by Kristine Williams
"Jim, you're out of court."
"Yeah, Chief, just finished. What's up?"
"I was just checking on your date. You and Cheryl still on tonight?" Blair knew his answer even before he got to the real question, but it was worth a shot.
"Yes, we're still on. I'm afraid you're on your own with your unpacking tonight, Chief."
Blair nodded. Well, it had been a longshot. "Great. I'll be late tonight, then."
"No problem. I might not make it in tonight at all."
The grin he knew must be on Jim's face was nearly audible. "Right. Listen, after I get this display set up, it's back to normal for us."
"Good, Chief. Crime never stops, you know. I'll have the cell phone with me. Try not to use it, okay?"
"Right. Later." Blair hung up and pushed the hair from his face. He'd just spent a long, lonely day going over all the fact sheets for each display and fretting over whether or not the crates would arrive on time. Just when he was sure every case would be empty tomorrow morning when the delegates arrived, he got notification of delivery in the basement shipping room.
Well, it won't unpack itself. And he'd known talking Jim into a night of dust and packing straw would be a hard sell. Nothing to do now but get down there and get to work. He stuffed a few tapes into his pack and the stack of ID tags he'd spent all day working up, found the list of items that should be in the crates, and went downstairs.
The University was almost deserted, and most of the hallways were already darkened for the night. Blair found the crates he'd signed for stacked neatly and waiting for him. All 25 of them. He sighed in resignation and found his keys for the display hall upstairs where the crates had to be carried. There was a handcart near the first stack of crates, so he loaded it up with as many as he could manage, and started for the elevator at the far end of the long hall.
It took Blair nearly half an hour to muscle all the crates up to the right room. Once done, he dug a bottle of water from his pack and fished out a tape. There was a wall unit on the far side of the room, designed to set the mood during displays of various types. He put in a tape he'd mixed a few months ago that blended the war chant of the Yanamamo with some grunge and turned up the volume. It was nearly 8PM and he was alone in the building, he was sure. The only things to keep him company tonight were the drums and a buttload of artifacts. He should be thrilled, but he wasn't. He was bored, actually. These days, he found spending entire days at the University tedious. He still took great pleasure in his work, but some days, dealing with artifacts, students, and papers just wasn't as exciting as it used to be.
Not like that day when he was blending the music that now blared into the room, giving him energy to tackle the crates. The day when Jim Ellison walked into his office had been no less grand than if a walking, talking holy grail had found its way down the hall and into his life. That day had been almost a religious experience.
Until Joe Friday leaked out and slammed him into the wall. Well, they'd gotten past that somewhat uncomfortable first day pretty easily. Once he'd been set back down on his feet. And after the garbage truck incident. And that bit with the Switchman. Then there was the bomb of course. All in all, not a bad day.
Blair picked up the small crowbar he'd brought from the mailroom and opened the first crate. He lifted out a statue and examined it with an expert eye, checking for any damage. Once satisfied, he carried it to a display stand and arranged the piece, found the proper ID tag, set it in place, then checked off the artifact against his list and went back for another. He continued in this way through several more crates and three more hours, all the while trying not to think about Jim's odd behavior the night before.
He never was one to admit to pain, or being sick, or anything else that affected his senses directly. Whether that was some ingrained childhood thing, an army-induced sense of bravado, or just Jim Ellison, Blair wasn't sure. Usually, they had a good working relationship concerning Jim's senses acting odd or out of control in any way. But now and again, Blair had to find out the hard way. Last night, his partner had almost been zoning out on sensations that should have been routine with him. The colors he could see from opposite ends of the light spectrum. Sending his sense of smell ahead of himself. Tactile senses that he should have perfect control over. They all seemed to be fascinating him as if for the first time. As if he'd just then awakened to his Sentinel abilities and was drinking it all in.
He'd said it hadn't happened before, and coming from Jim, that had to be true. But whether or not it meant anything was at this point anyone's guess. Blair reached into another crate and pulled out a figure that resembled the one still on his desk down the hall. He'd have to remember to bring that one in before finishing up. Brushing the packing straw off, he recalled Jim holding the god of prosperity in his office. That seemed to be when it had started. Jim had been literally fascinated with the figure, and kept running his hands over it. Then there was the coffee. The most he ever said about coffee was yea or nay.
Blair shook his head and placed the new figure on a stand. I wonder if Burton had this much trouble? But then, he wouldn't have. Burton would have been surrounded by entire tribes who knew all about their Sentinels. And the Sentinels themselves, who had surely been trained by their elders. Blair had nothing but assumptions, research, and what little experience he was gaining, to go on.
The tape ended again and he crossed the room to replace it. The clock above the door read 11:45, so he cranked the volume up just a bit more. The only one around likely to hear it was the night security, and that guy was pretty easy going, and used to Blair Sandburg and the drums late at night. One quick check of his paperwork and he returned to the last two boxes. Blair had just reached for the crowbar when the lights suddenly went out. He felt a pressure in his back and a hand on one shoulder.
He froze. The voice was right next to his ear, but sounded muffled. Blair straightened up slowly, raising both hands into the air.
"Nice and easy and nobody gets hurt."
A gloved hand reached out and took Blair's right wrist, pulling it behind his back. "Hey, if you're on a treasure hunt or something, you've come to the wrong place, man. None of these things are worth much."
The pressure increased, and Blair was certain it was the barrel of a gun being jammed into the small of his back. Another hand came around and pulled his left wrist behind his back. He realized then there were at least two of them, since the gun in his back never flinched.
"We're just here for a pickup. Nobody needs to get hurt."
"Hey, I'm not arguing." Blair felt a thin rope wrap around his wrists, but before he could complain, a rolled up section of cloth was shoved roughly into his mouth and tied behind his head. There was movement behind him while the one with the rope finished securing his hands, then he was pushed to the side of the room and shoved down to the floor against a wall. He could see two other figures moving around near the crates, both clad in black with full ski masks covering their heads and faces. The one who had tied and gagged him was now threading the rest of the rope through a stanchion in the floor normally used to counterbalance heavy display items. Once done, the other end of the rope was used to bind both of Blair's ankles.
"Just relax. You'll be found in the morning." His captor finished knotting the rope and pulled the gun back out of his pants. "We'll be done in a few minutes."
Blair was helpless as he watched the three intruders tear into the last two crates. They lifted out the last of the artifacts, but instead of sending them smashing to the floor as he feared, they were set down with some care. Each of the crates was inspected, and after they reached into these last two, they pulled out something dark that Blair couldn't see. Once their finds were stuffed into backpacks, they hurried out of the room, shutting and locking the door behind them.
The room was dark, except for the moonlight filtering in from the large windows. The tape was still playing very loudly, and as Blair sat there wondering just what the hell had happened, he realized he'd set the player on continuous replay. Even if he could manage to shout around the gag, he'd never get enough volume to clear that. He tried the ropes, but they were too tight, and the knot was down at his ankles. Frustrated, he leaned against the wall and tried to work the gag off. They'd tied it under and around much of his hair, and pushing against the wall was causing more harm than good.
Dammit! This is just perfect. What they had found in those crates, Blair was at a loss to guess. Must have been something smuggled in with his artifacts, since those had gone completely untouched. He'd nearly been finished, too. Another half hour, and the displays would have been done and he'd have been on his way home. Whatever those guys had found in the crates must have been on the bottom under layers of straw. Blair hadn't found anything that wasn't supposed to be there. But then, he'd stopped digging around once he'd found each piece listed in the crate. Blair sighed as best as he could around the cloth in his mouth, and leaned back against the wall, resting his head against the stone. Just great. Hadn't he just been lamenting a dull few days? That'll teach me. He could see the clock from where he was, the face illuminated in moonlight. 12:15AM. Jim was on an all-nighter. The security guard would make a pass down the hall around 2:00, but he probably wouldn't come in. He was used to Blair being around at odd hours. That meant he'd either be found by Professor Peters around 6:00, or Professor Kinyon at 7:30.
Yeah, just great. He'd never live this one down. Sure, Jim, I signed for the crates. Then let three guys sneak up on me, tie me up, and take the packages. Struggle? No, man, they had a gun. What'd they look like? I dunno, Jim. God, maybe he'd believe there were 12 armed gunmen? No, he couldn't lie to Jim. He could try, but it never worked. Blair looked at the crates, wondering what had been in there all that time. Drugs? Money? Diamonds, maybe? They'd been shipped from the Gold Coast. Whoever those guys were, they either had some respect for the artifacts, or just didn't want to add to the noise as they searched for their stash. Not that some breaking clay pots could be heard over the music playing throughout the room. Music that was now giving Blair a headache.
There was nothing to do now but wait. The ropes were too tight, the gag too entangled in his hair, and the music too loud. With the lights off and the music on, he had a small chance of cluing in the security man that something was amiss. But it was a small one.
Three hours later, Blair's butt was sore, his hands were numb, and his throat dry as sandpaper. He'd tried to nap, since there wasn't much else he could do, but it was useless. Now the throbbing in his wrists and the pounding headache from too many hours of the tape were taking their toll. The music had just died down, preparing for another play, when he heard the door knob rattle. Blair's eyes shot open and he tried to shout around the gag before the drums started up again. At 3:30 in the morning, it had to be security. He shouted again, but the drums were kicking in, and his throat was getting sore. There was a pounding on the wood, then another, and suddenly the double doors burst open.
"Sandburg!" Jim hurried inside, drawing his gun as he entered.
Blair was both relieved and embarrassed that it was Jim who found him there, bound and gagged on the floor. But mostly he was relieved.
Jim scanned the room, then moved quickly to Blair as he put his gun away. "What the hell happened here?"
Blair spat out the gag as Jim untied it. "What does it look like? Three guys came in, tied me up, then took some things out of the crates and left. Ow!"
Jim had untied the rope from Blair's ankles, and was now unwinding it from around his wrists. "Are you hurt?"
"No. One of them had a gun, but they only wanted what was in the crates." Blair hissed against the sharp tingling sensation as the circulation was restored to his numb hands. Jim looked at his wrists closely before letting him get off the floor.
"When did this happen?" He walked to the door and flipped on the lights, then shut the stereo off and returned to where Blair was standing.
"Around midnight." He looked inside one of the crates but remembered not to touch anything, now that his night's work was a crime scene. Jim's hand touched his arm.
"Here." He handed Blair the water bottle he'd left on one of the displays. "You sure you're okay?"
Blair accepted the water and nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine." One drink and his throat wasn't quite so scratchy. "I can't believe this, man. I was all over these crates, and I didn't see anything."
Jim nodded and pulled the cell phone out of his pocket. "Just take it easy. At least no one was hurt." He called in the crime while Blair tried to examine the last artifacts without touching them. After calling the Station, Jim put in a call to campus security, then put the phone away and walked to Blair. "Anything missing?"
"No, they didn't take any of the artifacts. They aren't really worth much anyway. Whatever they wanted was just in with them."
"Did you see what it was?"
Blair shook his head. "No, it was too dark. Small, dark packages. Two in each crate. And they couldn't have been too heavy, they packed all of them into two bags and ran out." Jim was reaching around inside one crate and Blair stood by, still shaking his head over what had happened. At least none of the artifacts had been taken or damaged. The only trouble he was in now was having signed for a delivery that obviously had been used to smuggle something in from Africa. But then, he hadn't shipped them. "Anything?"
"No." Jim looked around the outside of the box, then moved on to another one and reached inside, moving the packing straw around. "There's plenty of room down here to have shipped something small. My guess is drugs." He looked around at the other crates. "Could have packed two kilos per crate. That's a big shipment."
"Why'd you come over here, Jim? I thought your date was going to be all night?"
Jim shook his head. "So did I. I got home around midnight and found an old movie. When it was over, I realized how late it was and figured you should be home by now. I tried your cell phone."
Blair made a face and glanced at Jim apologetically. "It's in my office." Jim nodded. "Man, the dean is going to kill me for this." Blair was still going down the list of people he'd have to explain this to. The room would be a crime scene all night and most of the next day, which meant the display couldn't be opened, which meant the luncheon planned for this room would have to be moved to another room, which meant some quick shuffling by the planning committee. He sighed and pushed his hair back, wondering if maybe it was too late to skip town before the dean got a call from campus security.
That was when he noticed Jim squinting. "Jim, what's up?"
"Those lights." He was shading his eyes from the overhead lights. "They're brighter all of a sudden."
Blair looked up instinctively, then back at his partner. "Jim, the lights haven't changed. Are your eyes opened up or something? Is it happening again?" He stepped closer and put a hand on Jim's arm, trying to get a look at his eyes.
"I don't know. They were fine when I came in. Now everything's just brighter." Jim blinked and looked around. "It's okay, I think I can adjust."
"Jim, something's wrong." Blair's hand remained on Jim's arm and he used that to try and make his partner listen to him. "What about your other senses? Do they seem heightened at all? Out of control?"
Jim paused, then shook his head. "I think they're fine."
"I think there's something wrong, Jim." Blair let go of his arm and set down the water bottle. "Did this happen at all today? How do you feel right now?"
"Sandburg, I'm fine. Probably just tired or something. In fact, I feel good. Just relax, would you?"
Blair started to protest, but he was interrupted by the group of officers and campus security that came in. He was soon taken to a corner of the room and forced to repeat his story for the campus police while Jim led the team around the evidence. He watched as his partner joked and laughed with the other detectives, then supervised as forensics gathered evidence. The lights no longer seemed to be bothering him, but every now and again, Blair saw Jim stop and cock his head to the side, as if beginning to zone out on something, only to come back out of it smiling.
By the time they left, the sun was coming up, and he was convinced there was something wrong with his friend. He waited until they were in the truck and driving home before he brought the subject up.
"I think we need to get you to the hospital, get you checked out."
"What?" Jim laughed, looking at Blair with raised eyebrows. "I'm not the one who was tied up all night, Chief. Why would I need to be checked out?"
"Jim, last night it was the moon, and the smells. Tonight it's lights, and I saw you nearly zoning out several times in there." He shook his head, watching his partner. "You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were on---Of course!" Blair slapped his forehead.
"What?" Jim looked at him sharply.
"Drugs, Jim. That explains it. The heightened senses, euphoria, then no trace of it afterwards. It has to be."
"Explain it to me now, Chief." Jim parked the truck outside the loft and turned to look at Blair.
"In my office last night, you were holding Mobutu Denai. It came in a crate that arrived before the others. That's what had me so nervous about the delivery coming on time. I brought it upstairs since it was the only one in that box. If there were drugs in with it..."
"Then they could still be there." Jim started the truck again and pulled down his visor, turning on the strobe lights so they could get back through traffic in a hurry. "Where is this box now?"
Blair blinked, trying to catch up. He hadn't been thinking about that. "Um, in the trash, probably." They sped back to the University.
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