In Search of a Peaceful Heart by Alyjude and Jyllean

In Search of a Peaceful Heart - Alyjude and Jyllean

The envelope was still there, unopened. Jim picked it up, flicking the letter gently against the knuckles of his other hand while checking the postmark. Yup. Arrived before Thanksgiving, but here it was, two weeks into December. He stole a glance at his partner, currently absorbed in email on his laptop, then considered the letter again. No doubt about who the sender was. Naomi's handwriting was distinctive, like everything about the woman. So why was Blair ignoring a letter from his mother, especially during the holidays? To the point that it was shoved under the fruit bowl, buried under a flyer from the dry cleaner and last night's pizza receipt.

Jim could remember a time when a communication from Naomi brought everything to a standstill. Blair would fall on them like a starving man on fresh bread, savoring every word. Naomi always spun tales of something new, or enchanting people to meet, always closing with the inevitable invitation to her son to come and be part of her world. Blair would shake his head over his mother's latest escapades with a smile, read a few excerpts to his friend. A trip to Big Sur could evolve into New York City or the Yucatan. Perhaps only sentinel ears detected the barest hint of longing in Sandburg's voice as he followed the will-o-wisp who'd borne him into the world and then flitted away. So what was different now?

Jim looked back at Sandburg again, adjusting for the late afternoon light bathing the loft. Years now since Naomi had turned their world upside down. Yeah, the hair was a bit shorter and he carried himself differently. The cop world demanded more of the body. Ten or fifteen pounds of muscle had been added to Blair's compact frame. The unbridled enthusiasm had deepened into something a bit more intense and focused. His colleagues valued Sandburg's opinions, sought his advice. Detective Sandburg was a man to be reckoned. He'd carved out a successful niche within the department. Blair seemed happy.

Could it be the fact that he and Sandburg were a couple - as in couple? That Blair was so content a letter from his mother could be ignored? A soft smile grew on Jim's face, the one reserved for 'those' thoughts. Okay, so things were terrific between them. Actually, things were better than terrific now that 'those' feelings had been acknowledged - and thank GOD - acted upon, but…a letter from Naomi going untouched for almost a month?

This wasn't right.

Jim stuffed the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans. He considered the tactics available. "Hey Sandburg, why haven't you looked at your Mom's letter," wasn't an option. Something subtle, now that was the ticket. He made some tea for his partner while re-warming coffee for himself, and drifted into the Sandburg zone. "Hey, Chief. Earth to Sandburg."

Blair looked up at Jim's outstretched hand and accepted the offering. "Hey, thanks. Was I ignoring you?" He smiled and returned his attention to the keyboard.

"A bit. I'll live. I sort of expect that slavish affection stuff every few minutes, though."

Blair snorted. "I'll slavish affection you," he said, not looking up, still typing.

Perfect. Door open, but not too obvious. Jim moved behind his partner and, while massaging Blair's shoulders, asked, "Anything interesting in there?"

"Nothing earthshaking, just reading email and checking my bank balance. Did I tell you that I might be able to consolidate some of my loans? There's a ton of paperwork, but way lower interest. I could have them cleared a lot faster."

Those damned loans. Jim could feel the ire rise at the thought. Sandburg was still a slave to that final albatross from academia. He couldn't count the number of times he'd offered to help, while Blair had, predictably, refused. Sure, he'd made a joke about how the loans were "pre-Ellison/Sandburg" and thus not Jim's problem, but Jim hadn't needed sentinel senses to know that it was a matter of pride for his partner. He pushed the issue of loans aside. He had other fish to fry.

"Sounds good. Of course, that's the reason you didn't do cash for clunkers on the Volvo," Jim said with a smirk. Cash for clunkers had been a running joke between them for months, both perfectly aware that neither was buying new transportation.

Blair sipped his tea. "Don't clunker me. The truck should have been at the head of the line."

Jim leaned down and kissed the top of Blair's head. "Truce?"

"Truce," Blair said, grinning. Still the fingers danced across the keyboard.

Time to dangle the bait. "I asked Simon to give us time after Christmas. Believe it or not, he said we could have a week, maybe even ten days. You want to plan something? We could get out of town."

Blair looked up wide eyed. "You asked for time off. Seriously? And here I thought you were going for the Cascade PD unused vacation time record."

Perfect. He didn't suspect a thing. "Come on, Chief. Things are different now. We're a…you know… And I do too take time off," he ended defensively.

"An afternoon for the dentist is not time off." Blair's expression grew thoughtful. "It would be nice to get away, just the two of us. Maybe somewhere warm?" he asked as he tilted his head back to look up at Jim. "And romantic," he added with a waggle of his eyebrows.

"Maybe." Jim pulled the envelope out and set it gently on Blair's knee. "Or maybe we should, you know, check with our families."

Anger flashed across Blair's eyes before he looked away.

"Come on, Chief. Open it up and get it over with." Blair started to open his mouth and Jim cut him off. "Right. She's your mom, and it's not my business, but somehow those constraints never matter when the shoe is on the other foot."

"Hoisted on my own petard," Blair said grimly. He tore open the envelope. Jim could detect the scent of lavender from the pages as Blair read in silence. He refolded the letter into the envelope and tossed it on the coffee table. "Happy now?"

Jim tilted his head, appreciating the irony. "Not particularly. What did she say that made you so angry?"

"I'm not angry," Blair snapped. "You asked me to read the letter. I read it. Can that be the end of it?"

"Let's see – breathing and pulse up, your teeth are clenched - shall I go on? She pissed you off, but I think you were pissed off before you even looked. I'd like to know why."

Blair stabbed at the laptop keyboard one last time, shutting the computer down. "We might share the same bed now, among other things, but that is so an invasion of my privacy. This is covered in the constitution, you know."

"So go to law school. Come on, Chief, you've been invading my privacy since you put on a lab coat and mispronounced the nameplate. Live with it and tell me why you're so upset with Naomi that you purposely ignored her invitation."

"You don't know it was an invitation," Blair said with a challenge.

"Let' see. She wrote you a three page letter to tell you to take out the garbage. It's holiday season, Chief. Other than Thanksgiving or Christmas, she's as likely to choose Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the Druid celebration of the winter solstice. It was an invitation."

"You know, Jim, sarcasm is so unattractive."

"And obfuscation is so annoying. I know where you live. In fact, I know where you sleep. Talk."

Blair studied his wiggling toes like they were the most fascinating sight in the universe. "She makes me mad."

Jim rolled his eyes. "This does nothing to increase the body of knowledge. That's intellectual talk, in case you didn't notice. You should recognize it. Quit stalling."

"Jim, this isn't - "

"Stop," Jim interrupted. "What time is it?"

"You're the one who wears a watch."

"Smart ass. Four thirty. The sun is sufficiently over the yardarm. Get your coat." Jim pulled him off the couch, shoved shoes into Blair's arms and frog marched him towards the door. When Sandburg was concerned, talking was seriously overrated.

&&&&&

"Why are we here?"

"Because it's pretty. Festive even." Jim gestured toward the poinsettias and candlelit surroundings. "What are the little bag things they have set out for Christmas? Other than a fire hazard, they're pretty cool."

"Why are we here? And they're called farolitas. Part of the holiday tradition."

"The chips are good, the salsa is great, we're together, and we have a pitcher of margaritas. What's not to like?" Jim cheerfully munched a chip and sampled his drink, licking the salt from his lips. "Salt should be a food group. Come on, Chief. Have some fun."

"Why. Are. We. Here?" Blair asked again, a bit more forcefully this time.

"I've been told that obsession is a bad thing, by you as a matter of fact. Asking the same question over and over is obsessive. I'm going to enjoy the company, a spectacular meal in the best Mexican place in the city, eat loads of cheese, and listen to you give me a little lecture on culture in foreign lands." And two or three margaritas from now, you're going to tell me why you're so angry with Naomi. "Why do they hang the chili things?"

Blair sighed, and picked up a chip in surrender. "They're ristras. They bring good health and good luck. They do have healthy food on the menu, by the way. There are salads."

"Four pages of menu choices and you're talking salads. We're having guacamole right now, and that's going to be the only green on the plates tonight. Now shut up and order something gooey. I'm going to start with a chili relleno, and bacon-wrapped shrimp with beans and rice.

"Oh my God."

&&&&&

"That was good, Jim. Really, really good.

"Told you. I even liked the flan." Jim leaned back in his chair, satisfied in more ways than one. The assorted candles did interesting things with his partner's hair.

"You know, when you dragged me in here, I thought you were gonna ply me with tequila, make me eat the worm or something."

"How pathetic do you think I am? Actually, don't answer that." Jim took another sip of the Mexican chocolate his partner had recommended. "Besides, the worm isn't fun unless there's an ick factor. A guy who's eaten grubs with indigenous tribes doesn't have an ick factor."

"I have ick factors, just not with bugs. So all those margaritas were just a festive touch? Not even motivated by the fun, sloppy sex that comes with having had too many margaritas?"

Ignoring the 'sloppy sex' remark, although it could be a nice by-product of the evening, Jim said, "Poinsettias are festive. The candle thingy's are festive. The margaritas – now they were so you'd tell me why Naomi is making you mad."

"I knew it. You're not going to let this go, are you?" Blair sighed, and swirled the chocolate in his cup. "Okay. I'm mad because she acts like nothing has changed."

"You mean since the diss? Chief, I thought the two of you had worked through that. Forgive and forget or detach with love or something."

"We did."

"And?" Jim asked. When Blair's silence persisted, he continued. "Look, I know why she irritates me. She burns sage in the loft and moves the furniture. She drops in unannounced, she's a little nutty and generally leaves havoc in her wake. But that's part of the package, she loves you, and because I do, too, I accept that. You're not irritated. You're angry, and that's new."

"Because she still acts like I'm the same person," Blair said, anger bleeding into his voice. "I'm different now. I think I'm a better person, and I have a life that makes a difference to people. And she's ignoring us, an oversight of which she is fully aware. It's insulting when she writes, 'Just come join me in Nepal,' like I was still some unattached grad student who could take the quarter off."

"I see," Jim said. So it always comes back to the jackboots, doesn't it Naomi? He could see genuine indignation flashing in Blair's eyes.

"Do you? Because I'm not sure I understand it. Why doesn't she want to know the person I am now? Why doesn't she want to appreciate that the love of my life completes me?"

"Okay. I can see that."

Blair wasn't finished. "Why is it always on her terms, with her sensibilities? You said she loves me, she says she loves me. What is 'love' if she can't accept who I've grown into? If she doesn't even care to know? She refuses to share the life I actually have."

Jim could see the moisture in Blair's eyes. "This really wounds you, doesn't it?"

"More than anything. More than her taking off all the time when I was young, more than the diss. Why would I want to spend time with someone who treats me like a cartoon character, who refuses to acknowledge all the changes in my life?" He banged his mug down, crossed his arms and looked stormily across the table.

"I don't know, Chief. You talked me into developing a real relationship with someone who labeled me a freak. Who played mind games on me until the day I walked out of the house. I felt like I had to overlook a lot to even have a conversation with him. How is my dad different from your mom?"

Bitterness swelled in Blair's voice. "Because your dad was willing to change. He wanted you badly enough to do almost anything. He doesn't insist that you act like you’re still seventeen. He tries - and he's accepted that I'm a part of your life too." With a start, he realized that he'd raised his voice, and seemed to cave in on himself. "You know what, Jim. I'm tired of doing Naomi's trying for her. I don't want to see her. I don't want to write to her, I don't want to talk to her. Is that good enough?"

The pain in his voice went right to Jim's heart. "Of course it is. Enough said. Why don't we go home and have that sloppy sex you mentioned."

"Really?"

"Really. And after a good night's sleep, we can plan our vacation."

"Do you know there are actually experts who claim romance is dead? How could I possible turn down that invitation?"

&&&&&

Saturday morning, the glory of the working man. Jim stretched, full from a breakfast of Danish and great coffee, all in sweats and his stocking feet. "That's it, Chief. No more internet hunting. Let's choose."

"Man, this is tough. Choice one – ski cabin at Winthrop. You can catch the community ski trails fifty feet from the door of the place. Choice two – San Diego and the beach. Of course, we can drive to Winthrop, so no airline expense."

"I vote for San Diego. We'll get tans, eat seafood, and surf."

"Jim, I don't surf. I can, however, muddle along on a pair of cross country skis."

"You wanted warm, and Winthrop, my love, is not warm. And I can teach you to surf if we go to San Diego. Think about it…you, in swim trunks, flat on my board, me, in my swim trunks, over you, both of us paddling through the waves…."

Blair grinned at the vision. "Trouble is, something tells me we won't get much surfing done. On the other hand, you in your surfing mode, with major parts of you body exposed, is hard to beat." He frowned at the laptop screen. "But the airline tickets…."

"That's what Alaska Visa is for. I have miles and a companion ticket. Let's book it. We'll do that New Years Eve thing you saw."

"Can we go to the Zoo?" Blair said hopefully.

"Yes, Darwin, we can go to the zoo. Immerse our environmentally deprived souls in endangered species. But you try the surfboard in trade." Blair smiled, and turned back to the laptop. Jim was grateful to see some of the shadows chased from his partner's eyes.

A little quick conversation, a call to Simon, and they were set. They'd work Christmas Eve and Christmas day to give the other members of Major Crime a break. Sally was planning a late holiday dinner whenever they could get away. On the 27th, they'd leave. Jim peered over his partner's shoulder while Blair did the computer work to book their flights and hotels. Caught up in Blair's enthusiasm, Jim pushed his previous concerns aside.

&&&&&

"Hey, Jim. Is Blair around?"

"He's meeting with the DA." Jim looked up from his computer. Joel Taggart was grinning from ear to ear. "Is this the famous Captain Taggart, bearing gifts?"

"You bet." Joel handed over a stack of folders. "I think we hit pay dirt. We can review them when Sandburg comes back." He started to leave, and then paused. "Actually, Jim, do you have a minute to take a break? Maybe grab a bite to eat and some coffee?"

The worry on Joel's face was enough to get Jim out of his seat and headed for the door.

"I'm voting for the bakery on Washington," Joel said as they stepped into the elevator. "You up for it?"

"You mean the one that starts Sandburg into his cholesterol speech from a hundred paces? The cream cheese–raspberry-croissant-whatever place?"

"The very one. The walk will burn the calories," Joel said. "That can be the theory at least. Ever try the scones?"

Two coffees and a plate of pastries later, Jim cut to the chase. "What's on your mind, big guy?"

"Blair. Something's bothering him. He's always the first one to plan the Christmas party, or a gift exchange. I mentioned organizing the sing-a-long like we've done the last couple years, and he got really upset. Actually, he bit my head off."

"That's just not like him."

Joel gave him a thoughtful look. "Somehow, I sense you aren't totally surprised. Did you know that he declined to do the story time at the PD Kids' Party, something he's done since his observer days? Turned Rhonda down flat. Almost had her in tears.

Okay, now that was a worry. Jim hesitated, torn between betraying a confidence and hearing more. He opted for more. "Anything else?"

"Jim, you know how I feel about Sandburg. He's fraying around the edges, and he seems bitter, a word I never expected to use in the same sentence with Blair. You must have some idea what's eating him."

Jim sighed. Anyone who thought the captain of the bomb squad didn't make a good detective was nuts. But damn, he'd really thought things had improved. Obviously he'd been fooling himself and, as he looked back over the last couple of weeks, he could see that despite Blair's enthusiasm for their upcoming vacation, his moods had been a bit erratic.

Jim rubbed at the back of his neck as he studied Joel. Maybe he could help. After all, Joel and Blair had a special connection, a longstanding one that went back to the church bombings. What could he lose by trying? Jim leaned over, lowered his voice, and said, "Look, here's the thing. Sandburg's had a real falling out with his mom. He won't read her letters, won't talk to her. We discussed it. I thought we'd gone some distance toward working through it. From what you say, things seem to be worse instead."

"What? I can't imagine him at odds with his mother. Blair's always one to talk things out, not bottle it up inside."

"Not in this case. In Blair's eyes, Naomi has refused to see him for who he is now, not to mention the change in our relationship. She sent him a letter before Thanksgiving and I had to con him into opening it. We talked then and, like I said, I thought things were better. Obviously, that was wishful thinking on my part. Right now, there's another letter sitting on the fridge, unopened, but since he'd already stated that he wasn't going to read any more of them, I haven't pressed him about it. Not a good call, I guess."

"No, I think, for now, you did the right thing, but I'm puzzled. What happened in the first conversation to make things worse?"

"I wonder that, too. It's like once he talked about being angry with her, he kept gnawing on it." Jim slowly started to shred the napkin in front of him. "You know, he said some things, about not wanting to read her notes or talk to her. I thought it was, you know, just blowing off steam. That he was just speaking figuratively."

"But, in retrospect, maybe it was more a declaration?"

"Yeah, and I bet it's been tearing him up ever since. I suppose that's more typical for Blair than I'd like to admit. He's not big on burdening others with his problems." Jim looked into the distance for a moment he said pensively. "He wouldn't put up his menorah."

Joel frowned. "I can hardly imagine that."

Jim smiled wistfully. "We have this routine, since he first moved in with me. Blair does the candles and cooks the latkes. Every year he teaches the dreidel game, and I pretend that I don't remember how to play. Then I complain about Christmas and he shows up with a Charlie Brown tree and goofy ornaments and we decorate. He makes me watch the Rudolph special, or A Charlie Brown Christmas. We hide presents and tease. We both enjoy it. He was like the biggest kid in Cascade. Who else can talk Simon into a Santa suit year after year?"

"Only Blair," Joel acknowledged with a grin. Then it faded as he added, "But not this year. At least, not here at the station."

"And I should have noticed what was happening at work." He looked at Joel, feeling miserable. "I just want him to be happy, Joel. In all things."

Joel considered that for a few minutes. Finally, he asked, "Why do you think Blair did all these holiday things in the first place?"

The change of direction puzzled Jim for a moment. "Search me, Joel. He had an eclectic childhood. I just know he loved it."

Joel savored a bite of pastry. "Blair's childhood might have been eclectic, to use your word, but I suspect it wasn't idyllic. All these years we've known him, but we don't know him. Was he recalling childhood memories or replacing them?"

"You mean doing things that he wished had happened?" Jim sat back, stunned. "Whoa, that puts a new spin on things."

"I might be wrong," Joel said quietly.

"He did tell me after we talked that he was tired of doing Naomi's trying for her… He's not trying, is he?" Jim asked.

Joel's expression said it all. They now knew the problem, but not the solution.

&&&&&

"Sally, these are the best cookies in the universe," Blair said, happily munching a frosted bell shape. He helped himself to a star. "When I try the recipe, they just don't turn out right. You aren't holding out on me, are you?"

The delicate looking woman smiled with pleasure, gazing fondly at Jim. "I just have more practice. They were Jimmy's favorite. He used to help with the frosting and the sprinkles. He was very precise."

Blair beamed speculatively. "Precise, huh. Did he arrange crystal by crystal?"

"Hey!" Jim protested. "I just wanted a crack at stealing extra frosting."

"That's why I always made extra," Sally said, adding more cookies to the plate.

"Busted," Blair said gleefully. He looked at the clock on the stove. "Jim, we need to go soon."

"You're right. We go on at ten." Jim pushed back his chair. The Ellison kitchen on this night was a haven he was loath to leave. He bent down to kiss Sally's cheek. "You always make Christmas Eve special, and I'm sorry you had to juggle around our work schedule. Can you stand us two days in a row?"

Sally patted his cheek affectionately. "I can cook that turkey any time. Of course I want you to have Christmas dinner here at home. Now, Blair, come here. I have goodies for you boys to take."

Jim abandoned his partner to Sally's fussing. He put his arm around his father's shoulders as they walked through the house into the foyer. "Dad, thanks for having us over. Everything was just great."

"Well, having you two over made it a festive occasion for your poor old man. I'm sorry you couldn't enjoy the eggnog."

"Dad, you're not poor and you're not old. And your eggnog is infamous for its alcohol content. We're on duty."

"I still don't understand why you're working both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. You must have enough seniority to pull a holiday," William Ellison said, digging coats out of the entry closet.

"Gives everyone a break. The guys with families and little kids need the time more than we do. Besides, we'll have our time off, it's just later. New Years in San Diego, remember?"

"I remember," William said. He stole a glance in the direction of the kitchen. "Blair seems a little quiet. Is everything okay?"

"He's fine, Dad." His father's expression made it clear more was expected. "Things are a little tense for him with his mom. I guess we, of all people can understand that, huh?"

William nodded thoughtfully. "I hope it blows over quickly. We'll expect you tomorrow, whenever you can get here."

"You bet. I'll call. Sandburg!"

"Coming!" Blair said, hustling in from the kitchen. "Sally made us sandwiches to eat later." He was carrying a large bag. "There are all kinds of treats in here."

"The truck, Chief, the truck," Jim said, steering his partner out the door. He waved back as he walked. "Thanks, Sally, and Merry Christmas. Hey, Chief, save some of those cookies for me!"

&&&&&

They didn't make it to the station, their first call coming in before they even made it to the main drag. Jim immediately reversed directions and, while Blair grabbed the light and stuck it on the roof, they sped to the scene in an older neighborhood not far from the university. When they walked in, Jim wished they could walk right back out.

Olivia Wilson, seventy four, had been bludgeoned to death in front of her Christmas tree. The young patrolman who'd responded to the initial call had nearly lost his composure. Wisely, the kid's first action was to call for backup. The backup just happened to be Detectives Ellison and Sandburg.

Officer Ty Foster, still shaky and uncertain when Jim and Blair arrived, had been banished to the kitchen to interview the neighbors while Sandburg directed traffic as forensics team and the coroner drove up.

Now, as he and Jim stood in the living room, he asked, "What do you think, Jim?"

"Right now? Burglary gone bad," Jim said. "Looks like they smashed the lock. She heard it, walked in on them…" He gestured helplessly. "They grabbed the fireplace poker and hit her. Not the epitome of a well planned crime."

"They?" Blair asked.

"Mud on their shoes." He gestured down at the floor before squatting for a better look. "I can see at least two different print shapes, a boot and an athletic shoe. Both prints are smaller- sized, with a light tread, meaning neither were carrying much weight. I'd say we're looking at a couple of teens. We need to get forensics in here to shoot some photos before someone tromps over the evidence."

"What a waste," Blair said. "The neighbors say she was a really nice lady, always doing things for the neighborhood kids and stuff."

"Well, I'd say it's altogether possible that not all the neighbor kids were appreciative," Jim said dryly as he stood. "Or maybe someone just knew the layout of the house. Let's hope some kid that ate her cookies when he was ten didn't come back to take advantage at sixteen."

Both men looked up at the sound of a car screeching to a halt. "Let's go see what that's about," Jim said.

They nearly collided with an elegantly dressed woman letting herself in through the front door with a key. "Mother!" she shouted. "Mother? For heaven sakes, why did you call the police? You're always overreacting. I said I'd come!" She recovered and tossed the keys on a small entry table. "Oh, excuse me. I'm sorry my mother bothered you. I'll take care of this and you gentlemen can get back to some real work."

Jim blocked her progress. "Ma'am, I'm Detective Ellison, and this is Detective Sandburg. You are?"

"I'm Vicky Collins, Detective. Just let me speak with my mother, and we can all get on our way." She made no effort to hide her irritation. "She so inconsiderate! She knows I'm busy tonight, and here I have to leave because she thinks she hears noises. Always interrupting our lives with something or other. No effort to understand my life. She makes me so angry."

Jim saw Blair flinch under the angry words, words that nearly mirrored his own about Naomi. "Excuse me, Mrs. Collins, when did your mother call?"

"Oh, I don't know. Seven maybe. I'm not sure. I was really much too busy to pay much attention." She tried to brush past Jim again, without success. Detective, please. I really do have to get back to my party."

"Did she call on a cell phone," Blair asked, his voice strained. "Would you mind checking the time of the calls?"

"Oh, for the love of…" In disgust, she pulled a phone out of her evening bag. "Seven fifteen. I talked to her for a few minutes." She scrolled through the phone. "She called three more times, but I didn't pick those up. My guests were arriving. The last call was at eight thirty seven. Is that precise enough for you, Detective," she said sarcastically.

In the dim light, Jim could she his partner almost shaking with anger. A broken clock at the crime scene showed twenty to nine. This woman had literally ignored her mother's final pleas for help as death walked in the door. "Sandburg, go check on Foster, will you?" Jim waited until his partner disappeared before turning back to the woman.

He made a minimal effort to keep the scorn out of his voice. This woman deserved his last measure of contempt, and he saw no reason to make things easy. "Ma'am, I'm sorry to inform you that your mother was killed by an intruder this evening. I'm sure this will be difficult, but perhaps you'd like to make the identification."

&&&&&

When Jim left Mrs. Collins to join his partner outside, she'd been crying silently in a corner of the kitchen. Shaking his head and feeling unaccountably sad, he stepped out onto the porch to stand beside Blair. Other officers were doing their duty, checking for more matching footprints, per Jim's order, and canvassing the neighborhood - which wasn't proving all that difficult since most of the neighbors seemed to be congregated on the other side of the yellow tape. Curious, and going with the old stand-by that many criminals return to the scene, he began to search the throng of bodies. He especially noted the younger ones - and their shoes.

He wasn't all that surprised to spot two kids, no more than sixteen or seventeen, the taller one wearing a pair of hiking boots and the shorter kid wearing a pair of Nikes. Both pairs of shoes covered in mud.

Jim nudged his partner and hissed, "I think I've got 'em. We need to handle this just right. Too many civilians in the way."

Blair, immediately tensed and ready for action, nodded.

It was all over twenty minutes later, silently and without any fuss, let alone injuries. Jim watched as two other detectives put the boys into a squad car. If the neighbors had been shocked before, they were doubly so now. It turned out both kids had lived on the street all their lives. Jim suspected that once all the interviews were in, they'd find that the quiet little neighborhood had been the subject of several minor break-ins and thefts, courtesy of the two teens. Mrs. Wilson was their intended 'easy' mark for Christmas Eve.

It was just after midnight before they finally made their way to the truck. "Not the best way to start Christmas, was it?" Jim said with a worried eye on his partner. He settled in the seat, not ready to start out. Are you going to talk to me, Chief? We both know what you're thinking. "The problem with cases is the paperwork. Not looking forward to this one at all."

Nodding in agreement, Blair shifted Sally's carefully wrapped package of sandwiches to the side. "Maybe we can leave these in the break room fridge. I don't think I could eat now anyway."

Jim heard the break in his partner's voice. You and I need a moment, my love. He guided the truck a few blocks over, and pulled into a deserted area adjacent to the maintenance shed of a local park. Blair, lost in thought, looked up in surprise as the vehicle slowed to a stop.

Jim reached across the cab of the truck, gently pulled Blair's phone out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open. He then took Blair's hand in his own and squeezed it reassuringly before placing the phone in Blair's palm. He closed Blair's fingers around it, leaned in close and whispered, "I'll take a quick walk while you call her. She won't care what time it is." He kissed Blair lightly on the lips.

Blair smiled up at him, eyes shining with gratitude in the dark cab of the truck. "You can stay. I – want you to."

"I'll be close enough. Love you, Chief."

Nodding, Jim slipped out of the truck and started to walk toward the corner. Acting on Blair's invitation, he listened as Naomi's phone rang…and then heard Blair's voice….

"Mom. Yeah, it's me. Yeah, I know. Ma, don't cry. I'm sorry too."

Looking up at the twinkling stars overhead, Jim murmured, "Merry Christmas, Chief. And peace to your little part of this earth."

The end…

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