Voir Direby Martha soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
"You've gotta get me out." Blair stood on tiptoe to peek over the top of the file cabinet, then sank down into the corner, clutching at the phone. "I'm telling you, it's a madhouse in here."
Jim sounded distinctly unsympathetic. He also sounded like he was eating potato chips while he drove. "You were the one who asked for this assignment, Sandburg."
"Oh, great, now you're gonna throw that in my face?"
"Practically begged for it. Made me go into Simon's office and promise him that it wouldn't be like last time, when you got a hobby store shot up and put that poor clerk in the hospital."
"All right, stop. Just hold it right there. By no stretch of the imagination was it my fault Mick lost it and started shooting. I can't believe you would lay that on me."
"I'm not laying anything on you, just telling you the way Simon sees it. Against his better judgment he allows a civilian observer to go undercover in a very high profile case, and the next thing he knows it's all over the evening news. Bad enough a bystander was hurt. It could have been you that got shot."
"Oh, well, just think of the bad publicity."
"The worst," Jim agreed solemnly. "Besides, I think the guy's gotten kind of used to having you around. It's actually possible he doesn't relish the idea of you being blown away by some two-bit thug with a Mickey Mantle fetish."
Blair was silent for a moment, absorbing this. Jim continued placidly munching potato chips.
"Wait. You're saying that Simon likes me?"
"Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I'm not crazy about the notion of anybody blowing you away either, regardless of their baseball obsessions. So keep watching your backside, you understand me, Chief?"
Blair smiled to himself. "I promise I'm being careful, Jim. Come on, though, this is a lawyer siphoning money from a city trust fund, not Colombian drug lords defending their cartel. You don't seriously expect any of these suits to start waving a gun in my face."
"Siphoning to the tune of nearly fifteen million. Don't get careless. People go nuts for a lot less than that every day of the week."
"Oh yeah, tell me about it. You want to hear how my day went? At like half a minute before four o'clock I was down at circuit court trying get a pleading filed, and the numskull clerk wouldn't accept it because it didn't have a cost bond. I was explaining to her that since it was a cross-complaint it didn't need a bond, and she looked at me like I had just climbed down out of the trees or something."
Jim chuckled. "Can you blame her, monkey man?"
"That's real funny. Meanwhile, all the other clerks are starting to shut down because these city employees, man, four o'clock and they are so out there, and I'm reading the Local Rules to this lamebrain, showing her where they clearly state that only the original complaint requires a bond --"
"You're actually carrying around a copy of the Local Rules?"
"Well, yeah. Working for a law firm, I thought I might need it. Doris down in Records ran off a copy for me."
"And you've read it?"
"Um, hello, not like there would have been much point otherwise."
"Sandburg, how many other runners do you think carry around the Local Rules on the off chance they might need to refresh a circuit court clerk on some of the finer points of the law?"
Blair snorted. "Well, if they're smart they don't bother because she totally didn't care, even though it was right there in black and white. I ended up having to go back without getting the complaint filed, and Cindy yelled at me for not calling the office to let them know what was going on -- like there was time for that before the court closed -- and then she burst into tears and went to hide in the bathroom. Jeff came storming out of his office and yelled at me all over again, and then Don Garrick up on the tenth floor paged me to come pick up three banker's boxes worth of miscellaneous crap to sort and get this, Jim, it all has to be done tonight so it'll be ready for a paralegal to start bates-labeling in the morning."
"Garrick," Jim said. "That's one of our guys."
"Maybe, yeah. At first I thought this could be the break we've been looking for, but now I kind of doubt it. Doesn't seem very likely he would be so cheerfully producing evidence of his own malfeasance. What is good, though, is that now I've got the perfect excuse to stay here late tonight. I should be able to poke around Garrick's office, since you know he's not going to sit around all night watching a runner sort paperwork."
"Good thought. Just be careful."
"I always am, believe me."
"I take it you're not going to be home for dinner?"
Blair looked down at his watch. "Geez, it's already seven. Guess not."
"You get overtime?"
"Hey, that's right, I do. OK, I guess that sucks a little less. "
"Still want me to get you out of there?"
"Aaah, this place is nuts, but it's not so bad. Life experience, all that jazz."
"You already sound like you've been working for lawyers all your life."
That made Blair laugh. "Whoa, that scary, huh?"
It was, actually. Throughout the conversation Jim had been aware of a growing unease. Not for Blair's physical safety -- Blair was right, after all; this was strictly white collar crime. Not the sort of thing that usually would have landed on Jim's desk at all. It was just that Blair could play the role of a student looking for a summer job so perfectly. No, Jim figured what was really bugging him was the enthusiasm with which Blair had thrown himself into the part. Practically memorizing the Local Rules, for pete's sake. Jim knew district attorneys who were less familiar with court rules than Blair seemed to be these days.
And that was just the way Sandburg was. Giving it his all. Going to any extreme to fit in. It was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn't fit, that he'd always be the square peg in a round hole, but that never stopped him. He always had his facts marshaled ahead of time, was ready for every argument, every protest, and before you knew it, this longhaired professional student was living in your house and had been your partner for nearly two years.
Jim didn't know if it was an anthropologist thing or just a Sandburg thing, but at times like this he couldn't ignore the fact that making himself indispensable -- hell, making himself liked -- was simply a very useful tool to Blair, one which he had honed to a razor's edge over the years.
Jim hated to think about it. It pissed him off, and if he were honest, it scared him a little, too. Blair needed Jim Ellison to accept him as a housemate and a partner in order to finish his dissertation. It was just like Blair needed the lawyers of Blake, Blake & Della Maria, PLLC, to accept him as the new afternoon runner in order to build the city's case. Same goal, really. Same technique. It only made sense.
Aw, goddammit. To his angry surprise, Jim felt the humiliating prickle of tears. He shook his head hard, trying to will them away, just as a car horn blared behind him. His head jerked up, and he saw the light had changed to green -- who knew how long ago -- and on the phone Blair was saying, "Jim, hey, earth to Jim, you there?"
"So what do you say? Do you mind getting me a turkey sub and maybe some tabouli or rice salad or whatever looks good today from that deli on Booker Street? I can meet you at the curb. You won't even have to park."
"Too dangerous," Jim said shortly. "Someone could see you talking to me and blow the whole thing.
"It's late. Nobody's around, hardly."
"Just pack a dinner tomorrow, Sandburg."
"Oh thanks a lot, man." Blair's voice suddenly dropped to a whisper. "Hey, hold on a sec."
Jim said, "OK," but he doubted Sandburg heard him. He could hear the rustle of fabric, and thought Blair had probably slid the cell phone into his pocket. The signal began to break up, and Jim turned the wheel sharply to the curb and braked hard, provoking another blast from the car behind him. The aggrieved driver pulled around him, still leaning on the horn, and when the ringing in Jim's ears finally receded enough for him to hear again, he made out a muffled voice he thought he recognized as Don Garrick's.
"-- decided it would make more sense to lay all this out in the sixth floor conference room, all right?"
"Sure, whatever you say." Even muffled by static, Blair's voice was all eager accommodation. "I've already got most of one box organized up here, so if it's OK with you, I'll finish with this and carry everything down before I leave tonight."
"I'm not planning to stay all night," Garrick snapped. "Would you do it now, please?"
"Oh, hey, you're the boss." Jim could practically see Blair holding both hands up in a placatory gesture. The same one he'd used on Jim often enough.
"Can you get all three boxes in one trip?"
After a pause Blair said, panting a little, "Yeah, yeah, I got it."
Jim heard footsteps on linoleum, then a door opening, and footsteps on carpet.
"Mr. Della Maria." Surprise colored Blair's voice. "Is everybody working late tonight?"
Della Maria's own greeting was carefully neutral, and suddenly Jim knew something was wrong. He glanced over his shoulder, then gunned the engine and pulled out into traffic, swinging a reckless left turn as the light at Mission changed. Static drowned out the next few seconds of conversation, and then he heard Blair saying, " -- with this load? It's four stories. If it's all the same to you, I'm taking the elevator."
"No, you're not," Della Maria said flatly.
Shit. Jim turned on the siren and the lights and reached for the radio.
"Oh, man." The signal was fading again, but Jim could still hear Blair's surprise and dismay. "Oh man. Do you even know how stupid this is?"
"Come on. Let's just get this over with."
"Or what, you'll shoot me? I don't think so. Nobody's going to believe I accidentally broke my neck falling down the stairs anyway, but they're really not going to believe it if I've got a bullet hole in me."
Even over the sound of the dispatcher acknowledging his call, Jim heard the sickening smack of flesh on flesh. Blair grunted, and then Jim heard the worse sound of metal on bone. A line of cars was waiting at the next light. He pulled into the oncoming traffic lane and wove through the intersection without stopping.
"I hope you're sure about this, Frank." Garrick's voice shook.
"Mildred called me from circuit to complain about our new runner. Said he was a real pain in the ass and wondered why we'd hired him in the first place. She recognized him. It's not Benjamin Sandburg, it's Blair Sandburg, and he's with Major Crime."
"Oh my god," Garrick said. Violent static roared across the line. "Oh my god." A thud, and then the phone went dead. Jim was less than a block away now. He didn't see any other police cars, but he could hear the sirens, still maybe five or six minutes behind him. He pulled a U turn across the street and parked on the sidewalk, his blue and red lights splattering the glass fronts of skyscrapers on both sides.
He flashed his badge at the security guard, and once he was in the building he waved the man silent and just listened. Nothing but the heartbeat of the security guard, thudding with adrenaline, the incessant roar of late rush hour traffic and the thunder of the HVAC system. He groaned in frustration. He should be able to do more. Blair was always telling him he could do more, but his emotions were crippling him tonight. Angry at Blair for being who he was, terrified for him now and furious at himself. He couldn't turn it all off with the switch of a mental button, no matter how Blair insisted these little mind games could really work if he'd just concentrate, man.
To hell with it.
He almost took the elevator, but as the doors were opening, he thought of the nightmare ride to find Zeller had already shot Blair, and he ran for the stairs instead. Two flights up he felt a change in air pressure. Someone above him had opened a door into the stairwell. He could hear them now. Three men, two of them breathing hard, a third scarcely breathing at all. Dammit, dammit, he was going to be too late. "Police!" Jim screamed up the stairwell. "Throw down your weapons. You're surrounded."
He kept running hard, taking steps four at a time, aware of Della Maria and Garrick cursing and arguing with each other only in the same way he was aware of police sirens closing in and the smell of new carpet glue on one of the floors he passed on the way up. It was all just a stream of sensory information. A river rushing past that would drown him if he lost his footing.
On the ninth floor a cardboard box lay broken on its side, files and papers spilling across the linoleum like blood. Jim rounded the corner, panting, and saw all three on the landing above him. Garrick had his arm around Blair's throat, and Della Maria was leveling a .22 at Jim. He didn't give Della Maria very good odds for making that shot, but if he turned the gun on Blair, it would be hard for him to miss.
Jim extended his own weapon. "Cascade PD. Drop the gun and let Sandburg go. It's all over."
Blair stirred at the sound of Jim's voice. He raised his head and managed a little smile even though his forehead and mouth were bloody, and he seemed only half-conscious. "Took you long enough," he whispered.
"No rush. I knew you had the situation under control, Chief."
Blair gave him a wobbly thumbs-up, and Della Maria screamed, "Shut up! We're walking out of the building with Sandburg right now, and I swear I'll kill him if you try to stop us."
"Don't be an idiot," Jim said calmly, taking one step up towards them. "The building is surrounded. You're not going anywhere."
"Oh god," Garrick moaned. "I can't do this. I can't go to jail."
Blair was looking straight at Jim, and though he seemed groggy with pain, his expression was perfectly calm. Watching Jim, absolutely certain he would take care of everything. Simply waiting for Jim to do his job.
Just the way Blair always did his.
Garrick broke. With a strangled scream he pushed Blair away and tried to run.
Blair folded up, knees buckling, and pitched headfirst down the stairs.
He could hear Jim talking to him. His voice was soothing and quiet, easy to listen to. It made Blair feel watched over. Safe and secure. Only one thing troubled him. Two things, actually, and the first was that his head was hurting like hell and so was his left elbow, but the other thing, the more important one, was the thin edge of strain he thought he could discern in Jim's low voice.
The more he listened, the more certain he became. It sounded as though Jim were pushing aside some powerful emotion, and man, that never worked. All the time he and Jim had been working on this, hadn't the man learned anything?
Blair opened his eyes. There was a florescent light high, high above him, and pale gray walls rising on two sides. Jim was crouched beside him, one hand on Blair's shoulder, and when Blair winced at the light, he laid a gentle hand over his eyes. "Don't try to move. You're safe."
Tempting to believe it and just lie here, but he really was hurting, plus he was worried about Jim.
He'd start with the simple stuff. "Where are we?"
"Still in the stairwell. The EMT's are on their way up."
"Jim, did you hear what was going on? Garrick and Della Maria have totally lost it. They were going to shove me down the stairs, try to make it look like I tripped carrying file boxes."
"I heard it," Jim said quietly. "We got 'em. Kowalski's already reading them their rights."
"What a couple of nutcases. I knew you'd get here in time."
Jim was silent for too long.
"What is it?"
"Actually, I didn't. Garrick pushed you down the stairs."
So that's what was bothering Jim. "Simon's gonna kill me, isn't he?"
Jim didn't laugh.
"Hey, it's all right. I'm gonna be all right. Help me sit up."
"No." Jim's hands moved to his shoulders and held him down. "Don't try to move."
Blair opened his eyes again, more carefully this time. "I'm serious. My head hurts and my arm hurts, but I'm sure I'd feel better if I could just sit up a minute and get my bearings."
"Blair, I saw you fall." Jim's voice had gone horribly flat and cold. "You may be hurt pretty bad. Your back or your neck."
Blair felt icicles in his belly. "Oh bullshit, man," he argued, hating the way his voice shook. "You should be able to tell if there's anything that wrong with me. Just calm down and see if you can feel it."
Jim closed his eyes and shook his head once, lips tight.
"Oh," Blair said more quietly. "Your senses are all screwy?"
"I can't trust them."
Blair swallowed. "All right, so obviously we've got to work on the stress thing some more. Isn't that what I've been telling you all along? I'm going to remind you of this the next time you try to whine about our control exercises being such a big waste of time."
"Blair." Jim's face was etched with pain, and Blair couldn't stand it.
"Aw, hey, Jim, come on," he pleaded. "I'm sure I'm all right." A thought occurred to him. "Look! See, I'm wriggling my fingers and toes. "
"I can't see your toes." Jim's voice broke, and Blair couldn't tell if was a laugh or a sob. "You've still got your shoes on."
"Yeah, well, some Sentinel you are."
Jim's hands moved to the front of Blair's shirt, gathered up two handfuls of the starched oxford cloth and held on tight. It occurred to Blair that with this case wrapped up, at least he could stop ironing these white shirts first thing every morning. Small mercies.
Jim bowed his head low over Blair, and the fists that gripped Blair's shirt were shaking . Loud voices were getting closer. The EMT's, Blair assumed, and it was about time. Jim was on the verge of a damn nervous breakdown, and Blair had never felt so helpless in his life.
"I've got something to tell you," Jim whispered quickly. "This is the truth, and I need you to listen."
"Anything. I'm listening."
"It's just -- dammit, I don't know why you're here, Chief. When I try to figure it out, all I come up with are answers that make me crazy. You know that."
"Jim, I don't --"
"But those can't be right, because no dissertation is worth dying for. It's gotta be something else, something I just can't get a handle on, and that makes me crazy, too."
"Jim, you're making this all way too --"
"Christ, Sandburg, would you please shut up and listen to me?" He let go of Blair's shirt and cradled his face in both hands. "I'm trying to tell you that whatever it is, I don't care anymore. It doesn't matter to me. Just -- be all right. That's all I need from you."
"Aw, Jim." Blair hardly knew where to begin, and suddenly he wished the EMT's weren't so close, because there wasn't time to say this right and make Jim understand. He tried anyway. "You're wrong, man. Of course knowledge is worth dying for, didn't you know that?"
Above him, Jim's face was frozen, his eyes squeezed shut.
"But this is the truth, too, and you need to listen to me on this. Just because I'm here to study you, to write about you --"
"Come on. Just because I need you, that doesn't mean you're not my friend. Is it really so hard for you to get that? I know it's the same for you. You need me to help you with your senses, but that doesn't mean you don't love me, too."
Jim's eyes flew open. Blair couldn't read his expression anymore, but then Jim lowered his head until his cheek was next to Blair's, close enough for Blair to feel the bristles and the movement of his jaw when he spoke. "The truth?" he whispered, his voice so faint Blair had to strain to hear it.
"I swear," Blair promised. He felt Jim's head turn, and for a brief, precious instant, Jim's lips against his cheek. "The truth."