by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 2



Blair realized he had been waiting ever since Jim fired. Even before that. In one tiny, screwed up corner of his mind he had been waiting from the moment he decided to step in front of Jim's gun. Sure, he had been mostly concerned with trying to get him and Ross both out of the mess alive, but in case he didn't, his consolation on the way to eternity would have been that at least he was missing the lecture.

OK, now that was seriously messed up. Blair grinned out at the empty night streets, but seeing his own wan reflection smile back, dropped the grin fast. He looked like a corpse. Poor Ross lying dead on the library carpet had had more color in his face. He glanced miserably back at Jim, wondering if it would come now, on the drive home. Jim's eyes were fixed on the road, though, and he hardly said a word except to ask, as they were passing the garish orange lights of an all-night coffee shop on Fifth, if Blair would like to stop for dinner. Breakfast. Whatever you called the meal you ate at 2:30 in the morning.

"No," Blair said. "Let's just get home," not thinking until the orange diner lights were only a reflection in the rear view mirror that Jim was probably the one who had really wanted to eat.

Their building looked abandoned and bleak, the bright, unpeopled storefronts on the ground level only seeming to emphasize how dark and still the upper stories were. Of course, somebody was obviously home since there was no street parking left on the whole block. Blair's Volvo was hogging a prime spot right across from the stairway door, for all the good it did them. For all the good it did him  He didn't know if he really saw the parking ticket under the windshield wiper as Jim drove by, or if it was just knowing it had to be there that made him imagine a flash of yellow paper. "Oh shit. It's Wednesday night."

"Thursday morning by now," Jim corrected, not without sympathy.

"And I wasn't here to move the car. Goddamnit. Another twenty-eight bucks down the tube."

Jim shrugged, one hand coming up in a 'don't blame me' gesture, and turned onto Lincoln toward the waterfront.

"Come on, Jim, you can let me in on your big cop secret by now, don't you think? This weekly 'street cleaning' business -- it's all just a scam to raise revenue, isn't it?"

"Looks like you're onto us, Chief. Parking tickets on your car alone paid my salary last year."

"I can just about believe it," Blair pretended to grumble. He was smiling. A ribbing from Jim made him feel safe for the first time since Ross had pulled his gun. The fragile crust of order and reason might have fractured around him, but Jim was still here, they were both safe, and eventually most of the pieces would get picked up again. Just not Ross.

Jim swung an enthusiastic U turn in the middle of Lincoln and pulled the truck into a space Blair would have sworn was too small for it. They were right across from the dry cleaners, which reminded Blair he had dropped off a coat to be cleaned a month -- two months? -- ago, and he really should go claim it before they donated it to Goodwill. Then he dropped his head and fumbled for his seatbelt in exasperation, wondering what the hell was wrong with him anyway. His ideas and emotions were jumping around like drops of water on a hot skillet, everything in the universe apparently of equal import in his messed up head. How could he be thinking about his dry-cleaning when only a few hours ago he allowed Jim to kill one of his own students? How could he be joking about parking tickets?

"Sandburg," Jim said quietly, but Blair flinched anyway. The yellow glare of the streetlights fell on Jim's brow and hid his eyes. "Just a minute."

NOW? Blair thought. You don't say a peep to me whole way home and you bring it up NOW? "Yeah, Jim?" he said.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Jim's voice wasn't angry at all. He only sounded genuinely puzzled, and a little sad.

"Oh come on, Jim, I don't know," Blair snapped. He hadn't meant to sound like an jerk, and made a gesture of apology, not able to say more.

Jim stayed maddeningly cool. "You're telling me you don't know what you were thinking when you blocked my shot? Sandburg, three years you've been riding with me now. I count on you, you understand that? I've got to know you'll be backing me up."

"Jim, I am. I mean, of course you can count on me. I'm your partner."

"Then you wanna explain to me what happened?" The words themselves were brusque, but Jim's voice was still gentle.

"OK, so I was thinking you were about to shoot Ross, and I didn't want you to. What else can I say, man? I just wanted him to get a second chance, and I guess it was stupid of me, but I don't think I can apologize for that. I mean, he's a student of mine. Was a student of mine. God, the poor guy. I never even liked him. One of those bored with the whole world assholes that I can never reach, but he didn't deserve to die for that."

"I didn't draw on him because he was an asshole," Jim said. "He had a weapon and he was obviously dangerous."

"Yeah, I know, I know."

"I just want to be sure you do. It's bad enough that you were putting yourself at risk, but you were endangering me and every other person there by allowing Ross to hang on to that gun. I know you're carrying a heavy load right now. But if Ross had taken anybody else with him, it'd be a hell of a lot worse."

Blair stared out the front windshield of the truck. The yellow lights made everything so ugly at street level. Artificial, flat and washed out. Daylight turned inside out, showing you what you were better off not seeing in the first place.

"And if he'd taken you out, Chief, it would have left me knowing I let you ride with me all this time, and never taught you to handle yourself." Blair looked back at Jim. He was staring out the front too, his hands wrapped hard around the steering wheel like he expected someone to try and take it away from him. "And I'm not real sure what I could do with that, you understand me?"

Blair understood. Probably too well. "I know," he said, swallowing hard. He made a fist and bounced the side of his hand off Jim's solid shoulder a couple of times. Unable to meet Jim's eyes just yet, he groped under his feet for his backpack, then swung himself out of the truck. Before he had gone five steps, Jim caught the shoulder of his canvas jacket, and when Blair stopped, he slung his arm around Blair's shoulders without a word. They walked the long block together, the weight of Jim's arm keeping Blair tucked possessively close all the way to the stairway door. There was a parking ticket on the windshield of the Volvo, all right, but it didn't seem to matter very much anymore.


That night Jim dreamed of Emily, and in his dream it seemed to him that things had worked out between them after all. They shared a house in the suburbs, he and Em, and though it was small and cramped, with low ceilings and no view of the bay, Emily was happy. Midafternoon sun shone through red gingham curtains on the kitchen window, and Emily jogged a smiling baby boy in her arms, cooing at him. Jim glanced down at his own hand and saw a wedding ring. The child must be his son. "Can I hold him?" Jim asked, feeling a contented sense of wonder.

Emily smiled with that toothy little overbite of hers Jim especially liked. Jack had always been pestering her to see an orthodontist -- hell, honey, I'll pay for it, and I won't even run around on you while you've got a mouthful of metal, ha ha -- and Jim was glad she had refused.

"Jim, of course," she said, and shifted the child carefully into his arms. He gathered his son to his chest, marveling a little at his solid weight, at the way his fuzzy, oversized head bobbled forward against his chest and then rested there, one tiny fist curled in contentment against his shirt front. Emily was smiling at him, and the sunlight spilled through the kitchen window to make an elongated square of light on the linoleum at their feet. This was the way things were supposed to turn out, Jim thought to himself. It didn't matter that the ceilings were too low and the neighbors too close. This was the ordinary life he had always wanted, wasn't it? He'd found it at last.

And then a shadow crossed the square of sunlight. It was shaped something like a man, although the head was terribly misshapen. Jim looked up fast, but whatever had cast the shadow was already gone.

"What is it?" Emily asked, and before Jim could answer, both of them heard the rattle at the front door, and a voice Jim had never expected to hear again calling, "Emily, let me in."

Emily's eyes widened in horror. "Jim," she breathed, "You told me he wouldn't be back."

"Emily, don't do this," called the voice from the front of the house. "I know I'm an old dog, but I can change."

"Jim," Emily said again, "Jim, how could you?" She took the baby from Jim's arms and both of them melted away like a morning fog, leaving Jim alone in the claustrophobic house with Jack Pendergrast banging at the front door.

Jack was shouting for him now. "Slick? Are you in there?" Jack, who had spent the last four years in an unmarked grave, his face full of shotgun pellets, the soft places in his throat and belly eaten by the fishes nine miles down the river. "Come on, they killed me while you were at home screwing my old lady, and now you won't even let me in the front door? Have a heart, Slick."

*NO,* Jim shouted in his mind and sat bolt upright in bed. His bedroom was drenched in sunlight. He curled over his bent knees, breathing hard. It was only a dream. Jack hadn't come back. Emily was another man's wife, and she deserved every happiness. He was still breathing hard though, soaked in a cold, uncomfortable sweat.

And it was the middle of the day. Good lord, no wonder he was having nightmares. He should have been on campus with Sandburg hours ago.

He crashed his way out of bed and went thundering down the steps bellowing for Blair. "Sandburg, get your lazy ass in gear. We're late."

There was no answer from Blair's bedroom. Jim pushed open the French doors, and saw the bed was empty. "Blair!" Jim shouted, and nothing answered him. He was alone in the loft.

Oh, this was crazy. No way Sandburg would have gone off and left him. Just to be sure, though, he stepped out again and checked. The chain was still on the front door, and Jim felt something very cold trickle down the back of his spine. Blair wasn't in the loft, but wherever he had gone, he hadn't left by the front door. Jim turned around slowly, trying to reach out with his senses, but they seemed blocked and sluggish somehow. He moved back into Blair's bedroom, trying to be calm, forcing himself to concentrate. There was a draft in here. How had he not noticed it before? The window that overlooked the fire escape was open.

This wasn't possible. This couldn't be possible. Moving like a sleepwalker he walked to the side of Blair's bed and looked down at the bedclothes. Sandburg wasn't big on making the bed every day. Or every week. But even he didn't sleep in a bed with the sheets yanked up from under the futon and spilled halfway across the floor. It looked as though Blair had grabbed them and tried to hang on while someone pulled him out of bed.

Madness. Jim could never have slept through something like that. It just wasn't possible. Nevertheless, he walked slowly around and looked at the floor between the bed and the window. The geometry of the room seemed all wrong. The angles had never been square, but now they tilted and verged on the edge of insanity. Jim had to shut his eyes against a wave of vertigo, and when he could open them again, he saw the line of muddy, bare footprints leading away to the window. There was an indescribably foul smell in the room, and as Jim clapped his hand over his nose and mouth, trying to block it out, he saw that little toe on the left foot was missing.

"Jack," Simon was laughing sadly in his head. "So vain of that damned toe he even showered with his socks on."

Jim woke himself screaming for Blair. He heard the last shout dying away as he awoke to the darkness of his bedroom, but it was only a hoarse whisper. He lay still, eyes wide open, heart pounding with remembered terror. He reached out violently, despairingly, and found Blair safely asleep in his room below. His senses were so wide open he could hear every rustle of the blanket as Blair's chest rose and fell in a deep, steady rhythm. Sandburg, at least, was untroubled by bad dreams tonight.

It had to be almost morning, didn't it? He looked toward the skylights, but could see no predawn glow. The disorientation of the dream threatened to seize him once more, and he rolled over fast to look at his alarm clock.

It was only 3:30. He'd barely been asleep for an hour.

Damn. He rolled back onto his back and looked glumly upward, not wanting to close his eyes again lest the images of the dream come back to him. Think about something else. Let it go. Don't let your emotions get involved, isn't that what he was always telling Blair? He had to smile a little at that. And Blair listened so earnestly to those little cop lectures too. He'd have to ask Blair someday if he believed a single word Jim said.

Then he heard it. A dull, loud click, like a heavy latch releasing, and then a softer sound, a muffled smack like a body impacting against something that wouldn't yield easily.

Jim was out of bed, his gun in his hand, and half way down the stairs, before he realized the sounds weren't coming from inside the loft. He froze, straining to hear, but he had lost his bearings completely and couldn't find it again. It could have come from anywhere on the block, hell, anywhere in the city, just about, as widely as he had cast his senses when he awoke in the first panic of the dream. It wasn't here, though. He made his way slowly down the stairs, listening to his surroundings, feeling them on the surface of his skin, assuring himself everything was safe and reasonable. Everything in order. He walked to Sandburg's bedroom door, pushed it open, and looked in on his friend. Blair lay on his back, one bare arm on top of the covers, looking peaceful as a child as he slumbered. Jim wanted to speak to him, to comfort himself with the sound of Sandburg's voice, but it wouldn't be fair to wake him just because Jim was having a bad night.

He backed away from the open door, but though he was as quiet as he could be, he heard the change in Blair's respiration, and then a sleepy, quiet, "Jim? Something the matter, man?"

"No, Jim said, and was not surprised to find that it was now the truth. "Go back to sleep."


Chapter 3
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