Beta Read by: Cheri Allen and CarolROI
Written for PetFly by: Steven Baum
internal thoughts in italics
Jim Ellison parked outside the warehouse his recently acquired "associate" called home. He shook his head as he climbed out of the truck and carefully locked the door. Although he'd been here once before and knew that Sandburg had managed to create a reasonably livable space at one end of the drafty old structure, he still couldn't quite get over the choice. His loft might be spartan and uncluttered, but at least it had the benefits of a decent heating system and weather-stripped windows and doors.
He reached into the back of the truck to retrieve a video equipment case and tripod before he approached the reinforced metal door beneath a painfully bright light. He pressed the buzzer and waited for Sandburg to release the automatic locks. It took only a moment for the unconventional graduate student to respond with a cheery "Helloooo" to the buzzer.
"Oh, great, man! I'll let you in."
A moment later Jim heard the faint click as the lock disengaged, and he opened the door. He was halfway across the open "foyer" when Blair trotted across to meet him.
"I got your video camera," Jim announced, carefully shifting his grip on the tripod as Blair reached for the camera case.
"Great. I really appreciate this, man."
"Not so fast," Jim said, pulling his arm back before Blair could relieve him of the heavy case. "I borrowed this from Carolyn's department. If anything happens to it, it's my ass on the line. Now suppose you tell me just exactly why you needed it in --" He broke off when he caught sight of the golden-furred primate crouched inside a wire cage sitting beside the couch. "Who's your friend?"
"That's Larry." Blair gestured from ape to human and performed a perfunctory introduction. "Larry, Jim. Jim, Larry."
Jim cocked his head slightly to meet the ape's curious gaze. "I think I met a couple of these guys in the jungle," he commented.
Blair slapped his arm and scolded, "Don't stare, man. They take that as a sign of aggression."
Larry didn't seem to mind the scrutiny. In fact, he seemed more interested in the bowl of popcorn that Blair had left sitting on the sofa just out of his reach. But Jim looked away and murmured, "Right. Now, about the camera…"
"Oh, right." Blair gestured toward his hairy, caged companion and explained, "See, I'm about to wrap up a study on how various types of external stimuli affect primate behavior in a social environment. The paper's almost finished, but I have to present my findings in a graduate seminar at the end of next week. I thought it would be great to actually *show* the differences in response to loud, high-decibel stimuli as opposed to something like classical music and a series of images drawn from nature."
Jim just stared at him, wondering where in the world these academic types came up with their weird ideas for research. "How many chimps do you know who watch TV or listen to Bach?"
"He's not a chimpanzee," Blair corrected impatiently. "He's a Barbary Ape. And the behavioral patterns of a Barbary Ape are remarkably similar to those of humans. I'm using this project to demonstrate that it's not just a cultural phenomenon that strong rhythms and visually stimulating attire help to heighten aggression in warrior societies. There are physiological reasons why the war drums and exaggerated imagery on tribal masks stimulate aggressive behaviors."
"So…you asked to borrow several thousand dollars worth of the PD's video equipment to take pictures of a monkey watching reruns of 'The Untouchables'?" He lifted his chin in a gesture toward the small television where black-and-white images of Elliott Ness and company filled the screen with a melodramatic reenactment of a 1920's Chicago gang war.
Blair flashed him an ingenuously wry grin. "I was supposed to be able to get one of the department's cameras, but some idiot got the reservation cards mixed up, and now *my* camera is on its way to a dig somewhere in central Arizona with Professor McHenry. I didn't know what else to do except ask if maybe the police department had one that I could borrow for a couple of days." His grin faded into a vague frown. "You didn't seem to have any problems with it when I asked you about it yesterday," he pointed out.
Jim sighed and surrendered the video case. "Just take good care of it," he warned. "If anything happens to that camera and Carolyn starts peeling strips off my hide, I'm going to turn around and do the same to you."
"It'll be safe, I promise."
Blair immediately began unpacking the camera and setting it up on its sturdy tripod, his movements clearly those of someone who had handled such equipment before. "Hey, Jim, how 'bout if you sit on the couch there and let me check the focus?" he suggested. "In fact…" His expression shifted from thoughtful to suddenly enthusiastic. "If you have time, you can help me with the experiment."
"Oh, no, Sandburg," Jim said with a firm shake of his head. "I'm not going to be the guest star in your little home movie here. Just forget it."
"Come on, Jim. It'll help my results. Right now, you're the unknown in Larry's world, and he may react differently to you than he does to me. I can use different levels of familiarity as a variable in his pattern of response when he gets all hyped up from the stuff he's watching on the screen."
Jim looked from the grad student, who in turn stared imploringly at him, to the Barbary Ape who mirrored Blair's action, even reaching a long-fingered hand toward him through the bars of the cage as if in supplication. With a sigh, he shook his head and rounded the end of the sofa to drop down onto the lumpy cushions. "This is just for your seminar, right?" he asked. "You're not going to send parts of the tape to some anthropologists' convention or anything?"
"No! No. It's just for the presentation next week. Only eight, maybe ten people will ever see it. I promise." When Jim made no further objections, Blair broke into a wide smile and bent over the camera again to adjust the focus. "This is really great, man." With a last look through the viewfinder, he left the camera running and came back to his seat next to Jim.
Once both men were comfortably settled in with the bowl of popcorn strategically positioned between them, Blair reached over and opened the door to the ape's cage, giving the animal the freedom to come out or stay in as he chose. After a few minutes, Larry chose to leave the confines of the cage. He swarmed over the arm of the sofa and onto the back cushions, pausing to root through Blair's hair for a moment, then dropping down onto the seat to steal his share of the popcorn. Every few seconds he would glance over at the action on the television, voicing his opinion of the fist fights and gunshots with shrill cries of objection. He squawked at Jim once or twice, but Jim only glared back at him and nudged him gently out of the way when Larry's movements obstructed the view of the screen.
"This is way cool," Blair said in mild awe as Larry finally tucked himself against Jim's side and wrapped his almost-human hands around the detective's arm. "Do you realize what he's done?"
Jim gave him a brief, sidelong look. "Yeah. He's gotten hair all over my jacket."
"No, man, that's not what I mean." Blair leaned toward the pair and studied the way Larry pressed himself close to Jim. "He's accepted you as the alpha male of his -- of *this* society -- you, me, and him. He's taking his cues for how to act from you. You're not bothered by what's on the TV, so he's not either. Any other time, he'd be climbing all over the place and going over there to pound on the screen. Look at him, though. He's perfectly happy sitting there letting you protect him."
Jim just rolled his eyes and tried to detach his arm slightly from Larry's grip. "That's crazy."
"It's the truth," Blair insisted. "I've been watching his reactions for days now. This is not his usual reaction to a show that's full of loud voices and gunfire and people beating the crap out of each other." He pulled his notebook close and began scribbling notes on Larry's behavior."
"Hey, Sandburg, you got a beer or something? That popcorn's making me thirsty."
Blair lifted his pen briefly and waved in the general direction of the kitchen. "Yeah, sure. They're in the fridge," he said without looking up from his notes.
"I'll take one."
"Ok. They're in the fridge."
Jim sighed and stood up, ignoring the plaintive whine from his furry companion. "Somebody needs to teach you the fine art of being a gracious host," he grumbled as he headed toward the refrigerator.
He stopped mid-stride and cocked his head, his senses sending tremors of alarm through his entire body. "Sandburg! Turn that down, quick!" he ordered.
Blair almost dropped his notebook in his haste to comply. "What? What is it?"
"I thought I heard gunfire." Jim still stood where he'd stopped, listening, but hearing only the uneven hum of the antiquated appliances.
"It's just the TV, man."
"It wasn’t the TV," Jim insisted. "Those are tommy guns they're using. This was different -- rapid fire, but the pitch wasn't the same." He stepped closer to the kitchen wall, senses still seeking outward for whatever had raised the hairs on the back of his neck and almost had him reaching for his own weapon. He heard the muted sound of voices, and an erratic splashing sound. The smell hit him abruptly, the pungent scent of gasoline stinging his nose. Then his ears picked up the low *whoosh* of fire, the crack and pop of an explosion, and he spun back toward the sofa.
"Get down!" he shouted, punctuating the command by launching himself in a diving leap over the back of the sofa. He was still airborne when the wall blew in, showering the space beyond with debris.
The two men landed in a tangled heap, rolling with the momentum of Jim's flying tackle until both crashed into the base of the video tripod. Jim's weight pinned his legs in place, but Blair managed to twist his upper body and catch the camera as it tumbled toward his head and capture it against his chest. A slight *oof* escaped his lips from the awkward effort. He blinked several times against the fine dust and soot filling the air.
"Jim?" he called sharply. "You okay, man?"
Jim slowly uncurled his arms from around his head and rolled away from Blair. A small shake of his head cleared some of the explosion's painful echoes from his hearing. He sat up slowly, only to have an unexpected weight land across his shoulders and head. He reached back and peeled away an agitated and talkative Barbary Ape. Larry didn't want to let go, but at least he transferred his tenacious grip to Jim's jacket instead of his throat.
The crackle of flames from beyond the ruined wall drew Jim's attention to the lingering danger, and he pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, dragging Blair up as well. "Get yourself and Larry out of here," he commanded, coughing slightly in the clogged air. "And call 9-1-1." He dug his cell phone from his jacket pocket and pressed it into the hand that was not occupied holding the video camera.
"What about you?" Blair demanded in return. "You can't stay in here!"
Jim gestured to the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall near the stove. "I'm going to try to keep the fire from spreading beyond that wall," he said. "Now, go!"
Reluctance obvious in the tense set of his shoulders, Blair grabbed the protesting Larry from Jim's chest and shoved him inside the cage that had been knocked to the floor in the commotion. As soon as he was free of the furry burden, Jim turned back to begin his efforts to contain the spread of the flames from the other side of the warehouse.
The wall itself was most vulnerable to the questing tongues of flame, along with the stacked wooden pallets and crates nearby. Jim concentrated his efforts on those, emptying the small fire extinguisher that was designed for controlling simple kitchen blazes. He turned to search for something with which to beat down the still threatening fire and found Blair beside him with an armful of wet bath towels.
"I told you to get out of here!" he said, his voice roughened by the smoke and particulate debris he'd inhaled.
Blair was already using one of the dripping towels on a hot spot near the kitchen cabinets. "I did what you said," he countered. "Fire department's on the way. Larry's safely outside. This isn't a one-man job."
Jim refrained from answering only because the fire demanded his attention once again. He devoted a few critical minutes to dragging the wooden crates farther from the flames, then stopped, again assuming the stance that signaled intense concentration. After a moment he reached out and grabbed Blair's shoulder, pulling him back a few steps.
"Fire Department's here, Sandburg," he announced. "Let's get out of here and let the professionals do their jobs."
Blair looked up, his face streaked with soot and grime, and nodded, letting Jim steer him out of the warehouse. The space outside was filled with fire trucks and running men, thick hoses and the thrum of compressors and pumps. The professionals were, indeed, doing their jobs. Pausing only long enough to cough the smoke from his lungs, Blair turned away from the flurry of activity and went to his car where he'd deposited Larry's cage on the back seat of the open convertible. He hoisted himself up to sit on the back hatch, hooking his heels onto the bumper for balance.
"What the hell happened in there?" he asked, turning a confused frown on the man standing beside him. "You knew something was going on. What was it?"
Jim sighed as he leaned back against the side of the car and dragged a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe at his streaming, irritated eyes. "Someone torched the warehouse," he answered simply. "I could hear voices, but not what they said. Then they splashed something all over the place -- it smelled like gasoline -- and lit it. I heard the flames getting closer, and a small pop like something exploded. That's when I yelled at you to get down."
Blair shook his head slowly, his wide eyes reflecting vague disbelief. "That is incredible. Your senses -- you could tell all that through a wall. If you hadn't been there…" His voice trailed off uncertainly.
Jim looked down at the dirty pavement beneath his feet. His mind's eye reconstructed the sight of the sofa they'd occupied moments before the explosion. A sizable section of the blown out wall had landed just where Sandburg had been sitting. Without forewarning, he could have been injured or killed.
An urgent hail broke Jim from his unexpectedly grim thoughts and brought his head up to seek the owner of the voice. He pushed himself away from Blair's car and went to meet the fire captain in charge of the scene.
"Is it safe to go inside?" he asked, seeing the fire fighters beginning to roll up their hoses in preparation for leaving.
"Should be." The captain tipped his protective helmet back onto his head. "It didn't take long to knock down the fire. Not much in there was combustible once the chemicals burned off. You've got yourself some dead bodies to deal with, though -- five that my men saw. And the fire didn't kill them. It looks like they were shot."
Jim nodded, unsurprised by that news. He knew he'd heard gunfire before the explosion. "Where are the bodies?"
The fire captain pointed to a cleared area beyond the last of the fire trucks. "I've already notified the police and the coroner's office. You want to have a look at them yourself?"
"Yeah." Jim turned toward the place where five shrouded shapes lay on the ground. He crouched to examine each of the bodies in turn, verifying the fire captain's assessment that the victims had not died in the fire. All had been hit several times by gunfire, but were largely untouched by the flames except for a few singed patches on their clothes. Only two had any sort of identification, and Jim made note of the names on the driver's licenses he found inside their jacket pockets.
"Jim! You got here quick, man." Joel Taggart trotted up, huffing a little at the exertion. "I only got the call ten minutes ago."
"I was already here," Jim said, gesturing to where Blair was still trying to calm an agitated ape. "Sandburg lives -- lived -- on the other side of the warehouse." He pushed himself to his feet and ushered Joel toward the charred shell. "Let's see if we can figure out what went on in there."
The two men spent several minutes going over the interior of the building, noting the ruptured drums and the burn patterns on the cement floor. A few drums remained intact, and Joel read off the contents stamped on the sides. "These chemicals are used to manufacture drugs," he said grimly. "It looks like when the gasoline went up, the chemical precursor exploded, too. That's what took out the wall." He made a quick count and added, "You know, with all the stuff they had around here, man, this was a major drug lab."
Jim nodded, but his expression was no less severe than his colleague's. "Good work, Taggart. There's just one thing missing."
"What?" Joel looked momentarily baffled.
Jim turned away when he heard Simon Banks' distinctive rumble, answered by another unfamiliar voice. He started down a miraculously intact wooden stairway just as Simon called up to him, "Jim! Down here."
When Jim reached the lower floor, he found himself face to face with a dapper African American man of about Simon's age. The man's custom-tailored suit and Brooks Brothers trench coat made him look more like a rising corporate executive than the police lieutenant Jim knew him to be. In any world he would have been a man to be reckoned with. His flat, black eyes were as hard and uncompromising as obsidian, and his expression hinted at none of his thoughts.
"I've asked the anti-gang unit to get involved in this," Simon explained. "I think you know Lieutenant Williams." Simon quickly went on to introduce his detectives.
Williams took a pull from a strong-scented cigarette before acknowledging the introductions.
"I think we worked the Carmichael case together last year," Jim said, searching his memory for the reason Williams' presence immediately raised the hair on the back of his neck. His nose twitched as a cloud of pungent smoke wafted toward his face as Williams exhaled. "I thought you gave up smoking."
The lieutenant's answering smile didn't touch his shuttered eyes. "I did. The problem is, smoking didn't give up on me."
Another African American man, younger than Williams and dressed more like a street punk than a cop, joined the group, and Simon again volunteered the introductions. "This here is Earl Gaines, one of the best men in Williams' unit."
Jim didn't need Sentinel sight to see the almost defiant intensity in the younger man. Gaines held himself stiffly, his chin jutting, and his dark eyes all but dared anyone to cross him. Jim had heard of Gaines, knew of his aborted rise to collegiate athletic stardom, suspected that he still missed those glory days. Still, if they were to be working together… "Gaines." Jim nodded at the young detective and received only a vague "hey" in response. "I remember your game winner against Oregon in '93. That was a hell of a catch."
There was no hint of yielding in Gaines' demeanor, but neither was there any false pride. He merely shrugged and replied, "Yeah, I had a few lucky plays."
Simon stepped in to bring the conversation back to the matter at hand. "All right, what do you got, Jim?"
"So far, we've only been able to ID two of the bodies," he reported. "Maurice Brown and Eldridge Wardell. Both are known gang-bangers with rap sheets as long as my arm. The others we aren't sure of yet."
Earl Gaines spoke into the brief silence. "Byron Walker, Darnell Devane and Vernon Sims."
Jim's head swiveled around to regard the younger detective, automatically pulling his notebook from his jacket. "What was that?"
Gaines repeated the three names, his tone suggesting that he was addressing a mental defective.
"How do you know that?" Simon asked.
Again, Gaines' response suggested that he was stating the obvious. "I looked at the bodies in the coroner's van. They're all members of the 357's."
"So, you really think this is a 357 lab?"
"No doubt about it."
Jim looked from Gaines to Simon, his brows lowering in a grim frown. "If that's true, we're not talking about some punk wannabe gang."
"Wait," Joel interrupted. "The 357's are big time. Who'd be crazy enough to hit them?"
"What about the Deuces?" Lieutenant Williams suggested.
Gaines shook his head. "Not likely."
"The Deuces are their main rivals," Simon pointed out. "It makes sense."
Again Gaines shook his head, his face going even stonier than it had been before. "There's been a truce between the Deuces and the 357's for over a year."
Simon's voice held gentle insistence as he said, "Well, truces break down, Earl."
"No." Gaines was adamant. "We would have heard something before now. I've known Antoine Hollins, the Deuces' leader, most of my life. He made a promise to stop the killing. It's hard for me to believe that he'd just throw that away."
Jim just looked at him and said bluntly, "Well, someone sure as hell did."
Simon broke in again before Earl had a chance to challenge Jim. "Look, we have to at least consider the possibility. You may not want to believe the Deuces had anything to do with this, but there's been bad blood between them and the 357's for a long time. Right now, I don't see a whole lot of other suspects. Do you?"
Gaines didn't answer. His features twisted in disgust and he walked away without another word to anyone.
"I think we should bring this Antoine Hollins in for questioning," Jim said into the tense silence that followed Gaines' departure.
Simon nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger. "Of course we should," he agreed wearily. "But let's wait till morning to do it. I want to give Forensics a chance to gather whatever evidence the perps might have left behind." He looked past his men to where the technicians were already hard at work examining the scene.
Jim followed his gaze for a moment, but a loud thump from beyond the blown-out wall drew his attention to Sandburg's side of the warehouse. "Are we done here, Sir?" he asked. "I'd like to get back and make sure Sandburg doesn't bring the rest of the building down on his head."
"Yeah, sure, Jim." Simon waved a hand in dismissal. "I gotta tell you, though. That kid's track record so far has me worried. He's been with you -- what -- a month? I hope his penchant for trouble doesn't rub off on you."
"Sandburg?" Jim called out as soon as he stepped through the ragged and unplanned opening in the warehouse's interior wall. He glanced around, noting that several pieces of furniture and boxes that had stood on the floor before were now raised on wooden pallets. Larry's cage had been returned to its place on a crate beside the sofa, and the smallish ape huddled inside. "What the hell are you doing in here? I could hear you crashing around from the other side of the warehouse."
Blair emerged from behind a stack of boxes and dusted his hands on his already filthy jeans. "Just trying to make sure none of this stuff was damaged by the smoke or water," he answered, splashing a little in the puddles that had run into his living space. "This is all research and stuff from the university. It's irreplaceable."
Jim watched as the younger man turned almost a complete circle in place, his hands raking through disheveled hair and finally coming to rest laced on top of his head. "Come on," Jim said neutrally. "I'll help you load this stuff up so you can take it with you."
"Take it with me where?" Blair asked. His eyes were wide and questioning, his expression one that Jim had seen before in the aftermath of an unexpected disaster. The light from a strategically placed Coleman lantern threw his face into a sharp contrast of shadow and highlight. The effect made him look even younger and more than a little lost. "This is where I live, man."
"Sandburg, you can't stay here. The utilities have been shut off. By morning this place is going to be cold as a tomb. You've got a hole in your wall that means there's no way to secure this part of the building. And there's water all over the floor."
"So, where am I going to go?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know. A hotel? A hostel? Something."
Blair paced a few steps, his body language that of nerves tightly strung. "That's fine for me," he retorted. "But what about Larry?"
"Put him in a kennel," Jim suggested. "He's used to being in a cage. He'll be fine."
"I can't do that. I have to finish my observations for that presentation next week. I can't do that unless I have Larry with me. It's going to be hard enough getting him settled down from all this confusion tonight…" Blair stopped abruptly when faced with an Ellison-sized human wall.
Jim placed a restraining, steadying hand on Blair's shoulder. Tremors from the younger man's body rippled through his fingers. "I think you're the one who needs to settle down, Chief," he said evenly.
Blair slid out from beneath Jim's hand and resumed his pacing. "Yeah, well, that's a little tough to do right now. Ya know? I heard what that fire captain told you about finding bodies." His hands flailed in punctuation of his words. "And I was listening to part of what you and Captain Banks were talking about over there. That hole in the wall doesn't do much to muffle sound." His steps brought him to the sofa, half buried as it was under debris. He shoved a slab of wall board onto the floor and dropped down onto the dusty cushions. "I just can't believe all this is happening," he concluded, sweeping an arm toward the crime scene just beyond his space. His voice had risen in agitation, and the hand with which he gestured was less than steady. "People died over there, Jim, not even fifty feet from where we were sitting. And I didn't know anything about it. I've been living next to a fucking drug lab, and I never knew it."
Jim sat down at the other end of the sofa, ignoring the slight dampness he felt against his back. He studied the younger man's face, seeing regret and self-recrimination and a sense of failure lurking beneath the surface shock of losing his home so violently. "Sandburg…Blair…you really never suspected that something was going on over there?"
"Man, I swear, that place was deserted," Blair replied, his eyes imploring Jim to believe him. "I mean, last week I started hearing some strange noises in the middle of the night. But there are always weird noises around here. You know, the plumbing, the rats, transients trying to find a place to get in out of the cold."
Jim just shook his head, once again amazed at the conditions in which Blair had chosen to live. "Come on," he said after a moment. He stood up and gestured for Blair to get up as well. "Let's get as much of your stuff as we can loaded up and go find you a place to stay -- at least for tonight."
"That's still going to be a problem," Blair pointed out, reaching over to lay his hand against the side of Larry's cage and let the ape wrap a hand around his wrist. "Unless…" He looked hopefully up at Jim, his eyes wide and pleading.
"Oh, no. No, no, no," Jim answered quickly. The potential for disaster if he took in Sandburg and the ape made his head ache with tension. "Just forget it."
Blair stood, spreading his hands in supplication. "Come on, Jim, please. Please. You said it yourself. I can't stay here. I've got no where else to go, not where I can take Larry, too."
Jim shook his head again. "I'm not a big fan of animals in cages -- or in the house, for that matter."
"Larry?" Blair turned and opened the cage door, letting Larry swarm out into his arms and up onto his shoulder. "Larry's no problem. See? He's been around people all his life. Hell, he's more human than most of my friends."
Jim had to curb a smile at that declaration. "That's supposed to reassure me?" he queried wryly.
"Jim, come on. One week, that's all, just till I get this presentation over with. One week, then I swear we'll be out of your hair. Please."
Only an ogre made of sterner stuff than Jim Ellison could have refused the two pairs of mournful eyes. And he did owe Sandburg for the help he'd already given him in getting some measure of control over his whacked-out senses. He half turned, rubbing a hand over his face and around the back of his neck where knots of tension were already forming.
"All right," he conceded finally. "One week. But if you or the gorilla act up…"
"He's not a gorilla," Blair cut in as Larry let out an offended squawk. "Look, you already hurt his feelings."
Jim rolled his eyes and sent up a silent plea for patience. "You know, I'm already starting to regret this. Let's just get your stuff loaded up before I change my mind."
It was late when they finally closed the loft door after bringing up the last of Blair's personal belongings they'd salvaged from the damaged warehouse. The furniture was too large to bother with, and Blair had already declared his intention of going back the next day to put it in storage -- assuming vagrants and scavengers didn't beat him to it. That idea hadn't upset him overly much when Jim pointed out the possibility.
"Just stack your stuff over there," Jim suggested, pointing to the one unoccupied wall of the small spare room tucked beneath the upstairs loft bedroom. Larry's cage already sat on a small table in the far corner. The ape seemed to be taking his change of circumstances with relative equanimity. He clung to the bars and watched the two men moving around, his large eyes reflecting only curiosity. "Sorry the room doesn't have a door," he added, glancing at the empty space where the door should have been. "It wasn't hanging quite right, so I took it down to plane and level it. Figured I'd sand it down and put a new coat of stain on it while I was it. That was right before the Switchman thing came up. I got tied up in the investigation, and then my senses started going haywire, and I never got around to getting anything done with it."
"Jim, I've been living in a warehouse," Blair pointed out patiently. "And on expeditions, I've slept hanging from a tree in a hammock or sharing a tent with about a dozen other people. I hardly think a missing door is going to be a problem. At least not for me."
Jim nodded and went to check out the closet, which he knew was probably mostly full. "If you have clothes that have to be hung up, I can take some of this stuff down to the basement storage."
A quick survey of said closet revealed neatly marked boxes of camping gear and seldom used household goods. "Not a problem," Blair said equably. "I just need to hang up some shirts and my jacket. There's plenty of space here." He proved his statement by shifting a box from the top of a stack to the floor, creating enough of a gap beneath the clothes pole for an armload of shirts on wire hangers.
Jim made a face and waved at the air. "You'd better make time tomorrow to wash all that stuff up, Sandburg," he said. "It smells like smoke."
Blair shot him a "duh" look and replied, "Yeah, well, I imagine we're a little fragrant, too, Jim. Fires tend to do that." His brows furrowed slightly and he asked, "Is the smell going to bother you too much? I can go find an all-night laundromat."
"I can handle it," Jim assured him. "It's better than having you traipsing in and out all night doing laundry. There's a washer and dryer in the basement you can use tomorrow."
"Great." Blair returned to his unpacking, turning around a moment later with a small canvas bag full of toiletries. "Um…okay if I put this stuff in the bathroom?" he queried.
Jim pointed across the hall. "Use the cabinet under the sink. There's not enough counter space to leave it sitting out. As soon as you get done in there, I'm going to take a shower."
Blair quickly put away his shaving and bath supplies, then, while Jim was busy with his shower, finished unpacking his rather meager supply of clothes. Jim was right. The stuff smelled awful, an acrid combination of wet ash and chemical residues. He would definitely have to make use of the laundry facilities as soon as possible.
Once done, he moved to the kitchen to unpack the box of food he'd rescued from the warehouse rubble. He was glad he'd grabbed the battered old teakettle from the stove; a thorough search of the cabinets revealed that Jim didn't seem to own one. He quickly filled the kettle and set it to boil, then finished putting away his natural foods while he waited.
"I have got to teach Jim better eating habits," he muttered, taking in the stocks of packaged foods, red meats and eggs that filled the pantry and refrigerator. "The man is a heart attack waiting to happen."
"There's nothing wrong with my heart, Sandburg," Jim's voice said from behind him, causing Blair to jump and turn so quickly that he nearly lost his footing on the smoothly polished floor.
He clamped a hand over his chest and closed his eyes on a long, sigh. "Don't DO that, man!" he protested. "This is SO not the night for any more surprises."
Jim was almost smiling as he leaned on the thick wooden posts that supported the loft's ceiling. One bare foot was crossed over the other, and the sleeves of his age-softened bathrobe had slipped back almost to his elbows where his arms rested against his chest. "Who's the heart attack waiting to happen?" he asked meaningfully.
"Ha-ha. Very funny, big guy," Blair said crushingly. He threw Jim a mock scowl and turned away to grab a mug off the wall-mounted rack.
"Making yourself right at home there, aren't you?"
Blair froze, the mug clutched between both hands, and blinked up at Jim. "I didn't think you'd mind," he said. "I'm still a little frazzled from the explosion and the fire and everything, and I thought some herb tea would calm me down. You might like some, too. It'll help you sleep better."
Jim pushed himself away from the post and reached into the refrigerator for a beer. "I sleep just fine," he declared and added pointedly, "as long as the loft is quiet."
"Guess I shouldn't plan on doing any more television watching with Larry tonight, huh?"
"Guess you shouldn't." Jim swallowed a long pull from the beer. "Unless I'm out on a stake-out or working on a case, I usually turn in early and I get up early. And, as you might expect, I'm a pretty light sleeper. I expect you to keep that in mind."
Blair nodded, not surprised by the declaration. "Right. Got it. Quiet after lights out." He jumped again when the kettle began to boil with an increasingly shrill whistle, snatching it off the burner and turning off the gas before the noise could bother Jim. There was silence for several moments while he busied himself with tea ball, mug, and spoon.
Slowly nursing his tea, Blair watched Jim move into the living room and sit down on one of the pale leather sofas, extending his legs and stretching a bit. From the way he rolled his shoulders and tilted his head, first one way then the other, Blair suspected that his earlier acrobatics had left him with a few sore muscles. "Sure you don't want some tea?" he asked. "When I'm all tense and uptight, it really helps me unwind."
"I don't want any tea," Jim assured him. He sat slightly forward and reached for the remote control. "I'm going to catch the late news, then I'm turning in. Why don't you go ahead and take your shower."
Blair finished his tea and rinsed out the mug, then went to do just that. When he came out, dressed in sweat pants and a tee-shirt, his hair leaving dark, wet patches on the shoulders, Jim had turned off the television and was carefully checking the locks on the windows and doors.
Jim glanced at his "guest" as he turned toward the stairs to his room. "I'm going to bed," he announced. "Remember what I said about keeping the noise down."
"I will," Blair promised. "G'night, Jim."