by Kristine Williams
Professor Kinyon made a clucking sound with her tongue and shook her head. "Yes, yes. I was in charge of inviting our distinguished guests. They put me on the cultural exchange committee for some odd reason, and it was my duty to find representatives from several cultures and countries who might wish to gather and discuss the field of native artifact retrieval and museum displays. Of course, finding members of nations not currently experiencing unrest can be difficult, but researchers and historians typically remain outside the political problems of their own countries. Now, remaining outside, and being allowed to GO outside, can be another matter. Although, in this day and age, even the more strict nations do have some lenience when dealing with scholars and the like. Now, mind you, when I put this list together, I was very conscious of not bringing together members of any warring nations, such as we have scattered about in several African areas. But, with Mr. Sandburg's help, we were able to secure artifacts representative of a wide range of cultures, so that no one felt singled, or left, out."
Jim nodded, glancing at Blair. His partner was nearly asleep, eyes held open by the simple lack of moisture. "I see. Did you have any dealings with shipping the artifacts themselves?"
"Oh, no. That was all Professor Peters' doing. And Mr. Sandburg. If I remember correctly, it was Blair who did all the choosing of pieces and made the decisions regarding which artifact to request. He spent several weeks researching the politics of the regions, making sure each culture represented had the quality and selection to display its own unique style and history without insulting another. He has a knack, that young man, for diplomacy." She paused, smiling at Blair.
Jim looked over and was glad to see Blair smile back his thank you. He might appear awake, and could even respond to a compliment, but Jim knew he was as sound asleep as one could get while sitting up. They really needed to get home.
"Well, Professor, in that case I should be talking with Professor Peters." Jim moved to stand, but she wasn't finished with him yet.
"You know, someone you might want to talk to is Harry, down in shipping. He's the customs liaison. Harry's been in charge of the University's shipments for about 7 years now. He's got a perfect record, of course, and has never once lost or misdirected a package. And I can tell you, Harry's been responsible for some very valuable shipments over the years. Art exchanges, valuable and rare pieces loaned to us by other Universities around the country as well as from other countries. But, he's also been socializing heavily with the dean's daughter for a year now."
"Elizabeth?" Blair asked incredulously. "Harry and Elizabeth, for a year?"
Jim glanced from his partner to Professor Kinyon, noting the surprise in his tired voice and the gleam in her sparkling eyes. He had no idea who they were talking about, but by the look on her face, she was quite willing to gossip for the next few hours.
"Thanks for the tip, Professor." Jim held up a hand to forestall an episode of Rainier Nights. "We'll check him out tomorrow. Come on, Chief." He stood before she could start up again and started for the door. "We'll be in touch."
"Yes, yes of course. You know where to find me, Detective."
They left and Jim put a hand on Blair's elbow, steering him down the hall. "You can fill me in on the soap opera later, Chief. Let's get home and get some rest."
"Yeah." Blair was walking beside Jim well enough, but did lean slightly into the hand that was supporting his arm. "Man, I can't picture Harry Bilks with Elizabeth Evans."
They made it outside and Jim let go of Blair's arm, giving him a gentle shove toward the truck. "I take it this is more than just a cultural difference?" Jim unlocked the doors and they climbed in.
"Oh yeah. I mean, Elizabeth was raised rather proper and studious, but she's dumb as a can of spam."
Jim laughed, then looked at Blair, not believing what had just come out of his mouth. "Not your caliber, I take it?" He could see how hard it was for his partner to keep both eyes open, and was willing to attribute some of his uncharacteristic attitude to a lack of sleep and a rather stressful few hours tied to the floor.
"Actually, she's quite stunning. If you don't mind window dressing, she's quite a catch."
"I think we need to get you home, Chief." Jim shook his head as Blair merely nodded.
As they drove home, Jim couldn't help but think about what Professor Kinyon had said. Most of it had been a mental blur. Jim had never realized all that Blair had done--all the research and political tiptoeing he'd been involved in over the past few weeks--had all been accomplished while he was working with Jim on several cases, full time.
Blair had energy, there was no denying that. And his University life was complex, but completely within his realm. Maybe that was how he could work with Jim, and leave no trace of his other life to follow. Except for the occasional musty old book on Jim's desk. The pile of notes Jim would find on his files. The odd bits of clay and other assorted old-looking bits he sometimes found in the back seat of the truck. Now and then a huge tribal mask Jim would have to sit beside on the couch, or an Indian doll he nearly stepped on when it fell from the table in the middle of the night.
Jim realized then, maybe for the first time, that Blair Sandburg had become a natural part of his every day life. He took no more conscious notice of Blair's little leavings than he did his own. Unless he was about to sit on one, or trip over one, or possibly eat one by accident. Picking up after him at times was unconscious, and habit forming--although the kid was learning. Knowing his routine, learning his way around the University, all had become a part of Jim. Even the little things, like how Blair would know when Jim wanted the same thing from the fridge, how Jim would know what Blair was going to do in most situations. But, the kid still had the ability to surprise him. And Jim liked to think he still had a few secrets up his sleeve. PIN numbers aside.
Jim parked the truck outside the loft and sighed, shutting off the motor. Somewhere along the line they had blended almost seamlessly into each other's lives. And now, Blair was trying very hard to blend into the seat.
"Come on, Chief. Wake up." Jim touched Blair's arm, then shook him slightly until his eyes opened and he sat up, glancing around. "I'd leave you here, Sandburg, but I don't want someone stealing you. Come on, let's get upstairs and get some sleep."
"Yeah." Blair forced his eyes open wide, then opened the door and followed Jim upstairs.
"Why don't you grab a few hours?" Jim tossed his keys to the table and pulled the list of names from Professor Peters out of his pocket. "I want to go talk to these students tonight, after this party of theirs."
"Right. You think it had to be one of them, don't you?" Blair stood in the middle of the room, rubbing his eyes.
"They're the best guess at this point, Chief. They knew about the shipments, had access to the customs documents, and knew where and when to find them." Jim stretched, then tossed the list to the table and walked to the kitchen. "We start there, and see where it takes us."
"I just can't picture one of them as a drug smuggler." Blair shook his head, then walked down the short hall and used the bathroom while Jim poured himself a glass of milk.
"Had to be more than one, Chief. You saw three this morning. They might just be the muscle. There's a chance we've stumbled into a nice little local ring here." Jim put the milk away and retrieved the list. "Get some sleep. I want you alert when we go back there tonight."
Blair nodded, pushing his hair back. "What are you going to do?"
"Connect with the Station and see if these students have a history. Then, take a nice, long nap." Jim didn't wait to make sure Blair was going to his room. He took the list and his milk and went upstairs. Once there, he tuned in to his partner downstairs and heard him almost instantly settling in to a sleepers' breathing pattern.
Jim flipped on his
computer, then logged on and dialed up the Station. After entering his secure
code to identify himself, he was allowed access to the database. It was a longshot,
but always the place to start. None of the names appeared to have any history
of priors. From what little Jim could put together, they each had equal access
to the crates. And of course they could all be just as innocent as Blair. He'd
arranged the artifacts, authorized the shipments, signed for them, and was the
only other person in the room while they were being opened and unpacked. Which
left the shipper himself. Someone who could get something through customs without
raising any eyebrows. Someone who was used to dealing with shipments from around
the world. Shipments that couldn't be opened and searched too often due to the
fragile nature of their contents. Harry Bilks.
It was dark, but Blair could see the last statue he was reaching for at the bottom of the crate. The smugglers had gone, after finding what they wanted, and each artifact they'd moved had been carefully lifted out and set down several feet away. Blair pulled out the last clay statue, and as the moonlight struck the artifact, its features were clearly displayed. It was the Watchman, a carving representing one of Burton's Sentinels. It was priceless, one of the rarest pieces Blair had ever seen. Many scholars scoffed at its existence, claiming Burton had lied about them as he had the tribesmen they represented. But he knew. Blair knew it was real. He'd seen a photo of one once, years ago. Discovering this while researching the other artifacts for the University's display had been the find of a lifetime. And now he was dropping it!
Blair's hands were still numb from the ropes and the statue tipped, falling out of his grasp and tumbling toward the floor. Blair scrambled to catch it, desperate to prevent the inevitable, but it was useless. The statue struck the tiled floor and instantly smashed into bits. Each piece bounced up to slam again into the floor, insuring there was nothing left of the Watchman but dust. A white, powdery dust that slowly began to blow away as Blair stared at the pile in shock.
Oh, God! What had he done? He'd never dropped an artifact before, even a replica. But this, God, this had been more special than any he had ever held before. And he dropped it! Shaking, Blair knelt down, then reached out slowly and scooped up a handful of the white powder that was now the only thing left. It felt soft in his hands. Like talcum powder. Fascinated, he rubbed the fingers of one hand into the pile of powder held in his other palm. It was vanishing quickly, but not being blown away. No, it was being absorbed. The powder was slowly and steadily seeping into every pore, until it disappeared without a trace into the palm of his hand. Surprised, Blair searched the floor quickly for more powder, but found none. When he looked once again at his hand, he found a gun.
"No!" Blair sat straight up with a gasp just as his alarm went off. Quickly, he reached over and slapped it off, then sat in bed blinking away the last vestiges of nightmare. "Oh, man." He sighed, then ran a hand over his face and glanced at the clock. It was 9:00, and Jim was in the shower. The smell of coffee wafted in and Blair forced himself up and out of bed, padding barefoot into the kitchen just as the pot finished. Luckily, he was used to odd hours, and didn't have much trouble adjusting when Jim's job went required some odd shifts. He poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned into the counter, wondering if he felt like breakfast for dinner, or dinner for breakfast. There was leftover Chinese in the fridge, so he took that out and set it on the counter. Jim finished his shower and they passed in the hall.
"Sure." Jim crossed into the kitchen. "Any Mongolian Beef left?"
Blair paused at the door, trying to recall what he'd just moments ago taken out of the refrigerator. "Yeah, I think."
He heard Jim pouring some coffee before he shut the bathroom door. As usual, the bathroom was not only spotless, but steamless. Blair usually forgot to flip the switch before getting in, only to remember halfway through his shower and have to reach out to hit the fan on before it was too late. He stepped into the shower and let the water flow over his head as he ran through the night before.
Jim was right, of course, it had to be someone associated with the University. Someone who not only had access and prior knowledge, but an understanding of the artifacts themselves. That was what kept bothering him about them. Most drug smugglers would have dumped out the clay statues and pottery without a care. But these three had lifted each piece out with care, and set them down. So, either they knew how important the artifacts were to the University, or they understood the significance of the pieces themselves and wanted no part in their wanton destruction.
Blair found his shampoo and poured out a glob of the clear fluid. He stared at it for a full minute, noticing how he could see his hand through it. The dream flashed over his mind again, and he felt the shampoo with the fingers of his other hand. It was smooth, almost velvety. It looked clear, but Blair new it to be a complex blending of herbs that most people didn't even know existed. He shook himself out of the association, then worked the shampoo through his hair and hurried through the rest of his shower.
Blair dressed quickly, pulling on jeans and a warm sweater against the evening chill, then went to the kitchen and started warming up the leftovers. He could hear Jim upstairs on the phone, and one container was missing. After deciding the others could blend together nicely, Blair found two pans, and mixed most of the containers into one pan, keeping the sweet and sour separate. Jim came downstairs soon after he'd began heating up the food, carrying the phone and a container of cold chow mein he'd been eating.
"Dinner's ready." Blair turned off the heat and picked up the pan, carrying it to the table.
"Great." Jim sat down and set the phone on the table. "That cocaine was pure. Forensics just finished their prelim. Someone's gotten their hands on several kilos of pure, uncut cocaine. Probably worth a good million or more on the streets."
"Well, that helps explain why you were so sensitive to it." Blair set two plates and the second pan down and sat. "If the cocaine was pure, it wouldn't take much at all for you to react to. And if it's high grade, even less."
"Yeah, but that doesn't make my job any easier, Chief."
Blair noticed Jim's jaw suddenly clench as he dished up some warm leftovers. "Jim, you can't help what you didn't know. It's not like you wanted to experience that. Any more than you wanted that Golden to blind you." He watched as his partner nodded, still tight-jawed. Blair was thinking of making a crack about sending Jim to drug-sniffing police dog training, just to lighten his mood. But the more he thought about that, the less silly it sounded.
"You know, Jim, we could--"
"Just stop right there. If you're about to make some joke about police dogs, you can keep it to yourself."
Blair made a face, but continued undaunted. "Jim, it makes sense. I'm not saying you need to go through the whole program..." He grinned and his friend shot him a nasty look. "But those dogs do sniff out the drugs without having to get so close. We just need to test you out around some, in a laboratory setting of course, and figure out the parameters and your sensitivity."
"I don't think so, Chief."
"Now, you can't tell me you'll ever forget what Golden smelled like, can you, Jim?" Blair had never had the opportunity to smell, or taste, the drug that had nearly killed him. But he was sure as hell never going to forget the orange glow that remained with him for a week afterwards. And he still had a mental block where pizza was concerned.
"No, of course not." Jim shook his head, then looked at Blair, and his jaw smoothed out. "How could I?" He got up and retrieved the coffee pot. Jim sighed, and looked at Blair again. "Okay, Chief. How do we go about this?"
"Well, I was thinking we could go down to evidence lockup and find a bag." Blair refilled his coffee. "You can smell through the plastic, and that way get a good feel for it, without having to come into contact."
"I didn't come into contact back at the University."
Blair shook his head. "I think you did. You were holding that statue in my office, and then feeling around inside the crates. I think you were touching it, and with your heightened tactile response, absorbed it immediately. If I'm right, then we could test you out in the lockup, and you'd get a feel for the cocaine, without...well, feeling it."
Jim laughed just a little and finished his coffee. "Okay, Chief. We'll try it. After we talk to these students." He stood and took his empty plate to the kitchen, then came back out for the coffee pot. "But, if you get me high in the lockup, I'll hold you responsible. They'll book you for dealing."
"Jim, I--" Blair's protests were cut short by Jim's hand as it slapped the top of his head playfully. "Great." He nodded and got up, following his partner to the kitchen. Well, at least they were able to make light of a situation that could very easily have turned serious. If Jim had been exposed to a larger amount, or actually come into physical contact with the pure drug, the results could have been deadly.
They drove back to the University and parked just outside the lecture hall that housed the evening gathering. Blair led the way, then deferred to Jim's authority when they reached the doors and the two apparently self-appointed greeters.
Jim produced his badge and allowed the inebriated students to admire it. "Gentlemen, I'm Detective Ellison. Can either of you tell me if Professor Peters is inside?"
"Mmm, Processor Peers? Sure, hiss in there." The taller of the two smiled widely and gestured toward the milling crowd inside the large room behind them. "Help yourself, ossifer."
Blair rolled his eyes as Jim glanced in his direction before turning his gaze on the other student who, seemed to be impersonating a statue. "I trust you two are both of legal drinking age?"
The short blond Blair knew as Donald nodded vigorously, yet refrained from opening his mouth at all. The other one, Franklin, if Blair was correct, smiled again and nodded with almost comical exaggeration.
"I thought as much." Jim motioned to Blair and led the way inside the hall. Once they were past the doors, Jim stopped. "I figure them both for around 19. Is that right, Chief?"
Blair nodded. "Yep. You gonna arrest them, ossifer?"
"Don't tempt me." Jim cocked an eyebrow, then looked around the room. "Okay, can you spot our Professor or any of these students?"
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