Production No. CVT701

written by:

edited by:
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."

"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."

Monday Morning

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."

"Chopper pilot?"

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..."

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