Novation Productions Virtual Season Five Presents

A Movie of the Week 

Tinderbox

  By Linda3 and Ismaro


Act One


Jim placed two bowls of microwave popcorn, one natural flavor and the other mega butter, on the coffee table. Picking up the remote, he started flipping stations until he found The Discovery Channel. Blair was due back upstairs any minute to watch some Sunday night special he swore Jim would enjoy too. He doubted it, but it wasn't as if the Cascade Effect were in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and since his partner seemed so excited about it, he had agreed to watch the show with him. Right at the moment, he especially wanted to encourage Blair in anything that seemed to make him happy, no matter how small it was.

The past few months had been particularly hard on his usually upbeat partner. As if his girlfriend being murdered wasn't hard enough to deal with, that tragedy was followed by Blair's unexpectedly coming into his shamanistic powers during the poignant Myles case, almost dying again in a truck accident, then the difficult recommitment of Sentinel and Shaman in the pools at the Temple. Jim could see the cumulative stress had had a devastating effect on the sensitive younger man, even though he had been doing his best to appear as if everything were fine. But Blair had been his friend and partner for over four years, and Jim knew when not to take him at face value.

Lately, they had been having dinner together almost every night. This time, instead of shutting himself off from everyone as he normally would when in emotional pain, Blair was starting to seek out Jim's companionship. Jim had made it a point to let Blair know he would be there whenever his friend was ready or able to talk about anything. This small step on Blair's part was encouraging, but the detective knew that anything more would still have to come from Blair himself.

At that point, they needed to relax. Jim knew that juggling school responsibilities with his job as a consultant to Major Crime had left Blair Sandburg in need of unwinding, and Jim Ellison was close behind him. After dinner, Blair had announced his decision to catch up on some schoolwork before the special started, marking bluebooks, since exam week had just ended at Rainier. Checking the time on the VCR as he fed in a blank tape and set the timer, Jim went to the top of the spiral staircase and leaned over.

"Better move it, Chief! Your show is about to start."

"Okay, Jim. Be right up."

A minute later, a mass of chestnut curls appeared through the opening between the two homes, quickly followed by the rest of the academic.

As Blair crossed the room towards the couch, Jim noticed that he had lost most of his usual bounce, as well as a few pounds, but he had gained dark circles under his eyes and a few new lines, at the corners of those eyes and beside his mouth. Watching as Blair detoured into the kitchen and headed for the refrigerator, Jim was more than a little worried about his friend. Blair hadn't spoken about Sky at all; Jim thought he was repressing his feelings about her. Jim shuddered. It was the sheer cruelty of fate that made Blair find Sky's mutilated body that wintry night. To the rest of the world he presented the face of a man in the process of healing and moving on; but during rare private moments, Jim had seen the mask slip.

It was times like these that made Jim wish he had Blair's gift with words. His partner always seemed to know what to say or do to get people to open up and talk about things they normally wouldn't reveal. But when it came to himself, the usually outgoing shaman preferred to keep his fears and pain locked up tight, apparently using the 'out of sight, out of mind' method of self-healing...kinda like his roommate. Jim shook his head and sighed.

Blair returned to the living room, one opened bottle of beer in each hand. Sitting down beside the large detective, he handed him one.

"Did you remember to set the VCR to tape this?"

"Yeah, Chief, it's all set."

Blair smiled. "Good. If this is as good as I think it'll be, I may be able to use it in one of my classes."

Jim frowned. As usual, Blair was thinking about everything but himself. He hadn't even mentioned his birthday yet, and it was only three days away. Of course, one reason for that was probably the heartbreak of not having Sky to celebrate it with him. Jim rubbed his forehead absently.

"Yo. Earth to Jim. You in there?"

Jim was startled out of his musings. "Yeah, just thinking."

"You were looking kinda serious there. Everything all right?"

"Sure. Hey, look, it's starting."

Glad to have Blair distracted, Jim settled back and took a long pull on his beer. Soon both men were engrossed in the show. Jim was relieved to see that Blair had been right, it wasn't that bad: he had never realized exactly how devastating one small asteroid hitting the Earth exactly right could be. Not as good as a Jags game, but not too shabby, either, and the special effects were pretty spectacular. Of course, half the fun was watching Blair watch the show. His partner's comments, tying catastrophes together with anthrospeak about human cultures, were often more entertaining than the narrator's. It was nice to see Blair relaxed and enjoying himself for a change. The more Blair got into the show, the more relaxed Jim found himself becoming too.

The jarring ring of the phone startled both of them. They laughed together at their reaction as Jim reached for the cordless beside the couch.

"Ellison. Hi, Simon. What? Now? It's Sunday night. Can't it wait until -- ? Okay. Okay. We'll be right there."

He put the phone down again and turned to see Blair watching him.

"I take it it's a good thing we're taping this?"

"Sorry, Chief. Simon said this couldn't wait until tomorrow. Something about a hot, new case."

Sighing, Blair headed for the spiral staircase. "I'll get my jacket and meet you at the truck."

As he watched his friend's retreating form, Jim cursed silently. It looked as if something ugly was breaking, just when his friend was grabbing a rare moment of peace. Couldn't whatever it was have waited until tomorrow? Grabbing his windbreaker off the hook, Jim let the door slam behind him a bit more forcefully than necessary as he left the loft to go join his partner.


They popped out of the elevator on the sixth floor above the rotunda at police headquarters. Simon was across the hall in the Major Crime division, obviously on the lookout for them, and obviously rabid.

"My office, now, gentlemen!" Captain Banks turned his back on his men and stalked into his personal domain.

"Geesh!" Blair muttered even lower than his usual sentinel-private tones.

Jim nodded silently, grabbing Blair's brown leather jacket and hanging it up with his own blue windbreaker.

As they passed through the main room, they noticed that, apart from a few uniforms, who were eyeing them speculatively, no one else from the main Major Crime teams was working the night shift. Blair stuck his fingers in his pockets. Jim put a careful hand at the small of his partner's back, and nudged him forward. Then they were in with their boss.

Simon was perched on his desk's corner. "Sit down," he grunted around the unlit Hoya de Corona.

It had not been unlit too much earlier, however, and Blair whispered, "Dial it down!" to his sensitive sentinel, while wiping at the air with his hands.

When Jim joined in the display of disapproval, Simon looked up again. "Don't even," he warned them. "I've been working on the budget for the meeting tomorrow, I haven't eaten anything since breakfast, and the Mayor called me."

Jim and Blair caught each other's expression and did as requested. They sat, silently expectant. Simon didn't disappoint them.

"This" – Banks handed each of them accordion folders holding empty files and colored sleeves – "is now ours, or more specifically, yours." He got up, rounded the desk and with a decided 'plunk', his large frame landed in his chair.

"Calverton Cascade Imports, Industrial Street Warehouse, Arson Investigation," Blair read from the file label. There was nothing else to read.

"What is this, Captain?" Jim wanted to know, his brow drawn down. "How did a warehouse fire get to be a Major Crime?"

"Weren't there any serial killings, no mad bombers, no Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with time on their hands?" Blair asked irreverently. "We get a warehouse fire?"

"Watch it, Sandburg," Simon growled.

The two partners flapped empty manila file pockets while their captain regained his usual equanimity.

A knock came at the door. At 'Enter!', a harried policewoman in blue, whom no one recognized, tried to keep a slew of paperwork from taking flight all over Banks' office.

"Here, let me take that!" Simon reached out big hands and clamped down on the stacks of forms.

The uniform nodded and gave a small smile. "This is all Arson has. I'm checking with Forensics to see if anything new is ready. I, I don't know the cases, sir. They're not mine." She puffed at a strand of black hair that had fallen forward over her eyes.

"That's fine, officer," Simon assured her, reining in his temper. Whatever hassle was in the making, it wasn't this newbie's responsibility. "If Forensics has anything else for us, send it up. If not, ask if there are any reports yet to be made on these files, and let me know as soon as you know."

"Yes, sir," the brunette said, giving everyone in the room a brief acknowledgment, then disappearing as quickly as she had arrived.

Simon shared the wealth with Jim and Blair, who now knew what the accordion folders were for. Banks doled out two huge sheaves of papers to his men. Then they began organizing photocopies of police notes of interviews, formal police reports, forensics reports, photographs and sketches, phone messages from tipsters, and various other slips of paper, into something like order.

"Those are copies of the files on the first two Calverton Imports arson fires. There's been a third, tonight, alarm came in around 9:15." Banks sighed heavily. "The flames should be close to being out by now; at least, I would think they would be."

Jim snuck a look at his watch; it was 10:10 p.m. The flames might be out, but the site would be too hot to investigate yet. By the time he and his partner drove there, straight from Major Crime, the heat should have dissipated sufficiently to let them check the place out. Sandburg and he would definitely be on the scene early enough for the evidence to be as uncontaminated as possible.

"Yeah, but we don't do arson." Blair was quizzical. "Arson does arson. I heard about the first two fires, and I know there were big losses, but Major Crime doesn't do simple arson cases."

"Well, we do now!" Simon barked.

Blair was not fazed. "Why?" he insisted.

"Two reasons. First, tonight's fire involved a death, the warehouse watchman or custodian or someone. The other two fires were at locations where there wasn't anyone on full-time security."

"So why isn't Homicide in on this, though, instead of Major Crime?" Jim was still puzzled.

"Because," Simon nearly snapped his Corona in half, so he put it down, "Mayor Charlotte Hanratty is a sorority sister of 'Dear Marilys Tynant, as she was then', and she just knows that 'Darling Roddie and Dear Marilys' haven't had anything to do with this string of fires, which could imperil their fabric importing business." Despite the sing-song mimicry, his acid tone could have stripped the veneer off his desk.

"So that's the second reason, huh?" Blair sighed deeply. Hanratty was obviously looking ahead toward the next mayoral race; she was doing political favors calling for the personal involvement of Major Crime constantly, it seemed.

"Oh, yeah, those Calvertons," Jim said enigmatically.

Blair was a little surprised. "You know them, Jim?"

"Sorta, well, yeah. My father knows them. I've met them a few times. At the country club. If there's a country club around, of course my dad belongs to it." He shrugged. "I could pick them out of a line-up. Say hello on the street. That's about it."

Simon leaned forward. "It's an 'in', gentlemen. Mayor Hanratty is very interested in seeing that this run of fires and the death of the watchman are solved pronto. 'Dear Marilys' and 'Darling Roddie' gave her all the silk, satin and velvet she could use for her wedding party and to do up their bedroom – walls included – as shower and wedding presents. So the case is now a Major Crime, and I am handing it to my 'two finest detectives' to solve."

"Gotta love political pull," Jim said sarcastically. He began gathering his paperwork together.

"People cover their walls in velvet?" Blair was obviously appalled.

"Mayor Hanratty apparently does." Simon threw his hands up in the air.

Blair moved on to being fascinated. "And she called us your 'two finest detectives'?"

"She was obviously sleeptalking, Consultant. You're not a cop!" Simon snapped, with an index finger leveled at Dr. Sandburg.

Blair's smile was very satisfied. "Gotcha!" he said.

Simon shook his head and gave out with a reluctant smile of his own. The phone rang. There were no other Forensics reports available, and the ones from the new fire would be expedited. Simon relayed the information and continued, "Okay, here's the address of the main warehouse. That's the place that was hit tonight. You'll probably find that the scene is pretty fresh. I want you to go over every inch as soon as it's safe. Anything you can pick up will go a long way toward solving this case, Jim. I've transferred the Barley, Czardas and Tregaren files to the other detectives. This is your one and only concern now."

The sentinel nodded. "Let's move it, Chief."

They gathered their things and went.


Blair was hunched over the reports, reading salient bits out as Jim drove them to the fire scene. "Third place struck within the past six weeks. Almost nothing to report except the extent of the losses. They're humongous, Jim, in the millions already, and that's not even counting tonight's. Huh. Looks like Calverton's either really unlucky in business, or he's been doing it himself."

"Yeah, that's a lot, to be sure," Jim answered, peering into the moonless dark ahead. A rain front was blowing in, too late to do much good with the fire, but in time to make investigating that much more uncomfortable and difficult.

"Seem like a typical insurance fraud case to you?" Blair asked.

Jim was non-committal. "Can't say yet. But the payoffs from policies that big and in cash – three cash handouts within two months might bail out a flagging business."

"You think maybe Calverton salted the warehouse with cheap cottons and kept the real stuff elsewhere?"

Jim turned to look at Blair. "Possible. I should check that out. Good idea, Chief. Remind me inside, okay?"

Blair smiled to himself and nodded. "So what do you know of 'Dear Marilys and Darling Roddie', huh, Jim?"

Ellison cast his mind back to his childhood. "They're older than me. Say ten, twelve, years. I was a kid then, maybe six years old. They were out of my league, teenagers, when we met the first time. They were in tennis gear, I think."

"Where was it?"

"Salt Beach Marsh Country Club."

Blair whistled. The most exclusive of the most exclusive! A few presidents, having been lost in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest on a campaign trail or two, had golfed there. "You've been there? You're a member?" He sounded a little awed.

Jim snorted. "My father's a member and oh, yeah, Chief, I've been there. Dad dragged me along. All done up in short pants, a blazer, a tie and a stupid cap with the Club's insignia on it. I don't know why Stevie didn't come. He might have been too young to be welcome. They like it if the children have already learned to use the potty." His tone was droll.

"Huh. So what do you remember about them?"

"Nothing much. She was a pretty blonde teenager, he was a good looking dark-haired boy. There might have been a little matchmaking going on between the parents." Jim paused for a bit. "Yeah, now I think of it, it might have been some kind of 'Show off your kid and we'll see if there's anyone his or her age to marry 'em off to' swap meet."

"Man, are you serious?" Blair was aghast. "Your dad made you go so he could scope out potential brides for, what, fifteen years later? I so cannot believe that! Naomi would say it's selling your kid into marriage! Too cold. Bad, bad karma!" He shook himself all over, scattering bad thoughts.

"Well, I wouldn't expect you to understand, Chief. Naomi is hardly the marrying type, is she?" Jim tossed out coolly.

Blair's eyes flickered suddenly, but his face was blank. He said nothing.

Jim went on, "But I am serious. I'm pretty sure that was the purpose of that day, come to think of it. There were a lot of kids around, and that's not typical, you know."

"Of course," Blair murmured sarcastically to himself.

"It's never too early to get the merchant emperors together and try to arrange a merger of fortunes by way of marriage. Another way of Dad looking out for my best interests, I guess. Nothing to get hot and bothered about."

Blair looked askance at his partner and bit down hard. "Geez, Louise," he said after a second. "It sounds gruesome. When you say your dad knows everyone, I guess you mean it." Blair thought a bit. "You do, too, kinda by association or family lines or something. Weren't there any pretty, young, six year old girls to show off to you?'

Jim was pulling to a stop. "I don't remember, Chief. It's in hindsight that I'm seeing this, you know. I haven't thought about that day at the country club in decades. Plus all I really recall is how bored I was and that I wanted to go home. What I remember most distinctly is being envious of Stevie because he got to stay home and watch cartoons." Jim chuckled a little, and parked at the side of a building well removed from the commotion of fire trucks and firefighters, but already reeking of smoke and chemical dousers.

"Dial it down, buddy." Blair reached out to squeeze the detective's shoulder. "You got it where you can handle it?"

Jim sneezed and nodded. "Yeah, but when I start looking for different smells inside, you be there, okay?"

"Nowhere else I'd rather be," his back-up assured him. They unhooked their seatbelts and piled out of the truck.


The scene was ugly. A huge cinderblock warehouse in a slow part of town was now a burnt-out shell. Loading docks gaped with smoke as if dragons were within. The air was laden with particles of fabric, water vapor, and uncountable chemicals. The one smell that hadn't been added to the morass was the stench of burned human flesh. For that, both Jim and Blair were grateful.

There was a body bag on a gurney waiting to be shipped to the medical examiner's department. The partners headed toward it. A big, buff man around Jim's age, with a red face and a mien of pure misery, was standing guard.

"Detective Ellison," Jim flashed his badge, "and my partner, Blair Sandburg, our consultant in Major Crimes. The case got bumped to us."

Blair flashed his own credentials, staring from fire ladders to ambulance to gurney. He swallowed. His throat was sore.

"Ellison, Sandburg," the man returned. "Lieutenant Matt Murray, Arson. You want this case, you can have it!" A mask of relief flashed across the man's face, but it turned to grimness again. It was a black night full of gray ash and a dead body on the way to the morgue.

"Who's this, then?" Jim pointed his hand at the body bag.

"The night watchman. Died of smoke inhalation, we think. Right in his office."

"In his office?" Blair asked, startled. "Wouldn't he have come out to check on the building when the fire alarms went off?"

Murray lifted his shoulders. "You'd think, wouldn't you? I don't know. The guy's old enough that he might have had a heart attack when the alarm started ringing. The autopsy will show it if that's what happened."

"Who is he? Got a name yet?" Jim was prowling around the body bag, snapping on latex gloves. Blair watched him closely.

"Yeah, it's a Dwight Franklin, according to the wallet."

Blair bridled a trifle. "He's a Dwight Franklin, huh? Can we get a look at his face?"

Murray nodded and unzipped the top of the bag.

The unnaturally placid features of an elderly black man, with deep lines of unhappiness running down his cheeks and a net of crow's-feet at his eyes, were turned to the stars. No one said anything, and after a moment, Murray rezipped the bag. Jim motioned for him to pass the wallet over, and with it in hand, started checking the contents.

Blair thought about the man's face. It was a good face, he decided, one that had known happiness, but perhaps more sorrow, more struggle, than joy. He wished Mr. Franklin well on his journey home, without needing to know exactly where that home would be.

"Hey, Chief!" Jim beckoned to his partner. He was holding up a driver's license and a couple of business cards.

Blair pulled on his own latex gloves and went to decipher the contents of the wallet. $63.47, he noted idly. How did he get paid? Was this his usual surplus from last Friday, with more to come in a few days, or was it all he had for the month's end? The consultant filed the datum away for later use.

Jim was reading out the rest of the information the wallet had yielded. "His wife's Pearl Franklin. They live in the Walnut Cove apartments."

Blair grunted. A run-down area of town for about five blocks each way, the intersection of Walnut and Duval spoke of shabby gentility, with the emphasis on 'shabby'. People residing in that district often were on fixed incomes dating back a decade or more, and the homeowners had places crying out for renovations, but no money to do them with. A reverse mortgage lender's dream plat.

"He's 69, his employee I.D. is for Calverton's, so he's not with a private security agency." Jim fingered another card. "He's got a card for a heart specialist, Dr. Charles Weems, and two photographs."

Blair peered past Jim. One snap was of a wedding party on the steps of a church, taken in the fifties, from the style of the dresses. A bright-eyed young man barely recognizable as the deceased was standing with his arm around a young woman with love in her face just for him, as friends showered them with rice. Blair smiled gently. The other was a portrait of a child, a girl, taken at a professional studio. She would have been about five, seated carefully in a rose pink, puffed-sleeve dress and Mary Janes, against a blue velvet background. The photographer must have had talent; she was smiling genuinely, naturally, and the picture was a charmer.

Jim turned the two photos over, and Blair squinted at the inscriptions. The first had 'Our Wedding' written in pencil on the back in a strong, bold hand. The second was titled, 'Susan', in pencil also, but in a delicate, spidery tracery, as if to press the point harder would have been to injure the subject.

"Perhaps you're onto something, Chief," Jim muttered, and Blair realized for the first time that he had been voicing his thoughts. "Maybe the kid died young. We'll have to find out."

Jim took a good hard look at his partner's face. It was not only tired and compassionate, but also sad, and worse than sad. That would never do. "Now let's tackle the inside. Don't go wandering off!"

"As if," Blair shot back, annoyed, and got a bop on his curls for sassing his sentinel.

"Gotcha!" Jim said and grinned widely.

Blair whacked his arm in retaliation, but there was a reluctant upturn at the sides of his mouth.

Jim Ellison was good. The two men went to the street door with their emotions rebalanced.


Jim checked over Blair's equipment for the third time, and sighed as his guide batted down his hands. Both were securely masked against smoke and other contaminants in the air, and the sentinel finally judged the heat of the interior of the building to be so diminished as to let them enter. They had helmets with lamps attached, and Blair also carried a standard police issue flashlight; Jim relied on his sentinel vision. His palm at the back of Blair's neck, Jim took them through a quick tour of the office.

Everything everywhere was soggy, gritty and gray.

The Forensics personnel were not quite done in the inner offices, and there were photographs being taken, not by Annie, but another tech, who must have replaced her after she gave birth to her daughter. Donnie Farmer bagged and tagged evidence. Cop and consultant both hung back while the others worked, and Jim nudged Blair to direct his attention to the business effects in the outer office.

It was small, rundown and typical of a warehouse operation, no matter how pricey the inventory. The outer office housed a secretary's desk and a couple of reception chairs, a computer set-up, telephone, and filing cabinets for paperwork. Extensive bookcases lined the walls up to the ceiling, organizing plastic binders filled with samples of fabrics labeled with relevant information. Jim pulled one out at random: a hundred swatches of pure velvet in a hundred different shades. Another in Blair's hands revealed approximately forty pieces of material, all of it beaded or impearled or strewn with crystals of some sort. A third was devoted to silk brocade designs, stitched white on white, or with silver or gold threads.

Blair caught Jim's eye. "Is it real gold?" he questioned behind his mask, knowing no one could hear him but his sentinel.

Jim, of course, was limited to gesturing; he shrugged. Who knew? He could get it assayedK .

His guide interrupted the train of thought. "Okay, then, try to determine it."

Jim scowled. How the heckK ?

But Blair was persistent, and Jim knew another 'test' was coming down the line. 'An additional tool in the sentinel's crime-fighting battery', as Blair always thought of a new use for his senses. But to Jim it was just another test.

Blair's hand came to rest on Jim's left biceps. "Concentrate on the fabric, filter out the latex, and trace the thread with your fingertip, checking for metal in the weaving, 'kay?" His tone allowed no doubt, neither that Jim would refuse nor that he would fail. Blair's faith in him was complete, and Jim knew it.

So the sentinel dutifully followed his guide's advice, going deep into his senses for this new use of them, and found something interesting. The thread was gold, and the residual heat it retained, and that retained by the silver thread when he tried it, proved the metallic content. Both the feel of the metals and their temperatures were different to his touch. He raised his brows in surprise and confirmation. Blair beamed under his mask; Jim couldn't see the smile, but he surely felt its warmth. Maybe this was a new tool in his battery of crime-fighting techniques. This could work.

At Farmer's wave, they slid the binders back into their bookcases, and headed inside, passing the photographer, who waited outside in case she was needed. The larger, interior office had a modular desk/counter arrangement, with the dividers forming a kind of open cross. It was the most logical use of the space available, and all four cubicles were apparently assigned to different aspects of the warehouse operation: shipping, receiving, accounts, and management. There was an outline of a man's figure which indicated that Dwight Franklin had been found slumped forward on the management desk. A paper bag sat empty; an untouched sandwich was still in its wrapping; next to it, an oversized Thermos stood, its cap holding the dark glitter of bitter dregs of black coffee.

Blair whispered into his mask, "Bet this isn't where Roddie Calverton hangs."

Jim shook his head vigorously, and pointed upwards.

"Upstairs?" Blair guessed.

Jim shook his head again.

"Oh, upscale, right?"

Jim nodded furiously.

"Anything hit you, Jim?" Blair asked, staring around.

Jim tapped Blair for quiet, and took on the listening/scanning pose of a sentinel at work. Under constant surveillance by his partner, he prowled the inner office.

Donnie Farmer bagged the sandwich, then nudged Jim and pointed to the Thermos and the cap. He held up a single index finger, and Jim shook his head, and held up two fingers. Donnie nodded and put the cap and the bottle in separate bags. He gave Jim a thumb's-up and went to stay with the photographer as the Major Crime investigators did their job. Jim exercised his unique skills, and when he pointed out a few stray fingerprints the techs had missed, they processed them for later identification. The overhead sprinkler system appeared fine, but a gesture to Forensics put them on notice that they would be expected to pair up with Arson personnel and make certain that the appearance was not misleading. There were also the computer systems, and Blair spoke again for his sentinel's ear.

"We can't do anything about the accounts or other documentation without a warrant, can we?"

Jim drew his brows down: No. Then he threw his arms wide: Too much information, too little time, we should be moving on.

But the Forensics people nodded and tagged all the computers, taking down pertinent information as to models and LAN system.

Jim directed his partner out into the main storage area. As far as the sentinel's eye could see, metal racks held gigantic bolts of finery, now hideous from the fallout of the fire.

"Man, I feel like I'm in an episode of the X-Files," Blair commented, looking back and forth across the rows, then deeply down the length of the racks, his flashlight beam carrying through the gloom like a lighthouse at sea. "Or Indiana Jones. Think the Lost Ark is in here?"

Jim had to chuckle. The anthropologist in Blair Sandburg was always entertaining. He flapped his gloved hand at his partner's stomach, and got a mock protest in return. Then they went back to work.

Jim chose random places to stop, and at each stop, bolts of fine fabric were pulled out and examined. The things were as huge around as large-loomed carpets, and a few seemed to Jim's keen sight to be rolled with multiple pieces of the same color and grade of fabric, apparently due to the inadequacy of the size of the loom to the quantity needed. Many of the bolts were burned or scorched, but the major culprit in their ruination was smoke and water damage. The bolts on the very top shelves were casualties only of those; the ones beneath had had the opportunity to catch fire before it was put out, and there were singed edges everywhere. Not a one of the precious materials could be salvaged. It was a picture of vanities destroyed.

Jim weighed each piece of fabric in his fingers, scrutinized the pearls and crystals, felt the metallic threads for heat. He pushed a final bolt back into place and with a low pass of his hand, condemned the lot to waste.

"Okay, okay," Blair said to Jim alone. "How about how the fire started? Got any ideas on that?"

Jim swung around, scenting the air currents, in and about, as best he could with his mouth and nose covered, then lowered his mask.

"Hey, hey!" Sandburg protested loudly. "No subjecting yourself to weird chemicals and stuff while I'm around." He pulled the mask up and when Jim pushed him away good-naturedly, he began to rant about insane risks some people take, like handcuffing themselves to helicopters, swallowing over-the-counter cold medications in double doses while having no idea what their effects would be, and deliberately breathing in contaminated air.

But Jim was only paying attention with half an ear. There were odors on the air.

He got the telltale, unfocussed look on his face that meant he was after something specific.

"Whoa! Jim! What's up?" Blair dinned into Jim's ear, hand clamped down on his sentinel's wrist. "Don't zone out on me here, 'kay?"

Jim drew his senses back to the immediate and looked down at his partner with a smile. He jerked his head toward the front and both men made their way quickly out of the building.

Blair yanked off his mask. "So, what? Tell me, man!" He was almost dancing in his impatience.

Jim had already removed his own mask, and was brushing off the detritus that had fallen on his partner, to said partner's obvious annoyance. But it was fun to tease Blair, and so Jim kept brushing.

Blair finally had had enough. "No more!" he announced decisively, and leaped back, out of Jim's reach. If there hadn't been an ambulance still on site to remind them that the real tragedy had nothing to do with the desecration of material beauty, Jim might have kept it up, but as it was, they both knocked it off.

"Give!" the guide commanded.

Jim coughed as he drew in the night air, humid and laden with particulates, and Blair was instantly back in reach, his arm around his friend's back, giving him a solid thump-thump-thump.

Jim kept coughing.

"Oh, man, I knew you'd breathe in something toxic!" Sandburg swiped at the windbreaker, clearing the ash and particulates away as Jim had done for him.

It was Jim's turn to fend off his partner's solicitousness. "I'm okay, Chief. Just getting rid of the smoke." He coughed and cleared his throat, and two pairs of blue eyes met to adjudge the situation. The darker ones blinked and accepted the assurance; Jim was left alone to groom his own jacket, and Blair was off his case.

But Blair's foot was tapping, and Jim had no reason to hold back the information he had gathered. "I checked for the scents of fabrics, Chief, like you suggested."

"Yeah? And?" The foot tapped faster in anticipation. Riverdance would have been proud.

"All the fabric was either pure silk, satin or velvet, or some kind of specialty weave. There might have been a small cotton content, but not enough to suggest that he'd switched anything for the purposes of insurance fraud."

"Huh!" Blair considered this. "What about the fire itself, Jim? What did you pick up there?"

Jim steered the two of them toward the truck, and kept conversing. "The accelerant was good, old-fashioned gasoline, and the stuff was splashed more around the floors and lower racks and stuff, pretty much randomly, but all towards the back."

"Why wouldn't the night man have smelled it?"

"Good question." Jim thought a bit. "He could have been in on it, that's happened before, but it may be that he hadn't gotten around to that part of his rounds yet. Or the arsonist waited him out and laid a trail after he'd gotten back to the front office. This place is huge, Chief, and with the gasoline soaking deeply into these rolled-up fabrics, I don't think the smell would have been as obvious as you'd expect."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "Geez, if it was done for hire, it sure must have been a cheap and easy hit."

Jim scoured the scene. There were onlookers everywhere, and cameras pointed at them all. "Yeah, could be." He stopped for a moment, and Blair turned around to see where he had gone. "I smelled something else, Chief, but I only got a faint whiff before you decided my health was more important than the case." He bit back a chuckle and coughed again.

"Your health is paramount, Jim," Blair told him. "No case is worth your being hurt!"

Jim looked at his sincere, and most earnest, partner and thought of all the times and ways Blair himself had been hurt in the course of their investigations of crimes. "Yeah, no case is worth your being hurt," he echoed.

They were about to climb into the truck when a new arrival made them change their minds.


A gray Silver Seraph had swung noiselessly up and through the police barrier as if it were not there. The driver sprang from his seat and strode for the building, his face set and taut, tuxedo tails streaming behind him as the wind off the ocean picked up.

Jim and Blair stood back in the shadows and watched.

"What the hell is going on?" the newcomer demanded, in tones that Pavarotti would have envied. "Who's in charge? I insist on seeing whoever is in charge!"

Matt Murray chewed his cud a bit. The body bag had been loaded into the ambulance for delivery to the morgue. The man shouting down the building had to be its owner. But his lack of concern for whoever had died that night had not impressed anyone.

"You!" An arm flew out and pinpointed Murray. "Who are you and what do you have to do with this fire?"

Murray sucked his tongue again, apparently thinking. "I'm nobody, and I have nothing to do with this fire any longer." He brushed ashes from his cuffs.

"What is this doing to my finish!" The man glanced back over his shoulder at the Rolls. "Marilys!" he bellowed. "Get the car out of this, this, this stew before the chemicals ruin the paint job!"

A blonde head showed itself over the steering wheel. A second and smaller one was beside it, with big eyes taking in the desperate scene. Then the car door was shut, the transmission put in gear, and the Rolls was gone with barely a whisper.

'Finally!" the man fumed, as if the whole population of Cascade were standing in the way of his getting anything done. He turned back to Murray. "You may be 'no one', but I want your name and badge number!"

Murray, smirking, gave the information.

"Charlotte will hear of your discourtesy, Mr. Murray! Then you will know what being 'no one' really means!"

Murray lost the grin in an instant. The idiot in the monkey suit was suddenly a very real threat. Anyone who knew Mayor Hanratty well enough to call her 'Charlotte' had pull.

Blair poked Jim. "That Roddie Calverton?"

Jim nodded silently.

"I can see why someone might want to burn down his buildings."

Jim hushed him and bent down, close to his ear, one palm held up flat. "Let me take this one, Chief." He straightened and took a bearing on the businessman.

Blair's eyes kindled for a few seconds, but he stuck his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders against the raw night chill, and let his partner do his thing.

"Roddie, Roddie! What a shame that we have to meet again like this!" Jim was sorely sincere. His hand was extended for perhaps half a second, and then withdrawn. "No, no. I forgot I had the gloves on. But I'm investigating and I'd only get you soiled from the muck in there." He grimaced, oozing with concern.

Roddie Calverton stopped dead at hearing his name used so familiarly. Hauteur overtook him as Jim spoke, and then one eyebrow went up a trifle. "Jimmy? Little Jimmy Ellison? Is that you?"

Jim's grimness held inner laughter. Of course it was; Calverton had insisted that Charlotte Hanratty send him out. But that wasn't how the society game was played, and Jim always played to win. "Yes, it's me, Jim Ellison. I must say, Roddie, you do look well." An invitation to an affable tete-a-tete.

L. Roddie Calverton was five feet, ten inches of elegance, the finest of garments gracing the best-kept fifty-something body in the Pacific Northwest. His black eyes snapped with fire and shrewdness, and his dark hair was beautifully cut to display the thin white streak he always referred to as the result of his 'war injury, shrapnel, you know', without ever disclosing which war he had served in or when. Jim was relatively certain it was natural, and not man-made. The closest Roddie had ever come to war service was his military academy days, according to Jim's knowledge.

"Well, you know, one tries," Roddie said modestly. He began to put his own hand out to shake Jim's, but turned it into a pass at grooming his hair instead. "So you're the detective in charge? Finally, I believe we're going to get somewhere!" He clapped his hands together as if for warmth.

Jim noticed, and took advantage of the opening. "Come along, Roddie," he said, stripping off his latex gloves and dropping them where he stood. He knew he would hear about that from Sandburg later. Forget later: a string of heated admonitions were already headed his way. He waved a hand negligently in the air, to quiet his indignant partner and as a suggestion of the way he and Roddie should walk. "You shouldn't be out in this miasma any longer. I wore a mask inside. It's a ghastly mess in there."

Roddie Calverton was still, the genial colleague and the blustering superior both gone. Jim recognized the mood that had replaced them. Calverton was a predator; let anyone who got between him and his, beware! Jim was not as impressed as Calverton might have wanted him to be, but he went back to squiring the man out of the limelight, letting the night noises of the crowd and the emergency personnel cover his silence.

They fetched up three blocks away, half the distance to Calverton's Rolls. Roddie was babbling about the car finish and the corrosive chemicals that could ruin it – not the lungs of the firefighters and others who worked in the area – but correcting the faults of his suspects wasn't one of Jim's jobs. He just wanted an 'amiable' chat.

A sodium lamp threw odd yellow rays onto their faces. "What can you tell me about the security arrangements at the sites that were struck, Roddie?"

Calverton was in a half-daze. "What security? The first was in a mall, on another Sunday evening, ah, six weeks ago tonight."

"That would be mid-to-late April?"

"The 14th, I think. The place should have been secure, but there are theatres running movies overhead of my location, and the door and stairs that lead to it, lead to the outlet too. There aren't any bars on the windows; people steal jewelry, not big bolts of lace! So it was a standard plate glass interior door with lock and key for inside the mall, and the metal outer door for deliveries could only be opened from within. As for the other warehouse, it was the same as the rest. We had money in the sprinkler system, not the security arrangements; standard locks and keys have always been the way we went, and so many different people have needed access, we have a lot of keys floating around out there." He shrugged.

"No security cameras anywhere?" Jim asked.

"No, no. Why waste the money?" Despite the destruction around him, Roddie was obviously still positive he had made the correct business decision on that point.

"How about the night watchman here?" Jim tossed his head in the direction of the main warehouse.

"Same as the others, except that we felt it was in a largely abandoned area, with no good police patrols, because there aren't, Jimmy," Roddie stated genially, "and since our fleet of delivery trucks is housed there, and because there is always the threat of vandalism, we thought a guard on patrol would be sufficient. He could call in an alarm, if necessary. I never foresaw this! Perhaps it would have been a good idea to get a dog. He'd asked for a guard dog a couple of months back, but it seemed like more trouble than it was worth." Roddie went into a deep state of concentration.

"Tell me, Roddie, how bad has...." Jim was cut off by a curt 'Not here!'

Roddie Calverton paced in a circle and then said, "Here's my card. See me tomorrow morning at 10. We can talk then. I needed stop by to see the situation for myself, that's all. It's very disturbing to me. Very disturbing indeed. But I have my family with me, and we need to go home."

Ah! "I thought I recognized her. It was Marilys Tynant you married, wasn't it?"

False bonhomie swirled in the gathering mists. "Yes, yes, it was. We were out at a performance of the Coppelia tonight. Marilys was so looking forward to it; she's had the tickets for nearly a month now; Jehanne Cressy was dancing. But between being late to arrive and getting the call about this fire, we hardly saw a moment of it. Marilys is terribly disappointed."

If it had not been for his Rangers training, Jim might have slipped at that point. Missing a ballet was hardly the tragedy the death of the watchman was. He swallowed the bile and continued his ingratiation. "And your daughter? I expect she was looking forward to it as well."

Roddie Calverton was startled, but then he chuckled. "No, no, that's my son in the car. Lloyd Rodney. He does look very like Marilys, I'll give you that! But he's a boy all the way. Kept us late to the theater, with all his best tricks. He certainly wasn't enamored of the show tonight; he'd have rather been playing computer games, I wager, but it was opening night. We had to make an appearance. Mind you, I did try to talk him into believing it was his birthday present, but he was too smart for that."

As Roddie's chuckles rose, Jim felt a stab of pity for the man's son. At least William Ellison had not dragged Steven and him to the ballet for appearance's sake. He wondered when, or if, Naomi had ever done the same to Blair, and was certain that she had. Only, Naomi would have considered it a cultural treat, and a young Blair might just have been convinced by her arguments. Jim felt a second stab, sympathy pains for his partner, on general grounds; his partner sometimes seemed brainwashed by the New Age ideas his mother lived by. Did you ever get the chance to think for yourself, Chief? he fumed. Suddenly, he could not get away from the entrepreneur fast enough.

"Well, then, ten a.m. at your offices." Jim glanced at the card Calverton gave him. "We'll talk then."

"Yes, indeed," Roddie agreed. "It will be good to talk over old times with you, Jimmy!"

Calverton made haste to his car, Jim Ellison shaking his head at every step. If only he and Blair could return home. But there was one more duty to perform that night, and it fell to them as leads on the arson files. He turned and walked slowly back toward Blair.


"Are you sure we look okay?" Blair hissed, his hands trying to tame his unruly curls with a leather thong. He seemed to be all fingers and no thumbs.

Jim took the task from him, gathering up strands frizzed by humidity, and caught them firmly in the band. "There you go, Chief. And we both look fine. Wish we could have done something about the smoke, though." He made a face. "I'm sorry about that, but I don't think we should ask this lady to wait while we catch a couple of showers."

Blair gulped. "No, we shouldn't. But it's so late, going on for midnight...."

"We'll stay until family or friends can arrive. If she has no one, we'll call in Victim's Services. We have to do this, Blair. He worked the late shift, and she probably kept the same hours he did. For all we know, she's been sitting glued to her television set all night, waiting for news."

"Okay, okay," Blair set his shoulders. He stepped forward and knocked lightly at Apartment 203, Walnut Cove Apartments.

Jim had an ear out, and mouthed, "She's coming."

The door opened and a tiny black woman in her seventies, by the looks of her, was blinking up at them. She held a white cotton handkerchief with tatted edgings in a trembling hand. A stray lock of pure white hair brushed against her jaw. "I know why you've come," she faltered from behind her dainty cotton shield. "I saw the news. He's not coming home, is he?" The trembling became shaking.

Blair saw her knees starting to give way and cried out sharply. He jumped forward quickly to hold her up as she began to crumple.

Jim was at her other side, and between them they got Pearl Franklin to a couch before she could fall down. All around were bits and pieces of two people's meager lives together: the lounger with the cracked Naugahyde, the TV trays beside the television, the lifetime photographs of the man who had died, his wife beside him, and those of a little girl who never grew older in the snapshots.

Blair crouched down, chafing a dry, crepy hand, while Jim got a glass of water from the kitchen. Mrs. Franklin was breathing in sobs, but she wasn't crying yet. Slowly, she brought her breath under control, sipped at the water, and finally looked at Jim with a question in her eyes.

"I'm Detective Ellison, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg," Jim started.

"Oh, I know who you are!" Mrs. Franklin said intensely. "Dwight and me, we watch the news all the time. We were so glad your name was cleared, young man!"

Blair blushed.

"And to think of all the things you can do," Pearl marveled at Jim. "My, my, but you are blessed, aren't you, boy?"

It was Jim's turn to blush.

But they hadn't told her yet, and so Blair choked it out. "We're very sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Franklin, but Mr. Dwight Franklin died tonight. He was your husband, wasn't he?"

Pearl Franklin gasped. "'Was'! 'Was'! Oh, dear Lord, oh, dear Lord, I thought I was ready to hear it, but I'm not, I'm not." She began to cry helplessly. The lacy handkerchief was sopping; the partners gave her their large linen ones, then scoured the small flat for boxes of tissues. It looked as if she would cry forever.

"He didn't suffer," Blair assured her, quite willing to perjure his immortal soul everlastingly if that's what it took to get the lady through the night. "It looks as if he had a heart attack. He had a bad heart, didn't he?"

"Oh, oh, oh," Ms. Franklin sobbed, trying to catch her breath. "His heart? It was his heart? Oh, my. We always knew it would be his heart. We didn't know when, but we knew. His heart. My heart, too. He held my heart, my Dwight." She began to wail.

The friend could not arrive before morning. Jim phoned the Franklins' minister, and Victims' Services. A good look around the one-bedroom apartment told the story; the Franklins were barely surviving on his pension from twenty years back, and what he brought in as a security guard. Pearl Franklin would need help in a lot of ways.

After it was over, and they were in the truck again, Blair leaned back heavily. "What now, Jim?"

Jim sighed. "Now we go home and try to sleep, Chief."

"Sleep? After that?" Blair's own eyes were brighter than usual.

Jim slumped against the wheel, his brow on crossed wrists. "It never gets easy. It never should. But that – that was bad. Now we go home and try to sleep, Chief," he echoed hollowly.

Blair took in the bone-weariness of his sentinel. "Want me to drive?" he asked softly.

"When pigs fly," Jim countered.

"Guess what, Jim? Naomi bought you a ticket to Sedona. Oink, oink!" Blair flapped his elbows.

"Still no go, Sandburg," Jim came back at him, but there was a glimmer of a smile underneath the mock-fierce tones.

It was labored humor, but it was all they had to go on, the willingness to pull together when times got as tough as these were, and tougher. It would have to be enough.

It wasn't even 1 a.m. yet.


Act Two


"I guess this is it," Blair said, staring at the grimy red brick made rosier than it deserved to be by the Monday morning sun. "I'm feeling overdressed." He pulled at the collar of the French cuffed shirt, very happy he'd refused Jim's near-order of a silk tie too. His hair was gelled and the curls dragged back in an unforgiving metal clasp. He wasn't wearing his earrings.

"First time in your life, huh?" Jim laughed at Blair's flinty look. "Never mind. You look good in my cashmere sweater. I, of course, look better."

"Of course," Blair agreed a moment later, with a smidgen of a smile. They were both dressed as preppily as possible in almost matching navy sweaters, white dress shirts, and decent slacks and loafers, but Jim was born to the look, while Blair wasn't, to the consultant's great relief and satisfaction. "Let's go then," he suggested, and so they went.

Outside, the square, squat building was very unassuming, but the main offices of the Calverton Cascade Corporation were as plush and tasteful as any interior decorator could have wished, and anything but understated. On the top floor, the walls were hung with deep blue velvet from ceiling to floor; fine sheer lawn shielded the windows, and under indirect lighting, a lobby-sized silk carpet from the east, apparently loomed to exact specifications, glinted with glowing golds, subtle reds and living greens. The huge brass-trimmed, cherry-wood desk, behind which sat a Jane Fonda look-alike (only thirty years younger), was barely a speck in the level-wide acre of fabric. Sandburg and Ellison stopped off the direct elevator to enter the magnificence, and both were a little overwhelmed. Jim began to sneeze.

"Turn it all down a notch!" Blair hissed at his partner's back, staring from wall to wall, ceiling to floor, then over to the receptionist. He could smell her perfume from the elevator car, and had no doubt what had caused Jim's sneezing. 'Poison' was certainly appropriately named. He put a hand out to stay the sentinel and point, letting Jim retreat from the chemical barrage.

"We're here to see Mr. Calverton," the police consultant said quickly. Automatically, he had reached for a business card to hand over, but came up dry. The new ones with his standing as 'Dr. Blair Sandburg, Ph.D., Consultant, Major Crimes, CPD' weren't ready for use yet. He settled for fishing out his handkerchief and offering it to Jim, a kinetic obfuscation.

"Your names, please," the automaton said in a perfectly modulated voice. She had to be an automaton. There was absolutely nothing at the desk save a phone unit, and whoever was the switchboard operator, it wasn't the lady dressed in blinding white silk. Blair wondered what she did all day long. Just look good, probably, he concluded. As good as the rest of the room. She was furniture.

Jim jumped into the pause caused by Blair's musings. "Tell Mr. Calverton that Detective Ellison and his partner are here to see him."

Blair shot him a quick glance, and carefully blanked his face.

"If you'll take a seat," the woman gestured at the chairs like a commercial actress at a top of the line refrigerator. They were yet another chance to show off the merchandise; each was in a gorgeous pattern, floral or geometric or traditional or artistic; each was dripping with color and comfort. The hands prickled with the need to stroke the walls, the feet wanted to kick off their shoes and socks to stroll through lushness, the eyes longed to trace every scroll and angle of the beautifully woven upholstery.

Blair unobtrusively popped Jim in the arm. "Down another notch, 'kay?" he suggested.

It was enough to recall the sentinel to his duty. "Just let him know we're here," Jim said, flashing his badge. "He's expecting us."

The woman looked unimpressed, but picked up the receiver and whispered reverently into it. Jim clocked the conversation on both sides, and turned to Blair. "Don't make yourself comfortable, Chief. He's itching to see us."

Blair, who was about to tuck himself into a green brocade club chair sewn with gold thread, shot a smile at Jim and responded 'sotto voce', "Testing the merch, man. Testing the merch." He rested his body into the seat, took its measure, and squirmed and bounced to find the best fit, and laid his hands on its arms, stroking down the length of fabric.

"When're you ever likely to get another chance, huh?" Jim was amused. "Knock yourself out, Ch—"

But the sentence was never finished. From a trompe l'oeil doorway masquerading as solid wood, L. Roddie Calverton swooped upon them in a dignified flurry of pinstriped silk, and both men from Major Crime felt inordinately underdressed. "Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" His hand was in Ellison's, then Sandburg's, within seconds, a secure, confident, practiced grip. "Little Jimmy Ellison!" So the scene from the night before would be repeated, only on Roddie Calverton's turf this time. The false satisfaction in rediscovering an old friend was well rehearsed too, although 'Little Jimmy' was a good three inches taller than his boyhood acquaintance. The man reached out and clapped 'Little Jimmy' on the shoulder, razoring a big, friendly, toothy grin at him. But there were wrinkles at his forehead and a slight fever of sweat caught the lights.

"Roddie," Jim replied heavily. It was a word reeking of sententiousness and gravity, a hail-brother-well-met-in-this-time-of-our-common-struggle word.

Blair had to turn aside with a cough.

Roddie, however, didn't seem to notice anything off. "And your" – 'little' hung unspoken in the air – "friend is?"

"Dr. Sandburg," Jim returned briskly. "We're investigating the fires together, you know." Dammitall, the man had demanded the personal attention of the best team from Major Crime, using the mayor and her political hopes to get them; disingenuousness did not become him, in the detective's opinion.

Roddie's countenance fell. "Yes, sad, sad thing. The death of" – again a missing word, but this time the name was not in Calverton's vocabulary – "that poor man," he sighed to cover up his stumble as if it were from grief, "I can't understand such depravity." He shuddered delicately, and ushered Ellison and Sandburg into his private office.

"Hold my calls, Jennifer," he said, his eyes raking the girl in the white silk dress. Up and down and up again. "Oh, and pull up the employee file for –"

"Mr. Franklin, sir?" the automaton covered his slip.

"Yes, thank you, Jennifer. I can always rely on you." Roddie's voice was very warm.

Jennifer caught his eye briefly, blossoming red coyly, and nodded, averting her gaze to the phone set. Roddie's eyes narrowed and his lips twitched.

Then the men were inside and Jim and Blair were choosing between red silk paisley and gold moiré on their chairs, before one of the three mahogany and gold-appointed desks, in a velvety, verdant green room. The other two secretaires were a computer set-up richer than anything Bill Gates had ever had, no doubt, and an escritoire with the usual items: pen holder, note paper, envelopes, plus an eruption of photographs strewn over its upper ledge. Jim took a quick peek at the photos. Sure enough, in them next to Roddie was Marilys, still blonde and far more beautiful than she had been as a teenager. She must have had a great plastic surgeon, Jim thought as he passed on. He recognized the small child with them in a few shots as the one he had seen the night before, a blond boy, more like Marilys than like Roddie, but certainly their son Lloyd Rodney. The baby photos had become tot photos and first-day-of-school photos, and last-day-of -school photos, and then all much alike, but the child was not the showcased subject in them. He was an adjunct to Marilys being maternal and Roddie being present. Poor little rich kid. Jim's lips tautened.

Blair was blinking at the beautiful prints of sailing ships all around the room. One in particular had pride written all over it, from its huge gilt frame to its placement, hanging on the wall immediately behind Roddie's desk. Its brass nameplate proclaimed the sketch to be of 'Calverton's "Constance" Clipper', apparently the flagship of the fleet that built the import business. It spoke of the united forces of many generations of men who had faced the seas to build a solid business, one now under attack. A small squeak of a castor brought him back to the present. He took the red paisley chair Jim had left for him.

Roddie had chosen the desk chair at his business desk, rustling back against a fine piece of dyed green suede. "Are you comfortable there?" he asked hospitably, with a hint of discomfort of his own.

Jim and Blair looked at him.

"We could use the table, if you like." He waved at a large mahogany table with chairs to match, all kitted out in pleasant red, green and blue waves.

They all looked at the table, and then Jim and Blair turned back to stare at Roddie.

"How about coffee?" he offered brightly. At last he knew what to suggest.

Jim was trying to belay that idea vocally and Blair with his hands, while Roddie intercommed Jennifer to serve them. He was in his element, playing host rather than criminal investigation interviewee, and Jim was content to allow the false camaraderie to carry them through their talk.

Blair was content to rely on Jim's innate lie detector skills, and sat back to watch the action.

"So, Roddie," Jim started, "you've had three fires now, at different locations."

Blair was ogling the sprinkler jets overhead.

Roddie gulped. "Yes, three," he said in an even tone, or so it must have seemed to Blair. Jim heard the quiver in it and wondered what it meant. But the entrepreneur did not go on.

Instead, Calverton stood and began to pace back and forth behind his desk, hands clasped at his back. "I need these fires to stop, Jimmy!" He turned on them suddenly. "You've got to make them stop, Jimmy!" His large, well-manicured fingers came down splayed over the leather blotter of the desk's top. "They're going to ruin me financially, and, by God, I will not allow anyone to ruin me or my family like this!"

With that, he dropped back into the suede's embrace, his wrist shadowing his face.

Jim waited and watched. This was becoming interesting. Calverton was not only using emotion to bludgeon them with, but feeling it too.

Blair took a hand in things. "I understand that this is a difficult time for you," he said diplomatically, as if it were a member of the Calverton brood who had died the night before and not a nameless night watchman. "But perhaps if you could walk us through the other fires."

Calverton was distracted by the question. "Ah, yes, uhK Dr. Sandburg," he stammered out. Not good with names of the help, obviously. "The other fires. Well, the first, as I told Jimmy, was in our main retail store here in Cascade. There wasn't any evidence I know of to indicate it was arson rather than some kind of spontaneous combustion, which can happen with odd electrical fields and weather effects. Silks and velvets are so very flammable, you know."

His audience murmured appropriately.

"The claim was processed as spontaneous combustion, though we all suspected arson. The first fire claim in all my family's years of business in Cascade! A century and more of fine imported fabrics, and that fire destroyed our record for trouble-free business dealings!"

So that was how he thought of a string of fires ending in a bystander's death, as a challenge to his business record. Blair veiled his eyes to hide his contempt.

Roddie took it as a motion of sympathy. "It's all right; I'll get over it," he said bravely.

Jim took a quick glance at his partner and intervened before Blair could explode. "The second, Roddie? What about it?"

The businessman leaned back, tilting the seat and steepling his hands before him. He stuck his chin out, and looked as pensive as he could. Rocking, rocking, he sat rocking. "The second was in one of our secondary warehouses. We take shipments from overseas straight from the docks to a main warehouse, and cut them up and send the pieces on to the various secondary warehouses, regional ones, you know. They distribute the materials to our sales outlets all over the U.S. The biggest bolts of fabric at the main warehouse here, in Cascade (you must have seen them last night), are the size we get in from Asia. If there's a special order, we send it on to the couturier who ordered it, of course, but more general use fabrics, like a good sapphire blue velvet or black moiré, can be found in any of our Calverton Cascade retail outlets. There was nothing destroyed in the second fire that isn't available in the other warehouses."

"And last night's fire was different?" Blair inquired, genuinely intrigued.

"Yes. This is one of our three main shipping warehouses, where the imports go right off the piers. The fire yesterday ravaged the entire inventory, inventory that cannot be replaced now. We're going to lose the market!"

Jim and Blair were both taken aback by the man's despair.

Calverton made haste to explain. "Couturiers plan months ahead in the fashion industry. As do ordinary garment makers." He began ticking off on his fingers. "We're supplying fabric now for winter and early spring. Ignore the buds of May; take a look in a clothier's window: what you'll see today is pretty much the end of the summer clothing supplies. This month we were supposed to be shipping a great deal of warm black velvet, green and crimson silk for Christmas, and then into the spring colors, apple green, lilac, mauve, and heliotrope, for next year's fashions." He sighed. "This is a catastrophe for my business. My customers will all go elsewhere for their supplies, my fabrics won't be at the next Oscars ceremonies, and I want it stopped !"

L. Roddie Calverton slammed a ham-sized fist onto leather, jolting Blair back with its ferocity, and jettisoning Jim to the edge of his seat as the instinctive protector of his partner. Calverton pierced both sentinel and guide with a gimlet gaze. "You will stop it," he said so softly that it was almost a whisper, bent forward into their faces. "See to it that you do, gentlemen."

Jim's face was Medusan, but whatever he might have said in reply was lost as Jennifer Fake-Fonda knocked humbly.

"Enter," Calverton called out, swiveling his chair to face the wall as he regained his composure. "Ah," he said, swiveling back as the scents of an excellent medium-roast Kona, red hibiscus tea and clover honey trailed through the room. "The tea?" he asked with a lifted eyebrow and a slightly quirked lip.

"For Dr. Sandburg," Jennifer soughed, swaying with her silver tray to the table, and leaning over it to give the men a view of an exquisite, white silk-wrapped derriere. "I understand he prefers tea?" She swung back up gracefully and turned to ask a question with her eyelids.

"Uh, yes," Blair coughed out, ruefully recalled from his private imaginings. "I do." He wondered how she had known.

"Excellent, excellent!" Roddie beamed.

Oh, duh! Roddie had had them checked out.

Jennifer beamed back, and the temperature in the room rose a degree before Roddie managed to direct her to pour out the beverages. This entailed more bending and soughing; no one spoke until all had been served at their original seats, eschewing the table, and Jennifer hula'd her way back out again.

"Spectacular," Blair commented, a Wedgwood cup in his grasp.

The two older men frowned at him.

"The tea," he began to burble, "the blend, I've never had anything quite like it before, it's wonderful, where did you get it, and the honey is good too." He subsided; that seemed like enough noise to get him off the hook.

Jim took over, pityingly. "So, who do you suspect, Roddie?" he asked at last.

Roddie turned purple as his swallow went down the wrong way. "Sorry, sorry," he sputtered. He had to mop himself up with a gold-edged linen napkin, and grimaced at the damage to his perfectly tailored lapels. "I?" He looked up again. "I have no suspects, Jimmy. I really don't know anyone who would want to destroy my business. There aren't a great number of people supplying the kind of fabric Calverton Cascade supplies. I don't like the idea of my clients going elsewhere for a season or two, but I still have connections, and orders for specially designed materials, which will come in from the east week after week after week. So I don't think there are any business rivals to blame." He broke off and chewed his lower lip, apparently racking his brain.

He tossed off the rest of his cup of coffee, and declared abruptly, "I don't know who's doing this, Jimmy. I really don't. But I won't stand for it any longer. This could ruin my business operation, and I will not have Calverton Cascade Corporation, the entire Calverton complex of interests, at the mercy of whoever is trying to destroy it! A business my great-grandfather founded with his own merchant vessels sailing to the east in the 1800's! A business each heir in each generation received as a sacred trust, and one which I personally have worked like a dog to expand. You will have to look hard for this criminal, Jimmy. I can't give you any leads; the whole industry is stable, and there aren't any rumors about my competitors being in trouble. Here, take this card" – Roddie held out a gilded scrap of cardboard, which Jim twitched from him -- "and call Wallace at the bank about my business accounts; I'll phone him immediately and authorize him to answer any questions you may have. He can assure you that my financial situation, up until last night, was excellent." Calverton was shaking his head. "I'm as baffled about this as anyone could be. But my son will inherit a business that is a proud and successful one, no matter what it takes to safeguard it! The Calvertons will not stand for this abuse any longer!"

He rose up grandly. The interview was apparently over. Jim and Blair relinquished their cups, and began to leave. Blair lingered at the escritoire, having just caught sight of the family portraits. Roddie Calverton noticed.

"Yes, Dr. Sandburg," he announced with satisfaction. "That's my family. My wife, Marilys – you remember her, don't you Jimmy? From the club?"

Little Jimmy nodded agreement.

"And my son, Lloyd Rodney Calverton the fifth. He's ten now. Eleven the day after tomorrow."

"A fine-looking boy," Blair vouchsafed to the father politely. "Very intelligent-looking."

"He'll never win any trophies for football or basketball," Roddie observed dispassionately of his small-built son, "but he makes up for it with brains. Ha! He got them from me. He'll do me and Calverton Cascade Corporation proud one day." The man puffed out his chest, then Calverton recalled himself to the present, and his glance drifted past the police consultant. He moved suddenly, interposing himself between the partners and blocking Blair from view with his own body. "Say, Jimmy, why don't you drop by the club some Sunday, and meet my family?" The invitation clearly did not extend to Sandburg, whose eyes were snapping in the outer darkness. "We don't see you there often enough."

You don't see me there ever, Jim thought wryly. He waved a negligent hand.

"Little Debbie Beauville has her eye on Lloyd Rodney, the young vixen!" Roddie gleamed at the partners. "She's only nine years old, but it looks like a match to me, and to her father. You know Pierre Beauville, don't you? Sure, you do. Used to play golf at Salt Marsh Beach all through the summers; you must have known him; he's about your age. But he started his family earlier." Roddie ran a nail along the gold picture frame of a portrait of his wife. "Marilys and I decided to enjoy our lives to the fullest before we had to settle down and start our family. We've been everywhere, done everything, and now we're thinking about the next generation and the one after that. I tell you, gentlemen, my son will inherit CCC in fine fettle – or I'll have your heads."

The threat filled the room as Big Jim turned for the door, Blair, somewhat embarrassed in his wake. When they entered the outer office, Jennifer jumped up and, almost throwing the Franklin file at Blair, high-heeled around the desk to her employer's side. "Oh, Mr. Calverton. Your suit coat!" She reached out but did not quite touch.

"Get me the other one, will you?" Calverton said with a too-warm smile.

"Certainly, sir," she simpered, and then gestured to a man ignored in a corner. "Mr. Marshall is here to see you."

"Marshall!" Calverton rumbled dangerously.

"Don't even start," the bald black man replied. "You know why I'm here."

Jim and Blair were busy making themselves inconspicuous at the elevator bank, dipping into the employee file Jennifer had produced.

Calverton apparently thought that they were non-existent, now that he had done with them, and as Jennifer tripped off, he showed the suspicious Mr. Marshall into his office.

"What's going on in there, Jim?" Blair demanded to know, all but tugging on his sentinel's sweater sleeve. There were very noticeable muffled shouts and grunts and thumpings happening behind the closed door to the senior Calverton's office.

"Shh!" Jim was listening hard, his head back, his eyes not quite focused on anything in his field of vision, his mouth slightly open. By the time the elevator pinged at them, Jim smiled at his partner, and shoved him into the cab, even though the quarrel was obviously ongoing.

The door whooshed shut, and Blair nearly bounced to the roof with questions. "What do you think? Is he on the up and up? Who's Marshall, and how does he fit into all this? Come on, Jim, give already!" He whacked his best friend hard on the biceps.

Jim laughed out loud. "Marshall is his insurance broker, Chief. By the sounds of it, Calverton really is in a fix."

"How so?"

"Too many claims, too large losses, in too short a period."

"Ouch!" Blair cottoned on. "They're gonna pull his insurance for the whole operation, like the insurers threatened to do with Sweetheart."

Jim grimaced. He did not like being reminded of the near-death experience of his beloved truck. "Yeah, well, if they do, Chief, any loss from anything anywhere is going to come right out of his pocket. It's not only the carrier he's had so far. Marshall's been telling him he's called every insurer in the business, and everyone's refusing to cover CCC."

Blair laid his arms out along the metal railing of the elevator car and struck his head back, lightly, against the wall. "Well, it looks as if he's out of the running. No one but a maniac would burn down his own business for the insurance money if there isn't any! Calverton is a real jerk, but he's not stupid when it comes to business, is he?"

"A jerk a thousand times over, but not about business," Jim agreed.

"So he's doing that whole marriage-making thing already, too. I never heard of this Pierre guy but he's got to have bucks if Roddie is thinking of pairing up their kids. You heard of this Pierre guy, Little Jimmy?" Blair asked innocently.

"Yeah, and he's rich. He's a couple of years older than I am, and I caddied for him once, Little Blair," Big Jim replied. "Keep it up and you'll be lucky to be able to caddy for the rich folks in town." He noogied Blair's head.

"Ow, ow!" Blair protested, flapping at Jim's arms until he stopped it. "I guess I've been put in my downscale, trailer trash place, huh?" He sent a quick glance Jim's way.

Jim began laughing. Blair's cheeks burned. Jim chuckled as the elevator arrived; they debouched, and headed for the parking lot.

"What was with that very exclusive invitation to the club, by the way?" Blair asked with a half-smile that did not reach his eyes.

Jim took a deep breath. "He's currying favor with me, reminding me of the really valuable things in life – money and prestige. But you? Well, I hate to say it, but you and Simon are never going to see the inside of Salt Marsh Beach Country Club as guests, Chief. Simon's the wrong color, and you have the wrong last name."

They were silent as they climbed into the truck. Blair was doing a slow burn.


They made it back to the bullpen bearing hoagies and juice from Pernici's for an early lunch, staggeringly hungry. They had spent the morning rummaging through the paperwork from Arson before heading to the appointment with Calverton, and hadn't spared the time for breakfast. Pearl Franklin's great sorrow had been too much with them to want to even think about toast. Now, they could eat.

"Where's Simon?" Blair asked the room in general, peering around. Jim was hanging up their jackets.

"Yo, Mohair-boy! Looking too good!" Henri Brown yipped in glee.

"Cashmere, H, cashmere – or so Jim tells me." Blair was airy.

"Ah-ha," Megan teased, stroking Blair with her eyes. Inspector Connor put out a long fingernail and ran it down the consultant's arm. "Yummy!"

"Hey, hands off," Blair said good-naturedly. "It doesn't belong to me."

"Why, Jim, I do declare," Rafe piped up in a strange drawl he must have thought was from the southern U.S. somewhere, "you can dress him up. Can you take him anywhere?"

"Not to the Salt Beach Marsh Country Club, apparently," Blair fired back.

Megan and Rafe were lost at the remark, but H and Joel Taggert exchanged sardonic glances, and the atmosphere of the room went from humorous to sour in three seconds flat; everyone went to work again. Jim ignored the exchanges; he sat at his desk and began unwrapping his Rachel sandwich with extra Russian dressing.

"Hey, Jim, Blair," Joel called out, standing up from his own desk. Blair looked around, and Jim grunted. "Got the Forensics on last night's fire. And Simon's tied up all day with budget battles. Someone at City Hall thinks MC is pulling too much money."

"As if!" Blair muttered. "Hey, you don't think this is about my consultancy, do you?"

"Nah, no way," Jim said around a mouthful of pastrami and coleslaw. "That's solid. So's our closure rate. Simon just has to rant every now and again, and produce the statistics to whammy the opposition. I think he likes it, Chief; he told me he's gonna ask for a whole new computer system in next year's budget. So what's Forensics say, Joel?"

Blair sat on the edge of his desk, facing both his partner and the bomb expert at cross angles. He held out his hand for the report.

"Well," Joel proclaimed, "it's pretty much the same M.O. as the other two fires. The first apparently used cleaning supplies found in the store as the accelerant, which is why the spontaneous combustion concept flew. Gasoline was the accelerant for the next two; bigger operations, needed more accelerant than a bottle of cleaning fluid, I guess. The locus identified as the place the fire started, for all three, is in an out-of-the-way back corner or closet, what you'd expect. The fires wiped out pretty much all evidence as to who started it, how, and why."

"Cheap and easy," Jim quoted his partner's words from the night before.

"How cheap? How easy?" Blair had an idea, but wanted to confirm the facts with the expert. He dropped the file and looked to Joel for answers.

Joel smiled at the natural born student and researcher, and told him. "A paper plate, a candle, a wick of whatever length and material the firebug needs so he can get away fast enough, some gas and a match. Simple, cheap, within the ability of every wino and all C.I.A. spooks, too."

"The preferred method of a number of professional arsonists," Jim put in. "Oh, that's what I smelled, Chief! Tallow."

"So cheap that they even use cheap candles. Now that's cheap," Joel pointed out.

Blair was fiddling with his egg salad and sprouts ensemble. Jim saw the danger, and pushed his partner into his chair.

"Whoa! What's with you?" Blair was brushing at Jim's hands.

"Protecting my best interests, Chief, that's all," Jim explained. He picked up a couple of paper napkins and shoved them down Blair's collar as a bib for the sweater. "Ta-da! Now you can eat."

Blair shot him a look that would pierce Kevlar.

Joel intervened. "Yeah, you'll never get this guy from his modus operandi. Or from trace evidence. At least, not till you find him. Looks as if he's too savvy to have set himself on fire while he was at it; still, checking hospitals might be a good idea if nothing else turns up. But I think you'll have to go with good, old-fashioned motive on this one."

"Wait, wait," Blair said. "I don't understand about opportunity, Joel. We have the security guard's file, and it says the guy always showed up fifteen minutes early for the start of his shift, which began at 9 p.m., and started patrolling immediately. How did the arsonist get past him?"

"Simple connivance, Chief," Jim explained. "Everyone and his brother-in-law had keys to the building, in fact to all the buildings. It's in the Arson reports, and Roddie told me so last night."

Blair raised his brows in surprise. Jim hadn't told him that when he'd briefed him about the ten o'clock appointment. Geez, Jim, way to treat your partner, he fumed internally.

"Every manager and assistant manager, the Pacific Northwest district manager, professional people like the accountants, Jennifer What'sit, and good old Roddie himself, with spares at home for Marilys," Jim continued. "They were all over the place, lying around on desks or in drawers or hanging on hooks. Steal a key, make a copy, put the original back, and let yourself in with the duplicate. Roddie's too cheap for a video surveillance set-up. Even granted that he doesn't have inventory that fences well, he surely was trusting to luck on the opportunity side of things like vandalism."

"'Jennifer with the gasoline in the library'. Huh," Blair expended. "I guess modus operandi isn't much help. So what have we got for motives, guys? Money?"

Jim shrugged, too busy with his sandwich to answer, and again Joel spoke up.

"You know, it's actually a myth that most fires are started for profit."

"Yeah?" Blair was interested, and finally bit into his lunch. No crumbs fell on the sweater.

"Yeah, there are as many fires started by psychos as by guys cashing in on insurance proceeds. But the biggest motive is sheer vandalism."

"Odd, don't you think, Jim?" his partner asked.

"What, Chief?" Jim downed half a bottle of lemonade. "Man, am I hungry. What's odd about it?"

"We aren't sure about the insurance profiteering, 'cause Calverton's about to have all his policies pulled on him, too many claims...."

"Sweetheart," Joel concluded gravely. His eyes were dancing, however.

Jim scowled. He mangled the rest of his sandwich.

"So if that's who's doing it, he's gone as far as he can go, and maybe further than is good for him. But a psycho – why would a psycho fixate on the Calverton Cascade fabric operation? Or a vandal? Doesn't make sense."

"Oh, you're leaving out the other reasons for arson, and the other suspect profiles," Joel added. "For some, the motive is emotional. They do it for revenge, or out of jealousy, hatred, or anger, whatever. Sometimes the fire is meant to destroy evidence and cover up another crime, like murder, maybe embezzlement. Happens in domestic disputes, too. Then there are the politically motivated crimes, though I'd expect to see pipe bombs and drive-by Molotov cocktails rather than this kind of job, plus lots of graffiti and hate mail."

Blair ruminated on the last point. It was possible, maybe even probable, that there were Asian sweatshops exploiting women and children for the financial benefit of Roddie Calverton, but no one in any of the protest organizations he or Naomi had belonged to, had ever exposed such a thing. The political motive didn't seem too likely, he decided. He turned his attention back to his partner, who was still talking.

"Plus the category of 'psycho' includes a bunch of different sorts of firebugs, Chief." Jim finished his lemonade and made an abortive swipe at his partner's iced tea. He covered it up by brushing the crumbs from his hands.

"Like?"

"There are the guys who get sexual thrills from fire-starting. The true pyromaniacs simply like watching things burn, like, I don't know, some theatrical performance they'd arranged. They love the chaos and excitement. No sense of consequences."

Joel was nodding. "And you get vagrants who set a fire to keep warm, only it gets away from them. Not likely here with the night-watchman, though."

"Then we have the heroic types," Jim offered.

"The ones who want to call in the fire and get the glory of being the first to tackle the danger." Blair was nodding. "Maybe claim a reward, too, huh?"

"There can be other financial rewards from fire-starting, too, Blair," Taggert went on. "Some volunteer firemen on a call-up, part-time basis, have started fires so they could be called into work." He sighed.

"Geez, hard to imagine." Blair wore a sickly, perturbed look. "I mean, they take the job to protect their society and then put it at risk. That's, like, so cold."

"It happens, Chief," Jim mentioned. "It also happens that arson gets involved in a lot of drug turf wars." He cocked an eyebrow at his roommate.

"As if I could forget," Blair muttered. "So let's assume it's not a drug turf war," he said drolly, holding his left thumb with his right hand, and continued to move down the rest of his fingers as he spoke. "The reports indicate that no one called the fires in; they were picked up by the fire alarm systems at all three sites, right?"

The others nodded.

"Okay, not a hero type. That was regular crew from the F.D.?"

Joel had checked this out. "Definitely. This serial arsonist is not after pay, unless he's an arsonist-for-hire."

Blair ticked off a third finger and went to the fourth. "If there's a psycho behind this, we'd need to look at the tapes from the fire scenes, right, Jim?"

"Yeah."

"I took a look this morning, Jim. You might pick up more from the tapes, but there weren't any obvious ones," Joel mentioned.

"Obvious?" Blair sounded lost.

"Uh, well, some of the whackos get off on fire, so they masturbate while they're watching, Chief. No pun intended. Some urinate...." Jim closed his mouth at Blair's silent prompt.

"Too much information, man! I could have lived a long and happy life never knowing that!" Blair warded off the insider knowledge with two large, square hands.

"Yeah, well, that's what they pay us for, Chief." Jim sat back, hands behind his head. "I don't suppose you started the fires, did you? Just so you could be called in as a consultant?"

Blair closed his eyes and set his index fingers at his temples. "I get...that you think that was foonny," he said in a ludicrous and indescribable accent. "I get...that you shouldn't qvit your day jhob, too."

Jim laughed, as did Joel, and the three sat down to doing the math. Three fires targeting Calverton businesses didn't sound like a psycho or a run of copycat psychos, to any of them. There were other warehouses more likely to burn better, and vagrants were unlikely to have chosen the retail operation as a doss house. With no hero types, no volunteer firefighters and no vandalism to add to the fires, the men all agreed: they were looking at an arsonist who was either being paid to do the job for Roddie Calverton or who had a grudge going on with CCC, or perhaps with Calverton himself.

A look at the roster of employees recently let go seemed like a good idea, and Joel said he'd take it on. Jim and Blair accepted responsibility for checking out the videotapes taken at the crime scenes. By mid-afternoon, none of them had come up with anything useful. CCC's business was booming, which had been confirmed by 'Wallace at the bank', and until this fire, it had been taking on staff, not letting them go. Nor could Jim's eagle eye discern anyone showing up repeatedly at the scenes, other than individual firefighters and police officers, regulars on those forces, let alone anybody engaging in the activities that so disgusted Blair.

Joel volunteered to do the phoning around to check on burn victims at the local hospitals. Jim and Blair gratefully accepted his offer.

"I'm a little concerned about the timing of the fires," Blair put in at last.

"Yeah? How so?" Joel wanted to know.

"Check the dates, man. The first fire was six weeks back, in April. The second was only two weeks ago yesterday, May 12. The arsonist has cut the time in half for striking. When's he gonna hit another site, Calverton's or not, next?"

The three men looked at each other, and a frisson ran down three spines.

"So, Chief, looks like we have our work cut out for us," Jim concluded, tugging gently at his partner's arm, more out of respect for the sweater than for the arm, "let's go."

"Go where?" Blair asked, trailing in the detective's wake.

"Go investigate the other motives. Let's take this out to the Calverton estate. I want to talk to Marilys about Jennifer."

"Ah, ha!" said Blair, and caught up to his partner. "We're outta here."

Major Crime hardly noticed.


"Man, alive, wouldja look at that?" Blair was staring at the Calverton estate.

The place was a mansion, with all the appurtenances of a castle keep. The fence was electrified, and had electronic and remote control admittance close by a gatehouse, which was bigger than any home Blair could remember living in with Naomi. Rolling green lawns stretched up what seemed like a mile to the huge gray granite building, which was outlined with foaming rhododendrons and azaleas; and as the truck rambled slowly into the compound, he could make out stables, a main and a secondary garage with a Corniche close by the first, plus a swimming pool and tennis court. By the time Jim parked in the graveled by-way five hundred feet from the front entrance, Blair was deep into internal dialectic on conspicuous consumption and how it related to a profit motive for the fires.

Jim had to restrain him from taking off the cashmere sweater. "Seriously, Chief, we'll get farther with you in it, and we're probably going to have to go in pretty deep, if the family is involved."

"I don't want them to like me...."

"That's not the point!" Damn it, why did Blair have to fight him on every little thing? He hated friction over this kind of thing. The ex-Black Ops Ranger was talking from long experience and hard training. Why couldn't his junior partner see that? "They can clam up and say nothing, hide behind a battery of lawyers, or have nervous breakdowns and hide behind their physicians! If we're gonna get this case solved any time soon, we're going to have to be sneaky. No matter how it makes you feel!" Jim slammed his door a little harder than was necessary. "Leave your scruples and your emotions in the truck. Just do the job!"

Blair dropped his protests, and silently got out of his side of the truck. He ran both hands over his face, set his shoulders and jogged along behind his long-legged partner.

Suddenly, their disharmony was invaded by the sound of a child and a dog, neither of whom was paying any attention to the Major Crime personnel. A wire-haired fox terrier came dashing around the side of the mansion, a stocky blond boy chasing after her with a stick, yelling, "Fetch, Libby! Fetch!"

The dog ran in a circle around a huge oak tree, dashing well out of the way of the flailing stick, barking in a surprisingly low woof as she raced up to and away from the boy.

As the stick seemed to be coming a little too close to the dog, Jim and Blair tossed glances back and forth, reading each other's mind, and made a covert attack in tandem

"Hey, there, buddy," Jim said, scooping up the child from behind.

Blair neatly fielded the stick and dropped to his knees. He put it down, and called out to the dog. She came to him, and he offered his hand to scent. Libby seemed to like him; she barked as he tousled her head of brown curls and scratched under her bearded chin, trying to entice him into a game. He threw the stick for her, and she watched it go disinterestedly. Then she lay down out of reach and panted happily.

The child was not so happy. "Let me go! Let me go! How dare you? I'll tell my father!"

The expostulations rang as the small body squirmed and wiggled.

"Hey, no need to be frightened, buddy. You're Lloyd Rodney, right? Yeah, thought so." Jim let the kid down, and the boy started brushing himself off furiously. He was attired in cashmere, but brown rather than blue. Jim had certainly made the right call in their wardrobes.

"I'm not frightened! You're a bully!" the boy lashed back. "How dare you...?"

"We met your dad today," Blair said, sidetracking the child. " Actually, my friend here has known your dad since long before you were born. Right, Jim?"

"Right, Chief. And your mother, too, Lloyd."

"That's Lloyd Rodney. I still say you had no right...."

"We thought you were getting a little too close with that stick to Libby," Blair said pacifically. "You wouldn't want to hurt her."

"She doesn't fetch. Dogs are supposed to fetch. She doesn't." Lloyd Rodney was staring critically at Libby, arms crossed. "I don't know why. I try to play with her, but she doesn't want to. I never had a dog before, only cats, and they ran off. I don't know what to do to train her. I want her to like me, but I don't think she does," he finished wistfully, hugging himself. "She does all the 'sit' and 'stay' things that Mr. Pollock, the trainer, taught her, but she won't fetch balls or sticks for me." He shone huge blue eyes on the crime team. "Do you know why?" he asked hopefully.

Jim hunkered down too, waving his hand out for Libby to scent. She sniffed the air and smiled a doggy smile. "C'mon here, girl," he said. The dog stayed put, still smiling.

"She wouldn't fetch for me either, you know. With some dogs, you've gotta teach them young," Blair advised. "She's full grown, looks like."

"She's too big," Lloyd Rodney said sadly. "And she hasn't stopped growing yet. They said that she would keep getting bigger for another couple of months, and that was back last month, so the time's not up yet. But that's why they gave her to me. 'Cause she's too big."

Jim and Blair didn't track the logic, and Lloyd Rodney explained further. "She was supposed to be for breeding, pure-bred, but she grew too big. So now she's mine!"

Ahh, thought Blair. She came to the child trained for everything but playing and shows of affection. A regimented life for the dog had translated into her relationship with the child. He wondered if the child lived a life as regimented as the purebred, and decided that Roddie's child must be being trained and groomed as relentlessly as the dog. After all, Lloyd Rodney had to do Roddie Calverton proud. He sighed.

The boy was about to swoop down on the dog again, but Jim was too fast for him. "Hey," he suggested, "how about you introduce us to your mom?"

"She's out behind the house with Troy-Troy."

"Troy-Troy?" Was that another dog?

"Troy-Troy the Pool Boy," the child said carelessly. "Well, that's what I call him anyway. I don't know if he has another name but I 'spect he does. Hey, I thought you said you knew my mom," Lloyd Rodney said suspiciously. He peered closely at them both. "Why'd you need an introduction then?"

"Just a figure of speech," Blair said. "Besides, I haven't met her yet." He smiled at the boy and stood up.

"So who are you?" the boy asked logically.

The partners had to hold back chuckles. Jim took the lead. "I'm Detective Ellison, and this is Dr. Sandburg."

The boy's eyes shot wide open. "A detective and a doctor? Like in Sherlock Holmes?"

Jim couldn't keep a straight face any longer, and Blair chuckled out loud. "Not quite," the consultant said. "My partner here is with the police, and I'm not that kind of doctor."

Big blue eyes frisked them with interest. "Oh. The books all say that the best detectives don't work for the police. They're 'consulting detectives'." He waited.

Jim did not disappoint. "That's what the books say, all right. I'm nothing but a lowly police detective."

"What kind of doctor are you?" Lloyd Rodney turned to Blair. "Medical doctors are the best!" he said with verve. "Except for rocket scientists! They're the coolest!"

"They're very cool, Lloyd Rodney, dear, as I'm certain our guest is also," came a sweet soprano voice. A note of admiration had crept into the last few words.

A lovely petite blonde woman of indeterminate years was strolling towards the group. Her china blue eyes glittered, and she wore a filmy cornflower blue wrap over a one-piece bathing suit, but there was no question she filled it out as well as Marilyn Monroe in her prime. "Have you had your glass of milk after school yet?" the woman asked lightly. "You have to get ready for your piano lesson."

"Nope," said Lloyd Rodney, definitely mutinous. "And my piano lessons are on Friday. I have soccer practice tonight."

"Well, Albany will know where you're supposed to be tonight. Go get your milk anyway. Run away now. You must have homework to do before you go out." The woman dismissed her son from her mind with a fluttering hand, and smiled at the men. "Why, it's Jimmy Ellison!" She echoed the words of her husband from the night before and that morning.

Puppet, thought Blair, wondering if she and Roddie practiced their lines together.

"Marilys," Jim nodded with grace.

"Hey, mom, he picked me up!" Lloyd Rodney aired his grievance.

"Oh, Lloyd Rodney. You're still here?" Marilys said vacantly. "Jimmy picked you up?" She laughed gaily. "Did he swing you around too?"

"I'm ten years old, Mother." The tones were glacial. "He wasn't playing 'airplane' with me. I'm insulted!" He stamped his foot.

"I'm very sorry, darling," chirped the mother fatuously, but her son cut her off.

"Not by you! By him!" Lloyd Rodney was utterly disdainful. "Oh, never mind!" He scuffed a loafer into the turf, then stalked aloofly back to his home. "The other one's some kind of fake doctor," he tossed back over his shoulder. "I don't trust them one bit!" The rest was silence.

Jim and Blair watched until the lonely child had rounded the house, Libby scampering behind at a distance, and then Marilys claimed the attention of her visitors. "Jimmy? Now that that's over, would you introduce me to your friend?" She held out her hand, Lady Bountiful.

Blair wiped his, recently sniffed by a dog, on Jim's sweater and ignored the glare from its owner. He took Marilys' hand and held it an instant too long. "How nice to meet you at last," Blair crooned. "Jimmy has told me so much about you. I must say, he hasn't said the half of it!"

Marilys switched personalities on them. "Why, how kind of you, Dr...." Scarlett O'Hara cooed back, assessing everything up front and clearly intent on checking out the rear view when she got a chance. "I don't know your name yet!" She stared up hypnotically at Blair, who would have been a trifle hypnotized if he weren't having such a good time being sneaky. "Dr. Blair Sandburg," he purred, and if he had been wearing a cashmere baseball cap, he would have doffed it. "But I would like it immensely if you'd call me Blair!"

Marilys laid claim to the arm, and sparkled at the police consultant. "Won't you come in and have some tea with me?"

"Jimmy?" Blair asked politely. Two heads with beady eyes focused on one man.

Jimmy was attempting not to have a stroke. When had he lost control? When had this interview turned into a scene from a Noel Coward play? Marilys had a good twenty years on Blair! Was this Blair's true character as Lothario coming out? It was all too degrading!

With a cough, he agreed hastily to tea, and let Dr. Sandburg waltz the lady into the mansion. Maybe it was time for the good doctor to take the lead, rather than the bad cop.


The hall of the Calverton Mansion could have fit both the loft and the lair into it with room for a few apartment buildings as well. Niches held statuary, a huge mahogany table was loaded down with the earliest roses and late tulips in a silver bowl that had to be seen to be believed, and a silk-loomed carpet stretched over the marble flooring. There might have been palaces in Europe now serving as museums with as much genuine artwork on the walls, but it would have been a near thing. Jim gloried in the colors all around nearly to the point of zoning.

"Don't zone, man!" Blair whispered without looking at his partner, who was behind both him and the lady on his arm.

Jim pulled back, and cycled down a little, narrowing his focus to Blair and Marilys. A butler appeared and disappeared as it became clear that they did not need his services, having only their sweaters that warm May day. They wound up in a parlor with a fireplace at either end, two glass doors out to the stone patio, and probably more books than Blair had ever read. It was impressive, and oppressive.

At least Dad didn't do this to me, Jim thought. I hope the kid has a playroom or somewhere he can go to just be a kid!

Blair handed Marilys into a silver-threaded brocade chair and placed himself on the opposite side of the coffee table from her. "Get us out of here fast, Jim," he urged beneath his breath. "This place is a mausoleum!" What would it be like, growing up in a place where you can't lay a finger on a table without wrecking the polish? Geesh!

Jim took a third chair and the fourth was empty.

"Would you care for tea? Coffee? Sherry, perhaps, or another beverage?"

They opted for coffee and Marilys rang a small bell.

A navy-uniformed maid appeared. She was large, Latina, forty or so, and mask-faced.

"Rosalita, we will have coffee and cakes here," the lady of the house ordered. "Rosalita makes the best tea cakes, don't you, Rosalita?"

"Madame is too kind," the Latina replied. "I will bring the tray."

As she left, Jim cocked an eyebrow at Blair. Someone else to give them the lowdown on the Calverton family's inner doings.

Pondering the snobbisme that demanded a Latino maid address her Anglo employer in French, which probably neither spoke, Blair barely fielded the catch and began conversation.

"Mrs. Calverton," he began, in a mesmerist's voice.

"Oh, you dear young man, call me Marilys, please! And I will call you Blair!" Marilys trilled. "Jimmy and I are old friends. There must be no formality between friends." She leaned forward and the filmy blue wrap fell back off her shoulders, revealing an admirable decolletage only partly covered by the pale magnolia bathing suit. If one weren't looking carefully, she might have seemed naked, and both men were certain that was the effect she was aiming for.

"Marilys, then," Blair said huskily. "We're looking into the fires your family's business has sustained, and were wondering if you could help us."

Marilys whitened and the bathing suit was immediately evident. But Rosalita chose that moment to bring in a huge silver salver with a complete tea service on it, and a three-tired dish of dainties. Jim calculated how much it must have weighed, and decided Rosalita did weightlifting in her spare time. Marilys used the bustle to cover a quick repairing to a pretty, enameled pillbox and its contents. She had recovered her composure as she poured out coffee and handed around petit fours.

"Well, I'm sure I would help you if I could," she said to the cream jug. "But I don't see how I can." She lifted a cup to her lips, mellowing right under their interested gazes.

"We were wondering," Blair said with patent sympathy, "if you could tell us about your husband's secretary, Jennifer."

Whatever it was that Marilys was expecting to hear, apparently it was not that. "Jennifer Bryce? What about her?"

Blair exuded concern. "We noticed that she and Roddie seem to be very close."

Marilys laughed with amusement then. "Roddie is close to Jennifer as I am close to Troy. Troy is our pool boy. He's outside if you want to talk to him."

The partners were much taken aback.

"Roddie and I are divorcing," Marilys said comfortably. Her eyelashes were playing lazily with Blair again. "It's very amicable. We're both, um, of an age where we've done everything together that we can, and oh, but we had fun doing it! Now it's time for us to do new things, and meet new people, without the bindings of marriage to hold us back." She bit into something with purple icing, languid as a boa with a tummy full of cattle.

Blair looked to Jim, and Jim nodded back. To his Sentinel ears, the woman was telling the truth as she saw it.

Where does her son fit into things? Jim thought, his temperature rising. Is he one of the new things she's intending to do, or one of the old things she and Roddie used to do? He believed he knew the answers. Poor little rich kid, with Marilys Dearest for Mommy.

"Won't the divorce have a permanent effect on your financial status, though?" Blair asked in astonishment.

Jim had to pull himself back from his cogitations and into the discussion again. He listened as a sentinel for the reply.

Marilys prodded the last of the lilac cake past her lips and swallowed before she answered. Very careful of the words she was choosing, she said, "Not really. We have a pre-nuptial agreement, and almost everything is community property. Instead of two people owning everything, one will have one half and the other the other half. There's more than enough money to let us both do everything we want, and the pre-nuptial agreement provides that everything we have goes to Lloyd Rodney, no matter what our later arrangements might be."

"The pre-nup mentions Lloyd Rodney?" Blair accepted a lemon-iced cakelet.

"Well, not by name, but as our child, the only one we've had together. Of course we had to have an heir! Lloyd Rodney is shaping up nicely, I must say, even if it's only a mother's pride speaking." She drank coffee. "He has a feel for the finer materials already, color, for instance. He helped me pick out this blue gauze at our store," she primped at the wrap, "to go with this fabric," she traced the neckline, "for my bathing suit. I was so pleased and impressed that I gave him the puppy that very day! He'll do very well with Calverton Cascade, I'm sure of it." More coffee was sipped. "And, of course, he's the most beautiful child! A true Tynant in that regard." She flashed a model's smile around the room and preened.

"No doubt about it, Marilys," Blair stoked the conversation embers.

Marilys went on, "We both brought a great deal into this marriage, you see, Blair. My money went into building CCC up into a world-class competitor. You can't judge by the local offices alone. We have them in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the East. The business is half mine, and half the profits will always come to me. The most difficult thing is deciding about the residences."

"We'll work that out, though," rang deep tones.

"Why, Roddie, how nice! You're home early for a change!" Marilys rose and flew to her husband's side. She pecked him on the cheek as he handed off his coat to the butler, then she dragged him to the fourth chair, settling back in her place afterwards. He took coffee from her and a green cake before entering the discussion.

"I missed lunch," he said by way of apologizing. "Marilys has been telling you that we're in the process of arranging a divorce, hasn't she?"

"Yes, Roddie, she has," Jim replied, presuming on a rapport with his old acquaintance that both knew had never existed. "It came as something of a surprise. You seem to get along famously."

Roddie and Marilys both smiled broadly. "We do, Jimmy," Roddie stated. "We do, and always have. But thirty-some years is a long time for a marriage to stay fresh, and we decided that we each have other interests that we'd prefer to pursue independently of each other. It's hardly uncommon. Your parents divorced too, as I recall." He took a white cake then.

Jim flushed, and Blair took up the slack. "So how will the arrangement work," he asked innocently, trying the effect of a warm glance at Marilys on her husband. Roddie grinned.

"I'll take the penthouse pied-a-terre in town, of course. It's very comfortable and it's closer to my business offices," Calverton said. "I like to ski...."

"... I don't, any longer," Marilys put in.

"So I'll keep the chalets here and in Switzerland. We have a house in London that Marilys likes, and two places on the Riviera; I'll take the one in Monte-Carlo and she the one in Antibes. As to Cancun, we've decided to share the place there. If it doesn't work out, we can buy a second place, in Brazilia perhaps. We're already putting up a second lodge in the woods, so we'll each have one to play in during the summer and autumn."

Husband and wife smiled at each other.

"This house is my family home, not Roddie's," Marilys mentioned, "so of course it will be mine. We'll keep Roddie's yacht, the Constance III, harbored here. Lloyd Rodney enjoys their sailing so much." She sighed, and watched her husband from the corner of her eye. "It really is a shame that the press of business has kept Roddie from making their traditional trip for Lloyd Rodney's birthday. Why, it was only last week that we learned we had to cancel. I moved heaven and earth to get a circus to entertain here instead."

"We're going to see to it that the divorce has as little impact on Lloyd Rodney as possible. After all, he's our son!" Roddie declared proudly, carefully not looking at his wife.

At that juncture, the child himself appeared.

Jim noticed that two heart rates shot up at once. A magnolia-painted nail slid up the lid on the enameled box and a small, white, oval pill made its way between magnolia lips.

He zoomed in to see the name pressed into the remaining pills before the snuffbox was unobtrusively closed again.

The boy's hands were clasped at his midriff and he was surveying his shoes.

His mother offered coffee all around the table. His father accepted a cup. They drank.

The boy's hands went about his ribs, hugging him.

The mother offered dainties to go with the coffee. No one accepted. They drank.

"Mom?" A mutter that reverberated off every hard surface.

"Oh," Marilys said, intent on pouring herself another cup of coffee. "Hello, darling. Had your milk?"

"Yes, mom. Dad?" Still the sad, soft tones.

"Lloyd Rodney! How was school today?"

"Fine."

"Have a cake, dear." His mother tossed a hand at the tier of petit fours. "Have you finished your homework?"

"Yes, mom." The boy took something with blue icing, and licked it. "You talking about the divorce?" he asked without taking his eyes off his treat.

Two adults made strange and incomprehensible noises.

"Have you decided who I'm going to live with?" the child whispered.

Two adults were entirely silent.

"Thought so. I don't want this after all, mom." He fiddled with the cake.

Marilys hurried to give him a spare napkin and he dumped the pastry into it.

"I'm going to my room now," the boy said, and turned to leave, his feet dragging.

"Say good-bye to our guests!" Roddie Calverton was irate. "I will have no discourtesy in my house!" He tapped the tabletop brusquely.

Lloyd Rodney started and looked back over his shoulder with soft blond hair falling into wide, sad, bluebell eyes, and murmured, "Good-bye." He shot a fast glance at his father, and slipped away as quickly as his legs could carry him.

Lloyd Rodney Calverton, trophy child, thought Jim. Gotta be the perfect little gentleman. Gotta pander to their pride. He felt terribly sorry for him all of a sudden.

Lloyd Rodney Calverton, Stepford heir to the throne, mused Blair. Don't speak until spoken to: you're invisible unless they want to show you off. He shook his head.

Marilys and Roddie cast angry glances at each other. Marilys dropped her napkin on her plate, and Roddie clattered his cup back onto its saucer.

The moment was lost, and before the Calvertons could ask them to leave, Jim and Blair bid them adieu. All the niceties were observed as they exited the house, and the detective smirked to himself as Marilys checked out his partner's rear view, but when the two men were out of the house, Jim held Blair back and listened into the conversation that erupted forth.

"Well, who is going to take him?"

"You're his mother! You should be the one!"

"He's growing up! He needs his father now!"

"Why can't you admit it, Marilys? You don't want him around!"

"You're right, Roddie dear. I don't want him around, any more than you do!"

"Something has to be done."

"Boarding school..."

"Yes, that sounded fine once, didn't it?"

"Why isn't it fine now?"

"Because the damned fires have put a serious cramp in my cash-flow, let alone the damage they've done to my sales! I'm going to have to rebuild, Marilys, and it's going to be like when we first married, and had to scrimp for a month in the Caribbean! And if there are any more fires, we're facing complete financial ruination!"

"Oh, my God. I had no idea it was as bad as that. I thought the cash from the insurance would help us make the transition to two households."

"Marilys, you are a beautiful woman with much to commend you, but you have no business sense at all. How could an insurance settlement help the divorce?"

"Well, it's cash!"

"It's got to go to replace what was burned! You can be such a lame-brain!"

"You may have the business smarts, Roddie old boy, but the pre-nup says I get cash when I go, along with half the business and our real estate holdings. So you'd better start working hard!"

"And while I'm working, you can look after Lloyd Rodney!"

"Oh, no you don't! You're not putting that on me!"

A resounding crash, as of a table full of china and silver being overturned, could be heard through the closed doors of the mansion. Jim curled a finger at Blair, and the two snuck around the corner of the house. "Tell you later," the sentinel hissed at his guide. "Wanna talk to Rosalita." Blair nodded silently. Then they were creeping down the side of the mansion, passing window after window after door after window.

At the very end of the wall, they came to what Jim identified as the kitchen entrance, from the aromas of cooking inside. They knocked, but got no answer. Blair turned the knob, and the door swung open. A small yip had Blair across the threshold before Jim could caution him about trespass laws, and the detective followed, swallowing his advice.

"Hey, Libby, how you doing, girl?" Blair asked, kneeling beside a steel-barred cage in which the terrier lay. Her tail was going a mile a minute, and his hand flew out through the open gate, to be licked without conscious volition.

Jim watched a curly-headed man with big puppy-dog eyes and a sweet nature petting a curly-headed dog with big puppy-dog eyes and a sweet nature and, and for a moment, they seemed superimposed, one over the other, not exactly deja vu, but close to it. He sighed.

Blair had moved on to stroking her fur. Suddenly she yelped hard, jerked back, and then returned to licking Blair more furiously than ever, as if to make up for pulling away. Blair looked up at his partner. "Jim? I think she's been hurt. Wanna feel this?" He stood away from the cage, and Libby looked mournfully after him.

Jim hunkered down and felt carefully along the ribs and over the back. There were ominous hot spots which meant bruising. "She's been beaten. Probably kicked, too. One of the bruises is big and bad."

"How bad, Jim?" Blair was poised between rage and dismay.

"Nothing lasting. No ribs broken. Bruises only." He moved up and back.

"Roddie old boy?" Blair felt cold all of a sudden. I may not have a father of my own to go by, but Roddie Calverton sure seems a good candidate for physical abuse, what with hitting desks and tables all the time. He's a lot like William Ellison, and it's a short trip from emotional abuse to physicality. I wonder.....

"Roddie did it?" Jim expanded on his partner's question. "He could have. He's got a temper. Or Marilys. She's the one who owned the dog to begin with and decided Libby was 'unsatisfactory'. One of them threw the tea table over, anyway. Or...."

Blair was apprehensive. "Lloyd Rodney?" he asked reluctantly.

"Yeah, could be."

"You think he hits him? Then the kid's taking it out on Libby? Cycle of abuse here?"

"Could be, Chief. Or Marilys. Who knows what she's like when she'd not topped up on her drugs? Or when she's topped up on others?" Jim sent a shaft of penetrating blue at his partner. What was your childhood like, Chief, growing up with Naomi trapped in the LSD haze of the '60's and never getting out of it? What do you know about the cycle of abuse, huh? "She's not sporting bruises, at any rate." Jim laughed without humor. "That get-up certainly left nothing to the imagination."

"Well, she didn't know we were coming over, of course; we did take her by surprise," Blair put in, to be fair.

Jim ignored him. "The kid had on those long pants and that sweater. He moved easily enough, but there could be hidden bruising under the clothing."

"I wish we could have gotten a good look at him!"

The sound of crockery clacking together drew their attention to the inner doorway. Rosalita was burdened with a tray of broken china, and Blair jumped forward to help her with it.

"Oh! Señor! I did not know you were there!" the maid exclaimed, but gave the mess into the waiting hands with a smile. "What do you want with me and my kitchen? I have some cakes left!" She picked an uneaten portion of a petit four from a napkin, and bent down to give the tidbit to Libby. "Good dog," she crooned. "Good dog."

Libby wagged her thanks.

Jim stepped in. "Rosalita, we're investigating the fires at the Calverton storehouses."

The maid paled and crossed herself. "I know nothing, nothing! How could you think I know anything? Dio mio!"

Blair bent to Libby again, both to distract the woman from an incipient panic attack, and to attend to the dog. "Libby's been hurt, Rosalita. Do you know how?"

"She's got to be trained," the Latina said obliquely. "When she doesn't do what she's told...." She shrugged.

Blair looked up at Jim and Jim saw his own doubts reflected in his guide's eyes.

"About Lloyd Rodney...."

The maid set her mouth. "I don't know anything. I told you that. What are you doing, pestering me? If you want to know more, ask Madame and Monsieur. Now, I have dinner to prepare. Please go!"

They went, stopping briefly to peer around the back of the house and survey the swimming pool. Marilys was there, talking to Troy Whoever, the blue wrap gone by the wayside, and her gorgeous figure in full view. She was a royal tribute to cosmetic surgery. Marilys sat on the coping and dangled her feet over the edge. Troy sat next to her, and as he dangled his feet, a game of water footsie began.

A motion from behind them made Jim pull his partner back close against the wall. It was Lloyd Rodney, pelting into the main garage. A motorcycle engine roared into life, and the child, wearing helmet and joint protectors, scooted out and circled around to disappear into the woods beyond the main grounds of the estate.

Jim and Blair went slowly to the truck, Jim filling Blair in on the overheard conversation. By the time they reached the vehicle, both were deeply rapt in thought.


That poor kid. No wonder he has to get away from home. Neither parent wanting him. Whatever happened to maternal instinct? Marilys obviously hasn't any. Is that what money does to a woman? I still can't believe Grace Ellison just walked out on Jim and Steve. Not 'cause she thought leaving the boys with their father was the best thing for them; no one would! But she went right ahead, dumped them and ran, taking her money with her. Guess I know where Jim's abandonment issues come from. Poor Jim. Poor Steve. And then William tearing them apart by making them compete for his 'love'? And all that 'freak' stuff ripping Jim's heart out. Oh, man, I feel so sorry for him. And for Lloyd Rodney too. They probably do beat the little guy. Some people shouldn't be allowed to have kids. Whoops, Sandburg, going a little overboard with that one. But I wish that Jim had had a loving parent to raise him, someone more like Naomi.


That poor kid. He must feel all alone, all the time. He really needs his dad. His mother is a sybaritic barracuda. She makes even Naomi look good, what with flaunting the men friends around her impressionable child. At least Lloyd Rodney knows who his father is, though. Sounds like Roddie has the kid's best interests at heart. He knows his limitations, and that's the big thing. They've got parenting classes now. Roddie could probably adapt to raising a son better than Dad did with Stevie and me. Dad didn't have any support system, nowhere to turn back then, in the days when fathers worked and mothers raised the kids. Roddie's all screwed up in a bunch of ways, but, still, he's better than Marilys any day. I hope the kid isn't left with Marilys. She's such a flake, and seeing how Naomi's screwed Blair over again and again, always in the name of love, well, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, let alone a child!


"Geez, I really feel for that poor kid," Blair said quietly as they climbed into the truck.

"Yeah, Chief, me too."

Jim's cell phone rang. "Ellison," he said into one hand, inserting the keys in the ignition with the other. He held the phone between himself and Blair so both could hear.

"Jim, it's Joel. We got the report on Dwight Franklin back from the morgue. Dan Wolf found something, and Forensics put a rush on it. You're gonna want to see this for yourself.²

"Okay, we'll be right there." Jim snapped the cell phone shut, and headed for Major Crime.


Joel was awaiting them when they arrived. "You're not going to believe this, Jim," he said, shaking his head. "I sure didn't."

"What, what is it?" Blair was bouncing with impatience, and Jim had that strange overlap rush with Libby, the terrier, again. But he reached out for the Forensics report and looked it over carefully.

"What the hell?" He slapped the paper as if it had been disobedient. "Are they sure about this, Joel?"

Taggert was nodding.

"What is it, Jim? What's the deal?" Blair punched his partner in the biceps to get his attention.

Jim looked absently down at him. "This report. It says...I can't believe it, Chief."

Blair spoke very evenly, and dropped his voice into his 'It's an order and I mean this, Jim' timbre. "What does the report say, Jim?"

"Dwight Franklin died of smoke inhalation."

"So?"

"The reason he couldn't get out of the building and save his life is that he was drugged, Chief."

"What? But that means..."

"...someone was out to kill Dwight Franklin. The fires must have been set to cover up his murder. We've gone at this case all wrong. Now we're back to square one. We have to start all over."

Jim and Blair stared at each other bleakly.

"There's something very hinky about this whole thing," Joel said, and walked quietly away.

The other two could only agree.


Continue to Part 2