Masks: Part 12

Jim pulled into the parking lot at 3 A.M. The Corvair was there, but he'd figured it would be. He hadn't heard from Blair, which must mean the kid hadn't found anything at the Hatch Gallery and had just gone home. Oh well, it had been a long shot anyway. There was a light on in the loft: either Blair was still up, or he'd left it on for Jim. He hoped Blair was in bed and sleeping, peacefully for a change. But knowing Blair, that was unlikely.

After three months of work, they'd finally gotten those extortionists, Price and Watson. Simon had wanted to go out and celebrate, and Jim had agreed, though he'd had a twinge of conscience about leaving Blair alone in the loft. He'd almost called the kid to tell him he'd be late, but the possibility that Blair might actually be sleeping had stopped him. The last thing Blair needed was to be scared awake by a phone call from his roommate. Besides, he'd already left a message before they went out to make the arrest.

As he climbed the stairs, Jim could hear music playing in the loft, Chris Smither, the song one Jim didn't know. He paused outside the door, listening.


The Devil ain't a legend, the Devil's real.
In the empty way he touched me where I hardly feel,
The empty hole inside me,
The nothin' that could ride me
Down into my grave. It does not heal.



God, that was cheerful. He liked a good blues song himself, but there was something about this one that disturbed him. This was not the kind of thing Blair should be listening to.

Hoping that Blair hadn't put the chain on the door and gone to bed--he'd done it before--Jim turned the key in the lock, and pushed. The door swung open without resistance. He stepped inside, tossed his keys into the basket with Blair's, and stopped. What the hell?

Blair was kneeling on the floor in the living room, his back to Jim. He was wearing boxers and a t-shirt, his usual bedtime attire, and he was moving, but what he was doing, Jim couldn't see from that angle.

"Sandburg?"

No answer. Jim shut the door and approached his partner, moving around him to see what he was doing. Blair knelt on the rug, both hands on a scrub brush, pushing it back and forth over the same spot. There was a bucket of soapy water near him. Blair dipped the brush in, and went back to scrubbing. Jim crouched down beside him, but Blair didn't turn to look at him, or stop what he was doing. Blue as the center of a candle flame, his eyes were fixed on the rug.

"Blair," Jim said softly. "What are you doing, Partner?"

Blair didn't react to his voice. He dipped the brush again, and resumed scrubbing.

"Talk to me, buddy. What are you doing?"

Blair lifted the brush, and stared at the rug in dismay. "It's still there." He dunked the brush once more, and scrubbed harder. "I've got to clean it up. Jim'll be mad. Jim doesn't like it when things are messy."

Jesus, what was he saying? Was this a flashback of some kind? Was Blair even awake? His eyes were open, but--

"Blair, listen to me," Jim said, keeping his voice calm. "It's okay. You can stop now."

He shook his head, still scrubbing, never looking at Jim. "No. No, I can't. It's still there."

"What's still there?" Jim asked, dreading the answer.

"The blood. The blood's still there. It won't go away, and it's my fault. Jim'll be mad at me."

"It's okay, Blair. Jim won't be mad."

"Yes. He will. Jim likes it clean. And I can't--I can't get it out."

Blair scrubbed again, harder than ever. Jim watched him,

uncertain what he should do. If Blair was asleep, should he wake him? If this was some kind of hallucination, what should he do about it? What if he did the wrong thing? What would it do to Blair? He had to do something.

"Blair," he said. "It's Jim. Can you hear me, Partner?"

"Jim?" The brush stopped. Blair stared at the soapy patch on the rug. "I'm sorry. I tried to clean it. Please don't be mad at me."

"I'm not mad, Blair. You did it. It's clean."

Blair frowned. "No, I can still see it. I can still see the blood."

"No, Blair." Jim gently pried the brush from Blair's fingers and set it aside. Blair's hands were freezing, the skin white and wrinkled. "It's clean, see? You did a good job, Partner. It's never been so clean."

"It hasn't?"

"Nope." Standing, Jim took Blair's arms and carefully lifted him to his feet. "Come on, now, Partner. It's time for bed."

Blair allowed himself to be led until they reached the door to his room. There, he balked, looking back at the rug. "I've gotta clean it up. There's blood--there's blood everywhere. Jim'll be mad."

"You cleaned it, Blair," Jim said, tugging him forward. "There's no more blood. It's all gone. No more blood, Partner."

He pushed Blair down to sit on the edge of his bed. God, the kid's t-shirt was soaked. He was shivering, but didn't seem to be aware of it.

"Stay there."

Jim went to the bathroom to get a towel. He came back to find Blair in the same position, staring at nothing.

"Raise your arms, Blair. Over your head."

Blair did as he was told. Jim eased the t-shirt off and looked around for something else. A sweatshirt was balled up at the foot of the bed. Jim grabbed it, towelled the kid dry, and put the sweatshirt on him. It was his Cascade PD shirt. He hadn't realized that Blair still had it.

"Okay, Blair, lie down."

Blair obeyed. Jim pulled the covers up to his chin. "You did a good job, Blair. The blood's all gone. Now close your eyes and go back to sleep."

The blue eyes closed. In moments, Blair was breathing deeply, as though he'd been resting there all night. The song was still playing. Blair had set his cd player to repeat it endlessly.


They told me I was breaking through when I was
breaking down,
By the time I learned the difference they had
long left town.



Jim shut it off, and went back to the living room. He covered the wet spot with towels to soak up the water, then dumped the bucket and stashed it under the sink with the brush. That done, he turned out the light and went upstairs to his own bed. Afraid that Blair would get up again, he slept lightly, his hearing tuned to the slightest noise. At 5 A.M., he was awakened by the sound of Blair's racing heart, and ran downstairs, hoping to reach him before the screaming started. He shook him, calling his name, but Blair didn't wake.

"Don't kill me, don't kill me. Please don't kill me."

"Blair." Jim shook him again, harder this time. "Come on, Partner, wake up."

Blair's eyes flew open. "Oh, God, I'm sorry! Please don't kill me!"

"Blair, it's all right. No one's going to kill you. You're safe. Come on, now."

Blair's eyes focused, seeing him, and Jim knew he was awake at last. The dismay on his partner's face was more than Jim could stand.

"Jim, I'm sorry."

"Blair, it's okay. There's nothing to be sorry for."

Blair shook his head. "You don't understand. I--"

"It was just a nightmare, Partner. That's all. Try to go back to sleep."

"But, Jim, I have to--I--" Something crumbled behind the clear blue eyes. Blair looked away from him, down at the blankets.

"Do you want me to stay?"

Blair shook his head. Curls fell into his face, but he didn't move to push them away. "Go back to bed, Jim. I'm okay."

"You sure?"

"Yes."

If there'd been the slightest hesitation, Jim would have stayed. But Blair sounded certain, and he didn't want to argue, so he left him and went back to his own bedroom. After he'd gone, Blair's heart rate and breathing slowed down. Eventually, Jim knew the kid was asleep again, and he allowed himself to relax. He fell asleep to the beating of Blair's heart and the sound of his breath.





Jim heard Blair get out of bed, heard his bare feet take him down the hall to the bathroom. He listened until he heard the shower start, then rolled over and went back to sleep for an hour. The click of the alarm clock's internal mechanism woke him just before it was due to go off, and he turned it off before the buzzing could start. Something smelled good. Coffee, eggs, cheese, green and red peppers, onions... Sandburg was cooking. He hadn't cooked since he got back from St. Sebastian's. Jim hoped there was nothing weird going into the eggs. He couldn't smell anything, but you could never quite tell with Blair.

Jim slid out of bed and went downstairs. Blair was at the stove. He was already dressed, in a blue sweater and faded jeans. The faint, herbal scent of his shampoo mingled with the odors of the cooking food.

"Good morning."

Blair's head came up like a rabbit scenting danger. "Um--morning. Breakfast in ten, okay?"

He nodded, and headed for the bathroom. Ten minutes later, he was showered, shaved, dressed, and sitting at the table while Blair served him the biggest Mexican omelet he'd ever seen, accompanied by a mound of spiced potatoes, and handmade tortillas.

"What brought this on?" he asked.

Blair shrugged, avoiding his eyes. "I just felt like Mexican."

Blair's own omelet was less than a quarter the size of Jim's, and contained nothing but eggs and cheese. Something was up. While he ate, Jim kept an eye on his partner. Blair played with his fork, took a bite or two of the omelet, sipped a little coffee, and proceeded to tear a tortilla into tiny pieces, some of which actually found their way into his mouth. He didn't talk, and he never once looked directly at Jim.

"This is good," Jim said. "In fact, it's better than good. It's delicious."

"Thanks."

Blair's smile vanished, and he went back to destroying his tortilla. Jim finished eating, and poured himself another cup of coffee. Might as well get it over with.

"What's wrong, Partner?"

"Huh?"

"Come on, Blair, your heart's beating so hard I could hear it without Sentinel senses. What's wrong?"

Blair fixed his gaze on the shreds of tortilla scattered around his plate. "I--have to tell you something. And then I have to ask you something."

"Go ahead."

Blair hesitated so long that Jim's own heart began to pound. Come on, kid, you're scaring me here.

"I did something really stupid."

Relief coursed through him. Stupid, he could deal with. "You didn't quit counseling?"

Blair smiled briefly. "Not that stupid."

"Okay. Then tell me."

"Well, remember yesterday, when we were on the phone, and I told you I had an idea?"

Jim nodded. "It didn't work out?"

"No, it did. I gave up on the computer, and went to the packing slips. And we found them. All twenty-four of them."

Jim smiled. "That's great! Why didn't you call and tell me?"

"I tried. Ballard said you were only taking emergency calls."

"Ballard told you that?"

"Yeah. He said it was Simon's orders." The blue eyes flashed up at him for a second. "Wasn't it?"

"No." He was going to stay calm. He was going to stay calm until he could get his hands on that son of a bitch and smash his face in. What if Blair had been in trouble? What if-- He was going to stay calm. "So, where are the slips, Partner?"

Only a Sentinel could have heard. "I lost them."

"Lost them?" Jim echoed. "What do you mean, you lost them? What happened?"

"Well, Toni made copies for me--"

"Toni?"

"Yeah. She helped me find them in the first place. When I couldn't reach you, I didn't know what to do, so I locked the copies in the file cabinet at the gallery. Then I put the originals in my backpack, so I could take them home and give them to you. I was going to go home right away."

"But?"

"But--Toni asked me to dinner."

Jim shot to his feet. "You had dinner with a suspect? Sandburg--"

Blair held up his hands, whether to forestall the lecture or defend himself, Jim couldn't tell and didn't care. "I know, Jim. I know it was stupid. I knew it was stupid when I did it, but-- she'd really been a lot of help, you know? And I--I thought--"

"No, Sandburg, you didn't think. You let your hormones do your thinking for you. How many times have I told you--"

"I know, man! I shouldn't have done it, and I'm sorry! I really am. It won't happen again, Jim, I swear."

"That's great." Jim nodded, gripping the edge of the table to keep from launching himself over it to strangle the smaller man. "That's wonderful, Sandburg. You're sorry, you'll never do it again. And meanwhile, she's got the slips."

"She--?" Blair shook his head. "No, Jim, Toni doesn't have them."

"THEN WHERE ARE THEY?" Jim roared.

Blair shrank back in his chair, his face blanching whiter than the tortillas. Blair's voice spoke in Jim's memory, while his image scrubbed at a non-existent bloodstain: "Jim'll be mad."

God. Jim turned away, covering his eyes with one hand. God, what was he doing? He was behaving exactly as Blair had feared, fulfilling his nightmares. What was wrong with him? No matter what Blair had done, he had no right to terrorize him. No right at all. God, he was some kind of monster. As bad as Ponytail.

"Jim?" Blair's voice was very small. "Do you want me to quit? As your observer, I mean? Because, I will, if that's what you want. I mean, you deserve a partner who can at least follow orders, I know that. So--"

Softly. "Shut up, Sandburg."

Jim forced himself to face the kid. Blair closed his mouth, and swallowed hard. There were tears standing in his eyes. Jim moved toward him, and Blair stiffened in the chair, but stayed where he was. Jim pulled another chair out from the table, and sat down.

"Blair, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I had no right."

"Yes, you did."

"No. No, I didn't. It was wrong, and I'm sorry. You made a mistake, and you're sorry. Tell you what: You forgive me, and I'll forgive you. Okay?"

Blair stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Okay."

Jim smiled. "Okay, Partner. Now, what happened to those packing slips?"

Blair's heart rate increased again. He regarded Jim warily, but found the courage to speak. "I got mugged, Jim. The guy took my pack."

"Mugged?" Jim's eyes narrowed, searching his partner closely for signs of new injuries. There were none. But-- "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"No. He stuck a gun in my neck, but that was all."

"Did you get a look at him?"

Blair shook his head. "By the time I turned around, he was gone. I'm sorry, Jim."

"It's not your fault. Where did this happen?"

"Across the street from the Hatch Gallery, when I was getting into my car to go home."

"Was Toni with you?"

"No, she was gone. She had her own car."

"You said the mugger took your pack. Did he take anything else?"

"My money."

"So, it could have been just a mugging."

"Just? Jim, do you think this had something to do with the case?"

"It might. Who knew you had those slips?"

"Everyone at the gallery." Something came alive in Blair's eyes. "Genius!"

"What?"

"The mugger called me 'genius'."

"So?"

"So, Rupert Crowley kept calling me 'the boy-genius' yesterday."

"You think Crowley was your mugger?"

"I don't know," Blair admitted, though Jim could see that he wanted to believe it. "I thought the guy was bigger than that, but--I'm not sure."

Jim nodded. "I think I'll bring Mr. Crowley down to the station for a little talk this morning."

"You think he might be the murderer?"

"He's looking better for it all the time. If your girlfriend's telling the truth, he and Arthur Hatch were lovers. We only have his word for it that he knew nothing about the masks. And if he lied about one thing--"

"He might have lied about everything," Blair finished.

"Exactly. I'll pick up the copies of the slips later. You said you locked them in the gallery's file cabinet?"

"Yeah, they're in the 'E' file. I took the keys and put 'em--Oh no." Blair paled. "Jim, they were in my backpack. If Crowley took it..."

Jim grabbed the phone and punched in Geoffrey Hatch's number. It was answered almost instantly.

"Geoffrey Hatch."

"Mr. Hatch, this is Detective Ellison. I'm sorry to call so early, but can I ask you to meet me at the gallery right away?"

"Detective, I am at the gallery."

Shit. "Don't tell me: there was a break-in."

"Precisely. How did you know?"

"I'll be there in fifteen minutes, Mr. Hatch."

Jim hung up the phone. "Dammit!"

Blair flinched. "I'm sorry, Jim."

"It's not your fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" Blair shoved a stray curl behind his ear. "I did everything wrong."

"No, you did everything right. Except maybe going out to dinner with Toni LeClaire."

"Oh, man, I'm sorry!"

"Sandburg, it's not your fault. You couldn't reach me, so you did what you could to safeguard the evidence. Crowley could've followed you home and stolen your pack in the parking lot. There was nothing you could've done."

Blair shook his head, but said nothing. He wouldn't be convinced, not yet. And Jim didn't have the time to stick around and try. He ran upstairs to get his wallet and watch, came back down to find Blair clearing the breakfast dishes. He headed for the door. Something Blair had said earlier came back to him, and he stopped.

"What did you want to ask me?"

Blair went still. "It can wait."

"I don't think so, Partner. Ask."

Blair put the plates he was carrying into the sink. He stood there for a minute, not looking at Jim, heart hammering in his chest. Finally, he took a deep, shaky breath.

"Would you go to counseling with me tonight?"

That was it? "You need a ride? Sure."

"No, Jim." Blair was studying his hands as though he had to memorize every line. "Dr. Hawthorne said--she thinks it would be good if--she wants you to come to the session with me."

"Together?"

"Yeah. She said--we might be able to communicate better in a neutral setting."

Jim nodded. "Fine."

Blair's stare shifted to him. "You don't mind?"

"I don't mind." Jim put his jacket on, picked up his keys, anything to keep his hands occupied. He wanted so badly to put his hand on Blair's shoulder, to reassure him with touch as he so plainly couldn't with words. "Blair, I told you: anything you need. I meant it."

"Even after--this mess?"

"Before, after, or in the middle, Partner."

Blair shook his head. "Thanks, Jim."

"Anytime, kid. I'll pick you up here at 6:30." Pulling a twenty from his wallet, Jim laid it on the kitchen counter. "Take that until you can get some money from the bank. No arguments."

"But, Jim, I only had--

"What did I just say?"

Blair bowed his head, but Jim could see the grin curving his lips. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Won't happen again, sir."

Rolling his eyes, Jim went out the door, calling back over his shoulder. "You're welcome, Junior."

 

End Part 12

Part 13