Nature's Conspiracies: I

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Not mine, all theirs, blah.

Author's notes: Ok, so here's the skinny. Remember that big, ugly story I told you about? Well, it turns out that it's actually like 4 shorter ugly stories. Maybe five — I'm doing an Allison French here.(g) So this is the first part of Nature's Conspiracies. Part two will be posted very shortly into the new year. And then the rest. Thanks to Righ, Caorann, and Hope for being the test audience. Have a happy paranoid New Year, y'all.


"Okay, it's official." Blair slumped back against a red and green-festooned pillar. "I'm now officially having a panic attack."

"Just one more minute," Jim said, carefully inspecting the brown leather golf bag.

"You said that five minutes ago."

"One more minute," Jim said, testing the handle by hefting it roughly. Seemed sturdy enough.

Blair let his head fall back against the pillar. "God, please, get me outta here, please, I'll be good, I swear, I swear..."

Jim shot Blair a look of profound frustration. "Look, just pretend it's a ritual or something — this is your big chance to observe the citizens of Cascade in their natural habitat."

"The mall. Great. For this I went to graduate school."

Jim sighed and straightened up. "All right, all right — I'm getting this." Blair sighed with relief and pushed away from the pillar. "Just let me pay and we're out of here."

Blair looked despondent. "Oh god — you mean we gotta get on line?"

"Christ — would you just stop whining already?" Jim asked, exasperatedly. He slung the golf bag over his shoulder and headed for the register, Blair trailing unhappily behind him. "Can't you at least try to get into the spirit?"

"Oh, yeah, right — I'll get into the spirit," Blair snorted. "I'll call my fucking broker. I'll engineer a couple of hostile takeovers. I'll get some five-year-old Nigerian to hand-stitch me a sweater." Blair kicked irritably at a foot-high plastic Frosty.

Jim took his place on the long line. "Just relax already, will you?"

"How the hell can I relax? God almighty — just the music's enough to give you an aneurysm." Blair groaned and covered his ears. "Jingle Bell Rock for the nineteen thousandth goddamned time. And plus they've got Santa playing volleyball." Blair froze, dropped his hands, and looked frightened. "Or am I just hallucinating that? Oh my God, am I hallucinating that?"

Jim frowned and looked over to where Blair was pointing; indeed, there was Santa, leaping up into the air and spiking the ball. "No, you got it right," he admitted. "You're okay — it's there."

"I gotta get the fuck out of here," Blair muttered under his breath. "What the hell are you buying, anyway?"

Jim smirked and shuffled forward on line. "It's a golf bag."

Blair rolled his eyes. "I can see that it's a golf bag. Don't you think your dad already has a golf bag? Being that he's a golfer and all?"

"Of course he has a golf bag," Jim said. "But this golf bag has a built in minibar." He looked triumphant.

Blair stared. "You're kidding me."

"I kid you not."

Blair blinked and said, "That's sick. That's disgusting. That — I mean, God Almighty! — that's the tackiest, stupidest, most total waste of — "

"I know," Jim said, shrugging. "And he'll love it. It's the perfect gift for my dad — it's overpriced, completely unnecessary, and allows him to golf and booze at the same time."

Blair stared at him for a few more seconds and then suddenly spun around and threw his hands up in the air. Jim laughed softly and put the bag on the register, sensitive ears picking up a string of muttered curses.

"Cash or charge, sir?" The cashier was wearing a Santa hat and an exhausted expression.

"Charge, please," Jim said.  


Jim brought the red-ribboned golf bag into the station with him, not wanting to leave it in the truck; he of all people knew about the risk of theft in Cascade. He propped the bag against the side of his desk, then looked up and saw Simon Banks approaching, cigar in mouth.

"Nice bag," Simon said, nodding toward it.

Jim shrugged. "It's for my dad. I didn't know what to get for the old guy."

Simon nodded in sympathy. "Yeah, I never know what to get for my old man either." He surveyed Jim with a critical eye. "You look like death warmed over."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, I've just spent two hours Christmas shopping with Karl Marx."

"Really?" Simon chuckled. "I'd've figured Sandburg for a 'happy holidays' kind of guy."

"You figured wrong. I'm now figuring Sandburg for a 'seasonal depressive disorder' kind of guy," Jim said, shaking his head. "He bitched and moaned for two solid hours, Simon. Did you know that a five-year-old Nigerian child probably sewed your sweater together?"

Simon looked down at his black cashmere sweater, brow creased into a frown.

"Yeah, exactly," Jim said, grimly. "Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas."

"Fun morning," Simon deadpanned.

"Yeah, I feel like strangling myself with garland." Jim sighed and stretched. "So what — you've got a case for me?"

"Not exactly," Simon said. "What I've got is some good news and some bad news."

"Oh great," Jim muttered. He blew out a breath and then crossed his arms protectively "Okay, hit me."

"Which one you want first?" Simon asked.

"Gimme the good news," Jim said.

Simon gestured toward the PD bulletin board. "The promo list is out. The kid made it."

Jim felt his chest tightening; god, if this was the good news, what the fuck was the bad news? "Oh yeah?" he said, cautiously.

"Yeah. Don't look so thrilled," Simon deadpanned. "Seriously, Jim — the kid's damn lucky after that crap he pulled at the — "

"Yeah, yeah, all right," Jim muttered, waving that away. "So now he's a detective, huh?"

"Effective January 1," Simon said, and then grinned suddenly. "Though this might be one of the seven signs of the apocalypse." He fluttered his fingers mysteriously.

Jim couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, right between the locusts and the frogs."

Simon intoned, "The long-haired one shall cometh and smite down the enemies of the Lord with — "

" — a baseball and a vending machine," Jim finished, wryly. "Yeah, I remember that — that's in Revelations, right?" He sighed and scrubbed at his face. "All right — so what's the bad news?"

"Check your box," Simon said, nodding at it.

Jim frowned and turned to poke through the wooden inbox on his desk. Reports. Paperwork.

A letter in a cream-colored envelope from the mayor's office.

His fingers closed upon this last just as Simon said, "It's a summons from on high. Hand delivered. Sandburg got one too."

Jim stared at the envelope. Detective James J. Ellison, Cascade Police Department. He didn't think he could open it. "What do they want?"

Simon sighed and shook his head. "I dunno — apparently they want to ask you some questions about this whole special officer program. Why it's working, what you guys are doing right. I mean, it's a good thing for us, it's a coup: Major Crimes looks great and — "

"When do they want us?" Jim interrupted. He rummaged through his partner's box and came up with an identical letter. Dammit.

"This afternoon," Simon answered.

"This afternoon?" Jim replied, feeling the panic rising up in his chest again.

"Yeah. That's the bad news. Total waste of an afternoon — I'm sorry. But you can recover over the Christmas holiday — "

"For god's sake, Simon — " Jim said softly, but Simon wasn't listening; he was watching Blair Sandburg cross the hall from the men's room into the bullpen.

"Hey Sandburg," Simon called out, "check the board!"

Blair frowned and gestured toward the bulletin board with a question on his face, and when Simon nodded he drifted over and scanned the tacked-up list.

"Oh," Blair said, finding his name. "Wow." He stared at it for a few long seconds and then said, again, "Wow."

"Mr. Articulate," Simon snorted. "Oh, I'm sorry — Detective Articulate."

"I, uh..." Blair seemed to be having a hard time tearing his eyes away from the board. "I'm sorry, Simon," he said, finally coming over to Jim's desk. "I'm just a bit over —

Jim extended a cream-colored envelope to his partner.

' — -whelmed." Blair took a step back, eyeing the letter like Jim was handing him a poisonous cobra. "What's that?"

"Disaster," Jim replied quietly.

Simon shook his head and sighed. "All right — let's take this into my office." He turned and led the way. Blair stared at his retreating back, then looked at Jim.

"We're fucked," Jim explained.

Blair snatched the letter from Jim's hand and then turned to follow Simon Banks.  


"What the hell's going on?" Blair asked Simon as Jim shut the door behind them.

"The mayor wants to see you," Simon answered. Blair's eyes grew wide and Simon immediately raised his hands and said, "Now hang on, hang on, there's no reason to — "

"There is such a reason to panic!" Blair yelled. "Oh my god! There's like a thousand reasons to panic — a million! — "

"Sandburg, look," Simon said reasonably. "I'm sure they just want to talk to you. I'm sure it's just a formality. You're the first participant in this new city program that we suggested, you've been a tremendous success — they're gonna want to talk to you, right? They probably just want to figure out how to milk this thing for maximum publicity value."

"Oh great," Jim mumbled, sitting down hard in a chair. "Publicity — my favorite fucking thing."

"Simon, I don't think you're registering the right amount of terror, here," Blair said. "Not to remind you of unpleasant things, but Jim and I have a lot to hide, remember?"

Simon took his cigar out of his mouth and poked it at Blair. "You listen to me, Sandburg. You just got promoted. Two years ahead of schedule, for god's sake. They can hardly turn around now and say that you're a bad cop, or that this partnership isn't working, or that — whatever — your relationship — is interfering with your work. " Simon narrowed his eyes and jabbed the cigar at Blair again. "They'd have a class-A discrimination suit on their hands. You and Jim have got a hundred percent case closure rate. That's completely unheard of — -they're not gonna mess with you."

Blair nodded vaguely and began to pace across the office, chewing on his thumbnail.

"Right?" Simon prompted. "Right?"

"Maybe," Blair mumbled around his thumb.

Simon looked at Jim. "Jim, what do you think?"

Jim sighed and ripped open his letter, began reading. "'Congratulations,' blah blah. 'Perfect closure rate', blah blah." Blair suddenly stopped pacing and tore into his own envelope. "'Mayor John H. Barrie, Police Commissioner Michael Warren, Councilwoman Regina Perfetti and the Hiring and Evaluation Board wish to invite you to — '"

"' — discuss your experiences over the past year and help us evaluate — '" Blair continued, reading along.

"' — both administrative and police procedure for — '" Jim stopped and looked up at Blair. "Discuss, Chief," he said with sudden hope. "They're calling this a discussion..."

Blair was still reading. "Blah, blah — here — 'scheduled at 3:00 P.M. on Thursday, December 23nd, Room 231.'"

Jim frowned and glanced down at his own letter. "Room 104," he said slowly.

Blair raised his head, and his eyes were frightened. "Mine says 231."

They stared at each other for a moment. "Jesus Christ," Jim said softly, finally, "they're interviewing us separately."

Blair swallowed hard. "Jim, I don't — "

"I don't like it either," Jim said tightly.

"You guys are overreacting." Simon was rolling his eyes.

Blair sat down next to Jim. "Oh my god, man."

"Sandburg, just quit it!" Simon growled. "You're over-reacting, do you hear me? Of course they're gonna interview you separately — you guys are partners! — and if they wanna hear anything honest from either of you, they've gotta do it this way!" Simon strode forward and banged on the conference table. "Now look here! You guys snap out of this paranoid shit! They're not gonna mess with you — they want to make more of you!"

Blair looked up at Simon hopefully and then clutched Jim's arm. "He could be right, Jim," Blair whispered. "He could be right — this could just be a formality."

Jim raised his head and his eyes were full of despair. "Maybe," he said, covering Blair's hand with his own. "Maybe. Except..."

Blair looked nervous. "Except what?"

"Except for you." Jim squeezed Blair's hand tightly.

Blair's eyebrows flew up. "Me?" he asked.

"Yeah." Jim laughed softly and shook his head. "Seasonal depressive disorder, my ass — god, I'm so fucking stupid."

Blair's eyes slowly grew wide with understanding, and even Simon Banks had the good grace to look worried.  


"I'm not ready," Blair said as Jim brought the truck to a stop around the corner from City Hall.

Jim looked straight out the front windshield. "You're gonna be fine, Chief."

"I'm not ready," Blair repeated. "I'm not in the right frame of mind for obfuscation."

"You don't have to be," Jim said. "We tell — you know — the truth. Or most of it. Some of it," he amended. "We tell what's true," he decided, finally.

Blair looked at him, panic writ large across his face. "But I don't know what's true, anymore!! Me and the truth — we're not even on speaking terms!"

Jim turned suddenly and grabbed Blair's arm. "Look, Chief — you told me once that there is no truth, only explanations. Right?" He shook Blair a little. "Right?"

"Right," Blair agreed nervously.

"Remember?" Jim pressed. ""And then you gave me an intellectual explanation, and a romantic explanation, and an emotional explanation — "

"Right," Blair said, and he was nodding rapidly now. "Right. So this is the cop explanation."

"This is the cop explanation," Jim agreed.

"All the same damn data, spun cop-wise. Right?"


"Right. I can do this."

"Of course you can do this," Jim snorted. "Hell, you taught me to do this."

"Right," Blair agreed. "Okay. He clenched his hands into fists, seemed to get energized.

"And I'll be listening for you," Jim promised. "I'll be listening for you every fucking minute. You just yell if you need me — I'll break the goddammed door down."

"Right." Blair took a couple of mock boxing jabs at the air. "Okay."

"And Blair?" Blair turned to look at him and he leaned forward and gave Blair a quick, heartfelt kiss. "Whatever happens," Jim whispered. "Whatever happens, okay?"

Blair stared into his eyes and swallowed hard. "Yeah. Yeah, man." His voice cracked a little on the last word, and he cleared his throat. "Always and forever."

"Okay. Okay. So let's go."  

3:05 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

"Officer Sandburg — or should I say Detective Sandburg?" Mayor John Barrie came around his huge mahogany desk, hand already extended. "Delighted to meet you, sir. Just delighted."

Barrie was a huge, blustery man — thatch of gray hair, pot belly hanging over his belt, a wide smile which exuded good humor and personal warmth. Barrie seemed to be looking deep into Blair's eyes as they shook — or rather, clasped — hands.

A real pro, Blair thought, somewhat cynically.

"It's a pleasure, Your Honor." Blair heard himself saying. He gripped Barrie's hand tightly , but his attention was already focused on the third man in the room.

The man in the conservative blue suit.  

3:06 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — a seat, take a seat." Police Commissioner Michael Warren gestured to the red leather chair in front of his desk, and Ellison sat. "Sorry to drag you down here on such short notice, but I've been meaning to do this and today we finally had a slow day around here, what with the holiday and all." Warren grinned at him, showing lots of white teeth. "Nice slow day — so I figured, why not sit down with the Cop of the Year?"  

3:07 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — like you to meet Paul Ziegler." Blair took the formal introduction as a chance to take a longer, more assessing look at the man. Ziegler was tall and lean and had dirty blond hair — and he flinched when Barrie heartily clasped his shoulder.

Ziegler forced a smile and then met Blair's eyes: a flash of sympathy passed between them. Barrie's paterfamilias routine, they silently agreed, was a pain in the ass.

"Nice to meet you," Ziegler said, offering his hand for a terser, less emotional handshake.

"Same here," Blair returned.

"Well, why don't we all have a seat at the conference table?" Barrie asked enthusiastically, as if he were guiding them toward a particularly good buffet. "I know that Agent Ziegler has a number of questions for you."

Blair tried to keep his expression neutral. "Agent?"

"Agent Ziegler is with the Cascade Division of the FBI," Barrie explained.  

3:14 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — gotta tell you, Jim: I was pretty skeptical when Banks approached me with this whole 'special officer' plan." Warren flashed him a grin. "It sounded like a crock of shit — but you know, we needed some good PR with the civvies, and plus the Council liked it."

Warren rolled his eyes, and Jim nodded brusquely — this was cop to cop, man to man, and he understood that he was expected to share Warren's disdain for both civilians and City Council.

"Anyway, now, a year later..." Warren whistled and slowly shook his head. "I don't know what the fuck this Sandburg guy's doing for you, but he's closed the gap, Jim. I mean, you were already a champion closer, but these new numbers..." He picked up a file with meaty fingers, and then slapped it down onto the desk again. "These numbers are fucking fantastic."

Jim tried to look modest, like it was no big deal.

Warren leaned forward over his desk. "So spill it, Jim. What the fuck has been going on with you?"  

3:15 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

Blair tried not to look at the several thick files on the conference table in front of Ziegler. They couldn't all be about him, could they? Nah — hell, they were probably just routine things, budget reports, end of the year employee evaluations —

"You know, I majored in Anthropology at the University of Virginia," Ziegler said, casually.

Blair felt sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. "Oh?"

Ziegler nodded "Yeah. It's one of the reasons I was selected to do your review." Ziegler smiled. "The-Powers-That-Be figured I might actually understand some of your work."

Blair's blood ran cold as Ziegler pulled out one of the thick files and opened it; he recognized the cover sheet of his dissertation.

"Fascinating stuff," Ziegler said — and god, his voice was casual but his eyes were — his eyes were —


Ziegler flipped through a few pages of the dissertation. "You're a biological anthropologist, right?"

"Yeah," Blair said; his throat felt dry. "Mainly."

"Particular expertise in South America?"

"Right. Yeah," Blair said, swallowing.

"You studied — what? — tribal warriors?" Ziegler flipped another few pages. "Tribal protectors?" He stopped suddenly and seemed to be rereading a few paragraphs. "What is it you call them?"

"Sentinels," Blair heard himself saying, and Ziegler's head shot up. "They're called Sentinels."

Blair stared at Ziegler across the table for a few, long moments. Ziegler's eyes were blue — like his, like Jim's.

Decision time: explain or deny? Two roads: which was the right one?

Blair took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

"Well, see, the term was really coined by Richard Burton — the explorer, not the actor — in a monograph published in 1876..."  

3:20 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — believe me, Commissioner, I was pretty skeptical myself," Jim said. "The last thing I wanted was another partner."

Warren nodded. "No, yeah, I remember that," he said. "Banks had to get a special dispensation for you to work alone-what year was that? '95?"

''93," Jim corrected. "And well into '94: I started working with Sandburg in '94. Against my better judgment, believe me — the guy looked like a roadie for a band I didn't wanna listen to, you know?"

Warren laughed and Jim leaned forward, bracing himself on the chair arms. "Thing is, he turned out to be pretty useful — "  

3:30 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — to the tribe. It's a fascinating model of tribal organization, because the tribe was dependent on its Sentinel for survival, and so the Sentinel was essentially living by another set of rules entirely, some of which are beneficial and others which are — well — totally alienating, really."  

3:32 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

"I mean, he knew all this arcane stuff," Jim explained. "And Cascade's an international city, now — we've had cases that dealt with the Cuban communities, and the Asian communities, the Russians — plus all the normal gang-related crap — "  

3:35 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — which totally illustrated a fear-based response. Just human nature, I guess — the tribe desperately needs its Sentinel but it also fears him precisely to the extent to which he is invested with both the natural and social powers which qualify him for the position. We throw rocks at our gods even as we worship them. It's not unlike conspiracy theory here in the U.S. — hell, as an FBI Agent, you should understand what I mean — "  

3:34 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — and who the hell knew that gang structure mirrored tribal structure? I mean, it was a ridiculous way of thinking about it — except, see, it worked and — "  

3:40 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — that got me thinking about more contemporary parallels. The thin blue line, right? So I suddenly found myself wondering — "  

3:42 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — if it would work. Believe me, if you had asked me, I would never have believed it. Sandburg and me. Partners. Hell, the whole thing just started out as a favor — "  

3:43 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — to the family, the workplace, the community. And so the question became: did tribal notions of morality and hierarchy have any correlative with the modern police department? It seemed like a good line to pursue, and I thought it would give my dissertation some contemporary cultural relevance. Because, different as they may seem, South American tribes and the Cascade Police Department are both closed societies in the technical sense. And so I needed an 'in' to the CPD and — "  

3:44 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — I had a cousin — "  

3:44 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — I had this cousin — "  

3:45 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — -and they thought that if he could only graduate, finally, and get a job, he'd — "  

3:45 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — given me a letter of introduction to Jim Ellison, who was just perfect for my purposes, and luckily he was a terrific cop, and unpartnered, and — "  

3:46 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — they were totally wrong about Sandburg. I mean, now, looking back, it seems obvious. He wasn't meant to be a professor. He was meant to be a cop."  

3:46 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

" — just supposed to be an observer, but you try "observing" while bullets are flying and bombs are going off and crazy psychokillers are — "  

3:47 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

" — running around with semi-automatic rifles, and he totally kept his head. I mean, you'd never know it to look at him. You really wouldn't. He doesn't look like cop material — hell, he's too short for one thing. If he'd applied through regular channels he'd probably have been rejected on height alone. But underneath all the hippy-dippy crap — he's got the temperament. He's got the balls. He's got the brains and then he's got the bonus of all that higher education. Believe me, Commissioner, I thought the whole thing would last a couple of weeks, tops, and then he'd grab his notes and hightail it back to the ivory tower. But, see, he didn't — he just took to it like a duck to water — and I don't think anyone was more surprised than he was."  

3:47 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

"You could have knocked me over with a feather. I just found that — well, that I had a knack for it. I mean, that wasn't part of the plan. I didn't go into this wanting to be involved — in fact, the rules of anthropology essentially forbid it. You know — going native. But then I started thinking that maybe I was in the wrong line of work."

Ziegler was nodding slowly, blue eyes locked on Sandburg. "I think you were right. I think you were in the wrong line of work."

Suddenly Mayor Barrie was speaking and both Blair and Ziegler jumped, having forgotten he was there. "I'd have to agree," he said. "And to my mind, that's the very justification for this sort of program." Barrie was smiling broadly. "Frankly speaking, police departments have a tendency to reproduce themselves. They choose new officers that remind them of themselves when they were young — and people with other talents can fall through the cracks. But this city needs all the talent it can get. Our citizens deserve the best police force we can give them."

Blair found himself feeling oddly irritated: Barrie was turning this whole thing into a political soundbite, a campaign speech. He glanced at Ziegler and instantly saw that the FBI agent was biting his tongue.

And that was bad, because that meant that Ziegler knew that this wasn't a soundbite, knew that something else was going on.

Blair took a deep breath and kept his expression carefully pleasant.  

3:52 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

"So you see, all the disadvantages turned out to be advantages." Jim shrugged. "It turns out to be great that Sandburg doesn't look like a cop. It gives him an advantage in undercover work. It lets him blend in where I don't. It puts criminals off their guard. He works — you know — as a complement to me. He picks up my slack exactly."

Warren nodded. "And thus you get a hundred percent closure rate."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "I think that's why."

Warren leaned back in his desk chair. "That's really interesting. I mean, it makes sense the way you say it. Sandburg's a good cop because he looks like he'd be a bad cop." He sighed and scratched at his thinning hair. "The only problem with that is — most guys who look like they'd make bad cops would make bad cops."

Jim acknowledged the truth of this. "Well," he said carefully, "I don't think the special officer program is for everyone."  

3:55 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 231

"Of course, the Mayor's exactly right," Ziegler said, closing the cover of the file holding Blair's dissertation. "The standards of the Police Academy, and of the force itself, tend to reproduce a certain kind of officer." He smiled thinly and brushed a lock of dirty-blond hair out of his eyes. "And this program does provide a potential corrective."

"And you've certainly given us results to build on, Detective Sandburg," Barrie enthused. "A most promising start. With results like these — well, we've certainly got a good argument for expansion, haven't we, gentlemen?" Barrie was practically beaming.

"Certainly, certainly." Ziegler began to stack his files one on top of another, but his eyes were still fixed on Blair. "Though you know," Ziegler added, with a quiet confidence that made Blair shiver, "somehow I doubt that we're going to find another one quite like you, Detective." Ziegler slid the files into his briefcase

Blair felt like he was playing chess. "That's very kind of you to say," Blair replied, forcing a smile.

"There's no kindness involved." Ziegler's smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Of course Paul's right," Barrie agreed. "This program can only identify talent — it can't produce talent. The talent has to be there — and you certainly have talent, Detective."

Blair couldn't tear his eyes away from Ziegler even to acknowledge the flattery. "Thank you very much, Your Honor."

Barrie stood up and offered his hand again, and Blair scrambled to his feet to accept it. "I'd like to thank you for coming down today."

"Thank you, sir," Blair replied instantly. "It was an honor, Your Honor."

Ziegler stood up too. "Why don't I see you out?"  

4:00 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

"Well, I'll tell you what we can try," Warren said, steepling his fingers and craning his neck to stare up at the ceiling. "We can identify officers with very high closure rates. Evaluate their deficiencies. And then try to partner them with someone who closes the gap." He looked down and smirked. "No matter how weird that gap is."

Jim found himself laughing. "Well, yeah."

"Might work," Warren mused. "The Odd Couple approach. Hell, it works on TV," he added, grinning, and then they were both laughing.  


"I think we'll be seeing more of each other, Detective," Ziegler said casually, shutting the door behind him.

Blair took a deep breath and then turned to face him. "I don't think that's necessary," he said quietly — and then he gave the FBI agent a little push.

Ziegler frowned slightly and raised a hand to steady himself against the wall. "I..." he began, and then he stopped and shook his head. "Well, it may not be strictly necessary — "

Blair sighed with relief.

" — but I think it would be very interesting." Ziegler let go of the wall and began to move off down the corridor.

Blair felt his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. Oh, goddammit — this couldn't be — this couldn't —

"I must say I find you and your partner fascinating," Ziegler said. "I've reviewed some of your cases, and they're — well — very intriguing. Plus, Detective Ellison has a very interesting background. He's told you about his years in Peru?"

Blair forced himself to shrug. "Some of it — he doesn't really remember all that much."

"Too bad," Ziegler said. "That must be a real frustration for you as a South American specialist."

He's fishing, Blair thought desperately. Fishing. He doesn't know. Not for sure.

Blair followed Ziegler down the elaborate central staircase of City Hall, and then down the corridor to Room 104. Outside the door, Ziegler stopped suddenly and abruptly turned to face him.

Blair braced himself: this was it. Ziegler was gonna launch his big guns, now.

"Detective Ellison sought treatment at County General the same week he met you. He was complaining of sensory disorders."

Ziegler was watching him closely, and it was all Blair could do to keep his emotions under control.

"Really." It wasn't a question. "Well. I guess he must be feeling better now." Blair crossed his arms and tried to stare Ziegler down.

Ziegler's blue eyes bore into his for a few long seconds and then suddenly he was laughing out loud. "Yeah." Ziegler sounded amused. "I guess he must be."

Ziegler turned and raised his hand and rapped hard on the door to 104.  

4:18 P.M. CITY HALL, ROOM 104

Blair heard a voice call, "Come in!" and then he followed Ziegler into the room. Jim was standing there with Commissioner Warren.

"Detective Sandburg," Warren said, turning to him and extending his hand. "Nice to see you again. And congratulations."

"Nice to see you, too, sir," Blair answered. "And thank you."

"It's been a great success," Warren said. "You've been a great success — both of you." Warren glanced over at Paul Ziegler. "Paul, have you met Detective Ellison?"

"No," Ziegler said, putting down his briefcase and offering his hand. "Though I feel like I know you already. From your file." He smiled.

Jim glanced at Blair and Blair smiled tightly. "Jim, this is Agent Ziegler from the FBI."

Jim nodded slowly and then turned back to Ziegler, shook his hand warily. "Nice to meet you."

Blair felt his muscles tensing, felt his hands closing into fists. Because Ziegler was looking at Jim — god, the way Ziegler was looking at Jim!

Outwardly calm. Inwardly excited — hands practically shaking.

And Blair knew that look. He knew that look all too well; he'd seen it in the lab.

He knew that look all too well; he'd seen it on his own face in the mirror.

Holy grail. Holy shit.

The scientist inside Paul Ziegler was screaming, "Eureka!"

And Ziegler's eyes were moving over Jim searchingly — moving over his face, his chest, his fingertips. Looking for a reaction, looking for an indication — looking for confirmation of what he theorized.

Jim's eyes widened slightly and he took a slight step backwards — -and Blair instantly interposed himself between the two men, wearing the biggest fucking grin he could manage without throwing up.

"We ought to be going," Blair told Ziegler; his face hurt from smiling. "We've got to get back to the station."

Ziegler looked annoyed; Blair was blocking his view of Jim. "Oh. Right. Okay."

"Thank you both for coming down," Warren said, starting off another round of handshaking. "And keep the good work." Blair had to struggle not to yank his hand out of Ziegler's.

"We'll try, sir," Blair replied. "Come on, Jim," — and then he was hustling Jim out of the office, pulling the door closed behind them.

"Jesus Christ, Blair," Jim muttered.

"Shhh!" Blair hissed, eyeing the closed door nervously. "Don't stop — let's go! Let's get the fuck out of here!"  

The End