Half an hour later, Jim and Blair stood under an oak talking with Marcus. "I don't understand," Jim told the young man. "Why did you join the People Defenders?"
Marcus sighed. "Hey, you know the neighborhood my old man lives in, right? While he and the other tenants have cleaned up our building and a good part of the street, there's still a lot of crime all around them. Plus I graduate from Rainier in another two years. I know after I get my first job I'll be finding my own place out of the neighborhood. You guys know my father - he'll never accept money from me to move someplace else and he's getting older. So I figure if I help get this chapter of the People D's started, then there'll be someone to keep an eye out for my old man and the other tenants when I'm not there."
Jim nodded, understanding Marcus' concerns. "What do you think of Colburn?" Jim tried not to let his still simmering anger show on his face. He didn't like a civilian getting in the way of his police work.
"He's okay. I think he's still trying to prove the People Defenders are on the up and up, so he tends to overdo things." A small smirk crept across Marcus' face. "He especially doesn't like big guys pushing around little guys."
"Hey, man, Jim kept that man from toasting himself and the booths next to him," Blair pointed out.
"Yeah, I know that," Marcus chuckled. "But Eli didn't see that. He doesn't know you're the good guys yet."
"So, what are you studying at Rainier?" Jim asked, changing the subject.
"Electrical engineering." Marcus then turned to Blair. "I saw your press conference." Blair looked down, not sure what to say. "Hey man, I know you're one of the good guys. I trust you did what you had to do, and it takes guts to stand up to the press like you did."
"No prob. And I'm not the only one on campus who thinks that way. Just thought you should know. "
A grateful smile stretched across Blair's face. "Thanks, that means a lot."
Jim spotted Simon weaving his way through the crowd. "Here's our captain. Take it easy, Marcus."
"You too, man. I hope you keep finding those leaking tanks before they explode!"
Sending a friendly wave after Marcus, Blair followed his partner to meet their Captain. A scowl was plastered across Simon's face as he again checked the booth's banner. "Buddha's Mexican Grill? Only in America." He then turned to his men, growling, "Tell me this was an accident."
Jim and Blair both shook their heads. "The gas line was definitely cut," Jim reported.
"Damn." Simon looked around at the vendors, who were slowly returning to their businesses. "Did anyone see anything?"
"Nothing anyone's reporting," Blair answered. "They were all too busy getting their own booths set up."
Simon studied the crowd swirling around them. "The owner of the one that nearly blew?"
Jim shrugged. "He and his nephew didn't notice anyone out of place. The nephew said that Dennis from the main office was over to confirm their reservation. They had a few customers stop by to ask when they'd be open. One of the other vendors asked if they knew where the electrical outlets were. A couple of the People Defenders helped them move a few things."
"Since Marcus Watson was one of them, we suspect they were just being helpful," Blair added.
"Marcus Watson?" Simon asked, trying to place the name.
"The kid who helped us with the armored car accident that wasn't an accident but a cover for counterfeit money," Blair reminded him.
"Oh, right," Simon nodded. He turned his gaze to the glass windows near the Buddha's grill booth, picturing the destruction that was avoided. "Why is it I doubt we've seen the last of the sabotage?"
"Because we probably haven't," Jim replied grimly.
Simon sighed. "Well, there is no way you and Sandburg can cover this entire circus by yourselves. Rafe and Brown caught that convenience store robber last night, so I've ordered them to be here around noon."
"Simon, we only have one Jim," Blair quietly reminded him.
"Yes, but they are trained police officers. The more eyes we have, the better. Hell, if Connor and Taggart weren't already busy, I'd have their butts down here, too."
Jim nodded. With this kind of crowd over this large of an area, they would need all the help they could get.
Back on patrol, Blair studied the people around them more intently. How could you pick out a person with a grudge from the rest of the crowd? Psychotic people looked as normal as everyone else. Blair's own experiences with Lash proved that. It could be anyone from the elderly man studying a sculpture on the right to the sweet-faced young woman explaining a black and white photo to several people on the left.
Feeling the growing tension in his partner, Jim tapped his shoulder to gain his attention. "Hey Sandburg, how about some lunch?"
Blair glanced back towards the crowd still gathered around the food booths. "I suspect it'll be a while before they're in business."
"Yeah, but didn't you say there was another set on the other side?"
Blair smiled at his partner. "Yeah, there is. "
"Then let's go."
Together they walked across the bridge. With all the booths anchored along the railing, it was hard to see the dam upstream. Blair made a mental note that they would have to look at the art there later. They had barely reached the other bank when Jim paused, tilting his head to the right. Blair placed his hand on Jim's shoulder, grounding his friend without upsetting Jim's delicate hearing.
Jim's frown grew deeper; he could hear a crackling that was out of place. As he turned to the right and walked down the aisle of booths, he recognized the sound as a fire. Barely aware of Blair beside him, Jim stopped in the middle of the lane, trying to piggyback his vision to the crackling he heard. Just as his partner opened his mouth, a 'whoosh' drew his eyes to one of the booths. Flames were shooting out of a nearby trash receptacle to climb the white canvas wall.
"FIRE!!!!!!!" Jim shouted. The crowd around him then spotted the flames and began to scatter, knocking down some of the exhibits. Franchot Pascalle rushed out of the endangered booth. Ignorant of the fire, he shook his fist in the air, swearing in French at the people rushing by.
Jim and Blair had to fight their way through the crowd to reach the fire. Jim yanked off his jacket and hit the canvas with it, trying to beat out the flames.
Blair's frantic eyes landed on the booth next door. It contained sculptured water fountains, advertised as a 'delight to the senses'. For once, Blair had other things on his mind besides sentinel tests when he noticed the water flowing through them. "Excuse me," Blair blurted out to the women who had stepped out of the booth as he raced to the nearest fountain. He yanked out the hose from behind the fountain and pointed it at the burning canvas next door. A thumb placed just so squirted the water in a steady stream. He managed to douse both the fire and his partner.
"Sandburg," Jim muttered as he wiped the water from his eyes. The sound of clapping caught his attention. The women from the fountain booth and those who had stayed to watch were applauding Blair's efforts. Always the showman, Blair gave them a courtly bow.
"Take your FOOT off my CREATION!"
Jim turned his head to find Pascalle glaring at him. Glancing down, Jim realized his foot was on a corner of a painting knocked over by the crowd. As he gingerly lifted his boot, the artist snatched the painting off the ground. Pascalle held it out at arms-length, frantically searching the brown and red textured work. Jim's brow wrinkled as he scanned it. Heck, my niece's kindergarten class could have done a better job than that with their finger-paints.
Apparently, that wasn't what Pascalle thought. "Look what you've done!" the artist cried out. "You have marked my work, you huge oaf!"
"I was trying to save the rest of your booth," Jim defended himself. He took another look at the painting. "Besides, how can you tell? The mud is the same color as that brown shade."
The artist's face turned red with anger. "You...You..." he spurted, then began ranting in French. Jim simply rolled his eyes as the artist continued his rampage.
Struggling not to laugh, Blair turned to see two patrol officers wade their way through the spectators. Blair waved them over. "Hi, I'm Detective Sandburg," Blair introduced himself softly, presenting his badge. "We have a possible arson situation. I need you to keep the crowds back so we can preserve the crime scene and interview witnesses." As the two officers began their assignment, Blair yanked out his cell phone and called in the fire. Then he checked on his partner. The artist was beginning to run out of steam.
"Mr. Pascalle," Jim finally inserted. "Your booth was on fire and we expect it may be arson. You will need to answer some questions."
"WHAT! Why should I, Franchot Pascalle, answer any questions?"
"Do you want someone to get a second shot at burning down your work?" Jim asked icily. Pascalle frowned. "Then I suggest you cooperate. My partner will take your statement." Ignoring Blair's 'oh-thanks-a-lot' glare, Jim waved him over as he himself stepped back. Jim knew another minute with the Frenchman would have ignited his temper and quite possibly ruined any chance of getting meaningful information from their victim.
Besides, the sentinel wanted to use his own 'forensics lab' on the flash point before the official unit arrived.
Ten minutes later, Simon stormed through the spectators. "You know, I'd barely reached my car when the call came in," he grumbled to Ellison.
Jim simply shrugged and got down to business. "I think our saboteur is getting creative." As Blair joined them, Jim pointed his gloved finger at a small mass of metal and wiring he had carefully pulled out of the trash can. "This looks like it was set on a timer to start the fire."
Blair glanced around them worriedly. "Do you think there could be more of them?" The three men exchanged looks, then Simon stepped back and pulled out his phone. "What do we do now, Jim?" Blair whispered.
"Stay alert," Jim replied grimly. He waved at Serena and her team as they waded through the spectators. "I have a feeling our saboteur has more than these 'toys' up his sleeve."
While pointing out the areas he wanted checked, Jim heard something that seemed out of place. He tilted his head, picking up the faint sounds of excitement and panic through the crowd noise. In the background, Simon closed his cell phone, only to have it ring again.
"What do you hear, Jim?" Blair asked softly.
"Something's wrong on the other side of the bridge," Jim replied, his brow wrinkling as he tried to sort out the sounds he wanted from the chaos.
"WHAT!" Simon roared suddenly, causing Jim to wince. "Is he okay? Is the fire out?" Both Jim and Blair turned to stare at their Captain. "Okay, Brown, we'll be there in a minute." Simon flipped his phone shut. "Let's go. Brown and Rafe just put out another fire."
As they arrived at the scene on the North side of the bridge, Brown and a young couple were carefully stacking mounted photos away from the blackened section of a booth. Nearby, Rafe sat on a stool as a pretty blonde poured water over his hand.
Frowning, Jim walked over to Rafe. "You okay?"
Rafe glanced up at the senior detective. Jim could detect traces of soot on his face along with faint lines from the pain. "Yeah, I'm okay."
"He burnt his hand saving my work," the blonde inserted. Jim could detect a slight German accent to her words. "He was very brave."
Noting the obvious hero-worship in her blue eyes, Jim forced back a smirk as he gently lifted Rafe's injured hand. "I was a medic in the army," he assured the young woman as she frowned. After a quick examination, Jim nodded. "Mostly first degree, but a few places are starting to blister." He smiled at the young woman. "Keep pouring the water over it slowly until the EMTs get here." He patted Rafe's back then walked back over to the rest of his unit.
"...the photos while I and a couple of the other vendors beat out the flames," Brown was reporting to Simon. "I think Rafe burnt his hand on one of the hot frames."
Blair sent a worried glance at his partner. Jim returned a quick smile, reassuring him that their co-worker would be okay. Blair nodded then pointed out, "It started in a trash can again."
"I've ordered all the trash cans replaced and checked," Simon added. He shook his head. "Wonder how many more of these we'll find?"
Blair glanced at the banner on the outside of the booth. "Meta Snyder," he softly read. His eyes narrowed as his mind began making connections. "Sounds German."
"She does have the accent," Jim told him, wondering where his partner's thoughts were going.
"And much of her work deals with Bosnian and Kosovo refugees," Henri added.
Blair's eyes widened as he put it together. "So we have sabotage at a French painter's booth, a German photographer's booth..."
"And Buddha's Mexican grill," Jim groaned, catching on to the trend. "He's going after the 'outsiders'."
The lanky body stretched on the rough surface shifted stiffly, painfully. Yet in spite of the complaints from the old injuries, the man of the shadows still trained his attention on his prey below. The high-tech binoculars focused on Ellison, watching as he lifted the hand of the injured detective, noting the gentle pat on the back before Ellison returned to the others. "Is that weakness I see, Captain Ellison? Do you, once a man of ice, care about the others you serve with? My, aren't we getting soft?"
Two hour later, food booths on South side of Riley Dam District
Blair drew a long slurp of raspberry banana smoothie into his mouth. Leaning back against a tree, he slowly swallowed the cool, tangy drink as he willed his muscles to relax. The day was only half over, yet it felt like two long ones. He and Jim had managed to catch two more trash can devices before they ignited while Brown and Rafe had found a third. The People Defenders caught a fourth one once the trash inside was fully engulfed. Finally, the festival crews had replaced all the receptacles within the area, so the danger was now over. Yet Blair suspected there would soon be something else to take its place.
Sighing, Blair glanced over to his partner. Jim was rubbing his forehead, practically ignoring the buffalo burger in his other hand. Blair frowned, then glanced around. The crowd was growing as people who could take a half-day off work arrived. The afternoon sun was heating the exhibits, intensifying the fumes from paints and glues. Plus, Jim's senses had been in a constant state of alert since they'd arrived. Add in the performing arts students down the street, banging on gongs and shouting rap to the crowd, and it would be a miracle if Jim didn't have a headache. The commissioner's project for them was becoming much bigger than Blair ever dreamed it would. A project they were pulled into simply due to the forced revelation of Jim's senses.
At the touch on his arm, Jim lifted his head and blinked at his partner. "You okay? You want to move away from the gongs?"
Jim forced a smile for his friend, though he suspected it came out more like a grimace. "Yeah. They're starting to get to me."
"Can you tune them out?"
"No, I'm afraid I'll miss something if I do."
"Okay, let's walk." They turned in the opposite direction, quietly strolling along with the festival-goers. After several minutes, Blair softly whispered, "I'm sorry, Jim."
"Sorry?" Jim, totally baffled, glanced down at his partner. "Why? You didn't cause my headache."
"Yeah, but if it hadn't been for my diss, we wouldn't be on this assignment."
Jim sighed. He really didn't want to have this conversation now, though he had been expecting it. He tilted his head toward an empty alley. "Come on, Chief." Once they were safe from any prying ears, Jim leaned against the brick wall. "Okay, spill it."
Blair took a moment for a deep breath, centering his thoughts. Then the deep blue eyes met his partner's. "I'm sorry, Jim." Unable to stand still with his unsettled emotions, Blair began to pace. "Because of that whole dissertation fiasco, you and Simon had to tell the commissioner about your senses. So now he can jerk us around whenever he wants. Otherwise, we wouldn't be on this assignment, you wouldn't have a headache, and Rafe wouldn't have a burnt hand. And that makes it all my fault."
"Sandburg." The quiet growl halted Blair's feet, turning him to face the speaker. "It wasn't about the dissertation, Blair. It was about me needing you to back me up full time."
"Yeah, but if I hadn't had to declare myself a fraud, you and Simon wouldn't have had to sell your souls to the commissioner to rescue me from my own disaster."
"You did it to protect me. No one has ever done that before."
"You wouldn't have needed protecting if my dissertation hadn't hit the media."
Jim shook his head. "You still don't get it. The only thing that matters here is that we are officially partners. We don't have to worry about someone coming in and revoking your observer pass like Finkleman did. If that means we have to take a special assignment from Mathews every once in a while, so be it. If the assignment's tough and gives me a headache, I'll handle it. It's a small price to pay to keep the best partner I've ever had."
Blue eyes drilled into blue, trying to force the other to understand. Finally, Blair took a deep breath, releasing some of his tension and guilt. His eyes glowed with the warmth Jim's words had generated in his soul. "Thanks, Jim."
Jim stood away from the wall and shrugged. "That's just the way it is, Chief. Besides, if we weren't on this assignment, Buddha would have blown up with his grill and several artist would have lost their art. Not that Pascalle's stuff would have been that great of a loss." Blair couldn't help but chuckle, further lightening his mood. "And I wouldn't worry too much about Rafe. His injured hand paved the way for a night out with the pretty Miss Snyder."
"Really?" Blair exclaimed. "Maybe I should try that approach."
"Don't even think it, Sandburg." Jim turned towards the main street. "We should get back on patrol."
"What about your head?" Blair asked as he trailed him.
Jim shrugged. "I'll survive."
The watcher laid a hand against his earpiece as he glanced at the tape recorder next to him. He wanted to be certain that he had that informative conversation on tape. "So, your little friend declared himself a fraud to protect you. Does that mean you are the real thing?"
Two and a half hours later, south side of the bridge
"Here," Blair shoved the cold drink into his partner's hands. "Maybe this will help."
Jim sighed as he took a sip of the lemonade. "Thanks, Chief." Eyes closed, he tossed two aspirin into his mouth, washing them down with more lemonade. He forced his eyes to open. "How're Brown and Rafe doing?" Rafe had managed to convince the paramedics and his captain that he could continue the patrol with H., but Jim knew his hand had to be hurting nearly as much as Jim's head.
"Everything's still quiet," Blair reported.
"'Quiet' being a relative term," Jim commented softly. He winced when a little girl squealed nearby. "I will definitely be glad when this day is over."
Blair studied his sentinel. "You think you can handle two more days of this?" Jim's face had grown paler as the day progressed.
"I can if we have to," Jim replied. "I want to catch this firebug before he actually hurts someone." A faint 'crack' reached his ears. Taking another swallow of his drink, Jim began to listen for a repeat of the noise.
"There has to be an easier way to do this," Blair grumbled. "You can't be expected to find any little thing that just might go wrong in this entire district."
~creak~ Determining the direction of the noise, Jim pushed away from the tree. His pain was forgotten as he stepped towards the noise, focusing his senses on that which was out of place.
"I mean, it would be a whole lot easier if we had some clues and could start looking for the bastard instead of just searching for his handiwork," Blair continued. Suddenly, he noticed his partner was moving away, his head slightly tilted. "Jim?"
Jim's feet slowly moved in the direction of the sound. When another, louder creak rang in his ear, Jim picked up the pace.
Realizing his partner was in sentinel mode, Blair swiftly caught up. From the tilt of the head, Blair guessed Jim was listening for something. That kept him quiet, not wanting to upset the delicate balance shifting around in his friend's sore mind. When Jim turned to the right and started to trot, Blair stayed beside him.
~groan~ The sound was closer now. Jim suddenly stopped in the middle of an intersection, glancing around as he searched the area.
"Jim?" Blair barely whispered.
"Metal under stress," Jim forced out. With most of his concentration on finding the problem, his sentences were short and abrupt. "Louder. Nearby."
Blair's eyes immediately joined the search. A flash of red drew his eyes to the stage tucked into a courtyard. "What about..."
"The stage," Jim finished, his feet already racing to the source. As they approached, Jim noticed three young teenage girls in brightly colored silks, their painted hands and feet moving intricately to the sounds of eastern music. Then Jim noticed a very subtle shift of the platform. Damn
With a quick burst of speed, Jim raced to the front of the stage just as the front of the platform dropped several inches. Two girls fell hard and struggled to keep from sliding off the smooth surface. However, the third, who had been balancing on one foot near the front, tumbled off the edge. Vaulting over a couple of spectators seated on the ground, Jim barely managed to catch the slim girl before she could fall four feet to the concrete sidewalk below. As he realized what he had just done, Jim's eyes met the large brown ones looking at him in shock. "Hi," he stuttered.
"Hi," replied the soft, shy voice.
The girl nodded. Jim gently sat her onto the ground as applause erupted from the audience.