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

It's About Trust

An Epilogue to Vow of Silence

by Arianna

Written for the 10th Anniversary celebration of The Sentinel in our lives ....

Acknowledgement: With gratitude to StarWatcher for her great beta work and for coding this story.

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Shaking his head bemusedly, Jim laughed as he walked away from Brother Jeremy, surprised to realize he liked the guy. The stodgy, humourless, control-freak had depths that Jim hadn't expected, including a profound loyalty to a lifelong friend, and the willingness to sacrifice his principles and risk his soul to save men who were putting their lives on the line to protect monks who were little more than strangers. The biggest surprise was that his dour manner hid a wry wit and wicked sense of humour. No wonder Sandburg liked to come up here. Not only was there peace and beauty, but also damned good company ... 'Well, usually peaceful,' he amended, glaring disgustedly at the handcuffed thugs that were being settled in the back of several patrol cars. His lips thinned and he shrugged; taking a deep breath, he looked back over the meadow to the orchard beyond and reminded himself that they'd gotten off lucky, but not without first incurring terrible losses. He wished that he had figured things out before Brother Timothy and Brother Christopher had been murdered. Swallowing his regret, knowing it was useless, he sighed and ambled across the graveled lane to join his partner. Sandburg was standing stiffly, his hands stuffed in his pockets, staring off down the road as if he could still see the ambulance that had left minutes before.

Jim made a crack about trying a different venue for fun the next time, like maybe Vegas, and they joked a bit and then he suggested, "C'mon, we should pack up our gear. One of the Sheriff's men will take us down the road to where we left the truck. I told him we'd write up our statement back in Cascade and send it by courier."

Nodding silently, Blair turned and led the way into the building. In minutes, they'd packed their few belongings, said their good-byes to Brother Jeremy and the others, and were on their way. It wasn't until they were in the truck and headed down the sun-dappled, curving road overshadowed by mountain ash and pine that Jim noticed that Sandburg was more than unusually subdued. Frowning, he realized the kid hadn't said anything directly to him since the light banter about going to Vegas they next time they had some time off and a need for a little Rest and Recovery. Chewing on his lip, he reflected, now that he thought about it, that Blair's manner had been forced, his apparent easy humour brittle. Glancing at his roommate, Jim noted that Sandburg was now sitting rigidly, his hands curled into fists on his thighs, the line of his jaw tight, as he stared out the side window.

Grimacing, wondering if he wouldn't be best to let sleeping dogs lie, he asked, "You okay?"

"Fine," Blair replied, his tone taut with tension, his response clearly untrue.

"Uh huh," Jim grunted, one brow quirking with mild irritation. Squinting as he skipped over the memories of the last hour or so, his lips twisted with moderate chagrin. "You still upset that Brother Marcus turned out to be Jackie Kozinski?"

Sandburg shook his head tightly. "No," he rasped, sounding impatient. "It was a shock, yeah. But ... but all that was a long time ago. I've only known the good, decent and compassionate man he is now. I guess, I guess we all have secrets," he went on more reflectively. "Stuff we regret. I could wish that we'd all get a chance to change, to be better than we were." He paused and then mused, "I never really understood why he became a monk. But I suppose he's been atoning for the man he used to be."

"Yeah, that and hiding out," Jim observed dryly. When Blair turned his face away and stiffened once more, he returned to trying to figure out what was so evidently upsetting the kid. With a flash of insight, he muttered, "You're pissed that I told you Brother Marcus was dead."

Smoldering eyes now leveled at him like laser beams, Blair grated, "You think?"

"Look," he sighed with exaggerated patience, "we need the mob to believe he's dead, alright? So they'll stop trying to find and kill him. Like I said earlier, I didn't want to take any chances."

Blair nodded stiffly, his expression grim as he resumed staring out the side window. "Right, and telling me would have been too much of a chance," he allowed, his voice thin with strain. "After all, I was the only one who didn't know he was only wounded. Well, I guess my reaction was what you wanted." He paused, then asked carefully, as if the answer was of supreme import, "Did ... did Brother Marcus agree that I should be told he was ... was dead?"

Scowling slightly, Jim gave a quick shake of his head. "No, he didn't. He wasn't happy when Brother Jeremy and I insisted it had to play out that way for his own safety."

A slight choked sound, suspiciously like a strangled sob, drew Jim's gaze from the road, and he gave the grad student a quick, searching look as he swiftly did a sensory scan. Sandburg's breathing was shallow and he was trembling slightly, and there was a slight scent of salt in the cab. Blair was close to tears? What the hell was going on? "Chief?" he ventured, concern now lacing his voice.

Blair lifted a hand as if to stave him off, and he sniffed, took a deep breath. "Bad enough that you don't trust me; that you thought I'd somehow screw up and betray him," Sandburg said, his voice low and hoarse, his face still averted. "But if he ... I don't think ... I don't know what I'd do if he'd thought deceiving me like that was ... was okay. Necessary."

"Sandburg, hey, I know he's a friend, but it was only for a few minutes -" Jim began, his tone minimizing the hardship that had, after all, been for a good cause, but Blair whirled on him, cutting him off sharply.

"A friend?" he exclaimed with an expression of disbelief and something that looked enough like contempt to raise Jim's hackles. But before he could demand what the hell had bent Blair so out of shape, the kid went on scathingly, "C'mon, don't tell me you didn't notice? The likeness?"

Frowning, confused, Ellison echoed, "Likeness?"

Blair snorted and, agitated, raked his fingers through his hair. "Curly hair? His build? The shape of his face, his hands? Blue eyes? The timbre of his voice?" he challenged and then shook his head as if he couldn't believe a detective, a sentinel, could miss such obvious clues. "Brother Marcus is more than a friend, Jim," he husked. Clearing his throat, he continued with careful deliberation, "I've known him all my life. Aside from Naomi, he's the only constant I've had since before I can remember." Though he seemed about to say more, he hesitated and took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. Anger melting away, he confessed softly, "I think Brother Marcus is my father." His shoulders slumped as he crossed his arms and hunched into himself, as if in pain. "When I thought he was dead ... I ... ah, God, Jim, those were the worst moments of my life. I felt like something inside was torn open, like my heart just got ripped out."

"What? Your ...." Jim blinked and stammered in shock, and then hastily pulled the truck off to the side of the road, stopping so that he could give Blair his full attention. Shifting in his seat to face Sandburg and to grip his shoulder, he said with evident chagrin, "Chief - I don't know what to say. It just never occurred to me, you know? Are you sure?"

Shrugging, Blair bowed his head. "I was going to ask you what you thought," he admitted uncomfortably. "Once you'd had a chance to get to know him a bit, see us together. But then all hell broke loose." His voice drifted off. Looking up, out at the tree branches above the truck, he sighed heavily. "It's not something I've ever felt I could ask him, and Naomi has always said she doesn't know who ...." Cutting a look at Jim, his eyes shifting as quickly away again, he added, "But I really think he is. My father, I mean. I've thought that for a long time."

Jim closed his eyes and leaned back against his seat; Sandburg's confession put a new twist on everything that had happened and more than explained the kid's reactions. Rubbing his mouth, he couldn't imagine the emotional rollercoaster the day had proven to be for Blair. "I don't know, Chief," he finally replied, frowning thoughtfully. "I think he would have told you by now. It's not like you're a kid anymore."

"Maybe he's just gotten really good at keeping secrets," Sandburg sighed and, sitting up straighter, raked his hair off his face. "Or maybe he didn't know how to tell me who he used to be." Blair gave him an inscrutable look and then shrugged again. "And maybe it's just wishful thinking," he answered carefully, before turning away, his body again tightening up. "Maybe it's only because he's always been there for me, always believed in me ... always loved me." His tone became dismissive, as if he was sorry he'd revealed something so private. "Doesn't matter. What I think or feel or believe doesn't change anything. But, I'll tell you this, man," he added vehemently, "there's nothing on this earth that could ever induce me to betray him."

Ellison could feel Sandburg withdrawing, closing up, as if he'd wrapped an invisible shield around himself. There'd been bitterness in his tone and his demeanor was edged with anger. Well, he was entitled if his mother and Brother Marcus had been playing such an elaborate game of secrecy about something so important for the whole of his life. Grimacing, Jim thought about how he'd also played a mean game of secrecy with the kid that day, had used him, albeit for a good reason. Why had he thought it was so necessary that Blair not know the truth? His tongue probed at a molar as he remembered how honest and convincing Sandburg's reaction had been, but maybe he could have faked it. Hopefully, the local hood had believed it. Sighing, not sure how to breach the wall that he felt between them, he steered the truck back onto the road.

"I guess I can't visit him in the hospital, can I?" Blair murmured unhappily a few minutes later. "Or even call him. In case someone is watching, maybe tapping our phone, to be sure he really is dead and it wasn't just a scam. I guess there'll even have to be a funeral. I'll have to call Naomi."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Jim hesitated, not sure he wanted to involve anyone else in the charade. He'd never met Blair's mother and had no way of knowing if she could carry off the role of a grieving friend - not to mention possible former lover - for those who might well be watching.

"About what?" Sandburg countered irritably. "That we - I - might be watched after that oh, so emotional display back there? Or that there has to be a funeral?" His tone was caustic as he continued, "C'mon, man. They, whoever 'they' are, have been hunting him for what? Twenty years or more? I'm pretty sure they'll want to be certain he's really dead."

"You're probably right about that," Jim agreed neutrally, though he hadn't really thought about it. Frowning, he rubbed his forefinger over his lip. Odds were good, he thought, that the local goons they'd apprehended that morning weren't the real power players who were pulling the strings.

"So you're just not sure I should bring Naomi into it," Sandburg pushed angrily, intruding into Jim's musings. "Figures. If you don't trust me, I could hardly expect you to trust, sight unseen, the woman who raised me." Seething with barely-suppressed anger, he muttered sarcastically, "It's not like I've ever carried off a bluff before, well, except for convincing Kincaid I was a cop, or his pilot that I flew in Desert Storm. Or got past a street gang by pretending to be a social worker. Nope, I've obviously blown it too many times, like being too obvious in the church and alerting Lash that time, or falling for a woman I was only supposed to be seducing for whatever information I could get out of her for you. Too emotional, that's me, wearing my heart on my sleeve, so Naomi is probably the same kind of basket-case, right? That's what you think, isn't it? Better to keep both of us in the dark about what's really going on. Safer. Fine, whatever."

"Look, Chief," Jim began, trying for conciliation but his tone verged on condescension.

"No, you look, Jim," Blair snapped. "I get it, okay? Obviously, it's bad enough you have to have me hanging around, constantly underfoot, without always having to bring me up to speed on what's going on; and you quite clearly give no credence to my views on this. But if Naomi was somehow involved with Jackie Kozinski all those years ago, and if they've been looking for him all that time - and, hey, it's pretty clear that they have - then they probably know about their friendship and they ... God," he stopped, a stricken expression filling his face. "Oh, God, maybe I did lead them to him because I didn't realize the danger, didn't know who he really was," he gasped, obviously horrified by the thought. "Maybe they've been watching me and finally wondered why a good little Jewish boy visits a Catholic monastery so often ...."

"Whoa, slow down, Sandburg," Jim interjected sternly. "Don't go all paranoid on me. This isn't about you. They could just as well have tracked him because of his friendship with Brother Jeremy."

"Oh, I don't think so, Jim. They've both been at Saint Sebastian's for twenty or so years, with absolutely no problem before, so I don't think Jeremy's the link," Blair demurred, pale with anxious guilt.

"Sandburg, you're building sand castles here - it just doesn't wash. You're stretching the possibility of an affair more than twenty-five years ago into something that means more than makes any sense," Jim objected.

"No ... no, whether or not they had an affair isn't the point," Sandburg muttered to himself, clearly preoccupied with the fact that maybe he had betrayed Brother Marcus somehow by leading the gangsters to him.

"What do you mean it isn't the point?" Jim challenged, his eyes on the road and the increasing traffic as they entered the outskirts of the city. "If your idea is that they've been watching you because you might be Jackie's kid, then they'd be watching your mother, too, right?"

"Naomi couldn't have led them to him. She's never gone to the monastery," Blair replied distantly with a dismissive wave of his hand, still working out his own theory, piecing in what he now knew about who Brother Marcus had once been. "Besides, to be honest, I don't think they were ever more than friends. I've never gotten, you know, a vibe between them."

His eyes narrowing, Jim scratched his cheek. "That doesn't make any sense," he groused irritably.

"What?" Blair asked, dragging his attention back to his friend.

"If you think Jackie is your father, then he and your mother had to have been more than just friends," Jim argued. Giving Blair a sardonic look, he added wryly, "Funny, I thought you already knew all about the birds and the bees."

"Oh," Sandburg replied, a startled look in his eyes before he ducked his head away. "Yeah, yeah, you're right," he added hurriedly.

"Uh uh, not so fast," Jim countered, sensing that there was something more, that Blair was hiding something from him. "You can't have it both ways, Chief. If you think they were only friends, then he can't be your father. Regardless of whether they were more than friends or not, maybe she somehow gave him away. Not deliberately, just, uh, inadvertently. Maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person."

"No, she'd never do that," Blair murmured, back to staring out the side window.

Silence fell between them, but Jim found himself rehashing the conversation in his mind as he drove across the city toward the police department. Something didn't add up. The kid was too smart to hold such divergent beliefs - that Kozinski was his father but that he and Naomi had never done the horizontal mambo. "Sandburg," he asked, not happy with where his thoughts were taking him, but not able to leave it alone, "why do you call her Naomi and not 'mom'?"

"It's what she wants," he replied hollowly. "It's part of her view of the necessary equality between parent and child, and her rejection of the innate hierarchical authority implied by labels like 'mom' or 'dad'."

"Right," Jim sighed and shook his head. His lips thinning, he debated letting it go. Certainly, Sandburg's evasive reticence and evident mute tension were pretty strong signals that the kid didn't want to continue the discussion. But the detective in him didn't like unresolved puzzles, and they were maybe talking about a serious crime here. "What aren't you saying?" he probed carefully, sensing that it was too important to let go, but afraid if he pushed too hard Blair would just clam up completely.

The silence stretched on for another block and then Blair asked obliquely, his voice subdued, "Remember Mendelson's theory of dominant and recessive genes? About the three tall sweetpea plants, or whatever, and the one short plant? I remember. Guess I was eleven or twelve when I learned about it. Anyway, the teacher used another example, one I found fascinating. Blood types. About how A and B are dominant and O is recessive. Rh positive is dominant and Rh negative is recessive. Stuff about universal recipients, AB positive, and universal donors, O negative."

"Yeah?" Jim encouraged, his gut tightening.

"I saw Naomi's blood donor card once," Blair told him, giving him a quick glance. "She's AB positive."

Sure now that his suspicions were right, Jim swallowed against the queasiness he felt about what he might have to do with what he was learning, and nodded tightly.

"I gave blood for the first time when I was eighteen," Sandburg said, his tone now flat, resigned. "That's when I found out that I'm O negative."

"Shit," Jim breathed. "Then there's no way she can be ...." But his voice trailed away.

"I've got a birth certificate that says she is," Blair replied dryly. "Don't get me wrong," he went on quickly, turning to fully face Jim for the first time since they'd left the monastery. "Naomi is my mother in every way that matters. In every way. She loves me and I love her. I may not have had a traditional upbringing, but I never wanted for anything important and I had a pretty good childhood. I was happy. Am happy."

Jim pulled into the underground garage and parked. Staring straight ahead, he asked, "Does she know you know?"

"No, and I don't want her to," Blair insisted.

Slowly turning to search Sandburg's eyes, he said disbelievingly, "Chief, you're not usually one to hide your head in the sand or ... or avoid confrontations. What's going on here? You know she's not your mother but you don't tell her, don't ask her for the truth; you think Brother Marcus is your father, but you don't ask him, to find out for sure. I don't get it. And how can you have a birth certificate? It's got to be illegal ... maybe a forgery."

"I don't know how it was arranged, but I got it when I applied in the usual way, so it's not a forgery," Blair replied with an animated shrug and upheld palms. "Jim, I don't know if you can understand this," he continued soberly, "but I was serious earlier when I said that Naomi and Brother Marcus are the only constants in my life. I won't risk alienating either of them by demanding information they very clearly don't want to share with me. And I won't hurt either of them by challenging who they say they are in my life: my mother and my lifelong friend. Besides, it's never really mattered before."

"How can you say that?" Jim contested, astonished by Sandburg's blasé attitude. "Don't you care who you are? Who you might be?"

"Jim, I know who I am. Inside, where it counts, I know very well who I am. I know what I stand for and what I believe in, and what kind of man I am," Sandburg retorted sharply. "Sure, biologically, I don't know my ancestry, but I am Blair Sandburg." Sighing, he looked away. "But, maybe, it does matter now. And maybe the fact that Brother Marcus is Jackie Kozinski explains a few things, like why we were always on the move, and why we always had enough money even if Mom couldn't find work. Maybe Jackie gave her money to take care of me - not in the sense of buying her willingness, 'cause you can't buy the love she has always given me. But in the sense of ensuring we had enough to live on, to be able to move around all over the country, even the world. And, and maybe, if he was a protected witness, then that might explain how I've got a government-issued birth certificate that isn't true. Or maybe I've got that simply because Naomi registered me after claiming I was born in a commune. I just don't know."

Ellison scrubbed his face and shook his head. "Blair - all this about Kozinski is sheer speculation on your part." He hesitated and then added reluctantly because he had to, "She might have stolen you from your parents."

"No. No, absolutely not," Sandburg stated forcefully, his hands and shaking head vehemently underscoring his certainty.

"Chief ..."

"No, Jim," Blair insisted sternly. "You don't know Naomi. She would not do that. She just wouldn't. However I ended up with her, it was for a good reason. And, think about it, Jim. All these years, all my life, she's given me the best she's had, loved me unconditionally. I couldn't have had a better mother. She didn't have to do that - I wasn't her responsibility. But she did. And I'll always be grateful because I can't imagine a better life than I've had."

Jim's gaze dropped, and he swallowed the urge to argue that the odds were a lot better that Naomi had stolen him, than that Jackie Kozinski was his father. "Who else have you talked to about all this?"

"Nobody," Blair replied defensively, looking away. "Nobody else knows any of this."

Startled, Jim blurted, "Then why did you tell me?"

Sandburg shot him an 'are you kidding me' look of arched brow disbelief and then shook his head, but when Jim continued to look askance at him, he sighed. "Trust is important to you, and you're not all that big on surprises, you know?" he explained carefully. "Jim, I hear you, okay? I know you think I'm just being paranoid or self-obsessed in thinking that maybe I, or Naomi and I, are probably being watched. But if I'm right in my assumptions, then maybe it does have something to do with how they found Brother Marcus. I guess ... I guess it's just that if any of this comes out during their interrogations, I wanted you to have heard it from me first. And ...." He paused and then shifted to fully face Jim, his expression almost painfully earnest. "I know you don't always tell me everything - far from it - but, well, you've always been straight with me, never outright lied to me, at least until today. I know you don't trust me yet. And maybe you never will. But for sure you never will if I'm not straight with you."

"Chief, will you give it a rest, already - I trust you," Jim huffed, shifting uncomfortably.

"No, you don't, not completely, anyway," Blair insisted, giving him a straight, clear look. "If you did, well ... you had good reasons, the best reasons, for that little charade today. You were doing your best to safeguard Brother Marcus' life, and as much as it pissed me off, I am grateful for that." A slight grin played around his lips. "I don't take it personally, you know," he said conversationally, with an almost clinical lack of defensiveness. "I don't think you really trust anyone, with the possible exception of Simon, maybe, when there's no other choice."

"Yeah, well, from what you've just told me, it doesn't sound like you trust a whole hell of lot of people, either," Jim retorted, grimacing.

"I trust you," Blair affirmed steadily. "I trust you to respect my privacy and keep what I've told you to yourself. I trust you to do your best to do what's right. I trust you to protect me as well as you can when things get dangerous. And I trust Naomi and Brother Marcus to never willfully hurt me."

Jim flushed at the simple statements of what sounded like unshakeable belief and confidence, and cleared his throat. "You know I can't just let everything you told me slide. I have to look into it - try to figure out," he paused, seeking the right words, "to figure out why Naomi decided she had to accept responsibility for you."

"Yeah, well, to tell you the truth," Blair said in all seriousness, "I wouldn't mind knowing the answer to that, myself." Looking away, he frowned slightly. "If I'm right, Jim, she was potentially risking her life to take care of me, to raise me." His tone softened as he murmured, "I owe her a lot."

Jim gazed at him soberly. "Maybe," he allowed. "But I don't think there's a debt when people act out of love. And I sure in hell don't think you owe anyone anything for what happened when you were a baby, or during your childhood."

Blair sighed heavily and nodded slowly. "I'd just like to know," he said quietly. "Not that it would change anything, I guess. I'd just like to know."

"Well, let's go see if we can start getting some answers," Jim suggested. After clapping Blair lightly on the shoulder, he got out of the truck and led the way out of the garage.

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Ellison immediately went to Simon's office, to bring him up to speed on everything that had occurred at the monastery. Sandburg cut a beeline to Jim's desk and settled in at the computer, to research events that had occurred twenty-five years before. It didn't take him long to access the archives of two major national newspapers and he was relieved to see that the available information dated back thirty years. His mouth dry, his hands trembling a little, he searched on 'Kozinski' and took a deep breath as the results appeared. Leaning forward, unconsciously pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose, nervously hooking his hair back behind his ears, he began to read.

"Oh my God," he murmured just a few minutes later, and then sat back, absorbing what he'd just learned, processing the information.

The door to Simon's office abruptly opened and Jim stepped out to look over at him, concern clouding his features. Blair wondered how Jim had known, had sensed that he'd found something, as he held his friend's gaze and solemnly nodded. Ellison strode across the bullpen and swung in behind him to read the computer screen. The article was compelling - the photograph of a younger Janos, AKA Jackie, Kozinski even more so, for he looked a great deal like Sandburg. His curls were short, clipped close to his head, and the shape of his face was slightly different, but the resemblance was striking. There was also a picture of a red-headed young woman with a gamin grin, the adolescent sister of Kozinski's recently deceased wife. The article reported the sister, Nancy, was missing, as was Kozinski's two-month-old son, Joseph. Blair was grateful when Jim gripped his shoulder with firm warmth and steadying strength.

"Is that your mother?" Ellison asked, his voice low, carefully contained.

"Yeah, Jim, it is," Blair affirmed, his tone strained. "And, uh, my middle name is Joseph."

"We need to tell Simon," Jim said abruptly, brooking no argument.

"Yeah, I guess we do," Blair murmured, albeit reluctantly, feeling as if his life had just turned upside down. Part of him was sorry he'd confided his theories to Jim, but part of him knew this could be of considerable significance to the case and to Brother Marcus' future safety. Mostly, he didn't know what to think or feel. It had been one thing to privately hold some suspicions about his parentage; something else entirely to see his theories pretty solidly confirmed.

Simon had followed Jim as far as the doorway and was looking at them with barely-contained irritated impatience, no doubt wondering why Jim had broken off the debriefing so arbitrarily. Blair stood and followed his partner to the Captain's office, and he closed the door before sitting on the edge of a chair at the conference table.

"What's going on?" Banks demanded, looking from an unusually pale and subdued Sandburg to his somber detective.

"Blair has just found some information about Jackie Kozinski," Jim began slowly with a thoughtful glance at the grad student. "Kozinski's wife apparently died in an accident about two months after giving birth to their only child, a son. When Kozinski disappeared from public view, so did the child, and the wife's kid sister, Nancy."

"Yeah, so?"

Biting his lip, Jim cut Blair a quick look; getting a sober nod of agreement, he returned his steady gaze to Simon. Deciding not to beat around the bush, he stated bluntly, "Sandburg is probably Kozinski's kid."

"What?" Banks exclaimed, his eyes wide as he looked from one man to the other. "How do you make that connection? Sandburg, if you're somehow tied in to the mob and didn't reveal that to us ...."

"It's not like that, Simon," Jim interjected with swift protectiveness. Grimacing uncomfortably, he turned to Blair and quirked a brow, letting him decide how much he chose to reveal.

Sighing, Sandburg again hesitantly shared the information he'd kept to himself for years. "I didn't know who Brother Marcus is - was," he concluded with naked sincerity. "If I had, I'd've been more careful - I sure wouldn't have visited the monastery pretty regularly over the past few years." His lips thinned and he looked away. "Naomi is Brother Marcus's sister-in-law. I guess the people trying to find him somehow tracked Naomi and ... and then me. I probably led them right to him."

"Chief, none of this is your fault," Jim insisted with quiet firmness.

"I know," he sighed. "Intellectually, I do know that, but I still feel responsible, you know? And ... and we're going to have to be really careful to play out the charade, so they never suspect that Brother Marcus is still alive." He looked at Jim and then Simon. "I have to call my mother, and tell her what's happened. She'll need to be here for the, uh, for the funeral."

Simon's eyes narrowed at that, and his lips compressed; he looked to Jim for a reaction to the idea of involving anyone else in what could become a dicey situation. Jim's lip twisted and he shrugged, his gaze dropping away, leaving the decision to Banks.

"Look," Blair argued, clearly reading their reluctance and exasperated by it, "if they know who she is ... who I am, or might be, then it would look pretty weird if she wasn't at the funeral. I have to call her, and we have to work with Brother Jeremy to set this up."

Leaning back in his chair, Simon fiddled with an unlit cigar and then, reluctantly, nodded. "Can you do this without telling her that the funeral is a sham?" he asked.

"No," Blair replied sharply. "I won't lie to her, or hurt her like that by letting her think he's really dead. But, uh," he offered, "I could do it without letting her know how much I've - we've - figured out. Just, just tell her as a close friend of his, that's all."

Jim licked his lips. "I think that can work," he offered tentatively in support. Simon scratched his chin but then shrugged, leaving it to them.

Frowning, Blair asked, "You guys don't think Mom would be in any danger if she came, do you?"

Uncomfortable with the question, Jim glanced at Simon, who stared at him pointedly, evidently leaving the answer to him. Ellison couldn't help but note that Sandburg was now actively referring to Naomi as his mother, as if he was asserting her rights and confirming, pretty strongly if probably unconsciously, that he never wanted her to know that he knew any different. Finally, he replied with a measured tone, "No, I don't think so, Chief. Yes, they'll probably be watching her and you pretty closely, but I don't think they'll do more than watch just to confirm that, even if it cost them, they did get him." Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, "The mob generally leaves family members alone, which is probably why you and Naomi are still alive. If they've been watching her and/or you for years, they've had more than enough chance to, uh, hurt you, if that's what they'd wanted. No. No, I think if they know where you are, have been watching you, it was only to see if you'd lead them to him."

Nodding slowly, Sandburg scratched his cheek as he thought about that. "Yeah, you're right about them leaving families alone," he mused. "I remember from an undergrad course - 'Modern Day Criminal Fraternities' - that they have their own brand of honour, something like 'real men don't make war on women and children'. It's a ritualized way of making them feel strong and, er, probably protective of the vulnerable." Shaking his head, he muttered, "Amazing how well people can lie to themselves." But despite his conscious attempt to gain some balance, to seek strength in academic distancing, Blair felt miserable. He couldn't seem to get past that this was somehow his fault; that Brother Marcus would have been safe, maybe for the rest of his life, if not for his visits. But he blew a slow, cleansing breath, trying to let the guilt go. What was done was done. The good news was that Naomi probably wasn't in any particular danger, and wouldn't be if she came to the mock funeral.

"Okay," Sandburg sighed as he shifted toward the door, determined to move on, to be helpful. "I guess I'd better call Brother Jeremy to set up the details, and then I'll track Mom down."

Ellison gazed at his partner and nodded, reflecting that Brother Jeremy probably also knew the family facts. Turning away, he sighed as he wondered just how complicated it was going to get, as they all tried to keep secret from one another everything that they respectively knew. His lips thinning, he also reflected that Sandburg wasn't a kid anymore, so whatever 'code of honour' the gangsters adhered to when it came to their own families, it might no longer apply to Blair - especially not if they suspected him of being a willing player in deluding them.

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

Sandburg finally tracked his mother down at a retreat in Sedona, Arizona. "Mom," he began uncertainly, unconsciously tapping a pencil on the desk blotter, "did you know that Brother Marcus used to be Jackie Kozinski?"

"What an odd question, Blair," she replied evasively. "Why?"

"Well, because some gangsters tracked him down at Saint Sebastian's, and tried to kill him," he replied, then hastened to add hurriedly, "But he's okay; just suffered a minor shoulder wound."

"Oh, thank God those murderous bastards didn't get him!" she gasped, clearly shocked and angered by the news. She hesitated and then murmured, "Poor man. I suppose he'll have to move somewhere else, become someone else, and he's been so contented there."

"Well, maybe not," he replied, carefully, looking up at Jim who was watching him. "The gangsters were led to believe that they killed him, and we hope once the funeral is over, that no one will ever be looking for him again."

"Funeral?" she echoed.

"Yeah, well, we think they'll be watching to make sure he's buried," Blair sighed. "I thought, well, if you did know he was Jackie Kozinski, and given you've been friends for years, they might expect you to be there. So, will you come? It's going to be held at the monastery early on Monday afternoon. You'd, uh, have to appear grief-stricken, put on a bit of show."

"Hmm, yes, I suppose so, if we want it to be convincing," she rejoined with wry humour. "Yes, of course, I can do that. I'll arrange a flight, and call you to let you know when I'll arrive, okay, sweetie?"

"Great, thanks, Mom. It'll be really good to see you," he agreed before terminating the call.

"She didn't exactly admit that she knew him as Jackie," Jim observed, having heard both sides of the conversation.

"No, but it didn't seem to surprise her, either," Blair said flatly. Grimacing, he shook his head. "You don't know my Mom, but if she hadn't known, there would have been a flurry of questions to get all the details."

Nodding, Jim slid into the chair behind his desk. "So, what did you arrange with Brother Jeremy?"

"Just a simple Mass in their chapel - he'll get the priest who provides spiritual guidance to the community to officiate - followed by internment of the coffin in their small cemetery on the far side of the orchard, on the hill overlooking the valley. It'll be just the priest, the monks, you, Naomi and me." Perching on the edge of Ellison's desk, Blair's expression turned thoughtful. "Do you think there's any way to find out, for sure, how they tracked him after all this time?" he asked quietly.

Studying him, Jim nodded. "Yeah, maybe. The men arrested there today might confess, but not likely. But I can check with my informants, see if they've heard anything." Glancing at his watch, he went on, "Look, why don't I drop you at the loft, and you can get dinner started, while I do a quick round of my contacts to see what I can find out."

A small furrow appeared between Sandburg's brows, his natural inclination to accompany Jim warring with the emotional fatigue that pulled at him. "Yeah, okay," he finally agreed. "I've got some notes to get ready for next week's lectures, so if it takes you a while, don't sweat it. We can eat later."

Before heading out, Jim brought Simon up to date on the funeral arrangements, suggesting that there be no other police presence there. After all, if Jackie was dead, there was no reason for protection - and besides, he wouldn't be in the coffin, anyway. He'd still be in hospital. Banks agreed and waved him off for the night.

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

Jim was tired by the time he trudged up the stairs and along the hall just before nine P.M., and his stomach rumbled when he caught the savory scent of stew wafting from the loft. Uncomfortable with what he'd learned that evening, he rolled his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck before letting himself into the apartment. Inside, he found Blair ensconced on the sofa, with a textbook open beside him and the laptop set up on the coffee table.

Sandburg looked up over the top of his glasses as he entered, and then stood to move into the kitchen. "Hey, man, you look beat," he observed empathetically. "You hungry, or do you want to relax, have a beer or maybe shower before we eat?"

"You haven't eaten yet?" Jim asked, surprised as he glanced at his watch.

"Nah," Blair shrugged, his gaze dropping away briefly. "Wasn't really hungry."

Jim gave him a measuring look of concern as he shrugged out of his jacket. Hanging it up, he went to the refrigerator and pulled out two bottles of beer. "Well, I'm starving," he said emphatically, "and that stew smells great. So let's eat."

"Sure thing," Sandburg agreed, ladling the beef stew into bowls, and then pulled out rolls and butter to put on the table between them. Once they were settled, he asked, "You find out anything?"

Jim took a sip of beer and then nodded. "Yeah, I did," he replied. "Chief ... apparently about three months ago, a hood from Jersey, Mean Eddie Sweeney, moved out here to oversee the mob's interests locally. He's the middle-aged guy that was doing all the crowing up at the monastery. I thought he looked familiar." He spooned up some stew and swallowed. "This is good," he observed appreciatively.

"Thanks," Blair returned automatically. "Mean Eddie Sweeney?" he echoed, probing for more.

"Yeah, well, Mean Eddie hadn't been here long when he started bragging about having found hidden treasure on the streets of Cascade. Treasure that was going to make him a very rich man," Jim went on.

"Me," Sandburg interjected gloomily.

"Uh huh," Jim affirmed. "Looks like it. Anyway, given the timing, he probably spotted you in one of the news clips either after we stopped the Switchman, or after foiling Kincaid's takeover of the PD." When Blair gaped at him, he went on regretfully, "This is just speculation; just piecing together bits and pieces that I got from my informants. I called the Sheriff's Department before coming home tonight, but Sweeney isn't saying anything, just that Kozinski got what he deserved."

"Well, then, I guess my little temper tantrum today served its purpose," Sandburg observed sardonically. Staring into the distance, he murmured, "I went up to see Brother Marcus after ... after the whole thing with Kincaid. There was some stuff I needed to work out, think about, about what I'd done in the, er, helicopter. I guess, maybe, I was followed then and didn't know it; Anthony arrived at the monastery not long after that."

"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim muttered, sticking with the main point of how the mob had found Jackie after so many years. "I guess you'd stayed under their radar screen all the time you were out at Rainier but, uh, getting involved with me resulted in you getting noticed."

Sandburg pushed away his bowl of stew, and crossed his arms. "It's not your fault," he said steadily.

Grimacing, Jim shook his head. "It's not your fault, either, Blair. You can't be held responsible for giving away his location when you had no idea who he was or that he was in hiding."

Blowing a breath, Blair nodded and then raked his hair behind his ears. "Mom called. She'll be arriving Monday morning. We can pick her up and go directly up to the monastery."

"I've been thinking about that," Jim replied slowly. "I'm going to go up there ahead of you, check out the area. And I think I'll ask Brother Jeremy to loan me a monk's habit. I'll look like just another brother and I'll be able to watch without attracting any notice. It would be best if you and your mother just, uh, ignored me - you know, not draw any attention to me."

For a moment, Sandburg chewed on his inner lip, and then he nodded. "Makes sense. No obvious police interest or presence."

"Uh huh. My thoughts exactly."

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

The next day, the last of Ellison's official weekend off, both men slept late and then made themselves a hearty brunch of eggs, sausages and sliced tomatoes and toast. Jim cleaned up and put on a fresh pot of coffee, while Blair hauled his laptop, textbooks and notes from his room, to spread things out on the dining room table. While Jim read the newspaper; Blair did his research and made notes for his class on Tuesday. Later, Jim moved into the living room and flipped on a game, but Sandburg remained at the table, working on the computer. At half-time, very conscious of the prolonged and unusual muteness of his friend since they'd eaten, Jim wandered into the kitchen to get a beer, glancing over Blair's shoulder at the screen on his way past.

Though not surprised by what he saw, he grimaced and felt a sinking in his gut. "Want a beer?" he asked quietly.

Blair flicked him a look and nodded. "Yeah, that'd be good, thanks," he replied, his tone low, a bit strained.

Jim twisted off the caps and tossed them in the trash. Moving to the table, he held one bottle out to Blair. Studying the grad student's preoccupied expression, he couldn't help but reflect that he'd thought having a hardass businessman for a father had been tough. Sure couldn't be easy to find out that one's parent had once been a crooked union leader, involved in the rackets and who knew what else. "You okay?" he asked with a slight frown of concern, glancing overtly at the screen.

Blair took the bottle and followed Jim's glance to the article on the computer. He shrugged before taking a sip of beer and slumping against his chair. "It's ... hard to reconcile," he replied. "I mean," he went on, lifting his wide, troubled gaze to Jim's, "this isn't the man I know; that I've known all my life. This guy, Jackie Kozinski, was ... was into prostitution, gambling and protection rackets. Brother Marcus said he'd never killed anyone, but murder and running drugs look like the only two things he never did. Man, he was bad news. Right up to when his wife died." Sighing, he back-keyed to another article. "A month after her son was born, she was killed by a hit and run driver that was never caught." He swallowed and shook his head. "A month after I was born. That's a picture of her," he said, pointing at the screen. "That's, uh, that's what my ... my birth mother looked like."

Jim shifted to look more closely at the photo. Though Blair very much resembled a younger Jackie Kozinski, the deep colour of the young woman's sparkling eyes, the copper highlights in her hair, the bright smile and the shape of her jaw were replicated in the young man sitting beside him. He lightly gripped Blair's shoulder as he observed gently, "She was beautiful, Chief."

"Yeah, she was," Blair agreed distantly. "I keep thinking that I wish I'd had a chance to know her, and then I think that if I had, then maybe today I'd be 'in the business', just as crooked as my old man."

"Sandburg, you don't know that," Jim argued, his grip tightening at the edge in Blair's tone.

Blair's brows quirked but he didn't respond. "I think losing her must've changed him, Jim. A hit and run could be suspicious, you know? Like maybe it wasn't an accident? Anyway, maybe he felt guilty. It wasn't long after that that he turned State's Evidence and went into protective custody to testify against his confederates - and her sister, Nancy Selmen, disappeared along with the baby. Uh, with me, Joseph Janos Kozinski, son of a mobster." He gave himself a shake. "You know, it never bothered me - I even kinda liked the idea - of being Brother Marcus's son. But ... to be a gangster's son, to know I had a whole other name, and could so easily have had a completely different life as Joseph Janos Kozinski ... it's a little like finding out my whole life is some kind of lie or ... or mistake, or accident of fate or something," he murmured despondently.

Concerned, Jim gazed down at his bowed head and silently watched for a moment while Sandburg picked at the label on his beer bottle. Hunkering down, he tipped Blair's face up to meet his eyes. "Hey," he asked, his tone kind but challenging, "where's the guy who told me he knows who he is, inside? The kind of man he is, what he stands for, regardless of what his heritage might be? Chief, you were an infant when all that happened. It has nothing to do with you, with who you are. It doesn't change anything about the life you've known or the man you are. You're not sorry to be who you are, are you? To have lived life the way you have - the way you do?"

"No, no, I'm not sorry," he replied quietly. "Not at all - I'm glad I'm who I am." Looking up, Blair solemnly gazed into his eyes for a long moment, as if searching for something, and then he smiled crookedly. "You're right, Jim," he allowed gratefully. "Thanks."

Giving a sharp nod, Jim replied, "Damn straight." Standing, he tilted his head toward the living room. "C'mon, watch the rest of the game with me."

Blair hesitated and then resolutely shut down the computer. The past was what it was, and it was over and done. What mattered was the here and now, and the future.

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

Sandburg blinked at the vision of his mother as she came through the gate. Though he'd suggested she'd have to play a role, somehow, he hadn't expected her to be wearing such traditional mourning attire. She'd always claimed black was a depressing colour that clashed with her aura, and he sincerely doubted she'd even owned such a somber outfit before his call two days before. But she'd obviously decided to play her part of the grieving old friend to the hilt. The dress flowed around her tall, innately elegant body like wisps of midnight, from the base of her throat to the gathered cuffs at her wrists and well below her knees. She wore black nylons and shoes and carried a small black bag.

"Hey, Mom!" he called, waving as he wove through the crowd, and then drew her close in a tight hug. "I'm glad you came."

She pecked him on the cheek and then pulled back to run a light hand over his curls and to cup his cheek. "You're looking pale, sweetie, and your aura is disturbed. Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he smiled, turning to lead her toward the baggage carrousel. "I'm fine. Just a little tired. It was a shock to find out who Brother Marcus used to be."

"I don't have any bags, Blair," she told him, holding him in place. "Remember, I told you my study group was going to focus our energy in Sedona for a spiritual journey in Nepal? We were preparing to leave when I got your call, so I'm just on a stopover here. My bags have been checked through to Los Angeles, where I'll meet the others for the flight tonight."

"Oh," he exclaimed softly, his gaze flickering as he searched his memory. "Sorry. I forgot. So, uh, when's your flight out of Cascade?"

"Six o'clock; lots of time for us to be seen at the funeral and get back here," she told him blithely, looping an arm through his and strolling toward the exit. "You don't mind, do you? I mean, if this was real, well, then I would have stayed longer, but I thought since ...."

"No, that's okay," he hastened to assure her. "You're here now, and that's what's important."

They stepped into the bright warm morning and crossed the pavement to the parking garage. In minutes, they were on their way into the mountains. Naomi prattled on about the retreat and the plans for Nepal, and how peaceful it was all going to be, so tranquil, chanting in the clear mountain air, seeking enlightenment in a place far removed from the taint of civilization, where there were no phones, no modern trappings. Blair quirked an amused brow, wondering how long it had been since she had been without the 'trappings' of modern bathrooms and central heating on cold mountain nights but, indulgently, he just nodded and smiled encouragingly. When they turned off the main road to follow the winding, narrow, tree-shrouded lane up to the monastery, he broke in when she paused for breath to ask, "Did you know him when he was Jackie Kozinski?"

Naomi waved airily. "Oh, that was so long ago, what can it matter now?" she exclaimed, looking away, as if fascinated by the scenery.

"I was just curious," Blair replied doggedly. "You never did say how the two of you met."

She shrugged negligently. "I ... I knew he had a troubled background; met him when he was trying to find himself, just before he decided to accept Jeremy's proposal that he become Brother Marcus," she said, and then continued with an irritated tone. "I called Jeremy yesterday, to see if I could see ... Brother Marcus. But he said that no visitors or even calls were allowed. Jeremy always was so officious."

"Well, they're just being careful," he soothed. "I haven't been allowed to see or call him, either. If we're lucky, whoever wants him dead will believe he really is, and they'll leave him alone after this."

"Hmm," she murmured. Reaching into her bag, she drew out a gossamer square of black chiffon, and affixed it with a hairpin as a veil over her face and head. Then she drew out a black lace handkerchief.

With a bemused look, Blair congratulated her, "You sure look the part of a grief-stricken friend."

She flashed him a mischievous grin before schooling her features into a convincing facsimile of grief-stricken sobriety, only to ruin the effect by giving way to giggles. "I've always loved role-playing, sweetie," she confessed girlishly. "And I'm pretty good at it."

"Uh huh," he grunted, thinking that, yeah, she was damned good at playing a part. Not for the first time, he wondered if he had any idea about - if he knew at all - this woman who had been his mother for nearly all the days of his life.

Having received special dispensation to drive right up to the monastery, Blair parked in the shade of an oak, and helped Naomi out of the car. Looping an arm around her waist protectively, he drew her into the monastery, to the chapel in the back. Brother Jeremy hastened to greet them, and to lead them to the wooden bench at the front, and the monks fell in behind, choosing places on the pews behind them. The priest introduced himself and solemnly expressed his condolences. For a moment, both Blair and Naomi were nonplussed until they realized the priest hadn't been told the plain pine coffin standing on a trestle in front of the Spartan altar was empty, or at least empty of a body. Blair knew it had been weighted with sand to make the handling of it, when it was carried by the pallbearers and lowered into the ground, look authentic. He cast a glance at Brother Jeremy who rolled his eyes and shrugged, evidently resigned to the fact of all the penance he'd have to do for his many transgressions once this charade was finally over.

The service was brief, a simple mass and a commending of Brother Marcus's soul into God's merciful care, and then - six monks carrying the coffin - they proceeded out of the building and through the orchard to the meadow beyond. On the far side, close to another copse of trees, were the neatly-kept graves of brothers who had gone before, including two fresh mounds covering the remains of Brother Timothy and Brother Christopher. Feeling the sting of honest tears at their untimely, violent deaths, Blair kept his arm around his mother, who walked slowly with rounded shoulders and bent head, the handkerchief held to her lips - the image of shattered grief. He looked around at the monks but couldn't really tell which of the tall ones was Jim, not with the cowls of their gowns pulled so far forward, shadowing their faces. Glancing down, he spotted Jim's shoes and felt bolstered by his friend's presence.

At one point, just as the priest was conducting the final blessing, Blair was aware of Jim stiffening, his head lifting slightly, his hidden face turned toward the slope of the next mountain, about a mile across a narrow river valley. He stood perfectly still for a moment, but then relaxed as the blessing ended. Four of the monks grasped shovels that had been left sticking out of the mound of black earth beside the grave, and stoically filled it.

And then it was over.

He and Naomi thanked the priest, shook Brother Jeremy's hand, and returned to the Corvair. On the way down the mountain back to the airport, Naomi mused, "I thought your new roommate - what's his name? Jim? - was going to be there. I was hoping to meet him."

"Yeah, I'd hoped you'd meet him, too," Blair replied, keeping his gaze on the road. "He was there, actually. One of the monks."

A frown puckering her brow, she turned to face him. "Why would your roommate be pretending to be a monk?" she asked, sounding bewildered.

Blair shifted in the seat. "Well, I guess I never told you that Jim is a detective," he admitted ruefully, well knowing her attitudes toward the police, and stiffening unconsciously for the predictable reaction.

"He's a what? Blair Sandburg, you mean to tell me you're living under the same roof as a pig?" she exclaimed, her eyes wide with disbelief.

"He's a really nice guy, Naomi," he protested, then smiled winningly. "Too bad you have to rush off. I think you'd really like him."

"I don't believe this," she huffed, crossing her arms. "How did you get mixed up with a ... a cop?"

"Well, it's a long story," he laughed, amused in spite of himself by her air of wounded outrage. "But when the last place I was living burned down, he offered me his spare room until I could make other arrangements. Only, it turns out that we get along pretty well, and the rent is incredibly reasonable. So, I'm still there. Honestly, you'll really like him once you get to know him."

She gave him a pointed look and then quirked a brow before turning her attention to the road. "I doubt that," she retorted repressively. "A pig," she muttered to herself and gave a little snort. Shaking her head as if she couldn't quite believe it, she asked tightly, "So he was there to spy on us? To make sure we didn't blow Jackie's current cover story?"

"No, Naomi," he protested firmly, suddenly very sober, all trace of humour gone. Unwilling to allow her to so scathingly dismiss Jim or his presence at the funeral, he explained with fierce protectiveness, "He was there to defend and shield us if there was any trouble, and to keep an eye out for anyone who might not believe that Brother Marcus is really dead. He was doing his job - and he was there as my friend."

"I see," she returned thinly, studying him narrowly for a long, tense moment before directing her gaze at the passing trees. Her voice brittle, she offered, "If it's just a matter of money, I can give you what you need to find your own place."

"Money has nothing to do with it," he replied testily. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself, Naomi; you know that. Jim's my friend and I like living in the loft."

She nodded slowly and let out a long breath. "I hear you," she said evenly, though her jaw was tight and her posture remained closed.

"I'm happy, Naomi," he offered quietly. "I really am."

Her taut shoulders relaxed and she unfolded her arms, letting her hands drop to her lap. A moment later, she turned to face him, her expression softer, and she reached out to grip his arm. "Okay, sweetie," she said with a slight, if sad, smile. "All I ever wanted was for you to be happy."

"I know, Mom," he replied fondly, laying a hand over hers and giving her a candid look of love. "I've always known that."

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

Jim was already home by the time Blair got back from the airport. When he arrived alone, Ellison looked past him in surprise. "Where's Naomi?" he asked.

"This was just a stop-over," Sandburg explained off-handedly, "on her way to Nepal for a program of tranquil meditation and enlightenment."

"Oh," he replied, biting back more sardonic reactions to continue neutrally, "I was, uh, looking forward to meeting her."

A quizzical expression passed quickly across Blair's expressive features and he smiled slowly. "Be grateful for small mercies, man," he teased. When Jim looked puzzled, he peeled off his jacket and loosened the tie he'd dug out for the funeral. "She's great, Jim, really," Blair explained earnestly. "But she doesn't think much of the establishment, or of authority figures. Like cops."

"Uh huh," Jim grunted and then a smile twitched his lips as he recalled his first impression of Blair as a neo-hippie, witchdoctor punk, and the meditation trances he'd become familiar with since. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

Blair gave him a wryly amused look of perfect understanding, but refrained from comment. Getting a beer from the fridge, he observed, "Everything seemed pretty quiet up at Saint Sebastian's. But I got the impression that maybe you'd picked up on something during the internment."

Nodding, Jim accepted the beer Sandburg mutely offered him. "Yeah. Could be nothing, but I thought I caught a flash of light, a reflection of the sun on binoculars, maybe, from across the valley."

"You couldn't see anything else when you checked?" Blair probed, watching Jim closely, knowing his friend would have raked the opposite slope with his incredible eyesight.

"Nah, just trees," he replied with a grimace of frustration.

"Never mind, it was probably a birdwatcher or something. Maybe it's over, man," Blair offered hopefully. "Maybe they bought it and have gone away."

"Maybe," Jim agreed, his gaze warm with understanding as a supportive smile lifted a corner of his mouth. "I hope so." He took a long sip of beer and then asked, "So, whose turn is it to cook? Or do you feel like ordering in?"

"Your turn," Blair replied firmly. "So, if we order in, it's your treat."

Jim chuckled and reached for the phone. "Chinese?"

"Works for me," Sandburg agreed with an easy grin as he headed to his bedroom to get into more comfortable clothes.

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

Brother Theodore set off on his five-mile pre-breakfast walk just after dawn the next morning, as had been his routine for four days a week for more than forty years. But that morning, he only got as far as the meadow on the far side of the orchard. At first, as he hiked through the dew-dampened long grass, he wasn't sure what he was looking at, because a light mist had yet to burn off under the heat of the rising sun, and the tall pines on the edge of the meadow cast shadows over the small cemetery. But before he was halfway across the open field, he realized what he was seeing and then, with a sinking sense of dread, he hastened his step.

The newly-filled grave had been uncovered, the soil piled haphazardly to either side.

And the plain, pine coffin had been opened; the top was in pieces, splintered, as if by an axe.

He swallowed heavily and then turned to hurry back to the monastery to report the violation to Brother Jeremy.

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

Fog shrouded the bay and tendrils of mist hung over the university grounds when Blair arrived around seven-thirty AM. Yawning, he pulled into his usual parking spot in the nearly empty lot next to Hargrove Hall. Man, he was no fan of these early morning classes. Shivering a little in the lingering chill in the air, he shut off the engine and grabbed his heavy knapsack from the passenger seat. In fifteen or twenty minutes, students and administration staff would be arriving, and he wanted to get some xeroxing done before there was a line at the machine. Stifling another yawn, he hitched the bag over his shoulder, locked the Corvair, and ambled toward the building, skirting around a dark blue, dusty van that had entered the lot behind him and parked nearby.

Strong hands grabbed him from behind, one meaty arm snaking around his neck, abruptly cutting off his startled cry of alarm. Struggling fiercely, kicking and elbowing, he tried to break away, but to no avail. Increasingly desperate, he grabbed at the arm with both hands, and tried to loosen the choking grip, but he was abruptly dragged backward, off-balance. His feet lost their grip on the pavement and he felt like his head was being yanked off as he was relentlessly pulled closer to the van; he had to fight an insipient sense of panic when he couldn't get air past the strangle-hold pressing hard against his throat. No longer resisting, his feet scrambled for purchase to ease the pressure on his neck. Roughly, he was hauled into the van. As soon as the side panel slid closed, the vehicle pulled out of the lot.

The death-lock around his neck abruptly loosened, dropping him to the floor of the van, and he whirled around, only to gasp at the sight of the business end of a pistol less than a foot from his face. He froze, his gaze lifting swiftly to meet coolly amused brown eyes in a square, ruddy face. His abductor was a massive thirty-something man of solid muscle, olive complexion, and a short mop of oily, black curls.

"Settle down, kid," the guy said, his voice low and raspy, as if he'd smoked too many cigarettes and drunk too much whiskey the night before. "Slide back into the seat behind you and buckle up. Relax - we've got a long ride."

"Who are you?" Blair asked nervously, his gaze darting to the front seats as he eased away from the pistol and into the seat behind him. The bald driver looked like another muscleman; the guy in the passenger seat was older, maybe forty-five or so, had short-cropped, gray hair, the shoulders of a bull, and a sallow complexion. "What do you want?"

The middle-aged guy snorted as he turned to gaze contemptuously at Blair. "You're supposed to be a smart kid. Figure it out."

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

Running late, Jim was just heading out the door when the phone rang. With an irritated sigh, he glanced at his watch and wondered what Sandburg had forgotten and wanted him to bring to Rainier on his way downtown - certainly, no one else ever called him at home first thing in the morning. If it was work-related, Simon would know he was on his way downtown and would either call his cell number or just wait until he got there.

"Hello," he very nearly barked into the receiver.

"Brother Jim, I think we have a problem."

Surprised by the unexpected sound of Brother Jeremy's dry voice, Ellison stiffened, and then bit off a curse as he listened to the latest trouble at Saint Sebastian's. After they'd assured one another that they would keep each other posted on developments, Jim hung up and thought about what the unknown gangsters' next move might be. Grimacing, he lifted the handset and punched in Blair's cell number, to let him know what had transpired in the cemetery, and to warn him to be especially wary of strangers on campus.

The phone rang several times, and Jim again glanced irritably at his watch, wondering if Sandburg had already gone to his classroom. Finally, just as he was about to hang up, the connection was made. Before he could identify himself, a strange, guttural, male voice grunted laconically, "Yeah?"

Frowning, instantly alert, listening to the background sounds, he replied evenly, "Sorry, I must have the wrong number. I was trying to reach Blair Sandburg."

"He's not available."

"Who is this?" he demanded, not really expecting an answer.

The man on the other ended snorted derisively. "Did you want to leave a message?" he asked with sarcastic amusement, evidently vastly enjoying whatever game he was playing.

Jim could hear Blair's familiar, if too fast, heartbeat not far from the caller, and the sound of an engine, of traffic, and the breathing of at least two other people. The muscle in his jaw flexed and he scowled, listening harder, as he stated sharply, "This is Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade PD. Where's Sandburg? What's going on?"

The unknown respondent laughed harshly. "Well, Detective Ellison, your call is unexpected but helpful. You've saved us some time. Tell Jackie that if he wants his kid to live, he'd better be ready to make a trade. We'll be in touch."

"Where? When?" Jim demanded, the breath tight in his chest, his eyes pressed closed as he concentrated on the rush of faint, faint words he could barely hear in the background.

But the call abruptly ended.

"Dammit!" Ellison growled ferociously. Punching in another number, he wrestled with his emotions, harnessing fear and fury with cold control. "Simon? Jim." He raked his hand over his hair and rubbed the back of his neck as he reported tightly, "Kozinski's 'grave' was opened during the night. And, uh, I just talked with a creep who has kidnapped Sandburg, and wants to trade him for Jackie. I heard Blair whispering to me in the background. He's in a dark blue, dusty van, new, probably a rental, headed east on Kaymar about six blocks from Rainier."

"Hold on," Simon snapped. Jim leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of his nose, grateful that Banks hadn't wasted any time with questions, but was already putting out an APB.

Simon was back on the line almost immediately. "We'll have to bring Brother Marcus up to speed," he stated.

"No, wait, Captain," Jim interrupted grimly. "Sandburg told me more: 'long trip' and 'no masks'. 'No masks' - you know what that means."

Ellison heard a heavy, weary sigh. "They don't intend to keep their end of the bargain," Banks rumbled and Jim could imagine him pulling off his glasses to rub his eyes. "They won't want to leave any witnesses."

Nodding unconsciously, pale with anxiety, his expression taut, Jim went on, "So, there's no point in bringing anyone else into this, is there? If we give them Jackie Kozinski, even if he wants to take the chance of getting Blair back, we run the risk of losing both of them. I vote we don't tell him."

"You know what our odds are of getting the kid back, don't you?" Simon grated, sounding both angry and helpless.

"Yes, sir; if the APB doesn't get them, just about nil," he replied with flat despair.

"I don't know, Jim," Banks replied slowly, thinking it through. "If we set up a trade, we can follow them, get them both back."

"Maybe - or lose the tail and it's game over," Jim retorted. "If we fold now, they're running the game. So far, we're the ones with the bargaining power. They want Jackie badly and the odds are they'll keep Sandburg alive until they get him."

Silence fell between them for a long moment as they marshaled their objectivity, such as it was. Finally, he cleared his throat and growled, "Look, give me a chance to play it out. I'm going over to Rainier, to see if I can find his car, maybe some clues as to where they've taken him."

"Keep me posted," Simon agreed. "I'll let you know if the APB locates them."

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

Staring at the backpack that had been rifled when his phone had begun to ring and the guy up front decided he wanted to answer it, Blair crossed his arms, pressing his hands under his armpits to still their trembling. "I don't know what you expect to gain from all this," he said with as much firm confidence as he could muster. "Brother Marcus is dead. I saw his body myself. And I was at his funeral yesterday. As for me being ... being his son, well, that's just nuts."

"The coffin was empty," the guy in the front growled, anger sparking in his eyes.

Gaping at him, Sandburg exclaimed, "You dug up the grave?" He gave a theatrical shiver and looked out the window, noting they were still heading out of town, toward the mountains. "You probably opened the wrong one," he muttered with disparaging sarcasm. "There wasn't anything left of Brother Christopher to bury." His lips thinned with a minor sense of triumph when the guy who'd dragged him into the van swiftly protested, "The graves were marked, boss. I know I checked the right one."

"Yeah, I know," the older man replied tightly. "The kid's trying to string us a line of bull. Takes after his old man."

"Look," Sandburg retaliated heatedly, lifting his hands with a show of exasperation, "don't you think I'd know if he was my father? I mean, come on. And, and if he was, it doesn't matter, 'cause he's dead. So unless you're expecting another resurrection in the near future, he ain't coming back!"

The gangster flushed with anger at the continued insolent lies, and gestured sharply with his head. The muscleman in the back immediately pistol-whipped Blair so hard his head slammed into the window, and he yelped in response to the dual spikes of pain that ricocheted around his skull.

"The boss don't like being smart-mouthed," the goon drawled laconically.

"No shit," Sandburg mumbled, gingerly holding his bowed head and grimacing when he felt the warm dribble of blood on his cheek. "Well, I'm not real fond of being kidnapped, let alone being held hostage for a dead man." He pulled a tissue out of his jacket pocket and held it to his cheek. Gingerly easing back against the support of the seat, he looked at the guy in front. "Brother Marcus was my friend. That's it, that's all. I couldn't believe it when I found out he used to be a gangster. I don't know anything about any of that. You're wasting your time here. God, if you could have been there when he was killed, you'd know how ridiculous this is! Mean Eddie was crowing, shouting his triumph to the heavens - I wanted to rip his face off." His voice caught and he again sought refuge in the view of the countryside now flowing past the window. "Brother Marcus is dead," he whispered brokenly.

The gangster sardonically clapped his hands. "I gotta hand it to ya, kid. You're good. Should be on the stage."

Rolling his eyes, Sandburg stuffed the tissue back into his pocket, again crossed his arms and pressed his lips closed. For long minutes, he stared out the window, expecting that they'd take the side road that led up toward Saint Sebastian's. But the van continued past the turnoff and he frowned. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"Somewhere that nobody will ever find you."

"Great," he muttered, squinting against the headache that had begun to throb behind his eyes. "Just great." Retreating again into silence, he speculated on his chances of escape, but the thug beside him still had the pistol trained on him. By the time he'd slid open the side door to make a leap for freedom, he'd have a bullet in his back. They planned to kill him, he was sure of that, and he didn't really want to give them any excuses to do so sooner rather than later. Sighing despairingly, he lightly massaged around the lump forming on his head from hitting the window so hard and thought about Brother Marcus. He really hoped Jim and Simon wouldn't tell him about the proposed trade, because there was no point in both of them winding up dead. But, as brave as he really wanted to be about what was happening, his gut was tied in knots and fear crowded into his throat. He had to clamp down on the urge to beg, to plead with them to let him go; had to swallow a plaintive wail that he really didn't want to die.

They drove over a bridge and then the road started climbing higher, winding between tall pines. Biting his lip, he tried to figure out where they might be headed, and cut a quick, sideways glance at the man in charge, whoever the hell he was.

In that moment, rage swamped his fear, batting it aside; pure, nearly blinding rage that this stranger had plucked him from his life with the cool callousness that another might display when swatting an annoying fly. Who the fuck did he think he was? By what right did he hound Brother Marcus across a quarter century - what kind of man treasured the concept of revenge so highly, clutching it close like a thankless mistress? The fury drove back his fear, leaving him feeling cold and still inside. Regardless of whatever they might do to him, he vowed silently that he'd give them no satisfaction. If they found Brother Marcus a second time, it wouldn't be because he'd led them to his old friend.

His father.

He'd just have to trust that Jim would be smart enough to not allow them both to be taken.

And fervently hope that his partner would pull off a miracle, and find him before it was too late.

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

All the way to Rainier, Ellison berated himself for not having foreseen the danger of Sandburg being used to draw Jackie Kozinski out of hiding. He'd been too hopeful of the ruse working; hadn't given enough thought to the kind of hate that drives a man for decades toward revenge. Grimacing, breathing heavily, he knew that beating himself up was preferable to giving free rein to the dark fears that threatened to overwhelm him with a sense of incipient hopelessness. He couldn't allow himself to give credence to the voice in his head that said he didn't have a clue where they'd taken his partner, or any real hope of finding Blair before ....

Ruthlessly, he shoved the fear aside and gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were white as he wove, siren blaring, through the heavy, rush-hour traffic. He kept a lookout along the route for Sandburg's car, but didn't expect to see it. Given the timing, where Blair had said they were during the call, he had to have gotten as far as Rainier before he'd been snatched.

Wheeling onto the university grounds, he cut the siren but kept the lights spinning to hasten dawdling drivers out of his way. By the time he got to the lot next to Hargrove Hall, it was more than half-full, the early morning students, staff and faculty having arrived for their day's activities. Pulling up behind the Corvair, he jumped out of the truck but then moved cautiously, his gaze raking the vehicle and the pavement between it and the sidewalk to the building.

The Corvair looked as it always did - well past its best days, but with no dents or markings that seemed in any way fresh or unusual. Peering inside, he saw that it was locked, the backpack gone from where Sandburg usually dumped it on the passenger side. Unconsciously gnawing on his inner lip, he turned his attention to the scuffed, dusty pavement. Assuming Blair had arrived when the lot was practically empty, he would have cut a direct path toward the walkway. Jim inhaled deeply, seeking his friend's scent, but there was a slight breeze and it had been more than half an hour since Blair had been taken. Grimacing, his eyes on the ground, frustrated by vehicles that now crowded the most direct route, he moved slowly, looking for anything that didn't seem to fit - whatever that might be.

A third of the way to the sidewalk, he slowed and frowned, and then moved between two parked cars to hunker down to study the pavement more closely. There were fresh scuffmarks, like feet being dragged, the nearly parallel lines like those the heels of Sandburg's sneakers would have made. He sniffed again and his jaw clenched, his throat tightening at the very faint residual scent of sharp sweat and sudden fear that still hung in the air.

This was where they'd taken him.

His gaze followed the scuffmarks and saw that they stopped short of where the small, battered mini stood on the parking spot. So, the vehicle had either been parked differently or was a larger vehicle. Well, he knew it was a van, so that made sense.

Had the van left any trace of itself behind?

Opening up his vision, hoping he didn't zone, he studied the ground where the wheels would have been, or would have driven over. Tiny pebbles became as clear as if they had been boulders strewn across the lot by a giant's hand. Dust particles were as individually recognizable as pebbles. Twice, he had to pull back and, blinking to clear his vision, focus on drawing in deep breaths to keep himself grounded. But there was something ... straightening, he shifted position, and for a third time he opened his vision, finally realizing what had caught his attention. There were small grains of dried red mud on the pavement that looked substantially different from the gray dust around them. Pulling an evidence bag out of his jacket pocket along with a clear, plastic glove, he donned the protection and carefully scooped up the dried dirt. And then he repeated the search on the other side of the car, and found more granules of red earth. Nodding to himself, he was certain that the van had carried the mud into the lot.

Whether or not that information would ever prove to be useful was unknown, but he was grasping at straws, willing to latch hold of anything that might signal hope, that might help him trace where they'd taken Sandburg.

Sighing, he stood and spent a moment going over his memories of dropping Blair off for early classes. The parking lot had routinely been virtually deserted; he didn't recall ever seeing any groundskeepers. The likelihood that there had been any witnesses to the abduction was remote. Reluctantly, frustrated by the lack of any substantial evidence, he concluded that there was little more to be done at the crime scene.

Returning to the truck, he thought about the options for his next moves. After dropping the samples off in Forensics, he had to try to find out where the van had been rented and by whom. That might give him a description to work with. And he had to go back into the computer, to dig up as much as he could on Brother Marcus's past life, to see if that gave any clue to who might carry a grudge and a thirst for revenge for so damned long. But then he gave himself a mental kick. It didn't have to be that hard or convoluted to find out who the perp probably was. He could go see Mean Eddie and find out who had paid him to organize the hit on Brother Marcus, even if he had to wring the creep's neck to get him to talk. Or, maybe Brother Marcus would know who had put out the hit. Hell, even Brother Jeremy probably had some idea of who was behind it all.

Unfortunately, he reflected grimly, knowing who wasn't at all the same as knowing where they'd taken Sandburg.

All the time he'd been searching the scene, he'd been hoping his cell would ring, that Simon would call and say the APB had spotted the van or, even better, that the van had been stopped and Sandburg freed from his captors. But the silence had gone on and on, and he knew without being told that the van hadn't been found. God damn it!

His mouth was dry with trepidation as he started up the engine. They could have taken the kid anywhere in the city, or could be planning to stash him at some out of the way place in the country. The mud ... the mud suggested a rural location. Grinding his teeth in frustration, he told himself that a few grains of dirt weren't enough, not nearly enough, to give him what he needed to find Sandburg in the limited amount of time the gangsters would probably give them.

It was all he had.

And it wasn't enough.

Nearly overwhelmed by a wave of impotent fury, he banged his fist on the steering wheel. Too many people had kept too damned many secrets for too many years. If Naomi or Brother Marcus had been straight with Blair, then none of this might have happened because the kid would have been a whole lot more circumspect about his relationship with the former Jackie Kozinski. And now, because of those secrets, those lies, Blair's life was in very real danger. But they'd all been caught in the game, all of them focused on protecting Brother Marcus, on spinning out the charade that he was dead rather than digging into the investigation properly right from the outset. Murder had been done at Saint Sebastian's, and the person who had ordered the hit that had led to those murders was all too obviously still out there. But, leaving the investigation to the Sheriff's department, they'd made no attempt to determine who it was or to go after the bastard. That had been mistake number one.

Number two was that they'd underestimated him badly, whoever he was. Hadn't taken the proper precautions. Had simply hoped everything would settle down, that the threat would go away. Had buried their heads in the sand. Why in hell had he allowed himself to be lulled into such stupidity?

Because he'd been caught up in Blair's desire to keep the damned secrets buried, that's why. If they weren't involved in the investigation, then they could more convincingly claim no knowledge of past events or of who Sandburg really was. Damn it all to hell.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Jim forced himself to calm down. Blowing up, handing out blame, wouldn't help anything. Wouldn't get Blair back, safe and sound. His expression as rigid as carved stone, he started up the engine and headed downtown. There was a lot of work to do and no time to lose.

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

The van pulled off the two-lane winding mountain road into a rutted lane, and then stopped several minutes later under a thick copse of trees, behind a warren of wild bushes and brush that hid it from the road. The goon with the gun shoved Sandburg roughly out of the van with so much force that Blair stumbled and nearly fell before regaining his balance. The guy in charge, a short, thickset man with a decided limp, set off with a flashlight in hand, and both the driver and the goon grabbed him by the arms and hauled him along behind, toward a cleft in the granite wall of the slope. When they shoved him through the narrow slit, he found himself in a sizable cavern.

Blair looked around and up at the hewn rock dimly illuminated by the light filtering in through the narrow portal, and wondered vaguely if it had once been a mine. Flicking on the flashlight, the 'boss' continued on into the mouth of a tunnel that barely gave enough clearance for the tall men beside him to walk through without stooping. The earth beneath him was uneven and, being pulled awkwardly, off-balance, he stumbled frequently, only to have his arms jerked hard as the men on either side held him upright and hustled him deeper into the mountain. The journey seemed to go on and on, but was probably only a matter of five minutes. Still, when they finally stopped, he felt claustrophobic and frighteningly as if the weight of rock and forest over his head was pressing down, threatening to crush him.

'Get a grip,' he told himself sternly. 'It's only a cave.' And then, looking around at the three men who stood around him like demons barely visible in the thin glow of the flashlight, like ghouls who were a far more immediate threat to his life, he thought sardonically, 'Yeah, and they're only murderers.'

Despair tightened in his chest and he had to fight the impulse to laugh hysterically. When the gangster had said they were taking him somewhere no one would ever find him, the man had spoken no more than the truth - it could be years, if ever, before his remains would be found in this hole. Though he tried hard to hold onto his hope that Jim would track him, would save him, he had to face the dismal fact that the likelihood of any rescue was remote in the extreme. He was screwed and he knew it. Swallowing hard, he grappled with his fear, and clutched at his anger at being abducted and threatened; holding it like a shield, he hoped with no little desperation that it could mute or mitigate the hurt that was coming.

"Nice place," he observed sarcastically, determinedly refusing to be intimidated, though the big men still held him pinioned between them. "Could use some windows, and an interior decorator with a gothic bent, but it's got potential in a dark and gloomy sort of way."

Ignoring the jibe, the older man demanded sharply, "Where is Kozinski? Where is he hiding?"

"Last time I saw him, he was on the way to the county morgue," Sandburg snapped back. "Try looking for him there."

Without warning, the man ploughed a fist into his gut, hitting like a sledgehammer, leaving him doubled over and gasping for breath, only to be caught by a powerful uppercut under his jaw that whip-lashed his head back with a vicious snap. He would have fallen but for the two thugs that held him up with vise-like grips. A second ruthless blow smashed into his face, cutting his lip, and he dazedly tasted the metallic sweetness of blood. Another merciless punch and another; the brutal blows rained upon him until time ceased to have meaning, and he was gasping to suck in air, gagging at the bile swelling up into his throat, and nearly sobbing with pain. Abruptly, when he was very nearly unconscious from the abuse, they loosened their grip and he dropped to the ground as boneless as a sack of grain. A boot thudded into his side and he couldn't bite back the groan of new agony that flared through his chest and back.

"No more lies!" the nameless man thundered in a paroxysm of rage. "Where is he?"

Curling into himself, arms wrapped tight around his chest and his knees drawn up, Blair coughed and struggled for breath. Pain seared through his body and head, more pain than he'd ever experienced and it consumed him, like fire.

"Where, dammit! Tell me where!" the man shouted again.

Marshalling what strength he had, his teeth clenched against the need to cry out in anguished agony - or, worse, to beg for mercy that would not be granted - Blair ground out, "I ... don't ... know."

He was barely aware of the kick that grazed his head, just another fleeting, blinding burst of pain that was quickly hushed by darkness.

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

Jim dropped off the soil samples in Forensics and rushed up the stairs to the sixth floor. Loping across the hall and through the office, unable to quench the flare of hope that maybe the APB had garnered something he could use, he slowed only when he reached the door to Banks' office.

"Anything?" he asked anxiously as he came through the door.

Simon looked up and mutely shook his head. His expression grim, he rumbled, "Eddie Sweeney was found dead in his cell this morning."

"What?" Jim gaped and then shook his head, blinking as if recovering from a blow.

"Apparently his 'priest' came to see him just after dawn, to offer spiritual comfort and the opportunity to confess," Banks went on, disgust in his voice. "When he left, Sweeney was kneeling over his bunk, his head bowed and his hands clasped, as if deep in prayer. It wasn't until the so-called priest was long gone that the guards discovered that he'd been garroted."

"They're erasing the trail, leaving no possible leads," Jim muttered, and rubbed his hands over his face in an unconscious and largely futile gesture to wipe away the despair building in his mind, despair that could only distract him, get in his way.

"Looks like," Banks agreed heavily. "You find anything?"

"Just some fragments of red mud," Ellison replied tightly. "Might give us an idea of where the van has been - maybe where they've stashed Sandburg."

"You still think we shouldn't involve Kozinski?" Simon challenged. "Frankly, detective, I don't think we've got much more to go with than to try to play out an exchange."

Shaking his head, Jim wandered toward the window. Staring sightlessly at the view beyond, he muttered, "There won't be an exchange because they have no intention of letting Blair go. They want Jackie too badly, and they're too careful. It'd just be a setup and a sniper would take him out."

"So what do you suggest?" Simon demanded with frustrated sarcasm. "Because I have to tell you, I wouldn't bet a dime on the kid's chances right now."

Stung, Jim wheeled around, nearly shouting, "You think I don't know that!"

Banks lifted a hand for peace and shook his head. "Sorry," he murmured and then slipped his fingertips under his glasses to rub his eyes. Taking a breath, he straightened. "I've got Brown going through the old documents to try to figure out who's behind this," he said more calmly. "And Rafe is trying to get a lead on who rented dark blue vans in the last few days."

Jim's gaze dropped and he bit back the inclination to point out that whatever information they got would probably be too little, too late. Swallowing, he nodded stiffly. "I still think we need to keep Brother Marcus under wraps and in the dark about this - if he knew what was going down, I suspect he'd move heaven and earth to give himself up with the hope of saving Blair's life, however useless the gesture would be." When Simon nodded in agreement, albeit reluctantly, he went on, "I'm going to go out to Saint Sebastian's, and see if I can pick up anything around the vandalized gravesite. I'll also talk to Brother Jeremy and see if he knows or can guess who is pulling the strings here."

"Okay," Simon allowed wearily, feeling as if they were just going through the motions, more personally upset and worried than he wanted to admit about Sandburg's wellbeing. "What will you tell them when they call back to arrange the trade?"

Jim shook his head and blew a long sigh. "I don't know," he admitted. "If we refuse, they might kill Blair in immediate retaliation - unless they think he can tell them where Kozinski is. Regardless, we know they'll keep looking for him."

Simon's lips thinned. "Well, they're unlikely to trace him under the fake name and diagnosis we've got him listed under at Cascade General. Keeping him in the isolation ward ensures that a minimum number of people even know he's there, and the cops watching him are in civvies, so they won't attract undue attention. Brother Jeremy wasn't pleased when I refused to give him the name Kozinski was admitted under. Aside from us and a couple people in the Sheriff's Department, nobody knows who the mysterious patient really is."

"Us ... and Sandburg," Jim added darkly.

Banks sat back and thought about that. "You think they might beat it out of him?" he asked soberly.

"No," Jim replied, shaking his head, surprising himself with the depth of his conviction. Looking haunted, his voice strained, he went on starkly, "I don't think there's anything that they could do that would induce Blair to betray him."

Banks turned his face away and closed his eyes against unwelcome imaginings of torture. Before he'd mastered the sudden nausea that roiled in his gut, the brill of the cell phone in Jim's pocket broke the taut silence between them.

"It's Sandburg's phone," Jim said quickly as he checked the caller ID. "Ellison," he replied stiffly. He listened for a moment, his gaze locked with Simon's. "Uh uh," he grated. "We're not agreeing to anything until we know that Sandburg is still alive." He scowled, and his expression darkened as the voice on the other end went on. "No, you listen," he cut in ruthlessly. "There's no deal until I talk to Blair."

The caller cursed and the line abruptly went dead. Jim panted in reaction to his pent-up emotions, his grip tightening around the small phone as he fought the shakes.

"They going to call you back?" Banks asked, alarmed.

Jim looked away, pale and haggard. "I don't know," he rasped. "I don't know if the kid is still alive. I couldn't hear him - not even his heartbeat."

"Hey, easy," Simon counseled, clinging determinedly to hope and manfully resisting the urge to gape at the uncomfortable idea that Ellison could hear heartbeats, and God only knew what else. "That doesn't mean he's dead, just that he's maybe being held too far from where they called, that's all."

Numbly, Jim nodded. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, he moved toward the door. "I, uh ... I'm going to Saint Sebastian's. Call me if Forensics comes up with anything."

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

Sharp shards of pain lancing through his body roused Blair to the foggy semi-awareness that he was being dragged over rough ground. Reflexively, he tried to pull away from the hands gripping him under his arms, but gasped and went still at the flare of agony from his gut. Everything hurt. Everything. And then light burned his eyes, blinding him briefly until he blinked away unconscious tears.

"What ...?" he grunted, struggling to get his bearings, to remember what had happened and why he hurt so much.

The thug dragging him dropped him unceremoniously to the ground and, with a low moan, he curled into a ball of unremitting agony. Darkness flirted at the edge of his consciousness and he began to drift off, but icy water cascaded over him. Jerking away from the deluge, cursing but more alert, he weakly wiped his face and winced at the sore puffiness of his lip and face. Beneath him, the flung water glazed hard, red dirt, turning the surface to slick mud. Where was he? Had he been in an accident? There was something wrong with his vision and he gingerly lifted a hand to his face - and found that his left eye was swollen closed. Looking around and up, he saw tall pines looming over him - and then, dazed and confused, he blearily focused on the three men grouped around him.

"Oh yeah," he muttered. Despite the burning of nearly every muscle in his body and the headache hammering in his skull, he couldn't just lie there. He felt too ... vulnerable. Awkwardly, slowly, he pushed himself up to sit hunched against drawn-up knees. "The three stooges."

The middle-aged short guy, the one with the hair-trigger temper, punched at a cell phone and then pushed it into his hand. "Talk," the man commanded. "Make sure they know it's not just a taped recording of your voice. But say too much and we'll blow your brains out, right here, right now."

To drive home the threat, the curly-haired thug smiled with eerie amiability as he drew out his pistol and pressed the barrel against the back of Blair's head, execution-style. Trembling in reaction to the beating and unabashed fear, Blair lifted the phone to his ear. Closing his eyes to force back panic and hastily gather his thoughts, he swallowed to moisten his dry throat and waited for the call to be answered.

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

The phone in his pocket rang again just before Jim reached his truck in the parking garage. He drew it out hastily and flipped it open. Expecting it to be the kidnapper again, he snapped, "Ellison."

"Uh, Jim," Blair rasped, sounding barely conscious, "I guess you wanted to talk to me, huh?"

"Blair!" he exclaimed, his brows furrowing in concentration as he listened with the whole of his being. "You okay, buddy?"

"Um, uh, on reflection, I guess that's a 'no'," Sandburg muttered groggily, his thready voice distorted by his thick lip. "In fact, reflecting on the situation as a whole, I gotta say I don't see a whole lotta light at the end of this particular tunnel, man."

"Where are you?" Jim asked hopefully. "Give me some clue here."

"Jim, these guys got some lame idea that ... that Brother Marcus was my dad and ... and that he's still alive," Blair rambled on confusedly in short, breathy bursts. "But the funeral, man. I ... I was there. I saw ... saw them bury him, Jim. I saw it, you know? I was right there. And, and you saw it, didn't you, Jim? Saw him get shot, die? You saw it, Jim. I know you did."

Frowning, Jim's lips thinned as he listened. He could hear three others besides Blair, their breathing and heartbeats, and he could tell from Sandburg's shallow respirations, the weakness of his voice, that he was hurt, maybe badly. Rubbing his forehead, he thought that the kid sounded delirious, not making much sense. Confused. Only ... only Blair knew Kozinski was not only his father, but was also very much alive, so he was also running a bluff. If he was alert enough to do that, what other message was the kid trying to convey? Licking his lips, he again focused on background sounds but there wasn't much, just a whole lot of quiet air.

"I need more, Chief," he rasped.

There was a pause and then Blair replied haltingly, his voice cracking with evident despair, "'m sorry, man. I don't know what else to say. I can't ... can't think. And, uh, like, I'm not alone, you know?"

"I know, I know. It's okay, Chief, you hang in there," he said soothingly with as much confidence as he could muster. "I'll figure it out."

"If, um, well, you know," Blair murmured hoarsely, sadness thick in his voice, "it's, uh, okay."

Jim's throat tightened and, covering his eyes, he bowed his head. "I'll find you," he vowed and heard Sandburg's breathing hitch, as if he was fighting back a sob. "I will find you," he repeated emphatically, desperately hoping it would prove to be true. "You just hang on, okay? Now, put the main man back on. I want to talk to him. If you can whisper something more specific, I'll be listening."

"Okay, Jim," Sandburg murmured, but there was little hope in his dull tone.

A confusion of sound followed - a hard smack of flesh against flesh and a pained yelp, a body thudding heavily into the ground - and Jim felt murderous fury roar through him. And then the guttural voice he was learning to loathe was on the line. "Okay. You talked to him. You've got two hours to set up the trade."

"You listen, and you listen good," Ellison snarled, his veneer of calm banished by the harsh sounds of Blair's desperate gasps for breath in the background. "You take good care of him because I'm gonna want to talk to him again before we conclude our business."

"Two hours, detective."

And the line went dead.

Breathing heavily, Jim took a moment to steady his roiling emotions and damp down his rage before he punched in Simon's number. "They just called again, and I spoke to Sandburg. He's hurt."

"He give you any more clues?" Banks asked hopefully, though the rough anger in his voice revealed what he thought about what he'd just been told.

"I think he tried, but he sounded pretty out of it," he replied flatly. Staring sightlessly at the dingy garage ceiling, he went on, "I need to think about what he said. There's something about the funeral ...." With a sigh, he concluded, "They've given us two hours to set up the trade. I'll call you if I find out anything at Saint Sebastian's."

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

Blair was hauled to his feet and hustled back into the dank darkness of the cave. 'Two hours?' he thought, wondering if Jim had understood, or would figure out, what he'd been saying. With that pistol against his head, he hadn't dared be any clearer. And by the time he'd gotten his breath back after being slugged to the ground, it was too late to whisper anything more useful.

They tossed him roughly onto the floor of the cave and he landed hard. 'Oh, God,' he wondered, 'how much more of this can I take?' But he wasn't sure what scared him more - that he'd die of the beatings, or that he'd lose it and betray Brother Marcus before they finally killed him.

"I don't like it," the gangster grunted, suspiciously eying Sandburg. Once more unleashing his fury on Blair, he kicked out, catching him in the ribs. He tried to roll with it, to lessen the damage, but he was beyond trying to stifle the groan that filled his throat. The man bent over him, grabbed handfuls of the collar of his jacket and jerked Blair up to snarl in his face. "You little smartass runt, you're lying to me; I can feel it. You know he's alive and you're protecting him." Nearly frenzied with the frustration of being so close to his target and yet still denied satisfaction, he shook Blair, shouting, "Where is he, dammit?"

"I ... don't ... know," Sandburg gasped unblinkingly, and then he slugged the man as hard as he could. 'Resistance is futile,' he thought bemusedly, but he was so angry, so very angry, that he couldn't help but strike out. Besides, he knew retribution wouldn't be long in coming and they couldn't question him when he was unconscious. When his tormentorís fist smashed into his face, he welcomed the darkness when it came with the devoted and grateful eagerness of a lover.

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

"Brother Jim!" Jeremy exclaimed as he descended the porch steps to meet Ellison, who was getting out of his truck. "I wasn't expecting you." Astutely reading Jim's thunderous expression and rigid posture, he demanded, "What's wrong? Has something happened to Brother Marcus?"

"No," Ellison grated. "They snatched Blair. Want to do a trade."

"Oh no," the monk gasped, pained regret washing over his face. "I ... we never expected ...."

"I know," Jim cut in, having no time for excuses or apologies. "Come on, I want to check the gravesite, and I've got some questions for you." He turned away but then glared over his shoulder as he added cuttingly, "And I expect honest answers."

Jeremy swallowed heavily and then nodded. "Of course. Whatever I can do to help get Blair back."

They walked swiftly through the orchard and across the meadow. "Who's behind this?" Jim demanded. "Who so badly wants Kozinski dead that he's still trying to get him after all this time?"

Shaking his head, Brother Jeremy replied cautiously, "It could be any one of several men who went to prison because of Jackie's testimony. But ... but perhaps one has a stronger motive than the others." He paused but, at Jim's impatient stare, he hastened on. "Salvatore Gambioni. He wasn't implicated at the time, but his two older brothers went to the electric chair. He vowed he'd find Jackie and kill him, if it took the rest of his life."

"Gambioni? Yeah, I've heard of him. Chicago," Jim murmured, nodding. "But he's not in jail. Or has he gotten out already?"

Sighing, Jeremy lifted his hands. "Sal hasn't ever been convicted of anything. He was the baby of the family. Protected. He, uh, well, he had a slight birth deformity and had - I suppose still has - a pronounced limp. He idolized his older brothers, Gino and Tonio."

"Limp?" Jim echoed, slowing his pace and tilting his head in thought. 'Got some lame idea ...' he heard again in memory. "Lame," he muttered aloud. "He was trying to tell me something."

"Excuse me?" Brother Jeremy asked, not understanding.

But they'd come to the small cemetery, and Jim held up a hand for quiet as he pondered Blair's words. The sight of the graves distracted him, reminding him too poignantly of Sandburg's hesitant last words, absolving him if ....

But he resolutely pushed the thought away and looked up and around as he grappled with his memory. 'Upon reflection ...' he recalled. 'Reflecting ....' And then Blair had mumbled on and on about the funeral and the shooting. That he'd been there, that he'd seen the body buried. On and on about seeing things happen. 'You saw it,' Sandburg had stressed repeatedly in nearly the same breath as he'd talked about the funeral. 'You saw it, Jim ... I know you did ... reflecting ....'

He looked across the valley, and the excitement of knowing he was putting it together, that he was close, fluttered in his belly. 'No light at the end of this tunnel.'

"Jeremy," he barked sharply, "are there any caves in the area?"

"Caves?"

"Yeah," Jim affirmed, taking the monk's arm and turning him back to the monastery, suddenly anxious that they not be seen, that anyone who was possibly standing watch not realize that he'd figured out where they were.

"Why, yes; well, of a sort," Jeremy replied, gazing at him uncertainly. "Across the valley; there are half a dozen entrances to old mines from the days when there was copper and iron mining in the area."

"Copper? Iron ... red dust!" Jim exclaimed softly, another piece fitting into place. A cold, feral smile of satisfaction curved along his lips. As soon as they were sheltered by the trees, he demanded directions to any cave that was nearly directly opposite on the next mountain. Once Jeremy had hastily provided the information he needed, he pulled out his cell and called Banks. "I think I've located them. According to Brother Jeremy, the guy in charge is probably Salvatore Gambioni," he reported tightly. "I'm heading over there now to check it out, but we're running out of time. You might want to get the Sheriff to send me some backup." Swiftly, he shared his conjectures and directions. Though Simon obviously thought it was a long shot, he agreed to call in support.

Clapping Jeremy on the shoulder, Jim turned away and raced back to his truck.

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

Parking on the side of the road well down the mountain from his goal, Jim quickly, but quietly, moved up on foot. Loping through the undergrowth with the stealth of an ex-Ranger, he let his ears guide him, and was grimly pleased when he homed in on the muffled sounds of voices on the slope above. Within half an hour of leaving the monastery, he'd spotted the van and then the cave entrance. Stalking closer, he tilted his head and closed his eyes, listening intently. Frowning with effort, he sorted through and past the desultory voices of men simply marking time, until he caught the faint breathy sounds in the background. Sandburg didn't sound good, but at least he was still alive. Opening his eyes and giving himself a shake, he locked down his nearly overwhelming desire to rush in and rescue the kid then and there. Three against one weren't great odds, not when the three held Blair's life in their hands. Silently, he returned to the van, opened the hood and disabled the vehicle, and then slid back and away, far enough to make a call without being overhead.

"Captain, I've found them," he reported tensely. "My truck is down on the main road. Just past it, there's a rutted lane that leads up to an old mine entrance. How long before the Sheriff's people will get here?"

"They should be there inside of ten minutes, Jim," Banks replied tersely. "See you in a few."

Ellison quirked a brow as he slid the phone back into his pocket, but he wasn't honestly surprised that Simon was on his way as opposed to waiting for news back in his office. In the distance, very faintly, he could hear sirens; he tensed until they died away and he was assured the backup was coming in silently. With feline grace, he slipped silently back down the mountain to meet the others and guide them in.

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

Minutes later, Simon's sedan pulled up. "Where?" Banks called out softly as he got out of the car.

Pointing up hill, Jim replied, "About a ten-minute hike."

"How do you want to play this?" the Captain asked, with a glance at his watch. "The two-hour deadline is nearly up."

Rubbing his mouth, Jim glanced up the slope. "It's not a great setup," he reported. "They're inside a cave and Sandburg doesn't sound good. If we go in after them, they'll try to use him as a shield to bargain their way out."

Simon grimaced and nodded in understanding. Just then, two Sheriff's patrol cars appeared around the curve in the road and pulled up behind Banks' sedan. Four patrolmen got out and approached them, the one in the lead looking from one to the other as he asked, "Captain Banks?"

"That would be me," Simon responded. "And this is Detective Ellison. The perps, possibly gangsters from Chicago, are holding his partner, Blair Sandburg, as a hostage. Jim, bring them up to speed."

Quickly, he briefed them on the situation and described the area around the entrance of the cave. "They'll be calling me in a few minutes," he told them. "They probably have to come outside to get cell reception, and that's our best chance of taking them by surprise."

Moments later, they'd agreed on how to deploy their force. Simon handed out the two-way miniature radios and ear pieces that he'd brought along to coordinate operations, and then they were quietly making their way up to the cave.

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

Floating on a sea of pain, with no idea of how long he'd really been out for the count, Blair had been feigning unconsciousness for what seemed like forever. What would happen when the two hours were up? God, he hoped Jim and Simon were making certain that Brother Marcus wouldn't volunteer to do anything stupid, like give himself up to these vipers. Sprawled half-curled on the floor, facing the men who wanted to kill his father, he thought dazedly about how weird it all was. For years, he'd believed the monk was probably his parent, but he'd never dreamed the gentle, compassionate Brother Marcus would turn out to be someone like Jackie Kozinski. He was the son of a former mobster; the son of a Catholic monk. Vaguely, he wondered if Naomi, formerly Nancy, was Jewish, or if everything he'd ever been told about his background and hers was a lie - not that she'd ever told him much.

Panting shallowly, stifling the urge to moan in misery, he found he didn't care about the lies, that none of it really mattered. Not in the big scheme of things. The scheme in which he'd been raised by a woman who loved him and had never given him reason to doubt she was the mother she claimed to be; and in which a kindly, wise monk welcomed him warmly whenever he visited and made no effort to hide his fondness for Naomi's child. It certainly didn't matter in the face of the reality that he might well be dead before the day was done. They'd lied to protect him, to keep him safe. They'd lied because they'd loved him for all of his life, and didn't want him to be hurt. He decided he could live - and die - very easily with lies like that.

But he felt really badly about how they'd feel when they found out that after all those lies, after all that care and consideration, the past had reached out to grab him anyway. Man, he wished they'd never have to know, but that was impossible. Even if his body was never found, they'd know he'd been taken and murdered because of who he was, and because of who had fathered him.

Swallowing, he pulled his thoughts away from the grief they'd feel and wondered where Jim was and what he was doing. Had he figured out the half-assed clues, or had Jim just thought he was really out of it? If his partner had understood him, then maybe there was still some hope he'd get out of this mess alive. But if Jim hadn't ... well, he could only hope that Jim had gotten his last vague message, the one that said he didn't blame anyone, and that if Jim didn't find him in time, then Jim wasn't to blame himself. Thinking about his few mumbled words, he figured it was a lot to hope for, that Jim would have heard all of that, heard the meaning.

Drifting a little, finding it hard to hold onto the tattered edges of consciousness, Blair tried to dredge up the anger he'd felt, but it was too much effort and he didn't have the energy. He only felt regret - that others would grieve him, would be hurt by this, and that he hadn't had more time with Jim. Man, now, there was a wonder of nature. Jim Ellison. His sentinel. His throat thickened and he struggled to swallow, to keep breathing with short, shallow pants that hurt a whole lot less than deep respirations. They'd just been getting comfortable with one another. Just starting to relax a little and have fun. Given enough time, maybe they could have become really good friends. Maybe, though he wasn't sure he fit the image of who Jim'd consider a friend; seemed that not many people did. Danny did. Danny had gotten past that tough, defensive shell, but Danny's death had just toughened the shell even more, making it harder for anyone else to get under it.

Exhausted by pain and fear, tears threatened as despair nearly swamped him. God, he really did not want to die. There was so much he still wanted to do. So much to learn. So much inside that he wanted so badly to give - so much knowledge and ... and love. "Please, Jim," he prayed, unconsciously breathing the words in a thready whisper. "Be out there, man. Somewhere close. Please get me out of this before it's too late."

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

In position near the mouth of the cave, Ellison stiffened. "I'm here, kid," he murmured tightly in response. Biting his lip, his jaw clenched at the ache inside at the sound of that soft plea, and the hope and trust behind it, that he'd be there, that he'd be close. He glanced at his watch. Eight minutes to go before the two hours were up. Looking around, he found Simon crouched nearby. Their gazes met and Jim nodded as he pulled the cell phone from his jacket, to double-check that the ring function was turned off, so that the sound of it nearby wouldn't alert the gangsters before they were ready. They were playing the last bit by ear, waiting to see if they brought Blair out of the cave with them with the expectation that Jim would want to speak to him. Hopefully, there'd be a moment when the kid was in the clear and they could end this without anyone else getting hurt.

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

"Leo," Salvatore said abruptly, "looks like we'll need more water to bring him around again. Take the bottle and fill it at the spring, like last time."

The driver straightened from where he'd been slouching against the wall and docilely left to follow orders.

"Max, it's time. Bring him outside."

"You got it, boss," the curly-haired muscle man rejoined, sketching a casual salute in the air as he moved toward Sandburg.

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

"Heads up! One's coming out to get water from a spring somewhere nearby," Jim murmured into the microphone, not caring if they wondered how he could possibly know. "The others are bringing Sandburg out."

Moments later, oblivious to the presence of the six cops surrounding the cave, Leo ambled outside and turned away from Jim's location by the van to head into the trees. One of the Sheriff's men rose silently just after the hood had passed his location and silently subdued him, dragging him down out of sight in seconds.

Less than a minute later, Gambioni appeared in the narrow cleft of the entrance, and shoved his way through to stand waiting for Max and his burden to slide out behind him. With tense impatience, he flicked a look at the cell phone in his hand, and then at Sandburg, who Max had dumped unceremoniously on the ground at his feet. "Leo!" he called irritably. "Hurry it up!"

"Police! Put you hands up!" Jim yelled with hoarse fervor, his weapon leveled at the two men as he stepped from cover.

Surprise blossomed on the gangsters' faces, and then resistance. Max went for his weapon, and Simon's revolver cracked. The big thug whirled around, slamming into the granite wall near the cleft, his hand gripping his shoulder. In the sudden confusion, Gambioni drew his weapon. With an expression of malicious fury, he turned it not on the police around him but on his unconscious hostage, perhaps thinking that, if he couldn't get Jackie, he could at least take out Kozinski's son.

One of the patrolmen shouted, "Don't! Drop it!" and fired a warning shot.

His thoughts dulled by the shock of his wound, and not realizing how many police surrounded them, Max apparently thought it was Ellison who had called out and fired the warning shot. In a loyally protective gesture, he moved between his boss and the threat, blocking Jim's line of fire. Cursing, Ellison shifted with desperate urgency, not trusting the uniforms to act in time. But even as he dove to the side for a clear shot, he knew he wasn't going to be fast enough.

But, unexpectedly, Blair suddenly rolled from where he'd been lying, catching Salvatore off-guard and throwing off his aim. The gun in Gambioni's hand exploded, and then Jim was in the clear and fired, as did the cop who'd shouted the order to stop. Both bullets found their marks and the gangster staggered backward, his weapon falling from limp fingers just before he crumpled to the ground. Sandburg lay unmoving just a few feet away.

"Blair!" Jim bellowed as he lunged forward, Simon close on his heels. Sliding to his knees beside his friend, Jim opened his senses, straining to ascertain where the kid had been hit, but the stink of blood was all around him. Frantically, his gaze and fingers ghosted over Sandburg's body, but he found no wound.

"S'okay," Blair rasped faintly. "He missed."

"Jesus, Chief," he grunted in relief as he reached to cup Blair's contused cheek with infinite gentleness, his expression taut as he assessed the damage. Sandburg's left eye was black and swollen closed, the right not much better. His lip was split and still oozing and the left side of his face was puffy and red, the skin broken but no longer bleeding. "You scared the hell out of me."

A faint smile twitched at Blair's bruised and swollen lips, but then he winced and his eyes pressed closed, his mouth tightening against the surge of pain that flooded his body. Watching Gambioni, he'd bided his time, only having the strength to move once with any appreciable speed. He'd done it, rolled away in time, but it had cost him.

"Easy, kid," Jim murmured, gently gathering him up to support him against one shoulder and ease his laboured breathing. "You're gonna be okay, Chief."

Sandburg weakly gripped his jacket and held on tight. His eyelashes fluttered and he looked up into Jim's eyes. "I didn't ... didn't betray him," he husked.

"I know," Ellison replied softly, carefully brushing wild curls off his partner's brow. "I knew you wouldn't. No matter what."

Another smile flickered over the bruised lips before his eyes drifted shut and he slumped in Jim's arms.

The others were now all around them, the cops doing their jobs with calm efficiency. Apparently indifferent to the gangster's shoulder wound, one cuffed Max and read him his rights, while another grimaced grimly when he checked Gambioni and realized the gangster was dead. A third hauled Leo from the brush. The fourth reported to Simon, "I've called for ambulances and a crime team. They should be arriving down where we left the vehicles in fifteen minutes or so."

"Thanks," Banks rumbled with an approving nod. Seeing that everything was under control, he moved to grip Jim's shoulder. Studying Sandburg's battered visage, he asked solemnly, "How badly is he hurt?"

"I don't know," Ellison rasped angrily. "I can feel hot spots where there's deep bruising and maybe cracked or broken ribs, but I can't tell if there's internal injury or how bad the concussion is."

"You need help getting him down the mountain?" Banks offered.

"No, sir," Jim asserted flatly, his possessive, protective grip around Blair tightening. "I can manage."

Simon graced him with a slightly sardonic look, but nodded and steadied him as Jim slipped an arm under Blair's knees and stood. Now that stealth wasn't an issue, they followed the rutted lane back down to the highway. Though the ground was rough, and Jim had to take care not to stumble or slip, the route was far easier than traversing through the thick undergrowth. Banks stayed close, occasionally reaching out to help him keep his balance on the steeper sections of the grade.

Jim held Blair close as he walked silently down the winding slope. The kid was heavier than he'd expected, and he realized Sandburg must be packing more muscle than he'd suspected, given that Blair never worked out. All the way down, though he paid careful attention to the path, he was also listening intently to his friend's shallow respirations and slightly fast heartbeat, and worrying about the possibilities of internal bleeding or serious head injury. However, marginally reassured by the fact that Sandburg had clearly been lucid when he'd been conscious, he told himself that Blair was probably just suffering from the shock of what was all too evidently a brutal beating, and wasn't really about to expire in his arms.

When they finally got to the main road, Jim carefully laid Blair on the grassy verge and asked Simon to bring a blanket from his emergency gear in the truck. Once the kid was bundled warmly, Jim again lifted him to cradle Blair against his shoulder and chest, holding him safe and secure. The uniforms put their prisoners in the back of the cruisers, and they all settled down to wait. A few minutes later, Jim tilted his head and then glanced at Simon, who nodded mutely, understanding that Ellison had heard approaching sirens and they'd soon be able to get Sandburg to the hospital.

Returning his attention to his roommate, and realizing the kid was waking up, Jim murmured soft reassurances and lightly stroked Blair's brow with his fingertips. Blair shifted in his arms and winced, hissing against the newly awakened pain.

"Feel like a wuss," Sandburg mumbled peevishly, his eyes still closed. "'s not like I got shot or anything."

"They worked you over pretty good, Chief," Jim consoled. "You're entitled to lay around and whine a bit."

Sandburg snorted and then peered up at him with his one good eye. "You never complain when you get beat up," he murmured weakly.

A grin played around Ellison's lips as he replied teasingly, "Yeah, but I'm a tough guy."

Blair snickered and then moaned. "Don't make me laugh," he gasped, but there was a reassuring sparkle in his right eye.

"Sorry," Jim apologized, but his grin widened, fueled by the immense relief of having his partner conscious and responsive. "Just rest, buddy. The ambulance will be here soon."

Blair nodded slightly in acknowledgement and his gaze drifted away. "That gangster, the older one - he, uh, he really has it in for Brother Marcus."

"Yeah, well, it's over; he's dead," Ellison replied flatly.

Sandburg thought about that, his expression closed, and then he confessed quietly, "I probably shouldn't be glad about that, but I am."

Before Jim could reply, the ambulances pulled up and the bustling EMTs precluded further conversation. In minutes, Max was moved from the patrol car into one of the emergency vehicles, one of the uniforms climbing in behind to stand guard over him, while Blair was loaded into the other. Jim was about to follow Blair inside but Sandburg waved him off. "'m okay," he said staunchly, though he still sounded and certainly looked more than a bit wan. "You don't want to leave your truck up here, man. A bear might steal it."

Chuckling, admiring the kid's spunk, Simon called out, "We'll follow you in to the hospital." Ellison hesitated, but Banks pulled him away to allow the technician to close the wide, rear door. "C'mon, Jim. Let's get off this damned mountain."

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

Though they weren't far behind the ambulance, by the time they arrived at the small local hospital that served the rural area, Sandburg had already been sent for a series of x-rays. Simon settled in one of the typically uncomfortable and too small plastic and metal chairs that seemed to fill every Emergency waiting room he'd ever been in, and briefly flipped through a magazine that looked to be older than his son. Sighing, he tossed the journal aside and leaned back to watch Ellison wear a path in the already faded linoleum.

"Would you relax?" he finally complained. "I'm getting tired just watching you."

Giving him a sardonic look, Jim fetched up against a wall and crossed his arms. "I hate waiting," he muttered.

"Uh huh, like I hadn't noticed," Banks retorted and then shifted in the chair, trying to get comfortable and finding it impossible. "Can't say I'm all that fond of it myself," he admitted. Tilting his head toward the closed double-doors that led into the treatment rooms, he asked, "You listening?"

Jim nodded and grimaced unhappily. "They're doing skull, chest, spine, arm and abdominal x-rays," he reported, scrubbing at his forehead. Too restless to stand still, he once again began pacing. "He didn't deserve that, Simon. Didn't deserve to be beaten half to death just because of who his father is. Hell, until a few days ago, he didn't even know for sure - and those bastards ...."

"Hey, easy, Jim," Simon rumbled soothingly. "He's sore, sure, and will be for a few days - but he seemed pretty much okay. Give him a week or so, and he'll be good as new."

"You think so?" he countered, stopping to gaze at Simon with troubled eyes. "What about the rest of it? Huh? The lies he's been told all his life, the lies that got him into this mess and damned near got him killed. You think he'll be past that in a week or so?"

Quirking a brow, Banks blew a long breath. "You know him better than I do," he countered. "What do you think?"

"I don't know," Jim growled, turning away. "Right now, I'm so angry with Naomi and Brother Marcus for not being straight with him that I can't think straight." He paused and drew a breath, forcing himself to calm down. Massaging the back of his neck, he muttered, "We should have seen this coming, you know? We were so caught up with worrying about protecting an ex-gangster that we didn't take the right precautions. We - I - should have expected them to grab him."

"Maybe," Simon allowed calmly. "But given they hadn't gone after either Blair or his mother before, there was no reason to assume -"

"Yeah, I know," Jim cut in, his tone grudging. "I guess I just figured they'd send in another assassin or something. Never occurred to me that someone like Gambioni would get involved personally."

"Well, from what Brother Jeremy told you, it seems his thirst for revenge got the better of him," Banks mused. Leaning forward to clasp his hands between his thighs, he went on, "Up until we got that information, we had no idea that the hunt for Kozinski was so personal."

Nodding in agreement, Jim dropped into a nearby chair. "That's what bugs me about all this," he rasped. "If any of them - Marcus, Naomi or even Jeremy - had been straight with Blair or with us, had shared the information we needed to help protect him, then we could have been watching for Gambioni. Why the hell keep it all a secret?"

Banks snorted. "You know better than that," he chided. "People are always keeping secrets, especially from the police. In this case, they were all trying to pretend that it would go away, so they wouldn't have to deal with it - wouldn't have to come clean to Sandburg about, well, everything."

Sighing, Jim grimaced with disgust and sat back. "Yeah. Lies and silence - and they nearly got the kid killed."

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

It was an hour before they were allowed into the treatment room to see Blair. Both winced with unconscious sympathy when they saw him lying stiff with discomfort on the gurney, and looking like he'd gone more than a few too many rounds with Godzilla. The bruises had had time to darken further and were stark against the pallor of his skin. He sported a patch over his left eye, and his left arm was in a sling. Bandages tightly swathed his chest but didn't begin to cover all the contusions on his torso.

A stout, bald doctor in a lab coat finished a blood pressure reading before looking up with a genial smile as they neared the stretcher. Securing the ear pieces of the stethoscope around his neck, he straightened. "Ah, good," he said cheerfully, "Blair's been worrying about you having to wait so long."

"I'm fine," Sandburg insisted, contrary to all visible evidence, his words slightly slurred by the swelling of his jaw and mouth. "But he won't let me leave."

"Yeah, we know," Jim muttered wryly. Sandburg gazed up at him and rolled his one good eye, mutely protesting Ellison's penchant for listening in.

The doctor looked at Ellison askance, wondering how they'd known, but shrugged it off. "We'll be keeping him overnight, just in case the concussion is worse than it seems right now. But, all things considered given the extent of the beating, the damage was minimal. No broken bones - a few cracked ribs, and a cracked ulna, uh, one of the bones in his left arm."

The two tall men nodded; Jim had heard it all when the doctor had briefed Sandburg on his injuries, and had relayed what he'd heard to Banks, so there were no surprises at that point. "Can you give him something for the pain?" Ellison asked, concerned about the shadows in Sandburg's eye and the lines of strain on his face - not to mention the rigid way he held his body, as if afraid to move suddenly or at all.

Regretfully, the physician shook his head. "Not for awhile yet; not until we're sure there's no serious head injury," he replied.

An orderly came into the room and the doctor stepped back from the gurney. "He's all yours, Will," he said to the young man. "You can get him settled in his room."

The white-garbed aide nodded but, before he moved to the head of the gurney to push it from the room, he looked from Banks to Ellison and back again. Holding out a yellow slip of paper, he explained, "I've got a message for Detective Ellison. The caller said he'd be with Mr. Sandburg."

Taking the small note, Jim glanced at it and his lips thinned. Looking up at Simon and then at Blair, he said, "Brother Jeremy would like me to call."

"Oh, man," Sandburg sighed wearily, waving his right hand in a gesture that included Simon, "we've got to talk before you call him back."

"Don't you think you should just rest?" Banks objected, worried about how pale the kid looked and how evident was his struggle to mask the pain he was feeling.

"Not yet," Blair stipulated, sounding determined despite appearing as if he was on the edge of passing out again. "Not until we've got our stories straight. How did Brother Jeremy even know we were here?"

"Uh, perhaps you could continue this discussion in your room upstairs," the doctor suggested, signaling to the orderly to wheel Sandburg away.

The others glanced at him and nodded; privacy for all that had to be said was probably a good idea.

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

Blair choked back a moan at the agony that flared in his gut, chest and back when he was shifted from the stretcher to the bed, and he sagged against the support of the pillows behind his shoulders and head. "Man," he muttered, aggrieved, "I cannot believe how much my head and body hurt. God, it's not like there's anything seriously damaged."

"Sandburg, those bastards beat you to a pulp," Banks observed darkly. "Of course it's going to hurt."

"Well, not a pulp, exactly," he replied, nonplussed by the description.

"Close enough," the Captain harrumphed. "Now, what is it you want to talk about so badly that it can't wait until you're in better shape?"

Taking a breath, Sandburg looked from one to the other. "Does Brother Marcus know that I was abducted by the guy who's been hunting him?"

"No," Simon replied, shaking his head. "After Jim heard you say they weren't wearing masks, he persuaded me that telling Marcus would be a bad idea, that he'd only want to offer himself up even though there was no hope they would honour the offer of a trade."

Letting go the breath he was holding, Blair closed his eye and murmured a heartfelt, "Thank you." Some of the tension eased from his body. But then he stiffened again, and watched them closely as he asked, "Can we keep a lid on this? I mean, downplay it with any reporters who get wind of what happened today? Keep the Sheriff's people from questioning him about it all to get background for their case?"

Banks and Ellison exchanged long looks. "Probably," Jim finally allowed. "They don't need Marcus's testimony as he was never involved in this individual crime. Your testimony and ours, along with the arresting officers will be sufficient, I think, to prove the men in custody were part of an abduction and grievous assault."

"Okay, okay, good," Sandburg replied, nodding tightly. "We can say they took me because I was at the funeral, right? The only person there that was really accessible to them, because Naomi immediately left the city and then the country, and the others were all monks ... so far as they know," he added, looking at Jim. "Too many of them to control; too hard to get one without alerting the others, right? So that left me. Nobody has to know I was taken deliberately because I'm his son - only that they figured I had to be in on the charade that Brother Marcus had been killed last week."

When they hesitated, he pushed, "Right?"

"Depends on what the men in custody say as part of their story, if they say anything at all," Simon hedged.

"So, cut them a deal if they'll stay quiet about it."

"Oh, come on, Chief - that's going too far. Those bastards could have killed you," Jim objected heatedly, thinking darkly that one of them had probably been the fake priest who had murdered Mean Eddie.

"No, no," Blair contested, shaking his head. "Okay, they were part of the kidnapping, and they held me while that guy beat me, but neither of them hit or kicked me, so far as I know." He paused and frowned. "Who was that guy, anyway? They just called him, 'boss'."

"A gangster from Chicago named Salvatore Gambioni," Simon supplied.

Jim added, "Brother Jeremy told me his two older brothers got the death penalty based on Kozinski's testimony. Apparently, he swore revenge at the time, even if it took the rest of his life to get it."

Blair sighed. "Man, that's a lot of hate," he muttered bleakly. Lifting his gaze to Jim's, he asked, "Brother Jeremy? How much does he know about the kidnapping?"

"Only that you were taken," Jim told him.

"You're sure nothing was said about specifically why they grabbed me?" Blair clarified anxiously.

Thinking back over the earlier events of the day, Jim shook his head. "No. No, neither of us said anything about 'why'; maybe we both thought it was obvious."

"Well, we'll have to make sure that he gets the 'person at the funeral' story," Sandburg returned. His gaze went out of focus as he thought it through, and he nodded again to himself. "Good. It's containable. Brother Marcus doesn't have to know what I've found out."

Grimacing, Jim argued, "I don't understand why you're so adamant about that. Dammit, Sandburg - you were willing to let them beat you to death rather than betray him. He should know that."

Swallowing heavily, Blair bowed his head. "I don't think there's any way to keep that from him," he acknowledged quietly, "even though I wish there were. But he can think I did it because he's my friend - because I would have done the same thing whether he was my father or not. You don't ... don't save your own life by getting a friend killed, or even in letting their death happen when you could do something to save them. You just don't. And ... and I knew they were going to kill me, so ... so even if I'd been tempted to tell them where he was, there was no point, not in terms of saving my own life."

Hearing the absolute conviction in the candid response - and the almost impersonal academic analysis and acceptance of impending death, which had to have been terrifying in the moment - Jim felt a shiver along his spine. He couldn't help but remember how a virtual stranger had risked his life on the day they'd met, to keep him from being flattened by a truck. And now he knew, if he'd ever doubted it, Blair would go to similar lengths again to protect him if they were ever in a situation where the kid felt such action was warranted. The muscle in his jaw jumped at that worrying awareness. He sighed and looked at Simon. When Banks quirked a brow, he nodded, his expression conveying that they were hearing an important bit of the Sandburg philosophy of life. Jim rubbed a hand over his mouth, and his lips thinned against further protest, but he couldn't help himself. "Why the hell are you trying so hard to protect him?" he demanded, his tone harsh with the ire he felt on Sandburg's behalf. "He and Naomi have lied to you all your life. You don't owe him, you know. If either of them had ever been straight with you at any time in the last twenty-five years, you would have been more careful about being in contact with him. Frankly, I don't know how you can trust either one of them. Hell, you wouldn't have been abducted -"

"We don't know that," Blair challenged hotly. "That guy, Gambioni, wanted Brother Marcus so bad that he'd lost it, man. He was raging at being so close and yet not being able to find him - he was, like, totally out of control. He might have grabbed anyone he thought might know something about where Brother Marcus was hiding." He paused to draw breath, his right hand unconsciously massaging the aching muscles in his chest. "Besides, I do owe him," he continued more calmly.

When Jim snorted, he insisted, "Think about it, man. For all my life, he's pretended to not be my father to protect me." When Jim seemed unconvinced, Blair turned to Simon for support. "If it was you, and if Daryl was in peril because he's your son, wouldn't you do anything to deny the relationship? To keep him safe, if you could? Even though it would probably kill you inside not to acknowledge him, not to ever be able to tell him how much you love him?"

Caught by the unexpected analogy, surprised and unsettled, Simon felt his throat thicken at just the thought that he might lose his son someday, might never be able to claim him. He bit his lip to regain control of his emotions and then said hoarsely, "He's right, Jim. Any father who loved his son would do exactly the same thing."

Blair's gaze flashed to Ellison's with a 'there, you see?' expression on his face. "And Naomi?" he persisted, driving his point home, "She raised me, dammit. She gave her youth and a really big chunk of her life to keep me safe; always moving around, never able to settle anywhere. And she loves me, Jim. There is no doubt about that. So ... so she's my aunt, so what? Man, she adopted me! You think that because she's not my birth mother that she owes me any explanations? Lots of adoptive parents don't tell their kids everything. So I'm supposed to hold that against her? I don't think so, man. I really don't think so."

When Jim threw up his hands, shrugged and looked away, Sandburg cajoled, "C'mon, Jim. Try to see it from my perspective. What's so awful about what they did? Sure, maybe they didn't tell me the whole truth. But ... but I got to know my father as a friend. A really good, compassionate friend who has always been there when I needed him; who always, always welcomes me with delight whenever I find the time to see him; who has never hidden his fondness for me. Is that so bad? And, and Naomi? She's never asked me to call her 'mom', and I guess I understand that now. She probably didn't ever want to take that away from her sister. But she is my 'mom'. Sure, she's unconventional and my childhood was maybe, uh, unique, but she kept me safe and she did the absolute best she could."

Sighing, he fingered the sheets anxiously. "I don't want either of them hurt by any of this," he stressed, his voice growing hoarse and strained with exhaustion. "I don't want either of them to ever feel any guilt about what happened today. I ... I don't want them to ever be uncomfortable around me, thinking that I mind that they didn't tell me or that I'm judging them for it. They've been too good to me. I know you think they've somehow abrogated all right to my trust. But trust is ... is about, I don't know, understanding their motivations, maybe? Knowing they love me and would never do anything willfully to hurt me? Trust is about believing in someone, not about weighing up who owes what or ... or judging only on a few facts. I guess ... I guess trust isn't always rational. All I know is, no matter what I've learned about the truth of my familial relationships, I still trust them. And, maybe more importantly, I love them. I won't have them hurt if I can help it."

"Okay, okay," Jim acquiesced grudgingly, not willing to prolong a discussion that wasn't going to change anything. It was costing Sandburg too much, distressing him when the kid had already endured far more than enough pain and abuse for one day. However much he really didn't, couldn't, understand how trust could survive such fundamental lies, all Jim really wanted was for him to rest and regain his strength. "It's your family, your life and your call."

"You promise?" Sandburg demanded then, sounding fierce as he looked up at them. "You both promise that you'll never, ever, by word, expression, gesture, or tone - or in any other way - ever give away, to either of them or Brother Jeremy, what you know to be the truth? That you'll always accept and respond to them as who they present themselves as being in my life? You promise?"

Both men stiffened at the challenge, their faces tightening, instinctively uncomfortable with perpetuating the fundamental untruths. But then they gazed at one another and back at Blair, both finally nodding, mutely making their vow of silence.

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

Simon had left a few hours before and Jim, idly flipping through a magazine, had taken up residence for the duration in the ancient leather armchair by the bed. Blair was sleeping fitfully, mumbling inarticulate words and phrases, but the anxious and sometimes despairing tones caught at Jim's heart and made his chest ache. The kid couldn't manage more than a few minutes of rest, though, before he either jerked in his sleep - maybe trying to get away from his tormentors - and his protesting body woke him, or a nurse came in to take him through yet another concussion routine, to ensure he woke easily and was alert and responsive. When he was awake, the persistent ache and cramp of abused and deeply bruised muscle and bone were increasingly wearing him down, and any adrenaline high driven by fear was long gone. All vestige of patience he had, which wasn't a lot to begin with, had taken a hike and his usual cheerful nature seemed to have wandered off, too. Consequently, Jim hadn't found him to be particularly good company when he was awake, but Ellison was willing to make allowances, given the circumstances. As he'd said up on the mountain, the kid was entitled to whine a little.

Casting aside the magazine that he wasn't able to concentrate on, Jim contemplated his ... what? Keeper? Coach? Temporary roommate? Associate? Chewing on his lip, he pondered their unusual and sometimes downright bizarre relationship, while his memory juxtaposed the bruised and battered countenance with the uncomfortably young and candid, excited visage of the man who'd pulled him back from the brink - emotionally and physically - only a few short months before. The man who tirelessly had continued to help him make sense of his recalcitrant senses, helped him use them to do good, helped keep him from being driven to distraction by whatever hypersensitivity plagued him from day to day ... and sometimes from hour to hour.

He hadn't taken Blair seriously at first - sure hadn't had much confidence in him - but Sandburg had been the only game in town. The thought of the kid riding around with him had chilled him in the beginning, both from the risks involved and simply from the sheer idea of having an inexperienced civilian - hell any - tagalong when he vastly preferred to work alone. The constant talking, endless flow of stories and anecdotes, and stream of consciousness reactions to whatever thought happened to flit through Sandburg's active and agile mind had initially driven him nearly to distraction.

But, somewhere along the line, things had begun to change, and change significantly.

When it came to his senses, Sandburg had more than proven himself, and Jim took him very seriously now. The tests were a drag and he was skittish about the notes Blair was always making about him, but the kid's ideas worked and made a hell of a difference. Though Jim often wondered if Blair really knew what he was doing, in the sense of a particular methodology of hypersensory testing and training, he no longer doubted his friend's instant ability to synthesize symptoms, possibilities, clinical and research knowledge, and mix in a healthy helping of almost scary intuition, to come up with whatever was needed, when it was needed. Over the weeks and months, he had come to the conclusion that Sandburg was brilliant, and that he was damned lucky the kid had found him.

But it was more than just his attitudes about the grad student's abilities to help with his senses that had changed. The kid helped with the casework, too. Not just the never-ending grind of paperwork, but in the analysis of evidence and clues, the fitting together of puzzle pieces to figure out motive, opportunity and means. That computer he carried in his head, as well as the one in the backpack, were in constant use, applying a vast amount of stored knowledge and sometimes quirky, if substantive, reasoning to the information and questions at hand. Gradually, he'd become a whole lot more than an annoying but necessary tagalong. As unlikely as it seemed, without training or even any observable inclination toward police work, he'd slipped into the role of partner. And he was shaping up to be a damned good partner; his loyalty was unquestionable and his ... well, his courage in risking life and limb to provide on-the-spot backup was exceptional, however much it was also a constant source of worry.

And, though Jim would have bet good money against it, they were congenial roommates; more than congenial, if he was honest with himself. What had been an annoying backdrop of irrelevant chatter had become a source of amusement and, frequently, of interesting and thought-provoking discussions. Blair's easy-going cheerfulness and typically optimistic outlook leavened his more cynical nature. They were comfortable together, whether watching a game on television or cooking a meal, or reading while Blair worked grading papers or preparing lectures ... or going out for a walk, or laughing uproariously while they took turns teasing one another or exchanging outrageous anecdotes of their respective lives and experiences. As odd and unpredictable as it was, they were becoming friends. Good friends.

Blair might be young, sometimes flippant, and often naïve, but he was ... solid. When he gave his word, he meant it and lived up to it. And though he was far from fearless, he didn't let fear stop him, or even get in his way, which, for Jim, was the real definition of a courageous heart. Sandburg wasn't predictable - his ideas and interests were too far-reaching and wide-ranging - but he was dependable. He was a good kid. A damned good kid, who was becoming a potentially extraordinary man.

It all added up, Jim supposed, to the fact that Blair was special, at least to him; was, in fact, a rarity in his life - someone he had come to genuinely care about and liked to be around. So, knowing how badly the kid had been beaten, seeing the evidence of that abuse, fed an anger inside but also spawned a deep-seated tenderness, a poignant wish, however futile, to be able to banish the kid's pain. Grimacing with the helplessness of being able to do nothing more than be there, feeling his own weariness after the emotional turmoil of the day, Jim sighed and rubbed his face.

"Go home," Blair muttered irritably.

"I'm fine."

Sandburg snorted and then grunted in exasperation when he shifted onto his side to ease his back, and paid the usual price of spasming muscles. Muffling a curse, his fists clenched and he closed his eyes as he tried to breathe through it.

"Easy, Chief," Jim murmured, standing to lightly massage the kid's rock-hard shoulders and back with one hand, while the other rested on Blair's head to lend comfort and reassurance. Gradually, the cramps eased and Sandburg sighed, sounding so tired of it all. Jim poured a cup of ice water and helped him drink, and then quietly sat down again.

"Thanks," Blair said softly, his voice strained and thin.

"For the backrub or the water?" he asked wryly.

"For being here, man," Sandburg replied solemnly. "For being here; and for finding me."

His gaze dropping, Jim nodded slowly. "Anytime, buddy."

A faint smile played over Blair's mouth, but then he was distracted when the door to the hall was pushed open and he rolled his eyes, thinking it was yet another boring head check. But it wasn't the nurse. Brother Jeremy stood hesitantly just inside the room, as if unsure of his welcome. Compassion and regret filled his eyes as he took in the extent of the bruises darkening Blair's face and body. Jim regarded him with a not-quite-surly but less than welcoming expression.

"Brother Blair," he said with his familiar austerity, "I'm sorry you've suffered such abuse."

"Hey, Brother Jeremy," Sandburg replied, wincing as he rolled onto his back. "I didn't expect to see you. How'd you get to town from the monastery?"

"By riding in something called a taxi," the older man replied dryly. "One can be conjured up by pressing certain numbers on a device called a telephone. Crude, perhaps, but effective."

Surprised into a snicker, Sandburg said, "Good to see you, man."

"I trust your injuries look worse than they are," the monk replied, moving further into the room.

Quirking a brow at that, not having seen himself in a mirror, Blair looked to Jim.

"Yeah, thankfully, the damage is fairly minor," Ellison drawled in a flat tone. "Could have been a lot worse. Nearly was."

"Jim," Blair interjected, a low warning in his voice.

Ellison glanced at him and gave a negligent shrug, not really caring if Brother Jeremy was offended by his behaviour or not. In his view, Jeremy, Marcus and Naomi were very nearly as culpable as Gambioni for the abuse his partner had suffered.

"Why did they attack you, Blair?" Jeremy asked. "What purpose did they think that could possibly serve?"

The two friends exchanged quick glances and then Sandburg replied, "Well, they saw me at the fake funeral, and when they discovered the grave was empty, they figured I probably knew where Brother Marcus was - so they, uh, tried to persuade me to share that information with them."

Profound sorrow creased Brother Jeremy's face. "I am sorry," he said heavily. "And Brother Marcus will be sorely distressed to know what you've suffered on his behalf."

Sandburg waved the concern away. "Hey, don't worry about it, okay? Like Jim says, itís mostly just bruises and sore muscles. Basically, I'm fine," he insisted, though the raw hoarseness of his voice and evident fatigue belied his words. "At least, well, at least those guys won't be bothering Brother Marcus anymore. He's safe now."

His mouth thinning, the monk gave a slight nod. "Perhaps. We certainly pray that that is so, but unfortunately, Salvatore Gambioni wasn't the only man with a grievance against him. I ... I've been thinking about it and I think that it would be best if Brother Marcus and I found another monastery to serve."

Blair's face emptied of expression and he swallowed. "I ... I'm sorry to hear that. I was hoping that, well, that everything would be okay now." Hesitating, he assumed unhappily, "I guess where you go will be a secret, huh?"

"I'm sorry, but I think that might be best, at least for a while."

His gaze dropping, Blair nodded dejectedly.

Jim shook his head, hating how much it evidently hurt the kid to know he wouldn't be seeing his father or have any contact with him for, maybe, a long time. "I don't know," he challenged aggressively. "I don't see why there can't be regular contact at least electronically. I know you're not fond of modern conveniences but surely sometimes exceptions can be made for ... old friends."

Sandburg shot him a warning glance, but couldn't help the hope that filled his eyes as he turned to Brother Jeremy. "Would you consider that? I mean ... I've known Brother Marcus all my life - you, too, for that matter. I'd really hate to think I couldn't ever be in touch with the two of you."

Jeremy tilted his face away for a moment, but then nodded. "Yes, I think something like that could be arranged," he allowed. Returning his gaze to Blair's he added, "For lifelong friends, that seems a compassionate accommodation."

A smile crooking his swollen lips, Blair blinked away the wet glaze that suddenly glinted in his eyes. "Thanks, man," he rasped huskily. "That would mean a lot to me."

"You and Brother Marcus go back a long way, don't you?" Jim intervened to redirect the conversation, wanting to give Blair a break to recover his emotional equilibrium.

"Yes, yes we do," the monk replied, and then drew a straight-backed wooden chair closer to the foot of the bed, to form a conversational circle with Ellison and Sandburg. Settling upon it, he went on, "We're brothers." Seeing they didn't understand, he clarified, "Not of the cloth - of blood."

"You're kidding," Blair gaped. "I ... I never realized."

"Few do," he replied with an ironic smile. "He's several years younger than I am, and he takes more after our mother than I do, so we don't look alike. It's been ... convenient to keep our relationship private."

"Yeah, I guess I can understand that," Sandburg murmured. Awkwardly, he asked, "How did ... how could someone like Brother Marcus ever have been a gangster? I mean - he's such a good man."

"He is," Jeremy agreed. His gaze lifted to the ceiling as if searching there for the answer to Blair's question. Finally, looking first at Jim and then at Blair, he said, "Jackie was never an evil man. When he was young, he had great goals and sterling ideals. He was a champion of working men and women - wanted better, safer working conditions, better wages and benefits. He worked hard in the union and became one of the youngest and most effective negotiators this country has ever seen. But ... as he moved higher in the organization, well, he wasn't just dealing with issues and employers anymore, but with the burdens of keeping the union funded and strong. He, uh, he got involved in running numbers rackets - what we essentially call lotteries today, but back then, all that was illegal. But he deemed the risk worth it. And he lost track of what some of his more ... shall we say ... opportunistic supporters in the hierarchy were doing. He didn't know about the protection racket, didn't know people were being beaten, terrorized ... murdered."

When Jim gave a muted snort at that, he hastened to explain, "I'm not excusing him. It was his responsibility to know what was going on. He was culpable for what was happening, for the crimes. But I can tell you when he did find out, and after digging further and finding the links to murder, prostitution and organized crime, he was appalled." Clasping his hands and bowing his head, Jeremy said with still evident grief, "He confronted those responsible. Said it all had to stop." Swallowing, his voice low, he told them, "His wife was run down the next day. Killed."

"Oh, God," Blair husked, nearly shattered to hear the terrible reason for what had happened to change the course of his own life, as well as theirs and Naomi's, forever. "I'm so sorry."

Jeremy swallowed and nodded slowly. Returning his gaze to Blair's, he said, "That finished him; killed the last of his dreams for the union. He ... he was nearly destroyed." Sighing, Jeremy shrugged. "That's when he went to the County Prosecutor, and ... well, he's been in hiding ever since." He leveled a meaningful look at Blair as he repeated, "In hiding, paying penance, and giving thanks for the great blessings he still has in his life - like treasured friends."

"Thank you for telling us this," Sandburg said sadly, but with evident gratitude, unaware of the slight blush on his cheeks at what blessings he assumed the monk really meant.

"Yes, well, you've been a valued friend for a very, very long time - and you were a delight as a child," Brother Jeremy replied steadily. Standing, he added, "I ... I thought it was time that you knew something about us, more than that we're old monks you come to visit and entertain with your wild tales." Stepping forward, he laid a gentle hand over Blair's. "I know you've always been closer to Brother Marcus, Blair, but we're both very fond of you. Very fond. I hope you know that."

"Yeah, yeah, I do. I always have," he said, his voice husky. "It's always meant a lot to me, to have you both in my life."

Jeremy nodded, a small smile curving the corners of his mouth. Turning away, he bowed his head to Ellison. "Brother Jim, I trust we can rely on you to keep this young man out of further trouble - an onerous chore, I know, but you seem well suited to the task."

Relenting, also grateful for Jeremy's candor, Jim nodded, and his eyes were warm with humour as he replied teasingly, "I can only do my best, Brother Jeremy. But that, I assure you, I will do."

"Good man," the monk approved. He moved to the door and opened it but, before passing through, he looked over his shoulder at Sandburg. "I will find a way to ensure we can all stay in touch, Brother Blair. In the meantime, stay well and know that we will be praying for you."

His lips thinned against an insipient trembling, Blair tried to smile as he lifted his hand in a gesture of farewell. "Tell him ... tell him I love him, okay?" he managed to rasp.

"I will; you may be assured of that." And then he was gone.

A tear slipped down Blair's cheek, and he sniffed as he hastily brushed it away. Taking a breath to steady himself, he asked with plaintive sorrow, "Do you think I'll ever see them again, Jim?"

Reaching out to grip Sandburg's wrist, Jim replied steadily, "Yeah, you can count on it, Chief. I'll make sure of it."

And then, seeing the tears glistening on Blair's lashes, he stood to wordlessly and gently pull the kid into his arms, to hold him in a firm hug until he got his balance back.

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

Epilogue:

"Wow, Naomi, that's incredible," Blair enthused over the phone. Jim shook his head and went back to reading the newspaper. Apparently, he thought acerbically, she'd had a good time in Nepal for the past couple of weeks. He let his attention drift away from the conversation, but continued to enjoy the lilting tones of his roommate's voice, a warm, rich comfort in the background of his lazy Sunday morning.

Half an hour later, the call ended and Blair snickered to himself as he poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and drifted to the table to share the morning paper. "That's my Mom," he murmured fondly. "Fresh from one spiritually uplifting experience, and already on her way to another opportunity for greater illumination in her continuing quest to understand the mysteries of the Universe."

"Uh huh," he grunted. "Where's she off to now?" he asked, more for conversation than because he was interested or cared. He wasn't and didn't.

"Argentina," Blair responded cheerfully as he picked up the sports page. "She's been offered a chance to join a group that will be meeting with a great shaman there - sort of a chance to listen and learn at a master's feet."

Jim rolled his eyes and sighed. Setting the paper down, he took a sip of coffee, while he waged an internal debate about whether to say what was on his mind or to just let it go.

"What?" Sandburg asked with a puzzled expression.

"Huh?"

"I can see something's bothering you," he clarified. "So, what is it?"

Scratching his cheek, he hesitated, but Blair was waiting expectantly, so he thought, 'What the hell,' and said flatly, "I guess I just don't ... well, I think she's ... what the hell is she looking for anyway?"

Settling back in his chair, Blair gave the question serious thought. "I don't know," he finally admitted. Shifting forward again, leaning his elbows on the table, he went on musingly, "In an existential way, I understand the search for meaning, the drive to gain a better spiritual understanding of what we're here to do, of what life is really about. But ... as to what drives her, personally? Maybe the need to make sense of a life that got turned upside down when she was little more than a kid. Or maybe she just got so used to more or less being on the run, she doesn't know how to stop." He shrugged. "She's happy and, and she's all charged up with energy and her own purpose of being, and I guess that's what matters. There's a kind of sacred, mystical, spiritual fulfillment in pursuing this kind of research that she really tunes into." Grinning, he added, "Guess that's why I'm an anthropologist. I'm on the same journey - just taking a different path."

Jim's eyes narrowed as he studied his partner, one part of his mind gratified that the bruises were finally gone, while he grappled with what Blair was saying. "I don't get it," he finally replied. "Nothing changes because of all this searching - nothing of value gets achieved."

"Nothing of value to you," Blair allowed without judgment, "but it's of value to her. We all have to live our own lives, do our best to be who we see ourselves as being." He paused, and then enthusiasm and wonder lit his face as he continued, his hands lifting as if trying to describe or grasp something incredible as he asserted, "And the spirit has great power, Jim. I've seen things when that power is unleashed that are awesome, man. Unexplainable - miraculous."

When Ellison gave him a skeptical look, Sandburg's search for a way to more clearly express ideas that were important to him flickered in his eyes and on his face. Leaning forward, visibly slowing himself down, as if it was important that he get it right, his tone lower, compelling, he explained, "You're ... you're a sentinel, Jim. You've also chosen to be a protector who has sworn to serve your community as a law enforcement officer. That has tremendous value and import and, yeah, it's concrete in a way that listening to gurus may not be. But ... concepts like honour or courage, the principles of integrity and justice that drive you are just as nebulous, just as much about ideas and emotion and spirituality, as what Naomi seeks to understand and to improve in herself."

Jim grunted, but nodded thoughtfully. The comparison made sense to him, sort of. "Okay, well, tell me this, then. Given her interests and, her what? World view? Why did she choose a Jewish alias? I mean ... her family was Catholic, right? Or was Sandburg just a name she pulled out of a hat? So the name, the implied heritage and beliefs really didn't matter in terms of any traditions or whatever when you were growing up? She could have just as easily called herself Star Bright and you - I don't know - Curly Top?"

Blair laughed and shook his head. "You really don't like the hair, do you, man?"

Grinning, Jim shrugged. "Clogs up the drain," he teased.

"Uh huh," Sandburg allowed, grinning back. "Okay, well, with regard to your question," he redirected, not really wanting to discuss the habitual complaint about the shower drain, "I did some research on my family."

"Really? I thought you said your heritage didn't matter," Jim challenged, surprised.

"It doesn't - but that doesn't mean I wasn't curious," Sandburg retorted. Pushing his hair behind his ears, he continued, "Anyway, I found out that my great-grandmother was a woman named Rebecca Sandburg."

Jim's brows quirked, his interest piqued. "Really?"

"Yeah, really - neat, huh?" Blair rejoined, his enthusiasm bright in his eyes. "So, well, Naomi was being true to our heritage when she chose our names in honour of her grandmother. Did you know that Jewish lineage flows through the maternal line? So, by tradition and definition, as well as genealogically, my heritage is Jewish."

Jim thought about that, his gaze drifting to the windows out to the balcony and the sky beyond. "So ..." he ventured, speaking slowly as he put it together, "she did do her best to be honest in a situation where she obviously was also trying to hide. To give you something of who you were."

"Yeah, I really think she was, Jim," Blair agreed quietly, a soft smile on his lips. "I know it's hard for you to understand her. I mean, not only is she, like, totally different from most people you've ever known - and trust me, she is - but you haven't had a chance to get to know her yet. You haven't actually even met her yet. But I really think you'll like her, man. She's ... she's upfront, no hidden agendas, says what she thinks. And she's also kind and compassionate and interesting. Different ... but sweet. Really. You'll like her."

Jim nodded slowly, a smile twitching on his lips. "Yeah, I probably will," he agreed, and was rewarded with sparkling gratitude. Picking up his paper, shaking it out and lifting it to hide his face as Blair took a sip of coffee, he muttered, "For all her hippie-dippie ways and lifestyle, I have to admit, she raised a good man. So she must've been doing something right."

Choked coughing erupted at the other end of the table and he dropped the paper in concern. Half-rising, he demanded, "You alright?"

"Yeah," Blair managed between gasps, waving him back onto his chair. Clearing his throat, his eyes wide and vulnerable, he asked hoarsely, "You mean that?"

"What? That I'll like your mother?" Jim asked with apparent, almost distracted, nonchalance, but deliberately using the honorific.

"Well, yeah ... and the rest of what you said about ... about her raising a good man?" Sandburg clarified, a faint blush stealing over his cheeks.

"Yes, Chief, I did - on both counts," Jim allowed fondly. Once again picking up the paper, he added with serious sincerity just before lifting it between them. "You've got your head screwed on right. You ... you live in accordance with principles that I respect and you're a man who can be trusted. I value that. I think she did a damned fine job."

Silence greeted his words. Though he was pretending to read, he could readily hear, and see out of the corner of his eye - just beyond the edge of the page - his roommate's struggle to contain his emotions. Blair's breathing caught and hitched, but there was profound warmth in the bright smile that was directed his way. Sandburg was literally radiant with unexpected surprise, and he wondered briefly why what he thought about the kid seemed to come as such a revelation.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair finally managed, his tone solid and firm with pleasure. "That's a really nice thing to say, man."

"You're welcome, Chief," he replied dryly as he reached for his mug, smiling to himself, glad his opinion evidently meant so much to the kid. Waiting a beat, he then asked idly, "So, did you clean the hair out of the trap this morning?"

Blair snorted and then chuckled as he picked up the sports section. "Not yet, but I promise I will the next time I'm in there."

"Good enough," Jim allowed mildly, then added with a deliberately light tone but weighty meaning, "I trust you, Sandburg. You're a man of your word."

His nose buried in the sports section, Blair drawled just as lightly, but with equal deliberation, "I'll do my best to never prove you wrong about that, man."

"I know, Chief. I know."

Finis

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