As Blair Sandburg hurried into the bank, he evaluated the possibilities. There were only two windows open, and the line in front of each was equally long. Typical, he thought. Everyone wants to make a quick stop during their lunch hour... and that's when they close two-thirds of the windows. Then his conscience spoke up; tellers deserved a lunch-break, too. But, still, he argued with himself, why not divide the shifts into lunch at eleven or lunch at one, and have everyone here to take care of the noon rush?
Well, kvetching wouldn't get him to the front any sooner, and he needed to get this check in his account today; American Anthropologist had paid a tidy little sum for his article, and he had plans for the money. He stepped to the end of one of the lines – which would, of course, inevitably turn out to be the slower-moving of the two – and settled into his usual waiting-time activity: people-watching.
It was a pretty standard group – mostly businessmen or secretaries, with a sprinkling of college students and a couple of young mothers holding babies. Still, he mused, how can anyone really tell? Looking at me, who would guess that I'm a guide for a sentinel, or that I follow him into crime scenes?
Snickering internally, Blair amused himself by rewriting the life stories of those around him. That man was building a prototype anti-gravity device that would revolutionize the travel industry, and that guy was a master swords-smith for the local SCA, hiding his identity as an Immortal. That woman was the top instructor in hand-to-hand combat skills at the super-secret Spy School, and that one... was acting very strange.
Standing in line at a bank didn't usually make people nervous. Antsy, yes, in a hurry to be finished, but this was more than that. Blair noticed her chewing her bottom lip, and a faint sheen of sweat on her face – in a bank that, like so many public buildings, was air-conditioned too cool for comfort. Her eyes, as they flicked over the other customers, looked frightened, but when they shifted to a man at one of the writing desks, she looked positively sick.
That man didn't look particularly thuggish – clean-shaven, polo shirt, casual slacks, and light jacket, no visible scars or tattoos – but his eyes, when he glanced at the nervous woman, were positively cold. And he was a lot older than her; mid-thirties, Blair judged, while he'd bet the woman had barely reached twenty.
Shit! This wouldn't be the first time an older, dominant person had forced a younger, weaker one to be the 'front' for a crime. Blair had a sick, sudden suspicion that he was about to be caught in a bank robbery. Not good; there were far too many people around. Of course, people at the front of the line left after they'd finished their business, but others kept coming in; six more people had lined up behind him in the last five minutes. In the panic and confusion of a robbery, it was all too likely that someone would be hurt, or even killed.
Just his luck that Jim had stayed at the PD to work during lunch; they could use the big guy right about now.
There were only six people in front of the nervous woman; Blair had maybe fifteen minutes to deflect the robbery. Desperately trying to keep his actions casual – he didn't want to alert Mr. Cold-Eyes – he glanced around the room, looking for something he could use. Unfortunately, official buildings tended to be pretty sterile; all he could see were pens, chairs, and potted plants, none of which would make an effective weapon. Well... maybe a pen, if he could get close enough to poke it in the guy's eye, but he didn't have Jim's covert-ops training. Besides... pen in the eye? Eew.
And shouldn't there be a guard? Didn't they get someone to cover if he went to lunch? A big, tough, robo-cop-type guard might be able to prevent this whole thing.
Well... maybe he could just walk out; other people were leaving.
Blair ostentatiously checked the big clock on the wall, then took a half-step sideways to survey the people in front of him – eight. Glancing again at the clock, he frowned, shook his head, and headed briskly toward the exit.
Whoops! Bad move; Mr. Cold-Eyes tensed, and his hand shifted toward his jacket pocket – which was hanging suspiciously low. Folks who had finished their business were apparently a negligible risk, but someone who had stepped out of line wouldn't be trusted.
Okay. Blair changed trajectory and, pulling out his cellphone, stopped next to a wall, out of the traffic pattern. He was near enough to Mr. Cold-Eyes that the man should be reassured by hearing his carefully public conversation.
Blair punched in the number and waited impatiently. As soon as the other end was picked up, he started talking, using the slightly-raised voice of the cellphonically clueless. "Hey, Jim? I'm sorry, man, I know you'll think I left my brains at home, but I can't remember – did we decide that two hundred or three hundred dollars would cover the weekend?" Making a quarter-turn to hide his face from Mr. Cold-Eyes, he continued in sentinel-level tones, "Get someone down to the bank; I think it's about to be robbed!"
Jim Ellison shook his head as his cellphone rang. Sandburg always made such a production of things; what was so hard about going to the bank and then bringing back lunch? Snapping open the phone, he started, "Yeah, Ch-"
But Blair was already talking. "Hey, Jim? I'm sorry, man, I know you'll think I left my brains at home, but I can't remember – did we decide that two hundred or three hundred dollars would cover the weekend?"
"What?" They had no plans for –
The volume dropped. "Get someone down to the bank; I think it's about to be robbed!"
Jim snapped to attention. "Tell me what you can, Chief; we're already on it." He scribbled a note and passed it to Henri, whose eyes widened even as he carried it immediately into Simon's office.
"It's just that I think we'll need more; we'll need a nice present, and the prices are always jacked up at a wet bar."
Jim had never been so appreciative of Blair's obfuscation skills; he was obviously trying to divert suspicion of him talking on the phone. Sure enough, the next sentence was barely a whisper. "The bank at Third and Emerson. Two people, one male, one female. The male is mid-thirties, and I think he has a gun in his pocket. The female is young, and I think the guy is forcing her into it."
Simon was standing at his side while he scribbled the information on another note. As soon as he read it, Simon was on another phone, calling for uniformed personnel to be sent to the area. The bullpen was quietly active as his colleagues put on bulletproof vests and checked their weapons; no one wanted to make noise that would interfere with Jim gaining as much information as possible.
"Save the social work for another time; it doesn't matter why she's a participant."
"Yeah, well, I think it does matter," Blair argued, again in his public voice. "We expect this to last for a lifetime; it should be a nice gift." Jim could picture his free hand gesturing as he 'argued' with his listener, while his voice dropped again. "There's a boatload of customers in here – about twenty potential hostages – and I don't see a guard."
"Got'cha, Chief. We're on the way; ETA ten minutes." He heard a sigh of relief before Blair responded, again speaking for whoever was in the bank.
"Well, if you say so. Talk to you later, man."
As the connection ended, Jim felt a chill. If Blair was so concerned about putting on a performance, the bank robber must already be suspicious, and that was dangerous. Blair could be counted on to keep his head, but so much could go wrong in a situation like this. And 'keeping his head' didn't mean he'd keep his head out of whatever action ensued.
Jim stood and crossed the room to pick up his own vest, which was a signal for Simon to bellow, "All right, people, let's roll!" As Simon led the exodus through the main doors, Jim felt a surge of gratitude. Strictly speaking, bank robbery didn't fall under the purview of Major Crimes – but Sandburg was one of their own, he was in danger, and they responded.
Blair carefully didn't take a deep breath as Jim disconnected; he couldn't afford anything that would make the suspected robber suspicious. But, despite that, he really wanted to do something to sideline the unwilling – he was sure of it – accomplice. Didn't matter if Jim disapproved; it simply wasn't fair that she would end up with a record, just because she had hooked up with the wrong guy. Okay... showtime.
As he turned back to face the room in general – and let Mr. Cold-Eyes see what a harmless guy he was – Blair gave a thoughtful frown while surveying the people waiting in line. There were now only four people in front of the nervous young woman; he hoped the PD would get here soon... and not pull up with sirens screaming. Until then, maybe he could finagle her away from her 'post'.
Blair let a happy smile of inspiration show on his face – at least, he hoped it looked like that – as he approached. "Excuse me, Miss, may I ask your opinion about something?"
"Um..." she glanced toward Mr. Cold-Eyes, but apparently couldn't think of a way avoid Blair. "...yes?"
"Great, thanks. My name's Blair Sandburg, by the way; how do you do?" His smile was as open as he could make it.
She ducked her head and shrugged a shoulder. "Oh. I'm... Melissa."
"Pretty name for a pretty girl." Blair winked, but continued his impromptu story; if she was too nervous, she might stop talking. "Here's the thing... my niece is getting married, and I want to get her something really great, but I don't know what girls her age like. You look pretty close..." He let his voice trail off suggestively.
"I'm nineteen," Melissa murmured.
"See, that's perfect! My niece – she's my older sister's child – she's just turned twenty. Is there something that's really 'hot' in your group of friends – something every girl wants?"
Melissa cast another glance toward Mr. Cold-Eyes as she twisted her purse-strap in her hands. "Well... um... I guess I never thought about it. Don't most brides have a gift-list online?"
"Oh, she does, but I wanted to do something more personal than that, you know?" Blair leaned closer, trying to look as if he were making a confidential observation, but kept his voice loud enough to be 'overheard'. "The thing is, my niece is the sweetest girl ever – kind of like you – but her mother is real judgmental. If my present isn't 'good enough', she'll give me grief about it for the next twenty years." He dropped his voice to the quietest possible murmur as he urged, "Look, you don't have to do what he says; it's not worth getting a record and going to jail. There are people who will help."
As Blair stepped back to a more normal conversational distance, he risked a glance at Mr. Cold-Eyes. Yep, the guy was furious but, as Blair had suspected – hoped – he couldn't risk making a fuss; a disturbance would derail any plans he had to complete the robbery and get out quietly.
Raising his voice again – hey, if the other customers got mad enough to throw him out, that would also derail the robbery – Blair continued his obnoxious over-sharing. "Don't get me wrong; my big sis is great. I mean, she practically raised me 'cause my mom had to work such long hours, and she always went to bat for me when anything bad went down. But it kind of made her always looking out for the bottom line, you know? And that's a kind of sad way to live, I think. But she's married with two great kids, so who am I to judge? I mean –"
The main doors opened to allow a few more customers into the bank – two of whom were Jim and Rafe. Blair felt his tension dissolve; the professionals could take over. But should he 'know' them, or play dumb?
Blair juggled that question for only a second; Rafe strode to the writing desk next to Mr. Cold-Eyes to start filling out a deposit slip, while Jim walked toward Blair with recognition in his eyes.
"Hey, look, it's my friend Jim!" Blair told Melissa, with not-so-feigned delight. "He's coming to the wedding as my 'and guest'. Jim, meet Melissa; she's helping me with ideas for – Megan."
Jim raised an eyebrow, but stepped in smoothly. "I'm sure Megan will be properly appreciative. Pleased to meet you, Melissa. Has my partner, here, been burning your ears with chatter?"
Faced with another stranger who seemed determined to make conversation, the young woman looked ready to bolt. "Oh... um... he's been very... friendly," she stuttered.
"Hey, not cool, man!" Blair protested. "Just 'cause I don't need an Act of Congress to talk to a stranger. And what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you had to work through lunch."
"After that phone call, I thought you could use some help. His sister says he's always been a bit scatter-brained," Jim told Melissa.
Blair kept his sigh internal; Jim must've been outside for the last few minutes. Sometimes sentinel hearing is damned inconvenient, he reflected. He's gonna tease me about my 'big sister' for weeks – and probably bring the other guys in on it, too. Still, he'd help string this out as long as needed. They must be planning more police than just Jim and Rafe – they were probably just getting everyone into position. He could only hope that it wouldn't come to a standoff and/or tear gas.
"So what happened, Chief? You picked the slowest line, as usual?"
"Oh, well..." Blair met a few glares from the other patrons. "Sorry folks; didn't mean to cut." He deliberately made his way to the end of the line, while Jim walked alongside. "Actually, I guess I kind of... lost my place when I called you, and then I was talking to Melissa..."
"And you couldn't call while standing in line?" Jim grumbled. "Well, since I'm here, I might as well deposit my check while I wait. But you owe me for this; double-meat WonderBurger." He crossed the room to fill out his deposit slip; Blair was pretty sure it wasn't a coincidence that he chose the writing desk on the other side of Mr. Cold-Eyes.
The main doors opened again; Megan, Henri, and Dills were part of the group that entered, as well as three uniformed police officers. Mr. Cold-Eyes started sweating when he saw the uniforms, and Blair watched him sort of cringe when one uniform took a stance in front of the doors while another took up a position behind him. With his eyes darting around the room – probably looking for a way out, Blair supposed – he didn't notice Jim and Rafe moving closer from each side. He completely ignored Henri – an Hawaiian-print shirt really didn't scream 'cop', Blair acknowledged – until the big man stopped right in front of him and his genial voice filled the room.
"Well, if it isn't Howie the Heist!" Henri leaned on the writing desk, giving Mr. Cold-Eyes – Howie – a beaming smile. "Something you may not realize after your recent stint inside, Howie; in the past ten years, technology has exploded. We got your picture off the bank's closed-circuit feed, then checked your record. Six months out of the pen, and you've already bamboozled some innocent young girl into doing your dirty work for you – all for the sake of 'love'." Henri 'tsked' as he shook his head. "You give the concept a bad name, my man; no girl deserves the way you use 'em and toss 'em."
"This is an outrage!" Howie the Heist insisted. Blair recognized the move: when in doubt, bluff. "I was merely filling out a deposit slip; there's no law against that."
"No, but there is against bank robbery," Rafe informed him. He nodded toward where Megan and a woman police officer were pulling Melissa away from the line. "I'm sure that young lady will be anxious to explain exactly what you intended her to do. Hands, please," he continued as he pulled out his cuffs and closed them around Howie's wrists. "You have the right to remain silent..."
Ten minutes later, the bank was clear of all but actual customers. Outside, Blair stood next to Jim and watched as Howie and Melissa were loaded into squad cars and driven away. "What's going to happen to Melissa, Jim?" he asked. "I can't help feeling she was just caught up in something she didn't know how to get out of. I mean, she didn't even pass over the note –"
"And that'll be taken into consideration, Chief," Jim assured him. "Howie the Heist has a known pattern of using naïve young women and, like you said, she didn't actually begin the robbery process. She'll probably get a couple years' probation."
Blair stared after the disappearing squad cars. "Y'know, I kind of get the feeling she fell in with him because she doesn't have enough... confidence in herself, I guess. D'you suppose the judge could get her into... I dunno, a self-esteem class or workshop, or something?"
Jim snorted. "So now you want to add another hat to your repertoire? Anthropologist, teacher, guide, social worker?" He shrugged. "It's a thankless job, Sandburg, but if you feel that strongly about it, you could attend her hearing as a 'Friend of the Court'. And now, let's get lunch and get back to work."
"Thanks for the idea, big guy. I'll do that." He matched his steps to Jim's as they headed toward the truck a half-block down the street. "So, what're you in the mood for – Chinese, pizza, or deli?"
Three Days Later
"I'm just sayin', every little bit helps." Blair continued their discussion – or lecture, depending on who named it – as he and Jim walked from the elevator to the door labeled 'Major Crime'. "We already recycle; changing to compact fluorescents is just another tiny step of environmental responsibility."
"I'm not arguing, Sandburg," Jim replied. "But it's not very financially responsible to throw out all our incandescent bulbs unused. I think when they burn out is time enough to replace them; we don't have to change every lighting fixture this weekend."
"Okay, you've got a point. But I'm holding you to it; don't think I'll forget the next time we stock up on light bulbs," Blair warned.
Jim merely opened the door to Major Crime and held it for Blair to step through first – where he was met by whistles and applause. "There's the man of the hour!" Henri shouted, with a wide smile.
Blair stopped short, staring at the changes in the room – specifically centered around Jim's desk. A large serving platter on the desk held several dozen cupcakes, and a giant silver balloon bobbed in the air. It was tethered to the chair Blair used, and read, "Congratulations!" in rainbow-striped script.
"What?" Blair asked, bewildered. "I didn't do anything."
Jim chuckled and, with a hand on his back, urged him further into the room. "On the contrary, Chief; you do a lot of things – and they're finally coming home to roost. Captain, I believe this is your show."
"Sandburg," Simon boomed. Even standing in the doorway of his office, his voice filled the room. He continued as he strode forward to take a stand near the decorated desk. "The detectives of Major Crime wanted to congratulate you. You did a great job identifying the situation and alerting us to prevent a robbery." Whistles and applause from the detectives around the room filled the air again, each person seemingly trying to outdo everyone else.
Simon waited for the commotion to subside, then continued. "However, we've noticed the number of times you seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and decided that deserves some recognition. So... Rhonda?"
Smiling, Rhonda pulled a flat box out of her desk drawer and crossed to place it in Simon's hands. He removed the lid and held up the box for Blair – and everyone else – to see the small plaque inside.
"So, the personnel of Major Crime hereby present you with the first annual Blair Sandburg Trouble Magnet Award. Here's hoping that you don't win it every year."
Chuckling, Blair reached out to accept the box from the captain, while Megan and Henri demanded, "Speech! Speech!"
Blair shook his head. "You guys... thank you. I appreciate this – really I do – but, come on. I don't get in that much trouble. It could happen to anyone."
"But it doesn't," Jim pointed out. "It happens to you. I wanted to call it the 'Didn't Stay in the Truck' Award, but I was outvoted." The mock glare he threw his fellow detectives was met by more laughter, and catcalls.
"Well... who am I to argue against group consensus?"
Megan's smile was fond as she winked and said, "Why not, Sandy? You do it every day."
Blair allowed a thoughtful look to cross his face. "Come to think of it... you're right!" He grinned at the people gathered round. "But I suspect that you'd all rather nosh on cupcakes than listen to one of my speeches –"
"Thank you, Chief," Jim said, fervently.
"So, dig in, everybody." Blair waved at the platter, and watched as the detectives descended upon it. They really did resemble a swarm of locusts, he thought.
Simon cleared his throat meaningfully. "Ten minutes people, then back to work. This is a police department, not a frat house." He moved in to grab a cupcake with sprinkles on top and retreated to his office.
Blair dived in to grab two cupcakes, then passed one to Jim while he enjoyed his coworkers' good-natured teasing and returned it in kind. Soon enough, the others drifted away to their own desks, and Jim sat down and booted up his computer.
Blair tugged on the balloon string, watching the shiny laminar bob in the air, then sat next to Jim and planted his elbows on the desk, chin resting on one hand. "Well, that was a surprise," he murmured. "It seems a bit much for just making a phone-call."
Jim shrugged. "You're one of us, Chief. Don't you know that by now?"
"Really?" Blair's tone was hopeful. "I mean, everyone's been friendly, and I know the teasing is part of the group-bonding process, but I thought... they were just being nice because I'm your tagalong."
"Nope. We may think of you as a geeky little brother, but you're our geeky little brother. Believe me, an unwanted tagalong would get frostbite from the chill in the air, no matter how polite everyone was. Of course..." Jim looked up with an evil grin. "Geeky little brothers are expected to pull their own weight. How about you start obfuscating your way through the Clement report; I still can't sling the words like you do, to hide my use of..." He trailed off and discreetly tapped his nose.
Blair grinned. "You know, I expect my students to do their own homework. At your advanced age, don't you think it's time you learned?" He opened his laptop and logged on to the PD server. "But I suppose you use the tools at hand."
"Blair..." Jim's voice was troubled, and softly insistent. "Look at me." When Blair's eyes met his, he continued firmly, "Not a 'tool'. Never. We're friends sharing the load. If I ever made you feel differently... I swear I didn't mean it. I know I carp, but we are friends. Don't ever doubt it."
Blair searched Jim's eyes, then smiled and nodded. "Yeah, man, I know. It's just... I guess folks coming right out and saying it feels a little 'off'. It's usually me saying it, not other people, you know?"
"Well, of course not." Jim relaxed slightly when he saw Blair's acceptance. "No mushy stuff allowed; you're a de facto member of a police department, and we're macho, macho men."
"Even Megan?" Blair chuckled.
Jim snorted. "You do know the woman, right? Especially Megan."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Of course, she wouldn't have it any other way." Then he poked an elbow into Jim's ribs. "So does that mean I get to be a macho, macho man, too?"
"Sorry, Chief; you don't meet the height requirements for 'macho, macho'. But you do qualify for a single 'macho'. Good enough?"
"Good enough," Blair agreed as he turned back to the Clement report. "Thanks, friend."
"You got it, friend," Jim said, settling down to his own work while he considered Blair's words. Should he make an effort to tell the kid more often how important he was? Jim pictured himself stumbling over a declaration of thanks while shoving a bouquet into Blair's hands, and shook his head. Nope; would never happen.
But he could get tickets to next week's Jags game, with reservations for dinner at Boyden's Bistro before the game. ... Yeah, that would work; one friend to another, just the way it should be. He hoped it never changed.