"Mayor, this is Bob Dale with Channel Five news. If you have a moment, I'd like to confirm that Blair Sandburg, the grad student who faked his thesis on Sentinels, is entering the police academy and will be joining the Cascade PD. Is this true?"
The mayor leaned back in her chair, suddenly tense. "What is your name again?"
"Bob Dale. Channel Five news."
"And where did you get your information?"
"I'm not at liberty to say. Can you confirm it?"
"For now, I think I'll go with 'no comment.'"
"I see. I was hoping to get your take on this situation before we air. Specifically, I'd like to know if you foresee any problems with a self-admitted fraud being allowed on the force. Do you think such a man is the type of person Cascade would like to have as one of its finest? What about his impeachability in court? Or --"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Dale, but I really can't discuss this at the moment."
"I understand. I would hope that you understand the voters in the upcoming election have a right to know that you care about the quality of the city's police force."
The mayor suppressed a curse. "Yes, I'm well aware that elections are coming up."
"So, would you care to make a comment before we air?"
She thought about it for a moment. "I have not heard anything about Blair Sandburg joining the police force. However, if such a thing is true, I share your concerns about the quality of our officers. I would not support the city employing such an individual in the sensitive arena of law enforcement. Our police officers are some of the best in the nation, and I'm proud of the integrity and dedication each of them demonstrate. I would not want to jeopardize that reputation by allowing a self-professed fraud to join their ranks. The people of Cascade should be able to trust the officers sworn to protect them."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jim swiveled in his chair, rubbing absently at his injured leg. He eyed Sandburg sitting near the corner of the desk, his head bowed as he read over his statement on the Zeller shooting. After a few seconds, he seemed to sense eyes on him and looked up, meeting Jim's gaze and offering a smile.
"It's fine. Nothing I want to add or change."
Jim nodded and snatched the sheet from the desk. "Great. I'll give this to Rhonda and then, if you're up for it, you and I can head out and grab a bite to eat. My treat."
Blair shrugged. "Yeah, that sounds good." He glanced at Simon's office. The captain's dark figure was marginally visible through the narrow gaps in the blinds. "So, uh..." His eyes flicked nervously back to Jim. "Simon insists on working, huh? I never expected him back so soon... I'm glad though. Glad he and Megan are okay."
Jim nodded, grinning. "Yeah, me too. You know Simon. He's too stubborn for his own good. Megan, too. Maybe she'll return from her vacation mellowed out."
Blair shook his head. "Nah. Remember how she was when she first got here? I doubt a week in Australia is going to make her less like that."
Jim gave an exaggerated sigh. "I suppose you're right, Chief. Well, I can enjoy the quiet while it lasts." He cracked another smile and rose from his chair, paper in hand. "I'll turn this in, then we can leave." His grin widened. "And maybe we can stop off at a barber shop on the way."
Blair smiled, holding it a few seconds too long. "Hey, man. I meant it. I'm not cutting my hair."
Jim chuckled as he limped to Rhonda's desk. "We'll see about that, Chief." The assistant wasn't in her chair, so he dropped the finished report in her box. He turned back to Blair as the young man shrugged into his jacket. "Where do you want to eat?"
Blair grabbed Jim's cane. "Whatever you want is fine with me... and you're not leaving without this."
Jim looked heavenward. "I wasn't going to, but I don't need it to shuffle the few steps to Rhonda's desk." With a smile, he took the cane from Blair and headed toward the hall.
"How 'bout Pernici's?" Blair offered.
"Sounds good." He hobbled alongside Blair as they made their way to the elevator.
Jim threw a sidelong glance at his friend, trying to gauge Blair's mood. The kid acted like he was all right, but his steady joviality seemed forced. He waited until they were secluded inside the elevator before saying anything.
As soon as the doors closed, he leaned against the wall to face the young man. "Sandburg, are you okay?"
The smile returned to Blair's face, and he shrugged. "Yeah, sure."
"I know it's been a... well, the past few days have been a roller coaster. Things have happened fast. Are you...?" He shifted the weight completely off his bad leg, giving himself a moment to collect his thoughts. He almost hated to ask the question looming foremost in his mind. "Are you okay with the badge and the academy? Becoming a full-fledged detective?"
Blair sighed, his shoulders slumping. He kept his eyes on the numbers above the doors. "I, uh... To tell you the truth, Jim, I'm not sure."
"So you're not sure you're going to accept?"
Blair finally looked at Jim, his mask of casual nonchalance slipping, revealing the fear and uncertainty that lay beneath. "I don't know." He shook his head, swallowing hard. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I was all prepared to pack up and head out. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to try to remain your friend. Really, though, I figured no one in Cascade would hire me until well after the heat from the press died down. So, I was thinking I might have to go someplace else, at least for awhile."
Jim tensed. The moment he'd seen the press conference, he'd wondered whether he'd be saying goodbye to Blair. He'd hoped that, by offering the kid a badge, he'd give him a reason to stay.
Blair continued, his voice dropping. "I never expected Simon to hand me a badge. I'm touched by the gesture, really. And I do need a paycheck, man. Desperately. I want to be your partner." He smiled, a genuine one this time. "That's the best part about it. You and me. Official." He bounced on the balls of his feet. "Real partners. It's more than I ever thought possible."
Jim found himself mirroring Blair's smile. He did like the thought of that, yet he knew there was more to consider than just the partnership. "But?"
Blair's smile faded. "But I don't know about the gun thing. I've fired one a few times since hooking up with you, but this would be on a daily basis, and my chances of someday having to shoot someone go way up." He looked back at the numbers above the door, his voice suddenly unsteady. "I know many cops get through their whole careers without ever firing a shot." He paused, watching as the indicator for the garage lit. "But they're not in Cascade, partnered with James Ellison." He threw a smile at Jim to soften his words.
The lift came to a sluggish halt, and the doors slid open. Fortunately, the garage was relatively deserted, so Jim continued the conversation as he limped alongside Blair. "I know it won't be easy, Chief, but you have my word I'll do my best to watch your back."
Blair looked at him, a warmth filling his eyes. "Hey, man, I know that." His smile returned. "Look, I'm just a bit overwhelmed now. What it comes down to is that I want to be your partner. There's absolutely nothing I'd rather be doing than being out in the field with you, helping you with your senses," his smile turned momentarily sad, "even if there's no dissertation to go along with it."
Jim nodded, allowing himself to relax. He slapped a hand on Blair's shoulder and stopped in front of the truck. "Chief..."
Blair patted the hand on his shoulder. "I know. Don't worry, man. Everything's gonna work out okay."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"... and Mr. Sandburg's admission that he faked his thesis on Sentinels has already reached government ears. Officials at Rainier University have commented that the federal Office of Research Integrity, an entity that investigates misconduct allegations involving studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, has already contacted them about launching an investigation into the graduate student's misconduct."
Doctor William Harrison looked up from the coffee he was stirring and eyed the photograph of the grad student placed in the upper right hand portion of the screen above the reporter's head. Grabbing the remote from the lounge table, he took a sip of the hot liquid as he raised the volume.
"University officials have also said they plan to conduct their own investigation into the validity of Mr. Sandburg's master's thesis on the same subject, and if they find evidence of similar fraud, may revoke his master's degree."
Harrison frowned. He wasn't certain how the scandal surrounding Sandburg's dissertation on heightened senses would affect his own work. On one hand, if Sandburg had published the thesis, odds were, from what little Harrison knew of the thesis through the media and the excerpts released, that it could trump his own research, even though he wasn't studying Sentinels. The past two years of excruciating work could have been rendered obsolete before his study even came to its conclusion. On the other hand, as his own work studied the relationship between heightened senses and mental illness, the fiasco surrounding Sandburg's thesis on heightened senses might make the scientific community slightly more skeptical about his research.
Still, he'd rather have to push a bit harder to get his work accepted than have the whole thing trumped by another researcher beating him to the punch.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Blair held the door to the deli open while Jim shuffled inside, leaning heavily on his cane. He pointed to an empty table and stepped in line. "You sit down, I'll order. You want your usual cheesesteak?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."
Jim sank into his chair when one word jumped out from the drone of a reporter's voice playing on a television hanging from the far wall. "Mr. Sandburg's admission that he faked his thesis on Sentinels has already reached government ears." A photograph of Blair popped up in the upper corner of the screen, and Jim cursed silently, his eyes darting immediately to Sandburg who, thankfully, seemed blissfully unaware of the report as he studied the menu hanging over the cashier's counter.
Jim glanced back at the screen as the reporter talked about the possible investigation. What the hell? Jim's jaw went slack. He'd thought it bad enough that Sandburg had given away his career, but he hadn't even thought about the possibility of an investigation being launched against his friend. What kind of penalties could they slap Sandburg with?
A few of the patrons seated at other tables began to lean in toward one another, and the steady hum of voices dropped to near silence as they whispered, a few pointing toward either Blair or Jim. He deliberately chose to tune out their words, but met the few stares directed his way with a warning glare.
The drop in background noise caught Sandburg's attention and made the television volume seem significantly higher. Blair looked around, obviously seeing something in Jim's face, because his brow furrowed.
"... of Mr. Sandburg's master's thesis on the same subject..."
Blair stiffened, turning slowly to face the television, his back to Jim. When the reporter mentioned the possible revocation of his master's degree, Blair flinched so slightly that only Jim, who knew what to look for, could have noticed the reaction.
Shit. Jim's grip on his cane tightened, and he had the sudden urge to fling it at the television. Of course, he repressed that urge, opting instead to remain seated in his chair and let his gaze confront those who dared to look at him.
The woman in front of Blair took her order from the counterperson and moved to the soda machine. Blair stepped up to the cashier and gave his order. "One cheesesteak sandwich on white, extra onions." He recited the order flatly, his voice never wavering. "One turkey sandwich, easy mayo. Mustard. Wheat bread." He paused, taking a deep breath. "To go, please."
The next few minutes were torture as Jim waited for the staff to make the sandwiches and watched Blair maintain his stoic stance at the register. When the cashier began to ring up the order, Jim remembered he'd offered to pay, something he felt the need to do since his friend had given up his only source of income to protect Jim as a sentinel. He used his cane to push himself out of the chair and limped to the counter, pulling out his wallet just as Blair reached into his own pocket for his.
"I got it." Jim pulled out a twenty and handed it to the man.
Blair glanced at him, his eyes flat and his expression even. "Thanks."
Shit. Jim suddenly realized how his gesture might have looked to the dozen patrons staring at them. Bad enough they all thought Sandburg was a fraud, now they probably thought he was a charity case, as well. "Don't worry about it." He raised his voice a bit louder than necessary. "Least I can do since you saved my life up on that roof." He tapped his cane on the floor for emphasis.
"Thanks." Blair flashed a weak smile at Jim as he grabbed the take-out bag and walked toward the door with slow, even steps, his back rigid and his shoulders straight.
Jim followed close behind, and as soon as they got outside, Blair's shoulders sagged a fraction and he released a long sigh. "I hope you don't mind that I ordered it to go. I thought maybe we could go eat at the park, or something."
Jim smiled, hoping it looked genuine. "Sure, Chief. It's a nice day for it."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jim sat next to his friend on the park bench, admiring the bright, partly cloudy sky above them. They had eaten in silence, and as Jim took the last bite of his sandwich, he glanced over at Sandburg. Blair was staring at some indefinably distant point, his half-eaten sandwich held loosely in his hand and resting in his lap.
Jim had wanted to let Sandburg enjoy his lunch before mentioning the newscast. The reporter's words kept echoing through his brain, twisting his stomach. Just what kind of heat would be coming down on Sandburg's head? What kind of investigation was being launched? What were the potential penalties? Fines, probably. He doubted prison. God, he hoped not prison. He didn't think the D.A. could pin any kind of crime on Sandburg, but if federal grants were involved, perhaps there was some kind of federal criminal statute Sandburg had violated. In his years as a cop, Jim couldn't remember ever hearing about a case of federal grant fraud, but it wasn't the type of case he'd likely have dealt with even if such a crime existed.
Best case scenario -- financial penalties. But what would that mean for Sandburg? The kid had no money. Even if he joined the police force, his paycheck would likely not be enough to cover those kind of financial penalties. Could the government end up attaching his wages? Just how much grant money had Blair used during his studies? It had to be a hell of a lot more than a cop makes in a year. Maybe more than a cop makes in five years. Maybe even way more than that.
Damn. Whichever way he looked at it, things were bad for Blair. Really bad.
The possible revocation of his master's degree was just the icing on the cake. Another slap in the face. How could they take away something Sandburg had already earned... something he'd accomplished years before he'd even met Jim?
Looking at the totality of the circumstances, how much did one Sentinel secret weigh against all that?
"Chief, what is the Office of Research Integrity?
Blair looked at him, uncertainty crossing his face. "I don't know much about it other than it's some federal entity that looks into misconduct involving NIH grants."
Jim nodded. That's what the reporter had said, but Sandburg hadn't heard that part of the broadcast. He wondered whether Blair had known before he stepped behind that podium the full ramifications of his press conference. Did he know about the ORI? About the possible revocation of his master's degree?
And did he know now about the ORI? Had the university or the ORI contacted him already and he'd simply kept quiet about it?
Jim shifted uncomfortably on the bench. If the investigation was news to Sandburg, he hated having to be the one to give it. But better me than someone from the university or the ORI. "On the news back there, the reporter was talking about a possible ORI investigation into your, uh... confessed misconduct."
Blair shrugged and looked down at his sandwich. "Oh... I was wondering about that. I mean, I used lots of grants in my studies, one of which was from the NIH."
"What can they do to you?"
Another shrug. "Don't know. I never heard of anybody getting investigated by them before. I don't know that much about them." He looked back up at Jim. "Maybe they can make me pay back the grant money?" He sighed. "In which case, they might as well put me in jail because that money was spent on the research projects, and it's not like I've got a secret stash of cash laying around." He chuckled, a hollow, bitter sound. "I'm totally broke. The Volvo and my laptop are all I've got to my name, and they won't come close to paying back even that one NIH grant."
Jim took a deep breath. "What about if I refinance the loft?"
Surprise flickered in Blair's eyes. "Uh... Thanks, Jim. I'm not sure whether that would put a dent in the grant. I don't know how much the loft is worth or what kind of equity you've got in it, but even if you own it free and clear and could pay off the entire grant, I wouldn't let you do it." He offered a soft smile. "I gave that press conference knowing what I was doing. It's worth it knowing it did what it was supposed to -- protect you. If you risk financial ruin to pay off one of my grants, it's a hollow victory. And if the other grants come into play, it won't even touch them. You know how much an expedition costs?" He shook his head, giving another small chuckle. "A lot, man. A lot."
Jim leaned back. Suddenly the air seemed very, very heavy. "What are you going to do?"
Blair offered a wry grin. "You mean besides skip town, go where the wind takes me, hide under some rock where no one can ever find me?"
Jim didn't return the smile. That scenario hit a little too close to his fears.
Blair glanced away, his gaze returning to that indefinably distant spot he had been so engrossed with earlier. "I guess I'll just take the punches and roll with them. Whatever happens, happens. I just keep telling myself that things could be a lot worse." His voice dropped. "Simon and Megan might not have made it... or that bullet could have hit you instead. Or your secret could be out, you and Simon could be disciplined for keeping it from the brass, maybe even lose your jobs. You'd never know any peace if the world knew about your abilities and you couldn't be a cop... and knowing Simon went down with you, neither would I, actually. Next to all that, what's one anthropologist's career?"
Jim stiffened, surprised at hearing his own thoughts flipped around and thrown back at him. "It's just money. I could make those payments easy."
Blair shook his head. "It's not your responsibility, Jim, and it wouldn't help much, anyway. Let's just wait and see what happens before we start making any decisions."
"Got your message. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you, but I got tied up with a patient. What's up?"
Dr. Harrison leaned back in his chair and gestured to the empty seat near his desk. "I wanted to talk to you about Barnes." He waited as the graying psychiatrist dropped into the chair and propped one foot casually on the opposite knee. Dr. Jason Feinberg was Alex's clinical psychiatrist, but the man was only peripherally involved with Harrison's research.
"What about her?" Feinberg asked.
"Have you seen the news about that grad student who claimed he found a cop with five heightened senses?"
Dr. Feinberg nodded. "Yeah. Haven't been following it, though. I take it you've called me here because it relates to your research?"
Harrison nodded. "In a way. You know the grad student's name is Blair Sandburg?"
Feinberg's eyes widened. "No, I didn't. I've only caught a few glimpses of the news, but I've been too busy lately to pay it much attention." He leaned forward. "That's damn interesting, though, considering."
"I know. I think we're beginning to get a few pieces of the puzzle. Why did Alex go after Sandburg? The police report is pretty vague on that."
"But if Sandburg was researching heightened senses..."
Harrison nodded. "And Alex has demonstrated heightened senses, so it's reasonable to assume she might have been one of his subjects."
"But her senses are all over the map. It's been very hard to differentiate hallucinations from nonhallucinations with her, and it'll be even harder to measure her senses because of her mental state. She's not exactly cooperative."
"So, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking maybe I should shift portions of my research dealing with her. So far she's been one of my least cooperative patients, so I was thinking about nixing her from the study because she's shifting the data."
"What? You think she's a Sentinel?"
"Sandburg claimed his data proving the cop -- the same one who arrested Alex, by the way -- has heightened senses is fraudulent."
"I sense a 'but...'?"
Harrison smiled. "But... He did claim to have legitimate data otherwise, something about ancient source material. Anyway, just because he claims he made up the data on Ellison doesn't mean that the theory of Sentinels is bogus. Maybe we should start looking at Barnes differently. Up until now we've assumed that her apparently heightened senses are a product of her mental instability, but what if it's the other way around? I went back over the police file on her, and there's mention of an alarm that seemed too loud. Plus, you know she was originally picked up when she crashed her car and started wandering the street taking her clothes off, claiming the headlights were too bright and her clothes were itchy."
"Yeah, but she's not exactly mentally stable. That evidences the beginning of her mental degeneration."
"Perhaps. But I say we look into it, modify our tests and see whether we can pinpoint how heightened her senses are, and whether she has all five heightened senses."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Yes, Mayor --" Simon was cut off by the voice on the other end of the line. He listened, trying to find the right moment to interject, his hand steadily tightening on the receiver.
Finally, the female voice paused, allowing Simon his opportunity. "Ma'am, Sandburg's been associated with this department for roughly four years. He's proven himself a dedicated, responsible --"
The mayor cut him off again. "My decision is final. There's nothing further to discuss."
The familiar, annoying hum of an inactive line rang in his ear, and, stifling a curse, he set the receiver almost reverently in its cradle. "Damn."
Movement in the bullpen caught his eye, and he looked through the slatted blinds of his office window to see Sandburg strolling toward Jim's desk. His chest tightened, and he took a deep breath before rising from his chair, ignoring the twinge of pain in his side caused by Zeller's bullet.
Sometimes, he really hated his job.
Walking slowly to his door, he opened it and, in a low voice, called out, "Sandburg."
The young man's head swiveled toward him. "Yeah?"
"Can I see you in my office, please?"
A hint of confusion mixed with concern flashed across Sandburg's face, but he simply nodded and offered a small smile as he moved forward. "Yeah, sure."
Simon stepped aside to let Blair into the office, then closed the door behind him. "Where's your other half?"
"The little detective's room."
Simon's lips twitched upward. "Ah. Duty calls."
Sandburg grinned. "After the lunch he had, I'm sure he'll be in there for a good five minutes." His smile faded, and he leaned against the table at the back of the office. "So what did you want to see me about?"
Simon's face turned serious, and he sighed heavily, leaning against his own desk and trying to ignore the ache in his side. The doctor had told him he should continue to use the wheelchair for another week, but there was no way he was going to be confined to the chair when he was perfectly capable of moving around on his own.
He looked at Sandburg, wincing inwardly at the expectant, anxious look in the young man's eyes. "I have something to ask you, and I'd appreciate a totally honest answer."
Blair swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing slightly. "Okay."
"Do you want to be a cop?"
Blair blinked. "Uh.... What do you mean exactly? Do I want to be Jim's partner? Yeah."
Simon recognized the evasiveness and tried to soften his expression, hoping Blair would see him as a friend instead of the captain of Major Crime. "What I mean is, God forbid something should happen to Jim in the field tomorrow or next week or next month... would you still want to be a cop?"
Blair pursed his lips, his gaze shifting to the large window overlooking the city. "You mean without Jim? On my own?"
"Or partnered with someone else?"
Blair took a deep breath and looked back at Simon. "No."
Simon nodded. Asking the question had only been a formality. He'd already known what the answer would be. He remained silent for a few seconds, choosing his next words carefully as he studied the young man in front of him. The set of Blair's shoulders... the lines in his face... the look in his eyes... All those things told him that Sandburg was in a fragile state at the moment.
"You know I have a great deal of respect for you, Sandburg?"
Blair's eyes widened a fraction, revealing a hint of surprise. "Thank you. I... " He shifted against the table, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "You know I respect you, too, right?"
Simon smiled gently. "You'd better. I'm the captain, after all."
Blair returned the smile, and some of the tension drained from his shoulders, easing the lines on his face. "Yeah... So you keep reminding me." His smile faded, but his eyes remained warm and relaxed, almost forgiving. "Say what you have to say, Sim... sir."
Simon's smile vanished. "The mayor called. She's not happy about you entering the academy."
Blair stiffened, the tension returning. "I see." He nodded slowly and shrugged. "I understand. No problem. I, uh... I was kind of thinking of turning it down, anyway. You know how I feel about guns. I just don't see myself carrying one every day. It doesn't feel right."
"No, really." He pushed off the table. "Don't sweat it, Simon. I mean, I appreciate the gesture and the strings you probably had to pull to be able to offer it to me... That means a lot, believe me, but I'm okay about it. Really."
Jim splashed the cool faucet water on his face and looked at his reflection in the mirror. Small lines framed his icy blue eyes and deeper ones decorated his forehead. He sighed heavily. He was old. Somehow, the years had snuck up on him, and soon -- too soon -- he'd officially be an old man.
Facing the grave.
And what had he accomplished in his life? Not much. Sentinel of the Great City. Big deal. He huffed a shallow, bitter laugh. What did that mean, anyway? At the end of his life, what would he look back on with fondness? What would he consider the important things? His career? His senses?
He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He had no real family. By all accounts, he was pretty much a loner -- Or rather, he had been -- until a few years ago.
Now he had two relationships in his life that he could stake claim to -- his friendships with Blair and Simon. But what should he do when the two were in conflict, pitted against one another by his unique abilities? Keep the secret and cover Simon's ass while hurting Blair, or go public and put his and Simon's careers on the line to salvage Blair's?
Jesus Christ, Chief. How did things get so screwed up?
He thought back to the incident at the deli. How long would the public remember Sandburg? How long would the kid have to endure the stares and whispers? A few weeks? A few months? And how long could Sandburg maintain his obviously forced air of casual nonchalance? How long could he pretend it didn't bother him?
Because it did bother Sandburg. It had to. And even if it doesn't bother you, Chief, it sure as hell bothers me.
Opening his eyes, he faced his reflection again, meeting his own steely gaze. Then he looked away, his eyes drifting to the door. Sandburg was on the other side of that door, a few feet down the hall, probably sitting at his desk, feeling out of place, no doubt, since he really didn't have anything to do.
Jim hoped the guys were behaving themselves. Oh, he knew Rafe, Brown, and Joel still welcomed Blair and would watch out for him, but they didn't really know the truth, so he could only imagine what they were really thinking. Were they tripping over themselves trying not to say the wrong thing to Blair? God, he hoped not. Sandburg would pick up on their discomfort and it would just make him feel more awkward and out of place.
Megan and Simon knew the truth, though. At least Blair could still look a few people in the eyes and know for sure they still respected him.
He focused on his hearing, tilting his head slightly as he tried to hone in on the bullpen. Sounds rose from the background. Laughter. Footsteps. A woman's voice...
"... better than I thought it would be, actually, but not worth more than matinee price."
He moved past that distraction and focused further, catching another conversation. A man's voice...
"... yeah, I know. Unbelievable..."
He frowned. Come on. Focus... The bullpen. Blair's voice. Rafe's. Joel's. Simon's....
He pushed his hearing farther, ignoring the hint of a headache that threatened to blossom behind his eyes, and ran into the drone of a television or radio. A heated, evangelical voice filled with passion pounded from speakers...
"... no man shall have greater love than this, that he should give his life for a friend..."
His hearing snapped back, and he straightened as if struck. His eyes drifted heavenward. If someone or something was trying to send him a message, they sure as hell weren't being subtle about it.
A few years ago he would've balked at the notion of spirits and mystical forces influencing reality, but that was before he'd seen spirit animals and ghosts. That was before Incacha's spirit had helped him reach into the spirit world and bring Sandburg back from the Other Side. Before the vision at the temple. Before the ghost of Molly had called to him for help...
He never had been comfortable with all the mysticism involved with being a Sentinel. Back in Peru after his chopper had gone down and the Chopec had found him, Incacha had helped him deal with the re-emergence of his heightened senses. And, yeah, Incacha as the tribal shaman had been a whole lot more into the mysticism than his hipper, more worldly counterpart, Blair Sandburg. Not that Blair shied away from the spiritual stuff. In fact, Blair seemed more than willing to acknowledge and even advocate that aspect of the Sentinel thing. But the big city was different than the jungles of Peru, and whereas Incacha had embraced the spirit world -- often with the aid of substances that were illegal in the United States -- Blair Sandburg used more conventional, acceptable methods, including white noise generators and legal herbal remedies, leaving the vision-spiritual thing to Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great City.
Well, except for the peyote-like substance that Simon had called the kid on during the Molly incident. Jim smiled at that memory, recalling the sheepish, guilty look on Sandburg's face when Simon had growled out the results of the lab tests.
"Do you want to be a cop?"
Huh? Jim's head snapped up at the intrusion of Simon's voice. He turned around, expecting to see the captain behind him, but he was still alone in the restroom.
"Uh.... What do you mean exactly? Do I want to be Jim's partner? Yeah."
Blair's voice. Jim realized he was hearing parts of their conversation -- probably in Simon's office. Odd, though. He hadn't consciously been focusing his hearing on finding them after his initial, aborted attempt, but once he'd stopped trying and just started thinking about them, he found them, probably more on a subconscious level. He was sure Sandburg would be able to explain it to him more precisely.
At the moment, however, he kept his hearing tethered to their conversation.
"What I mean is, God forbid something should happen to Jim in the field tomorrow or next week or next month... would you still want to be a cop?"
Jim tensed. What the hell was Simon getting at?
"You mean without Jim? On my own?" There was a slight tremble in Blair's voice.
"Or partnered with someone else?"
Jim heard Blair take a deep breath and answer, "No."
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."
Jim and Simon walked into the apartment building. A For Sale sign hung on the front door, and Jim glanced briefly at it. He knew the owner had been having trouble keeping steady tenants in the apartment below his, and he'd gotten a few letters from the management about curbing his "activities" in the loft. Like he was supposed to be able to control all the trouble that flocked his way. It wasn't his fault that the ape had escaped... or that Lash had turned the place inside out. He suppressed a shiver at that particular memory, remembering the cold horror that had clenched his gut when he'd rushed in and found the place a mess... with Sandburg nowhere to be found.
Nor had it been his fault when Chapel had filled the place full of bullet holes... and as for that manure incident... Well, he'd been as pissed off as the rest of the tenants about the smell that had lingered for days.
Jim reached the elevator and pushed the button for the third floor, then shifted to face his captain as the lift doors slid closed. "I think Sandburg's making pasta tonight. I left a message telling him you'd be coming over, so there should be more than enough. And wait 'til you taste his sauce. He claims it's a recipe he got from an old Italian lady he and Naomi met one summer when he was kid."
Simon chuckled. "Sounds very domestic. So, besides cooking, how's the kid spending his time?"
Jim shrugged, the levity draining from his eyes. "Job hunting, I guess. I've found the want ads in the trash with several circled, but he hasn't really talked about it. By the time I get home, he's usually got food on the table. The loft's cleaner than it has been in a long time. It's like he's playing the role of a good houseguest, or something."
Simon's face turned serious. "Well, with no job... living in your apartment... He probably feels like a charity case." His smile returned. "But tonight that's all gonna change. I can't wait to see his face."
Jim allowed the captain's enthusiasm to infect him. "Yeah. I'm glad we've got some good news, finally. I only hope it pans out. I'd hate for him to get his hopes up and then have them come crashing down again."
The elevator languished to a halt, and the doors slid open.
"It's a good plan, Jim," Simon said. "All we gotta do is..."
Jim raised his hand to silence the captain, tilting his head as he listened. Unfamiliar voices filtered from the loft.
"...federal money. We'll need a complete accounting of all funds used, Mr. Sandburg."
"I, uh.... of course." Papers shuffled "This is quite a form... Didn't I already give an accounting when I...?"
"This one's more detailed. It's the first step in our investigation, and I cannot stress how seriously we're taking this matter. Please be as detailed and accurate as possible, and furnish receipts and any other proof you have of how you spent the money. Any amount not accompanied by written proof will be deemed misappropriated. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
"You'll be receiving a hearing notice in the mail. You may have an attorney present if you wish..."
"Shit." Jim yanked his key out of his jacket pocket and jabbed it in the door.
"What is it?" Simon asked.
"Guests." He said tersely, pushing the loft door open.
The two federal investigators were seated on the couch. Sandburg was perched on the edge of the armchair, a large stack of papers balanced on his lap. At his entrance, all three men rose to their feet, and Sandburg deposited the stack on the coffee table.
"Oh... Hi, Jim." He nodded at the captain. "Simon."
Jim kept his eyes on the two men, his face cold. "Out of my house."
The visitor closest to Jim, a graying man with thin-framed glasses, took a step forward. "Are you Detective James Ellison?"
"That's right." He jabbed a thumb toward his captain. "And this is Captain Simon Banks."
"It's a pleasure to meet you." The man extended his hand, but Jim ignored it. After a few seconds, the hand lowered. "We're from the Office of Research Integrity. We have a few questions for you."
"Get a summons. Now out."
"Do you have a warrant to be here?"
"Then out. Or I'll arrest you myself."
Simon took a step forward. "You heard the detective."
The man hesitated for a moment, then nodded, turning to his younger companion. "Come on, Brandon, let's go." He turned his attention to Sandburg. "Thank you for your cooperation. We'll be in touch."
Jim watched them leave, then locked the door behind them and turned to Sandburg. "Why'd you talk to those guys, Chief?"
Blair shrugged and dropped his gaze to the stack on the coffee table. He stooped and retrieved the pile. "I have to talk to them sooner or later."
"What did you tell them?"
"Not much." Blair padded to his room, disappeared for a moment, and re-emerged empty handed. He avoided Jim's gaze and moved to the stove, giving the sauce a half-hearted stir. "Just answered a few basic questions."
"What kind of questions?"
"Stuff they already know. Like the amount of my grants. That kind of thing."
"Why didn't you just tell them to get lost?"
Blair sighed and turned off the heat. "Because they'd just come back." He rested the spoon on the edge of the pot and faced Jim. "You know that."
"Jim." Simon gave him a small pat on the shoulder. "Lay off." He lowered his voice. "It's likely all gonna be a moot point, anyway."
Jim glanced back at the captain and nodded. "Yes, sir."
"So," Simon brightened, clapping his hands once, "what smells so damn good?"
Blair managed a weak smile. "Wait 'til you taste this sauce, Simon. You'll never look at Italian food the same way again."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Simon managed to look moderately severe, "especially after the last dinner you made us."
Jim chuckled. "The dinner was great. It was the dessert that gave me nightmares."
Blair looked heavenward as he turned and pulled three plates from the cupboards. "That was payback for having me arrested and put in holding for four hours."
"Oh come on, Chief, you can't possibly still be sore about that."
Blair grunted. "Oh, yes, I can."
Simon slid into an empty seat at the table. "Oh, quit your arguing, you two, and serve the food."
Jim nodded. "You got it, sir."
"Coming right up, Simon," Blair chimed.
The dinner conversation stayed light throughout the meal. Jim and Simon exchanged frequent glances, both men wondering how to bring up the subject of the publisher and the university, but they had already agreed on the way to the loft that Jim would be the one to broach the subject. The questions were, when and how?
Jim took the last bite of his pasta. The sauce was as good as he remembered. It was a shame Blair didn't cook it more often, but it took hours to simmer, and Blair had rarely had the time between his school work and the Sentinel thing. Now he had all the time in the world.
Jim swallowed hard, almost choking as the food went down wrong. His eyes teared, and he stifled a cough, taking a quick gulp of his water.
He glanced up to see Blair staring at him. "Yeah. Just went down the wrong pipe." He glanced at Simon, read the encouragement in the older man's eyes, and took a deep breath before facing his partner again. "Chief, there's something we need to talk to you about."
Blair glanced at Simon, a hint of apprehension on his face, then back at Jim. "Oh? If it's about what I'm going to do, don't worry. I've been job-hunting all morning, and I'm sure..."
"Uh, that's not it... exactly. Well, I mean, sort of, but not like you think." He took another deep breath. This was good news, so why did he feel like he was telling his father he'd dented the car? "Simon and I have worked out a potential deal with the university and the publisher. We have a meeting with them tomorrow."
"What?" Blair dropped his fork to his plate. His eyes narrowed. "What did you do, Jim? You... You didn't tell them the truth, did you?"
Jim shifted uneasily in his seat. "I was going to, but Simon persuaded me to try another way first."
Blair glanced quickly back at Simon. "What other way?"
"I'll come out as having one hyper sense, smell, and one above average sense, vision. The publisher will admit to releasing portions of your dissertation without your consent. He'll also admit that he released nonconsecutive portions and that some of it mislead the press into thinking that I was your primary subject. Instead, Alex Barnes was your primary subject, and I was simply another one of your many test subjects. You were working with me in the field to see how heightened senses can benefit the modern tribal protectors -- or whatever you wanna call it. You held that press conference because the media coverage was interfering with my job and endangered many lives. You needed to end the media circus fast, and just coming out and saying I had only a couple special senses wouldn't have done it at that point. So, we arranged the whole press conference and gave you the speech, but now that we've dealt with Zeller, you can come out with the truth." Jim paused, trying to read the expression on Blair's face, but the younger man looked mostly stunned. "The mayor's backing us up on this one, and to lend you that extra air of credibility, Simon will give the speech himself, as the Captain of Major Crime, to the press thanking you for your help in resolving the media attention and helping to put Zeller, a dangerous criminal, out of commission. And, since you never actually submitted your dissertation, we figure it should be easy to clear you with the university as well. All they have to do is go along with us and they save face. I don't think that Chancellor of yours will have a problem with that, do you?"
Jim studied his friend, waiting for a response. Blair didn't seem particularly inclined to give one right away. He just sat there, staring at Jim, his jaw slack.
"Well, Sandburg?" Simon leaned back in his chair. "The meeting with the publisher and the university is scheduled for tomorrow at two. What do you think?"
Blair shifted his gaze to Simon, and he seemed to come out of his stupor. His lips turned upward in a slow smile that blossomed to a chuckle. "What do I think?" He looked back at Jim, grinning. "I think if there's a chance I can get my life back, I'll take it." He blinked rapidly, his grin growing broader. "The university really agreed to meet with us?"
"Yes, and from Simon's preliminary conversations with the publisher and the university, it sounds like both of them are desperate for a way out of this mess. And," Jim grinned broadly, "if this all works out, the Mayor has agreed to offer you a position as a paid civilian consultant with Major Crime."
"This is great." Blair practically leapt out of his seat and began pacing near the kitchen island, his arms moving wildly. "I mean, I never expected this. I've been job hunting for days with no luck, and even if I managed to find something, it was gonna be tight paying back my college loans on minimum wage... not to mention all that grant money." He stopped in his tracks and turned slowly to face Jim. "Wait a minute... You... You were really gonna come out and tell the truth?"
Jim nodded. "I was. Simon convinced me that we could put our heads together and maybe find a better way for everyone."
"But I don't understand... Why the change of heart? I mean, you were really gonna stand up in front of the world and declare yourself a Sentinel? That's been your worst nightmare all these years, and when the shit hit the fan recently, you... Well, we got a preview of what it would be like for you. So why would you even consider doing that?"
Jim rose from his chair and walked up to Blair, leaning against the kitchen island as he looked down at the younger man. "Because you gave up everything to protect me, Chief. What kind of a friend would I be if I weren't willing to do the same thing?"
A slow, bashful smile brightened Blair's face. "Thanks, man. That, uh.... That means a lot."
"Welcome, Mr. Sandburg."
"Thank you." Blair nodded at the Dean, then looked at the Chancellor seated at the head of the table. "And thank you, Chancellor Edwards, for agreeing to meet." The words came out hard, practically scraping the back of his throat. He hated playing kiss-up, but if he wanted his life back, he'd have to swallow a bit of his pride.
Besides, he owed it to the Chancellor and the Dean... All they knew, after all, was that he had claimed his thesis a fraud. They didn't know the truth, so he couldn't very well blame them for kicking him out.
"We've agreed to meet, Mr. Sandburg, because your captain has promised us that the fiasco of your press conference can be explained and that our institution's academic reputation will be restored." Edwards leaned forward in her chair. "I certainly hope that's the case."
Blair glanced at Simon seated across from him. Jim was in the chair next to Blair, offering silent moral support and, when the time came, he'd be able to confirm Banks' claims, if necessary.
Sid Graham and another man Blair hadn't seen before, but who had introduced himself as Ron Sables, sat at the opposite end of the table. Simon had said that the publisher had already agreed to the stipulations if -- and only if -- the university agreed not to institute legal action. All parties had signed nondisclosure agreements for this session, but as far as Blair knew, the University was unaware that some of what the publisher would be admitting to was a fabrication.
"Let's get started, please," the Dean began. "Captain Banks, why don't you tell us why you asked us here?"
The captain nodded and cleared his throat. "Of course." He glanced briefly at Jim and Blair, then back at the Dean and the Chancellor. "As you know, portions of Mr. Sandburg's dissertation were released by Berkshire Publishers without Sandburg's permission. In fact, when Mr. Graham called Mr. Sandburg and offered him an advance to publish the document, Sandburg expressly told Mr. Graham that he wasn't interested. Mr. Graham went ahead anyway and released portions of the manuscript to the press, but the parts he released and the way he released them led the media to believe that Detective James Ellison is a full-fledged Sentinel. That is not true. As you know, Sandburg has been working with our department as part of his thesis, and he is, in fact, studying Ellison as part of the dissertation. But Detective Ellison is not a Sentinel. He only has a couple of special senses. I'll let Sandburg explain that part..." He gestured to Blair.
Blair nodded and shifted in his seat. "Right." He took a deep breath. "Detective Ellison has a hyper sense of smell and above-average vision. I've been studying him to incorporate data into my thesis about how heightened senses may prove useful in a modern society. Detective Ellison, as a police officer, is like a modern watchman, a protector who uses his senses to protect the tribe, or in this case, the city of Cascade."
"Mr. Sandburg," Edwards began, "if James Ellison was never your primary research subject, who was? Did you have one? Did you have any evidence of these so-called Sentinels?"
Blair nodded. "Yes, in fact, I do. Alex Barnes."
The Chancellor nodded. "We had wondered about that..." She glanced at the Dean, then back at Sandburg. "She was your primary research subject?"
"Yes. I found her recently when she was arrested at the station. She was complaining that the car headlights were too bright and that her clothes were scratching her skin. I invited her to my office, and from there we developed a professional relationship. I conducted a few tests and was working with her to help her learn to control her senses. I didn't know at the time that she was a criminal. Even though I only had a short time to work with her, I accumulated enough evidence, including evidence the police have on file, that she has extraordinarily heightened senses and qualifies as a bona fide Sentinel."
"So why didn't you explain this earlier?" the Dean asked. "Why tell the media that your dissertation was fraudulent?"
Banks spoke. "Because the mayor and I asked him to. Our department was involved with a very delicate case involving death threats against a union leader, Jack Bartley. Klaus Zeller, a professional assassin whom we had encountered previously, was trying to kill Bartley. We had set up a sting operation to draw Zeller out. That was when the paparazzi ambushed Detective Ellison and blew the entire operation, nearly getting Ellison and Bartley killed in the process. The media frenzy also led Zeller to believe that Ellison was some kind of supercop, and Zeller tried to take Ellison out at the station. That resulted in a visiting detective and myself being shot. So, as you can see, the media attention was hampering our law enforcement efforts and jeopardizing lives. We had to get the heat off of Ellison and the department as fast as possible, and coming out with the truth that Ellison only had two senses, at that point, would very likely not have done the job. So, Sandburg graciously agreed to read the statement we prepared for him... He shifted the media's fire onto himself and, by doing so, allowed us to work unimpeded. We've dealt with Klaus Zeller, who was killed in a shootout. So, now that the case is resolved, we can come out with the truth. Blair Sandburg isn't a fraud. Quite the contrary, he's a hero who helped us eliminate a dangerous criminal."
Chancellor Edwards didn't look entirely convinced. "You were shot before Mr. Sandburg gave his press conference?"
Simon nodded. "Yes, I was."
"I seem to remember the news reports on that. I thought you were in critical condition. How did you have time to ask Mr. Sandburg to do this, much less help prepare his speech?"
Banks hesitated a moment, but recovered quickly. "The mayor and I had approached Sandburg with the idea after the paparazzi blew our sting operation. The shooting at the station simply resolved the issue, and the mayor and Detective Ellison took care of the details at that point."
The Dean nodded. "We see." He looked at Ron Sables. "Is what the captain and Mr. Sandburg say true? We already know you released the dissertation without his permission, but did you release portions that made it appear as though Ellison were a Sentinel? Did Sandburg's thesis, in fact, cite Alex Barnes as a Sentinel?"
Sables nodded quickly. "Yes, Sid Graham, our senior editor, did. We are willing to make a public statement to that effect, which, we hope, will restore Mr. Sandburg's and your university's reputation, but only if the university and Mr. Sandburg both sign agreements that neither of you will institute a civil suit against us for the improper release of the thesis."
"I have no problem with that," Blair said quickly.
"Detective Ellison, what do you have to say about all this?" Edwards asked.
Jim's head came up, and he looked momentarily uncomfortable before his usual stoic mask fell into place. "I feel just fine about it. It's all as Captain Banks says."
"And can you prove that you do, in fact, have these senses?"
"My police record is full of proof, and all that is public record."
Banks nodded. "I assure you it's all true. In fact, Ellison's hyper sense of smell helped us locate serial killer David Lash and save Mr. Sandburg's life. Detective Ellison was able to identify the smell in water recovered at a crime scene as duck waste, and we tracked the killer to an abandoned warehouse located very close to a duck pond."
A slight smile touched Jim's lips. "In fact, Chancellor, I can smell cat on your clothes and garlic on your breath. Did you have Italian for lunch?"
The Chancellor's cheeks flushed, and she looked away quickly. "Uh... Greek, actually."
The Dean chuckled. "I believe we've heard enough. I don't think we even need to deliberate about this." He paused a moment, waiting for any objections from his colleagues, but when none were forthcoming, he continued. "If everything is as you say it is, Captain, then we will gladly reinstate Mr. Sandburg and allow him to officially submit his dissertation." The Dean looked at Blair. "When can you have it to us?"
Blair swallowed hard. "Uh... Well, I was putting the polishing touches on it when...."
"Will two weeks be enough time? This mess has already put you behind schedule, and since you just missed graduation, you won't officially be awarded your PhD until the next ceremony."
Blair nodded, looking somewhat unsure, but his voice was firm. "Two weeks will be fine."
"Wonderful." The Dean smiled. "That being the case, I see no reason why you can't move back into your office immediately and resume your normal duties. In fact, since the summer session is starting, you can teach Anthro 250. Welcome back, Mr. Sandburg."
"Hey, guys, come here and look at this." Joel Taggart waved the Major Crime gang into the captain's office. "Sandburg's on T.V."
"Again?" Brown shot out of his seat and hurried quickly to the office, followed closely by Rafe.
The group clustered around the small screen where Blair stood at a podium similar to the one he had stood at when he delivered his press conference just a few weeks ago.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the press, thank you for coming. I have a confession to make. Contrary to what I told you just a short while ago, my thesis on Sentinels was not a fraud."
"Out of the way, please." Jim pushed through the mass of reporters to clear a way for Sandburg and Banks. The press conference was over. Now, if they could just get out of the crowd and go find a nice, quiet place to celebrate.
The flash of bulbs permeated the air, and he blinked against their glare, reaching the doors and pushing them open. The Chancellor was at the podium now, addressing the media, but he didn't listen to what she was saying. All he wanted to do was get out of there. Blair and Simon ducked past him quickly, and he rushed out, letting the double doors close behind him.
He was just about to break into a trot when he came up short behind a motionless Sandburg. He looked up just as a round of applause filled the air. A mixture of what looked like students and staff filled the hallway to capacity, smiles on their faces.
An elderly man stepped to the forefront of the crowd and reached out, grabbing Blair's hand. "Welcome back, Blair."
Blair smiled shyly. "Thanks, Dr. Stoddard."
"...my thesis on Sentinels was not a fraud."
"Oh, damn." Harrison turned up the volume and listened to Sandburg describe Alex Barnes as his primary subject. He continued to eye the newscast as his right hand reached for the phone. He dialed the familiar extension and waited until his colleague answered. "Jason, are you watching the news?... That grad student, Blair Sandburg, is on. He just scooped me. Claims Alex Barnes was his primary subject and he has a shitload of data measuring her heightened senses.... What?" He straightened suddenly, flicking off the television with the remote. "What do you mean, she's escaped?"
- The End -
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Return to Novation Productions