Disclaimer: All usual disclaimers apply.
Arnaud You Don't!
Jim let the loft door swing shut behind him, and before it had even closed was looking into the fridge.
Blair glanced up from his laptop. "Long day."
As it was almost midnight, this was a statement rather than a question, but Jim answered it anyway.
"Stakeout, paperwork, more stakeout, much, much more paperwork."
He uncapped the bottle of beer he'd been looking forward to for the last three hours, and crooned 'aaaah' to it appreciatively. His senses assured him that this was the perfect bottle of beer, the right temperature, the right aroma, exactly the right blend of ingredients.
"Drink it, Jim, don't date it," Blair advised.
Jim ignored him. He savoured the first mouthful. It was an idyllic moment.
Until it was interrupted by a peremptory knock on the loft door.
"I'll get it," Jim said hastily. It wasn't Simon, who carried a faint aroma of eau-de-cigar, nor the lady from down the hallway with her stronger one of smugly overfed cat, and they were the only midnight visitors he was comfortable with Blair greeting.
He put his beer downa sad partingand thought of another possibility as he opened the door. "This had better not be something to do with your love life."
"Not my types," Blair murmured, but sentinel soft as he looked at the two men who were trying to come in.
Jim blocked the way, assessing them.
One was tall, in a rather gangly way, casually dressed, and with a hairstyle even Jim realised had gone wrong somewhere. The other was smarter, much shorter and looked as if he thought he could walk through Jim.
"Federal agents!" this one said, as though he thought it was something to be proud of, and flashed an ID so quickly that anyone but a sentinel would have missed the details.
Jim, however, got them. "Fish and Game?" he asked, surprised.
Both agents looked annoyed.
Blair looked up from his laptop with as much reluctance as Jim had abandoned his beer. "What do Fish and Game want that involves calling on people at midnight?"
"Midnight?" The Fish and Game men looked at each other.
"You told me it was ten o'clock!" the short one said.
"Did not. I said we could drive it by ten o'clock. In something other than a rusty van."
"Well why didn't you tell me the time when arrived?"
"My watch has stopped. I think the qui... something's got in its works. Anyway, what's wrong with your watch?"
"I lent it to Claire."
"She doesn't need a watch. She's got ten thousand electronic clocks."
"Ah ha. And someone could change them all electronically. You try doing that to a classic watch."
"Paranoid!" Blair said happily, bouncing up just as Jim was drawing breath to bellow for silence. "I knew I'd seen you somewhere before. You were the paranoid at my therapy encounter group."
Maybe they were lunatics masquerading as federal agents? If so, Jim could just arrest them and get back to his wilting beer. The short, possible-Fed, possible-lunatic was looking at Sandburg. "Hey, that's right kid. I remember you too. Don't tell me... Panic attacks, right?"
"Right," Blair said. He turned to Jim. "We were the most normal there, so we generally got together for coffee. There were some truly weird disorders."
"The guy with the kitchen utensil phobia," the paranoid-lunatic-Fed said reminiscently.
"And the one whose wife sent him because he couldn't have sex if there was a teddy bear in the room," Blair added.
"Now that's not a common problem," paranoid's partner said, getting interested.
"Shut up! All of you!" shouted Jim, who wasn't. It was a pity they were still standing half in the hallway. A door immediately opened further along.
"It's that detective again, dear."
"He's frightened Tibbles."
"He has some strange men there."
"VERY strange ones this time."
Jim hastily waved his visitors in; the main danger they posed seemed to be to his sanity. He tried not to sniff the taller one too obviously. There was a faint but truly unusual odour hanging about him.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he asked.
That should have been simple enough. Unfortunately it prompted Shorty not only to give his nameHobbesbut to start a combined CV and eulogy of the Federal Way. His partnerFawkeslooked as if he'd heard it all before. Often before...
"Um, I think the important part of what Jim wanted to know would have been the bit about 'what do you want' ," Blair said helpfully. "Is it a poaching problem again."
Hobbes and Fawkes looked blank, and then at one another in a way that Jim found distinctly suspicious.
"Not poaching," Hobbes said.
"We're a very specialised part of Fish and Game," Fawkes offered.
"Kind of unique."
Jim had decided reluctantly that they really were Federal agents and not lunatics, or at any rate they really were Federal agents. Over on the table, his beer was growing old without him.
"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" he enunciated very clearly.
"We want Mr Sandburg's cooperation in a federal investigation," Hobbes said, like it was a privilege.
Fawkes clarified, "We just want a bit of his DNA."
Jim moved right into their personal space, and between them and Sandburg. This was unacceptable. Sandburg's genotype was off limits, especially to Fish and Game.
"What do you mean you want a bit of his DNA? Why?"
"It's classified," Hobbes said promptly.
"Then you don't get it," Jim said equally promptly.
"But, Jim, I don't mind..."
"Yes you do, chief. You don't know what these jokers really are. They could be some covert group hiding under the Fish and Game label."
Improbable though it was that any covert group would employ Fawkes and Hobbes, it seemed Jim had hit the jackpot. Body signs in both the Feds lit up and flashed 'guilty'.
"How about you tell me the unclassified parts of why you want my DNA?" Blair suggested peaceably to Fawkes while Jim and Hobbes glared and raised hackles at each other.
Fawkes shrugged. "Basically, just to prove you're really you, which is in your own interests if you think about it, because if you weren't really you then the real you would have a problem and would definitely want the impostor to be caught, while if you are really you..."
"That's it!" Jim yelled. "Out! Both of you, out! You want Sandburg's DNA, you come back with warrants and all the paperwork. But I can tell you now, he's definitely himself."
"And believe me, he's got ways of telling that you probably can't imagine," Blair said brightly.
Hobbes looked deeply shocked.
Fawkes looked speculative.
"Out!" Jim repeated.
"Sandburg, call Captain Banks."
"Simon will be..." Blair caught Jim's expression and prudently changed 'asleep' to 'very annoyed we're being harassed.'
"All right," Fawkes said, catching his partner's arm.
Hobbes, bouncing pugnaciously on the balls of his feet, said, "This is a federal investigation!"
Then Fawkes once more got that suspicious look, waggled his head at Hobbes and nodded to the hallway. Against all the odds, Hobbes gave in and went.
Jim just knew they were up to something. He knew Hobbes' type. Little guys like that were tenacious. Hobbes wasn't the sort to give in. And there was something distinctly sneaky about Fawkes. He kept himself between Blair and the door.
Fawkes went out, but Hobbes paused in the doorway. "Sorry we bothered you, detective. Sandburgnice to meet you again. Glad things worked out."
Jim hadn't heard anything so artificially good-natured since the day Simon welcomed the mayor's nephew for a work experience visit. He glared at Hobbes with even deeper suspicion, and cranked up all his senses.
His senses told him things that didn't make sense, but did in a way, if you ignored the fact it was impossible.
Hobbes' arm rose just a little, as if someone had squeezed in under it before he let the door close behind him. The curious smell that Jim had associated with Fawkes grew stronger, and the air felt colder. He heard a heartbeat between himself and the closed door, although no one was there. He concentrated. If he extended his sight fully, there was a sort of shimmer in the airand it was heading towards Sandburg.
Jim had two choices herelogic or action. It was no contest really. He decided to jump the shimmer. If he hit thin air, he could always tell Blair that he'd tripped or something.
He jumped, and it wasn't thin air, not by a long shot. It was solid, and felt human, though cold. He brought his knee up sharply in a way that would be very painful to any male shimmer, and since his hand had hold of something that felt like an arm, he bent it up.
"Jim, what the hell...?"
Blair's alarmed question cut off, as the shimmer yelped, "Ow, ow, ow. Oh crap!"
There was a shower of bits of something silvery, dropping all over the pristine loft floor and suddenly Jim was holding a groaning Fawkes who was trying to double over without his arm breaking in Jim's grip.
Hobbes burst back in, gun in hand. Rather than overcome with guilt at being part of a sneakyextremely sneakyFed assault on Sandburg's DNA, he seemed to think his partner was the victim here.
Jim let go of Fawkes, who curled up foetally, still going 'Oh crap' at regular intervals. Jim's knee had obviously been right on target. Hobbes glared at Jim, and knelt quite protectively next to Fawkes. For the first time, it occurred to Jim that it might be conceivable not to dislike everything about Hobbes.
"Jim! He was invisible!" Blair said, as if he'd only just found his voice. "He was invisible, and you sensed him! That was just awesome. What sense did you use?"
Jim waved at him irritably, though Hobbes and Fawkes seemed to be too distracted to notice anything odd about this remark. "All of them," he muttered. "Tell you later."
He took a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and tossed them to Fawkes, who clutched them to his crotch.
Hobbes seemed to have satisfied himself that his partner would live to love again. He straightened up.
"How did you know he was there?" he asked.
"That's classified," Jim said smugly.
"Now you listen to me, my friend. Darien Fawkes is a Federal agent on dangerous assignments. If he can be detected in some way we don't know about, we're going to have a problem."
"I've already got a problem," Fawkes moaned. "Ow. He knew I was there. It wasn't a fluke."
"It's a matter of national security," Hobbes said, as if that was the magic word.
"Oh yes?" Jim said. "And if you find how I detected him interesting enough, I end up in some lab with invisible boy here in the interests of national security?"
Hobbes looked genuinely outraged. "What do you think we are?"
"Oh come on," Fawkes said, obviously not sharing Hobbes idealised view of federal morals. "I think he's worked out quite well what we are."
"Someone did this to you in a lab?" Blair asked, horrified.
Hobbes and Fawkes both spoke at once.
"You don't have the clearance even to think about it."
Jim shrugged, thinking about it anyway, and doing it aloud.
"Fawkes controls the invisibility. It's some sort of biological source. Metallic by-product?"
He was guessing, mainly because of the odd musky-chemical scent which had been stronger when Fawkes was invisible. They both stared at him with gratifyingly open-mouthed wonder.
It might have been another idyllic momentbut it was once more interrupted by a pounding on the door.
It was Simon this time. Jim had already subconsciously noticed a faint waft of his cigars, and enough tramping feet to suggest he'd brought the troops. As he opened the door there was also a wailing yowl, the sound of Dora, the cat-lady's, door again, and the beginning of an indignant tirade.
"I thought it was a mat," Henri apologised. This seemed to make matters worse.
"We're popular tonight," Blair commented, switching off the laptop with resignation. Jim's beer had faded into a warm flat decline and could only be mourned. Jim hastily ushered in Simon, Henri, Rafe and Megan. His neighbour, her arms dripping with cat, watched them balefully and muttered about police brutality.
Hobbes had gone back to his more pugnacious stance at the sight of the visitors, and Fawkes had abandoned the frozen peas and unfolded painfully to his feet. Jim supposed he'd better introduce them.
"Fawkes and Hobbes, Federal agents," he said briefly.
"And Jim's scared the..." Megan began in a too-audible whisper to Rafe.
"They came to check up on Sandburg," Jim went on loudly in an effort to drown this out. All his colleagues were staring at the damp patch left by the thawing peas on the front of Darien's trousers though, so he explained impatiently, "It was just peas, Simon."
"I can see it's pee, but really Jim...!"
"FROZEN PEAS," Blair enunciated helpfully.
Fawkes, belatedly getting the point of what they'd been thinking, glared at them all and went to sulk behind the table where his lower half was invisible.
"They came to check on Sandburg because they thought he might be an impostor," Jim ploughed on, with the sort of determination that brought down helicopters and stopped trains. "Though why they thought that..."
"But we had the impostor," Megan interrupted.
"He was an amazing likeness," Brown added.
"To look at," Rafe qualified. "He didn't have the Sandburg style, though."
"Not so cool, intelligent, articulate?" Blair asked, getting interested.
"We arrested him," Simon said, "because he'd been sitting at your computer without speaking for half an hour, and then failed to show any interest when an almost naked singing telegram woman arrived."
Blair frowned. "And I missed it. Do you know, there's never been an even half naked woman in Major Crimes in all the hours..."
"What did the impostor want?" Jim asked.
"That's what we'd like to find out. He seems to have escaped from a secure cell, without anyone seeing a thing. He left behind all this, too."
Rafe held out a pile of clothesthat wouldn't have fooled Jim for a moment, but might have said Sandburg to the inattentiveand a plastic bag of something disgusting.
"Forensics think it might be some sort of synthetic skin," Simon said.
Jim had continued to monitor the Fish and Game men, and he noticed their bodily signs getting quite agitated now.
"You know about this," he said, turning to them.
"It's a complicated case," Hobbes obstructed.
"I'm sure between you, you can give us the long and the short of it," Jim said. Personally he thought that was rather witty, but the only people who got it were Megan and Blair. Megan grinned, but Blair gave him a reproachful look which meant he'd just gone into the red on the PCometer.
Hobbes glanced at Fawkes very briefly, but with what Jim thought looked like concern rather than consultation.
"We think the impostor is a man called Arnaud," he said.
Jim sensed a wave of hostility from Fawkes at the name.
"We don't know what Arnaud wants with Sandburg," Hobbes said. "Arnaud's one of our 'most wanted'. We got close to him a week ago, just missed him, but found some stuff on the computer he had to abandon when he bolted. Pictures, articles, names. Our boffin..."
"It wasn't her, it was Eberts," Fawkes put in sotto voce.
"Eberts is a boffin."
"No he's not. Geek maybe. Claire's the boffin."
"ONE OF OUR EXPERTS cross referenced everything, and decided that for some reason Arnaud was not only interested in Mr Sandburg and his research, but was actually preparing to impersonate him."
"But why would anyone pretend to be Sandy?" Megan asked, getting neatly to what Jim felt was the relevant point.
"If he wanted to get into our files, lots of people would have better clearance," Simon agreed. "You think Arnaud could disguise himself as almost anyone?"
"Master of it," Hobbes said. "He doesn't have a very definite appearance of his own."
Jim made a note of that remark, but all he said aloud was, "It would have to be something Blair specialises in."
Simon quelled his officers with an irritated glance. "It seemed to be Sandburg's computer he wanted to get into. Maybe he's interested in your research, Blair. The stuff that's not in the public domain."
He looked meaningfully at Jim, but Jim had got the point anyway. What had Blair got that was unique on his more protected files? Sentinel research, and that was all.
Fawkes mantra suddenly seemed very appropriate.
Blair was equally alarmed, and with good reason. "Oh man, now I understand something that's been bugging me for a few days. People at Rainier have been thinking they've seen me times when I know I haven't been in school. And my papers in my room have been jumbled."
"You could tell?" Megan asked. She'd seen Blair's room.
"And I think someone had logged on the network there in my name, though I don't know how anyone could get my password. This guy must have been pretending to be me all week."
Jim caught something in his voice besides the natural indignation. This was freaking Blair out, and no wonder. The memory of Lash still had the power to slither through their nightmares.
"This Arnaud was only posing as you to get into your files, Chief," he said hastily. "And he won't have succeeded.
"No," Blair agreed, brightening. The laptop where he kept anything confidentialand Jim was highly confidentialhad been home all week suffering from some kind of low grade virus and waiting for Blair to apply the software Tylenol. Jim knew all about it; he'd had to listen to the symptoms, the probable cause and the best treatment, in exhaustive detail. Blair had been like a nervous mother with a spotty baby.
The laptop had only just been pronounced germ free and the quarantine lifted. Jim had been looking forward this evening to hearing Blair tap away on it while Jim peacefully downed a couple of beers.
He explained the laptop side of the equation to Simon and the others.
"All very well," Simon said. "Maybe he didn't get what he wanted, but he had access to a lot of stuff he shouldn't have seen, and he just walked out of lock up. We have no idea what he really looks like, either."
Jim had some ideas, involving a shimmering of light and a chill in the air, but he kept them to himself for now.
"Arnaud won't give up," Fawkes said. "He'll still go after whatever it is of Sandburg's he wants. And he'll have your home address if he's been rummaging through Sandburg's papers and files."
Jim's thoughts had been heading in that direction as well. "It does seem likely his next move would be to try here," he said to Simon. "We ought to prepare for the possibility, anyway."
"I'm still dealing with the fall out from his escape," Simon said. "But I can leave you Henri and Rafe to watch the entrance and you have..."
"The full assistance of experienced federal agents," Hobbes said happily. "Don't worry, my friend. We'll be right here."
Jim sighed. He'd had a feeling they would be. Hobbes obviously thought of himself as a sort of federal mountie, always getting his man, and Fawkes seemed to have something personal against Arnaud.
Henri and Rafe went to watch the street with more good nature than Jim would have shown, considering they too had spent most of the day on stake out.
"Lend me some cuffs," he said to Henri as they went, and gave Blair a pointed look which meant 'don't mention the ones in my jacket pocket.'
Amazingly Blair not only understood but actually cooperated, though Jim could see the head of steam building up in him as he managed to keep the questions in. Redirecting his curiosity was generally the best safety valve. As soon as Henri and Rafe were out of earshot, Jim asked Hobbes, "Arnaud can do the see through thing that Fawkes does?"
"He can't undo it," Hobbes said. "Fawkes controls the invisibility okay, most of the time anyway. But Arnaud either can't do that or there's something physically wrong with his gland. Either way, he's like that permanently."
"But you might be able to see him," Fawkes said, sounding like Ahab finally getting his harpoon lined up on the prey he'd been chasing.
"Probably," Jim said. He'd used all of his senses to detect Fawkes, but that wasn't something they needed to know. "What I'd like to understand, though, is why he's so keen on Sandburg's research. You've never written anything that could be connected with glands or invisibility have you, Chief?"
"No." Blair paused, clearly deciding how much about what he had written he could mention.
"Blair researches the effect heightened senses," Jim said. "You know how Vietnamese scouts could smell westerners by their waste, and some people have unusually acute eyesight or hearing. It's more common than you'd think. He's got files of people with a heightened sense of taste, touch and so on."
"And your eyesight's acute," Hobbes said, as if he'd just solved a puzzle.
"Exactly," Jim said, pleased. Who said he couldn't do subtle? Let Hobbes concentrate on the half truth.
"I've written a lot about controlling over-heightened sensitivity," Blair said. He looked at Fawkes thoughtfully. "Does it affect your senses when you're... invisible?"
Jim grinned. For someone who was happy with lots of mumbo jumbo, Blair was balking surprisingly at the scientifically provable invisibility concept.
Fawkes thought about the question. "Yeah. Kind of. Everything's different."
"But different how?"
"Would it help if I showed you?"
Jim hadn't been paying quite as much attention as he should have been; he'd been busy instead monitoring the area around the loft. Consequently he only realised Blair's last answer should have been 'no' when Fawkes reached out a hand to Blair's arm, and with alarming suddenness where Blair should have been there was only bending light.
"Oh, whoa. Man, this is weird! What a trip. Jim, this is truly fascinating..."
Jim realised he was never likely to mislay even an invisible Blair while his voice worked, but he still didn't like this.
"Bring him back," he said shortly.
Fawkes and Blair flaked into visibility again, Blair still talking. "Jim, that could have an amazing effect on anyone with heightened senses, especially of sight or touch. Maybe even trigger them; certainly make it harder to control them. I wonder if lack of control of the visibility could be linked." He turned to Fawkes. "Do you ever become invisible involuntarily?"
Jim was interested to note that this harmless question embarrassed Fawkes. Hobbes cleared his throat. "Seems to be hormonal," he said reluctantly, as though federal agents shouldn't really have hormones.
"Hormonal?" Blair said, then got it. "Oh. Hormones as in... You become invisible when...? Wow. That must be hard to explain."
"You have no idea," Fawkes muttered.
"Have to run potential girlfriends through a tight security check," Hobbes murmured to Jim.
"I do that with Sandburg's anyway," Jim said. He would have regaled Hobbes with some of the more hair-raising examples of why this was necessary, but just then he finally picked up something outside. Not far outside.
The cat down the hallway was making the hissing spitting sound of a cat faced with something way outside feline normal existence. A door opened, and they could all hear the woman. "Tibbles. What is it? Poor sweetie. Look, there's nothing here. Mabel, dear, I think Tibbles is seeing something from another realm. Look how disturbed he is, and the hallway's quite empty."
"We're on," Jim said. "Sandburg, go and sit at the laptop. Hobbesin that room there. Fawkes, upstairs."
As they went, he moved into the kitchen, looking for what he wanted in one of the cupboards. Small sounds at the door suggested Arnaud was examining the lock. Jim listened carefully to his progresswith one ear. The rest of his focus was on any sounds from upstairs. He'd definitely been picking up hostility from Fawkes when Arnaud was mentioned, and while he couldn't read him that well, he'd also seen a look on Hobbes' face he definitely recognised. Concern his partner was going to do something they'd both regret.
Sure enough, as the first clicks sounded in the mechanism of the lock, there was also the soft sound on the stairs behind him of footsteps returning. He knew if he turned around he would see no one. Fawkes would keep out of Jim's line of sight and rely on his invisibility to escape Blair or Hobbes. Luckily, he didn't know all the other ways Jim had of detecting exactly where he was.
Jim could hear Arnaud making steady progress with the lock. He couldn't leave this too late. He counted the steps down the stairs, waited for them to just touch the loft floor, then moved fast. He had Fawkes caught and handcuffed before he could squawk.
"Any noise and you'll scare Arnaud off," he said to keep it that way.
He bundled Fawkes, still invisible, in to Hobbes in Blair's small room. "Here. Hang on to him. We're doing this by the bookthe PD bookso cut the vigilante crap."
He knew that would get to Hobbes.
So did Fawkes, evidently; he shivered back into sullen visibility. Hobbes gave him a look of pained reproach for letting the federal side down, and got a grip on him which Jim could respect.
Jim went back to the kitchen and found the pot he'd been looking forliving with Sandburg had played havoc with the perfect order of his kitchen cupboards. Blair looked ominously as if he'd been making notes on Jim's latest moves, but 'how my sentinel tackles invisible men' wouldn't do much for the academic credibility of his thesis. Jim put a finger to his lips and mimed typing. It was time for Blair to look engrossed with the laptop; Jim could hear the last click as the lock yielded.
The scene that greeted Arnaud should be deceptively peaceful. Jim pottered in the kitchen, his back to the door. Blair concentrated on the screen of his laptop. Jim had placed a highly polished pan where it reflected a view of the room quite well enough for sentinel sight. He watched this now as the door opened a crack, cautiously, then a little further, then swiftly opened wide enough to admit a man. It was pushed almost closed but didn't latch; Jim guessed Arnaud thought the noise of it closing properly might catch their attention.
Jim couldn't see the characteristic shimmer of invisibility reflected, and he had touch and scent dialled down to zero, but he'd focussed on Arnaud's heartbeat while he was at the door, and he tracked his movements by that.
Arnaud paused, probably looked around to assess the situation. Jim wondered if he would just place himself somewhere out of the way to wait until they had gone to bed and the room was clear, but when Arnaud moved again it was directly towards Blair.
Letting him get too close was unacceptable.
Jim swung around as soon as he perceived the direction of the movement, and flung the entire contents of the jar of pepper he was holding. It descended in a spreading mist directly on the cold shimmer. If the guy did have heightened senses, that ought to get dramatic results; even if he hadn't it would affect him.
It had dramatic results.
Much later, when he had time to think, Jim wondered why pepper was nowhere on the biological weapons list. It had potential.
The shimmer instantly convulsed, coughing, wheezing and sneezing violently. Blair, equally taken by surprise, leapt up to remove his laptop from the falling cloud of particles. He started to yell what might well have been 'what the hell?' at Jim, but he too got a good dose of the pepper and doubled up sneezing.
Jim discovered that zero wasn't actually quite low enough on the dials to deal with an atmosphere full of pepper, but although he was uncomfortable he wasn't coughing or streaming as badly as the others. Certainly not severely enough to prevent him grabbing the invisible Arnaud and using the second pair of handcuffs to fasten him securely to the bottom of the stair rail.
Wheezing a little, but satisfied at a job well done, Jim turned around to check Blair was all right. Hobbes and Fawkes had come out, too late to interfere in the action, and were staring past Jim to the stairs, open mouthed. Jim realised Blair, who'd been wiping his eyes on his sleeve and was clearly about to say something uncomplimentary about Jim's bright idea, had also stopped to stare. They shouldn't be able to see anything...
He turned back to where he'd handcuffed his prisoner, and understood.
Whatever the connection between Arnaud's gland and his senses, it was having a truly unique effect now. The shimmer at the foot of the stairs was still convulsing and sneezing, but with each sneeze a piece of bare anatomy showed briefly in the space. Permanently invisible, Arnaud evidently hadn't bothered to get any more clothes since he'd discarded his Blair disguise.
Jim's rapt attention only lasted a short while though. He had no problem with the half leg that appeared, or the disembodied shoulders. But then the right arm showed, and he realised that the hand which Arnaud was trying to control was holding a gun.
The feds hadn't told him the man could also make a gun invisible.
Jim dived at Blair, flattened him protectively and knocked over the coffee table. Two more crashes suggested that Hobbes and Fawkes had also gone to ground behind the furniture. A shot sounded, and Jim realised he had no idea of where it had gone.
He rolled over, still shielding Blair, and saw half a severed handcuff hanging at the end of the stairs. It was escape that was on Arnaud's mind. His shimmer was heading for the door.
Before he reached it, it was pushed open. To Jim's horror it was his neighbour and her friend, evidently come to complain about crashes after midnight.
"Get back!" he yelled at them.
The ladies, wearing stout dressing gowns and military issue slippers, went on looking in with expressions of extreme disapproval and no sense of imminent danger. Maybe they'd misinterpreted the fact that Jim was lying on top of Blair and Fawkes was rolling across the floor in handcuffs. Jim hadn't time to consider it. He jumped to his feet, and at that point Arnaud sneezed again.
A whole naked torso appeared for about ten seconds.
His back was to Jim, but judging by the immediate and piercing screams that erupted from the doorway, everything had been visible at the front. Or perhaps, if he was fair, bare body parts appearing out of thin air were alarming enough anyway.
The ladies did step back now, and then stumbled sideways, shouldered by an invisible force. Jim and the others were just too late. With Fawkes behind him Jim made it to the door as Dora and Mabel clung to each other and blocked the way, but the shimmer was already gone from the hallway.
Jim knew the whole building would soon be awake. Mabel and Dora were screaming in a rhythmic hysteria that was enough to daunt the most experienced agent. The pepper was getting to him more with each passing moment, and he'd seen the look on Fawkes' face when he realised Arnaud was gone.
He felt humiliatingly grateful when he saw back up arriving in the shape of Brown and Rafe. The sneeze he'd been holding back throughout the action finally erupted, and he gave in to the onslaught on his senses. Coughing and wheezing he sluiced his face down over the sink and gasped for water.
"Jim, that was so... I don't even know where to begin..." Blair said, supplying the water.
Jim had a feeling that 'so inspired' or 'so innovative' or even 'so unlucky' were just not the words that Blair was looking for.
"I set the dials at zero," he said between gasps.
"I don't think even minus ten would have been adequate," Blair saidhe was still sneezing occasionally, and Jim had just heard a fit of coughing from Hobbes. It hadn't occurred to Jim that the dials could have a minus setting. He decided no good purpose would be served by mentioning this.
"Rafe's taken Mabel and Dora home," Blair said, giving Jim a damp cloth and a rub on the back. It was the sort of moderated sympathy that suggested he thought Jim really had only himself to blame for the state he was in. "I didn't even try to explain."
"You always think of something," Jim wheezed, shocked.
"Well this time, big guy, you've even defeated my ingenuity."
"Hey, we'll think of a story," Hobbes said. "You know, I read somewhere that they use 3d film or some kind of holograms in training these days."
Blair, who'd been getting out the vacuum cleaner, paused. "Some kind of solid looking image?" he asked. "Now that would be the way to go. You decided to show us the film or whatever, and something went wrong... the projector..."
"We thought it was going to explode," Hobbes said. "Consequently taking cover on the floor."
"That's not bad," Blair said. Jim's opinion was diametrically different but he swallowed it. "Not given the material we've got to work with. As soon as I've vacced up Jim's pepper bomb I'll go next door to apologise and try it."
"Cold chicken," Jim said, getting his head out of the sink. "In the bottom of the fridge. Take it for Tibbles."
If anything could make Blair's story go down better that would. There wasn't a way to Tibbles' heart, but you could always reach his stomach. It was the sort of apology Dora was most likely to accept, anyway.
Jim took a few final mouthfuls of water while the vac hummed and removed most of the pepper. He could hear Henri reassuring residents that there was no problem, and Rafe coming back. They'd simply told Rafe and Henri that Arnaud had tried to get in, but bolted when he realised it was a trap. He hoped neither of them had listened to the occasional coherent word interspersing the ladies' screaming.
Blair switched off the vac. "Don't go near it," he warned Jim. "Oh, hi, Rafe. Man, I am so sorry we're messing up your night like this."
"Arnaud won't come back now," Hobbes said. "He'll cut his losses now he knows we're on to him."
Jim managed to straighten up. Rafe had been aware of the pepper. It wasn't humanly possible to come into the loft and not be aware of it. But he seemed to think it had just been knocked over in some struggle. Jim hoped to keep it like that. "We owe you," he said, echoing Blair's gratitude. "I'm sure you'll be okay to go home and get some sleep now, though."
"We'll do that," Rafe agreed. "You can make it up to us next time you have tickets for a big game! Nice to meet you," he added in parting to Hobbes.
"You too, my friend."
There was one voice Jim hadn't heard at all since Arnaud escaped from the loft, and something important he suddenly realised he'd forgotten to do. As Blair went to subfuscate next door, he fumbled in his pocket and found the key to Fawkes handcuffs.
If Fawkes had glared at him, or even looked heavily reproachful, he would have felt less guilty, but Fawkes was sitting, head down, looking like it was no surprise when life kicked him in the teeth.
"I'm sorry," Jim said truthfully, unlocking him.
"It was a good try," Fawkes said, getting an approvingor maybe consolingpat on the back from Hobbes. "Anyway, he'd probably have shot you if you'd tackled him the way you did me."
Jim's opinion of Fawkes rose considerably at this perceptive judgment. "He might," he agreed. "I don't remember anyone mentioning guns becoming invisible."
"Clothes, shoes, guns, whatever." Hobbes dismissed this quibble. "He must have picked the gun up after he escaped. I didn't know you left weapons lying around at the PD."
Honour satisfied on this one, they both looked at Fawkes. He was still staring at the floor as though he was watching something interesting there. They looked at each other.
"We should probably be going," Hobbes said. "I don't think you'll have any more trouble."
Jim felt an entirely unexpected impulse towards hospitality. "You'll want to hear how Sandburg got on. Have a beer while we wait?"
His first bottle had become entirely unlovable, but there were plenty more beers in the fridge...
They had one while they waited, and another to celebrate when Sandburg came back and proclaimed himself champion obfuscator of Cascade. "Maybe I should become a conman, instead of an impoverished graduate student and under-appreciated police observer."
"Maybe you'd end up in a cell," Jim pointed out.
"The right answer to that remark would have been 'I do appreciate you,'" Blair said reprovingly, accepting the beer Jim was holding out. "You know, it was hungry work selling that story to Dora and her friend. Why don't we send out for some food? I know an all night pizza place."
By the end of a third beer and a large amount of pizza, they were all on first name terms, and Darien was looking less downtrodden. Hobbes finally broached the subject of the night's great escape.
"At least we're going back with a lot more data on Arnaud. The Keep's going to love this whole senses thing."
"Keep?" Blair asked, blowing softly across the top of his empty bottle in what might have been an earth rhythm or might just have been request for a full one.
"She's the science brains behind all this stuff," Darien said.
"Very, very, clever girl," Hobbes added. He was definitely mellowing.
"I know some very clever girls," Blair said reflectively. He was mellowing too.
"Not ones like Clare." Hobbes looked as if he was reaching for his ID but instead brought out a slightly dog-eared photo. It showed Hobbes himself, Fawkes, an attractive girl, a large fat man with a face that said 'I give the orders' and a less large, merely plump man who looked a prime recipient for them.
"You keep a photo of us in your pocket?!" Darien asked.
The top of Hobbes head blushed slightly. "Hey, come on. That's not unusual. Colleagues... friends... common enough..."
Jim hoped this topic wasn't going anywhere. He really didn't want to admit that he carried a photo of Blair because he never knew when Blair might go missing and it speeded up action on finding him.
"I'd share my research with her any day," Blair said appreciatively, looking over Hobbes shoulder at the girl in the picture, and Jim was saved. In gratitude he fetched a fourth round of beers.
Blair and Darien began to tell each other at length about beautiful and intelligent women they'd dated. Jim and Bobby Hobbes agreed that they too had had their moments, but discussing it was immature. Instead Jim shared his thoughts on the military potential of the pepper bomb. A fifth beer lubricated their ideas to such an extent that they were able to envisage a whole armoury of condiments.
"Last ones," Blair said sadly, walking an interesting pattern from the fridge with two final beers in each hand.
Jim risked dialling up his senses to appreciate every drop. He had a vague impression that Blair had moved from brains down to bodies, and Darien was giving an interesting but incoherent account of the first time he'd discovered that attraction to a pretty girl could result in invisible legs. He blinked at the plans Hobbes thought he was drawing of a garlic grenade... and wondered if he ought to tell him the pencil was upside down...
Jim woke next morning with a pounding headache, a stiff neck and a feeling of fur in his mouth. A banging that was just out of time with the pounding confused him, but he was sure he didn't want to open his eyes.
"Detective Ellison! Do you have Tibbles?"
Had he got it? How did you get it?
The voice went on calling, and fuzzily a thought penetrated. That didn't just feel like fur in his mouth... it was fur. He opened his eyes in alarm, and found he was lying flat on the couch and Tibbles was stretched purring on his chest. Jim spat out some tail and sat up abruptly.
His head protested.
So did Tibbles.
The calls from his neighbour were getting more urgent. He glanced down to make sure he had pants on and staggered to the door. Tibbles must have sneaked in when Blair came back, looking for more chicken.
"I'm sorry," he told Dora. "We didn't see him last night."
There was something expressive about the way Dora was looking at the room. He realised that perhaps he should have done that himself before he opened the door. Twenty four beer bottles somehow looked more when they were rolling about, and while Fawkes and Hobbes looked quite cute leaning on each other he couldn't remember how they'd both got their heads behind Blair's tribal mask. Nor who had tucked two duvets and a blanket over Blair and topped him off with a woolly hat. He looked alarmingly red in the face.
Even more alarmingly, the grimace Dora was making at Jim seemed to be intended for a tolerant smile. "I can see you had quite a night, detective, and of course dear Tibbles is a tom. He does like a night out with the boys sometime."
Jim didn't know how to answer that.
Dora stooped and heaved the cat up. "Mabel and I always try to take an interest in what's new, by the way, so if you get your... what did Blair call it, a hologram?... if you get it working, now that we've got over the shock, we would enjoy seeing it properly, dear."
She'd gone, and he was hearing Tibbles catch up on a late breakfast, before it dawned on Jim's fuzzy mind just what this implied. He was never letting Sandburg nip out into the hallway in his boxers again!
He unwrapped Blair from his covers before he could develop heatstroke, and hung the tribal mask back on the wall. While people variously groaned, held their heads and used the bathroom, he made coffee and let Simon know they'd be slightly late coming in as they were still liaising with the Federal agents.
"Just don't look for trouble," Simon said. "I know you don't like the feds but..."
"I'm giving them breakfast," Jim said, aggrieved. "We've established a very good working relationship."
"I don't want to tell you how much that thought worries me," Simon said. "All right. Come in when you can. Rafe's put me in the picture about last night's attempt. Do you think Sandburg will have any more problems with this guy?"
"I don't think so, sir. Finding a trap waiting will probably have scared him off. Hobbes and Fawkes are heading back in an hour or so."
He and Blair walked down with them to see them off, carrying a large box of bottles for the recycling.
"Remember to give Clare my email address," Blair said.
Hobbes held out a hand to Jim. "Thanks for the hospitality. And remember, my friend, if you ever have a problem you need some help with, you can always call on Bobby Hobbes."
"You may not believe this," Jim murmured to Blair as they watched the battered van rattle off, "but in his case I really believe I could."
~ End ~
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Page last updated 11/18/04.