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The imp crouched trembling at the foot of the steps leading to the throne; he looked up once, trusting to the long hair that fell about his face to hide the quick glance, and at sight of the stern expression on Oberon's face he shrank down even further, as if trying to hide himself behind a shadow.
Bad enough that Oberon was sitting on his throne to dispense justice - on less formal occasions the throne remained empty; Oberon merely stood near it. It was also clear to the imp that Oberon had gone beyond mere anger to a cold, albeit controlled, fury, and that justice would be quick, merciless, and apt.
Like all young elves, the imp was a mischief-maker, delighting in causing petty problems in the world of men and more imaginative in his mischief than most of his fellows; but this time, even without being called to answer for his activities, he knew he had gone too far. That the war his prank had started was perhaps inevitable, and had only been precipitated by his action, was not something Oberon would stop to consider. Self-preservation had kicked in; the imp went into hiding.
Oberon disliked having to interfere in the affairs of the mortal world, but on this occasion he had done so, encouraging - nay, coercing - the other nations of the world to intervene, since the war was the fault of one of his people. Then he had set about finding the erring imp.
Now he glared down at his trembling subject. "Well? Have you any excuse to offer me?"
"No, majesty." The imp's voice was barely audible.
"Your actions caused a serious problem in the mortal world. Why did you not come to me when that problem began?"
"It was already very bad before I realised how bad it was. I didn't think anyone could stop it - not even you, majesty."
"And so you hid?"
"Did you think I would not know who was responsible? Did you think I would not find you?"
"I knew, majesty. But I hoped that if it took a while to find me your anger would be less and my punishment less."
"You admit then that you deserve punishment?"
"It seems then that you have already learned that you must take responsibility for your actions. That is good, but it does not reduce that responsibility.
"Mortals have a saying - that the punishment should fit the crime. Until you have redeemed yourself, you are banished. It is time for you to grow up; time to say goodbye to your irresponsible life as an imp. You will be born as a mortal, remembering nothing of your life here, and given the opportunity to make amends for your behaviour towards the mortal world. If you seize that opportunity and use it wisely, on your death as a mortal you may return here. Fail to seize it and you will die indeed.
"There is no longer a place for you in Faery as an imp. Now go."
Oberon gestured, and the imp disappeared in a wisp of smoke.
The call arrived early afternoon, saying that a bomb had been planted in one of Cascade's three Frobisher-owned shopping malls. "Once you see that I mean business, I'll be in touch again," the voice finished.
On consideration, Simon Banks assigned Megan Connor and her partner, the new-to-the-department Ellen Walsh, to the smallest mall; Brown and Rafe to the second, and Ellison and Sandburg, along with Joel Taggert, to the third and largest, reckoning that it would be the most likely target. "See what you can sniff out," he told them, his eyes fixed on Ellison; Sandburg rolled his eyes at the pun, but said nothing.
On the way, Sandburg said slowly, "You know, guys, I think Simon's wrong. I think the most likely target is the small mall."
"You think?" Taggert asked. He suspected the same, and wondered if Sandburg's reasoning was the same as his.
"This is extortion, right? If the perp blows up the biggest one first, how does he escalate his threats? What was it he said? 'Once you see I mean business, I'll be in touch'. You know as well as I do, the next call - assuming the bomb actually goes off - will be 'Deposit X million dollars in bank Y by five o'clock, or... yadda yadda yadda...' So I think the target is the smallest one, the one with the lowest profit. Frighten Frobisher into paying up or risk losing one of the bigger ones."
"He's right, Joel," Ellison said, a note of pride in his voice. Even as on observer, Blair had come up with some good suggestions; as a qualified cop, he had lost none of his ability to come up with instinctively accurate conclusions.
"I agree," Taggert said.
"On the other hand," Sandburg continued, "I'd guess there is a bomb planted at the one we're going to - it's just not the one that's set to blow first. If that first bomb goes off - or even if it doesn't - the threat to Frobisher's property remains - but the perp has to know that after this the malls'll be guarded closer than a Moslem girl's virginity. So I think his other bomb - or bombs - are already set."
Ellison drove into the mall's car park, immediately having to slow down and edge his way through the people standing around, all of them unwilling to move in case they missed anything. The public might have been moved out of the building, but curiosity was keeping them close; the mall's security men were valiantly trying to keep them a reasonable distance away but there simply weren't enough of them.
"We need some uniforms here," Taggert grunted as the truck finally cleared the crowd. Ellison drove into a space some distance from the building; then the three headed for the mall door.
Jim's size pushed an easy way through the crowd; as they reached the front of the mass of people and stepped forward, one of the security men hurried over. Ellison flashed his badge. "Jim Ellison, Cascade PD; my colleagues, Blair Sandburg, Joel Taggert."
The three cops moved towards the doors, which were guarded by two of the security men. Ellison identified himself again, and the guards let them enter.
They looked round. It was Taggert who said what they were all thinking. "Three of us to check out a place this size?"
Blair said, "At the risk of saying the obvious, I'd doubt the bomb would be anyplace the public has access. I mean, once, years ago, yes, but now if you see a bag or a case left unattended anywhere you automatically assume it's trouble. I'd think it's in the service area."
Ellison nodded. "I think you're right." He looked round, then glanced towards the door, where one of the security guards was peering in at them. He beckoned the man in. "How do we get into the service area?"
The guard led them a few yards along the corridor and pointed to a not-very-obvious door. "That takes you through to the staff corridors. I could take you..."
"Thanks, but we'll manage. You get yourself back outside where it's safer."
The man nodded and retreated, clearly happier to be outside the door again, though how he expected a glass door to protect him from an explosion, Joel hated to think; but he gave the men there high marks for conscientiousness.
They went through the door into another world.
Gone were the tiled walls, the polished floor, the patterned ceiling, the concealed lights; in their place were rough concrete walls, ceiling and floor and naked light bulbs too widely spaced and casting odd shadows. There was a smell of disinfectant, strong even to non-sentinel noses; Blair moved closer to his partner and murmured "Dial it down, Jim, then filter it out."
Ellison nodded as the three men began to make their way down the corridor. After a few yards they came to a door marked STAFF. Ellison opened it; inside was a table, a dozen hard chairs round it, a steaming urn that nobody had remembered - or taken the time - to switch off, with jars of coffee, sugar and teabags, and a carton of milk, standing beside it, a sink with several mugs sitting drip-drying beside it and a row of narrow lockers; another door led to a toilet. All but one of the lockers were closed, fastened with combination locks.
"Hardly surprising," Blair commented. "That's where the staff'll have their coats and bags. The lockers will be secure and the staff won't have to carry keys."
Ellison grunted. "It's pretty insulting when you think of it, though - the subtle implication that the staff can't be trusted not to pocket some cash from the tills."
"Well, it also means that they can prove they didn't; and they can leave their things in perfect safely - there's no real security in a place like this," Sandburg pointed out. "The security staff is there to protect the mall and the public, and doesn't pay much attention to these back corridors. Anyone could walk in and steal things from here. Even with shifts there are times when there are no members of staff around."
Ellison grunted. "Well, unless there's a bomb planted in one of the lockers, I'd say this room is clear."
They continued on down the corridor. Joel sniffed and wrinkled his nose. "God, this place stinks!"
"At least disinfectant is a clean stink," Sandburg commented. "I'd guess the place just recently had its weekly scrub. Probably this morning."
"You seem to know a lot about this sort of place," Taggert said as they opened another door, revealing a store of cleaning materials.
"Sure. I've worked in places like this. It's a lot better than some."
"Eh? But you were a student."
"Sure, Joel, and how do you think students manage financially? Grants aren't all that good, and loans have to be repaid. I don't know any students who want to mortage their souls for the next twenty years if they can avoid it. So they work evenings and weekends and holidays to earn some money so they can eat but keep the loans as low as possible. Girls work in hotels, bars, supermarkets, shops; men have more scope. They might do the same, or get temporary labouring jobs. I spent one summer driving long-distance trucks, two summers welding - I also spent a winter stocking supermarket shelves, three hours a night, and man, that's not a job I'd recommend to anyone. Monotonous donkey work. Bar work isn't bad, though, because you can do quite well off the tips." He shrugged. "You'd be surprised how many bosses take on under-age staff, too, to work where the public's not going to see them, because they can get away with paying them less. A lot less."
"That's criminal," Joel exclaimed, as they moved on, having established that the storeroom help nothing but cleaning material.
"Sure it is, but a fifteen-year-old can be quite glad of whatever money he's paid. Depends on his circumstances. I was actually working at fourteen, desperate for money for books - give them their due, they were reluctant to employ someone just as young-looking as I was, but I managed to convince them that I was fifteen, nearly sixteen. I'd had the foresight to borrow my cousin's birth certificate. Lucky for me Robert's middle name is Blair - it's a family name - so I didn't have to remember to answer to Robert. Just said my dad was Robert too so the family always used my middle name." He was watching Jim carefully out of the corner of his eye, glad to see that his partner seemed to be in full control. "Did all sorts of jobs for about ten, eleven years; you'd be surprised how many skills I picked up."
"All right, Chief, from your vast experience, can you tell me where this corridor is likely to lead?"
"Eventually, boiler room; probably some general storage before we get there."
"Boiler room? Sounds like a likely place for a bomb," Taggert said.
"OK, let's get there," Ellison grunted.
They set off again, Taggert muttering as he went that the lack of imagination shown by so many would-be extortionists and terrorists made it relatively easy for their bombs to be found.
"And they all think they're so very clever," Sandburg agreed. He was still surreptitiously watching Ellison, who was clearly concentrating hard - probably on his sense of smell, Sandburg knew - but was in no immediate danger of zoning on it just yet.
As they went they passed a number of doors; these all opened into general storerooms, each one carrying goods of a specific kind. Ellison sighed. "How are three of us supposed to search all of that properly?" he growled, echoing Taggert's earlier comment. Sure, however, that Joel's guess about the boiler room as the site of the bomb, was correct, they simply bypassed these rooms and went on.
The name 'boiler room' was clearly a holdover from the days of coal or coke-fired furnaces; the heating of this mall was clearly oil-based. The three men split up, looking under and behind units; it was Taggert who found the explosive taped under a pipe. It was easy enough to detach it, and he opened it; although he no longer worked directly with the bomb squad, he had not forgotten his skills, and easily disarmed it.
"That's it," he said.
Sandburg, however, was frowning. "Possibly, but I think you found that too easily," he said as Ellison called in to report the bomb.
"I'm not saying that it couldn't have done a lot of damage if it had gone off - but it was relatively easy to find, wasn't it. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I think this was... not meant to be found, exactly, but possibly set so that if a search got this far, it could mislead the searchers that they'd found the bomb; then when everyone's basking in a false sense of security, the real one, the well-hidden one, is exploded."
"You know, Chief, you've become very suspicious," Ellison said as he put the cell phone back in his pocket.
"Just lost a few illusions I was probably better off losing. But... You think I'm wrong?"
"Unfortunately, no; I think you could very well be right." Ellison looked round thoughtfully. "Okay, Joel... we want the sort of place a perp is likely to think of, yet isn't immediately obvious. Where do you think?"
"Well, there aren't many possibilities," Taggert said. "Under something... behind something... "
As they separated again, Ellison's cell phone rang. "Ellison. Right... Right... Okay, Simon. We'll just finish up here, then come back in." He glanced at the others. "An explosion has just gone off in one of the other malls. Let's finish searching here then get back."
He spared a moment to have a good look at the explosive Taggert had found and memorise the smell of it, knowing too that the perp's scent would be on it; then he stood for a moment, concentrating on his sense of smell. His partner glanced at him then set out to keep Taggert's attention away from the sentinel.
However, Ellison could detect nothing, so after they gave the place a thorough physical search, he phoned in to give the mall clearance, and they left, taking with them the pieces of the dismantled bomb.
"I have to pay this." Frobisher's lips were set in a tight line as he moved from the window back to his desk. "Two million is only a fraction of what it would cost me if there was an explosion and people were hurt. The lawsuits... compensation... I'd be ruined. Bankrupted." He sank into what looked to be an extremely comfortable seat.
"Mr Frobisher, if you pay, in six months, a year if you're lucky, you can expect another demand," Simon Banks said, wishing that the seat on his side of the antique desk was even half as comfortable as Frobisher's looked. "We've found bombs set at each of your other malls and disarmed them, but with the best will in the world, neither we, not your own security staff, can watch your buildings 24-7 indefinitely. If there were lives immediately at risk it would be different, but this man... He's shown he will explode his bomb, but he's not a cold-blooded killer; he gave an adequate warning this time, he'll give one next time too."
"I see what you're getting at, Captain, and if there's a next time I'll consider then what's best for me to do. For the moment, I'll just hope that this demand is a one-off, and pay it. I can cover two million easily enough; I might have had a bit of trouble raising three million in a hurry, since much of my money is either in buildings or invested and I'd have to sell some shares, but two million is readily accessible."
"I don't suppose you have any ideas who it might be? The voice didn't sound familiar at all?"
"No. But then I only heard the tape. I was away from the office when the calls came in; a late lunch. I got back about five, ten minutes after the second call."
"Could it have been someone you'd fired recently?"
Frobisher shrugged. "I've got managers in each mall, and they're pretty well autonomous as far as employing staff is concerned - I don't employ them just to sit around looking important, they're there to save me work; I have enough to do with the over-all work involved; there's no way I could deal with controlling the day to day minutae of running all three malls. I've no idea if anyone has been fired recently or why, though if someone has been, theft is the most likely reason."
"Any business is subject to a lot of petty theft, Captain. Office workers take a pen or a pencil or a notebook home from time to time, or bring in their personal mail and post it as part of the firm's mail. Cleaners take soap or polish or toilet paper. They don't see it as theft, they see it as a legitimate perk, and as long as they don't get too greedy, I turn a blind eye. Most bosses do. Occasionally though one of them takes it too far, takes away too much, and when that happens, he - or she - gets fired."
"You don't prosecute?"
"No. Back when I first started and just had the one mall, I did prosecute a couple of times. One man got a slap on the wrist, the other got a $50 fine. It wasn't worth the expense of prosecuting. I don't blacklist them either - there's no point. They might have learned their lesson - it certainly cuts back on the losses for a while because the other employees know why they've gone - but even if they haven't they could change their names. Or it might cost someone else who just happens to have the same name a job."
"Could you check up on recent dismissals just in case?"
Frobisher nodded and clicked on an intercom. "Louise, get onto personnel and see if anyone's been fired in the last month, and why."
"Right away, sir."
"I'll have any names for you in a few minutes, Captain."
"You have a tape of the demand?" Ellison asked.
Banks nodded, already slipping it into a tape deck, and pressed the play button. "Right, Frobisher, this is what I want. Two million dollars paid into the Grand Cayman National Bank, account number 33587927, by the close of business tomorrow. If you don't, there will be another little explosion." The voice was rough, but the quality of recording was not very good; there seemed to be a lot of interference and background noise.
Ellison remained motionless, concentrating. Sandburg glanced at Banks. "Again," he mouthed. As Banks rewound the tape, Sandburg said softly, "What was the background noise, Jim?"
"It sounded as if he was in the middle of a fair-sized crowd. There are a lot of voices there. Sort of a before-the-curtain-goes-up theatre babble."
"Right. This time, filter out the background noise. Concentrate on the one voice." He nodded to Banks, who hit the play button again.
As the tape switched off for the second time, Ellison said slowly, "I think he's disguising his voice. He sounds like someone who is deliberately making his voice sound coarser than it normally is, and I think he's deepened his natural voice; by the end he was struggling to maintain the pitch. I think he was sitting in the car park of the mall that had the explosion."
"That's likely," Banks agreed. "His call came in virtually the same moment as Connors' report that there had been an explosion. She and Walsh had started their search but weren't near the boiler room - yes, that's where the explosion was set. There's actually not much damage except to the boiler room; it wasn't a big bomb."
"Neither was the one we found," Ellison said.
"Whoever set those bombs had a good knowledge of the layout of the malls - a knowledge most people don't have," Sandburg commented. "I'd guess at an employee or ex-employee with a grudge."
Banks shook his head. "Frobisher checked while I was with him. Nobody employed by him had actually been fired in the last couple of months, and his secretary said that although he doesn't stand any nonsense he's got a reputation among his staff for being a good, fair employer. You work well for him, he'll consider anything you ask for favourably, and he encourages his managers to do the same. She'd just had a couple of days off, paid leave, because her daughter was sick and she'd nobody to look after the kid. As she said, Frobisher could have insisted she took it as unpaid leave.
"She was the one who contacted the us about the bomb threat - Frobisher himself had gone for lunch just minutes earlier. He got back to discover that one of his malls had been blown up while he was eating."
"Nasty for him," Sandburg commented, then added, "Was anything done to check the people employed by the stores that rent space from him?"
"I understood from the way he spoke that although they rent the space and provide the goods, he employs the staff for all the shops."
"He indicated that it made for more efficient staffing of the building."
"I'd like to meet up with his staff," Ellison said slowly.
"That's easily done. The two unaffected malls are working normally again, and until the small one is repaired, the staff from there will be temporarily transferred to them once they've cleaned up their own mall, got all the undamaged goods boxed and into storage - that's most of it. Only a few fragile items like ceramics fell and were broken in the vibration from the blast.
"Why don't you and Sandburg go now? There's still several hours till closing time and even with shifts most of the staff who were evacuated should still be working."
Sentinel and guide returned to the big mall and wandered round for a while, with Ellison watching the employees in the various shops and listening to their conversations. Not unnaturally, when they did have a moment to speak together, the topic of conversation was the bomb scare; who, and - in the words of one assistant - why target Frobisher, who was known to be a generous employer. Occasionally they moved into a shop where there were no customers to speak to the assistants, but it was quickly clear even to the guide that none of the staff were hiding anything; and their chats with the employees they spoke to confirmed what Banks had said, what Jim had overheard - Frobisher was well-liked and an employer they were content to work for. Eventually, satisfied that they would learn nothing more, they headed for home.
Sandburg cooked dinner, so Ellison washed the dishes and generally tidied up the kitchen area, while his partner sat back studying - still studying, but now it was books on law and on police procedure rather then one of the anthropology books he had once loved, that still interested him, but that were beginning to gather dust as he ignored them in favour of finding out more about his new career. He was, however, finding this book heavy going.
Not even to himself did he admit that going back to the anthropology books would hurt - though serious thought had finally taken him to the conclusion that an active career in anthropology and continuing to be Jim's guide were mutually exclusive. And while he was quite prepared to admit that although it was what he had always wanted to do, the world of anthropology would manage quite well, thank you, without the presence and input of Doctor, even Professor, Sandburg; but he knew, without any doubt, that only Blair Sandburg, rookie detective, could be Jim's guide. But it still hurt - or rather, for he knew what he was doing, the way it happened hurt. He hadn't seen Naomi since then, and didn't expect to see her for quite a while; certainly not while she thought he might still be annoyed at her actions.
Once, perhaps, he might have thought that anyone could be trained to guide a sentinel; and it was possible that that was so, if the temperament was right. There was, however, a massive difference between guiding a sentinel and being a Guide - it had been a shock when Incacha passed the Way of the Shaman to him, but he had come to realise that Incacha had seen in him something that - had he lived with the Chopec for eighteen months, as Jim did - would automatically have made him the Shaman's apprentice; even half-trained, he would have been the Shaman's successor, had anything happened to the Shaman.
At the time, unsure of himself, he had made something of a joke about it, but over the next few months he had gradually come to realise the importance of the inheritance he had been given. That realisation had matured him. Drowning in the fountain had been no joke, but it had been a necessary part of the maturing process, and Incacha had been there to help him, support him, until Jim came for him, came to take him back to resume the task he hadn't until then realised he had spent almost his entire life learning about and preparing for.
Alex Barnes, he now realised, had been both a test and a lesson; he could no more have prevented himself from trying to help a sentinel - even a false one - than he could have remained conscious, breathing the water of the fountain; equally, although he now knew he could advise another sentinel, Jim was his sentinel, the only one who would - could - fully respond to him; just as Jim might respond to another guide, should they find one, but only he could fully control, fully direct, Jim's responses.
Sandburg's attention was drawn from his thoughts as Jim sat on the couch beside him and leaned over to see what the younger man was reading.
"You really believe in immersing yourself in whatever you're doing, Chief."
Sandburg shrugged. "No point in doing anything less than whole-heartedly," he said, but he put the book down anyway. "Though somehow it's not really holding my interest. It's not terribly well-written."
Ellison stared at him. "This from a man who used to lap up books where I could only understand one word in four?"
Sandburg made a face. "Maybe I'm just not used to legal-speak yet. I dunno. My mind keeps wandering; I don't think I ever found something so hard to concentrate on."
Ellison grinned. "That's the Way of the Shaman for you, Chief; your mind seems to wander, then you come back with some insight... "
"Not tonight, Boss. Thinking about Alex Barnes is not helpful."
Ellison glanced at him, then returned his attention to the book. "What brought her into your mind?"
"Just realising that once I became your guide, being your guide was the only way forward for me. I thought I could juggle two things, even pretended to myself that they were the same thing, but they weren't. I either made a life for myself as your guide or I eventually abandoned you to whatever Fate brought you. Yes, you can control your senses... most of the time. But there's still the odd time you need help, and the more you came to depend on my help the less able you were to respond to anyone else. I see that now. Like it or not, buddy, we're stuck with each other. You need help; I need to help, and we imprinted on each other.
"OK, I found another sentinel - though not one I'd have been happy to go on working with, had I met her first - but we've never found anyone else with the potential to be a guide. Just as well we came to like each other, isn't it?"
"Came to like each other, Chief?"
"Come on, Jim, let's face it; you didn't think much of the long-haired hippie punk that first day, did you? And I - well, after you threw me against that wall, I wondered for a moment how the hell I could even have thought about trying to work with an anal, muscle-bound, bad-tempered, intolerant idiot...
"But we learned to work together - quite quickly, too, when you think of it. And my 'week' here... " He grinned. "It's been a long week, hasn't it?"
"Sandburg, did you ever bother to look for anywhere else? Or did you trust to twisting me round your little finger right from the start?"
The guide glanced at his sentinel, correctly reading the teasing expression on the bigger man's face. "Seriously? Yes, I did. I could have moved out all right by the end of the week if you'd said anything like, 'Found somewhere to stay yet?'. But... well, you never said anything to make me think you wanted me out, I liked being here and it did help you to have me around."
"Yes, it did - which is why I didn't say anything and hoped you'd stay."
"You never were much good with words, were you, tough guy?"
"No. I just hoped that when I didn't say anything, you'd realise I was happy to let you stay. Once you got rid of Larry, that is."
"Well, Animal Control wasn't about to let me keep him when I didn't have a permit. Just as well the University had him on official loan from the place that did have him licensed. I got a paper out of it, but it wasn't very good - the data wasn't complete."
"Chief, I can't imagine you doing anything that wasn't good. Once you start something, you don't give up on it."
"That's not quite accurate, Jim. If I can't learn to do something at least competently pretty well right away, I'm liable to give up on it and nobody even knows I tried it. Doesn't happen often, but it has happened."
Sandburg chuckled. "Knitting."
"Yup. Don't ask me why, but the mother of one of Naomi's boyfriends took a liking to me - I was about ten at the time - and for some reason decided to teach me a few things she thought would help me through life. I think she was into sexual equality big time - both her sons knew how to cook and sew and knit, and her daughter could hammer in a nail with the best. She was never going to have to ask her husband to put up shelves for her; she knew how to get stuck in and do it herself.
"Well, Grandma Jess managed to teach me the basics of cooking and sewing before Naomi moved on, but not the knitting. Just couldn't pick it up at all.
"A couple of years later I thought I'd give it another go, though I can't remember why. Forget it. Useless. I've never tried since."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence.
After a few minutes, Ellison yawned. "I'm tired, Chief. Think I'll have an early night. There's something niggling in the back of my mind, and if I sleep on it I might realise what it is."
"Right. Goodnight, Jim."
As Ellison went to check the door and windows, his nightly routine, Sandburg picked up his neglected book. Another chapter, he decided, then he too would head for bed.
In the morning, it was quickly clear to Sandburg that despite his claim of tiredness the previous evening, the sentinel hadn't slept well. However, although it had been a difficult thing for him to learn, he now knew that sometimes it was best not to say anything, allowing Ellison to decide for himself when to speak; knowing that eventually he would be told what was worrying the older man, once Jim had established in his own mind just what it was.
Breakfast was a silent meal - Ellison was clearly still thinking. The silence - but it was a comfortable silence - continued all the way to the PD and was not broken until they walked into Major Crimes.
"Come on, Chief - I want a word with Simon."
In Simon's office, Jim said bluntly, "Simon, something about the Frobisher case is worrying me. I know you spoke to the man, but I'd like to have a word with him myself."
"That's easily arranged, Jim, but for the moment there doesn't seem to be much we can do. He's paid out the money, we've no jurisdiction to go chasing up a Cayman Islands bank - "
"That's part of what's bothering me. I keep remembering Wilkinson. Okay, he was more stubborn in the face of threats than a lot of them, but there can't be that many businessmen willing to hand over two million just like that. And... maybe I'm just being over-suspicious, but don't you think it odd that the entire thing - from first threat to final demand - all happened while Frobisher was out of his office?"
"What are you saying here, Jim?"
"I'm just beginning to wonder if Frobisher blew up his own mall. He tells his secretary he's going out for lunch; he gets into his car, and immediately phones in a bomb threat then switches off his phone so his secretary can't get through to him even if she tries; heads off for the car park of the mall he plans to blow up, phones in again with his 'demand' as soon as the bomb explodes, then drives straight back to his office, gets in ten minutes later to be informed that he's missed all the excitement. Then he promptly says he has to pay out two million to the perp because it's the moral thing to do."
"He didn't put it quite that way," Simon protested. "What he said was that if there was another explosion and any members of the public were hurt the resulting claims for compensation would ruin him, since he knew of the risk."
"But he knew bombs had been found and removed from his other two malls, didn't he? There was no immediate risk. So why was he so quick to pay up?"
"Jim, all his staff said he was a good, fair employer," Blair protested. "That says to me he has morals."
"I know." Ellison looked at Banks. "Simon, can we check up on his financial status?"
"He already told me it would take time to raise three million, because he'd have to sell some shares, but he could get two million easily enough."
"So the perp knew exactly how much he could ask for and get it quickly," Jim said drily.
"You think this could basically be a tax scam?" Blair was already beginning to consider Jim's suspicion. "Get a couple of million tucked away outside US jurisdiction, and...?"
"It's possible," Jim replied. "It's just as possible that I'm misjudging the man. That's why I want to meet him. The perp's scent was on the explosive; I'll know him when I meet the man who set those bombs."
"Not admissable as evidence, though," Simon pointed out. "You're not a sniffer dog, after all."
"True, but if we know who it is, we can work from there to finger him," Jim replied.
"Right," Simon agreed.
Patrick Frobisher stood to greet the two men as they entered his office. "Good morning, gentlemen," he said.
"Detective Ellison, Major Crimes; my partner, Detective Sandburg."
Frobisher offered his hand. As Ellison shook it, he said, "Does this visit mean you've made some progress in discovering who blew up my mall?"
"I'm afraid not, sir," Ellison replied. He rubbed his nose thoughtfully, taking a deep breath, as Sandburg grasped Frobisher's hand. "I know you spoke at some length with Captain Banks yesterday, and I'm sorry if we end up going over some of the same ground, but talking with someone else... sometimes the direction of the conversation means you remember something new."
"I realise that, Detective, but as I told your Captain, it's really my secretary you should be speaking to; I was out of the office having lunch and missed all the... well, all the drama, I suppose you could say."
"Wasn't it pretty late for lunch - the call came in at a little after 2 pm, according to your secretary."
"Yes. I'd been pretty busy, worked through my normal lunch hour - I didn't want to stop what I was doing halfway through. I imagine the man hoped to speak to me himself."
"Where did you go for lunch?"
"I had sandwiches - drove to a spot overlooking the Bay that I found a few years ago. It's very quiet there, very peaceful; I rarely see anyone - not many people seem to know about it. I go there for lunch quite often - at least, on the few good days we get here," he added wryly.
"Was there anyone else there yesterday?" The tone of voice made the question less intrusive than the words sounded.
"No - had it all to myself." Frobisher sighed almost contentedly. "I was glad of it; I'd been very busy all morning. You understand, I have a fairly stressful life; anything that helps me to unwind... "
"I can understand that," Sandburg agreed. "I love getting away from Cascade on my days off, out into the country. Great for recharging the batteries."
Frobisher nodded. "I grew up in a small town," he confided. "I don't really like the city. But this is where the money is."
"You never think of leaving your managers to do all the work and living a more relaxed lifestyle?"
"No. The managers are there to handle a lot of the day to day work, but the over-all responsibility has to be mine. No matter how good they are, how loyal, how conscientious, even how much they're paid, at the end of the day they're still paid employees and I don't totally trust them to make the best final decisions. They have a lot of autonomy, I don't encourage them to come to me with every little problem, but if there's a major problem I like to be on the spot because it's something only I can deal with."
"You told Captain Banks that anything over two million would have been harder to raise?" Ellison suggested, carefully not saying that on the previous day when there was a major problem Frobisher was conspicuously not there.
"Yes. A lot of my money is invested, obviously."
"Yet two million is a lot to have available in ready cash, so to speak?"
"Detective, in this kind of business you need to have a fair amount of capital available at any given time. Although a lot of the shops are rented out and the owners keep them stocked, a lot of them are my own. I'm buying in new stock all the time, sometimes in very large quantities because that's the best way to get a good discount from the manufacturers. There are all the overhead expenses involved in running three malls - heating, lighting... My employees have to be paid.
"Believe me, Detective, two million is the least amount I need to have available to cover those bills, and I'll have to sell some shares fast to replace at least some of it, since I won't have any income from one mall until it's repaired. At least the insurance will cover the repairs."
"But isn't it odd that this extortionist apparently knew how much you could raise literally on demand? That says 'employee with a grudge' to me - and someone who knows your financial status quite well."
Without giving Frobisher a chance to answer, Sandburg picked the ball up absolutely smoothly. "I suppose the insurance premium will go up quite steeply after this." There was a note of extreme sympathy in his voice. They weren't quite playing 'bad cop - good cop'; it was, rather, 'briskly businesslike - sympathetically friendly', a routine they had found quite effective in disarming wariness even while Blair was still a student.
"Yes. Oh, by stretching my finances a bit I could repair it without the insurance money, but with that as well, I can improve the mall while it's being repaired. It needed some upgrading anyway - it's nearly ten years old - so this is less of a blow than it might have been."
"The damage is mostly to the staff and storage sections of the place, though, isn't it? The bits the public don't see? Are you planning on improving those? But of course - your employees all spoke very highly of you and what a good employer you are. It's what I would expect from what they said." Sandburg allowed a touch of admiration to creep into his voice - not enough to embarrass the man, but enough to indicate to him that the younger detective was impressed.
"Well, happy employees make good employees," Frobisher said sententiously. "Resentful ones can find all sorts of niggling little ways to cause trouble.
"That's why I don't understand this... this... this atrocity!" He glanced at Ellison. "I take your point about the person making this demand knowing how much I could easily raise. But I'm sure none of my present employees could possibly have a grudge, and I checked - I'm sure Captain Banks will have told you - and there hasn't been anyone fired recently - "
"Mr Frobisher, it doesn't have to be an employee with a grudge," Sandburg said softly. "All it needs is a greedy one. Did you check on new employees? New within the last... " He glanced at his partner. "What would you say, Jim - six months?"
Ellison nodded. "Start work, put you off your guard by establishing himself as a steady worker - it's been done before, Mr Frobisher. Not too long ago, we'd a gang pulling off a series of very successful bank robberies, and that was their MO - they got jobs in the banks they planned to rob, worked for a while, pulled off the heists, stayed put for a few months, then quit and moved on. Took about a year in total each town they hit."
"I'll get you a list of names, but it won't be a big one. There's not very much turnover of staff. I pride myself on that, you know." He was speaking more to Sandburg. "It's quite unusual in my line of business."
Sandburg nodded. "I worked evening shifts in shops myself for a while when I was a student; probably 75% of the evening workers were students, and not many of them stayed more than a few months. Even the regular staff tended to be looking for better paid jobs from the day they started. So I do know what it's like, from the workers' point of view."
"Well, a lot of my staff have been with me since they started working for me," Frobisher said proudly. "That's ten years in several cases."
"That's amazing, and a credit to the working conditions you give them," Sandburg agreed.
"I like to think so," Frobisher agreed.
"If you send the list to me at Major Crimes, Mr Frobisher, I don't think we need take up any more of your time," Ellison put in. "Thank you for seeing us."
"A pleasure, gentlemen - well, the circumstances aren't a pleasure, of course, but - "
Sandburg grinned. "We know what you mean, sir. Thank you."
They returned to the truck in silence. Once safely inside it, Ellison said, "I was right, Chief. He set the bombs."
"So now all we have to do is prove it. But why, man? He's successful..."
"Well, like you suggested, it could have been a tax scam. But... I dunno, he wasn't exactly lying about his finances, but I got the feeling he was shading the truth a bit. What was your word again? Obfuscating?"
"Yeah. Muddying the waters. But why?"
"Maybe he's not as financially secure as he would have us think."
Sandburg thought about that as Ellison started the truck and drove off. "Might he have expanded too fast? He only started up about ten years ago, but he's expanded from one small mall to three in that time, and the third one is as big as the other two put together. That's a lot of cash to lay out. He could have over-extended himself. But from the amount he said he needs for day-to-day running of his business, two million isn't that much to salt away as a reserve."
"What if it isn't intended as a reserve?"
Sandburg stared at his partner. "Oh, man. You think he's planning to skip? Desert what he thinks might be a sinking ship?"
"Nnnnooo. Not right now. Maybe later, though, if he has over-extended himself, and it proves permanent. I think he's hoping any financial problems he has are temporary. I think he's just hedging his bets. Giving himself a nice little nest-egg to 'retire' on."
Sandburg fell silent for some moments. "Seasonal," he said.
Ellison glanced over at the younger man. "Seasonal?" he asked as he returned his attention to the road.
"The retail trade has ups and downs - even grocery stores. The end of the week is busy, people have been paid and they're buying in food for the weekend... but Monday and Tuesday tend to be quiet days. That's a short term cycle, easy for the stores to handle. Longer term, Christmas is a real high for all shops. Things drop off a bit in spring, perk up again in the summer especially in holiday areas, drop off again a little in fall - see what I mean?"
"So currently the cycle is down, but if I'm right, if he could hang on until the Christmas high he'd be all right?"
"It would certainly recoup a lot of the money he spent building that third mall," Sandburg commented. "It could be enough to keep him solvent."
"The problem is still going to be proving it."
They drove on in silence for a minute. Then Blair said slowly, "It still doesn't add up. If he decided to damage one of his malls to persuade himself to pay himself two million dollars, it made sense - like we realised - to make it the small one. So why did he set explosive in the two malls he wasn't going to blow up?"
"As a back-up in case the explosive in the small mall was found before he could explode it?" Jim suggested.
Blair rubbed his neck, then his face, with ungentle hands. "It's possible... but... "
"Something about his attitude bothered me. Everything he said about the turnover of shop staff was true. For staff to stay anywhere for any length of time is pretty unusual - oh, a few always do, it depends a lot on the availablity of other work. Agreed his staff all said he was a good boss. Agreed he seems to have the right attitude towards his staff, recognises that they're people with feelings. But there was something... " He snapped his fingers. "It wasn't so much what he said as how he said it. There was a very calculating note in his voice a lot of the time."
"Yes," Ellison said slowly. "There was, wasn't there. It was partly what he said too, though; he was awfully keen to let us know how much he could do without touching the insurance money."
He pulled in at the PD and they went up to Major Crimes, going direct to Simon's office.
Simon grinned at them. "You saw Frobisher? Helpful, isn't he."
"Simon, you're not going to like this. He is our perp."
Bank's grin faded. "You're sure?"
Jim nodded. "Yes, unfortunately. But I don't know how we're going to prove it."
"Oh. You recognised something in his voice?"
"Actually, I smelt him on the explosive. What court would accept that as evidence? You already pointed out I'm not a sniffer dog, but we couldn't do it even using sniffer dogs, since he has all sorts of legitimate reasons for being anywhere in any of his buildings, and a dog could have picked up his scent anywhere."
"But why would he want to blow up his own mall?"
"Well, we've a theory about that..."
On the way home, Sandburg said slowly, "He knows the other bombs were found, doesn't he."
"What if he does mean to blow up one or both of the other malls? Either to extort more money from himself or as an insurance scam?"
"He'd have to set more bombs... and then he could also sue the PD for negligence, not finding all the bombs... "
They glanced at each other.
"The malls close at 9," Ellison said slowly. "I doubt he'd try anything before that, but he could go in at the last minute on the pretext of checking something... "
"Possibly the cleaners? They do most of the heavy duty work at night."
Ellison lifted an eyebrow. "They do? I'm sure I saw a cleaner doing some sweeping up this afternoon."
"Sure, doing routine 'sweep up dropped candy wrappers' work. Keeps the place looking tidy during the working day. At night the floor gets washed and polished. The cleaners'll probably work till midnight, then the place is locked up except for security. The service areas won't be done every day, though, and from the smell of disinfectant I think they were done yesterday, so they're not likely to be done again for a week."
"So he could arrive, have an obvious, 'look, here I am' wander round, then slip into the service corridor. Nobody would miss him, it would only take him five minutes, he comes back up, slips out - anyone seeing him would assume he'd been to the staff john, especially if the customer ones were being cleaned, heads for home..."
"And in a couple of days, bang! and another two million salted away in Grand Cayman and another lot of insurance money, and an accusation of incompetence levelled at the PD. It won't be the big mall yet. It's got to be the middle one."
"OK, Chief. After dinner, we go to the mall, have a wander round, and possibly hide so that we're locked in after the place closes. Then we wait, see what happens."
They left the truck a couple of blocks from the mall and went in about half an hour before it was due to close.
It was still relatively busy, and Ellison commented on it.
"Short term cycle, Jim. It's Thursday. A lot of people get paid on Thursday. There's nothing much worth watching on TV tonight. So there are people out shopping. Then they'll maybe go for a drink before they head for home."
They wandered into a store selling CDs and Blair headed for the section selling new age music. Jim glanced along the easy listening selection; a few minutes later Blair rejoined him, carrying two CDs. Ellison raised a querying eyebrow.
"They're ones I want, anyway, but it also shows that we're legitimate shoppers."
They left the store with Blair carrying a small plastic bag and wandered on down the corridor.
The place was emptying, the store assistants beginning their routine pre-closing checks. Jim glanced round as they neared the staff door. Nobody was watching; they slipped through it and walked quickly down the corridor past the staffroom door and ducked into a storeroom. They left the door slightly open and Jim watched through the crack. Blair wrapped the carrier more tightly round his CDs, pushed the packet into his pocket and watched his partner's shadow against the light from the open crack.
"Someone's coming," Ellison breathed. A couple of minutes later, he added, "Jackpot!"
Blair could just make out Jim's nod.
Ellison waited another couple of minutes then opened the door. They headed down the corridor after the owner of the mall, moving as quietly as possible.
They paused at the door of the boiler room and watched as Frobisher carefully fastened something under what looked like a fuel tank.
"Freeze! Cascade police!" Jim snapped.
Frobisher whirled. Then he lowered his head and rushed at the big cop.
Ellison braced himself, but Frobisher was heavier than he looked, and the two men crashed to the ground. Blair stood back, gun in hand, watching, as Jim and Frobisher struggled, ready to stop Frobisher if he managed to get away from Ellison. The two men rolled back into the boiler room; Frobisher, Blair noted, was fitter than he might have expected, and was managing to hold his own against Jim, fit though he was.
And then the bomb Frobisher had just planted exploded.
Blair was thrown backwards by the force of the explosion; he thudded against the corridor wall and lay for a second, half stunned; then, seeing flames flickering through the doorway, he realised what had happened, and whipped out his phone, dialled 911 for help, then dived into the burning boiler room.
The fuel tank had exploded, throwing oil all over the room. The fire was spreading rapidly from where the tank had been.
Frobisher lay between the burning tank and the door; Jim lay close to the door. Both were unconscious and bleeding; both Frobisher's legs were a real mess. He knew that moving then could aggravate their injuries, but he couldn't leave them lying in a burning room.
Blair pulled Jim into the corridor and two or three yards from the doorway; then he returned for Frobisher. He pulled the mall owner out as well, getting out of the doorway just as the first of the mall's security personnel arrived.
He straightened, and pulled out his ID. "Blair Sandburg, Cascade PD." He noticed one of the men producing a cell phone, and said, "I've already called for police backup and the emergency services."
One of the security guards asked, "What are you doing down here?" just as another one exclaimed, "My God, it's Mr Frobisher!"
Blair said quietly, "You're not going to like this, gentlemen, but my partner and I just caught Mr Frobisher setting a bomb. We challenged him, and then the bomb exploded. I was thrown back out of the boiler room; my partner and Mr Frobisher were both caught in the blast."
They were interrupted by the sound of running feet; firemen were arriving, closely followed by paramedics who hurried to attend to the two injured men; and while they were being stretchered away, Simon Banks arrived.
Blair gave his report quickly, giving the head of the mall security his place by allowing him to hear it, then looked at Banks.
"I've got to get to the hospital."
"You came in Jim's truck?"
"Yes - it's parked down there." He pointed.
"I'll get someone to pick it up, take it back to the loft for you. Meanwhile, I'll take you to the hospital."
Jim Ellison pushed himself up from the hospital bed, and stood for a moment looking at the medical staff fighting to keep life in his badly injured body.
Standing just inside the door, in defiance of hospital rules, were his partner and his Captain. Blair's eyes were fixed on the doctor working on the limp body, a hand in front of his mouth; Simon Banks had a comforting hand on the smaller man's shoulder.
Jim sighed. He was tired; although he had chosen the life, for many years that life had been one of action and danger, happiness a rare and fleeting commodity, though the past four years had been among the happiest he had ever known; he was almost glad to die. His one regret was that he had never told Blair outright how much his friendship had meant him.
"You have done well, elfling."
His head jerked up. A man stood at the other side of his bed; and memory connected.
"You have indeed redeemed yourself. You were given sentinel abilities as an aid, but also as a temptation, as was the woman born as Alicia Bannister. She too was an exile from Faery. You used the abilities well, to aid the mortal world; she did not, and very soon she will die indeed.
"Your place in Faery is again open. It is time to say goodbye to the human world, to your human friends." He gestured; a doorway opened, and through it Ellison could see a green countryside, with trees and distant hills. "Come."
"No!" It was a wail of anguish.
"No? You do not wish to return?"
"Blair... I can't leave Blair."
"Your human is too old to enter our world as a changeling."
"But I can stay in his."
"And become wholly mortal? As a mortal you would have thirty, perhaps forty more years of life. Return to Faery and you would have thirty, perhaps forty thousand years."
"And for every day of those years I would grieve. Blair is my heart, majesty."
Oberon looked the moisture on Ellison's face, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. Elves rarely wept; their emotions were rarely touched more than superficially. "You have learned more than responsibility, elfling. You have learned to love."
"Have you thought that one day your human might want to marry, have a home of his own instead of sharing yours?"
"It doesn't matter. We're friends, majesty, close friends. I know I will have his friendship for those thirty or forty years you mentioned, and that is more than I would ever know in Faery."
"You have indeed learned much, elfling. I think you will not regret your choice." He turned and walked through the doorway into the world beyond; and as the doorway closed behind the King of Faery, Ellison felt himself being drawn back to his body.
His first awareness was of pain; his entire body resonated with it. He concentrated frantically, his concussion-clouded mind struggling to dial down the agony, knowing only that he wanted...
"Blair!" His voice was barely audible.
"He's coming round!" The voice was loud, too loud, but he found himself unable to do anything to block the level of noise. He opened his eyes, and could see only unknown faces, figures dressed in white... He didn't want any of them, he wanted his friend.
He tossed his head restlessly. "Blair!"
And then his guide was there, somehow finding a space to push into, reaching for his hand. "Jim!"
"You have to stay out of the way, Mr Sandburg. You can see Mr Ellison once we have him properly stabilised."
From somewhere, Jim Ellison found the strength to grip his partner's hand tightly, holding him beside the bed for a moment. "Have to tell you," he whispered. "I love you."
"And I love you, tough guy," Blair whispered back as Jim's hand lost the strength of desperation and dropped back onto the bed.
Satisfied, Jim allowed himself to sink back into unconsciousness.
When he regained consciousness it was to find that the pain had subsided to a dull ache, but he continued to lie motionless, afraid even to open his eyes in case the movement caused a recurrance of the stabbing agony he remembered only too well from his previous, thankfully brief, return to awareness. Somewhere in the distance, very faint, was a murmuring noise that sounded like voices too distant even for sentinel hearing; then he remembered that in his haste to reduce the pain level, he had tried to dial everything down. At the time he believed he had failed; perhaps his mind had continued to dial everything down after he lost consciousness again. He would have to ask Blair if that was possible.
Very cautiously he raised his hearing level, wondering what was being said but really only mildly curious.
"... injury, recovery will be slower than Mr Ellison will care for."
"But it will be complete?" Ah - that was Blair's voice. If his guide was there he was safe. Blair was his Blessed Protector just as much as he was Blair's...
"Yes, unless something unforeseen happens. I think the chances of that are minimal however; he is in excellent health, his heart is strong; no, I really don't see any long-term problems preventing his complete recovery. However, Mr Sandburg - I understand you and Mr Ellison live together?"
"Yes, we're roommates."
"It will be up to you to make sure Mr Ellison does not try to overdo things at first; he is almost certain to attempt to run before he can walk again, and you must see to it that he paces his return to complete fitness."
"I can do that."
At the complete confidence in Blair's voice, Ellison smiled mentally, knowing how much it had surprised Simon Banks the first time he realised that in the Ellison-Sandburg pairing, the apparently easy-going Sandburg was really the boss.
"I'd better speak to the physiotherapist, and probably sit in on his first few sessions of therapy, since I expect I'll have to work with him at home," Blair was saying.
"Yes, that would be sensible," the other man, presumably a doctor, agreed. "I'll get Miss Zaleska to come in and speak to you before you leave this afternoon."
Ellison heard the footsteps moving away, then his hand was taken in a gentle grasp. "Okay, Jim, I know you're awake. How do you feel?"
Ellison forced his eyes open, blinking against the light even although it wasn't particularly bright. "Generally sore," he admitted.
"Dialled down?" There was sympathy in Blair's voice rather than instruction.
"Yes. And the dial's staying down," he added.
Blair grinned at that, but only for a moment. "You were pretty badly cut up," he said seriously.
"Dislocated shoulder, five ribs broken or cracked, compound fracture of the leg, several puncture wounds with fragments still in them, a couple of puncture wounds where whatever hit you went right through and a fair collection of cuts and bruises.
"The injuries themselves weren't life threatening, but you lost a lot of blood; and you were on the operating table for nearly eight hours while they cleaned you up and stitched you together again."
"He didn't make it. Just as well, probably. He'd have lost an arm and both legs if he'd survived; you got off lighter than he did. We think that he'd set the bomb to explode about five minutes after he left - when he rushed you, it was to try to escape the blast rather than escape from us. Then he'd have been back in the mall, probably speaking to a cleaner, when it exploded. Who would expect him to have set the bomb when he was in the mall at the time of the explosion?"
Ellison shook his head. "The man was a fool. Impatient. If he'd waited a few weeks he might even have got away with it - without catching him in the act we certainly couldn't actually prove he was responsible, and we couldn't have gone on watching him indefinitely."
"We finally got his finances checked; we were right about them - he was on the verge of bankruptcy - not so much because he'd overstretched himself, it was more that some of his investments had gone bad; he'd recently lost a small fortune. We're guessing, but it seems likely that he was going to slide the insurance money for both malls sideways, then head for Cayman and leave someone else to sort out the mess he was leaving."
"So much for his vaunted care for his employees," Ellison growled. He was silent for a moment, then asked, "When can I get out?"
"Not for two or three days. They want to keep an eye on you, make sure your injuries are healing, and for once I agree with them. You won't be able to walk without crutches and you can't use crutches till your shoulder feels better... and don't try to tell me it's not sore right now! You'll have to sleep in my room for a while when you get home - you certainly can't tackle the steps to your room. You'll be on the sick list for several weeks - and even when you do get back to work you'll be off the street for several weeks. Desk work only."
Ellison nodded. "The way I feel at the moment, Chief, I'm not going to argue. I don't think I could even stand up right now without help." He blinked sleepily; suddenly it seemed to be too much effort to keep his eyes open. "Stay?" he murmured.
"Until they throw me out," Blair said softly.
The older man smiled slightly. "Need you here." His voice was so quiet that Blair could hardly hear him.
Sandburg waited till the grip on his hand began to slacken, then he murmured, "Sleep." His voice was very, very quiet, but it still held the tone of the guide centering his sentinel.
During the days Jim spent in hospital Blair spent almost every waking moment at his side, Simon being more than understanding and giving him the time off without question. They spoke very little; Blair instinctively knew that his silent presence was enough to calm, indeed almost sedate, his partner; and Jim still fell asleep easily, sleeping himself better.
It was nearly a week before he woke one morning feeling refreshed and aware that most of the minor aches had faded to a level where it was easy to ignore them. Even his shoulder and ribs felt better, though he knew it would still be a while before he could take a deep breath or laugh with impunity.
As the doctor entered Ellison's room, he immediately noted the difference in the big man's condition. "Ah, Detective. You're feeling better this morning?"
"Yes. When can I go home?"
Dr. Xavier chuckled. "You cops are all the same," he commented. "Let's have a look at you... Mmm... Mmm... Raise your arm... Mmm... Well, I think you can get home this afternoon. Yes, you can call Detective Sandburg and tell him to bring your clothes. But remember, you've been in bed for most of five days; you have to take things slowly. Your partner knows. And of course there will have to be physiotherapy sessions soon, but he knows about that, too."
Ellison nodded, knowing how important those physiotherapy sessions would be. Left to himself he knew he would overdo things in an attempt to get fully fit as quickly as possibly, but he knew only too well how effectively Blair would encourage him to the limit of his endurance but refuse to let him go beyond that; and with a rueful smile he recognised that he was exactly the same any time Blair was hurt.
At the loft, Ellison sank gratefully onto the couch, more tired than he cared to admit after the trip home. Sandburg, after studying him for a moment, went silently to the kitchen to get coffee ready; when it was, he put a mug on the table in front of his friend and sat down beside him with his own mug.
They drank, just enjoying the tranquillity of the loft and the pleasure of being together. Finally, Ellison said quietly, "I did mean it, you know, Chief. When I thought I was dying, my only real regret was not having told you how much you mean to me, how much I value your friendship."
"I meant it too, Jim. I've never had a friend like you."
"You know... When I was unconscious I had the oddest dream. There was this man - he offered me thousands of years of life... All I had to do was leave you and go with him."
After a long silence, Blair said, "And?"
"I wasn't even tempted. I didn't want to leave you. Even if one day you found a woman you wanted to marry, moved out and found your own house so that I only saw you occasionally outside of work, I didn't want to be the one to leave you. It was always going to be your choice."
"I think... Jim, I think that's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me." They were silent for some moments, then Blair said, "I've made up my bed for you. I'll sleep here, on the couch, so if you need anything, all you have to do is yell and I'll be with you right away."
Jim accepted the change of subject, glad to turn to a less emotional topic. "Thanks, Chief. I'll try to get back to my own bed as soon as I can - "
"When the physiotherapist says you can, and not before," Blair told him firmly, and Jim grinned.
Blair grinned back. "You'd better believe it, Ellison. You'd better believe it."