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China White

by Kristine Williams

Part 8

Blair rolled over and winced as his bruised cheek pressed into the pillow. Automatically rolling back over, his right hand clutched the side of the bed and he nearly cried out as stiffened fingers resisted the motion. When everything stopped throbbing, Blair realized it was morning. He could hear Jim in the shower and knew he'd have to get up. But he also knew getting up wasn't going to be easy. Sore muscles were now painfully stiff, and he had to calculate the best method for getting off the bed and into a standing position. Preferably without alerting Jim that he was in pain. The last thing Blair needed, aside from falling out of bed and hurting himself even more, was another round of Jim Ellison's self-appointed guilt. Sometimes Blair wondered which was stronger; Jim's ability to feel guilt, or his own constant insecurities.

But he did feel better this morning. Better at least about what had happened, and the aftermath. Getting Jim past the danger point was the hardest few hours Blair had endured in a long time. They ranked right up there with the time spent in that chair, staring back at David Lash. It hadn't even occurred to him that Jim would think he was to blame. Having recently gone through much the same experience, Blair had just assumed Jim would understand that he wasn't responsible. That Jim, like Blair, hadn't been in control. And therefore whatever he did, or tried to do, while influenced by the drug, wasn't his fault. But there he was, trying to apologize for it all. Blair could have dealt with a lot of things, and had over these many months. The thought that Jim might have lied to him back in that hospital--that Jim would lie to him about anything--was too much. That, he could never deal with.

With a sigh, Blair decided the hold-your-breath-and-just-do-it method wouldn't get him more than halfway out of bed. So, he was reduced to the ooze-yourself-off technique that, while always lacking in aesthetics, usually got you to your feet, eventually. First, he rolled over to the side of the bed, then after pausing for a moment, eased his legs out from under the blanket, and used their downward momentum to help twist his torso around, putting him in a position to push off from the bed, instead of using his abdomen to lift him. Once out of bed and on his feet, Blair put a hand to his aching stomach and groaned. It's always worse the day after. At least Jim was still in the shower, and hadn't seen that pathetic spectacle.

Perfect timing, too. Jim's shower ended just as Blair started to walk to his dresser for clean shorts.

"Hey, Chief. How you feeling today?" Jim stopped at the door, a towel wrapped around his waist.

"Fine, Jim." He found a clean pair, then realized it was his last. "Just a little stiff this morning." Pushing the drawer closed, Blair glanced over at the closet. It must be laundry day, the pickings were slim. "It'll work itself out, though."

"Yeah. I'm going to call Simon and check in, then you and I are heading over to the University to talk with Bilks."

"Right." Blair walked slowly toward the door and Jim moved back, letting him into the hallway. "Did I miss laundry day?"

Jim laughed. "We both did. Slept right through it." He walked to the stairs, rubbing a hand over wet hair. "I took two loads down this morning, and as soon as I get some pants on, I'll go put them in the dryers."

Blair nodded, but any answer was put off by a huge yawn he couldn't suppress. A hot shower helped to loosen up stiff muscles, but the spray hurt his bruised face, and sore fingers made washing his hair take twice as long as usual. By the time Blair was out and toweling off, Jim had returned from putting the clothes in the dryer. After drying off, and tossing his dirty boxers and wet towel into the empty hamper, he felt a little more human. Buttoning his jeans was a struggle, but when he finished, his nose registered breakfast.

"Coffee's ready." Jim was just setting his own cup on the table and sitting down when Blair came out of his room, wearing his last clean pair of faded jeans and an emerald shirt he always forgot he had.

Blair inhaled gratefully. "You went to the bakery?" He poured a cup of coffee, glancing over one shoulder to the table.

"Yep. Buttermilk for me, fresh and hot. And for you, zucchini muffins." Jim sipped his coffee and picked up a doughnut. "Oh, and Elise says to tell you thanks for the recipe last week, it was a big hit."

"Ah, that's great." He nodded and sat down, lifting one of the huge muffins out of the bag. It was still warm, and so brimming with chunks of zucchini, there was no need for butter. Blair had never cared for the smell of doughnuts: luckily, the muffin was so fresh and warm, it overpowered the scent of deep-fried dough his partner was enjoying. "Did you talk to Simon?"

"Yeah." Jim wiped his fingers on a napkin, then reached into the bag for another. "Narcotics says there's no word out on the streets about any new cocaine shipment. There's been no sudden increase in traffic, no new dealers on the block, nothin'."

"Maybe they're waiting? Take their time, wait for the heat to die down."

Jim shook his head. "I don't know. It's possible." He set down the doughnut and picked up his coffee. "The thing I don't like is why cut it there? I mean, using the University to ship it in is one thing. But to stay there with it, and do their cutting right there on school grounds, just doesn't make sense."

"Unless they really are students, and the University is the only place they could think to do something like that."

"Well, we've still got a few suspects over there, that's for sure." Jim finished his coffee and stood. "I told Simon we were going to talk to Bilks this morning, then meet up with Bell in Narcotics, see what he has to offer."

"Right." Blair stuffed the last bite of muffin into his mouth and carried his cup to the kitchen. The dishes from last night had been put away, so he rinsed out the cup and set it in the empty sink. "You've gotten a lot done this morning."

"Just got all caught up on sleep, I guess." Jim crossed the room and picked up the cell phone, checking the battery out of habit before putting it in his pocket. "Compared to yesterday morning, I'm feeling pretty good."

Blair nodded and went looking for his shoes. He wished he felt better, instead of stiffer and a bit more sore. But they were lucky. Not only had he sustained only a few minor--though irritating--injuries, but Jim had escaped without permanent damage to his senses, or his mind. Blair was trying very hard not to think about what could have happened, and just concentrate on what was real. Jim was fine, he was fine, everything between them was fine. That's what was important. Not the fact that his partner could have been rendered insane from the sensory overload. Not that Blair could have lost him forever. Not that Jim could have killed him, then been left to deal with that alone.

And not that Blair was wearing different colored socks. He sighed and pulled on a shoe. For some reason, laundry day was always punctuated by his socks not matching. No matter what he did, or how many pairs he bought, by the time laundry day rolled around, he was left with two that didn't match. Today it was one black and one grey. Blair pulled on the other shoe then looked for his keys. Maybe having odd socks would bring a little balance to the universe, and they'd get this case solved.

Or maybe he'd just go buy new socks.

Jim laughed inside as he took note of Blair's sock colors. It seemed every laundry day his partner ended up with two colors. How he managed that, after buying a new supply of matching pairs just last month, Jim didn't understand. But it was something he could count on. And, it was amusing. Blair was becoming predictable in some small ways, yet still remained a mystery in others. The fact that Jim could count on his partner's socks not matching at least one day a week went along with his ability to count on Blair to back him up whenever he needed it. Or, more importantly, to keep him alive in spite of himself. Jim hadn't taken the idea of his having reacted to the cocaine all that seriously the first two times. As a cop, he was exposed to danger every day, and had learned a long time ago to take it all in stride. Solving a crime with few leads had been the priority. And the idea that he had actually reacted to the cocaine when there wasn't even a visible amount, just wasn't something Jim wanted to consider. Not until last night in the maintenance shed, when Jim nearly killed Blair, did he realize just how close he was to dying himself. And he would have died, if his friend hadn't been there, kept his cool, and known what was happening and what to do about it. But now that it had happened, they'd have to figure out a way to keep it from happening again.

On the way to the University, while Blair was telling him all about Harry Bilks, Jim noticed a deep, quieting feeling inside. As much as his friend liked to think of Jim as his Blessed Protector, he was more and more considering Blair his own dependable guardian. Blair liked to think of himself as just a Guide, but Jim knew better. He was sometimes a teacher, sometimes a partner, always a friend, and definitely someone Jim could depend on. Hell, he didn't even know where the word Guide had come from. Sandburg probably made it up.

They pulled in to the parking lot and it took two trips around the entire lot to find an open spot. After Jim parked, Blair pointed through the windshield.

"There's Elizabeth Evans, the dean's daughter."

Jim followed Blair's direction until he saw a young woman, early twenties, walking across the campus a few yards in front of them. Blair's 'can of spam' was very attractive. Dressed in a skirt that touched her ankles in a swirl of feminine modesty, a matching purple sweater with the sleeves pushed up, and flat shoes, she walked gracefully toward the Administration Building. Her long brown hair was held in place by a French braid that trailed to her waist.

"Is she studying here, or working?" Jim opened the door and got out, waiting for Blair to join him on the sidewalk. The bruise on his face had lost a little redness, but it was still very distinct. Jim couldn't help noticing how he was letting the hair on that side of his face fall farther forward than usual.

"Both, actually." Blair stepped up from the curb and watched Elizabeth enter the building facing them. "Studies art, and she's interning through the University's museum project." He turned and started down the path toward the Social Sciences Building.

"What exactly does an intern with a museum do?" Jim followed his partner over the familiar route.

"Gopher work, mostly. Packing and unpacking, labeling exhibits, taking things in and out of storage, sometimes arranging the tedious details of gallery openings and new showings."

"Sounds familiar." He opened the door to Blair's building and grinned at him as they entered.

"Someone's gotta keep you big shots looking good," Blair countered. "The shipping department is next door, but we can get there through the basement of this building." He led the way down the hall to a stairwell.

"How well do you know this Bilks?" Jim followed Blair down two flights and into an underground corridor with multiple flourescent bulbs illuminating its wide expanse.

"Not very, I guess. I mean, he's been here for several years. But I only see him now and again, when I have to ship things out for the University, or when something's coming in. Like this last shipment." Blair reached for a door marked Shipping and Receiving and pulled it open. "I come down here to fill out some forms, and that's about it."

Jim followed him into a large room with a counter off to one side and rows and rows of boxes, shelves, and mail slots stretching on behind it. There was no one to be found as they entered, but one quick focus and Jim located someone at the far left, behind a partition, moving around. "This is where your crates were delivered?"

"Yeah. I came down to sign for them and they were in the back, but later that night, when I was ready to open them up, Harry had them sitting out here with a hand cart."

Jim moved around the area, not sure what he was trying to pick up, but trying nevertheless. "Who has access down here?"

Blair shrugged. "Just about anyone. Staff, faculty, TA's, any student sent down to pick something up. But they'd have to sign it out."

"Can I help you?" Jim turned to see a tall, thin man, somewhere in his early thirties, with dusty jeans, a black sweater and dramatically blond hair cut so short it was nearly invisible. He was approaching, squinting for no apparent reason as he looked at Jim. His head jerked to one side and green eyes locked on Blair. "Oh, Blair. I thought you would be shipping those artifacts out tomorrow night. Did you come for more forms?"

"No, actually." Blair motioned to Jim. "Harry, this is Detective Ellison, Cascade PD."

Harry looked again at Jim, then gave him a full body scan, starting at his feet and moving slowly upward. "Cascade PD? Whatever for?"

Jim produced his ID, but didn't leave it out long enough for Harry to give it as close a scrutiny. "I have a few questions regarding the shipments Mr. Sandburg had delivered from Africa."

Harry's eyes had just locked on Jim's identification when he snapped it shut and returned it to his pocket. "Questions?" He sniffed, looking at Blair again. "Shipment?" Harry sniffed again, then let out a violent sneeze that set him reeling back on his heels.

"Bless you." Blair had instinctively leaned back a bit, then rolled his eyes slightly when Harry fished through a pocket for some Kleenex.

"You handled the delivery of several crates from the Gold Coast. Crates containing artifacts intended for a display here at the University during a function put on by Professors Peters and Kinyon." Jim watched Harry's eyes as the man blew his nose. "Did you arrange for their shipment as well?"

Harry nodded, then finished with his Kleenex and tossed it into a waste can near the counter. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. But I didn't exactly fly out there and pack them, if that's what you're insinuating."

Jim glanced at Blair, then pursed his lips slightly while shaking his head once. "I'm not insinuating anything, just asking some questions." He looked back at Harry and held his gaze. "I'm sure you're aware there's been a crime committed that involves those crates. I'm simply trying to determine who had access, and when."

Harry was nodding again, but his eyes were squinting and his hand shot back into a pocket. "Yes, yes, I'd heard." He sneezed again just as more Kleenex was produced.

"Bless you." Jim couldn't help the disgusted wrinkle his nose made. "Can you tell me what your involvement was in the shipments?"

"Other than filling out some forms, and having Blair arrange the delivery of the artifacts to the shipping department in Africa, I really didn't have much at all to do." He blew his nose again and tossed the tissue into the trash bin. "I check all the papers, make sure the customs slips are in order, but I don't open the crates or break the seals. That's up to the Professor who ordered them, or in the case of this shipment, Blair."

"And you don't have any assistants or co-workers who might have had access to the crates, or the shipping documents?"

"Assistants? Please." Harry shook his head, looking disgusted. "They can't even afford to give me a raise, let alone an assistant. Heck, I don't even warrant a simple intern down here in the dungeon." His lament was punctuated by another sneeze.

Jim glanced at Blair who shook his head and shrugged. "Mr. Bilks, I'd like to look at your shipping documentation, and get a list of anyone who might have access to this area after closing."

Harry blew his nose again then walked behind the counter, tossing his Kleenex as he sat down. "No one has access down here after I leave, unless they've made arrangements. Blair told me he would be down to collect the crates late that night, so I left them out here where he could get to them. Many of the Professors have keys to the door down here, but only I have a key to the storage areas." He pulled open a file cabinet and fished around, looking for something.

"And the documents? Who besides you and the Professor requesting the shipment would know something was coming?" Jim sensed another sneeze coming on as Harry paused, squinting.

This time it was repressed, and he pulled out a file. "Anyone working with the person arranging the order, I suppose." He handed the file to Jim. "There are the documents. All were filled out by Blair, then I handle the customs duties."

Jim accepted the file, then noticed a quick increase in Harry's heartrate. With a glance, he confirmed the buildup of sweat on the man's forehead, and a slight dilation to his pupils.

They heard a buzzer from the opposite end of the room. Harry stood up. "Excuse me, that's a delivery."

Jim nodded as Harry walked back through the rows of shelving toward a large door at the far end. Setting the file down on the counter, he opened it and started scanning the documents. "Pleasant fellow." Jim let sarcasm color his tone and Blair laughed shortly.

"He's allergic to dust."


"Yeah. Perfect job for him, huh?" Blair glanced around the room.

"Perfect motive for having something on the side." Jim found several signatures, each verifying the contents of the crates without breaking the seal placed on at the point of origin. Blair had signed for them all at 6PM, ten minutes after confirmation of their delivery was marked off by Harry Bilks.

"Yeah." Blair sighed. "I wonder how long this has been going on."

Jim turned a page and found more of the same. "Who knows, Chief? We could have stumbled into a major drug import source here, or just happened upon a first-time attempt."

"Man, I have things coming in all the time. Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Africa." Blair pushed his hair back with one hand and Jim glanced up, seeing again the large bruise on the side of his face. Instead of forcing the long hair back, Blair let it fall again to cover the mark. "I hope this was the first time."

"Relax. You're not at fault. And we'll catch them." Jim closed the file and looked back to where Harry had gone. He was finished with the delivery man, and was now talking to a very attractive woman. Blair's can of spam. "Looks like Harry has company." Jim focused on the pair as Elizabeth began to gesture wildly. Harry turned, pointing to him and Blair, then sneezed again. She stepped back, then pulled a handkerchief from her purse and thrust it at him. Jim changed focus and caught some of the conversation.

"Daddy's pissed. And I can hardly blame him." Elizabeth's voice was far more harsh than Jim would have imagined, after seeing what a frail, feminine beauty she was. "Something like this doesn't look good for the University."

"What do you care how it looks for the University?"

"I care about Daddy's reputation. And this school's. Those were important artifacts. What if one had been broken?"

"That's what you're concerned about? The artifacts?" Harry sneezed again. "Look, I've got a cop up there I have to talk to. I don't have time for your little worries right now."

"You'd just better make time soon, Harry. Real soon."

Jim watched as Harry tried to return the handkerchief only to have her give him a look of complete disgust, a look that twisted her fine porcelain features into a perfect mask of revulsion.


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