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by Kristine Williams

Part 6

How was he going to make this one up to Jim? Unless Carpenter suddenly confessed, and admitted he'd been on the roof of that building with a sniper's rifle, Blair didn't see any easy way out of this one. The worst of it was, everything had been smoothing itself out. Much quicker than Blair had expected, too. Having Karen Blake speak to them at the funeral that morning had done a lot to improve Blair's own outlook on the whole mess. And her show of support for Jim couldn't have been lost on the other officers there.

All he could hope for now, was for them to know where the blame belonged. It wasn't Jim who had accused anyone. If there was heat--and God knew there would be--it needed to be directed at him, not Jim. By the time Blair reached the store, he had a splitting headache. He was grateful for his list. Without it, he would have spent 30 minutes walking up and down each aisle, trying to remember why he was there. As it was, shopping took more than 40 minutes. After squeezing up and down the aisle past middle aged women who continually ran into people they hadn't seen in "ages" and men who couldn't find the right can of peas, his headache was raging as he loaded Jim's truck.

He put the last bag in and found the aspirin lying on top. In no mood to wait this pain out, he reached for the bottle. He'd brought along his water, and warm as it was, it washed the pills down all right. That done, he tossed the bottle back into the bag...and missed.

"Great." Blair sighed. There just wasn't going to be anything about this afternoon that was going to go well. The bottle had fallen on the floorboards in the back seat, where it could stay, if he thought he'd remember to find it when he got home. Blair knew himself better than that. He recapped the water bottle, then bent over to reach for the aspirin.

The bullet pierced the window, two inches above Blair's head.

"What the hell happened?" Jim charged out of the patrol car almost before it stopped, looking first at Blair with searching eyes. "Are you all right?"

Blair looked at Simon, hoping the Captain would explain why Jim's truck was now missing a passenger door window, and the interior was dusted with shards of broken glass. He'd tried to call Jim after the attack, but his partner had been on the phone, making those calls, so Blair had been forced to call Simon. Of course, that was after he'd crawled back out from under the truck, ten minutes after the single shot that had taken out the window instead of his head.

"Looks like whoever took a shot at you both back at the University mistook Sandburg for you and tried again." Simon took the cigar from his mouth and pointed with it to the truck. "Must have followed him here." He glanced behind them to the store across the street. "I've had a team scouring the area for a spent cartridge, but I have a feeling we're dealing with a neat freak here."

Jim looked at Blair. "You're all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I don't suppose..." Blair let his sentence trail as he looked from Jim to Simon.

"He was in my office when the call came through. He and his partner," Simon replied, somewhat hotly.

Blair looked at Jim and saw the blue anger flare. He didn't care. Someone was trying to kill Jim, whether it was Carpenter or not. Blair didn't care how mad he got. He didn't care if they kicked him out of the Station and took away his observer ID. Someone wanted Jim dead.

"Jim, did you get anywhere with the license plates?"

He shook his head, shooting one more look at Blair before turning back to the truck. "No, sir, not yet. I've made it about halfway through the list and so far come up empty."

"That plate is our only lead." Simon stabbed the air with his cigar. "I want you back at the Station working on those license plates. You get as much help as you need, but you get through that list."

Simon shot Blair a look that made him flinch. The Captain's eyes all but accused him of not helping Jim.

He turned back to Jim. "We've got a nutcase on our hands, and I think we can rule out random shootings or copycat snipers. This guy, whoever he is, is after you, Jim." He glanced at Blair again quickly. "And I want you both where I can see you until we get a lead on this guy."

"Right, Captain." Jim nodded toward the truck. Let's go, Chief."

Blair hurried around to the other side, more to get some distance between himself and Captain Banks than to get in the truck. He'd seen Simon angry before, he'd even seen Simon angry at him before. But he'd never felt the kind of hostility from the Captain that he had just then. And he deserved it, too. He'd been no help to Jim looking through those names. He'd caused more than his share of trouble back at the Station, putting Simon in the middle of an internal problem he was sure the Captain would rather have let Jim handle in his own way. And now, through no fault of his own, he'd been the bearer of bad news, calling Simon to tell him he'd just been shot at, while driving Jim's truck.

Jim got in and started the engine, then waited for Simon's patrol car to pull away before following it.

"Jim, I.."

"Are you hurt?" Jim asked, glancing at Blair for an instant before turning back to the road.

"No." Blair shook his head and looked at the floorboards. Jim's tone of voice indicated that the conversation--what there had just been of it--was over. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The headache hadn't gone away. In fact, it was worse. Something rolled out from under the seat and he reached down, retrieving the aspirin bottle. He almost laughed. The pills hadn't gotten rid of his headache, but they had saved his life. As much as Blair wanted to share that little bit of irony with Jim, that jaw of steel advised him against it.

Back at the Station, Blair was sent to get another copy of the DMV printout while Jim went to his desk to fill out a request for a window replacement. While downstairs, Blair made a few copies of the printout, lingering at the copy machine for as long as he could justify. Waiting for him upstairs was an angry Captain, a partner who was stressed out and upset, and a room full of officers who most likely hoped Blair never returned. But he had to. Jim was up there waiting, not only for the printouts, but for the jerk who got him into this mess to get up there and stick it out with him.

Fine. He could do that. He could handle a room full of people being mad at him. Maybe that would take some heat off Jim, and then he'd calm down sooner.

Blair sat beside Jim at his desk and helped his partner finish the list of red jeeps with the partial plate he had seen. There wasn't much for him to do, other than cross each name off after Jim contacted them. None of the names on the list had meant anything, and after checking Jim's arrest records for the past three years against the list, they ruled out any recently paroled inmates. In fact, when they finished the entire printout, they were left with only one possible lead; a rental.

Jim tore the information from the pad he'd been writing in and hung up the phone. "Come on, Chief."

Blair followed Jim into Simon's office, where he explained the only lead they had.

"The jeep's in the lot right now. Sandburg and I will go down there and have a look at the rental records. I'd like to go through the car before forensics gets there."

Simon looked at Jim, then sighed reluctantly. "All right, Jim. Just be careful. You'll have to take a patrol car, they still have yours down at the shop. If anyone is following you based on that thing, they might not see you leave."

"Right, sir."

Blair followed Jim once again as they left, heading downstairs to the garage. He'd never felt so out of place as he did just then. There was no talk in the bullpen that he heard, but it dawned on him while helping Jim go over the printout, that Jim was able to hear everything being said on the entire floor, if he wanted to. Blair could remain ignorant of anything being talked about behind his back, but his partner would hear it all. He could only imagine what was being said, when they thought Jim couldn't hear.

In the parking garage, they found a patrol car to use and headed across town to the rental agency. Blair was silent the entire drive, and it was an uncomfortable silence. He knew accusing a member of such a close-knit society was taboo, but he'd hoped the fact that the suspicions had been Blair's, and not Jim's, would have helped. It hadn't. He wanted to apologize, but he wasn't sorry. If it wasn't Carpenter, fine. But if it was...

"You're being quiet." Jim glanced at him as they turned onto the street they were looking for.

"Yeah." Blair looked out the passenger window, searching for the rental agency. "I think I've said enough lately, don't you?"

Jim laughed shortly. "That's not something I ever thought I'd hear you say." They found the parking lot and he pulled in, then found an empty spot next to the main building.

Blair reached for the door handle, but Jim's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Hang on a minute, Chief. We need to get back on the same page here." Blair turned and looked at Jim, confused. "About Carpenter."

"Jim, listen, I'm--"

"No, you listen." Jim held up a hand and Blair stopped himself. "I meant what I said about not wanting to bring Simon into this. But he is now, and so is everyone else in the Department."

Blair opened his mouth once again to apologize, but Jim's hand came back up, silencing him.

"I also meant it when I said I had taken a stand about all this." He sighed and let the hand drop to the seat of the patrol car. "I won't lie to you, Sandburg, I really wish you hadn't said anything. But you did. That doesn't change the way I feel. You're still my partner, and my friend, and I'm not backing down on anything I've ever said or done."

Blair's gaze had dropped to the floor of the car, but now he looked up, meeting Jim's eyes. He wasn't flinching. Jim Ellison never flinched. He didn't lie, either. At least never to Blair. And he never said something he didn't mean.

"Yes, I was a little angry about this. But just because it makes working around the Station a little stressful. There were other ways to go about this. But what's done is done. I'm still behind you, and I'm still behind my decisions. And listen, Chief, I'm not angry with you."

Blair's eyes failed him and he looked out the windshield for a minute, contemplating what Jim had just said. He'd meant it. All of it. Of that, Blair was certain. And now he was even more determined to stick with him, and take whatever fallout was coming, due to his accusations in his friend's name. If Jim could stand it, then so could he.

"Are we okay on this?"

He nodded, looking back at his partner. "Yeah, we're okay. Thanks, man."

Jim smiled, then patted him on the shoulder. "Okay. Let's go see about this red jeep."

The clerk behind the counter smiled as they walked in, glancing at the badge Jim was holding out.

"You must be Detective Ellison?" She looked at Jim, then Blair. "Here about the jeep?"

"Yes, that's right." Jim pocketed his ID and approached. She was very attractive, with long brown hair and a sparkling smile that seemed to linger in Blair's general direction, as they tended to do. Jim read her name tag. S. Peters. "We spoke on the phone, Miss Peters. I'm going to have to take a look at your rental records, and the jeep itself."

"Of course." Her smile remained, but it was directed at Jim now as she handed him a slip of paper. "These are the last three people to have that jeep out, but the last one, Mr. Handleson, had it the past two weeks, and returned it yesterday afternoon, just after 3PM." She reached down below the counter and retrieved a key. "It's been here ever since. The cleaning crew just finished with it an hour ago."

"Cleaning crew?" Jim's heart sank. He should have known it would be detailed out after being returned. And he'd only just called about it, so there was no time to stop them.

"Yes. Standard policy is to clean and wash all returns prior to them going out again. I'll show you to the jeep."

Jim glanced at Blair while she came out from the counter. His partner's eyebrows rose, but there was still a look of hopefulness there. They followed her out of the building and through a line of freshly washed cars. At the very end of the row, was a shiny, clean, red jeep. License number BAF 783.

"I have a forensics team on its way here. We may need to take it to impound."

Miss Peters shrugged, still smiling. "Whatever you need, officers." She indicated the building with a long, slender finger. "I'll just be inside if you need anything."

"Thank you." Jim smiled and waited until she was near the office. "Great." He looked back at the jeep in frustration.

"Relax, Jim. I used to clean these things during the summer when I was in high school. If these guys are anything like we were, there's still plenty to be found inside." Blair patted Jim on the back briefly, then motioned to the jeep.

There was a lot Jim could have said just then, but he refrained. Blair's undying faith in his abilities was showing through again. Any comments about the state of his roommate's bedroom could wait. Jim opened the driver's side door and leaned into the jeep. He glanced around briefly, then reached for the glove compartment. It was empty except for a map of Cascade. The floorboards had been vacuumed, the interior polished with some lemon-scented cleaner. Jim shook his head and backed out.

"It's no good. They've used some kind of leather cleaner in here. It's got a real powerful citrus odor."

"Just filter them out, Jim. You should be able to get past the cleaners, soaps and anything else they put in here."

Jim sighed. He knew better than to contradict Blair when it came to his Sentinel talents, but sometimes the kid knew more about dealing with them than even Jim did.

"Just identify the chemical cleaners, and filter them out one by one." Blair stood beside the jeep, watching.

Jim paused for just a moment, then climbed back inside and sat in the driver's seat. He took a deep breath through his nose, picking out the smell of lemons, soap, alcohol. Gradually those smells lost all meaning, and something else tickled the back of his nose. Something familiar. Something out of place in a rental car.

"I smell gunpowder." He took another breath and tried to hold the scent in his nose for as long as he could. "There's definitely been a discharged gun in here." He looked at Blair, who was nodding. "It's faint, but there is just a little bit. Not enough for forensics to find, I'm sure."

"Yeah, but Jim, it's something. At least we know this is the right car."

Jim got out of the jeep and pulled the printout from his pocket. "We might have the car, Chief, but we're far from having the gun, or the shooter." He scanned the paper, but Blair's look didn't escape notice. His partner could take the smallest bit of circumstantial evidence, put it in Jim's hand, and assume the case was all but closed. Never mind the hard evidence, the facts, the little details one needed to actually arrest someone. No, none of that seemed to matter with Blair. The kid had this faith in Jim, a faith that anything could be solved once Jim was on the case. A faith Jim never felt he deserved. But God, it was a faith that kept him going sometimes! Might not get him an arrest, but it gave him the strength to face days like this.

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