Blair walked into the restaurant, spotted Jim already in a booth, and slid in opposite him. Jim handed him a menu in silence. The jaw wasn't going, but no greeting meant something was wrong. Jim Ellison wasn't that hard to read, if you knew him.
"Hey, Jim. How's Steven?"
Oookay. Worth pushing? Blair studied his partner. Nah, not yet. "Did he tell you anything?"
"I'm not on the case, Sandburg."
Patience. "I know. But you asked, right?"
"No." Jim looked at the menu. "Did you get your paper in?"
Smooth, Jim. "Yeah, thanks. Dr. M. practically fell over."
"On time for a change, huh? Better be careful, Chief. Some of these professors are old; their hearts can't take that kind of shock."
"Hey, B.S. I was never late in my life."
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "B.S.?"
"That's b.s., all right."
Blair snorted. "If that's the best you can do, you have no right to complain about my jokes."
Lunch passed in small talk. Blair waited until Jim had finished eating and visibly relaxed before he tried again.
"How's your father doing?"
No dice. Jim stiffened right up. "Same as always."
"What does that mean, Jim?"
"It means I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay. Fine. Don't." You will. "You ready?"
"Sandburg, I just said--"
"To go, man."
Jim sighed, staring into space. "Sorry. Yeah, let's go."
The ride to the station was silent. Jim looked pissed off at the world. That wasn't unusual, but it could be a real pain in the ass. Sooner or later, Blair would get everything out of him, but he'd really prefer it to be sooner. The longer he waited, the harder it would be, for Jim and for him. If nothing else, he'd learned that in three years. And if it was his fault, he definitely wanted it out in the open. He hated it when Jim was mad at him. Especially those times when he wasn't quite sure why. Not that that happened often. Jim usually didn't hesitate to tell him when he'd screwed up.
Jim had incredibly high standards in some areas. In most areas. Right and wrong. Courage. Loyalty. Loyalty was a big one. Blair wasn't sure how much of it was genetic--an offshoot of the sentinel abilities--and how much had been learned. Based on what little Jim had told him, William Ellison had been a strict father with very definite ideas about what was acceptable behavior in his sons. But Jim hadn't said enough for Blair to form a good picture of William's morality or lack thereof. Pitting his sons against each other counted as rotten in Blair's book, but he might have done it out of some skewed belief that he was preparing his sons for the "real" world. Then again, he might just have been a mean son of a bitch who got some perverse enjoyment out of turning brothers into rivals. From what he'd seen, Blair didn't think the latter was true, but Ellison could have changed a lot over the years. People did. Just look at how much Jim had changed since Blair met him. If Jim could change that much in three years, William Ellison could have become an entirely different person in twenty.
"So, did your father say anything?"
Blair suppressed a sigh. Pulling teeth? That was easy. "The phone call this morning." Me.
"He mentioned it."
Blair waited. When nothing more was forthcoming, he twisted to look at his stone-faced partner. "Well? What did he say? He thinks we're shacking up, right? Oh, man, I am so sorry."
Some day, Jim was going to break that steering wheel. "Sandburg, I told you not to worry about it. What he thinks isn't important."
"It is, to you."
"I stopped caring about his opinion a long time ago."
"No, you didn't. He's your father, Jim, you're always going to care."
"We've already had this conversation, Chief."
"What did you tell him?"
"If I tell you, will you shut up about it?"
Jim's glance was skeptical, but he answered. "I told him you're my roommate."
"So, you didn't mention the sentinel thing?"
"Come on, Jim."
"No, I didn't mention the sentinel thing. I mentioned the partner thing, the friend thing, and the roommate thing. Okay? Are you happy now?"
"Yes." For now. "You told him I was your friend?"
He didn't expect an answer. Blair faced front again, sporting a smile that wouldn't go away. After a while, the blood flow returned to Jim's fingers. His eyes slid in Blair's direction for half a second.
"'Shacking up', Junior? I'm surprised you even know the term."
"Hey, man, I'm just trying to keep it in a context an old guy like you can understand."
Jim reached over and cuffed the back of his head. He could have ducked out of the way,
but he didn't bother. It didn't hurt, and it gave Jim something to grin about.
The afternoon passed slowly. With no pressing cases to occupy him, Jim was reduced to completing backed up paperwork and dwelling on what had happened to his brother. Or maybe what had happened with his father. Blair's attempts to lend a hand resulted in so many snaps and growls that he finally took himself off to Brown's desk and busied himself with school work. Seeing Blair's retreat, everyone else gave Jim a wide berth, which was probably just the way he wanted it. Blair got a sympathetic cup of coffee and a vending machine brownie from Rhonda, who still seemed to consider him the division mascot; Jim got decaf and no brownie. Blair's offer to share was turned down with a look. Hey, fine. No chocolate for you, Detective. You just sit there and brood.
By three, it had gotten so bad that Blair actually e-mailed Simon, begging him to assign Jim a case--any case. Simon refused, citing Jim's need to concentrate on his family, and Blair resigned himself to living with a panther with a thorn in his paw until Steven's case was resolved to Jim's satisfaction.
At four, a clerk from Robbery--Diane, if Blair remembered right, and he usually did--walked into Major Crime and handed Jim a folder. Jim stared at her like she'd handed him a bucket of fresh manure.
"What you asked for, Detective," she replied frostily. "A copy of the report on your brother's shooting."
Jim managed a smile. "Thanks very much for your trouble."
Denise returned Jim's smile, winked at Blair, and left. Blair watched her out, admiring the view, letting his imagination run wild until Jim's voice snapped him back to reality.
"God dammit, Steven!"
Before Blair could formulate a question, Jim was striding out the door, the folder clutched in his hand.
"Jim?" Blair hastily shut down Brown's computer, snatched up his backpack and jacket, grabbed Jim's jacket off the back of his chair and raced after his partner. "Jim! Wait!"
The elevator doors slid shut in his face. Dammit! Ellison, you son of a bitch! Blair took the stairs, racing down at breakneck speed, arms full of jackets and pack, cursing the name of Jim Ellison all the way. He burst through the door to the garage to see Jim pulling out of his parking space, heading for the exit.
Blair jumped an island, wove through a maze of concrete barriers and ran out in front of the truck. Jim slammed on the brakes. Blair slapped the hood, dashed around to the passenger door, jerked it open and jumped in.
"Sandburg, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"What do I think I'm doing? What do you think you're doing, man? Why'd you take off like that?"
"I need to talk to my brother."
"Why? What's going on?"
"Read the report."
Blair looked around. "Where--?"
"You're sitting on it, Darwin."
"Oh." Blair slid the folder out from under him and began to read. His eyes
widened. "Oh. Oh, shit."
Blair half-ran in an effort to keep up with Jim. The drive to Sargent Memorial hadn't calmed him down at all. He was majorly pissed. If Steven hadn't been in the hospital already, Jim might have put him there.
Jim slammed through the door to Steven's hospital room, startling his father and brother. William half-stood; Steven jumped, grabbed his side, and sank back onto the pillows. Jim thrust the folder in Steven's face.
"What the hell are you up to?"
Steven glanced at his father. "What are you talking about, Jim?"
"This." Jim practically shoved the folder up his brother's nose. "What kind of 'business meeting' were you having down on the docks at midnight? Huh? What are you into, Steven?"
"Don't lie to me!"
William reached for his older son. "Jimmy, calm down."
Jim wheeled on him. "Stay out of this, Dad!" Back to Steven. "Do you think I'm stupid? You sure as hell thought the cops from Robbery were when you fed them this bullshit. No wonder you were so worried about me reporting the shooting. What are you involved in this time?"
"It's a development deal, Jim. Perfectly legitimate. Anyway, the client didn't shoot me, it was a mugger. It's in the report."
"The report is crap! Legitimate clients don't have midnight meetings."
"This one does."
"Oh, really?" Jim grabbed the bedside phone. "How about we call him and ask? I'm sure this legitimate business client of yours will be happy to verify your story."
Steven struggled up and put a hand over Jim's. "No. Don't." He fell back again, closing his eyes. "You're right. I lied. There was no client. I'm sorry, Jim."
Shit. Slowly, Jim returned the receiver to its cradle. He looked stunned, as though he hadn't really believed what he knew had to be true. "What the hell were you doing down there, Steven?"
"Stevie," William began.
"No, Dad," Steven said quietly. "Jim needs to know." He opened his eyes, but couldn't look at Jim. "I was meeting a blackmailer."
"What?" Jim's voice would've lowered the temperature in Antarctica. Having been on the receiving end of that more than once, Blair winced in sympathy for Steven, but kept his mouth shut. "What did you do?"
Steven looked to his father again. "Dad?"
William nodded slightly and fixed his gaze on the floor. "Steven isn't the one being blackmailed, Jimmy. I am."
"You?" Jim faced his father. "Why?"
William glanced at Blair, hesitating.
"Maybe I should wait outside," Blair offered.
Jim shook his head. "No, Chief. Stay."
The distress on the older Ellison's face was too much. Blair tugged on Jim's sleeve, drawing him aside for the illusion of privacy. Probably, both William and Steven could hear anyway, but they'd be polite and pretend they couldn't. People did that.
Blair pitched his voice low. "Jim, I don't think this is a good time to push the partner thing. You want your father to open up; I don't think he'll be able to do that in front of me. I'm gonna go get a cup of coffee. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Okay?"
Jim didn't look at him, but the tension in his arm eased slightly. "I'll fill you in later."
Blair gave Jim's back an encouraging pat, and left the room.
Jim watched Blair's exit from the corner of his eye, then switched his focus to his father. The greying head was bowed, resting in hands that had once been strong, but were now unaccountably bony, the skin sagging and wrinkled, dotted with age spots.
"He's gone," Jim said, sounding cold even to himself. "Tell me."
The hands muffled his father's voice, but Jim heard clearly. Of course. "It's about your mother."
Every part of him that could move was instantly sheathed in ice. His mother? His mother was dead. How could anyone--"What about her?"
"She.... While we were separated, before the divorce, she--she had an affair."
"You were separated. She had a right to do what she wanted. How can anyone blackmail you with that?"
"There are pictures, Jimmy. They're--not very nice. The blackmailer threatened to make them public, to send them to the club, the papers--anywhere I wouldn't want them to go."
"Where are the pictures now? Did you handle them?"
"They're gone. I burned them."
"Dad, they were evidence--" Jim sighed. It was too late now. Why waste his breath? "How much does he want?"
"Fifty thousand dollars."
"Do you know who it is?"
His father's heart rate increased. "No."
"I don't know him, Jimmy."
"Fine." He turned to Steven, whose sympathetic gaze was locked on their father. "You went to make the payoff?"
"No. I went to negotiate."
"Negotiate? Did you think this was some kind of business deal?"
"That's exactly what it is, Jim. Or what it should have been."
"But the blackmailer didn't play by your rules, did he?"
Steven actually blushed. "No."
"Was he alone?"
"Can you describe him?"
"Not very well. It was dark. He's big, a couple inches taller than you. And about twice as wide."
"Did you see the ring?"
"He wore a ring. It left an impression on your face."
Steven lifted a hand to his jaw, trying to feel the mark. "Something flashed just before he hit me. Must have been that. I didn't really see it, though." He frowned. "I don't feel anything."
"Trust me, it's there." Steven shrugged and lowered his hand. "This guy's idea of negotiating was to beat the crap out of you?"
"He said the price was non-negotiable. Said he wanted to show Dad just how unhappy it made him that he didn't live up to his end of the bargain."
"So he shot you just to make it extra clear?"
"He could've killed you."
"I know. I guess I'm lucky he just wanted to make a point."
"I guess you are." It wasn't easy, but he managed to keep from telling Steven how stupid he was. That could wait until later. "Dad?"
Finally, his father looked up, his expression miserable.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want you to know. I didn't want either of you to know, but Steven was there when he called yesterday. He insisted...."
"You should have told me, Dad. You should have gone to the police."
"No. No police, Jimmy. He said--"
"Dad, I'm the police."
"You're my son. This is a personal matter."
"It's a crime. I can't ignore it."
"Yes, you can."
"What are you saying, Dad? You want to pay this guy? You want to let him get away with this? He shot Steven! Does your name mean more to you than your own son?"
"No! Of course not. But--your mother...."
"What do you care? You divorced her."
"She divorced me. But she was your mother, Jimmy. Yours and Steven's. I don't want you hurt by this."
"Steven's already been hurt."
"Hey," Steven interrupted. "I'm still here. Do I get a say in this?"
Jim and his father spoke in unison. At any other time, it might have been funny. Not now. Blue Ellison eyes glared at each other. Steven broke the silence, a firmness in his tone that Jim had never heard before.
"I'm the one who got shot. I agree with Dad. Keep it private. Pay him and he'll go away."
"And if he doesn't?" Jim demanded. "What then?"
"I think we should take the chance."
"It's not up to you, Jim. It's up to Dad."
He couldn't win. His father would never give in; he never had, not on anything. Steven's support just made it worse. But he was a cop. He couldn't just stand by and watch while his father paid a blackmailer. Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stop the headache he knew was coming.
"Has he called again?"
"When he does, let me know. I'll make the delivery."
"This is non-negotiable, Dad."
His father sighed. "All right, Jimmy. Whatever you want."
He almost laughed. The door opening saved him from having to answer. Blair stuck his head in cautiously. "Everything okay, Jim?"
"Fine, Chief. We're done here." Jim picked the folder up from the bed and moved to the door, pausing to cast a final glance at his father. "Call me."
You'd better, Dad. But he didn't say it.