Novation Productions Virtual Season Five Presents

A Movie of the Week 

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Tinderbox

  By Linda3 and Ismaro

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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 his 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.


Continue on to Act II

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