by Kristine Williams
Blair heard the shower turn on across the hall and groaned. Jim had gotten up first again. That meant if he wanted to end his own shower hot, he'd have to make it a quick one. He turned over onto his stomach and pressed his face into the pillow. Maybe he could go back to sleep, and not get up until the hot water tank had refilled? No, that wouldn't work. Jim liked to be at the Station by 8:00, and then Blair did have a lecture to give later that morning. He sighed, breathing into the pillow. Maybe he could offer to pay for a new hot water tank? Of course, it might not be a bad idea to have some idea what those things cost, before opening his mouth. It was still Jim's loft, after all. Blair hadn't even contributed much more than the odd bit of furniture from the warehouse. What little there was after the explosion. Jim had really gone out of his way to accommodate his Guide moving in. Man, that seemed like forever ago. He never did finish that paper on Larry. Stupid ape not only broke back into Jim's place to watch television, but he trashed the kitchen after Blair had just spent an entire night cleaning it up after his first tirade.
Blair turned his head slightly and sighed. He really needed to get up now. He could get through the day on four hours of sleep. Sure. He'd done that lots of times. Man, he was really starting to see where this Sentinel paper of his could take a lifetime just to get halfway through. Every time he turned around, he either discovered something new about Jim's senses, or he discovered something new about Jim. There were just so many facets to his senses that Blair had never considered before. And Jim wasn't exactly an open well-spring of information. Some days it was like pulling teeth to get him to say what was going on, and just how long it had been happening. Like this whole new pain thing...how long had that been going on? And Jim only just brings it up when his shoulder acts up. Like it was nothing. Okay, to be fair, maybe it was really like trying to describe how you inhale. These senses were just a part of Jim, and to get him to think that every little thing needed to be talked about wasn't easy. Not that Blair had ever thought being Jim Ellison's Guide would be easy. But damn, it was an experience he wouldn't trade for anything.
The water shut off, and Blair raised his head, trying to force his legs to crawl out from under the warm blankets. Come on, nobody made you stay up late studying last night. He swung his legs out and they hit the cold floor just as Jim came out of the bathroom.
"Next." Jim smiled as he passed Blair's door.
He was grinning that cocky, sideways grin he had. God, he was in a good mood. "Yeah." Blair pushed himself off the bed and propelled his tired body across the hall and into the bathroom. Aside from the lingering steam, the bathroom showed no signs of having just been used. Blair still had a tendency to leave traces of his presence as he went, but he was learning. Jim just liked order in his house, if not his life. He waited until he was inside the shower before turning on the water, hoping to get as much out of it as he could. Inevitably, the steaming water felt so good, he put off doing his hair a little too long.
"Oh, man, this sucks!" Blair had to grit his teeth against the cold water rinse. That's it, maybe he could ask around, do a little checking, see just how much these hot water tanks cost. This was beginning to ruin Blair's normal chipper morning attitude. When he got out of the shower and grabbed a towel, all the warmth from the steam Jim had left was gone. He dried off quickly, trying to rub out the chill, then hurried to his room for clothes. Jim was upstairs shaving, and Blair sometimes wondered if he didn't shave his chest, as well. But, that was something he'd most likely never ask. And then there was the whole sex issue that...No, he could put off that aspect for as long as he needed. Jim did have a Sentinel's sense of touch, so maybe there was something about chest hair that drove him crazy. Right now, Blair was grateful for his as insulation against the cold room. He dressed quickly, and was in the kitchen as Jim came down the stairs.
"Hey, Chief, I've been thinking." Jim stepped into the kitchen and pulled a cup down, then reached for the coffee pot. "It's time we invested in a larger hot water tank." Blair stopped cracking eggs into the pan and stared at his friend. "With Carolyn and me, it wasn't a problem." He laughed a little. "Well, except maybe for those last 3 months."
There was just no way Jim could have thought of this on his own...was there? "I dunno, Jim, I mean, how much do these things cost?" God, what was he doing, shooting himself in the foot?
Jim shrugged as he sat down. "No big deal, Chief."
"Wait, Jim, it is a big deal." Blair grabbed a dish towel and wiped his hands, looking out at Jim, who was sipping coffee at the table. "These things can't be all that cheap."
Jim looked up. "I said no big deal. I've been thinking about this for some time now, and it's time I did something about it." He went back to his coffee and picked up the newspaper that was on the table, giving it a scan.
"No, Jim, hang on." Blair tossed the dish towel back on the counter and stepped over to the end of the kitchen where he could look at Jim. "You've only been thinking about this since I moved in. I think it's a great idea, but I need to be in on this. Come on, man, I never expected a free ride here."
Jim set the paper down and looked back up at Blair. "Listen, Sandburg, I want a new hot water tank. Okay? This is not about money, or pulling your weight, which you do, by the way. This is about me wanting a larger hot water tank. Okay?" Jim raised his eyebrows and glanced behind Blair at the stove. "So, what about breakfast?"
Blair didn't even flinch. "Jim, you wouldn't need a new tank if I hadn't moved in. You gotta let me pay for half of this, man, I insist." God, he didn't know what he was getting into, but he'd be damned if Jim was going to leave him out of this. He had to help. Getting into Jim's loft in the first place had been easy for Blair. Just a little embellishment here, some pleading glances there, and it had worked. But now, his sense of fairness--albeit a somewhat newfound sense--was keeping him on track, and appreciative of his situation. Okay, so he did still have some housebreaking slips, but still...
"And I'm hungry. Do you mind?" Jim motioned towards the pan of raw eggs waiting on the stove.
Blair shook his head and turned around long enough to turn on the stove. "Jim..."
"Sandburg, I want to do this, okay? Consider it back pay for what you do at the Station. Can we do that?" Jim was looking at him again. "Listen, I'm buying this with my tax return, and it's still no big deal. They aren't all that pricey."
Blair turned around again. "Jim, come on, I'm not a freeloader. I can pull my own weight, you know."
Jim sighed. "Okay, Chief. If you're going to get the wrong idea here, then fine. I'll buy it, and you can pay whatever you can." Blair nodded, then remembered the eggs just in time. He turned off the stove, grabbed the pan and the pot of coffee, and joined his partner at the table. "Sandburg, I don't think of you as a freeloader. I just want to do this, okay?"
"Yeah, and I just want to help. Okay?"
"Great." Blair poured himself some coffee, wondering if now would be a really bad time to ask the price of this little joint venture. He knew full well Jim didn't charge him for half of the mortgage on the loft...not that Blair really knew what the payments were, or what Jim still owed. But he did have a job, a real, paying job, at the University. And there were always grants, and research funding. He knew going in that being an Observer at the Station was going to be a no-pay situation, and he was never interested in it for an income, anyway. It was Jim he was there for. But he was determined to prove to Jim that he could hold his own, in more ways than one. It was important to him what his friend thought. For the first time in--well, probably his life, if he was honest--there was someone whose opinion meant something to him. Meant a lot, actually.
"You ready, Chief?"
Blair looked up from his coffee. Jim was finished with breakfast, and had taken their plates into the kitchen. Sheesh, where had he been? "Yeah, all set." He put down the now empty cup he was holding, and went to find his shoes. "I've got a class at 11:00."
"I'll give you a lift." Jim held the door, then shut and locked it.
They drove to the Station through light traffic, Jim humming all the way. "What's with the good mood this morning?" Blair couldn't help but ask. He was normally the morning person in their group, but this morning had just started way too soon.
Jim shook his head, shrugging a little. "No reason, Chief. I'm just happy. Is that okay?" He turned to glance at Blair while they waited for a light.
Blair laughed, nodding. "Yeah. I'm sorry. Just stayed up too late last night, I think."
"Oh, sorry, man. The alarm?"
"No. Never mind, Chief. I was a light sleeper last night, that's all."
Blair knitted his eyebrows. It wasn't like Jim to stay awake all night from a noise, and not say anything. He could block out almost all of it now, when he needed to. He quickly tried to review what he had done last night, wondering if he had been overly loud. All his night had consisted of was taking notes and pondering Jim's new piggy-back sensing ability. God, it was going to take him years to figure this man out. The sensory combination, and range, was staggering sometimes. And then there was the question about Jim finding him on that seaplane. Something that had been bothering him for some time now. Was that a matter of being in the right place at the right time...or was there more to it?
"...just seem to be tuned in, or something." Blair just then realized Jim had been talking and he shook himself alert. Jim turned to look at him as he parked the truck. "You haven't heard a word I've said."
Blair raised both eyebrows, trying to quickly think of something appropriate. He failed. "Sorry, Jim. I was back in study mode, I think." Jim rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling. "What was it?"
"Never mind, Chief. It wasn't important." Jim opened the door and Blair followed suit.
"Jim, I'm listening now, I swear."
"It's okay, Sandburg. We'll talk about it later on. It wasn't important." Jim pocketed his keys and started for the door.
Blair followed, shaking his head. Man, he hated this. He hated to realize he hadn't been listening, and Jim had most likely just said something either important, or at least something he had been thinking about for a bit. Of course, Jim never said anything he hadn't thought about first. But that was what made him so damn interesting to listen to. Whereas Blair typically took twice as long to explain what he had just said, as he had in saying it. They reached the elevator, and Blair felt himself pause, just a fraction of a second. Immediately, he overcame his hesitation, but that fraction was all it took for Jim to notice, and put a hand on his back to ease him into the car. Hey, it's just seven floors...I've fallen nearly that many. Nope, that didn't help. He got in, and Jim pressed the 7th floor button. Blair kept his eyes on the numbers. There was nothing to worry about. He'd been on elevators since that wild ride. He was fine. Just fine. Jim was right there, too. Just another 5 floors and they'd be at Jim's desk in no time. Fine. No problems. 3 more floors. This was going fine. Jim's hand was still on his back, and Blair felt a little foolish. Sure, he was holding up, and there was no one else in the car, but he knew full well Jim could see right through him. 1 more floor and he was home free. Hell, a few more times up and down and he'd forget all about those little five floor drops. Right.
Finally, the elevator doors opened, and they stepped out. Blair was pretty sure he didn't just run from the car, and no one was staring at him, so it must be true. Yeah, this little problem would clear itself up in no time. Can't go through life in a city without getting on another elevator, after all.
"Hey, Jim." Simon was just crossing the hall as they stepped off the elevator. "Perfect timing. I've got an FBI agent in my office and you're just the man I wanted to see."
"FBI?" Jim asked, glancing for a second at Blair.
"Kidnapping case in Oregon, the Mueller family, just ended with a dead body."
Blair winced, glancing up at Simon. "That's the one we just heard about yesterday, right? Teenage girl taken from school?"
"Right," Simon replied, glancing towards his office. "They found the girl last night. After the ransom was paid." He started to walk towards the office, so Jim and Blair followed.
"I take it no arrests, no leads?" Jim asked as they approached the door.
"None." Simon opened the door to his office and stepped inside.
Jim followed, and Blair was close behind. Simon's office was large, and could be very accommodating when a group of people needed to meet and go over evidence. But the man waiting for them inside, standing behind a table-full of files and photos, looked as though he could have taken all the oxygen from the room in one breath. Blair was immediately reminded of a Viking when he took in the sight of the massive, redheaded FBI agent standing there looking at them.
"Agent Mills, this is Detective Ellison, and his partner, Blair Sandburg." Simon nodded to the agent, then walked behind his desk and reached for the coffee pot. "I'll let him fill you in."
"Agent Mills." Jim shook the agent's hand, then stepped closer to the table so Blair could approach.
"Detective, Mr. Sandburg." Agent Mills shook each hand accordingly.
Blair tried very hard not to think about the size of the hand that completely encompassed his when he shook the agent's hand. The grip was friendly, and not at all as crushing as he would have thought, but Blair was immediately aware of his size in relation to the rest of the men in the room. He hoped they'd all sit down, so he wouldn't be looking up all morning long.
"You've probably heard about the Mueller kidnapping?" He paused, and Jim nodded, while Blair glanced down at the photographs on the table. "This is the third victim so far. 16 years old, and found in a field twenty miles from her parents' home." Agent Mills reached down to the pile of photos and pulled one out that nearly turned Blair's stomach. It was a large, full color shot of a young girl, beaten almost beyond recognition, lying in a clump of tall grass. "Same fate as the other two." He shuffled some of the prints around and produced first one, then another. Each displayed a victim, lying on the ground, severely beaten. "Mr. Keller, 42 years old and the head of his family's computer software company. And Mr. Neal, 21 year old son of a very wealthy business man. Miss Karen Mueller had the misfortune of being the only daughter of two extremely successful parents."
"Was the ransom paid in either case?" Jim asked, examining the photos that Blair was now trying hard not to look at again.
"Not in the case of Mr. Keller. Turned out, his fortune was anything but liquid, and the family wanted to call their bluff. He was found dead the next day." Agent Mills rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Mr. Neal had more of a close relationship with his father, and although we were working with him through the whole thing, he insisted on paying immediately."
Blair glanced up at Agent Mills when he paused. For a large man, he obviously had a deep core. The exhaustion and regret were showing plainly on his face. Jim and Simon each nodded knowingly, waiting for the agent to continue.
"These kidnappers--we're pretty sure now it's a pair-- they've been moving their way up north from California. Mr. Keller was a resident of San Diego, Mr. Neal, Ashland Oregon, and Miss Mueller, Portland Oregon. We feel their next options are in Washington, and most likely Cascade, or one of the other big cities."
"What's the MO?" Jim asked.
Agent Mills sighed, and then sat down, pushing some of the papers and photos around. "They target a family, wealthy, but not so much so that the members would have bodyguards or any special security precautions. Pick one member, take them somewhere not too far away, we feel, and videotape their demands. And then..." Agent Mills produced the remote control to the television set in the corner of Simon's office.
Blair and Jim both turned to see the screen as it came to life. Jim sat down, as did Simon, but Blair remained on his feet, standing just behind Jim. As the screen came into focus, they could see a man in his early twenties, tied to a railing of some sort, with a red cloth tied through his mouth. Blair's stomach tightened, and his mind flashed quickly to the hold of a ship, and the three brothers of one Samuel Jackson. He reached up and pushed his hair back, trying to prepare himself for what he realized he was about to see.
"This was the first tape the family received," Agent Mills said.
They watched as one man, his face covered by a black ski mask, entered the picture, standing directly in front of the bound and gagged man. With no words spoken, the hooded man produced a set of brass knuckles, placed them on his right hand, and delivered a punch to the captive man's stomach that doubled him over, screaming even through the gag. Two more punches followed, one to his right side, then one across his face that sent blood flowing down his cheek. There was a pause, then the masked man lifted his victim's head by the hair, and slammed his fist once again into his right side.
Suddenly the tape blurred, and the image of the beating was replaced by a closeup of another man, his face hidden behind a red ski mask. "The money is delivered by tomorrow, noon, or he dies," the man said, looking directly into the camera. "You miss that deadline, and he gets another treatment while we give you option two. Miss that one, and he's dead."
The tape ended and Blair shuddered, looking away.
"Cold bastards," Simon said, glancing at Agent Mills.
"Yes. Very cold." Mills sighed and set the remote control down. "They sent the second tape as soon as the first deadline passed with no payoff. You could practically hear Mr. Neal's ribs shattering." Mills stopped and shook his head. "His father had paid, only the directions given by the captors were so convoluted, even my agents got lost."
"So, we're dealing with two men who are willing to kill, but not too smart?" Jim asked.
Agent Mills nodded. "That's about it. The most dangerous combination there is. A love of killing, and stupidity."
"Those two kinda go hand in hand, don't they?" Blair asked.
Agent Mills looked up, then nodded. "Only in this case, the men we are dealing with have no compunction about doing what you've just seen to a 16 year old girl."
Blair shuddered, remembering the young girl who had just been found dead in the field. His stomach tightened, thinking about that photograph he had unfortunately seen. It was no wonder Agent Mills looked so tired, if he had been on these cases from the beginning. Blair had seen Jim after a case went sour, and for all his lecturing about checking your emotions at the door, Blair saw what it did to his friend, to see so much death and inhumanity all around you. He had to admit, it was changing him somewhat...making him more aware of just how cruel people could be. But then, that's what made people like Jim, and Agent Mills, so necessary. Who else could do what they did, and continue to do it even in the face of tragedy?
"So where do we come in?" Jim asked.
Failed to execute CGI : Win32 Error Code = 2