Thanks, Mackie, for your eagle eye and taking the time to proofread for me.
Blair shut his office door behind himself, hefted his backpack higher on his shoulder, and turned to walk down the empty corridor toward the stairs. A long day of teaching, proctoring exams, and sitting in on meetings was behind him and the welcome thought of going home to relax helped ease the tension from his tight shoulders. He knew Jim would be home by now, probably sitting in front of the TV, beer in hand as he slowly unwound from his own full day of drudgery, and he looked forward to joining his friend.
He shoved the heavy door open and started down the dimly lit stairwell, so familiar with the route the faint lighting didnít deter his path.
A sharp cry echoed down from one floor above, but was cut off abruptly, and Blair froze. Out of habit, he reached for his cell phone, then paused as another cry groaned down. Someone was either hurt or in trouble.
If this were a movie -- he shut the phone without making the call, afraid his voice would alert an attacker, and quietly started up the stairs to investigate the noises -- the audience would be shouting at me to turn around. The irrelevant thoughts made him smile, though fear turned his stomach over uncomfortably and he swallowed hard against the urge to run out of the building. Jimís gonna kill me if this ends up bad. He ignored the niggling voice that argued: Maybe who everís up there will beat him to it.
His sneakers didnít make a sound on the hard concrete steps, and he neared the third floor without incident. The scrape of movement on the next landing up caught his breath in his throat and he pressed against the wall, heart frozen in his chest.
" . . . help me -- please, someone . . . "
The weak plea melted his caution and Blair hurried up the remaining steps. An older man lay sprawled in the small space, an obvious wound open and bleeding on his forehead. His hands shook feebly as he shielded his face from Blairís view.
"Oh man. Hey, itís okay, I wonít hurt you."
Knowing better than to try and move an injured person, Blair twisted to dig his phone out of his backpack again.
" . . . no, run -- still here . . ."
The warning flashed through him like lightening and Blair crouched low, one hand on the older man as he turned to peer over his shoulder. "Who? Did someone attack you?"
The victim shuddered under his hand and Blair squeezed the bony shoulder.
" . . . yes."
Pushing speed dial for 9-1-1, Sandburg had just placed the phone to his ear when a shadow stained the wall behind him and something slammed into him hard enough to rattle his teeth. He fell backwards and grunted when sharp-edged stairs drove into his back and neck. Flashing strobes of pain brightened the darkness behind his lids and when he rolled to a stop at the second floor landing, his head continued to spin.
"Serves you right for messing in someone elseís business." The voice spoke from somewhere above him and he blinked his eyes open to a view of the concrete landing beneath his face but squeezed them shut again when he was kicked in the back. Disoriented, he frantically stretched his arms out, searching for a wall and when his palm pressed against rough brick he crawled quickly away from his attacker.
"You got nowhere to go, mister."
A rumbling laugh accompanied the rough voice as he was kicked in the side.
Desperation quickened his breathing and Blair curled in on himself, hoping only to stop the pain. Hands clawed into his jacket and jerked him from the floor. Heíd faced abuse, both physical and mental, before and while his first reaction would always be to use his mind to talk his way out of a situation, his years spent observing Jim and his exposure to the criminal world had taught him sometimes it was necessary to use his fists.
Instinctively, he lashed out, striking his assailant in the face, and with a shout of surprise, the man let him go. Blair stumbled to catch his balance, then lunged for the stairs. His mind on the older man lying hurt on the third floor landing, he hesitated briefly -- a pause the measure of a heartbeat -- but it was enough for the other man to recover.
Hands grabbed him from behind and he was helpless to slow his momentum as the man swung him around and slammed him into the brick wall. Numbing pain exploded along the side of his face and he slumped to the stairs in agony. His arm was yanked behind his back and he was shoved forward on his knees. He avoided slamming into the wall again by catching himself with his right arm, but his bones vaporized and he melted against the brick when his left wrist was twisted behind his back until a dull crack popped sickeningly against his ears. An inferno of pain shredded up his arm and consumed his composure, and a hoarse scream ravaged his throat.
Darkness edged his vision and he sank into the oblivious black, his harsh breathing a white noise in his head. He became aware that he was on his back, with the stranger hunched over him, digging one knee into his gut. Breathing made his arm hurt and he groaned a scream when the man rolled his knee in deeper, compressing his belly painfully.
"Keep your nose out of other peopleís business, kid."
Then the pressure was gone and he rolled slowly to his side to cradle his injured arm close. Time seemed to skip into staccato measurements, and he couldnít be sure if he was awake or asleep, or how much time was passing until someone bent over him and asked in concerned tones if he was all right. Unable to answer, he simply concentrated on keeping still, and passed out by the time the ambulance arrived.
"Where is he?"
The anxious voice broke through the thin crust of confusion that layered his mind and he opened his eyes.
Worry chiseled harsh lines in Jimís forehead and hardened his chin into a firm frown. Blair tried to reason with his swirling mind, but communication seemed beyond his grasp. Instead of the greeting he wanted to offer, an embarrassingly pitiful moan rumbled out of his throat.
He saw Jim turn and heard him speak to someone out of his field of vision. "Canít you give him something? Heís in pain--"
The vehicle rocked a little when someone joined them. An attendant ducked into the small area. "All we can do is assess his injuries, Detective. Iíve given him a local for the arm." He reached past Jim and checked Blairís IV. "Heíll be fine once we get him to the hospital."
"Whatís the hold up?"
Without waiting for the manís reply, Jimís military-trained voice barked through the confusion just outside the ambulance, demanding the way clear. Blairís pain fogged mind drifted, untouched by the harsh tone. He felt the percussion of displaced air when the doors slammed shut, then Jim was beside him, touching his shoulder as the vehicle began to head for the hospital.
A spasm jumped through the battered muscles in his arm and he couldnít control the moan that clattered out of his mouth. His weak defenses were spent and in the eddy of pain swirling around him he found himself caught in the memory of the attack. The old man lay before him, bleeding, begging out of the dark for someone to help him.
"Donít worry, Iíll get Jim."
Fighting with leaden eyelids, Blair looked up to find Jim leaning over him, nearly on top of him in the claustrophobic space of the ambulance.
His mouth felt as if heíd been shot full of Novocain and waxy lips formed incoherent sounds. "That was fast." By the look of confusion on his partnerís face, none of the words heíd struggled to form were understandable.
Streetlights flashed by, undeterred by the ambulanceís muted windows, and the strobing brightness felt real, as if he could sense the rhythm in his head. It lulled him past the pain, and darkness settled over him unnoticed, easing him into sleep.
Bright lights burned through tender retinas and he moaned and raised his hand to shield his face. Someone moved into view, blocking the overhead brightness and he gratefully dropped his hand back to the bed.
Bed? I must be in a hospital.
Blinking away the fuzziness, Blair opened his eyes wider to find Jim leaning over him. Uh-oh.
"Hey, Sandburg. Howíre you feeling?"
He cleared his throat then tried for a tone devoid of petulance. "Like Iíve been rode hard and put away wet. What happened?"
"Itís called being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not using your head to get the hell out of there and call your partner for back-up."
"Wrong place . . . I was at the university--"
"Itís all coming back to you now?"
The gruffness of Jimís voice was hard to see around, but if he looked close, he could detect the crinkle lines of worry in his partnerís face. The memory of Jimís concern in the ambulance stole past Blairís uneasiness.
"What were you thinking, Blair?"
Thatís a good sign Ė weíve moved from Sandburg to Blair.
Ignoring Jimís question, he concentrated on something that nagged at his mind, teasing his memory. With a burst of lucidity, he remembered what he was doing before the attack. "The tests, I need to bring the tests with me Ė Iíve got --" He managed to sit halfway up on the bed before the world started tumbling again, taking his stomach with it, and he flinched when his movements awoke the dull throbbing in his arm.
"Whoa there, Chief. Settle down. What do you need?"
Ah -- there it is. Safe territory.
He relaxed onto the mattress and hugged his cast-bound arm close. "Just . . . wanted to sit up a little better." His head hurt, too, now that sleep had been chased away, and his cheek felt tight and swollen. Oh yeah -- met a brick wall tonight. "The tests in my backpack Ė studentís chapter exam . . . the cultural differences between modern man . . . and . . . " What was that test all about, anyway?
"Relax, I snagged your backpack. Is that what you wanted?" The familiar worn pack was held up for him to see.
The gesture was probably insignificant to Jim, but itís thoughtfulness touched Blair and he nodded sleepily. "Thanks. Howís the old man?"
"Heíll live, thanks to your tactics. I assume it was your plan to distract the attacker by cunningly diverting the blows to yourself?"
Pretending not to hear the note of sarcasm in his partnerís voice and struggling against returning pain, Blair reached up with his good hand and rubbed at his eyes. "Who attacked us?"
"Willard Masey. Heís wanted for petty theft, breaking and entering, assault -- hell, heís got a rap sheet as long as your list of dates. Campus police caught him."
"And he just happened to move his act to Rainier the night I wasnít able to get away as early as I usually do."
"Yeah. Weíve got to do something about this timing problem you have."
"Think I could have it surgically removed?"
Jimís answering chuckle faded as a nurse walked into the room. She smiled at Jim before moving to inject something into Blairís IV. "That should make you feel better, Mr. Sandburg."
Still groggy and just a little irritated with the heated throb building in his arm, Blair barely acknowledge her smile.
Jim took up the slack in manners. "Thanks. Any idea about how long heíll be here?"
"The doctor said overnight. He has a clean break, the x-rays were clear. No concussion, though heís got some painful bruises on his head, and more on his back. He should be able to go home tomorrow."
Her quiet voice droned through the room and Blair shut his eyes and listened to the background noises, allowing the myriad sounds to melt together in one monotone hum. His arm grew heavy where it lay across his belly, but the effort of moving it seemed too difficult to conquer in his present state of dazed semi-consciousness.
Gentle hands grasped his upper arm and wrapped carefully around his fingers before lifting the injured appendage away from his body. He opened his eyes as Jim adjusted an extra pillow snug to his side, then lowered the cumbersome cast to the cushion.
Sleep thickened his tongue and turned his eyelids into lead. Jim smiled down at him and he struggled past the oppressive fog of slumber to say what needed to be said.
"I should have called."
He watched as the quiet admission lifted Jimís eyebrows but the older man quickly lowered them and twisted his mouth to bite the inside of his lip. Sighing gustily, Jim shrugged his shoulders in humble acceptance and leaned in close. "Yeah, you should have, but Iím just glad youíre okay."
"Thanks, Jim." The slurring words rumbled past his lips just as Blair slipped into sleep.
Jim smiled and shook his head. "Iím gonna hot glue the phone to your hand, Sandburg." He sank into the roomís only chair and tuned into the game on TV, keeping quiet vigil as Blair slept.