Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Thank yous: Yet again, thank you to Sue Pokorny for reading the first draft of this story and sending much needed and much welcomed kudos; and to Bonnie for beta'ing.

Synopsis: There's a new drug on the streets of Cascade and the death of a football star brings Jim and Blair closer to the power behind the pipeline. Things get interesting when Jim discovers a good friend working for the bad guys.

End Zone

By Anne Roquemore

********************
Playing football for the Seattle Seahawks had not prepared Royal Creed for life after the NFL. It was his own fault. If he had known that a slew of bad calls with investments would have broken him to near poverty, he would have never agreed to them. But here he was, standing in the middle of nowhere, a hundred dollars in his bank account, and a package of Hades in his hand, waiting to sell. How did he get here?

Running long fingers through his coarse black hair, Royal glanced around the darkened alley, a shiver running through his shoulders. He had been a wide receiver for the Seahawks for seven years, had been heralded as the fastest man in the northwest. Who would have thought that his speed would bring him to this? Selling drugs, knowing it would be his quickness that would probably save his life should the buy go down wrong.

A footstep alerted Royal to company before the slender figure of a woman came into view. Anxiously he stepped forward, eyes glancing around to be sure they were alone.

"You sure this is going to work?" he whispered at the figure, his normally deep voice awfully high in his own ears. Cursing himself for his fear, Royal swallowed noisily. He had faced men twice his size barreling down on him in an open football stadium, survived broken arms and collarbones, only to bounce back with ease and grace. He wouldn't let this get the better of him.

"All you need to do is what I told you," the voice replied, a sultry female voice that instilled in him with a calm he hadn't felt a moment before. She placed a steady gloved hand on his arm. "Are you certain you want to do this?"

Royal swallowed again, nodding. "Enough is enough. He got me at a bad place. No matter what happens, I can't sell this stuff anymore. Not after..."

Pictures in the most recent Cascade Times still haunted his dreams. Kids with their bodies slit by knives, the damage done by their own hands while high on the crap he was selling. No matter what awaited him monetarily, even if he faced time, he couldn't do this anymore. He couldn't kill kids anymore. This was the only way to face his reflection in the mirror again.

He looked up into the face of the woman, a face hidden in shadows, but he knew the eyes peering back at him were soft with compassion and understanding. Luckily, he had found her. Luckily, she had the means to help him.

The woman squeezed his arm. "We'll get through this, Mr. Creed. Just hang tough. As soon as the buy goes down, you meet me where we discussed, okay?"

Royal nodded, suddenly aware that the hand was gone and the woman disappeared into the shadows. The sound of a car caught his attention and he turned around to meet his destiny, trust in the woman pouring warmth through him he hadn't felt in a long time.

********************

Detective Jim Ellison squatted beside the body, pulling back the white sheet to once again look into the face of death. He shook his head sadly when he recognized that face. What a waste.

"Royal Creed?" a voice asked in disbelief and Jim watched as his partner crouched beside him. Expressive blue eyes peered at Jim through gold-framed glasses, the surprise reflecting Jim's own feelings. Warily, Detective Blair Sandburg returned his gaze to the lifeless body. "Man, there's gotta be something seriously wrong with this world if a guy like Creed gets mixed up in drugs."

Shaking his head, Blair stood, lips pursed as he removed his glasses and crossed the crime scene to speak with one of the forensics guys. Jim's gaze followed his partner's path for a moment, pleasantly surprised that Blair had managed to keep his usual nausea under control, a testament of how Blair Sandburg had changed over the years. He had come a long way from the grad student observer that blanched at the mere suggestion of a dead body. A part of Jim mourned the loss of that innocence, grimaced at the thought that he was responsible for it. Watching as Blair laid a consoling hand on a shoulder of the man to whom he spoke quietly, Jim hid a smile. Luckily the kid hadn't lost what counted most.

Returning his gaze to the task at hand, Jim carefully extended his sense of touch and passed his hands over the cold body, years of experience on the police force interpreting what his heightened touch told him. A broken neck, bruises across the chest and abdomen, cracked ribs. Increasing his eyesight, Jim took in the scrapes and cuts along the legs, found scuff marks on the heel of one shoe, the other shoe missing, the heel of that foot bloody. Jim followed the bloody trail back towards the mouth of the alley.

"He was dragged here," he murmured, aware of Serena Chang's sudden presence as she knelt across the body from him. "They parked at the alley entrance and dragged the body up the alley to lay him here."

"That's my guess also," the chief of forensics replied, flipping open her notebook. "We found his other shoe up there. From initial indications of the body and the surrounding area the victim was overwhelmed somewhere else and then dragged under the arms along the alley."

"Would support the type of bruising across the chest," Jim nodded. "Which would indicate that he wasn't dead when he was brought here. Cause of death the snapped neck?"

Serena nodded. "I'd guess he died between midnight and two this morning. But who would beat a man, drag him from the location of the beating, drop him in this alley and then break his neck?"

"All good questions. Maybe the killer thought Creed was dead and then realized his mistake. There may have been a scuffle here, too. The body wasn't found laid out as though dragged and left here. It was found on its side; Creed must have crumpled to the ground after his killer snapped his neck."

Nodding again, Serena scribbled something in her notes.

"I'm wondering why they didn't take the drugs," Jim murmured.

Pursing his lips, Jim scanned the area. Whoever was responsible for Royal Creed's death had not only left behind the drugs, but had scattered the dark powder around the alleyway, grounding it into the dirty asphalt.

"We got some samples," Serena was saying, drawing Jim back from his perusal. "At first glance it looks like Hades, but after some tests, we'll know for sure."

"Can you get those results to me this morning?"

"Yes, Detective," she replied, rolling her eyes at the usual request. "I will do my best." She stood, then crossed to the other side of the alley.

Smiling, Jim rose and searched for his partner as forensics worked on closing up their examination, looks of consternation on their faces. He caught a glimpse of Blair talking to a sandy-haired youth at the mouth of the alley. A bike with an empty cloth bag hanging across the handlebars leaned against a nearby wall. Moving in that direction, Jim extended his hearing to pick up the conversation.

"...that's when I found the body," the kid's adolescent voice warbled between youth and manhood. He squeezed his tired eyes shut. "When I woke up this morning and found my car had a flat tire, I just knew it was going to be one of those days, know what I mean?"

Blair smiled, nodding. "But the body wasn't here when you began your route?"

"No, sir, but it was kinda dark still. Way too early, my Mom keeps tellin' me, but with school and all, it's gotta get done, you know what I mean?"

Hiding another smile, Blair peered over his shoulder just as Jim walked up. "Pete Gaskill, this is my partner, Detective Ellison," Blair introduced. "Pete was finishing his morning paper route when he came across the body."

"What time was that, Pete?" Jim asked, glancing over his partner's shoulder to try and interpret Blair's scrawls on the new page of his notebook. How Blair could read his own writing continually amazed Jim.

"Well, I guess I found the body about seven. But like I told Detective Sandburg, I rolled through here at five and I didn't see anything in there on my way through. It was kinda dark, but I didn't see any movement so I just kept going."

"Do you always check the alleyways while you're doing your route?"

Pete looked up at Jim in total shock, his pointy chin dropping. "Are you kidding, man? Do you know where we are right now? Not even my mom knows that I do this route."

"Why did you take this particular paper route, Pete?" Blair asked, honest concern in his voice. "Southside has never been called safe."

Nodding in understanding, scrubbing at his head with one finger, Pete replied, "Man, I know what you mean."

Blair and Jim exchanged amused glances at the kid's fondness for that phrase.

"This particular route pays good, though. Not only do I get a larger percentage of the money I collect..." he leaned forward, looking around anxiously, "...toughest collection in the business, know what I mean? But I also get an extra amount just for taking the route. Guess to me it's worth it. Gotta get my mom and me out, you know what I mean?"

Jim did know what he meant, although he wished the kid would stop asking. Blair reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a business card, scrawling something on it before he handed it to the kid.

"You remember anything else, Pete, be sure to give me a call at either of those numbers, okay?"

Pete took the card and nodded, grabbing his bike.

"Whoa there, kiddo. Let's get a uniform to take you home," Jim said, touching the boy's shoulder, confirming the shaking his eyesight had picked up on. The boy's heart was going way too fast. One look at Sandburg told him that his partner had picked up on it as well, even without heightened senses.

Blair waved a uniform over. Getting the boy situated and safely on his way home, smiling at the kid's mumbling about how was he going to explain all of this to his mom, Blair remained by the police car until it pulled away. Once the car had disappeared, he wrote something down in his notebook, then closed it, looking up at Jim.

"Quite the kid," he muttered, then flashed a smile. "Know what I mean?"

Returning that infectious grin with one of his own, Jim good-naturedly clipped the side of Blair's head with one hand. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

Turning from his partner, Jim scoured the area one more time. The body of Royal Creed had been removed and the coroner's van had left, along with the forensics team. Yellow tape still hung at both entrances to the alley, and would remain there until the investigation was officially over.

"Man, I remember watching Creed two years ago during the play-offs," Blair said as he followed close behind Jim. "He ran two seventy-yard touchdowns in that one game. Fastest feet alive."

"Obviously not fast enough," Jim murmured, opening his eyesight to search the shadowed corners of the alley. After searching one side, he started up the other, back towards his truck. Vaguely he was aware of his partner behind him, staying close but far enough back to keep out of the way.

"Anything?" Blair asked quietly.

Shaking his head, he suddenly stopped. "Hold up a sec." He knelt down beside a grungy wall, careful not to touch anything. "You got latex on you, Chief?"

Pulling out a glove and handing it to Jim, Blair crouched beside him. "What have you got?"

"Maybe nothing," he replied as he snapped on the glove and carefully searched through a pile of foul-smelling rags. With a grunt of astonishment, he turned to his partner, holding up something between his thumb and forefinger.

It glinted in the pale sunlight filtering through the alleyway, but it looked like an earring, a silver stud that had some kind of design on the face.

"There's blood on this," Jim murmured, motioning Blair to open up a forensics bag. Before dropping it into the bag, he jerked a bit in recognition, dialing up his eyesight to focus even deeper on the design. "Well, I'll be..."

"What is it, Jim?"

Dropping the earring into the bag, he looked up at his partner, jaw clenching for a moment in thought. "I recognize the design on that earring, Chief." Standing, he pulled off the latex and slipped it into the bag along with the stud before Blair closed it. "It's a crouching tiger. Mean anything to you?"

Blair shrugged. "Not really, but it does to you?"

Grimly nodding, Jim replied, "Philemore Angstrom."

********************

"So spill it, Jim. You've been silent all the way back here, man. Who is this Philemore Angstrom?"

Jim peered at his partner across the conference table in the captain's office. They were waiting for Simon to return with news of a warrant that would allow them to search the Angstrom manor. Mid-morning sunshine streamed in through the windows, the blinds drawn halfway up. Blair sat with his back to the windows, his curly, shoulder length dark hair drawn back by a band; wide, expressive blue eyes studied his partner closely. More and more Blair was looking and acting the part of a detective. Gone were the jeans with rips in the knees and grunge shirts - except on their days off or relaxing back at the loft. Even wearing his curly hair down around his shoulders while at work had been replaced with the cleaner looking ponytail. And the earrings in his left lobe had disappeared.

A part of Jim missed that appearance - mostly because he knew the pain his friend had experienced these past few years had been the reason for the change.

Running one hand over his short-cropped hair, Jim asked, "You haven't heard of him?"

Blair shook his head. "Should I have?"

"He's got several businesses in Cascade and Seattle as well as Oregon and California. Supposedly he's in the antiquities business, buying and selling around the world, acting as a broker for some of America's more wealthy families."

"A broker in antiquities?" Blair arched an eyebrow. "You mean he deals in the rare and expensive."

"Yup." Jim exchanged a knowing glance with his partner. "Among other things."

Blair tilted his head, obviously reading the meaning in Jim's words. "Like drugs?"

The look on Jim's face brought a smile to Blair's lips. "Why," Jim gasped, feigning outrage, "what would make you say such a disreputable thing, dear boy! I'll sue you for slander!" Wadding a piece of paper, he tossed it at Blair, hitting him on the head.

"So, how come you know so much about him?" Blair asked, bending over to retrieve the wadded piece of paper from the floor.

Jim's expression darkened. "Let's just say putting Angstrom down has been a hobby of mine."

"You've never mentioned him."

"He just got back to Cascade after a few years' sabbatical." He grimaced. "I've had a feeling that the latest wave of drugs may be his doing. However, even though Major Crimes is assisting on the investigations, the DEA and narcotics have stewardship of the case. And Angstrom has been declared off-limits without enough evidence to back up any allegations."

"We caught a lucky break, then, didn't we? Know what I mean?" Blair tossed the wadded piece of paper back at Jim, who caught it easily.

Both men grinned at one another.

Simon Banks entered the office. The tall, black man grumbled to himself, tossing a folded piece of paper at Jim then headed straight to his desk. Jim glanced at the paper, hiding a smile. How Simon managed to get this warrant with all its political ramifications was beyond him. How he had gotten it in such a short amount of time bordered on the miraculous.

"What did you have to promise to get this, sir?" Jim asked, standing, Blair following his lead. "Your son's firstborn?"

"None of your business," Simon snapped, grabbing one of his cigars and sticking it into his mouth, chewing on the end. "Just get out of here and do what I pay you to do."

Jim chuckled and headed for the door.

"Sandburg, you stay!" Simon barked.

Peering over his shoulder at Blair then at Simon, Jim paused. "Sir?"

Simon glared at Jim. "Did I say anything with the word Ellison in it? No, I did not. I believe I said Sandburg. Now, if you don't mind, disconnect the umbilical cord and get out. I've assigned Conner to assist you on this case. Now, go harass Angstrom." He sighed, closing his dark eyes and shaking his head. "Forget I used the word harass. I'm already in deep kimshy because of this."

Stepping forward, mouth open in shock, Jim motioned to Blair before the younger man could say anything. "What do you mean you've assigned Conner? Sir, Sandburg has..."

"Other responsibilities right now, Detective. Now, if you're done questioning your Captain's orders, leave!"

Blair placed a hand on Jim's arm, holding the taller man back from retorting. Full lips turned down in a frown, Blair glanced up at Jim then turned to face the Captain. Glaring at Simon over Blair's head, Jim turned to leave.

Opening the door, Simon's voice, soft enough that only Jim's heightened sense of hearing could pick it up, followed him out. "And no listening in, Ellison. That's an order."

Jaw clenched in irritation, Jim jerked a nod then shut the door, wondering what his rookie partner had done to incur the wrath of one Simon Banks.

Blair stood uneasily in front of the Captain, thoughts racing through his mind, trying to recall if he'd done anything to piss off any of the higher ups lately. Not able to recall anything, he began nervously twisting his hands.

Simon sighed heavily, settling back into his chair. The earlier expression of agitation softened as he peered up at Blair. "Have a seat, son."

Obediently, Blair pulled a chair forward. "Have I done something wrong, sir?"

Shaking his head wearily, Simon sat forward. "Nothing that I'm hoping can't be fixed," he replied, his voice even, touched with a softness that Blair recalled only hearing a few times before. Times that had led to trouble in Blairworld.

Leaning back in the chair, ignoring the queasy feeling in his gut, Blair ran a shaky hand over his hair, resting at the back of his neck to nervously twist the thick curls gathered there in a ponytail. "What now?"

"I've been asked to pull you off this case."

"I gathered that," Blair replied warily. "Why?"

"Apparently Rainier University has decided to sue the Cascade Police Department."

Blair's mouth dropped open, and he was certain his eyes had bugged out from his head. "You are kidding me! Why?"

"Why do you think, Sandburg?" Simon snapped.

It took a moment, but then it registered. And with that registering came anger.

Jerking out of his chair, Blair turned his back to Simon, pacing from the desk to stand at a far window of the office. His breaths came in quick, sharp gasps as he folded his arms and glared out at the bullpen, noticing Jim at Connor's desk. Even as Jim spoke to the auburn-haired inspector, his eyes traveled to Simon's office, meeting Blair's gaze. He started to stand, worry creasing his suddenly hardened features, but Blair's gesture with one hand stilled him. Just by the expression on his partner's face, Blair could read the questions. Shaking his head, he turned away, noticing as he did the wall of fury settling over Jim's face. Fury that would come out later, Blair was certain.

That damn dissertation again. That's what it had to be. How could Rainier do this? After all the years of loyalty and dedication he had given to that institution, choosing not to sue them because of the acts of the Chancellor during that fiasco, when he was well within his right to do so, they turn around and sue the police department?

"I don't understand, Simon," Blair admitted finally, purposely dropping the title he should have used. He needed to be talking to a friend right now, and with Jim firmly out of the picture because of the Angstrom case, Simon won the toss. "Why is Rainier suing the PD? You had nothing to do with that entire ordeal. It was all me."

"Somehow they've found a loophole that has enabled them to link you, the dissertation and everything involved with it to the PD." Simon peered intently at Blair, compassion in his dark eyes. "I'm sorry, Blair."

"Me, too, sir," Blair replied softly, eyes cast down.

Standing, Simon hesitated before he rounded the desk. "You don't understand, kid. I'm sorry, but I have to put you on suspension."

Jerking his gaze up at the taller man, Blair gasped. "What? Why? How...?" The look of utter disgust on the captain's face told Blair what he needed to know. As a student of human nature and how cultures evolve, and inadvertently studying the culture of the police department while working on the Sentinel dissertation, Blair had come to know how things operated politically. And this sucked. "I'm what you gave up in order for Jim to get the Angstrom warrant, is that it?"

Simon shook his head, leaning against the corner of his desk, a slight smile pulling at the corners of his full lips. "You amaze me, Sandburg, how you can put the most subtle things together and come up with the correct answer."

"I'll take that as a compliment, man." He swallowed, dropping his gaze once again.

"Angstrom is a big deal, Blair. That earring connects his organization with a murder. The DEA, narcotics, hell, even the FBI for all I know, have been trying to break through the 'legitimate' businesses of Angstrom's organization to link him to the underworld and the drugs that have been trafficking in the northwest, specifically this Hades stuff that's killing all these kids."

"Well, I'm glad I'm being sacrificed for a worthy cause." He sighed. "How long?"

"That's the part that stinks," Simon groused. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. "I understand you're suing Sid Graham and his publishing group for their part in the dissertation fiasco."

Blair nodded without looking up. That whole ordeal had happened over a year ago, and it had taken Jim six months of that time to convince Blair that he deserved some kind of recompense for the emotional trauma that Sid put him through. After all, it had been Sid who leaked the dissertation to the media even when Blair had repeatedly told him the dissertation was not to be published in any way, shape or form; he had also leaked some of the manuscript to Hollywood, causing offers of movies and television to pour in. Talking to a lawyer, Jim discovered that Blair was well within his right to bring a claim against the publishers. Because of them, Blair had lost his academic standing in the community, any chance of reclaiming years of hard work and any anthropological career he would have earned. His life had been dramatically altered.

Finally agreeing, with the understanding that any reward from the suit would go to a charity of Blair's choice, Blair worked with Jim's lawyer to begin the initial paperwork. No amount of talking, however, from the lawyer or Jim, could convince him to sue Rainier. He was too intimately connected; too much affection still remained for his alma mater. He had destroyed their reputation by defrauding his work; that was bad enough. Blair couldn't drag the University through something like this, no matter how right he was in doing so.

"It seems that Berkshire Publishing is, in turn, suing Rainier for their part in all of this."

"What?" A look of complete dismay crossed Blair's youthful features, dulling the blue eyes, causing a knot to form in his stomach. "I expected them to return the lawsuit against me. That's what the lawyer said the company would do."

"Apparently Berkshire Publishing didn't think you'd back off if they counter-sued."

"But they knew I would if Rainier was drawn into it. So, I sue Sid, he sues the school and the school sues the PD because I'm now an employee and officially worked as a consultant during that time." He shook his head, collapsing into a nearby chair. "This really sucks, man."

Leaning forward, resting elbows on his knees, burying his face into his hands, Blair took deep, even breaths, searching for a calm place that he could drown in. Anything to get away from the connections firing in his brain - knowing the truth of them before he even spoke.

"So, I'm relieved of duty until I decide to pull my suit, is that it?" Without even seeing him, Blair knew Simon was nodding.

"Rainier has promised that if you drop your suit against Berkshire Publishing, they'll drop the suit against us."

"And then I can be reinstated?" He looked up, dropping his hands to hang between his knees.

"That's supposed to be the deal," Simon agreed. "But it may be a bit more difficult than that."

Sitting back, Blair rubbed his eyes wearily. What else? "Why?"

"Don't jump to conclusions yet, Sandburg. You need to trust me when I say I'm going to work my ass off to clear this whole mess up, but a friend in the commissioner's office has alluded to you being..." He paused then took another deep breath, plunging onward. "Well, permanently dismissed because of your..."

"Past," Blair finished for him. He couldn't believe it. "So much for sharing Jim's secret."

In order to permit Blair acceptance into the police academy despite the fraud label he carried, with the eventual admittance to Major Crimes, Simon and Jim had gone straight to the police commissioner and revealed the truth behind the Sentinel dissertation. With the commissioner's assurance that the secret would remain locked within his walls, and his appreciation of Blair's role in Jim's outstanding service of the past several years, Blair had been allowed entrance into the academy. Apparently, though, the commissioner's understanding wasn't enough to assure security in his new career.

"I'll get to the bottom of this, Sandburg," Simon stated firmly, his voice edged with a coldness that made Blair glad he wasn't the target...for once. "Trust me."

"I do trust you, Simon." He sighed. "It's the system I don't trust." He stood. "Man, I need to get out of here." Passing Simon, heading straight for the door, he almost had it open when Simon called his name.

"I need your badge and gun, son."

Closing his eyes against the impending doom those words produced, Blair swallowed noisily, his mouth suddenly dry. Wishing for Jim's ability to cut off pain, Blair reached around to the small of his back and unsnapped the weapon and holster hooked to his belt. He had spent his entire life opposing guns in any form. Even as an observer, acting as Jim's partner and back up, he had refused to carry a weapon. It had all worked out, though. Between the two of them they had still managed to capture the bad guys without Blair having to use a gun. Well, almost. There were those times when Jim had handed his over to Blair. But those had been extreme cases, and Blair had been willing because the need meant life or death of an innocent.

After graduating from the police academy and receiving a citation as a sharpshooter, something that surprised everyone except for Jim, Blair had worked hard trying to get used to carrying a weapon. Now that he had to give it up, it hurt more than he thought possible.

But not as much as losing the badge. Too much deep soul searching had gone into his decision to become a cop. Once the decision had been made, Blair put all of his energy into his new career, graduating from the academy top of the class. When the gold badge had finally been laid in his hand, it had been a gift more precious to him than the master's degree hanging in his bedroom.

Placing the gold badge carefully on the edge of Simon's desk on top of the revolver, he started for the door again, pausing once it was open.

"This really sucks, Simon," Blair muttered without looking at the captain. With that, he walked away, closing the door on the only future he had left.

********************

It took physical effort for Jim to keep from rushing into Simon's office when Blair had looked at him through the office windows. Pain dampened his partner's usually vibrant eyes, creasing the high forehead. They communicated without words, Jim questioning if Blair needed him to be in there, Blair gesturing for him to remain still. Despite Simon's surliness, Jim would defy whatever orders he had to in order to be where his partner needed him most. When Blair looked away, Jim felt an ache of loss he didn't understand. Schooling his features, he dropped his gaze, only to be met by the concerned dark eyes of Megan Conner.

"Is everything all right, Jim?" she asked, her Australian accent strangely comforting as she leaned forward in her chair and touched his arm. "Is Sandy all right?"

Jim shrugged, his gaze returning to Simon's office, watching as Blair slumped into a chair, burying his face into his hands. That's it. Standing, he started towards the office but stopped short at the call of his name.

"I've got the prelim on the forensics findings," Henri Brown called, scanning the open folder. "Man, I do not envy you and Hairboy on this one. They found very little, but that brown powder definitely is the same stuff found in all those kids."

Jim snatched the folder out of Henri's grasp and turned to his desk, grateful for something to divert his attention from what was happening in Simon's office. Megan followed, laying a hand on Henri's arm when the usually cheerful detective glared at Jim. She motioned towards Simon's office, waiting for Henri's gaze to follow. When he noticed Blair, rising and starting towards the door, the kid's face filled with anguish, his smile fell.

Quietly he and Megan watched as the door opened.

"This really sucks, Simon," Blair's quiet voice carried through the noisy bullpen.

Slowly, Blair shut the door to the office, lowering his head as he walked forlornly by Henri and Megan, ignoring their greetings. Jim stood as Blair approached, but the younger man merely reached for his jacket from the coat tree behind Jim's desk and turned to leave the bullpen. Jim grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back around.

"Chief?"

"I'll see you at home, Jim," Blair murmured, wrenching his arm free of Jim's firm grip and left the bullpen. Out in the hallway he didn't wait for the elevators. Instead, he strode straight to the stairwell and disappeared.

Grabbing his own jacket, Jim started after Blair, vacillating between concern and fury, his hearing dialed up, tracking Blair down the echoing stairwell. The beating of Blair's heart quickened, his breathing coming in quick, sharp gasps until a sob was choked back.

"Ellison!" Simon's bark drew him up short, forcing Jim to hunch over in pain, hands blocking his ears, desperately trying to dial down his hearing.

Jerking around, jaw clenched, brows creased in irritation, he snapped. "What!"

Simon crossed the area, glaring at the detectives standing around watching the display. Cowed by that glower, everyone suddenly found something very interesting on their desks.

"Leave it alone, Jim," Simon advised, his voice low. He stood right by Jim, standing taller by several inches. Normally the height difference didn't matter. At this moment, however, it only served to irritate Jim more, as though Simon was using his bulk to intimidate him.

"What's going on, Simon?" Jim demanded. "Why is Sandburg going home, and why have you assigned Conner to a case that my partner and I have started?"

Simon rested one large hand on Jim's shoulder, his features softening, placating. Shoving off the touch, Jim turned and left the bullpen, intent on going after his partner. If Simon wouldn't give him answers, Blair would. His captain was right behind him.

"You have a case to finish investigating, Jim. It's more important than anything right now." He followed Jim into the hallway and grabbed Jim's arm.

"No, sir." Jim spun to face his friend, anger finally winning out and expressing itself with one finger shaking in Simon's face. "Did you see the look on that kid's face, Simon? I'm sorry, but right now nothing is more important than finding him and..."

"And what, Jim?" Simon interrupted, his voice out-bellowing Jim's. "And fix whatever's wrong? You can't do that! It's not in your power. It might be in mine. So let me do my job!"

The two glared at one another, both breathing heavily, their noses barely touching. The air hung like fire around them, but not even that heat could melt the ice in their eyes. Movement in the corridor came to an abrupt halt, conversation died as officers and civilians alike witnessed the clash. Noting the stillness, Simon was the first one to back down. With a sigh, he stepped back, shoulders slumping. Gazing around the corridor he noticed with satisfaction that people had started to move again...rather quickly.

"Jim, you need to trust me on this one. You'll find out soon enough, but the price we paid to get that warrant is too costly for you to just toss it to one side."

Jerking as the impact of those words broke through the anger, clearing the rage from his mind, Jim straightened, his face melting. Quickly his mind worked through the conversation until the meaning of what Simon had said became clear.

"Why?" he gasped. "Why sacrifice Sandburg?"

"Because that's who they wanted," Simon sighed, his tone dejected. "Angstrom is too important to lose right now."

"So is Blair," Jim responded quietly.

********************

He hated this. Shutting down the cell phone against his leg, Jim's expression darkened. No answer at home, no answer on the cell phone - where else could Blair go?

To add to everything, while Blair was who knew where, sulking over whatever it was that had won the warrant and maybe a chance to knock out a pipeline of narcotics in Cascade, Jim was driving towards the Hills to meet with one of the most powerful men in the northwest. He hated the Hills, hated everything they stood for. The well-manicured lawns and ostentatious manors overlooked Cascade as though they were the nose and everything else was beneath them. He growled.

He needed to find Sandburg, not play polite with the rich.

"I'm sorry if I'm bothering you," Megan interrupted Jim's thoughts, looking up from the file in her lap.

Jim shook his head. "Keep reading."

Megan sighed, dropping her gaze to the forensics report she had been perusing. "It says the powder they found at the crime scene is the same as found in the systems of those kids whose murders we've been investigating. Combination of coke laced with LSD and some other non-distinguishable alloys. Nothing on the legal side, naturally. Definitely Hades, though." She looked up. "So what was a former football star doing with a bag of that dung?"

"That's what we're here to find out, Conner," Jim snapped impatiently, rounding another corner and steering the car up a hill of ideal grass on either side, lined with perfect trees. His scowl deepened.

"You know, Jim, I'm not the enemy here. So cut me a break." She slammed the file shut and glared out the passenger window.

Sighing, Jim's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Conner."

Shifting in the passenger seat, she reached out and touched his arm. "I know you're worried about Sandy, Jim. It'll be okay. One thing I've learned about you Yank peacers is that you care for your own. Simon'll figure something out." She paused, her dark brows creased in thought. "Whatever it is," she added as an afterthought.

Pursing his lips, Jim nodded, but he didn't feel so certain inside. It wasn't Simon he was worried about. Years of serving under the man and deepening their friendship had taught Jim one thing about Captain Banks - he defended his people. He'd go to the mat for any one of them, and Jim knew it would be no different with Blair. But the feeling he got from Simon was that the order came from higher up. And whoever that higher up was had used the warrant, which would have eventually come through anyway, as bait to get at Blair.

Something inside told Jim that it had something to do with that damn dissertation.

"Here's the street," Megan pointed out softly.

A wrought iron fence crowned a river rock wall, sufficiently blocking view of the rolling estate beyond. They followed that wall for a quarter of a mile before the gate came into view, the address etched in gold on the gatehouse. As he steered the blue and white truck up to the gatehouse, Jim banked his still simmering emotions. He needed to be on his toes, and thinking about his partner wasn't going to make that possible. He threw a glance at Connor.

"You remember everything Blair told you about me?" Jim asked, wanting to make certain that Connor didn't freak when Jim started using his senses.

"Of course. Don't worry about me."

Nodding, Jim edged the truck forward, rolling down the window with one hand as he guided the steering wheel with one knee and searched for his badge with his other hand. A tall man stepped out of the guard shanty, dressed crisply in a dark, double-breasted suit, a scowl on his face.

"May I help you?" he asked, dipping his head enough to peer at Megan, eyebrows lifting appreciatively as she smiled at him, then let his gaze trail along the scratched and dented truck, disapproving.

Jim flashed the badge. "We're here to see Mr. Angstrom."

"Have you an appointment?"

Looking at Megan with an all too well known expression of "here we go again", Jim schooled his features into one of patient tolerance before he gazed at the man again with a sigh.

"Do I need one?"

"Mr. Angstrom is entertaining guests," the guard replied haughtily. "You will have to make an appointment and return another time."

Before the guard could turn back to the shanty, Jim reached out toward Megan with one hand. Wordlessly she handed over the folded document.

"While you're alerting Mr. Angstrom that we're coming in," Jim said, opening the document and shoving it out the driver side window so the man could see, "why don't you tell him that we're visiting legally."

Scanning the warrant, the guard looked up at Jim, then back down at the paper. Murmuring, he turned and pressed a button. "I'll be sure to have someone meet you at the door."

"You do that," Jim replied sarcastically, steering the truck through the opening gates. He handed the document back to Megan. "Here we go," he sighed.

It took several moments to reach the front of the grand manor that stood at the head of a circular driveway. A trellis edged with climbing ivy greeted them as they exited the truck and headed up a rather long walkway to the vast double doors. A stone lion sat at each side of the arched, covered entrance.

"Opulent," Megan noted, looking around the area.

"Yeah," Jim grunted, pressing the doorbell.

Before the chimes finished a man twice Jim's weight and taller than even Simon opened the door. Dressed in a similarly tasteful elegance as the guard at the front gate, the man scowled at Jim and Megan. One meaty hand reached out, the fingers motioning. Reading his request, Megan pulled out the warrant and laid it in the man's hand. With a tilt of his bald head, he stepped aside, ushering the detectives inside.

"Mr. Angstrom is with guests," the man said in a deep, booming voice "You will have to wait to see him."

"Oh, we really don't need to see him," Jim replied scanning the entryway with detached interest. "We can always just search the manor."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," a female voice stated firmly.

Stepping around the monolith in GQ, a woman came into view, arms hanging relaxed at her sides. Garbed in a dress suit that gathered in all the right places, announcing to the world that she was most definitely a woman with a fine figure, she stopped beside the gargantuan. Only her stormy gray eyes gave away her surprise. And recognition.

"Well, well, Detective Ellison," the woman greeted somewhat warmly, reaching out to shake his hand.

Jim took the proffered, uncertain how to proceed. Megan noticed the hesitation. A glance from Jim silenced any questions she may have asked.

"I see you don't know who I am. Of course not. Julie Cabe. I'm Mr. Angstrom's Chief of Security, and he's warned me about you."

Still confused, Jim nodded slowly. "What happened to Pike?"

A dark scowl crossed Julie's face then, warning off that line of questioning. "Mr. Pike left Mr. Angstrom's employment yesterday."

Jim started at that. No one left Angstrom's employment willingly. He thought back to the forensics report, the blood on the earring he had found. Remembering to have Serena run a comparison against Pike's blood, Jim stepped closer to Julie Cabe, staring down at her.

"And he hired you."

"Promoted...from within." Her face remained passive, but the gray eyes flashed a warning at him. Eyes he had learned to read that combined with the fragrance of the perfume he knew so well hanging about her like a shroud. It always reminded him of daffodils in the spring. "Mr. Angstrom is rather busy for the next several months, Detective Ellison, perhaps I can assist you with your warrant? Or perhaps you two could meet at some prearranged time and location?"

That last question struck a familiar chord. With one look at the neanderthal standing protectively over the much smaller woman, Jim backed up, motioning for Conner to head for the door. The look of disbelief she leveled at him spoke volumes, but thankfully she obeyed.

"Appreciate the offer," Jim replied nonchalantly, still eyeing the woman. "Maybe another time? I'll be in touch."

As the monolith stepped in front of Julie Cabe, Jim noted the sly wink from the woman in his direction, then a furtive nod. With an understanding born of experience, Jim snatched the warrant from the man's hand, turned and guided Megan back to the truck.

"What was that all about?" Megan demanded as she climbed in.

"Let's talk about this when we get to the precinct, just in case they have lip readers among all their other pit bulls." Starting up the truck, Jim glanced back only once.

What was she doing there?

********************

"So why is it that the DEA, Narcotics and the FBI don't know about a Vice officer undercover in Angstrom's organization!?"

Simon had been yelling into the speakerphone for nearly fifteen minutes now, and Jim winced as the captain's voice rose in pitch.

"Officer McCrae's position in the organization happened completely by chance, Simon," the light tenor of Captain Henderson replied from the speakerphone. His voice sounded weary. Jim didn't blame the man. He'd had Simon yelling at him before - it tended to be draining.

"And this happening has been going on how long?"

A pause. Jim grimaced again. "Three months," Captain Henderson replied, his voice suddenly weak around the edges.

"Why haven't you informed all the necessary parties?"

"I didn't know Major Crimes was considered one of the necessary parties."

"That shouldn't matter, Henderson. No one has been alerted!"

As Simon started in again on the man, explaining the current Hades investigation and the sudden link between it and Angstrom, Jim's mind wandered to the woman who had surprised him at Angstrom's manor.

Joli McCrae.

They had worked together in Vice, she being in the department only a few months when Jim had arrived. Although quite a bit younger than Jim - what was she now, thirty-one? - and quite a bit shorter, she had held her own against every one of the other officers, barreling her way into a spot of respect. He had nicknamed her "Rambo"; she called him "Elly", the only person alive he allowed to do that. Joli had saved his life more than once, and he had reciprocated. By the time Jim had left Vice, she had been made sergeant and had been offered an administrative position in the department. She refused. No wonder. She was good at what she did, and she loved working the streets.

Once he transferred to Major Crimes, he had kept tabs on her and her two brothers, who were also cops, but had lost regular contact with her over the years. Joli McCrae. He shook his head, disbelieving that they could meet up again under such extreme circumstances.

The sound of Simon slamming the phone brought Jim from his musing. "I thought you were on speakerphone."

"I was!" Simon roared. "Pressing the release button just doesn't give the kind of farewell that is required sometimes." He sighed wearily, pulling off his glasses and rubbing his eyes.

"So, what's next?" Megan asked from her seat at the conference table.

"DEA is arranging a meeting of concerns," Simon replied sarcastically. "I'm headed over there right now." He looked up at Jim. "Are you certain you understood McCrae correctly? Pike is dead?"

"Sir, no one leaves Angstrom's employment on their own. He's dead all right."

"And forensics came up with a match on the blood from the earring with Pike's blood type," Megan offered. "But why kill him?"

"Because he messed up," Jim offered, finally turning from his scrutiny of the bullpen. "Every one in Angstrom's employment has the earring. It acts as their identity card. Pike must have lost his during the struggle with Creed. Can't hide a torn lobe."

"So Angstrom offs his Chief of Security," Simon continued.

"And Joli gets promoted," Jim finished. He grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair. "I gotta go."

"Where do you think you're going?" Simon demanded, standing and reaching for his own coat.

"I've got an errand to run and then I'm going to find Sandburg." Tension immediately filled the room as Jim glared at Simon. "He hasn't been answering his cell phone or the loft phone, Simon. I don't know where he is, but I'm going to find him."

Sighing heavily, Simon rounded his desk, pulling on his coat at the same time. He stood beside Jim, noting the clenched jaw, the defensive stance. Placing a large hand on Jim's shoulder, he pulled Jim's gaze up, locking onto it.

"Just remember," he said softly, "trust me, okay?"

After a moment, Jim nodded woodenly.

********************

Gateland Zoo had been closed for several years now, but it still stood as an icon of decades gone by. Soon it would be renovated and reopened as a Historical Monument. But today, in the late afternoon sunlight, it stood stark and bare.

During a case where Jim had acted as back-up for an undercover Joli, they had arranged their meets at this place. At the back of the zoo, in a wall of stone that had once surrounded the lion's den, mortar had broken away, disintegrating under the pressure of the thick root system of a large tree growing outside the wall. Brush had grown up around the hole, but Joli had managed to come across it while hiking around the hills surrounding the site. Luckily, no one had found the secret entrance, and Jim had managed, yet again, to squeeze through the tiny opening, not even tearing his clothing this time.

He waited silently on the stone steps of the den, his mind going over the events of the day as he waited for Joli's appearance. At Angstrom's manor Joli had mentioned a "prearranged meet" - for those not privy to the secret code, they would have believed she spoke about meeting with Angstrom. For Jim, however, he knew exactly what she meant...and exactly where to go.

So he waited, part of his brain on the case, the other on trying to figure out the whereabouts of his wayward partner. Maybe Blair was home and just not answering the phone, probably deep in some meditation, listening to those aboriginal drums of his again. From the pained look on his face when he left the bullpen this morning, some meditation was needed. He'd probably be burning sage, too. Jim's nose itched at just the thought of it. He hated sage. But if it helped his partner right now, he'd deal with it.

A soft sound touched Jim's dialed up hearing, and he stood, weapon already in his hand. Piggybacking his eyesight onto his hearing, he aimed in the direction of the sound, holding his breath until the lithe form of Joli McCrae pushed through the brush at the stone wall and crawled through the space. Letting out his breath, Jim relaxed.

Standing, brushing off dirt and debris from her business suit, Joli peered up at Jim, her eyes narrowing against the glint of sunshine. Then a smile flashed across her pretty face, igniting gray eyes that managed to reflect every emotion the woman possessed, and cross the spectrum of intense colors to match her moods. Her eyes matched her abilities, managing to change into whatever personality needed to be safe while undercover, and do her job well enough to catch the bad guy. That's why she fit so perfectly in Vice.

"Mind if we meet a little lower?" Joli asked, gesturing for Jim to join her down in the lowest terrace of the den. "The walls will act as shielding from any prying eyes."

Glancing around the area, heightening his vision to make certain no unwanted guests were watching them even now, Jim climbed down from his spot to stand beside Joli. "Would there be prying eyes? I thought you were Chief of Security."

Joli nodded. "I am, but the promotion only happened this morning." She made a face. "Technically I'm still on probation, but I've proven myself enough that when Pike..." Shaking her head, she paused. "This has something to do with Pike's disappearance, doesn't it?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

Rolling her eyes, Joli sighed. "Don't go all Joe Friday on me, Elly. Be straight with me."

"Like your department has been with us, right?" He grabbed Joli's arm and jerked her back to face him when she moved to turn away. "Vice knows we've been investigating these drug deaths, Joli. It's been in the press."

"But there is no connection to Angstrom!"

"There is now." Reaching into the inside pocket of his coat, Jim retrieved a rolled up photograph and shoved it at Joli. "Do you know who this is?"

The blood drained from Joli's face as she took the photograph in shaking hands. Slowly she sank onto a boulder, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Royal Creed," she gasped.

Jim squatted in front of Joli, worried about the woman's reaction. "Joli?" He touched her knee, drawing her pained gaze up to his.

"I wondered what happened to him," she whispered, looking at Jim quickly, but dropping her gaze back down to the picture. "I didn't know."

Shifting to sit beside her on the boulder, Jim leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "Tell me."

"Royal worked for Alexander Vambrose. Vambrose is a..."

"Drug dealer out of Louisiana," Jim finished. "I know - I've heard of him. But what was Royal doing working for a drug dealer?"

Joli ran shaking fingers across her forehead, tucking dark curls behind one ear, a nervous habit Jim had yet to see her break. "Bad debts, something like that. He hooked up with Vambrose down in Lousiana. Shortly after I started working for Angstrom, Royal and I met up - completely on accident. I had heard that he worked for Vambrose, who is a close associate of Angstrom. Royal seemed really jumpy, out of sorts. I managed to earn his trust. He wanted to break out of his arrangement with Vambrose. Apparently all these deaths lately have been giving him nightmares."

"This new drug, then, it's coming out of Louisiana?"

Joli nodded. "I'm not privy to actual information, Jim. Like I said, I'm still on probation. Everything I know is all second and third hand, nothing concrete. I was hoping this new position would allow me access to more information. But, from what I can piece together, Vambrose buys the ingredients from China, it's put together in South America and is shipped to Louisiana. He sends it out from there."

"So he's Angstrom's source."

"And Angstrom is his pipeline to the northwest. Vambrose won't sell to anyone else."

"What happened then?"

Sighing, Joli slumped forward, burying her face into her hands, taking deep breaths. When she straightened, her face was flushed. "Royal was to meet with Pike last night at midnight in an alley off of Seventh and Overton..."

"That's on the north side," Jim mused aloud.

"...Royal told me everything. We arranged for him to meet me at a different location after the sale. He was going to bring me the money and I was going to take him and the money in to Vice. He'd be an eyewitness that would put Angstrom's men at a drug buy. It would be only a hop and a skip to get the necessary warrant to search Angstrom's properties."

"But Royal didn't show up."

Joli shook her head, curling a lock of hair behind an ear. "We were to meet up at twelve-thirty. By one I got worried and set out to find him, but I got beeped by Angstrom and had to go in. Immediately I was put in as Chief of Security and I was stuck at the manor all day making certain Angstrom wasn't disturbed. I never even saw a newspaper. Once my duties were over tonight, I was going to do some investigating." She paused, frowning. "Guess I don't have to now."

Jim lay a consoling hand on her back, waiting for Joli's quickly beating heart to calm. "It wasn't your fault, Joli."

I promised him everything would be all right, Jim. He trusted me." She paused, taking in a slow deep breath and let it out gradually. Her voice shook when she spoke again. "Do you know what it's like to have that kind of trust, Jim? Someone relying on you for their very life?"

Jim didn't answer, but he did understand. Perfectly. When she took another deep breath and let it out, her shoulders no longer quivering, he removed his hand.

"You going to tell me how you got into his organization?" he asked.

A ghost of a smile crossed Joli's full lips. "I was on vacation down in California a few months ago and got involved in a skirmish. Didn't have my badge or gun, but I just happened to defend one of Angstrom's men." She shrugged, not looking at Jim. "I was hired."

The minute she started speaking, Jim knew she was lying. Even without the jump in her heart and barely trembling fingers, Jim could have figured it out. He knew Joli too well - his senses made up for the rest.

"Try again," he murmured. When her gray eyes jerked up to meet his, he returned the gaze with a sardonic smile. "I know you, Rambo. You don't go anywhere without your badge and gun, even on vacation to another state. And, how did you manage to set yourself up as Julie Cabe so quickly? I'm sure they ran your name before offering you a job. You couldn't have had enough time to set-up an alias before they ran the name."

Joli stood, but not before Jim saw the smile widen. As she stood there staring up into the darkening sky, arms folded, he could practically hear her thinking. When she finally turned to face him, the gray eyes had darkened, the full lips pressed into a thin line, her shoulders resolute.

"That's why you're the best, eh, Detective? Okay, I learned through one of my snitches that something was happening in California. I asked for leave, set up an alias - just in case," she added firmly, "and went. It was truly by accident that it all happened, Jim, really. But I was ready for it before I left, yes."

Standing, Jim placed his hands on Joli's shoulders, drawing her gaze up to meet his. "This is dangerous stuff, Joli."

"I can take care of myself, Jim."

"This is about Paul, isn't it?" Joli glared at him, but her silence was his answer. "Getting yourself killed is not going to bring your brother back, Joli."

"No," she growled, "but it will put away the man responsible for his death."

Taking her lightly by the shoulders, he forced her gaze upward. "Revenge will get you killed. Haven't you learned that lesson yet?"

Pressed thin lips revealed her agitation, darkening eyes her resolution. "It's not revenge, Jim."

"Then what?"

"Justice." She twisted from his grip, turned to leave then paused, letting out a heavy sigh as her head hung. "Angstrom has to be stopped, Jim."

"Agreed. But I'd hate to lose a good friend just to see that scum put away."

"Sometimes sacrifices have to be made," she replied in a quiet voice, making Jim expand his hearing just to catch it. With a shudder, she turned towards him again, the darkness gone, replaced with serenity. It always amazed him how quickly she could shed one persona for another.

An eyebrow arched in his direction. "Besides, it's you we should be concerned about."

That took him by surprise. "Why?"

"I understand you've not been playing nice with Mr. Angstrom." Her sultry voice was tinged with sarcasm, a glint of hardness in her expressive face. "He doesn't like you very much."

Jim scoffed at that, crossing his arms over his chest, leaning his weight on one leg. "I'm so ashamed," he replied sarcastically.

She grinned. "When he called me in after he returned from his meeting today, he complimented me on how well I handled everything while you were there. I hope you don't mind, I took credit for you leaving."

"I don't mind. I did leave because of you. Otherwise, we'd still be searching the manor." He paused. "The warrant is still good, you know. We could..."

"Jim," Joli interrupted, placing a hand gently on arm. "I am so close to winning his trust. It's been difficult, but I have a feeling that it's going to happen any day now. He's shrewd enough to keep his businesses and home outwardly clean of anything that would connect him to anything illegal. That's why Pike got himself killed. I know it's there, though. If I can get inside his trust, maybe I can find it so we can break him down." She peered up at him, pleading. "Royal's death could serve some purpose, Elly. It's put me in a place where maybe we can finally put Angstrom out of commission. Just give me some time, okay? A couple more days? If something doesn't happen then, I'll get out. You have my word."

Jim stood quietly, mulling over the conversation, watching Joli closely. Finally, he nodded. "Okay. Two days."

"Three."

Jim paused, then nodded. "Three days." Joli grunted in acceptance, nodding her head. "Then we come in. The warrant will remain good. We double-checked the blood type on the earring with Pike's on record. It's a match so I can guarantee you the warrant won't be going away."

"The earring," Joli muttered, her left hand reaching up to the silver stud glimmering in her own ear. "So that's what happened. Pike must have lost it while killing Royal." She grimaced. "I wonder what kind of death Angstrom arranged for that little mistake."

"Can you give us an idea of where we could look for Pike's body?"

"Hmmm?" Looking up, Joli broke free from her musing. "Oh, I'd wait until the tide rolls in again. His body will probably show up on the piers - if there's anything left."

Jim shook his head, amazed at the coldness in Joli's voice as she spoke. "We'll meet again in three days."

Nodding, Joli turned back to the decaying hole they had crawled through. Then she straightened. "By the way, I thought you got that anthropologist onto the force as your partner. What was his name?"

"Sandburg."

"Isn't he living with you also?"

Jim nodded solemnly.

"Then who was the pretty woman with you at the manor?" She peered over her shoulder, a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Following Joli through the hole, he straightened as he answered, watching as she pulled the brush over the hole. "Inspector Conner."

"Oh?" She grinned up at Jim as she stepped closer. "Something going on that I should be jealous about?"

Jim smiled, accepting the teasing for what it was. He had thought about starting a relationship with Joli, but their feelings for one another had led them in the direction of friendly flirting instead of a serious romance.

"Ouch. I don't think so. Let's just say Conner and I tolerate one another and leave it there. She's helping on the case while Sandburg is...working on something else. Temporarily." Touching Joli's nose with the tip of one finger, his smile broadened. "So no need to worry. You'll always be my only Rambo."

Smiling, Joli grasped the front of Jim's jacket and pulled him close, pressing her warm lips to his. He reciprocated the gesture, both hands resting lightly on her shoulders.

"You just make certain it stays that way, Elly," she replied when they parted.

Her gray eyes bored into Jim and in those eyes he glimpsed an anguish Joli's words didn't touch. She still mourned her brother.

"Joli," he began in a whisper. She must have known what he saw because instantly the gray eyes turned flat, cold; she glanced at her watch, and then studied the surrounding terrain.

"We need to go," she whispered, ducking quickly, pulling Jim down with her. "Angstrom's men will probably be by any moment."

Accepting that the moment was lost and vowing to do what he could to keep her safe until the time they could talk, Jim asked, "Still have a tail?"

She nodded. Touching her fingers to his lips, she mouthed "radar", and then "be careful" before she stretched up and kissed Jim lightly on the cheek. With one final glance, she moved and disappeared into the shadows.

Jim opened up his vision, scanning the area for clearance to move back to where he parked his truck. Through the darkness he made out a dark sedan slowly maneuvering the parking lot, two men in the front, each with an earring glinting in the setting sun. One held a miniature satellite dish, aiming it across the distance, earphones in his ears. He turned the dish back and forth, confirming that they had not overheard anything in particular, but still searched.

Shaking his head with an amused smile - the girl could still amaze him - Jim silently moved through the brush back in the direction of his truck.

********************

The minute Jim pulled into his usual parking place outside his building, his hearing picked up a steady heartbeat thrumming down from the third floor loft that he shared with Blair. Releasing a sigh, feeling strain flow from his shoulders, he exited the truck and entered the building, taking the stairs two at a time, anxious to see and talk to his partner. As he entered the loft, tossing his keys into the basket on the table beside the door, his nose immediately began to itch from the dissipating sage in the air. Not enough to sneeze, but enough to cause his eyes to water.

Blair sat on the floor in lotus position, his back perfectly straight, arms resting lightly on his legs. The soft pulsing of his favorite aboriginal music filled the loft, candles burning on the coffee table he sat behind. Usually Jim's entrance brought Blair out of his meditative trance, but this time the young man didn't even move.

Crossing the kitchen to the refrigerator, Jim pulled out a beer, popped off the lid, then leaned against the kitchen cupboards, watching his friend.

The shoulder-length curly hair that had been drawn back this morning now hung across Blair's strong shoulders. He had changed from professional attire into his favorite lounge clothes - a dark blue sweatshirt he had adopted out of Jim's throwaway pile some months before, and comfortable looking gray sweat bottoms. If Jim didn't know the day and year, he could have sworn he'd stepped back through time. It had been a while since Blair had drifted into such a deep meditation. That had disappeared along with the earrings and grunge look. Every now and then Jim would find Blair sitting lotus style in the middle of his bedroom, but he'd pop out as soon as he heard Jim walk by the French doors, keenly in tune to Jim through some mysterious connection as much as Jim was attuned to Blair through his senses.

A movement from the corner of his eye broke Jim's musings, and he watched as Blair stretched from his seated position, extending his hands to the ceiling as he arched his back. Several pops sounded and Blair sighed. Lifting the remote from the floor beside him, Blair turned off the music.

"Hey," he murmured, scooting to rest his back against the closest couch after blowing out the candles. His gaze remained forward, however, studying the view through the open shades of the balcony windows.

The sun had sunk beyond the horizon, the skyline of the city stark against the glowing reds and golds still gleaming in the sky. The lights of downtown began coming on, adding white twinkles to the view, some of the buildings reflecting the burnished colors of dusk. Jim sighed. He loved this time of day and the calm that accompanied the setting of the sun.

"Hey," Jim finally replied, crossing from the kitchen to sit on the arm of the couch next to Blair, ignoring one of his most adamant house rules.

They remained silent, watching as the sky darkened and the reds of dusk gave way to the azure of night and finally darkness, the twinkling of city nightlife replacing nature's spectacle. Jim started to move from the couch to turn on a light, but Blair stayed him with one hand on his knee.

"So what happened today?" Blair asked, dropping his hand to rest again in his own lap.

Sighing again, Jim drooped into the cushions of the couch, finishing off his beer. "I'd like to ask you the same thing."

In the darkness of the loft, with his eyesight dialed up, Jim could see Blair's eyes closed, his face lined with grief, breath blowing through his nose in harsh bursts. "I'm not..." He stopped, taking a deep breath and letting it out. "Can we not talk about that right now? Just tell me about Angstrom."

Not wanting an argument, Jim leaned his head to rest against the back of the couch. He explained the trip to Angstrom's, the events that followed, meeting up with Joli, and their subsequent conversation. By the time he had finished, Blair had left the floor and sat beside him on the couch, now facing him, fully intent on what Jim was saying.

"Do you trust her?" he asked when Jim had ended his narrative.

Shifting so he faced Blair, one arm resting across the back of the couch, he thought about that. It had been literally years since he had last seen Joli McCrae, much less worked with her. Had she changed so much that the trust she had earned could be set aside now? Or was she the same woman she had been then? It had to be the latter. At the zoo, seeing her, talking to her, being with her, Jim had experienced the same impression from her as he had all those times he had trusted his life to her care. Even the sick feeling in his gut warning him that the impulsion behind Joli's determination was revenge didn't squelch the trust he felt in her.

"Yeah," Jim finally replied. "Yeah, I do. Almost as much as I trust you." He returned Blair's grateful smile with one of his own.

"So what's the next step then?"

"First and foremost, we need to figure out why Pike killed Royal. We get that, and we get a lead that links Angstrom not only to the drugs but murder as well. As it is, the earring only links his men. We need hard proof against Angstrom himself."

He stood, pointing to the lights as he glanced at Blair. At Blair's nod, he flipped on a lamp and then continued to the kitchen, tossing the beer bottle. When he started back towards the living room, he paused, only slightly, but enough for Blair to notice and drop his face. Blair's eyes were red and puffy, his cheeks ruddy.

"Sandburg, what is going on?" Jim demanded, immediately returning to the couch. His friend had always worn his emotions on the sleeve, connecting quickly with victims and perps alike. But there was too much pain in the creases of the youthful face for Jim to casually toss this aside as normal. "Talk to me."

Taking a deep breath, Blair ignored Jim's outburst. "So, do you think Pike suspected that Royal was trying to trap him?"

Clenching his jaws with frustration, Jim glared at his partner. The pleading in those youthful blue eyes melted his resolve to get to the truth. However much he wanted to beat the kid and get some answers, it was too important to both of them to discuss this case...a case that Jim was suddenly working without his partner.

"I don't know," Jim finally muttered, settling back against the armrest of the couch, drawing one leg up. "If he did, though, why scatter the drugs?"

"Maybe Pike didn't like the quality of the Hades," Blair inputted. "That's a lot of money's worth if it was good." He thought a moment. "Didn't Joli say that Vambrose and Angstrom were tight?"

Jim nodded. "So tight that Vambrose won't sell the stuff to any other Northwest pipeline."

"Makes you wonder then."

"About what?"

"How Vambrose reacted when news got back to him."

Jim sat forward, staring at his partner. "Go on."

"Well," Blair continued, sitting back, his head tilting in thought. "No matter how tight the two are, millions of dollars worth of drugs being crushed into an alley pavement has got to put some kind of strain on the relationship. But what if that's what Angstrom wanted? What if Pike went there intending on killing the delivery guy anyway?"

"And scattering the drugs was a message to Vambrose?"

"That maybe Angstrom has another seller?"

The two men stared at one another, each lost in their own thoughts, knowing that the other was thinking in the same direction.

"Or maybe several," Jim murmured. "Joli mentioned that Angstrom has visitors. Not a visitor, but visitors, all at once. Maybe those visitors are willing to get rid of the middle man..."

"Vambrose," Blair supplied.

"And go straight to the guy who has all the connections in the Northwest."

"Not just the Northwest, Jim." Blair waited until Jim looked at him curiously. "Don't forget Angstrom's legitimate business. He buys and sells antiquities all over the world. How much do you want to make a bet that he's got connections worldwide."

"A worldwide drug market," Jim breathed, sitting back, stunned. He shook his head. "This is all based on speculation, of course."

"That's all we have."

Jim suddenly smiled. Reaching out, he good-naturedly tousled Blair's hair, his friend pushing back the curls that fell into his face. "I missed you today, buddy."

The smile crossing Blair's face suddenly stopped, then drooped. He stood and crossed to the kitchen. "Sorry I didn't have any dinner ready. What are you hungry for?"

Blair Sandburg, the quick-change-the-subject master. Jim shook his head. Following Blair into the kitchen, he watched as his friend ducked into the refrigerator.

"Tell me what's going on, Chief," he pressed, deciding now was the time to get things out in the open.

"We've got..." He paused, moaning. "Pretty much nothing." Straightening, he turned and flashed a grin at Jim. "What say we order out? I'll run to the store tomorrow."

Before Blair could walk past him to the phone, Jim grabbed the closest arm and swung his partner around to face him. "Tell me what the hell is going on, Sandburg, or I swear I will take you down to the precinct, sit you in the interrogation room and beat it out of you!"

Closing his eyes in the face of Jim's irritation, Blair seemed to wilt. "I've been suspended," he finally muttered, pulling his arm out of Jim's grasp and sagging against the kitchen island.

"I know that, just like I know you were sacrificed for the warrant. What I don't know is why!"

Breathing in deep, Blair slowly let the air out through his nostrils. "Do you remember when Jake said that there was a ninety percent chance that Berkshire Publishers would counter-sue?"

Jim nodded. He had accompanied Blair to every appointment with Jake Sutton, the lawyer friend of Jim's Dad who had agreed to represent Blair at a nominal fee. "He said they wouldn't have a legal leg to stand on if they did, but that you should probably expect it. Why?"

"Because they chose the other ten percent."

"What do you mean, they chose the other ten percent? What did they do?"

Moving away from Jim, Blair crossed to stand on the other side of the kitchen island - a natural Blair tactic; remove himself from the pain. Jim turned so they stood facing each other over the stove.

"They sued Rainier."

"What?" Jim demanded. "How can they sue Rainier? What for?"

"For not officially stating that my dissertation did not go through proper protocol. The dissertation was not submitted to my board, they didn't review it, and therefore it was not officially sanctioned by Rainier. But Rainier played a hand in heightening public awareness to the possibility that the diss would be reviewed for a Nobel."

"Therefore, instead of coming after you, because they knew they couldn't, they went after the school." Jim grinned. "Glad to hear it. I hope Chancellor Edwards fries."

Blair shook his head. "You don't get it, Jim. Rainier won't face this lawsuit alone. They know they can't come after me because I didn't submit the dissertation officially. So instead they're suing the police department because I officially worked as a consultant while writing the dissertation. Therefore, they're part of the fraud that shed such a poor light on the university."

"What? Come on, Blair, the PD had nothing to do with..." His voice trailed off as his eyes widened, the implications clicking into place. Blair must have read the expression on his face, because he merely nodded, knowing the exact moment when Jim understood completely. "You can't be suspended for that, Blair. You weren't on their payroll. Your role was purely voluntary. They have to know the school has no foothold there. The suspension would never hold up in court."

"Who says I'll take the PD to court, Jim?"

The desolation in his friend's face and voice clutched at Jim's heart, and he reached across the space between them to touch Blair's shoulder. "Blair, you can't let them do this to you."

Blair took a step back, moving from Jim's touch. Blue eyes, deepened with fear and weariness peered up at Jim, catching and holding his gaze. What Jim saw in those eyes made him ill. "I was the sacrifice, Jim, for Angstrom. We needed that warrant, and I was the price. They know me well enough to know that I would never put my own welfare ahead of getting that drug off our streets. They know that."

"Oh, man, Blair..."

"So there's only one thing left to do."

Jim's breath caught in his throat as he noted the stubborn set of Blair's expression despite the sadness in those damn eyes that reflected the soul of the man.

"What's that?" Jim asked in a low voice, surprised at the steadiness.

Blair backed up a couple of paces towards the French doors leading to his room. "Leave."

********************

The peace in Philemore Angstrom's office was shattered as the door swung open to admit his raging, ebony-haired Chief of Security. Gray eyes stormed as she charged towards his desk, hands knotted in fists. He remained calm in the face of that thunder, struck again by her loveliness and the power of her venom, and knowing that his calm would only enrage her more.

"Hello, Miss Cabe," Angstrom greeted the fiery woman amiably, shifting to relax in his chair.

Jaw clenching, Julie Cabe took a deep shuddering breath, obviously working on calming her rage. And just as quickly as it took for Angstrom to blink, the anger was schooled behind a face deceptively calm.

"Mr. Angstrom," she replied with that sultry voice that always managed to excite him. Even that voice belayed no evidence of the tempest from only seconds before.

"Is there a reason you've barged into my office, Miss Cabe?"

Angstrom loved watching this woman. She was a dichotomy of movement and emotions. Standing before his desk, dressed in the business suit he had seen her in earlier, she appeared relaxed, her features almost soft. But slight movements of her gaze around the room and the position of her arms and hands told Angstrom his new Chief of Security was ready for anything. He had no doubt that if someone tried to sneak through the door of the office, she'd have him on the floor before the person left the threshold. After three months of watching her, really watching her, Angstrom knew that it was not the mistake his compatriots thought it was to put her in Pike's place. They didn't trust her, but he was beginning to. Perhaps after this assignment, when she had proven complete loyalty to him, he could coerce her to step up their relationship to the next level.

Noticing his eyes had once again appreciated the curves and movements of Julie's legs, he quickly shifted his gaze back to meet the gray eyes. Dark eyebrows arched at him in question and the corners of her lips softened into a smile...an inviting smile?

If it had been an invitation, it quickly disappeared.

"I'd just like to know when I'll be able to leave the manor without being followed, sir."

The statement was spoken without challenge, the voice steady and bold. A smile formed on Angstrom's lips, controlling his reaction to that voice. He wanted this woman, more than he wanted any other he'd had; but if he was to enjoy her in his bed, he had to know of her loyalty. Being stabbed in the back during the throes of lovemaking did not a happy man make.

"As soon as you prove to me that you can be trusted."

She rolled her eyes at that, showing her impatience as she slumped into one of the chairs set in front of the desk. The slumping had caused the hem of her skirt to rise a little more than it should, but she made no movement to tug it down. Instead, she crossed her legs at the knees, causing the skirt to rise even higher. "Here I thought that once you made me Chief of Security I had that trust."

Forcing his eyes from the firm, well-muscled thighs sticking out beneath the hiked skirt of her business suit, Angstrom stood, rounding the desk and leaning casually against the front of it. "You have earned my trust...at least a portion of it. But I need a little more before you have all of it."

Tilting her head to one side, she cocked an eyebrow in his direction, curiosity glinting in the gray eyes. "And what do I have to do in order to prove that?" The sultry voice had returned, an almost purring touching the deep edges.

Angstrom swallowed, his body once again reacting to that voice. How could someone have such an effect on him?

He walked away, controlling the thoughts in his mind, returning to the present and the task at hand. Sauntering to the bar on the other side of the room, Angstrom pulled the stopper from a decanter and poured some burgundy into two glasses. Returning to the desk, he slid into the chair next to Julie, noticing with some disappointment that she had sat up straighter, the skirt pulled down to her knees. All business.

Like a professional, she had read the change in mood. Handing the drink to her, he watched as she peered at him over the edge of the glass as she took a sip. Crossing her legs at the knees once more, the skirt inching up higher, much to his delight, she settled the drink on one knee and shifted in the chair to face him.

Clearing his throat, Angstrom returned the curious look of this remarkable woman. "I left Cascade several years ago...actually, I was forced to leave because of a particular reason. I took care of one part of it, but there is still another part that causes me some concern. Now that I am back in town, in order to accomplish my goals I need that remaining reason taken care of."

Julie smiled at him, a feral cast touching the gray eyes that seemed to darken with the sudden shift in mood. "And what exactly do you want me to do?"

"Shut it down."

She nodded, taking another sip of the burgundy. Angstrom could see the mind working behind the schooled features. "I assume this reason has a name."

It was Angstrom's turn to smile. "His name is Detective Jim Ellison."

Nothing. No response. Julie's face remained perfectly calm, not a twitch, not a gasp. This woman was good. If she was a cop, she had to be one of the best. But Angstrom doubted she was a cop, not with the jobs he'd assigned her the past several months. This reaction only provided more proof. Now, if she would just cooperate then all the doubts of his cohorts and the niggling doubt in his own mind would be resolved.

Then he could start working on her physically.

"So, you want me to kill Detective Ellison?" she asked smoothly.

"If you would be so kind. He really is a pain in my ass and I'd like to be able to sit down without him causing me any more discomfort."

Julie paused a moment then lifted her glass and stretched across the space dividing them. Clinking her glass against his, the feral smile returned. "It would be my pleasure, Mr. Angstrom."

********************

Turning away from his roommate, wanting to get away from the expression on his face as well as the turn of the conversation, Blair paced into his bedroom and stopped right in the middle, his back to the door. There was nothing in here he wanted, nothing he needed, except to get away from Jim and the next words that would obviously tumble from Jim's frowning mouth. He didn't know how long he stood there before a movement from behind alerted him to the expected confrontation.

"What do you mean leave?" the voice behind him asked the anticipated question.

Blair couldn't face him. Instead, he scanned the room for something that would keep his eyes and hands busy. Deciding that cleaning the mess that was his room's constant state of existence was the only thing he could do, Blair began picking up dirty laundry from the floor and putting the items into the laundry bag set precariously on one chair.

"There is only one definition of leave in the English language, Jim," Blair replied as he busied himself. "It means to depart, to vacate one place, to relocate..."

"To quit." Jim's voice was harsh, cold, as he spoke the two words that pierced Blair between the shoulder blades and deflated his defiance.

With a sigh, Blair sank onto his bed, clothes still clutched in his hands, bowing his head. He had spent the better part of the day going through the spectrum of emotions in order to think clearly enough to come to a decision. When at last clear thinking had been achieved, only one option had remained. But the option left a cold void in the pit of his stomach and the words that Jim so firmly stated had been the very words Blair tried to avoid. Nonetheless, they were true. He was quitting. The strength drained from him. He suddenly felt very tired.

Jim strode purposefully into the room, crouching in front of Blair, taking the clothes in Blair's hands and tossing them across the room to land on top of the laundry bag. When his attention returned, Blair shuddered at the frost in his friend's light blue eyes.

"What do you want me to do, Jim? Work at Wonderburger? Maybe over at Car Shine? I can buff with the best of them." The gaze grew colder. Blair dropped his face into his hands. "When I lost the university, Jim, you gave me the chance for another future. One that I had been practically doing full time anyway." He looked up, meeting the frost with an affectionate smile. "Thank you for that, by the way. But now that it's been taken from me, too, what am I supposed to do?"

"You are not a quitter, Blair," Jim stated firmly. Dropping to rest on his knees, he reached out and took Blair by the shoulders, shaking him a little. "You are not a quitter!"

"I am tired of fighting," Blair admitted weakly, shoulders slumping under the weight that seemed to fall there. "I am so tired of fighting, Jim."

Jim's hands dropped to his knees as he gaped at Blair. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. Not from you. Not from mister hit-me-with-your-best-shot-and-I'll-be-back-in-your-face-before-you-know-it Sandburg. There is more fight in you than a mule, Chief. How can you possibly..."

"I'm tired of being the one sacrificed, Jim!" Blair jumped to his feet, the feeling of fatigue overwhelmed by sudden anger. Pacing the small room he continued. "The last few months at Rainier were not as easy as I let on. After the Ventriss thing, everyone watched me...the professors, the board members, Edwards. They kept a very close eye on what I did. Any wrong move and I was out. I'd lose everything. They were tired of my absences and Chancellor Edwards had it in for me. The minute I sneezed wrong I'd be dismissed!" Jim stared up at him, immovable, with no response, so Blair continued. "And now it's happening again. I'm under a microscope at the station, Jim. I have been from day one. Not just because the other cops couldn't believe that a rookie right out of the academy would make gold shield right away, but because a noted fraud had been allowed into the family." Angrily he drew quote marks in the air. "That's why I've tried to be so careful lately. With the lawsuit against Berkshire I just happened to give them a perfectly good reason to get rid of me. Otherwise, they would have found one!"

Coming to a halt, breathing heavily from the emotional outburst, Blair stared at Jim, who remained quietly immobile on the floor. When he finally spoke, Jim's voice was steady but soft.

"You knew what would happen when you defrauded your work, didn't you? You knew that you'd be dismissed."

Blair's mouth dropped open in shock and he gaped at his partner. "That is the only thing you got out of my entire tirade?" Throwing up his hands in disbelief he turned away and fell onto the chair at his desk. "Will you let the dissertation go, man? That thing between you and me, it's over, it's done. Yes, I knew what would happen, but I would do it again! I've got the brass ring, man! How often do I have to tell you that?"

A smile played at Jim's lips as he shifted from the floor to the bed. "Until we both believe it, I guess."

Slumping against the back of the chair, Blair sighed. He crossed his hands on the top rung of the back and rested his chin on them. "Or until the world lets it go," he muttered.

They remained silent, Blair staring at the floor, at the ceiling, anything except at his friend. Jim would ask him not to go, he'd ask him to let Simon fight the battle, to remain as long as it took to clear up things, but Blair knew better. He knew how things worked. Studying the rise and fall of civilizations had given him insight into the workings of the political mind. Simon would bluster and blow for however long the brass let him, but in the end, the decision would be the same.

"All of this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't forced you to put up that lawsuit," Jim grumbled.

Blair smiled at that. How typically Jim to shoulder the guilt. "Last time I looked, man, I'm an adult. You may have given me a pretty convincing argument, but it was my decision. Besides," he sighed again, straightening from his slouched position, "the brass would have found something else. If not the lawsuit, than maybe something in our casework. They want me out."

"C'mon, Blair, you make it sound like this is the end. You give up the lawsuit and that's it, they have nothing else on you."

Blair shook his head, the curls of his dark hair striking his cheeks. Brushing them back behind his ears, he explained, "Contacts in the commissioner's office have told Simon that even if I bow out of the lawsuit, I won't be reinstated. I guess I've just caused the PD too much embarrassment."

"That is a load of manure, Chief, and you know it."

"It really doesn't matter anyway, Jim. Maybe this is just what I need to make a fresh start, ya know? It's been five years since I've picked up. Now they're just giving me a reason."

When Jim didn't answer, Blair peered at his friend, who glared right back at him. "Is that what you want?" Jim asked quietly.

There was challenge in those eyes, but Blair knew Jim better than anyone. He had written in his dissertation that Jim the Sentinel was guided by fear. Jim had taken that wrong when he first read it. It wasn't fear as in being heart-pounding scared, run-away fear. Blair was all too familiar with that one.

No; it was fear as in seeing others hurt, or being hurt himself fear. Through the years Blair had learned to read his friend, realized that when the defenses went up and the clenching jaw started working was when Jim was trying to gain control over that fear. It was his greatest ally for it spurred him to do things that no one else would do. Fear made Jim Ellison the perfect Sentinel, the perfect Guardian of the Great City. But it also caused him the greatest grief.

At this moment it was the grief that set the eyes to blazing. And though his friend's pain shouldn't give him any kind of joy, Blair did feel certain warmth from it. Jim feared losing Blair. That touched the younger man deeply.

He thought about Jim's question. Did he want to leave? No, it wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to remain partners with Jim; he wanted this life for which he had sacrificed so much. Jim was his Sentinel, and abandoning him when things were now clicking so easily between them was not what Blair considered acceptable. They had worked too hard to become a well-working partnership. And more than that; though he had never outwardly acknowledged it, Blair considered Jim a brother. Leaving that behind now would make all the hard work worthless. And as far as Blair Sandburg was concerned, what he had now was not worthless.

The brass ring, Jim had called it. Take the brass ring. Jim had meant all the offers flowing in at the unapproved disclosure of the dissertation. There had been many...millions of dollars, movies, television, a Nobel! But those were nothing compared to the brass ring he finally did grab. A brass ring he wanted to cling to with every bit of strength he had.

The problem was, that strength to fight just didn't exist inside of him anymore.

"No, it's not," Blair finally whispered.

The relieved sigh that sounded from his partner's lips brought a real smile to Blair's face. "Good. Then we fight."

We. Blair slumped against the back of the chair again. We. If he didn't have the strength, then Jim did. And maybe Jim would let him use a little bit of that strength until Blair found it within himself.

After all, that's what family was for...right?

********************

Locating the family of Royal Creed had taken longer than expected, but by the time Jim had arrived at the bullpen the following morning, Brown and Rafe had done it.

"He's been divorced for three years," Rafe explained, settling on the edge of Jim's desk, watching as Brown looked over Jim's shoulder at the information they had worked so hard to retrieve. "She's living in Louisiana."

"Which explains how Vambrose got his hooks into Creed," Brown supplied. He pointed over Jim's shoulder at something lower on the page. "Somehow Creed met up with Vambrose, who must have thought having a former NFL wide receiver in his pay would be good for business."

"According to his bank records," Rafe continued for his partner, "Creed was broke. That amount of money at a time when he needed it must have been just too good to pass up."

"Creed's been paying alimony and child support since the divorce. No wonder he went broke. Look at how much he has to fork out every month."

"I guess being a retired wide receiver for the NFL doesn't take into consideration alimony," Jim mumbled. He flipped a page. "But Creed's parents live here in Cascade?"

Rafe nodded. "Henri and I were going to go by and talk to them this morning. Unless you'd like the dubious duty?"

Jim smiled then, closing the file and handing it back to the well-dressed detective. "I do believe you need the experience, Rafe. I wouldn't want to deny you any skill that would make you a better detective than you already are." If Jim noted it correctly, Rafe's return smile actually had sarcasm in it. Behind him Brown groaned. "Give me a full report when you get back, though."

"Naturally," Brown muttered.

"By the way, guys," Jim said, watching as Brown snagged his partner by the shoulder and began to drag him off Jim's desk. Both stopped, turning to him. "Good work."

Grinning, Brown cuffed Rafe on the shoulder. "Ah, shucks, pah'dner. We done good." He guffawed then took Rafe by the nape of the neck. "Let's go, pal. Wouldn't want to keep Jim from completing yet another case that would mark him for Cop of the Year." Brown grinned over his shoulder at Jim. "By the way, tell Hairboy we miss him."

Tilting his head back in response, Jim watched as Rafe grabbed a suede jacket from the back of his chair and pulled it on, hustling after Brown who had already made it to the elevators. The two stood side by side waiting for the elevator doors to open. Extending his hearing automatically, Jim grinned at the conversation the two were having.

"...'ing him Hairboy all the time," Rafe was saying. "Sandburg may be small, but one of these days he may haul off and drag you down."

Brown chuckled, fondness in his voice. "If he doesn't get how much he's appreciated despite the nicknames we all throw at him..." he good-naturedly thumped Rafe on the back, "...then he's not the intelligent guy I take him for."

The elevators opened and the two waited for the passengers to disembark before they entered.

"You be sure to tell him that, Jim." Brown's departing words disappeared behind the closing elevator doors. Jim jerked up at the comment in time to see Brown's smiling face and wave.

Shaking his head, he returned to the forensics report on his desk. Over the past year the other detectives in Major Crimes had said little about the subject of the dissertation, but Blair had noticed their actions. They were more in tune to Jim's abilities at a crime scene, more accepting to something bizarre Jim might mutter that led them in a different direction on a case. Brown's comment only proved what he and Blair had suspected all along - that Jim's secret was known among the tight-knit group, and it was safe.

"...just glad they finally got rid of the long-haired punk." A deep voice invaded Jim's thoughts. Realizing he had his hearing dialed up still, he would have returned to normal listening if the topic hadn't caught his attention.

"It was only a matter of time," another voice replied, thick with disgust. "Don't know why they allowed that shrimp on the force in the first place. I heard he had problems in the academy. Not cop material, that's for sure."

Jim glanced over his shoulder, watching as unfamiliar heads passed the window behind him but not able to get a clear view of them. He was about to stand up and follow them when a familiar voice boomed from down the corridor, forcing Jim to dial down his hearing slightly.

"What was that comment, Officer McMann?" Simon demanded.

Jim could hear the heartbeats of the officers quicken as they met up with the captain of Major Crimes and he couldn't help but grin.

"I-I didn't s-see you there, Captain Banks," Officer McMann replied, swallowing loudly.

"Obviously. I suggest you and your partner keep snide comments about your brother cops out of my building, McMann. Especially about a detective for whom I have a very high regard. You want to slam him, you do it to his face and watch how much of not cop material Detective Sandburg can be." Simon's voice lowered noticeably. "I'd also suggest that you not speak ill of a man when you're walking right by his partner's desk."

The heartbeats quickened even more as the officers realized where whom they had passed. Jim chose that moment to stand up and start out the door. Acting surprised to see Simon and the two officers looking at him, he smiled and waved then continued to the men's room. A few minutes later a laughing Simon Banks joined him there.

"That was fun," Simon said as the door closed behind him, his dark face drawn up in a grin that crinkled his eyes. "McMann and Bellowsby have been some of the more outspoken against our Blair and I've been wanting to shut them up for a while. Gave me a great place to focus my anger this morning."

Jim was leaning against one of the stalls, listening to his captain, the resentment slowly seeping away. At Simon's last comment, though, he straightened. "Did you have a meeting this morning, sir?"

The smile suddenly dropped and Simon rubbed at his eyes, nodding. "I'm afraid so." He looked at Jim. "You speak to Sandburg yet?" At Jim's nod, Simon continued. "I met with the chief this morning. He kept reiterating that once Sandburg drops the lawsuit against Berkshire Publishing he'll be reinstated."

"But you doubt that."

Simon nodded.

"Blair mentioned last night that your contacts in the commissioner's office are telling you there is more of a chance that he'll be permanently dismissed."

Simon looked around the men's room, grimacing. "Can we discuss this somewhere else, Jim? If we have to talk about it, let's take it to my office. I don't like the way this place echoes."

Following Simon out into the corridor and into Major Crimes, Jim almost turned to Blair's desk to motion him to follow. It was a natural action. One that brought back the ache of his missing partner.

As they neared Simon's office, however, Joel Taggert hung up the phone he had been uh-huhing into.

"Captain," Joel called from his desk. "We've got a dead body down by the pier. From the description we were able to get it sounds like our missing Mr. Pike."

Exchanging a quick glance, Captain and detective followed Joel out of Major Crimes, both hoping this was the break they were looking for.

********************

Blair sighed audibly. He hadn't been to the supermarket during the day in a while and the sunlight streaming through the large windows at the front of the building reminded him why he liked shopping at night. Not that he was a stickler for clean aisles, but he preferred his food a little cleaner than this. Didn't they have those thunder hoses like Safeway? The ones that beeped before they sprayed the vegetables? These vegetables looked like they hadn't been cleaned in days.

Dropping the droopy carrots back into the bin, Blair turned away, rolling his eyes in frustration. Look at him - he was taking out his frustrations on vegetation. What next? Using a rubber mallet to pound some sense into a can of tuna fish?

It was plain and simple. Blair didn't want to be here right now. He shouldn't be here right now. He was supposed to be by Jim's side, working a crime scene, guiding him through a sensory spike...hell, even complaining about Jim's atrocious spelling on the never-ending reports that seemed to accumulate on their desks. Well, his desk more than anyone else's. Though Jim tried to do his fair share of the paperwork, it was well known throughout the Major Crimes bullpen whose reports had suddenly become administration's favorites.

Blair grumbled. Maybe he ought to have administration send a letter to the commissioner's office. Would they listen to whines from assistants who have to constantly correct spelling and grammatical errors from the other detectives?

He smiled as his mind drafted the letter, explaining the injustice of taking away the only detective who filled out reports properly.

"That's a nice smile."

Almost dropping the bananas he held, Blair jerked around suddenly. Watching him from the end of the aisle across from produce was a woman he didn't recognize, but whose smile dazzled gray eyes as she watched him.

"Thanks," Blair managed to sputter. Regaining some composure, he managed another smile...the one that always seemed to melt the reserves of even the coldest female. It worked again as the woman seemed to relax.

"That's quite a weapon you have there, professor," she complimented. "I'm sure many a lady has fallen under its spell."

Professor? Eyebrows suddenly knitting in curiosity, Blair crossed the space between them. "Do I know you? Were you one of my students?"

The woman peered around both sides of the aisle, then returned her attention to him. "My name is Joli McCrae. Does that name sound familiar to you?"

Eyes widening, Blair nodded, looking over each shoulder before leaning closer. Joli McCrae smelled delightfully of daffodils. "Jim told me about you last night," he whispered. "What are you doing here?"

"I need to get a message to Jim." Pulling a folded piece of paper from inside her shirt, she stepped closer to Blair, pressing the paper into his hands. "When Jim showed up at the manor yesterday he had a female cop with him. I knew she wasn't his partner, but none of Angstrom's men know that. I figured you'd be a perfect contact person."

"So you followed me to a supermarket?" Blair asked, surprised.

Joli smiled, lighting her gray eyes again. "Didn't think going up to Ellison's door and knocking on it would be appropriate, considering I'm the bad guy and all."

Returning that smile, Blair began to unfold the paper. Both her hands grasped his, stopping him. She shook her head.

"Not here." Taking the paper from his hands, she folded it back up and slipped it inside Blair's front jean's pocket, ignoring the surprised lift of his eyebrows at so personal a gesture. "Just get this message to him as quickly as you can."

"What is this all about?" Blair asked, finding his voice when she stepped back.

Pausing a moment, Joli pondered the question. Obviously she was weighing how much to tell him, what she could trust him with. Just as he was about to ask again, she said, "I've been given a job to prove my loyalty to Mr. Angstrom. And I need to do it before midnight tomorrow."

"What kind of job?" he asked when she didn't continue. Their whispers had drawn them closer together once more and soon they were standing only inches apart. Blair had a hard time concentrating on her words as his body reacted to the scent of her.

"Angstrom wants me to kill Jim."

Those words brought Blair's senses back to order. He stared at her for a full minute, then his eyes narrowed dangerously. "And...?" He didn't like where this was going.

Resting her hands on his shoulders, Joli's eyes softened as she closely studied him. With a smile she said, "Jim trusts you."

Taken aback by the statement Blair managed a nod.

"I can tell," she continued. "You've earned it, and that's quite a feat. Believe me, I know. Getting Ellison to trust is like pulling teeth out of an alligator."

Blair smiled at that analogy. "Pulled many teeth from alligators, have you?"

The return grin lit Joli's face like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. "A few. Did Jim mention anything about...well, about me?"

"I asked him if he trusted you."

She bit her lower lip, holding her breath. "And?"

"Let's just say the answer was positive." He paused, pursing his lips. "But just because he trusts you doesn't mean I do."

"Understandable. You don't know me."

Blair patted the letter in his pocket then returned his gaze to the woman who stood eye level with him. "I'll deliver this, but you need to understand something." She waited. "Anything happens to Jim and I will hunt you down."

There was no mistaking the tone of voice. She heard it. She understood it.

"I swear to you, Sandburg, Jim's safety is uppermost on my mind."

"It better be. No amount of proving loyalty to some thug is worth Jim's life."

Nodding in agreement, Joli stepped back. "He's very lucky to have you as a partner."

"That goes both ways."

Touching his hand in acknowledgement, she turned and disappeared down the aisle.

********************

"Nothing," Jim grumbled, leaning against the hood of his truck.

Arms crossed over his chest, legs crossed at his ankles, he surveyed the crime scene he had just spent the last half-hour going over. The body had been removed, but not before Jim had spent another fifteen minutes meticulously surveying each hair that stood on end. His senses on full alert, he'd hoped to find something...anything...that would link Angstrom to Pike's murder. Whatever evidence there had been had long ago been washed off by the water's current.

"Not surprising," Simon replied from his position next to Jim.

Silently they watched as forensics cleaned up the crime scene, loading equipment back into the vans. They had gathered some items, but it was abundantly clear that Pike had not been murdered here; there was no evidence to indicate where that murder had occurred. Even the witnesses had been no help. The body had washed up at the pier, no one had put it there. An obvious murder - his neck had been snapped cleanly in two - but one that would not be solved. That's what made everyone so glum. Unsolved murders raked against everyone's work ethic.

For Jim, it meant another dead lead. Even though the blood on the earring matched Pike's type, a call into Angstrom's director of human resources confirmed that Pike had been dismissed two days before Royal Creed's murder. Obviously a bold-faced lie, but the records indicated Pike's signature on the dismissal card. Thus, the earring connected Pike to Creed's death, but not Pike to Angstrom. The warrant had been dismissed.

The warrant that had sacrificed Blair.

"I'm not letting this one go, Simon," Jim stated simply but firmly, daring his captain to contest.

"Jim, there is nothing that connects Angstrom to Creed's murder. All of our ties to Angstrom are cut, and the murderer has been found dead. The case is closed."

Thrusting against the truck, Jim jerked forward, walking a couple of paces before he turned around. "Creed was going to turn evidence, Simon. We close this case like this and his reputation will be soiled."

"He made a choice, Jim..."

"He didn't choose to die, Simon!" Jim glanced around the area, noticing several forensics officers looking their way. With a grumble he moved closer to his now glaring captain. "Please, Simon, give this another couple of days. See if Joli can't gather up some more evidence that may exonerate this man."

Simon shook his head, pulling off the gold-framed glasses and running one large hand over his face. "You're gonna turn me gray, Jim."

Jim grinned at that. "You mean I haven't already?"

The hand moved to the back of his neck. "I know what this is really about, Jim. You can't fool me."

Resting hands on his hips, Jim dropped his gaze to the ground. "I'm not going to let them rake Sandburg over the coals for nothing, sir. If Sandburg is going to be sacrificed, it's going to mean something."

"Jim," Simon replied, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder, "I will do everything in my power to get Blair back. You know that, right?" Jim nodded. "Look, I'll see what I can do about keeping the case open. Get your report written and get it to me. So far we've been lucky in that the press hasn't connected Creed with a drug buy. Maybe we can keep it that way. But I can't guarantee anything. My butt is on the block, too."

"Thank you, sir."

The shrill ringing of his cell phone drew Jim's attention away from Simon; he pulled the phone from his back pocket and opened it.

"Ellison."

"Jim, this is Blair. You are not going to believe who I just met, man."

********************

"I don't like this one bit, Jim."

Simon glared at the piece of paper lying on his desk then lifted his gaze to the detective slumped in a chair across from him. Sandburg sat on the conference table, legs swinging unconsciously as his hands worried at a piece of string he had picked up somewhere.

"I don't either, Simon," Jim replied, sitting straighter. "But I trust McCrae."

Shaking his head, Simon glanced around the room. After Sandburg had arrived at the bullpen in a flurry of words explaining the clandestine meeting with Joli McCrae, Simon had called Joli's superior, Captain Mike Henderson, as well as Agent Graham of the DEA and Sergeant DeVeniste from Narcotics. Once they had arrived and seated themselves around the conference table, Blair had imparted to all of the newcomers the story of his meeting in the produce section of Thriftway.

"Setting up a hit on your life..." Simon's lips pursed in thought. "Too many things could go wrong with that. Especially when we only have a small window to work with here."

"If killing Ellison will get her more entrenched in Angstrom's organization," Captain Henderson commented, "then we need to go along with it. If she says she's got all the angles handled, then she does."

"I disagree," Agent Graham interrupted, leaning forward. The filtered glow of the fluorescent lights in Simon's office glared off his balding head. "She's an amateur."

"An amateur? Graham, that girl has been in vice longer than you've been a Fed. She knows what she's doing."

"Anything could go wrong," Graham snapped, "and then we'd have a dead cop on our hands!"

"Good grief, Graham, what's more important? Stopping Angstrom or...?" Henderson stopped suddenly, realizing what he was about to say. "I mean..."

"We all know what you mean," Simon retorted, smothering the desire to brain the man. He turned back to Jim. "What do you think?"

Heaving a sigh, Jim glanced over his shoulder at Sandburg. "What do you think?"

"Good grief," Henderson mumbled. "Why are you asking him? He's not even a cop anymore."

Jim glared at the man, blue eyes shifting from the warmth held especially for his partner to brutal lasers that could cut through solid granite. He would have said something, would have moved, but Blair's hand on his shoulder stilled him.

Pulling Jim's gaze back to him, not even flinching under the cold spheres, Blair shook his head, silently telling him to ignore the comment. Instead, concern etched his youthful features. "It's risky, Jim. Graham is right...any number of things could go wrong. I know you trust Joli, but it's Angstrom's men that has me concerned."

"Me, too," Jim replied. "Angstrom still doesn't trust McCrae, so it's possible he'll have someone watching her. Maybe even send in a Cleaner to make sure she's done the job. But the outcome would put her in a position that could topple Angstrom's empire." He paused, expression firm, unyielding. "That's worth any risk, especially if bringing him down can connect him to Royal Creed's murder and the deaths of all those kids."

Witnessing the spoken as well as unspoken conversation between his two best detectives, Simon sat back and waited for the results. He had been witness to these little exchanges more and more lately. Gone were the drawn out discussions; occurring even more infrequently were public arguments. Anymore, they were finishing each other's sentences, sometimes even as they moved out the door on their way to solve a case. It amazed Simon to watch the transformation.

When Jim had brought Sandburg on board five years ago as an observer, they had fallen into a simple arrangement: Jim was the cop, Blair the civilian observer, therefore Jim was the protector, Blair the protectee. Through the years, however, the relationship had become more of a partnership than many Simon had witnessed in his long career as a police officer.

This little scene now only provided Simon with more of a reason to get Sandburg back on the force. Jim operated brilliantly without Sandburg. But together they were unrivaled.

Jim finally nodded and turned to Simon. "We'll be prepared for any scenario, sir. If it gets us that much closer to nabbing Angstrom and getting that Hades crap off the streets, then it's worth it."

Simon glanced at Sandburg, noticing his anxiety. He had agreed with Jim's position, but it was obvious this made him uncomfortable. At the younger man's nod, however, Simon sighed. "All right. But Major Crimes will handle it."

Henderson stood at that, his face crimson. "This is Vice's case, Banks!"

"And this is my man your girl is going to kill, Henderson," Simon boomed, standing as well. He stood over a foot taller than the Vice captain, and even with the men on opposite sides of the room, the effect was intimidating. "My detectives will handle this, and if we need Vice to assist we'll let you know."

From his silent position at the end of the conference table, DeVeniste cleared his throat, effectively heading off the bloodshed that was bound to happen. Blair moved from the table where he blocked the man's view and shifted to the only vacant chair, rolling back against a far wall, separating himself from the others. Simon had noticed it, but returned his gaze to DeVeniste. Jim, however, eyed his partner.

"I'm sorry to be a cold rag on this warm occasion," the round man began, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. His bulk didn't allow him to fit easily in any chair, and the ones that surrounded the coffee table weren't meant for comfort. "However, the Hades case is Narcotics' jurisdiction. DEA is here as a favor. They are taking a back seat on this ride. And Vice is involved only because of Sergeant McCrae. Even though Major Crimes has been investigating the Hades deaths, they have been doing so under our direct supervision."

Simon blanched at that, quite a feat considering his dark skin. "Ven, you aren't pulling jurisdiction here, are you?"

DeVeniste grinned, the white teeth shining against the black man's chubby face, touching the dark eyes. "Of course not, Simon. But I think this particular venture ought to be cleared through Narcotics...and the commissioner's office." He turned sympathetic eyes to Sandburg, who sat slumped in the chair, eyes watching his hands as they continued to fiddle with the string. "I'm sorry to agree with Henderson, but Sandburg isn't a cop right now. He shouldn't be involved in this discussion."

Sandburg looked up at the mention of his name, the expression on his face void of any emotion. With a sigh, he stood, letting the string drop to the floor.

"I'll see you, Jim," was all he said before he turned and walked out the door, closing it softly behind him.

Shaking his head, Simon sagged into his chair, afraid to even look at Jim. When he did, it was in time to watch the man walk out of the office, leaving a definite chill in the air. Probably for the best. They'd arrange everything and get official approval then call Jim back in for the actual set-up. Simon glanced up at DeVeniste, noticing the regret in the eyes that met his. Obviously his friend had heard what was coming out of the commissioner's office and knew what Simon just figured out: if the commissioner heard that Sandburg was involved, he'd probably withhold his approval.

Hell. Simon hoped the kid understood the good that was going to come out of this. If Joli could only get the evidence needed...

If only. So much depended on Joli's position right now. She wasn't even aware of most of it.

"Let's get this ironed out, gentlemen," Simon directed, suddenly business-like.

********************

Following the heartbeat echoing in his ears, a heartbeat as well known to him as his own, Jim took the elevator down eight flights to the garage level, surprised when he entered the garage and found Blair sitting on the hood of his truck. Feet resting on the chrome bumper, elbows on the knees, face hidden in the hands, Blair seemed lost beneath the cascade of curls hiding him from the curious glances of the officers around him. Clamping down the Blessed Protector mode that suddenly flared, Jim crossed the garage to his truck.

"Rule number two hundred and sixteen," he muttered as he leaned a hip against the chrome grill. "Don't sit on the hood of your partner's sweetheart."

When Blair lifted his head and looked at him, Jim offered a smile. One that Blair attempted to return.

"Sorry, man," he said, sliding from the hood. He stood silent and motionless for a full minute, staring blankly around the garage before he turned to face Jim. "What am I gonna do, Jim?"

Shaking his head, Jim grimaced at the sound of complete defeat in Blair's voice. Resting a hand on his partner's shoulder he tried to offer some kind of consolation when he himself felt none of it. "We'll figure something out, Chief. Simon is working on it."

"No, no, no," Blair countered, his hands coming up in defense, "I'm not talking about my job, man, I'm talking about Joli killing you. There is no way in hell I'm going to let that go down without being right there beside you."

Taken aback by the intensity in Blair's statement, Jim let his hand drop. Then suddenly he began to chuckle. When Blair stared at him in open-mouthed amazement, the laughter came next. Without even caring who saw it, he pulled Blair into a crushing bear hug.

"I am so glad you're my partner," Jim said, still laughing as he thumped Blair cheerfully on the back.

Blair managed to return the hug before Jim backed away, his hands still resting on Blair's shoulders. He stooped slightly to peer directly into Blair's eyes. "I wouldn't have you anyplace else, Chief."

For the first time in what seemed forever, Blair grinned, the dark blue eyes twinkling. "Even after breaking rule number two hundred and sixteen?" he asked, eyebrows arched mischievously.

Jim straightened, looking at the blue and white Ford and then back at Blair. "It's a new rule," he shrugged. "I'll let it pass this time."

********************

It had taken some swift talking on both Jim and Blair's part, but they had managed to convince at least Simon to let Blair tag along. What the others didn't know wouldn't hurt them. When Blair had explained his plan on how to pass Jim off as dead, Simon decided that even if the devil himself came down on him with fire and brimstone it wouldn't keep Blair out of the affair.

For the remainder of the day and into the next, certain detectives from Major Crimes readied for the murder of one Detective Jim Ellison. Apprehension settled over the bullpen like a wool blanket, and any officer or civilian not involved with what was happening found himself the recipient of cold glares and jumpy rejoinders when speaking to the detectives. By the time everything had been set up and the detectives of Major Crimes, as well as specially picked Narcotics and Vice officers, were established around Prospect Avenue, all eyes trained on Jim's third level apartment, the stress and strain on everyone involved made it impossible to have a civil conversation.

Which was why Blair said nothing as he sat in the passenger seat of Simon's beloved car, looking at the screen of the video feed from the surveillance equipment in the loft. Eleven o'clock glared in bright blue numbers on the radio display above the small screen. Nothing had happened yet, which caused even more tension in Simon's car and over the comm lines.

Lifting a mike to his lips, Simon called out to the other officers. "Report in."

One by one the units reported nothing in the vicinity. Blair adjusted the receiver in his ear, uncomfortable with the static and chatter so close to his eardrum.

"She said before midnight," he muttered to no one in particular as he focused again on the screen.

Jim sat on one of the couches in the living room, flipping channels on the television with the remote in his hand. Every now and then he'd scan the loft, his head tilting to one side as he listened to the area outside the doors. After years of working with the Sentinel, Blair had come to know when Jim used his senses, sometimes aiding him to extend farther than what was normal for Jim. Right now he wished he were doing exactly that, sitting right by Jim on that couch.

"I know that, Sandburg," Simon snapped, glaring at the screen. At Blair's concerned glance, Simon sighed. "Sorry. I just have a bad feeling about this."

Blair swallowed as he nodded. So much of this could go wrong, but Blair had more faith in Joli's part than he did in his own. In order to convince anyone watching Joli that she had accomplished her job it occurred to Jim that Joli may not be the only person in his loft before the ambulance arrived. If someone did come in to check that Jim was really dead, they'd find someone very much alive and probably would resolve that situation before back-up could arrive. That was when Blair came up with his brilliant idea. The brilliant idea that right now caused his stomach to do flip-flops and his anxieties to work overtime.

"I'm going to bed," Jim's voice announced, forcing both sets of eyes back to the screen.

Jim tossed the remote onto the couch and headed up the stairs to his room.

"Rule number twelve," Blair mumbled to himself. Simon looked at him, brows creased in question. Blair shrugged. "Put the remote back on the television stand. Jim hates having to hunt for the thing."

Simon's answering grin split the darkness of the car, forcing a smile from Blair. For an instant, the anxieties took a break.

"Heads up," a voice crackled over the earpiece. "This is Taggert, Captain. I've got movement from the back corridors."

Flipping on the mike, Simon broadcast the report. "Everybody be on alert. Connor, is the ambulance ready?"

"All set, captain," a soft female voice tinged with an Australian accent answered.

Glancing around the darkened neighborhood, Blair wished they had parked out front of the apartment building instead of around the corner. If anything went wrong, the time it took to get from his position to the apartment could be the deciding factor between a live Sentinel and a dead one.

Pressing a button on the keyboard connected to the screen, Blair watched as the picture switched from the living room to Jim's loft bedroom. His partner had just covered up with the quilts and lay on his side. From the sound echoing over the receiver he was doing his deep breathing.

"That's it, Jim," Blair mumbled, knowing that Jim had extended his hearing to listen to his voice, "take deep breaths. Dial everything else down except for your hearing and focus only on my voice. We're going to put you into a trance, just like we've been practicing. Listen only to my voice. Breathe in, breathe out."

On the screen, Jim's body started to relax, the shoulders lifting slowly, the rate of their lifting decreasing. By the time a figure walked in front of the surveillance camera, the shoulders barely moved.

The figure, dressed completely in black, stood over the zoning Sentinel, a gun clearly in one hand. Blair held his breath, unable to believe that he was actually going to sit here and watch someone shoot his friend, praying to whatever god would listen that Joli had indeed filled her bullets with blanks of red fluid and not real ammo. The sound of three shots penetrating the thick blankets jerked Blair from his own near zone-out and he kept repeating to himself that the dark ooze he saw covering the blankets was not Jim's blood. It was fake. Joli had promised the blanks would be filled with fake blood.

Bending over the form, the figure felt for a pulse then hesitated and pressed against Jim's neck even harder. A sigh filled with relief echoed over the sound system. Blair let out his own breath, looking up at Simon. The older man had read the sign as well. Jim's heart was still beating. So far, so good.

Grabbing Jim's badge from the edge of the desk where he always laid it, the dark figure paused once near the surveillance camera, then moved out of view. By the time Simon had switched views back to the main room, the black figure was gone.

"We've got someone coming out back," Rafe announced over the receiver.

"Why did she take the badge?" Blair mused.

"Proof," Simon replied after acknowledging Rafe's message. At Blair's lifted eyebrow, he went on. "She probably has to give Angstrom something as proof that she really did get the better of Jim. Something he'd never give up unless he was dead."

Blair nodded at that. "Jim would never let anyone touch that badge, that's for sure." He peered out into the darkness beyond the car. "When do you call in the ambulance?"

"Give it another few minutes."

"We've got company," Rafe's voice came on again. "This one's larger than the last one, coming from a different direction but heading up the same route to the loft."

Glancing first at Simon, then at the screen, Blair's heart began to race.

"Be prepared to move in," Simon ordered over the comm.

The screen had remained on the living room camera and both men watched as another figure slipped into the loft. This one was definitely larger than the slight build of Joli McCrae. The dim light of the loft reflected off the shimmering steel of a long bladed hunting knife in the figure's hand.

"Simon," Blair gasped. "He's carrying a knife."

"Damn," Simon exploded, "they sent in a cleaner. No matter how he finds the body, he'll still slit Jim's throat to make certain." Bringing the mike up to his lips, he began ordering officers into the loft.

Without realizing he was doing it, Blair opened the door and ran from Simon's car.

Entering the apartment building he took the stairs two at a time - the elevator wasn't the fastest way to the third floor. Simon's barking voice over the comm in his ear distracted him; he jerked out the earpiece and threw it on the floor. When he got to the door of the loft, he purposely jingled his keys loudly, praying that he had made it in time. Blair wondered what he could possibly do against the man he had seen on the screen. The man was huge.

"Hey, Jim, I'm home!" Blair called out as he entered the apartment making as much noise as he could. He flipped on the lights to the kitchen and dining area. "C'mon, man, it's only eleven-thirty, you can't be asleep. I want to tell you about my date. You won't believe how long this woman's legs are."

Carefully he started towards the stairs leading up to Jim's bedroom and suddenly stopped. Standing at the top of the stairs was the largest man he had ever seen in his entire life. The surveillance equipment had not done him justice. Nearly twice Blair's height and weight, dressed completely in black with a black stocking cap drawn down over his ears, the man slowly started walking down the steps. He held the blade rigidly in one hand. With a sigh of relief Blair noticed no blood on it.

"Hey, man," Blair greeted, his voice shaking - really shaking, none of that fake fear stuff.

"It's too bad you chose right now to come home, kid," the man's voice boomed as he continued down the stairs.

"Where's Jim?" That's it, Sandburg, keep him talking. Cavalry will be arriving - soon - right?

"He's taking a little nap...a long nap."

Blair kept backing away from the man, even as he touched the floor. When he backed into the dining room table, he flinched. Hadn't counted on that. Arms raised, he watched as the man gained on him.

"Time for you to join him."

As the man lunged, Blair's academy training and five years with one Jim Ellison came into play. He shifted away, surprised by the man's swiftness. The brute didn't look like he could move that quickly. Recovering immediately, the man lunged once more, slicing at Blair's exposed back as he turned to race around the table, but cutting only air. Blair raced to the other side of the table, but the man followed, blocking any escape. Once again the blade flew at him, this time hitting its mark. Biting back a cry of pain as he held his bleeding hand against his chest, Blair backed away, right into the support pillar. Just as the man leered, preparing to thrust the knife, Simon was suddenly there, gun raised, barging through the front door, bellowing for the man to drop to his knees. Brown and Rafe came down the hallway behind Blair, entering from the back door, guns pointing at the large man.

For a moment it seemed the man was going to resist. Ignoring the searing pain in his hand, Blair grabbed one of the dining room chairs and smashed it over the guy's head. The man glared down at Blair with seething eyes for several seconds before those eyes rolled up into his head and he slumped to the floor. The hunting knife skittered across the floor to stop at Simon's feet.

Simon began barking orders as more police filed into the room and the distant wails of an ambulance siren came closer. Without waiting, Blair bounded up the stairs to Jim's room, feeling like his legs were made of rubber. He slid to his knees beside Jim's bed, pulling the damp blankets from his partner's face; blankets covered with something that looked and smelled a lot like blood. A fleeting thought crossed his mind: what if Joli had turned? What if she had set Jim up? What if...?

Pressing his good hand to Jim's neck, Blair sought for a pulse. His heart stopped as he felt nothing.

"No," he choked.

Pressing one ear to Jim's chest, he listened for a heartbeat. The world around him seemed to stop and in that anxious moment Blair knew panic. Until the heartbeat came, slowly, one sluggish beat at a time, barely audible. Blowing out a sigh of relief, he pulled the blankets down to Jim's waist. Jim's body was covered with red fluid and Blair frantically ran his good hand over his friend's warm skin, relieved to find no bullet wounds. Hanging his head for a moment, taking deep breaths to fight back the fear that had clutched his chest, Blair whispered silent thanks.

"Jim," Blair spoke, dropping instantly into that tone to which Jim always responded - calm, bold, assuring. "Jim, come back, man. You need to hone in on my voice, Jim, and follow it back. Come on, man, follow me back."

At first there was no response. Blair tried shaking one of the shoulders, then returned to gently stroking the stubbled face. "Come on, man, I'm seriously freaking here. You need to come back."

Eyelids fluttered open, confused blue eyes met frightened darker blues as Jim gradually focused on the face hanging anxiously above him.

"Hey, Chief," he muttered, his voice groggy. "It work?"

Blair released a deep sigh, touching Jim's cheek before nodding. "It sure did, buddy."

Jim nodded, his eyes blinking drowsily. "Why 'm I tired?"

"I don't know, but go ahead and rest. I'm right here and Simon has everything under control."

As Jim's eyes closed once more, Blair slumped against the bed, his good hand resting easily on Jim's chest, the other still pressed against his own chest. It throbbed relentlessly. Looking down he saw the front of his clothing soaked with his own blood.

"Sandburg?" Simon's deep voice broke through the edges of pain and Blair watched the large man ascend the stairs. "How's Jim?"

"Tired," Blair managed to mumble, eyes drooping. "But he should be okay. Ambulance?"

"It's here, kid. They're on the way up," Simon replied. After checking Jim, he stood over Blair, hands on his hips, forcing the younger man to look up. The effort was too much and his head dropped back onto Jim's bed. "You're bleeding, Sandburg."

"No, really?" Blair laughed at his response. When Simon crouched and checked his hand, Blair noticed his superior was not smiling. Probably thinking about the paperwork Blair's asinine venture into the apartment would generate. After all, Blair was technically a civilian; worse, he was a suspended cop. One that was injured during a police situation. That was bound to cause the good captain some heartburn, particularly from the commissioner's office.

At the moment Blair didn't care. Jim's heart was beating beneath his hand. Right now, that's all that mattered.

To the rhythmic beating of that heart and the deep rise and fall of his partner's chest, Blair succumbed to unconsciousness.

********************

"Tragedy has struck the Cascade Police Department," the reporter declared seriously.

Police cars acted as a backdrop as the reporter moved from her position to allow the camera to focus on the apartment complex at 852 Prospect. Yellow tape lined the entrance, and police officers milled around the sidewalk keeping the media and onlookers back.

"At eleven-thirty last night, Detective James Ellison of the Major Crimes department was shot three times at point blank range while asleep in his bed. The detective was found dead by his roommate. Sources tell us that Detective Ellison was working on the latest rash of Hades-related deaths and some feel that his murder was due to the fact he was close to solving the mystery. Rumors have it the narcotics division of the Cascade Police is working with Major Crimes and the Drug Enforcement Agency to close down the market of the drug Hades, and Detective Ellison was one of the main investigators. Detective Ellison, who has been instrumental in bringing such criminals as Garrett Kincaid to justice as well as saving Cascade from an Ebola virus threat, was named Detective of the Year for two years..."

As the reporter droned on, Joli split her attention between the television and the man watching it so closely. From outer appearances, he was calm, even a smile playing on his lips. But Joli could feel the fury building beneath the pleased exterior. Folding strong arms over his chest, Philemore Angstrom peered down at the television and for an instant the vision of a vulture watching its prey dying beneath it flashed across Joli's mind. Yes, Angstrom was pleased that his enemy was dead, but he was not pleased with how it played out.

"Well, well, well," the tall man murmured. Reaching out, he shut off the television then gradually turned to Joli. "You did well, Miss Cabe. Very well indeed."

Schooling the anxiety pounding at her temples, Joli smiled calmly. She hated how Angstrom looked at her, scrutinizing what he saw, knowing the lustful thoughts lurking behind those dark eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Angstrom," Joli purred, using the voice that always seemed to melt the reserves of any man. "Although I'm disheartened that you felt it necessary to send a cleaner behind me."

The dark eyes that had begun to work their way down her chest suddenly snapped up, becoming cold. He glared at her; with some difficulty she remained calm under that gaze. She was more angry at herself than Angstrom. It seemed only logical that he would send a cleaner. Joli should have realized that. Her mistake nearly caused Jim his life, as well as his partner's.

After several heartbeats Angstrom cooled, returning to the composed stance of earlier.

"You are correct," he finally said, smiling, forcing Joli to admit that he was a handsome man. Perhaps not quite the rank of a Jim Ellison, but where Jim lacked social refinement, Philemore Angstrom more than made up for it.

Angstrom was perhaps the same height as Jim, well built around the shoulders and biceps. But it was there all likeness ended. Angstrom wore his jet-black hair longer, touching the collar of his steam-pressed, double-breasted suit, curled behind both ears. It was peppered with gray at the temples and a white lock at his forehead that was swept back into the wavy thickness. Long legs and a slender waist filled nicely pressed slacks. And his mind was as honed as his body. No wonder he'd been able to ferret out any undercover cops in his organization. No wonder Paul had been found out.

Forcing a smile to her lips, Joli pushed those thoughts out of her head. She had managed to infiltrate further than Paul, further than even the Feds. Thinking about what happened to them would only keep her from accomplishing her goal - taking down Angstrom.

"I should have known better, Miss Cabe," Angstrom was saying as he gracefully crossed the carpet of his office and settled behind the large, cherry wood desk that took up most of the space in the room. "But that will be remedied soon enough." Dark eyebrows knitted as he studied the documents in front of him. "It irritates me that I paid Crainick good money and he was taken down by this!" He flipped a photograph at Joli, who stepped forward and gazed at it without picking it up.

She recognized the face and had to hide a smile. Way to go, Professor! Jim really chose well when he brought you on as a partner.

"May I ask how the problem will be remedied, sir?" Joli asked, giving an indifferent sniff at the photograph before relaxing in a chair, crossing her legs at the knees.

Distracted by the movement, Angstrom stared for a moment at Joli's suddenly exposed legs. Joli loved doing that to him. Very well aware of her effect on men, she used every god-given talent to her benefit. The way Angstrom salivated over her during guarded moments only leant hope that maybe she would succeed in bringing him down.

"Crainick is being disposed of even as we speak," Angstrom finally replied, lifting his gaze back to Joli's face, but not before he lingered a while longer on other parts of her body. She suddenly felt very dirty.

"I see. And you did this without consulting your Chief of Security."

An oily smile crossed the man's face and Joli struggled not to gag at the sight. This man had to be evil cloaked in a business suit. "You seem to think that I need to."

"Don't you? I did as you asked, Jim Ellison is dead. You promised that was the test and if I passed I'd be in your trust."

Angstrom chuckled then. "Bold, Miss Cabe, very bold."

Joli shrugged, falling easily into the character she had created. "I know what I want, Mr. Angstrom."

He studied her closely for a moment, then leaned forward and pressed a button. Instantly Neshaad, Angstrom's driver, stepped through a side door. "Yes, sir?"

"Prepare the car, Neshaad."

With a bow, the young man left. Turning back to Joli, Angstrom said, "You might want to speak to your second, Miss Cabe. I hate leaving the manor unprotected."

"Unprotected, sir?" Joli asked, honestly confused.

"Of course," Angstrom replied, standing, straightening his tie. "I don't go anywhere without my secretary or my Chief of Security." He smiled.

Joli smiled back. It was starting.

********************

Slouching from the bedroom, down the hallway and into the living room, Jim moaned at the light pouring in through the bay windows of the safety house's living room. The blinds were down all the way, and the slats were only half open, but the afternoon sunlight pierced his unadjusted eyes without any warning. Grimacing, he shut his eyes and staggered a moment.

"Just dial it down, Jim," a familiar voice spoke calmly from the right.

Following the instruction, noticing that Blair had closed the blinds completely, Jim opened his eyes, sighing with relief. Blair smiled at him from the last window, then moved across the room to the chair he had just vacated. Lifting the book from the seat, he slid into the chair, drawing his feet up beneath him to sit lotus style, and rested the book on his lap, cradling his bandaged right hand against his stomach.

"How are you feeling?" he asked as Jim crossed to the couch and slumped into the cushions.

Resting his head against the back of the couch, propping his feet on the coffee table, Jim grumbled. "Like I could sleep another three days. Why am I so tired?"

"Meditation does that sometimes." Blair shrugged when Jim opened one eye and glared at him. "Seriously. We put your body into a complete meditative state, Jim. So deep that your rate plummeted to barely discernable. Your body is just readjusting, that's all."

Accepting that, Jim closed his eyes again and relaxed into the couch. After a few moments, he opened one eye again and looked at Blair, who had returned to reading the book. "How long have you been here, anyway?"

Blair shrugged. "A few hours. I sent Rafe and Brown out to get us some food a few minutes ago. Figured you'd be hungry when you finally woke up."

"Did you send them to Kun Pao Liao?" Grinning, Blair nodded. Jim sighed, a smile on his face. "You are too good to me."

"Watching a friend die brings out the best in me, I guess."

Something in Blair's voice registered through Jim's fatigue. He sat up straighter, studying his friend closely. Blair's gaze remained on the book in his lap, but his silence and the slightly elevated heart rate were telltale signs that something was up. Absently, Blair used his right hand to brush away some of his hair; he winced and stared at the bandaged hand a moment before letting it drop back into his lap.

"How's the hand?" Jim asked, not exactly sure how to pull out of his partner what was bothering him. He vaguely recalled Simon telling him about Blair's injury and once again looked upon his partner with utter amazement, and not a little pride. Taking down a monolith with an injured hand, and saving Jim in the process...

Whoever doubted Sandburg's ability as a cop before couldn't now.

"I'll live," Blair shrugged, his gaze still on the book.

Jim nodded, remaining quiet a moment longer. When Blair still didn't turn the page, a slight smile crossed Jim's face. "How many times are you going to read that page?"

Sighing, his shoulders sagging, Blair closed the book and tossed it to the floor. "Would you believe I brought the book to distract me?" Brushing another tuft of hair out of his eyes, this time with his left hand, Blair growled, standing. "My mind won't stop replaying last night. Every time I have a moment of silence, all I can see is you being shot. Man, I never want to go through something like that again. Real or simulated."

"I agree."

Blair stopped his pacing and looked at Jim, his eyes softening and a smile touching his full lips. "Sorry, man. I guess watching it and going through it are two totally different things."

Jim didn't remember much of last night, only images, and the anxiety. He'd never admit the anxiety to anyone, including Blair. Dropping his feet from the coffee table, he scrubbed his face with both hands, ridding the cobwebs from his still tired mind. "Maybe you could write a paper on it? The thoughts and images of a man about to die, by Blair Sandburg."

Blair shuddered. "That's not even funny, man."

"I don't get why I was so tired, though."

"I think I have an idea about that," Blair replied, instantly shifting into what Jim affectionately called his "professor mode". "When a person meditates, his or her body is trying to reach a state of complete relaxation, to allow the mind to clear and the body to rejuvenate. However, we also put your hearing on overload, shutting down all of your other senses. I think the combination of the two experiences kind of blew out a fuse - so to speak."

"In other words, I was ko'd."

Blair smiled. "Something like that. At least it was better than being dead."

Grunting in agreement, Jim rose and crossed to the kitchen. He pulled a carton of orange juice out of the refrigerator. Time to change the subject. "So, how's the neighborhood?"

Relieved at the new topic of conversation, Blair followed Jim into the kitchen, sliding onto one of the barstools at the kitchen island. "Typical suburbia, man. You know, I've never actually done research on the suburbs - I've always wanted to, though; I bet it would make for great reading. A kind of subculture that relies upon the main tribe, but considers itself separate and distinct." His blue eyes lit up with the possibility, and suddenly his energy seemed to return to its normal level. "I wonder if the PD would let me use this safe house as a research station. I could stake out here and kind of blend in with the area, learn the rituals..."

"Sandburg, there is no way you could blend in here. You'd stick out like a donut with sprinkles in a box of a dozen buttermilk."

Blair's mouth dropped open in shock, then he started chuckling. "Only you could come up with a donut metaphor, Jim."

Jim smiled and gulped down a large glass of orange juice before pouring another glass. After returning the carton to the refrigerator, he leaned against the kitchen island, thankful to have his partner here and in one piece. Once he had been settled in the safe house earlier this morning, and most of the cobwebs had cleared, Jim had remembered Simon's account of the events from the previous night and had reacted in his typical Ellison way. First he yelled at his partner, warning him not to do something so idiotic again, and then he railed at Simon for not stopping Sandburg in the first place. Deep down, though, he was grateful for Blair's quick thinking. It was natural for his roommate to come in after a date, so if anyone could interrupt the cleaner's job it would be Blair.

Now that Jim had been allowed a few more hours of rest, his pride in Blair's quick thinking overwhelmed any anger. They both had come a long way since that initial meeting in Blair's basement office at Rainier University.

"Can I ask you something, Jim?"

Jim looked up from his musing, noticed that Blair was watching him, blue eyes intent, brows creased in thought. "Sure."

Blair cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I think I know you pretty well."

"Given." Jim grinned, glad when Blair matched it with one of his own.

"What I don't understand, though, is why you did this? I mean, you volunteered to be taken out of commission, Jim. You willingly passed the Hades case over to Taggert and Connor, and Creed's murder investigation to Rafe and Brown. And you know, man, that as long as Joli is undercover you need to remain locked away." Curling some hair behind an ear for no real reason except it was habit, Blair shrugged. "No offense, Jim, but you don't do locked away real well."

Jim waited for Blair to continue. When he didn't, Jim straightened and moved around the island to settle on a barstool next to his partner, their shoulders touching. As he moved, he collected his thoughts.

"Joli comes from a family of cops," he began. "The McCraes go way back. A true Blue family. Her father, Harry McCrae, was actually the first detective in Major Crimes when it opened up in the late seventies. He'd been instrumental in setting up the department and getting funding for it. Even her uncle is Blue - he's a retired SWAT sharpshooter. Two of her brothers joined up, as well. She's the youngest of all the McCraes."

"Sounds like she didn't have a chance," Blair commented, shifting to rest his feet on the footrests of Jim's barstool, cradling the bandaged hand in his lap.

Jim grinned. "Not a chance. Of course, from what I understand from Harry, she was the best suited." He paused, only then looking at Blair. "She has this...I don't know what you'd call it...a gift? A sense? I don't know. Something, though. She's always had this ability to read things, read people. It's weird, but it's what makes her the best undercover cop Cascade has. Joli can blend in anywhere - set up and become a character and remain in it until the job is done. I've seen it firsthand. It's amazing."

After taking another swallow of the orange juice, Jim continued. "Harry died a little over ten years ago, in the line of duty. In his honor, cops from every department wore black for a week. He had touched a lot of lives."

"Yours included?"

"Yeah," Jim laughed, memories easily bubbling to the surface. "I was new on the force, new in Vice. For some reason he took an instant liking to me. I never found out why. I wasn't the most lovable back then." He grinned, knowing Blair couldn't refuse that opening.

Not to disappoint, Blair smiled back. "Back then?"

Jim chuckled, cuffing Blair's knee. "He was a good man. You would have liked him. He had this ability to see the people beyond the cases. I didn't understand that...then." Peering at Blair, he waited until the younger man connected with the thought behind the statement. Jim didn't understand it then; but he did now. "When he died, I guess I kind of went into protective mode, started looking out for Joli and her brothers. I transferred to Major Crimes, but still kept somewhat in contact with the McCraes through the years. Paul was in Narcotics, Sam in SWAT."

"Sam McCrae? Hey, I know him. He's the guy SWAT sent to the academy to convince me to join the team instead of Major Crimes. Guess my points impressed them."

"Impressed? Hell, they shocked everybody, Chief, what are you talking about?" Jim laughed. "Anyway, a few years later a new supply of drugs hit the Cascade pipeline. Paul was the one heading the case. He disappeared for a couple of weeks and resurfaced working for Philemore Angstrom. He'd gotten a lead that connected Angstrom as the new pipeline and had managed to crack the organization to get definite proof. When he surfaced, he made contact with me, figuring Angstrom to know all of the other narcotics cops and he could trust me. Paul said he had the proof to take the man down and needed to get out of the organization. He was afraid his cover was about to be blown. We made arrangements to get him out."

Jim paused, taking several deep breaths. Until just recently he had locked these particular memories away. That they had resurfaced after all these years only made them even more raw.

"What happened?"

Blair's voice acted as a lifeline, drawing Jim back. "The morning after meeting with Paul, I was called on a homicide to the Southside. Normally I wouldn't have been, but the homicide detectives recognized the victim."

Leaning forward, Blair rested a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Paul?"

"Yeah. Apparently his instincts were right. His cover had been blown. We didn't get him out soon enough." Taking a final swig of the orange juice, Jim stood and crossed the kitchen to the sink. Silently he ran water into the cup, washed it out then placed it in the drainer.

"Did you ever connect Angstrom to Paul's death?"

"What do you think, Sandburg?" Jim snapped. Instantly he turned to study his partner, grateful to find understanding instead of hurt in the face that calmly returned his cold gaze. "I'm sorry. The whole thing is still distasteful." Leaning against the sink, he crossed his arms and legs, studying his feet in thought. "Paul's death affected Joli to the core. She ended up taking a temporary leave of absence. They had been pretty close."

"How long was she out?"

"Almost an entire year. In that time I did my best to make life miserable for one Philemore Angstrom. I couldn't find anything that connected him to the pipeline or Paul's death, but I'd get close." He looked up then, a feral smile crossing his lips. "And every time I did, somehow the papers got wind of it."

Blair gaped. "No way, man. You used the papers to get at Angstrom? Mister media-is-the-enemy-of-all-that-is-good Ellison?"

Jim shrugged. "Angstrom was high society. He had an in with the mayor and the governor, not to mention the commissioner and most of the powerful members of our fair city. He was out of my touch. But not the media's. They thrived on the anonymous tips they were getting."

"Oh, man, that's why Angstrom left the northwest. He came under fire..."

"...and needed to separate himself from it all. That was very gratifying." Crossing the kitchen again, he leaned against the kitchen island across from Blair. "I haven't mentioned this to anyone, Blair, but I think Joli purposely hooked herself up with Angstrom." At Blair's questioning gaze, Jim continued. "When she came back from leave, she seemed more determined than I'd ever seen her before. There was a fire in her eyes that hadn't been there. She set up her alias before she went down to California. She went to California without her badge and gun. It was all just too perfect."

"So you think she's been following Angstrom's activities all this time?"

Jim nodded. "I think she found a way in and went for it. I also think she's running on pure vengeance."

"But that doesn't make any sense, Jim. If that's how you feel, why are you helping her? Vengeance tends to make a person make mistakes. Hatred can blind. I know - it blinded me to Ventriss."

Jim remained silent for several minutes, dropping his gaze away from Blair. When he spoke, his voice was deceptively calm, his eyes like cold steel. "Because if it were me, I'd be operating the same way. The man is scum; this Hades thing is proof of that, if nothing else. And if something big is about to happen, then he has to be stopped. She's in the best position to do it. My being out of commission is trivial in comparison to putting that man out of commission, even if part of me wishes I were more actively involved in taking him out."

"I guess all the sacrifices are worth it," Blair whispered, lowering his gaze.

Jim opened his mouth to comment on that but a familiar scent touched his nose and he straightened. "Simon's here."

Blair slid from the barstool and crossed to the door, not even checking out the peephole. "Hey, Simon," he announced even before the door swung fully open.

Simon Banks stood at the doorway, cigar clenched in his teeth, glaring down at the younger man, who merely returned that mind numbing glare with a calm smile. It constantly amazed Jim how little Simon intimidated Blair.

"Sandburg, you didn't follow protocol," Simon blurted, stepping into the entryway and closing the door. He pointed to the peephole. "There is a reason that is there. It's to be looked through as a precaution."

Blair shrugged, smiling up at the much larger man. "Why use it when I've got a Sentinel?"

That did it. Simon's face split into a grin, the cigar bouncing up and down as he chuckled. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he glanced at Jim. "Can't argue with that logic, can I?"

"No, sir." Jim beamed.

"What are you doing here, Sandburg?" Simon asked as he glanced around the living area of the safe house. "And where are Rafe and Brown? Aren't they on shift right now?"

Blair sat on the arm of the couch, cradling his bandaged hand against his chest. His eyes took on a pained look. "I sent them to get some chow. They should be back any time. Besides, where else am I supposed to be?"

"Leading a normal life, Blair," Jim answered. "You should be back at the loft, doing things a guy does when his roommate is killed."

Catching and holding Jim's gaze, Blair studied him for a moment. Then softly he answered, "I don't know what other guys would do, Jim, but this guy wouldn't set foot in that place, at least not until after the funeral, if even then." A shudder passed through Blair's shoulder, mild enough that only Sentinel eyes would notice. Jim understood. When he glanced at Simon, he was grateful to notice understanding there also.

"All right, Sandburg," Simon replied, "for now you can stay here. But after Jim's funeral, it's back to the loft. I'll make certain it's been cleaned up before you get there. Two officers will be outside the loft at all times, just as a precaution. All they'll know is that they're stationed there to keep an eye on you in case another attack happens, so don't let it leak to them that Jim is still alive, all right?"

"C'mon, Simon, that's a rookie's mistake," Blair complained. "Give me some kind of credit."

"Uh-huh." He turned to Jim. "Your funeral will be in two days. I spoke to your father and Steven today."

Jim grimaced. "How are they taking this?"

"Not too well. Steven is staying with your dad; he's afraid for his health. He didn't take the news too well."

"Did Steven say how bad it is?"

"No, but from the sounds of it Mr. Ellison has been given some sedatives by his physician."

"Do you want me to talk to them, Jim?" Blair asked, concerned.

Jim shook his head. "We need to keep this going for as long as Joli needs. Dad's a tough old crow. He'll be okay." He crossed to the living room and sat on the couch behind Blair. "He may not forgive me, though."

"Either that or he'll think you're some kind of immortal super human." Blair looked over his shoulder at Jim, shifting on the arm of the couch to get a better view, a mischievous twinkle in his tired blue eyes. "After all, you've died twice and come back to life. That's gotta be worth some kind of superhero name. Maybe 'Dead Man Rising'?" He grinned as Jim cuffed him on the side of the head.

"Have a seat, Simon," Jim called out. "Tell me what's happening with the case. Any word from Joli?"

"Nothing directly." Simon heaved a sigh as he sank into the couch across from Jim and Blair. "But the surveillance we've got on Angstrom's manor reported that she was seen in Angstrom's limo pulling out earlier today, so apparently she's made the necessary impression. She's still alive, anyway."

"Conner and Taggert getting any headway on the Hades cases?"

Simon shook his head. "Things have died down since Creed's murder. Narcotics snitches are saying sellers have gone into hiding. There's a feeling on the streets that something major is about to explode."

"That's the same feeling we've got," Jim muttered. "If the streets are feeling it, it might be bigger than any of us originally thought. What is Angstrom doing?"

"We'll have to wait until Joli makes contact to answer that question. In the meantime, we need to be prepared. With Hades sellers lying low, there are a lot of addicts out there who aren't getting their supply. Things could be messy for a while. Narcotics, the DEA and I are building up for the slam, while Vice is keeping an eye on Joli. Meanwhile, I've turned Royal Creed's case over to homicide. I need Rafe and Brown on this."

Blair looked at his watch. "Speaking of whom, I wonder where those two are. I'm starving."

"Kun Pao is on the other side of Cascade, Chief. We may end up having to reheat the whole thing by the time they get here."

"In the meantime," Simon huffed, turning his attention to Blair, a little reticent, "I've got some news."

Blair's eyebrows flew up at that and he cast a glance at Jim. "Oh?"

"Before Pike's body showed up I had a meeting with Commissioner Pelson. It seems he's not the one driving your dismissal."

Groaning, Blair slid from the armrest of the couch to the cushions beside Jim. "Good glory, you mean someone higher than the commissioner?"

"It's an election year, Sandburg," Simon grumbled, "and it seems certain members of the Rainier Board of Regents have the ear of a certain mayor who's running for term again."

"Certain members, sir?" Jim asked, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

"Apparently Blair embarrassed the university during that news conference and a majority of their financial support pulled out when they saw what kind of students Rainier was turning out. The Regents have been complaining to the mayor ever since Blair officially joined the department. When the lawsuit came through..." Simon shrugged, knowing he didn't have to continue.

"The Regents decided to use their financial backing of the mayor," Blair finished, not looking at either man, resting his head against the back of the couch and staring at the ceiling. "She needs their support, they need to clear the air and get rid of the lawsuit. And I'm outta luck."

"I'm afraid so. The thing is, according to Pelson, the mayor won't even look at your record with the police department. She refuses to do any kind of research. Instead, our good mayor is relying upon reports from Rainier." Simon paused, a pained look crossing his face. "And unfortunately, your record at Rainier wasn't exactly...well, exemplary."

Blair sprang to his feet, fists balled, face creased with fury. "After all the years of loyalty I've given to them, all the years of teaching, all the dedication - they were in the wrong and I get shafted. This sucks!"

Jim watched Blair's pacing then glanced at Simon. "What can we do, sir?"

Simon's blank expression was not lost to Jim, nor was the almost subtle shrug lost to Jim's partner. A mirthless chuckle from Blair brought Jim's attention back to the young man, who had stopped his pacing.

"I'm sorry, Blair," Simon said quietly, rubbing one large hand over his short-cropped hair. "The commissioner and I are working on it, but right now all of our energy is going towards clearing up this Hades mess. The mayor is all over Pelson to crack down on the pipeline, and he's having to do some fancy footwork to keep the mayor from pulling the whole Angstrom set-up. Joli's work has become a hinge on quite a few doors, some of them with political ramifications."

"And personal," Blair mumbled. "Well, I guess I should have seen it coming." The shocked look on his expressive face alarmed both Jim and Simon. "A person can't hang onto the brass ring forever."

"Chief." Jim's voice took on a concerned tone. Blair looked like a deer in headlights, uncertain whether to run or be hit. "We're going to work through this. You just need to hold out until something happens with Joli - one way or the other." He stood and crossed to his friend. "I need you to stay with me here, buddy. Focus on what's happening right now. You're my eyes and ears out there. Don't leave me blind."

Clarity slowly returned to Blair's gaze. Without saying a word, he nodded. When Jim reached out to touch his shoulder a grateful smile on his lips, Blair moved away, walking purposefully down the hallway. The bathroom door closed soundly. A pent-up breath exploded from Jim's nostrils.

"I hate this, Simon," Jim muttered, turning to face his captain. Simon had sagged into the couch, hands rubbing at his temples. "There's got to be something we can do."

"You tell me what, Ellison, and I'd be happy to do it." Simon sighed irritably, sitting up. "Look, Pelson and I are working on it, okay? But I have to tell you, Jim, it doesn't look promising. We need to be prepared for the worse."

"The worse, sir, is Blair leaving. For good. He's ready to bolt any minute, and I'm not going to let him do that - even if it means leaving the PD myself." Before Simon could express the surprise suddenly on his face, Jim sniffed the air, noting a scent of Chinese food. "Brown and Rafe are back," he announced sternly, then crossed to the kitchen.

When Brown and Rafe entered they could tell they had interrupted something significant. Exchanging glances, they wordlessly agreed to remain quite. Once all of the food had been laid out, a silent Blair joined the group. Little was said.

Simon's cell phone rang just as he sat on one of the barstools with his dinner. "Banks!" He listened quietly, his face shifting from calm to rage in a matter of seconds. Jim extended his hearing.

"...we tried to follow the culprits, sir, but they managed to sneak out," a voice on the end explained. "We're running tapes right now, but it seems whoever did it...well, sir, they may have had inside help."

"Explain that, officer!" Simon barked. The others looked up, watching the captain.

"In that particular cell, sir, the surveillance equipment stopped working and then started again several minutes later. We believe it was manipulated by a police officer. Captain Taggert is currently working on it."

"I'll be right there." He closed the phone and shoved it back into his pocket. "Damn."

"What is it, sir?" Jim asked, breaking the silence.

"That cleaner...Crainik? He was just murdered."

"In the station, sir?" Blair blurted, then cringed as Simon thrust the full force of his glare at him.

"Yes, in the station, Sandburg. Hell, we gotta get a better security system." Shoving his plate away, he stood and pulled on the coat he had discarded earlier. "All indications are that a cop was involved. Maybe several. Brown, Rafe, I've given Sandburg permission to stay here until after Jim's funeral. Who's next on rotation?"

"Nguyen and Vesquez from Narcotics, sir," Rafe answered.

"Let them know about Sandburg. I'll keep in contact." With that, Simon walked out the door, a trail of inexhaustible swearing following him out.

The other four men stared at one another, leaving their dinners untouched, all thinking the same thing.

Angstrom had cops on his payroll.

********************

The sun actually shone, chasing away the dismal rain that had been falling the past couple of days. Still, a chill hung in the air, and those that joined together to bid farewell to Detective James Ellison were forced to don heavy jackets and coats. Police stood unified on one side, resplendent in their blue uniforms, faces grim. Even though still on suspension, Blair had joined them, his uniform newer than most of them, still creased in the proper places. He had attended many funerals in the years since befriending a certain Sentinel, but this was the first since joining the police force. To be numbered among these valiant warriors struggling to protect the tribe, dressed as they dressed, counted as one of them, sent shivers of pleasure through his compact frame - and an overwhelming sadness.

When had it become so vital to him to be part of this heroic group, to be accepted in Jim's world? He paused a moment, suddenly realizing the truth behind that question. It was no longer Jim's world. It was now his, also. After all of his mother's conditioning in his youth that cops were evil, Blair had actually become one - and valued it.

William and Steven Ellison were among the few seated on the other side of the coffin. Steven had one arm protectively around his father's frail shoulders, the other draped around a woman with short brown hair, dark brown eyes puffy with tears. Steven and Victoria had been dating for the past several months and only just recently announced their engagement. Steven had asked Jim to be the best man.

They had all come a long way, these Ellison men with the stoic features and unforgiving natures. Blair hoped that this farce didn't kill what little bond had been rebuilt after so many years of cold silence.

Blair's gaze passed over the group of people who had gathered to mourn their friend and family. The priest continued to drone on about the life and accomplishments of a man he didn't know and Blair had to hide a smile at that. Jim hadn't wanted a priest heading his funeral, but without knowing Jim's feeling on the matter, Steven's insistence had won out. That hadn't sat well with Jim, and Blair had enjoyed the irritated mumblings of his partner as he walked out the door this morning.

As Blair's gaze finally fell upon the last of the mourners, his heart stopped.

Standing several paces away from the group, surrounded by several men wearing dark sunglasses and even darker suits, was none other then Philemore Angstrom. The black suit he wore complemented the man's features and the sun highlighted the gray in his black hair; he stood impeccably sure of himself, watching the entire proceedings with a look of satisfaction. Situated beside him, well within the protection of the guards, was Joli McCrae, her face unreadable.

Blair's gaze remained on the separated group, blocking out the funeral until movement alerted him to the other officers saluting. Following suit, he waited for the gun salute to end and then returned to a relaxed stance. As the officers gave their final respects to the remains of the man they believed dead, and then moved on, Blair remained still, his gaze on the coffin. It was some surprise when William Ellison walked in front of his view.

Looking up into the withered face - had the older Ellison aged since the last time Blair had seen him? What, two, three weeks ago? - Blair managed to conjure his best obfuscation yet. A man mourning the death of his best friend...thankful that it was a charade.

"Mr. Ellison," Blair greeted the older man with a tilt of his head. He removed the uniformed cap from his head and tucked it beneath an arm, extending his right hand still wrapped with gauze beneath the white glove. "I am so sorry." And he was, for everything the man had to be going through, for the lies in order to bring down a man responsible for the deaths of children, for the anguish of losing a son and the anger when that son would be returned -- again. Blair liked William Ellison, liked Steven; he hated the thought of being part of something so insidious - even for a good cause. Even for Jim.

William looked down at the extended hand and then up at the compassionate face of its owner. "Jim considered you a friend, Blair. Family."

Suddenly unable to look at the blue eyes that Jim had inherited, Blair dropped his gaze, his hand wavering. Jim had never said anything directly to Blair. Not that he needed to. But it was obvious he had said something to his family. A knot started in his throat and he found it difficult to breathe.

"So do I." Pressing past the extended hand, William pulled Blair into a hug, burying his face into the young man's neck. Returning that hug, unable to hide his own emotions, Blair realized how ill William must have been lately. The man was practically skin and bones within his arms. "You ever need anything, Blair, you just call, you understand? It's taken a while, but I've learned that's what family is for."

Nodding, Blair stepped away, his hands still resting on William's waist until Steven was able to support him once again. The look on Steven's face spoke volumes of agreement with his father's words, though all he did was nod once in Blair's direction.

"Thank you, Mr. Ellison. I'll remember that."

Watching as Steven escorted his father away, Victoria on the other side, Blair wiped the tears from his cheeks with the back of one gloved hand then replaced the cap. The others had already moved off, leaving Blair alone. The flag had been removed from the dark walnut coffin, given to William sometime during the funeral, leaving the coffin stark and bare.

Even knowing that Jim was safe and alive, Blair couldn't help the sinking in the pit of his stomach. Any number of things could have gone wrong that night, leading to a full coffin instead of an empty one. Blair would have been truly mourning his friend if he hadn't charged from Simon's car and barged into the loft with an instant story on his lips. He rubbed the palm of his right hand with his fingers. He had removed the heavy bandage this morning, replacing it with a thin, skin-colored wrapping that allowed the wound to breathe. The doctor said it wouldn't scar, it hadn't been deep enough, but the wound would always serve as a reminder of what he was willing to sacrifice in order to save his friend. A sacrifice that had required very little thought; one that he'd been willing to make.

"I am sorry for your loss, Mr. Sandburg," a deep voice intruded on Blair's musings, pulling his gaze up to look into the impassive features of Philemore Angstrom.

Steeling himself against the resentment suddenly flaring, Blair merely nodded. Cautiously he peered around the cemetery, seeking for some sign of assistance. Conner and Taggert came into view, walking briskly towards them, Simon only a few steps behind. Attempting to school his relief, Blair settled his gaze on the coffin.

"I would say thank you, Mr. Angstrom," Blair replied, grateful that his cap hid the anxiety he knew could be seen in his eyes. "But I'm not sure how to accept that from you. After all, you and Jim weren't exactly friends."

Angstrom paused a moment, then smiled as though he had trapped an adversary and now could play with him. Blair suppressed a shudder.

"You don't have many enemies, do you, Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair would have reproved the arrogant bastard, but held back, his mind adrift with the question, recalling the past several years. Before entering Jim's world, Blair would never have considered anyone an enemy. Maybe someone not worth his time, but not an enemy. He was surprised at the ease with which the names now popped into his mind - Lee Brackett, Brad Ventriss, Chancellor Edwards. Yes, he had enemies, and the thought made him ill. Naomi had raised him to respect and appreciate life. His studies in anthropology had allowed him to dissect civilizations and put each person in a category and look at them with clinical detachment. Even those who had ended up destroying the culture had a place. They were not the enemy; they merely followed selective processing.

However, Blair couldn't detach himself cleanly from the society in which he had become so rooted. The clinical detachment didn't come so easily anymore - he had become too entrenched, too much a part of this world.

"Let's just say the list is growing," Blair replied.

If possible, the smile grew larger, feral. "That is good. A life without enemies is one-dimensional, Mr. Sandburg. Enemies bring completeness, satisfaction that your life is well-lived."

Conner and Taggert were nearly to them now, but Blair ignored their advancement, his mouth open in disbelief. "You would put an enemy before a friend?"

"Indeed. Friendship creates weakness, Mr. Sandburg. It creates feelings of compassion and connection. It gives your enemies tools to use against you. Whereas an enemy is cold, ruthless; enemies keep you on your toes, wary, ever vigil, your senses heightened, sharp." Angstrom frowned down at Blair, crossing his arms over a broad chest. "Your Jim Ellison will be missed greatly, Mr. Sandburg, because he made me strong, effective. He tried to destroy my reputation, which gave me the ability to fortify my weaknesses." He paused only long enough to give the coffin a detached once-over. "Perhaps he meant even more to me as an enemy than he did to you as a friend."

Blair snorted at that, shaking his head in disbelief. "The only reason you feel that way, Mr. Angstrom, is because you obviously do not know what it is to have a real friend. Those that are around you the most are bought and paid for. Even relationships in the community are achieved because of money and status, not because of any bit of humanity that may have attracted true loyalty and respect." Anger gave him courage, and Blair stepped closer to Angstrom. Joli moved in cautiously, as did several of the other men, but Blair merely swept them with an indignant glance before he continued, completely ignoring the slight shake of Joli's head, the warning in her gray eyes. "I pity you, Mr. Angstrom, as I pity anyone whose life is without the power of true friendship. Even the poor are more rich than you because of their ability to love."

Breath exploded through Angstrom's nose in quick, angry gasps, the expression on his face flaming with fury. "How dare you speak to me in such a manner, you worthless..."

"Everything okay, Blair?" Joel Taggert called out, coming forward to tower purposely behind Blair.

As Angstrom's eyes rose to meet the determination of the black man behind Blair, Simon silently moved forward to Blair's right. Joli stepped up slightly, hand resting behind her back, face impassive.

"Yeah, Joel, everything is just fine," Blair replied. "I was just offering my condolences to Mr. Angstrom here."

"Mr. Angstrom," Joli spoke up finally, "your appointment is in fifteen minutes. Perhaps we should leave."

Moving his glare from Blair to fall on Joli, Angstrom studied the woman for a full minute. Something in the cool features relaxed the tall man and by the time he returned his gaze to Blair, the breathing had returned to normal, the placid expression firmly back in place.

"It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Mr. Sandburg," Angstrom remarked. Turning, he walked away, followed closely by his bodyguards.

Joli remained only until the last bodyguard turned to leave. Her pretty face was drawn into a scowl. "That was really stupid, professor," she muttered. Then she winked. "But well done." Schooling her features once more, she turned and followed Angstrom's entourage.

Trying to settle the burning fury shaking his limbs, Blair took a hesitant step forward then paused. Thoughts tumbled through his brain at a frightening rate, stilling his tongue when all he wanted to do was scream his wrath. Never in his life had he felt so much rage. How dare scum like Philemore Angstrom be here, rubbing their noses in his supposed superiority and then claim a kinship through animosity to Jim that Blair connected through friendship. A hand settling gently on one shoulder brought Blair back to his senses to notice chuckling behind him.

"It would seem our little rookie has fangs," Joel mentioned, laughing.

"Poisonous," Conner agreed, nodding, a smile lighting her dark eyes.

"Indeed," Simon replied. "It looks like Jim has been teaching him finesse, as well. Here I thought Blair had been rubbing off on him; seems it's the other way around."

Pivoting to face the two men, eyes blazing, Blair moved to say something but the heat of it was lost in their laughing faces. It took a moment, but finally Blair managed a grin.

"Can we go now?" He suddenly felt very tired.

Nodding, the two larger men fell into step on either side of their colleague, Conner bringing up the rear. Simon draped an arm across the younger man's shoulders as he continued chuckling.

********************

Philemore Angstrom was not happy.

Watching the cops continue across the cemetery, his hands tapped angrily against the top of his limo. That long-haired punk had managed to do the near impossible: in a situation where Angstrom had total control, that kid caused him to lose it. Not only lose it, but also begin name-calling like some elementary school bully.

"Schooner, get over here," he barked, motioning the skinny man to join him at the longer of the two limos. Angstrom glanced over at Julie Cabe, noticing the directions she was giving the others of her security detail and for an instant debated whether to let her in on this. Deciding against it - she had other matters to attend to before tonight's meeting, no need to burden her with this - he took Schooner by the scruff of the neck. "I want to know why Sandburg isn't dead yet."

"I'm sorry, sir," Schooner's nasally voice whined. Angstrom grimaced. If Schooner weren't so good at his job, he would have been long gone just because of the voice. "We took out Crainik like you ordered and went after Sandburg, but he hasn't returned to the loft. We have been unable to ascertain his whereabouts until today."

"Well now that you have ascertained his whereabouts, I suggest you follow him from here and finish the job I asked you to do. That kid took out Crainik, which is already embarrassing. Today's little treat only compounds the deed." He pulled Schooner in close, until his lips nearly touched the man's ear. "I want him in pain, Schooner. Do you understand? Lots of pain before he dies."

Schooner nodded, smiling. Motioning for the man at the rear of the limo to join him, Schooner nodded once again to Angstrom, then folded his lanky frame into the Buick parked behind the limo. Angstrom looked up in time to see Julie join him, her eyes on the departing Buick.

"Where's Schooner going?" she asked, forcing her gaze from the disappearing car.

"None of your business," Angstrom snapped, then crawled into the luxury limo. Julie settled beside him, her face an unreadable mask. "You already have enough on your plate, Ms. Cabe, with the arrivals for tonight's meeting. This has nothing to do with my security, which is your main concern."

"I understand, sir," she replied woodenly.

Daring, Angstrom reached out and laid a hand on Julie's leg, lifting the hem of her business suit to expose a bit of her thigh. When she didn't remove it, he smiled, enjoying the warmth of her leg beneath his hand. He'd have her...soon. Not tonight. There was too much tonight. With Sandburg still alive, the last of his guests arriving and the first official meeting of the new underground order, he wouldn't be able to give her the full attention he needed to. But soon.

"Don't worry, my dear," Angstrom rumbled, his fingers tracing light circles around her knee, "you'll have plenty to keep yourself busy tonight."

Settling back into the plush seat of the limo, he motioned for Nashaad to drive on.

********************

After Simon dropped him off at the loft, Blair jogged across the street towards the unmarked sedan situated down the road a bit. Checking around him, wishing he had Sentinel eyes, Blair scoured the area for any unfamiliar vehicles. Finding none, he walked the rest of the way to the sedan, waving at the cops inside.

"You guys look bored," Blair announced, leaning over the window as the driver rolled it down.

"Nice and quiet," Garrett responded, smiling. "But I did win thirty bucks off this schmoe in poker." He gestured to his partner, who grimaced.

"Cheating," Perkins replied.

Blair grinned. "I was wondering if you guys needed anything to eat or drink. I'll be here for the remainder of the night."

Garrett shook his head. "Nah. Sanchez and Bellowsby is supposed to relieve us in about an hour. We can handle it 'til then, kid. By the way, Forensics was in earlier. Everythin' is cleaned up for ya." Before Blair turned back towards the apartment building, Garrett grabbed his sleeve. "Hey, kid, we never got a chance to tell ya how sorry we is about Ellison. He was a good cop."

Nodding his thanks, Blair waved again and trotted back to the loft. He'd always liked Garrett and appreciated the warm wishes. He just wanted this whole thing done.

Climbing the two flights of stairs, he strolled down the hallway of the third floor to the loft door. It would be good to fall into his own bed, again. Three nights on the couch at the safe house was enough to convince Blair that there was no place like home. The door to the apartment across the hall creaked open and the white-haired head of Mrs. Northrup peeked out.

"Hello, Blair honey," the shaking voice greeted. "How's my favorite boy?"

Blair turned to her, offering a sad smile, switching into mourning mode. "I'm surviving, Mrs. Northrup. Thanks for asking."

"I sure am gonna miss Jimmy, my boy."

"Me, too, Mrs. Northrup. Me, too."

"A shame that a cop isn't even safe in his own home anymore."

Nodding, Blair returned to his door and opened it. "It sure is. It'll be okay, though, Mrs. Northrup. Nothing's going to happen tonight at least."

Mrs. Northrup clicked her dentures back into place. "You wanna sleep over here with me, Blair honey? If I were you, I wouldn't want to sleep in there alone tonight."

Nice invitation, Blair thought, but the smell of Ben-Gay and dog hair didn't sound too appealing.

"Thank you, Mrs. Northup, but I'll be okay."

"If you need anything, honey, even a shoulder to cry on, you just let me know."

Blair smiled in appreciation to the offer. Waving at the elderly lady, Blair walked into the loft, closing the door behind him, bolting and locking it. Without even looking around the loft, the first thing he did was slip off his uniform dress shoes and change into wool socks and sweatshirt and pants. The next thing he did was pick up the phone and dial the cell phone number he had committed to memory last night.

"Yeah?" the strong voice greeted on the other end.

"Hey, Jim," Blair replied, flipping on a lamp as he dropped onto the couch. "How's dead man walking?" He rested his feet on the coffee table.

"Those smelly feet better not be on my coffee table, Sandburg," Ellison groused, a smile evident in the voice.

Wondering if Jim really did have a sixth sense, Blair pulled his feet beneath him on the couch and sat lotus style. "Nope, not these feet. Man, can you smell them clear through the phone?"

"I'm good, Chief, but not that good. So, tell me about my funeral."

"Well, I've decided something. You are not allowed to die before me, man. I'm not going through that again, 'kay?" There was a pause on the other end and Blair's smile faded. "Jim?"

Jim cleared his throat. "Well, Chief, you better plan on living forever because I don't plan on letting you die first. Been there, done that."

Blair fell silent, flashing back to what little memory he had of the fountain in front of Hargrove Hall, hoping his silence was enough because there were definitely no words that would do that statement justice.

"So, uh, I ran into your Dad," Blair shifted the line of conversation slightly. "He doesn't look well, Jim. Can't you talk Simon into letting you at least contact him, let him know what's going on?"

"We can't afford any leak, Chief. Trust me, I hate what this may be doing to him, but if it gets Angstrom off the streets..."

"Oh, man, talk about Angstrom. The bastard was at your funeral!" Blair related his run in with Angstrom, ending with Joli's admonishment and cautious compliment. "It looks like she's in real tight with him. That's good, right?"

"Sounds like it. You be careful, though, Blair. Angstrom isn't one to let that go. You embarrassed him in front of his men. Remember, he killed me out of vengeance."

"C'mon, Jim, I'll be fine. There are cops out front and in back of the building, and they've had an eye on the loft since your little death scene. Everything's fine."

"I'm just saying...if Angstrom does have cops on his payroll, any one of those cops watching the loft could be helping him. We've been as thorough as we can in assigning cops with good records, but still...just be careful."

"Yessir!" Blair grinned, then yawned. "Hey, man," he said around the yawn, "I'm beat. I'm gonna take a shower and turn in."

"It's only one-thirty in the afternoon, Chief."

"No offense, man, but our safe houses need better couches. A corpse couldn't rest properly on that thing in the living room." He grimaced at the weak pun. "Sorry."

Jim chuckled. "That was as bad as my donut analogy."

"Aw, Jim, nothing could be as bad as that donut analogy." He smiled. "I'll be by tomorrow morning. Anything you want me to bring?"

"You might as well bring Jack Kelso's book. If I'm stuck here at the safe house then I'd better have something to read."

"Got it. I'll see you in the morning, buddy."

"Blair?" Jim caught him before he clicked off the phone.

"Yeah?"

There was a pause on the other end. "Good night, partner."

Though he knew Jim couldn't see it, Blair smiled. He had learned to read Ellisonese quite well over the past few years. In those few words, Jim had spoken volumes.

********************

Outside the loft, Schooner lowered the surveillance dish, removing the earphones, his eyes wide with the implication of what he just overheard. He had picked up Sandburg's side of the conversation easily. With some adjustments to the equipment, he had been barely able to pick up the voice on the other end. But he didn't need to hear the other voice to know what was going on...to know Ellison was alive, and worse still, there was a plant inside Angstrom's organization.

Dialing the cell phone he waited until the familiar voice of his boss's assistant answered.

"Chung, get me Angstrom. This is Schooner."

"Hang on," the young man on the other end replied. After a few seconds of silence, Angstrom's voice sounded over the phone.

"Schooner, you better be calling me to report that Sandburg died screaming."

"Well, sir, there seems to be a slight hitch in that plan."

********************

Blair had made it as far as a shower before he ended up back at the couch, a warm mug of tea resting on a coaster on the coffee table. He had turned off the television only moments before and sat there debating whether to urge his tired body over to the stereo and put on Angie Ferris's new CD, or just curl up on the couch and fall asleep in the eerie silence of the loft. From the drowsy feeling of his heavy eyelids, the couch was winning.

Just as he was about to fall over, any and all thoughts drifting off along with consciousness, urgent knocking at the front door jerked him awake.

"What the...?" Hesitating, hoping that the knocking might be at Mrs. Northrup's door instead of his, Blair about fell asleep once more when the pounding occurred again, this time more insistent. "Okay, okay," he muttered, getting to his stockinged feet and crossing to the front door.

Jim's earlier warning went through his mind just as he reached for the bolt in the door. Stepping to the peephole, stretching to look through, he asked, "Who is it?"

"Sandburg, it's me, Bellowsby. C'mon, open up! This is urgent."

Officer Bellowsby's face appeared warped through the lens of the peephole, but his chubby features were unmistakable. Officer Garrett had mentioned earlier that Sanchez and Bellowsby were next on the surveillance shift for the front of the loft. Wondering what could have brought Bellowsby up the stairs, he unbolted the door. It never occurred to him to wonder why Sanchez wasn't with him. After undoing the last latch, he fell back as the door flew open, pushing him away. Before Blair could regain his balance, Bellowsby was on him, one thick arm curled tightly around his throat. Blair gasped as Bellowsby wrenched his arms behind his back, holding them awkwardly...and painfully.

A familiar form walked through the front door, closing it silently behind him. Who was he? How did Blair know him? Around the black spots appearing in his vision, Blair tried to get a good look at the man. At the cemetery...one of Angstrom's men. Blair's head began to pound.

"Come now, Officer Bellowsby, we don't want Mr. Sandburg out just yet," the man spoke calmly.

As Bellowsby loosened his grip around Blair's throat, allowing him to suck in great breaths of air, movement down the hallway caught Blair's attention. Two more men entered through the back door, guns drawn, both dressed in long, black overcoats. How predictable. What was it with bad buys and long black coats?

"Mr. Angstrom sends his regards," the man said, smiling easily.

"Oh yeah?" Blair replied, arching his back as a spasm in his shoulders shot through his body. He gritted his teeth against the pain. "I just spoke to Mr. Angstrom a few hours ago. He could have sent them then."

The man's smile stretched into a menacing grin. "That was before he found out Detective Ellison is still alive."

Blair stopped struggling, catching his breath, his eyes widening. Everything seemed to stop as that bit of news hung in the air as a challenge between him and his assailant. He barely caught the nod of the man, had just enough time to hold his breath as one of the other men rushed forward and pressed a cloth soaked with chloroform over his face. He struggled against the crushing onslaught, not daring to breathe in, his head exploding with the need to. The man's other hand grabbed Blair's hair at the back of his head and pulled back to hit Bellowsby's chest. The pain nearly caused him to gasp, but he fought against it.

Swinging both his legs up, Blair caught the second man in the gut. The force of the impact caused Bellowsby to lose his balance and he crashed to the floor, Blair on top of him; Bellowsby's grip loosened. Instantly, Blair rolled from his captives, jerking to his feet, crouching in readiness, searching frantically for a way out. But Angstrom's other two men were on him, one grabbing him by the hair and jerking him back to clench his arms in a strong grip, the other grabbing his kicking legs. Just as Blair drew breath to bellow for help, Bellowsby had the cloth over his face. The sweet smell of chloroform touched his nostrils and Blair stopped breathing, already feeling the affects of what little he had breathed in.

"Get over here!" Bellowsby ordered, probably to the man Blair had gutted earlier.

As Blair struggled against the men holding him, fighting not to breathe even as his throat caught fire with the need, the fourth man leaned close and jabbed him sharply in the gut.

Gasping at the pain, Blair breathed in the chloroform, feeling Bellowsby's hand on the back of his head to keep it from moving. Blackness drew down on him as the cloth did its work. His body slumped as oblivion won the struggle.

All four men stared down at the motionless form sprawled on the floor, all of them breathing heavily from the exertion to finally bring the kid down.

"No wonder he took out Crainik," Schooner muttered, bending over to rest his hands on his knees. "That kid's a fighter."

Bellowsby nodded. "Here I thought he whined his way into Major Crimes." His face took on an expression of appreciation.

Schooner struck him on the shoulder. "Having second thoughts, Bellowsby?"

The officer chuckled. "Yeah, right. I've been looking forward to watching this for some time. As long as Angstrom keeps his promise that I get to kill the kid."

"Angstrom never goes back on his word." He turned to the two others who had come in through the back. "You took care of the cops in the back alley?"

"They're both dead," Eckerly responded, bending to grab Sandburg by the arms. He jerked the unconscious body up, leaning over to place the kid over one shoulder in a fireman's carry, and then straightened. "We'll get this back to the estate." Schooner watched as Eckerly walked towards the back entrance, Sandburg's arms swinging in motion with the long curly hair, amazed again at the fight in such a small man. Rubbing his sore stomach, Townsend followed close behind, shutting the back door.

A timid knock at the front door drew Schooner's attention. He motioned for Bellowsby to answer it, stepping into the kitchen, out of sight.

Carefully, Bellowsby opened the door, a tolerant smile coming to his face. "Hello, Mrs. Northrup."

"Officer Bellowsby, isn't it?" a trembling, older voice sounded from the doorway. "I heard some noise over here and after poor Jimmy's death, I didn't want that dear boy Blair to be hurt in any way. Is he okay?"

"It's quite all right, Mrs. Northrup. Blair is just having a hard time adjusting to the empty apartment is all. Can you blame him?"

Schooner smiled, impressed with Bellowsby's quick thinking. The cop didn't previously strike him as too intelligent.

"Not at all. Maybe I should stay with him?"

"He's out like a light now, Mrs. Northrup, but I'll be sure to let him know that you came by. You're a good neighbor, Mrs. Northrup."

After several attempts to push the old lady off, Bellowsby finally managed to close the door. When he peered at Schooner, he frowned. "She remembered my name."

"It won't matter." With that, Schooner pulled out a .35 millimeter with a long silencer attached. "Mr. Angstrom thanks you for your service, Bellowsby." He fired point blank, watching as Bellowsby jerked as all three bullets struck his body - armor piercing bullets that wrenched through the kevlar vest Bellowsby wore. By the time Bellowsby's body hit the floor he was dead. "And regrets that he must break his promise to you."

Smiling in satisfaction, Schooner crossed to the living room, picking up the phone on the table at the end of the couches. Pulling out a small box with a gray LCD display and several small holes on the face, he pressed the redial button of the cordless phone, holding the box against the receiver. As the tones played the most recent phone number dialed, the box translated the tones, displaying a number. Holding the phone to his cheek, Schooner pressed the memory save button on the box and slipped it back into a pocket of his coat.

"Ellison!" a deep voice greeted on the end of the phone.

"So, tell me, Detective Ellison, how important is the kid to you?" He grinned when there was no answer, almost able to hear the wheels turning as Ellison tried to figure out who was talking and how they got the cell phone number. "I would say he's just become more so to Mr. Angstrom." Chuckling, he cut off the conversation, set the phone back on the cradle, and waited. It took only a second before the phone started ringing.

To that persistent ringing, Schooner exited the loft.

********************

The blood drained from Jim's face as he listened to the unanswered rings on his cell phone.

"No, no, no, no," he breathed, fear clenching his throat.

"Jim, what is it?" Simon asked, touching Jim on the shoulder.

Looking up, his expression grim, horror in his eyes, Jim swallowed hard as he heard his own voice on the answering machine greeting over the cell phone. He closed the phone. "Sandburg."

So that was it. Checking over her shoulder, Joli pulled out the second CD she had burned with the information from Angstrom's computer and slid in a third. Pressing the necessary codes, the CD burner she had attached to the computer whirred and began saving the downloaded information.

From the list Angstrom had given to her of "visitors" pouring in to Cascade, Joli had been able to figure out the who's who of the underworld. Mob lords from around the world, specializing in different fields of drugs, weapons, espionage...domains of power that genuine government agencies had been trying to stop. After accompanying one Tetrani Chun from the airport earlier - one of the Orient's most powerful underground figures - Joli figured out what Angstrom was planning. It had taken time to crack the code on his personal computer system, but she hadn't taken all of those computer classes and worked with the best cryptographers in Cascade for nothing. She had learned the trade well. And now it paid off.

It wasn't a worldwide drug network, as she had earlier presumed. It was a worldwide arrangement with the most powerful men in the underworld who financially supported the most powerful men in governments: China, Italy, Germany, Russia, America...the list was endless. And with each new name, with each more byte of information burned on the CDs, Joli's heart dropped.

This was bigger than anyone had supposed...maybe even bigger than Paul had thought.

Glancing over her shoulder once more to check the door of the hidden office, Joli returned her gaze to the screen, amazed at the list of names downloading to the CD burner. Men and women, not only in Cascade government, but in specific offices around America, including the federal government, who were on Angstrom's payroll. Several names of cops she recognized out of the Cascade PD, senators, representatives...the governor. She shook her head, a vagrant tendril of hair falling over one eye. Curling it behind an ear, she continued to scan the information, her gray eyes narrowing dangerously. This would be Angstrom's downfall. This information would avenge her brother and justify Royal's death.

Then maybe she could get on with life. Maybe the ache in her gut and the emptiness in her heart would go away. Maybe she could even be normal again...date again, maybe fall in love. After six years of hunting down Angstrom, of selling her soul to get into his confidence, maybe at last she'd find some peace.

Maybe.

Pulling the last CD from the burner, she disconnected the various equipment she had brought in with her and stuffed it all into the black bag at her feet. Closing down the system, carefully arranging items so they were back to their original positions, she turned off the lights and warily slid open the door of the hidden office. Peeking around the corner, scanning the corridor, she let out a small sigh. Just what she needed would be to have one of Angstrom's men walking down the corridor after she got the evidence.

Quickly, barely making any noise, she moved through the manor, returning to her room. Opening her bedroom door, her brows creased in thought. Strange that she didn't see anyone in the halls. They were getting ready for the mass meeting being held at the Warwick Hotel in Cascade, and yet the normally busy corridors were empty. Her gut shot a warning to her brain. This wasn't good. Something was going on.

More urgently than ever, Joli stepped into her room, shutting the door. She didn't need a light. She knew exactly where she was going. Crossing the room to the head of the bed situated near the large bay window, she dropped to her knees and squeezed into the space beneath the bed. Since entering Angstrom's employment, Joli had been working on two boards of the hardwood floor. It had taken almost a month, what with her schedule, to finally loosen the boards, but it had been worth it. Just as she had suspected, the space beneath them would be the perfect hiding place for any of her equipment.

After working the two boards free as quietly as possible, she began stuffing her equipment into the space. Finally, she vigilantly wrapped the precious three CDs into the black bag and stored them in with the rest of her equipment. Replacing the boards, she crawled out from under the bed. She walked back to the door of her bedroom, brushing the dust from her dark business suit. It was time to contact Captain Henderson. She was ready to get out. If she timed it just right, she could get a hold of him at the Warwick and they could take out not only Angstrom, but also the rest of his guests - the largest bust ever of a crime syndicate. The papers would eat it up; Cascade would be in the news for quite a while. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that Angstrom fell.

And fell hard.

Glancing up and down the corridor, Joli left her room, closing the door behind her. Squaring her shoulders, falling easily back into the character of Julie Cabe, she marched down the corridor. Now she needed to find out what was going on in the manor. Something didn't feel right.

Taking the stairs down to the main floor, she faltered after the last landing. At the bottom of the stairs stood Marcus and Anelgraham, standing side-by-side, shoulders touching, their faces drawn in grim determination. Joli's spine tingled with warning.

"Hello, gentleman," she greeted, her voice strong, firm. Whatever was happening, she would be prepared.

Phillip Chung appeared from behind the two men, casually leaning on one leg. Joli had always hated Angstrom's assistant. There was something not quite right about the young man. If she hadn't been so busy working on destroying Angstrom, she would have dug deeper into Chung's records.

"Ms. Cabe," Chung said, meeting her at the bottom of the stairs. "Mr. Angstrom would like you to join him in his private office."

Joli smiled warmly. "Of course." Glancing at the two men who fell in behind her and Chung as they strolled down the corridor leading to the restricted door at the end of the hall, she asked, "Is there a reason I feel like I'm under guard here, Chung?"

Chung smiled, his dark eyes gleaming. "Should there be, Ms. Cabe?"

She met his smug expression with a tilt of an eyebrow, but said nothing.

********************

Angstrom watched as Eckerly dropped the sagging body of Blair Sandburg to the floor. Nodding his thanks, he gestured for the man and his partner to stand guard at the entrance of his office. After the two men left, Angstrom studied the still form on his floor.

Shoulder length curly hair lay splayed around the young man's head, some of it falling across the pale face. In his twisted position on the floor, Sandburg looked almost dead, but Angstrom noted the slight rise and fall of the stomach, the throbbing of a pulse at his neck.

It would be so easy to end Sandburg's days right here - grab the head, jerk it at the proper angle to snap the neck, and Angstrom could watch the young life seep from the still body. The man had it coming. No one embarrassed Angstrom; no one got the better of him. He would always win. Vambrose had learned that the hard way. He wouldn't play along with Angstrom's plans, therefore Vambrose lost out. Not just on the Northwest pipeline, either. Soon, Angstrom would have his dealers in South America, and the makers in China as well. Tonight would clinch that.

Squatting beside Sandburg, Angstrom moved the hair covering the younger man's face. So innocent, so pale, the expression one of sleep. It would be so easy. Closing one hand around the man's throat, Angstrom squeezed, felt the throbbing pulse, heard the rasping breaths as the airway slowly closed off. He smiled then released his grip. No. He would wait until Ellison arrived. According to Schooner, it was more than probable. Apparently the two were close. Once Ellison arrived, then he'd enjoy killing both of them. But not before listening to Ellison beg for Sandburg's life.

And not before Sandburg screamed.

Right now, though, he had Julie Cabe - or whatever her real name was - to deal with. She had managed to get through his defenses, had managed to work her way into his trust. Another embarrassment he would deal with, before the others found out about it and reminded him of their warnings.

He glanced at his watch. Five-thirty. His guests would be gathering at Warwick at nine. By that time, all of his loose ends would be cleaned up. Tonight would be the beginning of a new era.

His era.

The panel covering the secret entrance to Angstrom's office slid open, Schooner walking through before the panel automatically slid shut.

"You did well, Schooner," Angstrom said by way of greeting, standing and purposefully stepping over Sandburg's body. "Did you get the number?"

Schooner smiled, handing over the small unit he pulled from his coat pocket. "Bellowsby is dead as well, sir."

Grinning, Angstrom slid into the leather chair behind his desk and picked up the phone. "Expect a bonus in your check this week, Schooner." As he dialed the phone number on the display of the small unit in his hand, he added, "Or should I say, Chief of Security?"

Pleased, Schooner tilted his head in acknowledgement of the promotion.

"Keep an eye on our young friend there while I make this phone call, Schooner," Angstrom ordered, pressing the last number of the cell phone, then resting easily against the back of his chair.

********************

Jim hated riding shotgun in Simon's car. He much preferred driving, especially when Sandburg's life was at stake. He would have run that last light, would never have stopped at the stop sign. Gritting his teeth, his jaw ached. Too much time had passed.

********************

Sirens blaring, Simon took the corner of Prospect, screeching to a halt in the parking area. Patrol cars were already in place, their lights flashing red, blue and yellow, casting eerie shadows along the busy street. The sun had not completely set, but dusk threw auburn highlights across the buildings. Onlookers and pedestrians must be wondering why this particular apartment complex was receiving so much attention lately. This was the second time in five days the police had been there.

Without even waiting for Simon's car to come to a complete halt, Jim jumped from the passenger side, crossing the street to the entrance, only then noticing the coroner's van. His heart sank. Throwing open the glass door and taking the steps two at a time, he practically flew up the two flights of stairs. At the top landing, he jolted to a stop. Blood. He smelled blood. Lots of it. Swallowing down the bile that crept up in his throat, he walked woodenly down the corridor to the loft. Conner stood in the doorway, talking to another officer. She turned to him, relief on her face.

"He's not here, Jim," she breathed, touching his arm.

"I smell blood," Jim whispered, his eyes peering over Conner's shoulder to inside the loft. Uniforms and forensics milled around the living room. He could hear the zipping of a body bag. His mouth dried out and it took all the control he could muster to calm his pounding heart.

"It's Bellowsby, Jim. It's not Sandy."

Letting out a long breath, only then realizing he had been holding it, Jim touched Conner on the shoulder. Pressing past her, he stepped into the loft. Filing away the scent of blood, his nose picked up on something else. An odor strange to the apartment. He bent over the body, touching the coroner's assistant to keep him from fully zipping up the body bag. The assistant looked wide-eyed up at him, almost like he had seen a...

Jim peered around the loft, noticing movement had ceased and the same reaction on the assistant coroner's face reflected on the others' faces. Before anything could be said, Simon's imposing bulk filled the loft doorway.

"All right, people," he bellowed. "Now you know Ellison's alive. Keep about your work and let's try to find Sandburg, shall we?"

And that's all it took. Officers and techs returned to the business of bagging and tagging. The coroner's assistant let out a long sigh.

"I'm sorry," he whispered at Jim. "In my business, though, ghosts are part of the nightmares."

Jim managed a smile as he reached down and unzipped the body bag. Two holes to the chest, one to the throat. He opened Bellowsby's shirt, noting the kevlar vest.

"Armor piercing," Jim muttered.

"Right into the heart," the assistant provided. "He was probably dead before he hit the ground."

Digging into the body bag, his sense of smell zeroing in on the out of place scent, Jim pulled out Bellowsby's right hand and sniffed it. Grimacing, he backed away.

"You smell that?" he asked, more out of habit than actually requiring an answer. "Chloroform."

"Really?" The assistant pulled out a bag, sliding it over the hand and tying off the lip of the bag with a metal twist.

Jim straightened just as Simon joined him. "He's on Angstrom's payroll, Simon."

"How do you figure?"

"He's got chloroform on his hand. That's probably how he took out Sandburg." He pivoted slightly, scouring the main level of the loft. "There had to be more than just him, though. The guy who called me, definitely. Maybe one more. Bellowsby received his payment for helping take out Sandburg by getting two slugs in the chest."

"More than that," Simon replied. "Sanchez is dead out front. Willows and Ferguson are dead out back."

Jim thought a moment. "So, Bellowsby takes out Sanchez and comes to the front door. Sandburg knows Bellowsby and doesn't offer any kind of resistance. Opens the door and is attacked." He turned to the corridor leading to the back door. "One or two more enter from the back."

"That doesn't explain how they got your number."

Pressing past Simon, Jim crossed to the end table situated between the two couches. "Anyone dust this for prints?" At an affirmative mumble, Jim picked up the phone and pressed redial. The cell phone in his back pocket started ringing. Disconnecting the loft phone, his cell phone stopped. "They simply redialed. I had to have been the last person Blair spoke to on the phone."

"But there is no surveillance equipment in the loft, Jim. Uniforms were here within in minutes of your phone call. They couldn't have had time to get rid of their equipment that fast. So, how did they know you were alive?"

Biting his lower lip in thought, Jim absently twisted the phone in his hand. There was something he was missing, something vital. Quickly, his mind went over the events of the last several days, skimming over the parts that he knew would be of no help. He suddenly wished Sandburg were there. The kid seemed to pull memories out of Jim like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Once more he passed through the memories - Creed's death, the warrant, meeting Joli at Angstrom's manor, meeting her again at the zoo...wait...the zoo. That was it.

"They didn't need surveillance equipment in the loft, Captain," Jim supplied, setting the phone back down on the cradle. "All they needed was a listening device aimed at the loft. If Angstrom's men followed Blair back here from the cemetery, I was the first person he talked to. They could have overheard everything." Jim's breath caught. "Oh, man, that means they know about Joli."

The cell phone rang from his back pocket again. Jim glanced first at the loft phone he had returned to its cradle, then at Simon. Quickly, he pulled the cell phone out of his pocket.

"You'd better pray Sandburg is still alive," Jim warned into the phone.

"Ahh, my dear Detective Ellison," Angstrom's voice oozed over the phone. "What a delight to speak to you again. And here I thought our conversations had come to an abrupt end."

Mouthing for Simon to trace the call, waiting for Simon to pull out his own cell phone and contact dispatch, Jim said, "Put Sandburg on the phone." He paced around the back of the couch and faced the brick wall.

There was a pause. "I'm afraid that won't be quite possible. Mr. Sandburg is still sleeping soundly. Don't worry, though, he'll be quite awake once you arrive. And healthy...I hope."

Jim motioned for Simon to stop. "And where is it exactly that I'm arriving?"

"Why, my manor, of course. And you will come alone, Detective. I see any other cops around, including the unmarked vehicles your captain has placed outside my gates, and Mr. Sandburg dies." There was a click, and the line disconnected.

Jim stared at the cell phone for a moment, then closed it. Automatically, he turned and ascended the stairs that led to his loft room. Pulling an extra revolver and ankle holster from the box on the top shelf of the steel frame that acted as his closet, Jim belted the holster around his ankle and slid in the extra weapon. Grabbing a box of ammo and dumping the contents into both his pockets, he dropped the box and charged down the stairs. Simon waited for him at the bottom steps.

"I can have back-up there in minutes, Jim," Simon explained.

"No."

"Jim..."

"It's not just Sandburg, Simon. It's Joli, as well. If Angstrom's men did overhear my conversation with Blair, then they know Joli is a plant. Her life is in danger. And that means we play by Angstrom's rules." Simon grabbed Jim's arm. "Simon, if she's managed to accumulate evidence to bring that man down, we can't do anything to jeopardize it. You can have back-up ready, but you keep them at a distance. Angstrom even smells more cops then both Blair and Joli are dead."

The two men stared at one another, challenging, wills clashing. Finally, Simon nodded.

"We'll do this your way, Jim. But--" He lifted one long finger, the expression on his face not allowing disagreement. "Fifteen minutes after you're in, we're coming in."

"Sir--"

"Fifteen minutes. So you'd better work fast."

Nodding once, jaw clenched, Jim left the loft, determined that tonight would end it. One way or another.

********************

The first thing Blair was aware of when consciousness returned was a pounding headache. As if that weren't enough, his gut started aching, and he felt like he needed to vomit. A moan escaped his lips.

"Well, well, Mr. Sandburg," a familiar voice broke through the haze of pain. "Welcome back."

Squinting open one eye, moaning as the light pierced that eye, forcing him to close it again, Blair slowly sat up, moaning again as his stomach muscles rebelled. Coughing, he lay back down, both arms encircling his stomach.

"I apologize for your ill treatment, Mr. Sandburg," the voice continued. "But I understand you gave my men quite a bit of a fight."

Memories came flooding back at that point. Opening his eyes, grimacing at the bright light until they adjusted, Blair peered at the source of the voice.

Philemore Angstrom sat on the corner of a rather large desk, one foot on the floor, one leg slung across the corner. The look on his face seemed familiar, and Blair was suddenly reminded of a trip he took with Professor Stoddard to Africa on an anthropological excursion years ago. During a Savannah tour, they had witnessed a lion taking down a gazelle; Blair was certain the look on Angstrom's face matched the one on the lion right before it tore into the gazelle's flesh. Blair swallowed.

"How did you sleep?" Angstrom asked, the hungry grin widening.

"I've had better, man," Blair mumbled, rolling to his side. Using one arm as support, the other around his midsection, he very carefully sat up. A familiar man dressed in a dark trench coat stood nearby. Blair tried to remember the man, but his thoughts were still too jumbled for anything coherent.

Angstrom chuckled. "You should actually be grateful that you're awake, Mr. Sandburg. My original orders were to have you killed. It was only after Mr. Schooner here reported that he overheard a conversation between you and Detective Ellison that I decided it would be much more fun to keep you alive." He paused. "As bait."

The man Angstrom called Schooner stepped forward and pulled a gun, training it at Blair's head. Oh yeah, now he recognized: the man with Bellowsby back at the loft.

Striding across the floor of the spacious office, Angstrom stopped beside Blair, crouching so their faces were only inches apart. "Remember our conversation at the cemetery, Mr. Sandburg?" he whispered, his breath edged with something fermented. Blair nodded, pulling back from the smelly breath. "Friendship and love create weakness. I shall win, Mr. Sandburg, because Ellison is weak. You make him weak."

The door to the front entrance swung open and several people Blair didn't recognize entered the room, surrounding an individual he did recognize. Blair cringed. Joli.

Their eyes met for only a heartbeat. In that hard, gray gaze of a fellow cop, Blair met cold steel. Her character was in place, and it wouldn't slip. She wouldn't let it...not even for him.

"Ah, Ms. Cabe," Angstrom greeted the young woman, rising. Before he turned away, Blair noticed the grim set of the man's face. By that expression Blair knew one thing: Joli's cover had been compromised.

"Mr. Angstrom," Joli replied, her voice calm and strong. "May I ask what this is all about? And why is Mr. Sandburg here?"

Angstrom watched Joli closely, noting each movement, each breath. He was duly impressed. "You must be one of the best," he said, leaning against the front of the desk.

"The best, sir?"

Angstrom nodded. "Nothing slipped, no concern in the voice, the face steady. You didn't even let on that you know this man."

"I do know him, sir. He's Ellison's roommate and partner."

"And a fellow cop to you."

Joli gaped at Angstrom, then peered around the room at the others. "You're joking, right?"

"Mr. Schooner overheard an interesting conversation earlier today, Ms. Cabe. Apparently Jim Ellison is still alive."

"What? That's not possible, sir." She stepped forward, only to be grabbed from behind by Anelgraham and thrust to her knees. Survival instincts took over; she bent forward, drawing Anelgraham's forward motion with her, then twisted. The man crashed to the floor. Before she could take advantage of the moment, however, Marcus grabbed her by the arms, wrenching them viciously behind her. "This is ridiculous, Mr. Angstrom," she cried out, unable to move. "Why are you doing this to me? After everything I've done to prove myself to you!"

"Tell me your real name, Ms. Cabe. Or should I say...Joli?"

Joli growled in frustration. "Sir, you are making a mistake. My name is Julie Cabe. You ran my ID through yourself."

"A cleverly put together file," Angstrom replied, stepping forward. He reached out and grabbed Joli by the chin, clenching her face. Tears stood in her eyes at the pain.

Blair wanted to cry out, make him stop, but knew if he did what little control Joli had right now would be gone. The truth would be completely out, and Joli's life would be forfeit.

"Tell me your real name!" Angstrom ordered, his fingers digging into Joli's tender skin.

She struggled against the grip, finally managing to force Angstrom's thumb near her mouth. Before he could move it, she bit down hard. Angstrom bellowed in pain, smacking the side of Joli's head with his other hand to force her teeth to release. When his hand was free, blood poured from the teeth bites.

Blair moved to intercede, but the man Angstrom called Schooner grabbed him by the hair, jerking him back, the gun barrel thrust up against his jaw.

"My name is Julie Cabe!" Joli blurted, spitting out blood as she regained her composure. "You know that! I was born and raised in California, I moved here when I was eighteen..."

"Lies!" Angstrom roared. Twisting, he pulled the gun from Schooner's hand and cocked the hammer, pressing the gun against Blair's temple; Schooner's grip remained. "Tell me your real name, or he dies."

Joli's gaze never once wavered from Angstrom, not dipping an iota to look at Blair. Shutting his eyes tight, not wanting to see the moment when death came, Blair cringed, waiting.

Blair could feel Angstrom squeeze the trigger, could hear the clicking of the chamber. So many thoughts and emotions rushed through his mind then, words he had wanted to say, projects he had yet to complete, others to begin. Jim's face came to mind, and for a moment Blair relaxed under the familiar gaze - a gaze that seemed filled with care and pride. He'd miss Jim most of all.

"Joli McCrae! My name is Joli McCrae. Let him go!"

Opening his eyes, Blair was greeted with the anguished expression on Joli's face as she strained against the strong arms holding her. "No," he whispered, shaking his head when Angstrom lowered the weapon. "No, don't believe her."

Joli smiled sadly at Blair, her eyes softening, tears rolling down her cheeks. "It's okay, professor. It's okay."

"See what I mean about weakness, Mr. Sandburg?" Angstrom spoke aloud, turning from Blair, absently passing the gun back to Schooner, who released his captive but trained the gun on him again. "McCrae. Now, why does that name sound so familiar?"

"The narcotics cop, sir." All eyes trained on the young man standing on the opposite side of the desk. A briefcase sat on the desktop in front of him.

"What was that, Mr. Chung?"

Chung peered at Joli with dark, slanted eyes, smiling at the pained expression on her face. Now that her character had been cracked, emotions seemed to pour out of her.

"Paul McCrae, sir. About six or seven years ago. He's the narcotics cop that infiltrated your organization...remember? The one we cleaned up."

Angstrom smiled then, a light in his eyes. "Ahh, yes, I do remember him." He turned to Joli. "So what was he to you, my dear? Husband, lover...?"

"My brother," Joli replied, her voice strong, fury dripping from each word. Her gray eyes narrowed, darkened like a thunderstorm.

"Well now, isn't that nice? Come for vengeance, have you? Want to see me dead?"

Purposefully, Joli shook her head. "Not dead, however much I would enjoy it. Justice will claim you, Angstrom. I will see you destroyed."

Angstrom scoffed at that. "My dear, you obviously have no idea with whom you're dealing. You of all people know what I'm about to become, and neither you nor this long-haired hippie are going to keep me from accomplishing it."

"There, you are quite right, Phil. I'll have that pleasure."

Surprised by the new voice, all focus shifted to the back corner of the office. Standing at what must be a secret entrance to the room was a man only just taller than Blair and very round. He wore thin silver spectacles and a gray suit with a black turtleneck. Situated behind him were three men that towered by several feet over his balding head. Each of the men held an automatic weapon trained on Angstrom and his men. Blair swallowed noisily. This was getting interesting ...and out of hand. He peered at Joli and found recognition in her eyes as she stared at the round little man.

"Hello, Phil," the stranger said, smiling.

"Vambrose," Angstrom gasped.

Alexander Vambrose stepped towards Angstrom, allowing the three men behind him to scatter around the room, disarming Angstrom's men. Several more, dressed similar to Vambrose, poured through the secret entrance. "I guess you should have known better than to betray me, Phil." Lifting his gun, Vambrose aimed it at Angstrom.

********************

It had been too easy entering Angstrom's manor. Now Jim knew why. All the guards had been killed, the doors now guarded by men wearing suits of gray with black turtlenecks, different from what Angstrom's men wore. They watched the night closely, wearing infrared lenses, but Jim had managed to slip through the surrounding foliage without detection. After sliding through a broken window, he entered the house, extending his hearing, picking up conversations that allowed him to put together the confused puzzle pieces of what was happening.

Alexander Vambrose had attacked and his men now had control of Angstrom's manor. Slipping into an unoccupied room, Jim pressed the microphone hanging at his mouth more firmly against his lips.

"Simon," Jim whispered, "terms have changed. Send in the troops. Vambrose has attacked the manor."

Jim had to give Simon credit. His superior was able to control his voice as he passed on the information.

"Jim, you need to get out. We'll handle this."

"No can do, sir. I'll keep in contact, let you know where I am. Out."

Ignoring the outburst from his captain, Jim sneaked out of the room, glancing up and down the empty corridor. Concentrating, he extended his hearing, seeking the familiar voice or heartbeat of his partner. Instantly, his hearing peeled away the many sounds in the manor, filing them away when they weren't the one he wanted. After several anxious moments, Jim let out a sigh. He found the voice he wanted. It was a bit strained but sounded healthy.

Stretching out his hearing to include the room Blair was in, Jim listened only for a moment before his feet started carrying him towards his objective.

********************

"Vambrose, wait!" Joli watched as the chubby little man focused on her. Beady green eyes scrutinized her body, admiring what he saw. Feeling sick as the sweaty man leered at her, Joli swallowed.

"And what have we here?" Vambrose asked, gesturing with his head towards the man who held a gun at Joli. The man stuck his weapon into Joli's ribs, forcing her forward. Out of the corner of her eye, Joli noticed Sandburg moving to intercept, concern creasing his high brow. She shook her head even as one of Vambrose's men forced him back. "And who might you be?"

Joli halted too close to the man, feeling the heat emanating from his flabby body, close enough to see the sweat standing out in droplets on his jowled face. Ignoring the man's vulgar expression, she replied, "Vice." That got the man's attention. He peered over at Sandburg.

"Him, too?"

Before she could reply, Sandburg answered. "Major Crimes." Joli shook her head. Stupid, professor, real stupid. I could have gotten you out of this. One look at the young man's face, though, and Joli knew he wasn't about to let that happen.

"Two cops?" Vambrose scoffed. "Here I thought you were better than that, Phil."

Angstrom glared at his former associate, but said nothing.

Touching Joli's cheek with the sweaty palm of one plump hand, Vambrose returned his full attention to her. "So, tell me, Ms. Vice. Why should I wait to deal with Angstrom? Are you going to ask me to play nice with him?"

"Look, more cops will be here any minute."

"She's right," Sandburg interrupted. "Angstrom made the mistake of calling my partner. He's not very far away and neither is back-up."

Vambrose straightened then, turning to the man guarding Sandburg. "Sound the exit call. Meet at the prearranged location. We'll settle accounts here and join them soon."

The man nodded, lifting his left hand to speak into a comm unit on his wrist. The gun he aimed at Sandburg never wavered, though. Vambrose's other men in the room didn't move.

"We don't want you, Vambrose," Joli continued, anxious. "We just want Angstrom. Let Louisiana take care of their own."

"Well, that's where you and I are going to have to differ, Miss Vice. See, Angstrom sent me a message. He took out one of my best men and scattered some of my best stuff." Focusing on Angstrom, his eyes narrowed dangerously. "He's been making inquiries into my manufacturing, and has cut off several of my pipelines. I don't deal well with that betrayal."

"Let me take him down, then," Joli offered nervously. She couldn't let Angstrom be killed by this man, not when she was so close, not when she finally had the evidence to destroy him.

"Joli, what are you doing?" Sandburg demanded.

She waved him off. "Any connections to you will be buried. Just let me...let us get him behind bars and you can get your organization back online."

"That will never happen, Miss Vice," Vambrose argued. "Philly-boy has too many judges and cops on his payroll."

"I know; I've got the list."

Angstrom's head jerked at that. His eyes narrowed. "That's impossible."

"Your code took a while to crack," Joli replied, grinning triumphantly, "but when it finally did, information spilled out like honey."

"Like information about his contacts?" Vambrose asked.

Joli shrugged. "Yes, but your name could be easily deleted. All you have to do is walk out of here."

"Joli, stop this!" Sandburg cried, moving towards her. Disgust mottled his face and he would have said more if Vambrose's man hadn't grabbed him from behind. Sandburg strained against the grip around his neck, ignoring the weapon digging into his back. "You're dealing with the devil, Joli! Don't do this!"

"Shut up, Sandburg," Joli screeched, feeling her control waver and finally slip away. "The only thing that matters is Angstrom!"

"Not like this, Joli!"

"Shut him up," Vambrose bellowed.

The man holding Sandburg cocked his weapon, a sneer on his face as he dug the gun deeper into Sandburg's back. Inside Joli something snapped - her sanity, her desire to live, her need to bring down Angstrom. All of it slipped away while she watched helplessly as another innocent life was about to be lost. An innocent life like Paul's, like her own. Time seemed to freeze. Something had to be done - anything - to save Sandburg. But she couldn't lose Angstrom, not now, not like this.

In the distance wailing sirens sounded, coming closer, stunning everyone in the room. Sandburg jabbed the man holding him in the ribs, ducking simultaneously as the gun fired. He stretched out a leg as he twisted, knocking Schooner to the ground. The movement seemed to thaw out the others in the room. Angstrom's men attacked Vambrose's men, automatic weapons fire splaying across the walls, impacting human targets, blood spraying from falling bodies. One of Vambrose's men barreled into Sandburg, both men falling in a heap of arms and legs to the floor.

"Angstrom!"

Joli's attention wrenched from Sandburg at the scream, watching in what felt like slow motion as Vambrose lifted his gun and began firing. Years of living with only one thought, to see Angstrom destroyed as Joli had been when Paul's body had been found, flashed before Joli's eyes. And in that instant she knew one thing - no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice, justice would win. Justice had to win.

It had taken only a miniscule second to make her decision, almost simultaneously as Vambrose fired his gun. Leaping across the floor, Joli rammed into Angstrom's body, dragging him down beneath her, but not before feeling the bullets rip through her body.

"Joli!" Sandburg screamed.

********************

Automatic weapons fire mingled with the wailing of sirens, forcing Jim to cover his ears. The noises impacted his heightened hearing and he bent over in pain. He was close, though. Despite the discomfort, he had to get to the room where the weapons fire had emanated. Stumbling down the corridors, dialing down his hearing only slightly enough to block out the sirens from outside, Jim turned another corner leading down yet another hallway.

"Joli!"

Blair's scream sent chills down Jim's spine. Aiming his weapon down the hallway, noting that no one stood guard at the only door, Jim tried to cover his ears by hunching his shoulders. It did no good. He raced down the hall, not even hesitating when he reached the door. With a good heave, he kicked the door down, weapon up, ready to fire. But the shooting had stopped; only the sirens echoed from outside.

After surveying the room with well-trained eyes along the barrel of his gun, Jim lowered the weapon slightly, still ready to fire should anyone try to surprise him. Through the equipment in his ear he could hear Simon snapping orders to the officers, heard reports of empty rooms and dead bodies lining the hallways. Just like in this room...dead bodies, blood pooling beneath them and sprayed across the walls.

"Sandburg!" Jim called, stepping over the bodies to move towards the desk, his hearing honing in on the only two heartbeats in the room. One faltered. "Sandburg!"

"Here, Jim."

The steady voice calmed Jim's nerves and he followed it to behind the large desk. Blair knelt on the floor, bending over something in his arms.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, his eyes still darting about the room. He noticed an open doorway in the back corner. When Blair didn't answer, Jim reached down and touched the young man's shoulder. "Are you okay?" he demanded firmly.

Blue eyes peered up at him from beneath unruly hair - eyes filled with anguish. "Joli..." he choked.

Jim's shoulders sagged as he finally noticed who it was that Blair held in his arms. Laid across Blair's lap, one arm cradling her head, his other arm wrapped around her waist, Joli McCrae peered up at Jim with half-closed eyes. Blood soaked the front of her suit, pooling in the base of her throat, trailing down the sides of her neck. Her pallid face grew even more ashen as her body spasmed with each breath, her chest heaving with the effort to live.

"Oh, no," Jim sobbed. Slipping his weapon back into the holster at the base of his spine, Jim stepped over Joli's legs to kneel on her other side. "Ah, Joli," he whispered, laying a soft hand on her head.

Pale eyes fluttered open and a smile touched her lips. "Hey...Elly..." The effort to speak caused her body to shudder, and with one hand she clung to Blair's arm around her waist, her eyes squeezing shut in pain.

"You hang in there, Rambo," Jim urged. "Help is on the way." Looking up at Blair, knowing the distress on his friend's face matched his own, Jim spoke into the microphone at his lips. "Simon, this is Jim."

"Where are you?" came the reply.

"Basement. Sir, we need paramedics down here ASAP."

There was a pause. "Sandburg?" Simon's voice choked on the name.

"No. Joli."

Another pause. Then Simon's voice started bellowing for paramedics, forcing Jim to jerk the equipment from his ear.

"T-t-too l-late," Joli whispered, forcing Jim to dial up his hearing. Blair bent closer to hear.

"You need to hang on, Joles. Just hang in there." Jim swallowed the sob threatening to tear from his lips. He caressed her forehead with the thumb of his hand. She couldn't die, not like this.

"A-angstrom?" she asked, her eyes alight with pleading.

"After you jumped in front of the bullets, Angstrom managed to shoot Vambrose and then raced out the back entrance with his assistant," Blair explained, glancing up at Jim to include him but also to quietly solicit his help.

Nodding at the beseeching in his partner's eyes, Jim dialed up his hearing, filtering out Joli's struggling breaths and irregular heartbeat. He could hear footsteps in the manor above, orders being shouted by Simon, officers reporting in all-clears. Expanding his hearing beyond that he sought for any news of Angstrom, his fury building for fear that after all this, after all the sacrifice, Angstrom had gotten away. Just as he reached for the ear equipment he had tossed to one side to contact Simon, a smile crossed his lips as he heard arguing voices somewhere further down from the manor.

"They got him," Jim announced, nodding once at Blair then dropping his gaze to Joli. "They got him, Joles."

Tears dripped from Joli's eyes, her lips trembling. "For Paul," she sobbed. "And for Royal. H-he trusted m-me and I..."

"Don't, Joli," Jim said quietly, knowing the words she was trying to voice. "You didn't fail him."

Reaching up with one bloody hand, she touched Jim's face. "Th-thank y-you...my friend." With those softly spoken words, Joli McCrae closed her eyes and died, the hand sliding limply down Jim's cheek.

An ache began inside Jim's chest, his throat throbbing with the battle to fight against the grief he could feel stinging his eyes. He looked from the pale, lifeless expression on Joli's face up to Blair. Blue eyes shining with his own tears, a fresh trail of them on his rough cheeks, Blair held Jim's gaze for only a heartbeat. A precious heartbeat. A heartbeat that Joli would never experience again. And in that gaze, Jim found permission to let the control slip. Blair would be nearby.

Releasing restrained tears, allowing them to quietly roll down his cheeks, Jim gently took Joli's body from Blair's arms, cradling her against his chest.

********************

Blue, red and yellow lights flashed across the face of Angstrom Manor, lighting the darkness with eerie effects. Standing on the front veranda, Blair watched as body bag after body bag was carried from the manor to the waiting coroner vans. Simon had had to call in several more vans to assist in the clean up. A hollowness settled in Blair's chest as he peered down at his blood-soaked sweats. So much death. So much needless violence.

Shifting the strap of the bag hanging on his right shoulder, he slowly descended the steps of the veranda, feeling every ache. Only then did he realize his stockinged feet. A mocking smile spread his lips but halted as a gurney carrying another one of Angstrom's injured men rolled by towards one of the waiting ambulances. Shaking his head, sick at the sight, Blair suddenly had an overwhelming desire to go home.

Glancing around the scene, using the swirling lights of color to help him locate Jim, Blair breathed a sigh of relief when he noticed his partner sitting on the hood of his truck. Face planted firmly in his hands, elbows resting on his knees, feet steady on the bumper of the car, Jim didn't even move as paramedics and uniforms worked around him. The scene brought back the familiar memory in the PD garage, and Blair thought about mentioning rule number two-hundred-and-sixteen. When a gurney with a body bag rolled by Jim, however, and his face jerked up, his gaze following the gurney as it rolled across the front yard to a waiting van, Blair decided against the humorous approach.

There was no humor in this moment.

Blair's full lips drew down into a frown. That body bag must have shrouded Joli's body - something Jim sensed about it familiar. The pained expression on his face proved that.

Strolling up to the truck, leaning a hip against the front fender, Blair silently followed Jim's gaze until the body bag had been lifted and carefully placed inside the van. The doors to the van shut and the coroner pounded twice on the doors to indicate all was secure. With flashing lights, the van slowly made its way down the circular drive, back towards the gate entrance where a thin glow of white light and snapping flashes indicated the press had arrived.

"She shouldn't have died, Chief," Jim murmured, his gaze still lost in the emptiness left by the coroner's van.

Tucking a strand of curly hair behind one hear, Blair nodded. "I know." I should have done more. Blair shook his head, banishing the thought. He ran the scene over and over in his head, each time seeing a new detail that could have been done differently. A hand on his shoulder brought Blair's thoughts back from their self-incrimination.

"There was nothing you could have done, Chief," Jim stated, his tired eyes kind.

"You weren't there, man," Blair retorted, moving from the soft grip on his shoulder. "What if I had just kept quiet? What if I hadn't moved when I did? What if..." He sighed, rubbing his eyes. "What if..." he added softly.

"If blame is going to be shoveled out here, Chief, send some my way."

"C'mon, man, you did everything right..."

"Joli is dead." Blair's head snapped up. "There is nothing right about that." Jim lifted his gaze to the clear night, shoulders slumping as he studied the sky. "How many times have you told me to leave blame alone? Blame will only cause you to disbelieve in yourself." Glancing back at Blair, Jim smiled feebly at the glare leveled at him. "It's no fun having these little lessons thrust back in your face, is it?"

The glare remained, but only for a moment longer. Sighing again, Blair relaxed against the front of the truck, close enough to Jim so his arm touched Jim's leg. He needed that connection right now - needed it to keep him grounded. Because all he really wanted to do was run, as far and as fast as he could.

"I just wish we could hold Angstrom," Jim muttered. "With your testimony we've got him on killing Vambrose, but his drug connections will probably thrive."

"What do you mean? Why is that?"

Jim shrugged, his jaw clenching. "No evidence." A grin spread over Blair's exhausted expression, forcing Jim to frown further. "This isn't funny, Sandburg."

"Who says we don't have any evidence?" With great care, Blair pulled the bag around in front of him, patting it lovingly. "Just because Joli wasn't able to tell you guys about it, doesn't mean she didn't get what she needed."

Jim slid from the truck, touching the bag, then looked up at Blair. "When...?"

Blair frowned. "Right before you came into the office. She was rather adamant about telling me where it was. It took everything out of her."

Tenderly touching the side of Blair's head, Jim smiled wearily. "She trusted you, Chief. That says something."

Blair nodded. "I just wish she could have lived to see Angstrom go down."

"She did."

********************

Another sunny day, cloudless, blue forever. Perhaps that was a statement in and of itself. The woman Cascade PD buried today was as Blue as they came. The sky merely testified what all those gathered in the cemetery already knew. Blair wondered if anyone else caught that significance.

It felt strange to be suited up in his academy uniform again, saluting a fallen comrade, solemn with the thoughts running through his head; but at least he didn't stand alone. Unlike last time, Jim Ellison stood by his side.

Unlike last time, this casket was full.

The gunfire salute echoed through the vast cemetery, and for an instant Blair felt himself back in the underground office of Philemore Angstrom, watching Joli fly through the air, sacrificing herself to bring down the focus of her vengeance. He could still see her body shudder with the impact of each bullet. Much like he could see the bullets penetrate Jim's quilt as Joli had "killed" him. So much death. So much waste. Too many nightmares to relive.

Blair hadn't known Joli McCrae, had only met her the two times. However, in those moments he had come to respect the woman, respect the trust she had earned from his partner. That trust alone had given Blair faith enough to rely upon her abilities. He hadn't expected her to sacrifice her life, however. That had come as a surprise. And it made him wonder. Did he have enough belief in being a cop to die for justice? True, Joli had fallen into the trap of seeking vengeance. Even during those years of patiently waiting for her opportunity to trap Angstrom, though, she had served valiantly, a fine example of true blue.

Much like Jim.

As mourners filed along the silent casket, Blair took the chance to study his friend, his partner. The tall man stood proud, shoulders erect, chin out. Ever the cop, dressed in his uniform Jim Ellison was a tempest to be reckoned with. Standing as a personal sentinel over the casket, his diligent gaze caught every movement, every sigh, every breath of sorrow as mourners moved around the gravesite. He had been willing to "die" in order to bring Angstrom down, to get Hades off the streets. He'd been willing to destroy the still shaky relationship with his father and brother to save Hades users he would never know or even meet. Like Joli, no sacrifice was too great for justice, for the common good.

To protect the tribe.

Then there was Royal Creed. At least that had a happy ending. Amidst the evidence Joli had downloaded was the documentation of Robert Pike's dismissal - the day after Creed's murder. The earring put Pike at Creed's murder, still under Angstrom's employ, which finally linked Angstrom to the murder. Joli's direct testimony would have cleared Creed's name, and sealed the murder wrap, but at least Creed's sacrifice wouldn't go unrewarded. That was something, at least.

Jim crossed to the coffin, laying a gentle hand on the carved wood. Sam McCrae joined him, one hand on Jim's shoulder. Silently they studied the coffin. Watching the two men, Blair suddenly felt very insignificant in comparison. He had complained about being sacrificed for the search warrant...a warrant that had ended up putting Jim in contact with Joli; he had threatened to pack up and runaway because things had gotten too tough - like some kid who had gotten into trouble with his parents. These men, and others like them, sacrificed safety every day in order to protect this city they called home. If Blair was going to be numbered among them, he'd better be willing to do the same thing. No matter the sacrifice. No matter the outcome.

"Make the sacrifice worth it."

Joli's last words to him before Jim had entered the underground office still echoed clear and true in Blair's mind. She had told him where the evidence had been hidden, had begged him to see it to the right people, trusted him to make certain it was used properly against Angstrom. Too much had been sacrificed for that information, so much had been lost.

"Chief?"

Blair blinked, only realizing then that he had been staring at the coffin. All of the mourners had left, crossing the cemetery to the line of cars up the hill. The sweet crispness of Autumn touched the air and he noticed that the trees were beginning to change. When had that started?

Sam McCrae trailed behind the others, supporting a much smaller lady with white hair - Mrs. McCrae. Blair had met her briefly before the graveside service. She had thanked him for being with her daughter in her final minutes, for giving her strength. That had started the service on the wrong foot for him, and Blair had to fight the knot in his throat throughout the event.

Now Jim stood beside him, watching him closely.

Removing his cap and stuffing it under his arm, Blair pushed a tendril of vagrant hair out of his eyes, annoyed that it seemed to always be the first out of his ponytail. "Sorry. Kind of zoned there, didn't I?"

Jim grinned, touching Blair's shoulder briefly. "Yeah, just a little."

They fell into companionable silence, sharing in the loss of so good a lady. Jim had stayed up the night before reminiscing about his Vice days, the cases he and Joli had worked on. Through the storytelling Blair had come to know Joli McCrae, but had learned even more about his partner. When Jim had transferred from Vice, people had called him cold, the lone wolf. He had been. But even then, a warmth existed in Jim Ellison that very few people saw because he kept it buried. Blair would never openly say anything, but he felt honored to be one of the few who shared this part of his friend. To be numbered with people the likes of Joli McCrae.

"My appointment with the commissioner is in half an hour," Blair announced, shifting slightly to look up into the face of his partner. "When are you going to go see your Dad and Steven?"

Jim grimaced. "This afternoon. I have some things to wrap-up at the station first." He paused, his gaze lost over Blair's head, on some spot miles away that Blair would never see. "You coming?"

"Yeah, I should be done by then."

Nodding, Jim turned and started walking away from the gravesite. Blair fell in beside him. Silently they traversed the cemetery lawn to where their vehicles awaited them. As they neared Jim's truck, Blair stopped.

"Jim, I need you to know something, man."

Jim pivoted, removing his cap and tossing it in through the driver's side window. "What's that, Chief?"

"The fight is back."

Blair's blue eyes twinkled as he bounced on the balls of his feet, a knowing smile crossing his lips. It had taken a while, perhaps even had taken the events of the past few days for him to find it again, but it was there. The focus, the drive - the very things that had convinced him over a year ago that becoming a cop was the right thing to do. Blair had hoped that relying on Jim's strength would give him the time to gain his own. He had been right.

The energy had returned. And he knew exactly where to expend it.

A grin crossed Jim's face, a slow nod expressing a myriad of Ellison sentiment. "I'm glad to hear it. Want me to come with you?"

Blair matched his grin.

********************

Commissioner Pelson sat stunned in his chair, amazed at the energy of the young man standing across from him. He had met Blair Sandburg only once, just after the public defamation of his dissertation. If Pelson had been impressed then - which he had been - he was blown away now. A year and a half working on the force had changed the young man. More self-assured, more certain of his place among his peers. No longer the apologetic graduate student. If the decision hadn't already come down from the mayor, Pelson would have gone pounding on her door with Sandburg in tow.

"That's quite the speech, Sandburg," Pelson commented, leaning forward. "Did you work on that long?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Commissioner, I was a graduate student and a Teaching Fellow. Standing up and giving speeches was a required course." A smile touched his face then and Pelson returned it.

"Well, I'm very impressed. I'm just sad that it's not necessary."

"What?" Jim Ellison demanded, rising from the seat beside the one Blair had vacated during his oratory. He leaned on balled fists on Pelson's desk. "She's come down to a final decision, hasn't she? The mayor?"

Pelson nodded, schooling his features to hide his pride. It was good to see Ellison concerned about his partner. When the detective had first come to Cascade and joined the force, Pelson had been certain this ex-Ranger wouldn't have lasted long. Too much of a rogue...too much of a loner. His record had been good in the beginning, which meant he got the work done. But in the past five years Ellison's record had become outstanding. Most of that, he knew now, was due to these special abilities Banks kept harping about. Studying Ellison's cases only proved that his "heightened senses", or whatever, aided in bringing down the scum that seemed to find a home on the streets of Cascade. However, he couldn't help but wonder if the young man strangely partnered to Jim also had something to do with the change.

Sandburg's academy record had been outstanding, his service record as a consultant to the department and the impressive collection of convictions in which he participated acting as support to Pelson's original decision to allow Sandburg onto the force, fraud notwithstanding. Despite all of that, though, there was a connection between these two totally different men that couldn't be put into words, something that Pelson had noticed that day when Jim had brought the young cadet into Pelson's office for their first meeting. Something Pelson wished he could have shown the mayor to make her understand.

He hid a smile. How he wished he could have been a fly on the wall when the mayor finally realized her mistake.

Reaching into the side drawer of his desk, Pelson explained, "It would seem news of Sandburg's role in the Angstrom case has found the ears of the mayor. She finally sat up and took notice." He pulled a revolver and badge from the desk drawer and set it in front of him. "Since Sandburg dropped the lawsuit against Berkshire Publishing, Rainier had no other choice but to drop their lawsuit against the PD."

Cocking an eyebrow at the items in front of Pelson, Ellison straightened, crossing thick arms over a thicker chest. "And what about the financial backing?"

"Oddly enough," Pelson grinned like a cat who had caught its dinner, "it would seem some of the constituents on the Rainier Board of Regents have been receiving anonymous funds to support their position." He eyed Sandburg. "Their names were on the CDs McCrae had burned off of Angstrom's computer system. Seems the money was payout for use of a certain chemistry lab located on..."

"Rainier grounds," Blair finished. "Angstrom was using school property for the Hades?"

"Not just Hades...seems Angstrom had quite the drug market. Had his hands in everything from marijuana to acid."

"And the Regents knew about it?"

Pelson shrugged as he stood. "Don't know yet. Full investigation is underway. Those named in Angstrom's evidence, however, have been permanently removed from the Board."

Sandburg's shoulders sagged, as though a great weight had been lifted from them. Unconsciously he tucked invisible hair behind an ear - with his hair in a ponytail Pelson could only figure it was a nervous habit.

"Simon would have done this, but I understand he's unavoidably detained." Pelson's eyes gleamed mysteriously and Blair nodded in acknowledgement. Ellison glanced from Pelson to Sandburg, but Pelson didn't wait for the question in the detective's face. "It's with great honor, Detective Sandburg, that I return these to you..." He handed the revolver and badge to the young man, who reached out nervously, hands shaking. "And fully reinstate you as a detective in Major Crimes of the Cascade Police Department." He placed the two items in Sandburg's hands and watched as they closed reverently around them. With a deep sigh, and a grin, the young man looked down at his hands, then up at Pelson.

"Thank you, sir." Excitement started to bubble through the apprehension as Sandburg shook Pelson's hand. "Thank you very much."

"You're welcome. Ellison?"

Ellison's grinning expression included Pelson. "Yes, sir?"

"I understand the Angstrom case still has a few loose ends to tie up and you're working with Narcotics and the DEA."

Ellison nodded, watching with pleasure as Sandburg hooked the holster to the small of his back, slipping in the revolver and snapping the safety hook. Reverently Sandburg stroked the badge; then, with a relieved sigh, clasped it onto the loop of his belt. When he looked up again, Pelson could have sworn the kid was bouncing.

"Yes, sir," Ellison finally replied, patting his partner on the shoulder before returning his attention to Pelson.

"Good. Take your partner and finish the job. I have some work to do."

Watching the two men with amusement as they acknowledged his order and started for the door, Pelson laughed to himself as he sat in his chair. After they had left, outside his closed door, Pelson could have sworn he heard a whoop.

********************

Steering the blue and white Ford truck to the front of the familiar two-story home situated on the familiar neighborhood block, Jim pressed on the brake and shifted the truck into park. Turning off the truck, he bent over the steering wheel, staring past Blair, warily eyeing the front door. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Come on, man," Blair said, dropping into that voice that had guided Jim through some of his more difficult experiences. "You can do this."

"I don't know, Chief. Just showing up like this..."

"They have to already know, Jim. It's been in the papers."

"And they haven't called me, which means they are beyond pissed." Sitting back, he stared forward. "Maybe it's for the best if we leave it like this."

"No way, man, you cannot convince me of that, and I don't think you're convinced either." With that, Blair opened the passenger door and slid out.

"Sandburg!" Jim sputtered.

"Look, if I could finally fight for something that I believe in, then you can get your ass out of this truck and get up to that house and make nice with your family." Blair grinned then, shutting the door and leaning through the window. "Besides, it's the start of the football season and I'm not missing the Seahawks another year."

Staring past Sandburg to the house, breathing in and out slowly, Jim thought of every excuse that he could to argue with the kid. Problem was, Blair was right. Despite the hard work of redeveloping a relationship with his brother and father, that relationship had become important to him over the last couple of years. Whether they forgave him or not, Jim had to do this. It was almost a challenge he had to overcome. Proof that he was in control of this particular part of his life.

And, he admitted silently to himself, he loved them. He didn't like the thought of this ruining what they'd built.

Jerking the driver's door open, grumbling as he dropped out of the truck, Jim schooled his features. That particular admittance didn't need to be shared with Sandburg. Of course, the kid probably already knew - that was an irritating knack Blair had.

Following Blair up the sidewalk to the front door, Jim fought back the anxiety clenching his jaw.

"What am I supposed to say, Sandburg?" Jim groused as they climbed the step and waited at the front door. "Hey, Dad, I'm back from the dead again?"

Blair rested a hand on Jim's shoulder and smiled. "You'll think of something, man. You always do." Before Jim could knock, Blair grabbed his arm. "I wanted to ask you something first."

"What's that?"

"At your funeral your Dad said something to me that I've been thinking about."

Tilting his head to one side, showing his impatience - didn't the kid realize what he was about to do? Couldn't this wait? - Jim sighed, "Yeah?"

"He said you considered me family."

Straightening slightly, Jim nodded. "Yeah," he replied with a cockeyed smile.

Blair grinned. "Cool!" With that, he turned to the door and knocked.

Before Jim could say anything, Simon Banks' bulk filled the open doorway. "'Bout time you two showed up. William and I were just getting into the Ellison boys' teen years." He grinned, stepping to one side.

Confused, Jim looked first at Simon, then at Blair, then back to Simon. "Sir, what are you doing here?"

"Well, it seems your partner felt it would be easier for your Dad if your superior explained a few things about the case you were working on...sort of as a buffer. Right, Sandburg?"

Blair's eyebrows danced as he grinned triumphantly. "Right, sir. Thought it would be easier on you, too...ya know, the row already hoed, that sort of thing."

Unable to believe it, Jim shook his head. "Thanks." It was simple, understated, but Blair seemed to know the sentiment beside it. At least the grin grew, if that was at all possible. It was good to see the enthusiasm back.

"Well," Simon began with a grin, "to quote a newly reinstated detective, that's what family is for. Right?"

"Right," Blair agreed. Thumping Jim on the back, he stepped through the front door and called a greeting into the house. Several voices answered.

Jim and Simon exchanged knowing glances.

"Right," Jim breathed, touching Simon lightly on the shoulder and following his partner into the house.

"Hey, are the Seahawks on yet?" Blair's voice echoed from the living room.

End

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