here. I haven't been able to get hold of him all night."

"Well, don't bother trying again. I've already tried him at home, the university, every place I could think of. He's not at his usual haunts. I did put out an APB on his Volvo, though. Come on, let's head over to the scene and check it out."

Heights Store, Morning

Jim shook his head as he finished speaking to the convenience store clerk and walked toward Simon. The kid had been no help at all. He'd seen just enough to make things confusing. "Clerk says he saw some kind of scuffle. Bag was dropped. Long-haired guy picked it up and took off with it."

"Jim, I swear, all we have here is illegal discharge of firearms." Simon walked across the parking lot, and Jim followed. "Shooting took place around here. There was only one spent casing."

The detective looked the spot over, not noticing anything out of the ordinary, except…"What is this?" A small amount of white power stood out against the black asphalt. He stuck a finger in it, then rubbed his fingers together.

"What?" Simon asked.

Jim touched the tip of his finger to his tongue, then quickly spit. "Heroin."

"What?" Banks asked again, his tone rising in irritation.

Getting to his feet, Jim wiped his hands on his pants. "Maybe that's what was in the bag, and in the scuffle, it leaked."

Simon looked thoughtful. "Drug deal?"

"Yeah. Gone bad." He didn't like where his thoughts were heading.

The captain voiced what Jim was thinking. "Maybe they took the heroin and used Sandburg's vehicle as a getaway."

Jim felt his jaw muscles tighten. Things had quickly gone from bad to worse. "He could still be with them." And God only knew how long Sandburg had before he outlived his usefulness.

~~~~~~~~

Yawning, I wipe at my eyes, then squint into the morning sun. I can't believe I've driven all night, and gone exactly nowhere. All we've done is tour the back roads of Cascade while Iris keeps trying to call someone on her cell phone. Chance has done nothing but argue with Iris the whole time, that and snore.

This kind of shit can only happen to me. Usually, I can find some kind of solace in the knowledge that Jim is out there somewhere looking for me. This time I'll be lucky if he even figures out I'm gone before I end up in some ditch with a bullet in the back of my head. Not that I really think Iris'll kill me, but I have a morbid imagination.

I see a small grove of trees up ahead, and I start to pull over. Chance jerks awake in the backseat, whacking me in the back of the head with his gun as he leans into the front. "Ow! Watch where you're waving that thing!"

"Why you stopping, dude? I didn't tell you to stop!"

"If I don't stop, I'm gonna flood the car. You want that?"

He seems to actually consider that for a moment. "No, man, that's cool. My lizard needs drained, too."

Finally something we agree on. Stopping the car, I switch the engine off and get out. Heading into the bushes, I take care of business, hoping maybe Iris and Chance will take the opportunity to steal my car and leave me behind.

No such luck. Chance joins me in the underbrush. Zipping up, I walk back to the car to find Iris has had her gun pointed at my back the whole time. She pulls out her cell phone again. This time the call goes through.

"Where'd you find that thing, a fire sale?" Chance calls to me over his shoulder.

I defend the piece of shit's honor. "For your information, pal, this car happens to be a classic."

Chance snorts and heads back toward us. "Classic piece of junk."

Iris says into her phone, "Okay, honey, I'll see you later." She snaps the cell phone shut and looks up at Chance. "Rob says he can arrange the buy."

"Did he say where he's been all night?"

She shakes her head. "Uh-uh."

I'm lost. "Who's Rob?"

Iris smiles at me. "My big brother."

"Well, isn't that beautiful?" I reply sarcastically. "A family that steals together stays together, right?"

Chance's cell phone picks that moment to ring. He looks startled, then walks away a few paces to answer it. I don't know who he's talking to, but he looks alternately pissed and gleeful, like he's put one over on someone. Savagely punching the disconnect button, he turns toward us. "Let's roll! Get in."

Great, more driving. With a resigned sigh, I start to get back in the car.

"Get in the back, man," Chance orders. "You drive like my grandma."

Growling under my breath, I shove the seatback forward and climb in.

Heights Store, Morning

Jim leaned against the side of his truck, rubbing his eyes. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, but he couldn't afford to rest. The clock was ticking, had been ticking since ten p.m. last night, and he hadn't heard it. *Shit, Sandburg could already be dead. No, I'm not going to believe that. There were three people in the car. One of them had to be him.*

He listened idly to Simon talking on his radio, trying to get an update on the situation. That was strange. He thought he heard an echo. Straightening up, he turned around slowly, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. He thought it might be feedback from another police car, but his truck and Simon's sedan were the only ones left in the lot, though several cars were parked on the street. Someone with a scanner perhaps? The echo seemed to be coming from a black Caddy a few blocks away.

"Earth to Ellison, you zoning on me, Jim?" Simon's voice broke his concentration.

"No, no, Simon, I just heard something." He shook himself. "Any news?"

"Sorry, not yet." Banks' hand dropped onto his friend's shoulder. "I know you want to be out there doing something, Jim, but they could be anywhere. Until someone spots the car, we're in the dark."

"This is my fault, Simon. I should have gone with my gut instinct last night. I should have stopped by the loft on the way to the stakeout." A horrific thought struck him, and he reached for the door handle on his truck. "Shit, I should head there now. We don't know if it was Blair driving the Volvo. He could be lying back at the loft, injured, or worse--"

The grip on his shoulder tightened as Simon kept him from getting into the truck. "Don't you think I've already thought of that, Jim? I sent Rafe and Brown over there when I saw the tape. They're supposed to call me as soon as they find anything out."

As if on cue, the captain's cell phone rang. Jim's anxiety kept him from focusing enough to catch the other side of the conversation.

"Banks. What've you got, Brown? Not there? Okay, ask around the neighborhood, see if anyone saw anything last night. Call me back." He flipped the phone closed.

"What did they find?"

"Nothing. The kid's not there, though it looks like he was in the middle of making dinner and got called away. There's some kind of pastry sitting out, but the appliances are off."

Jim turned that over in his mind. "You think she and her partner forced him to drive here?"

The tall man shrugged. "That or she called him to pick her up. Brown said the phone was lying on the counter."

"I should still head back there, sir. I might be able to pick something up that they couldn't."

Simon's phone rang again. "Hold on. Yeah, this is Banks. What? Great. Thanks." He looked at Jim. "They just spotted Sandburg's car on 35."

Getting into his truck and starting the engine, Jim yelled through the window, "Which direction?"

"East, near Blackwood."

With a squeal of tires, the sentinel took off.

~~~~~~~~

I hate this. People think Jim's the control freak, the guy who has to be in charge. They're wrong. It's me. Especially when it comes to driving. I hate being in the passenger seat. I hate being in the back seat more. If I get out of this--correction, *when* I get out of this--I'm gonna tell Jim that I get to drive. Uh-huh, right.

I sigh and jiggle my leg. I can't help it. My pent-up anxiety has to go somewhere.

"Hey, quit kicking me!" Iris complains, leaning over the back of the seat and pointing her gun at me.

"Sorry," I apologize. She turns back around, and I stare out the window, hoping for a distraction from my plight.

I get it in spades. The Volvo passes a highway patrol car parked on a side road. Come on, come on, come on. Please, please, he has to be going over the limit. Please…please…YES! The patrol car swings out behind us and his flashing lights come on. I motion at him through the back window to hurry up.

"Geez, where the hell did he come from?"

Damn, he's seen the cop. I gesture more frantically. Don't lose us, please, God, don't let him lose us….

Iris looks back and I stop my waving. "Just keep driving. Go, go! Drive!" The Volvo picks up speed, but there's no way my piece of shit can outrun a police cruiser, no way.

I glance forward to a horrifying sight. A school bus is lying on its side across the road, smoke billowing from it. I can see the faces of terrified children pressed against the windows. I feel the Volvo accelerate. Chance isn't slowing down.

"What are you doing?" I yell, leaning into the front seat. "It's a school bus, man. Slow down!" He zigzags through the wreckage at full speed, laughing. "Look out! Look out! We've got to stop. They're in trouble. Those people need our help! Turn around! Those are school kids!" My pleas fall on deaf ears.

Chance laughs again, "You joking man?" Even Iris has a twisted smile on her face.

I stare through the back window, watching the patrol car come to a stop by the crash, my heart pounding, my stomach roiling in fear. I've underestimated Chance and Iris both. If they can casually drive by innocent kids in trouble, then what else are they capable of?

Rural Cascade County, Morning

Jim drove like a bat out of hell, racing down highway 35, every sense extended for any sign of Blair's green Volvo. When the radio crackled to life, he winced and yanked his hearing back down to normal.

"This is 285-Charley arriving at the scene of an accident. We've got people injured…"

God. Don't let it be Blair, please don't let it be Blair. Scanning the horizon, the sentinel spotted a thin line of smoke billowing into the sky. Pressing down on the gas pedal, he headed toward it.

A scant minute later, Ellison pulled his truck to a stop at an intersection. A school bus had been struck by a car and over turned. A state trooper was helping children out of the bus through the emergency exit. As Jim got out of his vehicle and hurried toward the bus, a black Cadillac drove slowly past, then accelerated away. Pausing for a moment, Jim stared after it. Hadn't there been a black Cadillac parked on the street by the convenience store?

But he didn't have time to ponder on that fact any further. The frightened cries of the children urged him into action. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade PD," he said to the trooper. He began to climb into the bus. "I'll hand the kids out to you."

~~~~~~~~

The incident with the school bus has really unnerved me. That, or my anger at letting myself get into this situation in the first place has worn off. I'm scared now as the realization that I'm truly alone in this hits me. Whatever affection or interest Iris might have had in me has disappeared in light of cash potential in Chance's bag of heroin. I'm nothing but extra baggage and I wonder why they haven't dumped me by now. I can't help but remember that as far as Jim knows, I'm off somewhere enjoying another beautiful day in Cascade. The Volvo sputters and backfires, interrupting my musings.

Iris thumps Chance. "What the hell's going on? Chance? Come on, man. Get us out of here!"

The car stutters a few times, then stalls out. Chance coasts to a stop at the side of the road.

I see a chance to end this. "Iris, all right, look. It's over, okay? You can't keep running. You're just making it worse."

Whirling around Chance yells at me. "That's it! Get out of the car!"

Iris opens her door and pulls the seat forward. I'm climbing out as Chance comes round to the passenger side of the car. Grabbing me by the shirt, he tosses me down into the ditch next to the road. When I look up, he's pointing a gun at me. "I don't like your attitude."

Iris yanks his arm down. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! We got enough trouble. We don't want to leave any dead bodies for the cops to find."

"Th-that's…that's right, Chance," I stutter, my heart pounding against my ribs, my breath catching in my throat. "That's a good plan. You should listen to her, man."

She tugs him toward the car. "Okay, come on. Come on." The sound of a car approaching makes them look down the road.

"It's Parkman. It's Parkman! Let's go!" Chance yells.

What the hell? I get slowly to my feet as Iris and Chance pile back into the Volvo and speed off. I'm staring after them when a black Cadillac pulls up next to me and stops. The window rolls down, and I'm looking at the man from the convenience store, the one who tried to get into my car while I was waiting for Iris. I'm also staring down the barrel of his gun.

"Where are they going?" he snaps

"I don't know!" I yell back, hating the quaver in my voice.

"Get in."

I shake my head. I want to stay here in my nice, safe ditch in the middle of nowhere. "Look, why don't you just go after them?" He can't miss them; the Volvo's smoking like a chimney.

He pulls the hammer back on his gun. "You were there last night, Sport. You saw my face. I don't get my stuff back, you don't get to live. Got it? Get in."

Yeah, I got it all right. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chance and Iris are amateurs compared to this guy. Fighting back my fear, I get into the car. Parkman takes off before I have a chance to fasten my seatbelt.

Cascade County, Morning

Jim handed the last of the kids to one of the paramedics, then walked through the maze of fire trucks and emergency vehicles. He stared down the straight, flat road, pushing his vision to its limits, but there was no sign of the Volvo anywhere. Damn it. His friend was out there somewhere, and the sentinel had no idea where to begin to look.


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


Major Crime, Late Morning

Exhaustion slowed Jim's footsteps as he got off the elevator and walked toward Major Crime. After leaving the accident scene, he'd spent over an hour driving the country roads aimlessly, searching for any sign of Blair or the Volvo. He'd found nothing. Realizing the futility of his search, he headed back to town. The one clue he had was Iris, and the man from the videotape. If he could find out the identity of the man, then maybe he could figure out where he might have gone.

He was headed toward his desk when Joel stopped him. "Simon's looking for you, Jim. Says he might have something on Sandburg's girlfriend."

"Thanks, Joel," Jim said, then entered the captain's office.

"Simon, what do you got?"

Banks handed him a file folder. "Did some checking on our friend Iris. Take a look."

Jim started leafing through the papers, but nothing jumped out at him. "Anything we can use?" he asked.

Simon leaned back in his chair. "Iris was picked up last year in a drug trafficking case. The guy she was booked with was her brother. Name's Rob Johnson. Now the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence."

The detective looked up. "You think this guy Johnson's involved?"

"If heroin's what they were carrying, that's what he was suspected of dealing."

Jim glanced back at the file. "Says he's a mechanic out of a garage near Freemont. That's near where the state trooper lost Sandburg's car."

Getting to his feet, Simon said, "Worth a look, don't you think?" He headed out the door, Jim hot on his heels.

~~~~~~~~

I'm pressed up against the passenger door of the Cadillac, as far away from Parkman as I can get and still be inside the car. We've been driving around for over an hour, Parkman yelling at me every few minutes, wanting to know where Iris and Chance have gone. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of the Volvo, but despite the open, empty expanse of land in front of us, I've seen nothing. Not for the first time, I wish I had Jim's eyesight.

A dilapidated rest stop looms on our right, and Parkman pulls into the gravel lot. Getting out of the car, he walks around to my side without a word, opens the door, and yanks me out. My heart leaps to my mouth as he shoves me against the side of the car. I raise my hands. "Hey, take it easy, take it easy."

He pulls the hammer back on his automatic and presses it against my throat. "Where are they?"

Oh god, oh god, oh god…"I've told you a hundred times, man."

He doesn't like my answer. "Three seconds."

Fear hits me like a tidal wave, making me feel like I'm going to throw up. He's gonna kill me. "Look, I swear to God I don't know!"

"Three…"

"Listen to me! I don't know!" I scream.

"Two…"

Closing my eyes, I prepare to die. Goodbye, Jim. I love you, Mom. I wonder if it'll hurt much….

"One."

The sound of the trigger being pulled is deafening. I flinch, but nothing happens. Opening my eyes, I find Parkman leering at me, laughing at my terror. I see red. Lashing out with my fist, I catch him in the eye. "You sick fuck!" I yell, anger clouding my judgment.

The drug dealer staggers, then brings the gun to bear on me again as he shoves the magazine in, savagely yanking the slide back and chambering a cartridge. "This time it's for real, you little bastard! Where in the hell are they?"

All the fight drains out of me, and I lean against the car, panting and shaking. "I could give you fake directions, but what good would that do either of us?" I answer, resigning myself to my fate.

Stepping in, Parkman grabs me by the throat, pressing the muzzle of the gun to my temple. "Where?" he shrieks in my ear.

"I don't know, man. That's the truth. If you don't believe me, then do us both a favor and just shoot me. I'm tired of you fucking with me." His fingers tighten on my neck, but he doesn't pull the trigger. With a growl, he pushes me to the ground. Pain shoots through my palms as they impact the pebbled lot.

"In there." He points toward the restroom.

Getting to my feet, I walk toward it, nursing my gravel-burned hands. As I cross the threshold, he shoves me between the shoulder blades and I trip over the trashcan to sprawl on the cracked tile floor. The door slams, and when I get up to try it, I find it locked from the outside. Damn it! Maybe there's another way out.

I check the window, but it's painted shut, and breaking it would make too much noise. All right, if I can't get out, then I need a weapon for when he comes back in. I begin to search the room. Pushing open the door to the bathroom stall, I feel a smile cross my face. Yeah, that'll work.

Armed with my weapon, I go back to the door. Parkman's just outside, calling someone on his cell phone.

"I'm at a rest stop on the Chelton Highway, just west of the Middletown exit, and I got your little friend with me."

Who in the hell is he calling? He can't possibly know about Jim--

"Now if I don't get my merchandise back, I'm going to kill him. Got it?"

Great, I'm dead. The idiot's called Chance and Iris. He didn't listen to a word I said about me being a hostage and them ditching me.

"You are a piece of work, babe."

Guess Iris told him to blow my brains out, see if she cares.

"You know, you ought to be working with someone smarter than Chance … Maybe … Well, you'd hate me. Now, listen. I found you once, and believe you me, I can find you again. But if you bring my merchandise to me voluntarily, I'll give you Chance's cut. Deal?"

There's a long moment of silence broken only by the sound of Parkman's shoes crunching on the gravel lot. Finally, he says, "Right. See you in fifteen."

Gripping my makeshift club tighter, I press up against the wall beside the door. If Iris has decided to deal with Parkman, then there's no reason for him to keep me alive.

I hear him fumbling with the lock, then the door is thrown open and he enters, gun first. I slam the heavy porcelain toilet tank lid down on his arm, sending the gun flying. My second swing bashes the lid into his face. With a howl of pain, Parkman goes down, falling backwards onto the ground.

Exiting the restroom quickly, I drop my weapon and head for the Caddy. A glance at the steering wheel when I yank the door open tells me the keys are gone. Shit! Parkman's crawling inside the restroom, probably in search of his gun. Only one option left for me. I take off at a run over the fields behind the rest stop, hearing him yell after me, then the sharp crack of a shot. Terror gives me a burst of speed, and I sprint down a set of railroad tracks, not daring to look back.

Freemont Garage, Afternoon

Jim followed Simon's sedan down the two lane highway, trying to concentrate on driving and not on Blair's possible fate. They would go to the garage, talk to the brother, persuade him to tell them what his sister was up to. Jim was feeling particularly persuasive at the moment. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

The turn signal blinked on Simon's car, and Jim followed him into the driveway in front of a ramshackle house. A separate building with an open front was obviously the garage. There were no vehicles in the driveway, or the garage. Getting out of the truck, he headed toward the entrance to the garage, when a distinctive, acrid odor filled his nostrils. "Hang on a second," he called to Simon.

The captain joined him in the middle of the driveway. "What's up?"

Jim sniffed the air. "Sandburg's car. I can smell the burnt oil."

Simon looked skeptical. "You sure?"

Ellison nodded. He smelled the same scent every morning when Sandburg started the Volvo up. "It's the special synthetic stuff. It's unmistakable."

His expression one of grim determination, Banks said, "I'll check the house."

Jim pulled his gun. "I'll check the garage." As Simon headed off, the detective eased inside of the building, weapon held at the ready even though a quick sweep with his hearing didn't detect anyone. A spot on the cement floor yielded more synthetic oil. Sandburg's car, and possibly Sandburg, had definitely been here.

A commotion outside caught his attention. Simon entered the garage, pushing a longhaired man in front of him. For a split second, Jim thought it was Blair. His hopes were dashed as he recognized Iris' accomplice from the convenience store.

"Hey, Jim? You'll never guess who I found."

"That's the guy from the surveillance tape," he answered.

The small man glanced nervously from Simon to Jim, then said, "Hey, look, I don't know what's going on here, man."

Jim stepped into the punk's space, looming over him. "We were kinda wondering ourselves."

"Well, I swear I'm not trying to put anything over on you guys. I had the stuff. It was right here, and then that bitch, she takes off on me, right?"

Simon nodded for him to continue.

The kid fidgeted some more, beginning to realize something was wrong. "You guys--you're the--you're the ones that Rob called, right?"

Banks' chuckle was ominous, and Jim joined in.

Suspicion plain on his face, the suspect said, "You're here to buy the…stuff."

This was getting them nowhere. "Where's Blair Sandburg?" Jim asked.

The small man blinked in confusion. "Who?"

Jim caught Simon's eye roll in his peripheral vision. This kid was definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer. "I'm Jim Ellison." He pulled out his badge. "I'm with the Cascade P.D. This is Captain Simon Banks."

The captain bared his teeth in a Cheshire cat grin, then shoved the perp into the wall as he tried to duck and run. "You didn't answer the man's question."

Jim moved in closer, cracking his knuckles loudly. "Let's just try this again. Where's Blair Sandburg?"

~~~~~~~~

My heart feels like it's about to explode, and my breath is roaring my ears when I finally see a road up ahead. A semi is coming. Pouring on the speed, I dash into the street, waving my arms frantically. "Stop! Stop!" It blows by, the breeze nearly knocking me to the ground. "Whoa! No, no!" Damn it, damn it, damn it!

A familiar car crests the railroad tracks. Shit, shit, shit. It's my piece of crap Volvo, complete with its own smokescreen. It rolls to a stop next to me, and a guy with dark, greasy hair peers out the window. "Great car, dude." This must be the brother.

The passenger door opens and Iris stands up, pointing her gun at me over the roof of the auto. "Get in the car, Blair."

This is not happening. This is not happening. My life *so* sucks.


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


I glare at Iris. "What are you gonna do? You gonna shoot me? I don't think so." She raises the gun a little higher and pulls the trigger. I can feel the air moving as it passes by my left ear. It's a wonder I don't piss my pants. "All right, so I was wrong. I'm coming. Relax. Calm down." Circling the rear of the Volvo, I climb into the back seat on the passenger side.

Iris follows me in and slams the door.

Her brother looks at me in irritation. "What do we need him for?"

A sly smile crosses her face. It's not attractive. "I just thought of a new plan, and we need him to help us."

Sinking back into the seat in despair, I mutter, "Oh, god." If it's anything like the plan that got me into this mess in the first place….

"It just occurred to me we were gonna tape the money to our bodies and smuggle it into Canada. Why don't we do the same with the heroin?"

I'm gonna die, or at least be arrested….

"Cool, just like Billy Hayes in Midnight Express." Rob laughs and Iris joins in.

"You guys are crazy. Billy Hayes spent eight years in a Turkish prison."

"Well, we're not in Turkey now, dude," Rob shoots over his shoulder as he puts the Volvo in gear.

As we drive off, I glance out the back window. A black car is several miles behind us. If it's Parkman, he won't have any trouble following the smoke trail the Volvo is spewing behind her.

Freemont Garage, Afternoon

Jim watched as the perp, who bore a superficial resemblance to Sandburg, was put into a police car. Desperation gripped him as he once again saw a promising lead to his friend's whereabouts slipping through his fingers. In just the few minutes he'd spent talking to Iris' accomplice, he'd come to the conclusion that she was far and away the brains of the operation. The suspect had been telling the truth when he'd said he didn't know who Blair Sandburg was. He'd possibly spent all night with the guy and had never asked his name. Nor did he know where he was now. Or so he claimed. Jim thought he was lying about that, but the punk had quit talking then, and neither Jim nor Simon had been able to get anything more out of him.

He'd been more than willing to volunteer that Iris and her brother had disappeared with his 'stuff,' though. Jim could form several hypotheses from the little information the suspect had given him. Most of them, however, were disheartening. One, Blair might never have been with Iris and her partner at all. Two, he had been at the convenience store, and had driven the getaway car, but had been disposed of when they didn't need him anymore. Jim refused to believe that theory. He had to believe Sandburg was still alive for both their sakes. Third, and the one Jim was hoping was more likely, was that Iris and her brother had taken off with the drugs and Blair. That meant there was still a chance Jim could find him before it was too late.

Simon walked up, his words interrupting Jim's unhappy musings. "The guy's still not talking. I'm sending him back to the station. Let Detective Adams have a crack at it."

Jim nodded dumbly, and began to walk toward his truck when the slick sheen of oil on the driveway caught his eye. Squatting, he touched it with a finger, then inhaled its unique odor. "Looks as if Sandburg's car is leaking oil as well."

The captain's reply was sympathetic, but realistic. "I don't mean to put a damper on things, Jim, but this is a garage. There's oil everywhere."

"No, trust me on this one, Captain." He spied a few drops further down the driveway, and extending his sight, on the street itself. The thrill of the chase thrummed in his veins and he bounded to his feet. "The drops are leaving a trail. Follow me!" Leaping into his truck, he didn't bother to see if Simon was behind him as he sped away, his keen eyesight trained on the tiny reflective spots of oil dotting the road.

~~~~~~~~

Expecting another long, meandering drive through the countryside, I'm surprised when Rob turns the Volvo into the parking lot for the county train station. Iris gets out, tucking her gun into her purse, but leaving her hand inside, and the purse pointed toward me. Sighing, I clamber out of the back seat. Iris grabs my arm and presses the purse against my side, while Rob hitches the bag with the heroin over his shoulder.

As we head toward the station, I play the card I was holding back. Granted it's only a two, but I'm a good bluffer. "All right, Iris. I've got to tell you the truth about my friend Jim. He works for the city, all right, but not in road maintenance. He's a cop, all right? And actually, I'm his partner."

She laughs. "Yeah, nice try."

Guess the partner thing was a little too much. "I'm serious. He's out there looking for me." I wish… "There is no way you'll get away with this."

Rob, at least, seems impressed by my ability to lie. "He's awful sincere, man."

"Yeah, right," Iris sniffs. Poking me with the gun, she drags me up the steps and into the station. Once inside, she seems uncertain.

"Now what do we do?" Rob asks.

"Just stay calm," she snaps. "I'll figure it out." Her gaze travels across the crowded space, then stops. "Over there. Come on."

Crossing the waiting area, she directs us to a short hallway. At the end is a door marked 'Employees Only.' Looking around, she pushes us closer to the door, then says, "All right, go. Go!"

Rob opens the door, and we hustle through. We're in some kind of janitor's closet. There's shelves filled with cleaning supplies, trash bags, toilet paper. Now what are we supposed to do?

Taking off his shirt, Rob says, "Let's go, man."

Iris smiles coyly at me and begins to unbutton my shirt, holding her gun on me with her other hand. "Yeah. Come on, Blair. I though you were dying to get naked with me."

I feel dirty, like a piece of meat, an object, and the thought hits me that maybe I should feel that way. That's how I treated Iris; that's all I wanted from her. Recognizing my own behavior in her shocks me, but I don't have time to examine it right now. Taking a step back, I undo my own buttons. "It's not exactly what I had in mind."

She shrugs. "Yeah, well, you got to take what you can get." Grabbing a roll of duct tape from one of the shelves, she tosses it to Rob. "Let's move it."

A few minutes later, the bulky packets of drugs are taped around Rob's and my waists. We look ridiculous. There is no way in hell Iris' scheme is going to work. Her brother puts his tank top back on. The drugs clearly show through the tight fabric.

He glares at his sister. "Great idea."

She stomps her foot in frustration. "Yeah, well, we'll just have to repackage it."

"Repackage it, how?"

Glancing around the room, she grabs some plastic bags off one of the shelves. "Here." Shifting the gun to her left hand, she starts ripping the tape off Rob.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!"

"Don't be such a baby."

With her hands full and her attention all on Rob, I make my move. Snatching the gun from Iris' hand, I punch her brother in the face with it. He crumples to the floor, and I let out a relieved sigh. Finally things are going my way. I turn the gun on Iris. "Okay. You take the tape and you tape up your brother, all right? And then you take the rest of the heroin and you put it in the bag. And get this stuff off me." I start unwinding the tape from around my waist.

Ten minutes later we're set. Rob's immobilized, the drugs are back in the bag, I've got the gun, and now I realize I haven't thought much farther than that. This is a public place. There's got to be a phone, or a cop, or security guard, or someone I can dump this all on. Picking up the duffel, I take Iris by the arm and drag her out of the janitor's room. Realizing I still have the gun in my hand, I stuff it in the back of my pants.

We're walking through the crowd toward the door when Iris makes me an offer. "We split everything three ways…everything. " She rubs up against me, but all I feel for her now is disgust.

"I'm not into threesomes."

"Ooh, come on, baby, don't knock it till you've tried it." Her hand wanders down my stomach. I grab it.

"Yeah, whatever. Come on." I jerk her toward the pay phones.

"Ow," she pouts.

"This way. Quit whining."

A presence approaches on my right, and I feel the hard steel of a gun barrel pressing into my side. An all-too-familiar voice growls in my ear, "Hey, Sport, it's your unlucky day." I look up to see Parkman, his face bruised and swollen. Both his eyes are black. Grasping the strap of the duffel, he yanks it off my shoulder. "This is mine, isn't it?"

I inhale slowly before answering, "Yeah."

He finds the gun under my shirt. "What's this, punk?" He shoves me toward the door. "Go. Move. Move."

I can see Iris eyeing Parkman, and her walk becomes a sexy slither. I'm about to get screwed over.

My life sucks. Again.


~~~~~ Act V ~~~~~


Blackwood Train Station, Afternoon

The trail of oil droplets led Jim to the parking lot of a train station. Turning left into the lot, he spied Sandburg's Volvo parked between two other cars. "Yes!" he hissed, but it was a hollow victory. Sandburg's car was not Sandburg. Parking the Ford, he got out and headed toward the station as Simon joined him.

"What in the hell is going on, Jim? What are we doing here?"

Jim pointed toward the Volvo. "Simon, that's Sandburg's car. I'm assuming they're planning to get on a train here."

"All right, I'll get on the horn, call for backup." As Jim began to walk away, Banks grabbed his arm. "Hold on there, Detective. Iris and her brother are armed and dangerous, and a train station full of people is a hostage situation waiting to happen." He thrust a radio into Jim's hands. "You keep in constant contact with me, got it?"

Nodding grimly, Jim replied, "Yes, sir." Clipping the radio to his belt, he headed into the station.

~~~~~~~~

Parkman ushers Iris and me out the side entrance of the train station onto a loading dock near the trash bins. She's already working on him.

"You're never going to get the drugs through customs by yourself. We'll have to go with my original plan."

Wonderful. I do not want to go through that again.

He's actually listening to her. "Which is?"

She smiles sweetly at him. "We tape the heroin to our bodies, smuggle it across the border, and when we get there, my brother's got the connections to unload it quickly."

We stop at the bottom of the steps as Parkman looks around. "I've got my own contacts. Why should I risk bringing in your brother?"

Rubbing his arm, Iris pouts appealingly. "Because if anything happens to Rob, I'd be very sad. And that would mean you wouldn't have the opportunity to get to know me better, which I'll bet is something you'd like to do."

Gag me. How in the hell could I have been so stupid? I wanted to sleep with this?

Parkman seems to consider it. Then he turns his gaze on me. "Yeah, maybe. What about him?"

Iris shrugs. "He's your call."

Great. Leave the decision up to the guy whose nose I broke. I hold up my hands in surrender. "Look, Parkman, this is crazy, man. You'll never get out of here with those drugs. You might as well just throw them away."

"Yeah, says who?" An evil grin crosses his face and he turns to Iris, handing her the gun he took from me. "Moment of truth, babe. Do it."

My heart stops. No. No, no, no. Not like this, please, God. I don't want to die, I really don't. Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Jim.

Iris smiles at me. "Such a waste."

I close my eyes. A shot rings out and Iris squeals, but I'm not hit. I'm not shot? What the hell? I open my eyes to see Parkman firing at someone around the corner of the building. Iris grabs the bag of drugs and takes off in the opposite direction. Me, I decide that the safest thing to do is hide behind a dumpster until the shooting stops.

When it finally does, I move out of my hiding place cautiously. Both Parkman and Iris are gone. Someone touches my arm and I whirl around. "Oh god! What?" Jim's standing there, looking down at me, his expression about as worried as it ever gets. I nearly throw my arms around him, but remember I'm supposed to be a tough guy at the last moment. I settle for "Glad to see you."

"Yeah, me, too." Jim nods curtly, but I can see the relief in his eyes. I want to ask how he found me, how he even knew I was in trouble, but he continues. "We're not done here yet, Chief. And, Sandburg, when you find her, forget about the seven-course meals."

He starts to take off after Parkman, but I grab his arm. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on there, Ellison. You think I'm letting you out of my sight after the hell I've been through, you are mistaken."

Jim studies me for a moment, then nods. Plucking a radio from his belt, he speaks into it. "Captain, I've found Sandburg. He's fine. Iris Johnson is heading in your direction. I'm going after her accomplice."

"I'm on it, Jim. Backup's on the way."

~~~~~~~~

Blackwood Train Station, Afternoon

Jim clipped the radio back on his belt, then looked over at his partner, automatically cataloging Blair's physical and emotional state with his senses. Sandburg was disheveled and smelled of car exhaust, adhesive tape, dirt, grass, perspiration, and blood, heavily overlaid with the sickly sweet odor of fear. Somehow the sentinel knew the previous few minutes hadn't been the first time his partner had faced death since Jim had last seen him. He wanted to ask Blair if he was all right, and his fingers itched to examine the smaller man, to identify any possible injuries.

Unfortunately, duty came first. One of Blair's kidnappers was still loose in the train station with a gun, so Jim settled for gripping his friend's shoulder tightly for a few seconds, and asking, "You okay?"

A shadow flickered in Blair's eyes for a moment, then he said, "Ask me later, all right? Let's just get this over with."

Nodding, Jim trotted in the direction the guy with the two black eyes had headed, trusting Blair to follow. He honed in on the scent from the suspect's recently fired gun, filtering out the cordite smell from his own. The man had run onto the boarding platform, probably intending to lose himself in the maze of trains. "Stay behind me, Chief," he cautioned.

"Sure, just not too far," came his partner's answer, and Ellison could feel Blair wrapping his fingers around a handful of Jim's jacket.

Pausing next to a series of train cars, Jim listened to the silence. There were no passengers on board any of the trains at the moment, and the few sounds he heard seemed to come from the normal activities of the railway workers. Footsteps in the next car down drew his attention, and Jim proceeded cautiously along the side of the car, Blair close on his heels.

The footsteps came to a stop, and Jim pushed his hearing further, trying to pinpoint the suspect by his heartbeat.

"Jim, look out!" Sandburg yelled, pushing the sentinel to the ground as a gunshot shattered the window above him.

Ellison rolled under the train car, Blair ducking along with him. "What the hell?"

"You were so focused on listening you weren't looking. I saw Parkman pointing his gun at you through the window." He peered out cautiously before emerging on the opposite side of the railway carriage.

Jim followed, shaking glass out of his jacket collar. "Thanks, Chief. So this guy's name is Parkman?"

"Yeah, he's a drug dealer. He's the guy Iris stole the heroin from in the first place."

The detective listened again for the perp and located him still inside. "He's taking a shortcut through the train. Come on." The two men boarded the train, moving quickly through the deserted car. Jim pushed open the door to the next car, then quickly closed it as Parkman fired two shots in their direction.

Taking cover to the left of the doorway, Jim made sure Blair was behind him before he opened the door again. Easing around the frame gun first, he took a good look. Parkman was gone. Signaling for Blair to follow, he ran through the car and cautiously entered the next. It was empty. A glimpse of movement through the window in the door at the opposite end of the car caught his eye. Parkman was running though the train, about two cars ahead of him.

"Stay here, Chief. I see him."

"Jim--" Blair began, but the other man cut him off.

"It's too close in here, too easy for us to get tangled up and one of us hurt. Stay here." With that, Ellison raced after the suspect.

~~~~~~~~

My gaze follows Jim as he leaves, watching him exit this car and enter the next. Shit. I don't like this. I don't like this at all. Parkman nearly shot him once, and like Jim said, it's too close in here. Several shots echo through the train, and I'm moving.

Instead of racing after Jim through the cars, I get off on the platform and run alongside, peering anxiously in the windows. Three cars down I see Parkman and Jim scuffling in what looks like a kitchen car. The drug dealer throws something at him and takes off again. Jim nearly trips over a man in a chef's outfit, then dashes out of view. I hate feeling this useless.

An idea hits me. I run down the length of the train four or five cars and get on. With any luck we can trap Parkman between us. If nothing else, I can hold the door closed so he can't get out of the car.

I throw open the door to a luggage compartment just in time to see Parkman jump on a motorcycle and bolt out the open side door. "Damn it!" I yell. On the opposite side of the compartment I can see Jim struggling with a locked door. "Hold on, man!"

Weaving through the piles of baggage, I lunge for the chain on the door, yanking it loose. Jim darts past me, hops on a second motorcycle and shoots down the ramp with a roar. I'm left standing in the middle of the car, my mouth hanging open.

I exit in time to see Jim and Parkman racing at each other in a game of chicken. Parkman swerves and Jim's outstretched hand misses grabbing hold of him. Jim manages to haul the bike around in a tight turn, but Parkman's headed back my way, toward the freedom of the parking lot and then the highway. I've got to slow him down, but how?

A cart full of suitcases is standing on the platform next to the luggage car. Racing over to it, I give it a shove into the middle of the pathway. Parkman's too close to stop, and his attempt at dodging it puts the motorcycle on its side. A large trash bin halts the bike's slide, and before he can get out from under the heavy cycle, Jim's slapping the cuffs on him.

It's over; it's finally over. The adrenaline letdown hits me so hard my knees buckle, and I end up on my ass on the pavement, shaking and hyperventilating and trying not to throw up. I don't know how long I sit there, my forehead pressed against my bent knees, before I finally sense someone kneel beside me.

"You okay there, Chief?"

I lift my head and give him what feels like a very weak smile. "Yeah, man. I'll be okay. Just give me a minute."

"It's okay. Simon's got an ambulance on the way."

"Ambulance? I'm not hurt, Jim."

He shrugs. "Yeah, well, Parkman needs one. I figure while they're here they can give you a once over, at least clean those cuts on your hands."

Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about that. I turn my hands over, gazing at the scratches on my palms. "It's just dirt, man. And I'd much rather go home."

"All right," he says, grabbing hold of my elbow and lifting me to my feet. "Home it is. Simon said to tell you he caught Iris, by the way, trying to make a run for it in your car. Next time, Sandburg, let me check out your new girlfriend *before* the first date."

Laughing, I say, "You got it," and follow him out of the train station.

~~~~~~~~

Several hours later, I'm leaning against the balcony railing at the loft, a beer in my hand, looking out at the boats in the harbor. Hard to believe that less than twenty-four hours ago I was driving aimlessly through farmland with a gun in my ribs.

I force my thoughts back to tonight. Simon and Joel left a little bit ago. They followed Jim and me back here after Iris, her brother, and Parkman were booked, and I gave my statement at the station. I heated up my aphrodisiac dinner for them. It was a bit greasy and soggy, but they didn't seem to mind, though Joel declared he wasn't getting a bit turned on.

Shaking my head, I sigh. I ought to know better. The way to a person's heart isn't through seven dishes from Persian folklore. But that's not really what I'd been after from Iris, and I know it. Knew it from the moment we met, in fact, and didn't think there was a damn thing wrong with it. I know better now. You get out of a relationship what you put into it. Why should I have expected Iris to give a damn about me, when I so obviously didn't really give a damn about her?

I take a sip of my beer, and it burns past the lump in my throat. I got a good look at myself today, through my own eyes and through Iris'. In both cases, I didn't like what I saw. I make a promise to myself to do better, to try harder to think of others instead of myself, and to remember Iris the next time I think a one night stand is what I need instead of a relationship.

Footsteps click on the tile as Jim joins me. "I finished up those dishes, Chief."

I glance over at him. "You didn't have to do that, I would have gotten around to it eventually."

"Yeah, well, you cooked. It was the least I could do." An awkward silence hangs over us for several minutes, then Jim asks, "You want to talk about it?"

I shrug. "Maybe someday, man. But not right now. I need some distance from it, I think."

Jim nods, but instead of going back inside, he leans against the railing next to me, and together, we watch the stars come out.

Tonight, my life doesn't suck.


Finis

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

Next week's episode:& Poachers by Melinda




< Prev   Next >