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Dead End on Blank Street
Dead End on Blank Street
By Melinda Holley

Beta Read by Carla and Lady Shelley
Written for PetFly by: David H. Balkan
Rated PG-13
internal thought in * *


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

The Loft

*This is ridiculous. I’ve talked to Simon about this…because I had to. I’ve talked with IA about this…because I had to. Why is it so hard to talk into this stupid tape recorder?*

Jim Ellison caught a glimpse of himself in the balcony windows and nearly flinched. He wasn’t especially fond of himself right now. He certainly wasn’t the man he’d thought himself to be. Staring down at the tape recorder in his hands, he silently acknowledged this was just a dry run…a practice effort. With shaking hands, he activated the tape recorder. *And what does it say that I have to do a practice run before talking with my partner about this?*

"Okay, this is…uh…Jim Ellison. Hell, Sandburg, maybe I’ll just leave you the tape recorder." Jim rubbed his jaw with his left hand. "Yeah, that would be the coward’s way out, huh? You can’t really interrogate a tape recording, can you?" He nearly smiled as he thought of Blair shaking the tape recorder and yelling questions at it. "Okay. So we’ll just call this practice, okay? You know me, Sandburg. I don’t do this ‘talking things out’ stuff very well. Like that’s any big surprise to you, right?"

Slowly Jim walked towards the kitchen. He could tell he was going to need a lot of coffee for this.

~~~~~~~~

TWO DAYS EARLIER – INTERROGATION ROOM #3

Jim managed to control the urge to snatch the cigarette lighter from Aldo’s hand. He knew the IA officer was doing it just to irritate Jim…to try and break him. It was amateurish…but it was also fraying his last nerve.

"Look, Ellison, you know how it goes," Aldo sighed. "You know this scenario as well as I do. You’ll make it easier on yourself, Major Crimes, and the PD if you’ll just cooperate." He sharply hit the table with the lighter. "You think any of us likes what’s going on? It gives all of us a black eye." He leaned forward. "If you won’t come clean for yourself, do it for your friends and co-workers."

*Not bad,* Jim admitted to himself. *He’s almost got the right pitch in his voice to sound sympathetic. Sandburg could do it better, though.* He folded his arms across his chest. "You have to admit, Aldo. This whole story doesn’t make sense, does it?"

"Why would she make up this kind of story?" Aldo shook his head.

"For the money," Jim patiently pointed out.

Outside the interrogation room, Blair Sandburg stood in the darkness watching through the observation window as Jim verbally fenced with the IA interrogator. It wasn’t even a contest. Aldo was nowhere near the level of interrogator Jim had been trained to resist. He glanced to his left when the door opened.

"What’s happening?" Captain Simon Banks asked as he shut the door behind him.

"Nothing. Aldo just keeps going round and round." Blair looked through the one-way glass. "He’s not cutting Jim any slack either." He glanced back at Simon. "What about Veronica?"

"Sticking to her story," Simon sighed. "It doesn’t look good, Sandburg."

*Damned bitch.* Blair knew he should be ashamed of the thought…but he wasn’t.

Inside the interrogation room, Aldo smiled at Jim. "Tell me about the money."

"Oh, that’s just the punch line. If you want to get the setup, you gotta start at the beginning."

Aldo leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. "So tell me the setup, Ellison…from the beginning."

"The beginning, huh? You gotta pay attention ‘cause I’m only doing this once." Jim leaned forward. "Sandburg and I had just wrapped up a crime scene involving a turf war between two rival gangs. As usual, my partner was going sociological on me."

Outside the interrogation room, Simon glared at Blair. "What’s he doing, Sandburg?"

Blair slowly shook his head. "I don’t know, Simon. I honestly don’t know."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER

Blair waved his hands in explanation. "My point, Jim, is that battling for territory is a prehistoric basic instinct."

"Territory, huh?" Jim’s eyes flickered from the rear view mirror to the traffic in front of them. His fingers impatiently tapped the steering wheel of the Ford truck. "Isn’t that just an over-generalization? Is it really just that simple?"

*It was between you and Alex Barnes.* Blair immediately shoved the thought behind the door he’d labeled ‘Things Not To Be Discussed.' "Maybe the terrain and weapons have changed. But the same rules apply."

Jim shrugged. "Primitive tribes fought for survival. That means food, water, and women." He glanced at the side mirror then back to the traffic around them. "These gang wars today are about pure profit. That’s a modern corruption."

"It is, huh?" Blair asked, starting to enjoy the argument.

Jim nodded. "Yeah."

Blair slightly smiled. "What about the Crusades? Forget about protecting the Holy Land from the so-called heathens. They were motivated to control trade routes and exotic goods, and they did it for profit." He shrugged. "It’s the same thing as a drug war."

"Okay, genius, answer this," Jim demanded. "What caused the appearance of those stiffs today on North Chandler?" He irritably smacked the steering wheel as the car ahead of him slowed to change lanes.

"Well, those were two harpies who ratted out their own kind to the narcs and got whacked for their trouble," Blair answered, doing a bad Bogart imitation.

"Exactly." Jim nodded. "A true warrior would never betray his own brother-in-arms. Especially for money."

"Uh, speaking of money…" Blair glanced at the older man. "That twenty bucks you left on the counter? I borrowed it."

Jim smirked. "Your Honor, the defense rests."

"Now wait a minute…" Blair began. "Hey!" He braced his hands on the dashboard as Jim suddenly hit the brakes.

"WHOA!" Jim angrily eyed the bright red sports car that had just cut him off. "Okay, jackass, you just won today’s big prize." He reached down and grabbed the flashing light that marked his truck as a police vehicle. He activated the light and siren, grimly smiling when the sports car accelerated away from them.

"Jim? Remember that little talk we had about road rage?" Blair nervously glanced at the older man.

Jim nodded. "Every word. Hold on, Chief."

Blair briefly closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.

Jim expertly followed the sports car as it cut through traffic until it turned into an alley and stopped.

"Gotcha!" Jim triumphantly muttered. He parked the truck behind the car and opened his door, gun in hand. "You in the car! Get out with your hands up! Cascade PD!"

Slowly the door opened and a well-dressed man emerged. "Okay, okay. Don’t make a federal case out of…Jim?…Ellison?!"

Slowly Jim lowered the gun. "Oh my God…Alan?" He stepped away from the truck and holstered his gun.

Blair slowly got out of the truck, watching as the two men hugged and pounded each other’s backs.

"Damn, Alan. You always did know how to make an entrance." Jim grinned.

"Oh, I know how to make an entrance, huh, hotshot?" the other man laughed.

"Either my lectures on road rage are working or you two have met before," Blair chuckled as the two men separated.

Jim ruefully grinned at his partner. "Blair Sandburg, this is Alan Archer. We were in Special Ops together." He lightly punched Alan’s arm. "I owe the man my life."

Alan shrugged. "Aw, you don’t owe me anything. But it’s been…what? Ten years? What are the odds, huh?"

"I know." Jim nodded.

Alan held up his hands. "Look. No harm no foul, right? Let’s have dinner tonight and catch up?"

"Promise me you’ll take it easy in this red rocket of yours and it’s a deal," Jim grinned.

"Deal," Alan sighed. "Riley’s Grill at 8 pm." He turned back towards his car. "And if you reach for the check tonight, I’ll break your hand."

"Oh, yeah, he’s one of your buddies," Blair muttered with a smirk.

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

Aldo raised his eyebrows. "Let me get this straight. You’re just driving along and nearly collide with a man you haven’t seen since your Army days ten years ago?" When Jim nodded, the IA investigator shook his head. "And this didn’t strike you as strange in any way?"

"Why should it?" Jim shrugged. "People meet people they haven’t seen in a while all the time." He leaned forward and looked Aldo in the eyes. "Haven’t you ever heard of the concept that random events are part of some greater design that we just don’t understand?"

Outside the interrogation room, Simon glared at Blair. "You taught him that!" he accused.

Blair innocently shrugged. "Hey! How was I to know he was listening to me? Much less remembering it?"

Inside the interrogation room, Aldo smirked. "That’s just cause and effect, Detective. There's nothing mysterious about that in my book."

"Maybe you should read another book," Jim suggested as he leaned back in his chair. "Might do you some good. Broaden your horizons."

Outside the interrogation room, Simon glared again at Blair.

"Hey! This is pure Jim 'Stubborn and bullheaded is my middle name' Ellison!" Blair defended himself. He looked back through the glass as Simon snorted.

Inside the interrogation room, Aldo started tapping on the table with his cigarette lighter. "So you met Archer as arranged?"

Jim raised his eyebrow. "I thought you wanted the whole story. Don’t leave out your own chapter. After all, you got involved that very day. Remember?"

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – SIMON BANKS’ OFFICE

"Captain Banks, there’s no disputing that somebody grabbed two kilos of heroin before it was logged into the evidence room." IA Inspector Ray Aldo stared in Simon’s dark eyes. "I intend to question every man on that squad. Starting with your Detective Ellison."

"This was a joint operation!" Simon angrily snapped. "If the drugs are missing, they weren’t taken by anyone in this command. Ellison and his team have my complete confidence."

"You know what I think, Captain?" Aldo smirked. "You operate Major Crimes like it’s your personal little kingdom. Maybe you should take off your blinders."

Simon stood and planted both hands on his desk. Leaning across the desk, he coldly eyed the IA investigator. "Maybe *you* should back off the idea that Major Crimes is dirty."

"It only takes one bad cop to make everybody look dirty," Aldo reminded him. "The DEA is conducting its own internal investigation."

Simon glared at the knock on his door. "Come in!"

"In the meantime, I really hope your people are as above reproach as you think they are, Captain. Because if Major Crimes is dirty, I *will* find out who," Aldo promised. He curiously looked at the two men entering Simon’s office.

"You do windows, too?" Jim calmly asked.

"This isn’t going to just go away, Ellison." Aldo peered past him. "Sandburg, isn’t it?"

"Uh…" Blair automatically looked up at Jim, then back at Aldo. "That’s right. Blair Sandburg."

"And you were present when the arrests occurred?" Aldo’s eyes narrowed.

"Yeah." Blair casually smiled. "You’re two for two, man."

"Keep your calendar clear, *man,*" Aldo ordered. "We’ll be talking." With barely a glance in Simon’s direction, he left the office, firmly closing the door behind him.

"Ouch! Talk about a tight…"

"This is a witch hunt, Captain," Jim angrily interrupted.

"The drugs are missing, Jim." With a sigh, Simon sat behind his desk. "We don’t have them. The DEA doesn’t have them. And somebody’s going to take the fall for it."

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

Jim sighed. "We all knew Simon was right. But if I’d had any idea the poor sap about to take the high dive was me, I’d never have walked into Riley’s Grill that night."

Aldo smirked. "Is that a fact, Detective? That’s assuming you didn’t already know about the lovely Veronica."

Jim sighed once again. Momentarily glancing at the observation glass, he nodded. "And I didn’t know about Veronica. Not until that night."


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


THE LOFT

Jim watched the lights of Cascade dot the darkness outside the loft. "You know, I just figured something out, Chief," Jim spoke into the tape recorder in his hand. "The darkness can hide so much because people generally don’t want to see what’s hidden. So they accept the darkness…because they just don’t want to know."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – RILEY’S GRILL

Alan looked up as Jim approached the table. "I believe, James, that I said 8pm. It’s 8:17."

Jim snorted. "You’re still not trying to pull that Archer internal clock scam on me again, now are you?"

"I can still time a three minute egg to the millisecond," Alan assured him.

Jim laughed. "You remember that bar bet with that poor Marine? Guy lost his month’s pay."

"And I ordered you a Mexican beer in a frozen glass."

"You remembered that?" Jim asked in surprise.

Alan shrugged. "Some things you don’t forget."

"If you two go on like this, I’m going to get all misty-eyed."

Turning his head, Jim stared in shock at the beautiful woman staring down at him with a wide smile. "Veronica?" he half-whispered. *Dear God...my beautiful Veronica.*

"Sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived, but I had to make a phone call," Veronica apologized. She wrapped her arms around Jim who’d gotten to his feet. "Hello, Jim. It’s been too long."

"Yeah…a long time." Jim closed his eyes when Veronica kissed him on the cheek.

"Surprised?" Alan smirked.

"Of course, he is. After all, it’s been a long time." Veronica squeezed Jim’s hand as she took the seat between them.

"I…God…I don’t know what to say." Jim took a deep breath. "You look absolutely beautiful, Veronica."

"May I bring something to drink from the bar?"

All three of them looked up at the waiter.

"I’ll have another Scotch," Alan ordered. He glanced at Jim. "Make that two Scotches. And a gin and tonic for my wife."

"Wife?" Jim ignored the waiter’s grin at his surprise. "You two got married?"

Alan raised his glass in Jim’s direction and grinned.

"Nine years ago," Veronica nodded.

"I followed her to Honolulu when my tour was up," Alan explained. "We sent you a wedding invitation."

"Yeah…uh…well, mail travels slow in the South Pacific," Jim quickly answered. "Guess I never got it." He half-smiled at Alan. "Guess the best man won, huh?"

Alan shrugged. "The more determined man won."

"Well, this is a little late; but congratulations to both of you." Jim squeezed Veronica’s wrist.

"Thank you, Jim." Veronica smiled as the waiter deftly set their drinks in front of them and walked away.

Jim held up his glass in a toast. "I mean it. Sincere congratulations." For a moment, he remembered a similar gathering ten years earlier followed by a night of passion in Veronica’s bed…only to watch her walk away with Alan the next day. After sipping the Scotch, he turned to Alan. "So, besides terrorizing the drivers of Cascade, what are you doing these days, Alan?"

Veronica laughed. "Does that mean *your* driving has improved, Jim?"

"I believe I was talking about Alan," Jim gently corrected with a smile.

Throughout dinner, they caught each other up on the past ten years. Jim skipped over his time in Peru, preferring to tell the others about his time with the Cascade PD. Alan explained that he’d finally gotten the opportunity to work for himself after years in Chicago of working as an investment councilor for a local union.

Veronica sat quietly, looking at first one man then the other. Finally, over after-dinner drinks, she patted both of them on the arms. "What happened to the three of us anyway? Why didn’t we keep in touch?"

"I guess life has a way of interrupting the best laid plans." Jim half-smiled.

"Well, no more," Veronica decided. "Come on back to the house for coffee, Jim?"

"We’re right off Gull Road," Alan nodded, reaching for his wallet. "Just follow us."

Not sure why, Jim slowly nodded. "Yeah, sure, why not?" He stood with Veronica while Alan motioned for the waiter. *Damn. I need this like I need a hole in the head. Must be feeling incredibly masochistic, Jimmy boy. Spend more time with a beautiful woman you let get away. Like Lila…*

"Jim? Are you okay?"

Startled, Jim looked into Veronica’s wide eyes. "Yeah. Just a stray thought floating around."

"Let’s go quick," Alan chuckled. "Last time I heard that, we…"

"I don’t think we need to get into that now, Alan." Jim took Veronica’s arm and led her away.

Chuckling, Alan followed them to the parking lot a few moments later. A dark, nearly new Cadillac cut him off.

As Jim turned around, a man got out of the car and confronted Alan. He motioned for Veronica to stay next to the truck and walked back to join them.

"We’ve got business to discuss, Archer."

"It’s over, Harry," Alan patiently answered. "You lost. Now leave me alone."

"Why are you doing this?" Harry demanded, grabbing Alan’s arm.

"Is there a problem?" Jim quietly asked.

"Yeah, enough for both of you, tough guy," Harry snarled. "Mind your own damn business."

"Careful, Henry," Alan warned. "May I introduce my friend, Jim Ellison? I mean, *Detective* Jim Ellison."

Harry glanced from Jim to Alan. "So that’s the way it is, huh?" He released Harry’s arm. "Okay, then." Without another word, he walked back into his car. "He can’t protect you forever, Archer." Gunning the engine, he quickly drove away.

Wincing, Jim looked at Alan. "What was that all about?"

Alan shrugged. "That business deal I was telling you about? He wanted in but was late in coming up with the necessary cash. Now he figures I owe him a finder’s fee." He smiled as Veronica joined them. "Forget it, Jim. He’s all talk." Taking Veronica’s arm, he walked towards his sports car. "Just follow me."

All during the drive to Alan’s house, Jim thought about the decisions he’d made ten years ago. *Probably for the best that she married Alan. God knows everything that’s happened to me in the past ten years wouldn’t have kept her with me.* Realizing that memories of Veronica were mixing with memories of Lila, Jim shook his head and ruthlessly consigned those memories behind a mental door he labeled ‘Stuff Best Forgotten.’

Following Alan’s car up the driveway, Jim appreciatively eyed the house. It wasn’t anything that interested him, but it was the perfect setting for Veronica. Getting out of the car, he smiled at Alan. "Nice house."

Alan grinned at him. Both men knew it was Veronica’s choice of a house.

Veronica took Jim’s arm as they walked towards the house. "How long have you been with the police?"

"Nearly eight years," Jim answered, not admitting how good it felt to be on her arm. *For God’s sake, Ellison! Her husband’s just behind us.*

"Do you like it?" Veronica asked with interest.

"Usually," Jim admitted. "But there are…" He stopped as his eyesight narrowed, spotting the broken lock on the front door. Releasing Veronica’s arm, he reached for his gun. "Someone’s broken the lock on the front door. Get back to the cars, please."

As he turned to walk up the driveway, he realized Alan was behind him. "What are you doing?" he hissed. "Didn’t you hear me?" He frowned, seeing Veronica just behind Alan.

"Watching your back. Just like in the old days," Alan shrugged. "Go on."

Jim started to tell Veronica to stay back, but he saw the look on her face and turned around. Neither he nor Alan had ever been able to tell Veronica what to do and make it stick. "Just stay behind me," he ordered. *They’re just as bad as Sandburg!*

Stretching out his hearing, Jim realized the house was empty. Nonetheless, he kicked the partially open door, sending it swinging back on its hinges.

Alan reached past Jim for the light switch. "Watch your eyes," he whispered.

Thankful for the warning, Jim quickly adjusted his eyesight.

The light from the massive chandelier flooded the room. It was obvious someone had been looking for something. The tastefully decorated room had been thoroughly trashed.

Peering past the two men, Veronica gasped. "Oh my God! My house!"

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"Who did you think was responsible for the B&E at the Archer home?" Aldo curiously asked.

"Henry…the guy in the Caddie," Jim quickly answered.

"What did Archer think?" Aldo fiddled with the cigarette lighter in his fingers.

Jim shrugged. "It wasn’t your basic B&E. He didn’t think there was a connection. But somebody was obviously looking for something."

Aldo studied Jim for a moment, then faintly smiled. "You fell in love with Veronica Archer the first time you met, didn't you?"

Jim’s blue eyes barely narrowed. "I suppose. But she wasn’t Veronica Archer when I first met her."

"And this relationship was physically intimate? Sexually intimate?" Aldo smirked.

"I’d like to think…" Jim caught himself. "Both of us considered it more than that."

"Really?" Aldo's eyebrows rose in derision.

Jim sat back in his chair. "What are you going for, Aldo?"

"So why didn’t you follow through on this relationship that was more than just physical?" Aldo demanded.

Jim shrugged. "First there was the military. Then the department. Met someone else and got married; but it didn’t work out. I just put Veronica in that "one that got away" folder." He wondered if Aldo would believe that statement any more than Sandburg did. "Two days later, Veronica called and wanted me to meet her at Boulder Point."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – BOULDER POINT

*The woman has to have a picture of herself in the attic. She doesn’t look a single day older than when I left her years ago.* Jim automatically slowed his steps, enjoying the sight of Veronica sitting on the boulder with the sea crashing against the rocks below her.  Her long hair was tousled by the wind, and she repeatedly pushed it away from her face. She watched with troubled eyes as Jim approached. "I’m sorry," she said, when Jim sat on the boulder next to her. "I didn’t know who else to call."

Jim cleared his throat. "That’s okay, Veronica. I’m glad you called."

Veronica licked her lips and stared out to sea. "Alan’s in some sort of trouble. I don’t know what it is, but it has something to do with that man at the restaurant the other night. I think the break-in was some sort of warning."

"What does Alan say?" Jim asked.

Veronica shrugged. "Nothing. When I press him, he tells me I have an overactive imagination." She half-smiled at Jim’s snort. "It’s not my overactive imagination when the phone rings in the middle of the night and no one’s there. And, the other day, on our way to the restaurant, I thought we were being followed."

"The Cadillac?" Jim frowned.

Veronica shook her head. "Another car. Every time I looked, it was behind us. And Alan acts like he hasn’t a care in the world." She irritably shoved her hair away from her face.

Before he realized what he was doing, Jim reached out and tucked the flying hair behind her ear. "Alan always did think he was invincible." Pulling his hand away, he stared at the rolling surf. "Alan called the guy at the restaurant ‘Harry’. Does he have a last name?"

"I don’t know," Veronica bitterly answered. "Alan doesn’t talk to me. Maybe he’ll talk to you. Man-to-man, you know."

Jim patted her knee. "I’ll see what I can you. In the meantime, try to relax. Say in public places if you go out. Make sure all doors and windows are locked." He saw the amusement in Veronica’s eyes. "Yeah, I know. You know this stuff as well as I do." Reluctantly, he got to his feet and turned away. "I’ll…I’ll be in touch."

"Jim."

He turned to find Veronica standing behind him.

"Thank you." Veronica reached for Jim’s hand and raised it to her heart. "I remember you were always calmer than Alan. I always felt safe with you." She slowly wound her arms around Jim’s neck. "And I was always the emotional one."

Jim could have sworn he felt his heart stop when Veronica’s lips met his. Before he knew it, his arms were around her waist and he was pulling her closer.

**Jim! What are you DOING?!**

**Hey, Slick! Keep your mind on the business at hand!**

Startled, Jim heard both Blair and Jack Pendergrast’s voices in his head. Catching his breath, he suddenly moved away from Veronica, nearly causing them both to stumble.

*Damn you, Ellison! Her husband may be in trouble, and you’re kissing her like the world’s about to end! Didn’t you learn from leaving Jack in the lurch?* Jim took a deep breath. "Veronica…"

"Don’t. Please." Veronica sadly smiled.

Jim nodded. "I…uh…I need to get back to the station. Call if you need me." He stared at her, wondering if she knew how he meant it. But all she did was nod in agreement.

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"Looking back, I can see that’s where she set the hook," Jim admitted. "But for some reason, I didn’t fight it."

"She’s an attractive woman," Aldo pointed out. "You have feelings for her, and you wanted to believe her."

Jim smirked. "Careful, Ray. You sound almost human." His blue eyes suddenly narrowed. "You might have shown that side of your personality when you raked my partner over the coals," he coldly suggested.

Aldo’s eyes narrowed in return. "Your partner’s got quite a mouth on him."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER - INTERROGATION ROOM #2

"Look, Sandburg, you’re a civilian. I don’t want to make things difficult for you. In fact, you can make things easier on everyone." Aldo pulled out a pack of cigarettes. *This should be a snap.*

"You know what? You can make things easier on *me* and not light up. I’m not into second-hand smoke, okay?" Blair’s blue eyes widened. "Besides, the whole station is a non-smoking area. You wouldn’t want to break the law, right?"

Aldo forced a smile. "Sorry. Old habits are hard to break. Just like protecting a friend. right?"

"Is that what I’m doing?" Blair quietly asked.

Aldo shrugged. "You tell me. You guys are buddies, right? You hang out together. Live together. Go to crime scenes together."

"I’m working on my doctoral thesis," Blair patiently explained.

"Hey, I think it’s great that two guys can be close buddies." Aldo spread his hands wide. "All I’m saying is…you see things. You hear things."

Blair sighed. He hated it when he was bored. "Look, Detective Aldo, let’s just cut to the chase, okay? I’ve known Jim Ellison for over three years. And, if you’re looking for some vice in him…well, the guy has a beer occasionally. That’s it. You can’t even get him to fix a parking ticket." Blair inwardly smiled. *Although Steven’s tried often enough.*

"We’re past parking tickets, Sandburg." Aldo aggressively stood and leaned across the table. "Ellison led a team of cops on a drug bust. Five kilos were on the table. Three showed up in the evidence room."

"The DEA was there, too," Blair pointed out. "Have you talked to them?"

"They were on the outside, waiting for the signal to go in," Aldo answered. "Your buddy was on the inside…with the heroin." He straightened. "Why is this so hard for you to believe?"

"Because I know him," Blair firmly answered.

"No." Aldo shook his head. "You *think* you know him. But do you really? Can you sit there and tell me he’s never done anything you might consider out of the ordinary?"

Despite himself, Blair remembered coming home to find Jim packing the younger man’s belongings and telling him to get out. Then he stood up. "Wrong, Detective. I *do* know him. And if you’re looking for someone to help you hang a good cop…a hell of a good cop!…well, you’re going to have to look somewhere else!"

"Just where do you think you’re going?" Aldo demanded when Blair walked towards the door.

"You said it, Detective. I’m a civilian." Blair jerked open the door. "I’ve waived my right to an attorney. And you don’t have the right to bring out the rubber hose. So I’m outta here."

Aldo angrily stared at the closed door. *Little punk! Who does he think he is?*

~~~~~~~~

OUTSIDE INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"Easy, Jim, it’s not worth it," Blair murmured.

Simon smacked Blair’s arm even as Jim relaxed. "Quit that, Sandburg! You’re not supposed to coach him!"

"You’d rather I did nothing while Jim ripped out Aldo’s vocal chords?" Blair demanded.

Simon snorted. "What I want doesn’t matter."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – BULLPEN

"Hey, Jim! I’ve got something on your Cadillac."

Jim looked to where Henri Brown stood, flipping through some papers. "What?"

"Ah, here it is." Henri pulled out several papers stapled together. "Take a search of DMV, the name of ‘Harry’, and a description of the driver…and VOILA! You get a cat named Harry Lovejoy. From Chicago."

Jim glanced up from the papers. "Alan’s from Chicago."

"Well, this guy’s an arm breaker for Chicago Freight," Henri warned. "A real heavy hitter, if you get my drift."

Jim nodded. "Thanks, Henri."

"Anytime, my man." Henri lightly slapped Jim on the arm with the rest of the folders and headed back to his desk.

Jim turned around and almost bumped into Blair

"Man, I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Sheila Irwin." Blair irritably glared at his partner. "Talking with Aldo is like to teach a card trick to a monkey."

Jim looked confused, but reached for his jacket. "I’ll be back." He held up a hand when Blair started to speak. "Personal, Darwin. See you later."

Confused and worried, Blair stared at his partner’s back.


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


THE LOFT

Jim paced with nervous energy as he turned the tape to the second side. Switching the recorder back on, he took a deep breath. "Here’s another epiphany, Chief. Life isn’t shades of gray. It’s black and white that blur before they go gray." He sighed. "But I have a feeling you already know that, right? And people believe what they want to believe…even if they know better."

~~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – ARCHER PROPERTY

Jim admired the small boat anchored on the pier on the back of Alan’s property. He also admired the string of curses coming from Alan’s mouth.

Seeing Jim, Alan threw down the monkey wrench. "If I had the guts, I’d say ‘the hell with the engine.’" He glared at the boat. "It’s a sailboat. I should let it live or die by the wind, right?"

"Veronica’s worried about you, Alan," Jim quietly spoke. "And so am I."

"What? The break-in?" Alan reached for a rag to wipe his oily fingers. "It’s nothing. You both worry too much. Bad for your stomach, you know."

"Is Harry Lovejoy nothing?" Jim asked.

Alan threw the rag aside. "That doesn’t concern you, Jim. Let it drop."

"Alan, you saved my life." Jim knelt on the dock and tried to read his friend’s face. "You think I’m going to forget that?"

"Oh for God’s sake!" Alan stared at Jim. "That sniper was 300 yards away, and we were in the middle of a damn monsoon. I knew when I took that shot, there was a one-in-a-million chance of making it. Until he fell, I wasn’t sure if I’d hit him or you!" He took a deep breath. "The point is that shot was pure luck. You don’t owe my anything."

"And that’s it?" Jim quietly asked.

"Yeah. That’s it."

Jim got to his feet. "Okay, Alan. Have it your way. You change your mind, you know where to reach me."

~~~~~~~~

LATER THAT EVENING – RILEY’S GRILL

Harry Lovejoy looked up from his seat at the bar. "Well, well, if it isn’t Dick Tracy. What took you so long?" He looked past Jim at Blair. "Who’s he?"

"What do you want from Archer?" Jim demanded, ignoring the question. When Harry kept staring at Blair, Jim grunted. "Don’t worry about him."

"Hey, I just want to know how many players are at the table," Lovejoy explained. "You know me, and I know *you,* Ellison." He smiled at Blair’s expression. "I’m good at figuring out things, too. For instance…" He sipped at the liquor in his glass. "You’re being investigated by Internal Affairs over some uncut smack that found its way into somebody’s pocket. I figure you got your hands in *that*…well, you’ve got your hands in Archer’s pockets, too."

"Are you serious?" Blair frowned.

"As real as it gets," Lovejoy assured him.

"You didn’t answer my question," Jim recalled. "What do you want from Archer?’

"Ask him," Lovejoy shrugged, emptying the glass in his hand.

"I did. Now I’m asking you."

Lovejoy studied Jim. "Then ask him again. And tell him he’s running out of time." He dropped some money on the bar and shoved his way past them.

Jim glared at the man’s retreating back, then felt Blair’s hand on his arm.

"Maybe you should let this one go," Blair softly suggested. "He all but accused you of being on the take. You’re already under investigation from IA. Just let somebody else do this."

"I can’t, Chief." Jim shook his head. "Alan’s a friend of mine. He’s involved in something he shouldn’t be."

Blair sighed. "You’re worried about the wrong friend."

"Excuse me?" Jim glared at the smaller man.

"You think I’m blind? Veronica’s the one you’re trying to protect." Blair met Jim’s angry blue eyes with a stubborn expression on his face.

"You’re…" Jim was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Grabbing it, he walked outside the restaurant. Sighing, Blair followed. "Ellison," he answered, once he was outside.

"Jim, oh God, you’ve got to stop him."

Jim immediately started running towards his truck. "Veronica? What’s wrong?"

Rolling his eyes, Blair followed.

"Alan’s furious that I talked to you," Veronica explained. She watched out the patio window as Alan walked down the driveway to his car. Turning away, she leaned against the wall. "He says it’s gone too far. He’s on his way to talk to that man. He says he has to put a stop to this once and for all."

"Where’s Alan now?" Jim demanded as he got into the truck. He glanced to his right to see Blair buckling his seatbelt.

"He’s leaving the house now." Veronica caught her breath. "Jim, one of them is going to get killed! I just kno….."

Jim jerked the cell phone away from his ear as he heard Veronica’s scream and an explosion.

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"Whoever blew the car did a damn fine job," Jim admitted. "One of the doors went into the lake." He met Aldo’s eyes. "You can imagine how much of Alan was left after that."

"And it didn’t bother you that Veronica Archer was the only witness?" Aldo asked.

"They were husband and wife. He was leaving home. It would have been strange if she *hadn’t* been a witness," Jim pointed out. He watched as Aldo began tapping his cigarette lighter on the table once again. "Then we started questioning our primary suspect."

~~~~~~~

TWO MONTHS EARLIER – INTERROGATION ROOM #1

"Look, I don’t know anything about Archer buying it." Lovejoy irritably looked at Jim and Simon. "I was with *you* just seconds before he got it, remember?"

"The bomb was connected to the ignition of Archer’s car," Jim calmly answered. "It doesn’t matter where you were when it blew."

"I’m not saying another word without my lawyer," Lovejoy decided.

Simon sighed. "Oh, well, I was hoping to help you out with your situation in Chicago. But since you want your lawyer…"

"There’s no situation in Chicago," Lovejoy denied.

"Really?" Simon scratched his jaw. "I spoke with FBI Special Agent Kline just a little while ago. He told me the union you work for is under investigation for money laundering. Silly me. I thought if you help us out, we might help you out with the FBI. But you’re got it all figured out. So we’ll just cut you loose back to Chicago and tap on a murder charge for a little added bonus." He nodded at Jim, who got to his feet. "Let’s go, Jim."

"Wait!" Lovejoy hesitated when both men looked at him. "Okay, look…the money was being washed through the pension fund. Archer was in charge of the books, but he was skimming. When he found out he’d been caught, he skipped with nearly a half-million. I’ve been looking for him for a couple of months."

"And the confrontation at the restaurant was just a chance meeting?" Jim asked.

"Hell, no, I was supposed to be there." Lovejoy shook his head. "She said Archer would…"

"She?!" Jim demanded.

"Yeah. She. His wife," Lovejoy explained. "She’s the one who made the call. She said Archer would pay all the money back with interest. He just wanted to meet in a public place so he’d feel safe."

"You’re sure it was his wife who called?" Jim coldly asked.

"Oh, yeah, I knew her in Chicago. You don’t forget a woman who looks like *that.*" Lovejoy smirked. "Or forget that sexy voice."

Simon suspiciously eyed the prisoner. "Did you kill Archer?"

"My orders were to wait." Lovejoy shook his head. "Besides, explosives ain’t my thing. They make me nervous."

Angrily, Jim left the interrogation room, nearly knocking Blair to the floor.

"Jim! Wait a minute!"

Ignoring him, Jim headed for the stairway.

~~~~~~~~

ONE HOUR LATER – ARCHER RESIDENCE

"Jim, I told you. I had no idea what Alan was involved in." Veronica clutched her robe close to her body.

"That’s not what Lovejoy said," Jim angrily argued.

"And you believe him?" Veronica asked in astonishment.

"Why shouldn’t I?" Jim demanded. "You lied to me before. When I asked if you knew Harry’s last name, you said you didn’t. But when I mentioned it to Alan, he thought I got it from you."

"Alan was just guessing." Veronica looked the intricate pattern on the parquet floor.

"Why would he do that?" Jim shook his head. "Veronica, Alan was my friend. What are you holding back?"

"There are questions you shouldn’t ask, Jim," Veronica quietly answered. "You may not like what you find out."

"Try me."

Veronica took a deep breath. "One night…while we were still in Chicago…Alan came home panicked. Said he’s done something stupid. He’d been drinking and just blurted everything out. The mob. Skimming money. Everything. He said he’d been found out, and we had to get out of town right away."

Jim ran a hand through his hair. "Once you found out, you could have gone to the police. You didn’t have to stick with him."

"God, Jim, I was terrified not to stay!" Veronica opened her robe to show the bruises on her shoulder. "This is what I got when Alan found out I’d spoken to you. What do you think he would have done if I’d told the police…you…everything?" Choking back a sob, she closed the robe. "He said he’d kill me if I left him. I believed him."

*God, Alan, what happened to you? This isn’t the man I knew…thought I knew…* Looking aside, Jim shook his head. "I thought I knew him."

Veronica hesitantly put a hand on his arm. "He wasn’t the man you remembered, Jim. But you’re the man *I* remember. And ever since that night at the restaurant…" She pulled her hand away. "I thought you could take me away from this…make everything okay again." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "When you’re desperate, you think desperate things."

Jim reached out and took her hands in his. "Who do you think killed him?"

Veronica shook her head. "I don’t know. Someone in Chicago, maybe…or Vegas. He liked gambling there. He just wasn’t good at it. God only know how much he owed there and to who." She twisted her fingers in Jim’s hand. "I tried to be a good wife, Jim. I really did. And I’m not glad he’s dead. No matter what he did. I’m going to miss him so much."

Jim pulled her head against her shoulder and held her while she cried.

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"Let me get this straight, Detective." Aldo leaned back in his chair with a smirk. "You know Veronica Archer had knowledge of her husband criminal activities. That made her an accessory after the fact." He suddenly leaned forward. "So why didn’t you bring her in for questioning?"

"Because she was a victim, and I thought she’d been through enough," Jim evenly answered.

"And you rekindled your relationship with her," Aldo added, smiling when Jim slowly nodded. "When did she tell you about the insurance money?"

"A month after Alan died."

~~~~~~~~

ONE MONTH EARLIER – ARCHER RESIDENCE

Veronica opened the door and threw herself into Jim’s arms. "I’m sorry to call you at work. I just didn’t know what to do."

"What is it?" Jim’s eyes flickered around trying to find what had gotten Veronica so upset.

Veronica stepped back, wiping her eyes. "God, Jim. I’m sorry. I’m acting like some sort of woman in a bad romance novel. Come in." Leading Jim into the living room, she sat on the couch, patting the seat next to her.

"Veronica, what’s wrong? Are you okay?" Jim demanded, sitting next to her.

"I’m not sure," Veronica shakily admitted. "You know I’ve been worrying about money. I was getting ready to sell Alan’s boat but…" She shivered. "It was like losing him all over again." She took a deep breath. "Anyway, a claims agent from American Life called me this morning." She looked at Jim. "Alan took out a three million dollar life insurance policy while he was working for the union."

"That’s a lot of money," Jim admitted.

Veronica shook her head. "It’s a relief, I admit. Knowing I don’t have to worry about losing the house…having nowhere to live." She clutched at Jim’s arm. "But in one way, I don’t care about it. *You’re* the one good thing that’s come out of all this. *You’ve* been there for me. And no one’s ever done that. Not even Alan." She sighed. "You don’t know how I’ve regretted the wrong decisions I’ve made. I always imagined you just tore up the wedding invitation." She leaned closer. "What would you have done if you’d gotten it all those years ago?"

For a couple of seconds, Jim thought about Lila. Then he closed his eyes and hungrily kissed Veronica.

~~~~~~~~

LATER THAT NIGHT – THE LOFT

Blair was surprised to see Jim standing by the balcony windows. Sitting the grocery sack on the kitchen counter, he took off his jacket. "Hey, Jim. Long time no see."

Jim shrugged. "I’ve been busy."

Blair hesitated then nodded. As he began pulling vegetables from the sack, he glanced over his shoulder. "Any closer on who killed Archer?"

Jim shook his head as he joined Blair in the kitchen. "The Feds have Lovejoy in Chicago. We can get him back, but I don’t think that’s going to solve anything."

Blair shut the refrigerator door. "Ever think of looking closer to home?" he casually asked.

Jim’s eyes narrowed.

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

"What is it you guys always tell me? Motive. Opportunity. Method." Blair leaned against the kitchen counter, trying to control his racing heart.

"I’m sure you’ve got a point to this somewhere," Jim sniped.

"Inheriting three million dollars of insurance money and getting rid of an abusive husband sounds like a pretty good motive to me," Blair explained. "And she certainly had the opportunity."

"So she puts a bomb in his car?" Jim’s eyes suddenly narrowed. "And how did you know about the three million dollars?"

"Uh…I was in Simon’s office, fixing something on his computer when the insurance agent called," Blair quickly explained. "He needed a copy of the incident report." He looked at Jim. "It’s possible. You have to admit that."

Jim snorted. "Let me explain something, Blair ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Sandburg. The forensics report said the explosive was D-13. That’s a linear-shaped charge used in demolition. It takes highly technical, precision knowledge to handle it, okay?" He walked away. "So much for your method."

Blair winced at the sarcastic tone in his friend’s voice. "She could have had help," he quietly added.

"I think you’re the one who needs help, Sandburg! You can’t prove anything, can you? All this is just…what?…instinct?!" Jim snapped. "I’m tired. I’m going to bed."

Blair took a deep breath, hating the sudden pain he was feeling in his chest. "I’m sorry I brought it up," he murmured.

Jim hesitated on the steps. "It’s okay, Sandburg. Forget it." He quickly walked up the steps.

Blair leaned against the kitchen island, his arms wrapped around his waist. Not for the first time, he damned Alex Barnes and all the things that were his little mental room of ‘Things Not To Be Discussed.’

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

Jim absently rubbed his hands on his thighs. "Of course, Sandburg was right. I couldn’t…didn’t want to see it. And I didn’t want to hear it, either." His eyes slid to the observation window. *Sorry about that, partner. I guess I should tell you that.* He looked back at Aldo. "Until it hit me in the face, that is. The insurance company paid off two days ago. Last night Veronica called. She was hearing noises again. Like someone was prowling around the house. I figured it was just her imagination. She’d heard noises before, and I hadn’t found anything. But I headed over anyway. Better to be safe than sorry, right?"

Aldo smirked.

~~~~~~~~

ONE DAY EARLIER – ARCHER RESIDENCE

Jim slowly pulled his gun from his holster and aimed it at the dark-clad man emerging from Alan’s boat. Waiting until the man had gotten off the boat and was standing on the pier, he yelled, "Hands up! Cascade PD!"

The figure slowly raised his hands and stepped forward into the moonlight.

Jim’s eyes widened in shock. "Alan?"

"Hey there, hotshot."

"I don't believe this. I had all the pieces but just couldn’t make them fit." He stared at Alan, still surprised at seeing his friend alive and standing in front of him. "You faked your death and let Lovejoy take the fall. And collect three million in the process." Slowly Jim shook his head as his gun partially lowered. *And I fell for it. Hook line and sinker.*

Alan grinned. "Well, you know me. Always thinking ahead."

"It was all a setup, wasn't it? Starting from when you cut me off in traffic!" Jim angrily demanded. "You wanted Lovejoy to see me at the restaurant and think I was your protection." His eyes narrowed. "That’s who Veronica called from the restaurant. And when we get to your house and see the so-called ‘break-in,’ I’m to think somebody’s after you." When Alan remained silent, Jim shouted, "*Right?!*"

Alan shrugged, then nodded.

"And when your car exploded…you needed me to be first on the scene to confirm Veronica's story," Jim concluded. "And all the better it was a cop who would let love and friendship cloud his judgment," he bitterly added.

"Look, you were a means to an end." Alan smiled as he stepped forward. "Nothing personal, okay?"

Jim raised his gun at Alan. "It’s all personal!" he yelled.

"Okay…okay." Alan halted. "Look, here’s the picture, Jim. Three million dollars. One million for me, one million for Veronica, and one million for you. All you have to do is just walk away."

"I’m supposed to walk away from that body in your car?" Jim demanded.

"It was nobody," Alan assured him. "Just some low-rent hustler who tried to strong-arm me in a bar. Nobody society is going to miss."

"God, Alan, what’s happened to you?" Jim murmured.

"Remember, you owe me," Alan pointed out.

"I thought we were even," Jim snorted.

"I changed my mind." Alan grinned.

Jim slowly shook his head. "I’ve got to take you in, man. You *and* Veronica."

Alan’s eyes narrowed as he heard sirens in the distance. "Back-up right on schedule, huh? You never really liked solo missions, did you, buddy?"

Jim shook his head. "I didn’t call for back-up."

Alan glared past Jim towards the darkened house. "That bitch!"

Jim motioned with his gun. "Let’s go to the house, Alan. It’s over now."

Alan smirked. "I’ll see you sometime, Jim." Turning, he walked back towards the boat.

"Alan! Don’t make me do this!" Jim shouted.

Whirling around, Alan pointed a gun at Jim. Instinctively, Jim fired, the bullet hitting Alan near the heart.

Jim hesitated for a second, seeing Alan fall to the pier. Then he holstered his gun and ran towards his friend.

Alan peered up as Jim knelt next to him. "Hey, Jim…can’t hear that old Archer clock."

"Come on, Alan," Jim muttered. "Help’s on the way. Just…hold on for me." He reached out and checked the wound.

Alan coughed, then stopped breathing.

"Alan!" Jim shouted. "Damn it!"


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


THE LOFT

Jim wearily sat at the kitchen table, to tired to pace any longer. He wearily rested his elbows on the table, head in his hands, and forced himself to continue speaking to the quietly humming tape recorder. "If I’d admitted to you that you were right about Veronica, would things have been different? Maybe I just couldn’t handle any more betrayal. Like Lila. Like…"

Jim closed his eyes and forced himself to continue. "Like Alex Barnes. We've never talked about that, have we, Chief?" He opened his eyes and stared down at the tape recorder. "We’ve never talked about the fountain and what happened afterwards."

He took another deep breath. "But time waits for no man or for betrayal either. I don’t know if you’d call this a Shakespearean tragedy or a French farce, Chief. Either way…the ending wasn’t pretty, was it?"

~~~~~~~~

INTERROGATION ROOM #3

"It was all an insurance scam," Jim sighed. "Both Alan and Veronica were in on it."

"And that’s it?" Aldo asked.

Jim nodded. "The rest you know."

"Nice story, Detective." Aldo nodded. "Unfortunately, it doesn’t match at all with Mrs. Archer’s statement. She claims she knew nothing about it. You and your buddy Alan planned it all. Then you decided to kill him to clear the way to be with her."

Jim leaned forward. "She’s lying."

"Three million dollars is a lot of money. You’re in love with her." Aldo shrugged. "It happens all the time. You wanted both the money *and* the woman." He put his cigarette lighter in his pocket. "And you know what? I believe her. I may not get you on the missing heroin, but that’s chump change compared to this."

Jim stared at the IA investigator for several seconds. "It’s late. We’ve been at this all day. Are we done here?"

Aldo frowned. "For now. Keep yourself available, Detective. We aren’t through."

Silently, Jim stood and walked out.

Outside the interrogation room, Blair turned to Simon. "It’s her word against his."

Simon sadly shrugged. "It doesn’t matter, Sandburg. Because of that missing heroin, he’s already under suspicion. People would always wonder if he’s a dirty cop."

"That’s…that’s…" Blair angrily waved his hands and walked away. Catching sight of Jim, he followed him towards the police garage.

Jim stopped at his truck, wondering if he should wait for Sandburg. But that wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have right now. Knowing it was a rotten thing to do, he pulled out his keys. Sandburg could catch a ride home with someone else.

"Jim?"

Jim slowly turned at the sound of Veronica’s voice. Despite himself, the first thing he thought when she stepped from the shadows was how beautiful she looked.

"I’m sorry it worked out this way," Veronica softly said when she reached him. "If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t all an act."

"Sure it was," Jim bitterly argued. "You needed me to kill Alan. You needed Aldo to get to me." He ignored her murmured protest. "You’re smart, Veronica. Smarter than either Alan or I thought. You were pulling the strings ten years ago, weren’t you? You could jerk Alan’s strings easier than mine, right?" He stepped back against the truck. "I’m going to put you away."

Veronica shook her head. "It’s over Jim, and you don’t even know it." She lowered her voice. "Run, while you’re able," she whispered. "If you need money, we both know I have plenty to spare."

"Awfully generous, aren’t you?" Jim snorted.

"For old times’ sake," Veronica admitted. "And because you can’t win this one."

"We’ll see," Jim answered.

Veronica sadly smiled. "I had the feeling you’d say that." She turned and walked way, passing Blair as he hurried towards Jim’s truck.

Blair gave her an angry look which she ignored. "What did *she* want?" he demanded when he reached Jim.

"An apology, I guess," Jim shrugged.

"Apology?" Blair snorted, then put his hands on his hips. "What are you going to do?"

"Start acting like a cop," Jim answered. *For a change.*

Blair nodded and walked to the passenger side of the truck.

Jim hesitated, wondering if this was the time to apologize to Blair. *First things first. Bust Veronica now. Apologize later. That’s the right order of things, right?*

"Jim!"

Jim turned to see Simon and Aldo walking towards them. He glanced at Blair who got out of the truck. The two men walked to meet them.

Blair frowned, seeing the worried look on Simon’s face and the smirk on Aldo’s face.

"What is it, Simon?" Jim asked.

"Henri and Rafe were investigating an explosion at the Meyers Chemical Company," Simon briefly explained. "They found this." He held out a sheet of paper enclosed in an evidence bag.

"What is it?" Blair asked, peering around Jim at the bag.

"It’s a receipt for D-13. The same type of explosive that blew Archer’s car," Aldo explained with a slight smile. "In order to purchase it, you need identification and a signature."

"It’s my signature," Jim admitted. "But I didn’t sign this. Alan must have done it."

"Of course," Aldo snorted. "You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?"

"Forgery is an art we were both taught in Special Ops, Aldo." He handed the evidence bag back to Simon. "You were supposed to find this." He looked at Simon. "For God’s sake, why would I blow up a chemical building?"

"Nobody said you did," Aldo pointed out. "The building contained volatile chemicals. It just blew."

"Veronica told me it was over. Just a few minutes ago," Jim recalled, glancing at Blair. "That’s what she meant."

"Was anybody else there when she said it?" Simon asked, hope in his eyes.

"I was," Blair quickly answered.

"Did you hear her say those words?" Aldo immediately demanded.

"Uh…no," Blair admitted. "But I saw them talking."

"I don’t need to hear anything else." Aldo looked at Simon. "Either you do it or I will."

Simon sighed, then looked at Jim. "Jim, you’re on suspension pending a full investigation. I need your badge and gun."

"Simon! You can’t do this!" Blair angrily protested. "You know better!"

Jim silently handed his badge and gun to Simon.

"I don’t have a choice, Sandburg!" Simon snapped.

"Is there anything else, sir?" Jim asked. When Simon shook his head, he turned away. "You know where to find me."

Aldo glanced at Blair. "Keep yourself available, Mr. Sandburg. We still need to discuss that missing heroin." He walked away, ignoring both Blair’s muttered comment about ‘jack-booted stormtroopers’ and Simon’s growl.

Simon jerked his head towards Jim’s truck. "Get going, Sandburg. Stay with him."

Blair quickly turned and trotted back to the truck. Quickly getting inside as Jim started the engine, he reached for his seatbelt. "Where to now?"

"Meyers Chemical Plant," Jim grunted.

"Why?"

"If a signature is required to purchase D-13, maybe there were other safeguards," Jim surmised.

"Think you can get in?" Blair frowned. "They’re probably still investigating the site, right?"

"I’m gambling nobody on the site will know about my suspension," Jim grunted.

"It’s worth a try," Blair nodded.

Jim glanced at his partner. *Veronica first, apology second.*

~~~~~~~~

MEYERS CHEMICAL PLANT

"Hey, Jim! What are you doing here?" Detective Henri Brown greeted the new arrivals with a smile.

"This…uh…might be connected to a case I’m involved in," Jim answered. "You got anything yet?"

Henri smiled. "Follow me." He led them towards a nearby building. "Rafe’s in here with some security surveillance tapes." He glanced at Jim. "Captain Banks called to say you might be stopping by."

"Did he?" Jim quietly asked.

"Must be some sort of interference around here," Henri shrugged. "I’m sure I didn’t catch everything he said."

Blair sighed in relief, causing Henri to chuckle. Opening the door to the building, he led them down a hallway. They were halfway to an open door when they heard Rafe’s voice.

"Yes! Yes! Got you, you son of a bitch!"

"That sounds promising," Jim wryly chuckled.

"Hey, Rafe, what’s the good word?" Henri demanded as they entered.

Rafe looked over his shoulder and grinned. "This is gonna *really* interest you, Jim. Hey, Blair!" He leaned forward and rewound the tape. "Turns out the president of the company had some new surveillance cameras installed. They’re some sort of heavy-duty damn-near indestructible cameras designed to withstand high intensity heat and corrosion."

"Like from a chemical explosion?" Blair eagerly asked.

"Exactly." Rafe cued the tape. "Check it out."

The four men watched as the tape showed a man and a woman purchasing explosives. The small box was clearly labeled ‘D-13’.

"Look familiar?" Rafe grinned.

"Veronica Archer," Blair identified.

"And Ray Aldo," Jim added as the figure at the filing cabinet turned around.

"Didn’t they see the cameras?" Blair asked in surprise.

"Guess they figured the cameras would be destroyed in the explosion." Henri shrugged.

Rafe shook his head. "They’re miniaturized. They probably never even saw them."

Blair cleared his throat. "Veronica's father was a strip miner and demolitions expert. She might have picked up something from him." He squirmed a little under Jim’s stare. "So I did a little digging, okay?" he defensively asked.

Jim patted his partner on the arm. "Good job. All of you."

"So Aldo gets access to the evidence lock-up and snags the heroin before it’s logged in," Henri mused. "He uses it to frame you as a dirty cop then nails your coffin shut with Archer’s death."

"And he gets off with not only the heroin but a cut of Archer’s three million dollar insurance money," Blair eagerly added.

Rafe pulled out his cell phone. "Captain Banks? We’ve found a good surveillance tape. We’ve got both Ray Aldo and Veronica Archer as the ones who stole the explosives." He listened then uncomfortably looked over his shoulder. "Ellison, sir? Why would…" He held the phone away from his ear. All of them could hear Simon shouting.

Jim wryly smiled and took the cell phone. "Yes, sir? You wanted to speak with me?"

~~~~~~~~

ARCHER RESIDENCE

Jim slowly walked into the living room and saw several pieces of expensive luggage.

"You’re late. Did you get the plane tick…?" Veronica halted as she walked into the room and saw Jim. She stood there for a moment, hands in her coat pockets.

"You won’t need plane tickets where you’re going," Jim quietly spoke.

"I hoped you’d change your mind about this, Jim." she smiled.

"There was a security camera that filmed you and Ray buying explosives at Meyers Chemical," Jim softly explained. "That links you to insurance fraud and murder. And maybe to arson as well."

"I don’t know a Ray Aldo," Veronica denied.

"I’ll take the money," Jim said with a sigh.

She smiled knowingly. "Of course. You’ll need it. Half, right?"

Jim shook his head. "All of it. For evidence. You’re under arrest, Veronica."

Veronica pulled her hands from her coat pockets. A gun was securely held in her right hand, aimed at Jim. "You should have settled for half."

Jim shook his head. "You won’t get three feet past the front door." His head turned slightly as he heard the ticking of a wristwatch. Extending his hearing, he heard a rapid heartbeat from someone around the corner leading to the rear of the house. Looking back at Veronica, he smiled. "You had the gun in your hand the whole time. The whole time you were expecting your partner. C’mon, Veronica." Jim smiled. "You didn’t have any intentions of splitting up the money, did you?"

"I deserve it! I did all the work!" Veronica snapped. Then she forced a smile. "Come on, Jim. Get out of my way." Her finger tightened on the trigger when Jim stiffened. "Don’t. I’m a better shot than Alan ever was."

Jim heard Aldo approaching. "I’m sure you are. Are you prepared to take out your flunky as well?"

Veronica smirked. "That won’t even be a contest."

Jim heard Aldo cock his gun and move forward. Ducking and rolling to his right, he saw Aldo enter the room. Both Veronica and Aldo fired at each other.

Aldo fell backwards, hitting the wall then sliding to the floor.

Veronica stumbled backwards then fell against the couch.

Jim quickly got to his feet and ran to where Veronica lay on the floor slumped against the couch. He heard Simon shouting from outside and the approach of the police officers.

"Jim…"

"Shhh…don’t, honey," Jim soothed her. "Just relax and breathe. C'mon, baby, breathe for me." He wrapped his arms around her. *Not again. Please…not again.*

"If..if you really…loved me…you…let me walk…" Veronica’s eyes rolled back in her head as she gasped and died.

"Veronica?" Jim shook her. "Veronica!"

"Get an ambulance!" Simon shouted.

Jim closed his eyes and slowly stood. "She doesn’t need one. And Aldo’s dead." Without another word, he walked out of the house.

Blair looked at the bodies then at Simon. "Was she shooting at Aldo…or Jim?"

Simon angrily looked down at Veronica’s body. "We’ll never know, Sandburg. And what's worse, neither will Jim."


~~~~~ EPILOGUE ~~~~~


Jim sat at the kitchen table, staring at the tape recorder. "It all boiled down to greed. Pure and simple greed. The oldest story in the book, Chief." He looked up as the front door opened. Clicking off the tape recorder, he watched at Blair entered and closed the door behind him.

Blair saw Jim staring at him and hesitated. "Ummm…hey." When Jim didn’t say anything, Blair turned away. "Look, if you need time alone, I’ll just…"

"No." Jim stared down at the tape recorder then resolutely pushed it aside. Looking at Blair with hope in his eyes, he asked, "You got some time to talk, Chief?"

Blair smiled with relief in his eyes. "Sure do."


~~ The End ~~

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