Deborah D. & Cindy
Sunday Afternoon, New Orleans, LA
The airport was a mass of people, some racing for gates, late due to increased security measures in place, and others scurrying towards the baggage carousels. It was mid afternoon and locals would say the number of people accessing the airport hadn't been this great since the week before Mardi Gras.
Detective Jim Ellison had little trouble navigating his way through the busy terminal. His 6'2" height made it easy to see over most of the crowd. His ice cold, pale blue eyes and stern expression made others want to move out of his path. He had just finished a long flight from Cascade, Washington and his patience was just about at an end. The flight from Cascade down to Los Angeles hadn't been too taxing. It had been an early morning flight and most of the passengers were business travelers. The second leg of the flight was what had given him the headache he now sported. Sitting in front of a young couple with a restless and slightly ill toddler who'd fussed or cried most of the three plus hour flight made Jim wonder if he'd ever consider becoming a parent himself.
Following in the Ellison wake trotted his partner, roommate and close friend Blair Sandburg. The smaller man knew better than to try to walk alongside his friend in such a crowd. Those trying to get out of Ellison's path would surely be running him over. Blair also knew that Jim wasn't in a good mood and wouldn't appreciate anything but the most minimal conversation. They'd worked together for too many years to not be able to assess each other's moods. About the only thing that would help the situation was getting the car, getting quickly to the hotel and finding some decent food. The airlines may have come a long way with getting people around the world, but they still didn't understand the concept of hospitality. They didn't see anything wrong with forcing people to sit in a cramped setting with chairs that were only comfortable to those no taller than 5' 8", giving them recycled air to breath and only feeding them small packets of snack mix along with a single cup of beverage.
The two men were attending a conference on terrorism and the implementation of the new Homeland Security program instituted after the terrorist attack against New York and Washington D.C. on September 11. It was one of several symposiums being conducted across the country and they had won the coin toss to attend this one. Since their current workload was low, it was a perfect time for Jim and Blair to get away from the precinct.
Slowing down when he saw the signs for the car rental counters, Ellison turned to his friend. "You go get the luggage while I get the car, Chief. We'll meet at the doors."
"But, Jim--" Blair tried to say.
Ellison held up his hand to halt what he thought was going to be an argument. "Please, Sandburg. Just go get the bags. We can save some time and get to the hotel faster if we split up." With that he turned and strode over towards the Alamo car counter.
Watching his friend leave, Blair shook his head then headed towards the baggage area. "Okay, don't listen to me. Find things out the hard way."
Fifteen minutes later, Sandburg shuffled with the luggage towards the rental car counter. He could hear the strained patience in Ellison's voice as the larger man spelled out his name to the rental clerk.
"There has to be a car rented for us. Rhonda wouldn't forget something like this. Are you sure you spelled my name correctly? E-L-L-I-S-O-N?"
"Sir," the agent started, tension easily heard in his tone. "I have tried every way of spelling your name that is possible. I'm sorry, but there isn't a rental under the name of Ellison. Are you sure it was made through us?"
"Yes, I'm sure. It's the one the precinct uses all the time."
"Hey, Jim," Blair said, stepping up to his partner's side.
"They can't find our reservation." Ellison glared at the clerk; the man met his gaze bravely.
"Let me try something, man," Sandburg suggested calmly, gesturing for his friend to step back.
Ellison turned his hard gaze on his friend, but the other just smiled benignly and made a shooing motion at him. When the large man sighed and stepped back, Sandburg pulled out his wallet and laid his business credit card onto the counter along with his Washington driver's license.
"Sir, would you check to see if there is a reservation in the name of Sandburg? First name is Blair." As the clerk typed the information into his terminal, Blair gave a hesitant grin towards his friend then returned his attention to the counter.
"Yes, here it is. Mid-size four-door sedan, rented for 6 days, returning it on Friday by noon, in the name of Sandburg." The clerk picked up the license and the credit card. "Is all the information on the license correct, Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair ignored the angry sounds coming from beside him and answered, "Yes, sir."
Not knowing what to say, Ellison walked around his partner, picked up their luggage sitting beside him and stalked over towards the exit doors. He watched as Sandburg nodded his head at a question from the clerk then shook it in a negative manner and signed the documents placed before him. Turning away from the scene, Ellison watched the activity outside the doors. He was watching the actions of men he spotted to be undercover airport security personnel when he heard Sandburg arrive at his side.
"The parking area is three floors down in the garage," Blair said quietly as he leaned over to pick up his duffle bag and backpack. He could read from Jim's stance that the man was not happy and would be demanding an explanation. Hoping to head off the interrogation until they were alone in the car, Blair said "Let's go," and walked through the doors that had opened automatically when he neared. He didn't have to check to see if his friend was behind him; he could feel his fuming presence.
The two men entered the parking garage and stopped at the elevator, Sandburg pushing the button to call the car.
"Sandburg," Ellison started to say as the elevator doors opened, when his enhanced hearing picked up the sound of someone running then a pain-filled gasp followed by a clatter of baggage hitting the cement ground. Turning quickly towards the sounds, he saw a woman falling over a large vinyl suitcase and a man running away holding a purse that obviously didn't belong to him.
"Call 911," Jim ordered, dropping his luggage and taking off after the running man. He gave the victim a quick look as he ran past to make sure the woman wasn't hurt too seriously. "Stop! Police!" he yelled as he continued pursuit. The other man ran faster.
Charlie Buxton had thought the woman he'd been following would be an easy target. She definitely looked like she had money; her clothes screamed expensive, her luggage was top of the line and she was wearing jewelry classy enough to not be fake. He'd been watching for someone like her to get off a plane alone and not be met by someone on the other side of the security screeners. All he had to do was follow her into the garage and she was his. He hadn't expected to be running from some goody two-shoes Samaritan who also happened to be a cop.
Buxton had been running towards the stairs on the other side of the garage when he heard the yelled words. Glancing over his shoulder at his pursuer, his heart skipped a beat when he saw the large visage of anger closing in on him. Fear giving him more energy, he turned sharply and started running down the ramp to the next level of the garage. The sound of pounding feet followed. Afraid to even think of stopping, Buxton rounded the corner and headed for the next ramp leading down.
Ellison was single-minded in his pursuit. He was angry and frustrated and the guy in his sights was the perfect person to release it all on. Unfortunately, the flight had worn him out more than he thought and even his anger couldn't help him keep up with the other. He was tiring and the purse snatcher was getting away.
Buxton could see his escape before him. He was about to reach the ground level and all he had to do was get around the bottom of the ramp, cut through any cars parked there, leap over the short wall separating the garage from the road and he was free. What he didn't expect was the sight that met his eyes. Stumbling to a halt, Buxton dropped the purse from one hand and the necklace he'd torn off the woman from the other and raised his hands in surrender. Kneeling in front of him was four young men in camouflage uniforms, with combat helmets and wearing flak jackets, pointing their M-16 rifles at him.
Ellison staggered down the ramp and stopped almost 10 feet behind Buxton. Gasping and dropping his head, he bent over and rested his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. He heard more running and raised up to see two uniformed officers heading for them.
"You okay, Jim?"
Turning, Ellison saw his partner standing off to the side, their luggage behind him. "How... Who..." he gasped and gestured at the soldiers relaxing from their stance as the officers took control of Buxton.
"The National Guard's assigned to cover the airports, man. Didn't you remember that? I just took the elevator down, got their attention and asked for help. Don't know how you did it, but I just didn't have the energy to go chasing after that jerk." Walking over to the larger man, Blair caught Jim's arm as he swayed. When he was sure Jim wasn't going to fall over, he went back for the luggage and picked all the bags up. "Come on. Let's find our car and get to the hotel. I'm beat, man."
Ellison stared at his friend's retreating back, glanced over at the purse snatcher being handcuffed and read his rights, then followed after Sandburg.
"Do I get to know why?" Jim asked as Blair drove the car out of the parking garage.
Giving his friend a quick glance, Blair returned his attention to the road. "Why what?"
"Why the car is rented in your name and not mine?"
"How should I know, man? Rhonda didn't tell me she was going to do that."
Ellison could hear Sandburg's heart beat increase. The younger man was also nervous and sweating slightly. "You're lying."
"Cut that out, Jim. You're too tired to be using your senses and I'm not lying... completely."
"Then tell me the truth. Who set this up?"
Blair sighed. "I told Simon you'd be pissed. You're the senior detective and it should have been rented in your name. I told him I didn't want it, but he said it would make things easier."
"Well, yeah. Because of your track record with cars, accounting wasn't going to allow us a car unless it was put under my name."
Ellison nodded. "Okay, I can accept that, even though my 'accidents' happened during the course of doing my job. So why wouldn't you let me drive? You looked like you were going to break my hand if I tried to take the keys away from you."
"The car is registered in my name. It, uh, there's also a restriction on anyone else driving. So it's not just you, Jim. I can't let anyone drive it."
"What are you getting out of this?" Ellison heard his friend's heart hammering and saw a slow flush rising up his neck.
"Don't try it, Chief. I can hear you trying to think up another lie. What did they promise you?"
Blair turned his head and mumbled as he took a left turn.
"What's that, Chief? I may have sentinel hearing, but you actually have to say the words for me to understand them."
"They promised they would pay my car insurance for a year if I didn't let you drive while we're down here."
"You're doing this for car insurance?"
"Well, yeah. When my last car 'blew up' and I got the Mustang, my rates jumped to the sky. I think they know I live with you so they're just getting their money out of me before the next one gets destroyed. The rate I'm paying has almost been too much and I have to keep a clean record for another year before they'll even think about lowering it."
Ellison turned his head and stared out the passenger window, the muscle in his jaw flexing. While some would think he was trying to curb his temper, he was actually trying hard not to let his partner know he was ready to burst out laughing. Sandburg's petulant tone made him sound like a teenager who'd found out he'd have to have a chaperone any time he drove. However, the older man knew exactly what his friend was facing. Yeah, his vehicles had been damaged or destroyed due to his police work, and the premiums he was paying monthly for insurance could easily be mistaken for rent payments. But his partner was still on the low rung of the pay scale and Jim knew Blair was still paying off things from his time at the university.
"Is there anything going on tonight, Jim?" Blair asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Huh? Oh, not really. Some type of social gathering," Jim answered, returning his attention back to his partner.
Blair smiled. "Ah, the obligatory 'ice breaker', with a cash bar of beverages costing more than what you'd pay at the corner bar and finger food."
"Yeah, you know. Stuff you can eat with your fingers, veggies, chips and pretzels and never enough to satisfy even half your hunger."
Ellison frowned. "I'm hungry enough to give an all-you-can-eat joint a scare."
"I've heard of a place that makes a gumbo you'd drool over."
Jim turned and met the smiling gaze of his partner. "And ice cold beer?"
"Hey, this is New Orleans. Home of the Mardi Gras, the world's largest party outside of Florida's Spring Break season." Blair wiggled his eyebrows in a lecherous manner, causing his partner to burst out laughing.
"Well, since you're in control of the car, Chief, guess I'll have to go where ever you decide to go tonight."
"I'm down with that, man."
The elevator doors opened and allowed its passengers to disembark into the hotel lobby. Ellison waited until he had a clear path then followed the rest of the group into the lobby. He paused against a pillar and scanned the area. Their hotel, the Hampton Inn in the Garden District, had two completely different conferences going on, each completely different from the other. One was a Mary Kay cosmetics conference, and Ellison hadn't seen so much pink in one place since Valentine's Day. He had to keep his sense of smell dialed completely down due to the variety of scents that permeated the area. He also knew that Sandburg would be in heaven with the number of females staying in the hotel and would have to be reminded, probably repeatedly, of the reason for their visit to New Orleans.
The other one was obviously theirs and Jim could easily pick out some of the participants. One of the larger groups attending, and partially coordinating the different seminars, was the Army and Air National Guard. They had a Civil Support Team made up of individuals from both services who were trained for biological, chemical or nuclear situations. Their uniforms made them very recognizable. The other groups were a cornucopia of what Blair called the alphabet soup of federal bureaus: FBI, ATF, FEMA, BLM, and others that many wouldn't think would be involved with the Homeland Security program. Only a good pickpocket would be able to figure out who was with what agency without asking the question straight out.
Ellison glanced at his watch, checked the elevator car that just arrived then sighed. He had waited in their room for Sandburg to get ready so that they could go to breakfast together. Unfortunately, his partner wasn't moving very fast this morning and Ellison had left him working with his hair. Sandburg reveled in long, hot showers and the chance to take one without worrying about depleting the hot water heater at the loft proved to be too much for the younger man to pass up. Ellison had already taken his and shaved long before Sandburg had even climbed out of bed. Wanting coffee and something in his stomach before the opening meeting, and knowing how long it usually took his roommate to get ready in the mornings, Ellison decided to come down on his own.
Walking toward the hotel restaurant, Jim saw a sign indicating a registration table for the conference. Since he and Blair had skipped the previous evening's festivities, Jim decided that it might be a good idea to go ahead and check both of them in and pick up their conference packets. He could then study the schedule while he ate and decide if they needed to attend all of the sessions.
"Good morning, sir," a young soldier said with a smile as Jim stepped up to her table. She was obviously in the Army, wearing the traditional green uniform of the service. However, there wasn't any rank on her sleeves. What she did have were the metal letters W.O.C. on her collar. "Name and organization?"
"James Ellison. Cascade, Washington police department," Jim announced, looking carefully at the insignia on the young woman's collar. "Warrant Officer Candidate? In what type of unit?"
"The State Command right now, but I want to get into aviation."
The soldier smiled. "Yes, sir. You must be former Army to know about it."
"Several years ago, but there're some things you just don't forget."
The female soldier turned to a table that held several boxes of folders segregated by color. She began fingering through the box labeled "Law Enforcement" and pulled out a blue folder with his name on it. "Here you are, sir. There's also a $65 dollar registration fee for the continental breakfast provided each morning and the refreshments in the afternoon. Everything will be set up outside of the meeting rooms. You can pay by cash or check."
Taking out his wallet, Ellison pulled out the correct number of bills, handed them to the soldier and took the folder. "Where's everything supposed to start?" She pointed to her left and he started walking in that direction. He wasn't halfway down the hall before he heard Sandburg calling his name.
"You could have waited, man. I didn't take that long," Blair complained as he trotted up to his friend.
"I never know how long it's going to be when you start primping, Chief." Jim smirked at the expression appearing on Blair's face.
"I was not primping. I do have more hair than you do and have to do more than just comb it back. Just because I'm not as experienced with the three S's as you are because of your time in the military doesn't mean I can't move fast in the morning."
"Where did you learn about the three S's?"
Blair held his hands out to his side. "Hey, I was a college student with a full schedule, duties as a TA and an active social life. Being able to party at night, come home in the wee hours in the morning and make it to class on time, you have to know how to shit, shower and shave in the minimum amount of time to make it to class."
"Yeah, right. Why don't you demonstrate your speed by getting your registration packet without spending an hour flirting so we can get a cup of coffee before it's all gone? I need a decent cup of caffeine and the stuff they make in hotels can get pretty bitter if you don't get it early."
Leaning against the nearby wall, Jim crossed his arms and stared at his friend. He knew Blair would do some flirting. The corners of his mouth quirked up slightly as he watched Blair work his charm on the female soldier. First the young man flashed a smile that almost always had the females at the precinct flocking around him. After he gave his name and place of business, Blair dropped the tone of his voice and began making small talk, asking about her unit and what her plans were with the military.
Being very professional, the Warrant Officer Candidate handed Blair his folder and asked for the registration fee. Jim noticed that the woman held her left hand so that the ring sitting on her finger was very prominent. Not missing a beat, Blair complimented her on it and asked when she was getting married and was her fiance also in the military.
Deciding he'd seen enough, and the fact that his stomach was growling, Jim pushed away from the wall and moved up beside his friend just as the other handed over his money. He grabbed Blair's arm and pulled him away from the table. "Let's go, Romeo. It's almost 7:30 and we only have 30 minutes before the start of the seminar. I'd like to have my coffee and find a seat before it starts. You know I don't want to sit at the front of the room and those are the only ones left if you arrive late. Ma'am." Nodding at the young woman, who was rolling her eyes as she laughed silently, Jim led his partner away.
"Chill with the manhandling, Jim. I saw the ring. What's wrong with having a polite conversation with a member of the Army?" Blair pulled his arm away and glanced back toward the table. The young soldier was standing and talking to another military person, only this one was in a blue uniform. When she pointed in their direction, he returned his attention to his partner.
"The WOC was trying to be polite, but she was making sure you were aware that she was taken. With your luck, she's probably a black belt in one of the martial arts and her fiance is a member of the Special Forces unit down here. I don't think he'd appreciate you hitting on her." Jim smiled at the expression that appeared on Blair's face when he said 'Special Forces'. He knew his partner had studied up on the Army, especially those units who were used in covert operations. He'd told Jim that he wanted to make sure he understood what type of training his friend had been through in the Army.
"Hey, man. I don't chase those who are already taken, especially when they get that far along in a relationship. I don't have a death wish."
Ellison shook his head. "Sure could fool me." Lifting his head and turning his sense of smell back up, he took a careful sniff. With a small smile, he turned and started walking toward the escalators. The aroma of coffee and donuts were coming from the lower level. "This way, Chief."
Blair smiled and lengthened his stride to keep up with his partner. "You're better than a bloodhound, Jim."
The two were nearing a crowded area when a raised voice caught their attention. "Ellison? Jim Ellison?"
Turning in the direction of the voice, Jim saw a blond man holding a coffee cup and staring at him with his mouth slightly open. Jim smiled when he recognized him. "Chris! Does the ATF know you escaped that desk they chained you to in Denver? I didn't think important people like you even considered attending these types of conferences with us peons."
The blond grinned, set his cup down and walked forward with his right hand extended. "Look who's talking, you stubborn bastard. How many times have you said you were going to come for a visit, but then couldn't tear yourself away? Some would think you were the only cop that could protect that podunk town of yours."
Ellison grabbed the hand reaching toward him and clasped it strongly. He laughed as the other exerted a short squeeze of pressure in the handshake before releasing. He saw the ATF agent glance over at Sandburg standing at his side. "We're both too dedicated for our own good. Chris, I want you to meet my partner, Blair Sandburg. Chief, this is Chris Larimore. Former Army and current commander of an ATF team in Colorado."
Surprised at the announcement, Larimore turned his attention to the long-haired younger man and looked him over as he held out his hand. "Detective Sandburg."
Reaching forward to shake the other's hand, Sandburg smiled. "Please, call me Blair. I'm still not used to being called 'detective', yet."
"Then I'm Chris. I'm with you on titles. How did you get so unlucky to get Ellison for a partner?"
"I actually wanted to be paired up with Jim." He noticed the careful scan the green-eyed man gave him and raised an eyebrow.
Larimore shrugged a shoulder at the action. "Death wish?"
"Nah, I needed a challenge and nobody else wanted him. I get hazardous duty pay." The hand slapping the back of his head caused him to laugh.
"I'll give you a challenge, Chief. Where's that shadow of yours, Chris? The two of you are usually joined at the hip." Seeing Chris's eye flicker to something behind him, Jim focused his senses. He heard the soft rustle of cloth and felt the heat from the body of someone moving up to his back. Detecting the feel of an air current, he knew the man standing behind him was probably moving an arm to take a swing at him. "Don't do it, Vin. I'd hate to have to make Chris break in a new sharpshooter for his team." Stepping to the side and turning slightly, Jim grinned at the young man standing there looking slightly embarrassed.
"You and what Army, Jim?" 'Vin' turned out to be very similar in appearance to Blair. He was about the same height with long brown hair, close in age, but he had a slighter body frame and his whole demeanor was of one who was more reserved. He shook the hand held out to him.
"Yeah, right. Sandburg, this is Vincent Tandy. He's on Chris's team."
"I figured that out. So, you two were with Jim in the Army?" Blair looked at Larimore when he asked the question.
Chris looked at Jim and raised an eyebrow, causing a sheepish grin to appear on the larger man's face as he dropped his head. "No, I wasn't lucky enough to be attached to his unit during my stint. Our meeting was during a more dangerous and foolish time in our lives."
A choked cough turned Blair's attention to his partner, who seemed to take great interest in the floor. "When was that, Jim?"
"Ah, well, it was my early years in Vice and when Chris was a new team member in the ATF. I guess you could say we were both young and determined to make a name for ourselves by taking down a very prominent crime lord."
"And neither of us knew the other was in law enforcement. Seems the Cascade PD didn't want to back away from the case we'd been working on for months."
"I seem to remember that the ATF failed to notify us that they had an operation set up in the city. Anyway, by the time we both figured out who was who, we each had arrested some of the other's people and Chris and I were in a Mexican standoff with pistols at 10 paces and the bad guys were almost begging to be arrested."
Larimore smiled evilly. "The guy responsible for the, ah, lack of cooperative communication ended up assigned to an office in northern Minnesota."
"Is that why we have an office there now?" Tandy asked.
"Only until the former Assistant Director Johnson is able to retire," his partner replied.
The four men laughed together then noticed the crowd around them shifting towards the two sets of double doors farther up the hall.
"Looks like we'll have to grab something quick, Jim," Blair commented, shifting over to grab a bottle of water from a near empty table.
Ellison grimaced. "Damn. Oh well, after the meal last night I can afford to eat light."
"Maybe we can make up for it tonight," Chris suggested. "This town is one of my team member's former stomping grounds and he gave me a few suggestions on places to eat."
"Sounds good to me. Ready for some more exploration, Sandburg?"
"I'm down with that."
Hurriedly grabbing cups and filling them with coffee, the four men followed the crowd into the meeting room.
At 10:00, the attendees were given a break before the next portion was to start. A somber crowd exited the main meeting room, many heading for the bathrooms in the area or up to their rooms and others making a beeline for the coffee area.
Blair stepped out of the room and shifted to the side to let others pass. When his partner finally came out the door, he moved up beside the larger man and walked with him to the lobby and out the front doors. "I've never seen anything like those films before," he commented quietly, knowing Jim could easily hear him. "I thought reporters would use stuff like that to make headlines, you know? Maybe try and get a Pulitzer or something."
"It's the raw footage they never get the chance to take or broadcast. If they did try, the censors would definitely require a lot of cutting. Besides, reporters wouldn't be allowed that close to the blast zone that early in an attack. Some of that stuff looked like it was from a helmet cam, maybe on a fireman." Jim kept his voice low, knowing how discussing traumatic events such as the terrorist attack on September 11 upset people.
"Think we'll be seeing more of... of that type of stuff?"
Ellison shook his head, pulling the folded agenda from his back pocket and scanning one of the pages. "Probably not. They've achieved the shock factor for the seminar. Looks like the next part discusses the various agencies that have been involved with different types of incidents and whether they are the right ones. Something along the lines of tactics and strategies, but a past look."
"That could be interesting." Blair leaned back to look toward the elevators. "Ah, I'll see you in there, Jim. All that water and the coffee this morning has gone straight through me and the restrooms should be starting to clear."
"I may be a little late, Chief." Jim raised his head and inhaled. "There's a bakery down the block and I'm still hungry. If I'm not mistaken, they made some buttermilk donuts and the breakfast table was picked pretty clean before we got there this morning."
"Jim, you're never wrong when it comes to buttermilk donuts," Blair said with a grin. Digging into a pocket, he pulled out a five dollar bill. "Since you feel the need to increase the sugar level in your body, would you pick me up a few bagels if they have them? Whole wheat, if possible, otherwise I'll take blueberry. Thanks." Pressing the bill into his partner's hand, Blair took off back into the hotel and towards the restrooms.
"World's smallest bladder," Ellison chuckled as he watched the other move quickly away. Turning his attention back to the direction he'd been focused on, Ellison started walking down the block. It was getting close to lunchtime and there were a number of people on the sidewalk, all moving with some type of purpose.
Ellison used his sense of smell as Sandburg had taught him, filtering out any of the extraneous odors and keeping focused on the delightful scent of fresh-made bakery goods. He had to travel to the corner and down another city block before he saw the shop. The sign over the door said "Boudreau's Bakery" and it looked like the employees were cleaning up after a busy morning. A young man was sweeping up around the tables and chairs set up in front of the shop and an older woman was wiping down the tables ahead of him. Hoping he wasn't too late, Jim entered the shop. A small bell tinkling announced his arrival.
"May I hep ya, sir?" an accented voice asked. A small black woman wearing a brightly flowered bandana over her hair came from the back room wiping her hands on a towel. "Is der anyting special you wont?"
Jim gazed through the glass of the showcase near the front counter, a look of wonder on his face. Even this late in the morning, the cabinet was stocked with a mouth-watering variety of baked goods. "Yes, ma'am. I'd like three buttermilk donuts and a large cup of Columbian coffee. Black, please." He looked at the door as the bell rang again and the two workers from the outside walked into the shop and headed for the back.
She pulled out a strip of tissue paper to pick up the donuts and popped open a paper bag to place them in. "Anyting else?" she asked, folding the bag and handing it to Jim.
"Uh, yes. Do you have any whole wheat bagels?"
The woman eyed the larger man, smiling broadly. "For a friend, eh?"
Ellison answered her smile with one equally as large. "Of course. He doesn't understand the relationship between fresh donuts and pure ecstasy."
"Da poor boy." The woman laughed loudly then grabbed another sack and piece of tissue paper and moved to another showcase.
Holding the bag with one hand and pulling his wallet out with the other, Jim started to flip it open when he heard the door open again. Looking to see who the new customer was, he was surprised to see three men wearing rubber masks and holding handguns.
"Everyone stay calm and no one will get hurt," one of the robbers said, moving quickly behind the counter and into the back room to cover the people back there. A second one stayed near the door, engaged the lock and turned the sign hanging in the window so that the "CLOSED" side was facing the street.
The third robber motioned for Jim to move over to the back wall of the place as he stepped up to the register. Keeping his gun on Jim, he looked at the woman and ordered, "Open the register and put all the bills into a sack, please. And stay away from the panic button."
Ellison couldn't believe what was happening. Usually, it was his partner who got caught up in situations like this. Not him. Carefully, he slipped his wallet into his front pocket, using the sack in his other hand to mask the movement. The last thing he wanted or needed to happen was for the gunman to grab the wallet and look inside to see the gold detective's badge it carried.
Studying the criminal who appeared to be running the operation, Jim began to notice that he wasn't what he appeared to be. The man -- and Jim could tell it wasn't some kid despite the mode of dress -- was wearing oversized blue jeans that hung on his hips and almost covered up the Nike basketball shoes he was wearing. Bulges in his pockets looked like smaller shoes. The shirt he was wearing looked like something that could be found in a surfer's shop and there was long hair hanging down at the bottom of the mask. The clothes looked bulky, like they were layered over other clothes. The mask was soft rubber and looked like the face of an old man. It was something that could probably be found in any costume shop. The guy also wore half gloves, the type many weightlifters wore.
The things that told Jim the person holding the gun as well, as the other two, weren't young kids wearing old men's masks and clothes weren't all that obvious to the casual or scared observer. The hair hanging down below the mask was synthetic; obviously a wig. Focusing on the guy at the door then the other in the doorway to the back room, Jim could see that all three were wearing long wigs. Then there were the visible areas of skin on each of them, around the hands and the neck area. He could see age spots. Also, the fingers looked too bony to belong to young men and the skin around the neck area sagged from age. What tipped Jim off the most were the distinct odors he registered with the men: Denture Grip to hold in false teeth, Old Spice aftershave and Ben Gay rub. There was another odor that was very subtle, but Jim had been in enough nursing homes to recognize it: a combination of age, ill health and antiseptic.
The disguises were ingenious. Who would ever guess these robbers were three elderly men dressing like young men and wearing the masks to make them appear to be old men? If these three were crazy or desperate enough to rob a bakery on a busy street so close to lunch, Jim was not going to try to challenge them. Staying calm, he caught the frightened gaze of the lady behind the counter and nodded at her when she shot a glance at him. The robber ordered her to also pack some of the pastries into different sacks and she quickly obeyed.
Stepping back, the gunman at the counter ordered Jim and the woman into the back room. "Stay here for one hour before you call the police. If we see anyone step out the door after us, we'll shoot."
With his hands holding the sacks of his own pastries raised, Jim shuffled around the counter and followed the woman into the back room. The door was pulled shut and the bolt on it was engaged. He heard the three men exit the shop. Focusing his hearing, he listened as the robbers trotted down the block to the nearby alley and turned into it. "Do you have a telephone back here?" he asked the woman.
"Dey tolt us not to do anyting for one hour," she answered, clutching her apron and holding it up to her sweating face.
"They're probably already out of the area and removing their disguises. If we can get the police here quickly, they might be able to catch them before they get too far away. Please!"
The young man who'd been sweeping outside pointed to a desk hidden in the corner. "There's one back there."
Rushing back, Jim picked up the receiver and listened. Hearing a dial tone, he quickly punched 911. "Hello? My name is Detective Jim Ellison from the Cascade, Washington P.D. There's been a robbery at Boudreau's Bakery on St. Charles Street and the three men who did it are currently in the alley near the shop changing their clothes... Yes, they were armed, but no one's been hurt...You should have the officers look for three old men carrying white paper sacks with pastries. They'll probably hide the money in their clothes... Okay, we'll be waiting."
Hanging up, Jim pulled up a nearby chair and sat down. Setting his sack onto the desk, he opened it and pulled out one of the donuts. As he was ready to take a large bite, he noticed the others staring at him. "We might as well relax until the police show up and let us out. Is that coffee over there?"
It was after noon when Ellison finished giving his statement to a uniformed officer inside the bakery. As he stepped out of the shop, he watched as the last of the old men who'd robbed the place was helped into the backseat of a police cruiser. Other officers standing nearby were holding plastic bags of clothing; a Halloween mask could be easily seen through the clear material. Told that he was free to go, Ellison started walking back towards the hotel. He saw his partner standing in the crowd being held back away from the scene.
"What the hell happened to you, Jim? You've been gone for over three hours." Blair asked when his friend reached him, the worry evident in the younger man's voice.
Handing Blair one of the sacks he was carrying, Jim tugged at an ear and said, "Well, you know how everyone thinks that trouble seems to find you, Chief? I think it's starting to rub off on me. These three old guys from a nursing home on the other side of town tried to rob the place while I was buying your bagels. Oh, by the way, they did have whole wheat and I owe you about a buck fifty."
"You're kidding about the robbery, right? Screw the money you owe me. How did they think they could get away with something like this in broad daylight?"
"With disguises that were meant to make you believe they were young men wearing old men masks. Come on, let's head back to the hotel." Ellison started walking and Sandburg almost bounced in excitement beside him.
"You were able to see through them, right?"
"I don't have X-ray eyes, Sandburg."
Blair slapped his friend's arm. "Not that way, you dope. You know what I mean."
Ellison smiled, enjoying the chance to tease his friend. "No, what do you mean?"
"Jim! If they were wearing masks, how were you able to figure out who they were under them?"
"Just by using my experience as a detective." When another blow landed on his arm, Jim laughed. "Okay, Chief. I could smell certain odors on them that young men wouldn't have and noticed age spots and sagging skin at their necks. Heard them go into the alley to change and that is where the police found their clothes. They were found sitting at the bus stop up the street eating apple turnovers from the place with the money they stole tucked into their trusses."
"Oh, man." Blair laughed and clapped his hand against Jim's back, this time in praise. "You are so good, Jim. You used your senses naturally. Exactly what they are there for. Way to go!"
"Thank you, Chief. But the next time I get the bright idea to satisfy a craving, remind me of this incident. We're supposed to be on leave and attending a seminar, not solving robberies outside of our jurisdiction. Simon is going to blow a gasket when he hears about this one."
"Was he really pissed because we were involved in that robbery at the airport?"
"Not really, but he did ask why we couldn't stay out of trouble at least until we'd been here for a day or two. With this..." Jim held his hands out from his body, palms up.
"Yeah, I know. Two in two days."
"What else could happen?"
Blair grabbed his friend's arm and pulled him to a stop. "Jim! Don't say that, man. You're going to bring the curse of Murphy's Law down on us."
Shaking free of his friend, Ellison stepped back. "Are you believing in superstitious mumble jumbo, Sandburg? Next thing you know, you'll be jumping over the cracks in the sidewalk and start carrying around a rabbit's foot." Chuckling, Jim continued towards the hotel.
Wrinkling his nose, shuddering and giving a quiet 'yuck', Blair trotted quickly to catch up with his friend. "I'd never carry around the foot of some poor animal, Jim. Now if I could find a four- leaf clover..."
Later in the Afternoon
Ellison had just slipped his key card into the locking mechanism of his hotel room door when he heard the chiming sound of the elevator stopping at his floor. Knowing it couldn't be Sandburg as he'd left his partner deep in conversation with a female U.S. Marshall, Ellison pulled out the card and shifted the door handle when the green light on the lock illuminated.
Out of habit, Jim released the handle, allowing to door to relock as he turned toward the voice. "Yes?"
An older black man walked toward him, his hand holding out a wallet that displayed a gold badge. "I'm Lt. Roger Curtis with the New Orleans PD. Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Jim looked the badge over quickly before the other flipped the wallet shut and stuffed it into the inner pocket of his sport coat. He nodded and reinserted the key card into the door. "Sure. Would you mind if we talked in the room? You probably don't want to discuss your business in the middle of the hall."
"Thank you, sir," Curtis answered as he followed the larger man into the room. "I'm also sort of attending this conference, but my captain called and asked if I would touch base with you about the two cases you and your partner are involved with."
"By any chance, was your captain contacted by my captain, Simon Banks? Just as a courtesy?" Jim didn't bother to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
Curtis smiled ruefully. "I do believe a conversation did occur. Something about you and your partner not being able to stay out of trouble for two seconds, much less two days.
Ellison returned the smile. "Uh, huh. And that was just the polite part of the conversation."
"Well, I haven't heard my captain laugh that much in a long time. I think the two of them spent at least a half hour swapping stories. Cascade isn't the only city to have members of their police force frequently in the public eye."
"I didn't think we were, but you wouldn't know that by the way the Captain talked."
"Anyway, I've been asked to work with you on handling the arraignment process for the two cases so that you're not spending the whole week down at the station."
"I'd appreciate that, Detective, and I know my partner will, too. Just let us know what we have to do and when you need us down there. Is there anything else?" Jim took a step back toward the door.
"No, not really. I just hope you're enjoying your stay in our city and will also enjoy the rest of the conference. They're providing us a lot of information." Glancing at his watch, Curtis sighed and stepped back to the door. "I've got to get out of here and home before I end up being front page news."
Jim noticed the wedding ring on the man's hand. "Special night with the missus?"
"Son's basketball game. It'll be the first one I've been able to go to this season. There's nothing worse than a sulking teen who thinks his dad is always too busy to watch him play."
Jim laughed. "I know what you mean. My boss has a son who used to be pretty good with taking his old man on a mean guilt trip. Eventually they grow out of it."
"God, I hope so. Then I'll only have to deal with my daughter and her daily tragedies." Curtis rolled his eyes.
"Then I won't keep you. Have fun at the game." Ellison opened the door and allowed Curtis to step into the hallway.
"Thanks. Hope you have a fun and quiet night tonight and for the rest of the week." Jim easily heard the stressed word. "I'll contact you later this week on the procedures. Hey! Hold the elevator," Curtis called down the hallway. With a wave, he trotted toward the elevator.
"I intend to make sure it's quiet," Jim commented softly and closed the door.
"Jim, you're better suited for the last session then I'd ever be in several lifetimes. They're going to discuss weapons and tactics and you know that is not my thing." Blair was lounging in the chair of their room, shoes kicked off and several sightseeing brochures spread out on the table beside him.
"Which is really why you should be there, Chief. The more you know about the artillery the opponent is using, the more knowledge you have to take them down."
"I know, but I'd really like to take a nap if we're going to go out again with those friends of yours from the ATF. We were out pretty late last night."
Stepping out of their bathroom, Jim finished drying his hands. "This from the man who used to put in a full day at the precinct, go out on a late night date with friends and get up the next morning to teach a 7:00 a.m. class with less than 4 hours sleep. Yeah, right. What's the real reason you want this afternoon off? Truth."
Blair grinned, almost looking embarrassed. "Okay, how did I give it away this time? I know I was keeping my heart rate down."
"Easy. If you were really tired, you'd already be on the bed half asleep. You haven't yawned since breakfast and you just have this... feeling of excitement around you. Besides, I heard you asking the lady at the front desk how far Audubon Park was from here." Folding up the towel he'd used, Ellison hung it back over the rod in the bathroom.
"Damn. Busted." Blair tried to sound contrite, but he failed in the effort. "Okay, here's the truth. How much sun have we had in Cascade over the past couple of months? Almost zero. Look outside, man. Beautiful blue skies, soft breeze and nice warm temperatures. I need a chance to recharge my batteries with that sun before we head back or I won't guarantee how I'll be until summer finally shows up in the great rainy northwest. You really don't want to see me slip into the Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder or just go plain bonkers, do you? Is that a good enough explanation for you, Dad?"
"Well, since you're already bonkers, we wouldn't have known the difference. But coming down with something as serious as the SADs would be horrible. I don't think I could handle a moping Sandburg. I'll let you play hooky for the afternoon, but you'll owe me."
Jumping up and slipping his shoes back on, Blair grabbed his ever-present backpack, picked up a door card and slipped it into his pocket. "Great! Thanks a bunch, Jim. There's supposed to be this old bookstore near the park and you know how I am about those places."
Grabbing the other door card, Jim followed his friend out of their room and down to the elevators. "Just stay out of trouble, okay? I really would hate to have to call Simon again. He's already asking if we're trying to find some way to join the New Orleans Police Department and spent time talking about us with another captain down here."
Pressing the call button, Sandburg turned to his partner. "No problem, man. I'll make sure I stay away from parking garages and donut shops."
When the car arrived, the two got on and rode down to the lobby.
Audubon Park is more than just a treed piece of land in the middle of the New Orleans. It is also an animal reserve, famous for having rare white tigers in residence. Normally there wasn't any reason for the animals to leave their comfortable home, but one of them hadn't been feeling well and was discovered to have an abscessed tooth. A bad tooth on large felines is a very serious situation and it was decided to send the tiger to a prominent animal hospital to get the problem fixed.
Darin Pinchot was not having a good day. He was supposed to have the day off but had been called in to transport an animal for emergency surgery. Since he was low man on the totem pole, having only been employed by the park for a year, losing time off wasn't uncommon. That was only part of the reason for the day being bad. The vehicle he had to use for the transport had some serious problems: rough carburetor, sticky locks and one of the most uncomfortable bench seats he'd ever had to suffer. Then, to top it all off, he was ordered to bring along a very green veterinarian intern.
The 'kid' was going through his large animal rotation and had let Darin know in no uncertain terms that he had no experience with large animals, would not be working on them when he finished his internship, and did not want to work with them at all. Because of his attitude, Darin decided to make the kid ride in back on the return trip to keep an eye on the large cat and even gave him the tranquilizer gun, giving him explicit orders to "not shoot me or anyone else" if he could help it. It did not endear the intern to him.
Pinchot was nearing Audubon Park and cheering up with the thought that his day was almost over. As soon as he could get the truck, the tiger and the intern back to the tiger habitat, he was released for the day. If he was lucky, he might even be able to convince his girlfriend to take the rest of the day off and join him back in their bed, where he'd left her earlier in the morning.
Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, a small black car whipped out from a side street and right into the path of the truck. Pinchot gasped in fear and yanked on the steering wheel, forcing the truck up over the curb and onto the grass edge of the park. He didn't slam on the brakes. If he had, the sudden stop could have slammed the drowsy feline into the back wall of the truck and cause some serious damage. It wouldn't have been good for the intern, either. Besides, Pinchot didn't think of his brakes, at least not right away. He was more interested in keeping control and avoiding the trees that seemed to just appear in his path.
When he finally did think to use his brakes, Darin was also turning the steering wheel. The two actions caused the truck to tilt onto two of its wheels, and the shifting of the load in the back -- a full grown tiger weighing over 1,000 pounds -- pushed it completely over, passenger side down. Luckily Darin was wearing his seatbelt and, after his head cleared from the panic he felt, he realized that he was hanging from the harness and the right side of his body hurt. Carefully, he checked his extremities for serious injuries before shifting to get his seatbelt unhooked. It took some effort to swing his body around so that he was standing on the passenger-side window; then he heard sounds he hoped to never hear, at least not while he wasn't safely behind protective glass.
The tiger was upset. He'd been roughly awakened from a comfortable rest and the pain in his jaw was returning, though not at the level he'd been suffering previously. Growling angrily, he stood up and immediately staggered against the door to his cage. Unable to hold up against the weight of the cat, the door dropped open with a clang. Pushing its sluggish body back up, the tiger sniffed at the door and the silent body wedged underneath it in a small space between where the barred door was hinged and the wall. The body moaned, causing the tiger to growl again and try to paw at it. Fortunately for the body, the large furry foot wasn't able to fit between the bars. Losing interest, the cat stepped carefully onto the cage door and over to the sagging door of the truck. Smelling fresh air, grass, earth and other enticing odors, the tiger pushed his head against the door and eased off the truck.
Pinchot could tell by the sounds emanating from the back of the truck that the tiger was awake and his cage door hadn't stayed closed. He said a silent prayer for the intern. Even though he didn't like the geek, the last thing he wanted was for the kid to get eaten. Then he heard another sound that made him freeze momentarily -- the thump of the truck's back door as it closed.
"Sweet mother of God," he murmured in fear and pulled his body up through his open window until he could see outside. Pinchot's eyes widened as he watched the large white tiger pad off through the trees and further into the park, still staggering slightly from the residue effect of the anesthetic used on him.
Worried about his companion, Darin pulled himself painfully up until he was sitting on the door of the overturned truck. Breathing heavily, he checked himself over to make sure he wasn't damaged too severely. A couple of bruises on his legs and some soreness in his chest from the seatbelt, but nothing was broken and he couldn't find any blood. Relieved, he swung his legs around until they were hanging down over the side and hopped off the truck. Darin stumbled slightly, feeling some pain from his left knee where it had impacted against the steering shaft.
"Doctor?" Darin called out, limping to the back door of the truck. He was scared to open the door for fear of what he might find. He was answered by a moan and instantly felt relief. The kid was still alive. "Hold on, Doc."
Since the truck was on its side, Pinchot had to pull up on the door to slide underneath it and climb into the back. Once he was inside, he stood for a minute, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The crash must have broke the light, he thought, peering around the dim interior.
"Doctor?" he called softly. "Can you hear me?"
A moan and a grunt came from an area at his feet and Darin dropped down onto the 'floor', formerly the wall, and found the cage door. Feeling around, his hands came in contact with cloth.
"Crap!" the groggy intern moaned as he became more aware of his surroundings. "Wh...what happened?"
"Hey, Doc. Sorry about the rough trip. We had a small accident. Can you tell if you're hurt very bad?" Pinchot scooted back, carefully lifted the barred door and crawling underneath. He rested it onto his back and once again reached for the intern. The arm he touched jerked back. "Easy there, Doc. It's just me. The cat's taken off. Are you hurt?"
The arm lifted and the hand attached to it made its way slowly up to the head, resting on the brow. "Huh? Oh, uh... hurt? Um, I don't know. What happened?"
"Damn idiot driver cut me off and I had the choice of climbing onto another car or heading towards the trees. Wait a minute. Let me..." Leaning up until he was on his knees, Darin dug into his pocket until he located his lighter. Fumbling and flicking the sparking wheel for several seconds, a spark turned into a flame and the interior of the truck brightened considerably.
"Uhhh..." The intern shut his eyes at the sudden light and turned his head.
Reaching a hand forward, Pinchot swung the intern's face back towards him. "Easy, Doc. Let me see if you're hurt. Can you look at me?"
The kid blinked several times before he was able to keep his eyes open.
Pinchot let a lungful of air out in relief. Both pupils looked okay and the Intern didn't look like he was seriously hurt, despite the blood swelling at the hairline. "Looking good, Doc. How's the rest of your body feel? Anything broken? Can you move both arms and legs?"
The intern shifted his limbs, moaning slightly at the aches he felt. "Don't think anything's broke. Get me out of here."
"Do you think you should?"
"We've got to go after the tiger before he hurts someone. Help me up." Rolling over slowly, the intern started to pull himself forward. He lifted his head and frowned at the truck driver until the other man allowed the lighter to go out and began to help.
When the two men were finally standing outside of the overturned vehicle, Pinchot looked the other over carefully. "Don't know how you got out of there with only that scratch on your head."
"I was lucky. You flipped the trunk onto the side where I was leaning." Searching around the area with his eyes, the intern asked, "Which way did he go?"
Pinchot looked at the other for several seconds before he realized the man was asking about the tiger. "Oh! That way, through those trees."
"Where's the rifle?"
"The tranq gun? You had it in the back. Why?"
Wiping at the thin trail of blood threatening to flow into his eye, the intern glared at the man. "Did you think we could just track him down and lead him back to the truck? The only way we'll be able to get him back to the park is unconscious. Let's get it."
Pinchot stepped back from the other, holding his hand out in front of him. "Uh uh, Doc. I'm not certified to use that thing, so I'm not about to touch it. You want to go chase after the kitty, be my guest."
"I've only had one training session with it. I was told you knew how to use it."
Pinchot's bark of laughter didn't have any humor in it. "Yeah, right. Tony told you that, didn't he? The bastard. He knew I'm not qualified and didn't want to call in one of the other drivers. Well, you have fun, Doc. I'm going to tell those nice policemen driving up about the tiger and let them go chase it down."
Turning in the direction the other was pointing, the intern saw the police car pulling up to the curb and an officer already climbing out the passenger side. A second car was racing up the road behind it.
"What happened? Is everyone okay?" the officer asked when he approached the two men.
Pinchot nodded. "Yeah, we're both okay. This idiot in a black sports ca--"
"Officer, my name is Dr. Kramer and we have a serious problem." Kramer interrupted and stepped in front of Pinchot, taking charge of the situation. Painfully, he reached around to his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, showing his credentials to the officer and his partner arriving at his side. "I'm a doctor currently assigned to the Audubon Park Animal Preserve. We were transporting one of our tigers back from some surgery. He escaped after the crash and we need to find him."
The eyes of the officers widened and the second immediately ran back to their vehicle to broadcast the situation. "Was the tiger injured?" the first officer asked. "I remember a show my kid was watching and they said an injured animal is more dangerous."
Kramer looked at Pinchot, who scratched his head and looked in the direction he remembered seeing the animal travel. "He didn't look like he was hurt. Just a little loopy from whatever they knocked him out with."
"He'd received simple surgery on an abscessed tooth. The anesthetic has probably worn off by now, especially if he's found water. We've a tranquilizer gun in the truck and I'm trained on using it," Kramer lied, daring Pinchot to say anything by glaring at the man.
Accepting the man's statement, the officers gathered around Kramer and made plans on how to go after the tiger.
Blair smiled contently as he walked along the edge of Audubon Park. His afternoon of playing hooky was paying off. First he found a juice bar that used nothing but natural products in making their drinks. It was a little expensive, but after his first taste he forgot about the cost. Then, not more than a block away from the park, he found the bookstore, which held a treasure trove of tomes. He was hard pressed to choose from the wide selection, but eventually he decided upon a fairly thick book concerning the people who first settled in Louisiana and how they developed into the variety of cultures who inhabited it today. Now he was going to find a nice quiet area of the park to relax, kick off his shoes and read peacefully.
He'd passed a small play area for children, pausing to watch and enjoy the youngsters entertaining themselves. They ran around, climbed on and jumped from the different colorful pieces of geometric shapes set up there. He then continued toward a stance of trees, which was far enough away from the road and car noises but still not too far into the park. He was just getting comfortable against a large tree when he heard young voices shrieking in fear. Jumping back up, he raced toward the playground.
Halfway there, he saw what was frightening the children. Slowly padding around and sniffing at the ground and whatever was in his path was a large white tiger. For a quick moment, Blair considered running like hell away from the dangerous animal. He'd read stories about people being mauled by large cats, and those animals had done the deed when they were supposedly safely locked behind tall fences and walls. Then the children's cries penetrated through his frozen mind and any thoughts of running away disappeared.
Lifting his hands out from his sides, Sandburg faced the white cat and began moving between him and the children. "Nice, kitty. Hey there, cat. Watch me here, a nice big man and not those little kids. I don't believe I'm doing this." The last he spoke low and to himself.
When he was in position, Blair turned his head slightly and said to the children, "Don't run, walk away and get out of sight. Okay?"
One of the little boys jumped down off a large yellow block and took off running. The minute he started moving, all but a girl and boy ran after him. The sudden movement startled the tiger, causing him to jump sharply in their direction.
"Hey! No! This way, cat!" Blair yelled, attracting the animal's attention by waving his arms. The tiger charged a couple of steps towards him then snarled, backed up slightly and crouched down, his tail lashing in anger. Knowing how his voice could calm a raging Jim Ellison, Blair dropped his tone down to a soft level he used with his partner. "Easy there, baby. It's okay. No one's going to hurt you and I hope you don't want to hurt me. You just stay there and I'll stay here looking very harmless but definitely inedible."
The angry movements of the tiger's tail slowed and his body shifted down into a more relaxed crouch. He kept his attention on the man before him, his ears cocked forward to hear the soothing voice.
"That's a nice tiger. Get nice and relaxed there. Kids?" Blair called softly to the two youngsters still behind him, keeping the tone of his voice at the same level. A sniff and a whimpered 'huh' told him that they heard him. "We don't want to make the tiger angry, so please don't do what your friends did. Okay?"
"Okay," whispered the boy.
"Good. Ease down real slow off the equipment then freeze. I'll keep talking so that the tiger keeps his attention on me. When you get to the ground, let me know. Nice tiger, pretty tiger with your beautiful white fur, long whiskers, love--"
"We're down, mister," the boy announced again in a whisper.
"That's very good. Now can you walk backwards and keep my body between you and the tiger until you get to the sidewalk? If so, move very, very slow and I'll make sure the cat is watching me." Sweat was sliding down Blair's face and he could feel his shirt sticking to his skin. His heart was racing a mile a minute and he was praying that whomever the tiger belonged to would be showing up really soon. "Too bad I don't have a nice big steak for you, tiger. I'm sure it would taste much better than me."
The tiger opened his mouth and yawned, showing his long white fangs. Blair thought he saw black thread in the mouth along the animal's gum line. "Oh, crap. You just had some dentistry, didn't you? I hope they did the job right so that you're not in any pain. I hope your owners show up before you begi--
Tires screeched on cement behind him and Blair turned his head slightly to see flashing lights out of the corner of his eye. Thank God. The cavalry has finally showed up. The tiger turned and looked at the lights on the vehicle and, with a growl, stood up.
"Be real quiet, mister," a rough male voice spoke to Sandburg. "You want to keep the tiger calm."
"What do you think I've been doing for the past 10 minutes?" There was anger in Blair's voice then he blew out a lungful of air and forced his shoulders to relax. "Sorry, sorry. I'm just really nervous here and I don't know what to do next."
"Don't do anything. We'll take care of the animal," a younger voice spoke up.
Blair heard a sharp snapping sound that he knew very well. It was the sound of a bolt being chambered into a rifle. "Hey, you don't have to shoot him. He's not doing anything."
"Don't worry, this will be very quick and he won't feel a thing." The voice sounded closer.
At the metallic sound, the increased volume of Blair's voice and the movement of three more humans towards him, the tiger flattened his ears against his head and surged to his feet. He hissed angrily and stepped toward the nearest human.
Blair's heart jumped into his throat and, not realizing he was doing it, he jumped to the side. Unfortunately his movement put him right into the path of the rifle the intern fired at the tiger. The dart flew straight and true right into the fleshy part of Blair's left buttocks, the red fuzzy end bright against his tan pants.
Blair staggered forward a step at the sharp pain in his backside and only had time to turn and look into the horrified face of the young man holding the rifle. Then there was a roaring sound in his ears and he fell into a black pit of unconsciousness. His last thought was of how Jim would get a good laugh out of the situation.
"Christ!" One of the uniformed officers yelled as he saw the long-haired man get hit by the tranquilizer dart and collapse. Then he saw the tiger jump back as the body hit the ground, whirl and take off in the opposite direction. Grabbing the rifle away from the intern with one hand, he turned to his younger partner and held out his other hand for the darts he held. "Give me those things, call an ambulance for the kid and get some backup," he ordered then turned to the intern. "Let's go, Dead Eye."
Shocked, Kramer looked at the officer issuing the orders and saw the anger in the man's eyes. Knowing better than to argue, he nodded and started running after the cop.
"Central, this is Charlie 2-1," the second officer said into the shoulder mic as he moved quickly toward the unconscious Sandburg.
"Go ahead, Charlie 2-1," replied a female voice over the radio.
"We need an ambulance and paramedics at our location. Civilian down due to a tranquilizer dart." Kneeling down and pressing his free hand against Blair's throat, he relaxed at feeling a slow but strong heart beat. "Let the medics know that the man has a strong pulse and appears to only be unconscious. Also, let the emergency room know that the dart was loaded with a dose of Ketamine that was meant for a large tiger."
"Roger, Charlie 2-1."
Jim burst through the doors leading into the emergency area of Lady of Mercy hospital and quickly strode up to the reception desk.
"Excuse me," he said to the young man typing into the computer behind the counter. "I was told Blair Sandburg was injured and brought here."
Looking up and blinking owlishly through his wire-rimmed glasses, the technician almost stepped back at the intensity of the blue eyes boring into him. Swallowing hard, he nodded and hit a button on the keyboard. The machine beeped and he typed several more keys. "Sandburg? Yeah, he's the guy brought in who was shot. They brought him in a few hours ago. Are you family?"
"Shot? How did he get shot? Is it serious?" Ellison's voice deepened with concern.
"Are you family, sir?" The technician asked again.
Pulling out his wallet, Jim flipped it open to show his badge. "No. Sandburg is my partner and we're down here for a conference. Now how bad is he hurt? If you can't tell me then I want to see the doctor treating him."
The technician peered at the badge then back up at the large man. "Oh, he's not hurt. According to the cop that came in with him, he got in the way of this idiot from the animal park that didn't know how to handle a tranq gun. Ended up with a dart in the butt. He's being monitored in room 4. I'll go find the doctor working on him." Moving around the counter, the technician stepped carefully around the large man and down the corridor.
Jim only had to pace two circuits between the counter and the wall before he saw a small woman walking toward him with the technician in tow.
"Officer?" she questioned, walking up to the large man. "I'm Dr. Coltrain. Bernie tells me you're Mr. Sandburg's partner."
"It's detective. Jim Ellison." He reached out and shook the hand extended toward him. "Sandburg and I are detectives with the Cascade, Washington P.D. and down here for a conference. He's also my friend. How is he?"
The doctor extended her arm back in the direction she'd come and the two started walking down the corridor. "Your friend is currently sleeping off a fairly large dose of Ketamine. It is a common anesthetic used on animals and he's not showing any reaction to it. It would be helpful to have some medical background. You wouldn't happen to know if your friend has allergies to any medications, would you?"
Jim shook his head. "He's into all that holistic, no-chemicals-into-his-body routine. I can call and have a medical report from the hospital back home faxed to you."
Stopping to pull out a small note pad, the doctor quickly penned a number then tore off the paper and handed it to Ellison. "Here's our fax, just have them make it to my attention. Anyway, we're watching to make sure he doesn't go into respiratory distress due to the amount given to him. He's right in here." Pushing open one side of a pair of double doors, Coltrain allowed Ellison to enter first.
Jim stepped up to the gurney and looked down at his slumbering partner. Blair had electrodes attached to his chest, an oxygen cannula at his nose and an I.V. line snaking down into his right arm. The machine next to the bed registered Blair's heart rate and Jim could see that it was slow and steady.
Coltrain pressed a button and printed off a strip of paper about a foot long. Releasing the button, she tore off the strip and scanned the printout of Blair's heartbeat. Nodding, she folded up the paper and stuck it in her pocket. "He's doing okay, but we don't want to take any chances. The sooner we can get a look at his medical records, the better. I just want to make sure he doesn't have any type of condition that might react to the sedative."
Ellison nodded. "I'll call and have some stuff faxed to you right away. Do you know how long he might be out?"
"He should start coming around in about an hour, more or less. It all depends on how fast his body metastasizes the drug. But like any anesthetic, it'll take several hours before it'll be completely out of his system. When he's released, he shouldn't be allowed to drive until morning and I suggest he refrain from any alcohol tonight. If you want, you can hang out here. It might help to see a friendly face when he wakes up."
"You read my mind, Doctor. Thank you."
"You're welcome. If you need anything, just let us know. Luckily, it's a quiet afternoon, so we'll just keep him here until we see how he is when he wakes up." With that, Coltrain gave the tall man a smile and left.
Watching the woman go through the doors, Jim waited until she was completely out of the room and walking down the hall before returning his attention to his friend. Extending his senses, he did his own medical check of Blair and accepted the diagnosis that his friend would be asleep for a little bit longer. ~sigh~ "I can't wait to hear about this one, Chief."
"Hello, Rhonda. Is Simon around?"
"What happened this time?"
Ellison cringed at the question. He'd sat watching his friend sleep for almost an hour before he finally worked up the nerve to call back to the precinct. It was the third time he'd had to call in three days. "What makes you think anything's happened?"
"James Ellison, don't try to lie to me. You're in no way as good as Blair. Speaking of which, where is he?"
"Well, that's what I'm calling about. Could you get in touch with his doctor and have him fax a short copy of Sandburg's medical history to the Lady of Mercy hospital, attention Dr. Coltrain?"
"What happened? Is he hurt bad?"
"Shh, not so loud. The whole bullpen doesn't need to know something is wrong. You know how those guys are. Is Simon in his office? You can listen on the line so I don't have to tell the story twice. Okay?"
"I guess so. Just one minute."
There was a click and Jim pulled the receiver away from his ear as a recorded song started. He grimaced at the age of the song and made a mental note to talk to whoever was in control of programming the system.
~click~ "What happened this time, Ellison? Did you solve some kidnapping case or uncover a plot against the President's motorcade?"
"Hello, Captain. Is the President going to be down here?"
"Don't be a smart ass, Jim. If I knew he was going to be down there, I'd have had both your butts sitting in a jail cell until he left. Now, which one of you does it concern this time?"
"Uh huh. And?"
"You see sir, it's like this. The afternoon session concerned weaponry and you know how he is about that stuff. So he took a little time away from the conference and was just enjoying the weather and... well, he was able to save several children from being attacked by a tiger."
Ellison yanked the telephone away again and switched it to his other ear. "A tiger, sir. Audubon Park has an animal reserve and one of their tigers got loose while it was being transported back from a veterinary visit. He was able to keep its attention while the children escaped, but then he was accidentally shot by one of the handlers with a tranquilizer gun."
"Is he okay?"
"Yes, sir. I'm calling from his room at the hospital and the doctor says he's doing okay." Jim looked over at his partner; he could tell Blair was slowly regaining consciousness. "It was just an anesthetic and he should wake up any time now. If there aren't any complications, I can take him back to the hotel tonight. But they would like to have a copy of his medical history just in case and Rhonda said she'd get it."
"Good God. ~sigh~ Now that you've heard they're okay, Rhonda, please hang up and find someone out there who has a bottle of aspirins or something stronger."
"Right away, Simon."
"Thank you. ~click~ Okay, Jim. Is there anything else I need to know? What agency should I expect a call from this time?"
"I don't think you'll get a call, Simon. According to the officers involved, Blair zigged when he should have zagged and the guy with the gun panicked and pulled the trigger. They just think he was some hapless tourist in the wrong place who was able to keep his cool."
Ellison heard the soft sound and, stretching the telephone cord, moved closer to the bed. "Hold it a minute, Simon. I think he's waking up. Can you hear me, Chief?" Jim asked, resting a hand on Blair's shoulder, keeping away from the monitor electrode.
"Mmmm?" Sandburg shifted a hand from under the sheet covering him, weakly grabbed Ellison's wrist and, holding it against his chest, tried to turn onto this side. "...sssaaf..."
Propping the receiver between his chin and shoulder, Ellison pulled his hand loose and stopped his friend from rolling. "Whoa there, Chief. Don't set off the alarms."
"What's going on, Jim?"
"Sandburg's starting to wake up. He's wanting to roll around on the bed while attached to a heart monitor."
"Can you tell if he's okay?"
Knowing what his superior was asking, Jim performed another medical check on his friend and smiled at what he 'read'. "Yes, sir. He'll probably need another hour or so before he's released, but I think he'll be just fine."
"Thank God. Okay, Jim. Rhonda will get the info down to that doctor before you take him out of there. Do you think you can go the rest of the week without any more incidents?"
"We're certainly going to try, sir. See you on Friday." Hearing a muttered 'I'd better' before the line went dead, Ellison sighed and hung up the telephone. Returning to Sandburg's bed, he heard the younger man muttering. "Sandburg? It's time to wake up."
Sleepy eyes fluttered open, but the glazed look from them indicated that nothing was being seen. "...fiiiivv mins..." Blair mumbled and, allowing the lids to drop back down, rolled his head away.
Jim grasped Blair's chin lightly, turned his face back and patted him on the cheek. "No way, Chief. It's getting late, I haven't had any dinner and I'm not eating hospital food. Wake up or I'm going to leave you here while I go find some pizza."
The eyes opened again and Blair blinked several time before he recognized the shape bending over him. "Jim?"
"Got it in one," Jim answered with a smile. "How are you feeling?"
Shifting in the bed, Blair inhaled sharply when he moved his left leg. "Ow. It feels like I got shot in the butt. What happened?"
Laughing, Jim answered, "You got shot in the butt. Remember?"
"Oh, yeah. There was a tiger at the park and I had it calmed down until that jerk tried to shoot at him." Blair frowned, but it turned into a yawn. "Is it okay?"
"The tiger? Yeah, they finally found him taking a nap on a sunny patch of grass about a half hour later. He was coaxed into another truck and is back in his habitat." Pulling a chair closer to the bed, Jim sat down and rested against the metal railing. "That was a brave thing you did, Chief."
"I was scared out of my wits."
"Some of the bravest acts recorded were committed by people who said they were scared at the time."
"Yeah, well..." Blair dropped his gaze and blushed at the praise. His eyes were drooping back shut.
"How about I find the doctor and see how much longer you have to stick around? I am hungry and I remember smelling pizza on the drive over."
"Drive?" Blair jerked his attention back up to his friend, suddenly awake. "You didn't drive the car over here, did you?"
Jim nodded. "You'd left it at the hotel. Did you expect me to take a cab or bus?"
"Oh, man. I hope the gals in accounting don't hear about this," Blair replied with a groan.
"Don't worry. I won't tell if you won't." Laughing at what his partner considered important, Ellison stood up and went to find the doctor.
"Sandburg, you can't sleep on the bench." Handing the keys of the car to the parking attendant, Ellison trotted over to his partner and pulled him back up into a sitting position. He'd thought Sandburg was doing pretty good when he stepped out of the car as soon as they'd pulled up in front of the hotel. But then the young man sat down on the concrete bench near the doors and promptly fell over asleep. Jim pulled him back up into a sitting position.
"But I'm comfortable here, Jim."
"Come on, Sleeping Beauty. You've a nice warm, soft bed waiting for you in our room."
"It's warm here.... and clean and -- and besides, I don't think I can go any farther." His eyes closed, Blair started to fall over again until a strong hand grabbed his arm, this time pulling him to his feet. He felt the appendage lifted and draped over some shoulders while the arm was moved to encircle his waist. "Hey!"
Chuckling at the indignant sound, Jim shifted Blair until he had him in a comfortable but firm grip and half carried him into the hotel. "Don't worry, I'll make sure you get there." No sooner had they gotten through the doors than Jim's friends from the ATF met them.
"Jesus, Ellison. Is the kid drunk? Do you need any help?" Chris asked, handing his folder and notepad to Vin and moving to Blair's other side to grab hold.
"Thanks, but we're doing okay. Sandburg happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as usual." Ellison smiled ruefully at his partner.
Feeling the second set of hands, Blair opened his eyes and looked over to see Larimore holding him and Tandy standing nearby. "Hey, guys. Guess what? I got shot in the butt." He gave them a lopsided smile; his eyes starting to droop close again and added, "And stopped them from... from hurting... tiger." Then his head dropped back down to his chest and he sagged enough that the two men definitely had to hold him up. Taking a firmer grip on the smaller man, Jim and Chris practically carried Blair toward the elevator.
Laughing, Tandy trotted in front of the group and pressed the elevator call button. "He saved a tiger by getting shot?"
"Actually, he accidentally moved in front of a zoo vet trying to tranq an escaped tiger from the local preserve. The hospital released him when they felt he wasn't in any danger from the amount of sedative used in the dart. Figured I'd wait until he was a little more alert then take him out to get some food into him." Jim tightened his grip on the now heavy body and heard a soft snoring sound. "On second thought, you can help me get him upstairs and we can go get something to eat after we dump him into bed."
Vin raised an eyebrow. "You sure you can leave him alone like this?"
"Sure. Once he's in bed and covered up, he'll stay until morning. I'll turn up the air conditioning and he won't move."
"Hates being cold. Give him half a chance to be warm and comfortable, he'll stay put."
Turning his head, Jim saw Detective Curtis walking toward the group and almost groaned. "Don't tell me. My captain called your captain again."
Curtis grinned. "Not yet, but the incident is spreading like wild fire down at the precinct. It's not every day someone puts their life on the line by stepping in front of a wild animal and ends up on the wrong end of a tranquilizer dart. Will he be okay?"
"From the effects of the dart, no problem. From the embarrassment of the incident as a whole, we'll see in the morning. Right, Chief?" Looking at his friend, Jim gave him a small shake.
Right on cue, Blair lifted his head and looked around until he saw the new person with their group and gave the man a lazy smile. "Hi. I got shot in the butt." Then his eyes closed and this time he leaned over onto Jim.
Laughing with the group, Curtis shook his head. "I'll let you get him to your room. If any questions need to be answered, I'll make sure they wait until the morning." Then he turned and headed for the hotel entrance.
"Thanks, detective." Jim returned his attention to the elevator just as the car arrived. "Yep. Tomorrow morning is going to be pretty interesting."
"Let's go, Sandburg. I want some breakfast and I'm not leaving until you're in the bathroom getting ready." Ellison stopped by the other's bed as he tucked his shirt into his pants. The lump of blankets that he knew was his partner slowly shifted until Sandburg rolled onto his back and his head emerged.
"I'm up," Blair murmured, opening his eyes briefly then quickly shutting them at the brightness of the room. "Just give me five more minutes."
Jim smiled. "That's what you said yesterday, right before you tried to cuddle with my hand."
"What?!?" Blair's eyes flew open and he sat up in shock. "I didn't."
"Yes, you did. And you had this smile on your face that was soooo sweet. I'm sure the guys back home would love to know about this side of you." Ellison walked over to the door.
"Oh, God," Blair moaned, burying his head back into his pillow.
"And then you had to tell everyone we met that you got shot in the butt."
The statement made Blair turn his head on the pillow until he could see his grinning friend. "Everyone? How many is everyone?"
"Let's see. There were a couple of nurses and a doctor or two at the hospital, not to mention the people we passed heading into the hospital as we were leaving." Jim paused momentarily at the loud groan that emanated from the bed. "Then after we got into the lobby--"
"You took me through the lobby? Didn't you park the car in the garage?"
"I thought it would be easier to get you up to the room if we didn't have to go through a lot of doors. I did have to practically carry you all the way. Where was I? Oh, yeah. In the lobby you had to tell both Chris and Vin, who thought you were drunk, and Detective Curtis from the New Orleans P.D. Remember me telling you about him? He said the incident is all over the precinct. Then there were the female FBI agents down the hall. You even offered to show them where you got hit."
"Sometimes you can be such a bastard, Jim," Blair accused, pushing the covers back and swinging his feet onto the floor.
"I try, Chief. I try." Laughing, Ellison opened the door and left the room.
Wednesday Afternoon, Late
Turning his head at the sound of his name, Jim recognized the young Warrant Officer Candidate who'd been at the registration desk the first morning. Swinging the rest of the way away from the soft drink vending machine, he asked, "Yes, Candidate?
The young woman held up a yellow rose with a card attached to it. "Sir, it was really nice to get this, but I'm engaged."
Ellison raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Excuse me?"
"Thank you, but no, and I really can't accept this." Handing the flower to the taller man, the young woman smiled and left.
Staring after the girl until she was out of sight, Ellison took the card attached to the flower and turned it over so that he could read it.
Recognizing the handwriting, Jim looked around until he saw Blair. His partner was having a conversation with two females, a detective from Houston and an Air National Guard Major.
Feeling like someone was watching him, Blair turned to find Jim glaring at him. If looks could have killed, Blair would be stone cold. Smiling, he slightly boosted the bottle of water he was holding and murmured, "Payback is a bitch." He said it so soft that his two companions hadn't heard it. The one person who did hear the words allowed one side of his mouth to quirk up in a slight lopsided grin before he shook his head and turned back to the machine.
Blair stood in front of the bathroom mirror to be able to see the small button on his collar. The 'banquet' being put on by the conference hosts wasn't a formal affair, but business attire was appropriate. That meant wearing a suit or sport coat; he chose the latter. Not being comfortable with a tie, Blair opted to go with a shirt that had an Italian collar. Over the button, he had a cover made of red sandstone with a pictograph etched in it. He also intended to wear a stud earring and his hair was pulled back and held by a clasp both of similar design. There were several at the conference who'd asked both him and Jim if he worked in Vice or in some undercover capacity with the Cascade P.D. What he was wearing tonight would definitely fuel the speculations.
"How much longer are you going to be, Chief?" Jim asked from the doorway. "My Ex never took as long as you do." He was also wearing a sport coat, but wore a polo shirt under it. He decided to dress a little nondescript since his partner decided to stand out. "That's quite a look, Sandburg. They'll be wondering if you're really a pimp instead of a vice cop."
Through the mirror Blair gave his partner a wide, pleased smile. Then he grabbed his jacket, pulled it on and went to the door. "Thanks, man. I decided that I'm going to take their attention away from what happened to me on Tuesday and give them something different to talk about. Actually, with this look, I'll have the ladies swarming around me."
"Like flies around--"
"Hey! I'm not picking on the staid, old-fashioned look you always tend to wear. Man, that look went out at least 10 years ago." Blair fingered the lapel on the larger man's jacket and got his hand slapped. Sliding around Jim, Blair went after his shoes.
Jim looked into the mirror to check his outfit before turning back to his friend. "Then the men wearing the same thing in GQ are also old-fashioned. Are you ready to go or do you need to add more accouterments to that outfit?"
"Ooh, nice big word. You been accessing the thesaurus on your computer again? Oh wait, you don't know where it is, do you?" Blair tried to duck, but he wasn't able to escape the hand swung at his head. "Don't mess the hair, man."
Stepping over to the bed stand, Jim grabbed his wallet and tucked it into the inner pocket of his coat. "Then let's go, Rapunzal. This is the last thing we have to do, then we can go home tomorrow and face the wrath of our Captain. If we hadn't missed the first get-together, we might have been able to escape tonight."
"You know you weren't in any mood to socialize on Sunday night. It took almost four beers to get you to crack a smile. And what do you mean about Simon? Have you, er we destroyed any cars? Have either of us had to sit in a jail cell? And we've only had one trip to the hospital. I think we're batting a thousand."
"Let's see. We helped foil a purse snatching and we hadn't been in the city even an hour. Less than 24 hours later, I'm at the scene of a robbery and help catch the criminals, who turn out to be three elderly gentlemen carrying fake guns. Then the next day, you help capture an escaped tiger and save a bunch of kids. Can you take a guess at the length of time it is going to take to explain it all to Simon when we get back? Not to mention the amount of hell we're going to catch from our wonderful co-workers." Opening the hotel room door, Ellison allowed his friend to exit then closed the door and checked it to make sure it locked.
"Oh, yeah. I see what you mean. Think we can find a reason to stay down here a little bit longer? I mean, because of everything that has happened, we really haven't had too much time to ourselves." After punching the down button for the elevator, Sandburg suddenly spun around and practically bounced where he stood. "I know, Jim. Why don't we change our flight plans for next week, ask Simon for a few more days to clean up all the stuff we were involved in this week and head up to Backstone. We can go visit Sheriff Gabelle. How about it?"
The elevator car arrived and the two entered. "I don't know, Chief. We might have a hard time convincing Simon, much less Accounting, to let us use precinct funds for a vacation."
"We won't be using P.D. money. We'll still check out of the hotel tomorrow and return the car. Then if we need one, we can pick up another using a personal credit card, which you can drive, and stay up in Backstone. The only thing we'll be using is our own time and money. How about it?"
Jim rubbed his nose. "I don't know, Sandburg. Let me think about it until after the dinner. It sounds too logical and way too easy. Besides, you thought it up. There's got to be something wrong with it." Just then the elevator stopped and the doors opened to the lobby. Jim quickly stepped out.
"Ha, ha, Jim. You are a laugh a minute."
The banquet room was set up in a smorgasbord style to allow the dinner guests the freedom to get what they wanted to eat and sit with whomever they wanted to sit. Four bars were set up, one in each corner, each carrying a variety of wines, beer and other alcoholic beverages.
Jim and Blair entered the room, each carrying a bottle of beer they'd acquired at the hotel lounge. Blair had convinced his partner that buying their drinks there they would have a bigger selection from which to choose and the prices would be better. Grudgingly, Jim had to admit the other was right again.
"I keep telling you, man. I had to go to several of these type things when I was with Rainier. A conference is a conference, no matter who is hosting it. The only thing different about this one is the food and how it's displayed. Normally, the fare is either sliced over or under cooked roast beef or rubber chicken." Taking a swallow of his beer, Blair walked over to one of the tables not marked with a 'Reserved' sign and set his bottle down. "How about this one, Jim? Away from the kitchen, not too close to the front table and far enough back for us to make a quiet exit if things get too boring."
"I knew I kept you around for more than just entertainment, Chief. Good strategy." Jim set his own bottle down and looked around the room. He saw that others from the conference were gathering with members from their own agencies, and their table would probably be no different. A captain and an officer from the Denver P.D were heading toward their table. Jim nodded at them as they set their drinks down before heading for the food tables. He saw Chris Larimore and Vin Tandy on the other side of the room with other ATF agents.
"I always take care of my partner, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he tends to be. Let's go fill up a plate or two before the best stuff is gone." Giving the larger man a cheeky grin, Blair started towards a table filled with plates and silverware.
Jim eyed the different platters of food spread out. "I think its time to revise your opinion of conference food."
"I agree, man. The people who'd set up this were definitely thinking outside the box."
"Sort of makes me wonder what we missed on the first night."
Blair only nodded, scanning the variety of dishes. Recognizing some of them, he dropped his voice way down and murmured, "Just remember, Jim. Check the dishes over for the type of spice being used before you take any, then turn your sense of smell and taste down. Even I can tell that some of the food is cooked Cajun style."
Chuckling at how his partner continued to watch out for him, Jim patted the smaller man on the shoulder. "Thanks, Blair."
A majority of the conference attendees where seated at their tables, enjoying their food and conversations. No one was paying attention to the two fancy dressed young men winding their way through the tables toward the front of the room. A third man stopped mid way through the tables and a fourth was standing back near the doors. If anyone had paid attention to them, they would have seen that their clothes were more suited for a formal dinner party.
Ellison had just completed his beer and was wondering where his partner had gone. Rather than use one of the bars in the room to get another drink, Sandburg had volunteered to go back to the hotel lounge. They had both enjoyed the Fat Tire beer purchased previously and Blair had convinced his partner that it was better for their heads in the morning to keep drinking the same brand rather than switching around. Who was Jim to argue when someone else was buying?
Suddenly his hearing picked up the familiar sound of a revolver being racked to load a bullet and a young voice saying, "Showtime!" Before he could make a move, the young men went into action.
"Could I have everyone's attention?" the man in the middle of the room yelled as he pulled out his weapon and pointed it at the ceiling. All conversations stopped and heads turned in his direction. "Thank you. My name is Napoleon and I am here to help you with your efforts. And before any of you get any ideas, I'm not alone. At the front of the room are two of my friends, Tom and Dick, and at the back of the room to make sure we aren't disturbed is Harry."
Just as the man ended the introductions, Sandburg opened the door and returned to the banquet room holding two bottles by their necks. He had a smile on his face when he looked at Jim, but it quickly faded when he noticed 'Napoleon' waving a gun around. Stepping backwards, he thought to fade back out of the room before he was noticed and get some help. A hand grabbing his hair at his neck and a gun placed at his throat made him freeze.
"Where are you going, Dude? The party has just started," Harry hissed in his ear.
Moving only his eyes to the man beside him, Blair replied shakily, "I'd forgot to get a drink for my friend. I can tell he's not happy about it. But he'll understand. I'll just go sit down and you guys can continue."
Harry looked at Napoleon. The leader smiled slightly and shook his head then returned his attention to the crowd.
"It'll be better if you just wait here with me. I know how testy friends can get when they're forgotten." Tightening his grip on Blair's neck, almost causing him to stand on his toes, Harry moved the two of them back until they were against the doors. Pushing the barrel of his weapon harder against the soft underside of his jaw, he let go of Blair's neck and locked the doors. Once that was done, he brought his hand back up and rested it on Blair's shoulder.
Ellison ignored the leader and the other two; his full attention was on his partner. He could hear the younger man's heart beating rapidly and the fear emanating from him, but he also could see the confidence and trust in his eyes. Knowing Blair wouldn't do anything until he was given some type of sign, Jim finally listened to what Napoleon was saying.
"We heard all about your noble desires to help some poor children in a backwater, Third World country. Haven't any of you heard that charity begins at home? Well, we're here to help you remember. We four are also poor unfortunates and need your monetary help. So, when Dick comes around with his nice big bag, you are all going to display what you've learned and help fill it up." Napoleon extended a hand toward the two at the front and Dick reached under his coat in the back and pulled out a king-size pillowcase. He made a show of popping it open and displaying how large it was.
Glancing quickly around the room, Jim saw others looking toward their own friends and companions and knew that they were prepared to do something if they had a chance. He caught Larimore's eye and gave the ATF agent a slight nod.
Standing up at this table, Jim called out, "Excuse me, Napoleon, or whatever your real name is. Before you start with the collection, could I ask you a couple of questions? We're a little confused. How did you hear about our, uh, gathering?
Surprised at the interruption, Napoleon frowned and asked, "Who are you, the organizer?"
Jim smiled benignly, hearing some whispering from the others near his table. They, too, were waiting to go into action. "No, I'm just a guest. But this get together is pretty important to me and an interruption like this won't make me very happy." Deciding it was time for some body language, Jim folded his arms across his chest.
"What the hell are you doing, Jim?"
Ellison heard the low murmur and spared Sandburg a glance. Harry was still holding him, but the gun wasn't being held against his throat anymore. Unfortunately, Ellison couldn't give his friend any type of signal since everyone's attention was now on him.
Getting angry, Napoleon started walking toward the large man, interrupting him. "Just who are you, asshole?"
"Me? I'm not really anyone." Attempting to look innocent, Jim held his hands out to his side, palms up.
"Give me your wallet," Napoleon ordered when he stood in front of Jim.
Shrugging, Jim slowly held his jacket open, reached into the pocket and pulled out his wallet, handing it over to the crook. He looked over the other's head and, seeing Blair watching him closely, nodded slightly.
Sandburg wasn't the only one to see the signal. Around the room, others shifted carefully in their chairs until they were sitting slightly forward with their hands at their sides. Tandy was slowly stretching his hand down his leg to retrieve a handgun he always carried tucked in his left boot and Larimore was in position to draw the revolver tucked in his shoulder holster.
"What the..." Napoleon had opened the leather case and was staring at the gold badge. Then he saw the identification. "You're a cop?"
Jim grinned. He could hear the other's heart speeding up and saw him starting to sweat. "From Cascade, Washington. I'm not here for any type of charity benefit though. None of us are. If you don't believe me, just ask that guy over there." Jim pointed to a young Hispanic man. "He's with the FBI. Or that woman behind him. She's a colonel in the military."
"What's going on?" Napoleon asked, looking around the room. When his gun was suddenly plucked out of his hand and turned on him, he stumbled back. He heard chairs being scraped against the floor and spun around to see people from almost every table standing up and pointing a weapon at him and the other three.
After disarming the robber, Ellison reversed the revolver and pointed it at Napoleon's head. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Sandburg jam his elbow into the stomach of the man beside him then swing around and slam the beer bottles into the guy's head. Harry went out like a light and dropped to the floor.
Returning his full attention to Napoleon, Jim asked, "What did you think this dinner was?"
The robber stared at his own gun pointing at his face. "Isn't this the New Orleans Benevolent Society banquet?"
One of the waiters near the table answered him. "That's being held down at the Radisson." When he saw others looking at him, he shrugged. "A friend of mine works there. They're having this big party to raise money for Feed The Children. Only those able to donate large amounts of money were invited."
"Shit!" Sagging in defeat, Napoleon raised his hands in surrender. Tom and Dick followed his example. Harry was still lying on the floor unconscious.
"I guess that says it all," Jim said with a grin. Around him, others had taken control of the four robbers and the room came alive with conversation and nervous laughter. Jim heard Blair reach his side and turned to look at him. "You okay, Chief?"
Looking slightly dazed but happy, Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little tender here, but nothing that would require another trip to the hospital." He rubbed at the spot on his throat where Harry had pressed his gun.
The grin faded from Ellison's face. "Damn, it happened again." He sat down in his chair.
Understanding, Sandburg sank down into his with a heavy sigh. "Yeah. So who gets to call Simon?"
"I made the call the last time, Chief. It's your turn."
"Hey, that's not fair. I would have called and you know it."
"You were unconscious, so I had to do it."
"But I would have done it--"
"Good intentions don't count."
Knowing he was defeated, Blair used the table to push back up to his feet. "Okay, okay. But I want another beer before I make the call. I had to waste the last one."
Joining his partner, Jim threw his arm around the smaller man's shoulders and they both walked to the doors of the room. "I think this calls for a couple, Chief. They might deaden his shouting."
"I doubt it."
"So do I."
Reaching the doors, the two men were about to exit when a man's voice called to Jim. "Detective Ellison!"
Knowing who it was, Jim stiffened slightly then sagged and turned around. "I know, Detective Curtis. We're going to make a statement, but we wanted to get refills before your robbery squad gets here."
Curtis gave the Cascade detective a wide grin as he approached. Behind him followed Larimore and Tandy. "I'm off duty, so call me Roger. And I wasn't going to stop you. Thought maybe you'd let me buy you and your partner a drink. That was a pretty smooth takedown tonight. It could have been ugly."
"I don't think so. These guys thought they were going to have an easy robbery of a bunch of fat cats who wouldn't put up a fuss. You could almost smell the fear on them when they learned about the mistake. All that was needed was to get the upper hand and the show was over."
"Sounds like you've got a lot of experience with this type of situation."
Blair spoke up. "We're from Cascade, Washington, otherwise known as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Some of the things we've been through..."
"And most of them before you officially became my partner, Chief."
"I'd like to hear your side of some of these situations, Blair. Jim's versions make it sound like he's had to pull your fanny out of the fire more times than not." Larimore didn't flinch at the glare leveled toward him from the tall detective.
Blair stepped away from his friend and folded his arms across his chest. "Oh? And just which situations that you were involved in did you leave out?" Seeing Jim drop his head in embarrassment and rub the side of his nose, Blair turned to the others. "Let's go find a table. I think I need to straighten out the record on a situation or two and it will probably take some time. You're buying, Jim."
Turning, Sandburg walked through the banquet room doors, with Curtis, Larimore and Tandy on his heels. Sighing in resignation, Ellison followed.
"You two cooked this up to get more time off. Didn't you, Sandburg?"
"I swear to you, Captain. Everything I told you is true. You can talk to one of the other people who are here if you don't believe me. There are two guys from the Denver ATF still hanging around." Blair used one hand to push his hair back away from his face. Both he and Jim had decided that it would be better to wait until morning to call their captain and let him know they were going to have to stay down in Louisiana for at least a week or so longer.
"How long what?"
"Don't push it, Sandburg. I've got a meeting with the Commissioner and the Mayor in an hour and it's budget time. I'm not in a charitable mood."
"Uh, well, the purse snatcher gets arraigned later today. But the other two cases are not until next week sometime. Maybe."
~sigh~ "Where's Ellison hiding? If he's anywhere nearby, I know he can hear me."
Blair looked across the lobby of the hotel to the front doors. He could see Jim standing out under the portico trying to ignore him, but the larger man obviously was listening to every word. "He's not in the hotel, sir. He, uh, I think he might have gone down to that bakery he found on Monday."
"Uh, huh. Well, you make sure he gets this message just as soon as he finishes stuffing his face. Understand?"
"Yes, sir. Make sure Jim hears exactly what you're going to tell me." Blair saw Jim tilt his face and knew his partner was focusing his hearing toward the conversation.
"The very minute you two have things cleared up down there, I want both of your butts on an airplane and back in Cascade. No helping the police solve any more cases, you are not to do anything. And don't even consider getting any time off for several months once you do get back. Am I making myself clear?"
Seeing Jim nod, Blair mimicked the action then realized he was talking on a telephone. "Yes, sir. Crystal." The phone clicked heavily and the line went dead. "And goodbye to you, too, Captain. It was so nice talking to you, sir," Blair said sarcastically into the buzzing receiver.
"I didn't need my special hearing with that conversation, Chief." Walking up to his partner, Ellison sat on the arm of a nearby couch.
"I still say it's the office. Everyone who sits in there just automatically gets loud." Placing the receiver back on the cradle, Blair rubbed his ear. "Are we ready to go?"
"Bags are in the car, we're all checked out of the hotel and the local police have telephone numbers of where we're going. Let's hit the road before it gets too late." Turning, Jim started walking toward the door.
"Where're the car keys, Jim?" Blair asked, moving quickly up to his partner's side.
Jim held up his hand, shook the keys on the ring then tucked them into his front pocket.
Blair held his hand out. "I'll take them back, man." Jim kept walking. "Jim, give me the keys. Until we get another car, I have to drive. Now hand them over."
Lengthening his stride, Jim exited out the hotel doors.
"Jim! Come back here, man."