Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Who Shot Santa Claus?

by Arianna

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

It was the twenty-second day of December and the holiday spirit was riding high, fast and loose in The Emporium - the largest mall in Cascade - roping in all who dared venture inside the shrine to 'Conspicuous Consumption on a Grand Scale. A veritable forest of potted spruces decoratively dressed with synthetic snow, their rich scent perfuming the air, were clustered at entrances, in the corridors and crowded close to every opening of the multitude of stores on each of the shopping levels. Some of the store owners had complained that they blocked access and might be a fire hazard, but Security assured them the proper permits were in order and there was nothing to worry about. Humongous silver and white glass snowflakes, edged with ice blue, glittered so thickly from the high ceilings that it seemed a blizzard was about to descend upon the shoppers.

'Winter Wonderland' was blaring from the public address system of the huge tri-level Cascade shoppers' paradise, with an accompaniment of jingling bells in the background. Chestnuts were roasting on open fires in hibachis on every corner, while ice cream vendors and those selling chocolates competed with the purveyors of roasted chestnuts for business, each one enthusiastically hawking their treats. Role players strolled about to add to the holiday mood, garbed variously as characters from 'A Christmas Carole', 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas' and off-duty elves from Santa's Toy Shop, shouting out "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" and "Merry Christmas" or "Humbug" as the mood struck them.

In the soaring Atrium in the centre of the mall stood a twenty-five-foot Christmas tree, splendidly decked out in all manner of elaborate trimmings and ornaments. Smaller, twelve-foot versions of the holiday tree were located in each entrance court, but instead of being decorated with expensive and exquisite decorations, these lesser trees held little notes from children who hoped Santa wouldn't forget them this year. Shoppers who were feeling generous could take a note or two, or ten if they could afford it, and play 'Santa' by donating the toy requested on the Christmas Wish trees. Or, for added convenience, they could simply stop by the cash and credit counter and charge their contribution, endowing the right and joy of actually selecting and wrapping the toys to surrogate shoppers hired by the mall's management. And, as an added enticement to be generous, each donation of fifty dollars was rewarded with a lottery ticket on the draw - to be held Christmas Eve just before the mall officially closed - to win a 'Treasure Chest' of fifty thousand silver dollars from The Emporium; the prize would be conveyed to the winner by Maxie Ruscelli, the mall owner, on Christmas morn, like some Santa incarnate. It was just a small way, Maxie was fond of telling any reporter who might be listening, to say 'thank you' to those who were willing to give a passing thought and fifty bucks to those less fortunate than themselves, so that everyone could feel loved on Christmas morning.

Not far from the magnificent central tree, sleigh bells rang…on a real sleigh, a massive silver and red velvet and steel conveyance that gave Santa a familiar and homey little place to meet the hordes of children who lined up with varying degrees of anticipation, excitement, hope and terror to whisper to the old gent just exactly what they dreamed of finding under their trees at home. All very normal for this time of year, but the fact that real reindeer were penned in a small petting zoo beside the sleigh was a challenge to the housekeeping staff. Behind the huge sleigh, there were large carts decorated with wreaths and candy canes into which were piled the accumulating mountains of gifts for the Wish Tree kids, clear evidence of the generosity of Cascade's populace toward those less fortunate. While it would be a rush for those organizing the charity, the gifts in the carts would be collected for distribution as soon as the mall officially closed and Santa went off do his appointed rounds at 5:00 PM Christmas Eve, his sleigh drawn off by the reindeer through the mall and out the side doors. The rather flamboyant exit was a long tradition and, year after year, families lined up along the sides of the wide corridor to wave him on his way.

The jolly gent himself was warmly dressed (despite the 80 degree heat of the overheated mall's interior) in ermine-trimmed red velvet with a thick black leather belt sporting a silver buckle, and heavy gleaming black boots. Long, soft snowy curls tumbled from under his red hat and flowed in a generous beard down upon his chest, almost hiding the old fellow's flushed face; no doubt, he felt a little like one of the roasting chestnuts in his heavy costume. Still, his blue eyes twinkled merrily and his hearty "Ho! Ho! Ho!" rang out with great good humour as he greeted each child with genuine warmth and patiently posed with each while flash bulbs burst with monotonous regularity every ninety seconds or so.

Elves were in charge of crowd control, and the green garbed men and women with long tipped caps and turned-up toes grinned and joked with the kids, while giving frazzled parents knowing looks of shared forbearance. Salvation Army soldiers rang their bells and smiled at the masses who trundled by, wishing more would donate a coin or two for the needy. Professional greeters, wearing reindeer antlers that waved alarmingly in the slightest breeze, cheerfully welcomed shoppers to the mall, willing to help guide those who looked lost or confused to the appropriate place to drop a load of cash.

The mall was predictably packed with shoppers. Some were dawdling along still trying to decide what to buy the loved ones in their lives, or what original little thing they could pick up for less than ten bucks for the ritual office exchange. Others were dashing about on the edge of frenzied panic, having too much to do and too little time to do it all. And the surrogate shoppers were having a ball choosing toys and games and clothing for the Wish Trees…all costs to be settled up in single totaled cash transactions between the merchants and Maxie at four on Christmas Eve - and then, before the mall closed at 5:00 PM, the store owners could generously give holiday bonus envelopes stuffed with cash to their staff without having to open their tills.

It was all very merry and bright, and exactly the sort of place that a sensitive Sentinel would avoid at all costs. So it was that Blair Sandburg, graduate student and teaching fellow in Anthropology, unpaid, civilian observer in the Major Crimes Unit as a ride-along to Cascade's finest detective, and Guide to said Sentinel, found himself on his own as he juggled an armload of packages in two unwieldy sacks and wove his way through the bustling crowd to the carts behind Santa's sleigh. Since he'd been the one to get everyone in MCU excited about contributing to the Christmas Wish Tree requests, all of his colleagues thought it only right that he be the one to single-handedly deliver the two sacks of gaily wrapped presents. He figured it was because they thought being caught with lovingly packaged Wish Tree presents for little kids wouldn't suit their big, mean-machine image, but he didn't mind being assigned the errand on behalf of them all. Smiling to himself as he patiently made his way through the crowd, he thought how much he love the fact that his friends at the PD had been so enthusiastic in their contributions, and that so many little kids would have a happier Christmas because of all of them. Not that their eager participation had surprised him, particularly. He'd only been working with them for about six months - and what an amazing, exhilarating and sometimes terrifying six months it had been, he thought with a slight shiver. But if he'd learned anything about cops in that time, he'd learned that, despite their tough-guy personas, they all deeply and genuinely cared about the wellbeing and security of other people.

In some ways, he hoped their good-natured insistence that he bring the sacks of presents was a measure of how they'd accepted him into their 'clan', and he welcomed any such indications that he could get. Like any closed community, it had taken a while to insinuate himself and win some level of confidence from them, and the fact that he and Jim couldn't reveal the true reason he hung around so much hadn't made it any easier. And, ruefully, he knew that he'd screwed up a time or two in the past few months, mostly out of inexperience and a desire to be useful. They didn't take him seriously yet, but nor did they seem to resent having him around, so he was making progress. The fact that he'd stood by Ellison, his partner, when Jim had been suspended after Danny Choi had been killed had, unexpectedly, hit the right note with the other members of MCU. They respected partners who stood by their partners, even when the going got tough. He kinda liked that about them. Helping the seniors who lived in the same building as Earl's Grandmother to organize themselves for their own safety against the gangs had been seen as original and effective, and everyone was sympathetic about the fact that he'd lost a good portion of his worldly goods when the warehouse had blown up and burned down. Then, the mess around Lash had boomeranged in his favour, sort of, in that they heard how he'd fought back in every way he could, and they respected that, too. Lately, they'd been treating him like a mascot of sorts, teasing on the surface but, underneath, he felt a sense of protectiveness from them. Now, that was a strange experience; he'd always been pretty much responsible for himself, and it was disconcerting, if novel, to think others were concerned with his welfare. But, more than that, it was very touching and he was grateful, however hard it was to express or show it to men who would have denied such special, personal consideration in an instant - and might even be embarrassed by his gratitude.

Whatever the reasons, life was going great. He'd found Jim, his Sentinel, and they'd even shared a getaway weekend together, to relax, not to work; and though they'd encountered more trouble and adventure than he'd planned when he'd taken Ellison to his favourite retreat, Saint Sebastian's, they'd risen to the challenge of murder in their midst and worked well together in difficult and isolated circumstances. That had been just a few weeks ago, and things had been good since. Buoyed by his thoughts, genuinely happy, he was smiling brightly and humming along to 'Silver Bells' as he staggered up to the nearest cart and carefully began to place his packages on the mountain of gifts.

Santa looked up and laughed as Blair tried to stop a gift-slide, calling out, "Well, if it's not my favourite little elf, coming to drop off last minute toys for good little girls and boys! How're things back at the workshop?" The child on his knee looked up wide-eyed, amazed to actually see an elf bringing toys, and then looked disconcerted by the fairly ordinarily dressed guy with long flowing curls - not the kid's idea of an elf at all.

Grinning widely, Blair called back, "Hey, Santa! Well, it's busy, really busy back in the workshop, but we're on target to get everything done by Christmas Eve." Blair winked at the kid who was looking at him with some confusion. With a conspiratorial air, Sandburg asked, "Have you pulled his beard to make him laugh? The elves do, all the time!"

Intrigued, the little boy looked at Santa's flowing beard, uncertainly giving it a yank. Some of the older and more cynical kids in the line watched, sure the beard would come off. But no! Santa's mouth was dragged open as the beard was pulled down and the merry old man laughed heartily at he bounced the kid on his knee. The camera bulb flashed and another child went on his happy way, running excitedly into his mother's arms, as Santa waved to hold up the next kid and then signaled Blair to come closer. "I just have to update my Chief Elf on the latest requests I've been receiving," he called out genially.

Bemused, Blair skipped closer with bright enthusiasm, making the kids and even some parents laugh as he clowned around with Santa Claus. In all truth, Sandburg knew Santa very well, not only from the annual Christmas Wish Tree contributions he made, but because he'd known the man in the crimson suit for all the years he'd been at Rainier, and he had a major soft spot for the elderly man. Santa waved him closer still to hear his instructions for the elves back at the workshop while the children watched in open-mouthed fascination.

"Keep smiling, okay, Blair?" Santa whispered, smiling broadly himself though his voice was deadly serious.

"Uh, sure, Sam, what's up?" Blair replied quietly, suddenly concerned, though he too kept a bright grin frozen stiffly on his face.

"You still working with that detective fella down at the police station?" Sam asked, worry deep in his blue eyes.

Blair nodded as he winked and waved at one little girl who was watching intently, acting for all the world as if he was getting toy-making instructions. He even pulled a small notebook from his pocket and pretended to take Santa's dictation.

"I'm going to be finished here in about fifteen minutes," Sam told him then. "I just need five minutes to change and then I'd like to meet you across the mall in the Baker's Dozen Café for a coffee. Maybe I'm just a senile old man, but I think something funny is going on."

Blair turned to look into his old friend's eyes. "What's bothering you?" he murmured seriously, his smile faltering a little. Sam might be getting on in years, but he was a long way from being senile.

"Not here, too complicated; can you meet me in twenty minutes or so?" the older man urged.

"Sure thing," Blair affirmed with a vigorous nod, as if he was confirming his instructions from Santa Claus, and then he patted his friend reassuringly on the shoulder before turning to skip down the steps. "Gotta run!" he called to the kids, waving the list. "Lots of toys still have to be made at the North Pole!"

The kids and parents laughed and waved back, cheering him on as he dashed through the crowds until he disappeared from sight.

Unfortunately, not everyone was subscribing to the general wishes and widespread bonhomie of 'peace on Earth, good will toward men'. Despite the glitter and music, the munificent generosity and mostly good-natured incursions into personal debt, not to mention the innocent hopes of the children who sat upon Santa's knee, there were some who sized up the 'Treasure Chest' and the accumulating wealth in the vault on the floor below the cash and credit counter with less selfless intentions…and absolutely no holiday spirit whatsoever.

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

Thirty minutes later, Blair was nursing a coffee and waiting for Sam Murdock to join him. Unconsciously chewing on his lip as he checked the wall clock, Sandburg smiled softly as he thought about Sam. When they'd first met, Murdock had been head of Custodial Services at Rainier and Blair had gone to see him about getting a part time job to help pay his living expenses. The scholarship might have handled tuition and books, but a room, food and clothes also cost money that a sixteen-year-old Blair Sandburg didn't have. He'd gotten the job swabbing floors and cleaning bathrooms, becoming something of a cleaning expert - something he'd never admitted to Jim, he reflected with a grin - and over the years, the young student had come to know and greatly respect the much older man.

Sam had worked himself up from the same beginner's job, washing floors and cleaning bathrooms at Rainier, having sought work there in the first place because he wanted so much to learn. A bright lad, and hardworking, he came from a poor family; his father was a lumberjack in the Cascade Mountains and his mother was dead before he was ten, so there was really no encouragement and less hope for higher education in his youth. There were no scholarships for kids in those days, not kids who had to quit school at fifteen to help support their families. But, still, Sam had wanted to be in a place where learning and access to books was possible, and when he wasn't working he used his employee pass to Rainier's Library to read and teach himself. In later years, as he moved up the chain of command, he found time occasionally to sit in on some classes - and, as Blair progressed, Sam came to love auditing the bright young man's courses. Though Sam had retired a few years before at the age of sixty-five, he still came to the classes and he and Blair had become fast friends over the years. Now, the seventy-five-year-old man, whose wife had died years back, and whose kids had all moved away, lived in a seniors' apartment block and volunteered at the homeless shelter, the John Howard Association and the food bank. He let his hair and beard grow long because every year for the past fifteen years he had played the main man in the Cascade Santa Claus Parade and held court at Cascade Mall.

Sam might have been uneducated in a formal sense, but he was one of the most astute men Blair had ever known. Naturally curious and observant, balanced in his judgment, if he said something was going on and was worried about it, then, well, something was going on that needed worrying about. Something illegal, given that Sam wondered if Blair was still associated with the Cascade PD. Frowning, Blair glanced again at the clock. It had been thirty-five minutes since he'd spoken with his old friend and a knot of anxiety was growing in his gut. Along with all his other fine attributes, Sam Murdock was a punctual man. He called it the 'courtesy of kings' to be on time and sensitive to others, to not hold them up or waste their time. Deciding to check on what was keeping the older man, Blair paid for his coffee and, backpack pulled over his shoulder, left the small, busy restaurant. Having worked at the mall in years past, he well knew his way 'backstage' and was soon moving through the inner corridors to the employees' locker room in the subbasement.

The utilitarian, gray-painted halls were an internal connection to the storerooms under the many shops above and the elevators for the various loading docks along the back of the huge mall. Many of the storerooms also connected with private stairwells to the stores above, giving access to extra inventory. Various workers roamed the corridors - guys from the loading docks dragging along pallets of goods for delivery, custodial staff, clerks from stores on the second and third floors of the mall who'd been sent to bring up more stock, and security guards. Cameras on the ceilings kept a steady surveillance of all who came and went.

A puzzled expression on his face, wondering where Sam was, Sandburg shouldered the door open and entered the employee locker room and lounge - but, though the connecting corridors outside were busy, the large room filled with rows of lockers appeared empty. Not really a surprise, as it was between shifts.

"Hey, Sam, you in here?" Blair called out, thinking his friend might be in the adjoining restroom. His eyes narrowing, really quite worried now as he reflected that Sam wasn't a young man and might have been taken ill, Blair pushed open the door of the employees' men's room and gasped in sharp alarm.

"Sam!" he called out as he rushed inside and dropped to one knee beside the crimson-clad figure curled and crumpled in an untidy sprawl on the floor. But as he got closer, he could see that some of the crimson wasn't velvet - blood soaked the front of Sam's costume, staining his beard and pooling on the floor beneath him. "Oh my God," Blair mumbled, blinking and then pulling himself quickly together to check his friend's pulse. Blowing out a breath of relief, he quickly rummaged in his backpack to drag out his cell phone and punch in '911'. While he called for help, he grabbed a wad of paper towels to use as an inadequate pressure pad, and tried to stem the blood pulsing heavily from a small hole in Santa's chest.

"Ah, Sam," he whispered anxiously as he gazed down at the pale face of his friend, noting the bubbling of blood on his bluish lips with each shallow gasp for air, "hold on, man. Please…"

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

The tall detective in casual plain clothes and a rumpled coat pushed through the crowd in the hallway toward the police officer who was holding the curious employees at bay. They all had to move aside to let the EMTs, and the stretcher bearing the gunshot victim, rush through the doorway into the corridor, hurrying to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. With a glance as they passed, he took in the pale countenance of the lean, elderly unconscious man, the long hair and beard, the oxygen mask and the IV line in his hand, the bottle carried by one of the EMTs. Looking through the open door, he saw Sandburg standing inside the locker room, looking a little lost, his hands stained with the victim's blood and his head bowed as he gazed sightlessly at the floor.

"Chief, you okay?" Jim Ellison asked as he moved forward to put a steadying hand on his friend's shoulder.

Looking up, his eyes wide and haunted, his face too pale, Blair swallowed hard before he shook his head. "He's really badly hurt, Jim," he replied, his voice tight with strain. "They - the EMTs - weren't sure he'd even make to the hospital."

Jim nodded as he frowned in concern, and then he looked around the room. "Sorry, Sandburg, you need to catch me up a little. What can you tell me about what happened here? And how did you get involved?" he asked. All Jim knew was that Blair had called in a 911 and asked that Detective Ellison also be informed of the shooting in the employees' locker room at The Emporium.

"Uh, yeah, right," Blair replied as he took a breath. Reflexively, he lifted his hands to rake his hair behind his ears and then remembered they were covered with blood and froze, looking a little ill. His jaw tightened as he visibly took hold of himself, and then he explained, "The victim is an old friend of mine, Sam Murdock, who had the job of playing Santa Claus here at the mall. When I dropped off MCU's gifts for the kids, he asked me to meet him for a coffee - Jim, he said he thought 'something funny' was going on and he wondered if I was still working with you. Anyway, when he didn't show up at the restaurant, I went looking for him and found him in the men's room over there. He'd been shot in the chest. There was no one else in here, and, well, that's all I know. Can you pick up anything?" Sandburg looked up at his friend hopefully.

Jim sniffed the air as he moved toward the restroom and shook his head. "I can smell the gunpowder residue, but there're too many other odours in here - deodorant, aftershave, hairspray, sweat, blood - sorry, Chief, nothing specific that's useful."

Entering the bathroom, Jim nodded to the uniformed cops who were securing the lavatory, and frowned at the congealing pool of blood on the floor. His gaze scanned the area but it was a typical men's room with scuffed floor, tiled walls, a row of urinals and sinks messy with splashed water and soap residue. One of the uniformed cops had emptied the trash receptacle in one corner, finding nothing but used paper towels and the odd crumpled candy wrapper. Still, it was all bagged as preliminary evidence from the crime-scene. Spotting the wad of blood-soaked paper towels near the discarded crimson coat and belt, Jim remembered the stains on Blair's hands and winced, realizing now that Sandburg's hands had been bloodied as he'd tried to help his friend. "Not much here to go on," he muttered under his breath.

Grimly, the two other cops nodded in agreement. "Who'd shoot Santa Claus?" one asked with weary disgust.

Shrugging, Ellison shook his head. "I don't know," he sighed as he turned to Sandburg. "You got any ideas? Did your friend have any enemies?"

"God, I doubt it, Jim," Blair replied dejectedly. "Sam's a really great guy - everyone I know likes and respects him."

"Well, someone didn't," the detective remarked dryly. "Come on, there's nothing more we can do here."

"Uh, can I wash my hands before we go?" Blair asked uncertainly, as he looked down at the drying blood and swallowed heavily.

"No, sorry, we can't contaminate this scene," Ellison replied as he steered his partner out of the bathroom. "Use the ladies' room next door."

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

Ellison noted the security cameras as they went back out into the corridor. Blair caught his glance and nodded, taking the lead as they headed toward The Emporium's Security Office to show Jim the way.

"You said your friend thought something funny was going on," Jim reflected. "Did he mean here at the mall, or somewhere else?"

Sandburg shrugged. "I don't know. He said it was too complicated to explain while the kids were waiting in line to see Santa. That's why he wanted to meet me at the restaurant. But he asked if I was still working with you before he said anything at all, so I figure it's something illegal."

"Tell me more about him, Chief," Jim directed as they moved through the busy corridor. Sandburg told Ellison where Sam lived, about his volunteer activities and that he sat in on classes at Rainier, still hungry to learn even after all the years that had passed. Jim nodded, a slight frown of concentration on his face. When Blair stopped talking, he asked, "Who did you see in the corridors before you found him?"

"Oh, man," Sandburg sighed, shaking his head. "Just the usual, you know? I wasn't paying that much attention, but guys were moving pallets of stock from the loading docks out back. Clerks were in and out of storerooms with inventory supplies for the stores upstairs. And I saw a couple of security guards, a man and a woman…I think I'd recognize her again…"

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Ellison drawled sardonically as they approached the office of the agency contracted to provide security services to the mall. The door was open and Jim led the way inside to a room with two desks and another door leading to a darkened room beyond that was filled with monitors for the cameras located around the mall. A very attractive woman with short red hair and green eyes sat at the desk talking to the tall, muscular man in front of her; both were clothed in the uniform of Mercury Security, the stitched logo on their sleeves representing their namesake Roman God in profile. They looked up when Jim tapped lightly on the door to draw their attention as he entered.

"I'm Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade PD, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg," he introduced himself as he flashed his badge.

"You're here about Sam Murdock's shooting," she replied directly, clearly having been expecting his visit. When Jim nodded, she went on, "I'm Venus Rafferty, the Head of Security, and this is my second in command, Lyle Goodings."

When Ellison blinked a little at the unusual name, she revealed with the brittle tone of rote that suggested his reaction was the norm, "My mother said she named me that because I was the 'embodiment of love'. You can call me 'Vee'." She gave a short, oddly bitter laugh, and then returned to the business at hand. "We've just finished checking the security tape for the camera in that corridor." With a disgusted sigh, she went on, "Unfortunately, we've been having problems with that camera malfunctioning all day, and nothing was recorded for the last couple of hours."

Jim's brow quirked; he wondered if he should be impressed with their speed in checking for evidence, or suspicious about the allegedly useless tape. "Well, that's too bad," he replied dryly, looking from one to the other. "Was anyone watching the monitors?" he enquired, with a nod toward the half-open door behind Rafferty.

"No," she replied with a shake of her lovely head. "It's a very busy time and we were all upstairs, working the mall, when the report of the shooting came in." She grimaced as she went on, "I can't imagine who would want to hurt old Sam Murdock. He seemed a nice guy, harmless…"

"You know him well?" Jim asked neutrally, not missing her premature use of the past tense when referring to the victim.

"No, but I've heard that he's been playing Santa forever," she replied calmly.

Turning to Goodings, Jim enquired, "What about you? How well do you know the victim?"

Goodings shrugged as his gaze shifted away from Jim's. "Like Vee says, he seemed nice enough, a little confused sometimes maybe…"

Rafferty shot him a hard look and he stopped talking. "Confused?" Jim prompted.

Looking nervous, Goodings shrugged again as he waved one hand negligently. "Well, he was old. Only natural that sometimes he didn't seem to know what day it was…"

"Uh huh," Jim grunted, conscious that Blair's heart rate had spiked for the third time since they'd entered the office, the first time when they'd walked in, and the second when Rafferty had asserted none of the security people had been on the monitors because they'd all been upstairs in the mall. At least the kid had learned enough in the last few months to keep his expression neutral and not give away what he knew.

"So, there were no security people in the corridor around the time of the shooting?" Jim pressed, but kept his expression and his voice tone bland.

"No, no one," Goodings replied, but again his gaze shifted away. Rafferty was frowning at Jim, and then her gaze moved to Sandburg, a flicker of dawning recognition in her eyes.

"Funny, I heard someone had seen two security guards down there…" Jim offered, looking from one to the other. He had to hand it to Rafferty - she didn't fluster easily.

"No one was scheduled to be down there," she replied coolly, "but perhaps someone saw us taking our routine swing through after we walked the back of the mall and the loading docks. When exactly did the shooting take place, do you know? Perhaps we were in the area…but we certainly didn't see or hear anything to suggest an assault was in progress."

"Right," Jim muttered and then posed another question. "Why would someone shoot Santa Claus?" he asked innocently.

"Your guess is as good as ours," she shrugged elegantly. "Some nut who hates Christmas? Someone from his life outside the mall…"

"Maybe," Ellison replied. "Have you been having any trouble with any so-called 'nuts' creating scenes up on the shopping floors? Any reports of having to escort crazies outside for disturbing the shoppers? Any other problems - shoplifting, maybe? It's a busy time of year…"

"Nothing untoward," she replied calmly. "We stay visible and all the store owners and their employees have been trained on what to watch out for. And, when we took over this job, we instituted a basic security check for all employees who work in the mall, so we've weeded out any obvious potential malefactors on staff."

Her phone rang and she turned away to answer it. "Yes, sir. I'm talking with a police detective now…alright, I'll tell him." Turning to Ellison as she replaced the receiver, she said, "Mr. Ruscelli, the mall owner, would like to speak with you as soon as possible in his office upstairs. Lyle, maybe you could…"

"Oh, that's all right," Jim cut in. "I'm sure we can find his office on our own. Just a couple more things before we go." Waving toward the room beyond, he continued, "I'd like to take a look at your monitoring setup and take the tape from the dysfunctional camera with me. Also, I'm assuming that you and your people will be giving us every cooperation in our investigation."

She stiffened very briefly, then nodded as she rose to lead the way into the darkened room. The walls inside were filled with banks of monitors, all of them showing various perspectives on the shopping concourses and the underground corridors. "All of your cameras appear to be working now," he observed, his tone flat, as he again studied each of the security officers.

"Uh, yes," she answered as she pushed slim fingers through her short locks. "The faulty camera has been pinging on and off all day. We've got a repairman coming…"

"The tape?" Jim cut in as he held out his hand expectantly.

She held his eyes for a moment, and then moved to one of the monitors and ejected the tape below it, turning to hand it over to him. Jim pulled a large plastic evidence bag from his pocket and she dropped the videocassette inside.

"Thank you for your cooperation," he said ironically as he turned to wave Sandburg out ahead of him. "We'll be in touch."

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

"Jim, she was…" Blair murmured as they made their way along the corridor toward the exit into the mall.

"The security officer you saw in the hallway," Jim cut in.

"Yeah, and they were…"

"Lying, like a rug," Ellison continued with a grim look. "I know, Chief," he continued. "I figured that out. She was pretty cool, but good old Lyle was too tense and his heart was going like a trip hammer. Not to mention her initial denial about being down in that corridor until she recognized you and realized we knew she'd been there. You ever know Sam to be 'confused'?"

"Never," Sandburg replied emphatically. "He's one of the sharpest guys I know."

"Uh huh," Jim grunted, and then continued. "I find the 'faulty camera' a little too convenient. I wonder what's on this tape?" But he was afraid they wouldn't have handed it over if it didn't corroborate their story that it was useless.

"You think they shot Sam?" Blair demanded, fury sparking in his eyes as he tried to rein in his anger at what had happened to his old friend.

"Whoa, slow down, Sandburg," Jim cautioned as he reached into his pocket to pull out his cell phone. "It's 'way too soon to speculate. We have no motive and only slightly suspicious behaviours at this point. On the other hand, I don't think it was some 'nut' out to kill Santa Claus so your friend could still be in danger." Calling dispatch, Ellison requested a guard be put on Sam Murdock at the hospital. Terminating the call with a thoughtful look, he winced suddenly when Blair opened the heavy fire-door and the roar of sound and the many overwhelming odours from the mall hit him.

"Dial it down, Jim," Sandburg said quietly as he touched Ellison's arm. Jim pinched the bridge of his nose as he took a deep breath and then nodded before following Blair out into the bedlam.

As they dodged through and around the clusters of shoppers in the packed mall, Jim shook his head. Who knew who might have seen anything relevant? They could scarcely try to interview everyone in the mall, and potential witnesses could already have left to run other errands or head home. They'd have to survey all the stores to find out who might have been down in the corridor on errands around the relevant time, as well as the workers on the docks. And maybe all the role players and other 'regulars,' like the Salvation Army volunteers who clanged their bells at all the entrances. Maybe Sam wasn't the only one who had noticed something funny going on…assuming he'd been talking about the mall and not Rainier or the seniors' residence where he lived. It would take an army of cops to process the place - far more than were available at the best of times, let alone the busiest time of the year.

It was a mess, pure and simple. Too little information, too many possibilities and nothing, really, to go on…and Jim had enough experience to know that it wouldn't be long before the media would get hold of the story. The Mayor would begin demanding a quick response as to who shot Santa Claus, and the Commissioner would be coming down the chain of command for answers. Their best hope was that Sam Murdock would wake up and simply tell them who had tried to kill him. But, given the severity of his wound, that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon, if at all.

The noise of music, shouting, laughter and singing, the confusion of all the activity around him, the myriad bright lights, and the conflicting odours from the press of rushing, sweaty people, the artificial slightly chemical smell of the fake snow on the spruces, the burning charcoal and roasting chestnuts, and the overly sweetish scents of cider and hot chocolate, surrounded and threatened to overwhelm him. Jim felt a monster headache begin to pound behind his eyes and he felt increasingly nauseated. Blair seemed to understand that the onslaught of multiple sensations was hard to manage, and Ellison was grateful for the grounding touch on his back as they made their way to the owner's office.

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

Maximilian Ruscelli was a robust, large-framed man in his late middle age, with a wild mane of gray hair, reminiscent of Mozart. His skin was tanned, despite the blustery, overcast weather of the northwest, and his nails looked professionally manicured. The suit he sported was hand-made navy blue silk. As the detective and his partner entered his large office on the top floor of the mall, he stood from behind the massive oak desk and waved them in, directing them to a leather divan and chairs that looked out through a wall of glass upon the soaring Atrium and the busy concourses below.

"Detective, I appreciate you meeting with me," he said immediately, his voice a well-modulated bass. "I don't understand who could do such a thing! Why - no one sane would ever shoot Santa Claus, and well, Samuel Murdock is a fine man. He's been a tradition here, working with the children at Christmas for years, certainly for longer than I've owned The Emporium. What can you tell me about the crime? How long before you'll be able to arrest the criminal who did this?"

Jim blinked at the rush of words, his eyes narrowing a little as he tilted his head. Despite the urbane manner, he could smell sweat and the man's heart was beating a little too fast to be normal. Was he only worried about the bad press of someone shooting Santa in his shopping centre, or was there something more going on? Could it be the simple fact that he was upset about one of his employees being seriously, perhaps fatally, hurt?

"We've just begun our investigation, Mr. Ruscelli. I'm afraid that we're still in the information gathering stage," Ellison replied. "There were a lot of people in that corridor around the relevant time, and we'll have to track them down to find out if any witnesses saw anyone unusual there, or heard anything."

"I see," Maxie replied, looking unhappy. "Such a terrible thing to happen," he muttered again, shaking his head.

"Can you tell me, sir, if you know of any reason why someone wanted to kill Sam Murdock?" Jim asked neutrally. "Have there been any incidents of trouble, any threats received against the mall?"

"Why, no," Ruscelli replied, looking surprised. "And I have no idea why anyone would shoot Sam," he added quickly.

"How did you know he'd been shot?" Ellison asked.

"My security people informed me," Maxie replied with easy candour.

"I see," Jim acknowledged as he stood. "We'll have teams of police officers here within the next few hours to work the stores and mall personnel to determine who was down in that corridor and if anyone saw or heard anything."

"You'll keep me posted," Ruscelli assumed as he walked them to the door.

Jim gave the man a cool smile. "I'm sorry, sir, but police investigations are confidential."

"Ah, yes, well, I understand," the entrepreneur replied stiffly. "Good luck, Detective."

Jim figured Ruscelli would be calling the Mayor and/or the Commissioner as soon as they left, demanding to be kept in the loop. Well, that would be Homicide's problem. This wasn't really his case, nor did it appear to be one that would be assigned to MCU.

As they headed back through the mall, Jim noted the Christmas Wish Surrogate Shopper Desk and shook his head at the large banner that advertised the chance to win 50,000 silver dollars in return for a modest fifty-dollar contribution to the Christmas Wish drive. The desk was doing a brisk business, but it seemed a little sad to him that the generous initiative to assist underprivileged kids was being mildly perverted by greed. With a sigh, he moved on, anxious to get out of the mall and back to the station to have the videotape analyzed.

"I'm going to head back downtown, Chief, and give Homicide what I've got, little as it is," Jim told his partner as they neared the exit.

"Homicide?" Blair repeated, surprised. "Ah, I just sort of thought you'd…"

"It's attempted murder, Sandburg, not a major crime case, sorry," Ellison replied, understanding that Blair had hoped to be involved in finding out who had shot his friend. But that wasn't really appropriate, even if it had been MCU's responsibility; it wasn't ever a good idea to get involved in a case that was personal.

"Oh, right, I wasn't thinking," Sandburg replied, obviously disappointed. "Uh, look, I'm going to head to the hospital to see how Sam's doing."

"Okay, give me a call if you don't think you'll be coming to the PD later," Jim directed as they parted at the exit to head to their respective vehicles. "You'll have to give a statement…"

Sandburg swallowed as he nodded wordlessly, hit by the queasy memories of having found Sam lying in his own blood. Turning away, he pulled his coat collar up against the wind's chill and loped into the late afternoon dusk. But he'd only made it halfway to his car before he slowed and then stopped. Sam was a friend, an old and good friend. He couldn't just shrug and walk away from what had happened. Classes were over, his grades were all posted - he was off work until January. Blowing out a breath, he turned and jogged back into the mall, heading to the administration offices in the back. When he appeared at the reception desk and the personnel officer looked up, he said firmly, "Hi, I'm Blair Sandburg and I'm a friend of Sam Murdock. He wouldn't want the kids to be afraid that something bad had happened to Santa. So, unless you've got someone else already lined up, I, uh, I want to be your new Santa Claus."

"Oh," she replied, looking uncertain. The Emporium was very careful about who they hired to work with the children - Easter Bunny, for example, was a part-time school teacher - but they were also in a bind. Since Sam had performed the role for more than the last decade, no one else was ever even considered and they were stuck with no Saint Nick for the early evening shift that would start in less than three hours, not to mention for the next two days.

"I've worked here before and my records are probably still in your files," Sandburg told her, his tone persuasive, his gaze sincere. "I'm currently a teaching fellow at Rainier, but I've got some time off for the holidays, so I thought I could help out. Uh, if you need more references, I also work as a volunteer with the Cascade Police Department."

"Um, well, I guess that's alright then," she allowed, handing him an employment application form. He was a little shorter than Sam, but the spare costume and padding would fit, and they could drum up a wig and a beard, and some talcum powder to lighten his eyebrows, but the bright blue eyes were at least similar to the older man's lively gaze. With luck, the kids who had grown up with Sam as Santa wouldn't notice the switch. "You'll have to be back here in two hours to pick up your costume and get ready," she told him.

"No problem," he replied solemnly. "I'm just going to the hospital to see how Sam's doing - "

"Oh, I'm sorry, but I doubt there is any point," she intervened sorrowfully, her voice catching with emotion. "I talked to the hospital not fifteen minutes ago. Sam didn't regain consciousness before they took him into surgery - and they said the operation could take hours. It may be morning before anyone is allowed to see him…if…if he's still alive in the morning. They don't hold out a lot of hope, I'm afraid. The hospital was looking for next of kin information, but only his wife was listed on his original application and I know she's been dead for years. I don't know where his kids are living now, do you?"

Shaking his head, he mumbled, "Sorry, no, I don't." Blair felt sick to hear Sam was still in such danger of dying; he'd hoped that, maybe, the wound wouldn't be as serious as it had appeared. His throat suddenly too tight to speak, he could only give her a half wave as he turned away, blinking at the burn in his eyes. She watched him go, and sighed sadly as she followed the new procedure and faxed his application form to Security for the routine check.

Burdened with grief, blind to his surroundings, Sandburg made his way to his car, but then anger surged as he got inside and he pounded his fist on the steering wheel with futile fury.

"Dammit," he grated hoarsely and swiped at his eyes. "He deserves a whole lot better than to suffer like this." Shaking his head, he started up the ignition and, as he steered out of the lot to head downtown to give his statement, muttered, "Why the hell would anyone want to kill Sam?"

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

After spending a frustrating hour with Ed Myers, the patronizing Homicide detective who had been assigned the case, Sandburg stomped up the stairs to MCU, hoping to work off some of his simmering anger. Muttering to himself, he spotted Jim on the phone and without so much as a wave at anyone else, he strode across the Ops Room and dumped his backpack on the floor.

"I see, uh huh," Ellison grunted into the phone as he looked up and saw Sandburg storming in like a bull in full charge. "Yeah, thanks, I'll bear that in mind," he added hastily, concluding the call and hanging up. His eyes narrowed as he studied his partner, and his lips thinned in concern. Blair's eyes were reddened, and he was as pale as a ghost, but there was a hectic flush of fury on his cheeks and his heart was in overdrive. Waving the younger man to the chair next to his desk, he said gently, "I heard from Homicide that your friend is still in surgery. You okay?"

Refusing the chair, choosing to stand foursquare in front of the desk, Blair pushed his hair back and nodded tightly. But he swallowed hard at the empathy in his friend's voice before his lip twisted disparagingly. "That moron downstairs could care less what happened to Sam," he snapped flatly, "Frankly, I wasn't sure whether they thought I was a witness or the assailant - seemed to think it could be suspicious that I was seen talking to Santa Claus just before he was shot and then just happened to be the guy who found him; I think if Myers could come up with a motive, he'd charge me."

Jim's brow quirked at the hostile tone. "They're just doing their job, Chief," he observed flatly, again waving to the chair, and he frowned when Blair ignored him. "You know how it works. Witnesses saw you with the victim, er, Sam, not long before he was shot, and when you were the one to find him, it's only natural they'd wonder why you seemed so involved."

Blair snorted and shook his head. "Right," he grunted. "Homicide seems to be buying the bit from Mercury Security about him being a confused old man. Can you believe that? Told me that I was just denying the reality because I'm a friend. Myers isn't giving any credence to the idea that Sam saw or heard something that got him shot. He thinks it was a simple mugging, or something, gone bad."

"Maybe it was," Ellison reasoned calmly, but his tone lacked conviction. "Sandburg, I just heard from Myers that you were seen not only talking with the victim but also taking notes not long before he was assaulted. You didn't mention the notes, and Ed forgot he wanted to go over that with you because he picked up a mention of them in other witness statements, you know, the staff strolling around, shoppers. He wants you to head back downstairs on your way out to give him whatever you wrote down."

Frowning in concentration, Blair shook his head, but then the memory returned and his expression cleared. "Oh, I was just faking it for the kids - 'Santa' had called me over and called me his 'chief elf' and said he was giving me orders for more toys to be made. So I just pretended to be writing stuff down while we talked, so the kids would be distracted while they waited to see him." Pulling the small notebook from his jacket pocket, he flipped it open to a page with squiggly lines. "See," he said, handing it to Jim.

Ellison glanced at it and nodded, accepting the explanation. He knew if Sam had told Blair anything significant, Blair wouldn't be holding out on him. Scratching his cheek, he said carefully, "Myers thinks there's a chance the shooter saw you taking notes, especially if whoever it was, was waiting to follow Sam downstairs. There's some chance that they might come after you, thinking you've got information they were trying to suppress."

Sandburg stared at him for a long moment, blinked and then looked away, his jaw tight. "I guess that's a possibility," he allowed, and then shrugged. Glancing up at the wall clock, he shouldered his backpack. "I don't have time for this now. I'm late."

"Late for what? I thought you were finished with Rainier until the New Year? Chief, you've had a rough day. Why don't you head home?" Ellison suggested, his attention already moving to the files on his desk. "I won't be long. Want me to pick up something for dinner?"

"No, not for me," Blair replied briskly, beginning to shift away. "I won't be home - not until after nine. Got a new temp job."

Something in Sandburg's tone caught Ellison's attention and he looked up sharply. "What temp job? Where? Since when? I thought you were looking forward to some down time over the holidays."

"Hey, man, what's with the interrogation?" Blair countered sharply, still simmering about the fact that nobody seemed to give a damn about what had happened to Sam. But, he knew he was only avoiding the issue because he was pretty sure Jim wouldn't be pleased with him. Taking a breath, he looked up to meet Ellison's steady gaze. "The truth is," he admitted, "I got a job at The Emporium…as the new Santa Claus."

Surging to his feet, the detective demanded curtly, "What? Why? Christmas isn't even part of your traditions!"

Understanding Jim's concern but resenting the tone and the challenge to his own judgment, Sandburg stiffened defensively as he rasped, "I don't think you know enough about me or my belief systems and traditions to make such assumptions. Not everyone aspires to emulate the Grinch or Scrooge, as if Christmas doesn't even exist."

Stung by the censure in his friend's tone, Ellison seethed, "You're Jewish, Sandburg - and you loathe conspicuous consumption and the crass commercialization of what was a touching legend about a worthy, generous man who gave gifts of food to the poor, and of the birth of a man of God, just to make a profit. Am I right?" But he couldn't mask the worry in his eyes about what Blair might get himself mixed up in if the killer had spotted him talking to the victim.

"Whatever," Sandburg muttered, turning away.

"Just hold up a minute, Einstein. What do you think you're doing? This isn't some game. You think, just because I passed the case off to Homicide that you'll go 'undercover' and do some detecting yourself? No way, Chief. You're not a cop - I don't want you anywhere near that mall. You got that?" Jim blustered, flushing with irritation, his tone blistering.

Whirling back to face the detective, the leash on his temper lost, Blair raged, "I'm not some kid you can order around, Detective. Nor am I an idiot - I'm not doing this to make like a cop."

"Oh, right," Ellison grunted, trying to pull his own rancour into line.

"Yeah, right," Blair shot back, his voice tight, though it cracked with emotion as he continued, "For your information, I'm doing this for Sam. He loved those kids, man. Loved playing Santa for them every year. He'd never want any child to worry that something bad happened to Santa Claus right before Christmas. I've got things caught up at Rainier and I've got the time to do this." Irritated, swallowing to regain control of his voice, he went on cuttingly, "And I know enough not to muck up an investigation - I have learned some things in the last few months, whether you'd agree or not. But, you know what? I don't think anyone is going to investigate anything, because this is just going to get written off as an unsolvable, unfortunate, mugging of a poor old geezer. Too bad, so sad."

"Hey, settle down," Ellison growled, resenting the sarcasm in his friend's tone. "You know damned well we do the best we can around here, but the fact is people are swamped - and your friend is alive, so the case really isn't Homicide's yet. There's no proof of premeditated action here, Chief. But that doesn't mean that the cops assigned the case won't do their best, when they have time to really look into it."

"Well, that stinks, man. Because Sam was nobody's fool and I think he saw something, or noticed something - maybe even something big. There's a ton of money in the vault under that shopping centre - at least until it's all moved to the bank on Christmas Eve. But who cares? Right? Everybody's busy and this is just one little case - well, screw Myers and screw you."

"Sandburg, I just finished telling you that the shooter could think you know more than you do," Jim grated, his jaw tight as he strove to be reasonable; he understood all too well how much it hurt to see a friend gunned down. "The last place you want to be hanging around is that mall!"

"Sorry, man, I've got a job to do," Blair snapped, hitching his shoulder pack higher and turning to stomp out, only to find Simon had joined them and was blocking the aisle.

"You two care to share what's got you disturbing the peace around here?" he drawled, looking from one to another.

Pushing past, his tone cool, if not downright icy, Blair replied, "I'm sure Jim can bring you up to date, not that it's anything important. I'm late." Relenting a little, knowing that Jim was only worried about him, he called over his shoulder, "I'll see you at home later. Don't sweat it - I'm sure there won't be any trouble."

"You get yourself shot, don't come crying to me!" Ellison raged as Blair loped across the room.

"Yeah, yeah," Sandburg groused, waving off the concern as he disappeared into the stairwell.

Banks' eyebrows rose high as he gazed after the grad student and then turned back to Jim. "Shot? Mall? What's going on here?" he demanded. "Does this have something to do with the Santa shooting?"

Sighing, Ellison nodded and grimaced. "I'm afraid so, sir," he muttered. Rubbing his hand over his mouth, he sighed, "Sandburg's the new Santa."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted, rolling his eyes. "Maybe we better take this into my office," he said, waving Jim to follow him. Once they were both seated and he'd poured them mugs of coffee, Banks leaned his elbows on his desk and observed, "I thought that shooting was a simple mugging or robbery - what's the real story?"

Shrugging, Jim sipped at the coffee and then replied, "I don't know. It might have been as simple as it seemed. But, nothing appeared to be taken from the employee lounge, no lockers were broken into. And the victim, Sam Murdock is an old friend of Sandburg's. He told the kid earlier that he wanted to give him some information about something - sorry, he was apparently no more specific than that, except he wanted to know if Blair was still working with 'the detective'. So, it would appear to have been something potentially illegal. There were no witnesses to the shooting."

"So, Sandburg has decided to snoop around on his own, is that it?" Simon growled dangerously, not thrilled with that thought and ready to pin the kid's ears back if need be.

"No, to be fair, I don't think so - he knows better than to potentially compromise an ongoing investigation," Jim replied mildly. Running a hand over his head, he continued, "I think he just wants to do this for his friend's sake - you know, sort of like taking care of a business while a friend recuperates. It's a nice gesture, I guess. But, he was seen earlier in the day talking to the victim, taking notes…"

"Who saw him?"

"Just about everyone in the area. Simon, they weren't being circumspect about talking - kinda hard to have a private powwow, when Sam was sitting in the sleigh and the kids were all lined up to see Santa," Jim replied, looking worried.

"You think the shooter might have seen them together and wonder if Sandburg maybe knows something?"

Ellison nodded, his eyes lowered. But he squinted in thought and then looked up to meet Banks' gaze. "Sandburg got the impression that Homicide may not pursue the case aggressively - maybe because they're swamped with cases and there's no evidence that this was anything more than an assault." Sighing, he chewed on his inner lip and then made his case, "But, this could be bigger than a simple mugging gone bad, or some crazy with a hate on for guys in red suits. Sandburg pointed out that there's a lot of money in that Emporium, and he's right. This afternoon, I noticed a lot of hype about some treasure chest full of silver coins and, well, this time of year, a lot of cash, millions maybe, accumulates in the central vault, pending transfer to the bank. The mall has always prided itself on having a vault more secure than any bank, and so they never transfer the cash until they close on Christmas Eve, and then by armoured car. I, uh, also got a bad feeling about the security people - something was off when I talked to them and they were obviously lying."

"You think a major heist could be planned?"

"Maybe," Jim hedged. There was no evidence to suggest such a thing, just a feeling - and that only because he trusted Sandburg. If the kid said this Sam Murdock was no fool and something was probably going down, then that was good enough for him, at least to get started with.

Banks frowned as he sat back in his chair, his fingers drumming an unconscious tattoo on his desk as he thought about what Ellison had said. Nodding to himself, he picked up his phone and punched in a number. "Scott? Simon. Listen, I know you guys are swamped and, since my people were involved initially, I wondered if we could help out by taking on the Santa shooting?" Simon listened for a moment, grunted and then nodded. "Right. Ellison did the preliminary, so he'll be assigned the case. Have Myers send up what he's got." Banks seemed about to finish the conversation, when he frowned and his eyes flashed with indignation. "What? No way!" He listened again, visibly trying to control his temper as he pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Look, I'm telling you, Myers is barking up the wrong tree. Sandburg is an old friend of the victim. He was there to drop off the MCU contribution to the Christmas presents for poor kids. That's all there is to it. Yeah. Yeah. Fine."

When he rolled his eyes and slammed down the phone, muttering, "Myers is a moron," Ellison gave him a sharp, speculative look.

"They aren't seriously considering Sandburg a suspect?" he decried, disgusted.

"Well, it would simplify life for them if the kid would just confess but, no, I don't think so," Banks rumbled sarcastically. Blowing out a breath, he picked up his unlit cigar and rolled it between his fingers. "Okay, the case is ours."

Cocking his head, Jim pursed his lips. "If you don't mind me saying so, sir, that was a little too easy," he observed suspiciously. "What do you know about this case that I don't?"

Smiling benignly, Simon turned to pour more coffee, holding up the pot toward Ellison, who shook his head. Replacing the vessel on the heat pad, Banks turned back, blowing on the hot beverage. "Well, I know Maxie Ruscelli puts on a good show, but he's flat broke. His last ex-wife took him for everything that the one before her had left behind."

Looking interested, Jim asked, "How do you know that?"

"We had the same divorce lawyer, and Ruscelli was always whining on his way in or out," Simon replied dryly.

"So a major robbery could be convenient," Jim mused, "either to line his pockets directly, or to collect on the insurance."

"Well, insurance would pay out more if the whole Emporium went up in smoke, but I doubt that's likely to happen," Simon intoned before sipping at his coffee. "You said the security team seemed hinky?"

Scratching his cheek, Jim nodded slowly. "Might not have been anything - they claim faulty equipment, and only admitted being down in the area in question because Sandburg recognized them, but people lie for no reason, not necessarily to cover up a shooting. More likely the two of them were groping one another in a supply closet somewhere."

"What about the victim? Anyone who could have had a grudge?" Banks asked.

"According to Sandburg, the guy should be up for sainthood, but it's worth checking," Ellison grunted, standing.

Looking up at him, Simon asked quietly, "You think the kid is in any real danger?"

Jim paused as he looked out into the darkness of early evening. "I don't know," he finally replied hollowly. "I don't like him being in the middle of things - or the fact that the shooter might have seen him talking to the victim and apparently taking notes. But he's a smart kid. He won't take stupid chances."

Banks looked skeptical about that sentiment, but let it go. Instead, he looked at his watch and stood. "Well, you take a look at the victim, find out whether there might be suspects other than those at the mall. Meanwhile, I think I'll go do some last minute shopping. I hear they've got some great sales on at The Emporium."

Jim gave Simon a steady look as he nodded slowly and said simply, "Thanks."

Waving Jim out of his office, Banks grimaced and shook his head wryly at how transparent he apparently was becoming. But the kid was important to Ellison, helped the detective in ways Simon didn't begin to understand. And, more to the point, ever since the near disaster with Lash, Banks had felt a measure of protectiveness toward the young grad student. Sandburg was annoying at times, too outspoken and irreverent, but he was also game; the kid was no cop, but he was no coward, either. Nor was he a fool, so if he thought there was a good deal more to this situation, it was worth looking into; besides for the foreseeable future, he was a member of Simon's team. That meant he didn't dance on the highwire without some kind of safety net, even if it was a stretch to turn an assault, a potential mugging gone bad, into a Major Crimes case. Ah, well, he thought as he pulled on his coat, it was Christmas and he could consider this his good deed for the year.

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

Ellison started at the seniors' condo where Murdock had lived for the past ten years. The neighbours were all uniformly shocked to hear the bad news; they seemed to share Sandburg's views of the victim's character. Sam was a good man, decent. He helped out at the nearby homeless shelter and the John Howard Society's halfway house downtown. Friendly, warm, enthusiastic, full of life. Jim nodded as he took notes and began to understand why Blair had been so upset by the shooting. Sam Murdock was a man the world would miss if he didn't survive his injuries. A quick check through the small, one bedroom apartment didn't reveal anything unusual, except for the carefully-wrapped small gifts in a sack in the bedroom, with labels indicating they were destined for the homeless shelter on Christmas morning. Murdock lived simply, surrounded by walls of bookcases and a few good pieces of art. Jim noted the pair of ceremonial masks in the entrance way and the preponderance of anthropology books on the shelves, and he wondered about how well and how long Sandburg had known Sam. More and more, it looked like the kid had suffered a significant shock that day, one made no easier by holding his friend's possibly dying body in his arms.

From the condo, he headed to Howard House to get a roster of the residents over the past four months. After being introduced to everyone present, he chatted up those who were hanging around the common room. One hard case resented having his attention diverted from the tube, but when Jim stood directly in his line of sight, blocking the television, he gave surly attention to the questions.

"Don't have a clue who'd knock off the old man," the hulk grunted, making a show of scratching his unshaven cheek as if he was giving serious thought to the matter. "He just came in to play cards, you know? Sometimes dropped off used clothing or food supplies. A do-gooder, but harmless."

"Well, somebody didn't think so," Ellison pushed. "You sure nobody here had a run-in with him?"

The tough guy looked across the lounge at one of the other roomers. Wanting only to deflect Ellison's attention, careless of the fact a good man had been shot in cold blood, he called, "Hey, Eli - you work at the mall, doncha? Ever see anybody give old man Murdock any grief?"

Jim swung around to gaze intently at the middle aged, scrawny fellow who looked like he'd faint at the sight of his own shadow. "Is that right?" he clarified for the record, "you work at The Emporium? Doing what?"

"'m a janitor," Eli Pine replied nervously, rubbing one arm, his gaze darting around like a startled sparrow. "Mr. Murdock, he's the one who suggested I apply for the job. Said it were humble, but work that needed doing and that a man could take pride in doing it well. I used ta see him when he'd come in, all geared up as Santa Claus, an' he allas had a smile or wave fer me. Never saw no trouble. Don't know why anybody'd want to kill him."

"What were you doing time for?" Ellison asked.

"Don't see what diff'rence that makes," Eli hedged, sinking back against his chair as if he wished he could disappear into it.

"Humour me," Jim snapped.

"I used ta blow bank vaults and other stuff," the ex-offender mumbled, his head bowed. Swallowing hard, he looked up at Ellison, but couldn't maintain eye contact. His gaze flickering away, he said more loudly, "I learned my lesson, man. 'm straight now."

Jim's gaze narrowed as he studied the anxious man. "See that you stay out of trouble," he growled before turning to go.

Once back at his desk, Ellison ran quick checks on Ruscelli and Mercury Security. Blowing out a low whistle when he looked at the credit report, he figured being 'flat broke' must be relative - if he had a cool two million to his name, he'd consider himself a rich man. But Ruscelli had a history of being a high roller, frequenting gambling casinos in Vegas, and a million could disappear like smoke in the wind in places like that. The man had been married five times, none of the wives hanging around for long. As for the security agency, it was new in Cascade, having won the bid for The Emporium's contract only six months before. But they had operated out of New York City for the previous ten years, albeit under a different name. He wrote up the paperwork to get warrants to access the personnel records at The Emporium, and to search Eli Pine's locker. With luck, they'd be approved by morning.

Glancing up at the clock and noting the time, Jim shut down his computer and pulled on his jacket. It was almost nine PM and he wanted to be home by the time Sandburg got in for the night. On the way to the loft, he found himself thinking about the grad student's slam about 'not everyone aspiring to be a Grinch or Scrooge'. Was that how he appeared? Thinking about the lack of any Christmas décor in the loft, or any discussion between them about the holiday, Ellison grimaced unhappily. It was just that he wasn't used to making any big deal about Christmas, or any preparations to celebrate it - somehow, such preparations only made his loneliness more acute and the loft more hollow and empty when Christmas arrived and he was alone.

But he wasn't alone this year. He just hadn't thought Christmas would mean much to Sandburg, and he hadn't wanted to make a fuss over a holiday that might even make the kid uncomfortable if Blair didn't normally celebrate it, but he hadn't checked out that assumption. Well, it wasn't too late to fix that apparently erroneous deduction based only on his limited understanding of Jewish traditions. The kid was pretty eclectic - he probably celebrated the Solstice, too. The thought of his friend cavorting with witches under the glow of a full moon made him smile.

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

Blair had time to calm down on his way back to the shopping mall. He felt badly about his temper tantrum in the office, taking out his irritation with Myers, and his anger over Sam's assault, on Jim. Knowing that he had to get himself into a better mind-frame before working with the children that evening, he steered his thoughts to more pleasant reflections. In two days time it would be Christmas Eve; this was the season to spend time with people who were important in life - the people one cared about. Though of Jewish heritage, Sandburg had always thought Christmas was special for what it represented. Gifts of unconditional love given freely with no strings attached had meaning in any culture or heritage - gifts like time and consideration, thoughtfulness, not just pretty packages carefully wrapped and tied with bright ribbon. Time spent with family and friends, mellow and fulfilling, was what the joy of this season was all about.

This was the first Christmas he'd be spending with Jim, having only moved in about five months before. It had been an amazing time since - some of it scary, all of it exciting. He'd come to consider Jim the best friend he'd ever had, and he hoped Jim thought of him as a friend, too. He knew Ellison got tired of all the tests, and often irritable and self-conscious about the notes Sandburg kept on him. But, for the most part, they seemed to work well together. And, so long as Blair remained mindful of the rules about keeping the place reasonably neat and tidy, they got along pretty well at home, too. Still, Jim wasn't the easiest guy to get to know. He was intensely private and bristled whenever Blair asked too many questions about his past. Sighing, Sandburg realized he had no idea of how Jim really felt about him, let alone how the older man wanted to celebrate Christmas - if he wanted to celebrate it at all. They hadn't even put up a tree yet.

By the time he'd suited up, with a thick wad of cotton padding around his waist and the pant legs rolled up and stuffed into the heavy, black boots, Blair was mentally ready to meet the little ones who would tell him so seriously what they wanted him to bring for Christmas. He hooked the beard over his head and pulled on the wig and floppy velvet hat. Looking at himself in the mirror in the employees' lounge, he couldn't help but grin at the image he saw. Somehow, he'd never imagined himself playing Saint Nick.

He took a deep breath and then headed up to the main floor and his sleigh. "Merry Christmas!" he called to one and all as he waved genially at the shoppers he passed on the way. "HO, HO, HO!" he exclaimed every few steps, patting his quivering belly, and grinning at the children who stared at him, wide-eyed with wonder.

Before an hour had passed, he'd lost count of how many kids had sat on his knee and felt dazzled by the flashbulbs that kept popping around him. The suit was heavy and very hot, and he was surprised at how tired he was beginning to feel, when he looked up and spotted Simon lounging against a pillar nearby, watching him. For a moment he was startled, and he looked around, half expecting to see Jim hovering somewhere close, too. As he patted one little boy on the back and sent him on his way, and waited to help the next tiny girl clamber up on his knee, he wondered if he should be annoyed that Banks felt it necessary to watch over him, or touched that Simon was concerned enough to have come to the mall to make sure he was okay. Deciding to go with the latter assessment, he smiled at the MCU Captain, but otherwise gave no reaction to the senior officer's presence. Turning his attention to the nervous tot on his knee, Santa asked gently, "What's your name, sweetie? And have you been a good little girl this year?"

An hour later, Simon shadowed Blair through the mall and then caught up to him once they neared the employees' lounge.

"Hey, Simon," Sandburg teased as he waited for the older man to join him in the brightly lit underground corridor. "You my babysitter tonight?"

"Just think of me as one of your elves, Santa," Banks replied stoically, his gaze taking in the hectic activity in the hallway around them. Giving Blair an arch look, he added dryly, "Just don't get used to the special treatment."

Snickering, Sandburg led the way into the locker room, while the big man checked out the lavatories to ensure no would-be assailants were lying in wait. "Seriously, Simon," Blair went on as he drew his own clothing from the locker, "I appreciate the concern, but I don't really think it's necessary."

"You just let us be the judge of that, okay?" the Captain rumbled, not sure it was necessary, either, but his stern expression softened into concern. "I'm sorry about your friend, Blair, and we all hope he'll pull through. In the meantime, Jim trusts your take on Murdock and his judgment, so I've pulled the case from Homicide and we'll check into what's going down."

"Really?" Sandburg gaped, astonished - and feeling even more like a heel for the way he'd mouthed off at Ellison earlier. "Uh, thanks. I'm really grateful that you're taking the shooting seriously."

"We take every shooting seriously, Sandburg," Banks sniffed haughtily; it wouldn't do to let the kid know how much he was personally beginning to value Blair's instincts and perspectives - would no doubt make the grad student even more cocky than he tended to be naturally. "Now, get a move on - it's late and I'd like to get home."

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

Knowing that neither of them had had time for dinner that night, Ellison stopped on the way home to pick up some Chinese takeout. He'd just finished setting it out when Sandburg came in. After letting his backpack slide to the floor and hanging up his jacket, Blair stuck his hands in his pockets and ambled somewhat shamefaced toward the table.

"I'm sorry for the way I sounded off earlier," he said, his voice low and contrite. "But I…I was just so mad about what happened to Sam and how little anyone seemed to care and I…well, I was taking it out on the wrong person."

Waving at a chair, Jim shrugged in easy acceptance of the apology as he replied, "Take a load off and dig in." Sitting down himself, he went on, "You made some good points earlier and you were right. It's just that, well, I guess you don't know how busy it gets this time of year. People look for shortcuts or try to prioritize cases. And we don't 'care', not in the way you mean, not as in suffering a personal loss or wound - but that doesn't mean we won't do our best to solve crimes and lock up the bad guys."

His lip twisting with wry understanding, Blair dished up some of the succulent food before replying. "I know I'm not a cop, Jim - and I haven't been around police work for long - but it's not like I don't understand pressure or bureaucracies or how people in closed communities function," he said wearily. "I'd bet that I have as much or more experience observing people and sifting through facts to figure out situations than half the cops in the department. But most of the time, you treat me like I'm some naïve idiot who doesn't have a clue. Not just you, everyone downtown - I'm not a cop so my views are by definition flawed - and Myers just pushed all those buttons today. But I do know I was out of line, and I really appreciate you getting Simon to take on the case in MCU."

"We're all sorry about your friend, Chief," Jim said sincerely. "I checked with the hospital when I got home. He made it out of surgery, and that's good news. But, uh, they're still not sure he'll ever wake up."

Blair pushed his fingers through his hair and sat back, not really hungry. "He's just such a fine man, you know? It kills me to know somebody hurt him like that."

"Yeah, well, everyone I talked to tonight, from his neighbours to the people at the halfway house seem to agree with you," Jim allowed. "We'll find out who did this."

"You think?" Blair asked woefully, his eyes dark with sadness as he wished catching whomever had done it would somehow help Sam's recovery, but knowing it wouldn't.

"I know," Jim replied staunchly, hoping he was right; there wasn't a lot to go on. But he'd felt the need to say something that would chase some of the misery from the younger man's eyes.

Sandburg smiled then, some of the tension easing from his shoulders. "Thanks, man," he said softly. "Means a lot that you took on this case."

"Yeah, well, we seem to have run short of psychotic killers, mad bombers, international jewel thieves, rogue CIA agents and assassins this Christmas," Jim replied dryly. Pointing a fork at the food, he directed, "You better eat something - can't have Santa fainting from hypoglycemia; wouldn't fit the image."

Chuffing a tired laugh, Blair again picked up his fork. They ate for a while in silence before Ellison resumed their conversation. Trying to keep it light, he asked whimsically, "So, Santa, how did you want to celebrate Christmas here at the North Pole?"

Surprised, Blair looked up to see if Jim was joking. But despite the humorous tone, he could see that his friend was seriously awaiting an answer. Looking away, Sandburg floundered a bit as he said, "I, uh, shouldn't have made that crack about Grinch and Scrooge today. This is your home, Jim, and you have every right to enjoy a quiet, uncomplicated break over the holidays without having to worry about fancy dinners or decorations or…or gifts. Don't feel you have to do anything different just 'cause I'm here."

"Well, Junior, it's your home, too," Ellison replied, stating the fact for the first time aloud, and feeling a curl of warmth to know it was true. Blair wasn't just crashing there temporarily anymore; he lived in the loft and would for the foreseeable future. Setting down his fork, he rested his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together loosely. "Look, I admit I assumed that you wouldn't want to celebrate Christmas, and I also admit I don't do much about the holiday when I'm on my own. But I don't have anything against Christmas, Chief. So, uh, if you want to do the dinner thing, invite Simon or some of your friends from Rainier, I'm happy to do that. If you want to put up a tree, I have one in the basement. We can get it out tonight, or whenever we have time in the next couple of days. As for gifts…well, what do you usually do? What does Christmas mean to you?"

Surprised and touched to have Jim acknowledge the loft as his home, too, and very aware that he and Jim had never spent a lot of time talking about their personal belief systems, Blair wanted to honour the opportunity and interest with a thoughtful response. Accordingly, seeing that they had both eaten as much as they were going to, Blair got up to get them both beers and took his time answering as he cleared the table and put away the leftovers. "I don't think anyone can grow up in North America without being exposed to Christmas and, whether kids are from Christian homes or not, Santa Claus and Christmas trees are things that every kid is interested in. So, growing up Jewish didn't mean that I wasn't curious about Christmas or, frankly, hopeful that Santa wouldn't forget about me," he began slowly. But his mind flinched away from those memories and his secret, deeply buried childhood wish, for it had felt then and still felt a kind of betrayal of his mother. To acknowledge the hope, the wish he carried like a stone in his soul, so that sometimes it was raw and ached, would be to deny the joy of endless freedom she had tried to instill in him - freedom she treasured as the foundation of her life and being.

Consciously shifting from his childhood remembrances to more academic perspectives, Blair continued as he looked up at his friend, "And, some of the hoopla is actually derived from earlier, pagan ceremonies. Nobody really knows when Jesus was born, so the Winter Solstice was chosen as the time of celebration because it connotes new beginnings, a return to spring and new life. And, well, the gift giving could even be traced back to the worship of Aphrodite and making offerings to honour her as the embodiment of the concept of love, all love, not just erotic love, though we tend to forget that she was about more than romance." He paused, the mention of Greek mythology tugging at his mind as if there was something that he was missing, but he didn't know what, so he let it go to focus again on their discussion.

"That's all very interesting, Chief, but you haven't answered my questions," Jim intervened. "How do you like to celebrate this holiday?"

"Well, you were right today when you said I'm not into conspicuous consumption or the commercialization of Christmas," Blair admitted as he sat back down at the table. "When I was growing up, Naomi, my Mom, tried to teach me that, regardless of cultural or spiritual heritage, Christmas was a time to celebrate the love in our lives and that it was important to spend the time, if we could, with people who were important to us. She taught me to respect other people's beliefs and traditions and even if we didn't celebrate Christmas ourselves, in the sense of it being the birth of Christ, it was the birth of a man who had preached love and who was a great historical figure if not, perhaps, the Son of God. So, it's not the decorating of the tree that means so much to me - it's the spending time doing something fun with friends and family. I don't care if we put up a tree, Jim, but I would like to spend this time with you, as my friend. Working together on this case to find out why Sam was so badly hurt means a huge amount to me - knowing that we're doing that together because you believe in my judgment and instincts that something really significant is wrong at that mall means even more. And, well, I think I'd like to invite Simon over for dinner that day 'cause nobody should be alone at Christmas, but, honestly, with what's happened to Sam, I don't feel much like forcing happy times, you know? What would I most like for Christmas? I'd like to get Sam back - I'd like to know he'll be okay. But I don't think that's going to happen, is it?"

Sighing, Jim shook his head and took a swallow of beer before he replied, "I don't know, Chief. But, you're right. It doesn't look good. He's old and the bullet did a lot of damage."

Blair nodded dejectedly. "Maybe we could do something that would, I don't know, be respectful of Sam on Christmas." Casting an almost shy look at Ellison and then glancing away again, he shared softly, "I know you don't know him, but Sam was kinda like the grandfather I never had; he means a lot to me and I'll miss him if he dies. Miss him a lot. He, uh, always used to go down to the homeless shelter to help prepare their noonday meal - he'd dress up as Santa Claus one last time every year to hand out gifts to the folks there - and the last few years, I used to go with him…"

Remembering the sack of gifts he'd seen in the apartment earlier that evening, Ellison offered quietly, "We could do that for him. You've got the costume and I know where he's got the gifts stashed - I saw them at his place when I checked it out tonight."

His throat suddenly tight, deeply moved by Jim's consideration and willingness to honour a man he didn't know, just to do something Blair would like on Christmas, for a moment Sandburg could only gaze at his friend, gratitude shining in his eyes. But he swallowed hard and nodded, "I'd like that, Jim, a lot. Thanks, man."

"S'okay," Ellison replied with a small smile, feeling the earlier kernel of warmth spread and grow in his chest. It had been a long time since he'd felt that Christmas would be a day he'd enjoy and remember fondly. His gaze dropped away as he reflected that a lot of things in his life had changed in the last few months; it was a good feeling not to be as alone as he'd been. But emotion and sentiment weren't his strong suit. He was better at action and getting things done, fixing what was broken. For now, all he could do was try to ease some of the pain Sandburg was feeling over the fact that his good friend was probably going to die. "Look, it's getting late and we've got a busy day tomorrow. I want to review the personnel records of people who work in The Emporium, and there are one heck of a lot of them. And I want to look at one, maybe more, of the employee lockers. I met a guy tonight at the halfway house who works there as a janitor, but he did time for blowing vaults and robbery."

As if mention of the hour reminded him of how tired he was, Sandburg stifled a yawn as he stood. "I'll go into the station with you, but I've got to be at the mall from eleven until noon, three-thirty until five and from seven until eight-thirty in the evening."

Ellison's jaw tightened at the reminder that Sandburg would continue to play a role that might well be hazardous to his health. Catching it, Blair grinned as he said, "It was pretty neat to see Simon there tonight, looking out for me. He didn't have to do that."

"I know," Jim murmured, standing to rinse the empty bottles and put them away under the sink. "I don't like you playing Santa Claus, Sandburg. You know that."

"Yeah, but I've made the commitment, big guy; too late to renege now," Blair sighed as he ambled backwards toward his room. "I'll be careful."

"I doubt Sam was careless," Ellison shot back. When Sandburg's face fell, he softened his tone as he added, "We'll figure out a way to keep you covered, Chief. Nobody goes undercover without backup."

Blair looked up, a grin twitching on his lips at the grudging approbation of the role he'd assumed at the mall. "Undercover?" he echoed, the grin widening. "Do I get a shield, too?"

"Don't push it, short eyes," Jim growled playfully, riffling Sandburg's hair as he passed on his way to the stairs and his room in the loft above. But, as he got ready for bed, he couldn't help wondering why Blair had kept hoping Santa would remember him, rather than wishing, like most kids did, for something special that Santa might bring him. An ache tightened in his chest when he deduced that it was probably because the kid hadn't received gifts on Christmas morn, and that thought left him feeling very sad. Wistfully, he hoped that Sandburg would get his fondest wish this year, but was deeply afraid that, once again, the kid's hopes would be in vain.

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

Getting a very early start on the day, Blair rode in with Jim the next morning, and they stopped at the hospital on the way to check on Murdock's condition. The elderly man had made it through the surgery and, to the surprise of the medical staff, had also lived through the night. But he was deeply unconscious and still not expected to recover. The bullet had torn through his lung and he'd suffered massive bleeding - a serious wound for anyone but deadly for someone who'd passed his seventy-fifth year. They found him on a narrow bed in the Intensive Care Unit, his visage pale and haggard under the oxygen mask, and connected by wires to various machines that monitored the flickering, fragile life force that remained in his sorely weakened body.

Sandburg stood by the bed for the few minutes allotted, holding Sam's hand and stroking the old man's brow. "I want you to get better, you hear me?" he murmured, his throat tight and his low voice hoarse. "I'm not ready to let you go yet. Selfish, I guess, when I know that you'll feel a lot of pain if you wake up. But…but I love you, Sam. Lots of people love you, man. We'd really miss you if you were gone."

Jim, standing a short distance away, heard the soft words and bowed his head. His jaw tightened and he was surprised by the burn in his eyes. He didn't know what it was about the kid, because Sandburg was certainly an independent cuss and resilient - he rarely complained about much and he seemed happy most of the time - but there was something vulnerable about the younger man that tugged at Ellison's heart. More and more over the past six months, especially after the nightmare with Lash, he'd found himself feeling increasingly protective of Blair, and knowing that his friend was hurting now, left him hurting, too.

When it was time to leave, they walked out together, wordlessly, and spent the remaining drive to the PD in silence, Blair staring sightlessly out the side window and Jim ruminating about the case. Upstairs in MCU, they found the mountain of paper that had been transmitted from The Emporium, reporting the background information and basic security checks on all the employees in the mall. The amount of ground to be covered was staggering and, after they'd gotten mugs of coffee from the break room, they divided up the stacks and began to swiftly review the files, looking for anything that might give them some idea of what was going down - assuming that what Sam had been worrying about was centred on the mall and not some other part of his life.

When Henri Brown came in, he offered to help with the case and walked off with an impressive stack of files to help in the preliminary review. After an hour, he observed, "There're quite a few employees, mostly janitorial, but some in the food court and a couple in stores, who have records."

"Yeah, I noticed that, too," Jim replied, rubbing the back of his neck. "A bit odd when the Security Chief expressly told us that they'd weeded out any staff who might cause problems. Give me the names and I'll add them to the warrant I've requested to examine employee lockers."

"Just because they did time doesn't mean they're planning trouble now," Sandburg murmured, uncomfortable with prejudging people who had paid their dues.

"We know that, Chief," Ellison replied patiently. "But, unfortunately, the stats on recidivism prove that we can't overlook the possibility that one or more of them are likely to commit more crimes."

"I guess," Blair concurred with a sigh as he turned back to the files he was working on. A little while later, he murmured, "It's an unusual name."

"Huh?" Jim grunted, looking up.

"Vee Rafferty," Sandburg replied, frowning in thought. "Venus, Goddess of Love." Looking up at Ellison, he muttered with an abstracted air, as if he was trying to remember something, "Owner of Mercury Security, which is also an odd name, when you think about it."

Jim shrugged and went back to his own work. Given some of the names he'd seen over the years, 'Venus' didn't seem all that strange, and if they wanted to name their firm after a car, who cared?

When it came time for Sandburg to go to the mall for his morning stint in the sleigh, Ellison stood to drive him across town.

"I can take the bus," Blair protested.

"Nah, I need to head over there anyway, Chief - the warrant to search the lockers finally came in a few minutes ago," Jim countered, as he pulled on his coat. Blair gave him a skeptical look, suspecting that the warrant might have come earlier in the day and Jim had simply delayed so that he could be there when Sandburg suited up, but he didn't say anything. Ellison called the Security office at The Emporium just before they headed out, to request that someone meet them with the master keys to open the lockers assigned to the employees on his list.

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

They'd only just entered the lounge when Ellison knew something was radically different from the last time he'd been in the cavernous locker room. All the scents he'd first picked up were still thick in the air, but another distinctive odor was now present - C4. His eyes narrowed and he stiffened before moving unerringly to the locker containing the explosive. Blair watched him, knowing from his demeanor that Ellison had picked up on something, but having no clue as to what.

"Whose locker is this?" the detective demanded of Vee Rafferty, who had met them in the hall outside.

Consulting the list on a clipboard in her hand, she replied, "Eli Pine."

Jim's brow arched speculatively and he exchanged a quick glance with Sandburg. "Open it," he told her and stepped back to give her room.

The C4 was wrapped in a sweat-stained shirt. Not much, but enough to blow even the stoutest vault. Ellison's face was inscrutable as he looked at it and searched the rest of the locker, finding detonators stuck inside one of a pair of battered running shoes. "Open the lockers of the others on the list of names I faxed to you," he directed flatly. Turning to Sandburg, who was gaping at the explosives, he said, "You may as well get changed. It'll take us a few minutes to search all of them. Then I'll walk upstairs with you."

"Was he the guy you said - " Sandburg began, but Ellison cut him off.

"Yeah," was all the older man replied, his expression flat.

Blair studied his friend, knowing something wasn't sitting right with Ellison but not sure what Jim was thinking. With a glance at Rafferty, he nodded and took his gear into the men's room to change. When he came out ten minutes later, all the designated lockers had been opened and an array of interesting things found, including lockpicks and a Saturday Night Special, the serial number filed off. They were opening one further locker - Sam's - when he joined them. Vee pulled some folded papers from the top shelf and opened them, to find detailed plans of the underground corridor links to the vault.

Blair squinted at them and then looked up at Jim, shaking his head. Missing the byplay between them, the Security Chief told them sharply, "We knew the men on your list had records, but they had all been strongly and very positively recommended by Sam Murdock. He argued that we had to give ex-offenders a chance if we hoped to have them become contributing citizens." Twisting her lip as she looked at the maps in her hand and then around at what else they had discovered, she grated, "Looks like he was setting up a major heist - and his shooting was most likely a falling out of thieves."

"Maybe," Jim allowed mildly as he opened an evidence bag and had her place the documents inside.

"Sam isn't a thief!" Blair exclaimed irately in defence of his old friend, furious at the outrageous allegation and the way Ellison seemed to accept it.

"You're a friend of his - maybe you're in on it, too," she charged, eying Sandburg as if he were a bug she'd like to mash under her boot.

"What? Who do you think - " Blair spat back, livid, but Jim moved between them, murmuring, "Enough." He pinned Vee Rafferty with a hard look, though he kept his voice low and even as he stated, "Sandburg's my partner, not a crook." She returned his stare belligerently, but then nodded once and looked away.

Otherwise appearing to ignore Sandburg's spirited defence of his old friend, and Rafferty's groundless allegation, Ellison looked up as a uniformed cop entered the lounge, followed by his partner, having been called by the detective when Jim had found the C4. Waving to the evidence they'd found, Jim directed, "Pack this stuff up and take it downtown." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a list of names and addresses of the men who used the lockers in which incriminating goods had been found. "Have these guys picked up for questioning. I'll be back in the office in about half an hour to begin the interrogations."

"Jim," Blair began again, frustrated at being ignored. "I'm telling you, Sam - "

"Aren't you supposed to be heading upstairs, Chief?" Ellison cut in, taking his friend by the arm and steering him to the door. "C'mon, I'll walk up with you."

Sandburg clamped his mouth shut though it was hard to bite back his protests. He cut a cold look back at Rafferty as they left, his suspicions of her clear in his hostile gaze.

"Calm down, Sandburg," Ellison muttered tightly, his voice firm as they strode along the busy corridor, his gaze casually taking in the security cameras that seemed to follow them.

"Calm down?" the younger man protested, but one look up into his partner's face and he swallowed whatever he'd been about to say. He blinked once and then nodded, but he relaxed marginally. "You don't believe her, do you - or the evidence?" he whispered so softly none but Jim could hear, and cast a sideways look to get Ellison's reaction.

The Sentinel probed his cheek with his tongue and quirked a skeptical brow before shaking his head. They took the stairs to the next level and walked out into the chaotic mall. Leaning down, Jim said quietly, "I find it all a little too convenient, Chief. And the man I spoke to last night, Eli? He was nervous but not stupid. He's had lots of time to get that C4 out of his locker - my bet is he hasn't got a clue it was there."

Blair blew out a relieved breath and nodded. "I guess I'd better get to the sleigh - my public awaits. So, you're going back downtown?"

"Yeah," Jim agreed, but gripped Sandburg's arm before the younger man could walk away. "Listen up - you've got to hide your suspicions of these people, Chief. We know somebody is prepared to kill if they feel threatened."

"Yeah, I know," Blair agreed, chagrined. "I'm sorry - I just couldn't believe what she was saying about Sam and I kinda lost it, I guess."

Jim nodded and patted him on the back, squinting a little in discomfort from the racketing noise that surrounded them. Seeing the pain flash in his friend's eyes, Sandburg touched Jim's arm, holding lightly as he said, "Dial it back, Jim - and get out of here. This noise and confusion is too much."

Ellison chewed on his lip, nodding vaguely as his gaze raked the mall, and then he relaxed, ready to move on. Blair looked around and spotted Brown coming toward them, and he shook his head. Looked like his new babysitter had arrived to keep him covered.

"Hey, H," he called as the big man drew nearer.

"Santa, my man!" the plainclothes detective drawled with a lazy grin. "Nice suit - love the beard."

"See ya later, Chief," Jim said as he briefly gripped Sandburg's shoulder before loping across the mall to the wide exit doors of the high Atrium.

Blair smiled after him, quiet for a moment as he thought about how glad he was to have Jim Ellison in his corner. And then, a large shadow discreetly following behind, he strode enthusiastically to the sleigh and the children waiting in line, calling, "Merry Christmas!" to the shoppers along the way.

But behind the jovial façade, his mind was whirling. There was no proof, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling about Vee Rafferty…a very bad feeling. There was something he was missing, something niggling at the edges of his awareness but he couldn't grasp it. As he climbed up into the sleigh, he let it go and turned his mind to the children, lavishing attention upon them as he'd watched Sam do - in that moment wanting only to emulate the elderly man and carry on with the legacy of making the little ones feel special and safe. Letting them know that Santa wouldn't forget them, not a single one of them.

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

Jim watched Eli wring his trembling hands; the man was near tears with the fear that assailed him of going back to prison.

"I swear ta ya," the man quavered, without hope of being believed, "I don' know nuthin' 'bout the C4. I'm clean now - straight."

Ellison rubbed a hand over his mouth and sighed. Then he nodded. "I believe you," he said and felt pity for the wretched gratitude in the other man's eyes. Standing, he continued, "Call in sick or something, but stay away from The Emporium until after Christmas. Agreed?"

"Anythin' man, I promise ya," Eli stammered, weak with relief. As he stumbled to his feet, he held out his hand awkwardly. When Jim took it, he said, his voice cracking, "Thank you. Sam, he said that if I kept my nose clean, I'd do okay. But I weren't sure I believed him, not until now. I…I hope you have a good Christmas."

His lips thin, Jim nodded once tightly and then waved the ex-offender on his way. For a moment he stood with his head bowed in the empty interview room, thinking about what they knew and what they didn't. The setup of the ex-cons had been shoddy but not stupid. Whoever had perpetrated it didn't know about his sense of smell. Ellison knew for a fact that there hadn't been any explosive in the lounge the day before, and Eli hadn't been back to work since he'd questioned him at the halfway house the night before. He'd left Eli for last, and had already interviewed the other men on his list. Some had alibis, some didn't, but he could tell that none of them were lying when they swore up and down that they'd had nothing to do with any planned thefts and no knowledge of the suspicious tools found in their lockers. Someone, though, had known exactly who to target with the incriminating evidence - had known who had a criminal history and who had been recommended on their applications for employment by Sam Murdock. And if Jim hadn't been so sure of his sensory abilities, they could have wasted days checking into the men implicated, certain that they'd twigged to the malefactors before the robbery could take place. Police attention would have been successfully diverted from the mall and the real perpetrators of the assault on Murdock as well as whatever was planned to go down in the next day. Because, whatever it was - most likely an attempt to make off with what might amount to millions in the vault - he'd bet it was going to happen before that money was transferred by armoured car on Christmas Eve.

So, that meant whatever was going down involved someone with inside knowledge at the mall. The question was, who? The owner, who had access to the personnel records? Mercury Security? They had means and opportunity, but where was the motive? Was it all only about ripping off the money in the vault? He shook his head. Too many unknowns. Glancing up at the wall clock and seeing that it was already two in the afternoon, he realized they only had about twenty-four hours left, if his suspicions were right.

Straightening, he left the dingy room and returned to his desk. He needed to take a closer look at both Maxie Ruscelli and Mercury Security - and he was very conscious that they were running out of time. An hour later, he frowned over the information he'd just dug up. And then he picked up the file as he stood to run it by Banks.

"Simon, you got a minute?" Ellison asked after a sharp rap on his boss' door.

"Sure, what have you got?" Banks replied, waving Jim in and toward a chair across the desk.

"I've just gone through the information on Ruscelli," the detective replied dryly, opening the file he'd carried in. "Quite a history. Grew up in the 'hood in New York and his old friends are now some of the best known of America's Most Wanted - and the rest seem to be running casinos in Vegas."

"Can't hold a man responsible for who he used to know," Simon drawled, leaning back in his chair, though his relaxed posture was belied by the way he unconsciously and repeatedly squeezed a small rubber ball between his long fingers. Banks also had the sense they were running out of time, and his gut told him there was big trouble on the way.

"Maybe not," Jim agreed wryly, but added as he tossed photos onto the desk, "but he still keeps very interesting company. I don't know how we'd ever prove it, but I'd put money on the possibility that The Emporium is just one massive money laundry."

Quirking a brow, Simon sat up and looked through the snapshots that showed Ruscelli socializing with suspected gangsters and enforcers, both at private parties and in public fora, most taken in Las Vegas, but some shots showed New York venues. "Doesn't prove anything," Banks rumbled. Looking up at Jim he added, "Though where there's smoke, there's usually a fire. Where'd you get these?"

Shrugging, Ellison looked away as he gathered up the prints. "Got a contact with the Sheriff's Office. We sometimes exchange information where it might be to our mutual advantage. There's been a watch on Ruscelli for over a year, but so far, no one has come up with solid proof."

"Could be more money than we thought in that vault," Simon mused, one finger stroking his lip. "Still it's all speculation and circumstantial."

"Yeah, I know," Jim sighed, looking disgusted. "But I think it's enough to rattle his cage. I'd like to have another discussion with Maxie."

"You push too hard and we could be facing charges of harassment," Banks warned.

Standing, Jim gave Simon a sardonic look. "Now, would I do that?" he asked with wide-eyed innocence. When Banks simply narrowed his eyes meaningfully, revealing a definite lack of amusement, Ellison sobered. "Look, I know we don't have much here, but I've just got this feeling that we're running out of time and… and that whatever is in play is big."

Simon nodded solemnly, his jaw tightening. "I've got the same feeling. Bad enough they shot a harmless old man in a Santa Claus suit, but that C4 you found really makes me nervous. There was enough there to blow up Fort Knox, and if they have that much to waste, well, I don't want to think about the kind of explosion…"

His voice drifted off as his lips thinned. "Do we have anything else? Any other leads or suspects? What about that security firm? You said you thought something was off about them."

Jim nodded. "They're my other top suspects," he agreed. "But nothing much comes up on the checks I've run. They were a legitimate firm in New York City for the past almost twenty years. Vee Rafferty, born Venus Marcello, inherited the business from her husband when he died earlier this year in a single car accident. He was quite a bit older than her and the post mortem indicated he'd had a heart attack behind the wheel. She changed the name of the company from Pro-Tec Security to Mercury, and then moved the firm out here six months ago. Her second in command, Goodings, received an honourable discharge from the Army about year ago, and joined the company shortly thereafter."

Banks frowned and his gaze dropped as he thought there was something familiar-

"Marcello? From New York City?" he asked, his tone tentative.

"Yeah, another kid from the mean streets," Ellison confirmed after a quick check of the notes in the file.

"There was an enforcer years ago, rumoured to have been the top hitman in the country, named Marcello," Simon offered. "Wonder if there's any connection?"

"I'll get on it, but while I'm waiting for that info to come back out of the system, I'd really like to talk to our pal, Maxie," Jim pushed. He was tired of running paperwork and feeling as though he was hitting brick walls. He needed some action; needed to shake something loose.

Blowing a breath, Simon thought about it and then stood to reach for his coat. "You know, I could use some fresh air and I still need to pick up a few things for Christmas," he reflected, a smile playing around his lips. "You got all your Christmas shopping done?" he teased as he walked around the desk and looped an arm around Ellison's shoulders. "I know, why don't we both take a little trip down to the mall - and hey, if you're a good boy, I might let you see Santa Claus."

Jim rolled his eyes, but he was smiling almost grudgingly as he led the way out to his desk. He sent the request for more information on Rafferty and Marcello, and then donned his own coat. "Oh, by the way, Santa and I wondered if you wanted to come to the North Pole for dinner Christmas Day," he said, making light of the invitation, a little embarrassed to be offering it and not certain of Simon's acceptance. Over the years, Jim knew he'd gained a reputation for not celebrating any holidays, usually being the one to volunteer to work the day or weekend in question. But, when he'd found out a month before that Sandburg planned to spend the holiday in Cascade, he'd put in for the leave, just in case they wanted to do something with the downtime though he hadn't had any idea as to what, exactly. Now he was glad he had.

Surprised, but clearly pleased to be asked, Simon smiled. "You know, I'd like that. Daryl's going to be spending the day with his Mom." Unable to resist, he added, "So, if Sandburg is Santa, does that make you Mrs. Claus?"

Jim snorted and shook his head as he led the way toward the elevator. "Everybody's a comedian," he groused with feigned irritation. But he was still smiling, and on the way down to the parking garage, he shared their plans to volunteer at the homeless shelter Christmas morning - and Simon thought he might like to tag along then, too.

Half an hour later, Banks nodded at Brown as they made their way through the crowded Atrium to the elevator that would take them up to Ruscelli's suite of offices.

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

The sweat dribbling down from under the hot wig along the back of his neck aggravated the prickly feeling of being watched that he'd had for the past hour of his afternoon shift. Blair tried to ignore the uncomfortable sensation, telling himself that of course he felt watched - Brown was keeping a close eye on him and all the kids were staring at him. But the overriding impression was of malevolence, not concern or excitement. Though he kept most of his attention on the kids who climbed up on his knee, one after another, full of enthusiasm or anxious with their fears of a strange man, he often glanced around, trying to figure out if it was all his imagination or if there was some threat nearby. It wasn't until his session ended and it was time for a break that he was able to stand and turn around, to check out the area behind where he'd been sitting.

And he saw Lyle Goodings across the huge expanse of the Atrium, staring back at him with a malignant expression.

Blair's gaze dropped away, his mouth dry. It was one thing to tell Jim he wasn't worried and didn't feel in any danger; it was another to see another man watching him like some kind of predator, as if waiting to launch an attack. But he gave himself a shake and told himself he was being fanciful, letting his overactive imagination get away from him. There was no reason for them to come after him, if it even was Mercury Security that was behind the criminal acts of shooting Sam and planting false evidence. Given the way Rafferty had acted in the employee's lounge earlier, they were probably watching him because they really thought he might be a criminal. Nevertheless, he was grateful for Henri's solid presence behind him when he left the busy shopping concourse for the closed corridors underground. No matter how much he told himself that it was stupid to be scared, he couldn't help wondering if they were going to set him up to look like a felon, too - or if they'd simply shoot him, to make it look like some nut was out to kill Santa.

Brown was also very conscious of the presence of security officers, more than seemed usual, all along their route to the lounge. The big detective moved in a little closer to his charge and kept a wary eye out, though he kept up a light banter between them.

"So, Hairboy," he teased, giving Sandburg a nudge with his shoulder, "what's Santa going to give Jim for Christmas? Or wasn't he a good boy this past year?"

To the older man's surprise, the question seemed to stop Sandburg in his tracks. "Um, well, I hadn't really thought about it," Blair lied, having thought a good deal about it but, unsure if Jim would be uncomfortable exchanging gifts, hadn't bought anything yet.

Brown, belatedly remembering that Blair was Jewish, and thinking he'd mis-stepped, tried to recover, "Oh, well, sure. Makes sense when you think about it - I guess, being Jewish - "

"Nah, it's not that," the younger man hastened to explain. "It's just that, I don't know, I thought it might be too personal, you know?"

"Personal?" Henri blinked, then laughed. "You live in the man's apartment and you're his partner at work. Hell, Blair, you're his best friend. How much more 'personal' can it get?"

Sandburg laughed, too, feeling lighter. Brown was right. He was making it a bigger deal than necessary. Jim was his best friend and he could give a friend a gift if he wanted to; didn't mean Jim had to give him one back. That wasn't what Christmas was about anyway, giving just to get. As they neared the lounge, Blair asked, "Say, H, do you have plans for Christmas dinner? You want to come to our place?"

"Sounds like a plan, my man," Brown drawled, a wide smile lighting his face as he pushed open the door first to glance inside before letting Blair enter. "What time and what can I bring?"

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

"Come in, Captain, Detective," Ruscelli urged effusively, the very picture of cooperation and concern as he waved them toward the cluster of leather chairs. "What have you learned? Do you know yet who shot poor Sam?"

"We're making progress," Banks replied formally, as he sat down and made himself comfortable. They'd decided on the way that Simon would take the lead and Ellison would monitor the entrepreneur to determine if, or when, he lied in response to questions.

"Can I offer you a coffee?" Maxie offered urbanely, but they both declined.

Taking a breath, Banks launched into the approach he'd decided upon. "Mr. Ruscelli, we're concerned about the potential for trouble here in The Emporium tomorrow afternoon. Accordingly, we'll be augmenting your own security personnel with both uniformed and plainclothes officers."

Maxie's eyes narrowed, his air of easy charm sobering to astute and wary intelligence. "What kind of trouble are you expecting?" he asked sharply.

"Well, you've got a lot of money in your vault, not to mention the fifty thousand silver coins," Simon observed dryly. "We just want to make sure it gets to the bank safely."

"But I thought, from what my Security Chief reported, that you had determined who the would-be thieves were, and have them all in custody," Ruscelli challenged. "What more trouble could you imagine happening?"

"We're not convinced that those men are at all involved in whatever is going down at this mall," Banks replied smoothly. "Frankly, sir, it was a frame, and not a good one. No, we think something else, and someone else, is behind the shooting of your Santa Claus and is probably planning to rob you blind." Simon paused briefly, then added with a careful undertone of sarcasm, "Of course, I'm sure you have more than enough insurance to cover The Emporium, let alone the contents of the vault, but we'd hate to have you put to that inconvenience."

No fool, Maxie heard the implied accusation very clearly. He stiffened and his expression flattened as he studied Banks coldly. "If you've got something to say, Captain Banks, say it. I'm a busy man and don't have time to play games," he snapped.

Simon pursed his lips and nodded, accepting the challenge to be frank. Leaning forward in his chair, he elaborated, "You grew up with some interesting friends, Mr. Ruscelli, and you've kept up with a good number who have earned reputations as suspected or known offenders. We also know that you are more financially constrained that usual - so it's only natural in our investigation to determine what's going on at this mall that we'd begin connecting dots to figure out what kind of picture we've got going here."

Ruscelli nodded as he listened and then leveled a hard look at Banks. "Captain, I'm a self-made man - I've made and lost more fortunes than I remember. And I'll make another," he stated unequivocally, with perfect and unshakeable confidence. "It's also true that I associate with some individuals who are, shall we say, risk takers and speculators. I grew up with those guys and we're friends, pure and simple. But we do not share business interests. I decided a long time ago to do things legally, and I've held to that line. Whether you believe me or not is of little consequence to me - but if you take your suspicions out of this room, I'll sue you and the Police Department and the City." With a smile reminiscent of a wolf, he added, "It would give me a sure-fire way to begin to build another fortune, that's for damned sure."

Banks' lips twitched in a half smile and he cut a glance of unspoken inquiry at Jim: 'Is the guy lying?' Ellison rubbed his fingers over his lips and gave a small negative shake before he sent Simon a grimace of commiseration; he had no reason to doubt what Ruscelli had said was the truth as the man knew it, but that didn't get them any closer to knowing what the hell was going down.

Simon pulled on his ear and then stood, holding out his hand. "I appreciate your direct manner and candour, Mr. Ruscelli. Rest assured, we will do all we can to protect your business and people until we have the perpetrators of the shooting in custody."

"I have every confidence in you, Captain," the businessman replied wryly as he rose to shake the tall man's hand. "I want to know who shot Sam. I like that man and respect him." As they walked to the door, he mused, "From your earlier comments, I'm assuming you believe the assets in my vault are the primary target."

"We do, but it's all circumstantial so far," Simon replied soberly. Frowning, he asked, "When you were growing up in New York City, did you know a man named Luigi Marcello?"

It was but a moment's flicker of the eyes, a hesitation in the reply, but Simon didn't need Jim's senses to know he'd hit a nerve. "Yes, I did," Ruscelli replied. "But…that was many years ago and Mr. Marcello is long dead. What relevance can once knowing him have now?"

"We're not sure yet, sir," Banks replied. "But we're looking into a possible connection. If you don't mind my asking, how well did you know Mr. Marcello?"

Shrugging, Ruscelli shook his head. "Not well; he was of my parents' generation. But I went to school with his children. His son was my best friend and, well, I, uh, spent time with his twin sister, too, dated her briefly just before I left New York to attend Rainier University. It was a sad time - Marco, my friend, was killed in…well, he was shot down while attempting an armed robbery. It was that, more than anything else, that convinced me that I had to break away from it all and make my own way, on the right side of the law."

"I see," Simon murmured. Sighing, he said as they took their leave, "I'm sorry to have revived painful memories." Looking at Jim and then back at Ruscelli, he said, "We'll let you know if we think any changes in your program might be advisable tomorrow. I'm hoping nothing like that will be necessary."

Maxie nodded but didn't say whether or not he'd take their advice if such were offered.

As Banks and Ellison rode the glass elevator down to the lower floor, beneath the mall, Simon crooked a brow, wordlessly asking what Jim thought.

"He was either telling the truth or he's a raving psychopath who lies as a way of life," Jim sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Except when he was talking about the Marcello family. Something about that time made his heart trip over and his breathing caught for a beat or two."

"The memory of his best friend's death?" Simon suggested.

"Maybe."

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

Blair started nervously when the door behind him opened while he was putting the Santa suit away in the locker he'd been assigned, but he relaxed when he saw it was only Jim and Simon.

"A little jumpy, Chief?" Jim asked with a narrow look, having picked up on the suddenly accelerated heart beat and wide-eyed look before Sandburg settled down.

"Yeah, a little, I guess," Blair admitted ruefully, combing his fingers through his hair as he pushed it back behind his ears. The curls were damp and disheveled from being confined beneath the hot wig, and he looked bone tired. Jim nodded, his gaze falling away. He knew how worried his partner was about Sam, who hadn't yet regained consciousness and still hovered on the edge of death.

"Any trouble?" Simon demanded sharply, looking from Sandburg to Brown.

"No, sir," Henri replied with a shake of his head. "But those security people are sure a watchful bunch - seems like there's always one or more hanging around keeping an eye on Santa here, to make sure he doesn't run off with the sleigh, I guess."

Banks and Ellison exchanged a look before Jim said tentatively, "We still don't have anything on them, but…" He paused and scratched his cheek. Shrugging, he finally concluded with an air of dissatisfaction, "There's no motive, nothing to say they are anything more than what they purport to be."

They stood a moment in dejected silence, wondering if there was something they were missing. "Could be that the Rafferty woman has some connections with Ruscelli, but I'm damned if I can see how," Simon sighed. "We need more information. Let's head back downtown."

"Uh, I'd like to circle by the hospital, but I'll meet you there before coming back here for the evening shift," Blair interjected as he pulled on his coat and closed the locker.

On the way back upstairs, they had to push past a group of the security officers who were roaming the lower halls, perhaps on patrol. Blair kept his eyes averted, focusing on the logos on their shirts, gratefully aware of the three big men who positioned themselves around him, consciously if wordlessly protective.

However much their heads told them there was nothing really to go on, their guts told them that 'Mercury Security' was just another way to spell 'trouble'.

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

Blair sighed heavily as he stood over Sam. The elderly man looked so diminished, completely lacking in the vitality that had always crackled from his bright, curious eyes and engaging smile. Pale as a corpse, his breathing shallow and slow, he seemed to be barely clinging to life. Sandburg's eyes misted and he had to press his lips together to keep them from trembling. Blinking hard, swiping with quick fingers to keep tears from falling, swallowing hard to dislodge the lump in his throat, Blair fought the hollow ache in his chest. Sam wouldn't want anyone crying over him - he'd more likely laugh and say, 'Hey, I had one hell of a ride, kid. Don't you be worryin' none about me.'

Taking Murdock's hand, feeling bones through the papery, cool flesh, Blair cleared his throat and then murmured brokenly, his voice catching, "I, uh, I sure wish you'd wake up, man. It's hard to see you like this, you know?" Sniffing, he took a steadying breath, and then went on, "Jim found the stuff you got for the people at the shelter, so we're going to look after all that for you on Christmas Day. We'll…we'll tell everyone there that you're with them in spirit 'cause, well, they'll all know that you'd be there if you could."

His words dried up and he bowed his head, struggling with his emotions and trying to find the strength inside to say 'good-bye', but he just couldn't. He'd had to leave so many people behind throughout his life, as he and Naomi perpetually moved on; until he got to Cascade and he tentatively put down some roots and began to think of the city and, particularly, the university as his 'hometown'. Oh, he'd still moved around a lot, from the residence to various and sundry apartments and rooming houses and then to that ill-fated warehouse, and then Jim's place. The loft was the best of the lot, bar none, but no place was actually 'home', yet. They were only places to crash until he moved on again, so he'd come to think of Sam as one of few real cornerstones in the foundation of his life in Cascade. The older man had been a big part of helping him feel grounded and settled in those early, uncertain years.

"I don't know if I ever thanked you enough, Sam," he murmured, tears again glazing his eyes. "You were always so good to me, so encouraging. You, uh, you made me feel…special and wanted, when I didn't have anyone else to, well, to look up to, I guess. Sure, the professors were all pretty impressive, but they were distant, not…not friends. When I was with you, I felt as if I'd found a place to some day call home. I was accepted and could relax with you. God, Sam, I really don't want to lose you. Please don't die. Not yet."

The nurse came silently to his side and touched his arm, signaling that it was time to go. Blair nodded and then leaned down to kiss Sam's brow. "I love you, man," he whispered. Straightening, he gripped Sam's shoulder for a moment, wondering if it might be the last time he'd seen his old friend alive, and then slowly left to go downtown.

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

When Blair arrived on the sixth floor, he found Jim and Henri in Simon's office. Knocking on the door before opening it, he asked, "What's up?"

"Goodings' Army background just arrived," Jim replied, and Brown added, "And we may have a link between Rafferty and Luigi Marcello."

Blowing a silent whistle, Sandburg slid into a chair beside Jim, across the conference table from Banks and Brown.

Simon sniffed as he fingered the documents in front of him. "Goodings specialized in pyrotechnics and explosives," he summarized, to bring Blair up to date, "and Rafferty seems to be Marcello's granddaughter." Grimacing, he pushed the papers away, as he rumbled, "But none of that proves anything. There's nothing here that we could take to the DA. Hell, we're still only speculating. Mercury Security has a history as a solid firm - there's nothing to suggest any of them would be involved in attempted murder or robbery. And Venus Rafferty didn't exactly choose to be born into a notorious hitman's family. It's all circumstantial."

"But there's something not right with them," Brown observed, shaking his head. "We can all feel it."

"Mercury Security would have the means to plant that false trail of 'evidence' in the employee lockers," Ellison added, rubbing his chin. "And Vee Rafferty was in the vicinity with Lyle Goodings when Murdock was shot. There's means and opportunity."

Sandburg had been staring at the table, muttering almost silently to himself, "Mercury Security. Venus…" Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and looked up at the others. "That's it."

"What's it?" Simon rumbled, frowning impatiently. "If you know something, spit it out."

"Well," Blair temporized, "this may seem farfetched, but there's a connection, and maybe a motive. Just, uh, bear with me, okay?"

"Get on with it," Banks snapped, tired and irritable - and badly needing a straw to grasp to make sense of what they had.

Nodding, his hands lifting unconsciously as they did when he was excited, Blair replied, "Venus is the Roman version of the Greek Goddess, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. Mercury is the Roman version of Hermes, the Messenger God - which always seemed odd to me. I mean, why would a security firm use the messenger god as their logo?" Banks rolled his eyes at the esoteric information and threw an aggravated look at Ellison.

"Could you cut to the chase, Chief?" Jim demanded dryly.

"Oh, yeah, sure," Sandburg nodded. "Get this. Hermes was also the God of Thieves. She must know that - she's thumbing her nose at us. They didn't get that contract six months ago to protect The Emporium - they won it to rip it off."

"Uh, I don't know," Simon demurred, shaking his head. "That's pretty thin."

"Okay, well, how about this?" Jim cut in, his expression abstracted as he theorized from what they knew and what they could surmise. "Ruscelli said he knew Marcello's daughter - dated her. The information that came in this afternoon showed that Venus was illegitimate. Maybe…maybe Ruscelli is Rafferty's father?"

Blair's eyes widened as he turned to Jim. "Didn't she say something about being named Venus 'cause her mother told her she was the embodiment of love? And didn't she sound bitter about that? Seemed strange at the time."

Ellison nodded and shifted his gaze to Banks. "What if part of the motive is to punish Ruscelli for abandoning her and her mother years ago? From her background, after Luigi fell out with the don and 'died' - "

"More likely, was murdered," Simon interjected sardonically.

"…the family was pretty poor," Jim concluded with a nod. "Maxie has a habit of loving and leaving them. Rafferty's mother might have been the first in a lifelong line of failed relationships."

"Rafferty and Goodings are pretty tight," Blair murmured thoughtfully, adding with a tone of sarcastic speculation, "Tell me again how her husband died."

They all turned to look at him, suspicion dawning in their eyes that maybe her much older husband hadn't had a heart attack after all. His death was surprisingly convenient, all things considered, if their analysis was on the mark.

"Supposition, people," Simon grumbled as he pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "We need a lot more than 'might bes' and 'could bes'. We need some proof."

"A DNA test would take too long, wouldn't it?" Blair asked, turning to Ellison.

"Yeah," Jim replied starkly. "We're going to have to catch them in the act."

Simon looked at his best detective bleakly, but finally nodded. "Let's just hope she's only after the money. If it really is revenge and she wants to ruin Ruscelli, Goodings could do a lot more damage than simply blowing a vault."

"We got enough here for a search warrant or at least a surveillance order?" Brown asked, but his tone lacked any real hope.

Simon just gave him a disgusted look and shook his head. Blair looked at Jim, who was staring out the window behind Banks, a distant, thoughtful look in his eyes. "The place is too big, Jim," Sandburg murmured so quietly that neither Simon nor Henri could heard the words. "Too much concrete and steel. Too much open space all around, given the size of the parking lots. You could never 'hear' what they're up to from outside, not without being close enough that they'd spot us."

Ellison shifted his gaze to Sandburg, wondering how the kid so often seemed to know what he was thinking. Sighing, feeling unaccountably achy and weary, he nodded, "You're right. We can't do much until tomorrow - and even then, we can't do much more than watch and be ready when they make their move."

Blair nodded and then looked up at the clock on the wall. "I've got to get back to the mall and change," he muttered. "See you at home later?"

"Yeah, Chief," Ellison agreed. "Simon and I need to figure out the strategy for tomorrow - it would take an army of uniforms to cover that place - and we're not likely to get even a quarter of the backup we might need. H, you'll stick with Sandburg, right?"

"Oh, yeah, count on it," Henri grinned good-naturedly, with a wink at Blair. "I gotta take good care of Santa, so he'll be good to me on Christmas, ain't that right?"

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

That evening, Blair did his best to set aside his personal tension - worry about Sam, wariness of the security personnel - and focus only on the children who lined up in seemingly endless droves to tell him what they most wanted for Christmas. Whimsically, he thought he could probably write a paper on the 'acculturation of children by commercial media' based on how many wanted what the television told them they should want this year versus how many boys just wanted stuff to build things with or break things with, and how many girls wanted dolls and bake sets. He listened to each one as if he or she were the only child on earth, his touch gentle and his smile warm, while his eyes sparkled with the sheer fun of the little ones' enthusiasm and excited anticipation. Despite the heaviness of his costume and its hot discomfort, and the weariness of not having slept well for the past few nights, he found his spirits and energy lifting as his shift progressed.

Though he was yawning when he and Brown made their way back to the employees' lounge for the final time that day, he figured he had enough energy left to attend to the necessary chore of grocery shopping for their Christmas Day dinner.

"Wanna come with me?" he asked Henri, as they left the lounge. "Help plan the meal?"

Shrugging, the older man thought about it and nodded. "Sure, why not?" he chuckled. "Lemme see. We'll need a turkey and fixin's for dressing. Cranberries. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Bread or rolls. Some kind of green, yellow and orange stuff, I guess, for colour. Personally, I like peas, carrots and corn. Chips and dip for the game. Beer. Whatcha got in mind for dessert?"

"Jim loves pecan pie," Sandburg offered doubtfully, thinking the whole menu sounded like a recipe for coronaries. Shivering against the cold damp air as they made their way across the parking lot, he pulled up the collar of his coat.

"If it comes with mounds of whipped cream, sounds good to me," Brown assured him with a broad smile. Blair winced and shook his head, but he grinned back. Snickering, Henri asked, "D'ya think we could get Simon and Jim to wear them pathetic paper hats that come inside the party crackers?"

Laughing at the image, Blair nudged Henri with his shoulder playfully and readily conspired mischievously, "I doubt it, man. But it's worth a try. Gotta remember to get some film for my camera."

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

"You sure you can stand a whole day at the mall?" Blair asked with a concerned frown as they cleaned up after a quick breakfast. "It's a zoo, Jim. Noisy, smelly…"

Ellison shrugged stoically as he dried his hands. "Not much choice, Chief," he replied, his voice low and a little hoarse. "I've got some Tylenol, in case I get a headache. And I can always step outside to get some air if it gets too bad."

"Just try to keep it dialed down as much as you can," Sandburg counseled, wondering about the hoarseness. Looking up at his friend as he pulled on his coat and then wrapped a thick scarf around his neck, he added, "I know you'll be on the lookout for explosives, right? But if you dial up your sense of smell too high, you'll be overwhelmed with all the other smells in the place." Frowning, he carried on as they locked up and took the stairs down to the main floor, "Maybe wait until I'm with you to do that kind of thing."

When Jim sneezed as soon as they got outside, Sandburg shook his head. "You're coming down with a cold aren't you?"

"Yeah, 'fraid so," Ellison grunted, disgusted, as he unlocked the truck. "I'm getting so stuffed up, I'll be lucky if I can smell anything today."

"Just don't take any over the counter meds," the younger man lectured, reflecting on the last time his partner had had a bad cold. "There's a health food and herb store in the mall. I'll pick up some stuff for you that might help but won't dull your senses."

"Don't worry about it, Sandburg," Jim replied repressively as he started up the engine. As he recalled, most of Blair's concoctions tasted like…well, he didn't want to remember what they tasted like. "I'll be fine."

When Sandburg failed to argue the point, but remained uncharacteristically silent as he gazed out at the dull, overcast morning that threatened snow, Ellison's expression softened. "What did the hospital say when you called this morning?"

"He had a bad night," Blair replied quietly, keeping his face averted. "They, uh, they don't know if he's strong enough to last much longer."

"I'm sorry, Chief."

"I know," Blair sighed, but he finally turned his gaze to meet Jim's. "Thanks for caring, man. It helps." Looking away again, he added very softly, "I'm glad you're my friend, Jim. It's, uh, easier, not to…to have to face losing him alone. He's just such a great guy, you know? I wish you could have known him."

"I feel like I do," Ellison reflected somberly. "From what you and everyone else has told me about him, I really hope, somehow, that he makes it. The world needs men like him."

Blair smiled at that, if sadly, and nodded in silent agreement.

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

Banks and Brown met them in the employees' locker room and, while Blair got into his Santa suit, Simon brought Henri up to date. "I briefed our backup down at the station. We've got seven patrolmen assigned to the mall today, three in uniform and the rest in plainclothes. The uniforms will maintain surveillance around the vault. The others will pose as shoppers as they patrol, keeping an eye on the security personnel, who outnumber us about three to one, by the way, and the jewelry and electronics shops - just in case there are secondary targets. Jim and I are going to go brief Ruscelli on what we think may go down and double check the schedule for the Treasure Chest draw and the transport of the cash and credit receipts to the bank. H, I want you to keep your eye on Goodings. Jim will keep track of Rafferty. Sandburg, we think you'll be okay so long as you're in the limelight, doing your Santa bit in the sleigh, but when you're not in the spotlight, you're to be with one of us at all times, understood? For the most part, that will mean backing Jim up, as usual, but if he's not around when your shifts end, you wait for Brown or me to come get you and escort you down here to change. Clear?"

"Uh huh," Blair nodded as he pulled on the wig and then his tasseled hat. When he was ready, they headed out into the mall, Banks and Ellison striding toward the elevators and Brown and Sandburg toward the sleigh in the Atrium. The place was already teeming with last minute shoppers and bargain hunters, the sound system cranking out 'Silver Bells' and the chestnuts were roasting on open fires. It was Christmas Eve and the mall was, and would continue to be, chaotic until it finally closed at five PM.

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

"Come in, gentlemen," Ruscelli welcomed them with an expansive sweep of his arm toward the seating area after his secretary had announced them. "From the expressions on your faces, I'd guess you've come with grim news." Turning to the woman still standing in the doorway, he directed, "Rosa, please bring us some coffee."

Once they were settled and the door was again closed, Ruscelli leaned back in his chair, coffee in his hand. "So, tell me, what have you learned since we last spoke?"

Simon set his porcelain mug on the low table between them and leaned forward. "Mr. Ruscelli, I have to tell you that all we really have is our best guess at what is likely to happen later today - and some of what we surmise may come as a shock to you."

Ruscelli leveled a narrow look and sat a little straighter, as if balancing to take a blow. He gestured with his hand that Banks should get on with it.

Taking a breath, Simon launched into the discussion. "Okay, well, we know that Venus Rafferty is the illegitimate granddaughter of Luigi Marcello. She was born less than a year after you left New York City to begin your freshman year at Rainier. Sir, is there any possibility that she could be your daughter?"

The older man paled as he gaped at Banks; visibly shocked and, shaken, he looked away. Eyes downcast, Maxie Ruscelli swallowed hard and then slowly nodded. "Yes," he replied, his voice hoarse with the memories. "I… after Marco died, for comfort, his sister Angelina and I…once. But," he continued, lifting his gaze back to Simon's, he asserted, "if this is true, I had no idea. I never heard from Angelina after I left home."

Banks nodded. "Okay, well, again we have nothing solid, just conjecture, but we think Rafferty and Goodings may be having an affair, and may have killed her husband about nine months ago. We've requested an exhumation and toxicology report to determine if he was drugged before his accident; and we've also asked that the vehicle he was driving be more closely examined for evidence of possible tampering, but it will take time to know if New York will even comply with our requests. We are guessing that she has known for some time, perhaps all her life, that you are her father, and we think she may resent you deeply for having left her and her mother with no means of support. She may have come here with the purpose of wreaking some kind of revenge against you."

"But - you don't even know for certain that she's my daughter!" Ruscelli protested. "None of this could be true. Perhaps we should call her up here and simply confront her with your ideas."

"We considered that, sir, believe me," Jim replied, getting into the conversation, "but we have nothing concrete enough to support a charge of attempted murder of Sam Murdock, and even less to suggest she is about to lead an assault on your vault."

"Forewarned means forearmed, Mr. Ruscelli," Banks continued, "If she knew how closely we are focusing upon her and her people, she would have several options, anything from postponing her strike against you to disappearing scot-free. However, if we can catch her in the act, then we could be certain of no future criminal action against you and we'd have enough circumstantial evidence to tie her to the shooting of Murdock. I'm betting he overheard or saw something he shouldn't have and they tried to silence him but, unless he wakes up, we may never know for sure."

"Then how do you suggest we proceed?" the businessman demanded, looking from one to the other.

Jim deferred to Simon, who sat back in his chair as he explained, "Mr. Ruscelli, this is potentially a very serious situation. Our major concern is the protection of potentially hundreds of innocent bystanders, and with our limited resources in the frenzy of the final Christmas shopping rush, that might not be easy if things get out of hand. Goodings has expertise in explosives and pyrotechnics. Our preference would be to shut down The Emporium but, even then, there is no guarantee they would not act immediately. If we play it out, watch them carefully but not signal that we suspect trouble from them, we may be able to catch them off guard. Alternatively, if we're wrong, and another group of individuals is involved, then we may avoid an attack later in the day. Either way, however, we don't have enough substantive evidence to compel you to shut down The Emporium now, before they can act. That decision would have to be yours."

Ruscelli frowned and he unconsciously chewed on his inner lip as he thought it through. "If we did that, we might only postpone her strike against me, right? She could pick another time, when there are no police here to stop her. Such a situation could even be worse, as there'd be no preparations to protect anyone in the mall. If you're correct in your assumptions, that is. And she'd possibly get away with shooting Sam Murdock - is that not also correct?"

"Yes, sir, that's correct," Simon sighed. "But, if you don't shut down the mall, a lot of other people might get caught in the crossfire before it's over."

Maxie got up to pace to the wall of glass that looked down upon the Atrium. "This is all very hard to accept," he murmured, more to himself than to them, shaking his head. He spotted Rafferty down on the floor and, close beside her, Goodings stood speaking to her. He studied her for a long moment and, now that he was looking for the signs, he could see something of Angelina in the young woman. Suddenly, she looked up toward him and then moved briskly toward the escalator. "Their family was always ruthless," he muttered as he rubbed a hand over his lips, so softly that only Jim heard him. "Tell me, how would you stop her if I don't close The Emporium?" he asked without turning to face them.

"We've got uniformed police, three of them, securing the vault itself," Simon told him. "They are already in position. We have four others in plainclothes, keeping watch on other potential targets like jewelry and electronics stores. One man is assigned to keep tabs on Goodings and Jim will monitor Rafferty's activities during the day, but we can't be too obvious or we will alert them to our surveillance. They could make their move anytime between now and the end of the day when the mall has, or is about, to close, but before you have time to move the money from the vault. Once the action begins, we'll move to stop it and apprehend her and her accomplices."

Ruscelli nodded to himself. "At four forty-five PM, I plan to conduct the draw for the Treasure Chest and announce the winner of the fifty thousand silver dollars," he told them. "Immediately after that, as in future years, the reindeer will have been yoked to the sleigh and Santa Claus will be drawn off, out the side doors and around the back, for his 'appointed rounds'. And then the mall officially closes. The armoured vehicle, to transport the monies to the bank, is scheduled to arrive at four forty-five and leave at five o'clock. The window of action is fifteen minutes - that is when she is most likely to strike, I think, when there is maximum confusion and distraction."

Sighing, he scratched his head and turned back to face them. "If we do not stop this now, she may only return to wreak havoc when we have no defences arrayed against her. And, if you're wrong, and something else, someone else, is planning trouble - or perhaps, it is all wrong and nothing will happen…"

His voice died away and he shook his head. "I think we have to proceed with the plans for the day, risks notwithstanding. By then, the mall won't be so crowded; a good many of the shoppers, if far from all, will already have left. People are heading home to prepare for their celebrations, and there's no need to be present to win the draw, as I've undertaken to deliver the chest to the winner in the morning." He looked out at Rafferty being carried up on the escalator. "She's on her way up, I suspect to protest the presence of so many police. Leave it to me to deal with her when she arrives."

Simon's head bowed briefly. He heard the tight control holding back the sorrow a parent, any parent, would feel to know their child was intending to strike out at them, as well as that of a businessman facing a potentially calamitous outcome, and he was sorry for the man. Jim grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck, deeply worried about all the things that could go wrong, and all the people who could be hurt if they failed to quickly contain her and her team.

There was a sharp rap on the door, and then Rafferty burst in ahead of the secretary. She looked flushed and her eyes flashed with anger. "Why are there police all over my mall?" she demanded. "If you have problems with the way my company is doing its job to secure The Emporium - "

But Ruscelli stood quickly to meet her, arms and hands extended in a gesture of peace and conciliation as he interrupted her tirade, "Easy, Vee," he soothed. "I have no complaint about you or your team. But, we have no idea why Sam Murdock was shot or why - only that you and the police found what looked like the tools to mount a major robbery in employee lockers. We are simply taking extra precautions - augmenting your team and your resources with those of the City." Chuckling softly, he cast a sly look at Simon as he added, "And I've already paid for their help through my taxes."

"Someone might have had the courtesy to inform me," she grated, only partially mollified.

"We were just about to call you to join us - Captain Banks has only now told me of the action he initiated to bring in extra police to guard the vault," Ruscelli assured her. "Please - there's no reason to feel any insult."

Her gaze narrowed as she looked from Ruscelli to Banks and then to Ellison. "Okay," she finally sighed, her tense stance relaxing, and then she went on reasonably, "I'm sorry - I took it as a slur against our ability to do our job, when I should have realized you are only lending a hand."

Jim stood then and said, "Exactly. So, uh, maybe you would allow me to accompany you on your rounds? I'd like a better feel for how your team is deployed."

He'd said it so tactfully, she would have seemed churlish to refuse, but the flash in her eyes signaled lingering anger. Nevertheless, she nodded curtly and they left the office together.

Once they'd gone, Simon stood, his expression somber. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ruscelli. Whether we are right or not, I know this must be difficult for you. I very much appreciate your cooperation."

When Maxie turned back to face him, he seemed more tired, older somehow. Sighing, he nodded and murmured hoarsely, "We can only see what transpires. Forgive me if I say I hope you are wrong."

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

A rough cough joined the intermittent sneezing and, by lunchtime, Jim was feeling miserable and extremely frustrated. He hadn't spotted any visual evidence of incendiary or explosive devices, but his gut told him they were there. Without his sense of smell, however, he was severely handicapped in detecting them. When he found Sandburg and Simon in the Food Court, he dropped into a plastic chair, shaking his head to forestall enquiries. Sniffing, he looked wearily at the health food store packages on the table in front of his partner and winced.

Blair gave him an appraising look, handed him a bottle of water, and held out his other hand, the fingers cupped over something in his palm. "I know you think the herbs and vitamins won't help, but they won't hurt either. I want you to take these capsules - they won't do much for you today, but you'll feel human again tomorrow."

Ellison grimaced, his lips tightening. "What is it?"

"What difference does it make?" Blair retorted. "You don't really care. Fine, okay," he continued after being glared at, "Echinacea to build your resistance back, a megadose of Vitamin C, garlic, which is a natural wide-spectrum antibiotic and a half of a Sudafed tablet to clear your congestion - I don't think you can tolerate anything like the usual dose, but that should be okay. When we get home tonight, I'm going to make you some garlic, onion and okra chicken soup and ginger tea, both of which will help combat the infection. You'll feel a lot better by tomorrow. Trust me."

"Garlic?" Jim groaned, shaking his head stubbornly.

"Trust me?" Blair repeated, but his expression and tone now indicated that he really didn't think Ellison did.

It was the expression and the uncertainty that did it. Sighing, Jim held out his hand and took the capsules and tablets. Rolling his eyes at Simon, who looked askance at him, Ellison swallowed the mixture and took a long pull from the water bottle. He pretended not to see the glow of gratitude in Sandburg's eyes, but it warmed him inside.

Wanting to change the subject, Jim gestured to other bags that were heaped around Sandburg's feet. "You been buying out the mall, or what?" he asked, and then sneezed.

"Just some stuff for tomorrow," Sandburg replied vaguely, making a sympathetic face when Jim sneezed again. "I forgot to tell you last night that H is coming for dinner, too. I'll put the turkey in the oven before we go out in the morning." Turning to Simon, he added, "I thought after we finished at the shelter, I'd go see Sam, that is if…well, and then you and H could come by later in the afternoon. Dinner will be a little late, but we can watch the game."

"Sounds like a plan," Banks replied, then turned his attention back to the situation at hand. "Jim, I take it you didn't spot anything suspicious while you were with Rafferty?"

"No," he admitted unhappily, sniffing as he rubbed a tissue under his reddening nose. "But she'd hardly lead me to anything incriminating, either. I'm going to scout around on my own this afternoon. Sandburg can stick with me until he's due back 'on stage' at three-thirty."

"Okay," Banks sighed as he gazed around at the multitude of shoppers and store personnel that crowded the area. "I called the Chief and begged for more plainclothes backup for this afternoon. He agreed to give me another five officers from four until five."

"Good," Ellison replied, slumping his chair and feeling like hell. They could use all the help they could get.

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

The afternoon dragged on and their sense of tension built. The persistent noise and confusion of the mall left Jim feeling battered, but by four PM the stuff Blair had given him was starting to work and he felt marginally better. Sandburg was back in the sleigh, doing his Santa bit, and the reindeer were harnessed as the clock ticked down. A small podium was carried out into the Atrium at four o'clock, along with a microphone and portable loudspeaker, in preparation for the Treasure Chest draw.

At four-forty, the uniformed guards arrived to transport the assets from the vault, a little early but that was all to the good. They strode through the Atrium toward the elevator, to go down to the lower level. Brown was keeping a wary eye on Goodings but spared a quick glance toward the bank guards. Frowning, he turned to take a longer look, and then made his way across the Atrium to Simon.

"Captain," he said quietly, his expression bland because he knew Goodings was watching him every bit as carefully as he was keeping surveillance on the security man. "I think I recognized one of the bank guards. I saw the guy in a Mercury Security uniform yesterday."

Banks blinked and then gave a small nod. Surreptitiously, he toggled on his portable radio to alert the officers guarding the vault that it was about to go down. Brown looked around to find Goodings and swore softly - the suspect had disappeared. "Where'd he go?" he muttered, heading back across the Atrium. Blair caught his eye and pointed to the escalators - Henri followed the gesture, saw Goodings moving up to the next level, and took off after him.

Ruscelli appeared and made his way toward the podium, Rafferty by his side and Jim close behind her. Ellison nodded toward Banks, signaling that he'd heard the alert go out. His mouth dry with anticipation, his body tensing for action, the Sentinel knew it had begun.

Blair sent the last child laughing on her way, and took the reins in one hand while he released the clamp that lowered the wheels hidden behind the sleigh's skids to the floor. Then he looked around, his expression tense and alert as he watched Simon and Jim converge and Ruscelli mount the low platform to the podium. The holiday crowd, excited to learn who had won the Treasure Chest, and accustomed to Santa's annual exit from the mall, lined up in front of the podium and shops but left a clear lane for the sleigh's departure down the middle of the Atrium and the corridor to the doors beyond.

"Merry Christmas!" Ruscelli called out jovially, his voice booming through the amplifiers. And, as if his words were the signal the assault team had been awaiting, a distant explosion boomed from somewhere on the levels above, the massive Christmas tree in the centre of the hall burst into flame and the racketing explosions of automatic gun fire drowned out the strains of 'Silent Night'. Screams erupted from the terrified shoppers and they began to surge toward every exit, trying to escape the sudden madness that surrounded them. Smaller Christmas trees also burst into flames and smoke filled the air, adding to the hysterical confusion.

Rafferty pulled her weapon from her holster, and was leveling it at Ruscelli when Jim jumped her, driving her to the ground. "Stop!" he shouted at her as she fought like a wildcat. "It's over, dammit."

"It's not over," she screamed at him. "I want to see him die and you can't stop it now. It's too late. When that sleigh blows less than two minutes from now, it'll bring down the roof!"

Ellison's eyes widened as he rolled to his feet, dragging her up with him. "Sandburg!" he shouted toward his friend, who was struggling to hold the panicked reindeer in check. "There's a bomb in the sleigh! Get away from it!"

Blair's eyes widened and he gaped, and then he took a quick look behind his seat at the mountain of artificial presents that spilled out of red velvet sacks. There was no way to know which one might contain the bomb, or if it was attached under the sleigh itself. Swallowing hard, he looked back across the floor to his friend and held Jim's frightened gaze for a single beat of his heart; and then he turned, yelling at the cops he recognized in the crowd around him. "BOMB! Clear the way!" Slapping the reins, he freed the terrified reindeer to run. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" he screamed at the top of his lungs and, with the help of the scrambling police, a narrow path cleared through the crowd and he raced through, heading toward the closest exit.

"BLAIR! NO!" Ellison cried out, but he was too far away to help - could only stand and watch. Hastily, he handcuffed Rafferty and pushed her toward Simon before loping after the fast-moving sleigh. Searing flames curled toward the ceiling, sucking in air, and black smoke billowed, obscuring his vision. More gunfire sounded, and fire alarms were now shrieking along with the frenzied people who clutched their children close and struggled toward safety. Store personnel rushed around with fire extinguishers, adding to the confusion but helping to contain the damage. Jim shoved and pushed his way through. The sleigh was gone - the reindeer had crashed straight through the plate-glass wall to the outside and Blair had hauled hard on the reins, turning them from the crowded parking lot toward the corner of The Emporium and around to the open spaces of the loading area in back.

Time lost all meaning.

It seemed forever since Sandburg had driven his team of reindeer forward, but mere seconds since they realized the danger. How much time did he have before the device blew? How long had it been already? Three of the fake bank guards burst out of the stairwell, guns blazing as they made their desperate bid to escape capture. Ellison wanted nothing so much as to race after the sleigh, but he knew his duty, and he wheeled around, dropping to a crouch, his gun already leveled in his hands, as he loudly shouted at the people between him and the criminals, "Police! Get down! GET DOWN!" Gunmen fired at him, and he took one out and then another. Banks got the third.

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

Blair hauled hard on the reins to draw his team around the corner and into the backlot, reserved for delivery trucks and vehicles and, this late on Christmas Eve, blessedly empty. Snow swirled thickly, illuminated by the sparse high light standards, and the night crowded in. He could scarcely breathe for the fear that filled his chest, and he whipped the reins as he yelled, "C'mon! Faster!" - though the frightened animals needed little encouragement. Finally, in the middle of the vacant lot, he pulled back hard to draw the reindeer to a struggling halt, and leapt out of the sleigh to wrestle with the bolt that yoked the team to the sleigh. It required two hands, so he looped the leather traces around his right arm and pulled with all his might, finally freeing the stubborn metal pin.

"Heeyah!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, again flipping the reins to make the startled animals run for their lives. He tried to keep up with them, but he skidded on the slippery slush under his boots and he fell headlong, to be dragged by the lunging animals back toward the far edge of the building. Icy, wet snow worked up his sleeves and into his collar, and splashed onto his face, so that he had to close his eyes and just hang on, hoping against hope that they'd get far enough away in time -

A massive explosion tore up the night and fiery orange flames surged into the sky as the sleigh was blown to smithereens. The rush of the blast swept out from the bomb faster than a speeding train and slammed into the runaways, smashing them forward and then slapping them into the pavement. Darkness rushed in behind the blistering heat and thunderous sound, hitting like a physical force…

There was no time for last thoughts, no moment for regrets or sorrows, just icy cold, hideous noise and blinding light, fear and pain…and darkness deeper than the night.

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

The massive explosion rocked the building and some glass shattered in the rounded dome and the dangling crystal snowflakes, showering a few sharp shards down upon the people sobbing in fear on the floor of the Atrium. Fire trucks, police and rescue vehicle sirens screamed from outside, drawing closer and closer. The immediate area was reasonably secure, so Ellison turned to race outside and around the side of the building. A cloud of thick black smoke rose over the mall from somewhere behind. He lunged along the icy sidewalk and skidded around the corner, his heart in his mouth, afraid of what he was about to find.

Reindeer, caught by the concussive blast, were sprawled on the snow-covered pavement, some just beginning to lurch to their feet unsteadily. Still linked by the harness, they couldn't stagger off, but they called piteously in mindless fear. Behind them, one arm still entangled in the reins, Sandburg lay crumpled and motionless on his back. Clearly, he'd had but a moment to release the yoke to free the animals from certain death, and they hadn't managed to get far before the bomb had blown.

Jim ran to kneel by his silent partner, and could see from the snow and slush encrusting his clothing that Blair had been dragged some distance by the team before the shock wave from the explosion had felled them all. His hearing still dulled by his cold and muffled by the explosions and gunfire, he couldn't tell if Blair was alive or not. Swiftly, scarcely daring to breathe, Ellison felt for a pulse beat in Sandburg's throat, and sagged in relief to find it. Licking his lips, he very carefully pulled away the wig and beard to feel his friend's head and neck for injuries, but there was no sign of blood in Blair's ears or nose, and no evident broken bones.

"Chief, you with me?" he called then, wanting to pull Blair up off the cold ground and into his arms, but not daring to do so lest he worsen possible internal injuries. When he got no response, he leaned closer and cupped Sandburg's smudged cheek with one hand, while he gripped Blair's shoulder with the other. "Hey, c'mon, buddy. Time to wake up," he cajoled, afraid the younger man might have suffered a head injury.

Blair grimaced and tried to turn his head. "God, Jim," he rasped, wrinkling his nose as he lifted a hand to weakly push Ellison away. "You stink of garlic!"

Barking out a laugh of relief, Jim sat back on his heels. It took him a moment to get his emotions under control and, by then, Sandburg was struggling to sit up. "Hey, slow down, Chief," he counseled, putting out a hand of light constraint that turned into a grip of support when Blair grabbed his arm to haul himself upright.

"I'm okay," Sandburg sighed, rubbing his aching head. "Can't hear so well, kinda muffled, but I don't think anything's broken." Using Jim as a bulwark, he pulled himself to his feet and stood swaying a little, Ellison's arm around his shoulders. "Oh, man," he grated with a shudder of residual fear. "That was way too close! I wasn't sure we were going to make it - the reindeer and me, I mean."

"It was stupid, is what it was," Jim growled. "Didn't you hear me when I told you to - "

"Man, if that had blown inside, who knows how many people would have been killed!" Blair cut in, protesting. "Chill out, Jim. I'm fine."

"Yeah," Ellison replied softly as he ruffled his friend's curls. "I guess you are. C'mon, let's get back to Simon and see what's needed to help out. Some people were cut by falling glass, I think." Looking worried, he added, "I sure hope nobody but the bad guys got shot."

His strong arm around Sandburg's shoulders, they headed back around to the front of The Emporium. Just before they separated to lend a hand to the paramedics helping the victims with various, mostly minor, injuries, Jim patted Blair's back and murmured barely loud enough for Sandburg to hear through his ringing ears, "You did good, kid. Real good."

Striding away, Ellison didn't see the glow of pleasure that lit Blair's pale features and brightened his eyes.

It took a while to sort out the chaos, treat the injured, identify the dead and put out the fires. But, within two hours, the animals had been corralled and all were found bruised but otherwise fine. Several people had to be taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation and cuts that required sutures, but no more serious injuries to innocent bystanders resulted. Six of the erstwhile Mercury Security guards, including Lyle Goodings, were dead, having been shot while resisting arrest. The firefighters were able to assure the Christmas Wish volunteers that the crates of donated gifts were a bit smoke-stained but otherwise intact, and both the cops and firemen who were going off-duty offered to help deliver them, to make sure all got to the right families before midnight.

And Venus Rafferty had been charged as an accessory to the attempted murder of Samuel Murdock as well as with conspiracy to commit murder and grand theft. Once she'd heard Goodings had been killed, she'd wasted no time dumping the shooting of Santa onto his doorstep. Jim was sure she was lying but, short of Sam telling them what had happened, there wasn't much he could do to prove it.

When Simon and Jim, with Sandburg back in his own clothes in tow, left the mall, they were greeted by the blinding flashes of cameras, and a forest of microphones were thrust in their faces as reporters shouted questions. Banks assumed a long-suffering, vaguely irritated expression as he waved them away, deigning to answer only one of the questions.

"How did the police know something was going to go down today? You have to admit, it was unusual to have so many cops around when it all began to blow!" Don Haas called out.

Banks lit his cigar and savoured the taste of it, before taking it in one elegant hand. With a quick glance and wink at Sandburg, he turned to Haas and said with appropriate gravity, "We got a tip from Santa Claus."

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

"Man, I'm tired," Jim groaned as he and Sandburg arrived home just before eight o'clock that evening.

"Go have a shower - the steam will help clear your bronchial tubes," Blair directed. "In the meantime, I'm going to make you some soup and tea."

Achy from the cold, Ellison didn't have the energy to argue that Sandburg's bruises needed to soak in a hot tub, so he simply nodded and headed upstairs to strip.

Later, while Jim ate the soup, Blair showered and came out of the bathroom in a sweatsuit, vigorously toweling his wet hair. "Man, that feels better," he sighed as he ambled to the kitchen and set more water to boil.

"You sure you shouldn't have gotten checked out in Emergency?" Jim queried, still not fully recovered from having believed, even if only momentarily, that Blair had been blown into little bitty bits.

"Nah, I'm really okay, just a little stiff," Sandburg assured him with a smile. "I did call the hospital, though, while you were in the shower, and Sam's still hanging in there."

"That's good news, Chief," Jim said warmly, with a smile.

"Yeah," Blair agreed as he sank into a chair and looked around the living room. "Well, it doesn't look much like Christmas in here, but dinner should be good tomorrow night."

Following his gaze, feeling vastly refreshed by his shower and the soup, Jim had to agree that the place lacked a certain something, given the season and all. "What do you think? You feel up to helping me decorate the tree?"

A slow grin broke out over Blair's visage and he nodded. "Yeah, Jim. I think I'd like that."

"Okay, Junior - make yourself a sandwich or something, and I'll go haul the stuff up from the basement."

Three hours later, the small tree was decorated, the turkey was ready for cooking, and vegetables for the dinner were cut and soaking in water for the night. Blair brewed another pot of ginger tea for Jim and compelled his friend to take more Echinacea and garlic. Finally, their work all done, they sat companionably in the living room, enjoying the lights of the tree and the warmth of their fire.

Sipping on his tea, feeling drowsy and content, Jim murmured, "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Merry Christmas, Jim," Blair replied with a soft smile. "Now, before you fall asleep in that chair, you should head up to bed. I'll lock up. And if you don't feel up to going to the shelter in the morning, don't worry about it."

Nodding, Ellison got to his feet. "'Night, Sandburg," he said, ruffling Blair's curls on the way to the stairs, and smiled at the sound of his friend's soft laughter.

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

When Jim woke the next morning, he was surprised at how much better he felt. Jogging down the stairs, he found Sandburg in the kitchen, putting on the coffee.

"Hey," Blair called. "How're you feeling?"

"Like a new man," Ellison replied with a broad smile. Ruefully, he added, "Maybe that stuff you gave me helped after all."

"Yeah, maybe," Sandburg chuckled indulgently.

They ate and dressed quickly, not wanting to be late at the shelter, and they had to pick up the sack of gifts in Sam's apartment on the way. Blair had brought a Santa suit home with him the night before. When they got to the shelter, they found that Simon and H were both already there, busily chopping up vegetables, and the rich aroma of turkey was scenting the air. After introducing themselves to the other volunteers, and explaining that Sandburg would be fulfilling Sam's usual role after everyone had eaten, they pitched in to help get the meal ready.

The indigents began to arrive just after 11:30, wrapped as warmly as they could in their thin clothing, looking wan and tired. The three cops frowned at the sight of so many children; somehow they never got used to the idea that kids were homeless, too. There was a palpable air of unhappiness amongst the people as they took their filled plates and sat down at tables to eat, understandable but nevertheless sad on a day others celebrated with good cheer.

"They know Sam won't be here this year," the Director murmured from behind Jim and Simon. "He's been such an institution, you know? The gifts he gave out each year were the only ones most of these people ever got. We can feed them, but we can't make them feel less forgotten or bereft of the simple joys most of us take for granted."

"Then I'm glad Sandburg suggested we carry on the tradition," Jim replied quietly, knowing Blair was already in the back getting changed. Simon, not privy to their plans, cocked his head in inquiry, but Ellison just smiled as he said, "You'll see."

Scant moments later, jingle bells rang out along with a hearty, "HO! HO! HO!" as Santa emerged from the supply room, the sack of gifts over his shoulder. The children looked up, eyes wide with disbelief and then grinning with delight, and the adults swallowed, pressing trembling lips together, so grateful that their little ones would experience some of the magic of Christmas.

"Merry Christmas!" Blair chimed as he bounced into the room.

"Merry Christmas, Santa!" they chorused back.

"Well, now, I heard a rumour that you thought I wasn't coming this year!" Santa scolded playfully as he reached into the sack he'd set before him on the ground. "But, no way would I be too busy to forget about you! Now, let's see, what've I got here?"

One after another, he called out names, and children and adults alike came forward to claim their gifts. There were always some, though, who were unexpected, who came with hunger and hope but who had never been at the shelter before. But, Sam had prepared for them, too, and in the bottom of the bag were unlabelled gifts, wrapped in either pink or blue patterned paper for the children and red or green for the men and women. Blair gathered enough of the right coloured gifts into his arms and made the rounds of those whose names had not been called. Dropping to his knee before one small boy with dark, tousled hair, he said, "You didn't think I'd forget you, did you? Just 'cause you tried to confuse me by coming here for the first time? Santa always knows where you are and if you're being good!" He handed the surprised and happy child a blue-wrapped truck and carried on to the little girl sitting beside the lad. In but a few more minutes, everyone in the room had presents to unwrap.

They weren't big or expensive gifts, just small things that could be carried easily, many of them handmade or recycled through craft fairs or garage sales. One old man opened a glassed picture frame that needed a photo to be complete. His eyes filling with tears, he carefully reached deep into a pocket in the depths of his layered clothing and pulled out a much treasured, wrinkled picture of his long dead wife. Reverently, he placed it into the frame, gratefully, if sadly, remembering when he'd shown Sam the photo six months before - all the adults had long ago figured out who Santa was. Girls, depending on their age, got ragdolls or recycled Barbies from craft fairs, and boys got tinker toy trucks or cars. One woman opened her gift to find a lace handkerchief, slightly perfumed and very feminine, that had once belonged to Sam's wife. Another found several balls of yarn and knitting needles. All the adults received gifts that held meaning for them - meaning that no one but themselves and Sam might ever know.

Perching on a chair to the side, Blair watched the thin man with wispy red curls beside him delicately open his present. Inside was a small pewter bell crafted to look like an angel; the homeless man rang it joyfully and a pure, high pealing lilted into the air. The stranger looked shyly at Blair. "Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets his wings," he murmured softly, seeming to be vastly pleased.

"Sam's an angel," Blair whispered to himself, not expecting to be heard.

But the stranger replied in a singsong voice, "Not yet, but one day. Yes, one day." Bobbing his head, he added, "Sam always did understand."

"Understand what?" Blair asked, with a curious, interested smile.

"The mysteries," the odd man replied guilelessly. "That miracles do happen."

Sandburg's throat tightened. "Sam could sure use a miracle," he sighed sadly, and scraped quickly at his eyes.

"The Lord said, 'Ask, and it will be given unto you'," the red-haired man chimed with a gentle smile, and then gestured to the people around them. "Weren't their prayers answered today? Did Santa not remember them?" He gazed steadily at Blair, as if honestly expecting an answer.

Sandburg shrugged self-consciously, and murmured, "Yeah, I guess, but that was mostly Sam's doing. The adults here know that."

The homeless man cocked his head, as if listening to more than the simple words and his gaze fell away briefly. Abruptly he stood and bowed to Blair. "Thank you for being Sam today, but now I must be on my way. For I have good works to do, on behalf of the Lord."

"Have a great day," Sandburg wished him kindly, and then rose to gather up his nearly empty sack - there had been more gifts wrapped than were needed, and a blue-wrapped present remained. Time was marching on and he wanted to see Sam, if only briefly, before he and Jim headed home to get ready for their company. Deciding not to take the time to change back into his own clothing, hoping the staff in Intensive Care would be more amused than annoyed when Santa Claus appeared for a visit, he rejoined Jim with his gear and, after confirming when Simon and Henri would arrive later, they left for the hospital.

When they got there half an hour later, and entered through the Emergency entrance, they heard a child crying, begging to see his Mommy. Frowning, they both turned toward the heartbroken sounds and saw a disheveled, but well-dressed little boy being held by a nurse who was trying to comfort him.

"What's going on here?" Jim asked quietly, flashing his badge.

The nurse looked up from where she was kneeling by the distraught child. Sighing, she said, "He and his mother were going to his grandmother's house for Christmas, at least that's what he says. They were involved in an accident. His mother is going to be okay, but the doctor is still stitching a gash in her forehead. The Grandmother is on her way here to pick them up."

Sandburg looked from her to the child, who was staring up at him, the tears drying forgotten on his cheeks. Smiling, Blair squatted down and lightly brushed the lingering wetness off the boy's face with gentle fingers. "Hey," he said. "Did you hear that? Your Mom's fine. So no more tears - they'd only make her feel bad. And it's Christmas, right? Not a day to be unhappy." Remembering the toy that was in the folded sack he'd absentmindedly carried into the hospital, Sandburg reached in and pulled it out. "Here - why don't you play with this until she's ready to go to your Grandma's?"

"For me?" the boy asked, awed that Santa had come to the hospital to find him and give him a present.

"Yes, just for you," Blair replied. He ruffled the boy's hair and then stood. "So you be good while you wait for your Mom, okay?"

"I promise," the child vowed and went to sit quietly in the waiting area.

"Thanks, Santa," the nurse said gratefully as she straightened. "He was really scared."

"S'okay," Sandburg shrugged. "Just lucky I had one gift left."

He and Jim turned to continue on their way to the elevators and then to Sam's cubicle in Intensive Care on the fourth floor. When they arrived, there didn't appear to be any change in the old man's condition. He looked just as pale and frail as when Blair had last seen him - the wonder was that he was still alive at all. Standing by the bed, Sandburg took Sam's hand and told him quietly about their morning, and how everyone had really appreciated and enjoyed the gifts that had been given to them. "Everyone's really sorry you were hurt so bad - and they sure hope you'll get better. We all miss you, Sam." He paused and then whispered so low that even Jim barely heard him, "All I wanted for Christmas was for you to wake up, but I guess…well, just keep hanging on, okay? Please don't die on me."

There was no response, but then he'd not really held much hope for more, and Blair was about to leave when he heard the distant peal of a tiny bell - and he froze, filled with a sudden superstitious fear, relaxing only when he saw that Sam was still breathing. He told himself he was being stupid, that it was only a patient's call bell; and then his friend's fingers twitched in his hand. Startled, he called softly, "Sam?" Getting no response, he leaned closer and called again, hope thick in his voice, "Sam?"

Translucent lids blinked and opened, blue eyes clouded with confusion cleared, and Sam smiled as he recognized who was standing over him. "Why, Santa," he teased, his voice thin and raspy, "I thought I was too old and you'd forgotten all about me!"

Tears misted in Blair's eyes as he shook his head and then bent to kiss Sam's brow. "I'll never forget you, Sam. Not in a million years."

Jim had gone for a nurse as soon as he realized Sam was regaining consciousness, and they arrived at the foot of the bed. The woman quickly checked her patient's vital signs and then asked, "How're you feeling, Mr. Murdock? Would you like something for pain?"

"'m thirsty," he told her in a hoarse whisper. "But the pain's not too bad. I'll do."

Picking up a cup of water and straw from the bedside table, she grinned at him and nodded. "Yes, I think you'll do very well. Welcome back, Mr. Murdock, and Merry Christmas."

Once he'd moistened his throat, Sam turned again to Blair. "It's Christmas? But, what happened?"

Sandburg shook his head. His old friend was still too weak and weary to hear all the details. "You were hurt a few days ago, but looks like you're going to be okay. Gave us a scare for a while, though. But, seeing you awake is the best present ever. You rest now, and tomorrow I'll be back to explain everything to you, okay?"

"Tha's fine," Sam murmured, his eyelids drooping as he began to drift back to sleep. "See y' tomorrow. Merry Christmas, son."

Jim moved up behind Blair and draped an arm around his shoulders - and when Blair turned wordlessly to hug him tightly, his head bowed and his face hidden in the folds of Jim's coat, Ellison just held him close until the shudders of boundless relief had passed.

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

The loft rang with good-natured cheers and jeers during the football game, and then the four friends sat down to enjoy Christmas dinner together, though Jim and Simon strenuously declined the privilege of wearing the silly party hats. Undeterred, Blair and Henri donned theirs and teased the older men about being stodgy and, well, old. Refusing to be called 'old', Banks and Ellison couldn't retrieve and unroll the little paper hats fast enough - and as soon as their heads were appropriately garbed, Sandburg pulled out his camera and snapped their photos while Brown laughed at their chagrined expressions at having been lured into such a humiliating trap. The hats then were crumpled up and thrown at the 'youngsters', and Simon bellowed that they should all settle down and eat before the food got cold. The turkey was pronounced a success and Henri was well satisfied with the mounds of whipped cream on his homemade pecan pie, still warm from the oven. After the meal, the four shared cleanup duties and, after a final cup of coffee, Simon and Henri enthusiastically thanked their hosts for a warm and welcoming Christmas, and then took themselves off into the snowy night.

Jim stoked up the fire while Blair made hot chocolate with marshmallows. When Ellison quirked a brow at the indulgence, Sandburg told him, "Marshmallow is good for colds. Soothes the throat and relieves coughs. You're not all better yet."

"If you say so, Chief," Jim grinned as he sipped at the rich, warm drink. Blair laughed and disappeared into his room, reappearing moments later with a wrapped box in his hands.

"I know we didn't discuss exchanging gifts, Jim, but I saw this in the mall yesterday, and it made me think of you," he said diffidently as he held out a package somewhat smaller than a hatbox.

Bemused, Ellison set his mug on the coffee table and took the gift. A moment later, he'd opened it and was holding a superbly sculpted Atlas bowed under the heavy weight of the world balanced securely on his shoulders. "It's beautiful, Chief," he murmured in appreciation. But there was confusion in his eyes when he looked up at Sandburg. "Why did it remind you of me?" he asked, mystified.

Sandburg hesitated a moment, as if unsure whether to answer. But then he replied carefully, "Well, sometimes, I think you feel like Atlas, trying to hold the world safe and secure on your shoulders." Embarrassed, he dropped his gaze as he added softly, "Atlas had to bear his burden alone but, uh, well, as long as I'm around, I'll do the best I can to help you safeguard your world."

Jim nodded wordlessly as he looked down at the statue of the Greek Titan in his hands, too moved to speak. He'd felt alone for a hell of a long time and there were days when he did feel as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. How did this kid always seem to know what he thought and felt - and what he most needed to hear? "Thanks, Chief," he finally managed to murmur. "I'll hold you to that."

And then he stood to set the figurine on the table before loping up the stairs to his bedroom and returning moments later with a long, thin, rectangular plain cardboard box in his hands. "I know all you wanted for Christmas was to get Sam back, and I'm really glad he's going to be okay, but I thought you might like this." Holding out the box, he admitted ruefully, "I, uh, didn't have time to wrap it. It's been a busy few days."

Blair laughed and shook his head as he held up his hands to wave off the last minute present, not having expected anything. "Hey, man, you didn't have to dig something out of your closet just 'cause I got you something for Christmas. It's not necessary to give something in return."

Taken aback, Jim protested, "No, really, I bought this for you a couple of months ago - though, I admit, I wasn't sure at the time that I'd give it to you for Christmas or, well, for some other reason - but I did get this for you." He thrust the light box toward Blair who finally took it with a delighted grin.

But Blair gasped when he opened it and found a collapsible titanium fishing rod. Wordlessly, he took the slim rod and elegant reel almost reverently into his hands as he listened to Jim explain, "When we went back to the warehouse after the explosion to clean out the rest of your stuff, I saw that your rod had snapped in two. You didn't say anything, but you seemed…disappointed to lose it."

Blair nodded, but when he understood how much deliberate care and thought had gone into the gift, a lump formed in his throat and he still couldn't speak.

Conscious of Sandburg's continued stillness as he just held the rod tenderly, afraid that he was babbling but needing to fill the silence, Jim continued, "Anyway, I know this great fishing hole up in the mountains. It's a secret, really; nobody else knows about it. But, uh, I thought maybe you might like to go fishing when spring comes."

Blair nodded mutely, still looking at the rod in his hands, but his eyes blurred with tears. It was almost too much. He'd scarcely recovered from Jim's earlier words, that he'd 'hold' Sandburg to his commitment to stick around and help safeguard his world - 'cause that was the moment when, for the first time, Blair understood that Jim really did want him around and maybe not just temporarily. But the gift of the rod, and the invitation to his favourite fishing hole, that was more personal still. It was an affirmation of friendship and an intention to deepen it by sharing off-time and holidays in a special place; these cherished gifts meant that he was more to Jim than simply someone who helped Ellison understand his senses.

Uncomfortable with the silence, especially from a guy who rarely stopped talking, Jim muttered uncertainly, "If you don't like it, we can always exchange it for a model you would like, or for something else you might - "

"No!" Blair blurted then, interrupting as he looked up and unconsciously revealed the wetness of his lashes, though he was smiling brilliantly. "I love it, Jim, I really do. And I'd really like to go fishing with you. It's been a long time since I've done any camping and I think we'd have a great time. Thanks, man."

Frowning, Ellison studied his friend, surprised at how moved Blair evidently was by the gift. He was glad Sandburg liked the rod, but the reaction was far more than he'd anticipated - too profound, somehow. And then his friend's words came back to him, how as a child Sandburg had hoped Santa would remember him and he'd said something similar to the people at the shelter that morning, telling them Santa wouldn't forget them.

"You thought Santa was going to forget you again this year, didn't you, Chief?" he asked kindly with sudden sorrowful insight.

Flustered, deeply embarrassed, Sandburg looked away. "Uh, no, well, yes, I mean - I'm all grown up, Jim. Have been for a while now. Haven't hoped Santa would remember me for a long time. And, I am Jewish, after all. I mean, that is…" his shoulders sagged as his voice died away. Looking shamefaced back at his best friend, he admitted wryly, "Okay, you got me. You're right - I always hope and…and I guess I thought I'd gotten used to never…but this," he went on, holding up the rod, "this blows me away. It's great, Jim. Really, really great."

Sadness lurked deep in the Sentinel's eyes as he regarded his young friend, sorry that a single present could mean so much only because this kid had had so few gifts in his life. But his lips quirked in a grin as he moved forward and looped his arm around Blair's shoulders briefly before riffling Sandburg's wild curls.

"Hey, not the hair, man," Blair snickered predictably, glad of the distraction from too heated emotion.

Jim picked up his mug of cocoa and saluted Sandburg. "Next year, Santa'll remember to wrap your present," he said sardonically. "In the meantime, you want to hear about this fishing hole?"

"Absolutely, man, I'm all ears," Sandburg grinned as he carefully laid the rod back into its box and picked up his own hot chocolate before sitting down on the corner of the couch. "Where is this secret place?" he asked curiously, eyes sparkling brightly with interest, even excitement.

"You promise not to tell anyone?" Jim insisted, feigning great seriousness.

"I promise, man - my lips are sealed."

"That'll be the day," Jim snorted playfully.

"You going to tell me or not?" Blair demanded, pretending to pout. "Or do you plan to blindfold me on the way in and out?"

"Okay, okay," Jim laughed as he sat down. "I'll tell you." He sipped at his drink, and smiled contentedly. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he murmured.

"Merry Christmas, Jim," Blair grinned back. "Now tell me where it is!"

"You ever notice how kids have no patience, Junior?" Ellison teased some more, having too much fun to stop.

"J-I-M-M-M!" Blair pealed, happily playing the game.

"Okay, okay," Jim laughed again, thinking this was the best Christmas he could remember in a long, very long time. "Well, you take Highway Seventy-nine to…"

Blair sat back, a soft smile on his face as happiness glowed from his eyes, and he drank it all in - the lingering aromas from their dinner, the twinkling lights on the tree, the fire flickering warmly in the stove, his friend describing how to find the secret fishing hole they'd now share. It was Christmas, and he felt as if maybe, just maybe, he'd been granted his long ago but deeply cherished wish, the one he'd only ever shared with Santa when he was small enough to think the old gent could make miracles happen. After endless years of aimless wandering throughout his childhood and early youth, and then the tentative nesting instincts he'd allowed to emerge in the city and his office, Blair Sandburg felt as if this - what he had here with Jim - was what he'd secretly longed for all his life. This was home.

Finis

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