Imperfections VII: Running up That Hill
See part one for notes and disclaimer.
The crime scene was hours old. Police and medics had trooped all over everything. Scent would have been pretty much a wash even if the van hadn’t been left in a filthy, stinking alley. Jim gave up on smell and concentrated on sight, looking for any stray objects or fluids that might carry even a little clue.
For two hours he paced the vehicle, the alley, the street nearby. He focused close and he focused far. He tried to relax and take in the big picture, hoping that the scattered facts of the image would come together and show him what had happened here. He found nothing. No stray hairs. No bright, shiny buttons. No discarded gum or cigarettes. No tire tracks. No foot prints. Blair stayed beside him, patient and encouraging. Long before Jim was ready to give up, it began to rain, washing away any traces of evidence he might have missed. Not that he’d missed anything. The scene had been as clean and perfect as if a sentinel had tidied it up.
They met up with Simon and Rafe at the county jail. They had managed to learn more than expected. Apparently hospitals weren’t the only public facility that was run by part-timers on the weekend. The order had appeared in the schedule: transport Brackett to Norwalk Psychiatric Hospital in Seattle for a five day evaluation. It was on the schedule, but there was no court order for it, not even a request from Brackett’s lawyer. There also wasn’t any obvious footprint showing when or how someone had slipped the transport order into the computer. Or even who the someone was. Serena from Caroline’s department was working on the jail’s IT records in an attempt to find out just what had happened.
The APB was already issued and Lee Brackett’s picture faxed to the airport. They had a black and white at the bus station. The media had been contacted, and the escape would be covered on the six o’clock news. But there were hundreds of roads leading out of town, not to mention the ferries and the thousands of private boats at anchor. In five hours, Brackett could be three hundred miles away or more.
There was no time for frustration, or to give in to the pointlessness of a trail so completely cold. Jim took Blair to the restaurants Lee had liked and the apartment he had rented. Maybe Jim was looking for traces by scent. In any case, he didn’t find any. They flashed the picture around, but nobody had seen him recently.
It was after dark before Jim ran out of non-ideas and headed back to the PD. "You need a car outside of Jack Kelso’s place," he told Rafe. "Just in case."
"In case of what?" Rafe asked, checking failed ideas off a list.
"Yeah," Blair said, "there are two sentinels there right now, and one of them is trained for espionage."
"Marcia isn’t thinking clearly and McKay thinks like an engineer. Brackett and I have history, and I’m an embarrassment to him, but what he feels for me is mainly contempt, not hatred or-or anger. It wasn’t me that brought him down, remember? It was Jack Kelso--who showed up just in time with a gun in order to stop Lee from killing me and establishing his credentials for his next career as a sentinel assassin."
Rafe winced. "Hell. Right." He picked up a phone. "How likely do you think it is he’ll try for revenge?"
"Not very. But if he does, I’m not at the top of the list."
The night sped on, tedious and pointless and *fast*. Brackett was gone and maybe getting further away every second. Jim refused to drive aimlessly around Cascade. That didn’t leave much to do. He waited, staring at the phone or pretending to check though Brackett’s file until almost midnight, when Simon ordered Sandburg to take him home.
The rain had stopped and the night was cold and foggy. Despite Sandburg’s shivering, Jim drove with the windows down. Maybe he would smell or hear something. Anything. Some sign. What was the point of being a sentinel?
"You should shower," Blair said, as they took off their coats.
"Oh, yeah," Jim said sourly. "So I can sleep. That’ll fix me right up."
"You hungry? How long ago was that pizza?"
"No," Blair muttered. "I’m not hungry."
Jim grunted and headed toward the stairs. "Set your alarm for early," he said.
Jim stripped and lay under the covers, breathing, resigned to a little rest before morning. Lee couldn’t hide forever, not with his picture everywhere. Where would he go?
Blair crept out of the bathroom and up the stairs to the loft. His hair was still wet. Jim could hear it dripping. His steps were slow and tentative, the careful tread of someone who couldn’t see in this light. Jim was hardly ever in a place so dark he couldn’t see where he was putting his feet.
Blair sat on the bed. "How are you doing?" he asked softly.
"I’m okay," Jim said.
"No, really. I’m okay."
Blair laid a warm hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Brackett is out there somewhere."
"I know. He’s a fugitive. No different from any other."
"Jim, he tried to kill you!"
"Yeah, him and eight other guys in the last year. No, nine. And that’s only counting the Sunset Patriots who actually pointed guns at me. If I counted them all collectively...."
"Yeah, very funny."
Jim sighed and turned onto his side, curling around Blair’s captured hand. "What about you? Are you all right?"
"Of—of course. Why wouldn’t I be?"
"You trained for years to be a guide. You staked your whole life on it. Then when you got one—-your only chance-—he turns out to be, well, kind of broken. And now the man who did it is free."
"Oh." Blair pulled his hand away and folded his arms, his feet tucked up under him. "Oh. Right. Actually, I used to be really angry. At Him. What He did to you. But Jack was right. *He* doesn’t matter. All that really matters is you. That you be all right."
"You’re thinking like a guide," Jim said, turning that over in his mind. "I’m really beginning... I get the whole guide thing. Hell, I’m beginning to get your point about friends. And family, even." Jim frowned, remembering the determined and committed little group in Jack’s kitchen. "I need you. And people we can trust. But you need to think like a cop, too. A criminal is out there. One of our cases." Jim could see him, uncertain and worried. "Sandburg, you’re my family. All by yourself, you make the case for why *having* a family is a good thing. But I need you to be my partner. I need you to think like a cop."
A sigh. A stirring. "Right. Okay. Keeping it professional." But he uncoiled and lay down on the bed, reaching out to pull the corner of the blanket over them both.
Jim didn’t expect to sleep, but the next thing he knew the phone was ringing and the bedside clock said 5:30 am.
The phone rang only once, but it seemed supernaturally loud. A jolt of fear stabbed down Blair’s spine, and he lurched upward. Somehow, he tripped over Jim’s ankles and had to scramble to keep from falling off the bed.
Jim, his movements graceful and calm, sat up and answered the phone before the second ring. "Ellis—Where? I’ll be right there....You’re kidding me. How long ago? No, no. We’re coming in."
"What?" Blair asked.
Jim sighed and hung up the phone. "We almost had him. At the airport." Jim got out of bed and fetched some clean underwear from the drawer. "Pre-boarding a flight to France. We lost him."
"What happened?" Blair got shakily to his feet, scrubbing at his face with his hands. Really, there had not been enough sleep. It wasn’t even six yet.
"He stole a taxicab. It’s complicated, something about a large party of elderly tourists. Get dressed. Let’s go."
The mess at the airport had apparently been very funny, if you liked farce. Brackett had been in disguise, trying to travel as part of a tour group. One of the other members of the party had tripped and fallen into him. Brackett had fallen, too, snagged his fake beard in someone’s luggage, and spectacularly revealed himself as warranting a second look from everyone, including security and the check-in clerk: the airport staff wasn’t as perceptive as one might hope at five in the morning, but a counterfeit codger got their attention. The security guard identified Brackett from the APB.
Brackett, not being a particularly nice guy, grabbed the nearest senior citizen and used her as a human shield as he fled backwards out the door. Once on the sidewalk, the elderly woman began to beat her kidnapper in the head with her very heavy purse. Brackett had released her and pounced on the nearest cab driver, giving the man a concussion and taking off in his vehicle. It was all over in less than three minutes.
At the airport, three security guards and a manager watched in rapt concentration while Jim went through the suitcase Brackett had abandoned. It contained exactly what you would expect from a single, elderly gentleman going on vacation to France. There wasn’t a scrap of evidence. "I’m not even sure Lee packed this. It hardly smells like him."
"What does it smell like?" Blair asked dutifully.
"Laundry. This was all very recently washed. It’s all new, unused. A woman packed it, I think...she didn’t have much of a smell, though."
By about seven-thirty, it was clear that Jim wasn’t going to find anything he could use. Blair talked him into hitting an IHOP for breakfast before returning to the PD.
When they got back to the bullpen, Jim found a list of eleven names in his email. It was labeled ‘known associates’—-apparently of Lee Brackett. Blair spent the next hour trying to backtrack the email. No luck. He pulled out every trick he could think of, and then every trick Serena could think of. There was no trace.
Jim shrugged and said, "Dollars to donuts it was a friend of Jack. And it’s the only lead we have." He spent the morning trying to locate the people on the list. Four were out of the country. One was in a federal prison. One was in a hospital in Los Angeles. One was *probably* dead. Four were unaccounted for. Spending the morning fussing with credit card records and calling strangers on the phone (relatives and former employers of the ‘known associates’) was pleasantly tedious. It distracted Blair from endless questions of where Brackett was and what he was doing. Someone out there was probably helping Brackett. Almost definitely, if he’d made it this long....of course, with their luck, Brackett’s accomplice was probably the ‘dead’ one.
Meanwhile, they learned nothing from the debacle at the airport. The tickets had been purchased with cash two weeks before (which did imply enough organization and planning to make everyone nervous) by a young woman who had claimed it was a surprise birthday gift for her widowed father.
Wonderful. Just fantastic.
"Jim, I was thinking about lunch? Mave’s is open on Sunday. I could go get us some sandwiches. Something with whole wheat bread and vegetables?" Everyone in Major Crimes who had had the weekend off had come in to work the Brackett case. Even Joel had come in to donate time, and he was stationed in another department.
"Sure, fine," Jim said, not looking up from his computer. "Nothing with sprouts."
"You got it." Blair started to lean past him to snare his jacket off the hook behind the desk, and Jim’s hand snapped out and seized him.
"Who’s going with you?"
"Going with me?" Blair asked, surprised.
"You’re not going anywhere alone, Chief."
"But--" he considered the pros and cons of arguing this. It hardly seemed worth it. "Right. I’m not going anywhere alone."
Jim’s phone rang. He pounced on it hopefully. "Ellison. Who?...Yeah, thanks." He hung up, sighing.
"Stephen’s downstairs at the front desk. He’s asking to see me."
"I can’t—-I can’t talk to him right now. I—-what would I say?"
"Jim, he’s your brother."
"Look—-Just—-can you just tell him I’ll stop by his office in a few days."
Jim looked earnest and hopeful. "Cut me a break here, Chief, come on."
"All right. Fine." Grumbling to himself that he was in *big* trouble if his sentinel had already figured out how to manipulate him, Blair headed to the elevator.
Stephen was seated on one of the sleek benches in the main foyer. The room wasn’t particularly crowded, but it was clear that Stephen would have preferred to be *much* further away from the grubby, weeping woman on his left and the bearded biker with multiple tattoos seated on his right. As soon as he saw Blair he leaped to his feet.
"Is Jim okay?"
"Yeah, he’s fine." Blair led Stephen out of the public area and into the first floor conference room. "Jim’s in the middle of a meeting. His hands are completely full." The lie felt cheap and unkind.
"He doesn’t want to see me," Stephen guessed.
Blair sighed. Not only cheap and unkind, but also transparent. "Not today. We really are right in the middle.... Well, it’s been on the news, hasn’t it?"
"Is there anything I can do?"
Blair closed his eyes. "I really appreciate the offer. I think Jim would too, but this is...."
"A bad time. A bad time to turn up and offer help." He started to step back, paused, looked Blair up and down. "Are you a good guide?"
"I’m trying very hard to be," Blair whispered.
When he got back to Major Crime, Jim and Rafe were in Simon’s office with the door shut. Joel was sitting at Brown’s desk holding the phone handset and staring at it sadly. "Something wrong?" Blair asked, perching on the edge of the desk.
"I was supposed to meet Marcia tonight. I was calling to cancel. You know, the case....She says now isn’t a good time, and she can’t see me again."
Blair blinked. "Oh."
Sighing, Joel put the phone down. "I thought things went pretty well. She seemed to have a good time. I really thought.... at least she was nice about it. I’ve never been dumped quite so nicely before." He smiled wanly, trying to joke. "Does it count as being dumped if you’ve only had the one actual date?"
Blair thought about privileged information and tried to gage just how much he could say. "She really wasn’t giving you the brush-off," he said. "Things have been pretty hard lately. She’s had a bad year. And Jack’s injury--"
"He’s been out of the hospital for over a week now."
Blair thought about what he knew from his professional relationship with Jack and Jim and what his role was as their friend. Dr. Kelso hadn’t been serving as Blair’s academic advisor when he’d been shot. Blair hadn’t been acting as Dr. Kelso’s field supervisee when they’d rushed over on a Saturday to help out when Marcia lost it. It was as much about friendship as about doing good work, and sometimes friends meddled. "Jack’s been having a hard time. The shooting wasn’t that bad. But there have been some complications because of his disability. We’ve all been really worried."
Joel winced. "Thanks, Blair. But it still doesn’t wash. Marcia refusing to have any fun isn’t going to improve the situation."
"You like her," Blair said. "You like her a lot. But you’ve got to be really patient, here, Joel, if you want it to go anywhere."
Joel shrugged stiffly. "It’s not going anywhere, Blair. She doesn’t--"
"She’s a sentinel. And having a guide, it isn’t like having a friend." Blair thought of his meeting with Stephen downstairs. "Or even a brother. Having a guide is almost like having a parent, or a child. If the relationship works, it lasts for years. And it’s a very, very close relationship."
"Adrian and Sharona--"
"Don’t have a usual relationship. Most partners don’t need nearly as much, ah, space as they do." Blair sighed. "I dunno, Joel. Maybe I told you the wrong thing before. Maybe there’s nothing ‘normal’ about dating a sentinel. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be as *good* as being involved with someone else. But there will always be the senses. And the guide. And the vulnerabilities. And with Marcia, a really *complicated* professional history."
Joel looked down at the desk, thinking.
"If you really like her, give it a month or two and try again. Let her get her feet under her again. In the meantime, I apparently need a bodyguard to go with me if I want to go out and grab some lunch. Hungry?"
He watched as Joel dragged himself back to the present moment. "Pick up some pizza?" he suggested.
"Sandwiches. We could get a variety platter at Mave’s."
Blair spent most of the afternoon (while he wasn't running fruitless background checks and credit card searches) wishing he could talk to Jack Kelso. It was impossible, of course. Jack couldn't spare either the energy or the attention for this right now.
That didn't stop Blair from wishing.
He didn't know exactly when he'd developed this uncertain and dependent streak. During the academic part of his training, he'd never needed a lot of help. Apparently there was a reason the first year in the field was supervised, and Blair had had a touchier first assignment than most.
Right now he couldn't tell how well Jim was handling things. Or pretending to handle things. After all he had gone through surviving Brackett's negligence and attempts at revenge murder, after finally bringing Brackett in...having the county jail lose him. It wasn’t fair. Jim didn’t deserve this. And he sure as hell didn’t need it.
Blair breathed. And calmed himself. And got back to work.
Meanwhile, Jim and Joel and Rafe and Simon grasped at straws, pretending that they were following leads, each idea running into a dead end, a brick wall, or a fizzle.
At 8:30 Jim put his head in his hands and sighed. Blair could see Simon pacing in his office. In a moment he would come out and send them home. Blair wondered how safe it was to take Jim home, and whether it was even worth it trying to get him to spend the night in a motel.
When Rafe's phone rang, everyone glanced up hopefully, then looked away in resignation. No one wanted to admit to hope; this wouldn't be a break either. A few seconds after Rafe picked up, though, Jim jumped to his feet. Blair barely had time to grab their jackets as Jim paused to eavesdrop on enough of the conversation to find out where they were going.
By the time they reached the SUV, Jim’s police radio was spitting out the details of a full fledged police chase. Blair clung to the dash and tried to picture the geography of Cascade in his head while Jim drove like a madman toward the other side of town. "Do we have any idea what happened?" Blair asked.
Jim shrugged, took a turn on two wheels. "Somebody spotted him in a convenience store off Southerland."
The world streaked by outside the windows. With the police light flashing on the dash, Blair didn’t know how Jim was seeing.
Brackett was heading north on the bypass. Two uniforms and a detective team from homicide had been dispatched to cut them off and they were almost in position. It might be over before they got there. Blair hoped so—
"*Repeat, suspect has exited onto Kensington road.*"
There was another scramble over the radio. Blair counted at least eight cruisers participating in the chase and five more on the way. This would definitely make tomorrow’s news.
"*This is T-niner. We have the suspect in sight headed south on Blakely. Repeat--*" The radio sputtered and blanked for a moment. "*Damn. Oh, fuck. We need EMS at the intersection of Blakely and Maxwell.*"
Jim didn’t brake as he took the next turn. Barely breathing, Blair listened as the officer on the scene reported that the suspect had driven at a pretty good speed into the piling of an overpass. There was fire and a small explosion. The officer couldn’t get close enough to tell if the suspect was still alive or not.
There were half a dozen black and whites clogging the street when Jim pulled into the parking lot of a back-end computer repair shop and shut the motor off. "Stay with me," he snapped at Sandburg. The fire department hadn’t arrived yet, but Jim could hear the sirens coming down Portland Ave, and an ambulance was just pulling into the opening beside the rearmost police car.
The fire was piercingly bright and cast impossible shadows everywhere. Through the flames Jim could barely make out the shape of a sedan. Whatever color it had been was melted now. Jim stalked through the obstacle course of police cars and milling bodies. He couldn’t see into the inferno. Was anyone alive in there? He couldn’t hear. There couldn’t--there couldn’t be screaming. Not after all these seconds, these minutes. If Brackett was alive--
Jim shied away. If Brackett was alive, Jim didn’t want to watch his horrible death. It was something too intimate for someone so ugly. At the same time, Jim had to know if Lee Brackett was still alive. If there was any chance he could be brought out alive, still be in Jim’s life, still--
Jim shied back from the heat, stumbling back into the bumper of the nearest police car. He stared at the bright flames, trying to see through them, but they only whited out his vision. He could smell smoke and burnt hydrocarbons and charred flesh. Dizzy and blinded, his stomach heaved. Strong hands and Blair’s scent enveloped him. Blair turned him to the side, held him as he puked on the pavement. Blair was speaking, but Jim didn’t know what he said. The world was gray and spinning. He’d lost the senses completely, his own fault, not Blair’s, not even Lee’s this time. Wide open and focused completely on the fire. An idiot’s mistake.
He’d wanted Lee Brackett locked up, a prisoner, a convict. Out of sight and out of mind. Just another criminal Jim had caught and testified against and put away.
Long before Jim was ready to move, Blair was relentlessly tugging him to his feet and dragging him back. Jim didn’t understand until Blair shook him and shouted, "Fire-retardant foam, James. Big no-no, remember? Get. Back."
It hurt to look toward the fire, but Jim could smell the firefighters now, feel the vibration of the tanker truck’s pumps. Right. Move. He let himself be guided away.
Away from the fire, the night was cold. Jim sat hunched against the bumper of one of the black and whites while Blair waited, rigid and calm at his side. One hand was wrapped around Jim’s wrist, the only visible concession Blair made to his duty. Simon joined them not long after. "It’ll be a couple of hours before the car’s cooled down enough to get the body out. There’s no point in waiting around."
"I didn’t have any plans," Jim said, surprised how bland he sounded.
Simon sighed. "Jim, I would rather you not be here."
"Great. Get your ass home." He continued over Jim’s attempt at protest. "In case you haven’t noticed, Detective, this is a disaster. Our suspect is *dead*. A suspect who was wanted for his crimes against a cop. This does not look good. I’m just praying to god it doesn’t look even worse when we finish investigating it. In the meantime, your involvement isn’t helping things. I want you far away from this. Bodily far away. Go home."
"I might be able to--"
"Monk is on his way in. I don’t need you. Go home."
Jim looked at the tangled, blackened metal. The protest died on his tongue. It was just habit keeping him here. There was nothing to see, nothing to do, no evidence to collect, no suspect to process. Lee’s body was of no use to him. It was over. "Fine. We’re going home."
Blair drove. He put Jim in the passenger seat with the emergency blanket spread over him. The radio was set to an oldies station and turned up loudly enough that Jim couldn’t hear anything outside the car. On the way, Blair went through a drive-through--unusual enough by itself--and ordered Jim a root beer. "No caffeine, but lots of sugar. You don’t have to drink it all."
That was the only thing Blair said until he had Jim in the bathroom with the water running and a fresh towel folded up on the back of the toilet. Then, he said, "It’s okay, Jim, if you’re glad he’s dead. It’s okay."
There was no answer to that.
Sandburg was relaxed, almost cheerful, the next day. He was like an ant scurrying around the loft as he got ready for work. Eggs and bagels for both of them for breakfast. The garbage run down to the dumpster outside. A gym bag packed with toiletries and a change of clothes for both of them.
And all the time he was running around doing three or four things at once, Sandburg was smiling with relief. He smelled almost happy. Brackett was dead. Gone. Not their problem anymore.
Jim just wished he could forget.
When they stepped out of the elevator on the sixth floor, Sharona Fleming was waiting in the hallway. She smelled of fragrance-free shampoo and worry and the morgue. "Adrian found a problem," she said. "You need to come take a look."
They got back on the elevator and headed to the morgue.
Dan Wolfe was standing beside the door to the autopsy room. He was the picture of resigned patience, his arms folded, his eyes on the floor. "Don’t look at me," he said. "I’m waiting for the dental records to arrive."
Adrian was pacing a broad circle around the table. At the sight of the blackened remains, Blair stumbled and fell back. Jim glanced at him, but settled for tracking his guide with hearing and turned back to what was laid out on the table. It was mostly bone. Some of it was missing completely.
Not bothering with tact--and what possible use was tact in a moment like this, anyway?--Monk said, "I think this body was dead before the fire, but at this point that’s just a," he frowned distastefully, "feeling. The lab work isn’t back yet. Also, he’s the wrong build. I don’t think this is our suspect." Adrian looked a little wigged out. The idea of a guide turning out to be homicidal and kind of a sadist besides was really upsetting to a guy who’d been taught to trust guides since kindergarten.
"He’s the right height and age," Wolfe said from his post by the door. "I’m not taking any position until I’ve got something conclusive in my hand."
The hair was completely burned off and also the scalp. No help there. Nothing left for fingerprints, either. Jim stared at the body. Wondering. Who was this? Jim’s own personal nightmare? Or some innocent who’d been in the wrong car at the wrong time?
But no, Adrian had been right about that, at least. This man hadn’t been killed in the fire. Not all that long ago, Jim had been working a complicated arson case. He knew what a body looked like when it was killed by fire. What it smelled like.
The lips were gone. The teeth were wrong. Lee hadn’t had that tiny overlap in his two bottom font teeth. "Save yourself some time and start lining up missing persons," Jim said to Wolfe. "We’re through here, Chief."
Rafe interviewed the convenience store manager who had first called in the Brackett sighting the previous night. Jim stood in the corner of the interrogation room, listening to the man’s body, testing for truth. The kid was young and jumpy, and not very bright. Yes, he’d gotten a good look at the suspect. Yes, he’d seen the car the man got into. He was sure about the license plate. He hadn’t recognized Brackett’s picture from the news, though. He hadn’t even noticed the man until the other customer, a woman who’d come in to pay for her gas, had prodded him.
It was the truth, every word. Jim was certain. Ted or Blake or Ed or whatever was nervous and irritated by the long interview, but he didn’t smell like lies or guilt.
"Describe the woman," Rafe said.
"Hot. You know. Tall. And big...you know."
Rafe sighed. "Hair color."
"I dunno. Red? No, Blond. Maybe. I wasn’t looking at her *hair*."
"Did you get a name? Any chance she paid with a credit card?"
"Cash. She was really excited, you know? A real live escaped criminal and everything. Did I mention she was hot?"
Rafe glanced up at Jim. Jim shook his head. This had nowhere else to go. He stalked out into the hall to find Blair and Simon waiting for him. "Set up," he said shortly. "Apparently he had a plan B."
Simon grunted. "So the sighting, the chase, the accident--"
"All of it, staged," Jim said.
"I better reinstate that APB." Simon turned away and headed toward the elevator.
Jim watched him go. "It’s too late," he said. "He’s gone. We’ve lost him."
"We don’t know that," Blair said, trying to sound hopeful and supportive. "If he wanted to leave, he could have gone by car any time in the last couple of days. He’s still here. Probably up to something nasty. Which, all right, is *not* good news, but still--"
Jim nodded toward the end of the hall. The black jaguar was back. It looked pissed. Its ears were flat against its head and the look in its eyes was pure frustration. "I’m seeing animals again. The cat isn’t hunting. Brackett’s long gone."
Blair looked around. "Where?" he asked, even though he himself had only seen animals once.
Jim pointed. "There," he said. The jaguar was gone, though.
They spent the rest of the day going through the motions, pretending they had a hope in hell of apprehending their escapee. Lee Brackett hadn’t even lived in Cascade a year before he was arrested. There were no obscure old haunts or good friends to stake out. His picture was all over the news again, not that it would do any good. The same list of names that had given them nothing yesterday gave them nothing today. Simon and Rafe were edgy and pissed, feeling as though their prey was slipping from their grasp. For his part, Jim knew it was already too late.
At four o’clock, he tossed the towel in and gave up. Simon, who had been watching him all day, only sighed and reminded him to keep his cell on. Rafe, though, was surprised. "Jim, I’ve seen you chase down stupid, nothing leads for *weeks*," he protested.
Jim leaned in, lowering his voice. "Brian, it’s not your fault. I was there last night, too. He probably walked out right past both of us. All of us. It was dark." Not that that should have mattered to a sentinel, but Jim had been stupid and emotional and useless. Lee would have to have been within range of Jim’s hearing, if he hadn’t been so intent on listening to the fire. "It happens. By now, he’s out of our jurisdiction. There’s nothing left to find."
They didn’t go home. It was their turn to babysit Jack and Marcia. Jim hadn’t forgotten. When they pulled up in front of Jack’s one-story craftsman style house, Sheppard’s red Maxima was still parked out front; they weren’t late.
"You okay?" Blair asked.
Jim opened his mouth to answer automatically and paused, wondering if he was going to have to lie. "I’m...okay." He reached into the back seat and snagged the bag Blair had packed that morning. He looked up and down the street. There was no one to be seen. Was this his usual caution? Or was he more alert, now that he knew that Brackett was alive and free? Was he afraid?
It didn’t matter. Brackett was far away. Somewhere Jim couldn’t reach him. He’d been trained to disappear. Probably nobody would be able to reach him.
He could hear McKay inside the house. "Did you remember everything? How many socks did you pack?"
A sigh that Jim could hear too clearly. He paused, trying to back his hearing off a bit. It didn’t work. "I had a list, Rodney. I’ve got everything."
"What about the pharmacy? Oh god, did you remember to pick up a new emergency kit? This one expires tomorrow. I know we might have some leeway there, but I don’t want to risk--"
"No, Rodney, I didn’t remember the pharmacy. It’s not my job to look after you, and I don’t care if you live or die anyway, so I blew it off."
There was an edge to the words that made Jim hesitant to interrupt. He caught Blair’s hand has he reached for the doorbell. "Wait," he murmured, trying to shift his attention from the discussion inside to the squirrel in the tree behind them.
"I didn’t mean *that*. I’m not. I don’t. I know--"
"Yes, you do. You know you can trust me. But my job would be a hell of a lot easier if you remembered that more often." The sound of movement, a rustle of clothing.
"I’m sorry. You know I don’t—Look, the smell is just getting to me, all right? You have no idea. They’re both leaking all kinds of anxiety and misery. It’s making me crazy."
"Rodney. You can’t smell emotions."
"Don’t cloud the point."
"The *point* is, you need to calm down. I know it’s been stressful, being here with everybody having such a bad time. But you need to let that go. And try to remember that the reason your emergency kit is outdated is that you aren’t going through two or three of them a year anymore, hmmm?"
"Right. Right. Everything’s fine."
"Right.... Hmmm. We have company."
Wincing, hoping he hadn’t been caught eavesdropping, Jim pushed the doorbell. Marcia, hair lank and eyes distracted, opened the door. She didn’t bother to be rude, but stood back to let them in and closed the door behind them. "We’ve heard the news," she said with slightly flattened sympathy. "I’m sorry."
Jim didn’t want to talk about it. "The case is still open," he said. "We’re still looking."
She shook her head once, sadly. She had spent years working with men like Brackett. She knew how slim the chances of catching him were now. He’d had days. He’d had help. He’d had about twelve hours of nobody looking for him.
"Jim, you have the fold-out couch in the den. Blair, the couch in the living room." She was polite, but she wouldn’t meet their eyes. Marcia didn’t really want them there. Big surprise.
Jack was in the living room saying his good-byes to Sheppard and McKay. Sheppard drew Marcia aside for a final word and McKay leaned down to hug Jack, who was in his wheelchair. Jim tensed, expecting Marcia to warn McKay away, but she scarcely seemed to notice that another sentinel was touching her guide.
"I left a pot roast in the crock pot," McKay said, squeezing Jack’s shoulder and stepping back. "You’ll want to put the potatoes in in about twenty minutes."
In just a few moments McKay and Sheppard, like a brisk, efficient whirlwind, were gone. The house seemed strangely silent.
"I’ll go wash potatoes," Marcia said, turning on her heel and heading for the kitchen.
"I’ll do that," Jim said, tossing the overnight bag on a chair and hurrying after her. He caught up with her in the kitchen. "Let me get that."
Lifting a cord sack of potatoes from the pantry, Marcia looked Jim up and down impatiently. "I can wash potatoes. You aren’t here because we’re completely incapacitated. You’re here because we’re crazy."
Jim took the potatoes from her and set them on the counter. He would rather not get involved with her purported ‘craziness’, but at this point there wasn’t much choice. He and Blair had volunteered to be there for their friends. As much as Jim didn’t want to have a heart to heart with Marcia, even doing that would barely cover a down payment on what he owed Jack. “You got overwhelmed. It’s no big deal.”
Briefly, her familiar arrogance and irritation flared in her eyes. “Gee, thanks. That’s so reassuring. Coming from all your experience.”
Jim sighed. “Okay, fine. I’ve got no training and no experience. I’m just the big, stupid cop. So cut me a break here. You’re the one with all the experience. You tell me what I’m doing here. Minus the bullshit about you being ‘crazy.’”
She sighed and looked away. Jim tried a discreet sniff, trying to judge her state of mind by scent. He wondered if he was being rude. Was it polite to smell a sentinel he wasn’t friendly with? She smelled a little like anger but mostly like exhaustion. She didn’t answer.
“Okay, tell me something else. Since I’m ignorant and all. Why do you give me dirty looks when I sit in the same room as Jack and you let McKay hug him?”
“McKay is harmless. He grew up learning how to treat a guide. *You* are ignorant and dangerous.” Her eyes narrowed. “And ex-army.”
“So what does that mean? I’m some kind of psycho?”
“It takes one to know one,” she said sadly.
*** “Er. So,” Blair asked as he returned from storing the overnight bag in the den, “Have you named the puppy yet?”
Jack glanced up from the notebook in his lap, his eyes seeking the small form under the TV. The puppy was chewing on a plastic hamburger and ignoring them. “No. Marcia is calling him ‘Anonymous Source.’”
“As in, when we find a puddle, there has clearly been a leak from an anonymous source.”
“Oh.” That was funny, if you were kind of cynical. Blair folded his arms, feeling awkward. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, but you can take these away. I think I’m done for now.” Jack held out the legal pad and pen. “Thanks.”
“Do you want to go and lie down?” It felt like he was transgressing, asking too personal a question. But he’d come here to help, so presumably, he’d have to actually help.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You look uncomfortable,” Blair pushed. The math Blair did in his head suggested that Jack was in his middle forties. The man sitting here seemed twenty years older. He was pale and drawn, and his movements were hesitant and stiff.
“I am uncomfortable in any position. At least sitting up I can breathe properly.” Not giving Blair a chance to respond, Jack changed the subject. “What is the latest word on Brackett?”
“Not a trace. Jim thinks he’s already gone to ground somewhere.”
Jack took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Wonderful,” he muttered. “At least he’ll never practice as a guide again. We have that much....”
Blair shook his head. “He can fake an ID. Not everybody checks the credentials carefully. He might be able to land a job somewhere.”
“No, we’ll use the press on this. Lee Brackett will be infamous. He won’t get near a sentinel anywhere in the English-speaking world.”
“Oh,” Blair said, “Yeah?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. For what it’s worth. How is Jim taking it?”
“He’s functioning. But he won’t talk about it. I didn’t want to force it while we were in the middle of the case, but Jim is sure Brackett has flown. It’s over. There is nothing we can do. And—and I don’t know, Jack. I just don’t know.”
“Can you get a few days off? Get him out of town for a while?”
Blair shook his head. “We just did that. Jim with time on his hands isn’t usually a good thing. He tends to....”
Jack sighed. “Watch him. I wish I could give you better advice, but you’ll have to take your cues from him.”
The stew McKay had left for dinner was good, but Blair had no appetite. With Jack, Jim, and Marcia all putting their dinners away with grim determination, he felt shamed into cleaning his own plate.
After dinner, Blair did the dishes while Jim and Marcia helped Jack get ready for bed. Blair had some doubt about that plan. Despite any help they’d been so far, Marcia still kept her body between Jack and Jim as much as possible. Even leaving aside Marcia’s overprotective tendencies, she and Jim didn’t get along.
They didn’t have much choice. Although Jack was able to manage transfers himself, he still needed a spotter, and Marcia wasn’t really strong enough to take his weight if he fell. Putting Jim and Marcia in the same household for a couple of days wasn’t a perfect situation, but it was better than letting Marcia follow her guide into the hospital or leaving them to try to manage alone.
Blair was just putting the last cup in the dishwasher when the phone rang. “Blair Sandburg.”
“*Why isn’t your partner answering his phone?*” Simon growled without greeting.
“He’s busy right now. What’s up?”
There was a short, unhappy pause, and Blair felt his heart sink. “*Somebody just spotted Brackett in a bus station in Vancouver*.”
“Let me guess. He got away.”
“*Yeah. Looks like it. By the time the cops arrived, he’d given security the slip*.”
“Well, great. Canada.”
“*Canada, if he didn’t get out on one of the busses. Or make it on to a boat*. He hasn’t gone through their airport, we think. But that’s not worth much.”
“Right. Okay. I’ll tell Jim. Thanks, Simon.”
Blair waited until Jim came out to the living room before telling him. Jim nodded to show he’d heard and then went to find clean sheets for the fold-out bed in the den. It was about the response Blair had expected. Brackett’s clean escape wasn’t actually news, after all. Blair put on his jacket and found the puppy chewing on the leg of the kitchen table. With the ready excuse of taking it out for a potty break, he slipped out of the house. The puppy, shivering in the drizzle, did his business very quickly, but Blair waited down by the sidewalk until he was sure he wasn’t going to cry.