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Blair looked out over the deep valley as the sweep of the hillside, the deep blue of the sky, the warmth of the sun shining down on him began to make their presence felt. He couldn't remember how he got there, but - suddenly - it occurred to him that he had been there for a long time, just sitting, relaxing, letting his mind wander...
But now that he was registering his surroundings, he looked around, recognizing the place. They had camped here so often...
But he was alone. There was no tent behind him on the small piece of flat ground that was big enough for it, with a couple of square yards left over for their cooking stove - here in this very wooded area they had never risked a fire - and where they sat to eat.
Why was he alone? And when had he come here? He though about it, and realized -
His last awareness had been of pain, agonizing but mercifully short-lived. What...
Memories suddenly came flooding back.
On their way home from the PD they had stopped at the small store near the loft for a few groceries, and just as they were about to head for the checkout, a masked man entered. As always Jim had motioned Blair to stay put and stay down - he didn't need to be told to 'Call it in', he was already reaching into his pocket for his cell phone as Jim pulled out his gun and peered around the end of the single aisle. But even kneeling as he was, Blair could see what was happening through a small gap in the goods on the shelf.
Jenny, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the owner, was manning the checkout, earning her pocket money by working for an hour in the early evening while her mother prepared the dinner. She looked terrified, but - faced with the threatening gun - she was obediently putting the money from the till into a bag.
Jim stepped out from the end of the aisle. "Cascade police. Put the gun down."
Blair only half heard Jim's words as his call was answered. "Armed robbery in progress, Parnell's Store on Prospect. Detective Ellison is trying to control the situation but needs backup."
Jim ducked back into the doubtful cover of the aisle as the gunman swung around and started firing along the line of the aisle, clearly thinking that Jim wouldn't stay put at the end of it. With the man's attention off her, Jenny rushed to the door and got out safely. Crouching, Jim leaned out and fired; the gunman went down - but too late. One of his randomly fired bullets had hit Blair.
The pain was intense - but he had very quickly lost consciousness.
Even unconscious, though, he was aware of what was happening. Backup arrived, but very, very late; Jim had had time to call for an ambulance, which had not only arrived but was on the point of leaving with Blair (the gunman didn't need the help of the paramedics - he was very dead) before a patrol car arrived.
Blair had never regained consciousness.
As he sat on the hillside, remembering, Blair realized that one of his memories was of his funeral.
Somehow Jim had managed to track down Naomi; she had been surprisingly self-controlled, but on reflection Blair realized that he should have expected that. Since she had first encountered them, she had totally embraced the Oriental religions, and firmly believed in reincarnation; she would have been regarding this as a temporary farewell, convinced that they would meet again in another life. The entire Parnell family had attended, as well as representative staff from most of the stores Blair had frequented. A lot of his students had been there, many of the TAs, even several of the tenured professors, not all from the anthropology department (though Chancellor Edwards had been conspicuous by her absence); there had been a big turnout from the PD, far more than he would have expected.
Jim had been a ghost of his usual self, the other Major Crime detectives nearly as bad.
Blair's last memory of that day was of seeing his coffin lowered into the ground...
His attention returned to what he had to consider was the present. How long ago had that been? And how... how was Jim managing without his guide?
The thought, it seemed, was a signal; between one breath and the next, he found himself in the loft, standing just inside the door.
Jim was sitting apparently watching television, but Blair recognized instantly that although his friend was looking at the TV, nothing of what was showing was making any impression on him. He looked haggard; he had lost weight.
"Oh, Jim," he murmured. "I'm sorry... "
Jim's head lifted. He looked towards the door. "Blair?" It was a disbelieving whisper.
"You can see me?" Blair asked. He moved slowly forward.
"Yes... but... "
"How long?" Blair asked quietly.
"A month," Jim said. "We... we buried you... a month ago."
Blair sat on the couch beside Jim. "There was quite a turnout, wasn't there."
"You know that?"
"I have a few memories," Blair said. "I remember being shot. Backup was late, wasn't it."
"Very late, but even if they'd been quicker it would have been too late. You were shot within a minute of making the call."
"Whose fault was it?" Blair asked. "The late backup, I mean."
"We haven't been able to find out, but we think it was someone in Dispatch. The patrol cops who arrived said they responded as soon as they got the call, and I believe them. They were too horrified about what had happened to have been lying. But... You know that all calls to and from the PD are routinely recorded; Dispatch's tapes for that part of the day turned out to be blank when Brown tried to check them. Nobody in Dispatch is admitting to receiving your call or passing on the request for backup."
"And you can't tell which of them is lying?"
"This past month... The senses have been gone. They came back just now, as soon as you spoke." Jim was silent for a moment, looking at Blair. "What else do you remember?"
"Only the funeral, and only until the coffin went into the ground. The next thing I know, I was sitting in one of our more remote camp sites, looking at the view, with no idea how long it had been, how long I'd been there. I wondered how you were... and found myself here."
"Are you here to stay?"
Even through the attempted 'it doesn't matter if you aren't' tone of Jim's voice, Blair could hear Jim's need for him to stay.
"I don't know, but I won't leave willingly. You still need a guide, and even though I'm a ghost, that's better than not having a guide at all. You'll have to be careful though; if anyone sees you talking to thin air - I imagine I'll be invisible to everyone but you - they'll think you've lost your marbles."
"I realize that," Jim said.
"You are working, aren't you?" Blair asked, suddenly worried.
"Simon has me on desk duty," Jim admitted.
"I'm not surprised." Blair looked accusingly at him. "When was the last time you ate anything?"
"Simon took me out to lunch... "
"And you haven't had anything since. Jim, go and get yourself something - soup if nothing else. I'd get it for you, but I'm not sure if I can." He grinned. "If I'm honest, I'd rather not have an audience the first time I try to do anything physical."
Jim nodded and went into the kitchen area; while he heated the contents of a can of soup, Blair went quietly over to what had been his room, and tried to open the door.
That did not look promising...
He thought about being inside the room, and immediately discovered that he was indeed inside. It looked... exactly the way he had left it, the morning of the day he had been shot. Maybe now that he was here he could persuade Jim to - well, tidy it up, even if he couldn't persuade Jim to dispose of the things he, Blair, no longer needed, even though he still, in a weird way, valued them. It gave him a new understanding of the ancients being buried with their possessions. Then he willed himself back to his seat on the couch, and looked over to where Jim was still standing, waiting for the soup to finish heating.
There was a grim doggedness in Jim's stance, almost as if he expected to find that Blair was no longer there if - when - he turned. After a few more seconds he poured the soup into a bowl, picked up a spoon, straightened just a little as if psyching himself up for disappointment, then turned.
The look of relief that flashed across his face was so fast that Blair almost missed it.
He returned to his seat on the couch and began eating the soup. "Okay, Chief," he said between mouthfuls. "What can, and can't, you do?"
"I don't know," Blair answered. "But since it's been a month, I'd guess I don't need to eat, or pee, or anything like that. I suspect I can't physically move things though I might be able to will them to move. If I want to go somewhere, I only need to think about being there - I came here from a place in the Cascade National Forest it takes fully three hours by road and another hour to hike to in just a second, so you could say it's instantaneous, although I'm not sure I could get to someplace I've never actually visited. I don't know if you can see me because you're a sentinel, or if I'm... well, letting you see me, and I don't think I really want to find out. Can you imagine how Simon would react to knowing he's got a ghost working for Major Crime?"
After finishing the soup, Jim went to the freezer and took out a frozen ready meal. As he put it into the microwave, Blair said, "Jim?"
Jim shrugged. "The first few days after... after the shooting, I was a total wreck - "
"Well, if you were worse than you looked when I first popped in today, 'total' doesn't come near to describing it."
"I... Well, cooking just for myself seemed to be too much effort... Simon said that ready meals, the kind that can be microwaved from frozen, were probably the easiest things to have in the freezer, and he bought me some. I don't say I enjoy them, but he was right; I knew I had to eat something, they were quick and easy and... " He shrugged again.
"What about the home-cooked stuff you already had in the freezer?" Blair asked.
"Still there. But that's all in portions big enough for two. I know I could have defrosted one and had it over two days, and I probably would have done that... eventually. I just couldn't face doing it just yet. As long as those two-portion meals were still there, I could pretend you were just away for a few days, and you'd be back... "
"Well, I'm back now. I suppose you've still got some bought-in meals you won't want to waste, but you can start on the other stuff now as well. And from now on, when you cook something, you can freeze the leftovers in individual portions."
But Blair was glad to see that Jim was hungry enough to want more than the soup.
They spent the rest of the evening discussing the future. It would be a few days before Simon accepted that Jim was ready to go back to what might be called 'active' duty; and Jim was far from sure that he could persuade Simon that he would be better working without a partner. Working with a partner could be difficult, if Blair was to accompany Jim.
"In any case you'll have to remember not to speak to me if there's anyone else around," Blair reminded him. "I can speak to you, ground you, make suggestions, but you can't respond to me, or tell anyone 'Blair says...' Anything I suggest, you'll have to treat as your own idea."
They were so deep in conversation, it was with some surprise that when Jim suddenly yawned, Blair realized that it was nearly midnight.
"God, Jim - you need to go to bed, get some sleep."
"Yeah... maybe I'll sleep well tonight."
"You haven't been sleeping either?"
"Not well," Jim admitted.
"Okay. I don't know if I can sleep, but I can stay with you while you sleep."
"Lie on the bed beside me?" Jim asked.
"If you want."
Once he was in bed, with Blair lying on top of the covers beside him, Jim reached out and for the first time tried to touch his friend. Both were pleasantly surprised to find that he could, and within seconds Jim's eyes closed and he slept.
Content to be beside his sentinel, Blair lay awake, thinking. There was one thing he had to do before he did anything else - discover who in Dispatch had delayed Jim's backup that day. His own death was probably collateral damage; Blair had no real doubt that the delay had been aimed at Jim.
Next morning, Blair knew immediately when Jim wakened. Jim lay for a moment absolutely motionless, then opened his eyes. There was fear in them, fear that instantly changed to relief when he saw Blair still lying beside him.
"This is going to take some getting used to," he murmured. "I'm not actually aware of your presence unless I can see you. I'm still touching you, but I couldn't feel you until I saw you... For just a moment there, I thought I'd dreamed last night."
"No dream. I'm here till you die - "
"And then we'll be ghosts together?"
"Haunting the bad guys of Cascade," Blair agreed. "Or maybe camped somewhere, just having a relaxing time, hiking around, catching ghost fish - "
"Now there's a question," Jim said. "Can a ghost kill another ghost?"
"Well, since ghosts don't seem to want or need to eat, it would have to be catch and release," Blair decided. "So we wouldn't be killing them."
The alarm went off. Jim reached over and turned it off, sighed and said, "Much as I'm enjoying just lying here, I'd better get up. Cascade PD waits for no man - "
" - or ghost," Blair agreed.
While Jim showered and shaved, Blair - who no longer needed to do either - experimented in the kitchen, finding that although he could indeed move things by thinking of where he wanted them to be, even open the fridge door (because it pulled open rather than using a handle) and take out the eggs, he couldn't actually do anything useful with them; he couldn't even crack them open. He could put the kettle under the faucet, but he couldn't turn on the water. It was a useful exercise, and established in his mind the sort of thing he could and couldn't do. He might need to experiment a little more, but only a little.
When Jim joined him, Blair had done everything he could; everything Jim needed for breakfast was laid out, and all Jim had to do was make the coffee and cook the meal.
Jim looked over everything. "Hey, not bad - thanks!"
While the coffee was brewing, he scrambled the eggs, added a rasher of bacon, toasted a slice of bread, then poured a mug of coffee and sat down to enjoy - really enjoy - breakfast.
Although he could have willed himself to the PD, Blair chose to travel in the truck with Jim, thinking himself into the passenger seat. As Jim settled into the driver's seat, he said automatically, "Seatbelt?"
"Do you think I really need it?" Blair said. "In any case, wouldn't anyone seeing into the truck wonder about a fastened seatbelt hovering in mid-air?"
"Good point," Jim agreed. "I suppose I'll get used to what's not needed/not practical, but right now... " He started the engine and swung easily into the flow of traffic.
At the PD garage, Blair said, "Try not to look too cheerful - considering the way you were looking when I got home yesterday, people would wonder."
As he finished speaking, Bob Gunner, from Vice, strode past on his way to the elevator, muttering, "Morning." It was clear that - although he and Jim had remained on friendly terms after Jim's transfer to Major Crime - he didn't expect an answer.
"Morning," Jim replied.
Gunner's next step hesitated for the merest fraction before he walked on.
"That's exactly what I meant," Blair murmured.
Jim gave a fractional nod as he followed Gunner into the elevator, Blair at his heels.
As Jim punched the button for Major Crime, Gunner said, "You're looking better today."
"I did some hard thinking last night," Jim replied. "I've been blaming myself, but last night I realized it wasn't my fault; short of standing where Collins got an uninterrupted shot at me, there was nothing I could have done that would have made a difference."
"You do know that Sandburg is missed by pretty well everyone here, don't you."
"I... " Jim swallowed. "I did notice there were a lot of cops at the funeral. I... did appreciate it, and I know his mother did too."
As the elevator stopped, Gunner laid a sympathetic hand on Jim's shoulder, gripped it firmly, then turned to leave. The doors closed behind him.
"Wow!" Blair said.
The elevator moved up one level and stopped again. As Blair followed Jim along the corridor, he said, "Once you're at your desk, I'm going to pay a visit to Dispatch. I might recognize a voice. And if I do... "
Blair grinned, knowing that Jim's response was automatic. "You're the only one who can see me, remember?" His voice was very gentle.
Jim entered Major Crime, hesitated, then crossed to Simon's office. He knocked and opened the door.
"Just to let you know, Simon - I did some hard thinking last night, and... well... I've pulled myself together."
"I can't let you back onto the street until I see for myself that you're thinking straight - you do understand that?"
"Yeah. Just one thing, Simon - once you do let me back on the street, I want to work alone. I couldn't bear... "
"Losing another partner? I understand that, Jim, but what about your senses?"
"Went back to normal when Blair died. You know that - that's why I couldn't tell who was lying about the backup."
Behind Jim's back, Blair grinned. So - just when had Jim learned to obfuscate like that? He'd told Simon the truth, but an incomplete truth - something Blair had excelled at.
"It's hard to believe that someone hated Blair enough... " Simon sighed and shut up. "All right. Go and get on with those files you're checking. And Jim - "
"Lunch at 12:30?"
"Damn, you really are feeling better! Yeah, lunch at 12:30."
As Jim returned to the bullpen, Blair said, "I'm heading off to Dispatch now. And don't worry if I'm a while - Dispatch works shifts the same as everyone else, and I might have to wait over shift change. Remember, nothing can hurt me; I don't get hungry; and I'm not leaving you again. Like it or not, you're stuck with me."
Jim's mutter of "I like it," was just audible to him.
Although he knew where in the building Dispatch was situated, Blair had never actually been there, so he couldn't think himself to it; he had to make his way on foot. Tempted to take the shortcut of 'shifting' to Reception and walking from there, he decided against it, choosing instead to take what might be called the scenic route, looking in on some of the other departments as he went; not that he expected anyone to be talking about what had happened as long ago as a month previously.
Apart from Vice. When he thought himself to the other side of the door to Vice, he discovered that Bob Gunner was still telling his fellow cops there about 'Ellison's recovery', and learned that neither Jim nor he himself had any enemies there. He suspected that from Vice, word would soon get around - as Cop of the Year for three years running, Jim's name was known to everyone, even the men and women who had never had occasion to meet him, and his emotional collapse would have been rich grist for the gossip mill. Blair decided it was a pity he couldn't be in several places at once, to see what the general response was.
He left Vice and carried on, eventually reaching Dispatch.
He had never given much thought to Dispatch as a department, or to how many people worked there, and he was quite surprised at how many people were manning the phones - mostly women, but there were one or two men as well. Then he shook his head deprecatingly. Of course there were a lot of them - crimes and accidents and calls for backup didn't conveniently happen one at a time!
No wonder someone could deny having taken the call. But how had one person managed to blank all the tapes that covered the time involved? It suggested a conspiracy involving at least two people, one of them one of the backroom staff.
Blair moved around the room, pausing at each of the female staff, listening to their voices.
Halfway around the room, he heard it - this was definitely the person who had taken his call. But there was nothing to indicate who she was. He had to wait, follow her home...
A thought took him back to Major Crime. "I've got her, Jim," he said, "but I'll need time to find out her name. Expect me home when you see me - and don't forget to eat tonight, even if I'm not back. Got it?"
"Yeah," Jim breathed.
Blair willed himself back to Dispatch and sat, leaning against the dispatcher's desk.
The woman - Blair estimated that she was about thirty - was good at her job. Sympathetic when she needed to be, but matter-of-fact with it, efficient when she transferred calls to the various departments. She dealt with several calls before finally closing down her unit and getting to her feet, and Blair realized that her shift had ended; some desks that had been empty were now manned, and some that had been manned were now empty. He had been so intent on her that he had been completely unaware of what was happening around him.
He followed as she made her way along the corridor, paused outside the restroom door when she went in, then continued to follow her after she left it, now wearing a coat. She went to the garage and got into a small car; Blair willed himself into the back seat. And she waited. A few minutes later a man joined her, getting into the passenger seat, and Blair raised a surprised eyebrow; although oin no way a chauvinist, he would have expected the man to drive.
The two remained silent as they drove to an apartment building on the opposite side of Cascade from Prospect. It looked like an area that was reasonably respectable, but might harbor some mid-level crime lords.
The name on the mailbox they stopped to check was 'Mott'. There were several pieces of mail in it; the man took them and they went on and into what seemed to be a fairly basic apartment.
The woman went into one of the rooms; the man delayed and Blair watched as he sorted the mail into two piles, putting the ones not for him on a small hall table. The name on them was 'Julie'.
"There's a letter from Vic," he called.
"It won't say anything new," the woman - Julie - replied as she re-entered the hall, now minus her coat. "He'll still be stuck in solitary 'for his own protection'. I just wish we had something more positive to tell him about Ellison."
"Hey, the man's a wreck," the man replied. "Yeah, I know you hoped he'd be killed that day, but it's better this way - he lost that long-haired waster friend that hung around Major Crime 'observing' for some academic paper he wanted to write. For nearly three years? How much more did he need to 'observe' before he actually wrote something?"
"I know, but I'd nothing against Sandburg. It was Ellison I wanted dead. Hell, I waited long enough to be the one that answered one of his calls for backup! God knows when I'll get another chance. And Vic's still rotting away in Starkville for something he didn't do - "
"You know, Sis, even though he said he was innocent, I'm not so sure he was - he told me once he'd a jones for underage flesh - "
"How can you say that? Anyway, even if he had seduced those girls, he wouldn't have killed anyone!"
"Whether or not, he's still our brother, and yeah, I'm all for punishing the man who had him put away. But seriously, we can't afford to do something like that again too soon. We got away with it this time, but if it were to happen again soon, there'd be all kinds of enquiry trying to find out who was delaying his backups. A year or two down the line, we'd probably get away with it again, but not within a month or two of it already happening."
"We've already waited six years! Vic's lost six years of his life! And that lying bastard Ellison - how many more innocent people has he put away, just so he'd get the Cop of the Year award?"
"Julie, don't you think that getting the man he called his partner killed isn't destroying his life, even more than getting him killed would?"
"What's a partner compared to a brother?"
The man was replying, but Blair was barely listening.
He had his proof - now how to orchestrate things so that Jim could prove it? Blair sighed. He had doubts that Julie was totally firing on all cylinders, and he couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her - but only a little. Her actions had put Jim through hell. Yes, Blair knew he'd been fatally injured before backup could possibly have arrived, but she didn't know that; she thought her actions had been responsible for his death and she still wasn't satisfied.
A thought was enough to take him back to the loft.
Jim was sitting eating, but half-heartedly.
"Hi, Jim, I'm home."
"Hi, Chief. So... how did you get on?"
"I've definitely found them. Do you remember the name Vic Mott, from about six years ago?"
"Mott... " Jim shook his head.
"Something about underage girls murdered? He insisted he was innocent?"
"About six years ago... No, the guy's name was Mottram, Victor Mottram. Raped and killed ten girls that we could prove - they were all underage. We got him on DNA evidence after he tried to get his hands on a ten-year-old. He tried the 'Your Mom's been hurt - she's been taken to the hospital, asked me to take you there' trick. Bur Annis' mother was dead, she was being brought up by her aunt, and she ducked and ran. She told her aunt, who brought her to the PD. She was able to describe him, from that we caught him, checked his DNA, and it matched DNA on the dead girls. He got a seventy year sentence."
"Well, his sister works in Dispatch and his brother - I didn't get his name - also works at the PD. I'd guess he's the one who managed to wipe the tapes. The mailbox at their apartment is marked 'Mott', though, so I guess they shortened it to hide who they are." Blair was silent for a moment. "You were the one she wanted to kill, Jim. She's convinced her brother was innocent, that at worst he seduced the girls, but that no way would he have killed anyone. The other brother is less convinced, but is backing her because it's their brother.
"But how we prove that... "
"Yeah. 'My dead partner told me' isn't exactly something we can take to IA," Jim said. He took a mouthful of his dinner and made a face.
"Cold?" Blair asked. Jim nodded. "You've got three choices. Dump it. Give it a minute in the microwave, or pop it into a pot and reheat it on the stove."
"Must be nice to never need to eat," Jim muttered.
"Well... it's useful, but it's annoying too. I can still smell food, and it smells great - but I'm just never hungry."
"I know what that's like, too," Jim said.
Blair looked at him, but said nothing. Jim shrugged, picked up his plate and took it over to the microwave.
As lay on the bed beside Jim that night, Blair's mind was active. How could Jim prove anything against Julie Mott?
He still had not reached any conclusion when the alarm went off, and Jim stirred, reached out and switched it off. He turned his head to look at Blair, and smiled. "Morning, Chief."
"Morning," Blair said.
"You're looking a bit down."
"I just can't think of any way to pin anything on Julie Mott."
"There's always the convenient tip-off from an anonymous snitch," Jim said.
Blair made a face. Jim chuckled. "Very useful guy, the anonymous snitch," he added. "We all know one."
"Seriously," Blair said. "I know you used the anonymous snitch to cover things you discovered with your senses. You can use him now for me. But seriously?"
"There are always one or two snitches who don't want to be identified, only speak to us somewhere that we can't actually see them, and there are quite a few legitimate reasons for that," Jim said. "Even the ones we have a name for, like Sneaks - I have no idea what his real name is."
"Okay," Blair said.
Jim rolled out of bed, and headed down the stairs. Blair followed, and once again laid out everything Jim would need for breakfast.
"Can I have a word, Simon."
Simon looked searchingly at Jim. "You're looking a lot better today."
"Amazing what accepting a situation that can't be changed can do," Jim said.
"So what are you wanting?"
"I had an interesting phone call last night." Well, an interesting piece of information. "There's a woman in Dispatch called Julie Mott. Apparently that isn't her real name - it's Mottram. Jack Pendergrast and I put her brother Victor away six years ago for the rape and murder of several teenage girls. Apparently she refuses to believe he was guilty, and wants me dead. My informant thinks there's another brother who's working for the support staff, and he's probably the one who wiped the tapes."
"And just unlucky that Blair - "
"No. It wasn't the delay that killed Blair, it was a trigger-happy idiot firing at random without any real target."
"That's right," Simon said. "And now that you see that, accept that, I can let you back on the street. But not this case; I'll get Brown and Rafe to check out Julie Mott. For the moment, go and finish off what you're working on."
"Yes, sir." Although he wanted to face the woman himself, Jim knew the rules; he was the one affected by her action, he couldn't handle the case.
The speed with which the case was closed after that was almost anticlimactic. Rafe took only a couple of minutes with Personnel to identify Ross Mott. Faced with Rafe's knowledge of what he had done, Mott sighed and admitted that he had indeed wiped the tapes to support his sister. "Vic claimed he was innocent, but I knew he'd probably raped those girls," he said. "Julie couldn't accept that Vic would ever do anything like that. He was always very protective of her, but I think that was why - because he wanted to protect her from the kind of thing he knew he was capable of doing."
Meanwhile Brown, taking Megan with him, was interviewing Julie Mott. They quickly came to the conclusion that she was mentally unbalanced. As a result she was sent to Conover.
After Jim intervened it was decided not to charge Ross Mott with anything, but he did lose his job at the PD.
Simon was reluctant to let Jim work alone, but Jim repeated that his senses had reverted to normal after Blair died and were unlikely to give him any bother, and Simon finally relented once Jim promised to let him know if he ever did have a problem. It was an easy promise for Jim to make; assisted by his invisible guide he knew he wouldn't have a problem.
And the Sentinel of the Great City, assisted by that invisible guide, continued to make Cascade a safer place for its law-abiding citizens and a more dangerous place for its criminals.