Masks: Part 20

Pushing against the tide of cops and coroners, Jim exited Crowley's apartment. The hall was deserted, except for one small figure, sitting on the floor with drawn-up knees, his back to the wall. His face was pale, his expression enough to break your heart. Jim sat down next to him, careful not to touch him.

"You okay, Partner?"

Blair didn't look at him. "I'm fine, Jim."

"I'm sorry."

Blair shook his head. "I've seen bodies before."

"That doesn't mean you should have to see another one."

"Comes with the job, man."

"Not your job."

"Sure it does. Now." Blair leaned his head back against the wall. "Jim? Do you think Rupert really...?"

"The M.E.'ll tell us that, Chief. But I don't think so."

"So you think he was murdered?" Blair thought for a moment. "I don't get it, Jim. If Rupert was in on it, why would they kill him? And if he wasn't, why would they go to all the trouble of framing him, and then kill him?"

He could think of half a dozen reasons. But all he said was,

"That's what we need to figure out, Partner. Best guess is, someone didn't want Crowley to talk to us."

Clouded blue eyes closed. "Man."

"Yeah." Jim got to his feet. "Come on, Chief. Let's get out of here."

Unthinking, Jim extended a hand to help Blair up. Blair opened his eyes, saw the hand, and froze. His heart rate increased, so fast that Jim thought of birds startled into flight. He kept his hand out, waiting. Blair stared at it, unmoving, for a long moment. At last, he reached up and clasped Jim's forearm. Jim gripped Blair's arm in turn, lifting him to his feet. They disengaged immediately, but even that brief contact had been enough for Jim to feel the tremors running through Blair's body. Blair wouldn't look at him. He was breathing so hard that Jim was afraid he'd keel over, but the younger man started walking, heading for the elevator. Jim followed, keeping an eye on him, trying to decide whether what just happened had been progress or setback. They left the building without another word spoken between them.





Blair led the way into the loft, tossing the mail into the basket with his keys. They could sort through it later. He wasn't expecting anything interesting, and most of it was probably Jim's anyway. Jim's keys hit the basket as Blair was turning to hang up his jacket. He hung Jim's, too, and headed for his room to dump his backpack. His stomach growled, and he put a hand over it, hoping Jim hadn't heard. He hadn't been able to eat lunch--the idea had been almost enough to make him lose breakfast--but the queasiness had slowly worn off, and now he was starving. At this point, he could've eaten a Wonder Burger. Fortunately, Jim had suggested Chinese take-out. Crab Rangoon, szechuan chicken, orange beef, moo shu pork--they'd ordered all his favorites. He knew Jim had done it on purpose, because Blair had seen Rupert Crowley's body, and he felt slightly guilty letting Jim coddle him. But not guilty enough to change the order.

When he came out of his room, Jim was setting out plates and chopsticks. Blair put water on for tea, and got a beer out of the refrigerator for Jim. He'd spent most of the afternoon and early evening studying the masks they'd received today. So far, they'd told him nothing. He was pretty sure they were all authentic, but he had to conduct more tests to be certain, and Simon wouldn't let him take the masks home anymore. The Captain said it was too dangerous, and Jim backed him on it. After Friday, Blair supposed they were right, but he still thought Jim could take that blond guy if he dared to show up again. The guy had never dealt with a cop; he'd definitely never dealt with a Sentinel.

If only they could figure out who he was. Jim thought he might be Arthur Hatch's boyfriend, but that was only a guess. He might not be the brains behind it, but he'd probably had a hand in killing Hatch, and maybe Thomas Wainwright. And Rupert Crowley. Jim hadn't come right out and said that, but Blair had been around the police long enough to know that the most likely suspect was usually the one who'd committed the crime. Jim just didn't want to scare him.

But he wasn't scared, not really. Or maybe it was just that he couldn't get any more scared than he already was. Maybe he'd been so scared for so long that he was numb. Maybe he was just used to it. Or maybe he had faith in Jim. Jim would stay with him, twenty-four hours a day. Jim wouldn't let anything happen to him. As long as he was with Jim, he was safe.

Blair grabbed a piece of chicken and stuffed it into his mouth. Great. Now he was making Jim responsible for his safety. Sure, he'd done it before with the "Blessed Protector" bit, but that had been more a joke than anything else. This wasn't. And it was wrong. He had to be responsible for his own safety, he couldn't force that role onto Jim, no matter how willingly Jim might play it. Jim needed a partner who could watch his back, not one he had to watch out for every minute. Jim had been what he needed for so long; it was his turn to be what Jim needed.

"Something wrong, Chief?"

"Huh?" Blair snapped out of his internal lecture, meeting Jim's concerned gaze. "Oh. No, man, I was just thinking."

"What about?"

"This case."

"This case," Jim echoed, spearing a chunk of beef. "Is enough to drive the real Einstein crazy. We've got too many suspects, and no hard evidence. They all had opportunity, but as far as we know, only Rupert Crowley had motive, and his motive had nothing to do with those damn masks. Now he's dead, Wainwright's dead, Hatch is dead, and the only one we know for certain we can nail for any crime committed it against you. And all we know about this guy is that he's tall and blond. And that he may have been Arthur Hatch's boyfriend."

Jim shoved the beef into his mouth and chewed hard. Blair watched him warily. Whoa. It was like all his frustration had suddenly transferred itself to Jim.

"What did Rupert tell you about the boyfriend?"

"Nothing. Just that he was a college student. For all I know, Crowley never saw the guy."

They finished the meal in silence, Blair trying desperately to think of something--anything--that would help. There had to be some way to figure out who the blond mugger was. Jim put the leftovers away, and sat on the couch to watch TV while Blair retreated to his room. He opened his laptop, but couldn't concentrate. From the living room, he heard the rapid channel changes as Jim surfed with the remote. Blair shook his head. Normally, Jim hated channel-surfing. He liked to settle on one program and watch it all the way through. It was Blair who liked to skip from channel to channel, looking for anything that caught his eye, or his mind, then moving on when he'd had enough. Jim always complained that you couldn't see anything that way. But you could. Anything you saw, even for a fraction of a second, registered somewhere in your brain, whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Anything.

"Jim!"

Blair emerged from his room to find Jim heading toward him, gun in hand.

"What's wrong?" Jim demanded. "Are you okay?"

Blair held up his hands. "Sorry, man, everything's fine. I didn't mean to scare you. I just had an idea."

Jim put the gun on the dining table. "What idea?"

"What if you saw him?"

"Saw who?"

"The blond guy. The mugger. What if you saw him?"

Jim shook his head. "I didn't see anyone, Chief."

"Maybe you did. Come on, Jim, when he left my office, he didn't run through the halls waving his gun. If he had, people would have panicked. He would have tried to blend in, and if he's a student, that would have been easy. You may have seen him without knowing what you were seeing."

"That doesn't help if I don't remember."

"But you do remember, Jim. It's all in there, in your head, we just have to bring it out, the same way Dr. Hawthorne helped bring out my memory of the packing slips."

"Sandburg--"

"Trust me, Jim. Come on, man, I know what I'm talking about here." I hope.

Jim eyed him for a minute. "Okay, Svengali. I'll give it a try."

"Great. This'll work, Jim, I know it will. The first thing you have to do is sit down and get comfortable."

"Okay."

Jim walked back to the living room and sat down on the couch. Oh, God. Blair stayed where he was, unable to move. "Jim. What are you doing?"

"Getting comfortable."

"But...Jim, I can't--"

Jim faced him. "Yes, you can, Blair. It's a room, a space on the floor, that's all. I'm here. Nothing's going to happen to you. Trust me, Partner."

"I do, Jim."

"Then come on."

He did trust Jim. He did. With his life, with his fears--with his soul. He'd never trusted anyone as much as he trusted Jim. But still, he had to force himself to move, to cross the floor toward the living room. He could as easily have walked into Hell.

Jim waited on the couch, watching him. Blair reached the love seat, and stopped. His hands gripped the white upholstery, holding on, holding him up. He stared at the rug, the sections of red, blue, yellow and white. It was new. Jim had bought it while he was at St. Sebastian's, used it to cover the place where--where it had happened. But he knew where the place was, he knew right where it was. He'd never forget.

Gritting his teeth, Blair pushed away from the love seat and walked around it, toward the couch. He set his foot on the rug.

Jim's fists smashed his face, his stomach, his ribs, smashed him down to the floor, and he didn't know why. He couldn't stop it, and he couldn't fight back. Jim was too much bigger, too much stronger. He tried to shield himself, but after a while, he was too weak to do even that. He just lay there, while Jim hit him again and again, and he prayed that it would stop.

It did stop. Blair thought that Jim would leave him alone then, but a light came into the icy eyes, a light he'd never seen before, and terror choked him. He tried to get up, but Jim pushed him back down, Jim held him down and forced him onto his stomach, worked his pants off and knelt between his legs.

"Blair!" An iron grip seized his shoulders. "Blair!"

"No!" He fought to get away. "Don't! Leave me alone! God, please!"

Blair tore free, threw himself back, scrambled to his feet to face his attacker, to face--

"Jim. Oh, God, Jim." He dropped his head into his hands, pushed his hair back and held it there. His face burned. Breath came hard. He couldn't meet Jim's eyes. "I'm sorry, I--I'm sorry. I had a--"

"A flashback, I know." Jim's voice was soft. "Blair, this is my fault. I shouldn't have made you come into the living room."

"No, man." Blair shook his head, daring to raise his eyes. He winced at the pain on Jim's face. "I've gotta go in there sooner or later. Just--not yet, I guess."

"We've been making progress," Jim said. "I thought, maybe... I rushed you. I'm sorry. I've never been very patient."

Blair stared at him, noting the muscle twitching in his jaw again. "Jim, you're the most patient man I know. You've put up with the flashbacks, the nightmares, the anxiety attacks--How many people would do that? You haven't pushed me, or made me do anything. You've encouraged me, listened to me, let me lean on you. You've done everything you could to help me through this. Anyone else would've kicked me out; you're going to counseling with me. I've never known anyone like you before, Jim. You're--you're the best friend I've ever had."

Jim's eyes bored into him. Oh, God, he shouldn't have said it. Jim thought he was some kind of lunatic. Say something, Sandburg! Try to save the situation before it's too late. He opened his mouth to babble some nonsense, and Jim smiled.

"Thanks, kid," he said. "Same goes for me."

Blair closed his gaping mouth. Get your brain off hold, Sandburg. "Really?" Oh, that was brilliant.

"Really." Jim's smile widened. "You think I'd put up with all this crap if it didn't?"

"I guess not." Blair answered his smile, breathing easier now. "Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"You think we can count this as homework?"

"Works for me," Jim replied. "Now, what about helping me to remember who I saw?"

"Oh. Right." He'd forgotten all about it. "Um, sit down, Jim. Close your eyes, relax, take deep, cleansing breaths. You know the drill."

Jim pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. He obediently closed his eyes and started the deep breathing Blair had taught him. Blair sat on the table, facing Jim, and folded his legs into the lotus position.

"You're gonna scrub that table when we're done, Sandburg," Jim said without opening his eyes.

"Shut up, Jim. You're supposed to be relaxing."

Blair closed his own eyes for a minute, trying to match his breathing to Jim's. When he opened them again, the lines of tension had been smoothed from Jim's face, and his hands lay loosely in his lap. Good.

"Okay, Jim, now you're going to go back to Friday morning. You're outside Hargrove Hall, in the truck, waiting for me. You hear my voice, then the mugger's. You know something's wrong, so you get out of the truck and go inside. Now, you're going to slow things down, do a slow-motion replay of everything you saw. You know who you're looking for--a tall guy with blond hair. You can ignore everyone else. But if you see this guy, then I want you to freeze the replay and take a good, long look. Okay?"

Jim nodded.

"Okay, man, tell me what you see."

Jim frowned in concentration. "There's no one on the steps. When I go through the doors, there's a bunch of co-eds moving down the hall, and a middle-aged man, heavy, dark-haired. I get to the stairs, and start to go up. There's a student coming down: male, Caucasian. Blond."

"Great. Okay, Jim, don't open your eyes. Take a good look at him, memorize his features. You got him?"

Jim nodded. "I got him."

"Good. Now, keep going. Tell me who else you see."

Jim shook his head. "A bunch of students. Girls, mostly. One guy's blond, but he's too small, shorter than you. Teachers. A silver-haired woman, with a cane. A sandy-haired, tweedy guy with a beard. You, coming out of your office."

Jim opened his eyes. "That's it, Chief. If our guy was there, he had to be the kid on the stairs."

"Great. So you remember him now?"

"I remember him. All we have to do now is put a name to the face."

"No problem, Jim. If he's a student at Rainier, his picture'll be on file. They keep copies of everyone's ID photos."

"No problem?" Jim scowled. "Sandburg, there are twenty thousand students at Rainier."

Blair shrugged and slid off the table. "Look at it this way, Jim. It's easier than looking through mug books."

Jim sighed. "Well, I know what I'll be doing while you're teaching tomorrow."

"Hey, at least you won't be wasting your time playing bodyguard." Blair yawned hugely. "I'm gonna turn in, man."

"So early?"

"Jim, it's after midnight."

"I know, Sandburg. For you, that's early."

"Yeah, well." Blair yawned again. "I'm tired. Good night, Jim."

"Good night, kid."

Blair went into his room, closing the double doors behind him. He had no idea why, but he was about to fall asleep on his feet. And he wanted to be rested tomorrow. He had a feeling he'd need all his wits about him to survive lunch with Olive Palmer.

Removing his jeans and shirt, Blair pulled on a pair of sweatpants, dug Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt out of the bedclothes, slipped it on and crawled into bed. He lay on his side, thinking of tomorrow's lecture, the reactions he'd get from the students when they got their midterms back, what Olive Palmer might serve for lunch, aside from anthropologists--anything to avoid thinking of what had happened in the living room. Within minutes, he was asleep. In the morning, he had no memory of any dreams. But Jim looked tired when he came downstairs for breakfast.

 

End Part 20

Part 21