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"Jim, you're the only person I can think of who could help."
"What about the guys you work with? Any of them has to know more about police dogs than I do!"
"I tried them first, and they're sympathetic, but they've all got their own dogs. In a couple of cases they've got their working dog plus a retired one, and they can't fit in another one. Hell, I know what it's like - I'm not the first guy in the unit to take off sick; I've had to refuse to help out someone else because I couldn't fit in another dog. A working dog can be put into the kennels while his handler is off, but the retired ones are counted as pets - there just isn't room for them in the kennels."
"Well, what about the kennels where people put their pet pooches when they go on vacation?"
"I know some of them are good - I even had a couple recommended - but Sky has become used to the easy life since she hit retirement age. I couldn't do that to her."
"There's nobody home all day."
"Sky's used to that. All she needs is a quick walk in the morning for toilet purposes, a longer walk at night, say half an hour to an hour, her dinner and a short last-thing-before-bed toilet run. As long as she has company during the evening and a soft bed, she'll settle."
Jim - who, when he felt like it, could be the most pig-headed bastard in creation - knew he was losing the argument. He had never been quite sure if being a sucker for a sob story was a strength or a weakness.
"How long do you expect to be in the hospital?"
"Not more than two or three days, but I'll have to take it easy for a few days after I get home, so although I'll be able to manage for myself, I won't be able to exercise Sky - say a week, tops. After that I should be able to manage two or three short walks every day rather than one long one."
Jim Ellison sighed, knowing he would probably regret this. The last time he had a house guest 'for a week' it had ended up permanent - well, for one of his 'guests'. He had insisted that the monkey... Barbary ape... be returned to its rightful owner at the end of the week.
Though he had to admit he didn't regret in the least the way things had turned out.
And he didn't have to turn out on a possibly cold, wet day to walk Sandburg, he thought, conveniently forgetting the number of times he had had to collect his partner from somewhere at all sorts of odd hours, either because of a broken-down car or because he'd been arrested for passing counterfeit money or kidnapped by someone or...
"All right, Bruce - bring the dog over. I know enough about dogs to know it'll settle better with a stranger if you leave it than if that stranger picks it up and takes it away somewhere." He could do nothing to hide the resignation in his voice.
"Thanks, Jim - I owe you for this. My operation is first thing on Tuesday - I have to go in to the hospital on Monday night. I'll bring her over late Monday afternoon."
Jim Ellison put the phone down with a long sigh, still far from convinced that he was not making a BIG mistake. Though a properly-trained ex-police dog would hardly trash the loft the way Larry had done. Twice.
And just what was Sandburg going to say about it?
He grinned, knowing exactly what Sandburg would say. "Sheesh, Jim, you're such a softie! Even a dog is part of your tribe..."
I was worried.
No, that's not the right word. Frightened? No... 'Nervous' might be the best word.
See, I'm retired. Although I've always liked routine, when I was younger, I could take change with no bother at all, but now... well, let's just say I'm settled now that I'm retired, I like my comfort, and I've managed to get Bruce - my human - well trained. Oh, I always did what he told me when I was working - there's a right and a wrong way to work, and my instincts aren't always what humans think of as right, so while I was still working I depended on him to tell me the difference. Usually, even now, habit keeps me what they call 'obedient' - anyway, it's polite not to frighten law-abiding humans; it's surprising how many humans are afraid of my breed, though as long as we're properly educated there's no need for anyone to be frightened. My human hasn't even been assigned a new dog to work with him yet, though I suppose one day he'll bring some young upstart home and I'll have to stir myself to put my paw down firmly - no way will I let some inexperienced, newly-trained pup push me around! Why, the number of arrests I've been responsible for...
Oh, I know I'll have to advise any youngster coming to work with him, just as Cloud, the dog he worked with before me, helped me when she was retired and I was still learning the job. But *I* would be the boss!
But Bruce was smelling *wrong*, and I knew what that smell meant. He was sick, though I wasn't sure how sick. But I couldn't help remembering... he was sick last year too, and it was pretty serious for a while. I had to stay in the police kennels for what seemed like ages. I retired not long after that.
Then two or three days ago he came home early, which was kinda nice, because although I sleep a lot of the day it does get lonely sometimes. We went for a longer-than-usual walk along the beach - that's my favorite walk - and when we got home again he started preparing his dinner - boy, chicken! I was going to get some tasty tidbits in mine! But while it was cooking...
He picked up that queer black *thing* he sometimes talks to. I didn't pay much attention at first, but then I heard my name. You can bet I paid attention after that!
What was that? Kennels?? Oh - no. He was saying he didn't want to put me into kennels. Then he started speaking about our daily routine.
I strained my ears - sometimes if I really *listen* I can hear a voice from the black *thing*, though nowadays I can't hear it as clearly as I used to when I was younger - and it didn't sound as if the voice was very happy.
Oh - that sounded better. Just for a week. I could do that - put up with living with a stranger for a week. But it was going to be a worrying week - I knew what the word 'hospital' meant. Bruce had been in one a few times when he'd been hurt... and there was last year, of course, too... but I couldn't help but wonder why, because he wasn't doing anything just then where he could be hurt. Not till he got another working dog.
But... of course, he did smell *sick*.
He put the *thing* down, then continued getting dinner ready.
And yes, it was good - but I'd have enjoyed it more if I hadn't known that I'd soon be away from home for a while.
I wandered over to the rug in front of the fire and settled down to enjoy the heat, wondering how hard I'd have to work to break in my temporary human.
It was actually another three days before Bruce loaded my basket and a box with my food and water bowls and a supply of food into the car. I watched just a little suspiciously - there seemed to be far more food there than I'd need for just a week. No, I can't really count - three is about my reliable limit as far as numbers go - but I know that if I count to three twice that's nearly a week, and when I counted the tins, it came to three three times, then another three times...
What hadn't he told my temporary human? Was this going to be as bad as last year, when he was sick for so long?
Although I knew what was happening, I didn't hesitate before getting into the car. I've always loved traveling in a car, and there hasn't been nearly enough of it since I retired. But I don't have any real way to let Bruce know that. They - humans, that is - aren't really all that intelligent. I mean, we dogs can understand what they say, but not many of them have any idea what we say. Makes training them pretty hard, sometimes.
So although I was pretty unhappy, I was going to make the most of the trip.
When I saw where we were going, though, my heart sank a little more. This was a pretty built-up part of Cascade; not a yard in sight. Not that I ever got much chance to run around in Bruce's yard, or lie in the sun, except on the days he wasn't working - and those days weren't always sunny - but even sometimes was better than never.
At last he stopped, and while he got out of the car I had a quick look around the area where I'd be living for the next few days, and then sniffed. Ah - that smelled good... a bakery. I wondered if I could persuade my temporary human to feed me some nice freshly-baked bread, preferably with a little butter on it... Well, if humans are allowed junk food, why shouldn't I be allowed some, too?
Jim Ellison opened the loft door to a big box on legs.
"Bruce, for heaven's sake - let me help you with that!" He took it, nearly dropped it - it was heavier than he had expected - and put it down just inside the door. His nostrils twitched as he looked at his friend.
Both ex-army, the two had trained at the Police Academy at the same time; the initial not-too-friendly competition between them had become reluctant respect over the first few days, and by the time their training was finished it had become a casual friendship that had lasted -- although after Bruce Corran joined the K9 squad they had rarely seen anything of each other.
Now every instinct Jim had was screaming an alarm.
Even if Corran hadn't told him he needed an operation, Jim would have known there was something wrong with the man; even without smelling the illness he could see the strain, the lines of pain around the mouth and eyes.
He pulled Corran inside. "Bruce, what *is* wrong with you?"
"Gallstones. Painful, but not life-threatening. That's why I haven't taken on another dog yet -- why I moved onto the training side when Sky retired last year. I started having trouble not long before I retired Sky. We were hoping to avoid surgery, tried ultrasound, and it seemed to work; and the doctor told me to cut a lot of fat out of my diet, and I did, but - " He shrugged. "The cure was only temporary. Grew a new crop of the things, so this time they're taking the gall bladder out. It's no big deal. Laproscopy makes it an easier op now than it used to be. I'll actually be off work for at least two weeks, but I should be able to take Sky back on Sunday, or Monday at the latest."
"Well, don't try to do too much too soon." He might not be Corran's Blessed Protector, but Corran -- even though he was a cop and therefore himself a tribal protector -- was still one of Jim's tribe.
Corran grinned. "Jim, it's only the young who refuse to admit they can't do something just because they're sick - who think that keeping on, aggravating the condition, is the macho thing to do. I'm past the age of being that stupid."
"Bruce, carrying that box up here was stupid. Just what's in it, anyway?"
"All her stuff except her basket. Bowls, food... She's a big dog, she eats a lot. There's a list in the box too, what to feed her... I did bring more than a week's worth of food, just in case there's a problem, but I don't expect one."
"You should either have brought the basket first, or come up not carrying anything, and asked me to help you. Okay, we'll both go down now - you bring the dog, I'll carry the basket - though after the weight of that box, the basket will be nothing. Right?"
"You always did like to take command - why aren't you a Captain yet?"
"Don't want to be. I had enough of that sort of responsibility in the army. And when I see the shit Simon Banks has to put up with sometimes... No, I'm a good detective, and that's where I want to be -- tracking down the bad guys."
They went down the stairs, and as Jim took the basket out of the car and started back into the building, Corran let Sky out. He locked the car door, and let Sky have a quick sniff around to familiarize herself with the area close to the door of the building. She chose to squat in the gutter outside the door - not that she needed to; he had toileted her before leaving for 852 Prospect. She was, as he knew, simply marking the place with her scent. Then he took her up the stairs.
The door of 307 stood open. He led Sky in and closed the door behind them.
Jim had already put Sky's basket near the fire.
Bruce took the box with my food into the building with the bakery, leaving me to guard the car. No, he didn't bother locking it. Nobody with any sense tries to steal a car containing my breed of dog, and even though I'm retired, I haven't lost the knack of curling my lip just *so* if I think someone looks suspicious. There was only once, just after I retired, someone who thought he knew dogs tried it... What, bite him? Me? Perish the thought! No, as soon as I realized he wasn't going to be intimidated I acted friendly, as if he'd fooled me - then once he was inside the car I caught his sleeve the way I'd been taught to do and hung on. It was good tough material, too; he was still trying to pull away when Bruce came back. Sat good as gold in the back seat with me beside him when we took him to the station to book him for attempted auto theft. He tried to claim he just wanted to speak to the dog - furballs, I know the difference between a thief and someone who just wants to speak to me! But it was just as well I was retired and it was Bruce's own car - in a police car I always had to go behind the grill. I can understand why, of course - we do take a lot of mud and dirt into a car even when we try to be careful - but lying on the back seat is so much more comfortable...
There was another big human with him when Bruce came back - I guessed this was the one giving me a home for the week. The big human took my basket so that all Bruce had to do was see to me, and I have to say I felt better about this stranger when I saw him do that... but there was something, even then...
Anyway, I had a sniff around the place to make sure I could find my way back if necessary - though I was sure it wouldn't be. I knew Bruce would tell his friend to keep me on the leash, though I never need one when I'm with *him*. There wasn't much smell of dog, which didn't surprise me, but I left my scent at the side of the road anyway, just to let any passing dog know I was claiming the area. Then we went into the building and into one of those tiny rooms that somehow take you to somewhere else when a button is pressed; when the door opened again we just had to go two or three yards along a hallway and we were there.
We went into the house... and I stopped dead for just a second before letting Bruce lead me in, and then he closed the door.
My host had put my basket near the fire, which was nice of him, but... I looked around again, straining my eyes, ears and nose. There was no obvious sign of one, but the place stank of *cat*. There was an underlying smell of dog, which was nice, but oh, that *cat* smell...
My human didn't give me any instructions, so I took the chance to look around my temporary home. I wanted to find that cat! No, I wouldn't attack it, but I did want to find it and establish where I stood with it. I could smell it all over the place, but I couldn't see any sign of it. No litter box, no food bowl, no water bowl till mine was put down...
*Where* was that cat???
Over coffee, Corran took Jim through the notes he had made regarding feeding Sky. Jim nodded, appreciating the detailed information, while keeping half an eye on the dog prowling around the loft as if she was looking for something. He said as much.
Corran glanced at his dog, and grinned. "Just checking the place out. She wants to know all the details of her new home. Don't worry, she won't do any damage. She's well trained."
"She's not likely to - er - scent-mark her new territory?" Jim was trying desperately to remember more of what little he knew about canine behavior, gleaned from talking with the occasional dog handler he had met over the years.
"A properly house-trained dog doesn't do that - and she's already marked outside," Corran said reassuringly, then winced. "God, I'll be glad when this damn operation's over. It's not as bad as it was last year - well, I went back to the doctor at the first twinge - I knew what it was this time. Last time... you know what it can be like, you're terrified it's something really serious so you put off seeing the doctor because you don't want to *know* it's serious... "
"And if you go to the doctor as soon as you realize there's something wrong it can be dealt with quicker, something serious can be cut out while it's still operable, and you have a lot less to worry about," Jim said. "I've never been that stupid, thank goodness, but most of my problems have been work-related injuries." He chuckled. "And if I did try to be that stupid, Sandburg would kick my ass."
Corran grinned, half in sympathy, half in envy. "And from what I've heard, you kick *his* ass if *he* does anything stupid. Right?"
Jim laughed. "Well, I try. But... Sandburg isn't *small*, exactly, he's on the low end of average height, but you know what they say - the bigger the animal, the more laid-back it is, the smaller it is, the feistier it is? Pretty well any time we have a difference of opinion, Sandburg wins. Nature's way of compensating for his lack of height; he's far pushier than I am."
"And god knows you turned up your share of attitude over the years," Corran reminded him. "So if he's worse than you - "
"No, no, Sandburg doesn't have attitude," Jim said hastily. "Most of the time you'd think he's almost too easygoing. It's just sometimes - when he thinks it's called for, he doesn't let go, doesn't give in. He hasn't had any formal weapons or combat training, though he's handled guns when he's had to; and he's pretty creative about defending himself. He's deadly with whatever weapon he picks up. He's used a baseball, a fire hose, a wrench, a vending machine - "
"A vending machine?" Corran said, startled.
"Remember Kincaid? He tricked away most of the personnel and took over the building."
"I remember. We were all sent to an emergency that didn't exist."
"It was Sandburg's first day at the station - I'd taken him in to get him approved as an observer. He realized what was happening and hid, though they eventually caught him. He pushed the vending machine onto a perp. Admittedly, he was terrified and acting out of sheer desperation. The guy survived, though for a while the doctors didn't hold out much hope - a vending machine's a heavy beast to fall on you, and he had some serious internal injuries.
"Anyway, what Sandburg did that day... well, it impressed everyone who saw it. Then we had the Lash case - Sandburg was the one who discovered the killer was taking on the identity of his victims. And remember when Joel Taggert lost his nerve after he was nearly blown up? It was Sandburg who found a way to give it back to him. He came in as an outsider and he helped everyone in the department."
"So his ride-along just kept going long after it should have stopped?"
"Yup. Nobody in Major Crime wanted it to end."
"And now? I heard about that story he made up about you. And he's still here? You never used to be that forgiving."
"Bruce, I knew all about it while he was writing it. The problem was that he used my name in it - he'd meant to change it *if* he ever did anything with it. Unfortunately, his mother thought it was his real dissertation and sent it to a publisher."
"And you didn't mind that he was using your name in this... this fantasy story?"
Jim shrugged. "He said it helped his imagination to base his characters on people he knew. I didn't mind too much because I knew he meant to change all the names. I didn't think anyone would actually believe it. The whole situation... Well, it escalated because nobody listened to what Blair was saying or did what he wanted. If it was anyone's fault, it was Naomi's -and you might as well get angry with the wind."
Corran looked at him for a moment. "Like I said, you never used to be that forgiving. Remember Sam Lyle at the Academy?"
"Lyle," Jim growled. "The guy was a head-case."
"Nothing was ever actually proved against him," Corran pointed out.
"I know circumstantial evidence can damn an innocent man, but Lyle was the last person to handle that equipment before it broke, and you know how ham-handed he was. I don't go as far as say he knew he broke it and kept quiet to cover his ass, but I do still maintain that he was careless in the way he handled it, so he could easily have left it damaged - and because he was careless, a good man was badly hurt."
Sky rejoined her master and lay at his feet, watching Jim. Corran reached down and scratched behind an ear. "Good girl, Sky. Think you'll like it here?"
The door opened, and Sandburg came in, a large grocery bag in one hand, speaking as he entered. "Jim, I stopped off and got us - Oh, hello. You must be Bruce?" He put the bag on the kitchen counter, and turned towards the visitor, beginning to step forward, hand outstretched.
Sky took one look at Blair and came to her feet, tail wagging furiously.
Then she lunged at him.
Nothing. Not a sign of a cat anywhere, but the smell was definitely fresh. Maybe it was just a feral stray that came in, was given a meal, then left again? But no, I couldn't believe that. In that case, the smell would have been much fainter, much more concentrated in one place - instead it was quite strong, and it was in everything.
At last I gave up and went back to Bruce. As I lay down, I realized... my temporary human had the taint of cat about him.
No, that wasn't possible - I know what humans smell like, and he smelled like a human - but there was definitely a taint of cat.
And then the door opened.
The human who came in wasn't as big as my temporary human. In fact, he didn't look all that impressive, compared to the cat-human. I had time to see that as he closed the door before I smelled Dog - strong, masculine, powerful, sexy Dog... it was the underlying scent that I'd been catching, but now it was strong, irresistible...
I couldn't help myself; it was love at first sight. I forgot all my education - completely forgot it. I just rushed to him, stood on my hind legs and, reaching up, put my front paws on his shoulders and leaned forward to lick his face.
I forgot how heavy I am.
He staggered backwards and ended up pressed against the door as Bruce thundered, "SKY!" -- then, more quietly, "Down!"
I hadn't done anything that juvenile for longer than I care to remember. I mean, I've been well educated. I've been a working dog - well, bitch. Among dogs that word doesn't carry the same nasty meaning that it does among humans - and when I hear it used of a human, you have no idea how insulted I can feel. We bitches aren't *like* that!
And I'm retired! I'm *old* - well, oldish - though I'm still fit. And... and... I had the *operation* when I was a year old, whatever it is the vet does then. I mean, dogs just don't ever find me terribly *interesting*, if you know what I mean, and I didn't expect any sort of 'Rrrrrr' response. But... I just couldn't stop myself. It was... Like I said, it was love at first sight!
I wouldn't have believed it possible. I love Bruce, of course, and I'd do anything for him, but I've never experienced *anything* like that... that *need* to get close to *this* human.
I'd never obeyed an order so reluctantly in my life, but since I finished my schooling I've never had to be told anything twice. I dropped back down, four feet on the ground, and leaned against the dog-human's legs. At least Bruce had just ordered me down; he hadn't told me to leave this so-wonderful one.
Who reached down and stroked my head. Ooohhhhh... that felt so good...
The cat-human said, "Chief - are you all right?"
'Chief' - what a nice name.
Blair continued to stroke Sky's head as he grinned at his partner. "Yeah, man - you know, dogs have always seemed to like me, but that was something else!" He looked at Corran. "So - Bruce. Is she always so enthusiastic when she meets someone?"
Corran shook his head. "I don't know what got into her. She's usually much better behaved than that." He sighed. "Well, at least I know she'll settle all right."
"I just hope she's as enthusiastic about going home again," Jim said dryly.
"Oh, I'm sure she will be." Corran got up. "Thanks for the coffee, Jim. Nice meeting you, Sandburg, but I have to go. Even though my op's not till tomorrow, I'm due at the hospital in an hour." He paused beside his dog. "And you behave yourself, young lady." He stroked Sky's neck.
She drew her attention briefly from Blair and whined once as Corran left; then, as the door closed, she turned back to Blair. She nudged his hand with her nose, and Blair grinned. "Typical dog," he chuckled. "Starved, unloved, unwanted, neglected, I'm absolutely her last hope for a little bit of love and attention - and with luck, a crust to keep body and soul together." He looked down at the worshipping eyes. "You're not fooling me, you know. You're very well looked after. Come on, now - let me get a seat."
He moved to the couch, Sky shadowing him all the way, and once he was sitting, she laid a pleading chin on his leg.
Jim laughed. "You've certainly got an admirer there, Chief." But there was a fractional edge to his voice.
"Ah, well, there's no need to get jealous. I bet she's just feeling a little insecure." He stroked her head; her tail waved, and Blair yelped. "Jim - get the glass, man!"
"Huh?" Then Jim realized that Sky's tail was missing the glass wolf and panther that sat on the coffee table by only an inch or so. He gathered up the two glass animals - and for safety, the two wooden ones as well - and put them all carefully on a top shelf.
"You want to watch that tail, Beautiful," Blair told her.
He wasn't totally surprised when Sky paid no attention whatsoever. If anything, the movement of her tail speeded up.
"She gets a good walk about now," Jim said. "Do you want to come too?"
"Like I have a choice?" Blair asked.
"Well, I was the one Bruce asked to take Sky, so I'm the one responsible for little things like walking and feeding her."
"Jim, if you think I'm going to wait here on my own for an hour or so while you walk Sky, you can think again!"
"Hmm. Is it my company you want, or your admirer's?"
"You can't possibly be jealous of a dog - can you?" Blair asked.
"No, not really," Jim said.
"And you're not miffed because she seems to prefer me?"
"Of course not!"
"Why don't I altogether believe that?" Blair asked the shelf where the glass and wooden animals sat safely out of reach of the thumping tail.
The men grinned at each other, put on their jackets, fastened Sky's leash to her collar and headed out. It would be easy to reheat the food Blair had brought in when they returned.
We had a good long walk, then while I flirted - there's no other word for it - with Chief, Jim heated the food Chief had brought home with him. I hoped they wouldn't know I have to go to my basket while they ate, and I might have been able to persuade Chief that I didn't, but Jim knew - and that was when I realized that *he* was the dominant in the house.
The cat - not the powerful dog.
After they ate, it was Jim who got my dinner. He didn't know the exact amount I normally get, and he erred on the generous side; and both of them left some of their dinner to add to my bowl.
Oh, I'd certainly landed on my paws all right... if only Jim didn't smell so much of cat!
After dinner, Jim and Chief sat on the big seat while they watched the box full of the moving pictures that look like humans but don't have any smell. I've never quite understood why humans like to watch what's happening inside a box, but they all seem to - and it's amazing how much goes on inside those boxes. I've never understood how those humans get in and out of the box, either.
I looked at my temporary humans and wondered again how much I could get away with.
I decided to take a chance, jumped up onto the seat beside Chief and put my head on his knee. He dropped a hand onto my head, scratched gently behind my ears then continued to stroke my head. Ohhhh.... Oh, that felt so good...
Both men were pleasantly surprised at how readily Sky accepted the change in her routine - of course, they knew she was properly trained, even if she *had* been allowed some leeway since she was retired - and Blair felt quite flattered by the devotion she was showing him. If Jim did feel slightly miffed that he - the man who fed her - was being virtually ignored while she hogged his guide's attention, he didn't, after that first slightly annoyed reaction, show it.
After a while, he asked lazily, "Did you ever have a dog, Chief?"
"No," Blair replied. "I'd have liked one, but we moved around too much. Like, there was one time we went to Britain for a few months - Britain had quarantine laws. Six months in kennels, mandatory, no exceptions. Even if your dog was guaranteed inoculated against rabies, it didn't make any difference. Then once or twice Naomi left me with a friend while she took off for somewhere children weren't necessarily welcome, but you can't always be sure your friends can or will take your dog even though they're willing to take your kid." He shrugged. "It wasn't any big deal. What about you?"
"No. I don't remember ever wanting one. Stephen asked once if we could get one - it wasn't long after Mom left - but Dad told him no. He never asked again. I suppose he realized Dad would always say no. He wasn't a man who changed his mind about things. Not then. I suppose it made sense; we might not have liked them, but we always knew the rules." He shrugged. "He does seem to have improved with age, but I'm not completely sure how flexible he's become. I was never very good at reading him."
"But you seem to know a thing or two about dogs?"
"Mostly just common sense - and over the years, I've known one or two dog handlers. I remember some of the things they've said. The most important thing is to be consistent. Now that you've let Sky onto the couch, we can't suddenly turn round and tell her to get off; that would just confuse her."
"Oh. You don't really mind, do you?"
"No, I don't mind. It's only for a week, after all, and at this time of year I don't expect she'll be shedding. Unlike a certain guide I can think of, who lives not a million miles away."
Blair turned his head, smiling, to look at Jim. "And a certain sentinel I can think of who is steadily losing at least some hair he can't afford to lose."
As Jim laughed, Sky rose, stepped over Blair's legs, and pushed herself in between the two.
Jim chuckled. "Looks like your admirer is jealous, Chief."
"Do you mind?" Blair asked. "That she seems to like me, I mean."
"She's just showing her good taste, Chief. And it shows she realizes you're more of a push-over than I am."
"Nah - you're just a big pussy-cat." Blair considered his statement for a moment, then added, "Most of the time."
"Have you ever spoken to the guys in Vice?" Jim asked.
Blair grinned. "Sometimes. One of them wanted to know my secret, how I'd 'tamed' you so that you actually spoke to people instead of just growling. I told him it was an esoteric secret passed down from father to son for generations - of course, in my case it was mother to son."
"You could have said grandfather."
"Yeah, I suppose I could. I didn't think of that."
By now both men were absently stroking Sky, who had settled down between them and laid her head on Blair's other leg.
Well, give Jim his due, he knows how to stroke a girl. I could forgive him a lot for that.
After a while, I yawned. It had to be getting close to bed-time.
Would I be allowed onto Chief's bed? Oh, I hoped so! It would certainly be softer than my basket - comfortable though that is. Chief certainly seemed more inclined to let me off with things my own human wouldn't allow. Jim was like Bruce, he seemed to have certain inflexible rules; he hadn't allowed me to look hopeful beside the table, after all.
It had to be something to do with Chief having that powerful dog aura. While I know I'm not *interesting* to a male, I'm still a good-looking bitch, though I do say it myself, and I've learned in the past that dogs often will give in to a strong bitch.
Cats are a whole other matter.
"Okay, Chief," Jim said after a while. "You're looking tired."
"A bit." Blair yawned. "It's been a long day. Okay, I got a lot done... but I'll be glad when this dissertation is finished. Sometimes it seems like I've spent my entire life studying."
"But you have," Jim pointed out.
"Yeah." Blair chuckled. "I suppose I have." He gave a long grunt as he stretched.
"I'll take Sky out. You get ready for bed. I'll only be ten minutes."
Sky looked back at him almost pleadingly as Jim led her to the door, but she went obediently enough when Jim urged her forward.
I'd hoped Chief would come out for my late-night walk, but no; Jim took me, leaving Chief in the house. Even though it was dark, he took me rather further than I normally get at night, which would have been nice if I hadn't wanted to get back to Chief. If I was only going to be there for a week, I wanted to be with him every possible minute.
Yes, I know. That sounds bad, as if I'd changed my allegiance, but I hadn't. I did want *my* human back, but Chief was so... so... I wanted him as well! I wanted Chief to come and live with *us* instead of living here with Jim!
When we arrived back, though, there was no sign of Chief, and I was worried for a moment, then I heard his voice from the small room off the living room.
"That was a long ten minutes, Jim!"
"Oh, well, since we had to go out anyway, it would have been a shame not to give her a decent walk."
Really, Jim *was* quite nice - far nicer than I'd have expected someone so... so feline to be. He was certainly trying hard to do what he thought would keep me happy.
Not wanting to push my luck, I went to my basket and curled up in it. Later, once Jim had gone to bed, I could make a move onto one of the big chairs - I couldn't move in beside Chief, because he'd closed the door of his room. As long as I remembered to get back to my basket fast when I heard Jim moving in the morning, he'd be none the wiser. I didn't think Chief would care - he'd already let me up beside him during the evening, but somehow, although he hadn't actually said anything, I didn't think Jim had been as happy about that as Chief seemed to be.
However, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him - as I've heard the humans say.
Jim locked up, checked everything, paused by Sky's basket and gave her a quick pat, then headed up the stairs. It had been a long day, and he too was fairly tired.
Both men actually slept better than they had expected. As he had said, Blair had had a long and busy day; and Jim found himself oddly reassured by the devotion their temporary guest was giving to his guide.
In the morning, after they'd eaten a quick breakfast and washed the dishes, they left the house together, Jim to get into the truck and head for the PD, while Blair put Sky into the back of the Volvo and headed for the beach, which he realized would give her a better and more interesting run than walking through the streets. He even let her off the leash - something Jim had warned him not to do in case she ran off, trying to find her way home; but considering the devoted way she had been clinging to him, he decided it would be safe enough, and sure enough she never strayed more than a few feet from him as she explored the many smells on the beach.
He stayed out longer than he had intended; there was a chill in the air, but he was enjoying the fresh air and the late autumn sunshine and it was nearly an hour before he finally called Sky and turned back towards the Volvo. It was time to get home again and continue putting his dissertation notes together.
This was the life! A long and leisurely morning walk with a human who wasn't in a hurry to get me back home so he could go to work... and one I liked so much, too. And I'd get another long walk that night, too, I knew, even though it would be on the leash - Jim had already proved he'd be good for a long walk, whether or not Chief came too - though obviously I hoped he would.
I really did wish I liked Jim more! *****
"Ellison! Brown! Rafe!"
The three detectives met at the door of Simon's office and went in.
"Trouble?" Jim asked after one quick look at Simon's face.
"Yeah. We have a hostage situation at the First National Bank - a robbery that went wrong. There are four gunmen inside, holding three customers - a man and two women - and a senior member of staff hostage - the rest of the staff managed to get out of harm's way. They're demanding a getaway car and are offering to let the civilian hostages go if they get Cascade's Cop of the Year as a replacement hostage. It is your call, Jim - "
"I don't have much choice, do I?" Jim asked.
"I knew you'd say that. Now, we've got most of the streets around the bank blocked - there's only one route away from the bank being left open. So I want you two - " he looked at Brown and Rafe - "to position yourselves on that route so that the getaway car has to pass you. Then you follow it. Use your own cars and trade off. We need to know where the perps are heading."
"Probably they'll make for the Canadian border," Rafe suggested. "It's close enough."
"That seems likely, but we don't need to second-guess ourselves here, gentlemen. The route that's open heads south. We'll have a helicopter up there too, but again it will have to be discreet; the last thing we want to do is panic these guys.
"They've got to go to ground some time. Once we know where they've gone we can raid the place, though if they do get into Canada that'll be a problem." He looked at Jim. "If you can persuade them that giving themselves up is the sensible thing to do... "
"I'll try," Jim said grimly.
The exchange went smoothly. It was fairly obvious why the perps had wanted a single hostage instead of the four they had; five people could fit into the getaway car where eight could not. Jim did feel, though, that they hadn't acted too wisely; a cop hostage knew right from the start that if necessary he was expendable - a civilian hostage was not. So while the police would certainly try to save their fellow cop, they would feel more able to do whatever was necessary to stop the perps than they would with a civilian hostage.
Strange how few criminals seemed to realize that; how many seemed to think that the police would be less willing to risk one of their own.
All four wore masks, which probably meant that they wouldn't kill their hostage out of hand the moment they felt themselves safe. They did tie Jim's hands and blindfold him before getting into the car; once they were all inside, it moved off with a smoothness that bespoke an excellent driver.
As soon as they were moving, one of the men sharing the back seat with Jim said, "You - cop. We don't wanna hear any preaching, right? We don't wanna hear that it'll be better for us if we give ourselves up. We don't need to hear you asking why we raided that bank. In fact, we don't need to hear your voice at all. Understand?"
After two or three minutes, another voice said, "No pursuit, Tom."
"Looks like they've decided to be sensible." Jim registered that this was the first voice. So 'Tom' was, presumably, their leader. He lowered his head and concentrated, committing the first two voices to memory, then set himself to memorizing the route they were taking, though it was pretty obvious that they were still heading straight south.
Five miles down the road they hoped the perps would take, Brown was driving steadily, well inside the speed limit; if the getaway car passed him, they were unlikely to be suspicious of his car following them, at least for several miles. Rafe sat in his car in the driveway of a house two or three miles outside the city limits, ready to follow the getaway car as soon as it passed. At the first junction thereafter, Brown would take whichever road the perps didn't, turn quickly, and then continue to follow at a distance. He and Rafe would continue to trade off like that, both staying well behind the target car and taking it in turn to 'disappear', although the presence of other cars on the road also helped to hide them.
Things went according to plan for nearly half an hour; then the target car slowed and pulled in to the side of the road. Brown and Rafe had no choice but to continue past.
Half a mile further on, the road forked. Rafe, in the lead at that point, turned to the left; Brown took the right-hand road. Both slowed considerably to allow the car they were supposed to be following to catch up, but the two or three cars that passed each in the next minutes were not the one they had followed from Cascade. They had driven on for several miles before their car radios crackled.
"Helicopter to pursuit. The target car has turned and is headed back towards Cascade."
Both men, committed to driving down fairly winding roads where a three-point turn would be dangerous, stopped as soon as it was possible to turn, to head back the way they had come, but Brown hadn't even found a turning point when the helicopter reported, "They've turned off the Cascade road. They're headed north on a side road, and are just entering a heavily wooded area. I've lost sight of them."
"Don't you have any thermal imaging equipment?" Brown asked.
"We have to get a warrant to use it, and there wasn't time, so no - we don't have it."
"Damn!" Rafe muttered. "All right, we can continue to follow the route they've taken, but we're going to be a long way behind."
In the getaway car, the driver suddenly said, "You know, there's a car behind us... I don't like the way it's not trying to pass us."
"Has it been there all along?" the man called Tom asked.
"Well, yes and no. The thing is - I used to have a '64 Buick Skylark; I know one when I see it. It was a great car, but I had to give it up - it got harder and harder to get spare parts. There's at least one behind us, and every so often it turns off or drops back out of sight, but within two or three minutes another one appears, then drops down to our speed. It's too far behind for me to be sure if it's the same car disappearing and reappearing, but if it isn't, there have been at least half a dozen Skylarks on this road, and that just doesn't happen. I think we're being followed."
"All right - pass our road, then first chance you get pull over and stop. Once it's past and out of sight, we'll turn and get back on route. You - cop. Is there a car following us?"
Lying through his teeth, Jim said quietly, "I don't know," grateful that the men didn't seem to have noticed the helicopter he hoped was there. Mentally he cursed Rafe's recent purchase of the old Buick. Rafe had taken a little teasing over it, which he had countered with Blair's routine comeback, 'It's a classic, man!' but when, unlike Blair's not-so-trusty Volvo, the Skylark ran perfectly, the teasing had stopped, and everyone accepted the car - to the point where it hadn't occurred to any of them that a vintage Skylark might be very noticeable.
The car stopped. He heard the sound of engines, of wheels on the road, as several cars passed them, the distinctive sound of the Skylark's engine among them.
"Wait," Tom said. "If the Buick is following us, it'll turn and come back in just a coupla minutes."
As Jim concentrated, trying to hear if Rafe was coming back - he knew he wouldn't be able to distinguish Brown's car - and also trying to hear the distant helicopter.
He didn't hear Tom saying, "Looks like it was just a coincidence, Barry. Let's move on." He didn't feel the car starting again, swinging in a three-point turn across the road and back the way they had come. Within a mile it had reached the intersection the men wanted, and turned up it.
Soon, the road entered a thickly wooded area. After three or four miles, the driver pulled off the road, stopping behind a parked car.
"Right, cop - this is where we part company," Tom said.
Jim didn't move, didn't respond in any way. The man on his other side pushed him; he fell limply across Tom's knees.
"What the - " Tom said, looking up from shaking their prisoner, a touch of alarm in his voice. "He's unconscious!"
"Maybe he's had a heart attack or something," the fourth man suggested.
"It's possible," Tom muttered. He bit his lip. "If he's had a heart attack, he could die on us - and if he does die they could be hunting us down as cop killers. Come on - we'll carry him into the woods half a mile or so, untie him and leave him there - then it won't be our fault if we 'released' him here and the idiot cop wandered away from the road and collapsed. Hurry up!"
They scrambled to lift Jim and went as quickly as possible through the trees for about ten minutes, stumbling on the uneven ground and muttering curses about his weight; then they put him down, cut the cord fastening his hands, snatched the blindfold from his face, and headed back towards the road at a flat run, Tom pushing the cord and blindfold into his pocket as he went. Once there, three of them scrambled into the waiting car and drove off; the fourth followed in the getaway car. They drove half mile or so before reaching another potential parking spot. Barry stopped while the driver of the getaway car parked, then ran to join his friends; as soon as he was in the car Barry drove off at speed.
Two or three minutes later Rafe arrived, Brown barely a minute behind him. As Brown stopped beside the getaway car the PD had provided, Rafe was already feeling the hood.
"It's warm, but not hot; I'd say it's been stopped for a while," he said. "They're gone, probably at least fifteen minutes. They must have had another car waiting here, and we have no way of knowing what they're driving now."
Chief and Jim had one of those funny black talking boxes Bruce has. They use it two ways, I've noticed. Sometimes they play with it then start speaking. Sometimes it makes a funny ringing noise, and *then* they start speaking.
Not something that even a well-educated dog can really understand.
Anyway, after we got home from the beach, Chief gave me a biscuit and I settled down at his feet while he began to play with a different box and a lot of the stuff they call 'paper'. He was really concentrating on it, too; even when I put my head over his feet he didn't really seem to notice me.
Still, I was happy. I had Chief all to myself.
And then the black box began to ring.
Chief picked it up. "Sandburg," he said. Now that's a funny word. It's not one I'd heard before. "What... Simon! No!"
I knew immediately there was something wrong. We dogs are really sensitive to tone of voice, and the *worry* in his voice...
"Yes... yes... God, Simon, I hope you're right!... I'll come straight down... No, I know I can't do anything, but... Yes, all right... You'll let me know as soon as you know... Yes, okay."
He put the box down and looked at me. "Jim's in trouble, Sky. He swapped himself for four civilian hostages. I know it's an occupational hazard, it comes with the job - but it's hard, just waiting... "
I licked his hand, trying to tell him that I understood. And I did. Little though I liked the idea that he could really like a cat, he had to be feeling as worried about Jim as I was about Bruce.
Brown reported to the helicopter that the perps had probably changed cars, but they had no idea what they'd changed to, then called Simon with the same information. Simon, in his car on the outskirts of Cascade promptly ordered the three cars with him, which had been standing by to provide backup, to join Rafe and Brown.
The helicopter circled as the crewman watched the road out of the wooded area while the pilot estimated how long it would take a car traveling at an average speed to pass through.
Meanwhile, Brown and Rafe checked the abandoned car. There was no sign of blood anywhere that they could see.
"I guess that means the perps have taken Jim with them," Rafe muttered.
"It's possible - but this would have been the ideal place to get rid of their hostage," Brown said. "We know he was blindfolded and his arms were tied. They could have left him in this car and he wouldn't know what they switched to."
"Yeah, if I was in their place, I'd want rid of him," Rafe agreed. "Like you said, nobody knows what kind of car they've transferred to. Without Jim, they're four innocent travelers. With him, they're four perps on the run. So they must have had some reason to hang on to him."
Brown scratched his head as a car passed them headed back the way they had come. "That says to me they're not heading for Canada. At least, not immediately. Trying to get across the border with Jim as their prisoner would shout 'We're criminals!'"
Rafe glanced around. "You don't suppose they took him a few yards off the road and killed him?"
Brown scowled. "It's possible. Well, I can't see that they've left anything in the car. Let's have a look around the area. Can you see anywhere that looks as if it's been walked on?"
Rafe shook his head. "No, but then I'm a townie. Man, I couldn't reliably track a set of footprints on a beach that only one man had walked along."
In the helicopter, the pilot glanced at his partner. "Unless they stopped in the forest, they should have driven out into the open again by now."
"There's no chance they turned back, is there?"
"I suppose that's possible."
"Because a car just drove out of the woods, headed back towards Cascade."
"Son of a - Helicopter to Banks."
"A car just left the woods headed back towards Cascade. There's a possibility it could be your perps, doubled back. The road's fairly quiet at the moment - it's the only car heading towards you that we can see."
"Great. We'll stop him and check him out."
Blair walked Sky again in the early evening, careful to take his cell phone with him - it was something to do while he waited for news. Tempted though he was to phone Simon, he knew that there was no point; he trusted Simon to let him know as soon as there was any word.
Sky stayed closer to him than she had in the morning, almost as if she understood how worried he was about his partner, almost as if she was offering comfort and support. They were home again, however, with Sky fed and Blair sitting thinking half-heartedly about getting a meal for himself - but not sure what he wanted - before the phone rang again. By then, Jim had been missing for close to eight hours.
"Blair, Jim's missing - I mean, *really* missing," Simon told him. "We lost the perps - they managed to duck Brown and Rafe when they drove into a wooded area, then we got tied up with a red herring - we stopped a car we thought was suspicious, but there was only one woman in it, no men. She said she'd seen just one car in the woods, and thought there were four or five guys in it, but we've totally lost it. It's still in there somewhere, but Brown and Rafe have driven right through the woods, and found nothing.
"As soon as I find out anything else, I'll let you know."
Blair put the phone down and looked down at the head resting on his knee. "Is Jim still alive, Sky? Because if the perps are hiding out in the woods, a hostage isn't going to be anything but a nuisance."
I was quite surprised to realize that I was more than just a little worried about Jim. Well, he *was* my temporary human after all, and little though I liked it, it was clear that Chief loved him - and a police dog understands about partners.
What I didn't understand was why they weren't calling out the dogs. Well, we're trained to search as well as everything else, and if these men were hiding in a wooded area, who better to look for them than the dogs?
It was at times like this I most regretted the humans' complete inability to understand what I wanted to say to them.
There were only two linked roads through the woods, although there were a number of rough access tracks heading off through the trees. With no sign of a car - other than the one driven by the woman - leaving the area, and no sign of a car parked anywhere in sight of either road, the local police agreed - after considerable argument that they did not have the manpower to do it - to check the various tracks, but - as it was getting late - not that night. And so, with cars left to guard each of the roads leading out of the woods, the police abandoned the search until the morning.
When he got back to Cascade, Simon called the Captain of the K-9 unit.
"Simon! I heard you have a problem?"
"Yeah." Simon explained the situation, finishing, "So it occurred to me that a couple of dogs might speed up the search."
"Simon, I'm sorry. The dogs are all assigned tomorrow - the earliest I could assign a dog to you would be Thursday afternoon."
"All right. We'll see how we manage tomorrow, and get a dog in on Thursday if we haven't found anything."
"I really am sorry. We're short-handed at the moment - we've got injuries, and a couple of handlers are off sick as well."
"All right," Simon agreed, gloomily, too depressed to wonder what would keep all the dogs busy the next day, and hung up.
Blair snatched up the phone on the first ring. "Sandburg."
"Simon. Just keeping you up to date. The perps definitely seem to have dumped their car, wherever they dumped it, and gone to ground; there's no sign of them at all, or of Jim, and the search has been called off for the night. It did occur to me to get the dogs out, but they're all busy."
"Great. So it's just men looking for men? In that kind of hide and seek the advantage is definitely with the hiders."
"Tell me something I don't know," Simon growled.
After he put the phone down, Blair looked hopelessly at Sky. "Simon tried to get dogs out tomorrow, but they're all... " He stopped, staring at her, and snatched up the phone again, dialing frantically.
"It's me again. Simon, we *do* have a dog!"
"Yeah. An old friend of Jim's is in the K-9 unit, but he went into the hospital on Monday to get his gallbladder out, and he left his dog with Jim. Sky's been retired about a year, but she's a trained dog - "
"Blair, we don't have a handler for her."
"Yes, we do. Me!"
"Sandburg, you're not a cop, let alone a police dog handler."
"Simon, for some reason Sky's taken a liking to me - she's putty in my hands, man."
"Blair, they're trained to obey nobody but their handler."
"I've had her out for walks, off the leash, even, and she's done everything I wanted."
"This wouldn't be the same thing as an off-duty walk." Simon was beginning to sound at least half convinced.
"We've got nothing to lose by trying."
"All right. The search is supposed to resume tomorrow at eight. I'll pick you up at six. After you're there, you're on your own, and if you have a problem with the dog, it's your neck. Get it?"
"Got it, but there won't be a problem. Thanks, Simon."
Blair put the phone down, and looked at Sky again. "You won't let me down, will you, Beautiful? No, of course you won't."
I could hardly believe my ears. Chief was going to take me to help look for Jim... depending on me, trusting me, and how could I let him down? I'd do my best to find Jim, and show everyone that even though I'm retired, I'm still good. Let those idiots who think a police dog is too old at ten see that there are still some things we can do perfectly well.
Chief took me out immediately for what was a shorter walk than usual, but I understood why and didn't try to stay out longer than necessary. Then we went to bed as soon as we got back.
I jumped up onto the bed beside Chief, and lay close to him, trying to tell him that I did understand how worried he was.
Chief put one of his forelegs around me. "Goodnight, Sky," he said.
Within a very short time, I was asleep.
Blair lay wakeful, grateful for the warm body of the big shepherd beside him and wondering how Jim was faring, well aware that his comfort would be the last thing his captors worried about.
He emptied his mind, thinking about his friend, but the only image that entered his mind was of a forest - and since he knew Jim had been taken into one, he told his subconscious mind that that information was less than helpful.
Eventually he slipped into a restless and unrefreshing doze.
Although he had set the alarm, he woke before it went off. He peered at the clock and registered that it was not quite five. Just over an hour till Simon arrived; okay. He lay for a moment listening to the rain rattling off the skylight, then forced himself out of bed, washed and shaved quickly, and took Sky out for a quick walk. It was immediately clear to him that she was well aware that something was up; there was an alertness to her movements that hadn't been there the day before, and although he had half expected her to head for his car, despite the rain, she clearly wasn't expecting to go to the beach. She wasted no time --toileted within two or three minutes and turned to go home. He carefully picked up after her and dropped the bag into the first trash can he passed.
He wasn't particularly hungry, but he drank three cups of coffee and forced down most of a bagel, giving Sky the last of it; he was waiting at the curb when Simon arrived, glad that the rain had eased off in the last ten minutes.
"There's been no more word," Simon said as he restarted his car.
"I didn't really expect any," Blair said.
"Brown and Rafe had a good look around the abandoned car before they checked the roads, but they couldn't see anything that looked as if anyone had gone in among the trees there."
Blair grunted. "They're good cops, Simon, but I doubt either one knows anything about tracking."
Simon's grunt could have been acquiescence. They drove on in silence as the darkness slowly began to give way to a grudging daylight.
Simon eventually pulled in behind the getaway car, which had been left overnight where it was abandoned; once Forensics had checked it and the ground nearby, it would be returned to Cascade. It was still only half-light.
"Okay, Sandburg, remember this is unofficial," Simon reminded him. "You've got just over an hour before the official search starts."
Blair nodded, got out, opened the back door for Sky.
"Okay, Beautiful," he said as he clipped her leash on. "I don't know your job, but you do. We're looking for Jim, right? Find Jim."
He took her first to the abandoned car. She sniffed around it, then sat and looked at him.
"Oh, hell," Simon said. "It's not working. She's retired, right? But she can't have forgotten her training. It's maybe just that you aren't her proper handler."
"I think... " Blair said slowly. "I told her to look for Jim. I think she's saying she can't smell him here."
"But this is definitely the car we provided for the perps, and Jim was still in it when it drove into the forest."
"So they got rid of him somewhere between the edge of the forest and here," Blair said grimly, voicing the obvious suspicion when Simon didn't. "I'll start walking back," he went on, his voice a little unsteady.
"We'll both go," Simon said quietly.
Blair nodded wordlessly; although in some ways he knew he would prefer to be alone when he found Jim's body - if the worst had happened - he was also grateful for Simon's company. He took a steadying breath and forced control on his voice.
"Come on, Sky. We're looking for Jim, remember."
They set off at a steady pace back along the road, the dog alert, head high, sniffing the wind.
A simple enough command, but when I sniffed around the car, there was no sign of him. He'd been in it, yes, but he was no longer in it - and he hadn't left it either - not there, anyway. I sat down and looked at Chief, hoping he would understand.
And he did. Of course he did! Another dog was bound to understand me.
I wasn't sure what to do next, but Chief knew - and of course that's why we need humans working with us. They don't work on instinct the way we dogs do. We began to walk back down the road, the human Chief called Simon with us, and as we went, I kept my nose alert for the faintest scent.
For Chief's sake, I hoped I'd be able to find Jim. It would have been nice to have Chief all to myself for a little longer, but I'd be going home again in a day or two, and I was quite sure that Bruce wouldn't want Chief to come and live with us - so if I couldn't find Jim for him, Chief would be all alone once I left.
I didn't want that.
Suddenly I stopped. Cat! I could smell *the* cat! Jim's scent was mixed with it, but very faint, almost overwhelmed by the strength of the cat smell.
It was somewhere in among the trees; I turned and headed into the depth of the forest.
Sky moved steadily along the road for perhaps ten minutes, and then stopped abruptly, turning her head to stare into the forest. She stood for a moment, then began to move again, pulling Blair into the trees.
"Yes, Sky! Do you scent something? Go on, girl!" Blair encouraged her.
She was a strong dog, pulling hard on the leash now that she had a scent to follow; the ground was rough, uneven, and Blair had to struggle to keep his feet in the gloom caused by a combination of the trees and the semi-dark of early morning, while trying to prevent her from moving too fast. Simon fell slowly back, the hours he spent behind a desk catching up with him, while determinedly following as fast as he could.
They went deeper and deeper into the trees. A gust of wind blew a shower of water drops off the trees onto them, and Blair shivered.
Jim's scent, although still not much more than detectable, was getting steadily stronger. No wonder it was so faint, though - if the wind isn't moving we can't really catch a scent, and there was almost no wind on the ground - though I could hear it blowing through the tops of the trees.
And then ahead of me -
It was quite dark under the trees; it was hard to see properly, especially because -
The cat was black, and bigger than any cat I'd ever seen. It lay there, head lifted alertly, and it looked straight at me. I don't chase cats, tempting though it sometimes is - I was educated not to - but even if I did, I'd have thought three times before trying to chase that one. I'm sure that if it had been standing, it would have been bigger than me.
Then a big dog bounded out of the trees and joined it - no; not a dog. A wolf. It licked the cat's ear, and then... they both disappeared. Completely disappeared.
I was still trying to make sense out of that when Chief yelled, "Jim!"
He dropped my leash and ran forward, and it wasn't till then I realized the cat had been lying close beside Jim, almost as if it had been protecting him.
Blair abandoned Sky without a second thought, sure that she wouldn't run off, and scrambled forward. He dropped to his knees beside Jim, one hand going to the pulse at Jim's throat. He sighed with relief when he found it, but realized as well that Jim's clothes were soaking - "Of course they are, it's been raining!" Blair reminded himself.
He looked up as Simon joined him. "He's alive, but he's very cold -hypothermic, I'd guess, after lying out here all night in the rain." He checked Jim's head and found no sign of an injury. "It's possible they drugged him, then once he was unconscious they dumped him to get rid of him, hoping that he'd die before he was found."
"Then they went back to their car and drove on a bit before abandoning it, so we wouldn't know where to look?" Simon speculated as he pulled out his cell phone.
"We've got to get Jim warmed up. Sky!" he called. She trotted over to him. He patted the ground beside Jim. "Sky, lie down."
She obeyed at once, lying close to Jim. Blair lay on his other side, pressing close, not caring that between the wet ground and Jim's wet clothes he, too, was getting very wet.
Simon also sighed with relief as he dialed 911 to call an ambulance. At least the search now was solely concerned with finding the four men who had attempted to rob the bank.
Jim still hadn't regained consciousness when the ambulance arrived. The paramedics checked him, and diagnosed hypothermia, agreeing that Blair had done the best thing possible by getting the warmer dog to lie close to the unconscious man.
Blair wanted to go in the ambulance with Jim, but of course he had Sky to consider; and he had traveled to the scene with Simon, who couldn't leave with the search for the missing perps still underway. So, ignoring his wet clothes, he took Sky back to where they had started, at the abandoned getaway car, in the hope that she might be willing to accept his guidance in a further search; if he couldn't be with Jim, he had to feel that he was doing something useful.
Chief told me to lie close to Jim. It was something I'd done before, once or twice, when we'd found someone who was very cold; and although I wasn't happy when Chief lay on Jim's other side, I understood why he did.
Jim didn't waken, though.
I recognized the distant sound of an ambulance when I heard it, and let the humans from it see to Jim; then watched as they carried Jim, who was still sleeping, to it; put him into it; and then drove away.
Chief took me back to the car that had been left at the side of the road and indicated that I should start searching for the humans whose scent I could easily pick up at it.
I tried; I really did. But here, deeper into the wood than we had been, there was even less wind, and so there was less scent. I tried everything I knew, but I couldn't get even a trace of a scent. My tail was drooping unhappily when we finally gave up the search in the late afternoon - I don't like knowing I've failed my humans, even though they've never blamed me. I mean, we're not infallible and they know it, but...
Chief took me back to the car we'd come in and I collapsed gratefully on the back seat. I hadn't realized how unfit I'd become in the year since I retired. And although I love traveling in a car -
I'm afraid I don't remember anything about the journey home. I slept the whole way.
"It's crazy," Simon growled as he turned his car onto the main road. The road search had covered every passable forest track and the foot search had fanned out from the abandoned car, and they had found nothing.
"I suppose... " Blair started, a little tentatively.
"Go on." Simon had learned that most of Blair's hunches were worth considering.
"I suppose they *did* go off in another car?"
Simon looked at him. "Sandburg, what else would they do, out here?"
"I know, I know, and if they did just abandon the car and go off on foot, I'd have expected Sky to pick up a trail. But a car doesn't just vanish into thin air, so if they did switch to another one, where is it? The only car that drove out of the area, according to the helicopter crew, was the one heading for Cas...cade..." He faltered into silence, his brow furrowed.
"We stopped it, Sandburg. One woman in it," Simon reminded him.
Blair remained silent for two or three minutes before saying, "From what you've said, these guys weren't particularly competent at robbing a bank, but maybe they had their getaway well planned. They have one car pre-parked somewhere out of sight. They use a getaway car to get to it, then transfer to it knowing that the first one can be, will be, traced, but nobody will know the second one."
"And possibly at the same time, they get rid of their hostage, who wouldn't be in their original plan. Spare a few minutes to walk him into the forest, knock him out and dump him. But suppose they've also allowed for a helicopter pursuit, or road blocks being set up on every possible road away from Cascade? They take the second car a few miles to another pre-determined point, where they have an accomplice waiting, maybe someone who has been camping out for a couple of days - someone who is so different in appearance that they won't be suspected. The accomplice takes the car and drives back towards Cascade, while the perps settle down in the camp. No car, they're on a hiking vacation, or they're naturalists studying the wildlife of the area, if they're seen and questioned... and a few days later the accomplice drives back in, maybe in yet another car, and picks them up."
Simon glanced at him. "Sandburg, sometimes you almost frighten me. I'm just glad you're on my side."
"So you think that's a viable scenario?"
"And who more different in appearance, less likely to be suspected, than a woman?"
Simon took Blair home first and waited while he changed from his still slightly damp clothes into dry ones, fed Sky, and collected some clean clothes for Jim, then drove him on to the hospital.
Jim was still unconscious.
"We've got his temperature back to normal," the nurse told them as she showed them to Jim's room. "He hasn't regained consciousness, though, and we don't know why."
As the nurse closed the door, leaving them alone with Jim, Simon said, "Now what?"
Blair lifted Jim's nearer hand and began to rub it gently. "I think he's zoned. It wasn't obvious before because of the hypothermia. I need to apply some stimulus to over-ride whatever he was concentrating on." He turned his attention fully to Jim. "Hey, tough guy. Jim. It's okay, you're safe now, you're back in Cascade."
When, after a couple of minutes, there was no response, he began to lean closer to Jim's face.
"Sandburg, you're not going to do a sleeping beauty on us and kiss him, are you? That would be too much information for me."
Blair glanced sideways with a grin, unable to keep himself from yanking Simon's chain. "No, Simon, I'm not going to kiss him. I'm already using touch as a stimulus. Sense of smell comes next, man - he knows the smell of my shampoo. I don't think I'll need to use taste as well, but if I do, *that's* when I'll kiss him."
Simon shook his head as Blair leaned down until his hair brushed against Jim's nose. "That's it," he murmured as Jim moved slightly. "You're doing fine, Jim. Come on... "
Blair straightened. "Great. Welcome back. How're you doing?"
Jim blinked his eyes open. "What... What happened? The last thing I remember... "
"Yes?" Blair encouraged.
"In the car. The driver realized they were being followed - that damned Buick of Rafe's. So they stopped to let it pass. I heard three or four cars passing, and I was listening for Rafe coming back, knowing it would be a giveaway, and wondering if the helicopter was there - I couldn't hear it at all."
"It was staying pretty high and a little way behind," Simon said.
"So you zoned out trying to hear it," Blair said.
Jim nodded. "So what happened? Did you get the perps?"
"What happened? About the perps? We don't actually know," Blair told him. "But we can guess."
It didn't take long for Simon to tell Jim what had happened, even with Blair interrupting from time to time.
"Then we came home, Blair fed Sky and we came to see how you were doing," Simon finished.
"And we'd better let a nurse know you've come around," Blair said. He thought for a moment. "I think the story is that you'd had a busy few days, you were exhausted, you were out without shelter all night and suffering from hypothermia. It just took you a while to waken. What do you think, Simon? Will that work?"
"Works for me, anyway. I'll go and tell the nurse."
Because he had been unconscious for so long, the doctor insisted on keeping Jim in overnight, then chased both Simon and Blair away, and because they knew that Jim was now in no danger, they went without argument.
Blair returned to the loft, to be greeted enthusiastically by a now wide-awake Sky. He hugged her. "Jim's going to be fine, Sky," he said. "He should be home tomorrow. You did really well today, you know. I'm sure Bruce will be proud of you when he hears what you did."
He rubbed his hand over her head, then went in search of a quick meal. He was beginning to feel hungry, but he was tired; he felt too emotionally drained to spend much time over the preparation of a meal so he settled for soup, then gave Sky her late walk and went to bed.
Once again, he left his bedroom door open. A few moments later, Sky jumped onto the bed beside him and curled up at his side.
Blair went to the hospital around ten the next morning - after he had walked Sky - and picked Jim up, glad that the weather had improved again. He had planned on taking his partner home, but Jim insisted that he was fine, and as long as Blair was beside him there was nothing to stop him from going in to work.
Blair grunted at that, and reluctantly acquiesced.
The moment they walked into the bullpen, Simon called them to his office. "I didn't expect to see you in today, Jim. I thought Sandburg would have taken you straight home."
"He tried, but I'm fine, sir."
Simon grunted. "Well, now that you're in, you can do your report on Tuesday's events."
The phone rang, and he picked it up. "Banks... yes... yes... good... yes... there's no doubt?"
There was a long silence while he listened. Then he said, "Fine." He rang off. "We got the perps. You were right, Blair; they were several miles from the abandoned car, camping out, pretending to be on vacation, but one of them panicked when the questioning turned to you, Jim." He chuckled. "They were scared when you passed out on them, thought you'd had a heart attack or something. He seemed to feel we'd blame them if you were dead, so he told us more or less where they'd dumped you, obviously in the hope that he'd be able to plea bargain himself a much lighter sentence - especially if you were still alive.
"Okay - you get your report written up, then take the rest of the week off."
"Simon - " Jim began.
"You've got a dog to pamper," Simon told him.
"We could go and see Bruce this afternoon," Blair suggested, "and let him know how well Sky did."
"And see when he can take her back," Jim added dryly.
Simon glowered at him. "Jim, it was Sky that found you. You can't want to get rid of her?"
"Simon, I like her well enough, but that dog clearly thinks that it's her duty to protect Sandburg - from me, as well as everyone else."
As they went into the loft, Sky bounded forward to greet them, for once giving Jim nearly as much attention as she did Blair. They took several minutes to make a fuss over her before Blair said, "And you'll be going home in a day or two, Beautiful. But we won't forget you and what you've done for us, and we'll come and see you sometimes. Come on, now - how about your walk?"
Although it was fairly late and getting dark, they took her to the beach. Jim looked doubtful when Blair slipped her leash off, and Blair chuckled. "She won't run away, Jim." And sure enough, she stayed close to them.
It was late enough that they didn't go too far; on their return home Blair prepared a meal for them while Jim fed Sky - he suspected that Sky would cheerfully inhale spaghetti bolognese, but that Bruce might not consider it suitable for her.
They were both tired, and once they had eaten Blair gave Sky her 'late' walk while Jim washed up; and then although it was still quite early they headed for bed, leaving Sky in her basket beside the fire.
She looked longingly after Blair, then settled down when he closed his bedroom door.
I'd be going home in a day or two. That was nice to know, although...
I wanted just a little more of Chief... and now, after everything that had happened, I realized I liked Jim, too, more than I'd thought.
As I settled down for the night, content that I'd finally seen the cat, I knew that I'd be delighted never to see it again.