(See Page 1 for Disclaimer and Author's Notes)
The Compassion Trap (Page 6 of 7)
by Gil Hale
Jim's senses, which had served him so well all night had gone completely out of control. He didn't seem to be able to hear anything, let alone the heartbeat he needed to hear, while the choking smell of Josephs' blood was thick and overwhelming. Too many people were crowding round, and he could see their mouths move without hearing what they were saying; people were trying to move him and move Blair; Simon's hand settled on his shoulder and he felt its heat and weight as if it was a log from a fire. His mind knew that Blair should be all right, that the vest at that distance should have been adequate protection, but his heart could only focus on the moment when he'd heard the impact of the bullet on Blair's back and seen him go helplessly sprawling. Then Blair coughed and squirmed, and suddenly everything fell back into place.
"Ow, ow, ow," Blair managed between coughs. "Damn it, ow, Jim?"
"Right here," Jim said, biting his lip so that no one would hear the overwhelming relief. "Keep still, Chief. You could have hurt your back or got cracked ribs here. Whatever he was firing took Josephs out pretty effectively."
"Someone killed Josephs?" Blair said between gasps. He was ignoring Jim's recommendation to keep still, but other people were helping them now. A tall African American with long gentle fingers had come from somewhere to kneel beside them, and as it was becoming obvious from Blair's efforts to get up that his back was okay, others began to help Blair out of the vest so he could examine him.
"This is Nathan Jackson, paramedic on Larabee's team," Simon said, His hand was still on Jim's shoulder, but it felt normal now, just a warm touch. "Let him check Blair out, Jim."
"Jim!" Blair said, hanging on to his arm as Jackson began. "Ow. Come on man, distract me. Tell me what's going on."
"I don't know what's going on," Jim said grimly. "But I'm beginning to work it out. Someone wanted to hit Josephs before we took him away, and you were standing in the way."
"Someone shot me to get me to move!" Blair said incredulously. "Who would do that?" He tried to turn around to see behind him. "He killed Josephs?"
The ambulances that had been called for were just arriving, and Blair just caught a glimpse of the amount of blood on Josephs' body before they removed him. Jim felt him shudder, but Blair only said, "Does Vin know?"
Jim had had no room to think of anything but Blair; he felt as if he'd been on his knees for hours, that the time before Blair coughed and moved had stretched almost limitlessly. Now he abruptly became aware of the scene around him again. Almost everyone was crowded in their small space, but he knew Larabee wasn't there. They had spent so much time together over the last weeks that he had a sense of the man's presence. Jim looked up, over Blair and Jackson to the side of the street. Larabee stood there, eyes fixed intently on them. Vin was flopped against him, and his other arm was supporting a very white-faced Standish, but he saw Jim look up and smiled.
"Vin's okay," Jim said to Blair. "Though we'd better get that made official for both of you, and by the look of it for Ezra too."
"I'd say Blair has a couple of ribs cracked but nothing broken," Nathan said, "but he ought to get it checked out at ER. Looks like Vin might be best headed that way as well."
"We've made a hell of a mess of this street," Blair said, cautiously sitting up supported by Jim and Joel. Nathan, scrambled to his feet and went over to Chris, followed by the rest of Team 7. Chris had talked about them once or twice and Jim could put names to faces now. That was Buck, hugging Vin's unresponsive back, and being warned by Ezra not under any circumstances to adopt a boisterous approach to him. The young one, asking questions too fast to get answers had to be JD. Nathan he could hear wanting to look at Ezra's shoulder, and he would have to focus his hearing more precisely if he wanted to make out Josiah's words to Vin, but the soft rumble of sound had to be comforting.
He settled Blair comfortably against his chest, and looked around at the damage. Blair wasn't exaggerating. There seemed to be more glass than could possibly have come from the number of broken windows he could see. Goods from both the stores had spilled out with people who'd been knocked in then scrambled out again. The crates Simon had had placed for cover really had held clothes, and one of them had broken open, so that its contents were strewn for yards around. Members of Marcos' gangthose who hadn't been hurtwere being marched to awaiting police cars which had arrived with the ambulances.
He saw Miss Duncan come out of the mission. Joel gave Blair an encouraging pat and went to speak to her. Ed walked over to join them, and Benedek was there, still using his camera. Benedek exchanged a word or two with Ezra, then came over to Jim. "I think the Register is going to risk being sued on this one and claim the CIA took Josephs out."
"You've got enough on them for them not to care about the details," Jim said. He had no doubt either who had killed Josephsand shot Blair. "Do they have any idea how much you know."
Benny grinned. "I don't think they do. It'll be quite a surprise for them when they read the front page tomorrowvery considerate of you detectives to time this so well to fit in with when we go to press. And I've got an impeccable line of sources, that don't involve any of you. I'm just off to gladden whatever it is Jordy keeps where his heart ought to be. Any chance of finding you early tomorrow and giving you your own personal copy?"
"I'll call you and let you know where we are," Jim promised.
"Jim, can we just skip the whole ER experience," Blair said, as Benny went. "You can check these ribs out better than any X ray, and if there's one thing we do have, it's bandages."
Jim wasn't quite sure what that said about their lives; nothing in the freezer but the med kit was full. All the same, his first urge to rush Blair to the emergency room was fading fast. He hesitated. "If they're taking Vin and Ezra..."
He looked over to Team 7. He hardly needed sentinel hearing to realise they weren't in agreement on the subject. Ezra was eloquent on the reasons why treatment wasn't necessary; Jackson, understandably perhaps, thought it never hurt to make sure; someoneWilmington?was saying he hadn't met a woman under sixty so far in Cascade and there would be some pretty nurses. Ezra saw Jim looking and said clearly to Jackson, "Detective Ellison has medic training; I am quite sure the two of you would be able to form as adequate a judgement as the overworked staff of the emergency room."
Jim realised that had been meant for his ears. He lifted Blair carefully to his feet, and eased him towards the other group. "If we go to ER we're going to be queuing behind about twelve more serious injuries from this disturbance, as well as their normal numbers. I think we can wrap Blair's ribs at my place."
"I can do his ribs for you." A helpful paramedic from the one remaining ambulance smiled at them all impartially. Buck Wilmington brightened at the sight of her. "It's really busy at the hospital."
Chris Larabee, still with Vin leaned unmoving against him, caught Jim's eye as the girl led Blair off to have his ribs bandaged. Nathan Jackson followed to lend a hand if necessary, and Buck to enjoy the view. JD had already gone to help clear up outside the mission, and Josiah went to join him now. Chris waited until they were out of earshot. "Can you check Ezra's shoulder?" he asked quietly. "I think that's what he's hoping."
Jim very gently examined the joint, and found no real problems. "It's just sorefeels bruised, but he's not done any more damage to it. What happened?"
"I... fell on it," Ezra said. "May I assure Mr Jackson it is your considered opinion that no further medical attention is necessary?"
"It wouldn't hurt to rest itmaybe put some pain relieving gel on. Come back with us, if you like. As Sandburg was just saying, we do a good selection in bandages. You and Vin too," he added to Chris as Ezra went smugly to do his assuring. "You're still our houseguests."
He wasn't quite sure what was wrong with Vin, but he knew if Larabee thought it warranted medical attention they'd have been on the way by now, sirens blaring.
"Be grateful," Chris accepted. "Don't know what arrangements the boys have made." He looked past Jim's shoulder and called politely, "We're sorry about the mess, Miss Duncan. You give the orders for getting it cleared up, and we'll see it's done."
Vin moved very slightly at that. "C'n help," he said, straightening up a little.
"You stay exactly where you are," Miss Duncan said firmly. "Those men you dealt with tonight have caused a great deal of misery in the neighbourhood. We are all grateful for their removal, and as you can see, we already have plenty of volunteers to help."
Jim had had all his spare attention on Blair, but he looked around now. The more seriously hurt had gone first, and now the walking wounded had been removed, as had the men who had been arrested. In their place, people had come out from the apartments onto the street and were clearing and sweeping. Ed was supervising, and someone was even boarding over the broken windows.
Miss Duncan put her hand lightly on Vin's arm. "You can come back and see us later tomorrow. In fact, we would be very pleased if you would all come. Ed! We could arrange a supper for tomorrow in the hall, I think."
Ed strolled over. "No problem," he agreed. "Would you be able to come, Detective?"
Vin and Blair needed that kind of closure, rather than the kind given by Josephs' death, Jim thought. "We'd enjoy it," he said.
"Be a pleasure," Chris agreed.
"Bring your friends," Miss Duncan said. "I have very much enjoyed meeting Captain Banks and Captain Taggart, and your men, Mr Larabee, have been very helpful. We will see you at six o'clock."
She gave Vin a final comforting pat on the arm. "You will feel much better by then," she said in a voice which didn't allow for argument. "Now there is no reason for any of you to be standing around here. I see Ezra is ready to leave. I suggest you collect Blair, let that young woman get on with her work, and all of you go home."
She went off briskly to supervise some sweepers who were showing a deplorable tendency to lean on their brooms and chat.
"You coming on your feet or over my shoulder?" Chris asked Vin, as casually as if he was asking him how much sugar he wanted in his coffee.
"I c'n walk," Vin said.
He looked truly exhausted, and didn't protest the arm Chris slung around him to support him. Blair was using any final shreds of energy he had left to charm the young paramedic, and between them he and Buck were obviously brightening her evening. She reluctantly began to pack up. Simon came over to reiterate Miss Duncan's advice. "Take them home, Jim. You got any food there?"
Jim hadn't been back to the loft for a while, and he and Chris hadn't bothered much about eating. He tried to think.
"Never mind," Simon said. "Look, I've kept a couple of cars. Why don't you two and Larabee's team go back to the loft for now, and Joel and I will pick something up and bring it along."
"Any preferences? Pizza? Chinese?"
"There's a nice Thai place a couple of blocks from the loft."
Simon looked over at Blair who was still trying to flirt with the paramedic, but yawning widely at the same time. "Take him away and put him to bed before he swallows her whole. We'll see you at the loft, Jim. If you find you want groceries as well, just call."
Vin's world was fragmented. Reminded him of one of those kids' toysEz'd know the namelittle coloured bits that shook about and made a new picture. One minute he was sitting on the ground, looking at the handcuff on his wrist, knowing Ez was hurting and he'd really crossed some line with Chris. Then he was standing staring at the men round Josephs. Then he was seeing Blair suddenly jerk and fall, and being too shocked to take it in, and before he had, he was seeing Josephs die. He looked at that picture longer before it shivered and the pieces fell into a new pattern. It was red and violent and very final. Josephs wouldn't hurt anyone again. But he was glad, at the last, that it hadn't been at his hand.
The pieces shifted and fell again. He was looking at Chris, who didn't look angry, not angry at all, which just made it more confusing. He wanted to explain to Chris how it had seemed like the crying would never stop until Josephs was dead, but he could see the words made no sense to him, and then they stopped making sense even to himself, and he would have fallen if Chris hadn't been right there. After that the pictures stopped altogether for a while, and there was only darkness and soundvoices and shouting and sirens further away, and close against him just the thud that was Chris's heart. He leaned up there, knowing that Chris had the strength and the savvy for both of themthree of them even, because when Ezra spoke he was real close as well and sounded not a lot better than Vin felt. Vin hoped the action was over, because if Chris had got him under one arm and Ez leaned on the other, he sure as hell hadn't a chance of going for his gun.
Chris and Ez were talking about Blair. He'd blotted that picture out, but now an echo of it formed behind his closed eyes.
"Blair looks all right," Chris said, maybe to Ez, maybe for Vin to know the picture was safe to look at.
"He does not appear to be enjoying Nathan's administration of medical assistance."
"Could have a cracked rib. Bullet hit him hard enough. Lucky he had the vest."
Blair fidgeting with the buckles. Blair safe against a body shot. Blair, audible now in a pause in the other noise, complaining healthily. Vin straightened up just a little. Chris's arm tightened; Chris's voice, no more than a breath near his hair, warned. "You don't move yet. Nate's coming."
It wasn't just Nate. He didn't need to open his eyes to know the moment when they were all together again: there was JD, talking too much, asking questions no one else would even dare to think'hey, Chris, why'd you handcuff Vin and Ezra'; Buck, managing to hug Vin even if half of him was still face down in Chris's jacket; Josiah, his voice rumbling with the promise that there were everlasting arms warm as the ones holding him; Nate wanting Chris to let him check Vin, wanting Ezra to explain what was hurting, suggesting the emergency room. It was like stepping out into the sun. He was even glad of Nate fussing, hearing the care behind it.
He was relieved though to discover that Ez had wriggled out of it enough that they'd escaped Cascade General. The pictures resumed: a glimpse of Blair and a pretty paramedic; a whole load of folk cleaning up the mess; Jim Ellison, looking kind of battered, helping Blair over to one of the PD cars like he was made of glass. Then they were in a car themselves, and there were streets and lights and other traffic, 'til he closed his eyes on it all again.
"Vin? You awake?"
He wasn't sure what Larabee wanted him awake for. They'd got Ez as well in their car and he was talking enough for two.
Okay. Reckon that was why he needed to be awake. Street. Elevator. Door. Ellison's loft. All on his own feet, though Chris was still using one arm to prop him up and holding the other ready in case Ez wobbled. Vin felt bad about Ezra. He leaned to apologise to him as they were both dumped on the couch in the loft. "Ez, I'm real sorry..."
"Don't be," Ezra said. "I should have found some way of reaching you with words long before it came to that."
"I wouldn't've heard..."
"You were a long way away," Ezra said quietly, understanding. Then he grinned. "Of course, our esteemed leader soon bridged the gap with his resourceful use of the handcuffs."
"You're lucky I took them off the pair of you," Chris said, leaning over. "EzJim Ellison says he's got some stuff that'll ease up that shoulder."
Ezra reluctantly agreed that some minor level of pain relief might be acceptable, and actually let Nathan help him off to have it applied. Chris sat down next to Vin. "How are you feeling?"
Vin didn't know how he could put it into words, the way the world seemed to be made up of hundreds of separate pieces even though he knew the connections were there. "M' mind's a jigsaw," he said in the end. "And someone's thrown th' bits about."
"So we'd best set about fitting them together again."
"Y' ain't got th' patience for jigsaws," Vin said, wondering if the green eyes searching his really saw the extent of the mess.
Chris's face softened a bit, like he wasn't seeing any kind of mess at all. "Sarah used to have a plate she was really fond of," he said quietly. "Used to be her great aunt's or something. That got broke one day, about as many pieces as you'd expect from a whole dinner service. Anyone else, anything else I'd've just swept up the pieces and put them in the trash. This, I collected them up, spread them all out on a white tray, matched them up, made sure I'd got every bit. It took a while, but I fixed that plate and then took some advice on finishing it off to look like it hadn't been so badly broken. Think Sarah liked it even better then, because she knew I'd found the patience because she mattered that much to me."
He rested a hand on Vin's shoulder. Around them there was plenty of noise, as Buck and JD explored the kitchen cupboards setting out plates and cutlery, Josiah examined the books, Blair and Ezra submitted to Jim and Nathan and the medical supplies; but they'd managed to find complete silence and harmony in the middle of it. Vin could almost hold in his hands the image Chris had given him; he knew just what it had meant to Chris to share it.
"I can find the patience," Chris said. "So can the others, Vin."
Because he mattered that much? Vin didn't find it easy to believe, but Chris didn't make promises he wasn't planning to keep, and he didn't let anything stand in the way of his keeping them either. Before Vin could swallow past the tight feeling in his throat enough to make any kind of reply, Simon Banks and Joel Taggart arrived with food, and the moment passed, but he reckoned Chris had a good idea how he felt anyway.
Ezra flopped back on the couch smelling of something pungent, and grumbling about Nathan and Jim egging each other on. Buck dropped a glass and JD cut his thumb clearing it up. Blair came and sat down near them and began to explain to Josiah the origins of his ceremonial mask. Nathan took JD away, Buck was thrown out of the kitchen area, and Jim, Simon and Joel served up the food like professionals.
"This smells extremely edible," Ezra said, as plates were placed on their laps.
It did. Vin discovered that tired as he was, he actually wanted to eat. He emptied the plate. Someone took it and brought it back with some more food. JD handed him an opened bottle of beer; he and Buck had evidently found their way round the interior of the fridge. Blair, sitting rather stiffly, caught his eye, grinned and raised his own bottle in a sort of salute.
"Beer from Alsace," Ezra murmured appreciatively.
"Hell, who thought beer all round was a good idea?" he heard Nate saying, too late to call it back.
"Beer and bandages," Blair said. "That's Jim's idea of a shopping list. Simple. Alliterative."
"We're always running out of both." That was JD, sitting cross legged on the floor.
Vin drained the bottle, enjoying the conversation swirling around him. The beer was strong, and he was dog tired, and if he'd had anything to do but sit there and fall asleep he wouldn't have had another bottle. Luckily he hadn't, and the supply of beer seemed unlimited. The third bottle was probably a mistake. He tilted his head back as he drained the last drops of it, and the couch seemed to do a sideways lurch. Chris caught him briefly, removed the bottle from his grasp and then let him slide the rest of the way until he was sprawled comfortably enough across the couch and Chris's knees.
Nate was playing something quietly on Blair's guitar. He heard Ezra give a small belch, say in a horrified and rather slurred voice, "Good lord, how mortifying, I am beginning to sound like Mr Wilmington," and belch again. Josiah and someone else with a deep voice began to sing along with whatever Nate was playing. Chris's hand rubbed lightly up and down his arm, and to his amazement Chris began to hum along with the song.
That was the only picture he took with him into sleep.
Miller was back in his office by the time Haines reported in from the aborted mission in the warehouse district. Haines arrived with Rigby and Botting, all of them by now aware of the PDs successful entrapment of Josephs.
"We went to the scene," Rigby said formally. "By that time only two officers remained on the site, supervising the clear up. We established the basic facts, and confirmed that Josephs was dead after being shot while being arrested. I've seen the body for myself. there's no doubt it is Josephs, and he was killed by a high velocity shot to the throat. We saw no advantage in remaining at the scene of the clear up."
"Some old bat there tried to hand me a broom," Botting complained. "And I'll tell you something else, sir. That Negro was there who we saw at the... incident... with Standish's car. He says he's a church worker, but I think he's something covert."
"He's 73, and definitely a church worker," Haines said firmly, repressing this paranoia. "I've been at the PD, sir. It seems that Tanner and Sandburg were so confused they were wandering the streets. They were befriended by the people at a small mission there, and after a while were convinced it would be better to give themselves up. The people at the mission helped to arrange for them to talk to someone tonight, and when the PD heard of it, they realised such a meetingit seemed to be a matter of talk locallymight bring Josephs out. They diverted their warehouse operation there."
"That's the official version is it?" Miller asked.
"It holds up, sir."
"I don't believe any of it."
"Tanner and Sandburg definitely walked in to the mission, sir. I did get our agents to check that, and there were plenty of witnesses who had seen them outside, looking 'strange' and apparently barefoot, one morning earlier this week."
"I'm not saying we can successfully challenge the story, Haines, just that I don't believe for a moment the PD were involved in this as late as you suggest. This is why they wanted us out of the area."
"They gave us the run around," Botting agreed.
"But Josephs is dead," Rigby said. "We'd settle for that, wouldn't we?"
"Exactly. We can draw a line under this affair now."
Miller dismissed Rigby and Botting. Haines, lingering, said, "Josephs seems to have been taken out very professionally."
"Good. Careless of the PD to have allowed it to happen after they had the man under arrest. I think we should point that out. Good night, Haines."
"Do you need a hand?" Jim Ellison asked, amused, watching the ATF team leader in action.
Jim had thought for a while he was going to have a number of people spending the night on his floor, but Simon had offered a bed to Nathan Jackson, and Joel had taken Josiah. Benedek had dropped in briefly and finished up the remains of the take out. His attention had been caught by something Simon had said about Josephs' aliasesthey'd found a passport in the name of Helmut Gregorand he'd left again in a hurry, saying it gave him an idea for an additional twist to the story that would knock his editor's socks off. He'd taken JD and Buck with him, to loan them his hotel room as he wasn't going to have time to sleep.
That left Blair, snoring softly in his chair, and Chris Larabee, struggling to extricate himself from his sharpshooter sprawled across his lap, and his undercover agent tilted precariously against his shoulder.
"Damn it, Ellison, stop grinning and take one of them."
Jim removed Ezra, lifting him to an equally precarious position on his feet. "Thank you, waiter," Ezra said without opening his eyes. "Ah'll have two more bottles."
Jim propped him carefully up, avoiding his painful shoulder, and steered him towards the stairs to the upper bedroom. Ezra opened his eyes, and asked plaintively. "Where am ah going? This is not the direction of the bathroom?"
Okay, that was a valid objection. Jim redirected him, decided he could manage on his own, and pushed him into the bathroom. Sounds indicated that satisfactory progress had been made, but Ezra did not reappear. Jim looked in. For reasons best known to the Alsatian beer, Ezra had decided to sleep in the bath. If it hadn't been for the shoulder Jim would have left him there. It was remarkably difficult getting him out again.
Chris looked in, amused in his turn. "You could always turn the taps on," he said. "He doesn't like cold water."
But he came and added his efforts, and between them they steered Ezra once more to the stairs, and this time successfully upwards. There was a brief hiatus at the top, when it dawned on Ezra why he was there. "Ah cannot sleep in your bed. It would be quite an abuse of mah position as a guest."
"Ellison wants you to guard it for him until he needs it," Chris said, with a resourcefulness Jim secretly admired.
"Certainly." Ezra sat down cautiously and flipped a small gun from his sleeve. "Ah will protect it against all comers." He paused, and added with dignity. "Ah do not, however, do bed bugs. If detective Ellison needs protection against bed bugs ah am not the person he should be calling on. Ah am a highly trained agent and do not use mah powers for pest control..."
Chris deftly removed the gun, and Jim tucked a couple of pillows into position. Ezra was beginning an elaborate speech about why shooting was an ineffectual deterrent for bed bugs while they tipped him backwards on to the pillows, but he paused mid sentence. Apparently he had remembered that his role as a polite guest called for certain sacrifices, and he finished magnanimously, "However, ah am prepared to make an exception in this case. If ah see a bed bug, ah will take immediate action."
"Thank you," Jim said, equally politely, and was relieved to see that Ezra's eyes were rapidly losing what focus they'd had.
"Going," Chris murmured.
"Going," Jim agreed.
"Gone," they said together.
"It's impressive that he can talk like that after as much beer as he's drunk."
"Might not be quite so eloquent tomorrow morning," Chris said, easing Ezra into a slightly more comfortable position. "I'll put a glass of water and some Tylenol up here."
That was probably going to be the preferred choice at breakfast. Jim had stopped at a single beer, and as far as his senses told him, whatever Larabee had drunk hadn't had much effect. But Vin and Blair were definitely sleeping it off. The ones who left hadn't been much better, except Joel who was driving. He had a vague recollection that he and Chris had filled the fridge with beer one depressing evening and then never got around to drinking it. It was empty now, so thirty six bottles had gone somewhere.
"Blair?" Chris asked.
"Be more comfortable in bed."
"You decide the best way."
In fact, apart from the need to be careful of the slightly cracked ribs, it was easy to walk Blair to his own room. He barely woke up, rolled cooperatively into the position Jim thought would be best for his ribs, and went back to sleep without a murmur. Jim tried not to look at Larabee too smugly.
At some point in a busy afternoon Simon must have found time to send someone to retrieve their possessions from the store; Vin's sleeping bag was rolled up in the corner of Blair's room with some blankets, and the other things had been in the kitchen. Jim borrowed the sleeping bag now.
"I'm going to stay on the floor in here."
Chris glanced at him with easy understanding. "I'll take the chair." He pulled it nearer to the couch, where Vin slept under the afghan.
Jim stretched out, listened to the final noises of Chris settling, listened to the soft sounds of his territory. He wasn't planning to sleep, just to rest and watch. Or rather, be on watch; he was using all his senses, not just his sight. They were sharp tonight, his to command for once. He was aware of every changing nuance in his environment and could extend his awareness as he pleased. He relaxed into the harmony of it, not close to sleeping or zoning but able to let his mind rest as he monitored his world with instinctive skills. Maybe, he thought after some indefinite passage of time, this was a sentinel's form of meditation. Maybe, if common sense didn't prevail over his pleasure in having his guide back, he'd even mention it to Blair.
He sat up now, cross legged, back against the open doorway, and took Blair in with his eyes. His ears had already told him Blair was breathing slowly and peacefully, that his heart rate was that of undisturbed sleep; he smelt reassuringly of unwashed Sandburg and beer, with a garnish of Thai cuisine. Now Jim enjoyed the sight of him, comfortable as they'd left him, one arm flung out and the other curled lightly over his ribs. He slept like someone who knew he was safe.
He was safe.
But if he hadn't been wearing a vest... Jim forgot meditation, and remembered he had unfinished business with someone. He wasn't certain yet who. Miller or Haines he thought; even if one of them hadn't pulled the trigger they'd probably given the orders. But in this slow, peaceful night, even his anger over that burned evenly, and with Blair in front of him it had no power to sear.
Besides, if Benedek could be believed, if his editor really was going to run the story, Miller, Haines and quite a few others would soon be getting an unpleasant surprise. Jim had no idea of the circulation of the National Register, or how much impact a story in it would make, but if it put up enough smoke, surely people would start looking for a fire. He was inclined to suspect the editor would hesitate to take on the CIA though.
Blair would probably have called it karma. It did cross Jim's mind that maybe it was what he deserved for being a cynical son of a bitch. At any rate, the arrival of Edgar Benedek at his door at six in the morning, wearing a shirt that was hard on sentinel sight at any hour, suggested the National Register really had gone for the story, all the way.
Jim, who had heard him coming, hastily opened the door and shushed him in, but shushing Benedek was not easy. Chris opened one eye and winced. "Been paintballing?"
Benedek ignored this. Maybe it simply didn't occur to him that it was meant as a comment on his shirt from a man who thought the in colour was always black. He was too busy turning on Jim's TV.
"Look at this. Perfect, free publicity. Jordy thinks maybe his heart gave out in the night and he's gone to editor's paradise."
Chris opened the other eye. It was worth it. There on a major news channel, a reporter was standing in front of a supermarket holding up a copy of the National Register for the nation to see.
"... and older readers will remember the days when Edgar Benedek..."
"Older readers!" Benedek said indignantly.
But Jim's attention was fixed on the headlines that filled most of the front page:
THE CIA AND DENVER'S DR DEATH
The TV news reporter was talking about names being named, details given, questions to be asked. They hadn't yet got any comments from the CIA but they were now going over to Denver to recall the story that had shocked the nation fifteen years ago.
Benedek produced several copies of the tabloid from his briefcase as interviews began on the TV with Denver's retired policemen, social workers and firemen. Jim realised with startled satisfaction that it must be the station's leading story. He hadn't dared to hope for something like this.
"We'd actually got evidence on this one," Benedek said, as though it was a luxury the Register often dispensed with, "so Jordy called every contact he'd got. And he's been in the business a long time."
Jim began to turn the pages of the copy Benedek had handed him, and was startled again. It was written in a style that went with Benedek's choice in clothes, but under the flamboyance was a wealth of solid, damning, factual detail. The Register was telling the story of Josephs, or Levine as he'd been then, from Denver to his recent death and they were naming people and places, times and dates in a way that would have done credit to the New York Times.
"You didn't get all this in a day," he said.
"I got quite a lot of it fifteen years ago," Benedek said, looking hopefully around the kitchen. "It stank even then, but I hadn't got the right way in. When Ezra called me, I got out the old files, and of course Henshaw being here gave me a clear lead. With what you'd found out, and what Kelso could addand I owe him big time, he must have been working on it from the minute you spoke to himit all began to come together. It's been a long night though. I'm caffeine deprived."
Jim took the hint and started to put coffee on. The TV report had moved to Redlands and the expressions of horrified disbelief from its wealthy neighbours. The Register with its damning headline remained on screen throughout. Benedek sat down and looked through his story with considerable self-approval; he read aloud any gems he thought they shouldn't miss. The phone rang, with Simon wanting to know if they'd seen the news.
Chris stretched and stood up. "It's a real pleasure to think of Miller and Haines waking up to this," he said.
Miller did not wake up to the news. He had never been to bed. After Haines had left he'd received a late call from the agent who, purely as a precaution, he had allocated to keep an eye on what happened at the offices of the National Register. Expressions such as 'unusual amount of activity' and 'general excitement' were just two parts of the report he found ominous. He told the man to consider it a matter of extreme priority to ascertain the front page headlines, and removed himself to a small all-night café, abandoning his car. When he called his agent again, he was confirmed in the wisdom of this.
"I had to spend more than we'd usually sanction to get someone to talk," the man said doubtfully.
"It doesn't matter. What are the headlines?"
"It's just one really, and it's definitely a CIA story. The rest didn't make a lot of sense to me. The CIA and Denver's Dr Death. Wasn't that something from years ago?"
Miller terminated the call. The agent may not have understood the implications of the headline, but Miller didall too well. He did not see any option but to get out while he had the chance. If he stayed, it didn't just mean humiliation and repercussions, it meant no protection from the organisation if the killing of Josephs could be brought home to him. It probably meant he was the obvious choice to take the fall for everything.
Fortunately, wherever he was, he believed in being prepared. He got a taxi to the airport, where he had left some useful items in a storage locker: clothes, comb-in hair dye, coloured contacts, and most important of all a complete set of papers in a different identity. He would leave in his new persona, and disappear for a few weeks.
He called no one else. Haines and Henshaw could take the fall instead.
Haines was picked up and taken before someone so eminent that he knew there was a major crisis even before he was shown the breaking story. When he realised what was happening he did what any subordinate would do in the circumstances. He blamed everything on Miller and offered to find evidence that Miller himself had carried out the previous night's shooting.
Henshaw, still in Cascade General, was alerted to the story by a nurse who knew he was 'something to do with the government' and who meant to be kind.
"It seems to be ever such a scandal," she said, turning the TV on. "I haven't really had time to watch it, but I thought you'd be interested."
Henshaw, who had heard this from her before, looked at the screen with little expectation. Then he saw the tabloid front page prominently displayed in the corner of the running story. His involuntary sound of shock brought the nurse hurrying back in.
If it hadn't been for the pain in his ankle, stirred up by his involuntary jerk towards the TV, Henshaw would have wondered if he was awake. This scene had appeared in his nightmares so many times over the years. He'd grown more confident though as time passed. Now he was wide awake and seeing his career, and possibly his liberty, under threat. The CIA and Denver's Dr Death. It had to be Benedek. He'd heard him use that very phrase fifteen years ago telling Henshaw that nothing got covered up for ever. He'd known when he saw Benedek that morning... He'd even warned Miller...
But he was the one trapped in his bed with no option but to face what came. His mind jumped to that evening at Redlands. Even then, he'd sensed disaster.
"Come wind come wrack," he said aloud. "At least we'll die with harness on our back."
The nurse slipped away quietly. She'd been thinking for a while there was something just a little strange about Mr Henshaw. Perhaps the doctor would agree a psych evaluation for him.
Botting was glad for once that he hadn't yet risen to the superior position he knew his talents deserved. He was too junior for this to be more than a setback. He bought a copy of the National Register and thought about how many senior posts might become vacant as a result of this. His enjoyment was spoiled however by the discovery that he featured on an inside page spread on the manifold vices of his organisation. There was a picture of himself, Rigby and the demon child, under the heading 'Protectors or Perverts?'. The CIA was getting too soft. Benedek should have been dealt with long before he could go to press with anything. So should anyone have been who knew about Josephs. Elimination all round, that was what he'd have ordered.
Rigby watched the story as it developed on the screen and pushed his breakfast away untouched. His first thought was that it had to be lies. Then facts piled on facts and began to form a horrible sort of logic. He went in to work, to Miller's office, but Miller was gone, and being searched for with increasing aggression. Haines was locked up with men so senior they were almost myths to Rigby. Everyone else who might have given him orders seemed to assume the story was true, and to be covering their own backs. He saw no one all morning who seemed to have realised how appalling it was if it was true, and no one who wanted to tell him to do anything more specific than to say nothing at all to anyone. Feeling as if what he thought was rock had turned to quicksand, Rigby wandered out and bought his own copy of The National Register.
The story ran all day. Blair lurched out of bed intending to hit the bathroom then sleep until noon, but was instantly gripped. In spite of a pounding headache and a dire need of a shower, he had to sit and watch. Jim probably had to dial down his sense of smell, but hey, who'd taught him how. Vin, even less awake than Blair, shuffled up the couch to make room for him. He was squinting painfully at the screen as if his head hurt.
"Coffee coming up," Jim said from the kitchen area. He and Chris looked dauntingly clean, shaven and alert.
On the TV a spokesperson for the CIA was treading a fine line between denial and the implication that if this could be proved it had to be some rogue elements of an otherwise squeaky clean organisation the country should be grateful for. The program cut from that to scenes of people queuing up to get their copies of the Register, and then a reporter going into an obviously well-practised summary of what it said.
"Benedek did all this?" Blair asked. "He ought to get an award."
"Deserves a Pulitzer," Benedek agreed immodestly from above. Blair hadn't realised he was upstairs. He realised that there had been voices up there, and made a guess that the other was Ezra's.
"That would be a first in the Register's long and illustrious history," Benedek went on. He came down and turned to Jim. "I have to go. I've got some interviews to do. See you later, maybe."
He strode off energetically. Blair tried not to wince and reached cautiously for his cup of coffee. Jim hovered briefly, probably wanting to check the ribs, but luckily he must have heard something. "Simon's on his way up," he said, and went to open the door.
It occurred to Blair that his current attire of boxers and a not very cleanor, in the interests of a precise use of language, disgustingly dirtyT shirt left something to be desired. He moved to snag half of Vin's afghan. That was when he realised what was now showing on the news program.
"I never saw this," Vin said quietly. "Never hardly saw TV."
It was old footage, Blair realised. Denver as it had been fifteen years ago. He hadn't seen it either. He and Naomi had moved on, and had anyway seldom seen a TV either. He just about recognised the street, and knew what he was seeing as emergency vehicles came into view. Vin hunched forward, painfully intent. They saw the camera move in to the front of the building and then down to the basement. In spite of himself, in spite of knowing this was fifteen year old film, and everything was over. Blair felt his heart speed up uncomfortably. The camera tracked down into an instantly recognisable basement. They must have filmed it during that first day, Blair thought, before the building burned down in the night.
Vin made the slightest of sounds. The slumped lines of his body had all stiffened to rigidity now.
Then the screen went blank.
Blair looked around and realised it was Chris Larabee holding the remote. Vin turned with an angry protest, then must have realised he was catching the attention of Simon and Jim in the doorway. He fell silent, but he held his hand out for the remote.
"Now's not the time," Chris said briefly. "It'll be on enough times. Hell, I'll get the tapes if you want them once we're back in Denver. Wait 'til you're ready."
The argument, Blair realised, then continued in silence. He stared from face to angry face, not sure what either of them was thinking. At least if he and Jim had a difference of opinion, one of them was always vocal. He knew when Chris Larabee won though. Vin muttered something, ditched the afghan and stood up. Unlike Blair, he at least had jeans on. Standing up made him wince and put a hand to his head, but he walked doggedly over to the kitchen where he poured two cups of black coffee. He added an alarming amount of sugar to one of them, and stumped upstairs with both.
Chris offered a mug of coffee to Simon.
"No, I can't stay. I've got to see the chief. Jackson and Sanchez will meet up with you at the PD at lunch time. And if you five could do some statements and reports then that'd be helpful, Jim." He looked over towards the couch. "How are you doing, Sandburg?"
"Well, they're putting out the flags at Major Crimes. You're going to get a big welcome back." He gestured towards Jim and Chris Larabee. "These two in combination was a bit much for any police department. I can tell you, in Major Crimes the thought of it being just Ellison and Sandburg again is a big relief. Plus they're pleased to have you back safe, kid. So am I."
He turned and went hastily. Blair untangled himself from the afghan and jumped equally hastily to his feet to go after him and say... well, something. His mouth usually found the words if it was open, and right now it certainly was.
Jim's arm halted him before he could go out though. "You need to think of Mrs Carlow's blood pressure before you go down the hall dressed like that."
Blair looked down at himself. Without the afghan he was definitely underclothed for a public appearance. Simon had escaped now, anyway. And Jim had that look on his face he got sometimes when he was sorting the socks in the dirty laundry: a sort of 'I'm a tough guy, I can endure this, where are the damn dials' look. Maybe it really was time for that shower. Jim could do the rebandaging.
He trailed back to his room, collected a pile of clean clothes, and went to do his bit to reduce air pollution. As the hot water did its stuff, it occurred to him it would be quite interestingin the cause of thorough research of courseto find out just what sort of combination Jim and Chris had been.
"We're leaving for the PD in an hour," Chris called upstairs. "Shower's free."
He handed Vin a clean shirt and jeans out of his own supply. Vin had travelled light and they'd lost the clothes he'd been wearing; they were probably still in evidence lock up somewhere.
Vin looked at the charcoal jeans and dark grey shirt. "That all you got?"
"Ain't going around like a Larabee clone. I'll get a shirt off Blair."
"You ever hear the saying beggars can't be choosers?"
"Was I begging?"
In the end it was Jim who lent him a shirt, slightly too large but neither black nor checked. Vin finally headed for the bathroom, but paused as he got there to say over his shoulder, "Oh, and Ez says he's not getting up at all 'less someone goes and fetches him a change of something fancy from his hotel."
Luckily, with a foresight Chris could only admire, when Benedek had called into his hotel room to spruce up for the round of interviews he had also given Buck and JD a shirt and jacket to bring over with them for Ezra. They even harmonised, which proved Benny's normal clothes were a matter of choice rather than colour blindness. That left, of course, the question of the lower half. In the end, Jim pressed the pants Ezra had been wearing, and Chris issued threats in a voice raised enough to induce capitulation in any hangover sufferer. They left for the PD on time.
Simon Blanks had more than enough for Chris and Jim to do when they got there. He'd made it as easy as possible for Blair and Vin, and he'd seen one of Ezra's reports and suggested the computer system's vocabulary wasn't up to too many of them, so they were finished more quickly. Chris left his team enjoying Blair's 'welcome home' in the Major Crimes bull pen and went to get on with it in Simon's office. The noise outside was cheerful; it was natural enough maybe that no one wanted to think of the more serious implications of what had gone down. At higher levels Chris could imagine there was a much more subdued atmosphere, especially now it was obvious Miller had cut his losses and run.
For Major Crimes though, and his own team, it was a day they'd been waiting for and probably sometimes secretly doubted they'd see. The case was closed. Vin and Blair were safe. Even Henri was already out of hospital, and back with his arm in a sling to eat cake with the rest of them.
Chris was happy to celebrate, but there was still one thing he wanted before he felt it was really finished. He wanted to hear the full story from Vin and Blair of what had happened fifteen years ago. So far, it had all been clues and guesses and little fragments of the past. He wanted to hear it as a whole, and he had a feeling that until they sat down and told it, there would be something niggling there, like a splinter in a wound. It had been too easy for Josephs to produce those feelings of guilt and fear and failure. It was time, more than time, for them to talk to someone about what really happened.
"Tonight," said Jim, who agreed. "Even now, with Josephs dead and the story set out in print, I don't think it'll come that easily. After we've been to this supper and run the rest of your boys to the airport, we'll see if they'll talk."
"I'll prime Ezra."
To give Simon Banks time to follow up any queries from today's paperwork, they'd agreed that Chris, Vin and Ezra would stay over one more night. The others were heading back on a late evening flight.
Simon came back in with a plate of something sweet and sticky. "I just reminded them that everyone off duty is invited to supper at St James hall at six," he said. "The community there couldn't have done more for us, so I want to see a good turn out. And Rhonda says what should we take?"
"Give her Miss Duncan's number," Jim said quickly. He and Chris had already agreed on what they were taking.
Miss Duncan looked into the huge box of books and paper, card, pens, crayons and every sort of collage item they'd been able to think of, with much more enthusiasm than she would have shown for flowersthough they had got her some of those as well.
"This is excellent," she said with rare enthusiasm. "How did you know we needed these things."
"We took advice," Chris said. It had cost him a large bag of jelly beans and a new outfit for the doll, but he'd been planning to treat Jodie anyway. She had not only told them how Miss Duncan spent her own money on Sunday School, but had also gleefully gone shopping with them. Josiah, who apparently had Sunday School teaching on his CV too, had come along and added suggestions.
Miss Duncan, exploring the treasures, lifted out a large and beautifully illustrated children's Bible, and turned the pages with pleasure. "Thank you, Mr Standish," she called to the undercover agent. Chris didn't ask how she knew that had been Ezra's contribution, but he was pleased she had guessedEzra had spent some time carefully choosing it, but had insisted it went in with the other things. He came over now, though, bringing a small troop of children with him to help unpack the box.
The hall was full. In addition to all the people who had helped them, there were local tradesmen, storekeepers, who must have provided some of the vast amounts of food available, people who lived around the area, anyone who ever came to a church activity, especially one involving food, and quite a few homeless people who were enjoying a free supper.
They ate, talked, sang a bit and enjoyed themselves. The only person allowed to make a speech was Miss Duncan and she made it briskly. Towards the end of the evening when people were starting to drift away, Chris found himself next to Vin.
"Okay?" he asked.
"Good place; good people," Vin said. "You said good bye to Jodie? Her mom's trying to go."
Chris went and got a final hug.
"I might come and see you one day," Jodie said. "But I got a lot to do and so do you. You should have some ladies on your team. They'd be less trouble."
Chris looked around uneasily. Buck had a girl on each arm; JD was trying to match him, but both the girls he was talking to were giggling too much to do anything; Ezra was teaching some boys a card trick, which was probably not ideal on church premises, though Chris was a bit hazy on that one; Vin had joined Josiah and they were arm wrestling for an audience of slightly older kids, and Nate and Jim Ellison seemed to be ganging up on Blair.
"I think I'll take them home," he said to Jodie.
"That's a good idea," she said. "I 'spect you're a bit soft with them. You gotta have a firm hand."
Her harassed mother gave her arm another tug. Jodie frowned. "I'm just saying goodbye." She turned back to Chris. "You see they mind you, then you won't lose no more of them. And if Vin don't like it, you tell him he can't ride his horse 'less he's good."
With that sage advice, she waved and left. "Come on, mom. I'm always waitin' for you."
Chris wondered if she'd be the first woman president. She certainly wouldn't mind the challenge. He realised Vin had drifted silently up beside him and was grinning.
"You can take that look off your face," Chris said. "I'm thinking of taking her advice and developing a firm hand."
Vin's grin broadened. "I been telling Peso that ever since I had him. Let's face it, Chris, she just saw clear through to that soft centre."
He ducked the cuff Chris aimed and said, "Come to see if y' want t' arm wrestle 'Siah."
"There isn't time," Chris said. "They've got a plane to catch."
"Well, if yer chicken..."
Chris arm wrestled with Josiah; he lost as he always did; Simon offered to send a car ahead of them with the siren going so they got to the airport in time, but they managed to make it without such extreme measures, and there was no hurry getting back to the loft.
There was no hurry recalling the past, when he'd just seen Vin spend the evening finally able to forget it.
He saw the same thought in Jim Ellison's eyes, but then Ellison said, "If we let it go now, there might not be another time."
Leave a splinter in, it stung or festered or worked its way out. He didn't know what this one would do. He hesitated. Jim hesitated. Blair who was checking the answering machine said suddenly, "There's a message from Naomi, Jim. She must have got your call to tell her I was home."
Naomi's clear voice told them she was still in Ireland, and that she'd known Blair would come back safely, she could feel it in the grass and the wind. "Did you find the photo, by the way?" she added. "Blair used to spend hours sitting and looking through those pictures. Love to both of you. Be safe."
Chris looked at Jim, and saw agreement there. Jim fetched the small photo album while Blair was still telling Vin about his mom's travels.
"This is the photo Naomi was talking about," he said, showing it to Vin. "It set us a good way on finding out what happened."
Chris could almost feel the mood in the room change, as if someone had opened a door to somewhere cold. He watched Vin's face, not the photo which he'd looked at a lot of nights over the last three weeks. The shadow came back too easily. Blair said quietly, "Naomi never knew."
"We worked that out," Jim said, and by some miracle of self control his voice held no hint of judgement. "The two of you look pretty tired and hungry in this. How long were you in Denver?"
Blair glanced quickly at Vin.
"Did you encounter each other by chance?" Ezra asked. "It was a fortunate one, if so."
"Seen him looking lost." Vin broke his silence at last. "It weren't a place to be lost in."
"I had got no idea where to go," Blair said. "There were some seriously scary people about."
"Asked him if he was okay, and he just about jumped out of his skin."
It was like the first heavy drops when the clouds had been lowering a while. They were slow, a bit far between at first, but you knew then the storm was coming.
"Seemed like he was in a real mess," Vin said, the words hesitant still, as if he was choosing them carefully. "Nowhere to go, and no way of calling his mom."
Blair interrupted, talking too rapidly in his need to explain that none of it had been Naomi's fault, how she had every reason to think he would be safe. His hasty eloquence and Vin's slow search for the right words to convey the truth made an odd counterpoint. Jim felt as if he was hearing those boys in the photograph. He could see how they would have been at that first meeting: Blair nervous and determined not to show it, talking too fast, hands waving to support his words; Vin quietly assessing him, and acting with an instinct to help others that his own harsh life hadn't suppressed.
"He said we could sort it out," Blair said. "I can tell you, I've hardly ever been so relieved in my life. I can still see him saying it, and stopping me just this side of totally freaking out."
He sounded freaked enough even at the memory for Jim to want to reach out and put a hand on his arm. He didn't yet though. He didn't want to move, and break the fragile thread before the story had even begun, and also he'd chosen his position carefully. Where he'd pulled the kitchen chair to, he could watch Blair's face and stay in shadow himself. The room was only lit with the one light, and that was dim enough never to jar on sentinel eyesight. Slowly, without really intending to, Jim extended his perception of everyone in the room. Larabee was leaned back at one end of the couch, deceptively casual; Jim could feel his tension. Standish was on Vin's other side, and even heightened senses couldn't work out what he was feeling; maybe he didn't want them to, because he was sitting so Jim had no chance of seeing his expression.
"Weren't a good part of Denver to be wandering about," Vin said. "I knew some places we could go, and mostly it was best to get off the streets before it was late in the day. After that there was always more risk, and Blair looked kind of... well, innocent. Some people'd pay well for innocence, and it was in short supply."
"I'd already seen people lookingand when I say looking, I mean the kind of 'mmm, something different on the menu' look a pack of dogs might give a rabbit." Blair said it jokingly, but Jim could catch the echo of unforgotten panic.
"Probably ought t' have taken him t' some kind of authorities," Vin said. "But I used t' keep away from them case someone tried to put me back in care, and Blair thought maybe they'd take him from his mom, say she weren't fit. There'd been a man who was a sort of halfway house; one of th' good guys. He'd've helped out no questions asked, but he'd been taken out the areastopped a cop beating up this guy who heard voices all the time. His word against the cop's about what happened, and his charity sent him some place else. So there was no one."
Jim heard the slight noise of Larabee's hand clenching so tightly his knuckles grated. Jim was right there with him. It was the straightforward acceptance of it in Vin's tone that got to him. Sometimes there was no one; that was the way it was.
"Vin had a cool hideout," Blair said. "I mean. I wouldn't think so now, but at thirteen... We had to break into this building site. There was a guard dog, but it loved Vin."
"Was th' dog that made it a good place," Vin said. "Most people were put off. He made one hell of a racket, liked to look fierce. Was a big softie really though." He glanced at Ezra, who looked up as if he was expecting it, and they both grinned without explaining the joke. "Anyway, it was one of those sites where they stop and start, have a few days without turning up, you know how it goes. Right then, they hadn't been working for a couple of days and they had big concrete pipes there waiting to be laid. More'n big enough inside for a couple of kids, and open at th' ends. Weren't like being shut in."
"Vin had it all lined up with newspaper. It was warmer than you'd expect. And believe it or not, newsprint is surprisingly antisepticin slum areas they used to spread it for childbirth."
"He knew that sort of stuff even then. Told me all about it while we crawled in and got ourselves well covered up. He had some food in his pack too. We were okay."
"We were good," Blair agreed.
Jim felt his jaw clench so tightly he was in danger of cracking a tooth. He could picture it much, much too clearlytwo kids, barely half dressed to be out at night, huddled up under a pile of newspaper at the end of a drainage pipe, thinking they'd got it good. The worst of it was, it probably was good compared to what it could have been. Please, Naomi, stay in Ireland 'til I'vewhat would you say?processed this.
"Dog came in and slept on our feet," Vin said. "That was th' best part. Couldn't have been safer with him there. But th' trouble with that sort of place, it don't last. We were okay for a few days. It rained and the men didn't turn up. We stayed in 'less we were hungry. Blair read me th' papers, and he had a notebook and pens in his pack, so we did some writing. He was a good teacher."
"Still is," Jim said before he could stop himself.
Blair turned briefly, pleased and trying not to look it. "I taught Vin a few things, but what he taught me mattered morelike how to get food, shelter and keep out of trouble, for a start. I was beginning to realise I was on my own until Naomi came; we went back to the place where I was supposed to be staying, but it was locked up and empty."
"We tried to get in; thought there might be an answer machine."
"But the pi.. police were watching the place."
"We ran. They weren't a problem, couldn't catch a fat man in a narrow alley. But th' day after that the machines started up again on th' building site, and I had t' think. There'd been trouble a while with the hostels. Used to be two for anyone and one that was just for youngsters and women. The nuns ran that. It had a lot of rules, but it was clean and they cared for folk. About, maybe, six months before there'd been another one opened. Supposed to be run by some charity, probably sounded good to someone who lived away on a nice side of town, but we all knew from the start what it was. Anyone who was using, or dealing, or picking up kids who'd come to the city, you know how it goes, they all collected there. Didn't seem so bad to start with, because the other places were open. Then one hostel had a bad fire; they got everyone out, but they lost too much of the building. That one closed while they tried to get th'insurance to pay up, and then there's some 'witnesses' say they'd allowed drinking on the premises and so on... We knew it was a lie, but there was enough doubt that they'd trouble getting their money."
"By the time I met Vin, the only shelter left was the dodgy one."
"The nuns had just had to shuttemporary, though. Girl said they'd whipped her. Weren't a word of truth in it though, and enough people spoke up for them she took it back, said she'd been paid to make trouble. They opened up again, but not 'til all this was over. They're still there now. Josiah knows them. Looking back, I reckon JosephsLevine he was thengot them shut. He'd been creeping around a while by then. Making a big play of being a doctor, and a psychi'trist. People didn't know a lot about him, but he had qualifications all right, 'nd letters about some research programme into mental health problems in the homeless to explain him being around. Looking back, I reckon he had a deal going with the new hostelhe'd provide drugs, they'd talk him up as some kind a saint to any boards with responsibility in the area. They'd probably provided him from the start with some of th' people he wanted."
"He really was a psychiatric expert," Blair said. "Well, I suppose you knew that..."
He trailed off, perhaps thinking of the more recent past.
"He wanted people who had some kind of mental illness," Vin said. "You got a lot of them, more than you would now probablyschizophrenics, war vets with stress disorders, folk who were handicapped and fell through what net there was. There was one man who thought there was always a snake following him. We used t' call him Rattler... Weren't taking the mickey, it was just he kept asking if we could hear its rattle..."
He trailed off too. Jim let the silence grow. He caught the slightest of glances between Chris and Ezra. Vin between them was leaned forward slightly, elbows on his knees, staring down at the floor. The last memory had disturbed him; Jim caught the slight quickening in his breathing.
"He disappeared, then a week later they found him dead," Vin said at last. "Never knew what killed him. But there were marks on himone man said it was where electrodes had been. And that was when the whispers about LevineJosephsstarted, because he'd been real interested in Rattler."
"It was only whispers, though," Blair said. "By the time Vin met me, he was sure we'd be safest staying away from the man, but he said a lot of people still thought he was a do-gooder, even the nuns had thought so, because he'd arranged help for a boy they'd been looking after."
"That was Aaron," Vin said softly, and Jim wondered if Aaron too had died because Vin said the name like a lament. "He was handicappedthere's a name for itcan't remember the wordsanyway, he was the nicest kid you could meet. He could talk pretty well, and if he knew you, he'd come up and pat your face when you came in, put his arms round you. He'd wandered into the hostel some time, and they never found where he came from. He was happy there, but they thought they ought to organise something proper for him. Levine offered t' do it. Said there was a school out east would take him and train him. Hell, he even had some letter posted from there to say Aaron would be welcome. Don't know if th' school was a real place, but Aaron never left Denver. We just didn't know then."
"We were moving a lot, sleeping somewhere different each night," Blair said. "We did all right for food, though. I was a kind of would-be anthropologist even then, and I remember thinking hunter gatherer skills could adapt to any place."
"We didn't hunt anything."
"No, but we did a lot of gathering. It's just amazing how much good food just gets left or thrown out. And not so good food... Anyway, one night we went to this cellar place. It was under a store, but it wasn't used. Vin said hardly anyone knew about it and he didn't use it much in case more people found out. But there was a girl there."
"Sadie," Vin said. "I'd known Sadie more or less since I'd been on the streets. She was maybe a year older than us, but she was a lot bigger; you could think she was sixteen. She'd had about as bad a life as you could imagine, and she was pretty hard. Knew how to look out for herself, and if you got in her way, that'd be your bad luck."
"She was down there crying," Blair said.
"Threw me a bit. Not her being there, her me and a couple of others had found the place, but her crying. I thought maybe she'd had someone roughI mean, only one way for someone like Sadie to earn some money, but she wasn't stupid, she took care of herself pretty well usually."
"She wasn't too happy with Vin that he'd come down thereand especially not that he'd brought me."
"But once she'd calmed down, she told us what she was crying about. Sadie'd had a baby. Went with th' job, really. They hadn't money for protection. Someone built stocky like Sadie could keep it from showing a long while. The nuns'd often arrange for a girl to go have the baby someplace and then it'd be adopted. Some never asked for help, just delivered 'em themselves in a toilet. A few kept them."
"But Sadie had had an offer of money," Blair said.
"Like I said, Sadie'd learned it didn't get y' anywhere being too nice. Levine had told her he knew some people who wanted a baby, and would pay her if the baby was born healthy. Sadie thought it was a good deal. Only, now she didn't feel so good about it."
"She was well enough," Blair said. "It must have been about three months since she'd had it. She just couldn't get the baby out of her mind."
"Reckon it was th' first unspoilt thing Sadie'd ever touched," Vin said softly.
Vin had almost forgotten they were there, Jim thought. He could see what it was costing Larabee to sit there silent, separate, and just listen; he could smell the blood where Chris's nails had dug into the palms of his hands because they were so tightly clenched.
"She talked about the little bit of time she'd had with the baby," Blair said. "Not about the birth, but what it felt like to hold the baby, what he'd looked like. She could remember every detail. But I think she could have lived with that."
"Just, she believed the baby was suffering somewhere," Vin said. "She wasn't a person to imagine stuff. Hard facts, cash in hand, that was Sadie. But she dreamed th' baby was crying, and even when she was awake, she couldn't feel right about it."
"She'd been to Levine," Blair said. "He told her the baby was fine, in a much better home than she could give it. But she'd started to wonder about him by then. Like Vin, she found if you listened, you soon heard all sorts of whispers."
"But Levine'd scared her that night we saw her. She'd asked again, and he threatened her, not what he'd do to her, but that he knew where the baby was, and it'd be the baby suffered if she caused any trouble over this."
"We listened to her, and in the end we said we'd help if we could. We'd follow Levine, and see if we could get any hint where her baby might have been taken."
Jim could see Blair, all of thirteen, and small with it, cheerfully offering to follow a man who was quite clearly dangerous. Because he can't turn his back on someone in trouble, his thoughts whispered, where would you be if he could? All the same, even knowing it was over safely fifteen years ago, the idea pressed all the wrong buttons.
"Weren't so hard t' follow him," Vin said. "Took us a while, days I s'pose, but he never noticed us. We weren't worth seeing. Reckon that's why it still stuck in his craw all this time later. We weren't nothing compared t' him, and we stopped him."
"It must have taken us a week before we began to have even the faintest idea what he might be doing," Blair said. "I'd been in Denver about three weeks by then. I'd actually got to the point where I was glad Naomi wouldn't be coming yet, because I wanted to stay with Vin and see this through. And to begin with, it was like a kid's book, you know, tracking someone, keeping out of sight, spying on him. Only, it stopped being like that..."
"Stopped when we got in his place," Vin said.
"We'd found where he lived after a couple of days," Blair said. "Only, breaking in, that took a bit more of a decision."
"Couldn't find out anything otherwise. We walked round after him another two days, saw th' people he talked to, but we couldn't go asking questions of them without it getting back to him. And we found he spent a lot of time in the house, anyway. We wanted t' get in, but leave it so we could get in th' same way again, so we hadn't t' break anything. So we spent another day just watching. Reckoned th' only way in was th' fire escape. And we had t' use a rope t' get onto that."
"We did it at night. Sadie got us the rope, and we tried something I read in a book oncethrowing over string tied to a ball, then using the string to pull the rope over."
"Weren't as easy as his book had made it sound, but we managed it. There were no lights on, hadn't been all evening though we knew he was in. We got on th' fire escape, pulled th' rope up after us, got right into th' attic space. That was all quiet, so we went on down."
They had fallen into a sort of pattern of telling the story now, not looking at each other, but picking up the thread so smoothly that it was hard to remember they hadn't talked about it once in the fifteen years since it happened. Jim guessed they were drawing strength from each other. He could read the increased signs of tension, the struggle to get to the part of the story that had stayed to haunt their sleep over the years. He tried not to see the picture that haunted his mind, two thirteen year old boys armed with items like a ball and string clambering dangerously into the house of a man he now knew was a psychopath. Get a grip. It was over long before you knew him. He's sitting in front of you, warm and live and vital.
"The house was empty," Blair said. "We knew he hadn't gone out, so that only left the basement. It wasn't one with an outside entrance, and we worked out which door led down there, but it was locked. We were only sure he was down there because we could see light under the door. And it was a weird sort of thing to dolock yourself in your basement. We thought maybe he had a drug lab down there or something. I mean, we couldn't just leave it at that and walk away. We still hadn't found anything out."
"It was an old house, not much changed far as we c'd see. We'd seen other rooms because we worked our way down from the attic. And Blair knew about houses like it; he knew there was something we c'd try. We went back up t' th' rooms that y' c'd see weren't used, and looked in th' cupboards, t' see if any of them weren't cupboards. Blair said they used to send stuff up and down on a thing like an elevator. We didn't find the thing, but that didn't matter, because we found th' space. Easy enough t' get down that braced against th' sides."
"We didn't know if it would go all the way down, or where it would come out. Vin wanted me to wait, but I didn't want him to be down there aloneit was quite small, though I suppose there was space up and down..."
Both their hearts were beating faster now. Blair was moving his hands nervously, as if to show the way they'd climbed down the shaft. Jim wondered if there was a dial that would shut down the picture unreeling in front of him; listening was bad enough, why did he keep seeing it as if he was there.
"Started hearing some noises part way down. Weren't clear at first, then we thought it might be animals. Sounded a bit like a dog when it's pining one time. We got t' the bottom, found it opened t' a room. We only opened it a crack at first; didn't know where Josephs might be, but it was like a store room. It was piled with stuff. Didn't think much about what we were seeing there, though. We could hear clear now. Real clear. I could hear it again in my mind yesterday. Weren't animals..."
"It was people crying, children crying," Blair said, because Vin had stopped abruptly and hunched right over. "But not the sort of proper yelling you expect from kidsit was like this thin wailing, keening sort of crying. I can't forget it either." Jim did put a hand gently on his arm now, giving it a slight squeeze, encouragement to go on with the story or to feel free to stop, whatever Blair needed. Blair half turned towards him. "We didn't want to see, now, but we hadn't got a choice any more. The door to the next room was ajar. We crept over there, and, well, you know what we saw."
Vin lifted his head. Jim had thought perhaps he was crying, because he could scent the tang of tears, but Vin's eyes were hard and dry. "They'd been there suffering all that time. AaronLevine had got him in a cage. And two babies, with wires from 'em like they were machines, and other kids, some just crying quiet like they knew there were no point... And we had t' turn our backs on them. We didn't even look for more 'n a minute. We couldn't think, and we c'd see Levine in there, and we just ran."
"You were thirteen years old," Chris said, also leaning forward, his head close to Vin's. His body was braced, as much effort going into not putting his arm round Vin as it would have taken to bend metal.
"And you must in fact have done something quite soon after that," Ezra added quietly, sliding closer on the other side. His voice was quite steady, and there was no visible trace, but Jim thought now they might have been his tearsfor Vin, or maybe the whole situation. "We know that it was you two who brought an end to what they were suffering."
"We climbed back up to the loft," Blair said. "We weren't thinking, we just had to get somewhere far enough away that we could talk. It hardly seemed real. It shouldn't have been possible that something like that could happen in the middle of a city, with people all around. And that made it even harder to know what to do, because how would anyone have believed us?"
"We stayed in th' loft and talked it through most of th' rest of th' night. Couldn't get the children out ourselves, not with Levine there and th' doors locked, and them needing proper help. Couldn't go to tell Sadie; she might've believed us but it was worse than th' worst she'd been thinking. Couldn't go to anyone we trusted, because they weren't th' sort of people'd be listened to."
"There was only one way to do it, and that was to get people there who did count. That's when we thought about the emergency services. Even police can't just break into a building, but firemen have to if there seems to be a need. And they come quickly."
"We thought of a fire, but that weren't enoughthey might not go in th' basement. So we planned to do it two ways. We'd get them there with a fire, and we'd tip something down under the basement door so that it stank of chemicals, and tell them people had tried to trash th' place, and someone was trapped in th' basement. That's why it took us another day. Had to plan it out and get some thingsbleach and stuff to react with it. Blair knew all the chemistry; reckon he could've gone to college even then. Then we had to get back in, and that was hard, because Levine was about most of the day. It was evening, when he went down th' basement again, 'fore we could get back in."
"Vin set the fire in the attic, and once we were sure the smoke was going up well, we called as an emergency from the house. We were lucky the basement was locked up and sound proof, because Levine never heard the sirens. We opened the front door as the firemen arrivedwe'd tipped the chemicals under the basement one once we saw the lights. We told them someone was stuck down there because the people who broke in had jammed the door. It all happened way too fast to think..."
"They told us to get out of the building, but there were only three of them, and there was a guy filming them, one of those 'day in the life' things. We slipped down behind him. And we saw Levine look up when they broke insaw his face when he knew it was over." Vin only had two notes, even to sentinel hearing, lament or this savage satisfaction.
"He knew we must somehow have brought them down there, but when he started to shout at us, they made us go back up. We went outside, because we knew it was done nowthey were calling police and ambulance and just about every other organisation as well, and the cameraman was calling the news organisations."
"We watched a bit, and they were bringing th' children up, and Sadie cameshe must have guessed something, and she started screaming until they took her away too. Then th' cops came, and we went. Thought we'd try th' building site again."
"Vin said as it was only the dog, no watchman or tools, we'd be safe to reckon they weren't working. The pipes were in the ground, and it was muddy, so we just sat up against the wall. We felt sort of shell-shocked I think; everything since we climbed into the house the night before hardly seemed real. And there was that whole let down after you've been really pumped up on the action and terrified it would go wrong..."
"We seen th' babies brought up to th' ambulance, and they were cryingeveryone there just about seemed to be crying, and Sadie screamingso we knew they were alive. But we didn't know what would happen to them. We talked a bit about it, but it was hard, remembering how they'd looked. And we were tired. Th' dog came and sat across us, and even if he smelt a bit, he was warm. So I suppose we went to sleep. Next day, there was a hundred and one different stories about it all, but they all said the police had lost Levine. That scared us some, but we hung round until dark. Don't know why really, just to know the children weren't there any more. That's how we saw it burn down. We watched it 'til most of it fell in, and even then they were saying Levine was in it." He shook himself a little, like a swimmer getting out of deep water, and straightened up a bit. "So we went back to th' site, and th' dog was pleased t' see us, and it was over."
It was over. Blair sighed, and shifted slightly, relaxing. Jim realised he'd gripped Blair's arm so hard somewhere in this last part of the story that he'd probably bruised it.
"Sorry, Chief," he said, letting go.
"Hey, it was a reality check. I needed it." Jim had needed it too. He shifted his hand to the back of Blair's chair, his senses dialled up enough that he could still feel the warmth from him, and the beat of his body through the fabric.
Vin, the lament ended, the harshness not quite gone, leaned back on the couch, his elbow on Ezra's knee. He glanced at Chris, perhaps wanting to see his reaction, but instead saw the blood seep through the knuckles of Larabee's still clenched hand.
"Ah, shit, Chris," he said, understanding. "Weren't like you could have been there."
Chris looked down at his hands as if he'd only just noticed them himself, perhaps he had. He wiped the blood off down his jeans. "Like to have been there," he said slowly. "Not because you hadn't managed well enough without any help, but no kids should have to do something like that alone, and anyway, I'd like to have walked onto that building site at the end."
"Dog would have bit y'" Vin said, caught between wanting to turn this away with a joke, and wanting to hear it.
"I'm good with dogs. Like to have walked onto that site, found a couple of scrawny kids under a mound of flea-ridden dog."
"That'swhat is it Blair?"
"Yep. Slander. That dog was as clean as most folk."
"You said he smelt."
"He smelt of dog. Dog's supposed to smell of dog."
Larabee wasn't deterred. The conversation rolled easily between them, part of their friendship, but what he had to say went deeper.
"Like to have found a couple of scrawny kids there, under a blanket of dog. Because someone ought to have been there to say to them 'you did a hell of a good job. I'm proud of you'!"
He aimed his words as accurately as his bullets, Jim thought. The trace of hardness that was left in Vin's expression wavered and then shattered at Chris's words. Whatever he'd expectedpity maybe, or a further joke to turn the mood, this hadn't been it. He looked uncertainly at Chris. Wanting to believe it, Jim saw, and struggling with the feeling he should somehow have done more or better.
"I'd've meant it then, I mean it now," Chris said. "What you did worked; it must have taken a hell of a lot of courage, and even more heart. 'Proud' doesn't begin to cover it."
There was no disbelieving something said as forcefully as that. Vin met Chris's eyes for a moment, then looked hastily back at his knees. Chris put an easy arm round his bent shoulders now.
Jim gave Blair's back a quick pat he hoped would indicate his agreement with all Chris had said, and Blair, who was good at interpreting the inarticulate, looked up. "Thanks," he said quietly. "But I think it just happened, really.
"And it don't take away what they suffered," Vin said.
Nevertheless, even though that could not be altered, you did change their future," Ezra said. "I understand your frustration, but the pain stopped that night."
"Don't reckon you've done many night's work better than that one," Chris said. "Vin, every adult in that case would have had counselling to handle what they'd seen. They'd have known that the children were given the best possible care, from good people. They'd have seen, like Ez said, that you'd given the kids some chance of a future. You and Blair had none of that. You only had each other, and that was for how long?"
"A day," Blair said. "Then Naomi came."
"A day," Chris said, making the point plain.
Jim could see a reluctant acceptance on Vin's face. "Felt like we should've done more, or different, though."
"Which is exactly what counselling would have dealt with, as in fact you know," Ezra said.
"Or seeing the children getting proper care."
"Quit ganging up on me," Vin grumbled, but Jim could almost see him healing now. "Y' both think y' know it all. And shift yer hand, Chrisyer bleeding on Jim's shirt. Y'd best go wash."
Chris moved the hand he'd kept on Vin's shoulder throughout most of this, looked at it doubtfully, and went to run it under cold water. Jim followed him to the kitchen, to make coffee. Blair shifted to the couch, to talk to Vin in an undertone. Jim dialled his hearing down so he wouldn't accidentally catch the conversation, and was taken by surprise as much as anyone when there was an abrupt knock at the loft door.
It was late enough for him to be wary when he opened it, and Chris had immediately returned from the bathroom, but the open door presented nothing more alarming than a rather nervous young man who might as well have had CIA agent stamped on his convulsing Adam's apple. He stepped back from the expression on Jim's face.
"I'm... that is... Detective Ellison? I'm Rigby, sir. Agent Rigby. I wanted to speak to Mr Sandburg and Mr Tanner, if that was possible."
He moved back further as Chris Larabee joined Jim, but Blair called hastily, "Come on in. What did you want?"
Rigby came in. Jim let him because he'd assessed him carefully enough by now to decide that Rigby was embarrassed, not on some devious mission. He walked stiffly past Chris, and up to Vin and Blair.
"I wanted to apologise to you. It won't mean much, I know, but not many of us knew what was going on. I've spent all day finding out, and reading Benedek's stuff, and it seemed like no one was going to say we screwed up, but I thought it needed saying. I'm sorry. For what we let happen to you, and that Josephs was ever recruited."
"Good lord, they slipped up and let in an idealist," Ezra said, but his tone was quite mild.
"Hey, we don't blame you for what your bosses did," said Blair, to whom forgiveness came as naturally as breathing.
"What're you really apologising for?" Vin asked quietly.
Rigby frowned slightly as if he wasn't sure himself. "All of it, but... you were there, weren't you, in Denver at the start of this? I wanted to say, it seems, well, an insult to what those children suffered. I'm sorry for that."
Vin nodded. "That's th' right answer, Rigby." He held out his hand. Rigby clasped it a moment gratefully.
"You must only have been kids yourself," he said. "They say you stopped him the first time?"
Rigby jumped slightly when Chris spoke, but he ploughed on. "Well, I admire what you did, then and now, and I hope you get a better apology than mine."
He held out a hand slightly hesitantly to Blair, who took it readily. "Jim's just making coffee. Stay and have some with us."
Rigby glanced at Jim and at Chris Larabee. "Thanks, but I have to go."
Jim hadn't looked that forbidding, whatever Blair's slightly reproachful glance said; it was probably Larabee's glare.
Ezra uncoiled from his position beside Vin. "Perhaps, agent Rigby, you would be able to offer me transport to my hotel. I suffered some problems with the hire caras I think you know."
Rigby managed a weak grin. "She was good, that childvery good. Someone ought to recruit her in a few years. I'd be delighted to give you a lift Mr Standish."
"Until tomorrow morning then, gentlemen." Ezra held Vin's gaze for a minute, seemed reassured by what he saw, and went to follow Rigby.
Chris grinned once they'd gonea look more feral than amused. "If he knows anything we don't, Ez'll have it before they reach the hotel.
Jim nodded. He'd picked up that subtext.
Blair, who hadn't, said, "Come on, guys, it can't have been easy for him to do that. What's wrong with giving him the benefit of the doubt?"
"We gave him that when we let him in. Coffee, Chief? Or dandelion, burdock and lemongrass?"
"Coffee," Vin agreed hastily. "Who th' hell would drink dandelion and whatever?"
"It's supposed to be good for you," Blair said defensively. "Country people say it does something to the blood."
"Curdles it?" Jim suggested. "Why don't we just put this box in the trash?"
"It was expensive. Anyway, Naomi might like it.
Now there was a suggestion Jim could relate to. He'd even wrap the box up and put a bow on it. Meanwhile he put it out of the way, and poured four coffees, flicking the TV on after he'd handed them round. He couldn't remember the last time they'd done something so simple.
It didn't take much channel flipping to find the story was still running. He settled on a channel where a cheerfully energetic Benedekapparently thriving on forty eight hours without sleepwas talking too rapidly for the interviewer to get a question in. The cameras shimmered slightly at his latest set of clothes. He was giving the viewers a synoptic and scurrilous account of the CIA's dealings with criminals and psychopaths going back to the Third Reich, adding in an occasional plug for the paranormal. Whatever Jim thought of the content, it made entertaining viewing.
Later Vin rolled his sleeping bag out on Blair's floor as he had done on that first night he arrived. He and Blair talked in low voices for a long time. When Jim accidentally overheard some of it, Blair seemed to be recounting a quite bizarre version of his and Larabee's dealings with Major Crimes in their absence, which he'd had from someone at the party. "... and Simon says they woke him up at dawn every day..."
Jim tuned it out again, and poured himself and Chris a whisky. He appreciated Larabee's ability to enjoy good scotch in a companionable silence. They'd shared enough drinks over the past few weeks when they seemed to have set back after set back in their search for Vin and Blair; it was good to share this one knowing they were safe.
Chris sipped his second shot and opened Blair's album again, to the picture that had been in their minds so much that evening.
"Lot of ways they haven't changed," he said.
"Still scrawny," Jim agreed, looking at it.
"Still jump straight into trouble."
"Got thatdamn, what does Ez call ittenacity."
"Can't turn their backs on anyone in trouble."
They raised their glasses in a sort of toast.
The silence stretched comfortably to a third glass, then Chris stirred and yawned.
"Hope you'll both make it to Denver next time you get a vacation."
"It's top of the list."
There was no reason at all why, before Jim went upstairs and Chris took the couch, they should have wandered over to look in Blair's small and crowded room. Blair slept in a peaceful and untidy sprawl, oblivious. Vin opened his eyes briefly at the change in the light, and sighed.
"Always seems t' be some old dog around wanting to stand guard," he said, and rolled over to go back to sleep.
They looked at each other.
"Got no respect."
"Could be worse roles though."
"Yeahat least he knows we got teeth."
If Vin was listening, he gave no sign of it. They stood there a little longer, lingered because this was good. It was always good when it was over and the team... tribe... family, whatever, was safe. Jim wondered how long it was since any of them had simply gone to bed and slept the night through. He glanced at Larabee, and got a nod that acknowledged all that they felt and wouldn't put into words.
Then he turned to the stairs, that good night's sleep, and a loft that thrummed peacefully to his senses. It was over.
Continue on to the Epilogue
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