by SVS Staff
Jim Ellison slapped the alarm almost before it could ring, detecting the small click as the radio engaged. It wasn't a great miracle; he hadn't been sleeping well anyway.
Next to him lay his lover and favorite cuddle-toy, Blair Sandburg, spread out over the wreckage of his side of the bed, snoring gently and drooling into his pillow, most of his face hidden by his hyper-curly hair. Jim gently brushed back the hair, revealing one ear. Leaning forward, he blew very softly into it. Without waking, Blair jerked and snuffled. Blowing again provoked a soft groan and a hand brushing at his head.
"Oh Blair-y baby, wakey-wakey," Jim murmured into the ear -- and this time was rewarded by one bleary blue eye.
"Time to wake up, Chief," Jim repeated, pulling the sleep-warmed body to him in a gentle grasp.
"Uh." Not a morning person, Jim reflected. "Jus' five more, man..."
"Nope, you got a plane to catch, Chief," Jim replied, running his hands up and down the silken skin of his lover's back.
With great effort, Blair heaved himself up so he could see the clock beyond Jim. "Oh, man, I've got two hours! Wake me in one, okay?"
Continuing his gentle caress, Jim repeated, "Nope. Got lots to do, Chief. Time to wake is now."
Pulling back far enough to see Jim's face, but not so far as to break the embrace, Blair tried for a glare but didn't quite make it. "I'm packed, 'cause you made me do that last night. I'm not going to eat 'cause I can't wait to see what midget meal the airline will serve... and don't give me that look, Ellison, I am not a midget. And finally, we took a shower last night after -- well, before we went to sleep. What else is there to do?"
Leaning forward, Jim sealed his lips over Blair's, disregarding morning breath, sandpaper stubble, and hair wild with static electricity. A long, leisurely time later, they moved apart, both breathing hard. Blair's eyes had gone from bleary to dazed.
"Oh." And he was back to words of one syllable. "But we did that last night," he said softly.
Rolling back, taking Blair with him so that the smaller man was half-lying on Jim's chest, Jim said gruffly, "That was me in you. If I'm going to go without for a whole week, I want you in me before you go."
Kissing Jim again and rubbing himself wantonly against the bigger man, Blair replied rather breathlessly. "Actually, it's only four days, Jim. And I did offer to take you with me."
"But you'll be in a dreary warehouse the whole time," Jim said, spreading his legs so that Blair dropped between them, "sorting and counting dusty artifacts. And being in the City isn't any fun alone. But I'm still going to miss you."
"Just keep thinking about welcome-back sex," Blair teased, reaching between them to fondle Jim's firming erection.
Kissing Blair hard, Jim growled, "Just shut up and get in me before I hurt something."
"Aye aye, sir," Blair replied, laughing and reaching for the lube and condoms. "A little pushy, are we, this morning?"
Jim raised himself, slid a pillow under his hips, then reached down to stroke Blair as the other man opened the condom package. "Yeah, I'd say that," he murmured, as Blair froze in place, gasping.
"Jimmmmm... you're going to have to s-stop that if you want anything at all," Blair stuttered, closing his eyes against the sight of his lover spread out before him like a feast.
Reluctantly, a small smile gracing his lips, Jim released Blair and reached his arms over his head to grip the railing. Watching Blair prepare himself, knowing that it was for him... God, maybe he'd better try counting sheep or he'd never last.
Deliberately refraining from looking -- knowing it would drive him insane -- Blair rolled on the condom, then slicked up with Wet. Once ready, he crawled between Jim's legs, and deliberately ignoring the older man's lips, began to rain kisses down Jim's chest. As his mouth targeted a very ready nipple, his fingers ghosted over Jim's right thigh.
"Blair, so help me... you're killing me here."
Blair grinned around a mouthful of nipple, then slowly moved further down Jim's body. He gave extra attention to Jim's navel, then attacked his abdomen. The quivering skin told him Jim was on the edge.
With a little maneuvering, Blair had Jim's right leg slung over his shoulder. Letting his dick tease Jim, he leaned forward and kissed Jim's parted lips.
"A little antsy, are we, Jim?"
Jim unwound his fingers from the railing and gripped Blair's hair. "Antsy? How's this for antsy?" With almost bruising ferocity, he took Blair's mouth. Both men were breathing hard when they parted. "God, Blair, now. Now."
"What you do to me, Jim. You made me come twice last night, and I still feel like a horny teenager," Blair muttered as he positioned himself.
Jim, feeling rather like a horny teenager himself, pleaded again, "Come on, Chief. Please."
"Here I come," Blair said softly as he moved into Jim. Slowly, gradually, he inched inside, groaning. "God! Jim, oh God, so good," he moaned.
"That's it, Blair, yeah, want to feel you, want to remember this," Jim said, very nearly incoherent as the pleasure of the moment washed over him. "Pound me. Please, Blair! Yes!"
Nearly all the way in, Blair began thrusting, pushing hard, grasping Jim's shoulders with shaking hands. "Gotta... oh, yeah," he gasped.
"Want it... do it... Blair!"
"MMmmmm... Jim, yeah, gonna..."
"OH! Blair! YEAH! Right there baby!"
"I'm coming... I'm coming!"
"JIM!" Nearly simultaneous screams cut through the air as Jim's come fountained out of him, bathing both men in semen. Blair gasped for air, his hips shaking as hard as his arms. Slowly, gracefully, he folded, slipping out of Jim and coming to rest on the bigger man's chest.
As their breathing slowly returned to normal, Jim's hand found its way to Blair's curls, caressing and petting. Without looking up, Blair mildly said, "You bastard."
"Now I've got to take another shower."
"Man, this is so great. I've been going over that Ainu research Eli gave me and the parallels in the 'Songs of Humans' with the stuff Burton put together are uncanny. It's too bad I never picked up any Japanese..."
Jim hmm-hmmed while turning into the departures lane. Blair had been going on and on about the Ainu artifacts being prepared as a traveling collection. Thanks to Eli Stoddard's contacts, Blair had been invited to assist in the operation. Mindful of the opportunity to consult with experts in the field, he'd brought along all his notes on the Ainu story-cycles from his mentor's research.
"Got your ticket?" he interrupted the anthro-babble.
"Yes, mother. Geez, Jim, can you be any more enthusiastic?"
He turned earnest eyes to his partner. "But you'll be gone a whole week!"
"Jim. This is Tuesday. I'll be back Friday. That hardly constitutes a whole week. Jeeze. Were you always this pathetic?" Blair rolled his eyes and hitched the backpack higher on his shoulders.
"Blair, you know I can't live without you by my side!" Swooping into a free parking spot, Jim clasped his hands dramatically to his heart.
"Yeah, yeah, more like you can't tie your shoelaces without me. You'd better get going or Simon'll kick your ass for being late." Blair jumped out of the truck and slammed the door shut.
"He knows I'm dropping you off, no sweat," Jim said. "Call me when you get there," he added. "I mean it, Chief."
Blair turned back and leaned in through the open window. "Fine, but you stay out of trouble!" With a cheery wave, he disappeared into the busy terminal.
"You're the one who gets caught by psycho militia men in the bathroom!" Jim shouted after him, ignoring the amused looks from the curbside personnel.
At the edge of his hearing, he could hear Blair laughing.
Pulling up to the drive-through window, Jim picked up his double-thick shake and The Wonder Breakfast Burger (now topped by a farm fresh fried egg). "You," he announced to the greasy sandwich happily, "are the only good thing I can get when Blair isn't around."
The thought was just cheery enough to keep him going to the PD, instead of back to bed to savor the fading traces of Blair. Less than an hour apart and already he missed him. What the hell was he going to do for the rest of the week?
Fielding a tricky left hand turn with breakfast in one hand and the gear stick in the other was made more difficult by the sudden shrill of his cell phone. He managed to juggle the burger into the paper bag and hit the hands-free while negotiating the curve in three rings of the phone.
"Ellison!" he barked.
"Did I catch you at a bad time, Jimmy?"
"Dad? No, no --" he slammed on the brakes at the stoplight. "No problem, Dad," he added loudly, to cover the screech of the tires.
"If you say so."
"So, what can I do for you?" He folded the takeout bag to keep it warm a little longer and put the shake in the cup holder.
"Actually, it's Stevie. Have you heard from him recently?"
"Didn't he have some meet-and-greet for the race track somewhere out East?" He slowed down before turning into the parking garage. The security sensors usually played merry hell with cell phones, and he didn't want to drop the call.
"Yes, but we were supposed to meet for dinner at my club yesterday, and he never showed up. He never called to cancel either."
"That's not good. Hang on, Dad, I'm almost at the station. I'll look into it and give you a call later. That okay?"
"All right, son. I'll be home today."
"Sandy get off okay?"
"Hey, Ellison, if Hairboy finds out you ate Wonderburger for breakfast, he'll kill you!"
When did everyone decide to butt into my life? Jim wondered to himself. "He'd better not hear it from you, H," he growled at the laughing detective.
"Lay off, Ellison!" Rafe tossed him a thick manila envelope. "This came for you in the overnight service."
He finished off his shake and tossed it into the trash. "He shoots, he scores..." he muttered, ripping open the envelope and pulling out the sheaf of papers. "Aw, hell."
He was just about to knock on the open door when --
"I was just coming to see you, sir."
"What's this about the feds picking up Abbot in Seattle?"
"I've got the incident report right here." He leafed through the pages. "One Jeremy Abbot, a.k.a. 'Weasel,' was heading across the Sound on the ferry when he slipped on a wet patch and broke his leg. The system flagged him when they ran his insurance, and the Seattle office picked him up from St. Mary's before the plaster dried."
"Right. I've got a transfer request here. Seems that the feds like the look of his rap sheet and they're taking him off our hands."
"Damn it, Simon, I've got him on arson and fourteen homicides!"
"No arguments. Wrap up your report and ship them a copy so we can close the books on this guy. Abbot's made a deal for State's evidence on that Steconi mob hit. He doesn't seem to want to come back to our fair city."
Muttering a few choice words about how incredibly unfair it was when honest-to-God police work was undermined by some murderer cutting a deal with the feds, Jim clomped back to his desk. He shoved the Abbot paperwork to one side and leafed through the Rolodex for the number for the racetrack. The feds could wait for their Steconi bust.
"Cascade Race Track Management, can I help you?"
"Stephen Ellison's office, please."
Muzak -- oh God -- Elvis assaulted his ears as the operator put him on hold. Who invented this crap?
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ellison is not available to take your call. Can I assist you in any way?"
Jim pinched at the bridge of his nose, hoping to stave off a headache. Did she have to be so perky? "Look, this is Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD, and I'm trying to locate my brother. What was his schedule for the last week?"
"Er -- I'm sorry sir, but I'm not authorized to give out that information to non-company officials."
"Well, get someone who is authorized and tell them to call me. Our father is very concerned about his disappearance." He rattled off his number and hung up on the flustered operator.
He grabbed the Abbot case files and began furiously pecking at his keyboard. Of all the--
Jim's head came up and he gave a suspicious sniff. Pastry, caramelized sugar, cream. The donut girl was making her rounds! Maybe she'd have some of his favorites stocked. Wonder Burger breakfast notwithstanding, he could kill for a donut.
"What do you mean 'I'm out'?"
Brown glanced up as the low growl caught his ear. "Damn!" he hissed to Rafe. "Why didn't someone warn the poor donut girl?"
It was late in the afternoon, and Jim -- after a day spent filling out paperwork and yelling at the feds, not to mention two more unsuccessful calls to the track -- was becoming increasingly surly.
Pale-faced but determined, Sandi bravely stood up to the fiercely scowling Ellison. "For goodness' sake, Detective; I can only carry a limited number and selection on my cart, and it is near the end of the day. How was I supposed to know you were going to go for thirds on the strawberry jelly donuts today?"
Connor shook her head in pity, while Rafe and Brown winced, turning their eyes away from the almost-certain carnage about to take place. Luckily for the hapless caterer, however, the phone on Ellison's desk chose that moment to issue a brassy summons.
Scorching her with one last look, the big cop stalked over to his desk and snatched up the phone. "Ellison!" he barked into the receiver.
"This is Peter Reed of the Cascade Race Track, returning your call." The man's voice immediately got on Jim's remaining nerve, setting his teeth on edge with its smooth, polished, ultra-professional tones. "Sorry I couldn't call earlier, I just returned to the office. I understand you have some questions concerning your brother's schedule?"
"Yes. Thank you for finally returning my call." Without Blair there to look at him in reproach, Jim saw no need to alter his natural behavior. Tersely, he stated, "I got a call from our father this morning telling me that Stephen had missed several appointments with him. That's not Stephen's usual behavior. I was wondering where he was and if he has contacted someone about being delayed."
"Actually, we were rather hoping that Mr. Ellison -- your father, that is -- could help us. On Saturday, Stephen was scheduled to meet with a consortium of race track owners from South America on a reciprocity deal. Yesterday, he was due at a luncheon at the Chamber of Commerce to discuss details of an upcoming racing event. He missed both of these meetings. Embarrassing, very embarrassing for us -- and Senor Hidalgo of the Buenos Aires Track was simply livid." Reed gave a perturbed sigh. "I don't know how we're going to recover; Cascade Race Track has lost a great deal of credibility due to these mishaps."
"My brother has been missing for almost four days and all you're concerned about is the track's damn image?" The outraged bellow brought renewed winces from the captive audience in the bullpen. "I'm heading for the track right now," Ellison said forcefully, easily overriding the other man's sputtering protests. "When I get there, I'll expect some answers. See you in fifteen minutes."
Slamming the receiver down, Jim paused just long enough to snatch up his jacket before striding angrily toward the elevator. Everyone in Major Crime held their breath until the sliding doors closed behind the temperamental detective. Then, shaking his head in sorrow, Brown offered, "From here to the race track, early afternoon rush hour, in fifteen minutes. Somebody should warn the public."
"Amen, brother!" Rafe agreed.
Exactly thirteen minutes later, Ellison was face-to-face with a profusely-sweating Reed. Crushing back the urge to simply throttle the information he wanted from the shaky executive, Jim ground out, "How can no one here not know where Stephen went or when he was due back?"
Passionately wishing he had listened to his girlfriend and called in sick that morning for a day of illicit nooky, the young blond Trump-clone behind the desk gave a pained grimace. "That's not precisely what I said, Detective Ellison. I said, I had no idea where Stephen had gone." Temper flaring for a brief moment, he declared, "I'm the vice-president in charge of Public Relations, not his baby-sitter. Ask his assistant; I'm sure she'll have all the information you require."
"Thank you, Mr. Reed; I'll do just that."
At the deliberate tone, Reed felt a chill run up his spine. Damn, how to deal with psychopaths was not something they taught at Harvard Business School! He didn't know which was worse: Ellison's towering rage when he had burst into his office, or this sudden icy calm. Abruptly remembering bits of gossip concerning the elder Ellison brother, he blanched further as he stuttered, "I -- I'm sorry, Detective, but I just don't have the information you need."
Halfway through the office door, Jim stopped, tossing over his shoulder, "I sincerely hope this mess is just due to a communication mix-up. Because if my brother has been hurt in any way..."
A trembling Reed stared after the departed cop. Then, with a low expletive, he dived for the phone and began dialing furiously.
Jim's interview with Stephen's assistant bore slightly more beneficial fruit, but he was still frowning heavily as he climbed back into his truck. Just as he reached down to start it, his cell phone rang. "Ellison."
"Ah, Mr. Sunshine himself." Sarcasm fairly dripping from his voice, Banks went on, "After filling the bullpen with your sweetness and light, I understand you decided to share your good nature with the rest of Cascade."
Screwing his eyes shut, Jim heaved a sigh. "Yeah, but Simon..." he began defensively.
"Don't 'But Simon' me, Ellison!" snapped the captain. "I've already fielded two phone calls from the track, both wondering if intimidation and harassment are normal protocol for routine inquiries!"
"I just got off the phone with Stephen's admin assistant. Do you know what she wanted, Jim?" The question was obviously rhetorical. "She wanted me to verify that you were Stephen's brother!"
"Huh?" Jim was bewildered.
"You heard me. She couldn't believe that her nice, professional boss could be related to such a nasty-tempered, vulgar brute."
"Captain, they're all idiots over there," put in Ellison quickly. "Stephen goes away for a business trip and only his admin assistant knows where he goes. Maybe... if she bothers to check his calendar. No one ever knows for sure when he will return; they just wait for him to show up again. That's criminal!"
"That's Stephen's business, not yours," retorted Banks. Taking an audible breath, Simon went on more sedately, "Now, it's obvious to me that, due to a couple of factors here, you're going to be pretty much a wash-out in the social skills department right now -- and it's close enough to the end of the day not to matter. While I can't do anything about Sandburg being gone for a week, I can do something about you stressing over your brother. Take a couple of days, find out what's happened, and chill out. I'm sure he's just fine."
Smarting over the implication that he wasn't fit to be around without Sandburg's calming influence, Jim grit his teeth and answered shortly, "Yes, sir. Thank you, Captain."
"You're welcome." There was no apology in the deep voice. "Now go home, pack, and then go find your brother. Don't come back until you're ready to play nice with your colleagues."
Blair was in his element. Upon arriving at the warehouse, he had jumped right in and begun helping the team catalog and crate the Ainu artifacts that would go on tour. As promised, he had left a message on the machine when he'd arrived. It was now about the time Jim would be getting home, and he knew Jim would try to reach him at the hotel, not knowing that Blair was still on-site. Even though it was past the dinner hour, Blair didn't want to leave. The beautiful craftsmanship of the artifacts made his anthropological heart thump with joy.
However, his Guide heart -- Guide to a Sentinel off the leash -- was beginning to worry. Blair worried about the older man now that he wasn't there to guide him in person. He worried that Jim's senses would start hurting him. He worried that his partner would need backup while he was gone. He worried that Jim would be hurt while he was away. He worried that Jim was going to make like a Hoover and suck down every greasy piece of food within twenty square miles of the loft, clog his arteries, and he would come home to a coroner saying: "We're awfully sorry, Mr. Sandburg, but apparently Detective Ellison had a major heart attack..."
Blair sighed. There was no use worrying about it. Besides, he knew for a fact that Jim had, upon dropping him off at the airport, driven straight to the nearest Wonder Burger and wolfed down something that would've driven him into a conniption.
Glancing at his watch, noting with relief that soon he would be able to quit for dinner and go back to the hotel to check for a message from Jim, Blair moved on to the next artifact after carefully swaddling and placing the previous item in its designated crate.
"Jim, you better be in Prime Cut, State of the Art, High-Tech, Olympic Class Condition when I get hold of you!"
"Okay, bag is packed. Got the time off. Know where to go. Now, I need to get there."
As best Jim could figure out from the information he'd gotten out of the idiots at the track, Stephen had gone to a place called Elkhorn, Idaho. Supposedly, this was to find a new supplier for high quality horse feed, since their current supplier had raised prices near astronomically. Stephen had located a good feed store in Elkhorn that supplied quality grain, and after calling there, he'd learned that the store got their best grain from Jensen Ranch, just outside of town. Last anybody heard, Stephen had been planning to visit the ranch to see if he could work out a deal to have them directly supply the Track.
He had flown into Grangeville, the nearest city large enough to boast an airport, about eighty miles away. After renting a car, he'd driven out to Elkhorn. No one had seen or heard from him since.
Picking up the phone, Jim called Cascade International and tried to book a flight for the evening.
"What do you mean, 'no flights available tonight'?" he demanded of the clearly tired yet relentlessly personable Delta receptionist.
"I'm sorry, Detective Ellison, but there are no flights going to Grangeville this evening. I can get you there tomorrow, let's see... We've got a flight at nine that connects to one that will get you there by three. I see nothing earlier than that. No flights in any of the other airline companies, either. Our nine AM is the earliest," the receptionist replied.
Sighing and rubbing at his forehead -- of which, he noted forlornly, there was more than there had been in previous months -- Jim sighed and said, "Okay. Yes, thank you, I would like to be booked on that flight, please."
"Sure thing, sir. Hold on one moment, please."
Jim held on for several moments as he listened to the endless clicking and clacking of the keyboard on the other end of the line while the desk clerk wrote up his information and ticket. He found himself wondering absently why it always took for-flaming-ever for a simple airline ticket to be produced.
"All right! You're booked for the nine AM flight to Grangeville via Lewiston, Idaho, tomorrow morning, sir. Sir? Detective Ellison?"
Jolting out of the zone-out he had started to slide into and cursing the ill-timing that had Blair out of the city when he needed him, Jim said, "Uh, yeah. Sorry. Right here. Nine AM tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir. Come into the Delta terminal, and please be here at least an hour early to collect your ticket at the desk. Your stopover in Lewiston is just under two hours. You'll change planes there -- most likely a twin-engine plane -- and then be on your way out to Grangeville."
"That sounds fine, thank you. I appreciate your help."
"You're welcome, Detective. I hope everything goes well for you."
Saying good-bye, Jim hung up the phone and stared at it for a moment, then trudged into the kitchen to get a beer. He took a long gulp as he wandered back over to the answering machine. Pressing play, he listened to the accumulated messages, then smiled when he heard Blair's come on.
"Hey, Ellison! I made it down here in one piece! Well, except for my stomach, which stayed on the plane to organize a strike against airline food, but that's okay, you're undoubtedly eating enough for both of us. And speaking of eating, how was breakfast? Something hot and greasy, I'm sure. You need to take care of your health, man! I know I'm not there to ride herd on you right now --" Oh, but I wish you were, Chief! Jim thought "-- but you still need to be nice to your heart. After all, we both know it belongs to me, and contrary to your mistaken opinion, I do not treat my possessions shabbily. Especially when I consider them priceless. Man, I miss you so much, Jim. Wish you could have come with me. But, you did do that this morning, didn't you? Heh. All right, gotta go. Call me back at the hotel, um, 415-555-0204, room 719, and they'll be sure to get the message to me. I promise to call back tonight. Okay, I know I'm running out of tape here, so I'll say good-bye for now. Love you, Jim. Take care and be good, okay? See you when I get back."
The message clicked off with a millisecond to spare and Jim, wearing a dopey, lovesick grin, rewound the tape so he could listen to it again after deleting all the others. He especially loved listening to the part where Blair claimed his heart was priceless.
I love that little shit, Jim thought. He wished he had gone with Blair -- but then, it was as well he hadn't, because how long would it have been then before someone went looking for Stephen? He just hoped, what with the recent snowfall in northern Idaho, that Stephen wasn't lying in a ditch somewhere.
Picking up the phone, Jim put in a quick call to Simon, informing his captain and friend of his intended destination and travel plans. After Simon once again reprimanded him for his earlier scare tactics in dealing with innocent civilians, the captain gruffly ordered his best detective to take care and keep his ass safe.
"It's not like I need Sandburg coming back and ripping my head off if something happens to you," the older man grumbled.
Jim laughed. "Simon, he's a sweetheart, and you know it. He would never hurt you."
"Yeah, right. Yank the other leg, Ellison, it plays bar songs! Sandburg would ditch every shred of his neo-hippie pacifist beliefs if he thought even one hair on that hard head of yours was endangered. And heaven help whoever is responsible for it or in the way. Now, why don't you call the kid, let him know what's up, and then get some rest. You're probably gonna need it."
"Okay, Simon. Thanks for letting me off the leash like this."
"Sure, Jim. C'mon, what else can I do? He's your brother. The only reason we even had a conversation about it is because it's not Blair in trouble. If it were, I would've been choking on your dust, you would've been out the door so fast."
"So what's the downside of the argument, Simon?"
"None. I hope you find your brother okay, Jim. Call if you need help."
"Will do, sir. Thanks again."
The two of them rang off, and Jim finished off his beer before picking up the phone again, this time to call Blair. The room phone just rang -- although he was disappointed that Blair wasn't in yet, he left a message with the clerk at the front desk.
"Yeah, if you could tell him I had to go out of town to locate my brother and that everything is fine and I'll call him as soon as I can, I'd appreciate it," Jim said.
"Okay, got it. Anything else?" the perky young woman asked.
"Not really. Just that it's not necessary for him to call me back, especially if he's tired, and if he doesn't, I'll call him in the morning. Let the record state that I promise to call him as soon as I can, regardless."
Jim smiled at the laugh that evoked from the young woman.
"Is that it?" she asked.
"Alright, Mr. Ellison. Thanks for calling. Sorry your partner isn't in tonight."
"Me, too. Would've been nice to hear his voice. Thanks for your help, though; I appreciate it."
"Absolutely. Good night, now."
Hanging up the phone, disappointed that he hadn't been able to talk to Blair, Jim closed up the loft for the evening and trudged up to the lonely, cold bed waiting for him upstairs. Climbing under the covers, he tossed and turned, looking for a comfortable spot. As he shoved his hand under the pillow, he came across something that shouldn't be there. It turned out to be one of Sandburg's t-shirts... a dirty one at that. The little twerp must have left it there for him to find. Smiling in contentment, Jim tucked it under his chin and drifted off to sleep bathed in his partner's scent.
Down in San Francisco, Jim and Blair's usual luck was playing out -- again.
Once off the phone, the perky clerk began copying Jim's message onto the message form from her hasty notes, chuckling softly to herself. "Well, are we in a good mood today," a co-worker called out as he walked out of the back office.
"Oh, it was so cute! This guy called, looking for his partner..."
The two clerks were exchanging tales of the more outrageous messages they had taken when an irate customer walked up to the desk, brandishing a light bulb. "Hey!" he shouted. "I reported yesterday that this light bulb needs to be replaced! What do I have to do to get service around here?"
The two clerks hurried to placate the agitated man. "I'm sorry, sir," said the young woman, "but the repairmen have all gone home for the day, and..."
"It's a damn light bulb, you don't need an engineering degree to replace it!" yelled the customer, smashing the light bulb onto the counter. The clerk screamed as pieces of shattered glass flew into her face.
In the ensuing confusion, which included the clerk being taken to the emergency room by her co-worker to get the cuts on her face taken care of, the incomplete message to Blair was forgotten.
Thus it was that when Blair stopped in at the front desk to retrieve his messages, a clerk who had been hurriedly called in to replace the regular clerks handed him a message that simply read, "Detective Ellison called, said everything is fine, and not to call back if it's late."
Blair checked the time and reluctantly decided that it was indeed too late to call Jim. Disappointed, he said good night to the young man working behind the desk and went upstairs to his hotel room, alone, tired, and missing Jim mightily -- without a clue as to what had really happened.
And in the morning, Blair rose early, showered, and left for the warehouse, not hearing the ring of his room phone.
The flight from Cascade to Lewiston was bad enough -- the flight from Lewiston to Grangeville was horrible. He'd been crammed into a too-small seat. The little twin-engine airplane was cold and noisy as hell, and the aircraft had bounced around like a ping-pong ball in the rough weather. Grangeville Airport didn't offer much in the way of amenities, but he had a cup of hot coffee before finding out there were only fifteen cars for rent in all of Grangeville -- only three with four-wheel drive.
The best was a beat-up Subaru wagon, so Jim gamely folded himself into the car and set out to cover the eighty miles to Elkhorn. The road was icy from a late spring snow-storm, and he kept his attention focused on driving, hardly paying attention to the surrounding countryside.
He finally reached Elkhorn, but calling it a town was rather generous; Elkhorn was a weathered and timeworn collection of buildings. Jim counted three bars, a feed store, and a hardware store, as well as a gas station, a market, and the post office. Jim was certain if Blair were with him, he would have some entertaining commentary on life in small rural towns, and he missed him so intensely it caused a physical ache. But he had a job to do, so Jim shook himself out of his reverie, filled the car with gas, and verified the directions to Jensen Ranch. The grizzled old station owner eyed him suspiciously but gave him the directions.
"You head out o' town 'bout four miles, an' turn left on Old Church Road. It's 'bout five or so miles to the old church. Once you pass it, you'll come to Frenchman's Creek Road. Turn right, and you drive for 'bout ten miles. The ranch has a big fancy gate. You can't miss it."
"Drive careful, now. Them roads are mighty slick, and if you go into the creek, ain't nobody likely to find you till spring thaw, which might never come this year, the way things are goin'."
Mindful of the station owner's words, Jim drove carefully, keeping a watchful eye out for any sign a car had gone into the creek, but the blizzard that had swept through the area last week had dumped a generous amount of snow. Jim could feel the knot of fear forming in his stomach. He hoped Stephen was still stuck at the ranch, because the old man was right -- a car going into the creek would not be found until spring, whenever it came to this forsaken part of the world. Probably not until August.
With a sigh of relief, Jim saw the gate to Jensen Ranch ahead. He turned into the drive and headed toward the building he could see a ways ahead. He came to a fork in the drive; one path headed toward what looked like two massive barns and a scattering of smaller buildings, the other toward a house and an old red barn. He turned to the house.
The house was a large Queen Anne style, white with green trim. A veranda wrapped around the three sides of the house he could see, and everything was well maintained. A battered pick-up was parked near the barn, and next to it was a tired-looking Ford Taurus that might or might not have been Stephen's rental car.
Jim parked next to the two cars and headed to the house. He cautiously climbed the icy stairs leading to the front door, pausing when he reached the porch to carefully extend his hearing. He heard five heartbeats coming from the house, although one was faster than the others -- probably a dog. A woman's voice, slightly off-key, was singing along with a country song on a radio.
He had not been tracking the location of the heartbeats, so the sudden squeal and thunder of hoofs caught him off-guard. Jim looked around to find a large pig charging toward him. He took an instinctive step back, and his foot came down on an icy patch. The next thing Jim knew, he was falling. He twisted around and tried to catch himself -- to no avail. Pain spiked through him as his knee came down on something hard, his hand came down but hit more ice, and his head hit the ground and everything went white, then black.
Someone was snorting in his ear, Jim thought, and licking his face. He lifted his arm to brush the offender away, and pain lanced though his body. He groaned as the events of the last few minutes came back to him. Not someone, something -- a pig. "Beaufort, you naughty boy!" a woman's voice called out, and the pig stopped licking him. Jim took an internal inventory. He didn't think anything was broken, but he knew he was going to have some spectacular bruises and one bitch of a headache. He groaned again and tried to sit up. His head spun alarmingly, and the voice said, "Oh, be careful, you could be hurt!" Jim struggled to a seated position and opened his eyes; everything was too bright, and he was really dizzy. He tried to focus on the voice and found an attractive woman staring back at him -- or rather two of her. "Are you all right?" she asked in stereo, and it was too much for Jim -- he sank back into the swirling darkness.
When he woke up again, he was lying on something soft, and he was warm, except for his left knee. The dizzy swirling was gone, so he cautiously opened his eyes. He was in the library, he supposed, looking at the bookshelves that circled the room. He was lying on a sofa, covered by a soft blanket. His knee was cold from the icepack wrapped around it, and his clothes were missing; he was only wearing his boxers and a t-shirt.
"Still charging to the rescue, big brother?"
Jim turned slightly to look at Stephen. He was ensconced in the armchair by the fireplace, one ankle carefully wrapped and propped up on an ottoman. Jim had to blink back tears for a moment, overwhelmed by the relief of knowing his brother wasn't buried under two feet of snow. He had to clear his throat before speaking. "You had us worried." Relief turned quickly to anger, though. "You couldn't call and let someone know where you were?" Jim demanded.
"Ah, no, actually." Stephen blushed as he looked at his brother. "They, um, won'tletmeusethephoneunlessi'llmarryoneofthem."
"Say that again so I can understand it."
"The phone lines are down, and they took my cell phone, and they won't let me call out unless I agree to marry one of them." Stephen scowled at Jim. "Dammit, Jim. It's not funny."
Jim finally controlled his laughter. He sat up and situated himself as comfortably as he could. He expected Stephen's explanation to take a while. Before he could start asking questions, though, the door to the library opened and the attractive woman came in, carrying a tray. She was about six feet tall, with green eyes and long blond hair worn in a braid. She was solidly built and looked to be about his age. When he'd hit his head, he thought he was seeing double; when the woman was followed by her duplicate, he realized they must be twins. When the third version followed them into the room, he gaped in astonishment -- not twins, but identical triplets.
They bustled about the room, setting up trays for him and Stephen and pouring tea. The pig trotted into the room and plopped himself down at Jim's feet. He gathered his scattered wits together and looked at his brother. Stephen just shrugged, a resigned expression on his face. Jim looked at the three women now sitting on the opposite sofa.
"Mr. Ellison," the first one said, "we're so pleased to meet you."
The next one took over. "We hope you are feeling better."
"Beaufort didn't mean any harm," the third one added. "He rarely takes to people so quickly."
"Just dear Stephen," the middle one said, and all three women looked at Stephen adoringly.
Jim did the only thing he could think of. "Call me Jim," he said, and took a drink of tea.
"Jim," the first one said. "I'm Bobbie Jo Jensen."
"I'm Billie Sue," added the next.
"I'm Bonnie Lee," finished the third.
Well, at least he had names to go with the face. Jim figured it would take a while before he could tell them apart. He hoped he wouldn't be here long enough.
"So, Jim, has dear Stephen..."
"...explained the situation to you..."
"...why we need his help?"
Jim was starting to get the hang of following the triplets' conversation. "No, we hadn't got that far."
"...a dear man really..."
"...but terribly old fashioned..."
"...passed away last year. He left the ranch..."
"...to whichever of us is married..."
"...eighteen months from his demise."
"Otherwise, the entire ranch goes to our cousin, Harold..."
"...a terrible man..."
"...Beaufort doesn't like him at all."
"We only have eight months left."
Jim interrupted the narrative. "Have you considered contesting the will?"
"That's what Holly Lynn said..."
"...she's our other sister..."
"...she lives in Tacoma."
"But we thought if Stephen will marry one of us..."
"...it doesn't matter which..."
"...then the ranch would be safe..."
"...it only has to be for a year..."
"...and Beaufort likes him."
Stephen was making odd strangling noises, very softly. Jim shot a glance at him and found him blushing furiously and attempting to hide his face behind his teacup. Jim returned his attention to the triplets. The middle one -- Billie Jo? Billie Lee? -- was watching him with a speculative gleam in her eye.
"So, Jim," she asked, "are you married?"
By the time Jim's spilled tea had been mopped up and the broken cup and the rest of the tea things cleared away, his head was pounding. Bonnie Sue -- at least, he thought it was Bonnie Sue, or was that Bobbie Sue? -- brought him some aspirin and encouraged him to take a nap. Jim wanted to protest, to explain to the women the trouble they were in, coax them to let him and Stephen go, but he suspected he needed a clear head to pull it off. He looked over at his brother. "Some rescue."
"Hey, you came looking for me. Someone will come looking for you, and then we'll get out of here. Relax." Stephen grinned at him, looking very much like the mischievous little brother he remembered. "I'll still be here when you wake up."
Jim dozed for a bit, waking when one of the triplets came to check on him. She brought him a clean set of sweats, and Jim was ridiculously grateful to have clothes on again. It did not escape his notice that they were not his clothes, and she did not bring him any shoes. She showed him to the bathroom, where he cleaned up a bit, and then escorted him to the dining room, where Stephen was already waiting.
Dinner was a strange affair. The meal was tasty farm-style cooking, roast beef with all the fixings. The triplets treated them like guests, asking, in their odd way, many questions about Jim's and Stephen's lives, as well as recounting a few of their wilder childhood adventures. After dessert, a delicious berry cobbler, Jim was left with Billie while the others assisted Stephen to his room. Jim wanted to help, but his knee had stiffened up, and he could barely walk.
The others returned, this time to escort Jim. Because of his lingering headache, without Blair around to ground him, Jim was a bit leery of extending his senses, so he was surprised to be escorted to a door opposite the kitchen. The door led to the basement. Jim carefully limped downstairs. As soon as he was safely at the bottom, the basement door was closed and locked.
He looked around. The basement was scrupulously clean. It was sparsely furnished, with a daybed, a table with an old lamp, a space heater, and a cot and sleeping bag against the far wall. There were shelves under the stairs, with some old paperbacks, extra blankets and bedding, and clothing. He recognized the jeans and sweater as his; he assumed the other stack of clothing was Stephen's. There was a door by the stairs, and Jim could hear running water, so he assumed it was the bathroom.
There were windows at intervals around the room, and he limped closer to examine one. It was about six feet off the floor, and very narrow. Jim sighed. He couldn't possibly fit through.
"They're too small," Stephen offered as he left the tiny bathroom and hobbled to the daybed. He sank onto the bed with a sigh. "Ahh."
"Yeah," Jim agreed. He limped over to the daybed and sat. "Let me see." He carefully lifted Stephen's ankle into his lap and examined it. "Mmm. Nasty sprain."
"Yeah. Hurts like a bitch, too."
Jim gently placed Stephen's foot back on the bed. "They keep you here the whole time?"
"Nah. I had a really nice guest-room on the second floor. After I had my little mishap, they moved me down here."
"What did you do?"
"I climbed out the window and across the veranda roof. But I landed wrong coming off the roof and sprained my ankle."
"Jesus, Stevie. Didn't you learn anything when you fell off the garage and broke your collar bone?"
Stephen shoved him with his good foot. "Very funny."
"Hey, there's a car coming!"
Stephen listened for a minute. "I don't hear anything."
"I do. Trust me, there's a car." Jim listened as the car drove up to the house and parked. He heard the car door slam shut, and the quiet crunch of footsteps across the yard. The steps came around to the back, into the kitchen. Beaufort squealed and hoofbeats crossed the house to the kitchen. As they passed overhead, even Stephen could hear them. "Beaufort," Jim explained. "Someone came into the kitchen."
Jim listened as a warm female voice greeted the pig. "Hey, Beau. What kind of trouble have you been getting into now, huh?"
The triplets' voices soon joined in as they came to the kitchen. "Holly!" someone cried, and then there was just a confused babble of female voices. He caught his name and Stephen's but couldn't decipher most of what was said. Not for the first time, he wished Blair were there.
Stephen was looking at him curiously. "Holly's here." Jim returned his attention to the kitchen.
"You did what?" The outraged shriek belonged to the new arrival, Holly. "Have you lost your collective mind? That's kidnapping! And one of them is a cop!"
"But Holly, we're sure it will be fine..." The triplets were doing their triple speak thing again.
"...they're such nice men..."
..."and Beaufort likes them both."
Holly murmured something Jim couldn't quite hear, so he listened harder.
He blinked to awareness to find Stephen kneeling beside him, looking terrified.
"Jesus, Jim! What the hell was that?"
"Sorry. I concentrated a little too hard."
"No shit. One minute you were there, and the next you were gone, and I couldn't get you to come back."
"I was trying to find out their plans. Quiet." Jim shushed Stephen, and carefully extended his hearing into the kitchen again.
"So, Beau, what am I going to do? If I let them go, the girls will be locked up for sure. But we certainly can't keep them locked in the basement. Maybe I can convince them not to press charges. Right, like I'm going to convince a cop not to press charges." She snorted softly. "I'm obviously too tired to think rationally right now, anyway, or I wouldn't be having a conversation with a pig."
Jim pulled his attention back to the basement as Holly walked out of the kitchen, murmuring to the pig as he followed her. "Nothing has changed for the night. But I think we'll be meeting Holly in the morning. She's going to try to talk us into not pressing charges if she lets us go."
Stephen was looking at him a little uncomfortably. "That's that... thing you do, isn't it?"
"What thing?" Jim turned and stretched out full-length.
Stephen pulled himself to his feet and limped to the head of the daybed. "You know -- that hearing things thing. Move over."
"No. And yes." Jim closed his eyes and slid his hands behind his head.
"What? Jim, come on, sit up."
"Yes, that is that thing I do. And why should I sit up?"
"'Cause you took my seat, maybe?"
"It's not your seat," Jim said, not budging an inch. "It's a seat. And you weren't in it."
Stephen's mouth dropped open and stayed that way, shocked as he was with the injustice of it all. "Jimmy, I was sitting there!"
"Yeah, and now I'm lying here."
Jim bit his tongue to keep his smirk from showing. A man in his mid-thirties -- and Stephen was whining. Not much, of course, but enough for Jim to hear. "What are you going to do -- tell Dad?"
"Stevie, calm down. There's other places to sit. Look, over there, you can have the whole cot to yourself instead of sharing this daybed with me."
"But I had the daybed first."
"But I'm older." Jesus, what was he, twelve? Half his mind was prepared for his brother to demand again that he surrender the seat, and he was seriously considering meeting that demand with an arms-folded 'make me.' The adult in him, though, was about to sigh and do the magnanimous big brother thing, giving Stephen the daybed out of the goodness of his heart -- but Stephen stalked unevenly across the room to the cot and flung himself down on it. When Jim propped himself up on his elbows, Stephen turned over on his side, staring at the wall. "We can trade off," Jim said to the back of his brother's head. "You can have the daybed tomorrow night if you want." Stephen did not respond. "Fine." Jim lay back again.
"You always have to win, don't you?" Stephen said after a few minutes.
"Since we were kids. You have to be the best at everything. The strongest, the fastest, the smartest. Always gets the girl. Do you know how rough it is being your younger brother?"
"Do you know how rough it is being me?" Jim asked, astonished.
Stephen wasn't listening. "I can't even get kidnapped without you coming along and upstaging me."
"You have got to be joking. You think I'm showing off? Tell you what, Stephen, you can have the heightened senses if you want them, and the next time you turn up missing I'll mind my own business. Save a couple hundred bucks and a sprained knee while I'm at it."
"Peachy. I'm going to sleep." Jim heaved himself up and limped over to the shelves, where he grabbed half the blankets and tucked them under his arm. He stood up straight and looked for a moment at his brother, wondering if Stephen was going to try to sneak over to the daybed while his back was turned -- and willing to let him have it if he was -- but Stephen was still curled up on his side, facing away. Jim sighed, limped over to the cot, and dropped the blankets on Stephen's hip. "Here. Wrap up warm." Stephen did not respond. Jim went back and retrieved the rest of the bedding, hobbled back to the daybed, and arranged himself and his blankets as comfortably as possible. "'Night, Stevie," he murmured.
He knew Stephen knew he'd hear him even if he whispered; that was why Stephen didn't answer him at all.
SVS-21: Finders Keepers by SVS Staff, Part 1