DETECTING SANDBURG

by Ismaro

For Jane, a little fun in return for her hard work and generosity.

(This episode falls between 'The Debt' and 'Cypher' in the first season of 'The Sentinel')

 

ACT ONE

Blair Sandburg was debating making ziti with marinara sauce and a tossed salad, or a chicken stir-fry instead, as he turned his key to the loft and entered, but his thoughts about supper crashed and burned immediately. "Oh, no, not again!" He groaned as he shut the door and automatically locked it. Dropping his key into the bowl by the jamb, he ran his hands through his hair, oblivious to the long, curly strands he tore out and shed all over the floor. "How could you do this to me again, Larry?"

The loft was destroyed. The Barbary ape, his test subject in a television violence lab experiment at Rainier University, had once again shown his predilection for finding a way out of his cage and wreaking mayhem on Blair's temporary living quarters at Jim Ellison's place; he was squawking contentedly from the top of the fireplace. There were torn up throw pillows all over the living area, every container on the kitchen counter had supplied fun stuff to hurl at the dinner table, and the curtains to Blair's tiny room were wrenched aside. As much as Blair hated to think what Larry had done to his own belongings, many of which were unique and of real importance to his field of anthropology, Blair had worse things to think about.

What had Larry done to Jim's room?

"Come on, come on," Blair coaxed softly, the first order of business being to get Larry back into his pen so he couldn't undo the tidying up.

But Larry was wise in the ways of Blair Sandburg, and knew a great game to play. He gave throat to an ape-ly noise and bounced up and down on the cold iron stove. Tag!

"Hanuman help me!" Blair uttered as Larry took flight. Blair followed, and the race ran all around the living and dining areas, the kitchen, and the living area again. Larry was halfway up the stairs to Jim's loft bedroom, Blair on the first step after him, when a scratching at the door made both man and beast look up. Jim was home.

 

Cascade P.D. Detective Jim Ellison opened his door and discovered bedlam. So what else was new? Since Blair Sandburg had fast-talked and begged him into allowing the grad student and his ape to stay at his place, there had been chaos and disorder on a daily basis. This was simply more of the same. He suppressed a smile at the sheer horror on Sandburg's face, and surveyed the mess stonily.

"Ah, Jim, ah, I, ah, um," Blair managed to stammer out, clutching the stair rail like a life preserver.

Larry was mum.

"Yes, Sandburg?" Jim asked icily, gleeful malice in his heart.

"I'll clean it all up. Maybe you could go for coffee at the bakery? Huh?" Blair said hopefully.

"No," Jim returned meditatively. "I don't think I'll go for coffee."

"Uh, well, we need more coffee, Jim," Blair confessed, with a quick glance toward the kitchen.

Larry silently stole around Blair, as if there were a predator in the apartment, and he its prey. Jim caught a glimpse of the sneaking simian and glared at him forebodingly. Larry shivered a little and kept going.

Jim sniffed once, with meaning. "It seems to me as if we need more flour, sugar, salt, and all the spices in the spice rack too," Jim proclaimed tonelessly, "—except allspice."

Blair winced.

Jim's heart was warmed.

Larry reached the bottom of the staircase and scuttled as far away from the big detective as was possible. Jim shot him a quick scowl, and went back to yanking his roommate's chain. "We also need new throw cushions," he stated.

Blair winced again. "Yeah, I'll, um, I'll replace them, Jim. I'm soooooo sorry," he put in at last and there was sincerity in every syllable. "I don't know how he keeps getting out of the cage, honestly, I don't." He ducked his head for a moment, shaking it in confusion, before standing straighter again and pushing hair strands out of his eyes. "I can't figure it out," he admitted, jogging down the stairs and cocking an eyebrow at the detective, asking for help.

Jim harrumphed, but whatever he was about to say was interrupted as Larry made one fast dash for safety and gained his cage before anyone could stop him.

Both men turned to watch his antics. Larry grabbed the combination lock, popped through the open door, and pulled it shut behind him. He carefully threaded the hoop of the lock through the cage door and snapped it closed.

"But how does he get out?" Blair wondered again, throwing his hands up.

Jim heard the note of utter frustration and grinned to himself. "Let me have a look at that lock, Chief," he said dispassionately.

"Why? You think there's something wrong with it?" Blair was at the cage and had the scratched, battered lock open in Jim's hand in an instant.

"What's the combination?"

"One complete turn, then right 28, left a full turn, then left to 45, right again to 6." Blair was intent on his roommate's handling of the lock.

Jim fiddled with the numbers and started turning the dial right in a couple of completed circles, then a couple more to the left. He nodded once and gave the lock back to his roommate.

"What? What did you find?" Blair asked excitedly.

"Where'd you get it?"

"Yard sale."

"Well, whatever you paid, you paid too much. This lock has had it. I was listening to it, and it's stripped inside. Basically, once you turn it to 6 slowly, not going past it, no matter what you dialed before, the tumbler clicks in and it opens." Jim shrugged.

"You mean Larry figured that out? He copied me, and it was trial and error? Wow!" The anthropologist was well on the way to a lengthy verbal hypothesis about the learning skills of Barbary apes.

But Jim wasn't about to be bored out of his skull by his garrulous guest. "What he did was listen to it, like me, Sandburg. Don't make anything more out of it than that. He hears better than you do; that's all there is to it."

Blair seemed disappointed, but philosophical. After all, his primary research object, Jim himself, had just added to the bulk of knowledge Blair was building toward writing his doctoral thesis. "But not as well as you do, man. Okay, tomorrow I'll get a new lock. Tonight, it's clean-up time – again."

Both men glared at Larry. He just sat there, looking innocent and miniscule. Surely he couldn't have done anything wrong, all tidy in his pen as any good ape would be. 'Ignore the flour on my fur. I don't know how it got there.' His head swiveled treacherously toward the anthropologist. 'It must have been Sandburg,' his eyes said. 'It's the Sandburg Curse!'

"I don't like you anymore," Blair hissed at Larry. "You're mean."

Jim couldn't keep a straight face at that. In fact, he guffawed in a long roll of laughter that startled his audience. Blair and Larry exchanged glances, and watched for incipient signs of madness in the loft's owner.

But Jim had had his fill of teasing. When he was done laughing, he said, "We can clean up together and go shopping afterwards."

"Uh, I don't know what he's done to your bedroom, Jim," Blair told him with trepidation. "By the looks of things, he's been pretty thorough, trashing this place."

Jim shrugged. "I'm not the one with invaluable artifacts in his room, Sandburg. You checked those out yet?"

Blair gasped. "Oh, my God. The Haida mask!" and made a harried dash for the bedraggled curtain serving as a door.

Jim tightened his lips; he really did care about the things Blair valued; he had so little left. When the concrete warehouse Blair had been living in exploded in a meth lab conflagration, courtesy of his drug-dealing neighbors, he and Jim had saved the most valuable things they could lay their hands on, and watched the rest burn. First amongst the valuable things was Larry, but Blair had had artifacts, books and research materials to rescue as well. Last on his list were his own wardrobe and belongings, and there just hadn't been time for them. From what Jim could tell, Sandburg had perhaps two flannel shirts, a few Henleys and a pair of threadbare jeans to his name. But as all of Sandburg's clothing seemed to have come from the Salvation Army, Jim had expected him to resupply his stock readily enough. Only that hadn't happened, and Jim didn't know why. Surely the student could afford both throw cushions and flannel shirts, couldn't he?

"You are a bad, bad ape," Jim scolded Larry. Larry hung his head. "You don't deserve a guy as nice as Sandburg looking after you." Larry pretended to be a statue. "Huh," Jim grunted. "Just stay that way. Sandburg doesn't need to buy me any more pillows, got it?" Larry was still being a statue. "You'd better," Jim concluded intimidating the ape, and started picking up bits of stuffing from the couch. But when his back was turned, a bright black eye followed him all around the room with deeply evil satisfaction.

Blair surged out of his room again. "I got off lucky this time," he said. "I guess I walked in on him before he had time to get to my room. I hope he missed yours, too."

"I'll check," Jim said. "You find a garbage bag and put this junk in it, okay?" He gestured to the heap of debris he'd placed on the coffee table, and made for the staircase. "We can get pizza once we're finished, and restock the kitchen afterwards."

"'Kay," Blair called after him with relief, shuffling around the kitchen for a trash bag. Jim could be a cold, calculating s.o.b. at times, and he certainly had a moral code that recognized very few shades of gray, but for the most part, he reserved that part of his personality for criminals. Blair didn't know why he wasn't treated to it more often, but right from the start, Jim's best 'You're a criminal, I'm gonna drag your ass downtown and book you for drug possession and more' threat hadn't worked on him for more than a few seconds. Of course, having no drugs in his possession had helped, and so had the knowledge that Jim certainly knew that was the truth. Jim's hyper-acute sense of smell would have told him so, and he'd swept the basement office in the Anthropology Department with a gaze better than an eagle's eye, so there was nothing to back up the charge. The menace was empty, and somehow, Blair had known Jim really never meant him harm, no matter how angry he became at times.

It might not have been a match made in Heaven, but Blair so needed a temporary place to stay, and Jim's was the only one available, and that only through the basest of begging and groveling. He'd already overstayed his welcome; the one week Jim had given him had come and gone a good while back. Damn it anyway! Larry's destructive tendencies had given Jim the ammunition to tease his roommate about a so-called Sandburg Curse, that catastrophe followed Blair Sandburg wherever he went. Now he was laughing, but Jim could kick them to the curb any moment with good reason, and that would be a disaster. Blair vowed to redouble his efforts at finding permanent housing someplace else. His luck had to change, he comforted himself silently. He was too far down. Surely things had to start going his way soon. He was keeping a good thought.

"How are things up there?" he said in the normal tone he used when only he and Jim were together, no matter how far apart they were. Jim's hearing was more than able to catch Blair's words.

"Okay," Jim called back. "He pitched the pillows off the bed, and pulled off the linens, but that's it."

"I think he's scared of you," Blair said in that same tone. He cast a fulminating stare at the culprit. Larry blew him a raspberry. "I wish he was as scared of me."

Jim began to laugh again. "Larry afraid of you, Sandburg? Geez, Chief, you treat him like he's your own child" – Jim reappeared at the stair landing -- "and you feed him better than a prize racehorse. Face it, Sandburg. You're just not scary material."

"You say that now, but wait," Blair crooned darkly, pulling a face that he hoped was spooky, but failing miserably. "I have the mysticism of the East at my fingertips, the mojo of the South, the...."

"The Wicked Witch of the West's broom," Jim finished for him. "Yeah, yeah. The Sandburg Curse terrifies me. Keep cleaning."

This time they both laughed, and fell to putting the loft to rights.

But up on the landing, Jim's detective mind was hard at work on the puzzle of Blair Sandburg, roommate extraordinaire, and his travelling companion Larry. What was up with that cold concrete rattrap he'd been calling 'home' until the fire? Why hadn't he found somewhere else to live yet? And replaced at least part of his lost wardrobe? He'd had time, and Jim knew full well that Sandburg was resourceful and inventive in the clutch. There was a mystery there, and Jim was determined to unravel it. He was going to detect Sandburg.

This was going to be fun.

Simon Banks looked out over his domain at ten-thirty the next morning and sighed. Major Crime was perennially overworked, a casualty of its own success. Only the crème de la crème of investigators made it to the top, and they got top pay for their efforts. Major Crime's budget included bonuses never seen by other divisions, but Major Crime routinely solved the cases the other departments couldn't begin to get a handle on. Homicide, Robbery, the Bomb Squad, and Vice detectives were all in the running when a new slot came open in Major Crime, but there wasn't one on the horizon. Major Crime had Jim Ellison on staff. But he wasn't at his desk.

Simon Banks sighed again. There was the desk, the desk of that same Jim Ellison, piled high with untouched paperwork from the Switchman case onward. True, the siege of the police department by Kincaid's commandos had thrown everything and everyone off-kilter, but they should have been back on track by the end of the Juno file. Simon knew that there were reasons, or excuses, for Jim not having attacked the forms with a vengeance. He was adjusting to life as a sentinel with uncontrolled super-senses, dealing with a temporary roommate who grooved to a different drummer, and living with a mischievous ape. Ellison also had to prepare to testify at the Abramson grand jury hearing, having handled the file at the very beginning, before the Switchman's personal grudge against Jim had demanded that he work it and it alone. The Abramson file had been reassigned to the next best team; intensive review of the case by a number of members of the department was to be expected before they testified; everyone had to know their reports by heart and be clear on the chain of evidence to be introduced at the hearing.

Nevertheless, surely there should have been at least a few reports signed by James Joseph Ellison sitting on his captain's desk. But no, they sat on Jim's desk, lonely and sad and desolate. Oh, crap. I'm getting maudlin about paperwork. Do I need a vacation or what? Simon sighed for a third time. No, what I need is a detective who doesn't take a vacation from his paperwork! The Captain of Major Crime came to a quick and easy decision. He popped his head out of his office.

"ELLISON! My office. NOW!"

 

 

Jim thumped the vending machine for the fifth time. "Come on, come on! Give me the candy, already!"

"Geez, Jim, take it easy," Blair said, patting his back a couple of times. "The machine is not your enemy!"

"No, it isn't," Jim allowed. "It's the Sandburg Curse again! You whacked the thing with a Sunrise Patriot, and it hasn't worked right since. It's all your fault, Chief." He smacked the machine again, and gave up on the Mars bar, which was irreparably stuck on the tip of the circular wire dispenser.

"Sure, Jim, I'm to blame," Blair puffed out his chest. "I'm a powerful force for Evil. Fear me!"

Jim might have answered, but the words, "ELLISON! My office. NOW!" were reverberating all the way down the hall to the break room. So it was with ill grace that he left off the recitation of bad luck, which he claimed had descended on the loft and himself with the advent of his ride-along, to respond to Simon's bellow. He knew perfectly well what that was about. "C'mon," he gritted to Blair. "You might as well get a taste of Simon's true character."

Blair mimicked shuddering. "Run!" he teased, waggling his hands in the air, warding off danger. "Run for your life, Jim!"

Jim glared and grabbed Blair by the shoulder of his blue and green plaid flannel shirt. "I said, 'Come on.'."

Blair was dragged down the hall, snickering to himself, all his attention on not getting his shirtsleeve ripped at the seams. He didn't pay any heed to the other cops hanging around the break room.

 

 

"Wouldja look at that?" Cam Rider said, looking after the team with contempt. "Ellison pulling that punk kid after him. I never thought I'd see the day!"

"Me either," her partner said with a smile as broad as his shoulders. "I guess opposites attract." He took his packet of peanuts over to a table and sat down, stroking his mustache.

"Well," the tall rawboned redhead returned to Henri Brown, joining him, "not with me," she said with utmost revulsion.

"Yeah, but you're a finicky one, Camille," H stated. "All that Jarhead training and service to your country and Semper Fi stuff you got going. Who could be good enough for Marie the Marine with ambitions to become Commander-in-Chief?" He flinched at the not-much-pulled punch to the biceps she landed. "Watch the merch, Cam. Can't you take a joke?" He massaged the abused muscle. "So what date did you get in the new pool?"

"Two weeks today. Man, I hope I win. That scruffy little perennial student leech-on-society riding with an ex-Ranger like Ellison? There's no justice in this world." Cam ran her hand over her super-short hair. "I wouldn't put up with it. Ellison's a real war hero, a stand-up guy, to me, and I think he deserves legitimate backup, a real partner, you know? What's Captain Banks thinking? I mean, he could have assigned me to Ellison. At least I carry a piece. No offence, Brown. I'm just saying."

H flapped a hand at her. He'd heard it all before, pretty much every day since Rider had transferred into Major Crime from Vice three weeks before, and been handed over to Henri to partner; Camilla Rider had a motor mouth. She was always 'just saying' that she and Ellison should have been partnered.

She changed the subject. "Did you hear Rick got two hundred and fifteen dollars when Captain Banks pulled Sandburg's pass?"

"Well, duh," Henri said sarcastically. "Is there anyone in every department who hasn't heard it twice over? You told everyone, and afterward, he told everyone. What's the beef, anyway? Why do you both hate him so much? Something about him ding on your Vice-o-meters?"

"I think it ought to have been a rollover, that's all," the one-time partner of Rick Pryor in Vice explained, ignoring the rest. "It was Ellison's fault, not Sandburg's. All that dough Rick got, it should be in the pot now, along with the new ante's."

"We didn't structure the pool that way," Henri said sensibly. "Rick won. So what?"

"I'm just saying," Cam commented and stood up again. She was diving for dimes in her pockets. "Rick'll have spent it all by now. Shoot, he'd have spent it that night, or lost it on the Jags, or the Orcas, or the Cascade Effect. Too bad it's not still in the pot."

"Hey, Brown, what date you got?" It was Detective Doug Finn from Vice, a tall blond in his forties, and Rick Pryor's current partner. "I got more than a month and a half away. I think I was gypped."

"Uh, Rick's got today and tomorrow, and I have the next seven days. Then it's Rick again to the end of the month. He sold me the tickets; he bought a block of dates, then came up short for something or other, and offloaded half of it onto me, keeping the later dates for himself. I figure I'm the one who was gypped," Brown said. "I'm thinking Sandburg may be more of a keeper than you'd guess."

Finn and Rider stared at him. "He's kidding, right?" Finn turned to ask Cam Rider, at the pop machine, getting a cola.

"Nah, I'm guessing he's serious," put in Kevin Wilborough, a short African-American from the Bomb Squad, and everyone twisted around to look at him and his partner, Bill Buck, a Wilborough clone, behind him. "Captain Taggart thinks a lot of the guy. He won't let any of us put him down. Amanda Schuller, his secretary, you know her, got a real chewing out this morning for saying he doesn't look professional enough to ride with Jim. He's got a point; Sandburg's a civilian, after all, so it's not like he's refusing to wear the uniform. Is there hot chocolate in the machine?"

"Spend the money and find out, Wilborough," Cam suggested with a snicker. She took a drag on her cola. "I'm sorry for Amanda, though. She didn't deserve that," the Major Crime detective commented. "She's got a crush on Ellison, even though he is a hardass." The last word was spoken with deep approval. "I used to think he had potential, you know? Until he took up with that ragtag piece of scum," she said in an aside to her partner.

Henri put down his Ho-Ho. "Only Ellison is good enough to partner you in Major Crime, but he's not good enough to date? He wouldn't make a good First Gentleman? Who are you holding out for?"

Cam shrugged a negligent shoulder. "I'll know him when I see him. Haven't seen him yet. As for Ellison, he's just a stepping-stone. I'm following in his footsteps, marines to police, fast tracking, but I'm not gonna stop dead in Major Crime like him."

"Oh, so you're after Simon Banks' job." Henri picked up his Ho-Ho. "Never gonna make it, babe. You ain't got what it takes to manage a department."

"Which is?" his partner said, her face ugly.

"You don't have any people skills," he told her bluntly. "You'd have the whole department on strike in a week.

Cam flipped him off. "Anyway," she said to the room, "there's not gonna be any space for a trade up to Ellison's partner for anybody, what with Sandburg there, civvie or not." There was a chorus of disgruntled agreement.

"Captain Taggart does have a high opinion of Sandburg," Brown agreed with Wilborough, instead of replying to his partner's comment, "and it's only natural, in my view. I mean, he was there to see Sandburg in action when Kincaid's men were in charge. We weren't," he said pointedly, with a cock of his eyebrow at his partner.

"We were undercover on the Abramson case," Cam put in with disgust. "Shoulda been Ellison, but noooo."

"Yeah, but it's not Taggart who's riding with him," Wilborough said. His partner, Bill Buck, grabbed a chair at a table, and Wilborough took the other beside him, cradling the cocoa in his hands. "It's Ellison. That makes all the difference."

Heads nodded all around.

"Iceman Ellison'll crack any day now," Buck predicted. "He's always bitching about the Sandburg Curse. The kid's more trouble than he's worth. I hope he hangs on a while longer, though. I'm up for the end of the month, myself."

"Rick figures it'll be soon, and he should know: he partnered Ellison off and on in Vice, before he transferred out and I transferred in. He says Ellison's tough as nails and doesn't stand for any kind of garbage, which is what you'd expect from an ex-Ranger. Still," Cam said musingly, "he's put up with the freak for a while now. Maybe I'll put another couple of dollars in the pot and grab a later date. Just as backup." She smiled and lifted her eyebrows. "Anyone else for enriching the pool?"

"Why not?" Brown decided. "I want the latest date available, got it?" He slapped ten dollars on the table for the privilege.

"Sure," the others said with puzzled faces. "Why?"

"Hairboy is living with Ellison, has been since the warehouse in that gang case blew up. He's a keeper," H laughed.

"More like a kept man," Cam whispered darkly.

Henri Brown stood up abruptly and crossed his arms across his chest. "That's bullshit, Cam. Sometimes you have the lowest mind of anyone I know. Sandburg saved Ellison's life the day they met, coulda died doing it, too. Someone does that for me, especially a civilian, I don't forget it, you know? I don't think Ellison would either, and Hairboy looks to be a little down on his luck, probably didn't have any tenant's insurance. I'd help out someone who'd saved my life if I could, glad for the opportunity, and I think that's what Ellison's doing right now. Ellison's being a friend to a friend in need, and I don't need to know any more than that.

"So sit here and gossip like a bunch of vultures picking him over if you want, and if you can't talk anything but gutter-talk and meanness, that's your problem. I have work to do." He left, without the funnyman face he usually wore, and half a pack of Ho-Ho's lying forgotten on the table.

Cam Rider looked after him. "Pfft. I still think Ellison's gonna cut the freak loose any day now. The Sandburg Curse'll strike once too often. Too bad it broke the vending machine. I wanted some hickory nuts."

The vending machine had made enough enemies in its lifetime at the P.D. to make scapegoating Blair Sandburg generally acceptable, especially since Brown wasn't there to stick up for him any longer. The pool was renewed, and talk changed to other things. Rider was in no hurry to leave her likeminded associates to join her now-peeved partner. She stuck around without him, and hailed Rick Pryor as a long-lost friend when he headed in for his break, repeating with éclat her rant about Sandburg as Ellison's 'partner'.

 

It was quiet, peaceful, even serene, in Simon Banks' office. Both Jim and Blair fell silent. The hush was unnatural. Would they make it out alive?

"Ellison," Banks said genially. "Sandburg. What are you doing here? I didn't ask for you." The words were less genial and more poisonous.

"Um, you didn't exactly 'ask' for Jim, either," Blair muttered, and his friend with the hyper-hearing ability bit down on a smile.

"I brought him, Captain. Might as well let him see what really goes on around here." Jim was at attention, his line of sight somewhere over and beyond Banks' head.

Blair worked on being invisible.

"What really goes on around here, huh, Ellison?" Banks took out a cigar, felt its texture and smelled its freshness with evident pleasure. Then he put it back in his pocket. "Well, he certainly hasn't seen what really should go on around here YET, has he, Detective?"

Jim hesitated a moment, clearly at a loss.

Simon grinned evilly. "You go out into the field with your – observer. You and he observe. You investigate. You catch the perp and bring him in. Then you go out in the field with your – observer again, and observe, and investigate, and bring the perp in again. There's something missing from that sequence of events, Detective? Can you perhaps 'fill in' the gaps?"

His meaning was not lost on his best friend and subordinate. "Sorry, Captain. We've been so busy...."

"Yes, you have, but you only have one open file now, don't you?"

"The Low file," Jim agreed.

"As of this second, the Low file is now assigned to Brown and Rider," Simon decided.

"But, Captain," Jim protested, "I...."

"You have some gaps to 'fill in', Detective. GO FILL THEM IN! Get out of here, and don't come back empty-handed!"

Jim dragged Blair out post-haste, with Banks on their tails.

"BROWN, RIDER, my office, NOW!" Simon Banks took his victory to heart, and went for the B-team in the All-A department.

 

"What crawled up Simon's nose?" Blair asked with befuddlement.

Jim looked sour. "Take a gander at my desk, Chief."

Blair cast a glance over it. "It's a desk." He shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands. "What's to see?"

Jim turned on his heel and almost bumped into his roommate. "I don't need sarcasm, Rickles."

Blair turned up a limpid, innocent gaze. "What? I don't get it. I really don't."

Jim stared at him, nonplussed. Blair just gazed back, looking sideways at the desk, then back at his roommate. "You're serious," Jim said wonderingly, giving his desk another glare. "You don't see a problem?"

Blair stepped back, the better to view both his roommate and the offending desk from a different angle. "No. It's just like you, anal. The pens are where the pens should be, and lined up alphabetically, black, blue and red. The paperclips and the stapler and staples, all at hand. The computer monitor's precisely parallel to the desk edge, and the keyboard too. All the forms are in a neat pile...." He didn't get any further.

"All the forms," Jim hissed, cutting off the scenic tour. "All the forms."

Blair took a deep breath. "Ah," he said intelligently. "All the forms. So what's the problem? Fill them in, and get the Whatsit file back."

"The Low file," the sentinel said, his head swiveling to listen in on the conversation Brown and Rider were having. "It should still be mine. Henri and Cam are pissed at the workload. And she's especially pissed at having it handed down from me, because they caught the Abramson case from me when the Switchman began e-mailing me, and they're working on that one too, for the grand jury hearing."

Blair spared a second's consideration of two disgruntled faces in Major Crime. "Professional jealousy, huh?"

"Yeah, well," Jim said in something akin to a whine, "I get more than my fair share of cases."

Blair was unsympathetic. "You like it like that, and you want to be a lone gun on them too," he said. "You have to expect professional jealousy when you get the most and the hardest cases and solve 'em alone, Jim. You know, there's this tribe in...."


"Spare me the travelogue, Chief," Ellison said. "I'm riding this desk until I get the paperwork done."

"Simon didn't say that," Blair protested.

"Yes, he did," Jim told him.

Blair thought a moment. "Yes, he did. That sucks, Jim." He reached a hand out to pick up the topmost form in a pile at least thirty documents high, and got slapped down for the effort. "Yowch! What's your problem, man?"

Jim grunted. "You observe me doing paperwork, asking all your questions, and it will take me ten thousand years to finish, that's the problem. So don't touch."

Blair Sandburg rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. This was an opportunity. To offer, or not to offer? He decided to gamble. "You know, if you had a partner who could do your paperwork, you'd be out in the field in no time."

Ellison dropped into his seat and threw deadly darts at his roommate with his eyes.

"A partner who was used to doing paperwork. Who had to fill out forms pretty much daily for all kinds of things, and knew how to work with paper." Blair was tapping his fingertips together, pointing now and then to the pile of documents, and then to himself.

Ellison looked stunned, as if at the verge of a new and undiscovered country:

Partnerland!

"A partner who can type with all his fingers, and knows computers?" Jim asked in an awed, hushed voice.

"Yes," Blair said cheerily. "Exactly the type of partner to get you back in the field PDQ. One who won't ever breathe the word 'partner' to anyone who isn't supposed to know about it." He was bouncing manically.

"How long can you stay today?" Jim needed to know.

"Till one o'clock. I have a lunch date then, and a class at three to teach. I can come back afterwards, though. Say about four-thirty?"

Jim sighed. "Nice thought, anyway," he said wistfully.

Blair was bamboozled. "What's wrong, Jim?"

"Well, if you can only stay for just over an hour...." his voice trailed off.

"In an hour, you can show me the various forms, and what they're for," the professional grant applicant said briskly. "I can scan all the different types, if not each particular one necessary for every file here. Once I know what the forms are for and the language they're written in, legalese, I mean, we're on the way to being able to create a template for filling the things in, Jim. Standardized methods of stating the variables. Don't angst about it, okay?" Blair took the top form off Jim's pile. "What's this for?" he began the process of getting Jim back into the field again. "No, don't tell me," he contradicted himself.

Jim watched Sandburg's gaze flit from section to section of the blank final report for the Switchman case, no tension or anxiety in him, an expert at paperwork taking in a comprehensive understanding of the reason and value of doing the documents right the first time, in one fell swoop, and suddenly grinned as if he'd won a lottery.

"Wanna copy of the criminal statutes?" he queried, and Sandburg grinned back, his face lighting up. A true partnership, if a limited one, at last!

 

An hour and a quarter later, Blair and the Forensics Chief were outside Piccolo's Pizza Palazzo, and he was holding the restaurant's door open for her. "Thanks for meeting me," Blair said. They found seats for themselves, Blair pulling out Carolyn Plummer's chair for her, and getting a surprised smile in return.

A waiter came up with two menus, slyly slanting his eyes at the grunge-dressed young man, who looked about eighteen, and the elegant professional woman in her thirties. He was never to know.

Carolyn made her choice quickly. "Fettucine Alfredo and spring water, please."

Blair did a little calculation and opted for two all-loaded pizza slices and water also.

The waiter vanished with the menus and orders.

"So what exactly do you want to talk about, Blair?" Jim's ex-wife opened the discussion. The smile was gone now that they'd gotten to the point of talking, and she was obviously wary.

"Well, I'm writing my diss on a thin blue line topic," Blair began his cover story, "and I'd like to know how Forensics works in conjunction with the investigating officers on a case. How you see the function you perform, where there's a good fit, where there's friction if any, and how you solve any difficulties with the departments. You seem to be the right person to go to for answers." His eyes were wide and hopeful.

"Puppy-dog eyes," the Forensics Chief muttered to herself. "The police in general, or a certain police officer in specific?" she suggested skeptically.

Blair blushed again. "Am I that transparent?"

"That is so cute," she muttered again, and rubbed her eyes. She pinned him with her gaze for an answer.

"Well, both, really," Blair said, "if you don't mind talking a little about Jim, but I've got to do an interview with you on the operation of your department, also."

"Tell me what you want to know about Jim first," she said, accepting the spring water the waiter delivered. Blair likewise took his. Carolyn continued, "I'll decide then if I want to give you any more time about my department."

Blair gulped. "I, I don't want to be intrusive. I mean, I'm not asking about your marriage or divorce or anything. Just – I'm staying with him now, did you know that?"

Carolyn nodded, her face like flint.

"I'm trying to find a new place, but haven't gotten one yet. Jim's been great, but it may be another week or two before I find something. I've already extended my stay beyond what he was willing to allow me...."

"And just how did you do that?" Carolyn wondered icily.

Blair's brows drew down questioningly. "How? Well, I explained about my lab experiment."

"Your lab experiment?"

"Yeah, I'm doing this experiment on the effect of television violence on primates, using a lab animal, Larry. He's a Barbary ape."

"The one that keeps tearing up the loft?" Carolyn had a twinkle in her eye.

Blair sighed gustily. "That would be him. Jim told you about it? I should have guessed. Anyway, because Larry went through the trauma of having been in a fire and losing his home, my lab prof, Dr. Singh, and I decided the original experiment was compromised, and we worked out a new one."

Carolyn Plummer the scientist was interested. "How'd you save it?"

An engraved invitation to babble in science-speak! Blair took it and ran for a good five minutes straight. "Variables." " Statistical probability." "Control group." "Baselines." Many other bits of science-speak made their way into the conversation.

At the end, Carolyn said, "Making lemonade out of lemons."

Blair tilted his head to the side. "I've had a lot of practice at that," he smiled. "I've been an impoverished grad student for over six years now."

The Forensics Chief smiled back. "I know the name of that tune, too. Are you bringing that kind of enthusiasm to your study of the P.D.?"

Blair gave a quick nod. "I hope to. I don't like covering ground others have already trodden, but you never know what life's gonna hand you. The experiment with Larry was just an obligatory lab credit until the fire. Now I think we can get a paying, professional paper out of it – assuming Jim doesn't toss us out of the loft anytime soon."

"Jim knows this?" Carolyn asked dubiously.

"Oh, yeah, I mean, I think he does. I talk about what I'm doing at school all the time. I just don't know if he hears me. He's got this strong, silent thing going, and I can't always tell what he's thinking, what he's feeling. He shuts me out."

The waiter delivered pasta and pizza, and the short break gave both of them a chance to think.

Carolyn came back to herself first. "You know, Blair, I wasn't really sure I wanted to help you at all."

Blair blinked at her and pasted on a big fake smile. "Thank you for your time," he started.

"But now, I have to say I like the way you've rolled with the punches, at school, and – with Jim. I'd like to read the paper when it's done, by the way. You're still looking for a new place?" She wanted reassurance.

"Oh, yeah, but it's tough, especially since it's mid-semester and absolutely the wrong time to look for student housing." Blair pinched the bridge of his nose. "I must have seen fifteen dives in the last two weeks. I don't enjoy bedding down with vermin, you know? But I'm caught between what I want and what I can afford, at least until the end of term, when I get the next installment of my stipend."

"So you're with Jim for the interim, at least until the Larry experiment runs its course."

"Yeah. I hate inconveniencing him, but...."

"Okay, then. About Jim: he's never been forthcoming with anyone I know. Not me, as his wife, not Simon, who's a damned good friend to him, not even with Danny Choi – you know about Danny?" she interrupted herself.

"Yes. I was there when he died," Blair whispered, his face darkening with old concern.

"Yes, you were, weren't you?" Carolyn's eyes softened. It might well have been the first time the grad student saw an innocent die violently, so close to him. "Jim's – well, Jim has a fear of intimacy, I guess you'd put it. It's hard to get close to him, and to be honest, I've been a little envious of how well the two of you seem to be getting along. He's a very private person. He doesn't share his feelings easily. I'm not sure how much of it goes back to his tours with the Army, especially in Peru and all the trauma from the helicopter crash, not to mention manning the Chopec pass alone for a year and a half; but whatever the reason, Jim's closed a lot of himself off. He just won't talk about it.

"I don't know how in touch he is with his own heart, Blair," Jim's ex-wife said sadly. "But he's a good man, and if he's not talking, it isn't your fault or because he doesn't like you. That's just the way he is. Sometimes a bad attitude, but never a bad man."

"Oh, hey, thanks, Carolyn," Blair said, touched. He reached out to tap her hand gently. "Jim's the best. I know that. I didn't mean to rake up bad memories or anything."

Carolyn lifted the corners of her lips in an almost-tragic grin. "You haven't. But I think I'm done with talking right now. Let's eat. We can get into Forensics another time. Oh, and I'll pay for myself, too. You can have more than the pizza if you like."

Blair looked at the mock-maternal eyebrow and simply said, "Thanks."

 

Blair Sandburg was back in Major Crime at four-thirty, as promised, with one Mars bar to perk up his candy-deprived partner and another for himself. He entered the room, oblivious to the lull in conversation all around him, his one-track mind fixed firmly on doing paperwork as efficiently as possible.

People came and went about the place, bustling. Everyone seemed to have a jones for candy, a late-afternoon pick-me-up until the job was done, and chocolate bars came through the department doors minute by minute. Jim got up to fetch a couple of cups of coffee for himself and his computer guru. Not even clocking Jim's leaving, Sandburg worked alone at the monitor, nearly as deeply concentrating as Jim in a zone-out. Henri Brown left for a washroom break. Amanda Schuller dropped off a note from Captain Taggart of the Bomb Squad about his participation in the Switchman and drug gang cases, and all but threw it under Blair's nose. Jim returned to find her there and glared at her. She tossed her head and sauntered out, hips swinging. Rick Pryor came in from Vice with a file for Cam's perusal, tying up loose ends on a case they'd worked together; he sat with her for a while. When Henri Brown reached the threshold to the department and saw the two occupying his desk, he disappeared again. Blair approached Cam Rider to get the Abramson file, which she found for him on Henri's desk, and he took it over to Jim's desk. Rick Pryor left. Henri came back in with a cup of coffee, Jim sat back down, Cam looked to the Low file, and Simon Banks smiled to himself behind his office doors.

At five-fifteen, Henri Brown's keyboard stopped functioning. He let out a whine, stood and smacked the desk on either side of the computer. "Come on, come on. What the hell's wrong with this thing?"

All the cops looked at Henri, then his computer. All but Jim looked next at Blair Sandburg.

The Sandburg Curse had struck Major Crime.

 

ACT TWO

"What's wrong, H?" Jim asked from the comfort of his desk chair, enjoying the guilty pleasure of sitting by idly while someone else did his work. On the computer screen before him, Blair was typing in his recitation of the Switchman case particulars from his personal memory, using formal speech. It would need refining, but Jim was delighted with how quickly Blair had caught on to what was needed – accuracy as to the sequence of events, completeness of all legal necessities to make the case, and thorough misdirection about anything Sentinel in nature. Hands down, Sandburg was the best bull-shitter in the department, the sentinel decided, much satisfied about it too.

So, in a rare genial mood, Detective Ellison was more than pleased to lend a shoulder to cry on to a fellow officer with paperwork problems.

"Damn, Jim, I was just out to the men's room, and when I got back, the keyboard wouldn't work. What's wrong with this?"

Sandburg looked up. "Try shutting down the computer, unplugging the keyboard, and plugging it back in again. Could be a faulty connection."

H said, "Oh, right," and followed his suggestion. Still the keyboard wouldn't work.

"Sandburg, why don't you take a look at it?" Jim suggested. "I've got to check this stuff anyway." Jim gestured at his own monitor.

"Oh, okay," Blair said. "Maybe I can help. Okay with you, Detective Brown?"

"If you can get this going again, Sandburg, I will kiss your hairy little toes." Henri was fervent.

"Ewww. How about if I get it going again, you won't?" Blair negotiated.

"It's a done deal." Henri Brown stood up and moved away. Jim and Blair changed places, and Blair took the seat at Henri's desk.

Blair only had to check a couple of functions to realize what was wrong. "The keyboard's not reacting equally to every keystroke. I'm going to shut it down and unplug it, and check out the keys." He waited for Brown's agreement, and then did as proposed.

Jim and Cam watched from afar, looking blankly at each other now and again.

Blair picked up the keyboard up and checked the coupler at its back. He turned it upside down and shook out a shower of dingy grit, then placed the keyboard face up and began to hunt for something. "Have you got one of those gel-pen caps? It's good for...."

Henri had found what he'd been asked for at the ready, and Blair began prying up the space bar. It gave with a spring.

"Whoa. That was a little more peppy than usual. Let's see now." Blair got up close and personal with the keyboard, peering all over the keys.

"Detective Brown, do you habitually eat at your desk?" he asked, prying up more keys, Enter, Shift and Caps Lock among them.

"Sometimes, especially lunch," H admitted.

"I could tell from the crumbs. Bad idea, Detective. See here? There are a bunch of keys stuck down, and it looks like something was spilled all over them," Blair stated, pointing to some orangey-brown trails that wove in and around the keys.

"I've never dumped soda over them, if that's what you mean," the detective said with some doubt.

"No, this is thicker, and it's set hard. It's like caramel or something. Does anyone have cleaning equipment? The keyboard and the keys all need to be dug out of the gunk."

Rhonda, Simon's secretary, provided isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs.

"Perfect, thanks," Blair smiled at her. He spent five minutes cleaning the spacebar and the board area where it fit, then slipped the key back in and powered up the computer. A number of thumb-presses later, and the cursor was halfway across the monitor. "See, Henri," Blair said, not realizing he'd dropped the honorific, "it's working again. It wouldn't do it before, would it?"

Brown was beaming. "No, you got it going, all right. Thanks, man."

Blair laughed. "Hey, it's not over yet! That caramel stuff is all over everywhere, and so are the crumbs. The whole board needs to be cleaned up."

Jim yelped. "You can't have my computer guru that long! Do your own clean up, H, and give him back!"

Brown began to chortle. "S'okay by me, Jim, m' man. I'm just real glad it's something easy to fix." He high-fived Blair.

"Yeah, well, don't drip caramel into the keys anymore, okay?" Blair advised, as he and Henri changed places.

"I didn't, Hairboy," H denied the accusation. "I have no idea how that stuff got into the machine."

"Odd it wasn't all over the keys, isn't it?" Cam commented. "You'd think if someone spilled caramel on a keyboard, it would be on top of the keys, wouldn't you?"

"Don't know, don't care, give me back my secretary!" Jim demanded.

Blair grinned. "I thought I was your computer guru."

"Whatever," Jim said, half-surly. "Just get back where you belong, and leave that wastrel in his guck." He shuddered as Henri swept up the nameless grit, and turned away.

"You are such a pantywaist, Jim," Blair taunted him, and started towards his sentinel. Both of them were concentrating hard on Jim's Switchman report when the murmuring started around the room, spreading like a spill of toxic waste in the sea.

 

An hour later, it was time to think about heading home.

"Chief? Let's do takeout, my treat, and relax," Jim offered.

Blair hesitated. "Okay, Jim, but I've got to go out later. I have an eight o'clock date."

"A date for lunch, and one for the evening? Fast work, Casanova." Jim's tone was halfway between disbelief and disapproval.

"Not that kind of date, Jim," Blair told him. "Just an evening out. Assuming I don't have to cancel because Larry's torn everything up again." He sighed.

"Don't worry about him. I found an old lock of my own and he can't get out without the key." Jim patted his hip pocket.

"What a relief! Thanks, man. Okay, let's do takeout. Chinese?"

"Thai?"

The food discussion lasted down to the garage, where Blair phoned for delivery of Japanese teriyaki and sukiyaki dishes, and they climbed into the truck to go home.

Dinner went pleasantly, Jim in a distinctly good mood now that his hated paperwork chores were finally being attacked by a master of words. At its end, as they cleared the table, Blair asked the time, and started when Jim told him.

"Oh, man, I'm late, I'm soooo late. Gotta go. Sorry to leave you with the mess. Say, why don't I do the dishes when I get back?" Blair offered.

"Nah, Chief, it's okay, I'll do 'em. And I'll shop for supplies too."

Blair colored, having forgotten the necessity for coffee, flour and the rest.

Jim suppressed a smile. "How late do you think you'll be?"

"Probably just after eleven. I know that's later than you like, but I'll try to be quiet coming in."

"Geez, Chief, it's not like you have a curfew!" Jim was taken aback. "I was just asking. I thought I could tape something for you if there's anything you want to watch on television."

Blair's face lit up. "Oh, wow, thanks, Jim. Actually, there is a show on the Discovery Channel at ten, if it wouldn't be too much...."

"Consider it taped, Chief. Go meet your date," Jim laughed.

But after Blair had slipped out of the loft and into the elevator, unbeknownst to him, he had a detective trailing him. One very interested in where he was going.

 

Where the teaching fellow was going was to his office at Rainier University. Jim was able to stay out of sight, and parked in another lot to evade detection. Then he jogged to Hargrove Hall, took the stairs to the basement, and hung around outside the storage closet with its cardboard sign pronouncing it to be Blair Sandburg's office.

Blair wasn't alone.

"What's on the agenda for tonight, Nancy?" Jim heard his roommate ask.

"One of my psych profs, Dr. Forte, assigned a paper that's due Friday, and I don't know where to start!" an anguished female voice lamented. A piece of paper was being rattled in the air.

Oh, so it wasn't an anthropology student asking for help with one of Sandburg's courses, Jim realized. That had been his first guess, when told it wasn't 'that kind of a date'.

"When did she assign it, and why didn't you tell me about it last week?"

"A month ago, but I had to study for last week's mid-term in Professor Very's class, you know? I think I did okay on it, thanks to you. But the paper just slipped my mind, and my prof, Dr. Martinez, doesn't allow extensions unless you're in hospital."

"What's the topic?" Sandburg asked.

"Here, see? I have to pick a specific example of someone or some group's behavior based on belief, and suggest ways to change the behavior by persuading them differently. Only I don't know what to pick, and everything I can think of in the way of persuading them to do stuff differently is either mean or would be blown off!" Nancy was hyperventilating.

"Okay, hold it; we need to break it down into smaller chunks," Sandburg said, "and try to give some structure to the paper."

Jim stayed till the end of the tutorial. Sandburg had led Nancy through a highly customized lesson in the Socratic manner, drawing every idea out of her instead of handing her ready-made answers. She had chosen a topic for her paper, made a plan for structuring it, and come up with concrete ideas about what to research for background material. Blair also gave her detailed instructions on how to notate web-based research in her bibliography.

As Nancy was gathering her belongings, Jim heard something he hadn't expected.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Sandburg. You're a lifesaver. Here's the twenty-five dollars I owe for tonight," the student said.

"Thanks, you have no idea how much I need it right now!" Blair was way too happy for a mere twenty-five bucks, Jim thought.

"I have another paper due for another class, at the end of the month. When can I get together with you on that?"

"About that – Nancy, I hate to do this to you, but I'm gonna have to stop tutoring you now."

"What? Why? Did I do something wrong? What was it? I won't do it again, I promise!" Nancy sounded bereft.

"I have to do field work for my doctorate. I got this great opportunity, but it came up suddenly. I wasn't expecting anything like it when I took on tutoring this term, and I've tried to do both. I so haven't got enough time, and I need to devote all my effort to my subject now, and especially the evenings. I hope you can understand that."

Jim froze. Blair was devoting all his time to him? A horde of stakeout memories rushed up. He had never thought of things Blair might be giving up in return for keeping him company late into the night. He merely assumed that the marking Blair brought with him was all there was to it: portable work, a little difficult to attend to in cramped quarters, but doable all the same. It looked as if he had been very wrong about that.

"I can understand having to do your own work. Are you tutoring anyone else? Mack? Jenny?" Nancy was outright jealous.

"No, no. I'm going to have to cancel them too. You're just the first one I've told. But don't panic! I'm not gonna totally desert you."

"What, then?" Nancy asked, confusedly.

"If you get cracking, you can have the first draft of the paper done by Wednesday, and I'll go over it with you, and suggest ways to improve it on Thursday. You might have to pull an all-nighter or two, but that's what you get for leaving it so late." Blair sounded severe.

"Yeah, I know," was the chastened answer. "I thought about it; I just didn't do anything about it."

Jim could imagine Blair's facial reaction to that. He'd been on the receiving end of it himself a few times.

Blair spoke again. "Other than that, I'm gonna refer you to Madeleine De Courcey. She's another T.A.; she's got her M.A. in psych and she minored in anthropology. She's a great teacher and she said she'll take you on. How does that sound?"

There was a moment's hesitation. "I guess that's okay. If she's in my field, that would be good. I just hate to lose you, Mr. Sandburg. You're always so patient with me, and everyone knows you're the best tutor on campus."

Blair laughed. "Madeleine has the patience of a saint, and she's in the running for best tutor, too. I'm certain you two will get along like crazy. Here's her number."

There was a scrabbling sound and a zipper was pulled one way and then another. Another pause ensued.

Nancy spoke low, but Jim could still hear her perfectly. "What about Mack and Jenny? Are you sending them to Madeleine too?" Still jealous.

"No, I'm not. Mack's in anthro so I'm suggesting another anthro teaching fellow for him, and Jenny's in history. I've got a lead on a couple of history majors who could help her. I'm giving up tutoring altogether. This chance at field research -- I never thought I'd have anything like it. It's been a tough decision to make; I like tutoring, but I can't do both."

"But you need the money, don't you?" Nancy asked the sixty-four million dollar question.

"I'll get by," Blair assured her. Only to Sentinel ears, it rang hollow.

"I guess we're done, then."

"Yeah. Good luck on your paper, and call me if you want to meet before you turn it in, okay?"

Jim slipped away as he heard fabric against fabric – the good-bye hug.

 

He drove like a maniac to get to the convenience store for coffee and beat Blair home by minutes. The dishes had never been done so fast, and he was glad there hadn't been any pots or pans to do.

Blair was trying to be quiet as he snuck in the door, only to see Jim on the couch, flipping channels up and down the television menu.

"Oh, hey, Chief. How'd the date go?"

There was nothing in Jim's casual tone to tip Blair off about Jim's excursion to the basement of Hargrove Hall. He answered equally casually, "Fine. How was your evening?"

"Same old, same old. Sometimes I wish they'd put another hundred channels on cable, but then I'd waste twice as much time deciding there's nothing on the tube." He grimaced and turned the television off. "I taped the special for you."

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said brightly. "I'll watch it tomorrow." He retrieved the cassette from the VCR happily.

"I guess it's good night, then," Jim replied. "You staying up?"

"Yeah, I have to set a topic for a paper for one of my classes, and that means deciding how to grade the answers. It can be a real pain if you don't have clear cut evaluation standards to wave under the noses of all the people who failed." He pulled a sardonic face.

Jim chuckled. "Okay, then. I changed Larry's diaper just before you got home. He's good for a while."

"Wow! Thanks, Jim. I didn't expect you to...."

"Hey, it's a diaper, not major surgery. And the last thing I want is for him to get creative about its contents."

"Don't even think it, man!" Blair's eyes bulged with horror. "Sometimes I believe he reads our minds. Don't give him any ideas!"

Jim started laughing. "You mean" – he paused to gasp for breath between the laughs – "he was a telepathic" – "graffiti artist in a" – "past life, and karma" – "made him an ape?"

"Geez, Jim, don't break a rib," Blair said drily. "Just think what you must have been to end up having him as a houseguest!"

"Oooooh," Jim groaned, sobering up. "Bad idea, Chief. I don't like to think about my past."

Blair took that in for future musings. "Yeah, well, I need to get to my work, so I'll be using the dinner table. Okay with you?"

"Fine," Jim acquiesced, hiding his customary annoyance at noise after ten. "What's your day like tomorrow?"

Blair pursed his lips, thinking. "If I set the paper topic and the standards for grading tonight, I can take it into the U. early tomorrow morning. Then I'm yours until one, but I'm busy in the afternoon, probably most of it, and from eight o'clock onward. So I think it's pretty much a washout."

"Huh," Jim said, considering the various things Blair might be doing in the afternoon, probably giving or taking classes, possibly student interviews. He expected the task at eight was a good-bye to either Mack or Jenny and that he'd hear of a third evening meeting later in the week.

Blair took the 'huh' the wrong way. "Hey, listen, we made big headway on that pile of reports, Jim. We can finish the rest of the tough stuff tomorrow, and whatever remains you can do perfectly well on your own, right?" He was being the severe taskmaster again.

Jim sighed, just happy that Blair hadn't given him the 'you deserve it for waiting so long' speech. "Yeah, you're right. I can do the other stuff myself. But I hate riding a desk, Chief. I can't wait to get out into the field again." He stopped short, musing about Blair's own fieldwork.

So Blair said 'Good night' again, Jim answered in kind and the loft settled down to the clacking of the laptop's keys.

Jim, however, didn't go to sleep right away. He was busy calculating.

 

The morning found the two of them breezing into Major Crime in good spirits. Jim's hand was on Blair's shoulder, his eyes skewering Brown and staking his claim to his computer guru for the whole day.

Henri smiled and lifted open palms, acquitting himself of any claims of his own. "Hey, Hairboy," he called out. "You were right. It took long enough, but cleaning out the keyboard did the trick."

"Great, Henri, that's great," Blair enthused. "Glad I could help."

Jim steered past the dangerous shoals and slipped his partner and himself into their own harbor of desk chairs. "Sure thing, glad we could help," he shot at Brown. Oh, yeah, if Ellison gives up Sandburg for a time, it's Ellison you thank, he communicated loud and clear to the room. Henri mouthed a gigantic 'thank you' and went back to work.

Blair was oblivious to the entire exchange, already deep into the Sunrise Patriots case. His face worked now and then, and Jim could tell he was reliving some of the tighter moments of the case as he remembered things to add to the report. Blair was referring to the Abramson case as a precedent file, but Cam Rider came up to require its return 'ASAP'. Blair filched the form he wanted and took it to the office copier, running off a duplicate for his own use. On the way back, he handed the complete file to Henri's partner, to the accompaniment of ill-natured complaints about people only allowed into the P.D. on sufferance who were interfering with trial preparations and delaying working cops. He frowned unhappily, but in the end turned a deaf ear to her, fixating on his copy of the final Abramson report.

People came and went about the place busily. Major Crime had a raft of those visiting from other departments in the building. In some order, a variety of people found a need for copies of documents. Amanda Schuller looked in to see if Cam would have lunch with her, but got a brief no; she stopped to ask Jim on Captain Taggart's behalf if he could look over Jim's final reports in the two cases he had worked with Major Crime, and Blair made photocopies of the first drafts for her to take back to the Bomb Squad. Rick Pryor stopped in again with something for Cam Rider to sign and copy. Henri brought both Jim and Blair coffees. Captain Taggart himself appeared for a brief stop at Captain Banks' office. Without anyone keeping track of who did what when, many passed by the office copier and many others used it – until it stopped working at a quarter to eleven.

"Oh, no, not now!" Rhonda wailed from under a sheaf of papers with miniscule type. "I have to get the department budget drafts out today!"

"What's wrong with it?" Brown asked, abandoning his partner and Pryor to their Vice files, coming up behind Simon's secretary. He started pushing buttons and generally testing the machine out.

"I don't know. It was working earlier, and now it's totally dead." Rhonda flipped a strand of blonde hair behind her ear and peered closely at the cranky copier.

"Maybe it's jammed." Henri knocked on the top of the lid.

"Maybe it is. Worth a try, anyway."

Between them, they checked everything they could think. Rhonda got out the manual, reading its more arcane troubleshooting tips for Henri to use, but they all came up dry when put into practice. Henri and Rhonda had suggestions and ideas coming from all over the department. If the budget couldn't go out on time, Simon Banks would be a bear. A huge grizzly bear with a sore paw and bee-stung nose, belling throatily like a pack of hounds. No one wanted to work under that version of the boss.

"I'll have to call the tech department," Rhonda said with sad finality half an hour later.

The call was made, and tech support said someone would be there by four at the latest. Rhonda was nearly in tears of frustration when she got that news; they would be too late for her to copy and deliver the budget to its recipients. But apparently every department was having budget woes, and there was no cutting in line to use a copier anywhere else in the building. She phoned the only copy shop close by, which was a good half-mile away, and was told she'd have to take her chances; they had a couple of big jobs lined up before hers could even be considered, and she wouldn't be allowed to monopolize the single coin-operated copier they made available to the public. The only sure way to get the budget out would be to recreate it by hand; because of the tiny font used, the spreadsheets weren't legible as printed off the computer and had to be blown up on the copier. Rhonda's afternoon was looking to be an unhappy one.

She disappeared into Captain Banks' office to give him the bad news. When she came out, she seemed anxious but determined, and grabbed for the aspirin bottle in the top drawer of her desk, downing three tablets before putting it back. From the office supplies cupboard, she fetched the oversized ledger paper necessary and began her way back to her desk. She worked her fingers to the bone for an hour, then stopped to massage her temples.

Jim noticed, and nudged Blair, deep in communion with Jim's monitor. "Wanna take Rhonda to an early lunch, noontime? Before you go to your one p.m. meet?"

"Huh? Yeah, I guess," Blair said distractedly. "I'd have to leave early. Why?"

Jim told him succinctly about the copier and the budget.

"Anyone check to see if it's plugged in?" Blair asked his sentinel.

Jim thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. At least, I don't remember anyone mentioning it, if they did."

"Hey, Rhonda," Blair called out across the room. "Did you check to see if the copier's plugged in?"

Rhonda stopped dead. It couldn't be that simple, could it? She almost ran to the machine.

It was just that simple. No one could think how it came to be unplugged, but who cared? The copier was working again, the tech invasion had been called off, and Captain Banks could be expected to be human once more. The whole department should have been rejoicing. But they weren't. Not all of them.

This time, though, Jim Ellison caught a few of the whispers about the Sandburg Curse. They stopped when he cast a darkling glance around the room. He wasn't sure who had been talking, but he was irritated that anyone else had picked up on the inside joke between himself and his roommate. Someone was going to be sorry for tagging his roommate with that particular witticism if the talk didn't stop soon.

 

Blair was about to leave. Jim was doing comparisons between his usual mode of filling out forms and Sandburg's attempts. In part, it was a learning experience, but mostly it was a way for Jim to avoid having to fill out any forms himself.

Simon Banks put a foot out of his office and yelled, "Ellison! My office!"

Blair stood as Jim did, but the captain pointed directly at him with an unlit cigar. "Not you. Him!" he growled.

Blair sat back down, a picture of perturbation. "You think he's upset with me helping you do reports?"

"I don't know, Chief," Jim said. "Unlike Larry, I don't read minds."

Blair snorted, and Jim continued, "I'd better go find out. Go ahead and take off for your lunch appointment. I'll see you at home tonight."

Blair shrugged and waved a hand at his roommate, looking around for his backpack

Jim went to beard the lion in his den, or the bear in his cave.

 

Simon Banks had his back to the door, and he swung around as Jim entered.

"You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"Yes, I do." There was a meaningful pause; Simon had his subordinate's full attention. "It's about Sandburg."

"Is something wrong? Is this because he's helping me do my reports?"

"Stop guessing and let me tell you what I want, Detective." He plopped into his chair, and motioned toward another. "Take a seat."

Jim sat, wondering what on earth his boss was concerned over.

"Jim, I like to think I'm your friend," Simon started.

"You are my friend, Simon. I thought you knew that," Jim said, shocked.

Simon looked down at his blotter. "I do, I do," he muttered. "But I'm wondering how things between you and Sandburg work."

"The sentinel stuff? I thought you actively didn't want to know." Jim was perplexed.

Simon looked him in the face. "No, what I mean is, how do they work between you as friends? 'Cause the one week you gave him has come and gone, and still I see you putting him up at your own expense, feeding him and his monkey –"

"Ape, sir. Larry's an ape," Jim couldn't stop himself from correcting.

"His ape, then...."

"And he feeds him, not me. Diapers him, too."

"ELLISON!"

"What, Captain?"

Simon dropped his cigar on the desk and put his head in his hands for a moment. Then he looked up. "I want this to be a friendly discussion, Jim, but you're making me crazy. I need to know everything there is to know about Blair Sandburg, and not just because I'm concerned for you. So we'll sit here until you tell me everything, detective, and that means every detail about how you two operate here and at home. Do I make myself clear?"

Jim stopped baiting his friend. "Look, Simon, I can take care of myself," he said edgily. "I don't need a nursemaid or someone to point out how much money I'm spending to house Sandburg and his ape. I'm getting a whole lot more out of this arrangement than you know, and he's given up money to ride with me. So it's hardly a one-way street."

"Sandburg's given up money?" Simon said, startled. "Are you sure? Is that what he told you?"

Jim scowled at him. "No, it's not what he told me. I overheard him last night blowing off one of his students."

"You're sure this wasn't a setup to get your sympathy?"

"Geez, Simon, when did I become a credulous fool?" Jim whacked the desk in front of him.

Simon jolted upright. "Detective Ellison," he barked, and leaned forward a bit, "you will calm down. Now."

Jim bit back a smart remark and answered the earlier question. "Look, Captain. I have my own doubts, okay? I don't know what he does with his money, how much he has or what he spends it on. All I know is that I'm his source for a roof over his head and most of what he eats. I certainly don't want to be sucked dry by a user – I meant a human bloodsucker, not drug use. I'd know if he used drugs, and he doesn't."

Simon considered that last bit. The sentinel senses would tell Jim if there were drugs in any way connected to the grad student, and with Blair in Jim's company so much, he couldn't hide it if he were impaired. "Okay," he said at last. "I can buy that. So what are you doing about it?"

"I decided I should look into his personal life a little more closely," Jim disclosed uncomfortably. "He talks about everything except himself. Maybe he is burrowing his way into my life for a free ride." His lips quirked wryly at the pun. "Maybe I shouldn't trust him like he wants me to. I'm not just putting my check account on the line, Simon. Or my home, or my privacy.

"He's given me a line about being the only person on earth knowledgeable about my senses, and that means I've put my life in his hands. I do zone out, and I don't know anyone else who does who isn't an epileptic with petit mal seizures, and that's been ruled out by my doctors. Sandburg has a name for it – zone-out. Is that enough for me to go on? I figured I owe it to myself to find out what makes Sandburg tick." He stopped for a moment to consider what he had just said, and his mouth turned down bitterly.

"I decided to treat him like any suspect in a case. I tailed him to school last night and hung around his office while he helped out this student with a paper she'd left to the last moment. So I was listening in when he cut her loose. He didn't know I was there, and I beat him home. He earned a twenty-five dollar fee for that night -- she said that, not him -- which, if I remember my own schooldays correctly, is relatively cheap. If he charges his other two students accordingly, he's letting as much as seventy-five dollars a week go, maybe more if he does sessions on the weekends."

"Really?" Simon remained incredulous.

"Yeah, really, and the only reason I can think of that he did it is so he can be on stakeouts with me," Jim said grimly. "So I won't zone."

Simon played with the cigar as he mulled it over. "The kid's giving up over three hundred a month for this? That's sizeable coin for someone in his circumstances. If he's playing you, that's a pretty drastic move to make before he's sure of you letting him stay. He must be more serious about it than I realized."

"He's as serious as a hangman, Simon. It's way beyond turning down the price of a new flannel shirt or jeans. I think if I were to, God forbid, die in a zone-out, he'd lose it altogether." Jim collapsed back in his chair and blew out a long gust of wind. "Do you know how that makes me feel? And now I'm treating him like a suspect," he said with self-loathing.

"So what exactly are you getting out of this -- relationship, except for a load of responsibility and guilt?" the captain of Major Crime asked bluntly.

Jim came to attention. "More than you'd think, Simon. Wait till you get the paperwork on the Switchman case, Captain; you'll see for yourself part of what I get out of this arrangement. And he's there for me on stakeouts. He cooks like Wolfgang Puck, and he puts up with me. Damn, that's almost a miracle, Simon.

"But he's planning on moving out. It's what I thought I wanted, but now I don't know how I feel about that." Jim was jittering his fingers on the chair arm.

Simon Banks said, "You're joking. You have to be joking. Carolyn...."

"What about Carolyn?" Jim asked harshly. "What's she got to do with this?"

"Don't get angry on me, Jim," Banks said testily. "Carolyn spoke to me yesterday about Blair. They had a talk, apparently. He was supporting his cover of writing a thin, blue line thesis on the department, which I have to give him credit for because I never thought of it myself. He started off asking about how Forensics interacts with the detectives investigating a case. But she was curious about him, you can't fault her for that, and she took over with her own questions. Shoot, you get along with Sandburg almost better than you did with her when you were first married. It's got pretty much everyone who knows you at all well, staggered."

"Oh," Jim puffed slowly. "I guess I can see that. Better than I got along with Carolyn? Maybe you're right, which just goes to show -- something or other about my marriage. Or maybe I'm maturing." He quirked a self-deprecating lip.

"As for Sandburg," Jim went on, "he's good company, Simon. He launches into these long lectures in the truck, and I find myself listening because they turn out to be interesting, if you pay attention. He doesn't expect anything in particular from me and that's a universe away from living with Carolyn.

"She always had expectations and I always failed to meet them. I'm not a social animal and I wasn't ever in a frame of mind to be politic with her family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I tried making nice, but sooner or later I'd say what I thought and it was always the wrong thing, whatever it was about."

Simon kept silent. There was more and he was determined to hear it.

Jim continued after a moment's reflection. "With Sandburg: he's more laidback than anyone I ever met before. I can speak frankly to him and get frankness in return, and I like that. He can be really amusing; it's fun to tease him." Jim grinned evilly. "He still jumps when I yell at him; I'm not sure how much longer that's gonna last.

"So he's cute as a basketful of puppies, Jim," Simon said, jaded. "Is that all? Is that enough?"

"No, it's not," Jim cracked his knuckles and spoke to his hands. "The senses – they still frighten me, Simon. I can't control them and I'm still getting headaches and rashes and stuff because of over-sensitivity. It's not always pleasant and if I could give it all up, I would in a second. But that's not the way it works, and I really need Sandburg's help."

He raised his head again. "He drives me nuts, wanting to do experiments all the time, but I can't deny that he's making a difference. I'm, I'm easing slowly into believing that the sentinel thing isn't all bad. Instead of thinking I'm a freak of nature, it's kinda good to see myself as Sandburg does: one of a long line of nature's special adaptations, beyond the curve, as he put it. I'm learning to be comfortable inside my own skin in a way I haven't felt – uh, in a way I don't think I ever felt, Simon." He stopped talking, pensive, and a little stricken.

"So he's charming enough to get a permanent free ride courtesy of Jim Ellison?"

Banks was being deliberately insulting and the sentinel knew it. Jim glowered at his boss. "No, I didn't say that, and I didn't mean it either, Simon," he rasped. "It's not all a bowl of cherries. We're just far enough apart in age that our musical tastes are completely different, and I never went in for the New Age garbage he lives by. He can be noisy, pushy, smelly...."

"If this is about using the spray...."

"...when he doesn't use the spray," Jim plowed on regardless. "He drives me up the wall at times, and we argue a lot. Sometimes I storm upstairs, and sometimes he stomps to his room or out to school. Sometimes we find a mutually agreeable solution.

"But if I'm having a nasty sentinel moment, he'll turn down the music, blow out the candles, ask if I need an aspirin or want a cup of tea or coffee, and he helps. If I'm just being an s.o.b., he calls me on it and doesn't let me get away with it. I, I admire him for that, Simon. He can be a little bantam rooster, you know? All piss and vinegar. And I don't believe the solicitousness is faked just to get on my good side. I'm not entirely sure I have one." He grimaced at the window.

Banks waited for the rest of the story. It wasn't long in coming.

Jim returned to his account. "But I'm a cop, and a quick talker with a good line and an easy style screams 'conman' to me. So I tailed him last night, Simon to find out about his finances and I've gotten part of that answer. But why he'd pay eight hundred and fifty bucks for that rat-infested concrete block is beyond me. And I intend to dig deeper into his background too." Both men already knew he hadn't any criminal record.

"I'm well aware of the risk of being conned by a master," Jim finished. "He's one of two things, and I have to know which, if I'm going to rely on him. He's either a user or the genuine article. Maybe a friend." He leveled with his boss. "I don't have all that many friends, Simon."

"Hm. Speaking as your friend," Banks stressed, "I hope he never lets you down. As your boss, I have to ask if you've heard any rumors about him."

Jim perked up. "No, nothing but what you'd expect. We're an odd couple, mismatched, and it draws comments, some amused, some mystified, some totally prurient, but that's par for the course. A lot of cops are terminally cynical. So what? Why? What have you heard that's out of line with what's to be expected?"

Simon looked over the top of his glasses at Jim. "Joel Taggart dropped by to say he's caught wind of a whispering campaign about Sandburg. Doesn't know who started it, doesn't know who's keeping it going, doesn't know what's being said. He just thought I should know that something's in the wind.

"Of course, he doesn't know that I have the perfect solution to getting to the base of this little problem. I'm giving it to you. Keep your ears open, Jim. If someone knows something we don't, we need to know it. They may have been talking more freely in the Bomb Squad, but the rumors must be here too, only quieter. If someone's just bad-mouthing a person I allow in my department, I'm gonna show the talker just what being the captain of Major Crime means."

Jim started to agree, but Banks silenced him with an abrupt, cutting, hand motion.

"What you need to understand, detective, is that Sandburg's got access to a lot of important and sensitive material here. To be honest, I still have a lot of doubts about him. But I'm the one letting him ride with you. So I need to know more about his character as much as you do and I need to know if he's suckering all of us, especially me."

Simon Banks stood up and stretched. "Looks like he's winning Carolyn over, by the way. A tribute to the kid's likeability factor, and it makes me even more nervous. So keep on investigating Sandburg," Simon ordered with a tilting of his lips, "and let me know what you find as you find it. You can take time to check him out, but otherwise, you're still riding that desk until all the paperwork's done." He stuck the cigar in his mouth with relish.

"Thank you, sir," Jim smiled thinly. "I appreciate the directive to look into things, Captain. Oh, and just so you'll know, I'm thinking of hosting one of the upcoming poker games."

He left Simon coughing on bits of bitten-through cigar. Jim Ellison never hosted anything. Wonders apparently weren't ceasing, at least not in Cascade.

Detecting Sandburg had become Jim Ellison's official duty and he was on his own.

 

ACT THREE

Jim shot out of Major Crime as soon as he left Banks' office. He had a list of leads on Sandburg a mile long and was determined to check out each one.

First was his ex-wife. He invaded the Forensics department, grabbed her gently and drew her away from a conference with Serena Chang and down the hall. "So you pumped Sandburg for information yesterday, right, Caro?" Jim asked, leaning negligently against the wall outside the department.

"That wasn't nice, Jim!" Carolyn Plummer said, rubbing her arm. "He made a lunch appointment with me and we talked."

"Sorry, Caro," Jim muttered. "I need to know what you talked about."

Carolyn Plummer turned a casual face up to her ex's stolid one. "Why? He talked about his experiment with the ape and we're going to meet sometime later to talk about Forensics for his thesis. What else do you want to know?"

"Anything he said about living with me."

"Oh! He said he would be moving out soon, but hadn't found a place. I gather he's been looking, but, as he said, he doesn't like bedding down with vermin. Is that what you wanted, Jim?"

Ellison nodded, though it wasn't entirely what he wanted to hear. "Thanks, Carolyn. Let me know if he talks to you about it again."

"Can't wait until he's out of your hair, huh?" Caro jeered slightly. "Well, you never did enjoy company much."

"It depends on whose company," Jim told her and bade her adieu.

For his second objective of the afternoon, Jim headed over to the Municipal Building and the realty tax office. He checked the tax rolls for the owner of the burned-out warehouse Blair had previously called home, and got his name and personal address. Spiros Kouriakis, 2011 Drayton Street. Upscale location; the guy must be a wealthy slum landlord, Jim deduced.

At Kouriakis' monster house, he was faced with a maid who wouldn't let him in and redirected him to a business office in the heart of town. Jim drove over and was sufficiently impressive with his badge to get past the teen-aged receptionist and into the inner sanctum.

Spiros Kouriakis jumped to his feet. He was a man built like a bull, and the shaven head gleaming with oil only added to the impression. He also roared like a bull.

"Who are you, to invade my office? Call the police, Sylvia!"

"I am the police," Jim said softly, smothering the roaring.

Kouriakis peered closely at the badge. "So. What do you want? I can give you five minutes, no more."

"If we're not done in five minutes, you can accompany me downtown and we can continue our interview there," Jim suggested.

Kouriakis scowled dreadfully, but sat down in his leather desk chair. "What, then? You waste my time!"

"You recall the recent fire...." Jim managed to get out.

"I had nothing to do with that! Nothing at all! It was those no good tenants of mine, they blew up and burned my building. I will help you put them in jail. Tell Sylvia what you want, and she'll get it for you." Kouriakis seemed to think he was done.

Jim wasn't. "You had multiple tenants in the building."

"Yes?"

"One of them was named Blair Sandburg."

"Blair Sandburg? Oh, yes, the student. Was he involved with the gang? I should have known he was using drugs. Did he sell them too? Did he help burn down my building? Put him in jail!" the slumlord growled.

"No, Mr. Sandburg is totally innocent. However, I have questions about his lease." Jim left the floor to the minotaur.

"Lease? What lease? He rented the space for one month. Eight hundred fifty rent, eight hundred fifty last month's deposit, five hundred dollar security deposit. He's out now. I don't know where he is. If you want him, you'll have to find him yourself." Kouriakis was again willing to wash his hands of the matter.

"Mr. Sandburg is not a wanted man and we know his whereabouts. However, the matter of his rent is an issue. Have you refunded any part of the money you received from him?"

"No, of course not. My beautiful building is in ruins. The tenants did it! They shall pay!" Self-righteous indignation suffused the man's unlovely features.

"Mr. Sandburg has been determined not to be part of the drug gang which was responsible for the destruction of your warehouse," Jim announced. "It is mandatory that you refund him his security deposit, his last month's rental, and a pro-rated amount from the day the building burned to the end of the month he rented it for."

"Who are you to say that to me? " Kouriakis was almost foaming at the mouth. "I have all this loss! How will I make it up? If Mr. Sandburg wants a refund, let him sue! A judge will say if he burned my building or not, not you!"

Jim smiled maliciously. "I'm the lead investigating officer on the case. I have determined that Mr. Sandburg is innocent of any charges. What I haven't determined yet is whether you're guilty."

Kouriakis turned magenta. "ME? I did nothing but rent my beautiful warehouse to those lowlife scums! And Mr. Sandburg. What have I to be guilty of? I lost my...."

"Beautiful warehouse. So I've heard," Jim said wearily. "You didn't happen to have an insurance policy on it, did you?"

Kouriakis began to splutter. "Of course I did. It's automatic business practice! I have a policy on a building that drug gangs burn down, and it's my fault? Why? You should have stopped them, officer, before they burned it down. It's your fault, not mine!" He pounded on the desk before him.

Jim waited for the tirade to end. "Yes, well, Mr. Kouriakis, if you collect the insurance money – has it come in yet?"

The slumlord's eyes flicked away to an interesting spot on the overhead light fixture.

"I thought so," Jim said with satisfaction. "So you've collected, and any lost rent should have reimbursed to you, shouldn't it?"

The light fixture was positively enchanting.

"So the excess Mr. Sandburg paid should be refunded."

"I tell you what I told him. Sue me." The man was bullheaded in more ways than one.

"No, Mr. Kouriakis, he doesn't have to sue you. You know why? Because you really want to give Mr. Sandburg back his surplus."

Kouriakis took Jim's measure and spat out one dangerous word. "Why?" He folded his arms in defiance.

"Because as lead investigator, I will be referring this issue to the DEA. And they will be looking into your involvement as the owner of the beautiful warehouse in which illegal drugs were being manufactured and from which they were sold. If they determine that you knew about the drug dealing, or have acted in any way differently from a completely honest landlord, the DEA will claim the warehouse as forfeiture. You will lose both the insurance proceeds and the land, which is valuable in itself, isn't it? And you might be charged and criminally prosecuted as well."

If Kouriakis had been magenta before, he was aubergine then. "You! You! You! I will report you!"

"For what? For doing my job?" Jim laughed in the slumlord's face. "I'm just checking out whether you're an honest landowner, victimized by his bad tenants, but law-abiding when it comes to your innocent ones. So what's it gonna be? Refund or forfeiture?"

"Refund," the man said in a low, gravelly voice. He hit the intercom button. "Sylvia. Make out a check for thirteen hundred and fifty dollars."

"Wrong amount, Spiros," Jim pushed. "You forgot the prorated amount for the end of the month's rental Mr. Sandburg never got to enjoy."

Jim was himself captivated by the light fixture; Kouriakis had switched mythological identities and become a Gorgon, and it wouldn't do to laugh in his face. It wasn't until Sylvia brought in a check in the right amount that Jim turned his attention back to the man.

"This isn't fair," Spiros grumbled as he signed the check with a scrawl. "It wasn't even a legal tenancy in the first place."

"Wanna tell me about that?" Jim asked brightly. "You know, you're lucky the place burned down, too lucky to my way of thinking. It wasn't habitable, was it? Mr. Sandburg deserved better accommodations."

"Let him find somewhere else to keep the ape, then. You think any apartment owner wants an ape in the house? I should sue him for damage! The ape maybe caused the fire!"

"Give it up, Kouriakis," Jim chuckled. "The drug dealers caused the fire, you got your insurance, and as long as you're behaving like a legitimate, honest businessman, you'll get to keep the insurance money and the land. Screw Mr. Sandburg around and you'll find the land seized and your bank account frozen. So don't even think about putting a stop-payment on this, okay?" He grabbed the check from the desk, and turned to go.

"Go! Get out! You have what you came for! Get out! Get out!" Kouriakis yelled after him.

"Good-bye, and may we never meet again," Jim said. Outside in the reception area, he wished the hapless receptionist a good day and left for his next interview.

 

The primate labs at the university were large and loud. Everywhere, howls, yelps and gibbering filled the air. Jim hoped he wouldn't have to stay long. He inquired for Blair's lab professor, knowing who she was from Blair's long recitations about Larry and the experiment.

"Dr. Singh? I'm Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade P.D.," Jim flashed his badge.

"Yes, detective," replied a tiny Hindu woman, about fifty, with large black-rimmed glasses and in a saffron sari. "You're the one Blair Sandburg is staying with now, aren't you? He's spoken to me of how kind you've been to him." She extended her hand to Jim.

He shook it firmly. "Yes, I'm Blair's host right now. And Larry's."

"Oh! Is it about Larry that you've come?" Dr. Singh asked. "Has he caused more damage? Blair has been very worried that he might become more destructive than we'd thought at first. I do hope that isn't the case." She wrung her hands with worry.

Jim smiled reassuringly. "So far it's been manageable. He makes a mess of the place when he gets out of the cage, but we've finally found a lock he can't crack. It's Sandburg I need to talk to you about."

"What about him? He's an interesting student and, in my opinion, a fine man, very kind to the animals," the professor said. "I can't think of anything else to say." She threw her arms wide.

"It's just background information I need. He's riding with me, when he's not at school, and because he has been granted access to all areas of the police station, we need to have as complete a history as possible. I'm sure you understand."

"Oh, yes. The University requires histories for many of its personnel and students, especially in the area of the sciences. We cannot allow anyone dubious into the labs with potentially dangerous materials. I do understand. So what do you want to know?"

Jim thought fast. He really wasn't sure what he needed to find out, so it was a fishing expedition of the most blatant type. "What can you tell me about his career here, Dr. Singh?" he asked.

"Let me see. I didn't know him when he was working on his first degree, but met him when he started taking graduate courses in psychology. It isn't his major, but his minor. What I know professionally of him is that he's ingenious and very scrupulous in his research."

"Can you give me any examples?" Jim cast his hook.

"This very experiment with Larry, in fact. First, that Blair was permitted to do it at all is a mark of how well regarded he is."

"Why?" Jim asked simply.

"Most lab tests for students' university credits are run on rats, Detective. They are much cheaper and more plentiful than our primates are. We reserve them for the best studies and the best students, usually private studies lasting many months or years. Furthermore, normally, this kind of test wouldn't be run by someone who wasn't majoring in psychology, but Blair undertook to provide a an environment outside the labs here where the only unusual stimulus Larry would be subject to would be televised violence. Trusting any student with one of our primates off campus is almost unheard of, you see." Dr. Singh searched Jim's face. "It's as much a mark of our estimation of him as your department allowing him access to confidential material."

"I see," Jim said, and he did.

She went on. "Because of the trauma Larry suffered in losing his home so violently, the original experiment was compromised. There was no way to tell whether any increase in violence was due to the media or to the trauma. But Blair suggested we turn the experiment around and look at it from the reverse angle."

"I'm not sure I understand," Jim said, lost.

Dr. Singh smiled. "Blair needed the lab credit, so we were running a fairly tame experiment on some rather well-travelled land. There was plenty of research on the subject and he suggested we winnow out the ones most like the one Blair was running. We looked for literature combining Barbary apes, much the same length of time for running the experiment, and similar violent media used."

"And?"

"We found enough to set a range of expected results due solely to media violence to use as a baseline, and now the experiment is measuring the influence of both media violence and post-traumatic stress on Larry. We know the upper and lower limits where the results should have fallen, absent the trauma, going by past experimental data, if the test had run its original course. If Larry is significantly more violent or acting out more than the reports of test subjects in the literature, the other primates we're using as a de facto control group, we can theorize it's due to the trauma. It is not the best way to study the subject, certainly, but many people frown on subjecting lab animals, especially higher thinking ones like primates, to traumatic experiences just for the sake of finding out what happens. As an attempt to turn catastrophe around to good purpose, I believe the new aim of the study is worthwhile, and Blair and I have spoken about writing up the results for publication once he's finished with it."

"So it's not just a common garden variety lab experiment?" Jim asked with a glint in his eye.

"No, no. Originally it was. The results would hardly have been worth mentioning in a footnote. But combining the effects of media violence with post-traumatic stress is something definitely worth adding to the literature. Or so Blair and I believe," Dr. Singh concluded. She looked up at Jim for the next question.

"What happens to Larry then?" Jim asked.

"He goes back into his lab cage and, as long as he isn't very violent, we might run a few non-stressful tests on him in the future." The professor smiled broadly. "We take good care of our animals, detective. Would you like to see them?"

"No, no, that won't be necessary," Jim said hurriedly. The whirlpool of sound was already sucking him under. "Thank you for your time, Dr. Singh. I appreciate it very much."

The psychology professor patted his shoulder in a motherly fashion. "We should thank you for providing a stable environment for Larry now. It is allowing us the time to study the aftereffects of the trauma on him. It is very good to know you are supporting Blair, and me, also, by allowing Blair to keep Larry in your home. A home environment is the most suitable for the study but, of course, it doesn't exist here at Rainier, and the bylaws prohibit keeping apes and other wild animals inside the city environs, other than in a university or zoo setting. So let me thank you for your support. The experiment will have run its course in about ten days. Then Larry will be out of your hair entirely!" She giggled a little.

Pleasantries were concluded, and Jim escaped the chattering horde with relief. Something about the visit wasn't sitting well with him. Testing lab animals. Larry, with both exposure to daily violence and a past with trauma. Jim shivered. That fell too close to home. Even so, Dr. Singh seemed gentle and kind, and Jim could believe the animals were as safe in her care as humanly possible. Rather like Blair, he realized, and shook off his ponderings so he could continue detecting Sandburg.

 

Jim knew he was taking a risk by going to the main administrative offices of Hargrove Hall; Blair was probably somewhere in the anthropology building. But he kept his sentinel eyes and ears open, and there didn't seem to be a Sandburg anywhere nearby.

It was his first question to the chief clerk, however.

Flashing his badge, Jim said, "Detective Ellison. Can you tell me if Blair Sandburg is on campus now?"

Ted Corbey, according to his nameplate, looked up and answered readily. "Blair was just in here a few minutes ago. He's teaching a two-hour class in Anthropology 102, Room 200. Do you need to speak to him immediately? It would disrupt the class rather badly."

"No," Jim replied. "I'm really more interested in speaking to his colleagues."

"About Blair?" Corbey's cultured English accent made the question seem somehow out of bounds. "What sort of information are you seeking, Detective?" Chill hauteur was the order of the day.

Jim smiled his warmest, most charming smile, and broke it off when Corbey's face turned to ice. He leveled with him. "Look, he's riding with me at the police department."

Corbey began to thaw.

"I just have to do a little background work, purely procedure," he reprised the explanation he had given Dr. Singh. "He's already got his observer's credentials, and I'm on paperwork duty today. I have to report on his years here at Rainier." He shrugged carelessly.

"If you want to know anything about Mr. Sandburg, I'd be the one to talk to," came a strong male voice from behind Jim. "Leave this to me, Ted."

"Certainly, Dr. de Villiers." Corbey left the counter, and Jim turned around to face the Assistant dean of Anthropology.

"I'm Dr. Perry de Villiers, detective," the academic said with smooth courtesy, "Assistant dean of the Anthropology Department." He was middle-aged and medium-tall, with regular features and the gray hair to be expected of someone who had risen to the height he had attained in academia. He was also very much in charge. He shuffled Jim out of the main office and into his own private quarters, with a call for a pot of coffee, in a matter of minutes. Then, with a no-nonsense face, he silently invited Jim's questions.

The wealth of the ages lay around and about Jim. He sat in an antique leather chair of a deep red shade, and saw books to the right and left of him. The sum knowledge of centuries, the very breath of man's curiosity and dedication to learning, were closed behind glass doors, valued and protected, or open to the hand put out to grasp something new, something different, something challenging. He was impressed, despite his own college days. He had forgotten what the true academic was: someone who was one of a legion of discoverers, bent on making great discoveries of his or her own. This was a place where Blair Sandburg belonged, quite as much as he belonged to the Cascade Police Department, or at Jim's side, his 'partner'.

Jim cleared his throat, dragging himself back to the delicate task of interviewing the assistant dean without tipping him off to the secret he and Sandburg shared. "Blair Sandburg is riding with me at the police department. Has he told you?"

Dr. de Villiers bent his head. "Of course. He's doing a paper on the integration of new officers into the police hierarchy, I believe. What do you need to know, detective?"

"Call me Jim, please," he said with a businesslike smile. "He's on a short term observer's pass, and its expiration date is coming up. He wants to extend it, but that's highly irregular."

"Oh, I see," the assistant dean replied, looking troubled. "Is he in danger of losing the ride-along before he can finish his work?"

"Well, yes," Jim said truthfully, ignoring the difference between the kinds of work he and the assistant dean meant. "My captain suggested I sound you out about Sandburg first, before we make any decisions. I usually work alone, you see." He raised a sardonic eyebrow.

"And you got Blair?" De Villiers started laughing, and didn't stop until he couldn't breathe. "Good Lord. What do you make of him?"

Jim wasn't prepared for an interrogation of his own reading on Blair Sandburg. "It's not what I make of him. He can be entertaining...."

The assistant dean cut him off again. "Oh, that he can be, certainly! When he isn't yanking your chain, that is." He was back to chuckling.

"Sandburg yanks his teachers' chains?" Jim asked, rather glad that he wasn't the only one.

"Right from the start, detective," the man said sympathetically. "He was a baby when he started here, a baby with the intellect and experience of a man twice my age in those days. I was still teaching then, and had him in a couple of my classes. You know, we used to send out 'Sandburg Bulletins'."

Jim had never seen anyone smile so broadly. "Sandburg Bulletins? What are they?"

De Villiers leaned back in his chair. "Well, it started with his Anthropology 101 course, which was hacked into four sections over a year, one each for the four divisions of anthropology: cultural anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and physical anthropology. He was dropped into the cultural anthropology first, and, wouldn't you know it, his professor used the Dukhobors as an example of a closed society." He cocked his head at Jim.

"Dukhobors?" Jim was lost.

"A Russian sect. The Canadian Dukhobors are a very insular group of emigres, with unusual religious beliefs uniting the society. Well, as the instructor was talking, Blair butted in and corrected something or other about what was said. The instructor repeated his point, and Blair corrected it again. The instructor got a little ticked off and told Sandburg to sit down and, in essence, learn from people who knew more than he did." There was a riff of laughter again. "Then Sandburg dropped the bomb. He had lived with the Dukhobors for two months when he was about twelve -- apparently his mother had dropped him off and left him there until she could pick him up again, highly unusual to be sure. But he had cracked the group and he had kept a detailed personal journal of his stay. So, unless the instructor could match that, he told the whole room, he was the expert and the instructor should shut up and learn from him."

Jim was in hysterics. "I can see him doing it. Oh, God. I can see him doing it!"

"Thus was born the first Sandburg Bulletin. It went, 'Beware of Blair Sandburg. You know, the little kid with the mouth on him. He's freaking lived with the Dukhobors! No one has lived with the Dukhobors! But he knows everything about them, and it's got to be from personal experience. He took over my class and I don't know if I'm ever going to get it back. What curse did I trigger, and what god needs appeasement? Help!'"

"You remember the wording?" Jim asked, astonished, between gasps for air and his own chuckling.

"Hell, I wrote it," Dr. de Villiers said.

Jim developed a stitch in his side.

"Then the other instructors started sending out Sandburg Bulletins. Often just one-liners: 'He's been to Machu Picchu; don't even mention it'; 'How did this kid get to study a Tibetan lama? Who translated? No, I don't want to know. I want to pretend that today never happened.' 'He not only can tell 3000 B.C. Sumerian pottery from 1760 B.C. Babylonian-Sumerian, but analyze the symbolism of both accurately. ???' 'The kid knows freaking everything. Can't we hire him or something, and get him out of our hair?'"

"And all the stuff was true?" Jim needed to know. Sandburg's tales were often colorful and dramatic. Validation from the assistant dean would make Jim sleep a little more happily at night.

"Yes, indeed, everything he said in class checked out," the academic replied. "We tested him, you know, when he challenged us. It was always a duel to the death. He stood his ground, and he was rock solid on his facts. Remember, this was ten years ago and some of what he knew then was far more obscure than it is now. But when he found his niche for further study, all of us were so relieved that we held an unofficial ceremony of thanks to the worldwide pantheon of gods and goddesses."

"His niche?" Jim prompted, trying to look blank.

"Yes," said de Villiers, and then a tray arrived, courtesy of a young woman with a harried look. "Thank you, Julie. I'll pay into the fund later. Would you care for a cup of coffee, Detective?"

"That would be nice, thanks," Jim agreed, as the woman hurried away.

With a fine aroma rising from two cups, Jim prompted the assistant dean for more information about Blair's 'niche'.

"He'd found a legend and was spending a lot of his time in the library researching it, quite apart from his formal studies. He was an unbelievably well focused young man and always intent on getting his Ph.D. Whether it would make a good enough topic, he wasn't sure, so he brought it to me, among others, for my advice." Dr. de Villiers stopped for a healthy swallow of coffee.

"What, this sentinel thing he was pestering me with?" Jim put forward as a preemptive strike, with a slight frown of interest.

"So he told you?" The man looked surprised, and then his own mien fell into the creases of a man with a puzzle. "Why?"

Jim lifted both his eyebrows. "He talks a lot."

The assistant dean chortled again. "Yes, he does. And he knows what he's talking about, too. Well, the sentinel legend was sufficiently obscure to allow for a good thesis topic for his B.A. as a mythologist and he did an excellent cross-cultural survey of it through the millennia, all over the world. For his M.A., he went beyond legend, and began to do work on the possibility that sentinels still exist." The assistant dean's eyes narrowed suddenly.

Jim had to deflect that, and fast. "These sentinels, they were supposed to have superpowers or something, right? So how could they exist in reality? It seems – farfetched to me." He was skirting rudeness in his voice, filled with apparent disapproval of an academic study taking a lot of years and a lot of taxpayers' money, more incredibly idiotic than far-fetched.

"Not so unbelievable, actually," Dr. De Villiers responded, geared up for protecting his fiefdom. "It's based on the laws of probability, and the statistical likelihood that any people are born with five extremely sensitive senses. I'm sure Blair's mentioned tea-tasters and parfumiers to you." He waited for a reply.

"Yeah, sure," Jim gave it to him. "I have excellent eyesight myself; I was a marksman in the service. But all five? What would someone with heightened touch be like?" he wondered innocently.

"That's one of the things Blair got into in his M.A. thesis," the assistant dean continued. "He found people with one, two or three enhanced senses, did case studies of them and extrapolated to what living sentinels would be like. How the senses might work for them, how they might work against them. He got most of his subjects from urban North America, but found a few elsewhere in the world, while on digs or doing fieldwork for other projects. He's got feelers out everywhere through every anthropology major he ever met, and pretty much all his instructors, too. He never misses a chance to check out his surroundings for a potential sentinel." The speculative look was back in the assistant dean's eyes again.

"Oh, hey, I already said I have good eyesight. Sandburg's taken my measure and moved on," Jim lied outright.

"'Moved on'? How do you mean that? Is he thinking about doing his Ph.D. thesis on another subject?" The assistant dean seemed concerned. "He's been trying to find a living sentinel to study, and he might be scouring the Cascade Police Department for one."

"Why look there?" Jim wanted to know.

"Well, part of the sentinel legend is that the sentinel has an extreme need to protect his or her tribe or people, whomever he or she lives with. I would imagine that if there were living sentinels, they'd be working in service-oriented organizations, the police, or firefighters, maybe the army or another branch of the service, maybe as Search and Rescue personnel. So Blair's riding with you, and writing about the police department. Maybe he's killing two birds with one stone."

"How so?"

Dr. de Villiers pulled his chair forward and leaned against the desk with his hands. "If he can't find a living sentinel, detective, he'll need to change his thesis topic. He might be thinking of doing a study on the police department." He stared at Jim Ellison like a hawk at a mouse.

But Jim had his answer ready, "Actually, he got the observer's pass on the thin blue line thing but, like I said, it's coming close to the end. So we need to determine if he's good to go for an extension. His stories have been pretty wild at times." Jim smiled man-to-man. "But if he really has done some of the things he talks about...."

"Oh, he has. Unlikely though it seems, he has!"

"Then I'm happy to recommend him to the captain. I just need to know about his bona fides." Jim sent a serious 'genuine' glance toward the academic.

"Besides being entertaining, Blair is a very estimable man. He's done many things and gone many places since he started here at Rainier and I know about all of them. I've followed his academic career with a great deal of interest. If there is such a thing as a living sentinel, I know Blair won't rest until he's found him or her.

"But if he can't do it soon, he's going to need another string to his bow. Maybe the study of the police department will be it. If he does find a line of research which requires riding with you, then I hope you and your captain will consider giving him all the extensions he needs. He's a loyal friend, has demonstrated great bravery and much ingenuity while in the field, and has a streak of what I can only describe as rectitude running right through his soul. If you need a written reference, I'd be more than happy to give you one and I can muster up a dozen more from others acquainted with Blair."

Dr. de Villiers was shaking his head, grinning. "I almost envy you, getting to know Blair Sandburg for the first time. My introduction to him was certainly great fun, even if at times he was an annoying little gadfly. Under the scruffy outfits and past the baby-face is a man who has every reason to be proud of himself and his accomplishments. So if there's anything I've left out, let me know, and I'll glow about that, too." The assistant dean rose and extended his hand to Jim.

Jim shook hands with him. "No, I think that's pretty much put any doubts we have to rest. Oh, except for one: the financial side of things. Anything to know about that?"

The assistant dean rocked back on his heels. "Blair is like every long term student: perennially broke. His priorities are his studies and he'd stop eating for an entire term if it meant he could buy an enticing book with the savings. I don't know if he has a clothing budget as such, but he's always presentable, if in 'alternative' garb, when he's teaching his classes. But in anthropology, we study alternative ways of living and wherever he derived his values, they aren't about material things, but about morals and ethics and the pursuit of wisdom. If you're suggesting he might be a liability in the department because he's broke, I can stand surety for the fact that he is as honest as the day is long, when it comes to money and when it comes to his research. Some of his tales might be embellished, but there's always a core of truth to them, and so you'll find out as you get to know him better. As I said, I almost envy you, Detective Ellison."

They shook hands, and the interview was done.

 

Jim still had an hour free before Sandburg would be finished teaching his class. He stopped into the administrative offices and looked for Corbey again.

"Back again," the accented voice noted carelessly. "Is there any other way we can help you?"

Jim wasn't sure if the man was being snooty or trying to protect Blair again, but he preferred the latter and chose to believe it. "Yes, just something minor. His last known address, please."

Corbey mulled that over for three seconds longer than it deserved and finally decided to bend to necessity. He reached under the counter and pulled out a roster bound in university covers. A few flips of the pages brought him to the listing 'Sandburg, B.' "Here it is: Apartment 222, 406 Rosemont. That's in the...."

"Area bordering Rainier to the east. Yes, I know it. Not university-provided housing, is it?" Jim asked.

"No, private, but a popular place for school personnel and older students to rent. I'm in apartment 131 myself." Corbey seemed insufferably pleased with himself.

Jim put it down to culture clash and gave the man a break. "Oh, so you're one of his neighbors?"

"Yes, I am. I'll be happy to see him back in the complex, and hope it's soon. His replacement is an inconsiderate, rude, arrogant boor who doesn't belong in a civilized society!"

Well, okay, then, Jim thought. Let's find out about the boor. "His replacement?"

Corbey looked sour and said, "Blair rooms with two other students. He was going to be away for about a month and his roommates decided to sublet his room for that period to someone else for beer money, without Blair knowing it. Now the guy won't move out without a court order and Blair's stuck for accommodations. That's just not done! One of the other roommates ought to have moved out and given Blair his room. It would be only fair!"

Jim looked suitably shocked and appalled.

Corbey went on, "I hope he finds a place soon. He's got notices up on the bulletin boards all over Rainier, but no one's moving now. I'm afraid he's going to have to find some money somehow and rent an entire apartment to himself somewhere else in Cascade. Everything around here is occupied, and I should know."

"How's that?" Jim asked.

"My wife's pregnant, and we wanted to move to a two- or three- bedroom apartment before the baby arrives. So we've been searching too and we're stuck ourselves. The hunt goes on, but it's the wrong time of year for this location." He sighed. "Helen really wanted more space, too. I'd have liked a den. With books. And a chair and lamp for reading." He was unutterably wistful.

"Congratulations on the baby, and I hope you find a new home soon," Jim said sympathetically.

But on the drive over to 406 Rosemont, he wondered just what kind of place Blair thought he would have to move to, once Larry went back to the lab and Jim pulled the invitation out from under him. It almost didn't bear thinking about.

 

Jim nearly had to break down the door to get into Apartment 222. He could hear people inside, though they were trying to be quiet. He thumped harder and harder until his fist hurt.

"Go away, Blair," someone yelled at long last. "We don't have your money and we don't know where we're going to get it, so please go away. We'll give it to you when we have it, promise!"

"Cascade Police! Open up!" Jim shouted back.

"Oh, geez," a hushed voice rang only in sentinel ears. "Did we do anything illegal?"

"What if he thinks we're in with him?"

"Oh, geez!"

Jim kept thumping and shouting.

Finally a tall, thin brunette of about twenty-two, with hair to her waist, unlocked and opened the door.

"Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade P.D.," Jim said sharply. "I'm here about Blair Sandburg."

"Oh," the girl said with relief. "He doesn't live here any longer. I don't have his current address, either. Sorry." She tried to shut the door, but there was a sentinel in the way.

"Excuse me, ma'am. I'm well aware that Mr. Sandburg is no longer a resident here. In fact, he's staying with me at the moment. And he's having trouble looking for a permanent place." Jim sent her a glare full of personal animosity. "It seems he's short of cash because you won't refund his money. Now, what can you tell me about that?"

"Oh, man. Peggy!" the brunette called over her shoulder. "He wants Blair's money! What do I tell him?"

Jim marched into the living room of the three-bedroom apartment and sat down on the couch stretching his arms out along its back. He looked up stoically at the brunette. Her platinum blonde friend, likewise somewhere in her twenties, had appeared from behind the now-closed bathroom door. She had concealer plastered all over a bad black eye.

"Peggy? You got some input here?" he did his impression of Jim-from-Vice.

"Oh, man, Georgia," the blonde moaned. "Did Blair send you?" she asked Jim.

But Georgia was hissing at her, "He's the one Blair's staying with. I think he wants Blair out and Blair doesn't have money for a place to go."

"We're screwed," Peggy said hopelessly.

"We so are screwed," Georgia agreed.

Then they both stared unhappily at Jim.

"What's the problem, ladies?" Jim gave them an opening. "Where'd you get the shiner?"

Georgia looked at Peggy and Peggy looked at Georgia.

Peggy took the floor. "The problem," she said grimly, "is our other roommate."

Jim looked around. "Three bedrooms, but more than three occupants?"

Peggy started picking at lint on her clothes. "Yes, now. It used to be just us and Blair. But then Blair moved out for a month because he couldn't bring his ape here, the landlord wouldn't let him, and we rented his room to an exchange student so he could look for another place to live. He'd been tossed out of his old apartment for playing his music too loud, he said. But when he moved in, he only paid half what he said he'd give us, he started bringing dates home, so they were all staying here, and they're not paying their way, and they use twice as much in utilities as all three of us together. He's bringing all his awful, rowdy friends over all the time, and he won't move out, and it's an illegal sublet, and he's gonna get us thrown out by the landlord, and there aren't any other places to live or Blair would have found one, and we don't know what to do!" All said in a tumble of words to do Sandburg proud.

Jim seldom had patience with silliness, but these damsels in distress seemed to be more victimized than victimizing. He sucked his tongue and looked around the room. "This male roommate of yours. Does he have a name?"

"Boris," the brunette said glumly. "That's all we really know. We've heard him use a bunch of different last names on the phone. We didn't know. Just Boris. And he's more than Badenov."

Peggy began giggling hysterically. "I'm – sorry. I can't stop. Hee-hee-hee!" She looked mortified.

Georgia grabbed her and shook her hard. The giggling stopped.

"He give you that black eye?" Jim wanted to know.

"N-n-not him. But he's doing drugs," Peggy stuttered out. "Bad ones. We don't, we never, did drugs. Blair says we should treat our bodies like temples. And he's right."

"We never, Detective Ellison. Never!" Georgia confirmed.

Jim considered his options. "Does any of the furniture in the bedroom belong to Blair?"

The girls looked at each other. "Yeah, it's almost all his, only, you know, I don't think he'd want the bed back," Peggy said slowly.

Georgia nodded emphatically. "Or his linens."

Jim didn't want to know.

"Well, let's take care of first things first," he said. "What else in there is Blair's?"

"He's got a desk, a chair, a bookcase, a dresser and some clothes, but he took most of his books and clothes with him when he moved out." Peggy was itemizing things in her head. " I think he only took the stuff he had on loan from the U., though. We packed Blair's own curios in boxes and kept them in our rooms."

"I have a truck. Show me the stuff that's Blair's and I'll take it with me," Jim said.

"Oh, man, I don't know if that's a good idea," Georgia appealed to him. "You don't know Boris. He's mean."

Well, he certainly had these kids scared. Jim began to think that Blair had been their protector. He's kind to lab animals.

"I don't care what Boris thinks," Jim said. "And I have a hunch that it's all going to work itself out nicely. Just show me Blair's room."

The girls scampered over to a moderately sized bedroom, not all that much larger than Blair's room under the stairs, truth be told. Jim took a good look, and sniff, around.

"Who does that bong belong to?" Jim demanded to know. The thing on the floor was almost hidden under a sweep of the bedspread on the unmade bed. Almost, but not quite. The girls saw it plainly, once Jim had them stand where he was and turn in its direction.

"Boris," the girls chimed together.

"Good enough," Jim said, and the girls started giggling again. "When do you expect Boris back?"

"Any time now," Georgia answered with dread.

"I'd better start my search now," Jim said. "You can be witnesses. You might have to come to court to testify, but don't worry. It will turn out all right."

The girls clung to each other. Whatever was happening couldn't be good, could it?

Jim found Boris's stash of weed and all its paraphernalia, a baggie of coke and a small quantity of GHB capsules. Jim had it all bagged and tagged, and his notes on the bust written up, with time for a cup of tea before Boris got home. What he hadn't found was perhaps more valuable: a passport and a student visa.

The girls gave him free rein in their own bedrooms and they were clean. Jim was thankful; he hadn't wanted to have to arrest them too. He was also interested in the fact that they had student-sized furniture also, a twin bed, dresser and desk apiece.

When Boris walked in, 220 pounds and 25 or so years of vicious arrogance, with a nondescript girlfriend behind him, Jim immediately arrested him. The girl fled. Jim was fine with just bringing Boris in and quoted the Miranda rights in between squeals of outrage.

"Pig! You have no right to go into my room and search it!"

Jim smiled meanly. "I went into Blair Sandburg's room, the one he's legally paid the rent for, as his agent and current roommate, to retrieve articles belonging to him. I was legally admitted by your roommates to his bedroom, where, in plain view, I saw your bong. Ever hear of the plain view doctrine, Boris?"

Boris just cursed, but he shut up once Jim started asking about his real name and how he had gotten into the country. That settled any doubts Jim might have had. The two Rainier students were not in this man's league at all.

"You're screwed, Boris," Georgia yelled, pointing at him.

"Oh, you so are screwed," Peggy joined her. "You know, you should have just left when you could."

"We're changing the locks," Georgia said, with a quick glance up at Jim her savior, and getting a curt, long-suffering nod from him.

"So don't even think about coming back!" Peggy gloated.

"I doubt he's that stupid," Jim said, "but I doubt even more that he'll get the chance. The INS is going to be very interested in him, aren't they, Boris?"

What the druggie said to that was unforgettable.

Jim marched Boris downstairs and cuffed him to the truck door, then returned to Apartment 222.

He looked long and hard at the two girls. "Why did you rent the room to Boris in the first place?"

Peggy answered dully. "We got mugged, Georgia and me. Blair usually escorted us home from the U., but when he moved out, we just went together. Whoever it was gave me the black eye, and took all our grocery money for the month. We reported it to the police, but that didn't get our money back. We didn't know what else to do," she said. "We're on scholarships, we don't have any new money coming in until the end of the month and we have to eat."

"We don't have folks to write home to, either," Georgia told him. "It's us against the world." She laughed humorlessly. "So we did the only thing we thought we could. We thought we were lucky to find Boris. Some luck, huh?" She was bitter.

Jim lightened up on them. He scribbled out a phone number on the back of his business card and handed it to Peggy. "Call here, ask for Lou, tell him Jim Ellison referred you, and that you need a change of locks within two hours. Tell him I'll pay the tab and to say hi to Frances. He'll understand. Then call your landlord, tell him Boris is gone, and give him one of the keys. Tell Lou you'll need at least four."

Peggy stared at the note as if trying to decode who Frances was.

"Do you have food for the rest of the month?"

The girls shook their head and Georgia began patting at the corners of her eyes.

Jim took out his wallet and began to peel off twenties. "Here, take this and restock your cupboards, after Lou changes the lock. Better yet, order a pizza for tonight, and I'll see someone escorts you shopping tomorrow."

Georgia put her hand out, but Peggy was pushing the money away. "We can't take your money, Detective. We can't repay it," she whispered.

Jim turned on his best charming smile. "Now, what would Blair think of me if I let you two go hungry for the lack of a few dollars?" He took Georgia's hand and stuffed the cash into it, closing her fist over. "Got it?"

"Yes, thank you," Peggy said with a big gulp.

"Okay, we're done here for now. You have my number, and if anyone comes looking for Boris, call me at once. Oh, and don't go and re-rent Sandburg's room. You got that?" Jim said.

"No, no, we'd never do that again," Peggy said. "We sure didn't want to!"

"Thank you so much!" Georgia burst into tears of relief.

Jim was not prepared to handle that. "I've got to go book Boris. You call Lou right now."

Peggy picked up the phone and began to dial.

Jim left for his truck, juggling new ideas, and phoned Simon Banks as he did.

"Captain? I've got a lot of Blair's history now and everything I've found out is good. I'll report back as soon as I book this jerk that's been living in his apartment on possession. Yeah, yeah, he had an apartment, but it's a long story."

"Jim, I'm glad to hear it, but I really need you to hurry up with the booking. Get back to the office as soon as you can. We have a situation."

Jim began feeling for his gun. "What kind of situation, sir?"

"The campaign against Sandburg has gotten ugly. You know all those mishaps around the department?"

"What? Like the photocopier, or Henri's keyboard? What about them?"

"There's another to add. Sandburg came in about three-quarters of an hour ago. His class ended early or something and he wanted to finish the reports on Kincaid, said he was prioritizing it because it's going to trial."

"So?"

"Within ten minutes of his getting here, Rider's computer gets a virus and things started going wrong on the all monitors. Everyone's panicking. Sandburg hops up and does some mojo at Rider's desk and gets it fixed, no harm done."

"Good for him."

"Not so good, Jim. The whispering after that was loud enough that I could hear it. People were saying the Sandburg Curse wasn't just a joke. That it was real."

"Oh, come on! It was just a private joke between Sandburg and me. There's nothing real about it, sir!"

"Maybe, but I'm not on top of what is going on yet and that means I can't control it, detective. They're still whispering, and it's getting hinky here. I have the feeling that something's gonna break very soon, and when it does, Sandburg's head will be on the block. So just get back here, Jim, and do some sentinel stuff! I need information!"

Jim ran for the truck.

 

ACT FOUR

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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