Robin & Paula
edited by: Karen, Shirin, and Bonnie
Tandy Randall glanced at the long queue of Friday afternoon Cascade Community Bank customers waiting their turn at her window and sighed. Her life could be summed up in one short word -- boring. Up at six, to work by eight, lunch at noon, home at four, dinner with her cat at seven and in bed by ten to start it all over again the next day. Boring. Dull.
Pasting an insincere smile on her face, she motioned the next customer forward. She processed his deposit (with a cash return of fifty dollars), allowing her experienced hands to practice the well-honed skill while her mind continued to wander.
Yes sir, 'dull' aptly described her life. Dull, as in no excitement. Definitely no social life, no warm hug awaiting her in the evening. An affectionate tabby hardly substituted for a pair of warm, strong arms -- rather like the ones attached to the handsome floral deliveryman that had just entered the bank. Devastatingly handsome, she mentally amended as he drew closer. A double whammy. Handsome and carrying flowers. Just one of her many versions of the 'ideal man'. Tandy noted that this incarnation was wearing faded blue jeans, brown hiking boots, a Jags windbreaker and matching ball cap. A large leather satchel hung from one shoulder
Tandy tore her attention away from the entrancing sight, sighed again and mechanically thanked her current customer for banking with Cascade Community Bank. The customer, well aware that he had received less than Tandy's full attention, grunted resentfully and turned away.
Reaching for the next customer's transaction slip, Tandy surreptitiously monitored the deliveryman's progress, wondering who the lucky recipient was. Certainly not her. The last time Tandy had received flowers was on her birthday three years ago, and those had been sent by her mother. She still flushed with embarrassment whenever she recalled the good-natured ribbing she'd received from her co-workers once they'd realized that the flowers were not from a male friend. Upon arriving home that evening, Tandy had immediately called her mother to thank her for the flowers and to tell her (lovingly) to please not send any more.
Crossing to the information desk, the man glanced at the delivery card buried in the colorful blooms and spoke briefly to the bank's concierge, Linda. With a slightly raised eyebrow, Linda reached for the bouquet only to have it pulled out of her reach. The deliveryman shook his head and whatever he said to Linda after that caused her to frown. After a moment's hesitation, she waved a hand toward the teller windows and, had she not known better, Tandy would have sworn that the motion was directed at her. Fat chance, Tandy snorted. She was the first station in the row, next to the windows that lined the street. Linda could have been pointing to Ericka or Donyelle's station, she told herself. They were always getting flowers.
Seemingly oblivious to the string of customers that wound away from Tandy's window, the man strode to the front of the line and smiled broadly, ignoring the patrons' grumbles of protest. "Tandy Randall?" he queried, the grin never leaving his face.
"Yes," she replied somewhat breathlessly, praying that her expression didn't broadcast the astonishment she felt.
"These are for you!" he declared happily, shoving the flowers across the counter in front of a customer. The woman sputtered in irritation, but pushed the issue no further. Several customers, sensing that the delay in the line they currently inhabited would increase, darted into other, shorter lines. Tandy figured she would be reprimanded for letting personal business cause a delay, but she was too excited to care. Someone had sent her flowers!!
"I...uh...wasn't expecting any flowers," Tandy stammered, afraid her bubble would burst at any moment. "Are you sure they're for me?"
"They've got your name on them, Gorgeous, so that makes them yours in my books!" The man's brilliant blue eyes sparkled good-naturedly behind his stylish brown, plastic-framed glasses as he rested an arm on the marble partition that separated Tandy's station from the teller next to her.
"Oh my!" was the best that Tandy could manage through her surprise. Smiling apologetically to the impatient customer in front of her, Tandy snatched the card from the bouquet and, with shaking hands, ripped open the small envelope. Almost reverently sliding the card from the torn envelope, Tandy read the handwritten message: From a secret admirer. She didn't know whether to be thrilled or disappointed. It was exciting to think she had a secret admirer, but extremely frustrating to not know who it was!
She hardly noticed as the man reached into his satchel then slid a clipboard across the counter. "If you'll just sign here, ma'am, I'll be out of your hair." Tandy absently scrawled her signature on the indicated line, but her benefactor's next whispered words brought her crashing painfully back to earth. "Oh, and while you're at it, why don't you put all the cash you have in your drawer in this bag." She lifted her eyes to find that he had raised the front of the clipboard slightly, revealing a small handgun pointed directly at her. He was holding out the satchel that had been dangling innocuously from his shoulder. Oh my God!
The amused smile never faded as the man leaned toward her to offer some advice in a stage whisper. "You wouldn't want anyone here to get hurt, now would you?"
Tandy could only shake her head 'no'.
"Good. I don't want to hurt anyone either, so why don't we just quietly finish our little transaction here and go on about our business? You don't make a fuss, I don't have to make a mess."
Tandy's eyes darted around the lobby only to find that all the customers had disappeared from her line and that her curious co-workers had gone back to minding their own business. Unless she made a scene, no help would be forthcoming from those arenas, and she'd been warned about the results of making a scene.
Accepting defeat, Tandy took the satchel, quietly opened her cash drawer and began to stuff the contents into the worn leather bag. She willed her fellow tellers, the customers, or the security guard to glance her way so she could try to signal them, but they steadfastly ignored her, intent on eliminating the lines that stretched before them in anticipation of closing.
Tandy finished filling the bag and silently slid it across the counter to the robber, who had quite naturally lost a great deal of his previous appeal. He graced her with another dazzling smile and slung the pack across his shoulder once again. "Remember," he admonished her softly, "no tripping the alarm until I'm gone, Gorgeous. I really, really don't want to shoot anybody today, okay?" Mute with fear and shock, Tandy could only nod. "Oh, and keep the flowers, Gorgeous, you deserve them."
Pulling the clipboard and its hidden threat close to his chest, the robber turned and strode confidently towards the exit. Spying the security camera high in the corner of the lobby, he stopped and, facing it squarely, doffed his cap and offered a huge grin for posterity.
Standing frozen at her window, Tandy watched sadly as the man of her dreams made off with approximately two thousand dollars from her window. Once he had cleared the door, Tandy reached beneath her station and activated the silent alarm.
Within minutes the downtown branch of the Cascade Community Bank was seemingly overrun with police cars and uniformed officers. The red and blue flashing lights of the patrol cars shimmered and flickered on the bank's windows, mixing with the natural sunlight to produce an almost kaleidoscopic effect. Some officers roamed the street, searching for potential witnesses to the robbery, while others interviewed the bank customers and employees. Naturally, the focus was on Tandy and Linda, both of whom had spoken to, and gotten a good long look at, the man known as the Bouquet Bandit.
"And he was wearing a very nice Jags windbreaker. You know, the kind you can only get at the arena -- an 'official' windbreaker." Linda had happily regaled Officer John Rollins, the uniformed officer in charge, with a description of the robber. Now that things were over with, she had to admit that it was just about the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her and she was going to milk it for all it was worth! Besides, Tandy, the poor child, was virtually mute with both disappointment and shock and had offered only the barest amount of information.
Rollins added the item to the others in his notebook and turned to Tandy. "Do you have anything to add to your statement, Ms. Randall?"
"I guess not," Tandy said quietly. "Just that he was very polite and said he didn't want to hurt anyone."
"Thank you, Ms. Randall," Rollins said kindly. "I'm sure the detectives assigned to this case will have more questions for you, but you're free to go for now. Do you need someone to drive you home?"
"No, I'll be all right." Tandy straightened her shoulders, stood and crossed to her teller's window. She gathered her purse and her sweater and turned to leave. Almost as an afterthought, she paused and regarded the flowers. Then, with a flourish and a small smile, she gathered the bouquet into her arms and strode, unnoticed, out of the bank.
Rollins joined Tim Anderson as he completed interviewing a possible witness to the getaway. "Whatcha' got, Tim?"
"A couple of folks reported seeing our guy get into a small, economy car. One said it looked like a Plymouth Horizon and the other said a Ford Escort. Either way, it was one of those compact jobbies. Light brown or tan. Neither of them got the plate number since they didn't realize there was any problem. They both agree there was one of those magnetic florist signs on the side of the car. Real bright colors, with that little FTD floral delivery guy on it." At Rollins's raised eyebrow, Anderson grinned self-consciously and admitted, "I couldn't've told you that's who he was. One of the witnesses, Jean Davis, told me."
Rollins chuckled and pressed for more details. "Either of them manage to get a company name or phone number off this sign with the little FTD guy on it?"
"Yeah, same woman. Says there wasn't a phone number, but she remembers the name of the florist because she's never heard of it before. Perfect Petals."
Jim Ellison gently knocked on his captain's door. The muttering he heard coming from Simon's office did not bode well, making him nervous about entering. When Banks talked to himself it was never good news, and Jim was certain that once or twice he had caught the sounds of a fist pounding a desk, as well. Thinking that his partner could benefit from an early warning, he turned and quickly whispered what he knew.
"He doesn't sound like he's in a good mood, Sandburg. Let's get in there, find out what he wants, and then try to get out with our hides intact."
Blair's eyes were wide. As much as he hated to admit it, he still cringed when Simon Banks directed a tirade his way. He didn't think he'd ever become immune to them, no matter how long he worked for the man. "But we haven't done anything! We just tied up our last case and..." He yelped when the door was yanked out of his partner's hand and flung wide open. Simon stood there, glaring at the both of them. To say that the man didn't look happy would have been an understatement.
"Are you two coming in?" The captain's question was a tightly controlled growl. "Or are you going to stand out there gossiping like a couple of teenagers?"
"Uh, coming in, sir." Ellison strode by his superior with more nonchalance than he actually felt and hoped it was convincing. Giving his partner a quick backward glance, just to make sure Sandburg was still there and hadn't high-tailed it out of the building, he started to take a seat in front of the large desk when Simon's voice stopped him.
Banks veered off, heading for the large maple colored table. "The conference table, gentlemen." Pulling out a chair, he offered his two detectives a small smile. "You can both relax. You're not in any trouble. In fact, I'm glad you're back."
Relieved, Blair dropped into the chair next to his partner. "You had us worried, sir."
Chuckling, Simon picked up a file folder. "I could see that, Sandburg, but there are some other things going on that I'm sure you'd prefer me not to bore you with." He tossed the file across the table at the young detective and then slid another over to Ellison. "You're picking up a new case."
Scanning the contents of the file, Jim's frown deepened until it became a scowl. "Not the Bouquet Bandit. C'mon, Simon. It's not much more than petty theft. He's only hit one bank."
"Exactly," Simon interjected. "And that bank is managed by one Jeffery Inch, the son-in-law of our renowned mayor. This has now become a case for Major Crime. Besides, he's starting to make Cascade PD look bad."
"But still, Simon, a small time thief?"
"Not just any thief, Ellison." The captain's grin became mischievously wicked. "He's a flower toting thief. And who better equipped to sniff him out, than you, Jim?"
Jim shot his partner a perplexed look. Blair's snort of amusement wasn't helping. He knew that his captain was not about to be talked out of assigning them the case so he just shook his head. "You've been waiting to say that for a long time, haven't you?"
Simon's grin grew into a toothy smile. "I have, Ellison, I have. Now let's get to it." Standing, he went to retrieve a notepad from his desk. "Since the mayor insists that this is such a sensitive case..." Sandburg's chuckle brought him up short. It took a second for him to realize what he had said. "Sorry, Jim. That was unintentional." He cleared his throat to continue. "As I was saying, the mayor insists that this case is of some importance." He gave Blair his best stare. "Albeit, it does seem to be something not really in the league of what we normally see here, but only on the surface."
Both Jim and Blair raised their eyebrows and waited for their captain to continue. Simon grunted in satisfaction. He now had his men's attention. "I was going over the reports. Our Bouquet Bandit has hit maybe five or six different establishments. It's always the same M.O. He picks the middle of the day; he brings flowers, and leaves without ever publicly displaying a gun, issuing threats or anyone being injured. In each case he's managed to walk in and walk out without anyone being the wiser. Except for the person being robbed, of course."
"So he's polite," Jim offered. "That doesn't make him unusual, Simon. We've seen a lot of quirky cases."
"Yeah," Sandburg added. "Last month we had that guy that always sent us an apology after bombing buildings." His face broke into a lopsided grin. "Nice guy, even if his deck was a few cards short."
"True," Banks agreed. "But call it gut reaction or instinct, I think that when the two of you sit down and start poring over witness testimony and evidence, you're going to be thinking the same as I am. This guy isn't exactly what he's wanting us to think he is."
Jim was still unconvinced. "For instance?"
Simon looked at his notes. "We've got five different robberies. Our man is described as looking like a college kid, a model, and a cowboy. He's clean-shaven, he's bearded. He's reported as weighing 160 pounds, and weighing 200 hundred pounds. He's got blue eyes, he's got brown eyes. He's been described as 5'11, 6'2, walks with a limp, has a real cocky walk... Need I go on?" He looked at Ellison and then at Sandburg. "He certainly does enjoy his work, it seems. He puts enough effort into it."
"There's got to be more than that, sir." Blair joined his partner in his skepticism. "Unless you're thinking there's more than one of him."
"That, Sandburg, is a distinct possibility. As are many other possibilities." Banks stood. "And you two now have the pleasure of discovering which of many scenarios is true." He paused for effect. "Let's try to make it before he strikes again?" At both men's nod he added one more piece of information. "We also have another reason for trying to nail this guy very soon. I've had calls from legitimate delivery services that the public is starting to treat their employees with suspicion and open hostility. I don't want any vigilante attitude developing in this town. With the number of thefts and break-ins on the increase, I can understand people's fear. We just don't need them acting on it."
The 1992 light tan Ford Escort, proudly and colorfully promoting the Perfect Petals floral shop, slid smoothly to a stop in a vacant space of the nearly deserted parking lot. The car's occupant took a moment to survey the surroundings and, assured of his anonymity, pushed the car door open and stepped from the vehicle. He opened the trunk and pulled out a large duffel bag. Whistling happily to himself, he shed the Jags windbreaker and cap and pulled a stylish brown leather jacket and worn sneakers from the canvas bag. Then he stripped the magnetic signs from the sides of the car and stuffed them into the duffel. Sliding into the car to sit sideways in the driver's seat, the man began changing his shoes, pitching the hiking boots into the duffel. He occasionally cast a cautious glance around the lot to make sure his actions continued unobserved. Finally, the Bouquet Bandit removed his brown, plastic-framed glasses and carefully extracted the blue prescription-free contact lenses, returning his eyes to their natural deep brown. He nonchalantly tossed the contact lens carrier in the bag and zipped it shut with a flourish.
Donning his jacket and slinging the duffel bag over his shoulder, Alonso Skotty, AKA the Bouquet Bandit sauntered off to plan his next caper.
Tandy Randall lived in a nondescript section of Cascade, in a nondescript apartment building, Blair reflected the next morning as he hurried to keep pace with his striding partner. Jim's distaste at their acquisition of the Bouquet Bandit case shone in the stiff set to his shoulders and with every pounding step he took down the hallway that led to Tandy's apartment. Jim's strides were naturally longer than Blair's, often causing his partner to hustle to keep up, but he darn near marched when he was unhappy. Blair decided that Jim was very, very unhappy at the moment, as he was slightly breathless from his attempt to keep pace.
"Jim, man, slow it up, would ya?" he panted, lengthening his stride even more. "I'd hate for Ms. Randall to have to give me mouth to mouth the minute she opens the door."
Ellison paused and regarded his partner in slight confusion. Confusion changed to a chuckle as he realized that Sandburg had had to walk double-time to keep up with him. "Sorry, Chief," he smiled as he resumed walking at a much more accommodating pace.
"I'd love to say no big deal, but that would take too much breath," Blair joked, falling into step beside his partner. He earned a soft slap to the back of the head for his trouble, but he smiled in satisfaction as the rigid set to his partner's shoulders relaxed slightly. The last thing Ms. Randall needed was to open her door to face a sentinel detective in full snit.
Jim consulted the paper in his hand and stopped in front of apartment number 210. He listened briefly then announced, "She's home," before knocking briskly on the wooden door. A moment later a soft voice called from behind the door, "Who is it?"
"Detectives Ellison and Sandburg from the Cascade PD, Ms. Randall," Jim responded, holding his badge up in front of the peephole so Tandy could clearly see it. Blair tried to put a non-threatening expression on his face.
The detectives heard the sound of the deadbolt being thrown back, then the door opened to reveal the apartment's occupant. Blair quickly revised his earlier opinion of the advisability of Tandy Randall having to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. While not pretty in the conventional sense, Tandy was far from unattractive and had deep brown eyes that immediately sparked of intelligence. She smiled slightly, further improving the view in Blair's opinion, and invited the detectives in.
"Would you like something to drink?" Tandy offered after the men had seated themselves on the comfortable couch. "I was just about to make myself some tea."
"Tea would be great, thank you," Blair blurted out before Jim could refuse the offer.
Jim frowned slightly at his partner after Tandy disappeared into the kitchen. "Did we come here to drink tea, Sandburg?"
"Relax, Jim." Blair let his partner's attitude roll off his back. "Preparing tea is a very calming ritual and sharing tea can remove the intimidation from a very intimidating situation. It creates an air of informality."
"I am not intimidating," Jim growled, then sulked at his partner's ill-concealed snort of disagreement. He was saved from having to further defend himself by Tandy's timely return. She set about distributing the steaming cups and making sure milk and sugar were available. Jim had to admit that Sandburg probably had a point in the calming benefits of the ritual. Of course, he had no intention of openly conceding that point to his partner.
"Now," Tandy said with a smile as she settled in an overstuffed chair across from the couch, "the officer yesterday told me someone would probably have more questions for me, so I assume that's you?"
"Yes ma'am," Jim replied, setting his cup and saucer on the coffee table in front of him. He pulled his notebook from his shirt pocket and flipped to a clean page. "I wonder if you'd mind going over yesterday's events one more time."
Tandy shrugged. She had indulged herself in her own personal pity party the previous night and had finally come to grips with having been used as a diversion in a bank robbery. Mostly, she'd been disappointed by the fact that the flowers were not a genuine offering from an admiring man. "Sure, although I don't know that there's much I can add to what I told the officer yesterday."
"You never know," Blair offered helpfully. "You might remember something today that totally slipped your mind yesterday."
"Well, I was working my window as usual. Friday afternoon is always a busy time at the bank, so it was filled with people cashing their checks before the weekend. I saw this flower deliveryman come through the door and stop at the reception desk to speak with Linda. Linda Bellaman," she clarified as she saw Ellison open his mouth as if to ask the question. He smiled his thanks and she continued her story. "The next thing I know, he's standing in front of my window, telling me the flowers are for me. It sort of caught me off guard," she admitted shyly. "I'm, uh, not, uh, seeing anybody right now, so I certainly wasn't expecting flowers." Her expression became gloomy. "I was distracted, so I wasn't expecting anything like a robbery."
"You had no reason to suspect anything was wrong," Blair offered sympathetically and returned Tandy's grateful smile.
"He held a clipboard out to me and asked me to sign the delivery receipt. That's when he told me to put all the money in my drawer in the satchel and showed me the gun he had hidden under the clipboard." Tandy shuddered, recalling vividly the joy draining out of the moment as she stared at the menacing weapon. "He said he didn't want to hurt anyone, so for me to wait until he'd left before activating the alarm. I was so scared, I didn't know what else to do, so I did as I was told."
"You did the right thing, Ms. Randall," Ellison assured her. "Can you give us your description of him again?"
Tandy closed her eyes and concentrated on recreating the Bouquet Bandit's image in her mind. She kept her eyes closed as she worked to describe him. "Well, he was young, I think. Late twenties, maybe. I don't know about his hair. It was tough to see under the ball cap he was wearing, although I guess maybe that means it was kind of short. The cap was black with the Jags logo on the front. And he was wearing a black windbreaker that had the Jags logo on it, too." Tandy frowned as she struggled to remember the more tangible features of the criminal she'd been face to face with. "He was great looking, I remember that much. But I think the most distinctive feature I can recall is his eyes. They were the brightest, most beautiful shade of blue. Just like your eyes, Detective Ellison." Realizing too late that she had uttered that last statement out loud, Tandy opened her eyes and blushed furiously, unable to meet the detective's eyes.
Blair flashed an amused look at his partner and was amazed to see him blushing as brightly as Tandy was. He fought hard to stifle the grin that threatened to break through. Jim might be fair game for a round of teasing, but the flustered witness was off limits. There would be plenty of time later to razz his embarrassed partner.
Ellison cleared his throat, rose to his feet and extended his hand to the still blushing young woman. "You've been a great help, Ms. Randall. If I have any further questions, I'll be back in touch. Thank you for the tea."
Tandy regained her composure and firmly shook the handsome detective's proffered hand. "I'll be glad to help in any way I can." Her gaze fell on the vase of flowers adorning her dining table and she caught the larger detective's arm. "Oh! I almost forgot! I was so flustered yesterday that, when I left, I just grabbed the flowers he delivered. Nobody stopped me, but I realized later that they were probably evidence. I'm so sorry. I've probably messed up fingerprints or something! But with all the wondrous forensics techniques today, perhaps they can salvage something." Tandy's expression was wistful as she offered to return the only positive thing to come out of the previous day's horror.
Jim silently agreed that the young woman probably had destroyed any latent fingerprints on the vase, so it took only a moment for him to flash her one of his rare, heart-stopping smiles and assure her that she had done nothing wrong and could keep the flowers. The reports on the previous Bouquet Bandit-attributed robberies had revealed no prints on the vase, so the odds weren't good to start with. Oh sure, they could always get lucky and find that the thief had gotten sloppy, but it didn't seem likely. Tandy had been terrified the day before but had held herself together admirably and Jim felt justified in granting her this simple favor. Tandy's smile as she opened the door to let the officers out simply solidified Jim's opinion that he'd done the right thing.
As the door closed behind them, Sandburg playfully punched his partner in the arm and asked, "So, Mr. Beautiful Bright Blue Eyes, where to next?" He artfully dodged the expected swing and chortled at Ellison's gruff response.
"What's the matter, Sandburg, you jealous because it wasn't your eyes she noticed?"
"Devastated, but I'll get over it somehow," Blair grinned as they exited the building and slid into their respective sides of the blue and white truck.
"Good," Ellison gloated, "because I'm planning on giving Ms. Randall-- Tandy-- a call once this case is solved. I think she's kind of sweet."
Caught by surprise, Blair, for once, had no snappy rejoinder for his partner's choice of date. He had to admit to himself that Tandy Randall did seem like a sweet girl and it would certainly do his partner good to go out with a woman who wasn't a husband killer, hit woman, ghost, or Blair's personal favorite, deranged sentinel. Oh, face it Sandburg, he huffed to himself, recalling the Iris debacle, you haven't got a lot of room to talk here!
Ellison, realizing he had rendered his partner speechless, grinned in satisfaction and began to whistle a lively tune under his breath.
Drew Thomas pulled up in front of the Cascade First National Bank. He deftly parked the rusted old Honda Civic using one-handed steering. The other hand, and his attention, was focused on the state-of-the-art stereo system and loading the next CD. It was getting to be late in the day and this would be his last delivery. Just one more bouquet of flowers to one more giggling woman and then he could get back to his life. He sighed the sigh of someone weary with the rut he was trapped in and leaned back against the car seat to soak up a few more minutes of the music blaring from the four speakers. The body-jarring and head-slamming rhythm of Tupac always relaxed him.
With a sigh Thomas switched off the car's ignition, silencing the vibrating bass. "Time to get this over with," he groaned. "I have got to find a better way to make a living. This is killing me." Reaching over into the back seat of the Civic, he pulled the lid off the cooler and retrieved a large bunch of spring flowers. Before leaving the car he took one more look in the rear view mirror to make sure that he looked presentable. He didn't need someone complaining to his boss about him looking grungy or rumpled. The job was the dregs, but at least it, and the pizza delivery job, paid the bills. Singing the final few words to the song that had just been playing, he exited the car, unaware of the commotion he was causing.
Inside First National, a young woman stood watching him. Merilee James had read all about the infamous Bouquet Bandit and how the Cascade Police had been unable to stop him. She couldn't really remember if the newspapers said he was dangerous or not, but he was a bank robber. That was enough for her to call the security guard.
"Mr. Franklin, you see that man getting out of the car over there?" She pointed a long, manicured finger at the yellow Honda. "I think he might be the thief they were talking about at the staff meeting this morning. They said that he came in delivering flowers and that he was young." Merilee pouted as she watched the deliveryman put the "On Delivery" sign on the dashboard. Darn, they never said anything about him being so cute. Oh well.
George Franklin had spent a good deal of his youth in the military. Life was a no-nonsense enterprise as far as his job was concerned. Now heading for retirement and a home in Florida, his perfect record with Pinkerton's was in jeopardy because of some kid who had decided that his bank was an easy target. He put a hand on the butt of the revolver that hung at his side. "Don't worry, Miss James. I'll keep an eye on him. If he's your Bouquet Bandit, he's walked into the wrong bank." He squinted through the pop-bottle lenses of his glasses to get a better look at the thief. "You just head back behind the desks there." He pulled himself up to his full height. "I'll keep things safe."
Merilee James looked at Mr. Franklin uncertainly. She wasn't sure that such an old man would be able to stop the thief. Franklin must have been at least 55, if not older. "Just be careful, Mr. Franklin. Maybe we should call the police," she suggested.
"No, no," Franklin waved her off. "We'll only call them if we need them."
Still not sure that a call to the police wouldn't be a good idea, Merilee decided that it might be best to talk to the bank manager. "Okay, if you're sure, Mr. Franklin." She was about to turn on her three-inch heels when the doors from the bank lobby swung open. She raised her hands to her mouth to cover a gasp. "Look, he's here!" The whisper carried over to the people standing in line.
Drew Thomas strolled through the lobby of the First National Bank of Cascade on a bright afternoon and straight into pandemonium. His practiced smile faded as he saw the customers pointing at the door he had just entered from. Their screams of "It's him!" had him turning to see who had come in behind him. He heard a gruff voice yell, "That's far enough!" just before a hand grabbed him by the back of the collar, throwing him to the ground.
A very surprised Thomas hit the tiled floor face down with a grunt. Losing his grip on the bouquet of flowers when his elbow struck the hard surface, he sent a shower of daffodils, tulips and African violets across the polished marble. Before he could catch his breath to ask what was going on, a bony knee landed in the middle of his back, forcing out what little air he had managed to pull in.
"Don't try anything, kid," the same voice he had heard earlier threatened in his ear. "You've made your last robbery."
Drew was about to protest when something that felt too much like the barrel of a gun was placed behind his ear. At least he thought that if he had ever had a gun barrel behind his ear before it would have felt like that. "Okay, okay, I won't move," he squeaked out. "Just be careful with that thing!"
Satisfied that he had his culprit well controlled, George Franklin smiled up at the pretty Miss James. "I think you had better call the police now," he crowed. He gave the young man's collar a rough shake. "I think they'll be very interested to see who we have here."
"Thanks, Fred." Blair smiled at the officer behind the desk and picked up the remaining two boxes of evidence. Groaning dramatically, he followed his partner to a small cubicle to sort through it. "Geez, Jim, it's going to take us the rest of the day to go through this stuff." The evidence gathered from the five previous thefts filled seven boxes to the brim. An assortment of flowers, bagged and tagged from each incident, sprang from the cartons in an odd mix of color. The deep or pastel shade of each plant, and the delicate scents, seemed incongruous with the more lethal and solemn items usually found in the Evidence Room. "At least it smells nice."
"Speak for yourself, Sandburg." The sentinel's voice had become slightly nasal and Blair thought he detected just the slightest raspiness in it as well.
Jim turned the corner into the cramped workspace and dropped the boxes onto the table. Shaking his head in disgust, he picked up a bundle of folders, held them a few inches from his nose, and scowled at his friend. "Everything in these boxes smell of flowers. Even the files." Angrily yanking out a chair, he sat down. "I can't believe Simon gave us this case. Why us?" He pointed a finger at his young partner. "Don't even think about using any of the bad puns I see coming to your lips."
"Wouldn't even think of it, Jim." Blair gave the other man a look of wide-eyed innocence. "Are the scents bothering you? You sound like you're getting stuffed up." Any glint of amusement that had been on his face was now gone. "Maybe we should ask Simon about assigning this to someone else if you're reacting badly to it."
Ellison looked up sharply from the file he had opened in front of him. He wondered if Blair had just got him with another zinger, but all he saw was concern. "No, I'm okay, Chief," he grinned softly. "I think it's more the mold down here than the flowers." He went back to studying the report. "Thanks for thinking about it, though."
"No problem." Blair sat across from the sentinel and reached into the box nearest him. The first item he pulled out was a small, black incident report book carried by most street cops. Flipping it open to the first page, he jotted down any information that might be important. He noticed that Jim was going through the robbery detectives' report on the same case.
The two worked together in silence for over two hours. Each file and report book was methodically reviewed and notes made. The only sound was the hushed scratching of pen against paper and the odd sneeze from Ellison. It wasn't until three cold cups of coffee later that Jim broke the silence.
"Chief, anything strike you as odd about these robberies?" He had put the last folder back into the evidence box, happy to finally be through them all. "You been able to pick out any kind of rhyme or reason?"
Blair shook his head and pushed a strand of hair behind his ear. "No, nothing's really jumped out. I guess this is what Simon was talking about." He scanned his notes. "I don't know what Robbery had to say, but the beat cops' reports may as well be about five different guys. The only similarity seems to be that he's young. He hasn't worked to disguise his age. Every account seems to put him between twenty-five and thirty years old. If we are dealing with one guy, he's really good at altering his appearance."
"Or just good at sleight of hand." He smiled at Sandburg's look of confusion. "Well, I was thinking about each eye-witness account. It seems that everyone remembers only one thing clearly and the rest is vague. He's using a magician's trick of sleight of hand. You distract everyone's attention and no one is the wiser until after the trick."
"Yeah, I see what you're getting at," Blair said. "In robbery number one, he wore a very brightly colored jacket with an insignia on the front and back. That's the first thing that people reported. Robbery number two, he used a cane and walked with a serious limp. Number 3, he... how did one woman describe it?" He flipped through a few pages of notes. "Here it is," he chortled. "And I quote... 'that guy, he just came walking in here with that big bunch of flowers, exuding sex. You should have seen that walk, those tight jeans. That cowboy hat.'"
Jim laughed out loud. "Cowboy hats exude sex?"
"I guess for some they do." Shrugging his shoulders, Sandburg went on. "'And that wonderful southern accent.'" He glanced up at his partner. "I think that this is the only time anyone mentions an accent."
"So I think," Ellison offered, "that we can skip trying to put together a composite drawing and circulating it. Unless we say that if you see someone who doesn't look anything like this guy, contact your local police." He stretched languorously. It was shaping up to be a long afternoon.
"His getaway car is just as anonymous, too." Sifting through his notes again, Blair listed the different cars reported as being the car used in the robbery. "They're all different makes, even if they are late model. The color's never the same, but at least they're all compacts." He rubbed at tired eyes. "The only real clue we have is that sign people have noticed on the doors. Perfect Petals and the FTD logo is the only information that seems to be on it. As far as I know, no one's been able to track down that store."
"You know," the sentinel smirked as he stifled another sneeze, "I wouldn't be surprised to find out, since everyone mentions what a nice, polite young man he is -- until he tells them to fill the satchel, that is -- that he's renting the getaway cars." Leaning forward again, he rested his elbows on the table. "He probably doesn't want to inconvenience anyone by stealing their car, or involve anyone by borrowing one."
"Sure, Jim, whatever you say." The corners of Sandburg's mouth lifted in a grin. "So much for conventional detective work. You wanna try the physical evidence now?"
"I guess I can't put it off any longer." Ellison heaved a sigh. "I'm not looking forward to it." His nose almost curled at the thought. "I want to start with the flowers. The overpowering fragrance doesn't smell like any flower I've smelled before. So what's number one on the list?"
Blair pulled a long-stemmed rose from the bouquet that had been kept for evidence. "One pink rose coming up." He held it out for his friend to smell, almost bracing for the sneeze that was sure to follow.
The sentinel took a cautious sniff and frowned. "Just smells like your garden variety rose." He shrugged his shoulders at his partner. "Next?"
One by one Sandburg waved each flower beneath Ellison's sensitive nose. Each sniff, and what was gathered from it, was catalogued. None of them was the powerful scent that kept tickling the sentinel's nose. Returning the last flower to the evidence bag, Blair next took out one of the cards that had been left at the scene. "So now you've mentally tagged and eliminated all the floral scents, right?" He waited for his friend's nod. "Okay then, all we have left are the cards and the paper the flowers were wrapped in." He withdrew one of the small cards and handed it to his partner.
"Yeah, this... this..." Jim let loose with a vicious sneeze. "This is the what I've been smelling. It's got to be doused in whatever it is he's using." He tucked the evidence back into the plastic bag and sealed it once again. Wiping his hands on his jeans to try to rid them of any residue from the card, he asked the obvious question. "So, what does it mean?"
Tapping his pen against his notepad, Blair quickly ran the evidence through his mind. After a few minutes of fruitless pondering, he knew he didn't have a clue. "Your guess is as good as mine, Jim. None of it seems to be very important, but it still seems that he's gone to a lot of trouble with using the same flowers and scent on the cards. He's definitely leaving a message."
"What about his targets?" Ellison counted them off on his fingers. "A small bank, a department store, a convenience store, a Crispy Creme shop, and a bike shop. What's the connection? They're not even guaranteed to give him a good haul. That last place, the bank, only netted him a coupla grand."
"Makes you wonder if he's really stupid or really smart, doesn't it?" Blair speculated. "Maybe he's not doing it for the money."
"I think you're right there, Chief. I don't think it's money he's after. And he's smart. He's been too successful for it to be otherwise." Ellison was sure he was on the right track. "There's a connection here-- some common denominator with the stores he's robbed. We just have to find out what that is and then we can anticipate his next move."
"Hey, fellas?" Fred poked his head around the side of the partition. "Call just came in. There's been an attempted robbery at Cascade First National Bank. Sounds like it's the case you're working on. The perp was carrying flowers. And get this, they say that the security guard caught the guy!"
Languidly turning the pages of the most recent Cosmopolitan magazine and wondering how the models managed to keep their meager clothing hoisted on their bony bodies, Bettina Swift failed to notice the handsome young man sauntering across the parking lot of the Cascade Rent- O-Wreck. When the jaunty bell over the door announced his presence, Bettina sighed and lifted her eyes in irritation at having her reading interrupted. Her annoyance quickly fled, however, as she caught sight of the vision before her. Dressed in a well-tailored, obviously expensive, deep blue suit, he was, without a doubt, the best looking man she had ever seen in her life. Well, just short of Mel Gibson, that is, and he didn't really count because she'd never actually seen him except in the movies. She was drinking in (or perhaps drowning in) his deep brown eyes and slightly crooked smile when she realized he was speaking to her.
"I'm sorry?" she stammered, trying to return to her senses, but hating to let go of the fantasies she was quickly building in her mind.
"I said I'm in a bit of a bind," the man repeated patiently, smiling as if he hadn't noticed her rather obvious ogling.
Giving herself a mental shake, Bettina yanked herself back to the matters at hand. "What can I do for you?"
"I need to rent a car," the man explained rather unnecessarily, since it was, after all, a car rental agency. "May I sit down?" He motioned to the chair in front of Bettina's slightly battered bright yellow metal desk.
"Oh, of course, I'm sorry! Yes, please have a seat and let's see what I can do for you."
"You see, my BMW just broke down a mile or so down the road and I'm in desperate need of transportation. I have a very important meeting downtown in," he paused to check his watch and Bettina paused to check his short brownish blond hair and sexy wire-rimmed glasses, "thirty minutes."
"How inconvenient," Bettina managed to murmur, taking in the straight nose and firm jaw line, wondering what the man did for a living. He looked like the Wall Street type, perhaps a stockbroker.
"Very," he agreed with a sigh. "So it was providence, you see, that you happened to be so close by and that the tow truck driver agreed to drop me here."
Bettina firmly believed in providence at that moment and fervently wished that she had had just a few moments to refresh her lipstick before the young god had appeared before her.
"And what sort of car did you have in mind, Mr....?"
"Johnson. Maxwell Johnson."
"Well, Mr. Johnson, what sort of car did you have in mind? I'm afraid we don't have anything quite on a par with your own car..."
"Oh, don't worry about that, Ms..." a quick glance at the nameplate on the desk supplied her last name "...Swift. I don't have time to be particular. My meeting is far more important than what car I arrive in. In fact, that car right there in the front row will do me nicely, thank you."
Bettina's gaze followed Mr. Johnson's pointing finger to rest on a baby blue 1990 Plymouth Horizon Hatchback. "Really? You want that car? I'm sure we must have something a little newer and nicer than that..."
"No, really, Ms. Swift. I don't have time to be choosy. If you could just begin the paperwork, I would appreciate it. I should only need it for a day or two." He reached in his pocket, extracted a wad of money and peeled two one-hundred dollar bills off the top. "Will this be sufficient deposit?"
Bettina tried to keep her eyes in her head. No one ever came to Cascade Rent-O-Wreck and offered cash on the barrelhead! She quickly gathered her wits and set about completing Mr. Johnson's paperwork.
An hour later, Alonso Skotty parked his rented compact car in the employee lot behind the Cascade Flora and Fauna Nursery. Waving to Juan, a long time, dedicated nursery employee, Alonso loosened his tie and headed for the small, custom landscape office, where he knew he'd find his uncle hard at work planning his newest landscape job.
"Hey, Uncle Howard, how're things today?" he greeted the older man as he entered the office and perched on a desk chair in front of a sorely neglected computer. Alonso had proudly presented his Uncle with the machine a year ago, replete with the latest in computerized landscape design software. But, while the computer had been lovingly accepted, and used occasionally for research, it remained largely idle. Howard Skotty was a man of his hands and much preferred sitting at his drafting table, drawing his landscape layouts, over sliding pre-created images around on a computer screen.
"Busy, as usual," Howard replied cheerfully, leaning back in his chair and stretching the kinks out of his stiffening shoulders. A middle-aged man with slightly thinning, salt and pepper hair, dancing gray eyes and sun-weathered skin, Howard Skotty had spent his entire life digging in the dirt and lovingly making things grow. And for the last 20 years, he had affectionately nurtured the nephew who sat across from him. "No matter the state of the economy, people always want beautiful lawns and gardens." He paused a moment, then asked, "So, what did you get this time?"
"'90 baby-blue Plymouth Horizon." Alonso grinned as his uncle's expression communicated his aversion to the vehicle he'd chosen. "Definitely nondescript." He slid from his perch and began unbuttoning his shirt. "Well, time for the Bouquet Bandit to ride again," he joked.
"Who're you going to be this time?" his uncle asked curiously.
"Ah, but that's a surprise, Uncle Howard," Alonso tossed over his shoulder as he opened the office door.
"Yeah, yeah," Howard chuckled good-naturedly. "You go make like Halloween and I'll get your flowers together."
Alonso paused in the doorway and then cast a serious expression his uncle's way. "Thank you, Uncle Howard. For everything."
The older man rose and gave his nephew a firm hug, his expression matching the younger man's. "I can't say I'm not concerned about what you're doing, 'Zo, and I'm definitely worried about the consequences. But, as long as you're sure about it, I'm behind you, boy." Lightening his expression, Howard swatted Alonso on the butt and added gruffly, "Now shoo." He followed Alonso through the door and while his nephew disappeared into the potting shed to effect his transformation, Howard crossed to the greenhouse to gather the flowers for the Bouquet Bandit's next heist.
Forty-five minutes later, Howard Skotty returned to his office, burdened with a vase full of roses, lilies, daisies and a myriad of other fragrant flowers. He stopped in surprise when he opened the office door to see a stranger standing by his desk, his back turned toward the door.
"Can I help you?" he asked, setting the flower arrangement on the computer table and wiping his hands on his pants.
The stranger turned around and, after a few startled seconds, Howard blurted out, "Alonso?"
Alonso grinned, extremely pleased with himself. "Guess I did good, huh?" Alonso Skotty had vanished, replaced by an urban biker. Alonso's light brown hair was now a deep brown and peeking out from beneath a Harley-Davidson ball cap was... a ponytail?! Gone were his deep brown eyes, hidden by emerald green contact lenses. His left earlobe sported a single silver loop. He had shed his conservative, expensive suit in favor of low-slung, faded blue jeans and a form fitting black t-shirt covered by a denim jacket. The Harley-Davidson theme was repeated in a patch sewn onto the breast pocket of the jacket.
"Holy cow!" Howard Skotty exclaimed, shaking his head in amazement, "If we'd've just passed on the street, I'd never have known you, boy!" He circled his nephew, taking in each aspect of the disguise he'd donned. "You even seem taller..."
Alonso laughed and lifted a cowboy boot encased foot. "Lifts," he explained succinctly.
"And the hair?" Howard asked, fingering the ponytail that dangled from beneath the baseball cap.
"Amazing what a hair extension can do."
The elder Skotty chuckled in disbelief and retrieved the flowers from the desk. Holding them out to his nephew, he pronounced, "Show time!"
Patrolman Scott Hutchence saw the blue and white Ford park behind his squad car. He had first come to know Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg as teammates on the precinct baseball team and had liked them from day one. They not only played a great game of baseball, they were a lot of fun to hang out with after the game. He had learned from the start, in the days before the police observer became a police officer, that the two of them enjoyed a tough case, but better yet, he knew they loved a good story.
"Hey, guys." Scott trotted over to intercept the two detectives before they entered the bank. "Wait up a minute." He had long legs to match his lanky six-and-a-half foot frame and covered the short distance in a few strides.
Both Jim and Blair turned to see who had called them, and Blair, waiting until Hutchence was close enough to hear, nudged his partner in the ribs. "Jim, look who it is. It's that guy who thinks he knows how to play short."
Scott chuckled and shook his head. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you? I overthrow once, once, to second and I'm branded for life."
"Never make a mistake when Darwin's around," Jim said dryly. "So what have we got in there, Scott? You think it's our guy?"
"I doubt it." Hutchence's face broke into a wide and dimpled grin. "Tracey and I got here just minutes after the call came through. We were only a few blocks away. You should have seen the scene we walked into." His grin became impossibly wider. "This security guy, George Franklin, has some poor schmuck on the floor, kneeling on him. When Trace and I were coming through the doors we heard him telling this guy that he's robbed his last bank and that he would regret the day he decided to pick on Cascade First National and George Franklin." Scott held up his hand as if swearing an oath. "I promise, I am not making this up. This Franklin must have watched every rerun that he could find of the Untouchables on cable."
"Probably," Sandburg laughed. "So what happened? Was he okay with handing his desperado over to a couple of lowly cops? Or did you have to fight him for it?"
"Well, for a couple of minutes there, it did get a little dicey. When Tracey and I got a better look, we saw that he wasn't only trying to break every rib on this poor guy, but that he had one very serious looking gun aimed at him. This is a pea-shooter compared to it." Hutchence patted his own holstered weapon. "So Tracey was very cool about it. She quietly announced that we were on the scene and to put away his weapon. I was really worried that this yahoo was going to end up shooting someone accidentally, but he got up nice and easy and let us take over."
"So what makes you think that this isn't the Bouquet Bandit?" Jim asked. "It fits."
"When Franklin was finally off the guy's back, I covered Tracey while she got the bandit to his feet. As soon as Thomas, that's the flower guy, was upright he jumped into Tracey's arms and begged her to protect him from the lunatic that had almost blown his head off." Hutchence couldn't help but laugh, remembering the young man's face. "Maybe it was a great performance, but neither Tracey nor I think Thomas is your man."
Ellison started for the bank doors. "Let's go find out. No offense, Scott, but I hope you're wrong. I'd like to be done with case as soon as possible." Holding the door open for his partner and the street cop, the sentinel's hopes died. The floral scent that filled the bank wasn't similar in any way to the one that had been present at the other robberies. He started to tell Blair what he thought, but could see that his partner had already reached the same conclusion.
"Different guy, Jim." Sandburg pointed to the crushed flowers that littered the marble floor. "They're not the same flowers, and it doesn't look like the same paper our thief uses to wrap the bouquets in."
"Yeah, I know." The detective couldn't keep the disappointment from his voice. "I noticed the scent was different as soon as I opened the door. Let's question Thomas, anyway, just in case it is our guy pulling a fast one."
The very distraught Drew Thomas eagerly answered every question put to him. Jim, chewing the inside of his cheek to stop from grinning, noticed that the deliveryman seemed to have developed a nervous tic. Every time George Franklin moved he would jump. The sentinel listened carefully to Thomas' heart and breathing, but the man seemed genuinely distressed and he was fairly sure that he was hearing the truth. The only crime that had been committed that afternoon was the spoiling of the retirement party for one Dorothy Dunphy. Although, from the twinkle in the sixty-seven year old woman's eyes as she approached him, Ellison got the impression that she was enjoying the show.
"Forty years working in the bank and I finally get to see some action." She handed Jim a piece of her retirement cake. "I saved two pieces with flowers on them for both you and that partner of yours."
Taking the plate and plastic fork, Ellison was barely able to taste the first mouthful when his cell phone began chirping from his jacket pocket. He one-handedly flipped it open to take the call. "Ellison." He listened to the brief instructions and followed it with a terse, "Got it, the Fashion Mall on Webster." Putting the cake on the nearest table, he called over to his partner. "Sandburg, let's roll. We've got a report that he's been spotted."
Blair looked from the woman to the cake and sighed. He was about to hand it back to her when she quickly wrapped the plate in a large napkin.
"Why don't you take it with you, dear. You can save it for later."
Juggling the plate in one hand, he gave Dorothy a one-armed hug. "Thanks! And happy retirement." Turning, he saw that his partner was already out the door.
Jim was sitting impatiently in the truck, waiting for his partner, when Blair hopped into the passenger side and deposited a brightly wrapped package on the dashboard. "Is that what I think it is?" The delicate scent of vanilla was making his mouth water.
"Yup," Sandburg grinned as he secured his seat belt. He knew the question that was coming next and he didn't have long to wait. The Sentinel of the Great City had a definite sweet-tooth when it came to cake.
"You're going to share, right?"
The Chief Security Officer of the Cascade Fashion Mall met Ellison and Sandburg at the doors to the main level. "I really hope that I haven't dragged the both of you out here on a wild goose chase." Carl Simpson shook hands with the detectives. "I have a friend in the department who was telling me some of the details about the Bouquet Bandit. I thought that my place would be as likely a target as any." He looked at his watch. "You made it here in good time. I don't think it's been five minutes since I called it in."
"We were on another call not far from here," Blair offered. "We got lucky with the lights."
"What tipped you off about the Bandit?" Jim asked as they followed Simpson to an escalator. "I'm sure that you've seen people carrying flowers through the mall before." The detective was praying that this wasn't another case of someone overreacting.
"Security cameras picked up a car parked illegally in the loading area," Simpson explained. "That happens all the time and usually we just let it go. He's up on third." The security chief pointed to another escalator when they reached the second level. "Like I was saying, we usually ignore it, but this car had those magnetic plates on it. I remember my buddy saying that the name that some people had spotted had 'petals' in it. This one had Perfect Petals."
"Bingo!" Blair sang from behind the pair. "I guess you have someone keeping an eye on him up there?"
"That's right, my people have been told to observe and wait for the police to arrive. We didn't want to spook the guy. He was seen heading for the southeast wing of the mall. There's a jewelry store in that end and we're assuming that's where he's headed. The rest of the area is basically a food court. It's down this way."
Ellison and Sandburg followed Simpson through the bustling level of the shopping center. The area seemed to be a mass of confusion and noise, reminding the sentinel of why he hated large, crowded malls. Extending his vision, Jim spotted the bobbing bouquet of flowers as their thief made his way through the throng of shoppers.
"There he is, Chief." Ellison pointed to a spot straight ahead of them. "Carl, he hasn't threatened or harmed anyone up until this point, but if you can get your people to discreetly steer the crowd away from the store that would help."
Blair half-listened to the instructions being relayed by Simpson to his security staff. He was more concerned about how he and his partner were going to be able to sneak up on their quarry with the number of people that stood between him and them. "How do you want to handle this, Jim? Do we wait until he gets into the store?"
"Yeah, I think that might be the best way to do it. If he takes off into the crowd it's going to be hard to track him." They were almost on top of him now. "We just have to get a little closer and then I'd say we... we..."
Sandburg was a pace or two ahead of his partner, but turned quickly to stare wide-eyed at the sentinel. "Oh no," Blair whispered, "Jim, you're not..." He winced at the sneeze that seemed to erupt from his friend and the slew of others that followed without pause. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he rasped, then groaned. "Damn, he's made us, Chief."
The explosive sneeze had not only drawn the attention of the nearby shoppers, but that of the Bouquet Bandit, as well. The two detectives and the security chief watched the man's eyes grow wider as he saw the number of security uniforms that seemed to be moving in on him. Through bleary eyes, Ellison saw him tense. "He's going to run."
At Jim's words, Sandburg took off after the Bandit. He heard his partner call out for him to wait, but he couldn't stand being so close to making an arrest and then losing him. He knew he could overtake the man. He just needed to get through the crowds that were in his way.
"Police! Out of the way!" That hoarse shout had come from behind Blair. Knowing that Jim was there to give him some backup, he poured on extra speed. His adrenaline was pumping and the chase was on. Grinning, the younger detective saw the mass of people part like the Red Sea. They had him!
"Police! Stop!" Blair lunged forward and snagged the corner of the Bandit's jacket. He was getting ready to throw himself into a tackle to bring the thief down when the man did the unexpected. He stopped. For a few moments Sandburg came face to face with the now almost infamous Bouquet Bandit. The fear and panic in the other man's expression was nothing of a hardened criminal or someone driven by desperation to commit a crime. What other thoughts about the man might have occurred to him had to wait. Sandburg now found himself in the strong grip of his prey.
"No! Please!" The Bouquet Bandit gave Blair a firm shove in an attempt to throw him off balance.
It all happened within a matter of seconds. Blair was thinking it an odd thing for a thief to say -- 'Please'. Then he was stumbling backwardsss. He had just about regained his balance when the middle of his back hit the railing that circled the shopping area. Momentum and gravity took him over the side and into empty air. With a panicked shout he realized that it was going to be three long floors down to the bottom if a miracle didn't happen. "Jiiiiiiiimmmmmm!"
The sentinel's heart almost stopped. He watched helplessly as Blair was pushed backwards and into the guardrail. Praying that he would get there in time, but knowing that he wouldn't, he witnessed his partner's fall. Oh God, Blair, I am so sorry. The police-trained part of his brain noted that the man they were chasing had stopped and appeared to be almost as shaken as he was by what had happened. Jim was sure that he had seen him take a step to try to rescue his partner. Police training soon fell away, though, and all that remained was the anguish of what he would see when he looked over the railing. As cowardly as he thought it was, the sentinel was afraid to use his senses to listen for a heartbeat, fearing that all he would hear would be the sickening crash.
Ellison skidded to a halt at the banister, barely registering that Simpson now stood next to him, yelling at his men to call for the paramedics. Closing his eyes, Jim tried to steel himself for the sight he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. Holding his breath, he looked over the side. It was almost with shock that it registered that there was no broken body lying on the floor three levels down.
"Jim?" Blair's voice was a terrified gasp coming from below him. "Help!"
Blair Sandburg hung, dangling from a decorative support beam, a hundred feet above the heads of the shoppers below.
Howard Skotty had just closed the door to the potting shed when the blue Horizon skidded to a stop in front of the custom landscape office and Alonso virtually leapt out of the car. Something was definitely wrong, he surmised as he watched his nephew dart into the small office. Alonso usually returned the rental cars and removed his disguise before returning to the nursery. The elder Scotty hurried across the parking lot and pushed the office door open to find Alonso pacing from one end of the cramped room to the other.
"What happened?" Howard demanded, watching the younger man anxiously as he agitatedly dragged his palms over his face and then raked his fingers through his hair. All the while, the pacing never stopped.
Alonso spun to face his uncle and pain shone clearly through his eyes. "Oh God, Uncle Howard," he moaned, shaking his head and resuming his pacing.
The weathered nurseryman captured his nephew's arm in mid-pace, halting his steps and turning him to face him once more. "What happened, Alonso? Did they almost catch you this time?" he demanded, his breath quickening as his nephew's agitation washed over and infected him as well.
"Worse, Uncle Howard," Alonso groaned, his eyes now haunted. "So much worse! I almost killed a man today!" He broke away from his uncle's grasp and strode over to the window to stare across the acres of carefully tended shrubbery. His Uncle Howard had always taught him to cherish and nurture all living things and he'd nearly taken a life today! "These two cops were chasing me through the mall today. Damn cowboy boots slowed me down. One of them caught up with me and grabbed my jacket. I pushed him away and he went over the railing on the third level."
Howard's breath caught in his throat as he envisioned the scene. "Do you know if he was badly hurt?"
"He didn't fall, thank God," Alonso sighed, dropping into a chair and dropping his head into his hands. "The other cop pulled him up. I wasn't trying to hurt him, Uncle Howard! It just happened so fast and things got out of control!"
"I know, son," Howard murmured, squeezing the despondent man's shoulder sympathetically. Ever since Alonso had begun his Bouquet Bandit adventure, Howard had feared for his nephew's safety. He was afraid of him being caught, getting hurt or accidentally hurting someone. Today his nightmare had almost come true.
Never lifting his face from his hands, Alonso groaned a question Howard Skotty had no answer to. "What am I going to do, Uncle Howard?"
Henri and Rafe huddled around Ellison and Sandburg, listening in fascination as Blair told of his near fatal meeting with the Bouquet Bandit.
Shaking his head in amazement, Rafe tried to imagine the thoughts that would go through one's mind in a situation like that. "That's incredible, Blair, not to mention quick thinking."
"Who was thinking?" Sandburg laughed. "All I knew was that if I didn't do something I was going to make an awfully big mess when I landed." He saw Jim stiffen and was immediately sorry for the flippant remark.
"All I can say, Hairboy, is that I'm glad you're around to be able to joke about it." Henri tousled his friend's hair. "Hate to have to break in another rookie," he chuckled as he and his partner headed back to their desks.
"Thanks for the concern, Brown," Blair called after him. "I'll remember that." Reaching up, he rubbed at the shoulder that had taken most of the shock when he had grabbed onto the beam.
"I saw that!" Jim pointed at his partner accusingly and reached for his jacket. "Let's go."
"Jim!" Blair didn't bother trying to hide his exasperation and continued to massage his aching muscles. This had been going on for the last hour. "I'm fine. I'm just a little stiff, that's all." He rotated the joint to prove to his friend that his arm was not about to fall off. "See, everything works like it should." He gave his partner a smile. "You checked it out. You told me yourself that it was fine."
"It wouldn't hurt to have it looked at by a doctor, Chief. I might have missed something." Ellison had tried not to hover or crowd his partner, knowing how much he hated it. Unfortunately, his protective nature where his guide was concerned was winning the battle. "Just to be safe," he added quietly.
The anger, that had been building since Jim had decided to become worse than his mother on a bad day, evaporated when Blair realized how jumpy his partner was. Both of them had been badly shaken by the day's events. Blair had been certain that he had seen his last day when he had been suddenly thrown over that barrier. He knew, without a doubt, that it had been just as hard for his friend to witness. He would have died a thousand deaths if the situation had been reversed.
The terror he had felt as he had dangled from the beam had been there in his friend's face, as well. Then, suddenly, that look had disappeared to be replaced by one of resolve. Jim had yelled to him to hang on, that he would get him back to safety. He had felt his friend's strong hand wrap around his wrist and knew that Jim would keep his word, but still it had taken every ounce of trust he had to finally let go of the beam. When Jim had pulled him back onto solid ground, Blair had been given a hug that had threatened to break a couple of ribs. His partner, the cop, had been replaced with his sentinel and protector. All thoughts of following after the Bouquet Bandit had been abandoned while Jim had made sure that he was all right. And if Blair was to be honest, he had needed that. As much as he had just joked with Henri and Rafe, he had been certain that he was going to fall to his death.
Mentally shaking himself of the panic that seemed to be trying to take hold of him again, he gazed up into the concerned face of his best friend. "Yeah, Jim?"
"You going to be okay?" Ellison had moved to sit on the corner of his desk. "You got a little pale."
"Just thinking." From the intense look he was getting from the sentinel, Blair was sure that the man had been doing some thinking of his own. "Thanks for being there, Jim."
"Anytime, Sandburg." He gave his guide's shoulder a quick squeeze. Straightening, he gave the air a sniff. He was sure he could smell flowers. "Blair, do you smell flowers?"
"Jim? Blair?" Serena Chang had entered the bullpen carrying a tray. "I heard about your mishap, Blair. I'm glad to see that you're all right." She smiled at them both. "I thought that I'd kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to see how you are, Blair, and I've done as you asked, Jim. I broke the flowers down to their essential oils." She placed the tray on Blair's desk. "How would you like to proceed?"
"Sandburg and I were trying to figure out the significance of the flowers," Jim explained. "We think that the flowers and the scent used on the card are connected and we're hoping that, by figuring out that connection, we'll have a clue as to who this person is." He scratched at his chin. "It's a long shot, but we've come up empty on everything else, so far."
"I see." Serena picked up a dropper and, using test tubes, placed a small amount of one essence into another. "So what you're hoping is that we'll be able to recreate the scent by combining the flowers." She chuckled to herself as she played with the oils. "Maybe I'll discover a new perfume to drive men wild and go on to fame and fortune."
"Just as long as you remember your poor friends who gave you your start, Serena," Blair grinned. "Hmmm, smells nice." He looked up at the sentinel. "What do you think, Jim? Is it the same one?"
"Close. Can you try combining them all and seeing what we come up with?" Jim asked.
"Sure." Starting with a clean tube, Serena added a small amount of each flower to it. "There you go. How's that?"
Sandburg smiled triumphantly as he saw his partner try to stifle a sneeze. "I think that's it, Serena!" He handed Ellison a tissue. "That was the reaction we were waiting for."
Before she had a chance to answer, Megan Connor's angry voice filled the room. "All right, which one of you manly detectives has found my perfume and decided to bathe with it?" Slamming a file down on her desk, she slowly glared at each of the detectives. "That bottle cost me a fortune."
"You know this perfume?" Serena held up the test tube. "We just created it now."
Puzzled, Megan walked over to the small group around Sandburg's desk. "What do you mean, you just created it? That's Scentsations, the new perfume that was released by Chantel Perfumes last month. "
One large splotch of rain landed on the windshield of the Ford pickup as it headed for Prospect. The weather had been threatening rain all day and now, as the day was quickly fading into evening, the skies had decided to open. Without taking his eyes off the road, Ellison turned on the windshield wipers and adjusted the heater. The low hum of the fan mixed with the steady beat of the wipers, creating a rhythm that was familiar and soothing. Sighing contentedly, the detective was happy to be heading home to the loft.
Blair, who sat curled up against the passenger door, reached for the passenger side flow vent and re-directed the stream of warm air to wash over him. His shoulder ached from the strain that had been put on it, but he knew a hot shower and an early night would do the trick. "What a day, huh?"
"You said it, Chief," Jim readily agreed. "It's going to feel good just to kick back for a few hours and then crash. I'm exhausted." He gently tapped on the truck's horn. The driver in front hadn't noticed that the light had changed to green.
"I get dibs on the shower, okay?" Sandburg tried to stifle a yawn and failed. The heat was making him sleepy.
Looking at his friend fondly before turning his attention back to the road, the corner of the sentinel's mouth lifted into a crooked grin. "Okay."
Silence enveloped the cab once more-- both men happy to lose themselves in their own thoughts as the rain beat down around them.
"Jim?" Sandburg wiped at the condensation that had formed on his window. "Have you put the pieces together yet? The flowers, and the scent? We thought they were connected and now we know that they are. But now what? Maybe I'm too tired to think straight, but if they're some kind of message, I'm not getting it."
"Let's look at what we've got." Ellison raised a finger off of the steering wheel to begin his count. "One, the same flowers are at every crime scene. Two, the cards are all doused with the same scent. Three, the assumption that we're dealing with only one thief..."
"But," Blair interrupted, "I think we have a pretty strong case to suggest that it is one man."
"Not really." The detective decided to play devil's advocate. "We haven't been able to lift prints from the evidence we've collected. The descriptions are all different enough that we could be working with more than one person." Jim flicked the signal light and turned onto Prospect. "Until we have definite proof, it's going to remain an assumption. It's too easy to make a mistake or miss something, otherwise. And our last assumption is that he doesn't seem to be doing it for the money. Or they don't," he quickly corrected himself as he directed the truck into his parking space.
"Yeah," the younger detective laughed softly as he hopped out the cab and ran for the apartment building. "Not unless he likes to set his goals incredibly low." Reaching the door before his partner, he held it open. "C'mon, Jim, let's move it."
Trotting up the sidewalk, Ellison shook his head. "I had to retrieve this." He pulled the forgotten piece of cake from under his jacket. "Finders-keepers, Sandburg."
Rolling his eyes, Blair knew when he was beaten. "Okay, okay. It's yours. But I still think we're going to be wasting our time trying to establish more than one thief." He hit the button for the elevator and was surprised when the doors opened immediately. "Our lucky night."
"You might be right, Chief, but I'm not going to be the one explaining to Simon why we missed it if it does turn out that there is more than one." Ellison grinned and faked a shudder. "I'm still stinging after the last tearing down."
"I hadn't thought about that." Sandburg fished for his keys, and finding them, opened the door to the loft. "It wouldn't look good if we missed the obvious, would it?"
"No, it wouldn't, Sandburg," Ellison agreed as he pushed his partner through the door. "Why don't you go get that shower and put some ointment on your shoulder. I'll start dinner." He took his friend's jacket and hung it next to his. "And if I'm feeling generous, I may even share my dessert with you."
Hearing the French doors to Blair's bedroom close, Jim set about putting dinner together. Opening the fridge door, he surveyed the meager pickings. The only thing that looked halfway appetizing was the leftover roast from the night before. Deciding that roast beef sandwiches on the oatmeal bread that his friend liked so much would be filling enough, he pulled out what he would need.
As he put the condiments and bread out on the workspace it occurred to him. It was all spread out before him! The Harrod's Mustard, Golden Bakery Bread, and the Good'n'Hearty canned soup he had taken from the cupboard. It was all so obvious. All separate products from separate companies, but in the corner of the packaging for each product was a small symbol of the parent company, Heartland Foods. That was the connection they were looking for! It wasn't in the flowers or the scent on the cards. It was the businesses that had been robbed. He and his partner had been so focused on the evidence left behind that they had missed the one true piece of evidence that he knew would lead them to their Bouquet Bandit. What was it he had said to Blair? The man was good at sleight of hand. Damn good.
He heard the soft footfalls of his friend behind him. "Hey, Chief, I think I just figured out..." His mouth dropped open. "What the hell?"
His partner stood next to the table with a huge smile on his face. "So what do you think, Jim? I thought I'd change my look."
"You didn't hit your head in that fall, did you, Sandburg?" Ellison asked as he slowly surveyed his guide's getup. Blair was wearing one of his louder Hawaiian shirts, open, with a dark tee shirt underneath, and the rattiest pair of jeans the sentinel had ever seen. Most of his friend's hair had been tucked up under a baseball cap, but what was showing was now a startling blond color. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of aviator glasses and a cigarette dangled from his lips. The finishing touch was the five o'clock shadow that had started to show. Somehow Blair had managed to darken it.
"Well, I don't know what to say, Chief. I don't think your mother would recognize you if she walked through that door." Folding his arms across his chest, the detective leaned against the table. "I get your point, though," he chuckled, "and it's not that I don't agree with you. It's very possible that we are dealing with one man. But I think that I may have just figured out the common denominator that we've been searching for."
"You have?" Blair's eyebrows shot up, peeking out above the glasses. "What is it?"
"I think you were right when you said that the flowers and scent were a message. I'm fairly sure that a trip to the department's forensic auditor is going to show that each company that was robbed is somehow related to Chantel Perfumes. I'll tell you more when we sit down to eat. But first, go change, will ya? That blond hair is hurting my eyes," the sentinel smirked.
"So, how ya doing, Jim?" Blair whispered, inching closer to his partner in the opulent reception lobby of Chantel International. "Did you remember to dial it down before we came in?"
"Yeah," Jim replied softly, tweaking the dial a notch lower as a stylishly dressed, eau de toilet-doused employee passed them on her way to the company cafeteria. "But it's still plenty strong."
"Man, I can't believe the answer to this riddle was right under our noses the entire time!" Sandburg joked with a twinkle in his eye, punching his partner lightly on the arm. Ellison rolled his eyes at the terrible pun and muttered, "Simon's 'sniff it out' joke was better than that, Sandburg!"
"He just beat me to it, that's all," Blair tossed back in his defense. Jim snorted softly in amusement then put a hand on his partner's shoulder and gently directed him toward the reception desk, where yet another aromatic young woman greeted them.
"Hi! Welcome to Chantel International!" she chirped brightly, smiling flirtatiously with what she considered two very good-looking men. "How can I help you?"
The two detectives displayed their badges and identified themselves. "We'd like to speak with Sidney Bell," Jim said, sliding his badge back onto its standard location on his belt.
The receptionist's enthusiasm slipped slightly at the official sounding tone of the larger detective's voice, but her smile remained. "If you'll have a seat in our waiting area, I'll see if Mr. Bell is in."
"Thank you." Jim smiled slightly at his dampening effect on the bubbly young woman. He and Blair moved into a garishly decorated waiting area, furnished with a bright red velvet couch, blinding yellow vinyl chairs and a purple carpet. "Looks like a brothel," Jim muttered under his breath, perching uncomfortably on the edge of one of the ultra modern vinyl chairs.
"You shouldn't malign brothels like that, Jim," Sandburg chuckled, blinking in disbelief at the tasteless decor. "I'm not sure any self respecting brothel would stoop to this level of decorating. Maybe they're trying to make sure you don't stay long. Hey, look." He motioned to a glass case displaying the various perfume products manufactured or marketed by Chantel International. "There's Scentsations."
Jim gratefully rose from the uninviting chair and bent to examine the variety of bottles and jars that made up the display, his attention particularly focused on the brightly colored Scentsations bottle. A riot of intense colors swirled about the body of the vessel and Jim decided that scent wasn't his only sense being assaulted by the company's product. The intertwined reds, blues, greens, pinks and yellows made his eyes hurt and the swirled pattern made him slightly motion sick. Interesting, since it wasn't a sensation he had suffered at any other time. Perhaps it was the bottle's design competing with the gaudy color scheme that surrounded it.
The receptionist's cheery voice saved him from further reflection and sensory overload. "Mr. Bell will see you now, Detective Ellison." She directed them to a bank of elevators and told them to take an elevator to the 25th floor, where Mr. Bell's administrative assistant would meet them.
The elevator car doors opened on the 25th floor to reveal a much more tastefully decorated reception area than the main lobby offered. Plush maroon carpet cushioned heavy cherry wood furniture and rich paneling covered the walls. Silence blanketed the area and Blair decided that excess sounds were simply swallowed up by the heavy, opulent furnishings. He was feeling distinctly out of place in his plaid shirt, Dockers and hiking boots.
A conservatively dressed woman in her mid-forties greeted the two detectives and Jim noted absently that the scent she wore was much more understated and judiciously applied than the ones the employees they'd met so far wore.
"Good afternoon, Detective Ellison." She smiled professionally, but insincerely, and motioned them toward a set of heavy paneled French doors. "Mr. Bell will see you now." She opened one of the doors and held it open as Ellison and Sandburg moved through it. "Mr. Bell, these are Detectives Ellison and Sandburg." After making the introduction, she backed out of the office and silently pulled the doors together.
Jim spared a quick glance around an office that rivaled the reception area for opulence. Sidney Bell's huge, mahogany desk was strategically located in front of an impressive wall of windows that overlooked a lavish rooftop garden. One richly paneled wall was fronted by a large display case with yet another collection of Chantel International products, as well as a notable selection of crystal and liquors supported by glass shelves. Another wall was decorated with a large map of the world with hundreds of pushpin markers that the detective assumed denoted Chantel International's retail and manufacturing locations. The wall across from Bell's desk was comprised of a huge saltwater aquarium with an exotic assortment of sea life.
Sidney Bell rose from his chair behind the imposing desk and greeted the Cascade detectives graciously. "What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he asked, after directing them to the two comfortable, overstuffed chairs in front of his desk.
"We're investigating a string of unusual robberies," Jim began circumspectly. "And we're hoping you can provide us with some missing pieces of information."
"Robberies?" Bell repeated in confusion. "We haven't had any robberies here, Detective. Chantel International has state-of-the-art security and I'm certain if we'd had any incidents, my head of security would have informed me."
"The robberies I'm referring to haven't occurred at Chantel International, Mr. Bell," Jim clarified. "But there does appear to be a connection between them."
"Really? In what way?" The sentinel monitored the man's heartbeat and respiration and found no sign of anything beyond simple curiosity.
"Before I get to that, sir, I'd like to ask you a few general questions, if you don't mind."
"Certainly, Detective, as long as you don't ask me to reveal a trade secret. Although I must say you've certainly piqued my interest with your approach." Bell returned to his black leather chair behind the fine wood desk and settled his attention on the taller of his visitors.
"Our records indicate you own Chantel International, Mr. Bell." While not directly a question, the tone of Jim's voice clearly asked for verification of the information.
"Along with several other individuals, yes. So?"
"And Chantel International is actually an investment firm which owns many other businesses, including Chantel Perfumes?" Jim responded to the man's question with a question.
"Yes, it is. That's quite common," Bell readily admitted with a shrug. "We have our fingers in lots of pies, as it were. Perfume is not our only business. To succeed today, a company must be diversified. But what's that got to do with these robberies you're investigating?"
"The targeted businesses," Jim decided not to reveal the business names as yet, "were all either owned by Chantel International or included you as a member of their board of directors." Jim also chose not to disclose the Scentsations tie-in between the robberies.
Sidney Bell was clearly taken aback by the news. "Me?" he squeaked in surprise. "What in the world would I have to do with a bunch of robberies?"
"That's what we're trying to find out, sir." Blair stepped into the conversation. "Can you think of someone who would have a grudge against you or Chantel International?"
The corporate executive laughed arrogantly at the question. "The line forms outside the door, Detective. I'm a successful businessman, running a very successful company in a highly competitive industry. And this is only one of the companies I head up. I'm sure I have enemies I don't even know about."
"A list of the ones you do know about would be helpful, sir."
"Of course. But, while I'm sure Chantel's competitors would love to see our demise, I can't imagine that any of them would resort to petty theft to try to discredit or injure us. We're too large for that sort of tactic to be successful."
"What about disgruntled employees?" Blair pressed, glancing surreptitiously at his partner, trying to gauge Jim's reaction to the man's responses. He'd gotten very good at reading Jim's body language over the years and recognized his partner's relaxed posture as a sign that Sidney Bell's answers had so far been on the level in the sentinel's opinion.
"I'm sure we have quite a few of those as well, although we pride ourselves on providing one of the best working environments and benefit packages in the industry," Bell responded proudly.
"Again, a list of terminated employees within the last three months would be helpful," Jim said. "Voluntary as well as involuntary."
"Of course." Bell reached for his phone and pressed an intercom button. "Irene, would you please contact Human Resources and ask them to bring me the files of all employees who have left us within the last three months, immediately?" He paused for a moment to listen and when he spoke, his tone was authoritative. "I don't care how short notice it is, Irene. Tell them I need them within 15 minutes. I paid good money for a state-of-the-art computer system and I expect them to use it. And bring us a pot of coffee while we wait, please." Obviously, despite the affability Bell had shown them so far, he ran his organization with an iron fist.
The coffee arrived and, as expected, it was hot and richly flavored. Ellison reflected that he'd certainly be a great deal more productive in the bullpen if he could get his hands on coffee of this quality. Simon usually had a pretty good stash, but you couldn't just waltz into his office and raid his coffee pot on a whim. Well, okay, Sandburg seemed to be able to get away with it pretty often, but no one else dared to try it. As they drank their coffee, Bell proudly extolled the virtues of Chantel International, a company he was obviously proud of.
Twenty minutes after the request went out, the harried Human Resources representative arrived with the terminated employee files. Bell had impatiently checked his watch at the 15- minute mark, but had refrained from commenting. He accepted the files from the representative and informed her that he would have Irene return them when they were finished with them. The woman was clearly not comfortable about letting the files out of her sight, but accepted the edict with equanimity.
Five employees had either been released or left of their own accord within the last three months. Considering the size of the company, the low turnover rate did, indeed, speak well of the benefits of working at Chantel International. One of the employees was a woman who had left to be with her husband, whose job had transferred him overseas. One had openly taken a lucrative position with a Chantel competitor. Two had retired. Only one employee had been involuntarily terminated.
"Alonso Skotty," Jim muttered aloud, reading from the file in his hand. He glanced up as Bell's heart rate spiked, the first sign of discomfort the man had shown since their arrival. "Says here he was laid off."
Bell shifted slightly in his chair. "Ah yes, Mr. Skotty. I'd forgotten he left us. A fine young man."
"Isn't it kind of unusual to lay off just one employee, Mr. Bell?" Blair asked curiously.
Bell glanced away for a moment and then replied. "Mr. Skotty was a fine perfumer, had a very good nose, as it were. However, we found that we had overstaffed on scent developers and Mr. Skotty, unfortunately, lacked the seniority to make the cut."
The explanation rang a little false to the detectives, but they certainly couldn't pursue the issue. While unusual, it wasn't a crime to lay off a single employee.
Jim glanced at the photo taken to grace the company ID badges he had noted each employee wearing. A smiling face, full of promise, stared back at him. He certainly looked nothing like any of the descriptions they'd obtained of the Bouquet Bandit, but that was to be expected, given his chameleon-like ability to change his appearance. "Could we take this photo, Sir?"
"I'll have Irene make a copy for you, Detective. I figure I've pushed my HR department past their boundaries enough for one day." Bell laughed a bit thinly and left the office to pass the task on to his assistant.
"It's a long shot," Jim said to his partner once they were alone, "but I figure it can't hurt to have the victims take a look at the photo." He took the opportunity to jot down Skotty's last known address.
Blair shrugged. "I guess not, but it's not like he looks anything like the descriptions we got or the guy I met in the mall."
They broke the conversation off as they heard the heavy wooden door open, the sound muffled by the thick carpet below. "Here you are, Detective." Bell's earlier assurance had returned. "I'm sure you'll find Mr. Skotty to be a fine, upstanding young man."
As they left the opulence of Chantel International behind them, Blair voiced the thought that had been occupying his mind for the last several minutes. "Did you get the impression he was trying just a little too hard to steer us away from Skotty?"
"You noticed that too, huh? Add to that, that when I first mentioned Skotty's name, Bell's heart rate went through the roof. Believe me, Chief, there's more to this situation than just being overstaffed."
"So what now?" Blair asked as they resumed their accustomed and well-worn positions in the truck. "Do we pay Skotty a visit?"
Jim started the engine, put the truck into gear and backed out of the visitor parking space before answering his partner. "Yeah, but I figure we can drop by Crispy Creme and show the manager Skotty's picture. Maybe we'll get lucky and she'll be able to ID him. That'd really lock things down for us before we go have a talk with him."
Blair laughed aloud. "Or maybe you'll get lucky and they'll have freshly baked prune Danishes waiting for you!"
Ellison nodded sagely. "That too, Chief, that too."
A companionable silence had fallen between the partners as the truck bounced along Bardin Avenue on its way to Crispy Creme. Jim concentrated on his driving and Blair let his mind wander as his eyes roved over the businesses they passed. One business in particular caught his eye and he grinned at his partner. "Hey, man, maybe we should test your theory that he's renting his getaway cars."
"What?" Jim had been mulling over the case as he drove and Blair's comment hadn't really sunk in.
Blair crooked a thumb over his shoulder and explained. "We just passed a car rental agency."
The senior detective frowned slightly. "Sandburg, there must be hundreds of rent-a-car agencies in Cascade. What makes you suddenly pick this one?"
"Well, the Fashion Mall isn't far from here. I just thought maybe we'd get lucky." A sparkle lit Sandburg's eyes as he tossed his partner's earlier 'luck' comment back at him.
Ellison shrugged. "Worth a try, I guess." He checked his side mirrors and, seeing a clear path, turned the truck sharply in a U-turn. The sudden action caused Sandburg to grab for the dashboard in an effort to keep from flattening his skull on the window and he glared at his partner, who turned innocent eyes upon him and asked, "What?"
Bettina Swift had just finished drawing the nail polish brush across her pinky nail when the bell over the Cascade Rent-O-Wreck office jingled merrily.
Well, things are definitely looking up! she thought as two handsome men entered the office. That's three real lookers in two days! Carefully capping her Screaming Red nail polish bottle, she turned to address her latest customers. "Can I help you, gentlemen?" Oh, the things we could do...
"Detective Ellison," Jim identified himself and watched her expression deflate. Okay, that was twice in one day that his introduction had caused a marked attitude change. A more sensitive guy could get his feelings hurt, he thought. He almost groaned aloud as he recognized his own contribution to the sentinel bad pun pool. "This is my partner, Detective Sandburg. We're investigating a series of robberies in the area and wondered if you might have seen this man." He held up Alonso Skotty's photo.
As if I could forget that marvelous face! Bettina took the photo, careful not to smudge her still-wet nail polish. "Oh yes, I remember him well. This is Mr. Johnson. Maxwell Johnson. He came in yesterday in quite a hurry to rent a car. His BMW had broken down, you see, and he desperately needed a car to get to a meeting downtown. I gave him a blue Plymouth Horizon. Nothing happened to him, did it? He's not in any trouble, is he?"
Intentionally ignoring her questions, Ellison gently retrieved the photograph from the woman's rather sinister looking nails and smiled briefly. "Thank you for your help, Ms. Swift. If we need any more information, we'll be in touch."
Blair's long-shot idea had paid off. Alonso Skotty was their man.
Ellison brought the old Ford truck to a smooth stop at the end of a long, gravel driveway that led to a small ranch style house snuggled in a copse of pine trees. Alonso Skotty's address had led the two detectives to a rural area on the outskirts of Cascade.
Blair remained silent as his partner extended his senses to scan the residence before them.
"Two heartbeats," Jim reported after a moment. He accelerated slightly and they moved forward, the gravel crunching faintly under the weight of the truck.
"How do you want to handle this, Jim?" Blair asked as they pulled up in front of the weathered, but well kept home. The wood siding was painted a deep green and the roof was composed of cedar shingles, which served to blend the house in with its surroundings. The screened windows were open, allowing the crisp late winter air to circulate.
"I get the feeling this guy just isn't a desperate criminal, Chief. The way I figure it, we walk up to the front door and knock." Ellison slid from the truck and joined his partner by the passenger side door. They walked up three concrete steps to the front porch and Jim rapped firmly on the wooden screen door. The inside door was open, so the detective had a clear view of their suspect as he made his way down the short hallway to the front of the house. The hardened detective felt an unaccustomed wave of sympathy as his enhanced vision caught the sad expression on Skotty's face.
Pushing the screen door open, Skotty turned to Blair and, before either detective could say anything, said with a sincere smile, "I'm sorry about yesterday. I'm really glad you weren't hurt."
Blair wasn't sure what to say, so he simply shrugged and admitted, "I got lucky."
"Won't you gentlemen please come in?" As Blair's hand caught the door, Alonso stepped back and preceded the detectives down the hallway and into a small, comfortably furnished den. He dropped into a worn easy chair, rested his elbows on his knees and regarded Ellison and Sandburg. "I guess I'm glad it's over."
"Mr. Skotty, I must warn you that anything you say can be used against you. Perhaps you'd rather wait until your attorney is present before you say anything else..."
Alonso waved the detective's warning off. "I understand my rights, Detective. I was getting ready to turn myself in anyway. Yesterday's close call..." he turned to face Blair, "yours, not mine, was a real wake up call."
Blair's confusion was evident as he asked the question that had been plaguing him since they had been assigned the case. "What were you trying to accomplish with all those robberies? I mean, you didn't net much and we sort of got the impression that money wasn't your goal." In Blair's inexperienced opinion, Skotty didn't look much like a robber and his choice of targets had been eclectic, to say the least.
"It wasn't," the former Bouquet Bandit admitted, pushing to his feet and beginning to pace from one end of the small room to the other. "I guess I was trying to make a statement or something."
"A statement about what?" Ellison asked, looking up from frantically scribbling notes about Skotty's impromptu confession in his notebook.
"Well, since you found me, I assume you figured out the Chantel Perfumes connection?" Skotty asked, returning to his easy chair perch. Although is body radiated tension, neither detective felt their suspect was inclined to 'rabbit.'
"We did," Ellison admitted. "You were a perfumer there, weren't you?"
"Yeah, a junior chemist, working on one of Chantel's hottest new fragrances..."
"Scentsations?" Blair pieced the information together quickly.
"That's right, Detective. I almost single-handedly developed that fragrance, but then they suddenly let me go."
"Sidney Bell indicated that Chantel had an overabundance of scent developers," Jim offered, tuning into the man's heartbeat to unofficially gauge the veracity of the answer.
Skotty snorted derisively. "Chantel had exactly as many perfumers as they needed, Detective...?"
"Ellison," Jim supplied, realizing that in Skotty's haste to unburden himself, he and Blair had not yet introduced themselves. "And this is Detective Sandburg."
"As I was saying, Detective Ellison, Chantel wasn't overstaffed. Sidney Bell was overmatched. By his mistress..." The former perfumer paused for effect. "Chantel."
"His mistress is named Chantel?" Blair asked in amazement. "He named his perfume company after his mistress?"
"None other," Alonso Skotty confirmed with a slight smile.
"What do you mean, he was overmatched?" Ellison asked, directing the conversation back to the matter at hand.
"I mean that Chantel wasn't content to simply have a perfume company named after her," Skotty said snidely. "She wanted to play with it. I suspect Chantel threatened to tell Mrs. Bell about the affair, so Mr. Bell felt he had no choice but to bring her on board. I didn't really have a problem with that, you know? I mean, what was the harm, right? Well, Chantel didn't like me very much and wanted my job, so she got it." He laughed bitterly. "I was furious. I mean, I'd put Chantel Perfumes on the map with Scentsations and I got booted for the boss's bimbo."
"So, what precipitated the Bouquet Bandit?" Blair asked.
Alonso smiled at the reference and shrugged. "I didn't set out to create a persona for myself. I was just trying to think of a way to camouflage myself and also send a subtle clue that would lead to Chantel International and Sidney Bell. As a perfumer, I know that the best fragrances have a 'top note' that gets your attention and then the rest of the ingredients support the image that note creates. So, I created a top note for myself. Each time I created a character, I was calling attention to a particular feature, but one that wouldn't provide any real information about the real me."
"Sleight of hand," Jim supplied, casting a glance at his partner. In some ways, Blair was still an innocent to the devious ways of the world. He could tell his partner was astounded that Sidney Bell would choose to toss his best chemist rather than admit the truth of his adulterous relationship.
"Right," Skotty agreed then continued his story. "I knew I was leaving pretty obscure clues in hitting only businesses related to Sidney Bell and Chantel International and dousing the flower papers with Scentsations, but I guess that was me being arrogant. I knew somebody would figure it out sometime and then the truth would all come out. Mrs. Bell, and all Sidney's employees, would know the real Sidney Bell. But I have to admit, Detective Ellison, that you figured it out much faster than I anticipated. You must have a good nose for fragrances."
Jim coughed slightly and Blair chuckled, despite the seriousness of the situation. "Something like that."
Alonso rose to his feet and drew a steadying breath. "I didn't spend any of the money I took, except for what I used to rent the cars." He stepped to the bookcase and pulled a decorative metal box from one of the shelves. "I kept the money in here, along with the toy gun I used." As he handed it to Blair, a voice in the hall called his name.
"Alonso?" Howard Skotty hurried into the room, concern evident in his stride and posture. Alonso pulled his uncle into a long hug, then turned to face the two detectives.
"Uncle Howard, I'd like you to meet Detectives Ellison and Sandburg. They're here about the robberies."
Depressed by the task he had to perform, Ellison stepped forward and intoned, "Alonso Skotty, you're under arrest..."
Simon Banks placed two steaming cups of coffee in front of his detectives. Ellison and Sandburg had been sitting in the break room, looking gloomy, long enough.
"Thanks, Simon." Blair accepted the hot mug, blowing on it gently before taking a sip. "Mmmm, this is your coffee," he said, brightening. "Not the usual sludge."
Pulling out one of the hard plastic chairs, the police captain sat down and regarded both his men. "You looked like you could use it," he smiled. "Although, it'll probably be lost on your partner, there." Jim hadn't even looked at his mug. "Do you want to tell me what it is you two are looking so depressed about?"
Leaning his elbow on the table, Sandburg rested his head in his cupped hand. "The Bandit case."
"The case?" Simon was genuinely surprised. "I thought that you two'd be ecstatic. You finished it in record time. I thought that you were going to resign over it, Jim, when I gave it to the two of you."
"I know," Ellison said, looking into the muddy darkness of his cup. "This just ended up being one of those cases where you're not too happy with how it turns out." He glanced at his partner, seeing Blair nod his agreement. "Sure, Skotty made a nuisance of himself with the robberies, and he scared a few people."
"I don't know that he scared anyone, Jim," Blair interrupted. "Most of the robbery victims said that he was very polite and not threatening."
"That's true." He turned a troubled face towards Simon. "Sandburg and I just think that having to arrest him on the theft charges doesn't feel like justice was done. He's returned all the money, except for a hundred dollars, or so. We're hoping that the D.A. will be willing to drop the charge down to public mischief."
"That's if Sidney Bell is willing to go along with it," the younger detective groaned. "He was pretty furious when he found out what Alonso had been up to." His frown deepened into a scowl. "If you ask me, it's Bell who should be sitting in a holding cell right now. He fires someone so that his mistress can play in a perfume shop? That's criminal."
"Yeah." Jim slouched back in his chair. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall when his wife finds out about all of this."
"You know, Jim," Blair was now grinning wickedly, "you don't need to be a fly on the wall. We could just sit a few yards away. You'd be able to hear it all and then we could let Skotty know that he achieved something."
"Sandburg," Banks threatened, "I'll have you up for 'invasion of privacy' if I hear about you doing that. Besides," he continued, placing his hands on the table and lacing his fingers together, "I think I have some interesting news for you."
"You do?" Ellison was now sitting up a little straighter.
"You would have known this if either one of you had been at your desks to take the call." He looked meaningfully at his two men. "Rather than hiding out here and sulking."
"C'mon, Simon, the suspense is going to kill me," Sandburg grinned. "What news?"
"Well, it seems that Alonso Skotty might get those charges reduced like you hoped. The D.A received a phone call from Sidney Bell about an hour ago." The captain couldn't hold back his grin. "He realized that if he pressed charges against Mr. Skotty, it might garner him some poor publicity. Public and personal. He's willing to admit that, perhaps, Mr. Skotty's dismissal was an error, and that, while Mr. Skotty's actions were a little extreme, he's willing to let bygones be bygones."
"You mean that he doesn't want a divorce suit lodged against him where he's going to lose half of everything," Ellison snorted in disgust.
"Regardless," Banks said, "it means that your Bouquet Bandit will get away with barely more than a slap on the wrist. Bell's not willing to take him back at Chantel Perfumes, but he's said that he's sure another position with another company will present itself."
"So justice prevails after all," Blair sighed happily as he raised his mug, and tapped it against his partner's in a small toast.
The king was in his counting house, counting out his money... The nursery rhyme came to mind every afternoon while Tandy Randall balanced her cash drawer at the end of the day. There were only a couple of customers left in the bank and it was almost closing time, so Tandy had been allowed to close her window early. The part of her mind that wasn't engaged in counting money or reciting nursery rhymes rambled along a pensive pathway of its own.
It certainly hadn't taken long for things to calm down at the bank after the excitement created by the Bouquet Bandit's appearance, she reflected, banding a stack of twenty-dollar bills and moving to the tens. She had had her fifteen minutes of fame last Friday and now things were back to normal for her as well. Well, almost, she amended with a small smile. Her life was no longer the solitary routine it had been. Now there was...
Tandy frowned, her happy thoughts interrupted as a shadow fell across her station. She looked up, ready to tell the customer that she was closed. Can't they read the signs for heaven's sake? The frown died as her gaze fell upon a small bouquet of colorful spring flowers. Raising her eyes further, she found herself staring into the brightest, most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen. "Detective Ellison?"
"Jim," he corrected with a beguiling smile. "I'm sorry to just barge in like this without calling, but my partner and I were in the neighborhood wrapping up some details on a case and I wondered if you might be free for dinner tonight."
Tandy took the flowers from the handsome detective's hand and appreciatively breathed in their heady fragrance. Smiling sadly, she held them back out to him. "They're lovely, but I'm afraid that I can't accept them, or your dinner invitation." Looking away shyly, she searched for the right words. "You see... Alan, he works here at the bank, he and I... well... tonight..."
"I understand." Jim could feel his face fall, but quickly recovered, not wanting to make the woman feel any more uncomfortable than she already seemed. "Just bad timing on my part, I guess."
"I guess," she sighed wistfully. "Perhaps...?"
"We could try this again, sometime?" Ellison finished for her, smiling.
Nodding, and finally able to look at him again, she returned his smile. "I'd like that very much."
"Why don't you keep the flowers as a promise, then." Jim placed the small bouquet back on the ledge in front of Tandy. Giving her small hand a gentle squeeze, he turned to leave the bank.
"And I hope you keep that promise some day, Jim Ellison," Tandy Randall whispered as she watched him exit the bank, never realizing that it would be heard by sentinel ears.
Jogging across the street to his truck, Jim let some of his disappointment wash away with Tandy's words, although, a small part of him wondered if he was ever destined to date again. Sliding into the cab next to his partner, he took a deep breath. "So, Sandburg, you got any big plans tonight?" he sighed as he pulled away from the curb.
Searching his friend's face to gauge his disappointment, Blair was quiet for a few seconds. Then, slowly, a small grin came to his lips as he realized that teasing would be the best way to lift his partner's spirits. "Why, Jim Ellison, are you asking me for a date?" He laughed out loud as the truck jerked to a stop, sure that the entire city of Cascade had heard Jim's completely exasperated shout of "Sandburg!"
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