Blair sighed as the truck crested the hill; in the gathering dusk, Cascade spread out below them as far as the eye – his eye, anyway – could see. "You know, a couple more days would've been nice. I feel like yelling like a little kid, 'I don't wanna go home!' and stamping my feet."
"Until one of us becomes independently wealthy, we have jobs to report to, just like every other working stiff," Jim pointed out. "And the river will still be there the next time we want to get away for the weekend."
"Oh, yeah. And Simon is going to have a cow when he sees the trout we got. Too bad his mom's birthday was this weekend."
Jim chuckled. "Better not let Simon hear you compare fishing to his mom's seventy-fifth birthday celebration. And I don't think he'll complain too much when we hand over those two beauties we saved for him."
"Probably not." Blair glanced at the cooler he was using as a footrest, which held six fine trout packed in ice. "Maybe we could even cash in on them – he might yell softer the next time he's pissed at one of us."
Jim turned onto Fairmount, which would take them past the PD to Simon's house. "In your dreams, Sandburg. He's more likely to yell louder, so he can be sure he's not showing any favoritism."
"Yeah, but –" Blair's words stopped short as Jim slammed on the brakes, then made a sharp-angled turn into a cross-street they'd almost passed. It was obvious Jim had seen something; he grabbed the magnetic police light and clamped it to the roof as he accelerated down Pretoria – a direct route to Prospect, Blair realized. Whatever Jim had seen didn't have to be on Prospect, of course, but experience suggested their building would be right in the middle of it. "What's up?"
"Something big ahead. Lots of emergency vehicles and some city trucks."
Jim shook his head. "No smoke, either fresh or old. I don't sense any explosive residue, either."
"So we rule out fires and bombs; that's a relief," Blair muttered as he clutched the 'oh shit' handle above the window. Anyone would think that driving down a straight road, even at high speed, wouldn't be so hairy. But that 'anyone' had never experienced Jim Ellison behind the wheel.
"Bad news, Chief," Jim said, his mouth tightening into a grim line. "I think it's centered on our block. And it smells kind of... wet."
Blair deliberately leaned sideways to thump his head on the window. "Of course it is. Fate has decreed what we will never have an uneventful, relaxing weekend. I knew that not running into poachers, drug dealers, forest fires or orphaned Bambies was too good to be true." He paused, as his brain processed the second part of Jim's statement. "And what do you mean, 'wet'? We live in the rainiest city in Washington, and barely two miles from the ocean; doesn't it always smell 'wet' to you?"
Jim had been maneuvering the truck around clots of stopped vehicles, but the turn onto Prospect seemed clear. He pulled around one last cluster of randomly-parked cars and careened through the turn… into six inches of water. The speed created a bow-wave that was too much for the truck to handle; the engine sputtered, coughed, and died.
"I mean wet," Jim said, gesturing at the scene in front of them.
Blair stared through the windshield at the chaos in front of them. Emergency personnel were splashing through a street filled with water – curb to curb and stretching across the sidewalks to lap at the buildings. Police were knocking on doors – probably to check the safety of the inhabitants, Blair realized – and EMTs were treating a few people in the back of a couple of ambulances. But the biggest cluster of activity seemed to be at a spot about two hundred yards from their building.
"Can you tell what's going on?" Blair reached out to lay a hand on Jim's arm, grounding him to extend his senses through the swirling water and decreasing light.
It didn't take long. "Looks like a major water main break," Jim reported. "There's a whopping big hole in the middle of the street, and the road is cracked and buckled for half a block on either side. But they seem to have the water main fixed – or at least capped – for now; the water level is dropping pretty fast, and I don't see any more spilling out of the hole."
"Well, that's something, anyway," Blair muttered. "Man! I'll bet people thought a bomb had gone off."
"Very likely," Jim agreed. "But it looks like a lot of people may have been out when it happened." He gestured to a crowd of watchers on the far side of the yellow police tape.
Blair peered forward, but he could barely make out people at that distance, much less faces. "Are you sure they aren't just looky-loos?"
"Some are. But I see the Robertsons, the Delgados with their kids, Mrs. Kwong with her mother, and the Stavridis family. And others may be even later getting back from wherever they were than them and us; the police and EMTs certainly don't seem to be finding many people who need help."
"So when do you think they'll allow residents back into their buildings?" Blair settled back against the seat; might as well be comfortable while they waited.
Jim reached into the glove box, pulled out his badge, and clipped it to his belt. "Whenever it's certain all residents have been accounted for, and the water main is deemed safe. We can't help with the second, but the first is right up our alley. Let's go, Chief." He stepped into the water – now barely ankle-deep – and headed toward the center of activity.
Blair grimaced as he followed Jim; there was a big difference between wearing waders to stand in a river, and sloshing around with wet feet. If they did much walking, he'd be looking at blisters tomorrow. "Actually, you being you, I bet you could probably help with the water main. If you get close enough to get a direct look, you can probably tell if the repairs are going to hold or not."
"And if I think the repairs are sub-par, of course they'll believe an 'ordinary cop' over a man who has years of experience with water lines."
"If it comes to that, we'll think of something," Blair insisted. "Think about it. Do you want to ignore a weak spot, and be rousted out of bed in the wee small hours if it blows again?"
He had a point, but Jim hoped it wouldn't come to that. Some of Blair's 'obfuscations' were inspired, but some... not so much. The more tap-dancing they had to do around the sentinel thing, the more likely it was that someone else would eventually find out.
Shoving that thought away with the ease of long practice, he approached the coordinator to offer his help.
Three hours later, after Jim had discreetly verified that the repairs to the water main were solid, and the streets were clear – of water and most of the city vehicles – residents were finally allowed back into their buildings. The truck had dried out enough that it started with minimal sputtering, and Jim parked in his usual spot.
"That was a lot more work than I thought it'd be," Blair groaned as the elevator carried them upward. "I'm going to take a hot shower and not move for the rest of the evening."
Jim unlocked the door and they walked through, then stopped abruptly when greeted by a scene of disorder. CDs and books had been knocked to the floor, lamps and knickknacks were lying on their sides, and there was a long crack in one of the balcony doors.
"Oh, man! I guess it really did feel like a bomb went off."
"Looks like you'll have to put that 'not moving' thing on hold for a while."
"Somehow I knew you'd say that," Blair grumbled, as he headed for his room. "Just let me put on some dry sweats and socks."
Jim headed upstairs to change into dry clothes, himself. He frowned as he saw his bedroom; by his standards, it was a mess. But it took less than five minutes to put things back on shelves – fortunately, nothing was broken – and he joined Blair back in the living room.
"It's a mess in my room, too," Blair announced as he started picking up CDs.
"I'm surprised you can tell the difference, Chief." Jim pulled the duct tape out of a kitchen drawer and crossed to the balcony doors to reinforce the cracked pane; it would be ugly, but safer, until he could replace it.
"Real funny, big guy. Just because I enjoy a little freedom in my living arrangements doesn't make me a slob." Blair righted the lamp and the candlesticks, then moved to the other side of the bookshelves and speakers. As the floor came into view, he rushed forward. "Oh, no! How did I not see this?"
At the sound of real distress in Blair's voice, Jim turned to see him lifting his Onkatu devil mask from the floor – in three pieces. He looked forlorn, almost devastated.
"I'm sorry, Chief." Jim had crossed the room to examine the damage, and laid a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I know how much it meant to you." That was the reason that he'd allowed Blair to hang the ugly thing in the living room in the first place, but it had grown on him after awhile. It did lend a certain oddball cachet to the place and, in all fairness, Blair hadn't fussed about his Red Heron poster on the front door.
Blair ran his fingers along the broken edges, then held the pieces together and examined the join. "Kakami made this for me. It took him almost a month, but he said a storyteller with such strange tales of other lands should carry something to prove the truth of their land when I told their tales back home. You'd have liked him, Jim; he was this mixture of practical and humorous, and always looking out for the other members of the tribe. He laughed when he gave me this mask, but it meant a lot to both of us." Blair gave Jim a strained smile. "As big and cumbersome as it is, I've kept it around for seven years. And now... a few scratches or dents are no big deal, but I don't think superglue will fix this."
"You don't have to do it yourself, Chief. I'm sure there's a woodworker somewhere around that could fix it – Cascade is big enough to pull in all skill-sets. And wood is a pretty forgiving substance; I think it won't even be that hard, if someone has the right tools, and the expertise." Jim tried to project encouragement, although the damage was extensive. "Think about it – if Kakami could make it from scratch, someone else will be able to put it back together."
Blair shrugged, then shook his head and faced Jim with a more open smile. "Sorry, man. You're right, of course; if I look hard enough, I can find someone who can fix it. I'll just put it in my closet until the end of the semester; by then I'll know how much money I can spend on it."
He disappeared into his room while Jim realized – again – that, as generous as Blair was to everyone around him, he was chronically short of funds; putting himself through school on grants and a TA's salary didn't give him much spending leeway.
But Jim could do something about that. If called on it, he'd say it was reimbursement for all the unpaid hours Blair put in at the PD. While Blair went into the kitchen to sweep up broken glass, Jim returned to taping the cracked balcony door as he planned 'Operation Fix-a-Mask'.
Jim sighed as he set the broken pieces of mask – carefully wrapped in an old sheet – on the passenger-side floorboard. After he settled himself behind the wheel, he pondered his next course of action. A little research had turned up two carpenters who had experience with detailed craftsmanship. Either man should have been able to fix the mask – probably could fix the mask, if he were being honest – but neither one felt 'right'. The hell of it was, he couldn't solve the problem, because he couldn't figure out what was pinging him the wrong way.
He watched the passing traffic as he sat outside the second shop. It must be an adjustment for any creative person, Jim thought. Inspiration would probably be a whole lot easier in a quieter environment, but if they wanted to make a living, they had to be where customers could find them. He imagined Blair's Kakami had made the mask during long, lazy evenings while he watched friends and neighbors performing customary tasks, and listened to the sounds of the African wildlife outside the perimeter of his village.
Of course! Jim gave himself a mental head-slap. It made perfect sense; he should have headed there first thing. Now... Jim glanced at his watch while he calculated time and distance. Blair was spending the day at the University library, so wouldn't notice Jim's absence. And if he did get back to the loft later than Blair... well, Jim would've run into an old friend and forgotten the time while catching up. It wouldn't be exactly a lie...
Jim watched for a break in traffic, then pulled into the street. At least his truck was a lot more comfortable than a bus.
Two of the monks were working in the tiny cemetery when Jim pulled to a stop in front of St. Sebastian's. They watched as he walked around the truck to retrieve Blair's mask from the other side, then spoke as he came closer.
"Brother Jim. It's good to see you again. But isn't Brother Blair with you?"
Jim nodded a greeting. "Brother Theodore, Brother Frederick. No, I'm planning a surprise for Blair, so I snuck out while he's studying. I need to speak to Brother Jeremy and Brother Marcus, if I may."
"Certainly," Theodore said. "Brother Jeremy is in his office, and Brother Marcus is in his workshop. You know the way." He nodded toward the front of the building, then continued pulling weeds as Jim walked toward the door at the top of the steps.
The door to the abbot's office was open; his desk was covered with papers, and Brother Jeremy seemed to be filling out some forms. Jim knocked on the doorjamb and stepped in when Jeremy raised his head.
"Brother Jeremy; I hope I'm not disturbing you."
Jeremy graced him with a slight smile. "Not at all, Brother Jim. I confess, I find the paperwork one of the more onerous parts of my duties; a short break would be pleasant." He laid down his pen and gestured Jim to the chairs in front of his desk.
"I guess paperwork is always with us," Jim replied, as he sat down, placing the wrapped devil mask in the next chair. "It looks like you have as many forms to fill out as I do."
"Possibly, although I suspect mine are far less gruesome." Jeremy shrugged. "What can I do for you Brother Jim? You didn't arrive unannounced to discuss our various paperwork."
"No, sir, of course not. I was hoping to enlist Brother Marcus's woodworking expertise. I have – or rather, Blair has –" He stopped short, only now realizing the unfortunate contrast. "Forgive me, sir; I wasn't thinking. I have an African devil mask here, that needs repair, but maybe I should take it somewhere else."
Brother Jeremy's eyes twinkled. "We're not as hidebound as that, Brother Jim. A wooden mask is an artistic representation, not a true symbol of the devil's presence. Although, if it were... the grounds of a monastery would surely be an appropriate place to vanquish him."
Jim nodded. "Thank you, sir. It means a lot to Blair; it was a special gift from a friend, and it got broken. I thought Brother Marcus could fix it – for a suitable donation to the Church, of course."
The abbot regarded him thoughtfully. "I confess, Brother Jim, I have had some concerns about Brother Blair working so closely with you; your life seems to be a violent one. I am reassured that you would make such an effort for a friend; it tells me that you care for him."
"I do, sir. And I promise you, I'll do everything in my power to keep him safe."
"Fortunately, the Lord expects us only to do the best we can, so you won't be expected to perform miracles. Remember, Brother Blair has made several visits to Saint Sebastian's; we all know how easily he falls into scrapes. But it's good to know that your intentions are in the right place." Jeremy picked up his pen. "Forgive me, but I must return to my work. You'll find Brother Marcus in his workshop."
Jim stood; he had a job to complete, as well. "Thank you, sir."
Brother Marcus was humming – still? always? – as he worked, the doors open to the pleasantly warm day. Jim stood in the doorway and watched as Marcus planed a piece of wood, appraised the result with a knowledgeable hand running along the surface, then shaved off two more tiny slivers. Seemingly satisfied, he picked up a piece of sandpaper to further smooth the wood.
Yes; this was the place. Blair's devil mask would be comfortable here... and Jim would never tell Blair that such a thought had even crossed his mind. He cleared his throat and stepped into the workshop. "Brother Marcus? May I have a word?"
"Of course, young man; Brother Blair could tell you I'm always willing to talk. I was beginning to wonder if you thought I would bite you." He chuckled at Jim's raised eyebrows, but never stopped his sanding. "Did you think I was so oblivious as to not know you were standing there? I'm afraid our little unpleasantness last summer has reawakened my old wariness. I'm trying to leave it behind – it's inappropriate in this place of peace – but old habits are easily rebuilt and difficult to lay to rest." He hmphed, and smiled gently. "But you didn't come to listen to an old man ramble about payment for past sins. How may I help you, Brother Jim?"
"This," Jim said, laying the pieces of the mask on a nearby table and unfolding the sheet so that Marcus could see it. "It's one of Blair's treasures – made by a friend – and he was pretty upset that it got broken. I was hoping you could fix it."
Marcus picked up each piece and examined it carefully as Jim explained what had happened. "Certainly I can fix it," he agreed. "But why did you bring it to me?"
"Why?" Jim's response was cautious; it was too likely that a religious man would scoff at his belief that the mask would respond better if it was mended in a more rural environment, away from the clamor of the city. After all, it wasn't a living entity that could respond to stress or serenity as it 'recovered' from being broken. Still...
"I'm sure there are woodcrafters in the city who could take care of this, and it's a considerable drive out here. So I have to wonder, why did you decide to bring it so far? Not that I object," Marcus said, continuing his examination. "It's a fascinating piece of craftsmanship."
"Because... a friend of Sandburg's made it, and I think he'd like the idea of another friend fixing it." Jim shrugged uncomfortably. "Things like that... mean a lot to him."
Marcus cast Jim a sharp glance. "So our young friend is now 'Sandburg', as you try to distance yourself from showing how much you care? Tut-tut; I've seen too much of the world to believe that. But I'll allow you your little fiction – for a price."
"Of course," Jim agreed. "I told Brother Jeremy I'd make a generous contribution to Saint Sebastian's. Anything you want; I've always believed a workman is worthy of his hire."
"There is more than one kind of payment. Brother Jeremy considers monetary compensation because he needs to balance the monastery's books. But you..." Marcus raised an admonishing finger. "This is an opportunity for you to balance your connection with Blair."
Marcus smiled. "To put it simply, I think it would mean even more to Blair if two of his friends worked together to fix what another friend once made. It's too late to start today; the repair won't be difficult, but it will be somewhat time-consuming. Shall I expect you next Saturday?"
For such a gentle, soft-spoken man, Brother Marcus had certain similarities to Jim's former drill instructor; he could definitely see how the man had made it to the upper echelons of the Mob. "I'm afraid... I don't have much experience with fine woodworking," he admitted. "I wouldn't want to do something to damage the mask more."
"You won't." Brother Marcus's voice was quietly certain – but then, he was a man of faith, Jim thought ruefully. "And the gift you'll present to Blair will be even more meaningful, because it will have come from your hands as well as your heart. In years to come, you'll both treasure that knowledge."
Jim bowed to the inevitable; he recognized an irresistible force when he met it. "I'll be here next Saturday, then, unless I'm working a case. Thank you, Brother Marcus."
"Think nothing of it, my boy. I'll see you then."
Marcus folded the sheet back over the mask and left it with a little pat, then returned to his original project and picked up the sandpaper again. As Jim stepped out the door, he heard the humming resume, as well. It seemed to weave together strands of peace and wellbeing, an assurance that the mask would be comfortable here.
Definitely time to leave, Jim thought, as he stepped into the truck and started the engine. If I hang around much longer, I'll turn even new-agier than Sandburg!
But truthfully, he was sort of looking forward to next Saturday – as much for spending time with Brother Marcus as for having Blair's mask whole again.
Jim was parked three blocks from the loft, where he could keep an eye on the building, but Blair wouldn't notice the truck when he got home from the library. Jim hadn't been able to think of any way to wrap or hide the mask, but he did want to surprise Blair. The simplest solution was to let Blair walk into an empty loft, then follow with the mask a few minutes later.
Blair was late, as always – he'd expected to be home by 4:30, and the hands on Jim's watch were already nudging 5:00 – but it hardly mattered. Jim was still basking in a glow of peace that had cocooned him during a day spent with Brother Marcus. He understood now why Blair was so fond of St. Sebastian's, and particularly of Marcus. Despite his past, Brother Marcus had apparently been a figure of stability to a genius kid who had started college very young. As Marcus had shared tales of a younger Blair – and Jim returned the favor with anecdotes of Blair's time with him – Jim got the impression that the monk had been a father figure to Blair. Even though the older man had not specifically made such a claim, it was evident that he cared deeply for Blair. It was good to know that, in the midst of traveling the world on various expeditions, Blair had had the certainty of someone who would be there when he returned.
Jim leaned forward as he caught the sound of the Volvo approaching from the other direction. He watched as Blair parked in his usual spot, hoisted his backpack over one shoulder, and disappeared through the main doors. As soon as the doors closed, he eased the truck forward and parked in the spot next to the Volvo.
As soon as he stepped inside, he stretched his hearing to monitor Blair's progress toward the loft. He heard whistling as Blair stepped off the elevator on the third floor; his day at the library must've been as productive as last week's. Jim grinned; he was sure he'd hear all about it, later in the evening.
As soon as he heard Blair close the loft door behind him, Jim slipped quietly into the stairwell and began to climb; using the elevator would alert Blair to his approach.
Jim waited outside the loft's door as he continued to monitor Blair's actions inside. The plan was to interrupt Blair at the most inconvenient time – either settled down or very busy – for maximum surprise effect. The whistling was replaced by the TV – something about the construction of the pyramids – and then Blair was in the kitchen, pulling out pans and utensils, and muttering about inconsiderate partners who didn't show up on their night to cook.
That was a cue if he'd ever heard one. Jim pulled the sheet from the mask, then knocked sharply on the door. As footsteps approached the door, Jim stepped back and held the devil mask in front of his face and body, watching through one of the eyeholes. When Blair opened the door, Jim pitched his voice to sound like a lost child. "I'm looking for Blair Sandburg. Can you help me find him?"
The reaction was everything Jim had hoped. Blair's mouth dropped open in stunned surprise, and then his eyes lit with pleasure as he reached out to stroke the repaired mask. "Jim? How did... when did..."
"Happy Saturday, Chief," Jim said. "I told you it could be fixed." Blair still wasn't moving, so he simply walked forward so that Blair automatically stepped out of the way. He set the mask on the couch and, with a careless wave, invited Blair to inspect it. "So, what d'you think? Personally, I think Brother Marcus did a bang-up job... and I helped." Marcus had been right; it felt good to have had an actual hand in reaching this moment.
Blair was examining the mask front and back, running a finger along the barely-visible break-lines, and scrutinizing the ingenious metal clasps that Brother Marcus had devised to hold the joins together from the back. "I never thought it could look this good again," Blair said. "Brother Marcus did a great job – but I would have expected that from him. I don't know why I didn't think of taking it to Saint Sebastian's in the first place. But what made you think of it? You were the one who was sure there would be suitable craftsmen here in Cascade."
"I actually found two," Jim admitted. "But it just seemed like the person who fixed the mask should care as much about it as you and Kakami. And since Brother Marcus knows you so well..." Jim couldn't resist a smirk, "...he seemed like the sensible solution."
Blair easily recognized that smirk. "Oh, man! It's not bad enough you pumped Naomi for blackmail material, now you're getting it from Brother Marcus, too? There's no justice," he grumbled.
"We had a... meaningful exchange of information." Jim sometimes found it useful to dress up his explanations in 'officialese' as a version of taking the fifth, even though Blair would easily decipher the hidden meaning.
"And you told him about what I've done on some of your cases? I'll never be able to show my face there again."
"Nonsense, Chief. Brother Marcus really lo– likes you. He's just curious about your life now, the way I am about what you did before you found a sentinel. Did you really suggest a herd of goats to keep the University grounds mowed?"
"Hey, it would have been ecologically and economically sound – the agriculture students could have managed them, and if they used angora goats, they could have sold the mohair as well as goat's milk, which is even healthier than cow's milk. It was just... goat-prejudice that administration didn't accept my idea. Well... that, and the test pair eating all the flowers in front of the Admin building."
Jim chuckled. "Only you, Sandburg. There's a reason Brother Marcus and I agreed that you're a unique and unusual person... and we wouldn't have you any other way. Kinda like your mask."
"Yeah, my mask." Blair carried it across the room and hung it in its former spot, then stood back to admire the fierce gaze. "I don't know how to thank you, Jim; there're a lot of memories tied up in that mask. And now there are two more to make it even more meaningful."
"Two? Only one fixit job, here."
"Two. A friend who conceived the fixit job, and a friend who performed the fixit job – along with the first friend, who helped." Blair waggled his eyebrows when Jim shrugged. "Did you think I wouldn't notice that little admission?"
Jim ran a hand over his hair. "All I did was hold it steady, Chief; Brother Marcus did all the work."
Blair shook his head with a wry grin. "Y'know, it's not an admission of failure to have someone know you did something nice for them." He threw a mock punch, and snickered as Jim deflected it. "You know how to handle that, but not how to handle gratitude. But you'll just have to suck it up and deal. This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, so... thank you, Jim. I really, really appreciate it."
"Okay, Chief, I got it. You're really, really welcome. Now..." he headed toward the kitchen, "...what's for supper?"
"Got'cha; enough of the emotional stuff." Blair followed Jim into the kitchen. "I was planning baked flounder with scalloped potatoes and green beans with onions. But we could go out for some kind of celebration – on me."
Jim started washing his hands at the sink. "Nope; sounds good to me. I'll start peeling the potatoes."
"You got it." Blair washed his hands, then pulled out the mushrooms and green onions that he would slice to cook with the flounder.
They worked quietly side by side, partners as always, while the TV droned in the background and the Onkatu devil mask surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Next week they'd be chasing down the latest criminal, but for now, life didn't get any better than good food shared with a good friend.