"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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