edited by: Karen, Kimberly Workman, and Christina.
The nightclub vibrated with music on the cutting edge of hip. Multicolored strobe lights roamed across the dance floor, illuminating beautifully sculptured, gyrating bodies. In the center of the dance floor, a backlit, circular bar stood out like an oasis in a strangely lavish desert. Three bartenders moved along the inner ring of the bar, serving customers and keeping an unobtrusive eye out for trouble.
Like most of the clientele and all of the employees, the young man winding his way across the dance floor was of Asian descent. His black leather jacket and jeans were a bit more casual than the clothes most wore, but were pricey enough that they appeared to be a fashion statement. He might have been a bit too young to be allowed into a nightclub, but in a room full of people clinging desperately to youth, his appearance garnered no more interest than a few envious glances.
He stopped at the bar, signaling one of the bartenders with a two-fingered salute. The bartender, a hard-faced man on the wrong side of middle age, gave him a brief nod. A few minutes later, the bartender brought a drink down to the young man, casually slipping him a small package along with the glass. The young man was slightly less casual as he took the package and tucked it into the pocket of his coat.
He took a few minutes to finish the drink, then continued on across the dance floor towards the back of the nightclub. A false wall camoflaged three doors, two leading to restrooms. The young man chose the third door, stepping through it into a brightly lit hall lined with doors marked "Office", "Storeroom", and "Exit". As the door shut behind him, the music abruptly dimmed, and the mingled smells of alcohol and a hundred different perfumes were replaced with the scent of sawdust and a faint trace of cigarette smoke.
Each time he'd come here, he'd been given instructions to leave by the back door. He always did as he was told, and in all that time he'd never seen anyone else in the office or storeroom. It was sheer surprise at the sound of voices coming from the office that made him stop this time.
"That wasn't the agreement, Harlan."
"I-I did the best I c-could..."
The young man recognized the first voice. It was his employer, Mr. Chang, a man he had decided never to piss off. Apparently Harlan, whoever that was, hadn't had the sense to make the same decision.
The young man wondered if he should keep going forward, which would take him past the office's partially opened door, or go back and leave by the club's front door, a move that would be noticed by the bartenders and bouncer and might just get him in trouble with Mr. Chang. Either way, he could be pretty sure Mr. Chang would figure out that he'd heard the conversation going on in the office--which probably was a completely harmless, business-related discussion. Probably.
"'Best' doesn't allow for failure, Harlan. I told you to have those plans to me by yesterday. And yet, today my men visit your house to find you packing to leave the country. Surely you can see how I might question your willingness to do as I asked."
"N-no, Mr. Chang, I was going to b-bring you what I had. I j-just c-couldn't get it all."
He definitely needed to get out of there before anyone found him eavesdropping. If he could get back to the hall door without anyone hearing him, he could open it and slam it shut hard enough that the people in the office would notice. Hopefully they'd think he'd just come in.
"I don't have any use for people who aren't loyal to me, Harlan. I'm afraid you've outlived any usefulness you might have had."
"No, Mr. Chang, please..."
"Joe, take Harlan here for a ride. I just had these floors refinished."
The young man swallowed heavily. He started backing towards the door behind him. A part of his mind scrambled for a different explanation, but the part that had suspected all along what he was getting into screamed at him to run before it was too late.
Two men stepped out from the office door, one holding a gun on the other. All three froze for an instant. Then the young man turned and bolted back into the nightclub, ignoring the shouts behind him.
"Hey, Jim, I thought you wanted to see this game," Blair called back toward the kitchen. He raised himself up enough on the couch he was sprawled across to see over the back, shaking his head as he saw what Jim had found to distract himself. "Something wrong with the cabinet door?"
Jim grunted, his mouth full of screwdriver. He moved the door back a fraction of an inch, shook his head, and squirted the hinge with the bottle of spray lubricant he held in one hand. Another minute nudge to the door apparently didn't bring the results he wanted, because he mumbled something around the screwdriver that didn't sound too polite and attacked the hinge with the lubricant again.
Blair wrinkled his nose. "I don't know how you can stand the smell of that stuff. It's strong all the way over here."
Jim took the screwdriver out of his mouth. "It's better than listening to that squeak."
"If you say so." Blair leaned back on the couch, turning his attention back to the game. The Seahawks had just gained ten yards, and he'd missed the entire play.
"Trust me," Jim said grimly. "This door shifts every time someone walks across the floor."
"Yeah, but you're missing the whole game."
"I can hear what's happening."
"No kidding." Blair gave up. Jim was a grown man. If he got more enjoyment out of eradicating a squeak than relaxing in front of a game, that was his business.
The second quarter was half over before Jim finally collapsed on the other couch, a bottle of beer in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. His expression reflected the grim satisfaction of a man who had fought a strenuous battle and only won by virtue of incredible determination. Blair didn't bother to hide his smirk.
"Was your mission successful?" he asked.
"Shut up and watch the game."
Blair did as he was told, but only because the Seahawks' running back was headed for a touchdown. Two steps ahead of the Colts' safety, the running back glided into the end-zone, somehow managing to make it look effortless.
"That was classic." Blair glanced away from the instant replay to look at his partner. "Looks like someone oiled him, too."
Jim threw a chip at him. "Funny, Junior. Maybe you should quit the force, start a stand-up routine."
"What, and leave you to chase after the bad guys all on your lonesome?" Blair shook his head. "Nah, that'd make it too easy on them."
"Don't do me any favors."
Blair just grinned, not fazed in the least by Jim's scowl. "Don't feel bad, Jim. It's not your fault people slow down as they get older."
"I'm still faster than you, Sandburg... or am I forgetting who it was that was gasping for air after chasing Darren Fallows up two measly flights of stairs last week?" Jim grinned triumphantly, obviously thinking he'd gotten the last word.
Blair almost hated to burst his bubble. "They say the memory is the first thing to go."
"Right after the smart-ass partner," Jim agreed.
The ringing of the phone saved Blair from having to come up with a clever answer. He grabbed it, saying crisply, "Sandburg," then wondered when he'd started channeling Jim.
"Hey, Blair, it's Steven. Is Jim around?"
"Yeah, just watching the game. Hang on."
Blair handed the phone across to Jim. "It's your brother."
"Thanks." Jim stood up and walked over to the kitchen.
Blair listened just long enough to make sure there was no emergency, then firmly turned his attention to the game. He might be certifiably nosy, but Jim could be extremely touchy about his privacy when it came to his family. Blair had learned to respect that--unless there was good reason not to.
After a few minutes, Jim hung up the phone and came back to the couch.
"Anything going on?" Blair asked casually.
"Steven and Michelle are having dinner with Dad later this week. Steven wanted me along for moral support." Jim grimaced. "Luckily, we're working nights this week."
"I thought they were getting along better?"
"Yeah, but Steven's convinced it could end at any second. He--"
The phone rang again, interrupting him. Blair grabbed it again, forcing himself to say a more normal "Hello?"
"Sandburg, I need you and Ellison down at the Argonet Street docks," a familiar voice barked.
"Hi, Simon. How's your weekend?" Blair asked dryly. "We've been enjoying our time off. Thanks for asking."
"Cute, Sandburg," Simon growled. "You two are next up on the roster, and you've got a smaller caseload than everyone else, so you get this one. You're going to love it."
"Gee, thanks, Captain. What is it, another militia group out to take over the city? A mad bomber? A mad bombing militia group?"
Jim grimaced, obviously putting the pieces together and coming to the conclusion that their weekend was over. He stood with a sigh, using the remote to shut off the TV before heading toward his room.
"You'll see when you get here. I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise."
"Thanks a lot." Blair sighed. "We'll be there as soon as we can."
A steady drizzle washed the Argonet Street docks. Blair shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and shivered, thinking longingly of the warm couch he'd just left. Chilly, overcast days like today were made for staying indoors, not traipsing around a place that smelled like last week's catch, dealing with matters of mortality.
He and Jim had arrived at the docks to see an all too familiar scene: a couple of uniforms were stringing up a police line to keep out the few curious onlookers who'd chosen to brave the weather, the police photographer snapping pictures of the body, Simon standing in the middle of everything with an unlit cigar in his mouth, occasionally snapping an order. Jim had wrinkled his nose at the smell but hadn't commented, his attention already focused on the body. Blair had stayed silent as well, letting Jim scan the area as they made their way through the sparse crowd to Simon.
"It's about time," Simon said as soon as they were within speaking distance. "We've got an unidentified body, definitely male, but that's about all we know at this point. Cause of death was probably a single, execution-style gunshot to the head, but the coroner will have to examine the body to be sure."
"How was it found?" Jim asked.
"Man fishing off the pier over there." Simon indicated a short walkway several yards from the main dock. "The body got snagged on his line. He called it in as soon as he realized what he'd caught. The EMTs had to drag the body down here before they could get it out of the water, though. Something about the height of the dock. They marked the point where the body was found with a pole."
"Let's see what we've got," Jim said, nodding at the body.
"I'll just go down and see where they found the body," Blair said quickly. Jim shot him a sardonic glance, not fooled in the least, but Blair had long ago decided it was more embarrassing to puke on a corpse than to avoid the corpse altogether, however obviously the avoiding was done.
The fishing pier was really a short strip of decking angled away from the main dock area. The boards were slick from the drizzle, and Blair had to concentrate on his footing as he made his way over to the rail that surrounded the edge of the pier.
The metal pole the EMTs had stuck down into the water still had a net attached to the top end, showing what its original purpose had been. Crouching down, Blair studied the water around the pole, squinting to see through its murky depths to the sand below. Given the way the waves lapped up against the pier's piling, the body was just as likely to have washed up here from another spot as to have been originally dumped here.
Blair shook his head. Unless the coroner could shed some light on the man's identity, they weren't going to have much to go on to find the murderer. He stood slowly, tucking a few strands of damp hair behind his ear, his eyes still fixed on the water. Murky or not, he could see down to the sand, which meant that the body would have been fairly visible if anyone was looking, even if it had washed up under the pier. The docks were busy during the day, bustling with fishermen and loading crews. That meant the body couldn't have been there long, or else someone would have seen it.
He started to turn back toward the main dock. Something nagged at the corner of his eye, though, and he turned to look back at the water. Yes, he had seen something, but he couldn't tell for sure what.
"Hey, Jim!" he yelled for appearance's sake, even though Jim would have heard him if he'd spoken normally. "Come take a look at this."
Jim stood up, pulling the sheet the coroner had provided over the corpse, and walked over to join Blair.
"What's up, Chief?"
Blair pointed at the water. "I thought I saw something down there. Might be important."
"Might be trash," Jim countered, but he looked where Blair was pointing. His face took on that intent expression that meant he had totally focused his senses on something. "Or not."
"What? What is it, man?"
Jim reached down and snagged the pole, rotating it so that he could use the net to catch whatever he'd seen. Blair leaned over the rail to catch the net as it came up, digging out the object Jim had retrieved.
"Yuck." Blair couldn't help a grimace as he wiped slimy sand off the object and held it up for Jim to see. It was a coin, much the same color as a penny, but closer in size to a Canadian dollar. On either side, some sort of symbol was inscribed.
"Anything you recognize?" Jim asked, running his fingers over the symbol on the side facing them.
Blair frowned at it. "It's Asian, most likely Chinese, but I'd have to do some research to have any idea what it stands for. Was the dead guy Asian?"
Jim shrugged. "Hard to tell. He'd been in the water a couple of days, and apparently the fish were hungry."
Blair winced. "I really needed to know that. Thanks."
Jim grinned, but he didn't say anything as he clapped a hand on Blair's shoulder and steered him back toward the main dock.
"Was there anything on the body that could identify it?" Blair asked as they walked. "Anything that, you know, they might have missed in the first inspection?"
"Nothing so far. It was so bloated from the water, there wasn't much to see."
"Great." Blair slowed down, lowering his voice. "And did you do more than look?"
Jim gave him a sardonic look. "Yeah, Teach. I've actually been doing this for a while, you know."
Blair gave him his most annoyingly cheerful look. "You don't say."
As they reached the main dock, Simon called out to them, "You boys find anything?"
"Just this." Jim held out the coin. "We'll need a run down on those symbols."
Simon nodded. "I'll get Forensics on it."
"Thanks, Simon." Jim handed the coin to him. "Come on, Chief, I want to finish checking out the area."
Jim led the way into the loft, pausing to take Blair's coat and hang it with his own on the coat rack. Blair headed past him into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, he stared into it with a preoccupied expression.
Jim crossed over to collapse on the couch, sighing wearily. He hated running around in the rain. "You planning on cooking dinner, Sandburg, or do you just need to cool off?"
"Huh?" Blair looked at him. "Oh, yeah. I was thinking maybe hamburgers? Or there's some leftover linguini I could heat up."
"You were thinking that hard to come up with leftovers?"
Blair grinned. "It's a tough decision, man." He grew more serious. "No, I was thinking about this case. If that was an execution, it might actually make finding the killer simpler."
"Do tell, Darwin." Jim walked over and leaned on the kitchen island. Blair had that intent look he got when he was turning something over in his mind and finding an angle no one else had seen. All he needed was a little room to talk it through.
"If it was an execution, it's most likely going to have to do with some sort of business transaction. Crimes of passion aren't usually that well planned and carried out." Blair opened the freezer and grabbed a package of ground beef. "No guarantees, of course, but it's an angle to work with."
Jim nodded. "And that's something we're pretty short on right now. Our best hope--" He paused, distracted by a sound outside the front door. The elevator had stopped on their floor, but he'd ignored it until he heard footsteps approaching their door.
"We've got a visitor." Jim went over to the door but waited to answer it until whoever was outside knocked. He blinked in surprise at the person standing outside. "Sally?"
"Hello, Jim." His father's housekeeper clutched her purse in front of her nervously. "I'm sorry to interrupt."
"No, no, come in." Jim stepped back, frowning in concern. Of all the people who might have shown up, Sally was the last person he would have expected.
"Sally?" Blair walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Hey, you're just in time for supper."
Sally stepped into the loft, smiling tremulously at them both. "No, I can't stay. I shouldn't have come..."
"Don't be silly." Jim put a hand on her elbow, steering her toward the couch. "Let me take your coat."
Sally handed him her purse and coat, but she still looked like she'd bolt at any second. Jim watched her worriedly. She'd always been an incredibly calm, centered woman, able to handle the crises inherent to two growing boys and a demanding employer.
"Sit down," Blair urged, his voice taking on a gentle tone that Jim recognized.
Sally responded to it, relaxing subtly as she sank onto the couch. Jim sat down beside her while Blair chose the opposite couch.
"What's wrong?" Jim asked. "Is my dad okay?"
"Oh, yes, he's fine." Sally took a deep breath. "I probably shouldn't have come, but I just didn't know what else to do. I'm truly at my wits' end. I'm so afraid something terrible has happened..."
"To who?" Jim prompted as she trailed off.
"Shawn. My nephew, my sister's boy. I'm sure I mentioned him to you?"
"A few times," Blair said.
Jim could tell he was trying not to smile. Her nephews and niece were one of Sally's favorite topics. Her pride in them was plain every time she mentioned them.
"My sister called me this morning. She was frantic. Shawn didn't come home the last night, or the night before that." Sally looked down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. "He's nineteen, old enough to take care of himself, and it's not unusual for him to spend the night with a friend. He always calls, though, or comes in the next morning and checks to see if she needs anything before he goes to work. He's always taken good care of his family ever since his father died. He's a good boy. He'll be the first in our family to go to college."
Jim touched her arm gently. "Has your sister contacted the police?"
Sally shook her head. "No. She refuses to. She says he's fine and there's no need, but she's terrified that she's wrong, I could hear it in her voice." She covered Jim's hand with her own. "I know you have your work to do, Jim, but I'm worried for him. Is there any way you can look for him?"
"Of course we can," Blair answered before Jim had a chance. "We'll just need some ideas where to start. Friends, the name of his employer, anywhere he normally hangs out, that kind of thing."
Jim shot Blair a look he was sure the younger man could interpret, but he nodded as he turned back to Sally. "I'm sure everything's okay, but we will poke around a little and see what we can come up with."
"Oh, thank you!" Sally smiled, the worry lines around her eyes fading. "Jim, Blair, I don't know what to say. I know I'm worrying over nothing, but I can't seem to help myself."
"Well, don't worry anymore," Jim answered. "I'm sure we'll find him safe and sound."
Sally beamed at him, and he could only hope he wasn't wrong.
Jim filled his own mug and Blair's with coffee. Carrying them both over to his desk, he handed one to his partner before taking a sip out of the other.
"Forensics come up with anything on the body?" he asked.
Blair glanced up from Jim's computer screen, where he was reading his email. Jim wondered, as he often did, why it was that Blair persisted in using Jim's desk when he'd been assigned his own when he'd come into Major Crime as a full detective. Not that it mattered, particularly, any more than it mattered that Blair was completely incapable of writing a report with sentences less than fifteen words long. It was just one of those weird Sandburg things Jim had long ago learned was pointless to try and change.
"Sam said they have some preliminary information, but no identity yet." Blair pushed his glasses up on his nose as he turned back to the computer. "Our mystery man is, in fact, a man, but we knew that already. He was Caucasian, estimated age somewhere between thirty and forty-five. Most likely a white-collar worker because he didn't have much of a tan or any calluses that indicated long-term manual labor. No major identifying marks or scars." He paused to scroll down the email he was reading. "Cause of death was a single shot to the head prior to total immersion in the bay."
"Caucasian between thirty and forty-five? Well, that narrows it down to a third of the city." Jim took another sip of his coffee. "Anything on that coin you found?"
Blair read a little further, then shook his head. "All she said on that is that she's looking into it, and she'll try to have more information by this afternoon."
"In the meantime, what do you say to poking around the docks a little? Maybe someone out there saw something, or we'll get really lucky and someone will be missing."
Blair shot him a dry glance. "Your definition of luck is truly bizarre, man."
"What can I say? I have this truly bizarre partner who's warped my outlook on life."
"Funny, Jim. You're going to get a sense of humor one of these days, I just know it."
Jim smirked at him, then drained the last of his coffee. "Come on, Junior. I want to drop by Cybernet Solutions on the way and see if Shawn's been in to work the past few days."
Joseph Culver had drifted from one job to another for several years before finally discovering his niche. Granted, what he did wasn't always legal, but he was good at it and it paid well. If only his boss didn't insist on coming in to work early on Mondays, it would be the perfect job.
It was a small matter, though, and he'd learned to live with it. On this particular Monday morning, he'd shown up only ten minutes late, early enough that his boss didn't give him that look that said he was being considered for fish bait. It had been an easy day so far. His boss had stayed in the office all morning, and Joseph hadn't had anything to do except run a few errands and watch early morning cartoons.
He was whistling as he made his way down to Personnel to pick up a couple of files. Just before he went in, though, he realized someone was already in the office, talking to Marilyn.
"That's S-h-a-w-n L-i."
Tensing, Joseph paused outside the door, listening carefully.
"Did he do something?" Marilyn asked, her voice sounding nervous. "We have a strict hiring policy, you know."
"No," a different voice answered. "He's a possible witness, though, and we were hoping we could catch him to see if he had any useful information for us."
"I'm sorry, but he hasn't reported for work yet this morning. He's actually a little late."
Joseph thought vaguely that at least one of the men in there must be pretty good-looking. Marilyn didn't put on that flirty voice for just anyone.
He didn't have time to enjoy it, though, even though Marilyn in a flirty mood was worth watching. His boss needed to know someone official was asking after the kid. He turned back toward the elevator that would take him to his boss's office.
John Chang frowned as he listened to Joseph's report.
"And you've made no progress on finding the boy?"
Joseph cleared his throat. "No, sir."
"I want him found before these cops locate him." Chang rubbed a finger over his lips. "He's a kid, and he's scared and on the run. He's either going to go to his family or his friends. Locate them, and you'll have the kid."
"I'll get right on it, sir."
Rain spattered down on the docks, washing it clean and leaving behind no traces of the previous day's activity. Blair pulled his coat around himself, wincing as water ran down the back of his neck. He'd never been too fond of being cold and wet, and here he was on day two of trying to grow mold.
Jim was going over the area near the buildings with the meticulousness only a sentinel could bring to the task. Blair kept half an eye on him while chatting with the dock workers, who were waiting out the shower.
"Can't say that I've noticed anyone missing," Carl Brenner said slowly, scratching at his sandy mustache with one rough finger. "Hey, Derrick, you seen anything weird lately? This detective here is looking into that body they pulled out of the bay yesterday."
Derrick, a huge black man with hands big enough to grasp both of Blair's in one of his own, ambled over, shaking his head slowly.
"Sorry, Detective. Nothing out of the ordinary's happened that I can recall. There ain't much traffic out here nights and weekends, though, unless a ship's coming in. It'd be easy enough for someone to drive up and dump something in the bay without anyone seeing." He grinned. "Hell, we pull all sorts of stuff out of the water all the time that people've thrown in. Tires, furniture, batteries... once I found a riding lawnmower."
"Well, thanks for your help anyway, guys." Blair shook their hands. "If you do see anything, give us a call at that number on my card, all right?"
"Sure thing," Carl said, and Derrick nodded.
Blair wandered over to where Jim was staring down at the water near the spot where the body had been found.
Jim glanced up at him. "No. If there ever was anything else here, it's gone now."
"Great." Blair sighed. "I guess we'll just have to hope that Sam comes up with something."
"I guess." Jim started back toward the truck, steering Blair with him. "If we don't get some kind of break, we'll have to consign this one to the dead case file."
They got into the truck, and Blair reached over and turned on the heat as soon as Jim started the ignition. His hair hung in wet rings around his face, dripping down the back of his shirt. Times like these, he could see the advantage of Jim's short cut.
Jim drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, staring out the windshield with a frown. Blair waited a few minutes, taking the time to wring out his hair, but when Jim didn't make any move to put the truck in gear or to say anything, he finally broke the silence.
"You thinking about anything in particular, or just counting raindrops?"
"I was thinking about Sally, actually, and Shawn."
"You think he's involved in something he shouldn't be?"
Jim shot him a sharp look. "Why, is that what you're thinking?"
Blair shrugged. "Just a feeling, you know? I could be wrong."
"Yeah." Jim sighed. "I've got the same feeling."
"Is that why you told that woman at Cybernet Solutions that he was a potential witness?"
Jim shook his head. "No, I just didn't want to create a situation at his job if he wasn't in some sort of trouble. Nothing like having cops come looking for you to give you a bad reputation."
Blair raised an eyebrow. Jim's style was usually more of the "bull in the china shop" variety, forging ahead without much thought to how other people might be affected. Blair suspected his sensitivity had more to do with Sally than Shawn. Jim didn't talk any more about his relationship with his father's housekeeper than he did about his relationship with his father, but Blair had seen the gentle affection in his eyes when she visited.
"I was thinking about checking out some of Shawn's friends after lunch," Jim continued. "Sally said he spent a lot of time down at the mall, didn't she?"
"Yeah. Might not be a bad idea to talk to his little brother and sister, too." Blair ran his fingers through his hair, wincing as he hit a knot. "They might know more about where he hangs out than his aunt would."
"Wouldn't surprise me." Jim finally popped the truck in gear. "What do you say to checking in at the station, then grabbing some lunch somewhere?"
"Sounds like a plan."
A note waited for them on Jim's desk, telling them to come down to Forensics to see what Sam had turned up.
"You sure you don't want to just wait up here for me, Chief?" Jim asked, the concern in his voice patently false.
Blair shot him a dirty look. He'd made peace with Sam months ago. He didn't even have to take the long way around to avoid her department when he was on that floor anymore. "Hey, man, I don't have a problem. You might want to be careful, though. Somehow Sam's gotten the idea that you're the one who made balloons out of all her rubber gloves for Hendrik's retirement party."
Jim laughed, but there was a touch of unease in his expression. "You didn't."
"Me?" Blair gave Jim his best innocent look as he headed for the elevator. "You coming?"
Sam was waiting for them, her manner all industrious efficiency as she looked up from her microscope. Blair caught Jim eyeing her warily, and he bit the inside of his mouth to hide a smile.
"We're still working on an identity for your body," she said before they could greet her. "We're trying to trace the dental records and checking on missing persons. But I did find something fascinating in this coin you pulled out of the bay."
"Oh, yeah?" Blair leaned over to see what she'd been working on. "I thought those symbols looked Chinese..."
"Life and death," Sam interrupted. "They're the Chinese symbols for life and death, but that's not the interesting part." She pulled Blair around so that he could get a good view of the object she'd been scrutinizing. "Look what was inside the coin."
Blair peered into the microscope. "It looks like... computer circuitry?"
"Exactly." Sam stepped back to let Jim look. "It appears to be a mini-transmitter. Not terribly sophisticated, but enough to transmit preset codes."
"Like a fancy security badge?" Jim asked.
Sam nodded. "That's what it looks like. Probably the shape of the coin and the raised symbols provided an additional measure of security."
"What's wrong with a good old-fashioned swipe card?" Blair muttered, then held up his hands in surrender when Sam gave him a sardonic look.
"So how does this help us?" Jim asked quickly, flashing Blair a warning look that said clearly not to get Sam started.
"Well, it's a pretty unusual little gadget, and," Sam paused dramatically, "there's a manufacturer's label engraved on the inside. I just found it before you came in."
"So we can contact the manufacturer and ask who they happen to be making high tech moola for," Blair finished. "Hey, great job, Sam."
"It was, wasn't it?" Sam squinted into the microscope again and scribbled something on a sheet of scratch paper. "I'll contact the manufacturer and let you know what they say, all right?"
"Thanks, Sam," Jim answered. "Call me when you know anything."
After a quick stop in Personnel to chat with Marilyn and get the kid's file, Joseph headed out to the home address listed in the file. The kid's home proved to be nice enough; nothing fancy, but the yard was well kept, and nothing had been allowed to run down.
As he watched through the course of the day, two different women, a young boy, and a younger girl went in and out of the house several times, but the kid he was looking for didn't show. Joseph's original plan had been to sit and watch until the kid showed up, but as noon approached, his patience began to wear thin.
The only thing Jim and Blair accomplished at the mall was lunch. Either no one at the music store where Shawn reportedly hung out actually knew him, or they were all trying to cover for him. The kid at the cash register, a suspicious-looking blond who seemed to be auditioning for the position of alternative rock poster child, was so close-mouthed Blair was almost certain he knew something.
"It's weird," Blair said as they were leaving the store.
"What, those kids' haircuts?" Jim asked.
"No, those kids. A few years ago, I would have been one of them, convinced that any time the cops showed, I was facing down the enemy." Blair shook his head. "It feels kind of strange being the enemy."
Jim clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I think that's called growing up, Sandburg."
"Yeah, next stop Geritol." Blair sighed. "In the meantime, we're no closer to finding Shawn than we were before."
"I think you were right about talking with his brother and sister," Jim said. "I'm going to give Sally a call and see if we can meet with them."
"I'll go grab us something from the food court while you're on the phone. Mexican okay?"
"Sounds good. Meet me at the truck when you're done."
By the time Blair got back with the food, Jim was off the phone.
"Sally's going to meet us at her sister's house," he reported, taking the food sack from Blair and pulling out a taco. "She said she's been over there most of the day, trying to keep her sister calm." He took a bite of the taco, then continued around it. "I talked to Sam, too. She called the manufacturer of that coin. They're going to check their records and call her back."
"So we're on our way to Sally's sister's house?"
"Yep," Jim answered. "Did you get any hot sauce?"
Sally's sister lived in one of the suburbs on the far side of the city. Once a well-to-do neighborhood, it had declined slightly in recent years as newer developments had sprung up. The houses were still nice, though, home to lower middle class families and couples who had retired in comfort, if not in style.
Jim pulled up to the curb at the address Sally had given him, noting automatically that Sally had beaten them there. Her car and another were parked in the drive. Several other cars lined the street, mostly lower priced and older models. In one yard a few houses down, two young children played a noisy game of war.
"Nice place," Blair commented as he got out of the truck.
"Yep. I hope nothing happens to change that."
They walked up the front steps. Jim raised his hand to knock, then froze.
"Did you hear that?"
"If I had a dollar for every time you asked me that..."
"Ssh." Jim cocked his head as if that let him hear better.
Blair hushed obediently. He felt his pulse quicken as Jim pulled out his gun. Blair followed suit, giving Jim a questioning look.
"Someone inside," Jim whispered. "Maybe more than one. Has a gun."
Blair nodded his understanding. "On three?"
"You go left, I'll go right."
Jim nodded approvingly, then whispered, "One. Two."
Before he could finish, a shrill scream echoed from inside the house.
Jim hit the door with his shoulder. It crashed into the wall as Jim dove through, angling to his right. Blair went in on his heels, heading off to his left. He had a flashing impression of living room furniture as his eyes searched frantically for a threat.
He heard another scream. Looking in that direction, he finally spotted Sally and another woman who had to be her sister standing protectively in front of two young teenagers. Jim was barreling toward them, aiming for the man who held a gun on them.
The man saw Jim coming and turned the gun toward him. Blair shouted something, he didn't know what, and threw himself at the man. He'd started moving too far away to get a good grip, though, and all he did was knock the man off balance.
It was enough to send the bullet plowing into the wall instead of Jim, though. The man stumbled forward, then caught himself and bolted for the door. Jim tried to change directions to follow him, but ended up crashing into Blair. They both went down, Jim's elbow in Blair's stomach, and for a second all Blair could see were black spots.
Vaguely, he heard another scream. The weight lifted off him, and he gasped for air.
"Sandburg? You okay?" Jim asked, sounding concerned.
Blair waved in his general direction to let him know there was nothing to worry about. Air was slowly filtering back into his lungs, and he was reasonably sure his ribs weren't crushed, no matter what they felt like.
"Sally?" Taking Blair at his word, Jim had turned his attention to the other occupants of the room. "Is everyone okay? Did he hit you?"
The black spots finally faded from Blair's eyes. He sat up gingerly, turning to Sally and her family. A cold anger hit him as he saw why Jim had asked his last question.
Sally was sporting a bruise on her cheek, and tears streaked both her face and her sister's. The children stared in stark terror. Jim put an arm around Sally, pulling her close as he squeezed her sister's arm.
"It's over now," Jim said soothingly. "Sandburg, the kids?"
Blair stood up, wincing, and crossed over to the kids. The boy pushed his younger sister behind him, eyeing Blair distrustfully.
"Jim, thank God you're here." Sally clutched at Jim. "I thought he was going to kill us."
Blair held up his hands placatingly. "Take it easy, guys, I'm a friend."
"Who was he? What did he want?" Jim asked. He urged the two women toward the couch.
"He was asking about Shawn." Sally's sister sank down on the couch. "He wanted to know where Shawn was."
"Who are you?" the boy demanded, pulling his sister closer to his mother.
"Oh." Sally's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry. My manners are gone. Ann, I've told you about Jimmy--Jim Ellison. This is his partner, Blair Sandburg. Jim, Blair, this is my sister, Ann Wong, my nephew, Alex, and my niece, Mary."
"Nice to meet you." Blair sat down in the recliner behind him, rubbing his stomach. He was going to have a bruise, he just knew it.
"Did you recognize him?" Jim asked.
Ann shook her head. "I've never seen him before. He came right after Sally got here. We thought it was you. Sally said you were coming. Mary opened the door, and he just shoved his way in..." She shuddered. "He kept demanding to know where Shawn is."
"I didn't have time to get a very good look at him." Jim glanced at Blair questioningly, and Blair shook his head. "We'll want to get a description from you. Maybe we can figure out who he was."
"I'll see about letting you look at some mug books," Blair added. "We may be able to get an artist to do a sketch we can distribute to other officers, too."
Ann shook her head. "No."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Mrs. Wong..."
"No." Ann raised her chin stubbornly. "This is not a police matter. Shawn has not done anything illegal."
Blair saw Jim's jaw tighten and jumped in. "Mrs. Wong, whatever Shawn has or hasn't done, there's nothing legal about a man breaking into your house and threatening you at gun point. That is a police matter."
"But Shawn will become involved," Sally said quietly. "He has a future, Jim. He's going to college. That can't be jeopardized."
"Shawn's life might be jeopardized if we can't find this man," Jim snapped. He took a deep breath, softening his voice. "I don't know what Shawn's involved in, but whoever this man was, he's willing to break into your house to find Shawn. He's probably willing to do more than that once he finds Shawn."
Blair leaned forward. "We need to find Shawn before anyone else does, Mrs. Wong. If we can catch the man who threatened you, that could buy us some time."
Ann looked at Sally, her hands clutching at each other nervously. She glanced back at her other two children, who had been watching the conversation with silent fascination. Finally, she sighed, her shoulders slumping.
"All right." Taking a deep breath, she continued, "He was tall, about your height and build, Jim. He had blond hair and..." she frowned, looking at Sally questioningly. "Blue eyes?"
Sally nodded. "Blue eyes. His skin was very fair."
"He had a scar on his hand," Mary contributed softly. "Across his knuckles, like this." She ran a finger over her hand to demonstrate.
Jim walked over to the window and stared out for a minute. Blair, recognizing his need to plan, filled in the sudden silence.
"Is there anything else you remember about him? Any other unusual marks, something about the way he talked, maybe?"
Ann, Sally, and the children all shook their heads. Alex crossed his arms over his chest, giving Blair an oddly defiant look.
"Alex?" Blair asked gently. "Did you see something?"
"No," Alex snapped, turning away.
Alex froze at the sound of his mother's voice.
"Is there something you need to tell us?"
"No," he said with less certainty than before.
His mother gave him a hard look. He wilted under it, finally turning to Blair.
"Shawn's in a lot of trouble, isn't he?"
Blair nodded. "It looks like it."
"I know where he is."
"What?" Ann stood up, turning to glare at her son. "You knew and you let me worry all this time?"
"But, Mom, he told me not to tell anyone," Alex protested. "He said he'd be home in a few days, and he'd explain everything then."
"Where is he?" Jim broke in.
Alex hesitated again, but a glance at his mother made him swallow heavily and start talking. "He's staying with Lance."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "And Lance is...?"
"Shawn's best friend from high school," Ann answered. "He works out at the music store at the mall."
"I think we've met," Blair said. "Blond hair and an attitude?"
Ann gave a strained smile. "Yes, that would be Lance."
"I think I need to have another talk with Lance." Jim smiled grimly. "Sandburg, I want you to stay with Sally, Ann, and the children. Call Simon and see about those mug books, too."
Blair walked over to Jim, putting a hand on his arm to turn him away from the others so that they could speak privately. "Jim, I was thinking. Maybe we ought to move them to somewhere safer, where the bad guys can't find them."
Jim ran a hand over his face, then nodded. "Good idea, Chief. Any suggestions?"
"Your dad's cabin, like we did with Steven?"
"I don't know. It's a long way out there. A hell of a lot could happen in the process of getting them there, and you'd be on your own until I can get Shawn and find out what's going on here."
"What about getting some backup, then?"
Jim nodded. "If Simon will okay it." He thought for a minute. "Okay, here's what you do. Call Simon and see if he'll send some help, then take them home. They can stay there till I get Shawn, then we'll take everyone out to the cabin together."
"All right." Blair started to turn away, then glanced back. "Hey, be careful out there, okay?"
"Okay." Jim grinned, but there was a touch of seriousness in his eyes. "You too, Chief."
Joseph stopped in the parking lot of a strip mall and sat for a moment, watching the entrance to the lot to see if anyone pulled in. He was almost convinced he hadn't been followed, but it never hurt to be careful. After five minutes of no traffic except a young mother with two toddlers, he relaxed and pulled out his cell phone.
"We have a problem," he reported as soon as he was connected through to his boss.
"That's not what I want to hear, Joe," John Chang answered sharply.
"Sorry, Mr. Chang. It looks like the cops are just a step behind us. Those two who showed up looking for the kid this morning were at his house, too. I wasn't able to get anything out of the family."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Joseph waited, wondering vaguely what one-way tickets to anywhere in South America went for these days.
"I want you to go back to the family. We need to give the kid an incentive to do what we want. I will get that disk back, no matter what lengths are necessary to obtain it."
Joseph had been at his job long enough that he didn't need clarification.
He hung up and drove back to the house, parking several houses down to scope out the situation. The blue and white striped truck he'd noted as he'd run from the house was gone, but the cars belonging to the family were still there.
As he was watching, the long-haired man who had attacked him in the house stepped out the front door, scanned the neighborhood, then held the door open. The two women and the boy and girl ventured out cautiously, then all but ran to one of the cars. The long-haired man followed, his head swiveling as if he was trying to watch every direction at once.
Joseph raised an eyebrow. He didn't know if this was a good development or not. As the car containing his targets pulled out, he started his engine. He gave them a few seconds' lead, then started after them, waiting for opportunity to present itself.
"Man, I already told you, I haven't seen this guy. I don't even know him."
"Not according to his mother." Jim planted both hands on the counter and glared down at the little punk impatiently. "She said you'd been best friends since high school. Now where is he?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Because I'm going to bust your little butt if you don't," Jim snapped.
Lance flinched. Jim could almost hear Blair: "You won't get anything out of him if he's catatonic, man. Lighten up."
Jim took a deep breath and lowered his voice. "Because he's in a lot of trouble, and I'm the best chance he has to get out of it."
"You talked to my mom?"
The new voice came from behind a CD display rack. Jim turned quickly, a little chagrinned that he'd been too focused on Lance to hear that someone else was in the store.
A young man stepped around the display, his arms crossed over his chest nervously. Jim recognized the stance, having seen a younger version of the same thing not too long before.
"You must be Shawn."
Shawn nodded impatiently. "Why were you talking to my mom?"
"Trying to find you. Your Aunt Sally is a friend of mine, and she was worried when you didn't come home."
Shawn studied him. "You're that cop Aunt Sally talks about all the time? Jimmy?"
"Um, yeah." Jim pulled out his shield and held it out so Shawn could see it. "Jim Ellison, Cascade PD. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?"
"You know, that could be a fake," Lance broke in. He walked around the counter and took the shield from Shawn to study it.
"Look, kid..." Jim started impatiently.
"No, he's right. How do I know you're who you say you are?" Shawn asked. He frowned, looking Jim up and down. "What happened every time Aunt Sally made cookie dough when you were a kid?"
Suddenly Jim was glad Blair hadn't come with him. He'd never hear the end of it. "She always had to make extra because my brother and I would steal it and eat it before she could bake it."
Shawn grinned. "Okay, you're you. You have no idea how many times I heard that story."
"So can we go somewhere and talk?"
"We can talk in front of Lance."
Jim sighed. "Okay, fine. What kind of trouble are you in?"
"Trouble?" Shawn widened his eyes innocently.
"Trouble." Jim's patience was starting to wear. "The kind of trouble that has an armed man breaking into your house and threatening your mom and your brother and sister."
"What?" Shawn's face paled, and he turned as if to leave. "I've got to get home."
Jim reached out to grab his arm. "My partner's with them, and he's moving them someplace safe. We need to focus on why that man was there in the first place. Why is he looking for you?"
Shawn tightened his arms in front of his chest and didn't answer.
Lance looked between Shawn and Jim, then said hesitantly, "Maybe you better tell him, buddy."
Shawn ran a hand through his hair. "I..." He paused, looked at Jim's impatient expression, then finished in a rush, "I kinda heard something I wasn't supposed to."
"What did you hear?"
"My boss ordered someone killed."
Jim studied him for a moment, but he looked completely serious--and more than a little terrified.
"Okay," Jim said slowly, "why don't we start from the beginning and you tell me what happened?"
"My boss is John Chang, the owner of Cybernet Solutions." Shawn glanced over his shoulder nervously, almost as if he was expecting Chang to pop up from behind the display rack. "I don't know the man he had killed. I was walking past his office, Mr. Chang's, I mean. I heard him talking to this guy he called Harlan. I don't know if that was his last name or his first name. He said Harlan was supposed to have some kind of plans to give him, and Harlan kept saying he'd tried, but he couldn't get them. Then Mr. Chang told this other guy, Joe, to 'take Harlan for a ride'."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "And you took this to mean Mr. Chang wanted this Harlan killed? How do you know he didn't mean something else?"
Shawn looked at him scornfully. "It was the way he said it, all meaningful, so you couldn't miss what he meant. I watch movies, you know. I'm not stupid. Besides, why would he send someone to threaten my family if that's not what he meant?"
"Then why didn't you call the police?"
"Because I didn't want him to send someone after me. I said I wasn't stupid."
Jim conceded the point, a nagging suspicion taking precedence. "When did all this happen?"
His mystery body had probably been killed Friday night or Saturday morning. Jim wondered what the odds were that the answer to one problem could fall into his lap so easily, even if it did bring with it a bigger one. "But you don't know who Harlan is? You've never seen him before?"
Shawn shook his head.
"Well, if he was in the Cybernet Solutions building, maybe a receptionist or someone in Personnel will be able to ID him," Jim said hopefully, talking as much to himself as to the boys, then stopped as Shawn shook his head. "What?"
"I, um, wasn't in the CS building," Shawn said, looking at his feet as a dull red flush crept up his cheeks.
"Where were you, then?"
"In this nightclub, Destiny Awaits. Mr. Chang owns it."
"Aren't you a little young...?" Jim started.
"I wasn't there for the nightclub," Shawn snapped. "My job was to pick up and deliver things for the company. Mr. Chang owns four businesses, including CS and the nightclub. He has a couple of people who run errands between the businesses, carry important papers, take tools and stuff out to CS service techs, that kind of thing. I was at the nightclub to pick up a delivery and take it to one of the other businesses."
"What were you delivering?"
Shawn hesitated, then pulled a small square package out of his jacket pocket. He held it out to Jim. "I don't know. I haven't opened it."
Jim took the package. It was wrapped in ordinary brown paper, with no markings to indicate what might be in it. He could feel the outline of a hard square inside the wrapping. He couldn't smell anything unusual, although Shawn had apparently been carrying a peppermint in the same pocket for a while.
Gingerly, he pulled the wrapping off. Underneath, he found a mini CD case with a CD inside.
Shawn craned his neck to see what Jim had uncovered.
"So it's not drugs?" he asked, sounding relieved.
Jim raised an eyebrow at him. "You were expecting some?"
"No," Shawn said quickly. He blushed under Jim's gaze. "No. Really."
Jim decided to leave that discussion for later. "We'll have to take this to the station to see what's so important on it. Shawn, I want you to come with me. I don't want you without a guard until we catch this joker that's looking for you. Lance, I need your word you won't say anything about this to anyone until we get it sorted out."
Lance nodded, but Shawn shook his head. "I need to see my family."
"I'll take you to them as soon as we've dropped this off with someone who can find out what's on it." Jim put a hand on Shawn's shoulder before he could object and steered him towards the door. "Come on, the sooner we get there, the sooner we can get done."
Shawn followed Jim sullenly into the bullpen. Jim ignored the attitude, heading straight for his desk. He had too many dead people to deal with to worry about a teenager's rebellion.
Once again he found a note waiting for him at his desk.
The company that ordered the transmitter coins is called Cybernet Solutions, owned by a John Chang. He's an up-and-coming entrepreneur, very hot in the Cascade business community. The company specializes in setting up and maintaining computer networks for various companies in the Cascade and Seattle areas, with a good rep for quick service and reliable maintenance. More info available if you need it.
I haven't been able to turn up any missing person reports with links to Cybernet Solutions. I'm still waiting to see if the dental records or fingerprints turn up anything. I'll let you know as soon as I get something.
"Damn." Jim grabbed for his phone. "Sam, Ellison. I need you to do a search on a Harlan, could be first or last name, connected to Cybernet Solutions. I think we have our mystery corpse."
Jim could hear the clicking of fingers on a keyboard.
"This could take me a bit." Sam's voice was a little distracted. "You want me to call you when I'm done?"
"Actually, I've got something else for you to look at. How about we bring it down?"
Jim hung up and looked over at Shawn. "You ever wanted to see a Forensics lab?"
"I want to go home."
"First things first."
Sam barely glanced up from her computer as they came in. "I think I found something. I checked into Cybernet Solutions' IRS records and came up with a Robert Harlan as one of their service technicians. How'd you come up with his name?"
Jim gave her the short version, leaving out any mention of his connection with Shawn and Shawn's job as courier when he got to the part about Shawn overhearing Harlan's death sentence.
Sam shot Shawn a curious look, as if she suspected there was more to the story than she was being told, but all she said was, "Sometimes we get a lucky break. We're working on matching up Harlan's dental records with the body now, but I have a feeling this is our guy."
"Great." Jim pulled the CD case out of his pocket. "Can you get someone to look at this and see if there's anything important on it? I have reason to believe it's connected to this same case."
Sam glanced over at it. "I'll get Carl to tackle it. He's our computer expert. Do you want to leave it here, or do you need it immediately?"
"Soon, but it doesn't have to be this minute." Jim glanced over at Shawn. "I've got an errand to run first."
"Sure." Sam frowned at her computer, then started typing furiously. Dismissed, Jim turned Shawn toward the door.
"Can we go home now?" Shawn asked impatiently.
"I need to check in with my captain, but we'll go after that."
Shawn sighed. Jim ignored the betrayed look being aimed at his back as he led the way back up to the bullpen.
Jim pointed Shawn to a chair at his desk and headed to Simon's office. Knocking briefly, he poked his head in.
"I don't recall saying you could come in," Simon said dryly, looking up from the papers he had been reading at his desk.
"No, but you were thinking it. I decided to save you the trouble."
Jim walked in, plopping down in a chair without waiting for Simon to invite him.
"So," Simon said, pointedly not commenting on Jim's move to commandeer his chair. "Anything on the body from the bay? And where's your partner?"
Jim filled him in quickly, painting Shawn's involvement in the best light possible.
"So we've most likely got this Chang guy on murder," Simon said when he was finished. "Do we know who 'Joe' is?"
Jim shook his head. "Not yet. And I think there may be more involved than murder. Chang had Harlan killed for a reason. I'm hoping this CD will give us some indication why."
"You know, Jim, there's no guarantee this CD the kid had has anything to do with the murder."
"Yeah, I know. But I'm telling you, Simon, there's something weird about it. Why send the kid to pick it up at a nightclub? How does that make sense?"
"The mind boggles," Simon said dryly. "Where was the kid taking it?"
Jim frowned. "He never said." He stood and crossed over to the door. "Want me to call him in and ask?"
"Why don't you do that?"
Jim poked his head out the door and called Shawn in.
"Where were you taking the package?" Jim asked when Shawn sat down in one of the chairs in front of Simon's desk.
"Chang Shipping," Shawn answered. "It's down by the Argonet Street docks."
"Imagine that," Jim said to Simon.
"How often did you make deliveries like this?" Simon asked.
Before he could answer, a shrill ringing interrupted. Jim shrugged apologetically at Simon and answered his cell phone.
"Let me talk to Shawn Li."
Jim didn't recognize the voice, but something in the background was naggingly familiar. Cautiously, he replied, "What makes you think you can reach him here?"
"Because his mother said you know where he is, and I made it clear to her that if she was wrong, she wouldn't like the consequences."
"Who is this?" Jim demanded.
Simon looked at him sharply, alerted by his tone.
"That doesn't matter nearly as much as what I want and what I have to offer in exchange. Namely, the kid's family and this curly-headed cop that was supposed to be protecting them."
Jim's stomach clenched in sudden fear, but he forced his voice to be calm. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do. Two old ladies, a couple of kids, and a Vice reject. It's a five for one deal, but it's a limited time offer."
The sound in the background was a soft hiss-clank, the sound of water moving through metal pipes. Hardly an unusual sound in any older building, but this sound had a distinct rhythm, a hiss-hiss-clank, that Jim knew intimately.
"What's your interest in Shawn?" he asked, forcing his voice to be calm. "Or are you more concerned with the CD he has?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "That's none of your business. Just bring him and the CD to Martins Pier in two hours. No other cops, or there won't be any reason to make an exchange."
Before Jim could respond, the caller hung up.
"Jim? What's going on?" Simon asked, rising from his seat.
"The son of a bitch is in my home." Jim forced the words out through clenched teeth, any attempt at control gone for the moment. "He's got Sandburg and Shawn's family, and he wants to make a trade."
"Oh, God." Shawn's face went white.
"Take it easy, kid." Jim tried for comforting, but his tension turned the words into a bark. He took a deep breath and tried again. "Don't worry, I'll get them out of there. I've got home-field advantage. He doesn't stand a chance."
"Don't get too confident," Simon warned. "It may be your home, but he's in it, and he's got hostages."
"One of whom is Sandburg, who's pretty damn good at guerrilla warfare," Jim answered, but he didn't add the other thought that went through his mind: If he doesn't get himself killed.
"He's also got four civilians to look out for." Simon sighed. "Listen, Jim, before you go off doing anything half-cocked, I want to find out what's on this CD. Let's know what we're dealing with."
A phone call and ten minutes later, Sam came into Simon's office, towing behind her a young man whose appearance screamed "computer geek" from the heavy-framed glasses perched on his nose to the high-water slacks hanging from his suspenders.
"Gentlemen, this is Carl. He's so good with computers he scares Bill Gates. You're going to love what he's got for you."
Carl beamed at them all, holding up the CD case Jim had brought in. "It's absolutely beautiful. Simple, elegant, almost foolproof."
"What is?" Jim asked impatiently.
Carl blinked. "Oh. Right." Frowning at the CD, he continued in a slightly deflated voice, "I should tell you a lot of this is supposition. Without going to the actual companies, I can't know for sure if I'm right, but it all seems to fit together."
"What does?" Jim growled.
"We're working on a time limit here, Carl," Simon added, frowning around his cigar.
"Right. Based on what Sam's told me and some cases I've worked on in the past, it looks like Cybernet Solutions was working a creative scam. This CD is actually a CD-RW, one of the types of CDs you can write information to. When I opened it up, I found what looks like prototype software from a company called Blue Coast, which is one of the new hot names in 3D gaming."
Jim rubbed his temples, feeling a headache hovering around the edges of his mind. "And this means what to us?"
"This means," Carl said slowly, as if talking to a child, "that Blue Coast is being ripped off. They're going to protect any new software they're developing until they're ready to release it. They're certainly not going to be giving it out to just anyone who walks in off the streets. The only way Cybernet Solutions could have gotten it is by stealing it." Carl shook his head admiringly. "I'm betting they installed a CD-RW drive in the computers they networked, then set up some sort of automatic program, maybe a backup program or something unobtrusive, that would save data from the network to the CD-RW's. They could switch out disks when they went in to service the network. Given the number of companies Cybernet Solutions deals with, they could make an absolute killing. Not just software piracy like they did here, but stock information, client data... the possibilities are endless."
Jim nodded. "And they probably use the shipping company as a front to get the information to buyers. Using company runners who aren't in on the deal to get the information from one place to another meant the theft would be nearly untraceable, at least to the head of the company."
"Except," Sam added, "for the fact that he was overheard ordering the death of one of his employees who just happens to be a network tech, one of the only people who'd have access to the CDs to exchange them."
"It's a little circumstantial, but it's enough to start with," Simon said. "Good work."
"Excuse me?" Shawn interrupted. "What about my family? They're still being held hostage, you know."
"We haven't forgotten," Simon said grimly. "But the more we know, the better chance we have of rescuing them."
Jim bit back the urge to add that Shawn's family, not to mention Jim's partner, wouldn't be in danger right now if Shawn's actions hadn't landed them there. If Blair was here, he'd no doubt have something to say about irritable behavior under stress, with some pointed looks in Jim's direction to make sure he got his meaning across.
Of course, if Blair was here, he'd also be telling Jim to get his ass in gear and go rescue the hostages.
"I'll get a warrant for Chang," Simon was continuing, "and Jim, I want you to take whoever's available and go take care of this hostage situation."
"I'd rather go alone, sir. I can get in easier on my own."
"But you have no way of knowing how many you're up against," Simon pointed out. "If there's more than one, you're going to have a hard time protecting the hostages and dealing with your mystery caller."
"But if I go in there with the cavalry, they'll see me coming." Jim rubbed at his temple again, his impatience mounting. "How about I take backup with me, but they stay out of sight until I've had time to get in and scout out the situation? If there's more than one, I'll call them in. If not, I should be able to handle it."
Simon shook his head. "I don't like it." Then he sighed. "But I see your point. Get going."
If there was an advantage to having his home broken into on multiple occasions, it had to lie in the familiarity Jim had gained in creative ways to get inside. A few moments' careful consideration sent him up the fire escape; he could get into Blair's room without alerting anyone to his presence.
By some stroke of luck, Blair had shut his doors that morning. Gun drawn, Jim crept across the floor as silently as he could, making a mental note to mention the joys of putting things away the next time he had a free moment with his partner. He crouched down beside the door, but couldn't see anything useful from his angle. He needed to know how many were in the room before he tried to go in, though, so he listened carefully for voices.
At first, all he could pick out were heartbeats, breathing, and the steady creaking of the pipes. Someone was watching a talk show next door, down below a baby was crying, and...
...there. Blair whispering something, his voice so familiar Jim focused on it without thinking.
"That's right, just a little looser."
Jim sighed in relief, a knot in his stomach he hadn't noticed till then releasing. Blair was alive, and his voice sounded strong. Anything beyond that, Jim could deal with.
There was a pause, then Blair whispered again. "Okay, he's looking away again. Go for it."
The second voice was a young girl's. Mary, Jim recalled after a moment's thought. She sounded nearly breathless with fear, but she was obviously brave enough to be helping Blair with something.
"Hey, what are you two whispering about?"
Jim recognized the new voice as the one from the phone. Footsteps crossed the floor, moving closer to Blair's room and to the place Blair's voice had come from. Not too far from the kitchen table, Jim judged as the footsteps stopped.
"Think you can untie those ropes, huh?"
Mary gave a frightened gasp. Jim heard sharp protests from Sally, Ann, and Alex, overridden by Blair's closer voice.
"Hey, man, leave her alone!"
Afraid to let things go any further, Jim eased the door open and stood, inching his way out into the hall. He could just see the tips of Blair's sneakers from where he stood. Cautiously, he leaned around the corner just enough to get a partial view.
He could see Sally sitting on the couch, her back to him and her posture suggesting that her hands were tied behind her. Ann and Alex were out of his range of sight. Blair and Mary sat back to back on chairs from the kitchen table. The man who held them hostage pushed them apart enough to lean between them. Focusing in, Jim could see him start to adjust the ties--not actually ropes, but pantyhose. Stripped off the ladies, Jim assumed, since that wasn't an item he or Blair kept around the house.
Jim didn't figure he was likely to get a better chance, so he moved forward. Blair's eyes widened as he came into view. Jim couldn't help but wince when he saw the darkening bruise and cut on his partner's temple. That, at least, explained how the man had gotten the upper hand. Blair looked like he'd survive, though, and he was obviously thinking, mouthing something at Jim that was either "get ready" or "red teddy."
Working on the assumption that Blair wasn't suggesting a romantic interlude, Jim nodded and moved forward slowly. His intention was to get behind the kidnapper before he could turn around. Blair watched him, biding his time till Jim was close enough for him to make whatever move he was planning.
Just as Jim was getting close enough, he put his weight down on a board that had been squeaking since the last major rain. He heard the beginnings of the creak before it could be audible to anyone else, but he couldn't shift his balance fast enough to stop the torturous noise. He froze, cursing and training his gun on the kidnapper.
"Freeze," he snapped as the kidnapper straightened up.
"Why don't you?" the kidnapper shot back, stepping sideways to reveal the gun he had pointed at Mary's head.
Jim felt a shaft of fear pierce his stomach. Training took over, dropping his voice to a soothing tone as his mind raced.
"You can't hurt her, you know. If you do, you'll lose any options you've got. Let her go, let them all go, and we can work a deal." Jim watched the kidnapper's eyes, waiting for that subtle twitch that would indicate what he was going to do. If he even began to move toward hurting Mary, he was going to die.
"We had a deal. The kid for everyone you see he--"
Before the kidnapper could finish, Blair made his move. Jerking his hands apart, he lunged upward, shoving the gun away from Mary's head and tackling the kidnapper to the floor.
Somewhere in the melee of bodies, there was still a gun, and Jim didn't dare interfere. He circled the fighters, but wherever he trained his gun, some part of Blair's body got in the way.
Suddenly the two bodies heaved, and somehow the kidnapper rolled on top of Blair, his gun under Blair's chin.
"Back off or he dies." The kidnapper's voice left no room for doubt.
Jim's vision telescoped to that one point, metal against his partner's jaw.
"He dies, you die."
The kidnapper's eyes met Jim's. For a sickening moment, Jim saw the bleak acceptance in the other's eyes and knew he was about to pull the trigger. Jim's own hand tightened on his gun, even though he knew it would be too late.
Then out of nowhere, a frying pan crashed into the kidnapper's head, and he crumpled like a rag doll.
Mary let the pan fall to the floor, staring down at the man with a look of fascinated horror. Then, with a soft wail, she turned and bolted toward her mother, falling down on her knees to bury her face in Ann's lap. Ann, still tied to her chair, could do little but croon reassurances.
Jim tried to ignore the sudden weakness in his knees as he pulled his cuffs from his belt and fastened them to the kidnapper's wrists. Only when he was sure the man was securely fastened did he bother to check for a pulse. A small part of him regretted finding one.
"You okay, Chief?" he asked, turning back to his partner.
Blair was still lying on the floor, touching his bruised temple gingerly.
"Ouch," he said fervently. He pushed himself up on his elbows, holding out one hand for Jim to pull him the rest of the way to his feet. "I'm fine."
Jim obligingly levered him up, reaching quickly to steady him as he swayed. "You sure?" He turned Blair's chin to get a better look at his temple. "It looks like he hit you pretty hard. You could have a concussion."
"Nah. I know concussions. This is just a headache." Blair winced as he leaned back to free his face from Jim's hands. "Okay, a bad headache."
"Well, there's plenty of frozen stuff in the freezer to put on it." Jim started to clap Blair on the back, thought better of it, and squeezed his shoulder instead. "How 'bout we get everyone untied?"
Jim crossed over to Sally, quickly reaching around to undo the belt she'd been tied with. He pulled her up into a hug. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Everyone's fine." Sally spoke firmly, but Jim suspected she was speaking as much to convince herself as him. "Shawn, Jim? Did you find Shawn?"
"Yes, he's at the station, safe and sound."
"Oh, thank you," Sally whispered, tightening her arms around Jim's waist. "Thank you."
Jim held her for a moment longer, but then a sound on the landing outside the front door reminded him of something he'd forgotten to do.
"Damn," he muttered, lunging to rescue his door. He couldn't afford to replace it again.
He got to the door and opened it just as Brown and Rafe were preparing to kick it in.
"Hey, what're you trying to do? Do you have any idea how expensive it is to replace this door?" Jim asked.
Rafe stepped past Brown into the apartment, surveying the scene with an aggrieved expression. "You could have let us know you had things under control."
"Damn, Hairboy, nice shiner," Brown added. "How'd you get that?"
Blair stood from untying Ann and Alex, brushing his hand across his face self-consciously. "I guess this guy must have followed us from Ann's house. He surprised us when we were coming out of the elevator, knocked me out, and the next thing I know, I'm tied to a chair and our hero here," he gestured at Mary, who blushed furiously, "was playing Houdini."
"What is it with you and the ladies, Sandburg?" Brown shook his head in mock disbelief. He glanced down at the kidnapper, who was just beginning to stir. "You want us to take care of him?"
"Yeah, if you don't mind," Jim answered. "I want to take the Lis up to the station to see Shawn."
"The captain called while we were waiting," Rafe said, putting emphasis on the last word. "He said he'd gotten a warrant on Chang and was sending Connor and Taggart over to pick him up."
"Who's Chang?" Blair asked. He walked over to join them, still probing at the swelling cut on his temple.
Jim swatted his hand away. "You're going to make that bleed."
"Thanks, Mom. Now who's Chang?"
"Long story. You up to driving down to the station? I don't think everyone's going to fit in my truck, and Simon's going to be wanting a report."
"I'm fine," Blair answered. He fixed Jim with a determined stare. "Don't you think you should tell me what's going on?"
Jim shrugged. "Like I said, it's a long story. I'd rather wait till we get to the station and tell it once."
"Wait a minute. I was knocked out and tied up, and I want to know why."
Jim gave his partner a gentle smile and turned to Sally and Ann. "May I offer you two ladies a ride?"
Sally grinned. "That would be lovely, dear."
"Sandburg, will you take the kids?"
Jim ushered the two ladies out without waiting for an answer. Behind him, he heard the protest he was expecting.
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