Upstairs, Downstairs
Novation Productions
Virtual Season 5, Episode 4

Act I

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.


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?"

Umbrella Stand "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?"

Jim shrugged.

"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.

Didn't he?

"You can still keep M & Ms in it," Jim offered.

But Blair's mind had wandered on to other things.

Continue on to Act 2...

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