Virtual Season 5, Episode 4
Henri Brown loved his wife.
Which was the only explanation for his current presence in the Cascade Supermarket at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, grocery shopping. His wife had asked. And because he loved her, he'd accepted. For better or worse, and all that crap.
Microwave popcorn, check. Ritz crackers, check. Paper towels, check. Feminine stuff. Henri sighed. Check. Only seven items of the original forty-two remained, and six were in the produce aisle by the check-out counters. Next up, fresh, boneless chicken breasts for his wife's delicious cornmeal chicken. Yeah, baby, he was in the home stretch now.
"Hey!" Henri twisted to dodge two running children and almost rammed his grocery cart into a display of Spam. Grumbling, he turned back around and side-swiped the cart of a rather obese woman in purple shorts and a tank top.
"Watch it, tubby," the woman called out, her voice raspy and unpleasant.
"Sorry," Henri mumbled, ever the good public servant. Just who was calling who "tubby," anyway? But she'd already turned her sights on a mousy man with watery eyes gazing longingly at row after row of tenderloins and cube steaks. A clipped command in her raspy voice had him obediently turning and following her down the laxatives aisle.
Poor S.O.B., thought Henri. Glancing again at his list, he zigzagged around a much-too-young mother with a baby in a backpack, and two elderly men arguing about tobacco, and stopped just shy of the fresh chicken. A middle-aged woman in an ugly pea-green housecoat was ahead of him, obviously after the same thing. Taking her time, she lifted each package of boneless chicken to her nose and sniffed it. Not satisfied, she started over, poking each one with a dirty, ragged fingernail.
Henri suddenly lost his taste for chicken and grabbed a package of pork, "the other white meat." He hoped his wife loved him as much as he loved her, and imagined that cornmeal pork chops would be delicious.
Boneless chicken breasts, check. Which left only red lettuce, broccoli, carrots, onions, melon, and Macintosh apples. The produce aisle was just past the rest of the fresh meat, an "Employees Only" door, and a large refrigerated display of processed and packaged meats. Hell, he might even pick up a few mangoes, if he could figure out which ones they were. Sandburg said they were delicious and very healthy.
POP! SNAP! POP!
What the hell...? Henri looked up just in time to see a mangled cucumber and several blueberries fly past.
More small explosions went off in rapid succession, sending pieces of fruits and vegetables flying in all directions, while brilliant flashes of color rained sparks throughout the store.
People were screaming and running toward the exits. Henri tried to keep order as best he could, but his voice couldn't be heard over the mayhem. Another round of explosions had Cheerios and Fruit Loops arcing gracefully through the air along with flashes of blues and greens and yellows and orange. A child tripped on a wire rack and Henri helped right the little boy as his mother grabbed him on the run.
Still more explosions crackled and burst through the store. Bits of cucumber landed on Henri's head and cucumber juice and seeds dribbled down his face. As flying tomato mush landed on his shirt, Henri's demeanor went from bewildered to totally pissed-off.
"Grenade!" someone screamed.
Diving for cover, Henri Brown determined that whoever planned this chaos was going to be very, very sorry.
Intensely disappointed, a shadowy figure by the pepperoni patted his left pocket and sighed. "Sorry, Eddie," the figure said, then slipped silently through the Employees Only door.
Blair groaned as his alarm buzzed, but he couldn't muster enough energy to roll over and turn it off. Five seconds later, his backup alarm went off. Loudly.
"Sandburg, damn it!"
Yes, he could always count on his backup alarm. Suddenly feeling guilty, Blair turned and whacked the button on the clock, then slid the switch that turned the alarm completely off, something he should have done last night. He and Jim had been on a stakeout until 3 a.m., which happily resulted in them finally catching Dunlop. Unhappily, it also resulted in booking procedures, statements, and paperwork. They didn't get home until well past five o'clock.
What the hell. He was already awake. Might as well take a shower and go over the notes for his afternoon classes on Monday. Blair sat up and winced as his muscles protested. He ran his hands through his hair, grabbed a clean pair of shorts, and headed for the bathroom.
"Sorry, Jim," he whispered softly before closing the bathroom door.
The long hot shower appeased his sore muscles, but Blair still felt vaguely out of it. He looked at himself critically in the mirror. Did he look older? Old? Oh man, was that a grey... nope, just the light hitting his hair funny.
He hadn't really given much thought to turning thirty. Well, there was a hell of a lot of "stuff" happening at the time, but still... he remembered plenty of times he'd gotten less than five hours of sleep and still felt great in the morning. And a time when his muscles didn't ache, and his knees didn't creak. Naomi had always taught him that age didn't matter and that you were as young as you felt.
Of course, he also remembered lots of sage-burning, meditation, and a brief foray into Wacky-Dough in the days surrounding his mother's thirtieth birthday.
And Tim's comment last night didn't help any. So what if his room was small and he shared the place with a friend... well, rented the place with a friend? The surprise and -- disgust? -- in his friend's voice was unexpected. Hell, Tim lived in a crummy little studio apartment near a tannery. On the other hand, it was Tim's, to do with and play in as he pleased.
"You growing roots in there, Sandburg? My bladder isn't infinitely elastic, you know."
"Yeah, yeah, sorry Jim. I'll be out in a second."
"Good. I'll start the coffee. You can make breakfast while I shower."
Blair sighed. He shaved in record time, brushed his teeth, and used some Kleenex to wipe his hair from the drain. Opening the door, he almost bumped into Jim heading toward the shower.
"Leave me any hot water?" Jim asked, jumping slightly to his right to avoid the collision.
Did he? Blair could barely remember taking his shower. Being thirty sucked. "I, uh..."
Jim swatted him with the clean sweat pants he was carrying. "I was joking, Chief. Go make breakfast. The sooner we get to the station to finish up the paperwork on Dunlop the better."
"Yeah, okay." Shit. He'd forgotten about having to go to the station. Well, it wasn't like he'd had any other plans. Blair didn't bother to close his doors as he returned to his room to dress. Comfortable jeans, which seemed a little too tight, and the first clean shirts he found were good enough. He ran a pick through his hair, tied it back, and returned to the kitchen to start the bacon. By the time the bacon was ready to turn, Jim was showered, shaved, dressed, and far too wide-awake.
Blair poured the scrambled egg mixture into the frying pan and started cutting the bagels. Jim trotted down the stairs and paused at the bottom, hands on hips, frowning.
"Is it in hot in here?" He looked around, deliberately, as if he expected to find a campfire burning beneath the coffee table.
Blair yawned deeply, and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe that's why I still feel so wiped."
"Maybe you still feel so wiped because you've only been getting five hours of sleep each night for the past week." Jim moved through the living room and placed his hand on the woodstove.
Swishing the eggs around with the spatula, Blair considered. Jim was right. He'd had an article he'd been finishing for a journal and a class this semester he'd never taught before; they always took more work the first time around. Not to mention a stack of blue-books to grade from Anthro 101 and 102, a museum open house, and three late nights with Jim working on the Dunlop case. No wonder he was tired. Somehow, that made him feel better. He turned off the burners.
"Damn it, Chief!"
Blair jumped at the suddenly close voice. "Geez, Jim. What?"
Jim was standing in front of the thermostat. "You never turned the heat down last night. That's why it's like a furnace in here."
"Oh. Sorry. I know, I know, I seem to be saying that a lot lately."
Jim sighed as he turned the dial down. "It's all right. I'll open the balcony door for a little while to cool the place down."
Blair whacked himself in the forehead. Dumb dumb dumb. He'd never forgotten that before.
The bagels popped up and something behind him thumped. Jim let out an unintelligible exclamation and fell against the back of the couch, clutching his stockinged foot. "Shit!" he yelled more coherently, along with a few other choice, unprintable words.
Blair hurried over, wiping his hands. "Jim! Are you okay?"
"What," Jim spat out between clenched teeth, "the hell is that?"
Blair followed Jim's finger and smiled proudly. "Yeah, isn't it great? It's a handmade, cast-iron, elephant's foot umbrella stand. Cool, huh?"
"Do I look like I think it's 'cool,' Sandburg?" Jim had moved to sit on the arm of the couch as he soothed his injured toe. "How long has it been here and how the hell did you get it upstairs?"
"Just a sec." Blair dashed off to the kitchen and returned with a bag of frozen peas. Jim wrapped the bag around his rapidly swelling toe and continued to glare at the umbrella stand.
"I bought it yesterday, after class, and a bunch of guys came over to help me carry it up. A friend of a friend owns this place called Faux Paw Recreations. Since the campaign to keep people from buying fur coats and ivory trinkets and other items that come at the expense of endangered species has been relatively unsuccessful, she decided to offer an alternative. You know, jewelry that looks like authentic ivory, fake fur coats, and cast iron elephant's foot umbrella stands. All the profits from the business go to the Endangered Species Protection Unit of South Africa and the local Humane Society."
Jim stood up and gingerly tested his foot. "Couldn't you have just bought an ivory choker or something?"
"Aw, come on, man. This is a work of art! I figured it would look great in the corner here. And we do have umbrellas, you know. Voila! Now we have a place to keep them."
Jim limped to the kitchen and retrieved his plate. "We already have a place to keep them. On the hook. By the door. Where we can conveniently grab them when we need them."
"Fine." Blair grabbed his own plate and joined him at the table. "We'll fill it with M & Ms then."
They arrived at the station just before noon. Jim was surprised to find Henri and Rafe hard at work on a Saturday. Actually, Henri was hard at work. Rafe was sitting on the edge of his desk eating an apple. It looked like an apple, and he could certainly smell apple, but the smell of cucumber was just as strong.
"Hey, guys!" Blair called out as he slung his backpack down by his desk. "What are you doing here? I thought you had the weekend off."
"Did." Rafe was grinning at some private joke. "Do. But Brown here decided we didn't have enough of a case load, so he's been soliciting work."
Jim opened his mouth to ask, but his partner beat him to it. "What happened?"
Henri didn't even look up from his typing, so Rafe answered for him. "Got tomato splattered all over his favorite Hawaiian shirt."
Jim grinned. "Ah. Been telling your bad jokes again, H? Comedy Night at Club Doom?"
This time Henri did look up. Blair's eyes grew wide and he let out an unintentional laugh. "Whoa, man, what happened to you?"
Henri's shirt was a mess and there were still a couple of stray seeds clinging to the side of his face. "Vegetables happened to me, Sandburg."
Rafe patted his partner on the head. "Allow me to translate. Did you hear about the fireworks going off at Sam's Market on Thursday?"
"Yeah. They figured it was some college frat stunt or something."
"Well, they don't think so anymore. It happened again this morning at The Cascade Supermarket. Where H was shopping."
"Oh, man!" Blair laughed.
Henri sat back and pressed a key with an air of finality. "If you'd been there, you wouldn't be laughing, man. These weren't just a few firecrackers and ground spinners. We're talking a sophisticated series of fireworks rigged to go off at different times throughout the store. Joel's down there now trying to figure out how they did it. Besides several firecrackers, there were also aerial spinners, fountains, at least two missiles, and a Roman candle. One of the missiles just missed an elderly woman, and a kid was slightly burned by the falling sparks."
"Ouch." Blair became serious. "Sorry, man."
Henri grinned for the first time that morning and waved dismissively. "Hell, Sandburg, if you showed up covered in cucumbers... actually, with all that natural crap you use in your hair, this is probably an every day occurrence for you."
Blair smirked and Rafe changed the subject. "So why're you two here?"
"Closing out the Dunlop case." Jim finally sat and booted up his computer. Chit-chat with the co-workers was all well and good, but he wanted to get home to the ballgame.
"Damn." Rafe tossed this apple core into a nearby wastebasket. "Another case closed. You guys give the rest of us a bad name. How'd you do it?"
"An old TV show Jim saw." Blair bounced back on his heels and glanced proudly at him. It was embarrassing, in a flattering sort of way. "We had no proof, no body. So Jim called Dunlop around ten last night and said that they'd found his wife's body, and could he come in this morning to ID her?"
Rafe smiled and nodded. "And then you staked out Dunlop's house, knowing he was going to leave at some point to go check on the real body. Clever."
"Good, Rafe," Jim said. "We'll make a detective of you yet."
Some of Blair's bounce depleted. Jim knew that his partner had harbored a small amount of hope that the woman would turn up alive, but he'd had no illusions. Dunlop was a sick bastard and he'd met too many not to know the difference.
"Well, hey," Blair offered as he finally sat down to finish his report, "if you need any help with the bomber case, let us know."
Shut up, Sandburg, Jim thought, though it was worth saying out loud. "Shut up, Sandburg. 'Take the weekend off' ring a bell with you?"
"Don't worry, Ellison. This case is all mine." Henri was waiting by the printer for his pages to spit out. "The worst thing of all is, I still have to go grocery shopping."
"Seriously, Chief," Jim said as they drove back to the loft two hours later. "Can't you move that elephant thing into your room?"
"Well, yeah, though, as you may recall, it's a very small room without a lot of extra space. What's your problem with it?" He was thirty years old. He ought to be able to buy a piece of furniture without being subjected to the third degree.
"It's ugly. And big. And did I mention ugly?"
"It's a classic. And useful. And did I mention it was a classic?"
"A Model-T Ford convertible is a classic. The Mona Lisa is a classic. The Dirty Dozen is a classic. That big, black, incredibly heavy thing is a monstrosity."
"Since when have you become Martha Stewart, all worried about the decor of your home?"
"Since my big toe ballooned to the size of a football." Jim turned to look at him when he didn't answer right away. "Chief?"
"Nothing, man. Just thinking." Shocked, Blair realized what he'd just said to Jim. The decor of your home? Not our home, but your home? What the hell was that all about? He loved living at the loft. He loved the loft.
"You can still keep M & Ms in it," Jim offered.
But Blair's mind had wandered on to other things.
Monday morning dawned a bright hazy grey, promising rain by the afternoon. A lone figure stood silently in the mist, observing the ebb and flow of customers visiting Beemer's Corner Grocer.
"Okay, Eddie, maybe we'll get lucky today," he said, patting a pocket of his army fatigue jacket affectionately. "I was so sure we'd find him on Saturday. But don't worry, we won't give up."
The time approached 7:45 a.m. The parking lot was filling rapidly with commuters stopping to grab a Danish from Beemer's popular bakery, or perhaps a deli sandwich to save for lunch. The figure watched them all with keen interest.
The moment had arrived to test this group of people. He removed a small black hand-held device that looked like a TV remote and pressed one of the buttons.
All hell broke loose.
"Thanks. We'll be there Thursday at ten." Jim hung up the phone and penned in the appointment on his desk calendar. Closing the open file on his computer, he leaned back and finally enjoyed his cup of coffee. Two minutes later, the fine odor of quality cigars teased his nostrils.
"Heads up, H, he's on his way."
Henri, rumpled and red-eyed, looked up from the notes he was scribbling. Actually, Jim couldn't remember the last time he'd seen him so... industrious. When Jim had arrived that morning for work, Henri was already knee-deep in files, typing furiously, and referencing at least three different books on explosives.
Jim tapped his nose and nodded toward the elevator.
Henri shook his head and grinned. "Man, that's just creepy. But I like it."
The elevator doors opened and Simon and Rafe sauntered out, discussing last night's baseball game. Henri smoothed his shirt and unconsciously rubbed his shiny scalp. Or maybe it was consciously, Henri's own good luck charm. Jim couldn't decide.
"Captain, good morning," Henri said brightly.
Simon unbuttoned his coat as he walked by. "Good morning, Detective. Detectives," he added with a quick glance at Jim.
Rafe shrugged and slung his coat on a hook by his desk. "Hi, Rafe," he mumbled to himself. "How you doing, buddy? Oh, I'm just fine. Thanks for asking."
Henri ignored him, concentrating his full attention on Simon's retreating back. "Did you get my message on your answering machine, Captain?"
Simon paused and turned around. "As a matter of fact, I did. All seven of them."
Henri shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, yeah. Well, I wasn't sure if I explained things well in the first message, and then...."
"Brown, you knew I was away with Daryl for the weekend."
"Yes, sir." Henri cleared his throat. "I just thought, in case you got home early...."
"I didn't. But in any case, I'd have to say the answer is 'no.'" Simon resumed the trek to his office.
"You got the Finelli case closed? Thought not. Demars? Johansson?"
Henri shook his head in frustration at the mention of each name.
"Then I don't think there's really anything to discuss here, Detective."
Henri jumped up, and would have spilled his bottle of Coke but for Rafe's quick reaction. "But Captain! Patrol is more than willing to give me -- us -- the case. They're swamped down there with, well, the everyday stuff Patrol has to do, but we're not so busy --"
"I said 'no,' Brown." Simon sighed and his expression softened. He walked back to Henri's desk. "Look, H, I appreciate your interest in this case, but 'fireworks in a grocery store' just doesn't fit the definition of a major crime. No one was seriously injured, the damage sustained only added up to a misdemeanor, and it was probably just the work of some whacked-out college kids."
"Sir, it was sheer luck no one was hurt worse, and --" Henri looked desperately around his desk, then grabbed three newspapers, "-- now that it's happened twice, it's a serial, uh, thing. Look, front page news. Even if it is the bottom story on the front pages."
Simon shook his head, unimpressed.
"They're even giving the guy a name!" Henri tossed each newspaper down in succession. "The Cherry Bomber. The Grim Grocer. And my personal favorite, The Cereal Bomber." At Simon's raised eyebrow, Henri added, "Cereal as in C-E-R-E-A-L. The guy planted some of the firecrackers in boxes of Cheerios."
Simon snorted. "Not a major crime. Good name, though." He once again turned around to leave.
Henri ignored his suddenly ringing phone to launch his final salvo. "There was a grenade!"
Aha. Jim watched Simon's expression turn from amused to intrigued. The captain turned once again and backtracked to Henri's desk.
"Yes, sir. In both instances, Sam's Market and Cascade Supermarket, a grenade was sighted bouncing along the floor."
"Sighted." Henri sighed. "Admittedly, neither one was recovered, sir, but what are the odds of two imaginary grenades being seen?"
Simon raised three fingers and spoke meaningfully. "Finelli. Demars. Johansson. Now please let me get all the way to my office so I can at least take off my coat."
"Wait!" Surprisingly, this plea came from Rafe, who was just hanging up Henri's phone. "That was Roberts. There's been another bombing -- well, fireworks display -- at Beemer's Corner Grocer. This time a young mother received a severe concussion from a flying avocado." Rafe seemed suddenly embarrassed at this ridiculous sounding statement. "Anyway, another grenade was sighted but not recovered."
Henri looked from his partner to his captain. "There you go!"
"Damn," Simon muttered, though Jim wasn't sure which aspect of the situation he was damning.
Rafe added, "Roberts also said, and I quote, sir, 'Get that captain of yours to take this stinking case so we can get some real work done down here.'"
"Well, Captain?" Henri eyes were wide and earnest.
"Sir?" Rafe said.
Jim couldn't help himself. "Aw, come on, Captain."
Simon scowled at all three in turn, then rubbed his temples. Finally, he waved his arm in the general direction of the elevator. "Go! Get out of here, and you'd better damn well solve this case in record time."
Henri and Rafe were gone before he'd even finished talking.
You have a fair grasp of the customs of the Lakota Sioux, Blair wrote neatly into the margin. Unfortunately, this essay question concerned the marriage rituals of the Cree. Please see me about a makeup test. He sighed and tossed the blue-book onto the completed pile and leaned back to rest his eyes.
"Hey, you would not believe what I got over the weekend!"
Blair jumped at the voice. "Denise. Man, give me a heart attack!"
"Sorry." His assistant sat on the edge of his desk holding a large package protectively wrapped in what looked like beach towels. "You okay?"
Blair grinned. "Yeah, I'm good. I just didn't hear you come in." He nodded at the package. "So...?"
Denise's face lit up as she yanked off the beach towels, tossing them recklessly behind her. "Believe it or not, I got this at a yard sale on Sunday. For only fifty-five bucks." She stood and held the item up for inspection. "Tada!"
"Oh man! That's great. Fifty-five bucks?"
"Amazing what you can find at yard sales, huh? And I think the lady who sold it to me thought she was getting away with something, but I've seen similar prints sold at nativeamericantraders.com for over a thousand dollars."
Blair reached out and ran his finger lightly over the image of a woman mourning the loss of her warrior husband. Kneeling in grief next to his funeral pyre, various symbolic spirit animals watched over her through a hazy blue mist. Though just a print of the original painting, the painstaking detail and craftsmanship was obvious.
"Wow," he sighed.
"I'm going to hang it over my make-believe fireplace in my apartment." Denise set the print down, and resumed her seat on his desk. "They still had some other prints for sale," she offered. "We could go over after your last class and ask."
Blair chewed his lip and thought about his handmade, cast-iron elephant's foot umbrella stand. "Nah, that's all right."
"Okay, I hear 'wistful' in your voice. Why not? It can't be a money thing. You're getting two paychecks now." Denise pulled back a little and looked shocked. "I mean, not that it's any of my business."
Blair smiled and waved his hand dismissively. "Not a money thing. A space thing. I have zero wall space in my room to put anything, never mind a large painting."
Denise frowned. "So? Put it in the living room."
"Yeah, right." Blair was beginning to feel uncomfortable, so he grabbed the next blue-book and opened to the first page. He'd read as far as "Like other people, the Cree Indians liked to get married..." when the booklet was snatched from his hands and Denise's frowning face replaced it in his field of vision.
"Denise. I'm trying to get some work done."
"Jim lets you put stuff in the living room."
"Yeah. Mostly stuff of mine that he likes."
"Well, doesn't he only put stuff out there that you like?"
Blair sat back and studied the teeth marks on his pencil. This was an angle he hadn't considered before. Even way, way back when Jim had decided to paint the kitchen, they'd discussed the color together. Originally Jim had wanted blue. Blair wanted gold with texture. Dark green was a compromise. And now that he thought about it, the few times Jim had something new to hang or place on a shelf, he'd always shown it to him first. Of course, Jim had pretty good taste for the most part, so Blair's dislike of any decoration was never really tested.
"Actually, yeah. I've never understood the appeal of that Red Heron poster, but Jim's enthusiasm outweighed my ambiguity, so I didn't say anything." Blair turned the pencil over in his hands and nodded to himself. "Maybe my problem is that I just need to spread out a little."
"You're already doing that." Denise grinned evilly and leaned over the desk to pat his stomach. "'Middle-age spread' I think they call it."
Blair sat up suddenly and swatted her hand away. "Yeah, like I needed to hear that today."
"For heaven's sake, I was just kidding. You're as lean and handsome as ever, and still the professor most swooned over by all the little undergraduates on campus. Geez, Blair, lighten up." Denise retrieved her painting and towels and disappeared out the door.
Joel Taggart exited Beemer's Corner Grocer and joined Henri and Rafe at the edge of the parking lot. The two detectives were leaning against Rafe's car, sipping Starbucks coffee and informally observing the curious crowds. At Henri's request, Megan was wandering inconspicuously among the onlookers with her small camcorder, filming the scene like a morbidly curious tourist. Henri was pretty sure their fireworks guy would follow the same MO as typical arsonists: they often hung around to observe the aftereffects of their handiwork.
"Same as Saturday," Joel said, answering Henri's unasked question. He held up a bunch of wires stuffed into an evidence bag. "The various fireworks were set up to go off by remote control, in this case three different frequencies, so three different 'batches' of explosives. My guess is he comes to the store first thing in the morning to hide the explosives, then waits until the place is busy to set them off."
Rafe yawned. "The dogs having any better luck finding the grenade than we did?"
"Nope." Joel dropped the evidence bag into his jacket pocket and shoved his hands in after, shivering slightly in the moist, chilly air. "The guy must pick it up afterwards for some reason."
Henri's eyebrows rose slightly and he sipped his coffee. "Now why would he do that?"
Joel shrugged. "Doesn't want to leave evidence lying around?"
"The fireworks are already there. What difference would a grenade make?"
"Maybe it has sentimental value," Rafe offered.
Henri took the suggestion seriously. "Then why throw it to begin with? And he only has what, five seconds anyway to put the pin back in before it goes off?"
"Maybe that's it. The grenade part of his MO is for thrills. To see if he can get the pin back in in time. Hell, we don't even know if he does take the pin out."
Joel sighed and buttoned his coat. "You two can figure this out. I'll get the evidence back to the station and go over it more thoroughly, now that the case is officially in Major Crime's hands." He walked toward his own car a few yards away.
"What would the guy do if someone threw himself on that grenade?" Rafe asked thoughtfully. "Or maybe that eventuality is part of the thrill."
"You know, like in the movies."
"Oh, man." Henri paused in mid-sip. "People just don't do that these days. Outside of a war, anyway."
Rafe's grin was cocky. "Aw, come on, Brown. You mean you wouldn't throw yourself on a grenade to save my life?"
Henri laughed out loud. "Not likely, Rafe. Any more than you'd throw yourself on one for me."
"What, and ruin my suit?" Rafe's grin faded slightly and his expression turned serious. "In all seriousness, though, you know that...."
Henri nodded, serious himself. "Yeah, I know." Uncomfortable with the unspoken sentimentality hanging in the air, Henri suddenly laughed out loud. "Now Ellison. He'd throw himself on a grenade in a minute to save Sandburg, no problem."
Rafe nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, and Sandburg would probably do the same for him."
"Different styles, though. Ellison would grit his teeth and fall forward, all stoic and silent." Henri imitated Ellison's expression, and Rafe laughed.
"Yeah, and Sandburg would probably just close his eyes as he fell forward, yelling something like, 'Oh man, this sucks, this totally sucks!'"
Henri laughed again and jerked his head toward the car. "Come on, babe. Let's get back to the station."
The figure at the edge of the parking lot jotted a few notes on a small pad of paper. "Ellison and Sandburg," he said out loud. "God, Eddie, I hope they're right. Our search might be finally over."
A very thoughtful Blair Sandburg entered 852 Prospect Street late Monday afternoon. He'd been distracted all day, ever since his talk with Denise, to the point where even his students noticed. His face flushed as he recalled telling his last class that the Kombai Tree People built beautiful "lofts" on top of jungle trees. Right. And the Aztecs lived in swamp condominiums.
So what was his problem? Was he really feeling restless, or was it a mid-life crisis or something? Maybe it was just the psychological fact that he had turned thirty, a fact he couldn't really process at the time considering all the other things going on, like the destruction of Jim's life and his own career. Then there was the return of Alex, and then Brackett, and now that life had settled down, and he finally had his doctorate, he was feeling... what, exactly?
The elevator doors jerked open and Blair stepped inside, pressing the button for the third floor. Basically, he knew he was happy, just... missing something. Restless. Not restless as in he wanted to move again; just... restless.
The elevator doors opened. Blair sighed and stepped out into the hallway. Maybe he should seek counseling. Or talk to Naomi. Or go away for a week.
"Or maybe," Blair mumbled out loud as he fumbled for his key, "I just need a girlfriend. I haven't had sex in, like, forever."
The apartment door swung open as he uttered the last sentence and he looked straight into the face of a plump, very startled, older woman. She slapped him.
"I, uh...." Blair absently covered his stinging cheek with his hand and stepped back. An older man was glaring at him from behind the woman.
"You!" Bradley Lathrop's eyes narrowed as he stepped into view from the kitchen. He owned the condo beneath the loft, and Jim and Blair were not his favorite people.
Blair looked at the number on the door and realized his mistake. "Sorry. Sorry ma'am," he said. "I thought this was where I lived. I must have pushed '2' instead of '3'."
In unison, the elderly couple turned to Lathrop, who recovered in true salesman fashion. He smiled sweetly.
"This is Mr. Sandburg. He lives in the loft above you."
The man scowled. "We --"
"Should you decide to purchase this lovely apartment, that is," Lathrop added smoothly.
Blair perked up at that. "Oh! Welcome to 852! Personally, I love it here. And I do apologize for my earlier comment, I was, uh, talking to myself." He grinned, embarrassed.
The woman's expression softened a bit. "Well, we haven't decided yet. We --"
Three very loud thumps sounded in succession above them. All four people occupying Apartment 207 looked up at the ceiling. What the hell? Jim should be home; his truck was parked in its usual spot. For a brief moment, Blair wondered if he was trying to move the damn homemade, cast-iron elephant's foot umbrella stand by himself. Stupid idiot -- that thing weighed a ton!
That thought was dispelled when a crash came from the kitchen area and several more thumps in quick succession sounded just above the door, then out in the hall. Blair ran to the stairwell and jerked the door open. A tall, stocky kid was running down the stairs with Jim close on his heels.
"Stop him, Sandburg!" Jim called out.
In one smooth motion, Blair slid his backpack off his shoulders and down onto his right arm, which he then swung in a smooth arc into the chest of the approaching kid. Unfortunately, the kid reached out awkwardly to deflect the pack and instead got one of his arms through the straps. He and Blair became tangled, and momentum brought them back through the door. They crashed onto the second floor hallway.
Jim arrived just seconds later. "You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah, man, I'm fine. What's going on?"
Jim leaned over and gently untangled Blair from the kid. To Blair's surprise, the kid was crying miserably, saying "I'm sorry," over and over again.
Even more of a surprise was Jim's reaction. He helped the kid sit up and gently rubbed his back. "It's okay." Sighing, he turned back to Blair and spoke softly. "Dunlop's eldest son, Peter. He refused to believe his father could kill his mother, and decided to take his anger out on us. Looked up my address in the phonebook and came here prepared to... Actually, I'm not sure what he planned to do. Got in a few good punches, though."
Peter Dunlop. Blair recognized him now that he was sitting up and had stopped crying. Poor kid.
"Why you don't get an unlisted number, Jim," Blair said as he stood up and brushed himself off, "I'll never know."
"Oh, my," came a whispered woman's voice. The elderly couple were staring open-mouthed from the safety of 207's doorway.
Blair had almost forgotten about them. He smiled endearingly. "Sorry about the commotion, folks. Doesn't happen all that often, I promise."
"All that often?" said the woman, wide-eyed.
Now that the crisis was over, Lathrop squeezed his way between the couple and out into the hallway. His face was turning an unhealthy shade of purple, but he was still trying to salvage a possible sale. "Mr. Ellison, how nice of you to help the young man," he said pleasantly between clenched teeth. "This is the kind of chivalry one can expect at 852 Prospect."
Jim nodded, barely acknowledging Lathrop's presence. "Sorry this happened again, Lathrop. I know how hard it is for you to rent that place, what with all the police activity and noise that seems to keep popping up." He helped Dunlop to his feet and patted him on the back. "Come on, Pete. Let's go upstairs and call your aunt. See you in a few, Chief."
Lathrop looked ready to explode. Once Jim had gone, he turned his sights on Blair. "You -- you --" he sputtered.
The elderly couple walked briskly to the elevator. "I don't think this is our type of place, Mr. Lathrop," said the man. "Don't bother showing us out. We know the way." The elevator doors opened almost immediately and they were whisked away.
"That's it!" said Lathrop as he advanced on Blair, fists clenching and unclenching.
Blair held up his hands in supplication and backed away. "Come on, Mr. Lathrop, it's not our fault that --"
"Psychos! Explosions! Knock-down, drag-out fights! Manure, for God's sake! Do you know how many tenants I've had here over the last five years?"
"Uh...." Blair tried to recount his different neighbors.
"Nine! Nine different sets of tenants over a five-year period. And do you know how much cumulative time they've spent living here?"
"Um...." Blair actually tried to calculate the answer in his head.
"Thirty-eight months. And some of 'em only stayed as long as they did because of the six-month lease I have 'em sign. Others, they just ran out on me. I was only able to earn thirty-eight months of rent money to pay for sixty months worth of mortgage."
Blair swallowed nervously as his back hit the hallway wall. "That's rough, man, it really is."
Lathrop stopped stalking his prey and an expression of satisfaction spread across his face. "You know what? I'm going to sue the crap out of you. Both of you. For back rent and for emotional distress. How's about a million dollars? Yeah, that's what I'm gonna do."
"I really don't think you should, Mr. Lathrop." Blair glanced past Lathrop into the apartment beyond. "Even if you were to win, you wouldn't see any money for years, and you'd never get the full amount. Jim and I aren't rich. And we'd be tied up in the court process forever."
"Oh, yeah?" Lathrop poked Blair in the chest. "I still like the idea. Make you miserable right along with me." He stepped back in satisfaction. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't."
"Okay," said Blair, nodding thoughtfully. And he did.
More often than not these days, Simon found he didn't miss being married at all. Tonight was one of those nights. After working late, he stopped at the tiny little market down the street, known for its high-quality meats, and purchased a big, thick sirloin steak. Once home, he popped a potato in his toaster oven, checked to make sure the tossed salad he'd made last Friday was still good, slipped his favorite CD into the stereo, and took a leisurely shower.
An hour later, he sat down to enjoy his meal, the steak broiled to a perfect medium rare, topped off with a fine glass of Merlot from the Yakima Valley. After dinner, he planned to read more of Sun Tzu's The Art of War and catch NYPD Blue, if it wasn't a rerun.
Taking his first bite of the steak, Simon closed his eyes and savored the dulcet strains of Ella Fitzgerald singing in the background.
Abrupt knocking at the back door shattered the mood.
"Damn!" Simon dropped his fork noisily to his plate and glared through the kitchen to his back door. Who the hell would be visiting at this hour?
"Simon?" called out a very familiar voice. "Hey, man, you in there?"
Sandburg, that's who. Sighing, he dropped his napkin on the table and proceeded to the back door.
Cold and wet from the heavy rain that had started a few hours ago, Blair was scrunched up in his jacket and shivering on the back steps, looking for all the world like a drowned poodle. Even so, he managed a brilliant smile when Simon's face appeared in the door window.
It was on the tip of Simon's tongue to say, Sandburg, you'd better have a damn good reason for being here, but when he opened the door, he found himself saying "Well, come on, get in here already," instead. He handed the kid a large towel from the bathroom off the kitchen and sat him down at the kitchen table.
"Thanks, Simon." Blair rubbed his hair vigorously, then shrugged out of his jacket. "I hope this isn't too late to stop by."
Simon considered his meal sitting on the dining room table and the plans he had for the evening, but the look on Blair's face stopped him. "No, Sandburg, it's not too late. What's on your mind?"
"Mind?" Blair smiled a little too brightly and absently rubbed his leg. "I, uh...." He puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath of air, then looked around the kitchen.
Now Simon was worried. Whatever was bothering the kid must be bad. "You and Jim have a fight? My God, he didn't throw you --"
"No! No, man, nothing like that!" Blair waved his right hand as if to erase what Simon was thinking. "Jim and I are good. Great, in fact."
"All right." Simon got up and grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and handed one to his guest. "Spill it, Sandburg. And I don't mean the beer."
Blair looked at the bottle for several long moments, then took a deep breath. "Okay. I was wondering...." He cleared his throat and tried again. "Simon, I was wondering if your offer from last year was still good."
"But it's been two days since your guy hit a grocery store," Jim commented as the waitress brought their orders. He snatched up a french fry before his plate even hit the table.
"Yeah. We haven't determined his pattern yet, if he has one, but we figure he's due to hit again soon," Henri said.
The waitress plopped the last plate in front of Rafe. "Anything else?" No one answered, so she left them alone.
Jim watched Blair stare at the wall and absently tap his fingers. "Food's here, Chief. Were you planning to eat that sandwich or save it for your scrapbook?"
"Huh?" Blair looked down at the table. "Oh." He picked up the sandwich and took a huge bite, then promptly spit it out. "Ew, man, this is not tuna fish."
Jim grinned. "No kidding, Sherlock. It's a turkey club. That's what you ordered."
"What's up with you today, Hairboy? The lights have been on, but nobody's home." Henri knocked lightly on Blair's head.
"You in love or something, Sandburg?" asked Rafe.
"No, I'm not in love." Blair grimaced at his sandwich and took another bite. "I've just got a lot on my mind."
Rafe smirked. "Yeah, like four pounds of hair."
"Really, Sandburg. What's up?" Henri asked.
Jim was used to his roommate's moods. He could tell that something was distracting him, but Blair wasn't ready to share it with anyone yet. "Plead the fifth, Chief. You don't owe them anything."
"Come on, Sandburg," Henri said, holding his dill pickle like a gun. "Spill your guts before I do it for you."
"I still say he's in love. Or possessed."
Blair flashed them a look of tolerant exasperation. "What is this? Good cop, bad cop, over-imaginative cop?" he asked, looking at Jim, Henri, and Rafe respectively. "Can't a guy have an off day?"
"I know," said Henri more seriously. "Why don't you ditch Ellison for the afternoon, and join Rafe and me? We'll be interviewing the manager of the last grocery store that was hit."
"Oooh, that sounds like fun." Blair rolled his eyes.
"And," Rafe continued for his partner, "we finally got hold of the news footage from the local stations and papers, plus we have the recording Megan took at Beemer's. Which means we get to watch lots of TV trying to spot a common person or persons among the crowds."
"As interesting as that sounds, guys, I, uh...." Blair tossed a brief glance at Jim. "I actually have plans this afternoon."
Jim raised his eyebrows, but didn't say a word.
"Sandburg, will you please calm down?" Simon said as they walked down the short hallway. The closer they got to the loft, the more fidgety Blair became.
"Sorry." Blair ran his fingers through his hair.
Simon frowned. "You're nervous?"
"Of course I'm nervous, Simon. Jim's got... issues. I don't want to add to them."
"This is different. He'll understand." Simon waited for Blair to unlock the door. Instead, Blair sagged back against the wall and tossed his keys from one hand to the other, staring into space. Simon snatched the keys in mid-air and unlocked the door. Since Sandburg didn't seem inclined to follow him, he grabbed the kid's collar and pushed him gently through the door first.
Blair came to a sudden stop and Simon had to sidestep to keep from knocking him over. "Jim! I didn't think you were home yet."
Jim was pulling on an overshirt and trotting down the stairs from his bedroom. "Why wouldn't I be? Hey, Simon."
Blair waved in the general direction of the balcony. "I didn't see the truck."
"There was a delivery truck in the way. I parked out back." Jim paused in front of his two friends, hands on hips. "What gives?"
"Simon's come for supper." Blair grinned uneasily and rubbed his hands together. "I, um, ordered pizza."
"Sandburg." Simon placed one hand on his shoulder and gave him a squeeze for confidence. "First things first." To Jim he added, "Just pretend I'm not here." He retreated to the ugly yellow chair by the woodstove and tried to become invisible.
Jim nodded in Simon's direction and turned his attention back to Sandburg.
Blair ran his fingers through his hair yet again, and kept them there for a few long moments. "Yeah. Okay. Jim, I have to tell you something."
Uh oh. Jim stiffened. His jaw tightened and that muscle in his cheek started pulsating. "So talk, Chief," he said, trying for casual.
Blair looked at Jim carefully for several seconds. "Jim, first, know that we're good. We're great. There's no shit between us now, and I'm in this partnership for, well, forever. Until death or marriage... same thing, right?" Blair waggled his eyebrows and forced a laugh, then sighed. "Okay, bad joke. And even the marriage thing... I'd still be there, okay? Well not there, like, on your honeymoon or anything, just --"
Simon cleared his throat loudly. "The point, Sandburg." He'd realized a while ago that the single biggest problem in Jim and Blair's relationship was communication: Jim jumped to conclusions faster than Sandburg could make a point.
But in this case the babbling may have helped. Jim seemed to have relaxed ever-so-slightly.
"Right, right. Way off track." Blair began pacing, a few steps this way, a few steps that way, building up steam. "You like your privacy, Jim. I know that. And I know I can be really annoying."
"Sandburg, you --"
"Not that you aren't annoying yourself," Blair continued without listening, "'cause frankly, Jim, you can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, you know? But this isn't about that. This isn't even about us. It's about me, and the fact that I'm thirty. I'm thirty, man! My knees creak and I'm not getting the dates I used to and I swear I saw a grey hair the other day. I need space. An office, maybe. Yeah, an office would be nice."
And then it happened. Jim got it. His expression and very posture turned from defensive to amused in the space of a second. As Blair continued talking, Jim leaned back against the post, arms crossed, a slight smile gracing his face.
About time, thought Simon.
Blair was oblivious to the mood swing of his audience. "I just think it's time for me to move on. No, no, cancel that! Not move 'on,' geez, that sounds like Outer Mongolia or something. Changing careers. Marriage and kids. No, I'm really happy with my life, especially now that we've... you know, with the thesis and everything, and we're good. Great. It's just... time, Jim."
"You want to move out," Jim said, trying to help Blair say what he was obviously having trouble saying. "Because you're thirty."
Blair's head shot up, his eyes wide and earnest. "Yeah, man, that's it exactly! You understand."
"Well, Sandburg, I was thirty once, too, you know."
From the surprised look on Blair's face, it was possible he didn't know, but he nodded enthusiastically. "Right! And with my own place, I could write late at night without fear of waking you, and I can have women over without fear of, well," Blair grinned knowingly, "waking you. I can flush the toilet after ten, and take a hot shower for as long as I want, and you won't have to worry about Naomi and her sage, and --"
"Sandburg! Chief," Jim added more gently. "It's okay. It's not like you need my permission to get your own place."
Blair nodded but didn't seem convinced. He resumed his pacing. "This loft was never meant for roommates, Jim. I mean, my bedroom is so small, and your bedroom's out in the open, and when you're living with a Sentinel, it's just... you know. And I've lived alone in temporary places, like the warehouse and student apartments, and I've lived with you here in a permanent place, which has been beyond great, but I've never lived alone in a permanent place, so --"
Jim stopped his pacing roommate by grabbing his upper arms. Leaning over slightly to look Sandburg directly in the eyes, he said firmly, "Blair. It's fine."
"I know, Jim, but with... you know... and everything, I just..."
Jim's face clouded momentarily and he nodded. "Yeah, I do know." Both men remained silent for a moment, until Jim tweaked a thick strand of Blair's hair. "So," he asked with a genuine smile. "Is that what you were doing this afternoon? Looking for a place?"
Blair smile was radiant and he bounced on his toes several times, glancing once in Simon's direction. "I've already got a place."
"Oh?" Jim frowned. "Where?"
Blair seemed unsure of himself again. "Uh, there." He pointed to the floor. "Number 207."
"You're renting from Lathrop?"
"Not renting, man, I bought the place! Imagine me with a mortgage!" Blair grinned, then suddenly turned serious, collapsing onto one of the dining room chairs. "Oh, God. I've got a mortgage."
Figuring the worst was over, Simon joined Blair at the dining table. "You did the right thing, Blair. It's a good place, and like you said, it was time." Turning to Jim, he explained, "He is actually renting the place until a week from Friday, that's the date of the closing. A week and a half's worth of rent will be added to the sales price. Then the place will be all his."
"Mortgage," Blair echoed. His eyes widened and the grin returned. "The place will be all mine."
Jim sat down as well. "Do you need help with the down payment or anything?"
"All taken care of." Blair flashed Simon a quick, self-conscious smile. "Simon had already offered to help me get a place last year when...." he stopped, his face turning red.
Simon watched Jim's face cloud over, no doubt remembering packed boxes and the bright, sunny morning at a fountain that became one of the darkest days of his life.
Jim looked from Blair to Simon. "Thank you, sir," he said softly.
Well, hell. Simon actually felt his eyes get misty.
The moment passed. Jim tilted his head and sniffed the air. "Was that pizza you ordered pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, green pepper, and onion?"
"Yeah," Blair said, his expression brightening once again. "Is it here? Oh, wait, I had them deliver it to my place." He jumped up and grabbed his wallet from the front pocket of his backpack, then ran out the door. Half a second later, his grinning face reappeared. "Hey, you like that? 'My place!' You guys coming, or what? Oh, and Jim, bring some beer. And, uh, napkins, plates, silverware, salad if we have any left, and some kind of dessert. Thanks. Dinner's on me!" The door slammed shut.
Jim eyed the door thoughtfully.
"Well?" asked Simon, now that they were alone.
Jim leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "No more hair in the sink, no more late-night studying sessions. No more scented candles and new age music and those god-awful algae shakes. No more 'fine art' from a junkyard, no more damn cedar chips on the bathroom floor, no more impromptu sentinel tests when I'm trying to brush my teeth...." Jim's voice trailed off and he sighed.
A slow grin eased across Simon's face. "My God, you're really going to miss the kid, aren't you?"
"I'll try to get over it, sir," said Jim, avoiding Simon's eyes.
Henri paused at Jim's desk and eyed him carefully. "What's up with you? You've been walking around here like an old man all morning."
Jim grimaced as he sat forward. "Beanbag chair."
"You're kidding. Ah. Sandburg's new place. He was telling us all about it."
"Yeah, he's pretty proud of it." Jim smiled slightly at the memory of their "tour" last night. Blair had a bedroom almost the size of Jim's room, a stacked washer/dryer, and a breakfast bar facing the living room, though most of the layout was very similar to the loft's.
Jim sighed. "Unfortunately, the only furniture he has are two beanbag chairs... and I mean that's the only furniture he has. And Simon and I weren't about to sit on the floor."
"And food storage containers. He told us you gave him all your red Tupperware, too, you sentimental old fool."
"He had to have something to put the leftover pizza in," Jim pointed out reasonably. "Uh, don't you have work to do, H?"
Henri laughed and returned to his own desk.
"Bingo!" Rafe rounded the corner into the bullpen and handed Henri two eight by ten glossies. "Megan and I matched two different faces at more than one crime scene. Serena downloaded the images from video to computer to the Kodak printer."
"Way to go, baby!" Henri high-fived his partner and placed the pictures side by side.
Rafe pointed to the one on his right. "That woman was spotted in the crowds of both Cascade Supermarket and Beemer's Corner Grocer. But your best bet is this guy." Rafe tapped the second picture. "We found footage of him at all three crime scenes, he's wearing an army fatigue jacket, and look -- in this particular image, there's a round lump in his coat pocket. Could be a grenade."
"Could be an orange," Henri said absently. "Or a baseball. Or rolled up socks. Or," he waggled his eyebrows, "he could be glad to see someone."
"You're really twisted, you know?" Rafe pushed away and sat at his own desk. "Megan's getting paper copies made up for distribution."
"Hey, guys!" Blair entered the bullpen, his energy dial on HIGH. Discovering someone he hadn't spoken with yet that morning, he asked, "Hey Rhonda, you heard the news?"
"Sandburg got his own place," Rafe said, beating him to the punch.
"With a laundry, big bedroom, breakfast bar, stove, refrigerator, all his." Henri ticked the features off on his fingers.
"Closing next Friday, yadda yadda," Rafe finished.
Blair looked disappointed.
"You know what this means, don't you, Chief?" Jim asked.
"You now get to host a Poker Night."
Right on cue, Blair's face lit up. "Yeah, I do! Cool." His expression became thoughtful as he chewed his lip. "I guess I have to get a table now. And chairs. And stools, plates, silverware, shelves, desk --"
"Food," Jim offered, remembering last night. "Don't forget food. In fact, why don't we stop on the way home tonight? I need a few things myself."
"Okay. But let's not take a chance with the Cereal Bomber; let's go to a place he's already hit."
"Wimps," said Henri.
"And then," Jim suggested, wincing slightly as he shifted in his chair, "some nice upholstered armchairs might be your second priority."
Cascade Supermarket had recovered nicely from its indoor fireworks display the previous Saturday. Even with Sentinel sight, Jim couldn't detect any marks or smoke stains.
Blair pushed his cart along the dairy shelves. "Eggs, tofu, cottage cheese, milk, feta cheese," he recited as he plopped each item into the cart.
"Eggs, milk, cream cheese, American cheese," Jim countered, dropping those items into the basket he carried.
"Man, I don't know how you can eat orange cheese. American cheese in general is just slabs of tasteless plastic, if you ask me."
"I didn't ask you. And frankly, Sandburg, you're a downer to shop with. You don't see me comparing tofu to, say, a block of gelatinous vomit."
"Yeah, Jim. You always take the high road." Blair grinned and added cream cheese to his cart as well.
When the firecrackers went off a moment later, they looked at each other with shocked expressions, then crouched down by the refrigerated counter as cherry tomatoes landed around them with heavy, wet splats. One woman screamed and a small child started crying.
Blair ran his hands through his hair and growled. "I don't believe this, Jim!" he said loudly, over the noise.
"Believe it." Jim was already up and starting to take charge. Fortunately, due to the late hour, the store had few customers. But those who were there were already beginning to panic.
More pops and bangs and slaughtered vegetables filled the air.
"I'm Detective Ellison with the Cascade PD. Stay calm!" Jim yelled out, diverting a running man who was about to collide with a store clerk. "Please walk to the exits and step outside! These are simply fireworks, and will not harm you." Of course, the last was not exactly the truth, but "fireworks" was a concept people were used to and could relate to holidays and fun. He was hoping that would calm people down.
And, in fact, it did. A missile whistled through the air and exploded brilliantly against the wall above the magazines. More explosive pops along the cereal aisle had the store raining Fruit Loops and Cheerios. Jim stood at the end of one aisle and realized that his advice had worked too well; people were actually stopping now to watch the display.
"Please keep moving! I'm with the Cascade PD and we must evacuate the store!" A few more people took his advice, but others continued to stand and watch.
TAP, TAP, TAPTAPTAPTAPTAP.
"Oh, God, Jim," Blair gasped. Jim spun around and saw Sandburg halfway down the aisle, helping an elderly woman who had apparently fallen. Blair's eyes were wide and alarmed, staring at a grenade that had rolled to a stop less than five feet away. Instinctively, Blair placed his body between the woman and the explosive.
Jim had to think fast. This was a fragmentation grenade, and contained an explosive charge that was designed to break into fragments upon exploding, killing anything within a five- to ten-yard radius. But its most important feature was the time delay. If the pin had been pulled -- and Jim used his extraordinary sight to confirm that it had -- his partner and the woman had less than five seconds before it detonated.
Jim ran down the aisle, considering options every step of the way. There were no heavy display cases close enough to plop the thing into, and too many people were milling around to take a chance on tossing it somewhere else. Jim's gaze turned quickly to Sandburg and the elderly woman, and he accepted that there was really only one option. Blair looked up at him just then, and caught his gaze.
"No," Blair yelled, stricken, his voice catching. "God damn you, Jim, NO!"
No wasn't an option. Jim dropped down and curled his body around the grenade, hoping it would be enough.
"Oh, man," Blair said for the seventh time, fingers entwined on top of his head as he paced in front of the truck. "I can not believe you did that. God, Jim!"
Jim sighed. "I can't believe I didn't realize the thing was a dud. Do you know how ridiculous it feels to be lying on the floor hugging a grenade and nothing happens?"
Blair was in his face in an instant, eyes blazing. "Don't you joke about it, Jim! Don't you fucking joke about it!"
For the first time, Jim realized how truly shaken up his partner was. Blair was practically vibrating in front of him, he was so angry. No, not angry, scared. Blair had been terrified.
"Look, Chief," he said, then grabbed Blair's arm gently as Blair started to turn away. "I was scared, too. I didn't exactly relish the thought of having my torso blown away." Blair flinched at that, but stayed put. "It was the only option. It was the only option I could live with," he modified, then grinned. "So to speak."
Blair sighed and sagged against the truck next to him. "Let's not do that again anytime soon, okay?"
"Deal." Jim turned slightly as Rafe and Henri approached. "Finally! I'd like to get home sometime this century."
"Hey, no one said you had to wait." Henri pointed back over his shoulder toward the store. "I still say it's a pretty big coincidence, you guys being here."
"We're heading back to the station now. You want to do the paperwork tonight, or in the morning?" Rafe asked.
"Tonight," Blair said firmly. "I'm too wired to do anything else. And tomorrow I plan to sleep until noon."
Jim jostled Blair's arm and grinned, glad to give Blair something more positive to think about it. "Going to sleep in your new place?"
Blair looked confused for a minute, then brightened. "Hey, I'd forgotten all about that. Wait, man, this sucks! I still don't have any groceries."
Jim turned around and opened the driver's door. "I suppose I could have you over to my place for breakfast. I'm pretty sure I have eggs and stuff."
"Yeah, okay," said Blair. "I could do breakfast."
The shadow near the trees at the edge of the parking lot felt relieved. "Breakfast it is," he said, making a note in his book. "It's almost over, Eddie. Then we can get on with our lives."
As it was, Blair didn't actually sleep until noon or sleep in his new place. They were too tired when they got home to move the futon, and Blair was just as happy to collapse in his own little room for the night.
Uncharacteristically, Jim slept past nine. As he finished dressing after his shower, Blair staggered out of his room. Jim made breakfast while Blair showered and dressed.
"Oh, man," Blair complained, becoming one with his coffee mug. He looked exhausted.
"Didn't sleep well?"
"Not really. Nightmares." Blair took a half-hearted bite of his toast.
Jim nodded. "Grenades and visions of body parts can do that to you."
Blair looked confused for a minute. "Oh, the grenade. Water under the bridge, Jim. No, I'm talking about the whole mortgage thing." Blair's eyes got wide and he rubbed his face. "Lawyers and bank presidents kept chasing me around and yelling at me to sign on the dotted line."
Jim eyed him carefully. He couldn't tell if Sandburg was kidding or not. "So?" he asked casually, sipping his coffee. "Any plans for the big move?"
"Huh?" Blair had downed one piece of toast and was now attacking the eggs with gusto. "Oh. Rafe, Joel, and Megan offered to help this weekend, and H will, if he can. I've also got a few friends from the university who're going to stop by. You sure you want to give me the futon and bureau?"
Jim nodded. "They're yours as far as I'm concerned."
Blair took a huge gulp of coffee. "Thanks, man. Denise and I are going yard saling on Sunday. She says you can get all sorts of great furniture for pretty cheap at yard sales."
I bet, thought Jim. The mere thought of dragging someone else's old, smelly, grimy, dilapidated crap into his home gave him the willies.
"Sheets and other stuff, too," Blair was saying.
"No." Jim couldn't let him do it. "Not sheets, Sandburg. You do not buy second-hand sheets from unknown people who are willing to sell them from their yard. You can have all the sheets that go with the futon. They won't be doing me any good, anyway."
"You sure, Jim?"
"Okay. Great. Thanks." Blair got up and poured a second cup of coffee, staggering slightly as he returned to his seat. He looked longingly into the living room. "I don't suppose you need all those couches...."
"The living room furniture stays here," Jim growled. "But you're welcome to sit on them anytime you want."
"That's okay with you?" Blair asked, suddenly serious. "To still come by and watch a game? Have a beer? That sort of thing?"
"Of course. For heaven's sake, Chief, you're just going to be there --" he pointed down "-- instead of there --" he pointed over Blair's left shoulder. "And even if you were across town and living out of a shopping cart in an alley, you'd still be welcome." The kid could be so thick-headed sometimes.
Blair grinned and actually seemed relieved. "You, too, Jim. Mi casa es su casa. Come on down any time."
"Not if you don't get rid of those damned beanbag chairs."
"What's wrong with my beanbag chairs?"
"They're fine if you can sit like a pretzel. Do your older friends a favor -- get some real chairs. And not any broken-down, pee-stained, La-Z-Boy recliners formerly owned by a chain-smoking family of twelve with three dogs and eight cats."
"Nice, Jim. You managed to say that all in one breath." Blair polished off his eggs and stared at him with a loopy grin on his face. "I haven't even moved in yet and you're already my pickiest guest. Nah, I'm sure I can get some great stuff at yard sales and second-hand stores."
It was then and there that Jim realized he had no choice: he'd have to throw the kid a house-warming party. He could only imagine the stuff Sandburg might be buy.
"Need a TV, too...." Blair's head slowly drooped forward, his hair hanging like a curtain between his face and his plate.
"Hey!" Jim's tongue felt thick and fuzzy. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Blair answered, but the words were slurred and mumbled.
Time switched to slow-motion. Sandburg tipped ever-so-slowly sideways, then jerked back up to right himself. Jim thought he should do something to help, but he didn't seem to be able to process the command to his feet.
Blinking his eyes furiously to get things back into better focus, Jim discovered that Blair had become two-dimensional, shimmering like a curly-haired mirage. Blair was saying something, or trying to, but none of it made sense to him. All of a sudden, like one of those cartoon characters that had gotten flattened by a steam roller, Blair slid fluidly out of his chair and onto the floor.
Jim watched with detached interest, then felt himself fall forward. His body was leaden and unresponsive, and he landed uncomfortably in his scrambled eggs. Good thing I didn't make oatmeal, he thought as he blacked out completely.
Awareness crept up on Jim quite pleasantly, like waking on the first morning of a two-week vacation. He felt warm and comfortable, other than a slight headache, and he couldn't remember a night when he'd slept better. Without even opening his eyes, he punched his pillow and rolled over to go back to sleep, annoyed only by the clanking of his ankles.
Full awareness hit him like a bucket of ice water. He'd already gotten up once today and had breakfast to boot. The sleeping part, he recalled, hadn't been his idea at all.
Forcing his eyes open, Jim sat up somewhat sluggishly and leaned against something smooth and cool. Taking a moment to get his bearings, he realized with surprise that he was still in the loft, sitting in the corner against the balcony door.
His head still felt pretty fuzzy and he could only concentrate for the moment on his immediate surroundings. First, he found himself partially wrapped in a blanket from Sandburg's bed. A throw cushion from the couch was on the floor next to him, so Jim guessed that was what he had been sleeping on. Unconscious on. Whatever. Someone had tried to make him comfortable.
"Sandburg?" he croaked. His mouth was horribly dry, and the word sounded closer to a growl.
"There's water by your elbow."
"Thanks." Jim turned and picked up a nice cold Avian bottle, the kind with the pull-out tops, and had greedily squirted half the contents down his throat before he realized the voice wasn't Sandburg's.
"Sandburg?" he called out anxiously. "Chief?"
This time Jim followed the voice. A tall, gangly kid sat cross-legged on the kitchen table. He couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old and his smile was genuine, his expression earnest instead of menacing. If it weren't for the fact that he was holding Jim's pistol loosely in his lap, he might have been any one of the college kids Blair brought home. The overly large Army fatigue jacket suggested that this was Henri's grocery store bomber.
The guy pointed next to Jim. Blair was lying in front of the second bookcase, feet toward Jim. His head rested on his own pillow, and he, too, had a blanket tossed over him. Jim extended his hearing as best he could in his still-foggy state, and was rewarded with a strong, steady, very slow heartbeat. Blair seemed fine, but would not be waking any time soon.
"He won't wake up for a while," the gangly kid said, confirming his thoughts. "In fact, I'm really surprised you are. You drank a whole cup of coffee, near as I can tell, and it's only been about ninety minutes.
Jim swallowed and tried desperately to think. He'd have to take things slowly and carefully.
"You got a name?" he asked.
"Jeff," the kid answered. "Jeffrey Campbell. Campbell with a 'p'."
"Hi, Jeff." Jim tried to match the pleasant, conversational tone. "You want to tell me what's going on here?"
"Not yet. I'll wait for him to wake up." Jeff nodded toward Sandburg. "I don't really want to tell you ahead of time."
"Okay, fair enough." Jim moved away from the balcony door and started to stand up. Jeff didn't seem bothered by this too much, so he continued, his movements slow and unthreatening.
He'd only taken two small steps before his left foot was jerked back by some unknown force. Jim teetered off-balance, then sat heavily on the floor. He'd forgotten about his clanking ankles. Annoyed, and not a little embarrassed, Jim examined the heavy manacles locked around each of his ankles, the short chain connecting them wrapped around the large, vertical orange pipe in that corner of the loft.
"That was pretty stupid," Jeff observed. "Or maybe you're still too woozy from the drugs. It always took my mom a while to really wake up."
On a hunch he checked out Sandburg. Sure enough, Blair had a matching set of manacles; his chain disappeared beneath the bookcase and probably wrapped around the pipe running parallel to the floor.
Damn. Jim sighed in temporary defeat and took another long drink from the water bottle. It crossed his mind that the water, too, might be drugged, but he'd already consumed quite a bit with no ill effects, and it seemed like Campbell wanted them awake. Since he was physically disadvantaged at the moment, he decided to take the Sandburg approach and talk the guy to death. Or at least into giving up and tossing him the key.
The thought was amusing.
"What exactly did you put in our coffee, Jeff?" Jim asked amiably. "And how? I'm pretty impressed that you were able to put one over on us like that." Jim wasn't impressed, he was pissed. This had not been a good week for sentinel abilities. First, he didn't clue in to the fact that the grenade was a dud, then he didn't pick up on the drugged coffee. If there were such things as sentinel ranks, he'd probably be demoted.
Instead of gloating like a normal psychopath, Jeff seemed almost embarrassed. "No big deal, Mr. Ellison. It was easy to get in through the fire escape window." He pointed toward Blair's room. "The sleeping pills were my mother's. I don't remember the name -- something with a lot of X's. I crushed up a bunch and put them in the water well of your coffee maker."
Now that he had the answer, Jim actually was pretty impressed. The kid was resourceful. He proceeded carefully. "Won't your mother mind that you took her pills? Won't she need them?"
Jeff shrugged and looked out the window. "Nah. She died a couple of weeks ago."
"Tell me about her," Jim found himself saying. Maybe he could talk his way out of this... whatever it was. He wouldn't let Sandburg hear the end of it for months.
"She was great," Jeff said, sighing. "I miss her."
He fell silent, staring sadly, Jim thought, into the distance. Jim fell into a silent mode himself, but only because the drugs were still making him sluggish. He actually wanted to curl back up and go to sleep.
"What did it feel like?"
The sudden question jarred Jim from a light doze. "Wha--" he cleared his throat and clumsily grabbed for the water bottle. "What?" According to the kitchen clock, almost an hour had passed.
"What did it feel like?"
Jim paused a moment to check on Sandburg. Still breathing, heart still steady, a lot closer to waking now. Jim wasn't sure whether he should wish for him to wake up so they could get this show on the road, or stay asleep to avoid whatever it was Jeff had in mind. "What did what feel like?"
"Throwing yourself on the grenade."
Oh. Jim looked around and realized that his little nap had all but driven out the last effects of the drug. He still had a small, nagging headache, but he felt, on the whole, much better. "Why do you want to know?"
Campbell seemed to struggle with himself, the need to talk finally winning out. "My father threw himself on a grenade. Vietnam."
Aw, shit. "How old were you?"
"Not born yet. My mom was pregnant when my dad was sent over. One of the last draft numbers called."
Okay, the kid was older than he looked, probably twenty-nine or thirty.
"He met this guy named Eddie, and they became best friends. Dad talked about him all the time in his letters to my mom. They were pretty tight. He and Eddie, that is. Then one day..." Jeff looked away for a moment before continuing. "One day they were attacked, and a grenade got thrown. One of the other soldiers who was there wrote my mom about it. Said Dad was a real hero. Saved Eddie's life."
Suddenly, the grocery store fireworks made sense, in a twisted sort of way. The fireworks represented battlefield conditions, and by throwing the grenade, Campbell was hoping to... what? Watch a reenactment of what his father had gone through, or find someone like his father so that he could understand?
"Mphth," Sandburg said into his pillow.
"Good." Jeff seemed relieved. "He's finally waking up."
"Sandburg?" Jim called. "Sandburg!"
"What?" Blair twisted around and succeeded in getting himself, the blanket, and the chains all tangled up.
"Come on, Chief, up and at 'em."
Blair finally opened his eyes and blinked stupidly into the bookcase he was facing. When he started to lie back down, Jim grabbed a book from the shelf and tossed it at his legs.
"Hey!" Blair choked out. He turned around and looked fuzzily at Jim, absently pulling the blanket away.
"We have company." Jim pointed to Jeff, but he wasn't sure Blair could see well enough yet.
"No, not Simon. Come on, Blair, wake up. There's a water bottle by your right arm."
Blair looked down and on the third try, snagged the water, drinking almost the entire bottle in one sitting. Clearing his throat, he looked back at Jim. "That was the most delicious water I've ever had."
After several more moments during which both Jim and Campbell waited patiently, Blair finally got his bearings. He still seemed unaware of the manacles around his ankles, but he did finally realize there was a stranger sitting on their kitchen table.
"Hi," said Blair. "Jim, who is that on our table?"
"The grocery store bomber."
"No kidding." Blair blinked and yawned. "Henri's going to be pissed."
"Are you awake now?" Jeff asked.
"Me? Uh, yeah, I guess so." Blair combed a hand through his hair and frowned. He noticed his shackles for the first time. Following the chain under the bookcase, he glanced at Jim. "Hey, what's going on? Wait, this guy's the bomber?" Blair was beginning to panic.
Jeff took it all in stride. "Toss the bedclothes out of the way, please."
Warily, they tossed the pillows and blankets over the blue couch and into the living room.
"Now move the box."
Box? Sure enough, there was a small, flat box about halfway between Jim and Blair, upside down on the floor. Jim had a dull, sinking feeling in his stomach as he cautiously lifted the box and tossed that, too, into the living room.
"God, Jim." Blair stared wide-eyed at the contraption on the floor. Campbell had been busy while they slept. Using four brackets shaped like semi-circles, he'd bolted them to the floor, overlapping them in a circular pattern; the finished product resembled a large metallic spider. Trapped beneath the brackets where no human hands could get to it was a canister grenade.
Blair was thinking optimistically. "Is it...?"
"No," Jim answered. "It's live. I can smell the explosives." His mistake with the grenade at the grocery store had been in just looking for the pin. In retrospect, he could have sniffed for the explosives inside to determine whether it was real or not. Hell, the way it sounded when it bounced should have told him it was empty.
But this one was definitely the real thing.
"That's Eddie," said Jeff. "Named for my dad's best friend."
"Who? Jim, what the hell is going on?" Blair was starting to get angry, which was much better than panicked. An angry Blair was a force to be reckoned with.
"I'll explain later," Jim said softly. To Jeff he added, "What is it you want me to do?"
"Save him," Jeff said simply. "Or let him save you."
Jim's gaze never wavered. "Maybe we'll choose to die together."
"No, you won't." Jeff was very sure of himself. "You're best friends, anyone can see that. You'll want to save each other. One of you will succeed." He removed a remote control from one of the many pockets in the jacket. "I made this grenade myself. It's activated by remote control instead of a pin, and it's a little more... well, explosive than the kind you buy. You'll have exactly ten seconds once I press this button before it goes off."
"You won't learn anything," Jim tried again. "This won't help you know your father."
"Yes, it will." Jeff smiled. "I need to see what happened. I need to see your expressions."
Blair couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from the grenade in its spider cage. "Look, man. I don't know what your issues are, but this is insane!"
"It'll be okay, Blair. Trust me," Jim said. Plan A was carefully outlined in his head. Of course, if Plan A was unsuccessful, they wouldn't need a Plan B.
Blair nodded, but didn't look away.
"You guys ready?" Jeff asked, as if he were offering them a beer.
"No, not really," Jim answered calmly.
Blair turned his eyes to Jeff and slowly shook his head. "You don't have to do this, man. You need counseling, help, and I swear Jim and I will do everything possible to --"
"Go!" said Jeff, and he pressed the button.
Blair's head swiveled back immediately to the grenade. His whisper was hoarse and low, "Jim?"
Jim jumped into action immediately. "Come on, Sandburg. Work with me here."
He reached to his left and grabbed the homemade, cast-iron, elephant foot's umbrella stand and turned it with all his strength. It swiveled toward the grenade.
Blair realized instantly what Jim was doing and reached out as soon as the stand was within his reach.
Together they rotated the stand another full turn.
Carefully, with two hands on the lip of the opening at six o'clock and twelve o'clock, they lowered the stand so it rested on its side, the top of the stand at the edge of the grenade's spider cage.
Jim put one hand on the bottom of the stand, the other on the outside of the opening, and Blair mimicked his stance.
With a mighty heave fueled by adrenaline and desperation, they flipped the stand upside down over the brackets and grenade. It settled with a satisfyingly heavy thud.
"Couch," Jim yelled to Blair just in case he was still too drugged up to think of it himself.
Jim slid the balcony door open and threw himself around the corner, while Blair grabbed the arm of the blue couch closest to him and yanked it sideways between him and the grenade.
Jim had to sit because his feet wouldn't quite clear the door, and he noted, almost abstractly, that he was glad he'd worn his boots today.
The explosion occurred right on schedule. The sound echoed heavily inside the cast iron stand, then let loose and rumbled in the open air. Glass shook, the floor vibrated, and Jim could actually hear wood ripping apart. Something heavy slammed into the ceiling, then whooshed straight down like a missile, falling somewhere below. Smoke billowed out onto the balcony in huge bulbous clouds, then dispersed harmlessly into the morning breeze.
"Sandburg?" he asked.
A tense moment of silence, then, "I'm okay, Jim."
Jim breathed a sigh of relief, but he knew the danger wasn't over; a very unstable kid needed to be dealt with. Before he could get up, Jim heard a choked cry followed by a loud thump.
Damn! He levered himself to his feet and dashed into the loft as far as the chains would allow.
Blair was kneeling on the blue couch that he'd dragged to the bookcase for cover, a copy of Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest held high in his right hand. Jeff Campbell lay unconscious on the floor.
That, Jim thought, was a novel approach to crime-fighting.
Within five minutes following the explosion, the loft was teeming with city employees: the fire department, who had entered dramatically by breaking through the unlocked door with an axe, a patrol unit, paramedics, and finally Henri and Rafe.
All in all, the damage could have been much worse. A few broken picture frames and knickknacks, a scorch mark on the back of the couch that had protected Sandburg, a cracked window, and, most notably, a giant hole in the floor. At least they wouldn't have to worry about moving the homemade, cast-iron, elephant's foot umbrella stand downstairs.
"Holy shit!" exclaimed Henri, looking over the edge.
Jim felt like pushing Henri in. "I can't believe you didn't think to get the key from Campbell before the patrol guys took him away," he complained. "You think I enjoy wearing these shackles?"
"Calm down, Ellison," said Rafe. "I called the captain. He's going to get the key and bring it back himself."
Jim was too irritated to be consoled. "You just did that because we got involved in your case, however unintentionally, and caught the guy."
"I couldn't care less about the damn case." Henri grinned happily. "Here, have a cigar."
He handed Jim a light green bubblegum cigar and rocked back on his heels in a very Sandburg-like move.
Jim held the bubblegum like it was another live grenade.
"His wife called," Rafe explained. "They're pregnant."
"I'm going to be a father!" Henri looked delighted, in a poleaxed kind of way.
Jim smiled slowly himself and examined the cigar in a new light. The day was turning out to be pretty nice after all. "That's great, Henri. That's really great. You got one of those for Sandburg?"
Jim looked over the back of the couch down at Blair. Between the residual effects of the drug and the post adrenaline-high, he was down for the count and sleeping comfortably. He'd crashed even before the fire department had gone. Jim grabbed the blue bubblegum cigar from Henri and carefully slid it into the pocket of Blair's flannel shirt. "He'll be very happy for you."
"Oh, yeah, I remember you!" Burt the contractor said, a big grin lighting up his face. "Yeah, you've helped put my kid through college. Washington State University, B average."
"Excuse me?" Jim asked, just this side of polite.
"Let's see." Burt tilted his head and considered. "Broken down doors, bullet holes, broken glass, new locks -- lotsa new locks -- oh, and the manure removal. That cost you a pretty penny, I recollect."
"You're exaggerating," said Jim.
"Mebbe so. But that manure job put your name on the map as far as the guys back at the shop are concerned. We still have a good laugh over that one."
Jim scowled and led Burt away from the door to the hole in the floor. "Whatever. Look, I want to know how much you estimate it will cost to fix this."
Burt peeked over the edge and shook his head in wonder. "Holy schmoly. What happened? I bet it's tough for you to make friends."
"Just figure out the estimate."
"Okay, Mac. Give me space, here. Hey, there's some long-haired guy down there waving."
Of course there is, thought Jim.
A second later the waver popped through the door. "Hey, Jim!"
Jim debated asking Sandburg if he was ever going to get into the habit of knocking, but then decided not to. Some things he'd just as soon stayed the same.
"You want some coffee?"
"Sure. I still need a coffee maker."
Of course you do. Jim sighed. They had to throw the kid a housewarming party soon.
"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Burt was mumbling. The mumbles changed to chuckles. "Oh, yeah," he said, and scribbled something quickly onto the estimate.
"What?" Jim made a U-turn in the kitchen and returned to the hole and Burt, Blair following in his wake.
"Just a minute, hold your horses." Burt whipped out a calculator from a pocket in his overalls and his index finger flew over the key pad. With a flourish, he hit the equals sign. "Ah."
"'Ah' what?" Jim repeated.
"Take it easy, I just gotta double check." The finger flew again, the same flourish with the equal sign, and the same satisfied "Ah." Burt wrote the total in the lower right hand corner of the form, de-perforated the pink copy, and handed it to Jim.
Jim's eyes flew open wide and his teeth ground together. "You must be joking."
Blair stood on his toes to look over Jim's shoulder. "Whoa, man. Three thousand, eight hundred, and forty-seven bucks."
"And thirty-six cents," Burt added, waving his pencil in their direction. "That includes fixing the woodwork and getting a new door. You ain't gonna get a better price than that, mister. Let us know when we can begin the work." Burt stuck the pencil behind his ear and let himself out.
"Three thousand, eight hundred, and forty-seven bucks," Jim echoed. "That's ridiculous."
"And thirty-six cents," Blair reminded him. They peeked cautiously through the hole and down onto Blair's blue and green beanbag chairs. "Hey, they look kind of like peanut M & Ms from up here."
Jim sighed miserably. "That's a hell of a lot of money just to patch up one little wooden hole."
"No kidding," said Blair, obviously glad he didn't have to pay it. "It'd be cheaper to just put in one of those cool, spiral staircases."
There was a moment's pause, then they looked at each other. The crumpled-up estimate swooshed into the wastebasket in one shot.
~ END ~
- The loft plans shown for Jim's loft and used in the creation of Blair's place, were directly drawn from Chaomath's amazingly accurate and painstakingly recreated floor plans; please visit her site at Chaomath's Fannish Pursuits.
- The picture of the loft modified for Act IV was a private photograph, used by permission. A sincere thank you to its owner!
- Thanks to the many people who helped me understand fireworks, grenades, and sleeping drugs.
- The website mentioned in Act II, www.nativeamericantraders.com, is a legitimate site selling artwork created by Native American artists. Well worth a look!
- And a final thank you to my wonderful betas (in alphabetical order): Alberte, DawnC, Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie), Susan L. Williams, and Techgrrl. I don't know how you put up with me.
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