Production No. CVT517
Zerena and Urban Angel
MEET THE CAST
Whistling softly, the tall black man hefted his gym bag onto one shoulder and stepped off the curb into the dimly lit parking lot. Only a few cars remained in the lot this late; most of the police personnel who frequented the gym had either gone home for the night or were on duty. A faint, steady din of freeway noise blanketed the area, making even the persistent calls of the crickets that occasionally flew out of the man's path inaudible to ordinary human ears.
The watcher could hear all the sounds clearly, though, even the faint rustle of the nylon bag against the black man's leather jacket. Far more important at the moment was what he couldn't hear: any sign that the lot would soon be inhabited by anyone other than himself and the black man. The watcher had planned his timing around that factor. The watcher didn't underestimate his prey's fighting capabilities, particularly given the watcher's own recently acquired physical limitations. More vital for the watcher's objective, though, was the element of surprise. If his attack on the black man were noticed too early, his carefully laid plan would come to naught.
The black man had almost reached his car. His steps dragged, as if he were tired from a long day and a strenuous workout. No doubt he was thinking of a quiet evening at home with some sports program or another and one of those noxious concoctions referred to as "TV dinners". This had been his routine for two of the three days his wife had been away visiting her mother.
The watcher had based his plan on the assumption that the black man would follow the same routine as the past few nights--work, gym, home--and it looked as if tonight the watcher would not be disappointed. No one would miss the black man until morning at the earliest. This was exactly as the watcher wanted it.
The black man stopped at his car, lowering his gym bag to dig through it for his keys. The movement left the back of his neck exposed and invitingly vulnerable. Allowing himself a small smile, the watcher raised a tiny gun to eye level, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger.
"Get your butt in gear, Sandburg, we're going to be late." Jim opened the door of the loft in the vain hope that Blair might accidentally walk out it as he wandered around gathering his things.
Blair didn't seem to notice the door or Jim's impatient and pointed glance at his watch. The younger man's attention was focused on the struggle to get all his curls pulled back into a ponytail.
"Chill out, man," Blair mumbled around the hairtie he had clenched in his teeth. "You say that every morning. When are we ever late?"
"Last week," Jim answered without even having to think about it. Giving up on Blair ever leaving the loft under his own power, Jim grabbed a handful of his partner's jacket and pulled him out the door. "Twice, if I remember correctly. And once the week before that."
"Hey, at least one of those times wasn't my fault. How was I to know there'd be a line at the Java Palace long enough to rival the line into a playoff game?" Blair protested. He followed Jim calmly enough to the elevator, most of his attention still focused on the daily battle of the hair.
As much as Jim didn't want to admit it--and never would, at least not to Blair--he was kind of relieved to see his partner's hair almost back to its "normal" length. They'd had too many changes in their lives in the past year. Somehow having Blair's hair back to its pre-academy length was a tangible sign that Blair, in spite of everything he'd been through, was still fundamentally the same. Even better, the curls were finally at a length where Blair could tie them back and reasonably expect them to stay. Jim hadn't had to fight the urge to glue errant strands to his partner's head in nearly a week now.
Jim jerked his eyes away from Blair's hair, startled out of his thoughts by the half-concerned, half-amused question.
"You're staring at my head like I grew horns. I know my hair's frizzing this morning, but there's nothing I can do about it unless you know some magic incantation to make this drizzle stop."
Jim shook his head as the elevator stopped, reaching out to hold the door as Blair preceded him into the lobby. "All that mumbo-jumbo's your territory."
"Says the man with heightened senses."
"Don't get smart, Junior." Jim took a deep breath as they stepped outside, liking the ocean smell of the damp air and the tantalizing scent of pastries coming from the bakeries and restaurants nearby. Rob at The Pastrie Shoppe two blocks over had made his melt-in-your-mouth croissants again. Jim would have to convince Blair to get his morning espresso there, even if they didn't carry the exact Columbian blend Blair swore by.
A cold drizzle had just passed over, leaving behind a mist that tingled across Jim's face like thousands of tiny pinpricks. He took a deep breath of it, liking the salt tang. The sky was grey, but the morning felt fresh and clean. Grinning for no good reason, Jim clapped Blair on the shoulder and directed him toward the truck.
"Shake a leg, Sandburg, I can hear Simon yelling from here."
"Really?" Blair's voice sharpened with exaggerated interest.
Jim swatted at the back of his head. "Just get in the truck."
He stared into the darkness, trying to hear if he was alone. The silence threatened to suffocate him, but he couldn't hear any signs of life other than his own harsh breathing. He thought maybe that was a good thing.
Or not. Being alone might mean he wasn't in immediate danger, but it also might mean he was stuck here... wherever here might be. He was tied to a chair. Whatever had knocked him out had left his brain so foggy he'd strained against the ropes for long enough to leave his arms sore before he'd figured out why he couldn't stand up. Nothing he'd tried since had loosened the ropes or budged the chair, and he was trying very hard not to think about how long a man as healthy as he was could last without food or water.
He just had to believe that they'd find him before it was too late. Not that he intended to sit around and wait for them, but he knew the feel of well-made rope when it was wrapped around him. Unless his captor returned and gave him an opening to escape, his best chance lay in rescue by his friends.
His eyes burned from the strain of staring into the darkness. He closed them, letting his head drop to his chest. The knockout drug his captor had used had left him groggy and tired even now, and it was all too tempting just to let himself drift off to sleep. He owed it to his friends to stay alert, though. Any information he could pick up, any clue to the identity of his captor, could be the key to catching and convicting the bastard when this was all over.
Besides, the guys would give him hell if they found out he'd slept through his own kidnapping. For that matter, they were probably going to give him hell for letting himself be kidnapped in the first place. His partner, in particular, would never let him forget it. Rafe was definitely going to make him pay for every time he'd ever called the younger man "GQ" or tried to mess up what he called Rafe's "destructo-hair".
He'd accept the razzing, though, if it would get him out of here. He'd never liked dark places. Didn't much like not knowing if he was going to come out of this alive, either, and he hated the hell he knew his partner would be going through when Rafe realized he was missing.
He just hoped they had the sense not to call Lori. She was due to be out of town for at least the rest of the week, and he intended to be home, safe and sound and waiting for her when she arrived. She didn't need to suffer through the worrying and waiting until he was freed. He just had to trust that Rafe would know how he felt about that and would make sure no one called her.
He smiled, letting the image of the reunion he wanted to have with his wife flood his mind. If he focused on it hard enough, he could almost smell her perfume and feel the soft touch of her skin, the gentle lilt of her voice as she spoke his name...
He caught himself just as he was about to drift into sleep. Shaking his head, he set himself to keep a better watch.
Simon stood in the doorway of his office as Jim and Blair arrived, preventing any chance that they might sneak in. He didn't yell, but he did raise a sardonic eyebrow and glance pointedly at the clock, then at Connor and Taggart working at their desks, as Jim followed his partner into the bullpen. Jim forestalled any comments with a preemptive strike in the form of a bakery bag full of croissants. Blair's idea, but Jim was the senior partner, so he got to deliver the goods and reap the rewards.
Simon took the bag, opening it to inhale the scent of fresh bread.
"You're late," he said mildly.
"Never happen again," Blair said with a cheerful insincerity that had Jim biting back a grin. The croissants might appease Simon, but it wasn't smart to appear too smug.
"I want that in writing, Sandburg, and signed by witnesses." Biting into the croissant, Simon sighed with pleasure. "But I think I just might forgive you this time."
Jim hung his jacket on the coat rack by his desk and sat down, reaching out absently to turn on the computer. Blair, his coat already off, reached for a stack of files.
"Anything major on the agenda today, Simon?"
"Sandburg, do you think there's any chance I'll ever get you to call me 'Captain' on a consistent basis?"
Blair looked up from his files, his expression serious but his eyes amused. "About as much chance as there is you'll start calling me 'Blair'."
"I heard we might get the Morrison-Wong case?" Jim interrupted, not willing to waste his morning with another episode of the Blair-Banks show. The bullpen had been so much quieter in the days when Blair thought Simon was going to bite his head off and Simon was convinced Blair was a spaced-out hippie wannabe.
Distracted, Simon turned away from Blair and crossed over to settle down on the corner of Jim's desk. "Homicide turned it over to us this morning, before you got here."
"Why'd we end up with it?" Blair asked.
"Morrison's Mafia ties and the fact that Wong was Councilman Jarvis's assistant." Simon nodded at the files Blair was still holding. "Homicide's preliminary work should be in there somewhere. I want you two to get on it first thing this morning. You shouldn't have anything else pressing to do, do you?"
Jim shook his head. "No, just some background work on that blackmail situation, and I need to go over my report on the Carmichael case for the Grand Jury on Friday, but that's about it."
"And I've got a few reports to finish up, but I can get that done while Jim's in court," Blair added.
"Good. I know I don't need to tell you the chief wants a quick resolution on this one, and preferably one that doesn't end up embarrassing Councilman Jarvis. He's been one of the main supporters of increases in the PD budget." Simon grimaced as if he'd bitten into something sour. "This is a political one. Practice your diplomacy, okay?"
Jim grinned. "Don't we always, sir?"
"Just remember to let Sandburg do all the talking." Simon stood up and headed back to his office before Jim could think of a suitable reply, leaving him with a snickering partner and a distinct feeling that he'd been ganged up on.
Blair thumbed through a file, set it aside, and started on the next one in the pile.
"Here it is, Morrison-Wong. Looks like Homicide got a pretty good start." He hooked a nearby chair with his foot and pulled it over to sit in it, spreading the file out on Jim's desk. He didn't seem to notice that doing so effectively took up more than his fair share of the space.
Jim had learned over the years to ignore his loss of personal space, though, and just reached across Blair to pick the case summary. He didn't pay much attention to the opening of the elevator door except to note absently that Rafe was the only person who got off.
"Morning, Sandburg, Ellison." Rafe paused at Jim's desk long enough to drop off an envelope before heading toward the break room. "The mailroom asked me to deliver that to you, Ellison. Said it was marked 'urgent'."
Jim picked up the envelope, frowning as a faintly familiar scent teased his nose. The envelope was a plain brown mailer, with no distinguishing marks other than a laser-printed label addressed to "Detective Jim Ellison, Major Crime, Cascade PD."
"Got a secret admirer, Jim?" Blair's grin faded as he looked at Jim's expression, and Jim could feel a subtle tension entering his partner's body that matched his own. "Jim? Something wrong?"
Jim shook his head. He didn't know exactly what had his hackles up about this envelope. Whatever he'd smelled when he first picked it up--if there had been anything at all--had already faded past recall. He tried to tune out the murmur of Connor's voice as she spoke on the phone, the sound of Taggart's fingers tapping on his keyboard, the slosh of coffee as Rafe poured himself a cup in the break room, the squeak of Simon's chair in his office...
"Jim." Blair's hand rested on his shoulder, squeezing firmly. "What's going on? You think it might be wired?"
"Quiet for a minute, okay?" Jim took a deep breath and tried again, Blair's hand enough of a distracter that he didn't lose himself as he blocked out the bullpen noises and focused exclusively on the envelope. He couldn't hear anything that might be a problem, though. No telltale ticking, no soft whir of electronics. "Nothing. I just have this bad feeling..."
"You want me to get Forensics up here?"
Without answering, Jim ran his fingers lightly over the envelope. Whatever was inside it was square, about three inches by four and maybe half an inch thick. Jim could feel a rough texture through the paper, tiny ridges and valleys that nagged at him with their familiarity. He inhaled deeply, trying to recapture that elusive scent, and instead got a noseful of a smell he knew well. But why would someone be sending him leather in the mail?
"Sandburg, did you lose your wallet again?" he asked, sliding a finger under the sealed flap of the envelope and cautiously working it loose.
"No." Blair sounded indignant.
Jim had his eyes focused on the envelope, but he could feel Blair wiggle as he tried unobtrusively to feel if his wallet was in his back pocket.
Using the tip of a pen, Jim pulled the envelope open and peered inside. Frowning, he picked it up and dumped out the contents. A leather case fell out, one that looked exactly like the ones Jim and all the other detectives used to carry their shields and I.D.
And Jim, with the suddenness of a punch to the gut, was scared. Not just suspicious, as he had been when he got the envelope, but bone-deep scared. Whether it was premonition or logical deduction, he knew what he'd find when he opened the case. Not who, although his mind was already flashing through the faces he'd seen this morning and only coming up with a few absentees, but there was no doubt in his mind what was going on.
"Um, Jim? You still with me?" Blair's voice had an edge of worry to it, not very well masked by his joking tone. "This is getting repetitive, man. Did you not get enough coffee this morning?"
Jim looked up at him, and Blair's eyes widened as all amusement drained from his face. Glancing down at the case in Jim's hands, Blair reached over and flipped it open, jerking his hand back as if he expected to be bitten.
Henri Brown's face stared up at them from the police I.D. on one side of the case. Tucked in behind it was a small square of folded white paper. Jim pulled it out and unfolded it, reading it quickly before handing it to Blair. The message was simple, inscribed in the same laser-printed font as the address label: "812 Coleridge Avenue, 10:00 a.m."
Blair scanned the note. "It's almost 9:30 now, Jim. Coleridge Avenue's in the warehouse district. It'll take us at least half an hour just to get there."
"Go get Rafe and meet me in Simon's office," Jim said quietly, taking the note back from Blair and picking up Brown's shield from his desk. "And, Chief? Keep this quiet until we know how Simon wants to play it."
Blair nodded and went over to Rafe's desk, leaning over to speak softly to the young detective. Jim walked over to Simon's office and went in without knocking.
Simon, interrupted in mid-sip of his coffee, raised an eyebrow at the intrusion. "Something you need, Detective?"
Jim stepped out of the way so that Blair and Rafe could follow him in, handing Simon the note and shield. "This came from the mailroom, sir, in an envelope addressed to me. Rafe hasn't seen it yet, but I thought he had a right to know."
"Know what?" Rafe asked uneasily. He took a step forward, accepting the note and shield as Simon held them out to him.
Simon's expression was grim. "You're sure this isn't a hoax?"
"I just got it, so I haven't checked it out yet. But I've got a feeling it isn't. Henri hasn't checked in yet, has he?"
"Not yet." Simon glanced up at Rafe, who was staring at Brown's shield with an unreadable expression. "Rafe, see if you can't get a hold of your partner. Check with his wife and make sure he left home all right this morning."
"Lori's out of town," Rafe said absently, then shook himself. "Can I use your phone, sir?"
"Go right ahead. Sandburg, I want you to take these down to Forensics and see if there are any useful fingerprints left on them, and check with the mailroom to see if they can give you any details on where the package came from." Simon stood up, clenching his coffee cup in one fist. As Blair left and Rafe picked up the phone, Simon continued, "Ellison, you said it was addressed to you. Any thoughts on where it came from?"
Jim ran a hand over his face, trying to gather his thoughts and ignore the ominous, unanswered ringing on the phone line. "It looks like a challenge, sir. Classic hostage situation, trade Brown for me. That implies either something personal, meaning someone I know and have pissed off is behind it, or a strategic maneuver, trading a less valuable hostage for a more valuable one. Maybe someone needs something I know or..." his voice trailed off as another possibility occurred to him, "something I can do."
His eyes met Simon's, and he could tell they were thinking of the same thing: Lee Brackett, holding an entire city hostage to coerce the use of Jim's sentinel abilities.
Before either of them could say anything, Rafe gestured for them to listen. "I think I've got him on his cell." Turning his attention back to the phone, Rafe said quickly, "H, I'm glad I caught you. You'll..."
His voice trailed off. Jim focused his hearing on the speaker at the other end of the line in time to hear a mechanical, distorted voice.
"Tell Detective Ellison this is no joke. He has twenty-nine minutes."
Then the line went dead, leaving a suddenly pale Rafe staring at Jim.
"I heard," Jim answered shortly. "Simon, this is for real. I want to take Sandburg and get over to that address as quickly as possible. Backup can catch up when it gets there."
"I'm going with you." Rafe belatedly set the phone down, squaring his shoulders as if he expected an argument. "Captain, I need..."
"Just get going, Jim. Rafe, you're with me."
Jim didn't wait for anything more. He headed for his desk, grabbed his phone, and dialed the number for Forensics, leaving a message for Blair to meet him in the parking garage immediately.
Being several floors closer, Blair almost beat him to the truck. Jim had just gotten in as he arrived.
"What's going on?" the younger man asked, climbing into the truck and pulling on his seatbelt.
"We're going to check out that address. Whoever wrote that note has H's cell phone and probably has H, too." Jim reached down to start the truck, glancing at Blair and seeing his own worry mirrored in his partner's eyes. "Rafe tried to call H on his cell and ended up talking to the kidnapper. He was using some kind of voice distortion that was blocking out background sounds, so I couldn't hear anything more than what he was saying."
"Did he say what he wanted?"
Jim shook his head. "Just said we had twenty-nine minutes to get to the address."
Blair glanced at his watch. "Twenty-three, now."
Jaw clenched so tight it ached, Jim backed out of his parking space and drove as quickly as he dared out of the garage. His thoughts ran in furious circles, trying to come up with a logical explanation for this bizarre situation.
"It doesn't add up," he said finally, breaking the heavy silence that had settled over the truck.
Blair glanced over at him. "What?"
"This whole thing. Why Henri? Who's behind it, and what are they trying to gain?"
"Prisoner exchange, maybe? Someone with a grudge against you who wants to trade H for you?"
Jim shot a quick look to either side, then rounded a corner fast enough to make the tires squeal. Dodging a station wagon, he answered, "Could be. Or someone like Lee Bracket."
"After your senses, you mean?" Blair's voice hardened. "You think that's what it is?"
"I don't know." Jim shook his head in frustration. "We both know I've made some enemies being a cop, and there might still be one or two from the Army hanging around, too. But ever since this whole sentinel thing was made public..."
"You've been waiting for the other shoe to drop," Blair finished quietly. "Me too, man, me too."
Jim shot his partner a look, not liking the dark expression in his eyes but not having the time to deal with it right then. The dissertation still wasn't an easy topic between them and probably never would be; for the moment, Henri needed them focused on him, not on the past.