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“Cascade’s Curious?”

Jim distractedly glanced up to acknowledge whichever fellow detective decided to bestow him with a visit, stopping by his desk and taking an intrigued peek at his case notes sprawled there.

“Oh, hey there, H. You’ve heard of it?”

Detective Henri Brown, usually just referred to as “H” by the rest of Major Crimes, scoffed playfully while making a broad ‘obviously’ gesture with his hands.

“Hell, I mean, name one person in the Northwest who hasn’t! You never really struck me as the kinda guy to listen, though. In fact, pretty much the polar opposite. Tell me you don’t actually believe in that kinda stuff?”

Jim narrowed his eyes and shook his head at H’s ridiculous accusation.

“Jeez, no! Thought you knew me better than that.”

“Hah! Nobody knows you better than that, Ellison! Now maybe if you actually graced us with your presence at poker night, that might change. But anyways, if you aren’t a listener, then what’s the note for?”

“Ah, well, you know the incidents that happened earlier this morning? The fires, ‘round 4:00 AM?”

H nodded, a more solemn yet still curious expression showing on his face.

“Shit, yeah. Rafe and I were called out about an hour following the aftermath… had to take witness statements and get information from the residents about anyone who might not have evacuated.”

Although Jim wasn’t very close with the rest of Major Crimes, H still knew just enough to recognize the signature Ellison questioning look that said ‘I demand more details immediately,’

“So far, eight potential casualties. Unsure about identities. The fire department hasn’t been able to fully search the place to confirm yet. But that being said, what’s the fire got to do with Cascade Curious?”

“Uh, well,” Jim began to explain as he gathered a few photos from the crime scene to present to the other detective. “Weird, creepy shit was found at the locations of all three incidents. Mostly just the cryptic writing, but also some… gross fucking wreath thing, I don’t know, something made out of dead birds. Whatever. Anyways, Simon thinks it’s a cult thing.”

“A cult thing?” H questioned, eyes wide. Sure Cascade was a big city with its fair share of wacky activity, but ‘cult things’ weren’t usually part of it.

“Yeah, cult thing. Major Crimes doesn’t exactly have a cult expert, though, so we figured we’d have to wrangle one instead. The podcast came to mind, since the host, well… maybe lives in Cascade city.” And hopefully not anywhere ELSE along the Cascade mountain range.

“No shit. You know who the host is, then?”

Jim only shrugged, subduing the urge to sheepishly scratch the back of his neck like a nervous child. Can’t let the fellow detective know about his secret dream of finding the host, right? It was hard enough already to hide the building up of giddy joy he felt about finally having a good excuse to use police resources to track the elusive curious Cascadian.

“No, not yet. That’s what Connor and I are working on right now, actually.” He nodded towards their nearby Aussie coworker, too busy diligently trying to track their mystery host to notice her name being brought up in the conversation. “We figured somebody would have to know who it is, but so far, we’ve got fuckall.”

“Damn,” muttered H with a thoughtful rub of his chin. “Well, I’m not on this case, but I’ll keep an eye and ear out. I’ll let you know if I see or hear anything.”

“Thanks, H. I appreciate it.”

Detective Brown stood stunned for a moment before nodding and walking away with a slight wave. Was that… the tiniest hint of a smile on Ellison’s lips? SURELY not. The man’s face was practically paralyzed. Hardass supreme. Never a wink, never a grin, typically a glare or an angry twitch of the jaw… But H was positive. His coworker’s demeanor was definitely lighter. Normally they wouldn’t have gotten along, but for some inexplicable reason, detective Ellison actually seemed… rather approachable that day!

He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he had received some good news, or something?

~~~

“Jimbo, I’m gonna be honest with you, I’ve found bugger all.”

Detective Megan Connor was perhaps the only soul in all of Major Crimes - rather, the whole police department (maybe even world), that wasn’t possessed by a visceral fear of Jim Ellison. No, the Australian exchange officer had nerves of steel.

That’s why she was still able to refer to him as “Jimbo,” a nickname he loathed, and not proceed to have nightmares of a certain ex-army ranger crawling through her window and politely removing her entire spine in one fell swoop as she slept.

No, Megan Connor was remarkably not afraid of James Ellison. A little intimidated? Sometimes, sure. But even so, Jim’s threat of “I’ll kick your ass if you call me that again” wasn’t enough to persuade her to stop. Besides, Jim told her that she looked like Cruella de Vil, so her bucket full of ‘fucks to give about Jim’ had long since been drained.

To her utter surprise, Jim didn’t even seem to notice, and there was a distinct lack of “call me that again and I’ll break your elbows” in his response. Instead, she was met with a somewhat distracted and disappointed mumble of “Me either.” Dare she question why Jim wasn’t his typical ultra-pissed, alpha-male self? …Nah, better not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Another hour passed by in dedicated silence. Detective Connor only stopped her search for a short lunch break, but Jim worked straight through his.

Her sudden cry of “AHA!” rattled Jim out of his work trance and nearly caused him to fall from his chair. On any other day, that kind of thing would have sent him down the warpath. Today, however, he simply strode to Connor’s desk with interest piqued.

“Did you find out who the host is???”

“No. BUT-“ she quickly added the continuation after her blunt denial upon noticing the disappointed look on detective Ellison’s face. “But, but, I DID find a lead, at least.”

“A lead? What kind?” He tried to mask the excitement in his voice. Don’t want to sound too enthusiastic…

“I found an old comment thread that references one of the earlier episodes of Cascade’s Curious, which was actually streamed from a different obscure platform than the current podcast one. One of these commenters mentions a couple bits of identifying information. It’s… well, to be honest, it really ain’t much. At all. But it’s better than what we got so far, yeah?”

“What’s the information???” Jim hurriedly grabbed his notepad and pen, still attempting to suppress his steadily growing elation.

“Alright so according to the thread, throughout various episodes, the host claimed he was 25. Apparently he also confirmed that he did live in the city of Cascade. Which isn’t a lot to go on, but it narrows things down. We coulda been searching the whole mountain range, Jimbo! Luckily it seems our mysterious mister podcaster is right here in our lovely ol’ city after all.”

‘Good,’ thought Jim, ‘Very good. Better than good, actually, FANTASTIC is more like it.’

“Anything else?”

“Hmm… this one here lists a couple places the host mentioned visiting often! I bet we could get Simon to agree to let us go and investigate, yeah? Oooh, maybe even go back and hang around a couple days in a row!” Connor’s eyes lit up in anticipation as she imagined working on files at a trendy coffee shop instead of the stuffy police station. “Purely, um, purely for investigative reasons, of course. After all, it’s unrealistic to assume we could run into him if we just drop by some place for only fifteen minutes, right?”

Jim eagerly agreed, mostly unaware of Connor’s ulterior interests. He was too busy being preoccupied with the thought of finally meeting the host. Wait, why did he care so much again? James Ellison was notoriously the exact opposite of a people-person. He didn’t like interacting with others, especially not strangers. Obviously Jim dealt with it as a necessary part of his job, but he’d never felt… excited about it before.

So why the hell was this time any different???

“Actually, yeah, that sounds pretty solid. How many places are mentioned?”

Detective Connor squinted back at her computer screen and tapped a finger over each location as it was mentioned in the thread.

“Let’s see… one, two, three… Three. Three places. Grab a pen, Jimbo, jot these down!”

She watched as the detective did as instructed, which was even more astonishing than his lack of reaction to the Jimbo-name-drop earlier. Nobody told James Ellison what to do and came out unscathed (other than Captain Banks, duh). Man, he really WAS out of it today…

“First up, Eleanor Library on the west side of town. Second, a little niche antique thrift shop. Unnamed, but I’m sure it won’t be too hard to figure it out. And finally, one of those trendy little hipster coffee shops. It’s either De-Stresso Espresso on Liberty Road or Java Dream on Anderson Street. Not on completely opposite sides of town, but not exactly close either.”

Jim nodded, deep in thought as he scribbled each location down. Library, thrift store, hipster coffee shops. Definitely sounded like typical 25 year old shit. He would have been beyond annoyed at the idea of having to stake out some stereotypical, pretentious, millennial bullshit mating grounds if it wasn’t for the fact that the person they were hunting down was the host of Cascade’s Curious. Why did that make a difference to him? Clearly the guy was a typical obnoxious hipster kid. He was probably the most irritating, bandwagon-hopping motherfucker to ever walk planet Earth. After all, he had a podcast.

“Doubt it’ll be difficult to convince Simon that investigating these places is necessary, especially if they’re the only leads we have.”

With that, Jim swiveled to face the door to the captain’s office. No time like the present! He walked up to the door with purpose and knocked courteously before opening it after hearing the gruff “Enter” that came from inside.

“Sir,” the detective began before setting the notepad on Simon’s desk. “About the arson case. Connor and I managed to dig up a couple leads. The only information we have right now is that the guy we’re looking for frequents these places. I’d like permission to spend a few days investigating them.”

Captain Banks shifted in his desk chair to examine the notepad, once again chewing on the end of a cigar, which he was hardly ever not doing.

“Hmm… Alright, but only because I want all this creepy voodoo shit wrapped up as soon as possible. And, only under a few conditions.”

“Those conditions being?” Jim was ready to jump on board with anything at this point. The captain could demand the soul of his firstborn and he’d hand it over in an instant.

“First, you have to bring case files to work on with you. I’m not about to have anybody sitting in a coffee shop all day just twiddling their thumbs.”

Made sense to Detective Ellison. Optimize available time by writing reports while they waited. The fact that it would help them blend in with all of the aspiring writers that inevitably flock to coffee shops to fuel their own egos was an added bonus.

“Second, you’re bringing Detective Connor too.”

Before Jim could protest, Simon cut him off with a raised hand.

“And before you get all ‘pissed-off lone wolf’ on me, save your breath. I’m not changing my mind. You’re working together on this one. I don’t think I can comfortably send you into a hipster-infested junkie joint alone because I’m not convinced you wouldn’t go postal and throttle the first kid that busts out a vape. Connor is going. I know she’s the only one who isn’t afraid to grab the Ellison by the horns. Now, go. It’s 2:00 PM on a Saturday. Those places are going to be crawling with young adults. It’s probably your best chance. Dismissed.”

After finishing his little speech, an impressive amount of words for the generally quiet and brusque captain, Simon returned to working on his own complicated-looking legal documents. Jim took that as the cue to leave. He exited the office, not-so-gently shutting the door behind him. His ideal scenario of meeting the podcast host (which he TOTALLY hasn’t fantasized about every day at least once) didn’t involve Detective Connor, but he knew Simon was right about this one.

Noticing a shape ominously approaching her desk from across the bullpen, Megan looked up, and upon seeing who was back in front of her desk, she grinned in anticipation.

“Well? What’s the verdict, Jimbo?”

Jim could only roll his eyes and shoot her an icy glare.

“Grab your coat, we’re headed to Eleanor.”

~~~

“Wow…” the Aussie detective whispered in awe as she and Jim hopped out of the latter’s truck. “Hate to be a drag, mate, but if the bloke we’re looking for really is here, we aren’t gonna find him.”

Jim tilted his head upwards and surveyed the building before them.

“I mean, it’s bigger than bloody Aus!”

Connor had a point. Eleanor Library boasted a monsterous size, at least four stories high, consisting of three separate buildings. Characterized by its Renaissance inspired architecture, the library was meticulously detailed with domes, arches, and columns, all perfectly symmetrical. A grand atrium decorated the front of the central building, serving as the main entrance. On either side of it were the other two parts of the structure, each with their own secondary main entrance. The majority of the library was various shades of cream in color, though the domes, columns, and several other parts were a contrasting white.

The two Major Crimes detectives nonchalantly made their way into the center building and took a moment to marvel at the exquisite interior. “Ornate” was the first word that came to mind. The second word(s) would be “still fucking enormous.” One could easily get lost among the seemingly endless towering shelves stuffed with thousands upon thousands of books. The host of Cascade’s Curious definitely had some good taste if this was the library he chose to spend his time in.

“You know Jimbo, I just thought of a little complication with our plan here.”

“Hm?” Jim tore his attention away from the intricate patterns that adorned the beams supporting the ceiling. He was aware enough to remember that staring at pretty, intricate designs often triggered those highly unwanted catatonic episodes of his. If Connor had waited even a second longer to speak, he probably would have been lost. He maybe would have thanked her, if it wasn’t for the fact that: 1. James Ellison didn’t often thank people and 2. It would sound completely insane. ‘Thanks for speaking just then, I almost went unconscious with my eyes wide open.’ Absolutely not.

“We’re lookin’ for a podcast host.”

Jim blinked at her and frowned in confusion. Well, fucking OBVIOUSLY, Detective Connor. That’s quite an astute observation there, ma’am, it’s no wonder as to why you’re regarded as one of Major Crime’s best.

“…Yeah?”

“A podcast host, someone we can only identify by the sound of his voice.”

Recognition slowly began to creep across his face.

“…Yeah.”

“Someone we can only identify by the sound of his voice… Jimbo… we’re in a library.”

“Ah. Yeah.”

Oh boy, it was going to be a long afternoon.

~~~

At 11:00 PM, the library’s closing hour, the two Major Crimes detectives finally regrouped in the now dark and empty parking lot, both with bleary eyes and weary minds.

After nine straight hours of nonstop scouring the library, their investigation had turned up nothing of value. They had started with searching through the central building together before splitting up, Connor taking the left side and Jim taking the right. They combed through each shelf and interrogated every individual.

They would introduce themselves, explain who they were looking for and why, and ask the people if they knew anything about it. Everyone said no, which they were kind of expecting. Of course nobody would recognize the voice of someone who frequents Eleanor library.

People didn’t talk in libraries.

“Connor, if I see one more fucking bookshelf in my entire life, I’m going to kill every single librarian in Washington.”

“You know, Jimbo? I think I’m with you on that one.”

Despite their mutual fatigue, the two detectives knew they had to get back to the station to report their progress. That, and Connor still had to get her car from the parking garage. So even though they both desperately wanted to succumb to the blissful promise of sleep and alluring, dreamy comfort of the rock hard freezing asphalt, they hauled themselves into Jim’s truck and returned to the PD empty handed.

Detective Ellison stalked through the bullpen and unceremoniously flung the door to Simon’s office open. Captain Banks was still present, working a later shift after taking the afternoon to sleep. Jim figured he wanted to be ready and raring to go if their unknown gaggle of serial arsonists struck at the witching hour again.

Simon set down his pen and stared at the disgruntled man who had ever so rudely busted into the room.

“Skipping the pleasantries, Ellison?”

“Connor and I found fuckall and if you ever send me to another library as long as I live, I’ll kick your ass.”

“Go home before you stretch my generosity past its limits and get written up.”

~~~

“Okay… Today, we’ll focus on De-Stresso Espresso. Then tomorrow we can focus on the Java Dream. And I think it’s safe for us to only spend the morning and early afternoon at each. That way, I won’t develop a burning hatred of Cascade coffee shops so powerful that it sends me back to Australia. Libraries are enough as is.”

Detectives Ellison and Connor once again found themselves together in Jim’s truck. Today’s test of perseverance would be the De-Stresso Espresso coffee shop. What a stupid ass name. Jim thought the world would be a whole lot easier to navigate if everything was just named as it was. Why call a place “Pasta Pavillion '' when you could just call it “Italian Restaurant”? Why call a thing “television” when you could just call it “picture screen”? Why call something “coming out” when you could just call it “disappointing your father”?

The detective used to like coffee places. Not ones like De-Stresso, though. Those kinds were always littered with college hipsters. His preference lies with ones like Coffee’N’Toffee, the café and dessert shop combo that existed on the first floor of the building he lived in. Coff’N’Toff did it right, and he definitely didn’t only think that because of his crippling sugar addiction. He hadn’t stopped there in a while now, though…

Coffee places, like most food establishments, never failed to lovingly thrust Jim right into sensory hell. The nauseating smell of the piles of food and the booming sound of customer chatter mixed with kitchen clatter consistently made the detective crave the sweet release of peaceful non-existence.

Jim clenched his jaw as he parked the truck in the lot outside De-Stresso. Unlike himself, Connor was looking forward to their little field trip. She knew Jim mentioned hating those kinds of places, but she didn’t know why, and of course he’d never tell her, either.

Despite his teeth-grinding resentment for coffee shops, this was a necessary evil.

Neither detective wanted to admit it, but they shared a sinking feeling that this too would turn out to be a fruitless endeavor.

~~~

Jim had never felt more out of place in his life. Even his detestable estranged family made him feel more normal than the hell hole he and detective Connor had just left.

The two of them spent the whole morning wondering what the fuck a ‘caramel macchiato’ was supposed to be. “I thought they sold coffee here” had been uttered at some point while perusing the menu boards. Jim was pretty sure “affogato” wasn’t even a real word.

Once again, everything would be so much easier if everyone just called shit what it really was. Just call the shit coffee! Call it ‘espresso with milk!’ Call it ‘ice cream coffee’! Why was that so hard?!

On top of all that nonsense, as he had expected, Jim was plunged into the seventh layer of sensory hell the second he’d dared to cross the threshold of the shop.

For the first time, he found himself secretly thankful that Simon had insisted on Connor tagging along with him. If Jim had come alone, there was no way he would have been consciously present enough to be on the lookout for the podcast host.

~~~

When distinguished detectives Ellison and Connor stormed into the bullpen on the third day of the investigation, it caused more than a few quizzical heads to turn.

“Yo, why didn’t anyone tell me the zombie apocalypse started?” a younger colleague asked while smoothing back his hair, a typical activity for the trendy and appearance-conscious detective to be occupied with.

“Fuck off, Rafe,” growled a thoroughly aggravated Jim. He and Connor had just returned from their second coffee shop adventure to the Java Dream, which somehow managed to be worse than De-Stresso.

“Jeez, Ellison! Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

Jim gave no verbal response, but the iconic furious glint in his eyes and the twitch of his jaw was enough to shut Rafe up.

“What happened to you two?”

Ah, now that was a much more welcoming voice. It was significantly less annoying than the pompous, whiny one that belonged to a certain Brian Rafe.

“Taggert,” Jim stated in acknowledgement, “Connor and I just got back from an investigation at the Java Dream.”

“Oh that’s right, Banks mentioned you and Connor were trying to track down some kind of cult specialist or something? How’d it go?”

“BLOODY TERRIBLE!”

If the two recent disheveled arrivals didn’t have the attention of the entire bullpen before, they definitely did now, thanks to Connor’s interjection. The Aussie detective’s reputation had her pegged as a jovial, positive, energetic type, so her sudden shout was on par with being about as expectation-shattering as if Jesus Christ of Nazareth himself descended from heaven to kill the Pope.

Or, in other words, it was unexpected.

“Connor! What happened???”

“God! In all my years I’ve never met a more insufferable lot of bogans! Never in my life! At least at the other joint we were ignored! These ‘progressive’ college motherfuckers wouldn’t stop harassing us until we bailed! I understand why a lotta folks aren’t too fond of cops, hell, half of us hate each other! But we were there to solve… arson homicide! What- do they want us to just NOT apprehend whoever’s responsible for several heinous atrocities??? We even tried explainin’ ourselves, and they STILL wouldn’t hear it!”

The entire bullpen found itself suffocated by a flabbergasted silence. Connor’s uncharacteristic outburst had left every other detective dumbfounded. Every other detective except Ellison, that is. Being present for the same shitshow that Connor was, he had been able to watch the pressure build and expected the explosion that followed. Now that the steam had finally erupted, he looked… almost amused? Possibly even - dare one say it - proud?

“Ellison.”

Silent heads turned from the recently arrived detectives to instead face Captain Banks on the opposite side of the bullpen. He had slipped out of his office to observe the cause of the sudden commotion and waited until Connor concluded her tirade. Everyone waited with bated breath to hear what the Captain had to say.

“Ellison,” he stated again with a slow, disappointed shake of his head, “you’re a terrible influence. You should have warned me that your sour attitude was contagious.”

The tone he said it with was serious, but everyone could tell he was joking. Captain Banks always sounded serious regardless of his words, which often caught those who weren’t as familiar with his subtle mannerisms off-guard. Cascade PD’s Major Crimes detectives could always tell, though, and the resulting laughter worked wonders to clear the tension in the air.

“I take it this trip was just as unsuccessful? Shame. After your last stop we’ll get Connor a new partner so she can recover from chronic Ellison-itis.”

More laughter. The noise soon faded into quieter chuckling as Jim’s intention to genuinely continue the discussion became apparent.

“If we can even find our last stop, sir.”

“…Meaning?”

“Connor and I can’t figure out where it is. We don’t have its name, just a description, and we have no idea where to start.”

Simon chewed on the end of his cigar thoughtfully before crossing his arms and giving the pair of detectives a single nod.

“Let’s hear what you have. Everyone, pay attention.”

“Supposedly,” Jim explained while pulling out his notepad, “its some niche, historical thrift store. Like, ancient artifacts, weird tribal knick knacks, junk like that. Makes sense that somebody into cult shit would frequent the place, I guess. That’s really everything.”

With the description’s conclusion came an unusually quiet bout for the typically chatty bunch. All of Major Crimes stood around, deep in thought, racking their brains for any recollection of such a place. Each of them knew internally that it wouldn’t work, though. They were cops, their brains just refused to acknowledge the existence of any store that didn’t sell doughnuts or identical black and gray shirts.

Five minutes passed with zero developments. Even looking online didn’t help. You wanted to find a specific thrift store? Without a name?? In a major city??? Forget it! Just before everyone gave up and returned to whatever they were working on prior to Hurricane Connor, Rafe suddenly snapped his fingers and sat forward with a start.

“Yo, I got it!”

“You know what the place is?” Jim asked, a bit surprised. Somebody like Rafe? Knowing something about history? Impossible, he thought. The man only knew two things: comb hair, care about fashion. He MAYBE even knew how to tie his shoes.

“Well no-”

Ah. Figures.

“BUT, I know someone who totally would!” Rafe added proudly before leaning back in his chair again.

“...Really? Who???”

The abrupt, sparking energy of excitement and anticipation in the room was palpable.

“Listen, I got this younger cousin, yeah? She goes to Rainier, right? And she’s studying Anthropology there. ALL they talk about is society, artifacts, and ritual shit. Cousin asked for my opinion on a paper about the history of spoons being implemented into society, once. Total snooze-fest, in my opinion. I’m telling you, head over to Rainier, find the Anthropology department, I guarantee those nerds would know the place.”

The detectives supposed it was the best chance they had. Connor and Jim met Simon’s gaze, a silent request for permission to leave clearly present in their eyes. The captain simply nodded and waved towards the elevators.

“Good enough, get moving.”

~~~

Rainier was probably one of the better known universities in Washington. When the pair of detectives arrived, Jim decided it had a pretty nice campus, too. The whole place had been going through an ambitious decade of redesign projects dedicated towards modernizing and optimizing. Whatever that meant. The campus now had a huge center building that despite being brand new still had pleasant traits of an older fashioned architectural style. Beyond the large structure was a vast courtyard surrounded by a walkway, along which were the rows of other important buildings. Well, it certainly was organized, that’s for sure. And somewhat busy too, the detectives thought, figuring there must have been at least twenty students strewn about.

Jim had never really paid too much attention to Rainier before. He wasn’t remotely the academic type, but he was pretty certain he had attended college at some point… somewhere… He found it difficult to remember, though, most stuff that occurred after the whole “ family estrangement” ordeal and before getting rescued from being stranded in Peru was pretty fuzzy.

The pair of detectives entered the central hall and approached the university’s main desk, where a younger-looking student attendant smiled warmly at them. Another male student sat nearby with headphones on, feet kicked up on the desk, unaware of their presence entirely.

“Hello, and welcome to Rainier University! My name is Melissa, how can I help you?”

“I’m detective James Ellison, and this is detective Megan Connor. We’re part of Cascade PD’s Major Crimes Unit.”

At their introduction, Melissa’s soft expression faded into a more serious and slightly nervous one. Cops weren’t all too uncommon on campus. It was a typical college that harbored typical college shenanigans like drinking devil juice and having bake sales. Detectives from a unit called “Major Crimes” were not common, and the attendant did not like the sound of it.

“Is something wrong?” she asked nervously, unsure if she really wanted to know the answer.

“For our current investigation, it’s necessary that we meet with someone that has a specific expertise. One source recommended an Anthropology department. Is there a professor on campus we can speak to?”

“Oh!” Melissa’s eyes lit up, suddenly full of her previous warmth with a hint of excitement. “Dr. Sandburg! You’re definitely going to want to look for Dr. Sandburg.”

“Where might we find him?”

She quickly pulled a paper map out from a drawer and highlighted a route across campus with expert precision. As an attendant, Melissa had excellent knowledge of every single sidewalk Rainier had.

“Here! He’s most likely in his office, in the anthropology department of Hargrove Hall. It’s on the second floor, first door on the hallway to the right! There should be a nameplate on the wall, just in case. If he’s not there, feel free to wait in the office for a bit, he’ll probably be back. And if he doesn’t show for a while, you could track down Eli Stoddard, his office will be further down the same hall.”

The detectives thanked the desk attendant for her help before starting their journey to Hargrove Hall. Their path, rather simple and straightforward thanks to the university’s new optimization, would probably take only around five minutes. Jim felt out of place walking along the campus sidewalks, not having any previous college “good old days” memories that immediately came to mind to reminisce on. Maybe he would try some introspection later. Connor, on the other hand, appeared to be soaking the atmosphere in with much enthusiasm. Jim guessed she might have been part of a sorority or something of the like. Did Australia call them sororities? Did they ride kangaroos to school? Probably. He wouldn’t know.

“Hopefully this will be the second to last trip!” Connor joked.

Right, after they meet with this dweeby professor and get the name of the even dweebier shop, they’d just have to go there, wait for their evasive host, and that would be it.

Jim and Connor entered Hargrove and ascended to the second floor, thrilled knowing that their ridiculous goose chase was almost over. As they approached the office, Jim could hear someone shuffling around inside accompanied by the notes of soft music. He couldn’t recognize it, noting that it sounded like the kind of thing a cliche movie anthropologist would listen to because of its more tribal vibe.

Rounding the corner and stepping into the open doorway, the detectives caught sight of an individual who was too busy dusting off a comically disorganized shelf of artifacts to notice their arrival.

He looked too young to be a professor, much less someone with a PhD. Must be an assistant, or something. The kid had long auburn curly hair pulled back into a low, messy ponytail. His dull flannel shirt, faded jeans, and worn converse shoes all looked like they had seen better days.

Yeah, definitely a poor college assistant. Jim stepped further into the office and cleared his throat to draw the student’s attention.

“Excuse me, we’re looking for Dr. Sandburg?” The kid would probably have a pretty good idea of where the professor was off to and when he’d return.

The curly-haired stranger ceased his dusting before turning to them with a positively infectious smile on his face. Jim’s eyes met the stranger’s, vibrant, sapphire blue, shielded behind his round glasses. Total nerd. Totally gorgeous nerd. It wasn’t handsomeness, that wasn’t the right word. No, pretty. Beautiful. That was way more accurate.

Jeez, when was the last time he ever found anybody beautiful, much less another guy? Wasn’t he straight? He had a wife! ...Well, an ex-wife, but still! Was he bi??? Wait, had he been having super gay thoughts this entire time? Later, Jim, introspection later! Information now!

In an upbeat, sing-songy voice the ‘student’ replied, “Guilty as charged! What can I do for you?”