New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson

Father Figure
by Sheila Paulson

Summary: After meeting Jim's father, Blair recalls an incident that took place when he was fifteen. A crossover with Riptide.

Rated: PG.

Author's Notes: Originally published in Sentry Post 5.

Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, I just borrow them.

"Hey, Jim, I've got a question."

Ellison turned from the microwave that was preparing him a steak. Tonight, he felt entitled to lots of fat and cholesterol and all the stuff Sandburg didn't approve of. It had been a rough case, dredging up all those memories out of his past, dealing with his father, rushing to his father's rescue in the nick of time. Even now, he wasn't sure how well he could get along with the older Ellison. He'd made his peace with Stephen, but his dad -- that would take some thought, some time, maybe more patience than he possessed.

Blair had been excited about the whole experience. Maybe because he had no known father of his own, he'd almost been envious of Jim's. He'd certainly stared at him hard enough while everything wrapped up. Satisfied with the reunion, he'd even tried to buddy up to Simon, who was probably the closest thing in his life to a father figure. Simon wasn't sure if he was kidding or being serious -- a doubt Jim often had about Sandburg himself -- and didn't know which choice was preferable. Jim smothered a smile at the memory of Simon fending off the eager anthropologist.

"What question, Sandburg?"

Blair piled mystery food into a bowl; it looked like twigs and berries, an incompatible mishmash that Jim would eat only on pain of death. He glanced up, tilting his head at an angle, hair sliding down to cover one eye. "Do you have any relatives in Southern California? Well, any that lived there in the mid '80s?"

Jim frowned, remembering. He had a few cousins, uncles and aunts spread around. Some of them he'd never met. His dad wasn't much for family reunions, and his mom hadn't been around to introduce family members. There was his cousin Rucker. But Southern California? La La Land? Home of Hollywood? "None I ever met, anyway. Why? I think my dad has some cousins on the east coast, but I never met them. For all I know, they could have moved out to California years ago. I don't remember us ever getting Christmas cards from them when I was a kid. Why?"

"It's just, I met a guy once who looked a lot like your dad. His last name was Allen."

Jim couldn't remember the married name of his father's sister. He didn't think he'd seen her since he was about eight. It could have been Allen. For all he knew, it could have been Kowalski or Hassan or McGillicuddy. He shrugged. "Where'd you meet the Allen guy?" he asked idly. Blair sounded a little thoughtful, but he didn't look like he'd known this Allen very well. Resemblances were weird things, anyway. Jim had once met a woman at the Cascade airport once who insisted he was an investigator she had known in Hawaii a few years earlier. He'd finally resorted to showing her his driver's licence, but she had looked doubtful, backed off only because of something she'd mumbled about the witness protection program. He let her go, deciding he didn't want to know.

Blair poured milk over his concoction (skim, of course). "It was the summer I ran away," he said reminiscently.

The microwave dinged and Jim pulled out his steak and plopped it on the plate with his mashed potatoes. He shook some A1 sauce over the meat and scooped butter onto the potatoes. Blair winced at the cholesterol disaster. "You? Ran away?" Jim asked in surprise. "I thought Naomi was the greatest mother in the history of the universe."

"She was, Jim. She is. But that summer she picked up a new guy, Paul Darrin, and I just had to get out of there. I was fifteen and I just couldn't take him. Naomi was crazy about him. First time I ever was afraid she was serious enough about somebody to consider marrying him. The last guy she'd been with had been so great I'd had my fingers crossed she would marry him but she didn't. This time would have been so crummy in comparison... I figured I had to back off and give her space, because if I stayed I'd have wound up killing the guy." He saw Jim's eyebrows lift and shook his head vigorously. "No, man, it wasn't like that. He never tried anything on, he wasn't a pervert or pedophile. He was just -- it was like oil and water. The minute I saw him, he made my skin crawl. Weird because I think he was probably a decent guy, honest, had a good job and all. But I couldn't take him. Maybe I was getting too old for the 'new father' routine Mom peddled. She always made the guys seem like they'd be dads to me while they were there -- if they didn't treat me right, they were out the door so fast their heads spun. This guy, Darrin -- I'd rather have had Attila the Hun for a 'new father' than him. But Naomi loved him. So I took off for the summer."

"Without any warning? The way Naomi is about you she must have gone ballistic."

"She'd probably have approved if I'd talked to her about it. She said I needed to find out who I was and what I wanted, and that if I had to go looking for the Blair inside, she was all for it. But I didn't tell her. I knew he'd try to stop me. He was good at feeding me lectures about how I was nearly a man and had responsibilities to life and to Naomi. He'd have made me feel like I was shirking or something. So I went. I left her a note, said I was going to go searching for myself and that I'd be back in time to go to school. We traveled around a lot and I'd missed a little school, and I already knew I wanted to do college and study anthropology so I didn't want to miss any more. Jed -- the guy before this jerk -- had really encouraged me, got me the right kind of books. He had some contact with the Native American tribes in the area, and he took me to a Kwakutl potlatch. He helped me make up a bunch of ceremonial gifts, and it was great. The new guy kept putting all that stuff down."

"Sounds like a jerk, all right," Jim muttered wryly, wondering to himself, not for the first time, if he didn't squash Blair's unrestrained enthusiasms more often than he should.

Blair's eyes came up from his health cereal as if he'd heard Jim's unspoken thought; the kid was good at that. "You aren't like him, Jim," he said quickly. "Anyway, I took off. I hitched a ride down to Southern California. We'd been living in northern Oregon that year. I thought I'd surf, hang out at the beach. I had some money Jed had given me when he and Naomi did their 'detach with love' bit and I figured Jed would have said to blow the whole thing, learning how to be independent and how to be me. It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be..."

The first two weeks had been... interesting. Okay, so everything cost more than he thought it would, especially once he hit California, but he found a couple guys and a girl his own age to hang out with and they had a crash pad right on the beach. Blair didn't like the experience as much as he thought he would. They were all a little older and determined to be free, but Blair was pretty sure that Sharon was hooking for money and that one of the guys was, too. There was a look in their eyes, in spite of their defiance, that suggested their spirit had been broken, and it scared him. He didn't intend to go that route.

Then, one morning, Blair woke up, groggy and confused, to find himself alone in the crash pad and all his money gone. Even his Nikes were gone. They'd taken what they could, leaving him his jeans, one tee shirt, and a battered pair of sandals, and the backpack he'd been so proud of had vanished. From the crummy way he felt, he suspected they had put something in the beer Norm had given him the night before so they could rob him and get out without being caught.

For a long time he sat there, dazed and blinking back tears, waiting for his head to stabilize. He'd never done drugs. He'd seen some of Naomi's friends using when he was little, and once, when he was about five he'd taken something because a lot of people at a party were. When Naomi had found him shivering, hiding under the back steps, babbling about monsters chasing him, she was so angry Blair had feared a monster was making her act that way. He realized later she wasn't mad at him but at the fact that he'd been able to get drugs so easily. After that, he never had a chance to do it again. When he was old enough to understand, she'd told him scare stories from the sixties, some of her own experiences and rotten things that had happened to friends of hers. "When you're old enough to understand, you can choose for yourself," she'd said. "Talk to me first if you're thinking about it, baby."

Remembering that experience and this one, Blair pushed himself up and put on his clothes, then he walked down the street to the faucet on the side of a building where they got water and drank some, washed his face and hands, and turned away. Now he had nothing, no money, no way to go home, and he wouldn't go home like this, defeated, not when the jerk was waiting to tell him he'd been a fool and a failure. He had to go home victorious, or he couldn't go home at all.

That day was the longest one he'd ever known. He was sick, hungry, alone, nowhere to go, no one to turn to. All he wanted was a meal but he wouldn't beg for it. He couldn't go back to the crash pad to sleep and if he tried to sleep in public, he'd probably get hauled in as a runaway and sent home in disgrace.

Conditions didn't improve. He could get water, but not food, and the next three days were sheer hell. Hungry, afraid, dodging people who thought he was working the streets, he started to consider calling Naomi even if he didn't have money for a phone call. It would be better than those scuzzy guys who approached him suggestively. He took to dodging away if he saw one coming.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, he reached a pier where a lot of boats were docked, and he stood watching them, remembering the time Jed had taken the whole family, him, his daughter Whitney, Naomi, and Blair, out for the day on an excursion boat, how Blair and Whitney had hung on the rails, watching for the porpoises that swam alongside the boat, trying to figure which of them would jump first. That boat over there, the Riptide, looked a lot like the one Jed had rented. He blinked hard to force back the lonely tears he didn't want to let fall.

As Blair watched the boat, two guys came down the gangway carrying overnight bags. One was a blond beach bum type, tanned and good looking with a mustache, the other tall and skinny, with glasses and a geeky air to him. They seemed companionable, good friends, talking to each other cheerfully like buddies as they went over to a Jimmy parked nearby and got in.

They were going away, at least for the night. Maybe Blair could crash on their boat while they were gone. Maybe they'd been out on a cruise and were going home. Maybe they only used the boat on weekends. It was Sunday; they might be heading back to their regular houses after a weekend at sea.

Knowing he wouldn't steal anything -- if he ate some food, he could always send money later to make up for it -- he hurried up the gangplank and boarded the boat. Weird. It wasn't even locked. So maybe the guys would be back sooner than he thought they would. After a hasty, fascinated peek in the wheelhouse, he decided to venture below. Even a quick sandwich would be better than nothing, give him stronger legs to stand on.

With a quick glance around the room he'd entered to make sure he wasn't being watched or followed, Blair realized there was no food to be found there, so he tiptoed down the stairs in search of a kitchen -- or galley, or whatever they called it on a boat. He'd make a sandwich, and then catch a quick nap. Those two guys weren't coming back today, not with the bags they'd carried. He was safe.

"Freeze!" The sharply yelled voice startled him so much he jumped a foot. Whirling around dizzily, he came face to face with a very angry, dark-haired man who stood in the door to a cabin leveling a handgun at him in a stance that left not one shred of doubt about his ability to use it. The barrel looked as big as the mouth of a cannon.

Hungry, exhausted, panicked, Blair did the only thing left to him. He fainted.

Nick Ryder was in a grumpy mood. Being sick always made him edgy, and being wounded was worse. The bullet that had taken him in the side three days ago on their last case had been considerate enough to damage no major organs, but it had torn through flesh and muscle and it still hurt like blazes. Home from the hospital, he found himself a little weak from the blood loss, wincing at each cautious move, about as energetic as the first drops from a brand new catsup bottle, and furious with himself because he wasn't up to going with his partners, Cody Allen and Murray Bozinsky, on the Riptide Detective Agency's new case. That it would consist of one night of simple surveillance to test a new security system and wasn't likely to be dangerous didn't matter. The three of them were a team, and he hated being left out of the circuit. He knew they hadn't wanted to go any more than he'd wanted them to leave without him; they had been fussing over him ever since they brought him triumphantly home from the hospital. A part of him had relished the fussing, even if another part wanted to be all macho and too tough to need babying. Worst of all, Cody knew, as he always did, exactly how Nick felt about it, and he'd let that gleam of amusement creep into his eyes when he'd threatened to make hot broth for Nick before he and Murray left.

"And then we'll find a pillow to put under your feet and a quilt to spread across your lap, and Mur and I will take turns mopping your fevered brow."

Nick's answer had been short and extremely profane, causing his two friends to explode into delighted mirth. "I'm okay," he growled. "It's just a little tender, that's all. Go on. Go do your surveillance. I don't need baby sitters."

They had departed reluctantly, after asking him at least twenty-six times if he felt okay, if he thought he could fix himself dinner, if he was sure they didn't want to call Dooley in to spend the evening.

"Do I look that desperate?" he countered.

"You look pale," Murray put in. "Come on, Nick, you have to take it easy. I know it's boring, but if you do too much you could still break open your wound. Cody will feel a lot better if you promise to relax and not overdo, and I know I will, too."

"Listen, it was only a graze, guys."

"You didn't see how it looked when you went down." Murray cast a sideways glance at Cody. "We did. You were bleeding like crazy and the gunman was getting ready to shoot again. We were so lucky Cody had a clear shot at him. It was so boss when we realized you weren't hurt so badly after all."

For an instant, a grim and worried expression lingered in Cody's eyes. Even after he banished it, he looked like he would have been happy to scrap the new job and stay home and fuss.

"Yeah, but the doc says I'm fine. Go on, go" Nick waved them toward the deck. "We can always use the money."

So they had departed and, the minute they had, he wished them back. Routine surveillance was usually not dangerous, but anything could go wrong. He knew he wasn't fit enough to go along; he'd only fall asleep in the Jimmy. As for the fussing, he'd really had as much of that as he could stand, though he really did value their intentions if not the actuality.

Instead of dwelling on it, he went down to the master stateroom he shared with Cody and stretched out on his bunk. He wouldn't take a nap. He'd just rest awhile, then he'd wander over to Straightaways and have a meal. It wouldn't kill him to walk such a short distance, and he was going stir crazy on the boat.

Faint sounds topside roused him from his near doze and he tensed, listening. His first thought was that either Cody or the Boz had returned to sit surveillance on him, but those stealthy footfalls creeping through the main salon toward the stairs didn't feel remotely familiar. Cody or Murray would call out to let him know they'd come back. This was someone whose whole purpose was to board the Riptide stealthily. While the guy who had shot Nick and his cronies were behind bars, they might have a friend who was hot for revenge for his sake. Or it could be a burglar who believed the boat deserted, although thieves didn't usually practice breaking and entering in broad daylight.

Levering himself up silently, Nick retrieved his handgun from the drawer where he kept it and tiptoed over to the cabin door. Peering around the edge, he spotted movement in the shadows, and there was nothing familiar about them. As the stranger reached the foot of the stairs and looked around, Nick jumped out, leveled the gun at him, and yelled, "Freeze!"

Face to face, the intruder proved to be a boy who didn't look much over twelve or thirteen. At the shout, all color left his face and then, without a word, his body went limp and he passed out cold at Nick's feet.

"Son of a bitch!" muttered the detective. He started to stick the gun in his back waistband only to remember he was wearing sweats. Quickly he darted back to the cabin, grabbed up a blanket on the way, and deposited the gun on his bunk. The boy didn't stir while he was gone.

Nick knew he couldn't pick the kid up and put him in a bed, not without re-injuring his side, so he did what he could, making the 'prowler' as comfortable as possible where he was, covering him with the blanket. From the look of him, he was on the streets; he wasn't particularly clean except for his hands and -- rather sketchily -- his face, as if he had access to water but not soap. There were shadows under his eyes, and his color was bad. Nick wondered when he'd eaten last. Probably not today, and maybe not yesterday either.

Sure, he had sneaked on board the Riptide, but Nick had the idea he'd done it to find food rather than to steal anything. Although street kids could be as cynical and dishonest as the worst criminals, he was young enough to push Nick's sympathy buttons. That didn't make him any less wary. If the kid did drugs, he might have come to steal things he could sell for drug money.

Nick freed one arm from the blanket and checked it for needle tracks, then the other one. No sign of anything in the usual places. When he lifted one eyelid and peered into the blue eye he exposed, it didn't have the look of drugs, either.

Settling himself on the steps, Nick waited for the kid to wake up, which he did in a few minutes. He groaned faintly, shifted uneasily, a hand fingering the blanket in doubtful surprise. Then one eye lifted just enough for him to squint out at the world as if he expected to find the gun jammed up under his nose.

"I put it away," Nick said matter of factly.

The second eye opened to match the first. "I wasn't going to rob you," the boy insisted. His voice made him older than he appeared. "I saw a couple of guys going away and just needed a place to sleep. I wouldn't have stolen anything." He hesitated. "Okay, maybe some food, but I'd have paid it back. I'd have sent money when I had it. I'm not a thief, man. Really."

"Food, huh?" He shifted surreptitiously to ease his side. "How long since you ate?"

"Well, uh, three days."

"Three days?" He shook his head. "How old are you, kid?"

"Fifteen." Defiantly.

Nick cocked his head skeptically, and the boy exploded, "I am fifteen. I know I look younger, but I really am."

"And you're a runaway, aren't you?"

"Not for good," the boy insisted. "Naomi will understand. I told her I needed to have the summer to be on my own."

"Who's Naomi?"

The kid scrambled up and sat leaning against the wall. "My mom. She's great. She'll understand. I left her a note."

Nick shook his head. "Yeah, I bet she'll understand. My mom -- well, she would have been frantic. She'd have torn the town apart looking for me. Course we only had each other."

His uninvited guest stared at him. "You didn't have a dad, either?" he blurted, then dropped his eyes, as if he'd have given anything to yank back the words and have them remain unspoken.

"Well, he never was around much." Nick wouldn't explain that subject any further, not to a total stranger.

"I don't know who my dad is. Naomi never told me. The substitute dads are mostly okay; she'd have kicked them out if they weren't. But this last one..." His voice trailed off.

"Did he hurt you?" Nick asked carefully, sensing a whole raft of problems and a very good reason for the boy's departure.

The kid didn't even pretend to misunderstand him. He shook his head vehemently, causing his shaggy locks to tumble about. "No. I know about stuff like that, but he didn't try. He's not a pervert or anything. He's just..." the kid grimaced dramatically. "Just one of those people you can't stand, you know how it is?"

"Did you tell Naomi that?"

A wild headshake disarrayed the shaggy locks a second time. "She was happy with him. What was I gonna do, mess up her chances? It won't be so bad when school starts. I won't be there as much."

"So you decided to take a private summer vacation? Kid, if Naomi won't let your 'stepdads' hurt you, she wouldn't have let this one bug you, either. You should have told her."

"I knew you'd side with him." He shivered.

"I'm not siding with anybody yet. I don't even know you. What's your name?"

"Blair Sa-- " He broke off abruptly. "No way. I'm not gonna tell you my name. You'd just find out where I came from and send me home."

"Blair's enough for now," Nick backed down. Time enough for that later. "I'm Nick Ryder. Come on, let's get you something to eat." He levered himself up uncomfortably, his hand pressed against his side.

"You okay, man?" Blair's concern was genuine and instantaneous. Naomi had raised this kid well, even if he'd decided to take off. Maybe she'd raised him to be a free spirit, to believe he could walk away for a few months if he chose, but Nick happened to think fifteen was too young for such freedom, especially for a kid who looked younger. Those wide, blue eyes would make him a target for freaks and perverts on the street. Lucky he sneaked on board the Riptide. He'd be safe enough here, if Nick could keep him from taking off.

"I'm better than I was." He decided to throw in a little bait. "I got shot a couple of days ago."

Blair's eyes widened in awed disbelief. "You got shot? Are you putting me on? Oh, man, how did that happen?"

"I'm a private detective. It was on a case."

"Wow." Blair was young enough to be impressed. "That is so cool. Did you get the guy who did it?"

"My partner, Cody, did. He wounded him and the police arrived a few minutes later and arrested him. I got out of the hospital yesterday. I'm okay. Come on, let's go to the galley. I'm probably not as hungry as you are, but I wouldn't mind a snack."

Blair dug into a bowl of leftover stew that Nick had heated for him, paused for a swallow of milk, and then scooped up his fork again. This was great. He was pretty sure Nick would try to weasel his last name out of him, so he had to watch what he said, but as long as he was careful, he'd be okay. He had a feeling that when the other two partners came back, Cody and the other guy, whose name he didn't know yet, they'd find out who he was and call his mom. He could imagine her reaction to his disappearance. 'Sweetie, why didn't you tell me you didn't like Paul?' and he realized part of that was an obscure desire to punish her for breaking up with Jed Stone. It wasn't fair of him, and neither was scaring her, but he wasn't ready to give in and go home yet, rescued by a detective. He wanted to go home on his own terms, in triumph.

"So how'd you get into such a mess?" Nick asked, absently stirring the stew around in his own bowl. "You look like the type of guy who knows how to handle himself and plan things."

Blair preened himself a little. "I did plan it," he admitted. "I had money. I was going to have a summer on my own. I was dumb. I just trusted the wrong people."

"Other runaways?" Nick asked.

Blair tested the question and didn't find any hidden catches in it. "Yeah, I thought I'd be okay with 'em, at least for awhile, but they drugged me and took my money and my brand new Nikes that Jed gave me as a going away present. Even my backpack. That really sucks."

"It sure does," Nick agreed. "Sometimes kids out on the street get hardened really fast. They weren't trying to hurt you specifically. They were just looking out for number one. It makes life rough. They can't trust anybody and they never look out for anybody but themselves." He grinned. "I could've turned out that way, but I've got a couple of great buddies, and a great job." He forked up a bite of meat and ate it with relish. "I didn't have any appetite when I was in the hospital but I'm making up for it now." He frowned, then continued. "Finding people you can trust is tough. You learn to read people as you get older, but even then you screw up sometimes. Sorry about those other runaways."

"Yeah, me too." Blair even felt a wary distrust of Nick, who had been decent to him. Maybe it was easier not to get too close to people. They just went away in the end or took advantage of you. Maybe he should just make casual friends, the kind who wouldn't hurt when they left. Only Nick was saying different.

Yet how could Blair trust him? He'd trusted his fellow runaways and they'd turned on him. He'd trusted him mom and she'd broken up with Jed and lined up with her new friend without caring what Blair wanted.

As if he'd sensed it wouldn't be as easy as all that, Nick said easily, "More stew?"

"Yeah, this is great stuff." He grimaced. "My mom doesn't eat meat very often. If she does it's something like tongue, and that's cool. Whitney and I used to sneak out and have a burger at McDonald's, sometimes."


"My last stepdad's daughter. She was a few years older than me, but she was so great. So was he."

"Sounds like you were a little bugged because he and Naomi didn't stick together," Nick suggested carefully.

Blair frowned. Adults always pulled that kind of number on you, made you think you were the one who was at fault. "Naomi doesn't stay with any of 'em," he explained around a mouthful of stew. He paused to swallow. "She always likes to 'detach with love'. Never any hard feelings, but when the time's up, it's up. Then she goes on."

"Ends all her relationships on a high note?" Nick grinned faintly. "Well, that's nice if the guys want to detach with love at the same time she does. Do they? Or do any of them detach before she's ready?"

"You make it sound like she manipulates everybody," Blair burst out, wondering if she had manipulated Jed. He knew all his mom's relationships hadn't ended as neatly, that there had been a time or two when she would have liked to stay involved longer, but maybe it was those times that made her break up first most of the time, so she wouldn't get hurt. Judging from his so-called friends who had drugged and robbed him, maybe she was right. Maybe the only way to win was to be the one in charge of a relationship, making sure you didn't get hurt. Did Naomi manipulate her relationships? Blair had never thought so before, but now, ripe from being trashed by the kids he'd joined so willingly, he thought maybe she did. Did she care if Blair got hurt in the process? Evidently not. He hardened his heart, thinking wistfully of how good it had been when Jed and Whitney had been there and how crummy it had been just before he ran away. Had he been trying to punish his mom when he left? But hadn't she punished him first, without good cause?

"I don't know," he admitted lamely.

Nick elevated one dark eyebrow as if he knew Blair had never thought much about it before. Maybe he'd taken the setup for granted, but kids did. Now that he wasn't a kid any more, he could see more to it than before. Naomi probably had the right idea, keeping things casual, so she didn't get hurt.

He held out his bowl for a third cup of stew, then hesitated. "If there's enough..."

"Sure, help yourself. You're hungry. Just don't eat so much you'll be sick."

Real concern? Or was he just a new distraction to pass a boring day? It had to be dull lying around being an invalid. Reminded that Nick was still sore and shaky, Blair hopped up and ladled up a smaller helping. The worst of his hunger had eased, and the food was staying down. He'd been too sick to eat the first day anyway. Nick poured him a new glass of milk.

"What do private detectives do?" Okay, so it wasn't the smoothest of transitions, but he didn't want to talk about himself and Naomi any more. He didn't owe Nick that, just for feeding him. "And, is there anything I can do on the boat to pay for my dinner?"

"Cody will think of something when he comes back in the morning."

Now there was a snag. Did he want to stay here till morning? It wasn't that he felt anything of the pervert about Nick, luring him here for nasty purposes. He figured Nick was a genuine nice guy, even if Blair's presence was a useful distraction for him. Probably he wanted to lull Blair into trusting him so he could find out enough to send him home. Detectives had to be tricky, didn't they?

"Thanks a lot, Sandburg," muttered Jim with a crooked grin.

Blair shrugged, undaunted. "I didn't know any detectives before that. Besides, you are tricky, Jim. It's one of the things that makes you a good cop."

"I thought you said the guy who looked like my dad was named Allen, not Ryder," Jim persisted, cutting another piece of steak.

"Yeah, but Nick was the one I knew the best. His partner was Cody Allen, and that's the one who looked like your dad. There was another partner, too, a computer genius named Murray Bozinsky, but I didn't meet either of them right away."

"So go on with the story," Jim urged. "What did this Ryder character do? Did he make you go home?"

It hasn't been that easy. Blair was determined not to be sent home in disgrace. He didn't want to be hauled back like a kid who wasn't old enough to be on his own. As long as he didn't tell Nick Ryder who he was, then he'd be safe. He could stay overnight, have breakfast, and get out before Nick's partners came back.

"Is it Cody's boat? Not yours?"

"He has the boat, I have the Mimi," Nick replied.

"What's the Mimi?"

"My helicopter. It's a Sikorsky. I used to fly tourists around before Cody and I formed the Riptide Detective Agency. I still take tourists around these days, just not as much."

Blair's eyes widened. "You can fly a helicopter? That's great."

"Want a ride in it, kid?"

Blair hesitated. He'd never been one for heights, and a chopper would be worse than going in a plane, wouldn't it? He didn't know much about helicopters and wouldn't know a Sikorsky from any other kind except the Hueys he'd seen on the news when he was really little, when they'd shown footage from Nam. That was so long ago, he couldn't remember them very well. Blair's interests weren't really mechanical. He'd always been more interested in people than machines, and he'd been seriously thinking about studying anthropology. He'd talked it over with Jed, who had encouraged him like crazy, talked to him about colleges, and helped him imagine what his career would be like. Naomi's new guy didn't think Blair should go to college. "He needs to get a job," he'd told Naomi. "Bring in some money right away. He doesn't need any fancy college stuff, think he's too good for everybody else."

"He'll win scholarships," Naomi had defended Blair, her brow puckering as she studied Paul as if she wasn't quite sure she knew him. "He's smart."

"He's your kid, he must be," the jerk had agreed and backed off. He wasn't stupid if he'd picked up on Naomi's gentle disapproval. He'd let the subject drop, but Blair had known he couldn't expect any encouragement from Darrin. The guy wasn't interested in being Blair's 'new dad', even if he'd put on an act for Naomi. But a few minutes later they'd been laughing together over something silly, and Blair had retreated to his room to go through a new book on anthropology he'd found at the library. Darrin hadn't hauled him out and set him to doing chores that time, the way he usually did when he caught Blair reading, but Blair knew he would the next time.

Recalled to the present by Nick's repeated question, he said, "It might be okay. I've never been in one before."

"Well, not today. The doc says I shouldn't take it up for a few days yet. You need your hands and feet to work the controls of a helicopter, and I'm still a little sore. Cody would feed me to the sharks if I even tried it, and Murray wouldn't be far behind." He grinned. "They're great guys."

"Do you have to have a license to be a private eye?" Blair asked, not above being impressed.

"Thinking about becoming one?"

Blair shook his head. Working in law enforcement, even this kind, wasn't up there in his list of choices. "No, I'm gonna be an anthropologist one day. Jed, my last stepdad, got me all kinds of material to work on, references and things like that, even some old journals from the nineteenth century. I want to study primitive tribes. They knew a lot of things back then that we don't know even now. Imagine, they didn't have doctors and pharmacies but they knew how to find medicines in the wild. They knew how to protect themselves from enemy tribes, and all without technology. I was reading about the guardians that some of the tribes had, who would stand watch, and I think it sounds like they developed enhanced senses because of it. I'm trying to find out more about that. Whether that could happen to anybody if they fell into the situation -- you know, like when somebody goes blind, their other senses can make up for it a little; they can hear better and smell things more strongly. What if, out there in the wilds, those tribal guys had to develop extra- strong senses, just like a blind guy would?"

"That's a pretty interesting theory. Out there in the jungle, in Nam, you had to wonder if that could happen." Thoughtfully, Nick rubbed the back of his neck. "I heard of a guy once, stranded behind enemy lines in the bush, and when they found him, he said his hearing and vision had gotten sharper from being out there. The other guys told him he was just paying more attention because he had to, or the VC would have nailed him, but he said, no, he could hear better and see better. Did you dream up this theory yourself?"

Blair shook his head. "No, there was a scientist back in the 1800's who did some writing about it. I can't find very much of his stuff but he wrote about it and I thought it was really cool. His name was Richard Burton."

"Thought that was an actor," Nick kidded.

"This was a different Burton. I haven't been able to find much of his stuff yet, but wherever we live, I go to the libraries; the public ones and the college ones, and I track down all I can. Oh, man, it's great."

"You sound like Murray when he's caught up in something," Nick said with a grin.

Blair grinned back because Nick hadn't mocked him for his interest the way Paul had. He'd even seemed to understand it. "What I want to do when I'm in college," he said, "is try to find people who are like the guy you met in Vietnam. I want to find out if the senses go away when they come back to civilization. Or whether only some people have the talent. It might be genetic, or it could be that everybody could do it. We're a long way from living in the wild."

"You called that right. Those primitive guys didn't have TVs and telephones and microwave ovens. Want a piece of pie? I think there's some left from last night."

Blair nodded eagerly. "Sounds great."

Nick cut him a thick slab of pie and put a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of it. "When I was your age, I was always hungry," he reminisced. "So I figure you probably are, too."

After he had polished off the pie, carefully steering the conversation away from anything that might give Nick a hint of his last name, where he was from, or how to contact Naomi, Blair volunteered to wash the dishes. He was interested in the boat's galley; he hadn't spent a lot of time on boats before, other than the excursion trip with Jed. So he babbled eagerly about the boat, asking to be shownthe way the fixtures worked, how often they had to resupply fresh water, how they got their electricity, and other fascinating things like that. He knew he was just postponing the inevitable. Nick was a detective and he was probably adding up clues even as they spoke. He'd throw in casual questions from time to time, and Blair had to guard himself against them and test them to be sure they were safe to answer before replying. It wasn't that he didn't mean to go home. He did. He assured Nick of that fact. But he didn't want to go home in disgrace, hauled back like a kid who had screwed up. He wanted to go home in his own time and by his own choice; that way even the stupid Paul Darrin couldn't fault him.

Nick gave him a tour of the boat, showing him Murray's cabin first. There, Blair stopped dead, staring at the gizmo in the center of the room. It looked like a weird, Rube Goldberg robot with a head vaguely shaped like a football. "What the heck is that?"

"That's the Roboz," Nick explained.

"That is so weird, man."

"Yeah, that's what we tell Murray. It's a cross between a robot and a computer. Murray can use it to get license plate information and other stuff we need in our cases."

"You mean like hacking into computer systems? That's cool. To help solve your cases?" Blair was glad Murray wouldn't be back that night. Maybe the computer expert knew a way to find police records of missing persons and could track him that way. He'd probably try. That meant Blair had only until tomorrow to stay here. He could sleep over, paying his way by cleaning or other boat chores, and maybe score a breakfast to equal that great dinner. He could manage to sneak away when Nick was greeting his buddies.

A part of him was reluctant to run, though. Nick had treated him decently, even if he was only doing it so he could figure out how to get Blair home. He could have turned him over to the police, and he hadn't done it. He hadn't even sneaked away to make a phone call unless he'd done it when Blair was passed out, but there'd been long enough since then for the cops to come if they were going to.

What was in it for Nick? Okay, so he said his dad hadn't been around very much. Could it be a kind of fellow feeling? Maybe he was just a nice guy? Before his runaway buddies had ripped him off, Blair would have believed that. Now he found himself looking for a hidden catch in everything Nick said.

"How does it work?" he ventured, gesturing at the robot.

"You got me. Murray always handles it. There isn't anything worth knowing about computers that he doesn't know. He's one of the leading experts in the whole country. When we first recruited him to join the business, Cody and I thought he was a geeky little guy who wasn't anywhere in touch with the real world, but he's a partner worth having and a great friend."

"Can I try it?" he asked, intrigued in spite of himself.

Nick hesitated, and Blair could tell he was about to say no. After all, it was his friend Murray's possession, not his. And maybe he figured a kid would know more about a computer than he did, and that would show him up. Then he hesitated. "Murray uses the keyboard to get him going. Once it's on, he can use the keyboard part like a regular computer and the data shows up there -- " He pointed to the small screen. "But he can give it voice commands, too."

"Really? That is so cool, man."

Maybe Nick decided Blair would stick around longer if he got to play with this weird toy. He gestured at the keyboard. "Be careful. If you break it, Murray will be heartbroken, and you never saw anybody like the little guy for moping around when he feels bad."

"I know a little about computers," Blair reassured him. "There was one at my last school, and they let us use it a little. The computer teacher said someday everybody would have a computer in their homes and be able to do things we can't even imagine now. He said all the classrooms would have computers. He could make it do all sorts of cool stuff." He sat down at the keyboard and turned it on. Okay, so maybe most of his knowledge was about computer games, but this couldn't be so bad. After a minute, the little robot hummed to life. "Roboz, go forward," Blair tried.

To his astonished delight the robot rolled forward, whirring faintly. "That is great. Uh, Roboz, stop." If that wasn't the command, it might keep going, right through the bulkhead. Fortunately, it halted neatly. "Does it shake hands?"

"Not that I ever saw, but Boz programmed it to get him a glass of water."

Blair's eyes widened. He tried to imagine what kind of neat instructions he could give the machine, but Nick shook his head. "He can show you more tomorrow. I think we better turn it off now, okay? Thing is, it's not mine, and I'm not one of those computer geeks like Murray. He knows it inside out. I'd hate to break it." He held up his hands, when Blair looked disappointed. "Listen, you did better with it than I ever did. But I'd rather Murray showed you everything it could do."

"Okay." Disappointed, Blair shut it down. He knew what Nick was up to, tempting him, so he'd still be here when Cody and Murray got back, so they could figure out what to do with him. Better play along, though.

"It's a handy little doohicky, just something I don't know about," Nick defended his actions.

"So he modernized your business," Blair suggested, moving away from the keyboard. "Computerized. I bet you're ahead of lots of private eyes. I never saw Magnum use a computer on TV."

"That's fiction," Nick said quickly, but he grinned.

"Yeah, but you'd think they'd have to at least try to make it realistic."

"Not necessarily. You ever see any anthropologists on TV? What about Indiana Jones?"

"He's an archaeologist, and that was in the thirties. It was different then."

"Even so, he's not very realistic, even if it's fun to watch. Detective work is a lot of surveillance and paperwork, getting the dirt on cheating husbands. It's not glamourous spy stuff."

"Yeah, and how many times did you chase the bad guys in your helicopter?" he challenged.

That made Nick's grin widen. "Okay, yeah, at times it's pretty exciting. Though I've gotta say, getting shot isn't exactly fun."

"I bet. What kind of case was that?"

"Corporate espionage. They were ripping off stuff from a genetics lab. Files and records and stuff, experiment results. Murray understood a little of what they were doing there. They were going to sell it to another lab. We staked them out. Must have watched that place for six nights in a row. I was passing off as the janitor, and Cody was replacing the security guard. Mur was inside, doing what he does best, computers. He figured out who two of them were just from that, so we watched them, and finally caught them in the act. Murray sent for the police, and then we had to jump them or they'd have gotten away. They saw us and came out shooting. Murray bashed one of them over the head with a keyboard. It was great."

Blair's eyes sparkled. He loved stuff like that, initiative, figuring out a solution without using the old standbys. The heroes he liked best in adventure stories were the ones who thought on their feet. Even Indiana Jones did. He'd been there looking for a golden idol, but Blair would have liked to find out more about the jungle tribe he'd encountered. Okay, so they were headhunters. There had to be a way of studying them.

He pulled himself up. "So then what happened? How did you get shot?"

"The leader was smarter than the other two. He didn't waste time fighting; he just took off. I went after him. I had a janitor's bucket and I pushed it in front of him and he went down -- a really spectacular fall. But he had a gun and he came up shooting." Nick rubbed his side reminiscently. "It was not good. I was losing a lot of blood and he jumped up and stood over me and was aiming the gun at me when Cody got him in the shoulder. He dropped the gun, and Cody slammed into him like an express train. That's when the cops got there. Murray brought them in, then he and Cody acted like I was gonna drop dead in the next ten seconds. It was mostly a flesh wound, after all. They fussed over me like I never saw before."

Blair could hear sudden warmth in his voice. He hadn't enjoyed being shot. Nobody would. Blair would happily go his whole life without wanting to experience it. But he had liked the way his buddies had cared about him. Wondering if he would ever have a buddy who felt like that, Blair listened to the wrap up.

"So I spent a couple of days in the hospital," Nick complained. "One would have been enough. You'd think it had hit a vital organ or something." He shook his head. "Anyway, we got all three of the gang, and the one who shot me is in big trouble. And the company gave us a big reward over and above our fee -- and paid what the insurance didn't cover of my hospital bill. Sometimes it works out great."

"Wow." Blair was fascinated a a glimpse of a life he'd never know.

"Well, I thought I wouldn't," he told Jim. "It never occurred to me I was gonna run around chasing bad guys myself one day." He didn't add the other thing he'd thought of, that he'd wound up with a buddy who did feel like that about him. And he'd been shot, too, but he wouldn't mind if he had passed over that part. Or the airlifting out of there afterwards.

"Or being shot," Jim said ruefully. "I've got you into a lot of trouble, haven't I?"

"I wouldn't have missed any of it," Blair said enthusiastically, pushing thoughts of Lash and the golden incident out of his mind. "When I was talking to Nick, it was like some remote vision, something I'd never know anything about. And now, I've got a broader life than I ever thought I'd have. I love the anthro stuff, but this adds so much to it. Don't worry, Jim. Whenever I get in over my head, you haul my ass out of trouble."

"Or you haul your own ass out of trouble," Jim reminded him. "Cutting holes in the floor of elevators so you could get rid of bombs, figuring out how to get those spiders off you and Alex... Even Simon says you're good at thinking on your feet."

"I used to love books about things like that," Blair said reminiscently.

"So, did you wind up thinking on your feet when you were on that boat?" Jim asked. He forked up the last bite of his steak and munched on it as he listened.

Blair hadn't planned any daring rescues or thinking on his feet as Nick gave him the rest of the guided tour, showing him where the bathroom was and sending him in to shower and clean up. He found one of Murray's shirts for Blair to change into and a pair of socks. Even skinny as he was, Murray's jeans were too big for Blair and had to be belted tight just to stay on. He rolled up the pants legs, too, then he washed out his underwear, jeans, and shirt, since there were no washer and dryer on the boat. When they were hanging up to dry and Blair was garbed in his baggy, borrowed wardrobe, he and Nick went up to the main salon, Blair still toweling his hair dry. He liked the boat. Everything was neat and compact and it all fitted together so well. Maybe someday he could live on a boat, take one up the Amazon to study the remote tribes up there. It would be so great.

Twilight had fallen when Nick took him out to see the wheelhouse. It would have been cool to take the boat out, but Nick wasn't really in great shape for it. Blair could tell his side was aching, so when the older man suggested they sit on deck for awhile, Blair agreed, simply because he thought it would do him good to put his feet up.

He was afraid Nick would work in a little lecture about how much Naomi was worrying, something Blair had been trying not to think about. Ordinarily, she'd probably understand, but with that stupid Paul there to point out that Blair was 'just a kid' who was trying to weasel out of his responsibilities, she might be a little swayed by him. Maybe Blair should call her, let her know he was okay. But if there was a trace on the phone... Nick didn't say anything about Naomi, though. He was lost in his own thoughts, or maybe just wishing he had a painkiller.

Lights sprang up on shore and in some of the nearby boats, and people came and went along the pier. None of them stopped at the Riptide to say hello to Nick, or to fuss over him, though he did wave a casual hand at a couple of people. After Nick's early fussing about his mom, he'd let the whole subject drop. He was acting pretty blas’, and Blair didn't know how to take it. He sat there wondering if Nick had a way of getting the number if he called his mom. He could check with the phone company or something.

As if his thinking about it had alerted the phone, it rang. Nick got up and went in to answer it, trailed closely by Blair. If Nick had called somebody while he was passed out or in the shower, Blair wanted to know about it.

Nick scooped up the receiver. "Riptide Detective Agency."

"You okay, Nick?" It was Cody.

"Yes, Mommy, I've been a good little boy. I ate all my vegetables, and didn't do any strenuous exercise." Nick couldn't help grinning. He should have known the guys would check up on him. Across the main salon, Blair's shoulders released their tension as he realized the call wasn't about him. He didn't like keeping a secret from his best friend, but maybe he better not say anything about Blair just yet.

"Sounds more fun than Murray and I are having." Cody chuckled. "One of the most boring stakeouts known to man. Did you have dinner? How's your appetite?"

"Well, the stew's all gone." Nick winked at Blair, who grinned in response. "And most of the ice cream. My appetite is definitely back."

"All the stew?" Nick could imagine Cody's lifted eyebrow.

"Well, you and Murray got to go out and play, and I'm stuck here. How's the security system working?"

"Like a charm," Murray said, proving he'd been leaning in to listen. "The lights even blinked when a dog wandered by and walked up to the main door. This is so boss. It's the wave of the future, Nick. Just wait, everything will be computerized, you'll see. The system works so great."

"Nice going, Mur. So when are you guys coming back?"

"We're taking turns catching a few catnaps," Cody replied. "We should be back first thing in the morning. The Boz wants to put the system through its paces a few times without telling the security guards when to see how quick they can react. You should see the little guy. He's gloating about it."

"I can imagine. A grin a mile wide." Nick's own fond grin matched it. "Wish I was there." An apologetic glance at Blair proved the kid was listening intently, a wistful expression in his eyes. His new buddies had ripped him off, but Nick's were calling just to make sure he was okay. If he could show Blair such things were possible, he'd have done a lot to offset the betrayal of those street kids.

"Wish you were, too, buddy. Listen, you've got the number of the cell phone?"

Nick rattled it off. "Come on, guy, just because I took a bullet doesn't mean I don't know the number. I don't expect any trouble here. Okay, so I'm kinda tired -- but the doc says that's natural," he added hastily before Cody could fuss. "I'm not going to do any running around tonight. Give you my word."

"You'd better not or I'll have the FAA impound that crazy whirlybird of yours."

"Wicked. When I'm in possession of your boat? The man likes to live dangerously."

Cody chuckled and said goodbye, and Nick hung up, smiling.

"Checking up on you?" Blair must have analyzed every word for hidden meanings, but hadn't found anything that referred to him. He did look a little more relaxed.

"Yeah, they fuss more than my mom did when I was sick as a kid." He hoped Blair wouldn't read hidden meanings into that because he hadn't meant any. He just wanted to win Blair's trust so the kid would stick around long enough to realize he should at least phone his mom. He was a good kid, obviously smart as a tack, not yet hardened by his experience on the streets or by his mother's procession of 'stepdads'. If he stayed on the Riptide, he'd be safe from the dangers kids faced when they had no homes, and eventually he'd feel safe enough to call his mom. Maybe Murray could use the Roboz to hack into the police system and find out about missing kids. Maybe even Quinlan got lists, not that Nick had any interest in asking a favor of the team's nemesis at the King Harbor Police Department.

He changed the subject hastily. "Hey, want to watch some TV? Or a video? We've got some good videos? You ever seen Casablanca?"

Blair shook his head. "What's that, some kind of war movie, isn't it?"

"Are you kidding? One of the greatest movies of all time, that's what it is. Come on, you need to see it. You've been leading a deprived life." He dug out the video tape and put it into the machine.

Blair did like it, Nick could tell. He sat, a can of soda in one hand, forgetting to drink it as he watched the adventures of Rick and Ilsa and Victor Lazlo in Casablanca. Nick would have loved to stroll into a bar like Rick's Caf’ Americain, belly up to the bar, and order a whiskey, watching out for Nazis, spies, and other dangerous people. If Cody had been here, he would have teased him about it. Murray liked to say some of the dialog along with the characters. "Play it, Sam," in what he fondly imagined was a Bogie accent.

Blair got so caught up in the movie he forgot all his problems and didn't think of anything else but the film. He bounced eagerly in his seat, utterly fascinated, and when he asked a question or two, it was always a smart question. He was like Murray that way, he was always thinking. Brainy kid. If Nick didn't scare him off, drive him back to the streets, he'd probably turn out great.

The scene at the fog-bound airstrip had just begun and Blair was intent on the tension, the threat that the Nazis would arrive and prevent the escape, when Nick heard someone on deck. The sound was so faint as to be subliminal, and whoever it was meant to arrive unnoticed because there was a sense of stealth to the cautious footsteps. If Nick hadn't trained himself to be observant as a detective, he might not have even noticed them. At once, he went on alert like a bird dog scenting its prey, every sense focused. Because of that he heard the faint sound of the gun being readied, the clip sliding into place.

Shooting out a hand, he curled fingers around Blair's wrist, making the boy jump. "Trouble on deck," he said in an undertone. "I want you to go downstairs, to Murray's cabin, and hide under the bed. Don't come out, no matter what happens, unless I tell you to, or unless Cody and Murray come back."

Blair's eyes grew enormous. He looked about twelve years old. "What kind of trouble?" he whispered.

"Somebody with a gun." He pushed the boy down to the floor. "Don't stand up. He might not know you're here, and I want to keep it that way."

"But you're hurt," Blair breathed, horrified. "You can't take him on."

"I have a gun, too, remember?" Nick edged across the salon toward the stairs that led down to the master stateroom. He waved Blair toward the other stairs. His face as pale as milk, Blair crept down, holding his breath.

Nick went down his own stairs so fast he nearly fell, heading for his own gun. He'd put it away when Blair was showering, and it took a second to dig it out, to check the clip. He doused all the lights. After all, he knew his way around the boat, and the stranger wouldn't. He didn't know who had boarded the Riptide so stealthily. It had happened harmlessly once, already, but Blair hadn't come bearing a gun, and he hadn't been trying to be quiet either. He'd been no threat, but this prowler was. Could he be after Blair? Or was it someone who had it in for the Riptide detectives, someone involved in their last case?

Nick edged out of the cabin just as two shots rang down the staircase, and he ducked back into the stateroom. He'd felt the heat of a near miss across his right arm. That had been too close.

Heat? Warm wetness? Nick glanced down at his arm. It had been closer than he thought. He was hit. Muttering a curse under his breath, he felt the wound cautiously. It wasn't bad; it was a mere graze, not bad enough to slow him down. But the man had seen him well enough to get his shots off. Maybe he had night scopes. This was bad.

"I know I hit you, Ryder," a voice called from the top of the stairs. "I can afford to wait you out. You're already weak from Johnny's bullet. Now Johnny's in jail and it's your fault. I'm here to take you out."

Shit. Nick closed his eyes for a second, hoping the owner of that cold voice didn't know Blair was here. He couldn't let the guy take him down, not when there was a kid to protect. Pausing long enough to tie a makeshift dressing around his arm, he knew the injury wasn't enough to stop him. But if the guy had night scopes and unlimited ammunition, he might be able to stalk him, to get a clear shot before Nick realized where he was. Ryder tested it by grabbing up a wadded-up shirt and tossing it out into the passage. A shot nailed it before it could flutter to the ground.

He was pinned down.

Blair shivered, pressed up against the bulkhead deep under Murray's bed. He had heard the shots, heard the ugly voice threatening Nick. Although he didn't know who Johnny was, he suspected it was the guy who had shot Nick. The ugly voice said Nick was hit again. Then came another shot, and nothing from Nick. He knew Nick couldn't yell and warn him or he would give away Blair's presence on the boat. If the gunman knew Blair was there, he'd hunt him down and kill him, too. He sounded like the kind of guy who wouldn't want to leave witnesses. One sound out of Blair and he'd be doomed, too.

But Nick was hit again, and already weak from the first shooting. That meant Blair had to do something to help him. Oh, man, this sucked so bad. What could he do? He was just a kid. He didn't have a clue. He hated guns. They were okay in movies, but he didn't want to touch one. Would Murray have one in his cabin or would he have taken it with him on surveillance? Even if he'd left it, Blair didn't know how to shoot. What if it had a safety on and Blair couldn't figure out how to take if off?

It wasn't that he was afraid to take the risk for Nick. He was scared silly, but that didn't mean he didn't have to help. Only how? He wasn't Indiana Jones or the A-Team. He was just a scared fifteen-year-old kid in waaaaay over his head.

But he was smart. He could think on his feet. He had to do something. If Murray could whack one of the bad guys over the head with a computer keyboard --

Wait a minute. Keyboard?

Blair wiggled out from under the computer expert's bed, trying to be as quiet as possible. The Roboz sat there across the room, looking as silly as ever. But if he could get it going, use it as a distraction...

He grabbed for the keyboard, activating the robot like he'd done before. If only he'd had a chance to play with it a little longer... He didn't know all the voice commands Murray had programmed into it. But if he could get it out in the corridor, maybe the bad guy would hear it and turn to see and Nick could get the drop on him. "Roboz, forward," Blair breathed in an undertone. Would it be loud enough to get the robot going without warning the guy with the gun?

It was. The Roboz wheeled forward on its servos, heading toward the cabin door, no just a little off. "Turn right," Blair said softly, a smile blazing out when the Roboz obeyed him. "Enough. I mean, forward. Way to go!" The Roboz glided neatly out into the corridor.

Blair followed to the doorway and gave soft commands to turn it in the direction of Nick's cabin. There. That was perfect. "Go!" he muttered. "I mean, forward, Roboz." The hall was as dark as Murray's cabin had been, but there was enough faint light from the stairs and the porthole in Murray's cabin that Blair could see to direct the robot.

It wasn't noisy but, in the breathless stillness that blanketed the boat, Blair thought it sounded like an express train. Shaking with nerves, he crept out after it on his hands and knees, prepared to duck or fling himself flat at the first trace of the gunman, pressing himself up against the wall so he'd be at the wrong angle for a man who was on the stairs that led down to the master stateroom to see him readily. He wanted to sneak back into Murray's cabin and hide, but he couldn't do that, not when Nick was in trouble. I hate this, I hate this, he thought, but he kept going.

No one spoke, no one fired, and the tension twisted Blair's nerves until he was afraid he'd have a stupid panic attack. But he couldn't. Nick was depending on him. He bit his bottom lip and forced himself to hold on.

Then there were footsteps on the stairs, faint footsteps he nearly didn't hear. Gliding silently into the bathroom, Blair held his breath.

Someone jumped around the corner just as the Roboz reached it, and there was a clatter, a resonating crash that shook the deck beneath his feet, and a stream of furious profanity so intense Blair heard several words he'd never heard before in his life. A part of him committed them instantly to memory, but the rest of him tensed as he braced himself to flee. He could hear the Roboz's treads running but they sounded different as if the little robot had tipped over, like they were spinning in place.

"Freeze!" The fury in Nick's voice that had freaked Blair out at their first meeting was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard. "Drop it. I said drop it."

An endless pause, then Blair heard the sound of the gun lowered to the ground. A moment later, lights came up in the darkened passageway and Blair found the courage to poke his head out of the bathroom to investigate.

Nick, a makeshift bandage of a couple of sweatsocks tied roughly around his arm, held his gun on the man who lay tangled with the overturned Roboz on the deck. The downed man was muttering still more profanity.

Edging forward nervously, Blair kicked the gun down the hall away from the prisoner's hand. "Are you okay, Nick?" he cried.

Ryder's face was pale but he was on his feet and the gun in his hand didn't waver. "I am now. You were great, Blair. Though I ought to brain you for coming out." He caught himself. "No, using the Roboz was brilliant. Murray's gonna be so excited. Listen, kid, I'll cover this character while you go call 911. Okay?"

"You sure?"

"He knows I'll shoot if he tries to move." The sheer menace in the words convinced Blair. This was great! Nick really was so cool. Measuring the distance between the bad gun and the gun to make sure he couldn't get to it, Blair nodded. "Okay. I'll hurry," and raced for the stairs.

When he'd called 911, he thought of Nick's friends. They ought to be here. Okay, so they'd probably want to send him back to Naomi, but Nick needed them to be here and that was more important. What was that number Nick had rattled off when he was talking to Cody? Luckily, Blair had a good memory. He punched it in. A minute later a man asked, "Nick? Is that you, buddy?"

"No, this is Blair. Is this Cody? I'm on the Riptide. Somebody came after Nick from that last case you had. Nick got a flesh wound in his arm but he's okay, he's on his feet, and we got the bad guy."

"What -- " A stunned pause, then, "Yeah, this is Cody. Guess Nick told you to call, huh?" The worry for his friend was vivid in his voice. Blair was glad he'd made the phone call.

"No, I figured I should. I just called 911 and the police and paramedics are on their way and Nick has a gun on the guy. I just figured you should know. He's your friend. But he really is okay."

"Okay, Blair, tell him Murray and I will be there in fifteen minutes."

"I will."

"I don't know who you are, kid, but thanks for being there."

Blair was smiling when he hurried down the stairs again. "They're coming," he told Nick, who hadn't allowed the villain to pick himself up from his uncomfortable sprawl over the Roboz. "The cops and the paramedics for your arm, and then I called Cody, and he and Murray are coming, too."

"You called Cody?" Nick echoed in astonishment, although he didn't turn away from his surveillance. "How did you know how to do that?"

"I heard you say the number before," Blair explained. "I remembered it."

"You know, kid, you are really something," Nick told him, and the pride and respect in his voice made Blair feel like a million dollars.

"By the time Cody and Murray got there, the police had already been there, and some guy named Lt. Quinlan was getting on Nick's case. I think he didn't like private detectives very much, or maybe he didn't like Nick, but Nick didn't like him either. But he had to admit we handled the guy okay. He said I was too young to be messing with detectives and I think he knew I was a runaway, but Nick didn't give me away to him."

"I bet you were pretty full of yourself," Jim kidded, but there was respect in his eyes that was even stronger than the look in Nick's. "No police training and you come up with great ideas, partner."

Blair beamed. "You should have seen that crazy little robot, Jim. I wonder if they still have it or if it's been modified to go along with today's technology." He took his empty bowl and put it in the sink. "Anyway, Cody and Murray showed up pretty fast, and you should have seen how they fussed over Nick. They just lunged at him, and then supervised the paramedic's every move. They weren't gonna let him out of their sight, no way. Must be some kind of detective thing. You do the same."

"It's a buddy thing." Jim sounded slightly uncomfortable with the admission; he wasn't given to talking about friendship very often. Usually, he just showed it, rather than said it.

Blair's smile widened, enjoying the admission. "Anyway, the paramedics cleaned up Nick's arm and put a little dressing on it and said he didn't even have to go to the hospital, so after that, he took me upstairs and we watched the end of Casablanca. And he was right, Murray did say the words along with it, and Nick and Cody didn't even call him for his really crummy Bogart impression. I think the three of them were so glad to have it all over that any of them could have done something stupid and the other two would have just grinned." He grinned himself, reminiscently. "That's a great movie, Jim. And when it was over, he asked me if I was ready to call Naomi yet."

"Were you?" Jim asked, but the look on his face was a knowing one.

"You know it. I said I'd better call her right away. Cody and Murray thought it was because I'd gotten mixed up in one of their cases and it had scared me -- and believe me, Jim, I was so freaked when it was going down. But Nick knew better. He just grinned and said, 'And you can tell your mom you saved my life. I don't know what I would have done without you.' That felt so great, man. He'd have figured it out, though. He's a detective. But he said I'd helped, and the Roboz wasn't broken or anything, just knocked off its treads, even if Murray fussed over it for almost half an hour afterwards."

Naomi had been so relieved to hear his voice. Blair could still remember how she'd sounded when she'd cried, "Oh, baby, is that you? Why did you do it? It was Paul, wasn't it?"

"How did you know?" Blair asked.

"After we found your note he started going on about how you never pulled your weight and were always sneaking off with a book when you should have been working, and I knew right then that I didn't need him in my life any more. Oh, baby, why didn't you tell me he was such a jerk to you?"

"Because I thought you were happy with him. And because I was mad about Jed going away."

"I know, sweetie. I'm sorry. Jed's time and mine was over, but I should have known how much like a father he was to you, a real father. I wish I could say he'd come back, but he won't. But Paul's gone. I kicked him out when he was going on about you. I don't need a guy like that. And if there's anybody else like him again, you tell me first." She paused. "Did you find yourself?"

Blair suddenly felt ten feet tall. "I sure did," he said. "It was so cool, Mom. When I get home, I'll tell you all about it." He grinned a mile wide.

"So Nick talked to her after that," Blair told Jim. "And asked her if I could stay a few days on the boat, and she said she'd come down and pick me up at the end of the week. It was so cool, Jim. We took the boat out, and I got to go up in the Mimi -- Nick's helicopter. Murray showed me all the cool things the Roboz could do, and they treated me like one of them. You would have liked them, Jim. Well, I think you'd have wondered about Murray a little, but he was great, too. Cody is the one who looks like your dad, only a lot younger, of course. I got a Christmas card from them the first year or two. They were great guys."

"Sounds like it. I should have known you'd been out there having adventures before I met you. You're just too good at it to have picked it up cold."

"Too good at getting in trouble, you mean?" Blair teased.

"That, too. I swear, Sandburg, there are times when I have to have a special, built-in radar just to keep track of you and keep you out of trouble."

"But you always do, Jim. No matter who gets me into it, you're there to get me out." He grew serious. "After those other street kids took my stuff, I didn't want to trust anybody. Not even Nick, who was about as trustworthy as -- as you. You'd have liked him, Jim. But Nick said not everybody was like those kids, and he said I'd find people I could trust, and that I'd find buddies like he had." He turned away from the sink, ignoring the other dirty dishes, and gazed up at his partner, his Sentinel, his best friend. "And he was right, Jim," he said meaningfully. "He was right."

"Come on, Sandburg, don't go all mushy on me," Jim growled, but Blair had seen the light in his eyes and knew it was okay. He added hastily, "I've got some time coming in a few weeks, and it's your school break around then. Want to take a trek down to King Harbor and look them up? I bet Nick would like to see how you turned out."

"Wow, Jim, that would be so cool. Let's do it. And we can find out if Cody's a relative of yours. Do you think your dad would know?" He ventured the question tentatively, not sure how Jim felt about his dad, even after everything they'd been through. He wasn't sure Jim knew either. But if Jim had something specific to ask him, maybe he'd go over and visit him.

The detective hesitated, then he reached out and rumpled Blair's hair. "You, my friend, are a very devious man." He made a wry face. "Yes, I'll ask him. And that's what all this was about, wasn't it? A way to make sure I'd go and see him again?"

"Fathers are important, Jim. Even if they weren't very good at it, it doesn't mean they didn't want to try. Maybe he wasn't a Jed Stone, but he wasn't quite a Paul Darrin either. And he does care, you know he does."

Jim muttered something that sounded like, "... funny way of showing it," but then he got Blair in a chokehold and turned him around to the sink again. "Finish the dishes, it's your turn, and no weaseling out of it, Sandburg, because the House Rules are there for a very good reason. And hurry, because there's a Jags game on in half an hour."

Blair turned obediently, but he couldn't help the smile that lit his whole face. If Jim's dad didn't play up the way he should, maybe Blair could sneak a phone call to him, read him the riot act. He knew none of this was easy for his partner, but at least he'd made a start.

And the trip to California loomed ahead. It would be so cool to introduce Jim Ellison to the Riptide detectives. Blair could hardly wait.