The doorbell rang, jarring Blair awake. He opened his eyes, jerking his head, and realized he was curled on his side on the floor in front of the couch. Candles, their flames low, burned on the table, bathing the dim room in a soft light.
The buzzer rang again. With a groan, Blair sat up and pulled his legs beneath him, then pushed himself to his feet. "Coming!"
He hoped it wasn't another DEA agent or reporter. He just wanted to be left alone. Going to the door, he looked through the peephole and saw a man dressed in a Federal Express uniform, his blue cap hanging low over his face.
Blair frowned. What now? Some kind of official legal letter? A package? Would it be good news or bad news? He really couldn't handle any more bad news at the moment.
Sliding the chain off the lock, he opened the door. His froze when he found himself looking at the barrel of a large handgun equipped with a silencer. Blair swallowed hard and raised his arms. He immediately recognized the gunman as Barry Gil, the guy Scott had been involved with.
His heart thudded in his chest. Where was Jim?
"Hello, Mr. Sandburg."
Gil moved forward, and Blair's eyes dropped from the gun to the small, black duffel bag in Gil's other hand. Blair stepped back and glanced upward. Jim, c'mon, man, tell me you hear this.
"What do you want?" Blair asked loudly.
"Oh, don't bother. I've had surveillance on this place. Your detective friend left a little while ago."
Blair's lungs stopped working for a moment, and his chest tightened. Gil closed the door behind him and, without looking away, reached his hand back and turned the lock on the doorknob.
"What are you doing here?" Blair asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
His mind was racing. When had Jim left, and why hadn't he said anything? How was he going to get himself out of this alive?
"If you shoot me, it'll start an investigation." Blair swallowed, trying to wet his suddenly dry mouth. "They'll find out about you."
"Oh, I know that." Gil gestured with the gun. "Turn around, lie down on the ground and put your hands behind your head."
Blair hesitated, tensing. He had little to lose. He had to try to take the man now. If he allowed himself to be put in such a vulnerable position….
"Now." Gil raised the gun, pointing the barrel squarely at Blair's chest.
Blair's hopes sank. With the gun so well-aimed and Gil obviously expecting Blair to react, his chance to escape had just shrunk dramatically. If he tried something now, he'd likely die. If he waited, maybe an opportunity would present itself, or maybe Jim would show up, or maybe…
God, he was probably never going to see Jim or his mother again. "Shooting me will spoil whatever plan you've got."
Gil smiled. "I can always think up something later to fit that particular development. Of course, it won't be as clean as what I've got planned now, but it'll work. So quit stalling or else I will just put a bullet through your brain. Why do you think I brought the silencer?"
"R-Right." Blair's breathing started to spiral out of control. "Okay." He needed to do something, but at the moment, nothing came to mind.
Slowly, he turned around, then dropped carefully to his knees. He lowered himself onto his stomach and laced his hands behind his head.
Blair heard the hiss of a zipper opening, followed by the rustle of fabric. Moments later, a shadow on the floor told him that Gil was hovering over him, then he felt a large, warm hand wrap around his wrist and pull his arm down.
He couldn't let himself be restrained. If he did, he was dead.
He tensed, ready to strike, knowing it would probably result in his death, anyway, when something soft covered his nose and mouth and, before he knew what was happening, he'd inhaled a lung full of something that instantly made his head spin. The room went black for a moment, and when his head started to clear, his hands were behind his back, and a soft, fleecy material bound his wrists. Blair twisted his head enough to see the edge of a leather strap. His stomach churned, and he felt himself trembling.
Oh, God, the guy was really going to kill him.
"Please, don't do this." Blair closed his eyes.
"You know, they all ask me that. I give them the same answer." He chuckled as he pulled Blair's other arm down and fastened the remaining restraint.
"This is really quite a nice little plan. Neat. Clean. No mistakes. I'm not even leaving a note. It'll fit perfectly. Blair Sandburg, disgraced once again and facing years in prison, takes his own life. No one will even question it."
Blair gritted his teeth. "Jim will know what happened. He'll hunt you down."
"I'll be long gone, and even assuming you're right, he won't be able to prove a thing. Now, just wait there a moment while I finish the rest of the set-up."
Jim dialed as he ran toward the truck. He'd reached the truck and slid behind the wheel by the time Simon answered.
"Captain, Boyle thinks Gil's going after Sandburg." Jim slammed his door shut and started the engine, squealing away from the curb. "I can't reach him, and he was home when I left. Can you send units to the loft and the university?"
"You got it, but isn't he banned from Rainier?"
"Yeah, but just in case. I can't think of anywhere else he'd be. If Gil's snatched him and taken him somewhere else..."
"I'll put out an A.P.B."
Blair's heart hammered against his breastbone. He lay on his back, his cheek pressed to the floor, a gag in his mouth, watching as Gil stood on a small ladder and draped a rope to one of the thick pipes on the ceiling.
"Okay." Lowering himself to the floor, Gil grabbed one of the kitchen chairs and positioned it beneath the noose, then smiled down at Blair. "I think that's everything." He flexed his gloved hands. "When they find you, there'll be no sign of foul play. No forced entry. No bruises. It'll be clean and easy. Law enforcement types like easy, don't you agree?"
Blair couldn't reply, so he didn't try. Gil stepped over to him, leaned down, and grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt, hauling him to his feet. Blair eyed the noose dangling low in front of him, his breath coming in short, quick gasps. The gag seemed suffocating, and he suddenly felt light-headed.
"Come on." Gil yanked him forward.
Blair shook his head and stepped back, tugging against Gil's grip.
"Don't start with me!" Gil yanked harder, and Blair stumbled forward.
Gil caught him by the shoulders before he could fall and helped him upright. "Look, don't make this any harder. I was hoping to get out of here by six."
Blair yelled through the gag, trying to move backward, but Gil held him firmly.
"Okay, we do this the hard way." Gil pulled Blair forward again and grabbed the dangling noose.
Blair tried to back away, but Gil was strong, and it took him less than a second to slip the large noose over Blair's head.
"Okay." Gil smiled, breathing slightly fast, and grabbed the loose end of the rope. "Now, all I gotta do is pull. Goodnight."
Gil heaved hard, and the rope went taut, yanking Blair forward. The rope dug against the tender flesh of his neck, and as Gil continued to pull hand-over-hand on the rope, Blair found himself being forced upward.
He rose on to the tips of his toes, trying to prolong the inevitable. His lungs screamed for air, and still the rope rose higher, digging beneath his chin and forcing his head up. His feet lost contact with the floor, and he kicked his legs, his body swinging.
Black dots swirled in his vision, and he jerked several times, desperate for air. A terrible pressure rose in his skull, and his eyes felt ready to pop out of their sockets.
He heard a crash. Someone yelled. An explosion ripped through the air, and suddenly he was falling. He hit the floor hard. The noose loosened but still remained uncomfortably snug around his neck. He lay there, gasping, the floor pressing against his cheekbone. Air tore painfully into his lungs, and he curled into a ball. He instinctively tried to raise his hands to his neck, but the restraints kept them securely behind his back.
Someone else's hands went to his neck. The noose loosened, then slipped over his head. He felt his shoulders being lifted, and a solid body replaced the hard floor, cradling him with warmth.
"You're okay, Chief."
That familiar voice sent shivers of relief through Blair. He looked up, his vision clouded, and saw Jim's face through a shimmer of wetness. His throat on fire, he couldn't manage speech, so he dropped his head to Jim's solid shoulder and closed his eyes, letting the tears slide down his cheeks as he listened to the strong heartbeat beneath his ear.
Jim held Blair close, listening to the young man's tortured breathing. He kept an ear tuned for the approaching siren that would signal the ambulance's arrival. He'd beaten the black-and-whites by seconds, but the uniforms had arrived moments after he'd shot Gil. The officers moved quietly around him, securing the scene and preparing the body.
The scent of cigar floated into the loft, and moments later, Jim heard Simon's deep voice.
"My God. Is he all right?"
Jim nodded, "Yes, sir." He felt Blair pull away from him, so he looked down. "How're you doing, Chief?"
Blair shook his head, his eyes rimmed with red, and glanced over his shoulder at Gil's corpse.
"What happened?" Simon crouched in front of them.
Jim answered, knowing Blair probably couldn't manage much, if any, speech at the moment. "I got here and found Gil strangling Blair with that rope." He jerked to the noose resting in a pile on the floor a foot away. "I had my gun drawn and ordered him to stop. He raised his weapon. I fired."
Simon turned to look at the body. A large handgun equipped with a silencer lay next to his outstretched hand. Blood pooled around the man's chest.
"Damn." Simon looked back at them, his eyes going to the red, swollen flesh on Blair's neck, then to the restraints still fastened around his wrists. "Can I take these off of you?"
Blair nodded, and Jim offered a grateful smile. He was just about to get to those himself, but he'd known that Blair needed the human contact first.
Reaching out quickly, Simon's fingers tugged gently at the buckle on the right cuff, pulling it out and letting the leather fall away from Blair's wrist. Then, he took off the other cuff.
With a grateful sigh, Blair pulled his arms in front of him and rubbed at his wrists, which Jim figured was more of a psychological gesture since the sheepskin padding hadn't caused any damage.
"Th--" Blair coughed and leaned against Jim. "Thanks." The word came out hoarse and scratchy, and he winced before coughing again.
"It's okay, Chief." Jim rubbed his hand along Blair's back. "Boyle told us everything, and with Gil's attempt on your life, we've got all we need to tie Gil solidly to the drug ring and clear your name. And I'm sure once we get his prints, we'll find a lot more useful information."
Simon nodded. "That's right, which means you're officially off suspension, Jim, and Sandburg, you're back as a consultant. You let me take care of Rainier, okay?" A tiny smile touched his mouth. "You're going to get a very public exoneration and still have time to prepare for your graduation." He leaned forward. "Okay?"
Renewed tears touched Blair's eyes. He gave a shallow smile and nodded.
"The ambulance is here," Jim announced, patting Blair's arm. He tilted his head, listening to the voices on the sidewalk below. "And so is the press."
"Well, good." Simon rose to his feet. "They've been so busy trashing Sandburg's reputation, it's about time they get something right." He turned to the uniforms. "When the coroner gets here, you make sure the press gets a lot of nice shots of this jerk's body being loaded. Got that?"
Two "yes, sirs!" answered him, and Simon nodded curtly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make a statement to the newshounds down there -- a nice, looong statement with lots of good things about Major Crime's favorite consultant."
Jim smiled as Simon turned to leave. "Thank you, sir."
Jim was sitting in a sea of people, next to the only person he knew in the audience, Naomi Sandburg. The first twenty-five rows in the round amphitheatre were filled with students about to receive their degrees, the largest mass being undergrads, with the Master and Ph. D. candidates having pride of place in rows one and two. Jim craned his neck, trying to see his partner, but although he knew Blair was down there, the sheer volume of bodies between the guests in the uppermost tiers and the man he was looking for made it impossible to spot him. Jim had sentinel sight, but not X-ray vision. He had to settle for vague discontent.
Naomi grabbed his hand in a death grip. Jim flinched, but bent to listen to her.
"I'm so nervous, Jim!" she whispered in the din of conversation and hailing shouts from all around the room. "It's taken so long for him to get here. Last year, I was thinking he'd get his doctorate then, but, well...." Her voice trailed off as a cloud of guilt settled over her delicate features. She clearly had not processed her feelings about the fiasco she had created by releasing her son's original dissertation draft to an unscrupulous publisher.
"Hey," Jim said comfortingly. He was grateful for the training Blair had given him; the dials permitted him to survive in the hullabaloo and fine-tune his hearing to Naomi's level. "That's in the past. Things are coming together now. Let it be. Just let it be."
"Let it be," Naomi echoed. "Let it be."
Jim looked back over his shoulder. "Take a look up there, Naomi."
She turned and gasped. Somehow, within the prior ten minutes and after the final seating of the guests, a cadre of photographers, video camera operators and people all talking into their cell phones, had materialized behind them.
"See," Jim said. "When Blair gets his diploma, it will be news all over the world. You weren't wrong about how good, how revolutionary, his diss was. Now, everyone will know it too." He patted her hand, and pried it off his own.
Naomi sat back. "Let it be. Let it be. Let it be." The mantra seemed to soothe her. That was all Jim asked for.
He stared around the rear of the hall and found most of those whom he had been looking for. In the wake of an adamant refusal to grant Blair more than the standard two passes given every student for their parents or loved ones, Suzanne Tomaki had come up trumps for them. She'd gotten most of the MC personnel assigned as crowd control, a battery against a tsunami of reporters washed into Cascade, and Rainier University in particular. Rafe and Brown were covering the main access, Joel and Megan the private access from the robing rooms, and at the front access, just inside the doors, Rhonda and Daryl (with a camera in hiding) stood as unofficial guests.
Simon Banks, Captain of Major Crime, wasn't with his son, though, and that mystified Jim. He knew that their good friend wanted to be there for Blair. It made Jim smile to think of the skullduggery Simon had engaged in on Blair's behalf, evading the hungry newshounds hot on the heels of the most newsworthy individual in Cascade; and picking up Blair's robes and bonnet on his behalf. His partner had spent two hours of sheer panic that morning before Simon brought the august finery over, and then another hour of insanity trying to fit his bonnet over his curls, before realizing it would look best if he left his hair down.
It had taken Jim a good twenty minutes of settling the problems with the lay of the hood and the tilt of the bonnet, before his partner could relax enough to remember that time was short. That sent him into a near-anxiety attack, and Jim hustled him out the back door and into his father's borrowed town car with the tinted windows, so as to fox the press. But the thought of the few things that might have kept Simon Banks away from the ceremony, after all the trouble he had gone to, was not a pleasant one.
Again, Jim had to settle for vague discomfort.
He had only a few moments to stew. The crowd of journalists was getting rowdy, and catcalls came from round about the pit, demands that the proceedings get started, or that the unwanted press attention be diverted elsewhere, or just general, adrenaline-pumped high spirits, became louder and nastier as time went by. By the looks of the stately gentleman who approached the huge podium on the central dais, the unruly mob was about to be hauled into line.
The man tapped the mike, ostensibly to determine if it was live, causing a mean feedback whine, which had more hearers than Jim ouching, though he ouched the most. The man spoke. "Silence. Silence, please." The roar receded a decibel, not enough. "Silence!" Again the reduction of noise was insufficient. Then Stentor yelled. "SILENCE, PLEASE!" Augmented by the audio equipment, the shout could have been heard in Seattle. It worked its magic. The hall quieted to rustles and shuffling. It was enough.
Stentor introduced himself. "Hello. I am John Perchoff, President of Rainier University." A slight ripple of applause stayed his next words a moment. "Welcome to the graduates, their guests, our alumni and others at this, the 109th Convocation of Rainier University."
More and noisier clapping ensued, as their guests saluted the grads. The President gestured with pushing open hands, and the clapping died away. "Now that we have silence, we can get on with things. Please remember that I will have no recourse except to exclude all persons but the graduates themselves from the building if complete silence from the audience cannot be maintained." He stepped back from the podium and waited. The room was holding its collective breath.
The President stepped up to the mike again. "Good. Let's get things underway."
A stream of robed, hooded and capped or bonneted academics filtered onto the stage, the black gowns and richly colored hoods and headgear lending sumptuousness to the ceremony. Jim's discontent vanished in the atmosphere of grandeur, the vestments of the participants a visual link to generations of scholars over the centuries, all striving in the pursuit of knowledge. Jim had a sense of the fitness of things. It's been a long haul on a bumpy road to get here, but I'm willing to take all the time in the world to see you receive the fruits of your labors. This is for you, buddy. I'm here for you.
Beside him, Naomi had relaxed, her breathing slowed, and all around the rows, people were hushed in anticipation.
The President gave his opening commencement speech; acknowledged the presence of their mayor, Charlotte Hanratty (in a red power suit and black pumps); and announced a series of awards for academic excellence. At last, the lower diplomas were granted. The Dean of each discipline took his or her place at the mike, calling out the name of each student, robed already and a few with mortarboards and tassels. Each mounted the side stair at the right of the podium and crossed to receive a scroll tied with satin, symbolizing the real degree, which would be delivered by mail sometime in the following few weeks. The tassel on a mortarboard, if worn, was twitched over to indicate the new status of the grad, and the student left the stage. Each one was applauded, and Jim smiled again at the thought that it really wasn't all about him, or all about Sandburg either, no matter what turmoil they had faced in getting to this point; every successful student had the reward he or she had strived for, and Jim clapped for them all.
The flow of Bachelor's degrees seemed never-ending. Rainier was a choice and well-thought-of university in North American academia. It taught many students, and taught them well. The pride of the recipients and their guests swelled up, tier by tier, and the excitement made Jim itchy to see Blair invested with his doctorate. A nervous Naomi was hanging onto Jim's suit coat, and he smiled down at her reassuringly.
But finally, the moment arrived when all the Bachelor's degrees had been handed out. The valedictorian of the graduating class had spoken, and the salutatorian had read her speech. The time for the post-grad honors to be acknowledged had come.
The Master's degrees were next on the list. Again, the prizes came before the awarding of the diplomas, and the main difference between the two stages of academic achievement was in the hood the candidates wore up to the dais. Each discipline boasted different colors and color combinations, some gaudy, some understated, but all testified to the wealth and breadth of human knowledge gained by the dedication of the wearers and their forerunners to study, research and teaching. The line was much smaller, only thirty or so graduates taking their M.A.'s or M.S.'s or M.S.W.'s and the like, but the applause was hearty, all the grads and their guests well aware of what it had taken for the students to achieve the scholastic rank.
After what had seemed like an eon, it was the turn of the Ph.D. candidates in Anthropology, of which there were only nine. Jim and Naomi both leaned forward, waiting for the announcements of the prizes. Jim was sure in his heart that Blair must have copped them all, and Naomi's proud face proclaimed that as fact.
President Perchoff stepped up to the mike. He read off the awards for excellence in specific areas of anthropology, such as research in forensic anthropology, distinction in linguistics, advancement of the science of archaeology and the like, none of them appropriate for Blair Sandburg.
The university's own awards came next. Jim and Naomi leaned forward. "The Bursar's Award for academic excellence in Anthropology is awarded to Tyrone Dempsey."
Jim and Naomi frowned.
"The Dean's Award for outstanding achievement in anthropology goes to Paulette Burgogne."
Jim and Naomi frowned more deeply.
"Finally, the President's Award for service to the university in the pursuance of the discipline of anthropology...."
Jim and Naomi caught their breath.
"...Goes to Lee Harding."
All over the hall, there was a stir, the press buzzing like hornets, comments made sotto voce about how the 'distinguished' Blair Sandburg had been passed over for distinction in the awards ceremony.
"I WILL HAVE SILENCE" came the President's roar again. The hall cut its volume in half, but the mutterings went on. It was good enough for the President. He started reading off the names of the Ph. D. candidates and one by one, they came up to be invested by their Dean with the sapphire blue velvet bonnet, tasseled in gold.
Jim and Naomi took no notice of the honors attached to the degrees of Burgogne, Dempsey or Harding, but they were at the edge of their seats waiting until "Blair Sandburg" was called out, last of the nine.
"Summa cum laude," Dean announced, and the hall was filled with applause for its own, homegrown academic hero.
Blair could finally be seen mounting the stairs. He was gorgeous in his black robes with the sapphire- and ice-blue-edged hood. To Jim's careful eyes, his normal exuberance was replaced with a sedate sterility. His best friend had been frenetic that morning, checking two and three times over that he had his rented gown, hood and bonnet safe in their plastic sheathes, and that Simon and the university hadn't sent him the wrong ones. This dampening of his friend's high spirits looked to Jim like disappointment rather than an entry into the solemnity of ages the graduation exercise invoked. Jim was certainly disappointed, and Naomi had tears on her face, quietly sobbing, half happy and half sad, he thought.
When he claimed his 'diploma', and the blue velvet bonnet was pulled securely over his curls, Blair thanked the Dean and smiled tightly at the President. He began to move away. He reached the stairs on the opposite side of the stage, and while he reseated himself in the rows, the applause began to die down. In its place were the sounds of people preparing to pick up and leave.
Again, the President called authoritatively for silence, and got it. Turning to the mass of guests and reporters, Pershoff said, "There is one last announcement to be made on behalf of this college. We at Rainier University have had the great good fortune to have one outstanding scholar amongst us, someone who not only has displayed excellence in his scholastic achievements, but also made significant contributions to the university itself, and, finally, shown heroism and selflessness in service to the greater community of Cascade at large."
Among the dignitaries on stage, some gasped, and at least one put her hand to her mouth. It seemed that the specific terminology used in the President's words had a meaning beyond the obvious. The Deans all beamed at one another before making themselves comfortable again in their seats. Chancellor Edwards was looking slightly green.
Pershoff continued. "One student has proven that the impossible is possible, by outstanding research and persistence in his studies, despite all attempts to sway him from what seemed like an untenable position. That student has also contributed to the health and life of Rainier University by challenging us to exemplify the principles and ideals of objective fair play we try to inculcate in our scholars. Furthermore, that same man has proven himself more than heroic and selfless in service to Cascade itself. He has, as part of his research into his unpopular thesis, undergone moments of danger that would dissuade anyone else from continuing in the work. He has faced ridicule and denigration by publicly renouncing his work for the sake of protecting another from an assassin's bullet, renouncing fame and fortune both. Neither was that the only occasion on which he put his life on the line to save others; the list of names of people who have declared to me that they owe their lives to him is extraordinary. He has been held hostage, was threatened with death numerous times, and suffered being shot in the leg in the course of his work. Once, he...died."
The hall was frozen, waiting for the culmination of such experiences. Jim was grinning from ear to ear, and he shot glances at all his friends, to see them grinning back at him.
Pershoff went on. "We are thankful that he survived to see this day. It is seldom that all of these qualities are to be found in one person. But we at Rainier University know that man for who he is. Whatever derogation he faced in his past, whatever fortune in the future, we know him for his triumphs as a scholar and as a man today. There is provision made for such a rare individual amongst us. This university has only awarded six times previously the Founders' Prize, for outstanding merit and service in the search for knowledge, unwavering adherence to the ideals of academia, and the betterment of the wider community in which Rainier University is situated.
"Today, it is my very great pleasure to announce the awarding of the Founders' Prize, for only the seventh time ever, and the first time in twenty-four years, to Blair Sandburg. Dr. Sandburg, please come forward."
The last line was almost inaudible; the amphitheatre exploded into cheering, and everyone leaped up. Naomi doubled over, sobbing with delight. Steadying her, Jim jockeyed the two of them out of their seats and into the aisle so that they could see Blair, see the joy on his face. He was climbing the steps slowly.
Blair felt as if his head were not connected to his feet. He looked back at the audience, searching the crowd until he saw Jim and Naomi waving at him. What a kick! He smiled in triumph, and began bouncing up the steps, giving a kind of half-wave to his mother and best friend, which made them laugh out loud.
Blair grinned back at them, reveling in their happiness, feeling giddy from their pride. When he reached the podium, he was handed a gilded trophy five feet high, which, like the scrolls before it, had been hidden in the recess of the podium itself. The prize was the original created when the university was founded; the names of the former recipients were engraved upon it in three short lines, so seldom had it been awarded anyone.
"Wow," he breathed, and the room quieted.
Pershoff hushed the room and invited Dr. Sandburg to say a few words.
Blair gulped. In some ways, this was the most stressful day he had ever spent. "I'm overwhelmed," he said, and had to stop to grin.
The audience began to chuckle softly.
"I never expected anything like this," he admitted, feasting his eyes on the figure of Athene, goddess of wisdom and war, which was the whole upper half of the thing. "Um, I don't get to keep this one, do I?" he joked.
Pershoff smiled reluctantly. "No, this one goes back into the case with the other awards. You get a mini-version of it, Dr. Sandburg. That one you can keep. And the financial award that goes with it; that too is yours to keep."
"Well, okay," Blair murmured, still in love with the statuette.
"Do you have anything else to add?" Pershoff prompted.
Blair recalled himself to the ceremony. He looked up, took in the whole ensemble, the people of knowledge and power on stage, the audience full of those he taught and worked and studied with, the firm friends who glowed with happiness for him at the various entrances, and the paparazzi.
Bingo! He got cold feet.
"Ah, um, I, ah," Blair stuttered. Pershoff clapped him lightly on the back, and Blair took heart and a lungful of air. "Thank you, President Pershoff, and all the faculty here. I'm not sure I deserve this, but I'll take it!"
The hall burst into laughter and clapping. Pershoff hushed everyone so that Blair could go on.
"All I really want to say is that I owe more to my family and friends than I could ever tell you. They've supported me through thick and thin, and especially my mother Naomi Sandburg, Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department, and my best friend and partner, Detective Jim Ellison. This," he raised the trophy high, "belongs as much to all of them as to me. Someday I'll write my memoirs and tell you all about it. But not now!" He mock-glared at the audience and intentionally glared at the press.
The audience was laughing outright. Blair tried to make his escape under cover of the chuckling, but Pershoff stayed him. Blair raised his eyebrows in puzzlement. The President did not keep him waiting long.
"Whereas the Founders' Prize is the last award given by the university, Dr. Sandburg," Pershoff spoke both to Blair and the microphone, "it is not the final honor of the day. I call upon Mayor Charlotte Hanratty and Captain Simon Banks of the Major Crime Division, Cascade Police Department, at this time."
Blair swallowed hard. He could hardly believe it when Simon, in full dress uniform, came strolling out from the wings. So that was why Blair hadn't spotted him before! Blair had eyes for no one but Simon, who was trying to look gruff, but whose lips kept lifting at the ends. Mayor Hanratty was speaking into the mike, addressing the crowd. Simon Banks put out a finger and gently directed Blair to turn toward her with a light tap on his shoulder.
Blair came to in time to hear only her last words.
"...my great pleasure to award to Dr. Blair Sandburg the Cascade Medal of Courage and name him Cascade's Citizen of the Year. Dr. Sandburg?"
Blair was not-so-gently nudged forward.
Simon produced a black velvet case from somewhere, and handed it to the mayor. She opened it and withdrew a gleaming silver medal strung on a red, white and blue ribbon.
"I call on Captain Simon Banks for the next part." She opened the case and offered the medal to the policeman.
"I know of no one who deserves this more than you, Blair. Uh, Dr. Sandburg." The ribbon stretched wide over his long fingers and Simon just barely got it to skim over the doctoral bonnet, to hang the disk at the middle of Blair's breastbone.
"Thank you, Simon. Uh, Captain Banks." Blair and Simon wore matching grins. Blair next thanked Hanratty and the citizenry of Cascade. He finished by thanking all the members of Major Crime and the Cascade Police Department as a whole. By then he was winded, and Pershoff rescued him by surging up to take his place at the microphone again.
Whatever the President was saying, Blair missed it. Simon was shepherding him towards a half-hidden emergency door, and got him through it in jig time.
"Turned that one off. Tomaki will turn it back on now."
"Oh, good. How long have you known about the medal and the Citizen of the Year thing? Jim never hinted about it or anything. It’s…. It’s…. Oh man, Simon." Blair shook his head, grinning.
Simon whistled a merry tune. "He didn't know. I put you up for the medal, and Hanratty thought up the Citizen of the Year thing herself. You know how she loves photo ops, and with luck, she'll snag the paparazzi for us. Heh-heh. As for Jim, you two are so close that sometimes, I swear, you read each other's mind and finish each other's sentences. Not gonna let something like that" -- he reached out to rap the medal hanging on Sandburg's chest – "out to your partner in crime. Heh-heh-heh-heh."
Blair was still for a moment, taking in his friend's satisfaction in pulling off the award ceremony. It made his eyes sting. He turned away to look out the window and noticed his surroundings, in the chi-chi restaurant and theater district. "Where are we going?"
"It's a surprise."
"Oh, no. A surprise party. Didn't you guys just give me one of those?"
"So sue us."
That cracked them both up, and Blair was whisked away in his full-robed splendor to a private room at the Chez Armand restaurant. The gang from Major Crime and his mother were already waiting for him, having done an end run around the press people at Convocation Hall, and gotten clean away. They were grouped around a huge table with seating for eleven; it gleamed with silver and crystal. His seat was saved, between Jim and Megan Conner, his mother directly across from him. One spot was empty.
"Hi, guys," Blair said, blushing at the warmth of the smiles turned on him. "Uh, I gotta change out of these," he flicked at his gown with both hands; "they're rented and need to go back spotless."
"Nah, don't worry about it, Hairboy," Henri said negligently.
"But I can't afford it if some wine gets spilled or something. I got a feeling this party isn't going to stay exactly sedate." Blair eyed Henri and Rafe with deep suspicion.
Rhonda giggled and Megan joined her.
"S'okay, Sandy," Megan insisted. "Wear 'em like you own 'em."
"Jim?" Blair was incredulous that Jim hadn't spoken about ruining the rented robes. Mr. Anal should have been telling him to take them off before he spoiled them. His disbelief showed in his face and out-thrown hands. "I can't...."
"Yeah, you can," Joel assured him. "They're yours."
"Our graduation present to you," Simon tossed off. He caught Blair's eye and Blair's jaw dropped when he realized the true surprise Captain Banks and the Major Crime Department of the Cascade Police Department had had in store for him.
"You might need them in the future, right, Chief?" his best friend said.
Blair peered around the table, taking in the sudden seriousness of every face. It was as if he could read their hearts. Each man and woman was reflecting on the saga of How Blair Sandburg Got His Doctorate, and the academic finery, pomp and prestige seemed to have brought home to them all the reality of his career as a teacher in a way they had never internalized before. They had gotten an abrupt wake-up call. Dr. Blair Sandburg had choices and options, which they had never before realized, in their guts, were his. The gift of his academic robes hit Blair where he lived. These people had finally gotten it. They were giving back to him his original choice of career, no strings attached; whatever he wanted, they would support.
Blair smiled blindingly at Simon and the rest of the party, then turned to face Jim directly to answer his question. "Nah. It's highly unlikely. What does a police consultant need with a get-up like Leonardo da Vinci, huh?"
It was too solemn a moment for one quip to turn the emotional tide. "Thought you specialized in, what did he call it, 'proving the impossible was possible'? You never know." Jim spoke more earnestly than Blair could remember ever hearing him before.
Dr. Sandburg nodded his head a couple of times, and pursed his lips. "You never know," he reiterated. "Anyone making book on it? The smart money is on the CPD, guys," he swept the group of his friends and family with a warm glance. "I think you kinda got me, like, forever."
Naomi teared up again, Simon bit back a smile, and Jim put his hand out over his partner's.
"Forever's a long time, Chief," the detective said.
"Yeah, but I specialize in proving the impossible is possible," Blair shot back. "Forever? I can do forever."
Jim lifted his hand to swat Blair's curls and stopped a millimeter away from the bonnet. "Hey, take off the hat! I can't whap you upside the head with that thing on."
"Never taking it off, then," Blair bantered.
"What, you're gonna shower with it on?" Jim demanded.
Blair was about to answer when his mouth was very effectively prevented from speaking by a pair of Aussie Inspector Megan Conner lips. She took her sweet time, and Blair blushed red to the accompaniment of hoots and gibes. Rhonda replaced her and kissed him with equal affection. "Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg."
Naomi had rounded the table and was doing the motherly kissing routine. Jim poured out champagne for all.
"To Dr. Blair Sandburg, who is a very good fellow indeed," Jim toasted his partner.
Blair was unsuccessful in persuading the Major Crime chorus from singing his praises.
"Wow," he said to himself, ruddy of face. "Wow."
The song had just ended when the waiter arrived with a silver salver full of hors-d'oeuvres. An eleventh guest trailed behind him, his briefcase under his arm.
The waiter showed Dr. Stoddard to the last chair, and, setting his briefcase aside, he leaned forward to grip Blair's hand firmly. "Dr. Sandburg, I presume."
Blair was chuckling in delight, so Jim answered for him. "Yes, indeed, this is Dr. Sandburg, Dr. Stoddard." He made the real introductions to the other members of the party, and went on, "It's a shame you had to miss the ceremony."
"I flew in from Beijing, but the flight was delayed," Blair's mentor explained.
"Don't worry," Daryl puffed up slightly. "I have it all on tape."
"I'd really hoped you could be there, but I'm glad you're here for the party," Blair said, eyes shining.
Eli took back his hand. "I had a difficult task entrusted to me, and many adventures and much gold spent before it was ended."
Blair looked at him sideways, doubt deep in his eyes. "Why are you playing Indiana Jones? Or is it his father? C'mon, Eli, give with the mysterious stuff!"
Stoddard harrumphed and shook his head. "These young men. So impetuous." He waited, teasing, until Blair could stand no more of it.
Everyone laughed then, and Dr. Stoddard filched something from the innards of the briefcase. He tossed a rectangular parcel wrapped in gold foil with blue ribbons around it across the table. "Blair, from Jim" said the attached tag. It was in Eli Stoddard's handwriting.
Blair looked from it to his partner.
'Yeah, buddy,' Jim's eyes told him.
Blair gulped and picked up his gift. He slipped the ribbons easily over the foil, and lifted the tape with a table knife. Inside was something swaddled in white tissue paper.
"What on earth?" Blair tried to guess what he was about to get.
"C'mon, Blair," Rafe bitched. "We all wanna see it."
"Yeah, hurry up" and "Go on, open it" and "Whatcha waiting for?" jolted him into action.
The tissue came away easily. It revealed an old, leather-bound book about the size and shape of trade paperbacks. Blair passed his fingers over the bindings, then brought the volume up close to his face for the delicious scent of aged leather. "Nice, whatever it is," Blair looked up at Jim hesitantly.
Jim's face was shuttered. It was Jim's Black Ops, I-don't-give-information-I-extract-it-from-you-with-whatever-force-is-necessary-and-I-am-really-hoping-you-don't-cooperate-you-slime-you face. Blair blinked. He scanned the text again, his fingers stroking it unconsciously.
"I think I'm afraid to open it," he admitted quietly to his best friend.
Jim put his hand over Blair's and Blair let him lift the cover with their index fingers to display the first page after the onionskin.
"The Shaman of Siberia, My Journal of Adventures" was the title written by a bold hand in rusty ink. The author named himself – Richard Burton.
Blair stopped breathing. Something had paralyzed his brain; the words did not make sense, they could not make sense, they were impossible.
"Breathe, Sandburg," Jim suggested with a punch to his shoulder.
Blair woke up out of his reveries. "Oh, my God, Jim. Is this real?"
"Yeah. If Eli is to be believed," Jim assured him.
Dr. Stoddard scowled at the detective, but nodded once, decisively, to Blair.
"You bought it from Eli?" Blair was trying to understand, looking from one to the other.
With a wave of his hand, Eli gave silent permission to Jim to tell the rest.
"He bought it as my agent, to give to you, if he ever found it. Or something like it. I know you don't have the money to spend on collector's books, but I figured if Eli ever turned up something by Burton on sentinels or shaman, I'd find the money somehow."
"Did this put you in debt?"
"Didn't your mother ever tell you not to ask how much a present cost?" Jim and Naomi shook their heads at the lapse of manners of such a troublesome child.
Eli cleared his throat. "I found it in...."
"Borneo?" Blair asked incredulously.
"No, you young whippersnapper," Eli barked, then sat back and rested himself. "I always wanted to call someone a young whippersnapper. Thank you, Dr. Sandburg, for that experience." His eyes were a-twinkle.
"Where? How? Eli!"
"It took a great deal of tracking down, a lot of feelers put out here and there, and much negotiation as to price, I will say that," Stoddard stated. "The last owner had some idea of its material worth, and not a shred of any understanding of its true value. I have delivered it to you personally, and completed my commission. More, I will not say."
Blair inhaled deeply. His fingers played over leather and silk, onionskin and deckle. "Oh, man." There were only two people in the room. "Oh, man, Jim."
"I am so proud you're my partner, Chief," Jim whispered.
Blair looked up with his soul in his eyes. "Me too, Jim. You make me proud every day."
Jim leaned over his smaller partner and slung his arm around Blair's neck. Blair's hands left the treasure and locked into place around Jim. They didn't say anything, but then, they didn't have to.
Major Crime, Eli and Naomi happily ate all the hors-d'oeuvres.
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