DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Back to School
Brenda Bailey


Act I

Simon sat back in his chair, waiting for the coffee maker to finish so he could enjoy his first cup of the day, a new blend called New Orleans Choice. As he relaxed, his eyes touched on the photos on his wall. One in particular drew his attention this morning, the one of his academy graduation. God, had it been that long ago? He'd looked so impossibly young. And soon he would be attending Blair's graduation....

The thought of Blair's graduation brought a smile to his face. He admitted to himself that he'd been worried about Blair attending the academy -- that the other cadets, or even the instructors, might make the experience unbearable for the young man. At first he hadn't known how he was going to keep an eye on Blair's progress without being obvious, but the answer had been presented to him in the form of Blair's erstwhile protector, Jim Ellison. He merely had to read the Ellison barometer to tell how Blair was doing. It swung between fair and sunny to stormy based on how many problems Blair was encountering.

Readings were best taken first thing in the morning when Ellison had been at home with Sandburg. He tended to become unreadable later in the day. There had been rough patches, Blair's doubts about himself, that Vincent kid's suicide, but Sandburg was still hanging in there.

As the coffee finished, Simon poured the fragrant beverage into his cup, but before he could even get the cup to his lips, an authoritative knock sounded on his door, followed immediately by the door swinging inward. He was prepared to growl out a warning at the hapless person who dared to disturb him this early in the day, but the impending snarl became a smile when he recognized his old academy buddy, Ben Walker, standing in the doorway.

Simon jumped up to greet his friend and dragged him into the office. "Ben, you old dog, how long has it been?"

Walker exchanged a hearty handshake and answered with a smile, "Close to five years, Simon. You been staying out of trouble?"

Simon put on his best innocent expression. "Me? I was never the one in trouble if I remember correctly. That honor went to you. You always were the source of more bullshit than anyone I know. I think they let you graduate just to get rid of you."

Ben struck a sophisticated pose. "It's so hard to stand out in the crowd. One must achieve where one can."

"Come on in and sit down. Tell me what you're up to now."

Walker, who at 6'6" and 280 pounds still looked like a pro defensive lineman, settled himself in one of the visitor's chairs. Simon poured a second cup of coffee and gave it to him before settling behind his desk. "Who are you working for now, Ben?"

Walker feigned a hurt expression. "What makes you think I'm not still with the FBI?"

"I know you for one thing, and you never could stay in one place for too long. Shall I recap for you: Cascade PD, the state police, the U.S. Marshal's Office, the FBI...."

Walker laughed as he admitted, "Okay, okay, you know me, and yes, I have moved on from the FBI. I decided to branch out on my own, and now I have the honor of being the police chief of Walden."

Simon thought back to what he had heard about the community. Built by Richard Morehouse Walden, it was his answer to Thoreau's Walden Pond. Except where Thoreau had gone searching for his retreat, Walden had built his own. A private development that was actually a self contained city about sixty miles southeast of the Cascade city limits. Walden had its own state-of-the-art hospital, school system, shopping centers, and professional buildings. The homes began somewhere in the $500,000 range and only went up from there. They had a championship golf course that hosted an annual PGA event and an entertainment complex that drew in big name stars on a regular basis. Walker's annual budget probably matched that for the Cascade PD with only a fraction of the officers and staff, he thought enviously.

"That's quite a change for you, isn't it? I always thought you never cared much for the administrative side of things -- always looking for a new and different experience. 'Been there, done that', was your motto. Why the change?"

"You know I was never really comfortable taking orders, so I decided to try giving them for a change. The position came open, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and everything else just fell into line."

"You like it?"

There was a brief hesitation before Walker answered. "Sure, what's not to like? Great location, big house, generous income, low crime rate." He frowned, "That is, at least until recently."

Simon had an idea the real reason for the unexpected visit would now be revealed. "Don't tell me you've come across a problem you don't know how to handle?" The man had always been quick to see unexpected avenues of approach. Simon was beginning to get a bad feeling about this.

"Nooooo, I have a way to solve the problem. It's just that it is going to require your cooperation." Walker finished the statement with a huge grin that immediately caused Simon think of a bear about to dig into a freshly caught salmon.

Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great City, walked into the bullpen and headed for his desk. He was in a fairly good mood this morning. Blair was settling back into the routine of the academy, no major problems had presented themselves over the last twenty-four hours, and his desk was relatively free from paperwork. Henri and Rafe followed him over to his desk.

"How's Sandburg doing at the academy now?" Henri settled on the corner of Jim's desk.

"This week they start the obstacle course. He wanted to get a head start on it so we went out to the academy and did a trial run."

"How did it go?"

The attempt on the obstacle course flashed briefly before him.

They had arrived at the academy at 7 a.m., wanting to have privacy for the practice run. None of the obstacles on the course, by themselves, were that difficult; it was the combination of all at once that tended to cause apprehension. He glanced over at Blair and hoped this went smoothly. His roommate shouldn't have any problems -- he was in pretty good physical shape -- but he was nervous. Too many stories from the other cadets and instructors were making inroads on Blair's confidence.

"Okay now, remember to just pace yourself through each obstacle. If you can't complete one, just go around and finish the rest of the course. The idea is to see which ones, if any, are going to give you problems. We can work on those later. You ready?"

"Do I have a choice, man?" Blair looked up as he continued stretching. "No, don't answer that, I already know the answer. I can do this, it's all a matter of mind over matter."

"No, it's actually a matter of getting your 'matter' over the obstacles." Jim smiled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. "We've practiced most of these in one form or another at the gym. You can do it."

"Yeah, you're right. I can do it. I am going to do it. I will do it. God, now I sound like a cheerleader. Let's get this over with before I start trying to do splits." Blair took a deep breath and came up to the start line.

"Ready?" Jim looked at Blair for confirmation and received a nod in reply. Bringing out the stopwatch he had brought, he tried to convey his confidence in Blair with a smile and a pat on the back. "GO!"

Blair took off like a rabbit toward the first obstacle. He made the diving entry through the open window and rolled, coming back up into a crouch. The low crawl under the criss-crossed wires was next and Blair didn't even pause as he zipped through it. Coming up from the ground, he headed directly toward the chain link fence and grasped the top, and vaulted over.

The balance beam section was next, and Jim moved closer to keep an eye on him. The obstacle resembled a set of very long and narrow steps. Blair would have to jump up to the first beam, two feet off the ground. From there, he faced four interconnected 6" wide beams, each 12' long, with each successive beam another foot higher off the ground, to finish five feet off the ground. Blair paused for a moment, then jumped up on the first beam and carefully walked up each connecting section. So long as he made good time on the other parts of the course, he could take his time here and not rush. Jumping down from the last beam, he headed for the rope climb and swarmed up like a monkey.

Hanging around with Larry must have rubbed off, Jim though irrelevantly. Nice to know the ape was good for something besides watching television and messing up the loft.

Jim got more excited with each obstacle overcome. He couldn't restrain a little supportive cheerleading. "Yes! You're halfway there. You can do it!"

Dropping from the rope, Blair ran the short distance to the next obstacle, the 8' wall. He hit the wall and then stopped. Hit it, yeah, that's exactly what he did. Just like a bug on a windshield, he went 'splat!' against the unforgiving wood.

"Blair, Blair, are you all right?" Jim started to run over.

"Yeah, I'm just fine." From flat on his back, Blair looked back up at the wall, then stood up, and circled around it to move on to the next obstacle.

The reply didn't do much to convince Jim, but Blair seemed to be determined to finish and he was on his feet, so he held off calling it quits. Following much closer now, he tried a little verbal encouragement. "That's right, just keep going. It's no big deal."

Blair nodded and managed a weak smile before tackling the monkey bars. Despite his failure at the wall, he crossed the monkey bars without a problem, remembering to touch the first and last bar firmly. He was beginning to pant a little as he headed toward the stair tower and the four-story climb.

Jim listened to the sound of Blair's footsteps as he raced up the stairs. Good thing he gets all that practice climbing stairs at the loft, he thought with sympathy. He heard the bell ring as Blair signaled his arrival at the fourth floor and started back down. Exiting the tower, he headed directly for Jim to complete the next obstacle. Not having the rescue dummy to practice with, they had been forced to improvise. Jim took up his position on the ground, simulating an unconscious person in need of rescue. His role had been the source of several barbed quips from his partner.

"Try not to get me too dirty, Sandburg. We still have to go get some breakfast."

Blair panted as he grabbed Jim's arms and started to drag him. "Shut up. Unconscious people don't talk. They just lay there and make their poor roommates drag them around."

"Hey," Jim complained, "what happened to the fireman's carry? Dragging is so undignified."

"You know you could stiffen up just a bit. You're flopping all over the place," Blair retorted as he continued to haul Jim's body the required 50 feet.

"If I was stiff, I'd be a dead body, and you would be altering a crime scene. Besides, this is so relaxing." Jim closed his eyes as if asleep.

"I'll give you relaxing," Blair whispered, angling his course so that Jim bumped over an exposed tree root. "There, all rescued and safe."

"Hey!" Jim objected as Blair dropped his arms unceremoniously and headed straight for the track. The final obstacle of the course was a mile run. He smiled as he sat up and looked at the stopwatch to check Blair's time.

Not too bad at all, he thought. Except for the wall, Blair would probably finish within the time limits. As Blair completed his first circuit, he was slowing appreciably. He jogged over to join him on the track. "Only three more circuits to go and you're finished. Hang in there. You've got the time."

"Easy for you to say," Blair huffed between steps, but he picked up his pace to match Jim's as he ran alongside. Together they finished the final lap as Blair came to a stop and put his head down, concentrating on giving his oxygen-starved body all the air it craved.

"Come on," Jim urged, "walk it out. Don't stop moving or everything is going to tighten up on you. Keep walking as you cool down."

Blair managed to shoot him an evil look, but started walking as he gulped in air. "Okay, how did I do?"

"You didn't come close to the class record and you missed one obstacle --" Jim couldn't keep a smile from his face at Blair's hangdog expression, " -- but you're within the time limits for completing the course. You can do it!"

Blair couldn't stop the smile that matched Jim's. "Yeah, I can."

"Come on, Chief, let's go get breakfast. I'm hungry after watching you run all over the place. My treat."

"Your treat? It better be your treat. I'm not getting paid much here, I'm just doing this for my health."

Jim placed his arm around Blair's shoulder as they walked toward the truck, "No, you're doing it for my health, and I want you to know I appreciate it."

As they exchanged looks, Blair couldn't resist, "Race you back to the truck, man." He took off running with Jim in hot pursuit...

Jim shook his head fondly at the memories. "Well, that depends on whether you were betting on the course or on Sandburg. The wall is not his event. The rest of it he'll be able to handle with no problem."

In anticipation of getting information to tease Sandburg with when he returned, Henri pressed for more details. "Come on man, don't hold back. What did he do? Run into it or something?"

Rafe couldn't resist the opportunity to tease his partner. "No man, that was your specialty, remember? When I was there, they were still telling stories about how you tried to run right through it."

"Yeah, well who was it who did a Tarzan impersonation on the rope climb while the captain of the academy was visiting the class?" Henri poked Rafe with his finger.

"Hey, that doesn't count. I didn't know he was there." Rafe made a not-to-subtle effort to change the focus of the conversation. "Jim, has anyone broken your record for the obstacle course yet?"

"I don't know, I never bothered to keep track."

"You should. I heard the closest was when an ex-marine tried, but the rescue dummy got tangled up in his shorts and..."

Jim intervened before the two could get started on their version of 'Police Academy: The Series' by saying, "Guys, guys, I have work to do, so could you please take your walk down memory lane back to your desks? The academy was a nice place to visit, but I don't want to relive it, thank you very much."

Just as he started to sit down, Simon opened the door of his office and gestured to him. "Jim, come into my office and have a cup of coffee."

Jim looked at Simon, trying to discern the motivation behind the simple request. It wasn't that Jim had a suspicious nature, which he did, but the captain's normal way of calling him to the office consisted of him yelling 'Ellison! My office! Now!' This "kind and gentle" approach wasn't like Simon at all. He idly wondered if he had been going to one of those 'Developing Communications for Supervisors' seminars, but his captain's face revealed nothing, so Jim nodded and went obediently into the office. Simon motioned him through with an "after you" gesture, then followed him inside. As Jim entered, he noticed a guest already seated in one of the chairs.

The visitor stood, holding out his hand as he introduced himself. "My name is Ben Walker, but you can just call me Ben, everybody else does. I'm the Police Chief of Walden. You must be Jim Ellison. Simon has told me a lot about you. Nice to meet you."

As Jim felt his hand grasped and heartily shook by the big man, he observed that Walker certainly didn't lack enthusiasm in his greetings. He felt as if he had just shaken hands with a grizzly bear. A friendly grizzly bear, he hoped. Everybody was being so friendly, yet he couldn't help but feel like the main course at a buffet.

Walker finally finished with his handshake and returned Jim's hand to him, only a little the worse for wear. "It's going to be a real pleasure working with you Jim. You don't mind if I call you Jim, do you? It's just that I like to be on a first name basis with people, put them at ease, if you know what I mean. When I came in here this morning, just about ready to throw in the towel with this Dallas problem I had, Simon said you were the best man for this job and I could count on you to help me clean things up."

Jim turned to Simon, who just sat innocently sipping his coffee.

"I really appreciate the help Jim, this is real important to me. There's no way I can do this myself or you know I would be doing it. Never ask a man to do something you won't do yourself, that's my motto. Ray isn't going to do anything close to home. He isn't stupid. Of course, I could be wrong, this could be just a big coincidence. An awful funny coincidence, but it is possible, I suppose. There's just no way that I can do it though, if Ray were to see me, he would know something is up. If he doesn't move, we've got nothing. I can count on you, can't I?" Walker finally stopped talking to look sincerely at Jim.

Jim glanced from Walker to Simon, who sat in his chair with a grin on his face, looking like the Cheshire Cat. Well that certainly fit. At the moment, he felt like Alice, who had just fallen down the rabbit hole. Okay, Simon isn't going to be any help, time to take charge of this conversation and find out what's going on. "Could you start from the beginning of this 'problem' you say you have and why you think I'm the best man for the job?"

Walker apparently took Jim's question as an affirmative answer, and his face was wreathed in a big smile. "Why sure, Jim, no problem. I already told you I'm the Police Chief for Walden. Well, it's a pretty exclusive community, six-figure incomes and all the trappings that go with that kind of money. In the past three months, we've had eight burglaries. All very slick, no evidence left behind, no suspects, no property recovered. The items taken were always jewelry, cash, gold coins, things easy to dispose of and almost impossible to trace. After each theft, the victims put in new security systems. Well, there's no harm in that. If you get burglarized, you're going to want a better system than the one you had. It wasn't until I happened to notice that all the new systems were being put in by the same company, Questor Security, that I began to get that funny feeling you get on the back of your neck. The detective of record on all the burglaries was Raymond Dallas. He's been there three years and is our lead detective. He hadn't bothered to mention this little fact in his investigative summaries, so I did a little checking with my sources and found out that he's a silent partner in Questor Security. Again, nothing wrong with that. It's just the coincidences keep adding up." Walker held up his hand as he counted his next statements off on his fingers. "One, he was on duty the date of each burglary. Two, he was the first officer on the scene at each burglary. Three, I found out from the victims that he's familiar with the security system at each burglary because he's done security evaluations at each location as a crime prevention officer."

Jim found himself wondering how Walker managed to talk so long without taking a breath. It reminded him of Sandburg in full-explanation mode. Shaking his head to refocus on what Walker had said, Jim asked, "All you've really got, though, are suspicions. I understand the problem, but what does that have to do with me? What do you want me to do, follow him around and see if he does anything suspicious?"

Walker again gave Jim that big grin. "You won't have to follow him too much, son. You'll already be right close to him. You see Ray all of a sudden signed up for a class at the Cascade Police Academy. I figure he's going to try and make contact with some fence here in town to get rid of the stolen merchandise and needed a legitimate reason to be down here. He probably thinks it's funny for the department to be paying his expenses while he's on business of his own."

Simon finally took pity on his baffled detective. "I'm going to okay your attendance in the same class that Dallas is signed up for, Jim. That way you can keep an eye on him at the school, see if he does anything suspicious."

Great, just great. I didn't enjoy the place all that much the first time around. And the last time Simon sent me to a training class there I wanted to strangle the instructor. Why couldn't this guy hang around exploding buildings or something? No, he has to go to a class at the academy.

"Yes, sir." Resigned to his fate, Jim turned toward Walker. "Did you bring your files on all the burglaries?"

Walker handed him a thick file with the Walden PD emblem on the front. "This should be everything you need. I hope you realize just how much I appreciate this, Jim. If Dallas is dirty, I want him caught. If he's not, I want to know he's clean. I don't like thinking there may be a weasel slinking around the department." Walker's voice hardened with that last statement and the friendly grin he seemed to habitually wear was no longer so friendly.

As Jim got up to leave he paused and asked Simon, "What class is it this Dallas signed up for?"

Simon's smile returned. "Just one of the advanced certification courses. Not that you need it, of course, but you can always count it toward your mandatory training hours. Wouldn't want you to not stay current in your training hours, would we?"

Jim was beginning to smell a rat.

Walker added, "From what Simon tells me, you could probably teach the class, Jim. You being the resident expert."

Jim glanced down at the authorization form as Simon handed it to him. High Speed Pursuit Driving. Instructor: Sergeant H. Hoffman. Looking back at Simon, Jim began, "But Simon...."

"That's all, Detective. Don't be late. I hear the sergeant can be a real bear."

His protest dying, Jim decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He left the office, only to be greeted by the twin smiles of Henri and Rafe.

Jim directed 'Ellison Glare #4' at the two detectives. Guaranteed to stop smartass remarks and unwanted kidding, it apparently hadn't lost its effectiveness as both Henri and Rafe directed their attention elsewhere. Too bad it didn't seem to work as well on Sandburg. He was never going to hear the end of this.

Blair squirmed in his seat once again as he glanced at the watch that Jim had given him and smiled at his memory of the occasion. Jim had 'remembered' he wanted to look at some new camping equipment at their favorite outdoor store. After they arrived, Jim had casually reminded him he would need a watch at the academy. He must have spent forty-five minutes trying on every single one in the display case while Jim patiently stood by. Stretch bands, nylon webbing, PVC, digital, analog, luminous, multi-function, the options seemed endless. There was even one equipped with GPS technology Jim had pointed out to him. Considering his rather limited budget, he'd about decided to just get a band for the watch face he carried, when Jim had stepped in. Jim must have been monitoring his responses to the different watches as he tried them on, because he told the salesman they'd take the one Blair had secretly wanted, the Swiss Army watch. Jim had just told him to consider it an early graduation gift.

It was now 3:45 p.m. In another fifteen minutes the class would convene out at the obstacle course. It was funny, he'd been dreading the obstacle course after hearing all the stories about the spectacular failures on it, but now he was eager to get out there. The trial attempt this past weekend had dispelled the fear and given him confidence he wouldn't make a fool of himself on the course.

The speaker droned on, reading another section of the Revised Code of Washington to the class. Blair glanced around at the other members of this class, resisting the urge to doodle on the side of his notes. Neatly printed notes at that, since the cadets were urged to practice making their handwriting legible. The instructors didn't waste time trying to decipher handwriting when they spot-checked the student's notebooks. If they couldn't read it, it wasn't there and had to be done over.

Late afternoon sleepiness was taking its toll. Almost half the cadets were listening with their heads propped up by their hands. God, this was boring. This whole method grated on Blair's natural aptitude for teaching. Repetition was the most basic form of instruction, but this was ridiculous. See it, hear it, write it. He felt like he was back in grammar school. It seemed as if the instructor was deliberately making his voice as monotonous as possible as he read. Of course, he would be bored, too, having to read to the class. Blair dutifully copied the text of the next section into his official class notes as the second hand of his watch made another slow sweep. Five more minutes and they could get outside. He uncharitably thought this was just like waiting for recess.

Finally, the last section for the day was finished. They had fifteen minutes to get changed and be out on the course.

Outside, Blair watched Sergeant Loker do pull-ups on the monkey bars as he waited for the class to assemble. The man was something else. Rumor had him retired from the marines after twenty-five years. He had been at the academy for the last ten and taught all the physical training. He ran with them on their 'field runs'. No, not with them, he ran all around them. Running in front, running on the side, running behind, even running backwards. It was unknown if the man had a sense of humor, since no one had seen him smile. Even the most athletic cadet had a hard time keeping up with him, and he loved it when one had the guts to challenge him. After a few introductory remarks, Loker had gone through the course. He made it look so easy, practically strolling through the obstacles.

The plan was to start someone on the course every two minutes. That would space people out enough so that they wouldn't be running into each other - supposedly. If you got hung up on one obstacle, you were to go around it and keep going. It only took six people before the first snag.

Cadet Amanda Anderson couldn't get over the wall. She made the leap and hung on to the top by her fingers, but just didn't have the arm strength to pull herself over. Loker ran over and started to harangue the unfortunate cadet. Spurred on by Loker's words or just out of desperation to escape his voice, she finally managed to get over the wall and continue.

While Loker had been busy with Anderson, his assistants had been busy at the balance beam and the chain link fence. Rick Blake had been going a bit too fast and ended up straddling the beam. That's got to hurt, Blair thought, his confidence eroding slightly.

Next, Tony Delgado had got his feet stuck in the chain link fence and somersaulted over, landing flat on his back, temporarily winded.

Blair bided his time and kept stretching. There were benefits to being towards the end of the alphabet, although seeing cadet after cadet fail at one obstacle or another wore at his confidence. Unaffected by the wait, Cadet Terrance Jackson, III, was holding court over at the edge of the course. Six feet tall with dark brown hair and eyes, Jackson looked like Joe College. At 22, he had come straight from the world of academia with a major in Police Science to join the Cascade Police Department. The self-appointed leader of the class, he frequently found opportunities to give the other students the "benefit" of his wisdom when he wasn't assigning disparaging nicknames to everyone.

Blair had been unimpressed when Jackson had called him 'Sandbag'. The man wasn't even very inventive. Now Jim, he was a man who was good at nicknames. But then he didn't try to belittle anyone with them either. Nor had he been pleased when Blair had let Jackson's slur slip one night at dinner.

Currently Jackson was instructing his followers in the "correct" method of tackling each obstacle. What a jerk. He thinks he knows more than anyone out here, including the instructors. The problem was that Jackson was good. He was the only one of the class who could keep up with Loker on the field runs and called him 'Old Timer' behind his back. He was smart, knew police procedure, martial arts and was a crack shot.

Blair smiled a little smugly to himself, on the shooting range, at least, Jackson was not top of his class. That honor went to Blair, who was still trying to work out his mixed emotions on the subject of carrying a weapon. Weird that the part of police work that bothered him the most was also something he was exceedingly good at.

Now he was talking about how he was going to break the long-standing record set for completing the course. I hope he breaks his stupid... No, not going to go there. Concentrate on what you're doing, quit thinking about Mr. Terrance Aren't-I-Perfect Jackson.

"Jackson! Front and center. Leave your knitting group and get on the course." Loker yelled in a voice loud enough to be heard in the parking lot.

Jackson didn't miss the smiles some of the cadets wore as Loker called him into position. Maybe it was embarrassment, maybe it was frustration, but Terrance was definitely off his game as he stumbled at the window entry obstacle and went sprawling face first on the ground.

Loker was ready with advice. "Never going to beat the record that way, son. Even this 'Old Timer' knows you've got to stay on your feet to finish the course. If you need some extra instruction, you just let me know." The overly solicitous tone of his voice was guaranteed to irk the young cadet.

Jackson gave him a dirty look and hauled himself up. He continued the course with a lot less swagger in his steps.

Inwardly, Blair was laughing. It was about time. Loker must have ears like a bat to have heard Jackson from over there. Hmmm, maybe enhanced hearing? He brought himself up sharply. That was another time, another life. Concentrate on what you have, who you are. He refocused his attention on the obstacle course and the progress of the other cadets. Okay, they're in the R's now, time to move up and get ready.

When Loker called out Blair's name, he was already at the starting line. On the command to go, Blair smoothly began the course. The first half went as well as it did before. The wall, though was waiting to get him again. Even after two attempts, Blair continued to freeze on the wall. Frustrated, angry with himself, he kicked at the wall as he clung to it.

"Do something Sandburg. Don't just hang there trying to kick it into submission," Loker commented from the ground beside him.

Blair managed to pull his shoulders up to the top of the wall and then couldn't go any farther. This just wasn't working. The sergeant was already busy with another cadet. Taking a deep breath, he dropped back down to the ground and went around the obstacle to continue the course. Finishing everything else was a breeze, even the mile run didn't phase him, much. The early morning runs that Jim had dragged him out on were finally paying off.

Loker waited until the last cadet came panting over to the finish where everyone was gathered. "Not too bad a beginning, folks. Everyone managed to avoid breaking any bones. We'll have the qualification runs on Friday. See you tomorrow. Oh, and Mr. Jackson, I'll be looking forward to seeing you beat the course record." The sarcastic tone in Loker's voice made Blair doubt the sincerity of that last statement.

After showering and changing, Blair walked toward the parking lot behind another group of cadets. He couldn't help but hear what they were talking about.

"What's the big thing about the course record anyway? Who cares?"

"I can guarantee you that Jackson cares after Loker's last remark."

"Is Loker the one who holds the record or something? He sure is making a big deal of it."

"No. He doesn't hold it. I found out it belongs to somebody named J. Ellison. He did the course in ten minutes, five seconds, when he went through the academy."

Blair smiled at the information as he headed off to his own vehicle. So his partner had been holding out on him. No, Jim probably didn't even know or care. It was something he'd needed to accomplish, so he'd done it to the best of his ability. And I'll do it too. He unlocked the Volvo and headed home.

One of the few advantages of going to the academy was the fact that class was over at nearly the same time every day. That meant Blair could count on being home before Jim on most days. It also meant that since he got home first, he usually ended up making dinner for both of them. Planning out the menu in his head, he was surprised to find the truck already there as he pulled in.

He climbed a little stiffly out of his car and headed up the stairs to the loft. The rigors of the obstacle course were catching up to him. Opening the door and dropping his gym bag by the couch, he saw Jim doing something in the kitchen. "Hey man, don't tell me you're actually cooking." He walked over, noticing that Jim had already set the table. Leaning over the counter, he sneaked a bite of carrot.

"I thought it was about time I fixed a meal. You've been catching most of them and I'm getting tired of dishpan hands." Jim continued to cut up vegetables to add to the stir-fry. "How did it go today?"

"We had the obstacle course 'explained' to us." Blair drew himself up and deepened his voice to a growl. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the obstacle course. Out here we will test your physical fitness to perform the job. Completing this course within the specified time is a requirement you must pass in order to graduate. This course can make you or break you." Blair presented the little speech with all the military bluster he could manage, drawing a smile from Jim. Switching back to his normal voice he continued. "We did a couple of practice attempts to get a feel for it." He tried to sneak another piece of carrot from the cutting board, but Jim was too fast for him this time and snatched the cutting board out of reach.

"Did you make it over the wall this time?" Jim finished his chopping and dumped everything in the hot wok where it sizzled and released mouth-watering aromas as he stirred it.

"No, and I had plenty of company."

"Told you. That wall has stopped many a cadet."

"I know. I know. Of course, there are also those who did it perfect the first time out." His voice lost a little of its enthusiasm as he went to flop down on the couch.

"Everything else go okay?" Jim's voice floated out from the kitchen as he continued the dinner preparations.

"Yeah, no problems with any of the rest of it. I just got stuck on that stupid wall. I know I have the ability to get over it, I'm just a little short of ...motivation. Maybe I need a crazed serial killer chasing me, that should work real well." The frustration Blair was feeling was evident in his tone of voice.

"Chief, you'll do it. If you want, we can practice it tomorrow."

"Tomorrow? Are you going to skip going into work or something?"

"No. It just so happens I'll be at the academy anyway and, if you want, we can get some extra work in on that wall." Jim spoke casually, as the little comment he'd just dropped was insignificant. "Come and get it." He set the stir-fry out on the counter and uncovered a bowl of rice.

The next few minutes were filled with fixing plates and drinks and settling down at the table. Blair let the moment drag out, lulling Jim into a belief his remark about the academy had gone unnoticed. He let a tone of innocent curiosity infuse his voice. "Why are you going to be out at the academy, Jim?"

Jim winced, knowing he'd been caught. "I have to attend a class to keep an eye on an out-of-town detective who might be involved in some pretty big burglaries." Time for the next distraction. "Want to help?"

"How can I help? They don't exactly give us a lot of free time to ourselves you know and I don't think they'll let me keep missing class."

Jim smiled. "By doing what you always do best, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. With your ability to find trouble, I figure you just have to be in the vicinity and something will happen." He managed to keep a straight face as he delivered the line. The look of bewilderment on Blair's face was worth it. He couldn't help a chuckle that escaped.

"Funny. That's real funny. Did you need help or were you planning on standing around and just watching while I create chaos and upheaval by my very presence?" He couldn't help that things always seemed to happen when he was around, it was a gift...kind of.

Turning serious, Jim continued. "I can keep an eye on our guy easy enough, but if he sees me paying too much attention to him, it could easily spook him. From the way his chief describes him, he's no dummy. He won't pay too much attention to a cadet. They're wandering all over the place out there. All you have to do is the same thing I'm doing, watch him and see what he does. I've even got the perfect way for us to stay in contact with each other." He pushed his plate away and reached for an object clipped onto his belt.

"This is one of those new digital pagers. I can call on my cell phone and send a voice message to you on the pager. It's a new kind of voice recognition software. I talk like I'm making a normal call, and you get the printed version scrolling across the screen. If you miss the beginning, just push repeat and it will scroll across again. No one will think anything of it. There's no regulation against having pagers in class so long as they're silent. What do you think? Want to work with me on this?" He handed the pager over to his partner.

Blair looked at the pager then back at Jim. "That works for you talking to me, but how about when I need to talk to you? You can't use your senses to listen for my voice all day long. You'll have a migraine you'll never forget."

"I won't have to. When you want to talk to me, press the test signal. Trust me, I'll hear it. The guys at the pager place about drove me nuts playing with it when I was in there. It's a high frequency tone. You signal and I'll tune in to you. So be careful what you'll say Chief, Big Brother will be listening." Jim tapped his ear and smiled.

Blair warmed to the plan. "Riiight. This'll be cool. So, what's the whole story?"

While Blair was clearing the dishes and washing up, Jim told him all the information he had on Raymond Dallas and the burglaries. The problem was that suspicion was all they had. There was no solid connection between him and the thefts. While keeping an eye on him at the academy, they had to hope he did something to give himself away. Jim settled down on the couch to watch TV, and Blair was sitting at the kitchen table catching up on his e-mail. Figuring he'd prolonged Jim's anticipation long enough, he said, "You never did tell me, Jim. What kind of class is it you and Dallas are going to?"

Jim shut his eyes, knowing the ribbing would soon begin. Blair had been on him about his driving skills ever since that pursuit of Bentley and Shannon, when Vince Deal had been getting in the middle of things. He had even gone so far as to point out that there were pursuit-driving classes offered at the academy on a regular basis. Jim couldn't put it off any longer, time to face it like a man. "High Speed Pursuit Driving, Chief." Refusing to look at his partner, Jim kept his eyes glued to the screen showing WWF wrestlers fighting over trading cards. What the hell was he watching anyway? Although his eyes may have been directed elsewhere, he swore he could hear the smile begin on Blair's face and grow to epic proportions.

"Driving class, Jim? You're going to take a class on how to handle high speed pursuit driving?" The question was oh, so casual, yet laced with undisguised humor. "That wouldn't by chance be the driving class I 'suggested' you take after the Vince Deal case, is it? Or the one Simon suggested after that pursuit in the airport parking garage?"

"Yes, Einstein, it is. And I'm taking it. Or at least until something happens with the case." Jim couldn't resist adding that last bit hopefully. Taking a class with Sergeant Hoffman was not something he was looking forward to. The man was a fanatic about the care and maintenance of police vehicles and believed wholeheartedly in the idea of defensive driving. Needless to say, he hated Jim Ellison.

"Maybe you'll at least have time to go over 'How to avoid bouncing your partner off the roof' while you're there." Blair spoke in an undertone, knowing Jim was listening.

"I heard that."

"Well, duh, Jim." Blair went back to his e-mail, smiling and thinking of the mileage that he was going to get out of this one.

Continue on to Act II...

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This page last updated 2/2/01.