Written for PetFly by: Daniel Levine
internal thought in * *
~~~~~~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~~~~~~
The exterior video recorded Mick as he entered Datta Credit Union with the ease of a young man on the move, nodding to the security officer as he passed. Anyone observing the handsome young man pegged him to be up and coming in the art world perhaps or an executive in one of the new dot-coms. His elegant suit jacket hung open, showing a casual white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. An impressively thick mane of curly hair was pulled back from his face and left to flow past his shoulders. Heavy, large-framed glasses gave the thin face an intelligent, almost scholarly air. Smoothly, Mick bent and set the dark silver briefcase he carried on the floor next to the central counter.
Nonchalantly taking a brochure, he pretended to read it while scouting the perimeter of the busy workplace. After noting the manager and each teller and secretary, he checked his new watch. Glancing up, he saw the dark blue truck pull up outside the main doors, and strode purposefully past the security guard and outside.
Two men in Bomb Squad jumpsuits exited the back of the Tactical Response Unit while a third waited behind the wheel. The two passed the longhaired man without a glance, and walked into the building.
The security guard pointed out the manager to them, saying, "He’s right over there," and the leader stalked toward him.
The Bomb Squad officer had sharp, acne-scarred features and a thick moustache. "Excuse me, sir. We had a bomb threat called into the station. We have to evacuate this area immediately. Disposal team’s on the way."
"Oh, my God!" The manager paled and looked at the people around him. "But…"
"Now, sir," the officer ordered.
The manager nodded.
Outside, Mick pushed the button remote and the dark silver briefcase exploded with a loud bang, emitting a cloud of acrid smoke. Immediately, the bank became bedlam, and the second Bomb Squad officer, aided by the security guard, herded the hysterical customers and employees toward the door.
The first officer used the commotion to pull a shiny automatic pistol and pressed the tip under the terrified manager’s chin. "Show us the vault."
The manager nodded and led the bogus police officer away from the lobby toward the vault.
"The combination won’t do you any good." The manager was looking around frantically. "The vault’s on time lock."
The older officer grinned sardonically. "Indulge me."
The manager held out for only a moment before counting out the numbers. "3…37…19…46…6." The uniformed man typed each one in.
Meanwhile, a young man in a police uniform climbed out of the back of the blue van. His hair was close-cropped, and his features austere. Few would have recognized the well-dressed, curly-haired man from moments before. Mick gave the driver the high sign and strode into the bank past the fleeing customers and staff. Once there, he stopped and watched the senior member of the group intimidate the bank officer.
"The override code," Jack asked, leaning closer to the frightened manager. The man remained stubbornly silent.
"We’re cool outside," Mick informed Jack with a grin, glancing at their victim.
"Good." Jack’s angular face showed no sign of emotion. "Our friend here’s got temporary tongue lock."
Mick didn’t stop grinning. "Oh…I can fix that." He punched the manager hard in the belly, causing the man to double over.
"Two minutes," the man at the door reminded them. Time was at a premium.
"What is it?" Mick dragged the hapless manager upright and punched him viciously. "What is it?"
"12…21…" Sliding toward the floor, the manager gasped out the words. "4…1…" As the older man typed the numbers in, the grinning young man slammed their prey to the floor. Sweat gleaming on his wildly grinning face, Mick kicked him hard in the ribs and drew back his foot again.
"That’s enough!" the older man bit out the words as the vault swung open.
"Two minutes-thirty." The younger man by the door came forward and scowled angrily at the wild-eyed Mick, slamming him against the wall. "Damn it, Mick," he whispered fiercely. "Cool it."
"Let’s do it." Jack grabbed them both and urged them toward the neatly stacked cash. Working as a team, the three men began to methodically empty the vault. "Mick!" The leader ordered. "Get the video tapes, and don’t miss any of them!"
Blair tried not to run as he followed Simon and Jim into the bank. The uniforms inside parted, and the two tall men walked toward the counter. Jim stopped and winced at the burnt, chemical smell wafting from the open briefcase. He knelt and sifted through the scorched paper and metal.
"The device was basically a smoker with a lot of bang." Simon crouched beside his detective and shook his head. "It was designed to cause a panic, not do any serious damage."
Blair looked around, noting the evidence of a hasty evacuation. "Looks like it worked." Both men ignored him.
"How much did they get?" Jim asked as he walked away.
"Two million plus," Simon answered grimly, following Jim into the vault.
"Two million?" Blair thought about the hoops that he had to jump through at Rainier just to get a space to work in or a study funded. By the time you wrote all grant applications and did all the paper work, you were so weary you forgot the reason you wanted the money in the first place. Jim and Simon were discussing the fact that the gang only took unmarked money and left no evidence behind. This time they got two million dollars. "Do you guys know what I could DO with two million dollars? The studies I could fund…"
"The mind boggles, Chief," Jim said absently, before returning to his discussion with Simon.
With visions of lavishly funded, yearlong treks into uncharted jungles still dancing in his head, Blair – who had long ago perfected the ability to think about several things at once – listened to the two police officers. It turned out that the same crew had hit Orion Savings and Loan last week. For that one they stole a HAZMAT truck and faked a gas leak. For this hold-up a Tactical Response van was heisted off the department’s repair lot.
They also knew a lot of stuff about the routine at the bank. Like the fact that the override code only worked for five minutes out of every hour and that they changed that five-minute period every day. Jim was looking intently at the rather complicated keypad on the vault before he spoke, "Somehow these guys figured all that out and showed up at precisely the right moment."
"Either that or they got incredibly lucky," Blair offered.
"Nobody’s that lucky." Icy blue eyes cold, Jim turned to Simon. "How’s the bank manager?"
"Concussion. Broken ribs."
"At Orion they shot a teller in the leg when she went for the silent alarm." Jim frowned, scanning the interior of the bank.
Simon sighed. "If we don’t solve this soon, somebody’s gonna end up dead."
Jim started to leave the building, but the wall of noise outside made him step back. There were reporters *and* cameras. He truly hated cameras. He clenched his jaw when he felt Blair step closer and touch his arm. Now he felt like a fool, on top of everything else. He opened the door again and marched into the midst of the milling members of the press. A microphone bearing the call letters of a local station was pushed at his face, and it took an effort not flinch.
"Can we get a statement?" The edge in the woman’s voice held no entreaty, but was almost a command.
A man pushed past her and held out his own microphone. "Why is the department coming up empty?" the reporter shouted the question, then waited a moment, until it became clear that Jim wasn’t going to answer. "Is it open season on Cascade banks now, Detective?"
"You know damn well Cascade PD is doing everything it can to catch these guys – which we will do – if you stop tripping over your tongues and creating a panic." The harangue escaped even though his mind tried to rein in his temper. "Thank you," he ended with an angry flourish.
Blair was chuckling, but he stayed under the radar. "Very diplomatic." He ducked and let a video camera trying to get a shot of Jim swing over his head. The determined newswoman with the cameraman pursued the two men, and called out more questions. "Were there any suspects?" she shouted insistently. "Was anyone hurt?" Jim sighed and stopped to answer their questions.
Wendy stood at the edge of the group of media, watching Ellison. He fielded the shouted questions with sarcasm and a touch of arrogance.
"Want me to get this?" Her cameraman, Connor, gestured toward the other reporters with his lens.
"No. It’s a snooze." Wendy couldn’t take her eyes off the handsome police officer.
"Hell, Wendy, we keep coming up empty," Connor whined.
"Don’t worry. We’ll find an edge." Wendy took the heavy camera from him. "Let me see."
"Who is he?" Connor asked quizzically, spying the subject of her attention.
Wendy looked through the camera at the tall detective. The man was gorgeous. "Detective James Ellison. Major Crimes. Best case record in the city. He’s one of the cops in the file." Ellison walked toward his car, trailed by a few dogged reporters. He turned and seemed to look right at her, his gaze cool, his features wary. "Research picked him out for us." Wendy’s lips quirked in an almost feline grin. "The camera loves him."
"Sounds like he doesn’t love it."
Biting her lip thoughtfully, she watched James Ellison climb into his truck. "Maybe I can change his mind."
"Hey, Jim." Almost swaggering, Blair entered Major Crimes’ bullpen.
Seated at his desk, the detective had used his hearing to track his partner as he came in from the street. Sandburg had been greeting all and sundry while wending his way through the building. Without looking up from the report he was reading, Jim asked, "Okay, what’s her name?"
"Well, can’t a guy be happy for some reason other than, you know…?" The grad student made random gestures, searching in vain for the right descriptive term for sexual intercourse.
"Not you," Jim interrupted, before Blair could come up with something.
"All right." The kid was practically beaming and wanted to share his bliss with his friend. "It was Emily."
"You kids, today." Jim’s tone was vaguely paternal.
"Jim." Simon strolled in and gave them both one of his ‘I am not happy’ looks. "The Chief caught your little speech on television last night. Congratulations. As of this morning, you’ll be heading up the bank robberies case."
"All right!" Blair’s good mood was not to be shaken. "Blew his socks off, huh?"
"I believe his exact words were…" Simon paused for effect. "’Tell Ellison to put up, or shut up.’"
"Bring it on." Jim’s tone was casual, almost bored.
"There’s also a part two." Simon seemed reluctant to continue. "You’ll be babysitting a team from ‘True Crime’ during your investigation."
Jim, who hadn’t been listening closely, asked suddenly, "What Crime?"
"’True Crime.’" Blair, as usual, had the answer. "It’s a reality-based syndicated television show that goes to different cities, follows cops, and films them at work."
"Time out." Jim stopped him mid-babble, forming a T with his hands. "I’ll pass on this one."
Simon shook his head. "The decision’s already been made. You’ll be working with the show’s producer, a woman named Wendy Hawthorne, and her cameraman."
"Wait a minute, Simon." Jim realized this seemed to be a done deal. Behind this realization, came exasperation. "You’ve got to be kidding me?"
"This will hamper the investigation." Faced with a threat to his partner, Blair’s cheerful aura of sexual satisfaction faded at last. "How can he use his senses? What if he zones out?"
"Look," Simon barked, pinning them both with a scowling look, refusing to show how helpless he felt. "This comes straight from the Chief." He turned and walked away, his words drifting back to them. "Let’s just deal with this, all right?"
Wendy told Connor to start filming the moment she saw Ellison and his partner leave the elevator. This was going to be good. The older man moved like a cat and had a face that actors and news anchors would kill for. The guys in research assured her that he and Sandburg weren’t an item. And the more she saw of the detective, the more she appreciated that fact.
Sandburg ambled along behind him, his step jaunty… almost bouncy. The young man was the perfect sidekick, attractive, but in a less conventional way. He’d draw in a whole different demographic.
"These are to be worn at all times." The tall detective’s tone was blandly professional while he handed Connor and her their ID badges. "Please wear them where they can be seen." He looked at the whirring camera and his expression became severe. "I don’t know how you sold the Chief on all of this…"
"I told him I wanted to show a hard-working, highly-skilled police team in action, not create a panic." Wendy stressed the word team. Her sources had told her of Ellison’s loyalty to the unorthodox observer.
"I see you heard Jim’s speech." The grad student gave her an ironic grin.
Sandburg must have recognized her attempt to flatter Jim by throwing his own words back at him. For the first time she really looked at the mild looking man and noted the calm scrutiny in the intelligent dark, blue eyes.
"And agreed with every word," Wendy answered sincerely. "What I’m proposing is not your typical piece. I want to present your message to the public." She gave Jim the full tilt smile. The one she made her career on. "Think documentary – ‘A day in the life.’ Your life, Detective Ellison."
"One step over the line, you can think, ‘bye-bye,’" Jim promised.
"Whatever you say." Wendy knew this man, this case, could be her ticket to a comeback. She needed this break desperately, and she would do *almost* anything to make it happen. Four years ago, she had let ambition blind her, and it destroyed her career.
Sandburg held up a videotape. "I got a copy of the video from the bank."
When Jim suggested they go to communications to watch it, it was her chance to impress them. "Why don’t you use the playback in my van? We’ve got advanced imaging capabilities you wouldn’t believe."
"State-of-the-art, mate," Connor agreed eagerly.
As Jim reluctantly followed Connor to the van, Wendy kept up her questioning. "Maybe we could discuss your military career? That whole Peru thing?"
"No." Jim paused before he climbed into the van. "We can’t."
She was taken aback, but only for a moment. They sat down and Connor started to run the tape. As Jim watched intently Wendy returned to her pitch. "So, tell me about the real James Ellison: what your hobbies are, what you dream about, all the things you think…"
"Stop!" Ellison barked abruptly.
"Jim, calm down," Blair said hurriedly while Wendy and Connor froze. He tried to smooth things over, and Wendy speculated that he did this fairly often. "Come on now. Being on TV might be fun. Just relax."
"The tape!" Exasperated, Jim bit the words off. "*Stop* the tape. Back it up. Bring it back." He watched Connor rewind the tape. "Right there. Stop." He tried to focus on the longhaired man’s wristwatch. "Uh, can you go in closer on the watch?" He pointed and leaned closer. "And clean it up?"
Connor adjusted the picture until the focus narrowed to just the watch.
They all turned to look at Blair as he blurted, "That’s a limited edition Mickey Mantle watch."
"Oh! Upper deck, baby," Mick crooned, connecting with the baseball. Standing inside the batting cage, he waited for the next pitch from the automated pitching machine.
Jack walked away from the table where the others sat counting and sorting the money from the latest haul. As usual Mick was playing around, while the others worked. Jack had to admit that recruiting the high-strung young thug had been a mistake. He had a criminal background – mostly juvenile arrests – while Jack and the others had credentials in the military, law enforcement and security. Mick’s vicious temper and careless attitude had sabotaged his chances for even the lowest rung job in a bank.
On their first job, the bank guard drew down on them and Mick shot him. He had taken the guard’s bullet and almost died. After that, they cut him more slack than they should have. Jack shook off the memory and barked, "Mick, would you cut the crap and get over here? We’ve got work to do."
Mick strolled over and looked down at the piles of cash. "I’m going to need some of my end if this jersey I ordered comes in. Number seven – the "Mick" himself, baby."
Jack shot him an angry glance. "Now is not the time to be spreading around a lot of cash."
"But it’s my cash."
"Correction. It’s *our* cash." A cold expression hardened Quinn’s boyish face as he looked up from the PC. He and the others had confided to Jack that they no longer trusted Mick.
"I’m not talking about your share, Quinn." Mick sullenly returned to his batting cage.
Jack had to keep them together for just a little while longer. One more job, then six months for things to cool down. Then they could take their money and go their separate ways.
"Nobody throws money around. Nobody attracts attention. Everybody does their job," Jack lectured the group, but he was looking at Mick. "You can’t wait? You want early retirement? That can be arranged."
"You’re the boss." Mick grinned and waited for the next pitch.
"We called every sports memorabilia store and we finally found what we’re looking for." Simon poured a cup of coffee while he listened to Jim Ellison explain their latest lead. "A guy fitting the description of the bank robber wearing the watch ordered an original Mantle jersey three weeks ago. Told the store owner he’d be in to pick it up."
Simon eyed the partners, sighed and handed Jim a steaming café mocha in the detective’s favorite mug with the green mallard on it. "Tell me more about this watch."
"It was a collector’s edition of a thousand." Blair ‘The World’s Foremost Authority on Everything’ Sandburg had the information. "Even if you can find one, the thing costs like a ton."
"Yeah," Ellison added his own brilliant deductions to the mix. "And the bank manager also heard one of the gang call the guy ‘Mick.’"
"And you’re sure only a collector would want this watch?" Simon could see that something was up. He handed the younger man a mug of coffee, even though he doubted he needed it. Sandburg was almost vibrating with excitement already.
"Yeah. Absolutely," taking the cup, the grad student assured him. "Thanks."
Simon knew better, but he had to ask anyway. "How you know this stuff?"
"Well, you see, I do some collecting myself, Simon." Blair warmed to the subject. "Cards, mostly. I own a bat though that once belonged to Nolan Ryan."
Both Jim and Simon turned and looked quizzically at the guileless young man. "Ryan was a *pitcher.*" Simon was still trying to figure where this was heading.
"Yeah, I know," Blair agreed good-naturedly. "That’s the only reason I could afford it."
Simon frowned. "This whole thing sounds a little thin to me." *Thin? Hell, it was almost anorexic.*
"Well, you see, with some enthusiasts, it’s a specific team or year," Blair continued as if Simon hadn’t spoken, his hands sketching pictures in the air. "With me, it’s 1961 and with still others, it’s a city or region, and often they’ll zero in on a specific player to the exception of all others, like, um…" He searched for a word, his mouth out-pacing even *his* mind’s ability to keep up.
"An obsession?" Jim offered helpfully, sipping his coffee.
"Right. Thank you." The young man grinned up at his friend, and continued, "An obsession, that’s it exactly. Like Mantle-mania. Now, we know that rare items like this can be purchased exclusively, only at specialty outlets."
*Here it comes,* Simon thought grimly.
"The plan is to put Blair in the store and wait for the guy to show," Jim said the words very fast, while Sandburg swallowed his coffee with a gulp and nodded.
"Undercover?" Simon’s mind flashed on all the possible disastrous outcomes.
Jim met his eyes. "Yes, sir."
"I don’t like it."
"Come on, Captain." Ellison often used Simon’s formal title when he wanted to do something dangerous, as if to remind him that it was his job to send cops into perilous situations.
"No." Sandburg wasn’t a cop and Simon shuddered at the thought of him getting hurt. It was one thing to send trained, armed officers into jeopardy. Sandburg had more courage than common sense when it came to strolling into the lion’s den. "We’ll send in an undercover officer. You can fill him in."
"But I already know this stuff. It’ll be a snap." Blair looked at him beseechingly. "We even talked to the store owner. Besides, there isn’t much time. One more robbery and these guys are gone."
"All he’ll have to do is signal us, sir," Jim said with an eloquent look at his partner. "He’ll be secure. I’ve thought this through."
"I want to help." Now Sandburg was giving him that ‘starving hound dog’ look.
"All right, all right." The captain shooed them toward the door. "It’s your case, Jim." *And, he added silently, your best friend’s life*.
"Thank you, sir," Jim said respectfully before he grinned and sat the empty coffee cup on his boss’s desk. "Good coffee."
Simon caught his detective’s arm and looked at him seriously. "I don’t want to be hearing about this on the evening news."
"Not a chance, sir," Jim promised, grin vanishing.~~~~~~~~~~ Act II ~~~~~~~~~~Jim didn’t sleep well that night. He wasn’t as blasé about Blair going undercover as he professed to be. Several times he woke and listened to the sounds of the loft: Sandburg’s snoring and thrashing around restlessly, the old refrigerator’s humming.
*Nothing will go wrong,* he told himself angrily. He punched his pillow and turned it so the smooth cotton was cool under his face. Forcing himself to relax, he drifted back into sleep.
"Relax, Captain." The young officer’s dark, earnest face leaned close, causing him to draw back.
Enqueri – no, Captain James Ellison – tried to control his senses as the chopper vibrated and the engine roared. This day had been too… much. Too much smell when old graves were disturbed. Too much sound when the Huey swept over the treetops. Too much sadness when he abandoned his adopted tribe. But he knew he had to return with the Rangers. It was his duty. The Army was his family.
The airport…civilization…came abruptly into view at the edge of the rain forest. The chopper landed, and there was blessed silence. For a moment. Then Captain Mathis was shouting orders and hurrying his men from the chopper. Several men in civilian clothes stood with some brass at the edge of the tarmac. Jim climbed out of the chopper and tracked the young officer, watching him approach the men.
"Colonel, sir." Mathis saluted hurriedly. "That’s Captain Ellison." Jim let his sight and hearing range out toward the men. They were all staring at him. "Colonel, respectfully…I think we should let the Captain decompress for a while. He’s a little…"
"Nonsense, Captain Mathis." The Colonel smiled. "This is a public relations dream. All-American Hero rescued from the clutches of a primitive tribe. We’ll be the top story on all the networks. Don’t worry, we’ll let them get a few pictures, then hustle him to off to the base before he has to answer any questions. I will personally be providing the sound bite." Jim listened, but it was almost like they were speaking a foreign language. He focused all of his attention on the officers, and turned up his hearing even more.
"CAPTAIN ELLISON!" A voice shattered his concentration. Then there was a roar of voices as reporters pressed close. A hundred smells assaulted him. The lenses of numerous cameras glared at him like cold, dispassionate eyes. The voices merged until he heard only a deafening din.
*I have to do my duty,* he thought as he ruthlessly pushed everything else out of his mind. It was a trick he’d learned in childhood. He opened the box in his mind and put all the things he didn’t want to think about into it. Then he closed it tight.
Still he flinched, blinded by the repeated flashes of light. Standing at attention, he looked deep into the twilight-dim jungle at the edge of the runway. The sound and lights faded, and his last coherent thought was that he was terribly tired of duty, he was tired of everything.
Jim fought his way out of the nightmare. *What the hell bought that on?* he thought, kicking at the tangled yellow and blue sheets.
An instant later, he heard it. Whispers so quiet that even he could barely make them out. Someone was in the hall outside the loft. He got up and slipped his gun from under the pillow. The unsettling dream had made him uneasy, and waking up to furtive voices didn’t help. He slipped stealthily down the stairs, his bare feet making no sound. He knew Sandburg was safe. He could hear his slow, even breathing as he slept.
Opening the French doors, he stole into the small room and placed his hand over the sleeping man’s parted lips. Blair woke with a start, and tried to focus. Leaning close, Jim lifted one finger to his lips. "Shhh."
Blair was nothing if not quick. He nodded, his eyes wide, and swallowed the thousand questions he obviously wanted to ask, silently following Jim.
"I don’t know." The woman’s voice sounded angry. "What?"
"No." The man’s voice was more indistinct.
"Well, that’s too bad."
"What? No, just…"
"Get the camera. Just trust me. What?"
Jim reached for the doorknob, his weapon ready even though he thought he recognized the muffled voices. In one furious motion he yanked the door open and raised his pistol.
Wendy and Connor stood there, but only Connor had the sense to be frightened. "Don’t shoot, mate, it’s only us."
"What the hell are you two doing?" Jim glared at the man until he started to lower the camera.
"Roll camera." Wendy’s fervent look reminded him that except for his gun and a pair of black silk boxers, he was naked. Jim knew Blair was hiding behind him, peeping over his shoulder, and could imagine the ridiculous picture they made. At least the kid had on his flannel boxers, tank top and wool socks. Well, one wool sock. So why was he hiding?
Connor looked at the blonde woman in amazement. "Wendy, he has a *gun.*"
"So? Guns are good. This is a cop show." She grinned and leaned in for a better look. "Roll camera. Connor, keep rolling." Her tone turned curt. "And remember, never ever stop shooting until I tell you to."
"Sandburg, you better take this gun, ’cause I’m going to shoot them." Jim glanced back at his partner.
"Jim, you don’t want to do that." Blair didn’t sound completely convinced. Squinting against the camera light, he ducked sideways, out of camera range.
"I’m gonna shoot them." Now Jim seemed to be talking to himself. "Nobody would mind if I shot them."
Wendy ignored him and pushed closer. "This is exactly the look we’re going for. "The gun. *The bod.*" She looked him up and down like a he was a Wonderburger and she was starving to death. "The whole image."
"Hold this." Jim handed Blair his gun and started to close the door.
"Really nice." Wendy jammed herself into the doorway and kept leering and simpering. "*Really* nice. Listen, could we just get you…brushing your teeth with your shoulder holster on maybe? In a towel?" Jim used the door to shove her away, her shoes sliding on the hall floor. "No? Okay…a "day in the life," right?"
Jim closed the door in her face.
Wendy decided that no one on earth did ‘The Silent Treatment’ like Detective James Ellison. He sat with Conner and her in the ‘True Crime’ van, watching the surveillance transmission from memorabilia shop where his partner was undercover. His ice blue eyes were intent, his jaw set, his mood stormy. Like statue – a real work of art – but a statue just the same.
"You know," Wendy started to speak then paused; she didn’t blame the man for being angry. She’d acted like an adolescent this morning, a half-witted, horny adolescent. He probably thought she was a complete twit. "You know, you have a very good look, Detective – solid and capable – but not dull. Tough, yet sensitive." *Sensitive* was right. The man was as touchy as a bear. "If you’d only smile a little more often."
"What?" He barely glanced at her. "Am I auditioning for a toothpaste ad? I’m a cop, not a debutante."
"I could do you good." She tried to show him that she was serious, that she could help both their careers. "You’re an American hero who fights crime, from the rain forests of Peru to the concrete jungles of America."
"A public relations’ dream." Jim’s whispered words were filled with loathing.
"People *need* heroes." *Couldn’t this guy see the possibilities?* Wendy thought impatiently. *Couldn’t he see what he’d thrown away?* "After Peru – after that cover shot won the Pulitzer – you had all kinds of offers, book deals, TV, and you just disappeared…" Her words trailed off as she saw a flash of pain in his eyes before he looked away. "Well, even you have to admit, the publicity wouldn’t exactly hurt your career."
His expression became shuttered again, and he returned to watch the grainy picture of his friend. "My career’s doing just fine. Thank you very much."
Wendy had to get through to him. "Everyone’s career could use a push." Hers, for instance, needed a bulldozer.
"I’m really not interested." His lips curved into a thin, unpleasant smile.
"Look, I just want to do a good job." Wendy tried candor – a last resort. She was desperate and this show might be her last chance. "All I want to do is report the truth."
She winced at the cold contempt she heard in his voice. "Is it me you don’t like, Detective? Or just what I do for a living?"
"Is there a difference?"
Wendy turned away and remained quiet.
Blair was actually enjoying working in the store. He was able to help various customers find obscure collectibles. And he got the chance to brush up on his rusty salesman skills. *Sandburg, you still have it,* he congratulated himself after he convinced a well-dressed yuppie to spend a small fortune on holographic baseball cards.
He heard the bell over the door jingle and saw the bank robber called Mick enter the store. He walked to the opposite end of the counter where Scratch, the store’s youthful owner, stood. *Oh no!* Blair groaned silently.
"Hi. I, uh, called about a Mantle jersey yesterday." The thin faced man seemed nervous. "I’m here to pick it up."
Blair cursed silently and edged in front of Scratch, who clutched at the edge of the counter and stammered incoherently, his face pale beneath his unlikely bright yellow hair. "I have this one." Blair pretended to defer to his ‘boss’ and smiled his most ingratiating, cake-eating grin.
"What’s the matter with him?" Mick’s eyes followed the fidgety Scratch as he inched away from them.
Blair put his thumb and forefinger to his lips and mimed smoking pot, tipping his head toward Scratch. "Paranoid," he mouthed the word, then said aloud, "Oh, nothing." He grinned knowingly and rolled his eyes, before he crouched and retrieved the box with the jersey. On the way up he hit the button that signaled Jim. It was *definitely* time for Jim, his gun, and his handcuffs. Blair swallowed his fear and stood back up, smiling.
"You’re gonna love this." Putting the box on the counter, he uncovered it with slow reverence. "Huh? It’s in beautiful, beautiful condition." The jersey was almost pristine, and Blair smiled and gently traced the M on the name. "Mantle," he sighed covetously. "Check that out."
"Oh, my God, man." Mick couldn’t take his eyes of the shirt.
Blair studied the man’s rapt expression. "Do you believe that?" he asked as he surreptitiously glanced at the door.
"’64 Mantle, huh?" Mick seemed hesitant to touch the shirt.
"Right." Blair pushed the box toward him. "It’s all yours."
"Unbe-freakin-lievable." The rabid fan finally lifted the shirt and let it unfold, scanning the large black letters. "Mickey Mantle."
Blair heard the bell again and saw Jim entering the store. Eager to distract the suspect, he motioned for him to lean even closer as he pointed at a tiny smudge. "That’s dirt from sliding into second base."
Jim stood to one side and pretended to look at some comic books as he surveyed his objective. Blair glanced up, and his fake smile got a lot more fake. Standing in plain sight, outside the store window were the two morons from ‘True Crime.’ Jim couldn’t see them from where he stood. But the bad guy could. All he had to do was turn around.
"Be right with you, sir." Blair tried to get Jim’s attention while he backed away. He bumped into Scratch, and the frightened salesman gasped. Mick looked at them, then turned and followed the blonde man’s panicked gaze to the cameraman and the woman with him. As he turned, he’d already pulled a machine pistol from under his jacket.
Jim drew his own weapon and shouted, "Freeze!" an instant before the other man started firing.
Mick sprayed the shop with bullets, forcing Jim to dive for cover. Wendy and Connor ducked behind a car while rounds aimed at them shattered the store’s windows. Blair tried to pull Scratch down behind the counter, but the taller man was frozen with terror. When the wild-eyed gunman turned toward them, Blair lunged backwards. He felt the heat from a bullet, brush his cheek before he bowled Scratch over and they tumbled behind the counter. At last, Mick ran toward the back door, the small gun still randomly spitting lead.
Blair peeped over the damaged counter. Jim was standing, his gun in hand, glaring out the broken window at Wendy and Connor. "Idiots!" he spat the word out before turning. "Sandburg, you all right back there?"
Blair helped Scratch stand, and brushed the broken glass off him. "Yeah, yeah. We’re fine." Jim was already disappearing through the back door in pursuit of the criminal.
"I’m shot." Scratch moaned, and Blair saw that he had a bullet graze on his arm. "I can’t believe it." The young man’s voice got rather shrill. "I got shot!"
"It’s cool," Blair reassured him before he grabbed the Mantle shirt and pressed it over the bleeding wound. "Just a scratch… err… just a flesh wound… like they say on TV." Blair drew in a breath when it registered that he was using a hunk of old fabric that was worth more than his car to staunch the blood. "You’ll be okay, man…chicks love the bullet scars."
Jim ducked out the back door and listened for the gunman. Half way up the alley, he heard the gasping man fight to control his breathing. Mick was hiding inside a dumpster, lying in wait for his pursuer. Jim heard him slide a fresh clip into his weapon and change his position. It gave him just enough time to dive behind the nearest dumpster before a dozen rounds hit it.
The fugitive levered himself out of his hiding place, and Jim returned fire. Mick lost his balance and fell hard, his hip slamming into the broken pavement. He dragged himself up and limped toward the mouth of the alley with Jim close on his heels. The detective sprang and tackled the smaller man from behind. The machine pistol clattered into the street as Connor and Wendy ran up, still filming the action.
Jim heard sirens approaching in the distance and angrily cuffed the struggling man. "Get that thing out of here!" he snarled at the news team as he stared into the camera lens.
Wendy ignored him and ordered Connor to film the action. "Get it in his face." She pointed to the furious Mick, whose face was, at that moment, smashed against the broken pavement.
"I told you to stay put!" Jim growled abruptly. "I told you to stay in the van!"
"Get it on camera." Oblivious, Wendy just pushed Connor closer to the fallen man.
Blair ran from the store and relaxed visibly when he saw Jim safe. "You got him."
"I told you to stay put!" Jim shouted again, standing.
"You did not!" Blair exclaimed indignantly.
"Not you." Jim got even more aggravated, pointing at Hawthorn and Connor. "Them! They were supposed to stay in the van. They almost got us killed."
"Look." It finally dawned on Wendy that Jim was well and truly pissed off. "We didn’t mean…"
"I don’t care what you say, lady." Patrol cars roared into the alley and Jim dragged Mick to his feet, still looking at the blonde woman. "This ends now! Take a hike!" He turned to the arriving officers and thrust Mick toward them. "Get ’em out of here. Get ’em all out of here."
Connor had stepped back, even though the angry detective’s wrath seemed to be aimed at Wendy. The police dragged the suspect to their car, and Ellison followed Sandburg back into the shop. Wendy tagged along after the enraged detective.
"God, Hawthorne. Why don’t you just knock the man down ‘n have your way with him," Connor murmured in disgust. His foot hit something and he realized it was a cell phone. Alone in the alley, he stooped and retrieved it. It wasn’t the one he’d seen Ellison use. Without really considering what he was doing, he put it in his pocket.~~~~~~~~~~ Act III ~~~~~~~~~~Jim left the interrogation room and crossed the bullpen, fighting the urge to stomp. Mick had given him nothing but attitude. The punk had refused a lawyer, refused to reveal his name, and pretty much acted like an ass. Still annoyed, the detective entered Simon’s office.
"How’s our boy?" Simon inquired grimly.
"A real charmer." Jim looked over Blair’s shoulder at the prisoner’s belongings scattered on Simon’s desk. "Anything here?"
"Prints came up negative." Simon tossed the evidence bag with the wallet in it to the desk. "All the IDs are phony."
"Would you guys look at this?" Blair peered at a baseball card through the plastic. "A ’62 Maris in mint condition." He held up another clear folder filled with receipts and scraps of paper. "There’s notes about collectibles here. A DiMaggio autographed baseball…175 bucks." He looked up at the two men. "You believe that?"
"Let me see that." Jim’s eye caught something, and he took the folder and turned it over, looking at the front of the paper the note was written on. "This is a deposit slip from Keefer Savings and Loan."
"Maybe he’s got an account there," Blair offered.
"And maybe that’s their next target." Simon took the folder and looked at the smudged letters. "We should stake it out."
"No, no, no. No good." Jim was thinking furiously, trying to think of a solution. "Once they figure out Mick is missing, they’ll pull the plug. Unless…"
"What?" Blair looked puzzled.
"Unless we can convince them it’s safe to do the job," Jim answered, pondering the solution that was forming in his mind.
Blair was sitting to one side of his partner’s desk while Jim read his e-mail when Wendy stormed in. She threw the ID badges and police jackets for ‘True Crime’ on Jim’s desk.
"Have you ever heard of freedom of the press, Detective?" Wendy’s voice had taken on a high-pitched tone that made everyone in the bullpen turn and watch.
"Miss Hawthorne." Jim could be diplomatic when it suited him, Blair thought with amusement. "I’m so glad you’re here."
Wendy continued to rant. "We were invited along and promised full access, which you, by the way, fought every single minute. And the citizens of Cascade might consider you to be a great cop, but to me you’re nothing more than an arrogant, insecure, misogynist jerk!"
*Jeez, and Jim tells me I use run-on sentences.* Blair had been aware of the sparks flying between Jim and Wendy Hawthorne since the start. The truth was, the woman had the hots for good old Jim. Big time. And Jim wasn’t immune to her either. He tipped back his chair and watched the tall, handsome couple stand nose to nose. This was almost as good as Sally Jesse.
"Miss Hawthorne, you are right. I’m very sorry." Jim was using his most sincere, heartfelt voice. "I was rude and dictatorial. But, I was just trying to do my job, and I know you were just doing yours."
"Right…" Wendy was melting. Blair could see it.
"I’m hoping that you and Connor will reconsider and continue to work with us in the spirit of civic cooperation." Jim’s voice was almost dripping with honest emotion. "Please accept my, uh, humblest apology."
"Yes!" Wendy was enchanted. "I accept your apology."
"Thank you, Miss Hawthorne." Jim gave her his best smile.
"You can call me Wendy." She looked up at him, her eyes bright with anticipation.
"Okay." Jim’s smile got even wider. "You can call me Jim."
Blair’s jaw dropped as he leaned back unnoticed by either of them. "And you can call *me* stunned."
"Uh, Miss Hawth…Wendy…I need you to do me a favor."
"Of course you do." Wendy’s expression was still overjoyed, but her eyes narrowed with cynicism.
Between the pheromones and the bullshit flying around, Blair thought maybe he should keep a low profile. He left the precinct and headed home.
He opened his laptop with the intention of getting some work done. He had a paper due and a grant proposal in the works, but he was drawn to his favorite search engine.
He typed the letters before he realized it. *Mind your own business, Sandburg. Jim doesn’t need you checking out his latest love/hate interest.* Blair rolled the mouse, circling the ‘search’ box. As the cursor’s circles got smaller and smaller, he accidentally bumped the enter key and set the search in motion. "Oh well," he muttered, then waited patiently for the information.
He was still reading through the various stories and reports when Jim got home. Pushing up his glasses and rubbing his eyes, he greeted his friend. "Hey, Jim," he called, noting the files the detective was carrying. "What’d you get?"
"The FBI faxed us a profile of all the unsolved multiple-bank robberies across the country in the last ten years." Jim waved a folder.
"Well, all right!" Blair knew it was something the Cascade PD had been waiting for. "Do any of them match our cases?"
Jim opened the folder and took out a sheet. "Phoenix, Detroit and Atlanta." One at a time, he spread the papers on the table. "All committed within the last five years."
"These guys like to move around." Blair quickly scanned the reports.
"Yeah." Jim read over his shoulder, pointing out the pertinent details. "In each city they did exactly three jobs then dropped out of sight. Then it’s a year or more before the next city. The pattern doesn’t change."
"Are we sure these are the same guys?"
"Well, the MOs are identical in every case except for the first job they ever did." Jim pushed that file to the top. "There were four of them, not three. They killed a bank guard, shot him in the head."
"Oh, man." The grad student cringed as he saw the attached crime scene photos.
Jim tapped the computer screen and asked, "You got any cheery news here?"
"Well, actually, sort of cheery. Surfing the net here a little bit…" He pointed at the computer as he looked at Jim to gauge his reaction. "…checking out Miss Wendy Hawthorne. Turns out she was pretty hot stuff. She was a segment producer of a major weekly news magazine show."
"How’d she wind up on ‘True Crime’?" Jim’s expression made it clear what he thought of the show.
"Well, she faked a story to make it more dramatic. The segment was being touted as the potential story of the year. Then the network found out she’d got creative and embellished parts of it. It was a pretty big scandal in the industry, and they fired her. She hasn’t worked in four years." Blair shuddered at the thought. *How could anyone toss a career down the drain like that?* "I guess this show is her shot at a comeback."
"I wish I’d known. I just asked her to help me manipulate a story."
Blair could see his friend’s guilt complex was kicking in. He hoped for their sakes, Jim and Wendy’s, that this didn’t backfire. "Well, Jim, this is for a good cause, man."
Jim only frowned and shook his head. "I’m sure that’s what she told herself the first time."
Quinn stood next to the batting cage and looked at the box of baseballs. "Well, Mick has always been a screw-up. Assume he’s gone. I say we’re better off without him anyway." He shoved the box and it tipped over, scattering baseballs over the concrete floor of the warehouse.
"Mick wouldn’t leave without his money." Jack looked grimly at the clean-cut younger men. "I say we pack it in, gents. We leave town tonight."
"We bug out?" Frankie was African American, the same age as Quinn and just as blandly, average looking. "Jack, that S&L is fat. Come on, we figure what? Four or five mil." He hated to miss out on their last big score.
"Can’t spend it in jail, Frankie." Jack wasn’t going to let greed get them caught at this late date. Before he could say more his cell phone rang. These cells were for members of the gang only, and it had to be Mick. "Where the hell have you been?" Jack listened closely, waiting for an explanation. "Mick? Hello?"
A strange voice with an odd accent stammered, "Sorry. Wrong number."
"I say we give it a few hours." Eddie, the third and most taciturn member of the group shrugged. "He could call or walk in at anytime."
"I don’t think so." Quinn had been watching the TV with the sound off. Now he turned up the volume and called to the others. "Check this out, guys." The screen showed what was left of a memorabilia shop. Broken windows were festooned with yellow crime scene tape, and uniformed police officers were standing near-by looking grim.
Then the camera focused on a dark-haired, middle-aged man. "This is Don Haas reporting, from the scene of the crime. ‘True Crime.’ Yes, the popular syndicated show seen every Saturday night at eight, right here on KCDE. ‘True Crime’ was in town filming an upcoming episode, when the action… and the bullets, hit too close to home." The camera panned to show an attractive blonde at his side. "This is Wendy Hawthorne, a segment producer for ‘True Crime.’ Wendy? What went down?"
"We were here, filming officers who were participating in a stakeout." Wendy looked serious and slightly ruffled. "Of course, we were well back from the action. Then the suspect inside the shop opened fire and engaged several undercover officers in a spectacular gun battle." The blonde woman stepped back and looked solemnly into the camera.
Don Haas took over once more, while the camera swept through the shop. "Unconfirmed rumors report that the suspect may have been fatally wounded." The video lingered on a crumpled Mickey Mantle jersey, gruesomely splattered with blood. "This is Don Haas reporting, ‘from the scene of the crime,’ for KCDE. We’ll keep you informed as new information becomes available."
Quinn slapped the button and shut off the set. "Mick and that damn jersey."
Eddie shrugged. "I guess it’s a four-way split now."
Frankie rounded on Jack. "What about the S&L?"
"I’ll call Cascade PD and check," Jack assured the younger men. "If Mick has been off’d…" He grinned wickedly. "Then we’re back on."
Quinn smiled back at him. "As planned?"
"No," Jack said, his expression turning thoughtful. "We improvise."
Jim forced his eyes open, not letting his attention stray from the Savings and Loan. The two of them had been there since late Saturday evening. They were staked out here on their own time, since they were unable to convince the brass that there was a risk. The gang’s MO was strictly daylight operations, during business hours. Plans were already being made for undercover officers to be inside the S&L on Monday morning.
The weary detective felt something hit his shoulder, curly hair tickling his neck. "Sandburg! Wake up."
Blair sat up, snorted and looked around. "What? Are they here?"
"Oh. Sorry, I fell asleep again. I was up last night, and I…"
"I don’t care if you sleep, Chief." Jim put one hand against his friend’s head and shoved it gently toward the window. "Just lean over that way. You drool when you sleep."
"I do nah…ah…ah…ahwwt." Blair yawned and surreptitiously swiped at the corners of his mouth. "So? Anything happening?"
"There’s a rat in that trashcan across the street. Eating potato chips."
"Why don’t you close your eyes for a few minutes?" Blair suggested, yawning again. "I’ll keep watch."
"Yeah, Sleeping Beauty." Jim ignored his partner and tried not to start yawning himself. It was contagious.
"Want some coffee?"
Jim could hear that the drowsy young man was yawning again and resolved not to look at him. "Stop that!" He held out his right hand and took the plastic cup of tepid liquid.
"Shush." Jim heard voices in the alley next to the S&L.
"There’s someone out there. I hear voices."
"Come on, Buddy. You know the drill." Blair was wide-awake now. "Track the sound and try to see where it’s coming from."
Jim peered through the pre-dawn blackness and watched the men by-pass the alarm, open the side door and slip inside. "Very slick," he whispered to himself. "Call Simon, Chief. Tell him to send in the troops."
Jim listened while Blair made his call. The sun was rising, but thankfully, this was a business district. It would be virtually deserted on a Sunday morning. As soon as SWAT and the rest of the reinforcements arrived, they would be ready.
There was only one more quandary for Jim to face. Wendy Hawthorne. If it weren’t for her, they wouldn’t have this chance. He’d used her attraction to him. Used it to manipulate her. That she knew he was doing it didn’t make it right.
*I’m going to regret this.* He frowned as he took out the business card and punched the number into his cell-phone. "Wendy? Hope I didn’t wake you?"
Blair couldn’t believe it. James Ellison – who had a tee shirt that said, ‘Beautify America, Shoot a Reporter,’ had actually called the press. Wendy and Connor arrived minutes later with the first wave of police.
"She must sleep in her clothes," Jim muttered as he took off his jacket and strapped on his Kevlar vest.
Simon left the officers he was talking to and walked over. "You sure it’s them?" he asked quietly, gesturing toward the bank.
"Yeah, it’s them." Jim watched the officers deploy around the building. Simon had asked him to lead the assault.
"Why on a Sunday?" Simon looked uneasy. "It’s not their pattern."
"Change of plans," Blair offered. "Losing Mick?"
"Good thing we staked it out." Jim looked down at his partner. "They took out that alarm in five minutes flat."
"Jim, this has got to be an inside job." Simon lowered his voice, mindful of the press.
Blair thought over the details of all the cases he’d read. "They can’t *all* be inside jobs, can they?"
Simon shrugged and turned back to Jim. "We got all our units in position?"
"Everything’s set, sir." Jim focused on the bank.
When Wendy and Connor tried to move closer to the action, Jim saw them and waved them back angrily. "No, no." Jim shooed the couple back behind the vehicles. "You’re going to have to wait back by the van. You can set up behind us."
*Oh boy,* Blair thought as he waited for the explosion. *This is going to get ugly.*
"What?" Wendy screeched, heedless of the orders to be quiet.
"We have armed suspects inside," Jim chided her through clenched teeth. "It’s for your own safety."
"But we want to film the entire operation!" Wendy stood her ground and glared at Jim.
"This isn’t up for debate," Jim snapped, glaring right back.
"I did you a favor."
Blair was amazed. The woman stood up to Jim’s best cobra stare.
"You owe me." Her voice was shrill with anger, and she poked Jim in the chest with her index finger.
"And you’ll get your exclusive." Something in the detective’s face made her pull back. "From back there." He pointed to the ‘True Crime’ van.
Connor kicked at the police car he was standing beside. "We’ve been scammed."
"Call it what you want." Jim just kept pointing. "From back there! Please!"
"I call it a crock." She got in Jim’s face one last time, before grabbing Connor and flouncing back to the van. She took out a cell phone and began dialing furiously.
Blair shook his head, and they returned to the front line. They had all the exits covered, and the bad guys weren’t going anywhere. Jim cocked his head and seemed to concentrate harder.
"Jim?" Blair knew that look. "What is it?"
"A cell phone’s ringing inside the bank." Jim had focused almost totally on the bank as he repeated what he was hearing. "He’s wondering if it’s another wrong number? One of the other guys wants him to find out." Jim tipped his head as he concentrated. "It stopped ringing. They answered it."
"Can you hear anything else?" Blair prompted quietly.
"Is the perimeter still clear?" Simon was speaking quietly into the radio. "I want a check of all units by the number. On my count. Go."
"I’m getting a weird echo effect." Jim looked down at his partner, his expression bewildered. "I’m hearing everything we say, coming back at me, from inside the building."
Simon had verified the readiness of all his men. "Perimeter’s still clear."
Jim looked uneasy, as he scanned the now silent bank. "Let’s move in. Now."
"Jim." Simon looked at his detective critically. "It’s better to take them coming out."
Blair didn’t like how Jim was staring at the bank. He was so intent that he didn’t seem to hear Simon’s words. Without looking back, he took out his weapon and held it ready as he spoke apprehensively, "I just don’t like this, Simon."
Simon hesitated only a moment. "All right, move in all the units."
An officer in full protective gear came forward and joined them. "Roger, Captain." It was Joe Anderson, an uniformed officer well known to the men of Major Crime. He grinned at Blair. "Better keep your head down, kid."
"I’ll be right here, Joe." Blair edged behind a police car. He watched them advance warily, Jim in the lead. More men came from the sides and edged along the sidewalk in front of neighboring buildings. "Don’t listen too hard, partner," the observer spoke in an undertone he knew only Jim could hear, "in case the shooting starts."
He could see Simon lift the microphone to his lips. "All units, go, go, go!" Because he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest – and despite what he’d told Scratch, getting shot sucked – Blair crouched behind the police car. He almost fell backwards when the front windows of the bank burst in a violent explosion.
"Fall back!" Jim shouted and turned to run, shepherding the others before him. There was a second, larger eruption; the flames catching near-by vehicles turning them into fiery missiles that were sent tumbling toward the fleeing men. Jim and Simon were picked up and tossed like leaves by the concussion of the blast.
"Jim." Blair turned his face away from the sting of broken glass, even while he ran toward his friends. A truck’s gas tank blew and sent waves of heat and flame toward him, making him stumble. Still, he scrambled forward.
Jim was kneeling over a fallen officer, using his broad back to screen the man from the worst of the flying debris. Simon had gotten to his feet and was helping two of his men stagger back to safety. He looked up and saw Blair pass him. "Sandburg! Get back where it’s safe."
Blair kept going, even when he was almost knocked down by Connor and his camera. Wendy was on his heels, her excited voice cutting through the roar of the flames. "Get in there, right in." She urged the cameraman closer. "Get a shot of the men on the ground."
Jim looked up when Blair arrived. The detective’s face was bloody and so were his hands. "You all right?" he asked, studying the grad student, who crouched on the other side of the injured man.
"Yes." Blair got a closer look at his patient. "Oh man, Anderson." Jim’s hands were on the officer’s arm, trying to stem the rush of blood from a deep gash. While Jim put pressure above what appeared to be a damaged artery, the younger man tore off his flannel shirt and formed a crude pressure bandage.
Sirens announced the arrival of ambulances, and Jim looked toward them. Instantly the camera lens appeared inches from his face. "Get out of here!" he shouted at the man and woman. "Move on!"
"Get in there." Wendy ignored his order, stepping aside only when an ambulance pulled close. "Make sure you get a shot of the blood."
Jim was still talking to Joe. "You all right, buddy?" He looked up and shouted toward the ambulance, "Over here!"
"Get the entire thing. Good." Blair could still hear Wendy telling Connor what to shoot. He felt sick and wished he could leave this horror, but they seemed to relish every detail.
"They’re coming, Jim." Blair tried to keep his voice calm. Jim’s strong hands had slowed the pulse of blood and saved Joe’s life. "Just hold on for a few more minutes."
Jim looked around frantically. "Medic! Let’s get a medic over here!" He leaned over Joe, all his attention on the gory injury. "Hang in there, buddy, keep breathing."~~~~~~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~~~~~~Jim sat on the hood of a car, getting the deep puncture wound in his arm bandaged. The paramedics had wanted him to go in for a couple of stitches, but he refused. He just had them wrap it tightly, and then let them clean the blood off his face. The cut above his hairline was tiny and had already stopped bleeding. He just couldn’t leave; this whole mess was his fault. It should have been a simple arrest, instead it turned into a battlefield.
This time his nightmare was recorded. It would be repeated endlessly, for the entertainment of a thrill hungry public. Before, the camera crew had only threatened his dignity, made him look like a fool. Now it would reveal him as an incompetent, unable to protect his comrades, outwitted by a gang of thieves.
He could hear Wendy being interviewed in background. "Yes, well, right place, right time – we got lucky." Wendy had apparently lost her adrenaline rush, and sounded a bit shaken.
Jim’s head was pounding, and his arm was starting to hurt. And he was tired… God he was tired.
"How’s the arm?" Simon’s voice brought him to his feet, his spine straight, his shoulders square.
"It’s nothing," he replied grimly. "How’s Anderson?"
"They got him to the trauma center. He’s in surgery." Simon patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "You kept him from bleeding out, right here on the street."
Jim wasn’t in the mood to be comforted. "He’s got a family, doesn’t he?"
"Couple of kids," Simon answered as Blair walked up.
"What about the robbers?" Blair flinched, watching Joel and the Bomb Squad leave the gutted building. "Were they inside when it went up?"
Simon shook his head. "Our guys checked out the alley behind the bank. There was a loose manhole cover. We traced the sewer to an outlet beyond our perimeter. Probably had a car waiting."
"This was their plan?" Blair sounded incredulous. "To blow up the bank and drag a couple million bucks through the sewer?"
"No. They figured they’d waltz right out." One of the missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place for Jim. "The sewer was a back door. It’s standard guerrilla tactics – always have a second option and make it dirty."
"You thinking these guys are ex-military?" Simon looked at the bombed out building.
"It’s as good a guess as any." Jim sighed wearily.
"I’m going to the hospital and check on Anderson and the others." Simon started to leave.
Jim called after him, "Keep me posted."
"Yeah." The tall captain looked as beaten as Jim felt.
Blair looked at him expectantly. "Now what?"
"We go home. Get some sleep." Jim kept his features neutral while he walked toward the truck. "Try and clear our heads."
Blair tagged along, looking sideways as if trying to read his friend’s mood. "I was just in the van, checking out the footage they shot. Playing on the news all over the country. It’s pretty amazing stuff. You seen it yet?"
Jim paused and looked at the solicitous young man. "I can see it just by closing my eyes." Then he climbed in the truck, carefully favoring his arm. He leaned back in the seat, trying to work up the energy to drive home, trying not to look at the destroyed building and the spectacle in the street outside. "It was my operation. It’s my fault."
Blair gave him a look of sympathy mixed with a bit of annoyance. "Don’t do this to yourself, man."
Jim shook off the attack of self-pity. "It was the phone call into the bank. It all went sour from there."
"Yeah. You said you were getting some kind of weird echo effect."
"Yeah," Jim repeated. "Like I was hearing what you and I and the captain were saying, but from inside the bank. It sounded tinny – almost like cell phone."
"Well, that’s impossible," Blair reminded him. "I mean, there’d have to be an open line between us…" he paused, thoughtfully, "…and the bank."
"What if the call originated from near the command post?"
Blair was giving him an odd look. "But there were only cops out there."
"Uh-uh." A cold look crossed Jim’s face. "No, not only cops. There was somebody else. And she had a cell phone." And I called her, he added silently.
Simon watched his angry detective as he prowled back and forth in the small office.
The object of his rage sat in front of the desk, and looked mad enough to spit, too. "What gives you the right to search my van? I’ve called the station’s lawyers and the commissioner’s office." Wendy Hawthorne looked at Jim, then at Simon. "I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you’re going to lose."
"This phone was reported stolen eight months ago." Simon held up the bagged cell phone and shook it slightly. "The number is a clone. According to the phone company, it called another clone number the same time we, err… our listening devices, picked up a phone ringing inside the bank. We believe someone outside used it to warn the suspects."
"What?" Now, Wendy looked angry and mystified. "Who?"
"The phone originally belonged to the man we have in custody. His prints were all over it." Jim’s demeanor became deceptively chilly as he closed in for the kill. "We think he lost it during the arrest. At the memorabilia shop."
"You’re accusing ME?" The woman jumped to her feet and glared at both men.
"You and Connor were present at the arrest." Simon leaned back in his chair. Ellison wasn’t the only one who could play ‘cat and mouse.’ "You were also the only non-department personnel outside the bank."
Wendy drew herself up and attempted to look disdainful. "You just bought yourself a big, fat lawsuit, gentlemen."
"We found the phone in your van," Jim informed her icily.
"Locked in an equipment box."
Simon took up the thread of the conversation. "The charges pending against you, in case you’re wondering, would be evidence tampering, aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice…"
"And if that cop in the hospital dies, you’ll be accessory to manslaughter," Jim finished harshly.
Wendy blinked rapidly as she spoke, "This is ridiculous."
"So, you’re denying you made the phone call?" Simon sounded doubtful.
"Categorically!" Wendy started toward the door. "Am I under arrest?"
"Not at the moment." Simon dismissed the woman, deciding to leave her to Ellison. He wasn’t blind; he’d seen the sparks flying between those two. *Maybe Jim could get her to spill something,* he thought as he looked down at the papers on his desk and pretended to read them.
Wendy’s voice got quiet as she asked, "Are my prints or Connor’s on that phone?"
"No." Jim didn’t give an inch.
"Why would I do such a thing?" Her voice had an edge of sorrow to it.
"Maybe ’cause you’re desperate to pump up your story." Jim shrugged. "Instead of filming a simple arrest, you got World War III."
"People were hurt."
"I wouldn’t do that," she said, as Simon gave up the pretence of ignoring the conversation. They might have been alone for all the notice they took of him.
"Well, you already have." Jim was giving her the ‘full bore, double barreled stare’ now.
That hit home, and her eyes filled with tears. "You had me investigated?" Her words were so quiet that Simon barely made them out. He was glad that Sandburg was at school. At best, the softhearted kid would have hated seeing this; at worst, he’d have tried to protect her.
"I had you checked out." The corners of Ellison’s lips curled, but it was far from a smile. "It’s a good thing I did, huh?"
"That was different."
"Was it?" Jim’s blunt words seemed to take away the last of her will to fight. She whirled and fled the office and the men inside.
Yeah, Simon thought, it’s just as well the kid wasn’t here.
Jim was still coldly furious when he went into the interrogation room with Mick. He spelled out the options for the young man. He told him about the officer in intensive care. And the bank guard in Detroit.
Two possible murder charges, and Mick was the only one available to take the fall. "We’re way beyond armed robbery and aggravated assault, Mick. We’ve got a cop in critical condition. And if we can identify you from bank security tapes, we’ve got you nailed for the first-degree murder of a guard in Detroit. Now, you can make a deal with us…but the clock’s ticking."
Mick wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his hand. "What is it that you want to know?"
"Your real name for a start and the names and present whereabouts of the rest of your crew."
Mick tried to look cocky, but his heart was pounding harder now. "After what happened, they’re probably on a plane to the Caribbean."
"That’s too bad," Jim offered mockingly. "’Cause now you’re left holding the bag."
Mick averted his eyes and demanded for the first time, "I want to talk to a lawyer."
Jim just nodded and left. He wasn’t going to get anything else from the man today. Let a lawyer explain the benefits of cutting a deal. Mick was scared, and it was just a matter of time until he cracked. Unfortunately, time was the one thing they didn’t have.
Blair and Simon were waiting outside for him. At their expectant looks, he just shrugged and shook his head. "He isn’t talking yet. I think we’re going to have to try the phone, sir. I figure we’ve got just one shot. If I read him right and Mick is lying, they’re still here."
"Are you sure you heard his heartbeat increase when you were asking him the questions?" Blair looked around to make sure no one heard his words.
"Yeah." Jim smiled indulgently as they followed Simon down the hall.
"Did his pupils begin to dilate?" Blair took a step and then turned and bounced sideways as he tried to talk, look at Jim and walk at the same time. "He started to perspire, right?"
"Yeah." Jim pretended to be annoyed by the questions and slapped at the curly head. "He was sweaty, bug-eyed and his heart was poundin’ like a jack-hammer."
"Boys, boys," the captain admonished them. "This is not an exact science. Even with a lie detector, there’s doubt. And Jim’s still working on this senses thing, right?"
"He isn’t much, but he’s all we got." Blair chuckled as he danced out of Jim’s reach.
"Anyway. "Jim turned serious as they entered the communications room, where the technician, Ray, was already preparing the trace." I figure if they answer the phone, it’s gonna be out of curiosity. They’re gonna want to know who helped them yesterday and find out who their unknown accomplice is. So I’ll try and play the role the best as I can. But I figure the minute they catch on, they’re going to hang up."
The technician took off his headphones. "All ready here, Captain."
"How much time do you need, Ray?" Simon asked.
"For an exact fix — 60 seconds." Ray handed Jim the headset. "Whenever you’re ready."
"Let’s do it."
Simon took the extra earpiece and nodded. "I got units standing by. Go ahead."
Jack stood in the middle of the warehouse and studied the other three men. They’d gotten out of the bank with the cash and were in the clear. All they had to do was wait until things cooled down, quit their jobs and leave town. But they had to wait. To disappear now would bring them to the attention of the police, and they would live out their lives on the run. They were all nervous about the call yesterday. It had been a near thing.
"Son of a bitch sold us out." Frankie was pacing furiously.
"If he’d sold us out, we’d be up to our elbows in cops." Jack was almost sure that Mick was alive and in the hands of the police.
"Then who made the call?" Quinn asked.
"Yeah," Eddie pointed out angrily. "Mick would have said something."
"Guys, guys!" Jack shouted. "All anybody needed was Mick’s phone."
As if on cue, his phone rang. Jack picked it up and looked at it as if it were a snake. "Time me. 45 seconds."
Quinn held up his right wrist and tapped his watch. "Done."
Jack nodded as he depressed the talk button. "Yeah, who’s this?"
"Person who saved your ass yesterday." The voice was deep and unaccented.
"You’re still walking around."
Jack was not impressed. "You sound different."
"Maybe there’s more than one of us." The voice was calm and sure.
"So, what do you want, pal?"
"A piece of the action."
"Put Mick on." Jack’s eyes narrowed slyly.
"Who’s Mick?" The voice sounded confused.
Quinn tapped Jack on the shoulder. "Time."
Jack’s lips creased in a feral grin. "Don’t bother calling again, cop."
Ray pushed his chair away from the equipment and sighed. "Somewhere near the harbor."
"That’s half the city," Blair groaned.
"Smart bastard," Jim growled as he dropped the headset. "If I say I know Mick, they know he’s alive. If I don’t, I’m lying."
Simon looked at his detective, then at the equipment. "Did you get that all on tape?"
Jim had a pretty good idea what was on his mind.
He spent the rest of the day listening to the taped conversation, over and over again. He could almost make out a strange squeaking sound, an echo from a large room with a high ceiling. But that was all.
The pictures on Simon’s desk were of a very dead Mick. Blair looked and then turned his eyes away quickly.
Simon’s voice was angry as he filled them in. "They walked right into the lock up. Dressed as cops. They had all the right paperwork."
"His gang broke him out of jail just to kill him?" Jim was studying the photos.
"We found him on a little league diamond." Simon tapped the top photo.
Blair looked too, then flinched. "Center field. Mickey Mantle’s position."
"Dead center," Jim added grimly.
"These punks are making fools out of us," Simon fumed. "Now they walk into my station, steal my prisoner?"
"What about the security cameras." Blair couldn’t believe that someone could waltz in and steal a prisoner. "Someone had to see them, be able to give a description."
"They seemed to know where the cameras were." Simon rubbed his forehead as if he were getting a headache. "The old guy at the desk described them as average looking. He really just saw the uniforms."
"Well, this puts us right back to square one, sir." Jim dropped into a chair. "We don’t have solid descriptions of these suspects or any idea where they’re holed up. Nothing."
"Think they’ll hit another bank?"
"No, sir," Jim answered Simon’s question.
"Well, that’s something." Blair tried to sound optimistic. They both turned and scowled at him, so he added quickly, "It’s not enough, of course, not nearly enough, Captain." He had seldom seen the two big men look so defeated. "Sorry."
Jim thought that he spent most of this case in a haze of anger, confusion and indignation. He had trusted a reporter. He had failed to get Mick to talk. He had failed to sense the explosives in the bank. And he had let Sandburg talk him into going to the ER, and getting his arm checked.
Major mistake there. The hole in his arm was small and deep, but it hadn’t hurt much until the doctors examined it. They had cleaned it, probed it, and then closed it with a few stitches. Now it throbbed with each heartbeat.
"Does your arm hurt?" Blair was at his side, walking to the elevator. Sometimes the kid could read his mind.
"No." He had bigger things on his mind besides a few stitches. "I was thinking there must be someway to find these guys."
"Let’s try listening to that tape again."
"No." He set his jaw against the discomfort. He had bigger things on his mind besides a few stitches. "I was thinking there must be someway to find these guys."
"Let’s try listening to that tape again," Blair said with a sideways look, and Jim knew he wasn’t fooling anyone.
The elevator opened, and Wendy Hawthorne stepped out.*Hell.* It was all Jim could do not to let the profanity escape his lips.
"Detective Ellison." Her voice was soft, but she blocked his path.
Blair sidled around her and got on the elevator. "Uh, I’ll meet you down at the car." He waved as the doors closed.
"This is probably a waste of time." Wendy sounded sincere, but it wasn’t enough for him.
"I didn’t do it," she insisted. Her heart rate didn’t change, and if she was lying, he couldn’t tell. "I didn’t do any of it."
"Well, I hope for your sake that’s true." Even though he was less sure of her guilt, he used his pseudo-polite cop voice.
"If it’s not?" She just couldn’t let it go.
"I hope you get what you deserve." Then again, he reminded himself cynically, she might just be real good at hiding her reactions.
"Four years ago I saw an opportunity to take a good story and make it great. I was ambitious and stupid. I got caught. The story never aired, but my career was ruined. I was the only one who got hurt." If she was lying, she was good. She had those tears in her eyes again as she looked at him and said softly, "I have no one to blame but myself. I’ve spent the last four years regretting my actions on a lot of levels. I know the line, and I won’t cross it – not for anything. I wish I could make you believe that."
Long after she’d walked away, he stood there. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d been unfair. Every sense told him that she was telling the truth. She was annoying and ambitious. But she was also brave to the point of stupidity, smart – in a tricky kind of way – and she liked him. A lot. He knew it, without a doubt.
It was the one aspect of the senses that he would never be able to discuss with Blair. The kid would drag him around asking, "Does she like me? Does she want me?" Jim shuddered at the very thought. The elevator doors opened again, and Sandburg was standing there. "Jim? Are you coming?"
They rode to the garage in silence. As Jim steered the truck into traffic, Blair blurted, "So?"
"So did she tell you the truth?" Blair turned in his seat and demanded, "Did she warn the guys in the bank?"
"I don’t know." The detective gripped the wheel tighter. "I think maybe not."
"Then it must be Connor," Blair reasoned. "He was there, too. It’s just that Wendy is so loud and pushy, you don’t notice him, much."
"She’s trying too hard." Jim wondered why he was sticking up for the annoying woman. "She’s desperate."
"Yeah. I guess I’m being kinda prejudiced. If she was a man, we would say he was assertive and determined."
"Well, Chief. She is kinda pushy." Jim grinned slightly as he parked the truck. "But I don’t think she’s depraved enough to hurt people for a story. Simon is going to have Connor brought in for questioning."
"Maybe he’ll know something that will help find these guys." Blair scrambled out and followed Jim into the loft. "Meanwhile – I’ve got the tape." He waved the despised cassette.
Inside the loft, Blair quickly arranged everything. Jim was comfortably sprawled on the couch. The cassette player was on the coffee table in front of him. It only took moments for his partner to guide him into a calm, receptive state. Then he started the tape.
<Yeah, who’s this?>
<I saved your ass yesterday.>
"Anything?" Blair whispered.
"The voice echoes slightly, as if he’s standing in the middle of a gym … or a warehouse. But I just hear the voices."
<You’re still walking around, aren’t you?>
"All right, just filter them out." Blair’s quiet voice was counterpoint to the tinny ones on the tape. "Concentrate. Try to listen to the background."
<Put Mick on.>
<Don’t bother calling again, cop.>
Ignoring the voices, Jim could hear a squeaking noise. "What was that?"
Blair tried to hear anything new on the tape. "Uh, what?" He rewound the tape and turned it on again.
"A high-pitched, metal against metal." Jim concentrated as the background noises came to the fore. "You know, a vibration."
"Did it sound familiar?"
"Kind of like, uh…something going…screeeek….screeeek."
"What’d it sound like?" Blair sounded interested.
"Screeeek…screeeek." Jim tried to imitate the sound again. Blair started to chuckle and Jim let his exasperation show.
"Aww, man," Jim grumbled and shoved him away. He’d had enough of this crap.
"A sentinel you may be, but Rich Little you are not, my friend." Blair was still laughing as Jim stood up.
"All right, let’s just pack it in."
"Aww, come on, man." Blair got serious again. "Don’t give up. I was just joking."
Jim knew that he was overreacting. But he was positively tired of looking like a jackass. Everything and everyone involved with this case had conspired to make him look like a fool.
Everyone but Sandburg; Blair was just trying to help. And maybe get him to lighten up a bit. Jim sat down and listened to the tape again.
Wendy finally tracked down her van. She wondered why Connor was parked out here in the boonies. Her hand was on the door handle when she heard Connor talking to someone on the phone.
"That’s right, mate. We’re talking about footage held back from the networks. Yeah, I’ve got it all on tape from the moment the fireworks began and the cops hit the deck." He paused and listened. "Yeah, there’s nothing like being in the right spot at the right time. Look, you have a word with your people. You know my price."
Wendy opened the door. "Connor?"
"Hey, Wendy." Connor looked nervous as he climbed out of the van.
"I’ve been looking for you, Connor." She stepped closer to him and poked his chest with her forefinger. "If it wasn’t me, it had to be my trusted, loyal cameraman." She jabbed him in the chest, harder and harder with each word.
"Had to be what?"
"You took the phone," she shouted. "You made the calls. You were letting me take the heat."
"You’re crazy." He backed away and refused to look her in the eyes.
"You were too ready outside that bank." She had been more shocked and frightened than she would ever admit. When the explosions began, and Connor ran forward, she had run after him and begun to order him to do things he was already doing. Now she knew why he was so prepared, so *ready.* "Either you spill your guts now or I call Ellison, and I don’t think you want him on your case. Do you have any idea how serious this is?"
"I just pushed re-dial and sat the phone down. I didn’t know what would happen."
"Damn it! I heard you on the phone, peddling that footage." It hurt that Connor hadn’t come to her. He had always confided in Wendy, trusted her. "Why didn’t you tell me?"
"After those cops got hurt?" Connor turned and looked at the ground. "I couldn’t. I was going to get rid of the phone, but I didn’t have time."
"I can’t believe this." She threw up her hands. "Idiot!"
"It doesn’t matter – it’ll blow over." Connor turned and looked at her hopefully. "We don’t have to do or say anything, and it won’t happen again, I promise. I was just looking for an edge…like you taught me."
"That edge cuts both ways." Wendy pushed away the guilt that threatened to overwhelm her. She *had* taught him that it was all right to cut corners to get the story.
"You know how it is when you’re starting out."
"Yeah, I do." Wendy sighed. "I spent four years thinking about it."
"Four years?" Connor looked curious. He didn’t know the details of her disgrace. "You lost me, Wendy."
She didn’t feel like explaining it now. "The cops *will* find out. You could face criminal charges."
"Look, please, help me." Connor was scared now. "I’ll do whatever you want."
"So far we’ve done nothing but get in the way." She flushed as she remembered how they’d messed up things at the memorabilia shop. "Maybe if we could be of some help."
"Wait!" Connor dug in his pockets and came up with several small bits of paper. "This was with the phone. It might be nothing, but…"
"You’ve had this the entire time? What goes through your head?" The papers were receipts and order forms. One was a slip from a parcel delivery company. "Looks like we have an address here."~~~~~~~~~~ Act V~~~~~~~~~~They had listened to the tape of the phone call dozens of times, until Jim called time out. Blair had gone and picked up sandwiches and – as a reward for Jim not choking him – chocolate chip cookies. Then he suggested watching the bank security tapes a few more times.
Jim slouched on the sofa, and he sat on the floor as they watched the surveillance tapes for the second time. "Robberies are always similar but never exactly the same, are they?"
Jim shook his head, without taking his eyes off the screen. "All banks are different: different hours, routines, security systems."
"Yeah, but who’s gonna know about it except people who work there?" Blair still couldn’t figure how one group could know that much confidential information. "They can’t all be inside jobs; we’ve already been over that. So it’s got to be something else. These guys were…" His hands waved as he sought the words. "They were what? They were cops. They were ex-military… "
"Bank guards!" Jim completed the thought. "Who’d know the banks’ routines better?"
"No, no, wait." Disappointment made Blair frown. "Mick’s prints, they came up negative. If he was a bank guard, they’d be registered somewhere, right?"
"Including Mick, we know there are five at least, right?" He waited for the young man to nod. "They do three jobs in each city. All they need is for one guy to be at each bank. Three guys. Mick doesn’t have to be a guard."
"Right." Blair nodded thoughtfully. "They come into town, they get jobs at banks, they learn the routines, hit all three and then split."
"Right, but not right away." Jim stood up and paced, "They hang around for a while and they continue to work. This way it throws off all the possibility of them being suspects. That’s why they’re still here."
"Right." Blair clambered to his feet and bounced on his toes excitedly. "So all we need are the home addresses for guards hired in the last year or so at each bank."
"No." Jim shook his head.
"No?" Blair watched as Jim changed the tapes in the machine. "What are you doing?"
Blair recognized the scene. It was the tape of the Datta Credit Union robbery. Jim fast-forwarded it, freezing it on a frame of the bank guard. "All we need is his address. Remember their first job they ever did? They killed the bank guard. What better way to throw off suspicion than to be a guard at the bank that’s being robbed."
"Pretty damn smart," Jim said with satisfaction.
"Who’s that?" Blair grinned. "Us or them?"
"Right." Blair smiled happily as he nodded.
Wendy and Connor walked up to the warehouse. Using the address they got from the papers Connor found with the phone, they had tracked it down.
"This looks deserted." Wendy half-hoped that this was a wild goose chase.
"Maybe you should try calling Ellison again." Connor peeked over her shoulder. If he wanted to see Ellison, he must be scared.
"Well, we really don’t have anything," she reminded him. "All we have is a receipt showing Mick had a batting cage delivered to this address two months ago. It’s probably a wild goose chase."
Connor turned on his camera and pointed it at Wendy. "So you think Ellison will be dazzled by this Lois Lane crap."
Wendy was preparing a suitably nasty answer when she saw two men round a corner and walk toward them. "Connor, turn around."
"What is it?" Camera rolling, he turned, and the younger of the two drew a gun.
The older man grinned and held out something that looked like a TV remote. "Haven’t I seen you two on TV?" A blue charge of electricity arced toward Connor, and he toppled to the ground. When she opened her mouth, the man pointed the tazer at her. There was an instant of white-hot pain – then nothing.
Jim and Blair traced the address to a warehouse near the one Blair once lived in. Blair listened while Jim reported to Captain Banks. The guard at Datta Credit Union had listed this place as his home address. It was a pretty fair bet that when they checked, a guard at the other two banks would also live here.
"It’s an enormous industrial warehouse, Simon." Jim had pulled up some distance from the rear of the building. The men had rented a section of the warehouse when the business that occupied it went bankrupt. Several of the industrial sites were being converted for homes and small businesses, so no one thought it unusual. "It may take us a while to find them. Right. I’ll call you when I want you to close in."
They found a gap in the fence and squeezed through. They reached the building and edged along the back wall. There was a vehicle covered with a canvas tarp parked near the wall. Blair lifted the edge and signaled Jim to look. "It’s the ‘True Crime’ van."
"What the hell are they doing out here?" Jim checked the interior for life signs. Then he studied the building, noting an open window on the second floor. "All right, I think I found a way in. You stay right behind me. Once we’re inside, I’ll tell you when to beep the captain."
"All right." Blair gulped as he looked at the widow, which was roughly as high as the balcony at the loft. "I can do that."
"Just don’t try and turn hero on me, Blair, okay?" Jim vaulted gracefully onto the hood of the van and then onto the roof.
"Me?" Blair scrambled after him, the canvas sliding under his feet. "You must be joking."
The van was parked a couple of feet from the building. Blair watched Jim take one long step and grab the drainpipe, the toes of his shoes balanced on a tiny metal strap. He pulled himself up about six feet, then swung over to the brick windowsill. It was flush with the wall and Jim hung there by his fingertips for a moment.
"Sure, Jim," the shorter man muttered, hurling himself toward the drainpipe. He slid down a few feet until he managed to get a grip with his hands and his legs. "I’ll just follow you." He squeezed his legs against either side of the ceramic pipe, trying not to scrape anything important.
Blair inched his way up, like a caterpillar on plate-glass, until, at last, he was opposite the window. But even if he had the strength to swing from the pipe he was barely clinging to, it was just too far away. Still, he wasn’t going to wimp out. He put his toes on a strap and lunged toward the window. One hand caught the rough masonry edge and for a dizzying instant, he flew through the air. Then he hit the bricks. His fingers clawed at the rough façade, as his toes scrabbled for purchase.
The young man was regretfully accepting the inevitable trip down the rough wall to the ground when a large hand closed over his wrist and pulled. He was so pumped with fear-induced adrenaline that he almost walked up the bricks and into an empty room. "Shhh, Sandburg. Quit screwing around." Jim turned away and went into listening mode.
Blair would have protested – hell he would have brought the house down – but first he had to breathe. He leaned on a wall until the room stopped spinning. Jim waved him forward, motioning for silence. *I’ll give you silence,* Blair thought, *you just wait…* His vengeful thoughts vanished as he saw the blood staining the hand Jim held up. When Jim was in ranger mode, he didn’t feel his own pain, much less anyone else’s. Biting back words of worry, he walked over and put his hand on his partners back, anchoring him so he could cast out his sensory net.
"They’re here," Jim whispered. "I hear men talking about grenade launchers."
"Oh good!" Blair whispered back sarcastically.
"Metal scraping on metal… it’s that sound from the tape. We must be getting close. Call in the troops."
"What about us? Do we wait?" Blair asked as he dialed his cell phone.
"Usually, yeah, we’d wait." Jim sighed as he waited for Blair to finish the call. "But not now, not with that news team here. Let’s go."
Blair followed Jim down a narrow, open staircase. And, true to his word, he stayed close to his partner. So close that when Jim stopped suddenly, he ended up almost wearing Blair. "Hold it," Jim hissed the words as he pointed down at wire stretched across the next step. "Motion sensor."
A bit chagrinned, Blair backed up and murmured, "Sorry."
Jim carefully climbed over the rail and dropped soundlessly to the floor. Blair followed the sentinel while he scouted the area. They were in a storage area above the area where the gang had made a makeshift dwelling.
Hidden by shadows, they neared the waist high safety rail and looked down at the people below. Wendy and Connor were tied to chairs, and four men stood around them. Three were around his age and one, possibly the leader, looked to be a few years older than Jim. He was leaning over Wendy, pressing a nasty looking knife against the terrified woman’s face. "How did you find us? Who else knows you’re here? Come on, lady. I’m not a very patient man."
Wendy stuck out her jaw and looked him in the eye. "There’s always room for improvement."
Jim edged along the parapet until he came to the spot directly above the gang. He leaned close to Blair’s ear and whispered, "Now, keep your head down and stick with me."
The leader stepped back and handed a gun to one of the younger men.
"It doesn’t matter," he snarled. "Kill them."
Whatever Jim’s plan was, he amended it. He pounced on the man with the gun from above. The leader looked around frantically, as the others fell back. They were unarmed and they panicked. After knocking out the gunman, Jim ducked behind the chairs and cut the couple’s bonds. "Back there." He herded them behind the relative safety of a pile of crates and barrels. "Help is on the way."
Blair spotted some solid looking pallets on the other side of the area, and took advantage of the confusion to climb down them. Hidden from view by the pallets and a batting cage, he watched as the outlaws grabbed automatic weapons and turned to fire on Jim’s position. Jim returned fire and did fairly well as the men had little cover.
The gang fell back, and Blair realized they were heading at an angle toward him. If they took this position, they would have cover and a clear shot at Jim. "After they shoot me," he muttered as he looked around for a weapon. There was a baseball bat, but it was out of reach. Looking down he realized he was surrounded by baseballs. Stuffing several orbs into the pockets of his topcoat, he stepped back and waited.
When you’re a kid and you’re a short, nerdy outsider; you need an in. By the third grade, Blair knew he couldn’t compete with bigger and older kids in most sports. But he was smart, and in the school library, he found a book on the theory of pitching. This was something you could study – and practice – until you got it down to perfection. At every new school, he’d manage to throw a few fast balls, and, quicker than you can say "Wanna be on our team?", he’d fit right in.
Now, he held the scuffed ball in the classic split-finger grip and pitched. It hit the lead gunman right between the eyes, and he went down in a heap.
Jim was watching, and Blair grinned at the astonished expression on the detective’s face. His brief victory dance was cut short when a spray of machine gun bullets stitched the wall behind him. Jim’s gun barked twice, and then there was silence.
Peeping around the pallets, he saw Jim stand and help Wendy to her feet before glancing his way. "Sandburg. Get over here."
"Did we get ’em?" Blair patted his chest, checking for bullet holes.
"Yeah, Dead-eye. We got ’em." Jim was already heading for the door. "Keep an eye on these three. I’m going after the leader."
"Uh…Jim?" He shrugged, took out another baseball and held it cocked and ready. "Miss Hawthorne? Could you guys collect all the guns before they wake up?"
Wendy and Connor carefully rounded up the artillery and laid it behind him. Wendy picked up one of the deadlier looking ones, popped out the clip, checked the bullets, then reloaded it, making all sort of official sounding clicking noises. When she caught him looking at her she grinned through her straggling blonde hair. "I once did a story on female soldiers. I spent a lot of time in boot camp."
"All right then." Blair made a mental note to get Jim together with this woman.
Jim heard the doors of the elevator close before he could reach it. When he ran down the stairs to the garage, he saw the fugitive fling a duffel into the back of a jeep. The man started the engine and headed for the ramp to the surface. Jim stepped forward and leveled his pistol, but the man turned the jeep so hard that it almost tipped over. He fired at Jim before he headed toward the other side of the garage.
Jim dropped and rolled, then sprang to his feet and headed for the exit. There was only one way out, and sooner or later the man was going to have to use it. Sirens sounded outside the building. Sooner, he guessed when he heard the jeep come toward him again. The area was open with only support pillars to offer cover. If he stood sideways…
The firefight with the gang had used up one clip, and he had only two rounds left in the second. *Damn, he thought, I should have grabbed one of the guns those bozos dropped.* Taking a quick look, he saw the Jeep approaching. Only the Jeep.
The driver had leaned over until he was out of sight. *At least I could have grabbed a couple of Sandburg’s baseballs.* In the space of a second, Jim weighed his options. Risk wasting a bullet, trying to take out a tire, something he knew wasn’t as easy as it looked on TV. Wait for him to pull up along side, and face a pointblank shoot out with his pistol against a machine gun.
Jim chose a third option. He dashed across the driving lane to the loading dock. An international import company rented this section of the warehouse, and there were several loaded rolling pallets. Releasing the brake, he rolled the heavy crates down the ramp in front of the jeep. He didn’t wait to see it hit, but raced to the next ramp. Behind him, there was a crash and the sound of breaking glass.
The jeep backed away from the ruined crates as Jim heaved and pushed another pallet behind the jeep. This one was piled high with cardboard boxes, which made an even more satisfying crash. Thick liquid spilled over the cement, and Jim grinned as he identified it by smell. The vehicle fish-tailed as the outlaw gunned it forward. When he hit the toppled crates head-on, his wheels spun futilely.
Jim crouched behind a barrel to avoid being seen, his pistol ready. The man leapt out of the jeep and waved the machine gun in the direction of the loading dock. Then his feet flew out from under him. He landed hard, and the gun skittered away on the wet floor.
"Son of a bitch!" The man tried to stand and came down hard on one knee. "Who the hell are you?"
Jim walked to the edge of the loading dock and sat down, with his feet dangling well above the growing puddle of olive oil. "The guy who’s taking you to jail." Grinning, Jim kept him covered as he recited his rights. High time someone else looked like an idiot, he thought with satisfaction.
"That was one slick arrest, Ellison." Chuckling, Henri strolled by Jim and Blair at the entrance to Major Crime.
"And one slippery suspect," Rafe finished, giving his partner a high five.
"Oh, that’s amusing." Jim pretended an annoyance he didn’t feel.
"And Sandburg," Rafe added. "Did that perp with the Uzi get a free trip to first base?"
"Hey, no guy gets to first base with me," Blair laughed. "Just a free trip to jail."
"So," Henri said as he threw an arm around Blair’s shoulders, "you’re a pitcher, Hairboy. How’d you like to be on our softball team?"
"Well, it’s been a while, but sure." Blair couldn’t hide his delight.
"Cool." Henri playfully patted him on the head, then walked off with Rafe. "We’ll talk later."
Jim was about to go to his desk when Wendy Hawthorne approached. "Detective Ellison?" She paused, then added, distractedly, "Mr. Sandburg, of course."
"Uh, Blair. Call me Blair."
"What’s the occasion?" Jim asked pleasantly. "Not another ride along?"
"Not that you’d have me." She smiled ruefully.
Jim picked up the flirtatious tone. "I might."
"This is everything we shot." She handed him a stack of videotapes. "Boxer shorts included. A souvenir."
"That’s very nice." Satisfaction that the last few days of his life were not going to be on national TV filled him. "Thank you."
"About the man who was hurt at the bank… "
Jim had visited Joe in the hospital when he’d had the stitches in his arm checked. "He’ll recover."
"I’m glad." Wendy smiled brilliantly at him. "And relieved. Connor will be too. He worked out a plea bargain. Probation and community service."
Jim entrusted the tapes to his partner. "He’s lucky."
Wendy nodded. "We’re both lucky."
"I hear you’re leaving ‘True Crime’?"
"Yeah. I’m going back to straight TV news reporting." She looked proud as she added, "I got an offer from New York."
Jim felt oddly disappointed, but Blair filled the silence. "All right. Congratulations. The big time."
"Yeah, I turned it down, for a reporting job here in Cascade." She didn’t take her eyes off Jim, as she added. "Cascade has tuned out to be a very exciting city."
"You’re staying in Cascade?" Now why did that sound like such a good idea? "I guess it can be exciting, if you know the ropes."
"Maybe you could show me?"
"How about tonight at 8:00?"
"I’ll be ready." She beamed.
Jim thought that he was sort of beaming too. "Great."
Wendy turned to Blair and surprised him by kissing his cheek. "Thank you."
"Oh." Sandburg blushed slightly.
"Thank you. For saving my life." She kissed Jim, too.
"It’s… what we do." The detective was still stammering when she left with a smile and a wave.
"’It’s what we do?’" Blair imitated him. "Jeez, Jim. Why didn’t you just say, ‘Aww shucks, ma’am’?"
"Shut up, Darwin." Jim punched playfully at the young man.
"I think you just made a date?"
"Yeah, I guess I did. Yeah."
"All right. Pretty smooth." Blair patted him on the shoulder. "Still, be careful."
Jim wondered if a lecture on safe sex was coming. "Of what?"
"Well, you know, date at 8:00, news at 11:00."
"Ah, that’s nice."The EndPlease remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to: [email protected]Next week’s episode: Iceman by Helen