starwatcher_fic ([personal profile] starwatcher_fic) wrote2009-09-28 07:46 pm

#37 - All That Glitters


Title: All that Glitters
Summary: Jim and Blair are still learning to work together while dealing with a troublesome case.
Style: Gen
Size: 27,140 words, about 54 pages.
Warnings: Use of OCs.
Notes: Written summer 2008, for winning request of Moonridge 2007 auction
Feedback: Not necessary, but every one is treasured
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

All That Glitters

by StarWatcher

Dedicated to Gerri, for her generous donation to Moonridge,
and her faith in me as a writer. Thank you.

Wednesday, 9/4/96

"You're awfully chipper this morning," Jim remarked as he watched Blair bustle -- there was no other word for it -- around the kitchen. The coffee had finished perking; Jim poured two cups, as well as two glasses of juice, and carried them to the table.

Blair smiled sunnily as he turned off the stove and scooped the scrambled eggs onto two plates. "Yeah, man, I can't help it. It's like a drug -- the first weeks of school always get me high. He joined Jim at the table, slipping one plate in front of his friend, and reached for a piece of toast.

Jim's voice was amused. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Chief, but wasn't that you last spring, grumbling about the laziness of today's students, and the idiocy of any teacher who thought he could pound some kind of education into their thick skulls?"

"Well, yeah, but now it's a whole new year!" Blair's amusement matched Jim's. "You see, there's always the possibility that there'll be a few students -- or several -- who really 'get it', who love to learn and are enthusiastic about it. And it's a joy to nurse that along, and watch them spread their wings and take off. But then when they're soaring freely, the poor put-upon teacher -- that's me, by the way -- still has to deal with the earthbound dolts who expect to be spoon-fed, and then argue about your technique. So by the end of the year you're ready to throw in the towel. But hope springs eternal, and with the new year, anything is possible," he proclaimed as he spread his arms expansively. "So I'm ready to challenge the world -- bring it on! Neither fiendish freshmen nor supercilious seniors shall force me from the battlefield!"

Blair downed his juice and set the glass down with a decided 'thump', then shrugged as he shook his head and waved off his last statement. "Nah, ignore that guff; I told you I was high. But it's a cycle, man. Sometimes the positive aspects are stronger, and sometimes the negative aspects bite you in the ass, but it all evens out eventually, and in the final analysis I call it 'good'." His eyes twinkled as he continued, "Which doesn't mean I won't be bitching next March. But then in September I'll be high again -- and it's completely legal." He chuckled, inviting Jim to share the joke.

"Make sure you keep it that way, Junior; this nose will be able to tell if you pass within fifty feet of burning weed," Jim threatened, then stared thoughtfully at Blair over his coffee cup. And this crazy kid gave me the control to do that, he realized. He still wasn't sure why he continued to allow Sandburg to stay in his spare room; the 'one week' had passed months ago, and the kid's personality and presence were encroaching on the whole rest of the loft -- with the lone exception of Jim's own bedroom. Not to mention that his off-the-scale energy could be nerve-wracking at times. On the other hand, that same energy fed Sandburg's enthusiasm for helping Jim find ways to control his senses. You'd be up shit creek without that 'crazy kid', so don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Keeping his thoughts to himself, Jim observed, "I thought classes didn't start till Monday. What's so special about today?"

"Hey, the students need time to settle in and get their schedules sorted out before they actually sit down in class. And the freshmen need to go through orientation. Which means..." Blair glanced at the clock and carried his dishes to the sink, "...I gotta get a move on." He rinsed everything, stacking it for later washing.

"So, are you stuck on campus all day, or will you be in to the PD later?" Jim asked.

"I should be; things usually slow down by early afternoon. Let's say two, and I'll call if I can't make it, okay?" With a quick, "See ya," Blair slung his backpack over his shoulder and was out the door.

Jim shook his head with fond amusement as he carried his own dishes to the sink, where he turned on the hot water and added dish-soap. Even rinsed, the dishes would offend his sentinel senses by the time he returned to the loft after work, and he had time enough to wash them now. He hoped Blair would make it to the PD later; somehow, things -- his senses -- were just more... comfortable when the kid was around. But I should be able to manage on my own!, he thought, with a mental growl of frustration. I hope I reach that point sooner rather than later; God knows how long Sandburg will be willing to hang around. Finished washing the dishes, Jim grabbed his gun and badge and headed toward a day of witness interviews; maybe he'd get a break in his current case.

Desirée Kawasani pulled her red Dodge Caravan into the handicapped space at the corner of Bransfield Dorm and used the car's horn to initiate her distinctive 'recognition call' -- a long and two short beeps, followed by long, short, long -- her initials, tapped out in Morse code. Sure enough, a smiling, eager face peered through the window a few spaces down, a hand waved madly, and then the face disappeared abruptly -- which was exactly what she'd expected. Desirée just hoped that Summer wouldn't trample anybody as she dashed down the hall toward the main entrance.

Despite her facility with the procedure, it took a finite time to release her wheelchair from the driving position, maneuver it into the hydraulic lift, and ride it to ground level. Just as Desirée slid open the door, Summer rounded the corner of the dorm at a dead run and pulled up to wait impatiently, bouncing on her toes, until the lift had settled firmly on the pavement.

"Dessie! You made it!" Summer squealed in delight, bending down to give her best friend a heartfelt hug, which was returned with interest.

"Well, of course I did," Desirée assured her. "I couldn't let you hog all the fun for yourself."

"No fun without you," Summer replied with loyal sincerity.

"Because you don't try," Desirée pointed out in a faintly accusing tone. She raised her hand as if taking an oath. "But I promise to keep my evil influence under firm control... at least until you need a push," she finished, winking broadly. "Did you talk to any cute, unattached guys while you were home?"

Summer blushed and mumbled something inaudible while she busied herself pulling her friend's luggage out of the van. She dropped some small packages into the basket hanging from the handles in back of the wheelchair, balanced the vanity case on Desirée's knees, and extended the wheels of the large suitcase. "We'll have to make a couple more trips," she announced as she strode forward. "Or maybe we can borrow the janitor's big platform-dolly and get the rest of it all at once."

Desirée chuckled as she locked the van and followed her friend, pushing strongly against a slight upslope. From that reaction, she'd bet anything that Summer had met someone during the summertime break, probably been attracted -- and done absolutely nothing about it. As far as Desirée was concerned, the girl was way too shy around boys -- well, around people in general, but it was much worse around boys -- and it was so silly. Summer van Eisen just didn't realize that she was cute as could be, with a sturdy but curvaceous figure, bright blue eyes, curly brown hair, and engaging smile. Half the guys on campus would be swarming around her like bees around a flower, if she'd just give them a hint of encouragement.

Desirée kept her thoughts to herself as she wheeled through the door that Summer was holding open for her, and headed down the hallway, with her friend now following behind. They had three more years of college ahead of them -- four if they went for their Masters', which was likely -- and Rainier was a big university, with a lot of good-looking guys. Somewhere in that lot there must be someone that Summer would 'click' with, who was kind and caring enough to be worthy of her friend. Aloud, she asked over her shoulder, "So, which room did they put us in?"

"Fourth down on the left, right next to where we were last year."

Desirée stopped in front of the door, while her friend leaned around her to unlock it and push it open. "Home, sweet home -- at least for the next nine months," Summer announced as she followed Desirée into the room, and lifted the suitcase onto the unmade bed.

"Well, you've certainly improved the basic packaging," Desirée replied appreciatively. "Looks good."

It did. Summer had replaced the beige dorm curtains with a bright green, white and yellow print, and her green bedspread had flecks of yellow in it. They'd coordinate well with the green-and-white bedspread that Desirée had in her luggage. She felt a flash of gratitude that her friend had remembered such a detail while choosing the obviously new décor.

While they unpacked -- Summer working 'high' and Desirée working 'low' -- they caught up with what each had done during the university hiatus. Summer admitted that, yes, there had been a cute guy home from Washington State U, but nothing had happened. Of course not! Desirée thought with fond exasperation.

After everything was put away, Summer took the keys to the van and went in search of the janitor's dolly, declaring that, after Og's hard work in inventing them, it was senseless to ignore the power of the wheel. It was an old joke, and Desirée gave the expected response. "Of course, he only got around to it because his wife kept nagging him. You know what they say --"

Summer joined in like a chorus, "-- Behind every successful man is a good woman." Summer laughed, and Desirée grinned as her friend hustled out the door -- Summer hustled everywhere, except when she was walking with Desirée -- and then turned to survey their room.

As she looked at all the little touches that shouted 'Summer' -- the curtains, the posters on the wall that Desirée could never have put up, the throw-rug by her bed that Summer had gotten special permission to put down with double-sided carpet tape so that it wouldn't slip out from under Desirée's shaky legs -- she was struck, again, by how lucky she was to have met Summer last year. They'd 'clicked' instantly, and thirty minutes later it had felt as if they'd known each other forever. As different as they were externally, there was a rock-solid connection that reverberated between their psyches. Soul-sisters, Desirée thought with comfortable satisfaction. It was simply icing on the cake that Summer never made her feel 'handicapped'; Summer paid no more attention to her limitations than she did to Desirée's small, skinny physique, long, straight hair, or brown eyes -- it was, for Summer, just part of the package that made up 'my friend, Dessie'.

Although that wasn't exactly true. Summer did pay attention to her limitations, making thoughtful accommodations seemingly without noticing. Rather than each girl using a dresser on one side of the room, as most roommates did, Summer was using the top and bottom drawers of each -- because she could reach higher and bend lower -- while Desirée had use of the four middle drawers. The desk-chair on Desirée's side of the room had already been returned to Housekeeping, to leave room for her wheelchair. Summer walked slower when she was beside Desirée, and never seemed impatient to go faster. Summer's legs were at Desirée's disposal when she needed them, and her hands seemed an extension of Desirée's own. And every time Desirée tried to offer her gratitude, Summer seemed uncomfortable and confused; she seemed to think what she did was nothing special. Someday, Desirée might have to share some of her life stories, though she wasn't sure, even then, that Summer would truly understand.

It was a precious friendship, and Desirée intended to hold it tightly, dreading the day when they might go their separate ways. Three more years, or even four, simply wouldn't be long enough; she wanted a lifetime. Maybe they could find jobs in the same city after they graduated. But in the meantime, the only way Desirée could think of to thank her friend was to help her find a suitable boyfriend, someone who might become a loyal, loving husband. Summer would resist, of course, but Desirée might talk her into it if they double-dated. Maybe I could find brothers who suit both of us. If she's my sister-in-law, we'd always be connected.

Desirée heard Summer whistling as she approached, and hastily wiped the emotional tears from her eyes, smiling brightly as her friend opened the door. Summer carried baggage and packages into the room and tossed them on the beds, then quickly returned the dolly to the janitor. They both wanted to get an early spot in the registration lines after lunch so, in the hour before the cafeteria opened, they finished unpacking, busily planning their classes for the new school year.

Blair breezed into the bullpen at 2:15, hung his backpack on the coat-rack, and settled into the chair next to Jim's. Once again he marveled at how natural this routine seemed, after just a few short months; sometimes it felt like he'd been waiting his whole life to work with this man. He felt... comfortable, just being with Jim, sharing his life and his work. Of course, he couldn't tell Jim, but Blair had begun to realize that finishing his dissertation would not be an unmixed blessing if it meant he and Jim went separate ways. That would be some time in the future, though -- a long time, if Blair had any say in the matter. For now, he'd just concentrate on being the kind of partner Jim needed.

"Hey, man, how's it going?"

"Frustrating," the detective growled as he tossed a file onto the desk with a grimace of disgust. "I can't find one point of valid commonality in these robberies. You, however, look positively smug; how many cute co-eds have you already lined up in your sights?"

"Not even, man!" Blair protested. "Students are strictly -- strictly! -- off-limits. But there is this one new TA..." He winked, and then grinned as Jim deliberately rolled his eyes with a long-suffering air. "So, what about this case? You haven't mentioned robberies before today." He reached out and snagged the file, though he waited for Jim's assenting nod before he opened it and started reading. "And how come you have it? What makes it something for Major Crimes?"

Jim reached for a small stack of other files, and spread them on the desk like a poker hand. "Politics, of course. All of the victims are particularly wealthy, and all of them think their incident should have been solved within thirty minutes. Since it's been three weeks and Burglary hasn't made any progress, it got booted up here. I'm the lucky stiff that was in rotation for the next case."

Blair had been skimming the reports in the various folders. "Wow, I see what you mean. These incident reports are full of a whole lot of nothing. No commonalities?"

"They don't use the same jewelers, alarm systems, dry cleaners, banks, stores, maid service, delivery systems -- you name it, there's at least three different sources. And nothing's shown up at any of the pawn shops, and we've shaken down every fence in the city without results. And there's no pattern to the stolen items, either -- two were jewelry, which we'd expect, but there was also a coin collection, a set of jeweled knives, and some Fabergé pottery, for god's sake. Absolutely the only point in common is that they all have a kid or two going to Rainier."

"Yeah, but Rainier's a class-A university," Blair pointed out. "If you've got kids who're college-age, it'd be stupid to send them anywhere else."

"Exactly," Jim agreed. "It's like saying they all wear clothes when they go out in public; it's too ordinary to have any bearing on the case."

"Didn't you once tell me that even the ordinary has to be closely examined when you're trying to make a case?" Jim merely glared, jaw muscles clenching. "Yeah, yeah, you're right," Blair responded hurriedly. "A difference that is no difference makes no difference; got'cha." He was going through the files more slowly, reading names and details. "But I can see why the higher-ups are squawking; there are some big names here." He opened the next folder, and his eyes widened. "Hey, I know this guy!"

Jim was instantly on alert. "What? How?" He snatched the folder out of Blair's hands to take another look. "Where did you rub shoulders with a business-shark like Jonah Petersen?"

"Seemed kind of nice when I met him," Blair protested. "He's got a big estate on the east side of town. His doctor told him he needed some vigorous, non-weight-bearing exercise, so he's planning to put in a good-sized pool. But when the workers started digging, they found some pottery shards. Anyway, this guy seems real big on supporting the university -- said with four kids and two grandkids already, he better be. So he's offered to let the anthropology and archaeology students do a real archaeologic excavation on the site. Said he'd give us three months, and by the time we're done the ground would be so dug up that it'd make putting in the pool a lot easier. I'm going to announce it as soon as I know the class roster is finalized."

Jim leaned back in his chair and sighed. "That's great for you, Chief, but I doubt it has any bearing on the case. Unless you find a --" he glanced at the incident report to refresh his memory, "-- coin collection valued at sixty-five thousand dollars hidden under the bushes, I don't think your 'knowing him' will make much difference."

"Well, duh! How stupid would you have to be to hide something, and then invite a bunch of nosy kids to dig in the same spot? I was just surprised at the coincidence, is all. So, how do you want to get started? You think if you go over the scenes again, your senses will pick up something that forensics missed?"

"Not likely. People live at those scenes; any trace evidence is long gone, or would be worthless because it could have been dropped after the robberies. I think we'll have to wait for another robbery, and get there while it's still fresh."

"Oh, the brass will be thrilled about that," Blair remarked.

"Got it in one, Chief. But there's no help for it. In the meantime, we gotta go through the motions -- and sandwich the investigation in between our other cases. Maybe interviewing the victims again will turn up something that Burglary missed." Jim switched off his computer and stood. "Grab your gear, Chief; we're going fishing. We should be able to hit one or two before quitting time."

Thursday, 9/12/96

Blair was updating his notes for next week's class. There'd been some interesting developments in the field in the past couple of years, and his lecture needed to cover that information. He paused in his writing and frowned. Damn; he was having a brain-fart. There was something else he wanted to include, and it hovered just out of reach of his conscious mind. He stared around his small office. Okay. I'm pretty sure I saw it in the latest Anthro Quarterly, or maybe the one before that. And those would be... He closed his eyes, trying to visualize, then snapped them open. that pile, right there!

He crouched in front of the precarious stack of books and magazines propped against the end of the sofa and judiciously removed a hand's-thickness of assorted publications. Setting them to the side of the main stack, Blair began to work his way down the pile, and hit paydirt on the fourth one. Score one for the creative mind! he thought triumphantly, but not even sentinel senses would be able to 'read' his satisfaction, no matter how hard he tried to beam his thoughts toward Ellison.

"Professor Sandburg? Are you here?"

Abruptly, Blair realized that his desk and the sofa hid him from casual view of anyone in the doorway. "Right here," he announced, standing and tossing the journal on the desk. "Miss Kawasani, come in, come in!" He hurried around to move one of the visitors' chairs out of the way, so that she could use the space. "And when we're out of class, I don't need a title. Just call me Blair." He smiled charmingly at his student as he sat and faced her across the desk.

"Thank you, Blair. And I'm Dessie. 'Miss Kawasani' is my older sister -- she just passed the bar exam and is working for a big law firm." Her brown eyes twinkled merrily. "Better her than me, but it takes all kinds."

"That it does," Blair agreed. "So, what can I do for you Dessie?" Truthfully, he was surprised to see her; Desirée Kawasani was one of his better students. Even if she hadn't been, the day after the second class session was a bit soon to be seeking extra help.

"I came to ask if I could join the team working the Petersen dig," Desirée told him. Seeing the doubt begin to creep into his eyes, she added hurriedly, "I'll make a formal request in writing, if you need it, and also sign a waiver of liability. But I'd really, really like to be a part of it, if you'll allow it."

She certainly seemed sincere, but the logistics could be difficult. "It's really not necessary, you know," Blair said gently. "With a major in sociology, you can get an anthropology minor without going on any field trips."

"I know," Desirée agreed. "And if it was something out of the country, I wouldn't even ask -- between flying with my chair, and trying to deal with it in primitive conditions, it wouldn't be worth the effort. But something that's been dumped in our laps, that's close enough that I can drive my own van to the site -- it's too good an opportunity to pass up."

"'Close' doesn't mean 'easy'. Once you get out of your van, the ground is rough, with lots of tangled underbrush scattered around. And -- forgive me -- but can you get out of that chair to do any digging?"

"Professor -- Blair -- I've been chair-bound for over ten years; I know my capabilities, and they outweigh my limitations. I have a special 'roughneck' chair -- kind of stripped down, lighter and lower, with fatter tires for better off-road traveling. And yes, with someone to stabilize the chair for me, I can get out and down, and then back up again. And once I'm down, I won't be any different from anyone else -- we'll all be sitting on our butts, scratching in the dirt."

Desirée was accustomed to judging people's character, and their reactions; it was a necessary skill she'd developed to smooth out her interactions with the able-bodied. She recognized that Blair wasn't deliberately trying to prevent her participation; he was sincerely concerned about her safety. She pressed her attack.

"Besides, I figure I'd be a natural for the less active aspects -- like keeping the records. I could sort and catalogue and write the descriptions, give everyone else more time for digging."

"You could do that on campus," Blair pointed out, wondering, at the same time, why he was arguing with her. He had so many students who just went through the motions of learning, doing the bare minimum until they could get their degree. Enthusiasm like this should be encouraged, not squashed. Still, how dangerous might even a 'tame' dig-site be for a girl in a wheelchair? "We'll have to bring anything we find back here, anyway, and you could do the cataloguing and describing in air-conditioned comfort."

"But this might be -- probably will be -- my one chance to participate in an honest-to-god dig; it's too good an opportunity to miss." On the theory that 'all's fair', Desirée cast him a deliberately pleading glance and then pulled out the big guns. "Would it make a difference if I brought someone along who knows how to help me? I have a real good friend -- Summer van Eisen -- and she knows what to do if anything goes wrong, and she's strong enough to get it done."

"I don't recognize the name," Blair admitted. "Is she new?"

"Well, she's not actually taking the class. But I'm sure I can talk her in to it, and she's only missed two lectures; I can help her catch up."

"I don't give out easy A's," Blair warned. "If she wants to keep up her grade-point average she'll have to do the work, even if she's just along to help you out."

Desirée nodded decisively. "I'll make sure she knows, before she signs up. But if she agrees, will you allow both of us to join the dig?"

With a mental sigh, Blair capitulated. Desirée might be wrong about being able to work the dig site but, at the very least, she deserved an opportunity to try. Hopefully, if it became too difficult for her, she'd admit it and let him make other -- easier -- arrangements. "You've got a deal," he said, smiling warmly and finally relaxing. "Welcome to our dig team, Miss -- sorry -- Dessie. I think you'll find it rather more arduous than you expect, but you're right -- it'll be a helluva lotta fun. Just remember -- sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are your friend."

Blair winked at her wide, bright smile and escorted her out of the office. He watched thoughtfully as she wheeled briskly down the hallway. She was so eager; he truly hoped she'd be able to participate as she wanted, and not be disappointed in the experience.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Okay, office hours were officially over; time to go meet Jim. They'd questioned two of the robbery victims last week -- Andrews and Cardenelli -- and learned nothing new. But Blair was beginning to understand that some policework -- especially for a detective -- was a lot like archaeology; you kept sifting through the layers until you found the one fact that became the key to putting all the puzzle pieces together.

Then they'd had to deal with the Angie Ferris case, and put the robbery investigation on hold. But now Weston was dead and Ferris was safe; it was puzzle-piecing time again. Today Jim was planning to descend on some of the other victims, and Blair would be with him to ensure that he didn't zone while listening to their heartbeats or other subtle signals.

As he locked his office door behind him, he just hoped that there'd be time for lunch somewhere in that schedule.

Desirée had to express her excitement somehow. As soon as she was outside the building and had room to maneuver, she popped a wheelie and spun in a circle, her delight bubbling out in a gleeful laugh. Yes! She was in, she was in, she was in!

After a moment, she grabbed control of her emotions and released the chair to settle back to ground level before she became dizzy and lost control. Falling backwards would be a pain in the butt -- literally -- not to mention how foolish she'd feel if someone came by before she could pick herself up and manage to get back in her chair. She drew a deep breath, instead, and started considering the practical aspects. Joining the dig wasn't a hundred percent certainty, of course; it wasn't very likely, but Summer might say 'no'.

Desirée twisted to reach into the backpack hanging from the chair's handles, pulled out her copy of Summer's schedule and considered it thoughtfully. Summer was majoring in Theatre and Drama; she really couldn't ask her to give up Acting 201, nor her costuming or set design classes. PE was also off-limits; fencing wasn't offered every semester, and Summer was so excited about actually learning to handle a blade. "If I ever get a part as a pirate queen, I'll be able to make the swordplay look real," she'd said, even though her smile had been self-deprecating. Desirée approved; being able to shine at something like that would help boost her friend's self-esteem. But... Music 201 or Woodshop could be taken at any time; maybe Summer would be willing to drop one of those.

Desirée glanced at her watch; ten forty-five. Summer's music class was at eleven; maybe she could persuade her to cut class and they'd go for an early lunch, and Desirée could explain her plan. It would work; it just had to. Desirée stuffed the schedule into her backpack, wheeled her chair in a tight circle, and headed toward the music building. She was pretty sure Summer used the south entrance...

Desirée was still some distance away when she saw her friend walking with another theatre student just as they reached the main doors. "SUMMER!" she shouted, with a volume that she had several times proven could be heard a block away.

Summer whirled instantly, her gaze quickly locating her friend. Of course, with sunlight flashing off the spokes of her wheels, Desirée could hardly blend into the background. Summer said a quick word to her companion, and then she was hurrying toward her friend.

"Dessie! Is something wrong?" she called anxiously, as soon as she was within range.

Desirée waited calmly till her friend was within easy talking distance. "Not wrong," she said, "right. But I need your help with it. I thought you could cut class and we could work it out over an early lunch."

Summer hesitated. Unlike Desirée, she never looked for minimal excuses to avoid class, claiming that making up the work was more hassle than the time was worth. "Lunch is only an hour away," she pointed out, "and we were going to meet then, anyway."

"I'm too excited to wait, and I want someplace more private than the cafeteria. We can go to the Grill-Tastic; it's on me," Desirée coaxed.

Summer regarded her friend thoughtfully. "When you resort to bribes, I know you're up to something."

Desirée grinned cheerfully, undaunted. "Of course I am. But I promise it won't hurt, and I think you'll even like it. And even if you don't like the idea, at least you'll get a free lunch out of it; what d'ya say?"

Summer surrendered. "I say life would be a lot duller if I'd never met you. But you are going to pay -- I'm ordering an appetizer and lunch and dessert. And probably an extra-thick chocolate shake. The condemned man eats a hearty last meal and all that."

Desirée laughed happily, allowing Summer to have the last word as they headed toward the lot where she'd parked her van.

Another round of questioning was proving no more productive than the first. As expected, going over the same ground that Burglary had already covered had gotten them nowhere; there wasn't a single clue to be discovered. But they needed to rule out the possibility that one or all of the victims were trying to instigate an insurance fraud. So far, no one had hidden their own items with a view to collecting the insurance and then selling said items on a collector's black market; Jim's analysis of heartbeats and voice stress as he questioned each member of the various households had assured him of that. And, contrary to popular 'whodunnits', the butler in each case was also innocent -- as were the housekeepers, maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, and various other hangers-on.

Of course they are, Jim thought, sourly. It would be too easy for someone to break into a sweat and start babbling a confession. But his face gave no hint of his irritation as he faced the tall, thin man in front of him, who looked far too bland to be the business-shark that Jim had heard he was. "I appreciate your willingness to answer these questions again, Mr. Petersen," he said smoothly. "Sometimes describing incidents again can shake loose a forgotten nugget of information." He waited, but the man in front of him merely shrugged and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, detective; there's nothing I can add. Brad forgot to turn on the alarm system when he took his little sister to her swim class. When they returned a couple of hours later, the front door was ajar, but nothing was visibly disturbed. It wasn't until I got home and checked the most likely targets that I discovered my coin collection was missing."

"And none of your household staff noticed a burglar traipsing through the house because...?"

"As I told the other policemen, Thursday and Sunday afternoons are the staff's days off. It was a nice day, and everyone was out; I don't pry into my staff's concerns."

No matter; Jim had already assured himself that the staff was 'clean'. "Then, sir, may we talk to Brad? Since he was the last one out of the house, and the first to return, perhaps he saw or heard something that might be helpful."

"I have no objection, Detective, but he isn't here. During the college semester, he prefers to share a house on 'Frat Row' with several of his friends. It gives him a little extra independence, and relieves his mother and me of the noise and rowdiness when he wants to entertain his friends. I'm sure you can find him there -- two thirty-four Appleton Way."

It had been the same with everyone he questioned; the college-age son or daughter preferred to room near campus rather than with 'mommy' and 'daddy', regardless of how accommodating the parents tried to be.

"I know it, Jim." Sandburg spoke quietly, but with assurance. "It's right across from the campus theatre."

There was no sense in continuing the questioning; the answers wouldn't suddenly change to something more useful. Jim stood, drawing the interview to a close. "Thank you, Mr. Petersen," he said, shaking hands as the other man also stood. "Again, I appreciate you giving us the time to confirm our information."

"Not a problem, Detective," Mr. Petersen said as he escorted them to the door. "If there's any chance it'll help lead you to the thief, and recover my coin collection, I'm glad to help."

Blair heaved a sigh as he settled himself beside Jim in the Ford-150. "I don't know how you do it, man," he complained. "They all remind me of Sergeant Schultz; 'I see nothing, I know nothing!'" His mimicry was a far cry from the original. "How do you keep doing it?"

Jim chuckled. "Keep your day-job, Chief; Rich Little you ain't. As for my job, even negative information is valuable. It lets us avoid wasting our time on a dead-end road. And it is very much like fishing, or hunting; you have to have patience -- which you, my friend, seem to lack. You should develop that," he advised, with mock-seriousness. "It could come in handy for a teacher or for an anthropologist. I'll be happy to teach you. Till then, are you ready to tackle Taylor and Colberg?"

"Y'know, those lessons would go down a lot easier on a full stomach," Blair suggested. "I know this place close to the campus -- The Grill-Tastic -- plenty of meat for you and veggies for me, and the atmosphere's pretty relaxed without being rowdy."

Jim chuckled again as he put the Ford in gear and headed toward Rainier. "You got it, Chief. Lunch first, then more hunting."

Over a hearty lunch, which both agreed beat the cafeteria food six ways from Sunday, Desirée explained her unexpected opportunity. Summer, although supportive, was puzzled.

"But why do you want to?" she asked. "It's not like working on a dig will help you counsel some kid who's in trouble."

Desirée chuckled. "Who knows? Maybe it'll impress some kid who's trying to be all macho-tough. But that's not the point, and you know it. After all -- who's saving up money to take hang-gliding lessons next summer? It's not like that'll help improve your acting skills."

"Guilty," Summer said, chuckling in her turn. "Okay, we have different ideas of fun, so I'll be a good friend and say, 'go for it'. But why should I rearrange my schedule to take a different class? You're quite capable of managing on your own -- and you'll have some of your classmates around if you need help."

"I know that, and you know that, but Mr. Sandburg doesn't know that. I had him last year, and he really cares for his students. Add in me being in a wheelchair, and... well, sometimes he could give a mother hen lessons in solicitous hovering; he's a sweetie, but a worrywart. He'll just be more comfortable if I have experienced backup, and I don't want to force the issue -- there's no quicker way to get on a teacher's bad side." Desirée winked conspiratorially and lowered her voice as she leaned toward her friend. "Besides, wait till you see him. He's probably only four or five years older than we are, and the best-looking teacher on campus, with the prettiest blue eyes you'll ever see. It's worth taking one of his classes just for the eye-candy."

Leaning back, Desirée looked around the room to signal the waitress for a refill of her tea. A hearty laugh caught her ear, and she glanced toward the source. Surprised, she reached out to clutch Summer's arm. "Look! There he is!" She spoke quietly but urgently. "Sitting at the table in the corner with the tall, buff guy."

Summer peeked circumspectly -- staring was rude -- then used the dessert menu to hide a longer examination. "You're right," she agreed. "He is cute. But not enough to make up being bored to tears in a class that doesn't interest me."

"I wouldn't do that to you!" Desirée feigned outrage, then grinned at her friend. "He really makes his lectures interesting, with all kinds of stories about different peoples and cultures. I bet it could give you insights into human reactions, that you could use when you're developing a character. And he's got a great sense of humor. Besides, haven't you been the one to tell me that knowledge is never wasted?" Desirée's eyes twinkled, laughing as Summer shrugged and gave in.

"Oh, all right!" Summer exclaimed, laughing with her friend. "It does sound like fun. But don't expect me to go all goo-goo eyes over him; I've got way more pride than that. And besides, it's likely that I couldn't get through the pack of other girls crowding around him, even if I wanted to."

"Likely not," Desirée agreed, "but it might be fun to try." At Summer's glare, she had the grace to back down. Her friend didn't play at flirtation as so many girls did, and it really wasn't nice to tease her about it -- at least, not too much. She became serious. "Okay, do you want to drop a class, or just add the extra three hours to your schedule?"

Summer pulled out her schedule and, together, they considered the possibilities. "Well, I'll have evening rehearsals for at least one play, and I'm making Mom a coffee table for Christmas, so I'll probably spend extra time in the woodshop. Three more hours wouldn't be a good idea. I think I'll just drop music; I can always take it later."

"Besides, you already have a good voice," Desirée assured her. "Okay, we'll stop at the registrar's office when we leave here. And -- thank you. You know I really appreciate you supporting me in this."

"Aww..." Summer shrugged uncomfortably. "No big deal. You're right; I think it'll be fun. Besides, it's what friends do."

Desirée shook her head. "Not all friends; not even most," she murmured too quietly for Summer to hear. Raising her voice, she said, "Still, I'm grateful. And what do you say to dessert before we leave; you're making me pay for the favor, remember? And then you can tell me why you're tackling something as ambitious as a coffee table." She looked around to catch the waitress's eye. "Apple strudel or key lime pie?"

"How about both, and we'll split each? And a coffee table's not so ambitious; at least it's flat. Dad's making a pair of matching end-tables with drawers; now that's tricky."

"But you said you'd been watching him since you were little."

"Watching's not the same as doing," Summer pointed out. "Dad wasn't comfortable with his little girl using the big, dangerous power tools. I need a little more experience with them -- and with fitting things together -- before I tackle that."

The waitress brought their desserts. As planned, they cut each in half and shared with the other, then lingered, too busy talking to eat as they discussed classes, boys, future life plans, and the upcoming fraternity / sorority mixer the following weekend.

Jim was halfway through his double-meat cheeseburger with home-fries. Blair was right; the cooking was excellent. He swallowed just in time to avoid a spit-take as he laughed heartily at one of Blair's more outrageous stories, then cocked his head and snorted softly. "Your ears should be burning, Chief."

"Hunh? Why?" Blair's fried chicken strips weren't all that much healthier than Jim's lunch; he'd already decided on making a nice stir-fry for dinner.

"One of the young ladies over there," Jim nodded toward the other side of the room, "has declared that you're the best-looking teacher on campus, with -- and I quote -- 'the prettiest blue eyes you'll ever see'." He pronounced the last with a delicate, tremulous falsetto, batting his lashes invitingly.

To his friend's amusement, Blair actually looked embarrassed. "Jim, I'm a healthy young male, and I enjoy dating -- if the woman is eligible. I do not hit on students. Not only is it all kinds of wrong, it'd land me in hot water so fast I'd be parboiled. Please tell me you're talking about one of the other TAs."

"Well, I don't know, Sandburg; is one of your fellow teaching assistants in a wheelchair?"

"What?" Blair turned to look. Fortunately -- as far as he was concerned -- the young women had already turned their attention back to their conversation, and didn't notice him ogling them. With a sigh of relief, he turned back to Jim. "That's Desirée Kawasani. She's in my two-oh-one class, and actually pretty level-headed. Maybe she's just teasing her friend?" he suggested hopefully.

"Seems like it," Jim agreed. "And I think you're off the hook; the other girl just declared that she has too much pride to 'make goo-goo eyes' over you -- although she does agree you're..." he switched back to the teasing falsetto, "...'cute'."

"'Cute' is good, 'cute' I can live with; it helps me get dates. But I was speaking with Desirée just before I met you; what are the odds that we'd have lunch at the same place?"

Jim surveyed the room judiciously. "Popular spot for the campus crowd, right?" Blair nodded. "And they -- and you -- are part of the campus crowd, right?" Blair nodded again. "And this place was your suggestion." Jim shrugged. "I'd say the chances are pretty high; I'd buy a lottery ticket with such odds."

"Yeah, but still..." Blair snapped his fingers as an idea hit him. "Maybe that's the friend Desirée was talking about, the one she wants to help her with the Petersen dig."

"Wait! You're requiring a crippled girl to participate in an archaeologic dig?" Jim seemed shocked.

"Hey, she requested it!" Blair defended himself. "And it's her right -- the ADA says we have to make reasonable accommodations. Besides, who am I to tell someone they 'can't' do something? You're the best example I know for 'you don't know what you can do till you try'. What gets me is, Desirée seemed absolutely certain that her friend would change her whole schedule to join my class and help her with the dig. If she's right, that's awesome; you don't see that kind of friendship every day."

Jim became very interested in dunking a home-fry precisely into the ketchup. "Actually, I do see that kind of friendship, Sandburg, every damn day," he said softly, addressing his words toward the table.


"You, Chief." Jim finally looked up, meeting Blair's eyes earnestly. "You've changed your whole schedule -- your whole life -- to be at my side as often as you can, making sure these senses don't knock me for a loop. You're right; it is awesome. And -- and -- I really do appreciate it," he finished awkwardly, dropping his gaze back toward the table. "I know you probably want to get back to your real life; I swear I'm trying to get a handle on these senses as fast as I can. But whenever you want to leave, just say the word; I'll manage with what you've already taught me."

Blair stared. Where was this coming from? True, he'd only known the man a few months but, for all his griping about his senses and the tests Blair subjected him to, Jim Ellison didn't strike him as a quitter. Hell, he sounded as if he expected to be kicked out in the gutter, when it was Blair who lived in his loft, and followed him around by his sufferance.

He'd have to examine this issue further but, for now, he had to snap the big man out of it; he couldn't stand to see Jim Ellison practically... groveling. "Man, you are such a doofus!" Blair announced, making sure to inject his voice with sufficient amusement.

"I know, Chief, and I --" Jim stopped, as the meaning of the words penetrated. He looked up, a frown creasing his brows. "What did you say?"

"You're a doofus," Blair repeated with relish. "Or would you prefer 'dunderhead', 'numbskull', or maybe 'chump'? What makes you think I'm itchin' to leave?"

"Well, it just makes sense that --"

"It makes no sense!" Blair cut in. "Not to be too sappy here, but this friendship thing works both ways; I get every bit as much from you as you get from me -- which doesn't matter anyway, because friendship isn't about making sure things are 'equal'. It's about being there for your friend, and Jim, you've got that in spades! Why would you think otherwise?"

"You've always been a free spirit, and I tie you down," Jim argued.

"I've always been a wanderer, and you've given me a home," Blair shot back.

"My work is dangerous."

"Your work is also interesting, and I learn new insights every day."

"I yell at you when you break my rules." Jim's eyes were beginning to twinkle.

"You pick me up when my car breaks down." Blair's earnest expression relaxed into a slight smile.

"I take a lot of your time."

"You give me so much of yours."

"I'm not going to win, am I?"

"We're friends, Jim," Blair insisted. "I know I use the word casually sometimes, but in this case I mean it all the way down to my toes. Friends... accept, and adjust, and it goes both ways. Believe me, I don't see any imbalance between us."

Jim glanced up as laughter drifted across the room. "Like them, huh, Chief?"

Blair followed Jim's gaze to see Desirée and her friend leaving the restaurant, still in animated conversation as they went. They should have made an odd couple -- one walking, one wheeling -- yet they matched each other as fluidly as a pair of ballroom dancers. Blair could practically see a psychic bond shimmering between them.

"Looks like it," he agreed. "Of course, I don't know Desirée well enough, or her friend at all, but if they have half the connection we do, they're incredibly lucky. Don't fight it, Jim. If a couple of young girls can manage it, surely we can do the same."

"You're right, Sandburg; you're getting sappy." Jim tossed a tip on the table and stood, picking up the check. "Let's go; we have more fishing to do."

A wise man knew when to let a discussion rest. Blair laid his own tip on the table and followed his friend toward the exit.

Saturday, 9/14/96

Desirée turned her van off the rough path pressed into the dirt by earlier machines and into a roped-off grassy area that already held an old Corvair, a battered white pickup truck, and an aged blue van with surfing decals on the side. She parked to the left of the blue van, carefully judging the distance so that the space would be too small for another vehicle to park, while leaving ample room for her lift.

The four classmates who had ridden with them hopped out, chatting happily together, and began the process of unloading and carrying their gear and supplies to the work area; someone -- Professor Sandburg? -- had set up a long folding table, which was half-covered in boxes and various implements. A short distance away, a four-foot stake topped by pink surveyor's tape stood in the middle of an area of raw dirt, the marks of the backhoe clearly evident. While Desirée made her way to the lift, Summer opened the rear doors and pulled out the 'roughneck' chair. When Desirée reached ground-level, she quickly made the transfer to the other chair. Then Summer plunked Desirée's bag of tools into her lap, shouldered her own bag, grabbed the small cooler that held their lunch and drinks, and they headed toward the knot of people clustered around the table.

As she traveled the path of crushed vegetation left by the backhoe -- and how had anyone found a pottery shard in a pile of backhoe dumpings, she wondered -- Desirée evaluated the area she'd be working in. The grass was about eight inches high -- this part of the estate must not get mowed very often -- and the ground was somewhat rocky, and littered with broken sticks of various sizes, the visible detritus of past storms. Rough, yes, but she wouldn't have nearly the trouble traveling over it that Mr. Sandburg expected.

As they reached the group, Mr. Sandburg acknowledged them with a glance, and made a couple of checkmarks on a pad held by his clipboard. "Okay, that's everybody," he announced. "And I really appreciate you all coming out on a Saturday. After we get the site measured and roped off and everybody's on the same page, you won't need to wait for the whole group; you can come out whenever you have free time, as long as you're working with a buddy. But that's for later; now is when we get this plan off the ground." He grinned widely, his eyes sparkling with excitement, and was answered by matching grins from the assembled students.

Privately, Desirée admired the view. Blair had his hair tied back out of the way, which was a shame, especially with that funky-looking hat on top, but he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt against the expected heat of the day, which showed off his body quite nicely. Desirée glanced at her friend to see if she was also enjoying the sight, but it was obvious that she was all business. After Summer had set their lunch cooler in the shade under the table with several others, she was clearly paying attention to what the man was saying, rather than the man himself. Ah, well, she should have known. With a mental shrug, Desirée also turned her attention to her teacher's instructions.

"Now, the pottery shard is estimated to be around three to four hundred years old, probably from the Tulalip tribe. At that time, villages were rarely more than two hundred yards across -- but we have no idea where in the village this pot might have been. If it was on the east edge, for example, and we dig eastward, we won't find a thing. What that means is, we consider this point the center, and the outer edge is two hundred yards in every direction -- and that's a little over a hundred and twenty-five thousand square yards that we might have to examine."

Heartfelt groans rose around him, and he chuckled. "I thought you all wanted to be archaeologists or anthropologists? This is part of the gig, people; you'll be doing more before you graduate. The archaeology students need the experience more than the anthropologists -- at least we can talk to our subjects. Personally, that's why I chose this branch of the science..." he paused to let a titter of laughter pass around the group, "...but you will all need some hands-on experience with a dig. Consider yourselves lucky that your first dig is situated so that you can go home each day, to a hot shower and a soft bed."

"And pizza for supper instead of grasshopper stew!" an unidentified voice -- at least to Desirée -- called out. But Mr. Sandburg wasn't stumped.

"Tony, you only think you're joking," he said. "Grasshopper stew can be quite tasty, and filling. But more than that, it represents hours of work from the women of the household or village, to catch enough grasshoppers and prepare them properly. And if you turn your nose up at what they offer, you risk offending the whole tribe."

Mr. Sandburg's gaze swept over the whole group. "I usually cover this a little later in the year, but since it's come up -- when you're in the field, working with the local people, it can be damned hard to be accepted; you are an outsider, and they have no reason to trust in your honor or good nature. If you are fortunate enough to be accepted into their community, you will eat what they eat without hesitation and with a smile on your face, and you will compliment the cook if it's appropriate in that culture. Take comfort from the fact that, if they eat it, it's unlikely to actually poison you." The titter of laughter seemed distinctly nervous, this time, and Blair winked at the group. "If you need something else to boost your courage, remember that sharing a meal is the easiest and fastest way to be accepted into a community, and you will gain an insight into gender relationships and community / familial status around their equivalent of the dinner table that will enhance everything else you learn."

Most of the students were nodding thoughtfully, and Tony Caletti -- Desirée recognized him now, a good-looking boy who usually hid his intelligence behind a brash, joking manner -- looked slightly abashed.

"But enough of that," Mr. Sandburg declared. "First order of business is the walkover. How about..." he looked at eager hands raised, "Amanda and Nathan." He reached into the cardboard box at his feet and pulled out two coils of bright yellow rope, two wooden stakes, and two medium-sized mallets. He handed one set to each student.

"Each rope is six hundred and three feet long -- just over two hundred yards. You will tie one end of the rope around the base of our center stake." He nodded toward the nearby stake, and waited while they did so and returned to the group. "Now, you will walk forward until you reach the end of the rope. Then you will turn to face each other, and maneuver sideways until you have a straight line between you, with no obvious bend at the center stake. Step toward the center stake one pace, drive your stake in the ground, and tie your rope to the stake. That line will be the main point of reference for our trenches. Nathan, you head that way, and Amanda, you head the other."

Nathan looked at the trees Mr. Sandburg had pointed him toward -- the edge of a small forested area, then at the rope coiled beside the stake. "Uh... Professor? I think those trees are closer than two hundred yards."

"Excellent observation!" their teacher proclaimed. "Ladies and gentlemen, take a look, and tell me how old you think this bit of forest is." He waited expectantly.

"Not very old," Summer whispered to Desirée. "Maybe forty years; fifty, tops."

"Don't tell me, tell him!" Desirée whispered back, fiercely. When her friend didn't speak up, Desirée did. "Summer thinks the trees are only forty or fifty years old."

Mr. Sandburg's smile was encouraging. "And how did you arrive at that conclusion?" he asked gently; his newest student looked like she wanted to melt into the ground.

Placed on the spot, Summer took a deep breath and answered strongly, "Their size. For this part of the country, their general diameter and height correlates to about forty or fifty years' growth. And also, I think this stand was planted, instead of occurring naturally."

"And your reasoning is...?" Their teacher's smile widened.

"Well... they aren't in rows, but the spacing is too uniform; there are no trees crowding each other, and as far as I can see, no gaps. Also, the trees themselves are too uniform; there's no size differential. There should be everything from seedlings just getting started to hoary old 'grandfather' trees, and there aren't." Summer shrugged. "Natural growth just isn't so... neat."

"Give the lady a gold star!" Mr. Sandburg announced. "It seems that the current owner's mother wanted to set up a nature preserve, so her husband decided to let her have her own bit of forest to play in.

"Which goes back to Nathan's question. If the trees weren't here fifty years ago, that means...?" He threw the question to the entire group.

"It would have been open ground three hundred years ago, and the Tulalip village could have included that area!"

"And a gold star for David, as well. Now, it isn't likely that we'll find artifacts there; otherwise, something would have turned up when they were planting the trees. Which means we'll be concentrating in the other parts of our search area, first," he assured them. "But if we don't find anything, we will move our search area into the trees; a good scientist doesn't let 'not likely' get in the way of doing a thorough job. So, Nathan and Amanda, do your thing." Mr. Sandburg waved the students onward, and the group watched as they carefully followed his instructions.

"Good!" their teacher said, when the ropes were in place. "Now, divide into four groups; each group needs a tape measure, thirty stakes, and a mallet." He waited while they organized themselves and collected the equipment. "Now, we need guidelines parallel to the center rope. You'll start from the end stake and move sideways, placing another stake every ten feet. Have at it."

Blair watched with carefully-hidden amusement and an analytical eye as his students sorted themselves out and decided how to proceed. He could have given more specific instructions, and even chosen four group 'leaders', but he felt it was more beneficial for the students to work through the logistics themselves. At this stage, there wasn't anything they could do that couldn't be easily corrected, if necessary, and they could start to develop a 'group dynamic' -- learning and adjusting to each others' strengths and weaknesses, recognizing those who seemed to be natural leaders, and those who were content to play supporting roles.

He kept an eye on Desirée in her wheelchair, but she seemed to have no difficulty with the terrain and, in fact, appeared to be the nucleus of her group. She carried the stakes on her lap, kept an eagle-eye on the measurements, and made sure the stakes were in a straight line, as well as being the requisite ten feet apart. Blair made a mental note; Desirée was certainly an effective leader, but he might have to suggest that she'd need to step back occasionally and give other people a chance to try the leadership role.

Stakes in place, the students straggled back toward him, and Blair smiled encouragingly. "Good work, folks! Now, some of you grab a ball of string," he pointed to another box, which held over a dozen large rolls of heavy sisal twine, "tie it to one stake, run it down to its opposite on the other end, and tie it off there, about six inches above ground level. You should be able to do about three lines before you run out." Again the students spread over the area, following directions without observable mishaps.

"Excellent, excellent!" Blair proclaimed when the guidelines were in place and the students back near him. "Now we can actually start looking. We'll each take a lane -- well, three lanes, but only one at a time -- and do a close ground-scan. We'll start at the open end of the row and walk slowly -- slowly, people! -- down the row, looking for anything that might have been manmade. Be sure you weave back and forth -- you need to cover the entire width of your lane -- and kick through the grass; you need to have seen the actual ground before you move forward. Let's start with the middle rows, and work outward from there." Blair waved them onward, waiting -- again -- while they sorted themselves out; he intended to watch everyone's technique while they did their first lane, rather than walking a row himself.

But Desirée -- and Summer beside her -- didn't immediately join the group. Blair watched discreetly as Desirée chewed her lower lip while she glanced between her feet, resting on the footrests of her wheelchair, and the ground in front of her. Her gaze moved over the equipment on and around the table, then she smiled. After a whispered request, Summer hurried to grab one of the unused stakes and, together, they hurried to catch up to the group. Choosing an empty lane, Desirée accepted the stake from her friend, and used it to start poking through the grass, while Summer started kicking through the grass of the next row. Satisfied that Desirée had solved her little problem, Blair turned his attention to evaluate the other students.

Two hours later, the last lane had been walked, and students straightened kinked backs with soft groans. Blair added a groan to theirs, then announced ruefully, "Well, nobody ever claimed it was a cushy profession, folks! But now let's take your exciting discoveries to the table and analyze them."

The variety of man-made objects found in a four-hundred-yard circle of supposedly 'untouched' terrain was amazing. They had a dirt-encrusted 1967 quarter, six links of a gold chain, a flattened and faded beer can, a cheap cigarette lighter, a bent and twisted glasses frame with no lenses, a short length of narrow-gauge plastic pipe, and something that was probably a camera's lens-cap. Other items, picked up just to demonstrate that a student had found something, included a broken mussel-shell, six feathers of various kinds, and a weather-beaten small animal skull -- possibly a skunk or 'possum. The students eyed the pathetic-looking little collection unenthusiastically, but Blair had a completely different view.

"Hey, this is great, just great! In the first place, it proves to me that you have eyes, and were actually paying attention. And in the second place, it demonstrates... what do you think, Edgar?"

Placed on the spot, the young man groped frantically for an answer. "Well, it demonstrates... a lot of people can't hold on to their stuff." Muted laughter swept through the group, though Blair smiled encouragingly.

"Well, that's certainly true... but doesn't have the archaeologic significance we're looking for. Anyone else? Yasmina?"

"Um... it proves that even very small objects can be found if you look hard enough?"

"That, too," Blair agreed. "Anyone else?" He was met by silence, which he broke with a chuckle. "It means that none of us are Indiana Jones, and we won't be discovering the lost Ark of the Covenant. But, it's also a kind of carrot to work toward; if you can find all this right on top, just imagine what might be hiding a few inches down. Even if it's quieter than the good Professor Jones's, it's an adventure, people!" He rubbed his hands together theatrically, while the young men and women around him regarded their 'finds' more favorably.

"And now, it's lunchtime. If you head into the trees, you'll find that Mr. Petersen has been kind enough to have a Porta-Potty installed back there, where it can't be seen. Handi-wipes all around," he nodded at a large container on the end of the table, "then pick a shady spot to sit and chow down. After lunch, we'll start digging our first trenches."

Monday, 9/23/96

"So, any more questions?" Blair asked. The discussion had been lively, but the class period had just two minutes left to run, and the students knew it; no one raised a hand. "Okay, read chapter five by Wednesday, and do a little research -- I want a list of ten items that the tribes-people of the region might add to their diet." He chuckled at the soft groans that met his assignment. "If you react like this at a ten-item list, you'll have to collapse on the floor to express your opinion when I require a five-page comparative analysis. Proportion, people, proportion!"

As the students moved toward the classroom door, it opened. Jim stepped inside, glanced around the room, and strode to the podium. "Proportion, Chief? Sounds too much like 'cheer up'."

Blair was startled. "Jim! What are you doing here? And how do you connect 'proportion' and 'cheer up'?"

"You never heard about the guy who was down on his luck?"

Blair shook his head, meanwhile gathering his lecture materials.

"Well, he was. He'd totaled his car the day before, his wife left him, his dog died, and then he got fired. He was grousing about it to a bartender, and the guy told him, 'Cheer up; things could be worse!' The unlucky guy thought about it and realized the bartender was right, so he cheered up. And sure enough, things got worse."

Blair snorted. "Oh, man, that's got to be older than I am! Let's go back to my first question -- why are you here?" He glanced around the now-empty classroom, but lowered his voice anyway. "Are you having problems with your senses?"

"No, but I'm hoping to prevent one; there's been another robbery, and I'd like you with me when I go over the scene. Can you get away?"

"Yeah, this was my last class for the day," Blair said, leading the way toward his office. "Let me just put a note on the door to cancel office hours and I'll be right with you." Reaching his cluttered little cubbyhole, Blair shoved a couple of textbooks and notepads into his backpack, scribbled a note and tacked it on the outside of the door, then slung the backpack over his shoulder. "Ready!" he announced, and followed his partner's long strides out toward Jim's truck.

"So what's the scoop?" Blair asked as Jim pulled out of the parking lot.

"A Mr. Charles Agonestes was in his safe earlier today, and noticed that some items had been disturbed. When he checked, he found that several rare stamps were missing from his collection. Just like all the others, there are no obvious clues; I'm hoping my senses will let me pick up some un-obvious ones, and I need you there so I don't zone."

"No problemo, big guy," Blair assured him. "I'll have your back." He settled against the seat-back with a thrill of pride. His sentinel was admitting that he benefited from Blair's help; that was so cool!

Mr. Agonestes himself, a short, rotund man with thinning hair and shrewd eyes, met them at the door and led them toward his study. "Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I haven't disturbed anything since I discovered the loss," he continued, waving toward a wall-safe, "but I don't think that will be much help. Except for the ledgers being shifted, I haven't noticed any signs that anyone but me has been in here."

"You can be sure we'll evaluate the scene very carefully," Jim said, "and our technicians are trained to find the tiniest pieces of evidence. But I need to ask some questions first; establishing a background can help us determine what does and doesn't belong at the scene."

"Certainly; have a seat," Mr. Agonestes said, waving them toward a pair of leather chairs and sitting behind his desk. "Anything I can do to help."

Jim nodded. "First, how many people know of your stamp collection?"

Mr. Agonestes sighed. "I'm quite proud of the collection, and I've shown it to all my friends -- several times over. And my family and household staff."

"And those would be...?"

"I have a wife, Mary, a son in college -- Kevin -- and two daughters; Candace in high school and Rebecca in junior high. Household staff includes a maid, a housekeeper/cook, and a gardener -- although the gardener rarely comes in the house, and never past the kitchen."

"How long has it been since you last confirmed that your stamp collection was intact?"

"Labor Day weekend; I'd just bought a couple of new stamps, and had the album open to mount them."

"But you didn't notice anything disturbed until today?"

"No, detective. I locked everything up on Friday, and didn't even come into this room all weekend; we had a big party -- one of your typical, keep-the-wheels-greased corporate shindigs -- and things were a bit hectic." His expression turned grim. "I don't want to think that one of my friends might have stolen from me, but it seems the most logical conclusion. On the other hand, I'm not a fool; I locked the door when I left the room on Friday, and it was still locked this morning."

"We'll check the lock for signs of tampering," Jim promised. "But before that, may we talk to your family and staff?"

"Certainly." Mr. Agonestes glanced at his watch. "The girls won't be home from school for about half an hour, but I suppose by the time you finish with everyone else, they'll be here."

"And Kevin?"

"He's gone back to college already; prefers to live in a Frat house on campus -- two-three-four Appleton Way. You can talk to him there, but he won't be able to tell you anything."

"Was he here this weekend?"

"Oh, yes, along with several of his friends. After all, the young people have to learn the social ins and outs of the corporate world if they expect to join us in business." Agonestes' smile was filled with pride. "Kevin's a good boy; I look forward to the day I can add a second 'Agonestes' to my logo."

Jim kept his shudder internal. His own father had had similar plans for him, which had helped form his decision to join the Military; in his opinion, being a businessman was a fate to be avoided at all costs. He wondered if Kevin actually wanted to join his father in business, or if he also was just paying lip-service until he could escape.

"If he was here, he could have seen something that didn't mean anything at the time, but might be a point of interest in retrospect. We'll try to talk to him tomorrow. In the meantime, I'd like to start with your staff."

"Of course, Detective. Shall I have them report here one at a time?"

Blair jumped in before Jim could speak. "Maybe someplace more neutral, like the kitchen, so they won't feel so much like they're being called on the carpet," he suggested.

Jim raised an eyebrow, but nodded his agreement. Mr. Agonestes shrugged and led them down a long hallway.

"What was that for, Chief?" Jim murmured as they followed their host. "Someone might have shown nerves being at the scene of their crime."

"Scent traces, man!" Blair whispered forcefully. "Once you know their scents, you can tell who's been in the room recently. But if they walk in now, it'll contaminate the scene; you won't know if the scent is old or new."

Jim frowned, but the kid had a point. Seemed like he was always thinking of ways that the senses could help Jim in his work. It was useful but... a little unnerving, he admitted privately. They were his senses, dammit; why couldn't he think of these things himself? It was kind of -- annoying -- that Blair's intuitive grasp of handling the senses seemed better than his own. He couldn't afford to depend on another person to help him control the senses; what would happen if they went haywire and Blair wasn't around? Somehow, he had to find his own control -- and soon, before Sandburg finished his dissertation and left.

The kitchen was a cheerful room in russet and gold. Everyone he questioned, from the daughters to the gardener, was cooperative. Jim detected no signs of nervousness; no one exhibited an increased heartbeat or sudden surreptitious sweating or pupil dilation. And, as expected, no one had the slightest sliver of useful information.

He wrote a final line in his notebook, then stood. "Thank you, Mr. Agonestes; now we'll do a thorough examination of the study... after we've taken a look at Kevin's room," he added smoothly, acquiescing to another of Sandburg's whispered suggestions.

Mr. Agonestes shook his head as he led the way up a staircase. "I'm impressed by your thoroughness, Detective, but you won't find anything useful, I assure you."

"Probably not," Jim agreed, "but no stone unturned." He leaned closer to Blair to whisper, "And we're turning over these stones because...?"

"You can't ask to sniff a piece of his clothing before you go back to the study," Blair pointed out, keeping his voice at sentinel levels. "This way, you'll recognize his scent trace, too."

Jim mentally chalked up another one for his some-time partner as he followed Mr. Agonestes into Kevin's room. It was surprisingly bland. Other than a number of sports trophies in a display case, there were no personal touches in view. A few questions elicited the information that Kevin had moved away from his 'teenage phase' a few years previously, taking down all his sports and movie posters, and putting away his video games and sports gear -- except that which he took to college, of course.

"Man, that's unusual," Blair said, shaking his head slowly. "Every teen I know makes it a point to display their interests; it's a way to signal their inclusion in the group, and to demonstrate their level of status quo. Do you know what caused the change?"

Mr. Agonestes' smile indicated nothing but pride in his son. "Young people do eventually grow up; some manage it sooner than others. Kevin is a good boy, never been in any trouble."

Or at least, nothing he's told his parents about, was Jim's cynical, though private, observation. Sandburg was right; there was something unnatural about this room -- overly controlled, calculating. But, other than making note of the boy's scent, there was nothing useful here, and he followed Mr. Agonestes back to the study.

Before Jim asked Mr. Agonestes to open the safe, he examined the outside minutely. It had not been wiped clean as he had feared, but the layer of prints on the heavy silver handle, just under Mr. Agonestes' opening from earlier in the day, was uniformly featureless and smudged. Great, he thought sourly, too many crooks these days know to wear latex gloves.

When the safe was opened, the smell of latex on the cover of the stamp album confirmed what Jim had thought. This was, if not a professional job, certainly a careful one. Unfortunately, all the scent traces in the room -- except for Mr. Agonestes, of course -- were several days old, indicating that no one other than household members had entered recently. But maybe some of them would be unlikely visitors. "Do you allow anyone else access to the safe?" he asked.

"My wife and son, of course," Mr. Agonestes replied promptly. He chuckled softly. "I've worked hard for my money, but I pride myself on not being a skinflint; if Mary or the kids need cash, it's right there." He gestured to a small stack of bills to one side of the safe. "But I checked; there's none unaccounted for."

"The thief would know that missing money would be discovered more quickly than the missing stamps. If the ledgers hadn't been misaligned, how long might it have been before you discovered the loss?"

Mr. Agonestes shrugged. "Anywhere up to a couple of months; I don't open the album that often."

"So it's possible the stamps were taken before this weekend."

"Possible, but not likely. Since nothing else is missing, there'd be no reason for the ledgers to be disturbed if the stamps had been taken some time ago."

Jim nodded his agreement. "Of course, that means we will have to check on your guests from this weekend, but we'll be as discreet as possible. Are any of them fellow stamp-collectors?"

"No, none; they're merely tolerant when I show off my latest treasure. I'll make a copy of the guest list for you." Mr. Agonestes sat down at his desk, pulled a sheet of paper out of the drawer, and started to write.

"Thank you, sir. While you do that, Blair and I will make our initial examination, then send the forensics people in later."

Jim prowled the room, looking for anything that seemed out of place, but found nothing. What kind of detective was he that he couldn't find the evidence -- even with the help of his senses -- that must be present? He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, trying to force back the incipient headache.

"Maybe you're pushing too hard," Blair suggested quietly. "Try to let your focus just sort of... float... and see if anything disturbs the virtual water. And dial up your sense of smell, see if anyone beside family has been in here lately."

"Already done that, Chief," Jim objected, "and the answer is 'no'." But sometimes it seemed like his senses reacted to Sandburg's suggestions like one of Pavlov's dogs; as his sense of smell dialed up automatically, he was almost overwhelmed by scents of leather, cleaning agents, and personal care products. Cautiously reducing the input, he tried to put a timeline on the freshness of the scents. Mr. Agonestes' was most recent, of course, then Kevin a couple of days earlier, then the wife a day or so before that. But --

"Mr. Agonestes, you said Kevin's been away at college. Do you know if he entered this room during the weekend?"

"Well, of course, Detective." Mr. Agonestes looked up from his writing and answered easily. "We had a nice long conversation in here Friday afternoon, when he got here early for the party. It's refreshing to indulge in man-talk without the women present; just don't tell Mary I said that!" he chuckled.

So, the presence of Kevin's scent couldn't be counted as overtly suspicious. Still, there was something... Jim tried again, focusing on the boy's scent and working to identify why it kept pinging at his subconscious. Nerves, he decided. The boy had supposedly had a 'nice conversation' with his father, but he'd been... nervous. Why?

Continued prowling elicited no further input. Maybe Jim could pin something down when he questioned Kevin. For now, all he could do was accept the guest list from Mr. Agonestes, promise that the forensics team would be in shortly, and take his leave.

"So, anything?" Blair asked as they climbed into the truck.

"Not yet," Jim answered shortly as he pulled out of the driveway. It was too nebulous at this point to share even with Sandburg. "Maybe after we question Kevin tomorrow. Right now, we might as well pick up something to eat on the way home; Thai or Chinese?"

"Chinese," Blair voted and, after a short stop at the 'Golden Dragon', they headed back to the loft.

Summer waited patently while the three books she'd selected were being checked out.

"Are you sure that's all you need?" Desirée asked. "If you're looking for a specific quote at midnight, you won't be able to get back into the library."

Summer shrugged. "I have to leave something for others who are writing the same paper. I checked; I'm pretty sure I have the most useful sources. And now that we have Internet access in the dorms, I could always try to find something there." She placed the books in the backpack already hanging from the handles of Desirée's chair and, together, they headed out into the soft, late-summer evening.

They traveled in silence for a few moments, taking the long way past the sunken gardens before heading toward the dorms. But Desirée couldn't inhibit her outgoing nature for long, and they were soon in deep discussion about their classes, their fellow students, their teachers -- particularly one Mr. Blair Sandburg -- and the Petersen dig.

"Speaking of which... you will be coming with me to the mixer on Friday night, right?" Desirée urged. "I've heard that Brad Petersen will be there; you and he really seemed to hit it off last time," she teased gently.

"He seems nice enough," Summer answered in neutral tones, hoping that her friend wouldn't notice the blush she could feel heating her cheeks. Truthfully, she was rather attracted to the tall, sandy-haired boy; he had a good sense of humor and was fun to be around. "But Brad's always hanging out with Kevin Agonestes, and he's just plain obnoxious."

"Yeah, some guys are just assholes," Desirée agreed. "But if Brad's talking to you, Kevin will probably go grab a beer, or home in on some other girl. Or both."

Summer shook her head doubtfully. "I don't know; it's too soon to be leading him on."

"Who said anything about leading anyone on?" Desirée allowed her exasperation to show. "You meet, you talk, maybe set up a study date -- he's in your math class, right?"

Summer nodded.

"The point is, it takes time to learn enough about another person to decide if you want to take it a little farther; that's the main reason for parties and dating. You can't expect a knight in shining armor to just burst out of the ground in front of you."

"I don't want a knight in shining armor!" Summer snapped. "That's so... fairytale-ish. I just want..." She trailed off, unwilling or unable to put her ideas into words.

"You want...?" Desirée waited. Summer rarely talked about guys; if Desirée knew what her friend had in mind as a dream-man, she could narrow the search to find the perfect dating prospect.

Summer shrugged self-consciously. "Well... you know... Honest, I guess. And kind. With a sense of humor." She shook her head sharply and increased her stride, as if she could walk away from the idea. "No, that's wrong! It's not like walking into Sears and evaluating the features of the different saws and deciding this one is better than the others and wrap it up to go, please!"

"Of course not," Desirée assured her, pushing strongly to keep up with her agitated friend. "But everyone has to have some idea of the kind of person they'd be comfortable with. Otherwise, they could just pair us off as we signed up for college, and we'd be stuck with that one man or one woman forever. And it's not like you're the only one who gets a say; you might be interested in a guy who isn't interested in you at all. Then you move on and start again."

"It all just seems so -- trial and error," Summer sighed.

Desirée grinned. "Yeah, and sometimes there's a lot of 'trial' before you find the right one... but it's fun! Don't think of it as looking for the right guy. Just have a good time with anyone who strikes your fancy. Then, somewhere down the line, if you really hit it off, that's when you decide what to do about it."

Summer chewed her lip as she walked in silence for a few moments, while Desirée waited patiently for her friend to reach some conclusion.

"Okay," Summer conceded. "I guess you're right." She smiled down at Desirée as she held open the dormitory door. "But you better stick close, in case I need rescuing."

"Well, duh! As if I'd throw you to the lions. I'll just run over their toes if they give you any grief. 'Oops! So sorry! Sometimes this chair just gets away from me!'" Desirée's smile was wicked. "Who's going to blame a poor crippled girl?"

Summer chuckled as she shook her head. "That's a laugh. If they only knew how lethal you are in that thing. You should register it as a dangerous weapon."

"And give away my secret advantage? Where's the sense in that?" Desirée continued suggesting ever more outrageous rescues as they headed toward their room. It would be impolite to gloat in her friend's face, but she was well satisfied; her plan to encourage Summer into more socializing was proceeding very nicely indeed.

Tuesday, 9/24/96

"You sure this is the right place?" Jim asked Blair as he parked across from the three-story, red-brick building with '234' over the elegant, carved front door. Despite its location across the street from the campus theatre building, it looked... well, too good to be a frat-house. It had a well-kept front lawn, with shrubbery next to the sidewalk, and there were no visible signs of damage or neglect.

Blair chuckled. "I know exactly what you're thinking, man. Yeah, this is it. Scuttlebutt has it that the kids living here pay an extra fee, and the money goes to cleaning-service visits twice a week, and gardening-service visits twice a month. All their fathers are rich, so what do they care? They probably spend more on a weekend party than they spend on the extra fees."

"And what does the scuttlebutt say about those, Chief? Any suspicions about shady dealings floating on the wind?"

"No, not really. Actually, it has a rep as one of the more restrained off-campus houses. From what I've heard, they pretty much limit their activities to beer, loud music, and a bit of weed -- there've been no complaints about any harder stuff."

"In other words, the rich kids are the good kids, huh?" Jim frowned at the façade across the street, wishing his sentinel sight extended to Superman's x-ray vision. "Gotta tell you, Chief, I grew up in that world; rich kids can be just as stupid and obnoxious as anyone else, and being born with a silver spoon in their mouths makes them think that their rights are more important than anyone else's."

Blair stared at the man beside him. Jim knew that world? Had he actually grown up with money, or had he taken summer jobs working for wealthy families? He shelved the question for later. "I thought cops tried to avoid pigeonholing people based on stereotypes. You know as well as I do that not all poor people are lazy trash, and not all rich people are arrogant assholes."

Jim shrugged. "Got me there, Chief. You know it, and I know it, but sometimes the early lessons are hard to unlearn. But since I'm only here to ask a few questions about a party, I don't think I'll have to lean on him too much. You ready?"

They crossed the street together, climbed the three shallow steps to the broad, covered porch, and Jim pressed firmly on the doorbell. After a few minutes' wait, the door was opened by a redheaded, gangly young man. "Yeah?"

"I'm Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD and I need --"

The kid's heartbeat increased dramatically, and Jim smelled the acrid tang of nervous sweat. "Hey, man, we've been keeping a low profile, just that one noisy party and that was last spring! Why d'ya gotta keep hasslin' us?"

Blair kept his amusement to himself -- seemed like college students had no love of police, whether or not they had a specific reason -- and stepped in to smooth the way. "No, no, nothing like that," he assured the young man. "I'm Professor Sandburg, right here at the University, and we just need Kevin Agonestes to answer a few questions about the party at his parents' place this past weekend. Is he in?"

The student's eyes shifted nervously and he half-turned, as if looking for support. Finding none, he turned back toward the obviously unwelcome visitors, cleared his throat and answered, "I guess. C'mon in and I'll go get him; I think he's upstairs. You can wait in there." He waved vaguely to the left and headed toward the stairs.

'In there' was a large open area that appeared, from the tasteful wallpaper and elegant accessories, to have once been a formal drawing room. The space was now dominated by a pool table and a foosball game at one end of the room, and a giant, wall-mounted TV screen at the other. Noting the cluster of comfortable easy-chairs and convenient snack tables in front of the TV, Blair wondered idly if the athletes among them taped their own games to watch later. "Man, if this is how the other half lives, I'd like to give it a try. I could --"

"Shh!" Jim whispered urgently. "They're talking!"

Blair immediately turned and laid a hand on Jim's forearm. They didn't have any firm data yet, but it seemed like Jim's senses functioned better, or more easily, when he was in physical contact with Blair. It seemed counter-intuitive -- shouldn't the touch be a distraction? -- but, so far, Jim had never complained. Maybe his touch functioned as an anchor or something; somehow, it just seemed right.

"Remember those dials we talked about?" He spoke on the merest breath, to avoid overloading the sentinel's system. "See if you can turn up the one for hearing, focus in on them easier."

Jim's head cocked to one side, a frown of concentration on his face... then he gasped and flinched, his hands raised to cover his hears. Even Blair could hear the loud, exuberant voices as several students entered another door and dropped sports equipment on the floor.

"Turn it down!" he whispered urgently. "Just... just bring your perception back to normal levels, pay attention to only this room." He seized one of Jim's hands and began a kind of massage, hoping that a different point of focus would help.

Jim took a deep breath, then another, and gently disengage his hand from Blair's. "Thanks, Chief; it worked. But I don't think we need to be holding hands when Kevin gets here." He turned to face the archway from the entrance hall, just as another student walked toward them.

"I'm Kevin Agonestes. You wanted to see me?"

Jim could almost taste the arrogance that oozed from the young man in front of him, though he seemed to be making an effort to appear accommodating. It was a thin act, belied by the cold black eyes that stared appraisingly.

Jim nodded toward the chairs in front of the TV. "This will take a few minutes. Would you care to have a seat?" He waited until Kevin had settled, then selected a chair facing the young man, nudging it forward as he sat, so that it was just a little too close for social comfort.

"Thank you. Did your father tell you he was robbed this past weekend?"

"Yeah, he mentioned it when he said you wanted to ask some questions. What's that got to do with me?" His tone suggested that the police were inferior beings that he spoke to only because his father requested it.

"We were wondering if you'd seen or heard something during the weekend -- something that you didn't pay attention to at the time, but that seems a bit out-of-place or unusual now that you know a robbery occurred."

"Detective, I had a guest last weekend -- a very lovely young lady. I assure you, my attention was focused exclusively on her." He brushed a hand over his thick, dark hair, and Jim was irresistibly reminded of a peacock in full display. "Besides, there were far too many people present to keep track of who went where."

Methinks he doth protest too much, Jim thought, noting a slightly -- but only slightly -- elevated heartbeat. If Kevin was involved, he was too self-possessed to be caught by referring to it, even by careless innuendo. That was of no consequence; intuition might point the way, but investigations were solved by attention to detail. Jim questioned Kevin fully about the entire weekend, until his answers became short, and his veneer of compliance began to fray around the edges.

"I don't know what else I can tell you, Detective. I went home, I ate, I partied, I came back to school. What more do you expect?"

Once again, Blair smoothly deflected an irritated bystander -- or possibly a witness. "Oh, hey, don't mind him; he just gets totally focused when he's working a case. Of course, that's good; gives him a much better chance of finding your father's missing stamps." He leaned forward, talking confidentially man-to-man. "The funny thing is, Brad Petersen's and John Taylor's and Hank Colberg's fathers have also been robbed of small, expensive items -- and those guys are all members of this fraternity; we talked to them a couple of weeks ago. It just seems natural that you'd all speculate, kind of kick it around, you know? You're all much closer to the source than we can be; is there anything, no matter how minor, you've noticed that the incidents have in common?" He glanced at Jim to make sure he wasn't overstepping the boundaries, but the detective looked relaxed and approving. Sometimes a civilian could get more in casual conversation than the police could in direct questioning.

"No, not a thing," Kevin replied. He seemed more comfortable and responsive, but the cold eyes had not warmed. "We've kicked it around, of course -- we sort of hang out together -- but we couldn't come up with a single idea between us. No disrespect to the police --" his eyes flickered toward Jim, "-- but I suspect that they might not be able to solve this one; whoever these guys are, they're awfully good."

"'These guys', Mr. Agonestes?" Jim asked. "What makes you think it's more than one person? Have you seen or heard something that you've neglected to mention?"

"What? Oh -- no! Just... it seems too much for a single person to handle, doesn't it?" Kevin quickly covered the momentary break in his image, and stood abruptly. "And now, if you'll excuse me, Detective, I think we're finished here, and I have class in fifteen minutes; I need to go. Let me show you out."

Jim allowed it; he wouldn't learn anything useful from Kevin Agonestes, no matter how long he continued the questioning.

Blair waited until they were in the truck to give voice to his curiosity. "So? What d' you think? Did you pick up anything useful?"

Jim's mouth was a grim line as he pulled into traffic. "Nothing I can use. But he's in on it; he wasn't as calm as he wanted us to think. And when that other kid went up to tell him we were waiting, the first thing he said was, 'Kevin, it's the cops! You said they'd never figure it out!' But then those other kids came in, and I couldn't hear Kevin's answer."

"Well... but it doesn't have to mean anything. The kid who answered the door isn't connected to any of the robbery victims," Blair pointed out. "It could have been the standard teenage freaking 'cause they toked up last weekend, or even used something harder."

"Could be, but not too likely; kids today just don't get that bent out of shape about the idea of getting caught at recreational drug use. Maybe the door-kid's been acting as a lookout, or maybe his father just hasn't been hit yet -- didn't you say that everyone in that frat-house comes from a wealthy family? Maybe his dad's next on the list to get hit."

"As spooked as he was? Even if there is 'a list', and his dad was next, I bet they'll skip him and go on to the next one."

"Could be," Jim agreed. "But we don't know that all of the victims' kids are working together. It could be just two or three, who are preying on their friends' families because they've visited the homes, and know their way around."

"But does it make any difference if it's just a few, or all of them? I mean, if they're scared of you getting close, they should pack it up and keep quiet; if the robberies stop, you'll have no new evidence to follow."

"That would be the sensible course to follow, Chief. But very few criminals are sensible, especially young ones. They'll make another hit."

"But what if they don't? The clues you have so far haven't gotten you anywhere." Blair was actually curious; he'd already learned that real-life police work wasn't like the cop shows, but this case was dragging on longer than the others he'd watched Jim work. How would Jim proceed if no new robberies occurred?

"Think about it; the stolen items won't do them any good just hidden away. Eventually, they'll try to pawn them, or unload them on the black market, or sell them to private collectors, and we'll have our feelers out. And now that I have an idea who's involved, I can dig deeper and more effectively. It may take awhile, but I'll catch them."

"Assuming it is them," Blair reminded him. "God, I actually hope you're reading the signals wrong. Imagine how all those fathers will feel if it turns out their own sons stole from them. Man, that's such a basic violation of trust and family."

Jim's voice was bleak as he answered, "Unfortunately, that's one of the first things you learn at this job -- there are good kids and bad kids, and the bad kids show up at every social level. The family they grow up in and how wealthy they are doesn't necessarily change anything."

Blair sighed and stared out the window. "I know. But I don't have to like it."

"None of us do, Chief; none of us do."

Friday, 9/27/96

Summer sighed as she glanced around the large, 'all-purpose' room of the Student Union Building, now decorated in autumn colors for the monthly student mixer. There was nothing wrong, exactly. The band -- a group of students who played semi-professionally in local nightspots on the weekend -- was quite good; they played recent and current music, and kept the sound levels loud enough for dancing, but not too loud for talking to friends. A sprinkling of faculty circulated throughout the room, ensuring that things -- the guys -- wouldn't get too rowdy. And it wasn't like she was surrounded by strangers; she knew at least, oh, twenty percent of the people here, from her classes and her theatre group. She'd been asked to dance three times already, so she couldn't complain of being a wallflower. Even the buffet table had a nice assortment of food that was actually tasty, instead of being disguised reconstituted cardboard.

But it was all too... just too. Too much noise from the music and conversation, too many people, too many smells from flowers and perfume and aftershave, too much movement and activity. And, unless she wanted to hide out in the restroom, no place to gain a few minutes' peace and quiet to settle her nerves. Even the sunken gardens, just outside the opened sets of French doors at the end of the room, hosted a number of dancing couples, and others who walked along the meandering paths, looking for a bit of privacy. Summer might find an uninhabited, shadowed little nook if she tried, but that sort of defeated the purpose of attending, and she had promised Desirée that she'd try to 'mingle'.

Too bad she couldn't be more like her friend. Summer watched Desirée, engaged in animated conversation with a group of half a dozen people, and tried to ignore the touch of envy she felt. Desirée was so vibrant and outgoing, and it was so easy for her to connect with people; Summer was willing to bet she'd never had a tongue-tied moment in her life. She was certainly comfortable this evening; her occasional laughter drifted across the room, and she'd even been asked to 'dance' several times, happily executing some intricate maneuvers with her chair in time to the music.

Summer sighed again, then gave herself a discreet little kick. Okay, enough of this pity party. She turned to get some more punch -- might as well try to look like she was having a good time -- and almost smacked into Brad Petersen; with the noise-levels in here, she hadn't heard him come up behind her.

"Oh! Hi, Brad!" she squeaked, then wanted to sink through the floor; couldn't she even control her voice around a good-looking guy? To make it worse, Kevin Agonestes was with his friend, staring at her with that sardonic half-sneer that she hated, probably snickering over hearing the break in her voice. She gave him a noncommittal nod, hoping he'd go somewhere else.

Brad gave her a large, expansive smile, seeming not to notice her discomfort. "Summer! I hoped I'd see you here! So, were you heading for some more punch? I could use some, too." Just like that, Summer was swept along in his orbit, answering questions about how her week had gone, and listening to Brad expound on his own classes and football practice. After a few minutes, Kevin did indeed disappear somewhere else, and the party quickly became a lot more fun.

Desirée was keeping a discreet eye on her friend. Summer really needed to find her own comfort-level in social gatherings, which she'd never do if she stayed at Desirée's elbow all evening, so Desirée had more-or-less pushed her out of the nest once the party became more lively. She couldn't be feeling too bad; Summer liked any kind of rhythmic movement, and she practically sparkled with pleasure each time one of the boys asked her to dance. Of course, in between dances, she looked a little lost, but Desirée was convinced that the guys would go for that vulnerable look; in just a little while, Summer would be having as much fun as anyone here.

Her expectations were confirmed when she saw Summer dancing with Brad Petersen, looking positively star-struck. They looked so good together, dancing close, Summer's long dark hair swaying with the movements of the dance, and Brad's blond head bent solicitously over her; Brad really seemed to like Summer.

The dance ended, and Brad and Summer headed toward the French doors and the gardens beyond. Desirée smiled in satisfaction, and turned her attention back to the ongoing conversation. She was pretty sure that Sam Liges needed only a little more encouragement to ask her to dance.

Desirée chuckled heartily over Sam's latest quip; he had a wicked sense of humor. "I'll go you one better," she said. "Last week --"

"Dessie, we've gotta go," Summer's voice announced unexpectedly from behind her.

Desirée hadn't seen Summer come in; she spun and stared up at her friend. Summer had been out in the gardens for so long that Desirée had assumed she and Brad were necking in some quiet corner. But she wasn't wearing a 'thoroughly-kissed' look; instead, she looked... the only word that came to Desirée's mind was 'shattered'.

"Now!" Summer insisted, reaching for the handles of Desirée's wheelchair and starting to push.

Desirée grabbed the wheels, resisting the forward movement. "What's wrong?" she asked, concerned. "If you feel sick, maybe we should go to the restroom here. I won't be able to help you if you collapse on the way home; maybe you'll feel better if you lie down on the couch in the waiting area."

Summer shook her head almost violently. "No, it's not that, it's just --" She stopped, staring at the small group around Desirée, who were watching her with varying degrees of surprise and concern. Summer took a deep, calming breath, and offered a weak, tremulous smile.

"I'm sorry; I forgot where we are. And I'm not sick, just -- upset; Brad and I had a little spat." Her attempted 'unconcerned laugh' was remarkably unconvincing. "So I'm not in the mood to hang around longer; I just want to go back to my room." Summer glanced at Desirée. "But I'm being silly; I really don't need you to hold my hand. If you want to stay longer, I can walk back alone; it's not that far."

"Not likely!" Desirée snorted. "There'll be other parties. Right now, I need to help my best friend give a verbal beat-up to what is obviously a stupid, idiot guy. I'll see y'all later, okay?" she tossed over her shoulder as she urged Summer out of the room and into the cool night air.

Summer walked silently beside her, seeming disinclined to explain what had happened. Maybe it would be better to wait; back in the room, Desirée would be able to give her full attention to her friend, instead of expending some of it on maneuvering her chair through the dark.

Finally within the comfort of their room, Desirée became brisk; she needed to help Summer get rid of that expression of lost misery. "Okay, get out of those duds and shower; you'll feel better. I'll make some coffee; I think we'll both need it."

Summer nodded and, still without speaking, stepped out of her dress and hung it in the closet with careful, mechanical movements. Desirée was growing increasingly alarmed; this reaction was so unlike her ever-practical, competent friend. She watched closely as Summer gathered clean underwear and a set of comfortable sweats; her friend didn't look disheveled, and her dress wasn't mussed, but still --

Desirée grabbed Summer's hand as she headed toward the bathroom. "Wait a minute! Summer, look at me." When she had Summer's attention -- as much as she thought her friend could manage, right now -- Desirée asked urgently, "Did Brad try something out there? I mean... do we need to call the police before you shower? Like -- not destroy evidence?"

"What?" Summer stared for a moment, trying to work out what her friend meant. "Oh! No, nothing like that; Brad's too much of a 'gentleman' to try to force himself on a woman." Her tone was contemptuous, which was better than the earlier emptiness, Desirée decided. "But we'll probably need to call the police later, anyway; apparently he's not too much of a gentleman to steal."

Summer pulled free of Desirée slackened grasp and, reaching the bathroom, shut the door firmly behind her. Desirée stared at the closed door for a moment, then headed toward the coffee-maker and reached for the canister. It sounded like they would definitely need a pot.

The coffee had finished perking by the time Summer emerged from the bathroom, hair wrapped in a towel, tying the belt of her robe. She accepted the cup that Desirée offered her, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed. She looked calmer, Desirée decided, but still troubled and serious.

"All right, tell me what happened," Desirée ordered.

Summer sipped at her coffee while she mentally ran through the sequence, then sighed deeply. "I don't know if you saw him, but Brad showed up and asked me to dance. And then when it was over, he invited me to walk in the gardens... so I said 'okay'."

Desirée nodded encouragement, but didn't speak.

"And we talked for a while, just normal stuff, and he was nice. But then he started getting all bragging -- you know how guys get when they're trying to impress you -- about how clever he was to get past the defense in the last football game, and how many points he scored, and the fancy car he got for his eighteenth birthday, and on and on.

"And, you know, it was kind of boring, and I guess I didn't hide it very well, 'cause he just kept piling it on, like he thought if he could come up with something big enough, I'd be all 'ooh' and 'aah'. Finally he said he was going to the casino pretty soon, and he had a surefire way to beat the house, and he asked if I'd like to go along when he went."

Desirée's eyes widened. "I thought you had to be twenty-one to gamble at the casino."

Summer nodded. "That's what I thought. And I know my folks sure wouldn't let me be gambling. So I just blurted out, 'Your dad lets you?' And he said, 'Dad doesn't know anything about it -- even if he is bankrolling it.' And he smiled this kind of smirky smile like he was so smart, but it kind of creeped me out." She paused, sipping her coffee while she stared into space.

Desirée waited for a few minutes but, as the silence stretched, she grew impatient. "Well, it sounds a bit weird," she agreed, "but how do you get from that to stealing?"

Summer shrugged. "He wasn't making any sense, so I said, 'Oh?' or 'What?' or something like that. And he said his dad had made an 'involuntary contribution' and as soon as they -- well, he said 'we', like it was him and someone else -- as soon as they 'figured out how to move the stuff', he'd have 'way more money than the piddling allowance my old man gives me'. And he smirked, like there was some big joke that he wasn't letting me in on."

Desirée's brow furrowed. "I still don't get it."

"Maybe you had to be there; it was in his tone of voice or something. But don't you remember reading about the string of robberies lately? There were a bunch of names I didn't know, but two of them were Brad Petersen's father and Kevin Agonestes's father; they stuck in my memory 'cause I know them."

"Oh my god, you're right!" Desirée exclaimed, then frowned. "Still, it doesn't sound like much; it's not like proof-positive or anything."

Summer nodded miserably. "I know. I feel like I should report it, but what if I'm wrong? And I can just see a policeman deciding it means nothing, and tossing my report in the trash." She shrugged, helplessly. "I don't even know who to talk to."

"Yeah, that's a problem." Desirée chewed on a ragged cuticle while she thought. "Hey! How about Professor Sandburg?"

"Our teacher?!" Summer squeaked.

"Sure! Don't you remember? His roommate is a cop. He could tell the cop, and the cop could pass it on and take it from there. Let's call him right now."

Summer's eyes widened with alarm. "It's late," she objected.

"Nine-forty-five," Desirée snorted. "Do you think a grown man will be in bed this early on a Friday night? Get out the Campus Directory and let's get it over with."

A few moments later, Desirée dialed the number and thrust the receiver into Summer's hand. She almost dropped it when she heard "Ellison!" barked over the line but, at Desirée's urgent gestures, took a deep breath.

"Yes... um, hi... May I speak to Professor Sandburg, please?"

Jim frowned as the phone rang. This late at night, it probably meant that something had come up that wouldn't wait till morning. As he stalked forward, he saw Blair lift his head from grading student essays, prepared to drop everything if he needed to back up his partner.


The voice on the other end of the line was female, young, and very timid. "Yes... um, hi... May I speak to Professor Sandburg, please?"

Jim stifled a grunt of relief. Good; his peaceful Friday evening wasn't going to be interrupted by some gory crime scene. "It's for you, Chief. Sounds like one of your students; she asked for 'Professor' Sandburg."

"On a Friday?" Blair's eyebrows raised as he reached for the phone. No one freaked out on a Friday night, especially when -- as now -- there were no big exams or research papers due. "This is Blair," he said pleasantly.

He heard a gasp, then, "Professor? It's Summer van Eisen. I... I heard something tonight, and I think... maybe I should tell the police."

Okay, definitely something more than dropping grades, and the poor kid sounded terrified. Blair snapped his fingers at Jim to get his attention, then pointed to the receiver as he pulled it a hair's-breadth away from his ear; this might be something he needed to know.

"I'll be happy to go with you when you talk to them, if that's what you need," he assured her in his most soothing voice.

"No... I mean, yes... I mean, I don't know if it's really important. I thought... I could tell you and you could tell your cop friend?"

"Of course I can, if it'll make you feel better. But you know how second-hand information can get mangled. How about if I put us all on the speaker phone?"

At her assent, Blair punched the speaker button while Jim grabbed a pencil and pad for making notes. Gradually, in fits and starts, Summer recounted the evening's conversation. Jim allowed Blair to carry the exchange; it was obvious this young woman was nervous enough without talking to a strange voice. But he did scrawl a couple of questions on the notepad, and let Blair pass them on to Summer.

Slowly, she reported the entire conversation. Jim interrupted her once. "Excuse me, Miss..." He picked up her name from Blair's sentinel-soft whisper. "Miss van Eisen, you say Mr. Petersen used the word 'we' when he talked about what was being planned. Do you have any idea who he might have been talking about?"

"Not really," she said. "But he hangs around a lot with Nicky Cardenelli and John Taylor. And Kevin Agonestes is his best friend; they're always together."

Jim nodded; Cardenelli and Taylor were two more of the victims. "Thank you; please continue."

"Well, that's really all there was," she said. "I know it doesn't sound like much, but it just seemed so... hinky. But I wasn't sure..." Summer trailed off uncertainly.

Her instincts were good, Jim thought. This would explain why they hadn't been able to find any evidence of outside intrusion.

"Miss van Eisen, you've done exactly the right thing." Jim used his 'reassure-and-calm-the-victims' voice. "Now that you've given us a direction, your part is finished. Now it's our job to investigate and determine whether there's any substance to what you heard."

"Thank you, Detective. I just... I wouldn't want Brad to get in trouble if I'm jumping to conclusions."

"I assure you, we won't act without finding solid evidence first. But we do appreciate your coming forward with this information."

"Well... okay. I hope it helps. Good night," she finished softly.

Both Jim and Blair wished her 'good night' as well, then Blair switched off the speaker button and hung up the phone.

"Well, that sucks," Blair remarked sourly. "Sounds like you were right that it's the kids who are doing it."

"At least some of them; we don't know how many are involved," Jim reminded him. "And hardly 'kids', Chief -- old enough to vote, and to know exactly what they're doing." He started his evening routine of checking the windows and doors.

Blair watched silently for a few moments, weighing the possibilities. "So, what's your next move?"

"Tomorrow morning, we invite the junior Agonestes, Petersen, Cardenelli and Taylor to the PD, where they will be questioned in depth while I monitor every breath and heartbeat." His thin-lipped smile was almost feral.

"Don't you need to get a warrant first?"

"Not if we're simply asking a citizen to help with our inquiries. But you're right; we need to avoid giving them a loophole that they can weasel out of. I'll call their parents first thing, tell them we have new information, and ask if I can question their sons again."

"They might lawyer-up," Blair warned.

This time, Jim's tight smile was definitely feral. "Let them try. A lawyer can't stop me evaluating their heartbeats."

Blair shook his head as he gathered the student essays into a pile, with the half-marked one on top. "And all because they weren't happy with the size of their allowances. That's just -- stupid."

"Most criminals are, Chief; stupid and arrogant. That doesn't mean all of them will have the same reason. But I guarantee you, none of their reasons will be any better. What it all boils down to is, they don't care for anyone's feelings but their own, and they're probably doing it for the thrills as much as anything else."

"That's kind of cynical." Blair carried his empty beer bottle into the kitchen -- carefully avoiding looking at Jim -- rinsed it out, and tossed it in the recycling bin.

"It's realistic. Sandburg, we both know that there are some people trapped by circumstance, some who do unpleasant things simply to stay alive, and we could have a nice intellectual discussion about where to draw the line. But these guys aren't even close to that line; they've had every advantage, but still chose to prey on others." Jim watched Blair, who was still carefully avoiding eye contact, and softened his voice. "But I know them being students makes it hard for you. You don't have to come with me in the morning, if you don't want to."

Blair looked up at that, his face firming in resolve. "No, you might need me, especially if you're going to be using your senses on them. And you're right -- if they've crossed the line for nothing more than kicks, they don't deserve my sympathy. See you in the morning, Jim; goodnight." He strode toward his bedroom and softly shut the door behind him.

Jim stared at the closed door, then shook his head ruefully. This was the hard part of police work, and there was really nothing he could say to make it easier on Sandburg; everyone had to decide for himself whether or not the benefits of protecting society were worth the slow eroding of the soul. But Jim still needed the other man's support for this sentinel thing; he simply wasn't ready to fly solo with the senses. He could only hope that this wouldn't be the case that would cause Sandburg to decide he no longer wanted to ride along.

Only time would answer that question. With a soft, "Goodnight, Chief," Jim headed up the stairs to his own bedroom.

Saturday, 9/28/96

When Summer awoke, it was obvious that Desirée, most uncharacteristically, had risen some time earlier; she was already dressed, and Summer could smell fresh coffee in the pot, and cinnamon rolls warming in the toaster oven. She yawned and stretched, and murmured a sleepy 'good morning'.

"Well, for another couple of hours, anyway; I was starting to wonder if I'd have to wake you for dinner this evening." Desirée's voice was cheerful as always, but Summer thought it sounded a bit artificial, like she was trying too hard. "You ready for breakfast?"

Was she? Summer felt fuzzy, with her thoughts in slow-motion. "Yeah, I guess. Just let me use the bathroom and wash up."

Desirée had the coffee poured and the cinnamon rolls waiting on a plate when Summer got back; they ate in silence for a few minutes. When Summer had eaten half her roll, and rose to pour more coffee, Desirée finally spoke.

"So... you feel better this morning?"

Better? What...? Memory kicked in, and the hovering cloud of anxiety descended. "Oh my god!" Summer sank back into her chair and stared at her friend. "I called the cops on Brad Petersen! What was I thinking?!"

"You were thinking you needed to report something suspicious to the proper authorities, and that's what you did," Desirée pointed out in tones of eminent practicality. "And you heard Detective Ellison; they're not just going to haul him off to jail. They'll check it out, first."

"But if they do, it'll be all my fault!"

"No, if they do, it'll be Brad's fault if he's done something illegal. Do you really think you should have not said anything just because he's a friend?"

Summer wouldn't meet her friend's eyes. "Well, no, but..." She trailed off, unable to define her scrambled thoughts.

"But you can't stop thinking about it. I was afraid of that. So I've got it all planned; we'll pack a lunch and spend the day at the dig."

"We will?" For the first time, Summer noticed that Desirée was wearing her 'grubbies', rather than her customary casual shorts-and-sandals weekend attire.

"We will. We'll both dig, and I'll catalogue whatever we find. It'll keep your mind occupied, and off whatever might be happening here -- or at the police station."

"But -- by ourselves?"

"Professor Sandburg said we could, and you know Amanda and Nathan have been going out most weekends; we might even see them there. But even if we don't, we know how to handle ourselves now; no problem."

Summer considered her friend's idea, and her face relaxed. "Yeah, I think you're right." She jumped up, her usual energy reasserting itself. "Okay, I'll get dressed and run down to get ice for the cooler while you make the lunches." She hurried to her closet, while Desirée smiled in satisfaction as she finished her coffee.

Fifteen minutes later, as they were heading out the door, Summer exclaimed, "Wait! What if Detective Ellison has more questions?"

"But you already told him everything; what more questions could he have?" Desirée's voice was impatient. She knew her friend; she had to get Summer away from campus, or she'd just fuss and fret all day.

"But he might need to... to... confirm it, or something."

"Then leave a note on the door, so he'll know where we are." Not that he'll even be here to see it, Desirée thought, but it wasn't worth arguing; Summer had not yet regained her usual calm self-control.

"Oh, good idea."

Summer hurried to her desk and used a green Magic Marker to scrawl, Gone to the dig. Back at 5:30. She carefully taped the note to the outside of the door -- top and bottom so it wouldn't accidentally get brushed off during the day -- then locked the door behind her, picked up the cooler and her bag of tools, and followed her friend down the hallway.

"What the hell were you thinking, Petersen?" Kevin Agonestes snarled as he wrenched his classic Mustang around a corner and accelerated sharply, weaving in and out of traffic. "Do you realize we could lose everything, just because you had to open your big mouth to impress that mousy little bitch? If she goes to the cops, that could be what they need to track us down."

"It wasn't like that!" Brad Petersen defended himself hotly. "We were talking, that's all, and it's not like I said anything specific, just --"

"Just let her know you're planning to go gambling without your old man knowing about it, that's all. I told you to stay away from her; the quiet, smart ones are always more trouble than they're worth!" Kevin's rage was barely contained. "She'll put that together with you talking about 'moving the stuff' -- how many old movies have you watched, for god's sake? -- and go running to the cops as soon as she figures it out. Jesus, if we'd known you were such an idiot, we wouldn't have let you join our group. And you, Cardenelli -- you vouched for him; that makes you an idiot, too."

Stung, Nicky Cardenelli leaned forward from the back seat. "Hey, don't blame me! Brad's always been solid till now; how could I know he was gonna jump in a whole pool of stupid?"

Brad was becoming nervous. Kevin was showing a violent side he'd never seen before, and Nicky seemed inclined to back him up. In self-defense, he argued again, "I'm telling you, Summer likes me; she won't go to the cops."

"The way she ran out of the dance last night?" Kevin sneered. "I'm not gonna risk my share of the take on the chance that she'll keep quiet because she likes you. We're just lucky it's Saturday; that Detective Ellison will be off duty. By the time that bitch works her way through the weekend shift and they call him in to talk to her, he won't be around to check us out till late this afternoon."

"But why do we have to move the stuff?" Nicky asked. "It's a good hiding place; I still say we should leave it there. They'll never find it; all we have to do is keep cool and when the cops question us, we don't know anything about anything. Whatever she tells them, they won't have any proof, and the cops will have to give up eventually."

Kevin braked sharply and turned onto an unpaved, rutted dirt track. "You didn't meet Ellison. He's a suspicious bastard; he'll tear Brad's place apart -- well, his old man's -- looking for evidence. And when he doesn't find anything, he'll look to your place and mine, because anyone'll tell him we hang together. Eventually someone will remember that old root cellar and tell the cops, and Ellison will be bustin' down the door to check it out."

Brad slumped in his seat. Kevin was right; he was stupid. And if a new hiding place had to be unconnected to all of them... "So, where can we move it to?" He hoped Kevin had an idea, because his brain refused to offer anything.

Kevin carefully maneuvered his car to avoid the worst of the ruts; with the need for concentration, his anger was fading. "I've been thinking. It has to be someplace that has no connection to any of us, and someplace where people won't stumble across it accidentally."

"It's all wrapped in plastic, and protected in the briefcases," Nicky pointed out. "Why don't we just bury them, someplace in the woods that's not on any of our parents' lands?"

"No good," Kevin objected. "Even wrapped in plastic, some moisture might affect the stamps, and they'd lose half their value. You can't imagine how fussy my old man is about that collection."

"You know, in the movies..." Brad began.

Kevin snorted. "Oh, yeah, pick a movie cliché for hiding; the cops wouldn't ever think to check out such an obvious place. Or you could paint a neon arrow with the words, 'this way to the loot'."

"I'm serious. We take the briefcases to the bus station and rent one of the storage lockers. It's anonymous, it doesn't have a connection to any of us, and it only has to be for a few days -- just until we think of something better."

Kevin considered as he slowed the car even farther and left the track, following a faint path through the trees. When he'd first planned these... episodes, he'd figured this 'back-door' approach to the root cellar was safe, even though they couldn't hide signs of a vehicle's passage, because no one would ever be looking for it. Now, he wasn't so sure -- but at least, if it was found, the cops wouldn't be able to tell which vehicle had used it. They'd still have plausible deniability.

"Huh. You might actually have a good idea, there. We play innocent until the cops realize they don't have any evidence and give up, then scout out a safer solution." Kevin parked in his usual spot, and shut off the engine.

It was still a half-mile walk to the old root cellar, but Kevin had realized from the very beginning that they had to leave as little evidence as possible. Not that he was worried; he was smarter than any cop, and he had watched enough crime shows to know what not to do.

"Okay, let's go get the briefcases and get out of here. We need to get 'em locked up and be back in our rooms, being all innocent when the oh-so-mighty Ellison shows up." Kevin turned and strode toward the root-cellar, with his cohorts following behind.

Nicky chortled and punched Brad companionably on the shoulder. "Yeah, we'll run rings around Cascade's 'finest', won't we?"

Brad nodded glumly. Somehow, being a cat burglar didn't seem so much like an exciting adventure, anymore.

To Blair's surprise, Jim didn't storm out the door in what he privately considered 'sentinel hunting mode' immediately after waking. The smell of waffles, scrambled eggs and coffee drew Blair from his bedroom. To his inquiring look, Jim replied, "Might as well, Chief; between the party last night and them being teenagers, it's not likely they were up at sunrise."

After breakfast, Jim put in the promised calls to the boys' parents. All agreed that their sons could answer more questions, with one caveat. "John Taylor's spending the day at home; his older sister's getting married," Jim reported. "But his dad says he's planning to go back to the frat house tomorrow morning, and we can 'interview' him then. We can pick up the other three today, though."

Blair's forehead creased in thought. It was true, he didn't know much about police-work yet, but -- "Won't that compromise the questioning?" he asked. "I mean, these three will tell him all about it tomorrow, and he'll be ready with his answers." He was surprised to see a faint smile on Jim's face; in fact, the man looked almost proud.

"You're right, Chief; normally, if suspects have been working together, we'd question them separately, and keep them apart until questioning was finished so we could compare their answers. But in this case, it doesn't matter; three out of four is enough to catch the inconsistencies. Either we'll have something solid, and a reason to pull Taylor in, or we'll still be looking for more concrete evidence, and we can question him at any time." Jim reached out to 'bop' Blair lightly on the head. "But that's a good question, Dick Tracy; keep it up, and we'll be pinning a badge on you before you know it."

"Not the hair, man!" By now, it was a standing joke between them. "And you know I'm strictly an observer. Me carry a gun? No way!" Blair watched as Jim tucked his gun in the holster at the back of his belt, then followed his friend down the hallway. "Besides, can you really see me as a cop?"

"It wouldn't surprise me, Chief. Your first day at the PD, you took out one of the Sunrise Patriots with a bathroom-stall door, another with a vending machine, and then you held off Garrett Kincaid with a flare-gun; you've got good instincts."

Wow! Really? Blair felt warmed by the praise, but he knew it was totally unwarranted. "Jim, that was simply sheer terror mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation. Hell, most of the time, I was just trying to get away."

"As any sane man would. But when you couldn't you did what you had to do, no matter how afraid you were, and your actions were effective. Like I said, good instincts."

Blair considered Jim's words during the drive to the University. Actually, since he'd started hanging out with Jim, he'd been tossed into situations that he'd never dreamed of, even in anthropology -- and sometimes he was kind of proud of his response to some pretty hairy circumstances. If he'd been just one second later busting in Beverly Sanchez's door and pulling her to the floor, she'd've been toast. But organizing Mrs. LaCroix and her friends to stand up to the gang had been cool, and not really dangerous; after all, who'd have the guts to shoot down a bunch of old folks in cold blood? And walking into Club Doom to get information for Jim hadn't been the least bit dangerous, despite Jim yelling at him; it was just a club for god's sake, a place for people to hang out and dance and drink.

So, really, it wasn't like he went looking to do cop-like things, and he sure as hell wasn't casual about the dangerous stuff. But, until Jim developed better control of his senses, he needed Blair's backup, a backup that no one else could provide. Sometimes the cop-like things were necessary, but his first priority was always Jim's senses. That term Brackett had used -- guide -- that felt right, made him feel important, kind of like he was part of this sentinel thing with Jim. But even if he wasn't really part of the sentinel stuff -- and sometimes it did sound like wistful thinking; they were Jim's senses, after all -- he was Jim's partner, no matter how much the big guy protested the term. And it was an unwritten, but consistent rule in every society he could think of -- a man did everything in his power to back up his partner, no ifs, ands, or buts.

So, yeah, he'd be the best partner -- and guide -- he could be, to the very best of his ability. And if it was dangerous sometimes, he'd keep his head down. But like Jim said, sometimes he just had to do what needed to be done. And then sometimes he'd freak out later, in private, but Jim didn't need to know that. But become a cop? Not in this lifetime!

Having settled that to his satisfaction, Blair looked up to find that Jim was parking the truck in front of the frat house. Okay, time to put this partner-thing into action again. He followed Jim to the front door.

But this time they were out of luck. None of the boys they wanted were on the premises, and no one seemed to know where they'd gone, when they'd left, when they'd be back, or even if they'd gone out together or individually.

Blair was sure he could hear Jim's teeth grinding together as they walked back to the truck. He waited till they were inside to ask, "Do you think they're there but hiding out?"

"I don't think so. The boys I talked to weren't lying; they really don't know where the others are. And the Agonestes kid is arrogant enough to face me; he's sure I won't be able to pin anything on him. He'd be in more danger by asking his frat brothers to lie for him -- they'd wonder why, and start speculating, and then it would hit the rumor-mill -- and he knows it."

"So now what?"

"It's a waiting game, Chief. His group -- whoever they are -- has to pretend everything is normal, so they'll keep to their regular habits. They'll be back; if I can't pick them up this afternoon, I'll try again tomorrow." He put the truck in gear and pulled into the street.

Blair frowned as he tried to figure out Jim's method. "So we just -- drive around for a couple of hours? Or go home and come back here later?"

"Neither. I think I'd like to talk to Ms. van Eisen again; do you know which dorm she lives in?"

"Yeah, I think she's in Bransfield dorm." Blair looked around to get his bearings. "Two blocks up and hang a left. But why? She told us everything last night."

"She told us everything about one particular incident. But if she's dating Agonestes's buddy, she may know something about their habits or hangouts, and I expect she'll be considerably more cooperative than his frat-brothers. You'd be surprised at the nuggets of information people don't know they know, until someone asks the right questions." Jim pulled into the visitors' parking lot in front of the dorm and shut off the engine.

The directory in the entryway read, 'van Eisen, Summer - 107'. A moment later, they were reading the note taped to the door.

Jim's voice held a note of surprise. "You let your students work on the dig without you there to supervise?"

Blair shrugged easily. "Sure. It's a minor site -- highly unlikely they'll find anything that hasn't been found dozens of times before in dozens of other places -- and I've checked everyone's technique; they know what to do and how to do it. At least here we have a time-frame; do we come back at five-thirty, or will you just question the boys cold?"

Jim frowned at the innocuous piece of paper, then pulled it off the door and sniffed carefully. "She's running, Chief," he said abruptly. "How far to this dig of yours?"

"Huh? About twenty miles. And what do you mean, 'running'?" Blair had to quicken his pace to keep up with Jim's long strides down the hall toward the front doors.

"The girl who wrote that note was -- or had been -- halfway between nervous and scared; her instincts were telling her to get out of Dodge. I need to know what information she has that kicked those instincts into gear, and the sooner the better; it could be the key we're looking for." Jim buckled his seatbelt and started the engine. "Which way?"

"Take a left on Stanton, then head east on Two-Forty-Six. We'll turn off about a mile before we get to Petersen's house."

They were old hands at this now. Desirée made the transfer to her roughneck chair, then settled the smaller bag of tools on her lap while Summer carried the larger tools and the lunch-cooler. They paused just long enough for Summer to put the cooler in the shade under the work-table, then headed toward the most recent trench. Barely eight inches deep, Desirée could easily reach the working area if she lay on her stomach and, if she wanted to sit in the trench to get even closer to her work, it was shallow enough that she could lift herself in and out with well-developed arm muscles.

Two hours passed peacefully as Summer and Desirée used garden trowels to scrape away one thin layer of dirt at a time, meanwhile discussing school, shopping, movies, books, future life plans, dreams -- anything except boys. They tossed the discarded dirt onto a plastic tarp they'd laid next to the trench. Whenever it developed a nice mound, Summer would gather up the four corners, sling it over her shoulder, and carry it to the big dirt pile that had been established outside the perimeter of the projected search area.

Summer finally sighed and sat up from her hunched position, stretching backward to work the kinks out of her spine. "Well, I'm about ready for lunch; how about you?"

"Okay," Desirée answered, "as soon as I finish this last little section." She inserted the side of the trowel a millimeter into the dirt, pulled forward -- and hit something solid.

Excitement swept aside all thoughts of lunch as they used delicate little probes to determine the size of the object, and miniature spoons to scoop away the dirt. A half-hour later, they had revealed a hand-sized piece of what seemed to be clay pottery. Summer ran to get the camera and an artifact box while Desirée lifted herself into her chair to get out of the way. Summer thrust the cotton-lined box into Desirée's hands, then took pictures of their find from every conceivable angle. Desirée watched in amusement; two establishing shots were customary, but her friend was forever trying to get that one perfect picture. Finally, Summer slung the camera over the handle behind Desirée's chair and delicately lifted the piece of pottery out of the dirt, placing it carefully on the cotton padding in the box while Desirée held it steady.

As they headed toward the work-table, Desirée realized that the excitement of their find had overshadowed something else -- her bladder was demanding relief. With a quick, "Gotta make a pit-stop," she headed into the trees, following the path to the Porta-Potty.

"Okay," Summer called to her retreating back. "I'll get started with the cataloguing."

Desirée had developed a technique for using the Porta-potty -- despite the hand-bars, they really weren't designed for people who had only marginal use of their legs -- but it wasn't exactly easy. She settled into her chair with a sigh of satisfaction; once again she had managed without falling on her tail and needing to call for help.

As she turned to head toward the work-table, she heard a sharp ~snap~ farther back in the trees. Maybe a deer foraging, or a porcupine scrambling over deadwood to reach some fresh bark? How cool that Summer had left the camera hanging on her chair; maybe Desirée could get some pictures. She twisted to grab the camera, settled the strap around her neck, and turned it on; if she actually found an animal, she'd probably have only a few seconds to point and shoot. Trying to choose a route that wouldn't take her over too many dead sticks, with their potential to snap loudly, Desirée rolled her chair forward as cautiously and quietly as she could. Luckily, there weren't many that she needed to avoid; the uniform spacing and age of the trees left few dead or dying branches to fall. Or maybe Mr. Petersen had gardeners who took care of this small artificial forest and kept it picked up. Whatever; Desirée was just grateful that the ground was covered mostly in a layer of old pine needles and moist, decaying leaves.

After several minutes' progress, it seemed evident that she wasn't going to find whatever animal she'd heard, but then there was a soft creaking noise off to her left. Probably just two branches rubbing together in the wind, but it might be the sound of an antler scraping along a branch, and she'd already come this far... Desirée turned and headed in the new direction.

A few more minutes' travel brought her in sight of -- a big hole in the ground, in the middle of a small area of no tree growth. Huh! It certainly didn't seem natural, and there were some wooden planks flattening the grass to one side; what on earth could it be? Animal photography forgotten, Desirée rolled forward to investigate.

She had covered about half the distance when a man's head appeared, moving smoothly upward as if climbing stairs. Desirée stopped abruptly, her common sense belatedly making itself heard. Somehow, this felt hinky, and if there was something illegal going on, this guy might be dangerous if he knew he'd been seen.

Fortunately, he was facing away from Desirée. She started rolling cautiously backwards; maybe she could move far enough that he wouldn't notice her, or maybe he'd keep heading in the other direction without turning.

No luck; maybe she'd unknowingly made a noise, or maybe he was just being paranoid, checking the area for intruders. The man turned his head, and Desirée had two new pieces of information: it was Kevin Agonestes, and when he saw her he wasn't pissed, or angry; he was completely and totally enraged.

"You BITCH!" he shouted, heading toward her with a murderous scowl on his face.

Desirée wasn't about to let him catch her; she turned her chair sharply and leaned forward to get as much speed as she could. In the long run, wheels were faster than legs; maybe she could keep ahead of him. But as she passed one of the trees, her left front wheel was stopped by a protruding root, hidden by the layer of dead leaves and pine needles. The sudden stop to her forward movement threw Desirée right out of her chair. She landed unhurt on the soft ground and rolled over to see Kevin closing the distance, and there were two other guys behind him. She searched frantically for some kind of protection -- a big, hefty stick would be nice -- but the ground here was just as unnaturally stick-free as it had been near the Porta-potty. "SUMMER!" she shouted.

Summer was immersed in their find, and unaware of time passing. Since starting the dig, she had discovered that she enjoyed the organizational details necessary for accurate archaeological record-keeping. Unfortunately, as she'd remarked ruefully to Dessie, it didn't carry over to keeping her room clean...

So, while she waited for Desirée to return, she grabbed the tape measure to make an accurate record of the depth at which their fragment had been found, then opened her laptop to write the description of their pottery shard. It was 26.5 by 9.8 centimeters, roughly oval-shaped. with remnants of black pigment from what had probably been a decorative design. Now that it wasn't shaded by the walls of the trench and could be seen in the sunlight, they'd need some closeup pictures. Summer looked for the camera, then remembered it was on the back of the wheelchair. No problem; Dessie should be back in a few minutes.

They'd need the meter stick for pictures, too, to make a standard comparison shot. Summer bent to the tools locker under the table, worked the combination of the padlock, and flipped up the lid. The meter stick was on top, a one-inch piece of PVC pipe, strengthened by a metal rod running through the center and marked with alternating bands of black and white.

She had just grabbed the stick when Summer heard Desirée's frantic shout. She surged up and out, ignoring the bump on her head as she clipped the edge of the table, and ran into the trees. But when she reached the Porta-potty, there was no sign of Desirée. Summer looked around in confusion; which way? Where might Dessie have gone, and why? Then the sound of distant shouts drifted through the trees, and she headed toward them at top speed.

"That's Desirée's van," Blair announced as Jim pulled into the parking area and stopped beside the red Dodge. He surveyed the area, bypassing the work table and focusing on the newest trench. "I don't see the girls, though; maybe they're taking a break under the trees. I'm sure --"

Jim stopped him with a raised hand as he opened the door for better listening. As he heightened his hearing -- what a useful image those 'dials' were -- he heard angry male voices, and the thud of swiftly-running feet. "There's trouble," he announced, jumping down from the truck and pulling his gun from its holster as he ran into the treeline. "Come on!"

Blair gaped -- what kind of trouble could there be out here? -- but didn't let his surprise slow him as he also jumped down and hurried to follow Jim. He gave a fleeting thought to calling for backup, but they wouldn't get here in time and, if he stopped to make the call, he'd lose Jim in the trees. Grimly aware that half-assed backup -- as in one enthusiastic but untrained anthropologist -- was better than no backup at all, he stretched his legs to keep Jim in sight.

"You fuckin' bitch, what the fuck are you doing here?!" Kevin yelled, face red with anger. "You just had to stick your nose in where it doesn't belong, didn't you? Too bad for you; I'm not gonna let you ruin everything."

He drew back a foot to aim a kick at Desirée. Desperately, frantically, she grabbed her fallen chair and drew it between herself and Kevin. It was a thin shield, at best, and Kevin ignored it, kicking out as if he could drive right through the fabric. Desirée thrust the chair forward; maybe she could knock him off balance. By sheer dumb luck -- hers, not his -- his foot impacted one of the metal supports. He howled in pain and rage, but didn't even pause; he wrenched the chair out of her hands and tossed it aside.

"Think you're so clever, you crippled bitch? I don't think so." Kevin pulled out a pocketknife and flicked open the blade. "I think you're gonna be real sorry you came snooping around." He grinned in satisfaction as Desirée's eyes widened and she tried to pull herself away, scooting backward under the trees, still searching for a stick, a rock, anything she could use for self-defense.

Then the other boys -- Brad and Nicky, she knew them, too, Desirée noted absently -- caught up with Kevin. Rescue? Probably not, if they'd been with Kevin. Desirée kept pulling herself backward as she kept an eye on him and, finally -- thank God! -- her hand landed on a stick, strong enough to whack his knees out from under him if he came close enough. She set her back against a tree-trunk, gripping the stick fiercely, and watched.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Brad had hold of Kevin's knife-arm and was yelling in his face. "You said even if we were found out, our parents wouldn't let us go to jail. But if you stick a knife in her, your ass is grass, and there's no way in hell I'm going down with you."

Kevin shoved Brad away, snarling, waving the knife wildly. "You want to join her? You think some crippled bitch is worth us going to jail?"

Nicky stood at a safe distance, eyes bugged out at the sight of the knife in his leader's hand. "Brad's right," he said urgently. "If we don't hurt her, they won't do anything to us; let's just calm down and think about this."

"I think you're a pair of pussy-whipped mama's boys," Kevin sneered. "I should've known you two'd be too soft if any trouble came up. I should've --"

A wild, inarticulate, howling screech cut him off as Summer burst into view. "Leave her ALONE!" she shouted, running toward Kevin, brandishing a long, black-and-white rod.

Startled, Brad and Nicky fell back while Kevin turned to face the new threat. He almost laughed; she was ten inches shorter than him, and waving a piece of plastic pipe. It was longer than his knife, sure, but PVC was light; even if she whacked him, it wouldn't do any damage. He braced himself, prepared to take it away from her and teach the bitch a lesson she'd never forget.

Summer was close enough; she set herself and swung at Kevin's head. But the pipe was unwieldy, and slower than her fencing rapier; he ducked behind an upraised arm, and the pipe impacted between his wrist and elbow. He cursed loudly as his arm dropped to the side, seemingly numb, and her eyes narrowed in satisfaction; obviously, he hadn't counted on the metal reinforcement hidden inside. She changed her grip and moved forward, keeping herself between him and Desirée, keeping him off balance with pokes to the chest, interspersed with downward slashes as she tried to knock the knife from his other hand.

But Summer wasn't able to land another good hit; her impromptu rapier was too unwieldy, and Kevin simply moved back from the poking, and managed to avoid the slashes aimed at his knife-hand. Then her foot landed on a fat pinecone, and her balance wavered, her pipe-sword shifting to the side. Immediately, Kevin's left hand, no longer numb, flashed out to grab the pipe, twisting it and wrenching it from Summer's grasp, flinging it to one side.

Shit! What could she do now? Summer backed up, panting heavily, eyes on the knife. Maybe she could circle around and grab the meter-stick again; it was better than nothing. She took a step sideways, wondering how long Kevin would wait before he attacked.

"Oh, you bitch," he breathed softly. "You are so going to get it now."

Summer took another step sideways as she heard Brad call urgently, "Kevin, you can't; it'd be murder!"

"That's right, Kevin; it'd be murder, and I'm here to prevent that. Cascade PD; drop the knife and put your hands behind your head."

Everyone stopped, stunned, and turned toward the voice. With an overwhelming wave of relief, Summer saw Professor Sandburg's cop-friend, looking all tall and official, and holding a gun pointed directly at Kevin. He was breathing heavily, but the gun never wavered, and Summer had never been so glad to see a cop in her life. The professor was standing a little behind and to the side of his friend. He was also breathing heavily, and he didn't have a gun, but he was a known, friendly face; just his presence gave her a feeling of safety. Thank God; it was over.

The release of adrenalin left her feeling weak-kneed. Summer made her way to Desirée's side and sank down beside her, throwing an arm around her shoulders, feeling Desirée's arm around her waist. Together they watched the professor's cop-friend put Kevin in handcuffs, heard him say, "Call it in, Chief. Tell 'em we need two black-and-whites, and give 'em directions how to get here." They listened to him recite the Miranda rights to the boys -- it was different than on TV -- and watched as he slid the knife into a plastic bag, and then opened two briefcases that the boys had dropped. Whatever was in there, the cop seemed satisfied, while Professor Sandburg looked at the boys with sorrow on his face.

They'd rest here just a little longer. Then Summer would fetch Desirée's chair and help her into it, and they could go home. In a little while...

Wednesday, 10/2/96

Blair was just hanging up the phone as Jim came down the stairs. "Isn't it a little early to be planning a hot date, Chief?" he asked, crossing to the kitchen to pour a mug of coffee.

"I think I know your problem, Jim. Turns out, most women prefer to be asked on a date with more than an hour's notice." Blair snorted as he reached into the oven to pull out the toasted bagels and carry them to the table. "But actually, I was inviting Desirée and Summer to lunch at the Grill-Tastic. Since they gave us the info that helped you catch those guys, I figure it's only fair to fill in the blanks and answer whatever questions they might have." He started to spread strawberry jam on his bagel. "Care to join us? You might need to make sure I don't spill any super-secret police information."

"You're right about that, Sandburg; you'd make a lousy spy. The way you run on, I think your mouth is always about two sentences ahead of your brain; state secrets would be lying all over the floor before you even noticed. But in this case, I really --" Jim paused, abruptly noticing the entreaty in Blair's eyes; for some reason, this was important to him. "-- don't think you should be let out without a keeper," he continued smoothly. "I'd hate to have pull you in on charges of high treason."

"Thanks; I appreciate it." Blair shoved the jam-jar in Jim's direction, and bit off a large piece of bagel, avoiding Jim's eyes.

Jim suspected he knew Blair's problem. "The girls are okay, Chief," he said gently. "Their statements were clear and concise, they had no trouble picking the boys out of a lineup, and they have us as witnesses that the Agonestes kid really did threaten them with a knife. They're done with it until the trial starts, and that'll be months away."

"I know." Blair regarded Jim soberly. "It's just that... well, I guess I want to make sure they have closure. Neither of them have family here. I can offer to talk if they need it, but I'm like... 'ordinary everyday', y'know? I think it'd be more reassuring to have closure from a real cop. And it doesn't hurt if it just happens to be the hero that came charging to their rescue." His eyes twinkled as he picked up his coffee, watching Jim's face turn a faint shade of pink.

It was Jim's turn to snort. "On my dashing white charger, I suppose? I'm not Lancelot, and just doing my job doesn't make me a hero."

"Jim, you saved them from a guy who was out of control; as you say, 'armed and dangerous'. If you hadn't been there, they'd have been badly hurt -- or worse -- and they know it. You're their hero, whether or not you want to be. But if it's any consolation, it probably won't last long." Blair grinned at the hopeful look on Jim's face. "They're young; it'll probably wear off in a couple of weeks."

"I'll hold you to that, Sandburg." Jim carried his dishes to the sink and ran them under hot water. "What time?"

"I told 'em twelve-thirty."

"I'll be there... unless our esteemed captain has an urgent case that he can't spare me from."

"Good point. I think I'll call Simon, and tell him no new cases for you until after one-thirty."

"You'll tell him?" Jim chuckled as he strapped on his gun. "You might want to rethink that. If you give Simon apoplexy, the new captain might pull your ride-along pass."

Blair shook his head sadly as he shouldered his backpack and followed Jim out the door. "Man, you should have more faith in my powers of persuasion. But I suppose you're right; I'll try to go easy on Simon. Too much yelling will damage his vocal cords and my hearing, and neither one of us needs that."

Desirée had purposely pushed Summer into arriving at the Grill-Tastic a little early; it would be embarrassing for both of them if she had to drag her friend across the floor to a table where the professor and his friend were already sitting. This way, all she had to do was keep Summer from bolting when the two men arrived.

They were still looking over their menus when Desirée looked up to see the cop -- Detective Ellison, she remembered -- approaching between the tables, with Professor Sandburg right behind. Desirée watched appreciatively. He was as good-looking as the professor, she decided; tall and built and buff, with a quiet strength behind his eyes. But kind of old, probably pushing forty. Not someone to get interested in, she decided with an internal sigh.

The men sat down and looked over their menus, followed by a flurry of ordering, with Desirée and Summer declaring they could buy their own lunches, and Professor Sandburg insisting it was his treat. Detective Ellison didn't seem to mind the professor taking over, though Desirée was sure she noticed a glint of amusement in his eyes.

Then an awkward silence fell. Desirée wasn't quite certain why the professor had invited them to lunch, and he didn't seem to know how to start. Summer wouldn't say anything unless asked, and the detective was still watching the professor with that smile in his eyes. But if someone didn't start, they'd still be sitting in silence when lunch was over.

"So, Detective Ellison," Desirée said brightly, "was all the loot in those two cases, or are you still looking for some more?"

Detective Ellison flashed a killer smile as he relaxed in his chair.

"First, ladies, we're very informal here, and I know Sandburg prefers not to be 'professor'," he said, trying to put them at ease. "So how about we all stick to first names? And to answer your question, we got lucky; all the loot is there, and none of it damaged," he assured them. "And, again, the Cascade PD is very grateful that you came forward with the information that let us break the case."

"I'm just glad you showed up when you did," Summer said, fervently. "A month of fencing lessons sure doesn't make someone expert in a fight, and a plastic pipe makes a lousy sword. What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking a friend was in danger and you could help," Blair said gently. "And you kept your head and used what you had available. As someone told me recently," he flashed a smile at Jim, "you have good instincts, and you did what you had to do. You can't expect more than that."

"But it was mostly just self-preservation!" she protested. "I wasn't even very good at it."

"Good enough to keep that asshole monster away from me until Jim and Blair showed up," Desirée declared loyally. "I, for one, really appreciate that. And you did pretty good for not having a real sword."

"It never occurred to me that those meter-sticks are hefty enough to make a good weapon," Blair said, "but I salute your creativity."

"Not like you haven't shown a bit of that yourself, Chief," Jim teased. "But what made you bring it along, Summer? In your statement, you said that you simply thought Desirée had fallen down."

Summer shrugged, embarrassed. "I was getting it out of the toolbox when Dessie shouted, and I just ran. I didn't even realize I had it, till I needed something to hit him with."

The waitress served their food, and conversation languished for a short time. After a few minutes, Desirée remarked, "I wasn't totally surprised about Kevin; we always knew he was a sleazy asshole. But it really pissed me off that Brad didn't try harder to stop him; he just let Kevin boss him around, even when he was threatening to... kill me," she finished, not quite steadily.

"Breaking out of the status quo isn't as easy as TV makes it look," Blair explained. "Brad was used to following Kevin's lead, and facing a wild-eyed man with a knife -- even if he's a friend -- is a scary thing. At least he did try. That extra thirty seconds gave Summer time to get to you, and us time to get to her."

"Well, I hoped I was a better judge of character than that," Summer complained. "I didn't want to date someone just because he had a pretty face. I thought he was a nice guy, and he turned out to be such a schmuck."

Desirée almost choked over her soda. "A schmuck? You're not Jewish!"

"Well... it's what he is!" Summer declared. "At least I never let on how much I liked him, so he won't be able to gloat about how he led me on." Her downcast expression suggested that she didn't take much comfort in that fact.

"We all get fooled once in awhile," Blair hastened to assure her, "even the best of us. Not even the police are infallible."

Jim caught his meaningful look and hastily cleared his throat. "Yes, we all make mistakes. The point is, we pick ourselves up, learn from them and move on."

"And Brad's just one guy," Desirée reminded her. "Don't you remember what you told Vanessa when Tommy dumped her? You said, 'boys come and go, but the only thing you need for real fulfillment in life is one good friend'. It's true, you know; you've got me and I've got you; it doesn't get any better than that, right?" She reached out to clasp Summer's hand.

"You're absolutely right, ladies," Jim agreed, catching Blair's eyes with a slight smile. "One good friend; it doesn't get any better than that."

The End

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