"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."
Continue to Act III