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Jim left Boris for processing, the drugs for Forensics, and a message for the desk clerk to please call INS about identifying the perp and sending back wherever he came from. Then Jim yelled at the elevator until it opened, and took it straight up to Major Crime.

Rhonda had been keeping a lookout for him, and signaled her boss. "Now, Captain!"

Simon Banks stuck his head out from behind his door and before Jim could even put a foot over the threshold of the department, the yell was pealing over his head. "ELLISON! My office, NOW!"

Jim did a quick sweep of the room before following Simon into the security provided by his superior's closed door. Blair was waving and pointing at the interior office, making eloquent pleas: Why's he angry? Why at you? Did I do something? What's going on?

Jim couldn't answer him. There was a rushing in the department, a circulation, a deadly riptide of swift currents carrying bits of conversation from all over. 'I believe it.' 'I don't.'

'Too many coincidences.' 'He's always here when it happens.' 'Yeah, and he's not here all the time, either.' 'Ellison.' 'Sandburg.' 'Curse.' 'Curse.' 'Curse.'

Then he was inside and could block out the sounds of treachery with fists at his ears.

"You okay, Jim?" Simon asked with some concern as his premier detective plopped into a chair with his fingers massaging his temples.

"Yeah, I just tried to hear everyone at once. Not a good idea." The sentinel pinched the bridge of his nose and looked up again. "What's going on, Simon?"

"You took the temperature out there. You tell me."

"There's a lot of talk out there about the 'Sandburg Curse' and some of it isn't good-natured. I gather people are putting 2 and 2 and 2 together and making a federal case out of it." Jim's lips thinned to almost nothing.

"About what I'd expected. What I need to know is who wants him cut loose. If you need him...."

"Oh, I do! God, Simon, these senses – yeah, I need him!" Jim yelped.

"Then we have to scotch this snake before anyone thinks he or she has a legitimate beef and makes a formal complaint." Simon looked meditative.

"Well, you know, there have been a lot of screw-ups in the past twenty-four hours," Jim said consideringly. "Henri's keyboard is a maybe, but someone pulled the plug on the copier and I think it was deliberate."

"I do, too," Banks agreed. "I asked Rhonda how likely it was that the plug would be pulled out by chance and she said the machine was too heavy to shake it loose. She didn't say it, but I think she believes it was deliberate sabotage, only she's not putting it into the framework of a campaign against Blair; I think she thinks it's aimed at her."

"No, it's definitely aimed at Blair. Tell me about the computer virus."

"You know pretty much what I know. Cam Rider had been in Vice for a while; when she came back her monitor began to fritz. Then Henri's went black, and it looked as if the whole department was about to go down. But Blair had an anti-virus program on him that he uploaded into the system, and he got the system working again lickety-split.

"Then the chatter started and I can't say if it started in one place faster than another; it just seemed to be everywhere."

Jim had his elbows on his knees, his fingers templed at his lips. He sat for a moment and started recreating the flow of things.

"First I salt the mine with a joke between Sandburg and me about a curse striking the vending machine, the one he used to hit the Sunrise Patriot," he listed. "Then Brown's keyboard sticks and won't operate properly. It looks like an accident, but the stuff jamming down the keys is thick and sticky, and we don't use glue. Brown says he hasn't spilled cola on the keyboard. The keys stuck, though, aren't the letter keys, but the ones that you really need for more than typing – space, enter, shift and caps lock. I was watching Blair all the time he was in the department, sir," the sentinel said as an aside. "He's about the only person I can positively eliminate from the list of potentially guilty parties."

"So you think the keyboard was deliberately mucked up?" Simon asked.

"Yeah, now I do. If it were that alone, I wouldn't. I'd figure Brown had been sloppy. But he usually admits to it if he's screwed up, and he was definite about not having done his keyboard in. The crumbs, yes. The sticky gunk, no."

"And it was the sticky gunk that did it."

"Something like caramel."

"There are a lot of candy bars in the machine with caramel in them."

"Caramilks have a pretty liquid caramel, and it sets hard."

"So we have means to mess up Brown's keyboard. Motive? Opportunity?"

"Motive – let's leave that to the end. Opportunity – anyone who came into Major Crime. Henri was away from his desk a lot. And while he was at it, he was on the phone following up tips on the Low file."

"So, one possible act of mischief. The photocopier, a second possible act of mischief. And anyone could have slipped a floppy with a virus into Cam Rider's computer. She wasn't always at her desk, either. Rick Pryor and she have been working on one of their cases from her Vice days; it's going to trial soon."

"But in all cases, the person who saves the day is Sandburg," Jim said, up and pacing. He stopped and looked worried. "We may not have the motive for whoever is setting him up, but I can read the motive the saboteur or saboteurs are going to ascribe to him."

Simon Banks nodded, his teeth gritted. "The hero complex."

"Right. Like firebugs who set the fire so they can call it in and become a hero. Or those sick parents and medical personnel with Munchausen's Syndrome, you know, the ones who poison a child so they can save its life and get lots of admiration for it. The means for Sandburg manipulating the emotions of those around him." Jim was troubled.

"Plus, it's an 'in' to the P.D., and Major Crime in particular," Simon added with some disapproval. "An anthropologist, looking for acceptance, and hoping to find it by being helpful by fixing the crises he created in the first place."

"Yeah," Jim pursed out his lower lip. "That's about it."

"Jim?" Simon called him on his silence. "Give!"

Jim looked up at his friend and boss. "It's what everyone thinks of him, Simon, that he's manipulating me. That he gets what he wants by playing on my emotions. It's what you think yourself."

Simon had the grace to blush.

"That makes it a terribly dangerous charge to bring against him. With or without proof, no one is going to worry about the means Blair might have used to screw with the computers or the copier. They're gonna think he has motive and opportunity and let that persuade them. This is bad, Simon."

"I know," the Captain said. "Now, what do we do about it?"

"I think I might know what could be hit next. Something ugly, Simon, so we have to be very careful if Blair's being framed."

"So why would anyone want to frame Blair, anyway?" Simon asked shrewdly. "What skin is it off anyone's nose if he's in Major Crime or not?"

"Good question," Jim Ellison said. "A very good question. Another good question: what's the most sensitive and vulnerable thing in this whole department, right now?"

Rhonda was called into Captain Banks' office and sent on a task. She found the file in the correct cabinet, photocopied the document essential to it, and put it back where it belonged. Then she reported back to her boss, leaving the duplicate with him.

Jim Ellison emerged from Simon's office and approached his own desk. Blair was about to erupt into a flurry of worried questions but Jim just gave him a frown with a lot of eye meaning and shook his head a little. He went into a mini-rant. "Sandburg, where are we on the reports?"

Blair looked down and said, "I've got a first draft for the Switchman which was relatively fast, because I was there, and I'm working on the Sunrise Patriots, but that's all over the place...."

"Stop with the reports," Jim interrupted a trifle too loudly. "Do you have the Abramson file?"

"Uh, no," Sandburg replied with a touch of bafflement. "I did earlier, just to look over how a complete file would look, but I put it back."

"Get it now, wouldja, Chief? I need to prepare for trial. The captain was asking about it and not very pleased that I couldn't answer some of his questions."

"Oh, okay, Jim." Blair hopped up. "I'll get it now." He all but jogged to the filing cabinets and pulled out what Jim needed.

"You do some schoolwork or something, Chief. I need a little quality time with this file."

Blair blinked, and muttered something. He got out his bookbag, found a sheaf of student term papers, and set the already marked ones aside. He had four or five left to grade, and got to work.

Jim flipped through the Abramson file, head down, studying hard. He made some notes, changing pens once, and then changing back.

Amanda Schuller came into the office, and met up with Rhonda. She had a copy of the Major Crime budget with her, as well as the one she had prepared for the Bomb Squad, and was apparently bent on comparing ways of itemizing costs using the department software while surreptitiously ogling Jim Ellison.

Joel Taggart wandered in from the Bomb Squad on the heels of his secretary. When she looked up, he gently waved her back to her conference, and knocked on Simon's door. He entered at the growl.

Rick Pryor ambled along to deliver the Vice file they shared to Cam Rider. As she was reading the notes, he circulated about the room taking bets on the Jags game that upcoming Saturday.

Jim got up and asked if Blair wanted a break. He was persuaded into agreeing, and the two left for the break room.

Joel came out of Simon's office and crossed the floor to talk with Henri Brown.

Rhonda showed Amanda the supplies cabinet and the oversized ledger paper.

Cam finished reading the file Rick had brought her and took it over to him by the copier. Back at her desk, she wrote a short, cranky memo to Jim demanding that they set times to review the Abramson case independently, so everyone knew when the file would free for personal consultation. She showed it to Henri, then delivered it to Jim's desk and returned to her own.

Rick swung past Henri and Captain Taggart, scaring up bets on the Jags.

At some point, everyone passed by Ellison's desk.

Jim and Sandburg returned. Jim sat down with a cup of coffee and took up Cam's message. He tossed it into the garbage, and returned to the Abramson file. Three minutes later, he howled, "Where's the chain of evidence sheet?"

Blair was more than startled. "I don't know, Jim. Isn't it there?"

Henri Brown looked over at them. "No sheet, no conviction," he said with concern.

Cam Rider was a volcano. "That's what you get for letting ride-alongs look at the files, Ellison. I don't know why you'd take such a chance!"

"Wait, wait," Blair said, amazed. "I don't have a clue where it is. Or even what it looks like, for that matter."

Amanda Schuller was urging Rhonda to tell Simon about the mishap. Rhonda was refusing.

Captain Banks came out to an effusion of angry words from Cam Rider, Henri trying to calm her down, Jim Ellison hunting high and low around his own desk and Blair Sandburg scouting around his chair.

"What's going on?" Simon barked.

"Sandburg's eaten the evidence sheet for the Abramson case," Cam told him bitterly.

"Hey, what? What?" Blair was thunderstruck. "I haven't got anything to do with wherever the evidence sheet is, Si—uh, Captain."

Rick Pryor was nonchalant. "Just keep looking, Sandburg. I'm sure you'll turn it up."

Amanda Schuller stuck the blade in further. "He always does, doesn't he? The Sandburg Curse strikes and only Sandburg can save the day," she accused the T.A. acidly.

"What?" Blair drew in on himself. "What's she talking about, Jim?" He looked to his roommate for an explanation.

"The Sandburg Curse," Jim said meditatively. "What's gone wrong around here, huh? What did I miss?" he asked his fellow officers.

"You were here for Brown's keyboard fritzing," Cam said.

Henri held his peace, but there was trouble in his gaze at Blair.

"And the photocopier!" Amanda put in unexpectedly. Everyone looked at her. "What? Rhonda wanted to use ours in the Bomb Squad but I was tied up with our budget and couldn't let her have it."

"What you were away for, Jim," Simon said slowly, "was Pryor's computer catching a virus and only Sandburg being able to stop it."

"Oh, look," Blair said disbelievingly. "I had a new virus program on disk which I intended to download anyway; the virus beat me to it. That's all that happened. I'm careful with computers. I have to be. I can't be without my laptop. You can't criminalize me for that!"

"Maybe not," Ellison said, as cold as granite. "But the totality – three things go wrong and you're always the one to fix them. Now there's a fourth. You'd better hope that sheet turns up, because messing with it is a crime, interfering with a criminal prosecution." He pushed a spluttering Blair aside and began to search among Blair's things.

"Aha!" he cried and held a document aloft. "It was mixed in with the sheaf of graded essays. Better start explaining, Sandburg."

"I think he sets these things up just so he can be the hero and get in with the rest of us," Amanda claimed shrilly.

"You do?" Banks thought that over. "He's an anthropologist. That might be it."

Cam Rider and Rick Pryor were nodding at each other. Various other people around the room were muttering about the 'Sandburg Curse'.

"Then again, that might not be it," Banks continued. "Maybe it's something entirely different."

Everyone's gaze flashed to his face.

"Jim? Wanna take it from here?" Simon offered.

Jim Ellison was on his feet. "Rhonda, report please."

Rhonda tucked her blonde hair behind her ear. "Amanda had nothing to do with the evidence report. I watched every move she made."

Amanda Schuller yelped. "You suspected me?"

"You make so much noise about how Blair isn't the right partner for Jim, you were a prime suspect. Look how fast you were to blame him, Amanda, and think about it," Joel Taggart, her boss, told her. "We'll talk later."

She blushed furiously and gazed down at the floor tiles.

"So you're off the hook for everything but being ill-natured about Blair," Jim told her frostily. "Let's move on."

She went even redder. She'd taken the hint at last: Jim Ellison wanted nothing to do with her.

"Captain Taggart, report." Jim turned to where the Bomb Squad captain sat with Henri Brown.

"Bingo."

"Brown, report."

"Likewise, bingo."

"Bingo?" said everyone. "Bingo? Bingo?"

Joel and Henri exchanged glances, Henri deferring to Joel. Joel took the ball. "I've been watching Rick Pryor."

The room erupted into shouts and catcalls. "Silence!" Captain Banks yelled over all the other voices. "I will have silence," he told his department.

Rick Pryor had turned white. "I don't know what you think is going on but I don't have to stand for this." He began to make his way to the door.

Big Captain Taggart stood in his way. "First, you need to know I saw you take the evidence sheet out of the Abramson file."

"You couldn't have," Rick sneered. "I didn't do it, and, anyway, if I had taken anything from it, it's impossible to identify one paper from another."

"Not when the back's been specifically marked with a bright red line, visible across the room," the Bomb Squad captain told him.

Rick fell back a step. "I haven't been anywhere near the punk's stuff. The sheet was in with his paperwork, not mine."

"Bingo number two," Henri Brown said bitterly. "I was watching Cam while Joel and I were 'talking'. I saw the handoff between you...."

Cam Rider's fists were flying and it took both Taggart and Banks to get her off Brown.

"Semper Fi, Cam?" her partner in Major Crime asked, feeling his jaw. "I don't think so. You just had to partner Jim Ellison and nothing else mattered. Not even your vow to protect and serve. You are one sorry-assed person." His lip curled with disdain.

"That's why you wanted me arrested and maybe sent to jail?" Blair asked in sheer shock. "You thought I stood in your way? You could ride with Jim if only I wasn't here? That's just plain crazy."

"Just plain stupid, Chief," Jim was contemptuous. "She got partnered with Henri before you came along; she never had a chance with me. She just never got that."

Cam Rider paled, then flushed red and fixed her gaze straight ahead of her, seeing nothing, hearing no one.

The recital of guilt went on.

"I saw the handoff from Rick," Henri said to all assembled, "and I saw her slip the paper into Hairboy's pile when she left the note for Jim. No one who wasn't watching the two of them specifically would have seen the whole thing. It took both Joel and me to get the whole thing down."

Cam Rider was looking at everyone through lowered lids, and remaining mum.

"Rhonda, call Vice and tell them what's happened. Call IA too," Simon said. Simon was relieving Cam Rider of her badge and weapon when the Vice Captain arrived on the heels of the Internal Affairs investigator. At first, Rick's captain wanted to go to bat for his man, but Jim reminded him they'd be fingerprinting the original report sheet where no Rick Pryor prints should be. Pryor gave out a small groan; his captain was convinced and demanded his badge and weapon.

A sorrowful hush fell on the room as the whole department heard the plot against Blair Sandburg told for the benefit of the IA investigator. He wasn't pleased to have been cut out of the loop, but admitted that the sting couldn't have happened if anyone knew he was involved. He took custody of the two detectives with alacrity. Dressing down in grunge style at the P.D. wasn't in any criminal statute he knew of; framing civilians for criminal mischief and interfering with the course of justice, however, were.

"Why?" Henri asked Cam as his partner was led out of Major Crime. "I know you wanted to ride with Ellison instead of me, but why go so far?"

"Semper Fi," she quoted back to him.

"Loyalty to Rick? What's he get out of this?"

Cam raised her right hand and stroked the first two fingers with her thumb. Then she fell back into silence again as she and Rick were taken off.

Rick's captain sighed. "He's a gambler. I thought he had it under control. I guess I was wrong; it must be an addiction by now. He's been a good detective up to this point. But I don't see the tie-in to blackening Mr. Sandburg's name." He stared around the room.

Brown cleared his throat. "There's this pool going in the break room." He looked at Blair and then Simon, abashed. "It's when Captain Banks is going to pull Hairboy's credentials again. Rick only has today left; he must have been desperate to cash in." He tried to crawl under his desk in embarrassment.

Simon stared at each and every one of his people, Joel and Amanda from the Bomb Squad also joining the crew. "There. Will. Be. No. More. Betting. On. Sandburg's. Credentials. There. Will. Be. No. More. Talk. About. A. Sandburg. Curse. Do. I. Make. Myself. CLEAR?"

Fervent assents rang all around the department. "Then, ladies, I want to see some work done. Ellison, Sandburg, Brown. My office. Rhonda, Captain Taggart, will you join us, please?"

The conspirators filed into their ringleader's office to chill out for a while, letting the department settle down again to working like detectives.

EPILOGUE

What with one thing or another, Jim and Blair didn't make it back to the loft until ten, the eight o'clock date having been deferred until the weekend. They had ordered a giant-sized pizza in the truck, having negotiated toppings until both were happy with the selection, and picked it up on the way back to the loft. When they closed and locked the door, they all but lunged for the dining table, tantalized by the smell, hungry after labor.

Happily, Larry was still in his cage and the loft was undemolished. Blair tended to Larry while Jim got out plates and beer for them both.

They sat down together to feast.

Jim was very careful. He did not want to approach the subject in any way that could affect his roommate's appetite. He had a hunch that, between Boris Someone and Spiros Kouriakis, Blair had probably missed more than a few lunches, and perhaps some dinners. Let him eat till he's ready to burst, Jim decided. It can only help.

Blair gave signs of bursting five slices and two beers later, surreptitiously undoing the top button of his jeans. "Oh, man," he moaned. "That was so good."

"Yup," Jim said around the first bite of his fifth slice. He had more staying power when it came to pigging out. He swallowed. Blair was still on his second beer.

"Say, Chief, when does Larry have to go back to the lab?" he asked casually.

Beside him, Blair tensed and his pulse rose sharply. "About ten days, Jim. Is that a problem? Because I can be out...."

"No, no problem, Chief," Jim said genially. "Oh, by the way, I had to stop off and see your old landlord about the drug gang in his building. Here." He handed over the check the slumlord had written.

"Oh, my God, Jim," Blair said, playing with the distance from check to eyes, trying to focus. "Does it say what I think it says?"

"Yeah. Your last month's rent, the safety deposit and the rebate for the time after the fire. Oh, and it should clear all right. He's not going to put a stop payment on it, anyway," Jim assured him.

Blair drew his brows down, and stared at his friend. "I couldn't even speak to him. He just kept yelling 'Sue! Sue!' How did you get this?"

Jim gulped down some beer. "Blackmailed him."

"Do I want to know?" Blair asked apprehensively.

"Yeah, it's a good story, but right now I want to know your plans for after Larry."

Blair heaved an enormous sigh. "I'm working on finding a new place. Here," he got up and trotted into his room and out again, with a worn newspaper section folded and tattered.

Jim took it. It was the classified section for rentals of apartments and rooms from the weekend paper. Blair had ringed and crossed off a good dozen sites. Jim knew why; the apartments in decent areas cost more than Blair could afford, and the rooms for rent were in the skeeziest parts of town. Jim had to suppress a shudder at a couple of the so-called hotels; they were little more than rent-by-the-hour brothels for the street trade.

"Well, you can't stay in any of these," Jim said flatly.

Blair found a wan smile. "I've stayed in worse."

"I don't believe it," Jim said equally flatly, and stared directly at his roommate.

"Well, okay, only worse in the sense that they were jungle or deserts or wherever, and not urban, but, hey, no light and no running water!" Blair had lost the wan smile and hadn't found another.

"You're not staying in any of these places," Jim repeated and got up and tossed the newspaper into the trash bin.

"Hey!" Blair protested.

Jim just smiled and hustled his roommate into the living area.

"Boris is gone," he said, poker-faced, taking a seat on the couch. He fiddled with the remote control unit and started flicking up and down the television channels.

"You got rid of Boris?" Blair plumped down next to him. "Thank God! Thank you, Jim. The girls were at their wits' end."

"So you can go back to living with Georgia and Peggy – if you really want to," Jim drawled the last words and watched for their effect.

Blair pinned him with a stare. "What are you getting at, Jim? Why wouldn't I want to?"

Jim shrugged. "You could stay here, if you want."

Blair's eyes bugged out. "You're giving me an option? I can really stay?"

Jim hid a smile, masking amusement with indifference. "Yeah, junior, you can really stay. If you want. You'd have to pay rent...."

"...I'd want to pay rent," Blair started, and they both began to grin.

"How much?" Blair asked.

Jim said, "Two hundred and fifty dollars a month. That's what the hellholes in the paper charged."

"They were opening high, so you'd negotiate them down. Two-fifty is nowhere near enough. The apartment I share with Georgia and Peggy is a thousand a month."

"So between you, the three of you are paying three hundred thirty-three a month?"

"No, I was paying more; my room is slightly larger than the others. I paid four hundred; they couldn't afford over three each and, even so, they're scratching for food money."

Jim took in the full picture. The girls weren't the only ones scratching for food money; Sandburg was lean, though full of energy, but he must have burned every calorie he'd ingested twice over, and Jim would eat his Jags cap if Blair hadn't been subsidizing the girls' food money along with the rent. Dr. de Villiers' words came back to him: He'd stop eating for an entire term if it meant he could buy an enticing book with the savings. He wasn't going to take any more of Blair's cash than was absolutely necessary. "No matter. Your share should have been three thirty-three. Here, you don't have the same amenities as there."

"Say what?"

"No parking garage space, for one."

"Oh. Well, that's not such a big thing."

"Anyway, I think three hundred is fair. Your room is tiny. Smaller than the one you had there."

"Not enough. Three-fifty."

"You're nuts. I just said three thirty-three was too much and you raise it to three-fifty?"

Blair yawned and clapped his hand over his mouth. "I guess I'm sleepy. Um, three twenty-five?"

"Three-twenty."

"Okay, we have a deal!"

Delightedly, Blair shook Jim's hand, and they smiled contentedly at each other.

Then Blair remembered. "Oh, God, Jim, I can't leave the girls stranded like that."

Jim smiled like the Cheshire cat. "Leave that to me, Chief. What's the number to your apartment?'

Blair supplied it, and Jim dialed it. "Hi, Jim Ellison here. Did you call Lou? Good. Now call Ted Corbey from the Anthropology department...."

"Is that Ted Corbey at the Anthro department?" Blair was asking over Jim's conversation. Jim batted him back.

"He's got a one bedroom he'd be happy to exchange for yours. The two of you girls would have to share the bedroom but the rent should be more in your price range. Plus he works for the Anthro department, and you could probably arrange to ride with him so no one gets mugged again."

"Someone got mugged?" Blair's voice rose.

He was batted down again. "Once you and Ted make an arrangement, go to the landlord and get the okay to switch apartments. Give them the new key to the one you're in now and tell him Boris is gone, and let Ted tell them how much happier they'll be if you're in a one-bedroom in the future. I think Ted will cover any fee for the switch. Sound good to you? C-O-R-B-E-Y. Good. Call me or Blair and let us know what happens. You're welcome. Bye."

Jim hung up to find Blair raising his eyebrows at him. "Whaaat? I love fixing things."

"Tell me what you did, Jim," Blair said with some dread.

"Oh, okay," Jim replied innocently, and began the story of Spiros Kouriakis, Ted Corbey and Georgia, Peggy and Boris. It was long in the telling and, by the end of it, Blair was all but asleep, a big goofy grin of enjoyment still shining.

Jim surveyed the heap beside him on the couch. The last couple of weeks had taken a toll. All the uncertainty about finding a new place, having to deal with Kouriakis, Boris creating problems for the three roommates and, finally, discovering he was the mouse in an invisible trap at Major Crime – all of it had sapped Blair Sandburg's enviable energy, and he crashed where he sat, head nodding almost to his chest. Jim stood up and laid him flat on the couch, then went to find Blair's own pillow.

He slid it under Blair's head, undoing the cuff buttons on his flannel shirt and adjusting the neck of the red Henley under it so it wouldn't strangle him.

Blair came half-awake then. "Why are you letting me stay here, Jim?" he mumbled.

"I need the money," Jim lied.

"No, you don't," Blair returned, logical even when talking in his sleep.

"Yes, I do," Jim insisted. "I mean, why are you staying here? It's cheaper, right?"

Blair smiled softly. "I'm staying because I like you." Then he was out like a light, with a snuffle and a snore.

Jim unfolded the blanket on the back of the couch and laid it over Blair. "Thanks, Chief," he said gently. "I kinda like you, too."

Finis


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