Author's Notes: No profit; Copyright laws bent but not broken; beta'd by the ever-patient Arianna, remaining errors are mine; and thanks to my generous hostess, Starfox

Spoilers: Post TSbBS, Blair is a detective; Takes place after my story, "Making the Team" but stands alone.

Warnings: Language

Becoming A Cop

by Roslyn

Part III - Holistic Cop

********************

"Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light: where it is, is light; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming."

Monday, 3:20 A.M.; the Loft:

The wolf skulked along the perimeter of the forest, darting briefly between closely growing trees, in fruitless attempts to see into the jungle depths. Unable to locate the source of the soft growl of an unseen cat, it repeatedly returned to the familiar tree line. The growl became a demand and the wolf grew agitated at being unable to localize it by sight or smell. The sound was amorphous, echoing from several different directions.

"Chief?" Jim gently grasped the shifting shoulders of his agitated partner. "Come on, buddy, open your eyes now. It's only a dream."

Blair sat bolt upright, startling the man who was trying to rouse him. It was a moment before the restless sleeper was able to acknowledge an awareness of his current surroundings.

"Jim?" Damp, shoulder length strands of hair stuck to his cheeks and impeded his sight in the heavily shadowed darkness of his small room.

"It's okay." Jim disappeared briefly into the bathroom, reappearing with a glass of water and a towel. Placing the water on the night table, he began to rub the towel soothingly over the matted hair, as much to ground the confused dreamer as to dry him.

Blair seemed to focus finally and raised his hands to firmly grasp the cloth and take over the drying process. Jim relinquished the towel to him and went to scrounge up a dry t-shirt. The current one was wetly plastered to his roommate's chest. Finishing his hair, Blair stripped off his shirt and began drying his torso.

Jim rummaged through two drawers before finding a clean tee. "Here you go. I'm going to have to coordinate these drawers if I'm going to play valet." He grinned to offset any tone of remonstrance and sat on the edge of the bed while Blair struggled into the shirt.

"Thanks, man. Sorry you had to..."

"Never mind that. You know it's no problem. At least when it's your turn to have interrupted sleep, I don't take my life in my hands waking you."

Blair mustered up a grin, despite the continued uneasiness he felt from his vision/dream. "Not as bad as all that. You pretty much know it's me now on the staircase, heading to your bedroom."

Jim acknowledged that with a smile but refused to be distracted from the reason for his intrusion into Blair's bedroom. "Anything you wanna talk about, Chief?" Blair had recently come through a crisis of conscience after taking a life to save his friend and another colleague. Jim knew from personal experience that appearing to adapt to the reality of a cop's existence was not necessarily the final chapter in the adjustment. Sooner or later, everyone had to sleep.

"No man, it's cool. Not what you're thinking. It was the wolf again."

Jim looked pained in the soft glow of the living room lamp, reflected on the panes of glass in the French doors. "Still no direction?" he asked, handing his partner the glass of water. He'd heard this dream scenario. Blair religiously reported to him any nocturnal visitation by their spirit animals, in the event it might presage trouble. The lessons of the past were never far from their consciousness. He usually reciprocated. Usually.

"Nothing. Just the sounds of the panther but no view or smell. It feels weird, having the sensory restrictions. Just hearing you, um, I mean it, the panther." Blair took some long sips of the cool water, grateful for the wetting of membranes dried out from the hoarse, gasping moans of nightmarish visions. The panting of a wolf, ranging endlessly while in search of ... something.

"Well, neither of us feels anything threatening, despite your edginess." Jim took the half-full glass from the softening grasp of his tired friend. "Do you think you'll be able to sleep now?"

"That's a ten-four, Big Guy." Blair stretched out, eyes closing even as Jim took the blanket edge from his lax fingers and raised it over his shoulders. He was asleep before he could perceive the light pat and the whispered benediction. "Sleep well, Chief."

*********************

Monday, 10:00 A.M.; the Worthington School:

Lena knelt on the floor so she would be at eye level with the seven-year-old child sitting in a small chair in front of her. To the side was a small rectangular wooden table. On it was an array of three white cards, each with a picture and a printed word on it. The child rocked back and forth in a steady rhythm, stopping abruptly as the speech therapist brought his attention back to her by passing a bit of a brownie beneath his nose. Lena placed it on the table and waited as little Jared looked longingly at the treat. He reached over for the photo of a similar sweet with the word 'cake' printed beneath it. Passing it over to Lena, the woman pretended to be distracted and looked toward the floor. With a grunt of displeasure, Jared extended a diminutive hand. He grasped her chin, pulling it to face him so he could wave the card in her face.

"Good boy, Jared!" Lena beamed as she swiftly brought the brownie square to the child's eager, open mouth. The child had finally requested eye contact without any cues. He chewed happily, basking in his success and accepting Lena's enthusiastic patting of his arms. Lena continued to praise him and model the language connected with his activities.

"Good boy. Jared eat cake." Lena arranged a picture of Jared on the table followed by a picture symbol card with the word 'eat' beneath it and the picture of cake after that. She touched each card as she repeated the simple sentence using the pictorial communication system. "Jared eat cake."

Swallowing his treat, Jared echoed the phrase. "Jared eat cake," he mimicked before he resumed rocking to some internal rhythm known only to him.

"Jared, stand up." Lena used both speech and sign language to signal the end of the session, although the child had normal hearing. She rose efficiently from her position on the floor, with the ease of 20 years of practice in working with small children. Jared stood up obediently and grasped her hand to go back to his classroom.

Stopping to inform Hilary, the classroom teacher, about Jared's grabbing her chin to gain eye contact, they agreed to meet at the end of the day to discuss how to increase that behavior.

Hilary was excited about the new procedure Lena was using to teach that skill and said she would try it that evening. "Jared is staying the week with us in respite care. His father had to go to England on business and they decided to turn it into the first vacation they've had since Jared was diagnosed at the age of 18 months. I'm taking a few shifts this week to supervise the respite service and I'll be working respite all summer. I need the money, now that Hank and I are planning to get married."

Lena acknowledged the woman's plans with the expected, congratulatory wishes but inwardly shuddered. She'd met Hank at a couple of school affairs and never could see the attraction there, unless it was one of opposites. He was rough, almost crude, and she saw no affection in the way in which he'd addressed Hilary. Ah, well, none of her business.

Upon returning to her office, Lena prepared the next set of therapy tasks. She had three more sessions to go before lunch and managed to resist filching the left-over cake for herself. The staff all commiserated with one another about the temptations of having so many delicious edibles around all day. Food was a great motivator for the teaching of tough new concepts to the withdrawn youngsters served by the Worthington School for Autistic Children.

***************************

"Insist on yourself, never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession."

Monday, 12:15 P.M.; the Bullpen:

Simon stood in the doorway of his office, looking out over the lunch-hour 'lull before the storm' as it were. Afternoons were usually crazy with a lot of activity picking up among the criminal element. Lawbreakers apparently preferred to sleep-in and keep Cascade's finest running up large overtime tabs. Ellison and Taggart were side by side at Ellison's desk, trading friendly quips, while munching on burgers and a communal plate of fries. Sandburg was quietly reading at his own desk, adjacent to Jim's. He absently nibbled on a sandwich between page-turns.

As a leader of men, Banks was highly conscious of the ways in which they changed over time, according to their experiences and adaptability. Sandburg had just gone through one of the toughest rites of passage that a cop can experience, after taking a life in the line of duty. He'd weathered it with the help of all his colleagues and the unit shrink. Not to mention a kick in the rear from his Captain. Simon pondered how Blair's intellect, and a strong sense of justice, had been both the cause of his internal conflicts and the remedy for them. The kid had come through, but still had a ways to go. He noted Ellison glancing at his young partner every so often to check on him. Blair was a bit more reserved these days. Naomi would have said he was still 'processing', although an observer unfamiliar with the hyperactive rookie would be hard-pressed to know it. But the MC cops knew it, and were still watching out for their own.

Ellison glanced over at Blair during a break in his lunchtime conversation with Joel. At the rate his partner was going, that sandwich would be petrified before it was fully consumed. He grinned to himself to see someone else had, evidently, noticed the problem. Banks now stood behind Blair's chair and was reading over his shoulder. Directing a grin at his senior detective, Simon reached over Blair's shoulders and closed his book firmly.

"Hey, I'm reading here..." Blair looked up and around at the source of the interruption, stopping his complaint at the sight of his superior officer. "What's up Si, uhm, Captain?" He glanced at his watch and smiled broadly. "Simon. Still on lunch here."

Banks put on his mock glare. "You clock out for the day, Sandburg?"

"Of course not."

"Then it's still CAPTAIN Banks."

"Have some fries, Captain Banks."

"I thought you were opposed to such highly laden fats at the noon meal."

"I'm planning on increasing my opportunities for career advancement by eliminating all the senior men through their dietary habits. Just letting you all go to hell in hand-baskets of your own weaving. Hey, Jim, want some more mayo on that burger?"

They all cracked up but Blair was too well-known by his friends to get away with his commonly employed distraction techniques. Jim ended the matter for all of them. "Nice try, Chief. Eat first, read later." If Banks had not come by, he'd have taken the book away himself.

"Yes, Mother." Blair's appetite had improved but he'd not yet put back the weight lost during his recent weeks of adjustment. Various members of the MC division had taken to bringing in tempting treats and leaving them out in the break room. The ploy had worked. Everyone had gained weight - except for their rookie. Rhonda was working on a new plan so she could get back into her favorite slacks. Blair looked over at his protectors fondly, appreciating their support over the past weeks. He picked up his turkey on whole wheat and took a healthy bite.

Simon picked up the book which had so absorbed Blair's attention. "The Essays of Emerson." He looked at the section currently under scrutiny and raised an eyebrow.

"'Self-Reliance', written in 1841." He raised an eyebrow. "Why this piece? You've always marched to the beat of your own drum." A former debater, Banks was more widely read than many would have suspected, given his 'no-nonsense' approach to their day to day grind.

Blair shrugged uncomfortably. "No reason in particular."

Since Sandburg rarely did anything without a purpose in mind, that response was taken with a grain of salt by all concerned. Still, Jim refused to allow his partner to be grilled any further. Apart from the fact that it was nobody's business, he wanted Blair to finish his lunch. He grinned and obfuscated for them both. "We ran out of comic books back at the loft and had nothing left to read but our old college texts." Blair chuckled and attacked his sandwich with gusto, stealing some of his partner's fries into the bargain.

Simon raised another eyebrow at Jim but dropped the subject, as he scooped up a few fries himself with a purloined napkin. "When you've finished your feast, gentleman, you can celebrate the quiet and crime-free weekend just past by getting your paperwork up to date."

He smiled without sympathy, at the trio of groans. "But first, Ellison, annual physicals are due for you and Sandburg, so I went ahead and scheduled the exams. I refuse to spend two months nagging you about it before I threaten suspension, followed by dismemberment and the revocation of your attendance at poker night." Simon carefully observed the men's reactions. Sandburg looked unusually wary and Ellison bristled on principle.

"I believe most members of the PD make appointments at their own convenience for their off-hours." The ice in Ellison's voice matched the cold weather warnings in his eyes.

"Most cops don't have your reasons for not wanting to deal with doctors and their tests. But then, most captains don't have men under them who resist getting physicals to the extent you do. So, I hope you're both wearing clean underwear today, just like you were taught to do as kids."

Unexpectedly, Sandburg's expression approached alarm. "You mean the exams are TODAY?"

"At one-thirty P.M. to be exact. And what's wrong with you? I thought you'd be happy not to have to baby-sit Ellison through a week's wait for his exam."

"Oh man, I CANNOT be due now. I just dragged around to every doctor around here, and they're gonna be all bent out of shape about my visits to the shrink, my weight, interrupted sleep and … oh, yeah, Simon. Wolves!" Blair exclaimed as he rose in agitation, hands waving as Banks bridled at everything from the use of his name to the mention of spirit animals. "You don't want that subject coming up any time soon."

Jim decided they ought to quit while they were rapidly falling behind and rose to intercept his partner, who was now in full pacing mode. "TMI, Junior," he whispered urgently, recognizing the famous 'Sandburgian' agitation of old. Playfully, he wrapped an arm around the man and placed a palm over Blair's mouth. Jim turned to address the two Captains. "We'll just go get our exams now and avoid the Christmas rush, Sir."

"It's June, Ellison." Joel decided to comment on the only fact he could actually isolate under the current circumstances.

"Not by the time Sandburg is done with this. You want me to let him finish?"

Blair felt the vibrations of Jim's amusement and stopped his half-hearted attempt at detatching himself from Jim's grasp. He had no pressing need to attract unwanted attention from the rest of the Bullpen's occupants. Not that they registered much surprise anymore at the partners' activities.

Joel chuckled in response. "I don't think you have a choice, Jim. In order to pass the exam, I think he has to be able to actually talk to the doc."

"Good point, Joel."

Blair was released just before it became necesssary to expedite matters through the judicious use of his teeth. He glared at his tormentor, but the effect was spoiled when he could no longer resist the urge to chuckle along with them. "Okay, Officers. I'll go quietly."

"Then I guess we can dispense with the cuffs," Jim smirked. "Let's get this over with, Chief."

"Carry on, Detectives." Banks turned towards his office, while Joel returned to his own desk with the remains of the fries. No sense letting good food go to waste.

*******************

Blair listlessly ruffled through the pages of an old magazine, feeling somewhat embarrassed by his earlier over-reaction to the situation. Still, he knew his buddies would let that ride for now. His physical had been as annoying as he'd feared, but shouldn't have revealed anything to his discredit. Like the fact that I'm having visions in which I can't seem to find my own ass with two hands and a flashlight.

Jim had been in there for a half hour now and would likely be ready to spit nails after that much poking and prodding. That doctor was definitely a bona-fide jerk with delusions of adequacy. An assistant beckoned, leading Blair past the makeshift room where the part time consulting physician did basic physicals and drug tests for the PD. A consultation room was attached and the door was slightly ajar. The men had requested having their follow-up discussions together, seeing as how they had one another's medical proxies and powers of attorney.

The doctor had evidently begun speaking with Jim about his findings. And Jim was definitely not happy with this guy.

"I SAID I wasn't going to TAKE it! Got it? I have a personal physician who has already noted that these antihistamines are not appropriate for me, so get off my back. And since you aren't a licensed psychiatrist, you can't make assumptions that I have 'anxieties' about allergens and aren't really sensitive to the stuff written in your chart. So you can take the antidepressants and ..."

Blair hastily entered the room without knocking. "Can I be of assistance here?"

"Officer Sandburg, please wait outside, this is confidential information we are covering here."

"I guess you forgot our meetings were to be held jointly, given that we're responsible for one another's medical data. And, since I hold Detective Ellison's power of medical attorney, I know his records very well. His allergies and sensitivities have all been carefully documented and several ER visits have been the result of anaphylaxis from inadvertent exposures. It is quite clear his reactions are of somatic causation and not psychosomatic origin."

Jim's shoulders lost a bit of their rigidity. "That's the way, Chief. Throw the jargon around with this incompetent son of a bitch."

Dr. Dooley gazed at the long-haired interloper in annoyance. "Ah, yes. You're the partners from Major Crimes' division who also live together. I will be adding an HIV test to your other labs.

Blair sent his friend a warning glance to communicate the fact that murder, however desirable, was still punishable by death in the state of Washington. His partner had half-risen to take this guy out of their joint misery. His hand pressed down firmly on Jim's shoulder as he smoothly responded, "What symptoms make you concerned that either one of us has an infectious disease?"

"Well, the fact of your living together indicates you're at a higher risk of ..."

"Of having your license revoked, unless you're performing HIV testing for everyone living with another person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Name the symptoms you're gonna cite as cause or move on."

"No actual physical symptoms so, well, that's the PD's problem. As long as we're going over files here, yours indicates a lot of upper and lower respiratory infections. I went over these files carefully, given that you both have health issues of concern to the department. Your records strongly indicate that you should take out your tonsils, Detective." The malicious grin on the doctor's face indicated he was out to get the partners any way he could.

Blair and Jim exchanged glances and silently agreed they would have to trace the origin of this guy's animosity. Usually, these exams were simply routine annoyances, not inquisitions.

"Excuse me? My tonsils?"

"Yes, you should take them out."

"Take them out, where?"

"What do you mean?"

"They're in a glass jar somewhere in storage. Had them yanked when I was eight years old. Where do you want me to take 'em??"

Jim's snort had nothing to do with allergy symptoms. If he didn't laugh soon, he was going to hurt himself.

Blair prodded further when no response was forthcoming. "You were saying, Dr. Doolittle?"

"That's Dr. Dooley!"

"Right, can we go back to duty now? Looks like you're finished ... with Jim and myself."

Blair smiled charmingly and requested copies of the physician's notes.

"These are confidential departmental records," the physician sputtered, defensively.

"Union agreement 51.3c states these records are considered to be personal medical data and therefore subject to Washington State codes for all medical documentation. That means they must be shared with the person examined upon request, although a copy fee of twenty-five cents per page can be charged to the employee. Hey, Jim, got a couple of bucks on you?"

Grinning at Dr. 'Doolittle's' anguish, Jim dug out his wallet and threw a couple of bills on the desk. "My treat, Sandburg." Jim turned a 'long suffering' look upon the soon-to-be ex-consultant to the Cascade PD. "He's a great roommate, Doc, but always broke, you know? Sheesh, Sandburg, I thought I left a twenty for you on the night table this morning!"

Blair restrained his own expression of enjoyment of his friend's comment, feeling immense relief that Jim was coming to regard this kind of speculation with humor. Grabbing the records on the doctor's desk, the pair exited, copied their files and threw the folders on the desk of the physician's assistant at the entryway to the offices. Next, they decided to make Simon's day complete and report upon their annual physicals. In person.

They entered the elevator and Jim pressed '7'. "Sandburg, do you really know the union rules by heart?"

"Doesn't everyone?"

***********************

Monday, 11:20 P.M.; the Worthington School Respite Center:

Jared ignored the cold tiles against his bare feet as he wandered the hallway in search of the television he'd heard playing from his unfamiliar bed. Hilary, night monitor for the week, had fallen asleep in her chair in the otherwise empty dormitory and Jared hadn't paid any attention to her as he silently left the room. Concentrating on the sounds emanating from the activity room, he was inattentive to most of the other sensory cues around him. Instead, Jared moved purposefully towards the source of the low pitch and soothing cadence of a newscaster's polished verbal patter. As Jared entered the lounge, his eyes were drawn to the flickering light of the television where Jose Martinez was detailing the major and minor disasters of the day. He climbed upon the closest piece of furniture present, his small figure sunken into the deep cushions and high, padded backing of a large couch. His reverie deepened, his entire being concentrated upon the sounds of the TV and the tactile luxury of sateen upholstery.

A thud followed by the ring of metal on tile suddenly intruded. Jared turned at the unfamiliar, harsh sound to kneel on the couch and see over the tall back. A strange man was leaning over the still form of another, familiar man. Jared had paid no attention to him upon entering the room, having seen him before at school, kissing his teacher. On the TV, Jose Martinez wound up his newscast with his trademarked closing remarks, "Good night and good news."

Distracted, Jared smiled at the phrase he often heard from his parents' room at night, the familiarity reassuring in their absence.

"Good night and good news, you bahstard!"

Interesting. That voice was so unlike the man on the TV that Jared experimented with the sound. "Good night and good news, you bahstard!" He was quite satisfied at his effort at matching the breathy and hoarse quality of the man's own statement.

The killer startled at the unexpected sound, jerking upwards in panic only to see one of the brats served by the school. He rushed around the front of the couch, grasping the child's upper arms firmly. The grip tightened harshly and the child whimpered in pain. Relaxing his grip slightly, Jared looked around him to focus once again upon the TV screen, seeking reassurance in more commonplace stimuli. His attacker decided it was really no problem. He'd been out this way before and taken a tour with some broad his man had been involved with; any kid sleeping in this place didn't have the smarts to identify anyone.

Relieved, the large man picked up his tapered, metal club. He held the papers in his hand that he'd retrieved from the blackmailing scum who'd worked for him and slipped from the room as Jared finally began to rock, contentedly. The current show was pleasantly familiar.

Hilary awoke when her head rolled off to the side from its resting place against the wooden frame of the rocking chair. Once her sight accustomed itself to the dimness of a room, lit only by a Miss Piggy night-light, panic set in at the empty bed in the middle of the room. Horrified at her lapse, she rose swiftly and hurried into the hallway to look for her charge. The sounds of a television drew her towards the activity room. If she didn't find Jared there, she would have to call in the night supervisor, a measure likely to leave her unemployed for such carelessness.

Jared was momentarily startled by a terrified scream. He returned to the more comforting visual images on the flickering television screen as he blocked out the sounds of the harsh sobs behind him.

*********************

"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his."

Tuesday, 1:15 A.M.; the Loft:

Jim stood at the open doorway to Blair's bedroom, watching the restless tossing and mumbling. It was just after midnight and Jim was afraid to leave Blair while the closed eyelids fluttered, indicative of the continuing dream state. Blair suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes opening wide as he gasped for air.

"JIM!"

"I'm here, Chief, it's okay."

Dilated pupils fixated upon the tall man, settling at his bedside, kneeling and taking the dreamer's hands into his own grasp. Blair gazed down at the hands gripping his own.

"Jim? Are you holding my hands? I can't feel you!"

"Blair! Feel this?" The grip tightened fractionally, feeling the pounding pulse.

"Oh, man, I can't hear you either. I'm still dreaming. This isn't real. Am I even talking?" The latter, panic-driven statement was uttered an octave above Blair's usual speaking voice.

Jim's anxieties took over. Gripping his partner's upper arms, he wrenched him out of bed.

"Enough! Wake up, now!"

Once standing, the confused younger man appeared to fully awaken and take in all of the stimulation around him. "Jim? I can hear myself again. Feel you. What the hell is going on?"

Hearing Blair's voice return to its normal pitch and loudness level, Jim released him, fearing he'd left bruises in his haste to rouse the kid from his night terrors -- rapidly becoming their night terrors. Jim sat heavily upon the futon, looking at Blair in combined puzzlement and helplessness. It was with considerable relief that he saw Blair finally achieve full alertness. "You tell me, Chief. What is it you're experiencing?"

Blair snorted. "Shit, man. Some detective I am. Time I followed this vision sequence to its logical end instead of ignoring it." Encouraged by Jim's patient nod, Blair continued.

"Dreams might play with my emotional state but they wouldn't produce the kinds of sensory shifts I'm experiencing. These have to be shamanic visions but I'm not smart enough to figure them out."

"Why? Because your name isn't Incacha?"

Both men jumped as the phone disrupted the stillness of the night time hours. Blair whirled and picked up the phone on the table behind him.

"Sandburg."

"I need you here."

"Sure, Captain. We weren't doing anything important anyway. Sleep is highly overrated."

"Save it, Detective. I was also yanked out of bed. Come to the Worthington School on Campion Street and bring the tall guy with you. Got a body here and only one witness - an autistic child who can't tell us anything."

"Holy sh..., right, Sir. On our way."

***********************

"Stop sulking, Sandburg."

"The guy is dead, man. Not like there wasn't time for me to take a two minute shower."

"Look at it this way. He won't be offended by your unwashed state. Or upset by a bad case of bed head."

"Bed head? Oh, man, I need to get a new conditioner."

Jim sighed, smiling inwardly. "Before the phone rang, you were going into detective mode about your visions."

"Yeah. They felt different from dreams but I couldn't be sure. Not enough experience and, well, it is pretty weird stuff. How do I know if this is how Incacha worked it?"

"It might be normal for you, Chief. Why not just go with it?" Silence reigned. "Hello?" Jim adopted the nasal whine of a telephone operator. "Paging Shaman Sandburg!"

"Not funny, Jim. There's nothing to use as a benchmark here, you know?"

"So? When we met, neither of us knew any other Sentinels. That didn't stop us from developing the theory and practice." Sandburg's latest choice of reading matter was suddenly making sense to him.

"Huh? How long have we been at this, with you protesting all the way?"

Jim smirked in the darkness, having successfully distracted his guide from his earlier tensions. "Well, okay. I may have been a 'tad' resistant but I eventually came around, right?"

"True. About ten minutes ago by my watch."

Jim winced at the sarcasm, not entirely unjustified considering the events of recent weeks. He approached the school and concentrated on parking the truck instead of the incensed mutterings of the younger man beside him.

********************

They entered the building, shouldering past uniforms serving to keep school administrators from contaminating the crime scene. A child, apparently the student witness, seemed disinterested in the proceedings. He was facing a television while a police woman stood watch over him. A young woman, in obvious shock, was staring at the photographers shooting the crime scene as a gray-bearded man gently urged her to move away from that view. Despite the hair color, the man appeared to be no older than fifty. Simon was speaking to him in low, but emphatic tones.

"Mr. Sinclair, please understand that we have no control over what gets reported to the media. We will not release any information to the press that relates to your school but we can't suppress the location of where the man died. That's a matter of public record."

"Do you know what this will mean to the parents who trust us with their children in our respite care program? It's the only one in this entire city!" The administrator turned again to the woman beside him. "Please, Hilary, come away from here. There is nothing more to be done."

Jim approached his Captain, seeking permission to examine the scene with an arched brow. Simon took him aside with a sigh of relief. "Yeah, it's your turn, Jim. The photographers ought to be done by now. I'll wait to interview the witnesses until you're done, but we'd better do those interviews here instead of the station. Circumstances are, uhm, unusual ..." Simon pinched his nose, the stress of the situation that had left them with a nonverbal, autistic child and a distraught fiancé to question, already leaving its mark.

Jim turned back to the body and looked at the photographer. That fussy individual hesitated and then moved out of his way. Blair approached and laid a light hand on his sentinel's shoulder, while examining the scene with his own, critical, eye. The coroner droned on, assuming people were listening, as he basically dictated facts into his hand-held recorder.

Everyone attending to business; a gory business, given the blunt head trauma that had ended the life of one Hank Barstow. The M.E. droned on, "Crushing blow to the left parieto-temporal area of the skull with fracture and splintering apparent; limited blood loss indicating death occurred almost immediately following the blow. Depression is indicative of a long object, narrower than a bat but heavy; possibly a metal bar of some type since no fragments of a more fragile substance appear to have been left behind."

Sandburg swallowed heavily but listened carefully to the physician's narration. This is so not getting any easier. Okay, what kind of metal club would someone be carrying around with them? What would be available in a school building? He looked around carefully for damaged furniture or any source of metal that would have been available.

"Jim," he whispered, "if you can smell the blood and try to pick it up again on any surfaces here that might have had a metal piece to them, give that a shot. Piggy-back it with vision for traces of spatter."

Jim nodded, already looking about him. The late hour always put him at risk for zoning so he wasn't irritated with Blair's reminder about how to do the familiar task. It was essential that he include a second sense, as both an investigative aid and a safety factor for himself. After pacing the room, he gathered up his partner and took Simon aside for a quick conference.

"No sign of a murder weapon here, Captain. But a slight trace of blood can be seen going across the floor to the door, possibly some spatter on the shoe of the perp."

"Damn, I hate this whole situation. This school is the recipient of large donations by a lot of big-wigs in this city and that's going to put our asses in a sling for sure." His voice rose, to address his own staff. "Okay, people, wrap up please and give me your preliminary reports tomorrow by noon. Mr. Sinclair, is there another room we can take this woman and child to in order to get some quick statements before we lose the advantage of immediate recall?"

Sinclair stomped over to him with an incredulous look. "My teacher wasn't present during the murder and my student cannot possibly be questioned. He won't understand you and he can't converse with you. I also think the police have to get parental consent to interview a minor, correct? His folks are in Europe this week."

Simon conveyed his most imposing look upon this recalcitrant civilian. "Your respite service contract likely gives you authority to consent to medical care and similar emergency procedures. The child should be examined medically anyway, to ensure the perpetrator hasn't harmed him in ... some way or other. Shock can be expressed in various physical ways, too. Will you consent to these things or do I contact social services?"

"Fine, but I'll want my school's attorney present throughout all these events. I'm calling him now."

"Perhaps you might want to call your physician before you find your shy...er, lawyer." Simon bit back an even more caustic comment about bureaucrats who prefer to cover their asses before worrying about the welfare of their charges. He turned to share his exasperation with Jim, only to see him by the television with Blair and the child witness. Joining them, he murmured to his senior detective, currently watching Blair's interaction with the boy with evident fascination. Blair appeared to be speaking in his 'guide voice', as he knelt in front of the child who was regarding him with some interest. Blair directed occasional questions to the teacher, who was now more coherent, if not particularly calm.

Hilary blew her nose gustily, and looked appreciatively at Blair's developing rapport with Jared. "He usually doesn't make eye contact with strangers or let them touch him."

Blair's hands rested on Jared's knees, occasionally rubbing them which served to call back the child's attention when his gaze wandered. Blair finally rose, satisfied the child was not in distress at present. He turned the television back on so the boy wouldn't concentrate upon the conversations around him.

"I used to do behavior modification with autistic children on a part time basis during my college years. Parents always needed a lot of help outside of business hours, so it worked out well and the training I got was very valuable."

Simon and Jim exchanged amused, and somewhat relieved, glances. At least Blair would have some understanding of how to proceed with the child. Deciding it was time to get this show on the road, Banks set his detectives in motion. "Jim, why don't you take Hilary into the next room and get her statement. Ma'am, is there anyone besides yourself who regularly communicates with this child and could understand his, uhm, signals or manner? I don't expect to learn anything but we have to make an attempt here."

"Why don't you wait until I'm finished with Detective ...?"

"Ellison, ma'am."

"Yes." Her voice was hoarse from crying but was now composed.

Simon called upon long practice in dealing with crime scene ''etiquette'. "Ma'am, I ..., well, you might interpret the child's uhm, 'input' shall we say, inaccurately for our purposes given your connection to the deceased and presence on the scene." Simon didn't want to state it more baldly, but she was a suspect herself and couldn't be present for any testimony the child might offer. 'Yeah, like that's going to be a productive interrogation. Blair would tell me my karma's coming home to roost.'

Sinclair bridled, understanding what Hilary didn't quite grasp. "Hilary, I insist you wait for my lawyer to arrive before..."

"Enough, Sinclair." Simon finally barked his displeasure and turned to the distressed teacher. "Do you want to wait to give your statement or go with Detective Ellison now? It'll be a short one and the interview will continue later in the day to get more detail. You can have counsel if you wish but ..."

"No, I don't need that now. Mr. Sinclair, let's leave that for the next round of interviewing or whatever they have to do. I just want to hurry this up and Jared needs to have someone called who knows him - like Lena Goldstein, his speech therapist. She's made some breakthroughs with him in recent weeks using alternate communication methods."

Glancing at the imposing Captain, Sinclair decided to let things proceed. After all, he could always use his influence in the community to put pressure on these upstart cops to keep his school's name out of this mess. His employee wouldn't have killed anyone but she could be let go quietly at a later date and take the blame for the child's involvement.

Blair could see the wheels turning in the administrator's head - he'd spent enough time in the educational system to know that turd's priorities just now. "Mr. Sinclair, can you get hold of Ms. Goldstein for us? Her help would be invaluable just now. Jared is going to need the contextual cues of these surroundings to be able to help us at all understand what he may have seen here tonight. I promise we'll be very gentle with the child." He smiled accommodatingly, hiding his impatience at the need to finesse this guy.

"Fine, I'll go to the office to get the number. Hilary, please wait with the child until I or one of our other staff joins you." He held up a hand to forestall the objections of the cops.

"Gentlemen, I have no authorization to leave this child in a room with strangers when none of our staff are present."

Blair murmured in tones audible only to his partner. "Soooo, who authorized this kid to be alone in a room with a murderer?" His annoyance was plain and Jim threw him a quick, lopsided grin of agreement with those uncharitable sentiments.

"Fine!" Simon was at the end of his sorely tried patience at this juncture. Sinclair wisely left the field to them as he went to his office to find the contact numbers for his consultants.

Recognizing the warning signs of an impending explosion from his obviously tired superior, Jim tentatively offered, "Sir, I think we have things under control here if you want to get back to the station?" Blair beamed at Jim's unusual tact in this matter. Jim ignored the disparaging implications of the surprised approval in his junior partner's manner.

Simon sighed, longing for his bed but he hadn't made Captain for nothing. "Thank you, Detective, but I think I might be needed later to confirm that all ...went well during these unusual proceedings." Blair looked as if he might voice an objection but Jim silenced him with a slight shake of his head. Any information they got from these witnesses tonight would be easily discounted by a smart defense attorney. Simon's presence would make that much more difficult, helping to offset Sinclair's connection to Cascade's philanthropic upper crust.

Blair returned to Jared, now engrossed in an old sci-fi rerun in which there were many lights flashing and ships shooting through space. He was smiling happily and merely looked around Blair as the young detective knelt again by his feet. Blair's voice was ignored.

"What did you mean by 'contextual cues, Chief?" Jim couldn't figure out how they were going to get any information from this kid.

Blair looked up at his partner and decided this would be a good way to draw Hilary out about her student, while keeping her attention away from the forensic team, currently removing the body from the opposite side of the room.

"Basically, autistic children often seem like they're 'out of it' when it comes to the things that are happening around them. However, quite a few studies have shown that autistic children are overly sensitive to sensory input, especially when it comes to processing multiple avenues all at one time; they kind of keep down the confusion by only paying attention to one or two senses at a time. New things can seem really scary so they crave sameness in their environments. So, to get them to remember things, you have to find cues to offer that remind them of the original learning situation."

Jim looked startled at that exposition, while Hilary nodded in understanding. "Right, that's why I have to run lessons for my students over and over again, changing the situations very slightly each time. Otherwise, they won't remember what they learned outside of the classroom or with different adults. And since there's a basic difficulty in relating socially to people, they don't have a lot of motivation to try new things anyway."

Simon glanced at his senior detective. "Sounds like they're in a 'zone' of some kind, doesn't it?" he murmured. Jim's look of concentration deepened into a scowl.

All of them, with the exception of Jared, startled at the sound of the front door bell. Jared's attention remained focused on the TV. Now in the small hours of the morning, the network was re-running their late night news program for the fewer viewers tuning in at that hour. A pompous newscaster began to read off headlines as a harried Sinclair ran through their area towards the front door of the residence. He returned shortly with a suit-clad, paunchy individual of indeterminate age carrying a briefcase.

Another sotto voce comment by Simon restored Jim's equilibrium. "Their shyster likely sleeps standing in his suits, to maintain the wrinkle-free look."

"There's something inherently wrong about a lawyer responding to an emergency call, but still taking the time to 'dress for success'," Jim replied, despite feeling a bit disturbed about what he was learning about autism. Then he noticed the petite woman following in Sinclair's wake. 'Must be the speech therapist. Hmm, seems a bit young to be sporting silver streaks in her hair.'

Sinclair introduced his attorney, who immediately began squawking about the irregularity of the situation. Simon cut him off quickly. "Mr. Tippet, you represent the school, not its staff except in the performance of their duties. I am willing to permit you to witness these proceedings as a courtesy to Mr. Sinclair but you have no standing here unless this young woman wishes to retain your services personally. So stand by and quietly, please." He turned to Hilary. "Ma'am, we need to proceed here. Do you wish to retain an attorney at this time? You are not under arrest."

The teacher gave her boss a sidelong glance. He was obviously angry at the proceedings but appeared more or less resigned to them at this point. "I'm ready, Captain Banks. I don't need a lawyer, and I want to catch this guy even more than you do."

"We really appreciate your assistance, ma'am. Sinclair, you may not come in with us but your lawyer may observe if you wish."

"Of course he's going to observe! And please remember this is happening under protest. My board won't be happy about this and I do have to answer to them."

"Duly noted, sir." Before shepherding his party into the next room, Banks took a last glance at Blair and Lena, preparing to pry some kind of useful data from interacting with their only 'witness'. Lena was now kneeling in front of Jared, gently taking hold of his upper arms to get his attention turned upon her.

"Good night and good news, you bastard!" The gruff tone and the obscenity, uttered with an odd pronunciation, emanated from the seven-year-old.

Hilary's eyes promptly rolled back into her head and she dropped like a stone.

Simon, caught unprepared for her sudden fall, winced at the sound of her head hitting the polished wooden floor. "Jim, over here," he called to the former army medic. Whipping out his cell phone, he instructed the school administrator. "Sinclair, have your doctor out here to see your kid and we'll take care of the rest as circumstances permits." Punching in the numbers to emergency services, Simon arranged for an ambulance.

Blair watched in admiration at the efficiency with which his colleagues could reduce any degree of chaos into a well-ordered operation. He was definitely learning from the best.

***************************

"Every man is a unique... Do that which is assigned to you and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."

Tuesday, 11:07 A.M., the Loft:

"JIM!" Blair bolted upright, breathing hard.

"Chief?" Jim's rapid descent from his bedroom to the lower floor made an uncommon amount of noise for the former Ranger, who generally padded around silently in socked feet.

More like a cat. Blair thought as he smiled reassuringly as Jim entered his room. "Sorry, man, I'm okay. I dreamed again, but it made me feel curious, not threatened, y'know? Some new sounds this time. Kind of like a dull thud, repeated over and over in a rhythm. Sometimes a kind of metallic 'ping' noise. And this time, instead of just hearing the panther in the forest, I also 'felt' your presence. It was like the brush of fur against my skin along with a muted sort of growl."

"I don't 'growl', Sandburg." Ellison relaxed his stance to lean tiredly against the door frame, arms characteristically folded. "Except when my shaman partner has his visions when we're both short on sleep."

Blair's smile changed to a knowing grin. "That explains it. We're almost always short on sleep."

"Smartass. This is the stuff that ruins reputations."

"Or makes them. I'll start worrying when the growl becomes a purr."

Jim shook his head in resigned amusement, as Blair sunk back into his pillows and pulled the light, summer blanket back up over his shoulder. "Don't think so," the tall figure proclaimed as the covers were yanked back down.

One annoyed flick of an eyelid greeted that presumption. The single open eye offered a message that likely would have been unprintable, had it been articulated. "Wash your mind out with soap, Junior," he quipped. "and get up. We have a lot to do today and our spirit animals evidently don't want us sleeping the day away. Did you see Simon's in there by any chance? He's gonna be a bear today for sure." Jim left his friend's room with a light heart; Blair appeared unafraid now of his visions.

********************

Tuesday, 12:30 P.M.; the Bullpen:

The slightly bedraggled team of Ellison and Sandburg arrived in the squad room. Their Captain, appearing much the worse for wear, emerged from his office to greet them tiredly at their desks.

"Didn't you go home this morning, Cap?" Jim sank into his desk chair as his boss simply shook his head and yawned.

"Nope, budget meeting."

"Oh, man, you look like I feel." Blair rested the palms of his hands flat on his desk, leaning heavily. "Please tell me there's caffeine to be had someplace close."

"You will not address me as 'man', Detective, if you want to avoid pulling night shift for the next decade or so. Clear?" The reprimand was distinctly lacking in its usual 'bite', as Simon sank into Blair's seat. The late night and lack of progress in learning much from the witnesses had them all frustrated as well as exhausted.

Rhonda had taken one look at the group and made a quick call to Taggart's desk. That understanding gentleman had slipped out discreetly and now strode in with an aromatic tray of coffees. The tray was balanced on a large box, immediately identifiable to any group of cops by its color.

Blair looked up as soon as he saw a beatific smile cross the face of his cross superior.

Following his gaze, he straightened quickly. "The Messiah comes."

Grinning, Simon rose, shaking his head. "That's Captain Taggart to you, you blasphemer." He then gave his rookie a hearty slap on the back, which sent him staggering. And possibly enabled the taller man to get first crack at the selection of pastries.

Jim shrugged and winked at his scowling partner. "You got between him and the donuts, Chief."

Blair groaned theatrically and took his seat. "Please, Jim. Sucrose and Caffeine. Now."

Taggart laid his bounty out on Jim's desk, as Rhonda ambled over for her share. "Did I hear Blair ask for a 'donut of death'?" Joel smiled indulgently.

"Yeah, I heard it too, Joel." Simon eyed the younger man, recalling all the past cracks he'd tolerated about his food choices. "He asked for an Oval of Obesity."

Jim chimed in. "A Disk of Dyspepsia."

Rhonda threw in her contribution. "Circle of Cellulite."

"Fritter of Flab."

"Cake of Corpulence."

"Batter of Biliousness."

"Ring of Rotundity."

Jim skipped his next turn at bat and set a coffee down in front of his friend, He also held out a particularly enticing specimen from the box of treats. Blair accepted the offering, blinking in affronted innocence. "I never said any of those things." The obvious lie was greeted with the expected hoots of disbelief.

"Okay, listen up people," Banks called the crew to order. "Let's go into my office and begin to sort this all out. Rafe, Brown and Conner - you may as well come along. We're gonna need all hands to figure this one out. And don't leave any cups or crumbs in my space when you leave!"

Once ensconced on Bank's couch and assorted chairs dragged inside, the division's finest listened eagerly to Simon's summation of last night's events. "And then we had to call 911 for the teacher, who'd passed out for reasons still unknown to us. She suffered a concussion and is currently under observation with no visitors permitted, but we ought to be able to get her statement by morning at the latest. She'll likely be released tomorrow, if someone is available to stay with her. To add to the confusion, the school's pediatric consultant arrived to check the kid out. He seemed okay but had some finger shaped bruising showing on both upper arms. Someone had gripped him, maybe shaken him pretty harshly, during recent hours."

Jim spoke in his usual, measured tones. "It's pretty strange that the teacher fainted just at that particular time. I mean, she'd calmed considerably by that then; even agreed to be questioned, until the kid came out with that weird statement."

"Blair, you have experience with these kinds of kids. What do you think happened here? I mean the kid couldn't talk or even pay much attention to us and then he comes out with that whole sentence." Simon paused as his phone buzzed. "Banks. Talk to me." The audience grinned at the cranky tones.

The Captain's annoyed expression was soon replaced by a look of considerable interest. "Thanks, Dan. Get the ring appraised for us, will you, make sure it's genuine and all that. When? I kinda thought it might be a nice Valentine's Day present for me - waddya mean, 'when'?" The phone was replaced on its base and not gently. The smirks on the faces of the observers of this exchange faded rapidly under the eye of their sleep-deprived commander.

"Okay, we've got some new information here. Dan found a diamond ring, engagement style cut, in the lining of the guy's jacket. Not in the pocket, mind you, but the lining. As if it needed to be hidden for some reason."

"So someone would have had to know the bloke had it on him if robbery was the motive, except the killer came up empty after searching his pockets. Any altercation louder than the telly would have woken the teacher sooner."

Jim picked up the ball. "Good assumption, Conner. So the vic likely knew his murderer and they spoke quietly, if at all, before the killing blow was delivered. That indicates confidence on the part of the killer that the ring was on this guy."

Simon nodded as his team chewed over this development. "Blair, what did you get from the computers on this guy?"

Jim glanced at his boss. "That was my job, sir."

"Which you always palm off on Hairboy," Henri cheerfully provided.

Blair grinned and took a paper out of the file he'd carried in. He cleared his throat, eliciting a warning from Simon.

"Just the basics. I don't care what he had for breakfast last November ninth."

"Right. The guy is, or was, forty-two. Born in New York City, and a high school drop out. Went to a trade school to learn diamond-setting skills and then moved around quite a bit. Currently a diamond setter in a shop run by some guy who's also from the east coast. Been at this current gig the longest, maybe two years now, and engaged to a twenty-six-year-old year old special education teacher, Hilary Charner.

"That dog," murmured Rafe. "Robbing the cradle."

"Robbing someone," Jim opined, "if it turns out that diamond is expensive. I don't remember hearing that diamond setting paid much for the amount of labor involved."

"That's why I asked for the appraisal," Simon added smugly. "But it has to be more than simple theft. That could have been reported through channels."

"Maybe the ring was hot to begin with so there isn't any record of ownership or insurer." Rafe looked at his audience and shrugged. "My family used to be in the diamond business, back in South Africa."

Brown opened his eyes wide. "Wow, portable wealth. Is that where the Armani suits come from?" He received a filthy look from his partner and moved on. "Maybe not. Well, that might explain the killing if there wasn't a stone hidden on this guy. But why kill him if you don't know if he's still got it? Maybe the guy was looking for, and found, something else that he was after."

"Okay, enough theory. Now the footwork starts. We have to look into the DB's work setting and residence to see what might be lying around there. Check out the boss for priors, business contacts and so forth." Simon nodded towards Rafe and Henri, assigning them the research. "Now, what's up with the kid? How does a child who can't talk to us, come up with some weird sentence like that out of the blue? Blair, you said you worked with autistic children?"

"Oh, yeah, I clocked a lot of hours in that area during my undergraduate days and I reviewed some of the research last night - uhm, no, that would be this morning, on the internet to confirm ...," Blair trailed off as multiple sighs were expelled from numerous chests. " Riiight, you want the Cliff Notes."

The young detective reviewed the information he and Hilary had already given Simon and Jim at the scene earlier that morning. "So all these problems with sorting through the input, along with their problems in relating to people, makes them very poor communicators. That goes for even the highest functioning kids in the group, who have normal or better intelligence and are often labeled with a diagnosis of 'Asperger's Syndrome'. So ..."

Jim was distracted from Blair's lecture by Henri's nudging of his partner and cheerful whisper, "Does this mean Ellison's autistic?" Rafe choked slightly on his coffee. Jim reluctantly turned his attention back to Blair, still expounding on this increasingly disturbing topic.

"Before they figured out certain teaching techniques back in the sixties and seventies utilizing behavior modification techniques, about half of them didn't learn to talk at all. Now most kids can learn at least basic communication skills and a lot of them develop a communication strategy called 'echolalia'."

"As in 'echo' or imitate?"

"Give the man a cigar. Well, I guess you've got enough cigars already, Simon, so I won't bother. If you borrow an existing sequence of words that seems to relate to the situation, then you can communicate without going through the complexities of finding the right words to fit the situation, put them in correct order and figure out what your 'listener' really needs to know. The kids figure out how to use imitation to kinda confirm something they heard, to ask for it or just rehearse it, if it's interesting to them or pleasing to an audience."

Jim mulled this over. "But none of us said anything like that, even the newscaster who used part of the phrase."

"Well, echolalic speech can be deferred as well as immediate. So, Jared was remembering something from another time and another speaker. But something had to trigger it; these things aren't generally random."

"He might have heard it at any point in time but that newscast was a replay of the earlier one. Maybe even the time of death for the victim."

Blair nodded emphatically. "And, if the teacher's faint was a direct reaction to Jared's words that might indicate she's heard it before. Maybe from the original source, who could turn out to be the murderer."

Jim shook his head in frustration. "I wish I'd paid more attention to the kid when he spoke. I remember the pronunciation he used with the sentence sounded off but I figured that's because of his disability."

Blair shook his head. "Well, we still have Lena Goldstein to consult. She's that speech therapist and I'll bet she'll remember what the boy said pretty clearly."

Jim looked skeptical. "Then why didn't she tell us anything last night?"

Conner looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Weeell, Detective, maybe she was a bit thrown off by a dead body and her co-worker passing out that way?" Megan's exaggerated imitation of a patient tone provoked a round of snickers and grins. Jim blushed and remained silent. Seeing his discomfort, Blair threw him a sympathetic look but Jim wasn't looking at him and missed the message.

Simon ended the byplay. "Okay, Blair. You and Jim go see this Ms. Goldstein while the rest of you check out the remaining players. I'll let you know when we get access to the teacher. Rafe, you know something about the diamond business so ask Dan when that appraisal will be done on the diamond. We need a solid motive if we're gonna get closer on this thing and that's the nearest thing we've got to go on."

A chorus of acknowledgments was followed by the squad exiting the office and heading to their work stations. Blair trailed after a morose Jim, as they went to pick up their belongings from their desks. It was unlikely they'd return to the station that night.

"Hey, man, Megan didn't mean anything..."

"No, it's fine, Chief. I wasn't thinking it through from that perspective. No surprise there, I guess."

"Whoa, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing, let's get out of here," he said abruptly, leading the way to the elevator.

"Jim, you were concentrating on one aspect of the case. So?"

"So, that makes me like Jared, doesn't it? Can't see the forest for the trees."

"Okay. Back up the train 'cuz I have definitely passed my stop. How are you like Jared?

Because of the sensory thing? Man, there's no relationship here between you and autistic people, just because you both have sensory things going down."

"Tell that to 'H'. And what I missed wasn't sensory, it was about relating to people," he snapped as he gave the elevator call button a hard, sharp punch.

"So, you think you're autistic?"

"No. Of course not. No."

"Right. Good." Jesus H. Christ, here we go again with the freak of nature thing.

*************************

"Ms. Goldstein?" Blair knocked as he called her name. The screen door was locked but the wooden door behind it was open and someone was definitely home from the sound of it.

"Coming!" The petite woman appeared wearing plastic gloves, obviously in the middle of cleaning something or other. She drew them off, reaching for the door knob. "Sorry, it was hard to hear you over the running water. Please come in."

"Thank you. We'll try not to take up too much of your time but we have some important questions to ask you about last night. Actually, early this morning. You must be exhausted."

"Yes, Detective ... Sandburg, right? And Erikson?" She led them into a small living room area with old, but comfortable looking furnishings.

Blair grinned. "He's Ellison, ma'am. And please call me 'Blair'."

"Well, please sit down. I called in sick at work and slept through the morning. Well, in between nightmares, that is. I wanted to visit Hilary but was told no visitors were allowed just yet."

"We haven't been able to see Ms. Charner either," Jim supplied. "so your help could be invaluable here. We're trying to figure out why Jared said the things he did, and where he might have heard them before. Blair explained about echolalia."

Lena nodded, approvingly. "Yes, Jared is echolalic and he uses imitation to tell us when he agrees with a statement or wants something. Sometimes he recalls statements associated with a particular context and repeats them but we don't always know why he does it. So what he told us was based on something he heard during the news show by someone who was probably in front of him and holding him like I was doing."

Blair raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I hadn't thought about the touching as having any effect."

"It must have, since Jared could have said what he did at any point during the rebroadcast of that news show. Still, he didn't say anything until I held his arms, trying to get his attention. That might mean it was part of his 'prototype' experience or what was going on the first time he heard that phrase. Naturally, I paid attention to his speech since that's my business. As I recall, he used a pat phrase from the newscast - I watch that show, too - but added the words, 'you bastard'. He pronounced it as 'bahstard' which sounds New England to me. We don't have any staff from that area at our school, though."

Jim was impressed with her understanding of the data they needed. "That's exactly the kind of thing we want to know, Ms. Goldstein. Now that you mention it, I once knew a guy from Boston who called me that, in just that accent." Lena's eyes widened slightly and a choked laugh was heard from Jim's own, personal 'peanut gallery'.

Jim cleared his throat, self-consciously. "Can you tell us something about the victim? How well acquainted with Hilary and her fiancé were you?"

"We worked closely together but more as colleagues than as friends. I did see her at social functions for the staff, though, and she occasionally brought her friend. They only recently became engaged." Lena took on a look of distress.

Jim's voice took on a softness reserved for their encounters with distressed citizens, tinged with respect for the unique assistance she was offering them. "I know it's hard to deal with all this. My partner can tell you that a lot of the most experienced people in law enforcement never get used to this. But if you can manage it, your help will put this creep away for good and help that teacher get some closure on her tragedy."

Lena passed a hand across her moist eyes, and sat up a bit straighter. "What else can I tell you?"

"Did Hilary wear an engagement ring?"

"No, but most of us don't wear jewelry at work because it can be a hazard."

"Jewelry?"

"Yes. Kids yanking on necklaces and earrings, or rings scratching kids if we have to grab them from darting across the street and climbing on furniture. Sometimes we have to restrain a child if a tantrum gets too aggressive but that doesn't happen very often."

"Okay, so it's still possible that Hilary had a ring."

"Well, neither one was making a lot of money, so I doubt they'd purchased any rings, unless he got a good discount from being in the trade. Hilary was doing respite care at our residence to make extra cash for the marriage plans."

"What did you think of this Hank guy?"

Lena looked away from Jim, debating her response. "I didn't know him very well."

"But you didn't care for him, precisely?"

"Well, no. He seemed kind of crude to me and Hilary is so gentle..." She seemed unwilling to go further.

An exchange of glances between the detectives led to both of them rising and offering their appreciation for Lena's assistance. "No problem, Detectives. Let me know if there is anything else I can do."

*******************

Sandburg finished buckling his shoulder harness and settled comfortably into the leather seat. Not bothering to stifle a broad grin, he pounced. "So who dared to call you a 'bahstard' to your face, Jim? And do the letters 'TMI' ring a bell?"

Jim chuckled as he swerved the truck around a double-parked truck. "Point taken, Chief. It was a one of my buddies in Ranger training. Haven't seen him since; he was posted to someplace in Asia and I lost track."

"Some buddy."

"Hey, you've called me worse things. Recently, as memory serves."

"Only in jest, Big Guy. Are we calling it a day?"

"Yeah. Let's get some take-out and work up our notes back home. I'm still bushed from the late night.

"Great, but I think I'll call Rafe and Henri to tell them we need to be on the lookout for someone from Boston with some connection to this case. They're working background.

That's one advantage to having prominent citizens involved in the case like the Worthington School people. We get help with the legwork."

"But only you can figure in your own, unique clues here, Chief. What have you decided about the visions?"

"Is there time to take a trip to Peru?" The suggestion was uttered with the utmost earnestness.

"Are you serious?"

"No."

"You little ..."

"Don't say it. Actually, you've talked me into trusting my own thought processes. Well, you and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I've trusted myself in most of the other areas I've dabbled in..."

"All six hundred of them."

"... so there's no reason why I shouldn't do it now."

"I knew all that boring reading would pay off for you, eventually."

"Is that why you took my book up to bed with you the other night?"

Ellison avoided confessing his need to understand what Sandburg had been searching for in his choice of literature. "I was bored."

"Sure you were, and quite naturally picked up some philosophical essays written a hundred and fifty years ago for entertainment." Blair gave his friend a long, searching look. "I'm glad as hell you did."

**************************

Tuesday, 5:30 P.M.; the Bullpen:

Rafe's measured stride followed in Henri's swaggering wake, as they entered the squad room.

"Hey, Megan! We've got some data for you."

"I live to serve, Detectives. What've you got for me?" She cleared her screen and called up a search engine.

"Barstow worked for a guy named Everett Harper. Runs a small shop on Carteret Street, downtown. Got a few setters and does some trading in gem stones. Mostly, he works estate appraisals and sales. H saw it all up close and personal."

"Yeah, told the man here to stay in the car. Maybe if we needed to get more on this guy, he could go in later, undercover, with you on his arm to look for an engagement ring. But Harper wasn't there and the guys in his shop wouldn't tell me much other than - drum role please - the guy's from Boston." Henri smiled, triumphantly.

"So are a few million other people, Brown."

"Sorry, you wouldn't have heard yet. Sandburg called us from the speech therapist's house. Seems the kid used a Boston-type accent when he spoke last night at the murder scene."

"So, the ankle biter picks up the perp's accent and we hope to convict on that? Rack off, guys. Let me come up with something a little more convincing here." Megan's fingers flew across her keyboard as she entered Harper's name. "Raised in Boston, son of a widowed mother; grew up in a slum area called Jamaica Plain. Got kicked out of high school for a misdemeanor and did a bit of time in juvie. Nothing for a few years until he resurfaces in New York City, where he worked at a gemology laboratory. Nothing else.

I've been working up a profile on the DB, though, and he's also from New York."

"And a diamond setter." Henri settled his frame into a nearby chair. "Could've met there."

"Very likely, in fact. The New York diamond trade is pretty insular. People tend to know each other."

"Any contacts there, Rafe? People who could dig up the dinkum for us?"

"I'll make some calls and try to find a ... dinkum digger." Rafe moved smoothly back to his desk.

Henri rose and smiled at Megan. "Well, think I'll go see the Captain and arrange for your upcoming nuptials with my partner." At Megan's glare, he replied mildly, "But you shouldn't go picking out invitations just yet."

Brown's conference was swift, since Simon's level of exhaustion had peaked. "Good idea, H. I'd prefer to send Ellison in with Megan, but if Rafe knows more about the diamond trade, he's our man. I'm heading home for a very long conference with my pillow. Why don't you organize our young friends out there into a decent cover story and procedure? I'll let Ellison know the generalities by phone on my way home. And the Chief." Simon grabbed his jacket and slung it over his shoulder as he exited his office, still talking. "And the school system's Chancellor. And the Mayor..."

*********************************

"... with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; ...a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men;"

Tuesday, 7:45 P.M.; the Loft:

The candles had been blown out and Blair had moved from the floor to the couch. Now curled up with a mug of tea, his eyes once again seemed to be focused on the here and now. Still scares the shit out of me when he's in orbit or wherever he goes in those states. Jim waited quietly as Blair sipped slowly and tried to formulate his interpretation of his visions.

"It's about the case, not us, Jim." Blair enjoyed the sight of his partner's release of tension in response to that announcement. "Of course the margin for error is, like huge here, but I'm betting the sensory shifts are about Jared. I think I'm feeling his fragmentation in perception here."

"You mean the visions where you could hear but not see, or see but not feel - that sort of stuff? And that it's all been about this case?"

"Exactly. Or maybe. I think these are the clues we need to have Jared assist us with in identifying the perp. If I'm reading the signals right, we can have Jared see the main suspect, whoever he turns out to be, in his school setting. We'll have to have a television on and maybe tape a show with the same newscaster as a major cue. Hearing is high on the list of what Jared will respond to, but his recall, and performance, seems to be tied into touch. To his arms, anyway."

"No reason why we can't just get a tape of that same news show from the network."

"Great idea, Jim! And I'll bet Lena will help provide the same stimulation she did that night. We just need a reason to get the perp to them. Not the easiest thing in the world."

"I don't think it'll be that tough. Simon called while you were deep in your trance thing and told me the vic's boss was from Boston and they may have know each other back in New York. Rafe and Megan are going in tomorrow morning to look for an engagement ring. They can look for evidence and get info that H couldn't get last evening. And if he's our man, why not have him deliver Barstow's belongings to his fiancé, a nice, sympathetic, gesture."

"Sounds good. I'll work up a scenario for the set-up of the room to offer maximum contextual cues for Jared and script how and when to deliver those cues."

"Uhm, I trust you implicitly on this one, but we're gonna have to deal with the same problems as I have with my senses when it comes time to making a case for the D.A. here."

Blair grinned widely. "Just think of all the fun we can have discussing this with Simon!"

He was gratified to see his partner double over in a rare bout of unrestrained laughter.

"You sadist, you," Jim choked out. "I love it! He's gonna think of me now as the easy part of his job!"

Sandburg triumphantly rested his sock-clad feet on the coffee table and stretched his arms up behind his head. "I think I'm gonna need a raise with this expansion of my job responsibilities."

"You're living dangerously, Chief."

"Asking for a raise?"

"No, putting your feet up on that table!"

**************************

Wednesday, 8:55 A.M.; the Bullpen:

Blair chattered a bit nervously, as the pair awaited the arrival of Simon Banks. After all, Jim's confidence in his developing talents might not extend to their demanding superior.

"In for a penny, in for a pound."

"This isn't the Bank of England, Chief."

"Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb..."

"Not a slaughterhouse, either."

"... and have a third piece of cake since I've gone off my diet."

"I'm taking away all your anthro-linguistics texts as soon as we get home."

Blair viewed his Captain's entrance and progress across the Bullpen. "Jesus."

The tall figure stopped in front of their workstations. "Are you addressing me, Sandburg? Was I promoted while I slept last night to some higher office? And slept like a baby for about ten hours, I might add. Now for some coffee and this city just might seem worthy of saving today." Simon smiled and disappeared into his office.

Jim eyed his twitchy partner. "Chief, relax already. This isn't any different than the hundred meetings you've had before, explaining weird phenomenon to the man."

"That's phenomena, and it's an entirely different story. Those other meetings were always about your weird shit."

"Think of it as a test." Jim rubbed his hands together and grinned, broadly. "The first of many."

An answering smile lit Blair's features, in appreciation of the irony. "Payback, right? Well, fair enough." He rose and bowed, making a sweeping gesture with his arm. "'Once more into the breach, dear friends ...'"

*************

Jim exited his Captain's office, alone, and feeling a bit guilty. Those relaxation exercises work pretty well, usually.

"Hey, Jim m'man! Come on over and park your butt." Henri beckoned him over to his desk.

"Our love birds have returned from their shopping expedition and they're gonna pick up Dan's forensic report on their way upstairs. You were in there with Banks for a long time. Is everything alright?"

"The Captain seems to have developed a migraine, but he'll be fine. Sandburg knows some good remedies." He dropped into a chair beside Brown's desk.

"The diamond appraisal was faxed to us here. Turns out the stone isn't particularly valuable. Pretty bauble, but not cut very well, apparently."

"I guess that means we still don't know why Barstow was taken out. This is the damnedest case with a mute witness, no strong motive as yet and no murder weapon. And that's the good news, compared with the interest expressed by Cascade's upper crust. Seems they like to hold fundraising dinners for that school and they've been calling here all morning. Rhonda's been holding them at bay."

"Any excuse for 'em to get all gussied up and preen before the cameras. At least their money is going for something useful."

"Yeah, very expensive meals. The donations are more on the order of the dessert course. Why don't they just stay home, order in some pizza and write a bigger check to the school than they do for the designers of their evening gowns and tuxes?" Jim glanced up at the sound of a familiar heartbeat. "Hey, Sandburg! How's Simon doing?"

"Did I just hear you insulting the aristocracy?" Blair pulled up a chair. "Simon's fine. When I left, he was calling the hospital to see when we can talk to Hilary Charner. He also wants me to get the team together when Megan and Rafe get back." Jim nodded and they all turned, as the sounds of light-hearted banter came from behind them.

"After you, sweetheart." Rafe pulled out a chair for his 'intended'.

"Anything for you, pumpkin." Megan removed her pink, 'yuppy' type sweater with a glance of disgust, and sat down.

Jim grinned at her annoyance. "Ah, the perfect pair of young executives, planning on a merger both in and out of the boardroom. How sweet."

"Love does appear to have triumphed." Henri grasped and lifted Megan's ringless hand. "Oh, no sale? Trouble in paradise?"

"We ran a reccy about the place and then told Harper that we had one more spot to visit before making a final decision on a ring. And he does speak with a really funny accent."

They all looked at her in silence for a moment before Blair stood up. "The Captain wants us in his office to go over the evidence and plan our next moves."

Rafe extended a hand to his 'intended'. "Does that meet with your approval, dear?" He looked at the other men. "If you want a successful marriage, it's important to give the 'little woman' a say in the minor matters. HEY!" He jumped aside rather hastily, just out of arm's reach from 'the little woman'.

"Nice reflexes there, Rafe. She almost got you with that letter opener." Jim eyed her warily, recalling his stressful undercover stint with her as 'spouse'. "Megan, put it down, now! Thank you."

They disbanded to gather cups of coffee from the breakroom and regroup in their Captain's office. Jim took Blair aside. "Did Simon give you a hard time after I left?"

"Nah, he's just worried about how we're gonna be able to know when we interpret my new 'insights' accurately. Unlike your senses, this isn't as reliable a method of detection as we'd like. When it comes to using them as evidence, we can't rely on the 'protected sources' arguments for a variety of legal reasons. Still, Simon was really great about how much all this uncertainty worries me, too. When he realized I wasn't being cocky about it, he just told me to relax and we'd treat my visions like any other theory or clue we develop in the course of an investigation. And that he'd kill me, slowly and with great relish, if it got back to the brass. Then I cured his migraine."

Jim laughed softly, relieved by Blair's matter of fact recitation. "For that alone, the Captain will welcome having a shaman in residence. I'm really proud of you, Chief."

Blair hid his blush behind his coffee cup, only to spit a mouthful of too-hot liquid back into the cup. That's me, grace under pressure.

Jim pretended not to notice and herded his partner towards Banks' office for the second time that morning. Deciding they'd irritated their Captain sufficiently unto the day, he tugged Blair away from his usual perch on the desk top, and pushed him towards an open space on the couch. Grabbing the remaining folding chair available, he settled in for the case review.

"Harper is definitely from Boston and even joked about his accent with us, once he heard my accent." Megan wrapped up her report of her undercover work of that morning. "He showed us stones, not rings, and said the cost savings comes from the fact that they do some cutting in his shop as well as setting work. Seems a small operation for someone who drove up in a Jag." The team had reviewed the appraisal of Barstow's diamond with some disappointment.

Rafe held up the forensics report. "Let's hear what Dan has to say." Ruffling through the pages, he hit the high points to reduce wear and tear on his Captain's patience. He looked kind of ... tired. "Death by blunt trauma, blah, blah, blah; extremely hard, elongated object, probably cylindrical in shape and tapered. Decreasing circumference of the object is inferred by the decreasing space between the fractured segments of the cranium. Most likely made of metal, given the absence of splinters or other remnants of fragments from the weapon in the hair and bone, blah, blah, blah ... Hmm, this is weird. Small striations were seen on skull fragments along the borders of the depression at regular intervals ... Only visible under microscopy."

"Somebody crushed his skull with what, a ruler?" Sandburg was incredulous and also oblivious to the startled looks on the face of his colleagues.

Jim smiled faintly. Way to go, Sandburg. Swift deductive leap, there.

Rafe rose abruptly. "Yeah! And we saw the likely weapon, Megan! That big, brass ring sizer, exhibited on Harper's desk."

"A whosit?" Henri looked as confused as everyone else in the room.

"Ring sizer. They're these long cylinders of gradated size and you put rings on them to find out their exact circumference for determining the ring's size. Most are light aluminum but this baby was a collector's item."

Megan's eyes lit up as her recollection became clarified. "Right and it had been engraved pretty deeply, scored over most of its length. Also had some writing etched on it."

"Probably his name," Rafe explained. "Those are collectors items, given out as gifts, generally. And this one might just be the murder weapon!"

Simon beamed in approval. "Those striations also wouldn't wipe clean all that easily although it might appear clean to the naked eye. Might show positive for the victim's blood type upon analysis. We'll need more to go on before we can get an order to confiscate it for testing, though."

Jim and Blair exchanged meaningful glances, knowing sentinel sight might make a good screening tool to determine if an order was even needed. "Captain, what if Sandburg and I take an official trip over there to announce his employee's death and ask a few questions? He was out when Brown was over there and it would be nice to see how he reacts to questions about Barstow." Jim tried to look innocent throughout this exposition.

Simon nodded, understanding the bigger implications of that trip. "Fine, just don't uhm, borrow anything while you're there." Assorted snickers indicated the rest of the detectives weren't far behind in concluding the real reason for this trip, while maintaining the polite fiction that discretion demanded. A glare brought them all into line. "But we're still looking for motive, people."

Megan chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. "The office was pretty bare apart from some file cabinets and an African mask on one wall from Sierra Leone."

"Wait a minute. How do you know where that came from?" Rafe looked askance at his erstwhile 'fiancé'.

"When you excused yourself to the men's room to scope out the setting shop again, I chatted him up a bit. Asked about the mask and ..."

"A probable motive just stood up on its hind legs and announced itself, gentlemen. Sierra Leone is a major source of conflict diamonds." Rafe's features took on the sleek, self-satisfied look of a cat presented with a saucer of rich cream.

Simon raised his eyebrows. "I gather those kind of diamonds are 'not' a 'girl's best friend?"

"You gather correctly. A few countries are known to export rough material from mines that were taken over by warlords and terrorist groups. Proceeds go to fund activities to further destabilize the governments like buying weapons and paying mercenaries."

Sandburg stood up, his immediate interest in the topic overcoming his usual push to contain his activity level in these group meetings. "I've read some anthropological reports on that. They use slave labor, hijacking the populations of local villages. Even the kids are forced into the mines. The jewelry associations in the US are trying to limit the influx of material from these sources so that the government doesn't impose limits on commercial trade in rough stones."

Rafe nodded. "Yeah, it's tough since you can't really distinguish between the lawfully mined stuff and the blood diamonds."

Simon winced. "That's a pleasant little label for them. If this guy is trafficking in these stones, then maybe Barstow found out about it."

"It could close down Harper's business if that were known and even place him at risk from his overseas sources."

Jim glanced at his partner, now moving restlessly along the wall by the couch. "That might explain why an unimpressive specimen of a diamond was being hidden in Barstow's jacket lining. He might have had something else on him that night linking his boss to those sources. We'll get on it, Sir."

"Good. Get Sandburg out of here before he takes flight. You can stop at the hospital on your way to see Harper. That teacher is awake and lucid now. She'll likely be released tomorrow but you can have access today."

Blair bolted for the door as soon as Jim rose to take his leave as well. They began gathering their belongings for a day out, evidence-gathering.

"Well, Chief? Either you have an extremely urgent need for the men's room, or something we just discussed started that hamster inside your brain to running his wheel at top speed."

"Funny, man. I save the gerbil analogies for you. Not here, though. In the truck."

"If we're taking my truck, you'd better be certain it isn't a need for the men's room that has you so hopped up." Ellison easily evaded the swipe aimed at his arm and they made their way to the garage.

Barely containing his excitement long enough to secure his seat belt, Blair rocked his partner with his discovery. "It is the diamonds, Jim. That was what I heard in the visions! People working the mines. The thud of shovels entering the dirt. The ringing of pickaxes hitting against rock, to shatter it. There was just no context in which to interpret those sounds. I also assumed the jungle environment was just the usual place of our visits to the spirit world. This was really jungle, African jungle. I should have realized it because it was green instead of blue. Oh man, this is so incredible."

"Settle down there, Chief. Breathe first, analyze later. So, if I got all that right, we're talking about those conflict diamonds as our motive now and we can look for something at Harper's later today that might give us some hard evidence of it. For the rest, we know that's about the kid and how we can get him to recognize the perp if we can get them together at some point."

"Just like that? You accept my visions as confirmation of these theories?"

"Why not? They preceded the information we've gotten from the scene and other findings and its all being corroborated. Even if it wasn't adding up, it would still be worthwhile to keep it all in mind as we run across novel information." The sudden intrusion of silence next to him made Jim nervous. A sidelong look revealed a 'shocked shaman'. "You paying attention here?"

"Sure. I, it's just, well - you're putting so much faith in all this that it ..." Blair trailed off, speechless for once.

"The visions may or may not pan out on any given case, but it won't be for lack of your credibility. It'll just be our lack of a-bility to interpret them right. We can live with that, can't we?"

A contented sigh was all the answer Jim required.

*******************

Wednesday, 12:15 P.M.; Cascade General Hospital:

"I hope you're feeling up to talking with us today, Ms. Charner." Blair's voice was gentle but frankly hopeful that she would comply, hardship or no.

Hilary nodded, gripping some tissues but was dry-eyed for the moment. "I remember what happened now. It came back to me a few hours ago."

"Yes, we heard you'd suffered a concussion. I'm glad they can send you home tomorrow. Do you have someone to stay with you?"

"Lena said she would."

"Great. She seemed very nice." Blair pulled a chair closer to the bedside, while Jim stayed back and listened to her vital signs. "I know it's hard but I need you to tell me what you recall about the other night."

"It's okay." The words were belied by the increasing moisture in her eyes. "Things seem kind of distant. I think it's the medication. Jared shocked me terribly that night. I've heard that sentence before, you see. Hank's boss said it once when he'd come over for dinner and stayed late, talking business with Hank. I wasn't paying much attention, just wishing he'd leave, you know? The news was on and Mr. Harper said that very thing after the newscaster did his usual sign-off. Jared used the same tone of voice." Hilary leaned over to grab some tissues.

"So, what we heard that night from Jared was his echolalic reproduction of something that you heard one night from Harper." Blair wanted very specific confirmation of this fact before going forward with their plans for identifying the perp.

"Yes, I'm quite sure." The now-dampened tissue was being twisted in the sick woman's tense grasp.

"Thank you, Hilary. You've been very helpful. We're on our way next to talk to Harper about your fiance's death. Since he is a suspect, we'd appreciate it if you could avoid contact with him unless it is pre-arranged through us. Since you've had such a shock, it shouldn't be hard unless you think he might come to see you without calling first?"

"He doesn't know where I live. We've only seen one another a couple of times at Hank's apartment, and once at a school fundraiser."

"Good. We'll speak to your again soon. Please take care of yourself." Blair rose and returned the chair to its original spot. Jim said his goodbyes and they left the hospital. A brisk walk to the parking lot brought them back to the truck and further debate.

Jim negotiated his truck out of the small space he'd tucked it into upon their arrival. "We're not going to be able to incorporate Hilary into our plans. She's much too fragile."

"I agree. It wouldn't be a good idea anyway, since technically she's also a suspect. That leaves us with Lena. I'm also thinking that it might be unethical to include Jared in our plans. He might be frightened. I just don't know what else we could do to scare Harper into a revealing himself." Blair looked at the older man, questioningly.

"That's a tough call, Chief. We're likely on thin ice here but we can't let this guy get away with it. And if he's running some international scam with diamonds, this isn't gonna stop with one body."

"Not to mention all the bodies back in Sierra Leone, that he's depending upon to supply his rough stones."

"Ever the activist." Jim's smile belied his sarcasm. "Naomi will be proud of your involvement with this case."

"Yeah! This is one I can tell her about that won't lead to an argument about all the civil liberties she thinks we're violating, right and left."

"Well, don't discuss it until after the case is over. We don't need 'Carrie Nation' calling out reinforcements to protest blood diamonds and give us away before we're done here."

"Good point, man. I hear that."

Blair opened the glove compartment as they approached their destination, to access their stash of quarters for parking meters, if any could be found at this hour of the day. Jim was in the process of parking illegally, in the only vacant spot near the office building, when he heard Blair's snort of serious annoyance. A glance confirmed that an empty bag of 'M&M' candy had fallen into his partner's lap. He attempted to avoid the inevitable lecture by snatching the bag and placing it on the dashboard, recalling an old story he'd heard back in the academy.

"This is to signal meter maids, as in the two 'm's, that a cop is taking up this space. Then we won't get ticketed."

"Whaa...? Jim, does that really work? I thought that was an urban legend from the internet."

"Sure it works," Jim perjured himself, shamelessly.

"Oookay. But, on another interesting note, the bag appears to be empty."

"Of course it's empty. The chocolate would only melt in the sun, Einstein. Leak out of any rips in the bag and mess up my truck."

"Nice try, but you are so not gonna get away with this! All those artificial colors! You know they play havoc with your senses. They're mostly synthetic chemicals; some are even made from coal tar like that yellow tartrazine. The azo dyes degrade into toxic crap inside your intestinal tract. Some of these chemicals can cause allergic reactions, some cause CANCER and most of 'em haven't even been tested for all the stuff they can do to us. Quite a number are banned in some European countries, while our FDA ignores both the documented and unstudied health risks."

Blair stopped to draw breath and change tactics. "Look, there are more than enough kinds of junk food in the world that don't have all that synthetic shit in 'em. I don't give you grief when you eat that stuff. Just choose a better class of snacks, okay? You really make me nuts when you do this." His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Does this bag correspond at all to the migraine you had last week? You know, the one that had us both walking the floor at two in the morning?"

"Chief, enough. We have to get into Harper's office. Try to remember we're going in as real detectives and not pretending to be an engaged couple like Rafe and Megan." Jim hoped the implied insult would distract Blair from remembering that yellow dyes often did given him headaches.

Blair was done with the topic of Jim's dietary sins and decided to take the bait dangled before him. "Engaged, huh? What would I want with a fiancé like you?" They both unbuckled their seatbelts and got out of the truck. Blair glared at his partner across the hood of the vehicle. "You don't take orders; you wear scandalously short skirts, too much makeup and use awful perfume. As far as your driving skills go ..."

Jim started to laugh and gently cuffed his grumbling guide, before following him through the revolving door. They adopted their professional demeanors upon entering the elevator and stepped off on the third floor.

Harper stood just shy of six feet and sported the large, muscular forearms one would expect a diamond setter to develop over the course of years spent bending metal prongs by hand, over precious stones. Jim wondered if Blair had yet learned to make the instant 'threat assessment' of every perp they approached. This guy wouldn't be easy to take down.

"Mr. Harper, I'm Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We're here about your employee, Henry Barstow." Jim flashed his badge before the man, as per regulations.

"Of course, come in. I missed the visit by that other detective yesterday but the men in my shop told me about it. Such a shock. What happened, exactly?" Harper allowed them into his tiny office, little more than a chair, desk, safe and jeweler's bench. A door on the opposite wall likely led into his shop of cutters and setters.

Jim noted approvingly that his rookie partner didn't allow his gaze to dwell on the brass ring sizer, prominently displayed on the desk. "We're still trying to establish the facts. Among them, anyone Barstow may have met with during the past few days."

"He wasn't very friendly and I didn't know him all that well. I met his girlfriend, once or twice, when we met for business purposes but we didn't really socialize." The Boston accent was obvious.

A cool customer, Jim surmised, noting that there was little alteration of heart rate during this discussion. "Yes, we've met with his fiancé. Very upset, poor woman. She had an accident, so we couldn't really speak. Right now, we're just looking to track his movements during the days prior to his death. How much contact did you have with him during the past few days or so?"

"I can't help you there, Detective. Didn't have any contact with him all weekend and he called in sick on Monday."

"What did he do for you, exactly?"

"He was a setter. Had a bench here and did work I provided for him. If things were slow around here, I allowed him to take in work from his own clients and do it here. Setting tends to be mostly seasonal work, so there are slow periods throughout the year."

"Would you mind showing my partner his work area?" Jim pulled out his cell phone. "I need to call my office and let them know where we are."

Blair stood up, understanding he needed to keep Harper in the shop for as long as possible so that Jim could scout the outer office. "It would be a big help to us, Mr. Harper. In case he had any notes or an appointment book, perhaps. It would also be helpful if you could give us a list of his private clients and the names of your other employees."

Harper nodded and then glanced at his safe, to make sure it was locked. He then escorted Blair into the shop, while Jim dialed his home answering machine and spoke loudly enough to keep Harper comfortable with his absence from the little tour.

Ten minutes later, the pair re-entered the elevator, Blair looking at his friend expectantly.

"We're gonna need a warrant to toss Harper's office. The grooves in the ring sizer do look like there's something in them besides oxidation residues. I couldn't tell by smell if it was blood because the item had been polished along the surface. That stuff was still recent enough to mask any other odors. We'll need forensics on that. I hope we can time the search to correspond with Harper being out of the office."

Jim was the first out of the revolving door and saw the two white pieces of paper flapping on his windshield, held in place by a wiper blade. Realizing what had taken place, Blair moved up behind Jim, trying to decide just how snide he could be over this ticket. His reverie was interrupted by a muted howl of anguish from the 'criminal' himself.

"SHIT!" Jim circled and stamped in fury. "That bitch of a meter maid. I swear I'm gonna ...."

"What's up with you, man? No need for dramatics over a ticket."

"Ticket? I wish it was only a ticket. Read this, Chief. We're toast here."

A handwritten note was pushed into Blair's hand and he read it with a growing sense of futility. He was going to howl with laughter and Jim would kill him. Well, he'd hoped to die laughing at some future date. Just not at the hands of his partner or quite so soon. The reluctant snickering began.

"Thanks for the sympathy. It is definitely not funny. She had the gall to do a check on my plate and then locate my Captain! Simon's gonna bust a gut and then he's gonna bust me. Us. We're not supposed to park illegally for routine interviews and I forgot to use the damn placard we have for emergencies."

"No, you were too busy making excuses for having contraband candy lying around." Blair reviewed the note a second time, hoping to memorize it in case his partner destroyed it before he could arrange to have it framed. "Now calm down before you spontaneously combust and save Simon the trouble of doing it for you. Well, she confirms it's an internet legend. The M&M bag thing at any rate. Whoa, nice touch she's got." I haven't seen this one since the eighties, he read, silently, but I'm sure your Captain enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

"Oh, man!" Blair strove mightily to control himself. "Come on Jim. Suck it up, Big Guy. She says she called the Captain but maybe she's just yanking your chain for pulling this crap on her."

"You think so?"

"Actually, that would be a 'no'. But I was hoping the suggestion might calm you down." Blair hurried back over to the passenger side of the truck and hunkered down for the ride back to the station. "Hey, what do you mean, we're toast?"

*******************

Wednesday, 3:20 P.M.; the Bullpen:

"ELLISON and SANDBURG! My office NOW!"

"I swear the man has x-ray vision. He always knows when his victims have arrived." Blair dropped take-out bags of a long-delayed lunch for them both onto Jim's desk.

"Well, maybe we can distract him with planning for Harper's take-down. We'll need his influence if we're going to get this done at the school site with Jared."

Blair looked long and hard at him. "Distract Simon?"

"Yeah, what was I thinking?" The pair received some sympathetic looks from colleagues in the Bullpen on their way to the Captain's office and one encouraging shout from Henri.

"Hey, good buddies! You put me in your will, right?" Obviously the tale had already spread. So much for Rhonda's discretion.

They each retracted their raised middle fingers, pointed towards Henri, as the door to the Captain's office opened. Simon's smile was more a baring of teeth than a facial expression deserving of that title. "Detectives." The imposing figure turned sideways to permit entrance. "After you."

"We have a lot to discuss with you, Sir."

"I have one or two things to discuss with you as well. First things first, though. What went down at Harper's?"

The partners settled into two chairs in front of Simon's desk and went over their impressions.

"And we want the office search to go on at the same time we get him over to the school." Blair paused, still troubled by the stress this scenario might mean for Jared. "Jim and I figured that if you can get Sinclair to consent to it, we can have Lena call Harper and ask him to drop Barstow's personal effects over at the school. We set the stage, telling him that Hilary is too unwell to do very much at present so he won't be surprised if she doesn't call him in person. We'll arrange for Jared to be in front of the respite center's television with a tape running of the newscast from the other night. The news station has a copy coming over to us tomorrow morning."

"So you figure if the scene is similar to the night of the murder, then Jared will recognize Harper as the killer?"

"Well, we figured his reaction can cue Lena as to whether Jared really saw Harper that night. Then Lena can pretend to be an eye witness. She's a gutsy lady and willing to help us. We'll fully apprise her of the risks involved but it's probable she'll do it. Then we may get the confession we need out of him."

"I don't see Sinclair going for it, do you? And isn't it a real long shot that the kid will perform as expected?" He glanced at Jim, expecting him to be more cynical about the prospect of success here than Blair.

"I think it can work, Sir. Blair's been getting flashes of the kid's perceptions for a week now and also the tie-in to blood diamonds. If we get him to trip himself up on the murder rap, we can invite the Feds in to look into the importation issues. Maybe they can dangle a life sentence instead of death row in exchange for it. Taking that ring sizer with him to the school proves premeditation."

Blair nodded emphatically. "But we have to do it this week since Jared's parents get home on Saturday. It has to go down at the respite center. Since Lena is a staff member, that ass, Sinclair, won't need to be present. The perp will be more relaxed with just a woman and a kid to face. We should be able to keep everyone safe with just a couple more inside people. One can pretend to be staff and another can be doing janitorial work"

"I'll call Sinclair and tell him what we want to do but I can't promise consent to the scheme. It's as good a scenario as we're going to get with an autistic kid as witness, but still a liability nightmare for the school. I may give him an abbreviated version of the plan, highlighting the speech therapist as the main figure helping us out."

"Whatever you think best, Sir. We're going to have some lunch and swing by Lena's before heading home."

"Not so fast."

"Captain, I ..."

"... tried to break the law and cue another officer into looking the other way while you did it."

"No, Sir. That wouldn't occur to me. I was just... ," Jim cast an embarrassed look at Blair, "... covering up for having eaten a bag of M&Ms. So, I explained it to the rookie, here, as being a signal for cops parking ..."

"Illegally. And grinning is definitely not in your best interests right now, Sandburg."

"Or later, for that matter, Chief! Still, I never thought a traffic cop or meter maid would even notice the bag on the dashboard. That's not my way, Sir."

"Well, let me help you to better understand what it feels like to have your job turned into a joke. Those people are making a significant contribution towards keeping Cascade's streets safe and orderly for our residents. I think a day spent walking the meter line and writing tickets will be a salutary experience for you both, once your current case is wrapped up."

Jim appeared resigned but Sandburg took immediate umbrage. "How did I get involved in this? I didn't do anything!"

"Exactly. You were present and didn't keep your partner from making this mistake."

"I was going to but he got me off track about his diet and ... other stuff. And does the word 'passenger' mean anything to anyone here? As in 'innocent bystander'? And it can't be my fault if he won't listen to me!"

"Won't listen to you, eh? In that case, let's make it two days spent in a car holding a speed gun. That will give Ellison a lot of time to practice listening to you, while you're both making the streets safer for our drivers."

********************

Thursday, 4:45 P.M.; the Worthington School Respite Center:

Blair cupped a hand to his ear piece. The soft crackling was followed by Simon's voice.

"Rafe called in. Harper left his office. Dan will go in and do the luminol test on the ring sizer. If it's positive for blood traces, we'll cue you and you can take Harper into custody no matter what happens over there. Our warrant also gives permission for us to toss the rest of the place, if it plays out this way. Banks out."

"Jim?" Blair pitched his voice so as not to startle the child next to him on the couch. Jared was concentrating on a Sesame Street Video while Lena was getting a final review of their plan from Jim and Henri. The young detective nodded meaningfully at his partner, when eye contact was made.

Jim nodded his understanding, conversation unnecessary at this juncture. He wasn't allowed the earpieces anymore, since that input could disable him during periods when his sentinel hearing was wide open at a crime scene. A vibrating pager was in his pocket to be used as an emergency 'abort' signal under tough situations. It was also a cue for him to seek out Blair's voice from 'wherever', for further information.

Jim turned back to Lena and informed her that their suspect was now enroute. "We'll be watching out for you every minute, Lena. Harper didn't suspect a thing when you called him yesterday to make this appointment and he won't think anything is strange at seeing you working with a child in this setting." The woman's outwardly calm demeanor was impressive, with only her heart rate revealing any sign of anxiety. "One last run-through here. Harper rings the bell and Brown opens the front door while you remain here and change the video in the VCR to our newscast. The tape is set towards the end of the show, giving you only a few minutes of small talk to deal with, once Brown shows Harper into this room. Then you grasp Jared's shoulders in time for him to hear the newscaster's sign-off line. If Jared should recognize the situation and react to it, you say your line. Then Detective Brown, our friendly neighborhood janitor ..."

"That's custodial engineer to you, Ellison." Brown was at his side, holding a mop and wearing a green uniform labeled 'Ames Maintenance'. Lena smiled at him, grateful for the tension-breaking remark.

"Of course." Jim smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. I wish I were better at this. Taking his cue to 'lighten up' from Henri, he continued. "Then this vastly overpaid 'custodial engineer' will hustle you both out of the room and we'll take over. The door will remain open to the corridor so you won't ever be out of sight or earshot. Blair and I will be in that broom closet just across from this room." Already examined by my partner, who removed all offensive cleaning products likely to screw up my senses. The kid thinks of everything. Jim turned to Brown. "Back to your broom, 'H'. It's 'Showtime'."

"This is a highly sophisticated cleaning device called a mop, De-tec-tive Ellison. Get your technical terms straight, please." Lena smiled as intended and Henri patted her shoulder comfortingly, before taking up his post in the entrance hall.

Lena took her place, kneeling on the floor by Jared's knees. Blair smiled gently at her and went to join his partner at their station. Lena patted her student's knee to make sure he was aware of the change in guardians and was gratified when Jared glanced her way.

Smiling briefly in recognition, the child returned his attention to the antics of the 'Cookie Monster'. An agonizingly slow passage of time ensued, lasting precisely seven minutes.

The bell rang.

Jared glanced down at his speech therapist again. Lena realized her tension was palpable and struggled to hide her sudden fear. Jared's gaze was again re-directed to the television.

Faint voices were heard from the front hallway and footstep briskly clicked along the corridor. The videos were hastily exchanged. The child tensed at the abrupt change, but calmed immediately at the sight of another familiar figure appearing on the television screen.

I can do this. I can do this. That mantra appeared to have taken up permanent residence in her head. Lena instinctively kept one foot flat on the floor in a semi-kneeling position. It would allow her quicker response time if the need arose for a fast exit.

"Thank you." The voice from the phone was apparently dismissing Detective Brown. Lena looked up at the man now entering the room, her own features blank of all revealing details.

"Mr. Harper? Forgive me for not getting up. My student has been very upset all day."

"No problem, Ma'am. Where do you want me to put this box? It's all of the things from Hank's bench that didn't belong to my shop. He had some valuable tools of his own. If Hilary wants to sell them, I'm sure I can be of help to her."

Jared moved restlessly and whimpered slightly, although his gaze never shifted from the program. Lena moved a bit closer to him and placed a hand on the upper portion of each little arm. Jared was used to her touch so he didn't object. "It was very kind of you to drop these off here. Hilary will be back to work in a day or so and can go through the contents when she feels up to it." She squinted a bit. "We haven't met, have we?"

The broom closet's door opened wider, and its occupants exited to take up their positions against the opposite wall of the corridor. The conversation was easily audible to both men, who stood with guns drawn. Another crackle in his earpiece had Blair clutch at Jim's shoulder. The Sentinel then tuned into Simon's voice, confirming a positive luminol screen. The weapon could now be taken back to the lab for DNA testing, matching it to the victim's blood type, while the rest of the team went over the office with a fine-tooth comb for more evidence.

Brown made appropriate janitorial noises and got busy placing yellow warning placards across the corridor floor, leading back towards the front entrance. The signs, reading 'Caution, Wet Surface', might slow Harper down a bit if he made a break for it. He patiently awaited his cue and nodded to Jim, on the opposite side of the doorway. He saw the pre-arranged signal that informed him this perp was being taken into custody, with or without any revelations from the scene currently playing out inside. Brown withdrew his own gun from his armpit holster, well concealed by the baggy overalls.

"No, I'd remember if we had. The circumstances are certainly tragic and I'm happy to make things as easy for poor Hilary as I can."

Jared again shifted, uncomfortably and Lena turned her touch into a firm, but not harsh, grasp on the boy's arms.

Harper was still responding to her expression of gratitude. "I don't have anyone listed as next of kin for Hank so I may as well bring these things here. The police already looked them over at my office."

"Good night and good news!" The hearty tones of the newscaster broke into everyone's consciousness.

"Good night and good news, you bastard!" A less robust voice, still hauntingly similar in tone and accent to Harper's voice, emerged from the small figure on the couch for the second time that week.

"What the hell?" Harper looked sharply at the pair on the couch.

Lena rose and pointed an accusing finger. "It WAS you I saw running out of here on the night of the murder!"

Jim and Blair burst into the room, just ahead of Henri. Harper's hands immediately went over his head in the universal sign of surrender, at the sight of two gun barrels aimed at him. Lena and Jared were efficiently extracted from the room while the bust was made.

"You're under arrest for the murder of Henry Barstow. Turn around slowly and keep your hands over your head." Jim handed off his gun to Blair so Harper couldn't grab it while he was being cuffed.

"Got your back, Jim." Blair retained his firing stance. "Don't move, Harper. The place is surrounded and you wouldn't get very far."

"You people are crazy!"

Jim patted down their suspect, automatically moving to the side to avoid being in Blair's line of fire as he worked. Only a pocket knife was found, although it appeared to exceed the legal size for such an item. Jim automatically recited the Miranda lines as he cautiously proceeded to cuff the unarmed man. He was led, still protesting, to the couch where he sat stiffly. The protests continued unabated, as the partners awaited the rest of the cavalry to arrive and transport Harper to the station.

Jim winced at the strident, Boston accented, tones erupting from the enraged man. "Too bad he isn't taking the right to remain silent, literally."

****************

EPILOGUE

Friday, 2:30 P.M.; the Worthington School:

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to lie after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

Jim and Blair stood in the doorway, observing the small class of children being attended by three teachers, including Hilary. They had come by to let both the grieving teacher and Lena know there would be no need to deal with the stresses of a trial. Harper had agreed to a plea bargain in return for offering the feds some information about his import business. Hilary wouldn't need to know of her deceased fiancé's blackmail scheme concerning that smuggling operation.

The partners were pleased to have wrapped this up so neatly. The reports had been written up earlier that day and the D.A.'s office hadn't pressed them for any details of the bust which might draw disapproval from the Worthington School's prominent supporters. No need to mention shamans or sentinels, although both had been present throughout the events of the past week.

Jim was fascinated by the carefully orchestrated routine of the classroom. A low pupil teacher ratio made it possible to work with the dozen children here, all of whom needed large amounts of individual attention. Several of the children looked to be fairly well in touch with their surroundings but quite a few seemed quite trapped in their own, private worlds. The same world he inhabited perhaps, alternatively prisoners of sensory deprivation and sensory overload. I'm not much different from them. We're all… "Hey!" Jim grabbed his stinging arm and turned on his miscreant partner. "What are you hitting me for?"

Blair grabbed his jacket and pulled him into the corridor, looking around him for a bit of privacy in which to re-direct a seriously confused Sentinel. Incacha might frown on his methods but shamans in the industrialized nations had a lot of nonsensical societal customs to overcome, if their flocks were not to go too far off-track. Blair settled on a cloak room and pulled his reluctant partner inside with him. He tried to slam the door shut in order to send a non-verbal message but didn't realize he was dealing with a 'Dutch door'. Half the unit slammed shut leaving a gaping opening in the lower portion of the space. Both men stared at the 'hole' in the plan before looking at each other.

"Okay, so what! It's a door, man. Shit, I can never make a statement without it turning into some bad comedy script."

"What's this all about?" Jim's tone indicated he was trying to go on the offensive but

Blair wasn't buying into that old trick. "You were looking into that classroom and comparing yourself to autistic children! You are so far off the mark that even sentinel sight can't find it."

The slightly shamed look on Jim's face confirmed his shamanic sense, hell the sense of a good friend, who knew of the upbringing that had frightened the child and scarred the adult Sentinel. "They're developmentally disabled, Ellison. You are a gifted man, whole and so alive you exist on two planes! You can move between them, at will. Well, okay, we have to work on the 'will' part."

Jim gazed at him intently. "I am like them, Blair. You told me about their sensory shifts and everyone knows autistic individuals don't, you know, relate well to others." Jim's gaze had shifted to the floorboards. He made a half turn, ashamed of his deficiencies.

"Jim."

The older man subsided and forced himself to face his irate partner.

"Thank you. Jim, you gotta understand. There is a world of difference between your voluntary choice to be highly selective in those you reveal yourself to and those children who are constitutionally unable to relate to people. It's a defect in the wiring, man. That is NOT you. You are a case in point of nurture over nature. Gifted by nature with incredible talents and nurtured into believing they make you a freak of nature. And you are NOT isolated in the least."

"Yeah? I don't relate well to people. Look at my marriage, my dates, the way people are wary around me. Ouch! That's it you little shit!" Jim landed a punch, sufficiently restrained to avoid leaving a bruise, on his Rocky-wanna-be, partner's arm.

"Oww!" Blair grabbed his now-sore arm but grinned, fearless in his satisfaction at eliciting the reaction he'd wanted. "What are you feeling?"

"Like I ought to kick your ass for you," Jim hissed in reply. "Where do you get off doing all this? Just because you're some witchdoctor now, doesn't mean you can treat your best friend like some kind of... WHAT? WHAT are you grinning at?"

"My best friend." The soft statement was made in a tone of intense satisfaction. "And there isn't an autistic kid on the planet who could have used that phrase and understood what it means the way you do." Blair immediately felt the visualized reduction in his sentinel's physical and mental tension. Not bad for a fledgling shaman. He followed up on his advantage. "And like, you don't relate to Simon? Or Joel? Brown? Conner?" Jim's glower returned at a lower wattage. "Okay, scratch Conner - or better yet, put her in a different category."

"What category?"

"Don't know, maybe extraterrestrial, but that doesn't change the facts here. You relate very well to those around you who recognize your worth..."

"As a freak of nature."

"As a person. None of them knew you were a Sentinel when I met you, yet each of them kept an eye on you to make sure you weren't self-destructing in your bid to be the Lone Ranger."

"That's the point, Tonto. I was 'Lone'."

"No, you couldn't have been. You're a protector, remember? That means relating to people on a deeper level then they're even aware of. Standing slightly apart when you need to observe the threats to them while they live in their sheltered environments. Not too many people can join you there but that's OUR deficiency, not yours. Hard for the average person to include the kind of creeps you deal with daily within their frame of reference. Believe me, man, I've been giving this shit a LOT of thought these past weeks!

I WAS those people before, well ... before."

"Before Edward Gorlan." came the seemingly harsh reminder. Jim looked into Blair's eyes, seeing the struggle it had taken, was taking, for the kid to emerge from the hell he'd been through. Blair had learned these truths the hard way and no way would he be allowed to backslide, to hide from his newfound knowledge. And, apparently, Blair wasn't going to let him hide from the implications of that knowledge, either.

"Alright, yes. And James Joseph Ellison is connected to the tribe with threads of steel. You're part of the web, man, whatever your father may have told you when you were at the age where all kids think their parents are omniscient."

Jim's eyes suddenly shone with an inner peace he hadn't known since coming 'on line'. No reason to feel unsettled any longer by an old man's false claims of certainty.

Blair lunged for him impulsively, wrapping his arms around the surprised man who straightened and awkwardly patted him in return, not sure who needed the reassurance at this point.

"Mommy, Mommy! There's two men in the closet and they're hugging!" A curly-haired moppet stared at the pair as she stood beneath the closed upper half of the door, thankfully blocking her mother's view of their display.

Sensing closure was coming in for a landing - on top of their careers, instead of this case, Jim grabbed Blair as the upper part of the door swung open. He placed an arm casually around the smaller man's shoulders and lifted the arm of an expensive, fur jacket. "No, Sandburg, I don't think this is the stolen item. Oh, hi Ma'am. Detective Ellison here." He extended a hand to her and she shook it automatically. "We'll be out of your way in a second. Just have to check the rest of these coats." He casually reached into his pocket and flashed his badge at her.

Her expression cleared of its confusion. Blair smiled at the attractive woman, while Jim quickly ran a hand over the remaining garments.

"Okay, we're done here." Jim prevented Blair from making any other overtures, briskly grasping him by his sore arm.

"Oww, careful there, Big …Detective."

"Let's get back to the station and call Mrs. Oster to let her know we haven't found her fur coat yet. Sorry to keep you, ma'am."

"Oh, no trouble, officers," she said, uncertainly. The moppet stared after them, as they moved out into the hallway, back towards the exit.

Choking on restrained laughter, the pair exited the building. "School's out for us, Big Guy. Let's play hooky this afternoon and head for some serious down time. Good eats. Maybe take in that movie the guys have been talking about at the station!"

"And say what to our boss, you truant you?"

Blair laughed and pulled out his cell phone. A hit on a single digit led to a ringing at the other end. He nodded his permission for Jim to listen in on the conversation. "Hi, Si…uhm, Captain?

"What now, Sandburg?"

"We're done here but I'm a bit feverish and we're calling it a day."

"Both of you? You okay?"

"Yeah, but Jim ..."

"...is concerned. Blair, you may remember that I AM the father of a teenager? Now, I'm off at six tonight. You're both gonna invite me to join you for the movie at the Elmsford at, say, seven tonight, correct Detective Sandburg?"

Exchanging wry glances with Jim, Blair handed his phone over to deal with this unexpected event. "Maybe I should have coughed," he whispered, unrepentantly.

"Sir? I'm hoping that Blair might make an unexpectedly swift recovery after the medicinal administration of some beer and buffalo wings. You want to cut out a bit early to assist in the actual treatment process?"

"Bet your ass. Wait for me at the bar or your final report on this case might find its way back to you for, say, three or four rewrites!"

"Yes, Sir!" Jim's tone registered his satisfaction at the prospect of a carefree night out with his ...best friends.

THE END

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