Alert: This is a Mary-Sue story. 'Nuf said. I hope I don't get the urge to write a sequel (but this one was so much fun to write...) A hint of Harlequin Romance here, but I couldn't help myself.

Explosive Consequences
-- by Mackie

Part One

Jim Ellison turned over in his bed and found himself within an inch of sliding to the floor. Fully awake now, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling of his room; it didn't tell him anything useful, so he finally got up, pulled on the drawstring pants he kept close for just such a purpose, and padded barefooted down the stairs to the kitchen.

It was three a.m.

In the other room, he could hear his partner and loftmate sleeping soundly. At least someone appeared to be getting a decent rest. Pity it can't be Jim Ellison, he thought sourly, deliberately making a racket as he filled the coffee pot with water, dumped it into the automatic brewer, rooted through the cupboard for filter and coffee...

Still no change in the breathing rhythms from the other bedroom. Thoroughly irritated now, he perversely took down the electric coffee mill, plugged it in, and ground fresh beans for his morning brew. After all, he reasoned, if a man is denied his sleep, shouldn't he at least be able to enjoy a really good cup of coffee?

The sound of the grinder was loud in the early morning silence, and even though he had been prepared for the noise, Jim still winced in surprise.

From the other room, he heard a mumble of protest.

Suddenly feeling guilty, he stopped processing the beans and spooned the still-coarse grounds into the filter basket. A moment later, the coffee maker began its happy burbling, sounding for all the world as if it were pleased to perform its assigned function. Breathing a silent thanks to the creator of the drip guard, he poured himself the first half-cup before returning the pot to finish brewing.

It was too early for the paper, so he hunted around for a magazine or something else to read. All he could find was an old edition of TV Guide.

"Uh, a little light, please?" mumbled a voice from the bedroom doorway.

Jim switched on the lamp. "Sorry," he said to his bleary-eyed roommate. "I was feeling grouchy. Go back to bed."

"'S OK," Blair said, practically sleep-walking to the kitchen, his untied bathrobe wafting gently behind him like a terrycloth cape. Beneath it he wore a set of sweats, his preferred form of pajamas for the chilly Cascade nights. "Coffee smells good." He poured himself a cup and wandered over to join his roommate at the table. "Still not sleeping?" he asked. This was Jim's second night of insomnia, although he hadn't woken Blair the previous night.

Jim nodded. "Yeah."

"Bad dreams?"

"No." Jim sipped some of his coffee and pondered his problem. On the surface, it seemed inconsequential enough. "It's a sensory thing."

This perked Blair's interest enough to bring him fully awake. "Yeah?"

"I've told you about how I do kind of low-level sensory sweeps of the loft when I'm asleep."

"Yeah, but you also said you usually aren't aware of them, and that they don't disturb your sleep." Actually, Blair thought it was kind of cool. A lot of people could wake up if they sensed a change in the ambience of their surroundings; Jim had taken it a step further by actually scanning for changes from his sleep.

"Not usually," Jim agreed.

"So what's different now?"

"Now, I'm not just scanning the loft."

Blair thought about it. "Uh-huh, OK, you're saying your senses are taking little midnight forays around the building - or around the city?"

Jim grimaced with embarrassment. "No. Just into 207."

"Our new neighbor?" This could prove interesting. Blair fought against a grin and lost. "So, you're trolling for single women even in your sleep."

"This is not funny," Jim insisted, groaning because he'd known his roommate wouldn't take him seriously. "Damn it, I've never even seen the woman, and she's lived here for over two weeks - "

"Actually, she's only been here a couple of days," Blair said. "She moved her stuff in two weeks ago, then took off and didn't come back until day before yesterday." He frowned. "When you started having trouble sleeping."

"You met her, didn't you?" Jim asked.

"Yeah, when she first moved in. I helped her carry a few boxes and stuff."

When Blair didn't continue, Jim persisted, "And?"

"And she thanked me politely, said she'd be gone for awhile, and that was it."

"What's she like?"

Blair shrugged nonchalantly. "She's - nice."

"Nice?"

"Yeah, nice." Gorgeous, intelligent, witty, blonde...very, very blonde.

Jim chuckled suddenly. "You don't want me to meet her until you've had a chance to put the Sandburg moves on her."

Blair tried unsuccessfully to feign innocence. "Nah, she's too old for me."

Jim wasn't buying it. "Old?"

"Yeah," Blair answered with a grin. "She's more your generation."

"You are a cold and heartless bastard, Sandburg," he retorted, returning the smile. "But this isn't helping my sleep problem."

Blair sighed. "No, it isn't." He swirled the coffee in his mug for a moment as he pondered the situation. "You've never done this before, have you?"

Jim shook his head. "We have tenants coming and going all the time. Unless there's a yelling match, or someone cooks something really disgusting, I almost never tune into them."

"So what's she doing that's different?"

"I don't know," Jim answered truthfully. "She's sleeping, that's it."

"Do you tune in when she's not sleeping?"

Jim frowned. "I don't know." He tried to remember. "Yeah, I think so. Like when I'm leaving in the morning or coming back at night - I check to see if she's in." That she's OK. Damn, he was starting to sound obsessive.

"Have you tried tuning her out?"

"Can't do it," Jim admitted.

Blair shrugged. "Maybe it's a case of long-distance pheromones, love at no-sight." It was a little strange, but it didn't sound serious.

Jim groaned, closed his eyes, and muttered a mock mantra: "I will not hit him, I will not hit him."

"Look, you might just as well accept it and acknowledge the fact that you're tuned into her," Blair returned. "As soon as you don't fight it, you'll probably go back to sleeping just fine."

"But what do I do about her?"

"Meet her, marry her, make lots of babies," Blair suggested lightly. Off Jim's deadly look, he amended, "Or don't."

"So in the meantime, I have to settle for invading her privacy like some peeping-tom pervert?" Jim asked grimly.

"Right now, you don't seem to have a whole lot of choices, not if you want to get any sleep."

Jim thought about it, realized the inevitable truth in Blair's suggestion. He sighed. "OK."

 

Part Two

The plan, such as it was, seemed to be working, or else Jim was just too tired to pay attention to where his senses were drifting as he slept. On the fourth night, however, he woke with a strong sense that something was wrong. He listened for a long moment, and heard the ragged breathing and too-rapid heartbeat of someone in distress. On his feet even before he was fully awake, he was halfway down the stairs when he realized what he was sensing wasn't coming from his loftmate's room.

Confused, he stopped in indecision. A nightmare happening in 207 was none of his business; but as a cop, he had a duty to investigate, didn't he?

He went back upstairs and pulled on his drawstring pants and a tee shirt, slipped into a pair of leather athletic shoes, and went back downstairs. Grabbing his keys and ID case off the table, he left the loft and went down the stairs to 207.

The room beyond the door was quiet; there were no more indications that someone was upset. His courage nearly failed him, but his curiosity was strong, and the person inside was awake and moving about...

He knocked.

The sounds of movement stopped.

He knocked again.

The voice was hesitant, nervous. "Yes?"

"Ma'am, it's Detective James Ellison from upstairs," he said reassuringly. "Are you all right?"

"Yes...yes, I'm fine."

He knew she was. Whatever had caused her nightmare was certainly no threat, and he could sense she was alone. But he couldn't let it go. "Ma'am, I heard suspicious sounds coming from your apartment. As a police officer, I have to make certain you're OK. Please open the door." Well, he was fulfilling his obligations as a cop, or at least a normal cop who didn't have heightened senses and thus couldn't really know she was OK. Maybe, a cop without heightened senses could rationalize, someone was inside, holding her hostage, making her say she was OK.

There was a long moment of silence. "All right." He heard her come to the door. "Please hold up your identification."

He held his badge in front of the peephole and waited.

The door opened. The woman who stood there was a few years younger than Jim. She had a peaches-and-cream complexion free of blemishes, but there were dark circles of strain beneath her eyes - eyes so blue, they appeared teal in the faint light of her apartment. And, Jim had to admit, she was lovely...not drop-dead, super-model gorgeous, but certainly beautiful enough to keep him staring a bit longer than was absolutely polite.

She was tall, probably five-nine, and entirely too thin for her build. Belatedly, Jim realized the terry robe she clutched around her was at least two sizes too big, which probably meant she didn't normally weigh so little. "Detective?" she asked politely, meeting his eyes levelly but clearly not happy with his presence.

"Sorry," he said, feeling awkward and silly. With a silent curse, he realized he felt a familiar tingle throughout his body. His senses felt remarkably heightened; he felt really good. "Uh - I heard...I mean, you sounded upset. I wanted to make sure you were OK."

She blushed. "I'm sorry if I woke you. It was just a bad dream."

"Uh-huh." There's some truly brilliant repartee, Ellison.

"When I bought this place, I thought it had better insulation," she added awkwardly.

"Actually, it does," Jim assured her, suddenly finding his voice. "I'm just a light sleeper, and my bedroom's right overhead." Right overhead.

She nodded, accepting his story. "Well, I'll try not to disturb your sleep any more."

It was a polite dismissal, but Jim wasn't ready to leave, not yet. "My roommate, Blair Sandburg, helped you move in a couple of weeks ago."

She smiled. "The anthropologist with the hair," she remembered.

"That's him. He mentioned you'd gone out of town."

"Yes. I just got back a few days ago."

"Then you probably still need help unpacking and stuff," Jim said, chagrined by his forwardness.

She smiled at the transparency of his ploy. "Actually, I don't have that much, but thank you for offering."

"No problem," Jim murmured, his disappointment evident. "Well..."

"Good night, Detective."

"It's Jim," he hastened to add, impulsively holding out his hand. "Sandburg didn't tell me your name."

"Abby McNeil," she answered, accepting his handshake.

Jim felt as if he'd been zapped with a joy buzzer. The sensation traveled all the way to his toes and to other regions that hadn't felt so aroused in weeks. If he'd had an ounce less self-control, he would have done something totally inappropriate - and this woman didn't appear to be the type to welcome an overt pass.

It was obvious she'd felt something, too, because she drew her hand back with a gasp of surprise and looked at him, her eyes so wide he felt he could just dive right in...stop!

She laughed nervously. "Static electricity," she said softly.

"We're not standing on a rug," Jim countered, thinking he'd rather be inside with her, doing what came naturally...damn!

She smiled at him - it was a lovely smile! - and closed the door gently in his face.

He stood there like an idiot for perhaps thirty seconds, then reluctantly went back up to the loft. Going inside, he dumped his keys and ID in the basket and slammed the door before stalking toward the stairs to his bedroom.

"Jim?" mumbled a sleepy voice from the other bedroom. "Can't sleep again?"

"Pheromones have a lot to answer for!" Jim snarled back, thinking his new neighbor was going to cause him to take a lot of cold showers.

He heard Blair start to laugh, try to muffle it in his pillow, and wondered if he should just strangle his roommate now or wait until his heightened senses drove him totally mad and he could claim temporary insanity as a defense....

 

Part Three

"So you met her?" Blair asked quietly, leaning forward in his chair so no one else in the bullpen would hear.

Jim stubbornly read the file in front of him. "Yes."

"And?"

"And nothing."

Blair wouldn't let it rest. "Come on, man," he said, grinning. "What happened?"

Jim slapped the file folder shut and glared at his roommate. "You might find this funny, but I don't," he said, and from his tone, he clearly meant it.

Blair immediately backed off. "Sorry."

Jim relented a bit. "Look, it's just damned frustrating to feel like some chemically-driven animal in rut, OK?"

"OK," Blair agreed calmly. "Boy, you've got it bad, haven't you?"

Jim sighed. "It's just like with Laura, only worse."

"Man, it couldn't get any worse than that," Blair countered, remembering how Jim's senses had reacted to the diamond thief's pheromones. That case had been one weird roller coaster ride as Jim's purely physical responses fought against his normally rational cop instincts. Pheromones were a natural part of human physiology, but when the chemistry was right, Jim's senses could exaggerate his response to the point of irrationality; it was as if the rest of the world simply didn't exist, and that made it difficult for him to do his job.

"It's worse because she felt it, too."

"That's some chemistry," Blair agreed. "I'm surprised you two didn't just jump each other right there in the hallway."

"Believe me, the thought crossed my mind." Jim sat back in his seat and ran his hands through his hair. "Man, it's obvious the lady is carrying enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic. I don't need that in my life right now."

"Then stay away from her," Blair suggested simply.

"Sandburg, she sleeps less than twenty feet from me. What am I supposed to do - move to Tibet?"

His roommate pondered the idea for a moment. "Nah, you don't speak the language."

"Look," Jim said a little desperately, "you've helped me control my senses. Can't you figure out something to - something that would - " He stumbled to a halt.

"Help you control your sex drive?" Blair finished with a grin.

"God, you are having entirely too much fun with this." Jim didn't know what else to do. "Yes, damnit - yes!"

"You lusty stud, you."

Simon's voice cut into their huddled conversation. "This sounds like something you should be discussing in the locker room," their Captain said with a frown.

Blair started guiltily, hid a grin, and busied himself with his backpack so he wouldn't have to explain.

"Sir, permission to throw Sandburg out a window?" Jim asked politely.

Simon didn't bat an eye. "Granted, just do it from the eighth floor so I don't have to fill out any paperwork."

"Anybody want a soda?" Blair asked brightly, retreating quickly out the door without waiting for a reply.

"Something I should know about?" Simon inquired.

"Absolutely not, sir," Jim answered in his most neutral tone.

Simon didn't look as if he truly believed his detective, but he let it slide. "Anything back on the Hightower bombings?"

"I'm waiting for word from forensics." Jim indicated the file he'd been reading. "I still think our best suspect is Galliano. He works in construction, has access to explosives, and he has the background to know how to use them."

The Hightower bombings were making news all across the country because Hightower Insurance, while not one of the big names in the industry, had offices nation-wide. When the corporation had declared bankruptcy and then been shown to have fraudulent bookkeeping, a lot of clients had been left with nothing but the lies written on their life-insurance policies. Someone in Cascade or one of its neighboring cities had decided to exact a little retribution. So far, both the Hightower offices in Cascade had been bombed - or rather demolished.

Only the corporate headquarters, situated in an office high-rise, remained as a target. Thus far, the extra security provided by Cascade PD and the FBI appeared to be keeping the bomber away, but if he managed to plant a device, the cost to lives and property could well be devastating.

"I tend to agree with you," Simon replied. "Unfortunately, your gut instincts aren't enough for a warrant."

"But perhaps this is," Joel Taggart said, entering the bullpen from the side door and over-hearing the last of their conversation. He handed a slim file folder to Simon. "Forensics lifted a partial serial number off that fragment of detonator we found at the last bombing. It came from Parker-Lowell Construction."

Jim's smile was faintly predatory. "Where Galliano works."

Simon wasn't satisfied. "There are half a dozen PLC construction sites all over the city. We need to tie the detonator to the specific site where Galliano is working. Then I can get you your warrant."

Jim thought about it. He could bring Galliano in for questioning, but without a warrant, he would be unable to search the man's house or other property for the evidence he needed to build a case. And Galliano, along with several other suspects who lived in the area and had held policies with Hightower, had already been questioned twice. A third time would alert him that the investigation was focusing on him. It was best to leave him alone until they had a more solid case.

He got up and reached for his jacket. "I'll start with Parker-Lowell's main office. They'll have records to show where their explosives went. Maybe we'll get lucky and find Galliano's signature on a work order."

"Just get Galliano and that detonator in proximity," Simon told him. "That'll be enough."

"Yes, sir." Jim was going out just as Blair was coming back in. "Grab your coat, Chief, we've got a paper trail to follow."

Like a small whirlwind, Blair darted to the desk, gathered up his stuff, and raced after his partner; behind him, Simon and Joel made futile attempts to catch the papers that scattered off Jim's desk in his wake.

 

Part Four

It turned out to be a frustrating day, and at the end of it, Jim was no closer to nailing Galliano for the bombings then when he had started his investigation. Certainly, he knew what had happened, but he didn't have a shred of evidence to prove it: an authorized shipment of explosives had been delivered to PLC's main warehouse, where it had been signed in; after that, serial and batch numbers had been transposed, accidentally-on-purpose, by someone who wanted to confuse the actual final destinations of the carefully regulated items. All of PLC's projects had received the correct totals, but every document had at least one, usually more, incorrect corresponding numbers that would enable a specific explosive component to be traced to a specific job site.

Jim and Blair had arrived at the warehouse only to find themselves very low in the pecking order of officials - state and federal investigators were already there, trying to unravel the paperwork mess and make certain all of the explosives were accounted for. It was not a pretty picture.

They straggled home just before dark, Jim calling an early halt after beating his head against a bureaucratic brick wall for most of the day.

He parked the truck, shut down the engine, and grumbled, "Damn, I hate it when a case gets complicated."

"You still think Galliano stole the explosives to blow up the Hightower offices," Blair said.

"Yeah, only he had to have help - someone at the warehouse who could cover the trail of the explosives to the site where Galliano is working."

"Any suspects?"

Jim thought about it. "Only one - Mindy Parks. Her father died recently, and she was left holding one of the bogus life insurance policies."

"So even if the clerical errors get traced to her, she can claim emotional stress over her father's death," Blair guessed. "No one can prove malicious intent."

"But she doesn't have the skill necessary to make or plant the bombs," Jim added. "We have to tie her to Galliano." He opened the truck door and climbed out. "That's what we'll work on tomorrow."

As they walked into the small lobby of their building, Blair actually felt the change that came over Jim, whose footsteps noticeably lightened as his focus shifted suddenly away from the case. Grinning, he said, "Man, you are just one big marshmallow."

Jim just smiled benignly at him. "Go on upstairs. I'll get the mail."

Without waiting for a response, Jim started around the corner toward the mailboxes. He didn't have to see her to know she was there; he had felt her presence the moment he'd come through the lobby door.

She was just closing the door on her box and seemed to sense his approach. She turned and smiled. "Hello, Jim," she greeted a little shyly.

"Hi, Abby," he returned just as casually as he could, inserting his key in his mail box lock and turning it. She was dressed in an ankle-length skirt and a bulky sweater that reached below her hips, an ensemble that only accentuated the thinness of her frame. She wasn't carrying a coat, so she was neither coming in nor going out. "How are you?"

"Fine, thanks. You?"

"Fine." As conversations went, he had to admit it didn't qualify as intellectually stimulating, but at least it was conversation. Whatever it was, he didn't want it to stop. He pulled out the day's mail delivery and closed his box. "Abby, I hope this doesn't sound hideously impertinent, but - " He stumbled to a halt. So much for finishing sentences; he felt himself slipping back into his hopeless adolescent mode. Not good, Ellison.

"But?" she prompted quietly, also appearing reluctant to let the conversation die.

"I mean, it's pretty obvious you're not in the best of health right now." Good start, Ellison, insult the woman.

Instead of taking offense, she smiled. "You mean I look like death warmed over," she said.

"No, you're beautiful," he heard himself blurt without thinking, then grimaced as he felt a blush creep up his neck.

She backed up a step, and it took all his willpower not to close the space between them again. She was like a flighty doe, trying to stand her ground but uncertain of her footing.

Resolutely, he took a breath and forced his mind away from the purely instinctive sensations he was feeling. "I mean, if you're not able to get out much, either Sandburg or I will be glad to go to the market for you or whatever. We're always running out of one thing or another."

"Oh." She relaxed as his own nervousness diminished. "Thanks, but getting out is something I need to do more of. I need the exercise." Then she took a halting first step toward trust. "I'm not physically a hundred percent yet, that's true; but it's really more of an - emotional challenge - to go outside." She blushed. "Alone, I mean."

Jim's cop instincts went into overdrive. So, she wasn't recovering from a physical illness, but rather from a physical or emotional trauma, or a combination of both. Perhaps she'd been the victim of a violent crime, a mugging, or a burglary, or--a rape. "Then I'd be glad to take you wherever you need to go," he offered calmly.

"Thank you, that's very kind," she said, giving him a smile that threatened to turn him to jelly again. "Perhaps the next time you go to the market?"

"Absolutely," Jim assured her.

They walked to the elevator together, and their sudden closeness as it started to rise threatened to send Jim's senses into orbit. It was clear Abby felt it, too. "This is very awkward, isn't it?" she said softly.

"Awkward," Jim agreed. "It feels like puberty all over again, and I didn't enjoy it so much the first time around."

She laughed abruptly. "Yes, it does, doesn't it? I'm glad I'm not the only one feeling it."

"So - are we going to do anything about it?" Jim asked quietly, trying to sound casual but probably coming off as desperately hopeful.

The elevator door opened at the second floor and she stepped out. He thought she wasn't going to answer, but she turned back toward him and shook her head. "No. I'm sorry," she said, and she sounded as if she meant it. "Sex is very low on my list of priorities right now."

Feeling numb and adrift, Jim let the elevator door close and rode up to his floor.

Blair pounced on him the moment he came through the front door. "So?"

Jim tossed his keys in the basket and hung up his jacket before facing his roommate. "So?"

"So did you ask her out?"

Jim thought about it for a moment, then found he was able to laugh at himself. "Actually, I did. I offered to take her shopping."

Blair looked bemused. "Shopping? Man, you sure know how to show a girl a good time."

 

Part Five

The next day was Saturday, and Jim discussed with Simon the advisability of questioning Mindy Parks on the weekend, especially since a phone call had revealed she wasn't at home and the police would have to track her down. If they couldn't connect her quickly with Galliano, they could lose the advantage by arousing her suspicions. Simon agreed the questioning should wait until Monday, when Parks was back at work, in order to make it all look simply routine.

So Jim found himself with an unexpected day off. Remembering Blair's teasing from the night before, he jumped out of bed and checked the weather. Remarkably, it was clear and sunny, a rare occurrence in Cascade at any time, but especially on a weekend (or so it seemed). After a shower and shave, he dressed carefully but casually, needlessly worrying over which shirt to wear until irritation with his own indecision made him grab the one closest at hand. It didn't go with his slacks.

He sat down on the edge of his bed. Get a grip, he told himself angrily. Just get a goddamned grip.

After a moment, he finished dressing, checked his appearance in his bathroom mirror and refused to find fault, and went downstairs.

Blair was still in his bathrobe, the morning paper scattered across the table, his glasses slipped partway down his nose. "You're looking dapper," he observed with a grin.

Jim just patted his roommate on the back. "You have a day off, Sandburg. Do something impulsive." Before Blair could respond, Jim had gathered up his keys and gone out the door.

"Fine," Blair said to the empty loft. "Maybe I'll start with the dishes." And then move on to something really exciting...like the laundry.

Jim took the stairs down to the second floor, giving himself a pep talk on the way. He would remain calm; he would remain cool; he would not let pheromones or hormones get in the way of simple conversation. He short, he would remain an adult. Good luck, whispered a derisive little voice inside his head. Shut up, he told it back.

She answered the door in the terrycloth robe she'd been wearing when he'd first seen her.

So much for calm, cool conversation. Shit. "Good morning," he said a little glumly.

"Good morning," Abby replied, bewildered.

"I had this whole speech worked out in my head," he admitted with a wry smile. "I was very eager to try it out."

She was grinning now. "But?"

He felt totally deflated. "But I forgot it's only eight-thirty in the morning."

She laughed at his discomfiture. "Come in and have a cup of coffee. You can try out your speech then."

Her apartment was even more sparse than his own. It was one huge space, the kitchen and bathroom situated like the loft's because of plumbing considerations. The kitchen counter was a wide sweep of mottled granite; on one side was the cooktop, on the other an eating counter that could comfortably accommodate four in deeply upholstered swivel chairs. Underneath the end of the counter was a small bookshelf filled with cookbooks. The rest of the kitchen was equally modern, all granite, chrome and glass - smooth, cool, and sleek. In contrast, the rest of the room was warm and soft - oak furniture and a Berber area rug defined the sitting room, which angled toward the view through her balcony windows without being fastidiously square onto it. In fact, her furniture seldom sat square with any angles as defined by the walls. A home office, also in oak, occupied one corner, a huge roll-top desk open to reveal a computer and its associated peripherals. A large rice-paper screen, hinged into eight tall panels, divided the larger living area from what was obviously her bedroom, since the ceiling lacked the height of the building's third story and wasn't suited for a loft. In the open space beneath where Blair's room would have been situated was a large exercise mat. There was no clutter, no sign of personal memorabilia, not even a photograph; just a portable boombox, a few CD's, and a small collection of heavy textbooks piled near the computer.

"Very nice," Jim said approvingly. Once again, he was off to a great conversational beginning.

She indicated the sofa. "Sit down, and I'll get the coffee."

He could see she had been sitting at the counter. "Counter's fine," he said.

"OK." She poured a fresh mug of coffee and placed it in front of him. "Cream and sugar?"

"No, thank you." Three words; a definite improvement. "You said yesterday that you'd like to get out more," he said, determined not to act like a bumbling schoolboy.

"Yes, I would," she agreed, her knee almost touching his as she sat down and swiveled the chair to face him.

"There's a nice park nearby," Jim went on. "It has a path that follows the edge of the bay. Would you like to take a walk?"

Her face brightened in anticipation. "I'd love to," she answered immediately. "Just give me a few minutes to change." She practically skipped behind the screen into her bedroom. Jim concentrated on his coffee and not on the sounds of her getting dressed. He couldn't let his imagination go there. Just like with Laura, he had a hard time keeping his hands to himself; he wanted to touch Abby's face, stroke her hair, explore every inch of her. But unlike Laura, who had welcomed his attention because she was toying with him, setting him up so she could get information, he knew Abby would reject him, perhaps in fear, perhaps in disgust.

Today, he was determined to learn more about her; at least enough to let him decide if he wanted to pursue a relationship or if he needed to back off and put a tight lid on his boiling emotions. He still had free will, he told himself, and he would not be a slave to his hormones, or pheromones, or body chemistry, or whatever the hell was causing him to sniff around this woman like a randy dog.

Having made this decision, he was a lot more relaxed when she came back into the room. She had on another ankle-length skirt, this one in a teal pattern that matched her eyes, and a soft, short sweater in a paler color that just reached the top of the waistband. Open-toed sandals completed the ensemble. Her blonde hair had been brushed back in a casual tumble of soft curls, framing the perfect oval of her face...

This time, he didn't feel himself falling helplessly into lust-filled fantasies. This time, he was able to admire, get to his feet, and offer his arm to escort her out the door.

The park was only a short distance away, and they walked to it. Jim kept the pace slow, content to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the stunning views across the bay and back toward the mountains that gave the city its name. Abby had the long, athletic stride of someone used to exercise, and she relished the heat of the sun against her skin; clearly, it had been too long since she'd been outside just for the sake of it.

They talked about inconsequential things, sometimes not saying anything at all for minutes, finally comfortable in each other's company. He found out her full name wasn't Abigail, but rather Abbott; she'd been named after a favorite uncle. He learned she was addicted to junk food, pasta, good steak, and Dr. Pepper (three out of four's not bad, he admitted); she liked New Age music (oops!), and dancing. Dancing? He hadn't learned any dance steps beyond the necessary two-step that had gotten him through his high school prom. He'd missed the whole era of disco, salsa, and whatever defined the current craze, and he really didn't feel at all deprived because of it. Now, if she had an interest in surfing or motorcycles...on second thought, he had no desire to bring up tales of his misspent youth.She sensed his alarm and chuckled. "Modern dance," she explained. "Aerobic exercise."

"Oh." He felt relieved. The thought of a crowded, noisy dance club had filled him with dread. "I guess that explains the exercise mat and boombox."

"Yes."

"I never hear you exercising," he commented.

"I wait until I'm sure you've left for work."

"Oh." He grimaced. "Sorry. You don't have to do that, you know, especially if you've heard some of the stuff Sandburg likes to play."

"My schedule is flexible. It's not a problem."

"I noticed the books by your computer. Architecture."

Her hand on his arm tightened a bit, then relaxed. "That was a different life."

"You designed houses?" he asked, determined to push just a little.

"No. Skyscrapers, office blocks."

He was impressed. "Did you design anything here in Cascade?"

"No - my coming to Cascade was just a case of serendipity." She smiled at her own bewilderment. "I was driving up I-5 with my U-Haul, and a little voice in my head told me it was time to get off the freeway. I spent the first night in a motel, and on the second day, I found the condo and bought it."

"Are you usually so impulsive?"

"Almost never," she admitted. "I've always been level headed and practical."

He felt his stomach grumble. "Have you had breakfast?"

"Not yet. I have trouble facing food right after I get up."

"This is the tricky part -- are you a bran muffin and granola sort of person, or do you lean toward the cholesterol special?"

She grinned. "This sounds like a test. Why don't you make a suggestion, and I'll let you know."

"There's a little restaurant close by that serves the best country-fried steak in the city, but I don't think it has a single healthy item on the menu."

"Eggs fried in real butter?"

"Absolutely."

"Fried potatoes with chunks of onion and green pepper?"

"Makes your arteries harden just thinking about it, doesn't it?" He was grinning now.

"It sounds like a perfect breakfast for a Saturday morning."

Jim altered their course slightly toward the street. If he was lucky, maybe he could stretch this day into lunch at his favorite Chinese place and dinner at the Captain's Table. In between, he'd even take her shopping for groceries.

 

"Where do you picture yourself in twenty or twenty-five years?" she asked abruptly after they'd finished the heavy-duty breakfast and started on a final cup of coffee.

Jim laughed a little nervously. "That sounds suspiciously like one of those Ladies' Journal's quizzes."

She smiled. "If it's not, it probably should be," she admitted. "You don't have to answer."

"No, it's OK, I've just never thought about it much -- I guess men don't tend to look that far ahead," Jim confessed. "I know what I don't want -- I've seen too many retired cops living alone in one-bedroom apartments, spending their days at the cop bars telling the rookies about the good old days."

"What do you want then?"

"I don't know. The usual, I guess -- a wife and family."

"But even if you became a father tomorrow, you'd be in your fifties before you got him off to college."

Not a happy thought, Jim admitted to himself. Where did the time go while you were getting on with the day-to-day business of life? "Does this mean we're looking at china patterns tomorrow?"

She laughed. "Don't look so trapped. That wasn't a proposal."

"Damn," he murmured, nervously surprised to realize he was only partly kidding. "So, what about you? Where do you see yourself in twenty years?"

"I used to have this firm image in my mind," she answered. "A huge log home on a lake. I designed the house myself. A little dock with a small fishing boat, a big yellow dog, and lots of kids and grandkids running all over the place."

"But you see something different now?"

She shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't see anything any more." Abruptly, she shook off her darkening mood. "That's horribly morbid, isn't it? Do they have anything chocolate here? It's my cure-all for depressing thoughts."

Jim didn't want to let the matter drop, but he also didn't want to spoil the easy warmth between them with too much serious talk. "There's a bakery around the corner," he said. "They're bound to have brownies or something." There would be time for serious discussion later.

"Perfect."

They ended up with ice cream cones from a corner vending cart whose operator was taking advantage of the perfect day and the droves of sightseers enjoying it. On the way back to their building, they stopped at a local gourmet market, where Abby bought fresh herbs, homemade sausage, and all the fixings for a killer pasta sauce.

"Do you cook from scratch?" Jim asked as they returned to the sidewalk.

"I try," she confessed with a wry grin. "Unfortunately, I'm not very organized as a gourmet cook. Half of my efforts tend to be finished about two days after I planned to eat them. I end up with a lot of microwave dinners."

They went back to her place to put away the groceries. Abby looked tired after the long morning, so Jim made up an excuse to leave after suggesting they get together again later in the day, perhaps over dinner. She agreed readily, clearly ready for a rest after the long walk and heavy meal.

 

Part Six

Blair did the dishes, the laundry, and a thorough house cleaning between bouts of anxiety and irritation. What the hell? I'm a grown man, he kept repeating to himself. Nothing was going to change between he and Jim -- or at least nothing significant. They just wouldn't 'batch' it as much. Maybe Abby liked basketball, so maybe they could still socialize.

Blair Sandburg, third wheel. Not a pretty picture.

He'd focused too much of his life around Jim -- the friendship, the partnership, the dissertation, the Sentinel/Guide relationship. If Jim was about to make major changes in his life, they were bound to affect Blair as well. He would cope -- he was good at bouncing back -- but what direction would these changes take him? Would he have to move out? (This place was too much like home -- a home he'd never really known before.)

But his own place would be nice -- no house rules, no keeping the volume down on the TV and stereo. Who was he kidding? Just like today, he'd be left on his own, looking for make-work to keep him busy.

He'd become stodgy. He was too young to be stodgy. What had happened to the other Blair Sandburg, the freewheeling self-sufficient one he'd been neglecting for work, whether teaching at the U or working with Jim? Maybe there was something good at the natural history museum, or maybe there was an interesting retrospective at the Cine-Art.

He was browsing through the paper when Jim came home, looking more relaxed and content than Blair had ever seen him.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah."

"Where did you take her?"

"We just walked and talked and ate," Jim admitted. "We never left the neighborhood."

"Does she like basketball?" Blair asked abruptly.

"I don't know. It never came up. Why?"

"There's a Jags game Tuesday night. I thought maybe I'd get tickets." He spoke indifferently, but a whole lot was riding on the answer.

Jim was completely oblivious to the nuances beneath the innocent question. "I'll ask her," he answered, grabbing a bottled water from the fridge. "If not, you and I can go." His response was totally casual, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to hang out with his roommate. He had no idea how much happiness his simple answer created.

Well, OK, things hadn't started getting complicated...yet.

Jim finally looked around the loft. "The place is spotless," he commented in surprise. "You did this to make me feel guilty, right?"

"Absolutely," Blair retorted with a grin.

"It didn't work."

"No loss -- at least the place is clean."

"Didn't you do anything today besides clean?"

"Actually, I have a date tonight." It wasn't a lie, Blair told himself. He'd decided on attending an archaeological lecture at the U. There was bound to be someone interesting there, someone he could ask out to a pub or coffeehouse for an after-lecture discussion.

"Oh."

"Why?"

"I was thinking about cooking dinner for the three of us."

Blair shook his head in amusement. "Three may be company in a TV sitcom but I don't think it's a good way to begin a relationship."

"Why not?" Jim asked seriously. "You're my partner. You're part of the package, so to speak."

"Love me, love my dog?"

Jim almost choked on his drink. "Something like that," he gasped when he could breathe again.

Blair grinned, secretly pleased Jim wanted to include him, however misguided his approach might be. "Sure, that'd be great. I'll cancel my plans."

As it turned out, Abby declined Jim's invitation for a home-cooked meal, citing tiredness after their morning excursion. She took a rain check for the following evening, however, so Jim didn't feel completely let down after his phone call to her. In fact, he was troubled to realize he felt a sense of relief.

 

Part Seven

Jim slept restlessly that night, his dreams filled with haunting images of Abby, Mindy, Galliano...and the black jaguar.

In the dream, Jim felt unaccountably helpless, lost in a dense forest as he searched futilely for Galliano. Detached from himself, he watched his own search for the bomber; his hunt was determined and thorough, but every time he was certain he'd found his quarry behind a bush, Galliano would simply pop up someplace else to laugh at him. Frustrated and increasingly reckless, he began to cast around more hastily, until his frantic search became careless and he started to overlook Galliano when the man was standing directly in front of him, Mindy laughing at his side. Blind to their presence, he drove on heedlessly, sweating and gasping from his efforts.

Mindy stepped in front of him, halting his mad dash to the next potential hiding place. She was a plain woman, unattractive and unremarkable, but she held a feral cunning in her muddy brown eyes. Smiling at him, she held out an apple. Impulsively, he accepted it, then turned toward the sound of a gleeful chuckle on his right. Galliano grinned at him from the nearby bushes. He turned back toward Mindy, but she had vanished.

The apple in his palm became Abby's severed head, her teal eyes dull and accusing in death.

With a cry of despair, he threw the gruesome burden away and fell backwards. The forest floor was soft and damp beneath his back. The black jaguar leaped to his side and snarled into his face, its breath hot with anger.

For the first time, Jim felt afraid of his animal spirit guide.

Somehow, he had failed...and Abby would pay the price.

 

Part Eight

He woke feeling depressed and irritable, although the images of the dream faded within seconds of regaining awareness. It was a dreary Sunday morning, the sky outside his window a dismal gray, the lowering clouds threatening rain.

He showered, threw on some sweats, and went downstairs.

Blair was also still in sweats, his eyes in a National Geographic, his hand wrapped around a hot cup of herbal tea. He looked up as Jim came down the stairs. "Good morning."

Jim only grunted as he walked past into the kitchen. The coffee maker hadn't been turned on, so he smashed around in the cupboards for a bit until he had a pot brewing. Blair didn't know whether to question Jim's bad mood or just let it be. Somewhat uncharacteristically, he decided on the prudent course and gathered up his stuff for a quick retreat back to his room.

"What the hell am I missing?" Jim asked suddenly, his tone tight with anger.

Blair froze guiltily halfway to his feet, a dozen witty comebacks vying for his attention, but he simply sat down again and closed his magazine. "The question would be with regards to -- ?" he inquired cautiously, wondering if he were about to suffer the brunt of Jim's scathing sarcasm over something he'd done or not done.

"The case," Jim grumbled, pouring a cup of coffee, grabbing a grapefruit and paper towel, and plunking himself down at the table. He began to peel the citrus with strong, sure fingers. "I'm missing something important, and for the life of me, I can't figure out what it is."

Blair relaxed. "Do you think it was something you saw or heard?"

Jim shook his head. "This isn't a sentinel thing. It's a cop thing. I've screwed up somewhere." He ate a segment of grapefruit and grimaced at its tart acidity. "If I didn't have a half-dozen potential suspects, I could probably convince a judge to issue a search warrant for Galliano's apartment. But since I only have a hunch about his guilt, a judge would probably say I was on a fishing expedition. I don't have a single shred of evidence pointing to him."

"What about Mindy Parks?"

"I stand even less of a chance of getting a search warrant for her place."

"Then you've done everything you can until you shake something loose," Blair pointed out reasonably.

"That's just it, I haven't," Jim insisted. "I'm overlooking something obvious."

Blair hesitated, then offered, "Maybe you're a little too preoccupied with other things to focus completely on the case."

Jim frowned. "You think so?"

"No, I don't--I'm just saying if you think you've missed something, it could be because you're aware your attention is elsewhere. In reality, you may not have overlooked anything at all."

Jim didn't look convinced. "I think I'll get dressed and go down to the office. Maybe another look through Galliano's file will give me a fresh idea."

Blair laughed. "You're feeling guilty, man. It's Sunday, you've had two days off in a row for the first time in months, and your conscience is nagging you to go back to work. Having an actual weekend off feels unnatural to you."

"If I sit around here, I'll just stew," Jim countered, managing to finish the last of the grapefruit; eating healthy was sometimes a painful experience. Gratefully, he downed more coffee to wash away the taste.

"There's a sure-fire way to get your mind off the case," Blair pointed out with a slight smile.

Jim nodded. "Except I'm scared to death to go see her."

"Why? I thought you liked her."

"That's just it," Jim admitted in embarrassment. "When I'm with her, I feel ready to pick out matching his-and-her bath towels. I just know I'm going to do something unbelievably stupid."

"The only unbelievably stupid thing you could do is to not see her," Blair argued, surprising himself. "She's not the first woman to make you feel like this, and she may not be the last. You've got to learn to recognize and control your feelings when they go crazy like this."

"And wind up married by Tuesday."

"Trust me, if it looks like that's going to happen, I'll hog-tie you and throw you on a freight train bound for Georgia."

Jim's thoughts wandered. "Isn't that a 'midnight train'?"

"Whatever," Blair shot back. "You like her. Don't blow an opportunity because you're afraid you like her too much."

Jim thought it over and nodded. "You're right." A bit guiltily, he asked, "What are your plans for today? I kind of messed things up for you last night."

"It's lousy weather," Blair answered. "I thought I'd just stay in today--unless you want me out of here."

"No," Jim hastened to disagree. "I promised dinner, remember? I'll get the sauce started, and if you're going to be here to watch it, I'll just go in to the station for a couple of hours, check the files."

Blair shook his head. "Can't stay away from it, can you?"

Jim smiled ruefully. "Face it, I'm compulsive." And the one image that hadn't left his dream memory was of the jaguar snarling in his face...

 

Part Nine

He was back in time for dinner, his day a frustrating failure. No new insights had occurred to him while reading the reports of the bombings or the background checks of all the suspects, most especially Galliano.

Blair had set the table and tossed the pasta in the pot, so there wasn't much for Jim to do except change into more suitable clothes and fetch Abby from downstairs. Instead of her usual long skirt, she'd opted for a very short black sheath that showed off her long, athletic legs. She was under weight, Jim had to admit, and she looked uncomfortable with it, but she wasn't hiding her thinness any more, and he was grateful for her trust. And she had those dynamite legs.

Once again, he found himself feeling awkward and tongue-tied, although he tried to hide his nervousness with idle chatter.

Perversely, Abby and Blair struck up a comfortable camaraderie almost immediately as they tackled the green salad and garlic bread together in the kitchen. Jim leaned against the counter and nursed a beer, adding his two-cents when he felt like it, but actually content to listen to the other two talk. Blair had a knack for conversation; when Jim asked a question, he always felt as if it sounded like an interrogation. Blair, on the other hand, with his guileless, innocent questions, gathered information like a broom, sweeping it into one big pile to be sorted and stored for future reference.

Briefly, Jim felt a stab of jealousy, but realized it for what it was. Blair and Abby had no sexual tension between them, so they could simply relax and be friends. Jim and Abby were always aware of one another, always aware of their mutual strong attraction, always on guard against succumbing to their desires.

He thought back over the relationships he'd had that had started with sexual attraction. They were generally short-lived and painfully terminated. The few strong relationships he'd had (and there had been woefully few), began with friendship and progressed slowly toward a surprised realization of desire. These relationships had lasted longer, and for the most part, the women remained his friends even after the passion had ended.

With sudden clarity, he felt angry that he couldn't seem to move beyond his hormones where Abby was concerned. He felt an almost desperate need to make their relationship work, but he didn't have a clue how to make it happen.

That night, he had the dream again.

 

Part Ten

On Monday afternoon, Jim sat down at his desk and logged into the DMV database, where he did something he'd promised himself he would not do: he typed in Abby's name. There was no driver listed under that name in the State of Washington, so he tried Oregon and California with the same lack of success, including various spellings and combinations of Abby, Abbott, and McNeil. When his search proved fruitless, he tried Nevada and Arizona before moving his search to the national crime database.

He was unable to find any reports concerning Abby McNeil.

So engrossed in his search, he didn't sense Simon's presence beside him until the Captain spoke. "Police business, detective?" Simon inquired, his mild tone a sure sign he was irked.

Jim's guilty start was answer enough. "Uh, sorry, sir."

Simon read over his shoulder. "Abby McNeil. Who's she?"

"A new tenant in my building," Jim admitted reluctantly, aware that Rafe and Brown had paused nearby and could clearly overhear the conversation.

"Uh-huh," Simon said acidly. "Someone we should know about?"

Jim felt himself blush, a rare occurrence except where Abby was concerned. "No, sir."

"Then troll for women on your own time."

Clenching his jaw against a sudden flash of anger, Jim only nodded. After all, he was clearly in the wrong; his strange emotional responses about Abby were no reason to provoke his commanding officer further. "Yes, sir. Sorry." From the corner of his eye, he saw Rafe and Brown exchange amused glances before continuing on their way through the bullpen.

Simon left Jim silently stewing at his desk and started out, only to encounter Blair coming in. "Sandburg, what's up with Jim?" he asked quietly.

Blair's expression became cautious. "How do you mean, Captain?"

"With Abby McNeil."

"He told you about her?" Blair asked in surprise.

"No, but I caught him surfing the computer for her name."

Blair flinched. "Oh."

"Sandburg --"

"She's just a new tenant," Blair answered, knowing Jim could overhear them if he chose, not wanting to tell tales regardless of whether Jim listened in or not. He edged past the tall Captain. "Sorry, Simon."

He retreated to Jim's desk, where he dropped into the visitor's chair. "You were worried about using your senses to be a peeping tom," he accused in a low tone, "but it doesn't bother you to use your police authority to snoop?"

Resolutely, Jim logged off the computer. "You're right," he sighed. "Just when I think I have these runaway feelings under control, I do something stupid. What did you tell Simon?"

"Nothing," Blair answered simply, still irritated. "It's up to you if you want to tell him."

"Thanks."

Simon returned through the bullpen looking just as sour as when he'd left. "You two, my office," he ordered.

Jim and Blair followed him through the door, and Simon shut it behind them before taking his seat. He didn't invite the others to sit. "Tell me about the interview with Mindy Parks."

"She lied about knowing Galliano," Jim replied confidently. "Unfortunately, she claimed stress over her father's death as her excuse for screwing up the serial numbers on the explosives' manifest. We couldn't shake her story."

"How hard did you try?" Simon persisted.

Jim's eyes narrowed; he saw where this was going. "Not hard enough to warrant the emotional outburst she staged for our benefit."

"Sandburg?"

Blair nodded. "I think she was faking too, Captain. Why?"

"I got an irate call from her supervisor, who claimed Ms. Parks suffered a complete emotional breakdown after your interview and had to be sent home."

"Captain," Jim said angrily, "she's a suspected accomplice in the bombings. I pushed, but I didn't do anything excessive."

Simon held up a placating hand. "OK, Jim. Anyway, I talked to the Feds about their investigation into the screwed-up paperwork. They said Mindy was calm and cool during their interviews."

"Because they weren't investigating her on felony charges," Jim pointed out.

"Exactly," Simon agreed. "So her tearful performance for you this morning must have been an attempt to cover her involvement in the bombings."

Jim nodded in agreement, then frowned. "You said she went home for the day?"

"That's right. Why? Do you think she's ready to bolt?"

"I don't know, but it's worth checking out."

"OK." Simon waved them toward the door. "Check her out." At the last moment, he said, "Jim?"

Jim paused in the doorway and turned back. "Yes, sir?"

Simon's voice was almost gentle. "Are you focused on this case a hundred percent?"

"Absolutely, sir," Jim assured him, hoping his answer wasn't a lie but inwardly wondering if he hadn't already screwed things up beyond recovery. Pushing too hard before you had sufficient evidence and your quarry could slip away; push too little, and you could miss a vital piece of the puzzle. In between was a fine line defining good investigative procedures. Mistakes were inevitable, but no one wanted to make one, especially one serious enough to blow a case.

Jim feared he had made a big one, but he couldn't put a finger on it. If he had, he had no one to blame but himself. He should have been able to link Galliano and Mindy Parks before now, and then Galliano to the explosives used in the bombings. He didn't know what else he could have done to make these connections happen, but there must have been something he'd missed.

One thing was certain, he thought as he and Blair left the bullpen: he had to get his mind off Abby McNeil and his strange, almost overpowering need to protect her from the dark menace that invaded his dreams.

"Jim, what's up?" Blair asked, noting his partner's odd expression as they climbed into the truck.

Jim shook his head. "Nothing." He started the engine and drove out of the garage. "Let's check out Parks."

 

Part Eleven

They were nearly to her address when Simon reached Jim on his cellular.

"Jim, you'd better get over to your place," Simon told him grimly. "Someone planted a bomb--"

Jim had already swung the truck into an illegal U-turn, causing irate drivers to honk in protest, so the rest of Simon's words were lost in the din.

"What did you say, Simon?" he shouted into the phone, reaching with his other hand to pull down the visor's blue light bar that gave him police right-of-way and hopefully would alert other drivers to the urgency of his mission.

Blair resisted the urge to grab the untended steering wheel. Jim never appreciated it when his partner felt he couldn't safely drive, talk on the phone, and do fourteen other things at the same time.

"I said it didn't go off," Simon repeated. "Taggart's there now with the bomb squad. Apparently, one of your neighbors surprised the bomber before he was finished. I gather she's hysterical, Taggart's got his hands full, and he wants you there now."

Jim switched off the cellphone, dropped it onto the seat, and concentrated on his driving.

"Jim, what happened?" Blair gasped, hanging onto the doorframe as the truck slid into a tight corner and the light rear end started to drift nauseatingly into a skid. Not for the first time, he regretted the seat belt laws of 1969 hadn't included shoulder harnesses. The old pickup's lap belts hardly seemed adequate.

Jim controlled the skid easily, but didn't answer the question.

A minute later, he braked to a halt in front of the building and bailed out, Blair scrambling behind him. A cop in bomb squad gear met them in front, scurrying across the lobby in their wake as Jim headed for the stairs. "The building's been evacuated, and the bomb's been deactivated," he blurted breathlessly toward the retreating figure as Jim bounded up the stairs. It was doubtful Jim even heard the report.

A bomb? Blair shot a nod at the officer in the absence of an acknowledgement from Jim. "Thanks," he said, not slowing down as he raced up the stairs after his partner. The cop went back to his vigil at the front door.

Jim opened the stairwell door and walked into what appeared to be utter chaos. Bomb squad personnel, patrol officers and forensics technicians streamed in and out through the open door to the loft. But Jim had eyes for only one person, and it was as if everything else didn't even exist.

Abby was leaning against the wall near the elevator. Her arms were tight against her body, her head down, hands pressed to her ears as if she didn't want to hear whatever suggestion the female officer with her was making.

"Jim, glad you're here," Taggart said, almost running into him. "The bomb was rigged to your front door--"

Taggart was not an object easily avoided, so Jim was forced to stop and notice him. "Thanks, Joel," he said absently, stepping around the large officer. "Keep at it." He moved on to Abby and wordlessly gathered her into his arms, where she clung to him in desperate silence as if trying to burrow to safety inside his jacket.

Taggart didn't notice because he'd corralled Blair. "The neighbor heard the elevator go up around two. Awhile later, she came up, thinking you guys were home, and surprised the bomber in the middle of his work. He shoved her down and split. She managed to give us a pretty good description of Galliano," he concluded. "She's a total basket case now, but she won't let me call the paramedics." Off Blair's urgent pantomime--a chopping motion across his throat--Taggart stopped and looked toward Jim, saw him embracing said "basket case". He winced. "Oh."

Blair patted him sympathetically on the arm as he slipped past and joined Jim. With a smile of thanks, he subtly displaced the female officer. He was good at that sort of thing; Jim just tended to bark and make everybody jump.

Between them, Abby was shielded from the rush of activity and the gazes of the curious, but Jim's quietly soothing voice could not seem to penetrate the depth of her distress. Blair wondered if maybe he shouldn't call the paramedics anyway, despite her wishes.

Taggart ventured closer. "What I don't understand is why Galliano shifted his anger to Jim and away from the Hightower people."

Blair thought about it. "Mindy Parks," he said, answering Joel but really airing a theory for Jim. "She's the only new factor in the equation. She was upset after we questioned her. If she's really Galliano's girlfriend, and he's being over-protective--" He looked at Jim and Abby, and the similarity was not lost on him. He didn't want to imagine what Jim would do when he finally got his hands on Galliano.

"Please," Abby murmured, her voice filled with unbearable torment. Each word was an effort. "Take me home."

Jim nodded. "Joel, would you please call Simon and have him get out APB's on Galliano and Parks. And we have enough for a search warrant now. Chief, stay here and find out what you can about the bomb."

"Sure." Blair had already punched the button for the elevator and now held the door for them.

Jim held onto Abby all the way. He was confused and frightened by her lack of response, but she certainly knew he was there; she clung to him as if he were the only anchor keeping her from being cast adrift.

Once inside her home, she pushed desperately away from him and half-staggered, half-fell into the kitchen. Alarmed, he went to her, but she crawled away from him, finally huddling in the corner when the cabinets prevented further retreat. Legs drawn up tightly, she clutched herself into as small a bundle as possible, her arms shielding her head, her face buried behind her knees.

Had Galliano triggered a flashback? Jim thought wildly. Did she expect to be assaulted?

"Abby," he said softly. "It's OK. It's me--Jim. You're safe."

Behind her knees, she shook her head. "Make it stop."

He kept his voice calm, soothing. "Make what stop?"

"The noises," she whispered despairingly. "The unbearable light--all exploding inside my head." She sobbed, and choked it off, as if even the sound of her own voice were excruciating. "Everything roaring and pounding through my body. Please, can you make it stop?" she pleaded.

Jim sat back abruptly, his thoughts in turmoil. Was it possible--?

Although he wanted to hold her, try to comfort her, he knew he shouldn't touch her right now. Instead, he got up and walked into the living room, where he speed-dialed Blair's cellular. When it was answered, he said simply, "I need you here now."

Blair must have taken the stairs in about four jumps, because he was at the front door in less than thirty seconds. When he saw Abby huddled on the kitchen floor, alarm flashed across his face. "This isn't good, Jim. We need to get her to a doctor."

"She doesn't need a doctor," Jim insisted quietly. "She needs you."

"Me?" Blair echoed in surprise. Then, off Jim's expression, he looked at Abby again, back to Jim, and his eyes widened in understanding. "Oh, boy." Making a conscious effort, he took a few deep breaths to still his jumbled thoughts and center his focus. "Go sit down," he told Jim, and walked calmly into the kitchen.

Jim sat down on the sofa. Its cushions were deep and comfortable, the upholstery fabric warm and incredibly soft beneath his fingers. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and listened to the soothing words of his friend and Guide, speaking now to someone else, but still a voice he automatically turned to, a voice he trusted more than any other in the world. He didn't feel even a twinge of jealousy that right now, Abby needed Blair more than she needed him; he was only grateful his partner could be here for her as he'd been for Jim so many times in the past. The soothing words relaxed him, and before he knew it, he'd dozed off.

"Jim."

He opened his eyes and looked up. Blair's expression wore a little smirk of smug triumph; beside him, Abby looked confused and embarrassed. "Hi," Jim said, automatically reaching for her hand and drawing her gently down beside him. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," she admitted, looking first at him and then at Blair, who had perched on the edge of the coffee table. "How did you do that?" she asked. "How did you know to do that?"

Blair's eyes were sparkling in anticipation and curiosity. He nodded toward Jim. "He has the same--uh , condition--you have."

She looked back at Jim. "You have panic attacks?"

He glanced at his Guide, who just grinned and shook his head. "You're not having panic attacks, Abby," Jim explained gently. "Your senses are hyper-active; their ability has just been latent all these years. Blair thinks it's some kind of genetic throwback or something." He looked at his partner. "Help me out here, Chief."

"Abby, you've heard about the perfect palate of an expert wine taster or the sensitive nose of a perfume chemist, haven't you?" Off her nod, he continued, "There's a tiny percentage of the human population that possesses all five heightened senses, and you're one of them. Primitive cultures called the man a sentinel because his enhanced senses helped him protect and serve his tribe. I don't know what they'd call a woman with the same abilities--a sentinel is more of a job description of what he does rather than a definition of why he's able to do it--and I doubt those cultures would permit an actual female sentinel..."

"You're babbling," Jim pointed out mildly.

"Sorry." Blair dragged his thoughts back to the current matter. "Anyway, something stressful obviously happened to you which kicked in your survival instincts and brought your senses on line." He ended the sentence as a question, hoping for an explanation.

Abby nodded thoughtfully. "A little over two years ago, I was assaulted," she began hesitantly. "When I woke up in the hospital, after I was attacked...I thought I was going crazy. The doctors said I was having panic attacks, and they kept me drugged most of the time until the sensations went away."

Neither man wanted to contemplate what that must have been like for her, her survival mechanism fighting the drugs designed to subvert them.

"I think it started even before then," she continued, her voice so faint Blair could barely hear her. "Immediately after." She trembled slightly, and Jim tightened his grip on her hand reassuringly. "But all I can remember are dark, cold places; and being alone and afraid. I think I dream about it sometimes, but I can't remember the dreams."

"You're probably not ready to remember," Blair said. "When it's the right time, you will."

Tentatively, she asked, "Will I be able to control these runaway senses?"

"In time." Blair sounded confident. "With practice. Lots and lots of practice." This last was directed at Jim.

Abby smiled for the first time. "Not doing your homework?"

Jim shrugged. "Not as much as he'd like," he admitted ruefully.

Abby frowned thoughtfully. "So this--mutual attraction we have...it's probably just some kind of genetic imperative?"

"Not very romantic, is it?" Jim offered.

She shook her head in agreement. "But you've shown admirable restraint."

Jim winced. "Barely restrained, hardly admirable," he murmured.

Blair stood up. "On that note, I think I'll see how much of a mess Taggart is making in the loft." To Abby, he added, "You need to get some rest, but you may have nightmares. You probably shouldn't be alone."

"She won't be," Jim said.

Blair grimaced in awkward discomfort. "Surprise, surprise," he muttered, heading for the door.

"Chief." Blair turned back. Jim had gotten up from the sofa. "I want you to stay with her. I need to get back to work--Simon will have those warrants by now."

Blair was hesitant. He knew Jim was going after Galliano, and he'd seen his partner lose his temper before, knew what he was capable of doing. "Jim--"

"Please."

Reluctantly, Blair nodded.

Jim bent down and gave Abby a little kiss on the forehead. A frisson of pleasure tingled from his lips and coursed through the rest of his body. Resolutely, he straightened up; at least he was prepared for these enjoyable sensations and could control them. "Get some rest."

"Thanks," she murmured, averting her eyes because it was evident she'd felt the same urgent response.

Jim walked out, giving his partner's shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he left.

Blair closed the front door and stood there for several long seconds, worried that Jim would do something drastic if he found Galliano, feeling anxious because his first instinct was to go with him and try to prevent an emotional blowup.

But Jim had asked him to stay with Abby. It was clearly a job that was very important to him, and one he entrusted only to his best friend.

 

Part Twelve

Jim executed his warrant at Galliano's apartment. Since the suspect was considered armed and dangerous, it was a no-knock warrant, which permitted forced entry without the customary verbal warning. Accompanied by two uniformed officers, he got the master key from the apartment super and cautiously unlocked the door.

Inside, there was no sign of Galliano, but Jim found all the proof he needed to link the man to the bombings. Calling for the forensics unit to collect and tag the pertinent evidence, he left officers at the location to watch for Galliano and wait for the lab crew. Next, he moved on to Mindy's address. Since he'd been unable to link her with the bomber, his request for a warrant had been refused. She was not at home, but he found a landlady who was willing to let him inside. The law was a bit vague about the legality of this kind of entry, but Jim was only seeking confirmation of a hunch, so he wasn't concerned about its admissibility in court: Mindy Parks was gone for good. Large gaps between the clothing in her closet and half-empty drawers were evidence she'd packed in a hurry. He also found a photograph of her, which he took.

He was unable to resist looking through her desk. Anything he found would be inadmissible, but the clutter of papers was too tempting. He found a handful of credit card receipts for local restaurants and clutched them with almost savage ferocity. Forcing away the anger that erupted inside his head, he copied down the names of some of the restaurants and left the receipts where he had found them.

Since his quarry was on the run, Jim added the information to the APB and got additional police coverage at the airport, bus station and train depot. Logically, he figured they were in a car, but both vehicles registered to the suspects had been found and impounded, so officers were scouring the car rental agencies in search of their trail.

Armed with the list of restaurants, Jim went around to several where Mindy had dined most frequently. Some of the staff recognized pictures of Galliano and Mindy, most of them remembering their loving intimacy, their total absorption with each other, the obvious mutual adoration. One person had described Galliano as 'basking in the warmth of her love', which Jim dutifully wrote down in his notebook; Blair would get a kick out of it.

At least he'd finally linked the two suspects together. Although it was a case of too-little-too-late, it still added substance to the evidence against them and would prove useful if the couple were ever found and brought to trial.

As Jim returned to the bullpen to write up his notes, he wondered if Galliano was being overly protective of Mindy, as Blair had suggested, or if Mindy was manipulating him into doing her dirty work. Either way, Jim thought he'd rather be home doing a little 'basking' of his own instead of chasing after a love-struck bomber.

 

Part Thirteen

It was late evening when he finally made it back to Abby's. Blair answered his quiet knock and let him in.

"How is she?"

"Asleep at the moment," his roommate answered, closing the door softly. "She's rested off and on all afternoon, and we made a spiffy spaghetti dinner. We saved some for you."

Jim shed his coat and draped it over the back of the sofa. "Thanks. Is there any coffee?"

"Fresh pot," Blair confirmed, heading for the kitchen. "Did you find Galliano?"

"He and Mindy split," Jim told him, sitting down at the counter. Oddly, this place felt almost as much like home as the loft. Maybe it was the comfortable chairs, or maybe it was the sight of Blair moving around the kitchen with such familiarity, or maybe it was simply the fact he felt so connected with Abby now, even after such a short time. Whatever it was, he felt no inclination to leave.

Blair served the coffee. "Great. First you had suspects and no case, now you have a case and no suspects."

"We'll find them," Jim said grimly, but he really wasn't certain. A cautious fugitive could stay lost for a long time. "You were wrong this morning," he added with a hint of bitterness as he took his first sip of coffee.

"About what?"

"I did screw up." It was a hard admission. "I made a mistake any rookie detective would have caught."

Blair had gone over the case several times during the day, and he hadn't been able to find any errors. "How?"

"I didn't run a credit card check on Mindy."

Blair frowned. "But she wouldn't have bought any explosive components, would she? Galliano got them all from the construction site."

Jim shook his head. "No. They used her cards when they went out to eat. Several restaurant employees recognized them. I could have connected them earlier, been able to call Mindy a liar when we questioned her."

Blair could see how guilty Jim felt about the screw up. "You aren't the only detective on the case," he pointed out.

"I'm the lead detective. I should have made sure it was done." Jim ran a hand over his face in an effort to drive away some of his anger. "Damn, I'm no good like this." Whether he was referring to his current mood or his distraction with Abby, he didn't bother to make clear. Blair suspected it was a little of both.

Abby wandered out from her bedroom, her blonde hair tousled from sleep. She was dressed in a set of pale blue sweats, and Jim thought they were the sexiest sleepwear he'd ever seen on a woman (but then, he had to admit, he was far from open-minded where she was concerned).

"I thought I heard you," she said, coming over to sit at the counter. She tapped her ear. "I didn't want to try to 'tune-in'; I'm afraid I'll never get it disconnected again."

"Would you like me to make some tea or something?" Blair asked.

"I'm not an invalid," she replied with a smile. "Besides, it's my kitchen. I should be offering you tea or something."

"Yeah, well, it's not often I get to play in a high-tech kitchen," Blair returned, unchastened. "You have all these neat pots and glasses and stuff."

"I guess I've just always been fascinated with shapes and textures," Abby admitted. "Maybe that's why I build high rises."

"Did you always want to be an architect?" Jim asked, enjoying his coffee and noticing for the first time that the mug really did have an interesting texture--the finish felt like silk, and yet it was certainly ceramic of some kind.

"It's in the blood," she said with a deep intonation, probably imitating her father. "Some families have doctors or lawyers; mine were builders--dam builders, bridge builders, skyscraper pioneers. I guess we just like big--structures." She stumbled over the last word and had the grace to blush. "This is horrible," she confessed, laughing at herself. "Everything coming out of my mouth wants to be a double entendre. It must be those pesky genetics at work. Ignore me, please."

"Can't do it," Jim replied with a grin. "Same reason."

Blair suddenly thought of other places he needed to be, other things he needed to be doing. "Jim, the spaghetti's in the fridge--that's the glass-fronted chrome thing in the corner."

"I know what a refrigerator is, Sandburg."

"I wasn't sure, since it doesn't bear any resemblance to the antique you have in your kitchen," Blair answered with a straight face. "I have some notes to organize and a book to review, so I'm gonna say good-night. You two--uh--have fun."

He retreated with alacrity.

"Not exactly the subtle sort, is he?" Abby commented.

"Actually, he's just being silly," Jim replied. "Socially, I'm the proverbial bull in the china closet. Sandburg follows along and mends all the hurt feelings and wounded egos I leave behind."

"Sounds like a perfect partnership."

"Don't tell him that. He's getting way too comfortable with our partnership as it is; I need to keep him a little off balance or I'll never be able to keep him in line."

An awkward silence descended and lasted for the longest two minutes Jim had ever endured.

"I suppose you've guessed I like you," he said at last. She didn't answer, so he figured he was blowing it big time. "I mean, I like you enough to want to get to know you better. Trying to separate this purely physical chemistry from the equation is damn near impossible, but in the rare moments when I do, I still know I care about you."

Still, she didn't say anything, and he began to feel a little desperate. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head.

"Then please say something."

After a bit, she said, "There are too many thoughts running through my mind. It's hard to put them in any sort of meaningful order." She got up and went into the kitchen. After pouring herself a cup of tea from an elegant china pot, she came back, took his hand, and led him to the sofa. After they sat, he didn't release her hand, but when she spoke, it was toward the balcony doors; she didn't look at him. "I don't know what it is you like about me," she began hesitantly, then went on before he could respond. "I'm not the person I was before I was attacked, and I'm not the person I hope to be again someday. So if you like me now, it's very possible you won't like me later."

"I'm willing to take that chance," he said when she finally stopped and looked at him. "What else?"

She took a deep breath and looked away again before continuing. "I was shot," she admitted softly. "In the heart." His whole body jerked in shock at this terrible revelation. Her voice took on a quiet monotone, as if she were keeping a firm hold on her emotions. "He thought I was dead and dumped me in a shallow grave. Some midnight hikers interrupted him before he was through. I was pronounced dead at the scene and taken to the morgue. I think I can remember the refrigerated drawer they placed me in. The doctors said it was a miracle I survived the initial shooting, much less the subsequent hours without treatment."

Without saying a word, Jim drew her into him, holding her against his chest, his chin resting against the top of her head. It wasn't something he'd planned on doing; it was an imperative from within himself, a need to make contact, to reassure himself that she was here, alive and real.

She made no attempt to pull away from him, surrendered to her own need to feel secure and protected. The slow, strong rhythm of his heart lulled her fears. She found the courage to finish her story. "It was someone I loved deeply, someone I trusted with my life," she said softly. "He didn't kill me, but he destroyed my belief in my ability to assess a person's character, my capacity to trust others."

"I'm sorry," Jim whispered, kissing the top of her head, the soft strands of her hair like silk against his lips.

That was all either of them said for a long time.

 

Part Fourteen

Jim returned to the loft early the next morning. He looked a bit rumpled but otherwise calm and rested. Bopping in time to the music station he had playing on his radio, Blair had just dropped bread into the toaster. The moment Jim walked through the door, the first song ended and the mellow strains of "Cupid" filled the kitchen.

"Sandburg, give it a rest, will you?" Jim grumbled with a sigh.

Confused, Blair looked around, finally heard the music and couldn't hold back a laugh. "Honest to god, Jim, that's real-time radio--I couldn't have planned it."

Ruefully, Jim held up his hands. "Sorry."

"Want some toast and coffee?"

"Sounds good."

As Blair popped some more bread into the toaster, he asked, "How is she?"

"Fine." Jim accepted a fresh cup of coffee and slouched into a chair at the table.

"So you think she'll be OK today by herself?"

"As she told me in no uncertain terms this morning," Jim agreed.

Blair felt relieved. He didn't mind watching out for Abby, but his primary duty was to Jim. "Are you going to look for Galliano today?" He delivered a plate of toast, jam and necessary implements to the table and sat down.

"And every day until I find him." After a moment, Jim shrugged. "Actually, I've run out of ideas where to look. Until we get a lead, I'm sure Simon will assign us something else."

"Is that what's bothering you--that Galliano's gotten away?"

Jim was silent for a long moment, then finally shook his head. "No, Abby told me what had happened to her. She was shot--in the heart."

Blair felt a tremor of shock. "It's a miracle she's alive."

"Yeah. It happened almost two years ago. She was in the hospital for months."

"Did they catch who did it?"

"I don't know. She didn't want to talk about it much. She did admit it was someone she knew." Someone she'd loved and trusted....

"Damn, that's rough," Blair sympathized. "But she's getting better, right?"

"She's one of those miracles of modern medicine--the doctors expect her to get up to ninety percent of her heart function back. She'll be able to lead a normal, active life as long as she doesn't plan to run any marathons." Jim buttered a slice of toast, topped it with jam, and took a bite. He looked so distracted, it was doubtful he really tasted it.

"Great," Blair said, wondering what was bothering his friend. "So it's just going to take time."

"Yeah."

"Do you love her?" The question surprised both of them, Blair mostly because it took him a moment to realize he'd spoken out loud.

Jim frowned, considering the question carefully. "I like her," he admitted finally. "I certainly lust after her. I don't know if I'm ready to commit to something as permanent as love. That's a pretty heavy-duty word in my vocabulary, not something I take lightly."

"But you like her enough to give it a chance, right?"

"Right."

Blair might as well have tried prying teeth from a chicken. "Come on, Jim, something's bothering you. What is it?"

"There's something she's holding back."

"You don't think she's telling the truth?"

"I think she's telling the truth--just not all of it."

Blair shrugged. "So maybe she's just not ready to tell you everything. I mean, you've known her less than a week." And what a week it's been...

"I know. I just have a feeling there's more I need to know or I can't protect her."

"Protect her from what?"

Jim sighed. "That's the big question, isn't it?"

Things didn't improve from the moment they walked into the bullpen. With hardly time to shed their jackets, they were waved into Simon's office, where the Captain shut the door firmly behind them.

"All right, Jim," Simon began, an edge to his tone that clearly indicated he was on the brink of losing his patience, "just what the hell is going on?"

"With what, sir?" Jim countered mildly, knowing his bland response would only irritate Simon further, wondering why he suddenly felt so defensive. After all, he'd expected a lecture, probably even deserved it--so why did he feel as if he were preparing for battle?

Behind him, Blair tried to fade into the background as he also sensed what was coming. He hated to see Jim getting yelled at, even if it was deserved, but he knew that this time was at least partially his fault; he'd been unable to help Jim deal with his whacked out senses over Abby McNeil, had even laughed them off as humorous. Well, it wasn't so funny now, was it?

"With the Hightower case," Simon shot back. "I saw your report from last night. My god, Jim, you didn't think to check out Mindy Parks before you interviewed her yesterday?"

Jim forced down an unexpected swell of anger. "I made a bad mistake, Captain. I could have tied her to Galliano last Friday, but I forgot to run the credit check. I blew it." It was a hard admission.

Simon swallowed his irritation. "Look, Jim, we all make mistakes, but this couldn't have come at a worse time. The mayor's been on my back all week about these bombings. With the fishing and timber industries in such an economic nosedive, the city wants to attract other businesses to the city. The bombings are poor examples of good civic relations. I'm afraid you're going to take some very public heat for this one."

Jim shook his head. "I'm not finished with the case yet, Captain. There's still a chance I can find Galliano and Parks."

Simon tapped a thick file folder on his desk. "What else is there? You've interviewed everybody who ever knew either one of them. We've got every uniform in the city on the lookout for them, we've impounded their cars, and we've frozen their bank accounts. If they're still in Cascade, we'll find them; if they've gotten out somehow, they'll be too short of cash to stay on the run for long."

"We don't know that, sir," Jim countered quietly, then wondered why he'd made the comment. If his "sixth sense" was trying to tell him something, it wasn't doing a very good job of making its meaning clear.

"What do you mean?"

I haven't a goddamned clue what I meant. "There could be other assets or property we missed," he answered a little lamely. "We know Galliano had ties to a crime family when he worked in construction in Boston five years ago. Maybe he's developed contacts out here."

"That's reaching, Jim," Simon commented. "He's never been arrested, never been officially tied to any criminal activity. The rumor about his Boston connections was all hearsay."

"I still think it's worth checking out," Jim insisted stubbornly.

"Maybe it is," Simon agreed, "but unfortunately, you're not going to be the one doing it."

Jim's expression became guarded. "What does that mean?"

Reluctantly, Simon explained, "The Mayor wants you off the case. The Commissioner called me this morning and made it official."

"So that's it?" Jim's anger finally got the better of him and his voice rose with his temper. "You're going to cave in to political pressure?"

"Your performance has been far from stellar, detective," Simon pointed out with biting sarcasm. "You didn't give me much to defend you with."

"Defend me!" Jim echoed harshly. "I don't need you to defend me. Is it too much to ask for a little support, or do I have to be right one hundred percent of the time? I am not giving up this case."

"Yes, you are!" Simon retorted, his patience completely shattered. "Damnit, you've got more cases on your desk that need your attention. That is, if you think you can concentrate long enough to do any of them any justice."

Jim's voice was brittle with anger. "Anytime you want my badge, Captain, you just come and ask for it!" With that statement, he turned and walked out of the office, slamming the door behind him so hard that Blair wondered about the wisdom of having glass doors in a police station.

"Damn you, mister!" Simon raged after him, striding around his desk and clearly prepared to take the argument public.

"Simon, wait!" Blair urged desperately, recklessly throwing himself in front of the much larger man and blocking the door. He didn't want to see this confrontation carried into the bullpen. "Simon, will you please just listen to me for a minute?"

"Sandburg, in about two seconds, I'm gonna pull your visitor's pass and heave you out of here on your butt," Simon growled.

"Fine," Blair shot back. "Just hear me out first, OK?"

Simon let out a long breath and finally took a step back to lean against his desk. His anger was already dissipating. He knew he shouldn't have blown up like that, but the irate call from the Police Commissioner first thing this morning had done nothing to prepare him for Jim's unexpected outburst. "OK, what's wrong with him?"

Grateful to see Simon finally calming down, Blair took a moment to glance into the bullpen. There was no sign of Jim, but the other detectives were looking toward the office with concern and curiosity stamped plainly in their expressions. Taking a moment to quiet the wild staccato of his own heart, he finally turned back toward Simon. "You remember Laura?"

Simon groaned. "Is this one of those hormone things?"

"Pheromones," Blair corrected automatically, "and, yes, it is."

"Damn, that's just what we don't need right now." Simon shook his head, wondering how he was going to cover Jim's butt this time; he'd had to do some pretty fast talking when Jim's investigation of the diamond store robberies had upset a lot of local bigshots. "Is it that Abby What's-her-name Jim was looking up in the computer?"

"Yeah. She's a new tenant in our building," Blair explained. "A nice lady. But Jim's feelings have gone all haywire; he's lost his perspective. I mean, no one was more pissed off than Jim about overlooking Mindy's credit card statement."

"So can you help him or not?" Simon demanded.

Why not just ask me to go out to the bay and re-enact the parting of the Red Sea? "I'm trying, but it's not simply a matter of telling him to get a grip. He knows he's not focused and in control, Simon, and it's driving him nuts. But if Abby turns out to be a keeper, he's gonna have to find some balance. I can help him do that, but it's gonna take time."

"So in the meantime, I've got my best detective stuck in puberty," Simon grumbled. Finally, he sighed. "All right, do what you need to do, Sandburg. I appreciate you telling me what's going on." His voice took on a warning note as he added, "But make it quick. If Jim throws any more tantrums in my office, I'll have to suspend him, and no one wants that less than I do."

"I know that, Simon, and Jim knows it, too," Blair answered, sympathetic to the Captain's conflicting emotions.

"OK, then get out of here. Let him do whatever interviews he wants to do today, but if you don't get any new leads on Galliano, I'm giving you a new case tomorrow and he's just gonna have to live with it."

"OK, Simon, I'll tell him." Blair opened the office door. "Thanks--we'll get this worked out."

"I certainly hope so," Simon murmured to Blair's retreating back.

As Blair grabbed up their jackets and his backpack before going to find Jim, he felt all eyes in the bullpen watching him. Resolutely, he refused to look at anyone because he knew the question they would ask: what the hell was wrong with Jim?

Since he didn't plan to answer that question, he fled with as little fuss as possible.

He found Jim alone in the break room, his hands wrapped around an unopened can of Dr. Pepper. Bemused, Blair asked, "What's up, Jim? You don't even like Dr. Pepper."

"Yeah," Jim admitted a little wearily. "I just punched the button, and out it came. Stupid, huh?" Blair sat down across from him and piled the coats on top of the table. "So what did Simon say?"

"I had to tell him what's going on with you," Blair answered quietly. "He deserved to know."

Jim nodded. "I need to go back in and apologize."

"Wait until tomorrow, when you've both had a chance to cool down," Blair advised. "In the meantime, Simon's given you another day to find Galliano. Where do you want to start?"

"With Mindy Parks," Jim said with conviction. "Her co-workers, friends and family. Someone must have an idea where she'd go."

Blair stood up and slipped into his jacket. "OK, let's go."

So they covered all the bases, driving from one unproductive interview to the next. Blair never complained, but secretly he felt they were on a futile quest. Somehow, Galliano and Mindy had vanished.

Jim's mood darkened as the day wore on. By the end of it, he had ceased speaking at all except to ask his questions of the people he wanted to interview. Blair tried everything short of angry provocation to break down the wall of silence, but his efforts failed. Jim simply withdrew into his own thoughts, his mind finally coming to grips with the reality that his quarry was well and truly gone.

What Blair couldn't understand was why Jim seemed so obsessed with finding the man. True, he had inadvertently hurt Abby while attempting to plant the bomb in the loft, but that didn't seem reason enough for Jim to behave with such single-minded purpose. Somehow, Blair knew Jim had connected Galliano with his undefined notion that Abby was in danger. Was it unreasoning anxiety at work, or was Jim operating from some level of sentinel sixth sense? Whatever it was, Jim seemed oblivious to it, but he was absolutely in thrall to its influence.

 

Part Fifteen

It was late afternoon when Jim was finally forced to admit he'd run out of ideas and it was time to go home. With heavy reluctance, he headed for the loft, his actions on autopilot when he finally pulled the truck close to the curb and shut down the engine. Ahead of them was parked a private ambulance. On the rear door, it said simply "Ambulance." As they got out of the truck and started for the front door, Jim noticed a similar lack of information on the vehicle's side door. Just the one word: Ambulance. He felt a familiar niggle of suspicion at the base of his neck.

"Something's wrong," he said, heading quickly inside, Blair at his heels.

Jim stopped in the lobby when he saw the elevator lights descending toward the ground floor. He pulled his weapon, assumed a two-handed aiming stance, and waited.

Automatically, Blair backed up a step, out of the way, and took out his cellphone, finger ready to speed-dial 9-1-1. Whatever Jim was sensing, he was as focused as a terrier on a rabbit hole.

The elevator door opened. "Cascade PD," Jim said loudly, authority ringing in his tone. "Don't move."

In the elevator, two men in hospital whites held a groggy and clearly drugged Abby between them. A third man, dressed casually in jeans, cowboy hat, and sheepskin jacket, held up his hands in a placating gesture and grinned disarmingly. "Whoa, hoss," he said calmly. "I'm a U.S. Marshal. I've got a court order here --" He reached for an inside pocket of his jacket.

"Hold it," Jim repeated firmly. "You don't show me anything until you let her go." The menace in his voice stilled the lawman's hand.

The two attendants, bewildered, looked toward their leader for guidance. When he nodded, they released her.

"Abby, come here," Jim said gently, holding his left arm well out to one side to attract her attention away from stepping into his line of fire. His eyes never left the men in the elevator.

Obediently, she walked up to him and took his outstretched hand. "Hi, Jim," she murmured dreamily. "I love you."

Such an unguarded admission would have been wonderful under other circumstances. The drugs had clearly lowered her emotional defenses. But Jim's focus, by necessity, was on the three men in front of him. "Go to Blair," he said, keeping her moving. Blair took her hand and led her off to the side. "Chief, call for backup."

"Man, there's no need for that," the man claiming to be a Marshal said calmly. "We have a court order signed by a judge that says this woman is a danger to herself and needs to be placed under protective care."

Jim never even blinked. "Slowly," he said.

The man reached into his inside coat pocket and produced his ID, which he held open for Jim's inspection. "See? William Gatlin, United States Marshal."

Jim's alertness never wavered. Blair could feel the tension filling the lobby and he held Abby's arm tightly, ready to tumble them both to the ground in the event things turned nasty. She was completely oblivious to the danger, whatever drugs she had been given making her complaisant and uncaring. "Jim, backup's on the way," he confirmed very softly. Only Jim could have heard him.

"Now the court order," Jim said to the Marshal.

Again, the man reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a letter, which he unfolded with one hand and held up. He started to step closer so Jim could read it.

"Don't bother," Jim said. "That's a Massachusetts' court. Your judge is a little outside his jurisdiction."

The Marshal was unconcerned. "Well, I've got a Washington writ right here," he said calmly, reaching back into his jacket.

He came up with a pistol.

Without hesitation, Jim shot him twice in the chest, the two bullets impacting in an area no larger than a quarter. The Marshal was dead so quickly, the small confident smile on his face remained even as his body toppled into the rear wall of the elevator and slid to the floor.

The two ambulance attendants jumped in surprise. "God, don't shoot!" one of them cried, his hands held high.

Jim just shot a cop! Blair thought wildly. The same little voice amended, Yeah, a cop who pulled a gun on us.

"Step out of the elevator," Jim ordered the two remaining men. They complied with great speed, their expressions shocked, their arms stretched high over their heads. "Lie down facing away from each other, hands out in front of you."

Again, the men seemed almost eager to obey and flopped on their bellies on the cool lobby tiles.

Jim walked over cautiously, his weapon never straying a millimeter from his suspects. First, he retrieved the Marshal's pistol, then confirmed with his fingers on a pulse point what his senses had already told him; the man was dead. Then he patted down the other two suspects. Both were armed. "Interesting accessories for ambulance attendants," he observed dryly.

In the distance, he heard the approaching wail of a police siren.

 

Part Sixteen

Jim sat at his desk, his hands motionless on the desktop, his gaze focused on nothing. He hadn't spoken since Simon had told him gruffly to wait.

Blair sat in the chair beside the desk and fidgeted. At least they hadn't put Jim in a holding cell. The Marshal had turned out to be legitimate, which should have landed Jim in hot water, but the armed ambulance attendants created enough doubt that Simon could cut him some slack without appearing to flaunt the rules.

On the surface, nobody in the bullpen behaved any differently, but Blair sensed an island of isolation extending around Jim's desk. Everyone had heard the facts--Jim had shot a cop, apparently in self-defense--and everyone had heard the rumors--it had happened over a woman. No one wanted to believe Jim had acted out of line, but his behavior lately had been pretty strange...

It felt as if hours had passed, but in reality it was only dusk. The bullpen was nearly deserted now. Blair had tried talking to Jim at first, but his partner's unresponsiveness finally had reduced him to silence. Simon walked in a few minutes later, accompanied by a stranger in a three-piece suit that practically screamed 'Fed'.

"Ellison, Sandburg, my office," Simon said.

Blair knew it was going to be bad. Usually, when there was heavy-duty internal cop stuff to discuss, he was left out and had to get his information second-hand from Jim. Now, if Simon wanted him included, it could only mean bad news. Was Jim going to get arrested? Unthinkable!

It was as if Jim had already worked it all out in his mind, accepted it, and was now just going through the required motions. His expression was studiously neutral as he walked calmly into Simon's office; it was his poker face, the one that gave nothing away. He sat down where Simon indicated, and Blair took up a position standing by his shoulder. There could be no doubt whose side he was on.

Simon introduced them to the stranger. "Special Agent Kyle Saunders, FBI. Agent Saunders, this is Detective Jim Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg."

"Gentlemen," Saunders said in a friendly tone. He didn't seem the least bothered by Jim's lack of acknowledgement.

"Where's Abby?" Jim asked quietly.

"She's safe," Saunders assured them, and Blair actually felt Jim tense at the non-answer. The FBI agent seemed to sense some of the hostility, and looked at Simon.

"Tell them," Simon ordered.

Saunders shrugged. "The woman you know as Abby McNeil took over her father's architecture firm back east about seven years ago. She met and married a corporate attorney who began to handle the firm's finances. He also worked for the Hanratty family--they're a small but powerful East Coast crime family with ties from Miami Beach to New York and Chicago. Hubby started laundering mob money through the company. Abby found out about it and came to us. She agreed to testify. Hubby tried to kill her. Six months later, she walked into a courtroom and put the bastard away for life. When he went down, a lot of the Hanratty family went down with him. We had her in witness protection, but she spooked and split. She's been making it on her own for over six months."

"What spooked her?" Simon asked.

"She thought she was being set up by one of our agents," Saunders admitted reluctantly. "Turns out the lady has good instincts. We've since taken care of the problem."

"And the U.S. Marshal?" Blair prompted, aware Jim hadn't moved or spoken since his initial question.

"Genuine, but on Hanratty's payroll, as were the two goons you arrested."

"But how did they find her?" Blair went on, sick with worry because Jim was being entirely too quiet.

Except it was Jim who answered the question. "Galliano," he said softly.

"Yes," Saunders confirmed. "He worked for the Hanratty's on one of Abby's sites. It's doubtful she'd ever laid eyes on him before, but she was responsible for getting him fired for using substandard material on one of her projects. Galliano recognized her at your place and called his former bosses. He collected a hundred-thousand in mob money for his excellent memory."

"So he and Mindy Parks have enough money to get away," Simon muttered angrily.

Blair couldn't believe it. Damn the fates that had brought Galliano and Abby into Jim's life at the same time. "So where's Abby now?"

Saunders shook his head. "As you may have guessed, Abby McNeil isn't her real name. She made up the identity herself, and did a damn good job of it, too. But we're putting her back in the program."

"Witness protection," Blair echoed numbly.

"It's for her own good," Saunders insisted. He looked at Jim, who still hadn't moved. "We're actually damn good at our job. But how well we succeed is going to depend a whole lot on her--and you."

Jim got up and walked out of the office, catching everyone by surprise. It took a few seconds for Blair to realize what had happened, and then he dashed after his partner. Jim had already left the bullpen, and Blair grabbed their coats before hurrying after him.

They went down the stairs to the main floor and out the front of the building. Jim turned right and started walking. Blair caught up to him and wordlessly handed over his coat before shrugging into his own.

He walked silently beside his friend, wondering how to break through the barrier of silence. At least Jim was cognizant of his surroundings; he had the sense to stop at red lights and wait for the green before proceeding.

Finally, Blair asked, "Where are we going?"

After a bit, Jim answered, "Nowhere." He stopped and looked around. They had walked to the business center of downtown. All around them rose impressive glass and granite monuments to the world's great bank and brokerage houses. It was long past normal business hours and the area was quiet, although one small coffeehouse remained open to catch the last customers. Without really thinking about it, Jim detoured inside the shop and bought two coffees before leading the way to the small patio, where tiny wrought-iron tables and heavy, unyielding chairs sat under a colorful awning.

He handed a cup to Blair before taking a sip from his own, then grimaced at the strong, burned flavor of French Roast. Still, its bitterness matched his mood.

Blair warmed his hands on the cup and waited silently, hunching in his jacket to ward off the faint chill of the gathering night.

"I could find her," Jim said as last, his voice quiet and flat. "That's what's so frightening. I could find her."

Blair felt a rush of despair. "Will you?"

Jim closed his eyes for a long moment, then shook his head before opening them again. "It would be too dangerous for her. I could get us both killed."

The relief Blair felt was followed by a stab of guilt. "Maybe she'll contact you."

"Not if she's as smart as I think she is," Jim answered softly, feeling an ache of loss building in his chest, knowing it was caused by his tumultuous emotions trying to regain some equilibrium. Hell, he'd known Abby a week...not enough time to know if he wanted to build a future with her. He remembered her drugged proclamation of love, and the ache intensified. Still, he refused to give in to it. To go to her meant giving up his job, his home...his partner. To go to her meant spending the rest of his life in hiding, pretending to be someone else, always on the alert for the error that would enable another killer to find her.

After several minutes of silence, Blair offered, "Maybe, when the time's right --" He let the words trail off, thinking they sounded hollow. "I'm really sorry, Jim."

Jim smiled slightly. "I know." He drained the last of his coffee--it was much worse cold --, and stood up. "Did you ever get those Jags tickets?"

Blair was startled. "Yeah. You still want to go to the game?"

"Junk food, noisy crowds, some wild court action," Jim speculated. "It's either that or drive myself crazy wondering if I'm doing the right thing."

"You're doing the right thing," Blair insisted, although he wasn't sure if his words were motivated by moral certainty or relief that Jim wasn't going to vanish from his life. "It's the right decision for both of you."

"Then let's grab a cab before I change my mind." Jim started off quickly, still moving away from the police station, still uncertain what would happen if he went back for the truck and ran into Agent Saunders.

The irony of the events was not lost on him. In seeking revenge for Jim's interrogation of Mindy Parks, Galliano had exacted a more hurtful retribution than he could have imagined. Now, the suspects were on the run...but at least they were together.

Furthermore, Jim was left with fantasies of what could have been, images infinitely sweeter than even the most perfect reality.

Beside him, Blair started talking about the Jags' starting forwards, both of whom were returning to the court after a bout of injuries had left them sidelined for several games. He had mixed feelings about it, because the substitutes had given outstanding performances to keep the team on its current winning streak.

Automatically, Jim tuned in to the rapid-fire monologue.

A block later, he was even listening.

THE END

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