Production No. BPP-606

written by:
Lori Wright

edited by: Melanie, Kay Kelly, Saga and Christina

The night before.

The pounding on the door woke Jim from a slight snooze. Blair was out, doing who-knew- what, which left Jim home enjoying a football game in relative peace. The score flashed on the screen, then the camera panned to one of the players. "Damn, the game's over," he muttered to himself as he sat up, yawning.

"Jimmy, you in there?" a distraught voice yelled out, and the pounding resumed.

Jim blinked, recognizing the voice. "I'm coming, Steven," he replied, rising from the couch.

Steven practically trampled Jim as he pushed his way in. His stride carried pent-up anger and dispersed it throughout the room. Jim noticed the clenched jaw, so reminiscent of his own, and backed up, allowing his brother room to enter. Steven's fists were swinging back and forth with controlled fury, knuckles white, while his feet pounded the floor with each step.

"What happened?" Jim asked, concerned.

Steven halted and turned furious eyes on him. "Our father is an asshole," he said, then resumed pacing.

'That was a no-brainer', as Blair would say, Jim thought to himself. "What did he do now?" he asked cautiously. Many things came to mind, but none that should upset his brother to this extreme.

Steven ignored the question and continued venting his anger. "I can't believe he has the nerve to tell me who I can date, who I can socialize with, who I can--"

"You have a new girlfriend?" Jim interrupted, intrigued by the idea.

"Yes! And she's wonderful," Steven replied defensively.

"Has Pop met her?"

"Good God, no. I like Michelle. Why would I put her through the torture of a minute of his company?"

Jim wasn't sure what Steven wanted him to do. It was his experience that whenever people came to him and told him about their problems, it was because they wanted him to solve them. William Ellison was a strict, power-hungry, unaffectionate jerk, and nothing was going to change him. One had to ignore this character flaw in order to have a civilized conversation with him. It seemed Steven had yet to learn this.

"Did you tell him about this Michelle?"

"No. But some very caring employee," Steven explained sarcastically, "happened to see us at a CPO concert the other night and went running to him with the news."

His brother went to a Cascade Philharmonic Orchestra concert? He didn't know that Steven liked classical music. "What did Dad say to you?"

"The usual. 'Is this how I raised you, to be taken in by a two-bit hustler?' and, 'Why can't you find someone more suitable to your position?'"

"Pop thinks that she's after your money?"

"Oh yeah. That's because she's not another power-hungry mongrel, like him."

"Mongrel means dog, I think you mean mogul."

"No, I mean mongrel," Steven snapped, then took a deep breath. "I will not let him interfere in my life. I'll date whom I choose, when I choose."

"I agree with you." Jim felt as though he was stepping through a minefield. He was lucky that when he had married Carolyn, he hadn't yet started communicating with his father. Then he stopped to think about it. They really weren't communicating now, just an odd conversation here and there. Then he started to feel guilty about his thoughts. When the cabin had been needed earlier in the fall to protect Steven, William had not only agreed, but came down to see Steven because he was worried. That led to a reconciliation of sorts. It was bad luck that it didn't take long for William to find something to complain about.

"Michelle is beautiful inside and out," Steven continued to describe her. "She doesn't have an avaricious bone in her body. Just because she doesn't work in an office, wearing thousand dollar suits, makes Dad say that she's not fit to associate with." He snarled the last bit.

"I don't think anyone would be good enough," Jim commented dryly. "A paragon, in his eyes, is someone who is a CEO of her own company, that's not a rival to yours. She'd have to worship the almighty dollar and be faithful unto it."

Steven turned to him in surprise and Jim noticed his lips turning up in a little smile at his semi- joke. "Is that what Blair said about Dad?"

"How did you know?" Jim responded with a twinkle in his eye. He felt relieved that his joke had eased his brother's bitterness. The distinctive music that heralded the beginning of the local news penetrated Jim's consciousness. His eyes drifted from his brother to the TV set. "Can you stay awhile? I'd like to catch the highlights of the game I just slept through."

"Just a little while," Steven responded, then walked over to the living room area and plopped down on the couch.

"Want a beer?" Jim asked, opening the fridge.


Jim opened up two bottles and brought one in for Steven. After handing his brother a beer, he sat down on the love seat. He took a large swallow from his own bottle, savoring its taste, and turned his attention to the television. "The score was seventeen-fourteen, last time I noticed," Jim muttered, setting the bottle down on the table. The game had ended with a score of twenty-four to seventeen.

The television flashed a few commercials, then the anchor came on with news about a charity dinner. Jim tuned it out and focused on his brother.

"Sorry I woke you," Steven apologized, sounding a bit embarrassed.

"Hey, no problem. It's the rest of the building you have to worry about," Jim told him, cracking a grin.

They shared a smile. The weatherman came on with a gloom and doom forecast of some early snow. Jim took the opportunity to grab them each another beer. Steven had finished his and Jim's bottle had only backwash left. A bag of pretzels was sitting on the counter, so he grabbed that, too.

For the next five minutes, both men watched the sports broadcast with only a few monosyllabic words thrown in for good measure.

"I should leave when the news is over," Steven spoke aloud. "This is a weekday, and the morning comes way too soon."

"I'm glad you stopped by," Jim said sincerely. "We should get together more often and not just when you need to let off steam because of the old man."

"Yeah, we should," Steven agreed. Jim stood, took the empty beer bottles into the kitchen and rinsed them out.

Steven followed him in. "You haven't asked any questions about Michelle," he stated, leaning on the counter, crossing his legs and then uncrossing them. His hand came up and pushed his hair off his forehead.

"I figure when you're ready to tell me about her, you will." Jim was bursting with curiosity despite his casual manner.

"I'd like you to meet her." Steven fidgeted some more.

Was Steven waiting for him to invite them over? "I'd like that. You both want to come over here for dinner? I'm sure I can get Blair to whip something up." Jim purposely included Blair, wanting to see how Steven would react to it. In the last few months the two men had buried their differences and become friends--although there were times when Jim swore that Blair acted slightly jealous, or maybe envious of his having a brother.

"That would be great. I'll call Michelle and find out her schedule, then we can plan a night."

"Fine," Jim agreed, already looking forward to it.

"Night, Jim." Steven opened the loft's front door. "Thanks for the beer," he called out as he walked down the corridor to the elevator.

Jim closed the door behind his brother. The quiet evening alone had turned interesting after Steven had arrived. The clock read a little past eleven-thirty. He wasn't sure what time Blair would be getting home, and he was too tired to wait up any longer. Tomorrow would be soon enough to tell Blair about Steven's visit. Yawning widely, Jim climbed the steps to bed.

Day 1.

Blair's alarm rang at six-thirty. He hadn't fallen into bed until after two. Stretching and with the Nike slogan of "Just do it" running through his head, he threw off his covers and got out of bed. "Don't think about it," he repeated to himself like a mantra, "just do it." He pulled some clothes out of his closet and went into the bathroom to shower.

As he stood under the hot spray, he remembered why he had wanted to be up earlier than Jim. To the best of Blair's knowledge, Jim had intended to spend the evening alone, watching the game. However, there had been four empty beer bottles in the drying rack. Jim wouldn't have drunk that much on his own, so, Blair reasoned, Jim had entertained a guest. Pouring shampoo on his hair, Blair speculated as to the identity of the other beer-drinker.

It hadn't been Simon, because the captain had left earlier in the day with Daryl to see how Little Stogie was doing in his new winter pastures. Blair stuck his head under the water and rinsed the soap out of his hair.

Rafe and Henri were working a stake-out and wouldn't be relieved until this morning. Grabbing the bar of soap, he lathered his body, still running through the other detectives at Major Crime as possible guests.

"Come on, Chief. You've been in there at least an hour," Jim called from outside the door.

"Shit," Blair muttered as he dropped the soap, startled by Jim's voice. He scrambled through the rest of his shower, then dressed as fast as he could. With deliberate nonchalance, he walked into the kitchen. "Morning, Jim." He eyed the bottles still in the rack and took them out and put them in the recycle basket. "Someone come over last night?" he asked as he reached up and took out his box of granola.

Jim smiled at him over his coffee mug. "As a matter of fact, Steven dropped by."

Blair froze in the act of pouring his cereal into the bowl. "Steven?" That was one person he hadn't considered.

"Yep." Jim leaned against the counter, buttering some toast, then carried his plate over to the table and sat down.

Blair poured his milk and joined Jim at the table, his face etched with worry. "How's he doing? Is he all right? What did he want?" he asked, all in one breath.

"To blow off some steam," Jim told him. "Pop doesn't approve of his new girlfriend."

"Girlfriend?" Blair asked, fascinated as always by Jim's family. "Who is she?"

"All I know is that her name is Michelle." Then Jim added too casually, in Blair's opinion, "I invited them over for dinner."

"When?" Blair asked, waiting for the catch.

"We haven't made definite plans. Steven has to check Michelle's schedule." Jim took a sip of his coffee and added, "I told them you'd cook. What about that Chicken Piccata you made a few weeks ago?"

A feeling of contentment washed over the younger man. Jim wanted him at his family dinner. Blair didn't even mind cooking, although he sensed that Jim wasn't serious about that part. Jim just wanted Blair to know he was included.

"Okay," Blair agreed. "But you have to make dessert."

Jim walked into the bullpen. Blair was at his desk immersed in paperwork. He sat down and noticed that there was a saved message on his phone mail.

"Jimmy?" the recorded message played back. "Could we meet for lunch today? There's something we need to discuss."

"Oh, shit," Jim muttered to himself. In the two years since they had started speaking, this was the first time his father had called to set up a lunch appointment. Could he really be this upset over Steven's new girlfriend?

Rummaging in his wallet, he found the phone number for his father's office and called. With his shoulder propping up the phone, his idle hands folded and then unfolded the square piece of paper on which he'd written the number.

"Hello? This is James Ellison. May I please speak to William Ellison?" Jim asked the secretary who had answered. He picked up a pen and started doodling around his father's phone number.

"Just a minute, sir," came the crisp reply.

"Jimmy," a gruff voice came over the receiver. "Thanks for calling me back. Are you free today?"

"Yeah, Pop." Jim felt a lead ball drop in his stomach. Lunch was not going to be pleasant. He'd have to listen to his father complain about Michelle, and the fact he sided with Steven would eventually come out, and then there'd be a scene. He hated scenes.

"Why don't we meet at Crescent Beach. It's on the waterfront near--"

"I know where it is," Jim interrupted. "I'll meet you there at one."

He hung up the phone. Then, restless, he glanced over at Blair and saw that the younger man was on the phone, writing something down. Jim opened his hearing.

"Fourteen cases?" Blair asked. "And you found them missing yesterday morning, Mr. Simpson?"

"That's correct, Detective. Several pallets of similar cases were left alone. But one pallet, I don't know, they just destroyed several cases and took the rest. The place is a mess."

"Any footprints? With runny ink coating the floor, there's a possibility that the thieves may have left tracks."

"Yes. The patrolmen who came took pictures and put down paper to get copies of the footprints."

"I don't understand what you want from us. I'm sure the other officers will do--"

"I don't want regular policemen. I need detectives. This isn't a little crime, this is major and aren't you Major Crime?"

"Yes, but--" Blair was interrupted again.

"This is my warehouse. I can't let this happen or my reputation is shot. I run a secure business and several big companies have trusted me for years. I want you to recover my missing cases of ink."

Jim walked over to Blair's desk. Blair looked up at him and Jim mouthed the words, "We'll go over."

Blair gave a sigh and told the caller, "My partner and I will be over shortly." He then hung up the phone. "Man, I can't believe we're gonna go and check out some cases of stolen ink."

"All in a day's work. Who knows, maybe the ink was designated for something big, like counterfeiting money," Jim said jokingly.

"Or baseball cards," Blair added, getting into the spirit of the exchange.

"Besides, it's better than paperwork." And brooding about lunch, Jim reflected. "My father called," he said abruptly.

"What about?"

"He wants to meet for lunch."

"Maybe he wants your opinion about Steven's girlfriend."

"In your dreams. He's back at pitting us against each other. I bet anything he wants me to take his side and do something to get Steven to break it off with this girl."

"Maybe not."

Jim rolled his eyes. "The old man never changes."

"You haven't met with him yet. Don't condemn him until you find out what he really wants."

"Easy for you to say, Chief."

The warehouse was located on Holt Street. Jim pulled into the large parking lot located adjacent to it. The two detectives jumped out of the truck and headed for the main office. The manager met them at the door.

"I'm Sean Makowsky. Simpson, the man who owns the building, called and told me to expect you."

"We're here just to look around. I don't believe the other officers missed anything yesterday, but I told Mr. Simpson that we'd, uh, just look around," Blair finished lamely. The large man was making him nervous. He didn't want to leap to conclusions, but the manager was giving off vibes that he didn't want them there. That made Blair question whether the man might have something to hide.

"I understand that the thieves left tracks?" Jim asked, keeping a professional demeanor. He wasn't giving any indication whether or not he suspected the manager.

"This way," Makowsky told them gruffly.

He led them through the main entrance up the main aisle, then turned right at a corner. Pallets were stacked almost to the ceiling with boxes labeled fiber boards. Blair looked at the precarious mountain and hurried his steps; he didn't want them falling on him. They continued on until they came to an empty section in the wall of stored merchandise. There were still a few remaining cases. A large violet shoe print was still visible across one of the boards that made up the pallet. Between the other boards, one could just make out several colors puddled on the floor below.

"Anything else, Detectives?" Makowsky asked.

Blair knew that the manager wanted them to leave, so he deliberately misunderstood the question when he answered. "I think we can handle it from here. You can go back to your work and we'll show ourselves out."

The manger grunted, but he turned around and left them alone. Jim had his head cocked to one side, his eyebrows pinched together.

"Is he gone?" Blair whispered.

Jim gave him a quick glance. "He is now," then turned his attention to the floor. "Let's see, I can pick out at least six separate colors on the ground."

Blair whipped out his notebook and began writing notes. "What colors?"

"There's royal blue, a golden yellow, a peachy, brownish, red." Jim stuck his fingers in a pile of the ink and rubbed them together. "You know, Chief? This feels more like toner than ink."

Blair peered over Jim's shoulder. "I wouldn't think you could tell after it's dried." He jotted 'toner' down under the word 'red'. "What other colors can you see?" Blair readied his pen.

"There's a green, kinda like grass. And a bright purple. This particle looks gray, but it could be a mixture of two other colors, I can't tell."

Jim stood up and pulled an evidence bag out of his pocket. "Gimme your Swiss Army knife."

Blair withdrew the item from his pocket and handed it to Jim. "What are you--oh." He huddled down and held the bag, while Jim scraped some of the ink or toner off the floor. Blair couldn't detect any other place where it had been scraped, so he deduced that the other cops didn't think it was important. Maybe Simpson was right.

When Jim had finished and had closed the evidence bag, Blair took a piece of his notebook paper and did a rubbing of the footprint. It was too bad that he only had a pen; a pencil would have made the rubbing clearer. Jim nodded as Blair slid the paper with the print back inside his notebook.

"What next?" Blair asked, looking around. "Are you going to question anyone?"

"Not yet. First I want to look over the files made by the officers who responded to the call. Then I'll decide who I'd like to talk to."

"Sounds like a plan." Blair caught Jim looking at his watch. "Getting nervous about lunch?"

Jim gave him an incredulous look and then turned to leave.

Blair took a few running steps to catch up. "Maybe nervous isn't the right word. How about anxious?"

"I'm not nervous, or anxious. I just don't want to be late. Dad hates tardiness."

Blair winced at Jim's harsh tone. Jim was still jumping through hoops to please his father and he didn't even realize it. "Why don't you drop me off at the station and I'll run the ink blots down to Forensics and then track down the initial reports. We'll meet back up after your, uh, family meeting?"

Jim gave him another glare, which Blair laughed off.

Jim entered the restaurant and was shown directly to a table. His father was already seated, nursing a martini. Jim thought cynically that the old man was already fortified for an altercation. As he sat down, he noticed that his father's eyes looked drawn, as though he hadn't been sleeping very well.

"Hello, Dad," he said, taking a seat.

"Hi, Jim."

The waitress came by immediately, handed them both a menu and asked Jim if he would like a drink. Ordering a Coke, he picked up the menu and began looking it over. His father didn't touch his.

"You know what you want already?" Jim asked, perplexed as to why his father was ignoring the menu.

"They have the best salmon here," William responded absently.

Jim didn't feel in the mood for fish. He was perusing the other choices when suddenly his father spoke, breaking into his concentration. "I'm glad you could make it, Jimmy."

Jim nodded, outwardly smiling, while his instincts were telling him to be wary.

After placing their orders, Jim sat back and looked at his father closely. The older man was immaculately dressed, as usual. There seemed to be more lines on his face. Anxiety began to edge into Jim's consciousness. "So, what's up?" he asked directly, but not expecting an equally direct answer.

His father looked everywhere but at him. William took a sip of his martini. He set his glass back down, then began. "You know Jimmy, whom you marry is a very important decision."

It was about Steven. Disappointment warred with anger. He began to prepare mentally for the argument.

His father continued. "You only know a woman so much before you marry her. Then afterwards, you find you know too much. It may take a little time, but the surprises can be" -- he paused, possibly trying to find the right words-- "horrifying."

Why was his father being so melodramatic? Michelle couldn't possibly be horrifying. After thinking through the words a second, Jim came to the conclusion that his father might be referring to him. Forgetting about Steven, he answered defensively. "My marriage with Carolyn ended because of me. I couldn't express my feelings, so she thought I didn't have any. All my life, I'd been trained to keep everything inside, so it wouldn't be used against me."

"Is this another thing you blame me for?" William asked, sounding beaten.

"No. I don't blame you for my broken marriage. It was doomed before it even began."

"I think most marriages are. Most of the men I know are divorced. They leave their wives-- the wives leave them--it's all the same." William took another sip of his drink. "The important thing to remember is that when and if you marry, she should contribute something irretrievable to the marriage."

"Like lots of money?" Jim asked cynically.

"Or prestige or contacts, or something that can help you with your life or business," William answered. He took a sip from his drink and then added coldly, "Something she can never take back from you."

"I'm a good detective, Dad. I don't need to marry the mayor to get a promotion."

"You're deliberately misunderstanding me."

"That's because you're not making any sense," Jim countered aggressively.

William continued as if he hadn't heard Jim. His eyes looked dazed, as if he were lost in his memories. "Remember that painting?"

Jim stiffened. What painting? And what did that have to do with their conversation about marriages? "No," he responded hesitantly.

"Your mother had bought an oil painting of a cougar, when you were about three. Until that time, you had a phobia about entering the front foyer, so Grace hung it on the wall opposite the library door. She said the hall was too big, sounds echoed strangely, which made you confused. I thought her idea was ludicrous." William shook his head in disbelief. "But, you know, it worked. Right after we hung that painting, you'd toddle out of the kitchen into the foyer and stare at the picture for hours. Grace said that the cat calmed you, or helped you to concentrate, or something like that. You never had trouble in the foyer again." William laughed, "Although you complained endlessly that the cat should be black instead of yellow. That animal became like an imaginary friend to you. Sometimes I think you were more upset that she took that painting than--never mind."

Jim stiffened in shock. He had recognized his spirit animal as a toddler? Waves of emotions threatened to overwhelm him. The waiter set their food on the table, yet it barely registered. Bud's death had resulted in his senses becoming repressed, but before, when the enhanced senses had been active, had his spirit animal guided him? Laughing sardonically to himself, he thought he might have listened better as a child, without the usual hang-ups that generally plague adults.

Jim remembered his lunch and looked down at his turkey club sandwich. He tried to pick it up and take a bite, but his appetite was nonexistent. Much to his surprise, he noticed that his father was also having difficulty eating. In fact, William's hand was shaking so much that his soupspoon lost most of its contents before it reached his mouth. After three tries, he set the utensil down and cast his troubled gaze back at Jim.

"Why is it," William began, "that children never listen to their parent's wisdom?"

Jim made a motion to answer, but William put up his hand to forestall him. "Let me continue, son." William took a sip from his martini. He took a breath and continued. "I didn't. My father told me that Grace would break my heart. Did I listen--no. We had nothing in common. I wanted to make a name for myself in the business community. She wanted to do her science."

Science? Jim couldn't believe that his mother was a scientist.

"There was always something more important than me. Like you said, we were doomed before we ever began."

Jim didn't know what to say. Did his father see it as his duty to keep Steven from making the same mistake that he had? Steven wasn't engaged to Michelle, they were only dating.

William continued, his words spoken without inflection. "I'm sixty-two years old. I've been married and divorced. Most of my friends and colleagues have been married and divorced." He stressed the last word as if that word were the most important in the world. "The only people who have survived intact--"

"Survived intact?" Jim interrupted. "What kind of phrase is that?"

"Divorce is like a war. Both sides want to win. Both sides want hostages. Wounds are inflicted with words, not bullets. Arguments are like small skirmishes, each hoping to maim the other. Then there's nothing, an emptiness that echoes all around you. You search for something to remind--" William paused and then changed tracks. "What were you like after your divorce? Sullen? Uncommunicative?"

Mentally, Jim had to agree, but he refused to acknowledge it. When he didn't say anything, William continued. "But you had your job, though, didn't you, Jimmy? You didn't fall apart because you buried yourself in work. It was the same for me."

Jim saw red. "But you had two children depending on you. I had only myself. It's not the same," Jim stressed.

"Divorce is a soul-wrenching agony," William continued as if he hadn't heard Jim. "The feelings of failure can be overwhelming. Here I was alone with two boys, and I didn't know what to do. The two of you cried for your mother. Hell, I cried for her too. But she didn't listen. I couldn't cope. The empty house--the echoes--I couldn't stand it, so I worked. I buried myself in my job."

Jim felt weak and hurt by the revelations. His father should have showered them with affection instead of closing them off altogether. Thrusting his mind away from the depressing thoughts, he tried to analyze dispassionately what his father was trying to say. But he was getting confused. His father talked in circles. One minute he was referring to monetary gain and the next to emotional deprivation. What prompted this conversation that brought out such painful emotions? It couldn't be Michelle.

"What in the hell does this all have to do with the woman bringing something to the marriage?" Jim let his confusion show.

"Your mother," William made an attempt to explain. "She brought nothing to the marriage. Entertaining and socializing with business associates was very low on her priority list."

Yet another jump in topics. Jim's head was throbbing in its attempt to keep up.

"When she left," --William paused as if considering his own words-- "there was nothing of her left. The only sounds in the house were of Sally cleaning and you and Steven playing. It was like she had never been there."

Jim's mind was spinning. He thought back to his house. His mind shifted from room to room. Could he pinpoint anything from before his mother left? He couldn't recall anything. But then, Jim didn't even remember the painting. A chill ran down his spine. His father was right, nothing of his mother remained. "When she left," his father had said, "she left nothing of herself behind." No wonder his father was so emphatic about a spouse giving something of herself to her marriage. His father had misinterpreted his own observations and arrived at an erroneous conclusion. William had needed something tangible to hang on to, and when Grace left, there was nothing for his father to grasp.

Jim was beginning to understand his old man. What a monumental step this was in their relationship. There was one thing that still confused him, though. This lunch was supposed to be about Steven's new girlfriend. His father had not merely strayed from the topic, but actually avoided it.

Jim took a large bite out of his sandwich, then went back to studying his father. William still seemed preoccupied in his own thoughts. He wasn't trembling anymore, yet his internal agitation was palpable. His eyes darted all over the room, refusing to linger anywhere, even on his son. Jim watched as his father took a deep breath and started to speak, while his eyes were constantly shifting. "Your mother called last--" he started before his eyes zeroed in on the restaurant's entrance. He stiffened, then rose from his chair.

Jim turned and groaned audibly as he recognized Steven and a woman who could be none other than Michelle. Jim felt the disappointment, like a rock settling in his stomach, that their intimate conversation was at an end. He might have made some headway with the old man in getting him to understand that he was misjudging Michelle, and should give her a chance. Getting to his feet, Jim placed his hand on his father's shoulder in an effort to get him to sit down once more. The obstinate old man remained standing, his face cold in anger, waiting to chastise his younger son.

Steven and the woman were happily whispering together, oblivious to the impending storm. The hostess, armed with the menus, brought them over to a table and had them sit down. Steven pulled the chair out for the woman, then went over to his own side of the table.

Jim noticed that William's hands were clenched at his sides, his knuckles bloodless. "Come on, Pop. Sit down, you're attracting attention," Jim told his father in a hushed voice.

William spared a look at Jim, then left the table and strode purposefully over to Steven. With a sigh of resignation, Jim followed, dreading the upcoming encounter.

From the moment Steven identified his approaching father, his demeanor became defiant and belligerent. He murmured something to the woman. Without meaning to, Jim heard his brother's soft words. "Don't worry, Michelle. I'll handle this." Jim didn't think it was going to be that easy.

Steven stood up, but motioned Michelle to stay in her seat. "Hello, Dad." Steven sounded pleasant, but his gritted teeth belied his tone.

William looked at his son, then at the woman, then back at Steven. "I thought we'd already discussed this," he said condescendingly. "Why are you still wasting time with this particular woman?"

"My time is my own," Steven answered back, still under control, but his hostility apparent. "I suggest you go back to your lunch and let us enjoy ours."

William's face became suffused with color. A large cloth napkin grasped in his hand was thrown down on the ground as his temper was released. "I find this woman wholly unsuitable. Look at her, she's dressed in jeans, for God's sake."

Jim glanced at the woman's black jeans and very pretty blouse. Then he looked at his own dark blue Dockers. Neither of them was going to win a fashion contest. It seemed his father was grasping at straws to make his point.

"Dad." Jim tried again to defuse the situation. He was beginning to wish Sandburg were there. His partner was good at this kind of thing. "This is not the time or place to be starting a fight."

"It's none of your business!" Steven bent down and picked up the napkin, handing it back to William. "Go back to your table and leave us alone. There's nothing you have to say that's worth listening to. And nothing I can say to make you understand."

"I understand more than you think," William retorted, winding up for more. "This gold-digger has you wrapped around her little finger."

Michelle jumped to her feet. Steven lost all semblance of control. "We don't have to take this." Steven grabbed Michelle by the arm and led her towards the front door of the restaurant. He turned around and glared at his father. "I knew that getting to know you again was a mistake, but I listened to Jimmy and thought I'd give it a try. I am such a fool. Goodbye."

There was a finality to his voice that Jim caught. His father's stony face was devoid of any emotion, so it was hard to tell what he was thinking. Just as Steven walked out the door, Jim heard him whisper, "I'll call you later." Jim nodded back, then the door closed.

Without prodding, William let himself be led back to the table. The bluster was gone, and so was any inclination to talk. Jim wanted to vent his own emotions over his father's pigheaded tantrum, but he couldn't. The strange empathy he was feeling was probably Sandburg's influence. Four years ago, nothing would have stopped him. Although, four years ago he hadn't started talking to his father. Tradeoffs, he supposed.

Blair stumbled into the loft, juggling a bag of groceries, his keys, and--the doorknob. Jim was going to have a cow when he saw that Blair had broken it. Using his foot, he slammed the door shut, cursing himself, life and the heavy load he was carrying. Propping the bag on a lifted knee, he tossed the keys and the doorknob into the basket and continued into the kitchen. Conscious that Jim would be home in less than an hour, Blair started immediately on dinner. Both men had been busy during the afternoon and never had a chance to talk. Blair instinctively knew that lunch had been difficult, and he wanted everything relaxed that night to help his friend unwind.

After removing the bundle of files from the bag, he began unpacking the groceries and putting away the ones that were not designated for dinner. Working fast, but efficiently, Blair peeled potatoes, grated cheese, and threw together the au gratin potatoes. Next he opened the oven and took out the stale bread and broke it into pieces for stuffing. As he waited for the water to come to a boil, he cut the thick pork chops in half and seasoned them. Just as Blair stuck everything into the preheated oven, he heard footsteps in the hall.

"Chief, you okay?" Jim's concerned voice preceded him into the loft.

"Damn," Blair muttered under his breath. He had wanted the Sentinel to be struck first by the smell of the cooking food, not the hole where the doorknob should be. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just turned the thing a little harder than I should have, and the knob came off in my hand."

Jim laughed. "You been messing with my weights again?"

Blair flexed his arm muscle. "Naw. I'm just naturally strong." Despite their light banter, Blair could read the fatigue on Jim's face. Blair went back to cleaning up the kitchen, while Jim grabbed his tools and tried to fix the door.

With a last wipe, Blair tossed the sponge into the sink. Opening the fridge, he removed two beers and sat down at the table. He calculated that he had forty minutes to go over the files before dinner would be ready. The first manila envelope contained the preliminary report by the officers who'd responded to the burglary call. Blair took a sip of beer as he read over what they'd written. The mode of entry was listed as a busted lock and a broken back door. A photograph of a footprint had also been included. Several of the warehouse personnel had been interviewed. No one admitted to knowing anything.

Jim walked over to the table and opened the second beer. "I think we need to buy a new doorknob. You really did a job on this one. I've jerry-rigged it for now." He bent down and fanned the folders out. "These the files?"

"Yeah, but I don't think they're going to help much." Blair handed him the file he had been reading and picked up another.

Jim settled in a chair. While his eyes were still glued to the paper, he asked, "Aren't you going to ask me about lunch?"

"I already know," Blair responded. He studied Jim's drawn features and sad eyes. "The two of you argued, accomplished nothing, and now you're depressed."

Jim laughed humorlessly. "It was worse than that." He went on to describe what had happened. "The only good thing that resulted from our meeting is that I'm beginning to understand what's going through his mind." Jim shook his head and he chugged his beer. "Scary thought, huh?"

Blair gave him an encouraging smile.

"My father has equated material possessions and business advancement with emotional stability."

"Sounds like you," Blair observed. Then before Jim could take offense, he added, "After Peru, you buried yourself in police work. If you were busy fighting the bad guys, then you wouldn't realize how lonely you were."

"You're wrong. I was trying to forget what happened. Pop wants something that can't be taken away. In the case of Michelle, she's not giving Steven anything big, so when she leaves him, Steven will be left with nothing. Dad's got everything all twisted in his head and he's making everyone nuts."

"He was probably the same way when you guys were kids. Thinking one thing, but it gets mixed-up in his mind so that when he speaks, it comes out as something different." Blair felt for the first time that Jim might actually have a chance at a real relationship with his father.

"But the thing about my mother still has me--"

"Your mother?" Blair interrupted. "You didn't mention that the two of you talked about her." The police report slid out of Blair's hands and fell lightly onto the table. He unconsciously leaned closer to Jim.

"Dad seemed preoccupied. At first I thought he was talking about Michelle and Steven, and the next thing I knew he was referring to himself with my mother. It was all very strange." Suddenly, Jim's eyes widened. "I almost forgot to tell you. One of the stories he told me was about a painting that hung in our foyer. Remember that hallway, by the front door?"

"It was pretty big. And elegant. But I don't remember seeing a painting."

"There isn't one now. Dad told me that when I was a little kid, my mother hung a picture of a cougar in it."

"Why a cougar? I can't see that fitting the decor."

"I'm sure it didn't. Dad said Mom hung it so that I wouldn't be afraid of the big room anymore. I'd sit and look at the painting." Jim paused. It looked to Blair as if he were trying to find the right words. "Dad said that I wanted the cat to be black--its yellow color was wrong."

Blair stiffened as though shell-shocked. "You must have recognized a black cat as your spirit animal," he said slowly as his mind wrapped around the idea. "Do you know what this means?"

"Yeah. I had my senses when I was a toddler and the jaguar must have been visible to me."

"Do you think you told your mother about the cat, but couldn't really describe him right and the cougar was the best she could come up with?" Blair's mind was jumping all over the place with ideas. Maybe Jim's mother knew about her son's enhanced senses. It was possible. In fact, it was more than likely, he reasoned.

A telephone rang. Jim pulled his cell phone out the same time that Blair realized that his was still back at the station. He must have left it under a pile of papers as he was collecting the files he had wanted to bring home.

"Sure, tomorrow would be fine. That'll give us a chance to clean up here a bit. Wouldn't want to give Michelle the impression we were the typical bachelor slobs."

Blair shook his head and laughed silently. As if Jim would let this place get dirty. His sensitive nose detected the smallest dust bunny and he'd vacuum it up with his new portable Dirt Devil.

"Okay. Bye, Steven." Jim closed his phone and looked over at Blair.

"Yeah, I heard. Company is coming tomorrow night. And I'm supposed to cook," Blair said with mock weariness.

"I'll give you a hand. We'll go shopping after work."

Blair got up to check on dinner.

Jim picked up the reports and began reading them over. "Did you find anything we can use?"

Blair closed the oven door. "The only thing that caught my attention is that two of the workers that were questioned yesterday didn't show up for work today. I don't know if they're spooked because of the questioning, or they got what they took the job for. Maybe they're both sick?" Blair joked.

Jim gave a small smile, then turned his attention back to the reports. "Where does it say that two workers didn't show up?"

"Not in there. I called and talked to one of the foremen. He said that the workers' names are Jack Teale and Bill Kaiser. Delmar was the officer who questioned them yesterday, and nothing they said raised a red flag."

"Yet they didn't show up at work," Jim reflected. "I agree, I find that rather suspicious."

Jim pushed the paperwork to the side of the table as Blair set down the plates and silverware. Jim poured them each a glass of milk, while Blair took the food out of the oven and brought it over to the table. They dug into their dinner in companionable silence.

"This is good, Chief," Jim complimented, after he had finished one plateful. "You know," he added as he reached over for seconds of potatoes, "we should question those two men ourselves tomorrow. They might have a logical reason why they missed work today."

"Let your built-in lie detector try and catch them up." Blair grinned, wolfishly. "Sounds like a plan."

Day 2.

Jim pulled the truck into the driveway of 128 Bending Creek Circle. The house was small, an average starter home for the young couple. A brick sidewalk, lined by multi-colored pansies, led the way to the front door. "You sure this is the right address?" Jim asked Blair, who had his head buried in a pile of papers he was reading.

"Yep." The paper on top was a copy of the job application Bill Kaiser had filled out for his position at the warehouse. "It also says that he's married with a kid," Blair added, looking up from the file.

"Let's check it out," Jim said as he turned off the engine.

They followed the walkway to the front door and Blair rang the bell. Jim stood back, hoping to catch the residents unaware of their identity for a few crucial seconds, so he could gauge their reaction as Blair made introductions.

A woman opened the door. She was wearing jeans and a shirt. The odor of spit-up formula assaulted his nose, before he could identify the minute stains on her shoulder. Her eyes had dark rings under them, as if sleep were an unheard-of commodity. Seemed pretty normal for a new mother.

"Can I help you?" she asked, keeping the screen door closed and eyeing them suspiciously.

"I'm Detective Blair Sandburg and this is my partner, Jim Ellison." Both men displayed their shields. "We were wondering if we could talk to your husband. Is he home?"

She stood still a moment, thinking. "Just a minute." Then she shut the door.

"I don't think she trusts us, Jim," Blair remarked with mock innocence.

Jim gave Blair an abstracted nod and focused on her progress up the stairs. First one door opened softly and then closed just as softly. Jim bet that she had just checked on her baby. After a few additional steps down a hallway, she entered a room that was no longer carpeted, but had a hardwood floor.

"Bill, there's a couple of cops downstairs wanting to talk to you. What's going on?" Her tone was harsh, yet she sounded genuinely confused.

"Damn," he muttered, and stood up from a chair. Jim could hear the wheels slide against the floor. He must have been on a computer or sitting at a desk. "I'll take care of it."

"Are you in trouble?"

"No way. I'm sure it's just routine questions."

Jim could hear footsteps back on the carpet as they both came down the stairs.

"Go put a pot of coffee on. They may be here awhile. We might as well get comfortable," the man instructed his wife.

"Ready, Chief," Jim whispered to Blair. "I think we're on to something here."

The door blasted open. "Jeez, sorry guys. Come in. My wife is a little paranoid since the baby was born. You know how you hear all these stories about kidnappings and stuff."

"Are you William Kaiser?" Jim asked, still maintaining a professional demeanor. He was puzzled as to the man's behavior. Kaiser gave no indication that he might be hiding something.

"That's me. Come in. No use giving the neighbors something to gawk at. Donna's got some coffee brewing. I haven't had my second cup this morning."

Jim intercepted a bewildered look from his partner. He shrugged his shoulders and followed the man into what was most likely the kitchen. Kaiser acted awfully jovial for a man who was trying to hide something. His heart beat normally and he wasn't perspiring at all.

"Have a seat, Officers." Bill Kaiser pulled up a chair as his wife set mugs in front of them. Next she brought out a pitcher of milk and the sugar bowl. The coffee was dripping into a pot. "You can go, Donna," Kaiser told his wife. With a fearful look at them, she did as she had been told.

Jim decided he needed to take control of the situation. Kaiser, with his bluster, was not leaving any room for them to maneuver. "I'm Detective Ellison and this is my partner, Detective Sandburg. We'd like to ask you--"

"Wait, the coffee's almost ready. No sense in getting involved in something only to stop while I pour the coffee."

Blair stifled a laugh while Jim gave an audible groan. This man fidgeted almost as much as Sandburg. Maybe that was Kaiser's way of getting rid of nervous energy. The coffee's aroma drifted throughout the room. Their host jumped out of his seat as soon as the water began to hiss, signaling its completion.

As Kaiser poured the coffee into their mugs, Jim took a quick look at the man's fingers and nails. He was hoping to see a stain caused by the ink. Much to Jim's surprise, their suspect's fingers were practically covered in different colors. In fact, Kaiser did nothing to hide them.

"Sorry, my hands look dirty." He looked Jim square in the eye. "I helped yesterday in the clean-up. That ink stains everything it touches. I assume that's why you're here? You want to question me some more about the theft?"

Jim nodded, but the man had turned away to place the pot back on its heating element. "What time did your shift begin, day before yesterday?" Jim asked.

Kaiser sat down again. "I usually come in around seven. Baby wakes up before five, and I just can't get back to sleep. No sense in sitting around doing nothing."

"Who was the first to open the warehouse?" Blair asked, pulling out his trusty notebook.

"I think Josh Underwood was the one to call the cops about the broken back door. But Jack Teale was the first to notice the opened cases of ink and the fact that most were broken. I don't think many were taken."

Blair turned several pages in his notebook. "The inventory stated that twenty cases of colored ink were waiting in the warehouse to be shipped to California. Of that twenty, two cases remained untouched, four had been broken into and bottles shattered. That leaves fourteen cases that are missing."

Kaiser wore a blank stare. "That many?" Blair nodded. "I guess I didn't realize. I cleaned up so much of that mess, it just seemed that more of it was on the ground than could possibly be missing."

Jim could detect signs of prevarication. His heartbeat had increased slightly, and he acted as if he needed to take stock of these new facts. "Can you account for your time the night of the theft?"

"Of course. I was home, sleeping." His nervous energy had dissipated.

"Your wife will corroborate your story?" Jim asked, not letting up the inquisition.


Jim held the man's eyes, daring him to look away first. He did. Kaiser had to realize that Jim suspected him of being involved in the theft, but as they didn't have any proof, no arrests could be made. Slowly, Jim took the last swallow of his coffee. "I think we've learned everything we need to here. Don't leave town, Mr. Kaiser. We'll be in touch."

A much more subdued man led them to the front door. Jim formally thanked the man for his time. As they got into the truck Blair made a move to talk, but Jim held up his hand, wanting to listen to what Kaiser did next. His eavesdropping paid off when he heard his suspect pick up the phone and punch in some numbers.

"It's me," Kaiser began his conversation. "Two cops just left here. They think they know something, but I can't tell how much."

Jim strained to hear the voice at the other end, but it was too muffled.

"Just get it out of Cascade tonight," he commanded, then slammed the phone down.

Jim relaxed and let his hearing revert to normal. "It looks like he's definitely in on the theft, but he's not handling the goods. I couldn't tell who he was talking to, but I don't think he plans on leaving his house tonight."

"He's looking at us from the window." Blair pointed unobtrusively towards the front of the house.

Jim pulled out his cell phone and called Megan. With as much finesse as he could muster, he asked if she would come and watch the house.

"Shall we try Teale next?" Blair asked, rifling through some papers as he searched for Jack Teale's address.

"Where is it?"

"The zip indicates it's close to the warehouse. The apartment complex is called Bradford Manor."

"I know the place." Jim pulled the truck out of the driveway and headed back to the city.

The traffic was relatively light. The view from their windows changed from the suburban family homes to city-dweller tenements. The Bradford Manor sign had red spray paint over the letters, which spelled out "Hell Hole". Jim turned into the long entranceway while Blair studied the signs, looking for Building No. 9.

"There it is!" Blair pointed to an edifice on his right. "The road sign is mangled. This place is pretty depressing."

Jim had to agree. Paint was peeling off many of the structures and the grounds were unkempt. "And it's huge. I never would have guessed that this part of the city would house such a complex."

After finding a parking place, the two detectives entered the building. There were four apartments, with Teale renting one on the first floor. Jim focused his hearing, but couldn't discern any sounds. "I don't think anyone's home," he told Blair. Caution made him take out his gun; then he pounded on the door. "Cascade Police," he shouted. He listened carefully, but still it was quiet.

"Let's find the superintendent," Blair suggested. "Maybe he'll open it up for us."

Jim agreed. It took some detective work before they located the super in an unoccupied apartment, watching a talk show on a portable television. He was seated on the floor with numerous mechanical parts scattered around him. An opened toolbox was beside him, and a socket wrench was forgotten in his hand as he yelled at the show's host.

"I think it's a garbage disposal," Blair whispered to Jim as they entered through the open door.

"At least at one time it might have been," Jim whispered back. Then he turned his attention to the amateur plumber. "Excuse me." The man didn't notice them. "Cascade Police!"

This time the man jumped to his feet. Tools and parts fell to the floor in his haste. "What?" he blustered, sounding confused but defensive.

"I'm Detective Jim Ellison and this is my partner Blair Sandburg. We're here to check up on a missing person, Jack Teale. He's supposed to be living in apartment 9C."

"Moved out," the man grunted as he seated himself back on the floor. "Left his two month deposit and everything."

"Can you tell me when this occurred?" Blair asked, taking out his notebook.

"Yesterday evening. He caught me as he was coming in from work. Packed a few things and then left. Thought he got fired," the super said off-handedly.

"Can we take a look at his place?" Jim asked, disappointed that Teale had slipped through their fingers.

The superintendent gave them an incredulous look. "Now?"

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," Jim shot back, forcing himself to sound polite.

With an exaggerated groan, the super pulled himself up onto his feet once again. First they stopped at the main office where he removed some keys from the safe. After some mumbled profanity and a long walk, Jim and Blair found themselves back at apartment 9C. The super unlocked the door and Jim pushed his way in first.

The carpet had decade-old stains, and the walls were filthy with dirt and grime. The windowsill's paint was peeling. There was no furniture. Where was it? "Did he have time to move out all his belongings?"

"Nothing to move. Came over once last month 'cause he was late with the rent. He had a plastic crate with a bowl of cereal on it, and a sleeping bag in the middle of the floor."

Jim noticed Blair writing his notes. "How long had he been renting from you?" Blair asked, the pen's top resting on his lip.

"Four months." Then the super added as his idea of an excuse, "The turnover here is pretty high."

Starting with the kitchen and working his way to the living room, Jim focused his eyes and scoured every inch of the floor and counters. A blob of color caught his attention in one of the corners. He walked over and knelt beside it.

"Whatcha find?" Blair asked, looking down over Jim's shoulder.

"Ink," Jim replied triumphantly. He pulled a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and slipped them on. Lightly, he caressed the area around the spot. "They had at least some of the cases here. I can feel an indentation in the carpet where the boxes sat. At least three were on the carpet, but I'm not sure how many were stacked on top."

The super stayed by the door, impatiently tapping his foot.

Blair handed Jim his pocketknife. After cutting a few fibers, Jim shoved them into an evidence bag that Blair had readied for him. They both stood up. "I think we're done here," Jim said with a satisfied smile. The two detectives left the apartment after profusely thanking the super for taking time out from his busy schedule to help them. Both were still laughing as they entered the truck.

Once on the road, they began seriously discussing the case. "We know for sure that Teale was involved in the theft, but only suspect Kaiser," Blair started, looking at his notes and then jotting a few things down. "We ought to put out an APB on Teale."

"Agreed," Jim answered, turning onto Broad Street. "But we have no idea where he might be heading."

"Just that it's out of Cascade."

"No," corrected Jim. "That's what Kaiser said, but we don't know for sure he was referring to the cases of ink."

"I suppose," Blair conceded.

"When we get back, why don't you check into Teale's past and I'll look into Kaiser. One of us is bound to find something that might give us a clue where to search next."

Blair opened the door to Major Crime, with several folders nestled in his arm. Jim was sitting at his desk, talking on the telephone. Blair dumped the files on his own desk.

"Find anything, Chief?" Jim asked, walking over to his desk. The phone call was obviously over.

"A little." Blair shuffled his papers and then read from the top of one of them. "Jack Teale has been involved in some small-time burglaries. He was brought in for questioning last month for a convenience store holdup. Six months ago it was a carjacking. Before that he spent five years in jail for selling reset jewels to an undercover agent." Blair looked up at Jim. "That was the high point in his illustrious career. Before the jail time, he was in juvenile hall for stealing cars."

"It doesn't sound like he's been involved with anything organized."

"But he's slippery. After spending that one stint in jail, he's been able to get off on every charge," Blair reminded Jim. "Have you heard anything from Forensics?"

"Nothing yet. I took up the rug fibers and they're going to compare the stain to an ink sample. Hopefully tomorrow we'll know." Jim glanced up at the clock. "You ready to leave?"

Blair looked at the time. "Yep. We still gotta shop for our big dinner tonight." Anticipation crept up his spine. With William furious at Steven and Jim caught in the middle, it would be interesting to see how Jim handled it. Would he prevaricate with both or take definite sides? Blair had never found himself in a similar situation. He always sided with Naomi in any family squabble, not that there had been many.

Jim left a note for Megan, while Blair packed up his notes. "How long did you tell her to keep an eye on Kaiser?" Blair asked as they left.

"Rafe is going to take over shortly. I told them to watch 'til around midnight. I don't think anything is going to happen."

"Stuff's gone," Blair agreed. "But you never know. Maybe someone'll come visiting."

They walked out to the truck in silence. Blair flung his backpack onto the seat and jumped in beside it. The traffic was a lot heavier now, with everyone on their way home.

Blair had been careful all day not to think about the evening. It would have made the time creep by way too slowly. But now it was time to get excited. "You know what you're gonna cook?" Blair asked, aware that Jim had planned on passing the responsibility onto him.

"Me cook?" Jim looked at him with feigned disbelief. "I thought I had mentioned your famous Chicken Piccata? I'm doing dessert." He paused dramatically, "Maybe chocolate pudding." Jim tried to look serious, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

"That is so lame," Blair replied, laughing.

"Who'll need dessert after your delicious meal?" Jim remarked as he drove into the parking lot of the grocery store.

"How true," Blair said as he slammed the car door. He ran up behind Jim. "After my wonderful meal, anything you make will be anticlimactic." Jim went to cuff him on the head, but Blair was able to sidestep and miss the tap.

Jim grabbed a cart and followed Blair. The first stop was the vegetable and fruit aisle. Jim waited patiently while Blair rummaged through the piles making the selection for his tossed salad.

Blair was turning away from the cart when Jim pulled the cucumber out. "Pick another one. This one's got a worm wiggling inside."

"Uh, gross." Blair threw it back and selected another. "This one got any added protein?"


Next a bag of apples was added to the cart. "You think Michelle would prefer string beans or corn?" Blair asked, hovering over the bin of fresh-looking beans and the sweet corn.

"Definitely beans. We had the corn last week and it was pretty tough."

"Okay." Blair stuffed the handy plastic bag with about six handfuls of the green beans. "So far, I've got the salad stuff and the beans. I need some more fresh garlic and--" He stopped talking as he found the herbs he needed.

Jim pushed the cart over to the fresh lemons. "How many?"

Blair thought for a minute. "Probably six."

Blair laughed silently to himself as Jim put eight lemons into a bag. He liked his chicken on the tart side.

After the produce came the meat. Blair left the chicken breast selection to Jim. His nose was always able to tell the freshest package. Minute amounts of spoilage were always apparent to the Sentinel's nose. As Jim rummaged among the packages, Blair started thinking of drinks. Steven and Jim would drink beer. Would Michelle prefer soda or maybe wine coolers? Maybe some old- fashion fruit juice would be more to her liking.

Jim popped the chicken in the cart. "What are you thinking so hard about?"

"What do you think Michelle would prefer to drink? I think lemonade, or--"

"Coke. Or maybe Pepsi. No way would she drink fruit stuff. That's a summer drink."

They headed for the soda aisle next. Jim immediately grabbed a two-liter bottle of Coke. Blair decided to add some Sprite, just in case. That was kind of fruity. The two men stood there, thinking.

"I think we're forgetting something," Jim remarked.

"We've got everything for dinner. We just put in the soda. Beer's at home. I'm gonna cook rice and I've got enough of that at home."

"Doorknob," Jim exclaimed.

"Doorknob," Blair said at the same time. "You go next door and get the doorknob. I'll check out the food." It was a good thing that there was an ACE hardware store next to the grocery store.

Jim beat him to the truck. The two men loaded the groceries into the back and then headed for home.

"So, what do you think this Michelle is like?" Blair asked.

"I don't know. She's cute. Kinda wispy."

"Wispy? And she takes care of animals?"

"That's what Steven says. I really didn't get a good impression of her. I was too fixated on my father and his temper tantrum."

"You think she's going to be able to stand up for herself?"

"Don't know." Jim paused. Blair looked at him expectantly. Jim was about to speak, but something held him back.

"What?" Blair asked, curious.


"Come on, you were going to say something. You got this real serious look on your face."

"I just remembered. You know at the restaurant, just before dad saw Steven, he was in the middle of a sentence."

"What was he saying?" Blair inquired, really curious now.

"Something about my mother. You know, throughout the whole lunch he kept mentioning her. It was kind of eerie, because I can't remember the last time he ever spoke her name, let alone something intimate."

Blair stayed quiet. Jim was working things out in his mind and Blair knew not to rush things. Jim had mentioned the part about the cougar painting, so it couldn't be about that. Blair had thought that Jim had told him everything.

"Now I remember. He was saying that Mom had called. He stopped in the middle of the sentence cause Steven and Michelle had just walked in."

"Your mother called?" Blair was amazed. The woman who had totally abandoned her two sons was about to waltz into their lives? Blair wasn't too sure how he felt about it. He really wanted to talk to her, but he also wanted to keep Jim from being disappointed or hurt.

"I think that's what he said, but now I'm not too sure. I need to go ask him."

"Ask Steven tonight," Blair suggested. "Maybe he knows something."

"I don't think he would. Dad confides even less in him. But I owe him a warning."

Blair was saddened by that fact. One brother needing to warn another about the possible appearance of their mother. In his family, it was quite common for one family member to alert another of someone's arrival, but it was an entirely different connotation of the word. In Jim's case, it was negative.

"Yeah," Blair agreed, softly. "You should talk to Steven about it."

"Michelle, relax." Steven observed her inability to sit still in the car. He was really looking forward to tonight's dinner at his brother's house. It was rare when they were able to get together and all the more precious because of the infrequency. He knew Michelle would have a good time- -if she'd just calm down. Ever since the incident at Crescent Beach, she'd been withdrawn. Steven explained that Jim was nothing like his father, but she only saw the similarities. He also pointed out that he was more like the old man than Jim, but that did little to ease her mind, either. Steven really wanted them to get along. For the first time in his life, he had found a woman who was utterly real. There was no artifice in her manner. She wasn't using him to get ahead in her own career, nor did she expect anything from him but companionship and a good time. Why couldn't his father understand this?

"I'm trying, Steve. I just can't help it. He looked so--uh--formidable. I can just picture him winning a staring contest with Bruno."

Steven laughed. Bruno was a Rottweiller who had been abandoned during the previous summer. Some former owner had neglected the dog and he had been involved in some kind of fight and was seriously injured. The clinic had taken the dog in, healed him of his physical injuries, and then tried to adopt him out. The dog refused to stay with either of the two families with whom the vet had placed him with. As soon as the new owners' backs were turned, the dog returned to the animal hospital. Dr. Banner decided that Bruno--the name Michelle christened him with--had adopted them and agreed to let him stay. With the clinic's personnel he was a lamb; away from the three women, he was a snarling beast.

"I don't know, Bruno's pretty tough. Take my word for it, you'll like Jim once you get to know him. It's Blair that's formidable." Steven tried to keep a straight face.

"Blair? Who's Blair?"

"Jim's partner and roommate. You'll get to meet him tonight." Steven pulled into the parking lot. "We're here," he announced.

"Oh, God," she moaned.

He patted her on the knee. "They'll love you." He jumped out of the car, eager to get upstairs. Steven looked up at the window on Jim's floor. Could his brother hear them this far away? Was their scent already wafting up to the loft? Maybe Jim was looking out a window, counting the worry lines on Michelle's face. Steven shook his head at the ridiculous thoughts. But he couldn't help wondering what it was really like.

They took the elevator to the third floor. As the door slid open, Michelle's steps were confident as she accompanied Steven down the hall to the loft. She had buried nervousness under a blanket of calm capability. This was how she dealt with injured animals and it spilled over to difficult social situations. Steven smiled affectionately at her, but her attention was fixed on the loft's front door.

Steven knocked, then stood back so they were side by side. He could discern some voices inside the door. No one came to answer, so he knocked a second time--harder. The door slid open to reveal Jim standing there with the doorknob in his hand and a confused expression on his face. "Shit," Jim mumbled softly, but Steven heard.

"Is it safe to come in?" Steven asked, reluctantly entering, looking from side to side. Michelle followed closely behind him.

"Yeah, it's safe," Jim answered with an embarrassed smile. He turned abruptly and dropped the knob into a basket sitting on a nearby table.

"Don't mind him," Blair said, as he came up behind Jim. "He doesn't know his own strength-- sometimes."

A teasing smile lit Jim's face. "You broke it first."

"Where have I heard that before?" Steven responded without thinking. Jim turned to him and Steven had a momentary flash of panic. Would his innocent remark cast a shadow on their evening? He knew better than to mention anything from their shared past.

"Probably because I've always been blameless," Jim responded in the same joking manner. There was no hostility in his voice. It was almost as if they were normal siblings ribbing each other about their childhood. A warmth spread through Steven. The two brothers shared a look of camaraderie.

"Let me take your coats," Blair offered, breaking the silence. "By the way, I'm Blair Sandburg," he said as Michelle handed him her coat.

"Michelle Johnson," she replied.

Steven put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

"Can I get anyone a drink?" Jim asked as Blair went to hang up the coats. "We've got beer, soda and lots of different fruit juices."

"I'll have soda," Michelle told him.

"Coke, Sprite or--"

"Sprite is fine."

"Beer for you, Steven?" Jim asked as he pulled out a can of Sprite and two bottles of Killian's.

Steven didn't even need to answer; he just accepted the proffered bottle. "So, has Dad called you since the restaurant fiasco?" He was curious to know what his father was saying behind his back.

Jim poured the Sprite into a glass with ice. "Nope. I haven't called him and he hasn't called me."

"He's still fuming," Steven remarked, disgusted.

"Has he called you?" Jim asked Steven, as he handed Michelle her soda.

"No, not that I wanted him to." Steven gave a tired sigh. "There really isn't anything more to say."

"Why don't we go into the living room?" Blair suggested, interrupting. He took Michelle's arm. "Have you met Steven's secretary, yet? We met her..."

Steven watched Blair escort Michelle into the living room area. Her grateful look was enough chastisement for him to realize how uncomfortable she had been during the discussion about his father. It wasn't her fault that his old man was an ass, but it made her feel responsible for the current hostilities. He gave a mental shrug and decided not to even think of it again. Living his life the way he wanted was more important than what the great William Ellison thought.

Glancing at the table, he noticed five place settings. "Who else is coming?" he asked curiously, feeling twinges of dread. Jim wouldn't invite their father in the hope of some kind of reconciliation, would he?

Jim added the finishing touches to the table. "I thought you might want to introduce Michelle to Sally. I usually invite her for dinner about once a month and thought this was a good occasion."

Steven exhaled deeply, then gave a smile of thanks. "I never thought to invite Sally over to my apartment. I've missed her. This is great!" His voice rose in excitement.

Heads turned toward the kitchen. "What's great?" Blair asked.

"I told him that I invited Sally to join us," Jim answered.

A thought occurred to Steven. "What excuse is she using?"

"That's she's visiting friends."

"Yeah, we're her friends." He made a note to himself to keep better contact with her in the future.

Jim grabbed his beer. "Come on, let's join the others."

Steven sat on the couch next to Michelle. She was regaling Blair with a story from the hospital. Most of the good ones Steven had heard already. Michelle loved animals, but found many of the owners to be 'difficult', as she liked to say.

"You mean," Blair was saying, "that the shelter wouldn't let them adopt the homeless kitten?"

"Nope," she responded. "We can't let black cats go that close to Halloween. Do you know how many strange people there are out there? It's just too risky."

"What did you do?"

"I had to explain, nicely, the reason, but they didn't buy it. They threatened to take it to the papers and make a big publicity stunt that the 'overcrowded shelters were unwilling to let the animals get adopted'."

"Was this before Halloween?"

"Yep. We kept refusing and then in November, they didn't want the kitten anymore."

"God, that gives me chills," Blair remarked, giving a shudder.

"That's why we have to be very careful. I'm not saying that they were going to kill the kitten in some sacrifice, but you never know."

Blair jumped up and grabbed some more soda for Michelle and another three bottles of beer. Steven watched the excess kinetic energy of his brother's friend and felt amazed at Jim's acceptance of it all. Blair would exhaust him within a week. But the relationship worked. He'd had ample proof of that when the two had saved his hide during the race track fiasco a few years ago, and more recently when they caught that crazy stalker. Blair seemed to be on the same wavelength, when his next question dove-tailed so closely to Steven's thoughts.

"I want to hear how you guys met. I mean, I don't think Steven's got a pet. It just doesn't seem possible that your worlds could've connected."

"Remember that bachelor auction a few months ago?" she asked innocently.

Steven observed Jim's jaw clench as they exchanged looks. Neither wanted to recall the frightening time when Steven had come so close to death. Although it had brought them closer in a lot of ways.

Blair gave the two Ellisons a glance and answered, "Yep. I think both of them had women bidding for the privilege of a date."

Michelle blushed slightly. "My boss, Dr. Amy Banner, won Steve."

Jim sat up straighter in his seat. "I didn't know that."

Steven intercepted an unbelieving look from his brother. "Hey, what can I say," he responded, shrugging his shoulders.

Jim shook his head. Blair sat, eagerly waiting for more of the story, which Steven knew Michelle loved to tell.

"It took a couple of weeks before Amy called and made the date. She had gone to the auction with two friends from college, all very involved in Cascade's business community, and all three of them had bid and won men that night. My boss was the last of the three to actually have the date with her prize."

Steven tapped himself on the chest. "That's me, the prize."

Michelle knocked her shoulder into him and laughed. "Yeah, what a prize he is, too. Anyway, she planned a nice dinner and then a movie. Nothing extravagant--"

"And nothing too hard to get out of if her beeper went off," Steven finished for her.

"Hey, you're getting ahead of me."

Blair looked incredulous. "She brought a beeper?"

"You bet," answered the younger Ellison. "Animals have emergencies, too, you know." He laughed and continued with the story. "We made it through dinner. I had just requested the check when the damned thing went off. She went and phoned her service while I paid the bill. When she came back, she apologized profusely, but insisted that I take her to the clinic."

"The best part is that he came in," Michelle continued. "He could have dropped her at the door and left. But he didn't."

She looked at Steven and he felt the look down to his toes. This is what he loved about her. How she could be happy with just the little things. "No, I escorted my date inside, where a frantic woman and a small mop-like dog were waiting."

Michelle continued, "He looked so lost when they came in. Amy, despite her dress and heels, went right to work. Steve stood by the door, looking like he wanted to escape, but good manners and a concern for how Amy would get home kept him there."

"You took pity on him, right?" Blair asked, eagerly.

"Nope," Michelle answered. "I was too busy helping them get prepped for surgery. A car had hit the dog, and I needed to get a room with sterile equipment ready, while Amy was doing the X- rays. But I knew Steve was out in the waiting room and was remembering how nice he looked." She gave a faraway smile.

"They were in there a long time," Steven picked up with the story. "I sat down in one of the chairs and waited. Michelle came out first, luckily with good news for the owner. She was so compassionate and endearing as she explained how the little dog was doing. I couldn't take my eyes off her."

Michelle gave an embarrassed, but pleased, little laugh. "He took Amy home, but came back the next day on the pretext of asking about the dog--and found out my name and phone number. The rest, they say, is history."

Steven put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. They were all quiet, digesting the story, when suddenly Jim stood up and looked over at the door. Steven couldn't figure out what was going on. Jim met his gaze. "Sally's here. I'm gonna open the door for her so she doesn't give me a hard time, like everyone else, about the broken knob."

Steven looked on in wonderment as Jim opened the door just as Sally got to it. It seemed as natural as breathing to him. Involuntarily, Steven looked down at his hands. A small shudder went through his body at his own ineptitude before he rose from the chair and went over to greet Sally. Dragging her back to the living room area, he introduced her to Michelle. This was the first time Sally had ever met someone he was dating. It felt strange. She was a person associated with childhood, yet now, thanks to Jim, she was gaining a place in his adult life.

Blair made them sit immediately at the table. Jim lit the candles while Blair carried the platters and bowls over to the table--then they all dug in. The stereo played some instrumental background music; Blair got up occasionally to change tapes. Jim was prompt in refilling their glasses. Blair carried the conversation whenever it slowed, and immediately changed the subject if William was even close to getting mentioned.

When they finished eating, Blair started directly on the dishes and then, to Steven's amazement, asked Michelle to help him. Blair gave a signal to Jim, who then led Sally and Steven into the living room area. There was a radio going in the kitchen, which effectively isolated the two sets of conversations. Steven was sure that the situation wasn't for Blair's benefit. That meant that Jim had something important to say to him and Sally.

Jim had a serious look as he addressed Sally first. "Have you noticed Dad acting different in the last week or two? I'm not referring to Steven's girlfriend."

"He goes into the den and broods. I think he's drinking more," Sally said thoughtfully.

"What's this all about?" Steven asked impatiently.

"When I had lunch with him, it was for a reason that had nothing to do with you," Jim started. "He kept harping on marriage and divorce and the fact that when Mom left," --Jim paused and looked sharply at Sally, but then continued-- "she took everything."

"No, she didn't," Sally corrected. "She only took her clothes and a few knickknacks. I think you misunderstood. Your father was upset because she left--he was lonely. Work became more important than anything."

"Can you tell me about the painting?" Jim asked.

Sally shifted in her seat. "What painting?"

"The painting of the cougar. Dad told me that I was fascinated with it."

Sally gave a soft smile. "You were. When she took it, you were most upset."

Steven interrupted, confused. He couldn't remember the painting and didn't understand its relevance. The fact that surprised him was how long Sally had been a part of their lives. He had always assumed that she came after their mother left. "You worked for Dad even before Mom left?"

"Yes. Mrs. Ellison was very busy with other things."

"How come you never told us this before?" Steven accused.

"Mr. Ellison did not like to talk of her. It made him very angry."

"Something is going on," Jim broke in. "Dad is overreacting, even for him, about Michelle. You've had girlfriends before. None of them have been super rich."

"I wasn't talking to him then. You're the one who got this dialogue going. Now that he can complain to me personally, he doesn't hesitate." Steven was convinced that Jim was full of shit. His brother was a detective, which meant he saw mysteries everywhere he looked. Why couldn't he just accept that things would never be good between them and their father and let it go? He didn't need to assume esoteric reasons behind the old man's actions.

"Has he had any new visitors at home?" Jim continued his questioning.

"No," Sally answered. "Although when I told him that I was going out this evening, he looked relieved. I sometimes spend time with my sister and her three children and he never objects."

Steven snorted. "He just doesn't care about anything but himself and his money."

Jim flashed him an irritated look. "Right before he saw you, he made an strange comment. He said that Mom had called, then he stopped suddenly and went off on the tangent of you and Michelle."

"Mom called?" Steven asked. "I can't believe it. What does she want after all these years?" His heart started racing. He had absolutely no memories of her. Except--he could recall that her hair was soft. A faint impression, like deja vu, made him picture long hair and his chubby fingers running through it. A contented lassitude swept through his mind.

"I don't know," Jim interrupted Steven's reflections. "And maybe he didn't mean that exactly. Just stay alert. Let me know if you see or hear anything strange. I want to know what's going on."

"I will," Sally agreed.

"Fine," Steven answered. Big brother was sounding authoritative again.

"Anyone want coffee?" Blair asked, entering the living room. "I can make decaf or regular."

Everyone chose decaf, so Blair went back into the kitchen and brought out a tray of mugs. Michelle followed closely with milk, sugar and spoons.

"Have a seat, Michelle," Blair told her. "I'll bring in the pot when it's done."

Michelle took a seat next to Sally. "Tell me what the boys were like growing up."

There was a dark silence. Sally looked back and forth between Jim and Steven, then gave Michelle a teasing grin. "Imps. Constantly on the move. Noisy. I think that's what I miss the most. The house is so quiet, now."

"Do you have family here in Cascade?" Michelle continued her questions, as Blair passed around the full mugs.

"Yes. I have a sister, one niece, and two nephews, who I visit a lot."

Steven didn't know that she had family. In all the time she had worked for them, he had selfishly believed that they were her world.

"My oldest nephew, Shawn--thank you, Blair," she said as she accepted the steaming coffee. "Shawn is the first in our family to go to college. My sister and I are very proud."

"That's great." Blair flashed a smile. "College is so important."

Steven looked for evidence of disillusionment or falseness in Blair's tone. It wasn't that long ago that Blair had to announce to the world that he was a fraud because his dissertation had been leaked to the press. His college professors and the dean hadn't stood up for him or tried to protect him from the media circus that followed. Steven marveled at the way Blair still defended the intrinsic value of a higher education.

"Hey, Jim." Blair had a sly look on his face as he asked for Jim's attention. "I think it's time for dessert. He's been very secretive about what he's planning."

For some reason, Steven was able to discern a teasing note to Blair's voice. There was some inside joke here. Steven looked at his brother, who reciprocated the teasing with a wide grin.

However, it was Sally who spoke up, after a shared smile with Jim. "I brought some apple pie. Jimmy and Stevie loved it as kids. Jim, you promised to have ice cream."

"So, I did." Jim wore a self-satisfied smile on his face. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go bring it in."

Blair was taken aback, but recovered quickly and was soon happily shoveling forkfuls into his mouth. "This is great," he mumbled, without slowing much. "Jim, you're forgiven."

Steven laughed inside. Blair thought he had one-upped Jim, but his brother turned the tables on him at the last minute. The two roommates shared a look, then went back to their pie.

"What are you all doing for Thanksgiving?" Sally asked, as she stood up to take the empty plates into the kitchen.

"I'll do that," Blair insisted, taking the plates from her and making her sit down.

"We're going to Michelle's parents in Seattle," Steven volunteered first.

"I think we're going to Joel's."

Blair came back into room. "I thought we were going to Henri's."

"Naw, he's got his whole family descending on him for Christmas," Jim informed them. "Lori would have a fit if she had to entertain for both holidays. What about you, Sally?"

"My sister always cooks. Sometimes I go, sometimes I stay and cook for your father."

Jim and Steven shared a look, but Steven was determined not to have anything mar his first real holiday with Michelle. Jim could do what he wanted.

It was past midnight before anyone began leaving. Michelle gave a wide yawn, which spurred everyone out of their lethargy. Amid the murmurs of, "Great meal," and "Wonderful dessert," Steven felt that for the first time, his life was really looking up. It was probably one of the most enjoyable evenings he had ever had. "Thanks, Jim," he said, as he entered the elevator. He knew his brother heard.

William sat at his desk contemplating the picture frame. There were two pictures inside. One was of Jimmy and the other Stevie. He couldn't remember what ages they were when the snapshots had been taken, but he didn't care. Jimmy had longish hair and was wearing some kind of sports hero T-shirt. He was also grinning from ear to ear. Something must have made him laugh just before the camera snapped the picture because the smile was so natural, so full of life. Could this be the last time Jimmy had smiled? The accident couldn't have taken place much later.

Stevie on the other hand was older. His hair was short. He was wearing a cotton button-down shirt. There was no smile on his face, only a grimace of determination. William began to recall a ceremony. Could it be the National Honor Society induction? Quite possibly. This one had been taken years after Grace had abandoned them. She had chosen something different from their family life. Was she regretting that decision now? Was that why she was coming back?

William gripped the highball glass in front of him and took a large gulp of the Southern Comfort inside it. The warmth spread within his body only to be overcome by the chill seeping from his soul. He rocked the glass back and forth, listening to the ice as it clinked against the side. The sound echoed in the empty house. Sally had left early to visit a friend. It was a relief not to have to worry about witnesses.

The doorbell rang. His body froze as panic rippled up his spine. There was no way he was going to get through this encounter. His breaths came in gasps and his brain became fuzzy. No! He wasn't going to let her get to him like that. The doorbell rang once more. This time a melodious voice accompanied it. It still had the power to make his insides melt.

"William? Are you there?"

With one last deep breath, a vain effort to regain his equilibrium, he stood up from his chair and trudged to the front door. He opened it wide. "Hello, Grace."

She took long strides inside. Her eyes bounced off the different objects in the front foyer, but lingered on the mirror, the original location of the cougar painting. "It feels strange to be in this house again. It's home, yet it isn't."

William was reluctant to look into those eyes. They had the uncanny ability to turn his mind blank. Instead, he appraised her figure. It really hadn't changed that much. The years had been good to her. One would think that doing bench work in a chemistry lab would make her soft. This was definitely not the case. Her arm and leg muscles were well toned. There were strands of gray hair intermixed within the dark, that she hadn't bothered to touch up. Her clothes were different, though. He had subtly encouraged her to wear nice clothes back then, but she had ignored him and worn what she liked. It appeared that she now recognized the value of dressing to make an impression. Maybe she wasn't doing experiments anymore, but had a more administrative position.

While William was studying Grace, she was busy appraising him. What would she think? He hadn't gone to fat, but that wasn't saying much. His hair was completely gray and he needed glasses to see for any distance. He shifted nervously from foot to foot when her face revealed little of what she was thinking.

"Why are you here?" he found the courage to ask.

"To see you and hopefully the boys," she responded evenly.

"Why now?" He still couldn't meet her eyes. Fear of her effect on him was foremost in his mind. "You're the one who decided to leave." There was an involuntary note of surliness in his voice.

"I saw a little blurb on Jimmy being in some charity auction."

"Steven was in it, too," William added, but she didn't seem to hear him.

"At first I couldn't believe that he was my son. He's grown into quite a man."

"It's just curiosity? You want to barge into his life because you're curious?" Fear metamorphosed into hostility.

"Somewhat," she agreed, coolly. "Do you think he'll want to see me?"

William couldn't answer. His raging emotions were threatening to overtake his good sense. Only if he stayed in control would he survive this. Stalling for time, he motioned her into the formal sitting room. She walked over to the small wet-bar and poured herself a drink. He watched her every move.

Suddenly, she turned around and captured his eyes. At first he was stunned, afraid of the consequences. When they were first married, nothing would arouse him more than looking deep into her beautiful blue eyes. Then when the problems started, she used them to force her opinions and then cut him to ribbons. He tried not to let his devastation show, but she always knew. Gradually he realized that her eyes no longer had the same effect. He felt nothing. Her eyes, once warm, were now lighter, more of an ice blue. For the first time since she had contacted him the night before, he was able to look at things rationally.

Grace broke the eye contact and went to sit on one of the chairs. "So, what are my boys up to?" she asked as her right leg crossed on top of her left. In a smooth motion, she pulled her dress down over one knee, only to have it rise once her hand had released it. Fidgeting, she switched legs and crossed her left on top of the right.

William smiled inwardly. Maybe she wasn't as calm as she appeared. "Jim's a detective and Steven works for Griffin Enterprises."

"A policeman?" She stiffened, then relaxed with deliberate casualness. "How intriguing. What made him decide to do something so dangerous?"

"He was in the Army. It's not such a big step from the military to law enforcement."

"I guess not."

William could see the wheels turning in her head. Was she finally going to remember her other son?

"And Stevie followed in your footsteps. How sad that one of them didn't go into science. Jimmy had such a logical mind, I just assumed--well, it's not important now."

"How in the hell would you know if he had a logical mind?" William couldn't believe her audacity. "Jimmy couldn't have been more than eight when you left."

"Eight? That young? Maybe he just seemed older."

"I remember exactly how old both Jimmy and Stevie were. I also recall how devastated they were when you didn't even remember their birthdays." William took a deep breath. "I was there. I had to cover for your forgetfulness. When Jimmy's logical mind came to the conclusion that you just didn't love us anymore, I couldn't even find it in myself to disagree." Damn. He needed to stay calm in order to find out why she'd decided to contact them now. Going off on tangents wasn't helping matters. What did she want? Each time he broached the question, she avoided answering.

"How long are you staying in Cascade?" William asked bluntly, tired of the emotional roller coaster he'd been on during the last twenty-four hours.

"Trying to get rid of me? I just got here." She bent down and pulled her purse onto her lap. Opening it up, she withdrew a memo pad. "Give me their addresses and phone numbers."

"No." He was no longer cowed by her presence. All of her power, whether he had imagined it or not, had evaporated. "You're the one who left your real family because of someone else. I don't see how you have the right to come in here and disrupt everyone's life."

She flinched as he said real family, but William couldn't be sure if it was a result of his finally finding his backbone or the subject matter itself. He didn't care.

"Don't you think they'd rather make the decision for themselves? I am their mother," she stated with pursed lips and narrowed eyes.

Again, he was dumbfounded at her brazenness. "How dare you come in here and tell me how to raise my kids. You gave up that right years ago. I've been making all the decisions for them; it's what a parent does, you know." William could feel his face grow hot in his anger.

"They're adults now," she responded disparagingly. "You can drop the omnipotent father routine. It's not like I'm going to hurt them."

Both of their voices had risen until now they were shouting at each other. It was so much like their argument just before she left. Back then, the betrayal had been more than he could handle. "There are ways to hurt someone without using physical violence."

"You would know," she retorted, bitterly. "All I want is to see my boys. I thought that you might make my reappearance easier for them, but I see I'm wasting my time." She shoved the memo pad back into her purse and closed it with a sharp snap. Standing, she gave William one last beseeching look, then turned abruptly and strode purposefully to the front door.

William scrambled to keep up with her long strides. She had the door opened and was halfway through by the time his hand grabbed hold to prevent her from slamming it.

"I'll be in touch," she threatened, despite her eyes welling with tears.

He watched for a few minutes as her form dissolved into the shadows. A brief flare of light from the interior of the car illuminated her expression; then the door slammed and it was gone-- but he could still see it engraved in his mind. Haunted, he closed and locked the front door and returned to the den.

The ice had melted in his tumbler of Southern Comfort; he hardly noticed. All he could visualize was her face etched in pain. Was he being selfish? Jealous? For so long, neither Jim nor Steven had talked to him. They were now making an effort to get together and mend their broken relationships. Her appearance threatened those efforts. His emotions were out of control and deep down, he knew he was taking it out on Steven. He only wanted what was best, but didn't know how to achieve it. Tipping the glass, he finished off the watered-down whisky.

Jim would have to be warned. It was too late to call now, but first thing tomorrow morning he'd get hold of Jim and explain what was going on. In fact, Jim had to be warned since she seemed preoccupied with him. There was no way Grace could be prevented from seeing either of her sons, so he'd better prepare them for the shock. After all, he thought with a grimace, she'd indirectly asked him to.

Day 3.

Jim glanced at his watch as he strode into the Major Crime bullpen. The number six forty-six flashed in his brain and lingered as if etched on the back of his skull. Sandburg was probably just getting up, noticing the quiet in the loft, and possibly finding the note his roommate had propped up against the breadbox. Jim could just imagine Sandburg reading the note, smiling with relief, as he headed back to bed. The kid deserved a break. He had worked hard making last night's dinner a success. Jim owed him at least a morning to sleep in.

"Ellison here yet?" Simon's booming voice echoed in the almost empty room. Detective Fielding looked from the captain's opened office door over to Jim, shaking his head in commiseration. Jim broke eye contact with the other detective and went immediately to see Simon.

"I'm here, Captain. What's up?"

Simon waited a second, then looked past Jim into the bullpen. "Where's Sandburg?" he finally said.

"I let him sleep--"

"Oh, hell." Simon ran his hand through his short hair. "Close the door and sit down."

Jim pushed the door shut and waited patiently for Simon to start talking.

"Deputies Rand and Burlington called Dispatch a couple of hours ago with a report of a small U-Haul truck speeding down route sixteen. They put on lights and siren in an attempt to pull them over. Instead the truck took off, going much too fast on a hairpin curve and spun out, taking the patrol car with it, and proceeded to dump most of its cargo all over the road."

"The cargo was...?" Jim asked, knowing there was a point in there somewhere.

"Ink. Bottles of multi-colored gunk splashed a rainbow onto the road, signs, guardrail and even the trees lining the highway. Kinda reminds you of a Skittles commercial."

Jim blinked. "How are the deputies?"

"They're in the hospital, stable. I wasn't even notified about this until about ten minutes ago, as an afterthought." He sounded offended at the slight. "I called the loft, but no one answered. I hoped you were on your way in."

"Are the U-Haul drivers in custody?"

"Nope. They got away."

"Can either of the deputies identify the truck's occupants?"

"They saw two, but Rand is sure that there was a third."

Jim was puzzled. "What do you want from me?" This wasn't really their case.

"I want you and Sandburg to take a look at the accident scene and, uh, do your thing," he answered with embarrassed harshness. "See if you can determine if all the missing ink was in the truck. Also find out how they escaped."

"You don't ask much, do you," Jim commented wryly. "Who rented the truck?"

"Ash Ketchum. It's a phony name. There's no record anywhere that substantiates the existence of an Ash Ketchum."

"Guess I'll call home and light a fire under Sandburg. He'll have to shower and get dressed-- then have breakfast. We should be ready to leave in about an hour."

Simon grunted. "Guess I'll have to go with you. We need to get there as soon as possible. They want to get the place cleaned up and I asked them to hold until you took a look. Forensics has already been there. The place is a mess, so they put up a roadblock, detouring the traffic around the scene." Simon slipped on his gun's shoulder harness, grabbed his coat and put it over his arm. "I'll drive."

Jim acquiesced gracefully.

It took them over an hour to arrive at the roadblock. Simon flashed his badge and they were let through. Almost immediately the smell of burned rubber, fuel and diesel exhaust assaulted Jim's nostrils. He really wanted to ask Simon to roll up his window, but he knew that he'd have to deal with it sooner or later--it might as well be sooner. Closing his eyes, he pictured the imaginary dials and turned down his sense of smell. As soon as his nose stopped hurting, he turned up the dial, trying to filter out the caustic engine odors and differentiate the innocuous ones. Waves of a particular scent that Jim identified as the ink from the warehouse drifted through the window.

Simon pulled his car behind a deputy's car and Jim jumped out. Walking purposefully around the wreckage, he mentally calculated how much ink was present. Simon stood talking to one of the deputies, who signaled to Jim that he could open the rear of the truck. He pulled on a pair of latex gloves, stepped around a large puddle of purple mixed with yellow-gold, and climbed up on the truck's rear bumper.

"You need me to do anything?" Simon asked hesitantly. Jim knew that Simon hoped for a negative answer.

"No, I'm fine," he reassured his captain.

Twenty cardboard cases were piled inside. Jim saw at once that the boxes were different from the ones at the warehouse. He opened the first one and saw that bottles had been repacked loosely inside. Many of the bottles were cracked; some were shattered completely. The thieves were having a hard time keeping their booty intact. Jim went through all the boxes. If his mental math was correct, only eight of the fourteen cases could be accounted for in this truck. He had to assume that all fourteen had originally been full, as the ledger from the warehouse had stated. Six more cases must have been in a different truck or shipped using a different method. Finished, Jim jumped back to the ground and told Simon of his findings.

"I believe you've made a mistake," the deputy informed Jim. "Burglary was here earlier and they're positive that all the ink is here." He spread his arms, encompassing the multi-colored highway.

Jim bristled, but there was little that he could do except incorporate his conclusions in a report, send it to Burglary, and see what they did with it. He looked over at Simon for a hint as to their next move.

"Let's go," Simon answered.

As soon as they were back in the car, Simon told Jim what he had learned. "The deputy said that Rand and Burlington have identified one of the suspects from mug shots as Jack Teale. Wasn't he one of the employees from the warehouse that you investigated?"

"Yep," Jim replied. "I've been positive that Teale was involved because of the ink stains we found at his apartment."

"That he abandoned the day after the burglary," Simon added. "I remember you mentioning it."

Both men sighed. It was an unsatisfactory end to a case. When Jim started something he generally liked to see its conclusion. But until they were asked, both men found their hands tied.

As they entered Cascade's city limits, Jim's cell phone rang. With an apologetic shrug, he answered--fully expecting it to be Sandburg. Nonplussed, he found his father at the other end.

"Jimmy, it's very important that I see you as soon as possible. I'm at my office. Could you come here? Or would it--"

"No, I'll come there. I'm just getting back from an investigation. Let me get my truck and I'll be right over. Give me," --he paused as he looked at his watch-- "thirty minutes."


Jim hung up and looked at Simon. "My father has been acting strange lately. Maybe he's ready to explain."

"I've found it hard to get an Ellison to explain anything until he's ready."

Jim glared at Simon, then resumed brooding about his father.

Blair paused at the threshold of the bullpen, gazing with astonishment at the scene within.

"Why don't you sit here?" Rafe suggested, tripping over his tongue as he dragged Simon's chair from the captain's empty office.

A strikingly beautiful woman was standing next to Jim's desk. Blair was too far away to see her facial expressions, but her body language spoke disdain and a weariness of the antics around her.

"I brought you some coffee." Henri was twitching in his readiness to hand the cup to her.

Blair sauntered over to his own desk, wanting to keep his presence undetected, to better observe the woman and the other detectives who were making fools of themselves. It was almost better than a Three Stooges movie. She gave Henri a condescending smile as she received the styrofoam cup and lowered herself into the chair. Her eyes shifted over to Blair then dismissed him just as readily. Blair took his attention off her for a second and looked to see if Jim had left a note or a message on the phone mail. Nothing. He thought it was too bad his partner wasn't here; Jim would have enjoyed the entertainment.

The woman's simple movement of crossing her legs drew Blair's focus to her once again. She pulled her skirt down over her knees; then, as she removed her hand, the skirt slid up once more. She repeated the action as if she were uncomfortable with the length of her skirt. Her legs were slim but muscular, very well proportioned. Exercise was not a foreign concept to her. Blair's eyes drifted upward. Top designers made her clothes, an indication that she was in a high socioeconomic class. Very dark hair contained strands of gray and her face showed a few wrinkles. Her age had to be over the forty mark, maybe higher. She could afford the pricey beauty treatments and even plastic surgery. She must have sensed his scrutiny--her cool, challenging blue eyes caught and held his. Blair was stunned. Up close, those eyes held the same power that made Jim so formidable. He took a deep breath and found himself propelled toward her. His curiosity overwhelmed his need to study.

"Hey, Blair. When did you sneak in?" Henri said, sounding shocked at having missed Blair's entrance.

"Guess who this is?" Rafe was bursting with the information.

Blair didn't have a clue.

The woman stood up and Blair found himself looking up at her. She was tall, another fact to add to his list.

"My name is Grace Ellison." Her voice had a pleading quality to it. "I'm here to see my son, Jim Ellison? Do you know him?"

Blair heard Rafe and Henri start to laugh, almost hysterically. "Does Blair know Jim?" Henri spoke first. "They're partners and they live together."

The eyes that had dismissed him previously now appraised him with more interest. Blair couldn't understand how her eyes could be so cold, yet her voice so warm. When she said the word "Jim," it flowed, like warm honey. She was a mass of contradictions.

Blair decided he'd better speak for himself. This was Jim's mother and he had lots of questions for her, but--he didn't feel as if he could ask any personal ones until after Jim had met with her.

"Jim's my roommate. He left early this morning. I thought he'd be here."

"You must know him pretty well," she commented, watching him closely.

"I like to think so."

Her demeanor changed. She became eager, like a student who had just discovered that anthropology was an interesting subject after all. She pulled Simon's chair closer to Blair's desk and made herself comfortable. Blair followed her over and sat back down in his seat. He gave a casual glance around the bullpen and saw Simon standing in the doorway, no doubt wondering why the lady had his chair. Blair guessed that he'd heard her introduce herself, which was why he hadn't demanded it back.

Henri had also followed them over. "Jim couldn't get by without Hairboy--"

Blair shot him a glance, but it was Rafe who got his attention. "I think we'd better--"

But Grace had latched on to what Henri had said. "Couldn't get by? Does he depend upon you? Are you lovers?"

Blair felt shocked to the core. Was she deliberately misunderstanding him so as to get a rise out of him? Well it worked, he conceded silently. "Hell, no! We're partners here at the station. I watch his back and he watches mine. I just happen to also have a room at his loft."

She leaned forward. "Tell me about him," she begged, acting unconcerned about Blair's discomfort. "I haven't seen him in such a long time. In fact, I thought he was dead." Her voice cracked a little when she said "dead."

Blair felt his insides melt. "He's very much alive, let me assure you." So many people had given up hope when Jim's plane had crashed in Peru. It was good to know that at least she had kept track of where her son was, even if they didn't have contact. Blair remembered Jim saying that his father had put together a scrapbook of clippings, including his wedding picture and the News article about his return from Peru. Her outward cool was a lot like Jim's, hiding a soft mushy center. She did love her son despite her apparent abandonment of him. The reserve he had felt dissolved. "Is there something in particular that you want to know?" Blair asked, watching out of the corner of his eye as Simon walked through the bullpen and went into his office.

"Has he ever been married? Did he have any children?"

"Yes," Blair responded and saw her stiffen, more alert than before. "He was married briefly, but they're now divorced."

"Kids?" she asked again.

Blair found it endearing that she seemed to long for grandchildren. Was this in an effort to make up for what she'd lost by leaving her own children when they were young? "No, they didn't have any kids." Blair expected to see disappointment, but all he saw was a flickering of an eye.

"Did you know him when he was in the military?" she probed.

"No. I met him just a couple of years ago."

"I see."

Blair was burning to ask his own questions. Where had she been? Why was she here now?

"Sandburg! My office!" Simon ordered, standing in his office doorway.

Blair jumped up, wondering why it had taken so long for the captain to summon him. He had to be dying of curiosity. Blair smiled an apology. "The captain wants to see me. I'll be right back."

"I want my chair back," Simon said gruffly as Blair walked past him.

"That's Jim's Mom. Rafe figured that she--"

"Take her to the loft, to a restaurant, anywhere but my bullpen. Jim wouldn't appreciate an audience when he confronts her for the first time."

Damn, he should have thought of that. "When's Jim gonna be back?"

"We just finished looking over an accident scene when he got a call from his father. I drove back to the garage where we separated. He took his truck to go see his old man and I came up here."

Blair considered the information. William calls Jim--wants to see him. His mother shows up at the station, looking for him. What were the chances that the two were connected? Duh, a four- year-old would be able to figure that one out.

"I'll suggest to her that we wait at the loft for Jim. I'll try the cell phone, but I bet he left it in the truck. If he shows up here first, send him home."

"Good idea," Simon responded.

When Blair returned to his desk, Grace Ellison looked pissed. There was no other word to describe her expression. Blair looked around the bullpen, wondering who could have said something nasty--but everyone looked innocent. "I think we should continue our discussion in less formal surroundings."

"How about the home you share with my son?"

"Great idea. I see we're on the same wavelength."

Jim entered his father's office, closing the door behind him. William was walking along the large picture windows that made up an entire wall of the office. Turning, he looked at Jim. "Thank you for coming."

The phrase grated on Jim's nerves. A father shouldn't have to thank his son for a simple visit. Naomi sure as hell would never thank Blair for visiting her. "What do you want to talk to me about that's so urgent?" His question sounded harsher than he had intended.

His father resumed pacing. As Jim looked more closely, he could perceive hints of nervousness. There was almost the scent of fear surrounding his father. "Your mother's in town," William blurted out.

Jim felt the strength leave his legs as he collapsed into a nearby chair. Father and son stared at each other, both in shock, neither sure what to do next.

"I told her," William began when the silence became unbearable, "that it wasn't a good idea. She wouldn't listen. Her determination is unbreakable."

"Why now?"

"I wish I could answer that." William slumped into his chair. "When I asked her the same thing, she avoided the question."

"How long have you known?" Jim asked accusingly.

"Just a couple of days. She called on the phone, told me that she was in town. I arranged to have lunch with you, but then Steven showed up with that woman and then--I--I--couldn't tell you. I did try."

"And then?" Jim prompted, knowing that there was more.

"Last night she came over."

Jim thought back to when Sally mentioned that William seemed relieved that she was going to be gone. "What did she say?"

William swallowed heavily. "Not much. Just that she wanted to see you. And Steven," he added, almost as an afterthought.

For a second, an excruciating pain racked Jim's body. His chest was held in a vise-like grip. There wasn't enough air in his lungs. His brain couldn't seem to hold onto the fact that his mother was here and she wanted to see him. He closed his eyes, vying for control over his involuntary functions-- heart rate and breathing. All the dials that Sandburg had preached to him were gone. A world of wonder was there for him to grasp. All he had to do-- ~growl~ --Jim turned in time to see a flash of a blond cat as his black jaguar swiped at it, then both were gone.

Reality hit him like a ton of bricks. His spirit animal brought him back from some kind of zone--one of emotions--not senses. The vision of the golden cat flashed before his eyes. Had he been imagining it? Suddenly an overwhelming need to see Blair swept through him. "Listen Dad, thanks for the warning, but--"

"What did you see? You focused on something over there." He pointed in the direction where the jaguar and the other cat had been. "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

Instead of answering, Jim reached for the phone on his father's desk and punched in the station's number. The rerouting process took infinitely longer than usual, before he ended up in Sandburg's phone mail. Frantic, he went through the process again, this time ending up connected to Simon's office.

"Major Crime, Captain Banks, here," Simon spoke abruptly into the receiver.

"This is Ellison. Is Sandburg there?"

"Well, hello, Jim," he said with false cheeriness. "Your partner is home entertaining a woman who claims that she's your mother. You know anything about this?"

Jim's eyes widened in shock. "She came to the station looking for me?"

William stood up and came over next to Jim.

"After we parted company in the garage, I came up here to find her firmly ensconced in my chair beside Blair's desk. I told Sandburg to find a more appropriate place for your family reunion. Watch out for that woman, Jim. She plays with people."

Jim took deep breaths, trying to calm his shattered nerves. What in the world would Blair find to talk to his mother about? Sandburg should have just sent her packing until Jim found the time, or energy--or guts, his mind whispered--to see her.

"Thanks, Simon. I'll try the loft."

Jim hung up the phone and started to leave.

"I'm coming with you," his father stated unequivocally.

Jim didn't want to waste time arguing. It might be interesting to see his parents together in the same room. It might even make the notion that his mother was returning to his life more real. On the other hand, it might make it more surreal. He wouldn't know until he saw them.

Jim drove in record time from his father's office to the loft. He was amused by the whiteness of his father's knuckles as they gripped the door handles. As they pulled into a parking spot, Jim noticed a Mercedes Benz rental.

"That's the car she's using," William said without emotion.

Jim turned off the ignition and looked at his father. Maybe it wasn't the driving that made him nervous. For the first time, Jim realized that this reappearance was more difficult for his father than him. Why was she doing this to them now? It made him angry, defensive--almost protective. What an eerie thought--to be protective of your father because of your mother.

As they got out of the truck, Jim concentrated, trying to hear her voice. He had no conception of what it might sound like. His emotions kept swinging from anxiety to anger.

"What's this?" a soft, inquiring voice asked.

"That's a mask from the Moche tribe in Peru. The matrons wore it during their fertility dance in an effort to assure that their daughters would conceive, thus making the tribe more powerful."

"Are most of the artifacts in this room from Peru? Do you have more than a passing interesting in that country?"

"I'm an anthropologist, or at least I used to be. I've studied many aspects of ancient Peruvian cultures. I find it fascinating how ancient customs are still around but disguised in 'modern ways'-- you know?"

Jim was in the elevator, waiting for the thing to finish its climb. He would have taken the stairs, but his father would never have been able to move as quickly.

"Yes, I agree. Many modern traditions have their roots in ancient customs. But why do you need to study it? What do you hope to learn?"

Jim hurried down the hall. The loft's door was ajar. The doorknob on the outside was missing, but the interior one was still loosely attached. He had to remember to fix that, he thought absently. His hand reached out and pushed the door open.

A dark-haired, statuesque woman was returning a figurine to a shelf. She was looking at the little artifact and conversing with Sandburg. The words were unintelligible because of the rushing within his head. This was his mother. The hand on the door began to shake.

Jim took tentative steps further into the room. His entrance caught the other two occupants' attention. His eyes connected with the woman's, which were startled, defensive. Anger turned all his senses on alert. This was the woman who bore him and then abandoned him. She didn't care enough to see him grow up. What a difference that would have made. After taking a step forward, she backed up. Her heartbeat sped up and sweat coated her neck. He could almost smell her fear, an elemental one of prey for a hunter. Then it vanished and her personality asserted itself.

"Hello, Jimmy. I'm so sorry for springing myself on you. I just couldn't find a way to make this easier."

She was lying. This was exactly how she had planned it.

"Ease up, man." Blair came up beside him and patted him on the arm. Her eyes narrowed at the action. "She stopped by the bullpen because your father wouldn't give her our address." He tried to defuse the tension, but Jim wasn't going to cooperate. "Why don't we all take a seat in the living room?" Blair sounded so hopeful--so encouraging.

Jim agreed. He walked into the room and sat down on the couch. His mother tried to sit next to him, but he got up and sat next to Blair. That left his parents to sit next to one another. Blair didn't touch him again, but he felt his guide's presence keenly. His deep well of anger was difficult to suppress.

"Why are you here, now?" he asked, his words clipped.

"I saw an article about you. I usually don't read newspapers and magazines, but this one was left lying around and I picked it up."

"You were curious," William added with scorn.

Her control slipped a little and he saw simmering anger lying beneath her external persona-- then it was gone. "I realized just how many years had gone by. I wanted to see my son." Her voice cracked, but Jim couldn't detect any real emotion. Blair must have, because he went all mushy.

"Mrs. Ellison. All that matters is that you're here now, wanting to get to know Jim again."

"Like hell!" Jim stood, as he vented his anger. "Who says I want to get to know a mother who would abandon her kids when they needed her?"

There was a satisfied glow on her face. Was she happy that he'd spoken his mind? "I didn't abandon you, exactly. I just had to leave. You were in my thoughts, constantly." Her voice rang with truth.

This did little to alleviate his hostility. "Not enough to come home again."

"Listen, I'm trying now. I want to get to know you. We could do things together, just you and me."

"It's too late. You can't make up what was lost years ago."

"That's it? You're going to take his side in all this?" She sent a withering look toward William. "I can't believe that you'd accept everything he says." She stood up and stalked to the door. "Well, I tried," she tossed back, halfway there. "You just remember that." Her heels made a rhythmic clicking noise as she crossed the hardwood floor. When she got to the door, she grabbed hold of the doorknob and pulled sharply. It came off in her hand. With absolute fury, she turned and flung the knob. It sailed through the air, over their heads and connected with a loud crack into the glass patio door. In the total silence that followed, everyone heard the knob thud as it bounced and then rolled across the balcony floor. Grace flashed them all a glare, took a measured breath, then stalked out the door, leaving it wide open.

In a state of shock, Jim stood, walked to the door and began to replace the broken knob with the new one they had purchased the night before. He couldn't look at the broken glass, though the sound of it breaking reverberated in his head. For several minutes he worked in silence. Blair joined him when it became evident that he was all thumbs and couldn't get the screws tightened.

"Let me help," Blair insisted, gently removing the screwdriver from his hand.

With a nod, Jim returned to the living room and stared at the broken glass. Gathering his courage, he turned his attention to his father. He expected to see a gloating, triumphant expression. Instead, the man looked gaunt, haunted. "Did you want me to pretend that all is forgiven?" Jim asked defensively.

"No. I just never want to see her again." There was such infinite sadness and defeat in William's tone. "I think it's time for me to leave."

"We could use some help cleaning up the glass," Blair suggested.

Jim smiled. His friend was always trying to patch things up--make things right in Jim's world. Now Blair was including his father in a chore to make them all seem cohesive. "Yeah, Pop. Although I'm not sure you know how to use a broom."

Blair handed William a broom, and the two of them swept. Jim went to the phone, called a glass company, and arranged for someone to repair the patio door that afternoon.

"I'll make lunch," Blair offered.

The three men sat around the table. William looked a little uncomfortable, but seemed to be coping. It was his first visit to Jim's home and so much had happened.

"Do you think she'll come back?" Jim asked.

"I think you scared her off pretty good." Blair looked curious. "Why were you so hostile?"

"I don't know. I thought she had a lot of nerve to waltz into my life and expect me to forgive her and act like we're gonna be best buddies."

"I think you were too hard on her. She was trying."

Jim grunted, not really sure what he thought or believed. He remembered the scene in his father's office with his jaguar and the golden cat. He had forgotten it until just that minute, but now he believed it was instinct that made him antagonistic toward his mother. Did he wish he could take it back? Not really. The cat was a warning. He had learned to accept the warnings his spirit guide gave him. Anything else usually led to catastrophe. He'd tell Sandburg about the cat after things settled down.

"You think I should call Steven and tell him about her visit?" Jim asked his father.

"Yes. I think he needs to be warned and if I try, he'll just hang up."

"That's okay, Pop. I'll take care of it."

After lunch, Jim asked if Blair would run his father back to his office. He planned to wait for the glass door to be delivered and installed. Then he'd at least have to make an effort to get to the station today. He still needed to write his report and see what Burglary was going to say about it. He smiled in anticipation.

The End

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