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Vendetta
Vendetta
By: Lyn Townsend

Beta Read by Carla and Mary Shukes Browne
Written for PetFly by David Thoreau
Rated PG

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


Melanie pushed open the door leading into the foyer of the Nelson Apartment Building and walked over to the reception desk. She smiled as she saw the security guard's disinterested gaze turn to one of lustful appreciation. He stood and walked around the desk, fixing a wide smile on his face and the young woman rolled her eyes as he unconsciously sucked in his gut.

"Hi." Melanie pitched her voice to that breathy, little girl quality that seemed to turn all the guys on.

The guard nodded at her and tried to look professional. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

She smiled again and motioned toward the elevators behind the desk. "I'm here to see my aunt. She's staying with friends. I wrote the number down here somewhere." Looking down, she fumbled with her purse, attempting to open the clasp. Her keys dropped from her hand and fell to the floor with a clatter.

"Oops," she whispered coyly, looking up at him from beneath long eyelashes.

The guard rested a hand on her shoulder briefly before bending down to pick up the keys. "I'll get those," he offered.

"Thank you," Melanie replied as she pulled the taser from her bag and touched it to the guard's shoulder.

She tensed as his body spasmed and then he began to stagger upright. Lifting her leg, she kneed him hard in the stomach and his breath whooshed out of him as he collapsed. His head hit the floor with a loud crack and he went limp.

Melanie looked down at the guard's prone body and shook her head in dismay. "Chivalry's dead. Haven't you heard?" she said. Turning away, she pulled a small radio handset from her purse and spoke into it briefly, "Clear."

She watched as the doors to the van parked directly out front of the building opened and three men made their way inside. All were dressed in identical overalls and wore nylon masks obscuring their faces. Melanie reached into the bag that one of the men handed her and pulled a guard's uniform from within. She pulled the clothes over her own sheer dress and patted her hair into place.

Walking around behind the reception desk, she sat down and watched as one man cut the wires to the security monitors and the other two dragged the unconscious guard out of sight. With a final silent nod in her direction, the three men disappeared into the stairwell.

~~~~~~~~

Hilda Merritt paused in her dusting at the insistent tapping at the front door of the apartment building. Walking over, she called out, "Yes? Yes, who is it?"

When there was no reply to her query, she placed her eye over the peephole in the door and looked outside. She could see nothing and after a brief hesitation, placed the security chain into its lock and opened the door. "Hello?"

The maid stumbled backwards with a frightened cry as the door exploded inward, and three masked men rushed into the apartment. Before she could react, one of the men grabbed her and pushed her hard up against the wall. She stifled a scream as he lifted a gun and pressed the barrel against her throat.

"Where's the safe? Where's the safe?" her attacker ground out.

Hilda managed to shake her head minutely. "I don't know."

The man pressed the gun harder into Hilda's pale neck. "Lady, you tell me where the safe is or I'll blow you away right now," he threatened. "Tell me where the safe is."

Hilda lifted a shaky hand and pointed to the painting on the wall. "It's over there." She erupted into noisy sobs, but her attacker was not sympathetic. Grasping her arm, he pushed her over to the opposite wall.

"Show me!"

Hilda touched the painting with a trembling finger. "It's here." She stumbled as the man pushed her away.

"Go!" he ordered.

Hilda however was frozen to the spot, still sobbing noisily. She screamed when the man backhanded her as he admonished her to be quiet. Turning away from her, he watched as a second man leaned in and began to turn the dial on the safe.

~~~~~~~~

Jim Ellison pounded his way down the sidewalk, his steely glare causing several pedestrians to step out of his path. His partner, Blair Sandburg, hurried to keep up with him, the detective's long angry stride rapidly outpacing the shorter man.

In part to try and placate the other man and partly a desperate attempt to slow the punishing pace, Blair called out to his partner, "Hey, Jim…"

Anything else he wanted to say was abruptly cut short as Jim raised his hands and shook his head vehemently. "Chief, I'm not in the mood for one of your touchy-feely lectures."

Blair quickened his pace, finally catching up with the detective as Jim slowed upon reaching his truck. "I'm not going to give you a lecture," Blair said evenly, his jaw clenched almost as tightly as his partner's was. "Look, just because the DA is not going to press charges, do not take it out on me."

"Look, I saw the perp, he snatched the purse, he knocked the old lady down, broke her hip. What do you want from me?" Jim asked. He unlocked the truck and climbed inside, waiting until Blair had shut the passenger door before beginning his diatribe once more. "I say I saw the whole incident from three blocks away, they're going to toss the whole thing out of court and the scumbag walks free. Now that old lady on the other hand is crippled for life. Sometimes I wonder if these senses of mine are worth the trouble. I can see the crimes happening and take down the bad guys but I can't put them away."

Blair nodded his understanding as Jim started the truck and pulled out of the parking space. The anthropologist shot forward, almost crashing into the dashboard as Jim suddenly slammed on the brakes.

Blair paled as he realized that Jim had been so caught up in his anger that he hadn't seen the small red car that was just behind him. A screeching sound caused both men to look to the rear and they watched in astonishment as a black BMW came careening around the corner. Its tires screamed as they struggled to find purchase on the road. The vehicle almost rear-ended the red car that Jim had just missed and narrowly avoided side swiping the detective's truck.

"Whoa! Man!" Jim exclaimed, glaring at the driver of the other car as the BMW screeched to a halt. "Somebody ought to tell that clown to slow down. He's going to kill somebody around here."

Blair rolled his eyes at the statement but was relieved to see Jim double-check his mirrors before pulling onto the road again. Behind them, blaring car horns sounded in a clamor of protest. Settling back into his seat, Blair saw the BMW pull up alongside. He watched as the driver wound down his window, his eyes blazing fury.

"Hey!" the man yelled. "Did you see me?"

Jim: shook his head and ignored the man. "Idiot." He stared straight ahead through the front windshield. "Why didn't I hear him?" he muttered.

"Maybe it's because you're so angry, you had a minor, temporary zone-out -- the opposite effect of what you're used to," Blair ventured, his heart still pounding slightly from the encounter.

"That's fascinating, Chief," Jim replied.

Blair chose to ignore the sarcasm edging Jim's words. "Actually, that is something we might want to take a look at," he replied casually.

Jim rolled his eyes. "I'll file it away for future reference," he said, slowing down for the traffic lights just ahead.

Blair glanced over at the black BMW that had come to a halt beside him. He jumped back against Jim, startled when the driver climbed out of his car and stormed toward them, his heavy features twisted in anger.

"Whoa, Jim! Hey!" Blair slammed his hand down on the door lock as the man began to pound on the passenger side window and scream at them.

"Did you notice that you almost totaled me and my car?" the man yelled as he scowled angrily at Jim.

Blair's heart was hammering in his chest as he saw Jim shake his head and climb out of the truck. "Jim…"

He reached out a hand to stay the other man, well aware of the horror stories of road rage but the detective was already striding toward the other driver, his entire body rigid with anger.

"Back off, jackass!" Blair heard Jim say and the angry man's head snapped up at the comment.

"Didn't you see me?" the driver shouted as Jim walked around the truck and stood in front of him.

Jim ignored the question. "Hey, buddy, back off!" he said again.

As frightened as he was, Blair's hand stole toward the door handle as he saw the other driver's fist come up toward Jim's head in a roundhouse swing. Jim ducked it easily and with a simple twist borne of years of experience in apprehending criminals, the detective quickly had the BMW driver pressed against the hood of the truck with his hands pinned behind his back.

"Cascade Police." Jim identified himself and pulled his badge from his pocket, waving it in front of the angry man's face. "Keep your hands on the hood," he ordered him. "I could take you in right now for assaulting a cop, buddy."

"Oh boy," Blair muttered. "Nothing better than two alpha males facing off." Now that he could see that Jim had the situation under control, he climbed out of the truck. He looked at him in concern as the detective suddenly doubled up and began to cough. "Are you all right, Jim?"

Jim nodded and wiped at his watery eyes. "Yeah. It's this tough guy's cologne." He jerked a finger at the man and then leaned into his face. "You get more than one application per bottle, sport."

The other man lifted his head and glared at the detective. "It's imported. Let me see your badge again."

Jim stepped back a pace and pulled out his badge. "Stay where you are," he cautioned the man. He slapped the badge down on the hood and pointed at it, then proceeded to search the man for weapons and drugs. "Take a good look."

"James Ellison," the man read off the license. "Good," he nodded and smirked, the nasty grin causing Blair's skin to crawl. "I want to know where to send the harassment charges."

Blair was stunned at the comment. "What?"

The man glared at him, his eyes hard. "Who's your wannabe hippie friend?" he asked Jim.

Blair spoke out before he thought about it. A second look at the man's glittering eyes should have warned him. This was someone angry at the world. "Hey, man!"

Jim held up a hand and pushed Blair back toward the truck as he stepped forward. "I can handle this."

He turned back to the man and glared back at him. Blair was pleased to see some of the belligerence in the man's face fade at Jim's look. "You're lucky you're not packing," Jim told him. "I could haul your ass in." He turned away as his cell phone rang and pulled it from his pocket.

"I was defending myself," the driver argued.

Jim turned back to him and placed a hand over his phone. "You were looking to start a fight and creating a public nuisance. Now stay where you are." Taking his hand away from his phone, he answered the call. "Ellison."

He listened for a moment then nodded and motioned for Blair to get back into the truck. "All right, I'm on my way."

Blair paused as Jim turned back to the BMW driver. "I'm going to let this one go," he said reasonably. "In the future, try practicing a little self-restraint."

The angry man bristled at Jim's words. "Wait a minute," he said, the scowl returning to his face. "You're the one who almost ran me off the road."

Jim shook his head. "'Almost' doesn't count, Ace." He dismissed him with a curt wave of his hand. "Now get out of here." He climbed into the truck beside Blair and wrinkled his nose. "The guy smells like he bathed in insecticide."

Blair grinned. "What was the call?" he asked.

"It was Simon," Jim replied as he pulled away from the traffic lights. "There's been another high-rise invasion job about a half hour ago at the apartments at the end of Nelson."

Blair looked up into the rear-view mirror as more car-horns honked and brakes squealed. The BMW still sat in the middle of the road, a growing line of cars behind it. He saw the driver of the BMW hang his arm out of his window and indicate for the other drivers to go around him. Blair shivered. He didn't think he'd ever seen someone so consumed by self-righteous rage before. He hoped never to see the man again.

~~~~~~~~

"Thank you, sir." Jim nodded to the guard who held open the lobby door and followed Blair over to where Captain Simon Banks stood at the front desk. "What have you got, Simon?"

"Well, it looks just like the other ones," Simon began. "A woman comes in looking for a relative. Next thing this guy knows he's got a taser in his neck and a kick to his face for his trouble." He indicated the miserable looking guard who sat on a chair at the desk holding an icepack to his face.

Jim winced in sympathy at the bruising marring the man's cheek. "Anything you can tell us?"

The guard nodded grimly. "Yeah, a lot."

"Blonde?" Jim asked.

The guard shook his head, then winced. "Uh-uh. Brunette."

"You think it's the same one?" Blair put in.

"Who knows?" Jim shrugged and turned to survey the rest of the lobby. "Next time, it could be a redhead."

"The cameras are disconnected, the phone lines cut," Simon supplied. "It had to be the same people."

Jim nodded in agreement. "Real pros."

~~~~~~~~

Dan Freeman leaned in close to read the 'Notice to vacate' sign stuck to his door. With a muttered curse, he tore the square of cardboard free. Unlocking his door, he entered the messy apartment and went immediately to his computer. Waiting while the computer booted up, Freeman read the eviction notice once more, then tore it into small pieces and tossed them on the floor. Seating himself in front of his computer, he opened his voice mail and waited for it to begin scrolling through. He snarled through anger-thinned lips as he recognized the voice of the building manager.

"Mr. Freeman, this is Bob, the building manager. I've had it with you, okay? Get me a check for the rent, or you're locked out."

"Wrong!" Freeman shouted, slamming his fist onto the desk. "I know my rights."

"Dan, this is Dr. Black. You haven't shown up for your last three sessions and, well, frankly, I'm concerned. You need a refill of your prescription and you need a blood test to ensure you on the correct therapeutic dose. Please call me as soon as you can."

The doctor's message had Freeman shaking his head in disgust. "I don't need that poison you want to put into me. Don't even pretend to care, you... You're trying to kill me. That's what it is. You're just like the others." He picked up a framed photo that sat on one side of the desk. "They're just like you. You're all the same," he muttered at the image of his parents posed in stiff formality.

Lifting it over his head, Freeman brought the photo slamming down onto the edge of the desk. He frowned as the glass shattered and tore into the picture beneath. "All of you, in my face, telling me what to do." Tossing the broken frame back onto the desk, Dan broke off his tirade as his gaze took in the notebook that he'd written the cop's name and license number in. Sitting beside it was his revolver. He looked back at the now silent computer. "It's my life. Nobody tells Dan Freeman what to do."

He picked up the weapon and examined it for a moment before opening it and tipping the bullets into his hand. Then he smiled nastily and put a single bullet back in. Standing, he backed away slightly from the desk, then aimed the gun down at the notebook and the hated name he'd scrawled there. "'Almost doesn't count,' huh?" he asked simultaneously pulling the trigger.

He flinched at the loud report in the close confines of the apartment and smiled in satisfaction at the ragged hole in the center of the page. Sitting down, he scooted his chair closer to the computer screen and punched in the address of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Entering the information he needed, he watched impatiently as a series of numbers and letters scrolled rapidly down the page. "Come on," he urged, chewing nervously on the edge of one well-bitten fingernail. "Let's go. Give me the password. Come on." As Jim Ellison's face came up on the screen, Dan Freeman sat back and smiled happily.

~~~~~~~~

Simon led Jim and Blair into the penthouse apartment that had been robbed. An elderly man stood with his arm around a weeping woman who was dressed in a maid's uniform. The man looked up at Simon and shook his head. "The coins they took are worth over a quarter of a million dollars."

The comment caused Hilda's sobbing to rise in volume and he patted her shoulder as he consoled her. "That's okay. It wasn't your fault." He looked again at the three men. "I'm Robert Thomas. My father started the collection when he was a boy. It's a big loss."

"Is there anything else missing?" Jim asked as he looked around the lavish apartment.

"My late wife's jewelry," Thomas said sadly.

"And how much was that worth?" Jim asked. When the man did not answer immediately, Jim pressed gently. "I'm sorry. I have to ask these questions, sir."

Thomas nodded his head in understanding. "A couple hundred thousand dollars, but it's not the money, Detective. It's worth much more than that in sentimental value." He shook his head again and then steered the still weeping maid away toward the door.

Simon watched with interest as Jim walked over to the opened safe and began what appeared to be a microscopic search of it and its interior. Though he had often seen Jim's sentinel abilities at work, the sight, the very idea of them still fascinated and awed him. He listened with half an ear as Blair spoke.

"That poor guy," Blair said, watching Robert Thomas speaking softly to Hilda at the door. "How do these thieves…" He shook his head. "How do they live with themselves?"

Simon raised his eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Sandburg, for someone with as much education as you have, you have a lot to learn."

Blair bristled at the impatient comment. "Well, as an anthropologist, I have to wonder what it is about our culture that breeds these types of criminals."

Simon sighed. The kid was too idealistic for police work. "I think it's money," he replied, trying to keep the sarcasm from his tone. He dismissed Blair's glare as he saw Jim pause in his examination, his face a mask of concentration. "You got something, Jim?"

Jim straightened and waved a hand at the safe. "Well, the safe has been wiped clean like the others, but they missed one. I think we got a partial right here, Captain."

Simon nodded, letting his approval show on his dark face. "I'll have Forensics check it out again."

~~~~~~~~

Having gleaned as much information as they could from the crime scene, Jim and Blair headed back to the loft. Jim followed Blair into the elevator and pushed the button for the third floor, only half-listening to his partner's tirade.

"All I'm saying is, these kinds of crimes, they factor into a bigger problem," Blair said.

Jim rolled his eyes at the lecture and wished for the elevator to rise faster. "There have always been criminals," he said in answer to Blair's comment.

"Yeah. No kidding, Jim," Blair replied with a small note of impatient sarcasm. "But today more and more people are getting pissed off at their lack of control."

Jim nodded absently, his nostrils twitching as a faint but foul-smelling odor assaulted them. He lifted one foot and checked the sole wondering if he'd stepped in something unpleasant on his way into his apartment building. Finding nothing on his right shoe, he checked the left one. Blair talked on, oblivious to the sentinel's antics.

"And the fact they don't have a healthy place to vent their frustration." Blair shook his head, his dark curls whipping from side to side with the motion. "I mean, take this freak show on the road today."

Jim let Blair's words drift past him, as the smell grew stronger. "Let me see your shoes, Chief."

Blair lifted one foot at a time for his partner's inspection, never breaking his rambling dialogue, "Do you know how many people have been hurt or killed because of road rage?" he asked, finally taking a breath as he waited for Jim to answer.

Jim stepped out into the hallway as the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened. He waited for Blair to join him then walked toward his apartment. "All right," he conceded to the anthropologist. "I'll drive safer in the future. What do you want?"

"Oh, come on. Don't be a wise-ass," Blair complained as Jim's lips twitched into a smile. "I'm just making an observation about where today's society is going."

The acrid smell grew stronger the closer the two men got to their apartment. Jim began to cough and gag as the smell seeped into his nasal passages. Blair looked at him with concern.

"What's the matter, Jim?"

Jim pulled his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth and spoke through the makeshift filter. "God, don't you smell that?"

Blair's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Yeah, actually I do."

"The sewers must be out or something," Jim said as they reached the front door.

Blair shook his head. "Oh no. The guy who keeps pigeons on the roof next door. It must be that."

Jim watched curiously as Blair stretched up and ran his hand along the top of the door. "Oh, where is it?" he muttered as though to himself.

"Where's what?" Jim asked.

"I hide a key on the door, so I don't get locked out," Blair explained.

Jim shook his head in exasperation. "Like now, huh?"

Blair patted his pockets then nodded. "Yeah." He looked hopefully at his partner. "You got yours?"

"Yeah." Jim pulled his keys from his pocket, keeping the shirt over the lower part of his face. "Good God," he exclaimed. He could feel his eyes beginning to water from the stench.

Blair turned away and fitted the key into the lock. "Look at that," the anthropologist said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's open."

Jim pulled his gun from its holster and aimed it at the partly opened door. Stepping forward, he pushed Blair firmly behind him and walked into the apartment…and stopped in disgusted shock, nausea surging up his throat.

"Oh, man." Blair peeked out from behind Jim, pulling his own shirt up to cover his nose. "What is that?"

Jim fought valiantly not to gag at the sight of the huge pile of waste adorning his living room floor. "That's horse manure, Chief." Grabbing Sandburg's arm, he turned and pulled the other man from the apartment.

~~~~~~~~

Simon tried not to smile as Jim recounted the story of the horse manure that had been dumped in his apartment the previous day, though at the same time, concern warred with humor at the possibility that someone had been able to get into the detective's apartment. Jim had organized a cleaning crew and then Blair had insisted that they spend the night at a motel after seeing Jim struggle to keep his sense of smell dialed down.

"Do you have any ideas who did it, Jim?" Simon asked as they walked into the bullpen.

Jim shook his head. "Not so far. Mrs. Mason, the old lady who lives on the ground floor told me she saw a man getting into the elevator with a shopping cart full of bags of the stuff." He sighed. "The trouble is she's almost blind, so we couldn't get a decent description out of her. Medium build, medium height."

Simon looked at the uncharacteristically silent police observer. "You piss off any sorority girls lately, Sandburg."

Jim snorted. "That's pretty malicious, even for the ones he goes out with."

Blair grimaced at the comment as Simon chuckled. The captain ushered the two men into his office. "Did he really have a key over the door?" he asked, indicating Blair with his thumb as he sat down at his desk.

Jim glared in Blair's direction and the young man looked suitably chagrined. "Not any more."

Simon picked up a folder from his desk. "This just came in from Research. Evidently a number of the robbery victims had work done at the same jeweler over on Fifth. Crown Jewelers. The guy's name is Robert Crown."

Jim took the report from his captain. "All right. I'll check it out. Let's go, Chief."

Simon sat down at his desk as the two men left and finally gave into the laughter that he'd been holding back. "Horse manure."

~~~~~~~~

Crown Jewelers was a small, elegant jewelry store on Fifth Avenue. Jim held the door open while Blair ducked under his arm and entered the shop.

"Good afternoon." A middle-aged man dressed in a well-cut suit approached them, his craggy features offering them a welcoming smile.

"Hi." Jim pulled his ID from his pocket and showed it to the man. "I'm Detective Ellison. This is Blair Sandburg."

"Robert Crown. What can I do for you?" the man asked in a broad Australian accent.

Jim got down to the business at hand as Blair prowled the store. "We're investigating a string of robberies," the detective explained. "Several of the victims are customers of yours." He handed Crown the list he'd received from Simon.

"Hmm. What a shame." Crown studied the list briefly, one watchful eye on Sandburg who stood in front of a display case, a look of rapt attention on his face.

Jim hadn't missed the sweat beading Crown's upper lip or the increase in his heart rate. Something was making the jeweler nervous. "So, this is all news to you?" Jim asked.

Crown flashed him a challenging glare. "Are you suggesting it should be something else?"

"I'm just here to gather information."

"Wow! This is really beautiful stuff, man," Blair suddenly interjected, as he examined the dark, earthy colors of the necklaces and bracelets in one of the display cases.

Crown dragged his attention away from Jim's assessing gaze. "Oh, yes. Thank you. I do a small business in Aboriginal jewelry," he said. "Well, you know. More of a hobby, really."

"Do you mind if I take a closer look?" Blair asked.

"Sure." Crown smiled.

"This is not a shopping trip, Chief. Okay?" Jim reminded his partner.

"Right." Blair looked chastened. "I'll come back later."

"That'd be a good idea," Jim replied. He turned to Crown. "Any other employees beside yourself?"

"Oh, no." Crown shook his head. "It's a one man operation. I like it that way. It keeps things simple."

"Well, why don't you take my number?" Jim handed the man his business card. "If anything occurs to you that might be of any help, please don't hesitate to call."

Crown accepted the card. "Of course."

"Thanks." Jim headed for the exit and waited for Blair to catch up.

"Really nice," Blair told Crown, stealing a last lingering look at the ethnic jewelry.

Crown smiled again. "Thank you."

Heading back to the truck, Jim mulled over the little information that they'd gleaned from Robert Crown. There was no doubt that the man had seemed nervous and Jim decided to do some digging into the jeweler's background when they got back to the station.

Nearing the truck, he stopped so suddenly Blair ran into his back. Just ahead, Jim could see two men hooking his truck up to a tow truck. Rushing toward them, he pulled his badge from his pocket and waved it in the air as he shouted to get their attention. "Hey! Hey, buddy! You'd better have a pretty good reason for towing a police vehicle."

One of the men looked up at Jim's frantic shouts and squinted carefully at the detective's ID before speaking up. "Yeah. It was reported stolen, Detective."

Jim's mouth dropped open in surprise and he was aware of a similar stunned look on Blair's face. "What do you mean, reported stolen?"

A car revving its engine in the distance encroached on Jim's heightened hearing and, distracted for a moment, he let his sight follow the sound. Dialing up, he saw a black BMW just pulling away from the curb. "I'll be damned," he muttered. The driver was clearly visible to his enhanced sight.

He felt Blair's hand on his arm and shook himself from a near zone-out as he focused on the license plate number of the BMW.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked.

"It's that jerk with the bad cologne. You got a pen?" At Blair's affirmative nod, Jim recited the number. "0-8-2-F-R-I. Write it down. I'll run it when we get back to the station." He pulled impatiently at the levers securing his truck to the tow hook. "What, do I have to call Monty Hall for this? Come on!"


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


Blair sat in Simon's office and watched Jim pace angrily. Simon was on the phone, half an ear on Jim's rambling.

"I accidentally cut him off in traffic the other day and he went postal on me," Jim said.

Blair rolled his eyes and sat forward a little. "Well, Jim, you got a little crazy with him, too."

Jim turned to face Blair, his eyes flashing. "The guy had it coming, you know that."

Blair shrugged and wisely said nothing, unwilling to concede the point. He looked over at Simon, willing the captain to finish his conversation and intercede. As though reading his mind, Simon spoke into the phone.

"All, right, as soon as you get anything on those prints, let me know. Great." He hung up the phone and looked at Jim and Blair. "Sorry, guys. Just because this Dan Freeman cut you off in traffic doesn't mean it's the same guy who phoned in the phony stolen vehicle report.

Jim shook his head. "No, I saw him in his car taking off, sir. I called in the registration on the vehicle."

"The fertilizer fits, too, Simon," Blair added. "I mean, Jim was making cracks about the guy's cologne, how it smelled and stuff like that."

Simon frowned at the detective. "Did you provoke this guy?"

Jim glared at Blair, then sighed. "I got a little ticked off," he conceded.

"Yeah, well, you've been getting a little ticked off a little too easily lately," Blair muttered darkly. He shifted back in his chair as Jim turned and shouted at him, his face dark with anger.

"Was I talking to you?"

Blair looked at Simon, an 'I told you so' look on his face. "That's it right there."

"All right, look, guys, anybody can have a bad day and, frankly, Jim, your driving skills could use a little improvement," Simon said. "How many vehicles have you cracked up in the past year -- is that three, four?"

Jim's glacial stare was directed at his captain now. "No, it's the past two years and how did this get turned around on me?"

"Because I expect my guys to set an example," Simon replied in a reasoning tone. "There's a lot of nuts out there. Somebody cuts somebody off in traffic, next thing you know one of them is dead. They even have a name for it. It's called..."

"Road rage," Blair put in helpfully.

This time it was Simon who speared the observer with an impatient look. "Was I talking to you?" he growled.

Blair raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and sat back, opting to stay out of the rest of the conversation, his thoughts turned inward as he racked his brain for a reason for Jim's sudden loss of control. The detective was known to have a quick and volatile temper but since Blair had been able to help him in controlling his senses, Jim had become mellower. Until now. There had to be something going on in the sentinel's life that was causing him to be so on edge.

Blair listened as Simon advised Jim to leave Dan Freeman alone until they could get some proof he was behind the harassment, but Jim's temper was flaring again.

"They were more than just pranks," Jim ground out. "This guy's screwing with me. And I don't intend to let him get away with it."

Simon raised himself to his full imposing height. "Neither will I, but I want you to back off! Now are you listening to me? Let's let the guys down at Patrol handle this, all right?" Simon stared at Jim.

Blair tried his best to placate his partner. "Yeah, Jim, just let it go, you know. I mean, this isn't exactly Major Crimes."

"Well, it is to me," Jim replied. He sighed again and scrubbed a hand through his cropped hair as he explained, "The guy takes a swipe at me. He dumps this manure in my apartment. He gets my car towed." He looked again at his captain. "I can get this guy, Simon. I saw the plates on his car, for God's sake."

The ringing of the phone ambushed Simon's next comment. Holding up a hand for silence, he answered it. "Banks. What? All right. No, no. Great, great. Can you fax me a hard copy of that right away? One to the DA as well. Save time on the warrant. Great. Thanks. I owe you one, buddy."

He hung up the phone and smiled. "That was Interpol. You know that partial print you found? It belongs to Bobby King. Safe cracker. Outstanding warrants in Brisbane and Sydney, Australia. Had an alias." He waited a moment as Jim raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Robert Crown."

~~~~~~~~

Jim and Simon watched a glowering Robert Crown through the observation window as the safe cracker sat silently in an interrogation room.

"He refused to make a statement about the robberies," Jim told Simon. "Says he wants us to ship him back to Australia to face charges there."

Simon shook his head, looking disgusted. "Pack up and leave without a fight just like that, huh?" he replied. He turned away from the window and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well, the DA's willing to deal. He'll waive extradition and reduce the charges in return for information on the gang."

"Crown won't admit he had anything to do with them," Jim answered, walking toward the door.

"Well, keep pushing his buttons," Simon suggested, turning back to look at the man in the other room. "I'm not going to let him leave without drawing a little bit of blood."

~~~~~~~~

Half of the Major Crimes team had descended on Robert Crown's apartment with a warrant. Jim was overseeing the search, directing traffic in a way. He looked up as Detective Rafe walked down the stairs.

"Crown's apartment upstairs is clean," the young detective told Jim.

"Thanks, Rafe," Jim replied. He crossed the room to where Henri Brown sat at a computer, scrolling through a list of names on the screen. "What have you got, H?" Jim asked, leaning over Henri's broad shoulder to take a look.

"Looks like an address book," Henri said.

"Business or personal?"

Brown shrugged. "He's got it all mixed up." He continued to scroll down the page.

Jim clapped Brown on the shoulder and straightened then turned his attention to Sandburg who stood on the other side of the room, fiddling with an answering machine. "You talk to the landlord, Chief?"

Blair looked disappointed. "Yeah, yeah. He said he's been here about a year and always pays his rent on time. There are a couple of messages on the machine." He pushed a button on the answering machine and waited.

A man's voice came from the speaker. "It's Leeds. I got your message. Call me." The tape clicked off and then on again, then the same voice spoke again. "Crown? Leeds. You've got ten minutes, babe."

Jim motioned to Brown at the computer. "Run Leeds," he said.

As Henri nodded and began punching keys, Leeds spoke again on the answering machine. "Okay, I've got something to do now. Call me at 11:00 sharp. Not before."

"Another satisfied customer," Blair quipped.

Jim nodded and walked back to Henri Brown. "Anything on him?"

"Got a Lane, Leavitt... Here it is -- Leeds, Trent Leeds. This guy must move around a lot. He's got three telephone numbers, seven addresses."

"Run them all," Jim said.

Brown gave him a jaunty salute. "Done."

"Okay," Jim said. "I'm going to head back to the station and talk to Crown. You coming, Sandburg?"

Blair checked his watch and frowned. "Actually I need to check on a couple of things at the university. Can you drop me off there? I'll meet you back at the station in a couple of hours."

"All right. Let's go. I've got something I want to run past you on the way. I think I've figured out a way to get on the inside of this gang."

~~~~~~~~

Jim leaned in close to Robert Crown. He kept his voice low, his tone deep and faintly menacing. "Trent Leeds was arrested in San Francisco in 1991 for a high-rise home invasion robbery. He's been picked up in several other states, but he's never been convicted."

Crown shook his head vehemently. "I told you -- he's a customer. I don't know anything about him."

Jim kept going, not bothering to wait until Crown finished his sentence. "Another member of Leeds' team, who was also a safe man was set to testify against him a couple of years back. Guy wound up short a right hand."

Crown nodded his head vigorously. "Okay," he agreed. "So now you know why I'm not talking."

Jim straightened up and regarded the criminal, a sardonic smile on his face. "It's too bad the minute you hit the street, I'm gonna have to put out the word that you sang like an opera singer."

Jim knew the minute the fear hit Crown's eyes. "You'd get me killed to solve your case?"

Jim shrugged nonchalantly. "Turnabout is fair play," he replied. He walked over to the wall and leaned his back against it. Crossing his arms over his chest, he waited for Crown to make his decision. He didn't have to wait long.

"All right," Crown said. "What do you want to know."

~~~~~~~~

Blair leaned back in his office chair and sucked in a breath. He read the page in front of him once again, wondering if what he had discovered could be applied to Jim. Thinking back to the detective's overreaction to Dan Freeman's after-shave and taking into account Jim's heightened sense of smell, it wasn't impossible, he decided. He remembered a past case when a woman's pheromones had hit Jim so hard, he couldn't think straight. Blair shuddered.

Standing up and pulling his jacket from where he'd draped it over the back of his chair Blair wondered how to explain this theory to Jim. The detective had already been riled up over the purse-snatcher's case being thrown out of court, he was questioning once more if his senses were a gift or a curse. The conditions had been ripe for an overload. Jim's senses were skating on the edge of a zone-out and along comes Freeman oozing aggression and stinking of cheap after-shave. Yep, Blair thought, sensory hell. Of course, how Jim would take to the idea was a whole other story.

~~~~~~~~

"Well, he took my bluff," Jim told Simon as the two men walked back to the bullpen. "He admitted he was working with Leeds on these apartment invasion jobs, but we'll never get him to testify."

"Too scared?" Simon suggested.

Jim stopped at his desk. "Well, we could probably book Crown for the Thomas burglary and maybe even get a conviction, but Leeds and the other guys are going to walk. I got it right here, sir." He smiled as Blair walked over to join them.

"Hey, guys." Blair smiled then turned immediately to Simon. "So are you going to let him do it or what?"

Jim held up a hand to silence the observer. "We were just getting there," he explained.

Simon looked instantly suspicious. "Do what?" he asked, his steely gaze flitting from Jim to Blair and back again. "I don't like the sound of this. What's going on?"

"Crown's willing to hook me up with Leeds if the DA allows him to go back to Australia to face charges there," he said.

Simon stared at Blair who for once didn't appear to be objecting to Jim's idea. "You want to go in undercover?"

Jim nodded enthusiastically. "If we want to take down this gang, it's the best chance we have."

Simon looked skeptical. "How the hell do you expect to pull this off?"

Blair offered his expert opinion and Jim smiled at him gratefully. "Uh, Simon, actually, with Jim's abilities, he should be able to hear and feel the safe's tumblers falling into place. He's done it before. And with a little practice..."

"We don't have time for practice," Simon interjected brusquely.

Jim took a step closer to his captain. "I can do this, Simon. I've beaten other locks. How much different can this be?"

The silence was deafening as Simon appeared to mull it over. Finally, "I'll think about it," he said and walked off.

"Let's call it a day, Chief," Jim said, grabbing his jacket. "I've got some homework to do."

Blair raised his eyebrows at the comment but followed Jim out of the bullpen. "So do I, Jim. So do I."

~~~~~~~~

Jim steered the truck toward home while Blair sat beside him studying the file on Leeds. Finally, the anthropologist looked up with a worried frown on his face and spoke. "Are you sure you want to go through with this undercover thing?" he asked.

Jim glanced at him in puzzlement. "I thought you were on board, especially after that little speech to Simon."

"Well, I am, I guess," Blair said, sounding like he was anything but 'on board.'

"What do you mean, 'you guess'?"

Blair stared out the passenger window at the passing view. "It's just that everything I'm reading here about Trent Leeds and his crew says that if they even suspect you're a plant, you're dead."

Jim shook his head. "If they check me out, they're gonna find a record a mile long on Bill Murdoch," he replied confidently. "I've done undercover work before, Sandburg. This is nothing new."

Blair didn't look convinced. "Yeah, but the real Bill Murdoch is some howdy-bob cowboy from Texas. I mean, how are you going to pull that off?"

Jim tapped the side of his head and grinned. "I got a plan, Chief. I got it all worked out."

Blair shook his head and closed his eyes, leaning back against the headrest. "That's beautiful," he muttered. He sat up, startled as car horns sounded loudly behind them. He swiveled in his seat, trying to look out the rear window as Jim checked the rear view mirror.

A black BMW was a couple of car lengths behind them, swerving back and forth over both lanes as other cars tried desperately to stay out of its path. Jim dialed up his sight and recognized the familiar features of Dan Freeman.

"Hang on!" Jim ordered tersely. Planting his foot on the brake, the detective yanked hard on the steering wheel, spinning the truck to sit sideways on the road, blocking all the oncoming traffic.

Blair stared at him, his mouth wide open and his face pale. "Are you nuts?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, a little," he replied grimly. Climbing out of the truck, he jogged back to the BMW, feeling his temper flare like a fire out of control. He clenched his jaw, hoping to tamp down his anger before it consumed him. "Get out of the car. Get out of the car!"

Reaching in as Freeman opened his door, Jim grasped the man by an arm and hauled him from the vehicle. Grasping him by the lapels of his jacket, the detective pulled him upright and shook him as one would a naughty child. "What is your problem, Freeman?" Jim asked, punctuating each word with a shake.

Freeman smiled slightly and when he spoke his voice carried a hint of puzzled amusement. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Jim glared at the other man, then pushed his face closer so that they were almost nose to nose. "Why are you following me?" he demanded.

"I think you're a little paranoid." Freeman waved a hand at their surroundings. "This is a public street."

"My living room is not a public street!" Jim replied. He could smell Freeman's rank after-shave mingling with his sweat and body odor, crawling into his sinuses, beginning to overwhelm him.

"Unless you want to get hit with a major, major harassment suit, you'll take your hands off me," the other man threatened.

"Jim!" Blair's voice and his hand on Jim's arm snapped him back, pulling him from a near zone-out.

Jim gasped, caught his breath and shook his head. Blair's worried voice was close to his ear, the anthropologist's broad hands shifting now to press against his chest, keeping him a step away from the leering Freeman. "Hey, buddy, don't let him bait you. Come on, man!"

Jim took a slow deep breath for a count of five, the nerve in his cheek still twitching madly, then he nodded and gently shifted Blair to one side. His eyes narrowed as he regarded Freeman. He nodded reassuringly at his partner. "This time, I'm going to take the high road, Chief. Don't worry. "

Blair studied him closely for a moment, then nodded seemingly satisfied. As they walked back to the truck, Jim suddenly wheeled around, pushing Blair aside and strode back toward Freeman who still stood next to his car.

"You consider this a warning, punk," Jim ground out, one finger pointing at Freeman. "Any more practical jokes and I'll be on you worse than that cheap bug spray you're wearing, you got me? By the time I'm done with you, it'll be you who can't prove a thing."

Blair regarded Jim, his blue eyes glacial as they climbed into the truck. "Is that what you call taking the high road?" he asked, his tone placid, but an edge of impatience evident in his gaze.

"Hey, I didn't punch the guy out, did I?" Jim asked, shrugging his shoulders as he started the truck. "All right. I'm sorry," he added when Blair didn't react to his jibe. Blair nodded his acceptance but didn't reply.


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


Blair looked up from his notebook as the familiar, and by now tiresome, theme music for the TV show 'Bonanza' started up again. Shaking his head, he put aside his pen and paper and made his way into the living room. Jim was sprawled on the couch watching the screen with avid attention.

"How many episodes is this?" the anthropologist asked, as he peered at the TV.

"Five," Jim replied. He sat up straighter and looked at Blair. "Did you know that each of the sons had a different mother?"

"Oh, man..." Blair sat down on the arm of the chair and watched the action on the TV for a moment, shaking his head as Jim spoke.

"This is the one where Hop Sing gets pinned with a murder rap."

Blair reached out quickly and picked up the remote, switching off the TV set. He ignored Jim's glare, tossed the remote onto the couch and turned to his partner. "Look, man, you can't learn an accent by watching episodes of 'Bonanza,' okay? The Ponderosa, it's not even in Texas, Jim, and Lorne Greene is about as old west as William Shatner."

Jim merely stared at him mutely as though he was waiting for him to get to the point, so he did. "Well, actually," Blair continued. "That's pretty fitting considering that they're both Canadian, Jim!" He really didn't mean to grind the last words out between clenched teeth but he didn't think he could go another round with Pa and the boys.

Jim leaned back and rested his arms along the back of the couch. "Well, you got a better fix than that there, Little Joe?"

Blair tried not to roll his eyes. "Yeah, I do. Um, I got some cousins that live in Fort Worth and they don't really, uh..." He paused as he tried to better explain himself. "They don't really talk like that down in Texas. You either got yourself... You either got yourself a little lilt or you got yourself a twang, or a drawl, right?" He smiled as Jim grinned widely at his mimicry.

"I don't really see myself as a 'lilt or drawl' kind of guy," the detective finally said in a Texas accent that Blair had to admit was passable.

It was Blair's turn to chuckle. "Well, then, I guess that makes you a twanger kind of guy, huh, Hoss?" He sobered then as he thought of the research he'd done at the university. "Jim? We need to talk about this other stuff with Dan Freeman."

Jim tensed. "What stuff?"

"About what happens whenever he's near you."

Jim stood and stretched, popping joints in his neck. "I'll tell you what happens, Chief. Every time he comes near me, he gets up my nose. Him and that cheap bug spray." He walked out to the kitchen and pulled two bottles of water from the refrigerator then came back and handed one to Blair before twisting the cap from his and drinking deeply.

Blair fiddled with the seal on the bottle cap. "Actually, I think you're right -- sort of."

"All right. Spill it, Darwin. What weird ideas are floating around in that brain of yours this time?" Jim's tone was teasing, but a quick glance told Blair that Jim was prepared to at least listen to his theory.

"Okay." Blair thought for a moment until he found his starting point. "Remember I told you that I thought the reason you didn't see the red car was because you were so angry, you were sort of on the edge of a mini zone-out."

Jim nodded slowly. "What's that got to do with Freeman?"

Blair held his hands up. "Let me finish. That first incident with Freeman happened right after and you were still riled up. Your senses were on the verge of overloading and you were so strung out, you were having trouble dialing them back."

Jim looked thoughtful. "The after-shave?"

Blair nodded, relieved that the sentinel appeared to be accepting his theory so far. "That and his aggression. I mean the guy was just manic. He had me thinking I was going to need a change of underwear, man." He grinned quickly then continued. "I think the scent of his aggression sent you into a primal overdrive, like a protective behavior and now whenever you see him, your brain senses that after-shave and it's like a sensory trigger that this is danger." He stopped, drew a breath, swallowed a gulp of water and waited for the explosion or derision. Neither came.

"That's a good thing, isn't it?" Jim asked. "I mean it's like having an alarm."

"Well, it could be," Blair ventured. "As long as you can keep it under control. What I'm worried about is you'll spike and overload and lose control. I'm worried about what you could do without really being aware of it."

"Be as bad as Freeman, you mean?" Jim asked quietly.

"Well, yeah. For all the right reasons, but yeah."

"All right, how do we make sure that doesn't happen?"

Blair raised a hand. "Now that I don't know, yet, but I'm working on it."

"So, go work," Jim ordered, pushing his partner off the arm of the chair. "I have five more episodes of 'Bonanza' here. I figure by the end of them, I'll be speaking Texan like a native."

With that, he leaned forward and turned the TV back on. Blair shuddered at the hated theme music and walked away with his hands over his ears.

~~~~~~~~

Jim, with his Bill Murdoch persona firmly in place, sat in the bar of the Meridian Hotel where he'd arranged to meet with Trent Leeds. A waft of perfume teased at his nose and made him look up from his newspaper into the dark eyes of a beautiful young woman.

"Bill Murdoch?" she asked in a breathy voice.

"That's right," Jim replied. He folded his newspaper and placed it on the table as she handed him a business card with Trent Leeds name printed on it.

"He's waiting for us in his suite," the woman added as she motioned for Jim to follow her. "I'm Melanie."

Jim gave her his most charming smile. "Hi, Melanie." He followed her into the elevator and watched her push the button for the top floor. Stepping out, Melanie led the way to the far end of the hallway. She opened the door and smiled as Jim waved her inside. "After you," he said.

"Thank you," Melanie replied.

Trent Leeds was a tall, thin man with a faintly menacing demeanor. Another man stood silent and watchful at his side. Jim followed Leeds across the room to where a safe sat atop a table.

Leeds turned and regarded Jim appraisingly. "Good you could come on such short notice, Murdoch."

Jim smiled easily. "Glad to do Bobby Crown the favor. You see, Bobby and I did a little time together down in Australia before they, uh...escorted me out of the country." He chuckled. "It's too bad he had to leave."

Leeds shrugged. "He's a practical guy. Cops were asking him questions I didn't want answered. He did what I told him to do."

"Well, I can be on a plane back to Dallas as soon as we're done with the job," Jim replied. "I mean, if that's what you want. I mean, uh..."

He broke off as Leeds settled himself on an armchair and pulled a stopwatch from his pocket. "Let's see if you're as good as Bobby says. You've got one minute." He pointed at the safe.

Jim studied the safe then looked back at Leeds. "And if it takes me longer?"

Leeds pulled a gun from behind his back and pointed it at Jim's chest. "Then we've got a problem."

Jim backed away a step, bringing both hands up in front of him. "Oh, easy there. That seems a little extreme, wouldn't you say?"

"Nope," Leeds answered. "You see, I like people that work well under pressure."

Jim walked over to the safe and reached for the knob. Dialing up his hearing, he quickly tried to focus on the tumblers within the lock mechanism, waiting to hear them disengage. He smiled slightly as the last one unlocked, then opened the safe door with a flourish.

Leeds looked suitably impressed. "Well, well. 42 seconds," he said, consulting his watch. Then he indicated the safe again. "Uh, part two. The timer inside is rigged to ten grams of C-4. You got...25 seconds to disconnect it or your hands are going be hamburger. Drop it and you're dead." He made a hurrying gesture with his gun. "Clock's ticking, Murdoch."

Jim turned his attention back to the safe. The second lock was simpler and he had the door open in a matter of seconds. Reaching inside he pulled out the block of explosive, then realizing that Leeds would hardly be staying in the room if the bomb were real, he took his time pulling the wires out of the detonator. He stared at Leeds as the criminal counted it down.

"Ten... nine... eight...seven...six...five...four... three..." Leeds stopped the clock and nodded. "You pass."

Melanie smiled seductively at Jim. "Hmm, that's brilliant."

~~~~~~~~

Jim and Blair returned to the precinct and as they made their way into the bullpen, Jim grasped Blair's arm, pulling him around to look at him. "You want to give Records a call?" the detective asked, his voice soft. "See what you can run down on Dan Freeman?"

Blair looked reluctant. "Simon said to let Patrol handle it," he began.

"It's not going to hurt to have some background on the guy, is it?" Jim reasoned, steering Blair to his desk and pulling out his chair. "Might give us an idea of what we're dealing with."

Blair appeared to think it over for a moment, then nodded slowly and picked up the phone. Jim grinned and tousled the young man's long hair before heading toward Simon's office.

"Hey, Jim." The detective stopped and turned around as Joel Taggart called his name.

"I just wanted to tell you that you are a great person, man," Taggart said as he and Brown approached the puzzled detective.

Jim looked from one dark, smiling face to the other. "What do you guys need?"

Taggart nudged Henri. "Show him."

Jim whistled in appreciation as Henri pulled up his shirtsleeve to reveal an expensive looking watch. "That's a nice watch," he said to Henri. "Did you win the lottery?"

"What? Jim, don't be so humble," Joel replied, looking somewhat confused. He nudged Henri again, puzzlement turning to worry. "I told you there was something weird about this."

"What this?" Jim shook his head and resumed his path to Simon's office.

A cheer and applause behind him caused him to turn once more. A large group of police officers crowded the doorway of the bullpen, all were smiling widely and several pulled up their shirtsleeves to display expensive watches. Jim looked at Simon in confusion as the captain stepped out of his office and called for silence.

"Excuse me, everyone," Simon said. "There's been a terrible mistake. These aren't gifts." He gestured to the watches that everyone in the room except Jim and Blair appeared to be wearing. "I mean, uh…" he looked at Jim. "Isn't that right, Jim?"

Jim shook his head, speechless. He turned to look at Blair who stood from from the desk and looked as puzzled as he did.

"All right. Everyone back to work." Simon took control. "You two, my office," he ordered Jim and Blair. "Let's see if we can get this sorted out. Brown, collect the watches."

~~~~~~~~

Jim stared at the jeweler as the severe-looking man placed the last watch into the carry case and snapped it shut. "$23,000?" he gulped out.

The man nodded. "A number of your credit cards were used to make the purchase."

Jim scrubbed a hand through his hair. "My God, that's got to be all the credit I have in the world. How long will it take to clear it up?"

The jeweler regarded him icily. "At least forty eight hours," he said. "I'd cancel all my cards immediately if I were you."

Jim nodded. "I plan to."

"Very good." With that, the jeweler picked up the case and walked stiffly from the room.

Jim watched him go, then turned back to Simon and Blair. "What's he getting in a huff about?" he asked. "It was my money!" He shook his head in disgust and began to prowl the office like a caged cat. "Can you believe this? The bastard maxed out my cards."

Simon sat down at his desk and sighed. "You think it's this Freeman character?"

"No, sir. I don't think, I know," Jim replied, his anger still simmering.

Blair sat forward on his seat. "We did a background check on him." He shrugged, looking guiltily at Simon's glare and rushed on. "It seems this guy's some sort of computer genius. He used to design operating systems. And before that he worked for a credit card company. So he does have the expertise."

Simon nodded. "What else?"

Jim took over the narrative. "Well, he was fired from his last job when they discovered he'd hacked into the accounting data base system and cut himself a big check. He claimed it was for royalties he was owed on a programming design."

Simon raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "The company didn't prosecute?"

"Well, technically, he was owed the money," Blair put in. "They let him go, he sued them for wrongful termination. Word got around the industry that he's bad news and now he can't get arrested." The anthropologist smiled weakly. "No pun intended. Several of his coworkers claimed he had some kind of mental disorder. From the description, it sounds like it could be bi-polar disorder. It used to be called manic depression," he explained at Simon's mystified expression. "I haven't been able to find out if he's being treated or not, but my guess is, after seeing this guy up close and personal a couple of times, not." He was interrupted by a knock at the door.

Rhonda entered at Simon's invitation and held out a sheet of paper to Jim. "Jim, the Marshall's office just delivered this. I signed for it."

"Thanks, Rhonda." Jim took the document and scanned the front quickly then opened it.

Blair stood up and tried to read over Jim's shoulder. "What is it?" he asked finally.

Jim shook his head, hardly able to believe what he was reading then tossed the paper onto Simon's desk. "It's a restraining order."

~~~~~~~~

Jim made his way up the lobby stairs of the Meridian Hotel. He'd arranged to meet Melanie in the hotel bar after she'd called him when he was on his way home. Something pungent tickled at his nose and he automatically dialed up his sense of smell. His anger surged at the familiar odor.

Jim turned slowly, tracking the scent and saw Dan Freeman lounging nonchalantly against the balustrade on the opposite side of the staircase. Jim clenched his jaw tightly and breathed harshly through his nose, but the fury won out, the sensory trigger sending him spiraling into a sea of swirling red. A headache spiked sharply in his skull as he forced himself back from the edge of the zone-out, his fingernails digging deeply into his palms. Feeling his somewhat shaky control return, Jim took a couple of steps forward but halted when Freeman held up a hand.

Freeman grinned nastily. "I wouldn't come any closer than that, because if you do, I'll have to call the cops." He snickered at his own inane joke then leaned forward conspiratorially. "Also, I'd be real careful of what you say because…" Freeman raised his other hand and opened it to reveal a miniature tape recorder. He pressed a button and grinned widely as Jim's voice, tight with anger, came spilling from the speaker.

<"Any more practical jokes and it'll be you who won't be able to prove a thing.">

Jim clenched his fists tighter, hearing his knuckles crack and forced his voice to remain steady, "What are you doing here, Freeman?"

Freeman shrugged laconically. "This is America. I can hang out pretty much where I want."

Jim turned resolutely away from the mocking face.

"Hey, Ellison," Freeman called after him. "Can I ask you a question? Do you always park three blocks away to avoid valet parking?" He burst into maniacal laughter.

Jim turned back, anger bunching his muscles until they cramped. "You know," he said quietly as he advanced on the other man once more. "Stalking is a crime in this state."

He was pleased to see a flash of fear cross Freeman's face as he backed away from Jim's approach until the balustrade halted his retreat. Freeman held up a restraining hand that shook slightly.

"Okay, wait a minute. You're getting a little too close. I'll count to ten and when I get to ten, you have to be one hundred feet away from me, otherwise I'll have to dial 911."

The tone was defiant, but Jim could detect the tremor in the voice. The sentinel's smile became feral. "Just remember," Jim said softly. "One hundred feet cuts both ways."

"Everything cuts both ways, Ellison," Freeman replied. "An eye for an eye and all that. You still hanging out with that hippie wannabe?"

Jim took another step forward but stopped when a quick upward glance showed Melanie waiting at the top of the stairs. She smiled and waved.

"You stay away from my partner, Freeman. You got that?"

Freeman held up the tape recorder again but Jim could see that the record button hadn't been depressed. He turned on his heel and made his way quickly up the stairs. He fought to get his pounding heart and rising anger under control and plastered an easy smile on his face for Melanie's benefit. As soon as he could, he needed to get a warning to Sandburg about Freeman.


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


Melanie shifted her barstool closer to Jim's and smiled. "Thanks for meeting me," she said.

"You said it was important," Jim reminded her.

The young woman picked up her drink and sipped at it before replying, batting her eyelashes seductively at him. "Yeah, well…uh, I lied…a little."

Jim nodded. "Okay. Shoot."

Melanie pouted. "Why are men so dumb?" she huffed petulantly. "Here I am, practically throwing myself at you and you don't even know it."

Jim tried to look apologetic. "Sorry."

"Well?" Melanie asked hopefully but her face crumpled at Jim's reply.

"Well, what?"

She rolled her eyes then leaned in closer, running a perfectly manicured fingernail down Jim's cheek. "I hear this hotel has beautiful rooms," she breathed.

Jim caught her hand. "Now, Melanie, there's nothing I'd like more…"

"But?"

Jim shrugged. "My wife wouldn't understand, you see?" He reached for his cell phone as it rang.

Melanie frowned. "If that's her, I'll shoot myself."

Jim raised an eyebrow then spoke into the phone. "Hello."

Blair's voice came through the speaker. "Hey, Jim. It's me."

Desperate not to raise Melanie's suspicions, Jim replied. "Hi, honey." He couldn't resist a smile at Sandburg's startled grunt. He felt Melanie trail her fingers down his cheek once more and fought to keep his mind on the phone call as Blair's voice summoned him.

"Jim? Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah, sugar?" Jim replied.

There was a moment's silence then Blair spoke again. "Honey? Sugar?"

Jim watched in relief as Melanie drifted away from his side. "I was with Melanie. I'm sorry," he explained.

"You told me to call," Blair said. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"

"No, no, no," Jim assured him. "I was on my way home. I got a phone call from Melanie asking me to meet her at Leeds' hotel. I've got a big problem. Freeman's here."

"Freeman? What, is that guy following you?" Blair sounded worried.

"Yeah." Jim blew out a breath as he felt the tension returning at the mere mention of the man's name. "Sandburg, if I wasn't a cop, man, I'd pummel that putz into a coma," Jim ground out.

"Just calm down, man. Calm down," Blair said. "I've never seen anybody get to you like this. Remember what we talked about? Don't let your anger take you out of the game."

Jim nodded, feeling his anger beginning to ebb. He saw Melanie approaching once more and leaned forward, speaking urgently. "Now listen to me. You watch your back, Sandburg. I'm not entirely sure it's just me that Freeman is after. Better yet, call Simon and have him pick Freeman up on a stalking charge. That way, we can keep him off the streets until we take Leeds down. You got me?" He waited for Blair's affirmation before continuing. "Tell Simon we're good for tomorrow morning too."

"All right, I will," Blair replied. "Jim? You be careful, man."

Jim smiled up at Melanie as he answered. "I will. Thanks for calling. I love you too. Bye-bye." He hung up and put the phone back in his pocket before picking up Melanie's drink and handing it to her.

"I've decided not to shoot myself," Melanie said mournfully.

"Well, good." Jim smiled and picked up his own glass.

"Give me her address in Dallas and I'll have somebody shoot her."

Jim chuckled weakly though there was no answering smile on Melanie's face.

~~~~~~~~

Melanie looked over at Jim and sighed sadly as he escorted her down the stairs to the hotel exit. "Well, that was fun," she said.

Jim smiled back at her and she melted. "I'll have one of the folks out front call you a cab," he offered.

Melanie touched his cheek. "Sweet, but I'll think I'll walk. Got to get rid of all my nervous tension," she explained.

"Suit yourself," Jim said.

Melanie stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked at Jim's handsome face. "See you tomorrow?" On impulse, she reached for him, pulling him close enough for a lingering kiss. "Thanks for the company," she said when she pulled away.

She wandered slowly down the sidewalk, lost in her own thoughts and idly scolding herself for always seeming to be attracted to married men. Stepping onto the street to cross to the other side, she froze at a squeal of brakes and stared wide-eyed as a car came to a screaming halt just in front of her. "Hey, man. Nice driving," she shouted, fear making her heart pound.

A well-built young man stepped from the black BMW and hurried over to her. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't even looking where I was going," he said. He touched her arm gently. "Are you okay?"

Melanie nodded. "Yeah. I'll live," she replied shakily.

The dark-haired man smiled at her. "Wow! Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?"

Melanie chuckled at his clumsy charm.

"I'm sorry. I am," he repeated. He walked back to the car and opened his door then looked back at her. "Can I give you a lift?"

Melanie considered it for a split-second then thought of Bill Murdoch. "Yeah." She walked over to the passenger side, smiling when the young man rushed around to open the door for her. "Thank you," she said coyly.

~~~~~~~~

Dan parked the BMW on a hill overlooking the city nightlights and turned to take Melanie in his arms. Melanie allowed the embrace and gentle kiss, then pushed herself away from Dan's hungry mouth. "You smell so good," she purred. "You are just what the doctor ordered."

Dan smiled and stroked the backs of his fingers down her cheek. "You want to go back to your place?" he suggested silkily.

"Maybe tomorrow," she answered, turning her head slightly to capture his fingers with her lips. "I have to get an early start in the morning," she added when he pouted.

"Oh, work," Dan said, nodding his understanding.

"Uh-huh."

"What do you do?"

Melanie leaned in closer. "I'm a thief," she whispered then giggled. "I'm kidding. Actually I'm in the insurance business and I have an early meeting. Maybe you should take me home." She sat up in her seat and straightened her clothes. "But you can't stay," she admonished him, "for more than an hour."

Dan grinned and started the car.

~~~~~~~~

Jim was back at the hotel by seven the next morning. Waiting in the foyer for Leeds and the others to arrive, Jim pulled out his cell phone and punched in Simon's number, his thoughts on other concerns.

The captain answered quickly. "Banks. Jim, where are you?"

"I just got to the hotel, Captain. What's the word on Freeman?" Jim asked.

"There's still no sign of him," Simon replied. "Look, I hate to say this, but I think we should call off this whole operation."

"That's a bad move. I'm inside, sir. It's almost over." He spoke quickly as a glance at the staircase showed Leeds and his henchman and Melanie walking down toward him. "Anyway, it's too late. They're here. Blow them off now, we'll lose them forever. All right, darling, I love you. Bye-bye." He hung up quickly before Simon could say anything else.

Melanie yawned then smiled at him. "Sorry. I was up all night. I met somebody nice. Are you jealous?"

Jim tensed as he recognized Freeman's cologne on Melanie. It couldn't be a coincidence. "Well, maybe," he said, smiling back. As Leeds led the way out of the hotel, Jim looked around but he could see no sign of Freeman or his car.

A cleaning company van was waiting in the parking lot. Leeds' assistant unlocked the doors and climbed into the driver's seat. Leeds motioned for the others to get in the back then after a ten-minute drive, the van pulled up outside an elegant apartment block. Leeds turned in his seat and studied Jim carefully.

"All right, listen up," he ordered. "Everybody knows the drill. You packing, Murdoch?"

Jim pulled his weapon from its holster and showed it to Leeds. "Sig-sauer. Nine mil."

Leeds nodded. "Hand it over." He lifted his own gun and pointed it at Jim when the detective hesitated. "Hey, I got no problem blowing you away right now. You're still on probation."

Jim still didn't move. "Well, then you won't get the job done."

Leeds called his bluff. "Well, my loss."

Jim hefted his gun then flipped it and handed it over to Leeds butt first. Leeds examined it briefly and then pushed it into the pocket of his coveralls. He nodded to Melanie who was tucking her dark hair under a blonde wig. "Okay, baby, go do your stuff."

Melanie favored both men with a dazzling smile and then with a final wave to Jim, climbed out of the van and made her way into the apartment building.

~~~~~~~~

Simon watched through his binoculars as Leeds, another man and Jim climbed out of the van. All three were dressed in blue overalls with the name 'Zeus Cleaning' on the back. He picked up his radio and spoke into it. "All right, it's going down. Everybody in position?"

The microphone crackled a little with static then Rafe's voice came through.

"We're set on the ground."

"Brown here. The rooftop snipers are in place, Captain."

Simon continued to watch the three men until they entered the apartment building and disappeared from view. He could feel Blair's tension as the anthropologist sat beside him silently, his eyes locked on Jim. The captain gave the younger man what he hoped was a reassuring smile but Blair didn't return the gesture. Simon spoke once more into the radio. "They're in. Stay alert, ladies and gentlemen."

~~~~~~~~

Inside the apartment building, Leeds' man broke into the security system and disabled it then the three men made their way upstairs. Melanie checked the unconscious guard who had been dragged behind the front desk so that he wouldn't be seen by anyone going past. As she stood up, her cell phone rang and she answered it impatiently. "Hello."

It was Dan. "Hi. Do you miss me yet?" he asked.

"Hi," Melanie replied. Distractedly she glanced around the lobby.

"Did I call you at a bad time?" Dan asked.

"Yeah, I'm at work. Can I call you later?"

"Actually, no," Dan replied. "I have to tell you something about, uh...your friend." Melanie listened in surprise as Dan gave her the information he'd gathered on the new safe cracker. Quickly she hung up the phone then dialed Leeds.

~~~~~~~~

Jim leaned in closer to the safe door and dialed up his hearing. The first two sets of tumblers disengaged quickly and he glanced at Leeds. "Almost there," he said.

Leeds nodded. "Good. Right on schedule." His cell phone rang and he answered it tersely. Jim focused his hearing back on the safe, and heard the final lock disengage. Stepping back, he opened the safe and pulled out a small bag from within.

"Okay, relax," Jim heard Leeds say. "We'll be down in a couple of minutes." Leeds hung up his phone and turned to Jim, his gun aimed at the detective's chest. "I'll take that, Detective."

Leeds' partner stared at him. "Detective?"

Jim stared at him in surprise. "What? Are you nuts?"

"I hope so, pal. Because if I'm not, you're dead." He motioned toward the door with the gun. "Let's go."


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


Jim stumbled slightly as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and Leeds pushed him out with the barrel of the gun. Jim turned and glowered at the man. "Take it easy with that, huh?" He looked at Melanie. "Come on, Melanie, do I seem like a cop to you?"

Melanie shrugged. "Yeah, well, you didn't seem married either," she replied sulkily.

Jim tried again. "Your friend from last night, his name is Dan Freeman, right?"

"Yeah. He said to give you his regards," the woman answered.

"The man's a practical joker," Jim told Leeds. "He's been dogging me for days."

Leeds eyes narrowed in suspicion. "I thought you just came in from Dallas." He pushed Jim toward the exit. "Let's go."

"Uh, no. I mean...now come on, man," Jim said but Leeds remained silent. Realizing his attempts were futile, Jim gave up and walked outside, closely followed by Leeds, Melanie and the other man. His only hope now lay with Simon and the SWAT team.

~~~~~~~~

Blair straightened in his seat as he saw Jim exit the building. "They're coming out."

"Looks like they've got a gun on him," Simon said and Blair's heart began to pound. "Damn it!" the captain swore. "They know he's a cop. He began to bark orders into the radio as Blair kept his eyes on Jim. "All right, this is Captain Banks. Sharpshooters, find your targets. Nobody else move until my say-so. Repeat, do not move in."

Blair stared at Simon in surprise, concern for his partner overriding his respect for the captain's decision. "What are you talking about? You're not going to let them start shooting, are you?"

"Sandburg, if we don't take them out now, Jim is dead for sure," Simon replied. He placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Now trust me. He knows the drill."

Blair turned his attention back to the four people standing on the sidewalk and waited breathlessly for the action to begin. He knew Jim was a capable man but he also knew that Leeds was ruthless to those he felt betrayed him.

Blair clenched his hands into tight fists to stop himself from wrenching open the car door and rushing to his partner's assistance. His heart was pounding and he felt sweat break out on his brow. He looked quickly at Simon, but the captain's attention was on the four people on the sidewalk.

Blair watched as Jim's head lifted and his eyes tracked up to the roof of the opposite building where the anthropologist knew a sharpshooter was positioned. As a gun fired from that direction, Jim ducked and threw himself at Leeds, taking both of them to the ground. Blair could see the third man fall to the ground with blood spreading over the front of his overalls. Melanie ran forward and picked up the gun that had spilled from his hand.

Blair was out of the car with no memory of having moved and he heard Simon issuing commands into his radio. "All units, get in there now! Now!"

Blair watched Rafe run up to the group, his gun steadied and aimed at the woman holding the gun on Jim and Leeds who still rolled on the ground trading punches. "Drop it, lady! Drop it! Drop it now!" the young cop ordered. Melanie dropped the gun to the ground and Rafe grabbed her by one arm and pushed her into the hands of a uniformed officer. "Cuff her," Rafe ordered.

Jim meanwhile had gotten the upper hand on Leeds and dragged the thief up before handing him over to another police officer.

Blair sighed with relief and began to follow Simon as he ran toward them but the captain turned around and waved him back. "You wait in the car."

"Simon…" Blair began but the other man was already shaking his head. "That's an order, Sandburg. Wait here until we secure the scene."

Blair was tempted to follow him anyway but the icy glare that Simon aimed his way was enough to give him second thoughts and he slunk back to the car. He watched as Jim nodded to Simon then retrieved his gun from where it had fallen out of Leeds' overalls during the fight.

He was too far away to hear what they were saying, but Jim looked toward him and gave a thumbs-up, a wide smile gracing his features. Blair grinned back and took a step toward them then stopped as Jim's smile turned to a frown and he yelled something at the same time as something hard wrapped around Blair's throat and cut off his air.

He gasped for breath and flailed frantically at the constriction as he was pulled against a hard chest. He managed to move his head enough to look up into the cruel, steely glare of Dan Freeman.

"Gotcha," Freeman snarled as he dragged Blair backward with him. "Let's see how super-cop likes me screwing with his partner."

Blair panicked as he fought to pull in air. His body convulsed and fiery agony erupted in his chest. Black spots danced across his vision and coalesced into a dark curtain. He felt his knees sag as his strength was sapped by the stranglehold around his throat. Though he did not succumb fully to unconsciousness, he had no energy left to fight. He could feel his heels drag along the ground as Freeman picked up speed and pulled him toward the cover of the trees.

~~~~~~~~

In the space between one breath and another, Freeman had crept up on Blair and taken him unawares. Jim had just updated Simon on how Freeman had gotten to the girl.

Simon nodded as he watched the duo being led away then his gaze fell to the man being attended to by paramedics on the ground. "Almost got you killed," he said.

Jim looked over toward Simon's car, surprised that Blair had not followed the captain. Simon appeared to read his mind.

"I ordered him to stay with the car," he said. "I'm amazed he did though."

Jim laughed, relieved the danger was past and gave his partner a cheery thumbs-up. He saw Blair grin back and move toward them, then before anyone could react, the sentinel watched as Dan Freeman appeared from behind the police car and hauled Blair roughly back against his chest, one strong arm wrapped tightly around the anthropologist's throat.

"Son of a…" Jim was already running after them. He paused long enough to shout a warning to a startled Simon. "It's Freeman. He's got Sandburg."

Simon's mouth dropped open and then he hailed Rafe. "Rafe, let's go."

Jim sprinted across the road, pulling out his weapon as he ran. Ahead he could see Freeman dragging a limp Sandburg into the cover of some trees. Then Freeman's other hand came up and Jim shouted a warning to the oblivious onlookers at the same time as the other man fired. Jim ducked and rolled along the ground, hearing the bullet ricochet above him.

Jim staggered to his feet and saw Freeman running again. Jim dialed up his sight as he took off in pursuit once more. Freeman's arm had moved from Sandburg's throat now and grasped the dazed-looking anthropologist by one arm, pulling him along.

Blair's face was white with shock, his eyes blinking rapidly as he stumbled along in Freeman's wake. Once he staggered and would have fallen but for the other man's firm grip. Jim's anger surged as he saw Freeman smack Blair on the side of his head with the barrel of the gun and then drag him up onto his feet again.

The chase was back on the sidewalk now. Freeman was still firing indiscriminately and Sandburg was beginning to struggle. Jim had to dodge the tables and chairs of an outdoor café as well as the Freeman's bullets. He dived to the ground again to avoid being hit and as he regained his feet, he saw Freeman and his partner disappear through the doors of a bar.

Jim raced for the building, pausing at the entrance to dial up his hearing and smell. A waft of Freeman's noxious-smelling after-shave drifted past him and Jim's senses spiked. The deafening sound of clattering glasses assaulted him and the neon sign above the bar burned into his retinas. Jim staggered and leaned heavily against the doorframe as he fought to drag himself back from the abyss. He managed to find the dials and turn them down to a manageable level then made his way into the darkened bar.

A solitary drinker sitting at the counter raised an incurious face, then got back to the business of getting drunk. Jim raced for the back of the building and out into the alley behind it. Nothing. Freeman and Sandburg were gone, leaving behind just a faint trace of the madman's after-shave.

A squeal of brakes made him turn back toward the street and he saw Simon and Rafe get out of the patrol car and run to meet him. "They're gone," Jim said as he bent forward and leaned his hands on his knees, catching his breath.

"Lost him?" Simon asked, looking around wildly for some clue as to where the two had disappeared. "Take a look around, Rafe, and question the people in these two buildings. See if anyone saw them."

Jim smelled the odor of the after-shave again and wrinkled his nose in disgust, fighting down the urge to gag.

"You all right?" Simon asked and he nodded mutely. "Couldn't you like track them or something? I mean your senses…"

Jim straightened up before the captain had finished speaking and nodded again. Opening up his senses once more, he cast out a sensory net. The cologne seeped into his nostrils again but this time he was ready for it and he clamped down ruthlessly on the impending sensory spike, allowing it to sharpen his senses but not overwhelm him. Looking at the far end of the alley, his enhanced sight saw a door slightly ajar.

Taking off again, Jim pushed it open and stepped inside. The small storeroom was empty but a second open door led out onto another street and Jim followed Freeman's scent as it led him down the street and back to the park. At the entrance, he crouched down beside a manhole, its cover pushed to one side. Jim looked up as Simon ran up to join him.

"He went down the sewer," the detective said. Not wasting any time, he clambered over the edge of the manhole and began to climb down the ladder.

"I'm going to call for backup. My cell won't work down there," Simon called to him. "You watch your step, Jim. Wait for me."

Jim could hear Simon cursing and was sure the words were aimed at him but he kept going, knowing he had no time to waste if he were going to catch up with Freeman and Sandburg.

The putrid odor of the sewer had Jim gagging and coughing even before he hit the bottom of the ladder. Struggling to breathe, he pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his coveralls and used it to wipe at his watering eyes and then cover up his mouth and nose. He stayed still for a moment, trying to control his breathing and sort through the lessons Blair had taught him in order to rein in his rampaging senses.

Slowly, breathing shallowly through his nose, Jim managed to lower the dials for all of his senses, then began to raise them again, stopping when they were just beginning to waver out of control. Clenching his jaw with the effort, he focused on his hearing and was instantly rewarded with the sound of rapid footsteps splashing through water, of panicked breathing, muttered curses and then, blessedly, Sandburg's whispered imprecations and instructions to his partner. Blair's voice sounded hoarse and scratchy but Jim breathed a sigh of relief as he set off after the pair.

Suddenly the footsteps halted and Jim dialed up his sight and smell, searching through the darkness for a view of Freeman and his hostage. The detective caught a glimmer of a white shirt that disappeared around a corner ahead of him and he pulled out his gun and carefully made his way forward. Freeman's cologne swamped his nose again and he was suddenly face to face with them.

Freeman had run out of tunnel and was now boxed in. He stood on a platform that raised him slightly above Jim, his arm wrapped once more around Blair's throat. His gun jammed hard into the side of the anthropologist's head.

Blair's hands were clenched tightly in the material of Freeman's jacket, struggling desperately to pull the choking arm from his throat. A large bump on his forehead was already beginning to discolor but he looked lucid. His eyes were wide and staring and focused despairingly on Jim. Behind them, Jim could hear the rush of water through the channel far below.

Jim placed his gun back into its holster and held his arms up, his gaze going from his partner's frightened face to the twisted grin on his captor's features. "Put it down, Freeman!"

Freeman shook his head and pushed the gun harder into Blair's head. Sandburg groaned softly and grimaced. "How the hell did you find me?" Freeman asked.

"Don't worry about that. You're done." Jim sniffed at the air then dialed down his sense of smell to almost zero, not wanting to risk zoning out on the cologne or the gas in the air. "Smell that? It's methane. One spark from a gunshot and the whole place is going to explode."

Freeman grinned cockily. "Oh, really? Then it's probably a good idea for you to get the hell out of here."

"I don't think so," Jim replied, taking a step forward. "Not without my partner. Give me the gun."

"Now I know there's one good one in here," Freeman said thoughtfully. He rolled the revolver mechanism. "Let's have a little fun." Jim's heart jumped as he suddenly pulled the trigger. Blair shouted a denial as the trigger clicked on an empty chamber then sagged bonelessly in Freeman's grasp. The other man laughed then shifted his grip, dragging Blair back up to lean against him.

Blair stared at Jim, his eyes wide and pleading. "Go, Jim. Please," he wheezed.

Jim ignored the plea, keeping his attention on Freeman. He tried again. "We're under a main street! If this place blows, it'll take out a half a city block."

"Whoo!" Freeman chortled. "Now that's what I call going out in a blaze of glory." He pressed the trigger again and Blair bucked in his arms even as Jim heard the click of another empty chamber.

"Oh, come on, man," Blair begged. He fought vainly against the arm around his chest, a dribble of sweat snaking down his pale face to drip off his chin.

Freeman was laughing now and Jim saw his chance as the gunman's attention lapsed for a moment. He stepped forward quickly, hands reaching out to snatch Sandburg from Freeman's grasp but the other man backed up against the railing and brought the gun back up to Blair's temple.

"Third time's the charm," Freeman said and pressed the trigger. Another empty chamber. This time Blair barely reacted. "Guess not," the gunman said.

"I said back off!" Freeman screamed as Jim took a step closer. Angry now, he pulled the gun away from Blair and aimed it at Jim.

The sentinel's enhanced sight could see the bullet being chambered and he ducked in under Freeman's arm, barreling him back against the railing, simultaneously pushing Blair aside with his hip. Jim's forward momentum into Freeman pushed his gun hand up into the air and the weapon slipped from his grasp, sailing over the railing and into the water below. In a purely reflex move, Freeman reached for it as it fell and toppled over the edge with a terrified scream. Jim followed him, straining to grab a hold of his wildly flailing hand. He gripped it, felt the fiery pull on his shoulder muscles as Freeman clung to him and scrabbled to climb back up. Jim gritted his teeth and hung on.

"God, don't let me fall! Don't let me fall," Freeman screamed. Jim could see his terrified features, his face turned up to him as he alternately begged and tried to gain purchase on the slick side of the sewer wall with his feet.

"You got him?"

Jim turned to see Blair stagger up and collapse to his knees beside him. The anthropologist's face was white and damp with sweat and he panted as he struggled to pull air into his lungs through his bruised throat. Jim's anger surged again at the sight of the red marks circling Blair's neck. Below him, Freeman had begun a frantic mantra.

"Please. Please. Please."

Blair stared at the silent detective. "What are you doing? Do something, man. You can't let him go." He leaned in and wrapped his own shaky hands around Jim's forearm.

I don't want to die. I don't want to die," Freeman sobbed.

"Jim, you can't let him die. He's sick," Blair said softly.

Jim stared down into the features of the man who had tormented him and saw only a whimpering coward.

"Please, help me," Freeman whispered.

Jim nodded and tensed his muscles. Together the two men pulled Freeman back up and dragged him over the railing. The sobbing man collapsed onto the ground and curled into a ball, his entire body shaking as he cried.

~~~~~~~~

Freeman had been taken away and Simon had given Jim permission to take Blair home after the younger man had been looked over by a paramedic and pronounced bruised and shaken, but all right. Jim started up the truck and steered toward Prospect. A hot shower sounded like bliss. He could still smell Freeman's after-shave, greasy and cloying, clinging to his skin and mingling with the sickening stench of the sewer, seeping into his pores…

"You all right?" Blair's voice dragged him back and he shook himself surreptitiously.

"Yeah," he said finally. "How about you?"

Blair lightly fingered the bruise on his head. The pallor was fading from his face but his eyes were shadowed with pain and exhaustion. "I'm okay." He was silent for a moment then spoke again, staring out of the side window at the passing cars. "Isn't it just amazing how someone can snap over a little traffic incident like that?"

Jim glanced at him quickly. "Are you talking about me or him?"

Blair turned back toward him before he answered. "I'm talking about Freeman. The guy had lost everything, and he wanted to die."

"Provided of course that he could take us with him," Jim said.

Blair shivered at the words and folded his arms around his chest. "That is, until he was actually faced with death."

"For a moment there, I was willing to let him," Jim said quietly.

"Yeah, I know."

Jim pulled into a parking space in front of their apartment building. He switched off the ignition and turned to face his partner. "There's no excuse for me losing control the way I did."

Blair nodded. "That's my point exactly here. In today's society, everybody is just stressed out, man. I mean, even the good guys. Until we start paying attention to that, more people are going to wind up hurt or dead."

Jim clapped him on the shoulder then climbed from the cab. "Yeah, well, believe me, Chief, from now on, I'll be paying attention," he vowed.



~ The End ~

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Next week's episode: Fool Me Twice by Melinda Holley




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