Title and Prologue by Virginia
He watched with fascination as the figure on the ice picked up even more speed. He could tell that as the skater moved faster, the small body shifted, moving into the position required for the final, show-stopping jump.
The lithe young athlete leapt into the air and if spurred by the thunderous applause, went even higher, drew into himself and completed four turns before touching the ice again. But his skates touched the slick surface only briefly, long enough to push up again for a second jump of three turns. The move was finished as the skater landed on the ice, successfully completely the incredibly difficult quad/triple combination perfectly..
During practice sessions, the observer had watched the skater attempt this, one of the most difficult, jump combinations many times. Sometimes the young man failed, landing repeatedly on the ice until his disappointment and frustration showed clearly on his face. Other times, the jumps were performed with precision. Rarely though, did even this masterful young skater achieve the height, spin and form that he did tonight. It would clearly place him on the gold medal platform.
It almost seemed a shame to spoil the moment, the observer mused to himself. The object of his attention was smiling broadly, as if he could already feel the welcome weight of the gold around his neck. The audience was on their collective feet, cheering wildly as though they knew they were watching a gold medal performance.
But spoil it he would, for that was why he was there. What he had been paid to do. The contract with his employer had specified that this particular skater was not to reach the medal podium. Not even finish the routine if possible.
The figure on the ice glided to the center and with arms raised, began to spin.
The observer knew that this was his moment to act and carefully pulled the trigger of the high power rifle.
The skater only had time for a startled yelp as his feet flew from under him. The shooter paused, watching through the telescopic targeting scope long enough to see the force of the bullet strike the skate blade, slamming the young man across the ice and into the wall. The audience gasped as the once gold medal contender slid bonelessly to the cold ice and lay unmoving.
The shooter nodded with grim and heartless satisfaction, quickly dismantled the compact rifle and left the arena via a predetermined route. He'd been working this contract for two months and knew how to leave without anyone seeing him. Not hard considering all attention was on the motionless boy inside. Soon he was away, his mind already on his next assignment, the boy on the ice forgotten.
-- 12 years later --
Blair Sandburg looked up and smiled as his partner, Jim Ellison, walked into Blair's cluttered office.
"Hey, Chief. Ready for the weekend?" Jim asked cheerfully. "The fish are waiting."
"Sure, man. Just give me a minute to straighten up this stuff and I'm ready to go. So ready to be out of here for the weekend."
Blair quickly pulled himself out of his chair with a soft grunt as his knee protested the movement. He frowned and sighed softly, moving with more care, mentally cursing the old but still occasionally troublesome injury.
"You okay over there, Blair?" Jim asked, concern in his voice.
"I'm fine," Blair tried to reassure his friend, hoping his voice sounded more cheerful than he felt as memories assailed him. "I just sat too long in one spot reading the case files. You would think that I'd know by now that when I do that, my knee and leg gets sore."
"Maybe you should have it checked out, make sure it's not a more serious problem," Jim replied as he frowned with concern.
"Nah. It's already been looked at by some of the best doctors around. It's just a bit of a left over from an old injury. My knee gets stiff and when I go to move it likes to remind me. It's not a problem. Really." Blair fell silent as he closed the last of the files, stacking them to the side and clearing up his desk. He used the motion to lock away the annoying memories that had been haunting him. Memories of the roar of a crowd, the rhythm of the music and the glide of the skates. Memories that were a part of another life that was years behind him.
"Blair?" Jim's voice pulled him out his mental fog. "Anything wrong?"
"Nothing. Just thinking." Blair flashed a smile at his friend. "Nothing that a weekend at the cabin and a dinner of the fish I catch won't fix."
"That you catch?" Jim asked, his disbelief clear. "You're not taking that spear thing again, are you?"
"What?" Blair asked, letting the easy teasing wash over him. "You don't remember that the last time I took that 'spear thing', we actually brought back fish." He laughed at his friend as he locked the door to his office.
The two friends walked down the corridor, their teasing and laughter wiping the away the memories of a damaged pair of black skates, locked in a box at the bottom of Blair's file cabinet.
Some weeks later, Sandburg ignored the twinge in his knee as he lengthened his stride to keep up with his partner as they hurried through the drizzle after their lunch at the new vegetarian restaurant he'd insisted they try. He was still basking in pleased amusement that Jim had actually enjoyed the meal, despite his prejudice against anything that wasn't meat. As for the knee, well, it was damp, as it seemed always to be in Cascade, which meant the ache was so common as to be scarcely noticed. It didn't slow him down, didn't inhibit him from any normal range of activities. It just ached now and then…a part of the background noise of life.
He probably wouldn't even be consciously aware of it, if not for the news that morning that reminded the citizens of Cascade that the World Skating Championships were to begin that weekend. It was a coup to be chosen for the event and the city was already thronging with tourists, skating enthusiasts, the competitors from around the world and their entourages, not to mention sponsors, and international media crews. The news had made him remember again those days so long past now, so much a part of another world, another life. The ache in his knee resonated with a deeper ache in his heart, one he'd thought he'd long ago locked away along with his skates.
Shrugging off the lingering memories and regrets along with the droplets of water that flew as he shook his long mane of curls and brushed the surface moisture from his leather coat, he followed Jim into the building, and up the elevator to the seventh floor.
"Chief, do you mind!" Jim protested the fine spray of moisture. "You're worse than a hound coming in from the rain!"
"Sorry, big guy," Blair grinned, not taking offense. "Figured it was better to shake of the worst of it before I drip all over your files, man."
Ellison rolled his eyes but couldn't resist a wry half-grin. The kid was always thinking. The least, inconsequential action, if questioned, could be linked to some other motivation. Or so Sandburg pretended. The truth was, Ellison figured, the kid was just quick on his feet in coming up with all manner of explanations and excuses to address any eventuality. Unless, of course, he was playing 'innocent', and then the response was of wide-eyed incomprehension, slightly wounded but willing to be regretful, if it was absolutely required.
"Ellison, Sandburg! My office!" Simon bellowed as they entered the operations room of the Major Crimes Unit. Neither thought much about the fact that the other detectives weren't present. This time of day, they would be at their own lunch, or chasing down leads or suspects for the crimes they were investigating.
"What's up, Captain?" Ellison asked, as he moved to stand before his superior's desk, Sandburg as usual hopping up to sit on the conference table.
Banks scowled and sighed as he sat behind his desk. "There's been a demand for heightened security at the pre-competition skating trials. Apparently, there've been threats against some of the competitors and we've been asked to blanket the place. The others have already left along with a good number of the uniforms."
Ellison heard a soft but sharp gasp from behind him and noted a curious increase in Sandburg's heart rate and respirations. Casting a look over his shoulder at his partner, Jim's eyes narrowed at Blair's sudden pallor as he asked, "What kind of threats, Simon?"
"Oh, nothing specific. Phone calls to the trainers that they should pull their competitors, skaters receiving anonymous gifts of mutilated skates. Intimidation by an unknown source…could be just a disgruntled fan who wants to remove the competition to their favourite…it's not necessarily anything dire. But, we can't afford to take chances," Simon explained. "The organizers are nervous, though. Seems there was an incident, oh a dozen years ago or so, when a skater received similar threats and ignored them. I gather the kid was not only taken out of the competition, but sustained serious enough injuries that he was never able to skate competitively again. Damn shame. Ever since, when these threats crop up every few years, they are taken seriously."
Ellison wondered why Sandburg's eyes had fallen away as his heart rate spiked even higher, but decided this was not the time to pursue it. Turning back to Banks, he asked, "Do we have the names of the skaters and the trainers who have received these threats?"
"Uh huh," Simon grunted as he picked up a sheet of paper and handed it to Ellison. "Joel is working with Security at the arena to determine how to control entry, as if that were possible, while H. and Rafe are wandering about, keeping their eyes and ears open for anything suspicious. I'd like you two to meet with the trainers and competitors."
"We're on it," Jim replied as he turned to leave. "C'mon, Junior."
Blair nodded quietly and slipped off the table to follow his partner.
Simon frowned as he played with his unlit cigar. Was it just his imagination, or did Sandburg look like his lunch had disagreed with him? The kid had looked positively nauseous for a minute there…and he was sure a lot quieter than usual. Come to think of it, Banks frowned, he didn't say a thing.
As Jim steered the truck up the ramp and onto the street, he asked with a sideways glance at his partner, "So, what about this situation has got you so worked up, Chief?"
"Huh?" Blair asked, giving the 'innocent' wide-eyed look while he swallowed and realized that, of course, Jim had picked up on his shock at what was going on down at the arena.
Ellison just cocked a brow and shook his head. "Give, Sandburg…I don't have time to pry it out of you. Your heart rate went through the ceiling in Simon's office," he prodded.
Sighing, Blair shook his head. He hadn't known Jim all that long, and there were lots of things about his background that he preferred to remain where they were, in the background. Besides, what happened twelve years ago, while still spooking the circuit, like an urban myth, couldn't have anything to do with what was going down now. It was too long ago and too far away. "It just bugs me, that's all," he obfuscated. "These are kids who put their hearts and souls into skating…they shouldn't have to be frightened by some wacko who wants to intimidate them into quitting. They work hard to get this far. They have enough pressure to deal with."
"Sounds like you know something about how the competitors feel, Chief," Jim reflected, throwing his partner a speculative look as he turned away from downtown toward the arena on the outskirts of the city.
"Doesn't take a genius to figure it out, Jim," Sandburg replied off-handedly as he turned to gaze out the window.
Ellison grunted non-committedly as he cast a narrow glance at the younger man, fully aware that Blair wasn't giving him a straight answer. But, short of imagining that it was Sandburg making the threats, which was absurd, he couldn't figure out what could be causing such a level of evident anxiety, however much it didn't show on the surface. Shrugging, he chalked it up to the other cases they'd dealt with recently. Galileo sprang to mind. Someone anonymous making threats of intimation of physical harm wouldn't be high on Sandburg's list of favourite criminal types right now. Maybe that's all it was.
Meanwhile, having glanced at the list of the people they were to interview, Sandburg was preoccupied with determining how he was going to handle this. Cutting Ellison a sideways glance, he sighed. He really didn't want this to be about him, because it wasn't. It had been a long time ago. There were other innocent people being threatened now.
Besides, he was tired of finding himself in the middle of some crazy situation. Almost from the beginning, the guys had been teasing him about being a trouble magnet. He wasn't keen on letting them know that he had a history of attracting trouble.
Blair hung just behind Jim's shoulder as they strode down the back hallways of the arena to the locker rooms. He could hear the scrape and swish of blades on ice each time they passed one of the side portals onto the rink. Shivering at the bone-deep chill he felt, he was all too conscious that it didn't have anything to do with the cold air that surrounded them. Much as he tried to hold the memories at bay, it was all too familiar…and it hurt.
Disgusted with himself, he shrugged off the melancholic mood. He'd known tremendous joy, as well, in those days. A radiant pleasure of movement, almost like flying, in tune with the music, as one with the ice and air. That's what he remembered most…that extraordinary feeling of freedom, of transcendence.
And that's what he missed most.
Arriving at their first destination, Jim knocked briefly on the open door of the dressing room and entered, calling "Miss Tarkington?"
A trim woman in her late forties turned to the door, as she answered, "Call me 'Janie', please." But, her eyes drifted past Ellison even as he began to introduce himself, a puzzled look on her face as she murmured, "Blair?"
Smiling at her, moving past Jim, his arms wide, Blair replied, "Hi, Janey! Long time no see."
"BLAIR!" she exclaimed then, her eyes wide with delighted recognition, her face alight with the joy of seeing him again. She moved to hug him tightly as Ellison watched with a bemused expression on his face. Shaking himself, he told himself he'd known there was something going on with Sandburg. Maybe now he'd find out what it was.
"You two seem to know one another," he observed dryly.
"Oh, my, yes," Janie enthused, but Blair cut in before she could explain.
"Yeah, years ago, a good friend of mine was being coached by Janie…and I used to hang around the rink a lot," he said quickly.
"You, Sandburg, willing to hang around a freezing rink? Wonders will never cease," Jim replied, but his keen eyes caught the quick, startled look that Janey Tarkington threw at his partner. "So, you were coaching Sandburg's friend. Anyone I know, Chief?"
"Uh, no, man," Blair replied, looking away. "That was a long time ago…you never knew that kid."
But, his heart rate was up and so was hers.
"How did he do, your friend? Win any championships?" Jim asked, wondering what was going on.
"No," Janie replied quietly, a look of infinite sadness in her eyes. "He could have…he was the most gifted skater, the most disciplined…a truly amazing phenomenon…but…"
"He sustained an injury and was knocked out of the competition," Blair intervened again, his tone carefully impersonal.
"Too bad," Jim murmured, watching them both, reading their vital signs, aware that she was confused and Blair was trying to make like everything was fine.
"It was a crime!" she snapped, old fury flashing in her eyes. But, when Blair surreptitiously squeezed her arm, she looked away, her tone muting as she added distantly, "But, as Blair says, it was a long time ago."
"Look, I don't mean to pry into ancient history here, but could whatever have happened then be related to what's going on now?" Jim asked. "You said it was a 'crime'?"
Janey looked at Sandburg as she shook her head. "No, I don't see how. It's been more than a dozen years ago…no, though there are some similarities, no…"
"What kind of similarities?" Ellison prodded, certain he wasn't getting anything like the whole story.
She sighed and pushed her fingers through her short, graying hair. "It's the subtlety of it. The sense of threat without any concrete proof of who is behind it. I've gotten a couple of phone calls that suggest my competitor, Mario Lopez, is out of his league and shouldn't push himself so hard that he incurs an injury. Mario himself has received a pair of broken skates…the blades sawed off."
"Do you have the skates?" Ellison demanded.
"Yes, I do," she replied, going to the desk to pull out a plain brown box.
"This is what they came in?" Jim asked, frowning. "How many people have handled it?"
"The people who log the mail, the boy who delivered it, Mario, me…we didn't know what was in it until it was opened. There'd been a plain wrapper around it, I gather, but that was thrown away by the people in the mailroom," she explained.
Shaking out a handkerchief, Ellison reached into the box to pull out one of the skates. Sandburg had moved up beside him. "What do you think, Jim?" he asked, his voice low.
His lips thinned in frustration, a slight scowl between his brows, Ellison shrugged as he murmured, "I don't know, Chief. The blades have been shorn cleanly and they look like ordinary skates otherwise, not a special make, I don't think…"
"No, that's a common enough label," Blair agreed. "What about prints?"
Shrugging again, Jim wasn't hopeful. "We'll need print samples from everyone you know who touched the box and the skates," he informed Janey. "What do you think this really means?" he asked then.
Janey looked at Blair, her eyes dark, before she shifted her gaze to Ellison. "I'm afraid someone will hurt Mario," she said simply. "I…I'd like to pull him from the competition, to not take the chance. But, if everyone who was threatened pulled out, then whoever is trying to intimidate us, wins. Mario and the other skaters…they're young. They don't really believe there is any danger. And, they could be right." Pausing, she then murmured, "But they could be horribly wrong."
"The others who have been threatened, what do you know about them?" Jim asked.
"They are the five top contenders," Janey sighed, lifting her hands helplessly. "They come from different countries. There's nothing to connect them except for the fact that they are all superlative skaters."
Ellison nodded thoughtfully. It was possible that this was to get the five top performers out of the way, but it was equally possible that one of them, or their families, friends or coaches were behind it, to weed out the competition while appearing themselves to be under the same threat. He squeezed the bridge of his nose as he wondered how to determine which was the likely scenario…if anything was going down at all.
Meanwhile, Janey Tarkington had turned to Blair. "What are you doing working with the police, Blair? The last I'd heard, you were headed toward a degree in Anthropology?"
"Yeah, I still am working on my doctorate in Anthropology," Blair explained with a sigh. "Sometimes, I wonder if I'll ever get it done! Anyway, I work with Detective Ellison, as an unofficial observer. My dissertation is about the closed subculture of the law enforcement community."
"Really?" she asked, looking surprised. With a tentative smile, she asked quietly, "I thought you were going to prove the existence of Sentinels in our modern day world. Did you finally give up on ever finding one?"
Blair looked away and shrugged. "I live in hopes that someday…but meanwhile, I had to get on with a subject I could actually document and write a paper on," he said with a deprecating grin.
Jim had perked up his ears at the conversation. Blair must have hung around a lot, for her to remember something so specific about him after so many years. "How long is it since the two of you have seen one another?" he asked.
"Long time, Jim," Blair replied easily, and then he changed the subject. "Do you want to move on to see the others on our list?"
His face carefully devoid of expression, Ellison nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's a good idea, Chief. Thank you, Ms. Tarkington, er, Janey. I'll have someone come for the box and the skates."
"Come back and visit when you have more time," Janey urged. "I've missed you, Blair…I think of you often."
Hugging her briefly, he replied, "I think of you, too. For sure, I'll see you…maybe we can have dinner or something when the competition is over and you've got time."
"I'd like that," she replied with a warm smile.
Once they'd finished the rest of their interviews, having found out nothing more, and were heading home in the truck, Jim observed, "Why do I get the feeling you're not being completely candid with me, Sandburg?"
Sighing, Blair rolled his eyes as he replied, "Okay, okay, I give up. I used to skate…and I was one of the people Janey coached. But, I never actually amounted to anything and, well, it didn't seem to have a lot do with what's going down now. It was more than ten years ago, man. I just didn't want to make like I have insider information or something, when I really don't, not after all these years…"
"You're babbling, Chief," Jim replied evenly. "Look, if you do have any information, any insight, don't hesitate to share it with me, okay?"
A stricken look came over Blair's face as he replied, "I'd never withhold anything important from you, man. You know that! It's just…it was a long time ago, and I left it all behind…"
"All right, Chief," Jim allowed, satisfied now that his curiousity had been vindicated. "But I can hardly believe you took up something like ice skating as a hobby. With your aversion to the cold?"
"Yeah, right," Blair muttered, looking away, remembering the cold of the ice seeping into his body as he lay upon it, unable to move, in excruciating agony, stabbing pain from the broken ribs that made it hard to breathe, the broken arm twisted under his crumpled body…remembered the crimson stain that had spread from the deep gash on his head, and the odd angle of his knee. Swallowing, he added quietly, "I think it was the experience that has left me feeling cold ever since."
"Could be, Chief," Jim replied, letting it go. "What do you feel like for dinner?"
The phone rang as they were just finishing their meal. As Ellison reached for it, Sandburg cleared the table and started to wash up.
"Ellison," Jim answered.
"Jim, it's Simon," Banks replied. "I've just been advised that the media has been made aware of the threats against the skaters. Attention on this is likely to heat up quick."
"Right," Ellison sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who leaked it, do we know?"
"An anonymous call, apparently," Simon replied dryly. "The local station called to do some fishing, to see if there was anything to it. They didn't find out anything from our public affairs people, but one of the skaters or someone in one of their entourages, or even one of the WSCA people is bound to confirm it."
"Okay," Jim said. "Thanks for the heads-up."
"Joel isn't impressed with the security arrangements. It's a public event and anyone can buy a ticket," Simon sighed. "H. and Rafe say the place is like Swiss cheese, there are so many entries, uncovered exits, lax procedures in the mailroom, lots of nooks and crannies."
"Yeah, I noticed that today…and no, I don't think we picked up anything useful. People are nervous, but most think it's likely a ruse to get the better skaters to pull out of the competition," Jim replied. "I've had the evidence, such as it is, picked up for forensics, but I don't expect much."
Blowing out a breath, Simon finished, "Well, the competition begins in four more days. The clock is running."
"I hear you," Jim replied.
Blair turned from the sink as Jim hung up. "Something to do with the problem down at the arena?"
"Yeah, it was Simon," Jim replied, standing with his hands on his hips. "An anonymous caller has clued the media in about the threats."
"Really?" Blair frowned, turning away to rinse off the plates and stack them to dry.
"Hmm," Jim mused. "I don't take this as a good sign," he said then, thoughtfully. "Whoever is doing this wants to be taken seriously and wants lots of publicity…no doubt to increase the fear factor."
Blair nodded. "I think you're right," he said quietly. "You know that incident that we've heard about from a dozen years ago?"
"Yeah, what about it?" Jim asked.
Keeping his back turned, Blair replied, "Well, I was skating at the time…and more and more, this is sounding like what happened back then."
"You remember it?" Jim asked with a frown of surprise.
"Yeah, it was big news at the time in the skating world," Blair reported, his voice oddly tight. "When I heard about the M.O. today, it made me wonder…I could see Janey remembered it, too. The calls, the broken skates…and whoever it was back then clued in the media at that time, too."
"How do you know all this, Sandburg?" Jim asked.
"Like I said, I was part of the circuit at the time," Blair replied. "It was pretty scary, man. And, well, one of the skaters got hurt, bad."
"Your friend?" Jim asked, putting the pieces together as he again picked up on an accelerated heart rate and his friend's tight, shallow, too fast respirations.
"Yeah…my friend," Blair confirmed. Turning as he wiped his wet hands on a towel, he continued, "But, there have been similar threats over the years…not every year, mind you. But, no one has ever been hurt since. So, I think that's why people aren't sure whether to take this seriously or not." He hesitated for a moment before adding, "The times it's happened since, I heard some of the threatened skaters pulled out of the competitions."
"And, you?" Jim prodded. "What does the Sandburg intuition say?"
Shaking his head, Blair frowned, then looked up to meet Ellison's gaze, his wide blue eyes dark with worry as he said, "I'd take it seriously, man. Trust me…you wouldn't want anyone hurt like…like what happened before."
"Your friend never went back to competitive skating, did he?" Ellison asked, his voice and expression soft with understanding empathy.
"No, he didn't," Blair replied, turning away. "His injuries were too severe."
"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim murmured. "That must have been hard to see."
Blair simply nodded, not trusting his voice.
"And they never found out who was behind it?" Jim asked.
"Nope, they never did," Sandburg replied, his voice little more than a whisper. Blowing out a sigh, he moved toward his room as he said, "I've got some work to do on a lesson for tomorrow."
"Go ahead, Chief," Jim waved him off. "I'm just going to watch a little television while I mull this over in my head. I figure it's got to be one of the competitors, though that wouldn't be any kind of link with something that happened more than ten years ago, unless it's a copycat thing. Or one of the coaches. Or a sponsor."
Blair paused at the door to his room, looking back with a thoughtful expression. "Sponsors? Yeah, you know…maybe. There can be quite a bit of money involved. Investment in training and travel, competition fees, equipment…it only pays off if your protégé wins," he offered.
"I thought this was all amateur, non-professional sport?" Jim replied with a frown.
"It is," Blair nodded, "in the sense that the skaters don't get paid, but corporate sponsors are common. Not many people can cover all the expenses on their own. There's pretty big money in the endorsements later…winners sell."
Scratching his cheek, Jim nodded. "That's good information, Chief…I'll have to think about it and see if there are any parallels with then and now. Thanks."
Blair paused a moment, as if he was going to say more, then shook his head and turned to enter his room.
Watching, Jim couldn't shake the feeling that there was still something Sandburg wasn't telling him. But he simply shrugged as he headed into the living room and picked up the remote. If one of the kid's friends had been seriously hurt, no doubt it still haunted Blair. He'd feel bad for anyone who had been hurt, any innocent victim, but especially if it had killed off his friend's dream. From what that Janey Tarkington had said, the kid had been damned good.
Simon had been right earlier. It was a shame.
Even more a shame that they'd never gotten the scum who'd been responsible.
Jim had been about to turn the television off for the night, when the news anchor announced there was going to be a special news brief on the threats being levied against top skaters in this year's World Championships. Curious, he leaned back against the sofa to watch and see what the media thought they had.
Turned out, there wasn't much. Interviews with some of the same people he'd met earlier that day. But, several of them alluded to the incident of so many years ago. Clearly, it still haunted those who had been part of the skating world at the time. The announcer came back on, to reveal their minor triumph in having dug up the old footage.
While the newsreader was talking, the camera cut away to the scene twelve years before at the World Skating Championship competition that had been held in Sweden that year. Interested, Jim watched Sandburg's friend, a small, slim skater, skim across the ice, as if he was flying, unencumbered by gravity. Frowning a little, he thought the kid looked somehow familiar, and even though he couldn't get a good look at the adolescent's face, he wondered if he maybe had seen the guy with Sandburg at some point in the last year or so on the few occasions when he'd met various of his partner's friends. The kid leapt and whirled, while the crowd gasped at the extraordinary mastery of form and style in one so young…clearly a nascent champion who they'd thought would lead the world for years to come. Sitting a little straighter, caught up in admiration of the masterful performance he was watching, he wished the camera would zoom in to give a clearer shot of the skater's features. Jim found his jaw tightening as he thought about what this extraordinarily talented young man had lost. How he'd been robbed by a vicious assault. Which was as much as he knew so far…just that the kid had been hurt somehow and hadn't skated competitively again.
So, he was unprepared for the shock of seeing the youth with the long dark hair pulled back, wearing tight black pants and a startlingly blue silk shirt with flowing sleeves come out of a perfect quad/triple, where he'd literally looked like he was flying, to swoop around to the center of the rink, his arms raised in triumph as he began to spin at an incredible speed…only to be flung off-balance as a blast rang out over the tape. Jim saw the skater's feet slammed out from under him as he flailed helplessly, the momentum of his spin combining with the brutal force of the heavy caliber bullet to fling him hard across the ice and into the boards. Jim winced at the crack as the kid's head and body hit then crumpled limply to the ungiving ice, blood quickly spreading from somewhere on the back of his head. Seconds…it had all happened in a matter of shocking, breathtaking seconds.
The newsreader's voice was overlaid with the image, detailing that the blade of the skate had been blasted away by a sniper's bullet, and that the injuries sustained had included a fractured skull, a broken arm and ribs, and a ruined knee.
But that was nothing to the shock as the camera zoomed in on the skater's face for the first time and caught the pallor of absolute shock and then the grimace of horrific pain before the young skater clearly succumbed to unconsciousness.
"Oh, my God," Ellison whispered in horror as the announcer concluded the news brief, "Blair Sandburg, the young phenomenon who had taken the skating world by storm, was never able to compete again."
Jim's head snapped up, listening to the quiet click of the keys of Sandburg's laptop. The detective's mouth had dropped open in shock and he shook his head, trying to take it in, to reconcile the frozen, broken image of Blair on the screen with the vital young man a few steps away. Unconsciously, he clicked off the television, and moved to the door of Blair's room. He felt so shaken, so sick, that he wasn't sure he could stand on his own, so he leaned against the doorjamb. For a moment, the burning of the bile in the back of his throat robbed him of the ability to speak.
Blair looked up when he sensed Jim's presence looming in the doorway to his room, blocking some of the light from the kitchen beyond. The room was dark but for the lamp illuminating the desktop and the soft glow of the computer screen, so Sandburg couldn't see the expression on his roommate's face, but he could read the lines of rigid tension in Ellison's body.
"Jim…what's wrong?" he asked, his eyes wide with concern for his friend.
"The news…" Ellison began, but his shaky voice caught and he had to forcibly fight back the memory of the blood pooling on the ice, the twisted expression of Blair in agony, the twisted limbs.
"What about the news, man?" Blair asked, now feeling very alarmed. "Has something terrible happened? Oh, man…has something happened to someone we know?"
"Yes…" Jim said, straining to control his voice. Taking a breath, he asked tensely, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" Sandburg asked, confused now, trying to figure out what he'd done lately that could possible rate coverage on the 11 o'clock news.
"It was you…not some friend…you!" Ellison almost shouted, still chilled by what he'd seen on the screen. The blood. The broken body. The expression of such unendurable pain.
Awareness dawned in Sandburg's expressive eyes, quickly followed by embarrassment and regret. Looking down and away, he mumbled, "I'm sorry, Jim. It was so long ago…it hasn't been 'news' for a long, long time. I guess they must have mentioned my name in connection with the current threats, eh? I should have realized they might. I'm sorry, I just didn't think."
Moving into the room, Ellison sagged down onto the end of the futon, shaking his head as he stared at his young roommate. His best friend. How could he have not known this about Blair? Why hadn't Sandburg told him? If not before, then today, during the investigation? God, Sandburg knew just about everything about his past, but it seemed Jim knew virtually nothing about the man who was such an integral, essential part of his life.
And it was more than a little scary.
And the images…Blair could have died that day. The idea of never having met Sandburg, of what that would have meant for him, for his life and sanity, made him tremble…made him feel nauseous.
Raising a shaking hand to grip Sandburg's shoulder, as if to reassure himself Blair was there, fine, whole and uninjured, Ellison finally grated, "They showed the tape…of the shooting."
Sandburg's head snapped up at that bit of news and he swiveled on his chair to fully face his best friend. Alarmed at the pallor of Jim's face, the horror in his eyes, he instinctively gripped his friend's arm to ground him as he stammered, "Oh, Jim, I'm sorry! I never meant for you, or anyone, to see that! But, I'm fine…I'm here and I'm fine. It's okay."
"It's not 'okay', Sandburg!" Ellison growled, rage beginning to replace the shock and horror. "You could have been killed! A skull fracture…the blood! You hit the wall and the ice at what must have been what? Twenty miles an hour?"
"Felt more like thirty, actually," Blair mumbled wryly, wincing at the memory. "You build up a lot of speed for those stunts, man, and the force of the bullet's impact added to the velocity."
"Why didn't they get the bastard who did that to you?" Jim demanded, wishing he had the man responsible within range of his hands.
Blair shrugged and looked away. "There was no way, I guess, of figuring it out. And, it was bad, yeah, within our skating world, but nobody died. It was dramatic and criminal…but the only loss was one young skater's future. And, it happened in Sweden. People over here hardly even noticed if they weren't interested in the sport," he replied quietly. Looking back at Jim, he continued, "That's one of the reasons I don't think it has anything to do with our current investigation. Sweden is a long way from here, man."
Ellison read the sadness, the sorrow of loss and remembered pain in Sandburg's eyes and the rage was washed away, for now at least, by the ache in his heart for what his friend had suffered. "You were amazing," he murmured. "I've never seen anyone skate like that…it was like you had wings, Chief. Like you were one with the ice and the air, an extension of the music. It was incredible to watch you."
Sandburg nodded and looked away as he swallowed hard. "It felt pretty incredible," he whispered. "I've never felt anything like it since."
"You looked…like you were hurt really bad," Ellison said then, frowning again at the memory, feeling the bile rise in his throat.
"I was," Blair admitted quietly. "I was in the hospital over there for months. First unconscious…a coma actually. For a while, I guess they weren't sure I'd wake up. Poor Naomi was really freaked out. It didn't help that we didn't speak the language and most of the hospital staff didn't speak English. It was pretty confusing when I finally woke up. I couldn't figure out where I was or remember what had happened. The memories still aren't all that clear, but I've…I've seen the footage. My leg was pretty messed up so I had to be in traction for quite a while. That's why we couldn't come home. Janey was great, though. She was my coach and she stayed with us, did everything she could to make it all as easy as possible."
"Why didn't you ever go back to skating, Chief?" Jim asked softly, wondering if the fear had been too overwhelming…the fear of it happening again.
Blair shrugged. "My leg…my knee, actually, doesn't have the strength anymore. It takes a lot to launch into those maneuvers and to land solidly without losing your balance or falling. My knee just couldn't take that kind of pressure anymore. It's okay, for normal stuff…just not for that kind of athletics. Janey worked with me for a year afterward, but it was hopeless…and we both had to face that fact eventually," he explained, his voice carefully contained. It had been a year of painful therapy, of repeated falls and frustration, of an unwillingness to quit, to give up…and the final grim reality of having to face that it was all really over.
"Why didn't you ever tell me about this?" Jim asked, his voice sounding almost lost.
Sighing, Blair turned to gaze into his friend's eyes, a sad smile flitting on his lips as he replied, his tone tinged with compassion, "I guess…I guess because it still hurts to remember it, Jim. And, I know you…if you saw that it still hurt me, it would hurt you, too. You pretend you're some big, tough, heartless, macho guy, but you feel the hurts of other people, especially the people you care about. I couldn't see the point of talking about something that would only make the two of us feel bad. It was a long time ago…"
Unable to hold his friend's candid gaze, to see the pain that was still reflected there, Jim dropped his eyes as he gently squeezed Sandburg's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said huskily, "I wish you felt you could tell me the things that matter to you. That you didn't just carry stuff like this inside. Especially times like today, when it had to all be rushing back…"
"I'm sorry," Blair replied quietly as he studied Ellison and read the grief and regret on the man's face. "I should have told you. The video footage wouldn't have been such a shock then…"
Irritated, Jim's eyes shot back to Sandburg's as he said with painful clarity, "I'm not looking for an apology here, Chief. I'm not sorry because the damned video surprised and shocked me. I'm sorry because you won't tell me anything about who you are, about what happened to you when you were a kid. All I know is that Naomi hauled you all over the world, that you never really knew what having a home was about …and that you're a brilliant whiz-kid who got into university at a ridiculously young age! What else don't I know? What haven't you told me because you're afraid the knowledge might hurt me? God, Sandburg …nobody should have to carry memories, regrets, sorrows, and losses like that alone. Dammit…I thought we were getting to be pretty good friends, here. Am I wrong?"
"If I'd told you, then what?" Blair replied with maddening reasonableness. "How would you have felt about it? What would you have thought?"
"Well, I would have felt bad…you had a amazing talent that someone stole from you," Jim replied haltingly, his eyes darting around the room as he tried to articulate his feelings. "And they damned near killed you," he whispered, his throat tight.
"Sounds a lot like pity, man," Blair replied, though his voice was even. "I don't do 'pity'. Too many negative vibes. It was the past…you move on."
Somehow, that wasn't terribly reassuring to a Sentinel who couldn't help worrying about his Guide. What the hell else didn't he know because Blair didn't want to be 'pitied'? His jaw tight, he shook his head, wishing he were as facile with words as Sandburg was. "We're not talking about 'pity' here, Chief. Not unless you 'pity' me for all the crap I've told you about in my life. I think you know what I'm talking about, what I mean."
Blair cast an astute look of assessment at his friend, realizing his bluff had been called. Obfuscation wasn't going to work here. Sighing, his shoulders sagging a little in defeat, he murmured, "I know…you're right. But…there's such a lot of stuff that would worry you, or disturb you and you'd want to do something about it. But you can't. It's all over and done. Jim, I can see what you think about the way I was raised, how hard it is for you to just accept Naomi for the person she is, to not judge her. Our worlds were so completely different…"
Ellison swallowed, avoiding Blair's eyes as he stood, mumbling, "Fine…you don't owe me your life history, Sandburg…"
Unwilling to leave it like that, understanding that Jim felt hurt by the lack of disclosure, even saw it as a lack of trust, Blair stood quickly to block Ellison's exit from the room. Gripping the Sentinel's arm tightly, he said with a hitch of emotion in his voice, "Jim…you don't get it. What's important to me is NOW, not what was. Whatever bad things might have happened, good things happened, too. I loved the skating… and I remember how great it felt, not just what it felt to lose it. Sure, sometimes moving constantly was a drag, but I saw so much of the world, met such amazing people, learned to accept people for who they are, not what I wish they'd be. But…none of that is as important as what I have NOW. Jim, what's past is past. I'm not going to let misery or regrets about the past get in the way of the possibilities that exist now and for the future. I'm alive, and I love my life, Jim. Man, there are SO many possibilities, so much left to do, to experience. I loved skating, yes, but that's not all that my life is about. I just want to give as much, live as much, experience and do as much as I can in this life. Like…helping you with your senses, learning about what helps and what doesn't. Being able to help on some of the cases, to make a difference that helps other people. You've given me so many opportunities, man…so much I don't even know where to begin to thank you."
Blowing out a breath, Ellison nodded as he bit his lip. Swallowing, he rumbled, "You give as good or better than you get, Chief. No thanks are ever needed. We're more than even."
A bright, luminous smile broke over Blair's face then as he asked, his brows rising quizzically, "So…we're okay here?"
"Yeah," Ellison replied with a small smile of his own, "we're okay." But, as he reached out to grip his friend's shoulder, he growled, "But, I swear to you, if that same creep who hurt you is behind these threats …I'm going to take him down."
With a low chuckle, Blair grinned, but his tone was sincere as he replied, "I have no doubt you will… thanks, Jim."
Nodding, touched by what he saw in Blair's eyes, seeking some normalcy, some distance from the heated emotions, Ellison looked around the room and then at his watch. "It's late, Chief. Try to get some sleep for once, okay?"
"I will," Blair promised, warmed by the concern, touched by how much Jim cared what had happened to him, about those dreams that had shattered along with his knee, so long ago…and about whether he got enough sleep now. "Good night, Jim."
When they arrived at the station the next morning, it was clear any number of people had seen the news the night before. There were murmured condolences and brief touches to his shoulder, as various members of the police force and related civilian support services, acknowledged Blair's brilliance as a skater and the regret for what he had lost. He was touched and surprised that so many people seemed to sincerely care about what had happened to him back then.
When they entered the operations room of the Major Crimes Unit, their colleagues stood and Simon came out of his office.
"Damned shame, Blair," H. called out. "They ever get the turkey who did that to you?"
"No, H.," Sandburg shook his head, "they never did."
"Looked like you were hurt pretty bad, son," Joel said as he moved to touch Blair's shoulder, concern shadowing his dark eyes.
"It was no cake-walk, Joel," Blair replied, but then smiled reassuringly, "but I'm fine. Don't worry about it, okay?"
"You were some amazing skater, kid," Simon noted, studying the young observer, remembering how quiet he'd been the day before and understanding now why. "You okay with being on this case? If it's too hard…"
"I'm fine, Simon," Blair hastened to reassure him and everyone else. "It was twelve years ago, another lifetime. Really…I'm okay with this. And, maybe given my knowledge of the sport and the competition circuit, I can be of some help."
Nodding, giving the young man a tight smile of approval, Simon accepted his words. "Okay, Sandburg. I appreciate that."
Getting quickly down to business, they sent an electronic message to the Swedish police force that had undertaken the investigation into the assault against Blair. But, as it had been so long ago, they were warned it would take a while to have the information retrieved and sent to them. They also sent a similar request to the World Skating Championships Association to obtain lists, if any still remained, of the sponsors involved in the competition twelve years ago, and every other year that threats had been made. They asked for similar data on coaches.
Meanwhile, H. and Rafe were setting up arrangements with Security to have metal detectors at all the entrances, those like at the airport that people could walk through. There was considerable resistance as such measures would drastically slow the entrance of the spectators, but the guys remained firm, reminding the officials of what they'd all seen on the tape on the news the previous night.
The problem was, a rifle could well already have been secreted in any number of locations in the arena. There just wasn't any way of knowing, not for sure.
Next, they poured over the lists of corporate sponsors of this year's competitors, but there was everything from small, local, community and school groups who had raised money to huge international corporate sponsors. Too many and not enough to go on to come to formulate any suspicions, let alone conclusions.
They also compared the lists with earlier lists, and pulled out the lists of coaches as well, but it tended to be many of the same coaches year in and year out. And while many of the local sponsors changed, the big ones remained the same…and some of those were beginning to show up on several of the lists as supporters of either the winners, or the skaters who'd received threats…or both. Still, there was no clear correlation between coaches or the sponsors who backed the winners in any of the years where threats had been received, certainly nothing on which to base any accusations. Different countries had won. The winners, of different nationalities and ethic backgrounds didn't form any pattern, any more than did those who had been threatened and subsequently pulled out over the years.
They had nothing…and they knew it.
Frustrated, Ellison sat back late in the day and scrubbed his face with his hands. His eyes were tired from staring too long at the computer screen and reading over too many lists of information. "I don't know, Chief," he muttered. "We're getting nowhere here."
"I know," Blair sighed, equally discouraged.
Sitting up, Jim hesitated, not wanting to dredge up the memories, but then asked quietly, "Who won the year you were knocked out of the competition? Do you remember?"
"Yeah, it was Michael Lorrimer, from New York," Blair replied. "He was pretty good…really competitive."
"Aggressively so?" Ellison probed.
"Hey, man, most of us were pretty aggressive about hoping to win," Blair replied with a faraway smile. "We all worked so hard, you know? For so many years…and this was it. Whoever won, well, it was the next best thing to the Olympics…and the winner was assured of a spot on their country's Olympic Team. Who wouldn't want that, Jim?"
Shaking his head, Ellison replied, "I have the hardest time seeing you as that competitive, Sandburg."
"Why, 'cause I lack the famous Ellison discipline in my approach to life?" Blair teased.
"No…you're as disciplined as anyone I know about your responsibilities and what you care about, Chief…it's the aggressive part I don't get. Winning doesn't ever seem that important to you," Jim reflected, frowning faintly as he tried to understand.
Blair shrugged. "It was a guaranteed scholarship to university, Jim…I didn't have a whole lot of money," he said softly. "And, well, I just loved it, you know…I can't describe it, not really. It was just the most amazing feeling…"
Jim felt rage flicker again in the depths of his soul at how his best friend had been robbed of his dreams, and very nearly killed into the bargain. Clamping down on the feeling, knowing it would only distract him, make him less effective, he asked then, "Do you remember who coached and who sponsored this Lorrimer kid?"
Thinking back, Blair replied, "The coach was Frank Mills. One of the best…has a history of winners. He was just beginning to get a reputation in those days as the 'coach to have', if you could afford him or if he thought you were good enough to take on. Sponsors?" Shrugging, shaking his head, "I don't remember, sorry."
Ellison flipped through the piles of the lists, looking for Mills' name. His brows lifted at the number of times the guy cropped up. On several occasions, his skater had been threatened. Twice, the kid he'd been coaching had pulled out. The other times, his skater had hung in and won. In the years where there had been no threats, his skater had, more often than not, won.
"Tell me more about Mills, Chief," Ellison encouraged. "Did you know the guy?"
"Not particularly well," Blair admitted. "He did try to get me to sign with him at one point, but I'd been working with Janey for years and didn't want to change coaches. She was one of the few constants in my life in those days and, well, I loved her a lot. It was flattering though, to have been one of the skaters Mills offered to coach. I can't imagine he'd be involved in anything like this…the sport is his life, man."
Biting his lip, Ellison shook his head and let the paper in his hand flutter to join the pile on his desk. "Let's head down to the arena. We don't have much of anything, but there are recurring sponsors on some of the lists, and I wouldn't mind meeting this Frank Mills guy, if he's there. His skater isn't on the list of those threatened this year." Standing he grabbed his coat and Sandburg's from the hook behind him.
"Sure," Blair agreed willingly, as he stood, taking his coat and shrugging it on as he followed Ellison out. "I know Mills has someone competing. I saw him down there yesterday." Though he couldn't really see what good it would do. He was beginning to understand why it had been so hard to figure out who had shot his skate out from under him years ago. There were just too many variables at play.
Mills, along with everyone else in the arena, knew the police were all over the place, trying to get to the bottom of the threats and determine if there was really something to worry about, or whether it was a case only of intimidation. Since his skater wasn't involved this year, he'd ignored the investigations going on around him. Though it was worrisome, he was paid to pay attention to his contender and that's what he intended to do. This kid was good, and had a reasonable shot at the gold this year…certainly the silver.
So, having not paid attention to the cops, he was taken a little by surprise when an eclectically dressed young man with long curly hair ambled toward him, a brooding giant in tow.
"Uh, Mr. Mills?" the young man ventured. "Do you have a moment?"
Shaking his head, waving with irritated impatience toward his skater out on the ice, he tried to fend off the stranger. "I'm busy, sorry," he stated sharply, not even bothering to turn his head to look at the men who wished to speak with him.
"It'll only take a moment of your time, sir," the tall man intervened, reaching into his pocket to pull out his badge and introducing himself. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. I'd like to ask you some questions about the recent threats."
At the name, Mills' head snapped around, his mouth a little agape as he stared at Blair. "Sandburg?" he murmured, then spoke more strongly, "My, God, kid…I didn't recognize you. You're a cop?"
"An anthropologist, actually," Blair replied. "But, I'm working with the police. As Detective Ellison said, we have a few questions…."
"Of course, I didn't realize who you are," Mills replied, a concerned look on his face. "Terrible, this. Happens too often. Maniacs everywhere these days."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted. "I understand you've had skaters who've received similar threats in the past?"
"Yes, though, nothing's ever happened, not since…" he glanced at Blair, "well, not since you were hurt."
"But, you've had some skaters pull out of their competitions over the years because of the threats, right?" Jim continued.
"Yes, sometimes," Mills allowed, frowning as he ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. "Depends on the kid. Some get really upset and it throws them right off their game. When that happens, it's best if they do pull out."
Jim nodded. "You've had a lot of winners over the years," he observed.
Mills smiled complacently as he replied, "I only work with the best."
"Any idea who's behind these threats?" Jim asked as his gaze swung out over the ice.
"No, none, I'm afraid," Mills replied. "Sorry I can't help you."
Laser-like blue eyes swung back to look deeply into Mills' gray eyes. "Let me know if you do think of something that might help," Jim replied, his voice a little tight, as he handed Mills one of his business cards.
"I certainly will, Detective," the coach replied, pocketing the card. "Now, if there's nothing else, I should get back to paying attention to the practice."
Nodding, Jim gave him a last assessing look, then turned to walk away. As Blair moved to follow him, Mills said quietly, "I'm sorry about what happened to you, Sandburg. In all the years, you're still the best I've ever seen."
Startled, Blair looked up at him, nodded with no little embarrassment, and then moved away to catch up with Jim who had stopped to watch the skaters further along the rink.
Without turning his head to look down at his partner, Ellison continued looking at the skaters on the ice as he asked, "How much does a coach make, Chief?"
"Almost enough to live on," Blair replied. "Amateur sport doesn't pay all that well, Jim."
"Even a coach like Mills, with a reputation for bringing in winners?" Ellison prodded.
Blair shrugged. "He'd do better than most, sure…he can demand more for his expert coaching. But, not really big money…the guy wouldn't get wealthy. Why?"
Having picked up on the physiological signs of increased heart rate and respiration changes, as well as a slight widening of the pupils as he'd questioned Mills, Jim drawled as he finally looked down at Blair, "Because he's lying through his teeth…and that watch on his wrist must've cost something like $5 big ones."
"You're kidding? Mills?" Blair exclaimed softly as he unconsciously turned to look back over his shoulder at the coach. "Man, I'd never have pegged him." Shaking his head, he looked up at Ellison. "Why would he do anything like this…even threaten his own skaters? It doesn't make sense, Jim. What's in it for him?"
"I don't know yet, Chief, but we finally have a place to start digging. Come on, I want to go back over those lists of threats, winners, and sponsors," Jim said briskly as he turned to lead the way out of the arena.
Behind them, Mills watched them go as he chewed on his lip, then cast a look up into the stands, frowning and giving a slight nod as he gazed up at one of the spectators, who currently had his binoculars trained on Mills. As the man's attention shifted to follow the cop and Sandburg, Mills could see the man nod once, then stand to make his way to the aisle and then up to one of the exits.
A grim smile played around Mills' lips as he turned his attention back to the skater on the rink. The threats hadn't had much impact this year. It had been too long since a threat had been actualized. But, maybe, he'd just been given the opportunity to turn up the heat without having to risk a shooting inside the arena itself during the competitions. With all the cops around this year, it didn't pay to take unnecessary chances, not if he had another option.
While Jim frowned over the lists, Blair began an electronic search on Frank Mills to see if they could dig up anything on his assets. Whether he should have more than he should, for example, on a coach's stipend, whether he might have inherited or married into money, and whether he had any ties to major corporations that sponsored his skaters, such as being on their lists of stockholders.
After an hour, Blair went to the printer to pick up sheets of printouts and then pulled his chair close to the end of Ellison's desk.
"Got anything, Chief?" Jim asked, eyes the papers in Blair's hand.
"Maybe," Blair replied as he showed Jim the results of what he found. "There's no evidence of inherited wealth and he's divorced, no kids. But, he's got real estate all over the place…a cottage by a lake in Maine, an upscale condo in Manhattan that had to cost the earth, a villa in Jamaica on the coast, and a ski chalet in the Tyrolean mountains in Austria. I couldn't get into his personal accounts without a warrant, though, sorry, so maybe he's just mortgaged to the hilt. He shows up as a stockholder with Silver Wings, a company that manufactures skates in various levels of quality from the ones you could buy at a discount chain to very high-end, professional level and expensive products. They also have related businesses in their corporate sphere, such as sweaters, gloves, boots, ski equipment, snowboarding…you know the sort of thing. When I did a cross trace on winners and endorsements, I found that all of Mills' winners for the past fifteen years have signed with them. Their corporate records show significant 'charitable contributions' to amateur sport associations."
When Blair finished, Jim reached for the notes he'd made. "Okay, I think I may have a working theory of what he's up to here. But first, can you tell me anything about these skaters who withdrew from competitions because of the intimidation?" he asked.
Blair looked at the names, and then stared into space a moment. Jim could almost see him sifting through the data lodged in his mind as he sorted memories and past impressions. Looking back at Jim, he asked, "Let me see the lists of the guys who won the gold and silver those years." Again his brow furled in thought for a moment but then he blew out a breath and nodded to himself. "None of Mills' skaters that year would have had a hope of the top slots, even if everyone else who had been intimidated pulled out…and from this list," he grabbed another sheet, and pointed, "the winners that year were not guys who had received threats, but their expenses were covered by sponsorships from Silver Wings."
Jim nodded as he pursed his lips for a moment. Staring into the distance, he mused, "So, how about this, Einstein…Mills undertakes to deliver his corporate buddies the winner every year for their endorsement campaigns. Either he's enticed the best skaters to work with him in the first place, or by removing possible contenders by having the skaters themselves pull out of the competition. He gradually acquires the mantle of the guy who can always deliver winners…when his skaters compete, they win. He can't help it if some chicken out because of stress…and if he doesn't think they are going to win, he arranges it for them to bail out because they are afraid. I'll bet he recounts with sickening detail what happened to a skater that failed to heed the warnings."
Jim's voice had tightened with anger on the last sentence. Looking toward Blair, he asked, "You didn't bail, did you? You got similar warnings, but you decided you weren't going to be intimidated."
Blair's jaw tightened as he looked down and away, his shoulders suddenly stiff with tension. Swallowing, he sighed as he replied, "No…I didn't bail. I just didn't think anyone would…"
But, his voice caught in his throat and he could only shake his head at the memory of what had occurred. Ellison studied him for a moment, waging an internal battle against his own rage. Finally, he muttered, "So, Mills gets a hefty retainer from Silver Wings to bring home the champions, and they then have an inside track on signing the winners for endorsements…which boosts the credibility of their products and sales world-wide."
"Could be," Blair replied. "But…you're talking conspiracy here. I mean, Mills couldn't be pulling all this off by himself. The shot…the shot that took me out had to have been made by a professional marksman."
"Yep," Jim replied, his voice tight as he forced away the images of Blair flying across the ice to collide with the wall…of blood and twisted limbs. "What about this year, in your opinion? Does Mills have it sewn up?"
Blair shook his head. "No," he replied, his voice hollow. "His skaters are good, very good and might well win if the stiffest competition folds. The kids on the list of those threatened, one or two of them anyway, would be serious competition." Looking up at Jim, his eyes wide and full of anxious worry for the skaters, he continued, "If you're right about this, and they don't pull out, this year might end up as being more than empty threats."
Ellison's face was stiff as he swallowed. "So, now all we have to do is find the sniper and stop him."
Blair rolled his eyes as he muttered sarcastically, "Great…well, we have two whole days left. How hard can that be?"
"Piece of cake, Junior," Jim replied, turning to his phone to put in a call to Joel who was still at the arena with H. and Rafe. "Joel, yeah, it's Ellison," he said into the mouthpiece. "The coach, Frank Mills, is beginning to look like a serious suspect. Have the guys keep an eye on him, and note whoever he has contact with. We also need to ID the sponsorship rep from Silver Wings Manufacturers…uh huh, yeah, we followed the money…right. Sandburg and I are headed back there. See you shortly."
A grim smile on his lips, Jim stood to grab their coats and tossed Sandburg's leather jacket to his partner. "It's time to rattle their chains and make them nervous, so that they make a mistake, Chief. C'mon, I want to talk to the sponsor's rep, and have another little chat with Mills."
Sandburg eyed his partner warily as he followed him toward the elevator. Skilled in reading his partner's body language, he could sense the tightly controlled violence in the set of Jim's jaw and the rigidity of his muscles. The Detective was trying to keep the Sentinel chained. The Sentinel wanted to rip into Mills for what he'd done a dozen years ago…but the Detective needed to get the evidence first.
The nondescript man, Caucasian, average height, brown hair, mid-thirties, from the stands sat quietly in a car parked not far from the entrance to the police garage. When the distinctive blue and white truck pulled out, he followed at a discreet distance until he was certain they were headed back toward the arena. Falling back further, he began to make his own plans.
Inside the arena, Ellison strolled along the edge of the rink with all the taut grace of a hunting panther. He'd sent Blair to track down Joel to determine if the Silver Wings rep had been identified while he had another session with Mills. Coming up behind the coach, Ellison leaned in from behind him to speak into his ear as he said quietly, "I think I've figured it out."
Startled, Mills jumped and turned around. "What? Oh, Detective Ellison…I didn't see you…" he muttered, irritated. "What did you say?"
Ellison looked him over with eyes that were cold and assessing as he listened to Mills' heartrate spike and noted the small beads of sweat that appeared just at his hair line. "Oh, I think you heard me," Jim replied, his eyes lifting to scan the arena. "Unless, of course, you can explain how you afford a style of life well beyond what anyone would expect you could manage on your fees."
Shaking his head, trying for injured innocence, Mills protested, "I'm sorry, Detective, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"No?" Jim asked, his voice flat and icy. He rubbed his nose, a little like a boxer getting ready for a fight, as he said with a tone verging on threatening, "You like to win, Mills…you set things up so that it's pretty much a sure thing. Not very sportsmanlike, but that's the way it is sometimes when people get greedy. Well, I'm not sportsmanlike at all…and I never loose."
Mills swallowed, suddenly finding his mouth had gone dry. Blustering now, his voice rose as he objected, "I don't know what you think you're talking about…but I don't like your tone. I'm a busy man and don't have time for stupid games. So, if there's nothing else…"
He made to turn away but Ellison leaned down close, the force of his personality and presence making it seem as if he was looming over the older man, though he kept his hands in his pockets. "You'd better hope I'm wrong, Mills…because if I'm right, and I find out you were the one who had Sandburg taken out in Sweden, you're mine," he promised with a low snarl.
With that, Jim turned and strolled away, though it took it all he had to keep his hands to himself. Mills had paled at the end, and the tremors in his hands had been noticeable. His eyes had shifted away, unable to return the hard stare leveled toward him…and his heart had been hammering like a steam engine.
He was dirty, Ellison knew it, but he still had to prove it. And Jim knew he needed to put some space between them before he slammed Mills into the boards with the same force as Sandburg had hit twelve years ago.
They tracked down the Silver Wings rep in the coffee shop. Once Jim arrived, he and Sandburg went in to talk with the man while Joel, H. and Rafe moved in quietly with them, to loom none too discreetly where the executive could see them.
Jim studied the man as he approached and slid into a chair across the table from the man. Smooth. Well groomed, expensive clothes, fingernails buffed to a shine, hair with silver highlights that were too sleek and elegant to be natural. Martin Keppler looked to be somewhere between forty and forty-five years of age.
"Mr. Keppler," Jim said, flashing his badge as Blair took the chair next to him, "I'm Detective Ellison from the Cascade PD, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg."
Keppler took a second, harder look at Blair. "Sandburg?" he repeated. "You're not the same guy who…"
"Yeah, in the flesh," Blair acknowledged quietly, looking away.
Shaking his head, Keppler assumed an expression of regret and sympathy, his voice unctuous as he said, "I was in the stands that night and saw…well, you were an incredible skater, Mr. Sandburg. What happened to you is…well, there aren't words. I'm sorry."
Blair nodded tightly and looked to Jim to take the lead. Catching the look, Keppler also turned back to the Detective, as he observed with just the right degree of interest, "I assume you're looking into these terrible threats that some of the skaters have been receiving." Shaking his head in dismay, he murmured, "This sort of thing happens, it seems, every few years…it's terrible."
"Yes, it is terrible," Jim replied, his voice cool and taut. "And, to be candid with you, I think we've figured out what's going on and why. So, we're watching, watching very closely. No one is going to be hurt this year like Sandburg was hurt when he was a kid."
Feigning puzzlement, though he'd paled, Keppler asked, "What do you mean? You think you've identified the people responsible? Why, that's wonderful! When will you be making the arrests?"
"All in good time, Mr. Keppler…all in good time," Jim replied with a predatory smile as he stood to leave. "You and Mills have had a good thing going for a long time now…but a winning streak can't last forever."
Pausing a moment, Jim reflected thoughtfully, "No one's been hurt in a long time. Anyone who helps with our investigation might be able to work a deal with the District Attorney."
Keppler's mouth opened, as if he was planning to make an angry reply, and he flushed, but then his lips tightened. Ellison hadn't said anything, not really, nothing that could be construed as a direct threat or intimidation. If Keppler said anything now, he'd only risk implicating himself somehow. His eyes hard, he maintained his silence as Ellison nodded briefly and then he and Sandburg turned to go.
But the businessman was very conscious of the large black man who had remained behind sipping coffee while staring impassively at him, when the other two silent strangers followed Ellison and his partner from the coffee shop. Swallowing, he heaved in a deep breath and thought about what the detective had said.
"You think he'll crack?" Blair asked quietly as they stood for a moment in the busy main lobby.
Ellison shrugged. "Hard to say at this point, Chief, but guys like that don't like the idea of prison. He's a money man, the guy who passes the cheques. What does he care if Mills goes down? They've probably got themselves covered well enough to claim ignorance of what Mills was actually up to…could even try for publicity in helping to clear up the mess."
"So, what now?" Blair wondered, looking at the three detectives.
"Now, we follow up on the personnel and other information Rafe got out of Administration earlier, like who's been hired in the last month or so? Have any staff uniforms gone missing? That sort of thing," Joel replied. "If there is a shooter lurking around somewhere, he's has to have an inconspicuous way of getting in and out of the arena."
Sorting out who was taking which assignment, they split up to work the arena and its back corridors, tracking staff movements, searching for places where a weapon could be secreted, and checking out vantage points as possible locations a sniper might choose.
It was dark by the time they decided to call it a night. H. had gone earlier, following Keppler back to his hotel, sustaining the pressure on the man, making sure he knew he was being watched. Joel, Rafe, Ellison and Sandburg headed out to the parking lot, separating outside to head to their respective vehicles. The darkness was garishly cut by the bright luminosity of the light poles that were placed at regular intervals around the lot.
"You're awfully quiet, Chief?" Ellison observed as they approached the truck. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I guess," Sandburg sighed wearily. Looking up at Jim as they walked along the row of vehicles, he turned slightly toward his friend as he said quietly, "It's just hard, you know, to think that it was Wells who…who had me blown away. I mean, I always thought he loved the sport, that he'd never…"
But Sandburg's words were sharply cut off as he grunted and flew backwards to land hard against the pavement.
"What the…CHIEF!" Ellison yelled as the realization of what just happened hit him. Looking around quickly, he called to Joel a couple of lanes away, "CALL AN AMBULANCE! SANDBURG'S BEEN SHOT!"
Pulling his gun even as he knelt by his fallen partner's side, he scanned the area from which the silenced shot had to have come…a parking garage across the street. He heard the sound of thumping feet as Joel and Rafe raced to his side, but their approach was not as loud in his ears as the pounding of his Guide's hammering heart…too fast and already uneven.
Ripping open Sandburg's coat and shirt, Ellison saw that the bullet had caught Blair just to the right of the center of his chest and blood was pulsing out, bright crimson life flowing like a fast, thin river from his body. Pressing his hand down over the wound, pressing hard to stop the flow, he heard Sandburg groan and shifted his gaze to his best friend's face, ghostly white now from shock, wide blue eyes open and staring as Blair tried to figure out what had happened to him.
"Easy, Chief," Ellison soothed, his voice cracking though he strove to sound calm. "Just concentrate on your breathing. You'll be okay."
"W-what happen'd…" Blair gasped, his eyes searching for Jim's face, trying to focus on him, as he fumbled to grab onto his partner's coat.
"You've been shot," Jim replied tightly, looking up briefly as Joel and Rafe pounded up beside them.
"Oh, God," Joel breathed, swallowing at the sight of the blood…so much of it. And Blair had been hit in a bad place.
"The shooter must have been in the parking garage across the street," Jim grated, struggling to stay present and not get lost in the sounds of Blair's increasingly sluggish heartbeat and raspy breathing.
"I'm on it," Rafe called out as he pulled out his cell, calling for back up as he raced down the length of the parking lot.
"Joel, there's a blanket in the truck," Jim ground out.
In moments, Joel was back, draping the warm wool over his friend to try to keep him warm. The night was cold and the pavement icy. "How's he doin'?" Joel asked softly, kneeling across from Ellison.
Jim shook his head tightly. It wasn't good. Blood was beginning to bubble on Sandburg's lips, which were increasingly blue from hypoxia, his breathing more laboured. But Blair was still clinging to consciousness, so Ellison replied firmly, "He's going to be fine."
"Jim?" Blair whispered, his eyes dark with pain, unfocused as the world seemed to spin away from him.
"I'm right here, Blair," Jim replied, fighting the fear welling up within him, feeling it clamp around his heart and stifle the breath in his own lungs. "Just take it easy. Don't try to talk."
"Why?" Sandburg asked, his voice faint and wispy. He felt so cold…and the pain was breaking through the first shock of numbness, forcing a moan from his lips, his features twisting with the agony of it.
"God, I don't know, kid, but I swear…" Ellison's voice cracked and died away. What good were vows of vengeance now…what did it matter now? "Where the hell's that damned ambulance?" he growled, growing frantic.
Joel watched, feeling helpless. But beneath the helplessness and, growing stronger, was rage. Whoever had done this was going down. Pulling out his cell, he shifted a little away to call Simon and let him know what had happened.
Finally, Jim picked up the sounds of sirens coming closer…ambulance and police. They weren't more than a couple of minutes away. "Just a little longer, Chief," he encouraged. "Help's almost here."
Blair tried to nod to show that he'd understood, but it was just so hard to focus. His body didn't seem to be working right and he felt almost as if he was drifting. Suddenly dizzy, his fingers clenched, trying to hold onto Jim's coat more tightly, to keep himself from floating away. "Not good, Jim," he choked out, fear blooming in his eyes. "Don't want…"
"You're not going to die, Blair," Jim broke in. "I know it feels bad, buddy…that it hurts, but you're going to be okay. You hear me?"
"So much…not said," Blair wheezed, his eyes searching the darkness that was beginning to press in on him, wishing he could see Jim. It was so hard to breathe…it all hurt so much.
And he felt suddenly so tired. Too tired to…
"BLAIR!" Jim yelled as Sandburg suddenly went limp, the hand that had been clinging to his coat falling heavily to the pavement. "Don't you do this, Sandburg…don't you quit on me!" he begged.
Joel was waving down the ambulance and it pulled up close to them. The EMTs jumped from the vehicle, racing forward with their emergency equipment and the gurney. Blair's coat and shirt were pushed out of the way and a pressure bandage was clamped over his wound. Blood pressure was taken, and pulse; respirations counted. An IV was started and an oxygen mask was slipped over his face. It seemed they had barely arrived and then they were lifting him with practiced speed onto the gurney, strapping him securely and racing back to the ambulance.
"Go with him, Jim," Joel called out.
Flipping the keys to his truck to Joel, Jim raced after them and jumped into the back of the ambulance.
And then it was racing, sirens blaring, into the night.
"Damn it," Joel cursed softly. "Damn it all to hell." But then he looked up into the clear night sky as he whispered, "Don't do this…don't take him. Please."
Then he turned to find out if Rafe had found anything or anyone in the garage.
Simon strode into the Emergency Unit of Cascade General and immediately spotted Ellison leaning against one of the treatment room doors. "How's he doing?" Banks demanded as soon as he was within earshot.
Jim jumped, startled, as he pulled part of his listening back from the sounds within the treatment room and looked up at Simon. "He's hanging in," Ellison replied, tension thick in his voice and posture. Rubbing a hand over his mouth, he gathered his thoughts to make some semblance of a report. "From what I can make out, the bullet must have hit at an angle and slid along the edge of his sternum, banged into and through a rib, shattering the bone, but slowing the bullet down. It then tore into his right lung. That's been the big problem…lots of internal bleeding and his lung collapsed just as we arrived here. But, they've inflated it again. The x-rays took a bit of time, but I think they're just about ready to take him up to surgery."
Just as he finished speaking, the door was yanked open and the stretcher bearing a pale, still figure was rushed past as they lurched out of the way. They could see that Blair had been put on a respirator and blood was hanging in a bag dangling on a pole attached to the gurney. A woman in a white lab coat was pulling off bloody gloves as she strode from the room and then looked up and saw them.
"You're here with Mr. Sandburg?" she asked, but didn't bother waiting for a response other than their terse nods before she continued. "I'm Dr. Natalie Westlands."
"Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD," Simon introduced himself as he showed his badge and then nodded to Jim, "and this is Detective Jim Ellison, Sandburg's partner."
"As you can see, we've just sent Mr. Sandburg up to surgery," she said. "It could be worse. We have his vitals stabilized and are replacing the blood loss. He's still shocky, his blood pressure lower than I'd like, but he's a fighter. It looked like the bullet hit a little sideways, not head-on, deflecting along bone which slowed its velocity and the reduced the damage it could have done. His odds are good."
Both men sighed in relief. "When will be able to see him?" Jim asked.
"It will be hours, I'm afraid," Dr. Westlands replied. "The lung was pretty torn up, and there're a lot of bleeders to find and fix. Delicate work. And then he'll be in recovery for at least an hour before they take him up to the ICU." Glancing at her watch, she mused, "It's seven-thirty now. I'd say you could probably persuade the ICU team to let you see him around midnight."
"Thank you, Doctor," Simon said as she turned away, hastening to the next patient who needed her attention.
Jim sagged against the wall. Part of him wanted nothing so much as to stay and hover outside the corridors of the Operating Room theatres, but he knew that was a waste of time. Time that could be better used going after the men responsible for this atrocity.
"Come on, Jim, let's get some coffee," Simon said, taking him by the arm, recognizing that Ellison also looked a little 'shocky'. "Joel's going to meet us here and bring us up to date. Then we'll decide on our next steps."
Joel and Rafe found them in the cafeteria about a half hour later. They got themselves cups of coffee then moved to sit down with Jim and Simon.
"How is he?" Rafe asked, his face creased with concern.
"The doctor in Emergency thought he'll likely be all right," Simon replied. "They've got him up in surgery, repairing his right lung."
Both detectives relaxed marginally at the hopeful news. Joel took a sip of the coffee, then set the cup down. "We didn't find anything in the parking garage," he sighed. "And the mood has gone straight downhill amongst the competitors. Those who were threatened, who were inclined to tough it out, are badly frightened now. It's likely most of 'em will pull out of the competition tomorrow."
"That's what this was about," Jim stated grimly, certain of the motivation behind the assault. "Shooting Blair makes it clear that there is real danger. In fact, shooting him maybe ups the fear factor even more dramatically than another victim would have because he's the one who was the original target of this kind of intimidation."
Simon pursed his lips. "Brown is still on Keppler. I think we should have him brought in…shake him up a little and see if he's got anything to give us."
Jim nodded grimly, and Rafe pulled out his cell to call his partner.
Jim was waiting in the interrogation room when H. brought Keppler in. Simon, Joel and Rafe were watching from the observation booth behind the wall.
"Mr. Keppler, we meet again," Jim said, his voice tight and his eyes sharp with anger as he moved away from the wall he'd been leaning on. "Have a seat and get comfortable. You might be here for a while."
Keppler flinched at the look of venom on Jim's face as he sat down, obviously very nervous and not at all sure why he'd been hauled down to the police station.
"Would someone tell me what's going on here?" he protested, trying to sound belligerent and managing only to bluster, ineffectual even to his own ears.
"Certainly," Jim replied, his tone almost brittle. "You remember my partner, Blair Sandburg. He was with me when we met earlier today."
"Yes, of course," Keppler replied, looking from Jim to H. and back again. He studiously avoided looking at the mirror on the wall, not wanting to imagine who might be watching.
"Good, that's good," Jim said, sliding into a chair across the table from their suspected accessory to attempted murder. Leaning forward on his elbows, deliberately intimidating, Jim went on, "Sandburg was shot tonight, in the parking lot of the arena."
Ellison's eyes narrowed as he monitored Keppler's reaction to that bit of news. The man's brown eyes widened in shock, and his heart kicked into overdrive. There was no mistaking the gasp of shock or the sudden pallor.
"What?" the man stammered, looking around wildly as if hoping an escape route would reveal itself. "What does that have to do with me? I mean, I'm sorry…but…I don't understand…"
"Hmm, yes, I can see that it comes as a bit of shock to you," Jim drawled, leaning back. "You know, you'll have to speak to your partners in crime about that. They shouldn't be running off, shooting people, and not letting you know that it's going down."
"Pppartners?" Keppler gasped again, his hands beginning to tremble. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do," Jim replied scathingly. "Frank Mills and whoever he's hired as the shooter…those partners."
Shaking his head, Keppler tried to push away from the table and stand, only to find H.'s heavy hand on his shoulder.
"We're not done here, yet," Henri said with a low growl of threat. "One of our own was shot tonight and we don't take that well, if you understand my meaning."
Twisting around to see the large black detective looming over him, a scowl of fury on his face, Keppler trembled and shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about," he repeated. "I think I should have a lawyer."
"Why?" Jim asked, his tone hard but curious. "We haven't charged you with anything yet."
"Oh, but, I thought you said…" Keppler stammered, confused.
"YET," Jim emphasized. "What we charge you with could be up to you. Right now, we're just having a friendly discussion."
Swallowing against his parched throat, Keppler shook his head, his eyes wide, like an animal who knows he's being hunted.
Behind the mirror, Rafe observed, "He's going to fold…he's too scared to keep quiet and risk an attempted murder charge."
"Hmmm," Simon grunted, noncommittally, but in general agreement.
Meanwhile Jim was outlining the possible charges Keppler could choose from. "Let's see, I'll have to look up the details about whether your little deal with Mills, to pad his income, is legal or not in amateur sport, but that seems like the least of your worries." Shrugging, Jim observed, "I imagine there's lots of little favours done in the sports world to get an inside track on winning athletes. They make good company spokespersons."
Keppler licked his lips but remained silent. When H. moved behind him, just loud enough to be heard, the man flinched.
As if he hadn't noticed, Jim continued, his voice almost mild now, as he said, "Then, there's conspiracy to intimidate, so that the strongest competitors would pull out of the games. That's a little more serious, especially as there's evidence that it's been going on for years. Mills has a good track record for bringing home winners…and when his skaters aren't good enough in any given year, why, he just intimidates them into quitting. That way, it's not his fault, is it, if they didn't win?"
Keppler swallowed as his eyes grew larger. He'd begun ringing his hands.
"Then," Jim ticked off the next possible charge, "there's the assault on Sandburg some years ago in Sweden. It's pretty clear that that was all part of this same game. He was seriously injured and had to leave competitive skating, almost died. In addition to criminal charges of assault, even accessory to attempted murder, he could probably sue you for every dime you have for damages given what he might have achieved in his skating career."
"I don't…I didn't…" Keppler stammered, trying to point out he'd been nowhere near Sweden twelve years ago, but Ellison ignored him.
"Then, there's accessory for the attempted murder of Blair Sandburg tonight. Maybe even murder, if he doesn't make it. Now, that's a heavy charge. Carries life imprisonment with no parole," Jim informed the very frightened man in front of him. "So…what's it going to be, Mr. Keppler? A relatively minor thing like messing about in amateur sport, or murder?"
"Mmmmurder?" he stammered, terrified now. "I didn't…nobody said anything about murder…"
"No?" Jim inquired, all solicitous. "I wondered if they'd been completely straight with you. You know, as the one who pays the bills, you could get set up for the fall here."
"NO!" Keppler protested. "I just…it wasn't…"
But Jim held up his hand as he shook his head. "I think I'd better read you your rights, Mr. Keppler, so that you'll understand the implications of making a statement. Would you like us to call a lawyer for you now?" he asked.
Keppler seemed to take hold of himself then as the full reality of his predicament hit him. He was a businessman, not an assassin. He'd never bargained for this kind of trouble and didn't intend to get caught in the mess. A little intimidation was one thing…actual assault quite another…and murder was off the scale. This cop might not know the penalty for interference in amateur sport but he did…usually not much more than a hefty fine. That was a far cry from life in prison. Straightening, he said, "Read me my rights, Detective. I've no involvement in any attempt to murder anyone and I'm not going to risk being caught up in something like that. I have a statement to make."
In an hour, they had what they needed and half an hour after that they had the first arrest warrants. Rafe and H. went to round up a man named Hans Mueller, who was little more than a messenger, though he'd been the one to shave the blades from the skates and make the threatening calls. He'd also been the one who'd tracked Ellison and Sandburg to the station and had called in their next destination to the shooter, though…so his information proved to be very helpful.
Simon, Joel and Jim went after Mills, apprehending him at his hotel. Mills, not expecting any trouble, had opened at their knock and was startled as they forced themselves into this room. Stumbling backwards, he shouted, "What's the meaning of this?"
"You shouldn't have gone after Sandburg again," Jim snarled. "I was after you anyway for what you'd done to him twelve years ago…but tonight's little escapade just sped up the timetable and made your problems a whole lot more serious."
"Sandburg? What are you talking about?" Mills blustered, his face flushing.
"Save it for the jury," Simon sneered. "We've got a statement from your partner in crime. Read him his rights."
Joel read off the Miranda while Jim yanked Mills arms behind him, hard, making the man wince, as he slapped on the cuffs. It was taking all he had not to beat the man to a pulp.
"What's the charge?" Mills demanded.
"Conspiracy to attempt murder, for now," Jim snapped fighting the urge to throttle the man and be done with it. "Accessory to murder if Sandburg doesn't make it. And assault with a deadly weapon, for what you arranged back in Sweden, twelve years ago. We're likely to get that up to attempted murder as well since the kid almost died. And there's no statute of limitations on that, not here, not in Sweden. We'll have to flip a coin to see who gets to house you in jail. Do you know if they have capital punishment there? I haven't checked."
"Easy, Jim," Simon murmured and tilted his head at Joel. "Take him downtown and book him. We're heading to the hospital."
Just then, Simon's cell beeped. Flipping it open, he frowned for a moment, and then a smile, strangely reminiscent of a shark, spread across his face. "Good work," he said, then flipped the phone closed. Staring at Mills he said, "Mueller fingered the shooter."
Mills went deathly white but he remained silent. Simon shook his head and turned to Jim. "Let's go get him."
Wordlessly, Joel took Mills in hand, shoving him none too gently out the door.
In the car on the way across town to a third rate motel, Simon briefed Jim. "The shooter is a hired gun, name of Santos Domingues."
"Never heard of him," Jim growled, his jaw tight as he watched the streets they were driving through, the buildings a blur as his thoughts drifted back to Sandburg, bleeding on the pavement.
"They're a bunch of amateurs," Simon sighed, wearily. Lord, sometimes he got tired of what people would do for a few measly dollars and a fancy house or two. He'd long ago stopped wondering how they slept at night or faced themselves in the mirror in the morning. But times like this, when innocents like Sandburg got caught in the crossfire of their unholy ambitions, he solemnly wished that the human race wasn't so prone to corruption.
Nodding wordlessly, Jim just kept staring out the window into the darkness.
Though both law enforcement officers, in the silence of their own hearts, might have preferred a shootout that would have allowed them to take the scum down for having shot Sandburg, it didn't go that way. Domingues had been drinking, celebrating his success from earlier in the evening, planning out what he'd do in the morning if the right skaters didn't pull out of the competition.
They took him down with minimal fuss and effort. When they searched his room, they found the weapon he'd used to shoot Sandburg and a uniform for the cleaning staff in the arena…his cover for moving around unnoticed. Later, they found out he already had another weapon stashed in a cubby-hole under the stands should he have cause to need one once the competition started.
It was over. They'd solved the case, the bad guys were all in jail.
But it didn't make them feel any better.
Sandburg was still in surgery.
The MCU team was back at the hospital before midnight, lingering around the entrance to the Operating Room theatre, pacing restlessly as they waited for word.
Jim had cast out his senses, but he wasn't getting much, only that Blair's heart was still beating and they were still working on him. The voices of the surgeons sounded weary, and one swore in a frustrated growl as another bleeder slipped loose and blood fouled their field of work. Ellison felt bile rise in the back of his throat and he hung his head, his eyes pressed shut, as he leaned against the wall.
Moving over close to his side, his voice low, Simon asked, "Can you tell how it's going?"
"They're worried about his blood pressure…still having trouble tying up all the bleeders," Jim murmured back with an anxious sigh.
Simon clasped his shoulder as he said quietly, "Blair's going to be all right, Jim."
Nodding, Jim bit his lip, and held onto that thought.
Ellison had finally been allowed in to see Sandburg at two thirty that morning. They'd been told an hour before that Blair had come through surgery and, all things considered, was doing as fine as could be expected. When Simon's jaw had tightened at the gobblygook and with flashing eyes he'd demanded impatiently just what exactly that all meant, the surgeon allowed that Blair would likely make a full recovery.
The others had gone home then, but Jim had remained. There was no way he was leaving now until Sandburg was awake and he knew his partner was really going to be fine.
As he entered the small, windowed cubicle, his eyes took in the respirator, the heart monitor, the chest tube, the IV and then he stopped counting tubes running in and out of his partner's body. It was just too depressing. Moving to the bedside, he laid one hand on Sandburg's bare shoulder, while the other stroked his friend's brow. Frowning, he thought Blair felt cold and he looked around. Spotting a cotton blanket on a chair, he unfolded it and laid it over the sheet that covered Blair to his chest, and the thick padded bandage there, pulling the blanket up to his shoulders, tucking it in gently. Pulling the chair over, he sat down, but kept one hand curled around Blair's limp fingers.
Sandburg looked so pale, the almost translucent quality of his skin emphasized the darkness of his hair and, despite the stubble of beard, he looked so damned young. The respirator droned and pumped, air swishing in and out, while the blood and saline IVs dripped with a monotonous regularity. The heart monitor bleeped each time another wavery pattern was drawn on the screen, tracking the strength, regularity and speed of that innocent heart.
Ellison sighed, frowning as images from the video he'd seen of Sandburg being hurt twelve years ago competed with the terrifying memories of the evening before. God, he'd been scared. Sandburg had been slipping so fast, his body going so cold, his heart suddenly so slow…too much blood rushing out too fast. And he remembered that scared look in the kid's eyes when Blair had realized how badly he'd been hurt. He remembered what Blair had said, about wanting to live life to the fullest, to experience it all…and he knew that fear he'd seen was the dark realization that maybe it was all going to be stolen from him, when there was still so much more he hoped to do in his life. Damn it, it had been so close, too close. That bastard could have taken away something so precious, so irreplaceable, as Sandburg's life. For what? For a few miserable dollars? The memory made his heart twist, his eyes burned as he blinked hard and he had to swallow hard against the bile that rose in the back of his throat as his gut rebelled at the obscenity of what had almost happened. At the life that had almost been lost.
He hated to see Sandburg hurt. Hated to know the kid was ever in pain or afraid. He hadn't wanted that, not ever. It wasn't right. Blair was just helping him with his senses. He wasn't a cop…he hadn't taken an oath to serve and protect. God, he hated this. Wished it hadn't happened. Felt that he could have prevented it somehow.
But, this hadn't been a random accident, nor even a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blair had been a deliberate target last evening. Just as he'd been a target more than ten years before Jim had ever met him. If they'd gotten the bastards responsible a dozen years ago, Sandburg wouldn't be lying here now, hurt, again.
Leaning forward, Ellison again stroked Blair's forehead and smiled a little to himself when he could tell that, at some level, the kid felt his presence and was soothed by his touch. Sandburg's heartbeat got a little stronger, and his colour improved…he felt warmer. Ellison kept up the gentle ministrations, able to show a tenderness while Sandburg was unconscious that he'd never feel comfortable revealing when the kid was awake. Blair would just tease him for it…and somehow, Jim didn't want to be teased about what he felt, about the love he knew had invaded his heart with as little warning as Sandburg had invaded his life. Ellison didn't love that many people. It made him feel vulnerable. He wasn't sure he wanted Sandburg to know just how much Jim was beginning to need him.
Not yet, anyway. Maybe, someday. But not yet.
"You're going to be okay, Blair," Jim murmured. "You just rest…I'm here…and you're safe now."
It was just after dawn when Blair began to stir, moaning a little in protest to the sharp pain in his chest and the discomfort of the respirator.
"Easy, buddy," Jim murmured, leaning forward, and again finding himself stroking Blair's forehead to calm him. "You're okay, Blair…everything's going to be okay…"
Sandburg mumbled, not quite conscious but somehow aware of Ellison's presence. He felt the warmth of the hand soothing his brow and another gripping his fingers. Heard the soft, reassuring voice. It all made him feel safe.
A few minutes later, he blinked and tried to focus, finally finding Jim's face. Though he was dazed with pain and drugs, there was a flash of recognition, a bright spark of gratitude and relief to see Jim there that warmed the older man's heart. When he tried to mumble around the respirator, Jim murmured, "Shh… they'll be here soon to take that out, now that you're awake. Don't try to talk yet…just rest, okay?"
Sandburg nodded weakly as his eyes drifted closed. But his hand turned a little so that his fingers could link with Ellison's.
So trusting, Jim thought, a little amazed. He trusts me so much. And he promised himself then, that he'd do all in his power to earn that trust, to deserve it.
It was a few hours later, the respirator long gone, when Blair woke again, feeling more alert if slightly spacey.
"Hey, you really awake this time?" Jim asked with a faint smile.
"Uh huh," Blair grated, making a face at how sore his throat was.
Jim reached for the cup of ice chips and slipped a couple between his lips. "This'll help," he said quietly.
Swallowing the cool moisture, grateful for the relief of it, Sandburg smiled. "Look like you…been here all nigh'," he rasped in a weak whisper.
Jim shrugged, choosing not to admit to that fact. "It's all wrapped up, Chief," he told his partner then. "We got Mills and the other guys who were involved. I'm sorry we didn't nail it down before he had you shot, buddy."
"S'okay," Blair croaked. "Not y'r fault."
Ellison shrugged again as he looked away wondering why it felt like it had been his fault. Wanting to somehow make up for that, to make things more right than they were for the kid who shouldn't have been shot in the first place, Ellison sighed a little as he looked back down into Blair's wide blue eyes. "We finally got him, Sandburg…the guy who shattered your dreams so many years ago."
Sandburg just smiled softly as he fumbled until he'd found Jim's hand and wrapped his fingers around the large strong hand that had held his all through the long night. "Got m' dream," he murmured, his eyelids again drooping in weariness as he squeezed that large, gentle hand as strongly as he could. "'s you," he mumbled, just before he fell back to sleep. "Y'r my Sent'nel, 'nd bes' frien', Jim. Y'r my dream, man…"
Ellison felt a lump form in his throat at those simple words, at the candour and lack of self-consciousness, wondering if it was the drugs that had loosened Sandburg's tongue for such a heartfelt admission. He felt an ache, deep inside, as if something had cracked or broken free. A heart too long encased in stone and hardened against the adversities of life, cold and lonely, finally opening up to warmth and hope.
It was one thing for Sandburg to have told him the other night that he was responsible somehow for giving him a chance to pursue other dreams, to learn and make a difference. It was quite another to hear that he was Blair's dream.
Jim, personally, had never been anyone's dream before. At first, he felt awkward with the sentiment.
And, then, he smiled gently, deciding that it felt pretty good.
His throat suddenly tightened and he felt his eyes prick as he gripped Blair's limp hand. "Thanks," he whispered, his voice a little hoarse and broken as he thought about all Sandburg had brought into his life, all the healing that Sandburg had done with his help in managing the senses…and more, with humour and energy, with commitment and trust, and with friendship and a simple, abiding joy in life, how he'd battered down the walls around a lost and lonely soul. "You're my dream, too, Chief…I just didn't know it until I almost lost you…."
With the fears of the threats resolved, the World Skating Championships were able to proceed with all the skaters participating. It was a dazzling week of singles and doubles, of rigorous and meticulously plotted technical displays of athletic mastery and the magic of the more choreographed and creative artistic dances on ice.
As the week wound down, the organizers of the event and the senior authorities of the Cascade Police Department plotted a finale to allow the skating world to show its gratitude that a shadow that had been haunting them for so long had finally been banished…and maybe, finally, to recognize a level of excellence that had been cheated of its due reward. To make it all work, they needed the agreement and approval of certain practitioners in the medical world as well. But, finally, the physicians gave their consent, deciding that it would do no harm…and joy often, somehow, facilitated healing.
So, a new award was instituted, with the judges huddling to make their choice, for a presentation on the final night of the world event. When all was ready, the designated representative of the skating world set off to the hospital to begin the surprise.
"Janey!" Blair exclaimed, delighted to see her. "What are you doing here? The Championships aren't over yet, are they?"
"Blair, oh, Blair…I really hate seeing you in hospitals!" she replied with a slight shake of her head, ignoring his question. "But, I heard you're recovering. That you're doing fine."
"Oh, yeah…they say I can home in a few days," he assured her, returning her hug as she moved to the bed and wrapped her arms around him. "Don't worry about me…I'm fine."
Standing back, she turned to wave at someone who was in the doorway, just out of Blair's sight. When Jim came in, pushing a wheelchair, Blair looked at them, wondering what he was missing. They were both grinning like Cheshire cats that had gotten all the cream, not to mention the sweet cakes at the picnic. Turning back to Sandburg, she asked with a twinkle, "'Fine' enough to take a little ride?"
"What's going on?" Blair asked, looking from one to the other.
"No questions, Chief," Jim replied. "Just go along with this little adventure. I don't think you'll be disappointed." Moving forward, Jim hefted a duffel bag he was carrying and continued, "I've brought you some clothes and, if Janey will just give us a minute, I'll help you get dressed."
A quizzical expression on his face, but trusting these two as much as he'd ever trusted anyone in his life, Blair nodded as he drawled, "O-kay…I'm up for a little adventure."
In a few minutes, they were on their way.
As they neared the arena, Blair was busy speculating about what was going on. "Oh, wow, this is GREAT!" he chimed. "This is the gala finale, right? Man, I love this, when all the skaters come out and the crowd goes wild! Thanks, guys, for arranging to get me here for this! It's been forever since I've been able to be, like, present, for this…I've only watched it on tv for years, now."
"I see he still babbles when he's excited," Janey observed, unable to resist a wide grin.
"Oh, yeah," Jim agreed with a long-suffering sigh, which earned him a snort from Sandburg.
Once inside the arena, they wheeled the chair down the back corridors, and Blair assumed they'd arranged for him to be able to watch right from the sidelines just inside one of the portals. His face was ablaze with excitement and pleasure…and some very good memories of days gone by.
The finale began, with a rush of music and then the skaters were emerging from every portal, their costumes a kaleidoscope of colour. They circled and weaved over the ice in an intricate design of motion, then, when all were in place, they stopped and turned as the music peaked…all of them facing a single portal, all of their eyes on one man in a wheelchair.
In the sudden silence, the announcer's rich voice filled the cavernous space. "Tonight, the World Skating Championship Association honours one of its own, and in so honouring, begins a new tradition. Ladies and Gentlemen, a new award is being initiated tonight, to recognize the most promising new skater of the world community, to celebrate talent that has the potential of true brilliance in the years ahead. This award has been initiated to pay homage to a skater whose youthful brilliance once stunned the world community…and whose loss has never been forgotten. Tonight, Ernst Guttenberg, of Germany, is being presented with the Blair Sandburg 'Future Dreams Award'. And, here to present, is Blair Sandburg himself…"
"What?" Blair gasped, his eyes wide in stunned amazement, not believing what he was hearing.
From an official who had appeared beside her, Janey took the crystal sculpture of a youth on skates, long hair tied back, standing with his arms raised in triumph, and handed it to Blair. "Here you go, sweetie…you hold onto this and I'll push you out onto the ice."
In a daze, Blair took the statuette into his hands and held it reverently. As Janie pushed the chair out onto the rink, the skaters began to clap, and then the audience was clapping and cheering, as they rose to their feet. Blair looked around, wondering if he was maybe dreaming. It was all just too incredible.
When they got to the center of the rink, Janey stopped, and Ernst skated over to stand in front of Blair. Taking a deep breath, Sandburg said, "I'm honoured, man, really honoured, to be able to present you with this award tonight. I hope you will always know the joy that I knew on ice. And I hope that all of your dreams come true."
Ernst took the award, and bowed his head. Looking back up into Blair's eyes, he replied, "If I've ever had a dream, it was to someday meet you…and perhaps, one day, to skate as well as you once did. The honour tonight is mine. Thank you."
Blair blinked and nodded, blowing out a long breath as he tried to contain his emotions.
But, the night was not yet over. With a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of drums, the lights went down and on the massive screens at each point of the compass, the image of a brilliant young skater was telecast…a montage of scenes, from a variety of competitions that had once led him to the World Championships, culminating with his last heartstoppingly awesome performance, the film ending as he skated toward center rink, his arms in the air over his head, triumphant, the camera freezing on the glowing expression of joy on his face just before he'd begun his last, fateful, whirl.
The lights came back up, along with the announcer's voice. "For a dozen years, the world skating community has been haunted by threats and fear, but this year, thanks to the efforts of the Cascade Police Department and an unpaid civilian observer named Blair Sandburg, those shadows have been banished and the threat laid forever to rest. Tonight, in gratitude, and to recognize an award winning performance that was ended so tragically, the President of the World Skating Championship Association wishes to acknowledge that extraordinarily gifted skater and to thank him for his contribution to ridding our community of fear. Ladies and Gentlemen, President Andre-Phillippe Comeau…"
Amidst the din of applause and cheering, President Comeau walked out onto the ice to stand beside Blair. His lapel microphone picked up his words, "Blair, I saw you skate that night, twelve years ago, and like the others who have ever seen your performance, I have never forgotten. Those most closely associated with this community also know of your efforts to return to our world, efforts that your injury, tragically, did not permit. We lost a brilliant light that night, but your inspiration has always remained with us. Tonight, I am pleased to present you with this special gold medal, the medal you should have won that night, in gratitude for what you gave us then…and for the peace and security you have helped to give us now. I am sincerely sorry for the pain you have experienced, and am also most sincerely impressed with your courage in moving forward, to pursue other dreams with as much brilliance and dedication as you brought to skating. You inspire us all, and we are grateful."
With that, the President leaned forward to loop the chain and the heavy medal around Blair's neck. As he shook Sandburg's hand, the arena again echoed to the rafters with the cheering of the crowd.
Blair blushed and bent his head, reaching to touch the medal with tentative fingers. He shook his head as if he couldn't believe what was happening, that it was his. Looking up at the President, he murmured brokenly, "Thank you…I…thank you…"
His gaze then lifted to the gathered host, his eyes sparkling in the lights, unshed tears glittering, and his smile was radiant with incandescent joy.
Music again filled the arena, and the skaters whirled into place to form an honour guard, as Janey wheeled Blair between them back to the portal. Sniffing, she didn't even try to keep the tears from streaming down her cheeks.
Looking ahead, he saw Jim, and Simon, and all the others from Major Crimes waiting there for him, beaming with pride and pleasure at the honours he'd been given that night. They gathered around him, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder, ruffling his hair, touching and admiring the medal…and he couldn't find words, could only beam at them and shake his head, overwhelmed with happiness.
Finally, back in the corridor, he turned to Janey and gripped her hand. "Thank you, Janey…for everything. For believing in me all those years ago, for teaching me so much…for being here and bringing me here tonight…" he said intensely, knowing the words could never convey what he felt for her.
She bent to hug him tightly as she murmured in his ear, "You were always the best, Blair…and you still are. I love you, and I'm glad you're finally receiving the acclaim you always deserved."
She pulled away then, and stepped back. "But, enough excitement. You need to get back to the hospital, or the doctors will tan all our hides! I'll be in to see you again, tomorrow. And we still have a date for dinner when you're out of the hospital!"
Jim moved in then to push Blair's chair back out of the arena, back to the truck. Once they were on their way back to the hospital, Blair murmured, "That was the most amazing, unbelievable…oh, man…I don't even know how to say how I feel!"
"Just enjoy the moment, Chief…it's well deserved, and too damned long in coming," Jim replied with a wide smile. "You were a brilliant skater, and that medal is no more than you earned."
Blair smiled softly as he fingered the gold medallion that held the same image as the crystal award that had been named for him. On the back, inscribed with his name, it also read, "Dare To Dream." He nodded to himself, and then sat back with a tired but happy sigh.
"I'm really lucky," he said softly, with a quick glance at Jim. "Not everyone gets to have all their dreams come true…"
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