Snow by banbury

Snow - banbury

The snow grew heavier with every passing minute, cloaking the forest in silence and peace. He liked it here. The silence soothed him, let him think more clearly, sense the world around him, and find inner harmony. He even caught himself trying to prolong this part of the loop.

There was nobody around; even fervent supporters didn’t want to risk sinking into the deep snowdrifts at the bottom of the gully. He could hear cheering yells from over the hillock, dry clicks of the rifles up ahead on the range and the faint echo of the commentator’s words all the way from the journalists’ booths on the stadium.

Jim slowed a little on the way up, shrugging when one of the passing competitors all but shoved him aside. He could feel the state of the snow under his skis and was aware that the ski track had become trickier to navigate since the beginning of the snowfall. The sleet made the route up more difficult, and he wouldn't improve his speed trying to move faster.

“Jim! You’re good, don’t slow down, man, just don’t slow down.” He nodded to Jack’s assistant in acknowledgement and made a lunge forward – he was about to face his last shooting range in the pursuit and needed to concentrate on his breathing.

So far, his shooting was good, no penalty loops, no excess time – accurate, almost mechanical – click, click, click, click, click. He didn’t even think much of the trick his eyes played on him – he could see the target like it was five not fifty feet away, watch as each bullet left a trace on the surface of the small metal round. Jim shook his head (“Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.”), dreading the prospect of the view swallowing him, as had happened last season – a minor spell, but it cost him his leg in the relay in Canmore, and nearly cost the whole team respectable results.

In one smooth motion, he pulled the rifle from his shoulders, shifted, trying to find stable equilibrium, and zeroed his sight on the target. His personal timing was as good as that of the strongest European biathletes – less than 20 seconds on the range - and Jim was determined to top it this season. He aimed and pressed the trigger.

The shooting went as well as intended, when a sudden dizziness overwhelmed Jim. And an extremely unpleasant smell seemed to envelope him. Jim shook his head and gulped at the fresh air. He was lucky enough to have finished his shooting already and was able to dart from the range on the course. On afterthought, he glanced back. There was one of his teammates. Jim shook his head again, not sure why this was bothering him so much.

He was in good form to begin with to be among the first top ten to start the pursuit and now, with the shooting all done, he just needed to increase his speed a little to win the first place without much effort. The problem was that stuff he had sniffed was beginning to influence him, to confuse his senses. The distance seemed longer than before, curvier all of a sudden. The sounds of the stadium almost deafening one moment and vanishing the other.

Jim spat on the snow and bit through his lip deliberately. The expected pain brought him up short, broke through the fog clouding his brain and Jim went ahead at an almost unbelievable speed trying to reach the destination and deliver himself from the self-inflicted torment.

*

He was on his knees trying to undo the ski bindings with shaking fingers and listening with half an ear to the coach Pendergrast’s happy chatting to the TV men when the whiff of the same smell slammed into him for a second time. He scooped a handful of snow and rubbed it into his face.

The numbing cold helped.

Jim raised his head and took a close look at the people around. There was a lot going on in every quarter – athletes, coaches, TV crews, photographers, journalists, medics, you name it – the usual scene right after the finish. Some happy and some unhappy people. He brushed aside several cheerful voices congratulating him on his second place - it wasn’t important now - and scanned the crowd again. There had to be someone with the unpleasant smell.

His sensitive nose twitched and overloaded as his brain catalogued and dismissed the scents from the people around.

“Hey, Jim, good race.” As soon as Jim heard these words and identified the speaker as one of the people on the team, he could more or less call friends, he knew that it was definitely Rafe’s smell, which bothered him so much. Jim turned to lash out something rueful and met only friendly open and slightly curious expression on Bri’s face. Totally unconnected with that foul smell.

“Uhm. Thanks, Bri. You weren’t bad either.”

“Huh.” Rafe laughed a bit self-consciously. “By the nails, my friend, by the nails.”

He really didn't need to be so hard on himself. Jim half-smiled at him, they were the only two from the team on the pursuit and with the whole bunch of the strongest world’s biathletes here there was something to be proud of in that.

“Don’t be hard on yourself, Bri, you did well.”

“Ha! My fortieth place against your second…”

“Just don’t start about the age.” Jim half-heartedly punched Brian on the calf, the nearest place to his hand, and returned to the task of undoing his bindings. Okay, for now the most important thing was to haul himself up and to his room. He’d think about the smell later.

Jim managed to pull his ski boots out of the bindings and tried to stand up.

Okay, much later, he thought, falling on his butt for the second time in a row. Much later.

***

He sat on the fence overlooking the shooting range and gazed lazily upon the numerous staff righting the place for the next race.

So far, no results. Blair hit the wood, jumped in the snowdrift and began the hard task of trailing through the new-fallen soggy, heavy snow. It was easier than he thought to do what he wanted to do – nobody looked twice at the guy with the camera and he was even able to do his own questioning, pretending to be sent by an overly busy journalist to take additional shots. So far, so good.

It was either he went in the wrong direction, or just didn’t ask right questions. Blair kicked a couple of the cones in frustration before climbing in the rental and made his way to the hotel. It was time to think the whole thing through one more time.

There was quite a thin file in the camera case, tucked between the padded sides – all the information Blair had been able to obtain for the last six months. Painfully small amount of information. He looked through it one more time, munching absently on some stale chips. That was it – he couldn’t do more than this without some help or at least advice; but who could he trust to share his information and his goal?

Blair fished out his abused phone book and began to flip through the tattered pages. There were really just two options. Go to mom for advice, seek out her old friends who’d dealt with such kind of tasks in their time – civilian covert ops, trying to uncover corrupt politicians or quiet war with criminals in attempts to save their children and themselves. Or ask… Blair flipped through the pages one more time, scrubbing his head furiously… actually, there was a person to go to, as much as he hated to do it. He punched the number on his cell and waited for an answer.

***

“ Uhm… I don’t know what you mean, Jim.”

Jim sighed and went to stand by the window. They had been talking for almost an hour and all he'd gotten from it was one furious remark from Rafe, “You know very well, Ellison, we all of us take medicine to improve our results. Don’t even tell me, Coach never tried to give it to you.”

“Okay. He tried. I wouldn't consider it even if I didn't have problems with most drugs.”

“Your results protect you from being forced to consider it.” Rafe was furious. Actually, Jim had never seen him that furious before. It was a bit disturbing, though understandable. He didn’t know what to do. He accepted that he was able to smell many things and the drugs never bothered him before. The scent he captured from Brian contained something quite familiar but he couldn’t pinpoint what exactly. The most disturbing thing about it was – the memory associated with this scent was too dark for his liking and he didn’t like to connect it to Rafe.

Jim was brought out of his reverie by his cell ringing. Rafe was gone. He sighed and answered the phone.

*

“Okay. Listen, Kelso, I have relay tomorrow and I'm really not in the mood to do anything, let alone talk with some fucking junior shark journalist about stimulants. I…”

Needless to say, Jim was surprised to hear from Jack Kelso. Sure, their paths had crossed time and again in the past and they’d owed each other more than once, but he hadn’t heard from Jack since his accident and shortly after that Jim had landed in Peru. “Listen, Jack…”

“Jim!” Jack fell silent, then sighed. “Look, Jim. You know me and you know I wouldn't ask for your help unless it was a matter of life and death. Do you believe me?”

Jim didn’t want to believe. He was still too tired and wrought-up after his fruitless talk with Rafe. “Okay, I know you.”

“Do you believe me?”

“Okay, I believe you.”

Jack must’ve heard the resistance in his voice. “Jim, it really is a matter of life and death. This guy… Look, Jim, this guy is really important to me. I’m to blame that he was dragged into this situation in the first place and I’m really, really scared that without guidance and knowledge from the inside he’ll find himself in dipper shit or even dead. I don’t want that to happen to him. I’ll owe you a really big one if you’ll help me. I’ve nobody I can ask to do that at the moment and…”

Jim banged his head on the window frame several times. “Where?”

He knew he should’ve said no. He had a bad feeling about it, but Jack was right – sometimes the only true way was just to go and do something before something worse happened.

***

The bar was dimly lit and fairly quiet. Blair looked around nervously. Jack hadn’t said who the guy he was supposed to talk to looked like. Only that he knew him way back, so he should have the necessary background to answer his questions and show Blair the right way. Ha, there he was, just as Jack described him – tall, even sitting, hunky, hard, and emotionless. He was dressed in a jacket with the emblem of the U.S. biathlon team on it and Blair stopped in his tracks as he recognized yesterday’s hero of the pursuit. (“I’ll be damned”)

“Uh… Mr. Ellison?”

The guy looked him over with his steely blue eyes incredulously. “You’re Jack’s guy? Sand…”

“Sandburg, sir, man, I mean, yes…” Blair mentally shook himself, drew a long breath and indicated the other chair. “May I?”

“Knock yourself out.”

“So, Mr….”

“Stop.” The guy leaned on his elbows and got closer. “First, you call me Jim. Second, I need the whole story before I even contemplate answering your questions.”

“A-a-a…”

“The whole story.”

Blair nodded grimly. He knew no one would tell him such dangerous information without precautions. So be it. He signaled the waiter and sat silently for several minutes waiting for his coffee. His companion leaned back and looked over the bar lazily, then cocked his head to one side.

“So?”

Blair jerked and realized that his coffee was already steaming on the table. The guy returned his attention to him.

“Okay, okay.” He took a gulp from the cup.

“I majored in history four years ago and had to write this paper about Gulf War. All the materials I went through were too … plausible, if you understand what I mean.”

Jim nodded.

“So I went to Jack, we’d known each other for over a year, and began to dig in. Jack told me it’s actually not his area of expertise, but he knows a guy who’d spent a year there as a correspondent. He’s a historian, so he had a better view of the situation. We met and hit it off from the first minute. Not only had I written the best term paper, I changed my minor to journalism and we began to work together. Paul was a journalist-investigator at that time and with my skills as a researcher, we wrote quite a few really hot special reports for big journals. One of them was even nominated for the Pulitzer prize.”

Blair stopped for air and looked at the older man for the first time since he began to talk. There was a strange shadow on the otherwise expressionless face, as if he knew the story or better, what Blair left unsaid. Blair shivered and lowered his head again. “Paul had a nephew, a skier. Maybe you’ve heard of him – Oliver Stonewall, his older sister’s son. Oliver… died a year ago, almost a year and a half. We’ve been told it’s overdose. But he’d never take drugs, he was a dedicated and gifted athlete. Paul was sure it had to do with stimulants, maybe even a new designer stimulant gone wrong. He’d begun to dig into it.”

Blair stopped and gulped the coffee down.

“So, you’re a… friend of Paul Metzner.”

He nodded, watching the other man, waiting for the next question.

“I met him shortly before his death.” Jim looked tired and sad. He laughed humorlessly, “Jack sent him to me. I couldn’t help him and I'm not sure I can help you, either.”

“Tell me.”

Ellison rubbed his face wearily. “Let’s go for a walk.”

***

Jim sighed deeply. It was good to be in the open again, the air was crisp and frosty – tomorrow would be a cold but bright day. And that was good. He glanced back at his companion and decided to go down the main street; nobody would be able to hear their talk, just two guys going from one bar to another. He slowed a little to give Sandburg the chance to catch up with him.

“There’s really nothing to talk about.”

Blair nodded, but looked at him with a stubborn expression ‘we’re-both-in-it-so-you-should-tell-me-everything-you’ve-told-him’. Jim heard the message loud and clear. So be it.

“I don’t do stimulants. Actually, I don’t do drugs either, most of them, unpredictable reactions, you know. The only time Coach tried to feed me special vitamins, I ended up in the clinic for a week because of dizziness and general weakness.” He laughed self-consciously.

Blair silently strolled beside him – all ears.

“Okay. Let’s start from the... What did Kelso tell you about me?”

“Uhm.” Blair stumbled on somebody’s skis laid across the pavement. “Nothing. I mean, he told me you both go way back and that’s all. I assumed you were in Special Forces too, but now I’m not so sure. Really, you’d have to train since childhood to have results like this.”

“Ya think?”

Blair stared at him and nodded vigorously.

“My uncle was a good skier. We went to his place near Mt. Vernon every winter and skied a lot. Mainly him and me. And he had a friend, who worked with the youth team, not national, state team, but really good. Once Coach saw me, he took me in. My dad tolerated it for two years, then forbid me and I hadn’t had a chance to ski properly for almost fifteen years. High school, college, army, Rangers, you know.”

“You really were a ranger?” Jim heard childish admiration in that deep wistful voice and smiled.

“Black ops.”

“Wow!”

“Where do you think I met Jack?”

“But why…?”

“Let’s have some more coffee.” Jim steered the young man toward a small café that smelled like cinnamon buns. They settled in the back with two big mugs and a plate of cookies. “There was an operation that went wrong, I was stranded in the jungle for more than a year, rescued, and then I'd just had enough of it.”

Jim saw more questions in Sandburg’s gaze, but somehow the younger man knew Jim didn’t want to talk about it and said nothing.

“I resigned and needed some peace, some quiet place to find my equilibrium. So I went to my uncle’s place and skied again. My old coach happened to be there and he brought me together with Prendergast. It went good, so here I am now – skiing, shooting, and all without stimulants.” Jim didn’t know why he was telling Blair all this. He trusted Kelso’s opinion, but it wasn’t in his nature to open up to anybody and here he was – spilling his soul to this virtual stranger with the beautiful sad face and understanding look.

“So, what did I tell Metzner…. First, I know who of my teammates use stimulants, what kind and the source. Second, there were regular medicines, nothing new, maybe new combination, but nothing more. You know, there’s not much you could improve with skiers – more oxygen in the blood for better stamina, eyesight, reflections... It's basics. After all, we still need to use skis and rifles; it’s hard to mess with equipment.”

“He thought there was one source for illegal drugs for different…” Blair’s voice trailed when he saw Jim shake his head with regret. “Not that?”

“No, man, sorry. It’s more prosaic but no less dangerous. We talked it through with him and there’s one explanation, really. Do you know what drug dealers do to people who interfere with their operations?”

“They… they…”

“Yes, they inject them with an overdose. Somebody on the team smuggles drugs for the mob. Oliver must’ve seen them.”

***

Blair dully looked into his mug of coffee, swirling it back and forth. So, six months for nothing; all his attempts to gather information for revenge for nothing; he was, after all, just that naïve kid with the plots from the cheap thrillers in his head, as Paul’d said once. There was nothing he could’ve done – oh, he could fantasize the big reveal of the evil mind who’d killed his lover, but that was all.

“There’s nothing I can…”

“Sorry, kid, Sandburg. I’m really sorry, but you can’t just waltz in the middle of it and ask who killed him. Sure, you can try to find something about the people on the team to narrow down the possible killer, but really, are we even sure it’s someone from the team? For all we know it could’ve been somebody hired by an outsider who dealt with the smuggler…” Jim's voice wasn’t pitying or mocking, just compassionate, and Blair relaxed a little.

“What should I do now?” Blair was at a loss. The idea that had driven him for the past year, suddenly evaporated, leaving emptiness, aimlessness, and cold in its wake. He felt a big warm hand on his shoulder.

“You should return home. Talk to Jack. The most you can do – tell someone from the FBI about it, maybe. I don’t know. Just don’t try to do something drastic – if it results in your death, your Paul’ll be pissed at you in his afterlife.”

Blair laughed weakly, thinking that Paul really would be pissed if he managed to kill himself. “Home. Talk to Jack.” He found himself nodding and repeating Jim’s words like a child. “Stop! I can’t return now. I have a job to finish.” He met Jim's worried stare. “Oh, no, not that job. I’m a cameraman, I can’t just disappear, I have a contract.”

“I see. It’d be suspicious.”

“Yes. I’ll hang around till the end of the World Cup. Maybe we could meet for coffee again?”

“Deal.” They paid and left the café, heading towards the hotel.

***

Strangely enough, Jim spent a very restful night. For once, his senses didn’t act up, his sheets were soft enough and breakfast tasted like it should, not like cardboard. He was more than ready for the relay. There was still an uneasy feeling at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t pin it down, so he shoved it aside and concentrated on the matter in hand.

He was on the third leg, one of the hardest. He kept up. The snow was excellent, unlike the previous course. The sky was high and clear, the air was full of spring. Jim almost flew forward and forward…

…until that smell hit him on the nose again and he staggered, barely able to hold upright while crossing the finishing line and passing the tag to Rafe. He dropped to his knees, breathing hard with an open mouth.

“Hey, man?” Jim glanced up and stared at the Sandburg kid, with his camera on the shoulder. And only then understanding hit him and he sat heavily on the snow.

“Meet me in the bar at seven.” Jim wasn’t sure Sandburg heard his whisper, but the younger man nodded once and backed closer to his crew.

*

Jim barely endured the congratulations; truly – the sixth place among the other monster teams was high enough. He almost ran from the awards ceremony. He ditched the coach and his fellow teammates, though he made sure they settled in the bar. He had two missions ahead.

His ranger skill’s weren’t rusty - the lock on Rafe’s room didn’t stand a chance. Jim slipped inside and began sniffing. The soul smell was everywhere. He had to put a handkerchief over his nose to be able to filter the smell. He spent fifteen minutes on his knees, going through every bag and case in the room, under every surface and inside the wardrobe. The odor was enveloping him.

Finally, finally, when Jim thought he’d have to go out before he suffocated, he realized that the strongest smell was on the skis case. (“Bingo”)

Jim slipped out into the corridor and returned to his room.

*

(“Now, Kelso, it’ll be nice of you to answer”) Jim leaped out of the chair and went to the window, his phone held to his ear.

“Kelso.”

“Jack, what the hell took you so long? Never mind. I need you to contact Narcotics, I’m sure you have an acquaintance there, and tell them that someone on the team is smuggling drugs. I'm almost sure who he is, I just want to watch him before we come back.” Jim took a deep breath and pushed uneasiness, his constant companion before each operation, back down.

He wasn’t really worried that somebody might be interested in his phone conversations. He had been for some time, after he resigned. Not anymore. It was a thrill by itself - to be able to talk to someone about the action, to actually do something. Jim paused, and realized for the first time that he enjoyed it more than skiing. That the race wasn’t a thrill and hadn't been for some time now. That he needed something new in his life.

He sagged on the floor.

“Okay, Jim. I can contact someone, but why me? You still have connections.”

“Listen, Jack. I don’t want anybody to know that I’m involved. In case… you know... if I need to do something…”

“Okay, okay. But why are you sure local authorities would be interested in that information?”

Jim smiled predatory. “Because the one I have in mind is from Washington. He’s training now in the Stevens Pass Nordic Center like me. That’s why. I’m still not sure whether he does it willingly or under a threat, so I’ll be back to you before our departure with more information, I hope. I think I’ll come to Cascade as well.”

“Jim, wait…”

He disconnected and sat for a while, thinking. He was sure Coach Prendergast was in it too. While Jim knew him to be a really good coach, he was a slimy guy as well and in fact could have some side business. But Rafe… Jim sighed. He didn’t want to think that Rafe was willingly in it. But then, there would be time to watch him and maybe talk to him.

***

Blair was in a stew. He wanted to drop the camera right where he stood and take off to catch Jim now. He shifted his damn heavy equipment on the other shoulder and trailed after his reporter. His head was spinning – sure Jim had found something. He was Covert Ops for crying out loud.

At six o’clock he was jerking at every sound. At six thirty, he had to run up and down the stairs a couple of times to kill at least some of the nervous energy. At six fifty five, he was already sitting in the back booth with his coffee and waiting.

Jim appeared at seven fifteen, when Blair was tied up in a knot, chewing down the nails on his left hand.

“Where’ve you been, Ellison?”

“Sh-sh-sh. I had to check something, but it didn’t pan out.”

He watched as Jim took his mug and gulped down the remnants of his cold coffee.

“So?”

“Mmm?”

“So, Ellison. What’s up?”

“Oh, that?”

Blair was ready to strangle the big man. “Yes-s-s. That!”

“Sorry.” Jim chuckled. “I’ve realized something on the finishing line. I know… well, I suspect mostly, but know at least something for sure, who is smuggling the drugs. The question, who’s in charge.”

“And…?”

“And now you’ll sit here silently and let me try to hear something.”

Ellison turned his chair a little that his back was to the room and inclined his head as if listening to somebody. Blair nervously glanced around the room. There was nobody in his opinion who could be of interest to Ellison. At least nobody who looked remotely like a gangster or pusher to him. He turned his attention back to big guy.

Ellison sat with his eyes half closed and turned a toothpick in his fingers. Then he stuck it right between his thumb and index finger, hissed, but didn’t change his posture.

“What are you doing, Ellison?” Blair tried to take the toothpick out of his hands, but was slapped.

“Stop it! You’re not helping here, Sandburg.”

“What do you think you’re doing here?” Blair grabbed the other man’s hands and pressed them to the table surface. There was a momentarily shocked expression on the other’s face, then he relaxed, squeezed Blair’s hands, and smiled strangely.

“Okay, that’s better.”

Blair was stunned and didn’t protest. They stayed like that for about ten minutes, until Jim stiffened and hissed through his teeth, “Here they are.”

Blair glanced up from under his hair. He watched as Coach Prendergast entered the bar and another man joined him at the table at the back on the other side of the room some minutes later. Definitely military type, tall, strong, with the aura of authority and ruthlessness. The newcomers didn’t say a word to each other, just sat there for five or so minutes, then left in due course.

“What was it all about?” Blair was genuinely puzzled.

“Money was exchanged and I suspect - the time and place for the next delivery.” Jim straightened and looked at his partner thoughtfully. “What are you going to do next?”

“I?” Blair was confused. He imagined all that cloak and dagger stuff to be exactly what you saw in the movies – dangerous, thrilling, life altering. Not something as mundane as two people walking in the bar and then leaving without exchanging any words. “How do you know?”

“I just heard the paper rustling. Sounded like money.” Jim dismissed the question. “It doesn’t matter. Did you contact Jack?”

“No. Not yet. My contract’ll end in a week, it was a temporary position anyhow and I intend to return to Cascade. I was thinking to enter the postgraduate program in archeology. Or maybe anthropology – I have both fields covered pretty well…” Blair was busy trying to process all the information he acquired from the older man for the last two days and didn’t pay attention to what he was saying. “How do you…?”

“Let’s talk about it later. Do you want to catch the people who might be involved in Paul’s death?”

“Yes.” Blair swallowed with an effort.

“I talked to Jack earlier. He’ll tell somebody in Narcotics my suspicions. I prefer cops to feds, less chance to screw it all up. I’m not sure they’ll take Coach in, but maybe the courier will tell them something. I need you to help me to watch him; he knows me too well.”

“I… Okay. I’ll do anything.”

***

There was a very busy week – mixed relay, mass start, some official presentation – the two of them caught each other just twice. The first time Jim showed Blair his suspect – a mild mannered, attractive young man, who looked nothing at all like a drug courier. Blair was a bit disappointed and Jim mocked him.

“Life does rarely resemble a thriller, kid.”

Blair swatted him on the arm. “I’m not child; I know it, you, doofus. It’s just…”

“Doesn’t seem real? Yes? You know, I’m still not sure he knows what’s going on. Coach could’ve used him blindly. But we'll never know until we can prove it. Let’s just assume we have something here to base our suspicions on.”

Blair shrugged. “I’m not complaining.”

The next one was in a hurry – they checked their departure time, confirmed that they had tickets on the same flight, and exchanged their fruitless observations.

***

Blair was lucky; he had the seat across from their suspect. Jim was nowhere in sight. They were in the air for about an hour; Blair dozed on and off, glancing at the other guy from time to time, when somebody dropped in the chair next to his and groaned. Blair didn’t need to open his eyes to know somehow it was Jim.

“What’s up, big guy?”

Jim groaned again and tiredly rubbed his face with both hands. “Don’t know, Chief. My head just killing me, like somebody’s pounding on it with really big drumsticks.”

“It sucks.”

“You bet.”

Jim moved restlessly in his chair.

“You should check with the doctor, man.”

“Already did. Nothing.”

“Let me massage your temples. I’m really good at it.”

Jim wordlessly slid lower in his seat and put his head on Blair’s lap. “Go for it.”

Blair dug his fingers in the tender flesh, feeling wrinkles relaxing under his touch; the weight on his lap grew heavier as the other man slipped into a light sleep. It was nice to touch someone other than himself for the first time in almost a year, to feel trust and a sort of oneness between them. Jim murmured something unintelligible in his sleep and Blair smiled.

He was always quick in establishing friendship and quick in moving on, but this time he didn’t want to move on. He wanted to deepen the connection with the older man. He wasn’t sure what it was between them, but was willing to go on and find out. He felt as if he could almost see Paul’s smile and encouraging nod; could almost hear, “You did good, kid. This one’s definitely a keeper.”

Blair stroked short-cropped hair that tickled his palm, listening to the even breath and occasional almost intimate purring. “Let’s see, big guy, where are we going from here.”

*

“What are we doing next?” The closer to the Cascade International Airport, the more nervous Blair became.

“You’re doing nothing, Chief. I, on the other hand, need to be sure he won’t get out with his cargo.” Jim glanced at the sleeping Rafe. “I’m almost sure there will be somebody at the airport to take his bag.”

“How do you know he has it with him?”

“I know.”

“But…?”

“I sniffed it, okay? It’s just… It smells like the cocaine in the South America, very distinctive smell. Let’s not talk about it now, okay, Chief?”

Blair nodded, listening to the captain’s announcement. “Is there somebody to meet us?”

“Don’t worry, Chief. Jack’s already taken care of it.”

The plane landed and passengers began to dress and gather their luggage. Jim stopped Blair when he tried to move to the exit. He mouthed, “Not yet,” and nodded toward Rafe. Blair sat back. He didn’t feel particularly well; he was shaking inside and couldn’t think of anything except the drugs and dead Paul.

He didn’t notice when Rafe went to the door, didn’t even realize that Jim put him upright and stirred the same way. He trotted behind him not paying attention to the surroundings. The next thing Blair knew, there were several shots, and people was shouting and running in different directions.

There was a shove and he found himself on the floor covered by Jim’s big body.

Suddenly, all yelling and screaming stopped. Jim got up and crouched above him in a protecting stance. Blair lifted his head and looked around. Several people lay on the floor, but it seemed nobody was injured. People in Kevlar vests held three or four people down. Blair spotted Jack Kelso in his wheelchair in the far corner near the exit and wanted to wave him, when he saw another man near. Jack and the other man shouted at each other.

Blair wondered weakly what they were shouting about, and then his brain finally began to cooperate with his eyes.

It was Paul shouting at Jack. Alive. Whole.

Blair chuckled and looked up at Jim. “You see, there’s Paul. Funny, huh?”

“I see, Chief.” Jim’s voice was strangely tender, he put his warm, trustworthy hand on Blair’s back, and the world slipped somewhere far away.

***

Jim sat in the interrogation room and read the transcript of his statement. He clearly heard Jack and Paul Metzner down the corridor, still arguing with each other and trying at the same time talk to Blair.

Blair was pretty unresponsive. He'd been in that state of mind since the morning, when he saw Paul at the airport. Jim stormed from the room to the hall near the elevators where the others were waiting. “Back off. Don't fucking touch him. Don’t you see he doesn’t want to talk to you, man!”

“Don’t mess with me, man, you’re nothing to him. Nothing.” Metzner whirled face to face with Jim. “You’d better back off.”

Jim felt Jack's hands on him trying to push them apart. He didn’t understand why it was so important to not allow Paul Metzner to talk to Blair again. He just felt that way; he broke his grip on the other man’s hands and crouched before Blair.

“Hey, Chief, let’s go home. You need to sleep it all away. Cops said you could come another day to make a statement.”

He sensed somebody’s eyes on the back of his head and turned around. There was that huge African-American, Captain of Major Crime division, who was at the airport along with Narcotics division. He watched them with an unreadable face, then nodded and addressed the journalist.

“Mr. Metzner, we need to clarify some points in your statement. May I ask you to come to the conference room?” He gestured the other man towards the far end of the corridor and went behind him. Jim watched them with narrowed eyes and was surprised when this captain turned to him before closing the door and nodded, as if giving his permission to leave.

“Chief, let’s go home.”

“I don’t have a home.” Blair's voice was small and lifeless.

“You’ll go with me. I have a nice place, with a balcony and fireplace; you could camp on the couch and watch the fire the whole night. There's a bakery downstairs with heavenly cinnamon rolls and moon pies and chocolate tarts. We’ll buy it all on the way and coffee…”

Blair blinked. “I don’t want to talk to Paul.”

“Don’t. He doesn’t know where I live and he won’t find out.”

“Good. I don’t want to know why he’s alive. I just… I’d buried him already and I don’t… I don’t…”

“Then don’t.” Jim stilled Blair’s trembling lips with his hand and smiled at him. “We’ll find Chinese take out and buy ice cream. What kind of ice cream do you like?”

“I… Do they have Pistachio Lime Pie?”

“We’ll ask. Let’s go.”

“I’ll find a place to stay, I swear, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, man.”

“’s okay, Chief. No need to rush.”

“Just one week and I’ll be outta your hair, big guy.”

***

Jack Kelso put his head back and sighed. It was all so profoundly screwed up.

He listened to Blair’s voice, as he and Jim waited for the elevator and smiled. At least one thing today had gone right. He was furious with Paul. Not because he'd mourned him the whole year, but because of Blair. He was sure Paul didn’t realized he'd fucked their relationship to hell. Loss for Metzner, gain for Ellison.

He straightened in his chair and wheeled toward the room where Captain Banks interrogated Paul.

There was snow outside. Huge soft flakes slowly drifted down covering pavements, cars, windowsills and balconies, tree branches in full bud, roofs, stairs and steely grey harbor water, tables, put out by hopeful café owners, and bicycles near the school. It was unusual for early March in Cascade, but beautiful.

Jack leaned on the windowsill and sighed. Sometimes you really need snow in March to remind yourself that you’re alive, that you allowed to stop for a moment and just be and leave all the worries behind. Just for a moment.

The end

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Jane Davitt for the beta. Thank you to Patt for the cover art.