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.
Continue on to Act 3...
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