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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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."


"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.

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