THE JANUS EFFECT
Production No. CVT522

written by:
Hephaistos and Mackie

edited by: Susan L. Williams and Kelly Meding


The family of three huddled together on the couch, eyes wide, arms entwined. But it wasn't the kind of huddling that included popcorn, a favorite video, and quality time. No, they were huddling for comfort and protection against the four hockey players who were currently trashing their living room.

Of course, these weren't real hockey players. They simply wore the uniforms of famous players, complete with padding and hockey masks. Three carried sticks and were currently doing their best Ted Williams impersonations-- swinging at everything and hitting it. The fourth held a video camera and gun on the terrified occupants of the couch.

~crash~

The mother of the family cringed as her grandmother's vase shattered on the hard stone of the hearth. Bits of light from the crackling fire within caught and sparkled as the pieces skittered around before coming to a rest.

~crash~

Three Hummel figurines joined the vase; one little water bucket with just the hand and wrist attached to its handle landed in front of the mother's foot. The mother choked back a terrified sob.

~crash~

Gone were the stereo cabinet, television picture tube, and shelf of delicate Lalique figurines. One of the hockey players wearing a Washington Capitals' sweater with 'Hunter' embroidered on its back approached the family, wielding his stick in a threatening manner. The mother was openly sobbing now, and the boy of 14 had wet his pants. The father jumped up in a poor attempt at bravado.

"Stop this!" he gasped out. "Please..."

"SHUT UP," Hunter yelled. The father's face colored as he immediately backed down and sank into the cushions, defeated. The son cuddled closer to his mother.

Satisfied, Hunter slung the stick over his shoulder like a soldier with a rifle and eyed the family up and down. The other two had stopped their attack on the breakables and simply waited.

"Uh oh." Hunter motioned his partner with the video camera closer to the couch and pointed. "Everett-the-Third here did a no-no in his pants." He pronounced 'Third' as if he were an aristocrat from Boston. Pointing to the large stain on the tan chinos, he grimaced "You sure do smell, Everett-the-Third. Now Mommy and Daddy are gonna have to get the couch reupholstered."

"I'll go up and get Everett-the-Third some pants," offered the hockey player by the stairs. His shirt read 'McSorley' on the back in the Los Angeles Kings' black and silver. The voice was spoken in a harsh whisper. At Hunter's nod, he disappeared up the mahogany staircase out in the hall.

Hunter turned his attention back to the family. "Sam," he said to his cohort behind him, "get the black bag."

The hockey player wearing a Pittsburgh Penguin's jersey reading 'Samuelsson' grabbed a large black bag near the door. He brought it over to the couch and plopped it up on the coffee table. Slowly, the bag was unzipped.

Hunter watched the family intently as he reached into the bag. "Now the fun really starts."


Jim Ellison had just tucked his tee inside his slacks when he heard the plaintive, dying gurgle of the coffee maker. An instant later, a deluge of hot water and grounds overflowed the filter basket and flowed down onto the hot plate. The snap and hiss of coffee on the heating element sounded like a convention of angry vipers.

He launched himself down the stairs from his bedroom and nearly took a header for his efforts. Sliding into the kitchen with nothing but socks covering his feet was more than just hazardous to his balance. The coffee, cooled marginally after flowing across the countertop and down the cupboard doors to the floor, was still hot enough to make him gasp as it soaked through the woven fabric.

"Shit!"

Mind racing, he automatically set his priorities: unplug the coffee maker; quickly but carefully remove the filter basket and pour the remaining hot sludge down the sink before it added more to the mess, sponge up the coffee and grounds drowning the hot plate, and pray the electrical components hadn't burned out. Then he could clean up the rest of the mess.

He looked around for the carafe and found it where his partner had incautiously left it-- sparkling and empty on the countertop by the stove. When Blair had started brewing their morning coffee, he'd forgotten to put the pot under the filter basket. The basket, with its drip guard over the hole so cups could be poured while the rest of coffee continued brewing, had filled with hot water until the inevitable overflow.

Jim cursed quietly as he cleaned up, trying to avoid tracking the mess all over the kitchen or getting any on his slacks. After sponging up the worst of the flood, he peeled off his sodden socks and tackled the last stubborn grounds.

Blair came out of the bathroom wafting steam and the mild scent of his after shave behind him. One towel was wrapped around his waist, and he used another to blot up the last droplets glistening on the mat of chest hair.

"Oh, man, what happened?"

"Nothing." Jim barely contained the gruffness that tried to sneak into his tone. "Just a little accident."

Blair had no trouble taking in the clues. "Did I do that?"

Jim rinsed the sponge for the last time and bent down to pick up his soggy socks where he'd discarded them on the floor. "It's no big deal." Still, his frustration was evident.

Things had been deteriorating for several weeks. More exactly, Blair had been deteriorating for several weeks, and Jim had no idea what to do. It had started innocently enough: an unusual display of temper, a tendency to forget simple things, the loss of his characteristic energy. Jim could think of little incidents, perhaps as far back as the Academy.

This morning, he looked even worse. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked exhausted despite their early bedtime the night before.

Jim frowned. "Did you sleep okay?"

Blair couldn't manage to stifle a yawn. "Pretty good. We must have gone to bed too early or something, 'cause I kept waking up."

Jim had heard his partner's restlessness throughout the night, and he was at a loss to account for it. There was a tiny part of his brain that kept trying to demand attention, but he didn't want to clarify those thoughts and kept them stubbornly at bay. But they'd niggle away at him in unguarded moments, and one of them skittered past his mental barriers now: Blair was exhibiting the classic symptoms of depression.

"I'm really sorry about this."

Jim shrugged it off the same way he shrugged off many subjects he didn't want to address. "It's okay. We'll grab some coffee on the way in." Breakfast, too, his stubborn mind pointed out. There's no time left to eat. "Get dressed, or we're going to be late."

With a sigh, Blair took one last look at the kitchen counter-- clean now, but with the filter basket, brewing unit, and carafe scattered haphazardly across its surface-- and headed for his bedroom to dress.

Jim ran the faucet to wash the last remnants of coffee grounds down the sink and went back upstairs to finish dressing. He foraged for a dry pair of socks, then grabbed a shirt to put over his tank tee. Quickly lacing his shoes, he was downstairs again within minutes, his eyes on the clock that inexorably ticked away the scant time they had left before they would be late. "Sandburg!"

Blair's answer was sharp with annoyance. "I'm coming! Just gimme a minute."

Jim closed his eyes briefly. He really didn't want another one of those days. "Dammit, we're going to be late. We're barely going to have time to grab coffee and donuts as it is, and I'm not going to work on an empty stomach."

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses." Blair came out of his room fastening the last buttons on a flannel shirt he'd put on over a long-sleeved pullover. "First you say it's no big deal, and now it's all rush, rush, rush."

Ignoring him, Jim grabbed a jacket off the coat rack. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair chose a heavy parka for himself and shrugged into it before retrieving his keys from the basket.

"You expecting a sudden cold snap?" Jim asked in surprise.

Blair's earlier temper had dissipated. "No, I'm just cold."

Jim opened the front door. "You got everything?"

Exasperated, his partner gestured as he ran down the checklist. "Gun, badge, wallet, keys... oh, wait-- my backpack!" Sounding thoroughly flustered that he'd forgotten such an integral accessory, he grabbed the pack off the floor beneath the coat rack, checked to make certain his department-issued laptop was inside, and slung it over one shoulder. "Ready."

Biting off an impatient retort, Jim locked the door and led the way toward the elevator.


They detoured past a fast-food drive-through where they bought coffee and breakfast sandwiches. The coffee was hot, its only positive attribute, and the greasy biscuit sandwiches tasted like salt and little else.

At least it was food. Jim tried to think philosophically as he juggled his coffee cup and sandwich while driving. Blair had taken one small bite of his meal and stuck it back inside the bag with a grimace.

Jim watched him surreptitiously. His partner wasn't eating much, and he was hardly sleeping at all. And he looked... well, there was no other way to describe it: Blair looked unhappy. On the rare occasions when Jim had pressed him, he had denied anything was wrong, and Jim had wanted-- needed-- to believe that. The thought that Blair was unhappy with his life as a cop led down avenues too desolate for Jim to ponder.

The lengthening silence was disrupted by the strident ring of Jim's cell phone.

"Aggh--"

Silently, Blair reached over and took the Styrofoam cup and half-eaten sandwich so Jim could fish the phone from his pocket.

"Ellison."

He listened a moment, then grunted an acknowledgment before ending the call. "There was another home invasion early this morning."

"Same gang as the last one?" Blair asked in surprise. The earlier robbery had occurred barely more than twenty-four-hours ago, an unusual MO for a home invasion crew.

"Sounds like it." Jim checked the traffic and changed lanes to make a turn. "Simon wants us to work with Burglary on this one. Apparently, one of the victims was bludgeoned pretty badly."

It sounded as if they were up against a vicious gang that was either brazen enough to commit their crimes practically on top of one another, or desperate enough to accept the risks.

Blair frowned. "What if--?"

Jim diverted his attention long enough to look at his partner. "What if what?"

But Blair only shrugged. Jim recognized the signs: whatever his partner had been about to say had probably made sense for the moment it was in his consciousness, but it was gone now. He knew from experience that no amount of coaxing would bring it back. These little lapses had been happening entirely too often lately, and Jim hated to see it happening to someone whose mind was normally so razor sharp.


The squad cars, yellow crime scene tape, and ambulance looked completely out of place in the tidy suburban neighborhood of Redwood Estates. It was an older residential area, where most of the upper middle-class families had lived for years. The city had grown around it, but it still managed to exude an air of tranquil peace despite the freeways and high rises skirting its fringes.

Crime was not commonplace in Redwood Estates. Curious neighbors clustered on the sidewalk across the street, and a news crew had begun unloading their gear. Burglaries weren't newsworthy, but vicious home invasions garnered coveted ratings.

Jim ignored everything but the exterior of the house itself. It was an old home, but well kept - - a two-car garage, a low, decorative wrought-iron fence defining a beautifully manicured front yard. There was the obligatory square of lawn, a neatly trimmed hedge and some rose bushes. The Cleavers or the Nelsons would have been right at home in this neighborhood. For a moment, Jim felt a tug of nostalgia for the innocent family life depicted in those early television shows. If today's television was any measure of societal trends, everyone was single, co-habited in a New York apartment, had a gay neighbor, and slept around willy-nilly in search of some elusive "meaning" to it all.

Feeling absurdly old, Jim preceded his own co-habitant up the walkway to the front porch and inside.

Two uniformed cops in the foyer dropped their amused grins as soon as the detectives entered, and Jim shot them a glare before pushing past them into the living room. Although the first crime scene yesterday had prepared him for what he was going to see, the sheer magnitude of the destruction still caught him by surprise. Even more disconcerting was his first glimpse of the woman sobbing quietly on the couch. Her face, caked heavily with clown make-up, was puffy and streaked with thick trails of black mascara from her tears. A big red plastic nose sat on the coffee table.

She glanced up as he entered, saw the brief flash of surprise that crossed his face, and burst into renewed tears. Lisa Kline, the female officer trying to calm her, shot him a thunderous look, and Jim turned away in embarrassment.

"Christ," he muttered, almost colliding with Blair. "I did that real well. Let's give her a minute."

Blair nodded, and turned his attention back to the two uniforms in the foyer. "Same as before?"

The senior officer nodded his head. "Family's name is Carrington. Husband, wife, and one kid, the son, were here when the gang broke in. The man got clobbered pretty good with a hockey stick, so the paramedics sent him to the hospital. The boy's next door with a neighbor, puking."

Blair was immediately concerned. "Is anyone else with him?"

"Yeah, a paramedic."

"There was just the one kid?" Jim asked, pulling out his notebook.

"There's a younger daughter, but she was at a sleepover at a friend's house. She wasn't here, thank goodness."

Jim nodded, making notes. "Okay, do you have any details?"

"Just like yesterday-- four guys in full hockey gear, except for the skates. They muscled their way in, terrorized the family, trashed the place, stole some stuff, and took off."

Jim recalled the smashed television and collectibles in the living room. "What did they take?"

"Couple of VCR's, the kid's Nintendo and the little girl's Pokemon card collection. They also got the kid's computer and some jewelry." The cop nodded in the direction of the living room. "Officer Kline's trying to get a description of the jewelry from the mother, but she's pretty incoherent right now."

"Yeah." Jim frowned. "Did the gang have a video camera?"

The officer nodded. "Yeah, they kept it on the whole time. Made the mom put on all that clown make-up that's running all over her face, bludgeoned the dad when he objected. Poor kid cried so hard he wet his pants. I gather the gang really liked that."

Blair's jaw tightened at the description of such senseless violence. It seemed as if someone had declared war on upper-middle class families. "Jim, you want me to try and talk to the mother?"

"Yeah, and I need to go next door and talk to the boy." Jim glanced through the doorway into the living room again. "See if you can get her permission."

This time, Blair entered the living room ahead of his partner and crouched down beside the couch. Officer Kline glared at Blair but offered a small smile in Jim's direction, forgiveness for his earlier behavior. "Mrs. Carrington, my name is Blair Sandburg. I need to ask you some questions about what happened."

She was daubing at her eyes, the damp cloth turning various rainbow hues as the face paint came off her skin. "Yes, all right."

"Do you think we could conduct the interview next door, with your son present? Kids have a way of seeing things adults miss."

She looked aghast at this. "Oh, no, I couldn't possibly go out like this. Everett doesn't need me with him when he talks to you."

Jim was startled, and obviously so was Blair. This was the first time he'd ever encountered a parent who wasn't interested in being with a minor child during questioning. He shrugged when Blair glanced at him. His partner looked back at the woman. "My partner, Detective Ellison, will talk to your son. Are you sure you don't want to be there?"

She gestured in the direction of one of the neighboring homes. "Everett's with Sandra Kelly." Her expression firmed with anger and resolve. "I just want to put it all behind me and forget it ever happened."

Jim figured there wasn't much chance of that, but he'd gotten the confirmation he needed. With a sigh, Blair pulled out his notebook and reached for his pen as Jim turned to go next door. "Okay, Mrs. Carrington, I need you to review your day for me. Be as specific as you can with times, and try not to leave out any detail, however unimportant you think it is. I'll ask questions when I need to..."


Jim went out the front door and stopped on the porch. The sidewalk was crowded with reporters now, all of them with microphones and cameras at the ready. The street behind them was cluttered with more news vans, antennae sprouting from their roofs. The reporters started shouting questions as soon as they saw him, so he cut across the lawn, climbed over the low wrought-iron fence, and strode quickly to the neighbor's front door.

He knocked, and the door opened the merest crack. A large, suspicious brown eye peered at him.

"Are you Sandra Kelly?" he asked, holding up his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison. I'd like to talk to Everett."

The door opened a bit more to reveal a short, sturdy woman with a firmness of jaw that suggested she would not suffer fools gladly. "She say it was okay?"

"If by 'she' you mean Mrs. Carrington, yes, she gave me permission."

The door opened completely and Mrs. Kelly quickly drew him inside before closing it again. "Vultures, the lot of 'em," she declared, glaring at the reporters through the lace curtains covering the decorative window in the door.

"Yes, ma'am," Jim agreed, opening his notebook. "Do you know the Carringtons well?"

She snorted, a derisive sound. "Not hardly. She's a twit, one of those la-de-dah country-club types who believes in a liquid lunch-- and I'm not talking diet soda, either. He's okay, I guess." She led him down a hall toward the kitchen. "Everett-the-dad is an accountant-- CPA. New money." Again, the derisive sound. "A few years ago, we would have called their type 'yuppies.'"

Jim jotted the word "Interlopers?" into his notebook. They reached the kitchen, a large, ultra- modern room with the arched entry to a formal dining room to the left and a smaller sun room to the right. The sun room was bright and cheerful with white wicker furniture and a multitude of potted plants. The view through the windows was of a well-established, lovingly tended garden lush with a wide variety of plants.

"Gardening's my hobby," Mrs. Kelly said when she noted the direction of Jim's gaze.

"Very nice," he murmured obligingly, following her through the sun room and out the French doors to an inlaid-brick patio. The furniture here was casual redwood, well cared for but aged to a golden patina. At a small table sat a boy and a young woman in the uniform of a paramedic.

Jim's first impression of young Everett was that the boy needed to get outside more. The kid was fleshy and pasty, his shoulders already drooping with the slump of someone who sits in front of a computer for too many hours. Jim had observed the soft doughiness of many of today's youngsters, and he dreaded to see what the generation would look like when it reached thirty.

He shoved this irrelevant thought aside and pulled out a chair to sit down across from the boy.

"You want me to leave?" the paramedic asked.

Jim shook his head. He gathered Everett and Mrs. Kelly weren't exactly close, and the boy seemed comfortable with the paramedic's presence.

"How're you doing, champ?" he asked quietly.

The boy raised his head and looked at him. Veiled, watery blue eyes peered out above pudgy, freckled cheeks. The skin around one of them was swollen and bruised. "They broke my glasses," he said, sounding bitter.

"Is your vision really bad or can you see me okay?" Jim asked calmly. "Do you have an extra pair Mrs. Kelly could get for you?"

Everett shook his head. "I can see okay."

"Fine." He glanced over his shoulder at Mrs. Kelly.

She took the hint. "I'll be inside making coffee and hot chocolate if anyone needs anything," she said, and went back through the French doors.

Jim put his notebook on the table. "Can you tell me what happened?"

Everett looked like he wanted to cry again. "There were four of them, dressed like hockey players."

"Did you recognize any of the teams?"

Everett thought for a minute. "One jersey was black and silver. That's the Kings, isn't it?"

"Yes, that's the Kings."

"Another had a jersey that said 'Hunter' on the back. It was red. Washington-something."

"Capitals?"

"Guess so." Everett clearly wasn't into sports. "Another one had a penguin on it, black and gold. Said Samuels."

Jim wrote that down. "What about the fourth?"

Everett didn't seem to care. "Dunno."

"Did you notice anything else about them?"

"They didn't have skates." The kid's face scrunched up. "One of 'em was wearing black Warrior Pros."

Jim made another notation. The athletic shoes were very expensive and favored among teens.

The rest of the questioning didn't produce much useful information. It was evident Everett had been too terrified to notice the details of his assailants.

Finally, Jim gestured toward the boy's shiner. "Which one of them hit you?"

"None of 'em." Everett looked sullen. "Got into a fight at school."

"Yeah? With who?"

"Andy Magliari." Everett's voice went tight with scorn. "Little wop retard."

Figuring Everett probably deserved his black eye, Jim closed his notebook without comment.

"Hey," the boy said, frowning, "they took my computer."

"I know."

"You gotta get it back."

Jim didn't figure there was much possibility of that. "I'm sure your folks have insurance."

Everett slumped with defeat. "You don't understand. My mid-term report was on that computer. It's due tomorrow, and I hadn't printed it out yet."

"I'm sure your teacher will give you an extension," Jim said, sympathetic until he remembered the 'wop retard' remark.

"You don't get it," the boy insisted unhappily, sounding miffed that Jim wasn't taking his plight more seriously. "I had all my notes and stuff on that computer. I'll never be able to put it all together again." With this pronouncement, he dropped his head onto his folded arms on top of the table and began to cry.


Joining up with Blair on the porch of the Carrington home, Jim led the way through the gauntlet of reporters. They reached the truck without answering any of the questions thrown at them, and closed the doors against the tumult with sighs of relief.

Cocooned in the relative peace and quiet of the truck cab, they compared their meager notes.

Blair didn't need to consult his notebook. "Mrs. Carrington remembered a couple of team colors and one of the names on a jersey: Hunter. And she saw a grey van parked up the street when she went out for the newspaper earlier this morning."

"Anything distinctive about it?"

"No. She said it reminded her of her gardener's van, except this one didn't have the name of the gardening service stenciled on the side."

Jim related his equally scant information. "Maybe Forensics will come up with something," he muttered when their discussion didn't produce any new ideas. He started the truck and put it into gear. "We'll get the report from Burglary on yesterday's home invasion. Maybe something will turn up when you plug all the bits into your trusty computer."

"I hope so." Blair didn't sound hopeful. "I really hate this sort of senseless crime."

They reached the precinct, and Jim parked in the underground garage. Before heading upstairs, he made certain to remove the remnants of their aborted breakfast from the truck and throw them away. He didn't want the odor of congealing grease to greet him the next time he climbed behind the wheel.

"You feeling any better?" he asked as they exited the elevator and headed for the bullpen.

Blair grimaced. "Jury's still out. I'm probably gonna need a couple of your antacid tablets to make sure the mystery patty stays down where it belongs." He still looked pale and tired.

"We'll go to that vegetarian place you like for lunch," Jim promised, a sure sign of his concern for his partner's well-being.

As soon as they'd entered the bullpen, Henri Brown jumped up from his desk. "Sandburg, you got those reports you promised me? I have to turn the whole file over to the DA in about an hour."

Blair stopped, his face going blank for a moment, and then his expression contorted with anger. "Dammit, Henri, why can't you compile your own damned statistics?"

"Because you said you'd do it," Brown shot back with cold logic, bridling at what he obviously considered an unwarranted attack.

Blair's recent mercurial temperament shifted again in an instant, and he suddenly looked on the brink of tears. Without a word, he turned and fled the bullpen.

Henri looked confused. "What the hell?"

Jim's own barely contained temper rose to the surface, and he'd taken one menacing step toward his concerned colleague before a sharp voice stopped him.

"Detective, my office." Captain Simon Banks didn't wait to see if his order was obeyed. His tone made it abundantly clear that obedience was the only option without dire consequences.

Taking a deep breath to quell his temper, Jim entered the captain's office and closed the door.

Simon settled behind his desk. "Sit down."

Jim sat.

"Okay, you want to tell me what the hell just happened out there?"

Jim shrugged, looking everywhere but at his superior. "Nothing. Just a misunderstanding."

"Uh-huh," Simon returned skeptically. "You were ready to start a brawl in the bullpen over a misunderstanding?"

Again, Jim could only shrug.

"What's wrong with your partner?"

This time, Jim's eyes met Simon's steady gaze. "What do you mean?"

"Dammit, Jim, there's something going on with you two and I want to know what it is. Sandburg's been off his game for weeks now. His paperwork is falling behind, his reports are getting sloppy-- I've caught you two arguing more than once. You've covered for him time and again. I know you're worried, and I want to know why."

"I--" Jim halted uncertainly, his shoulders slumping. "Blair hasn't been sleeping well," he admitted finally, standing up to pace the limits of the small office. "He seems distracted and forgetful." He paused at the window to stare down at the morning traffic. "Depressed."

Simon snorted. "Sandburg depressed?" he echoed with disbelief. When Jim didn't turn around, he added, "You're serious, aren't you?"

Jim nodded, but still didn't turn around or speak.

"And you think you know why?"

"I don't know why," Jim protested quietly. "But I'm wondering--" Abruptly, he turned and faced his friend. "What if Blair's starting to think he made the wrong decision about becoming a cop?"

"The wrong decision," Simon repeated softly, understanding. He sighed. "We really didn't give him much of a choice, did we?"

"No, sir, we didn't. I didn't." I took what was best for me and turned it around to make it what was best for him. It made sense at the time, and he went along because he probably couldn't see very many options at the time. What if it's finally catching up with him? Resolutely, Jim shoved aside his thoughts. Blair had lots of options, although none of them involved continuing as Jim's partner. And that's what scared him the most, that maybe he'd have to go forward alone with his sentinel senses. He hadn't zoned out in a long time, but still...

"Have you talked to him about it?"

"I've tried to get him to tell me what's wrong." His shrugged. "No, not really. And I haven't told him what I think might be wrong."

"Talk to him, Jim." Simon's tone indicated he wouldn't accept any other alternative. "Things can't go on like this. Talk to him now."

With a resigned nod, Jim left the captain's office and headed out in search of his partner. He didn't have far to look.

Blair was in the break room, preparing tea, when Jim found him.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry about all that." He sounded tired, and his words came out quiet and flat. He pulled a mug of hot water from the microwave and dunked a tea bag inside. As it steeped, he never lifted his eyes from his slightly lop-sided mug, a gift from a 4th grade class he'd helped last summer. "I don't know what's gotten into me lately."

Jim nodded, taking the opening. "We probably need to talk about it. Yuck, what's that smell?"

"Special herbal tea. Supposed to be good for stress."

Jim scrunched his nose and tried to filter out the obnoxious odor. If it helped his partner, he could live with the smell.

Discarding the used tea bag, Blair took a sip. He winced at the hotness of the liquid, then put the mug back down on the counter. "I'm just tired."

"I think there's more to it than that," Jim countered, then chickened out by adding, "Maybe you should see a doctor, get some tests."

Blair smiled slightly and sipped some more of his tea. "I feel like one of those plate spinners. I've got too many going at once, and now I don't know how to stop without bringing the whole lot crashing down."

"Yeah, but you used to thrive on that sort of workload," Jim pointed out.

"Maybe I'm just getting old."

This time, Jim returned the smile. "Over thirty now. Positively ancient."

Blair drained the mug with finality, rinsed it in the sink, and put it aside to dry. "I'm fine. Gimme your keys, will ya? I left my backpack in the truck, and I've got Henri's reports for him."

Obligingly, he handed over the requested keys. A moment later, Blair was off to run his errand.

Alone in the break room, Jim thumped a fist on the counter top in frustration. Their little discussion had accomplished absolutely nothing.


#

As promised, they lunched at Blair's favorite vegetarian restaurant. After an appetizer of spicy humus dip and chips, Jim selected the lasagna while Blair stuck with his preferred salad.

The food was excellent, but Jim noticed his partner spent more time shifting the food around on his plate than actually eating it.

"You know, you're gonna have to eat something to get your energy level up."

Blair grimaced. "I know. I guess the chips and hummus filled me up."

As a statement, it was impossible to refute, but Jim sensed an underlying sadness that had nothing to do with being tired or working too hard. "If something's bothering you, I wish you'd tell me what it is." Actually no, I don't. If you confirm what I'm afraid of, then we'll have to discuss it, and the last thing I want to talk about is you not being happy as a cop.

Blair didn't try to hide his annoyance. "There's nothing bothering me, Jim, except you. If you'd just stop with the mother-hen routine, I'd be fine. What's it gonna take to convince you to back off?"

The flash of belligerence was not so unusual lately, but Jim didn't respond to it. Instead, he figured he'd done his best. If Blair didn't want to discuss the problem, that was fine. They had a case to solve. Maybe when it was finished, they could take some time off, grab a little downtime at their favorite fishing hole.

"Okay. If you're finished, let's pay up and take a walk. It's too nice a day to spend indoors."

Blair sighed, as if reluctant to get back on his feet, but he cooperated without protest. Outside, the air was clear and warm with the promise of spring. Just a tiny bite remained to remind everyone that winter hadn't entirely surrendered its hold on the city.

They left the truck at the restaurant and strolled to a nearby park filled with people taking advantage of the weather. A hot dog vendor was enjoying a brisk business with the lunch crowd.

Jim wore only his shirtsleeves, but Blair kept his parka on for part of the walk before shedding it as the sun worked its magic. He didn't remove his flannel shirt, however, and Jim wondered how he could possibly be comfortable. Here in the bright noonday sunlight it was almost unseasonably warm. But he kept the question to himself.

"Did you get the report from Burglary?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I entered it into the database. With only the two samples-- the robbery yesterday and then today-- it's gonna be tough finding a meaningful clue. Both houses are in the same approximate locale, the families are very similar from a demographic standpoint, and they both use the same bank, the same supermarket, the same gardening service, and their kids go to the same school."

"Everett Carrington said something about school. He was pissed that the thieves got his computer. Apparently, his homework was on the hard drive."

Blair actually laughed. "What am I always saying about backups?"

Jim grinned. "Yeah, but I don't think Everett planned on maniacal hockey players stealing his PC."

"Maybe someone needs to put that in the user's manual, right after power outages and hardware failures." Blair suddenly stopped, breathing rapidly as if he'd suddenly run out of oxygen. "Sorry, man, do you mind if we stop for a minute? All this walking and talking on top of lunch has really worn me out."

"Sure." Jim felt his chest clench at the sight of his partner's pale features, glistening now with a fine sheen of sweat. What lunch? His partner hadn't eaten anything. "Here's a bench. Let's sit down."

Blair sank gratefully onto the wooden seat and draped his parka around him. At Jim's concerned look, he said, "I know, I know. You keep telling me how warm it is, and the thermometer in front of the bank keeps telling me how warm it is, but my body just isn't listening."

Jim placed his palm against his partner's forehead. "You don't have a fever. Still, this is weird, even for you. You're gonna make an appointment with the doctor and get yourself checked out, okay? No argument this time."

With a grimace, Blair nodded. "Maybe you're right."

Jim's cell phone rang then, and he answered it impatiently. "Ellison... what's up, Captain?" He listened for a minute, his expression tightening grimly, then disconnected the call. "Come on, Chief, there's been another one."

"Two in one day?" Blair stood up and put on his jacket. "Man, that's unbelievable. Same area?"

Jim nodded before setting off with long strides. "Just two blocks from the Carrington house."

Blair cursed and tried to keep up. "We probably still have cops at the other scene, dammit. Are these guys crazy or just nervy as hell?"

"Probably both," Jim answered.


"I want those people caught, and I want them caught now," yelled Mr. Sebastian Willard.

Willard was six-foot-three, built like a line backer, with a stern countenance that showed no humor, but Blair still found it difficult to take the man seriously. Under normal circumstances, the bank president was probably quite imposing and used to getting his way, but these weren't normal circumstances. Forced by the gang to dress up in a set of Osh Kosh Bigosh overalls, red undershirt, and a straw hat, the man looked simply ridiculous.

Blair cleared his throat to cover up the laugh that almost escaped and nodded. "Yes, sir. We're doing our best. Now, you have two sons who were not at home at the time?"

"No, of course not. They were in school."

"But your daughter was home. Why wasn't she at school?" Blair glanced through the archway into the expansive dining room where Officer Kline was interviewing a sobbing teenage girl. The girl was dressed in a short blue and gold knit skirt, white sweater, and saddle shoes, an outfit that reminded him of something...

"Are you even listening to me, young man?" Willard's voice had risen a notch and his face had turned an unhealthy shade of red. Kline turned at the sound and met Blair's eyes briefly, her scowl unmistakable.

"Yes, sir, I'm listening." Blair returned his eyes to his notebook-- scrawled almost illegibly at the top of the page he saw the answer to his own question. "Cheerleading. She was leaving this afternoon with the cheerleading squad to attend the State Cheerleading Championships." He barely remembered talking about it just a few minutes earlier. Damn, his concentration was shot all to hell. At least that explained the outfit. "But why was she home?" Ha! Way to cover up, Sandburg.

"They sent the girls home to change and get their luggage. We covered this before as well." Willard eyed Blair with derision and leaned back against the couch, arms crossed, going for a stance of controlled authority. Unfortunately, the back of the hat he'd apparently forgotten he was wearing hit the couch first and forced the floppy brim down over his face.

Blair snorted.

Willard yanked the hat from his face and flung it across the room. "I want your name and badge number, Detective!"

"Uh, I'm really sorry, man. It's--" Blair stopped, wondering now what he had just thought was so funny. Not bothering with obfuscations, excuses, or even profound apologies, he calmly gave Willard his name and badge number.

"Hey, Sandburg? A moment please?"

Saved by the Sentinel.

Jim motioned to him from the front hallway. Blair tossed Willard a hasty, insincere thank you and followed his partner outside.

"Sorry, man, I don't know what got into me. I just--"

Jim waved him off. "It's okay. These punks know what they're doing with this humiliation shit. The guy's over the edge."

"No kidding." He recalled the odd presence of a pitchfork in the corner of the living room. The bank president and his wife had been forced to pose a la American Gothic for the hockey player with the video camera. Not a picture Willard would be likely to hang in his bank. "You come up with anything?"

Jim had walked through the house and yard, using his senses to try to pick up any useful clues. From the frustrated clench of his jaw, Blair guessed it had been entirely unproductive. His partner shook his head. "No. Nothing useful, anyway. They broke in through the back door, like the others. I saw an oil spot on the driveway, and none of the Willard vehicles has a leak, but there wasn't enough of it to follow a trail. You talk to the wife?"

"No, Kline's partner-- uh, don't remember his name-- interviewed her. Lisa Kline was talking to the daughter who was like, way upset. I got Farmer Jones... sorry. Not professional."

Officer Kline chose that moment to join them on the front porch. She barely nodded to Blair but flashed a big smile at Jim. "Roberts is almost done, Detective Ellison. I know you'll be talking to them yourself, but do you want a brief rundown of the girl's statement?"

"Yes, that would be helpful." Jim nodded and smiled. Blair fought the urge to roll his eyes and sighed instead. Lisa had gone through the academy with him, and while they hadn't had a whole lot of interaction, what little he'd had was enough to tell him that she was smart, but rigid in her thinking. He had hoped that six months as a police officer would have forced some of that ego aside, but from the scathing looks she'd been tossing his way at this scene and the one that morning, she had a long way to go. Then again, he imagined a lot of his Academy colleagues were piqued-- okay, downright resentful-- that he'd gone straight from graduation to gold shield.

Jim's cell phone rang. Instead of interrupting Kline's summary, Jim simply dug into his pocket and handed the phone to Blair. This time Blair did roll his eyes.

"Sandburg."

"Sandburg? What are you... oh, never mind." Simon sounded thoroughly frustrated. "Are you and Ellison still at the Willard's home?"

"Yup, still here."

"Well, I just wanted to give you two a heads up. Ellen Willard is the sister of Brian Scott, the state senator. I've already had a call."

Blair huffed impatiently. "And...?"

"And?" Simon's voice was incredulous. "And Sandburg, I've got a state senator breathing down my neck. I want you and Ellison to put your blood and guts into solving this case."

"Well that's just great, sir." For God's sake! "Don't you think Jim and I are already putting our 'blood and guts' into this case? Do you honestly think we'll work harder just because the family's related to a senator?"

Agitated, Blair began pacing. The conversation between Kline and his partner had come to an abrupt halt.

"Sandburg, put Ellison on the phone, now."

"Simon, dammit, we're-- hey!"

Jim grabbed the cell phone with a look that brooked no argument. "Captain? Sorry, sir, we were just... yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, I know of Scott. We'll do our best." Jim snapped the phone shut and glared.

Before his partner could even say anything, Blair threw up his hands. "Great, Jim. Just great. Play their little political games. Obviously we're only supposed to work hard when important people are involved. Screw the everyday, ordinary people." He stalked off without another word and got in the truck, making sure he slammed the door good and hard.


Momentarily taken aback, Jim watched his partner's retreat with a faint scowl on his face. Kline, on the other hand, was gaping in open astonishment.

"What's up with your partner?"

Jim shrugged it off. I wish I knew. Out loud he said: "I don't know. He hasn't really been himself lately, but we've both been under a lot of stress."

"Really." Kline looked over at the figure slumped in the passenger seat of the truck with renewed interest. "Does he always call your captain by his first name?"

Jim side-stepped the question. "Look, could you and Roberts type up your witness statements ASAP and leave them on my desk this afternoon? You know where I sit?"

"Sure, Detective. And yes, I think everyone knows where you sit. But aren't you going to talk to them?"

"Maybe later. Right now I want to follow up on a few other things."

Kline's smile turned thoughtful when she glanced over at the truck again. "Of course you do."

Or maybe Jim just imagined it.


"Hockey players?" Henri's interest was definitely piqued. "I mean, I heard about the home invasions, but I thought the guys just wore hockey masks. You know, like Jason from the Friday the 13th movies?"

"No, full gear and uniform. Well, except for the skates, of course." Blair sat on the corner of Brown's desk and let his foot dangle.

"Each of the perps had a specific uniform and name. Since you're the big hockey buff around here, we thought we'd run the names by you. Maybe they mean something. We also need the stores where pro hockey jerseys can be purchased-- there can't be that many of them."

"Locally no," Henri agreed. "But they could've ordered them from anywhere off the internet, maybe from the team's very own sports shop."

"Damn." Blair kicked the desk in frustration.

Jim looked at the wall and sighed. "The hockey jerseys and maybe the gardening service are our only real leads right now."

Henri's interest hadn't diminished any. He leaned back in his chair and entwined his fingers behind his head. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Lay the names on me, babe. You're in my area of expertise."

"Right." Jim fished out his notebook. "Okay, the leader of our little gang used the name Hunter. Washington Capitals jersey."

"Dale Hunter. One of the better-known tough guys of the NHL. And yeah, he played for the Capitals up until last year. Went to Colorado mid-season, then retired."

Jim made a notation. Blair was absently fiddling with the pens and pencils in the mug on H's desk. "Samuels or Samuelsson, depending on which victim you talk to. But definitely a Penguin jersey."

Henri sat up for that one. "Must be Samuelsson. Could be Kjell or Ulf. Kjell isn't playing now, but Ulf still does. He's with... um, the Flyers now, I think. Red Wings before that and Rangers for a few years. He did play with Pittsburgh in the early 90s, and so did Kjell. But if they're going for tough guys, it's gotta be Ulf. Don't know why they chose the Pittsburgh colors for him, though, unless it's because that's when he picked up a couple of Stanley Cup Championships."

"Did Hunter play on a Championship team?" Blair asked, spinning a red pen between his fingers. Good, thought Jim. He is listening.

Thinking a moment, Henri finally shook his head. "Nah. Don't even think he came close. Third guy?"

"McSorley."

Henri nodded his head knowingly. "They're definitely going for the tough guys. McSorley just got the longest suspension ever in the NHL for whacking a guy in the head with his stick. Boston Bruins, right?"

Jim shook his head. "Kings. Definitely silver and black uniform."

"Yeah, okay, he played for the Kings most of his career. Again, late 80s, early 90s. Then a lot of teams since then, and a couple before then."

Jim scribbled a few more notes. "The last guy was the one running the video camera, and for obvious reasons, the victims didn't look at him much so we aren't certain of his name. But the gang did call each other by their hockey names-- Hunter, Mac, and Sam. If they're consistent, then the video operator's name was Ray."

"Team?"

"Oh." Jim shuffled through a few pages. "Again, we're not sure, but we got from a couple of victims that his jersey was medium blue and orange.

Henri rested his elbows on the desk and mouthed names to himself.

"Ha! Stumped, Brown. You owe me $10 Ellison," Rafe crowed from his desk.

But H didn't disappoint. "Rob! Rob Ray. Buffalo Sabres." He turned to the desk behind him. "You owe me lunch, Soccer Boy."

"Another tough guy?" Jim asked, steering back to the topic.

Henri turned back to Jim with a smug expression and nodded. "Big time. And he's been with Buffalo his entire career. Don't know why it took me so long to think of him."

"Sandburg!"

Blair stiffened at Simon's yell. Jim had wondered how long it was going to take before Simon realized they were back.

"Yeah, Si--, um, Captain?"

"My office. Now!" Simon's face and stony expression disappeared back inside. Blair's heart started pounding as he slid off the desk and stood up. Without even a backwards glance at Jim, he shuffled off to the lion's den.


Simon carefully observed his youngest detective as he entered the office, walking like a condemned man on his way to the gallows. He thought back to the conversation he and Jim had had earlier. The kid definitely didn't look happy.

"Sandburg, what the hell was that all about on the phone?"

Blair ran his fingers through his hair and didn't quite meet Simon's eyes. "I don't know, Captain. I just... I guess I didn't like the implication that some senator thought we'd work harder knowing he was a victim. His sister, anyway."

"That's not an excuse. You know how politics works." Simon looked faintly disappointed. "And you know how I work."

Numbly, Blair nodded, his hair obscuring most of his face.

"When you're on duty, I expect my detectives to behave professionally and I expect them to treat victims, however unreasonable their attitudes, with the utmost courtesy."

"Willard called you?" The young man didn't even look surprised. More like resigned.

Damn, could he be trying to get himself fired? Simon shook the thought away. His conversation with Jim had him looking for things that weren't there.

"Yes, Willard called me. You were only part of his list of complaints, so I don't think he's going to lodge anything official; he just needed to blow off steam."

Again, Blair nodded almost automatically.

"Am I clear, Detective? Professionalism. And I expect to be referred to as 'Captain' while you are on the job."

"Yes, Captain."

Thinking the following silence was permission to leave, Blair stood up and walked to the door. Simon couldn't stand it any longer.

"Sandburg... Blair..." he said, his voice doing a 180. The wide blue eyes turned to him, confused. "If there's anything you want to talk about, son, my door is always open."

Blair managed a small smile. "Yeah. But I'm fine, Simon, uh, Captain. Really." He left the office.

For the first time, Simon actually began to think that maybe Jim was right.


Jim rolled over one more time and sighed. The soft rustle of paper, barely audible to normal ears, sounded like a thousand paper bags being crumpled up by enthusiastic school children. That and the fact that his partner was up-- again-- at 3:30 a.m. kept Jim from sleeping himself.

When are you going to talk to me, Chief? he asked silently. You don't want to be a cop, we'll figure out something else.

A muffled expletive and the thwack of a thrown pen against the wall convinced Jim he would not get back to sleep tonight. He reached for his bathrobe and headed down the stairs.

Blair was sitting on the couch, head down, elbows on his knees, hands grabbing fistfuls of hair in frustration. Papers and files and notes were strewn about the coffee table, and several lay crumpled or ripped on the floor.

"Chief?"

"Sorry for waking you, man." Blair didn't even lift his head.

Jim slid past his legs and sat down next to him on the couch. "What are you doing?"

Blair unclenched his fists and lifted his head, sighing. "I was making a chart of the commonalties between each of the three crimes, based on the witness interviews and the research we did. There isn't enough to specifically define a pattern, but I thought something might, you know, pop out at me."

A legal-sized pad with a grid and tiny lettering meticulously placed in the squares sat on the coffee table. Jim picked it up. Across the top of the pad, Blair had listed each of the families. Down the right-hand side he had written items such as Bank, Home Security, Businesses, Hairstylists, Barbers, Grocers, School, Employment, Clubs, Landscapers, Domestic Service, Relatives, Friends, Items Taken, Items Destroyed, Victims, Victims Injured... and so on.

"Geez, Blair, this is great and all, but couldn't you have done it on your computer a lot more easily?"

A flicker of anger crossed the younger man's face but just as quickly went away. "Sometimes it helps to do things the old-fashioned way. And besides, I couldn't sleep. Needed to do something."

Jim decided not to follow up on that line of questioning again, so he continued to look through the list.

An hour later, both men had showered, eaten, and returned to the couch. Jim had made a pot of coffee and poured it into a large thermal carafe to sustain them through the early hours. So far they'd determined that the same gardening services were used at each home, the kids went to the same private school, they lived in the same general area of Redwood Estates, and the men all golfed at the same country club, though not together. Nothing else was consistent.

"Nothing!" Blair kicked the coffee table in disgust.

Jim frowned. "Not 'nothing'. We can follow up on the gardening service, the school, and the country club tomorrow, though the gardening service seems more likely than the others. I'm interested in that grey van Mrs. Carrington saw."

"Whatever."

"This is kind of odd, too." Jim pointed to the row of 'Items Destroyed.'

Blair read through the items listed and shrugged. "What?"

"Here, Louis Forsythe's research paper for his Biology Class on the 'Intelligence of Dolphins: Fact or Fiction' was thrown into the fire. Everett Carrington's mid-term paper was stored on his stolen PC."

Blair shook his head impatiently. "So?"

Jim blinked. "C'mon, Sandburg. How many home invasions have you heard of where the bad guys bother to destroy a kid's homework? And Marianne Willard was supposed to attend those Cheerleading Championships. Her mother said she'd been really looking forward to it."

A sudden, unpleasant laugh burst from Blair. "You think these home invasions are a... a cover-up by some kids to destroy homework? What, some bell-curve gang worried about their own grades? The 'cheerleader mom' thing all over again? That's hysterical, Jim."

"I agree." Jim pointed to Blair's own grid. "But there you have it. We should check to see if these kids are top in their class or not, and if they have rivals at the school. I admit it's a long shot, but it's worth checking out along with the landscape service and the country club."

"Okay, okay. I admit it is kind of a strange coincidence. Hey, this is Friday morning, right? As a former teacher, I can tell you that most papers are due Fridays and Mondays. Why don't we go cruise the 'Estates' and see if we can spot that grey van? Maybe the gang is out trashing some poor kid's American History paper."

Looking at his watch, Jim realized there was no way either of them would be going back to bed. They'd already dressed and eaten, and there were still about four hours to kill before work. "All right, couldn't hurt I suppose. But we're stopping at the all night grocery store for donuts."

Blair didn't argue. "Your arteries, man. I'm going to get a sweater."

Jim twisted his neck and stretched, feeling overtired and stiff. As he stood up, he automatically collected the rejected pages of Blair's earlier efforts scattered around the floor, along with the thrown pen over behind the television.

My God... The crumpled page in his hand was in Blair's neat, steady handwriting until about halfway down, then the penmanship turned into a heavy, childish scrawl. The pen had been held so hard that the point had ripped through the paper in several places. Shifting that page to the bottom of the stack, he saw that the next one was similar, and the next. Each started out neatly, and ended up a scrawled mess. If Jim had been a religious man, he would have thought his partner was possessed by demons.

"You ready?"

Jim jumped. He hadn't even heard Blair return. "Yeah." He dropped the pen on the coffee table, and folded the pages tightly together, sticking them in his jacket pocket as he put it on. "Let's go."


When they reached Redwood Estates, Jim turned his lights off and used his enhanced vision to watch for oncoming traffic. A bright half-moon in the clear night sky offered enough light for even Sandburg to observe the neighborhood, and they both diligently scanned their respective sides of the street for a grey van.

"Any ideas for a starting point?" Jim asked as he swung the Ford up a side street.

Blair shrugged, his forehead pressed wearily against the window.

Jim shook his head slightly and pulled onto another street. The other three invasions were within a ten block radius of each other, so he kept to that general area, starting with Cedar Avenue.

Thirty minutes later, Blair sat up and squinted. Jim followed his line of sight and saw a grey van sitting in the driveway of a dark blue cape-style house with an expensively manicured lawn. The van had no windows in the back, like a delivery van, and the license plates were conveniently covered. A soft light shone in the large picture window on the first floor, but the drapes were drawn tightly closed. Another light flickered in an upstairs window.

"That a grey van?" Blair asked, his eyes showing some of the excitement that had been lacking in recent weeks.

Jim nodded. The street was a cul-de-sac with a high privacy fence bordering the homes from behind. The blue house was third from the end on the right, and Jim crept the truck closer, parking in front of the house next door. By the time he'd stopped, the light in the upstairs window had disappeared. He turned off the ignition and listened. Whimpering, the crackling of a fire, movement, crying, a man saying softly "For God's sake", doors closing, "Shut up!" followed by the sound of something striking flesh, more crying--

"Come on." Jim's eyes narrowed as he removed his gun and exited the truck, softly shutting the door. Blair was right beside him. A few seconds later, the front door opened and three shadowy, bulky figures spilled out, laughing and carrying plastic-handled grocery bags.

"Shit," Jim mumbled with no small amount of frustration. Crouching, he aimed toward the oblivious group, noting his partner doing the same. "Stop, Cascade Police!" he called out.

The group froze for a moment, then broke into a run, heading straight toward the van.

"Shit!" Jim said it much less quietly this time. He holstered his gun and ran back toward the truck. He'd never had any intention of firing on heavily padded perps armed only with hockey sticks and grocery bags, but he'd hoped the gun would prompt them to surrender without a fight. One of the perps at the Carrington house had a gun shoved in the waistband of his pants, but it had yet to be used or aimed at someone. In spite of the absence of obvious long-range weapons, he was pleased that Blair kept his gun trained on the group, watching Jim's back while he got the Ford.

"Sam! Come on!" someone called out as the van doors opened and the men scrambled inside. The fourth, straggling member ran down the steps, only to twist his ankle against a brick on the walkway. Jim started the truck, flicked on the lights, and gunned the engine. One of the men in the van tried to get out to help his fallen comrade. Jim tried to take advantage of the delay, but the man was jerked back inside by his more practical comrades.

The van took off. The abandoned perp got to his feet and ran off on foot, limping, in the opposite direction. He disappeared around the back of the house. Waving his hand for Jim to go on, Blair took off after the lone suspect. Jim spun a 180 in the tight cul-de-sac and took off in pursuit of the van. Calling for backup was almost an afterthought.


By the time Blair reached the back of the dark blue house, he was gasping almost to the point of hyperventilation. Pausing a moment to look around, he leaned over, hands on his knees, and took deep breaths.

There.

The injured man was on the far side of the yard, nearer to the next house, trying to climb over the privacy fence by hoisting himself up a well-developed maple tree with branches that overhung the yard on the next street over. It couldn't have been easy with the mask and padded uniform and an injured foot. Easy collar. Might as well have the guy wrapped up with a red ribbon.

Blair's breathing became slightly more controlled, and he ran toward the same tree. The suspect must have heard him coming because he snapped his head around and promptly lost his balance, falling hard to the ground.

"Cascade Police," Blair gasped out.

The guy seemed to be in full panic mode. Instead of surrendering, he scrambled to his feet and took off toward the end of the cul-de-sac, Blair right behind him. They rounded the back, the man cutting through the yard between the next two houses and lengthening his lead.

God, Sandburg. Turn thirty and you can't even keep up with an over-clothed suspect running on a bum leg. Blair's chest heaved with the effort and the muscles in his thighs and stomach started trembling. Pausing another moment to try and get his body under control, he suddenly realized he'd completely lost sight of the guy.

"Great. Just great," he said out loud. Sucking in a lungful of air, he collapsed wearily to his shaking knees and tried to figure out what the hell he was going to tell Jim.


The van in front took a left on two wheels, and Jim followed in perfect imitation. The day had become perceptively brighter as the sun made its way toward the horizon, and he began to worry about early morning joggers, bikers, and the paper delivery kids.

They had left Redwood Estates and were zipping their way toward the business district of upper Cascade. Jim was trying to figure out the streets ahead, wondering if he could cut through somewhere and head off the van, when suddenly he went into a vicious skid, spinning sideways and turning almost completely around before slamming into the curb. He spun the wheel in frustration and tried to back up, but the protesting shriek of metal against pavement told him that he'd popped a tire. Slamming his palms hard against the steering wheel, he looked up in time to see the grey van disappear around the corner. He listened to the distinctive motor until it had traveled beyond Sentinel hearing.

Damn.

Well, at least by now Sandburg had one of the suspects in custody.


#

Blair looked up from his slumped position on the sidewalk when the blue Ford pulled onto the street. It had been almost forty minutes since his partner had taken off in pursuit, and he'd started to worry. The uniforms had arrived just as Blair was stumbling his way back to the blue house to check on its occupants; he'd joined them for the preliminaries, then returned outside to wait for his partner before doing any interviews. One of the victims left in an ambulance, an older brother this time, severely beaten around the face and stomach. He hoped Jim had had better luck in his pursuit.

One look at his partner's face said otherwise. Jim slammed his way out of the truck and joined Blair as he stood up.

"Flat tire," he explained with his usual Spartan choice of words. Blair glanced at the rear passenger wheel and saw the old, nearly bald spare fastened in place.

"You all right?" he asked.

Jim just nodded, his face a mask of undiminished fury. "At least you got one of them. He already been taken to booking by a uniform?"

Blair shifted uncomfortably. He didn't know exactly what to tell Jim, because he wasn't sure what had happened himself. Running his hand through his hair, he looked at his partner and shook his head.

"He, uh, got away."

Jim stopped his pacing and looked Blair full in the eyes, his expression unreadable. "He got away."

Blair nodded miserably.

Turning around, Jim slammed his fists against the hood of the truck, every muscle rigid, as he tried to get his emotions under control. "Just tell me, Sandburg, how a small man wearing hockey pads and running on a badly twisted ankle could get away." To his credit, he didn't yell.

"I don't know." Blair tried to reenact the pursuit in his mind, wondering why it had gone so wrong. "I stopped to catch my breath and--"

"Stopped to catch your breath! A lousy 50 yards--" he waved a hand in the general direction of the privacy fence "--and you were winded!" Jim's disappointment was palpable.

"I--I'm sorry, I just... my muscles cramped and--"

"Geez, Sandburg, the suspect's ankle was sprained or broken and he seemed to manage."

Blair had had enough. "God dammit, Jim, I'm not a supercop like you, okay? I can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, and I don't have biceps the size of bowling balls." His anger was hitting him full force now. "Maybe you can chase suspects for miles over nails and broken glass and probably water, too, without getting winded but I can't, okay? I'm just a short anthropologist trying to do the best I can."

Jim looked like he'd just been kicked in the gut. Blair swallowed, the anger suddenly gone, and wondered at the lost expression on his friend's face. Neither man spoke, but Jim's face had gone stark white and he looked kind of... panicked.

Bewildered, Blair reached out. "Jim, I--"

Abruptly, Jim turned on his heels and headed for the house. "We have witnesses to interview, Sandburg," was all he said.


The bad boys of hockey had not strayed from their MO. The most recent victims, the Smythe family, experienced the same humiliation and property destruction as the others. Theo Smythe, a fourteen-year-old who attended the same private school as the other three teens, had been forced to strip and don a pair of bright red speedos. Sam-the-hockey-player had then taken several Polaroid snapshots of Theo in various macho positions (the machismo lessened slightly due to the tears streaming down his face) and placed them in an envelope stamped and pre-addressed to the girl he had a crush on. One Polaroid had been left on the floor, and mortification didn't begin to cover the expression on the chubby, underdeveloped boy's face.

Reggie Smythe, a 19-year-old attending his first year at Rainier, had tried repeatedly to defend his brother and then later his mother when she had been forced to wear the clown make- up; their father had died three years previously. Reggie had taken a stick to his stomach and more than one fist to his face for the effort.

It occurred to Jim, not for the first time, that these home invaders seemed to know an awful lot about the families they terrorized. He thought back to Blair's grid and its common denominators, and discovered that the Smythes, too, used the same gardening service.

Which is why he and Blair were now driving through upper Cascade, ocean side, to interview the owner of Exterior Designs, Bert Jeffries.

"The tedious side of detective work," sighed Blair as they pulled onto a long driveway that led to a small brick building. The lawn and trees surrounding the office couldn't have offered a better advertisement. The healthy dark green grass wove itself in and among a seemingly random scattering of maple, oak, and white birch trees. The edge of the building and the larger sheds behind were tastefully bordered with redwood chips and 'dusty miller', a strong green weed with silver highlights that was extremely difficult to kill, but obviously manageable if you knew what you were doing.

Jim spoke carefully, but tried to keep his tone light. "You tired of detective work already, Chief?"

"Yes. No. I mean, today is just turning into one of those days where we do interview, after interview, after interview, and then we get to go back to the station and write them all up into reports."

"Not quite the roller coaster ride you thought it was?" Jim asked cautiously.

Blair frowned. "What's with you, man? I was just making a simple observation, not a blanket commentary on your career choice."

Your career choice. Ouch. Jim parked next to the door. "Sorry." They got out of the truck.

"Hey look." Blair poked him in the ribs. A white van pulled out from a large garage behind the office building and headed off down the drive.

"It's white," Jim pointed out unnecessarily.

"Yeah, but isn't that the same model as the one we saw this morning? And no windows in the back."

Jim nodded. He eyed the van more closely as it sped past. Definitely the same model. There was another van, this one grey, parked nearby, but it was too well kept to be the one he had pursued in the pre-dawn hours. However, as he strolled past it, he fingered the Exterior Designs logo on the driver's door. The corner pulled up easily. The sign was magnetic, and could be removed or replaced in seconds.


The first thing Blair noticed as they entered the office were the plants. Sitting, hanging, standing, the flora presented greens of every hue and leaves of every texture; they were everywhere. He half expected Jim's spirit guide to pop out and lead them to the Temple of the Gardner.

The second thing he noticed was Bert Jeffries, a short, bald, scruffy man with a stubby cigar smoldering in his mouth. He was dressed in green army pants and a well-worn short-sleeved shirt that allowed the tattoos on his forearms to be seen easily. One was of a mermaid, and the other had a snake slithering through the letters E D N A.

"Mr. Jeffries," Jim said. "I'm Detective Ellison and this is my partner, Detective Sandburg."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Jeffries sat back down at his desk after greeting them at the door. He had books and accounting printouts all over his desk. A stained coffee mug near his hand read Exterior Designs: We Charge by the Yard. "I'm trying to get stuff to my accountant for the taxes, so make it quick."

Jim was never one to mince words. "We understand your company does the gardening for many of the residents of Redwood Estates."

"The hell we do."

"I beg your pardon?"

Jeffries stood and leaned against the front of his desk, the cigar between a thumb and forefinger. "We're 'landscape artists', not gardeners." He gestured through the window at the expanse of his corporation. "This look like the business of a freakin' gardener to you, mack?"

Jim smiled politely as he pushed the cigar-holding hand away from his face. "You started this business, didn't you?"

"Damn straight I did. Soon as I left the Marines." Jeffries suddenly grinned and returned the cigar to his mouth. "What can I say? I gotta green thumb."

"And you have a contract with certain residents at Redwood Estates?"

"What of 'em?"

"I'm sure you've heard about the recent home invasions on the news. Are you aware that all four families victimized are customers of yours?"

"Listen, mack, we service about 70% of Redwood Estates, and a lotta other folks besides. We're damn good at our job and in high demand. Got a waiting list as long as your Aunt Fanny's muffler."

Blair watched the by-play between the two men and felt like he should be contributing somehow. On the other hand, Jim seemed to be doing just fine. Mostly, he wondered who Edna was.

"What about your employees? Would they have any reason to hold a grudge against any of these families?"

"My employees are mostly family. Three sons, a daughter, coupla nephews and my cousin's kid. They don't hold no grudges."

"What about money? There were some pretty expensive items stolen during the invasions."

"Listen, mack--" The cigar was back in Jeffries hand and poking Jim in the chest. "You ever hear of Orwin Montagna?"

"Yes." Jim's eyes narrowed. "He's one of the most prestigious landscape architects in the state of Washington."

"That's right." Jeffries grinned and rocked back on his heels. "His guys do my yard."


Blair was right about one thing: this part of detective work was tedious. After they finished up with Jeffries and had a tour of his facilities, they grabbed a late lunch at a local Friendly's. Even though they hadn't eaten anything since the early morning doughnuts, Blair only ate a quarter of his turkey club sandwich. Not wanting to start another fight, Jim didn't bother to point this out. The disastrous early morning pursuit was specifically ignored as well.

Henri called after they were back on the road to announce that the hockey jerseys were a dead end. None of the local stores custom-made jerseys for specific players unless they were current stars, and then only for the player's present team. An Ulf Samuelsson Pittsburgh sweater or a Marty McSorley Kings sweater would have to have been purchased in the early '90s, or at a yard sale or second-hand store. Too hard to track down.

Which left next to no leads at all on this case. Following up on Everett Carrington's skimpy lead was a long shot at best, but it had just moved higher on their priority list.


Blair didn't show much interest as he gazed through the windshield at the narrow, winding road stretching before them. "Not that I don't appreciate cruising through the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but where are we going again?"

The pickup was climbing the foothills immediately to the northeast of Cascade. Hillside Drive was the only road into this old, stately section of the city. For someone to say they lived on Hillside meant more than a street address; it was a testimony to the elite status and enormous wealth contained within the mansions and estates gracing the neighborhood. The lots here were large, seldom less than 2 acres, and each estate was hidden by lush landscaping and curving driveways.

Jim glanced across the wide seat. "You didn't learn much about the Magliari family at the Academy, did you?"

His partner shook his head. "No, today it's the Russian mafia, Jamaican gangs, and Colombian drug cartels. I know the Magliari's were notorious back in the '40s and '50s, and really hit their height during the old bootlegger days."

"Right." Jim turned into a drive that wound between tall evergreens and perfectly trimmed deciduous trees and pulled the truck into an empty parking lot. A three-story mansion rose in stately splendor to their right, while the view to the left was of immaculate gardens showcasing a vista that included all of Cascade and the Puget Sound beyond.

Blair took in the views to either side. "Isn't this the Museum of Modern Art, Jim? I never knew you went in for this sort of stuff."

"Very funny, Sandburg," Jim returned mildly. "Yes, this is the Museum of Modern Art, but back in the '60s it was the home of the Magliari family. Except for the parking lot, it hasn't changed much."

"Wow." Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "I guess crime really does pay."

Jim put the truck in gear and circled around the parking lot to leave. "In the short-term, I guess it does. I think the grandfather is the last living reminder of their criminal days. But the family lost everything when the FBI finally managed to nail them. I was only six or seven at the time, so I don't remember much about it. I do know the three sons salvaged what they could and went legit."

"And we're going to see one of those sons today, right?" Blair asked as they started down Hillside Drive again. "Father of Andy, the one who got into a fight with Everett Carrington and gave him a black eye?"

Jim didn't miss the tone of doubt in Blair's voice. "Yeah, it's a long shot, I know. But it just seems odd to me that the children of the victimized families all attend the same private school, while their neighborhood is predominantly made up of families who send their kids to public school."

"Yeah, it is kind of a coincidence, I guess," Blair agreed with a sigh. He looked at the tidy, upper-middle-class homes as they once again entered Redwood Estates. "These homes are expensive, but it must seem like slumming after living on Hillside."

Jim parked at the curb and studied the well-kept home they'd come to visit. "Looks like they've adapted okay to their new lifestyle."

They sauntered up the walk to the front porch, and Jim rang the bell. The door was answered by a woman of about 50, whose comfortable roundness was probably the result of sampling the source of the sweet baking aromas that wafted around her like perfume. "Police officers," she said with a grin. "Lord, we haven't been raided since 1971. Come on in and have some coffee and cinnamon rolls."

Startled by her cheerfulness, Jim still dutifully held up his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison, and this is my partner, Detective Sandburg."

"I'm Rosie Magliari," the woman said, waving them inside. "Grandpa's upstairs if you need to talk to him. What did he do? Assault someone with his walker?"

Jim smiled slightly. "Still gets around, does he?"

She led the way into a large, sunny kitchen and gestured for them to sit at the counter. A nearby table was already laid with plates and napkins. "Lord, yes. I try to keep an eye on him, but he manages to sneak out at least once a week." She smiled fondly as she poured coffee without asking and prepared two plates of warm, oozing cinnamon rolls. She placed one of them on the counter along with a handful of napkins, then served the coffee. "He's quite senile, you know. Talks about nothing but the old days. Silly old fart." Turning toward the kitchen door, she raised her voice to a level worthy of a drill sergeant. "Antonio! Christina! Andrew! After school snack," she added for the sake of her guests. "Help yourselves. I made plenty."

She continued dinner preparations without missing a beat, peeling potatoes and adding them to a large pan containing a roast. "Are you questioning everyone about the break-ins?"

Jim wasn't sure what he'd expected from his first encounter with a member of the notorious Magliari family, but it certainly wasn't this cheerful, motherly woman who didn't appear to harbor any bad feelings about the past. "Your husband is Roberto, Senior, is that correct?"

Rosie nodded and steered the first offspring, a girl of about fourteen who apparently took her fashion tips from either Morticia Addams or Elvira, into a chair at the table. After making certain her waif-thin daughter was actually going to consume something, she turned to answer Jim's question. "That's right. The only one of the Magliari men who never went to prison." She laughed. "I think that bothers him sometimes. Even his two older brothers did some time when the law finally caught up to us." Her smile faltered for the first time. "You can't want to talk to him. He's been in Boston at a conference since last Saturday."

"No." Jim struggled to ignore the gooey temptation of the cinnamon rolls and focus on the case. "Actually, we'd like to talk to you and Andy in private, if we could?"

The look she gave him was full of suspicion, but she also didn't appear to be a woman with anything to hide. "All right. Let's go into the living room."

As they started to step through the kitchen door, Jim almost collided with a tall, gangly teenager; his belligerent scowl so much a part of his everyday expression that his forehead had actually formed a permanent crease.

"Excuse me," Jim said politely, casually glancing down.

Warrior Pros. Everett Carrington had said one of the home invasion crew had been wearing Warrior Pros. In and of itself, this meant little, since the shoes were the footwear of choice for older teens. Still...

"Nice shoes," he said, nodding toward the floor.

"Friend gave 'em to me. You hasslin' my mom?" the kid asked, deliberately getting in Jim's face. Too old to be Andrew, Jim guessed this was Antonio.

His friendly expression never faltered. "Just canvassing the neighborhood about the recent break-ins. I don't suppose you heard or saw anything suspicious?"

Antonio stepped back a pace, even though he tried hard to keep his eyes from sliding away from Jim's steady gaze. "No, man, just heard about 'em on the news, that's all."

Jim let the moment stretch, then smiled. "Okay, thanks. You'll be sure to let us know if you hear anything, won't you?"

"Sure, man, whatever." The teenager turned his back and entered the kitchen.

Blair hadn't missed the by-play. "Something there, you think?"

Jim shrugged. "Maybe." If there was, the evidence was too scant to pursue at the moment.

They joined Rosie Magliari in the living room. A moment later, a staccato pounding on the stairs heralded the arrival of a small whirlwind that launched through the room and almost reached the kitchen before Rosie's stern voice put on the brakes. "Andrew, these gentlemen are from the police. They'd like to speak with you."

The whirlwind stopped and became the figure of a boy. Andy was extremely thin, and the thick glasses perched on his nose gave him the appearance of an energetic owl. Dressed in jeans and an old flannel shirt several sizes too big for him, he hadn't quite managed to get the sleeves rolled up enough to expose his hands.

Rose tut-tutted as she straightened her youngest son's clothing.

Andy fidgeted with embarrassment. "Don't fuss, Mom," he pleaded quietly. When she had him assembled to her satisfaction, he escaped her clutches and walked over to stand in front of Jim and Blair, his expression curious. "Hi," he said shyly.

Blair caught the slight nod from Jim and took the lead. "Hi, Andy. My name's Blair, and this is my partner, Jim. We're police officers checking into the recent break-ins in the neighborhood."

"Yes, sir," Andy acknowledged, sidling away when his mother tried to hover protectively. "Louis' and Everett's houses."

"You're friends with both of them?"

Andy frowned. "No. They're friends with each other."

"But not your friends."

"No." The boy appeared to engage in an internal debate for a minute. "They pick on me sometimes."

"Pick on you?" Blair prompted gently.

"Yeah." Andy sighed. "Sometimes."

"You got into a fight with Everett Carrington, didn't you?"

Rosie stepped up beside her son. "The other boy started it. He insulted Andy."

"It's all right, Mrs. Magliari," Jim said smoothly. "From what little I heard, I think I would have been tempted to throw a punch or two myself."

"What was the fight about, Andy?" Blair continued.

"Nothing, really," Andy said after a pause. "Our midterm papers are due today, and Everett said I was gonna flunk."

Theo Smythe had a midterm destroyed in this morning's break-in. Jim frowned. "Does he tease you a lot about your school work?"

Looking ashamed, Andy nodded. "Everett and his friends. Last week, he threw my homework down a storm drain."

"Did that upset you?"

"A little, I guess." He smiled proudly. "But I had it on disk, too. I printed out another copy when I got to school. I got a B-plus on it."

"What about Marianne Willard? Or Theo Smythe? Do you know them?" Jim asked.

Andy nodded, his face reddening. "Theo likes to push me into the girl's room. Once he took my clothes away after I took a shower in gym."

"Is Marianne mean to you?"

"Not so much." Andy shrugged. "She said she'd go to the first dance with me, but she was just joking."

"How long have you been going to the Huntsville Academy?" Blair asked.

"This is my second semester."

Rosie put her hands on her son's shoulders and squeezed comfortingly. "It's the first year we've been able to afford to send one of our children there," she added proudly. "Everyone's working hard to help with the tuition. Even Antonio, my oldest son living at home, gives half his earnings to help pay Andrew's way."

Blair nodded, but kept his attention focused on Andy. "Do they ever tease you about your grandfather, what he used to do?"

"You mean being a gangster and all?" Andy nodded. "Yeah, all the time."


Jim and Blair had long since given up on their dreams of a leisurely dinner and an early night. Instead, they returned to the precinct to fill out the never-ending parade of paperwork required to document a case.

At least the bullpen was quiet, although the silence building between them was almost palpable. It was nearly midnight when they finally finished the reports and stopped at yet another quick food place for a late dinner. Straggling home for hot showers and some much-needed rest, both men went to bed thankful they'd get at least six hours of sleep.

As usual, it was not to be. The demanding clamor of the phone dragged Jim up from sleep after what seemed like only moments since putting his head on the pillow. Muttering curses, he fumbled for the phone and managed to get the receiver to his ear. "Ellison." His tone lacked its usual authority, sounding more like a sleepy sigh.

"Sorry to wake you, Jim," came Simon's apologetic voice.

The captain sounded tense, and Jim strove to wake up. "What's happened? Has the hockey gang struck again?"

"No, something else. But I need you both down here."

He managed to focus on his bedside clock. Seven o'clock. "Dammit, Simon, it's Saturday morning. We just got home a while ago. Can't it wait?" Then again, he figured he already knew the answer. Simon Banks wouldn't be calling from his office on a Saturday morning unless it was important.

"Sorry, Jim, but it can't. Get here when you can."

After disconnecting, Jim sat up and glared at the phone. It didn't lessen his irritation any, so he finally climbed out of bed, struggled to get his foggy brain to communicate with his limbs in order to don his bathrobe, and trudged downstairs to start coffee.

At first, he really didn't look forward to waking Blair, but his roommate was obviously not sleeping peacefully. The restlessness didn't sound like a nightmare, at least there was no mumbling or groaning. Instead, he was tossing and turning almost violently.

Jim softly entered the room and placed a hand on his loftmate's shoulder. "Chief, wake up."

Blair shot to his feet, a half-cry escaping before he'd come fully awake. He swayed precariously for a moment, then blinked and stared at an equally stunned Jim. "What? What happened?"

Jim shook his head, concern creasing his brow. "Nothing. I just wanted to wake you up."

"Oh." Blushing, Blair ran his hands through his tangle of hair. "I'm awake."

"Yeah, no kidding. Simon needs us down at the precinct. I've got the coffee started. Why don't you grab the first shower?"

"Right." Blair still looked disconcerted after his abrupt awakening. "Shower. Right." He stumbled out the door toward the bathroom.


Unless a big case was being investigated, the bullpen was frequently quiet on the weekend. A small complement of detectives caught the overflow of cases and investigated anything new that came in, but the administrative support staff and other officers who routinely flowed through the doors were not generally called upon to work the weekend shift.

A few detectives were busy at their desks, but much of the routine follow-ups in a case couldn't take place in the early hours, so the rest of the shift wouldn't show up until later.

Jim exchanged casual greetings with everyone as he headed directly for Simon's office. His single knock was followed by a brisk, "Enter!" With Blair behind him, he stepped into the office and shut the door.

"You wanted to see us, sir?"

Simon looked tired and rumpled, a condition almost completely alien to his normal sartorial care. "Sit down." Behind him, his coffee maker exuded the rich, deep aroma of expensive coffee beans.

When Jim and Blair were seated, the captain got straight to the point. He looked at Blair. "Someone's lodged a complaint."

Jim's jaw clenched, but Blair took the news with remarkable calm. "Willard?"

Simon shook his head. "Not Willard. The complaint came from within the department and went directly to IA."

Now Blair looked surprised. "IA? Why?"

The captain didn't answer, clearly finding the whole matter distasteful. "IA doesn't confide in me, Sandburg." He sighed. "They need you to take a drug test."

Blair was a half-second behind Jim as both men came to their feet.

Jim's voice was hard enough to break glass. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Blair's tone was more incredulous but no less angry. "Simon, you can't be serious!"

"Calm down, both of you!" Simon waited, his expression grim, until the other two realized more information wouldn't be forthcoming until they obeyed his order. When he felt sufficient sanity had been restored, he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his desk. "Sandburg, we all know it's a crock, all right? But a charge has been made, and it has to be addressed."

"Yeah, but who--?"

"IA doesn't release that information. Look, this sort of thing happens a lot. We work in a volatile profession; feelings get hurt, so someone complains to the wrong people, in this case IA. They're required to look into the charges."

Blair shook his head, bewildered. "Drugs?"

Simon sighed. "These charges are bogus, and we all know it. But come on, Sandburg, even you have to admit you haven't exactly been acting like yourself lately."

Jim bristled all over again. "That doesn't give anyone the right--"

"Unfortunately, in this department, it does," Simon interrupted smoothly. "Believe me, Sandburg, this is all routine. I want you to get a drug test this afternoon. The results will be in by Monday or Tuesday, so you won't even miss much work."

Blair was doing a credible impression of Jim's jaw-clenching. "What about the case?"

"Take the files home with you if you like."

"So I am suspended."

Simon scowled, not pleased at having fallen into Blair's verbal trap. "It's called a paid administrative absence, not suspension. It'll just be for a few days, until we get this mess cleared up."

Slowly, like a man caught in a bad dream, Blair took out his gun and shield and laid them gently on the captain's desk. "I guess you'll be wanting these."

"Sandburg--" Simon gave up, scrawled on a piece of paper, and handed the note to Blair. "I already made the appointment for you. It's this afternoon with a department-approved lab. Take the test, go home, and relax. I'll call you Monday, and you can get back to work."

Blair hardly glanced at the slip before thrusting it into his shirt pocket. "Yeah, pretend it never happened." His tone was bitter. "We seem to do a lot of that around here." With that parting shot, he turned his back and left the office.

Jim stood rock-still for a moment. Confusion, anger, guilt, and a touch of fear all vied for control of his expression. "Jesus, Simon--"

The captain help up a placating hand. "Don't you over-react, too, Jim. Did you ever have that talk with him?"

Looking numb, Jim just shook his head.

"Then maybe this weekend would be a good time for it. What do you think?"

Jim sighed. "Maybe."

Simon waved him toward the door. "Now, take your partner home, and then get back here. We've still got a vicious home-invasion crew to bring down."

"Yes, sir."


In the bullpen, everyone was working a little too quietly, their attention focused too intently on their tasks. There was an awkward tension in the air as colleagues wrestled with the urge to offer support or give Blair some personal space.

As Jim walked up behind his partner, Blair savagely thrust some file folders into his backpack with enough force to bend the cardstock covers.

"Easy, Sandburg, we don't want to sacrifice another tree to this case, do we?" he said lightly. When Blair ignored him and continued shoving things into his pack, Jim added, "Simon was right, you know. You just pissed someone off, and this is payback time."

Blair stopped long enough to scowl at him. "It was Lisa Kline; she's been batting her eyes in your direction for weeks. What the hell did you tell her, man?"

Jim looked nonplussed. "Kline? I didn't say anything-- batting her eyes at me?"

"We went through the Academy together. She's smart, but she has a real rigid view of life. Her brother O.D.'d, and ever since then she's been on a personal crusade to rid the world of drugs."

Jim nodded thoughtfully. "Okay, she saw you a few times when you weren't at your best. Why would she automatically assume drugs?"

"That's what I'm saying, Jim. Lisa's obsessed with rooting out drug abuse. She sees it around every corner." He shoved some more folders into the already straining pack.

"Fine. Then IA probably has her on file for other complaints already. You're gonna take a simple drug test, Chief. Don't let it get to you."

Blair was breathing hard and his face was livid as he turned and glared at Jim. "This may be old hat to you, Jim, but I'm still new at this back-stabbing business."

"I don't know. I think the University did a pretty good job of shafting you," Jim returned, speaking mildly but regretting the words as soon as he said them. He was skating too close to a subject he'd been determined to avoid these past several months: Blair's apparent depression over becoming a police officer.

If anything, Blair's expression hardened even further. "Yeah, and I seem to recall you were pretty handy with the knife long about that same time."

Oh, shit. "Chief--"

Time abruptly shifted into fast motion, blurring into a sequence of images that Jim would never be able to accurately reassemble. The exception was those first moments, which would be forever etched into his memory with vivid clarity. Those moments were the second-worst of his life...

First, his hearing spiked. For a mind-wrenching instant, the various sounds of the bullpen blended into one horrendous cacophony. Then, his hearing narrowed until he was consumed only by the sound of a heart accelerating raggedly out of control.

Blair's face went from flushed to white in the space of a few of those staccato beats, and a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. Blue eyes that had been filled with anger only a moment before now filled with confusion and sudden pain. "Jim-- what--?"

Jim caught him as he fell and eased him carefully toward the floor. The space between the desks was narrow, but he was careful not to jostle his partner. From a great distance, he heard his own voice exhorting, "Call an ambulance!"

With Blair cradled in his arms, he had no awareness of what was happening around him. There were fragments of sound, voices raised in concern and confusion, Simon restoring order with a single, sharp word. But these sounds were meaningless. He'd practically zoned on the runaway thumping of Blair's heart, and nothing mattered beyond a need to make it slow to a normal rhythm.

Blair was gasping for breath, clutching feebly at his chest as if he could rip the pain away. His body arched in agony, and he abruptly grabbed at Jim's arm in desperation. "Jim--?"

"Easy, partner, easy," Jim soothed in a voice he still didn't recognize as his own. "You're gonna be all right. Help's on the way."

Blair struggled to speak, but his breathing was too shallow and rapid to permit more than a few jumbled syllables. "Arm hurts-- can't breathe. My chest-- what's wrong?... Jim?"

What's wrong? Jim didn't know. The only thing of which he was certain was that his best friend was dying in his arms... again...


#

He couldn't let it happen, not if he had the power to stop it. Before, Incacha had shown him the way to bring Blair back to him, and he relied on that memory now. Clutching his partner close against his chest, he whispered, "Listen to my heart. Don't listen to anything else."

Closing his eyes, he focused on the steady, strong rhythm of his own heartbeat. Stricken wolf sheltered in the protective shadow of the vigilant panther. A broad, black paw rested on the silver-gray coat, feline eyes capturing the gaze of frightened canine eyes, blending, melding into a single spirit...

Jim's heart gave a mighty thump. His eyes flew open in shocked surprise as he felt his heart rate begin to increase in rapid counterpoint to the one fluttering beneath his hands. Then, with mighty determination, he closed his eyes and focused inward once again.

The panther's tail twitched. It drew back with a snarl of frustration, then returned once again to place a paw on the shoulder of its fallen companion. The silent battle ensued again, but this time, the panther's heartbeat drew the other out of its furious tempo and brought it into sync.

An insistent hand on his shoulder finally roused him from his trance. "Jim! The paramedics are here! Let them work."

Jim opened his eyes and looked down at his partner. Blair's eyes were closed, his face smoothed of any trace of pain, and the pulse point in this neck now throbbed with slow, assured strength.

Relinquishing his hold, Jim moved out of the way and stood up slowly. His legs trembled, but several strong arms helped him find his balance. He looked around in confusion, and his gaze finally settled on Simon. "Thanks."

Simon nodded. "I wasn't sure you heard a word I said."

"I heard." Jim turned back to watch the paramedics set up their monitoring equipment. "The important parts, anyway."

The paramedics were examining their data. "We have good sinus rhythm." One of them glanced up at Jim. "Did you administer CPR?"

Jim shook his head. "His heart never stopped. It was in some sort of tachycardia-- rapid and arrhythmic."

Blair opened his eyes and looked up at the group clustered around him. "Hey," he said weakly.

"Hey yourself," Jim returned, smiling warmly. "How are you feeling?"

Blair appeared to think about it. "Like I've been run over by a truck." He looked at the paramedics. "What the hell happened?"

"We don't know. We'll transport you to the hospital and let the doctors check you out. You're stable right now, but it's important to find out what happened."

"No kidding." Blair closed his eyes again. "Man, I'm tired..."


The waiting room was filled to capacity. Adults occupied every available seat, while children ranging from a few months to a few years cluttered up the floor. Jim tried pacing for a while, but he was constantly forced to halt or step around or over some obstruction. The smaller kids were anxious enough without a big, scowling stranger stamping around them, so he finally retreated into the chaos of the corridor. Pacing here proved equally impossible. He kept getting in the way of the rapid hustle of ER activity, and frazzled nurses tried to shoo him back into the confines of the waiting room.

Damn, he couldn't even worry in peace. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to find a quiet place and use his senses to locate his partner in the labyrinth of corridors, but there was too much noise and he couldn't risk it. Instead, he was reduced to pacing, and scowling, and worrying.

Blair had suffered a heart attack, or at least it certainly appeared that way to Jim. He could still hear the frantic, uneven thudding of his partner's straining heart replaying in his memory.

Simon managed to waylay him on his next circuit of the hallway. "Come on, Jim, sit down for a minute. You'll wear a hole in the linoleum."

Jim glanced toward the crowded waiting room. "Too noisy in there." Besides, he imagined he could see the permanent groove in the floor from his previous pacing on too many other occasions when he'd come to the hospital and worried about his partner. There'd been entirely too much of that over the past few years. He ran his hands through his hair. "Jesus, Simon, how could he have a heart attack? He had a thorough physical when he went through the Academy. He was fine."

"We don't know that it was a heart attack," Simon said reasonably.

Jim shot him a look that spoke volumes. "I heard his heart, Simon."

"I know."

A doctor Jim had never seen before came down the corridor toward him. "Detective Ellison?"

Jim straightened and faced her. "Yes."

She consulted a chart. "I'm Doctor Cunningham. I'm running some tests on Mr. Sandburg, but I wanted to bring you up to date on what we've found so far."

Simon cut to the chase. "Is he going to be all right?"

Cunningham smiled tightly and briefly. "We have him stabilized. Our tests indicate the cardiac episode didn't cause any permanent damage. The goal now is to determine what caused the problem in the first place and prevent any reoccurrence."

Jim frowned. "So he didn't have a heart attack?"

"No, not in the sense you mean. Something definitely affected his heart, but it wasn't related to a problem with his cardio-vascular system. The initial blood work suggests some sort of heavy- metal poisoning."

"Poison?" Jim echoed grimly. "You mean like arsenic?"

"We don't know the specific agent at the moment."

"But someone tried to kill him, is that what you're saying?" Simon was aghast.

"I can't say if the poisoning was deliberate or accidental," Cunningham explained. "The effects of heavy-metal poisoning build up over a period of time-- several months to several years if the dosage is small enough. He could have been ingesting it unknowingly. Have you noticed any changes in his behavior over the past few months?"

Had he noticed--? Jim sighed in frustration. Of course he'd noticed: the mood swings, the temper tantrums, the forgetfulness, the tiredness... "I thought he was unhappy," he whispered guiltily. "Depressed."

Cunningham smiled sympathetically. "The symptoms may appear very similar. Would you like to see him now?"

Jim brightened visibly. "Of course. How is he?"

"'Resting comfortably' is the standard phrase. He's tired, a little frightened, a little confused. Perhaps you can cheer him up." She accepted a multi-colored form from a nurse and scanned the printed columns. "Lead poisoning," she said at last. "Since I'm assuming he hasn't been licking old paint off of walls, do you have any idea how he might have ingested it?"

Jim shook his head. "I'll tear everything apart until I find out," he vowed grimly.

"We all will," Simon added.

After asking directions from two nurses and an orderly, they managed to find Blair's cubicle. Simon paused outside the privacy curtain. "You go on in. I'll wait for you here."

"Thanks." Jim plastered a pleasant expression on his face and slipped past the curtain.

Blair was lying on the thin cushion of an ER table. A pillow beneath his head and a thin blanket offered scant comfort. He opened his eyes and smiled wanly. "Hey, Jim. Looks like they're going to keep me here for a few days."

Jim smiled. "Yeah. They probably want to monitor your blood. Did they tell you what was wrong?"

Blair nodded. "Nurse told me. Lead poisoning." He shook his head, bemused. "Of all the injuries that could happen to me as a cop, I end up with a totally different kind of lead poisoning."

"Very funny, Sandburg," Jim growled in mock annoyance. "At least your sense of humor seems to be intact." He sobered and crossed the few remaining feet to the bedside so he could touch his partner's arm. "You're cold. You want me to find another blanket?"

Blair shook his head. "I'll be okay. They're gonna take me to a room in a bit. I can last until then."

"Okay." Jim glanced around the tiny, sterile room. "Any ideas about how you could have gotten lead poisoning?"

"I've been thinking about it ever since they told me," Blair admitted, smiling sadly. "It's got to be the mug."

"The mug?"

"The tea mug, remember? Old glazes can contain lead, so does clay. I'm sure their teacher was careful when they made it, but maybe not careful enough. Probably stupid of me to actually use it for tea, instead of pencils or something."

"Okay, I'll bring it in and have the lab check it." Now that the mystery had been solved with so little effort, Jim couldn't find anything else to say. "Anyway, you're gonna be all right."

"I think so. If you have time, would you download some articles about lead poisoning to my laptop and bring it in so I can read them?"

"Sure, no problem." Jim fidgeted.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Jim answered too quickly and grimaced when he saw the worried frown crease his partner's forehead. "Really, nothing. I'm just thinking about how long you've been drinking from that damn cup, and I didn't notice the symptoms."

Blair laughed softly. "Hell, man, I saw all the symptoms up close and personal, you know. I should have realized something was going on."

"I thought--"

"You thought what?"

Jim didn't want to confess what he'd thought, but his unguarded words had roused Blair's suspicion. "Why don't we discuss it later?"

Blair wasn't going to be swayed. "You thought what?" He watched the play of emotions across the older man's face, and his expression tightened. "Jim, what did you think?"

Realizing he had no choice, Jim finally admitted, "I thought you were having second thoughts about becoming a cop. That maybe you were depressed and unhappy with the way things were going."

"You thought I was going to leave," Blair concluded grimly. He looked hurt and confused. "After all this time, you thought I was going to bail on you, didn't you?"

"No!" Jim protested quickly and too loudly. He calmed his tone. "No, not really. I wasn't seeing this from your perspective, how my stupid thoughts would reflect on you. I have never doubted your friendship or loyalty."

The firmness of the disclaimer made Blair smile slightly. "Never?"

Jim shrugged. "Well, at least never since you explained what 'fear-based responses' means." He smiled tentatively and was reassured when Blair smiled back. "Yeah, I was thinking about myself again, wondering if I'd pushed you too hard to become a cop, afraid I hadn't helped you examine your options, worried you were beginning to regret joining the force..." He spread his arms in a gesture of contrition.

"All you had to do was ask."

"That seems to be one of my biggest problems," Jim admitted grudgingly.

"You try to pretend something that's bothering you doesn't really exist, but all you end up doing is worrying the problem all out of proportion."

"Thank you, Doctor Laura." Jim tried to sound annoyed, but he was too relieved to make it believable.

He was going to say more, but an orderly threw back the curtain and wheeled in a gurney. "I'm going to take you up to your room now, Mr. Sandburg."

Jim stepped back to give the man room. "Blair, I'll head back to the loft and pick up some stuff for you, find those articles you wanted. I'll be back in a couple of hours."

Blair shifted to the gurney and tried to keep the hospital gown from flagrantly displaying his more private parts. "Shit, I hate these things."

Jim laughed. "Don't catch cold."

Blair was wheeled out and Jim heard Simon exchange a few words with his partner before the squeak of the gurney faded down the hall. He took a moment to compose his muddled thoughts, then left the cubicle.

"You get things worked out?" Simon asked.

Jim nodded. "Yeah, we got things worked out."


The more he thought about it on the trip back to the precinct, the angrier he became. All the weeks of worrying, of fighting, of non-communication and bad feelings, all because of one stupid mug. At least it had to be the mug. Damn, what if it wasn't? He didn't know where else to look.

The elevator spit out a very angry Sentinel in the hallway by Major Crime, and a captain who seemed to be in conciliatory mode.

"Jim, calm down." Simon's gestures and soothing tone were almost comically reminiscent of Sandburg.

Henri had jumped up the moment the elevator door opened. "Ellison--" he began, but the detective stalked right past him. Shrugging his shoulders, Henri followed.

Without a word, Rafe and Megan joined them.

Jim led the short parade to the break room where he immediately flung open the cabinet door and began to shove mugs and plates back and forth.

Simon maintained his distance. "Jim, dammit, will you slow down before you break something?"

Ignoring him and the rest of his audience, Jim went over to the sink.

"Aha!" He yanked the lumpy homemade mug from the plastic draining board and swung his arm back to hurl the offensive item across the room.

"Don't you dare, Detective!"

But it wasn't Simon's alliterative command that stopped him cold. It was the mug itself. The words "To Mr. Blair the Best Teacher" stared Jim right in the face. "Damn," he said softly. He set the mug down on the table and sank into the closest chair.

The others all sat down as well and stared at Jim.

"If you don't mind my asking, Captain, what just happened here?" Megan asked. "Does this have to do with Sandy?"

Simon explained about the lead poisoning and the current theory that the mug was to blame. As he talked, Jim picked up the object in question and peered inside.

"We'll have to have it analyzed," he said. Holding it in the light a certain way, he examined the interior again. "But I'd say, yeah, this is the culprit all right. I can see places in the lumps where the glaze missed entirely. Plus the glaze itself might contain lead, if it's old enough."

"Well, this might make you and Sandburg happy," Rafe said. "While you were gone, Megan and I followed up on your theory about the home invasion case."

"My theory?" Part of Jim's mind was still on the mug and his partner at the hospital.

"You know, that the invasions were related somehow to Huntsville Academy," Megan reminded him.

"Megan and I went over there around lunch time to talk to the dean. We said we had just moved to the area and were scouting for places to send our son--"

"--our brilliant son, Henri," Megan grinned.

"--and that gave us the opportunity to talk to some other teachers and students."

"On a Saturday?" Jim was still trying to follow the conversation.

"Sure, private schools have some classes on Saturdays, not to mention sports practices, band rehearsals, that sort of thing." Rafe shifted uncomfortably. He apparently knew firsthand.

"And..."

"And we discovered that the Carrington kid, and the Forsythe kid, and the others were part of a pretty tight clique. Even called themselves the Redwood Rogues since they all knew each other from the neighborhood."

"And..."

"And, babe," said Henri, "we have an idea."


Dawn was still hours away Monday morning when a grey van with a windowless back pulled up to the front of a huge red clapboard house and shut off its lights. Four bulky figures carrying sticks slid from various doors and walked quietly around back. Using a suction cup and glass- cutter on the window, they quickly opened the back door.

Once inside, two of the figures crept upstairs, while a third pulled out a camcorder and turned it on. Mumbles, shouts, a crash, and a scream could be heard. The figures returned pushing a rumpled man and woman, obviously woken from a sound sleep, down the stairs in front of them.

"Where's the kid?" Hunter asked. Someone turned the lights on.

"I don't know. Bed wasn't slept in."

"Where's your kid?" he demanded, this time directing the question at the man of the house. Placing a hand against the man's chest, he shoved him down on the couch into a sitting position. His wife didn't wait to be asked; she curled up in terror next to her husband.

The man stammered. "H-h-he... he's at a friend's house."

"That's just great," Sam grumbled. He had a pronounced limp.

"Well, we can make our statement without him. Though maybe we'll pay a little visit to the friend's house."

"We won't tell you where he is," the woman choked out, a lioness protecting her cub.

"We'll see about that." Hunter raised his stick, threatening. McSorley knocked some glassware off the mantel of the fireplace.

A shrill whistle suddenly pierced the air.

"Cascade PD! Drop your weapons and lie flat on the floor!"

The hockey players dropped their sticks instantly, looking around the crowded room in shock. Four men had appeared suddenly from different access points to the living room, each with his gun aimed steadily at an intruder.

"But..." Hunter had dropped his stick, but seemed unwilling, or unable, to drop to the floor.

Jim handed his gun to Captain Banks, walked over to Hunter and pulled his hockey mask off. An unfamiliar dark-haired man with blazing black eyes stared back.

The other players' masks were removed: Sam turned out to be a tall, athletic female with a very unpleasant expression, but the two remaining felons nearly broke Jim's heart. Antonio and Christina Magliari. Christina had been the one videotaping.

"Those two are juveniles," Jim pointed out to Henri, who was radioing in for uniform back- up. Henri nodded and made the appropriate arrangements.

Simon holstered his weapon and returned Jim's to him. "Who are they?"

"Those two are Magliaris, older brother and sister to the kid I told you about. Can't swear about the other two, but if I had to guess based on family resemblance, I'd say they were older siblings."

The couple on the couch had recovered from their brief subjection to terrorism rather quickly, and were now in the throes of an argument.

"I do not look cute in these pajamas," Rafe said. "They're cotton, for pete's sake."

"We have it all on videotape, mate." Megan smiled pleasantly. "I'll just show it around at the station and take a poll."

"Connor..." Rafe turned to the captain. "Permission to get dressed in real clothes, sir."

Banks nodded and waved them off. Jim's latex-gloved hands carefully carded through the items in the black bag the suspects had brought with them: Clown make-up, red nose, a cattle prod, an electric shaver.

"I don't even want to know what they were going to do with that," Simon commented.

"Looks like we got 'em, sir."

Simon smiled proudly and clasped his hands behind his back. Megan and Rafe had determined the names of the Redwood Rogues during their brief stint as parents at the school; Henri had come up with the idea of finding out which of the members not yet targeted had a term paper or take-home test due that Monday, and then he, Joel, and Jim had set up the sting to capture them. Teamwork at its finest.

Joel joined them as soon as he relinquished the prisoners to the uniforms and Henri's supervision. "Not bad for a bunch of old guys, huh?"

"You calling us old, Joel?"

"Well, at least we've got a sense of humor." Simon grinned wickedly.

All three of them were wearing black and white striped referee jerseys, complete with regulation whistles.


A few days later, Blair's day of emancipation from Cascade General arrived. Jim stopped at the hospital pharmacy to pick up prescriptions while Sandburg got dressed and signed the appropriate forms. While he waited for the prescriptions to be filled, he wandered aimlessly through the aisles, looking at popular paperbacks and sports magazines.

On a whim he paused at a shelf of novelty coffee mugs, aware that Sandburg no longer had a mug to call his own at work. Larson's the Far Side, Snoopy, and Cathie were among the more popular cartoons represented, along with mugs coated in floral patterns and religious sayings. But Jim's eye was caught by the simple black and white mugs dotting the bottom shelf. He chose the one that specifically demanded attention and ran his finger over the lettering almost reverently, feeling the not-so-seamless raised plastic on the smooth ceramic. His fingers caressed the edges as his eyes stared at the simple words: #1 Teacher.

With a sigh, Jim placed the mug back on the shelf.


"So this was all about school work?" Leaning back in his chair, Simon snagged the carafe from the coffee maker and poured a fresh cup.

Blair rattled the little plastic bottle of pills the doctor had prescribed for him. Chelating agents. He'd looked them up on the internet. They were designed to bind to the lead in his body and help excrete it at a faster rate than his system could manage on its own. He still felt very tired and vaguely out of sorts, but he'd insisted on coming in to work that Saturday to help Jim clear up the last of the paperwork. One more week of rest, and he'd be as good as new.

"It's really a lot more complex than that," Jim answered, watching his partner out of the corner of his eye. Blair caught him at it and shot him a cheeky grin, but Jim looked unrepentant. "Andy Magliari was the victim of some pretty vicious teasing from the boys at Huntsville Academy. The family background in organized crime made him an easy target. Some of his homework was destroyed by the others and they'd even threatened to frame him as a cheater so that he'd lose his scholarship."

Simon sipped his coffee and rocked in his chair. "But the kid didn't know anything about the break-ins, right?"

Blair nodded. "His oldest brother, Roberto, is carrying around a huge chip on his shoulder about the family's fall from wealth and power. He masterminded the scheme and thought up the hockey disguises -- he'd been a huge fan back when he was in high school. Antonio, the middle boy, had his own chip to bear. Both boys grew up listening to their grandfather's tales of the 'good old days.' They figured they'd use some of the old ways to take revenge, plus get a little extra cash to help Andy in school."

"And Antonio took advantage of his part time job at Exterior Designs to use the van for their purposes. He and Tom Jefferies are pretty tight, but the Jeffries kid didn't know what it was being used for." Jim replenished his coffee.

"And the girls went along with this? I don't recall the 'old ways' being keen on women mobsters."

Jim shrugged. "They wanted to prove they were as good as the boys. Actually, after spending time in interrogation with Gina Magliari, I found her more frightening than the older boys. She was the one who injured Everett Carrington, the father."

"The one I really feel sorry for is Rosie, the mom," Blair said softly. "She gave Grandpa Magliari a home, and her kindness put his senile reminiscences on a collision course with her kids' teenage angst."

Simon's eyebrows rose. "Glad to see you're back with us, Sandburg."

Blair grinned abruptly, ignoring the sarcasm. "Thanks. And you want to know the best part, Captain? In about twenty minutes, Jim and I are going to dump a stack of file folders on your desk. Once you've signed them all, we can officially mark this case closed."

Simon groaned and reached for the coffee carafe.


"Come on, Sandburg." Jim waited impatiently by the open elevator door. "Get the lead out!"

"Funny, Jim. Ha ha." Blair grabbed his backpack from the truck and jogged to join his partner. "I bet you've just been waiting to use that line."

Jim pushed the button for Major Crime and leaned against the elevator wall, a slight smile on his face. All it had taken was two short weeks to return the man who had slowly been disintegrating over the past eight months. The razor sharp mind, the sense of humor, the incredibly good nature, all bounced their way back into the person even as the doctors leached the lead poison from his blood. The entire situation seemed so simple in retrospect.

"Jim. Jim? Come on, man, you're scaring me here. You look like the Cheshire Cat or something. What's so funny?"

Jim snapped out of his musings and glanced into the confused eyes of his partner-- his partner who wasn't depressed about becoming a cop. Instead of answering, he just patted Blair's cheek and turned as the elevator doors opened onto their floor.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, that's your answer to everything."

A three inch stack of paper in his IN box and a hastily scrawled note on his chair heralded Blair's official return to the job. Picking up the note, he read, "About time you got your ass back here, Sandburg." Looking around the bullpen, he wore a good-natured scowl. "Geez, don't go out of your way for flowers or anything, guys." A paper airplane just barely missed his nose.

Jim just couldn't stop smiling as he sat at his desk. "Like your new pencil holder?"

"Huh?" Blair glanced to the left of his paper work and saw the handmade mug full of pencils and markers from his desk drawer. Picking it up, he ran his fingers lightly over each child's name. "Oh, man. I figured you would have smashed this into a thousand little pieces."

Flushing slightly, Jim just shook his head.

"I'm glad you didn't." Reverently, Blair replaced the mug on his desk. "I guess I've got to get a new mug now. Those styrofoam cups in the break room are pure poison."

Jim choked on that one, and Blair had the grace to blush. "Shit, man, you know what I mean."

Reaching into a desk drawer, Jim pulled out a small box. "Actually, Chief, you don't have to-- "

"Hairboy!" Henri and Rafe suddenly appeared. Sighing, Jim set the box on his desk and scowled when he saw what they were holding.

Rafe thrust the mug into Sandburg's face. "This kind of reminded us of you."

"It's from both of us," H added. "We knew you needed a new one."

The mug was large and heavy, and had a picture of a goofy-looking Cocker Spaniel front and back. The price tag was still on the bottom.

"$2.50 apiece," Jim pointed out dryly. "How generous."

The others ignored him. "Thanks, H, Rafe." Blair set it on his desk, subtly rotating it so he wouldn't have to look at the dog.

The partners moved away looking ridiculously satisfied with themselves, and Megan magically appeared in their place. "Welcome back, Sandy," she said as she placed a neatly wrapped package into Blair's hand. The size of the box had Jim groaning into his hands.

This time the mug was from the Bureau of Australian Tourism: "Come Back to the Outback." Blair was obviously quite pleased.

"I brought a bunch of them with me to the states, and thought it would be unique enough to keep here in the break room. Pity I didn't know about Brown and Rafe's mug, though. I'll understand if you don't want to use this one."

"No, Megan, it's great." Blair smiled beatifically. She smiled in return and retreated to her desk.

The muffin cart came and went, and before Blair could take a bite of his onion bagel with extra cream cheese, he'd recieved three more mugs. Joel's was a dark blue plaid design, Simon's read "Get Back to Work," and Rhonda shyly graced him with a rose-colored mug reading "Blair" in swirly script.

"I think they assumed it was a girl's name," Rhonda explained apologetically.

Blair's expression was all earnestness and gratitude. "Ancient scripts hypothesize that Jesus drank from a rose-colored chalice. Thanks!" Rhonda practically glowed as she returned to her desk.

No doubt about it, the kid was back.

Work returned to normal, but Jim could feel the eyes boring into the side of his head.

"What?" he finally growled.

Blair just smiled and raised his eyebrows.

Sighing, Jim picked up the box on his desk and turned it over in his hands. After a moment's hesitation and a surrepticious glance around the bullpen, he handed it to his partner.

Blair opened the box like a kid at Christmas. Momentarily at a loss for words, he stared at the simple white mug with black writing. #1 Chief.

"They sell them at the hospital pharmacy," Jim shrugged. "That one seemed appropriate."

Tossing him a look that Jim couldn't quite define, Blair turned the mug over and looked at the bottom. "Not a lot of demand for 'Chief' mugs," Blair commented softly.

Jim felt his cheeks redden. Okay, so he'd had it custom made. Big deal.

"Thanks, Jim." Blair's eyes shone as he placed the other mugs in his right desk drawer.

Jim's response was simple and significant. "Welcome back, Chief."


Like this episode? Email the writers: hephaistos@valley.net & fourpaws@qnet.com
Want to comment on production? Contact Black Panther Productions: bpproductions@wildmail.com