And the Password Is...?
"Oh my," sighed Mrs. Rose Fontana, pausing in her early morning constitutional. "If only I were forty years younger."
She tucked a few stray gray hairs back under her headband and watched with open admiration as her young male neighbors, Jim and Blair, packed their pick-up truck full of camping equipment. She imagined she could see the muscles on Jim's upper arms rippling beneath his jacket as he lifted the large cooler and set it heavily onto the bed of the truck. Blair, with those lovely curls and that beatific smile, placed two fishing poles and a dangerous looking spear in between the other items, then stepped back.
Jim slammed the tailgate shut with a force that was completely unnecessary, shattering the peaceful silence of the dawn. "What a lousy, stinking day," he grumbled.
Rose blinked in surprised and looked around. Today was Saturday, and perhaps the single, most spectacular day she had ever witnessed in Cascade, Washington. The sky was a sharp, deep blue, with only a handful of powder puff clouds dotting the horizon, and the air was crisp and fresh and invigorating.
"Come on, man, it'll be good to get away for a while," Blair was saying as he got into the passenger's seat. "Maybe we'll even catch some fish."
Jim, a police detective who was usually very nice, told Blair exactly what he could do with his fish. Rose blushed a deep shade of pink and filed the expression away so she could shock Lavinia Levenshire when their bowling group met next Thursday.
That poor boy definitely needs a vacation, Rose decided.
As the blue truck squealed away into the sunshine, Rose decided to forgo the rest of her constitutional, satisfied that she'd already seen the sights worth seeing for the day.
"I hate this assignment," said Jim.
"I would never have guessed," Blair sighed wearily.
His sarcasm was lost on Jim. "Who the hell does Mulroney think he is, anyway, 'reserving' us like some new release at Blockbuster?"
"He likes your work, man," said Blair. "It's not the first time he's asked for your help."
"He lost my respect when he gave the order to have Yuri killed." The angrier Jim became, the higher the needle climbed on the speedometer.
"Jim, calm down." Blair motioned with his hands to ease up. "Getting stopped by a state trooper is not going to improve your mood any."
Jim look confused for a moment, then glanced at the speedometer. "Shit," he said. He clenched his teeth and slowly applied the brake until they were down to seventy mph.
"Besides, what are you complaining about? I had to write up an assessment, analysis, and recommendation report for the mayor. Talk about nitpicky!"
"That's the price you pay for being the only one in Major Crime with a Ph.D."
"Well, at least I'm getting paid for it now. Pull off at the next exit," Blair suddenly decided, pointing to the sign.
"There's a pretty decent grocery store just off the highway. I'm sure the FBI keeps the safehouse stocked, but I'm not sure I trust their idea of food. You can pick up the grocery items and I'll get a few videos."
"We're suppose to be camping, Sandburg," Jim said, but he turned on his right directional just the same.
"Yeah? We've picked up groceries on the way to a campsite before. And they have battery operated TV-VCRs."
Jim tossed Blair his little pocket notebook and a pen. "Make a list," he said. "And understand one thing -- I'm buying Twinkies."
Thirty minutes later, they were on their way again. A skeptical Blair rummaged through the grocery bags while Jim glanced at the Blair's plastic bag. "You only got two videos, Sandburg? We might be there for an entire week."
"It's a grocery store, Jim. Two was the maximum they'd allow you to rent. And I had to practically hock my Volvo just to get these. It's easier to rent a freakin' car than it is to rent a video these days."
"So what'd you get?"
"The Marx Brothers and Shane."
Jim stared at the road and hoped he'd heard wrong. "The Marx Brothers?"
"Yup. And Shane. You know the type. Tall, strong, silent guy? Twitchy jaw? I figured you'd relate. Man, Jim, was six boxes of Twinkies really necessary?"
"Geez, Sandburg, why didn't you get any good movies?"
Blair looked at him with one of his annoyingly tolerant expressions. "It's Saturday morning on the weekend. The good stuff was probably all rented hours ago. I had a choice between these two, or Waiting to Exhale and Love Story."
Jim sighed. "Okay, okay."
By now they'd reached the camping grounds. Jim paid the guy at the gate for one week and provided the necessary personal information.
"All righty then, Mr. Ellison," the gatekeeper said. "Follow the road to your left and take your choice."
"Thanks." Jim followed the road past the sites labeled in the 20s, then the 30s. "I'm looking for 42, right?"
"Yeah, that's what Simon said Mulroney said."
Number 42 was almost the last one on that road, up a little hill and to the left. Jim let Blair do all the happy vacation-chatting while they set up the tent and made camp, looking for all the world like two guys on a fishing vacation. When everything was set up, and their packs were filled with the items they really needed, he and Blair grabbed the poles and the spear.
"Let's go fishing," he said, without much enthusiasm.
Blair scowled. Sentinel-soft, he said, "Geez, Jim, try acting a little why don't you?"
So Jim pasted a smile on his face and showed Sandburg what undercover work was all about, all the while looking for the barely visible path that started behind the stone fire place. For two miles they hiked, and for two miles Jim gave Blair a taste of his own medicine. The kid would know everything there was to know about trout, carp, sunfish, bass, and pike, the appropriate bait and fishing lines to use, and the many different ways to descale and debone each.
"No kidding!" Blair said at one point. "I didn't know their fins were so different. What about cod?"
And damned if he wasn't interested. He should have known better than to try to out lecture the master.
Instead of answering, Jim looked up and saw that the path ended about five yards ahead. "We're here," he announced gratefully. He was hungry, sweaty, and tired of all this ridiculous subterfuge. He stepped out of the woods and looked around. "Good God. You must be joking."
"Oh man." Blair stared ahead of him, eyes wide. "And for this I passed up dinner and a movie with Sky. At least you didn't leave a social life behind."
The FBI safehouse turned out to be an architectural monstrosity that had definitely seen better days. Probably unappealing even in its prime, the mansion was the Quasimodo of mansions, misshapen, ugly, and unloved. The foundation was crumbling and cracked, the windows broken and cracked, the front staircase collapsed on one side; even the surrounding land hadn't escaped the ravages of time and neglect. The grass in the yard was knee high and the ancient driveway overgrown with weeds and wildflowers.
"Uh, it's probably better on the inside," Blair offered after a moment's silence. "Remember? Simon warned us. They keep it looking this way on purpose, but the FBI renovated a good portion of the first floor for use."
Jim wasn't convinced, but Blair had already started for the front door, picking his way carefully up the broken down staircase, and he wasn't about to let himself look squeamish by comparison to his partner. He followed in the boot prints Blair had conveniently left for him. To his great surprise, the small front porch felt sturdy and level.
"Who is it?" Rafe's voice floated through the amazingly unbroken but filthy window in the door.
"Sandburg and Ellison," Blair answer, grinning a little. He was actually enjoying all this cloak and dagger stuff, Jim realized. The little shit.
"You got any ID?" Rafe answered.
Jim could hear the grin behind the words. "Yes we do, and you'll find it residing in an extremely uncomfortable place if you don't open this door in two seconds."
"Oh, that's definitely Ellison," Rafe said. Jim could hear him unlocking an inordinate number of locks.
"Get a grip, Jim. He's just doing his job." Blair rocked back on his heels and shifted his fishing pole and spear to the other hand.
"And that's definitely Sandburg." The door opened slowly a moment later, letting out an oddly satisfying creak. Jim slid his backpack off and entered the dark front hallway.
"Good evening," Rafe greeted them using a Frankenstein voice. "Would you like use of the facilities, the ten-cent tour, or something refreshing to drink?"
"All I want right now," Jim said, shoving past Rafe and using his nose to find the kitchen, "is a box of Twinkies and two aspirin."
Simon took an appreciative sip of his new coffee roast, feeling the steam drifting upward from the mug to warm his face. He gave into a happy sigh, then took a careful sip of the liquid. Its strong, rich flavor shocked his taste buds, but after the initial surprise, the next sip proved extremely satisfying.
He set the mug on his desk and picked up the departmental memo sitting on top of the stack of folders that Rhonda had placed on his desk earlier. His eye caught the dark, bold signature of the mayor at the bottom, and another, less happy sigh escaped his lips.
The first sentence read, "As mayor, it is my duty to see that our community offers the best it can in law enforcement. We are fortunate to have the services of Doctor Sandburg as an official consultant to the police department. I assigned Doctor Sandburg to write a report and brief anthropological study on the efficiency of our current PD operating system, and based on his recommendations, I am implementing the following 'rotation' program to commence immediately."
Simon frowned, his eyes narrowing as he continued to read. Just what had Sandburg recommended? It wasn't until he reached the end of the page, where the mayor had listed the assignments, that the full horror of the situation presented itself to him.
"What the hell?"
His shocked bellow reverberated through the office, followed only a second later by another, much more gleeful sound from the bullpen. A loud "Whoop!" followed by a less distinctive but obviously joyous exclamation came from a voice Simon identified as Detective Henri Brown's.
"When I get my hands on you, Sandburg...." Simon didn't finish the sentence as he rose from his seat. No doubt the new acting Captain, Henri Brown, was going to want to commence the assignment as immediately as possible.
Brown leapt out of his chair and did a little jig, barely noticing the smile on Taggert's face.
"Don't let Simon catch you doing that," Taggert chuckled, his eyes scanning the list of assignments again.
Brown lowered himself back to his chair, his grin growing slightly more subdued. "Finally, Joel, my talents are truly being noticed."
Joel shook his head, still grinning. "It's a temporary assignment, you realize."
"Of course." Brown placed the memo on his desk. "But, hey, gives me the chance to play boss."
Simon's door opened and Brown swiveled in his chair to face the figure hovering in the doorway.
"Detective Brown," Simon took a step into the bullpen, his face dark, "I take it you got the memo?"
Brown nodded somberly, but his lips twitched upward. "Uh, yes, sir... or, uh, should I say, 'Detective'?" He lost the battle and gave into a delighted chuckle, swiveling completely around in his chair. "Yes!" One fist sliced through the air to punctuate the exclamation.
Simon sighed, shaking his head, his eyes crinkling somewhat in amusement. "You touch my coffee roast, I'll kill you. You touch any of the things on the bookshelves, I'll kill you. You so much as scratch my desk, and after this little rotation stint is over, I'll have you walking the beat down by Broadway for a good couple of weeks and then I'll kill you. Got it?"
Brown nodded eagerly, jumping from his chair and giving a hasty salute. "Aye-aye, sir." He bounced on the balls of his feet. "So, uh, when do you want to start?"
"The memo says immediately." He gestured to the office.
He barely had time to move out of the way before Brown barreled past him and disappeared into the office, giving another "whoop!" and then, after a moment, trotting back to the doorway. "Thank you, Capt... err... Detective." Brown chuckled again. "You're dismissed." He ducked a bit too quickly back into the office.
The tap of footsteps sounded from the hall a moment before Inspector Megan Connor stepped into the bullpen. "Hello, mates," she grinned and headed to her desk. "Why so glum?"
"Who's glum?" Brown reappeared in the doorwary, his broad grin still plastered on his face. "I sure ain't glum. Today is a very good day."
Simon rubbed a hand over his face. God, he was too old for this. "It seems, Inspector, that you and I are going to be partnered for the next forty-eight hours." He glanced at the clock. Nine-thirty. In two days, at precisely nine-thirty, the Sandburgian nightmare would be over.
"Uh, sir?" Megan's brow furrowed. "I don't understand."
"You got a memo," Joel explained, gesturing toward her desk. "The mayor, compliments of Blair, is implementing a new program -- temporary rotations to give administrators a plunge back into field work and give field detectives a sense of the burdens and responsibilities of command to foster greater understanding between the two levels and increase the effectiveness of communication."
"Did you memorize the damn thing?" Simon growled, storming to Brown's desk and quickly rifling through a couple of the file folders resting on the corner. "What this means, Inspector," he glanced up at Megan, "is that I get Brown's cases and Brown gets my office for the next two days. And, as the memo says, I get to be teamed with you."
"Well, I'd love to stay and chat, but ta-ta!" Brown gave a wave. "Oh, and uh," he deepened his voice, "get to work!" Ducking back inside the office, he closed the door, but his delighted humming still drifted into the bullpen.
Simon grimaced, then pursed his lips. A slow smile lit his face.
"What?" Joel asked. "Why are you so happy all of a sudden?"
"I just realized that if Brown's captain for the next two days, he gets all the privileges...and burdens." His smile grew to a broad grin, and he chuckled. "Excuse me, Joel. I need to make a phone call."
"Rafe and Dills all tucked in for the night?" Jim asked, playing with the remote control. The TV wasn't hooked up to cable or even an antenna, so all he got was snow, channel after channel. Still, it was something to do.
Blair set a giant bowl of hot popcorn down on the coffee table and handed Jim a ginger ale. "They've gone to bed, if that's what you're asking. So which movie do you want to watch first?"
"Like it matters," Jim sighed. Click, click, click.
"Okay, we'll go with Horse Feathers." Blair removed the video from the case and stuck it in the VCR, then returned to the old, overstuffed couch and plopped down.
"Will you stop that bouncing-sitting thing, Sandburg?" Jim said, and sneezed twice. "Can't you see see the dust clouds that keep rising up? I feel like we're sending smoke signals to the tribe across the river."
Blair grimaced in sympathy as Jim sneezed three more times. "Sorry, man." He sat back very carefully and put one foot up on the coffee table, settling in.
Jim cocked his head.
"What is it?" Blair asked.
"Nothing. Thought I heard something. Heartbeat's too rapid for a human, so it must be a raccoon."
"I'm sure there are plenty of those around here, Jim, along with squirrels and birds and probably even bears."
"Oh my," Jim deadpanned.
Blair rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the screen. A zippy tune played along with the credits as each Marx Brother's face appeared on the screen.
Jim grabbed a handful of popcorn and glared at the screen. "So what kind of name is 'Horse Feathers' anyway?"
"It's whimsical, Jim." Blair's attention remained glued on the screen as he sipped his bottled water.
Certainly there were better things Blair could have been doing with his time. "You didn't have to come on this assignment, you know," Jim said without realizing he was going to say it.
Blair pulled his attention away from the screen and turned toward him. "I'm your partner, Jim. Even have a paycheck now to prove it. I wouldn't be anywhere else."
"But..." Jim gestured to the notes and books and homework assignments on the coffee table. It had taken Blair about three seconds to commandeer the entire safehouse as his work area and hangout, much in the same way he had the loft. In fact, even though Blair had his own place, his stuff was still all over the loft, except now Blair had two floors to spread out in rather than one.
Blair followed his gaze. "Oh, those. Don't worry, Jim. I gave the Anthro Intro courses a take-home, open-book essay assignment. Canceled another class in lieu of a field trip we'll take when the weather gets warmer. They're all covered."
"And you had that big date planned with Sky," Jim added for no particular reason.
Blair glared at him. "What's with you, Jim? Are you trying to make me miserable?"
"No. I guess I'm trying to say thanks."
"Oh. Well, your method really sucks." Blair turned back to the TV and placed the entire popcorn bowl in his lap. Then he added sincerely, "And you're welcome. Now shut up and let me watch this."
All in all, the movie wasn't so bad, though Jim was hard-pressed to figure out the plot. If there was a plot. There'd been a lot of double talk and running around, but he didn't think there was much of a story there.
Jim took a bite of a Twinkie as Groucho peeked through the crack of the door Chico just opened.
Chico: Who are you? Groucho: I'm fine, thanks, who are you? Chico: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password. Groucho: Well, what is the password? Chico: Aw, no! You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell you what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish. Groucho: Is it Mary? Chico: Ha ha. That's-a no fish.
Jim remembered a girl in high school he'd once dated named Mary. She did sort of bare a resemblance to a fish... a sturgeon, maybe.
Groucho: What do you take for a haddock? Chico: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel. Groucho: Say, I'd walk a mile for a Calamel. Chico: You mean chocolate calamel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what's-a matter, you no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say "swordfish." Now I'll give you one more guess. Groucho: I think I got it. Is it "swordfish"? Chico: Hah! That's-a it! You guess it! Groucho: Pretty good, eh?
Blair was in hysterics. Jim sighed. He just didn't get it.
Brown tapped his foot to the blues rhythm drumming from the CD player in Simon's office as he surfed the Internet. Captains sure had it made. They got nice office space, the authority to delegate work, and access to the best computer systems.
And, of course, they could have things like CD players and coffee makers in their offices. He eyed the coffee maker on the table behind the desk. Simon had told him not to touch the roast, but he hadn't said anything about the machine itself.
He smiled and wheeled his chair back, preparing to make a trip to the break room to round up his own coffee grounds, when the phone rang. Swinging the chair toward the desk, he snatched up the receiver.
"Acting Captain Henri Brown here. Major Crime. How can I help you?"
"Who is this?" The woman on the other end of the line sounded confused.
"Henri Brown, acting captain," he said again, straightening in the chair as though the caller were actually in the room with him. "Simon Banks is...uh...away for a couple of days and I'm acting captain in his place."
"Oh. I see. I'm Janet Teifenbrun with the commissioner's office, and Captain Banks called me this morning and said the budget calculations would be on my desk tomorrow morning. I was just calling to give him a few last-minute changes to a couple of the numbers."
"Uh... budget calculations?"
"Yes. Didn't he tell you?"
"Uh, no. His leave of absence was kind of...sudden."
"Well, do you know where the file is?"
"File?" Henri saw the stack of folders on the corner of the desk and lunged for them. "Uh...Wait a minute." He hastily shuffled through them. "Do you know what the file's called?"
"It's the Bi-Annual Budget Report."
"Oh, right. Yeah. Can I put you on hold for a moment?"
She sighed. "Sure, why not?"
"Thanks. Won't be long." He hit the HOLD button and returned the receiver to the cradle, then shot out of his chair and ran to the door, flinging it open.
"Rhonda! Where's.... Oh!" He saw her talking to Joel, a batch of files clutched in her arms.
She turned to him, a pleasant, professional smile on her face. "Yes, sir?"
"Uh, do you know where the Biannual Budget Report is?"
Her smile grew. "Yes, I have it right here." She walked up to him and plucked one of the files from the stack in her arms, then handed it to him. "Have fun with it."
He grimaced and took the file from her, holding its edges as though it could turn into a poisonous snake at any minute. "Uh, thanks. Gotta run."
He spun back around and disappeared into the office, slamming the door behind him. Hurrying to the phone, he yanked at the receiver and plopped into his chair, rolling back a few inches, the file on his lap. "I have it right here.... Hello? Oh, damn." He punched the HOLD button. "Hello?"
"Yes, I'm still here. Nice to know you didn't forget about me."
"Uh, I've got the budget thing right here."
"I am overjoyed to hear that. You'll have it to me tomorrow, right?"
"I will?" He swallowed hard, flipping the file open. A memo-type document met his eyes. He flipped the page and saw a frighteningly long column of numbers. "Uh... What am I supposed to do?"
"Oh, Jesus. Look, all I need you to do is add up the numbers in the A column on pages one through three. Then fill in Form Z-A1, which is in the file, with the numbers in Column B on pages one through three. Then compare the total you got from adding column one with the total you get on line 13A of Form Z-A1. The instructions are in the file."
"Oh, right." He turned back to the first page and took a closer look at the document he'd first thought to be a memo. "Yeah, I see the instructions."
"Great! So, you'll have that for me tomorrow morning?"
"Uh, I will. Don't worry."
"I always worry. Have a good day, Acting Captain Brown."
"You, too." He practically threw the receiver into its cradle and stared down at the open file folder. He was going to kill Sandburg.
The sound of gunfire woke Blair up. Jim watched as his eyes grew wide and he looked around, still half-asleep.
"What happened?" he finally asked, combing his fingers through his hair.
Jim nodded at the TV. "Shane just killed Jack Palance."
"Oh. Sorry to fall asleep. Mulroney get here yet? What time is it?"
"No problem. No. And just after midnight."
"When was he supposed to bring the witness? I thought they were suppose to be here by now."
Jim shrugged. "Beats me why he thinks all this caution is necessary...." His voice trailed off and he turned slightly. "Two people at nine o'clock coming out of the woods, almost opposite from the direction we came." Jim slid gracefully to his feet and removed the Sig Sauer from its back holster. Holding a finger to his lips, he slipped to the edge of the safehouse's interior structure and leaned toward the front door.
After several moments, he nodded and put his gun away, joining Blair again on the couch. "It's Mulroney and the witness. I recognized Frank's voice, though it took one of them forever to say something."
"Good. I'm tired."
Jim handed Blair the remote. "We've got four hours to go before our shift ends, Rip."
"Oh yeah." Blair yawned again.
Jim was ready and waiting at the door when Mulroney finally arrived. "Who is it?"
Taking the question seriously, Mulroney held his badge up to the window and recited his badge number, Jim's badge number, and Jim's mother's maiden name.
For heaven's sake, Jim thought. "What's my shoe size?" he asked for good measure. Damn. Mulroney got it one. Jim opened the door.
"Good job," Mulroney said. He stood there looking like the typical fed, with neatly-combed brown hair and a face that would blend into any crowd. "We need to be cautious. Jim, this is Harry Humiston, Harry, Detective Jim Ellison."
"Hi there, Jim! Pleased to make your acquaintance." Harry smiled and shook Jim's hand so vigorously, he felt like an old-fashioned water pump.
"Mr. Humiston," Jim nodded warily. The witness was a tall, stocky guy with unruly red hair. Kind of Gomer Pyle-looking. He half expected him to say "Gol-ly!" Jim motioned to Blair behind him. "My partner, Blair Sandburg."
Blair grinned and nodded, not near enough to shake his hand. Probably a good thing, would've shaken the kid's arm right out of its socket.
Mulroney offered a cursory nod at Blair. "Good. Now, what's the password?"
Jim and Blair looked at each other in surprise. "Must have attended the Marx Brothers' School for Secret Agents," Blair mumbled under his breath.
Jim tried not smile. "Password?" he asked out loud.
"Yeah... you know, if one of us should go outside and need to come back in?"
"We don't have one."
"Well think of one. I'm serious -- we can't be too careful, here."
Jim considered for a minute. "Okay, how about 'trigger-happy Fed"? he suggested, suddenly very serious.
Mulroney looked like he'd been slapped. His shoulders sagged and he sighed softly. "Come on, Jim. We hashed this thing with Yuri out a long time ago. It's in the past, and nothing will change what happened."
Oh hell. Jim relented just a bit. "All right, all right. The password is Comforting Chamomile Tea."
"Oooookay." Mulroney blinked at the choice, then made sure Harry could memorize all that.
"Now," Jim asked quietly. "What's up with all this...'subterfuge'?"
Mulroney glanced at Blair and then Humiston, then back at Jim. "Look, it's taken us over twelve hours to drive here, considering all the routes I took to make sure we weren't followed. I'm beat. I'll tell you anything you want to know in the morning."
"I'm going to hold you to that," Jim said.
"Jesus Christ, Connor!" Simon grabbed the handle above the car's passenger door and held on tight as Megan made an illegal left across two lanes of oncoming traffic.
"Bugger!" She steered into the left lane, then swerved into the right. "Oops. Sorry, sir."
Simon kept his numbing grip on the handle and shot her a look filled with fury. "Connor, damn it! You drive worse than Ellison!"
She kept her eyes on the road. "Old habits, sir. Sometimes I go on autopilot and forget you Americans drive on the right side of the road."
"That does not inspire me with confidence."
She glanced at him, offering an apologetic smile.
"And keep your eyes on the road!" Simon barked. "As a matter of fact, pull this damn car over. I'm driving!"
Her foot remained firmly on the accelerator. "Pardon me, sir, but aren't you officially an acting detective? I believe that makes us equals." She grinned briefly at him. "You can't order me around, sir. Not until your forty-eight hours are up. Now, we've got less than five minutes to meet our informant. Relax, sir, we'll get there in one piece."
Simon's grip on the handle tightened. "Connor," he began, his voice eerily calm, "I may be an acting detective right now, but in two days I'll be a captain again, and you'll still be a detective, if you're lucky. Get my drift?"
She sighed and steered the car over to the curb. "Yes, sir."
Jim awoke to shouting. Yelling, in fact, between Mulroney and Sandburg. Actually, Mulroney was doing all the yelling.
"You aren't even a cop!" Mulroney said.
"Like I've never heard that before," Blair shot back. "Look, Mulroney, I think we should keep him."
Jim blinked and sat up. What did Sandburg do? Find a damned puppy?
Moments later, Jim followed the conversation into the kitchen where Rafe, Dills, and Humiston were eating lunch. Blair and Mulroney were nowhere to be found and Humiston was looking decidedly uncomfortable.
At his questioning glance, Dills pointed with his coffee cup to Jim's left. "Your partner's down there, duking it out with Mulroney. Seems he found a 'pet'."
Rafe grinned. "My money's on Sandburg."
Jim turned in response to Dills' gesture. A door to his left was wide open and led down into the dark, dismal, extremely rank cellar. Sure enough, he heard voices floating up from below -- the annoyed, frustrated voice of a worried fed, and the annoyingly reasonable voice of his partner. And there...a third, rapid heartbeat. That raccoon? What the hell was Blair thinking?
Controlling his sense of smell, Jim trotted down the stairs with the uneasy feeling that he would be siding with Mulroney on this one. "Sandburg," he started as soon as he sighted his partner, but that was as far as he got.
The raccoon was actually a man. A small, filthy man, dressed in tatters, who looked like he hadn't eaten in a month. He was also terrified.
"Jim!" Blair looked relieved.
"Ellison!" Mulroney said through clenched teeth. Jim had never seen him so angry. "Tell your partner that he shouldn't be wandering about checking noises! This is a witness protection situation, and he should stay put and let the trained officers take care of everything."
"Like I keep telling this guy," Blair said, hands on hips, "I didn't come down here to check out a noise. I came down here to get rid of the garbage which had some bad meat in it. I figured with your heightened sense of smell it would be a deterrent to your job."
Mulroney opened his mouth to interrupt, but Jim held up a hand and motioned for Blair to continue.
"Then I heard a sound, and I thought your... I mean, I thought a raccoon might have gotten trapped down here. I was going to set it loose. That's how I found Jack."
"Jack?" Jim looked again at Sandburg's find. The little man swallowed hard and stared right back at him, like a deer caught in headlights. Figures Sandburg already knows his name.
"This is great. Just great!" Mulroney threw up his arms in frustration. "Now what do we do?"
"He's not hurting anything. And it looks like he's been here a while." Blair pointed to a stack of old blankets in the corner of the basement and a water bottle that looked like it had been filled many, many times. Blair's expression turned from angry to earnest and sincere. "Besides, the poor guy could use a good meal."
Thankfully, Jim found he could side with Blair after all. "Kid's got a point, Mulroney. Kicking the guy out won't make us any safer. And weighing trusting this guy against moving our location after all these... cautionary tactics; well, let's just say I'll take my chances on Jack." His biological lie-detection equipment wasn't wrong.
Mulroney stared at Jack for a long moment. "Okay. We'll bring him some food, but he stays down here, alone, with no further contact. And we lock the cellar door."
"You're all heart man," Blair said sarcastically. "I'm going to go get Jack some food and a few bottles of water."
"A bleeding heart like that is going to get you killed, Jim," Mulroney said, watching Blair disappear up the stairs.
"That bleeding heart has saved my life more times than I can count," Jim answered. He grabbed Mulroney by his sleeve and dragged him toward the stairs. "Now you and I are going to have our little talk."
"Two thousand ninety one point three," Brown tapped the numbers into the calculator, "plus three thousand four hundred and two...." He continued punching in the numbers until, finally, he reached the last one and, with a triumphant grin, hit the button for the equal sign. "Yeah! All done." It hadn't been so bad. In fact, he'd kind of enjoyed it. It was sort of relaxing just sitting in a nice, peaceful office adding up numbers with the soft sound of blues in the air.
He was going to kiss Sandburg.
Glancing at the clock, his eyebrows shot up when he saw that the day was almost over. Three O'clock. Wow. His stomach growled with the realization that he'd been sitting punching in numbers for hours and hadn't even remembered to stop for lunch. Well, at least the report was finished. Now he could go fill his stomach. Leaning back in the chair, he stretched his arms over his head and gave into a deep yawn.
He rose from his chair and opened his office door. The bullpen was pretty quiet, with only the soft sounds of computers whirring in the background. Joel sat at Sandburg's desk, tapping at the computer, no doubt because Sandburg had the fastest computer in the bullpen. He'd insisted on spending his own money to donate a 900 Megahertz processor to the department as long as he got the computer at his desk. Simon, of course, had readily agreed.
Brown smiled and shook his head. With two paychecks, Sandburg sure was raking in the dough. "Hey, Joel, wanna go grab a bite to eat?"
Joel looked up from the monitor. "Uhhh, actually I had lunch at one."
"Oh." Brown's smile faded, then returned quickly. "Well, how 'bout taking a coffee break? My treat!"
Joel tapped a few buttons on the keyboard then rose to his feet. "How can I resist an offer like that, Captain Brown?"
Brown grinned. "I love the sound of that. Captain Brown." He closed the office door and moved to Joel's side. "And you know what? I just spent hours number crunching and I actually liked it."
"You're a sick man, H."
They headed for the hallway and nearly bumped into a large figure that stormed into the bullpen. A figure that was dusted with sand and smelled like rotten fish.
"Uh, sir!" Brown straightened automatically, noting the furious look in the Captain's eyes. Then he remembered that he couldn't get his ass chewed out until the rotation was up, and he relaxed, giving into another grin. "How'd it go in the field, sir?"
"Man, Simon, what happened to you?" Joel asked, his eyes twinkling even as he maintained an otherwise stoic facade.
Banks glared at Brown. Megan wandered into the bullpen and headed straight for her desk, flashing the men a quick smile, "G'day, mates."
"Brown," Simon stepped up to him, "I'm going into my office and getting myself a cup of coffee. Is that okay with you?" Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
"Uh, yeah, sure. Just don't uh, sit on the chair."
Simon's eyes narrowed, and Brown took a couple of steps back. "Hey, uh, something go wrong, Capt... uh... Det... err... Captain, sir?"
Simon shifted his glare to Megan. "You could say that."
"We had a meeting with an informant near the docks," Megan informed them, sinking into the chair at her desk. "Turns out our man Borrelli also had an interest in our informant. We all bumped into one another." She grinned. "Simon went after Borrelli while I took off after the informant."
"And?" Joel prodded.
"And Connor caught the informant, handcuffed him to a pole, then got in the car and came after us. She drives like a damn maniac. Nearly ran me down!"
"Oh please, Captain. I had full control. Besides, I did stop Borrelli."
"By plowing into a crab stand with me right behind him!
Joel broke into laughter.
"At least I got the tip about the jewelry store owner out of our informant, Captain."
"They were live crabs!" Simon growled, storming past Brown, one hand going to rub at his right butt cheek. "I'm too damn old for this crap," he muttered, disappearing into his office.
"Uh, don't you mean you're too damn old for this crab, sir?" Joel chuckled loudly.
Simon reappeared in the doorway, threw one final glare that encompassed everyone, and then slammed the door, rattling the glass.
"Wow." Brown grinned, shaking his head. "He really needs a shower."
"No, he needs his coffee more," Megan sighed. Both men looked at her. "Trust me, boys. He's been a bear all day."
"And that's unusual how?" Joel asked.
Megan smiled. "Good point."
The office door opened suddenly and Simon stormed back into the bullpen, a file clutched in his arms. "What the hell is this, Brown?"
Brown swallowed. "Uh... the budget report, sir."
"I know what it is... but... but..." He opened the file and flipped through the pages. "It's done, and it looks right."
Brown smiled proudly. "Yes, sir. I got a call from the Commish's office asking for that by tomorrow. It was kind of relaxing, actually."
"Relaxing!" Simon's head looked ready to explode. "This wasn't supposed to be relaxing! It was supposed to be torture." He jabbed the file at Brown. "While I was out getting attacked by crabs and covered with sand, you were in my office relaxing to blues!"
"Uh, it was actually hours of work, sir... but, yeah, I liked it."
Simon rolled his eyes. "Figures. I just can't win." He turned around and stormed back to the office, slamming his door once again.
"H, you should've said it was hard, horrible work." Joel chuckled, shaking his head, while Brown looked at him in confusion. "I heard Rhonda on the phone with Simon this morning. The whole budget report isn't due for another two weeks."
"It was a set-up?" Brown's mouth dropped open. "You mean, I spent hours...."
Brown pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Oh well, at least it's done. And, it was relaxing." He slapped the older man on the arm. "Now, how 'bout that coffee break? Megan? You coming?"
"Yeah, sure." She scribbled something on a sheet of paper on her desk, then shot to her feet. "I'm starving. Missed lunch."
"What? You didn't go for the crab?" Joel asked merrily, eliciting a grimace from Megan. He chuckled, then glanced at the office. "Brown, go ask Simon if he wants to join us."
"Uh-uh." Brown shook his head. "You ask him."
"Oh, I'll ask him!" Megan sighed, hurrying to the closed office door and tapping on the glass. A muffled "come in!" issued from inside. Slowly, she opened the door and peeked her head in. "Sir, we're all going for a bite to eat. Care to join us?"
"Thanks, but no thanks," came the tired, much more subdued reply. "I'm gonna finish the coffee, then hit the showers and see about getting a change of clothes."
"Okay, sir. See ya later." She closed the door and headed back to Joel and Brown. "Let's go, boys, but no seafood."
"Someone in my department is dirty," Mulroney admitted quietly, his expression one of bitter disappointment and defeat.
They sat in the kitchen, sizing each other up over a cup of coffee. Rafe, Dills, and Harry had beat a hasty retreat when they'd returned up the stairs, and Blair knew enough to give them some space. He'd retreated to the bedroom to find a change of clothes for Jack.
Jim nodded. "How do you know?"
"We've been trying to get Branca for years, and recently he's gotten sloppy. We finally managed to get his accountant to testify against him, only to have him killed while under our protection. A few months later, one of Branca's ex-girlfriends agreed to testify. Now she's dead." Mulroney closed his eyes. "I had to really bully that girl. She was terrified, because of what happened with the accountant. I told her she could trust us."
"I'm sorry," Jim said gently. That would be rough, knowing one of your own had gone bad and feeling responsible for an innocent person's death. "Are you sure it isn't just a coincidence?"
Mulroney shook his head. "No, it's no coincidence. With the second witness, we used the same kind of over-the-top evasive measures I had you and the other detectives use. Still, they found us. A surprise attack, in and out, the witness was dead. That's why I wanted to do this solo, using someone I could trust. No one in my department knows about Harry, or where I am this week. And Harry's still alive."
"So far so good," Jim said. The week wasn't up yet.
Mulroney put down his coffee cup and crossed his arms on the table, leaning slightly forward. "What happened to us, Jim? We used to be on a first name basis. We used to be...well, if not friends, then at least co-workers on good terms."
Jim's expression darkened as he remembered watching Yuri, trapped and all but in his custody, shot without discretion, the force of the bullet pulling Yuri from his grip and causing him to plummet into the torrential currents below.
"I'm sorry about Yuri, Jim. I am truly sorry." Mulroney reached over and touched Jim lightly on the hand. "I helped you get Lazar. That should count for something."
Jim looked up at the federal agent and saw a man not too different from himself. "Yes. Yes it did."
"Joel!" Brown bellowed from the door of the office, spotting the older man just walking into the bullpen, a mug of coffee in his right hand.
Joel sighed. "What is it now, H?"
"C'mon, you've done this stuff. And Simon talks to you right?"
"What do you need?" Joel set the mug on his desk and walked over to Brown.
"The D.A.'s on the phone and wants to know about the Ferdinand case."
"So, tell her what we have."
"I don't know what we have. It wasn't my case. That was Ellison's case, and it's over, right? They wrapped that up months ago."
"What does she want to know?"
"Something about a search and seizure issue."
"Well, she should probably talk directly to Ellison."
"I tried to tell her that, but...."
"She chewed you out?"
"Yeah!" Brown whined.
Joel chuckled softly. "Brown, you're going to have to learn to deal with these people. Tell her she'll have to talk to Ellison and that you'll forward her message to him, but he's on assignment right now, or she can call back tomorrow when Banks is back on duty."
"Be strong man." Joel slapped him on the shoulder. "You can do it."
"But this is the D.A. She can make my life a living hell if I piss her off. You know, making sure I dot every "i" and cross every "t" on every report from now until I retire, Joel!"
"No, no." Joel sounded as though he were talking to a young child. "She's not going to do that. When are you going to learn that the paper pushers are all full of hot air? She's with the D.A's office. They rely on us just as much as we rely on them. So, don't worry about it. Get a backbone."
Brown stiffened. "I got a backbone, man."
"Then use it." Joel grabbed the receiver, jabbed the hold button to reconnect the caller, and handed the receiver to Brown. "Be strong, man," he whispered, then turned and chuckled his way out of the office.
Simon glanced at his watch. These were his last few hours in the field, then he could return to his blessed office with the rich aroma of Guatemalan coffee beans permeating the air. He steered leisurely down Fifth Street, ignoring the random, frustrated huffs from Megan, who remained a hostile passenger. The woman obviously had control problems, but at least she was securely fastened in her seat, away from the wheel and the accelerator.
"Sir, at this rate..."
"Uh-uh!" He raised a silencing finger at her, his eyes remaining firmly on the road. "I can go even slower, you know."
"You drive like my Aunt Emma."
"Oh? You mean safe? Abiding by the law, especially since we are law enforcement officers?"
"That's what my ex-wife used to say." Simon pulled over to the curb and performed a perfect, quick parallel parking maneuver that made him grin with pride and shoot a glance at Megan. "That's driving."
"If you say, so, sir." Megan sighed, unbuckling her seat belt. "At least we made it to the jewelry store before closing time." She opened her door and hurried from the car.
"And she says I'm impossible," Simon muttered, getting out of his own seat and locking the door. "Try not to damage anything, this time, Connor! We just want to talk to the owner, not redecorate his displays."
"Actually, sir," she pulled a folded paper out of her suit jacket pocket, "we want to search the place."
"When did you get that?"
"Yesterday afternoon from the magistrate based on probable cause supplied by our informant's tip."
Simon shook his head, stifling a smile. "Nice work," he grumbled, walking past her and trying to ignore the victorious grin on her face.
Simon pulled open the store's front door, eliciting a light jingle from the bell hung above the entrance. An older man standing behind the counter near the cash register looked up. He had a round face, dark eyes, and graying hair that that showed a few dull strands of brown.
"Hello. Can I help you find something?"
Megan stepped in front of Simon and pulled out her badge. "We're with the Cascade P.D. I'm Detective Connor and this is my partner, Detective Simon Banks."
Simon stomped past her, stopping at the counter in front of the man. "We'd like to ask you some questions about a man named Joseph Branca, and we have a warrant to search the--"
The man bolted, fleeing through the small doorway behind the register.
"Bugger!" Megan scrambled around the counter, disappearing through the rear door after the man.
Simon took off after her. The doorway led to a small storage room that led to a back exit. Simon raced through the exit, emerging into a narrow alley, and spotted Megan ahead just before she rounded the corner.
"Freeze! Police!" He heard her yell.
His heart pounded. Drawing his gun, he stopped just before rounding the corner and carefully peeked his head around. Megan had the suspect pressed against a car right in front of the shop entrance as she slapped the cuffs around his wrist. He relaxed, holstering his firearm. Taking a deep breath as he came down off the adrenaline rush. Although he'd drawn his weapon a couple of times as captain, usually because of something involving Ellison or Sandburg, it certainly wasn't a routine occurrence. For that, he was very, very grateful.
"I didn't do anything!" the owner protested as Megan pulled him away from the car and led him back through the front of the jewelry store.
"Nice work again, Connor." This time he let his grin show.
"Thank you, sir." Megan steered her prisoner against the counter.
He stepped up to the store owner. "Care to tell us about Mr. Branca?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Then why'd you run, mate?" Megan asked.
The owner glared at her. "Who the hell are you? Crocodile Dundee?"
"No, he was my uncle" She grabbed his shirt. "Now, answer the man."
"I'm not saying anything 'til I talk to my lawyer."
"Fine." Simon moved behind the counter. "You can talk to him after we search the place."
"So, we good here, Jim?" Mulroney held out his right hand and waited expectantly.
Jim nodded, and, after a moment's hesitation, responded to his offer and the two shook hands.
"What the..." Jim felt an odd vibration. He twisted their clasped hands so that Mulroney's was on top and looked at an expensive gold ring with a large red inset stone. A high school ring, by the looks of it.
"How long have you been wearing this?" he asked.
"The ring? I don't know. Nine months, anyway. I had my 25th reunion last year, so I dug this out, had the setting checked and got it cleaned. Why?"
"Take it off."
Mulroney looked more and more confused, but the urgency in Jim's voice had him following orders. After twisting the ring a few times, he worked it off over his knuckles and placed it on the table.
Jim looked around and grabbed the heavy cast-iron skillet. Before Mulroney could protest, he'd smashed the head of the ring into a thousand pieces.
"Oh my God." Mulroney stared at the little electronic object squashed among the bits of red glass. "I've been wearing a tracking device."
Two hours later, Simon and Megan had uncovered a small trial's worth of potential evidence, all of which rested on the countertop next to the register in the form of bank records, phone bills, and receipts.
Simon held one of the receipts in his hand, his gut twisting as he read the name.
Mulroney. The federal agent currently guarding the witness who was scheduled to testify against Branca just happened to have had his ring cleaned at this store.
"Connor, stay here! Call for backup!" He handed her the receipt. "I think the location of the safehouse where Ellison and Sandburg are has been compromised. Tell dispatch to send units there ASAP!" He pulled her aside, away from the store owner, and quickly told her the location of the safehouse, then, without another word, bolted for the door.
He stormed out of the building and broke into a run for his car, yanking out his phone and punching in the number Mulroney had given him for his cellphone. God, please don't let it be too late.
Jim stormed out of the kitchen with Mulroney close on his heels. Blair and Harry were playing gin rummy on the coffee table, killing time until Blair could take the stack of clothes, blankets, and towels down to Jack. "Sandburg! Take Harry into the bedroom and watch out for him. Wait until my say-so. We need to get out of here."
"Huh? What's happened? It's not because of Jack, is it?" Blair stood and grabbed his backpack.
"No. But our position's been compromised." Jim checked to make sure his gun was fully loaded. "Rafe! Dills! We need to evacuate!"
"Oh, man." Blair stopped long enough to grab his Cree fishing spear over by the inner safehouse door, then he headed into the bedroom Harry was using.
Humiston seemed to hesitate. Mulroney nodded his head in Blair's direction, so Humiston followed.
A shrill ringing of a cellphone pierced the air. Since Simon's instructions had been "no cellphones," for his detectives, Jim automatically turned to Mulroney.
The agent removed a small cellphone from an inner pocket. "Mulroney." He paused a moment, then handed it to Jim.
"Ellison," Jim snapped out, hating to waste the time.
"Jim, it's Simon." The relief in Simon's voice was palpable.
"Captain, our location has been compromised --"
"We know. Mulroney's high school ring?"
"Yeah, it's got a homing device." Jim moved into the unrenovated exterior part of the house and stopped in front of a window, looking out through one of the relatively clean patches of glass. "How'd you know?"
"Ellison?" Mulroney stepped up beside him.
Jim raised his hand to silence Mulroney, tilting his head as he listened. The crunch of footsteps in the woods outside was either Branca's men, or the cavalry.
Simon's voice blared out of the phone, causing Jim to wince. "We arrested the owner of the jewelry store where Mulroney had it cleaned -- he was one of Branca's men. But don't worry, the cavalry's on its way."
"Sir, about that cavalry... How soon?"
"We're on the road, almost to the campgrounds."
"Damn." Jim threw a glance at Mulroney. "We've got company, and not the good kind."
"Damnit, Jim," came Simon's voice. "How many?"
"What? Can you see them?" Mulroney asked.
Jim nodded. Fact was, he couldn't see them from his position, but he could hear their approach. Two were walking straight up the path, while two more were approaching from the east, moving slowly through the brush. All footsteps were heavy and brisk, and Jim figured their visitors were all male.
"There are four of them," Jim said, turning to the agent. "They think they've got the element of surprise, and we can use that to our advantage." He spoke once again into the phone. "Sir, I need to hang up now. Get here as fast as you can."
"We'll be at the campsite in minutes."
Jim hung up the phone and handed it back to Mulroney. "Go get Sandburg and the witness --"
Rafe and Dills appeared in the hallway.
"Jim, what's going on?" Dills asked, his eyes wide with concern. He was still relatively new to Major Crime and hadn't seen as much action as the others.
"We've got four of Branca's men approaching. Cavalry's on its way. We're wasting time here, guys!"
His ears told him the two men coming up the path were now very close. They were running. He glanced out the window and could see them as two dark shadows crouched behind a cluster of trees. His sensitive vision penetrated the darkness, and he could make out the details of their faces. Both were young, and both carried large automatic weapons.
"Shit, no time," Jim said, turning around and drawing his firearm. "Two are in front. Two more approaching. Dills, stay here. Guard Humiston and Sandburg; they're in the west bedroom. Rafe, Mulroney, you're with me. We're going to throw our own little surprise party. Come on."
Jim took off toward the kitchen with Mulroney and Rafe close behind. If the men got to the house, the only armed resistance they'd meet was Dills, not exactly a fair fight. One against four.
There was no way Jim was going to let that happen. He opened the basement door and hurried down the stairs.
"Wait! Wait!" Mulroney looked panicked. "We can't... what about Jack?"
Hell. Now Frank cares about some homeless guy? Jim turned around and pulled the basement door shut, bolting it from the basement side. "Satisfied?" he asked Mulroney. Mulroney nodded.
"Jim," Rafe's voice came from behind him, "where are we going?"
"I saw the bulkhead from the basement earlier." He reached the bottom and glanced at their indigent guest huddled on his blankets in the corner. "Stay here."
Jack nodded. Mulroney looked at him for a moment and offered his own advice. "Lock the bulkhead after us -- tightly, okay? Then go into that darker corner over there --" he pointed "-- and take your blankets. Hide completely beneath them and don't move, okay?"
Jack nodded nervously, wringing his hands.
"Over here." Jim stopped at another, smaller flight of stairs that led up to the bulkhead doors. He unlocked them, stopping to listen before he stepped out. "All clear."
"How can you tell?" Mulroney asked.
Jim didn't have time to play the obfuscation game with the rest of his senses, so he opened the door and slipped into the night. "Come on," he whispered.
The crisp air stung his cheeks and penetrated his jacket, but he pushed aside the discomfort and turned to his two companions. Both had their guns drawn. "Mulroney, this is the way I think we should play it. I've got the sight advantage on you two, so I'm going to get into position to keep an eye on the two men approaching."
"Where are they?" whispered Rafe.
"About two hundred feet in front of the house, hiding behind some trees. There are two more coming from the east. They'll likely attack as one, so the two in front will be waiting for their companions. You two sneak around the two closest ones, and I'm going to intercept the two approaching. Think you can handle it?"
Mulroney nodded. "Just point us in the direction."
Jim nodded, moving closer to the house and flattening against the side as he peeked around the corner. His ears already told him the two close men were holding their positions. "Right there," he pointed, and Mulroney and Rafe both ducked and moved closer to the house, peering around him. "See the two trees there? The left one's leaning to the right?"
"Yeah," Rafe said. "Looks like a praying mantis?"
Both men looked at him.
"You know," he said, putting his arms in front of him in a gesture of prayer. "The two branches that --"
Jim nodded. "Right. That one. Your two marks are right near that tree. Can either of you imitate a whippoorwill?"
Mulroney and Rafe nodded, confused.
"Good. When I've neutralized the two men on the move, I'll make like a whippoorwill. If you've gotten your two secured, answer. If not, I'll hurry to assist. You should have your two taken care of before I get both of the approaching ones. Just sit tight until you hear my whippoorwill."
Mulroney nodded. "We can handle it, Ellison."
"Watch yourself out there, Jim," Rafe said, puckering and unpuckering his lips as he seemed to silently practice his bird calling techniques.
"Of course." Jim flashed a faint smile. "Now go. And, Rafe?"
"Watch where you step." He pointed to Rafe's dress shoes. "Those things aren't meant for sneaking."
With a final nod, Jim crouched low and circled around the back of the house, keeping his ears tuned to the two men approaching from the east. They were having a hard time making their way through the wild brush, and that was to his advantage. The Peruvian jungle made this wilderness look like a well-kept park by comparison.
In addition to the footsteps of the two approaching visitors, he heard Mulroney and Rafe's footsteps moving slowly but steadily away from the house toward the two unsuspecting men hiding in the trees.
It took him only a few minutes to reach his targets. He stopped a few feet ahead, hiding himself in a thick patch of bush, his gun ready. He waited, tracking them visually. He was now close enough that the brush didn't completely obstruct his line of sight, and he watched them stumbling through the darkness. They didn't have night vision goggles, but the moon was full, providing enough light for even a normal-sighted person to see, albeit with difficulty.
Jim waited until they were right on top of him, then sprang, hitting the closest one first with a debilitating blow to the left kidney. He couldn't risk a gunshot, not until he was sure Rafe and Mulroney had reached their targets. The man he'd hit was down, groaning loudly in agony, and the other man raised his gun.
Jim rolled to the side, the bullet tearing a superficial path along his right arm, leaving a trail of bright pain.
The gunshot rang in his ears, and he shook his head even as he lurched to his feet, his own gun drawn. Something hard hit him from behind, and he slammed face-first into the ground.
He blinked, his head throbbing, and pushed himself to his feet. The man he'd punched in the kidney now hovered over him, a Beretta clutched in his hands. Now that he was close, Jim took a moment to study his captor. The man was thick and stocky, and looked like he could play pro football if he were five years younger.
"You weren't out long."
Jim blinked. He hadn't realized he'd passed out. He looked around, his heart leaping to his throat. Where was --?
"He went up ahead."
"Why didn't you just kill me?"
"Because I want to know how you knew we were here, and what your plan of defense was."
Jim shrugged. "I saw your two buddies out front and then scouted the perimeter."
The man raised an eyebrow.
Jim tapped at the side of his eye. "I've got good vision."
"Oh, right. The cop with good eyes and a good nose. And my two friends?"
Jim smiled. "They should be taken care of by now. That leaves your one guy against three. He's probably in cuffs by now."
Jim punctuated his last word by dropping like a stone to the ground and swinging his feet under his opponent's legs. The man went down hard, and Jim moved quickly. In less than a second, he had the man pressed against a small tree, his wrists cuffed around the trunk to hold him in place.
It gave tree-hugging a whole new meaning.
"See you later," Jim said, then took off, his ears picking up two familiar voices reciting Miranda warnings.
Jim allowed himself a moment of relief. Three down. One to go.
He ran to the house and saw Mulroney and Rafe leading their prisoners to the front porch.
"Jim!" Simon's deep voice spun Rafe and Mulroney around. Half a dozen uniformed men scurried out from the brush, surrounding them and taking custody of the two handcuffed prisoners.
"One got by me!" Jim shouted. "He's inside."
Mulroney's eyes went wide.
A gunshot, then another, jolted the night.
Jim's heart skipped a beat. "Blair!"
"Harry!" Mulroney paled.
They flew up the porch and into the house, with Simon and a handful of uniforms right behind.
"This sucks!" Blair paced back and forth, his hands alternating between twisting his hair and gesturing to the room in general. They'd heard a gunshot moments ago, and Dills had gone out to check on the others.
The witness, the one who should have been nervous, was the poster child of calm, sitting on the bed wearing a thoughtful expression.
"You'll be fine, kid," Harry said. "Don't worry." Blair stopped his pacing. Harry just didn't seem like... well, Harry anymore.
Before he could work out exactly why, something enormously heavy and strong slammed against the door.
"Dills?" Blair called out uncertainly, picking up his Cree spear. Oh, he was so not ready for this. "Jim?" He flinched as the door was slammed again.
"Just keep away from the door, Blair," said Harry. "You'll be fine."
Yeah, right, thought Blair. He hoped Harry was good in a fight.
The third time was the charm. The door frame splintered dramatically and the door swung drunkenly open, attached by only the upper hinge. Someone shouted something, but all Blair saw was the big guy with a gun. Wasting no time, he held his spear backwards and rushed the giant in front of him like a champion jouster without a horse.
His move was definitely a surprise. The big guy took the smooth end of the spear smack on his right rib cage before it pushed against the skin over the bone and slid off to the side. Before the man could move, Blair twisted the spear around smoothly until the point was against the thug's neck. Shit, now what? Blair thought. He held the spear there with all his weight and tried to appear menacing.
SZZZZZZT. He heard the hiss of a spray can milliseconds before he felt the terrible burning in his eyes. Crying out, he automatically dropped the spear and reached for his eyes with his hands. Another body jammed against his and then a big, beefy arm grabbed his hair and he felt the muzzle of a gun against his temple. A harsh sound of flesh against flesh filled the room.
Damnit, he was not going down without a fight. Blair twisted his lower body like a Twizzler, then grabbed the wrist holding the gun with both of his hands and pushed at a right angle, hard. The gun slid sideways against his temple and the arm jerked away, but the movement caused the gun to discharge.
The pain against his skull was overwhelming. Blair may have cried out again, but all he could hear was the ringing in his ears. Another shot, further away and tinny, rang out, and the beefy arm around his neck relaxed and slipped free.
Staggering to his feet, Blair opened his still-tearing, burning eyes and tried to make sense of the fuzzy shapes in the room. The big fuzzy shape on the floor was the bad guy. Where was Harry?
"Harry?" he called, causing the pain in his head to sharpen. He wiped more tears from his eyes and moved forward. A shape to his right groaned and moved. Harry was leaning against the wall, bent over slightly, Blair guessed. The thug must have hurt him somehow.
Watch out for him, Jim had said. Watch out for Harry. Blair opened the closet door, grabbed Harry's arm, and shoved him inside. Slamming the door shut, he twisted the key in the lock and stuck it in his pocket.
Oh God! Footsteps sounded by the front door. Blair dropped to the floor and tried to blink away the fuzziness. He felt around until he finally felt the gun, still warm from having been shot. Scrambling backwards, he sat on the floor, back against the closet door, and held the gun out clumsily in front of him.
He would keep Harry safe.
Jim was first through the bedroom doorway, and shock brought him to a sudden halt. What the hell had happened? The hitman he'd seen in the woods was lying on the floor with a bullet hole neatly through his skull. Blair was sitting on the floor, leaning against the closet door with blood streaming from his temple. Harry was nowhere in sight. "Chief, what --"
"Stop!" Blair shouted a little too loudly. The gun wavered in Jim's general direction as Blair blinked his eyes rapidly. Now that Jim got a good look, he could see the mace burns and the tears tracking down his face.
"Jim. My God, what happened?" Simon stood slightly behind him.
"He's been maced. And I think creased by a bullet. There are powder burns on his temple, around the wound. The sound of the gun discharging so close to his ear must have caused his hearing to go whacky."
"Stop!" Blair shouted again, desperate. "Jim?"
"Right here, Chief." Relieved, Jim started towards him.
Jim stopped immediately.
"Where's Harry?" Mulroney called out, running into the bedroom. "Sandburg, where's Harry?"
"Don't move!" Blair shouted once again. "Just stay there. Don't move until I know who you are!"
Jim glared at Mulroney. "Harry's in the closet, he's fine." At Mulroney's questioning look, Jim added, "I can smell his aftershave, okay? Just let me handle this."
It took a look from Simon to actually shut Mulroney up.
"Chief, tell me what to do," Jim said loudly and carefully.
Blair's face scrunched up in frustration. "Just don't move. Everything you say sounds destined, like a really bad phone call. And all I can see is blurry shapes."
"Ask me a question, Blair. Ask me one question that only I can answer."
Blair rubbed his cheek in frustration. "God, Jim, my head is killing me."
"I know Chief. Just ask me a question. Let me convince you it's me so we can help you and Harry."
"I have to protect Harry."
"No you don't!" said Mulroney. "He's a cop, Sandburg. You don't need to protect him. So give up the gun, okay?"
"Mulroney," Jim said softly through clenched teeth, "what the hell are you talking about?"
"Harry's an agent. My roommate from Quantico, in fact, one of the only other people I knew I could trust."
"So there was no witness? This was just a ruse to find out who was leaking the information in your department? You son of a --"
"No, you've got it wrong, Ellison." Mulroney held up his hands. "There was -- is -- a witness, I swear. I didn't lie about that. The witness just isn't Harry."
"Give me the password!" Blair called out suddenly. "If you're Jim, give me the password."
Password? Damn. What the hell was that stupid password he came up with? "Tea!" he said, remembering. "Comforting Chamomile Tea."
Blair shook his head slightly. "No! That's not it. That's not it, Jim."
Hell. What was that other thing he said, when Mulroney first arrived? "The password's 'Trigger Happy Feds,'" said Jim, hoping he remembered it right.
"No!" Blair began to panic, shifting the gun uneasily at all the blurry shapes in front of him.
Jim dredged a memory from a long time ago when they were on a train, protecting another witness at another time. The password had been a joke then, too, but with Sandburg's brain scrambled, maybe that's what he was remembering. "How about 'It's me, Ellison. Let me in.'?"
Simon quirked an eyebrow at that odd statement.
Blair's face twisted in misery. "Damnit, you can't be Jim. Jim would know the password." Blair rubbed a sleeve across his eyes to clear the tearing and winced as the flannel touched his burns. "It's a fish, Jim. It's a kind of fish named Mary."
"The kid's a mess, Jim," Simon said softly. "Maybe we should just rush him and take our chances."
"No." Jim smiled. "He's just fine. Sandburg, the password is 'swordfish.'"
Blair sighed, relief spreading through his body like a shot of Demerol."It is you, man. I am so glad."
Jim took the two steps needed to reach his partner and gently pulled the gun away, handing it off to Simon. There was another gun on the floor by the bed. Jim took an educated guess that that gun belonged to Harry, so it was likely Harry who shot the guy behind him.
"I need some aspirin," Blair said, sounding a bit more like himself.
"Why?" said Jim gently, holding his handkerchief against the crease on Blair's temple. "Do you have a haddock?"
Blair choked out a laugh and Jim laughed with him. Finally, he had something to laugh about.
Blair winced, his head still throbbing. Getting maced and creased by a bullet all in the same night just wasn't a good thing. "Yeah, Simon?"
"That's Captain." Simon stormed out of his office and stopped in front of Sandburg's desk. He seemed to sense Ellison's eyes on him, and threw a glare at the detective.
Jim's eyes snapped back to his monitor.
Simon returned his attention to Blair, who was sitting at his desk, his chin resting in his right hand and his eyes closed.
"Head still hurt?" Simon asked, his voice suddenly gentle.
"Yeah." Blair cracked an eye at him. "You were about to chew me out for something, sir?" He waved his free hand. "Go on. Don't let my pain stop you."
Simon sighed. "You're taking all the fun out of it...but I think I can still muster a bit of satisfaction. Next time the mayor asks you to write a report...."
Blair winced again as Brown hurried into the bullpen.
"Man, I owe you big time." Brown hurried up to Blair's desk and perched himself on the corner. "Hey, Captain."
"That's right. Captain," Simon replied. "Glad you remember, Detective."
Brown grinned, gesturing toward Sandburg. "Ain't he something else?" He looked back at Blair, who appeared almost asleep. "Stroke of genius, Blair! Absolutely brilliant. You're at the top of my Christmas list, kid."
"I take it the mayor implemented my suggestions?" Blair muttered the question, squinting up at the two men.
"Yes." Simon pressed his palms on the desk and leaned closer to Sandburg. "Next time, just ask for something like, oh, I don't know...an increase in officer salaries. A better coffee maker in the break room. Less civilian consultants on the payroll!"
"C'mon, Captain, wasn't it just a little fun for you?" Brown asked. "I mean, I did your budget report. You hate doing that stuff, right?"
Blair closed his eyes.
"Yeah." Simon's lips twitched upward. "That is something, I guess. But, riding around with Connor," he shook his head, "I should have gotten hazard pay."
Agent Frank Mulroney paused before entering Major Crime, standing in the doorway like a new kid on the first day of school. Jim, sensing a presence, looked up from his paper work and waved to him.
"Frank. Come on in."
Mulroney nodded and sauntered over to Jim's desk. "I uh... just wanted to thank you and the others for all your help. You'll all be getting official letters of commendation from the Bureau."
"No problem. Remember for next time, though, that you don't need to protect your witnesses by dressing them in filthy clothing and hiding them in a basement. Trust us enough to tell us the whole truth, okay?"
"No promises," Mulroney said, almost smiling. "I'm still a fed, remember?"
"I remember." They looked at each for a moment, then Jim held out his hand. "You take care of yourself, Frank," he said.
"You, too, Jim." Mulroney seemed on the verge of saying something else, but changed his mind. With another nod at Jim, he turned and left the bullpen.
"So?" asked Blair, sidling up to Jim's desk and gesturing at Mulroney's retreating back.
"So, what?" Jim countered, knowing full well what Blair was asking.
"You guys settle your differences? What did you talk about back at the safehouse?"
Jim shrugged. "Stuff like our first names."
"First names? Really?"
"In fact," Jim said, "you might say we had a 'frank' discussion."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Man, Jim, that's bad." He pushed away from the desk and headed toward the break room. "I'm going to go get a cup of coffee."
"Fine," Jim grumbled to himself after Blair had left. "I bet you would have laughed if Groucho said it."
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