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The Auction, Gen Version, Part III


The next morning, Blair emerged from his room wearing a snowy white shirt, his blue tapestried vest, and well-worn, skin-tight jeans. He was inserting a second small hooped earring and his hair was still damp and tightly curled from the shower. Jim observed the vest and the earrings with some surprise as, in his mind, the attire would always shout 'student' to him. "You haven't worn that in a while, Chief."

Looking up, Blair grinned. "Student grunge, man. The ladies love it and the hair. Gives me an aura of perpetual youth ... and energy."

"Ladies?" Jim echoed, giving his friend a quizzical look.

"Hey, c'mon, you remember," Sandburg insisted cheerfully as he poured himself coffee. "The charity auction is this afternoon. I thought these clothes might, um, enhance the product."

Giving him a sardonically assessing look, as if to suggest that there wasn't much that was ever going to enhance that particular product, Jim carried two plates of scrambled eggs to the table. "Chief, we're in the middle of trying to find Kincaid and you know we're both probably targets. I'm not sure wasting time making a spectacle of yourself on stage this afternoon is the best idea. In fact, I think it's a stupid idea."

"Oh, hold on a minute," Blair protested, his tone congenial but with an edge of vehemence. "First of all, anything we can do to benefit homeless and underprivileged kids is a good thing, Jim – maybe save ourselves some trouble in the future if a few of them don't end up choosing crime as a career. And second, every cop who isn't on duty will be at the auction so it's probably the safest place in the city to be. And third," he went on, ticking off his fingers, "this is a great way to demonstrate to all those who think we're sexually involved that I really am only interested in the ladies. I don't understand what your problem is with this auction, man." Sliding into his chair and picking up his fork to stab at some egg fragments, he went on, "We've been trying to find Kincaid for a week with no luck. So, you know what? I think taking a couple hours off for a good cause isn't a bad thing to do."

Jim picked up a small glass of orange juice and looked pointedly at Blair's vest and earrings. "And that get-up is going to go a long way to winning the respect and confidence of all those other cops in the hall," he said sarcastically.

All trace of light-hearted animation seeped from Sandburg's face, and his shoulders sagged a bit, as if suddenly weary. He picked at his food and said hollowly, "Yeah, well, I could get a crew cut and be this year's uniformed poster-boy but I don't think that would change anyone's opinion." He flicked a quick look at Jim before focusing back on the food he wasn't eating. "I have to be me, man. I can do the job and be a good cop, but I have to be me." Shrugging, he muttered, "Besides, I'd fit right in with the Vice crowd."

"Not hardly," Jim grunted, but his tone had lightened, held a teasing quality. "You a little too wholesome to hang around with that bunch."

Blair looked up through his lashes and quirked a brow. "Wholesome?"

Jim grinned and nodded. "Yeah. With that baby-face, you look like you could be doing that commercial; you know the one with the kid who says, 'Ever since I was little, I've loved blueberries'."

"Oh, how to shoot a guy down," Blair groaned dramatically, but the sparkle was back in his eyes. "I'm going for sexy, here, you know? To get those bids up? Not prepubescent."

Jim just smirked and shook his head doubtfully before giving attention to his food. But he grinned to himself when he heard the soft snickering from the other end of the table, and was glad to note that Blair had evidently regained his appetite.

But the levity bled out of his face when he thought again about the auction. He didn't know why, couldn't explain it, but he felt almost furious dread every time he thought about Blair taking part in it. What was it about the damned auction that had him so on edge?

**

The ground floor auditorium of the Cascade PD, more often used for training sessions, large media briefings and force-wide dissemination of urgent information, was packed with uniformed and civilian staff a half hour before the day shift ended and the evening shift began, to give everyone who chose a chance to participate. Arts and crafts booths, along with those selling home made jams, jellies, sauces and baked goods crowded the corners below the stage and ranged along the back of the hall. Eager shoppers crowded the open floor space between the stage and the first row of seats and milled around the booths in the back. When the MCU crowd arrived just before the auction was scheduled to begin, they found nearly all the chairs filled and, unlike church, there were only a few in the last rows that weren't occupied. It was noisy, filled with laughing voices and people calling and waving to one another, and Jim winced before hastily ratcheting down his sense of hearing.

"Told ya," Sandburg chuckled, elbowing him gently. "Every cop who can be here is here, just like every year. And so is just about everyone else who works for the PD."

Ellison nodded grudgingly, still vastly uncomfortable with the idea of his partner mounting the stage to be auctioned off that afternoon. But he couldn't argue with the cause. For the last seven years, Cascade PD had proudly presented thousands of dollars to the local charities concerned with the welfare of children, and the big money maker had always been the auction of members of the police force who volunteered to take the winner to dinner in the restaurant of their choice. Though most winners were conscious that cops weren't paid in gold ducats, some took full advantage of the win and chose the most exclusive restaurants in town – so the volunteers never knew if they'd get off lightly or end up having to contribute more than a week's pay for the good of the cause.

Typically, it was the junior, better looking members of the force who entered the auction. But the senior officers also did their bit as, often, younger, ambitious staff chose the opportunity of the promised dinner to obtain some coaching or mentoring advice, or simply to become known to their superiors. For the most part, it was men who took the stage, but in the last few years, as more and more women joined the force and attained higher ranks, they, too, did their bit by coming under the spotlight to strut or clown around until the hammer fell and the winner claimed them. By tradition, the promised dinner occurred on the following evening, unless the cop in question was on duty. The mood was always lighthearted, the atmosphere alive with amusement and sense of fun. And there was always some speculation on who bid on whom, for it wasn't unheard of for an auction win to lead to a marriage later in the year.

Sandburg ambled over to the table in the corner where he was assigned his number for the auction, and he was surprised that he wasn't allocated the expected number seven. Rhonda, who was sitting behind the table doing the registration noted his startled expression and grinned. "We thought we should save the best for last," she crooned with a wink.

Snickering, he chided, "So you say, but you know and I know that I won't go for much, and you're protecting my dignity because everyone will have spent all their money and most of the crowd will have left by the time my turn comes along." Looking around, his expression almost wistful, he added quietly, "Besides, given the current environment, bidding on me isn't exactly a way to win respect or a high approval rating in the department."

"Hmm, we'll see," she replied cryptically, and then turned to the next guy who waiting to sign in for his number. "Head backstage about three numbers before yours comes up, to be ready," she told him over her shoulder as he was moving away. He waved to show he understood and then rejoined his colleagues, taking the seat on the aisle that they'd held for him.

Shortly after, the Police Chief took the podium, calling the crowd to order, welcoming everyone and encouraging their generosity toward a great cause. Once the applause had died down, a hush settled over the auditorium and the auction began.

The bidding was fast and good-humoured, and the buyers were generous, with bids ranging upward to a peak of five hundred and forty dollars, though most topped out around the three hundred level. Though some of the crowd left when the shift change occurred, it seemed that even more surged in after the day shift ended, until there was standing room only. Looking around, Jim figured that every woman in the department was in the room, with the very few exceptions of on-duty female officers and Dispatch staff. He was interested to note that Cindy Lou, from Records, was surrounded by her whole team, and they all seemed to be vibrating with excitement as they craned their necks to see his partner and, giggling, pointed him out to one another. His gaze narrowed as he scanned the group, and the unsettled feeling in his gut got worse. Looking away, he told himself it was ridiculous. He knew most of them, at least to nod at in the corridors. They were file clerks, there to see their supervisor win a date with Blair, eager to cheer her on and tease her – they were scarcely any threat. Glancing at Sandburg, he could see that his partner was well aware of their excited scrutiny, and a slight blush had crept up his throat and over his cheeks. Telling himself that his uneasiness had no basis and he should just be damned glad that at least one unit in the PD seemed to hold only positive feelings about his partner, he leaned over to nudge Sandburg with his elbow and to whisper, "Your fan club seems to be out in force."

Blair snorted in embarrassment and shook his head, but grinned at him happily.

When the auction got to the nineteenth entry, Blair pushed himself up, waving off the low hoots and teasing from his comrades as he began to make his way to the front. Jim's grin faded when he picked up on less congenial low mutterings as others noticed him moving forward and the fact that he was carrying one of the numbered squares.

"Take it easy," Simon murmured beside him, having noted his sudden tension. "Nobody's going to make trouble here." He paused and then said quietly, "I give the kid credit for having the guts to do this, to get up there when he knows there's a lot of hostility in some quarters about his appointment."

"Yeah," Jim grunted in response and did his best to relax. But his gaze continued to range over the crowd, noting those who seemed the most disgruntled about Blair's presence in their fraternity. As if alerted by some sixth sense, one or two of the worst grumblers seemed to feel his animosity flowing over them and looked up and around, a startled look in their eyes when they found him staring daggers at them. And he could see speculation flare in their eyes before their gaze fell away, thinking about what they'd just been saying and perhaps wondering ... wondering just how good his hearing might really be. He knew he was daring them to figure out the truth and he didn't care.

Finally, the penultimate auction was concluded with raucous cheers, and number twenty-two was called for the final event of the afternoon. The Major Crimes gang whistled and clapped as Blair strutted toward the centre of the stage, but their enthusiastic support was all but drowned out by the roar of high-pitched cheers and applause by the women in the crowd. Surprised, they straightened up and looked at one another, and then slow grins spread over their faces as they realized that this auction might be a tad more interesting than they'd expected.

The bid began at fifty dollars but Cindy Lou, eager to establish her claim, shouted out, "Two-fifty!"

Her bid was immediately met by a woman from Forensics, who yelled, "Three hundred."

And then the action really got started, with bids jumping fifty and a hundred dollars being shouted from all around the auditorium. In less than a minute, the bidding was up to a thousand dollars and Blair had stopped posing and grinning brightly, and was frankly gaping at the audience. Cindy Lou upped the ante, jumping by five hundred to fifteen hundred, but Rhonda took it to two thousand.

With each bid, the woman shouting out didn't look toward the stage but focused on one or another of the worst offenders in the Blair-bashing club, until it became abundantly, if uncomfortably for some, clear that a message was being given, loudly and emphatically. Several of the men targeted flushed angrily, and low, aggrieved mutters became louder, and then Sheila Irwin, the new Captain in Internal Affairs stood to yell her bid of twenty-five hundred as she glared around at several of nastier individuals in the crowd – and that seemed to give them pause. But the bidding was continuing, the numbers ranging higher and higher, though the increments gradually dropped back to one or two hundred, and finally to fifty dollar raises.

Jim could see that Blair's initial flush of embarrassment had faded, and now he stood pale under the bright lights. He'd begun waving his hands, as if to deny the lofty heights of the bidding, calling out, "Oh, hey, come on – this is too much! You can't afford this!"


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But the women took no note of his chagrin, except to call out, "You're worth it!"

He raised a hand to cover his mouth, and Jim could see him blinking away the glittering moisture in his eyes. The bidding had just cleared four thousand, and he hoped it would end soon. The point had been made and Blair was dying up there. He'd been right when he'd sensed that something was going to happen at this auction, but he settled back in his seat and crossed his arms, smiling with a grim satisfaction that he'd been wrong to think it would be something bad. The annoying itch in his mind was silenced and he relaxed fully, even basking a little, with the pleasure of witnessing the magnificent gesture of support being accorded his partner by those in the department who typically held powerless roles – united in this, they were an awesome force. Glancing at Cindy Lou, he wondered how much longer the auction could go on. Even with all the women in Records pooling their resources to back up her bids, there had to be a limit to what clerks could afford. He saw a young blond he didn't recognize lean toward her supervisor, but he thought her voice was vaguely familiar as she urged, "Go for it. What are credit cards for, anyway?" and he grinned with appreciation.

"Four thousand, seven hundred," Rhonda called.

"Four thousand, eight hundred!" Cindy Lou shouted immediately after, and she turned to Rhonda, her most avid contender and arched a brow.

"Four thousand, nine hundred," the intrepid Rhonda returned.

"Five thousand!" Cindy Lou cried, her smug expression saying she was good for another five, if need be.

Rhonda started to laugh, and bowed to Cindy Lou before shaking her head at the Chief to signal she was done and would go no higher.

"Five thousand is the bid!" Chief Winters called out. "Going once! Going twice! Going ... going ... gone! Detective Blair Sandburg goes to Cindy Lou Makins for five thousand dollars!" He turned away from the podium and clapped a very stunned Blair Sandburg on the shoulder and then shook his hand, very evidently thrilled with the funds raised for the charity.

The auditorium erupted in cheers and wild applause as people called out and stamped their feet in riotous approbation.

"Ten times," Henri laughed in awe, applauding vigorously. "Hairboy went for nearly ten times the next closest high bid! Imagine that!"

"Well, hot damn!" Simon cheered as he surged to his feet along with many others in the crowd. Laughing, he turned to Jim. "The women must've set this up, and good for them! Guess it's one way of making the point that the kid is a valued new member of the force!"

"I guess it is," Jim smiled back as he clapped enthusiastically. Turning to look at the very excited Cindy Lou, whose back was being pummeled by slaps of congratulation by her team, he sketched a salute and bowed his head in gratitude. But then he stopped clapping and sighed. "You know, he's not going to like being tailed on his 'date'."

Banks shrugged philosophically. "We all have to get used to things in life we don't like. Joel hasn't complained, but I think he'll be glad when this is all over and he can stop crashing at my place every night. But you were right, earlier today, when we discussed shadowing him; with Kincaid on the loose, we can't take any chances." His gaze on Cindy Lou, who was nearing the front of the auditorium, he gave a long suffering sigh and rumbled, "Let's just hope she doesn't want to go to the most expensive place in town. I doubt the Chief would be amused by those kinds of meal costs on the expense forms. He's already wondering about the cost of the extra uniform patrols parked outside your place and mine every damned night. The tab is beginning to add up – and we still don't have anything to show that Kincaid is within five hundred miles of Cascade."

"He's here, Simon," Jim asserted tightly.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Banks nodded. "I'm not arguing with you. I just wish the hell we knew what he's waiting for – or, even better, that we could get a lead on him." Jim's lips thinned and he nodded.

At the front of the hall, pushing through the tide of people flowing toward the exit, Cindy Lou danced the last few steps down the aisle to the front, and Blair jumped off the stage to meet her, drawing her into a huge bear hug.

"You're crazy, you know that?" he chided her. "It's too much, way too much!"

"Oh, pshaw, it's for a good cause, an' we all chipped in!" she retorted with a huge grin. "Besides, some of us've been waiting years to see you up on that stage! We're just so glad you decided to join the force. Place wouldn't've been the same without you, darlin'."

He looked out at the still cheering and applauding crowd, his smile tremulous as he mastered his emotions. "Thank you, Cindy Lou," he said huskily, turning his face to look down at her, his eyes bright with gratitude. "Dinner and dancing, wherever you want – tomorrow night, if that works for you."

"Ah, we got the arrangements covered, sweetie pie," she drawled and looked over her shoulder to wave jubilantly at her team, drawing them forward. Turning back to him as the seventeen women ranging in age from eighteen to fifty crowded closer, surrounding them, she added hurriedly, "But don't you worry none, darlin'! You don't have to buy dinner for all of us! Just the first round of drinks and promise to dance with all of us afterward, an' we'll all be real happy! We've already made the reservations at Tarantino's Roadhouse! We'll all meet up there right after work."

"Oh, hey, I promise! It will definitely be my pleasure!" he replied enthusiastically, as he favoured each with a wide smile. "And Tarantino's tomorrow is great. But – you made the reservations already?"

"Why, so'nuff," she chimed with a wink. "No way were we about to lose this auction! It was, as they say, a sure thing!"

"You guys are great, you know that?" he enthused, doing his best to give them each a warm hug, though in the confusion, he was afraid he might have missed one or two. Looking up, he saw Jim and the rest of the gang approaching. "Hey, Jim, Captain – everyone! These lovely ladies are my dates for tomorrow night!"

The older men laughed indulgently and manfully refrained from making any comments about harems ... while the women were present.

**

"Man, that was something else," Blair sighed as he fastened his seat belt. "I was like, stunned, when the bids kept going into the stratosphere!"

"I know, I could tell," Jim replied indulgently. Switching on the ignition, he backed out of the parking space and turned toward the exit of the garage. "They made quite a statement."

"The women? Yeah, I noticed," he replied, surprise still resonant in his voice. "Even Sheila. And Rhonda! My God. What would she have done if she'd've won?"

"Oh, I don't think there was any danger of that," Jim chuckled. "I get the feeling the women have had this planned for some time, and knew exactly what they were doing and what impact they'd have." The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as he glanced at his partner. "Although, I don't think Cindy Lou expected it to go quite so high. I overheard a comment about credit cards."

"Ah, geez," Sandburg groaned and scrubbed his face with his palms. "I don't want anyone going into debt just to do me a good turn, you know?"

"Well, like the lady said when you protested, it's all for a good cause."

"You heard that?"

"Yep."

Blair was quiet for a long moment, watching the passing street as they headed home, and then he asked, "What else did you hear?"

Knowing what his partner meant, Jim shrugged. "At the beginning, the usual sort of garbage. But, you know, I don't think I'll be hearing quite as much of it in the future. The women of the PD threw down a challenge tonight. They won't put up with the crap that's been dished out any longer."

"Why would they do that, Jim?" Blair asked, turning to gaze at his friend, seemingly honestly mystified.

With a slow smile, he answered, "Didn't you hear them when you protested that they should stop? Quite a few shouted, 'You're worth it'. And they were right. You are."

Blair's gaze dropped and he turned his face away. He blew a ragged breath and sniffed, swiped at his eyes.

Reaching out to grip his shoulder, Jim said gently, "You've made a lot of friends over the years, Chief. The way you've treated people, regardless of their rank or job. A lot of friends, who are really glad you're officially part of the organization."

Nodding, Blair sniffed again. "Yeah, I guess. Cindy Lou said something like that. About being glad I was on the force." He nodded a little to himself. "They're really good people, Jim. They sure blew me away, that's for sure. Never expected anything like that."

"Well, enjoy it, kid," Jim returned sardonically. "'Cause tomorrow, you'll pay the price of popularity. Those women are going to dance you into an early grave."

Bubbling with laughter, Blair nodded in helpless agreement. "You got that right." Looking across the cab at his partner, he asked, "You want to come along? Lend a hand?"

"Uh uh, Romeo, no way," Jim chuckled. "Tomorrow night, at least with the ladies, you are on your own."

Blair's smile froze and faded as his gaze narrowed. "At least with the ladies?" he echoed. "What does that mean?"

"Just what you think it means, Einstein," Jim returned with a flashing glance. "You didn't seriously think that you could wander off on your own with Kincaid lurking in the wings?"

Leaning back against his seat, Sandburg sighed. "You know, for a few minutes there, I actually forgot about him." Shaking his head dejectedly, he grimaced. "So, you and Simon?"

"And Joel," Jim added. "We'll be having dinner at a nearby table. And our uniformed watchdogs will be sitting out front and covering the back."

"You don't seriously think Kincaid is going to take over a restaurant, do you?" Blair asked incredulously. "I thought we'd agreed that he probably doesn't have enough storm-troopers left to stage another invasion."

"Big difference between a roadhouse and a stadium, Chief," Jim returned grimly. "Big difference."

"Oh, man," Blair groaned, and pushed his hair behind his ears. "Maybe dinner tomorrow night isn't such a great idea. I don't want to put those women in any danger, you know? Or anyone else, for that matter. Maybe we should just postpone it."

Shrugging, Jim turned into the apartment's parking lot. "Frankly," he said, "with cops clearly guarding the approaches to the restaurant, I don't think he'll risk a public confrontation." Scratching his cheek, he frowned as he looked out at the night, his senses scanning the area. "But whatever he's got planned, it's gotta go down soon." As certain as he could be that there was no threat in the immediate area, he got out of the truck and waited as Blair came around the hood to join him for the short walk into the building.

"What do you think he's waiting for?" Sandburg asked as they walked along the pavement.

"Good question, Chief," Jim rasped in frustration, his gaze searching the night. He turned in a full circle, watching, listening, but all was as quiet as it ever was in the city. He waved at the patrol car that pulled up at the curb, and then followed his partner into the building.

**

The next morning when they arrived in the bullpen, Blair headed straight to Rhonda's desk and handed her the long stemmed rose he'd picked up on the way to work. Jim trailed in behind him, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth as he made his way to his desk. They'd both brought their vehicles to work, and he'd wondered what the kid was up to when Sandburg had suddenly pulled into a lot next to a florist. Blair had waved at him to wait and had dashed inside, emerging less than five minutes later with the wrapped token. Now, Jim unabashedly listened to the conversation going on across the office.

"For you," Blair said simply as he handed her the deep crimson flower. "With thanks."

A blush of pleasure tinted her cheeks as she accepted the gift. "You didn't have to do this, Blair," she protested, even as she unwrapped the cellophane and deeply inhaled the rich fragrance, and then smiled. "It's lovely."

"What all of you did yesterday ... it was ... was incredible, you know?" he told her with naked sincerity. "I was – am – overwhelmed by the support and the validation. I'll never forget it. Not as long as I live."

Touching his arm lightly, she said, "I wish I could take credit for the idea. But when Cindy Lou and her team suggested it, well, we all thought it was a brilliant way to make the point that ... that we really are glad you're here." Her gaze dropped as she said hesitantly, "We know it's not been easy for you, or for Jim, either, for that matter. And we don't need to know the details." Glancing at Ellison out of the corner of her eye, she went on, "But we can make some educated guesses." Lifting her eyes again to meet Blair's solemn gaze, she hastened on, "We just figured it was time you guys knew that not everyone who works in this building is a jerk, you know? A lot of us think you more than paid your dues and you're right where you belong."

"Well, I know I'm where I want to be," he said warmly. "Gotta say, you ladies sure know how to make a man feel welcome. Can you, uh, pass the word about how truly grateful I am to all of you?"

"Consider it done," she assured him.

He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before moving toward his own desk. Making eye contact with Jim, he quirked a brow and Jim shrugged. They both knew that lots of their colleagues all over the PD were making 'educated guesses' and that such speculation was unavoidable.

"It's okay," Ellison said softly as Blair approached his desk, to alleviate the worry he saw lurking in his partner's eyes. When Sandburg paused and didn't look too sure about that, he insisted, "I mean it, Chief. I'm okay with them guessing. I'm more than okay with them showing solid support for you."

Blair nodded and shrugged out of his jacket, hanging it on the hook beside Jim's, and then they both got to work, once again focused on trying to get a lead on Kincaid.

**

Seven and a half hours later, Sandburg hung up after what felt like his thousandth phone call of the day. They'd been backtracking rental and for sale listings from three to four weeks before, trying to find Kincaid's centre of operations. He made a note on a short list of 'possibles' that they'd begin checking out more thoroughly in the morning. Standing, he stretched and winced at the low, creaking pops in his spine, and then picked up the sheet of paper to carry it over to Ellison's desk.

"You got anything?" he asked.

"Maybe three worth looking into," Jim replied. "Better than nothing. Two small warehouses in the industrial district and one down by the waterfront. You?"

"Two. Another old warehouse in the garment district, and what sounds like a rundown ramshackle place on the edge of town. None of the names tally with known or suspected associates, though. One, the warehouse, was rented by a Randall Wilson, and the house by Warren Finkleman."

"Given Kincaid's ideology, Wilson sounds more likely," Jim reflected, and then glanced at his own list. "I've got G. Baker on the waterfront, a Winston Mgabo, and a Tyrell Lafitte in the industrial park. Baker and maybe Lafitte might fit the profile."

"You think it's worth trying to get at least those three staked out tonight, just to see if they spot anyone suspicious?"

Jim considered it and nodded. Gathering up the two pages, he rose to take them to Simon. But Blair looked up at the clock and said, "It's getting late. I'm going to go change in the men's room and head downstairs to pick up my date."

Quirking an amused brow, Jim looked at him askance. "How're you going to fit nearly twenty women into that old jalopy of yours?"

Laughing as he bent to pick up his backpack, which contained a clean shirt and his shaving gear, he explained, "Obviously, oh great detective, I'm not. Most of the women are going to meet us at the roadhouse, but I'm at least going to offer Cindy Lou a ride over. Seems only right, ya know?"

"Okay, Chief," Jim nodded. "But don't leave the garage until Simon, Joel and I are down there to follow you, understand? It will only take a few minutes to organize these stakeouts."

"You got it, man," Blair agreed readily. "See ya in a few," he called over his shoulder as he loped across the office and out into the hallway.

**

Fifteen minutes later, Jim and Simon were just finishing the stakeout arrangements when Ellison jerked his head up and around at the sound of an unexpected voice in the bullpen. Lifting a hand to Banks to signal a need to investigate, he left the office and found Cindy Lou chatting with Rhonda and handing over a stack of files.

"Cindy Lou," he called in surprise. "I thought Blair was taking you to the restaurant?"

Looking up with a grin, she struck a pose and drawled, "Oh, ah've got dibs on the ride home, Detective. But ah thought it was only fair to let the li'l lady who came up with the idea of winning Blair have the pleasure of riding over with him."

"Oh? I thought it was your idea," he replied, curious.

"Ah wish ah could say it was," she returned. "But it was one of my new girls. She's only been with us for 'bout a month, an' two weeks ago, she came in one mornin' all starry-eyed. Said she'd seen an angel on the elevator, all big blue eyes 'n long gorgeous hair; said a long, tall, drink o' water had called him, Blair, an' we all cheered to know sweetie pie was back. Anyway, she reflected as how she'd sure enough love to win him in the auction, an' Margie said, 'Wouldn't we all.' An', right then, we started in talkin' 'bout why not? Why, when Blair agreed, she was so excited, she got right on the phone 'n called someone to pass along the good news! An' then, when the bidding went a mite higher than we'd imagined it might," she went on, with a mock glare at Rhonda, "the li'l gal offered up her credit card, to cover what all would be needed."

Jim nodded, remembering how he'd seen and overheard that conversation during the auction. A small, athletic looking, young blond that he'd never seen before but had thought sounded familiar – and then, something else itched in the back of his brain and he frowned, trying to capture the errant thought. But Cindy Lou was rambling on. "So when Blair turned up a li'l while ago, offerin' a ride, and Gail just looked so wistful an' all, ah just knew she was hankering to go with him, so ah said ah still had a mite o'work to do, and why didn't she just hitch a ride? Why, she lit up like a kid at Christmas." Chuckling, she winked as she added, "That boy better watch himself. I think she's got her eye on him."

"Gail, huh," Jim grunted, about to turn to his desk and retrieve his jacket. "Gail who?"

"Gail Baker."

He froze and then whipped around. "Gail Baker?" he repeated blankly, and a dim memory of a distant conversation overheard in the corridor outside the Records Unit two weeks before, a woman saying with a coldly triumphant tone, 'It's all set,' and a male voice drawling in response, 'You're a good girl, Gail. I'm real proud of you, darlin'. Real proud.'

Sonofafuckingbitch!

"Just hold on a minute," he ordered Cindy Lou preemptively, his voice harsh and tight, and then he spun to hurry back into Banks' office. "Simon," he grated hoarsely, "the woman who proposed getting Sandburg into the auction is Gail Baker."

Banks frowned and then looked down at the sheet, at the 'G. Baker' beside the rental of a warehouse on the docks. "My God," he rumbled, "you don't think ...."

"He's with her now, down in the parking garage," Jim ground out, then turned on his heel to dash across the bullpen and into the stairwell. Banks surged up to follow him, pausing only long enough to say to Cindy Lou, "You might want to reschedule that dinner."

**

Amused and not a little chuffed at how delightfully thrilled the attractive young blond was to be personally escorted to their group dinner, Blair held the elevator door open for her on the basement level. Given the signals upstairs in the Records Unit, he thought she might have brushed against him on her way past, but she stayed well over on the far side of the opening as she exited. Her smile was still in place, but it looked a little strained, and the girlish eagerness had evaporated entirely. Mildly disconcerted by the mixed messages, he decided she must be shy, and moved slightly ahead to hold the heavy door into the parking lot open ... and again she was careful to make no contact as she went through the portal. Didn't thank him, either, he noticed, nor did she respond to his light banter about the evening ahead and how much he was looking forward to the fun they'd all have. Shy was one thing but he seriously doubted that he was so intimidating that he'd rendered her completely mute. Once in the garage, he placed a light hand on her back, to steer her toward his Volvo, and couldn't help but notice how she stiffened at his touch and moved briskly away. Sighing silently, he told himself he never had understood women anyway, so it seemed she was going to be no exception to the rule. "It's just over here," he said warmly, gesturing across the crowded lot. She gave one short tight nod and moved in the indicated direction. Walking a half step behind, he decided that maybe she was an ice queen. Nevertheless, he continued to play the gentleman, unlocking the passenger-side door and holding it open until she was securely inside.

He hurried around the trunk and slid into his seat. "I'm sorry, Gail," he explained once he was settled, "but we'll be held up here for a few minutes. Jim and Simon will be following us over, and they want to go in a little convoy." He chuckled at how silly he knew that sounded as he put his key in the ignition switch, conscious that she was settling her good-sized handbag on her knees. "They're right behind me, though, so we'll be on our way soon." He looked back over his left shoulder toward the doorway, wishing they'd arrive, as he was finding the one-sided conversation tough sledding. "I hear there's a good band playing," he began as he turned to face her and froze at the sight of the revolver leveled at him. "Whoa," he exclaimed, his eyes widening as his gaze lifted to search her face.

"If you think I'd ever dance with a kike, you're delusional," she said coldly. "And we're not waiting for anyone. Let's go."

Stalling for time, he lifted his hands away from the steering wheel. "Uh, what's going on, Gail? Go where?" But the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that wherever they were headed, he could pretty much expect to see Kincaid there.

"Drive out of here now or I'll shoot you and be done with it," she ordered, and the steely look of virulent hatred in her eyes convinced him that she meant it.

"Okay, okay," he muttered, lowering his hands. With his right, he switched on the ignition. With his left, he quickly reached into his jacket pocket and hit the speed dial for Jim's cell phone, before clamping his fist around the steering wheel. He backed out and headed toward the exit. "Do I turn right or left?" he asked as they neared the top of the ramp.

"Right, toward the docks," she told him.

And that's when it clicked. He hadn't been told her last name when they'd been hastily introduced by Cindy Lou, but he'd bet his next year's salary that it was Baker.

**

Rhonda and Cindy Lou gaped after the two men, stunned by their sudden sense of almost panicked urgency.

"What'd he mean, postpone dinner?" Cindy Lou asked, confused and completely mystified.

"I don't know," she replied, "but it looks like there's trouble. Who's this Gail Baker? What do you know about her?"

"Well, not much. She's a quiet li'l thing," Cindy Lou began but before she could say more, Rhonda heard the cell phone ringing on Jim's desk, and she leapt up to rush across the room to answer it.

"Hello?"

When there was no response, she frowned, but then heard Blair's voice ask, "Do I turn right or left?" and a strange woman's voice answer, "Right, toward the docks."

Her throat and mouth went dry when she realized something potentially very serious was going down and she sank onto the chair behind Jim's desk, her free hand already scrambling for a pen and paper. Knowing that everyone in Major Crimes had been trying for a week to get a lead on Kincaid, she was very afraid for Blair and felt the breath catch in her chest. Her grip tightened on the phone as she pressed it tightly to her ear, straining to listen to be sure she didn't miss anything. Cindy Lou had followed her and was saying something but Rhonda waved at her urgently to be quiet. Looking up at the other woman, she whispered, "Get me everything you've got on Gail Baker – as fast as you can!" When Cindy Lou stared at her, not understanding, she hissed, "Hurry, dammit! Just get it!"

**

Jim, Simon on his heels, charged into the underground lot, and stopped short when he saw the empty space where the Volvo should have been. "Damn it," he snarled in frustration. "She's got him." Fishing in his pants' pocket for his keys, he started toward the truck, but Simon grabbed his arm, abruptly pulling him back and off-balance. Furious, he shook off the grip, bellowing, "What are you doing! I have to go after them!"

"Jim! Settle down, dammit!" Banks roared back. "I know you're worried about Sandburg, but would you stop and think!" Pulling his cell phone from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, he lowered his volume but not the cutting intensity of his tone. "We know where they're probably going, and Sandburg's no fool. He knows about the warehouse and that we'll connect the name." Punching in a number, he kept talking fast, so Ellison couldn't interrupt. "We have the element of surprise on our side if, and I mean if, we don't go off half-cocked."

"But –"

"I said settle down," Banks intervened sharply, and tilted his head back toward the doorway and the elevator beyond, even as he began talking rapidly into the phone and walking back into the building. "It's Banks. We've got a situation. Officer kidnapped by, we suspect, one of Garrett Kincaid's people." Glancing back over his shoulder at Jim, who looked like he was ready to explode, Simon glared at him and waved sharply for him to follow. "I have a probable location. Meet me in my office in two minutes to discuss takedown tactics."

Jim glared in his turn at the ramp and the exit onto the street above, and then grudgingly, a hollow sinking feeling in his gut and his chest tight with anxiety, he followed his boss inside.

Terminating the call, Simon snapped the phone closed and jammed it back into his pocket. Punching the button for the elevator, he growled, "He's not an observer, anymore. He's a cop and he knows how to handle himself. Kincaid isn't going to kill him outright. The set-up was too careful, too elaborate – he's going to use him to lure us there. If you were using your brain, you'd know that. If we do this right, we'll be all over Kincaid before he has a clue that we're on to him."

Jim fumed in silence a moment more, and then he rasped, "I heard him – Kincaid. I heard him on the phone to someone in Records two weeks ago, before we knew he'd escaped."

"What? And you're only telling me this now?" Simon exclaimed, his eyes wide with disbelief.

Taut, furious with himself for not having connected the dots sooner, Jim grated, "I didn't hear him clearly, didn't know he was on the loose. Didn't really even register it consciously. I don't know ...." He sighed and shook his head as the elevator doors opened and they got on. "I just got ... angry. Furious that Sandburg had agreed to be in the auction. I guess subconsciously I recognized the danger. I just didn't make the connection until I heard her name and put it together with the rented warehouse – and that brought back the memory of his voice on the phone."

Banks rolled his eyes and hit the button for the sixth floor.

"He's gonna hurt him, Simon," he muttered in agitation. "To put pressure on us, to raise the ante. He's gonna hurt him."

Banks nodded grimly. "Blair's tough," he replied matter-of-factly. "He'll survive." Relenting, he squeezed Jim's shoulder reassuringly. "We'll be in position in less than an hour. We'll get him back, Jim. He'll be okay."

**

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