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.
Mark McCormick High School
Blair ended his speech to the assembled students of the Mark McCormick Magnet High School to the sound of enthusiastic applause. Taking off his glasses and shoving his notes in a folder, he gave one last smile to the audience and left the stage.
"Blair, that was a terrific speech. The kids really loved you." Judy Baker, the five foot two red-headed ball of energy who was the organizer of today's presentation and the school's guidance counselor, met him in the wings and gave him a big hug. "Some of the speakers we bring in just talk at the kids, instead of to them. You reached out to them."
"I'm happy to do it, Judy. The more kids we get to go on to college, the less likely they'll end up in trouble. Besides, it's a challenge to get their attention and you know how I love challenges." He wiggled his eyebrows and gave her his best mischievous grin.
Judy shook her head at his antics. "Oh, you! What's the matter, police work not challenging enough for you?"
Shoving a hand in his pocket, Blair swaggered a bit and dropped into his gangster impression. "Well, Toots, keeping the flatfoots in line isn't too much trouble. I just keep 'em chasing their tails and they're no challenge at all. And if they get too yappy, I just throw 'em a donut or two and they're eating out of my hand. Yeah. Yeah. Those coppers ain't nothin' special."
Judy rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Oh, Blair. What would your fellow 'coppers' say if they could hear you now?"
A deep voice from the backstage shadows startled her with an answer. "They'd probably say, 'You better come quietly, Sandburg.'"
Blair dropped his impromptu performance and spoke without even looking around to acknowledge the unseen critic. "I thought you said quiet and Sandburg in the same sentence was a contradiction in terms, Jim." Turning to face the approaching figure, he performed introductions. "Judy Baker, meet Jim Ellison, my partner."
Judy stifled a giggle. "Oh, it's nice to meet you, Mr. Ellison. Blair did a terrific job talking to our at risk kids. He was really able to relate to them and get them to listen."
"Yeah, Blair has always had a way of making contact with stubborn, hard-headed Neanderthals who always think they're right." Jim kept all expression from his face as he spoke.
Confusion was apparent in her reply. "Our kids are hardly cavemen, Mr. Ellison. All they really need is someone to help them believe in themselves."
"My point exactly, Ms. Baker."
Shaking his head, Blair intervened before Judy could formulate a suitable reply. "Don't mind him Judy, he's being inscrutable."
Judy smiled hesitantly at Jim and turned to face Blair. "I can't thank you enough, Blair. You would make a great guidance counselor."
A small smile flickered across his face. "Yeah, guiding is my true calling in life." He looked at Jim and they exchanged a shared look that spoke volumes.
Judy looked from one face to the other, so different, yet in this moment, so in tune with each other it was spooky. "I've got to get back to the office and get some scholarship packets together. I have a feeling I'm going to need them very soon. Don't be a stranger, Blair." She nodded towards Jim, and vanished into the backstage area.
"So, Jim, what's up? Something going on at the station?" Blair gathered up his ever-present backpack and shrugged on his jacket.
"I'm carrying out my assigned duty, Sandburg." Jim joined Blair in walking through the backstage area toward the exit.
Blair stopped in puzzlement. "Huh?"
Jim nudged Blair to get him moving again. "It's simple. See if you can follow me." Jim held up a finger, "One; Simon Banks, your boss and mine, needs to talk to you about the grant you wrote for him." He held up a second finger. "Two; he wants to talk to you now." A third finger went up. "Three; that's hard to do when you don't have your cell phone on." A fourth finger joined the others. "Fourth; he seems to think that I keep track of where you're supposed to be all the time." Jim displayed all five fingers in front of Blair and latched onto his arm. "So fifth; he sends me out to fetch you. Consider yourself fetched."
"Oh, man," Blair chuckled. "I feel for you, demoted to..."
"Don't say it, Chief. I prefer to look on this as an assignment in search and retrieval. And where you're concerned, any assignment may become complicated at a moment's notice." Jim pushed open the exit door that led to the parking lot and held it open, gently nudging Blair through it.
"Okay, okay. I'm coming. Simon needs to learn to chill, man."
"I'll let you explain that to him. Right after I deliver you. Where'd you park anyway?" Jim quickly scanned the parking lot, not finding the Volvo.
"What's the matter, Jim? Need some refresher training in sharpening your visual skills?"
"There's nothing wrong with my vision, Sandburg. The Volvo's not here, are you sure where you parked?"
Blair looked around at the full parking lot and started down the first row. "Sure I am. I parked down here next to the black SUV." He walked down the row, confidant he would find his car at the end and be able to kid Jim about his direction skills for a change.
The parking space at the end of the row was completely, totally, glaringly, empty. Blair stood in the vacant space, turning around in a circle to examine every corner, but the Volvo failed to magically appear.
"I don't understand it! I know this is where I parked it. It was right here." His voice rose in frustration. "It's been STOLEN!" Blair began to pace furiously back and forth in the small space.
Jim pulled out his cell phone and made the call to Dispatch. Flipping the phone shut, he tried to catch his hyperactive partner. "Calm down, Chief, we'll find your car."
"You bet your ass we'll find it. I just got it detailed yesterday and some punk is not going to get away with my car." Blair froze as sudden inspiration hit him and he turned to eye Jim with a definite proprietary air. "And we're going to start right now."
"I've already called it in. Some kids probably took it out joy riding and they'll dump it in a few hours. It's not like there's a hot market for Volvos out there."
Blair glared at his partner. "Oh no. We are going to find my car, and it's not going to end up stripped, crashed or at the end of a wrecker. You're going to track it."
Jim looked at him as if he had lost his mind. "You want me to track your car?"
"That's right. The Volvo has an oil leak from the rear seal and I'm still using the Slick 50 oil, so it should be a snap for you to follow. You can track it, Jim. You've done it before."
"You can't be serious. You want me to go around sniffing the streets for your car?"
"I want my car back and you can find it." Blair was too angry to try conning Jim. Direct action was called for and direct action it was going to be.
"Sandburg, the patrol officers will find your car. Simon really wanted to see you right away on this grant thing." Jim tried to redirect Blair's focus.
"The grant's not due till five today. I want my car back before then!"
Jim restrained the impulse to smile. A furious Blair was a sight to remember. Eyes blazing, arms waving, giving orders... wait a minute. "What do you mean I've done it before?"
Blair fired back his answer. "When Iris kidnapped me, you tracked the Volvo to the train station."
"You weren't there, Sandburg. You were with Iris. The only way you could know anything about how we got to the train station would be from Simon. What were you doing, debriefing him every time he went out on a call with me?"
"Well, I couldn't rely on you for information." Blair swatted Jim on the arm, then cheekily grinned at him. "Besides, Simon got pretty good at supplying all those little missing details you left out. I was just never sure whether he volunteered the information so quickly to be helpful, or to get me out of his office before you found out what was going on."
Jim shook his head. "Were you always this devious or is it an acquired talent?"
"It's merely an incidental offshoot of my legendary obfuscation skills. Now, back to business. It's time for you," he pointed at Jim, "to find my car."
Rolling his eyes in frustration, Jim turned and headed toward his truck, parked in the back of the lot. After a few steps Jim glanced back to see Blair still standing in the empty parking space, staring at him. "C'mon, Chief. I'm not tracking your car on foot."
A smile grew on Blair's face as he ran to catch up.
The pickup moved slowly down the street with Jim at the wheel, tracking the miniscule drops of oil from the missing Volvo.
Blair squirmed in his seat, frustration at the slow process apparent in his every action. "How's it going, Jim? Any problems?"
Jim diverted a small portion of his attention away from the tedious task of following the difficult trail. "You mean other then you asking me how it's going every few minutes?"
The sarcasm went unnoticed. "Well if you had let me drive, I wouldn't have to check on you every few minutes. This wouldn't be a good time for a zone, you know."
"I'm hardly likely to zone with you right here, Chief." Jim cocked his head, drawing Blair's attention immediately. "You hear that?"
"Hear what? What is it? Is it my car?" Blair looked up and down the street searching for anything out of place.
"It's a police siren and it's not too far ahead of us." Jim stepped on the accelerator and the truck jumped ahead.
"Aw, Jim, do you have to respond to every..." Blair's voice died out as he got his first glimpse of what the patrol car was chasing. "Oh, no. This just isn't going to be my day."
The gray and blue patrol car was in hot pursuit of a classic green Volvo. The two vehicles were soon joined by a classic '69 Ford pickup, and all three roared down the formerly quiet street.
"What is that idiot doing?" Blair beat his fist against the dashboard. "Slow down, you moron!"
Jim maneuvered quickly around two slower moving vehicles and pulled up on the patrol car. "Looks like your car thief wants to make a chase out of it." He abruptly changed lanes into oncoming traffic to pass a truck before swerving back.
Blair braced himself more securely to keep from sliding across the seat. "Not him, the idiot driving the unit. He's going to crowd him and have an accident because he doesn't have enough room to react. We need another unit so we can do a rolling box."
Sparing a glance from the road, Jim turned a questioning eye on his exuberant partner.
"Hey, I passed the driving test," Blair defended his on-going critique.
"Yeah, the 'written' driving test, Sandburg." With that comment Jim followed the speeding vehicles around traffic stopped for a red light.
"Well at least I didn't roll the test vehicle." Blair looked back to the chase to see the patrol unit lose it on a tight corner and slide into a dumpster, out of the pursuit. "See? See? What did I tell you?"
"Yeah, yeah, you're a real expert." Jim maneuvered around the disabled unit and resumed the chase.
"Now don't lose him. Anticipate his moves." Blair reached over and absent-mindedly patted his partner on the shoulder.
Jim would have rolled his eyes at the incongruity of the situation if he could. Blair was actually encouraging him on a pursuit.
"Get on the radio and tell dispatch where we are, maybe we can box him in before he manages to crash out."
Blair got the radio mike in his hand just as he saw the brake lights flare on the Volvo. The driver's door flew open and the young driver abandoned the still rolling vehicle, running in the direction of an alley. The Volvo continued to roll though, gaining momentum as it went down the slight hill.
"NO!" In his frustration, he pounded the mike against the seat. He grabbed Jim's arm and shook it. "Do something! Catch my car!"
"It's the suspect we're supposed to catch, Chief, not the car."
"Jiiiimmm!" Blair pounded on the dash with both fists.
"Okay, okay. Forget the suspect, catch the car." Jim accelerated after the driverless vehicle.
Blair watched helplessly as the Volvo rolled into the intersection at the end of the block and made it halfway across before being hit by a garbage truck. The two vehicles spun around each other, the Volvo finally coming to a halt against a light pole. Blair's eyes widened in horror as the pole slowly tilted toward the ground, landing on top of the defenseless vehicle with a resounding thud.
Jim stopped the truck short of the intersection and looked over to his partner, now slumped against the back of the seat. "Hey, it may not be as bad as it looks."
The look that Blair gave him was composed of equal parts indignation, frustration, and resignation.
Abandoning the truck before Blair could come up with a suitably scathing reply, Jim approached the driver's window of the garbage truck. "You okay in there?"
The driver shook his head, looking around with a dazed expression on his face. "What the hell happened, man? I mean, I was just going along, minding my own business, when this car comes out of nowhere and wham, we're dancing the two step."
"Yeah, some days it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. Why don't you come on over to the curb and sit down?" Jim assisted the still shaky driver out of his truck and across the street.
"Is he all right?" Blair joined them on the sidewalk.
"Yeah, just a little shaken up. Why don't you keep an eye on him while I go check out your car?"
"Sure. Why not? It's not like I'll be going anywhere anytime soon." Blair sat dejectedly down on the curb next to the truck driver.
Forty-five minutes later, it seemed like every on-duty officer had managed to swing by. Blair's pounding of the dashboard with the radio mike had jammed it in open mode and his anguished plea to save his car had been transmitted over the air. Someone had even managed to plaster a huge band-aid shaped sticker across the trunk. The heavy-duty wrecker had finally arrived and hooked up the garbage truck, pulling it from it's crushing embrace of the Volvo. Blair couldn't watch, just the sound of the over-stressed metal groaning as the vehicles were separated made him cringe.
"Looks like it's all structural damage, Sandburg. A little bondo, a little paint, and you'll have that classic of yours back in no time," Simon's voice came from behind him.
Blair turned around to find a pair of trouser clad legs and raised his eyes upward and upward to finally make eye contact with the captain. "It won't be the same, Simon. She'll never be the same again." He resumed his scrutiny of the pavement at his feet.
Simon sighed, Jim had tried to warn him, but he hadn't taken him seriously. Looking toward the skies above for guidance, he lowered his tall frame to sit beside Sandburg. "I've got a friend who does real good repair work. You can have it towed over to his shop and he can get started on it right away. He'll probably have it fixed as good as new in no time." He waited for a response from the dejected figure beside him.
"Thanks, Simon, but I think Jim already told the wrecker to take her over to his regular repair shop. They know him real well and they're kinda used to him bringing in vehicles." A small smile appeared on his face. "They give him a pretty good rate since he's such a regular customer."
Even Simon had to smile at that. "Regular customer, huh? They've probably named a repair bay after him." He watched the wrecker head off down the street, the Volvo in tow. "Don't worry about a report, Sandburg, Jim can take care of this one." Getting no response, he gave up on trying to cheer Blair up and stood. "If you need to take a couple of hours to do the insurance thing, go ahead. The grant thing can wait till this afternoon."
"That's okay, I'll be right down. It's just a car, right?" Blair tried to smile, but the attempt failed.
"Right, Sandburg. Just a car."
Two Days Later
Simon reviewed his schedule for the day while the elevator made its way up from the garage. He smiled to himself as he thought about the startled expressions he'd encountered when he showed up downstairs at 5:30 a.m. When a big case was on the burner, odd hours were the rule, not the exception, but with things being quiet for a change, his appearance at the pre-dawn hour had generated some interesting speculation. He'd chuckled at the desk sergeant's totally serious question of 'Something big going down?' It was amazing how an unexpected arrival could shake things up. Getting off at the seventh floor he headed for his office and that first cup of coffee. He made a mental note to remind maintenance to turn the lights off when they finished, the bull pen was bright as day and they'd left the lights on in his office too. His hand inches from the door, he almost jumped out of his skin as a voice greeted him.
"Good morning, Simon. You're here early."
He absolutely hated it when Ellison did that. Getting his composure back, he opened the door and entered his office. "Ellison! What are you doing here? Better yet, what are you doing in my office and to my computer?" The request came out with the appropriate growl, but the recipient seemed unconcerned.
"This is the only time I can get the computer research I need done." Unrepentant, he turned back to the computer screen and scrolled down the page.
Simon deliberately took off his overcoat and hung it up before heading to the coffee maker to start the first pot and what he hoped would be a reasonable explanation. "Are you telling me you can no longer do your own research on the perfectly good computer that the Cascade Police Department has so generously provided for you out there on your desk?"
"Yes sir. That's right." Jim typed in a quick e-mail response and hit send.
Simon considered a moment as he thought about how to put his next request. "Ellison, you have exactly thirty seconds to either get out of my chair and my office or explain to me why your research can only be done on my computer at the rather unusual hour of 5:37 a.m.!"
Jim hit the exit key and vacated Simon's chair, heading for the door.
Softening the tone of his voice, Simon tried again. "Come on, Jim. Even you've got to admit this is a bit strange." A sudden premonition swept over him. Anytime Ellison was behaving strangely it always had something to do with Sandburg. "Does this somehow involve your partner?"
Halting, Jim moved to gaze out the window at the approaching dawn. "The insurance company wants to total Sandburg's car."
Confused at the non sequitur, he went with the flow as he waited for the coffee to finish. "Well, it did have a rather spectacular run-in with a garbage truck and a light pole."
"This would be the second vehicle that he's lost that way."
Biting his lip, Simon refused to make a comment about how Jim's luck with vehicles was obviously contagious. Instead he concentrated on pouring two cups of coffee and handing one to his detective, encouraging him to come to the point.
"Sandburg gets real attached to his vehicles, talks to them, babies them." Jim paused to take a long drink of his coffee.
"Yeah, he's a little strange that way." Simon hid his smile behind his own coffee cup.
"Well, I just thought he deserved something special to replace it. So I've been doing a little research to see what's out there... within his price range. I just didn't want to get his hopes up if I couldn't find something."
Simon studied his friend's face. Jim could still hide his feelings better than anyone he had ever seen, except for where Sandburg was concerned. The totally bland expression on Jim's face right now might indicate little interest, but to Simon it was like a hand-lettered sign. Jim was obviously planning on replacing Sandburg's car and wanted it to be a surprise. And with Sandburg's computer skills, if Jim did the research on any computer that Sandburg had access to, the surprise element would be gone in a flash. This wasn't part of a captain's job. Why was he not only considering going along with it, but abetting it? The Sandburg influence had affected him too. "Have you found anything?"
Jim leaned on the edge of the conference table and withdrew a folded piece of paper from his pocket. "Not much so far. I've got one possibility here in town, but I've got to make sure Sandburg is busy before I go over there. The owner is supposed to call when it's convenient for him to show me the car. There's a couple of more about sixty miles from here that I'll work in somehow. It's a little difficult when I'm his only form of transportation."
"Wouldn't the insurance company spring for a rental car?"
"He's got the no-frills policy. No rental car and a $1000 deductible."
He sighed. The things he did for his people. "All right, I'm in. Let me know when you need to get away and I'll keep Sandburg busy."
"Thanks, Simon. The trick will be not making him suspicious."
"I think I can handle keeping one detective busy and out of trouble for a few hours. After all, I handle you, don't I?" He gave Jim a smug look. "By the way, doesn't he wonder where you are right now?"
Jim gave Simon an innocent look. "Me, sir? Why I'm out running at the park, sir."
Cascade P.D. Bullpen
Blair's stomach rumbled a reminder that the lunch hour had arrived. He glanced over at his partner, currently engaged in a phone conversation with one of the twenty-seven witnesses to the shooting of mobster wannabe Harvey Lee on his boat at the marina. So far they had seventeen different descriptions of the perpetrator or pair or gang that did the shooting. The whole investigation was going nowhere and the only reason they had it was that it had interrupted the tea party of Councilman Ember's wife on the boat next door. As soon as Jim got through with the call he was going to suggest they hit the Hobbit Hole for lunch.
Jim's cell began to ring and he quickly ended the interview to catch the incoming call. Blair shut his computer down and openly listened to Jim's side of the conversation.
Two minutes later, he was no wiser than when he began listening. It was hard to make much out of a couple of uh-huhs and a few okays. Well, there was one easy way to satisfy his curiosity. "Who was that?"
Jim looked at the cell phone before answering. "Just another snitch with yet another version of what happened out at the marina. Nothing worth wasting any time on." He looked at his watch. "Let me check with Simon a minute and then we can grab some lunch."
"My turn to choose," he reminded as Jim got up.
Jim knocked and quickly entered his captain's office. "Show time."
Simon stared at him before understanding snapped into place. "Okay, you want me to keep him here so you can disappear for a while?"
"Works for me. Just make it believable. He's already picked up on the phone call. It's like he has radar."
"Just remember you're going to owe me for this." Simon stood and grabbed his overcoat and opened the office door. "Sandburg, grab your jacket and let's go."
Blair looked up in surprise, but obediently reached for his jacket. "Hey, Simon, uh... Captain. Coming to lunch with us?"
Simon put on his best 'aggrieved commander' voice. "No, I am not going to lunch with you. You are coming with me to the Police Commissioner's office for the monthly departmental meeting and explain the grant we just applied for."
"But, Simon." Blair looked hopefully at his partner for help. The monthly departmental meetings were well known for being boring, long, and short on refreshments.
Jim shrugged his shoulders in a you-can't-fight-city-hall expression. "Too bad, Chief. I'll think about you during lunch." He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and quickly made his escape.
"Come on, Sandburg. We wouldn't want to be late, would we?"
"We wouldn't?" Blair reluctantly followed his captain out the door.
Jim made good use of his sudden freedom and looked at as many possibilities as he could. So far, every vehicle he had looked at was either a car show candidate or a restorer's special. Maybe he shouldn't have limited his choices, but he was determined to find another Corvair for Blair. He'd checked out the Corvair Society of America, the local Rod club, even the Classic Wheels website when he "borrowed" Simon's computer. The problem was time. He needed to find the perfect car before the insurance company sent the check. Once Blair got the check, he would get his own car and that would be the end of his surprise. He glanced again at his list; two more and he would be out of the current group of possibilities.
Cascade P.D. Bullpen
Blair was killing time, halfheartedly reading over some witness statements, waiting for his errant partner's return. This really sucks. First I lose my car, then the insurance company starts giving me a hard time, and then to top it off, I get shanghaied by Simon to that meeting where I end up sitting on my butt for four hours waiting to explain a grant that they ask exactly three, count 'em, three questions about. Talk about a total waste of time. And then my illustrious partner decides to vanish and leaves me high and dry waiting for a ride home.
Fed up with sitting around and still hungry from the less than filling lunch that had been provided at the meeting, he decided to bum a ride home from one of the gang and leave Jim to his own devices. He headed toward Simon's office to let him know he was heading out in case Jim decided to call in. Approaching the door, he heard Simon's voice and paused outside, not wanting to interrupt anything important.
"Yeah Jim, he's still here."..."No, I haven't let anything slip. You aren't the only one who can keep things under wraps you know."..."Use some of those covert skills you have and find one."..."I'll think of something to tell him, you just concentrate on what you're supposed to be doing."..."Yes Jim, I'll make sure he gets home too."
The absence of a voice alerted Blair to move or get caught eavesdropping. He hastily backed away from the door and returned to his desk. What the hell was going on? Had Jim been given some kind of undercover assignment they didn't want him to know about? And why keep him in the dark? He thought they were long past that secrecy stuff by now, Jim knew better than to leave him in the dark.
He calmed himself down from the anger that had begun to build. I'll give him the opportunity to explain before I do... well, whatever it is I'm going to do to him for trying to keep me in the dark again. Putting a calm, innocent expression on his face, he headed again for Simon's office.
Giving the office door a brief knock, he poked his head in. "Hey, Simon, can you give me a ride home? Looks like Jim forgot he's my transportation."
Simon finished signing the papers in front of him and slid them into a folder. "I forgot to tell you, Sandburg, Jim called and left a message for you while we were tied up. Said he ran into Steven and was having dinner with him and he'd meet you at home. I'll give you a ride." Smoothly, he stood and removed his topcoat from the rack.
"Thanks, Simon. I appreciate it." Blair followed Simon through Major Crime and to the elevator. Casually, he began his investigation into what was really going on. "Did he say where he ran into Stephen?"
"I didn't ask him. Why?" Simon looked down at him with all the advantages that being taller gave him.
"Oh, no reason. It's just that Jim and Stephen don't really frequent the same kind of places, you know. It's a country club versus hardware store kind of thing."
Simon made no reply and exited the elevator the minute it stopped, heading for the safety of his car and a nice, loud, radio station that he hoped would serve as a distraction.
Cascade P.D. Bullpen
Blair sat at his desk and worked at his computer, watching all of Jim's movements from the corner of his eye. Last night had been a bust as far as information was concerned. Jim had shown up within a couple of hours. They had talked about the departmental meeting, some of the more entertaining witness statements that had shown up, the Jags latest trade, and the identity of Rafe's newest girlfriend, but not a word about what Blair was most interested in: the secret undercover assignment. Jim had behaved perfectly normally throughout the whole evening and again this morning, not betraying his mission, whatever it was. This morning he'd tried to get in touch with Steven with no success. He'd been informed that Mr. Ellison was unavailable. Which could mean anything from out of the country to busy in his office. Abandoning that avenue, he was now concentrating on his partner, looking for clues as to what was going on. All this pleasant normality was driving him up a wall. Something was going on and his friend, his partner, his sentinel, was keeping it from him. But this time was going to be different He was not going to be left out in the cold until the powers that be decided he could be told the truth: he was a shaman, a guide, a cop, and an almost Ph.D. He'd find out on his own.
The ringing of Jim's phone caused him to key into the conversation, but it was decidedly unhelpful. After a few "okays", Jim scribbled something on a Post-it, stuck it in his pocket and went back to work.
Blair was so zeroed in on the Post-it pad, he didn't notice his own phone ringing. Belatedly, he grabbed at it while Jim took advantage of the momentary distraction to make an escape into Simon's office.
His captain frowned at the abrupt entry. "Is there something I can do for you, detective?"
"I've got to make a meeting at three." Jim barely cracked a smile at Simon's martyred sigh and eye rolling.
"I already gave, remember? Four hours of Sandburg at a departmental meeting should be more than enough for the cause." Simon leaned back in his chair.
'This could be the one. The guy who has it does this for a hobby and anything he does is in high demand. I only found out about it through a friend of a friend kind of thing."
Simon shuffled the papers on his desk, pulling out an inter-office envelope. "Fine, fine. I've got something to keep him occupied. You just stay out of trouble. I don't want to deal with your pissed-off partner if you get yourself in trouble."
"Simon, I'm just going to look at a car."
Simon stood, shaking his finger. "Don't even start with me, Ellison. Don't even start."
Jim gave him a jaunty salute and quickly left.
Blair finally managed to get the complaining citizen off the phone to see his partner exiting Simon's office. Damn. Something's being set up and I'm being left out again. His eyes cut to the Post-it pad lying beside the phone on Jim's desk before looking up at his partner. "Hey Jim, ready for lunch?"
A smile lit Jim's face. "Yeah, I'm starved. Let's eat. I'll even buy." He grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair and headed for the elevator.
Blair quickly followed, surreptitiously grabbing the top sheets off the notepad and stuffing them in his pocket. I'm not being shut out this time partner.
Lunch was like something out of the Twilight Zone. Jim seemed to be in an excellent mood, joking and laughing, while Blair looked for hidden dangers in every corner. They returned to the station, and Jim immediately immersed himself in the witness statements from the Lee shooting.
When Jim got up an hour later to head to the break room, Blair headed out to the hallway. Using a soft pencil, he shaded in the indentations left on the notepad. Come on, come on. This always looks so easy in the movies. He examined the faint marks. 'Three o'clock. 5115 Western # 27.' Okay, Jim. We'll play by your rules. All's fair. He folded up the piece of paper, glanced at his watch and headed downstairs.
At precisely 2:30 p.m. the door to Simon's office opened and he stepped out. Crossing over to Jim's desk he looked at the empty desk next to it. "Okay, where is he?"
Jim cocked his head and listened. "Fourth floor. Evidence." He grabbed his jacket and stood up.
Simon dropped an inter-office envelope on Blair's desk. "That should keep him busy. It's another application for his medical coverage and it's very thorough. His just got lost."
Jim smiled and headed out.
From a fourth floor window, Blair watched the blue and white pickup pull out of the garage and disappear down the street. He immediately headed back up to Major Crime to set his plan in motion. Fifteen minutes later, he headed out in a unmarked car. Beside him sat an innocuous brown paper bag with an evidence tag on it. He had noticed the request when he was visiting Evidence and Property to "borrow" some equipment. Volunteering to deliver the requested package was easy, getting the parabolic mike required a bit of obfuscation on his part. The D.A. hadn't really requested a demonstration of how it worked to show the jury, but he might... some day.
Fortunately, trying to follow Jim wasn't a problem. He knew the address. Trying to keep Jim from noticing him once he was there, now, that was a whole other issue. The white noise generator he kept in his locker at the P.D. in case Jim needed it now rested beside him on the seat, humming quietly. He'd picked up a spray bottle of odor neutralizer from forensics and had used the whole bottle on himself. He tucked his hair under an old knit cap he'd gotten out of Lost and Found and wrapped an emergency blanket from the trunk around his shoulders. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best he could do on short notice.
Cascade Business Park
The meet location turned out to be a gated self-storage facility in one of the newer business parks. Blair parked in a lot about two blocks away where he could observe the entry gate yet still be unseen. Jim goes alone to a secret meeting and it's in a nice part of town and in a nice new building in the middle of the afternoon. If we go to a meet, it's always in an old dirty warehouse in the middle of the night in the absolute worst part of town with a couple of lowlifes who look like wannabees from the WWF. He picked up the binoculars to focus in on the truck idling off to the side at the gate. Within a few minutes the truck was joined by a custom van with blacked out windows. The driver punched in a code and drove into the facility with the truck and Jim following. He quickly copied down the license plate, put the car in gear and moved to another parking space that gave him a slightly obstructed view of the area where the vehicles had stopped. Quickly, he slipped on the headphones and aimed the parabolic mike toward the two figures.
"... on time..."
"... see what you've got." The two men disappeared into one of the storage rooms and he turned up the gain to follow the conversation.
HONNNNKKKK! Blair frantically pushed the headphones off his ears. Owwww! Now I know how Jim feels. Checking the area for any other demented drivers looking to blast his eardrums, he cautiously slipped the headphones back on.
"... vroommmmm, vroommmmm, vroommmm..."
Great, now I'm getting the drag racing channel. He changed the angle of the mike slightly and adjusted the gain again.
An excited voice echoed in his ears. "... Who carries an unloaded gun? Would I carry an unloaded gun? Would anybody I know carry an unloaded gun? What do they shoot people with in Canada, serviettes?" Blair's hand was already on the ignition switch when a moment of silence was replaced by a commercial for AT&T's new Motorola phone. Great. Just great. Now I've got TV. This eavesdropping is sure a lot easier with Jim to do it. He readjusted the mike again but could pick nothing up but a lovely array of static, squeals, and beeps. Frustrated, he shook the mike and banged it up against the dashboard for good measure.
"... steal... spider..."
"mission... not today... find out... dead..."
Jim, man, what are you in to? A low flying helicopter drowned out any remaining conversation and Blair watched the two men exit the building and get in their respective vehicles to leave. No way are you doing whatever this is without me. But why did it have to be spiders? I hate spiders.
Cascade P.D. Bullpen
An hour later, Blair returned to the P.D. after dropping off the required package at the D.A.'s office and restoring the "borrowed" equipment to its proper place. He regarded the fat envelope on his desk with a jaundiced eye. Opening it, he saw a multitude of medical insurance forms, forms he distinctly remembered filling out only a month ago. Nice try, Simon, but no sale. You're not going to distract me that easily. With a smile, he resealed the envelope and tossed it in a drawer.
Simon let the Venetian blind drop and turned to face the other occupant of his office. "Good thing you made it back before Sandburg did, I don't think my little entertainment would have held him long."
"I'm just glad he got talked into dropping off that evidence." Jim sipped at his cup of coffee.
"So when's the big event, now that you've found the car?" Simon eased back into his chair.
"This weekend. The guy selling the car is even letting me make his entry in the CORSA -- that's the Corvair Society of America, for the uninformed -- road rally that's taking place in Woodland. He'd entered the car months ago."
Simon had never seen the fascination of rehabilitating old cars. "Why was he willing to sell the car if it's so special?"
Jim shrugged and smiled at the question. "That's what he does. He finds classic old cars and restores them. He was going down to Woodland to show it off and figured he'd find a buyer there. I just came along a little early."
"Do I even want to know how much this cost?" Simon couldn't resist pushing Jim's buttons.
"Didn't think so." Simon stood and refilled his cup, hiding a grin. "So how are you going to get Sandburg down there without him figuring out what's going on? It's not like there's much in the way of towns."
"Oh, I figured you could send us to pick up a missing witness at the sheriff's department. If I time it right, we'll get there right about the time of the pre-rally get-together."
Simon chuckled. "You've really got this planned out, haven't you?"
"A successful mission comes from advance planning, sir. All I need now is for you to authorize the time off."
"Fine, fine. I know if I don't agree to this, you'll find a way to do it anyway."
"Probably." Jim shrugged and rose to leave. "But he deserves it, sir, and you think so, too."
"Get out of here before I find a real assignment to send you on," Simon growled and motioned Jim towards the door. "And try to stay out of trouble this weekend, I've got courtside tickets for Saturday's game."
Murray Kowalski pulled the car cover down to cover his prized fire engine red '62 Corvair Monza and lovingly gave it a pat before heading up the stairs of the Lewis River Bed and Breakfast. An old converted farmhouse, it boasted seven guest rooms with private baths and elaborate furnishings. Located right along the riverbank, it was the nicest place to stay that the small town of Woodland had to offer and he meant to enjoy this weekend to the fullest. Time off from his position as Director of Research and Development at Microsoft's main headquarters in Redmond was hard to come by. There was always one more important project, one more deadline, one more reason to stay in the lab. He didn't take time for personal interests; his work was his life. His classic Corvair was his one vice. He'd had it since his high school graduation and through all the good and bad times. Times may have changed since then, but he was still the same scrawny, geeky kid he'd always been. It's just that now he was an older scrawny geeky kid. His latest breakthrough, though, had guaranteed him a month's vacation. He had finally developed a prototype chip that was not only the next step in artificial intelligence, but affordable for the average consumer. The Classic Corvair Road Rally was just the beginning of his vacation.
He unlocked his room at the top of the stairs and tossing his keys on top of the TV, he went directly to the bed and flopped down. Eyeing his laptop on the table across the room that housed the beta version of his little development, he smiled and crossed his arms behind his head.
"Check my e-mail for me will you?"
"Right away, Murray." The computer automatically started the program.
Blair fitfully dozed propped against the passenger door. He was using the time to steal a catnap, not knowing what would greet them when they arrived at their destination. The story that Simon told them in his office sounded perfectly logical. There was a missing witness in the Noble case and they had heard he'd moved somewhere around Vancouver, but coming on top of Jim's undercover meeting, it was just too coincidental. They were down here in the boondocks to... to... well, he didn't know why they were down here but he was positive it had nothing to do with witnesses. His head bounced when the truck hit a dip in the road, and his musings changed to what he'd overheard at Jim's meeting. Why would anyone want to steal spiders anyway? Maybe they were radioactive spiders. No, that was Spiderman's thing. Maybe they were deadly poisonous spiders that could kill with a single bite. No, that didn't seem right either; you certainly didn't need to hire someone to steal spiders when you could find them at an exotic pet store. Well, what else could you do with spiders anyway? Spiders, yeeccchh! I'm probably going to develop a phobia about spiders like Alec. Yeah, Alec, the kid I'll always remember who wrecked my car. I still miss that car; that was my baby. I'd had that car for six years without a scratch, until he came along. And bang, in one night my classic Corvair was reduced to being a candidate for the wrecker yard. And now, even my Volvo has been taken from me. He shook his head in frustration at himself. He was worrying about a car, when he should be figuring out what Jim was involved in.
Blair opened his eyes to stare at his traveling companion, trying to get inside his head. Why wouldn't Jim confide in him? Did they still think he couldn't handle it, that he was just a 'kid' in their cop world? They were supposed to be past all this secrecy crap, no more keeping secrets from each other, and yet, Jim was doing it again. Probably trying to protect him from some imagined danger. This little trip was probably just to get him out of town while something important was going down.
The truck slowed and exited off the interstate, making Blair sit up at attention. "Why are we stopping, Jim?" He may not have the best sense of direction, but he knew it was still at least another forty or fifty miles to Vancouver.
Jim turned and gave his partner a curious look. "The truck needs gas and I'm hungry. Is that good enough?"
Sheepishly, Blair smiled. "Yeah, that's good enough." He looked around at the buildings visible in the streetlights and the number of vehicles cruising the streets. The parking lots of a couple of small motels they passed were packed. "They sure seem to be doing great business for a small town. Good thing we're not trying to stay here." He pointed toward the NO VACANCY sign visible in the window of the old style lodge surrounded by a group of ancient oak trees, appropriately named the Oak Tree Inn. "There's no room in the Inn."
"That was beneath you, Chief. I thought you left the puns to H." He turned into the parking lot of the attached restaurant and pulled the truck into a space at the back.
"You sure you want to do this?" Blair rested his hand on the door latch, making no move to exit the truck.
Jim looked around the parking lot, trying to sense whatever his partner had picked up on. "Why? What's wrong?" He continued scanning the area.
Blair silently pointed at the aged wooden signboard that swung in the breeze over the entrance to the restaurant, The Ptomaine Palace. He tried to keep the serious expression on his face as Jim located and read the sign, but it was impossible. He dissolved into laughter at the expression on Jim's face. "Just don't blame me if you get sick." Still chuckling, he opened the door and jumped out of the truck.
Jim shook his head and followed his snickering partner. "Guess I'll just have to use you as a taste tester then." He grabbed Blair by the jacket and pulled him into his grasp. "Let's see, we'll start with some potato skins with cheese, a double chocolate milkshake, and some fried onion rings."
"Heart attack city, man. I am not eating that stuff." He squirmed ineffectually in Jim's grasp.
"You mean you'd let me take my chances on my own?" Jim asked, his tone hurt.
Blair quit struggling, the question hitting home. "No, I'm with you, man. Whatever it takes."
Jim let go of his suddenly subdued partner, somehow understanding they weren't talking about food tasting anymore. He turned Blair to face him. "Something you're not telling me, Chief?"
Blair debated momentarily asking about the undercover assignment. Instead he went with a big smile. "Me? Not telling you something? Aren't you the one always complaining that I'm constantly telling you things, even things you don't want to know?"
Jim made no response but studied his partner's face. "Come on, Rasputin, let's go eat." Slinging his arm around Blair's shoulders, they walked side by side to the door.
Entering the restaurant, they were met by a vision out of the sixties: a twenty-something girl dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt, white bell-bottom jeans, several strands of love beads, a red bandana and rose colored glasses. She grabbed two menus from the stack at the side of the podium and gave Blair an appreciative once over. "You are definitely the type." Turning her attention to Jim, she eyed him over the rim of her glasses. "You are definitely not. So, what will it be guys, you want to join the team or run a solo?"
Jim flashed the waitress the CORSA patch he'd found in the registration packet he'd obtained when he bought the car, while Blair was still trying to figure out the correct response for the question he'd been asked. The hostess turned and headed for the back of the restaurant without further ado.
Blair turned and looked at Jim. "What do we do now?"
Jim shrugged his shoulders. "I guess we follow her if we want to eat."
Their enigmatic hostess slid back a folding screen and motioned them through... into a party.
Blair stood at the entrance to the room and surveyed all the activity going on. Heavily laden buffet tables stretched across the back wall, with several beer and soda filled ice chests at their base. A huge punch bowl claimed the end table, surrounded by a dozen different varieties of pies and cakes. There were easily a hundred people in the room, all seemingly talking at once and having a good time. Within moments, a silver-haired man wearing a black satin jacket covered with various patches approached them.
The man reached out to shake their hands while performing the introductions. "Hello and welcome to our little get together. I'm Stewart McMillan, but you can call me Mac, all my friends do." He looked both of them over before focusing on Jim. "You look like a pickup man to me." He shifted to focus on Blair. "You must be the one, you are definitely the type." Not waiting for a response from either of his new friends, he put his arms around them and steered them towards the buffet. "Well, don't stand around here. Grab a plate and dig in." Before either of them could say anything, he'd merged back into the crowd. Blair and Jim exchanged amused glances and shrugs before picking up plates and hitting the buffet.
Blair snagged a table in what passed for a quiet corner and munched on some boiled shrimp while Jim was still making his selections. He reviewed the words of his erstwhile host. Jim was the pickup man. Did that mean Jim was to pick up the spiders here? Yeah, yeah, so I thought the action was taking place in Cascade. I can be flexible. But why is everyone so sure I'm the type? The type of what? He studied the crowd that surrounded him. It was definitely a mixed assortment. The men outnumbered the women by about two-to-one and the ages ranged from their sixty-something host to a couple of freshman-looking college students. The bits of conversations that he could hear didn't help much. Powder coated frames, telescopic columns, original specs, he wondered if they'd stumbled into some kind of architects meeting. He looked up to see what was taking his partner so long and it took him only seconds to realize that Jim was no longer in the room.
Damn! He did it again. He's gone off on his own to make some kind of pickup and left me here. That's just great. He looked around the room again, double-checking that he hadn't missed Jim in the crowd. Another angry face in the crowd of happy partygoers stood out like a blinking sign. Looks like I'm not the only one having a bad day. He studied the two men at the buffet table. The smaller one looked like the typical computer nerd -- average height, skinny, button-down shirt, glasses, longish hair tied back in a tight ponytail. His harasser would be a great substitute for the lead in the next James Bond movie. Whatever the conversation was about, the little guy was definitely not happy.
Just as he pushed back his chair to go search for his partner, Jim casually walked into the room and headed for the buffet table. His appetite considerably reduced, he picked at the remaining food on his plate.
Jim, on the other hand, was in exceedingly good spirits. He finished off his plate and went back for dessert, homemade apple pie. He even got one of the wait staff to bring him a huge glass of milk and now he regarded Blair with a milk mustache and a grin. "You didn't eat much, Chief. Don't tell me something was wrong with your food?" He wiped his mouth with his napkin.
"No, just wasn't as hungry as I thought I was. You ready to go?" He stood up, not waiting for an answer and headed for the door.
"I guess I am now," Jim muttered to the empty space at the table and followed Sandburg to the exit.
Blair barreled out of the restaurant, still angry at being kept in the dark about the undercover assignment and went to pace impatiently at the side of the truck. Some idiot had backed their silver Corvair convertible into the parking spot next to the truck, barely leaving enough room to open the door.
Jim followed at a more leisurely pace, stopping to admire a pristine '49 Chevrolet pickup.
"Come on, Jim. We've still got to find this missing witness and get back to Cascade and I don't want to stand around a parking lot all night."
"I'm coming. What's got your shorts in a twist?" Jim stopped at the back of the truck, genuinely confused at his partner's uncharacteristic display of attitude toward him.
"Nothing. Just nothing, okay?" He kicked at the tire of the Corvair crowding the truck. "Stupid people can't even park a car right." He glanced at the offending vehicle. "They probably don't even appreciate what they have. They just go around treating it any old way, taking advantage of it, ignoring it when they don't need it, not seeing the true value of it's existence."
Jim quietly approached his angry partner, "then I guess it should only belong to someone who's as special as it is." He dangled a set of keys on a tiny jukebox key ring in front of Blair's face.
Blair stared at the keys dancing in front of his eyes, too stunned to say anything. He felt his arm being lifted and the keys being pressed into his palm. He opened and closed his mouth, but like the guppy Jim had once called him, no sound came out. His shoulders were gently held and he was directed towards the driver's door.
"Go ahead, Chief. Try her out."
Like an obedient robot, he inserted the key in the door and opened it, sliding into the driver's seat. Finally finding his voice, all he could manage were single syllable questions. "What? How? Why?"
Jim knelt at the driver's door. "So, what do you think? Do you like it?"
He couldn't manage much in the way of words, but the huge grin that lit his face must have been enough to get the message across.
"Start her up, Chief. She's really smooth." He moved back and shut the door.
Late That Night...
Blair lay back in his bed in the darkened room and crossed his arms above his head, a sloppy grin still on his face. Starting up the Corvair had led to a test drive around the streets of Woodland where a half-dozen other classic Corvairs out cruising joined them. A stop at the local burger joint resulted in an impromptu car show for the locals. Within thirty minutes he'd acquired a crash course on what made a restored classic versus a hotrod, how to drive a road rally and win, and the name of the best Corvair mechanic in Cascade. And through it all, Jim had been there beside him, not saying too much, just standing around with this little smile on his face. When the time came to pack it in for the night, he'd followed Jim to the Lewis River Bed and Breakfast, the classiest place to stay in the area. Just when he thought he knew his partner, he came up with something to surprise him. A gift like this, a weekend off from police work, and participation in a classic car road rally. How could he have doubted?
"Jim, you still awake?" he whispered into the air.
"Yeah, but I'm trying real hard not to be." The lump under the covers on the other bed didn't even move.
"I really appreciate this, man. I just wanted you to know that."
"I heard you the first time Chief, and the second time, and every time thereafter. Now go to sleep. The rally begins at seven and I want to have breakfast first." The words couldn't hide the trace of amusement behind them.
"It's just that this was so... special. I mean... a '69 Corvair Monza Spider. Did you know there were only 6000 made that year? I looked at the VIN number. Did you know that this is number 1969? Can you imagine that? What are the odds? The interior's been totally redone in black leather, it's got new carpet and that's a brand new paint job. That off frame restoration with the frame being smoothed and powder coated isn't done by just anybody. Only someone that really wanted to take the time to restore the car properly would do that. It's even got a telescopic column. And the engine! I mean, it gleamed. I've never even seen an engine that clean. And the way it runs. It purrs, man, it purrs. It's just that I've never owned a car like this in my life. I just never expected this, you know? And the handling! She is so smooth. She'll be able to handle those curves like an Indy car. I looked at the rally rules. This is going to be great. I've never done a road rally before. This is just so cool. Don't you think so?" He looked over to the other bed. "Jim?"
The only answer was the soft sibilant sigh of sleep.
Six o'clock in the morning didn't come any earlier than normal; it just felt that way to Blair. He'd blearily joined his wide-awake partner at the breakfast table, waiting for that first cup of coffee before he actually rejoined the human race. The dining area of the bed and breakfast was small, the seven tables no more than an arm's length away from each other. There were only three other diners there at that hour of the morning, an older couple just finishing up their meal and the same skinny guy from last night. He was eating alone; his only company a laptop. The waitress took their omelet orders and disappeared after setting down large glasses of orange juice and a carafe of hot coffee. While Jim glanced through the copy of the Woodland Times on the table, he inhaled his first cup of coffee and poured a second. Sipping this one, he looked over at his fellow diner and was startled to hear a voice come out of thin air.
"I have the information ready for you now, Murray."
"That's fine. Log it and send it in twenty-four hours over my signature unless you receive new instructions." The man didn't even look up from his breakfast.
Blair couldn't resist indulging his curiosity. "Excuse me, I couldn't help but overhear your computer there. What kind of program are you running?"
The man looked up, seemingly surprised at the question. He studied both Blair and what he could see of Jim, hidden behind the paper, before he answered. "It's just an office assistant." He offered a hesitant explanation. "I kind of lose track of time when I'm working, so the computer keeps track of other projects I'm working on. But you can't buy it, it's not even on the market."
"That's too bad, sounds like something I could really use."
"You'd fry your computer's motherboard if you had it trying to keep up with you, Chief." Jim added in his two cents and folded up the paper before digging into the platter of omelet, hash browns and fresh biscuits placed before him by the waitress.
Blair rolled his eyes at his partner in an 'I-can't-take-you-anywhere' expression. "My name is Blair Sandburg, by the way, and the eating machine next to me is Jim Ellison. We're here for the road rally."
"Murray Kowalski," he reluctantly responded. "I've got to be going." He folded the laptop shut and left the dining area.
"You're new friend doesn't seem too excited to be here." Jim watched the retreating back of Blair's new acquaintance.
Blair admonished Jim with his fork. "Don't start, Jim. He's probably just having a bad day."
"Better hurry up, Sandburg." He pointed toward Blair's neglected breakfast. "You've got to be on time for the pre-race meeting to get your instructions."
"Jim, you're forgetting how long I was a college student. We were trained in how to consume an entire meal in five minutes or less." He took two bites of his rapidly cooling omelet. "Don't worry about me. I'm not likely to miss an opportunity like this." Putting action to words, he then devoted himself to finishing his food in record time.
The sun was just barely cresting the horizon, chasing away a few lingering wisps of early morning fog. Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, had seen fit to grace the rally with the promise of a beautiful, sunshine filled day. In the parking lot of the Oak Tree Inn, Corvair enthusiasts gathered around the small stage set up in preparation for the beginning of the road rally busily talking with each other. The rally master checked his watch one final time before ascending the steps to the platform and taking his place.
A momentary squeal of feedback announced his arrival at the microphone. "Attention everyone! Will everyone hold it down, please? Thank you. It's almost time to start the rally. Have all the drivers picked up their course packets?" Nodding heads and murmurs of assent responded to his question. "Today's event is a treasure hunt. Whichever team brings back all the items on their list in the shortest amount of time will win the grand prize of, $2,500.00 and, most importantly, 100 points toward the CORSA Corvair of the Year Award. The course is designed to take eight hours to complete if you stay exactly on schedule. There is a one hour lunch break allowance, just check out with one of the judges at the designated stops and check back in when you're through. Each team has a different set of instructions to follow, so you won't get any advantage by following one of the other teams. Remember to use all available resources and don't forget to think outside of the box for you newcomers." That announcement was met with chuckles from the audience. "You may open your course envelopes when the starter clocks you in. If there are no further questions, gentlemen and ladies, to your vehicles and good luck!"
In the bustle of people heading for their vehicles, Blair saw Murray Kowalski sitting on the hood of a bright red '62 Corvair convertible, his laptop sitting open on the passenger seat. The same man that had been at the party approached the car. Blair stopped beside one of the large trees. The conversation the two exchanged was brief and heated. When the man left, Blair walked over. "Hey, Murray. I didn't know you were going to be in the rally."
Murray stared at the ground in front of him, obviously lost in thought. After a noticeable pause, he raised his eyes to meet Blair's. "Sorry." He managed a small smile. "Now you see why I need my computer to remind me to do things." He stood and crossed to the driver's door. "This rally was kind of a present to myself, but it's not exactly turning out like I expected."
"Listen, my partner and I are cops. We're not exactly in our jurisdiction, but if you need some help..." Blair didn't know what was bothering Murray, but he seemed so lost; he couldn't stop himself from offering to help.
"Thanks, but there's nothing wrong." Murray slipped into the driver's seat. "Well, nothing that my computer and I can't handle." He lovingly petted the case of the laptop. "We'll do just fine together."
Blair's eyebrows rose. "You're running the course with only your computer as a navigator?"
For the first time, Murray's face showed a genuine smile. "With this computer, I don't need anyone else." He started his car. "Good luck on the course, Blair. And thanks." He pulled out of the parking space and headed to the starting line.
Blair joined Jim, who was lounging against the Corvair. "Did you believe him?"
""Did I believe who?" Jim straightened up.
"Come on, man, do you really expect me to believe you weren't listening?" Blair got behind the steering wheel and started the engine.
Jim got into the passenger seat. "Contrary to your opinion, Sandburg, I don't listen in on every conversation you have." He crossed his arms over his chest.
Blair smoothly shifted gears and pulled out of the parking slot. "No, not every conversation. Just the ones I have with people you don't trust." He turned and gave his partner an evil smile. "So, what did you think?"
His partner glared at him before answering. "I think he was lying about nothing being wrong."
The Road Rally Course
The starter motioned for the silver Corvair to pull up to the line. "You have your instructions?" Blair held up his sealed envelope for verification and then passed it to Jim. "On my mark. Go!"
Blair accelerated out of the parking lot and down to the street. "Okay, Jim, what do I do now?"
Jim slid the instructions out of the envelope and read the first directions. "Begin your quest by heading toward the setting sun. When you come to the blue church, turn left and proceed for fifteen minutes at 32 m.p.h. Look for the movie poster and go the number of miles indicated in the title. Turn north by the two pine trees for nine minutes at 40 m.p.h. Find your first treasure in the 'hip' lion tamer's aide. Are they for real on this stuff?"
"Yeah. Isn't it great? I did some scavenger hunts in undergrad, but nothing like this." He turned left onto the street. "What is it we're looking for again?"
"Sandburg, we're looking for a blue church and you're heading in the wrong direction. West is that-a-way." He pointed in the opposite direction.
"I knew that." He checked traffic and made a U-turn to head west.
Forty-five minutes later Blair pulled to the side of the dirt road they'd been on for the past nine minutes. "A hip lion tamer's aide, huh?"
"That's what it says, but don't ask me what it means." He shoved the sheet of paper back in the envelope. "Who makes up this stuff, Dr. Seuss?"
"C'mon, Jim, think. It has to be something obvious." He got out of the car and looked around the open pasture in frustration. "A lion tamer uses a chair or a whip, but I don't see how either one of those can be hip. Do you see anything?"
Jim took the opportunity to stretch his legs and stepped out, too. He held up his hands. "Do I see what? A chair or a whip?" He did a quick scan of the area. "Nope, no chairs or whips in the vicinity. Maybe we aren't in the right place."
"This has to be the right place. I've followed your instructions exactly." He stood with his hands on his hips, looking around for inspiration.
"Oh, really?" Jim asked sarcastically. "And just where in my instructions did I say 'slam on the brakes and send me bouncing off the dash?'"
"A squirrel ran in the road. What was I supposed to do?" He held up his hands in a 'what-can-you-do?' gesture.
"The stupid squirrel didn't even run out in front of you, he just ran in the road, then turned around! You didn't have to stop like you were on the edge of a cliff."
"But he might have." Blair put on his best innocent expression.
Jim started to argue, then just shook his head. "Why do I even bother?"
Blair grinned at him in response. That makes it Blair 943, Jim... , okay, I'll be generous, Jim 2. "Now, what I want you to do is to use your sight, man. See if you can pick up something that doesn't belong."
"That would be cheating, Chief."
"That would be using all available resources, Partner. Now look!" Blair gave him a small shove away from the car.
Once again, Jim did a scan of the area, this time looking for anything out of place. He let his eyes unfocus, the greens, browns and golds of the natural setting blending together in a harmonious tapestry. Pinpoints of color that didn't belong stood out in sharp relief. "There's a red Coke can, a black trash bag, a silver hubcap, a blue and white Cool Whip container..."
"Wait! That's it! Where? Where?" Blair was bouncing in his excitement at deciphering the clue. "It's the Cool Whip."
Jim walked thirty feet down the road and picked up the plastic container from the roadside ditch. He opened it to reveal a gold colored plastic coin with a Corvair imprinted on it. "Got it." He smiled at the joyous expression on his partner's face.
"One down, seven to go!" Blair ran back to the car and drove to Jim's location in a flash. "Let's go!"
Jim just shook his head in exasperation and jumped in the car. He'd always known that too much exposure to the Sandburg zone could prove habit forming.
Three hours and fifty-one minutes later Blair pulled into the parking lot of a closed gas station/convenience store. The windows and door were boarded over as protection against vandals, but that had no effect on local graffiti artists. The pumps were chained shut, still reflecting gas prices as $1.09 a gallon. Half a dozen old tires were haphazardly stacked against a rust covered dumpster. Oil stains on the cracked pavement had long since dried to permanent black shadows. Across the road, an abandoned vegetable stand advertised fresh tomatoes on a faded sign. If they had followed the directions carefully, this was where they'd find the fifth treasure. That is, if they managed to figure out what 'a circus performer stuck in a rut' meant.
Despite a few minor wrong turns, they were still on schedule thanks to his sensible use of available resources. And it wasn't cheating! So far they'd deciphered 'balloon covered dough' as being the wrapper from a loaf of Wonder bread and they would still be sitting in front of that barn if stale bread had no smell. And he would have ended up right in front of the coffee shop if the speed and time instructions hadn't kept changing. After all a couple of miles wasn't that far off. Fortunately, Jim's desire for coffee had gotten them where they needed to be and 'a friend of caffeine' was easily recognized as the jar of Coffeemate. Jim kept insisting the fourth clue was backward and was absolutely no help at all. Every time he'd asked him to read it, Jim had started laughing. 'No bounce but with direction' turned out to be a box of ball bearings. The golden coins from each container now rested securely in the Corvair's console.
The latest treasure clue was being difficult. They'd been here for fifteen minutes without finding a thing. No matter how many times he'd heard it, nothing was coming to mind. "We can't be at the right place, Jim." He looked across the empty expanse of road again and kicked at the ground. "There isn't anything around here remotely resembling a circus performer stuck in anything, much less stuck in a rut." Another Corvair passed them, honking as it drove by. "This is getting embarrassing. We can't keep standing around out here."
Jim jumped down from his vantage point on top of the concrete back wall at the service station and walked back to the car. "What do you want to do, Chief? Every direction is dependent on the last one being followed correctly."
"If we can figure out what we're looking for, maybe you can find it and get us back on track." Blair looked slyly at his companion and wiggled his eyebrows.
"Again with the using all available resources thing? Somehow I don't think I'm what they had in mind."
Blair narrowed his eyes. "Hey, I found the last one without any extra help. In fact I found it even with my alleged partner doing his imitation of a hyena."
"It was just too... you. All bounce with no direction." A snicker escaped his attempt to play it straight.
"Yeah, yeah. Make fun of the directionally challenged. Are you going to help with this or not?"
"What more do you want, Chief? I don't see, hear or smell a circus anywhere around here." Jim leaned against the car door.
"No, circus is too easy. Besides, it says circus performer. Who performs at the circus?" Blair paced back and forth as he went over the options again. "Clowns... high wire performers... lion tamers... bareback riders... acrobats... Come on, Jim, help."
Jim looked skyward in a silent prayer and sighed. "Elephants... dogs... horses..." He tilted his head in a familiar manner.
"What? What is it?" He futilely tried to hear whatever Jim was focusing on.
"A carousel. That-a-way." He nodded farther down the road. "And you know what's on a carousel?"
Blair smiled. "Circus horses 'stuck in a rut'. Let's go check it out."
With the fifth treasure safely rescued from the vicious carousel horse guarding it, Blair was ready for a break and some aspirin. The disk had just been within his grasp at the base of the pole when the stupid horse went down instead of up and banged him on the back of the head. Then, when he started to get up, the horse in tandem had come down and hit him in the rump. He winced as the seat rest hit the same spot and dropped the disk in the console with the others. His stomach growled, reminding him how long it had been since breakfast.
"I'm ready for lunch. Think you can find us somewhere to eat without getting too far off course?"
"Not losing your enthusiasm there are you?" Jim gave his partner a grin before turning his attention to the map he held in his hand.
Blair ignored the question and started the car. "Whatever happened to my Blessed Protector? Seems like he's falling down on the job."
"You forgot to read the small print, Chief. Protection from carousel horses is excluded unless they're stampeding." He refused to make eye contact and concentrated on the map. "There should be a place to eat about five miles from here in Ariel, provided it's a town and not a misspelling."
"Cute, Jim. Real cute." He gave him a very insincere smile.
The town indicated on the map turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Ariel was a tiny burg that didn't even really qualify for the 'town' appellation. With a population of less than a hundred, its main claim to fame was as the supposed landing place of D.B. Cooper. The entire community consisted of two square blocks on the highway. What it did have though, was an old-fashioned drugstore complete with soda fountain.
Blair parked in the tiny adjacent lot beside another Corvair. "Looks like we aren't the only ones getting hungry. I think that's Murray's car under all that mud."
Jim glanced at the car, noting not only the mud, but also the dent on the bumper. Before he could comment he was distracted by the upset voice he could hear inside. "Sounds like your friend needs some rescuing. He's about to get his face slapped."
"Murray? You've got to be kidding?" He quickly got out of the car and followed Jim inside.
The interior of the drugstore was like stepping back in time to the turn of the century. An old time soda fountain stretched the entire length of one wall. Its white marble top contrasted with the dark oak woodwork and gleaming brass rails. The rest of the space was crammed with shelves of every description, containing everything imaginable. There were the standard drug items sharing space with camping utensils. Toys rested comfortably next to beef jerky. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling instead of florescent lights. For a place in the middle of nowhere, it managed to sport a decent clientele. There had to be a dozen or more people either shopping in the crowded aisles, or sitting at the bar. But the center of attention was Murray, who had grasped the arm of the female clerk behind the display case at the front door.
"Why are you playing games with me?" The desperation apparent in his voice did nothing to assure the frightened clerk, who was edging closer to a baseball bat behind the counter.
Blair immediately jumped into the fray. "Murray! Long time no see! Isn't this place great? We just stopped for lunch. Why don't you join us?" Placing an arm around Murray's shoulders, he steered him to the barstools, leaving Jim to settle the rattled clerk. Catching the waitress's eye, he ordered three chocolate milkshakes. In a moment Jim joined them, sitting on the other side of Murray, effectively boxing him in.
"What's going on, guys?" Murray looked from one to the other, shifting his laptop carryall to rest in his lap.
"I think that's the question we should be asking you, Mr. Kowalski. Do you make it a habit to assault people?" Jim didn't even attempt to maintain a pretense of friendly conversation.
Blair silently whispered 'lie detector' to Jim behind Murray's back. "I told you we were cops. Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No, I'm not in any trouble. Why would you think that?" He latched onto the milkshake the waitress set down before him and devoted his full attention to it.
A twelve year old wouldn't have been fooled by the protestation of innocence, much less a sentinel. Jim rolled his eyes.
Blair took a stab in the dark. "Does the trouble you're in have something to do with the man at the pre-race party last night?"
"Who? Him? He was just another Corvair collector. He wanted to buy my Monza and I told him no." Murray kept his voice casual.
Jim gave Blair a nod and continued sipping his shake.
Noting the possessive hand Murray kept on the laptop, Blair decided to go for broke. "He wants your laptop, doesn't he?"
The reaction he got was everything he could have hoped for. Murray swallowed his milkshake the wrong way and started choking. In an effort to catch his breath, he managed to knock over Blair's full glass, spilling milkshake all over the counter. Jim sat quietly on his stool, shaking his head and protecting his shake by keeping it in his hand. From the evil-eye the waitress was giving them, a strategic retreat was in order. Blair put enough cash on the counter to cover the drinks and, grabbing Murray's arm, hustled him outside.
Jim blocked any escape attempt Murray might have with the simple solution of leaning on the red Corvair's driver's door. "Mr. Bozinski, we know you're in trouble, so don't bother denying it again. You need to trust someone before you get in over your head. If not us, then can we call someone for you?"
Blair stood quietly by his partner, willing Murray to open up to them.
"Are you guys really cops?"
Jim flipped out his badge. Blair reached for his ID only to realize it wasn't in his back pocket. He felt in his jacket pockets, but still no ID.
"Sandburg..." Jim growled.
"I've got it, I've got it." He opened the door of the Corvair and pulled out his backpack, pulled the ID wallet out and flipped it open. He started to put it back, but at the glare from Jim, he slipped the wallet in his back pocket. Reaching into the backpack, he took out his holstered gun and slid it into the door pocket of the Corvair.
Murray slumped on the hood of his car. "It's not like you can do anything anyway. No one can do anything." He sighed. "You were right, Blair. Last night, the man at the party started talking about job security versus security at the job. I thought he was some kind of hardware developer looking for an angle and blew him off. I get people like him making pitches to me all the time when they find out I'm in charge of R & D back at Redmond. This morning I got a phone call. The voice on the phone told me if I didn't turn over my latest project I could start planning another trip, this one to attend a funeral. Whoever it was then started reading the names out of my address book." He paused to rub his hand over his face and push his glasses up. "I hung up the phone. I didn't take it seriously, you know, I thought it was just someone's idea of a bad joke. But when I got in the Monza this morning there was a bereavement card and a headstone arrangement of flowers. I just dumped the stuff and started the course."
Jim and Blair exchanged glances over Murray's head as he continued. "An hour ago some doofus in an overgrown Tonka truck came roaring up behind me. I got pushed off in a swamp and ended up getting towed out. Then I got a digital message on my cell phone that one of my best friends was involved in a traffic accident and was killed. I called his home and found out it was all a hoax." Murray brought his knees up to lean on them, curling around his laptop case. "I'd stopped here for lunch when I got another message on the cell. It said to keep driving carefully, accidents can happen at any time. When the clerk said I looked like I'd been in an accident, I just lost it." He shook his head slowly. "I can't risk my friends' lives. I've got to give him what he wants."
Jim regarded the dejected figure in front of him. "What exactly is it he wants?"
"This." He held up the laptop. "Well, not exactly this. But what's in it."
Blair sat down by Murray. "What's in your laptop that's so valuable?"
"A new chip that I developed. I probably shouldn't have taken it out of the lab, but to have reliable beta testing you have to impose varying field criteria." His voice reflected his enthusiasm for his project. "This could be the next major breakthrough in computer technology. An affordable AI program chip. Not only is it the next step in voder technology, but it can formulate judgments, draw inferences and conclusions from known or assumed facts and then act on the information. This could make anthropomorphic mechanical beings a reality instead of science fiction fantasy."
"That's fantastic. How far have you got in the testing?"
Jim jumped in before Murray could go into another 'short' explanation. "Are you telling me you developed some kind of computer chip that thinks for itself?"
Murray looked slightly offended. "That's a rather simplistic method of describing it, but essentially, yes."
"And exactly why is this so valuable?"
Offered another chance to explain his discovery, Murray beamed. "It's not the technology per se. You may not be aware of it, but the defense program has been using self-realizing computers for a while in their fail-safe programs. What makes this so incredible is that I've found a way to sub-miniaturize the necessary components with pre-existing methods and cross-relay the inputs, thus eliminating a great deal of redundant programming."
Apparently, Murray couldn't answer a question simply even when his life might depend on it. "You need to report this to the police. They can't do anything to help if you don't tell them."
"And risk this guy finding out?" He jumped off the car and started pacing. "No way. The cops would just come in here with flashing lights and guns, asking a lot of stupid questions."
Blair hid a snicker by clearing his throat. "Murray, we'd like to try and help you if you'll let us."
Jim silently mouthed 'we would?' behind Murray's back.
"I just don't see what you can do. He's got to be on the course somewhere, watching me. He could even be one of the judges. If he sees you following me, there's no telling what might happen."
"You let us worry about that." Blair ignored Jim's frown and pulled out his new key ring. He quickly removed the key and held out the tiny jukebox. "I shouldn't be showing you this, but since this is an emergency situation, I feel you can keep it quiet." Murray quickly nodded, not saying a word. "This is a one-way transmitter. All you have to do is speak and the miniature microphone will let us know what's going on. Otherwise just stay on your course and be careful. We'll be out of sight, but close by."
Murray carefully wrapped his hand around the key chain. "You'd really help me out? Just like that?" The surprise was evident in his voice.
Blair couldn't help a small smile. "Helping people who are in trouble is kind of a habit with us. Right, Jim?"
Murray enthusiastically grabbed Blair's hand and shook it. "I can't tell you what this means to me. Knowledge should be shared, but there is no appreciation for knowledge gained without the hard work of trial and error. You are a real life-saver, my friend." He turned and grabbed Jim's hand, shaking it furiously. "This whole affair has just got me so discombobulated I feel like a hard drive with out-of-sequence sectors."
Jim rescued his hand from Murray's grasp, sending him on his way, then turned to regard his grinning partner. "Since this is your idea, you get to be the one to tell Simon."
Blair's face fell. "Jiiiim. You know he likes you better."
An hour and a half later, Blair's stomach was making its neglected presence known in no uncertain terms. Between the aborted stop that had begun this game of cat and mouse and keeping tabs on where Murray was, lunch had become a forgotten issue. They had leapfrogged all around, hoping to spot whoever was behind the scheme with no luck. Whoever was monitoring him was being very circumspect.
Jim turned in the passenger seat and glared at the offending part of Blair's body. "Can you keep it down there, Sandburg? It's a little hard to listen for the bad guy when you're doing your impression of Mount St. Helens."
Blair gave him a sneering smile. "At least you had a milkshake. I ended up with nothing."
"Just one of the sacrifices you have to make in the interests of protecting the citizenry." He gave a mock salute. "He's your friend, remember?"
"Friend? I just met the guy this morning!"
Jim nodded his head sagely, trying not to laugh at the outraged expression on his partner's face. "Yes, and thanks to your unbelievably incredible tendency to attract trouble, here we are yet again."
"Pot and kettle, Jim. Pot and kettle." His stomach rumbled another warning. "I don't care what, the next place we pass with some real food, I'm going to stop."
"Tsk, tsk. Putting mere physical needs above your duty."
Blair punched Jim in the arm. "Real funny, man. I'll remember that next time it's my turn to bring the coffee on stakeout."
Jim held up a hand, head cocked to one side. "Murray has found his seventh treasure. An oscillating ensign." He looked over at his partner.
"Man, I can't think when I'm starving. I give up. What was it?"
"A waving flag. He's good." He consulted the map again. "Hang a left up here at the next intersection."
Blair made the turn and immediately saw a sign advertising Mickey's One Stop: the one place to stop for food, fuel and feed. Checking traffic, he turned right and headed directly for the group of buildings visible a quarter mile down the road. He quickly pulled up to the pumps. "You fill up the car, I'll grab us some sandwiches." Without waiting for a reply, he jumped out and headed inside.
Shaking his head at Blair's determination, he began fueling the Corvair while simultaneously monitoring Murray. All this long-distance listening was giving him a headache he became aware of the minute his guide was away from him. Suddenly, he heard a desperate plea from Murray; whatever was happening was going down now. He jumped in the Corvair and started it up, honking for Blair.
Inside the store, Blair had just ordered sandwiches for himself and Jim when he heard the honking of the horn. Looking outside, he saw Jim behind the wheel of his Corvair. Visions of the pick-up in various stages of destruction flashed through his mind. An anguished cry of "No!" resounded through the small store. Within seconds, the door to the store was flung open and a whirlwind came tearing out. Running directly to the driver's door, he pulled it open.
"Move over! Move over!" He pushed at Jim's shoulders.
"Get in Sandburg, we don't have time for this," Jim growled.
Blair continued to push at Jim. "No way, man! You are NOT driving my Corvair. I'll do whatever it takes to catch this guy, but YOU are not driving. Now move over."
Grumbling, Jim moved across the seat. "Geez, Sandburg. It's just a car, not a museum exhibit."
"I'll remind you of that next time I want to drive the truck. Now which way?"
"Go back to the road we were on and take the first right, they're at the end of the road." Jim pulled out his gun and checked it before sliding it back in his holster.
Blair concentrated on his driving, smoothly shifting while continuing to press down on the accelerator. "What's happening?"
"Murray got flagged down by another Corvair. He thought they were a team on the treasure hunt and having mechanical trouble so he stopped to help. One of them has a gun and they're demanding he turn the chip over to them right now. He's trying to stall them." Jim bounced off the door as Blair swerved sharply to avoid a pothole. "Move it, Sandburg! Even Murray can't talk to them forever."
"I'm moving, I'm moving." He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, passing a slow- moving Toyota. "What's going on now?"
Jim concentrated again on the voices only he could hear. "Murray is giving them the ten dollar explanation of what his chip does." He paused a moment. "Either he's bored them to death or they're in a kind of verbal shock. They haven't managed to get a word out in response."
Blair made the last corner that separated them from the tableau and slowed the car. "How do you want to play it?"
"Low and slow, partner, low and slow." Jim pulled his Jags cap down farther on his head.
Nodding his head in assent, Blair pasted a smile on his face and drove casually toward the scene in front of him. Murray's red Corvair was parked directly behind a four door Corvair painted a bright yellow. The two men standing across from Murray didn't look like your average rent-a-thugs. In fact, they were dressed like yuppies straight out of suburbia. From their L.L. Bean loafers, to their creased slacks and windbreakers, they looked harmless. Too bad things can't be as they seem. Well, here goes nothing. "Hey, guys! How's it going?" He drove the Corvair right next to the two yuppies, putting Jim right beside the biggest one, who was obviously a frequent visitor at the Big and Tall shop.
Yuppie #1 exchanged a look with his partner before speaking. "Just fine. We had a bit of trouble with the carburetor, but our friend here helped us out. We're fixing to get back on the road now." He kept his right hand in the pocket of his jacket.
Whatever the plan might have been no longer mattered. Murray launched into action on his own, swinging his computer case with all his might in a giant roundhouse toward his two opponents. The first man stumbled back, the gun concealed in his pocket discharging and blowing a nice neat hole through the radiator of Murray's car. The gyrating case made solid contact with the second man, sending him face first against the passenger door of Blair's car. He promptly folded over the door and into Jim. Blair quickly opened his door and hopped out, aiming to get Murray out of the line of fire. The armed yuppie quickly recovered his balance and grabbed the case at the same instant Blair grabbed Murray. The three of them played an impromptu game of tug of war while Jim struggled to get his unexpected guest under control. Murray's grasp, either through nervousness or adrenalin, was loosening and Blair suddenly found himself flat on the ground with Murray lying on top of him. The surprised winner turned and immediately pulled out his gun.
"Hold it! Everybody just hold it!" He swung the gun from Murray and Blair on the ground in front of him to where his partner struggled in Jim's iron grasp.
Jim's captive managed a harsh laugh. "You better let me go, cowboy, or my friend is going to do more than just point that gun of his."
Jim held up his arms, releasing his prisoner who stood up slowly, rubbing his throat carefully. He reached over, jerked the keys out of the ignition and threw them into the woods behind them. Seeing Jim's Jags cap on the car seat where it had fallen during the struggle, he picked it up and put it on his head. "Always wanted one of these. No one has to get hurt here." He backed toward his car. "This kind of thing happens all the time in the business world, gents, no reason to get so upset about it. Just go back to your nice little white collar jobs and play it safe." Turning, he got in his Corvair and started it up, motioning for his partner to join him. His partner, still covering the group with his gun, carefully approached the car and opened the door, but before getting in he took careful aim and shot the front right tire of Blair's Corvair. In a flurry of gravel and black exhaust, the two thieves sped off.
The second the car was out of sight, Jim went to check on Blair and Murray. "You two all right?" Blair nodded and held up an arm, knowing Jim would give him a hand up. Murray waved a hand at him, making no effort to rise. Jim pulled his partner up and headed into the woods.
On his feet, Blair turned to Murray and held out a hand. "Give me your keys."
Confused, Murray automatically extended his keys. "What are you going to do with them?"
Blair explained as he put action to his words. "I'm going to use your jack to get the flat changed on my car."
"But the wheel patterns won't match. They changed from a four lug pattern to a five lug pattern on yours."
"That doesn't matter. I just need your jack." Blair hurriedly placed the jack under the front bumper and started pumping. Getting the car off the ground, he moved to the lug nuts on the damaged wheel and started work on the first one. "If sight isn't working, focus on the metal."
"Excuse me?" Murray asked from behind his shoulder.
Blair started. He'd forgotten all about their victim. "I said... never mind what I said." He searched for something to keep Murray busy and out of the way. "Do you have a cell phone with you?"
"No, the computer has one attached to it so I don't need one. Don't you have one?"
"Yes." Blair leaned on the four-way to break loose another lug nut. "But it's in the trunk and I can't get in there right now."
Jim appeared as if by magic, opened the trunk and lifted out the spare tire. Tossing the keys to Blair, he took over the job of changing the tire.
Blair quickly moved to the back of the Corvair, tossed the flat in and retrieved the cell phone out of his jacket pocket. He pressed the speed dial for Simon and waited impatiently. After five rings, the phone was finally picked up.
"Simon... Good... Remember the little surveillance Jim and I were doing? Well, it paid off. The bad guys showed up and grabbed the chip. They even took Jim's Jags cap... No, no one was hurt, but they took off with it... Yes, the chip and the cap... Yeah, we're going to follow them... What do you mean who's driving? Look, I'm going to give you to Murray, he'll give you all the information you need." Blair handed the phone, with Simon still yelling, to Murray.
Jim tightened the last lug nut and looked up to see Blair sitting behind the wheel, drumming his fingers. Giving his partner an evil glare, he got in and shut the door. Seconds later, the Corvair peeled out, headed in the same direction as the thieves.
"Okay, the direction they left, I know. Where to now?" Blair barely checked the road ahead before passing another Corvair still in pursuit of treasure clues. He spared a glance at the passenger seat, where Jim sat very still. "Well? Where are they?"
"I'm not some blasted computer, Chief. I'm working on it," he snapped out angrily. "They're not talking and all these Corvairs sound too much alike."
Blair softened his voice. "Okay, forget the car." He tried a different tact. "Can you think of anything that was distinctive about those guys, something you can pick up on? A cologne, an old pair of gym shoes in the back seat?" Inspiration hit him. "What about your cap? Can you pick up on that?"
"Sandburg, I don't have the slightest idea what my cap smells like." Jim sniffed the air. "Turn here."
Obediently Blair turned at the corner. "What is it? What'd you smell?"
"I couldn't place it before, but they use the same kind of special oil you use in the Volvo and that Corvair is burning oil." He stuck his head out the window and sniffed again. "It's fainter now. It's easier to find when they're accelerating."
Blair nodded his head. "That's cool. We'll just let you sniff out each intersection we come to until we catch up with them."
Jim gave him a sour smile. "Joy. Just what I need, congested sinuses to go with the headache."
"The faster we catch up with them, the faster we can fix your headache." Blair thought for a moment. "And the faster we can get your Jags cap back."
"Hurry up, we don't have all day."
Five sniffs and three intersections later, the object of their search was finally spotted. "Time to call in the troops, Chief."
"Uh... Jim... I left my cell phone with Murray. Can't you call it in?" Blair followed their target discreetly.
"My cell is in the truck, remember? You said you had yours and I wouldn't need mine." Jim gave his partner a hard stare.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot about that." Blair chewed on his lip and studied the long stretch of empty road ahead of them. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"Unless you want to try and follow them and hope they stop somewhere without any convenient hostages nearby." Jim pulled his gun, holding it out of sight.
Blair groaned. "Nooooo." He pounded the steering wheel. "This isn't fair. I just got this car." Resigning himself to the situation, he took a deep breath to calm himself, then checked his seat belt and tightened his grip on the wheel. "Okay, I'm ready."
"You know, they're probably not going to want to pull over for us." Jim avoided looking at his partner, keeping his eyes on the car ahead.
"Yeah, I know."
"You know they'll probably even take off if they spot us."
"Yeah, I know." Blair's voice had assumed a monotone quality.
"You know I can't fire at them unless they fire at us first."
"Yeah, yeah." Blair considered momentarily and looked hopefully at his crack shot partner. "But if they do, then you can take them out, right?"
"I'll do my best." Jim shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"That's enough." He glanced over at Jim. "Because I am NOT playing bumper cars with my brand new baby."
Blair had closed the distance between them to just a few car lengths. Before they could make a move to come alongside, the other driver stomped on the accelerator and pulled away in a cloud of black smoke.
"Damn. I just knew this wasn't going to be easy." Mumbling to himself, Blair increased his speed to stay with the fleeing car in front of them, determinedly not watching the speedometer needle creep up into the higher ranges.
The two cars raced down the straightaway, the thieves taking their lane out of the middle of the road. Their passing created a whirlwind that violently stirred the grass and leaves in its path. Up ahead, a yellow road sign warned of an upcoming S curve.
"This is not the time to ask, but in all your traveling around, did you ever spend a summer driving Indy cars?" Jim asked innocently, easily bracing himself between the dash and the seat with the judicious placement of his left hand.
"Would you think less of me right now if I told you no?" Blair tried to sound nonchalant, but high speed pursuit driving was something he had always been more than willing to leave to his partner.
Jim rubbed his temples. This was not exactly the place for extensive instruction. "Brake sharply right before you enter the curve and downshift, then power through it. Keep to the inside of the curve and forget about lanes. And whatever you do, don't break for squirrels, Sandburg," he ground out the last sentence.
Opting for discretion at this point in time, Blair wisely chose to keep silent and nodded in reply. He saw the sudden flare of brake lights from the Corvair in front of him, but followed instructions and waited until he was almost in the curve before braking hard and fast and then quickly hitting the gas pedal again. The other car made it through the curve, but the distance between them was now no more than three car lengths as they continued to race down the road.
He couldn't contain his excitement after the successful maneuver and looked over at Jim. "Wow, that was great! No wonder you like pursuits."
"Keep your eyes on the road, not me," Jim growled. He tried for a patient tone of voice before he spoke again. "There's a cutoff coming up for the Mount St. Helens Monument in about two miles. You've got to force them to take that cutoff. It leads to a parking area for people making the climb and it's closed at this time of year."
Blair remembered to keep his eyes front when asking his question. "Uh, Jim, how am I supposed to make them do that?"
"We do a little dancing, Mario, and you get to lead."
"That doesn't sound like much fun." Blair grimaced, his thrill of the pursuit giving way to visions of body damage to his precious Corvair.
The silver gray Corvair closed on its target. The two vehicles jockeyed for position on the roadway, the yellow Corvair changing lanes constantly to block every attempt to pass. The problem with the thieves' defensive tactic soon became obvious -- the small car just didn't have enough bulk to make an effective blockade. The more the yellow Corvair weaved and bobbed all over the roadway, the more opportunities it gave its pursuer to pull up alongside. A miscalculation around a slight corner gave the silver car its opening and the two vehicles raced side by side down the highway. As the silver aggressor edged over, the yellow car abruptly abandoned the game and chose instead to make its escape at a fork in the road, choosing the narrower road.
Blair hit the brakes, bringing his car to an abrupt stop, and backed up quickly to follow the other Corvair down the dirt road. He watched the speedometer hit numbers that would have had him grabbing the dash in other circumstances. "Okay, we got him to go down the road, now what?" He hoped the fleeing thieves didn't decide to just stop in the middle of the road; the dust cloud they created was an effective camouflage.
"In about a mile, there's a gate across the road and the only way out is back the way he came." Suddenly Jim grabbed the steering wheel and wrenched it hard to the left, stomping on the gas pedal and incidentally Blair's foot. The Corvair shot over the bar ditch and into the waist high grass, flushing a gun-waving thief like a surprised quail, his gun discharging harmlessly into the ground as he dropped it. The man dove into the only cover available, a stock pond, as the car came to a stop at the edge. His unexpected arrival sent a flock of ducks quacking to the sky.
Throwing open his car door, Jim yelled, "Stay with this one, I'm going after his buddy." In seconds, he vanished into the brush.
Blair took a second to get his breathing back to normal -- it wouldn't do to let the bad guys think he'd been scared during his short, but very aerodynamic flight. He reached for his backpack with a shaking hand and retrieved his handcuffs. Gotta be cool. Deep breaths. Stepping carefully out of the car to avoid any mud, he walked to the edge of the pond where the suspect sat in about a foot of dirty water. "Hey, pond scum. You're under arrest. Get over here."
A quarter mile down the road, the driver of the yellow Corvair grinned when the sound of the shot echoed through the quiet woods. Nodding his head in satisfaction, he started the car and turned it around, confident that his pursuers had been taken care of. He started back down the road and then stopped dead. A hundred feet down the road in front of him was a roadblock, of sorts. In the center of the road, stood a single individual, feet spread in the classic firing stance, gun pointed directly at him. He revved the engine -- the Corvair bounced under the restrained power. The roadblock didn't move a muscle. He revved the engine again, allowing the Corvair to jump forward a few feet. His right hand strayed to the smooth cover of the computer case, reassuring him of its presence. The human roadblock facing him didn't even react, just continued to stare at him. Tired of this game of chicken, he accelerated toward the only object standing between him and the open road.
Jim knew the second the driver of the Corvair made up his mind, even before the sound of the engine increased. Taking careful aim, he fired one shot, into the right front tire of the fast approaching car. The car skidded to the left, the driver overcorrecting, tilted over on its side, and slid into a defenseless hemlock at the side of the road. Before the dust settled, he was at the overturned car, pulling the shattered windshield from its frame.
Inside the car the driver stirred feebly, staring up at the human blockade with a dazed expression. "You shot my car."
Jim quickly scanned the condition of the suspect, assuring himself there were no serious injuries, "Yeah. I did." He checked the steering wheel for sturdiness, cuffed the suspect's hands through it, then reached into the car and pulled out the laptop case. "You're under arrest for the theft of this computer." He snagged his Jags cap from the floorboard where it lay and put it on. "And for the theft of my personal property. And I'm sure I can think of a few more charges while we're waiting." Reaching for the cell phone clipped to the man's belt he asked, "Mind if I borrow your phone? My partner has a rally to complete."
Blair yawned as he drove into the town of Woodland and stopped for a red light. It had taken almost three hours before the local law enforcement was through with them. Then they had finally completed the course and found all the treasure coins. Sure, their time would go down as the slowest to ever complete a road rally, but they had finished it and that's what counted. All he wanted now was a meal, a shower, and bed, not even necessarily in that order. He was wasted; between the early start, the adrenalin rush of the chase, and the hours of being questioned by doubting police officers he felt like he had been run over. That thought caused a shiver to run up his spine. How could Jim pull a stunt like that? Standing out in front of a car, daring someone to try and run him over. It was definitely time for a looonnng talk. And my poor Corvair, covered in dust and dirty and scratched from Jim's impulsive assistance with my driving. I could have... probably... figured out something if he'd just told me about the guy in the bushes instead of crushing my foot. He glanced fondly at his partner who was leaning back against the headrest, eyes shut. But I'll forgive him... this once. Spotting his destination he pulled into the parking area and turned the car off, relaxing to the sounds of the cooling engine.
Jim didn't even open his eyes as he asked the question. "Sandburg, why are we sitting in a car wash at nine o'clock at night?"
"We need to wash off the dirt before we put her to bed. And I want to see if we got any rock chips from that dirt road." The spirit was willing, but the body was dead tired. He looked in his console for some quarters to feed the machine.
"I am not washing your car in the middle of the night. There's plenty of time for you to do that tomorrow." Jim turned long enough to give his roommate a pointed glare before shutting his eyes again.
Blair's response was interrupted by an unexpected bump from behind. He looked in his rearview mirror to see a neon green Dodge Neon on top of his bumper. "That does it!" He jerked open the door and stepped out, determined that this insult to his Corvair would not go unavenged. Stalking up to the driver's tinted window, he began yelling at the unseen driver. "Where did you get your driver's license? Out of a vending machine? You couldn't see me PARKED in the wash bay? You need..."
The rest of his sentence trailed off as the car door opened and pair of very lovely, very long legs were revealed. His eyes traveled all the way up from the ankles to settle on a pair of lively green eyes in a heart-shaped face surrounded by long blonde hair. A wide smile appeared like magic on his face.
Inside the Corvair, Jim pulled his Jags cap down farther and settled down more comfortably in the seat. He had a feeling that exchanging information was going to take a while.
~ Finis ~
E-mail the author of this story, Brenda Bailey, at firstname.lastname@example.org Read Brenda's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Shycat's Sentinel Domain E-mail Faux Paws Productions at email@example.com IN TWO WEEKS on THE SENTINEL: Fire and Ice (2/14/00, FPP-612) by Sue Wells
Blair's latest sentinel experiments provide Jim with the ability to see in greater detail than ever before. Meanwhile, jewels on loan from Russia are stolen from a local museum.
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This page last updated 2/2/01.