tinderbox2.jpg - 26244 Bytes

act2.jpg - 23257 Bytes

"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.


"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?"


"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?"


"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."


"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 on to Act III

Return to Novation Productions