Chancellor Edwards took her seat at the head of the long conference table. "I apologize for being tardy, ladies and gentlemen." She glanced at the clock hanging from the wall, then scanned the faces of the men and women sharing the table. The Dean and most of the trustees were present, and the topic on everyone's mind was the recent press fiasco surrounding Sandburg's doctoral dissertation.
"You all received my memo?"
All heads nodded, but it was the Dean who spoke. "Where did you hear the rumor?"
"Actually, I'm not at liberty to say at the moment, but I trust the source. I've also done a bit of research on my own and have discovered that Dr. Harrison has been researching heightened senses in conjunction with mental disorders. Alex Barnes is currently one of his research subjects."
"And Barnes was the one who attacked Sandburg on campus last year?"
Edwards nodded. "Yes. She was originally detained at the Cascade PD when she crashed her car and was found wandering the streets taking off her clothes. She complained that her clothes itched and that the oncoming headlights had blinded her."
"Sandburg was using her as one of his subjects?"
"She was seen on campus a few times, so it's reasonable to assume that, yes, she was one of Sandburg's subjects."
The Dean nodded a slow acknowledgment of that information. "I see. So you're thinking....?"
"The university has taken a huge blow due to Sandburg's admitted fraud. The press has been all over the incident, future grants may be in jeopardy, and top student applications are already showing a decline. We need to recover."
"I agree." The Dean leaned back in his chair. "You believe that perhaps Sandburg's thesis was not as fraudulent as he claimed?"
Edwards clasped her hands and placed them on the table. "Frankly, at this point I don't care. All I'm interested in is saving face. Now, we know that Sandburg hadn't officially submitted his dissertation and that the publisher released excerpts of his unpublished dissertation without his permission. We can institute legal proceedings against the publisher and shift some of the blame, as well as recoup a portion of our financial losses."
The Dean shook his head. "That won't touch the loss of grant money, the decline in quality students, our injured reputation..."
"Perhaps not, but that's the first step." She glanced at the clock again. "We have a few hours to figure out how to fix this mess. Let's start brainstorming, shall we?"
"The Office of Research Integrity?" Simon chewed on his unlit cigar and leaned back in his chair. "Never heard of it."
Jim paced in front of the captain's desk, his shoulders squared with tension. "It's some office that investigates misconduct with NIH grants. They're coming after Sandburg."
Simon straightened, taking the cigar from his mouth and setting it on the edge of his desk. "What are we talking about here?"
"I don't know, sir. I'm not sure what they can do or how far they'll go. And that's just one of Blair's grants. The kid's in deep and I don't see how he's going to get out of this mess."
"It's a mess, all right, but I don't see what we can do about it, Jim... unless, of course, you go public with the truth."
"Not something I want to do."
"But I don't want to see Sandburg go down, either."
Simon shrugged. "Well, Jim, I hate to sound callous, but you know what they say about having your cake and eating it, too."
Jim nodded, his shoulders slumping, giving him an air of defeat. "I know, sir. I know."
Moments of silence hung between them until, finally, Simon sighed and rose from his chair. "And there's something else.... I got a call from the mayor a few hours ago. Seems the press has gotten wind of Sandburg possibly entering the academy and they're making a big deal out of it, putting the pressure on her, and with the election coming up..."
Jim nodded, his expression neutral. "I know, Simon. I heard the conversation you had with Sandburg."
The captain grimaced, a flash of irritation crossing his face. "You and I are going to have to have a discussion about eavesdropping."
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to overhear the conversation, I was just... Well, I was, uh, thinking about Sandburg and tuned into his voice."
"I see.... Actually, I don't, but now's not the time to discuss that. What I want to say is that I'm sorry about Sandburg. This is way above my head. The decision's already been made, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"I realize that, sir, but there's gotta be something you can do. Sandburg's proven himself over and over again..."
"I know, Jim, but like I said, the decision has been taken out of my hands."
"What's he supposed to do now?"
"I wish I could offer him something, but I can't." Simon paused for a moment, his eyes growing distant. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Hell... What are we doing here, Jim?"
Jim shook his head, his gaze distant. "I don't know."
"We knew this was around the bend way back when we first let the kid sign on."
"Yeah, I know."
"He's given a lot to this department... and to us."
Jim nodded. "I know."
"Peru... Quinn... He didn't have to do those things."
"The kid's got more of a backbone than either of us."
Jim's eyes narrowed. His jaw clenched. "Yeah... I know." The words came out cold and hard, matching the quality of his gaze. "Not very becoming of us, is it?"
Simon slipped his hand beneath his glasses and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "I'm captain of this department. I should have the guts to take responsibility for my actions. I knew what I was doing back then. I didn't have to cover up your abilities. If I had been doing my duty, I would've come clean up front. Things probably would've gone a hell of a lot better if we'd done things right from the beginning."
"No, sir... It wasn't your fault..."
"Cut the crap, Ellison. Do I look like some two-year old you have to coddle?"
Jim shook his head, his brow furrowed. "No, sir. That's not what I meant."
"When the shit hit the fan, I was scrambling around trying to cover my ass, brush it under the rug... Hell, I lied..."
Simon nodded. "Yeah, so what? That's not your fault, is it? I don't recall you putting a gun to my head."
"You were just doing the best you could, sir. I don't want you taking the blame for this. This is on me."
"Like hell it is. I'm the captain. That means it's on me. The only one who seems willing to stand up and take his lumps like a man is Sandburg."
Jim's stomach churned uneasily, and his arms hung stiffly by his sides. "We're letting a good friend go down to save our own asses."
Simon nodded solemnly. "Looks like it. The view sucks from here, doesn't it?"
"The smell's not so great, either."
A tiny smile lifted Simon's mouth. "So what are we going to do about it?"
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "I'll do it, sir. I'm doing it on my own. I don't want you taking the heat for any of this."
Simon stepped closer to Jim, using his height advantage to stare him down. "You don't listen very well, do you? You're not the only one who gets to redeem himself." He slapped a hand on Jim's shoulder, feeling the tension fade from the muscles underneath. "But before we call Armageddon down on our heads, how 'bout we do a little thinking first? See what our two overworked and aging brains can come up with in terms of a solution."
Jim raised his eyebrows. "Thinking?" He met Simon's eyes for several seconds until his own mouth lifted in a smile. "What a novel concept."
"Well, Syd, it looks like you've managed to piss off a great many powerful people this time." Ron Sables, head of Berkshire Publishers, tapped his pen on the edge of his desk as he stared at his long-time associate. "The university's lawyers are contacting us, Captain Simon Banks and Detective James Ellison and the Mayor of Cascade are all breathing down my neck. It seems everyone and his grandmother wants a piece of our ass, thanks to you."
Syd shifted uneasily in his chair. "So, uh, what now?"
"Well, our lawyers have advised us to settle, citing the Harper and Row case and the 'right of first publication,' among other things."
Syd straightened. "Oh, come on, that was a totally different case...."
A flash of anger crossed Ron's face. "Not really, Syd, and it's so widely known in our circles that I would've thought that little landmark copyright case would've crossed your mind before you released parts of Sandburg's unpublished manuscript against his will."
Syd slumped in his chair. "Look, Ron, I'm sorry...."
"So what else is new." He sighed. "But we might have a way out of this. Apparently, the university wants to pin this whole thing on us as they try to restore their reputation, but Banks and Ellison called me with a proposition. The mayor of Cascade's just been throwing her weight around for the fun of it. Seems she's up for re-election and wants to salvage this situation as much as everyone else."
Syd leaned forward, his brow furrowed. "What kind of proposition?"
"Apparently, Banks and Ellison want us to publicly admit we released excerpts without Sandburg's permission and they want you specifically to admit that you released non-consecutive portions of the manuscript in a way that was slightly misleading. They want to come out and say that Alex Barnes, that crazy chick he talks about in the later chapters, was really his primary subject, and that Ellison was simply one of his subjects with two heightened senses..."
Syd was out of his chair. "What? They want me to admit to an outright lie and trash my reputation to threads? Ron, I --"
"Sit down, now." Ron's voice was low but forceful. He waited as Syd sank unhappily back to his chair, then continued. "As it turns out, the university doesn't know that Banks and Ellison contacted me. I've scheduled a meeting with all parties concerned, and if we can work out a deal where we don't get sued, then it's all good for us..."
"And use me as the scapegoat..."
"Oh, quit the crybaby act, Syd. You did screw up here and this is your fault. Now, if you we reach a deal and you do this, I won't fire you. I will, however, demote you."
"If we get sued, I will have to terminate your employment, and I can guarantee no one in the publishing business will hire you again."
"That's the deal, Syd. Yes or no?"
Syd met Ron's gaze for several seconds, then dropped his own to the floor. "It doesn't look like I have much of a choice, do I?"
Blair walked up to the bookstore's cashier and carefully placed his application on the counter in front of the young woman. "All finished." He offered a wide smile. "Is that all?"
She returned his smile briefly before snatching the application and sticking it quickly somewhere beneath the counter. "Yeah. The manager will be in tomorrow, so I'll give it to him then. Good luck."
She turned away from him to look at an approaching customer, and he gave another nod and a quick thanks and scooted out of the way. He hurried to the outer doors, glancing quickly over his shoulder before stepping out into the brisk Cascade afternoon. This was the fifth job he'd applied for that morning, and like all the others, it paid only minimum wage. Since his educational loans would be coming into repayment after the grace periods, a minimum wage income would leave him hurting financially. Although he'd gotten a lot of scholarships and fellowships during his academic career, making his total loan debt less than many of his fellow students, he still had a hefty amount accrued from his pursuit of three degrees.
A light drizzle began, and he hurried his pace to the Volvo, glancing at his watch. It was just before noon, and he could check out a couple of more job openings before heading home to make dinner.
Banks hung up the phone and broke into a wide grin as he faced Jim. "Well, it's all set for tomorrow, 2 p.m."
For the first time since he and Simon had hashed out the questionable details of their shaky plan, Jim allowed himself to believe that it would really work. "The university agreed?"
"They agreed to the meeting, and the Dean, in particular, seems quite eager to do whatever it takes to salvage this mess. The mayor's still backing up our story, and she's promised that if we can pull this off and make the Cascade PD and Sandburg look like shining knights, that she'll be amenable to having the kid work as a paid civilian."
Jim's face brightened, and he almost bounced on his toes. "Are you serious?"
"I sure as hell am." Simon chuckled. "This could all actually work out for the best. I can't wait to see the look on Sandburg's face when we give him the news."
Jim smile widened. "Yeah... God knows it's about time."
"Now, you're sure you're okay with the world thinking you have a hyper sense of smell and above-average vision?"
"Yeah." He shrugged. "Lots of people have good eyes -- that's not a big deal, right? Same with the hyper sense of smell, and this can actually help me with the job. I can bring it up on the stand in court and put it in reports."
"You're sure you don't want to come out and just say you have hyper vision?"
Jim shook his head. "Not if I can help it. Lots of people have good eyes or a superb sense of smell. Not a lot of people can read a street sign from half a mile a way or see in the dark as though it were day. That's, uh, just getting a bit too superman for me."
"Okay, that's your call - assuming, of course, that Sandburg agrees and says it's doable. He is the thesis expert, after all." Simon grinned. "So when do you want to tell him?"
"How 'bout you come over to the loft for dinner tonight and we'll discuss it then?"
"A dash of oregano..." Blair mumbled to himself as he stirred the seasoning into the sauce, making enough to feed three. He'd gotten home to find a message from Jim on the machine saying that Simon was coming over for dinner. He tried not to wonder what that meant. Captain Banks was a good friend, but he rarely came over to the loft for dinner on such short notice.
Blair hoped it was just that -- dinner -- and not a pretext for some kind of "discussion" about what lay in his future. His morning job hunt had ended with him still unemployed, but he could only hope he'd be receiving call-backs from a few of the places.
He remembered the raised eyebrows he'd gotten from the clerk at the Wal-Mart when she'd glanced at his application and read his education. His smile faded. Okay, so he was overqualified, but he needed a paycheck and he didn't see why they would object to having someone overqualified to work for them. He could do math in his head, and he worked well with people.
Hell, how hard could it be to get a minimum wage job?
Hard enough when your face has been plastered all over the news... and not in a good way. Well, he'd always wanted fame for his work....
A flare of bitterness almost erupted as a chuckle, but a knock at the door pulled him from his thoughts. "Hold on!"
He lowered the heat beneath the saucepan and hurried to the door, wiping his hands on his apron before looking through the peephole. Two men dressed in dark suits stood in the hallway, looking very grim and very official.
Blair's chest twisted, and he took a step away from the door. "Uh... Who is it?"
A deep, male voice answered. "We're with the Office of Research Integrity. We're here to speak with Blair Sandburg."
"Oh, man." Blair closed his eyes and took another step back. "Uh...."
Briefly, he debated trying to get rid of them - telling them that Blair Sandburg wasn't home or that it wasn't a good time and could they come back later - but he would only be delaying the unpleasantness. He'd already gotten an official letter from the ORI informing him of the investigation, so he really wasn't surprised to see them at his door. He just hadn't expected them so soon.
Time to face the music. Taking several deep breaths, he opened his eyes, unlocked the chain, and opened the door.
"I'm, uh, Blair Sandburg." He offered a shaky smile and stepped aside. "Come in."
Continue to Act IV