The Dating Coach
by Sheila Paulson
Summary: Blair offers one of his professors dating advice and it goes wrong in ways he could never have imagined. Rated PG for some violence.
Author's Notes: Originally published in Sentry Duty 3.
Disclaimer: I don't own The Sentinel characters, I just borrow them.
The knock on his office door dragged Blair Sandburg out of the scribbled, handwritten student report and back to the present, much to his relief. Jack Michaels had the worst penmanship Blair had ever encountered. Why couldn't he use a computer to print out his abysmally written reports like every other student in Anthro 101? At least then he could spell-check them.
Tossing the illegible mess on his desk, Blair glanced up to discover Professor Titus Aronsen hovering diffidently in the doorway. "Have you got a minute, son?" Aronsen absent-mindedly called all the teaching fellows 'son'--unless, of course, they were female, then he called them 'my dear'. They joked that he did it because he couldn't be bothered to learn their names, although he never became confused enough to misgrade their papers.
Rumpled and untidy in one of the shapeless corduroy jackets he was so fond of and a pair of baggy pants, the professor edged a couple of steps into the office, squinting around the cluttered space through his sliding wire rims to make sure Blair was alone. Jerking up a thumb to push them into place, he ventured a hesitant smile that caused the corners of his bushy, salt-and-pepper mustache to quiver. "My boy, can you spare a moment?"
Bouncing up out of his chair, Sandburg scooped a stack of books and monographs off the chair next to the desk, balanced uncertainly, arms full, then deposited them on the floor in the corner where they promptly fell over and slid out into the general chaos. "What's up?" he asked.
"I need your advice, son."
That was a new one. Tenured professors didn't usually come to grad students for guidance. In spite of his dithering air, Aronsen was one of the most brilliant names in modern anthropology. There were some who spoke his name in the same breathless tones they used when mentioning Margaret Mead. In the classroom, he could compel bored, unruly jocks into listening breathlessly to his encounters with primitive tribes. Only away from his milieu did he revert to a geeky, awkward bumbler. He didn't shine at faculty dinners or fund raisers. But Blair had learned so much from him that if the older man needed help, he'd get it without hesitation.
"My advice, Professor?" Yanking back his thick mass of long, curly hair, he secured it at the back of his neck and waited curiously, gesturing toward the chair.
"Yes, and I need you to promise that you won't talk about it to anyone here at the University. That would be simply too embarrassing."
"It's nothing to do with my work, is it?" Blair queried uneasily. Had he screwed up an assignment? Had one of the higher-ups decided research on Sentinels just didn't cut it?
"Of course not. Your work is excellent, your research thorough and meticulous. This is a personal matter."
Blair glowed at the compliment. "Then I promise." He hoped he wasn't making a mistake with the vow. University politics sometimes got out of hand and teaching fellows had to walk a fine line to avoid offending people with tenure, the administration, and just about anybody else who could put in their two cents' worth.
"Maybe you haven't noticed it," Aronsen said, subsiding into the chair with much fumbling of the books that had been tucked under his arm. He dropped two of them and, when he bent to retrieve them, the pipe in his jacket pocket slipped out and he fumbled it three times before he caught it. "But I am a rather lonely man."
"Uh--" That stopped Sandburg cold. Could this be a come-on? Aronsen had never brought a woman to any of the faculty parties. But there wasn't a whisper of scandal about him, either. Surely he wasn't here to proposition Blair. No, he couldn't be. Could he?
Realizing from Blair's shocked expression how he might have sounded, Aronsen laughed, his cheeks turning faintly pink. "No, don't worry, Blair, this isn't what that must have sounded like. I've just noticed-- you seem to have no trouble at all in finding female companionship. I-- my wife Nancy has been dead for five years. It was cancer, and it took her very quickly. Our two children are grown; Mike's in Ireland raising horses and Jennifer is down in Albuquerque working as a lab technician. They can't get home much any more. Since Nancy died, I've thrown myself into my work, and it's been very gratifying, intellectually. But, alas, it hasn't been very...entertaining, socially. At first I didn't even notice, but lately, I've begun to wish for...female companionship."
"I can see how you would." Blair took off his glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket. He could imagine Jim's reaction to the professor's request, but think of the poor old guy. Five dateless years? It was almost impossible to imagine. "You wanted my advice?" he prompted.
"The thing is, Blair, you never seem to have trouble finding women to go out with you. I met Nancy in sixth grade and never went out with another woman in my whole life. We started dating in ninth grade and married when we got our bachelor's degrees. I...simply don't have a clue how to approach a woman, what to say, what to do, where to take her. I'm forty- nine years old--oh yes, you thought I was older," he said when Blair's eyebrows lifted involuntarily. "Well, I'm not. I'm still young enough to have some life in me, but I simply have no idea where to start. I won't involve anyone else from the university. It would be unthinkable to date a student even though a couple of the graduate students have, er, come on to me."
Blair gnawed on his bottom lip so he wouldn't smile. "Dating's changed a lot since you and Nancy were going out," he said.
"I thought it had. The thing is, I can converse. I'm articulate. I am well read. But that implies getting to the point where I can talk. I'm just not sure how to start. I never missed my lack of experience when Nancy was alive. She was the only woman I ever needed. In all our years together I never once cheated on her. So I simply have no experience with--well, with anyone who isn't Nancy. I looked around the campus and saw you talking with women, flirting with women, dating various women. I thought, if anyone knew how to find a woman, you would."
Blair was pretty sure the patented Sandburg techniques wouldn't work for the shy old guy. He'd have to start from scratch with him. "I'll try," he volunteered. "First, we've gotta get down to the basics. Do you want to date someone your age? Someone a lot younger? Blonde? Brunette? Redhead?"
"No cradle robbing," the professor decided. "Late thirties up to my own age, I guess. Someone reasonably attractive, of course. Nothing in her appearance to disgust me. And I would, of course, prefer that she be intelligent."
Blair could imagine the prof's opening line. "My dear, you are quite reasonably attractive. What is your IQ? Ah, that is acceptable. Would you care to go out to dinner?" No, he probably wouldn't even be that smooth. He'd need coaching and he'd need it at a very fundamental level. "Okay," he decided. "First of all, we have to figure out where you can hope to find women--how to tell if they're single or available? Intelligent? Well, you take a chance. You talk to them first and get an idea."
"But where do I meet them? How do I start a conversation? I tell you, Blair, I'm quite at a loss here. Put me down among a tribe of Amazon headhunters and I would have no fears, but put me beside a single, attractive female and I want to run in the opposite direction."
"Well," Blair said with a grin, as he worked out the plan of campaign in his mind. Jim would never believe a word of this. "I have a few ideas. We'll start simple. Maybe at the grocery store. Get in a little practice and, after that, maybe you can work up to a library...."
It had been a busy afternoon in Major Crimes. Blair and Jim had been on their way back to the station after questioning the relative of a suspect in a truck hijacking case when police sirens had distracted him. It was a robbery in progress. Before Sandburg knew what was going down, they had changed direction to race to the scene, siren wailing.
Conferring with the uniformed officers, Jim learned that a ski-masked gunman had tried to hold up a quick shop and that he was still inside. When he heard the sirens approaching, he'd grabbed the nearest hostage he could find, a ten-year-old girl who had been in the store with her mother. He'd thrust the frantic woman out onto the street to warn the police away. Sobbing, she sat in the back of the squad car, her eyes never leaving the store, desperate to reach her child. When Blair and Jim arrived, she favored them with a look of pleading and hope.
Blair's face tightened. He hated it when kids got into trouble.
"What have you tried?" Jim asked the older of the two uniformed cops. They discussed hostage negotiators. The store clerk was still in there, giving the man two hostages. "We need to cover the rear exit," one of the cops said.
"Come on, Chief. But you stay behind me." Drawing his weapon, Jim edged into an alley that ran along one side of the grocery mart. Blair fell in behind him. He could hear another siren in the distance and knew there would soon be more backup.
"What are you going to do?"
"There's a rear exit to the store. They checked it out already," Jim explained. "I want to see if I can..." His voice trailed off and he shot out an arm to stop Sandburg, gesturing at a window ahead. The weather was warm for September, and only a screen separated them from the rear of the store.
Blair stopped at Jim's side. "Can you hear anything, Jim?" he asked in an undertone.
Ellison fixed his attention, focusing his hearing the way Blair had taught him, all his attention narrowing in while he listened for clues. His eyes glazed over with the intensity of his concentration and Sandburg reached out, prepared to grab him and shake him out of a zone- out if he focused too tightly. It was then that Blair realized that even he could hear faint sobbing coming from the window. It must be the little girl. Jim would be able to tell far more.
Although he was still sharply focused, Ellison's eyes cleared. Carefully, he tested the window frame. It shifted loosely in his hands.
Leaving it, Jim turned to Sandburg, speaking very softly. "Chief, get out there and tell them to give me a distraction in two minutes." He pointed toward the street. "It doesn't matter what, just have them do it."
Blair opened his mouth to ask Jim what he meant to do, then shut it again and nodded. He raced out and conveyed his message to the nearest officer, noticing a second squad car had arrived. The officers were being briefed by the ones already at the scene. Satisfied that he'd conveyed Jim's message, Blair hurried back, trailed by one of the new officers. He was nearly at Jim's side when one of the cops out in front yelled, "You! In the store! We want to talk to you!"
Jim was still closely focused, his every sense on alert. One hand on the window, he waited, judging the perfect moment then, suddenly, he flung the screen open. A shot rang out, missing him by inches--Blair winced and ducked and the cop at his back pushed him to the ground--then Jim exploded into action, reaching through the window and grabbing. The child screamed. Another shot came through the wall, striking the dumpster across the alley, then Jim jumped backward, his arms full of struggling child. "Take her, take her," he urged Blair, thrusting her into Sandburg's arms. "And stay down. Gun in hand, he jumped through the window and vanished. The cop went after him.
Blair put his arms around the child. "There, there, you're safe now. I'll take you to your mom."
Panicked, she struggled wildly. "It's okay, I'm a teacher," Blair reassured her.
That made the struggling ease and she lifted her head and frowned at him, the panic fleeing as her normal resilience asserted itself. "Not a cop? That other guy wasn't a teacher, was he?" Her eyes were wide, blue, and boggled. "That last guy was, though. He had a uniform."
"No, he's a cop. I work with him. I teach in college and I do research and I'm studying cops, so I get to ride along. It's okay. Come on, let's see if we can find your mom."
"I can walk." With near-adult dignity, she eased out of his grip but put up her hand trustingly to his, still nervous. They headed toward the street, where Blair made her wait while he peeked out--just as Jim burst out the store, gun in hand. The second officer didn't come after him. Blair pushed the child behind him, then, realizing the gunman must have gotten away from Ellison, he whirled to check out the alley behind him. Empty.
"He didn't come out this way, Jim," Blair called, waving a hand at the alley. "Did you get him? What happened?"
"Stay put," Jim instructed Blair before plunging back into the store. Blair caught the attention of one of the cops. A moment later, the child and her mother were enjoying a happy reunion in the back seat of the squad car and Blair had nothing to do but worry about his partner.
The clerk, a pimply faced high school senior, stumbled out of the store, quivering with reaction. "It's my fault. I tripped him. I didn't mean to. I thought it was the guy with the gun. I tripped him. I'm sorry."
"You tripped Jim?" Blair asked in surprise. He had a feeling Ellison would not be a happy camper.
"The detective? Yeah. I was hiding behind the counter, and I thought the guy with the gun was coming, and I wanted to get the little girl away so I stuck a broom handle out from behind the counter. He tripped and the uniform guy fell on top of him. I never heard cussing like that in all my life. I didn't mean to..."
"But...if you tripped Jim, where's the guy with the gun?" Blair asked seconds before one of the other cops could ask the same question.
"He must have gone out into the mini-mall. He had to. It's the only other way he could have gone. There's a door in the mart that opens into it." He gestured vaguely. "I told that detective about it. They went after him."
"Mini-mall?" asked one of the uniformed cops. He nodded to his partner and one of them took off down the street toward a building on the corner, vanishing inside, while the other called in the information. Blair had been in the mini-mall a few times; there were a lot of quaint little antique shops and esoteric bookstores that he'd browsed more than once. It was a real maze inside there. He hesitated, uncertain of whether to follow the cop into the mini-mall or to wait like Jim had told him.
It was ten minutes later when Jim raced back through the store and burst out. "*Sandburg*!" Spotting Blair, he trotted over He held a ski mask in his hand and an wore expression of annoyance on his face. "He got away," he grimaced. "Either that or he's mingled with the customers in there. He had on jeans and a plaid shirt but half the people in there have jeans, and he could have ditched the shirt." He beckoned to the other officer and they conferred in low tones.
More police descended and searched the mini-mall from top to bottom. They never did find the gunman. Irritated, Jim grumbled all the way back to the station, but Blair still remembered the moment when the child's mother had been reunited with her daughter, the way her face had lit up like sunshine. Even if the robber had escaped, the child was safe, and that was thanks to Jim. What little description they had of the gunman was out, but it probably wasn't enough for identification. The store's cameras must have something, but the film were still being checked out. The only good thing about the incident, other than the rescue of the child, was that, in his panic, the robber had dropped nearly all of the money he'd snatched from the cash register. He'd gotten away, the clerk thought, with about three dollars.
"And we're here...why?" Ellison demanded, looking around the grocery store in weary frustration.
They'd finally finished up the paperwork on the quick shop incident and were free for the night, but Sandburg had insisted on dragging Jim out of their way home to stop at a mom and pop market not far from the university. It was bigger than the mart they'd been to earlier but it wasn't one of the major chain stores. He could tell Jim was suspicious but he'd explain in a minute. He grinned.
"It's not as if there wasn't a grocery closer to the loft," Jim objected. "What are we doing here, Chief? Do they have the one obscure herb you need to make another of your inedible health-food dinners? I've had it with grocery stores today."
"I'm here for moral support, Jim," Blair explained hastily, sensing the developing bad temper as easily as Jim could sense distant sounds. "One of my professors asked my help. It'll only take a few minutes. Really."
"How to shop for hippie food?" Ellison kidded, glancing around automatically, still wired from his run-in with the thief.
Blair smirked. "How to pick up women."
That made Jim give a snort of laughter. "I should have known. The dating machine strikes again. Who else would he ask?" He glanced around for evidence of shy professors and masked gunmen. "So that's why you shop in all those obscure little places, looking for women?"
"It works." Blair grinned smugly. "Ever try it? Stand around the produce counter looking helpless and ten women will flock to your side, eager to help you out."
"When you know more about those nuts and berries you like than they ever will? You've got a devious mind, Chief."
"Isn't it great? Men could learn from me. The word must be out. Now they're coming to me for advice."
Ellison gave him a hard--and deserved--poke with his elbow. "Advice on how to nauseate your Sentinel in ten easy steps?"
Blair couldn't hold back a wicked grin. "When you've got it, you've got it." Did he dare offer dating advice to Jim? Probably not, not if he wanted to live. That would really be pushing his luck.
Ellison groaned. "So what did you tell this professor to do?" he asked, amused. Absently, he picked up a box of Cream of Wheat and juggled it back and forth in his hands.
"I figured he had to start small. He doesn't have the benefit of my vast experience." Blair grinned. The more outrageously he behaved, the easier he could get Jim to wind down from the failed bust.
"Or your vast ego?" the detective countered.
"Come on, Jim, it's not ego when it's true," he teased. Glancing around he spotted Aronsen pushing a half-filled grocery cart toward the fresh fruit section. Perfect. "Grocery shopping's a good way to meet women, Jim. You've gotta watch their carts. You see Gerbers' stuff or Pampers, they're out of the picture. Any guy foods, they're out of the picture. Maybe they're buying lots of salad stuff, or scented shampoo, or nail polish, and they're not wearing a ring? Then you make your move.... Come on, Jim, you've done the same thing, haven't you?"
"Well...." Ellison didn't want to admit it, Blair could tell. "This is pretty basic for you, isn't it?"
"He's a beginner. Only one woman in his whole life and he married her right out of college. He doesn't have a clue. So he gets the Sandburg 101 course. After he's worked at it awhile, I'll bump him up to the Grad School level."
"That him?" Jim nodded at Aronsen, who was squinting at the oranges as if he had never seen one before. He was wearing a better-fitting jacket over a white turtle-neck, and he'd combed his hair. He looked scholarly and literate, if awkward and uneasy. Maybe this wouldn't be too bad, after all.
Blair nodded. "Uh-oh, Jim, I think he's found his target." He gestured at a tall red-headed woman who wore her hair pulled back in a sophisticated knot at the nape of her neck. The only ring she wore was a pinkie ring, and there was nothing in her cart to indicate she was buying groceries for two. She was a little old to appeal to Blair--she was probably a good five years older than Jim--but she was a class act. Anybody could tell that. Old Aronsen had good taste.
"So what's he going to do now?" Jim sounded intrigued in spite of himself. Blair could tell he was focusing his hearing on the professor, determined to hear how well Sandburg had coached his 'student'. He didn't usually 'eavesdrop' on innocent bystanders, but he was curious.
"He'll ask her a question. Something a guy might not know, but a woman would." Mentally, Blair egged the professor on.
Aronsen scooped up an orange and said something to the woman. She turned at the question and Sandburg noticed that she looked intrigued. She even gave him an encouraging little smile. This was going great. She'd measured him and found him interesting. *Go for it, Prof.*
Nervous and diffident, Aronsen spoke to her again, holding out the orange.
Abruptly, Jim howled with laughter, his amusement nearly drowned out by the sharp crack of the slap the woman bestowed upon the professor's cheek before she whirled and stormed away, shoving her cart in offended outrage. Aronsen gaped after her blankly, his face flaring brilliant red.
Sandburg poked the Sentinel in his side to get his attention. "Jim? Come on, Jim, tell me what he said." How on earth could a question about oranges have produced that unlikely reaction.
"He--he asked--" Jim laughed so hard tears came to his eyes. "He asked..."
"What? What did he say?" Aronsen hadn't noticed them yet but he'd hear Jim's roars of laughter in a minute. He was sharp enough, even as distressed and mortified as he looked right now, to put together the clues of Blair's study of Sentinels, his work with the Cascade Police Department, and Jim's reaction from a distance to his obviously unfortunate choice of words. "Come on, Jim, hold it down."
"He said--did--" Ellison went off again in a new paroxysm of laughing. Blair grabbed him by the arm and dragged him a few steps down the aisle so the professor wouldn't notice him as easily.
"He was supposed to ask if navel oranges had seeds," Sandburg explained. "She'd know, and then he could take it from there."
"That's not...what he said." Jim fought to control his laughter as he watched Aronsen stare in dismay at the orange as if it had bit him. "He asked her if...if her navel had...seeds in it."
"Oh man," groaned Blair, biting back the chuckles that threatened to emerge. He slapped his forehead in dismay. "That was soooo wrong. I better go and reassure her that he isn't a pervert." His face alight with humor, he started after the red-haired woman. Seeds in her navel? Poor old Aronsen.
The scream that rang through the store stopped him dead in his tracks and drove all traces of humor from Jim's face. Ellison caught Blair's arm and yanked him automatically behind him, gun popping into his other hand as if by magic. "Stay put," he ordered as he erupted from the aisle into the produce section.
A ski-masked bandit dragged the red-haired woman out of another aisle and stopped, gun pressed against her temple. "Hold it, Ellison," he snarled, his eyes pinning the detective. "You screwed me over this afternoon, but this time, I'm having it my way. Think I just wanted the money? I had my eye on that little girl the whole time. This one's a bit long in the tooth but I'll make do. Come to think of it, your little friend over there might be better. You, long-hair. Get over here or I'll kill her."
"Drop the gun," growled Jim, aiming his weapon at what he could see of Ski-Mask. Shivering uneasily, Blair saw Aronsen hovering by the oranges, his eyes enormous behind his wire-rims. His embarrassment forgotten in the face of a compelling emergency, he had stiffened his spine and, instead of resembling a comic bumbler, he looked like the man who had once faced down a whole tribe of headhunters far up the Amazon. He wasn't armed, though. There was nothing he could do.
"Drop yours," the robber challenged. "You don't know how long it took me to set all that up today. And then along comes super-cop Ellison and snatches her away from me." He ground the tip of his gun into the woman's neck and she gasped, her face so white a smattering of near- invisible freckles stood out across the bridge of her nose. "This time, you'll pay. I would have preferred the little girl, but I don't have to be particular as long as I have somebody to kill slowly." The redhead flinched, her mouth pinching tight, her eyes enormous. "You. Sandburg. That's your name, isn't it? Get over here or I'll scatter her brains all over the brussels sprouts."
"Don't move, Sandburg," Ellison insisted harshly. "If he shoots her, he won't have a hostage anymore and he knows I'll take him out."
"Oh yeah," chortled the gunman. "That'll look good. Cascade's best detective lets a hostage get wasted. Right after saving one, too. They'll crucify you in the press, and who says I won't have time to get off a shot at pretty boy over there?" He nodded toward Blair, who dithered. He couldn't let that woman die....
"And don't try to stall, either," snarled the man with the gun. The hand that didn't hold the weapon was tangled in the woman's hair. He gave a savage jerk and she blurted out a cry of pain. "I took out the clerk up there before he could hit the alarm. Nobody's coming to back you up this time."
"How do you know who I am?" Jim's question was an obvious stall to Blair. Would it be to the gunman?
"I'm not a cheap rip-off artist," snarled Ski-Mask. "I went home and looked you up on my computer. Back issues of the newspapers, awards you've got. Then I went back to police headquarters and waited and followed you. All those remarkable arrests you've made and you didn't even notice. The great cop. Hah!"
Jim's jaw tightened but he let the words flow over him. Blair knew he was focused on the man's breathing, his senses heightened to detect so much as a flicker of his eyes, a fractional movement of his trigger finger. If the man's guard went down an iota, Jim would have him.
Suddenly Ski-Mask yelled, "Sandburg, you get over here now or she's dead. Do you hear me, get over here." He shifted position so he was almost entirely concealed behind the tall redhead, the gun aimed right at Blair. "Either that or you are," he added with relish.
"Get behind me right now," Jim growled out of the corner of his mouth. "Move, Sandburg."
Blair started to inch closer to Jim. Nobody--except for crazed gunmen-- could ignore that particular tone of voice.
The bullet took him high in the right arm, a fierce sting of agony that thrust him backward against a stack of Campbell's Soup cans. They collapsed in a thunder of bouncing, clattering cans, some of them rolling away, others hitting the shelves behind them. One did a perfect bulls'-eye on a jar of Ragu tomato sauce. It exploded in a frenzy of glass and red goop.
Blair landed hard amid the cans, bathed in red, glass in his hair, his arm afire with pain. Shocked and momentarily disoriented, he gaped up at the gunman, who was laughing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aronsen's mouth tighten in horror and disbelief.
"Chief?" Jim's voice was tense and rigid and he couldn't turn his attention away from the armed man long enough to check out his partner. "Come on, talk to me."
"I told you I wasn't playing games, Detective Ellison," gloated the gunman. "Your little buddy will live. I didn't shoot to kill. But I could have. There's another customer over here. I don't think he's even got the guts to run but if he does, I'll get him in the back. Then I'll finish off curly locks down there in the soup."
"He's crazy, Jim," Blair breathed. "He's obsessed with you because you got that little girl away from him." Hand pressed tight over his bleeding arm, he realized it was probably only a flesh wound, but, oh man, did it hurt.
Ellison risked one rapid glance down at him, eyes widening in horror. The color drained from his face and Blair suddenly realized what a ghastly spectacle he must present, adorned in Ragu. "No, Jim, most of it's marinara sauce," he reassured him. "You can smell it. Come on, it's not all blood."
Jim's attention went back to the gunman, but Blair had a pretty good idea the cop had been able to smell the sauce and to check, in that instant, that Blair's heartbeat was strong. Okay, so his heart was hammering hard enough to explode from his chest, but that wasn't from the bullet wound, was it? Jim stood right there in plain sight, the perfect target of a maniac who was out to get him. Any second now the guy could decide he'd solve his whole problem by blowing Jim away.
"Don't move," Jim urged him. "Let me handle this."
"Jim, he wants to kill you," Blair gasped, shaken. Ski-mask wouldn't let Jim get away with a flesh wound. He'd probably blow his head off.
"Aw, is he worried about his little buddy?" mocked the gunman. He leveled the gun at Jim. The barrel seemed like the mouth of a cannon to Blair as he sat there, cold and sticky, unable to do anything. If he could throw one of the soup cans at the guy... The fingers of his wounded arm closed over a can of Chicken Noodle.
"Drop it, hero," ordered the man with the gun. "Nobody gets any bright ideas here."
Blair let it fall. "I probably couldn't have lifted it anyway," he muttered. If he let Ski-Mask think he was helpless, that might make the guy forget about him and give him another chance.
"Oh, sure, try to con me. I ought to blow your brains out. That'd make your big, tough cop suffer. He couldn't even protect his best friend, let alone this bitch." He dug the gun into the redhead's side so hard she cried out. Her face was filled with fear but she was in control of herself; she hadn't panicked. The thought ran through Blair's mind in a flash that old Aronsen hadn't chosen so badly when he had approached her.
Blair could almost feel Jim's muscles tightening in preparation for action, even if Ellison didn't have a clear shot. Although he didn't dare grab another soup can, Blair tensed, too, wishing he could stop the bleeding of his arm so he could forget about it and figure out a way to help Jim.
Everything happened at once, time sliding into slow motion so it registered to Blair in a series of jerky images. As he watched in horror, Aronsen hefted the orange and flung it with all his might right at Ski-Mask. The gunman must have seen it coming because he whirled toward the abrupt motion, the gun lifting away from the woman's side. Aronsen missed, of course, although not by much; he wouldn't have hit the man even if he hadn't whirled to face the new 'threat'.
Seeing the gun swing in his direction, the professor flung himself flat behind a produce island stocked with pineapples. In rapid succession, Ski-Mask killed three of them, blam, blam, blam, filling the air with scented pulp.
Blair grabbed up a can with his good hand, although the blood made his fingers slippery and he dropped it. He scrambled after it just as the gun started to swing back toward his movement.
Aronsen's would-be date judged her moment perfectly. Although her eyes were wide open and calculating, she caught Jim's gaze a second and mouthed the word, "Now," before she made her body go limp and she sagged, a dead weight in the gunman's arm.
Jim fired the instant she dropped, his bullet hitting the man in the left shoulder. Squirting from his fingers, his gun went off one final time and brought about the demise of a package of Charmin before it clattered away under a food rack.
The woman yanked herself free of the collapsing thief and darted toward Jim and Blair. Ellison passed her, his eyes assuring him the gun was out of the man's reach, kneeling at his side, prepared to act if the man had any fight left in him. After a second, he put his fingers against the side of the man's neck to check his pulse.
Aronsen, hair disordered and full of pineapple pulp, jacket hanging awkwardly off one shoulder, popped up and made for Blair, reaching him a second after the woman did. "How bad is it, son?" he fussed anxiously.
"I think it's a flesh wound." He felt a little woozy but that was probably loss of blood and reaction and it would pass.
"And you, my dear lady?" Aronsen asked the woman, who blinked at him in astonishment. "What a trauma you have endured. Help me bandage my young friend here, if you would be so good. I have a clean handkerchief." He passed it to her and she took it, staring at him in surprise.
Glancing at Jim as he ascertained that the gunman was down for the count, Blair turned back to the two who helped him out of his jacket. He'd always liked that jacket, too. Jim could handle the wounded killer. But Blair was responsible for Aronsen's success with women and he wanted to see the old guy got a chance after his heroic orange toss.
"I apologize for what I said to you earlier," Aronsen continued. "I meant to ask whether navel oranges have seeds but it's been so long since I took an interest in a beautiful woman that I became flustered and got it wrong."
Whoa! The old boy was learning fast. Maybe it didn't take a planned set- up for him to get ahead. A crisis was an even better way to meet women. Blair should know. He tended to land himself in the center of them all the time and it usually worked great. Look at all the nurses he'd encountered after shootouts.
"That was your line? It definitely needs work." She grinned wickedly, quirking an eyebrow at him. "I must say your handling of oranges is better than your talking about them. Even if you missed."
"I thought if I could distract him, he'd move and he'd give Detective Ellison a clear shot," he said, helping her secure the handkerchief over Blair's wound. "Relax, my boy," he added as an afterthought. "The bullet merely grazed your arm. It's somewhat messy, but you should be fine. I had worse than this from a thrown spear when I was up the Amazon last year. A healthy meal, a good night's sleep, and you'll be fine. You can impress your students by wearing a sling for a day or two, but I don't know that it will be necessary. Here, lie down for now. You *have* lost blood."
"Don't lie him down on all that broken glass," the woman urged. "Between all this pasta sauce and the fruit salad in your hair, we could practically make pineapple pizza." She smiled suddenly. "I'm Katherine Renner. You may call me Kate."
"Titus Aronsen. I'm an anthropology professor at Rainier. Not a pervert, I assure you."
"I realized that when you threw the orange. I used to play softball, Titus," she said as they got Blair to his feet and guided him over to a bench along the far wall. "If you want some pitching tips, I'd be glad to offer them. I'm free on Saturday."
"Remarkable, Kate. So am I."
Blair couldn't help grinning, even if the movement made him feel woozy. Old Aronsen was going to make it after all. Now that the ice was broken, he could relax and be himself, and it seemed that Kate liked what she saw. Subsiding on the bench, Sandburg ran his fingers through his hair to dislodge the broken glass, grimacing in disgust at the realization that his curls were now full of both blood and pasta sauce. He must look really crummy. Worse, he'd cut his little finger on the glass. He sucked it, watching Kate and old Titus grin fatuously at each other. Never mind his wretched state. Who was he to stand in the way of true love?
Just then, the checkout clerk staggered down the aisle to join them, a smear of blood down the left side of his face. He was rotund like a teddy bear with fuzzy brown hair and rosy cheeks like an underage Santa Claus. "What the hell happened?" he demanded, rubbing his temples, his eyes widening as he observed the chaos and carnage. "That guy punched me out," he added, stabbing an accusing finger at the downed gunman.
Jim dug his cell phone out of his pocket and tossed it at the man. "Call 911. We need police and we need a couple of ambulances."
The clerk shagged it neatly and started to punch in the numbers.
Satisfied, Jim charged over to the bench, going down on one knee at Blair's side, his eyes full of concern. "Chief? You gonna make it?"
"I think maybe we all are," Sandburg replied. His arm was sore as blazes and he was a little cold and shocky but he'd be okay once he was cleaned up and examined by somebody professional. "Wow, was that ever great," he enthused as Jim fussed over his wound. "Between all the flying food and flying bullets, I'm not sure I want to hit a grocery store again for at least a month."
"Are they okay?" Ellison demanded, hunching a shoulder at the professor and Kate, who had moved aside to give Jim room. They were talking as if they had years to catch up on. She might get hit with delayed reaction from her near miss but Blair doubted it. Even if she did, Aronsen was there for her. Look at them now. She was picking chunks of pineapple out of his hair and both of them were laughing.
"I think they're gonna do just fine," Blair decided just as the sound of sirens approached.
"Somebody called it in already," the clerk said, passing back Jim's phone. "They might have heard the shooting, or maybe somebody started to come in and heard something. Ambulance is on the way and it sounds like the cops are here."
"What about the ski mask guy?" Blair asked.
Jim's face darkened. "Alive, for now."
Blair shuddered reminiscently. "He was really weird."
"You called that one. I have a feeling we're gonna find he has a record as long as my car insurance history."
"Wow, Jim, from what he said, it's really cool that you got that little girl away from him this afternoon." Blair didn't want to think what could have happened to her, snatched by a freak like that.
Ellison dropped a hand on his good shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Yeah, I was thinking about that when he was talking. Maybe we can match him up with some unsolved missing child cases." His mouth traced a tight line across his face.
"He sounds like a pervert, all right." Blair shuddered. The guy wouldn't have hesitated to kill any of them. If he hadn't been so hung up on Jim thwarting him, he might have gone looking for another child to grab. Instead, he'd forced a confrontation and that had led to his downfall. "That was nasty."
"At least it looks like Dating 101 worked out," Jim grinned, satisfied with the makeshift bandage. He gestured the cops that burst in toward the downed man before adding to Blair, "although not the way you'd hoped it would. I'm not sure you ought to get points for this one, Chief."
"Yes I should," Blair defended himself. "I got him to the right place and he sure got her attention. You think my official dating rules are carved in stone? Right up there at the top of the list are two I live by. 'Go with the flow' and 'improvise'."
"Yeah, I can see it. Take advantage of the presence of crazed gunmen to play up to the prettiest woman in the place. Typical." Ellison started to rumple the younger man's hair, then drew his hand back, grimacing in distaste at the sticky mess on his fingers. "I can't take you anywhere decent, can I?"
Blair grinned. "Maybe not, but I clean up nice," he teased as Jim moved aside to let the paramedics through.
Blair wasn't admitted to the hospital; he was sent home under Jim's supervision for the rest of the night and instructed to take it easy the next day. He'd called in to have someone cover for his classes before Jim went to work. By then, they knew that the gunman was going to live, although he'd be hospitalized for some time. It turned out he matched the profile of a killer who snatched small children--both girls and boys--mutilated them horribly, and then killed them, tossing their bodies in remote, wooded areas. There had been three known prior deaths over the last eighteen months at least in the Cascade area. A search of his home revealed a shoe belonging to the first child who disappeared and a teddy bear belonging to the five year old boy. Jim was glad the man would live to stand trial and go to prison. A quick death would have been too easy on a slime like him.
When Ellison came home from work, he found Sandburg curled comfortably on the couch surrounded by a typical clutter; his laptop computer, stacks of books and papers strewn on couch, table, and floor, a couple of scented candles that aggravated Jim's sense of smell burning on the table. In the background the faint music of tribal drums and chanting provided an accompaniment to Blair's telephone conversation. Spotting Jim, he snuffed the candles out, waved a hand, and started to wrap up the conversation.
"That's *great*, man. I knew you could do it. Tomorrow night? Do you want more coaching?" He paused, his smile flashing out. "Okay, then, go for it. Good luck." He hung up. "Hey, Jim. Did you find out anything about that guy from the grocery mart?"
Jim told him what they'd learned, watching grimness slide into Sandburg's eyes at the mention of the three dead children. "At least he won't kill any more kids," he reassured Blair. "There's too much evidence for him to have a chance to walk."
"I hope so. That guy gave me the creeps."
"All of us heard him say he hadn't wanted to rob that quick shop, just to get the little girl. Even without other evidence, we'd have probable cause for further investigation. No trouble with getting a search warrant." He changed the subject. "How's the arm, Chief?"
"Better. It's still sore if I move it wrong, but no biggie. I can use it just fine, see." He propped himself up on one hip and gestured with the arm in question.
"This time, it seems like I was the trouble magnet, Sandburg. He got you because he was after me. Sorry about that."
"Hey, no, Jim," Sandburg said easily. "It wasn't you. It was all him. That guy was zoned out on his own weirdness. Anybody crossed him, he'd have got in their face. I'm just glad he was only making a point when he shot me. I can live with this. It's not your fault." He eyed Jim narrowly to make sure he accepted that. "But if you want to tidy up for me tonight..." he tried slyly, gesturing at his accumulated debris.
"Is that the way the house rules work?" Jim challenged, feeling better.
"No, but it was worth a shot." His smile flashed out. "Guess who that was on the phone just now."
"Aronsen," Jim said without doubt. "I caught the sound of his voice. What's up with him? Does he need more dating advice? No offense, Sandburg, but you'd think that after what happened, he'd want to find a new dating coach."
"No way, how could he top a genuine expert," teased the anthropologist. "But this is *great*, Jim. He called to see how I was feeling but he told me he and Kate are going out tomorrow night. Dinner and dancing. Turns out the prof can hoof like Fred Astaire. Those were his exact words."
"So, what are your plans?" Jim asked, amused. He could tell just from looking at Sandburg that his arm was healing. Heartbeat and respiration were normal. He'd made himself concentrate while he unlocked the door, and now here was his guide with eager eyes, brimming with his normal enthusiasm. "Opening an advice-to-the-lovelorn website? Offering free services at the university?"
"Yeah, in all my spare time," Blair grinned.
"Well, then, how about double dating with the professor to be sure he doesn't make any more blunders like the seeds in the navel thing. Should get you a few gold stars on your reports and papers."
Blair shook his head, his hair tossing wildly. "Are you kidding? I won't be able to date for *weeks*."
"Your arm?" Jim fussed, the humor starting to fade from his eyes.
"My arm's fine. Are you kidding? I sat down hard on those soup cans when I got shot. I've got weird shaped bruises all over my ass. Why do you think I'm lying this way? Do you have any idea how much fun it's going to be to sit in hard chairs for the next couple of days. Quit laughing, Jim, it's not funny," he chided when Ellison cracked up, although he couldn't hold the amusement out of his eyes. He continued in an aggrieved voice, "It hurts worse than my arm and it's not even something I can play for sympathy. My dates'll believe I'm into something kinky if they see those weird bruises! How do you think that's going to look?"
"I don't know," Jim replied, the humor pouring back. "But I absolutely do not want to see it to find out."