Written for PetFly by Paul B Margolis
internal thought in * *
~~~~ Act I ~~~~Her legs could barely carry her as she staggered down the corridor to the elevator; her head swam from the force of the blow that had slammed her into the floor. Terror squeezed her lungs shut, and she had to fight for breath. Desperate fear kept her moving as fast as she could. Pop, pop, pop! Such small sounds, but she was sure Max was dead; the acrid smell of the discharge had filled the room.
Banging on the button for the elevator, she heard the machinery start to clank and whirr. "Hurry, hurry!" she whimpered, leaning against the wall, looking back down the corridor. Max was dead, and the man would come for her next. This Karl had been fine in the bar, fine in the hotel room, fine until he spotted Max with his camera on the balcony.
The elevator door swished open and she flew in, frantically pressing herself against the wall as she pushed the lobby button. Even as the door closed, she expected to see the man come flying down the corridor, his hand sliding through the door just before it shut, forcing it open and smiling as the gun gave its deadly pop, pop, pop.
He didn’t come.
She walked rapidly, her heels banging out an urgent staccato on the glossy marble slabs that paved the lobby. Pushing her way through the revolving doors, she was out. She moved swiftly into the fringe of a group of college kids who were just passing; their shouts and antics concealed her well. Two blocks on she hailed a cab. As she climbed in she cast a look up and down the busy sidewalk. No sign of Karl. She slumped back against the decaying leather seat, impregnated with the smell of too many stale bodies, but for once it didn’t bother her.
The cab passed along familiar streets, taking her home. She was clean; there was nothing to tie her to Max’s death. She just had to keep quiet. No one could ever prove she was in that room as long as she kept her mouth shut. It would be better to stay away from places she had been seen with Max. She didn’t need to use the Pigale club. There were enough regular clients calling her directly to keep her in funds. Just no more ‘extras’ with Max. That was okay for now. It had been a nice little scam, and there was no reason she couldn’t work it again someday. She took a deep breath; the pain in her jaw and the stinging in her ear where she had lost the earring were uncomfortable now that her fear was fading.
She’d have to find out just what the connection was between the killer and her best client. The information could be useful.
Two, small, perfect circles of nothing surrounded by radiating patterns of shattered glass showed the paths of the two bullets that had ended the young man’s life. Jim lifted his head as Simon spoke. "Name is Max Vaughn. He’s…uh…rather he was the manager of a fancy strip club downtown. Club Pigale."
"Oh, hey, that’s the one down on Sixth Street." The look of discomfort on Blair’s face as the two older men fixed him with quizzical stares was so comical that Jim had to suppress a grin.
"I go past it on my way to school." Blair looked at them both. "Just past it!" he repeated indignantly.
Simon turned back to Jim with a longsuffering sigh. "Yeah. Well, Vaughn also manages a string of call girls on the side. Now Vice has suspected him for months of running a little blackmail scheme. You know, he brings the clients in with the girls, videotapes them, then makes them pay to get the tape back. They’ve never been able to get any of the johns to testify."
Jim wandered back across the room, scanning for anything useful as he listened to Simon explain that a ‘knockout’ in the bar with a ‘businessman’ had charged drinks to this room earlier.
"This camera was on the balcony." The captain held up the bag containing the expensive piece of equipment. "Of course, the cassette is missing."
Jim nodded. "So, you figure he tried his scam on the wrong guy, and the john killed him."
"Well, that’s what it looks like."
Jim glanced briefly at Blair, who was watching the young man’s corpse being zipped up in the medical examiner’s black body bag. Max was probably the same age as many of Blair’s students, and it didn’t take much imagination to follow his train of thought. Blair looked up and gave him a half-smile, then frowned and looked over to Simon. "What happened to the girl?"
"There’s no sign of her."
Blair swallowed hard. "Any chance she was in on the killing?"
Simon shook his head slowly. "Anything is possible."
Jim listened to the exchange with half an ear as he continued to scan the room. The forensics team was following the normal routine, dusting any surface that could conceivably have collected a print. Not all surfaces could hold a print though. His eyes trailed down to the fireplace. What was that? His vision zoomed in and he moved forward. "I don’t think she was, Simon."
The two men came over as he bent down and picked up his prize with a handkerchief.
"What have you got, Jim?" Blair asked, peering myopically at the small object.
"It’s a woman’s earring. There’s a smudge of blood on it." Pulling a small plastic evidence bag from his jacket, he carefully placed the earring inside and held it up so the others could see it clearly. "I’d say the john was here with the girl, spots Vaughn on the balcony and figures he’s been set up, smacks her around a little bit and pumps a couple of holes through the door."
Blair frowned. "Why didn’t he kill her, too? Where’s her body?"
Jim was way ahead of him. "Because he goes to check on Vaughn and somehow the girl manages to escape."
Simon nodded his agreement. "Certainly possible, Jim. Why don’t you two go check out the Pigale? See what you can dig up on Vaughn and the girl. The bartender should be able to give you a good description."
Jim picked up the photo Blair had printed off from the computer files at Club Pigale the previous night, and studied it again. He bit into the warm slice of toast thickly covered with peanut butter and poured a second cup of coffee. The bartender’s description of the girl had been very detailed, and looking at the photo, Jim could see why the man had given her his full attention. She was young and beautiful. It had been easy to find the face that matched. He had been stunned when Blair recognized her.
Jim sipped his coffee, enhancing his sense of smell and taste just a little to really savor the new roast he was trying. It was very good. Blair had been so disappointed when he identified the girl, his delight at getting into the club wiped out in a second. "She’s a junior, Jim, Amber Larkin. I subbed a couple of times for a class she took last semester. She’s really very intelligent, Jim." Jim had kept his mouth shut. "I can access her current schedule on my laptop when we get home."
Jim sighed. It seemed that Miss Larkin was working her way through college as a hooker.
Blair emerged from his room, layered, as usual, in multicolored flannel. Damp fronds of hair hung in a heavy frame around his face. Jim pushed over a mug of coffee. "Toast?"
Blair shook his head and buried his face in the mug, eyes closed.
"You said she had a class at 9 o’clock this morning?"
A quick nod was the only response.
"You don’t have to come."
Blair looked up. "Yeah, man. I know. It’s okay, I’m just…a bit tired, that’s all."
Jim nodded. It hadn’t taken much in the way of detective skills to spot the dark circles under his eyes.
Forty minutes later Jim caught sight of the girl as she walked towards them across the front of the college. He nudged Blair. "Come on." A few paces, carefully timed, brought them face-to-face with the girl.
Amber looked at the two men who blocked her path, one tall, handsome, well muscled; the other shorter, slighter, with a riot of long, spiral-curled hair, and somehow familiar.
It was the tall guy who spoke to her. "Excuse me, uh, Miss Larkin? My name’s Jim Ellison. I was wondering if I could have a minute with you?"
She dealt with his approach with practiced ease. "Actually, I’m late for my psych class."
As she went to move away, he pulled a badge from his jacket. "Cascade PD, Miss Larkin. It’s about Max Vaughn."
She was far too experienced to let her feelings show. She stood where she was, her face blank. "Who?" There was no tremor in her voice.
"Your home video director."
Her legs felt like jelly. How had they found her? Never mind, there was no way they could prove she was there. Her reply was unhesitating. "I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about."
She needed to distract this Ellison. The younger man had not spoken yet, but she was sure she knew him from somewhere. "Do I know you?"
"Blair Sandburg. I’m a grad student in anthropology." She remembered the classes he had taught. In fact, she remembered them very clearly; they stood out in her memory as actually being interesting.
But the hard-faced cop was not distracted, or convinced by her denials. "We’ve got you tied to Max Vaughn about ten different ways, not least in his files at the Pigale, so you can drop the act."
So that was it, the records at the club. But they still couldn’t prove she knew anything about the murder, or Max’s little sideline. Time to let a small truth hide the big lie. "Okay, so maybe I’ve done some occasional escort work to pay for school."
Ellison was relentless. "How about blackmail or murder? You ever done anything like that? That’s a nice make-up job, but I can still see where the killer smacked you around."
It was a bluff. This cop had nothing, or she’d already be on her way downtown.
"What killer? I walked into a door, okay?" She met his eyes defiantly.
"Tell me about last night’s client. Why did he kill Max?"
Why did this Ellison think she would tell him anything? Men always made the mistake of thinking she was stupid! "Look, I was at home last night studying for finals, all right? If I’m a suspect, arrest me. Otherwise I have a class."
She let the moment play out, and then turned on her heel and walked away. It was men that were stupid! Suckers for a pretty face, they were easy to manipulate. She’d played that game for years; she was an expert.
She heard the young man call after her.
"Amber, Amber, wait up!"
She stopped for a moment.
"If you witnessed a murder, you could be in danger, too."
There was a directness and honesty in the way he spoke that was disarming. She shook her head. "I don’t get this. Are you a grad student or a cop?"
His eyes were blue and met hers straight on. "I’m a consultant to the police department."
"And you’re going to protect me, right?"
"We will if you let us." He sounded sincere. "I know you’re scared, but if you trust me I won’t let you down."
He had an open and frank face and seemed genuinely concerned, but she had learned never to trust anyone but herself. Her eyes drifted over his shoulder to where the cop stood, stiff and unyielding, watching her with cold, suspicious eyes. She looked back at Blair. "Look, I was home last night. I didn’t see anybody kill anybody, okay?" She didn’t wait for his reply, but heard his disbelieving, "Yeah!" as she walked away.
Blair Sandburg, grad student. She stored the information away.~~~~ Act II ~~~Jim and Blair had been in Amber Larkin’s apartment for about ten minutes when Simon arrived, just enough time to get the main facts together. The three of them stood in the center of the living area while the police teams worked around them.
"It was Amber Larkin’s roommate, Debra."
At least Jim had managed to keep Blair away from the corpse this time. She had been lying on the bedroom floor, her head in a pool of blood. "The apartment manager found her when he came in to deliver a UPS package."
"He said Amber had come in about 4:00, then took off without any explanation," Blair said, his face clearly showing his anxiety.
Simon nodded. "Probably found her roommate and panicked."
Glancing at Blair, Jim decided that it was not the time to comment on this being the second time that Amber had taken care to save her own skin, not even taking the time to make an anonymous 911 call from down the road. Some friend.
"It appears that the killer came in to wait for Amber to show up. When the roommate came in unexpectedly, he shot her instead. Nine-millimeter automatic, like Max Vaughn."
Blair shook his head. "Now wait a minute. If the killer was here waiting, why didn’t he stick around and shoot Amber, too?"
Jim nodded. "That’s a good question. We’ve got to find her to answer that, though."
Simon sighed as he looked around. Jim watched as the captain took in the details of the small, neat room. A blue and white gingham cloth was spread over the table, with a vase of fresh cut flowers in the center and two place settings laid. A dirty coffee cup was in the sink, an open book on the chair. It was a snapshot of lives interrupted by brutal violence. Simon looked back at Jim. "We’d better find her, before this guy finds her first."
Just as he and Blair were about to leave the apartment, Jim caught the faint hint of an unusual scent. He stopped and looked around him, trying to see where it was strongest, but it didn’t seem to be coming from any one place.
"There it is again."
"That scent – I smelled it in the hotel room. It’s like somebody’s eating candy – like mint candy."
Blair glanced back into the living area. "I don’t see any candy around the apartment. Maybe it’s something the killer eats."
Jim nodded. "Whatever it is, it’s got a weird odor like some chemical is mixed in." He couldn’t place it. He was pretty sure he’d never smelled anything like it before.
Jim pushed out the heavy old glass-topped doors at the entrance of the building, and Blair followed him out. "All right. I’m heading over to that Club Pigale, see if any of the girls there know anything. I want you to go to the university, talk to some of her friends. Maybe one of them can give us a lead."
"Right." Blair followed him over to the truck. "Hope she’s okay, man. She needs our help."
Jim could stand it no longer. "Listen to me, Lancelot. None of this would have happened if she’d come clean in the first place." His outburst didn’t seem to rattle his partner at all.
"She didn’t trust us," Blair replied with a shrug. "I was talking to her at the university the other day. It sounded like she had a real problem with trust."
Jim gazed at his friend open mouthed for a moment, then it all clicked into place. "Oh, man, I don’t believe this!"
"You’ve got a thing for her."
Blair gave him a pained look. "Come on. No, I don’t. She’s cute, she’s just not my type even if she wasn’t a…"
"…a hooker?" He watched Blair squirm.
"See there? That word – it has a definite connotation to it. You know, in Ancient Egypt, prostitutes, they were…venerated."
Jim couldn’t help but laugh; one thing he’d learned for certain in Vice was that nobody in this town venerated a hooker.
"Well, I don’t see any pyramids around here. So let’s keep it professional, okay, Chief?"
Jim climbed into the truck while Blair stood, apparently examining the paving on the sidewalk with a great deal of interest. He looked up as Jim started the engine, and gave a halfhearted wave as he pulled away.
*Damn it, Sandburg. Why can’t you just save a whale? Does it have to be the world?*
Jim pushed the door shut and shoved the keys back into his pocket. Blair was on his way into the kitchen.
Something he had only recently admitted to himself was just how much he preferred coming home to a Blair-filled apartment rather than an empty one.
"No sign of the girl, but I think we’ve got a break on the shooter." He waved the folder he was carrying.
"I want to talk to you about…"
Typical Blair, Jim thought impatiently; there was always something he wanted to talk about. He pushed on, "Remember that smell I picked up at the hotel and her apartment?"
Blair nodded, distracted immediately by something involving a sentinel sense, just as Jim knew he would be.
"Yeah, it was mint with some chemical smell," he said, bright eyes regarding Jim with anticipation.
"So I remembered she met with the killer at the hotel bar. I went back to the hotel and rummaged through the trash. And I came up with this crumpled wrapper that smelled like that. It was a European brand of nicotine gum." No need to go into details here. Rummaging through trash with a deliberately heightened sense of smell was definitely not on his list of experiences to be repeated. But it had been well worth the effort.
Blair was fascinated. "Smoker’s gum!"
"Exactly. I ran it through the FBI. It came up zip. Called a friend of mine at Langley…"
"The CIA? What…"
Jim could almost hear the wheels turning. He groaned inwardly; somehow he knew that Blair was not going to be satisfied with an ‘If I tell you I have to kill you’ explanation. That was a problem for later, though.
"Right. They ran it through their database…" Something was jarring his senses, something out of place. "Why am I smelling perfume here?"
"That’s what I wanted to talk to you about."
Jim’s exasperation with his libidinous partner boiled to the surface. "Wait a minute, you’re supposed to be doing police work and you’re dilly-dallying around with some girl? Where is she?"
Blair stood his ground. "She’s in the bathroom. You don’t understand."
It was the last person he expected to see. She moved hesitantly through the door behind Blair.
Amber regarded him uncertainly. "Hi, there."
Blair moved to her side. "That’s what I was trying to tell you. You see, Amber – she came to us for help. Well, to me actually."
"She came to you?" Blair had been with him when they checked out Amber’s purse back in the apartment and found all her money and credit cards. They had wondered where she would go, who would take her in.
"I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and I felt like I could trust Blair, and…" Jim gazed at her coldly, and she stumbled to a halt, twisting her hands.
Blair jumped in again as she started to flounder. "Jim was just telling us he got a lead on Max’s killer."
"What is it?"
Jim shook his head; he didn’t trust her. "Uh, I don’t really think I should say anything about this."
"Tell me, please." She really did want to know.
Jim looked at Blair and then the girl, making some rapid decisions. As long as she was with them, there was always the chance she would let something useful slip. Her reactions alone could tell him a lot. He had no illusions about her first priority — that was Amber — but it could work to their advantage.
"Our killer is, uh, a man called Klaus Zeller. He’s also known as ‘The Iceman.’ He’s an international terrorist for hire."
"What?" Blair shook his head in disbelief. Amber just stared at him blankly, shaking her head. No, she hadn’t known.
"We have a picture. It’s one of the only ones taken of him in recent years." Jim opened the file and pulled out the photo, making sure he only exposed the image of Zeller; he didn’t want Amber’s attention distracted. He showed it to her.
She frowned. "That’s not the man I saw shoot Max. I mean…there’s a slight resemblance, but…"
Blair shrugged. "Maybe he’s had his appearance altered some way."
Jim’s gaze flicked from Blair back to Amber. "Well, if he did, then you’re the only one who knows what he looks like now, which puts you in a little bit more danger than you already are." Jim pulled the photo completely out and tossed it down on top of the closed file.
His head snapped up as Amber gasped. "Oh my God!"
"What?" Blair asked.
Her eyes were glued to the photo. Shakily she pointed at it. "That other man – that’s Hank!"
The young man shook his head. "Who?"
Amber gestured impatiently. "Zeller said he was looking for his brother. He showed me this picture. It was a customer of mine. Hank…him."
"Where is this Hank now?" Jim asked. His gamble had paid off.
"I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know his last name. When he wants to get together, he pages me. Actually I should be hearing from him pretty soon."
Jim nodded. "Where’s your beeper now?"
"At my apartment."
It didn’t take long to pick up the beeper from Amber’s apartment. There was no message from Hank yet. Amber sat between them in the truck, staring at the small screen as if she could will the man to call. Blair started as Jim spoke.
"Amber, what do you know about Hank?"
"Not much. He’s really nice to me – brings me presents, always leaves a big tip. He told me once that of all the things he’d found in America, I was the best."
Blair watched her as she answered. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed by the answer she gave, not a bit uncomfortable. It did make him feel uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure why.
Jim flicked a glance at Amber. "By any chance, do you know what kind of car Zeller drives?"
"No. Why?" They had drawn to a halt at a four-way stop.
"There’s a Mercedes that’s been following us for the last mile."
Blair saw Jim’s pupils dilate until they were huge as he gazed into the rearview mirror. Whatever he saw galvanized him into action. "Okay, kids. Everybody hang on."
As Jim reached forward, Blair grabbed for a handhold and scrabbled to get a secure purchase for his feet. "I hate it when he does this."
"Does what?" Amber’s question was answered immediately as Jim hauled on the handbrake and rapidly turned the steering wheel, spinning the truck through a gut-wrenching 180 degrees. Blair was forced hard against the passenger door, with Amber flattened against him. As the truck straightened up, he clung grimly onto the door.
"Whoa! Are you crazy!?" Amber’s panicked voice was almost drowned out by the squealing of the tires as they spun on the greasy surface of the rain-washed street. A mixed cloud of spray and smoke from burning rubber billowed up outside the windows. The Mercedes was reversing away from them at speed even before the truck had fully turned. As soon as the driver had enough road width, he skillfully spun his car, too, and sped off. Jim was close behind him.
Most of the time Blair was a pretty good passenger; he had to be with Jim’s driving. But there was something deeply unnerving about being driven extremely fast along poorly lit, rain-slicked streets. He and Amber were flung around inside the truck like sacks of potatoes. As they screeched around a corner, barely missing a very sturdy-looking brick wall, he risked a glance at Jim, whose face was creased in fierce concentration. Blair hoped with all his heart that Jim realized that the laws of physics still applied to moving objects hitting immovable ones, even when the driver had sentinel senses. There was also the fact that there was a very good chance that the vehicle they were chasing was being driven by an extremely dangerous international terrorist. Oh yeah, deeply unnerving.
Jim pumped the brakes to control a four-wheel skid as they turned yet another sharp corner, and Blair’s heart rate accelerated as he caught sight of a freight train approaching the railroad crossing directly in their path. Jim sped after the Mercedes, seemingly oblivious to anything but the chase. Blair could see there was a mound of sand or dirt at the side of the track. There was no doubt that the Mercedes was going to use it as a ramp to try to jump the train. The first three train cars were just bare chassis.
"Jim! No, don’t do it! Come on!" Blair was pretty sure the Mercedes would make it, but they were a good five seconds behind, and the truck was a much heavier vehicle. The Mercedes flew through the air and landed safely, but the first train car was now only feet from the jump point.
"Jim! Stop!" The truck skidded to a halt, its front wheels half buried in the dirt mound. The passing cars concealed the black car as it drove sedately away. Blair was shaken, and he could feel Amber shiver beside him.
Jim banged his hands on the steering wheel saying nothing, but Blair knew that if he’d been alone, Jim would have taken the jump.~~~~ Act III ~~~Simon walked down the hallway and shook his head; the implications of Jim’s new information were very worrying. "So now you’ve got Zeller, an international terrorist, leaving a trail of bodies in Cascade while looking for his brother."
"Right, but not exactly."
Simon halted abruptly. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like this. Jim’s expression was grim.
"See, Hank wasn’t his brother. A friend of mine at Langley told me that Hank is actually a guy named Hans Gruenwald, a Dutch middleman who brokers the services of elite terrorists and mercenaries for anybody willing to pay the price."
Grunting, Simon pushed open the door and walked into the bullpen. "And Zeller is Gruenwald’s client?"
Jim nodded. "Right. Kicker is Gruenwald died in a car bombing in Marseilles six months ago."
Pulling off his glasses, Simon rubbed his eyes. The whole world was crazy. "If Gruenwald’s dead, what the hell is he doing in Cascade?" *Apart from giving a tired police captain an ulcer,* he thought.
"Apparently, Gruenwald made some bad investments using the floats of his clients’ money. He lost big time. He died owing millions."
Simon shook his head. Money, that was at the root of all this nightmare. No surprises there, love of money was just about the only genuine emotion a killer like Zeller had. He went into his office, Jim close on his heels.
"According to my buddy at the CIA, Gruenwald cleared out his numbered Swiss bank accounts on the day of the car bombing. He walked away with two million in cash."
Simon gazed out of the window. Why Cascade for God’s sake? Why his city?
"And now Zeller wants it back." He felt cold.
Blair gave Amber a half grin and followed Jim over to the door. He could see the tension in the way the big man moved.
"There’s a black and white parked around the corner."
He nodded. "We’ll be okay." *No standing near windows, curtains drawn at night, stay together – check.*
"Anything comes up on her beeper, you call me. Remember what I said about keeping it professional?"
"Right!" He could do the cop thing for a few hours.
The strangest expression crossed Jim’s face. "Hey, hey! I mean in the cop way!"
Blair’s mouth dropped open, and he bit off an exasperated retort as the door swung shut. Damn! That was uncalled for, in every way.
He shook his head and walked back to sit by Amber. Maybe finding Zeller’s car would be the beginning of the end.
Much later that evening, as he was stoking the fire, Amber’s pager went off. He looked at her tensely as she checked the call.
She looked up. "It’s not Hank."
"Oh." He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She continued to look at him. "It’s this lawyer from Denver. He’s probably in town on a case. Guess he’ll have to find himself another date."
Blair searched for something appropriate to say. "Maybe some other time, huh?" God, had he really said that? He felt so stupid.
"No, there’s not going to be a next time. I’m not doing this any more."
"Really? That’s great! That’s great!" He couldn’t help it; he was relieved. The fire was blazing well now, throwing out a good amount of heat. As he settled back on the sofa, he found his mouth running on its own, certainly not assisted by his brain. "So, your boyfriend will be happy to hear that." Clang, clang, clang.
"I don’t have a boyfriend."
"I’m surprised. I’m sure there’s lots of guys…you know." *Keep it up,* he thought bitterly. *Just keep digging yourself in deeper and deeper.*
Amber looked down at the small black pager. "Well…most men just aren’t that understanding." She glanced up sharply and locked her eyes with his. "Would you be? I know you’re probably wondering…"
She was right, but it made no difference to his response. "None of my business," he said firmly.
Her eyes dropped away. "Well – when I was a kid I always had two dreams: to go to Rome and to be a doctor. And when I graduated high school I figured I’d put Rome on hold for a while, and I’d pursue medicine and…then, earlier this year, I realized I couldn’t do it. And then I met Max. He told me I could make a lot of money." She stopped.
"I don’t judge."
"Sure you do. Men always do." She didn’t look at him as she spoke, yet the words hit him like a physical blow. "Well, I guess Rome’s not going anywhere."
He didn’t want her to just give up on all her dreams. "It’s not too late, you know. To be a doctor, I mean. There’s lots of people that put themselves through medical school without becoming a…" *Oh hell, Sandburg!*
"It’s not what I meant."
"Look, it’s late. I’m going to sleep." She didn’t look back as she walked into his room.
He grabbed the afghan from the side of the sofa and wrapped it around himself. He didn’t like some of the things he’d learned about himself today. Didn’t like them at all.
Jim sat with Blair in the truck the following morning as Amber walked alone outside the central block of the university. When he finally realized why Amber had remained untouched by the Iceman, the plan had sprung into his head immediately. Zeller needed Amber to get in touch with Hank; otherwise he couldn’t find him. He was playing a waiting game.
Picking up his cell phone, he dialed Amber’s pager number. He heard the beeps as it went off, and, as she read the message and walked to the pay phone, he scanned the vicinity for any sight of Zeller. Nothing.
His cell phone rang.
"Hank…is that you?"
"All right, good girl. Now pretend to set up the appointment. Chances are Zeller is watching you with a scope right now. I bet he can lip read."
Amber carried on the conversation without missing a beat. "All right. I’ll see you in the bar of the Lux Hotel in two hours."
Simon was already organizing a look-a-like to play the fake Hank. There was at least one of the officers in the undercover squad that Jim knew of who would fit the bill pretty well. It was a dangerous plan, but the captain had agreed it might be the only way they could get this bag of evil off the streets of Cascade.
Jim sat with an open newspaper, watching Blair as he perched at the bar, and threw himself into the role of Hank with enthusiasm. They should never have agreed to let him play the decoy. It was too risky; the cold, hard knot in his stomach told him so.
"Amber wants me to be Hank."
Simon looked at Blair, his mouth falling open. "Do I look crazy?" he demanded angrily.
Blair shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Captain, I can do this."
"Don’t you ‘Captain’ me, Sandburg!" Simon spaced the words out, letting each one hang in the air. "You – are – not – a – police – officer. How many times do I have to repeat those words to you?"
"No, Sandburg! Last time I let you go ‘undercover,’ the store you went ‘undercover’ in was wrecked by automatic gunfire, a civilian got shot and somebody tried to charge the department more for a blood-stained jersey than you will make in your entire lifetime!"
Jim saw Blair wince at that. He knew how much the collector in Blair regretted using the Mickey Mantle jersey to mop up the injured assistant’s blood. Luckily for Blair, the store had never followed up on their claim.
"That really wasn’t my fault," Blair protested.
Simon pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "It never is your fault…" Blair’s head dropped. Simon’s expression softened as he continued, "This is going to be very risky, Sandburg. I know you’d do it, but we need to use an experienced officer."
Jim raised the newspaper as he saw Amber cross the lobby, and his features hardened. She had forced them into this, and he didn’t like it one bit.
Amber stood leaning forward over Simon’s desk. "No! I trust Blair; I don’t trust your men. I know he will protect me. I’ll be safe with him. I won’t help unless it’s him."
Jim had felt the cold anger grow in him. She really didn’t care about the risk to Blair. She felt safe with him, and all the reasoning in the world wasn’t going to change her mind. She had decided what was best for Amber, and that was what was going to happen.
He watched as Blair greeted the girl, giving her a kiss and hug. At least the beard and moustache didn’t fall off.
"I grew a beard once when I was in Sumatra. I woke up one morning and I found that a couple of spiders had made their nest in it. I’ve been clean-shaven ever since." Blair’s eyes flicked from Amber to Jim and back again. "That was supposed to make you laugh. It’s a joke!"
Jim hadn’t laughed.
As Amber and Blair moved towards the elevator, he folded the paper and spoke quietly into his handset. "They’re heading up to Room 1209 now. I want all units to hold their position and wait for my word."
"You don’t have to do this. You shouldn’t do it." He knew it was pointless, but he had to try.
Blair looked at him calmly, but Jim could hear his pulse racing. "Yes, Jim, I do. This man is an international terrorist, for God’s sake. He’s evil, pure and simple. He will get Amber if we don’t get him first. Then he’ll just carry on, selling his services to whoever pays the most. He will kill again and again. I can really do something about it; I believe I can make a difference. Not many people have that chance. I’m lucky. I know you’re worried, man, but we’ll be safe with you watching out for us. You’ll have us covered. We’ll be fine."
*Yeah, lucky.* As the elevator door slid closed, he stepped into the next one and punched the key for the 12th floor. He waited impatiently as it stopped at the 4th floor. A mother and her young son got in, and Jim was relieved as he saw the woman press the button for the 18th floor. The small boy eyed him maliciously for a moment, then began to press every button he could reach as fast as he could. His mother ineffectually batted at his hands, smiling apologetically at Jim. He managed a rather grim smile, rushing out at the next floor and racing up the stairs.
As he finally hit the last flight that led to the twelfth floor, Jim heard the two shots, and then Amber screamed, "You shot him!" Forcing his voice to remain quiet and calm, he lifted the handset. "We’ve got shots fired on the twelfth floor. All units move in now!" Oh God, too late.
Moving through the door into the passage, he checked it rapidly. All clear.
He raced along the corridor, jumping a short flight of steps in one fear-driven leap. The door to 1209 stood ajar; there was no sound from the room. As he looked through the narrow gap, the first thing he saw was Blair, lying on the floor. He scanned the room quickly as he moved to kneel by the crumpled figure. His face was grim and he could barely swallow as he slid the gun back into its holster. The cold, hard knot in his stomach threatened to overwhelm his whole body.
Blair was so still…too still. He leaned forward, his cheek to Blair’s mouth; no trace of breath touched his skin. His mind screamed denial. Blood, he could smell blood. Holes in the shirt, two holes. "Sandburg!" he whispered. Ripping open the shirt, he saw the two slugs imbedded in the layered Kevlar; he could still feel their heat.
A heartbeat! He could hear Blair’s heartbeat. His mind raced – vivid memories of fighting the Sunrise Patriots: the impact of the bullet striking his vest, the searing, numbing pain that followed, the struggle to breathe. That was one bullet, fired from more than twenty yards away. Zeller would have fired his gun at close range. The pain…it must be the pain; the trauma was paralyzing Blair’s lungs. He slapped Blair’s face once, then again. "Sandburg!"
Blair’s body jerked, then his eyes flew open. He choked and spluttered as his tortured lungs fought to draw in air. Relief washed through Jim as he slid his arm under Blair’s neck, gently tilting his head back so he could breathe more easily. The cold grip of fear lessened its hold, and he closed his eyes for a moment to bless whatever deity protected anthropologists with more courage than sense. "Thank God for that vest!"
"Where’s Amber? Where’s Amber?" Blair stammered out the question as soon as he could speak, but his face crumpled almost immediately, agony showing in every line. Jim watched helplessly, "You’re okay, buddy. You’re okay. Just keep breathing."
"Jim, I blew it, didn’t I?"
Blair was gasping for breath; his eyes screwed shut, beads of sweat covering his face. Damn it! If there was one thing you could trust Amber to do, it was take care of herself.
"It’s all right. Just breathe."
Blair’s head dropped back. "Oh, Jim, it hurts!"
"Yeah," he whispered.
He heard the sounds of the other teams running down the passage. Simon was first through the door, shock on his face as he saw Jim cradling Blair. Jim managed a weak smile. "He’s okay. Vest caught them."
Simon rubbed his hand over his face, and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. "Thank God for that."
Jim nodded and swallowed hard. "Let’s get the vest off."
Together they gently worked Blair’s clothes off, finally lifting away the battered vest. There were two dark purple bruises already starting to spread, and at the center of each was a small, bright drop of blood. Jim turned the vest over, and it was easy to see that the tips of the bullets had just penetrated the final layer. Jim’s mouth was dry as he met Simon’s troubled gaze. He ran his hand lightly over the site of the injury; Blair had at least two fractured ribs, maybe more.
Blair started to shiver, struggling against the pain to breathe normally. One of the watching officers rapidly stripped the bed down and passed Jim a blanket. Jim nodded his thanks, and the man nodded back. They took care of their own.
Jim gently supported Blair as he lay cocooned in the blanket, murmuring continual words of encouragement. Minutes passed, and he began to breathe more easily. He was still in a lot of pain, but no longer had to fight his own body for every breath. Jim nodded with satisfaction. "That’s good, Chief, very good." He looked up at Simon. "We can move him now, sir."
"Hospital for you, Sandburg." Simon quelled the expected protest from Blair before it even started with a ferocious glare. "No arguments. Standard procedure for any officer after a hit in the vest."
Between them they got Sandburg to his feet, still wrapped in the blanket. He swayed, and Jim tightened his arm around him in support. "I’ll take him," he said.
Simon nodded his agreement. "Good job, Sandburg."
The self-condemnation in Blair’s voice was clear. "I lost her."
Simon glanced sharply at the woebegone figure. "I don’t say anything I don’t mean, Sandburg." Blair lifted his head slowly. "You volunteered to go into a dangerous situation. You did everything you could to make it work. And you’re walking away from it alive." Simon placed his hand on Blair’s shoulder and continued more gently, emphasizing each word. "I mean it. You did a good job. Now go get checked out."
Blair nodded slowly. "’kay, Captain."
Jim’s eyes met Simon’s in silent thanks as he steered his shaky partner through the door. "Come on, Chief. Take it steady."
Moments later he heard the more familiar growl emanating from behind him.
"Where the hell are Forensics? Someone go find them, or we’ll have to start paying for the damn room!"~~~~ Act IV ~~~Blair walked into the kitchen, arms wrapped around his ribs. The doctor had checked him out thoroughly. She assured both of them (Jim had stayed with him the whole time…like family) that there were no serious internal injuries, despite the severity of the blunt trauma. He certainly had no doubts about the severity thing. His chest hurt like hell, though the worst fiery pain had now dulled to mere glowing embers. She’d given Blair some strong pain medication and told him to rest. Jim had made sure he took the medication, but even getting into some fresh clothes had been a slow, and very painful, business. He looked up to see Jim regarding him shrewdly with arms folded.
Blair tried to reassure him with a smile. "I’m okay, just give me a minute."
Jim nodded without comment and gently steered the younger man over to the table, tapping it with his hand. "Sit," he instructed succinctly. Blair was mystified, but levered himself up onto the smooth surface when Jim made it clear that refusal would result in his being bodily lifted up there.
Jim opened the cabinet containing the First Aid kit and turned back to Blair, tossing a roll of bandage in his hand. "I know the doctor said that they don’t bandage ribs anymore, and I wasn’t going to argue with her, but take it from me, it helps."
Blair’s mind flitted back to the spectacular bruise that had done its Technicolor dance across Jim’s chest after he had been shot in the vest, and he nodded.
Gingerly he pulled the sweater up over his head, grimacing as he threw it down. He saw Jim’s bleak expression as he looked at the deeply marked flesh. Truth was, it actually hurt as bad as it looked. Jim reached out and gently touched the angry looking, swollen tissue.
"I’m fine, Jim," Blair said softly, feeling the cool fingers trembling on his body.
Jim blinked twice, then gave an embarrassed laugh. "Sure you are! Hold your arms away from you."
Jim began to wrap the bandage around Blair’s ribcage, gradually working his way up over the damaged area.
"Ow! OW! I can’t breathe!"
Jim ignored his protests. "It’s got to be tight," he commented placidly. "Hold this." Blair winced as he moved his hand to hold the end in place. He went back to their earlier discussion. He knew what Jim felt about Amber, and in his heart he suspected that it was the truth. But that made no difference to him, he still had to do all he could for her, had to give her every opportunity.
"Oh man, we’re supposed to be helping Amber. She trusted us."
Jim glanced at him as he tore off a piece of tape and went back to his task. "Simon’s got all the available units out. We’ll find her. Plus, Zeller’s not going to make a move until he hears from Hank."
Jim leaned over Blair’s shoulder and checked that the bandage was straight and taut.
Blair took a deep breath to speak and winced. He licked his lips and pushed on. "Yeah, but when he does…? We gotta do something. Where would he take her?"
Jim patiently fastened the ends of the bandages, concentrating on his task, trying to minimize Blair’s discomfort. "Somewhere to wait for Hank’s call, which could be anywhere."
"Okay, what do we know? We know that Hank’s supposed to have called soon. Amber said he was overdue. I mean, for all we know he’s already called."
Jim had to wonder just how many cracked ribs it would take to slow down Blairspeak. "Maybe. The question is, where would she take him?" He stepped back and regarded his handiwork. It should help the pain some. Blair was frowning in concentration.
"Right. Amber’s a pretty smart girl."
*That’s for sure,* Jim thought silently.
"She knows we’ll be looking for her."
"Exactly! So, when Hank does call, where could she take Zeller that she knows we know about?"
He watched as Blair started to pull on his sweater, wincing, but definitely moving more easily. "Right. Ow!"
He slapped Blair on the back as he headed into the kitchen and grinned at the ‘ow’ that echoed behind him. He had just realized where she would go now. Ten minutes and they would be on their way. *Just enough time for Darwin to guess their destination.*
They had been too late.
Zeller had shot the man who took his money just seconds before they burst into the Pigale, and Hank lay slumped on the floor in Amber’s arms. Jim had given futile chase to the Iceman, weaving his way through the terrified dancers and customers huddled on the ground under the tables. When he’d walked back into the club, Blair was sitting beside Amber on the floor, gently rubbing her back while she sobbed. It had driven home once more just how lucky Blair had been.
Now they were back at the loft, and Jim watched as his partner carried a steaming hot cup of herb tea to Amber. She was lying on Sandburg’s bed, staring at the check Hank had given her moments before he died. She said Hank had given her the check so she could go to school and become a doctor. It was just a piece of paper now that he was gone. Jim was finding it hard to believe her grief was for the loss of Hank, and not for the money. He heard the quiet murmur as Blair talked gently to the girl; his compassion made him too vulnerable.
He heard the elevator doors open, and guessed it was Simon. He waited until he heard the knock on the door. "Yeah?"
"It’s the plumber. I’ve come to fix the sink."
He opened the door and, seeing Simon’s face, decided now was not the time to comment on his lack of tools. "Hey, Simon. Come on in."
"Where is she?" Simon looked tired and frustrated.
Blair caught the question as he came out his room and gestured back over his shoulder. "She’s in there, trying to get some rest. Anything new on Zeller?"
Simon shook his head. "Nothing so far. We still have all the exits from the city covered."
Jim could see there was bad news coming; he’d known Simon long enough to recognize the signs.
"Got another problem, though. The feds want to take over this case."
"You’ve got to be kidding." *After all this, to have the case taken away because some stuffed shirt saw the word ‘international’ on a sheet. Damn, high-handed…*
"Come on, Jim, you know the drill. Zeller’s an international terrorist. That makes it their turf. And they also want to take custody of Amber."
Blair was frantic. "Come on! No way!"
Simon didn’t even bother to argue. "They’re picking her up in the morning."
Jim suspected that the captain had already used every argument he could think of to fight the decision, but still he tried. "Simon, you can’t let them do this."
"What exactly do you want me to do?" Simon looked at him, then at Blair. They had no answer for him. Blair looked like someone had kicked him in the gut. *You let her get too close, buddy,* Jim thought.
Simon stretched out his back and shook his head. "See you guys in the morning. There’ll be a squad outside all night, keeping watch." He moved slowly towards the door, then stopped and turned. "Oh, look, somebody from the Bureau will call in tonight to make arrangements. Sorry, Blair." The young man was just staring at him; he didn’t speak. Simon exchanged a look with Jim, and left.
Amber must have been listening to the conversation, and as the door closed behind Simon she came into the room. "Looks like I’ve been traded to another team, huh?"
"This was not our decision." What else could he say? There was no way to explain or justify what was happening. Jim did feel some stirrings of sympathy for her. She had been through a lot in the last couple of days. Maybe with Blair helping she could have gotten through this and really changed. Hell, when had he started going soft? Must be all the journeys into the Sandburg zone.
Blair was furious. "This sucks! It’s not her fault. It’s going to ruin her school and…"
Amber broke in, "I’ve been doing some thinking. This whole doctor thing was a pretty stupid idea anyhow."
Blair looked at her anxiously. "No, it wasn’t."
She looked at the young man, her voice bitter. "I already have a career."
Blair’s face froze. It hurt Jim to watch. "I thought you gave that up."
"I changed my mind." The cold look on her face blocked any discussion.
Blair looked like the breath had been knocked out of him. "That’s great." He grabbed for his jacket, and Jim didn’t miss the way he flinched. The ribs were hurting him, but probably not as much as the business with Amber. "Think I’m going for a walk. Get some air." Best to let him walk it off.
Amber looked at him defiantly, but Jim controlled himself for Blair’s sake. Maybe he could try. "He’ll be all right. Come on, we might as well watch the game for a while."
He turned on the set, flicking through the channels to find the Jags game. Amber picked up her jacket off the back of the sofa. Yes, he would try. "You might want to reconsider this decision about school until you’ve had some time…"
Amber wasn’t listening; she was staring at a keychain she had pulled out of her jacket pocket. "Where did this come from?" she asked in a puzzled voice.
Jim shrugged. "They’re not yours?"
Amber shook her head. "Uh-uh." A sudden look of comprehension crossed her face, "Oh my God, look!"
She thrust the key into his hand, but he couldn’t see anything particularly unusual about it. It looked like some kind of locker key attached to a distinctive four-leaf clover chain. "What is it?"
"I recognize that key. That was Hank’s. He must have put it in my pocket." Amber was clearly shaken.
"Do you know what it belongs to?"
She shook her head, looking at the key as if mesmerized. "No."
The phone started to ring, and he dropped the key chain on the table as he went to answer it. "Yeah?"
He clapped his hand over his ear as the roar from the television signaled a Jags’ basket, and concentrated on the voice at the other end of the line.
"Hello. This is Special Agent Jiminez."
"Oh yeah. I was expecting your call." But not looking forward to it.
"Is Larkin there?"
"Uh-huh. She’s here."
Jiminez sounded relieved. "Great. Agents will pick her up tonight."
"You want to pick her up tonight?" Jim asked in surprise. Surely Simon had said tomorrow?
"Yes, is there a problem, Detective Ellison?"
*Sure as hell there is a problem,* Jim thought exasperatedly. *My partner is out walking the streets, you know nothing about the players in this case, we’ve taken all the risks and you’re just gonna waltz in and take over…* He took a deep breath. He knew there was nothing he could do about it, except maybe gain them all a little bit more time.
"Well, I’d prefer if we could do this tomorrow. I understand it’s your case. I just don’t see how a few hours…"
Jiminez butted in impatiently. "Don’t make this tough, Detective. She’s my witness."
"Right." At least he could tell Blair he tried. May as well give in with good grace. Perhaps that way they could at least keep up with what was happening.
"Wait for our agents to arrive."
"You bet. We’ll be ready when you get here."
"Thanks for your cooperation."
"All right." He held the phone for a moment longer, trying to think of the best way to break the news to Amber. He put the receiver down just as another deafening roar came from the TV set. "That was the FBI…"
She was gone!!! He glanced at the table – so was the key. He ran to the door; there was no sound of her in the building – he ran to the balcony, but there was no sign of her on the street. He slammed his hand down on the rail. She must have turned up the sound on the set to cover her leaving. What were the chances she knew where the key fitted and had guessed what was there? Jim had – it had to be the money.~~~~ Act V ~~~Blair sat in the cab of the truck, holding the seatbelt away from his aching ribs. It hadn’t taken that long to work out that the missing key belonged to a locker at the Woodgate Country Club. The talcum powder Jim had smelled on the key had given them the first clue. Then looking through the Yellow pages under ‘country clubs,’ they had found a half-page ad for a club with its logo a four-leaf clover. The locker had been empty, and one of the older members had remembered Amber’s visit to the men’s changing room very clearly. She had red hair now.
He didn’t know how he felt about her anymore. He still wanted to help her, but he wasn’t sure she really wanted to be helped. He wasn’t about to give up on her, though. Not while there was a chance, however small it was.
They were on their way to the airport now; she had fifteen, maybe twenty minutes’ lead. But Blair knew where she would go if she had the money: Rome.
Amber stood in line waiting to check in. She’d made the calls to book the flights on her way to the airport, all to leave in the same ten minute period: Bangkok, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. It had to increase her chances of escape; no one person could cover all three departure gates. Her heart was pounding — so much money. When she realized where the key belonged, she knew it had to be where the money was. Hank wanted her to have it; it was hers for the taking. She’d opened the briefcase just once. So much money.
She kept searching the faces that passed her by: no Ellison, no Blair, no Zeller. Once she got on the plane, she’d be safe. Wouldn’t she? It had to be worth the risk. So much money. Why wouldn’t the little voice inside her be quiet? The little voice that kept saying ‘he came after Hank, he’ll come after you.’ Oh God, Hank never got the chance to spend the money. He’d been running and running.
If she stayed, she’d have to give up the money. She was near the front of the line now. Something touched her, and she jumped to the side with a violent start. An elderly woman carrying a large carrier bag looked at her with surprise. "Excuse me," the woman said and walked on past.
In that moment she knew she couldn’t live the rest of her life like this, jumping at shadows, expecting Zeller to be waiting for her around every corner she turned. There was only one thing to do. She left the line and headed for the pay phones.
Jim and Blair stood near the airport windows. There was nothing more they could do except get ready to deal with a million nasty questions from the Feds. Jim’s cell phone rang. "Yeah?"
Amber’s shaky voice came through. "Hi, it’s me."
Jim grabbed Blair’s shoulder. "Amber, where are you?" Blair’s face was a picture of hope.
"I’m at the airport. I’m sorry I ran away."
"Amber, listen to me…."
"I couldn’t go through with it. Do you believe that? All that money, and I just couldn’t do it. I kept thinking about your friend and what he’d think of me."
Jim shook his head; that didn’t matter at the moment. He just needed her to listen. "Amber, listen to me."
"I’m going to catch a cab to the police station to turn myself in."
"Amber, listen to me! You don’t have to do that. We’re at the airport. Just tell us where you are." He heard a muffled gasp from the other end of the line. "Amber! Amber! Hello!" He slammed the phone shut.
"What happened?" Blair grabbed his arm.
They ran into the main concourse. People streamed in every different direction, all intent on their own particular destination. They were of every size and shape, noisy and quiet, happy and sad; it was a teeming mass of humanity. Jim’s senses were totally overloaded; it was just a huge jumble.
Blair stood just behind him, a steadying hand on his back. "Do you see them?"
Jim shook his head. "Uh-uh!"
Blair’s voice was soothing. "Listen to me. There’s a way you can find him. Zeller’s nicotine gum."
Jim inhaled…and almost choked. "Ah, man! All these people. Hair sprays, deodorants…aftershaves, this is crazy!"
Blair continued to coach him, his voice gentle and confident, his touch reassuring. "Come on, Jim. Just isolate the different smells one by one."
Jim closed his eyes and began to take deep, even breaths. With each one he discarded the irrelevant scents, concentrating on the one he searched for. *There! He had it!*
"This way!" Blair was right behind him as he ran across the hall. They pounded up the stairs, and Jim stopped for a moment to scan the faces. Where were they? He tried to look along the line of the scent…there!
He pushed his cell phone into Blair’s hand and spoke urgently, "Call security." He ran — he was not going to be too late this time. He got to the door Zeller had pushed Amber through. He pulled it open and found himself in one of the luggage handling areas. Concentrating fiercely, he moved smoothly through the labyrinth of boxes and crates, listening for sounds that didn’t fit.
"Stop! Where are we going?" It was Amber. Jim moved swiftly towards the voice.
"Help! No!" He only had moments.
"Shut up, bitch!"
Jim heard the thud of a body hitting the ground just as he rounded the corner, and he saw Zeller aiming his gun to shoot Amber where she lay, unmoving. He grabbed the nearest thing. "Zeller!" As the man spun around, raising his gun to the new threat, Jim threw the suitcase with all his strength. It caught Zeller straight on, knocking him back onto the luggage mover. As Zeller fell, the briefcase flew open and money spilled out everywhere.
Jim knew he had an advantage in the dim light of the warehouse; he had to be able to see better than Zeller. He ducked under the carrier and swung himself over the far side even as Zeller was desperately looking for him on the other side. Coming from behind, he grabbed Zeller’s gun hand and pushed it out to the side, using his whole body weight to twist on the wrist. Zeller’s hand opened, and his gun dropped from nerveless fingers. Jim was between him and the gun where it fell, and Zeller turned trying to crawl up the belt to get away.
Jim grabbed him by the legs, wincing as Zeller lashed out with his feet and tried to push him off. Jim clung on grimly. He pulled himself up and grappled with the man as they slid down the belt and onto the baggage carousel. People were grabbing the money and stuffing it into pockets and bags. As one man grabbed a handful of cash, there was a glint of metal: Zeller’s gun. Jim was too far away from it, but it was within Zeller’s reach.
"I’ll kill you!" the Iceman screamed.
Jim launched himself forward in a frantic attempt to stop Zeller before he could fire the gun. Zeller fell back, catching his gun hand on a hard-sided case. Jim hit him full on the chin with all his remaining strength, and then once more for Blair. Zeller’s head lolled, blood running down his face. Jim sat there, panting as the carousel ground to a halt.
"Jim?" He looked up into Blair’s anxious face. "You okay, man?"
He grinned and nodded. "Amber?"
Blair nodded. "Safe with security."
Jim snapped on the handcuffs, then looked around and shook his head. "How the hell are we going to get all this money back?" he asked helplessly.
Blair stood in the hallway outside Major Crimes with Jim and Amber. She was smiling.
"I’ve never been very good at this, but thank you both."
Jim nodded. "Well, you’re welcome, for what it’s worth." Blair knew that he meant it, too. For all that he had never trusted Amber, Jim still had risked his life to save her. He could never have done less; it wasn’t in his nature.
He dragged his attention back to Amber as she spoke again. "I applied for a grant to help pay for my studies. Still a long way from medical school, but at least I won’t be working nights any more."
*Maybe there was hope for Amber,* Blair thought. "I have friends on the scholarship committee. I can put a good word in for you."
"That’s really sweet, Blair. I’d appreciate it."
Was that what this performance was for, to get his help with the scholarships? He hated himself for thinking like that.
Jim took that as his cue to leave. "I could have sworn I just heard the captain calling. If you’ll excuse me." He wandered off into the bullpen.
Amber looked surprised. "I didn’t hear anything."
"Oh, he’s got great ears. You’d be surprised what they can pick up." He felt strangely uncomfortable.
"So, Blair, I’m curious. Would you consider going out with someone with…well, someone with a past?"
If it was truly a past…? He really didn’t have an instant response. It wasn’t a question to be answered lightly. "I don’t know. I’d have to think about it."
"Well, think about this." Before he could do anything about it, her body was pressed close against his, and she kissed him fully on the lips. She knew exactly what she was doing, that was for sure. "See you around campus!"
Blair watched as she walked away with an exaggerated sway of her hips. He gave a half laugh and looked at the floor. She really thought that using her body was the answer to everything. He shook his head. All he could do was offer her options, try to find another way for her to carry on with her studies if she wanted to stop what she was doing. He knew he couldn’t make the choices for her.
Blair looked up to see Jim watching him with a questioning expression, head tilted to the side. "I know, I know!"
Jim shook his head. "Simon wants a word. Come on."
Blair followed Jim through the bullpen to where the captain stood at the far end of the office. Simon’s expression was serious, and Blair frantically wracked his brain to try to figure out what he’d done now.
The captain was standing in front of the Major Crimes trophy case. As Blair approached, he moved to one side and smiled. The glass case held retired sets of body armor, each with a label naming the officer whose life had been saved by the wearing of the protective shell. Jim’s was there from the Kincaid case. The newest addition bore the label, ‘Police Observer Blair Sandburg.’
"Almost as good as The Hall of Fame, huh?" Jim slapped Blair on the back with a broad grin.
"Ow!" Blair squawked. "Watch the ribs, man!" But he grinned right back.
Blair went back to Jim’s desk and ignored all the stacked paperwork. He decided he deserved a break. No point in rushing home if he could be eating dinner with Rianna or Judy. He checked the answering machine at the loft.
There was only one message. The cold voice with its clipped European accent was unmistakable. "Next time you won’t be wearing a vest."
Blair shivered, and felt the blood drain from his face. The pain in his chest flared, and he thought for a moment he was going to be sick. He pressed the receiver against his face. *How had Zeller made the call? How had he known the loft number? Oh God! Where was Jim?*
Blair looked across at the captain’s office. His friend, his partner, was standing there with his arms folded across his chest, shaking his head and grinning. Simon was pouring a couple of cups of his latest blend of coffee, probably challenging Jim to name some elusive ingredient. Blair knew just what would happen if Jim heard that message. He wasn’t going to let the Iceman rule his life, their lives.
Blair took a deep breath… and carefully erased the message.The EndPlease remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to: [email protected]Next week’s episode: The Rig by Sherrylou with LindaS