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.

Amateur Night
Nickerbits and Chaz


Act I

"Dean, come here!"

Dr. Dean Warner jumped at his fellow researcher's shout. Teresa Grose was normally a reserved individual who rarely ever spoke above a soft tone. Knowing the delicate and dangerous work in which she was engaged, the breathless excitement he heard in her voice now sent him running to her side.

"What is it, Terrie?" he called worriedly. "What's wrong?"

"Absolutely nothing! All is right in the world!" the dark-haired woman responded jubilantly. She waved triumphantly at a lonely microscope sitting atop her workstation. "Take a look."

Squinting into the microscope, Dean stared down at the slide she'd been studying. It only took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. "My God," he breathed as he straightened up to face her.

"Yes, exactly! We did it, Dean, we did it! It works!"

The blonde scientist watched in bemusement as Terrie danced around the lab in a happy little jig. Ah, what the hell, he thought fondly. We've been working on this for so long, she deserves to cut loose a little.

Speaking of which... "That it does, Dr. Grose," Dr. Warner said, catching his partner around the waist and twirling her around the room. "This calls for a celebration. Dinner, I think, my treat. Anywhere you want."

"I just can't believe we did it! A new antibiotic that works against some of those drug-resistant germs! We just have so much to do! We can't go running out to dinner tonight! We need to double check my results, get all our research notes in order and be sure that we can synthesize sample TCC-274X again with the same results -- the FDA is very picky about having their protocols followed, you know." The woman began pacing at a frantic pace around the lab as she continued her list.

"Then, we need to call Pharmco and let them know. They've been funding us for years. We have to let them know that it's been money well spent. We also need to start discussing protocols for lab tests and discuss which other centers we should send this to for independent verification and --"

"Whoa, whoa! Hold on just a minute, there." Dr. Warner laughed, shaking his head. "You're getting a bit carried away again, Terrie. Doing everything we need to do with this drug is going to take a long time. I realize that you're way too excited to leave right now, but, I'll tell you what, I'll make you a deal. You'd keep working without eating or sleeping 'til you drop if I let you. You know I'm right." He smiled down at the brunette who was flushing slightly with embarrassment as he spoke.

"Oh, come on, Dean," the woman protested weakly. "I'm not that bad."

"Yes, you are, and you know it, Terrie. Now here's the deal, okay? We'll stay here tonight and start getting the groundwork laid. We should have things pretty well organized by tomorrow evening. At 6:00 PM sharp, we're going to stop what we're doing and go out somewhere for a really nice dinner. Then, we'll both go home and we'll each get a good night's sleep, and be back here, ready to get going again at 8:00 AM -- no earlier, do you hear me? Don't even try to argue with me. If I have to, I'll give Security very strict instructions not to let you back into the lab -- you know I will."

The other scientist glared at her co-worker, but at last nodded her agreement. "Okay, tyrant, we'll do this your way. Let's get started then -- there's a lot I want to get done before 6:00 tomorrow!"

The two scientists were so busy making plans that they never noticed the shadow that had been standing in the doorway of the next room throughout the entire conversation.

Oh, Jack, you have really stumbled on the mother lode this time, haven't you? The shadow thought to himself. I wonder what the going price for the next super antibiotic is? Time to get the gang together. We did promise to cut each other in if one of us were to ever find something. The shadowy figure silently detached itself from the wall and glided toward the exit from the building.

Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg had had a very rough shift. Now they were looking forward to nothing so much as getting home, enjoying a bowl of leftover stew and kicking back for the evening to watch the Jags crush their latest competition.

"Oh, man," Blair groaned, pulling himself wearily up the steps. "I swear these stairs get longer every time we have to take them. Tell me again why we don't just move into a building where the elevator works occasionally?"

Jim's cheek twitched in a slight smile as he fitted the correct key and pushed the loft's door open. "Come on, Gramps. Grab some plates. I'll heat up French bread and the stew, and we can have something to eat. You know you'll feel better when that aging body of yours has a little something in its stomach."

"Oh, Jim," Blair cackled, sounding like the most ancient thing that had ever walked the earth. "You're just too good to such a decrepit old man. Whatever would I do without you here to support this aging body and feed me prune juice in the mornings?" Shuffling feebly toward the cabinets, the young man continued his play-acting as he reached up with hands 'gnarled' by arthritis. "Don't worry though, Jim. I've made sure the old folks home has saved a room for you in their special 'older than the hills' wing."

Laughing, Blair easily avoided the swat his partner aimed as he passed on his way to the table. "You gotta do better than that, Old Man, if you want to play with the big boys."

Laying his spoon down on the stove, Jim turned toward his partner, a small, deadly smile forming on his face. "Old man? I'll show you what this old man can do, Sandburg -- "

Backing away from the big detective, Blair's eyes fell on the blinking light of the answering machine. "Oh, wait a minute, Jim! There're messages on the machine. Maybe it's Serena with the lab results on the Watkins case." Lunging for the device, the young man pressed the 'Play' button. "Now, no horsing around, Jim. I'm going to need to write down any phone numbers or messages."

As he picked up a pen and pulled the message pad toward him, Blair heard his partner mutter, "Those messages won't last forever, Chief. Enjoy it while you can."

Smiling to himself, Blair turned his attention back to the first voice coming from the machine.

"Jim, it's Cathy. I had a really good time Saturday. I got my hands on the office tickets to the Jags game next Friday. Fourth row, center court. Call me if you know anyone who might be interested in going. You have my number."

"Well, I think that one was for you, Jim," Blair laughed, glancing over at his roommate, who was stirring the stew with almost comic concentration.

"Jiiiim, it's Inga. I'd really love to see you again. I managed to get hold of a pair of Jags tickets for Friday night's game. Sixth row, center court. How about dinner and the game and -- maybe -- who knows what else? Call me."

Laughing out loud now, Blair shot an amused look at Jim. "Aw, what a shame. Now you can't go to the game with either one because the other will see you there, and who knows what sort of public scene they might cause."

"Darwin, if you know what's good for you --" Jim's retort was cut off when the next recorded message began to play.

"Hey, Blair! It's me, Mitch. I've got all the props put together that you wanted for that Christmas pageant you and your partner are doing. They'll be ready if you guys want to come to the auxiliary prop building Saturday afternoon and pick it all up."

The speaker took a deep breath and continued more reluctantly. "Um, Blair, I'm really sorry to mention this, but your friend's going to have to sign for everything. You're not exactly well thought of at Rainier right now. Mr. Stanley -- you know him, he's the head of the theater department -- well, anyway, he said that he doesn't trust you, and he won't allow you to sign for valuable props."

Blair continued to stare down at the notepad, but his pen had stilled on the page. Even Jim stopped stirring the stew.

"I really am sorry, Blair," Mitch continued apologetically. "We don't all feel that way. Anyway, you can pick everything up Saturday afternoon. Give me a call and we'll set up the time. I'm looking forward to seeing you again!"

As the answering machine clicked off, Blair sat looking blankly at it for a second or two. His momentary reflection was cut short by his roommate, who sought to ward off the signs of impending depression. "Chief, exactly what was your friend talking about? What's this Christmas pageant you and I are supposedly doing and when were you planning on telling me about it?"

"Huh?" Blair roused himself from his contemplation. "Oh, sorry, Jim. Don't you remember? We'd talked about this about a month or so ago. Jessica called and asked for help on her class with the fourth-grade Christmas play. You know -- 'Christmas Around the World'? You really didn't want to do it, so I met with her teacher several times, and we planned out the play. I know that Rainier loans out props sometimes to other schools. I called to borrow the stuff we needed."

Jim frowned, annoyance and guilt warring in his expression. "Helping my nine-year-old niece isn't part of your job description, Chief. What the hell are her parents doing?"

Blair looked startled by the question. "I don't know. I never thought to ask. Besides, it sounded like fun." He grinned. "And you should see her teacher -- gray hair, dowdy dresses -- I've been thinking she'd be just perfect for you."

Ignoring his partner's jibe, Jim frowned slightly. "So you volunteered us even after I said I didn't want to?" His irritation was fading rapidly. At the time, his mind had been on a dozen things besides Christmas. Now, with their small, cheerfully lighted tree and other not-so-subtle decorations of the season insisted upon by Blair, he wasn't quite so opposed to the idea.

"I'm really sorry, Jim." Blair spoke rapidly to explain his reasoning. "You weren't supposed to be involved in this at all. I was just going to pick up the props and take them over to the school. The play is Sunday night. I'd return them on Monday, and that would be the extent of it. I just gave them your name because it sounded good. You know, Police Officer of the Year and all that. How could their props be any safer? I didn't think they'd actually want you to show up in person and sign anything. I really didn't mean to put you out over this. It just never occurred to me that my academic 'standing' would be a problem in getting the props. I can just get Ms. Hawthorne, that's Jessica's teacher, she's directing the play, to go with me and sign for everything. They'll give it to her." The last few sentences were spoken with a faint trace of bitterness. Although he'd accepted the consequences of his choices, some of the memories still rankled.

Turning off the stove, Jim came around the kitchen island to lay a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. "No, no, that's fine, Chief. Jessica is my niece, after all. I certainly don't mind doing a little something to help out where I can. I just wish that you didn't have to -- you know -- put up with this stuff. You didn't do anything wrong."

Summoning up a weak smile for his partner, Blair waved off the other man's concern. "No, it's cool, Jim. I knew what I was getting into when I talked to the press. I made my decision, and now I have to live with it. Can't ask for anything more than that, can I? Let's have something to eat now, and watch that game, okay?"

Late the next night, four men stood outside the locked laboratory doors.

"You sure you know what you're doing, Jack?" Tony Armstrong fidgeted nervously as he spoke. Smaller and darker than the others, he looked out of place in the midst of the rest of the group. What he did have in common with the other three was an interest in biochemistry and a desire to be fabulously wealthy.

"For god's sake, Tony, quit your whining!" the man holding the penlight hissed. Ron Nowak, a tall and brawny redhead, had little tolerance for cowards or complainers. "We've been over the plan dozens of times. Your job is to keep watch. So shut up and keep watch!"

The thickset man on the other side of Jack merely nodded his agreement. Bob Coulter had never been one for idle chatter and, being the closest confidant to the mastermind of this whole scheme, he knew the plan better than anyone but Jack himself. It would work as long as nervous little twits like Tony didn't screw it up.

"It's simplicity itself, Tony," the mastermind replied confidently as he tapped in the correct entrance sequence on the number pad beside the metal door. "Being a lab assistant has its privileges. I memorized both doctors' pass codes a couple of months ago, and I saw exactly where they put the sample tonight before they left. Campus security won't be by for another 15 minutes. We're wearing gloves, so we won't get fingerprints on anything." The door slid up silently, and Jack waved the others in grandly. "What did I tell you?"

Circling behind his three partners, Jack approached the freezer situated along the back wall. "It's in here, Bob. Let's see those magic lock picks you're always bragging about do their thing."

As Bob knelt by the keyhole, Jack turned to his other co-conspirators. "Tony -- go out and keep an eye on the hallway!" He checked his watch. "Eleven minutes before Security is due, but we shouldn't take anything for granted. Ron, stop gawking and keep the light steady. Bob, how are you doing there? C'mon, c'mon, we have a schedule to keep!"

"Keep your shirt on, Jack." The chunky man working at the lock peered up at his blond-haired companion. "I'm almost done here -- ah, there we go." Standing up and stepping away from the freezer, he bowed deeply to the other man while gesturing grandly toward the now unlocked compartment. "Would you care to do the honors, oh great leader?"

Striding forward, Jack rested his hands almost reverently on the door's handle, and turned for a moment to face the rest of his friends. "Well, are you all ready to be rich? This is the moment we've all been waiting for."

Turning back around, he turned the handle with a flourish and opened the door.

A split second later, the raucous howl of the lab's alarm system filled the air.

"Oh, shit!" Tony wailed. "You said there wouldn't be any problem! I'm don't want to go to jail! What're we gonna do now?"

"Shut up, Tony," Ron growled, advancing on the smaller man. "I thought taking out the video cameras and alarms were supposed to be your responsibility, anyway."

"I did my job, I did my job!" the smaller man babbled as he backed into a corner. "I took out the cameras and alarm system. This one must have been on some sort of separate line! I bet they did that back when that nut case managed to steal the Ebola virus a couple years back! Or when that wacko stole the nerve gas! It's not my fault!"

Taking a moment to grab the vial they'd come for, Jack turned sharply on his co-conspirators. "Look, something went wrong, Campus Security is on its way here now. If we panic, if any one of us gets caught, we're all as good as dead. Now, let's go!

Flashing red security lights cast vaguely threatening shadows over his face as Jack led the way quickly down the hallway. He swiftly approached an emergency exit door and pushed it open, retreating into the cold darkness of the December night.

The four men stopped a moment, looking desperately around for some way out of their predicament. After a moment, Ron snapped his fingers and pointed at a building barely visible in the gloom.

"C'mon, guys! This way!" Digging through his pockets, he pulled out a ring of keys and began flipping frantically through them, looking for the correct one to open the door.

"Hurry it up, will you! We gotta get outta sight! I can see cop cars headed this way!" Tony's voice sounded frantic and very loud in the still night air.

Bob leaned in close, invading Tony's personal space with his much larger bulk. The man's voice was a nearly silent, deadly hiss. "Shut your mouth before I have to do it for you."

"Guys, guys." Jack moved between the two men, speaking softly in an attempt to soothe jangled nerves. "C'mon. Ron's gonna open this door, we're all gonna step inside and we'll be looking calm, cool and completely ignorant when the campus cops come to talk to us. Okay? Just keep it together a minute longer."

"Yeah, yeah. Almost there." Ron's voice was ragged and a little breathless. He fitted one last key into the slot and sighed in relief as it turned and the tumblers of the lock snapped open. "Okay, guys, let's go. In! In!"

The four young men pushed their way quickly through the open doorway into the darkened building beyond. Jack, following at the back of the procession, pulled the door shut just before the first security guards arrived at the Rainier Medical Research Lab next door.

Feeling around on the wall, Ron flipped a row of light switches to reveal a large warehouse-like interior crammed from floor to ceiling with a wildly varying array of costumes and props. Heavily embroidered Elizabethan dresses in a deep purple velvet hung side by side with studded black leather biker's gear and a ragged scarecrow costume leftover from some long ago production of "The Wizard of Oz". Haphazard piles of shields, rubber-tipped spears and other theatrical weapons lay heaped on those rare areas of the floor that weren't already taken up by furniture of all shapes and sizes and shelves crammed full of every manner of knick-knack and bric-a-brac known to man.

Looking around, Jack raked his blonde hair back with one hand and smiled a very self-satisfied smile. "Oh, yeah. This is good. Just what we need."

"Huh?" Ron's expression mirrored the confusion his other companions felt.

Making a slow circuit of the room, Jack considered various items, rejecting them all for one reason or another until he finally came to a battered surfboard nestled in a corner of the room. Opening the small bag hung over the top of the board, an evil smile lit his face as he reached in and pulled out a small, round metal tin of Sex Wax.

A few minutes later, when the campus cops widened their search, they found four young men industriously sorting props in the back room of Rainier's theater department. Since one of them, Ron Nowak, had a key to the building and a letter from Doctor Albert Stanley, head of the department, instructing him to inventory theatrical props over the weekend, the cops questioned them only briefly. They were forced to conclude that whoever had broken into the lab had made a clean getaway.

"Team Two to Team One, over," a crackly voice came over the walkie-talkie clutched in Rick Winston's hand. He was senior officer on duty for Campus Security at Rainier University tonight. God, what a night for that honor.

"Team One, go ahead," the sandy-haired man replied, glancing at the luminous dial on his watch as he did so.

"The perimeter is secure, sir," Howard Tan, the second most senior officer on duty that night, reported.

He sounded a little nervous, and Rick couldn't blame him. This wasn't just another drill they'd practiced dozens of times since the recent thefts at Rainier's Medical Research Laboratory. This was for real.

The plan was a relatively simple one. Once the alarm sounded from that particular site on campus, a security perimeter was immediately placed around the lab and the surrounding structures. Four teams would then be sent inside this circle to make a thorough sweep of the buildings and grounds in the hopes of catching the intruders before they made it off the campus. Howard Tan was the perimeter supervisor for this shift. Winston was in charge of the sweeps.

"Good job, Team Two," the senior officer praised Tan. The Chinese man and his team had beaten their best time by 30 seconds. Rick assessed his own team with cool gray eyes. "Okay, people, you know what to do. Carnes and Knoll, suit up. You got the lab. The rest of you, spread out. Let's see if we can catch these jokers."

"God, I hate wearing these things," Campus Security Officer Jacob Knoll griped as he clumsily maneuvered his suited body through the laboratory doorway. He groped for the light switch and flipped it on. The lab was bathed in a spotlight glare.

Behind him, his partner, Molly Carnes, equally sheathed in a bright orange contamination suit, gave a little snort. "You'd rather be infected with the Ebola virus? Or typhoid? Or any of a dozen other delightful diseases that could be floating around in here?" She carefully entered the room and passed the other officer on her way around the equipment-laden table in the middle of the lab.

"Thank you, no," Jake replied with a grimace, trailing gingerly behind her. "It's just that these things are so damned bulky. I feel like a bull in a china shop with it on."

Eyeing her six and a half-foot, two hundred seventy-pound partner through the face shield of her protective suit, Molly replied dryly, "You are a bull in a china shop, Jake."

"Yeah, yeah," the big man dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. He turned in a slow circle and surveyed his side of the lab. "So, you see anything missing or broken into?"


Jake turned as swiftly as the suit allowed at his partner's softly muttered curse. "What's wrong?"

The stocky woman was staring at an open freezer door. Jake swallowed hard. He couldn't see her face because of the face shield, but it had to be bad if his normally clean-mouthed partner was swearing. Oh dear God..

"What's usually stored in there, Mol?"

She looked up at him blankly. "I dunno, Jake, but there's definitely something missing in here. We'd better give the docs a call."

In a swirl of evening gown and tuxedo, the two Rainier scientists burst through the small ring of campus security personnel and onlookers surrounding their laboratory. They were about to barge straight into the building when Carnes and Knoll caught them.

"Wait just a minute, doctors, we don't know what's missing yet," Molly informed them firmly, "No one goes in there without a suit." Jake moved into position behind her to effectively block the scientists' entrance.

"But you don't -- " Terrie started to protest, striding towards the door regardless of the intervening officers.

Dean laid a gentle, silencing hand on her shoulder. "What was broken into, Officer Carnes?"

Keeping careful eyes on the smaller of the pair, Molly reported, " One of the freezers. It looked to me like only one or maybe two vials were taken. Whoever the thief or thieves were, they knew what they were looking for."

Terrie took a calming breath, then asked in a soft voice, "Which freezer?"

Jake shrugged. "The one farthest against the left wall as you walk in."

"Dammit!" the little brunette exploded. "Get me a suit! So help me, God, if they've taken what I think they have.."

Ten minutes later, Dr. Grose was no longer swearing. She was crying. It was gone. The cure she had worked so hard and so long to find was gone. Dean wrapped an arm around her shaking shoulders and murmured soft reassurances, but his eyes snapped with the same outraged disbelief that shook his smaller colleague.

"So it wasn't anything contagious?" the big security guard asked in relief.

Two pairs of angry eyes pinned the hapless man in the act of removing his suit helmet. Terrie shook off Dean's arm and advanced on Jake.

"No, Officer, it's not contagious," she mocked angrily. "It's a cure, not a disease or poison. A cure that could stop or even prevent illnesses that have plagued the human race for generations --"

"It's also worth millions to someone who has the right connections," Dean added quietly. Over in her corner, Molly nodded to herself.

"I figured as much," she said after taking off her own helmet. She glanced over at Winston, who had joined them after the all clear had been signaled. "We can't deal with this ourselves, sir. We have to call in the city cops."

The senior officer nodded resignedly and went to make the call.

Act II

"Why us? Wouldn't Jim and Blair be better?" Detective Henri Brown groused as he slid his car to a smooth halt outside Rainier University's Security Office. "I mean, who knows the turf better?"

His partner sighed, having heard this complaint a dozen times on the way there from the station, and straightened his suit jacket as he climbed out of the car. "Yeah, H, probably. But they're still working the Watkins case, so we're it. Will you please get over it?"

The dark-skinned detective acted as though he didn't hear Ray Van Rafe's heartfelt plea. "Stealing stuff out of a med lab? What kind of idiot would do that? Think of all the nasty germs and stuff in there." Brown shuddered dramatically.

"None of it was messed with, just this supposed new miracle antibiotic," the other cop insisted. He pushed his germ-phobic partner in the direction of the doors. "Let's find who did this and be done with it, okay?"

"Yeah, whatever," Brown mumbled, a distinctly unhappy look on his face. He gave Rafe a sideways look. "This from a man who never gets sick."

Despite initial misgivings about the assignment, the two Major Crime detectives soon found themselves in the middle of a rather standard, yet frustrating, robbery investigation. After a thorough examination of the lab itself, which revealed little except that the theft was well-planned and executed by at least two people, the two left the lab techs to their dusting and photographing and headed back to the Security Office.

On the way there, Brown flipped through the guards' reports and stopped at Winston's. "Is it just me, or do you find it weird that these four guys just happened to be in the next building when all this was going down?"

Looking down at his own copy of the report, Rafe nodded thoughtfully. "And it's just a little too convenient how they didn't hear a thing until the security officers came to talk to them."

The other detective smiled a bit evilly. "I think it's time we had our own talk with our industrious little friends."

"Lead the way."

"So, Rhonda, what sort of mood is our fearless leader in this morning?" Brown queried, pausing outside Simon's office.

"Oh, the usual, you know. Breathing fire and eating the odd detective for breakfast. I'm sure you two have nothing to worry about, though. He only eats the incompetent ones." Rhonda smiled merrily as she rose from her desk. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to go down to the file room."

Watching Rhonda's hips sway as she walked toward the elevator, Rafe was brought back to the present by dint of his partner's elbow in the ribs. "Earth to Rafe, earth to Rafe. What are you staring at, man?"

"Uhm, just enjoying the view." Shaking himself back to the here and now, the urbane detective opened the office door and bowed his scruffier partner into the lion's den.

"Well, gentlemen, what have you got?" Simon queried as Brown and Rafe entered his office. "It had better be good. I've already gotten three calls >from Dr. Grose today."

The partners grimaced. They knew that nothing put their boss in a bad mood faster than being harassed about a case, especially this early in the investigation. The rather viciously chewed end of the cigar lying on the desk and the nearly empty coffeepot behind him spoke unvoiced volumes about captain's disposition at the moment.

Henri looked at his partner. Rafe motioned for him to begin as he made himself comfortable in the chair in front of their superior's desk. Tossing him a quick glare, Brown seated himself as well and began.

"We don't know much at this point, Captain," the dark-skinned detective admitted, managing not to flinch at the other man's groan. "All the prints belonged to the two docs and their assistant, Jack Nickell. No sign of forced entry on the door leading to the lab, but the freezer was opened by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of lock picking, so our thieves had to have known the codes to the door or are experts with computers, too. All cameras and other standard alarms in the Medical Building were disabled. Someone went to a hell of a lot of trouble to be unseen and unheard."

Taking pity on his partner, Rafe continued the report, drawing the captain's unhappy stare to himself. "The alarm attached to the freezer itself was just recently installed after that fiasco with the VX nerve gas. Apparently, our thieves didn't know about it, and that's what went off."

"No one was seen entering or exiting the building, but one of the guards found four kids in the building next door. It's the Theatre Center. They claim they were just working late, taking inventory."

Brown picked up the briefing again. "We confirmed with Mr. Albert Stanley, the department head, that they're in the midst of an inventory check, but only one of the kids, Ron Nowak, is actually attached to the Theatre department. The rest are his friends, who claimed to be helping to make a little extra cash. Mr. Stanley said he wasn't aware the other three were helping out. "But," the detective's eyes glinted with dark excitement, "what's really interesting is that the lab assistant, Nickell, was one of those four."

"Bring them in, but keep it gentle for now," Simon ordered. "The last thing I need are lawyers at my door. What we do need is to find that vial. If those kids took it, it's got to be on the campus grounds. If they didn't, and it was a professional job, then God only knows where it is now." The big captain shook his head. "Keep me posted, gentlemen. I don't want angry scientists calling me at all hours of the day wanting to know why we haven't found their precious cure yet."

"Yes, sir," the two detectives chorused and went to fetch their suspects.

Four hours later, the captain stopped by the interrogation rooms to see what progress they were making. Adhering to procedure, the detectives had sent officers to separate and transport the suspects separately to avoid any possibility of collaboration with their stories. Held in separate interview rooms, the two detectives had taken turns questioning their suspects in an effort to find inconsistencies with their accounts,

"Still nothing yet, sir," Rafe reported unhappily. He and Simon watched through the one-way glass as his larger partner loom menacingly over the last of the students. "They're guilty of something, but no one's talking. Nowak and Armstrong were as nervous as cats. Coulter was a little more in control, but not by much. All three stuck to their story about what they were doing in the prop room, though. Nickell, now, he's as cool as the proverbial cucumber. We couldn't get a rise out of him no matter what tactics we used."

"And what tactics did you use?" Simon asked archly. Some of his detectives had a habit of getting a little overzealous at times.

Rafe grinned at him as if he knew exactly what the captain was thinking. "Don't worry, we didn't use the Ellison approach. We just interviewed them, playing good cop/bad cop, trying to appeal to their better or worse natures, that sort of thing." The detective sighed. "Still nothing."

The big captain looked down at his subordinate. "What's your next move?"

Rafe's grin got a little wider. "Armstrong."

Simon looked at him in confusion. "Excuse me?"

"Of all the kids, Armstrong seemed to be the most nervous... and the most easily intimidated. Brown's telling the other three they can go home now, but our friend Tony has to stay for a few more questions. We're going to see how he copes without his buddies around."

An evil grin to match the one currently on Rafe's face stretched across Simon's. "I like how your mind works, Detective. Let me know what happens."

"Of course, Captain."

Exiting the police station and heading toward the nearest taxi stand, Jack glanced back at Bob and Ron following closely on his heels. "So, what did you guys think? Did you tell the cops anything?"

"Of course not!" Ron retorted, licking his lips nervously. "If any of us had squealed, do you really think we'd be leaving the station right now?

"How come they let us go, but kept Tony?"

"They decided he was the weak link," Bob growled quietly. "They're probably right, too. If they keep at him, the little creep's gonna crack. I just know it."

"You're right about that. I heard one of the cops saying that they'd checked out the stuff in the prop room. Now, they obviously didn't find the vial or we'd all be in jail right now. We've gotta find a way to get back in there and get that stuff now.

"Tony's gonna roll on all of us. I figure we've got maybe a couple of hours tops before he starts talking. We'll have to grab the stuff and run. We'll contact Bioceutical once we get out of town. I'm sure we'll get enough cash to keep us happy for quite a while." Jack hailed a cab, and the three men climbed inside. "Besides, with the money split only three ways, that'll be more for all of us."

"Hi, Mitch, how's it going?" Blair stood by Jim's blue and white truck, blinking into the afternoon sunlight. "Have you got everything put together for us? I've got the list of the props we need here. I figure we can check them off as we load up just to make sure we've got everything.

"That sound okay to you, Mitch? By the way," he continued, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to where his roommate stood, leaning against the truck, "this is my partner, Jim Ellison. He's a detective with the Cascade PD. I assume his signature is good enough for Old Man Stanley?"

"Now, Blair," the student's tone was both embarrassed and apologetic. "You know I don't feel that way, and I'm really sorry, but -- "

Reaching out, Blair clasped the theater arts grad's shoulder for a moment, meeting the other man's hazel eyes. "No, no, Mitch. It's me who's sorry. I know why Stanley feels the way he does and I knew what the situation was before we got here. It's not your fault. I have no cause to take it out on you."

"Hey, let's get this done with. I really do appreciate all the trouble you've gone to get all this stuff together for me. I know a bunch of eight- and nine-year olds I'm sure will be really happy, too.

"So, Mitch, we still on for beer and pizza as a thank you when I bring all this stuff back Monday afternoon?"

"Sounds good to me, Burg. Some of your other friends are going to meet us too, is that okay?"

"Oh, man, that will be great, seeing some of the old gang again! Oh, man, that just makes my day!" A delighted grin split the police consultant's face as he turned toward his roommate.

"C'mon, Jim. Let's get all this stuff loaded up. It's almost noon now, and we're supposed to meet Ms. Hawthorne around 3:00. They're rehearsing this afternoon. We'll drop the stuff off and they'll rehearse again with the real props instead of cardboard stand-ins just before the play tomorrow."

Striding up to the building, Jim glanced over at Mitch. "Isn't this the building where those kids were hiding after the break-in at the med-lab the other night? Have the police been through here yet?"

Jim saw Mitch's eyes go a little wider, heard his heart rate increase slightly and watched his face go white then red with what the detective recognized as anger. "They weren't 'hiding.' They had a legitimate reason for being here. Besides, in case you're wondering if I'm up to something nefarious, the cops have already checked the stuff you guys are taking."

"Uhm, Mitch, Mitch, Jim didn't mean anything by it," Blair cut in hastily in an effort to thwart his friend's anger. "It's his job to be a suspicious. C'mon, Man, he really didn't think you were involved in anything."

Jim was used to otherwise-smart people over-reacting to his questions when they thought he was accusing them of something, so he began looking over the neat pile of props waiting just inside the door of the building. Besides, weren't actors full of histrionics anyway?

Grinning, Blair turned back to Mitch and whispered, "He really didn't mean anything by it. Sometimes he tends to engage his mouth before he really thinks about what he's saying. He's really a great guy, though. So, are we okay here?"

"Well, okay, Blair. But, you owe me an extra six-pack for this one."

"No problem, man. I owe you big for this one, anyway."

Jim shook his head, a small smile gracing his face. Blair had to know that the whispered conversation was well within sentinel hearing range. Picking through the piles of stuff, he started loading the items into the back of the truck. The eclectic mixture of props surprised him. The Santa Claus suit, the small artificial Christmas tree, the religious items, even the Menorah he could understand. Some of the other items completely mystified him, though.

"Hey, Chief, what is some of this stuff for? The fake well, the devil costume, the surfboard? What on earth does a surfboard have to do with Christmas traditions?"

"That's a really neat story, Jim." Blair bounced over to his partner, beginning to settle into what Jim thought of as his 'lecturing' mode. "You see, in Australia, December is summer. It's hot. So, instead of the whole snowy rooftops, reindeer and sleigh thing, Santa is sometimes depicted as arriving on a surfboard. Just surfing right into shore with his bag of toys, y'know? Isn't that neat?

"Now the well, that's from -- "

"Whoa right there. That's enough, Sandburg. Don't tell me everything. You'll ruin all the surprises when we actually get to see this play."

"You're gonna stay and see the play with me? That's so cool! I didn't think there was any way you'd want to watch a bunch of fourth graders' Christmas pageant."

"Give me a little credit, Chief," Jim responded, loading the last of the props into the truck bed and beginning to secure a tarp over everything. "Jessica is my niece, after all." He checked the final knot. "Okay, that's everything. We've got to get going if we're going to make it over to Jessica's school in time. I'll finish tying this down while you say goodbye to your friend and make sure everything's taken care of there. Oh, and before I forget, here, take this. You know, to help pay for that pizza party you promised for this."

"Jim, I can't take this," Blair protested, looking down at the two twenty-dollar bills the other man had pressed into his hand. "This was my idea."

"She's my niece, Sandburg. I think that gives me the right to want to treat people who are doing favors for her to a little pizza and beer, don't you?"

"Okay, Jim, thanks." Somewhat abashed, Blair pocketed the bills and then went to finish going over the checklist with Mitch.

"We'll bring all this stuff back Monday around 2:00, okay? Then we'll go out for pizza and beer at Luigi's. See you then, all right?"

"Fine, Blair. See you then. Good luck with the play!" Mitch called as Jim and Blair climbed into the truck.

"Later, Mitch!" Blair responded as the vehicle began to pull away.

Mitch glanced out the front door of the warehouse at the sound of a car screeching to a halt outside the building. "Hey, Ron, what's going on?" He asked, walking out to meet the vehicle, which he recognized as Jack Nickell's convertible. "I'm surprised to see you guys back here today. I thought the cops had you guys downtown. What happened?"

Vaulting over the door of the car, Bob advanced menacingly on the theater major. "Uh, hey, uh, Ron, what's going on here?" Mitch's voice became a slightly hysterical squeak when the larger man backed him up against the wall, then grabbed him roughly by the arm and shoved him inside the building.

Piling out of the car, Jack and Ron followed their larger friend inside. "Bob, just keep our friend there for a couple minutes 'til we find what we're looking for. Ron, grab a rope. Tie your buddy up good and tight. We can't have him calling the cops the second we leave.." Turning away, Jack started rummaging through the clutter of the warehouse.

"Look, Mitch, I'm really sorry about this, okay?" Ron whispered as he tightened the ropes around his friend's wrists. "We're not going to hurt you. We just need as much time as possible to get out of here with no police involvement."

"Don't try justifying yourself to me, Ron," the other man shot back in a trembling voice. "I'm not interested in your excuses. Don't talk to me, okay? I'd thought we were friends. Just get whatever it is you're after and get out."

"Okay, Mitch, I understand. And, I'm sorry about the gag, but we can't have you yelling and attracting attention too soon. I really am sorry about this, though. There, that's not too tight, is it?"

"Wait just a minute!" Jack stalked up, grabbing the bound man by the front of his shirt, pulling the gag out of his mouth and glaring into his face. "Where is it? The vial is gone, and I want to know exactly what you did with it. The police didn't find it, or they would never have let us leave the station. That means someone else has it, and I want to know who!" He shook the hapless Mitch as he spoke.

"I don't know what you're talking about! I don't have anything! The cops checked everything out, and there was nothing here. I don't know what you're -- " Mitch's words broke off with a grunt as Jack's fist impacted with his face.

"Now, look here, Mitch, is it? I really don't enjoy beating people up, and I don't really want to have to do it anymore, but I will if you don't tell me where the stuff is! I'll ask you one more time. What did you do with that surfboard and the tin of Sex Wax that was in here? Just tell me that, and we'll leave you alone. Someone will find you and let you go, and then you can go back to your nice, quiet life as a theater major and grad student. That's fair enough, isn't it?" The blonde swung again, splitting the other man's lip.

Mitch was frantic with fear. "Wait, wait, wait! We loaned the stuff out to Blair, okay? I didn't know there was anything in there, I swear! He took it for some play he's helping out with! It's some elementary school thing. Uhm, it's called Lorrence Hope Elementary, it's the one out there on Green Street, out in the suburbs, okay? That's all I know. Please. Just go away and leave me alone!"

"Blair? You mean Blair Sandburg? The guy who just got kicked out of here for cheating on his dissertation? That Blair?" At the other man's nod, Jack stuffed the gag back into his mouth, smiled and turned back to his compatriots.

"C'mon, Bob, Ron. We have a man to see about a surfboard." Giving Mitch one last patronizing pat on the cheek, Jack stood and headed for his car.

Fitting the key into the trunk of his vehicle, Jack dug through the jumbled contents for a moment before coming up with a large bundle wrapped in canvas. "I was hoping we wouldn't need these, but it looks like things have gone just a little too far for that." Shaking the parcel open, he gestured at the four pistols that fell out. "Take one, both of you. There's one here for Tony, but I guess he won't be needing it."

"Uh, Jack, I don't know about this." Bob's hand shook as he reached hesitantly for one of the weapons. "I mean, this was just supposed to be a simple little robbery. This is a lot more complicated than I signed on for."

"Hey, you're in this just as deep as the rest of us now. You can either stay, get arrested when the cops get here and spend the next five or ten years of your life in jail, or you can come with us and end up rich and comfortable on some Caribbean island, surrounded by beautiful women. So, which is it gonna be? C'mon Ron, we gotta get going. You coming, Bob?"

After a moment's hesitation, the chunky youth nodded and climbed into the back seat of the car. "Okay, let's go. We're not going to hurt anybody unless we really need to, though, right?"

"Yeah, sure." Jack reassured the other man as Ron gunned the engine and spit gravel out of the parking lot. "We won't hurt anybody unless we really need to. We'll just wave the guns around a little bit, grab our stuff and leave. Simple. No problem. What could go wrong?"

"Why do I always have to be the bad cop?" Brown complained.

The two detectives decided to let Armstrong sweat a little before his latest round of interrogation. Neither had eaten since early morning and they agreed that a late lunch was in order. Two hours later, well fed from Brown's favorite Cajun restaurant , they were once again ready to pursue their case.

Looking critically at his T-shirt and jeans clad partner, Rafe commented, "If it looks like a thug and acts like a thug.."

Brown returned the critical look and rejoined, "Oh, and I suppose looking like a lawyer is so much better?"

"A lawyer?!"

"If it dresses like a sleazeball and talks like a sleazeball.." the larger detective mocked.

"Grease monkey!"

"Ambulance chaser!"

"Hey, can I help it if our friends spend so much time in the damn things?" Ray grumbled good-naturedly as they reached the door to the interrogation room. "Ready?"

"Yeah, have fun."

The anxious grad student's head whipped up at the sound of the door being opened and his eyes widened when he caught sight of one of his tormentors.

At least it's the nice one, he thought, straightening nervously in his chair. What did I do, anyway? Why did they keep me here? Damn, I should never have listened to Jack! I should have stayed home or gone to the frat party. Anything but go to that damn lab!

Rafe saw the student's inner struggle plainly on his face. This shouldn't take long, he told himself silently. Aloud, he said, "Sorry I took so long, Mr. Armstrong. I know you have a life outside this room. Here," he offered the bag of take-out he'd ordered at the restaurant. "Figured you might be hungry."

Tony's stomach growled as the scent of fried chicken reached his nose. Rafe chuckled as he pulled up a chair on the other side of the table. "Guess I was right."

The detective waited until the young man was halfway through his meal before he started with the questions. "I know we've been over this before, Mr. Armstrong, but could you tell me one more time what you and your friends were doing at the Theater Center so late at night?"

Tony swallowed a mouthful of spicy rice and washed it down with some Coke before answering, "Like I said before, Detective, we -- Jack, Bob, and I -- were just trying to help out Ron. That, and make a few extra bucks. You wouldn't believe how expensive being a student is."

Rafe nodded in commiseration. "Yeah, I can imagine. So, when did you guys decide to help Ron out? Or did he ask you first?"

The student frowned a little. "He asked us."


Tony's frown deepened. "Why not? We're all friends. Ron knows how much money we don't have. Besides, a job like that gets boring when you do it by yourself. Having people around to talk to and help out makes it go faster."

Before Rafe could ask another question, the door burst open and Brown stalked in. His partner didn't even blink at the dramatic entrance. Tony's reaction was a bit less nonchalant. Especially when the big detective headed straight for him, folded his arms across his broad chest, and stared unblinking down at his huddled form.

The seated cop continued his questioning calmly. "You and your friends would rather spend a Friday night taking inventory in a musty props room than go out partying? Doesn't that seem a little strange to you?"

"Wh-what?" Tony stammered, unable to take his eyes off the looming detective. Brown still hadn't blinked, or so it seemed to the terrified student.

Rafe patiently repeated his question.

"Th-there was always the rest of the weekend for that," Tony managed to say.

"True," Rafe nodded "but you know what I find really odd about this whole situation, Mr. Armstrong? Despite your claim that you were in that room all evening taking inventory, our lab techs didn't find your fingerprints on any of those props. Nor did we find any kind of log sheet that shows that you boys made any progress with this supposed inventory."

Without removing his glare from the student's suddenly bloodless face, Brown sat down on the table and leaned into Tony's personal space. "That just doesn't seem to make sense to me, Tony," he hissed menacingly. "Care to explain?"

Tony looked wildly up into the face inches from his own, over to the calm, expectant expression on Rafe's face, and then back to Brown. "It was all Jack's idea!" he blurted, helplessly.

"And, what idea was that, Mr. Armstrong?"

Ninety minutes later, the partners were back at Rainier University -- in the middle of an argument with Albert Stanley.

"How many times do you people have to go through my props?" the old man complained stridently. The detectives had found the shriveled, little thespian in his office. He had not been pleased when they told him they needed his keys to get back into the Theater Center. "I just got access back to that room this afternoon. I have a play to put on, Gentleman. I don't have time for all this nonsense."

Brown barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. "This won't take long, sir. We know what we're after this time. We just need to go in and get it, then we'll be out of your way."

"I should hope so, young man. People might start to wonder what kind of police force this city has, otherwise."

Both detectives ignored the jab. Neither cared a wit what the elder gentlemen thought of their skill. They knew they were good, and soon Simon would as well. Their captain held the only "elder" opinion that mattered.

Reaching the door to the prop room, Rafe was about to wave Mr. Stanley forward, when he noticed the door was already ajar. Quickly motioning the theater director back, the smaller detective nodded to his partner, and the two cautiously entered the room.

Nothing seemed out of place at first as they made their way through the haphazard sprawl of props. It wasn't until they were nearly at the back of the room that they heard the muffled yelling. With as much speed as caution allowed, the partners maneuvered around a large wooden backdrop toward the sound.

Bound and gagged, a young man stared furiously up at the detectives from where he had been abandoned on the floor. Even in the dim light, the black eye and split lip were obvious.

Rafe bent to remove the student's gag while Brown worked on the ropes binding his hands and feet. "You okay, kid?" Rafe asked kindly.

"Oh sure," the boy answered sarcastically as he tried to work some circulation back into his freed limbs. "I do this sort of thing every weekend. Good practice for all those bondage roles I've been trying out for."

Rafe let that one slide. "Who did this to you?"

"Nowak and his buddies," the student spat out. "They were pissed when they found me here. Demanded to know where the can of Sex Wax was. I told them to go buy their own. Then the blonde guy told me I'd better tell, or I end up looking like last week's meatloaf." The kid gestured at his battered face. "Did a good job, don't you think?"

"Did you tell them?" Brown asked.

The furious look on the young man's face was replaced by one of guilt. "Yeah," he admitted slowly. "What else was I gonna do?! The way they were pounding on me, I thought they were gonna kill me! I figured Blair's friend is a cop. He could handle them better than me."

Rafe and Brown exchanged an alarmed look at the mention of their favorite case consultant and his partner. "What do Jim and Blair have to do with this? How do you know them?" Rafe demanded.

"Blair's a friend of mine," the student answered defensively, wary of the sudden concern. "He and Jim picked up some props earlier this afternoon for some school play Blair was helping out with. They have the Sex Wax."

"Which school?" Brown snapped coolly as Rafe pulled out his cell phone.

"Um, Lorrence Hope Elementary, I think."

"Okay, Mister... what's your name?" Brown continued.

"Mitchell Travis. Call me Mitch," the kid replied. He swallowed hard. "Jim and Blair are going to be all right, aren't they?"

"Yeah, probably," the big detective tried to assure him. He wasn't very convincing, only too well aware of the duo's ability to attract bullets and other dangerous objects. "You did the right thing, Mitch. Why don't we get you out of here and to a doctor?"

A few paces away, Rafe hit the speed dial. "Captain Banks? We have a problem. It's Ellison and Sandburg -- "

"What kind of problem?" Simon demanded, yanking the unlit cigar from his mouth. What have they gotten themselves into this time? They're off-duty, for God's sakes!

Rafe explained the situation briefly. After hearing the facts, the captain ordered, "We'll meet you and Brown at the school. Don't go in until I get there."

"Understood." Rafe hung up.

Snatching up his coat and gun, Simon strode through the doorway of his office, a worried frown on his face. Damn! It seemed like such a good idea to let those kids walk. Jim, you and the kid better be in one piece when I get there!

Upon seeing the expression on their leader's face, the detectives remaining in the bullpen immediately reached for their own coats and weapons. Only one thing put that particular frown on his face. Ellison and Sandburg were in trouble -- bad trouble from the looks of it.

With a tight nod to show he understood and approved their swiftness, Simon addressed the group. "All right, people, we've got a nasty situation on our hands. Ellison and Sandburg have stumbled into a possible hostage situation at Lorrence Hope Elementary.

"As I'm sure you all know, there was a break-in at Rainier last night." At the nods of comprehension from the detectives gathered around, he continued. "An experimental antibiotic was stolen. We have reason to believe that the drug was hidden in one of the props Jim and Blair picked up for a Christmas pageant they're helping out with. The alleged perps have discovered this information and are on their way to the school. We believe there may be faculty and perhaps students at the school. There are three suspects. We don't know at this point if they're armed, but must assume they are."

The big man paused a moment. "These men are young amateurs, and they are desperate." Around him, worried looks covered his detectives' faces. They all knew there was nothing more dangerous in hostage situations than desperate novices. "Okay, let's roll."

As the detectives headed for the elevator leading to the basement, Simon turned to his secretary, his face grim, and ordered softly, "Rhonda, you better call and have an ambulance sent to the school, too."

Rhonda nodded solemnly and picked up the phone.

"Okay, Jim. Stella, that's Ms. Hawthorne, Jessica's teacher, says that we should park in front of the school. She says that's the nearest door to the auditorium. It'll be a lot closer for us to carry everything, okay?"

"Yeah, Sandburg, fine. Now, we're just going to drop this stuff off and go home, right? I'm looking forward to a quiet evening at home for once."


"What, Chief? Please don't tell me that you've volunteered me to play Santa Claus or something in this play, have you? Are you going to make me regret agreeing to leave my gun at home for this trip? Just so the kids don't accidentally get their hands on it, huh? Maybe it was for your protection, not theirs."

"No, no, man. Nothing like that." Blair laughed, trying to picture his partner in a fake beard and red velvet suit. "Actually, I just promised Michael that I'd bring Jessica home, and we'd do dinner together. Sorry, I wasn't expecting you to come along at the time."

"Michael? My ex-brother-in-law, that Michael?"

"Well, duh, Jim. Michael is Jessica's father, remember? You know, Jessica Plummer, your niece by marriage, the little girl whose class is having this Christmas play?"

"Very funny, Darwin." Jim growled, reaching over to tousle his friend's hair affectionately as he pulled into a slot and shifted the truck into park. "I can do dinner with Michael. We didn't stay in touch much after my divorce. If it wasn't for Jessica, we'd probably never see each other at all."

Throwing open the passenger door of the truck, Blair laughed as he bounced out onto the pavement. "You see, Jim? It'll be good for you! Helps keep you in touch with family and all that. I always have your best interests in mind."

Ignoring the big detective's skeptical look, Blair continued brightly. "C'mon. Let's let Ms. Hawthorne know we're here. Now, remember -- there might still be a couple of the kids hanging around, so try not to scare them with that big, nasty cop face or anything."

"Big, nasty cop face? What are you babbling on about now, Sandburg?"

"Well, Jim," Blair continued blithely, pulling the door to the school open. "You do have to agree that you can look just a little bit intimidating at times. You know, like times when you're feeling a little uncomfortable or put upon? You know, times like now? If you walk in looking like that, you're gonna scare the bejesus out of any extra eight- or nine-year olds that happen to be hanging around. Wipe that grimace off your face and smile for the kids, okay?"

Jim had to grin at his friend's excited chatter. The smile froze, however, when the door to the auditorium burst open and a middle-aged woman exited, followed closely by a horde of small children.

One, a little girl with long brown hair, detached herself from the group and ran down the hallway to the police detective and consultant, shouting excitedly, "Uncle Jim! Uncle Blair! You're here! Did you bring the stuff?" Grabbing the nonplused detective by the hand, the girl continued to chatter as she dragged him toward the rest of the group. "I thought you weren't coming, Uncle Jim! I thought it was just gonna be Uncle Blair. Are you gonna come to dinner with us, too? That'll be great! You gonna come see me in the play, too? I got a really big part, but you gotta come see it 'cause I'm not gonna tell you what it is!

"Oh, Uncle Jim -- this is Ms. Hawthorne, she's my teacher. You already know her, Uncle Blair. She's really smart!" Not giving anyone a moment to break in for their own introductions, Jessica steamrolled on. "That's Randy, and that's Sally, and that's Cathy -- she's my best friend -- and that's Justin and that there's Christopher."

"Now, Jessica," Ms. Hawthorne finally managed to interrupt, "what have I told you about talking too much? You have to remember to let the adults talk every now and again, okay?"

"I'm sorry," the abashed child whispered apologetically as she scruffed her sneaker against the linoleum while tightening her hold on Jim's hand to a death grip. "I'll be good."

Smiling down at the girl, the teacher patted the shining brown hair gently. "That's good, Jessica. Just remember your manners, okay?"

Turning her gaze up to the two adults, she continued. "Good to see you again, Blair. I really do appreciate all your help on this. And, you must be the famous Jim I've heard so much about. I'm very pleased to meet you.

"I'm really sorry about the extra students." She gestured at the children gathered around her feet. "Mrs. Thompson, that's Randy's mother, had van pool duty this afternoon, but she just called. Her van broke down, and she was trying to get hold of one of the other mothers to pick the kids up. I'm afraid they're here with us until someone else shows up."

Squatting down eye level with the restless children, Blair put on his brightest and most enthusiastic smile. "Well, you guys got really lucky, did you know that? Because you're here late, you can help us unload all the props for your play. You'll get to see them before any of your friends do. Isn't that exciting?

"C'mon, let's go unload the stuff, okay? Jessica, why don't you take the other kids and wait for us down there by the back door. We'll be with you in just a minute, okay?" As the children scurried off, Blair turned back to the middle-aged teacher. "Can you please take the kids out to the truck and give them each one of the little boxes of Christmas decorations that are sitting in that big box on top of the truck? There isn't anything heavy or expensive in there, and they'll feel useful. We'll be out in just a minute. I need to talk to Jim for a second, okay?"

Nodding, the woman shepherded the youngsters out the door as Blair turned to his partner. "Jim, why don't you go into the auditorium and scope out a space where we can put all this stuff. I'll take care of dealing with the kids, okay? I know you're tired and have a headache, and this is just a little bit more than you were planning on."

"Are you sure, Chief? You weren't planning on baby-sitting this many kids either, were you?"

"It's okay, Jim, it's all part of that premium Guide-slash-Police Consultant service you purchased. Now, go. I'll take care of keeping all those little hands busy; you can pay for dinner. I'll get them involved in some little busy-time project, and then you and I can get to work getting all that heavy stuff unloaded. Okay?"

"Thanks, Sandburg. You keep them busy, and I'll gladly pay for dinner." Walking toward the auditorium doors, Jim glanced back over his shoulder at the sight of his friend bouncing down the hallway. "Hey, Chief, don't let them gang up on you! I know you can hold your own against a bunch of eight-year olds!" The Sentinel laughed when Blair stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes as he pushed the door leading out to the truck open.

"Hey, Ms. Hawthorne," Blair called out as he approached the old Ford pickup. "I have a really good idea of how to keep these kids busy. We'll set up that artificial tree we brought, and we can get everyone busy decorating it. You can keep an eye on them while Jim and I carry all the bigger, heavier stuff in."

"That's a very good idea, Blair."

"Children, children, now listen up." The teacher's authoritative tone snapped the youngsters' attention to her immediately. "Each of you take one of these boxes. Here, Justin, you hand them out.

"Now, we're going to go inside and set up this little tree here, and then all of you can help to decorate it. Let's go."

Hefting the box with the artificial tree over his shoulder, Blair followed the little entourage back into the school.

Jim could actually feel his temper begin to unravel. With one part of his mind, he knew that the screeching bunch of hellions running around the auditorium were just acting like any normal group of eight- and nine-year-olds. He should be thankful that they were acting so normal. Most of the children the detective ran across in his day-to-day life were either terrified... or dead. But, with the echoes bouncing endlessly off the acoustically perfect walls of the auditorium, the noise was worse than Disneyland had ever been! He needed to dial it down, but he couldn't concentrate with all the racket.

"Chief," Jim ground out between clenched teeth. "Let's finish bringing in the props." Without giving his partner time to reply, the big man turned on his heel and strode swiftly out of the room.

Blair scrambled after the man. He'd been talking to Ms. Hawthorne about some last minute details and hadn't been paying as much attention as he should have to his Sentinel. Dammit, when was he going to learn?!

He caught up with Jim at the truck. The detective was leaning against the vehicle, one hand massaging his ears. It didn't take a Sentinel to see the bulging jaw or the granite face.

Oh, man. Resting one hand on Jim's arm, he asked softly, "Hey, man, what is it? C'mon, talk to me. We have most of the stuff inside already. Just a little while longer, and we'll be finished. If you're not feeling well, we'll just skip the dinner tonight and do it another time."

Jim ignored him in favor of yanking down the tailgate of the Ford with way more force than was necessary. "Jim, watch out!" Both men had to move fast to prevent an avalanche of props from spilling out onto the parking lot.

Once that small emergency was contained, Blair again reached out to his friend, more insistently this time. "Okay, Jim, what's wrong? You normally don't abuse your baby like that unless something's got you mad. I can't help you if you don't tell me what it is."

"I'm fine, Sandburg," Jim growled as he wrestled the paper-mache well from the bed of the pickup. "Just go back and finish what you were doing."

Blair frowned. "Yeah, sure you are, Jim. That's why your dentist is going to have to yell at you again at your next check-up. C'mon, man, let me help."

Jim set the well down very carefully on the pavement then straightened to look down at his partner. Damn. He knew that look on Sandburg's face. Might as well get it over with.

"It's the kids, Chief," he finally admitted. "They're just too noisy."

"What? C'mon, man, you can dial that down. You don't have to have enhanced hearing to drop off some props."

Jim glared at the younger man. "What did you think I was doing before you got out here, Einstein? It was just too loud to concentrate in there."

The Guide part of Blair wouldn't let it go, though. "Jim, no matter how loud it was, you still should have been able to dial it down. I mean, what if you -- "

"Not now, Sandburg," the Sentinel ordered, pulling the surfboard out of the truck and shoving it into his friend's arms. "You can figure out the whys and wherefores later. Let's just get this done and over with."

"We will talk about this later, Jim."

"Whatever. Get moving, Chief, it's not getting any earlier."

Throwing the surfboard over his shoulder, Blair stopped when the small bag looped over the top of it fell to the ground. "Hey, wait up a minute, Jim. I dropped something here. Give me a second to get it picked up."

Leaning the board against the truck, the young man bent over and plucked the sack off the asphalt. Opening it up to peer inside, Blair let out a surprised laugh. "Look at this, Jim." he chortled digging a small tin out of the pouch. "Sex Wax. Yeah, you and I know it's for surfboards, but I doubt little Sally's parents are going to be quite so understanding if they find her playing with it. I think maybe I'd better just stick this in my pocket before it shows up as somebody's show-and-tell exhibit on Monday morning." He stuck the container into the pocket of his jeans and picked up the surfboard again.

That drew a slight smile from the big detective. Giving his friend's shoulder a quick pat as he urged him toward the doorway, he teased, "Sex Wax, huh? Just remember, you use it on surfboards, not Tonya or Charity or Beth or Angela or."

"Oh, man, Jim," Blair's eyes sparkled with amusement, "who'd have thought you could be so crude. What sort of role model are you gonna make for all the little kids and uptight school marms?"

"Just you watch, Junior. You might learn something." Laughing, the two friends disappeared back into the school building.

Jim set the bundle of the props down in front of the stage. Only one more load to go, then he and Blair could get out of here. Speaking of Blair, where had his partner gotten to? Ms. Hawthorne had snagged him on one of their trips to the truck, then he had grabbed Jessica and retreated backstage. Jim hadn't seen him since.

He never got the chance to go looking for his partner.

"All right, don't move and no one will get hurt."

Jim immediately disobeyed the order by spinning in the direction of the voice. Three men brandishing guns stood in the main doorway of the auditorium. The detective had just enough time to note that none of them seemed quite comfortable with the weapons or the situation before a high-pitched scream pierced the silence. Even with his hearing dampened, Jim still flinched.

Ms. Hawthorne screamed again as the gunmen advanced down the aisle toward their victims. Her second scream set off the children. Used to following their beloved teacher's lead in everything, some began to cry, others began to scream along with her. It was all Jim could do not to clamp his hands over his ears.

"Shut up!" one of the gunmen shouted over the din. To emphasize his point, he raised his gun straight above his head and fired a shot. The silence that followed was nearly as deafening as the cacophony before it.

"Now that I have your attention," the blonde gunman that Jim identified as the leader began genially, "will you, sir -- " he pointed the gun at the detective, " -- and you, Ma'am -- " he cheerfully gestured his empty hand at the teacher, "-- please take the children to that corner over there and keep them quiet. This shouldn't take long, and then we'll be out of here as if we'd never shown up in the first place."

Great, just... great, Jim thought sourly as he reluctantly herded the teacher and students into the indicated corner. Amateur night at Lorrence Hope. Hysterical teacher, hysterical kids, no phone, no gun, and no Guide. Where the hell are you, Chief?!


Blair and Jessica were laughing as they skipped backstage in the auditorium to begin adjusting the lighting controls. "Now, Jessica, don't touch anything, okay? All I want you to do is to look up at the lights. I can't see the lights from the control panel, so what I need you to do is tell me which light goes on when I throw each switch, okay? That way we can be sure all the lights are working and all the switches are marked correctly."

"Okay, Uncle Blair. I'll watch real close and let you know what I see."

"Well, then, let's get this done, Jessica. Uncle Jim isn't feeling well enough to go to dinner tonight, but we'll do dinner and ice cream tomorrow. Sound good?"

Spending a couple of minutes giggling and joking as they continued their task, Blair found a very bad feeling slithering its way up his spine. He knew suddenly, without a doubt, that something was about to happen. After a moment he realized, with a chill, that the main auditorium had gone completely silent. The noises and excited chatter that had filled the air moments before was now absent. When a hysterical scream split the air, Blair sprang into action.

Creeping silently from behind the control panel, Blair touched Jessica's arm and put a finger to his lips. "Now, Jessica, there's something wrong. I don't know what it is yet, but I need for you to do something for me, okay?" At the little girl's nod, he continued, "I want you to go over and wait by the back door. I'm going to peek around the edge of the curtains. Don't make any noise, no matter what you see or hear. In fact, if I do this," Blair paused, flashing a quick hand signal at the child, "I want you to run out that door, go to the office, pick up the phone and dial 911. You don't have to talk to them. Just leave it off the hook, and go hide. The police will come and find you. Can you do that?"

Seeing the girl's very frightened look, Blair gave her a quick hug and ruffled her hair affectionately. "I hope nothing's happened, but if it has, you're going to be a big, brave, grown-up girl, right?"

"Yeah, I can do it, Uncle Blair," she responded in a nearly silent, trembling whisper. "I'll be a big girl."

"That's great, Jessica! Now, you wait by the door until I let you know what to do, okay?" Flashing a reassuring smile, Blair crept to the curtains separating the backstage area from the rest of the auditorium and, crouching down nearly to floor level, twitched the curtains aside to peer out.

The frightened children were clustered in a knot around Ms. Hawthorne's skirts, sobbing and screaming along their teacher. A trio of gunmen was advancing down the center aisle toward Jim. The Sentinel had planted himself firmly between the terrified huddle and the approaching threat, obviously intent on offering as much protection as possible to the teacher and children.

Oh, damn. I just hate when I'm right. Blair thought as he retreated quickly to Jessica's side.

"Jessica -- there's trouble. I need you to go to the office right now and call 911 like we talked about. If you can, I need for you to tell them where you are and that there's a Code 30 in progress. If you see anybody, though, just leave the phone off the hook and hide, okay? As soon as you call go hide anyway, okay? Don't come out for anyone except me or Jim or a policeman, okay?"

"But, but -- Ms. Hawthorne is screaming and so is everyone else." The little girl's voice was starting to rise hysterically, and Blair quickly reached out to lay a comforting hand on her arm.

"I know, it's scary. This is the best way you can help. Now, go! I'll be there in a few minutes if I can." He shooed the child into the hall and had just closed the door again when a single shot rang out.

Oh, god. Please, please, please don't let that have hit anyone, the young man prayed as he tiptoed back toward the curtain. I'll take another quick look out there, so I can tell the cops what to expect when they get here.

With that thought in mind, he twitched the curtain aside one more time to assess the hostage situation in the main auditorium. To Blair's great relief, there was no sign of blood or injury in his Sentinel, the children, or the rather hysterical teacher. As he watched, the tallest of the three gunmen took a step toward the huddled group and spoke in a low, threatening voice.

"Now, look here everyone. We're not here to hurt you, and we'll be out of your hair and gone in just a couple of minutes. We just forgot a little something in the stuff you brought here. We'll retrieve it and be out of your hair in no time flat.

"All of you just stay here, stay quiet and don't cause us any trouble, and everything will go real smooth, okay? Now, where's Sandburg? We know this was his gig, so he's gotta be around here somewhere."

"Sandburg left to pick up a couple more things for the play." Jim resisted the urge to glance at the stage and the curtain separating the backstage area from the rest of the auditorium. "He's going to be gone for a while, so you don't have to worry about him. Just get whatever it is, and get out!"

"Okay," Jack squatted down to put himself on the same level as the children and allowed a false smile to curve his mouth. "Does everyone else here agree with that?"

"Nuh-uh," Randy's strident voice broke through the hum of excited whispers and rustle of movement in the group of prisoners. Jim shot the little boy a murderous glare, but the boy was sitting in front of him and didn't see the blue lasers focused in his direction. "Blair's still here! He's backstage with Jessica! My mommy always says that you have to tell the truth no matter what!" Randy turned around and looked defiantly back at the detective.

Jim glared at the child for a second, trying to resist a momentary urge to strangle the boy, no matter what his age. Seeing the police detective's glare, the already frightened child quieted and seemed to shrink in on himself even further, but the damage was already done.

"Ron! Go!"

At the taller man's words, one of the other gunmen turned and darted toward the stage, holding his gun at the ready as he moved.

Blair backed frantically away from the curtain, intent on putting some distance between himself and the armed lunatic as quickly as possible. I hope that maniac doesn't to shoot first and ask questions later. Hopefully, Jessica's gotten through to the cops and they're on their way here right now.

Reaching the back of the auditorium, Blair threw the door open, escaping into the hallway beyond.

Charging the stage, Ron muttered to himself as he moved. "This was just supposed to be a simple burglary. No muss, no fuss, no problems. Yeah, right. This has been nothing but trouble from the start. Last time I trust good old Jack. Maybe I should have taken the opportunity to smack good old Mitch a couple times when I had the chance. Wouldn't have solved anything, but it might just have made me feel a little better."

As he reached the dais, the brawny man heard the sound of retreating footsteps from behind the dividing curtain. Putting on an adrenaline-fueled burst of speed, he leaped onto the platform and pushed his way through the hanging fabric just in time to see the exit leading to the hallway swing shut.

"Jack! Someone just ran out the back door! It's gotta be Sandburg. I'll get him. Be right back." Smiling in anticipation of possibly getting his chance to take out some of his frustrations, Ron slammed through the doorway and set off following the running footfalls reverberating from around the corner.

As the sound of Ron's steps faded, Jack allowed his gun to hang to swing casually threatening manner at his side as he studied his prisoners. He was fairly certain the sniffling woman and the wide-eyed kids weren't going to be too much of a problem. He smiled to himself. Fear was such a great motivator.

His interior smile faded, however, as he met the ice-blue eyes of the man. He was as big as Bob. Anger rolled in those eyes and the taut jaw muscles. Jack's hand tightened around his gun in response to the raw threat he saw in that face. He would have to keep a very close eye on this man and make sure he didn't do anything... unbeneficial... for them all.

The tall blonde's ruminations were broken when Bob tapped his shoulder and asked, "You want me to go after Ron?"

"Naw, he'll find them or not, it doesn't matter. This Jessica's got to be one of the kids, so she's of no concern to us. They can't call out, thanks to Ron's work on the phone lines, and the nearest civilization is far enough away that we should be gone before they can reach a workable phone. Let's just get what we came for and get out of here before all hell breaks loose." Jack shot a hard look in Jim's direction. "You start looking. I have something I want to say to our friend over there."

Leaving Bob to search the stacks of props, Jack stalked over to the seated detective. Leaning over him, he glared at the granite face for a moment. Jim matched him, glare for glare. The grad student wasn't used to somebody not backing down before his considerable will. With a snarl, he brought his gun up butt first and rapped it sharply against Jim's face.

Blood coursed down the detective's cheek from the resulting gash, running in rivulets along the side of his neck. The teacher screamed again and several of the children started crying. Grabbing a handful of Jim's shirt and hauling him close, Jack hissed, "Lie to me again, and it'll be the other end of the gun I'll be using."

Abruptly releasing his hold, he shoved the big man back and, without a backward look, moved to where Bob was calmly sorting through the props. Bob immediately stopped searching and turned his attention back to the cowering group in the corner.

Jim smiled grimly to himself. Good, he'd gotten them to focus on him instead of the others. Now, if he could just keep that focus until Blair brought back help, maybe everyone could walk out of here in one piece. Of course, he wasn't planning on just sitting here waiting for the cavalry to arrive..

A hesitant tug on his jacket sleeve pulled him from his plotting. Looking down, he saw the tear-streaked face of Randy. "Mr. Jim, I'm sorry," he whispered.

Jim's jaw spasmed a moment with irritation and worry. This kid's big mouth might get his best friend and his niece shot! But when he saw the fear and guilt in the little boy's eyes, he relented a little. It wasn't the eight-year-old's fault his parents did such a good job teaching him that lying was wrong.

Awkwardly, he patted the kid's head and whispered back, "Don't worry about it, Randy. It looks worse than it is -- "

Any further reassurances Jim may have given were cut off by an angry curse. "Dammit! It's got to be here! Where the hell is it?!"

Jack whirled and advanced on Jim again. "You! Tell me where it is or so help me -- "

Jim stared back. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"The Sex Wax, you idiot! Where's the can of Sex Wax that went with the surfboard?! Mitch said he gave it to you. Where is it?!"

Jim's eyes widened fractionally. Oh god, Blair, you've done it again.

Aloud, the detective said, "I still have no idea what you're talking about. We just picked up the props. We haven't had time to go through them yet."

Be a big girl, Uncle Blair said, the small child repeated to herself as she huddled before the looming shape of the desk in the darkened office. Dial 911 and talk to the people on the other end and hide. I can do that.

Chin firming with a resolve both her uncles would have recognized, Jessica crept as quietly as she could around the side of the big oak desk. Climbing onto the chair, she reached for the phone.

The wheels of the chair and the slippery plastic of the receiver combined to thwart her good intentions. Pushing just a little too hard against the desk in her haste to reach the phone, Jessica had only just managed to lift the receiver from its cradle when she went rolling backwards into the wall behind the desk. She lost her grip on the receiver, and it hit the polished wood with a loud thump before sliding over the edge of the desk and dangling by its cord.

The little girl froze, expecting the bad men to come bursting through the door at any moment. When long seconds passed and nothing happened, Jessica slowly climbed down from the chair and inched forward until she could close both trembling hands around the slightly swaying receiver. Keeping a firm grip on it this time, she stood on tiptoe to reach the number pad and dialed 911.

Jessica held the phone to her ear and waited for the policeman on the other end to pick up. Nothing. Frowning, she waited some more. Still nothing. Well, she would just have to leave the phone off the hook like Uncle Blair had told her and go hide. She couldn't let the bad men find her.

Nodding to herself, the little girl set the receiver on the desk and crept silently under the knee-well to huddle in a terrified ball.

"Hey, Sandburg! If you just stop and give up now, I promise not to hurt you -- too much. You just come back and hang out with all your little friends, and we'll get what we came for and leave."

The big thug's voice echoed down the hallway to Blair's ears as he raced for the large set of double doors in front of him. Yeah, dream on, you Neanderthal. You're in way over your heads here. You're facing one of Cascade's finest. One hostage, one Hairboy. Yup, me and the Texas Rangers. This sure would have been a lot easier if I had my gun with me, though. Ohmigod, I'm wishing I had a gun with me. Good thing Naomi isn't here to see this.

A cynical smile twisted Blair's lips as he pushed through the big doors to find himself in the school's cafeteria. Looking around, he saw long rows of lunch tables, chairs pushed neatly underneath. A glass and steel serving counter ran the entire length of one wall, with doors leading into what Blair assumed would be the kitchen behind it.

Blair spun around as a large, redheaded man burst through the doorway, brandishing a pistol. At least it's nice to know that one of us remembered to bring his gun, Blair thought as he lunged for the nearest door -- the one behind the lunch counter.

"Hey, you! Come back here!" Ron's frustration was spiking, and he wasn't in the mood to play some stupid game of cat and mouse while the police were closing in on them. "Damn you! I said stop!!" Raising his pistol, he fired a couple of blind shots at the fleeing man.

"Oh, man, this so isn't necessary!" Blair straight-armed the swinging door leading to the kitchen and raced through. He flinched reflexively as one of the stray bullets ricocheted off the metal lintel, striking a fine shower of sparks in his face.

Looking around the neatly appointed area, his gaze fell on a tall set of free-standing shelves loaded with bottles and cans of oil, catsup and various other kitchen supplies as well as large bags of sugar and flour. A wicked smile crossed the young man's face as he raced across the room. He scooted around the back of the shelves just as his pursuer burst through the doorway, breathing heavily, gun waving wildly about.

"Where are you, dammit? I know you're still here, somewhere! If you come out right now, I probably won't shoot you. Maybe I will, though. I really am having a bad day here. Really, I'm usually one of the most easy going guys you'll ever meet, but right now, I think that hurting something would probably make me just feel better. So, are you going to come out, or do I have to go looking for you? You won't like it when I find you!" Ron stood just inside the doorway as he delivered his soliloquy, face turning red, breath coming in harsh gasps, gun clenched spasmodically in a trembling hand.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Blair had to stifle a chuckle as he peered out at the gunman through the bottles and cans lined up on the rack in front of him. Oh, yeah. That little speech certainly tempts me to give myself up -- NOT! Maybe if I just give him a couple of minutes he'll give himself a stroke. He certainly looks like he's getting worked up enough about everything.

Come on, you bastard. Just another step or two closer, and we'll finish this little scene up. C'mon, c'mon.

The muscle-bound gunman glared around the kitchen for several moments, then his gaze fixed on the big walk-in freezer on the opposite wall. "Hey, Sandburg! Hiding out in the freezer, are you? Don't make me come in there after you!"

Blair grabbed a large bottle of olive oil off the shelf in front of him and dashed it to the floor with a loud crash, spraying long tendrils of the oily fluid across the linoleum. Even this stupid Bozo should be able to figure out where I am now.

Ron spun on his heels at the sound of shattering glass. "Come out, come out, wherever you are! I've got you now. You're gonna be sorry you didn't listen to me before, you little jerk." Hefting his gun a little higher, he stalked toward the racks where the crash had originated.

That's it, that's it... just one more step. Crouching down slightly, Blair set his shoulder against the central support of the shelves and, putting all his weight behind it, shoved as hard as he could.

"Yes!" Blair couldn't restrain a shout of jubilation as the unit slowly toppled over onto the advancing gunman, pinning him to the ground amidst a shower of broken glass and splattering catsup, oil, flour, sugar and other assorted condiments.

Stepping cautiously around the metal racks and debris littering the area, he peered down at the man on the floor. The brawny criminal's head and shoulders were just visible beyond the bulk of the mess. Much to his surprise, a pair of very angry blue eyes glared back up at him. The man's arms moved, and Blair saw that somehow, the thug had kept hold of his gun.

"Hey. Put the gun down, push it as far away from yourself as you can, and then we'll work on getting you out from under there, okay?" Blair advanced cautiously, keeping a very wary eye on the trapped man's gun hand. "C'mon. You could be seriously hurt. Just put the gun down, and we'll get you free and get you to a doctor, okay?"

Blair was ready when the redheaded man's gun moved to track on him, and the man's strident, outraged voice split the air. "Damn you, damn you, damn you! This was supposed to be easy! A simple job and we'd all be set up for life! Damn you!"

Without stopping to think, Blair dodged for the nearest solid metal counter as the other man's finger began to whiten on the trigger. He heard the shot ring out a split second before he felt a blazing pain streak across the ribs on his right side.

Oh, man! That hurts!! Getting shot really does suck. Crouching behind the comparative safety of the stainless steel cabinet, Blair took a moment to examine the injury. Thank god, it's just a graze. Gonna slow me down a bit, though. He's trapped, but still has his gun, and isn't terribly reluctant to use it. He's fired three shots that I know of, but that model automatic holds thirteen bullets in its clip. He sent a silent apology toward his partner. Sorry, Jim, I meant magazine. Some day you can show me the difference, but right now, I just don't get it. The he turned his attention back to his current predicament. He'll cut me in half if I try to get close to him. I can't take this bunch head on. They're armed, I'm not, and they have hostages besides. God, I hope Jessica's okay. She's got to be scared to death.

Okay, time for a hasty retreat. I think maybe a little guerrilla warfare might be in order. Snagging a towel hanging over the counter, he pressed it to the bleeding gash across his ribs as he took a cautious peek around the corner at the man squirming under the rack. Damn! He's getting loose. Time for me to stage a strategic withdrawal.

Sliding around the edge of the cabinet, Blair scuttled as quickly as possible toward the far exit. He could hear his attacker screaming imprecations at him as he pushed through the door into the hallway beyond.

"What the hell happened to you?" Bob asked in disbelief as he caught sight of the baking day disaster stumbling towards him.

"What the hell do you think happened?" his fellow thief snarled, ineffectually wiping at the goop covering his face. "That bastard! I'm gonna kill him slowly when I get my hands on him!"

"What'd he do, whip up a batch of cookies and fling the dough at you? Jeezus, Ron, it's just one unarmed guy. You had a gun. We heard the shots. Did you miss?" Bob snickered. Jack joined the pair and looked at the redhead in disgust.

"No, I did not," Ron insisted hotly, what could be seen of his face turning scarlet with embarrassment and anger. "At least not with the last shot. I saw that bullet hit."

Over in his corner, Jim ground his teeth together tightly to keep from yelling. He'd heard his partner's gasp of pain when the shots had been fired. He'd smelled the unique and terrible scent of his Guide's blood. Yet somehow, he'd hoped that, just once, his senses were playing him false. The blue eyes narrowed dangerously. The gunman was going to pay for hurting his partner.

Unaware of the time bomb ticking a few feet away, Jack raised one eyebrow and said, "So you shot him. You still haven't explained this." He waved at the flour, oil, sugar, and other substances clinging to the other grad student.

Ron mumbled a reply.

"I don't think I quite heard that, Ron."

"What can he do?" Ron shouted back. "I shot him! He'll probably bleed to death. I thought you two would have found the damned can by now so we could get out of here. I need a bath," he ended petulantly.

The blonde grad student chuckled at his friend's furious glare. "Well, I've got a little job for you. Might just make you feel a little better, work some of those violent urges off."

Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Jack withdrew a large switchblade. Clicking it open, he ran a finger gently down one sharp edge. "Now, we don't want Sandburg or anyone else using one of the cars to leave. Slash the tires on the other two, and throw the kill switch on mine. You remember where that is, don't you?" He handed the knife and his car keys to the evilly grinning man, and turned back to Bob.

"Check the stuff one more time. The Sex Wax has to be here."

Act IV

Yeah, you bastard, think you're gonna get away with humiliating me like that, do ya? Ron thought viciously as he rammed his knife into the first of the four tires belonging to a blue and white pickup. Hah! You aren't gonna be going anywhere until I've have a chance to even up the score.

The furious grad student finished with the pickup's tires then moved on to a white Cavalier. Think you're so smart, too, don't ya, Sandburg, he continued with his mental rant. I'll bet this was all a ruse to get the Sex Wax here so you could steal the cure for yourself. Well, think again. Your luck has run out. The last thought was punctuated by a final gasp from the Cavalier's tires.

Folding the knife back up and shoving it into a soggy back pocket, the man turned to the last vehicle in the nearly vacant lot, a black I-ROC convertible. Popping open the trunk with the key Jack had given him, he fumbled at the carpet. Now, just gotta find Jack's kill switch, and you're stuck, you little prick. Aha!

A small patch of the carpet came loose at his insistent tugging. With a fierce grin of triumph, Ron flipped the small switch. Smoothing the carpet back into place, he thought momentarily, then picked up the tire iron from the trunk before carefully shutting it and turning back to the blue and white pickup.

You know, Sandburg, this old piece of junk has got to be yours. There's no way that frumpy teacher drives this thing. Swinging hard, the enraged grad student put the piece of metal through the truck's windshield. Two more swings took out both of the vehicle's headlights. A self-satisfied smile pulled up the corners of the man's mouth as he started peppering the hood and front end of the old Ford with large dents. Oh, yeah. This is almost as good as getting you, Sandburg. But, not quite. I'll still have plenty left for you. Dropping the tire iron on the ground, Ron turned and walked back toward the school.

"Jack." The blonde turned toward the sound of the voice. Bob stood on the stage amid the scattered and broken props supplied for the play. "I've checked everything again. It's not here."

"What? That's impossible!" The gang leader rushed toward the stage, pushed his compatriot out of the way and began flinging things carelessly aside. "Here's the damned surfboard. Here's the bag the Sex Wax was in." Jack paused a moment in his speech, while he dug frantically through the items in the pouch. "Shit! Where did it go!?! Where did it go!!! Rip everything apart! It's gotta be here somewhere!

"Ron! Get up here!" He turned to scream at the man just re-entering the auditorium. "Help Bob go through all this stuff. Don't worry about breaking anything. Just find it! I'll watch our 'friends' over there," he finished, moving over to where Jim was standing guard in front of the still somewhat hysterical teacher and the knot of frightened children huddled around her skirts.

"Okay, tough guy. Where is it? Just give it to us and we'll leave. Your little friend is probably dead by now. Just tell me where the Sex Wax is and we can avoid any more bloodshed."

"I have no idea of what you're talking about." Jim Ellison's voice was quiet and deadly. The detective was putting every bit of his covert ops. training into controlling the white-hot rage he was feeling. Since he had first heard Blair's gasp of pain and smelled his blood, Jim had not been able to focus his senses tightly enough to find any further signs of his friend. He considered, momentarily, taking out all three of these bumbling criminal masterminds so he could go find his Guide. He could do it, he knew he could. Unfortunately, however, the presence of Ms. Hawthorne and the children threw a variable into the equation that just did not make for an acceptable risk. There was a high chance that a stray bullet might strike one of the other hostages. That wasn't a gamble he could take -- even for Blair's sake.

So, Jim Ellison just ground his teeth even harder and reined his feelings in as much as possible.

Jack stared down at the other man, a cold, calculating expression on his face. "If the Sex Wax isn't with the props anymore, than one of you must have taken it. How did you figure out it was valuable? Okay, everyone! Turn all your pockets inside out, right now!" The handsome student punctuated his order with another threatening shake of his gun. "Now!!"

Jim turned to the huddled captives and calmly urged them to comply with the gunman's demands. He moved among the frightened children and nearly hysterical woman, offering a few comforting words or an encouraging pat on the back, as he collected the contents of everyone's pockets, and brought them forward to lay in an untidy heap at their captor's feet.

Scrutinizing the small pile of pennies, marbles, bubble gum and other treasures resulting from the search, Jack snarled in frustration. "It's not here! What in the hell -- " His words broke off abruptly and a sudden look of comprehension dawned on his face.

"Sandburg. He has it. He must have figured out somehow what was inside that tin and he thought he'd just take it for himself. Why not? He's already a fraud. He lost all that money that publisher was going to pay him for that fake diss. This is his chance to get his cash after all -- to grab for that brass ring.

"Ron! You said you shot Sandburg and he's probably dead by now. Go find the body. Find that Sex Wax and bring it back here. Now, go!"

Smiling with evil anticipation, Ron nodded as he exited the auditorium. "Oh, yeah. Going to find Mr. Sandburg is something I'd like to do. If I'm lucky, maybe he's not quite dead yet."

Glaring helplessly after the retreating thug's back, Jim silently began to plot the revenge he was going to take on all three of these criminals once he had secured the safety of the hostages. Looking around, he began to inventory what was in the auditorium that he could reach and use to his advantage.

"Man. This getting shot stuff really sucks!" Blair groused quietly to himself as he leaned momentarily against the wall in a long hallway, which was lined on either side with doors he could only assume led to classrooms. He pulled up his shirt and examined the gash in his side. About 5 inches long and fairly deep, it was still oozing blood at what was, to the police consultant at least, a fairly alarming rate. "I think I'd better find the nurse's office and get this thing bandaged. I won't be able to do Jim any favors if I keep leaving a lovely little blood trail for those clowns to follow or pass out before I can do anything. Now -- where would I be hiding if I was the nurse's office?"

After thinking for a moment, he set out toward where he had seen the front office on the way into the building. This was a very large school and he had absolutely no idea of where the nurse's office might be. Rather than waste precious time searching for it, he'd just go to the office. There was sure to be a first aid kit there, at the very least.

Pausing momentarily to confirm that the three stooges were nowhere in sight, he slipped around the corner and through the office door. Gazing around, his eyes settled on a long, glass fronted counter. That would be a logical place for me to hide if I were a first aid kit.

Creeping around the edge of the large tabletop, Blair rummaged through the selves lining the back of it for a moment before locating what he wanted tucked away in a corner. "Bingo! Now, to find someplace just a little less exposed to use it. Hang on, Jim. I'll be there soon." Glancing around, Blair's eyes settled on the closed wooden door marked 'Principal'. "Ah, just what the doctor ordered." The young man's ill-considered chuckle caused the pain in his side to flare momentarily, and he grimaced as he scuttled toward the door.

Cracking the door, he peered cautiously around the room, then crawled through the entrance, shutting the portal tightly behind him. Leaning against the nearest wall, he opened the first aid kit, pulled his shirt up, and began dabbing gently at the rivulets of half dried blood running down his side. Half way through, the sound of muffled sobbing reached his ears, coming from underneath the room's large desk.

Ohmigod! How could I have ever forgotten Jessica? "Hey, Sweetie, it's me. Uncle Blair. How are you doing? I'll bet you were the big, brave girl we all knew you'd be. C'mon out, and let me see you, okay?"

A soft sob preceded a flurry of movement as a small figure almost vaulted out from underneath the desk into Blair's arms. "Uncle Blair! Uncle Blair! I was so scared. I tried to call on the phone, but nobody answered. Where's Uncle Jim? Oh, golly! You're bleeding! What happened? What happened? Are you okay?"

"Shhh, it's okay, Jessica, it's okay. The bad guys are still here, so you need to talk softly and be brave for just a little while longer, okay?" Gesturing toward the first aid kit, he spoke in a soft, calm voice, trying to distract the little girl from the realities of the situation. "I could really use some help here. If I tell you what I need, can you please get it for me out of the kit and hand it to me?" Being careful to keep his injured side facing away from his helper, Blair spent the next couple of minutes bandaging the wound, while chattering quietly to the child.

As he was attaching the last piece of medical tape to the gauze covering his side, his ears picked up the sound of someone approaching the outer office fast, and if the continuous stream of curses was any indication, the new arrival was in a really foul mood.

"Jessica, honey, someone's coming. I need you to hide back under the desk for me. Be really quiet, and don't make a sound, no matter what happens, okay?"

The girl's frightened brown eyes stared intensely into his for just a moment before she nodded, gave him a quick hug, and scooted back into her hiding place.

Blair's gaze was raking the interior of the room, looking for something to use as a weapon, when he heard the external door of the outer office burst open with a resounding crash, followed moments later by a loud, familiar, ranting voice.

"Hey, Sandburg!! If you're not going to have the decency to just die when you get shot, I do appreciate the fact that you left me a nice clear trail of blood drops to follow! I know you're in the Principal's Office." The man's voice took on a taunting singsong quality with these last words. "The blood drops lead right up to it. Go ahead, cower behind that door -- I'm coming, and you don't have anyplace you can go now! You're all mine, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of this."

What is it with this redheaded psychopath? What's his jones with me? Blair's eyes settled on an item hanging on the wall. Well, not quite as good as an Uzi or anything -- god, am I wishing for a gun, again? Mom, I think there's some major meditation in my future -- but it should do the trick. Moving quickly, he snatched the large, wooden frat paddle off its hooks and moved silently to the edge of the doorjamb. Clutching the cudgel at the ready, he braced for the confrontation. Okay, you psychotic, just come in....

Moments later, the door splintered under the assault of a furious kick, and the brawny criminal lunged through the opened portal, pistol leading the way. "You're gonna get yours now, you little -- "

The gunman's rant cut off with a howl of pain as Blair brought the paddle down edgewise with all of his strength. His aim was true, and he struck squarely on the wrist of the other man's extended arm. The crack of breaking bones was loud in the air as Blair reversed the arc of his swing, hitting the other man squarely in the face with the flat of the paddle. Ron's eyes rolled back in his head as he sank to the floor without another sound.

"Hah! That'll teach you not to lead with your gun hand!" Smiling contentedly to himself, Blair picked the fallen gun off the floor, took hold of the larger man's arm and began hauling him back into the outer office. "Can't leave you in here with Jessica, but I don't want you going anywhere, either." Reaching into his back pocket, the young man had to laugh to himself. "Jim, when we get out of here, I'll have to thank you for making me always carry my handcuffs, even off duty." Glancing around the room, he decided to secure his prisoner to the bottom drawer handle of a locked filing cabinet.

With a small, satisfied smile, Blair returned to the inner office, calling quietly as he did so, "Jessica, c'mon, Honey, it's okay, you can come out now."

Sniffling almost silently, the small girl crawled hesitantly from her hiding place, "Uncle Blair? Are you okay? I heard the man yell, and I was afraid, but I knew I had to be quiet, and -- "

"Shh, shh, everything's going to be fine. There are still a couple of the bad men out there, and I have to help your Uncle Jim catch them, okay?" Catching Jessica's eyes, he waited for her to nod her understanding before continuing. "Now, I've handcuffed one of the bad guys out there until the police can get here and pick him up. I don't want you to go anywhere near him, okay? He might still try something. I want you to just stay in this office with the door shut." Spotting a couple of magazines on one of the secretary's desks, Blair scooped them up quickly and brought them back. "Jim or I or a nice policeman will be here in a little while. Until then, you can look through the pictures in these and even scribble all over them if you like." Gathering the child into his arms, he gave her a big hug, and ruffled her hair. "Everything will be okay, Jessica, I promise. I need to go find a way to help Jim. Now, you just keep being brave for us, you hear? We're counting on you."

Closing the inner office door behind him, Blair looked around. Picking up a telephone receiver off a secretary's desk, he grimaced at the lack of a dial tone. Okay, Jessica was right about the phones. No cavalry. Let's see now, Jim's in the auditorium. I need to think of a distraction....

Stealthily slinking out of the office, Blair's eye caught the placard on a door a short distance down the hallway -- Janitor's Closet. Opening the door, he examined the contents of the tiny room: mop, mop pail, various cleaners, rope... He grinned as his plan took form.

Whistling quietly to himself to attract the attention of the one person he knew would hear him, Blair tiptoed up the big auditorium doors. They had U-shaped pull handles, just what he was hoping for.

Quietly, he said, "Jim, it's me. I'm fine. Jessica's fine. The phone lines are cut, so I don't think it's going to be Major Crimes to the rescue this time. It's up to you and me, partner. I have an idea, but I'm gonna need your help.

"Get the kids and teacher away from you if you can. It'll take me about five minutes to get things set up. I'll give you a quick warning just before show time. It's going to be loud, so dial your hearing down." And man, I really hope you can hear me in there.

Praying that his Sentinel was listening and had heard him, Blair hurried back to the principal's office to pick up a couple items he needed to create his masterpiece.

Eyeing the distance between the two gunmen across the room and himself, Jim once again calculated his odds of surviving a direct confrontation.

There're only two of them, He ruthlessly quashed that little voice in the back of his mind that was whispering that his friend might be dead. I gotta act now. I --

Jim's train of thought was derailed by a sniffle from a little girl... who had somehow managed to wriggle her way into his lap. When did that happen? Staring down into her red, puffy eyes , the detective remembered Jessica introducing the girl as her best friend, Cathy. God, Jess must be terrified. He shelved that thought almost as soon as it appeared. He could do nothing to help his niece until he'd first disposed of the ones who had scared her in the first place. And I know many ways to dispose of bodies.

Looking down and around his seated position, Jim discovered that Cathy wasn't the only one who had taken advantage of his mental planning session and had moved closer. Ms. Hawthorne sat cross-legged on his left side, near enough for their shoulders to touch. The other little girl huddled in the teacher's lap, her head resting on Jim's left arm. One of the boys had wedged himself between Ms. Hawthorne and the detective, while Randy and the last little boy had arranged themselves tightly against Jim's right side. Tear tracks stained each of his charges' faces, but all of them were watching him with expectation.

Their innocent trust rocked Jim. It was the same look of faith on Blair's face every time the two of them dove into one impossible situation or another. He'd sort of gotten used to it from his partner. To see it reflected on other faces forcefully reminded him that he wasn't in this situation alone. It made him all the more determined to protect those in his care.

The big detective gave the little group what he hoped was a reassuring smile, then turned a hardened stare on the two men talking near the ruined stacks of props at the far end of the stage. The ice-blue eyes scanned the intervening space for any advantage. His gaze finally settled on the huge curtains directly behind the interlopers. Bob wasn't paying the captives any attention, intent instead on his conversation with Jack. Jack's focus was split between his partner and the huddled group by the far wall. The ringleader stood sideways, his gun pointed in the general direction of his hostages. He occasionally their way, but most of the time he faced Bob.

Careless, Jim noted with satisfaction. He cast a quick look at the steps leading to the stage. If I can get behind that curtain and across the stage before they realize I'm missing, they won't ever know what hit them.

"Jim, it's me..."

The big man closed his eyes in silent thanks. His Guide was alive! His relief was so great he nearly missed the rest of what Blair was saying. Promising himself to be properly grateful later, he focused on what the younger man was telling him.

Jim nodded slightly in agreement, though he knew Blair couldn't see the movement. Refusing to wonder what his Guide was up to, he shifted his attention to the two grad students and smiled ferally. Leaning close to Ms. Hawthorne, he whispered, "Go along with whatever I say." When she'd nodded her understanding, he cleared his throat loudly. "Hey, Jack, do you mind if the teacher and the kids sit in the chairs?"

Jack glowered at him. "Why?"

Ms. Hawthorne rose to the occasion. "My old bones aren't as comfortable on the floor as they were several years ago."

"And it's cold down here on the wood," Randy piped up, redeeming himself nicely. He smiled shyly at Jim, who gave him a broad wink of approval.

Jack waved his gun negligently. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just keep the brats quiet."

Jim helped get everyone herded into the front row of the auditorium. Giving them a reassuring smile, he turned and headed back toward the gunmen. Nonchalantly, he jumped onto the stage. When he straightened, he was only a few feet away from them.

"Hey, stop right there!" Jack barked nervously, his gun steadying.

Jim held up his arms to show he was no threat. "I just want to talk to you, and I didn't want to yell."

Jack shook his head. "Shut up! I'll let you know when you can talk."

"It's about Sandburg."

Now he had both students' attention. "What about him?" Bob growled.

"Well, I think Sandburg knows what's in the tin of Sex Wax, and he's probably going -- "

Whatever other nonsense Jim was about to utter was harshly cut off. From behind the closed doors to the auditorium, gun shots and shouts exploded. Everyone but Jim flinched at the noise, and a few of the kids began to cry again. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the sounds stopped. The eerie silence that followed was even more unnerving.

"Ron? You out there?" Jack called cautiously. No one answered. With a curse, he wheeled back toward his captives, gun pointed at Jim's head. "You knew this was going to happen."

Jim focused every bit of the discipline he had learned during his time in the Rangers into keep his face bland and unconcerned. He hoped the commotion was simply the distraction his partner had promised, but he feared that the third gunman might have caught up with Blair. His mind screamed at him to go determine his friend's well-being now, but every protective instinct held him in place. There were still innocents here in need of his protection.

Gathering his self-control tightly, he shrugged slightly, locking eyes with the thieves' leader, keeping his attention fixed on the most obvious threat. "How could I?" The detective was only too aware of the small group huddled behind him to try anything more provoking.

Jack glared at him a moment longer, then ordered, "Bob, go check it out."

The large grad student looked at Jack through narrowed eyes. Jack waved him on impatiently. With an angry grimace, Bob turned and strode cautiously up the main aisle to the exit. All eyes watched in suspense as he reached the double doors and pushed them open with a stiff-armed jab.

"What the -- " Bob's exclamation was cut short with a panicked yell and a burst of gunfire.

Jim offered up a quick prayer for Blair's safety, but didn't pause to watch what was happening at the front of the auditorium. The second Jack's attention shifted away from him, his long frame uncoiled in a tackle that caught the ringleader around the knees. Both men landed heavily, the detective immediately scrambling for the gun.

But Jack wasn't ready to surrender the weapon just yet. With a nearly inhuman twist, he freed himself of Jim's grip and rolled away, coming up against the stage curtain in a shaky crouch, gun arm extended.

Jim didn't wait for his opponent to regain his equilibrium. He slammed into the younger man a second time, this time wrapping strong fingers around his opponent's wrist. Giving it a vicious a, he was rewarded as Jack's fingers spasmed open and the gun dropped to the floor. He kicked the weapon away and rammed an elbow into Jack's face.

Blood erupted from the student's nose. With a howl of fury and pain, Jack swung wildly with his free fist. It did him little good. The angle was wrong and his raging emotions made him clumsy. The blow merely glanced off Jim's jaw. In a lightning grab, the detective caught the student's other wrist and with a supple twist, had the younger man pinned to the floor, a knee in his back keeping him in place.

Reaching into his back pocket, Jim cuffed the still squirming student, then shifted his attention back toward the front of the auditorium. Scooping up the gun, he advanced cautiously toward the entrance, intent on ascertaining his friend's condition.

Please, god, let that have been Sandburg's diversion. I know he's still not too fond of guns, but just this once, please let him have been the one holding it. Please --

Halfway down the aisle, he heard a rustling noise, like a body being dragged across a linoleum floor. He froze.

Please. "Sandburg, is that you?" he called quietly.

Silence. He moved a few feet further, gun pointed steadily at the place he'd heard the sound. "Dammit, Chief, answer me."

Another moment of silence passed before a dark, curly head popped into view. "Take it easy, Jim, -- hey! Can you point that thing somewhere else? I just had to make sure this idiot wasn't going anywhere. Jeez." He gave his partner a quick once over. "You okay?"

Lowering the revolver, Jim sent another silent 'thank you' skyward. "Yeah, fine," he grunted aloud. The dark head retreated back to the outside of the auditorium doors. Thoughts of Ron prompted the detective to ask, "Where's the other guy?"

"The redhead? Cuffed to a filing cabinet in the principal's office. Don't ask."

"Wouldn't dream of it, Chief. What exactly was this diversion of yours, anyway? Sounded pretty spectacular from what I heard."

Tucking the gun into his belt. Jim continued his trek up the aisle, needing more than just a verbal reassurance that his friend was okay. Blair tended to make light of injuries, but he wasn't going to get away with it this time. He knew the consultant had been shot. No way you're avoiding the emergency room this time, Sandburg.

As he pushed got closer, a grin formed on face. Bob lay unconscious on the floor, a discarded frat paddle lying by his side. A bullet riddled mannequin, fashioned from a mop set upside down in a rolling janitor's bucket enhanced with a long coat -- I wonder whose that was. I bet he's not going to be happy, it looks expensive -- sprawled haphazardly against one of the doors. Jim could see that a rope had been tied to the front of the bucket, then run through one of the door handles before being fastened to the other. Very cute, Partner. When he shoved the doors open, your dummy 'attacked' and that joker panicked. Very cute.

"Hey, Jim! You got any extra handcuffs?" Blair's smile drew an answering one from the detective in that moment before he was besieged by one very relieved teacher and a small horde of ecstatic children.

Blair chuckled at the scene, secretly wishing he had a camera to record it for all posterity. Quickly tightening a piece of rope left over from his decoy around his captive's wrists in an efficient knot, he began his way down the main aisle to help extricate his partner from his crowd of admirers. Before he got two steps towards his destination, movement from the outside window drew his attention. Taking a closer, cautious look, he rolled his eyes and heaved an exasperated sigh. "Well, it's about time!"

"About time for what, Chief?" Jim called in a slightly strangled voice. Cathy had jumped into his arms and wrapped herself like an octopus around his neck. It was getting more than a bit difficult to breathe, but he didn't have the heart to put her down too soon.

Blair snorted. "The cavalry, arriving just after the nick of time." Walking to the set of doors leading to the parking lot, he pushed them open with a flourish and bowed his 'rescuers' in. "So nice of you to join the party, guys."

Simon chose to ignore the sarcasm for the moment. "Sandburg! Are you and Jim okay?" With the rest of Major Crimes behind him, he strode into the room.

Blair grinned mischievously. "Well, I am, but Jim may need a little help with his fan club." He pointed at the beleaguered detective. Hmm, guess I don't need that camera. These guys' memories are much better than Kodak.

A round of relieved laughter later, Simon supervised while Joel coaxed the children and Ms. Hawthorne outside, Megan and Brown herded the two grad students from the auditorium into waiting cars and Rafe went to fetch the third. The stylish detective came back not only with his prisoner but also one very ecstatic little girl.

"Uncle Jim! Uncle Blair!" she shouted as she raced the short distance to them. She skidded to a halt in front of them, obviously torn between the two. She settled for grabbing one hand of each. "You're okay, Uncle Jim! And you caught the bad guys, just like Uncle Blair said you would. Ooh, I was so scared, but I did what I was told and --"

"Jessie, baby, is that you?" an anxious voice sounded over the child's enthusiastic chatter.


Jim and Blair traded worried looks. "Uh, Mike, I can explain." Jim began lamely.

Michael Plummer glared at the two men then turned a softened gaze down on his little girl. "I hope so, Jimmy, I hope so. Right now, I just want to get Jessie home. Call me tomorrow, and we'll discuss this."

"All right," Jim agreed, a little sadly. He'd never wanted his work to affect the innocents in his life, but he didn't seem to be doing a very good job of it. First Blair, now Jessica. Who was next?

Mike saw the look on his former brother-in-law's face and relented a little. After all, his baby girl wasn't hurt and from the excited babble, wasn't unduly terrorized by tonight's events. "Jim, I'm not sure what really happened here. Just let me get Jess outside, away from all this stuff and I'll stick around long enough to at least let you say goodbye. Then, we'll talk tomorrow, okay?" With that, he herded his little girl toward the exit.

Jim felt a hand descend onto his shoulder and looked down into the sympathetic eyes of his Guide. "It'll be okay, Jim. Mike's just upset about his whole mess and letting his emotions talk for him and he's looking for someone to blame. After he calms down, he'll realize that none of this was your fault. You'll be seeing that niece of yours again real soon." Blair smiled up into the taller man's face reassuringly.

The detective watched his niece and her father walk out the auditorium doors. "I hope you're right, Chief."

Brown walked over to where Jim and Blair were standing with the captain and looked from one partner to the other. "So, what did you do with it?"

"With what?" asked Blair. At the question, Jim remembered his friend had no idea what the cause behind this disaster was.

"The Sex Wax, Chief, what did you do with it?"

Blair looked at him in bewilderment before fishing the can out of his pocket. "It's right here. Why?"

Very gently, Brown took the tin out of Blair's hands and opened it. Reaching inside he pulled out the small, stoppered vial.

Blair's eyes widened, and he instinctively took a step back. "What's in that thing?"

"Nothing to worry about, Hairboy," Brown reassured him, conveniently forgetting his own first response to anything vaguely associated with disease. "It's not contagious or anything. This, boys, is supposedly the newest, super antibiotic which will cure all the ills of mankind!"

"An antibiotic?" Blair repeated. "You mean to tell me I've been shot at and terrorized all afternoon for some flippin' penicillin?!"

"Shot at?" Simon barked, looking closely at his younger friend for the first time. He'd taken the young man at his word when he'd said he was fine. Now, in the stronger light of the auditorium, he saw the freshly dried blood staining the flannel shirt. When am I going to learn? "All right, Sandburg, to the ambulance with you."

Blair raised one hand in protest as the captain and his two detectives began closing in on him. "Hey, hey, guys, calm down. I'm okay, it's just a graze. I already took care of it in the principal's office. Just chill out, okay?"

"We are 'chilled', and you're still going to the hospital to have that checked out," Simon stated firmly. "The last thing I need is for you to get an infection." The captain caught Jim's nod of agreement out of the corner of his eye. " And you'll be joining him, Detective." Startled blue eyes stared back at him. "Don't even try it, Ellison. The other last thing I need is for you to have a concussion while working. Sandburg will never let me hear the end of it. I can see the lump on your forehead and the dried blood from here. What did you run into? A gun butt, perhaps? I didn't make captain for nothing, you know. Go, both of you. Now."

With a shared look of exasperation, the two men did as they were told. As they exited through the auditorium doors, Jim got a better look at Blair's diversionary creation. "Hey, Chief, there's something I want to ask you."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"You had a gun, right? Why didn't you use it?"

Blair shrugged. "I needed a way to get at least one of those nuts out of the room without anyone else getting hurt." Or killed. He shuddered at the thought. "Figured gunfire might get their attention. There's no way that I could just rush in there and shoot both those guys without them getting a couple shots off and maybe hurting or killing someone. Besides," he went on with forced brightness, "why waste a perfectly good plan by shooting someone when it isn't absolutely necessary? Where's the creativity in that?"

The big detective shook his head as the two of them crossed the threshold to outside. "Only you, Chief, only you -- What the hell?!"

His younger counterpart shot a look up at the sudden venom in Jim's tone. Seeing that his Sentinel was staring across the parking lot, Blair followed his gaze... to where the truck was parked. Or what was left of the truck. Blair winced. Great. Wonderful. He rolled his eyes heavenward. Thanks a lot. I'm going to be hearing about this for weeks, you know?

By now, Jim was standing beside the ruin of his beloved vehicle. Laying a trembling hand on the battered hood, he murmured softly. "What did that bastard do to you, Sweetheart?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Took a tire iron to it, by the looks of things," he stated bluntly, picking up the tool and holding it up for Jim's inspection. The detective snatched it from him and an unholy light filled his eyes. "Ease up, Jim, it's a truck not a person. I'm sure Christine will be as good as new in time for the New Year."

Jim didn't seem to hear him, just stared at the tire iron and muttered something too low for Blair's hearing to catch. With a little 'I give up' motion of his hands, the observer retreated towards the ambulance. Blair lightly rubbed the bandaged graze in his side as he made his way toward the waiting vehicle. He knew it wasn't serious -- maybe if he got it looked at here, he could convince his partner that a trip to the hospital wasn't necessary. If he could convince Jim that the trip was unnecessary, surely Simon would be a snap....

At the sight of his bloodied shirt, one of the paramedics set down her coffee and rushed over to his side. "Are you okay, sir? Where are you hurt? Why don't you sit down here, so we can take a look at it." As she spoke, the two paramedics began bustling around, grabbing medical supplies and cleaning and rebandaging the injury.

Blair smiled and answered the occasional question, but he gave the medical personnel only a small part of his attention. Instead, he concentrated more on watching the controlled chaos of the scene around him.

The parents of the children had all been notified of what had happened, and were arriving in their mini-vans. Rafe and Brown had taken charge of the three inept criminals, and were busy handcuffing the suspects, reading rights and loading them into separate squad cars for their trip downtown. Megan was patting the hand of the still traumatized teacher, trying to keep her from breaking down in hysterics then and there. Simon had taken custody of the purloined antibiotic, as well as the container of Sex Wax it had been hidden in. Jim seemed to be on the verge of either tears or apoplexy as he circled Christine -- Whoops, sorry! That's Sweetheart to you, Blair -- touching her dented body and broken windshield with shaking hands. I'm guessing that truck is in for some quality time alone with her favorite mechanic. Sorry about that, Jim, I'll be over there in a minute, and we'll get Simon to drive us to Wonderburger for dinner. I know that will make you feel better, and I won't even complain to you about the fat and cholesterol.

Blair's reverie was broken when a brown-haired, brown-eyed missile impacted with his chest. "Uncle Blair, Uncle Blair! Are you okay? I was so scared, but I tried really hard to be brave like you and Uncle Jim."

"You did fine, Jessica." Blair hugged the little girl tightly for a minute, until she squirmed to be let down.

"No, no, wait, Uncle Blair. I have something for you! I asked Miss Hawthorne and she agreed that you did really good, and I could give you what we always get when we get A's on our papers!" Giggling with delight, Jessica pulled one small hand from behind her back and exhibited the large, gold foil star she held in her palm. Standing on her tiptoes she quickly licked the star and affixed it to the center of Blair's forehead.

A flash of bright patchwork colors caught Blair's eye, and he turned his head to see his younger self grin widely at him before morphing into a large silver wolf and fading into the trees.

You see! Blair resisted the urge to shout after the retreating figure, I remembered. Guns aren't always the solution to everything! I haven't forgotten all of that inventiveness you taught me.

Smiling, Blair took Jessica's hand and stood. "C'mon, kid. I think your Uncle Jim is very unhappy right now. Maybe we can go cheer him up."

~ Finis ~

E-mail the authors of this story, Nickerbits, at Nickerbits@nni.com and Chaz at Chaz83@hotmail.com
Read Nickerbits' other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Wolfpup's Den, and read Chaz's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Guide Posts
The artwork in Act I, Trimming the Tree, was created by KOZ... Enjoy more of KOZ's art at her website, The Art of KOZ
Please visit our Virtual Season 5 Staff Page to learn more about the hard-working behind-the-scenes crew responsible for bringing you this episode
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
NEXT WEEK on THE SENTINEL: The Baboon's Foot (1/9/00, FPP-514) by Hephaistos
    An archeological artifact in Jim's possession appears to have magical properties, tempting the detectives of Major Crime to make a wish. Results, however, are never quite what they expect.

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This page last updated 2/2/01.